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Last Job 
(This story originally ran from
Feb. 7 to March 2, 2012) 

Episode One

 Tully Brooks crept along the back of the buildings in Hard Stone, Colorado. The hour was late and the only sounds were barking dogs and revelers at the town’s two saloons.
            Tully stopped at the bank. The back door was unlocked as had been previously arranged. Stepping inside, the gunman felt a strange nervousness. This job was like no other he had ever pulled. 
            From the small storage area where Tully had entered, he continued through an open door into the bank proper. The outlaw paused beside the teller’s cage, then made his way toward a yellow light which stood on the desk of George Conklin. As he entered Conklin’s office, Tully mused to himself that George Conklin did not look like a typical banker. He was a stocky, muscular man somewhere in his thirties, with leathery skin. His appearance fit well in a town populated by miners.
            Conklin looked up from his desk. “Right on time, Mr. Brooks. Wish I could do business with more men as conscientious as you.”
            “From what I understand, you and I will never do business again.”
            Conklin smiled, pulled out a cigar, then returned it to his suit pocket, apparently deciding this occasion did not merit a smoke. “That’s right, Mr. Brooks. After tonight, you are never to return to Hard Stone. Understand?”
            Tully didn’t reply.
            Conklin decided to let it pass. He pulled out a desk drawer and tossed a roll of bills onto his desk, followed by a brown canvas sack. “Five hundred dollars, like I promised.”
            Tully Brooks picked up the money and counted it.
            “Don’t you trust me, Mr. Brooks?”
            Conklin laughed, but there was a nervous quiver in it. He grabbed a newspaper from the top of his desk, crumpled it up and placed it in the canvas bag. “In case, anyone sees you leave the bank.”
            Out of habit, Tully looked through the doorway of Conklin’s office, and gave the bank a once over. His eyes went first to the safe, which, for once, held no importance for him. He noticed that the window shades were pulled down. Did Conklin do that all the time, or would it cause people to wonder? He let out an impatient breath and took the bag. “Ready?”
            The banker nodded his head, opened the right hand drawer of his desk and took out a pistol. “Start running.”
            Brooks pulled his bandanna over his nose and fled from the bank. He ran around the corner and mounted his strawberry roan as Conklin shouted, “The bank is being robbed!”
            Tully galloped off as the banker fired at him. The shot came close. An angry Tully Brooks considered returning fire and killing the snake, but that didn’t seem right. This was, after all, easy


Episode Two


Red covered the sky like blood on a battlefield. Rance Dehner crouched in a maze of bushes on a small knoll and contemplated the irony of sunrise. Poets rhapsodized over the beauty of dawn. For the detective, dawn was the time when he often caught up with and arrested a fugitive. Or killed him.
            Dehner hoped this morning’s confrontation would end in an arrest. Two previous encounters with Tully Brooks had involved gunplay and both had ended with Brooks getting away. But the detective had gained a respect for his opponent, who was one of the wiliest crooks he had ever chased.
Dehner had to devise a plan quickly. Tully was breaking camp. The outlaw had just saddled his horse and seemed to be checking his work to make sure the saddle was secure.
            In one sudden movement, Tully ripped his rifle from its boot and fired in the direction of the detective. “Good morning, friend,” Tully yelled as he levered the Henry. “You’re too late for breakfast!” He fired again.
            Dehner rolled as shots ricocheted around him. On his stomach, he yelled, “You’re a lousy cook anyhow, Tully!”
            “Rance?!” The outlaw yelled back.
            “You’re one stubborn cuss!” The outlaw ran to the other side of his horse, using the animal as a shield. He knew his opponent well. Rance wouldn’t shoot the animal.
            “You’re right, Tully. I am a stubborn cuss. If I was a gentleman, I’d have a better job than this one! Give up, Tully!”
            “You know I won’t!” Brooks slipped the Henry back into the boot. “Let’s take a morning ride!” Tully quickly mounted the roan, spurring his steed into a fast gallop.
            Dehner ran down the knoll to where his bay was tethered. He rode the horse cautiously up the small hill and then down the slope. Once they were on flat ground, Dehner raked his spurs against the horse and began a fast pursuit.
             Two ribbons of dust trailed behind Tully’s horse. Dehner kept his bay at a fast, steady gallop. Tully was pushing his horse hard, riding toward a mountain where he hoped to get lost among the caves and large rocks.

Episode Three

            The outlaw had reached the foot of the mountain when his roan stumbled and fell. Tully was thrown off the animal but quickly made it back onto his feet. Checking the fallen horse, Brooks saw that his Henry was underneath the animal. He glanced back.  Rance was fast approaching. Tully gave up on retrieving the rifle. He began to hobble up the mountain.
            Rance reined in near the injured horse. He dismounted and took a quick look at the roan. The animal was blowing hard and seemed to be in terrible pain. The detective spotted Tully’s Henry under the horse, but there was no time to check further on the roan. The detective tethered his own horse with a heavy stone and pulled his Winchester from the boot.
            He moved away from the bay and ran behind a boulder near the foot of the mountain, where he shouted, “Surrender Tully! For once in your life, act smart!”
            There was no response. Dehner wasn’t expecting one. The detective thought it significant that Tully Brooks hadn’t fired at him. Tully didn’t have a rifle. The outlaw was apparently in a position where a pistol shot was unlikely to hit its target, and would only expose the shooter’s location.
            Going after an injured Tully Brooks was like going after an injured bear, Rance thought to himself. “Guess I’m paid to be a hunter,” Rance whispered as he started up the mountain.
            The mountainside was a jigsaw of scattered boulders and clumps of thin trees. Dehner zigzagged his way up the steep slope, occasionally taking refuge behind a large rock. He didn’t want to make himself an easy target.
            Rance was scanning the mountainside from behind a boulder when he heard  gravel scattering above him. The detective turned to spot the blur of a terrifying force charging at him. The sound of Rance’s rifle fire blended with the mountain lion’s roar. The lion twisted backwards, then straightened for another attack. Rance levered another shell into the chamber of the Winchester. His second shot brought the cat down.
            The detective breathed heavily as he approached the beast, which was defeated but still alive. A third shot killed the lion.
            Dehner felt hard iron pressing into his back. “Good shootin’, Rance. I always admired the way you could handle a gun. Now, toss the rifle and put your hands up.”

Episode Four

            Rance did what he was told. He kept his hands very high. Brooks had the barrel of a pistol pressed into Dehner’s back and didn’t seem too concerned about the Colt. 45 tied to his right leg. Dehner wanted to prolong the indifference. He spoke in a casual, friendly manner. “You’re a hard man to spot, Tully. Where were you hiding?”
            “In those trees behind the rocks,” he gave a light hearted chuckle, “I spotted the cat, but the cat didn’t see me. No, she had her eyes on you the moment you started up the mountain. I thought I’d hang back and enjoy the fight.”
            “Sorry to disappoint you with the outcome.”
            “A man must always fight to win.” Regret edged Tully’s voice. “Sorry Rance, gotta--”
            Dehner arced his back and smashed his head into Tully’s face. The outlaw’s arms splayed out and his pistol fired. Dehner felt the heat from the shot as his entire body collided with Tully Brooks.
            Both men skidded down the slope. Dehner palmed his Colt and smoked a shot into Tully’s chest seconds before the outlaw collided with the boulder Dehner had been crouched behind.
            Tully Brooks dropped his gun; a second explosion from Dehner’s pistol landed near the fallen weapon. The detective hurried onto his feet and retrieved Brooks’ Smith and Wesson. “You won’t be needing this anymore, Tully.”
            “‘Fraid you’re right.” The outlaw leaned his upper torso against the rock, then closed his eyes and slid downwards.

Episode Five


            Tully Brooks opened his eyes and thought he was in hell. Bright flames dominated his vision, and a terrible pain twisted through his body. But the cup handed to him changed his mind.
            “Guess they don’t serve coffee in hell,” Brooks spoke as he slowly sat up, accepted the cup, and leaned against the tree that was behind him.
            “If they do, it probably tastes like mine,” Rance Dehner said.
            Tully took a sip. “It might at that.”
            “Getting you off that mountain was no easy job,” Dehner looked back at the mountain as he sipped from his own cup. “Your wound is serious. Tomorrow morning I’ll ride into Hard Stone and bring back a doctor.”
            “What about Grinder?”
            “My horse, Grinder, I know he took a bad fall…”
            The anxious quality in Tully’s voice caused Dehner to speak softly. “He had a broken leg. I’m sorry.”
            Brooks looked away for a moment. “You know, Grinder was a little past his prime, shoulda got me a new horse. But…he was the only friend I had. Just couldn’t give him up.”
            The detective allowed his prisoner a few moments of silence, then helped him out with a question. “You seemed to be riding toward Hard Stone. Why?”
            Tully laughed carefully; he was in too much pain not to be cautious. “Funny… I’ve lived a pretty useless life… the one time I decide to do somethin’ decent, I end up gettin’ shot.”
            Dehner remained on his feet and looked at Tully curiously. If the prisoner wanted to talk, Dehner would listen.
            “How did you happen on my trail, Rance?”
            “The Lowrie Agency has what you might call a standing order on you.”
            Once again, Tully laughed softly. “Bet it’s from Wells Fargo,--those hold ups I pulled last year.”
            Dehner nodded his head. “I was finishing up a case in Denver when I got word you had been there. Decided to look into it. You’ve made a fool out of me in the past, Tully. Guess I got sort of a bug in my ear about capturing you.”
            “I was the fool in Denver, just went there to have a good time. Made one big mistake.”
            “What was that?”
            “Read a newspaper.” Tully Brooks paused for several moments. He tried to look calm but his body trembled. The outlaw seemed to be battling a terrible wave of pain.
            The wave passed, or at least subsided. “Tell me Rance, hear anything about a bank hold up in Hard Stone two weeks ago?”
            “Can’t say I have.”
            “That was my last job; helped a banker rob his own bank.” 
            Brooks enjoyed the surprised expression on Dehner’s face. He explained about his experience in Hard Stone.
            “Sounds crazy,” Dehner stared into the fire as if there might be some answers there. He looked back at Tully Brooks. “You said there was something in a Denver paper about all this?”
            “That’s why I was ridin’ back to Hard Stone,” Tully took a long sip of coffee and waited for it to settle. “The paper says they got a man in jail for pulling that robbery. George Conklin, the banker, has positively identified him as the guy who pulled the hold up.”
            “Sounds like there was more to your last job than you thought.”  Dehner gave his prisoner a cockeyed expression. “Don’t tell me you were going back to Hard Stone to confess to the crime!”
“Don’t know exactly, I sure don’t want Conklin gettin’ away with framin’ an innocent man.” Tully raised the cup of java to his lips, this time taking only a small sip. He seemed to be using the gesture to collect his thoughts. “Know why I became an outlaw, Rance?”

Episode Six

Dehner shook his head.
Tully answered his own question. “Boredom. Laziness. Never cared much for workin’ steady. Thought bein’ an outlaw would be excitin’ and fun. I was just gonna do it for a year or so, but it didn’t work out that way. I also thought I’d never kill anyone…”
“That didn’t work out either, did it?”
“No.” This time Tully only stared at his coffee. “I’m thirty-eight years old. With Grinder gone, I got no friends. I never had a home. I gotta pay anytime I want to keep company with a female. Maybe I thought goin’ back to Hard Stone would make up for some things.”
Brooks looked in the direction of the mining town. His eyes conveyed the deep sadness of opportunity delayed too long. “You and me got certain things in common, Rance.”
“Like what?”
“We’re in the same line of work, just on different sides. Both of us are always careful about not leavin’ much of a trail. Good idea, I suppose. But in the end, you’re a man who just disappears one day and nobody much cares.”
Dehner once again peered into the fire, this time to avoid having to reply to his prisoner. When he looked back, Tully Brooks had set down his coffee, his arms were crossed and pressing against his body.
“I got a favor to ask, Rance.”
“Go ahead.”
“I’m not gonna be up to doin’ much for a while. Could you ride into Hard Stone? Don’t want an innocent man to suffer for what I did.”
Rance steadied the outlaw and helped him to lie back down. Rance Dehner then opened his own bedroll and tried to get some rest. Sleep didn’t come easy. Dehner wondered if Tully’s words would also apply down the trail to him, “…you’re a man who just disappears one day and nobody much cares.”
The color of blood was again returning to the sky when Dehner awoke to cries of pain. He scrambled over to Tully Brooks, whose forehead was dotted with drops of perspiration. Rance tried to speak in a comforting voice. “I’m going down to the stream and get you a cold, wet cloth.” He took off his bandana. “We’ll bring down that fever, then I’ll get the doc.”
Tully listened to Rance’s departing footsteps and then began to cry. He cried for the Marshall he had killed two years back. He wept for a life he had never lived, for friendships never made and for the girl he had loved when he was fourteen and whose name he couldn’t remember.
Tully thought he heard Rance’s footsteps hurrying back and tried to stop the tears. He couldn’t let Rance see him bawling like a baby. That would be a terrible humiliation, he had to stop…
When the detective crouched over Tully Brooks, he knew the cold cloth would be of no use. He mistook the dampness on the outlaw’s face for perspiration. 

Episode Seven


Sheriff Rush Hunter approached the two revelers who were firing guns outside the Lucky Miner saloon. This was a routine matter and he was treating it as such.
“Do everyone a favor, gents, and holster those guns.” Hunter’s voice was friendly.
The men did what they were told but one of them, a short, muscular man whose face reflected many months of mining and few baths, looked at the lawman scornfully.  “Guess we best do what the star packer says or we might end up in territorial prison for fifteen years.”
His companion, a red headed miner with hostile eyes and a slight limp, spit on the ground. The saliva landed at a safe distance from the lawman but Rush Hunter got the message. The sheriff wanted to say something, but contented himself with walking off. He could hear the guffaws behind him.
Rush wanted desperately to return to his office or go anywhere else except his destination. But the sheriff had an appointment that had to be kept. Hunter could hear the two miners laugh mockingly as he stepped into the bank. One of them shouted, “The lawdog is goin’ to lick his master’s boots!” Rush Hunter ignored the remarks. Ignoring insults was something he was doing a lot of recently.
Inside, the Bank of Hard Stone looked pretty much like any other small town bank. Tellers’ cages dominated the far wall. George Conklin’s office was off to one side. The door to the office was closed.
There was one difference about The Bank of Hard Stone. A large desk perched in front of Conklin’s office, and during business hours, an older man named Thorton Weaver sat there. Thorton had once owned a restaurant, but had sold his establishment and retired. Apparently, he went through most of his money and now worked for the bank doing…Rush couldn’t figure out what the old man did, but you had to get past him in order to talk with George Conklin.
“Good afternoon, Sheriff!” Thorton was always friendly; for some reason that grated on Rush Hunter.
“Afternoon, Thorton, I’m here to see Mr. Conklin.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
Hunter couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his voice. “Yes.”
“And for what time?” Thorton remained cheerful, apparently unaware of the lawman’s dark mood.
“Two PM!”
“Let me check,” Thorton lifted the page of a tablet in front of him, then pulled out his pocket watch. “Yes indeed, Sheriff. You have an appointment for two and you are right on time!”
Thorton Weaver smiled benignly at the lawman. “I’ll tell Mr.Conklin you’re here.”
He arose from his desk and walked in a ceremonious manner toward Conklin’s office, where he knocked twice and entered upon hearing Conklin shout, “Yes!” from inside.
Weaver closed the door, then reappeared a few moments later, closing the door behind him. He paraded back to his desk and announced, “Mr. Conklin is very busy with some important work right now. He will see you in a few minutes.” Thorton lifted an arm toward a bench by the front door. “Please take a seat.”
Rush Hunter sat down very carefully on what he figured had to be the most uncomfortable bench in Colorado. Thorton and the one teller on duty both looked away to hide their chuckles. For the second time in less than fifteen minutes, Rush Hunter was being laughed at.

Episode Eight:

The sheriff looked through the glass of the bank’s double doors. A scene from two nights ago played in his mind. The night he realized he was a coward. 


Hunter woke up abruptly. The sound from the door of his office went from persistent tapping to loud pounding. Rush bolted from his cot and hurried to the door. Miners kept odd hours and the bars were always open. The town only allowed him one deputy, who could be in trouble right now.
He flung open the door to be greeted by Penelope Castle, a beautiful, brown haired girl of about twenty. The sheriff’s first response was embarrassment at being scraggly looking and in sock feet. He managed to quickly move his thoughts in a more practical direction. “Miss Castle, you shouldn’t be out at this time of night, you need--”
“I should be home in bed, asleep! How can I sleep?! An innocent man, the only man I could ever love, is now in territorial prison. You know he’s been railroaded!”
She stormed into the office. Rush made a slow production of closing the door and turning around. He really didn’t want to face the woman.
“You’re a lawman, Sheriff Hunter. Apparently, I need to remind you of that!”
“Miss Castle, the jury found Lon Westlake guilty--”
“The jury consisted of people beholden to George Conklin!”
Rush Hunter was tired, and being criticized by a lovely young woman had inflicted a wound. “The people on the jury aren’t the only ones beholden to Conklin! Your father hasn’t been able to work a day since that mine explosion six months ago. How is your family making ends meet? George Conklin is taking care of that, isn’t he, Miss Castle, and the whole town knows why!” 
Penelope Castle began to cry. Rush felt like a monster. “I’m sorry, I never should have said--”
Penelope cut him off. “You spoke the truth. It’s awful. Mother makes me be…nice…to Conklin. It’s my fault Lon got framed for the robbery.”
“What do you mean?”
“George Conklin has supper at our home on Wednesday nights. He used to pretend he was happy Lon and I are engaged. He would ask me a lot of questions about Lon.”
“And you told him Lon slept alone in the back of his general store every night. That’s how the banker knew Lon Westlake wouldn’t have an alibi for the night of the robbery.”  
The woman nodded her head. “Conklin has been playing the role of the comforter…pretending he is sympathetic. It won’t last long…my family has become dependent on him…I don’t know what to do…”
Sheriff Hunter spoke out loud a thought that had been on his mind for some time: “Lon is the real force behind the success of their family store. The business will be in trouble without him. George Conklin may be planning to seize Lon’s business as well as his girl.”
Hope flamed in Penelope Castle’s eyes. The lawman was on her side after all. “That’s right! What do you plan on doing, Sheriff?”
Rush Hunter shrugged his shoulders and looked at the floor. The young woman’s hope morphed into anger. She spoke in a low whisper. “George Conklin owns you, doesn’t he? Just like he owns everyone else in this town.”
“Miss Castle, I--”
“I’ve been very rude, Sheriff Hunter. I apologize for bothering you at this late hour. It was a very foolish thing to do.” The lawman could hear Penelope Castle begin to cry as she stepped out of his office. Her last hope had been Sheriff Rush Hunter and that hope had proved false.


“Sherriff Hunter!”
The lawman was yanked from his thoughts. Looking up from the bench, he saw Thorton Weaver standing beside him. “Mr. Conklin will see you now, Sheriff.”
The sheriff wanted to say something snarky but settled for, “Thanks.” As he stood up and walked toward the office, Rush tried to convince himself that he had done nothing wrong. After all, George Conklin had identified Lon Westlake as the man who robbed the bank. Westlake had been found guilty by a jury of his peers.
“My hands are clean,” Hunter whispered to himself before entering the office.

Episode Nine

As the lawman stepped inside, Conklin motioned for him to close the door. The banker then took a long look at the stogie in his hand as if it were more important than the man standing in front of his desk.
“A little problem has come up,” Conklin said.
“I need you to kill a man.”
George Conklin continued to speak in a soft monotone as if explaining the  details of a loan. “His name is Stacey Hooper. A professional gambler. He knows me from Denver, knows that I lost a lot of money playing poker there.”
In an act of anger, Conklin inhaled deeply from his cigar and blew smoke in the lawman’s direction, as if firing a weapon at him. The banker then leaned forward, his voice a growl, “Why do you think I faked that robbery?”
Hunter didn’t reply. This was the first time George Conklin had admitted to executing the hold up.
The banker continued, “I stole from the bank to pay my debts. The fake hold up covered that. The mining company accepts that Lon Westlake stole the money and hid it somewhere, hoping to get it when he’s released. The mining company needs a bank in Hard Stone. They helped me keep this operation on its feet. If those people find out what I did, I’d be ruined.”
“How can you be sure this Hooper fella will blab to them?”
“I can’t. Hooper just got into town a few hours ago. We ran into each other in the restaurant. He said, ‘We must get together to discuss old times.’ Sounded like a threat to me. Blackmail.”
“Maybe not.”
“I can’t take chances. I want that gambler dead. Tonight.”
“Mr. Conklin, I don’t think--”
“This isn’t Sunday school, Hunter. This is the real world, where you are one of the highest paid sheriffs in Colorado because the mining outfit pays your salary, not a bunch of townspeople. There are plenty of ways a sheriff can get rich in Hard Stone before the mines go dry. You’ve sat on the fence as long as you can. Now, are you going to follow orders?”

Episode Ten


When the sheriff returned to his office, he found Deputy Emery Brown sitting at the office’s one desk. He was whistling happily as he cleaned a rifle. “What’s got into you, Brown? You’re acting like a school kid.”
Emery didn’t catch the anger in his boss’ voice. His response was cheerful. “Guess I am at that. I was thinking about yesterday. Molly and me, well, we didn’t quite talk about getting hitched direct like, but we talked around it, you know?”
Emery expected some kind of response from his boss. He didn’t get any. The deputy quickly looked over his handiwork and closed the rifle. Sensing that Rush Hunter wanted the desk, he rose and carried the Henry over to the rack.
His boss was in a bad mood. Emery understood that, or thought he did. The whole thing with Lon Westlake being found guilty had most of the town upset. The deputy thought Rush Hunter needed a distraction. “I’m thinking maybe it’s time to pop the question. Any suggestions?”
Rush Hunter was now sitting at the desk, but couldn’t think of anything to do. The sheriff didn’t look at his subordinate, but meaninglessly moved a few papers around. “Do you plan on raising a family with what you make here?”
Something was very wrong with his boss. Emery lowered his voice as he walked back to the desk. “The pay’s not so bad, and Molly is proud of me being a lawman.”
The word “proud” aroused anger in Rush Hunter. A lot of things had been making him angry of late. “Pride won’t put bread on the table!”
“Guess not.” Emery decided to change the subject. “You know, just ‘cause Lon has been found guilty doesn’t mean we have to give up. I’ve been thinking, maybe--”
“Don’t you have a round to do?” The words were as much a reprimand as they were a question.
“Sure.” Feeling hurt and a bit ridiculous, Emery retrieved a rifle from the rack and quickly exited the office.
Rush Hunter experienced a pang of regret for how he had treated Emery, but he fought it down. The world was a hard place and the sooner the kid found that out the better.
The sheriff sighed deeply and looked around him. His deputy had a point. It still wasn’t too late, he could…
“No” he said aloud. “The world is a hard place. A very hard place.”

Episode Eleven

            Rance Dehner checked his horse at Hard Stone’s livery, checked himself at the town’s one hotel and then headed for the Lucky Miner Saloon. He ambled inside, ready for the art of conversation. The detective only had to buy a few drinks and listen to the bawdy jokes of a talkative bartender before he had all the information he needed about the bank hold up and the man found guilty of the crime.
            Dehner leaned against the bar and was about to order another beer, this one to be enjoyed without any professional obligations, when he heard voices being raised at a nearby table.
            “You’re cheatin’, mister. You’re nothin’ but a dirty cheat!”
            “Sir, a man’s good name is his most precious possession. I must demand an immediate apology!”
            “You low down snake, I’ll never apologize to you!”
            Dehner moved his head about to see where the trouble was coming from. He laughed and turned to the barkeep. “I’d know that voice anywhere,--a friend of mine.”
            “The guy who sounds like a limey?”
            “Yeah. His name’s Stacy Hooper.”
            “You ain’t too particular about your friends. That guy is a sharper; I spotted that the moment he walked in.”
            “How about the other two?”
            “Woody Farnsworth, the guy accusing Fancy Dan of being a cheat, has a real temper but he rarely draws a gun. The man sitting across from him is Slade Pierson, a gunslick. Or he wants to be.”
            All the patrons of the Lucky Miner were now watching the drama being played out at the poker table. Most were keeping a safe distance, but Dehner took a few steps closer to the table. He had to brace Stacey Hooper. The detective mused to himself that his profession did lead to odd friendships.
Episode Twelve

Stacey Hooper was adorned in a lavish gray frock coat with black bordering at the end of the sleeves, nicely complimented by his large silver cuff links. He had black hair, green eyes, and a face that always appeared amused even when he was in a dispute, as the gambler was now. “That’s quite enough, Mr. Farnsworth. Out of respect for the rest of your family, whom I am sure are decent, God fearing people, I have refrained from making a public spectacle of the fact that you are guilty of the very offense with which you have charged me.”
            “Is that so? Prove it, sharper!” Farnsworth was a large man with a pale complexion from too much time spent inside mines and inside saloons. He was carrying a gun, as was Slade Pierson. No gun was visible on Stacey Hooper’s body but Dehner was certain it was there.
            Hooper looked around the saloon and smiled benignly, then addressed his accuser. “I shall proceed to roll up my sleeves if you promise to do the same.”
            Farnsworth hesitated. His eyes shot across the table. “Sure. Why, Slade will tell ya, I’m as honest as they come. Ain’t that right, Slade? Now, Mr. Gambler, you just watch.”
            Dehner palmed his Colt and pressed it into the back of Slade’s neck. “Drop the gun, friend.You’re singing an old song and I don’t want to hear it.”
     “Sure stranger.” Whiskey marred Pierson’s effort at sounding casual.
            The detective was ready as Slade turned to fire. Dehner slammed his Colt against the gunslick’s head. Pierson yelled in pain and hit the floor, face first. Rance quickly retrieved the gun his victim had dropped, then looked up and saw Stacey Hooper on his feet with a pistol in hand.
            “Gentlemen, this unfortunate incident has left us too distracted to continue.  Depart, Mr. Farnsworth, and take your over-zealous friend with you.” Stacy nodded toward the groaning figure on the floor. “But tomorrow is another day.  If you wish to win back your losses, I shall be here and happy to oblige.”
            The gambler put away his gun and scooped the money from the table as Woody Farnsworth helped Slade to his feet. Dehner emptied the cartridges from Pierson’s gun and handed it to Farnsworth. Woody Farnsworth and the gunslick left, muttering low curses. Dehner didn’t holster his gun until they were gone.
            “You’re getting a bit careless, Stacey,” Rance said.
            “Please elaborate,” The gambler replied. “You know how highly I value the insights of the west’s finest detective.”
            “Travelling gamblers are a target in a small place like Hard Stone,” Rance explained, as the saloon patrons returned to their fun. “If a well-dressed dude cleans them out, one man provokes a fight while the other one plugs the gambler. That way they get their money back and a good story to talk about the next day.”
            “And no one cares about the fate of the itinerant gambler.” Hooper shook his head. “Plato was right. The masses well deserve the designation of ‘beast’.”
            A broad smile swept across Stacey Hooper’s face. “But why dwell on life’s little shortcomings? You just saved my life, good friend.” Stacey motioned to the bartender, “Two beers, please!”
            Rance immediately noticed that his friend had simply ordered the beers. He had not mentioned paying for them. Dehner smiled inwardly. Stacey Hooper hadn’t changed one bit.

Episode Thirteen

            Rush Hunter lay on the roof of Westlake’s General Store and shivered. In early September, the nights were starting to get cool. Or did the coldness come from fear? He had never committed murder before.
            So far, luck was on his side. No desk clerk had been around when he entered the hotel and he was able to take a glance at the register. Stacey Hooper was signed in. A quick check of the Lucky Miner revealed that the gambler was plying his trade. No one thought it strange that the sheriff should inquire about a newcomer in town who made a living by playing cards.
            “He’ll return here and I’ll rid the world of one useless sharper,” Hunter whispered to himself.
            His location was good. The General Store stood at two stories. The roof was far above the occasional lanterns that splattered dabs of murky light along Main Street. A rope was now tied to the back of the building for a quick escape. 
            Of course, Rush Hunter would be among the first to arrive at the scene after Stacey Hooper lay dead, the dutiful sheriff doing his duty. That last thought made him twitch. He wanted to be able to laugh at deceiving the town folks, but couldn’t.
            Hunter tensed up as he heard a voice from down the street: a voice he had heard a few hours ago in the Lucky Miner. “Of course I was cheating, Rance. So was everyone else in the game, or they were trying to. Why, not to cheat at playing cards amounts to gambling, which is a sin.”
            The sheriff saw two shadows advancing through the puddles of light. He couldn’t take a chance on the gambler’s friend possibly running after Hooper’s killer. He would have to shoot both of them. 

Episode Fourteen

Hooper continued to pontificate as the two men approached the spot of light provided by one of the hotel’s porch lamps. As the two men began to enter the light, a woman called out and rushed toward them.
            Penelope Castle joined Dehner and Hooper in front of the hotel. The sheriff cursed inwardly. Killing a gambler and his friend was one thing, no one would care. But killing a woman would create pandemonium in the town. He couldn’t take a chance on hitting her. Sheriff Rush Hunter lay flat on the roof and listened carefully.


            Penelope Castle leaned against the counter of Westlake’s General Store and counted her money. The young woman didn’t know if she had enough. She had never hired a detective before.
            Penelope had often been one of the last people to leave Westlake’s General Store. Not an unusual situation for a bookkeeper.
            For a moment, she reflected on happier times, like the day she had stood nervously in front of Lon Westlake making her pitch for a job. “I may not be a formally trained bookkeeper, Mr. Westlake, but I have a head for figures. You can ask Mrs. Stanfield. She will tell you I was the best student at arithmetic she ever had!” 
            Lon Westlake had hired her. Six months later he asked her to marry him. What followed seemed like magic. She cherished the memories of the one hour they had together in the store each day after Lon’s brother and his wife departed. Not that anything wrong happened! They kept the shades of the store wide open, not giving the gossips anything to chew on.
            But she and Lon made silly jokes and talked about their future together as she worked on the books and Lon got the store ready for the next day. Yes, she had to go home early on Wednesdays when George Conklin came to dinner. At first that had seemed like no more than a pebble in her shoe.
            Then came that awful morning when she arrived at the store to find out Lon had been arrested…
            Now, Penelope’s eyes had been fixed on the store’s front window. Seeing the men she had been watching for, the woman hurried out the front door and into the street.
            “Excuse me, Gentlemen!”
            Dehner and Hooper halted near the splash of light in front of the hotel and turned to greet the young woman who stopped in front of them, looking very self-conscious. “I know it is late gentlemen, I’m sorry for being so rude.”
            Stacey Hooper’s smile was more lecherous than gracious. “No apology is needed! An evening spent with ruffians is rarely concluded with the arrival of someone as lovely as yourself.”
            To Stacey’s disappointment, Penelope addressed Dehner. “Sir, I understand you are a detective.”
            Rance cringed, remembering how Stacey had called him “…the west’s greatest detective” back in the saloon. “Yes, my name is Rance Dehner.”
            The woman noted the chagrin on Dehner’s face. “This is a small town, Mr. Dehner.” She nodded at the store behind her. “One of our regular customers witnessed the mishap at the Lucky Miner this evening. Knowing about my present circumstances, he came by and described you and your, ah, friend to me. I figured you’d be staying at the hotel…”
            Penelope’s voice trailed off. She inhaled and then spoke. “Mr. Dehner, I wish to hire you!” 
            The next fifteen minutes were spent with Dehner at first trying to put Penelope at ease, and then masking his surprise that her wishes were identical to those of Tully Brooks. The detective stopped Penelope when she began to approach the matter of money. “I’m sure we can work out the fee at a later time, Miss Castle. I do have one question. Have you discussed this matter with the local law?”
            Penelope nodded her head. “Our sheriff, Rush Hunter, is a good man. I’m afraid I’ve been too harsh on him. So has much of the town. Rush has to uphold the law.  A jury found Lon Westlake guilty of robbing the bank. What could a lawman do?!”
            “I’ll talk with the sheriff first thing in the morning. I’ll let you know the moment I come up with anything significant, Miss Castle. Meanwhile, allow me to walk you home.”
            “That’s very kind of you. Thanks.”
            “Propriety demands that I wish both of you good night, despite the fact that you both are oblivious to my presence!” Stacey Hooper turned and marched into the hotel.
            “Oh, dear!” Penelope put a hand to her cheek.
            “Don’t worry about my friend. He’s temperamental, but harmless.”

            Rush Hunter watched the couple walk up the street and vanish into the night. George Conklin would not be happy when he learned the gambler was still alive. Hunter would have to come up with a new scheme. Fast.

Episode Fifteen

Rance Dehner knocked on the door of Stacey Hooper’s room.  The “Come in” he received was laced with irritation.
            The gambler stood in front of a pine bureau where an open whiskey flask had been placed beside the wash basin. Hooper rolled a cigarette as he looked up at his friend.
            “Breakfast,” he said.
            “I thought you smoked cigars,” Dehner replied.
            “Cigars are for the evening. What time is it anyway?”
            “About ten in the morning.”
            Stacey ignited a match on his thumbnail and set the flame to his handiwork. “When the game is good, I’m usually turning in about now. How did things go with dear Penelope last night?”
            “Okay. I walked her home.”
            “Is that all?”
            Stacey inhaled on his cigarette and let out a cloud of smoke. “I swear, Rance, you must be descended from those wretched puritans that came over from England. The old country was happy to be rid of them,--a bunch of pious sticks.”
            “This isn’t the time to discuss history.”
            “Then what do you want to discuss?”
            “George Conklin.” Dehner told the gambler Tully Brooks’ story about being paid by Conklin to help fake a bank robbery.
            Hooper let out a harsh laugh. “Doesn’t surprise me.”
            “Why not?”
            “Conklin gambled a lot in Denver. But he didn’t gamble wisely.”
            “He got himself in serious debt?”
            Stacey Hooper grinned mischievously.  “Serious indeed. But Mr. Conklin did pay up. Late, but not too late.”
            “Didn’t it impress you as a bit suspicious that a man who had gotten himself so deep in the hole could suddenly pay off all his debts?”
            “Nothing suspicious about it, Rance! Of course he scrounged up the money in some ill gotten manner! But that’s his business. The only important thing is, he paid off all his creditors.” 
            “Have you seen Conklin since arriving in Hard Stone?”
            “Briefly. At the restaurant. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. Nothing more.”
            Rance Dehner fell silent for a few minutes. Stacey puffed on his cigarette nervously, and growled at his companion. “I hate these silent spells of yours. They always end with you concocting some wild scheme. A scheme that always involves me.”
            “You’re right, Stacey.”
            “My worst fears, confirmed”

Episode Sixteen

“I want you to drop by the bank today and invite George Conklin to a friendly game of cards. I’ll be one of the players. We’ll get him into a game every night.”
            “For what reason, pray tell?”

