Western Wednesdays—BAD MEDICINE + Giveaway

Spur-nominated author Paul Bagdon returns this month with Bad Medicine. Tragedy breeds a quest for revenge in this action-packed ride through the Old West. And wouldn’t you know it? I’ve got a copy hot off the press that I’m just itchin’ to give away. Enjoy the preview of chapter one below and throw us some feedback in the comment thread to be entered to win the paperback.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Editorial and Web Coordinator

Chapter One

The sun hung over Will Lewis and his Appaloosa stud, Slick, like a gigantic, flaming brass disk, sucking all moisture from the earth, the desiccated prairie grass, and the man and his horse. An endless sweep—a swell—of merciless heat had begun shortly after first light and had escalated almost exponentially since then.

Slick was dragging his toes and weaving slightly, even at his plow-horse walk. His head hung low, muzzle barely a foot from the ground.

Will reached forward and took a pinch of hide from Slick’s neck, stretched it up an inch or so, and released it. The flesh moved back into place slowly, lethargically—Slick was baking in his own hide and not far from going down. Lewis knew that it was a sure bet that if Slick did go down, he’d never get up again.

Will hefted his canteen: it was maybe a quarter full. His throat was a sandpit, his lips cracked and weeping blood, his entire being screaming for water. He reined in, slouched down from his saddle, dumped the canteen into his Stetson, and held the hat to Slick’s muzzle. The horse sucked once, emptying the hat, and eyed Will, demanding more, begging for more.

Lewis stepped back onto his saddle, red and black spots floating in his vision. He pulled in a long, deep breath. The spots didn’t disappear but they diminished in size and number.

His words weren’t anywhere near perfectly formed, and he could barely hear himself speak. “We shoulda hit th’ town if Hiram’s directions was right. Hiram—he’s a idjit. He jus’ mighta up an’ killed me an’ a good horse.”

Slick was weaving more noticeably.

“Sonofabitch,” Will mumbled, and heeled Slick to keep him moving.

At first Will thought it was just another oddly shaped cholla. As he drew closer he saw it was a sign. Like all the signs of jerkwaterWest Texastowns, it was a slab of barn wood with hand-painted text. It was pocked with bullet holes and speckled with shotgun pellets. The sign read dry creek.

Slick’s head shot up as if he were suddenly checking the sky, his nostrils flared, his breath huffing through them. He smelled either humans or water—it made no difference to him. Either one promised the end of his thirst. He picked up his pace without urging from Will.

Another couple hundred yards later the tinkling notes of a honky-tonk piano reached Will. A vision of a schooner of beer the size of a hog’s head popped into his mind and refused to leave it. His throat moved up and down in a swallowing motion without his volition.

They came down a grade and Dry Creek spread before them, such as it was. There were the usual false-fronted structures on either side of a pitted and rutted street that put a tail of dirt and grit in the air behind each horse and wagon. The town offered a mercantile, a shoe and boot, an undertaker and furniture maker, three saloons, and a sheriff’s office. At the end of the street was a small church, and beyond that, a livery and blacksmith operation. The reason the town existed—a railroad depot with stock fences—rested at the far end of the street, beyond the church and stable.

Each gin mill had a watering trough in front of it, partially under the hitching post. The scent of water goaded Slick into an awkward, shambling lope and Will gave him all the rein he wanted. The horse slid to a stop at the first trough and buried his muzzle in the water, sucking like berserk bellows. Will climbed down and fell to his knees next to Slick. He pushed some of the horse spittle and green scum to the side and planted his face in the water.

The water was piss warm, metallic tasting, with a good growth of stringy, weedlike scum at the bottom—and it was the finest thing Will Lewis had ever tasted in his life. He drank until he puked, stood, dragged Slick’s head out of the trough, and stepped into a stirrup. Slick fought him, rearing and snorting, but Will wheeled him around and jabbed his heels into his sides, pointing him toward the blacksmith shop. Too much water at one time to a dehydrated horse could cause founder or twisted gut. If Will’s old man had taught him anything, it was this: “Ya take care of yer horse fore ya look after yerself.”

The smith was a barrel of a man with forearms like hams, a full beard, and the chest of a bull buffalo. His hair, twisted and greasy, hung well below his shoulders. He came out to meet Will as he dismounted.

