Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Stomp Hale rode up to the RP Connected with a cloud on his face and fire in his eyes.
“Light and set, marshal,” I called.
He grunted a mite as he heaved his thick body off the pinto and wrapped her reins over the hitching rail. “Golderned if you don’t live a long way out, Ness Havelock.”
“Come on in out of the sun,” I said. “Probably scare up some coffee, if you’re interested.” I opened the front door and motioned Stomp in. My wife Rita met him halfway across the room, both hands extended. “Adam Hale. You’ve not been here for ages.” She took Stomp’s hands. “How are you, Adam? Tell me.” Only Rita called Stomp by his given name.
Stomp got a half smile on his square face. “Come all the way out from Saint Johns for a cup of your fine coffee, Miz Havelock. I surely did.”
“Then you sit right here at the table and I’ll get you a cup.” Rita led the sheriff to our walnut dining table and sat him in a high-back chair. “Momentito,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Stomp turned his Stetson around in hard, weathered hands. He said nothing, so I let him sit. He’d talk when the time came.
Rita brought coffee, and sharp girl that she is, she could see something was bothering Stomp so she left the two of us to sort it out.
“Damn good coffee,” Stomp said.
“That’s what keeps me here,” I said, “Good coffee and that good-looking woman.”
“Was I you, I’d stick mighty close to this spread.”
“Kenigan takes care of the spread,” I said. “He’s forgot more about raising cows than I’ll ever know.”
“Yeah, I reckon.”
He looked at me.
“I got a feeling you didn’t eat dust all the way from Saint Johns just to drink my wife’s coffee.”
Stomp’s voice came out low and kinda hoarse. “Fargo stage got robbed out by Navajo Springs,” he said.
“Them owlhoots killed Denton Scrubb. Shot him right off the high seat when the stage started down into Lithodendron Wash. Got the shotgun rider, too. And that weren’t enough, neither. Drummer from Albuquerque. Longtooth Alice from Crown King. Rusty Gaines, that young looie from Fort Apache. Lined up against the cut and shot dead. Damn.” Stomp crumpled his Stetson in his big hands. “All dead. All robbed. And the stage’s strongbox is gone.”
“And twenty thousand. Fletcher Comstock’s payment to some outfit back east for machinery.” Stomp smoothed the crumples from his hat. “Ness. I’m asking you a favor. Ride with me.”
* * *
I’d ridden with Stomp Hale before. When he was town marshal at Grant’s Crossing and me close to heading down the wrong side of the Outlaw Trail. I rode into Grant’s Crossing on a long-legged roan, me not yet twenty years old. I’d come south from Moab, stopping in Mexican Hat before the long dry stretch to Navajo Springs. Dust lay thick in my throat and I had a mind to cut it with a swig of good rye whiskey, and Bartley’s was the only place in Grant’s Crossing where I could do that.
I got a bottle of Turley’s Mill and a cloudy glass and settled in at a corner table. I’d just tossed back the first shot when Farley Dodd pushed his way through the batwings with three of his dirty boys at his back. Some said Dodd was a hard man, but I’d yet to see any of his graveyards. Still, I could see he had a head of steam on and his men scattered around the room to watch his back.
Dodd stood smack in the middle of the room and faced the bar. “Shig,” he said to the bartender. “Could be you ought to stand at the south end.”
Shig scuttled to the end of the bar.
“Now, I was telling you men,” he said to the strongarms, “it’s no good to get your six-gun out fast if you miss what you’re shooting at. Observe.” His hand swept to the handle of the pistol in his waistband. As he drew it, he cocked the hammer, then ticked off the trigger as the gun came level. A bottle standing amongst its fellows behind the bar exploded. Dodd returned the pistol to his waistband and repeated the maneuver, taking out the next bottle in the line. He did it again. And again.
Dodd’s men weren’t watching him at all. They kept their eyes on the batwing doors and their hands on the butts of their guns. Beneath the table, I eased my .44 from its holster and let it lay in my lap.