            “I want you to become friends with the banker. After a few nights of cards, you will confide in Conklin that I am a detective for the Lowrie Agency. The agency has been retained by an uncle of Lon Westlake’s, who lives in the East, to investigate the bank robbery. The uncle is certain his nephew is innocent. Tell Conklin you are, shall we say, financially embarrassed. You need a stake. For seven hundred dollars, you’ll dispose of me.”

            “Charming,” Stacey spoke through a cloud of smoke. “But I still don’t get the method to the madness.”
            “I’m hoping that in the process, Conklin will confess to you that he hired Tully Brooks to fake the robbery.”
            Stacey Hooper’s eyes widened. He dropped the stub of his cigarette on the floor and toed it out. “Rance, you probably think I occasionally go along with these schemes of yours as an act of penitence for my life of selfishness and debauchery. Not so.”
            “I sense that you are about to give me the real reason.”
            “Indeed! I wish to prove that Mr. Thomas Hobbs was only two thirds right. Life is short and brutish, but it need not always be nasty. Life can be fun if you refuse to let it be dull. And, despite your puritan notions, Rance, life never seems to be dull when you are around.”
            Rance shrugged his shoulders. “Thanks, I guess. First thing, let’s share our plan with Rush Hunter. We may need the sheriff’s help down the line.”
            “Are you sure this fellow can be trusted?”
            “Penelope Castle does, and she knows this town well. I’ll accept her judgment. On my way here, I saw the deputy doing a round, so Hunter is probably in his office now--”
            “Give me a moment, Rance.”
            “What for?”
            Hooper lifted the whiskey flask from the bureau. “I need to finish breakfast.”

Episode Seventeen

            The sheriff stood in the office of George Conklin and tried to keep his temper in check. The banker displayed no gratitude for the valuable information Rush Hunter had just brought him. He still spoke to Hunter as if he were an incompetent underling.
            “So, a detective is in cahoots with the gambler to bring me down.” Conklin waved his right hand about scattering small embers from his cigar. “Tonight, I want you to be at the Lucky Miner, thirty minutes or so after the card game begins. I will accuse Hooper of cheating. You smoke him the minute I speak. The official story will be that Stacey Hooper went for his gun.” 
            “What about Hooper’s friend, the detective?”
            “Bring your deputy, Slade Pierson, with you. He can shoot down the detective. We’ll say this Dehner guy was going for his gun to help Stacey Hooper.”
            The sheriff was confused by the reference to Slade Pierson. “Mr. Conklin, Pierson is a worthless owlhoot, my deputy is--”
            “I hired Pierson last night as a deputy. His gun will come in handy.”
            “The town only allows me one full time deputy--”
            “Get rid of Emery Brown. He could create some real trouble.”
            “But Emery has done a great job, what can I tell him?”
            Conklin once again waved his right hand, this time flinging the embers at Rush Hunter. “I don’t care what you tell him! Now, get out of here!”
            As Hunter shot out of the office and closed the door behind him, he saw Thorton Weaver quickly turn his head and begin to shuffle papers on his desk. The two tellers on duty took similar actions. They hadn’t heard what was being said in the office, but they heard the boss yelling. They knew Rush Hunter had been cut down good.
            Hunter could hear laughter as he exited the bank. He thought about turning around and glaring at the three men but realized it would do no good. The men didn’t fear him. Rush Hunter was the sheriff, but George Conklin was the real law in Hard Stone.

Episode Eighteen

            Rance Dehner peered over his cards at Stacey Hooper, who glanced back apprehensively. Both men sensed that something was amiss but neither one knew exactly what.
            A casual observer would see nothing out of the ordinary. Five men were playing poker at a round table in the Lucky Miner Saloon. However, Rance and his friend both noticed that George Conklin was acting strangely. The banker appeared distracted and disinterested in the game.
            Rush Hunter stepped into the saloon, accompanied by Slade Pierson. Dehner smiled and nodded his head at the sheriff, then suddenly saw the tin on Pierson’s vest. Rush Hunter and the gunslick whose head Rance had clobbered took up a position behind the detective, directly facing Stacey Hooper and George Conklin. Conklin sat beside the gambler. 
            “You’re cheating!” The banker yelled at Stacey Hooper.
            “What?” Hooper was genuinely surprised by the accusation.
            Conklin had moved his chair back, his body poised to drop under the table. He glared at the sheriff, and shouted again, “You’re cheating!”
            Rush Hunter stood erect as if paralyzed. His body trembled, but otherwise he seemed unable to move. Conklin shifted his gaze to the deputy. Rance turned in his chair and saw Pierson drawing his weapon. Dehner tackled the gunman and slammed his head against one of the wooden boards, the moment they hit the floor.
            George Conklin stood up and yelled at the sheriff. “What kind of lawdog are you? Act now!”
            Hunter cursed loudly, then drew his gun and sent a red flame into Conklin’s shoulder. The banker spun and fell. The crowd in the saloon began to scatter.
            “I’ll kill you!” The sheriff kicked over an empty chair, shoved the table aside, and made determined strides toward Conklin.
            Stacey Hooper sprang from his chair and yanked out his gun but was unsure of who, if anyone, to shoot. Rance buoyed to his feet, jumped on the table and, using it as a springboard, jumped on the sheriff. The two men went down, Hunter’s curses now becoming more desperate. Dehner wrestled the Colt away from the sheriff, then stood up and saw his friend, pistol in hand, standing with the customary amused expression on his face.
            “Like I said earlier, good friend,” Stacey was chuckling, “life never seems to be dull when you are around.”

Episode Nineteen


             Rance Dehner and Stacey Hooper stepped out of the restaurant where they had  enjoyed an early breakfast. Keeping with his normal morning habit, Stacey began to roll a cigarette. “You’re sure you won’t stay in town for a few more days, Rance? I plan on lightening the burden of filthy lucre from these miners before departing.”  
            “No need for me to hang around,” Dehner untied his horse from the hitch rail in front of the restaurant. “Both Conklin and Hunter have confessed. Emery Brown has wired the territorial prison. Lon Westlake will be released soon.”
            Stacey licked the cigarette paper before speaking. “You’re leaving now to avoid Penelope Castle. You know she’ll try to pay you for helping her fiancé. Good heavens, you should at least give her a chance to apologize for convincing you Rush Hunter could be trusted. That little faux pas might have cost both of us our lives!”
            The detective glanced in the direction of the sheriff’s office. Brown came out, gave both men a quick wave, and turned in the opposite direction to begin his morning round. “Emery Brown seems to be an honest man. He’ll make this town a good sheriff.”
            “That depends.” Stacey watched his first puff of smoke dissipate into the air.  “Have you read John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism?”
            “Mill contends that the best actions are always those which bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Now, an honest sheriff can be helpful at times. But, a sheriff who will accept a reasonable bribe and conduct himself accordingly, there is a lawman of tremendous utilitarian value. So, your statement--”
            “I’ll read the book Stacey, then we can have a more profitable discussion.” Dehner mounted his horse. Sitting on his bay, he gave the gambler a two finger salute. “So long. I’ve got a feeling our paths will cross again soon.”
            Later that day, as he rode through mountainous country, Rance thought about Tully Brooks. He found himself hoping that wherever Tully was now, the outlaw was satisfied with the way things had turned out in Hard Stone.
            A strange thought suddenly struck the detective. He would miss Tully Brooks: a man who had tried to kill him and who he had killed.
            The notion made Dehner give an involuntary laugh. The mountains returned his laughter in a loud, defiant act of mockery. 

The Darkness
(This story originally ran
between Jan. 19,2012-Feb. 6, 2012) 

Episode One of The Darkness

      Bart McRae stared through the train window at the darkness outside. He should have felt happy. A terrible ordeal was over. But he only felt empty and, he admitted to himself, a bit scared.
            “You best be movin’.”
            Bart looked startled as he turned to face the train conductor. “What?”
            “You best be movin’!” The conductor’s voice was loud and Bart wondered if the old man was hard of hearing. “This here is Jameson, Texas, your destination. We’ve dropped off a mail bag and picked one up. We’ll be pullin’ out soon. Your ticket is only good fer this far. You wanna stay on the train, you gotta pay more.” 
            “I’m leaving,” McRae said. The conductor stomped off, appearing disappointed that Bart hadn’t argued with him.
            As he stepped off the train with only a small valise in his hand, Bart McRae realized his clothes were hanging loose on his five foot eight frame. He had lost weight during his four years in jail. Bart remembered reading that some prisons in the East give a prisoner a new suit of clothes when he is released.
            “Guess the West ain’t quite so civilized,” he whispered to himself.
            As the train pulled out, Bart began to walk toward the weak light coming from the depot and then abruptly stopped. No one was waiting for him there. He might as well be on his way.
            Six shadows were outlined by the faint yellow emanating from the depot. They meandered about, looking like lost phantoms seeking passage back to the netherworld. Bart began to walk toward town.
            “McRae! Bart McRae!”
            McRae stopped as a figure swayed toward him. “Thought it was you.” The voice was familiar. The figure moved closer, advancing with the uncertain gait of one who had consumed more than a couple of drinks.
            The light from the depot and a partial moon combined to give Bart a decent look at the man’s face. “Wyatt Cummings! Good to see a friendly face!”
            Bart was polishing the truth. Wyatt’s face was more sullen than friendly. His skin looked doughy and his beard unkempt.
            Wyatt Cummings had always been a proud man who took care of his appearance and drank wisely. Something was wrong.
            Bart maintained his friendly greeting. “So, what is the best stage coach driver in these parts doing at the train depot?”
            Wyatt gave a bitter laugh. “Nothin’. Just watchin’ the train come and go  like those other worthless barflies. Sometimes I feel like runnin’ in front of it. Let the train kill me. It already has.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “I mean there is no more stage coach line. The best stage coach driver in these parts, as you put it, is outta a job.”
            “That’s impossible!”
            “They don’t call these parts the flatlands for nothin’. Some places still need a stagecoach to go where the train can’t. Not the flatlands. The train does jus’ fine.”
            An array of angry thoughts assaulted Bart McRae. Someone was lying to him. But who? It sure didn’t appear to be Wyatt Cummings. McRae’s voice remained calm; he really was concerned for his friend. “Why didn’t you move, go to where they still need a good jehu?”
            “Don’t matter no more.” Wyatt looked back at the shadows still wandering about the depot as if they were ghosts from his past. “A day or two after losin’ my job, I got drunk. Went home and beat Annie, beat little Caleb too. The next morning, Annie took Caleb and went back East. On the train, ‘course.”
            “I’m sorry, Wyatt. If there’s anything I can do…”
            “There’s somethin’ you can do, all right! Come back here tomorrow night when I’ll be good and liquored up! Push me in front of the danged train!”
            “Wyatt, don’t talk like that!  Look, I don’t know exactly what has happened since I’ve…been gone. But I got a letter from Adrian Monahan, the owner of the stage line, promising me--”
            Wyatt Cummings began to laugh hysterically. “Maybe we both should jump in front of the train.” Cummings continued his harsh laugh. “When did you get this here letter?”
            “About three weeks ago.”
            “Is that so?” Sobs mixed in with Wyatt’s laughter. “Well, Mr. Adrian Monahan has been dead for over two years. He shot hisself in the head.”
Episode Two

            Bart left Wyatt Cummings and began to walk toward the Monahan residence. “The Monahan Residence.” He whispered those words, wondering for the first time about their uniqueness. In the town of Jameson, most people lived in a house, but the Monahans dwelled in a residence.
            As he approached the grand old structure, he was reminded why. The house stood at three stories in the middle of a wide grassy lot. As a little boy, Bart had thought the house was a palace. As he got older, the Monahan Residence held his interest in a different way. There were stories about ghosts and strange cries coming from the house late at night.
            McRae tried to laugh at those memories, but couldn’t. Ghost tales still made him shudder. He undid the hinge on the ornate picket face in front of the house. The fence was there for decoration, but even in the scant light he could see the flaking paint. The yard appeared unattended. When he got to the house, Bart was greeted by creeks on the stairs leading up to the porch. Once again, McRae had the feeling that something was very wrong. Adrian Monahan had always maintained a well cared for home.
            But then, according to Wyatt Cummings, Adrian Monahan was dead. That was impossible! He had a letter from Adrian in his valise instructing him to come to this residence as soon as he was released from prison. Wyatt’s ramblings about Adrian Monahan killing himself must have come from a bottle. 
            Bart pulled on the cord beside the front door and heard the chimes sounding from inside. The time had to be well past nine, but the letter had explained the fastest way to get to Jameson from the territorial prison. He was expected.
            Or was he? There was no answer to his ringing. The second time, he pulled harder on the cord, as if that action would bring more satisfactory results.
            Not until the third yank did Bart hear footsteps rattling from inside. The door opened and a man with a very familiar sneer stood directly in front of him. “Well, well, the prodigal returns. The Good Book says we’re all brothers, should I have run out and greeted you?”
            “That was the father who ran out to greet the prodigal, Jesse.”
            Jesse Monahan’s sneer became a laugh. “Find religion while you were in jail?”
            “I had plenty of time to read.”
            “Guess you did at that.” Jesse Monahan was a dark haired man, handsome in a boyish manner. He was well dressed and carrying a deck of cards in his right hand. Appropriate enough; Jesse Monahan was a professional gambler. “Come in.”
            As Bart entered, Jesse closed the door. “Follow me and I’ll show you something extraordinary.” The two men walked down a long, wide corridor and entered a study. Jesse sat behind a desk and pointed at the cards laid out in front of him. “Solitaire. It’s the only game at which I don’t cheat.”  
            Bart took off his hat and exposed rust colored, shaggy hair. He approached the one chair in front of the desk, then stopped abruptly. A black cat was lying on it. The animal took one look at the new arrival, jumped off the chair, walked around the desk and curled up on the floor in front of a large safe. Bart felt relieved. The black cat had not stepped in front of him.
            Jesse didn’t seem to notice his guest’s discomfort with the animal. He continued to concentrate on the cards which were in the middle of the desk, framed by a stack of letters, a letter opener, and business papers. “As I recall, you never cheated at cards, Bart. You never seemed to win, either.”
            McRae was now facing Jesse Monahan in the same room and in the same chair that he had faced Adrian Monahan in four years before. For reasons he couldn’t understand, that fact made him angry. “You were cheating in that poker game four years back, Jesse, and you still lost. Lost even more money than I did.”
            “Yes, that’s correct.” Jesse spoke as he looked over the cards in front of him. “Ted Bogan cleaned us both out.”
            “Maybe so, but you were the one who attacked Bogan from a dark alley while he was walking home.”
            Jesse put a card down. His concentration seemed to be entirely on the game. “Poor Ted cried out and you came running to the rescue.”
            “I stopped you from beating the man to death! But Bogan never saw who attacked him. When the sheriff arrived, both of us were standing over Bogan’s unconscious body.”
            “Sheriff Buford Miley,” Jesse chuckled as he looked up from his cards. “He’s still the upholder of law and order around here, gullible as ever.” 
            “Miley believed me when I changed my story and said I had attacked Ted…”
            “As I recall, you were well paid for playing out the little charade.”
            Bart McRae sprung up from his chair and stood over Jesse. “I wasn’t paid anything up front. I was promised five thousand dollars and a good job with the stage coach line if I’d plead guilty and go to jail for you.”
            The sneer returned to Jesse’s face. “Uncle Adrian always knew how to strike a good deal. He rescued the family name by promising you great riches in the future. It was a lot cheaper than buying off a jury.”
            “I want what’s coming to me, Jesse!”
            “There are a few problems there, Bart.” Jesse opened the right hand drawer of his desk part way. The handle of a gun was clearly visible. “There is no stage coach line for you to work for.”

Episode Three

     “I’ll settle for the money."
     “The money was promised to you by Uncle Adrian, who isn’t around anymore.” The sneer remained on Jesse’s face as his eyes darted toward the gun. “You see, he blew off his head one night in his room on the third floor. I had the place swamped out, but a little portion of dear Uncle Adrian may still be up there. Of course, that won’t do you much good.”
“You’re lying! Adrian Monahan is still alive!”
 Jesse laughed contemptuously and returned to his cards. Bart opened his valise, pulled out a letter and tossed it in front of the professional gambler.
“I worked more than five years with your uncle. I know his writing!”
The sneer vanished from Jesse’s face. “This…is my uncle’s handwriting…” Bart couldn’t be sure but he thought Jesse’s hands were shaking as he picked up the letter and read it.
The letter was dated three weeks before.

Dear Bart:
      I don’t know if I will ever find forgiveness in the next world for the terrible thing I have done to you. I only hope you will forgive me.
      You will be released from prison at noon. If you go to the nearest train station you will find a ticket waiting there. The train will bring you to Jameson. Come to my home immediately.  I will do everything I can to make good on my promises.
      I am praying for you. Please pray for me.
                        Adrian Monahan

      This time there could be no doubt, Jesse Monahan’s entire body trembled as he dropped the letter on the desk, then stood up and began to pace about the room. “This changes everything….”
      The gambler walked over to his desk and stared at the cards, as if trying to discern his future. “Things have not gone well for the Monahans. Any of us. There are some things you need to see. I have an extra horse. We’ll ride out tomorrow; it’s too dark now. You can spend the night here.”
      Bart liked this subdued Jesse Monahan a lot more than he did the caustic man who had greeted him at the door. McRae spoke in a soft, whimsical voice. “Thanks for putting me up. Guess you’ve got plenty of empty rooms.”
      “Not really,” a sad expression crossed Monahan’s face. “I sleep right here. The second floor had to be closed. It needs repair work I can’t afford. Just take the stairway up to the third floor. You can sleep in Uncle Adrian’s old room.”
Episode Four

The room was large, but the August heat pressed in giving Bart a claustrophobic feeling. As he lit the kerosene lamp beside the bed, he looked about for particles of Adrian Monahan’s head.
            McRae cursed himself in a low whisper. Jesse had no doubt been indulging in some very dark humor. That was before the letter had completely changed the gambler’s mood. Where would this ride they were going to take tomorrow lead to?
            Bart sat on the bed, took off his boots and lay back. Believing sleep was far away, he leaned over and removed a Bible from his valise.  He began to read the story of King Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, where the king was confronted by a spirit who told him he would die the next day…
            The vision of a horrifying old crone dressed in rags filled the room. She was cackling as she performed strange ritualistic movements with her hands. Footsteps suddenly sounded in the distance.
            “He’s coming!” The witch declared. “The ghost is coming!”  
            Bart awoke with a start. The Bible lay on his lap where he had dropped it when he fell asleep. With relief, McRae saw that there was no witch in the room.
            His relief was short lived. The witch had only been a dream, but the footsteps were real and they were moving down the hallway toward his room.
            Silence suddenly seemed to fill the entire house. McRae remained in the bed, his back pressing against the headboard. He wished for a gun. But could a gun really help him now?
            The bedroom door opened slowly and Bart immediately recognized the man that stepped inside. It was Adrian Monahan. 
            A trickle of red ran down the middle of Adrian’s head as if dividing it in two. “Help me!” Monahan shouted. “Justice! I won’t rest until I get justice!”
            Adrian reached into his suit coat and brought out a large knife. “I will claim the head of the man who killed me!”
            Adrian stepped back out of the room and closed the door. Bart could hear his footsteps moving down the hall.
            McRae grabbed his boots and hastily put them on. He was leaving this place and leaving fast. He tossed his Bible back into the valise, closed it up and stepped quickly toward the bedroom door.
            It was locked.
            “Let me out of here!” He began pounding furiously on the door.
            Bart suddenly stopped. He dropped the valise, made both of his hands into fists and took a deep breath. “I need to think,” he whispered to himself. “Think calmly.”
            A loud scream filled the house. McRae froze, not moving a muscle until a second scream sounded.

Episode Five

     Bart abandoned any efforts at calm thoughts. He began to kick at the heavy door. On the fourth effort the door flew open with splinters of wood forming a prickly cloud that scattered to the floor.
            Darkness awaited Bart McRae in the hallway.  Forgetting about the valise, McRae stepped into the cave like environment and walked carefully toward the stairway. Grabbing onto the banister he descended slowly. The stairway was wide and, like the rest of the house, uncarpeted. 
            As he reached the bottom floor, McRae could see a thin blade of light coming from the partially closed door of the study. Jesse slept there. He had to be awake now. Maybe he…
            No. Bart had been in the Monahan Residence long enough. He was getting out forever. McRae ran for the front door, only to trip over something, stumble and fall head first.
            Red lights popped in front of McRae as he struggled back onto his feet. He stared at a side wall and watched the red blobs be consumed by the darkness that flooded the hallway. Feeling a bit more steady, Bart looked around and saw what he had tripped over.
            It was the body of Jesse Monahan, lying in the hallway outside the office.
            “Jesse!” McCrae crouched over the fallen gambler. There was a silly smile on Jesse’s face as if he were trying to amuse a child. For a moment, Bart wondered if he might be the victim of an elaborate joke.
            But only for a moment. He placed two fingers on Jesse Monahan’s neck, feeling for a pulse that wasn’t there. As he withdrew his hand, he noticed blood on the sleeve of his shirt. His arm had brushed the gambler’s chest where a large knife protruded. 
            A rattling sound came from inside the office. The door moved outward a few inches and the black cat slithered into the hallway. The animal’s body rose into a hunched position and the cat hissed; its eyes seemed to flame at the man crouched over the corpse.
            Bart dashed from the house in a panicked frenzy. He ran into town, passed a saloon and headed directly for the sheriff’s office, which was locked. For the second time in less than an hour, he pounded on a door.
            “Okay, okay, I’m coming.”
            Sheriff Buford Miley opened the door in sock feet. His eyes gleamed with surprise. “Bart McRae. Heard you’d been released.”
            McRae stood immobile, unable to speak.
            “What’s wrong with you?” the sheriff asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Episode Six


            Sheriff Miley finished hammering a new wanted circular onto the wall of his office as he spoke to the two men who emerged from the cell area. “How’d the meetin’ go?”
            “Mr. McRae told us everything he told the jury,” Bertram Lowrie replied crisply. “I’m convinced of the veracity of his statements.”
            Buford Miley looked a bit confused. “Yeah. I feel sorta the same way myself.”
            “Sheriff, I know you’re a busy man but could we trouble you with a few questions?” Rance Dehner smiled and appeared as friendly as he could. Working with his boss, Bertram Lowrie, could be difficult. Bertram’s aristocratic ways often put people on edge. Rance occasionally had to sand those edges.
            The sheriff did look a bit relieved as he tossed the hammer onto the desk. “Sure, go ahead.”
            “I understand Jameson’s doctor is out of town right now. Could you give me the name of the man who buried Adrian Monahan?”
            Sheriff Miley laughed, shaking both of his chins. Miley’s weight took him past the “heavyset” description. Dehner wondered how fast the lawman could move in an emergency.
            “I’m the one who buried both Monahans, Adrian and Jesse.”
            “And why is that?” Bertram asked.
            “That’s a little job I got on the side. Bein’ sheriff don’t pay much, so I do the buryin’ ‘round here. Adrian has a brother in San Diego, Phineas. He sent me money for buryin’ Adrian. Paid me good.” 
            “Did Phineas attend the funeral?” Dehner asked.
            “Na. Too old. Too sick.” 
            “When did you receive payment for the execution of your duties in regard to the remains of Adrian Monahan?” Lowrie asked. 
            “Ah, well…”
            “When did you receive the money from San Diego?” Dehner added hastily.
            “Oh. Guess it was ‘bout three weeks or so after I buried Adrian. Jesse wrote Phineas ‘bout what happened to his brother.”
            “Did anyone write to Phineas about Jesse being murdered?”
            “I did! Found the address of the post office in San Diego layin’ on Jesse’s desk, along with some cards. The buryin’ business ain’t the sure thing I thought it would be. Sometimes I end up puttin’ a body in the ground and don’t get paid nothin’. It ain’t  right.”
            “Indeed, that is quite an injustice,” Lowrie couldn’t keep the impatience from his voice. “Could you describe the wound to Adrian Monahan’s head?”
            The lawman shrugged his shoulders. “The old man put it there hisself.”
            “Yes” Dehner remained friendly as his boss pressed his lips together. “But could you describe the wound?”
            “Nothin’ to describe.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “The head was pretty much gone. Guess that’s what happens when you try to eat the barrel of a Colt .44.” Buford Miley laughed hard at his own joke. Dehner laughed along politely. Lowrie stared at the ceiling.

Episode Seven

“Just one more question, Sheriff Miley.” Bertram Lowrie’s disposition began to appear cheerier. The thought of soon departing from Buford Miley was probably the cause. “Bart McRae insists he received a letter from Adrian Monahan while in prison and showed the letter to Jesse Monahan. Have you any idea what might have happened to that letter?”
            A look of curiosity and intelligence appeared on the sheriff’s face and Dehner began to suspect they had underrated him a bit. “That’s the crazy thing ‘bout this whole matter,” the lawman said. “I believe Bart, but I searched all over that big house. Didn’t find no letter. I also asked around concernin’ what Bart said ‘bout the second floor bein’ unfit. Nobody in town knew nothin’ ‘bout it.”
            Miley shook his head. “I think Bart McRae is innocent, but a jury disagreed with me. Bart is gonna make history in this town.”
            “How’s that?” Dehner asked.
            Buford nodded his head toward the office window. “That gallows they’re buildin’ outside, right in the center of the road. We use ta hang outlaws on a tree north of town. But the area is kinda rough; no place for people to gather. Now, we’re makin’ it a family time. Folks will come into town for the hangin’. They’ll eat at the restaurants and do some shoppin’. Help the economy.”
            Dehner and his boss both thanked the sheriff for his help and stepped out onto the boardwalk. Workmen were putting the final touches on the gallows. Both detectives looked grimly at the scene in front of them. Lowrie spoke first:  “Mrs. Sarah McRae believes her son is innocent of murder, and I agree with her.”
Rance had participated in the interview with Sarah McRae at the office of the Lowrie Detective Agency in Dallas. Dehner suspected that Sarah could not afford to pay the agency its usual fee. This case probably came under the classification of charity work. As was his custom, Bertram Lowrie would inform his employee of the altruism after they were finished. Nothing like this would ever happen to a Pinkerton operative.
            Dehner smiled inwardly. That’s why he worked for the Lowrie agency.
            But there was one aspect of the case that bothered the detective. “I’m sure you know sir, that I enjoy working with you on an assignment,” Dehner lied. “But why did you pick this case?”
            Bertram Lowrie looked about the town of Jameson with eyes that were narrow and penetrating. “As I have already said, Bart McRae is innocent of murder, but he is guilty of foolish superstition. Old wives tales have destroyed many fine men and marred civilizations. I take every opportunity to expose frauds such as ghosts and dead men who write letters.”
            “We need to expose them quickly.” Dehner pointed at the gallows. “The family fun Sheriff Miley was talking about is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

Episode Eight


            As the train pulled away from the Jameson Station, Rance Dehner hastened from the poorly lit depot into the black thickness of night. He moved toward the sounds of a battered piano and drunken laughter. Entering the Happy Days saloon, the detective scanned the establishment for his boss.
            Bertram Lowrie sat by himself at a table in a far corner. As Dehner eased himself into a chair across from the Brit, Lowrie pointed at the bottle of whiskey that now stood between them.
            “You see before you the cost for the privilege of being allowed to sit at this filthy table, in this wretched establishment.” Lowrie pushed an empty glass at Dehner. The glass, while not filthy, was far from clean. “Fill it up. You’ll fit into the ambiance better. Not that anyone is really paying any attention to us.”
            As Dehner poured the whiskey, he noticed a full glass in front of his boss. “Be sure to put the cost of the whiskey on our client’s bill.”
            Lowrie actually squirmed in his seat. “I will discuss that matter with you later.” 
            Rance Dehner felt guilty about how much he enjoyed needling his boss, but not too guilty. Still, there was very important work to tend to. “I was right,” Dehner declared, “it would have been impossible for Wyatt Cummings to recognize Bart from the train depot, even if he were stone sober. Cummings claimed to have been drinking.”
            “Claimed is the operative word,” Bertram’s eyes focused on Wyatt Cummings, who was deeply involved in a poker game several tables away. “Earlier this evening, I took part in idle chit chat with idle men. Cummings drinks, but not to excess. He spends most of his time playing cards. I am certain Wyatt Cummings was expecting Bart McRae to get off that train. His drunken act was just that, an act.”
            “I talked with the owner of the local general store,” Dehner said. “Wyatt buys stuff there and always pays,--never asks for credit. He occasionally makes large purchases of food. Made one today.”
            “Interesting,” Lowrie’s voice was a quick snap. “What did you find out about Jesse Monahan?”
            “The owner of the Lucky Aces down the street, Rush Sowell, is about the closest thing to a friend that Jesse had in this town. Jesse started as a dealer there but soon outgrew Jameson and moved on to greener pastures. Apparently Jesse Monahan was a real sharper, made good money from the cards. The incident that landed Bart in jail happened early in Jesse’s career.”
            “If Jesse Monahan is now moving in such high circles, why does he continue to live in Jameson?”
            “According to Sowell, Adrian Monahan left his house to Jesse. He also left behind a pile of debt from his failed stagecoach line. A lot of Adrian’s creditors are claiming the house should be sold and the money divided between them. Jesse is fighting them in court. He comes back to Jameson and lives in the house as a way of asserting his ownership.”
            Dehner placed his arm on the table, only to hastily remove it when his shirt began to stick on some scum he didn’t wish to identify. “Judging from the letters and papers on his desk, I suspect Jesse liked to have that house as something of a base. A gambler moves around a lot.”
            “Yes, I have looked at the house myself.” Bertram paused for a moment, taking in everything he had been told. “Oh, did you ever find that doctor?”
            Dehner smirked. “The town doc has been bought off. He wouldn’t tell me anything about Adrian’s wound. My questions made him very nervous.”
            “As well they should,” Lowrie replied. “The bullet from a Colt .44 can do terrible things to a man’s head, but completely blow it away?! I don’t think so. We are close to uncovering a very evil plot, of which Bart McRae is the next intended victim.”
Episode Nine

Wyatt Cummings tossed in his cards and got up from the table. He smiled at his companions and threw out a few friendly good-byes, but he didn’t linger.
            The bat wing doors were still swinging from Wyatt’s departure when Rance and his boss casually got up from their table and walked out of the saloon. “Aren’t you afraid our whiskey will just sit there and go to waste?” Dehner asked when they were on the boardwalk in front of the Happy Days.
            “Not in the slightest,” Bertram Lowrie replied.
            The two detectives followed Cummings from a safe distance. They didn’t have to be very cautious. Dehner noted that Wyatt moved with the assurance of a man with no concerns, a man who seemed to have plenty of money though he’d been out of work for almost two years.
            Cummings walked around to the back of the livery where the former jehu began to hitch four horses to a buckboard. Wyatt Cummings didn’t stop to speak to the owner of the establishment. All arrangements for the use of the buckboard had obviously been made ahead of time.
            The detectives took cover behind a small tool shed in front of the livery which, in the darkness of night, provided them with almost total cover. “We will wait until our man leaves, then rent two horses from the livery and follow him,” Lowrie spoke in a low voice. “Are you completely satisfied as to who killed Adrian Monahan?”
            “Adrian Monahan isn’t dead,” Rance replied confidently. He knew the boss was testing him. “Monahan faked suicide in order to escape the debts from his failed stagecoach line.”
            Bertram Lowrie nodded his head. “The actual victim, no doubt, was some unfortunate drifter who happened to have a build similar to that of Adrian Monahan.”
            “Jesse Monahan assisted his uncle in the deception,” Rance continued. “He owed the old man for buying off Bart McRae.”
            “But who killed Jesse Monahan, and why?”
            The clattering sound of a buckboard sounded in the night, as Wyatt Cummings pulled out from behind the livery. For a moment the outline of the wagon, the driver, and the horses was clearly visible in the light from the lantern that hung above the door of the livery, then it vanished into the darkness.
            “I think we’re going to have that question answered soon,” Rance Dehner said. Both men ran toward the livery.

            The two detectives trailed the buckboard at a steady pace, going almost completely by the rattling sound of the wagon. There was no moon. Only a few stars spotted the sky, their light partially concealed as if hiding from a predator.
            Cummings rode the buckboard to a dilapidated ranch house. He didn’t bother to open the gate that surrounded the house, but guided the horses around to the right side where the fence abruptly ended. The steeds actually needed little guidance. They had made this trip before.
            Dehner and his boss both dismounted and walked their horses to a tree with a large overhang.  From the darkness, they watched as a man emerged from the house carrying a lantern. He limped and appeared elderly. 
            “I believe we have found our ghost.” Even in a soft whisper, Lowrie’s voice sounded contemptuous.

Episode Ten

The tree stood a safe distance from the ranch. Dehner scanned the area. “When they finish unloading, we can advance on the house. The fence is no problem and then we can use the barn as a cover. Once we get beyond the barn, we’ll just have to keep low and hope no one looks out the window.”
            “A risk we most certainly should take,” Lowrie replied. “The conversations flowing from that house may be well worth hearing.”
            The two detectives tied their horses to the tree and made for the house. Dehner’s boss moved with remarkable stealth, easily blending his tall, thin frame into the darkness of the night. Bertram Lowrie has not forgotten the lessons learned in the British Military, Rance mused to himself.
            Both Dehner and Lowrie flattened themselves against the side of the ranch house and listened to the angry voices that wafted through the opened window.
            “Give me the combination to the safe, Mr. Monahan. Jesse made a pile on his last gambling trip. We both need the money.”
            “Where is the fresh horse you promised me for the journey back to San Diego?!”
            “I’ll buy it with the money from the safe. Why’d you kill Jesse, anyway? That wasn’t part of the deal. We were just going to scare McRae, so if he started blabbing about what really happened four years ago, people would think he was some crazy guy who sees ghosts.”
            “I had to kill Jesse. He saw me. He saw me kill that man four years ago.”
            “You didn’t kill that jasper, I did! You and Jesse didn’t have the sand for the job.”
            Monahan’s voice became louder. “The head! I’m the one who took off the head. You couldn’t do it! I had to use an ax!”
            “The guy was already dead! Look, give me the combination. You have to stay here a while until your wound heals. I’ll bring you what you need until you can ride back to San Diego and back to being Phineas--”
            “I will not be betrayed!”
            “You crazy galoot!” Cummings voice resounded with panic. “Put down the knife or I’ll kill you!”
            Dehner and Lowrie charged into the house. Cummings turned, saw them coming and began to draw his gun. Dehner tackled him and both men went down. The sound of Cummings’ gun skittering across the floor could be heard along with the thump of two bodies landing on creaky wood.  
            Darkness fell over the room. Rance absorbed a punch to his forehead which had probably been aimed at his jaw. Responding with two hard blows to Cummings’ head, Dehner could hear loud grunts accompanied by a screech of pain and scrambling footsteps.
            Rance and his opponent were still on the floor. Both men buoyed onto their knees: two shadows battling to determine which one would be allowed to stand. Cummings attempted a roundhouse, but he was queasy from the two assaults and the punch missed, heaving his torso forward. Dehner’s roundhouse didn’t miss and Wyatt Cummings went down.
            A meager light flickered back into the room. Bertram Lowrie had lit a kerosene lantern. Driblets of blood were spattered down Lowrie’s left cheek.
            “Are you okay, sir?” Dehner spoke as he got to his feet.
            “Yes. Adrian Monahan doused this lantern, then slammed me in the face with Cummings’ gun.
            “Do you know where he is?”
            Lowrie nodded toward the outside. “He’s out there somewhere. We have a madman running loose in the dark with a loaded gun.”

