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Cover: MAN HUNTER by Dusty Rhodes
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Cover: DEATH RIDES A PALE HORSE by Dusty Rhodes

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Cover : VENGEANCE IS MINE

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Cover:  Longhorn, Book I--The Beginning

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Cover:  LONGHORN, Book II--The Hondo Kid

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Excerpts

The Isoms Book 2

Bob Isom’s heart was in his throat.

He stood outside the Abilene café with his hand on the

door knob. On the other side of the door was the woman of his

dreams—the woman who had occupied his thoughts and plans

for the last year. With every heartbeat his mind had been on

her—why was he hesitating?

        It’s been a whole year since I talked to her. A lot can

happen in a year. Just the unthinkable thought that she might

have changed her mind or maybe found someone else

frightened him more than anything else he had ever faced.

There’s only one way to find out.

The Isoms

by

Dusty Rhodes

It couldn’t have been a worse day for a burying.

A cold, icy wind from the north drove a thick mixture of sleet and rain before it and soaked everything in its path. It formed a crusty-white covering for the already hard-frozen ground. A dark cloud shrouded the boot heel of Missouri and threatened even harsher weather.

A small gathering of eight folks huddled close and shivered under the bitter wind.

Frank, Bob, and Jesse Isom stood at the foot of the grave, hatless; their long, scraggly hair dripped half-frozen drops of water. Their soppy-wet clothes clung to their work-hardened frames like a second skin. Beneath their frozen whiskers their faces were somber, with blue lips lined thin to hold back the sobs that threatened to erupt. Tears seeped from their eyes as they watched the plain wooden coffin lowered into their mother’s final resting place.

Hawk

by

Dusty Rhodes

Jubal Hawk was bone tired.
He slouched his tall, six foot frame wearily in his McClellan saddle and heeled his weary buckskin, Buck, to pick up the pace as he drew near the entrance to the long, winding lane that led to his home—home—just the thought of being back home sent a surge of overwhelming emotion rushing through him.
It had been almost five years since he left to fight for a cause he was willing to die for—a cause now lost with the surrender of the Confederate forces by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, April 9th, 1865.
He fought proudly as a captain in the First Virginia Cavalry; Forty-Third Battalion, under the command of John Mosby. Known for their lightning-fast raids and their ability to vanish, seemingly into thin air, they became known as Mosby’s Raiders and their commander was called the Gray Ghost by the Union commanders.

 

Death Angel

by

Dusty Rhodes

Comanchero!

The mere mention of the name sent shivers of fear through all who heard it.  Whether spoken in a hushed whisper or screamed as a terrified warning, it sent wide-eyed terror through all those who dared speak or hear the name.
They were a nomadic band of murderers, cutthroats, rapists, and robbers.  Misfits; rejected and hated even by their own people. They were a scourge of the southwest along the Mexican-American border.
The worst of the worst was led by a young albino Comanche the Mexicans called El Diablo, meaning the devil.  He was a small man, even by Comanche standards, standing barely five feet. His pock-marked face and twisted, snarling mouth repulsed most women.  But no man living dared comment on his looks or small stature.  Those who had were long since forgotten in some remote and unmarked grave.

Longhorn IV

by
Dusty Rhodes

Rebekah had never seen her husband cry—until now.
She watched as Buck unashamedly hugged his brother again and again, each time shaking his head in absolute amazement and visible joy.
Several times she saw him try to put his feelings into words, but each time the words lodged in his throat and choked back, causing him to shake his head and lower his face.
Large tears escaped Buck’s eyes and trailed across his sun-weathered cheeks. He swiped them away with the back of a hand. Finally, with his big arm around his younger brother’s shoulders, they turned and slowly walked toward the single mound of dirt. Together, they stood for a time, staring down at the grave that held the bodies of their beloved parents. Two large, beautiful wreaths stood at the head of the grave.
For several long moments, neither spoke.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Buck managed to choke out, without diverting his blurred, tear-wet eyes from the grave.
Cody nodded understanding, but said nothing.
 “I’d like to hear about it when you’re ready to tell me,” Buck said. “They deserved better than they got.”
“Yeah, they did sure enough, but they were happy,” Cody agreed. “They loved each other and they loved us, can’t ask much more from life than that. They were so proud of you for fighting for what you believed in. They talked about you all the time.
“When the letters stopped coming, Pa thought you had been killed in the war. But Ma never believed it for a minute. She never gave up. Every morning at the breakfast table she’d say, I’ve got to get the house straightened up, I’m expecting Benjamin will be home today.
Then we’d hold hands, like always, bow our heads and she’d ask God to watch over and protect you and bring you back home safe. She prayed for you every single day you were gone.”
“She was a special lady.”
“Yeah, she was.”
“It was Comanche, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, they raided all through these parts; killing, burning, stealing everything they could get their hands on.”
“How’d you manage to survive?”

 

Shawgo II

by
Dusty Rhodes

Shawgo fingered the Texas Ranger badge that was pinned to his shirt, for perhaps the last time, as he reined up in front of the Ranger headquarters.
He had wrestled with his decision to resign from the Rangers the entire six weeks it took to recover from his encounter with Scarface. He still walked with a limp in his left leg and most likely would for the rest of his life.
He loved being with the Rangers. He felt like he was helping protect the decent folks that were flocking to Texas in droves. He wasn’t a quitter. He had always seen through whatever he started.
But that was then—this is now.
Now he had a wife that he loved and who loved him. He had a ranch in maybe the most beautiful valley in all of Texas. He had a growing herd of valuable horses and cattle, and a family that depended upon him for their livelihood. For the first time in his whole life, he felt he had a future.
His encounters with Scarface and Bob Sullivan had demonstrated, once again, just how dangerous this country was. In this part of Texas, one lax moment, one inattentive awareness of his surroundings could cost the lives of all those he loved.
He couldn’t—he wouldn’t allow that to happen. He had made up his mind to resign his assignment as a Texas Ranger.

 

 

Chero

by
Dusty Rhodes


CHAPTER I

"How many did they kill?" the young deputy asked breathlessly, as he hurried up to Ed Reed.The wiry old town marshal was emerging from the bank.His sundarkened skin was cooked to the color of his hard, gray eyes--eyes that had seen the worst the criminal element had to offer in his thirty years in law enforcement.

 

Shawgo
by
Dusty Rhodes


CHAPTER I

 

A bullet singed the air only a hairsbreadth from Shawgo’s cheek. He felt the heat a full heartbeat before the crack of a rifle shattered the desert stillness. He jerked a look in the direction of the sound.
The clatter of galloping horses reached his hearing as eight riders boiled out of a canyon no more than a hundred yards to his right.
Comanchero! his mind screamed.


Sombreroed riders and bare-chested Indians were bent low, firing rifles and pistols in Shawgo’s direction from the backs of racing horses. Two whiskered white men led the band. One was an uncommonly large man who wore what appeared to be the skin of a cougar draped across one shoulder and secured at the waist by a wide leather belt. It seemed strange, considering the desert heat.
They’re after my horses, reason told him, as he dropped the lead ropes to the half-dozen horses behind him.


He snatched the Henry rifle from his reverse saddle boot and levered a shell with the flick of his wrist, even as he dug heels into his buckskin’s flanks. The stallion responded and broke into a hard gallop. Shawgo bent low over his saddlehorn to make his back a more difficult target.


Bullets whined through the air like angry bumblebees. Holding the rifle like a pistol, he twisted in his saddle and triggered off a hasty shot at the pursuing riders.


A Mexican was lifted from his saddle when the bullet struck. He reeled sideways in the air, arms windmilling and feet flailing, before disappearing from sight in the cloud of dust behind the charging horses.


Lucky shot, Shawgo breathed out loud. I could use some luck right about now.


King, his buckskin stallion, was racing flat out and belly to the ground across the hardpan desert. Shawgo knew if it came down to a horserace, the mustangs the Comanchero were riding didn’t stand a chance. Still, he hated to lose the horses he was taking to the army over at Fort Stockton, but he had more horses back in his valley. Right now, his main concern was getting out of rifle range of the bandits behind him.


Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw that two of the band had peeled off and were rounding up his six horses, but the remaining five were still coming after him.


Suddenly, a shallow dry wash loomed in front of him.
Maybe I can slow them down a tad, he thought.

Reaching the dry wash, he reined King to a sliding stop and was out of the saddle and belly-flat on the ground before the stallion slid to a full stop.

 

Manhunter
by
Dusty Rhodes


CHAPTER I

"IN THE BEGINNING"
(Gen. 1:1)

The blazing sun seemed unusually hot for mid-February. It cooked into Matt Henry's bare back and caused the hundred or more deep, ugly scars that crisscrossed his broad shoulders and back to itch like crazy.

His arm muscles rippled and bulged as he leaned into the heavy double winged breaking plow and felt satisfaction as the point bit deeper into the virgin ground. He liked to watch the chocolate brown soil slide off the plow's shiny silver wings and curl onto itself like the big ocean waves he had seen one time down on the Gulf of Mexico.

"Whoa, mules," he called out and the matched team of big brown Missouri mules responded immediately.

Tugging the red bandanna from around his neck he mopped sweat from his face and glanced up through squinted eyes at the noon-high sun. Amelia and James should be coming soon. They always brought a picnic lunch when he was working in the fields. He liked it when they came out and ate together so they could see what he had done that morning.

Looking back over the line of freshly plowed rows he had laid by that morning he was pleased. He already had eighty acres under plow. This twenty acres of new ground ought to help him bring in a good corn crop this year. Maybe even enough to pay off that little loan he had at the Waldron Bank and still have enough left over to buy Amelia that cook stove she had her eyes on at the general store.

"Get up, mules," he said, rippling the long reins to pop their rumps. He would finish out this row and break for lunch.

A man can do a heap of thinking trudging along in a furrow behind a plow from can see till can't see. It gives a fellow time to think when he's working hard and he had done more'n his share of both in his twenty-six years, that and trouble.

He recalled his ma reading to him and pa about trouble from her good book while they sat around that old pot bellied stove when he was just six. He still remembered the words.

"A man's life is of few days and full of trouble," she had read. Strange he could still remember that after all these years. He had asked his pa about it one time when they were riding along in the wagon together. He could still see his pa's face, how it got all serious, like it did every time he was about to say something worth remembering.

"Son, trouble follows a man closer than his own shadow. It can either make a man, or it can break a man. It's what's inside the man that determines which."

Boy he sure had seen plenty of opportunities to test the truth of that advice in his lifetime.

"Whoa, mules," he called out, reaching the end of the row.

He slipped the long reins over his head, wound them around the handle, laid the plow over on its side and headed for the inviting shade of the big oak tree where he had left his rifle and water jug.

Slouching his six foot-three inch frame down against the tree, he took a long swig of the lukewarm water, rested his tired head against the tree and smiled. He always smiled when he thought about Amelia. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. This past three years with her and his six-year old stepson, James, had been the best years of his whole life.

His heart suddenly leaped into his throat as shots rang out. One! Two! By the second shot, he had already grabbed his rifle and was racing towards the house as fast as his strong legs would carry him.

Three! Four! Five! A hot flush of fear swept through him as he raced up the small hill that separated him from the house. Topping the hill and streaking down the other side, he counted the saddled horses around the yard. Ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, no, eighteen. Why would eighteen horses be at the house? From somewhere he found the strength for even greater speed. As he neared the house he levered a shell into his Henry .44 rifle.

That's when he saw James. The boy lay under the giant oak tree in the front yard, near the swing Matt had made for him. Blood still gushed from a deep gash in his throat and stained the dusty ground where he lay. His blonde, curly hair was caked and matted from the puddle of his own blood he lay in. His blue eyes were wide open and a look of terror was frozen there forever as he gazed blankly into the sky. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. He was dead.

A great sob wracked Matt's big frame and welled up in his throat, threatening to choke him. He clamped his jaws shut to stifle the scream that fought to escape his lips. A volcano of rage boiled somewhere deep inside him and surged through his whole being, erupting as a mighty explosion of energy.

One giant leap landed him on the porch. Like a charging bull he hit the partially open front door. His powerful shoulder splintering the wood, driving it inward. Someone had been standing just inside the door. The sudden force of Matt's entry sent the man flying across the room into a huddle of others, sending them sprawling.

He shot the first man he saw standing, jacked another shell into his rifle and sent another bullet square into a second man's face. Something hit him hard in his left shoulder, spinning him half around. Another sledgehammer like blow struck his right side and a third found its mark in his lower chest, driving him backwards, slamming him against the wall.

He saw the floor rushing up to meet him. Even while falling, he strained to work the lever of his rifle but his hands refused to obey what his mind told them to do. It all seemed so strange, like another of those nightmares he still sometimes had. His mind told him he had been shot, but he hadn't even heard the sound.

His face slammed into the floor. Something was wrong with his eyes; they were growing blurry. He squeezed them shut, trying to clear his vision, then opened them again. That's when he saw Amelia.

She lay on the wooden floor near the fireplace, her clothes torn completely off. Ugly bullet holes dotted her beautiful body. She had been shot five times.

A chill swept through him. His body shook from the sudden coldness. The light was fading. Was this how it felt to die? It wasn't that he was afraid of death, he had come face to face with it more than once in his life. He felt no pain, but he was so tired.

What was left to live for now anyway? Everything he cared for had been taken from him. Maybe he should just close his eyes and let death take him too.

His eyes blinked wildly, trying desperately to focus. He saw a big black man standing nearby; his head was completely bald. There was a Mexican. His straw sombrero hung down his back by a neck cord. A knife scar ran from his left eye down to the corner of his cruel, smiling lips. Smiling? Why would he be smiling at a time like this? A long, bloody knife was tucked under his waist sash. Blood dripped from the knife to form little red spots on the wooden floor.

A big man with red hair and beard stared at him from one eye; the other hid by a black patch. The hard, cruel eye bored into him. Somehow, Matt sensed this man was the leader of this band of killers.

At that moment Matt knew he had to live. Somehow, like so many other times in his life, he had to find the strength to survive. Standing there before him were the reasons he had to make it through this. These men had to pay for what they had done.

If the God his ma had told him about was really real and was the God of justice like she said, then surely a God like that would allow him to live long enough to track down every last one of these killers and bring them to justice.

But he was so tired. . .




CHAPTER II

"MY FLASHING SWORD"


"When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will render vengeance upon my enemies."(Deut.32: 41)

Voices, did he hear voices? They sounded so far away, like they were coming from a deep cave. Then they faded away and darkness wrapped its soft arms around him again and he drifted back into the land of nothingness.

"He's coming around, sheriff. Shore as shootin he is. It's a slap dab miracle if you ask me. Wouldn't a give a spit in the wind for his chances of pulling through, all shot up like he was. It's just gotta be a slap dab miracle, that's all it could be."

The strange voice seemed to be getting closer. Was he dead? He strained to open his eyes. The bright light burned his eyes. Vague shapes appeared from the misty shadows and floated in front of him, gradually becoming clearer.

An old man with snow-white hair and tiny spectacles sitting on the end of his nose emerged from the foggy world and bent over Matt. Who was this guy? Matt tried to raise himself up and a thousand sharp needles of pain raced through him.

"Whoa there, young fellow," the old man said. "You best lie back real easy. You've been shot up worse than a watering trough on Saturday night."

When Matt forced his eyes open again he saw another man also. A big man sat in a straight-backed chair near the bed. His salt and pepper hair hung collar length with more salt than pepper. He had a firm-set jaw and a penetrating look about his dark eyes, like they could see right through a man. He wore a friendly smile on his wrinkled, weathered face and a star pinned on his leather vest. Matt felt he had seen him before.

