Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“I don’t wanna die!” The rail-thin rustler squirmed in his saddle, his hands tied behind his back. A rope stretched from his red neck to a thick cottonwood limb overhead.
“Most people don’t.” Captain Yancy Boone of the Texas Rangers leaned forward in his saddle. “You don’t seem keen on it, either.” The sun glinted off his badge.
“No, sir.” The man gulped. “I’m...I’m sorry for what I done.” Ripped and bloodstained clothes covered his body. Barbed-wire cuts extended to his face and hands.
“’Sorry,’ don’t cut it, son.” Boone thought the rustler looked about twenty-five.
The lawman was twice that. He was a big man with a barrel chest, shoulder-lengthy graying hair, and blue eyes that smiled at babies, and scowled at outlaws.
“But I ain’t no thief,” blubbered the man. “Came west to start my own spread. Was down on my luck and--”
“Stealing cattle ain’t the way to do it.”
“Better hurry this up, Cap.” Corporal Isaac Sloan opened his pocket watch. “Gotta ketch and hang his sidekick ‘fore sundown...and three bank robbers to ketch after that!”
Sloan, pastor of Epitaph’s Baptist Church, was called “Preacher” by his fellow Rangers. Boone claimed the clergyman--a good man with Bible or bullets--could shoot the baking powder out of a biscuit at five hundred yards.
“Dang right you do!” Colonel Chester Calhoun snarled from a high-backed wheelchair, lashed to the bed of a field wagon pulled by four matched grays. A dozen ten-foot trees in wooden tubs surrounded the red-nosed cattleman. Wherever he went the swaying cottonwood saplings provided shade from a Texas summer sun that blistered rocks.
Calhoun slapped his long cane on the wagon bed. “Hurry it up, Yancy!”
Yancy Boone didn’t turn around. His voice was soft, but firm. “I’ll do this my way, Colonel! That’s what you pay me for.”
White hair covered Calhoun’s head, a head too big for his shrinking body. The old man sipped at “his medicine,” a jug of red wine webbed with grapevine and covered with burlap that bobbed at his side in a bucket of cold well water. A long black whip curled like a pet snake in his lap. His two sons with strap-ons rode alongside the wagon.
No one openly laughed at what Epitaph’s townspeople called Calhoun’s “forest wagon.” The man’s stare stopped criticism.
The teary-eyed rustler squirmed in his saddle. “You...You really gonna hang me, Marshall?”
Boone readjusted his hat. “You’re first today, son. I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“Well,” said Preacher, “since nobody here likes hangings, I’ll do God’s work.”
Preacher, who stood with hat and Bible in hand at the flank of the condemned man’s horse, was a lean-toothed man of forty. He came with a knife-sharp Adam’s apple, a hairless head, muttonchops, caked boots, and a thin, muscular body. He augmented his small church income as a woodcutter.
He and Boone had been chopping firewood a mile up French Creek when they heard gunshots. By the time they reached town, the three bank robbers had fled. That’s when Boone’s pursuing Texas Rangers encountered the Shadow Ranch’s wounded wrangler, who pointed them to the entangled rustler.
Forty head of cattle and the thief’s partner were gone.
“Hurry it up,” ordered Boone. “We also got bank robbers to catch.”
Calhoun’s claw-like right hand slapped his cane on the wagon bed.
“Then do it!” he snarled. “That’s my bank. My money they stole!”
The Captain glared at the cattleman.
Preacher raised his stained hat, prepared to strike horse’s flank.
“I’d...I’d just as soon wait for a trial.” Sweat covered the rustler’s blanched face.
“You’re looking at the judge, prosecutor, and jury,” said Boone. “But, tell you what...”
“Next time you’re think about rustling...”
“Don’t. Especially on Colonel Calhoun’s Shadow Canyon Ranch.”
“Didn’t know they was his, or I’d—-“
“Now, say ‘Goodbye’ to us, and ‘Hello’ to Saint Peter...or the Devil, whichever offers room and board.”
The rustler tried, but couldn’t speak.
The lawman nodded toward Preacher.
“Geeeeeeahhhhhhhhhhh!” The Corporal slapped the horse’s rump with his big hat. The gray bolted, jerked the condemned backward, and snapped his neck. There was no struggle. The man spun in a swirl of dust, twitching boots inches above the hoof-marked ground. His late-afternoon shadow swayed on the parched earth like a misshapen pendulum.
Colonel Calhoun laughed. No one else did.