Episode Eleven

Bertram Lowrie rummaged quickly among the supplies piled about the room and found a candle. After lighting it and setting it in a mug on the table, he picked up the lantern and moved toward the door. “I’ll begin searching. You tie up Wyatt Cummings, then join me.” 
            “Careful, you’ll be a target carrying that lantern.”
            Lowrie gave his employee a harsh glare as if to say, “I know that!” Cautiously, he stepped outside, then paused on the porch and listened as a frantic voice sounded from the barn.
            “I know you’re in here! I’ll kill you again! I will not be betrayed! This time I’ll cut out your heart!”
            Lowrie removed the pistol from his shoulder holster and moved toward the barn, gun in one hand and lantern in the other. His approach was to a side of the open doorway.
            He placed the lantern down and pressed his body against the side of the barn. Lowrie listened closely. Adrian Monahan seemed to be pacing about inside. After a few minutes the footsteps stopped and then started up again, but the sound was different.
            Rance Dehner joined his boss. “I found some rope in the house, old but strong. Wyatt Cummings won’t be going anywhere. How’s our ghost?”
            “Monahan is up in the loft of the barn.”
            A loud shout sounded inside the barn. “You’ll never get me! I’ll kill you first!”
            “He seems to be challenging us,” Rance said.
            “Perhaps,” Lowrie replied. “I am not at all sure he is addressing us. In any event we have him trapped. This is the only door on the barn. The windows are too small to allow escape.” 
            “We need to give him a chance to surrender.”
            “Be my guest.”
            Dehner shouted, “Adrian Monahan, put down your gun and come out with your hands up!”
            “I won’t allow you to kill me!” Scrambling footsteps could be heard from the barn. Monahan was running about in an empty hay loft. “You can’t kill me here! Nobody can!”
            A sharp sound of cracking timber echoed in the old barn, followed by a scream. “Our prey has fallen through the loft!” Lowrie carefully peeked around the open door, to be greeted by a shot.
            “Go away!” Monahan fired another shot, this one at an empty doorway. “Go away!”
            “Surrender, Mr. Monahan,” Bertram Lowrie shouted. “Your situation is quite hopeless.”
            A frantic cry which sounded like that of a hungry infant came from the barn, followed by a shot. Both detectives held their breaths for a few moments. Dehner broke the silence, “Oh no.”
            Lowrie picked up the lantern. “This could be a trick, but I don’t think so. Nevertheless, be prepared to use your weapon.”
            Both men entered the barn, guns ready. They advanced until they were under the hay loft and standing over the body of Adrian Monahan.
            “Oh…good…Lord,” Dehner spoke those words reverently. “He shot himself in the head.”
            “Yes, with a Colt .44.”

Episode Twelve

            “Adrian Monahan was insane,” Lowrie’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Neither Monahan had the stomach to kill that poor drifter, but Jesse hired Wyatt Cummings for the job. Cummings did the foul deed but there was enough of the victim’s head left for a proper identification. Mr. Adrian Monahan took an axe and decapitated the corpse. That was the beginning of his descent into madness. Jesse Monahan was a victim of that madness.”
            “I don’t follow you.”
            “Adrian moved to San Diego and assumed the name of Phineas Monahan, a brother who, in all likelihood, never existed. He lived off money he embezzled from the stagecoach line in its final years. But he was still dependent on his nephew.”
            Dehner thought about that for a moment. “Jesse was paying off Wyatt Cummings to keep quiet.”
            Lowrie nodded his head. “As his demented state grew worse, Adrian became certain Jesse would ‘betray’ him, to use a word Adrian apparently employed with great frequency.”
            Dehner thought about what they had overheard Cummings say. “Jesse and Adrian arranged a charade in the old house to exploit the superstitious nature of Bart McRae. But Adrian planned a double cross. He murdered Jesse.”
            “Yes, but it didn’t go quite as planned. You saw that desk in the study, what was missing?”
            Dehner closed his eyes, embarrassed by his own oversight. “A letter opener!”
            “After Jesse was stabbed, he attempted revenge. He grabbed the letter opener and used it as a weapon against his uncle, but he died before he could complete the task. A wounded Adrian pocketed the opener and staggered out of the house before Bart made it downstairs.”
            “He forgot about the safe where Jesse kept his winnings. No doubt, he planned to kill Wyatt Cummings and then leave this area for good.” 
            Both men went silent, contemplating the grotesque events which had almost led to the hanging of an innocent man. Bertram Lowrie looked down at the corpse of Adrian Monahan. “There is a darkness in the human soul which is far more terrifying than any ancient superstition.”

Episode Thirteen


            Bart McRae placed a large sack of flour on the back of a buckboard and looked sheepishly at the two detectives who had helped him load the wagon. “I sure do appreciate all that you gents have done for me.”
            “Thank the folks at the bank,” Dehner said. “It was their idea for you to work that deserted ranch and eventually own it.”
            “Yeah, but you fellas loaned me the money for a buckboard and supplies. I plan to pay you back. I’ll send the money to your office in Dallas.”
            “And you must immediately send a letter to your mother in Dallas. She is quite concerned about you,” there was a touch of admonition in Lowrie’s command.
            “Yes sir, I’ll do that!”
            McRae said good-by to the two detectives and watched as they walked toward the train station. He boarded the wagon but didn’t head immediately for the ranch. There was an important stop he had to make first.
            Pulling up in front of the Monahan Residence, McRae jumped from the buckboard and walked swiftly toward the house. He paused at the entrance and then opened the door, making as little noise as possible.
            He stepped quietly down the hallway and entered the study. There was still some dried blood on the carpet, which didn’t surprise him. The black cat sleeping in the chair didn’t surprise him either.
            “Thought I’d find you here,” McRae said in a soft voice. “I’ve got a deal to make with you.”
            He began to pet the cat. “I’ve always been superstitious. Would you believe I let an old man with red ink running down his face convince me he was a ghost?”
            The cat meowed.
            “The Good Book says a lot about not being taken in by crazy stuff; guess I haven’t read that part enough.”
            The cat turned its head, indicating it wanted its ears scratched.
            Bart obliged. “So, I want you to help me. I got this little ranch. Reckon you could keep the place free of rodents? As pay, I’ll let you sleep inside. On rainy days you can stay inside all you want.”
            McRae picked the animal up. The cat was tense but didn’t try to jump away. “I’m gonna name you ‘Black Cat’. Not very original, but it will help me end my silly superstitions.”
            Bart McRae walked back to the buckboard carrying Black Cat, who began to purr in his arms.

Full Moon
(This story originally ran as a serial from Jan. 10, 2012-Jan. 18, 2012)

     Strange things are said to happen on the night of a full moon. People turn into wolves. Sweet and shy women take a knife to their husbands. Men of peace wantonly commit murder.
            Rance Dehner was not a superstitious man. Still, he was observant and had noted that on nights when the moon was a round orb there were a lot of odd occurrences.
            On this night of a full moon, Dehner was following a killer, Curt Tatum. The outlaw had tethered his horse to a tree and was heading somewhere on foot. This was definitely full moon stuff. There seemed to be no place for Tatum to go. Dehner followed on foot at a safe distance.
            Suddenly, no distance was safe. Curt Tatum moved out of a wooded area into a wide space dotted only sparsely by a few bushes and trees. The killer was moving toward a line shack, cautiously, like a mountain lion stalking prey. The shack had one window at the front, now beaming a faint glow of kerosene yellow. Tatum darted over to the side of the cabin, where there was only rotting wood. Dehner had no idea who was inside that shack, but it was no friend of Curt Tatum.
            Dehner did know Tatum by reputation and knew he couldn’t trail closely behind the man without cover. No matter how quietly he moved, the killer would hear him.
            For a moment, Dehner considered bushwhacking Curt Tatum. The man was a wanted killer. No one would argue if he brought Tatum in with a bullet in his back. Rance Dehner quickly rejected the notion. He couldn’t do that.
            Dehner decided to let his presence be known. “Visiting a lady friend, Curt?”
            Tatum wheeled around quickly, one hand hovering over the gun that lay in a holster on his right hip. He stared intently at the newcomer, then spoke in a voice filled with mockery. “Well, well, Rance Dehner, thought you and I parted company for good back in Denver.”
            “Yeah, Curt, you crept up on me from behind. Pistol whipped me good. I took a couple of weeks to recover.”
            “You coulda shot me from behind just now; why didn’t you?”
            “Company policy.”
            Both men were trying to size up the odd situation. They were about to have a gunfight that would leave one of them dead and they both knew it. The moonlight left their faces in shadow. A slight twitch of the mouth or eyebrows would not give anything away.
            “That company of yours, Pinkerton ain’t it?” As he spoke, Tatum tried to appear casual as he took one step forward. The killer was a fast draw, but his accuracy was faulty and the first shot had to count.
            Dehner pretended not to notice. “No. I work for Pinkerton’s competition, the Lowrie Detective Agency.”
            Curt Tatum wanted to take another step but decided to hold off. “Ain’t that the outfit owned by that Limey?”
            Rance Dehner saw his opening.  “Some Brits come over here to start a ranch. They give jobs to hard working cow punchers. Bertram Lowrie started a detective agency and gives jobs to lazy gunslingers. But Lowrie does have some standards. He’d never hire a cowardly snake who’d attack a man from behind!”
            “Why--” Tatum went for his gun as he spoke; Dehner matched his movements. Both men fired at almost the same time. Tatum’s shot went wide. Dehner’s shot went into his opponent’s stomach. Curt Tatum began to stagger about, gun still in hand.
            “Drop it Tatum, I’ll only say it once.”
            The gunman hung onto his weapon. Even wounded, Curt Tatum was a very dangerous man. Dehner’s second shot took the killer down.
            Tatum’s body lay still, his gun now positioned only inches from his right hand.  Rance Dehner moved with caution and his Colt drawn until he could feel for a pulse on the gunfighter’s wrist. Confident that Tatum was dead, Dehner turned his head toward the strange sound coming from the shack.
            A baby was crying.

Episode Two:

Rance again used caution. He crept around the shack and approached the door on the side without a window. He tapped gently on the door.
            “Go away!” The voice sounded female and scared.
            “I won’t hurt you. I’m a detective. I need to talk with you, for just a few minutes.”
            The baby’s crying became louder. The woman’s voice turned into a near scream. “Go away!”
            Dehner holstered his Colt. “I’m coming in.” The detective opened the door slowly, stepped into the shack and faced an old Winchester which was pointed at him.
            “Don’t you move no more. I’ll shoot. I really will.” The girl looked about fourteen, although it was hard to tell with her eyes squinting along the sights of the gun. Her clothes were old, but clean. That description could also apply to the inside of the shack and the blankets on the cot. The small table beside the cot stood barren of dust. The kid had done everything she could to make an abandoned line shack safe for her child.
            Dehner’s eyes couldn’t spot any food. “When was the last time that baby was fed? When was the last time you had anything to eat?” 
            “You never mind. Git!” The girl’s body was shaking.
            Rance held up both palms in an effort to calm the girl. There was an element of self-defense in the move. That old rifle could fire easily. “I’m not here to cause you any trouble.”
            “What are you doin’ here?”
            “Point that gun down and I’ll tell you.”
            She lowered the gun, revealing a pretty face marred by paleness and red streaked eyes. Her long dark hair was turning stringy through neglect. Dehner figured all the care the girl had to give went to her baby.
            “My name is Rance Dehner.”
            “I’m Leona.” The sudden propriety seemed to confuse her. Leona looked toward the crying infant. “His name is Samuel.” Hostility again returned to her eyes. “Why are you here?”
            “Like I said, I’m a detective. I trailed a gunslick to this place, a jasper named Curt Tatum, ever hear of him?”
            “Do you have any idea why he was here?”
            “Did you kill him?”
            “Then what difference does it make?”
            Dehner decided to pull back, figuring Leona had just evaded his question in order to avoid telling a lie. She had a strong sense of right and wrong which was being tested by fear and desperation.
            Dehner spoke quietly. “I have some food in my saddlebags. Don’t know if Samuel can eat any of it, but at least it will help you. I have to ride into town. Let me know what you need. I’ll bring it back.”
            Leona’s face contorted. The young woman pressed her lips together, then looked at Dehner and named off some food and other supplies for both her and the baby. She propped the Winchester against a side wall, casting a fast glance at the detective. Leona then bent over the baby, who had stopped crying, and didn’t look at Dehner as she spoke to him. “I gotta favor to ask.”
            “Name it.” 
            “When you get to Colter, could you look up Del Burgess? He’s a bit taller than me. Green eyes. Brown hair. Sixteen.”
            “Where does he live in Colter?”
            Leona went silent for a moment; she seemed to be wondering if she was betraying a trust of some kind. “Del works at the livery. Sleeps there most nights.”
            “What do you want me to do when I find Del?”
            She turned and faced the detective. “You might could tell him I’d like to see him, and just let me know he’s okay.”
            There was a lot behind that awkward request, but Rance decided not to look for it. He settled for a quick “Sure”, then went outside to attend to a corpse. He recovered his own horse and that of Curt Tatum. The detective laid Tatum’s body over the saddle of the outlaw’s horse and tied it there. He found some jerky in Tatum’s saddle bags, then, as promised, grabbed the food he had been carrying and took it all into the shack where he placed it on the table. 
            Leona was sitting on the bed cradling the baby, who was now sleeping. She was singing Jesus Loves Me in a soft voice.
            Rance Dehner felt very uncomfortable. “I’ll find Del Burgess for you, and I’ll be back in the morning with some more food.” He hastily left the cabin.
            The detective knew the area well, and with the light from a full moon could ride at a steady gait. He glanced at the corpse on the horse behind him. Curt Tatum had been a gun for hire. Who had hired him to find Leona and for what reason? Was Tatum supposed to kill the girl?

Episode Three

Dehner laughed softly at his own plight. The detective had to take Tatum’s corpse into Colter, where he knew the sheriff could identify the killer and would agree to write a letter to the Lowrie Agency stating that yes, Curt Tatum was dead, his remains brought in by Rance Dehner. The agency could then collect its fee from a client whose brother Tatum had murdered.
            After that, it should be over for the detective, but he knew he couldn’t leave it there. He had to investigate Leona’s plight. Dehner’s instincts told him the girl was in imminent danger.
            His instincts were right.


            As the stagecoach approached Colter, Colorado, Bradford Maltin felt uneasy. He hadn’t spoken to his son during the whole trip from Denver. Bradford spit tobacco particles out the window and decided it didn’t really matter. He had no interest in anything his son had to say.
            Inhaling on his large cigar, the businessman realized that wasn’t quite true. One matter concerning his son interested him. But he couldn’t discuss it here. The third passenger in the stagecoach was a preacher. Bradford was certain of that. The man across from him was reading a Bible and would occasionally look up and give him and his son Will a saccharine smile.
             Bradford was marooned in a stagecoach with his son beside him and a preacher across from him. Beelzebub himself couldn’t have arranged a more awful trip, the businessman mused. But it would be over soon, the clergyman would be out of his life forever and he could discuss that one important matter with Will.
            His son, of course, would not be out of his life forever. Will was a permanent pebble in his shoe: a thin, pale boy of seventeen, spoiled rotten and good for nothing.
            When the stagecoach arrived at Colter, Bradford Maltin was the first passenger out. He retrieved the two cowhide valises belonging to him and Will and looked about to get his bearings.
            “You said the hotel is down this way,” He pointed to his left as he handed his son one of the valises.
            “Yes sir.”
            “Let’s go!”
            The other passenger on the stage approached the two men. “It was a pleasure traveling with you gentlemen. We never got around to introducing ourselves. My name is Reverend--”
            Bradford Maltin brushed by the pastor, his son trailing after him. At forty-one Maltin was in good shape for a man who spent most of his days behind a desk. The vibrant health was owed to a love of hunting in the mountains that surrounded Denver.
            Maltin moved at a fast pace down the boardwalk and almost charged through the hotel doors, which were open. He stopped abruptly in the lobby of the hotel, his cigar almost dropping out of his mouth. A large sign was resting there on a tripod; the paint still looked wet.

Tonight Starting at 5:00 PM
View the dead body of Curt Tatum legendery Killer
120 Hilton Street
Cost: Ten Cents  Children under 12: Five Cents
1 night onley!
            Maltin almost ran to the hotel’s wide counter where a clerk with a wide girth and a wide smile greeted him. “Afternoon sir!”
            Bradford Maltin pointed at the sign, “What’s--”
            “Oh, that.” The clerk misinterpreted Maltin’s anger for outrage over the lack of propriety. “Joe Novak, the town undertaker, don’t make much money, so the sheriff allowed him to earn a little extra. He can only show the body for one night. The sheriff wants Colter to be a civilized town, and I guess this kinda thing ain’t too civilizin’”
            Maltin calmed his anger and tried to act only casually interested. “How can they be sure the dead body is Curt Tatum?”
            “No doubt about it! A detective brought the corpse in this morning. The sheriff tangled with Tatum a few years back and recognized that hardcase right off. Folks who go to see the body tonight won’t be swindled. They’ll get what they paid for.”
            Bradford’s voice was resigned. “I’ll take a room.” He glanced at his son who, as always, looked sheepish and completely absorbed in his own thoughts. The businessman realized he wanted to spend as little time with Will as possible. “Make that two rooms.”
            The rooms were both on the second floor. They arrived at Bradford’s room first. “Come in,” the businessman ordered his son, “I need to talk to you.”
            Inside, the room was a bit nicer than expected for a small town like Colter, but Bradford Maltin didn’t notice. He put his valise down beside the bed and began to pace the room.
            “Nothing’s going right,” he seemed to be addressing the gods, informing them that they were falling down on the job.
             Bradford stopped pacing and faced his son. “Let’s start from the beginning. How’d you meet this Lena?”
            “Leona.” Will dropped his valise onto the floor.
            “Leona! How’d you meet her?”

Episode Four:

“Last spring when Mother sent me here to help Uncle Earl and Aunt Connie. That was right after Uncle Earl’s accident--”
            “Yes, yes, how’d you meet the girl?”
            “They let me come into town on Saturday night. Leona was a waitress at the restaurant.”
            Bradford’s voice dripped sarcasm. “And you two became right cordial.”
            “One night we took a walk and stopped under a tree outside of town…”
            “Okay, okay. When did you find out she was pregnant?”
            “She sent a letter to me in Denver.”
            “Did you write her back?”
            Will fell silent.
            “Did you write her back?!”
            “And the letter I found, the one about the baby being born, was the second and last one she sent you?”
            “Yes. She named the baby Samuel.”
            “I know that!”
            Bradford looked about the room hurriedly, and for the first time noticed it was well kept and had an ashtray on a table beside the bed. He crushed the remaining stub of his cigar into the tray in a gesture of anger. “Nothing in all that to interest a detective. Why did a detective come to Colter and kill Curt Tatum?”
            Will shrugged his shoulders. “Probably didn’t have anything to do with Colter. That sign called Tatum a killer. The detective could have been after him for something he did somewhere else.”
            A surge of anger coursed through the businessman. His son was no doubt right. It was so obvious. Why didn’t he think of it?
            “I just wasted five hundred dollars,” Bradford was talking primarily to himself. “At least I didn’t give him the whole thousand up front. Well, as the old saw goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself.”
            Will Bradford’s eyes flamed as he began to understand his father’s words. “Did you hire Curt Tatum to get Samuel?”
            “Yes.” The older Bradford was consumed by private thoughts as he plotted his next move.
            “What was Tatum supposed to do about Leona?” Will’s voice sounded incredulous.
            His father didn’t notice. “Kill her. She could have caused trouble. Wasn’t worth taking a chance. Tatum was supposed to take the baby to your Aunt and Uncle’s place. They would keep it till your mother and I came for it. I would have made up some cockeyed story to explain it all. Would have worked. Your mother would love to have another child, and I own that ranch her brother and his wife work. They wouldn’t have asked questions.”
            Will Bradford’s heart began to beat faster and he felt faint. He had always cherished the times he spent with his Aunt and Uncle. Their ranch was a special place for him. But there was nothing special about it,--just one more piece of land his father owned.
            The young man inhaled deeply as if to maintain consciousness. His father had talked so casually about killing Leona, as if ordering her dead was like squashing one of his burnt out cigars.
            “Why?!” Will’s voice sounded like something between a shout and a sob. “Why kill her? She never hurt you.”
            Bradford took a few quick steps toward his son, then back handed him viciously across the face. The young man stumbled but managed to stay on his feet.
            “I’ll tell you why,” Bradford Maltin spoke in a low rumble. “Because your older brother died rescuing you from drowning. You’re worthless. You might as well have been a girl. Your mother can’t have any more kids. I’ve worked like a dog all my life, and I want someone to leave my property to. I need a grandson. Samuel may be a stray, but he’s still my flesh and blood.”
            Will slurred his words a bit, his father’s assault still had his head ringing, “I’ll marry someday, h...ave  ch...ildren.”
            “You’re going to Boston this fall to school. You’ll probably settle down there and marry some Eastern canary. Your kids will be as worthless as you are.” 
            Will was beginning to regain his balance and his speech. “You hate me.”
            The statement seemed to make his father a bit whimsical. “Not really. There’s nothing to hate about you, Will, you’re just a weakling. Don’t worry. I’ll pay for your schooling. You can visit us for a few weeks every summer. We’ll have us a real nice family picnic.”
            Bradford chuckled lightly; he seemed genuinely amused. Will’s body trembled.
            “Go to your room and stay there.” The amusement was gone from the older man’s voice. “I brought you along because I thought I might need you. Things don’t seem to be going that way. Take supper in the dining room downstairs. I’ll come for you if need be.”
            Will desperately wanted to disobey his father, or at least make a cutting remark as he left. He did none of that. He picked up his valise and walked out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.
            Bradford lit another cigar and began to pace the room. He didn’t know where the girl was staying. That letter to Will he had found had the address of Colter’s post office station. He puffed on the cigar and remembered what his hired gun had told him. “Folks love to gossip. In a place like Colter there will be people who know where she’s keepin’ the kid. Won’t be hard to find out. A few hours in a saloon should do it.”
            Bradford Maltin laughed as he left his room. His associates back in Denver didn’t think of him as a generous man. But on this day, he’d be the one setting up the drinks.

Episode Five:

“Look mister, I take care of horses here. You wanna jaw ‘bout people, go somewheres else.” The hostler was an elderly man who appeared strong for his years and equally as stubborn. “I don’t cotton to spendin’ time with a man who makes a livin’ by his gun. And don’t try tellin’ me different. I know your kind.”
            Rance inhaled and looked around the large building that housed the livery. He had, as matter of habit, been withholding information from the owner of Riley’s Stables and Blacksmith.
            The detective decided on a more forthright approach. “You’re right, Mr. Riley. Last night I killed a hardcase named Curt Tatum. Tatum was trying to get to a shack where a girl named Leona is staying with a baby. She asked me to look up Del Burgess; said he worked here.”
            The expression on Horatio Riley’s face changed from suspicion to admiration. “So, you’re the man that brought down Curt Tatum.”
            “You gettin’ any of the money they’ll be makin’ tonight showin’ the body and all?”
            “That don’t seem right. You might make a livin’ with your gun, but you seem to be callin’ it right ‘bout who you plug. I say you deserve a cut of the profits.”
            “It’s a side issue. Can you take me to Del Burgess?”
            “Reckon so.”  Riley began to amble across the stable, passing three rows of stalls. “The boy will be pleasured to meet the man who killed Curt Tatum.” Horace turned at the fourth row and opened the second stall. “Del, you got company.”
            Del Burgess fit the description Leona had given of him, only both of his green eyes were swollen and cradled by purple cheeks. He was lying on a bed of hay and appeared to have been awake for only a few minutes. “Heard you jawin’ with Horace. Pleased to meet the man who shot Tatum.” Del began to stand up. “That jasper got me good, but it weren’t fair.”
            “What exactly happened, Del?” Rance asked.
            Now on his feet, the young man placed a hand against the side of the stall, to help maintain balance. “Last night, I was workin’ here by myself.”
            Del Burgess paused and inhaled. He dropped his arm, though he still looked a bit unsure on his feet.  “That hardcase Tatum came in to fetch his horse. Of course, at the time I didn’t know who he was.”
            “Would you like some water, Del?” Horatio asked.
            “Yeah, thanks.”
            Riley hurried off. Del Burgess continued to speak. “Tatum came for his horse. He was nice enough at first. Started asking directions. As he jawed on, I caught on to the fact that he was lookin’ for the fastest way to get to that shack where Leona is holed up.”
            The sound of a pump could be heard coming from behind the livery. “What did you do, Del?”
            “I asked him what business he had out there at the shack. He tole me to just never mind. Can’t remember exactly what happened next. But he pistol whipped me before I saw him draw his iron.”
            “You’re lucky.”
            Del looked askance at Dehner. “How’s that?”
            “Tatum thought he only needed to take you out of the action for a few hours. He tried to take me out for longer than that when we crossed paths in Denver. Would have shot me in the back if we hadn’t been close by the local law.”
            Horace Riley returned with a cup of water for Del. The young man drank it slowly and did seem to be feeling better.  Rance decided to move his questions into a difficult territory.
            “How long have you known Leona, Del?”
            “Since we was kids.” The young man stared into his tin cup, and continued, “We were gettin’ serious for a while, then this guy shows up…” Del Burgess took another sip of water, then looked at Rance and Horace. “This Will guy started showin’ off how rich he was. Talked about takin’ her to Denver. Got her all confused.”
            There was no discreet way to ask the question. Dehner spoke in a monotone. “Did Leona have the baby with Will?”
            Del nodded his head.
            “Do you know Will’s last name?”
            “Maltin. Will Maltin.” Del made the name sound like a profanity.
            Horace noticed Rance’s scowl. “You know this Maltin fellow,

Mr. Dehner?”

            “Well, there is a very wealthy Maltin family in Denver,” Rance answered. “The Lowrie agency did some work for them a year back or so, I wasn’t involved in it. The Maltins could certainly afford to hire a top gunhand like Tatum, but why would they do it?”
            Determination filled Del Burgess’ eyes. “All I know is Leona is out there in that shack with just her baby. I’m going to her.”
            “You should rest more, boy,” Horace said.
            “I’m okay.”
            “I’ll go with you,” Rance spoke hurriedly. “First we have to pick up some food and supplies for her.”
            “Let’s make it quick,” Del snapped. “It ain’t right her being out there by herself. I’m afraid somethin’ bad will happen.
            “So am I,” Rance Dehner said.
            Rance and Del had bought the supplies and ridden out of town when Horace Riley began to reflect on the events of earlier that day. A very well dressed gent had come in and rented a buckboard from him. Later on, a boy around Del’s age, also well dressed, had rented a horse. The boy looked familiar. Horace thought he had seen the kid in town, but not recently.
            The liveryman wished he had told the detective and Del about all this, it could be important. “That’s the trouble with gettin’ old,” Horace said to a strawberry roan, “you’re always thinkin’ of stuff too late.”

Episode Six:


            Bradford Maltin tied his buckboard to a scraggly tree and approached the shack. As he did so, the businessman almost subconsciously felt for the wallet in his coat and the shoulder pistol the wallet brushed against as he walked. Maybe the pistol wouldn’t be needed. He would give Leona a chance, but only one chance.
            The door opened seconds before he knocked and Leona stood in the doorway. This time, she held the barrel of the Winchester in her right hand with the handle propped on the floor. The girl had intended to say something tough or threatening, but Bradford’s distinguished appearance surprised her. She said nothing.
            “You must be Leona,” Bradford smiled graciously.
            “I’m Bradford Maltin, Will’s father. May I come in?”
            She paused before saying, “Okay.”
            Maltin walked directly to the bed where the baby lay. “This must be Samuel.”
            Leona caught the note of wonderment in Bradford’s voice and relaxed a bit. “Yes.”
            Maltin looked apologetically at the young woman. “I’m sorry my son didn’t write you back.”
            “That’s okay.”
            “No, it isn’t.” Bradford looked once again at the sleeping baby, then back at Leona. He pulled the wallet from his jacket, took out several bills and handed them to the girl.
            Leona seemed mesmerized as she counted the money. “Three hunnert dollars! I ain’t never seen this much money before!”
            “Where did you live before you had the baby?” Bradford asked.
            “I had a room at the restaurant where I worked. After I started to show they made me leave.”
            “Have any family anywhere?”
            Leona shook her head.
            “We’ll go into town. You’ve got enough money now to--”
            Hoofbeats could be heard approaching the shack. Bradford stepped quickly to the small window, then let out a curse.
            “What’s wrong?”
            “That worthless son of mine is coming. I told him to stay at the hotel. He can’t do anything right!”
            Leona felt a sudden surge of terror and confusion. She had resigned herself to never again seeing the man who had fathered her child, the man who had given her dreams of a fairy tale life in a beautiful distant city. Now that man was coming back into her life. The young woman’s fairy tale illusions had long ago been shattered. She knew this meant trouble. Serious trouble.
            The hoofbeats stopped and Will Maltin came almost running into the shack. He was greeted by an angry shout from his father.
            “What are you doing here? I told you to--”
            “I’m sick of you telling me what to do!”
            Samuel began to cry. Leona spoke as she picked the baby up. “Please, both of you,--stop it.”
            Will pointed at his father. “This man is a monster, Leona. He wants to take Samuel and he’ll kill you to do it.”
            “Shut up!” Bradford Maltin ordered.
            Will Maltin smashed a fist into his father’s face. The move was awkward, but the elder Maltin wasn’t expecting it. Bradford stumbled backwards. He quickly regained his footing and faked a punch to his son’s head. Will bent down, eyes on his father’s fist. Bradford tripped his son. As Will went down, Bradford jumped onto him, grabbed his hair and pounded his head three times against the floor.
            Bradford rose slowly as Samuel’s loud cries mixed with Will’s moans. He weaved toward Leona. “You’re coming with me. Bring Samuel.”
            Leona took a step backwards, pressing the baby tightly against her chest. “No.”
            Bradford pulled his pistol from its shoulder holster. “My son was right. I’ll kill you if need be.”

Episode Seven

            Rance Dehner and Del Burgess were riding at a steady but frustratingly slow pace toward the line shack. The two men wanted to move faster, but Del was guiding a pack horse burdened with supplies for Leona.
            They both stopped as they saw a buckboard barreling directly toward them. The clattering of the wagon and the hoofbeats of the four horses pulling it didn’t completely overwhelm the sound of a young woman’s screams.
            Rance and Del quickly guided their horses off the road and watched as the wagon went by. “That’s Leona!” Del shouted.
            Rance took off after the buckboard, positioning himself on the driver’s side. Galloping toward the wagon, he thought he saw Bradford Maltin pull a gun. Leona was sitting beside Maltin. She held Samuel tightly with one arm, and with the other hand she was holding on to the backless bench that was swaying violently on its springs.
            The detective yanked his bandana over his nose to protect from the wagon’s clouds of dust. As he came even with the floor of the buckboard, Rance yelled, “Fall back, Leona!”
            The young woman held tightly to her child as she fell backwards. Dehner was now even with the driver. Maltin fired a shot at the detective, but he had to hold onto to the horses’ reins with his other hand as the wagon bumped along. His shot went wild.
            “Throw down the gun!” Dehner shouted as he reached toward his holster.
            Maltin partially stood and raised his pistol for another shot but was stopped by a bullet from Rance’s Colt. Bradford dropped the reins as he collapsed onto the bench of the wagon.
            Holstering his gun, Dehner let his horse drop back to a position beside the wagon bed. Moving in close to the buckboard, he removed his feet from the stirrups of his saddle and leaped on board.
            Leona was bent over Samuel, protecting him from the dust. Dehner could see Bradford Maltin sitting up, leaning forward and grabbing the horses’ reins. His body weaved and then fell.  A loud cry sounded over the pounding hoofbeats as Maltin tumbled from the wagon.
            Rance quickly reached the bench and took command of the horses. After stopping the wagon, he turned toward the young woman. “Are you okay?”
            “Yes, I think so,” she said above a cacophony of loud bawls, “He’s upset, of course, but he’s fine.”
            Rance Dehner smiled at the young woman’s reply. Her thoughts were entirely about her son, not herself.
            “Good thing that horse of yours is faster than my nag!” Del pulled up by the wagon, jumped on board and embraced Leona, the noisy infant pressed between them.
            Dehner hopped from the wagon. A battered body lay a few yards down the road. As he approached it he could also see a lone horseman approaching. The detective instinctively drew his gun. He knew little of the people involved in this matter and could take no chances.
            “Father!” Will Maltin reined up, quickly dismounted and ran to his father. Dehner watched as the young man crouched over Bradford Maltin.
            The businessman’s eyes were glassy, but he was still lucid. “Don’t tell your mother…truth…make up something…”
            “I will.”
            Bradford Maltin smiled at his son. “That was a good punch you gave me…you’re not a weakling…” The businessman went limp.
            Will Maltin began to weep. Dehner looked away at the young couple in the wagon trying to comfort a crying baby. He suddenly felt very helpless. There was nothing he could do for any of them.
            Sixteen months later, Rance Dehner received a letter which was sent to him in care of the Lowrie Detective Agency in Dallas, Texas. The return address at the top bore the name of Will Maltin.