"Welcome back, son," the big man said. "You've been out quite a spell. You likely won't remember me, we've met a couple of times before, but it was some time back. I'm J. C. Holderfield, the Sheriff here in Scott County. Can you remember what happened, son?"

Matt shut his eyes and fought back the painful memories that rushed through him like a raging river, churning his insides, tossing him to and fro, flooding his mind to overflowing, sweeping all other thoughts aside like so many tiny twigs, leaving only the hurt behind. Slowly, he lifted a weak hand and swiped a tear from his cheek.

"I'm real sorry to have to put you through this again, son. I know it hurts to even think about it, but I've got to know what happened out there at your place. I rode out and took a look around and think I know pretty much what went on, but I need to hear it from you."

It took awhile, but the words finally came. Sometimes barely a whisper, sometimes choked back by sobs Matt couldn't swallow back down. When he finished the sheriff leaned back in his chair and pulled out an old, worn out pipe. He produced a tobacco sack from a shirt pocket and poured the pipe full, then used a .44 shell from his gun belt to pack it down. A match struck on his britches leg put fire to it and sent a cloud of sweet smelling aroma wafting across the room.

"If memory serves me right they call you Matt," the sheriff said, drawing deep on the old pipe. "Where you from, son? Before you married the Morgan girl I mean."

"That's a hard question to answer, Sheriff. I always figured wherever I hung my hat was home and I've hung it in more than a few. Never had a real home, at least not since I was six.

"My family's from the boot heel of Missouri. We set out for California when I was six, didn't get far though. Apaches hit our wagon train and wiped out our whole bunch. Killed everybody except me and two other boys about my age. The Apaches raised me till I was fourteen before I managed to escape.

"I signed on with a cattle drive headed for Wichita. After that I spent a couple of years just trailing around from here to yonder."

"Couldn't help noticing them scars you're wearing on your back," the old sheriff said. "Never seen worse on a man. Mind telling me how you got em?"

"Ever hear of a place called Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona? It ain't a fit place for a man. The day I turned sixteen, a fellow in Tucson pushed me into a fight I didn't want but couldn't get out of. He drew on me and I had no choice. I shot him in self defense but his daddy was a big something or other in them parts and his money bought me five years hard labor and a whipping once a week."

"Is that where you got them scars on your ankles too?"

"Yes, sir. They had a contraption called the Oregon Boot. Looked like a round chunk of iron hollowed out in the middle and split in half. It had hinges on one side and an iron strap that fit under your foot. They weighed sixteen pounds apiece. They usually only put them on runners, but the day I checked in they locked one on each ankle and didn't take them off until I checked out five years later."

"Don't see how you made it, son," the big lawman said, shaking his head.

"Wouldn't have, if it hadn't been for a lifer named Duke Hatcher. Toughest man I've ever seen. He taught me a hundred ways to kill a man with your bare hands. He took a liking to me I guess, said I reminded him of his own son. That's all that kept me alive. The cons were bad, but the guards were worse."

"Sad to say but ever the law's got a few bad apples," the sheriff said.

"How'd I get here, Sheriff? Shot up like I was."

"Fellow named Hawkins brought you in; said he was out hunting along the river and heard the shooting. You know him?"

"Yeah, I met him once a while back. He's got a pretty big spread down the river a few miles. Guess I'm lucky he came along."

"Matt, when I rode out, I buried your wife and the boy on that little hill behind your house. I didn't know what else to do. I put a little cross on their graves. Sure sorry about your family."

"Thanks, Sheriff. I'm beholden to you."

"While I was looking around I found your team of mules still hitched to the plow. I also found two horses I figured belonged to you; they're all down at the livery. I'm afraid that's about all that's left though. What they didn't take, they destroyed. Good thing they didn't spot your horses or they'd be gone too. Can't say I ever seen a finer piece of horseflesh than that black stallion."

"Don't know how or when I can repay you for all you done, Sheriff. Maybe someday I can. Got any idea who done it?" Matt asked.

"Oh yeah, I know who done it all right. You got two of them before they got you. They rode with the Trotter outfit. Remember the one you told me about with the black patch over one eye? That's one-eyed Jack Trotter. Him and his gang's been robbing, raping and killing ever since the war ended. They usually don't leave any witnesses. Guess they didn't figure on you having so much bark on you."

"How come the law ain't caught them before now?"

"Well, fact is, son, there just ain't no law that can stay on their trail long enough to catch them. Take me for instance, I can chase them as far as the county line, but that's where my authority ends. We've got a few U. S. Marshals and the Texas Rangers, but they're both spread so thin and under funded they just can't do it all. After the war ended, so many took to the owl hoot trail, there's just more than we can handle."

"Just don't seem right," Matt said, "that they could do what they done to my family, then just ride off free as you please, with nobody that can do anything about it."

"It ain't right. Ain't nothing right about it, but that's just the way it is. Wish there was something more I could do. Trotter's pretty smart. His bunch rides around doing what they good and well please, then they just ride across the line, knowing we can't follow them. If things get too hot, they just crawl into a hole somewhere that nobody's been able to find. When things cool off, they slither out like the snakes they are."

"Soon as I'm able to fork a horse, I mean to find their hole and set things right, law or no law, either at the end of a short rope, or in front of my gun--and I don't much care which it is," Matt said bitterly.

"Can't say I wouldn't do the same, son," the sheriff said. "Oh, I meant to tell you, the two you rid the world of before you got shot? They both had fliers on them. Five hundred apiece, dead or alive and they both shore fit that description. You've got a thousand dollars waiting on you at the bank."

Their conversation was interrupted be a pretty, young teen-age girl who burst into the room. Her long, corn silk hair hung in platted pigtails down her back with a small white ribbon tied to the end of each. She had a freckled nose and a perky little smile and wore a flour-sack dress that touched her ankles.

"How is he?" she asked before realizing he was awake. "Oh, he's woke up. Daddy! Why didn't you come and tell me he was awake. You knew I wanted to be here when he come to. Is he okay? Is he hungry? Can I get him anything?"

"Whoa there, girl, just calm down a tad," the sheriff told her. "Matt, this little wildcat is my daughter, Molly. Her and Uncle Doc have set with you ever since they brought you in. She's been like a mother hen seeing after you."

"Nice to meet you, Molly. Thanks for looking out for me," Matt told the bubbly young girl.

"It's good to meet you too," she said. "Now maybe I can call you something besides, mister."

"Well, Matt," the sheriff said, pulling to his feet, "I hate to leave you alone with these two but I've got to go. If I was you, though, I'd keep a close eye, they're quite a pair."

"Thanks again, Sheriff. Sure appreciate all you've done. When I get back on my feet maybe I can square it with you some way."

The sheriff was right, Molly and the Doc were a pair sure enough. Molly spent most of every day waiting on him hand and foot. He was getting stronger every day and regaining the weight he had lost, thanks to the meals Molly brought him from the café. The weight mostly came from the fresh apple pies Molly baked him at least twice a week. The sheriff came by every day, often visiting for an hour or more.

Over the next two weeks they all became close friends. More than friends, more like family and yet, the closer they all drew together the more scared Matt became. All through his life, everybody he grew to care for, it seemed like something bad always happened to them.

Matt soon discovered what he suspected all along; J. C. Holderfield wasn't just your ordinary small town sheriff.

"Yes siree, son," Uncle Doc told him one day, "J. C. Holderfield is known in most every town west of the Mississippi as the Town Tamer. He's planted more than a few in boot hill with their toes pointed straight up. Folks that know say he's cleaned up more towns than most can count."

"How'd he come to be in a small town like Waldron, Arkansas?" Matt asked.

"Rode in about three years back, I reckon it was, just him, a sickly wife and little Molly. Said he was looking for a quiet little place to settle down. Town hired him on the spot. Elected him Sheriff the next year. His woman died right after that. He's been raising Molly by himself ever since. Doing a right good job of it too.

"Dirty rotten shame though," he continued, "all them years doing law work, risking his life and all and he ain't got two double-eagles to rub together to show for it."

Matt learned that Molly worked part time at the general store for Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson. He asked if she would mind picking out some new clothes for him.

"Doc said he had to burn all the clothes I had on when I came in. I guess I 'm gonna need everything. Pants, shirt, hat, boots and, well, everything," he told her.

"You mean long johns?"

"Well, yeah, but I didn't want to just come right out and say it."

"Silly," she said, "I wash my daddy's long johns all the time."

"Well, I ain't your daddy. More'n likely if I was I'd take a peach tree limb to you more than he does. How old are you anyway?"

"I'm twelve. Going on thirteen. Most folks say I look lot's older than my age. Do I look older to you, Matt?"

"Twelve going on twenty would be more like it," he kidded her. "Some old boy's going to have his work cut out for him when it comes to throwing a loop over your head."

"I don't like boys. At least not the ones my age, they're all so silly. Besides, when the time comes for roping, I expect I'll do my own, thank you very much. I can see why daddy likes you so much."

"What makes you think your daddy likes me?"

"Probably because you're about all he's talked about for the last two weeks. He says you're like the son he always wanted and never got. Hey! That would make you my big brother wouldn't it? I always wished I had a big brother."

"Tell you what, Little Bit, if you'll make me another of those apple pies, I'll be kind of like your big brother, is it a deal?"

Molly leaped into the air, hit the floor running and hugged his neck so hard it hurt his wounded shoulder.

"Oh, Matt, would you really? It's a deal. Let's shake on it and seal the bargain. I'll be back with that pie before you can shake a stick and I'll pick out the best looking clothes in the whole store too," she hollered over her shoulder as she hurried out the door.

Finally, his coming out day arrived two days later. He must have tried on everything in the store before Molly was satisfied with both the fit and the match. He felt both relief and excitement as he slipped into his new clothes. He stomped into his black, high-heeled boots, stiffed his pants legs down into his boot tops, stuffed the tail of the blue shirt into his pants and tied the dark blue bandanna around his neck.

He adjusted the black, flat crowned Stetson on his head, gazed at his reflection in the mirror and adjusted it again. The silver conches on the hatband caught light filtering through the open window and sent flashes of light dancing around the room. Finally satisfied, he playfully tipped the hat, shrugged and strode from the room that had been his home for the most part of three weeks.

The single narrow street in Waldron, Arkansas still bore deep ruts from recent early rains and the passage of untold wagon wheels. The persistent winds of the last several days had dried the ground and transformed it into fine dust. Today, strong wind gusts pushed clouds of the stinging particles between the flat board buildings that lined both sides of the street.

What few hardy souls that dared venture out, bent into the wind and ducked their heads to avoid the blowing sand. Matt did the same, holding tight to his brand new Stetson.

The door to the sheriff's office was closed as Matt stepped up onto the wooden boardwalk. Before reaching the door, however, it was jerked open by his new friend. A smile as big as all outdoors washed across the sheriff's leathered face.

"Come on in here, boy, before you get blown away. Ain't this wind something? Don't think I'll ever get use to it. Real glad to see you up and around, son. You're a mite taller standing than you are laying."

"Morning, J. C., it's good to be up. Never spent so much time in bed in my whole life. I think I about wore out my welcome at doc's and I could tell Molly was ready to get shed of me too. She hadn't brought me an apple pie in two days."

"What are you griping about? She's baked a half-dozen pies in the last two weeks and I ain't had the first bite of one yet. All kidding aside, Matt, helping nurse you back to health has been one of the highlights of her life. She's taking quite a liking to you. She hasn't talked about much else since you came in. Say, you want some coffee? I made it fresh just a couple of days ago?"

"No thanks," Matt said, spinning a straight-backed chair and straddling it. "I ain't feeling that good just yet. I was hoping you might walk with me over to the bank and see about that reward you mentioned. I'd like to settle up with some folks before I ride out."

"Be glad to, son. You still got it in mind to go after Trotter's gang?"

"Yep. I'll be leaving this morning. I want to ride out to the farm and see the graves and all. Then I thought I ought to ride by the Hawkins place and say a thank you for hauling me in."

"Matt, I know you've thought a lot about what you're setting out to do. It' s a might big job you're setting out to do. Some would call it impossible. By your own reckoning, there's still sixteen of them. They're all out and out killers, Matt. Men who live by the gun. Men that think nothing about gunning down anybody that gets in their way, be it men, women, or children. How you figure to take on men like that. Sixteen to one is mighty tough odds."

"My pa always said if you wanted to move a mountain, you had to do it one rock at a time. The only thing I know, J. C., this is something I got to do. I'll stomp that snake when it rears up its head."

"There's something I want to show you," the sheriff said, opening a drawer of the old battered desk. He lifted out something wrapped in an oily rag and handed it to Matt.

"Go ahead, son, open it up."

Matt slowly peeled away the rag and gazed down at the most beautiful gun rig he had ever laid eyes upon. The holster and gun belt were of black, hand tooled leather. Shell loops were in groups of six with sliver conches separating each group.

Glancing quickly up at J. C. with a disbelieving look, Matt saw his friend' s face beaming with pride. Gently, almost reverently, Matt slid the pistol from its holster. He hefted it in his hand, turning it over and over, admiring the weapon. He laid the weapon crossways across two fingers, testing its balance and found it to be perfect. He stared in absolute awe at the blue steel revolver, amazed at its beauty. A black, striking rattler was embedded into the pearl-white handles.

"It's called The Rattler," the old lawman told him. "It's an Army model 1860 .44 caliber, but it's unlike anything you've ever seen before. Whoever the gunsmith was that rigged it up was a genius. Pull that hammer back till it locks and I'll show you what I mean."

Matt did as the sheriff instructed and heard a metallic click as the hammer locked in place.

"That there is a hair trigger, Matt. You don't pull it; all you got to do is touch it. Go ahead, son, it's empty. Touch the trigger and watch what happens."

Matt swung the nose toward the wall and nudged the trigger. The hammer slammed down, then immediately sprang back to the lock position, ready to fire again. Matt's mouth dropped open. It was amazing. The sheriff was right; he had never seen anything like that before.

"Try it again, boy. This time pull the trigger sever times as fast as you can."

Five times Matt touched the trigger as fast as his finger could move. Each time the hammer shot forward, then bounced back, ready to fire again.

"I don't believe it," Matt said, his eyes as wide open as his mouth. "I never even heard of something like that."

"It's rigged with a special spring mechanism. Once the hammer is pulled back and locked in full cock position, it will fire and return to that position as fast as you can pull the trigger. That eliminates the time and effort it usually takes to pull back the hammer between each shot. That pistol will get off six shots quicker than most others can fire twice. It's that fast," the big lawman explained.

"Over my years of law work, I've taken lots of guns off men that didn't need them anymore. Most I sold to help supplement the starving wages a lawman draws. A while back, I took this rig off a man down in Austin, named Ben McCaskill. He thought he was faster than he turned out to be. It's the only rig I ever hung onto. I couldn't bear to part with it, least wise, till now. It's yours, son, I want you to have it."

"I appreciate it, J. C., but I can't accept that. It's too much. No telling what it's worth. It's the most beautiful rig I've ever seen, but I can't accept it. It's too much."

"It's all settled and done with," the sheriff said, pushing the offered gun rig away. "Strap it on and let's see how she fits."

Reluctantly, Matt slung the belt around his waist and buckled it in place. He adjusted it for height so the butt of the pistol hung just above the natural level of his relaxed hand. He buckled the leg strap to his right leg and stood up straight. The rig fit perfectly, like it was custom made just for him.

"The truth of the matter is, son, it seems to me you've been dealt some mighty poor hands in your short life. Near as I can tell, you've done the best you could do with the hands you was dealt.

"These are might hard men you're setting out after, Matt. I wish I could go with you, but at my age, I'd be more harm than help. Thought maybe I could help by sharing a few things it took me my whole life to learn.