* * *
The Rangers found the rustler after his partner had cut the fence and fled with the cattle. The bleeding man was entangled in multiple loops of the back-lashing barbed wire.
A Calhoun wrangler exchanged gunfire with the rustlers, and, while galloping back to the ranch’s hacienda, met the Rangers pursuing the bank robbers.
Within minutes the Colonel arrived. He’d heard the gunfire. He fidgeted, waiting for the hanging, not easy for the old man. In years past he would have hanged the thief himself, but now the Rangers stopped him. Once physically big, now his prune-shriveled body hurried toward the grave, slumped in his whicker wheelchair.
The man’s squeaky voice still projected power.
“We’ll do what Texas law says, Colonel.” Boone hated taking orders from Calhoun, and the cattleman
hated being ignored, since it was mostly his money that paid the Rangers.
After the hanging, Private Wade Wallace surveyed the ground. He was lean, short, dark complexioned, and had high cheekbones. A red headband circled his shoulder-length black hair.
“Captain, only one shod horse left with the stolen cattle,” he said. Hoof marks cut through the downed fence. “About forty head, I’d say.”
The Colonel glared at the young Ranger, then at Boone. “He’s an injun, ain’t he?”
Wade’s dark skin showed anger. He started to speak. Boone stopped him.
“Quarter Apache, Colonel.” Boone remained calm. “You’re forgetting I raised him after his parents died. His dad was my best friend.”
Boone never liked Calhoun, now he was beginning to hate him. “Wade’s our best tracker. He’ll get your cattle, and bank money back.”
The cattleman grunted. “I don’t like injuns!” His red spit curled in the dust. “Looks more boy than man!”
Calhoun grunted toward the cattle-churned ground. “A greenhorn did that! Takes more than one man to herd forty head, unless he’s got callused years in a saddle. Probably got my stock scattered all over the countryside by now.”
“We’ll catch him,” assured Boone.
“See you do!” Then the Colonel glared again at Wade, and added more spittle to the Texas dust.
Minutes later Boone and four Rangers rode east toward heat-shimmering mountains. They left the Colonel’s sons digging a shallow grave, and a scratching a stone with: “CATTLE THIEF.” No name, or date.
“We should have asked his name, Cap.” Preacher had wanted to say some words over the grave.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Boone. “God will sort it out. That’s what an undertaker once told me.”
* * *
Epitaph’s only bank existed because of Calhoun.
“I own it,” bragged Calhoun at every opportunity, a cigar of twisted tobacco between his thin-lips. “Got more money in there than anybody. Brought in J. Harrison Greenlaw from Chicago as manager. Most honest man I ever met.” He wagged a finger at the Captain of Rangers. “Church going gentleman. Stays away from women, smoking and drinking, and don’t cuss.” He raised a gray eyebrow. “I like that in a man...but not in me!”
It was the first time Boone ever saw the bearded octogenarian laugh.
“That old man has more bile than a six-stomach cow,” said Preacher. “He ain’t never gonna die.”
“You don’t build a cattle empire without making enemies,” acknowledged Boone.
Preacher said Greenlaw slept through most of his fire-and-brimstone sermons. “And that ain’t easy.” His congregation produced what Boone called “roof-raising singing,” backed by Preacher’s wife pounding the pump organ.
Hours later the second cattle thief’s sweaty neck was in a noose. Two Rangers collected his lathered horse and thirty-five scattered cattle, and returned to Calhoun’s ranch.
Boone, Preacher, and Wade quickly picked up the trail of the bank robbers. One left a trail of blood.
* * *
Christy O’Hare, bank guard and ex-Ranger, had returned early from lunch, and entered Epitaph’s bank through a back door. He had a gimpy leg, but keen eye. When he
saw what was happening, he grabbed a shotgun. His blasts blew away part of one gunman’s leg, and half the front door, also wounding an outlaw’s red roan at the hitching rail.
“He shot Lonnie!” yelled an outlaw with a round face.
O’Hare dived behind the bank’s open vault door as shots ricocheted off its thick metal.
Lonnie rode between the outlaws as they fled. The ragtag posse lost them two miles east of town along Boggy Creek.
“They’re riding good horses,” O’Hare said, when Boone and Preacher joined the posse. “But that wounded horse will slow ‘em down.”
“We’ll get ‘em,” assured Boone. “Can’t get far with a wounded man and horse in dry country.”