 Dear Mr. Dehner:
            During our brief meeting last year, I came to appreciate that you are a man of great competence and discretion. You are a gentleman. Therefore, I am confident that I can entrust you with the following matter.
            I am now employed by the company once owned by my father. I have risen to a prominent position with a commensurate salary and can now make amends for an earlier indiscretion.
            I am aware that Del Burgess planned to marry Leona. They were going to leave Colter and start a new life where they could raise Samuel free of wagging tongues.
            Such a course of action is laudable and I wish to provide financial assistance. My plan is to send them five hundred dollars every year at Christmas. Of course, the gift will be anonymous.
            Please be assured that I do not intend to cause any trouble for Mr. and Mrs. Burgess or to make any claims on Samuel. I am now courting a woman of appropriate station in life and realize the foolishness of my earlier dalliance. Nevertheless, I am a man of honour.
            I wish to engage you to find out where Del and Leona Burgess are now living and provide me with the address where I can send the money. Enclosed is a cheque. Please let me know if the sum is adequate.
            Thank you for the efforts of your good offices.

            Dehner returned the check along with the address which he already knew. Rance felt confident that Will was telling the truth. He wouldn’t causeDel and Leona any problems. But the detective was also uneasy. There was an aristocratic arrogance that tinged the letter, the writing of a man who always expected to get his way. Was Will Maltin becoming like his father? Dehner hoped not.

The Lightning Kid
(Original Run: December 30, 2011 – January 9, 2012)

Episode one of The Lightning Kid:

            Rance Dehner stood on the porch of one of Dallas’ finest homes and watched as his boss employed the knocker on the ornate front door. The detective was expecting to be greeted by an elderly butler. He was surprised when a beautiful young girl of about fourteen opened the door.
            “Good morning, Mr. Lowrie. It’s good to see you again.” The young woman smiled at Rance’s employer. The smile was subdued, but still communicated a ton of charm.
            “The pleasure is mine, Sally,” came the courteous, old school reply. “And this is my associate, Mr. Rance Dehner.”
            Dehner exchanged a “How do you do” with the girl, who quickly got to the point. “Father is expecting you. I’ll take you to him.”
            The two detectives followed Sally’s brisk footsteps past an ornate stairway and down a wide hall. They walked between two women in identical dresses who were dusting the row of paintings that decorated each wall. The ladies were being cautious in what was obviously a delicate undertaking. Sally stopped in front of the last door in the hallway, where a muscular man of about five and a half feet was stepping out.
            “Is father ready to receive visitors, Tom?”
            “Yes, Miss Sally.”
            “Thank you. Oh--” Sally Brookshire apologized for her lapse in manners and introduced the two detectives to Tom, whom she described as her father’s “assistant.”
            Dehner figured Tom had a variety of chores. From what the detective’s boss had told him, the “assistant” was the only healthy, strong man in a house that contained a fortune in art work alone. 
            Sally escorted them into a room where three of the walls were covered by bookshelves, several of them in a state of disorder. Obviously, the tomes were frequently removed and read. The room was dominated by a desk and even more so by the man who sat behind it.
            “Good morning, Bert. Good to see you again.”
            Bertram Lowrie pressed his lips together. He hated being called “Bert.” But the pained expression on the tall, thin man’s face was brief. “Good to see you, William.” 
            Dehner noted the heavy formality in his boss’ voice. Bertram Lowrie and William Brookshire were on a first name basis, but the relationship was still one of employee and employer.
            Mr. Brookshire gave his daughter a quick glance. “Thank you, Sally. That will be all for now.”
            Sally smiled and exited. The girl seemed to fill the job of secretary. Dehner wondered if the position ever contradicted her role as daughter.
            After she departed, Lowrie immediately spoke up. Three years in Texas had not dented his British accent. “Per your request, William, I have brought along my associate, Mr. Rance Dehner.”
            Brookshire extended his right hand. “Good to meet you, Rance. I apologize for not standing up.”
            Rance shook hands with a man who was a curious contrast. William Brookshire’s face appeared youthful. Wrinkles were conspicuous at the corners of his eyes, but nowhere else. His sandy hair was thick, with only slight streaks of gray decorating the areas around his ears.
            The rest of his body looked frail and almost too thin for the wheel chair that held it. A blanket was draped across his lap.
            “Do you gentlemen believe in an afterlife?” Brookshire asked.

Episode Two of The Lightning Kid

Bertram Lowrie’s head snapped back as if he had been slapped. “I was raised in the Church of England,” he declared.
            Neither of the other two men in the room knew how to interpret that remark. Dehner hastily chimed in, “I was raised a Baptist. I’m not a very good one, but yes, I believe in an afterlife.”
            “I know the question is a bit odd,” Brookshire shot Lowrie an apologetic look. “But my doctor has informed me…well…I’m not a religious man, but I had better start doing some thinking about my soul.”
            William Brookshire paused and looked about restlessly as if trying to think about his soul, but not knowing where to begin. He again glanced at Lowrie, “Have you told Rance about my…situation?”
            “No. I have followed your instructions in this matter.”
            Brookshire nodded his head, then turned to Rance. “I lied about my age and entered the war between the states when I was fifteen. Thought war would be a lot of fun. Found out different. I came back in ’63 with my right leg gone, and my left one worthless.”
            “I’m sorry,” Rance spoke in soft voice.
            William Brookshire smiled and his voice boomed. “Life has been good to me. I gave up on my dream of being a cowboy and became a businessman instead.” He threw up his hands, gesturing at all that was around him. “As you can see, it worked out pretty well.”
            The businessman dropped his hands, and his voice quieted. “Well, not everything went so well.”
            “What do you mean, sir?” Dehner realized they were getting close to the purpose behind this meeting.
            “I have two kids. You’ve met Sally; she’s the youngest. My son, Thaddeaus, is fifteen. Their mother died when Thad was seven. I’ve tried to be a good father to them. Sally and I get along fine, but I guess it’s hard for a boy to have a father in a wheelchair who spends his days behind a desk.”
            Brookshire looked away from the two detectives, but only for a moment. He was a man who looked others in the eye. To do less was, for him, improper. “I talked a lot to Thad about my war experiences. I talked too much, I guess. Thad and I didn’t get along very well the last couple of years. He ran off nine months ago, on his fifteenth birthday.”
            “Have you heard anything from him or about him since?” Dehner asked.
            William Brookshire pulled out the middle drawer of his desk and handed Rance a magazine. Real Gunfighters was the kind of publication still known as a penny dreadful, even though the price was now five cents. The cover featured a crude drawing of a gunfight on the dusty street of a western town, where one man was gunning down three. The caption proclaimed: “The Coming of The Lightning Kid!”
            “When he was in school, my son loved to race,” Brookshire explained. “His pals gave him the nickname, ‘Lightning.’”
            “You think your son is The Lightning Kid?!”
            The businessman nodded his head. “That magazine arrived in the mail last week. There was no return address.”
            Dehner read the article inside. The writer, Foster Lewis, claimed that in the town of Tin Cup, Texas, three outlaws had tried looting supplies from a local mercantile. When a clerk tried to stop them, one of the thugs began to pistol whip him. A stranger walked into the store and promptly decked the offender with a hard right. A loud argument ensued, and the three outlaws challenged the stranger to meet them in the street. He did. In the gunfight that followed, he killed all three outlaws.
            When the sheriff arrived, he asked for the stranger’s name and, according to Foster, the gunman replied, “Just call me the Lightning Kid!”

Episode Three:

Like everything else in Real Gunfighters, the writing was crude and the article short. Dehner turned to the title page and discovered the magazine was published in Dallas. “We can go to the office of Real Gunfighters,--”
            Brookshire smiled good naturedly. “I believe your boss has already taken care of that, right Bert?”
            “Yes, I visited the offices of Thrilling Adventures Publications yesterday.”
            Dehner couldn’t tell if the tone of disapproval in his boss’ voice came from  disgust with the magazine or displeasure over being called “Bert.” Probably a bit of both.
            “What did you find out?” Rance asked.
            “I talked with Mr. Foster Lewis, who, by the way, does resemble that drawing of him which accompanies the article.”
            Dehner nudged his employer on, “What did Lewis tell you?”
            “The description he gave of the Lightning Kid matches that of Thad Brookshire: tall with sandy hair, well over six feet, about 185 pounds--”
            William Brookshire anxiously cut in, “Did you ask him about the boy’s age?” 
            “Yes, and what the so-called writer told me seemed quite acceptable. At first, Mr. Lewis assumed the boy was at least nineteen, but after talking with him he became less certain. Yes, The Lightning Kid may be only fifteen.”
            “Was the story about the gunfight true?” Rance chimed in.
            “Mr. Lewis claimed it was.”
            “Did you look into it further?”  Dehner asked.
            “I did indeed query Mr. Lewis’ background. His reputation is somewhat blemished, but not altogether without merit. Foster Lewis rarely makes anything up from whole cloth, but he does embellish.”  Lowrie looked directly at his client. “Your son was, in all likelihood, involved in an altercation that began in a mercantile and ended in the streets of Tin Cup. Whether he killed three men, or any men at all remains a matter to be clarified.”
            “I understand you have had previous business in Tin Cup, Mr. Dehner, and you know the sheriff there,” the businessman said.
            “Yes. And the sheriff is a fine man.”
            “When can you leave?”

            “Immediately.” Lowrie replied before Dehner had a chance. “I have already assigned other operatives to his current case load.”

            Rance suppressed a chuckle. At the present moment he didn’t have a caseload. However, his new assignment did have him confused. “What exactly do you want me to do in Tin Cup?”
            “Find my son!” Desperation laced Brookshire’s voice. He paused for a moment, then continued in a calm manner that was obviously hard for him. “Then bring Thad home. He doesn’t have to stay here. I just want to talk with my son one more time before--”
            Brookshire’s face contorted and he looked away from his guests. Bertram Lowrie immediately spoke up. “Mr. Dehner will be leaving for Tin Cup first thing tomorrow. We are very optimistic that Thaddeus will be back home soon, William.”
            Dehner nodded his head in silent agreement. This job seemed pretty easy. Thad Brookshire ran from home at the age of fifteen, the same age his father had been when he enlisted in the war between the states. Thad now called himself the Lightning Kid, a name that would be immediately recognized by his family. Dehner felt sure Thad had sent his father the copy of Real Gunfighters.
            The situation was common enough: a young man rebelling against his father and at the same time trying desperately to impress him. Rance figured he had a simple job that would, no doubt, pay good money.
            A sense of unease suddenly gripped the detective. He remembered previous times when he had thought an assignment easy.
It never seemed to work out that way.  

Episode Four:


            Foster Lewis stepped into the Golden Fountain, one of Dallas’ more expensive establishments. The large restaurant- saloon contained a stage where there was a floor show every night. Lewis hastily checked his pocket watch. It was only a few minutes past seven, almost an hour before the first show. Mitzi would still have time to talk with him.
            The writer hastily glanced around the Golden Fountain, which was only half full at this early hour. He heard Mitzi’s earthy laugh before he spotted her. She was squeezing the arm of one of the men engaged in a poker game.
            “Ike, the way your luck is going, you’ll be owning this place before the week is done.”
            Ike laughed heartily. “And when I do, Mitzi, I’ll make you the star of the show!”
            Boisterous laughter followed the remark and Mitzi gave everyone at the table a bright smile as she danced away. Foster watched that smile diminish as Mitzi spotted him walking toward her.
            “Evening, Foster.” There was no music in her voice.
            “Can we talk, Mitzi? Just for a few minutes.”
            “You’ll have to buy me a drink.”
            “Sure.” He pointed toward an empty table. Mitzi signaled a waiter.
            “I’m onto something big, Mitzi!” Foster spoke as they sat down.
            The woman laughed harshly. “What is it now?”
            “A detective visited the magazine today.”
            “Your boss is hiring someone to spy on his cheating wife.”
            “It had nothing to do with the boss’ wife. Remember that story I did on The Lightning Kid?”
            “The story is in the latest issue.”
            “I haven’t read the latest issue. Don’t plan to.”
            “The detective was asking questions about the Kid, so after he left I did some detective work of my own.”
            “How thrilling.” For the first time since she had sat down at the table, Mitzi smiled. The smile was for the waiter who delivered two drinks, a whiskey for Foster and a glass of water for Mitzi. Foster paid for both drinks. The waiter claimed, “…the lady is having vodka.”  No surprise. Lewis had suffered through this routine many times.
            Foster kept quiet until the waiter departed, then continued, “The Lightning Kid is the son of a rich man, William Brookshire.”
            The woman once again gave a joyless laugh. “That’s as close as you’ll ever get to real money.”
             Foster nervously caressed his thick brown mustache. “I’ve got something big planned.”
            “You always do.”
            The writer leaned in toward Mitzi. “The Lightning Kid is going to terrorize a poor family. Finally, one of the sons of that family will get fed up and challenge the Kid.”
            “Of course, the poor boy will triumph over the rich no good.”
            “Exactly!” Foster almost shouted. “People love to read stuff like that. This could make a great book. I’ll make hundreds,--thousands. We can get married, move--”
            “Foster, how long have we known each other?”
            “About four years.”
            The irritation in Mitzi’s voice subsided, replaced by a touch of sadness. “When we first met, you were a reporter with the Dallas Herald. You were going to make me famous, then you got fired--”
            “That wasn’t my fault…”
            “I don’t care anymore! Foster, I’m tired of your crazy dreams. If this Lightning Kid is going to make you wealthy, fine. But don’t bother me again until you are rich.”
            Mitzi got up, leaving her water untouched. Foster drank alone then left the Golden Fountain determined that this scheme would work.


Episode Five:

            Thad Brookshire stood at the bar in The Laughing Lady Saloon, looking down at his beer. The stuff tasted awful, and contrary to what the sign outside claimed, it wasn’t even cold. The only good thing about the mug in front of him was that it came free.
            Thad took a sip of the beer and smiled inwardly. The town of Tin Cup had provided a lot of free stuff since that magazine article came out. He didn’t have to pay for his room at the hotel or his meals at the restaurant.
            He knew a lot of eyes were on him, and tried not to make a face as he returned the mug to the bar. How long could this last? For that matter, how long did he want it to last? He missed Dallas and his family and wondered if they had realized the Lightning Kid was Thad Brookshire when they read that issue of Real Gunfighters he sent them. 
            He glanced briefly at Pop Cummings, half of whose torso was spread out on one of the saloon’s round tables. Pop got drunk and passed out every night of the week. Old man Cummings had fought in the war between the states, or told people he had. Thad thought Pop’s war stories were, for the most part, true, and wondered at the ways fighting a war could impact a man. His father had certainly handled it differently than Pop.
            “I hear tell you’re the Lightning Kid!”
            Thad turned around to face a wiry, nervous man who had just stepped through the Laughing Lady’s batwing doors. He was wearing new clothes complete with boots that looked a bit odd. Thad guessed the boots were padded a bit to give the wearer an inch or two of height.
            More important than the boots was the shiny Colt .45 which was strapped to the newcomer’s waist. Thad pegged the man’s age at about eighteen.
            “Yeah, some folks call me the Lightning Kid.” Thad’s voice was a monotone. “What’s your handle?”
            “I’m called Bronco ‘cause of how I can tame a wild horse.”
            “Good to meet you, Bronco.”
            “I ain’t so happy to meet you.”
            Thad knew where this was leading but didn’t know how to stop it.
“Why’s that?”
            “I come by my name honest like. I think you’re jus’ a lot of thunder. Yeah, you’re jus’ a lotta noise. No lightning ‘bout your way with a gun.”
            Thad wondered at the atmosphere inside the saloon. The saloon girls were tense, but the men were almost salivating with anticipation. Thad realized that this was what it was really all about: the free drinks, restaurant meals and the rest. Folks wanted a show. No one in the saloon gave the slightest thought to talking Bronco out of his recklessness. They wanted a gunfight where one man lay dead in a pool of blood.
            This was different than stopping thieves who were robbing a store and beating up on the owner. This was needless killing.
            Thad Brookshire took a final look at the crowd, who were now lined against the wall watching with eager eyes. Only Pop Cummings remained where he was. “Go back to your horses, Bronco,” Thad’s voice almost broke.
            Bronco laughed mockingly. “Why, I believe the Lightning Kid is about to cry! Guess you got something to cry about!”
            Bronco did everything wrong. He inhaled deeply and his eyebrows sprung up before he reached for his gun. Thad got off the first shot before his opponent had cleared leather. The Lightning Kid had aimed for the chest, but the bullet ripped into Bronco’s neck. Bronco made a grotesque, gurgling sound as he dropped to the floor. The crowd watched in silence as the dying man thrust about and then went limp.
            Thad walked cautiously toward his fallen adversary. He crouched over and picked up the .45 which lay beside the dead youth. As Thad stood back up he could hear footsteps running toward the saloon. Sheriff Harry Clausen burst inside, then stopped at the dead body.
            Everything about Clausen seemed like a contradiction to Thad. The sheriff was an older man with gray hair and a mustache, who walked with a slight limp. And, yet, the lawman seemed nimble and alert.
            Harry Clausen quickly examined the corpse, then gave Thad a harsh glare, “Is this your handiwork?”
            “Yes, sir,” Thad Brookshire’s voice was a slight whisper.  He handed the sheriff the Colt.
            The harshness in Clausen’s eyes vanished. He stared at Thad for a moment, then looked at the bartender while nodding his head at the dead body. “Can you handle this, Ralph?”
            “Sure Sheriff, no problem.” Ralph then called out the names of two men, promising them free drinks if they got the body to the town’s barber who was also the undertaker.
            One of the patrons in the saloon shouted, “Don’t blame the Lightning Kid, Sheriff! The other guy went for his gun first, but the kid was too fast for him!”
            Pop Cummings sat up in his chair and looked about stupidly. The rest of the crowd began to return to the bar and tables to continue the night’s revelry. Men slapped Thad on the back and proclaimed, “Ain’t never seen no one faster” and similar compliments. Thad felt ill. 
            “Come on, boy.” Thad followed the sheriff out of the saloon and down the boardwalk. He felt increasingly nauseous. As Clausen opened the door to his office, Thad stepped off the boardwalk and vomited. The lawman pretended not to notice. He stepped inside the office and placed the .45 on his desk.
            Harry Clausen spoke in a low voice as the young man entered the office. “It’s an awful feeling, ain’t it?”
            Thad nodded his head. “Why did Bronco do it?”
            “The man I…the man I killed. He told me his name was Bronco.”
            A wistful expression crossed the sheriff’s face. “I always knew him as Larry Swanson. He was a ranch hand for Ralph Stuart.”
            “He told me folks called him Bronco because of how he could tame wild horses.”
            Clausen shrugged his shoulders. “He might have broken a bronc or two, guess it really doesn’t make much difference now.”
            “But why…”
            “Larry, or Bronco, was there the day you shot one of the thugs who was trying to rob the mercantile. I remember seeing him standing around when I got there.”
            The sheriff continued, “Larry probably read that magazine. Thought if you could be a famous gunfighter, he could be more famous for killing you.”
            “I should have never mouthed off to that writer! What got into me!”
            “You surely did help Wyatt Brunner when those saddle tramps tried to loot his store.” The sheriff made a fist, “From what Wyatt says, you jumped right in and knocked the biggest one of the lot out cold.”
            “You know, I still don’t remember exactly what happened after that. The other two jumped me and we ended up in the street in front of the store. One of them pulled a gun, so I pulled mine and fired. He screamed something awful and went down. Then…”
            “Then I came along,” Harry Clausen said. “I shot the other man who had also pulled a gun on you. You weren’t even looking at him. I reckon the marshall we turned them over to has dropped them in the territorial prison by now.”
            “Where did that fool writer come from anyway?”
            “He was sitting in the depot, waiting for the stage. He heard all the ruckus and came running.”
            Thad Brookshire gave an angry sigh. He was angry with himself. “That writer kept putting words in my mouth, and I went along. But, that part about the Lightning Kid, I made that up myself.”
            To Brookshire’s relief the sheriff did not ask him why he had chosen the name, “Lightning Kid.” What the sheriff did ask surprised him, “How would you like to be my deputy?”
            “I’ve been needin’ a deputy for some time now. The last fella I tried didn’t work out. I’ve seen you handle a gun. You’re good for someone who ain’t had much in the way of training. I could help you out.” 
            “I’m not sure…”
            “There’s something else to think about.”
            “What’s that?”
            “Like it or not, you’re getting a reputation as a gunfighter. That magazine is telling everyone you outgunned three men. Now, who knows what kind of tales will get around about you out drawing Bronco?”
            Thad looked downward, “Oh brother…”
            “Becoming a deputy might nip some of that in the bud. A fool kid or two bit thug will think twice before challenging a man wearing a piece of tin.”
            The young man was silent for a moment, then nodded his head, “Okay, I’ll try it, for a while at least…”  Thad looked around the office and gave his surroundings a smile of wonderment. “I never would have guessed….”
            “What do you mean?”
            “I mean, I’m going to be trained to be a deputy by a real western sheriff.”
            A slight tinge of red covered Clausen’s face. He pulled out the middle drawer of his desk, grabbed a badge and spoke officiously as he pinned it on Thad’s shirt. “I’ll swear you in now and you can come with me on a round. Tomorrow morning I’ll take you out of town and show you how to use a gun proper like. Get as much sleep as you can tonight.”
            “A lawman doesn’t sleep much.”

Episode Six:

            Foster Lewis guided his rented buckskin toward the dilapidated shack sided by a corral containing two bony horses. The heat felt oppressive, and there wasn’t a hint of shade anywhere. Still, Foster considered himself a lucky man.
            He had arrived in Tin Cup late in the morning and had spent less than an hour in the Laughing Lady saloon. That was all the time required for him to hear about the Lightning Kid outdrawing someone called Bronco three nights ago. The details varied, depending on who was doing the talking.
            Then, the story got even better. The Lightning Kid was now a deputy sheriff.
            The writer laughed out loud at how well things were going. Why, someone at the Laughing Lady had even given him directions to the Estey place, though the barfly had added, “The Esteys might be able to sell you some tanglefoot. That is, if they hasn’t drunk too much of it theyselves.”
            Lewis’ musings were interrupted by the sound of three gunshots. He dismounted and tied his bay to the corral. The smell of moonshine was in the air, but Lewis couldn’t see where the still was located and he didn’t really care. His attention was focused on the man trying to shoot rocks off a log.
            Walking in a slow, cautious manner, Lewis approached the shooter. As he got closer, he recognized the man firing the Remington.
            “Hello, Boone.”
            Boone Estey turned and faced the newcomer with suspicion. Boone looked upon everyone with suspicion. He lived a life of bare survival where there were no friends. He was medium height with rotting teeth and a nose that had been broken in a fight rotgut had erased from his mind.
            “I know ya,” he said. Lewis couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement.
            “Sure,” Lewis responded with forced cheerfulness. “We met in the stage depot a few weeks ago.”
            “I was sellin’ a few jugs there.” Boone pointed the Remington at Lewis, but not in a threatening manner.
            Foster Lewis was uneasy nonetheless, “When you found out I was a writer, you told me how good you were with a gun. I’ve come here to write a story about you.”
            “You’ll put it in a mager--”
            “Magazine. Yes.”
            Boone holstered his gun. “Can’t read yet. Some people tole me ‘bout the magerzine with the Lightning Kid. I’m faster than him.”
            “I know, and we’re going to prove it tonight!”
            Boone twitched and began to scratch his head vigorously. Lewis reckoned Boone Estey had lice. The writer also figured his luck was holding out. Boone could still follow directions. In another year or so, the tanglefoot would have totally addled the moonshiner’s brain.
            “You have family that live here?”
            “My Pa and me.”
            “I may need his help tonight.”
            “How come?”
            Foster ignored the question. “Can’t believe the Lightning Kid has been made a deputy. What was that fool sheriff thinking?”
            “Don’t know nothin’ about it.”
            “I’ll bet in no time the Lightning Kid will be out here trying to close you and your pa down.”
            “The sheriff leaves us alone, long as we don’t cause no trouble.”
            “The Lightning Kid is different from the sheriff.”
            “How’s that?” 
            “He’s the son of a rich man! You know how rich people are, they’re always causing trouble for the poor!”
            Anger suddenly oozed from Boone’s eyes. “You’re right! Them rich men who own the saloons, they make it hard for us to sell our jugs.”
            Foster grabbed at the opening. “And the men who own the saloons control the Lightning Kid. He does whatever they want.”
            “I ain’t ‘fraid of the Lightning Kid.”
            “Of course not. You’re faster than him and, like I said, you’re going to prove it tonight.”
            As Foster explained his plan, he felt good in that Boone was obviously going along. But he didn’t feel all that good about Boone’s chances against Thad Brookshire. The plan would need some modification to ensure that the Lightning Kid was killed by the gun of a poor man.


Episode Seven:

Rance Dehner rode into the town of Tin Cup late that afternoon, remembering the last time he had been there about six weeks back. As on his last visit, he was tired and thirsty and also as on his last visit, he wouldn’t be able to slake his thirst immediately.
            The detective spotted a familiar face entering a gun shop; at least it was sort of familiar. The man looked like the drawing of Foster Lewis that had appeared with the article about the Lightning Kid in Real Gunfighters.
            Dehner rode down the street slowly. At that hour, there were not too many people moving about. Most folks were either working or staying in some shelter from the merciless sun.
            Rance stopped his bay across from the gunshop and tied it to a hitchrail, then began fussing with his saddlebags. He didn’t have to fuss very long. Foster Lewis soon exited the store carrying two identical pistols and one holster. Lewis walked briskly toward the livery. In a short time, he was riding out of town on the opposite end from where Rance had entered.
            “Sorry boy, it’s going to be a while before either of us gets any liquid refreshment,”  Rance whispered to the bay as he untied the reins from the hitch rail and remounted. “I need to find out where a certain writer gets his inspiration.”
            Dehner had no trouble following the cloud of dust Foster Lewis created as he rode about twenty minutes out of town. As Lewis slowed down, the detective noted that there were several large boulders nearby. He tethered his horse to a tree, then advanced cautiously toward one of the boulders.
            Three shots sounded as Rance crouched behind the large stone. “Good shooting, Boone! Hey, you’re taking to that new gun like a fish to water.”
            “Thanks for gettin’ it for me, Mista Lewis.” 
            “Happy to do it! That Remington of yours was a fine gun at one time, but turning a bit rusty.”
            “I can beat the Lightnin’ Kid.”
            “Sure! Say, Boone, is your pap ready?”
            “Yeah, but remember, you gotta pay him first.”
            “I never back out of a deal. Remember that, Hardscrabble.”
            “That’s what everyone will be calling you soon. Just like now they call Thad Brookshire the Lightning Kid.  No more Boone Estey, you’re going to be Hardscrabble, the famous gun fighter. Try that gun again.” 
            After another series of shots, Foster Lewis began to give instructions to “Hardscrabble.” Dehner listened carefully, then when the third series of shots began, he headed for his horse.
            Arriving back in Tin Cup, the detective rode to the livery where he gave the hostler some money and requested accommodations and care for his bay. Rance took a quick swig of water from his canteen and headed for the sheriff’s office.
            Outside the door of the office he could hear laughter and the voice of a young man. “So, then Harvey said, ‘If you’re Mr. Law in these here parts, order God to strike me dead.’”
            There was more laughter, then a voice Dehner recognized as Harry Clausen said, “Whadd’ya say next?”
            “I told him, ‘Harvey, I don’t want God to waste any thunderbolts on you. I can knock you over and drag you to jail with one hand. Now, get on your mule and go home.’”
            Another round of laughter followed, which diminished as the detective stepped into the office. “Well, hello Rance, surprised to see you back in town…” Harry Clausen introduced Dehner to Thad Brookshire as a detective for the Lowrie Agency.
            “What brings you to Tin Cup this time, Rance?” Harry was being pleasant, but neither he nor his deputy were laughing any longer. Dehner felt bad about that.
            The detective’s response to the question was deliberately vague. “I hope to get a few things done. Did you gents know that Mr. Foster Lewis is back in town?”
            “What?!”  Thad looked amazed. The sheriff looked concerned.
            “Yeah, I just saw him outside of town, talking with Boone Estey.”
            The concern intensified on the sheriff’s face. “Boone is a moonshiner, along with his pa.”
            “Yeah, well right now he’s in training to be a killer.” Rance Dehner continued to talk. He had both men’s attention.


Episode Eight:
            Foster Lewis stood on the boardwalk across from the Laughing Lady. He was trying to appear inconspicuous, and failing. The task was impossible with Boone Estey standing beside him.
            “My pa did right, earned his pay,” Boone spoke as if someone had accused his father of stealing the money. “Got the sheriff out of town with a crazy story --”
            “Keep your voice down!” Foster looked around, relieved to see that no one was close by. “The deputy will be starting the evening round soon. Like the sheriff always does, he will enter the Laughing Lady, go to the bar and ask the bartender if everything is okay.”
            “That’s when I kill him,” Boone’s voice was now a whisper. A loud whisper, but a whisper.
            Lewis wished he had found someone else to be his hero. Too late now. “You’ll walk into the saloon, say, ‘Deputy, you aren’t pushing around the poor people in this town any longer’ and walk to the end of the bar. Be sure you are on the end near the wall with the window in it.”
            “I can outdraw the Lightning Kid.” Boone’s voice was less certain than it had been only a few hours ago.
            “Sure you can! But don’t worry, I’ll be backing you up. Now, stay here, stay quiet and wait for the deputy to walk into the Laughing Lady.” Lewis patted the moonshiner on the back, then quickly made his way across the road and through the bat wing doors. 
            Lewis gave the saloon a long glance. The Laughing Lady looked typical for early in the evening. There were several people scattered about and that old man, the one they called pop—something—was passed out at his usual table.
            The big crowd was still an hour or so away, so the writer had his pick of which lady to use for his scheme. Foster gave several girls an appreciative eye, but purposely chose the one he found least attractive. Lewis judged her to be twenty pounds overweight. The woman’s upper lip was covered by a red mustache created by sloppily applied lipstick. Her wig was blond, in need of cleaning, and askew. 
            “Let’s you and me go upstairs first, blond wig, then I’ll buy you a drink.”
            The woman, used to being the last selected, looked surprised but accompanied Foster up the wide stairway. On the second floor were several rooms where business was conducted.
            “Keep walking, blond wig,” Lewis instructed as his companion stopped at the first room they came to. The couple walked around the horseshoe shaped second floor, passing many rooms until they arrived at a very short corridor at the end of the horseshoe. The corridor contained one room. Foster handed the woman a couple of bills. “Get inside. Don’t come out till I tell you.”
            The woman shrugged her shoulders and did what she was told. Foster Lewis settled into a dark corner of the corridor where he had an excellent view of the saloon floor below.
            No one could spot him unless they looked carefully, and no one would be looking. He had purposely chosen blond wig because one of the more attractive girls might have gotten some leering glances as she traversed the second floor.
            Now he only had to wait. Foster caressed the .44 which was tucked into his belt, a gun identical to the one he had purchased for Boone Estey.
            Foster smiled. The name wasn’t Boone Estey anymore, it was Hardscrabble: a unique name for a gunfighter. The name would stand for a Robin Hood who used his speed with a gun to help the poor.
            The writer allowed himself a quiet chuckle. Hardscrabble’s fight for the poor was going to make a certain writer rich. He would marry Mitzi and live the kind of life they both wanted and deserved.
            More customers were moseying into the Laughing Lady. Good. The more people, the more confusion. After the shooting was over, he would go downstairs and start planting notions in people’s minds as to what had happened. It had always worked before.
            Foster pulled the .44 from his belt. This gunfight was too important. He couldn’t leave anything to chance. He would gun down the Lightning Kid himself. The Kid just might kill hardscrabble. In a way, that might be for the best. Poor boy kills rich tyrant and takes a fatal bullet himself. Not bad at all…

Episode Nine:

            Thad Brookshire shouldered his way through the bat wings. The deputy exchanged a few hellos with some of the customers as he made his way toward the bar.
            “Life treating you okay, Ralph?”
            “Sure,” the bartender replied. “Everything is--”
            Boone Estey stomped into the saloon. “Lightin’ Kid, you stop jawin’ ‘bout me bein’ poor, cause, I ain’t.”
            Foster Lewis cringed. His hope that Boone would end up dead ratcheted up a notch.
            Thad gave the newcomer a relaxed smile. “Take it easy, friend. Let me buy you a drink.”          
            Boone looked confused. For a horrible moment, Lewis feared the moonshiner might accept the drink.
            “No! I want nothin’ from ya.” Lewis smiled with relief as he watched Boone position himself at the end of the bar facing the deputy. Once the gunfight began, Thad Brookshire would be in perfect range for Foster Lewis’ shot from the balcony.
            Once again, the crowd in the Laughing Lady lined the walls, safely away from any potential bullet but close enough to see the show. Foster Lewis took a few cautious steps forward toward the railing. As soon as Thad Brookshire went for his gun, Lewis would kill him.
            “I ain’t afraid of ya!” Boone shouted. Perspiration cut a trail from his forehead through his cheeks.
            “I didn’t say you were.” Thad kept his voice low and calm.
            “I’m countin’ to three, then ya better draw. One, two--”
            Rance Dehner broke loose from the crowd huddled against the wall and approached Boone from behind. “Can you sell me a jug of tanglefoot?”
            Boone looked startled. Dehner grabbed the mooshiner by his shoulder, spun him around and landed a hard right to the side of his head. Boone Estey hit the floor, his shiny new Colt still in its holster.
            Pop Cummings suddenly stood up from his table, only it wasn’t Pop, it was Harry Clausen, holding a six shooter which he pointed at Lewis. “Hands up, right now!”
            Foster Lewis felt dizzy and disoriented.  He had to act fast. He’d bring down the sheriff first and then kill Brookshire. Then he’d make up a story…
            Lewis aimed his gun at Clausen but felt a sharp burn in his chest before he could pull the trigger. The writer staggered backwards, trying desperately to keep his balance. He fired his Colt but the bullet went into the floor only a few feet from him.
            A harsh noise resounded in his ears and Foster Lewis realized he was dying. “Mitzi,” he whispered the name twice, realizing he would never see her again. Then a terrifying realization coursed through him.
            Mitzi didn’t care. She didn’t care he was dying. Mitzi wouldn’t miss him at all when he didn’t show at the Golden Fountain. The woman he loved wouldn’t give him a thought…
            Foster Lewis staggered forward and fell over the railing. His body did a graceful turn in the air before he hit the floor on his back. As Dehner crouched over the writer, an odd thought hit him: Lewis’ fall looked like something that would be featured in one of his articles.
            But Foster Lewis would not be writing any more stories. “No sense in calling a doctor,” Rance said to the sheriff. “This man is dead.”