"Most of my life I've made my living, such as it was, dealing with the likes of Trotter and his bunch. I've been up and down the trail a time or two, son. I've seen some mighty bad men. . .and some that just thought they was bad. More'n a few times I've faced men that were faster than me, but they're in boot hill. I'm still alive and kicking because I've learned some things.

"First thing I learned is that most gunfights are either won or lost before anybody ever pulls a pistol. What most don't know and don't live long enough to find out, is that a man's mind has more to do with winning or losing than how fast he is with a gun.

"Now don't get me wrong, son, a man's got to be quick and he's got to be able to hit what he's shooting at or he won't live long enough to learn the rest of it."

Matt stood, entranced at what the old lawman was sharing with him. He listened intently, committing every word to memory.

"Over the years," the sheriff said, "I practiced as hard on working on a man's mind as I did drawing and firing my pistol."

"I don't understand, J. C.," Matt said. "What do you mean when you talk about working on his mind?"

"Most times, a man's only as good as he thinks he is. You gotta do and say things to cause him to start to wonder if he can really beat you. You gotta plant a seed of doubt in his mind. You gotta get to thinking he don't stand a Chinaman's chance in Dixie against you, then, most likely he don't.

"Fear is a powerful emotion, Matt. One of the strongest a man can have and it's awful hard to hide. You can hear it in his voice; it will show up in his movements, but most of all, you can see it in his eyes.

"Sounds funny I guess, but a man's like a dog in a lot of ways. Take a dog when it's young, grab him around the throat with both hands and lift him high over your head. Stare him right in the eyes until he looks away. Right then and there you become his master. He's submitted to you. From then on he 's obey you.

"Practice what I call the death stare. Don't just look a man in the eyes, stare him down until he breaks eye contact by either blinking or looking away. Spend time staring without blinking your eyes. At a bush, a leaf, anything. At first it will burn your eyes. After awhile, you will be able to stare for long periods with blinking your eyes. A good gun fighter can kill you in the time it takes to blink your eyes.

"Watch your opponent for signs of fear. A quick sideways glance. A drop of sweat on his forehead. Licking his lips or wiping his hand on his britches leg. All these are signs that fear is setting in. Never take your eyes away from his. A man's eyes will tell you when he's about to draw.

"When you have to shoot a man, shoot to kill. A wounded man can still kill you; dead men don't shoot back. The only reason to draw a gun is to kill him before he kills you. Never, never, never, shoot him just once. Most times one shot won't kill a man. Just look at your own experience, you were shot three times and here you are fixing to go after the ones that done it.

"When you shoot a man, hit him right here," the one they called the town tamer told him, pounding his chest with his fist. "Would you just listen to me, going on and on. Go ahead, son, shuck it a time or two so you can get the feel of it."

"What's the grease on the holster for?" Matt asked.

"That's beef tallow," the sheriff told him. "Most gunfighters grease down their holsters to cut down on the drag. The friction of the metal gun coming out of the leather holster creates a drag. Just that split second could make the difference between living and dying."

Matt spread his legs apart to a comfortable position and dropped into the familiar gunfighter's stance he had learned when he was just a kid of fourteen and which he had practiced countless hours since. Knees slightly bent, shoulders square, eyes straight ahead, his hand hanging relaxed just below the handle of the pistol.

For a moment he stood motionless, as if frozen in place. Then, in a blur of motion, faster than the eye could follow, the pistol seemed to leap from its holster into the hand that flashed by on its lightning journey upward and outward. Like the deadly rattler from which the pistol drew its name, its mouth struck at the air in front of Matt, ready to spew its deadly venom.

"Holy Christ!" the lawman shouted, his mouth wide open in awe. "I ain't believing what I just saw. Do that again, son. I've got to see that again."

Matt spun the pistol back into its holster. Once again he assumed the position and repeated the draw again and again, each time faster than the time before. J. C. stood speechless, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Son, I've seen some mighty fast guns in my time. There was a time I thought I was pretty salty myself, but I'm telling you like it is, I've never in all my born days seen a man that quick with a pistol. Either you had an awful good teacher, or you were blessed with more natural ability than any man I've ever seen. I'm guessing it's some of both. Where'd you learn to draw like that?"

"After I escaped from the Apaches when I was fourteen," Matt explained, "I signed on with a cattle drive pushing a herd of longhorns up to Wichita. The ramrod of that outfit was a man named Chance Longley. They said he was the fastest gun in Texas. I set in on him to teach me how to use a gun. I reckon he took a liking to me or something, anyway, he finally gave in and agreed every day for three months we rode off away from the herd and practiced. Over the years, when I could, I just kept at it."

"Well, if that don't beat all," the big sheriff said, leaning back against the old worn out desk. "That shore explains a whole lot. So happens I know Longley.

He's a fellow with a lot of bark on him. I seen him take on three pretty salty hombres down in Abilene, Texas a few years back. He left all three lying in the street staring up at the sky and dying of lead poisoning.

"Longley's good, no doubt about it, maybe one of the best, but I'm telling you, kid, he never seen the day he could get his pistol out as quick as you. You're maybe the fastest I ever saw."

Sauntering over to an old cabinet, the sheriff pulled open a screaky drawer and lifted out the scariest looking contraption Matt had ever seen.

"What in tar-nation is that?" he asked.

"I call it the Widow-maker, the lawman said proudly. "I thought it up myself. Had a gunsmith friend of mine down in Brownsville make it up for me. She's a twelve gauge double barrel that's sawed off to thirteen inches. She' s got an oversized pistol grip and its special rigged with only one trigger that fires both barrels at the same time.

"It throws a twelve foot pattern at about ten yards. This baby will blow a hole in the side of a barn that you could drive a team and wagon through. It 's mounted permanently by a swivel to a double thick scabbard with the front cut away. You don't even draw it. You just push down on the handle. That swings the nose of this Jessie up level. Then all you got to do is touch that trigger and hold on, because she'll shore scoot you back a step or two.

"Old Widow-maker here has saved my bacon more'n a few times. She's got a way of evening up the odds, if you know what I mean. With what you're setting out to do, I figure she might come in handy from time to time."

"I don't hardly know what to say, J. C.," Matt told his friend, strapping the weapon on his left hip, "except thanks."

They left the sheriff's office and walked across the street to the Waldron Bank. They were greeted warmly by Mr. Wilkerson, the bank president.

"I'm very sorry to hear about your family, Mr. Henry," the banker said, as they seated themselves in front of his desk. "Terrible tragedy, simply terrible. I certainly trust the authorities will be able to apprehend those responsible and bring them to justice."

Sheriff Holderfield signed the necessary paperwork for payment of the reward and the banker handed Matt an envelope. He accepted the envelope and peered inside. For a long moment he stared speechless. Slowly, he fanned his thumb across the edges of the bills. He had never even seen that much money at one time.

"Thanks, Mr. Wilkerson. I'd like to pay off that little loan we had on the farm. Two hundred-fifty dollars, I think it is."

"I believe that's correct, the banker said, fingering through a file and pulling out a paper. "Yes, here it is, two hundred-fifty dollars. You have a nice little place down there in the valley. Have you ever considered expanding? I've made the decision to liquidate some of my holdings along the Fourche River valley. I have some very desirable land that adjoins your place."

"Just out of curiosity, how much land are you talking about?" Matt asked.

"Oh, I'd have to check my records to be sure. At one time I held fifteen thousand acres in the valley. Of course, I've sold off a few pieces. Off hand, I'd say I still have twelve thousand acres or so, maybe more."

"I didn't know there was that much land in the Fourche valley." the sheriff said.

"Oh, there's much more than that," the banker said. "The government is opening up another five thousand acres further down the valley for homesteading. That's one of the reasons I've decided to liquidate my holdings. It's hard to sell land when the government is giving it away."

"Well, I appreciate the offer, Mr. Wilkerson," Matt said. "But I'm afraid I wouldn't be a very good prospect for you. I've got about all I can say grace over right now. If you'll just sign the release on our mortgage."

"Certainly," the banker said, signing the paper and handing it to Matt.

"Thanks, Mr. Wilkerson," Matt said, standing and shaking hands with the banker. "If I come into a bunch of money I might be back to see you."

"When are you leaving, Matt?" J. C. asked as he and Matt walked up the street together.

"Just as soon as I can settle up some things. I want to pay the doc and I owe the café for all my meals while I was laid up. I'm gonna try to sell my team of mules to the holster at the livery, then I've got to pick up some trail supplies and settle up with Mr. And Mrs. Jamieson down at the store. Lordy, Lordy, by the time I get out of town I'll be as broke as when I came in."

"Ain't it the truth," the sheriff said. Seems like my money runs out before the month does. Be sure to stop by before you ride out."

"You can depend on it," Matt said over his shoulder as he headed toward doc's house.

He paid the old Doc Monroe double what he said he owed, then went by the livery where he sold his team of mules for a fair price and bought a packsaddle. He had it in mind to use his little pinto for a packhorse.

After settling up with the lady that owned the café, he headed for Jamieson's general store. It felt good to be up and around. His wounds were mostly healed up and no longer hurt when he moved.

"How you feeling, Mr. Henry?" Mrs. Jamieson asked cheerfully, as Matt pushed through the front door.

"I'm feeling tolerably well, thanks," Matt told the nice storekeeper's wife. "I need to settle up my bill for these clothes Molly picked up for me and I'm gonna need some trail supplies too."

"What kind of supplies will you be needing?"

"Most everything I reckon. The sheriff tells me those fellows didn't leave nothing at the house that's fit for anything. I'll need a coffeepot, a skillet and a pan for beans. I'll need a couple of tin plates and cups for coffee and something to eat with. Shucks, Ma'am, you likely know more what I'll need than I do, would you mind just picking out what all I'll need and I'd be obliged."

"Sounds like you're leaving the country," Jacob Jamieson said, coming in from the back and overhearing what Matt said, "I sure hope not, we need more folks like you around these parts."

"No, sir. I'll be back. I'm just going after the ones that murdered my family."

"The sheriff said as much. Well, I sure wish you success. It was an awful thing they done. We sure are sorry."

"Thanks. What have you got in rifles?" Matt asked.

"Just got a new shipment of the latest model Henry. It's a big improvement over the older model. Let me show you."

Walking over to the wall rack, the storekeeper took down a shiny new rifle, worked the lever and handed it to Matt.

"That's the improved Henry, model .44-40," Mr. Jamieson told him. "It holds fifteen shells in the magazine and has the smoothest lever action of any gun on the market."

"How much you asking for one of these?"

"They're forty-five dollars and worth every penny."

"I'll take it and I'll need a couple boxes of shells too."

The storekeeper's wife was busy gathering up supplies and piling them in a stack on the counter. The pile was getting mighty high. He began to wonder if it had been a good idea to let her pick out what all he needed. He could make do with less.

"Mrs. Jamieson," Matt said. "I've been thinking I'd like to do something nice for Molly. She's been so good to me and all. Don't know how I could have made it the past couple of weeks without her help. I was thinking maybe you might know somebody I could hire to make her a pretty dress. Do you reckon she'd like that?"

"Oh, she would love it. I just got a brand new shipment of pretty calico, maybe you'd like to pick out something and I could sew it up for you."

"Ma'am, I'm ashamed to say, I'm not much when it comes to picking out clothes. Wonder if you'd mind picking out something you think she'd like?"

"I'd be happy to. There won't be any charge for sewing it though, I'll be glad to do it. Molly's a special young girl."

"Yes, ma'am, she sure is. I'd be obliged if you'd take care of that for me."

After he had paid his bill and told them he'd be back shortly with his packhorse, he strode down the dusty street toward the livery. The sheriff came out of his office, spotted him and hurried to meet him.

"Glad I caught you, Matt. I just got a telegram they sent out to all the county sheriff's. Trotter's gang hit the Butterfield stage down near Tyler, Texas just a couple of days ago. They shot the driver and murdered a whole family that was on board. I thought you'd want to know."

"Thanks, J. C., That will give me a place to start anyhow. Soon as I load my supplies I'll be pulling out."

"The sheriff in Tyler is named Lassiter. Come on, I'll help you load that pack."

"Where's Molly?" Matt asked, as he, J. C. and Mr. Jamieson finished loading and tying down his supplies on the pinto.

"I tried my best to get her to come and tell you good-bye, but you know how she is. She said she couldn't bear to see you go. She'll be okay though."

"That's okay, I understand." Matt said. "Well, adios, partner. Thanks again for all you've done. I won't be forgetting what I owe you."

"I ain't saying good-bye, son, just so long for awhile." the big lawman choked out.

Their big hands clasped, their eyes met and locked--and held for a long moment. Nothing more needed to be said as their look made clear their mutual feeling for each other.

Matt gathered the lead rope for his packhorse, toed a stirrup and swung into the saddle. His black stallion pranced in place and tossed its big head, seemingly anxious to get on the trail.

J. C. leaned against a hitching rail, his gaze intent on his boot toe scraping a line in the dust. Was that a tear Matt saw the sheriff swipe from his eyes? Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson stood side by side on the boardwalk. Down the street, Matt saw the old Doc pause to wave good-bye before stepping into his little black buggy. All along the street, folks stopped what they were doing to watch the rider as he rode slowly down the street. Little puffs of dust rose from the stallion's hooves as he high-stepped sideways. The calm little pinto followed obediently along behind.

Matt rode slowly and watched closely as he passed J. C. and Molly's little house, hoping his young friend would change her mind, but understood when she didn't.

He was well past her house when he heard a door slam and footsteps running. Twisting in his saddle, he saw Molly, her long pigtails flying in the breeze as she ran down the street after him.

Reining up, he reached down and gathered the sobbing girl into his arms, lifting her up onto the saddle in front of him.

"Don't cry, Little Bit, I'll be back before you can shake a stick, then you can make me another of those apple pies."

"Please. . .don't. . .go!" she choked out. "I'm afraid if you go. . .I might not ever see you again. . .I don't want you to go."

I know, honey," he told her, swallowing down a big lump in his throat. "This is something I've got to do for my wife and little boy. I want you to promise me something, okay? I want you to take good care of J. C. for me while I'm gone. I've grown mighty fond of both of you. Will you do that for me?"

"I promise," she said, moving a finger across her chest, "and cross my heart. But you've got to promise to come back to us. Is it a deal?"

"It's a deal," he told her as he kissed her freckled cheek and set her down onto the street. As he turned his horse and rode away, he could hear her beautiful, quivering voice calling out behind him.

"I love you, Matt Henry! . . .I love you, Matt Henry! . . .I love you, Matt Henry!"

Gradually, the tiny voice faded into the distance from his hearing, but would never fade from the memory of his heart. It would be lodged there forever. He clamped his jaw, swiped a tear away with the back of a gloved hand and set his face toward the task that lay before him.

It had been quite a spell since he had spent any time on his horse. The animal tossed its head and pulled at the reins, aching to run. Matt's mind went back to the first time he had seen the big, black stallion. It was in the hills of Arizona, only days after his release from Yuma Territorial Prison. Matt had been coaxing along the broken down nag he had bought with the ten dollars he had been given on release, going nowhere and taking his time doing it.

The sight took his breath away. Standing on the top of a butte, keeping a close eye on its herd of mares in the valley below stood the most beautiful horse Matt had ever laid eyes upon. A stiff breeze lifted its long manes.

The afternoon sun bounced off the coal black coat and set it aflame, casting a golden aura around the big stallion. He knew right then and there, he had to have that horse.

It had taken two months of hard work to capture the stallion and another month of even harder work breaking him to ride, but the reward had been well worth the effort. The big stallion was the envy of every man that saw it.