Another bottle crashed with the sound of Dodd’s Colt, then the sound of boots on the boardwalk outside. Dodd’s face held a tight smile. His men eased their hardware like they expected trouble.
The footsteps went on by.
Dodd killed another bottle.
Stomp Hale stepped through the back door. “That’ll be enough, Dodd,” he said. His soft voice held a hard edge and his hands held a ten-gauge Greener.
I put my .44 on the table and cocked it. “I’m with the marshal,” I said. My gun pointed at the man in the corner. Stomp’s shotgun hung in the crook of his elbow, and his six-gun was stuffed in a holster that rode high behind his right hip. His eyes flicked to me for an instant, and he gave a little nod, as if to recognize my presence.
“Let’s go,” Stomp said to Dodd. “Your strongarms ain’t gonna do you no good. The kid’s got a gun on them. And you’ve destroyed enough property to have to spend a little time behind bars.”
Dodd’s head came up. “I’ll pay for the damage. I always do.”
“One time too many, Dodd. Come on.” Stomp held out his hand for Dodd’s pistol. I kept my eyes on the others with my cocked gun pointed at the dark man in the far corner.
Farley Dodd stayed behind bars in the marshal’s office of Grant’s Crossing for ten days. And Stomp Hale invited me to deputy for him. “Don’t pay much,” he said. “Six bits a day and found. You’d make more riding the line, but I like the way you hold yourself.”
I took the deputy badge from Stomp and wore it for nearly a year. And all that I learned working with that straight man kept me on the right side of the Trail.
* * *
“You was the best deputy I ever had, Ness, and this time I’m gonna need more than the ordinary posseman to do the job.” Stomp gulped at his coffee. “That bunch what robbed that Fargo and killed them people ain’t gonna get away with it. Mark my word. Will you ride with me?”
“I’ll ride,” I said.
He handed me a badge, a star in a shield, embossed with the words DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL. “Been a long time since Grant’s Crossing,” he said, “but making off with the stage’s strongbox makes that crime a federal one. So I got jurisdiction. We’ll ride them down.”
After Grant’s Crossing, Stomp spent a term as sheriff of Apache County, then lost to C.P. Owens. Wasn’t two weeks before he was wearing a Deputy U.S. marshal’s badge. J.T. Carr saw to getting Stomp that federal badge, I heard. “How long you figure to chase these owlhoots, Stomp?”
“A day. A week. A year. We’ll go till we catch ’em.”
“You sit. Have another cup of coffee. I’ll rustle my stuff together and we’ll ride.”
Stomp nodded. He just sat there, staring into that empty coffee cup.
“Honey,” I said to Rita on the way through the kitchen, “pour Stomp another cup of coffee, would you please? And have Snuffy Dagan put together vittles for five days, bedroll and slicker, too. I’ll talk to Kenigan.”
Rita flashed me a look with those dark Spanish eyes of hers, but she didn’t balk.
I found Kenigan Zane at the calf pens helping an orphan calf bond to another mother so we wouldn’t have to raise him by hand.
“The white face cows look good, Kenigan,” I said.
He nodded but kept his attention on the calf.
“Stomp Hale come to ask me to ride with him for a bit. I’d be obliged if you’d watch the RP Connected while I’m gone.”
He nodded again.
“May be gone a while.”
“RP Connected’ll still be here when you get back, Ness. I’ll see to it.”
“I know that, Kenigan. And I appreciate it. I’ll ask Rita if she wants to go over to Rancho Pilar while I’m gone, but I imagine she’ll stay right here. She’s that way.”
“I reckon. But that’s no problem. She carries her weight and she cooks almost as good as Snuffy.” Kenigan grinned.
I turned to go.
“I know you’re a hard man and better than most with that .44, but you take care. Anyone Marshal Hale’s chasing’s bound to want to fight it out rather than hang. Quidarse, as the missus would say.”
I smiled. “Yeah. I’ll be careful. Thanks, Kenigan.”
He was already striding toward the barn. I was lucky to have the best foreman in Arizona, just as good as Dan Travis, topkick for my brother Gareth at the H Cross.