“Nice animal,” he commented in a deep, hoarse voice, “’cept the poor fella’s dryer’n a dust storm in hell. You oughta know better’n to—”

“That horse an’ me just crossed that goddamn desert out there,” Will snarled. “I gave him the last of my canteen an’ both of us come close to croakin’. You got a problem with me, do somethin’ about it. If not, shut your yap an’ listen. You water this boy every twenty minutes, maybe a quarter bucket. I want shoes all around—not keg shoes, neither. I want you to turn them outta good bar stock and bang in an extra nail at each toe. Give him small rations of molasses an’ oats, maybe some corn, a few times a day, an’ all the good hay he wants—not this burned out shit you got stacked up here, the trefoil an’ clover I see there in the back. Got it?”

The smith grinned. His teeth were an almost startling white. “Feisty, ain’t you? Now look—all that’s gonna cost you some money,” he said.

Will flipped a double eagle to the big man. “You need more, let me know.”

The blacksmith raised the coin to his mouth and bit down on it—hard. Will saw the muscles at the man’s jaw flex and harden.

The smith wiped the coin on his muleskin apron and dropped it into the pocket of his denim pants. “Look here,” he said, “we got off to a bad start. I had no way of knowin’ you crossed the sand. I figgered you was another twenty-five-a-month-an’-chow cowpuncher who’d run a good horse to death. I was wrong.” He extended his right hand. “Lucas Toole,” he said.

Will took the hand. It was like grasping a brick that had grown fingers. “Lewis,” he said, “Will Lewis.”

Lucas grinned again. “I got me a bottle out back—real whiskey, not ’shine. I was wonderin’ maybe you’d like a little taste after drinkin’ some of that good water outta the barrel there with the scoop hangin’ on it. Pure deep well water it is, cold ’nuff to crack yer teeth.”

“No more’n I want to wake up tomorrow morning.” Will grinned, heading to the barrel. “But maybe first, my horse…”

“I was hopin’ you’d say that,” Lucas said, stepping ahead of Will with a bucket, filling it a quarter full, and holding it to Slick’s muzzle.

It was good whiskey, just as Lucas said: the label was real, not a sloppy counterfeit, and the booze tasted of woodsmoke and fresh prairie grass. Will took three long sucks. “Damn,” he said almost reverently, handing the bottle back.

Lucas lowered the level of the bottle a good two inches and wiped his mouth with his arm. “Done some time, Will?” he asked.

Will’s eyes showed nothing. “Time? What makes you think that?”

“Well, hell,” Lucas said, “there’s jus’ somethin’ about a man who been inside for a good bit—his eyes ain’t never still, and he don’t seem to ever relax. He’s always tight, like he’s waitin’ for a punch he knows is comin’ but he don’t know exactly when.”

After a long moment, Will said, “I done four. I was movin’ some beef that maybe had the wrong brand on ’em. An’ I lost the bill of sale, too. Musta flew right outta my pocket with the wind. The fact I was movin’ ’em at night towardMexicodidn’t impress the law positive.”

“That’ll happen to a man,” Lucas said. “Where they lock you up?”

“Folsom.”

“Damn. Hard time.”

“Yeah.”

“My younger brother done three in Folsom,” Lucas said. “That’s how I knew about how a fella looks when he first comes out.”

There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence. Lucas broke it by asking, “So—what’re you gonna do now?”

“My brother, Hiram, has a cattle spread not far from here. I’ve got some money I hid out before I went to prison. Me an’ Hiram are gonna expand his place a lot—more land an’ more beef. Hiram, he’s a hell of a hand with…”

Lucas’s grin dropped as suddenly as it would have if someone had sucker punched him. “Hiram Lewis, that’d be?”

“Well, yeah. But what…what…?”

“Take this,” Lucas said, handing back the bottle. “Have a good belt an’ then sit you down on a bale of hay.”

“Why? What’s…?”

“Jus’ do it, OK?”

Will, confused, did it, eyes locked with those of the smith.

“Ain’t no good way to say this,” Lucas said. “I knew Hiram real good—done business with him, drank with him, played cards, broke bread with him an’ his family. Good man. Sarah, his wife, was sweet as August honey, and their two daughters—why, you couldn’t find better kids. Twins, they was, musta been born ’bout the time you went inside.”

Will didn’t realize it, but he was holding his breath.