* * *

The sun was well past noon-high when he topped a pine-covered hill overlooking their little farmhouse in the distant river valley. Reigning up, he swallowed down a big lump and gazed for a long minute at the place that held so many happy memories.

Grassy pastures where horses should be grazing peacefully, lay empty. Their chimney, which should have been trailing lazy plumes of puffy smoke, sending signals of life and activity and a welcoming invitation to all, stood lifeless and silent and cold.

Matt wiped an eye with the back of a gloved hand and kneed his mount forward to a reunion with hurtful memories that flashed to the forefront of his troubled mind.

Riding slowly into the yard, a sadness overwhelmed him. Except for the smashed front door, one would never have guessed the tragic things that happened here.

A soft squeaking sound drew his attention. A gentle breeze pushed an empty tree swing in the big oak tree back and forth, as if lonely for the happy little sandy haired boy that had spent so many hours in it.

For long minutes he sat motionless in the saddle. He stared off into the sky at nothing. Midnight stood quietly, unusual for the big stallion, as if he somehow sensed his master was waging a battle within himself. A battle whether to turn and ride away, sparing himself the hurt that would surely come with going inside, or from somewhere deep within, finding the strength to go inside.

Setting his strong jaw in grim determination, he swung resolutely from the saddle, ground hitched his horse and climbed the three steps onto the porch. He hesitated for only an instant , again fighting off the urge to run away, before stepping through the open door.

An avalanche of painful memories swept over him, flooding his mind, reliving the events all over again. He staggered backwards under the weight of the hurt. His back pressed against the wall.

In his mind the room was again full of men, ugly men, evil men. A surprised look on their faces quickly turned to hatred at Matt's sudden entry. The tangled web of events had played out in mere seconds, but the results of which would last forever.

His gaze swept the room. What he saw was a picture of destruction. Just as J. C. had said, what they hadn't taken, they had destroyed. The table smashed, chairs in broken pieces, Amelia's china cabinet which had held her precious dishes, overturned, its contents broken and scattered about the cluttered room. Everything they had worked so hard for was gone.

The outlaws had taken everything of value, unless. . .unless they might have overlooked the loose rock in the fireplace behind which Amelia had squirreled away their meager savings. His gaze swung toward the fireplace, but in doing so, fell upon the spot he had purposely avoided.

A large, brownish stain still discolored the wooden floor where she had lain. A sharp pain shot through him like a bullet and found lodging in his heart. His strength drained from him as he slid down the wall until he sat on the floor, his head buried in his hands, weeping uncontrollably.

* * *

Sometime later he swiped at his face with a sleeve, wiping away the wetness left by tears stored up over a lifetime of hurt. Even with all he had been through in his life, he hadn't allowed himself to cry since he was six years old. Living with the Apache, he had learned to hold his emotions in check. In their view, crying was for squaws and babies.

He struggled to pull himself to his feet and on shaky legs, made his way over to the fireplace. Unbelievably, the thieves had somehow overlooked the loose rock. Lifting it out, he retrieved the small leather pouch. He knew without looking it contained exactly eighty-two, hard saved dollars, their life saving. Amelia had called it their emergency saving.

Turning on his heels, his eyes fixed straight ahead, he strode from the room.

As he stepped from the porch, he paused and picked two handfuls of flowers from Amelia's little flower bed she had been so proud of. Then, like a condemned man on his way to the gallows, he made his way up the small hill behind their house.

A small wooden cross stood at the head of each grave. The loose dirt still looked fresh and rounded to a small mound. Hat in hand, he dropped to one knee and gently placed a bouquet on each grave.

His mind flooded with a thousand memories. Memories of life--and love-- and laughter. Memories of happy times and quiet times and times of closeness like he had never known before. Memories of dreams shared, of plans made, of small achievements celebrated.

Kneeling there, he realized, perhaps for the first time, these were the moments he must hold on to. He must cherish the good times and live in spite of the bad. Placing one hand on each of the graves, he renewed his promise to them. He would find those responsible and see that they were brought to justice.

Rising, he jammed his hat onto his head and set his jaw in grim determination. Without looking back, he strode quickly down the hill to his waiting horses, swung into the saddle and pointed the big stallion's nose down-river.

© 2001 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved





Shiloh
by
Dusty Rhodes


CHAPTER I

 

APRIL 8, 1865

Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp
near Chicago, Illinois -- Known as the
"Death Camp."

The bleeding finally stopped. Shiloh winced and sucked a draft of air through clenched teeth. Searing pain knifed through him like a red-hot poker. He rolled his head and lifted it off the bare, slat-board bunk. His face screwed up into a grimace as he stared in horror at the gaping wound on his left forearm. White bone lay exposed through an opening two inches wide that started just below his elbow and angled down to near his wrist.

"That's a nasty cut," the old Confederate field doctor said, lowering his balding head to peer over the tiny spectacles that sat on the very tip of a bulbous nose. "I'm gonna have to sew that arm up."

Shiloh didn't answer. He resigned himself to what was about to happen and watched the doctor as he withdrew a long curved needle, a spool of black thread, and a half-filled bottle of whiskey from a worn black doctoring bag.

After threading the needle with a shaky hand, the doc doused Shiloh's cut with the golden liquid before tipping the bottle to his lips and taking a long swallow.

"I got nothing to give you, Son," Doc Williams told him. "This ain't gonna be easy but it's got to be done. I can spare a swig or two from my bottle if you like. It might dull the hurt some."

"Thanks anyway," Shiloh said. "Don't see how it could hurt much worse than it already does. Go on and get it over and done with."

Shiloh watched the old doctor stare at the wound over his glasses for a long minute before shaking his head and tightening the tourniquet another twist. Doc poured the open cut full of whiskey. White-hot fire shot up his arm in a paroxysm of pain.

Each stroke of the needle sent a stab of pain racing through him like a lightening bolt, jarring him to the very core of his being. To separate his mind from the hurt, Shiloh tried to think about something else.

He watched the doctor as he worked. The man seemed tired. It was no wonder.

He worked night and day trying to keep the three hundred or so Confederate prisoners of war alive.

A thousand Confederate prisoners were interned in the camp before last winter. Three hundred eighty-seven had been buried in shallow graves hacked from the frozen ground during the month of January alone. Without even a blanket, most had simply frozen to death.

The whole camp knew that the Union commander, Colonel Mattox, regularly stole money that was supposed to be used for food and blankets and medicine for the prisoners; it was an open secret.

The Union called this place Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp. The prisoners called it, 'The Death Camp'.

Shiloh laid his head back on his bunk and stared at the ceiling. He bit back the excruciating pain and swallowed screams that welled up in his throat each time the doctor pierced his skin with the shiny needle. As the old doc worked, he mumbled a steady stream of gibberish that Shiloh couldn't understand.

"If you're gonna talk, I wish you'd do it so a man could understand what you're saying," Shiloh mumbled through clenched teeth.

"I said, it's pure-de barbaric. Making two men fight each other like that. Like . . . like some kind of gladiators of something. When this war's over, you can bet your britches I'm gonna see the colonel's superiors hear about what went on in this place."

Shiloh eyed the doctor with an appreciative stare. He had heard it said the doc was from Arkansas somewhere around Fort Smith. Someone that had known him before the war said the doc gave up a successful practice to join up and fight for what he believed in. The man was barely beyond middle-aged, but looked much older. War did that to a man.

His thinning gray hair brushed straight back failed to hide balding spots.

Deep turkey tracks lined bloodshot eyes in a reddish, puffy face. Heavy bags hung loose and flabby under the tiny spectacles and spoke of too many nights with too little sleep.

"You don't really think he's gonna let anybody walk out of here alive to tell anything do you?" Shiloh asked.

"You're lucky this fellow didn't kill you. Who was he? I never did hear his name."

"Jackson. His name was Tom Jackson. He was with the second infantry of Kentucky. He was just an overgrown kid trying to get home and desperate enough to try anything. I don't blame him none. Can't say I wouldn't do the same it they promised I could walk out free as a bird if I won."

"It's down right barbaric," the doc said, tying off the last stitch and pouring what was left from the bottle over the wound. "That bayonet could have opened up your belly instead of your arm. How many is it now?"

"Six," Shiloh replied sadly. "The worse part of it is, even if any of them had killed me, the Colonel wouldn't have let them walk out of here alive. That big sergeant of his would have shot 'em in the back before they got a mile down the road."

"How long you been in here, son?"

"I was captured in the fall of '63; so let's see, this is early April. I guess it's going on a year and a half now. I plumb lost track. Like I say, it don't make no difference, none of us will get out of here alive anyway."

"Why's the colonel so all-fired set on seeing you dead? Never seen a man hate so hard."

"It all goes back to the battle of Shiloh in April of '62. The Colonel had over a thousand Union soldiers under his command. They were dug in at a place called the 'Hornet's Nest.' They had beat back two Confederate charges before General Johnson ordered us to make an all out assault on the Union's position.

"I had just received a battlefield promotion to Captain of the First Cavalry. There wasn't much left of the company. It had a little over a hundred regulars and another fifty misfits from other outfits.

"I'll never know why they picked my company to spearhead the attack because the general himself was killed later that same day. It was a suicide mission from the start. None of us should have survived.

"My horse was shot out from under me before we got halfway up the hill. I managed to jump free and grab a rifle with a bayonet on it from a fallen soldier and led my men in a bayonet charge. I wasn't trying to be no hero or nothing, I just didn't know nothing else to do.

"I tell you, Doc, it was something to see, though. We went charging up that hill, as hard as we could run, right into a hail of bullets, screaming at the top of our lungs like a bunch of wild Indians. We must have put the fear of God in them or something. The colonel's blue-bellies threw down their weapons and lit out. They left their cannons and everything. They just lit a shuck.

"I heard later the colonel was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy. It was only after I was captured and sent here, that I discovered he had been demoted and put in charge of this prisoner of war camp."

"So he blames you for his court-marshal and demotion," the doc said, leaning back in the straight-backed chair and shaking his head.

"I reckon so."

"So that's why he has that sergeant of his, the one they call the 'Bear', set up these 'Battle of the Bayonets.' He wants to see you die by the same weapon you used to defeat him. Is that when you picked up the nickname Shiloh?"

"Yeah, my real name is Nathan Whittington. I reckon for some folks that's just too much to get out all in one breath, so everybody just took to calling me Shiloh."

"Well," the doc said, picking up his black bag and standing, "that's about all I can do for that arm right now. You best keep it still for awhile so you don't tear it open again. I'll look at it again in a day or two. It ain' t gonna be much use to you for quite a spell. I'll see if I can scrounge up something to use for a sling. The less you move it around the quicker it's gonna heal."

"Thanks Doc, I'm obliged to you," Shiloh called out as he limped out the door on his gimpy leg.

Shiloh lay on his bunk, drew a long, shaky breath and stared at the ceiling, lost in his own swirling thoughts. When would all the killing stop? He had already seen enough in his twenty years to last him a lifetime.

After awhile he heard the supper bell ring. He'd skip supper, he decided.

He couldn't bring himself to use what little energy he had left to walk the hundred yards or so to the mess hall. Besides, the slop they called food wasn't worth the effort.

He rolled to his side and felt his leg touch metal. Reaching his right hand, his fingers closed on the cold steel of a bayonet. It was Tom Jackson' s bayonet-the man he had just killed.

Shiloh lifted it before his eyes, and slowly turned it. He stared at it for a long few minutes. Its edges were honed to razor sharpness. The point had been ground down until it was needle sharp.

The last rays of a setting sun filtered through the open door and skipped off the shiny metal, shooting streaks of light bouncing off the walls of the prisoners' barracks.

Traces of Shiloh's own blood still clung to the evil weapon. Another man had died. A good man. A man with dreams and hopes and plans for a future and maybe a ma and pa waiting back home for their son to return from war. Shiloh 's heart hurt. A tear seeped from the corner of his pale green eyes and slowly traced a wet trail down his cheeks.

The sound of footsteps jerked his mind back to the present. He quickly sat upright and hurriedly slid a small wooden box from underneath his bunk.

Lifting the lid, he added the bayonet to the five others inside.

"How come you weren't at supper?" Lester Posey asked as he tromped through the door. "Some of us was worried sick about you."

Lester was a long and lanky, sandy haired boy from Tennessee, just a few mountains over from Shiloh's own home. His ruddy complexion and peach-fuzz whiskers gave him a boyish look though he was a year older than Shiloh.

Lester had lost his left arm at the second battle of Bull Run, had been captured, and ended up in this hell-hole. He was one of only a few fellow prisoners Shiloh could count as a friend. Most were afraid to have anything to do with him. They were afraid of incurring the wrath of the sergeant or of being selected as Shiloh's next opponent.

"Didn't figure it'd be worth the walk," Shiloh told his friend.

"It weren't," Lester said, flashing a grin that took up most of his face.

"Boy, you shore whipped that old boy good today. Wish I could fight like that. I thought he had you a time or two, especially when he laid your arm open. You was bleeding like a stuck hog. How is it? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. The doc sewed it up. But I'd rather not talk about it if it's all the same to you."

"Good enough for him if you ask me. Good-bye and good riddance to bad rubbish. A man that would go against . . ."

"Lester," Shiloh interrupted harshly.

"Okay-okay, dag nab it. He just shouldn't of done it and he got what he had coming to him and that's all I'm gonna say about it."

The footsteps of several men approaching the barracks halted their conversation. Shiloh swung a glance at the door, expecting to see some of his fellow prisoners returning from supper; it wasn't.

The massive hulk of the sergeant of the guard filled the doorway, blocking out the last remnants of a dimming twilight from outside. He was a thick-set giant of a man. Only slightly shorter than Shiloh's own six foot-four inches but the sergeant would tip the scales at well over three hundred pounds.

His huge head seemed to cling deep-seated on his massive shoulders with no neck in between. Ham-like arms stretched the sleeves of the Union jacket that carried dirty sergeant stripes. Dark, beady eyes peered menacingly from under a heavily bearded face and fixed directly on Shiloh.

The big man shuffled into the barracks and headed toward Shiloh's bunk. As always, he was accompanied by a squad of heavily armed guards. When he spoke it sounded like an angry bullfrog croaking on a quiet summer night.

"You all healed up, Reb?" he asked, a cruel laugh spewing from his throat.

Shiloh didn't bother answering. Lester backed up against the plank wall, trying hard to make himself invisible.

"Stand up when I'm talking to you!" the man roared.

Shiloh rolled his head sideways and sliced his gaze to lock eyes with the giant. For a long minute they glared at each other, competing in a silent combat of wills, neither seemingly willing to be the first to look away.

Slowly, with no small difficulty, Shiloh swung his legs to the floor and pulled himself to his full height before slouching defiantly before the sergeant.

"I got some news for you," the big man growled. "You got another fight tomorrow. Thought you'd want to know since it'll be your last one. This one ain't gonna be no pushover like the others. He come in yesterday with the last bunch of prisoners. His name is Boone Le Feve. He's a Cajun from New Orleans. Supposed to be some kind of expert at knife fighting I hear tell."

"Shiloh's in no shape to fight again this quick," Lester spoke up, his voice quivering with fear. "Can't you see his arm is cut half off?"

"Looks fit to me," the sergeant bellowed, accompanied by an evil laugh. Turning on his heels he wobbled out the door, calling over his shoulder, "You sleep good now, Reb."

Morning came slow. Shiloh hadn't slept a wink all night; he didn't most nights. When he did it was restless sleep--his mind haunted by the familiar nightmare that returned again and again. It was always the same. A long line of those who had died by his hand materialized slowly from the fog of his memory. In the thickest part of the night they returned, as he knew they would; as they did each night, to march in single file through his mind, to stare through sightless, condemning eyes.