Stomp and I rode away from the RP Connected long before the sun reached zenith, me on my tough lineback dun and Stomp on a three-color paint. I had five days grub and my soogans behind the cantle and two boxes of .44 cartridges and an extra Colt in my saddlebags. “You riding that paint horse, I can see we’re not going to sneak up on those owlhoots,” I said.
Stomp ignored my jibe. “Sign said there was five in the gang,” he said. “One leaking blood. They struck out down the country. I figure they’ll go to Mogollon, then jag over to the Coronado Trail and head for Mexico.”
“Going to Mogollon, it’s easiest to ride around the far side of the Little Colorado, but it’s quickest to go over the divide and down through Frisco.”
“Speed ain’t all that important right yet. Let’s save the horses and go around.”
We set a course for Escudilla mountain and crossed the Little Colorado beyond Seven Mile where it wasn’t much more than a healthy creek. The land settled down on a plateau that skirted the Blues and turned into the foothills of Escudilla. When we could, we let our horses out into a long lope that ate ground without costing the cayuses too much energy. On the upgrades, the horses walked and we talked. Well, I talked. Seemed Stomp had other things on his mind.
“You figure them that jumped the stage are going south, then? How bad’s the one hit?” We were coming off the flanks of Escudilla and a haze from the hearth fires of Mogollon obscured the flats. The uphill breeze brought a whiff of wood smoke with it, and I imagined the muddy smell of strong coffee.
Stomp reined in his paint on a rise overlooking the town. “Yeah. Not much blood sign. But he’s hurting.”
“Five, you say?”
He turned a tortured face to me. “Ness. I couldn’t say it back at the RP Connected. But I know who we’re looking for. Ty Sinclair, Kid McGee, Frenchy Destain, the man they call the Breed . . . and my son, Nate Hale.”
Me being half Cherokee, I didn’t much like the word breed, and if there was one thing Stomp Hale regretted about spending his life upholding the law, it was Nate. Stomp wasn’t home much, and the boy had only gentle Martha Hale to show him the right and wrong of things. He loved his ma, and hated his pa. And Stomp, knowing that he wasn’t around to guide the boy most of the time, gave him more leeway than he might have otherwise. Now Martha was dead and Nate was running wild.
I took a deep breath. “Nate, eh? Somehow it doesn’t surprise me. He’s been looking after trouble since he was a little tyke, and now he’s pushed being the prodigal a little too far. That’s what I’d say.”
“Gotta bring him in. Ain’t no other way.” Stomp clamped his mouth shut and started the paint down the hill toward Mogollon.
The town showed signs of sudden growth. A new street led off the main drag that ran north and south along Mineral Creek. A new whitewashed sign stood at the outskirts. “Welcome to Alma,” it read. I looked at Stomp. “When’d Mogollon turn into Alma?”
He shrugged, and reined the paint down main in the deepening dusk. Sounds of a piano trickled up the street, telling us a saloon lay in that direction. Windows blazed with light at the intersection. A sign shaped like a Rhode Island Red hung like a lawyer’s shingle. ‘Red Hen—Fine Food.’ The savory smells coming from the restaurant backed its claim. I couldn’t help but smile. “Whoa up, Dun,” I said to the lineback. “Time for coffee,” I said to Stomp. “And maybe some apple pie.”
Sun goes down in high country and things cool down quick. Inside the Red Hen, coal oil lamps on a wagon wheel suspended from the rafters spread warm light to every corner of the room. Eight tables hosted four straight-backed chairs each, and only one table was empty. Two cowboys and a rancher. Some miners. And a well-dressed woman in a plumed hat. Me and Stomp took the last table, although it wasn’t in a corner where I like to sit.
A girl came from the kitchen with two plates of roast beef, potatoes, and gravy on her left arm and a gallon coffee pot swinging by its bail from her right fist. “You come back the minute you get that food to Doc Smithson’s place, you hear?” A portly woman in a stained apron saw the girl off from the kitchen door. “They’s too many customers here for you to be lollygagging around.”