“Was renegade Injuns and crazies from the war,” Lucas said, each word straining his voice. “Killed ’em all, burned the house an’ barn, made off with the cattle. I went out an’ put them in the ground nice an’ proper, Will.”

“What about the law? The sherrif?”

“A Mex gunfighter killed him about three, four months ago. Nobody wants the job.”

“The place—was it bad?” Will asked in a monotone.

“You don’t want to know, Will.”

“Tell me,” Will said in the same flat, emotionless tone.

Lucas took the bottle back and sucked a deep swallow. “I…I guess you got a right to know,” he said. He paused for a moment, avoiding Will’s eyes. “You know how them renegade Apaches treat women, right? An’ this One Dog, the leader, is worse ’n most.”

“The twins, too?”

Lucas nodded. “Killed ’em, Will. Bullets, not arrows. Leastwise, it was fast.”

“How’d they do Hiram in?”

“Nailed him to a fence post, scalped him, shot him fulla arrows, an’ burned him.”

Neither man said anything for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Will rose from the hay bale and walked out of the barn. It was twenty minutes before he walked back in, and his eyes were red rimmed and his nose running. “How many head was Hiram running?” he asked, his voice on the cusp of cracking.

“Maybe a hunnerd or so branded, an’ maybe twenny youngsters, more or less. Couple of good horses. Sarah, she had some goats, a slew of chickens. There was three dogs. They was fine cattle dogs—friendly cusses, too. They…well…gutted the poor critters. I put them in the ground, too, off ta Hiram’s side. Like I said, they was right good dogs.”

Will was silent for a moment.

“I’m purely awful sorry I was the one to tell you, Will.”

“Don’t matter none who tells it—the facts don’t change,” Will said.

“No—I don’t guess they do.”

“How many renegades?” Will asked.

“Maybe twenty-five or thirty all tol’, from the tracks. Only eight or ten horses was shod. See, Hiram an’ Sarah had ’vited me out for dinner. That’s how I found what happened.”

Will remained as still as a statue, staring out of the barn into the sunbaked street, seeing nothing.

“What’re you gonna do, Will? I s’pose you own the land now. It’s all registered with the property office, an’ you bein’ blood kin an’ all—”

“What I’m gonna do,” Will interrupted, “is take a few days to get Slick back in trim, then go out to the ranch.”

“An’ then what?”

“Stock up, buy a good rifle, track this One Dog down, an’ kill him an’ each of his followers.”

Lucas shook his head. “Big order,” he said.

“Me an’ Hiram always got along good,” Will said. “He even come all the way out to Folsom to see me. That’s when we decided to partner up on his operation. I had money to buy more stock, fatten ’em up, and drive ’em into Dry Creek to the train, an’ be a real, legal cattleman. We figured to build up his house some, too. I sent Hiram to one of my stashes to get money to get some good fencing up, buy me a solid horse, an’ get him an’ Sarah whatever they needed. Sarah, she played the piano. Hiram said he was gonna order one from Susan Robucks for her…” His voice trailed off to silence.

“That all sounds real nice, Will. Woulda been, too, an’ that’s for—”

“So,” Will interrupted, “I don’t have a choice. I gotta go after them, take them down. You can see that, can’t you, Lucas?”

There was another stretch of quiet broken only by the creaking and complaining of the barn beams and a Morgan mare in a stall crunching corn.

Lucas spat off to the side. “Seems to me the boy you rode in on is all the horse you need,” he said. “Hell, I got nothin’ even close to him in my string.”

“You’re right. Thing is, he’s stole. I picked him up the day I got out. He was the warden’s horse. He had spur gouges on his flanks, and ol’ Slick, he was wild as a hawk. I seen he was top stock, an’ he’s proved me right. Any other horse’d be out in the sand feedin’ vultures right now.”

“He’s branded, though,” Lucas said.

“Yeah. I was kinda wonderin’, maybe you might have a runnin’ iron around here somewhere, an’ could be, a good bill of sale, too. I’ll pay good.”

“Hell,” Lucas said, “there ain’t a brand I can’t change and make look real legal, and I got more bills of sales than I need. I guess the warden, he figured them bars was right cute—like the bars of a cell. I can make them into a HW if that suits you—ya know, Hiram an’ Will.”