The bandits left behind the body of Mrs. Lucy Garner, widow of the local livery owner. She had been talking to J. Harrison Greenlaw, bank president, when the armed men burst in. She screamed and raised her folded umbrella. One of the bandits, a tall man with long sideburns, shot her. She died instantly.
“Dang it Skeeter! What’d you do that fer?” yelled a short, big-eared man with pockmarks and a long scar on his left cheek.
“Lonnie, I thought she had a rifle!“ said Skeeter.
“It was an umbrella, you idiot!”
“What in the heck would an old lady be doin’ with a rifle? Don’t you ever think?”
“Shut up and git the money!”
* * *
“You got to track ‘em down, Captain Boone,” pleaded a shaking Greenlaw. He dabbed at his eyes. “Poor Mrs. Garner. A nice old lady. Always stopping by...”
Greenlaw’s face and three-piece suit were splattered with her blood. He pointed a shaky finger at the bullet-pitted vault door. “Took every last cent: $40,000. Stuffed it in two white flour sacks.”
He’d been shoved at gunpoint inside the vault, he said. “All the town’s money’s gone! Nothing’s left! I’m glad Miss Eudora left the bank last month. A pretty little thing like that...our bookkeeper...should never see such things.”
* * *
“One horse is limpin’.” Wade studied the hoof marks of three horses.
“O’Hare said he wounded the man they called Lonnie, and the man’s red roan,” added Boone.
“How much did you say they got, Captain?” asked Wade, turning in his saddle.
“$40,000 cash money.”
WWade whistled. “What I wouldn’t do for $40,000.”
Preacher raised an eyebrow. “Even robbin’ a bank?”
Wade remained deep in thought until...
“Well...?” asked Preacher. “You’re sure taking your time.”
Wade smiled: “I’m thinkin’ on it.”
“That kind of thinkin’ is the road to hell.” Preacher waved his Bible. “Maybe you outta be reading this.”
Wade didn’t respond.
“My church had $40 in there,” said Preacher. “Ain’t lettin’ no outlaw steal God’s money!”
“Colonel’s lost thousands,” said Boone. “Most everyone in town had money in there.” Boone felt the heat of the early afternoon on his back.
* * *
That night the Rangers bedded in a sandy wash. Boone quickly finished his small boot flask of whiskey and wished he’d brought more. He carried a pistol and Bowie knife on his waist, a Henry rifle on his saddle.
He eased onto his blanket, and puffed a thin stogie below his walrus mustache. He’d married once, but elbow bending ended it. “It was wonderful,” he chuckled, “having someone around to constantly remind me of my faults.”
“Think you’ll ever marry again, Cap?” asked Preacher. “Bible says every man needs a mate.”
“Only woman I every thought attractive in Epitaph,” said Boone, “was Miss Grace Eudora. And she quit the bank, and moved to San Francisco last month. I’m old enough to be her daddy, and too old to think of marrying again.”
Wade sliced an apple and tossed wedges to his companions. Preacher dumped some dried red beans in a small pot. They’d boil coffee in it, after they scraped it clean, and saved some for a cold-coffee breakfast. They had gathered what little firewood and cow chips were available for a fire.
“Three men knife-eatin’ beans out of the same pot ain’t sanitary,” said Boone.
“When did you get fussy?” asked Preacher.
Boone sipped from his canteen and eyed the horizon of cactus, mesquite and buffalo grass. The prairie ended in a humpbacked range of mountains that etched the east like a painter gone mad. “Water out here’s about as rare as an honest gambler,” he said.
A warm breeze dusted the day’s last shadows. The men enjoyed their beans, coffee, and smokes, and then curled in their blankets, heads on saddles.
“We’ll pick up their trail in the morning,” yawned Boone. “Won’t get far with a gun-shot man on a bleeding horse. The Colonel ain’t happy about this.”
“Well,” said Preacher, “owning a robbed bank will do that. I ain’t partial to money lenders. Even the Bible speaks agin ‘em. But that’s his, and our money.” He quietly read from his Bible by the small fire, and then spent a restless night.
* * *
The next morning they found a campfire still warm to the touch, bits of burned newspapers mixed with the ash. A white flour sack lay nearby.
Boone turned it inside out. “Empty,” he said. “That’s odd.”
“Why toss one away?” Preacher shrugged. “Mr. Greenlaw said they stuffed $40,000 in two sacks. They’d need both to carry all that loot.”
Boone picked at a small piece of half-burned paper cut from a newspaper. “Somebody’s been readin’.”
“Maybe they buried the money?” questioned Wade.
