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Top Ten Western Short Stories For December

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Bullpen / Western Short Story
Poor Aim and Welcome Distractions
Benjamin Thomas


Late afternoon shadows fell across the rickety wagon as it made its methodical way down the rough incline that served as a road in this part of Clear Creek Canyon, four days outside of Idaho Springs. Leland Gordon, his streaked hair more gray than black these days and worn a little over the ears and parted near the middle, shaded his eyes with one hand while holding the reins to the two mules with the other. He grunted to himself, satisfied at what he saw.

“Charlie, honey,” he said over his shoulder. Charlene, his 18 year-old granddaughter, was supposed to be resting in the back of the wagon but was more likely to be sulking at not getting to work the reigns herself. “I think we’ve arrived. Time to start settin’ up.”

No response at first but then there came a low moan from the wagon followed by, “Alright Pops. I’ll start getting dressed.”

“Make sure you put on that new dress darlin’. You know the one I mean.”

“Yes Pops.”

Half an hour later, the wagon had been strategically positioned inside one of the largest mining camps on the South Platte River. It lay at the base of the Rocky Mountains, east of Golden City. Leland had researched the area in preparation for this job and knew that Clear Creek was originally named Cannonball Creek as early as 1820, called so by the French hunters of the expedition of Stephen H. Long, after the river rocks in its bed. In the 1830s it became known as Vasquez Fork, also Vasquez River, after the fur trader Louis Vasquez, who had his fort at the mouth of the river and trapped along it. It had gained its present name from the gold rushers in 1859, nearly two years ago.

Leland’s wagon had gained little attention thus far, such was the nondescript nature of it combined with the level of scurrying about by the inhabitants of the hectic camp who were simply too busy to care about yet another mule-drawn wagon. Another half hour would see the setting of the lazy sun and everybody hustled to get their activities finished up while there was still light to see by. Some, however, had their own light sources and were prepared to strain and drain throughout the night in hopes of wringing one more shiny nugget from their efforts. But Leland was satisfied with the location. They had backed the wagon up next to a large clear area that was staked out for a building of some kind but surrounded by the jammed-together tents of miners and equipment suppliers. From where he stood at the back of the wagon, he let his pale blue eyes scan across the tops of the tents taking in a number of rough buildings with signs for saloons, assayer’s offices, chow halls, etc. The further the sun sank, he noted, the more whores appeared on the muddy pathways.

“Ready Charlie?” he asked. “I’ve got the lanterns in position.”

His granddaughter poked her head out of the wagon and wrinkled her nose. “It sure does stink here.”

“I suppose they get used to it.” Leland glanced at her and then did a double-take. “Aren’t you a little old for pig tails?”

“Oh, thanks. I forgot.” Quickly she removed the cloth wraps from her hair, allowing the softly curled locks to spring free and swirl about her head. The effect was like a churning ball of dancing fire.

“How’s that?” Charlene smiled. Her flaming red hair was always cut short and never anything but wild. She couldn’t tame it no matter what she tried so it was easier to just let it do its thing. A liberal supply of freckles sprinkled across her cheeks only enhanced the overall effect.

“Honey, with that dress on I’m starting to rethink this approach.” Leland winked at her and was satisfied with the resulting blush. He was just happy she still did that, given the nature of their lives these days.

“OK. Enough lolly-gagging,” said Leland, stomping one foot in the dirt like a bull preparing to charge. “Time to get this show started.” He grabbed a coarse rope attached to the very top of the wagon and gave it a firm tug.

Instantly, and almost magically, the wagon transformed. Large pieces of wood slid down into place at the back of the wagon, forming a raised platform as well as a set of steps leading up to it. Colorful painted leather signs unfurled on all sides reading:

“Leland’s Liniments and Miracle Elixirs!”

“Cures Disease, Smoothes Wrinkles, Removes Stains, Prolongs Life!“

“Safe! Swift! Effective!”

Leland quickly shuffled out several sample display cases and then nimbly jumped up to the platform, jamming a top hat on his head. At the same time, Charlene emerged from the confines of the wagon, careful to not let her long shimmering sleeveless golden dress drag through the mud. She was used to the freedom of movement that her usual trousers provided so she was thankful for the slit in the side of the dress that allowed for easier movement even if it did perhaps run a little high up her thigh for her preference. That slit together with her well-displayed corset-boosted cleavage should attract and maintain plenty of attention.

Charlene struck a lucifer match, lighting a short fuse that in turn set off a dozen or so firecrackers. All of the noise cut through the general cacophony of the camp, heads swinging toward the wagon, eyebrows raised in curiosity. Strange sites and unexpected noises, even the occasional discharge of a pistol, were commonplace but here was something new.

A small crowd gathered.

“Keep a look-out for Padgett,” Leland reminded his granddaughter. “He may have shaved off his mustache since that wanted poster was printed but I doubt he’ll give up his trademark suspenders. It is said they are made from dried human skin.”

Charlene rolled her eyes before saying, “Talk about twisted. I know he uses them to intimidate people but by Jing, that’s odd.” She shook her head and added, “I’ll watch for him Pops. You just do your thing.” She grabbed a couple of bottled samples and then strode around to the assembling crowd, making sure she kept her smile firmly in place. A few whistles and catcalls rose from the men adding to the growing size of the cluster around the wagon.