“Sounds real good, Lucas. Thanks. Even as kids me an’ Hiram planned on the H an’ W brand. I guess maybe it was an omen or something—but a piss-poor omen.”

“Only thing is, I can’t do no brandin’ ’less you run over to the saloon an’ fetch us a bucket of cold beer. Fair deal?”

Will didn’t waste a minute getting through the batwings. The bartender was a black man, huge, sweaty, and alone in the joint except for a few cowhands slugging down shots of whiskey.

“Lord, Lord,” he said, chuckling. “Ain’t you the fella tried suckin’ my trough dry not long ago?”

“That was me,” Will said. “Me an’ my horse, we always been partial to trough water—specially when it’s nice an’ warm with lots of horse slobber in it.”

The ’tender laughed, the sound deep and rich. “You want somethin’ from here or you gonna go back out to the trough?”

“I need me a big bucket of the coldest beer you got for me an’ Lucas, the smith. And maybe I’ll try a taste of decent whiskey while I’m here.”

“I can do that,” the black man said. He put a generous double shot glass in front of Will, topped it from a bottle he took from under the bar, and turned away to draw the beer. The booze went down like liquid fire, but it felt good to Will, pushing what Lucas told him back a tiny bit in his mind. Will put a five-dollar piece on the bar as the ’tender set down the beer bucket.

“Lemme fetch your change,” he said.

“Ain’t no change comin,” Will said. “’Cept maybe another taste of that whiskey.” The coin disappeared into the bartender’s left hand as he filled Will’s shot glass with his right.

Will trudged back to the livery, walking carefully, sloshing not a single cold, precious drop from the bucket.

Slick was in crossties, with his right front leg jacked up and lashed in a V position by a long, thick leather strap that immobilized him. The acrid stink of burned hair and flesh was heavy in the air. Slick’s ears were laid back tight to his head, and his eyes were mere slits, behind which a feral fury seethed. His muzzle was drawn back over his teeth, which clattered like castanets.

“He’d sure love to take a bite outta your ass, Lucas,” Will said.

“Madder’n a pissed-on hornet,” Lucas said. He smiled. “Gimme that bucket.”

Will noticed an inch gash over Lucas’s left eye. The cut was held closed tight with a glob of hoof dressing. The dried blood was pretty much the same color as his beard.

“Little tussle?” Will asked.

“Sumbitch caught me soon’s as I put the iron to him. That’s why I got him rigged like that.” Lucas grabbed the beer bucket with a hand on either side and drank it dry in four long, gargantuan glugs.

Will moved to his horse’s flank. The new brand was covered with udder balm, but the livid pink-red flesh showed through. It was a fine piece of the work: the IIII had been transformed into a neat HW.

“You done real good, Lucas. I’d be mighty proud to buy us beefsteaks an’ maybe another beer or two.”

“Lemme put your horse in a stall an’ dump some laudanum in his yap fore he busts up all his teeth.”

Will watched as the smith put his shoulder against Slick’s right shoulder and took a good grab on the horse’s pastern. Will shook his head in awe. Lucas was damned near carrying a twelve-hundred-pound horse into a stall.

The tincture of laudanum was in a brown glass bottle with a capacity of a pint or so. Lucas took a hard twist on Slick’s nose. The teeth chattering stopped. The smith poured half the bottle and maybe a bit more into Slick’s gullet. Three minutes later Lucas unfastened the rig. Slick stood on all fours for a bit of time and then nuzzled Lucas like a foal begging for a piece of apple.

The few folks at the rickety tables in the hotel dining room barely looked at Lucas and Will as they walked in and sat at a table. Lucas took over the ordering when the waitress—a hefty lass with a sweet smile that’d make Satan head for the nearest church to repent—walked up.

What we need is this, Millie: two of the biggest beefsteaks ya got, barely cooked, a heap of mashed taters, maybe some of the carrots you do up with butter on ’em, an’ six schooners of cold beer.”

Millie brought the tray of beer first. The men lit into it.

Lucas set an empty schooner down and caught Will’s eyes, holding them.

“Somethin’s been itchin’ me, Will, an I’m tryin’ to figger her out. Not much more’n a hour ago I tol’ you your bro an’ his family was killed an’ his place burned to the ground. You took you a little walk and then come back an’ that was it. See? Now here we are gnawing beef an’ suckin’ beer, like nothin’ bad never happened. Why’s that, Will?”