Boone waved the sack. “Then why not use this?”
“You’d think they’d divide it up, use both bags,” said Preacher.
“Don’t figure.” Boone stuffed the sack in his saddlebag. “Unless...?”
Preacher tilted his head to the right like a questioning dog. “’Unless’ what, Cap?”
Blood spattered some rocks. Boone touched a drop. “Still sticky. Can’t be too far ahead.”
Trail marks continued south.
“They’re heading for Mexico,” stated Boone.
Wade checked the trail. “That wounded horse is slowing ‘em down, Captain, hobbling on three legs.”
An hour later they saw three distant riders slowly moving toward foothills of mesquite, scrub oak and pine. The middle rider was slumped forward.
Un-holstering pistols and rifles, the Rangers spurred their horses into a gallop.
A tall, skinny rider with long sideburns saw them, booted his horse, and broke from his companions. A white sack swayed from his saddle horn.
The second outrider spurred his horse and yelled to the third man: “You’re on your own, Lonnie!”
“Skeeter! Dooley!” pleaded the man. He twisted his head back toward the advancing Rangers. His right leg was dark red. His horse limped.
“Loyalty between outlaws,” shouted Boone, “is a beautiful thing to see.”
The injured outlaw tried to force his horse into a run. It balked, turned in a circle, slumped, and dropped its burden, and limped away. The rider cursed as he landed on his wound, torn between clutching his leg, or crawling toward his pistol a dozen feet away.
“Don’t shoot, unless he gets that gun!” ordered Boone. “I want him alive!”
The Rangers circled as Boone’s horse blocked the outlaw from his weapon. The wide-eyed fugitive rolled back from the sharp hooves. He saw Boone’s badge, raised his arms, and pointed toward his two vanishing companions.
“Them’s the ones that shot that...that woman in the bank!” he said. “I didn’t do it!”
Boone dismounted, picked up the gun and shoved it behind his belt. He lifted the outlaw by his shirt collar, ripped a knife from the man’s waist, patted him down, and threw him back on the rocky ground.
The short outlaw was equipped with batwing ears, thin arms, and a pockmarked face weathered by a thousand suns. A long scar dominated his stubble-haired left cheek.
His horse slumped nearby on three legs.
“This sure ain’t your day.” Boone handed the knife to Wade. He then pointed toward the fugitives’ dust, and ordered Preacher and Wade to “get them!”
He angrily turned back to Lonnie. “That woman you shot, died.”
“Ahhhh, jeez. I didn’t shoot her, honest mister.”
“You were there!” yelled Boone. “You’re just as guilty!“
“I’d never do nothin’ like that. Nobody was supposed to get hurt!” Lonnie clutched his leg. “I’m shot bad. Need a doc. She was a nice old lady--”
“That ‘nice old lady,’” interrupted Boone, “was my aunt!”
“She helped raise me.” Boone kicked the man’s wound.
Lonnie screamed, clutched his hip, and curled into a ball.
“What’s your name?” asked Boone.
“Lon-Lonnie,” gasped the outlaw, “...Lonnie Tolliver...from Arkansas.”
“Well, Lonnie Tolliver from Arkansas, you’re gonna hang. And we’re gonna enjoy doin’ it!”
“Skeeter done it!” Lonnie’s voice broke. “Skeeter Hobbs. He...He planned the robbery. Never outlawed with him till this. Everything went wrong...”
“You rode with him. You’ll hang with him!”
Lonnie turned onto his face and sobbed. Boone tossed the man’s boots into a thorny island of prickly pears, tied the outlaw’s hands behind his back, and dumped Lonnie’s saddle. “You ain’t walking, crawling or riding out of here. We’ll be back.” He kicked sand toward the man. “If you’re lucky...you’ll die first.”
The man whimpered.
“Save it!” snarled Boone as he rode toward his two Rangers.
The robbers forced their horses through needle-infested brush and cholla cactus as bullets whizzed past their ears. One rider yelled and snapped forward.
“Winged one!” Preacher waved his rifle. “Got ‘em in the shoulder.”
Wade rode at his side. “That was my shot!”
“Like heck it was!”
The outlaw vanished behind trees fronting a steep canyon. Snorting horses and dust marked their climb.
“They got my life savings,” shouted Wade. “Had $20 in that bank.”
“$40!” replied Preacher. “No one steals church money.”
“Checked on my $20 every week,” said Wade, “to make sure it was still there.”