“Come one, come all,” came Leland’s booming voice from atop the platform, a shade deeper than his normal tones. He had a marvelous ability to project his voice when necessary. “Step right up and hear of the miracle elixir from yours truly, the famous Leland Gordon, a cure-all for whatever ails you! You heard that right! It doesn’t matter if you’re suffering from coughs, boils, constipation or hemorrhoids. One bottle will cure it. Dysentery? Not to worry. Effluvium? It cures that too. What I want to offer you, my friends is no mere medicine. It’s far more than that! It’s a tonic, an elixir to purge the body and lift the spirits!”

Leland lifted a bottle in one hand while pointing at individuals in the crowd with the other. He was trying his best to affect a more New England tone than his Scottish heritage would normally allow.

“You sir. Could that be a case of lockjaw? Just ten dollars a bottle will take care of that overnight. I hear you can pull that much gold out of the ground in these parts in less than 20 minutes. Or you,” he pointed at an older man near the back of the crowd. “I sure hope you aren’t suffering from Scrofula but from here, it would appear so. Well, I’m here to tell you, sir, you should never have to suffer from such a skin disease as the King’s Evil. No sir. One bottle of Leland’s Miracle Elixir for just ten dollars will have the ladies swooning all over you in no time.”

A low laughter rippled through the crowd.

“Or if you’re just down on your luck and feel the need to revive your sagging spirit, well friends, my nostrum works twice as well as the rotgut whiskey you’ve been swimming in and without the head-splitting after-effects.”

“I’ll take two,” came a call from near the front. Charlene took that as her cue and started passing out bottles in exchange for cash or even a bit of gold dust. Leland started jabbering on about other creams, ointments, and such, making unbelievable claims that nevertheless had the gathered men rapt with attention. She smiled inwardly at Leland’s technique—he certainly had a gift for playing this role--but forced herself to tune it out as she began to circulate through the gathering, eyes open for any signs of Frank Padgett. Her work was certainly cut out for her, she soon realized, due to the general conditions of the camp. The dirt these men wore was nothing if not a consistently dull brown. All faces tended to look the same with so much dirt and dust ground into them. Facial hair all tended to be the same cloudy gray-brown shade as well.

After a while, the crowd started to grow a little restless and some began to wander off.

“How much for Red?” came a call from a younger man in the middle of the packed crowd. “She can cure what ails me in no time.”

“In no time is right, Carmondy” came an answering call. “That’s how long you’d last with a filly like her.”

More laughter.

“Mr. Carmondy, is it?” Charlene shouted over the hubbub. She had recognized that name as one of Padgett’s gang. “I really don’t need to examine your boneless pork to know Leland’s elixir can cure even the most hopeless cases!”

The entire gathering roared with laughter and Charlene raised one bare arm high in the air, acknowledging their appreciation. Carmondy’s smile disappeared from his lips and he stalked off in retreat. Leland smothered a grin of his own, knowing he needed to take back control.

“You there, mister. That’s right, you in the black hat and the duster.” Leland’s outstretched arm pointed at a tall man who lurked at the edge of the crowd. “A Pinkerton man, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps you could tell us what might be bothering you and I can proscribe an appropriate cure from my wagon here.”

The subject of Leland’s question was a tall, rugged, broad-shouldered man who wore a dangerous look the way pumas looked at wounded mule deer. His eyes were steely-gray and he wore a full mustache that drooped over his upper lip. Beneath the long duster, his hips were narrow and one could easily see a Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled there. It wasn’t hard to imagine a second on the opposite side, strung low for a quick draw.

Doffing his hat and revealing a full head of obsidian-black hair to match his mustache, the man smiled slowly, moving his gaze away from Leland and towards the crowd. He let the quiet build as he massaged his hat which was the color of a newborn fawn. It had a hand-rolled brim and a healthy pinch in the crown.

Finally, the man spoke in a deep baritone, “I’m afraid nothing from that wagon can help me in the slightest, unless, maybe you’re hiding Frank Padgett and his gang inside.”

This was greeted by a low murmur rippling through the gathered men.

Charlene could see a jagged scar over the man’s right eyebrow. “Are you huntin’ a bounty, sir?”

“I am. Edward Flint’s my name but most folks call me Tandy.”

More murmurs from the men this time accompanied by some shuffling of feet and more than one head bobbing down as if to avoid being seen. Whispers of ‘It’s Tandy Flint’ and ‘Tandy the Tracker” floated on the still air.

“Well sir,” came a voice from somewhere in the thick of the throng. “I seen Carmondy there working with Padgett. Heard tell of that bunch working out of someplace up in the hills. They don’t seem to be minin’ though.” Charlene tried to make out who had spoken but from her position on the ground, she couldn’t see over the taller men’s heads.

“Carmondy?” repeated Flint. “I would be pleased to make his acquaintance if anybody saw where he ran off to.”

It seemed nobody had.

Except Leland. From his position on the platform at the back of the wagon, he had been able to see everything clearly. Carmondy had left after being cut down to size by Charlene’s timely quip, striding off past a newish-looking saloon with a hastily-painted sign over the door reading “Robby’s Roost”. From there he had disappeared among a swarm of tents that appeared to house a host of gambling opportunities. The man had a distinctive gate, probably the result of an ankle injury at some point. He shouldn’t be too hard to locate and that should then lead them to Padgett.

Time to wrap up the sales effort. The plan was working out just as he’d hoped.

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“We cain’t ignore this, Frank,” Nate Remine said in his high-pitched voice. “If what Carmondy says is true, then we got Tandy Flint on our trail. That guy don’t stop to let the clover grow under his boots.”

Frank Padgett just stared at Nate and let one hand play with his thick bristly mustache. It curled up on one side but not on the other. Light from the sole lantern in the tent cast playful shadows that contradicted the mood inside the small tent.