Will Lewis held the blacksmith’s eyes.

“I don’t know that it’s your business, Lucas, but you been real good to me—busted a couple of heavy laws with your runnin’ iron an’ your papers—an’ you deserve a answer.”

Will hesitated for a time. “I took a floggin’ in Folsom—thirty strokes—for killin’ another con in a fight. I’d seen other men under the lash screaming an’ cryin’ and beggin’, an’ it made me sick. When it was my turn I made me a promise: there wasn’t nothin’ I couldn’t take—but what I could do was find a way to make things even.”

Will took the last beer from the tray and drank half of it. “After I stole the warden’s horse, I went to the cabin of the man who laid the whip to me an’ hung the sumbitch from a tree by his wrists an’ put an even thirty on him. See, Lucas, what I done was mark that bill as paid. That’s what I’m gonna do with this One Dog an’ his crew—mark their bills paid in full.”

“We need more beer,” Lucas said. “You want some redeye, too?”

“Beer’s fine. I already got me half a stumbler on.”

“Ya know, tryin’ to do what you plan is pure crazy. Some more men…”

“I’m more’n likely gonna get killed doin’ this, right? That’s OK. But if I brought friends in, the whole mess wouldn’t be all right. ’Cause those boys’d be killed, too. I’ll hire me some guns when an’ if I think I need ’em. Nobody cares if those types get killed, not even their own selves.”

The steaks came—an honest two inches thick and dropping off all the way around the big dinner platters. They were singed outside but bleeding inside—cooked perfect. The mashed potatoes were as white as a new snowfall, and the serving spoon stood up like a soldier at attention in the middle of the bowl. The carrots were soaked with melted butter with a touch of garlic, an’ they tasted just fine.

Lucas wiped his mouth with his sleeve and chuckled.

“What?”

“Ain’t real hard seein’ you et in stir.”

Will was confused for a moment and then looked down at the table and at his right hand. His left arm was wrapped protectively around his plate, his hand in a tight fist. When he used the knife to cut his steak, Lucas saw that the handle was tucked into Will’s palm and that the blade was between his thumb and forefinger, ready to attack in any position.

Will chuckled softly. “Ol’ habits die hard. In Folsom, a man who doesn’t guard his plate is gonna go hungry.”

“You have much trouble inside—sides killin’ that fella?” Lucas asked.

“Everybody has trouble in a prison like Folsom,” Will said. “Some real bad boys in there. Show some weakness an’ you’ll end up bent over a barrel with your drawers down.”

“What about the guards?”

“The screws? They’d be first in line at the barrel.”

Lucas began to speak but stopped. The two men finished their meals and called to Milly for another tray of beer.

“You got somewhere to stay while you’re in Dry Creek?” Lucas asked. “Thing is, I got a decent li’l room up in my hayloft I usta live in fore I was married. It’s got a real bed. It’s a tad warm durin’ the day, but cools down good at night.”

“I’ll take it an’ pay up when I leave. Thanks.”

Lucas wiped foam from his mouth with his sleeve and looked down at the table, avoiding Will’s eyes. “About Hiram’s farm…,” he began.

“What about it?”

“Ain’t no reason to go out there, Will. None ’tall.”

“I gotta pick up a trail somewhere.”

“Nothin’ to pick up,” Lucas said. “We had rain since, and some hard wind. Anyways, the sonsabitches headed forMexicowith the beef, jus’ like they always do.”

“OK.”

“You’re goin’ anyhow, right?”

“Yeah—if you’ll rent me a horse. Slick’s gonna be on vacation for a bit.”

“I don’t have nothin’ with the class of your Appy, but I got a couple head of good horses got some manners an’ will take you where you want to go.”

“Sounds good. Say—ain’t it about time to have us some more beers?”

Some more, my ass.” Lucas grinned. “I’m wantin’ a lot more.”

The ringing and clanging of Lucas’s work the next morning as he shaped a piece of stock felt and sounded like he was using Will’s head for his anvil. “Damn,” he grunted, sitting up very slowly. He noticed he was wearing only his left boot. The right one rested next to the bed. As he leaned forward to tug the boot on, a spinning dizziness captured him. He lowered his head between his knees and sucked in deep drafts of air. Quite slowly the earth ceased spinning. He sat up again, found his hat next to where the boot had been, and put it on. He had no recollection of what had happened after the steak dinner and the ocean of beer he had poured down.