            Morning was crowding out the night, but a three quarter moon still clung to the sky. Both Dehner and Thaddeus Brookshire were checking the saddle bags on their horses. Their steeds were tied to the hitch rail outside the sheriff’s office.
            Rance looked at the young man who seemed nervous as he patted his roan. “I’m Sorry I didn’t tell you about your father right away, but I knew Lewis was planning to kill you last night, and figured we needed to take care of that little matter first thing.”
            “Sure, I understand,” Thad’s voice sounded anxious.  “Do you know how long my father…”
            “From what my boss Bertram Lowrie tells me, the docs have given him about six months, maybe a year. But William Brookshire is a tough man, Thad. He may fool those doctors.”
            “Yeah, my father is tough, sort of like Harry Clausen.” Thad’s eyes became distant. “Harry and my father are both strong men, strong in very different ways.”
            “We should go inside and say our good-byes to the sheriff.”
            As the two men entered the office, Harry Clausen looked up from his desk. The gesture looked a bit artificial, and Rance figured the sheriff hadn’t really been engrossed in paper work.
            “Morning gents!” Harry’s voice was loud and friendly.
            “Good morning, Sheriff,” Thad shot back.
            “Say, I’ve been thinking,” Harry Clausen leaned back in his chair. “Tin Cup  has  been kind of rough on you two. Allow me to make up for it a bit. I’ll buy you both breakfast before you head out.”
            Thad looked down at the floor, then up at the man behind the desk. “Thanks, Sheriff but we’ve got a lot of riding to do and we need to get started.”
            “Sure!” Clausen stood up, waving a hand as if dismissing the offer. “Just because I’m always thinking about my stomach doesn’t mean you gents are.”
            Awkward laughter filled the room.
            Thad’s face began to contort. “I’m sorry to be leaving you like this, Sheriff, without a deputy and all.”
            Clausen’s voice was quieter, but firm. “You’re doing the right thing, boy.”
            Thaddeus Brookshire once again looked down at the floor and for the first time since he had met him, Dehner remembered that the kid was fifteen. Thad  looked up and smiled at Harry Clausen. “Thanks for the lessons on how to handle a gun.”
            Clausen shrugged his shoulders, “Didn’t amount to much.”
            “I’ll be back in Tin Cup!” Thad declared loudly. “Don’t know when, but I’ll be back. Had enough schooling, don’t need any more of that.”
            “Get as much book learning as you can, boy.”
            “I’ll write you a letter and let you know what’s going on,” Thad’s bluster was gone.
            “Thanks, I’ll look forward to that.” Clausen looked about in a jerky manner, then spoke to Rance with overblown, comical anger. “Dehner, next time I see you in Tin Cup, I’m going to run you out. You’re nothing but trouble.”
            The three men laughed and continued to make jokes as they left the office. Rance and Thad quickly mounted their horses and began to ride out of town. As they did so, they turned and waved to Harry Clausen who was standing in the middle of the road.
            As they were reaching the edge of town, Dehner turned back and saw the sheriff who again began waving at them vigorously. Rance waved again and sensed that Harry Clausen was hoping Thad would turn and wave to him. Rance glanced briefly at the young man riding beside him.  Thaddeus Brookshire was looking straight forward, his mind obviously on thoughts of Dallas and his family. It seemed wrong to intrude.
            Dehner turned around one last time. Maybe it was just the clouds passing over a fading moon, but Harry Clausen’s body seemed to slump a bit as he returned to his office.

Sam Wilcock
(This story originally ran as a serial from Dec. 20, 2011-Dec. 27, 2011)

Episode one of Sam Wilcock:

            Rance Dehner peered cautiously over the top of a thick bush. He was on a rocky slope, and one misstep could cause him to fall and be captured. He watched as three horsemen wove their mounts among the large stone outcroppings and scraggly trees, and down to the road at the bottom. Two of the men dismounted, took ropes off their saddles and walked back up the hill a few feet. A tree was lying there. Dehner had watched them cut it down the previous day.
            Each of the two men tied a rope around the tree and tied the other end of the rope to the horns of their saddles.  The third man kept watch as they pulled the thorny locust tree across the road where it would block the stagecoach, which was due by in an hour or so. One of the oldest tricks in the book, Dehner thought. He was obviously dealing with novices. That wasn’t necessarily good. An amateur tends to go for his gun quicker than a professional thief who is armed with a slew of tricks to escape the law.
            Dehner was a detective for the Lowrie agency. Three weeks before, he had captured a young bandit who had robbed a Wells Fargo stage depot. The kid’s name was Jamie Everett. He was scared, remorseful and very talkative. He admitted to being part of a gang that had robbed a stagecoach three months back. Jamie informed the law that the gang was planning to regroup and pull another job soon. He provided all the information he could, mostly relating to where the gang was to meet. The details of the robbery were to be given to the crooks by the leader, a guy who called himself Connors. 
            The law in that section of Arizona was spread thin, so Wells Fargo hired the Lowrie Agency to stop the robbery and apprehend the gang. They weren’t too fussy on that last point. The folks at the stagecoach line wanted the gang stopped. How that was done was up to Dehner and Sam Wilcock, another detective from the Lowrie Agency. This was a two man job. 
            Dehner kept the bush between himself and the robbers as they rode back up to the top of the hill. Sam Wilcock was somewhere on the other side of the hill. The plan was to let the robbers stop the stagecoach. While they were grouped close together and focused on the stage, the two detectives would come up on them from behind. Hopefully, they would surrender without a fight.
            Nothing much happened for an hour. Then Dehner saw one of the three men at the top of the hill point down the road. He had spotted a moving cloud of dust from the oncoming stage. The men pulled bandannas over their faces. They rode about half way down the hill and waited. Dehner crept away from the bush to where he had tethered his horse behind jutting boulders. He mounted his bay as the stagecoach clattered to a stop.
            Two of the three outlaws fired shots into the air and all of them surrounded the coach, ordering the shotgun to drop his weapon. One of the robbers fired a shot over the head of the shotgun to ensure that the man got the point. He did. As the Winchester dropped to the ground, a female passenger inside the coach screamed.
            All the commotion made it easy for Dehner and his partner to meet together on the slope. Sam Wilcock was riding a sorrel. He was a heavy set man, balding, a few years short of forty, with a moon face dominated by intense, probing eyes.
            Wilcock showed Dehner the palm of his hand, indicating they were to remain where they were for the moment. Dehner followed the silent order. Technically, the two men had equal stature in the agency. But Wilcock was older than Rance and had a reputation throughout the west for his toughness and success as a detective. Rance had allowed Wilcock to be the boss of this operation, as he had on previous occasions when they worked together. So far, Sam Wilcock had given him no reason to regret the arrangement. 
            “Everyone out! Don’t try nothin’ funny!”
            The two detectives watched as four passengers exited the stagecoach: an older man and his wife, a drummer, and a man carrying a black medical bag who was obviously a doctor. One of the robbers quickly dismounted with a sack in his hand. He shouted threats at the passengers as he ordered them to drop all their valuables into the brown flour sack. The crook’s last stop was the doctor. After taking the doc’s wallet, he grabbed the medical bag, opened it, and apparently not finding anything inside that looked valuable, shoved the black bag into the chest of the doctor, who grabbed it before it fell.
            “All of ya’s, back inside.” All four people scurried back into the coach.
            The other two outlaws remained on each end of the stagecoach, as the gunman on foot yelled at the driver, “Throw down the strongbox!”
            The driver complied. The box had barely hit the ground when the gunman who had shouted the orders put a bullet into the lock. Then, tossing the flour sack to the ground, he yanked the lock off and opened the box.
            “We done good, boys!” he exclaimed gleefully as he took large saddle bags off his horse and began to fill them up with money from the strongbox.
            What happened next put a smile on the face of Sam Wilcock. The two other outlaws rode up to the strongbox, where they could watch their colleague stuff the money into his saddlebags. All three outlaws were now huddled together as Wilcock had predicted they would be.

Episode Two:
            The two detectives spurred their horses and rode into view with their guns drawn. “Drop your guns, right now!” Wilcock’s voice boomed. Rance noticed his colleague’s voice alone seemed to startle the outlaws into obedience. They did what they were told. “Now, get down off them horses!” The robbers dismounted.
            Rance rode to one side of the outlaws near the front of the stagecoach  and Wilcock to the other. They had the three robbers covered. Dehner started to get off his horse to collect the guns which were now lying on the ground. Standard procedure. But he stopped when Sam yelled, “Give me those saddle bags,--now!”
            The robber who had relieved the passengers of their valuables tossed the saddlebags at Sam Wilcock. Wilcock removed his right foot from the stirrup of his saddle and reached leftward to catch the bag. He fell off his horse, firing his Remington as he hit the ground. Everyone ducked down, not knowing where the bullet was headed.
            Wilcock’s horse panicked and began to run, dragging Wilcock whose foot was still in the stirrup of his saddle. Dehner holstered his Colt and rode after the sorrel, catching up to the animal and stopping it after it had run only a short distance.
            Dehner had to duck again to avoid another shot, this one coming from the outlaws. All three robbers were back on their horses and running off. Rance drew his Colt and fired at them, more in self-defense than any hope of bringing them down. During the quick volley of shots he heard a cry of pain. From the corner of his eye saw the shotgun clutching his shoulder as he climbed unsteadily from the stagecoach and crumpled to the ground.
            The three outlaws were riding fast and out of gun range. Dehner looked toward Sam Wilcock, who had freed his left foot and was now getting up. Rance rode back to the stagecoach and dismounted.
            The passengers were leaving the coach. First out was the doctor, a lean man in his thirties, who ran to the shotgun and crouched over the injured man seconds before Rance got there.
            “Take it easy, Lou,” he said to the shotgun, then looked at the driver. “What happened, Charlie? I thought Lou tossed down his rifle.”
            “He did,” the driver replied. “But he kept a pistol behind the seat. He used it to fire at those jaspers after that fool fell off his horse.”
            Charlie, a gray bearded man, looked at Rance. “Who are you fellas anyhows?”
            Rance Dehner looked around. All the passengers were now nearby and it seemed that everyone, even Lou, was looking his way. Well, maybe not exactly his way. There was obviously a great deal of interest in Sam Wilcock, whom Dehner could hear approaching from behind.
            Dehner waited until Wilcock stood beside him. “We’re detectives from the Lowrie Agency. We were hired to prevent that gang of outlaws from robbing--”
            “Great job you did,” Lou grunted from where he lay injured.
            “Take it easy,” the doctor cautioned.
            “Lou is right!” the coach’s only woman passenger spoke as she looked accusingly at Sam Wilcock. “Some detective you are! You can’t even stay on your horse!”
            The woman’s husband began to laugh, exposing the fact that he didn’t have many teeth. “Why don’t ya come inta town with us, Mr. Detective? The fella who owns the livery sometimes gives riding lessons. Right now, he’s teaching my nephew. He’s seven years old. After a few weeks, maybe you could be as good as him.”
            Laughter followed; Rance noticed that even Lou was chuckling. Maybe being the brunt of a joke wasn’t so bad after all.
            Sam Wilcock disagreed. “It ain’t funny!”
            “Guess it ain’t so funny,” Charlie was still crouched over the wounded shotgun. “You almost got a man killed and that gang made off with more ‘n twelve hundred dollars. I don’t think that there agency of yours is gonna get any more jobs from Wells Fargo.”
            Sam Wilcock looked down at the wounded man, a range of emotions on his face. His lips moved for a moment but no words came out. He then turned away with a look of shame.
            Dehner tried to diffuse the tenseness in the air. “Doc, can we get Lou into town?”
            “In a few minutes, yes,” the doctor continued wrapping a tight bandage on the wound. “The bullet winged him, but I don’t think it did any major damage. As soon as I get the bleeding stopped, we’ll get him into the coach. I can ride up front.”
            Lou looked at the travelers who surrounded him. “See what that fool detective did, now our sawbones is gonna get his own bones rattled good while he has to listen to Charlie’s corny jokes.”
            While most of the group laughed, Sam Wilcock walked briskly back to his horse. Dehner followed him. “Where are you going, Sam?”
            “Where do you think? After that gang of outlaws!”
            Wilcock’s voice was angry. Dehner tried to sound calm and reasonable. “First, I think we should move that locust tree so the stage--”
            “Yeah, and let people laugh at me some more! Jaw about how I should take riding lessons with a seven year old!” When Wilcock reached his Sorrel, he turned and faced Dehner. “I’m recovering that money and I’m bringing back those three snakes. Dead. We’ll see who’s laughing then!”
            Wilcock didn’t want to hear any more. He mounted his horse.
            “As soon as that tree is out of the road, I’ll join you, we--”
            “Suit yourself!” Wilcock spurred his horse into a fast gallop.
            Working alone, Dehner managed to get the tree moved at about the same time Lou was ready to board the stage. The detective said farewell to Charlie and his passengers and then headed out after the outlaws. But as he followed the trail, a nervous feeling pricked at him.
            Dehner couldn’t help but feel that the most dangerous of the men he was pursuing was Sam Wilcock.

Episode Three:

            The trail was easy to follow. About a thirty minute ride from where the stagecoach had been held up was a stream, one of the few sources of water in the area. The crooks would almost have to head there in order to refresh their horses.
            Dehner examined the footprints and markings around the stream carefully before letting his own horse walk over the marks to drink. What he saw didn’t surprise him. The outlaws appeared to have used the time to divide up the money and go their own ways.
            The detective had no trouble spotting the separate set of hoof prints that went after one of the robbers. Why Sam Wilcock had chosen this particular crook, Dehner didn’t know, and he didn’t pause very long to think about it.
            As he followed the trail, Dehner mused on why Sam Wilcock had been so enraged by the mockery he received from the group back at the scene of the robbery. Part of it had to be that Wilcock was angry with himself. Sam’s carelessness got a man shot and allowed the robbers to escape with the loot.
            Those blunders were not typical of Sam Wilcock. He was a first rate detective. But was he anything else? Dehner had never heard Wilcock make a reference to a family or even friends. He seemed to have no life outside of his job.
            Maybe that was the problem.
            A sense of unease fell over Dehner. What life did he have except for being a detective?
            As it often did when he was riding alone, that horrible day came back to him: the day when a child he was supposed to protect died in his arms from a bullet he had fired.
            Dehner’s life was now dedicated to doing penance, to somehow making up for the irredeemable loss of that day. He knew the task was impossible, but he also knew it was the only life he could live.
            And he wondered if Sam Wilcock was battling a similar demon.


            Voices sounded from a distance, but Dehner couldn’t discern what they were saying. He halted his bay and listened. One voice was high pitched, almost pleading. It seemed to be coming from the other side of a large knoll to his right.
            Dehner tethered his horse with stones and once again found himself on a slope. He moved up the knoll cautiously as the voices became more distinct.
            “Look, you can have it all. Four hundred dollars. Please!”
            “I don’t accept bribes, Lenny. I’m no cheap thug, like you!”
            “Okay then, okay. Arrest me.”
            Dehner recognized one of the voices. Arriving at the top of the knoll, he wasn’t surprised to see Sam Wilcock. Wilcock was standing a few feet from a man whose clothes Dehner recognized from the robbery. The beginnings of a campfire lay between the two men. The cocky, inexperienced outlaw had set up camp early.
            Wilcock’s voice boomed out. “So, you’re going to surrender to a man at least fifteen years older than you are. I figured you for a yellow snake, a coward who…”
            Lenny went for his gun. He never had a chance. Wilcock’s pistol fired before the outlaw’s weapon was completely out of the holster. Wilcock only needed to take a few steps in order to check on the man he had just killed. Dehner couldn’t be certain, but he thought he heard Sam Wilcock laugh as he looked down at the corpse.
            Rance Dehner retrieved his horse and rode slowly up the knoll. He knew his colleague would hear him coming. Before reaching the top, he shouted, “Sam, it’s me, Rance.” As he reached the crest, Dehner wasn’t surprised to see that Wilcock had his gun drawn. Nothing wrong with a little caution. 
            Sam holstered his Remington as Dehner rode down the knoll and dismounted. “I saw what happened,” Rance said. “Why didn’t you let him surrender?”
            “I already told you,” the reply was abrupt.
            “What do you mean?”
            “I’m going to kill all three of them.”
            “You don’t have to do that.”
            “Yes I do. I’m going to have the last laugh. Now, are you going to help me bury the garbage? After we’re through, I plan to go back to the creek and pick up the trail of the other two crooks.”


            They had just finished burying the outlaw when the sound of a horse neighing came from the other side of the knoll. Both detectives quickly mounted and rode cautiously upwards, drawing their guns as they reached the top of the knoll.
            No one was in sight. A dying sun still provided good light and Dehner spotted a dust cloud in the distance. He holstered the Colt and grabbed field glasses from one of his saddlebags. 
            “That fellow is riding hard,” Rance spoke as he lowered the glasses, “Guess he didn’t want to stay around and honor us with some conversation.”
            Wilcock was off his sorrel and examining the ground. “Bet you’re not the only one with field glasses. Looks like he was lying on the ground here, watching us.”
            Rance looked down at where Sam was pointing. “All three crooks rode off in different directions from the creek. It seems a little soon for one of them to be looking up a buddy.”
            “Not a buddy.”
            “What do you mean?”
            Wilcock looked in the direction of the dust cloud. “When a gang divides the money, everyone is on guard in case somebody decides to draw his gun, kill the others and take it all.” 
            Rance understood what his colleague was saying. “But once they break up, the crooks relax. They become an easier target.”
            Wilcock nodded. “The boss man, Connors, trailed one of the men here. But I beat him to it. Still, there is another four hundred dollars waiting for him and he’s gone off to get it.”
            “How do you know it’s Connors we’re after?”
            Sam Wilcock walked over to his horse. “Way I see it, Connors likes to work with amateurs. From what you said, Jamie Everett was no hardcase.” Wilcock nodded backwards at the new grave. “And that kid was pretty green. Greenhorns don’t pull stuff like this. No, it’s Connors we’re after.”
            The two detectives rode down the knoll and picked up the trail of the outlaw. Wilcock laughed loudly. “Talk about an amateur. One of the crooks was fool enough to tell Connors where he lives.”
            “How do you figure?”
            “Connors isn’t heading back to the stream to pick up the trail. He knows where his man is going.” Sam looked ahead in silence for a few moments before continuing. “Like you said, he’s riding pretty hard. Connors must know this territory good. Bet there’s a ranch nearby where he can get a fresh horse. We can probably find the ranch, but we can’t depend on fresh horses. We’d better ride slower.”
            Rance Dehner admired the knowledge and instincts of the man riding beside him, but he still felt tense. Sam Wilcock had goaded a green kid into a gunfight in order to kill him.
            Another laugh sounded from Sam Wilcock. “You know Rance, this is working out right nice. This way I’ll be able to kill both of those birds at the same time.” He laughed again.
            Dehner didn’t feel any better.

Episode Four:

            Andy Nolan stopped at a familiar tree and slid off his horse. He was both exhausted and shaken. How could he have allowed Lenny and Connors to talk him into such a dangerous thing? They had almost been caught. If that lawman hadn’t taken a tumble, the whole bunch of them would be in jail right now.
            How could he explain that to Priscilla?
            A quarter moon cut only scant light through the branches of the forest, but Andy could still read the letters carved on the tree. He had carved those letters the first day he and Pris had started the ranch. “AN LUVS PN” all contained within a heart. Corny, but Priscilla loved it. The two of them occasionally strolled out to this tree on pleasant evenings.
            Now Andy felt he was committing a sacrilege, burying stolen money under this special tree. But it was the only place where the money would be safe and easy to find. After burying the money, he felt a need to pray. He wanted to ask God to let him get away with theft just this one time. He’d use the money to settle matters with the bank and buy a few things the ranch desperately needed.
            “I don’t think the Lord would take too kindly to that,” Andy whispered to himself as he mounted his horse. “I just hope Pris never finds out what I done.”
            As his tired horse shuffled toward home, Nolan thought about the shotgun who had taken a bullet and wondered if he had died. Andy hadn’t fired a shot during the entire robbery, but he knew enough about the law to know just being in the gang responsible for a killing could get him hanged.
            On most occasions like this, Andy would run into the house and hug Priscilla before attending to his horse. But on this night, he headed directly for the barn. He didn’t want his wife to see how hard the animal had been ridden.
            As he walked from the barn to the small ranch house, he could see his wife standing in the doorway, a dark silhouette against a flickering kerosene yellow. As he embraced her everything seemed fine, for a few precious seconds.
            Pris broke away from him a little too quickly. “Are you hungry?”
            “Na. I don’t need no grub.”
            They stepped into the house together. “How did the meeting with Mr. Collins go?”
            There was something wrong in Priscilla’s voice but he didn’t know what.
            “Went just fine!” he lifted both hands as he spoke. “The man made me a great offer. Why, we’re gonna be able to pay what we owe to the bank and--”
            “Is Mr. Collins a nice man?”
            Andy sensed more unease in his wife but tried to maintain the happy facade. “Ah, yeah, sure, a real fine man.”
            “Is he as nice as Mr. Smith?”
            “Whadd’ya mean?”
            “When you left here three days ago, it was about an important business meeting with Mr. Smith. You’re a terrible liar, Andy! Where have you been?!”

Episode Five

            Andy Nolan looked into his wife’s pretty face, now contorted by anger and . . . what else? Was she disillusioned with him and their life together? Did she wish she had married Russ Carnes instead of him?
            Andy felt angry and ashamed. Not knowing what else to do, he yelled at Priscilla. “I’m doing everything I can for us, and you go rawhiding me 
            “Is lying the best you can do?!”
            The young husband wanted to break down and cry, tell his wife everything he had done and beg her forgiveness. But he couldn’t do that.  “I’m tired. I’m getting some sleep.” He stormed out of the house and walked toward the barn, hoping Priscilla would come after him. She didn’t.
            The hay in the barn was comfortable enough, but he slept lightly and only because he was exhausted. Andy’s sleep was punctuated with vivid images of the shotgun falling from the stagecoach, his dreams being more bloody and gruesome than what he had actually seen from a distance.
            As the sky began to turn red, Andy gave up on sleep and began to walk around the inside of the barn. “I gotta tell Pris the truth,” he said to the floor. “Gotta do it now.”
            Andy Nolan opened the barn door only to be stopped by a high pitched squeal. “Pris!” His wife lay on the ground, gagged, with her arms tied behind her.
            Nolan didn’t know where the assault came from. An explosion erupted on the side of his head and he suddenly collided with the ground. As he struggled to get back onto his feet, a gun appeared only inches from his face.
            “Good mornin’, Andy.”
            “Duke…Duke Connors.”
            “That’s right. Git up, ya worthless sack of garbage.”
            Nolan had barely made it onto his feet when Connors grabbed the front of his shirt. “You’re takin’ me to that money, Andy. Right now. Or I’ll kill that pretty little woman of yours.”
            Nolan sputtered to his glowering, beefy captor. “We agreed…”
            Duke shook the young rancher. “Don’t do no talkin’! You see, I’m in a right ornery mood. That stupid Lenny got hisself caught and killed by those two detectives. I’m out four hundred dollars. Just be nice, hand over the money and I’ll make ya a promise.”
            “What’s that?”
            “After I’m finished with your woman, I’ll send her back. 
            Andy turned a frightened look toward his wife, “Did--”
            “Not yet. Ya see, I believe in business before pleasure. Get the money, Andy!”


            Rance Dehner looked directly at the man riding beside him. He spoke in a firm voice. He wanted Sam Wilcock to understand his position. “When we catch up with these two jaspers, I intend to take them alive. Don’t do anything to interfere with that, Sam.”
            There were several moments of quiet before Wilcock spoke. “I’ve always liked you, Rance. You’re a good man to work with.” The older detective went silent for another few moments, then continued, “Guess you’re about the closest thing to a friend I got. But don’t push that friendship too hard.”
            They rode for another twenty minutes or so before Sam held up a hand for them to halt. “Something’s going on in that field down below. Put your glasses on it, Rance.”
            Dehner grabbed his field glasses from the saddle bag. “Two men and a woman. The woman seems to be wearing a nightdress. One of the men has a gun. They’re walking toward those trees.”
            Wilcock’s voice was laced with suppressed excitement. “Does it look like our boys?”
            “Could be,” Rance replied.  “The jasper with the gun is big like one of the outlaws. The other is average size,--hard to tell…”
            “How ‘bout the trees they’re heading for?”
            “From what I can tell the trees are spaced reasonably far apart, but the further you go into the woods the thicker it gets…oh no…”
            “What happened?”
            “The woman fell down. The gunman pulled her up by the hair and slapped her.”
            “Whatever’s going on, we need to stop it. Let’s leave the horses here!”
            Both men dismounted and began to tie their horses to a nearby tree. “You were right,” Sam Wilcock spoke in a low voice.
            “About what?”
            “Lenny. Should have arrested him. Wrong to goad him into a fight.” Sam kept his eyes away from Rance.  “It’s just that I’ve been a detective for a long time. Don’t like to be laughed at.”
            “Lenny never laughed at you.”
            Wilcock met Dehner’s eyes over his horse’s back. “I know.” 
            Both detectives  checked their guns as they turned and ran toward the trees and the three specks in the distance.

Episode Six:
            Duke Connors looked at the carvings on the tree. “Well now, ain’t that sweet. Of course, what’s buried here is even sweeter. Start diggin’, Andy.”
            Nolan looked angrily at Connors as he positioned the large shovel. “I want you to promise me you’ll leave us be once--”
            “That weren’t part of what I tole ya,” Connors looked at Priscilla Nolan, standing to his right: barefoot, wearing a nightdress, hands tied behind her back, and gagged. “I’m gonna take your woman with me. But when I’m done with her, I’ll turn her loose. That is, if I got the money.”
            To emphasize his point, Connors raised the six shooter in his right hand. “Now, ya get to diggin’!”
            “Okay.”  Nolan started to dig. Priscilla Nolan began to cry. Mournful noises made their way through her gag.
            Duke turned his head to her. “Shut up.” When he turned back, Andy swung the shovel, trying to hit the outlaw in the head. Connors ducked, then smashed his gun into Andy’s face. Nolan staggered backwards, but managed to stay on his feet.
            “I didn’t kill ya, because I want ya to dig that hole.” Connors waved the gun at Nolan, his eyes flaming with hatred. “But don’t try it again!”
            From behind him, Connors heard the sound of scrambling feet. He turned in time to see Priscilla Nolan tumble to the ground. The woman had tried to run off but stumbled.
            The gunman quickly turned back around to face Andy. “Put that shovel down.”
            “How do you expect me--”
            “Put it down!”
            Andy dropped the shovel. Connors took a few steps toward Priscilla who was now on her knees as she struggled to stand up with her hands tied.
            “There’s been a change of plans.” Connors  lifted his gun and pointed it at the woman. “Too bad. We coulda had some fun, but you’re jus’ too much trouble.”
            “Drop the gun, Connors, now!” Sam Wilcock burst out from one of the trees. Rance Dehner was beside him.
            Connors pivoted toward Wilcock. The detective and the outlaw fired at the same time and both bullets found their targets. Dehner put a second bullet into Connors as Sam Wilcock fell to the ground.  Duke Connors swayed on his feet for a second or two, then collapsed.
            Dehner quickly checked on Duke Connors to make sure he was dead, then crouched over his fallen partner.
            Wilcock’s eyes were glassy. “Can’t rawhide me this time, Rance.”
            “Take it easy, Sam.”
            “I gave that snake a chance to surrender. That’s the way…should be…last time…those people laughed at me…”
            Andy Nolan had untied his wife’s hands and removed the gag from her mouth. The woman was a bit unsteady but as she knelt down beside Sam Wilcock, the gratitude on her face was shining forth.
            “I don’t know your name, sir, but you saved my life. I’m powerful grateful.” After a pause, she added softly, “Always will be.” 
            The woman’s face was pale and tear streaked, but she still managed something close to a smile. That was the final thing Sam Wilcock saw on this side of eternity.

            Rance Dehner tightened the bags on the saddle of his bay. Andy and Priscilla Nolan watched him nervously. They were standing in a grassy clearing near a fresh grave, one of the two Rance and Andy had dug that day.
            “Why don’t you stay the night, Mr. Dehner?” Pris asked. “It’s already mid-afternoon, I could fix us all a fine meal and…”
            “No thanks,” Dehner replied, “I need to be moving on. I appreciate you allowing me to bury Sam Wilcock on your land.” 
            “The least we can do!” Pris spoke loudly. “And I’ll take good care of that grave, Mr. Dehner. Put fresh flowers on it whenever I can.”
            “That would be very nice, Mrs. Nolan. I don’t think Sam had much of a woman’s touch in his life.”
            No one spoke for a moment or two, then Andy Nolan looked at Dehner apologetically. “Appreciate what you’re doing for me. Hope this don’t land you in no trouble.”
            “No trouble,” Dehner said abruptly. “We’ve recovered all the loot for Wells Fargo. Two of the outlaws are dead, including the ring leader. I’ll say one crook gave us the slip. No big deal, Wells Fargo will still pay us,--gladly.”
            “I sure am sorry for what I did, Mr. Dehner, but the bank kept giving me so much grief--”
            Dehner had heard enough. He took a step toward Andy and there must have been something threatening in Dehner’s eyes, because Andy Nolan took a fast step backward.
            “Stop whimpering, Nolan! Do you think you’re the only rancher who ever had problems with a bank? It happens to loads of people, but they don’t become crooks.”
            The detective stood motionless and looked at the ranch house and barn in the distance. Still farther on, he could see the wooded area where Sam Wilcock had died. Dehner let out a deep sigh and then faced Nolan again. “You stupid fool, you almost got your wife killed and yourself hung. What happened here . . .” Rance paused. “If the shotgun had been killed, I’d have taken you in. I should do it right now!”
            Both Andy and Priscilla looked terrified. Rance shook his head to indicate they had nothing to be afraid of. When he spoke again his voice was lower. “You’re getting a second chance, Andy. A lot of men don’t. This time, do right.”
            “I will, Mr. Dehner.”
            Rance nodded his head, then looked at Priscilla while touching two fingers to his hat. He didn’t look back as he rode off.
            That night while making camp, Rance thought about Sam Wilcock, a fine, honorable man who made a very untypical blunder and was laughed at because of it. Sam had gone a bit loco and prodded a two bit thug into a gunfight that wasn’t necessary.
            But only a few hours later, Sam gave his life to save Priscilla Nolan, a woman he didn’t even know. Rance was certain Sam would approve of his letting Andy Nolan remain free. Sam cared passionately about justice, but he cared even more about doing right.
            As he drank his evening coffee, Dehner thought about the smile Priscilla had given Sam Wilcock. There was so much in the woman’s face: gratitude, admiration, wonderment and, yes, maybe even love. Love for a man she didn’t know, but a man who had given his life for her.
            Rance Dehner looked up into an array of stars and wondered if any woman would ever look at him in such a manner. The notion was troublesome and confusing, and it stayed with him through a restless night.

Episode One of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup:
(This Story originally ran as a serial from Dec. 7 - Dec. 19, 2011)

            Rance Dehner rode slowly into the town of Tin Cup. His horse was tired, and so was he. A detective for the Lowrie Agency, Rance was heading back to Dallas after a grueling assignment. He had been pursuing a fugitive through mountainous territory and riding fast after a pair of violent thugs. Dehner would rest himself and his bay in this town, and leave early in the morning.

            He wanted a drink. Anything wet. A beer would be nice, but a sarsaparilla would be almost as good. The first saloon he came to was loud and rowdy. His nerves were a bit too frayed for that. He started to ride past The Laughing Lady. Maybe there was a quieter place down the street.

            Loud voices continued to assault his ears, but now the shouts contained no revelry, only threat. Rance halted his bay and stared into a wide alley that ran between the saloon and a gun shop.

            “You shoulda listened to what you was told, boy.”

            “I don’t take no orders from John Taney!”

            “Maybe you need yourself a little edjee-cation.”

            Rance hastily dismounted, tied his bay to a post, and ran into the moonlight draped alley. Three men were beating up a fourth, or trying to. Their target stood well over six feet and carried close to two hundred pounds, most of it muscle.

            But, he was outnumbered. The big man exchanged punches with two of his attackers while a third broke away and picked up a large stone. The third man stood by carefully, waiting for a chance to use the rock.

            The chance never came. Rance whirled him around and landed a hard punch under his left eye. The thug hit the ground as one of his comrades landed directly beside him. With two attackers now lying in the alley, the third decided on retreat. The first two quickly got the same idea. They scrambled up and ran, or more accurately, staggered down the alley.

            A shout sounded from the darkness of the saloon’s overhang. “We ain’t finished with you, Horton!”

            “Well, come back and finish it now!” The man they called Horton laughed and gave a loud yelp, as the sound of retreating footsteps made it apparent his attackers were not returning. 

            The big man turned to his unexpected ally. “Thanks, stranger. The name is Samuel Horton. You can call me Sammy.”

            “Rance Dehner. You can call me Mr. Dehner.”

            Sammy looked surprised and a bit hurt.

            “That was a joke,” Dehner hastily added. “Not a very funny one, I guess.”

            “Sure it was funny,” Sammy declared as he ran a hand over his yellow hair. “I’m just a bit slow right now. Those three jaspers didn’t do much for my thinkin’ process. So, you a cowboy, Rance?”

            Dehner explained that he was a detective.

            Sammy looked intrigued. “I might could use me a detective.”

            Dehner felt tense. He had been in Tin Cup less than fifteen minutes and had already been involved in a fight. All he really wanted was a soft bed and a good night’s sleep before he left town in the morning.

            “Well, ah, what’s the problem?” Rance spoke against his better judgment.