Finally, Padgett glanced around at the other four men and said, “We got a good thing going here. I’m not ready to vamoose.” His deep voice was raspy like a trail drover fresh off a round-up. Pausing briefly and still playing with the one side of his mustache he seemed to consider for a moment before continuing. “If we pull up stakes now, we’ll be leaving behind all we’ve built over the past month or so. And with the amount of color we’ve heard tell of, and the dust we’ve seen, the businesses around here are anxious to pay to secure their operations. And at a hefty price too. Who else would be able to provide that public service as good as us?” His grin was as wide as it was devious.

Some chuckles greeted that but more subdued than it might have been.

A stringy-haired thin man from Mexico named Reymundo Aguire spoke up, “I say we ambush ‘im. Don’t let ‘im push us around.”

“I don’t know,” started Cat Maes, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. “You know Tandy’s reputation, right? They say he can track a feller over bare stone for miles and tell you what he’s had for breakfast, his shoe size, and whether or not he’s married. He’s a killer too. Never lost a gun battle and always brings in his quarry, man or beast. He wouldn’t just stumble into no ambush.”

“Easy there, Cat, said Padgett. “Let’s not make him out to be some sort of mystical force of nature. He’s a man like any other and he’ll bleed like any other.” One more stare down with each of his men as if to gage their mettle.

All of them met his eye except for Nate who kept his glued to the glow of the lantern. He was a chubby man with a short wispy blonde beard and big round eyes that were always darting about giving him a look of perpetual nervousness. It matched his demeanor.

Padgett frowned, grunted, and then reached across the narrow gap and slapped Nate hard across the cheek. “Wake up, man. We either take care of this Tandy problem or he’ll take care of us.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nate quickly, his left cheek now glowing read from the force of the slap.

Padgett, seemingly satisfied, settled back and started playing with his mustache once again.

“We’ll ambush him all right,” he said. “But we’ll set him up for the fall first.” He looked over at Carmondy. “Tom, since you’re the one who seen him, and let him see you, I want you to let it slip that we’re going to be up at the ranch house. You know the one I mean? That one up in the hills west of here that we passed by on the way.”

Carmondy looked glum but knew when to take orders. “That one up near Quartz Hill? Sure I know it. But why let Tandy know where we’re going to be?”

“Because we won’t be there. We’re going to set up our ambush on the trail just south of there.”

Aguire spoke up again, “You don’t think he would suspect an ambush?”

Padgett smiled a deep satisfied smile and let the questioning silence linger for a bit. Finally, he said, “I’ve seen men like Tandy all my life. They get a reputation like he has and they start to get comfortable. Too comfortable. They start to rely on their reputations and let that do all the work for ‘em. No, he’ll plan to ride right up to that ranch house and flush us out or some such plan he’ll formulate. But he won’t know that we know he’s coming so he won’t be expecting an ambush. It’ll be quick and easy and then we can all get back to weighing down our pockets with little gold nuggets.”

Nods and smiles came to the other four men in the tent; it was difficult to tell which ones were forced.

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Charlene had completed the conversion of the wagon back to its original configuration by the time Leland returned and poked his head back inside.

“Did you find Carmondy?” she asked.

“Better than that, he grunted. “I found Padgett himself and the rest of his men. He heaved himself up into the back of the wagon and saw Billy Swain was already inside. He grinned at him.

“You did a fine job there, ‘Tandy’”, he winked.

“Thanks boss,” replied the rough-looking man who had posed earlier as the Pinkerton Bounty Hunter, Tandy Flint. “It’s pretty easy to play a role like that. Just gotta let the reputation carry you through.”

Charlene squirmed with impatience. “So what’d you find out, Pops?”

Leland told them how he had followed Carmondy, quietly asking around and tracing his movements to one of the tents out near the edge of the large camp. Then it had just been a matter of positioning himself nearby and trying to filter out the rest of the rowdy camp noise in order to eavesdrop on Padgett’s plan. He briefly thought of trying to take them all right then and there but one against five, even with the element of surprise would have been foolish. “It seems Padgett’s gang is running a bullying scheme where they make the local saloon and other business owners pay for their protective services.”

“Ah,” said Billy. “I’ve seen that sort of thing before. One time, the theater troupe I belonged to up in Frisco had to pay a local gang to keep them from causing disturbances at our performances. That’s just low, if you ask me.”

“Yes, and a not unexpected occupation for our Mr. Padgett,” said Leland. “So now we know where they plan to ambush you, Billy. It should just be a matter of me riding up there in your place and springing their trap. They won’t harm me because I’ll just be an innocent passer-by, but they will have to take me back to their ranch house hide-out to keep me from alerting anybody.”

“Or, they might just shoot you,” said Charlene. “You know how these plans of yours never go just the way you say they will.”

“No, I don’t think they’ll do that, at least not right away. They won’t want to risk anybody investigating my disappearance, at least not yet. I told the crowd tonight that I’d be back to follow-up on their use of the elixirs we sold.”

Charlene didn’t seem entirely convinced. “I suppose with Tandy Flint in town they won’t be targeting anybody but him. But after that…”

“Yes, after that…well, they’ll no doubt make me disappear for good, maybe as a way of letting everybody know they aren’t to be trifled with. That would help their bullying business. It’s a short term victory for them at best but based on what I overheard tonight, short-term is just the way they think.”

“So how does that get us any closer to capturing Padgett and his gang and collecting the bounty?” Billy looked pensive, a normal expression of his when he wasn’t playing a role. “We’ll be one man down. Won’t that just put us deeper in the hole?”