Stomp and I exchanged a look. “Order me apple pie, Stomp. I won’t be long. I left the makings in my saddlebag.” I wasn’t a smoker, but that gave me a reason to step outside and watch the girl. She hightailed it across the street, balancing those plates as easy as you please. I followed just close enough to see when she went in a small frame house with a white picket fence around it. I was at my table in the Red Hen by the time the girl got back.
“More coffee?” The girl stood by our table with a coffee pot in her hand.
Stomp shoved his cup at her. “See the town’s got a new name,” he said.
“Captain Birney bought most of the land in town,” she said. “He changed the name to Alma in remembrance of his mother, they say.”
“Nice thing to do,” Stomp said. “Family’s all there is, come right down to it. Thanks for the coffee.”
Gradually, the other customers finished and left. Stomp hunched over his coffee. “What say we pay a visit to the doc,” he said quietly. He plonked a cartwheel on the table and shoved his chair back. “No telling what we’ll come up with.”
The girl came out to clear the table. I lifted my hat to her. “Ma’am, I’m Ness Havelock from over Saint Johns way. That was mighty fine pie.”
She dimpled. “Ruby bakes the pies,” she said. “I’ll tell her what you said.”
“Come on, Ness,” Stomp called from the door.
I tipped my hat again and followed Stomp outside. The sun had long since set behind Escudilla Mountain, but wagons still moved on Alma’s main street. A half-dozen horses stood hipshot at the hitching rail in front of the saloon three doors south. The tinkle of the piano was a little louder than before. Stomp set his hat on his head four square. “Where’s the doc’s place?”
“Just over the way.” I stepped off the boardwalk and walked through the powder dust of that New Mexico street with Stomp Hale at my side. I stopped at the picket fence gate to let Stomp go first. He was the marshal. A small sign to the left of the window read, ‘Walter Smithson, M.D.’ Stomp knocked.
The man who came to the door stood taller than either Stomp or me, and he had a serious look in his gray eyes. “How can I help you, gentlemen?”
Stomp showed his badge. “Name’s Hale. U.S. Marshal,” he said. “We come from over by Navajo Springs where owlhoots robbed the Fargo stage. Killed everyone. Sign said one of them outlaws took lead. And we heard you’ve got a boarder. If you don’t mind, then we’d like to talk to your guest.”
“Come in, gentlemen.” The doc stepped back. “But be quiet, please. The youngster in the bedroom is near death. Peritonitis. He’s been shot in the abdomen.”
“Is he awake?”
The doctor shook his head. “I’ve sedated him with laudanum. It allows him to sleep through the pain.”
“Know his name?”
“Those who brought him to me called him Kid.”
The doctor shrugged.
“Mind if I look at him?” Stomp asked.
“This way.” The doc led the way to a bedroom door. “Only for a moment,” he said, and opened the door.
Stomp can walk quiet for a big man, and he catfooted right up to that bed and stared down at the youngster sleeping there. After a moment he nodded and came out of the bedroom. “Kid McGee all right. How long’s he got?”
“A day,” the doctor said. “A week. It’s hard to be sure.”
“Hope you don’t mind me being curious, Doc,” I said. “But that boy’s in no condition to eat. Why’d the Red Hen send two dinners over here?”
“Oh, they do that every day,” he said. “My wife, bless her heart, is a nurse by training and her cooking leaves much to be desired. We much prefer to partake of hearty fare from the Red Hen. Why?”
I smiled. “No offense meant,” I said.
Stomp took the conversation right back to the point. “Tell me, Doc. Did those what come with the Kid say anything about where they was headed?”
The doctor shook his head. “Not that I heard. One of them, a tall young man with dark curly hair, gave me two double eagles. ‘Take care of the Kid, Doc,’ he said. ‘He promised to have a drink with us at the King’s Palace.’ That’s all I heard.”
The doctor saw us to the door.
Stomp jammed his hat back on his head, four square. “Thanks just the same, Doc. Sorry to bother you.”
“Good night, gentlemen.” He closed the door.