            “My girlfriend, Caroline, she’s actin’ different.”
            “Women do that sometimes.”
            “But, I mean, really different. Her and me was talkin’ marriage only a few weeks ago; now she wants nothin’ to do with me.”
            “I can’t help you, Sammy.” Dehner began to walk down the alley toward his horse.
            Sammy followed quickly behind him. “Jus’ take a few minutes. Come inside with me.”
            “Inside where?”
            “The Laughin’ Lady. Caroline works there. She’s a calico girl.”
            Dehner tensed up even more. Calico girls were young women who worked in saloons and restaurants. They served customers food and drink, but provided no other services. They could mostly be found in prominent establishments in the larger cities. Tin Cup was not a large city, and The Laughing Lady hardly looked prominent.
            “Come on,” Sammy urged. “Wait till you see her. Caroline is the prettiest girl ever!”
            Rance Dehner sighed, nodded to his new friend, and walked into the Laughing Lady to meet the prettiest girl ever.
            Tomorrow: Episode Two of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

            Episode Two:

            “There she is!” Sammy shouted as they stepped through the batwing doors.
            Sammy had a point. Caroline had long red hair, and her face was delicately chiseled, so each feature fit perfectly with the other. The girl was still a step or two from twenty.
            Caroline was indeed dressed in calico, a lovely checkered affair with a white bib. But, even though the lady was strikingly beautiful, something about the scene was all wrong. For starters, Caroline was the only woman adorned in calico. All the other ladies in The Laughing Lady had on the usual gaudy dresses with low necklines. Most establishments with calico girls had at least a half dozen or so on duty at any given time.
            “Come on!” Sammy grabbed Rance’s arm and pulled him toward the bar where Caroline was loading a tray with foaming mugs of beer.
            “Honey, I want ya to meet a good friend of mine,” Horton boomed.
            The young woman looked toward her tray. “Please Sammy, go away.”
            Sammy Horton bent his head down as if trying to force eye contact with the woman. “What’s gotten into you? Only a few weeks ago we was talkin’ ‘bout gettin’ hitched. Now--”
            “Come on, Sammy,” the bartender’s voice was low and pleading. “We don’t want no more trouble.”
            “I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble, Ralph, it’s jus’ that--”
            “This jasper bothering you again, Caroline?” The man who spoke appeared to be the owner of the establishment. He was well dressed, with a stocky, muscular build. His face reflected a life of about forty years that had entailed many fist fights.
            “I’ve already run off three of your owlhoots, John Taney. You wanna get some more men beat up?”
            Taney ignored the question and spoke directly to the newcomer. “Who are you?”
            “The name’s Rance Dehner.”
            “What’s your stake in all this?”
            “I’m Sammy’s friend.”
            Taney laughed derisively. “Sammy needs all the friends he can get. He sure ain’t got none here, right Caroline?”
            The young woman paused, then spoke in a near whisper, “Yes.”
            “You know that ain’t true,” Sammy shouted. “Why, jus’ a few weeks ago--”
            Caroline lifted her voice as she lifted the tray of beers off the bar. “Please Sammy, go away.”
            “You heard the lady,” Taney smirked.
            A look of intense anger flared in Sammy’s face as he rolled both hands into fists. The scene inside the saloon suddenly became so quiet, Dehner could hear the well oiled batwing doors swing as two men entered, both wearing a badge.
            “Any problems here, John? Some folks told me a fight was going on right outside.”
            “The problem is about to walk out of here, Sheriff,” came the saloon owner’s reply.
            The two lawmen were an interesting contrast. The sheriff was an older man with gray hair and a mustache, and a slight limp that probably came from a long ago bullet wound. The deputy was young and agile. Nervous brown eyes were set deep beside a sharp, thin nose.
            Sammy eyed the law dogs, then looked at Caroline. What he saw in the young woman’s face caused his shoulders to twitch. He walked out of the saloon without speaking. Dehner trailed behind him.
            “Somethin’s not right!” Sammy proclaimed in a stage whisper as the two men stood on the boardwalk outside the saloon. “Caroline’s actin’…well…she’s not actin’ natural. I’m hirin’ you, Rance. I want you to help me find out what’s goin’ on here.”
            “Sammy, I plan to leave town first thing,--”
            “I can pay you. Got me a ranch a mile or so north of here. Maybe not a big ranch, but it ain’t no hardscrabble--”
            Dehner nodded his head in resignation. “Okay. Right now, I’m checking in at the hotel.”
            “The Tin Cup Hotel has more fleas than an old hound. You’re ridin’ back to the ranch with me. Plenty of room for you there, and no fleas. Well, not too many.”
            On the ride north, Rance listened as a love struck young rancher talked about the girl he loved. The detective listened without experiencing much condescension. Dehner had seen the fear in Caroline’s eyes. Sammy had spoken the truth. Something was very wrong.
            Tomorrow: Episode Three of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

            Episode Three:
            Caroline Lambert wept silently in the small hotel room where she lived.  She tried to brush off the tears with a shaking hand. “I can’t wait any longer,” she whispered to herself. “I must have a serious talk with John Taney.”
            As Caroline entered the lobby of the Tin Cup Hotel, she could hear gunshots and rowdy shouts coming from The Laughing Lady, which was at the other end of the boardwalk. As she stepped outside into the bright moonlight, the calico girl could see Deputy Paul Gruber amble into the saloon. Closer by, she saw Sheriff Harry Clausen leave his office and walk toward The Laughing Lady. Neither lawman was moving with any sense of urgency. There was hardly any need. At this hour, about two in the morning, the few remaining customers at The Laughing Lady were usually drunk and in a mood to shoot the place up. The law often escorted the final patrons out the batwing doors.
            Caroline drew in her breath and set her shoulders with determination as she began to walk toward the saloon. As she got closer, she saw Paul Gruber leave the place with one companion who was singing loudly and off key. The fellow clumsily mounted his horse and rode off as the deputy waved at his boss, obviously indicating the trouble was over.
            Sheriff Clausen turned around and began to head back to his office. Caroline cringed inwardly, but maintained a pleasant smile as the lawman spotted her and continued to walk in her direction.
            “Good evening, Miss Lambert.”
            “Good evening, Sheriff Clausen.”
            “Guess I should have said, ‘good morning.’”
            Caroline laughed politely.
            “A lady shouldn’t be out by herself at an hour like this, Miss Lambert.” There wasn’t a trace of mockery in the sheriff’s use of the word “lady.” Caroline appreciated that; she also appreciated that Harry Clausen was an observant lawman who understood his town better than most people realized. She wondered how much he knew about her and decided not to try lying to him.
“Thank you for your concern, but I have an appointment with my boss.”
             The sheriff continued to look at her but said nothing.
            “Mr. Taney always works late in his office. He’s a busy man. Sometimes, he can only meet with me in the wee hours.” 
            Sheriff Clausen remained silent for a few more moments before replying, “Reckon so. I’ll walk with you to The Laughing Lady.”
            As she walked beside the lawman, Caroline reflected on how much he reminded her of her father. What if Harold Lambert had not died when she was only thirteen? Would she now be out on the street at an ungodly hour awkwardly encountering the town sheriff?
            No sense in harboring notions of what might have been, Caroline thought to herself. She had to deal with her life as it was.
            When they arrived at the saloon, Sheriff Clausen placed two fingers on his hat, “When you are finished, ask John Taney to walk you home, Miss Lambert.”
            “Thank you, Sheriff.”
            As she stepped into The Laughing Lady, she was greeted by a leering smile from the bartender, a heavyset man in his late twenties, who was wiping the counter in front of him. “Dropping by to see the boss, huh?”
            “Yes, Ralph.” She smiled politely.
            “That’s our calico girl.” Ralph gave a harsh laugh as he tossed his rag under the counter. Caroline walked past the bar and through a door on the right that led to a long hallway. As she walked toward Taney’s office she heard a shot that seemed to be coming from the alley outside. It never ends, the calico girl thought to herself. All drunks should pass out at midnight.
            She knocked on the door to John Taney’s office. The door opened slightly. It hadn’t been shut.
            “Mr. Taney…hello…” 
            There was no response. Caroline gave the door a light push.
            Inside, John Taney was seated with half his torso sprawled across his desk. Not an unusual sight. A combination of liquor and fatigue often left the saloon owner face down where he worked. Sometimes, he’d spend a whole night in that position. Caroline wondered, in passing, how many nights John Taney spent with his wife.
             Hot weather made Taney drink more heavily, and tonight was typical of a Texas July. The window behind the boss’ desk was open, as were the curtains, but that only seemed to allow more heat to invade the room. 
             Caroline approached her boss cautiously. She’d wake him, fix him some coffee. She had to talk with him,--tonight.
            “Mr. Taney. Wake up.”
            As she touched her boss lightly on the shoulder, Caroline noticed a pencil wide stream of red creeping out from his body. The woman inhaled and lifted Taney into a sitting position. The man’s head flopped about, and the blood oozing from his chest began to pour down his shirt.
            Caroline tried to scream, but little more than a high pitched screech sounded from her throat as she let go of the body, which dropped back onto the desk. This time, Taney’s head landed sideways and he was looking at his companion with open eyes and mouth, as if calling for help.
            The young woman placed a finger on Taney’s neck, confirming her suspicions that there was no pulse. As she stepped back from the corpse, the young woman began to wring her hands, only to notice as she stared down at them that they were smeared with blood.
            Her eyes fell on a gun that lay on the floor. The .44 looked familiar. As she picked it up, Caroline glanced at the empty holster which hung from a coat rack beside the door. Taney never wore a gun at work, but he kept one in the office in case it was needed…
            John Taney had been killed with his own gun.  She laid the weapon gingerly on the corner of the desk.
            …Sheriff Clausen…she needed to get the sheriff right away. Caroline Lambert ran out of the office and down the hallway, almost colliding with a table and chairs as she entered the saloon proper.
            The bartender laughed as he continued to lift chairs onto the tables. “The boss must be in one of his crazier moods--” Ralph gave the young woman a closer look. “You’ve got blood on your hands!”
            As she ran out the batwing doors, Caroline was grabbed by Paul Gruber. “What’s wrong, Miss Lambert?” The deputy asked.
            Caroline began to cry hysterically. The bartender’s shout rose above her sobs. “John Taney’s dead. He’s been murdered!”

            Monday: Episode Four of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

            Episode Four:
            Six hours later, Sheriff Clausen, Rance Dehner, and Sammy Horton walked silently from the jail area into the sheriff’s office. The lawman spoke first, “Never thought I’d see the day,--a woman in one of my jail cells.”
            Sammy’s face twisted in frustration, “If she’d only tell us somethin’.”
            Another moment of silence followed, but it was only a moment. The door to the office swung open and a fashionably dressed woman stepped inside. “Sheriff Clausen, you’re not actually keeping Caroline Lambert in this jail, are you?”
            “I got no choice, Mrs. Taney. Ah, my condolences on your loss.”
            “Thank you.” The woman gave a quick acknowledgment to propriety, then continued. “You are actually keeping a pretty young girl in a jail cell? By the end of the day she will be sharing accommodations with drunkards and rowdies of all kinds.”
            Rance noticed John Taney’s widow wasn’t far from being a “pretty young girl” herself. Mrs. Taney was a tall, elegant brunette: a beautiful woman who was probably in her early thirties. A bit young, the detective thought, for her maternal attitude toward Caroline Lambert. Rance wondered if being a big sister was a natural tendency for Mrs. Taney. She certainly didn’t come across as a grieving widow.
            “I have two jail cells, Mrs. Taney,” the sheriff’s voice was calm, but his unease with the situation was still apparent in his face. “Caroline will have a cell to herself.”
            “Where ruffians in the adjoining cell can make crude remarks and--”
            “What else can I do?” The sheriff’s frustration echoed in his voice. 
            “You can turn Caroline over to my care,--something of a house arrest.”
            The sheriff’s eyes went to the ceiling and then to the woman standing in front of him. “Caroline Lambert is under arrest for the murder of John Taney. I can’t turn her over to the victim’s widow!”
            “Well, then, Reverend Goodwin and his wife.”
            “The Goodwins are wonderful people, but they are not jailers. No!”
            Elizabeth Taney faced the sheriff with anger flooding from her eyes. Rance didn’t doubt Harry Clausen had faced down many opponents before, but none quite like this. He decided to help the lawman out.
            “Excuse me, ma’am,” He quickly introduced himself and Sammy. “We just got finished talking with Miss Lambert. She’s not doing much to help her own cause.”
            “She wouldn’t tell us why she went to see your husband last night at such a late hour.”
            Elizabeth gave a short, contemptuous laugh. “Everyone knows why she was there! My husband made Caroline a calico girl as a way of saying hands off to everyone else.”
            Dehner noticed the reaction of the other two men in the room to Elizabeth’s statement. Sammy’s eyes went to the floor. The young man had probably been frantically looking the other way when it came to the woman he loved and John Taney. Now, Taney’s widow was spitting the truth in his face. Harry Clausen’s countenance was less expressive, but Dehner still spotted a new interest in the lawman’s eyes. Elizabeth Taney knew of her husband’s infidelity. It would be a motive for murder.
            Elizabeth sensed the impact of her words. “I understood my husband very well. He had the brain of a businessman, and the glands of a nineteen year old soldier on a three day leave. John would have grown tired of Caroline as he had grown tired of the others.”
            The woman sighed deeply, then addressed the sheriff. “I’m going to talk with Caroline Lambert.”
            Elizabeth Taney marched to the door leading to the jail area, opened it and proceeded inside. Rance looked at Sammy Horton. “How long has Miss Lambert worked at The Laughing Lady?”
            Sammy looked surprised by the question. “Oh, ‘bout six months, I reckon. Why?”
            “Any girl who works in a saloon gets used to the sound of gunfire. It comes with the job, like drunken cowboys.”
            “I don’t get your point,” Clausen said.
            Rance continued, “Miss Lambert told us she heard a shot as she walked down the hallway leading to Taney’s office, but it sounded like it was coming from outside the building. What if she was right?”
            “Now, I don’t follow,” Sammy looked confused.
            “I don’t completely follow it myself. Sheriff, did you recognize the galoot your deputy escorted out of The Laughing Lady, late last night?
            Clausen nodded his head. “Name’s Bert Gimbel. He’s a ranch hand at the Rocking J. Today’s Wednesday. He’ll be in town to pick up supplies. Could be on his way back to the ranch by now.”
            “Hope not. I’d like to talk to him.”
            “What for, Rance?” Sammy asked.
            “Don’t know exactly. But I need to talk with everyone involved. From what I’ve heard about him, John Taney was a man who always got his way. A man like that makes plenty of enemies.”
            “You’re right, Mr. Dehner.” Elizabeth Taney emerged from the jail area. “My husband had many enemies and one of them killed him, but it wasn’t Caroline Lambert.” She continued to speak as she walked across the office. “I will be visiting here frequently, Sheriff. You’d better make sure your prisoner is well cared for.” The widow stopped briefly at the front door. “And, by the way, I have no alibi. I was in bed alone when my husband was shot. Good-day.”

            Tomorrow: Episode Five of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

Episode Five:

            Bert Gimbel sang as he drove the large buckwagon back to the Rocking J. He then began to laugh out loud at his own off-key endeavors. It had been a long time since he had done any singing without a few drinks inside him. But now, he was really happy. Tomorrow would bring—
            He heard hoofbeats approaching from behind. Stopping the buckboard, he
watched the figure riding closer. “What’s going on?” Bert asked out loud as he recognized the rider.
            Suddenly, Bert realized exactly what was going on. The ranch hand used the horse’s reins as whips. The buckboard lurched forward, but the flat bed was loaded with supplies. “This contraption won’t never go fast enough!”
            Bert let out a loud curse as he stopped the wagon and grabbed the Henry that lay behind the seat. Rifle in hand, he jumped off the buckboard and ran for a nearby boulder.
            Aiming the Henry carefully, Bert fired at the approaching enemy. His efforts were met with a mocking laugh. “You never could shoot, Gimble!” The rider moved behind a large tree and dismounted.
            Bert knew his attacker was right. “Maybe you and me can have a talk,” he shouted.
            “We’ve already talked,” came the reply from behind the Cottonwood. “Didn’t care much for what you had to say.”
            “Look, I just got a little crazy. Could happen to any man. Let’s you and me jaw some more, like friends. We need to be friends.”
            “Okay, friend. Toss your rifle. Then step out real slow.”
            Bert threw the Henry in front of the boulder. He wasn’t wearing a gun but still had his hands up as he stepped from behind the rock. His body was trembling. He tried for a friendly smile, “Glad you agreed on a--”
            The bullet entered Gimble’s chest and thrust him back against the boulder. Bert tried to say something as he dropped to the ground, but nothing came out.            
            The attacker slowly approached the corpse of Bert Gimble and gave it a soft kick. “Yeah, Bert, you got a little crazy. A little too crazy for me.”


            “Whoever killed Bert knew this territory well,” Sheriff Clausen studied the dirt under the cottonwood tree. “After killing Gimbel, he headed right for rocky ground. Be near impossible to track him.”
            When Gimble had failed to show up at the Rocking J, two ranch hands went looking for him, assuming there had been a breakdown. After finding Bert with a hole in his chest, they rode into Tin Cup to get the sheriff. Rance accompanied Harry Clausen to the scene. The ranch hands returned to the Rocking J with the buckboard. “Losin’ Bert ain’t so bad, but we need these supplies for repairs on the fences,” one of them had said. “Still got a ranch to run.”
            Rance had also been studying the ground under the tree and nodded his head at Clausen’s observation. “Do you believe in coincidence, Sheriff?”
            “Not very big on it.”
            “Me neither. Last night, Bert Gimble was the last customer out of The Laughing Lady before the corpse of John Taney was discovered. Today, Bert Gimble is murdered.”
            “If all that don’t tie in then I’m the man on the moon.”
            Rance looked around and saw nothing more that he and the lawman could do except for one obvious task. “I’ll help you bury Gimble.”
            The detective walked over to the corpse, knelt down and began to do a routine search of the clothing. Most of the items he found were not unusual: two coins, a tobacco pouch and papers, and an expensive time piece. Probably stolen, Rance mused. But inside Gimbel’s shirt pocket was a small piece of folded paper.
            The detective unfolded the paper as he stood up. Sheriff Clausen stood by his side and looked curiously at the scribbling.
            “Can you make out that chicken scratch?” The lawman asked.
            “I think so. The top line across the paper says, ‘This here’s The Laughing Lady, reckon a man can laugh too.’”
            “Wonder why there’s a straight line across the paper after that,” the sheriff said.
            Dehner continued, “Under the line, it reads, ‘This here place is too quiet’.”
            Rance Dehner looked down at the corpse. “Sheriff, was Bert Gimble wearing this shirt last night?”
            “Yes, as I recollect.”
            “How far is the Rocking J from here?”
            “’bout a thirty minute ride.”
            “We better get started. We need to find out if this is Bert’s hand writing.  There are a few other questions I need to ask, too.”
            “Can’t get started yet.”
            “Why not?”
            “We still gotta bury Bert.”

Tomorrow: Episode Six of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

Episode Six:
            “Please Sammy, go away.”
            Sammy Horton stared through the bars at the woman who was sitting on a cot in her jail cell, refusing to look at him. Beside her on the cot was a Bible, a gift she had received since being arrested.
            “Caroline, I think those are the only words you’ve said to me for the last three weeks. Now, you’ve gotta start talkin’.” His voice lost its anger and became pleading. “You’re in serious trouble.”
            “There’s nothing you can do, Sammy.”  She picked up the Bible and started to read, or pretended to.
            Sammy Horton left the jail area and entered the sheriff’s office where Deputy Paul Gruber was looking over some wanted circulars. “No luck?”
            Horton shook his head. “Has she talked with anybody?”
            “Only Reverend Goodwin and his missus, them’re the ones that gave her the Bible.” 
            “Religion is fine and all,” Sammy began to pace the room. “But I wish she’d start concentratin’ more on life right here on earth. Heaven can come later.”
            “Don’t lay no bets on it bein’ too much later.”
            Sammy stopped pacing; his face took on new worry. “Whaddya mean?”
            “Some folks in town are talkin’ up a quick trial and then a hangin’.”
            “They’d hang a woman?!”
            “That’s the whole point. Ain’t never been done before, not in Texas anyways. Could get us what they call ‘notoriety’; one of them Eastern papers might send out a reporter. Maybe even a photographer.”
            The young rancher closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “Sure wish Rance was here.”
            “He’ll be back soon enough. When they left, Sheriff Clausen said they might have to ride out to the Rocking J. Even so, they’ll be back soon. That’s why we gotta act now.”
            “Whaddya mean?”
            “I mean,--I know who really killed John Taney.”
            “Ralph, the bartender,” the deputy declared triumphantly.
            “Why would--”
            “Think about it,” Paul Gruber got up from his desk and approached Sammy. “Everyone knows John Taney was a bear to work for. Ralph probably hated the guy--”
            Sammy didn’t look convinced. Gruber continued, “One of Ralph’s duties was to count the money at the end of the night and lock it up. Way I see it, Ralph was skimming some of that money for hisself. Taney wised up. He ordered Ralph into his office, called him a thief and a few other things besides. Ralph lost his temper and killed him. He knew Taney had one of his--”
            The deputy paused, remembering who he was talking with, “He recalled Miss Lambert had an appointment with Taney. He could blame it all on her.”
            The doubt began to fade from Sammy’s face. “Does make sense.”
            “Sure it does. Remember, Taney was killed with his own gun. Ralph keeps a Winchester under the bar, but he never wears a gun. So, when Taney fired him, Ralph grabbed the boss’ gun out of the holster where he always had it on that coat rack, and he killed the snake.”
            “Have you talked about this with the sheriff?”
            “Wouldn’t do no good. You know the sheriff is a real stickler ‘bout the law. He’d demand evidence. That’s why we gotta act now.”
            “Act how?”
            “It’s early evening, Ralph is startin’ to set up at the Laughing Lady. He’s  busier than a bee.”
            Sammy shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, so?”
            “You and me is gonna break into his house. Betcha we find some cash hid somewhere in that house. Won’t take long. The place is small. Ralph had planned to add on to it, but his wife died before they had any kids.”
            “When are we gonna do this?”
            The deputy smiled at his companion. “What’s wrong with right now?”


                Rance Dehner and Sheriff Clausen were riding steadily toward Tin Cup. Their horses had been ridden hard for much of the day and couldn’t be pushed.
            “This notion of yours about the killing has me edgy, Rance, I’ll admit it.”
            “How’s that?”
            “Well, most of the killers I’ve dealt with have been dunces. Dangerous, but stupid. Not this time.”
            “This killer isn’t a fool,” Rance agreed. “That ride to the ranch jarred my brain and got me to reexamine the evidence. I hope the killer’s one slip up is enough. I don’t think there will be any more mistakes.”
            “We’ve got a smart murderer who’s free as a bird. Wish we were back in town.”
            The two men continued to ride steadily.


            Sammy and Deputy Paul Gruber could easily hop over the picket fence that surrounded Ralph’s home. They moved quickly to the back window of the house. Gruber grabbed his .45 by the barrel and used the handle to break part of the glass.
            “You made hardly any noise at all doin’ that,” Sammy whispered, obviously impressed.
            “One of those things a lawman learns.” Gruber reached through the hole in the glass, unlatched the window and opened it.
            As the two men entered the house, Sammy mused that the ability to quietly break glass would also be handy for a thief. “Whadda we do now?” he asked his companion.
            “We search the place.” The two men walked past a table into the sitting room area. “Shouldn’t take long. I’ll look here, you take care of the kitchen.”
            The deputy began to go through the drawers in a scuffed but sturdy desk while Sammy took a few steps back toward the broken window and turned left into the kitchen. The young rancher noticed the stove didn’t look like it received too much use. Ralph probably did most of his eating at the town’s one restaurant since his wife died.
            Sammy stepped back into the living room. “Paul, what’s Ralph’s last name?”
            “Benson. Why do you ask?” Gruber was on his knees going through a drawer he had pulled out of the desk.
            “Don’t know, exactly. Figured if I’m gonna prove a man guilty of murder, I should know his full name.”
            Gruber pointed toward the kitchen. “Git in there and git busy.”
            “Right!” Sammy eyed the shelves over the sink. “Good a place as any to start,” he whispered to himself.
            The first shelf held a tall stack of dishes. There seemed to be plenty of room behind those dishes. Sammy anxiously started to pull the stack toward him. He didn’t know exactly what went wrong, but suddenly dishes were falling all around him, shattering against the sink and the floor.
            “What’s going on here?!”
            Sammy froze. That voice didn’t belong to Paul Gruber. It sounded a lot like Ralph Benson.
            Sammy reluctantly stepped into the living room. Gruber was on his feet pointing an accusing finger at Ralph, who had just walked in the front door. “We’re here to prove you guilty of murder!”
            “What?!” The bartender seemed more astounded then offended.
            Gruber continued on, “You killed your boss because he caught you stealin’--”
            Ralph Benson landed a hard right on the deputy’s jaw. Paul Gruber hit the floor like one of the dropped dishes. The deputy didn’t shatter, but he was out cold.
            “Now, you ought not to have done that, Ralph.” Sammy fidgeted nervously as he spoke.
            “You ought not to have broken into my home and accused me of being a killer and a thief.”
            “Yeah. You may have a point there.”
            “No ‘may have’ about it. What were you thinking?”
            “Well, I guess I wasn’t thinkin’ ‘bout anything too clear.” 
            Sheriff Clausen and Rance Dehner stepped through the front door. “What’s all the racket about?” the sheriff asked.
            Sammy glanced backward at the broken window and the kitchen area which contained shards of once fine dishes. He turned his head and looked at Paul Gruber lying unconscious on the floor, then lifted his eyes to a very angry Ralph Benson.
            The young rancher’s eyes were very sheepish when they reached Sheriff Clausen and Dehner. “This may take a while to explain.” 

            Tomorrow: Episode Seven of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

            Episode Seven:
            Rance Dehner stopped at The Laughing Lady and glanced inside. Mike the bartender, a short, thin man in his early twenties, looked a bit tired, but that was to be expected. This was Wednesday, and Mike worked two shifts on Wednesdays, giving Ralph a day off. On Thursday Ralph repaid the favor.
            After regaining consciousness, Paul Gruber claimed he had forgotten about Ralph’s schedule. He had babbled his accusations against the bartender to Sheriff Clausen, who had fired him for, in the words of the sheriff, “being an idiot.” Ralph hadn’t brought any charges against the two housebreakers when Sammy agreed to pay for all the damages.
            After firing Paul Gruber, Harry Clausen had returned to his office with the detective. “Gruber is lying,” the sheriff said. “The Laughing Lady keeps us both busy and we know how that place works. On Wednesdays Ralph is off. He always has supper with the Lanyard family. Then he goes home, reads for a spell, and turns in early for his long day on Thursday.”
            “Sounds like your deputy wanted to get caught.”
            Dehner had agreed to take Gruber’s place for the night, an assignment that provided him with a good cover. He could patrol the streets of Tin Cup, and without being conspicuous, keep track of the former deputy.
            As he left the sheriff’s office, the detective almost collided with Elizabeth Taney. “Good evening, Mrs. Taney.”
            “Good evening, Mr. Dehner.” She spotted the badge on his shirt. “Or should I say, Deputy Dehner.”
            “Deputy Dehner has a nice alliteration to it.”
            “‘Alliteration!’ My, you are an educated man, Deputy Dehner.”
            “I’m alone a lot, Mrs. Taney. A man alone does a lot of reading.”
            “You need not always be a lonely man, Rance Dehner.”
            The look in Elizabeth’s eyes was enticing to Dehner, but also made him uneasy. He hastily changed the subject. “What brings you here tonight, Mrs. Taney?”
            “I’m sitting with Caroline Lambert for a couple of hours. Reverend Goodwin and his wife will usually visit with her in the evening but they are conducting the Wednesday night prayer meeting.”
            “That’s good of you, Mrs. Taney. Enjoy your evening.”
            “And you enjoy your rounds, Deputy Dehner.”


             Paul Gruber was not hard to keep an eye on. He sat alone in The Laughing Lady, obviously trying to avoid the sneers and barbs from those who had heard of his firing, which was just about everyone.
            The bartender was busy, but not too busy to notice a hand signal given him by a patron who was also sitting by himself. Beside the elderly man at the table were propped two crutches.
            “Coming up, Rudy!” Mike smiled as he poured a beer and carried it over to the old man.
            “Thanks, Mike,” Rudy placed a coin in the bartender’s hand. “The rest of my gang should be here soon. Thought I’d get a head start on them.”
            The bartender pocketed the coin. “Enjoy yourself, Rudy.”
            Mike turned to be confronted by a scowling Paul Gruber. “So, you’re the new calico girl of The Laughin’ Lady!”
            Mike spoke calmly. “Maybe you should go home, Paul.”
            “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ that some stupid bartender tells me to do!”
            “Why do you say bartenders are stupid, Paul?” Dehner shouted those words as he entered the batwing doors.
            “Who are you to be askin’?”
            The detective pointed to the badge on his shirt as he walked into the saloon. “Why, I’m the new Deputy Sheriff of Tin Cup. Heard the old deputy got fired for incompetence.”
            “In what?”
            “Incompetence. Means the old Deputy Sheriff didn’t know what he was doing.”
            The patrons of The Laughing Lady began to scatter. Mike helped Rudy onto his crutches and made sure the elderly man made it to the side wall where he would be out of range of any gunfire.
            Dehner and Paul Gruber were now facing each other directly as they stood about thirty feet apart. The detective spoke in a casual, friendly manner. “You know, Paul, I’m still interested in why you think bartenders are stupid.”
            “I don’t give a--”
            “Could it be because last night, Ralph made a mistake? When he found Taney’s murdered body and saw that the bullet had entered at the chest, he assumed the shot he had heard earlier came from inside the office. In fact, it came from the alley.”
            “You better shut up, Dehner. The last man who…” Gruber’s voice trailed off.
            “The last man who caused you trouble for killing John Taney ended up dead. That was Bert Gimble. Boy, Paul, that must have been tough, killing a man everyone in town knows couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a shotgun. Sorry, killing Bert just makes you more of an incompetent.”
            Gruber went for his gun but alcohol slowed his move. Dehner’s Colt was in his right hand before Gruber’s pistol was out of its holster. The detective fired twice at Gruber’s feet. The former deputy stumbled backwards and collided with a chair, tumbling to the floor. As the crowd laughed, Gruber tried to crawl to his gun which had clattered to the floor several feet away from him, but Dehner grabbed the weapon before the disgraced lawman could get to it. 
            “Get up, Gruber, you’re going to jail.”
            Paul Gruber let out a stream of disconnected profanity.
            Dehner gave a mocking laugh. “The news isn’t all bad. For once, Gruber, your timing was just right.”
            Neither Paul Gruber nor anyone else in the saloon knew what the detective meant.

            Tomorrow: Episode Eight of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup 

            Episode Eight:
            Rance Dehner and Sheriff Clausen tied their horses at a hitch rail in front of a well built ranch house. Rance looked about him, “So, John Taney not only owned The Laughing Lady, he also had a ranch.”
            “John knew how to make a dollar,” the sheriff replied as the two men stepped onto the porch and knocked on the front door.
            Elizabeth Taney opened the door quickly. She looked pale, but there was still an almost bemused expression on her face. “Good evening, gentlemen. A bit late for a visit isn’t it?”
            “This ain’t a social call, Mrs. Taney. Can we come in?” The sheriff replied.
            “Of course,” Elizabeth continued to talk as the two men entered, “I thought you’d be spending the night talking to Paul Gruber. You were just bringing him in when I left the sheriff’s office earlier.”
            “We didn’t have to spend much time with Paul,” Dehner spoke in a curt manner. “He’s a fast talker.”
            Sheriff Clausen was more officious. “Mrs. Taney, you are under arrest for the murder of your husband.”
            “And just why did I kill John?”
            “Your husband may have had many women in his life, Mrs. Taney,” Dehner said, “but Caroline Lambert was different. John Taney planned to divorce you and marry his calico girl. He would have left you with nothing.”
            “And how do you know this, Mr. Dehner?”
            “You should have hired a more discreet killer, Mrs. Taney. Paul Gruber  has a very big mouth.”
            Elizabeth managed a smile. “People who practice discretion are rather hard to find in the West, Mr. Dehner.”
            “I suppose so.”
            “So, just how did I, or excuse me, Paul Gruber, go about murdering my dear spouse?”
            “The plan was clever.” Rance tilted his head and gave a mirthless smile, acknowledging the woman’s smarts, “and based on three established routines in the life of John Taney.”
            “And they were?”
            “During the summer, John Taney kept his office window open, along with the curtains, most of the time. He did close the window and curtains when Caroline visited him, which was always around two in the morning. John also kept a gun and holster hanging on a coat rack in his office.”
            Harry Clausen watched the drama being played out in front of him and hoped the detective knew what he was doing. The sheriff experienced a yearning for drunken cowboys and crooked gamblers. This sort of case was a bit out of his ken.
            “But there was a weakness in the plan,” Rance continued. “It required Pete to have an accomplice. He chose Bert Gimble.”
            “Do continue, Mr. Dehner.”
            “On the night of the murder, Bert was hanging out late in The Laughing Lady, as planned, with the lines of his act written on a small piece of paper and tucked into his shirt. He probably read them one more time before starting his routine. In his pants pocket he had a new time piece, no doubt given him so he could pause five minutes between reciting his lines. Luck was on your side, Mrs. Taney. As it turned out, Bert was the only customer left that night.”
            The detective noted that Elizabeth Cranston was pressing her lips together and looking less composed. He continued, “Bert was given two cues to shout out to Paul, who was in the alley beside the saloon. The first cue, ‘This here’s The Laughing Lady, reckon a man can laugh too.’ was a signal to Paul: Bert would be firing his gun in five minutes. Paul then moved down the alley a few steps and entered your husband’s office through the open window.”
            Elizabeth gave a loud, theatrical laugh. “How absurd! That move would have tipped John immediately that something suspicious was going on.”
            Rance’s laugh was softer though no less artificial. “Yeah, that’s the way I saw it at first, then I gave it some thought. Paul was a deputy, every night he did his rounds. Alleys would be a part of those rounds. He stuck his head through the window and asked if he could come in for a few minutes, there were a few things he needed to talk about. John wouldn’t have found that suspicious.”
            Elizabeth looked worried. One of her main arguments had just been shot down.
            Dehner’s voice took on more force. “Once inside the office, Paul waited for his second cue from Bert, ‘This here place is too quiet’ that was a signal that Bert would begin firing a gun immediately. Paul grabbed John Taney’s gun from where it hung on the coat rack and shot him in the chest as Bert’s shots covered the noise from the office. Paul then jumped out the window, moved to the front of the Laughing Lady, and pretended to oust Bert from the saloon. He returned to the alley to wait for Caroline to arrive. After she entered the saloon, the deputy fired a shot from the alley. When Ralph found his boss’ murdered corpse, he assumed the last shot he had heard came from the office.”
            Rance paused as he looked at the beautiful woman in front of him. “You really are quite brilliant, Mrs. Taney. Most people would have kept low after pulling a stunt like this. Not you. You barged into the sheriff’s office a few hours later, demanding to see Caroline and announcing you didn’t have an alibi. A very clever ruse.”
            “If I’m so clever, why didn’t I provide myself with an alibi for the time of the murder?”
            “Come on now, Mrs. Taney!” Harry Clausen spoke up abruptly. “Even an old lawdog like me would become suspicious if you had an alibi for two in the morning.”
            Elizabeth Taney could no longer maintain even the pretense of a smile as she directly faced Rance Dehner. “I suppose you think I was also involved in the murder of Bert Gimble.”
            “No,” Rance shook his head. “Bert became greedy and threatened Paul with blackmail the next day. Paul killed Bert, and then ran to you with the details. You came up with another brilliant scheme to save Paul’s neck and your own.”
            “And what was that?”
            “The whole nonsense about Paul blaming the murder on Ralph and breaking into the bartender’s house with Sammy made Pete look stupid, but innocent.”
            The woman’s voice rose. “Why would Paul Gruber pull something like that? He must have known he’d lose his job.”
            This time there was a wistful quality in Rance’s smile. “Paul didn’t care about his job. He thought he was going to marry you, didn’t he Mrs. Taney? Of course, you never would have gone through with that. I don’t know what fate you had in store for Paul, but it would have been right unpleasant.”
            A confident smile returned to Elizabeth Taney’s face. “Paul Gruber loves me. I don’t believe he said anything against me. You have no case, Deputy Dehner.”
            “You would have been right, except for one small mistake you made,” the detective shot back.
            “And just what was that?”
            The whole case hinged on this one small piece of evidence. With as dramatic a flourish as he could muster, Dehner pulled a time piece out of his pocket. “This was found on the body of Bert Gimble.”
            Elizabeth eyed the object carefully. “So?”
            Maintaining his flare for the dramatic, Dehner opened the shiny device. On the lid, paralleling the face of the timepiece, was inscribed the name, “John Taney.”
            Elizabeth Taney closed her eyes in an expression of anguish.
            “It was a little detail that sprang up at the last moment, wasn’t it Mrs. Taney? Paul Gruber came to you. He needed a timepiece so Bert Gimble could know when five minutes had passed and it was time to fire his guns. You grabbed the first thing you could find without taking a careful look.”
            Elizabeth looked at Dehner with scorn. “That is not adequate proof!”
            The detective laughed in a cavalier manner. Elizabeth Taney stepped back as if she had been struck.
            “The proof was enough for Paul Gruber!” Dehner talked while still laughing. “When he saw that inscription, he began to sing like a bird in springtime.”
            Silence followed as the woman stood motionless, appearing to be deep in thought. Harry Clausen finally spoke in a voice that was almost a whisper. “You should confess, Mrs. Taney. Things will go a lot easier for you.”
            Suddenly, Elizabeth Taney smiled in an almost pixyish manner. “Yes, indeed, Sheriff Clausen. You are right. May I fix us some coffee? I suspect it will be the last decent cup of coffee I have for some time.”