Leland grinned at him once again and then grabbed an old sackcloth from the side of the wagon where it hung from a rusty nail. “Behold my latest and greatest colic treatment,” he said, pulling a small stoppered glass bottle filled with a green-tinged liquid. “It’s actually a sleep draught, guaranteed to knock out somebody for ten hours or more. Not even a buffalo stampede would rouse them.” He shrugged and added, “Hell of a headache when they wake up though.”

Charlene glanced across at Billy and said, “So the plan is for Pops to get captured, then get them to drink that stuff somehow. Then when they’re dead to the world, you and I will be on hand to tie them up nice and tidy and prepare to cart ‘em back to Denver to collect the bounty.”

“Sounds easy.” Billy cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe too easy. Just remember I’m Billy Swain, not actually Tandy Flint. I’ve shot a gun just twice in my life and didn’t hit nothing, either time.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Leland. “We only hired you for your acting talent, not your gunslinger skills. We just need you to get back out there now and be seen around camp as Tandy Flint. Keep up the swagger and dropping hints about looking for Padgett and his boys. Make sure folks know they’re accused of robbing the stage from the Butterfield Overland Mail Company and that they are also wanted for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy in Taos. Folks like to know specifics and robbing a mail coach is just downright evil. It would be good if the miners here are on our side. Meantime, Charlie and I will get a couple of hours shut eye so we can be ready for the next step. I’ll be riding out early to get caught in their ambush while Charlie trails behind to follow us and get the location of their hideout. It’s somewhere up near a place called Quartz Hill.”

Silence filled the wagon and there didn’t seem to be any more questions so Billy climbed back out of the wagon, instantly assuming the persona of the infamous Pinkerton bounty hunter and strode off toward the various saloons where revelry remained in full swing.

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Charlene wiped a drop of sweat from her upper lip as she swung her head from one side of the trail to the other, eyes darting behind every tree and branch. She urged her horse forward at a slow walk, letting him pick his way through the overgrown trail, the branches brushing across her trousers and long-sleeved button-up work shirt. Lips pinched in a thin line, she observed her horse’s ears twitching about, showing some skittishness.

Somewhere up ahead, Leland’s life was hanging on his hope that the plan would play out as expected.

Had the ambush already taken place? She hadn’t heard any gunfire so that was a good sign. But if it had happened, she would have expected to have heard something. Perhaps a skirmish or at least a horse neighing in confusion. She wasn’t that far behind, after all. The forest was thick here and the trail, if you could call it that, was narrow. Trees were dense overhead and the birds had been plentiful as they went about their never-ending quest for food.

Her heart skipped a beat as she realized she wasn’t hearing any bird song. No noise of any kind really. Had something already happened up ahead to quiet them?

Suddenly, a force erupted from her left side and she was knocked from her saddle, landing hard in a clump of scrub oak. A calloused hand clamped across her mouth and nose, followed by the quick insertion of a foul-tasting rag shoved deep. Dazed, her hands went instinctively to assist her breathing but both arms were efficiently pinned behind her. At the same time, somebody had roped her legs and had now grasped her ankles, tying them together quick as a cowboy on branding day.

A thinly-mustached narrow face thrust itself up close. A wicked grin spread across the man’s features and his foul breath let loose on Charlene’s recovering senses. She caught a glimpse of another man’s back as he grabbed the reigns of her horse and spoke softly to settle it down. The whole episode was over quickly and quietly.

“Hey there, Red,” chirped Charlene’s captor. He had a Mexican accent. “Carmondy told us you was a looker but I think he was holdin’ back on us.”

“Shut up Reymundo,” said the other man. Charlene could see now that he had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. “Gotta keep quiet, at least ‘till we get her back to the house.”

“But I wanna see the dress. Carmondy said she wore a dress that made his eyes water.” His voice trailed off though and turned into a mumble to himself as he worked to finish tying up Charlene’s wrists.

She made an attempt to pull an arm free but was immediately punished by a sharp yank at her elbow that felt like her shoulder had almost been pulled from its socket. Rendered helpless, she ceased her struggles and tried to focus on her surroundings, memorizing every detail she could of the two men. But then a burlap sack was thrust down over her head, dashing all hopes of gathering more information, at least by sight. Perhaps something could be gleaned from hearing. She hoped Leland was still out there and could come to her rescue but she felt it more likely that he had been taken as well. She would just have to bide her time and see how this played out.

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Leland made his way back to the wagon at the gold camp as swiftly as he dared. Something had gone wrong, that was certain. He had meandered his horse up and down the trail hoping to get ambushed but either he was in the wrong place or Padgett had other ideas. His worry compounded when he failed to encounter Charlene anywhere on his back trail.

So now his plan needed to adapt. To evolve. Leland had been a teacher of mathematics prior to his current vocation and he liked the precision of that profession. On the other hand, he would be the first to admit that his plans, as his granddaughter had recently pointed out, often went awry. To evolve a plan was not a foreign concept to Leland. But to properly evolve a plan, one needed to know the new constants and variables. And right now, all he had to work with were variables.

He still had the small vials of his sleeping draught with him. He had intended to drug Padgett’s water or food following his own ambush and capture but now he would need additional tools. He began to gather some basic ingredients.

Digging through the contents of the wagon he located a cast iron pot, a small wooden box, some empty tin cans, a mallet, and several other components. He carefully measured out three parts saltpeter to two parts brown sugar and added this to the pot. Outside the wagon he hastily built a small campfire and then began to heat up the pot, stirring the mix with an old wooden spoon. It hadn’t been properly washed and Leland hoped the leftover crusted soup wouldn’t affect the blend.