Stomp said nothing as we walked. Then, “The curly haired one. That’s got to be Nate. Always did stand by his friends.” It sounded like he was talking to himself.
“Guess we hit the Coronado Trail,” he said.
“You ever heard of the King’s Palace?”
“It’s King Fisher’s place in El Paso. You ask me, those yahoos are crossing the malpais. Short cut to Mexico.”
Stomp heaved a sigh. “Time’s come to ride hard, Ness. Let’s go.”
We stopped at the livery stable long enough to get two more horses on U.S. government vouchers, a long-legged bay and a hefty dappled sorrel. We trailed our own horses behind us and rode the fresh mounts. Without even stopping at the Red Hen for supper, we hit the trail south, heading into the malpais badlands.
The way through the badlands is a chancy thing. There’s water if you know where to look, and lava bubbles that can swallow you whole, if your horse steps in the wrong place. The moon was out so we could see. We loped the horses when we could, kept them in a single-foot when we couldn’t. Stomp was dead set on catching up with Nate’s gang before they made El Paso.
At dawn, we stopped long enough to switch saddles, me to my dun and Stomp back to the paint. Then we brewed coffee over a hatful of fire, drank it down, killed the flames with the dregs, and rode on.
We found their first mistake in the early afternoon. A lava dome sloped in toward the trail, overlapping it by several feet. But instead of solid footing, a jagged hole gaped. I pulled up the dun and left him ground tied, the lead rope to the bay dallied around the saddle horn. I didn’t dare walk out on the dome, so I got down on my hands and knees, and finally I bellied my way to the edge of the hole and looked in.
“Horse dead, Stomp,” I said. “Looks like he got busted up in the fall and they put him down.”
I scrambled back to the lineback for my lariat. I jerked the saddle off his back and left it on the ground, the bay tied to it. Choosing the thickest edge, I laid my saddle blanket over the lava to protect the lariat and hitched the rope around my waist with a bowline.
“Lower me easy, Stomp,” I said, handing him the other end of the rope. “I want a look at that horse.”
Down in the lava tube, I could see the horse had broken a front leg and cut his flank badly. I laid a hand on his hide. Cool. Grabbed a foreleg. It bent at the knee. I walked back to the edge. “You can haul me up, Stomp,” I hollered.
“The cayuse’s cool to the touch but not stiff yet,” I said. “And now someone’s riding double. No telling if the rider got hurt, either.” I gave Stomp a hard look. “Think they know we’re on their back trail?”
“Sooner or later, they’ll know.”
“They gonna hole up and bushwhack us?”
“Saddle up,” Stomp said. “Let’s ride.”
Evening saw us under an overhang in a lava rock canyon cooking bacon and saleratus biscuits over a bitty little fire. The horses had their noses in gunnysack nosebags chomping on the last of their oat ration. The only water we had was in our canteens.
“Still a far sight to the Rio Grande,” Stomp said. “Any water twixt here and there?”
“Some. If you know where to look. Closest is Eagle Nest tanks. Twenty miles, I’d say.”
“Make it by morning?” Stomp folded some bacon in a biscuit and shoved it in his mouth.
“More likely by noon. Still got some almighty rough country to cross.” I joined him in chewing on biscuit and bacon. Tasted right good. Washed down with a swig of canteen water.
Stomp rummaged around in his saddlebags and came up with a sack of cartridges. “Think I’ll take a couple of minutes with the short gun,” he said, and walked away from the fire. I heard him fire and reload his .44 five times. A man needs to practice to keep his shots accurate. And Stomp Hale was nothing if not accurate.
“Get yourself forty winks, Ness,” Stomp said as he sat down to clean his Colt. “I’ll wake you when the moon comes up. We’ll leave then.”
I’d no more than shut my eyes than Stomp was shaking me. A full moon showed over the edge of the canyon. We saddled the livery horses and hit the trail, riding at a steady pace until a bullet stopped us about an hour after sunrise.