“Not what I hear,” yelled Preacher. “I hear you were more interested in that Miss Eudora, than your twenty. A fine looking woman, but more stuck up than horse glue!”
The outlaws forced their lathered mounts higher. Rocks tumbled from their trail.
“That’s a box canyon,” shouted Wade. “Ain’t no way out.”
The robbers abandoned their horses and scurried uphill. Gunfire snapped at their heels.
“Dang them trees!” grumbled Wade.
“Lost ‘em!” shouted Preacher.
Boone dismounted, and carrying his rifle, dashed from boulder to tree to join Wade at the base of the canyon.
The Rangers’ rounds ricocheted off rocks.
“An old Indian trail and stone cabin’s up there, Captain,” shouted Wade, breathing hard. “Me and my daddy camped there, looking for gold, when I was little. Didn’t find none. Don’t know anyone who did. There’s an old mine--”
“They reach that cabin, and they’ll be shooting down our throats,” said Boone.
A bullet tore off Wade’s right boot heel. He cursed, rolled behind a tree and wasted two shots. He usually wore moccasins, but had left them behind.
“Make sure you know what you’re shootin’ at,” ordered Boone. “Long way back for ammo.”
“Dang it!” Wade felt the bottom of his boot. “Captain, that old cabin’s nothing but tumbled stones and rotting timbers. It’s like a fortress. Won’t be easy getting’ ‘em out.”
“They ain’t going no place,” confirmed Boone.
“An old seep’s back in there, too.” Wade gestured deeper into the canyon. “Only water we ever found.”
Preacher, fifty feet on their left was bareheaded on the steep slope, his bullet-riddled hat at the bottom of the climb. He gripped a tree root with his left hand, rifle in the other.
“Watch out!” he yelled.
Boone and Wade ducked as a large boulder bounced over them, followed by an avalanche of dirt and stones.
Laughter echoed from above.
“They’re trying to kill us!” yelled Wade.
Boone stared at the young Ranger. “You’re sure comin’ late to the party.”
Wade spit dirt: “They’re makin’ me mad. Captain!”
More rocks clattered around them.
“Two can play this game!” growled Boone. His forehead dripped ribbons of dirty sweat. “Keep ‘em pinned down.” He pointed to a high ledge above the tumbled cabin. “I’m going up there. We’ll find out how those killers like our rock shower.”
“Next time I’ll bring some soap.” Wade’s anger became a smile that cracked his dusted face.
Boone rolled across to Preacher: “See if you can take one of ‘em out,” he said. “Especially the one called Skeeter.”
“Think I wounded him ridin’ in.”
Boone hurried to the bottom of the slope, scooped cartridges from his saddlebag, and grabbed his canteen and rawhide rope. He cut a sling for his rifle and hung the weapon across his back.
Wade and Preacher provided cover as Boone circled west and struggled up a wall of jutting stone. He climbed past jagged rocks and pockets of prickly pears. He slipped once, cutting his right arm.
Sporadic gunfire filled the canyon. Boone couldn’t tell if it came from Rangers or outlaws.
Reaching the ledge, he tied the rope around his waist, and secured it to an old crevice-growing tree. He crawled to the edge and cautiously peered over. It was a one hundred foot drop. Rifle fire below flashed into the canyon from shadowy figures crouched beneath the rocky cabin’s decaying roof.
“This should be fun.” Boone slid a large rock over the edge.
A startled voice shouted from below. Part of the roof collapsed. A grimacing man raised a pistol and fired straight up. The bullet clipped the ledge, and sent stone chips into Boone’s right hand and cheek.
“Dangit!” Boone pulled back.
“I think I got him!” a disembodied voice yelled from below.
“Still alive and kicking up here!” shouted Boone. He pressed his bandana against his wounds. “How’s it down there?” He kicked over more of the mountain.
“Give up!” demanded Boone.
“Never!” The outlaw’s anger carried pain.
Boone laughed and shoved over a large flat rock.
More roof and walls collapsed.
“Come down here and fight!” yelled the outlaw.
“More where that came from. An endless supply.” Boone pried loose a big rock and rolled it over the edge.
More crashing and cursing from below, and someone screamed.
“I told ya to stay back!” yelled the angry voice.
“Skeeter,” moaned a squeaky voice, ”I think he busted my leg!”
“Grow up, Dooley! You ain’t hurt that bad. I got a bullet riding in me. I ain’t complainin’.”
More bullets clipped Boone’s stone shelf. He moved back and kicked over a shower of rocks. “Try these apples!” he yelled.