While stirring intermittently, waiting for the saltpeter and sugar to completely melt, he started to pound out the tin cans, flattening them with the mallet and then arranging the pieces inside the box to act as a protective shield against the mixture he was cooking. At the same time, he couldn’t help but let his anxious mind ponder the current situation. What had gone wrong? Where was Charlie? If she had been captured it seemed likely they would take her to their ranch house. But what fate awaited her there? Leland didn’t want to ruminate about that too much. And what about Billy? Was he still acting in his role of Tandy, the infamous bounty hunter or had he been captured or killed as well? Too many variables.

The handle of the cast iron pot brought Leland back to his task. It had heated up so much now that Leland had to grab it using the bottom portion of his shirt to keep from burning his hand. The concoction was beginning to caramelize and had taken on a blackish brown color. It had also started to smoke a little so he removed the pot from the flames for a bit. Couldn’t overcook it or let it catch on fire. It was nicely melted now anyway and so he added a tablespoon full of baking powder. After quickly stirring that in, he moved the whole pot over to the tin-lined box and carefully poured in the mixture.

Once again, Leland darted into the wagon and returned, this time with a combustion delay fuse. He had always made sure to have these on hand since the beginning; one never knew when they would come in handy. It consisted of a compressed column of black powder wrapped in thick paper. This particular one was a ten second type. Hopefully, that would be enough.

Jabbing the fuse into the mixture, he was thankful that he hadn’t delayed any further for it was already starting to harden. It would take a good hour or so before it was truly hard enough to use but he had no notion of waiting around that long. He needed to get back to that ranch house before something happened to Charlene. He refused to let his mind think that it may already be too late.

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The light of the morning sun had already penetrated the burlap sack covering Charlene’s head but when it was wrenched off, its yellow brightness still blinded her to her immediate surroundings. She shook her head to clear it, feeling her hair swirling about her ears and the nape of her neck.

She had been unceremoniously dumped on the wooden floor of what she assumed was the ranch house that Pops had overheard Padgett talking about. Her hands and ankles were still tightly bound together and the constant chaffing during their short ride to the house was already causing pain to shoot up her extremities. At least she could see now. Still blinking against the brightness, she could make out that the room was larger than she had expected, with a high ceiling looking more like a converted barn than a house. The walls and ceiling were constructed with a traditional timber frame, though the beams were sawed rather than hewn. They were covered with vertical board siding, with battens over the cracks. Not wind-tight but evidence of a well-to-do ranch operation.

There was no ceiling, allowing her to see that the roof framing was a simple gable design with evenly spaced cross beams only a couple of feet above the height of the room’s two doors. Heavy oak-framed furniture with worn leather seats lay scattered about in disarray and there were signs of rats or other vermin now making their home there.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” came a low growl from a large beefy man with the face of an ox. An ox with an uneven black mustache and lots of facial stubble. A pair of ugly suspenders, uneven in their width, strained to hold up his pants over his stained white shirt. This had to be Frank Padgett himself.

“Caught ourselves a little red-headed birdie,” said the man who had captured her on the trail, he with the Mexican accent that she had heard referred to as “Reymundo”. “I say we see how she chirps.”

“We’ll git to that in good time,” said Padgett. “Any sign of the old man?”

“Sure. We saw him just where you said and we let him pass on by so we could take the birdie.”

“Good. We’ll give him some time to make it back to the town site and then undertake our next ambush. Good thing we got ourselves a little extra information.” He winked at somebody behind Charlene and out of her sight. He had a rope with him which he started to coil over the front door latch. “We can string him up and let him swing from the rafters. Justice will be done for all the false claims he was sellin’ to innocent folks last night.” A rumble emerged from his chest which Charlene supposed was a laugh.

Carmondy stalked into her vision, bent down and cupped Charlene’s chin in one of his dirty hands. “I’ve been waitin’ long enough, boss. Ever since I seen her in that dress, I been wanting to see a lot more of her. I call first dibs.” His other hand carried am enormous hunting knife with an obviously keen edge. He started to move it toward her shirt front, evidently intent on cutting away the buttons.

“Aw, Car, we all know you spoil them for the rest of us,” said another man, this one young and fleshy and with a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice. “Let me have a go at ‘er first.” He stood up from a stone fireplace where he had been poking a small log, trying to build up the flames a bit more.

“Nate, you wouldn’t know what to do with her.” Carmondy’s comment was greeted with amusement all around.

Now Charlene could see yet another man rise to his feet from where he had been sitting in the shadows along the north wall. This was “pony tail”, the second man who had snatched her off her horse earlier. The room grew quiet as he glided toward her, movements smooth and quiet like the stories of Indian scalp hunters. His eyes were focused directly on her own and for a moment it was as if nobody else was in the room, such was his intensity. He radiated malicious intent like a heat mirage in the sun-drenched desert.

“She’s mine,” was all he said in a dry, husky voice. Nobody disputed it, content to watch as if hypnotized.

Closing the distance decisively, he put a hand on either side of her shoulders and lifted her to her feet. Charlene felt the blood drain from her face, fearing what would come next. Courage, girl. She would be damned before she would let these men paw her without a fight.

The man moved slowly, letting his gaze flow over her face, as if studying it for later recall. He was patient and didn’t seem worried that any of the others would interfere. He was so close now she could feel his breath and smell its smoky aroma. Remaining as still as possible, she couldn’t repress a shiver when he reached up to push a loose bit of her hair behind an ear. Damn it. Got to treat him like he’s just a mean dog. Don’t show fear.