Once they had been good men, and now they were dead. Once they had laughed, and cried, and loved, and been loved. Now they only marched silently through his memory. . .and stared at him.

Lying on his hard bunk in the inky darkness, he had re-lived his whole life all over again. It's funny what a man thinks about when he's convinced he's about to die. He thought of all the things in his life he wished he'd done and hadn't; or wished he'd done different.

He should have told his ma and pa he loved them instead of just figuring they already knew. Why hadn't he taken longer to say goodbye? If he could only see them again, he would hug his ma like he knew she liked for him to. He would shake his pa's hand and feel the strength of that work-hardened hand clasping his own. Why did I take all those things for granted?

He thought about Elizabeth Johnson; the only girl he had ever liked. He remembered her long blonde hair with the curls on the ends that bounced and lifted in the breeze when she ran. In his mind he could almost see those sky-blue eyes that seemed to sparkle all the time.

He would never forget the way she had smiled at him at the box supper at the church in Sweetwater, Tennessee. She had laughed happily when he paid the last fifty cents he had for the apple pie she had brought. They had shared it together under the big old weeping willow tree down by the creek. Those times they met under the willow tree were some of the happiest memories of his life. They had made the spot their own special place. Those were good times-happy times.

He well remembered the day he left to join the cavalry; he had ridden by the Johnson place to tell Elizabeth good-bye. He had never seen her look more beautiful. She had stretched high on her tiptoes to kiss him. The memory of the softness of her body when she brushed against him still tantalized him. He would never forget how she had yielded when he took her in his arms and surrounded her with a warm embrace. The picture in his mind of her tears as he mounted and rode away still hurt his heart.

She was the only girl he had ever kissed. Her lips tasted sweet, like a ripe strawberry. He had always kinda figured on marrying her someday. But all that was gone now; all gone.

A Cajun, the sergeant had said. What was his name? Boone? Yes, Boone LeFeve. Shiloh knew he would be no match for a professional knife fighter even if his arm were well, much less now. The others he had fought had known no more about knife fighting than he did. He had been lucky. But an experienced knife fighter? Shiloh knew he didn't have a prayer.

He listened to the other prisoners as they snored. Lester was the loudest of all. His bunk was right next to Shiloh's. He liked Lester. He was his best friend. Shiloh had hoped after the war they could be neighbors or something. Lester got on his nerves sometimes, but he was an okay guy.

The night was long and slow to die. Shiloh turned his head to stare through the door at the first blush of dawn. A new day was being born. Most likely my last. Well, if a man's got to die, guess one day's as good as another.

Something gets born. Something dies. That's the way of it I guess. Well, he'd do what he had done with everything else in his life, he decided. He'd do his best. That was all a man could do.

The other prisoners avoided looking at him as they rousted out and tromped past his bunk on their way to breakfast. Again, he saw no point in making the effort. He never had learned to stomach watery grits and tasteless, weevil-infested corn-bread anyway, especially for breakfast.

"I'll try to slip you out a piece of pone if I can," Lester said, staring at him with a sad puppy-dog look, like he was saying a last good-bye or something.

"Don't bother," Shiloh told him. "I'm not much hungry anyway."

Doc Williams limped in on his stiff leg just as Lester was leaving. The doc carried his little black bag in one hand and a large white rag in the other.

"How's that arm this morning?"

"It hurt all night."

"I don't wonder, that's a bad cut. Let me take a look at it."

The doc pulled a straight-backed chair over close to Shiloh's bunk and lifted the wounded arm. For a long minute he stared at it. Without a word he snapped open his bag and took out a tin of foul smelling salve. He smeared the stuff over the wound and wrapped the arm tightly with a strip he tore off the big cloth.

"I heard about the fight today," the doc said sadly. "Wish there was something I could do. You ain't in no shape to fight."

"I'm obliged for what you've done, Doc."

"Here, let me tie this cloth around your neck for a sling. At least it'll keep that arm still so it won't start bleeding again."

The old doctor adjusted the large cloth and placed Shiloh's arm inside, then paused for a long moment and stared sadly before reaching a hand to pat Shiloh on the shoulder. A tiny silver tear escaped the old man's eye and inched its way along a deep wrinkle. He turned without a word and limped out the door.

Lester burst in and hurried to Shiloh's bunk. A big grin creased his boyish face as he pulled a square of cornbread from his coat pocket and proudly handed it to his friend.

"Here, I stole this for you slicker than a whistle. You need to eat it to keep up your strength. Everybody's talking about the fight. They're saying it's at ten o'clock this morning. I saw that Cajun fellow. He looks more like an Indian than a white man. He's bragging how he's gonna make short work of you. I told him that's what the other six thought too but now all they're doing is feeding the worms. He didn't like that too much. Hey, where 'd you get the sling?"

"The doc came by and fixed it for me. Thanks for the pone."

"GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!" Lester shouted and spun on his heels, hurrying for the door. "Seeing that sling give me an idea that might save your bacon. I'll be right back"

© 2001 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved





Jedidiah Boone
by
Dusty Rhodes


CHAPTER I

 

A shrill scream pierced the early morning stillness and invaded eleven year old Elizabeth Fargo's dream world. She bolted upright to a sitting position in bed and blinked the world into focus. It must have been just a bad dream, she tried to reason, swallowing the lump of fear from her throat back down to a churning stomach.

Beside her, Rebecca whined and uncurled herself from the covers, rubbing her sleepy eyes and swiping her long golden hair from her face with the back of a small hand. Something had awoken her, too. Usually, you had to pry her five-year-old sister out of bed.

The ear-shattering blast of a gunshot interrupted her thoughts and exploded the air around them and-then another!

Elizabeth's body jerked with each shot and went cold, as terror spiraled through her. Her ears rang. Rebecca screamed and plunged into her arms, shaking uncontrollably. Elizabeth saw her little sister's eyes go wide in a chalky face, blank with horror, blurry with tears.

Elizabeth encircled her sister with shaky arms and drew her close. They clung to each other, too frightened to cry. Elizabeth's own body quivered and her heart thundered against the wall of her chest. Hot tears breached the rims of her eyes. Her chest contracted and a sob squirmed its way up the back of her throat. They waited-straining, shaking.

"What is it, Liz?" the five year old demanded, her panicky voice quivering.

"I don't . . ."

The door to their bedroom suddenly burst open, choking off the rest of Elizabeth's words.

Her eyes rounded white. What she saw sent a chill racing up her spine.

Standing in the doorway was the first Indian she had ever seen.

* * *

Winston Taylor leaned back in the comfortable upholstered chair and drew a long pull on a fat cigar. He inhaled deeply and let the excess smoke slide from his lips in a long, blue tendril that drifted lazily toward the ceiling.

His boss had listened intently as the requested report was given, then, without a word, he had stood and strode to the window. For what seemed like an interminable time, William G. Fargo stared out the window, apparently lost in thought.

Winston waited; he knew a lot about waiting. As the youngest of six brothers, it seemed he had spent half of his life waiting for one reason or another: He had waited until his older brothers ate their fill before he was allowed the meager leftovers from the supper table. He waited for their hand-me-down shoes and clothes until they were so worn out they would hardly stay on.

Even at West Point he had waited to be accepted by the snobby sons of the wealthy or high-ranking officers--it had never happened. To their way of thinking, he was just a nobody that shouldn't even have been there and they never missed an opportunity to make that crystal clear. He waited anyway, and watched, and learned. After graduating with honors and receiving his commission as a first lieutenant ??he waited some more. Then the Civil War broke out and his waiting was over. He proved himself in battle and rose steadily through the ranks to become a full colonel by war's end. At the age of thirty-eight, after serving twenty years in the military, he retired.

He had gone to work for the Wells Fargo agency shortly after his retirement. Mr. Louis McLane, the president of the agency at the time, hired him and put him in charge of the floundering stagecoach branch of the agency.

It was in trouble and badly in need of new management. In less than six months he had completely turned the business around and expanded it into a nationwide network of more than one hundred-eighty stage stations stretched across the country, over twelve hundred head of stock, and employing four hundred men. After buying out the Butterfield stage line, Wells Fargo boasted of delivering passengers from St. Louis to San Francisco in just twenty-five days.

While he waited for Mr. Fargo to finish his thought process, Winston's gaze slowly circled the large, elaborately furnished office. His searching gaze admired the original paintings in gilded frames that hung on wine-colored silk brocade wall covering, and the thick, imported rug on the floor. He noted the wide, mahogany, desk with a high-backed, leather chair. On the desk were neatly organized stacks of papers, and a wooden humidor full of expensive cigars. It was an office befitting the President of the sprawling, banking and express conglomerate known as the Wells Fargo Agency.

"How do you know this man-what did you say his name was?" Mr. Fargo finally asked. He didn't bother turning to face his employee. He continued to stare out the window of the red brick building with green trim on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, the headquarters of Wells Fargo.

"Boone," Winston Taylor replied, "his name is Jedidiah Boone. His grandfather was Squire Boone, brother of the famous Daniel Boone, the explorer and frontiersman. Jedidiah served with me in the army as a scout.

He's the best I ever saw. They say he can trail a snowflake in a howling blizzard.

"He's worked for us here at Wells-Fargo on a couple of special jobs. He's the one who brought in the Wilbourn brothers that robbed so many of our stages up in southern Colorado. He also tracked down and killed Lone Wolf and a half-dozen Apaches that ambushed our stage and slaughtered our driver, the shotgun messenger, and eight passengers near El Paso about a year ago."

The big man turned from the window to face Winston. William Fargo was a tall man, big boned with wide shoulders. A leonine shock of salt-and-pepper hair crowned his head. Both it and his mustache were well trimmed. He wore a dark broadcloth business suit with fresh-creased legs and a starched white shirt. A pearl stickpin gleamed from the cravat cinched around his stiff winged collar. His very appearance conveyed an impression of authority. It seemed his dark, flashing eyes had a way of looking right into a man's soul.

Those penetrating eyes were now fixed squarely on Winston Taylor.

"Can this man do what has to be done?" Fargo asked pointedly.

"Mr. Fargo, if it can be done, Jedidiah Boone can do it. The only question is, will he do it?"

"What do you mean?" Winston's boss asked, a concerned furrow plowing across his forehead. "Didn't you say he works for us?"

"Well, no sir, not exactly. Like I say, he's done a couple of jobs for us on occasion, but that was by a special arrangement I made with him. I paid him time, expenses, and the reward we had posted on those fellows. Jedidiah is an independent sort of fellow, always has been. He's his own man, beholden to no one.

"He's mostly a loner. Lives way back in the middle of nowhere-halfway-to-the-sky at a place called Angel-Fire Mountain. It's in New Mexico Territory not too far from Taos. He found the place while on a scouting expedition during the war.

"When the fighting was over, he went back to Missouri and brought back a black man and his wife that had been with the Boone family for years. They built a little log cabin on a shelf about two-thirds up the side of that mountain. Ain't but one way up or down."

"Is he the kind of man we can trust?" Mr. Fargo asked, his probing eyes still fixed on his employee.

"Mr. Fargo, I've trusted Jedidiah Boone with my life on more than one occasion."

"Very well then, it's settled. You and I will go to Sante Fe, New Mexico Territory to meet with this Mr. Boone. We'll take my private coach. I want two of the best drivers we have and two shotgun messengers to ride along.

We'll need fresh teams of horses ready and waiting at our stage stations along the way so there will be no delay.

"Arrange a meeting with Mr. Boone in Sante Fe on the thirteenth. I'd like my presence in Sante Fe not be known. As you well know, we're presently involved in delicate negotiations with the government in Washington for the nationwide mail contract. If news of my presence in Sante Fe became public knowledge, it would undoubtedly call attention to the tragic events surrounding my brother and his family.

"Our competitors might somehow use that information to cast doubt on our ability to fulfill the government mail contract. Wells Fargo desperately needs that contract to continue our nationwide expansion.

"Make it appear as if it is you and you alone meeting with Mr. Boone. You will remain in Sante Fe until this matter is resolved. Remember, only you and Mr. Boone are to know of my presence, is that understood?"

"Yes sir," Winston Taylor said briskly and stood to his feet, well aware the meeting was over and he had been excused. "It will be taken care of."

He hurried from the office, cognizant of the importance of his task.

Innocent lives and the very future of the Wells Fargo Agency might well depend upon the secrecy and success of this mission.

A wisp of a cool breeze crept down the high mountain. It whispered through thick stands of golden aspen trees that hugged the steep slopes. Their leaves shimmered like tiny flakes of pure gold and set the mountainside ablaze with splashes of brilliant color.

The morning was half-spent and still the tall man sat pushed back in the rocking chair on the front porch of his mountain log cabin. His legs were propped up against a peeled cedar post. Long-fingered hands laced around a steaming cup of coffee. His wheat colored hair hung near shoulder length under a battered old dirty, gray Stetson tilted low on his forehead, partly shading his sky-blue eyes. A golden-hair handlebar mustache spread widely above a slash of a mouth. Weather-darkened skin testified to the unmistakable effect of too many days in the sun and belied his twenty-six years.

Behind the cabin, the mountains rose steeply against a backdrop of limitless sky.

Beside him a large wolf dog lay sleeping. As if by some unheard signal the big dog jerked up his head. Narrow-set, dark eyes peered into the distance.

A low growl rumbled deep in his huge chest and he climbed to his feet.

"I see 'em," the big man mumbled and swallowed the last gulp of coffee from his cup. He set the cup on the porch, slowly knuckled his mustache, and pulled out the makings for a smoke. Creasing a rolling paper, he sprinkled tobacco into the fold and ran his tongue along the edge. He twirled it, popped a sulfur, and drew a long inhale. His narrowed eyes peered into the distant valley as a slow streamer of blue smoke escaped his lips and drifted upward.

In the valley far below, two riders picked their way laboriously along the bank of the Angel-Fire River. A mist rose from the thundering stream and hung in the morning air like a dense fog. The valley clearings were ruffled with flaming dogwoods and lime-green sweet gum trees. Fall violets spread their colorful flowers across the valley floor like a bright blue carpet.

The mountain stream emerged fresh-born, sparkling fresh and icy-cold, from cavernous rock springs high above and behind Jedidiah's mountain hideaway.

It rushed within twenty yards of his log cabin before plunging over the edge of a rock shelf and falling several hundred feet into Angel-Fire valley. It tumbled noisily over and around house-sized boulders and fought its way through heavy stands of ponderosa pine as it began its long journey toward the sea. A continuing roar from the valley below drifted up the mountainside.

The riders were still a couple of miles away but even at that distance Jedidiah thought he recognized the black and white pinto. Only one fellow he knew rode a horse like that. He remembered because it looked so much like the brown and white pinto he, himself rode.

"Mose," the big man called out, his deep voice filling the mountain air.

"We've got company. Better get the wife inside just in case." Off to the end of the peeled-log cabin, a giant of a man stilled the double-bladed ax from his wood chopping and raised to his full height, a full hand above six feet. Sun glistened off his ebony, sweat stained and shirtless chest as he lifted a muscled arm to swipe the sweat from his forehead.

"You heard Mr. Boone, woman," his bullfrog voice boomed out.

A heavyset black woman in a flour-sack dress and a white apron tied around her ample middle hung the last pair of wet britches across the clothes' line. She scooped up the empty basket and hurried toward the cabin mumbling to herself.

"Lawd a-mercy," she complained. "How's a body supposed to get her work done around here nohow?"

"Who you reckon it is, Mr. Boone?" the black man asked, arming sweat from his forehead and strolling over to retrieve his own rifle that was canted against the cabin.