More gunfire from Wade and Preacher peppered the hideout below.
Boone cupped his hands and yelled: “You’re surrounded and outnumbered. We’ve got plenty of ammunition...and you’re between a rock and a hard place.” He chuckled to himself: “Hey, that’s kinda funny.”
No response from below.
Boone dropped another load. “There’s more comin’.”
Protests followed. Then Dooley squeaky voice cried: “My leg’s busted, Skeeter. Bone’s poking through my boot. Hurts like blazes!”
“Told ya to stay back, Dooley.”
Boone shouted: “Hey, Dooley!”
“How...How’d he know my name?”
“I just said it, you idiot!” said Skeeter.
Boone continued: “We can doctor that leg, Dooley? Take you back to Epitaph. Doc Highfill will fix you up good as new.”
A shot whizzed past Boone’s overlook.
“Stick it, lawman!” It was Skeeter.
“You two thirsty down there?” Boone’s booming voice easily reached the outlaws. “Got plenty of good, cool water up here.” He took a drink from his canteen, and dribbled some over the edge. “Give you all you want when you give up.”
The only responses were Skeeter’s curses, and Dooley’s moans.
Boone stabbed his big knife into the vertical wall behind him, and loosened a large rock. As he re-sheathed his knife the stone suddenly twisted free—-taking half the wall with it. The mass of earth and rock slid onto the ledge. The precipice groaned as a line appeared at one end--knifed under the growing pyramid--and cracked open the ledge like a clamshell, releasing tons of debris. Boone grabbed for a tree root, but missed, and fell. His safety line stretched twenty feet back up to the tree, his rifle still dangled over his shoulder.
The rocky waterfall of earth buried the cabin.
The lawman twisted like a leaf in a spider’s web. The vice-gripping rope squeezed the air from his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He was dazed, his mind unable to function. He lost consciousness, but didn’t know for how long. He heard muffled voices shouting his named through a thick mental fog, his thoughts lost in a long black tunnel.
The cliff continued to crumble. It pelted Boone with rocks and dirt, his skin only visible as blood trickled from his head. He tried to lift his arms to clean his eyes, but couldn’t.
“Captain! Captain! You all right?” yelled Preacher. He and Wade, dodging tumbling rocks, crawled up toward the cabin.
“How we gonna get him down?”
“Danged if I know, Wade. We’ll try somethin’.”
“Gotta be a hundred feet up to that ledge. Think he’s alive?”
“Can’t tell. Go get all the ropes you find.”
“Do it!” ordered Preacher. He cupped his hands and yelled: “Hold on, Cap, we’re comin’!”
Boone slowly moved one leg.
“He’s alive!” yelled Preacher.
Wade raced downhill toward their horses.
* * *
Hurrying to the disintegrating narrow ledge, Wade grabbed Boone’s rope and leaned into space. Behind him, Preacher gripped the tree. Half of its roots stretched into space like black wiry fingers; the remainder gripped the mountain’s crumbling shale.
“I can see him, but can’t pull him up,” grunted Wade. “He’s too heavy. Gotta save him before this whole mountain goes...and us with it.”
Preacher clutched the tree. “We’ll have to lower him.”
Wade had found only one rope to extend Boone’s, since most of their horses had run off. They cut and tied it into Boone’s, and then began lowering Boone, carefully sliding the rope through their gloved hands.
“Hope this thing’s gonna be long enough,” said Preacher, who began loudly praying.
“He’s heavy,” said Wade. “How much rope we got left?”
Suddenly the rope went slack.
“Oh, my God!” cried Preacher. “He’s fallen!”
Wade gripped the rope, and cautiously looked over the ledge, then smiled back at Preacher. “I think your prayer worked. He’s down!”
“Thank God!” said Preacher. “’Cuz there ain’t no more rope.”
They cut the line and tossed it over the ledge, and scrambled back down the canyon. Hugging the hillside they crawled across the big mound of rubble that now covered the cabin. Boone was on top in a tangle of ropes.
“Is he alive?” Wade crouched behind Preacher.
“He ain’t moving.”
“Is he breathing?”
“Can’t tell. Hope he ain’t dead.”
They tried to untie the cinched rope from Boone’s chest, but couldn’t. Preacher grabbed Boone’s knife, and cut the line. Boone gasped!
“He’s alive!” exclaimed Wade.
“Thank God! Don’t know if he’s broken any bones. But he’s sure gonna be sore.”