Right.

The air was still and it was as if there was nobody in the room but the two of them. Hers was not just a feeling of being trapped but being snared like a rabbit with a hungry coyote slinking toward her.

“I have a better idea.” came another voice from somewhere behind Charlene, breaking the tension.

A sense of dread flooded through Charlene, washing over her fear of Pony Tail and what he might do next. That voice. That easy southern drawl was unmistakable.

Billy.

Still in character of Tandy Flint, the bounty hunter.

As if to prove her suspicions correct, Billy moved around in front of her so she could get a good look. There was no hint of recognition in his steely eyes, no sense of remorse evident in his features. Just pure business with a glint of evil.

“I saw her in that dress too,” he said to the other men in the room. “I think it would be a mighty nice treat if she were to dance for us.”

“Oh yeah,” said Carmondy, a statement echoed by the others. “She needs to get nice and warmed up before we sample her charms,” said another. “Step back, Cat. Give her some room. Wish she had that dress on.”

Reymundo dragged a table over to the center of the room and said, “Behold, a stage!”

Two of the men grabbed Charlene and thrust her up onto the table where she stood timidly looking down at the gleeful men. But then her eyes landed on Billy and his eyes met hers. Was that a nod? A bit of encouragement or at least understanding of her dire predicament? She tried to pierce his stare but whatever might have been there was closed down, his lustful leer like all the rest. What did she really know about him anyway? Pops had just hired an actor who looked the part but she wasn’t aware of him checking into his background at all.

“Anybody seen a whip?” asked Padgett laughing. “We might need to get her started.”

“I’ve got a gun,” said Tandy. “Nobody will hear it way up here and it might urge her along a little bit to play her role.” On this last word, “role” he looked hard at Charlene.

Role…

This was just a role she had to play. Was that what Billy was trying to communicate? Just play along and stall for time? Pops was out there somewhere and maybe he was mounting some sort of a rescue even now.

Maybe.

So Charlene pasted big smile on her face and began to sway her hips from side to side. She started as slow as she dared, knowing the longer she could drag out a dance, the longer before things would turn bad.

Somebody started humming a risqué tune, was joined by another while somebody else started slapping his hand against his thigh creating a steady rhythm.

Charlene kept a slow role of her hips going while raising her arms above her head, touching the beam that ran across the ceiling and slowly caressing it like a lover. She had seen dance hall girls and burlesque shows before so knew a little of what was expected. And she knew what these men wanted.

Some grunts and mumbles of interest emerged from her small audience but she knew she couldn’t limit her dance to just swaying hips. Already they wanted more and it wasn’t until she stuck a foot out towards Padgett and motioned for him to remove her boot that the interest level raised to a cat call or two. Padgett wasted no time in yanking it off and he peeled off her sock at the same time. The cool air tickled her bare foot and she could feel the tingle travel up her spine.

Have to stall, she thought. But she also realized that the more she teased these men, the greater their eagerness would grow. And their impatience.

She noticed Billy nudge Padgett, speak something into his ear. Padgett nodded absently, his focus on Charlene’s pretty ankle. Billy quickly turned toward the door, putting his arm around Pony Tail, and guiding him out of the building. She wondered what that was all about but was certainly glad to see the evil Pony Tail leaving.

Was Billy helping? Or had he turned traitor in return for better pay…? Were they even now, on their way to kill Pops?

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Leland’s mare stumbled slightly as the right fore-hoof sunk into a leaf-covered prairie dog hole but she recovered quickly, Leland pushing her hard in his anxiousness. He never liked uncertainty and the current situation definitely fit the definition.

What had happened to Charlene? The most likely answer was that somehow Padgett and his men had somehow intercepted her instead of the intended target, himself. Had they taken her to their hideout? If so what would be their intentions? Did they kill her? He shook his head in consternation, fearful of his thoughts straying too much. For now, all he could do was follow the trail and see if he could come across a clue of some kind. Something that would tell of her fate.

To his left, Leland heard a twig snap.

It was an unnatural and unexpected noise and instantly, all of his senses were on high alert. “Who’s there?” he demanded, immediately wishing he hadn’t. Giving away his location was stupid but the nervous quaver in his question bothered him more.

Amidst a rustle of branches, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail emerged onto the trail in front of him. “Hold it right there mister,” he said. He held a gun in a gloved fist, trained on Leland’s chest. “We got him, Tandy.”

Billy’s voice came from behind in that same southern drawl that Leland had come to admire so much when Billy was performing his Tandy persona. “That we do, Cat. That we do.”

The young man named Cat got down off his horse, his movements sure and easy. He waved the gun at Leland and said, “Why don’t you ease on off your horse, mister. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He spoke with a cockiness that irked Leland’s ears. He seemed hardly more than a boy.

Leland climbed down and followed Cat’s unspoken motions to put his hands behind his back where Billy started to tie them together with a length of twine. “What’s in this for you, Tandy?” he said guardedly. “Thought you had a bounty on Padgett.”

Billy grunted and said “The pay was better to join him than it was to bring him in. Simple as that.” He cinched the twine tighter and finished off the knot. Leland mentally kicked himself for ever getting involved with the smooth-talking actor in the first place. It had seemed a smart addition to their little team at the time but now that he thought back on it, the man seemed slick as snot.

“OK,” said Cat. “Let’s get back to the ranch before she finishes her dancin’. I don’t cotton to all that twirling about too much but I’ll be pleased to lead off the next part.” His grin was devilish. “Hope she can last ‘til we git back.”