            Mondy: Episode Nine, the conclusion of The Calico Girl of Tin Cup

            Episode Nine:
            Sammy spoke gleefully as he and Dehner walked toward the sheriff’s office. “So, Caroline is getting out of jail this morning!”
            Dehner nodded his head. “She could have been released last night, but she had nowhere to go. The hotel has rented out her old room, and she didn’t want to wake up Reverend Goodwin and his wife.”
            “Is she plannin’ on staying with the reverent?”
            “We’ll jus’ see ‘bout that! I got some plans for that girl! By the way, how’d you figure Elizabeth Taney for killin’ her husband?”
            “Once I decided Miss Lambert was correct about the shot coming from the alley, the rest began to take shape. Paul just happening to be at the front of the saloon when Miss Lambert ran out was quite a coincidence. But Paul had no real motive to kill John Taney, and Elizabeth Taney did. And, of course, that timepiece settled it.”
            “How much did Paul tell you after you arrested him at The Laughin’ Lady last night?”
            “Nothing. He loves Elizabeth Taney. Fortunately for our case, Elizabeth doesn’t really understand love.”
            Sammy laughed and gave out a loud whoop as they entered the sheriff’s office. Inside, a young couple was standing with Caroline, exchanging pleasantries with Harry Clausen.
            “Good day, Reverent, Mrs. Goodwin,” Sammy Horton boomed, “This here is my friend, Rance Dehner.”
            Dehner was surprised by the youth of the couple. Reverend Goodwin was still a good ride from thirty and his wife was about Caroline’s age.
            “Nice meeting you, Mr. Dehner,” the pastor said. “We’ll be getting out of your way now, Sheriff.”
            Sammy realized Caroline was leaving with the couple. “Why don’t you and your missus jus’ go on ahead, Reverent. I got some things to say to Caroline.”
            A distressed look shot across Mrs. Goodwin’s face. Caroline looked at the floor.
            “Miss Lambert is tired after her ordeal.” Reverend Goodwin looked at Sammy with eyes that were kind but firm. “Why don’t you join us for supper this evening at six.”
            “See you then,” the pastor nodded politely and the Goodwins departed with Caroline, who kept her head down.
            Sammy looked confused, “The reverent is a fine fellow and all, but I swear somethin’ strange is goin’ on here.”
            “Not so strange, Sammy.”
            “Whaddya mean, Rance?”
            “Miss Lambert was sincere when, a few weeks back, she said she wanted to marry you. But she still worked for John Taney and was visiting him in the late hours. One morning she woke up feeling sick.”
            “Feelin’ sick from what?” Sammy shouted.
            Sheriff Clausen knew subtlety would never work with the young rancher. “Miss Lambert is pregnant.”
            Several moments of quiet followed as Sammy’s face morphed from shock to somber to determined. “How many folks know ‘bout this?”
            “Just us here,” the sheriff answered, “along with the Goodwins.”
            “Things gotta change.” Sammy noted the questioning look in the eyes of his two companions. “I’m gonna be a husband to a fine lady and a father to a child, guess I should stop bein’ a child myself.”
            Sammy Horton inhaled and looked at Dehner. “You headin’ back to Dallas?”
            “Ride the first mile with me. You can stop at the ranch and I’ll pay you--”
            “You don’t have--”
            “Yes I do,” the rancher responded quickly. “I’m a man who keeps his word. After you ride off, I gotta get cleaned up and put on some good clothes. I’m gonna propose marriage to a lady while I’m at the preacher’s house. I should look my Sunday best. Right, Sheriff?
            Harry Clausen grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “Reckon so.”
            Sheriff Clausen accompanied the two men as they left the office and mounted their horses, which were tied to the hitching rail outside. He gave Dehner a farewell salute as the detective rode off with Sammy Horton.
            As he watched the two men leave, Harry Clausen reflected on the hassles before him. He once again had a woman in his jail, with all the troubles that would bring. He was without a full time deputy, and training a greenhorn would be a headache.
            Clausen stepped onto the boardwalk, but before he reentered the office he took a final glance at Dehner and the kid as they were gradually vanishing. No, the lawman thought to himself, Sammy Horton wasn’t a kid anymore.
            Harry Clausen laughed out loud. He had no damn right, but he sure did feel good.

The Dying Thief

(This Story originally ran as a serial from Nov.30-Dec. 6, 2011)

            Rance Dehner felt increasingly tense as he rode up the mountain trail. Mountains were always treacherous, even more so when you were trying to capture a fugitive.
            The detective eyed the bushes surrounding the rocks. They were becoming more green. Water is often the key, Dehner thought to himself. A man on the run quickly learns not to stray too far from rivers, lakes, or at least a decent creek.
            Dehner stopped at the sound of a horse nickering. He dismounted and led his bay upwards until they came to a collection of huge boulders interspersed with green growth.
            Behind the boulders were five horses. Four were saddled. The fifth, a buckskin, carried no saddle and appeared to have been there longer than its companions.
            “Some folks found Wayne Jessup before we did,” Rance whispered to his bay.
            Two months before, five men headed by Wayne Jessup had robbed a stagecoach and made off with seven thousand dollars in cash. Jessup had instructed his men in advance to meet him at a certain locale after the robbery to split the money. He never showed. Instead, he disappeared and kept all the loot for himself. Now, those men were after their former boss, as was just about every lawman in the territory.
            And so was Rance Dehner. The stagecoach line had hired the Lowrie Detective Agency to retrieve the money. Dehner had been given the assignment by his boss, but he had no illusions. The stagecoach people were anxious to get their money back. No doubt, they also had the Pinkertons on the case.
             Several yards down from the incline where the horses were picketed, a small stream trickled through the rocks. Rance allowed the bay a drink, then tied him in a small grove of trees away from the other horses. His bay taken care of, Dehner proceeded up the trail on foot, Winchester in hand.
            He reached a flat, sprawling plateau, highlighted by a cave that Rance, who stood over six feet, could enter without ducking his head. Voices sounded from within. Dehner moved stealthily. As he entered the darkness, he heard a terrifying scream, followed by loud laughter.
            “Now come on boss, all ya gotta do is tell us where the money is hid.”
            “Go on…kill me…”
            “Hate to do that to an old friend. Why, we’ve been pulling jobs for over a year together.  Always had the same plan. We ride off in separate directions after the job, then meet and split up the take. Now, why’d you go and double cross us this time?”
            “Pete! Lookey here at what I found under his bed roll.”
            Rance Dehner continued to advance in the direction of the voices. He stopped as he arrived at a twist in the cave. He felt certain those voices came from the other side of the twist. He pressed against the wall and continued to listen.
            “Well, whadda we got here?” the man named Pete was talking once again. “A letter! Addressed to Mrs. Wayne Jessup. Well, I’ll be. I didn’t know you was a family man, boss.”
            A rash of hoots and lewd comments erupted from all four of the gang.
             Pete continued. “This here letter is addressed to the postal station in Brent, Texas. I reckon we’ll just go to Brent and pay a call on Mrs. Jessup. I bet she’s a real pretty gal, and I bet she knows where that money is hid.” 
            “She don’t…ow…” Jessup said, or something close to it. The man’s voice was a slurred whisper.
            “One more chance, boss. Where’s the money?” Pete’s voice was now low and threatening.
            “Can’t ‘member, too…urt…”
            Another voice sounded, with an adolescent squeak, “Put another bullet in him, Pete, he’s almost gone anyhows.”

 Episode Two

         Instinctively, Rance took several quick strides into the cave, shouting at the outlaws, “Freeze, all of you!”
            His move had been fast and foolish. The small fire in the cavern only illuminated a patch of space. Dehner could barely spot outlines of the crooks. He hit the ground as shots came at him from several directions. Lying in the dirt, Rance steeled himself, watching and listening carefully. His first shot would have to be on target.
            The detective remained silent. After a few minutes a victorious voice shouted out, “I think I got him!”
            Dehner fired the Winchester and the voice of the braggart became a cry of pain, which spurred Rance to take another shot. Second time around, the painful yell was followed by the thump of a body hitting the ground.
            The detective rolled to his right, ahead of several more shots. He hit a large rock which he quickly scrambled behind for cover. He levered the Winchester and fired in the direction of an orange flame that ignited in the darkness. His shot missed but was close enough.
            “Let’s git!”
            Dehner recognized the voice as belonging to Pete. The detective again fell silent as he listened to boots scrambling out of the cave by the same way he had come in. He thought about taking a shot in their direction, but decided against it. The odds were not in his favor.
            Rance also speculated on the chance the outlaws were trying to trick him, but that didn’t seem likely. After all, there wasn’t much to gain by hanging around except trouble. The outlaws knew Wayne Jessup wouldn’t be giving them any more information.
            After waiting and listening for several minutes, Dehner made his way toward the small campfire and crouched over the man who lay beside it. Wayne Jessup had been shot twice. There were burn marks at several points on his body. The fire had been used for more than just warmth.
            “Who…you…” For a man who had been shot and tortured, Wayne Jessup sounded reasonably lucid, but his breathing was erratic.
            “Name’s Rance Dehner. I’m a detective for the Lowrie Agency.”
            “What about your life?”
            “No…w…ife…Linda. Baby…girl,..Molly. Danger…
            ”Do they know where the money is hidden?”
            “Sorta. You…get to them…afore Pete, and…”
            “I’ll be riding for Brent, soon. What do you mean by sort of?”
            “All what?” 
            There was no reply from Wayne Jessup, and never would be. Dehner got to his feet and found the body of the man he had shot. He was also dead.
            The detective gave a quick thought to burying the robbers, but realized that was an act of civility he would have to forgo. Three dangerous men were on their way to find Linda Jessup: men who would kill and torture for seven thousand dollars.
            The wolves could have the bodies of the two dead men in the cave. With eyes alert for an ambush, Dehner headed for his horse. When he arrived behind the boulders, he found the buckskin still tied there. The other horses were gone.
            Or were they?
            From a glance at the tracks, it appeared only two horses had actually ridden off. Another set of tracks led toward the grove of trees where his bay was tethered. The detective was certain someone was hiding in those trees. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.
            Since the land was slanted and rocky, Rance’s fake fall was easy to stage.  As he hit the ground, the detective cursed loudly and tossed the Winchester where it was beyond his reach; that part of the charade would convince his ambusher the fall was genuine.
             Dehner continued to curse, though more softly as he got onto his knees. The detective knew that as he began to stand up he would make the easiest target.
            While pretending to brush dust off of his right thigh, Dehner arose slowly, hoping the brim of his hat would at least partially cover his eyes, which were looking up. A quick flash of sunlight reflected from the grove of trees. Rance palmed his Colt and fired three flaming spears at the glare, the first shot echoing almost simultaneously with a shot from the ambusher’s rifle, which missed the detective by inches.
            A childlike cry sounded from the trees, and the would be assailant staggered out into the open. He shouted desperate words which sounded like “momma” and “poppa”, but Dehner couldn’t be sure.
            The gunman looked about as if trying to spot someone he knew. He then collapsed onto the slope and slid down the gravel. Colt .45 still in hand, Dehner approached his fallen enemy cautiously.

 Episode three

         The caution was unnecessary. The gunman was dead. The body was lying on its stomach with the head turned. From the half-face that Dehner could see, it appeared the man who had tried to kill him had been about sixteen.  The detective didn’t turn the body over. He really didn’t want to know any more.
            Rance Dehner loosed the horse belonging to the ambusher and Wayne Jessup’s buckskin. As he rode off, he noticed a few coyotes resting in the area.
            Dehner kept his bay moving at a brisk pace. Two outlaws were now heading for the town of Brent to confront Linda Jessup, who they were sure knew the whereabouts of the stolen money.
            And maybe she did. Wayne Jessup had said his wife knew where the money was…sort of.
            What did he mean by that?
            The detective tried to keep thinking about his case, but couldn’t quite do it. Dehner’s mind kept drifting back to the three dead men he had left unburied. Two of them, he had killed. All would provide meat for wild animals.
            Rance Dehner looked about him at the flat land punctuated with mountains that shot up like the fists of angry devils. He was a private detective operating in the West. Someday he would probably be fodder for some hungry wolf.
            He rode on toward Brent, Texas.


            A three hour ride got Dehner into Brent as the sun was setting. The first stop had to be the livery. Rance’s bay was listless and played out.
            The hostler was named Jesse. He was short, with tobacco stained teeth. The question Dehner posed made him very uneasy. “Why d’ya wanna know ‘bout wheres Mrs. Jessup lives?”
            The detective thought about lying, but decided against it. “Mrs. Jessup is in danger. Her husband stole a lot of money and some very dangerous men think she knows where it is.”
            A look of alarm flared from Jesse’s eyes. He avoided Dehner’s stare.
“Shoulda knowed, shoulda knowed.”
            “Known what?!”
            “Two men were here ‘bout an hour ‘go. Tough lookin’ men. Rented a pair of roans. Asked wheres Mrs. Jessup lives.”
            “And you told them!”
            The hostler lifted both arms with his palms forward as if to prevent an attack. “Mrs. Jessup is the prettiest lady in these parts. Everyone knows where she lives, they coulda asked anyone. Besides--”
            “They gave you some cash. How much, a sawbuck?”
            Jesse nodded his head.
            Rance mounted the sorrel he had just rented. “Tell me where she lives!”
            The hostler gave him directions, then continued in an almost pleading voice. “I’m gonna get Sheriff Casey. Tell him what happened. Sheriff Casey is a good man.” He spoke as if it reflected well on him that he knew a good man.
            Dehner rode out of the livery and spurred his horse into a fast gallop.

Episode Four

            As he drew near the Jessup home, Rance could spot two horses tied to the porch rails. Using his field glasses, he figured both of the horses were roans.
            Rance tethered his sorrel with stones and approached the house on foot. As he got nearer, Dehner figured the spread to be a horse ranch. Or, at least, that had been the idea. Now the house, corrals and outbuildings looked dilapidated.
            A woman’s scream was followed by a child’s frantic shout of “Go way, go way!” Dehner had to move quickly but with more caution than he had shown earlier in the day. He needed to help Linda and the child, not put them in further danger.
            The sun was now completely down; a small patch of kerosene yellow illuminated one side of the house. Dehner crept toward it, then crouched under an open window.
            Slowly, he moved upwards and peeked inside. A young woman was leaning against a table with a hand over one side of her face. Standing beside her was the child Wayne Jessup had called his baby girl. She looked to be about five years old, and was a little replica of her dark haired mother. The child’s body was shaking as she pressed a doll against her chest. She looked too terrified to cry.
            A large man stood facing the woman, blocking any direction she might run. “Don’t make me hit you again, Mrs. Jessup. You tell me where that money is hid!”
            “We have ta move fast, Pete!” The words came from a man of medium build whose back was near the window Dehner was peering through. “Harry might not have been able to stop that law dog. He could be at the sheriff’s office right now.”
            “You’re right, Lou!” Pete looked at his two prisoners. “Maybe we need to change the rules of this here game. I won’t hurt you no more, Mrs. Jessup. But if you don’t start talkin’, I’m gonna start breakin’ your little girl’s bones, one by one.”
            Dehner quietly made his way around to the front of the house. Then he made a fast, noisy run which ended as he pounded on the door.
            “Who’s there?!”  The voice was that of Lou.
            Rance Dehner panted heavily as he spoke in a broken manner. “Harry. Let…me… in. Law…comin’…”
            “You fool!” Lou flung the door open and was greeted by a hard punch to the side of his jaw. As he fell backwards, Linda grabbed her child, ducked around Pete, and ran with her into the bedroom. Pete followed after them but was tackled by the detective. As the two men hit the floor, Dehner took delight in pounding the head of a man whom he had just witnessed harming a woman and threatening a child.
            Quickly getting back onto his feet, Dehner drew his gun and trained it on Lou, who was beginning to regain consciousness. From outside he could hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats.
            “You can come out now, Mrs. Jessup.” Rance yelled at the closed bedroom door. He wasn’t surprised when he received no response.
            The front door flew open. The man who stormed inside was tall and slim, with a badge on his vest and a pistol in his hand. “Drop that gun!” 
            “Are you Sheriff Casey?”
            “That’s right. Now, you’re going to drop that gun and tell me where Linda and Molly Jessup are.”

 Episode Five

         “We’re right here.” Linda stepped out of the bedroom. Molly was beside her, clinging to her doll with one hand and her mother’s skirt with the other. “Those two men were threatening us,” she pointed toward the two outlaws on the floor. “They were demanding to know where some money was hidden. I don’t know who this man is,” she nodded at Dehner, “but they were going to hurt Molly, and he stopped them.”
            Rance explained that he was a detective for the Lowrie agency. The fact that Linda and her daughter were safe convinced the sheriff. Casey and Rance tied up the outlaws and took them outside so Mrs. Jessup and Molly wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.
            After they were finished, the detective suggested Mrs. Jessup put her daughter to bed. The woman understood Dehner’s motive. When she came back from the bedroom, her demeanor was stoic, as if braced for another attack.
            Dehner told Linda and the sheriff the entire story of his tracking Wayne Jessup and finding him almost dead in the cave. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Jessup, but there can be no doubt. Your husband headed the gang that robbed that stage coach.”
            Linda pressed her lips together and nodded. “I suspected, but didn’t want to admit it to myself. Wayne would leave for two weeks or so every four months. Said it was a business trip. He’d always come back with money. The stories that went with it got cloudier each time.” She gave a sad laugh. “He’d always spend the money on some fool scheme. Wayne was a dreamer. I suspected he was pulling robberies, but—this time he’s been gone a lot longer…” 
            Sheriff Casey pulled a letter from his back pocket and handed it to Linda. “I found this on one of those men. It seems to be from Wayne, to you.”
            She took the letter from him carefully, as if he were handing her an infant. Slowly taking the paper from the envelope, Linda’s face began to contort as she read the awkward scrawling.
            Finishing the letter, the woman picked up a nearby dish towel and pressed it to her eyes.  Rance and Sheriff Casey made an unnecessary trip out front to inspect their prisoners’ ropes. When they returned, the woman was composed.
            “He confesses to the stagecoach robbery,” Linda waved the letter as she spoke. “Says he’s sorry--”
            Linda Jessup stopped speaking, but this time no tears came. Rance interjected a thought. “Don’t suppose he says where he hid the money. Those two thugs were expecting he told you somehow…”
            “No,” came the clipped reply. “He only said he hopes Molly likes her doll. He sent it to her for her birthday; it arrived last week.”
            “Strange,” Rance was thinking out loud. “Before he died, Wayne told me you knew where the money was,--sort of.”
            There were a few moments of silence, which the sheriff broke, “Did he say anything else?”
            “He tried to, but couldn’t finish,” Dehner replied. “Something about ‘all.’”
            There was another period of silence, this time shattered by Dehner’s excited voice as he made a request to Linda Jessup. The woman hastily vanished into the bedroom, then reappeared with Molly’s doll.
            Dehner took the toy in his hands. “Wayne Jessup was having trouble pronouncing words. Instead of ‘all’ he may have meant ‘doll.’”
            Rance lifted the doll’s white dress to find a white piece of paper pinned around the body of the toy. He carefully removed the paper and handed it to Sheriff Casey as he returned the doll to Linda.
            “This is a map of Sparrow Mountain!” the lawman almost shouted, then lowered his voice, remembering the sleeping child. “Less than a day’s ride from here. Looks like the money is hid in a cave there!”
            “Sheriff, why don’t you and I go after that loot first thing tomorrow. The sooner we do, the sooner Mrs. Jessup gets the reward.”
            “I don’t understand,” the woman said.
            “The stagecoach line has posted a five hundred dollar reward for anyone who recovers the stolen money. Guess Molly is the one entitled to it, but she’s a bit young to be trusted with that much loot. That leaves you, Mrs. Jessup.”
            The next twenty minutes or so was spent getting the prisoners into a buckboard, which Linda loaned to the sheriff. Sheriff Casey assured the woman he would see to it that she received the reward, and he would return the buckboard.
            Rance stepped over to Mrs. Jessup just before mounting his sorrel. “Ah, one more thing. Wayne might have survived if he had told those men about the doll. He refused to give them the information. I don’t know if that helps…”


            The sheriff drove the buckboard into town with his horse tied to the back and Rance riding alongside to keep an eye on the prisoners.
            The detective occasionally eyed Sheriff Casey with some amusement. Dehner didn’t know if Casey was the lawman’s first or last name, not that it made much difference. From the moment Sheriff Casey barged into the Jessup home, Rance could tell the sheriff was in love with Linda Jessup. Now, Casey was thinking about how he should handle the courtship. He couldn’t move too fast. The widow would be mourning the loss of her husband, even though Wayne Jessup didn’t seem to be the kind of man who deserved much in the way of regrets over his passing.
            Rance was also giving some thoughts to his own future. He felt good over helping Linda and her child, even though he’d probably never see either of them again. Yeah, his boss would give him some grief about not claiming the reward for the agency. But the Lowrie Agency was being paid a reasonable fee by the stagecoach line. That would do.
            For a moment, his thoughts strayed to another child whose brutal killing would always haunt him. 
            Maybe someday I’ll be lying dead somewhere on the prairie, being chewed on by coyotes, Dehner thought. But before I get there, I’ve got some more Linda and Molly Jessups to help.

The Legend of Jimmy Ellis

(This story originally ran as a serial from Nov. 23-Nov. 27, 2011)

Episode One

            The couple rode at a brisk pace, a dying sun still providing ample light. An attractive woman of nineteen eyed her companion, a man she had met that morning. “For an easterner, you seem very comfortable with that Colt strapped on your waist, Mr. Hawkins.”
            Jeremy Hawkins took the statement as a compliment. At least, he hoped it was. “I have been West many times before, Miss Kimball.”
            “To cover stories for your newspaper?”
            “Yes, but never a story quite like this one. I mean, how many times does a killer return from the dead to inflict vengeance on those who hung him ten years ago?”
            Esther Kimball caught the undertone of amusement in her companion’s voice. “It’s not funny, Mr. Hawkins. Two fine men have been brutally murdered!”
            “Yes, of course, I apologize.”
            As they reached the crest of a rocky hill, Hawkins spotted a quick way to change the subject. “That old shack at the bottom of the hill, is that where the bodies were found?”
            “Yes.” Esther’s angry mood seemed to dissipate as they rode toward the building, nestled at the convergence of scrubby trees and scattered boulders. Nearby, a creek wound through a small grove of trees. 
            The pair dismounted in front of the dilapidated shack and tied their horses to the small hitch rail that fronted it.  Hawkins walked several feet beyond the cabin and stood before a larger cottonwood tree.
            “Is this where Jimmy Ellis was hung?” the reporter asked.
            “Yes, Ellis killed three people that night: a man, his wife, and their two year old little boy. My father was part of a posse of seven men that trailed Jimmy Ellis to this shack.”
            “Did your father own the property back then?”
            Esther nodded her head. “Father was playing cards in town at the time. He was surprised when the posse tracked Ellis here. Ellis may have been using the shack as a hideout. It had been empty for quite a long time.”
            “How many people did Jimmy Ellis kill in all?” 
            “Eight. He always left a half dollar piece behind.”
            “Someone once told Jimmy he wasn’t worth a sawbuck. At least, that’s how the story goes. Jimmy Ellis was loco. He enjoyed killing. All the murders he committed were senseless, people he hardly knew.”
            Jeremy Hawkins looked back at the shack. “So the posse surrounded the shack and Ellis surrendered.”
            “Father says there was gunplay first, and Ellis was shot in the arm.”
            “In any event, when the posse got hold of Jimmy Ellis, they took him over to this cottonwood and hung him.”
            Esther closed her eyes briefly before speaking again. “That’s right. But you have to remember, Beeson was a very small town back then,--didn’t even have a full time sheriff. Everyone knew Ellis would hang anyway…”
            “Yes, of course.” Hawkins cut the young woman off. There was no sense in arguing the merits of a hanging that had taken place ten years before. “How many members of that posse were still alive six weeks back?”
            “Three. Ralph Sherman, Art Colfax and my father. Both Mr. Sherman and Mr. Colfax were also ranchers.”
            “Sherman was the first one to be murdered,” Hawkins was reviewing facts, not asking a question.
            Esther nodded her head. “His body was found under this tree with a half dollar piece lying on top of it.”
            “About two and a half weeks later the same thing happened to Art Colfax.”
            “Yes.” Esther replied in a whisper.
            “Then your father is the only one left--”
            A gunshot sent a spurt of dust over the reporter’s shoes. Esther screamed as Hawkins place an arm around her.
             “This way!” He pointed to a nearby boulder.
            The couple both ducked as another shot pinged off the large rock. Crouching into jackknife positions they scrambled behind the boulder.
            “Get down!” Hawkins yelled as he drew his gun. The woman knelt down as Jeremy peeked over the rock, trying to spot any sign of their attacker.
            A flame blossomed from the top of the hill. Hawkins ducked down, then sent a shot in that direction.
            A harsh laugh filled the air. The red sun silhouetted a hooded figure on a black horse. “You can’t kill a dead man!” There was more laughter as the attacker rode off, crouching down to avoid Hawkins’ second shot. 
            “Just maybe I can catch up with a dead man!” Jeremy holstered his pistol.
            “No, Mr. Hawkins, please.” Esther grabbed her companion’s arm. “We have to get back,--back to father. He’s alone and that…phantom…is on the loose.”
            “Of course, but be careful. Our phantom may be pulling a trick.”
            Jeremy again pulled out his gun and took Esther’s hand. Cautiously at first, then with increasing speed the couple stepped out from behind the large rock and moved briskly toward their horses. Hawkins let go of Esther when they reached their steeds. As the young woman patted her bay she gave a sudden shriek and then bent over.
            “What is it, Miss Kimball?”
            Esther Kimball walked slowly around Hawkins’ pinto until she was directly beside the reporter. Her right hand was a fist.
            “This was lying right beside my horse.”
            She opened her hand to reveal a half dollar piece.

Episode Two 

            Rance Dehner felt uneasy as he rode toward the ranch house. Dehner was accustomed to working alone. On this case he would have a partner, a partner who was also his boss.
            Bertram Lowrie, the owner of the Lowrie Detective Agency, had been withdrawn and sullen during their trip from Dallas to Beeson, Texas. He had told his employee little about the situation they were riding into.
            Rance decided to prod his boss. “You told me back in Dallas we were being engaged by an old friend of yours…”  Bertram Lowrie much preferred “engaged” over “hired”, a word he found to be inappropriate for a man of his standing.
            Lowrie was silent for a moment, then began to speak. “Allistar Hawkins and I served together in the British Army. He’s a bit older than me, and was above me in rank. He came to this country about a year before my arrival. Allistar owns several newspapers; the most prominent one is the New York Star.  Allistar Hawkins has done quite well for himself.”
            There was tension in that last statement. Rance knew that Bertram Lowrie had traveled from England to the west to become a rancher. That hadn’t worked out, and Lowrie had started a detective agency. The owner of the Lowrie Detective Agency was closed mouthed about the financial standing of his business. Dehner surmised that the profits were there, but far from fat.
            Bertram wasn’t fat either. He stood well over six feet and was thin almost to the point of looking emaciated. He was an excellent shot and, for a man of his height, a fine horseman. 
            Dehner’s boss continued. “Allistar and I correspond regularly. He has a son named Jeremiah, a fine lad of twenty-three, but a bit restless. He refuses to move into the management side of the business. He has remained a reporter and done quite a few stories in the West.”
            Rance was beginning to see where this was leading. “And now Jeremiah is on a particularly dangerous assignment.”
            Lowrie’s reply was crisp. “Perhaps. In the past he has covered rather mundane events: famous gunfighters facing each other, that sort of thing. But now he is investigating two murders. Allistar doesn’t want the boy to make a fool of himself. He wired me earlier in the week…”
            As they reined up in front of the house, a large, swarthy man in his early twenties emerged onto the porch. There was a look of hostility on his face and a Winchester in his hand.  “State your business, strangers.”
            “My name is Bertram Lowrie,” came the immediate reply. “My companion is Mr. Rance Dehner. We are here representing the New York Star. We are assisting Mr. Jeremiah Hawkins in his investigation of--”
            An elderly man walked cautiously out of the house. He was leaning on a cane. “More reporters, huh? Well now, welcome to the Kimball Ranch, or what’s left of it. This is my foreman, Tom Jensen. My name is Hank Kimball. Call me Hank.”
            As the two newcomers dismounted, they turned toward the sound of pounding hoof beats. The horses ridden by Esther Kimball and Jeremy Hawkins came to a stop near the other horses, raising a cloud of dirt and spraying pebbles.
            “Father, are you all right?!” Esther shouted to her father.
            “Of course I’m all right, just a little confused, that’s all. But it is a pleasure for this old man to have visitors. It’s getting on toward dark. Good thing there’s room on this ranch for all of you to stay! Supper will be ready soon. Dexter always fixes more than enough food. Let’s fill our bellies first, then we’ll talk things over.”
            Filling their bellies was an easy task. The dinner was delicious as was the desert. “Dexter fixed the roast and taters, but that there apple pie was baked by my daughter,” Hank Kimball said proudly. “She doesn’t bake every day, but when she does--”
            “Please, father,” Esther cut in, as she looked down in embarrassment.
            Jeremy Hawkins also looked embarrassed, but more than a little pleased. Perhaps his presence had inspired the baking of the pie.
            “No sense in false modesty,” Hank sat at the head of the table. He smiled benignly at his three guests. “Esther’s pies are a hit all around these parts. Ralph Sherman and Art Colfax sure did appreciate it when…”
            Hank fell silent, realizing he was talking about two dead men.
            There were six people sitting at the table. Hank sat at the head of the table with his daughter at his right side. Occupying the rest of the large table was Tom Jensen, Jeremiah Hawkins, Rance Dehner and Bertram Lowrie. Lowrie took advantage of the sudden silence.
            “Perhaps we should discuss the murders, Mr. Kimball. The subject is unpleasant, of course, but it is the reason we came.” Lowrie’s voice oozed with impatience. Rance knew small talk irritated his boss. 

Episode Three

             “I’m afraid my reporter’s instincts failed me today,” Jeremiah Hawkins’ voice was businesslike, while still expressing regret. “I know I’ve already given you the details, but I want you to know that I am aware of my own failure.”
            “Please elaborate,” Lowrie replied.
            “I should have checked inside the shack the moment we arrived there,” Hawkins explained. “The killer was obviously inside. He snuck out while Esther and I were talking and left his calling card,--the half dollar piece. Then he mounted his horse, which must have been hidden nearby, and made his dramatic exit.”
            “And you checked the inside of the shack afterwards?” Dehner asked a question he had asked before.
            “Yes. We found nothing.” Jeremy grimaced, then looked at Rance’s boss. “Mr. Lowrie, you can report to my father that his worst suspicions about me have been confirmed. I’m an incompetent reporter--”
            “That’s not true!” Esther blurted out.
            “I’m afraid it is true enough,” Jeremiah sighed. “My father, who owns the New York Star, sent two detectives, Mr. Lowrie and Mr. Dehner to protect me…or to prevent me from looking like a jackass…or…maybe both…father has told me about both of you men. I guess I should be grateful, but…”
            Hank Kimball looked confused, “I thought--”
            Bertram Lowrie actually looked a bit embarrassed. “Your misunderstanding is entirely my fault, Mr. Kimball. I should have explained when we arrived that Mr. Dehner and I are detectives, not reporters.
            Rance was enjoying his boss’ discomfort but decided to help him out with a change of subject. “Mr. Kimball, how were the murder victims first discovered?”
            “Well, in the case of Ralph Sherman, his wife Carla came by to tell us he was missing. Ralph had rode into town the previous day on business. It’s a long trip and Ralph told Carla he would stay in the hotel and ride back in the morning. When he didn’t show up by afternoon, Carla got worried. Tom headed up a search party. They found Ralph under the cottonwood with a fifty cent piece on his chest.”
            “And Art Colfax?”
            “Art was a widower like me. He just turned up missing one morning. His foreman knew the story of Jimmy Ellis and rode right out to the cottonwood. Found poor Art there with a bullet in him and a sawbuck on his chest.” 
            Hank Kimball inhaled and gave a sad smile. “Don’t know why, exactly, I said ‘poor Art.’ In a way, he’s lucky. Art was healthy his whole life. Not like me. Ever since that accident six months ago, I can’t walk straight or think straight. The ranch is going down and I keep--”
            Esther placed a hand on her father’s shoulders. “Stop talking like that, Dad. The ranch is going to be fine. You’ve had a long day, it’s time--”
            “I think Miss Kimball has made an excellent suggestion,” Lowrie’s voice was uncharacteristically cheerful. “We should all turn in. Tomorrow, our investigation will begin in earnest.”
            As everyone stood up and Esther began to give room assignments, Dehner caught the look in Lowrie’s eyes. Despite what his boss had just said, Dehner knew sleep was far away.