There was a muffled moan, but not from Boone. It came from beneath the rubble.
“Can’t believe someone’s still alive under all that,” said Preacher.
“The heck with ‘em,” said Wade. “Let ‘em die. They killed Aunt Lucy!”
“Don’t care about them. It’s my $40 I’m worried about.”
“It ain’t going no where. We’ll dig it out...and him, later...if he’s lucky.”
They ducked as more rocks feel.
“Let’s move him before this whole cliff goes,” urged Preacher.
They carried Boone down the slope and laid him under a tree. A canteen was pressed to his lips. He drank, coughed, and clutched his chest.
“Think...I’ve busted...some ribs.” He looked at his hands. “Can’t feel...my right one.”
“Don’t talk, Captain.” A teary Wade gently brushed dirt from Boone’s eyes, and dribbled water into his mouth.
“We thought we’d lost you,” said Preacher.
Boone rubbed his chest again, and wished his flask wasn’t empty. “It hurts.”
“Be worse tomorrow,” added Preacher. “I remember when my Grandpa fell down a well, and--“
“You’re encouraging,” muttered Boone.
“Preachers try to be.”
“But you’re alive, Captain,” added Wade. “That’s what matters.”
Boone’s smile cracked the dirt on his face. He patted Wade’s hand. “Devil’s gonna have...to wait...a little longer before...he gets Yancy Boone.”
Wade said they’d heard someone under the rubble.
“Someone’s alive?” questioned Boone. “Hard to believe...”
“He was moaning, Captain,” continued Wade.
“The other one’s probably dead,” added Preacher. “I know I winged one riding in here. Think I got him again in the cabin.”
“The moaning one’ll probably be dead before we dig him out.”
“He’s a bad one, but still one of God’s children.”
“Wishin’ won’t do it, Preacher,” said Wade. “Only works when you snap a chicken’s wishbone and get the big part.”
“Recollect when I was a boy back in Tennessee—-“
“Don’t need none of your tall tales,” sighed Wade. “Got diggin’ to do. Saw an old shovel up there.”
They left Boone with food and water, returned to the pile of rubble, hugged the undercut of the hill, and began moving rocks and timbers. A muffled moan came from deep inside.
Preacher pounded on a rock, and yelled: “Hello in there?”
Moans became whimpers.
“You the one called Dooley?”
“Please...get me out.” The voice was weak and barely audible. “Didn’t...think you was comin’ back.”
“Can’t move...under all this. Arm...and leg’s busted, too.”
“You the one killed the woman?”
The man whined. “No...Skeeter...done it. Planned the robbery. Asked me...and Lonnie...to go along. He’s a hot head who--”
Preacher interrupted: “It’s always somebody else’s fault, ain’t it? Lonnie’s, back on the trail, spun the same lie.”
“Just...get me out.”
“Anyone else alive in there?” yelled Wade.
“Skeeter’s died. He’s under here someplace. I lost my pistol...or I’d of killed myself.”
Wade and Preacher worked with their hands and the rusty shovel. They frequently stopped to rest. “Easy on that water, Wade. It’s all we got...and Cap’s gonna need plenty. Where’d you say that old seep was around here?”
Wake soon returned with a full canteen. “It’s a trickle, but there’s water.”
By late afternoon they reached Dooley, wedged under timbers and boulders. His bruised and bloodied face was streaked with tears.
“We’re diggin’ you out so’s we can hang you,” announced Preacher.
“Hanging’s better than this,” replied Dooley. “Could...could I have some water? Ain’t had none since yesterday.”
“Only if you tell us where the money is.”
“I’m sittin’ on it.”
As night settled, the exhausted Rangers left the trapped outlaw with some food and water. “Get you out at first light.”
“Shoot me...if ya want,” he begged. “Just don’t leave me here.”
“We’re still thinkin’ on it.”
They freed the outlaw the next morning.
“Name’s Dooley Hobbs,” he said. “Rather be hung than die lie that. If that’s hell, I want no part of it.”
“Ain’t never too late to ask the Lord for forgiveness.” Preacher said he’d pray for his soul.
“You one of them evangelists?” asked Dooley. “All hell-fire and brimstone?”
“Preach every Sunday in Epitaph.”
“Well, Parson, if I told you all the hell I’d done in my twenty-six years you’d put me back in that hole. So I ain’t tellin’.”
They splinted Dooley’s broken arm and leg with rawhide and branches, carried him down the hill, and placed him next to Boone.