Leland’s heart had dropped into his gullet at these words but at least he knew Charlene was still alive. He had to take some solace in that.

Cat started to move toward him as if to check his bonds, when suddenly, Billy shoved Leland forward roughly, causing him to collide with the slender outlaw, knocking him to the ground. Billy then leaped around Leland and bashed the prone Cat in the head with the grip end of his gun, just behind the ear. Cat lay still, a trickle of blood starting to flow down his neck and drip onto the dust of the trail.

“The man just wouldn’t shut up,” he said, smiling at Leland. He moved back behind and started to untie the older man’s wrists. Leland’s evolving opinion of the actor took another jerk. Was he friend or foe? “Why didn’t you just shoot him?”

Billy grinned again and said, “You know I can’t hit the side of a mountain with a bullet. And besides, this way was more satisfactory.”

Leland felt like he had to test the water a little. “I knew you hadn’t swapped sides. There’s no way in tarnation you would sell me out for a little extra money.”

Billy winked back at him. “Well, as you said before, Padgett only thinks short term. So when I came to him with the idea of telling him your plan in exchange for some cash, he was eager to offer me more than his bounty. How could I say no?”

“How much more?”

Billy just smiled again and said, “Never mind that now. They’ve got Charlene and are holed up in their ranch house. She’s stalling for time so I could get out here and find you. We need to rescue her before…” he trailed off.

“Understood,” Leland replied. “At least we’ve got one less scoundrel to worry about,” he said looking down at their victim. “And I have a new surprise cooked up, fresh as of this morning, that may help.”

Together they tied the unconscious Cat to the trunk of a thick pine, jumped on their horses, and made for the ranch house at as swift a pace as the narrow trail would allow.

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Charlene wasn’t sure how much time had passed but she was running out of it. And clothes. Only two pieces to go before she was completely exposed. She tried to slow things down even more but the tempo of the rhythm keeper had increased in pace. She could easily read the sheer longing in the men’s faces. Padgett’s tongue was running over his lips again and again like he was preparing for a feast. She could swear there was a bit of drool leaking out.

Dancing from one corner of the table to another, back and forth, her breathing was much heavier now. She had to admit, dancing without her corset was much easier than with it, free to move about with ease and contort in all sorts of ways. Sweat trickled down her neck and beneath her bust wrap, her flat tummy glistening. Typically, she wore her bloomers cut off shorter than most girls did; above the knees to allow for easier movement and more comfort beneath her trousers. That had proven to be a poor decision now though since these men seemed especially intent on the thin white fabric barely concealing her dancing thighs. It stuck to her skin in places where her perspiration made it moist and Charlene was dismayed to think it was probably transparent there as well.

“Enough stalling little birdie!” Carmondy called out. “I need to use that hanky you’re wearing over your twins. Give it here!”

Charlene had no choice. She slowed her dance back down to the same gentle sway of her hips that she had started with and loosened the knot holding the cloth wrapped around her breasts. That didn’t take as long as she hoped either but she managed to keep the cloth in place with one hand while wiping a drop of sweat slaloming down her chin with the back of the other.

Just then, like a gunshot, the door banged open, letting in a stream of bright daylight as well as her grandfather shambling in followed closely by Billy who used one arm to pin Leland’s arms behind him and the other to hold a sharp-looking knife to his throat.

“Oh good,” said Padgett, turning toward the disturbance. “Just in time to enjoy the festivities.” He yanked a thumb at the table where Charlene was trying desperately to keep the cloth up around her chest.

Billy’s eyes went wide while Leland’s grew narrow with rage. “What the…” he began. “What kind of perverts are you?” he demanded, eyes darting from one man to another. “Charlie, get your drawers back on and…”

Taking advantage of the brief distraction, Billy let go of his captive and tossed Leland’s tin-lined box into the fireplace. Earlier, Leland had explained how he had wanted to make a black powder explosive but hadn’t enough powder nor enough time to get gunpowder from bullets. So the tin box was, instead, merely a smoke bomb and the fuse would need to be lit somehow. Billy figured the flames of the fire ought to do the trick.

But nothing happened. Charlene and all the men in the room stared at the fire as if waiting for somebody to say or do something. But from the fireplace came…nothing. Padgett began to laugh, slowly at first and then rolling into a full-on gut-buster.

His laughter spread to the others but then, growing impatient, Padgett quickly silenced the room with a shot into the ceiling from his pistol. “I guess we all know where your true loyalties lie, bounty hunter!” He lowered the gun, aiming directly at Billy.

But then from out of the fireplace came an eerie whistle accompanied by a mournful hiss, building quickly in a crescendo that began to hurt the ears. Suddenly, the tin box burst apart and balls of smoldering pitch burst across the room, quickly filling the space with dense smoke.

Billy was the first to react. He grabbed the rope that was hanging over the door latch and rapidly started tying a loop in the end. Leland had dropped to his knees to avoid potential gunfire and managed to grasp Billy’s knife from the floor where it had dropped. He struck out blindly through the smoke at where he had last seen one of the outlaws and felt solid contact with something fleshy. A high-pitched scream erupted from his target and at first Leland was horrified to think he might have stabbed Charlie. But no, he could see her through a thin spot in the smoke to his right where she had snatched a big hunting knife from Carmondy’s belt. He saw her reach forward and try to thrust it into the man’s back but he twisted at the last second and took the edge in the forearm before batting it away, the blade skittering across the wooden floor.

Billy had taken full advantage of the smoke and clambered up to the overhead rafters, using the back of a chair to propel himself upwards. From there he spotted Reymundo, the stringy-haired Mexican with the bad breath, and he found it fairly easy to drop the noose-end of the rope around the man’s scrawny neck, leap off the beam to the floor, yanking the surprised man off his feet and into midair, arms and legs flailing wildly.