"I can't rightly tell for shore," the tall man said, uncoiling himself from the chair, stretching, and leaning a big shoulder against the cedar porch-post, the rifle clutched loosely in his left hand. "It seems to me I recall that Wells Fargo detective from down in Santa Fe riding a pinto like that. Don't recognize the other fellow."

They watched the two riders splash across the stream and rein up. The man on the pinto swiped his hat off and mopped the sweat from his forehead with an arm as he raised his gaze to follow the narrow trail up the steep mountainside.

It took another half-hour before the riders crested the rocky shelf and walked their horses half-a-hundred yards across the grassy space toward the mountain cabin.

"Okay if we ride in?" the fellow on the pinto shouted above the roar of Angel-Fire Falls.

"Come ahead," Jedidiah replied, lifting the Henry to rest comfortably in the crook of his arm.

The two riders walked their horses slowly forward and pulled up a short distance from the front porch. The rider of the pinto was a tall, thin fellow with shifty eyes and a gaunt looking face. He wore a black broadcloth suit that several days trail dust had turned a dingy brown. A Colt pistol in a cutaway holster rested on his right hip.

The second man was a big, wide-shouldered bear of a man with a barrel chest and a full beard that hid his facial features. He also wore a two-piece suit and one of those funny-looking black bowler-derbies. The bulge under his left coat flap did little to hide the gun in a shoulder holster.

"You'd be Jedidiah Boone, I reckon?" the taller man said, doffing his dusty Stetson and mopping the sweat from the inside sweatband with a red bandanna.

"I'm James Hume. I'm chief of detectives with the Wells Fargo Agency. We've never actually met, but I saw you once over in Taos when you brought in the Wilbourn brothers face down across their saddles. This here is my partner, George Honeycutt."

"I remember you," Jedidiah said. "You were pointed out to me. You fellas just out for a morning ride or did you come with something in mind?" he asked, still not moving his rifle from the crook of his arm.

"We don't get many folks up this way."

"Yeah," the one called Hume said. "I can shore see why. A fellow's got to come here on purpose. So this is the mountain they call Angel-Fire? We never would have found your place if we hadn't run into a trapper down on the Mora River. We liked to never convinced him into telling us how to find you. He said you didn't take kindly to visitors."

"We ain't much on socializing," Jedidiah said. "Now that you found me, Mr. Hume, what's your business?"

"I come bringing an urgent message for you," the detective said, his voice betraying some displeasure at the task. "Mr. Winston Taylor himself, a vice-president with the Wells Fargo Agency, would like you to meet him in Sante Fe on the thirteenth, that's just three days from now. Don't know if we can make it or not. We've been searching for you for near a week. How far is it from here to Sante Fe?"

"Maybe forty or fifty miles as the crow flies," Jedidiah told them. "But we ain't crows."

"The message said it's urgent," the detective said impatiently. "He's coming all the way from San Francisco by special stagecoach. We're supposed to accompany you there. I figure it's near three days hard ride so we better get started."

"What's he want?" Jedidiah asked.

"The message didn't say, but it must be awfully important. Like I said, Mr. Taylor is coming all the way from San Francisco. I've been with the agency three years and I've never even met him. He's an awfully powerful man though."

Silence stretched on a space. Jedidiah engaged himself in his usual habit of fingering an earlobe while he was in deep contemplation. Finally, having made up his mind, he pushed his shoulder away from the post.

"You boys' lite and sit a spell while I get my things together," Jedidiah told them. "Mose, see if Minnie's got some left over coffee for these fellows. Throw my packsaddle on Mule and saddle my pinto. Load on three days grain ration. I'll gather my trail supplies. You men are welcome to sit the porch. She'll bring some coffee directly."

It took half-an-hour before Jedidiah toed a stirrup and swung into his saddle. He settled his six foot-three inch frame into the saddle of the brown and white pinto. It had been a spell since the big gelding had limbered his legs and he nervously high-stepped and tossed his head, held in place by a tight rein in a strong hand.

"When you be coming back, Mr. Boone, sir?" the big black man made inquiry.

"Like always, Mose," Jedidiah said. "Look for me when you see me coming."

"That's a fine-looking mount you got there," the one called Hume said admiringly. "Just like mine except for the color."

"He'll do," Jedidiah said off-handily, giving the lead rope to his pack mule a half-hitch around the saddle horn. "Let's go, Dog."

"You mean you're taking that wolf-dog with us," Hume asked critically.

"Dog goes where I go," Jedidiah replied, reining the big pinto around and touching his booted heel to a tender flank.

© 2002 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved




Death Rides a Pale Horse
by
Dusty Rhodes

CHAPTER I

 

Dr. Lucien Robertson pushed hesitantly through the door to his office, turned slowly, and paused before gently closing the door. His mind whirled, still undecided as to how he would break the news to the patient sitting in the wing-backed chair in front of his desk. In his thirty-one years as a doctor, he had never learned how to tell someone they were dying.

Taking a deep breath, he resigned himself to the unpleasant task that lay before him, turned, and moved wearily to the chair behind his desk. Lifting his eyes, he gazed over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses into the face of the patient across the desk.

The man before him was a tall man—tall, sledge-shouldered, and skinny as a rail. His sun weathered skin stretched tight like a drawn bowstring over high cheekbones, hinting at his Indian heritage. A jutting chin sloped back towards a long, thin neck and prominent Adam’s apple. On another man the chin might have looked weak, but on T. J. Littlejohn, it just looked mean. His beak-like nose created an appearance that was not pleasant to look at and was enough to cause most folks to shun him. But it was those dark eyes--narrow of lid--peering from sunken sockets, which sent shivers up and down Dr. Robertson’s spine.

Death—that’s what you saw when you looked at T. J. Littlejohn—those eyes were the eyes of death. Not only was the man dying, he was death incarnate. Once a man laid eyes on T. J. Littlejohn they never forgot him.


“How long we known each other, T. J.?” the doctor finally asked.

The reply came out in a rattled whisper. One had to listen closely to make out the words.

“Fifteen . . . sixteen years I reckon. You birthed all three of the youngins. Tad is just shy of fourteen now.”

“How is the family?”

“The family’s tolerable, and thanks for asking, but we’ve known one another too long to beat around the bush, doc. That grim expression on your face pretty well tells me the news you got for me ain’t good. Go on . . . spit it out. What’s wrong with me?”

“The truth is, T. J., there ain’t no easy way to say what I got to say. Something’s eating away at your insides. Looks to me like it started in the colon, but from what I can tell, it’s spread into your lungs and pretty much through your whole body. That’s why you’re passing blood and losing so much weight. When I saw you last spring you stood over six feet and must have weighed well over two hundred pounds. When I weighed you awhile ago you weighed one hundred sixty-two.

“ Ain’t there some kind of medicine you can give me to cure it?”

“ I’m sorry, T. J., but there ain’t no cure for what you got.”

“ What you saying, Doc? You saying I’m dying?”

“I’m sorry.”

For a long moment neither man spoke. The patient stared in stunned silence through the window behind the doctor but seemed to be staring past the busy activities of the street outside.

“How long I got left, doc?”

Sighing heavily, the doctor gave the only answer he could offer. “No way to know for sure, but judging by what I saw in the examination and from what you told me, I’d say no more than six months, most likely less.”

Fear was the usual reaction to news that one was dying; in his years of practice, Doctor Robertson had seen it many times, but he could detect absolutely no emotion whatsoever in the eyes of this patient.

“How bad will it get before it happens, Doc?”

“You’ll likely continue to lose weight. Passing blood will increase as time gets closer and the pain will intensify,” the doctor said as he pushed a bottle of golden liquid across the desk. “This will help some; its called laudanum, it’s an opiate sedative. Take a swallow when you need it. I wish there was something else I could do.”

T. J. Littlejohn pushed from the chair, scooped the bottle from the desk, and stuck out a work-hardened hand. The two old friends looked each other in the eyes for a long minute as they shook hands.

“Thanks for telling me straight, Doc. There’s some things I’ll be needing to take care of. Guess I best get at it.”

Sheriff, George Paxton was leaned back against the wall in a straight-backed chair with his feet on the desk and snoring loudly. He awoke with a start as the door of his small office was pushed open, interrupting his usual afternoon nap. Keeping the peace in Lubbock County, Texas in 1873 was a boring job.

“Afternoon, George,” the tall intruder whispered hoarsely.

“Afternoon, T. J., what brings you into town? Hadn’t seen you since last spring. You okay? You seem sorta off your feed.”

“Had some business. Can we sit a spell? Got some things on my mind.”

“Grab a chair. Want some coffee? Made it fresh couple of days ago.”

T. J. Littlejohn declined the offer with a single shake of his head as he folded into a ladder chair and swept the office with a searching gaze. His eyes paused and fixed on the group of faded wanted posters tacked to the board wall behind the lawman’s desk.

Sheriff Paxton squinted critically as he stared at the wispy shadow of the man that had been his friend for more years than he cared to remember. He couldn’t believe this was the same man that he had rode side-by-side with when they fought the Mexicans together back in ‘46. T. J. Littlejohn had been a captain in the Texas Volunteers . . . was the chief scout and best tracker in the whole regiment. He had served four years as a Texas Ranger and was maybe the toughest man he had ever known. After him and Mary were married, they had fought the Apache and land-grabbers and the drought to hold on to their little spread about twenty miles from town out on Yellow House Creek. But look at him now . . . barely half the man he once knew.

“How old are you, T. J.”

“ I’ll be forty-six come spring.”

What’s wrong, T. J.?”

“Doc says I’m dying . . . Ain’t nothing he can do . . . Says I got some kind of something eating my insides.”

Shock swept across the sheriff’s leathered face. For long minutes neither said a word. Finally, George Paxton lifted his gaze and looked his friend in the eyes.

“ I’m shore sorry, T. J.” George said, shaking his head sadly.
“ Reckon in a way, I’m lucky. Death slips up on most folks—catches them unexpected—they don’t have time to do what needs to be done. That’s what I want to talk to you about. I got a wife and three youngins out there in a shotgun shack and nothing to leave them but a patch of south Texas prairie and a handful of scrawny cows. I gotta get my hands on some money and I ain’t got long to do it, that’s why I come to see you.”

“I’d like to help you, T. J., but I got even less than you. I barely make enough to get by. How can I help you?”

Littlejohn pointed a nod toward the posters on the wall. “Any of those still good?”

The sheriff twisted a look at the fliers behind him. His eyebrows lifted in a wrinkle as the meaning of his friend’s question sunk in.

“Them? Can’t say for shore, I get new ones in from time to time. Don’t usually even bother to put ‘em up. Hombres like that don’t usually ride through our neck-of-the-woods. Got some around here somewhere that come in not long ago, though. You thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

“Except for robbing a bank, that’s the quickest way I know to make some money.”

“Quickest way I know to get yourself killed too,” the sheriff said. “T. J., we’ve know one another a long time. I reckon you’re the best man with that Colt pistol you’re wearing I’ve ever seen, but the kind of men you’re talking about here are cold blooded killers.”

“Yeah . . . well . . . when you already know you’ll be dead in a few months, a few days more or less don’t seem to matter much. How about seeing if you can lay your hands on them posters.”

Sheriff Paxton tugged open a squeaky drawer of the dilapidated old desk and rummaged through a couple before pulling out a stack of wanted fliers and tossing them across the desk.

T. J. took his time thumbing through the stack before withdrawing one. For a long minute he studied it carefully.

“What about this one?”

The sheriff leaned across the desk and darted a glance at the poster. “The Sanchez brothers? Now there’s a pair of bad ones, sure enough. Way I hear they been trouble all their lives. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when they murdered a whole family over in Arizona. Somewhere near Tucson, I think it was. I’ve got the telegram about them here someplace.”
After a few more minutes searching, the lawman pulled a stack of wrinkled telegrams from the bottom drawer, fumbled through them, and produced the one giving the particulars about the Sanchez brothers.

“Says here they hail from over in New Mexico Territory near Alamogordo. If’n I was to go lookin’ for them two, and I shore ain’t, that’s where I’d start.”
“Three hundred apiece is a lot of money,” Littlejohn said, as he folded the poster and telegram and stuck it in his shirt pocket. You reckon I could trade one of my team of horses and wagon for that buckskin old man Isaacs down at the livery is always bragging about?”

“That’s a fine piece of horseflesh, shore enough. A man could ride far and fast on a horse like that. But Silas Isaacs is a horse trader. He’s tighter than Dick’s hatband to-boot.”

“Think I’ll mosey down and try to do some trading, I’ll need a good horse. Thanks George. I got to stop by the store and pick up some things. Hang on to any new wanted posters you get in, will you? And if you’re out my way, I’d be obliged if you’d look in on my family while I’m gone.”

“You can count on it, T. J. it’s the least I can do.”

The two old friends shared a warm handshake before T. J. turned and headed for the General Store.

Wiley Stubblefield glanced over a shoulder from stacking canned goods on a high shelf as T. J. entered.

“ Morning, Mr. Littlejohn. It’s been quite a spell since I’ve seen you in town.”

“ Yeah, need to pick up a few things.”

“ How’s the family?”

“ Tolerable.”

“ What can I get for you today?”

“ Need to look around a bit if you don’t mind.”

“ Help yourself. Let me know if there’s something in particular I can help you with.”

T. J. moved slowly through the narrow isles of the spacious store. Shelves and counters were piled high with most anything one could possible want or need. It wasn’t that he was looking for anything, truth was, he was putting off doing something he had never done even once in his whole life.
Then he saw it . . . and he stopped to stare at it for a long space of time . . . Mary’s stove. Actually it wasn’t a stove at all, just a picture out of a catalogue tacked to the wall. She had spotted it back before Sally was born, over five years ago now, and had fallen in love with it at first sight. It was something, sure enough. White and green with silver colored legs and handles. It even had a place with a water reservoir to keep the bread fresh. But the price was one hundred-twenty-eight dollars. It might just as well be a thousand. She hardly ever mentioned it anymore since times were so hard, but he knew she hadn’t stopped dreaming that maybe someday . . . but now it looked now like that someday would never come.

Turning abruptly, T. J. swallowed the huge lump in his throat and stalked back to face Wiley Stubblefield. “Mr. Stubblefield, is my credit good until the first of the year?”

A furrow plowed across the storekeeper’s forehead and his eyebrows skewed together. His eyes crawled down the length of T. J.’s body like he was judging the worth of a steer.

“ How much credit we talking about?”

“ The price of one of them new Henry rifles over yonder on the rack. I’ve got to be gone for a few weeks and my boy needs a gun to look out for things.”
“ Don’t see why that couldn’t be arranged.”

T. J. took a deep breath and let it out on a long sigh. A feeling of relief surged over him.

Silas Isaacs was a grizzled old liveryman and the town blacksmith. Most folks would judge him as a hard man but if a fellow took the time to get to know him they learned he had a heart of gold. The rhythmic beat of his hammer on the steel anvil played a soothing sound as T. J. walked to the stable. Isaacs wore a battered old hat, leather apron, and a crooked grin that peeked out from behind a full shaggy-gray beard.

“Afternoon, Silas.”

“Afternoon, T. J.,” the smithy said around a mouthful of tobacco before pausing and spitting a long stream of brown liquid at a pesky horsefly. “Saw you pull in awhile ago. What brings you to town?”

“Had some things to attend to,” he said, sidling casually over to the corral fence and examining the buckskin with a searching gaze. “Whose horse you shoeing?”

“That young Baker boy’s sorrel threw a shoe. These young folks nowadays don’t know how to take care of a horse.”