You didn’t quite make it.” Lucas grinned as Will stepped slowly down the ladder. “There’s prolly some beer left in town, an’ last night you swore you was gonna drink all there was.”

Will stumbled to the water barrel, doused his face and head, drank deeply, and then vomited the water next to the barrel. “Damn,” he grumbled, “you musta had as much beer as I did last night, an’ here you are workin’ away, makin’ more goddamn noise than a locomotive hittin’ a brick wall.”

“I’m used to it,” Lucas said. “Hell, you jus’ was sprung from four years in hell. You gotta build up what they call ‘tolerance.’”

Will rolled a smoke with slightly trembling fingers, lit it with a wooden lucifer he snapped to a flame with his thumbnail, and inhaled deeply. “Damn,” he said.

“You’re lookin’ a mite shaky,” Lucas said. “Have you a belt from my bottle an’ you’ll be fine—hair o’ the dog.” Lucas tossed the half-empty quart to Will. Will grimaced but was able to choke down a good slug—and keep it down. The results were almost instantaneous.

“Hard to git it down, but it sure does the job,” Will said. He held his hand in front of him: it was rock steady.

“What’re you gonna do today?” Lucas asked after helping himself to a suck at the bottle.

“Well,” Will said, “I’m gonna buy me a Winchester Model 1873—the .32-caliber, lever-action model—an’ a whole lot of ammunition, an’ then sight her in. I’ll pick up a couple hundred rounds of .45s—Remington, not that army crap. I gotta see can I still draw an’ shoot. It’s been a long goddamn time.”

“That 1873’s a fine rifle,” Lucas said. “They come kinda dear, though.”

“Well, it’ll be the second one I’ve owned. The first one took a round in the lever mechanism that warped it all up the time the law got me. You’re right, though—the ’73’s a hell of a weapon. That first one of mine never jammed or screwed up the six years I carried it. Oh—I need to rent a horse, too.”

Rent, my ass, Will. You paid for all the beer an’ grub last night. That buckskin down at the end stall is a honest horse—he’ll do for you. Toss your rig on him. Take a set of hobbles along—I don’t know how he’ll act when the shootin’ starts.”

Will fetched the buckskin from his stall and put him in crossties. He worked the horse over with a currycomb and brush, checked all four hooves. The gelding was put together nicely: broad chest, slanting pasterns, good-sized rump, and prominent withers. Slick’s saddle fit the buckskin well. Will noticed that the horse didn’t suck air to bloat up a bit when Will pulled the cinches—always the sign of a willing cayuse. Will led him out of the barn, climbed into the saddle, and headed for the mercantile.

The store smelled good, just as most mercantiles did. The scents of leather, gun oil, the tang of the bundles of new shovels, picks, and axes, tobacco, new denim, and the barrels of apples and buffalo jerky combined, merged, into a partnership of promises of new goods that’d get the job done—whatever the job was.

Will knew he was wasting his breath, but he asked the clerk anyway, “I don’t suppose you got a Sharps?”

“Wish I did, but I ain’t,” the shopkeeper said. “What the armies—both sides, mind you—didn’t snap up, the wooly hunters bought.”

“Yeah,” I figured,” Will said, and walked over to a long rack of rifles, his boots loud on the polished wood floor. He pulled out aWinchester’73, held it to his shoulder, worked the lever, and dry-fired it. He put it back and tried another and then another. He settled on the fourth one.

“Somethin’ wrong with them first three you tried?” the clerk asked, curious.

“Not a thing. But this one here feels like it was made for me. That’s somethin’ a man knows when he’s choosin’ a rifle or a pistol. Know what I mean?”

“No,” the clerk admitted, grinning, “but I’ll take your word for it.”

Will bought a couple hundred rounds of .32-caliber cartridges and a hundred .45s for his Colt. He’d been lucky to get his pistol back when he was released from Folsom. Ordinarily, its bone grips and filed-down front sight would have caught a guard’s eye and the pistol and gun belt would have gone home with him. Will’s weapon was buried in a pile of beat-up rifles and shotguns and, beyond being dusty, was in fine shape. He set the rifle on the counter and began to walk the aisles of the mercantile, picking up a good bedroll, a poncho, a nine-inch knife in a sheath to carry in his boot, a little derringer .25 for his vest pocket, four canteens, a handful of stogies, and a few packs of Bull Durham. Finally, he bought a pair of denim pants, a set of long johns, and a good work shirt. The clerk let him change in the back of the store. Will tossed his old clothing into a trash barrel. The pants felt like slabs of wood against his legs, but he knew they’d break in soon enough.