            Jeremy Hawkins held an expensive time piece in his right hand. It had been given to him by his father as a Christmas present two years ago. He walked to the window in order to take advantage of the moonlight. He needed to be cautious. Someone might notice the light seeping under the doorway if he lit the lamp in the room.
            The reporter smiled down at the yuletide gift. The time had come for him to make his move. He strapped on his gun and began a fast exit. His room had a window large enough for even a big man to easily crawl through.
            Outside, Hawkins made his way quietly toward the barn. The moonlight was now a problem; he had to avoid creating a silhouette. The reporter was especially cautious as he made his way past the bunkhouse.  Tom Jensen had taken an instant dislike to him, and he knew why. Jensen was in love with Esther Kimball. 
            A smirk cut across Hawkins’ face. Esther would never give a second thought to a crude man like Tom Jensen. The poor brute was too stupid to realize the hopelessness of his situation.
            Jeremy made his way stealthily around the barn. The horse was there, saddled and ready. The plan was working perfectly. He couldn’t have gone into the barn and saddled the horse now: too much noise.
            Hawkins took the reins of the buckskin and quietly walked it far away from the ranch house. Then, excitement coursing through his veins, he mounted and galloped off. 

 Episode Four


            Rance Dehner and Bertram Lowrie both lay on the top of a sizeable bluff. Rance was peering through a set of field glasses. “I can see the movement. You’re right, someone is hiding near the side of the hill.” He handed the device back to his boss. “Those are very good field glasses.”
            “They’re British,” Lowrie replied, closing that particular matter. “Can you dispose of our hillside friend with a minimum of noise?”
            “Luck is on my side,” Rance quietly replied. “His horse must be picketed in the trees over by the creek. A few nickers won’t mean much; our friend will probably think the horse is responding to the smell of water. Hopefully, my horse won’t make much noise--”
            “Yes, yes,” Lowrie whispered in an agitated fashion. “I understand about the horses. Can YOU be sufficiently quiet?”
            “I’ll try.”
            Lowrie gave a resigned sigh. “You Americans are so good at avoiding the main issue.”


            I can’t avoid the main issue now, Dehner thought as he moved from the grove of trees into the bright moonlight. If his prey turned around, there would be gunplay and that meant a fallback on plan B.
            But then, he and Lowrie had neglected to formulate a plan B.
            As he moved closer to the hill, Rance cursed silently. His man was now at the crest of the hill looking down the other side, no doubt at the old shack. There is no way I can climb up there without him hearing me, Rance thought. The hill is too rocky.
            Sometimes the old tricks still work. Arriving at the side of the hill, Rance picked up a stone and tossed it to the other side, where it collided with another rock and stirred up a bit of dust as it bounced downward.
            Rance Dehner pressed himself against the ground. He heard his prey quietly making his way down the hill, skidding just a bit. The man was probably carrying a rifle which would affect his balance.
            Rance slowly rose to his feet as the shadowy figure moved away from him in the direction of where the stone had hit. The detective took two almost silent steps forward, then broke into a sprint as the figure stopped and began to turn.
            Dehner smashed a fist against his opponent’s mouth causing him to drop the rifle. Rance drew his gun, “Don’t make a sound or I’ll kill you.”
            “Not a sound!” Dehner’s voice remained a loud whisper as he grabbed a bandanna and handcuffs from his back pocket.
            In less than two minutes the detective had his prisoner bound. Rance was able to drag the prisoner around the hill and out of sight just as he heard hoof beats approaching.

Episode Five


            Jeremy Hawkins carefully guided the buckskin over the hill and downwards toward the shack. Clouds were beginning to filter the moonlight, but he had no problems. Hawkins prided himself on being a good horseman.
            He tied the steed at the small hitch rail and almost ran to the door, where he knocked gently.
            “Come in.”
            As Jeremiah stepped into the shack, he saw that it looked much different than it had that afternoon. An orange light from a lantern perched on a small rickety table gave the room an almost sensuous glow. The shack’s cot was covered by fresh blankets. Esther was perched on those blankets, her legs tucked under her. Her eyes held something that gave Hawkins a surge of excitement.
            “Hello, Mr. Hawkins, I’m glad you came.”
            “I’m glad too.”
            The young woman slowly elevated herself off the cot and onto her feet. “I need to talk with you, and well, there isn’t much hope for a private chat at the house right now.”
            “Guess not.”
            “That’s why I had to be so mysterious. You found the horse okay, didn’t you?”
            “Of course.”
            Esther looked her visitor over and began to giggle. “You’re wearing a gun!”
            Her attitude puzzled Jeremy Hawkins. “Yes, there have been two murders in this area--”
            “Guns make me nervous,” the young woman patted the table behind her. “Please give that thing to me. You can grab it off the table almost as fast as you can draw it from your holster.”
            Hawkins shrugged his shoulders and handed Esther the gun.
            “A Colt .44,” Esther examined the weapon carefully.
            Hawkins gave his companion an affectionate smile. “For a woman who claims guns make her nervous, you handle that Colt very well, Miss Kimball.”
            “Thank you, Mr. Hawkins.” She pointed the gun at him. “You’re a nice man, too bad--”
            Esther Kimball laughed at the shocked expression on Jeremy’s face. “Yes, Mr. Hawkins, I killed those two men.”
            “Why?” The word almost squeaked from the reporter’s throat.
            “Father is running the ranch into total ruin. There will be nothing left of it by the time he dies. Nothing for me to inherit. But he won’t let go.”
            Hawkins began to regain his composure. “You’re using the Jimmy Ellis legend to kill your own father.”
            “When dear old Father is murdered, everyone will suspect a ghost. No one will think about sweet, innocent Esther.”
            “But, why kill me?”
            “You could have been a real help, Mr. Hawkins.” She gave him a smile that was almost endearing. “A newspaper reporter could build up the legend of Jimmy Ellis. But I can’t risk having two detectives around. Once you are found murdered, your father will be outraged at the men he hired to protect you. They will be quickly relieved of their duties.”
            “Jimmy Ellis wouldn’t kill me, how are you--”
            The woman’s voice became sharp. “I’ll think of something. Now, turn around, Mr. Hawkins, and step slowly outside. We’re taking a walk to the cottonwood tree.”
            Jeremy Hawkins sighed, looked at the floor, then looked up and began to do as he had been told. As he opened the pockmarked door, he didn’t see the man who was flattened against the side of the shack. He suddenly felt a hard collision against his shoulder. He stumbled, then hit the ground.
            Esther saw only an arm which moved whip like to push her captive. The arm had almost vanished before she fired at it. She didn’t see the gun which from the floor level sent a shot near her right foot. The woman stumbled backward. She turned to maintain balance. Her back was to the front door when she heard the command.
            “Drop the gun, Miss Kimball!”
            Esther turned her head to face Bertram Lowrie, who was now once again on his feet.  She shouted at him defiantly. “You wouldn’t shoot a woman!”
            Contempt laced Lowrie’s voice. “Perhaps if Mr. Rance Dehner were standing in this doorway, such lachrymose sentiment would be applicable. But be assured, Miss Kimball, I will not hesitate to fire a shot which will rid the world of a ruthless murderer. I will say this one more time. Drop the gun, Miss Kimball.”
            Miss Kimball dropped the gun.


            Jeremiah Hawkins stood on the porch of the ranch house, speaking in a low voice. “Dexter has fixed a lunch for all the neighbors who are with Mr. Kimball. Are you sure you gentlemen don’t want to stay?”
            “Thanks,” Rance Dehner said, “but we need to get back to town in time for the next stage.”
            Bertram Lowrie fidgeted impatiently.
            The three men left the porch and paused at the hitching rail where the horses were tied. “I’ll be here for another day or two, to put the finishing touches on my story,” the reporter said. “I just can’t figure it. Miss Kimball seemed so…well…how did you gentlemen come to suspect her?”
             Lowrie’s reply was quick and sharp. “You were quite smitten by Esther Kimball, Mr. Hawkins, and that fact dulled your talents as a journalist. My associate immediately caught the awkwardness and contradictions in Miss Kimball’s claims.”
            Dehner smiled and looked a bit embarrassed. “That story about the killer hiding in the shack, then sneaking out and leaving a sawbuck before riding off didn’t sound likely. My first guess was that Miss Kimball had a sawbuck in her pocket and pretended to find it lying on the ground. What followed made me more suspicious.”
            “What do you mean?” Hawkins asked.
            “Esther Kimball stopped you from chasing after the guy who took the shots at you. She claimed she wanted to get back to her father,--fast. But then, you told us that the two of you took a look inside the cabin. I’ll bet that was Miss Kimball’s idea.”
            Jeremy nodded his head. “She said it would only take a moment. It did take longer than I expected.”
            “She was stalling you. Allowing her accomplice, Tom Jensen, to get away. I suspect Jensen knew a quicker route back to the ranch house than the one she employed with you.”  
            “Tom Jensen was Miss Kimball’s accomplice,” Lowrie added. “We need not speculate on his motive, which is as obvious as it is banal. Jensen’s theatrics, which he was no doubt carrying out at Miss Kimball’s instructions, were aimed at convincing you there was something behind the Jimmy Ellis legend. Of course, Jensen also performed more menial tasks. He probably took the murder victims’ horses away from the shack to make it appear the bodies had been dumped there.”
            “So, both Ralph Sherman and Art Colfax went to the shack voluntarily, as I did...”
            Lowrie made a resigned smile. “I began to suspect as much at the dinner table last night when Mr. Kimball talked about how the two men treasured his daughter’s pies. No doubt, she used her baking skills as a way of getting in the door, so to speak, and from there she lured her victims to a deadly rendezvous.”
            “Ralph Sherman was a married man, but as I understand it, Art Colfax had been a widower for many years. Why…”
            “I never had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Colfax,” Lowrie continued, “but I would surmise that he was a practical, hard working man, and also a very lonely man. Miss Kimball exploited that loneliness. Mr. Colfax would, in all likelihood, have been embarrassed for friends and associates to know he was having a relationship with a woman young enough to be his daughter.”
            There was a silence as all three men contemplated the ruthlessness of Esther Kimball. Dehner broke the silence, “We’d better get riding.”
            On the way into Beeson, Rance posed a question to his boss. “What do you think will happen to Esther Kimball? I mean, she’s a woman, surely they won’t--”
            Lowrie looked at Rance as he spurred his sorrel. “I don’t wish to contemplate Miss Kimball’s future, which will no doubt end up in the hands of an all male jury. She’ll probably get little more than a slap on the wrist.”
            For some reason, his boss’ arrogance irked Dehner more than usual.  He brought up a matter he had earlier decided to skip. “At the old shack, you didn’t shoot to kill. You didn’t even shoot to maim; you fired a shot near the young lady’s foot.”
            “A perfectly sensible thing to do. I dropped to the ground when she fired at me. From that vantage point it was quite easy to place a shot near her right foot.”
            Rance Dehner wouldn’t let it stop there. “But if Esther Kimball had been a man, would you have done the same thing?”
            Bertram Lowrie gave his employee an angry glare and said nothing. 

* * * *

The Redeemed
(This story originally ran as a serial from Nov. 14-Nov. 22, 2011)

         The town of Cooper, Arizona was so small, it only had one saloon.  Dehner laughed out loud as he reined up in front of the Golden Nugget. Several horses were tied to the Saloon’s hitch rail, among them a white horse wearing an elaborate saddle decorated with silver conchos.
         “Yancey Larson sure is an easy man to find,” Dehner whispered to himself as he dismounted and tied his bay to the rail. The moment Rance Dehner stepped onto the boardwalk he could hear his prey’s voice booming out from the Golden Nugget.
         “Killed all three! Sent all them fellers right to Boot Hill!”
         He’s probably telling the truth, Dehner thought as he walked through the batwing doors and headed for a far corner of the bar where he could watch the young gunfighter. Dehner noted that, despite the lack of competition, the Golden Nugget did not skimp on appearance. The bar was a shiny mahogany and a large wagon wheel chandelier kept the place well lighted.
         Within a few minutes, he was also made aware that the service was good and the beer, as the sign outside had promised, was cold.
         Rance sipped his brew slowly and watched Yancey Larson. The kid was standing at the middle point of the bar with his arm around a saloon girl who looked apprehensive, even frightened. A small half circle of men stood around the gunfighter and fear was also reflected in their forced smiles.
         Dehner had observed the kid about six months before in Phoenix. Observation was a habit he had acquired as a detective. Yancey hadn’t given Dehner a second glance back then. Good thing, because now the gunfighter was Rance’s prey. The detective figured he would let Yancey brag on until he got tired of it and left the saloon. Then, he would follow Larson until the kid was alone and could be easily arrested.
         Dehner laughed quietly to himself. A bitter laugh. The young gunfighter would never allow himself to be arrested. He would probably have to kill Yancey Larson. The scene from the day he had first killed a man played in his mind. If it had only ended at killing one outlaw…
         “Sin! This place is a cesspool of sin!”
         A loud chorus of laughter greeted the newcomer to the Golden Nugget. He was a medium sized man dressed in what was once a fine frock coat but was now frayed and in need of cleaning.
         “Looks like you’ve already had plenty of the devil’s brew, Reverend Martin!” came a shout from a round table where men were playing poker.
         Another shout sounded from the bar. “He’s probably here to take up a collection, to buy hisself a little more of that there brew.”
         The laughter grew more bombastic as Reverend Martin staggered toward the bar. Yancey Larson sneered in amusement and moved aside as Martin grabbed onto the bar for support. “Please Tom, can I have a drink?”
         The bartender looked sadly at the man in front of him. “No, Reverend, I’m not giving you a drink--”
         “I’ll work for it, Tom! Soon as you close, I’ll clean this place--”        
         “Money’s not what I’m talking about. You don’t really want a drink. You know that better than me, David.”
         “Now, hold on, Tom.” Larson’s voice was loud and laced with mockery. “If the man wants a drink, I’ll be happy to buy him one.”
         Dehner noticed that a worried look now dominated the face of the saloon girl in Larson’s embrace. She wanted to move away from the gunfighter, but his hold on her was tight.
         Reverend Martin’s back was to Rance Dehner, but even from that perspective it was obvious the man was leery of the gunfighter’s offer.
         “Obliged.” Martin shrugged his shoulders. Both hands were shaking.
         “Pour the feller a drink, Tom.”
         The bartender, a stocky man in his forties, did nothing.
         Larson’s voice turned threatening. “I said pour the man a drink!”
         Reluctantly, Tom placed a glass on the bar and poured whiskey into it. Reverend Martin reached for the prize now in front of him but Yancey Larson grabbed his wrist.
         “Why, I’m surprised at you, Reverend. Ain’t you gonna bow your head and give thanks for the blessings of the devil’s brew?”
         From where he stood, Rance Dehner could only hear confused mutterings coming from Reverend David Martin. Rance did notice that the saloon girl’s face was turning from concern into something more closely resembling fury.
         “Why, I think you should say grace in a right powerful voice.” Yancey looked around the saloon to check whether he had a large audience. He did. “Show all these lost sinners how a good Christian man behaves.”
         Yancey let go of Martin’s wrist. “Go on, pray! Then you can have you a drink.”
         David Martin’s entire body seemed to sway with uncertainty. He turned and looked at the amber colored liquid that awaited him. 
         “Don’t do it, Reverend!” The saloon girl broke loose from Larson and stepped briskly toward Martin.
         Yancey Larson shouted a curse, grabbed the girl, pushed her against the bar and gave her a hard slap across the face. The girl screamed, took a few uncertain steps, then leaned against the bar for support.
         David Martin charged at Larson, shouting angry, garbled words. One hard punch sent the reverend plunging to the floor.
         Dehner advanced on the young gunfighter. “You want to play too, mister?” Larson laughed. An evening of drinking and bragging made the gunfighter’s first move too obvious. Dehner easily ducked the punch and slammed a fist into Larson’s left eye. Yancey staggered backwards and Dehner advanced again, kicking the gunfighter’s right ankle out from under him.
         As Yancey hit the floor, he reached for this gun but Rance hastily stepped on the gunfighter’s arm, pinning it to the floor. He grabbed the Smith and Wesson from Yancey’s holster, then stepped back and pointed it at him.
         “Get up, Yancey, then raise your hands.”
         As Yancey reluctantly followed the instructions, Dehner’s eyes skittered across the Golden Nugget. He saw nothing suspicious. Most of the patrons looked relieved that Yancey Larson had been brought down. On his left, he saw the saloon girl helping David Martin to his feet, or trying to. 
         “Are you okay, ma’am?”
         The young lady looked a bit surprised by the respectful, “ma’am.”  “Ah, yes, I’m fine. Thank you.” 
         “Drop the gun, mister!”
         Dehner glanced to his right and saw a man who had just entered through the batwing doors. There was a star on his vest and a Remington .44 in his right hand.
         Dehner nodded at his prisoner. “Sheriff, this is Yancey Larson. He’s wanted for murder. If you could jail him for tonight, I’ll--”
         “I said drop the gun, mister, or I won’t bother with jailin’ you. You’ll be goin’ right into a pine box.”
         Dehner dropped the Smith and Wesson. Larson quickly picked the gun up by the ivory grip and holstered it.
         The sheriff was a large, beefy man with a thick black mustache that was lightly sprinkled with white. “Now, who are you?” The lawman spoke as he approached Dehner.
         “My name is Rance Dehner.”
         “Just why are you in town, Rance Dehner? And don’t hand me no garbage ‘bout jus’ passin’ through.”
         “I’m a detective with the Lowrie Agency. The family of one of the men Yancey Larson killed hired the agency to find him and bring him in.”
         “Dead or alive, I suppose,” the sheriff scoffed.
         “Suppose so. They weren’t too fussy on details.”
         The sheriff gestured with his free hand toward Yancey. “And how can you be so sure that this here man is Yancey Larson?”
         “Yancey isn’t shy. Before I was hired to find him, I saw him challenging men to go against him at a saloon in Phoenix. Of course, he never called out anyone who had a chance of beating him. Didn’t think much of it at the time. Larson impressed me as just another blowhard.”
         Yancey Larson’s eyes flamed with anger. Dehner enjoyed the entertainment.
         “Well, Mr. Detective, I’m afraid you got confused.” The sheriff once again gestured at Yancey. “This man is John Smith. He’s here to be my Deputy Sheriff.”
         “That’s wrong, Sheriff Burns.” The saloon girl shouted. “Yancey Larson has been bragging about being… Yancey Larson, for more than an hour--”
         “You’re a right pretty girl, Judy, but I guess you’re kinda innocent.” Burns gave an unpleasant laugh, then continued. “You just don’t understand how men are sometimes. Why, John here was funnin’ you. You know I’d never hire a gunfighter to be my deputy, don’tcha, Judy?”
         A look of intense anger passed across Judy’s face to be replaced by resignation. “Yes sir.”
         “Well then, now that we got this little misunderstandin’ cleared up, guess John and I will head over to the sheriff’s office where I can swear him in.” Burns faced Rance Dehner. “Mr. Detective, I want you out of town--”
         “Hold on, Clete.”  Larson patted his holster. “Before Dehner leaves town, I want him to drop by the sheriff’s office. Tomorrow morning at nine. Enjoy your breakfast, detective. It will be the last meal you ever eat.” Larson looked around the saloon, pleased to see that he still commanded a large audience. “All of you are invited to watch the fun!” 
         Burns was uneasy with his deputy taking over the situation, but tried to act amused. “Guess you’re headin’ for that pine box after all, Mr. Detective.”
         The sheriff and his new deputy stomped out of the saloon. Rance wanted to shout something funny at them but thought better of it. No sense in riling two enemies. Besides, he couldn’t think of anything funny to shout.
         Judy was still bent over Reverend Martin, who was now sitting up. “Put your arm around my shoulder.”
         Guffaws swept across the saloon and a voice shot out, “I know there’s some stuff in the Good Book ‘bout doves, Reverend but I don’t think Judy is the kind of dove the Good Book had in mind!”         
         Explosive laughter filled the Golden Nugget. Rance Dehner stooped over and draped Reverend Martin’s other arm around his shoulder. He and Judy managed to get the clergyman onto his feet and walk him out of the saloon.
         “Where to?” Dehner asked of Judy as they stood on the boardwalk outside the Golden Nugget.
         “The Cooper Hotel, straight ahead. I have a room there.”
         As they advanced down the boardwalk, Reverend Martin babbled a stream of vitriol, all of it aimed at himself.
         Entering the Cooper Hotel, Dehner saw that his first assessment of the town had been wrong. To the right of the check-in desk was a small, dreary saloon filled with men who could drink hard because they weren’t needed anywhere the next day.  Men who would never be needed anywhere again. 
         “Well, hi there Judy!” The desk clerk broke off a conversation he was having with a man who was leaning against the desk. Both men looked at the newcomers hopefully, as if they might inject some fun into a dull night.
         “And hi there, Reverend. Say, Judy, who’s your… ah… friend?” A mocking look came into the clerk’s pudgy face.
         “Evening Frank,” was all Judy would say as she and Rance turned left and started down a corridor of rooms.
         “Wait a minute!” Frank hauled his bulk from behind the desk and took a few small steps toward the threesome. “Mister,” he pointed at Rance.  “If you sleep in Judy’s room tonight, you pay for it, else I’ll come and rout you out of there!”
         Rance nodded his head. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He turned to Judy as they continued their trek down the hall.  “Between the local law and the desk clerk a man sure does feel welcome in this town.”
         “Things use ta be different.” Those were the first discernible words Reverend Martin had spoken since they had left the Golden Nugget. His steps became a bit more certain as his companions helped him into Judy’s room.
         After David Martin had been placed on the bed, Dehner stepped back and watched as Judy took off the pastor’s shoes, then talked to him softly until the man was asleep.
         “You look like you’ve done this a few times before.”
         “Yes.”  Her voice remained soft and her eyes remained on the sleeping man. “Most nights Reverend Martin beds down in the church. But on nights when he drinks…”
         “What does his congregation think about having a drunk for a pastor?” Dehner gave a light chuckle as he spoke.
         Judy turned toward the detective, a fierce anger in her eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about mister!”
         “What do you mean?”
         “Reverend Martin used to be friends with Sheriff Saxon. Mr. Saxon was sheriff until about eighteen months ago. Reverend Martin would help out now and then as a part time deputy. Sheriff Saxon only had one full time deputy.”
         “Who was that?”
         “Clete Burns, our current sheriff. Mr. Saxon didn’t trust Burns. He told the Reverend he was going to get rid of Clete.”
         “What happened?”
         “Sheriff Saxon got killed one night. Two bullets in the back. Clete Burns claimed it was the work of a drifter. The drifter never got caught. Clete became the new sheriff.”
         Rance was beginning to understand David Martin’s plight. “I take it  Reverend Martin smelled a rat and said so.”
         The anger in Judy’s eyes subsided, replaced by something close to adulation. “Reverend Martin denounced Clete Burns from the pulpit. He called him a murderer, and not a very smart murderer, at that!”
         “Burns must have wanted that sheriff’s job real bad.”
         “Yes he did. David…Reverend Martin…explained that the town only pays part of the sheriff’s salary. The larger part is paid by the mining company that operates in Cooper. The mine is turning out to be richer than the company had first thought.”
         “More people will be moving in.” Rance’s eyes roved as thoughts bounced about in his head. “The mining company expects their payroll and their other interests to be protected. They won’t care much about how it gets done, and they pay well. That’s probably why Burns called in Yancey Larson. He couldn’t keep on top of a situation that big by himself.”
         “The Reverend tried to organize a group of men to stand up to Clete Burns.” Judy walked around the bed, pausing at the side opposite of Dehner. Her hand lightly stroked the forehead of the man sleeping there.
         “What happened?”
         “The night of the Sunday when David Martin gave that sermon, he was called to the home of one of his parishioners. Their little boy had become ill and they wanted prayer. When he got home…very late…he found his house had been burned down. His wife, Barbara, was found dead in the rubble. She had been shot while running out of the house from the fire.”
         Rance Dehner closed his eyes for a moment and gave a long sigh, as if apologizing for his earlier laughter. “I assume Sheriff Burns declared all this to be the work of another drifter.”
         Judy nodded her head. “Burns had intended to kill Reverend Martin. Now, he doesn’t have to. The Reverend’s drinking is getting worse. Burns likes to have him around, to remind people of what happens when they defy Clete Burns.”
         From the saloon came the sounds of loud, empty curses, curses aimed at everything, and nothing. Rance Dehner looked around at the room. Its one chair and chest of drawers looked old and beaten, but clean. Dehner was sure Judy was responsible for the cleanliness. The Cooper Hotel wasn’t the kind of establishment that would offer much in the way of room service.
         “Guess I better get back to the front desk and rent a room.” Rance suddenly remembered that his hat was still on and felt embarrassed. Judy was a woman that a man should take his hat off for.
         “I’ll be sleeping in the chair.” Judy’s voice was firm. She was stating an important fact. Reverend Martin’s reputation, or what was left of it, needed to be protected.
         Rance had just opened the door of the small room when Judy tossed a question at him. “Are you leaving town, like the sheriff ordered?”
         “Plan to.”
         Judy shrugged her shoulders and nodded her head in a gesture of disappointment.
         “Of course, there is one thing I have to take care of first,” Dehner added.
         “What’s that?”
         “My appointment tomorrow morning with Yancey Larson. I’m going to arrest Yancey, or kill him.” Dehner touched his hat with two fingers, stepped out of the room, and closed the door behind him.
         David Martin’s eyes opened into darkness. He had no idea what time it was, as Judy’s room contained no windows. Judy Wilkinson was slouched in a chair beside the bed, asleep.
         The clergyman slowly sat up, his head experiencing a familiar throb. Shame overwhelmed him. He had given in to the drink again. How much longer could he go on like this?
         Martin stumbled out of bed and began to look for his shoes. The people in his congregation had been patient with him. Too patient. They deserved better. This Sunday he would announce his resignation.
         This Sunday-- how far away was that? “What day is it?” He mumbled out loud as he stepped on a shoe near the foot of the bed.
         “Reverend Martin, are you okay?”
         “Yeah, yeah, Judy, I’m  fine.” He sat down on the bed again to put on his shoes.
         Judy hastily got up and lit a small lamp on the chest of drawers. “I have good news.”
         The words sounded absurd. Reverend Martin made a sound between a sob and a laugh. “That’s…good.”
         The man who helped me bring you here last night, remember him?”
         “Yes, sort of.” The Reverend dropped one shod foot down and began work on the other. 
         “His name is Rance Dehner. He’s a detective,--in town to arrest Yancey Larson. That’s the man who tried to buy you a drink last night, remember, in the Golden--”
         “Yes, yes.” Martin stood up slowly. “I remember.”
         “Do you remember that Clete Burns made Yancey his deputy?”
         “No, not exactly. Ah, Judy, I’m not feeling all that good…”
          Both of Judy’s hands became fists as her voice took on new intensity. “Please listen anyway. This can be good news, Reverend. When Rance Dehner goes to arrest Yancey, Sheriff Burns will have to stand up for his deputy. Both men could end up losing their badges. Mr. Dehner will be able to prove that Yancey is really Yancey and that the sheriff knew--”
         David Martin placed a hand on his forehead and ran it slowly through his brown, disheveled hair. “Fat chance. Dehner will probably walk into an ambush--”
         “Not if you go with him.”
         “You used to be a volunteer deputy; you helped Sheriff Saxon bring in those robbers--”
         “That was a long time ago.”
         Judy’s voice became more urgent, “Less than two years!”
         Martin kept his eyes down. “A lot has happened…”
         “I know that!” Judy waved both fists in the direction of the man who was willfully keeping his back to her. “Except for you, nobody in this town misses Barbara Martin more than I do! She was wonderful to everyone and she treated me with kindness and respect. Not like…”
         Judy stifled a cry. This was not the time for tears. “But letting a vicious killer run this town is no way to honor her memory. Who knows how many innocent people Clete Burns will kill!”
         “There’s nothing--”
         “Yes, there is something you can do!” Anger began to sound in the saloon girl’s voice. “Rance Dehner is going to face down Burns and Larson this morning. You’ve got to help him! You’ve preached plenty of times about opportunities that are sent into our lives for a purpose--”
         “I don’t want to hear about what I preached!” Martin took a step toward the door; Judy grabbed his arm.
         “You don’t want to hear about a lot of things. You just want to live in your own weakness and self-pity.” She opened the top drawer of the chest of drawers with her free arm and pulled out a mirror. “Here! Look at yourself.”
         Martin yanked loose his arm and stepped back as if the woman were waving a knife at him.
         Judy advanced on him, mirror in hand. “I said look at yourself!”
         Rance Dehner sat in the chair of a restaurant whose name he had forgotten. The steak, eggs and potatoes tasted great, as did the coffee. The place was run by an Asian couple, and Dehner laughed softly as he remembered hearing the man instruct his wife to take two trays over to the sheriff’s office this morning. The sheriff now had a full time deputy.
         Both he and his enemies would be firing at each other on a full stomach. Fair enough.
         “Good morning, Mr. Dehner.”
         At first, the detective didn’t recognize the man who stood in front of him. Reverend Martin was now clean shaven; his face was pale, but his eyes looked clear and alert. There was a Colt .44 tied to his right leg.
         “Morning, Reverend, care to join me for breakfast?”  He motioned toward an empty chair across the table from him.
         “No, but I’ve asked Mrs. Wong to bring me some java if that’s all right,” Martin sat down as a young woman smiled and placed a cup of coffee in front of him, then left.
         David Martin sipped his brew, “Thanks for last night.”
         “Think nothing of it.”
         “Understand you’ve got a busy morning in front of you.”
         “You could say that.”
         Martin placed the cup down, his fingers dancing nervously on it. “I’d like to come along and help.”
         Rance Dehner’s eyebrows lifted a bit, but he said nothing.
         The pastor’s voice picked up speed. “I used to be a volunteer deputy in this town--”
         “I know about all that. Judy told me.”
         “I can be of help to you, Dehner.”
         The detective said nothing but looked carefully at his companion.
         “I want to change. I want to be what I once was.” Martin’s voice had a pleading quality. “This could be my only chance.”
         “You could end up dead.”
         Martin smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “That would be a change, too.”
         Rance laughed hard and lifted a napkin to his face. Coffee had run up his nose.
         Rance Dehner walked in a steady manner toward the sheriff’s office, which was at the edge of the town, across from a mercantile. He eyed the man walking beside him and hoped he hadn’t made a mistake. David Martin looked determined, but nervous.
         Of course, there was every reason to be nervous.
         As they got near the sheriff’s office, the two men encountered several small gatherings of people. Yancey’s invitation had received some positive responses.
         But there were no crowds across from the office or anywhere near it. Both the detective and the pastor stepped off the boardwalk. Dehner shouted in a voice loud enough to easily carry across the dirt street, “Yancey Larson, come out with your hands up!”
         Nothing happened. That didn’t surprise Rance. He had seen Larson in action. The kid was fast but his accuracy was not that good. Larson would be hoping Rance and his companion moved in closer to the office so as to be easier targets.
         Dehner’s voice became a taunt. “Come on, Yancey! You’re the one who got all these folks to show up here. Don’t disappoint them! Don’t you and Clete run around inside that office like two chickens!”
         Clete Burns and Yancey Larson walked out of the sheriff’s office. “Well, well,” Burns laughed. “If it ain’t the pulpit pounder. What’re you doin’ here? The Golden Nugget is at the other end of the street.”
         Laughter wafted from the crowd.
         “I’m sorry, Dehner. I was wrong. I can’t handle this. Sorry!” Reverend Martin unbuckled his gunbelt and dropped it to the ground, then ran across the street into Mary Peterson’s Dress Shop.
         More laughter sounded from the crowd. The sheriff and his new deputy joined in. “Looks like the good Reverend has decided to hide behind a woman’s skirts.” Burns said.
         “Martin, get out here!” Dehner shouted in a panicked voice.
         Clete Burns went for his gun first. Dehner drew and fired one shot into his opponent’s belly. The detective then hit the ground. He had been right, Yancey’s first shot missed. Damon’s second shot hit Yancey’s right shoulder, causing the outlaw to throw his gun into the street as he spun around. 
         Burns was still holding onto his Remington. As he raised his weapon, Dehner sent a bullet into his chest. The sheriff went down.
         David Martin exploded out the door of the dress shop, Winchester in hand. He fired at the roof of the mercantile. A screech of pain was followed by a series of mournful cries as a body rolled off the store roof and dropped onto the street.
         Yancey left the boardwalk, scrambling for his gun. Rance fired at the Smith and Wesson, causing the gunman to jump backwards and fall, his head hitting the boardwalk.
         Dehner sprang to his feet and ran toward the Smith and Wesson. As he picked up the gun, he carefully eyed Yancey. The gunfighter was unconscious and no longer a threat.
         The detective then cautiously approached the body of Clete Burns. The caution wasn’t needed. Clete Burns was dead.
         Reverend Martin was crouched over the body of the gunman that he had shot off the roof. He looked up as Dehner ran toward him. “Stu here needs a doctor, but he’ll be all right.”
         “You know this guy?” Rance pointed at the moaning creature on the ground.
         David Martin nodded his head. “We’ve done some drinking together. I thought he was my friend.”
         “I am your friend,” Stu sounded offended. “But they paid me. A man’s gotta make a livin’.
         Rance Dehner pulled a Henry from the gunrack on the back wall of the sheriff’s office. “I’ll do my round now.”
         “I really appreciate you helping, Rance.” David Martin spoke from behind the sheriff’s desk.
         “Yancey won’t be able to travel for another five days. Might as well make myself useful in the meantime. Besides, I owe you for helping me out yesterday.”
         Martin sat back in his chair and laughed. “You know the part that pleases me most about yesterday? My acting! When I ran into that dress shop, I had everyone convinced I was abandoning you.  Good thing nobody saw me sneak that rifle into Mary’s store earlier. The window of that store has a perfect view of the mercantile across the street.”
         “Your acting helped me a lot,” Dehner inspected the Henry, “made Clete and Yancey a bit cockier and a second or two slower.” The detective looked directly at his companion. “Speaking of acting, how long will you have to be acting sheriff, David?”
         “Not long. This afternoon I’m talking with a man who wants the job. He’s been recommended by a preacher friend of mine in a nearby town. That friend will be here next month.”
         Reverend David Martin smiled broadly. “I can’t very well officiate at my own wedding.”
         Dehner immediately congratulated the Reverend and then left the office to begin his round. As he made his way down the boardwalk, he saw Judy coming toward him. They exchanged smiles, and Rance tipped his hat to the bride to be.