T. J. listened to the liveryman with his ears, but his mind was sizing up the buckskin in the nearby corral. It was maybe the most beautiful horse he had ever laid eyes on: At least fifteen hands tall . . . bright, alert eyes . . . thick chested . . . sturdy looking legs . . . it was the kind of horse most cowboys only dream about . . . the kind a man could depend on.
“I see you still got that buckskin in the corral. Ain’t you found nobody to pawn that old gelding off on yet?”

“Say what? That’s the best dang horse in south Texas! Show me a horse that’s gaited like that buckskin and I’ll show you a poky-dotted buffalo. That gelding can strike a gait and hold it from here to tin-buck-two.”

“Might be getting a little old to make a man a good riding horse though,” T. J. offered.

“Old? He’ll outlive the both of us.”

“Well . . . I shore can’t argue that point. I’ve been thinking about getting me a saddle horse. I just might be talked into taking him off your hands. How would you trade?”

“Depends on what you’re tradin’.”

“Tell you what, Silas, if you’ll throw in a good short horn saddle, I’ll trade you my wagon-team of blacks yonder for the buckskin . . . straight up.”

“If you weren’t such a good friend I’d take offense at an offer like that. That gelding is worth two teams.”

“My team of blacks can outwork any two teams in the south plains. You still got that old twelve-gauge Stevens sawed off double-barrel shotgun?”
“Shore do. What you needin’ with a gun like that, T. J.?”

“Awe, just always kind of had a fancy for one. Tell you what Silas—what if I throw in my wagon—it’s a Great Northern and still in good shape, would you trade for the buckskin, saddle, and the shotgun?”

The liveryman swiped off his floppy hat, mopped sweat from his face with an arm, and spat another stream of tobacco; all the time studying the offer.
“Sounds fair,” he finally said. “Guess you got yourself a trade.”

“How about borrowing one of them mules there in the corral to tote some supplies back to the house? I’ll be riding back through in couple days, I could drop it off then if that’s agreeable?”

“That’ll be fine,” the liveryman said.

The old man fetched a good-looking saddle, bridle, and saddle blanket and hung them on the rail fence.

“Had that saddle hanging in the shed long enough,” Silas said. “Needs to be put to use. Reckon it’ll last you awhile.”

“Long enough,” T. J. commented as he caught up the buckskin and led him over to the fence. He checked the gelding’s teeth. “I’m guessing six years old.”

“Bout right,” the liveryman said, turning the sorrel he had just shoed back into the corral and spitting a stream of tobacco. “Jest broke in good.”
While T. J. saddled his new horse, Silas caught and cinched a packsaddle on a Missouri-brown mule.

“Don’t really need a lead rope for old Solomon here, him and that buckskin ain’t been separated in years. He’ll go anywhere that gelding goes. Reckon if that pale horse ran off a cliff old Solomon would trail right along behind it. Best trail-wise mule I ever seen, and I’ve seen more’n a few in my time. Tell you one thing for shore, ain’t nobody gonna be sneaking up on your camp in the night with old Solomon around; he can hear a night sound that’s out of place for a hundred yards and he’ll let you know about it.”

“If times weren’t so hard I’d try to buy him from you, but guess you’d want an arm and leg for him.”

“Tell you what, T. J., with that gelding gone, he won’t do nothing but keep me awake braying all night anyway, go ahead and take him. I’ll throw him in as boot.”

“You don’t have to do that, Silas, but it’s mighty decent of you; I’m obliged.
T. J. toed a stirrup and swung into the saddle. Silas handed him up the sawed off Greener. A soft leather bag full of shells was tied to the handle.

“ You be careful with that scatter gun. It’ll blow a hole in the side of a barn you could drive a team and wagon through and it’s got a kick worsen old Solomon. Where you be headed?”

“Got some business over in New Mexico Territory.”

“Uh-huh . . . Long ride.”

“Yep. Be seeing ye Silas.”

“Hope so,” the liveryman called after T. J as he rode away. “You take care of yourself now. You hear?”

Without looking back, T. J. lifted a hand acknowledging the farewell.

© 2003 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved

 




Shooter
by
Dusty Rhodes

AUTHOR'S FOREWORD

Amid birthing pains of a new nation, hardy, and sometimes desperate, men and women struggled and all too often paid the ultimate price to blaze new frontiers. Following the Civil War many bitter and disillusioned survivors returned home to find nothing left. Some of these took to the outlaw trail. Robbers, cutthroats, murderers, rapists, and outlaw gangs ran rampant; crime became an epidemic.

Those seeking to escape the "long arm of the law" found a safe-haven in what was called, the Indian Territory, or by some, the Nations, home of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes, as well as portions of numerous other tribes, had been moved by force-of-arms to this God-forsaken land.

This vast area, which we now know as Oklahoma, encompassed some 74,000 square miles and was a lawless land beyond the reach of conventional justice. Bounded by Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico Territory, the Nations became the base of operations for outlaw gangs that looted and plundered surrounding states.

Under tremendous pressure to curb this lawlessness, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Judge Isaac C. Parker and gave him unfettered jurisdictional authority over the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas, which included all of the Indian Territory and roughly half of the state of Arkansas.

Judge Parker was given unprecedented authority. For fourteen of the twenty-one years on the bench, his decisions were final and irrevocable. Upon his appointment he became the only jurist in the history of the United States from which there was no appeal. Certainty of arrest and surety of punishment became the rule of his court.

His first act upon arriving at his court in Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 2, 1875 was to order the construction of a gallows; not just any gallows, this one must be capable of hanging as many as 12 condemned at a time. It took only eight days for the press to dub him, "The Hanging Judge," a name which stuck, and which struck fear in the heart of many-an-outlaw.

© 2004 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved




Vengeance is Mine
by
Dusty Rhodes

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19)

CHAPTER I

The posse returned empty-handed. Tad Littlejohn and his friend, Lupe Raminez was hitching their team of Missouri Brown mules to the wagon when the straggling line of sweat-slick horses and riders rode slowly into town.

Members of the posse sat hunched in their saddles, completely spent from the long chase. Their hats were pulled low. A hot Texas wind tugged at their long dusters.

Steam billowed from the exhausted horses’ nostrils and with lather hung along their withers. Their heads hung low and each step was slow and labored. Sheriff Paxton spotted the two boys and reined his mount toward the livery.

For a long moment the lawman stared down at Tad Littlejohn before he spoke. Standing before him was the spitting image of the boy’s father. The rough work pants, denim shirt, and suspenders couldn’t hide the work-hardened boy inside. He was tall for a boy of fourteen; tall, wide shouldered, and narrow in the waist. His long black hair hung shoulder length. His high cheekbones and dark, flashing eyes told of his Indian heritage. “ I’m sorry, son,” he said hoarsely through dry and cracked lips.

Tad didn’t reply. It felt like a mule had kicked him in the stomach. Inside his chest his heart shattered into a thousand pieces. He swallowed a huge lump in his throat and blinked away tears that breeched his eyelids.

In that moment of time he realized that his life was changed completely—he would never be the same—he would never rest until his father’s murder had been avenged.


The sheriff saw the change too. He saw the stony expression that washed over the boy’s face. He saw the eyes narrow to thin slits. He saw the hard-set line of Tad Littlejohn’s mouth and somehow knew the meaning.

The boy had suddenly become a man. The expression in the young man’s eyes was a terrible thing to behold. George saw the wide, fresh face of a fourteen year old but the eyes of an infinitely older man. Sheriff George Paxton sadly dropped his head and reined his mount around to follow the rest of the posse down the street.

It had been two days since T.J.Littlejohn was gunned down in the street of Lubbock, Texas; shot in the back by the high and mighty rancher from New Mexico Territory, Buck Slade. The funeral was to be held that morning at ten, and then the body would be moved to the Littlejohn valley for burial.

The posse rode out within an hour after the shooting, but few, if any, really expected them to catch the killer. Slade was mounted on a superior horse and it wasn’t that far to the edge of the Sheriff’s jurisdiction, beyond the county line he had no jurisdiction.

Tad had hardly said half-a-dozen words since the shooting. It wasn’t that unusual for Tad, he was like his father, he had never been much on talking. T.J. had often said, ‘I don’t recall ever learning anything when I was doing the talking.’

Lupe was a different story; he talked about one thing or another every waking minute. The two boys had become inseparable since T.J. brought Lupe home from New Mexico to live with them; they were like brothers.

The boys finished hitching the team and saddling their horses. Tad slipped a lead rope on his father’s buckskin and tied him to the back of the wagon. They pulled the wagon with their riding horses tied behind down the street to the hotel so things would be ready to go after the funeral service.

Tad was worried about his mother. Mary hadn’t left her hotel room since right after the shooting. Tad’s younger sister, Marilyn, had carried her mother’s food up to the room and seen to her every need. His sister seemed to be taking her father’s death better than any of the rest of them, at least outwardly; she was one that kept her feelings shuttered inside more then the rest of the Littlejohn family. At twelve, she looked and acted much older and he often thought of her as his older sister rather than two years younger than he was.

Sally was another matter; she had been quiet and moody since her Papa’s death. She had been especially close to her father. Rev. Hensley had told Tad that the loss of a parent was especially hard on someone only four years old.

Well, it was hard on someone fourteen years old too. But he was older, ‘more man than most men’, his papa had often said of him, and he was supposed to understand death—then why didn’t he?

He didn’t understand why papa had to get sick with whatever it was that the doctors said was eating away his insides. He didn’t understand why that no-good back shooter had killed his father. He didn’t understand any of it. All he understood was that Buck Slade had to pay for what he did, no matter what, he had to pay.

Tad and Lupe sat on the top step in front of the hotel, not talking, just sitting there, both lost in their own thoughts.

“ Looks like folks are starting to gather over at the church,” Tad finally said. “Reckon we best get up to the room and put on our clothes for the funeral.”

Pushing to their feet, they entered the hotel and climbed the stairs to the rooms that the sheriff had arranged for.

Marilyn had picked out funeral clothes for the whole family down at Mr. Stubblefield’s store. She bought black broadcloth suits for both Tad and Lupe. They were laid out on the bed. Neither Tad nor Lupe had ever had a real suit before.

They both got dressed in the unfamiliar-feeling clothes and went down to the lobby to wait for Mary and the girls. It hurt his heart when he saw his mother coming down the stairs. She was dressed in a solid black dress. Even through the thin black veil that covered her face he could see that her eyes were red and bloodshot from crying. Tad had never seen his mother look so tired.

Both Marilyn and Sally wore dark blue dresses. Sally clung tightly to her older sister’s hand as they walked side by side.

Sheriff Paxton was waiting outside on the boardwalk when they all walked out. He walked with the family to the church. The church house was packed. When they entered Rev. Hensley asked the audience to stand. The front bench had been reserved for the Littlejohn family.

Tad only half listened as the audience sang ‘Amazing Grace’. After the song ended Rev. Hensley stood and walked slowly to the pulpit. He opened his bible and began to read . . .

“ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever

“ Friends and neighbors, we come today on this sad occasion to pay our final respects to one of our own that has departed this life. T. J. Littlejohn was a good man, a devoted husband, a loving father, a helpful neighbor, and a good friend. He was one of us.

“ I’m told that when T.J. first learned of his illness and that he had only a few months to live, his first concern wasn’t for himself, but for his family. To my way of thinking, that’s the mark of a great man.

“ Though he is no longer with us in body, he will always be with us in spirit. His life touched each person in this room, and if, through the touching, your life has somehow been made better, then truly, T.J. Littlejohn’s life was not lived in vain. His memory will live on in our hearts. Shall we pray?

“ Our Heavenly Father, You have told us that you are the source of all comfort and that we ought to comfort one another even as we find comfort in you. We pray that you pour out a special helping of comfort on the Littlejohn family today, and in all the days to come. Amen.”

“ Now friends, please join together as we sing, ‘Beautiful Sunset.’”

When the song had ended Mr. Stubblefield walked to the front and opened the coffin. The people filed slowly by, paused and glanced down. Some of the women cried. Others said their farewells in their own way.

Finally the church was empty except for Rev. Hensley, George Paxton and the Littlejohn family; one by one they escorted the family to the casket to say their final goodbye. With the help of the Reverend and the Sheriff, Mary and little Sally went first.

The girl-child nestled close against her mother’s side and clung tightly to her mother’s hand. The sadness and confusion in the small, soft face swelled the ache around Mary’s heart. How could she explain T.J.’s death to her young daughter when she didn’t understand it herself? What could she possibly say that would make the death of a father she loved so much, easier to understand for this little girl?

For long moments Mary stood there, staring into the coffin, struggling to compose herself. In a voice thick and grainy from crying and barely above a whisper, Mary spoke through choking sobs.

“ I loved you like no woman ever loved a man, T. J. You were my strength, my life, my reason for living. I’ll go on, but it will be a lonely journey without you. Rest now, my love, until we meet again.”

She leaned forward and kissed the cheek of her departed husband and then turned slowly and led her young daughter back to their seat.

Marilyn was escorted forward by the two men, one on either side. She stood quietly for a few moments, reached a hand and placed it over her father’s heart, and then turned and walked slowly back to her seat.

Tad and Lupe sat side by side. Tad leaned forward in his seat with his elbows propped on his knees, his head was bowed and his eyes closed as if in prayer. He struggled hard to hold back the sobs that choked him.

Rev. Hensley and Gorge Paxton waited patiently. Finally, the two boys rose and walked forward. For several minutes Tad stood looking down at his father. His jaw set hard. His eyes narrowed. His fists clenched until his fingernails bit into the palms of his hands. One hand reached to rest softly upon his father’s forehead, the other hand come to rest over his own heart. When he spoke the words came out as chiseled and hard and cold as a tombstone.

“ I love you, Pa; you taught me everything I know about life and living. If it’s he last thing I ever do, I swear it on my life; I will make Buck Slade pay for what he done.”

Sheriff George Paxton heard the boy’s words and slanted a quick look, first at Tad, then at his mother. It was clear she had heard her son’s words too, for her face went white, her eyes widened and her hand flew to cover her mouth. There was little doubt she knew the meaning of her son’s promise.

* * *

The journey from town to the Littlejohn valley had been a slow and sad trip with little, if any, conversation. George Paxton drove the wagon carrying the coffin, his dappled gray horse tied to the back. Reverend Hensley sat in the seat beside the sheriff.

Tad drove their wagon, his mother sitting beside him. Marilyn and Sally rode in the floor behind the seat. Lupe, Jed Holly and Homer Green rode their saddle horses alongside the wagon carrying T.J.’s body; they had volunteered to ride along to help with the grave digging and lowering the coffin.

Arriving in their valley late in the afternoon, the wagon carrying the coffin pulled to stop at the place Mary had selected for the burial site; under the big oak tree on the hillside near the creek. It had been her and T. J.’s favorite spot. The men immediately went to work digging the grave.

The family wagon proceeded to the house before stopping. Shep, Lupe’s German shepherd dog, ran out to greet them. Tad and Marilyn helped their mother down from the wagon. He then took the wagon to the barn while the womenfolk went inside.

He untied his own saddle horse and his father’s big buckskin and turned them into the corral. He poured some oats into the feeding trough, and then unhitched the team of mules and turned them loose to graze. After unloading the saddles and bridles from the wagon, he hung them from suspended ropes in the barn and then hung the harness from pegs along the wall.

He took a shovel from the barn and headed toward the creek to help the others with their task. With five of them working, the grave was soon finished.

Tad walked back to the house to escort his mother and sisters the quarter mile to the gravesite. The evening sun was dipping behind the western horizon beyond the pine covered hillside. It was a long, silent walk; not one word was spoken.