With the report of the rifle Stomp went off the sorrel like he’d been shot. But the way he rolled for cover said no bullet had found him. I slipped off the bay, stripping my .44-40 from its scabbard as I went. A bullet ate a piece off the rock I ducked behind. The bay and my lineback dun hightailed it back down the trail with Stomp’s horses in close pursuit. After a minute, I let out a whistle. If I was lucky, the dun would hear me and stop.
He turned, and I tossed my Winchester to him. “Keep that shooter busy,” I said and backed down the trail after the horses. I was lucky. The dun stood by a cluster of rocks looking at me, the other horses nearby. The Winchester crashed and a bullet whined away up the canyon. Stomp provided the cover I’d asked for. I dug a pair of moccasins from my saddlebags, ditched my hat, and tied a brown bandana around my head. Growing up in the Indian Nations with a Texas Ranger pa and a Cherokee ma gave me more than a little chance to learn how to injun around. If that shooter was kept occupied, he’d soon find my Colt against the back of his neck.
I pulled my .44 from its holster and checked the loads and the action. I added a sixth cartridge to the cylinder, replaced the gun, and pulled the loop over the hammer to hold the Colt secure in its place.
Suddenly more Cherokee than white man, I made my way up the side of the hill. Every once in a while, Stomp would let loose with the Winchester to help the shooter on the canyon side keep focused down hill. I topped out a good quarter of a mile north of whoever was shooting at us and catfooted along the rim, keeping back far enough that I wouldn’t be skylined.
I found the man settled down in a nest of boulders, and I injuned up behind him on my quiet moccasins. Took me nigh half an hour to go the last few feet, but finally I was where I could almost reach out and touch him.
“Reckon you’d better lay down the rifle and raise up your hands,” I said, and cocked my .44 for emphasis. The shooter froze. I laid the muzzle of my Colt against his neck and plucked the pistol from the buscadero rig on his hip. “Let go the rifle,” I told him. “It’s all over.”
He did, and I gathered up the long gun. “Stomp!” I hollered. “We’re coming down.” I prodded the shooter with my Colt, “Now, if you’ll just clasp your hands back of your neck, we’ll go down and talk to the marshal.”
We had Frenchy Destain tied to the livery bay, and faced three men down the trail. They’d hit us when we least expected it, Frenchy said, and then be free to head into Mexico. “Killing you two won’t mean much,” he said. “We already done in them on the stage. Made us a haul, too. More money’n you ever saw.” The Frenchman couldn’t help bragging a bit.
Stomp rode his paint out front with the sorrel on a lead, sitting his saddle like he wore his hat, four square. I came up behind and Frenchy brought up the rear, not wanting to realize that his ride was a one-way trip to a hanging noose.
We rode with rifles across our saddle bows and restless eyes scanning the countryside. Scrub oak and piñons eked out a hardscrabble living among the rocks and a single red-tailed hawk soared above the canyon walls. Any other time the beauty would have been breathtaking. Right now a body wondered where the next bullet would come from.
When it came the bullet only made a spurt of dust in the trail ahead of Stomp’s paint. A puff of smoke marked the shooter’s position. I piled off the far side of my lineback. He was a good horse, but I wanted him stopping any bullets, not me. Stomp just sat there, rifle in his hands.
“I hear you, son. Put that rifle down and come on in. Don’t make me have to come and get you.”
“You can’t do it, Pa. We got you dead to rights. If you want to live, let Frenchy go, throw your hardware on the ground, and back off down the trail.”
“Guess that shows you who’s boss, old man,” Frenchy sneered.
“Pa? You hear me? Throw down the guns!”
Stomp heaved a sigh, then tossed his saddle gun off to the side of the trail. “Ness,” he said. I knew what he meant. I tossed my rifle and Colt over next to his guns.
“Don’t forget Frenchy’s gun,” Nate called. Stomp threw it out.
“Okay. Back off.”
Stomp backed the paint. I led the lineback. We stopped where we could still see the guns, and waited.
Frenchy let out a shout. “Come on, Nate. I’m tied to this goldamn saddle.”