The clerk, grateful for the big sale so early in the day, tossed in a rifle-cleaning kit and a can of gun oil for free. Will paid up and hauled his purchases out to the hitching rail. He tied the bedroll snugly behind the cantle of the buckskin’s saddle, distributed the ammunition into the right and left saddlebags, and slid the rifle into the sheath in front of his right stirrup, where a cowhand would carry his throwing rope. Will had no use for a rope. He led the horse across the street and tied him at the saloon hitching rail.

He had a single belt of whiskey and a mug of beer and bought a sack of empty whiskey bottles from the bartender.

It was a nice enough day for a ride, and the buckskin had a sweet rocking-chair lope that was a pleasure to sit to. Will put maybe six or eight miles between him and Dry Creek and reined in at an outcropping of rocks. He slid the hobbles on the buckskin’s pasterns and, as an extra precaution, tied the reins securely at the base of a stout rock.

The sun was flexing its muscles as Will walked out into the arid land, dropping a bottle here, standing a line of three there, throwing a couple out as far as his arm could hurl them, and dropping others randomly until the sack was empty.

Will already knew that the action of his new Winchesterwas as smooth as the workings of the best regulator clock and that the snick as he worked the lever indicated perfect lubrication. Nevertheless, he levered and dry-fired a few times for the simple joy of using a well-made tool. He loaded the rifle.

Will eased himself down onto the sand in the sit/fire position and fit the butt to his shoulder. The first round he fired spurted grit into the air a couple inches to the left of his intended bottle. The buckskin snapped his head toward Will, eyes wide, but settled down quickly. He’d heard gunfire before. Will used the tip of his sheath knife to adjust the tiny setscrew and fired again. The bottle exploded, spewing bits and shards of glass, glinting like diamonds high into the sky. He blew two bottles apart without removing the butt from his shoulder: the action of flicking the lever was smooth and sure, and his index finger barely moved from the trigger.

He needed the remaining bottles for practice with his Colt. He took some long shots with the rifle, spurting chunks of pulp out of a cholla about seventy-five yards away. With his last two rounds he reached out farther—at least a hundred and twenty-five yards—to a rock he could barely see and punched it twice, the slugs ricocheting into the vastness with a sharp whine. Will held the barrel of the rifle against his cheek: it was warm but far from hot. “Hell of a weapon,” he said aloud, smiling. “I can trim the hair off a flea’s nuts at half a mile with this baby.”

Will stood and meandered off from his sit/fire site, very conscious of the stiffness of his new drawers against his legs. The leather of his holster was warm and slightly oily feeling from the neat’s-foot oil he’d rubbed into it, his gun belt, and the piece of latigo he used to tie the holster to his thigh. The oiliness would dissipate quickly, leaving the leather smooth and supple.

The bone grips of his Colt .45 fit his hand as easily and naturally as the hands of two lovers as they meet. He crouched slightly and drew a dozen or more times, until the process began to feel as effortless as it needed to. He knew he’d lost a little speed, and that a speck of time could kill him. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, walked over to the buckskin, drank a couple sips from his canteen, and poured the rest into his Stetson for the horse.

He worked on his draw an hour without firing a shot, breaking only to build and smoke a cigarette. When a good bit of his confidence had returned he slid a half dozen rounds into the pistol’s cylinder. His first draw and fire brought a curse from him: he’d missed the bottle by four inches. He dropped the pistol back into his holster, let it settle itself, and tried again. He missed by three inches.

“Shit,” he said disgustedly, “I can creep up on it a inch at a time, but there ain’t a lot of gunmen who’ll give me the time.”

Will put perhaps twenty rounds through his Colt before he made a good, solid hit. Grinning, he took out two more bottles, reloaded, and blasted his final target into smithereens. He fired until all he could hear was a buzzing in his ears and his right hand was scored and scraped by blowback. An unlucky rattler chose the wrong time to slide out from a small group of rocks. Will decapitated the snake with a single shot. He stood, pistol hanging at his side, sweat stinging his eyes, and watched as the snake’s mouth on the raggedly severed head opened and snapped shut several times, as if it were attacking an enemy. Amber-colored venom dripped from the sizable fangs.