Preacher gave Dooley another drink of water.
“Why we fixin&rsquorsquo; him up, Captain?” asked Wade. “Ain’t we gonna hang him? Got trees a-plenty.”
“You ain’t hangin’ me!” exclaimed Dooley. It was a statement, not a question.
Boone readjusted his broad back on the tree. “Why not?”
“You need me.”
“To do what?”
“At the trial.”
“Like heck we do!” interjected Wade.
“Like heck you don’t!” Dooley’s weak voice was confidant.
“What’s he talkin’ about, Cap?”
“Did you and Wade get the money?” asked Boone.
“Not yet.” Wade swallowed from a fresh canteen.
“I was sittin’ on it,” said the outlaw.
“What about the other outlaw?” asked Boone.
“Skeeter?” The survivor gestured toward the slide. “He’s under that. You won’t be hangin’ Skeeter, unless you just wanna dangle somethin’ dead and ugly.”
“I was hoping to.” Boone turned to Wade. “What about the man back on the trail?”
“Is Lonnie still alive?” questioned Dooley.
“Checked like you said, Captain,” nodded Wade. “Dead. Devil’s probably stickin’ him with a pitchfork ‘bout now. His horse is dead, too.”
An hour later a sweating Preacher and Wade dropped a bulging flour sack next to Boone. “There’s the $40,000.”
The outlaw chuckled.
Boone frowned. “What’s so funny?”
“What’s he talkin’ about, Captain?”
“I think I know, Preacher.” Boone untied the sack and dumped it in his lap.
“What the...?” Wade’s mouth popped open.
The outlaw laughed. “Things ain’t always the way they seems...is they?”
“I knew something wasn’t right,” said Boone, “when we found some cut pieces of newspaper at your old fire. The—-“
“Where’s all the money?” interrupted Preacher.
Tied stacks of currency-size cut pieces of old newspapers lay on Boone’s lap, a few greenbacks on top of each bundle. Saloon tokens and coin-size wooden disks completed the contents.
“That’s $300 dollars in small bills,” said the outlaw. “That’s all that crook gave us.”
“What’s he talkin’ about?” asked Preacher.
“Skeeter said we was suppose to split $600,” continued Dooley. “That was the deal. He cheated us.”
“Who?” Preacher was frustrated. “I don’t get it.”
Boone thumbed the bundles, and scowled: “The $40,000’s still in the bank, isn’t it?”
The outlaw nodded. “The robbery was supposed to go easy. Shootin’ that old woman wasn’t planned. And that guard was suppose to take longer at lunch.”
Wade rubbed his matted head. “Captain, I don’t--”
Boone confronted Dooley: “You faked the robbery so Greenlaw could keep the $40,000?”
“As sure as donkey’s bray. In a couple of weeks Greenlaw is gonna say: ‘Since all the money’s gone, I’m closin’ the bank.’ He’ll shed some fake tears, say goodbye, and take the stage to San Francisco. Skeeter said he’s got a young woman waitin’ there.”
Boone softly cursed: “Miss Grace Eudora that left the bank a month back?”
“You’re catchin’ on,” added Dooley.
“Dammit!” exclaimed Preacher. “That rascal goes to my church!”
“When did you start cussin’?” asked Wade.
“It’s always a woman...a Jezebel!” Preacher turned to Boone: “Greenlaw sent me up French Creek to cut fire wood. Knew you’d probably help. You usually do. Dang! He tricked us. Oh, I’d love to open Greenlaw’s suitcase when’s he’s getting’ on that stage.”
“Don’t worry,” smiled Boone. “We will.”
“What about my $20 dollars?” questioned Wade.
“My $40?” added Preacher.
“Colonel Calhoun’s gonna be mad!” continued Boone. “Called Greenlaw, ‘The most honest man’ he’d ever met.”
Dooley rubbed his broken leg. “Yep, ol’ law-abidin’, church-goin’ J. Harrison Greenlaw, wants it all.”
“It ain’t gonna happen,” stated Boone.
“Greenlaw promised there’d be no shootin’,” continued Dooley. “Said you’d be a mile away chopping wood. Then Skeeter got nervous...killed that old lady...and the guard came back.”
“Can’t believe Mr. Greenlaw’s a crook,” said Wade.
“That’s why you’re gonna take good care of me,” grinned Dooley, “’cuz I’m the only survivor, and you need me to testify at Greenlaw’s trial. And I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ against him unless you promise not to hang me.”