The men had two long ropes threaded underneath the coffin and stood with their hats in their hands as Mary and her children approached. Seeing Lupe standing with the men, she reached a hand, inviting him to stand with the family. He did.

Slowly, Mary lifted the large, well worn family bible and opened it. She handed it to Reverend Hensley. With a loud, clear voice he read;

“ For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend with a shout, and with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”

Mary took a step forward and laid a handful of wild flowers on the top of T.J.’s Casket, then turned and without a backward look, walked slowly back toward the house, sobbing, her face buried in the handkerchief in her hand.

© 2005 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved

LONGHORN
Book I
"The Beginning"
by
Dusty Rhodes
"Somebody said that it couldn't be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That maybe it couldn't, but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried."
Edgar Albert Guest
Chapter I

Death hovered over the valley like a dark cloud. The peaceful looking little valley had been turned into a slaughterhouse.
The coppery scent of blood mingled with the acrid stench of gun power drifted up the hill on a soft April breeze and burned Buck’s nose. His sorrel gelding smelled it too, and pawed the ground nervously.
Captain, Benjamin, Buck, Cordell leaned wearily on his saddle horn. He squinted through the smoky haze of lingering gun smoke at the carnage below. His jaw tightened. He snatched the Confederate Cavalry hat from his head and swiped a sleeve across his sweaty brow. His long shoulder-length, wheat-colored hair fanned loosely in a breath of wind.
He sat tall in the saddle, tall and corded and lean and comfortable, like he had been born there. His square features had the hard-set look of a man far beyond his twenty-two years.
Even by Texas standards Buck Cordell was a giant of a man. He stood a full hand above six foot and weighed more than two hundred pounds.
He was a hard man, not easily shaken, the war made him so, yet the killing field below revolted even him and caused his lips to razor into a tight line. Outwardly he appeared unchanged, but inside he felt like part of him had died. Everything came with a price and learning to kill without thought or remorse was the highest price of all.
He clapped his faded Confederate Cavalry hat back on his head and allowed his pale-blue, nervous eyes to sweep the small valley below with a slow, searching gaze.
Lifeless bodies of two dozen or more Yankee soldiers lay sprawled where they fell, cut down by a deadly crossfire. The bluecoats had been escorting a single, canopy-covered Union Army wagon with a large US stenciled on the side of the canvas.
The Yanks never knew what hit them. But Captain Cordell's surprise ambush hadn't come without cost. They paid a high price for their bittersweet victory. Six of Cordell's men lay dead. Two others were critically wounded and likely wouldn't last out the day. They were cared for by two of his three surviving men.
Three men, he thought sadly, I started out with eighteen. I've seen more death than a man's conscience can tolerate.
Captain Cordell and his detachment were part of the infamous 'Mosby's Raiders' commanded by Colonel John Singleton Mosby. His detail was one of a dozen gorilla units sent out by the colonel on search and destroy missions. Their orders were to disrupt and destroy the Union communications and supply lines.
They were a fast riding, hit and run calvary unit that roamed the Virginia countryside, meting out havoc and death wherever they encountered the enemy. They had been in the field more than a month on the current mission.
The war was going badly. In his heart he knew it couldn't last much longer. Anyone could see the cause was lost, at least anyone except Colonel Mosby. These raids were a last ditch effort on the colonel's part to turn things around, at least here in Virginia.
"Captain," Corporal Chester Colson called loudly from the back the Yankee wagon, "You best come and lookee here what I found."
Buck Cordell touched the sorrel’s flanks lightly with his heels, gigging his horse down the sloping hillside.
The enlisted man stood with his head and shoulders protruding through the opening in the white canopy. His unruly red hair and freckled face gave the corporal a youthful look of an innocent schoolboy, but looks are often deceiving. Buck watched the corporal grow from a boy of seventeen into a battle-hardened veteran that, when the occasion called for it, was as tough as they come and had proved himself time and again. Some men were hard and tough, while others were dangerous; Chester Colson fell into the latter category. Like Buck, the corporal was from Texas.
“What is it, corporal?”
“Looks like we struck pay dirt, Cap’n. There’s a strongbox and an official looking dispatch pouch in here. Seems we stumbled onto a quarter master wagon carrying a blue belly payroll.”
“Toss it down.”
“I tried to lift it. It’s too heavy.”
“Hold on.”
Buck swung a leg across the saddle and stepped down. He ground hitched his sorrel and climbed into the wagon. Sure enough, a large metal strongbox sat near the rear of the wagon. It had a padlock on it.
“Move back. I’ll toss it down.”
Buck easily lifted the heavy strongbox and tossed it to the ground. Buck picked up the leather mail pouch lying nearby. It, too, had a lock on it.
Wonder why they would put a lock on a mail pouch?
They both jumped from the wagon.
“Want me to shoot that lock off, cap’n?”
“Go ahead.”
Corporal Colson pulled his pistol from a flapped holster and casually blew the lock off the strongbox as easily as pointing a finger. Colson was the best hand with a pistol Buck had ever seen.
Removing the remaining hasp, Corporal Colson lifted the lid.
“Goll . . . lee!” The corporal exclaimed. “Would you look at that?”
Both Buck and the corporal stood speechless and slack-jawed, staring down at stacks and stacks of Yankee money. The Greenbacks were separated into bundles of ones, fives and tens, each wrapped with a paper band with writing on it, showing how much was in the bundle.
Underneath the bundles of paper money the strongbox was filled with small, canvas bags. Buck reached down and pulled open the drawstring of one of the bags. It was full of shiny, brand new, twenty-dollar double-eagle gold pieces.
“Reckon how much is there, cap’n?”
“More’n I ever seen.”
Private Brodie and Private Simmons hurried up, drawn by the shot. They, too, took one look at what had been discovered and stood with their mouths open.
“We’re rich!” Simmons shouted at the top of his voice. “We’re all rich!”
“Not likely,” Captain Cordell told them. “We’ll turn it in.”
“Turn it in?” Simmons said, wrinkling his forehead in a questioning look. “What are you talking about, captain? This is Yankee money. We found it. Now it’s ours.”
“It ain’t ours, we’ll turn it in, it will help the cause.”
“That’s plumb crazy, captain. Any nitwit knows the war is about over, and we lost. That money wouldn’t go for no cause, it would just be stole by higher officers of the cause.
“Best watch your mouth, private!”
“Shore is a passel of money,” Private Brodie said, still unable take his gaze off the chest of money.
“How are the wounded?” Cordell asked.
“Dead.”
“Both?”
“Yes, sir,” Private Brodie said.
“Add their names then bury them.”
“What about all the dead bluecoats, captain?”
“Leave ‘em.”
The three enlisted men grabbed shovels and headed up the sloping hillside. They chose a spot underneath a sprawling Oak tree and started digging graves.
Left alone, Buck stared at the chest of money again, before picking up the canvas mail pouch. He had seen Yankee mail sacks before, but never one with a padlock.
Better see what we got here, he decided. He dropped the pouch and drew his pistol, took aim, and blew the lock off. Inside he found a packet of brown envelopes. Thumbing through them he discovered that each was addressed to a different general of the Union Army.
Finding the one addressed to Major General Philip Henry Sheridan, he tore open the envelope and unfolded the official-looking letter inside.
Major General Philip Henry Sheridan
Commander-Army of the Shenandoah
My dear sir:
Again, I wish to congratulate you on your outstanding display of courage and military genius in helping to bring this tragic war to a speedy and successful conclusion. With General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on 9 April, the struggle that has separated these United States is at an end. However, your service is still vitally needed. Further orders of your new assignment as Commander of the Military Division of the Gulf will be forthcoming.
Sincerely,
General Ulysses S. Grant
General-In-Chief
United States of America
Buck re-read the letter three times, then pulled a little book from his shirt pocket and quickly turned the pages. April 17th. It was April 17th, 1865. The war ended been over for eight days, ago.
He stood motionless, in a trance, staring with unblinking eyes at the letter in his hand. He felt sick to his stomach. He and his men had just killed two-dozen Yankee soldiers needlessly. Eight of his squad died in the ambush, and for what? For nothing! The war was over.
What now?

LONGHORN
Book II
“The Hondo Kid”

by
Dusty Rhodes

Chapter I
"The Making of A Man"
That first shovel full of dirt falling into the shallow grave on top of his parents made him sick to his stomach.
He didn’t even have a blanket to wrap them in. All he could do was lay them side by side on the stone cold ground at the bottom of the single shallow grave and cover their faces with his blood-soaked shirt.
Fourteen-year-old Cody Cordell stood beside the grave with the shovel in hand. He stared through tear-drenched eyes at the mutilated bodies of his ma and pa and felt as if his heart was being ripped from his chest.
But he had it to do.
Somewhere between the first shovel full and the last, Cody Cordell became a man: a man full of bitterness and hatred; a man convinced that life was unfair and that only the strong survive in this world; a man who had made up his mind that whatever it took, he would be a survivor.
When the heart-wrenching task was finished he sat down beside the fresh mound of dirt. He was exhausted. Not only physically, for he hadn’t slept a wink since he’d discovered the bodies, but he felt completely drained, shattered, abandoned.
It happened two days before. He was off in the woods several miles from the house hunting turkey when he saw the smoke. The thick black plume billowed and climbed toward the blue sky. He knew something was bad wrong.
He dropped the gobbler and lit out as fast as his legs could carry him. He was too late. By the time he got to the house it was nothing but a roaring ball of flames.
He screamed at the top of his lungs for his ma and pa. The only answer he heard was the loud crackling of hungry flames as they boiled higher and higher. He ran as close as the heat would allow. He raced around the house, then back again, screaming frantically, searching for a way to get inside to save his parents. Then he saw his pa.
He was tied to the split rail fence of the empty corral. Arrows were buried deep into his chest. It looked like they had used him for target practice.
Where his pa’s sandy hair should have been there was nothing but a bloody skull. His stomach laid cut open and his intestines stretched across the dusty yard.
Cody fell to his knees and emptied his stomach at the gory sight. Wave after wave of vomit racked his body until there was nothing left inside him.
He struggled to his feet and stumbled crazily to the watering trough. He ducked his head into the ash-covered water and held it there for a long time.
He found his ma lying on the other side of what was left of the barn, and wished he hadn’t.
What he saw no fourteen year old should ever see. He couldn’t bear to look. He stripped off his shirt and covered as much of his ma’s naked body as he could.
After the burying was done Cody spent two whole days carving the letters into boards ripped from the side of the barn. He lashed them together with some wire and drove them into the ground at the head of the single grave.
He went back for the turkey he had killed and cooked it over an open fire and lived on that while he worked on the crosses.
Grief and barely controlled panic tore at his heart and boiled just below the surface of his mind, threatening to explode. He moved about in a dazed awareness, his mind a mass of tangled, confused thoughts. He was having trouble sorting things out, deciding what to do next.
He was tired, so tired. He curled into a fetal position beside the mound of fresh dirt and stared up at a pale blue sky for a long while. Finally, exhaustion took control of his body and he slept.
* * *

He awoke. It was coming day. He had slept the night away. He sat up and crossed his legs and leaned his elbows on his knees and stared off into eternity for a good, long time.
His mind was a jumbled maze of thoughts: he had no home, no family, no money, nothing. What would he do? Where would he go? How would he live? Who could he turn to for help? He was alone, the last one left of his family. His ma and pa were dead, most likely his big brother was dead too, since they hadn’t heard from him for over a year. These and a thousand other questions went unanswered in his young and confused mind.
Finally, he tried to blink reality into focus. He let his slow gaze survey his surroundings. The Indians took everything, and what they hadn’t taken they destroyed. The two Cordell horses, two mules, and even Sadie, their milk cow was gone. They killed Collie, Cody’s dog. Cody buried him near Ma and Pa since he was like part of the family and all.
All he had left were the clothes on his back, a pocketknife and his pa’s double-barreled shotgun with four shells. It was ten miles to the Johnson place, their nearest neighbor, and another ten to the isolated Hondo Trading Post down on the Hondo River. In the other direction it was forty miles to San Antonio, the nearest town.
One thing for sure, he couldn’t stay here. The Indians might come back. What good would four shotgun shells do against a pack of murdering savages? No, there was nothing or no one left for him here. He had to move on to somewhere, but where?
Deciding, he pushed to his feet. He would walk to the Johnson place. Mr. Johnson was a good man and would know what to do. Besides, he hadn’t seen Sarah Johnson in a long while. A picture of her flashed into his mind and stayed there for a time.
Having made up his mind, Cody rummaged around what was left of the barn and found an empty fruit jar with a rusty lid. He washed it in the water trough and tied a length of wire around the neck so he could carry his makeshift canteen over his shoulder.
After he drew a fresh bucket of water from the dug well, he filled the fruit jar, drank its contents, and refilled it. It would be a long, hot walk through the desert-like country between their house and the Johnson place.
He stuffed what was left of the cooked turkey, which wasn’t much, into a pocket of his bib overalls and retied one of his brogan work shoes. He draped the wire holding his jar of water over a bare shoulder. He was shirtless since he had used his shirt to cover his ma and pa’s faces during the burying. Taking one more look around and deciding he hadn’t forgotten anything, he picked up his shotgun and patted his right front pocket that contained his four shells.
He struck out.

LONGHORN

Book III
“The Prodigal Brother”

by
Dusty Rhodes

 

As Cody stood there in the middle of the dusty street, facing the most deadly gunfighter alive, the words of his old blind Mexican mentor, the man that taught him everything he knew about the gunfighter profession, flashed from his memory.

First, you pick the time and place to fight. If daytime, keep your back to the sun. If there is no way out of the fight, the only thing left is to kill him before he kills you. Last, and most important of all, watch his eyes and face. A nervous eye flicker, a tightening of the lips, clenching of the mouth, bulging jaw muscles; any of these natural actions will be your warning that your opponent is about to draw.

That will give you a split second warning. Use it; it could make the difference in living and dying.

This was the defining moment of the endless hours of instruction and practice. This was the apex of his entire life. Cody’s mind, senses, and body focused their total energies on one thing and one thing only—the moment.

His hearing shut off all sound. His mind rejected any distraction. His hands and arms were relaxed and ready. His eyes locked on Longley’s eyes like a beacon with a fixed, unwavering, and unblinking stare.
For a small slice of eternity, time stood still.

Then it came.

The slightest hint of a thin smile wrinkled one corner of Vance Longley’s top lip. In that instant, Cody’s practiced hand moved instinctively. The bone-handled Colt, that had become a mere extension of his hand, leaped from the greased holster. His thumb instinctively raked back the hammer, his finger feathered the trigger, and the weapon bucked in his hand. Once, twice, three times, the jarring explosion radiated past his hand, journeyed up his arm, and rocked his shoulder. All this—in less than an eye blink.

But what was wrong? Vance Longley was still standing! Cody was puzzled. How could he have missed at point-blank distance?

The famous gunfighter stood there, not twenty-feet in front of him, his pearl-handled Colt in his hand. Blue smoke curled like a serpent from the nose of the barrel that was pointed—toward the ground!

No, this can’t be possible, Cody’s mind screamed. He’s too fast. There must be some mistake. I don’t understand.

Then he saw it again, that same thin smile. The one he had seen just before the draw. Longley’s eyes suddenly glazed and went foggy. His gaze dropped to his chest. A shocked, unbelieving look crept across his face at the sight of three thumbnail-sized holes. He lifted a weak, confused and questioning gaze up into Cody’s face.

Slowly, as if kneeling in prayer, he sank to his knees, still staring at Cody. Then, as if in slow motion, he toppled onto his face in the street. A small puff of dust feathered around where he fell.


© 2007 Dusty Rhodes - all rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 






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