Charlene, frustrated by having lost the hunting knife, crawled in the direction Carmondy had knocked it. She had quickly re-tied her bust wrap but hadn’t had time to do a good job and now it was loose and threatening to fall away completely. But she had no thoughts for that now. Her hands reached out across the floor, feeling her way through the smoke, hoping to stumble across the hunting knife. Instead she found her discarded trousers. Carmondy’s voice came from near her ear, shouting something about how he was going to kill her for what she had just done but not until after he had seen her completely unshucked. Charlene’s eyebrows jutted inwards and, screwing up her courage, leapt to her feet, coming up behind Carmondy’s position. She whipped the trousers around his neck like a calf being lassoed for branding, grabbed both sides and then heaved back with all her strength, knocking them both to the floor. They struggled briefly but Carmondy’s strength was too much and he managed to free himself and move away, although doubled over and coughing severely.

A gunshot rang out and once again everybody froze in place. The smoke was beginning to dissipate now and Padgett could be seen with one arm raised in the air, his pistol aimed at the ceiling.

“I shoot the next person that moves!” he roared.

Leland glanced about, quickly gathering his bearings. He saw one plumpish man writhing about on the floor trying desperately to remain still but failing. He had been stabbed in the thigh and Leland realized this was his own recent victim. Another man was dangling from a rafter, his hands pulling at the rope that wound around his neck, trying to pull himself up and keep breathing. Billy was near the door where his hand was holding the other end of the rope, having just tied it securely to the latch. Carmondy stood right next to Leland, hunched over hacking, but Leland wasn’t sure if this was from the smoke or some other cause.

“You, girl!” yelled Padgett pointing his pistol directly at Charlene now. “You git over here right now!”

Charlene glanced over at Leland, and then at Billy.

“Don’t look at them, girl! They can’t help you. Now, git!”

With one last look at Billy, she seemed resigned to her fate when she muttered, “Well, I suppose everybody has a role to play and this one’s mine.” She added a little emphasis on the word “role” just as Billy had earlier and gave him a penetrating stare directly into his eyes. She nodded, turned and walked towards Padgett, fervently hoping Billy had gotten the message. His role was famous gunslinger bounty hunter.

“That’s far enough,” Padgett said, stopping her about three feet in front of him. “That smoke has cleared up enough now I think.” He held the pistol steady, still pointed at Charlene’s chest. “I want everybody to have a clear view of what’s going to happen now. I have a great desire to add a hat band to match my suspenders and you, my lovely, are going to supply the raw materials.”

He smirked once more, raised his gun arm to its full length, cocked the pistol, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

Charlene wiggled just enough. Her bust wrap fell to the floor.

Padgett’s eyes moved downwards, hesitated just a second, and then the sound of a gunshot all but deafened those in the enclosed room.

Leland cried out, “Charlie!” but then immediately saw that it was Padgett who had been thrown back by the shot, pistol dropped, gun hand spurting blood. He swung his head to the left and saw Billy’s Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled in his right hand, smoke swirling from the barrel. Billy looked every inch the bounty hunter named Tandy, hat pulled low on his brow, long duster swirling around him, steel-gray eyes bright with the significance of what he’d just done.

“Huh?” mumbled Carmondy.

Leland, remembering the knife still in his hand, swung out back-handed, allowing the blade to sink a full six inches into Carmondy’s eye socket, killing him instantly. The outlaw fell straight back, his body slamming into the floor with a crash. Blood spurted from his head and began pooling around him and seeping into the cracks of the floorboards.

Charlene had grabbed a burning log from the fireplace and used it now to whap Padgett over the back of the head, knocking him cold, and putting an end to his pain-filled yells and curses.

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Later, Leland, Billy, and Charlene sat on the floor of the ranch house, staring at the prone figures of four men. Padgett, Reymundo, and Nate lay next to each other, gagged and bound, while Carmondy still lay where he died in a pool of blood that had now dulled with dust.

“I reckon we ought to get going,” said Leland, running a hand through his hair. “We need to collect Cat Maes from where we tied him up back on the trail and then get the whole parcel to Denver to collect the bounties.”

“You got that right,” added Billy. “And we want to be sure to get out of the area before all of your tonic customers figure out the stuff don’t work and decide to string you up.”

Charlene, now fully dressed once again, smiled and shook her head. “Fact is Billy, it does work. At least for most folks. Pop’s elixir is made from cocaine, morphine, and a touch of arsenic, among some other stuff to make it taste more like medicine. If it don’t cure what ails them, they’ll at least be happy for a time anyway.”

Leland and Billy joined her in easy laughter and then Leland said, “Come to think of it, there might be more money in selling elixirs than in collecting bounties. Especially here in gold and silver country. Perhaps a change in occupation is in order…”

“Where’s the fun in that?” said Charlene. “As long as we follow your plans, everything always goes just as it should.” She smiled her sweet smile once again but then swiveled her head over to Billy, looking pointedly at him.

“That was some shot you made on Padgett’s gun hand. I thought you said you couldn’t shoot straight to save your life.” She had one eyebrow raised in curious doubt.

Adopting an ‘aw shucks’ look on his face, Billy glanced at her shyly and answered, “I was actually aiming for his head. But something distracted me and my bullet swerved off course.” His face grew even more read than before.

“Thank God for poor aim and welcome distractions,” said Leland. “Alive, he’s worth twice what he is dead.”



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