Stomp climbed off the paint. “Give me that Colt in your saddle bag, Ness.” He spoke just above a whisper.
“Now Stomp. There’s four of them and only one of you.”
“That’s my son out there. Give me the gun!”
I handed Stomp the .44.
“Cartridges.” He held his hand out. I broke open a box of .44s and gave him a handful.
The outlaws must have tied their horses some distance away, because they came for the guns on foot. They’d gathered the firearms up, laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world. Stomp loaded the empty cylinder in the .44 and, holding the six-gun alongside his leg, he started walking up the trail. Nate and his boys didn’t seem to notice.
“Nathaniel Hale, you put those guns aside and give yourself up!” Stomp roared. “You done wrong and you gotta pay.”
The dark man they call the Breed got off the first shot. The bullet kicked up dust a good ten feet in front of Stomp. He calmly raised the .44 and fired it as his right foot came down. The Breed flung his arms wide and crumpled.
Frenchy dived for his gun, which still lay on the ground where Stomp had thrown it. Both Nate and Ty Sinclair fired at Stomp at the same time. But it’s a hard thing to do, hit a moving target with a short gun, takes a heap of practice.
Stomp kept marching straight at them. “Nate, don’t make me shoot you,” he called.
Nate laughed and triggered off another round.
Stomp staggered. Then kept on walking. He raised the .44 again, triggering it as his right foot hit the ground. The bullet hit the hard pan six inches in front of Frenchy Destain’s nose and ricocheted up to tear a jagged chunk from his forehead. Frenchy slumped and lay still. Stomp kept walking, but a dark stain showed along his left side.
Sinclair fired. Nate fired. Stomp went down. But the .44 came up, roared, and Ty Sinclair collapsed like a poleaxed steer.
Stomp struggled to his feet. “Let go the gun, son,” he said.
Nate shook his head. “No, Pa. I can’t let you take me back.” He thumbed back the hammer of his six-gun and shot Stomp dead center.
Stomp fell backwards, spreadeagled across the trail.
Slowly, Nate walked over to look down at his father’s face. “Never was any way I could please you, Pa. No way at all.”
Stomp’s big left hand moved, lifted and grabbed a hold on Nate’s trouser leg. “Stop it now, Nate. Or you’ll be running all your life.”
“You’re dead, old man, and just don’t know it.” Nate kicked his leg free.
The .44 in Stomp’s right hand seemed to rise of its own accord. It fired up into Nate’s body, then fell away into the dirt of the trail.
“Oh shit oh shit oh shit.” Nate dropped to his knees then slowly toppled over, his body falling across his father’s legs.
I carried Stomp Hale and his son home so they could lie next to Martha at Grant’s Crossing. Fletcher Comstock’s money I turned over to Sheriff Owens in Saint Johns, but I kept the badges. Two weeks after we buried Stomp, U.S. Marshal M.K. Meade rode up to the house at the RP Connected.
“Heard about Stomp Hale and his boy,” Meade said over coffee.
“Not happy that all I could do was watch.”
“Stomp was a good lawman, Havelock. It was him who always said there’s no way to stop a man who knows he’s in the right and just keeps on moving.”
I went to the roll-top desk in the corner and pulled the badges me and Stomp had worn from one of the pigeon holes. “Marshal Meade,” I said. “You’ll be wanting these.” I held out the badges on the palm of my hand.
Meade took them and slipped the deputy badge into a vest pocket. The marshal’s badge he juggled in his hand. “This is a growing country, Ness. And it needs good men to keep it headed in the right direction. What do you say? Why not make Stomp proud and wear this badge for him? We need a good marshal in northern Arizona and I figure you fit the bill.”
Rita came in with a plate of donuts. “Marshal Meade, Snuffy Dugan, our cook, makes the best bear sign in Apache County. Would you like some?”
The marshal’s smile was answer enough.
“Honey,” I said. “Marshal Meade wants me to wear Stomp’s badge. What do you think?”
She looked me straight in the eye. “Johannes Havelock,” she said, “as always, you’ll do what’s right.”
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