Time had passed unnoticed. Will was surprised to see the sun beginning to touch the horizon to the west. He loaded and holstered his Colt, slid his rifle into its sheath, removed the hobbles from the buckskin, and rode back to Dry Creek, the image of a cold beer floating in his mind. The horse, too, was anxious to get back to the stable where water, hay, and grain awaited him. Will had to rein him in several times—it was still too damned hot to run a horse unless it was absolutely necessary. He held his mount to a walk the last half mile into town.

Lucas, finished with his day’s work when Will rode in, was sitting on a hay bale with an empty beer bucket next to him. “Damn, boy,” he called out, “I’m hungry ’nuff to eat my saddle an’ thirsty ’nuff to drink the damnPecosdry!”

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Will said with a grin. “Lemme brush out this good horse an’ look to his feed an’ I’ll show you how to eat a steak and drink some beer.”

“I put fresh water, grain, an’ a flake of hay in his stall, Will. All you gotta do is run a brush over him an’ we’re on our way.”

Twenty minutes later the two men were seated at a rickety table on equally rickety chairs in the saloon, each with a schooner in hand and another full one waiting to be imbibed.

“So—how’d the shootin’ go, Will?”

“Piss-poor at first, but then it all started comin’ back to me. Some more practice will help.”

Lucas finished off his first beer and picked up his second. “Was you…I dunno…like a hired gun, ’long with rustlin’?”

Will laughed. “Hell, no. I ain’t a gunfighter, Lucas. I robbed me a couple banks an’ two, three stage coaches, but I give all that up to move cattle. Only thing I was ever caught for was them cattle—that’s why I only drew four years in Folsom.”

“They didn’t tack nothin’ on for killin’ that con?”

“Jus’ the floggin’. The man was bad news—waitin’ to be strung up for rape an’ murder. I saved the prison some money, I guess.”

“You shoulda got a medal ’stead of a beatin’, then.”

“That’s how I see it,” Will laughed. He finished his second beer. “Seems to me it’s your turn to git your ass over to the bar. I’m damn near dyin’ of thirst here.”

Lucas began to stand and then sat back down, his eyes focused over Will’s shoulder. Lucas turned in his chair. A fat man in a dude suit with a watch and chain and polished boots stood a few feet back from Will. His face, as round as a muskmelon, was red, and his bulbous nose had the wandering veins of a heavy boozer. He wore a bowler hat that would have been as handy as teats on a shovel in the sun.

“Mr. William Lewis?” he asked, ignoring Lucas.

Will nodded without speaking.

“I’m Cyrus VanGelder,” the fat man said in a voice that was almost feminine. “I deal in land.”

“Good for you,” Will said. “But I don’t like bein’ disturbed when I’m talkin’ with a friend, and I got no land, anyhow.”

“Ahh, but you have,” VanGelder said. “All the land and property of the late Hiram Lewis, recently deceased, now belongs to you, my friend. I’m prepared to make a very generous off—”

Will moved a bit more in his chair, now facing VanGelder. His fist went out like a piston, burying itself in eight inches of flab at the land speculator’s waist. The fat man landed on his back on the floor and immediately curled into a flaccid ball, clutching his gut, gasping, his face now a pale white.

“You come near me again an’ I’ll show you what a real punch feels like, you fat vulture. That jus’ now wasn’t nothin’ but a little shove.” Will turned his chair back to the table, speaking over Lucas’s laughter. “Now ’bout that trip to the bar—unless you’re scared this lard bucket here’ll take after you, maybe boot you round a bit.”

“I’ll chance it,” Lucas said, “but I’m purely scared, Will.” He shoved his chair out and strolled to the bar. VanGelder managed to get himself up from the floor, still hunched over. “I won’t forget this,” he said, stepping clumsily toward the batwings.

When Lucas returned to the table with a tray of six beers he had a frown on his face.

“You’re lookin’ worried,” Will said.

“Well, maybe I am a tad. See, the thing is VanGelder has a pair of gunhands workin’ for him an’ they’re both bad news—a Mex an’ a Anglo. Both killers. The Mex is the one who gunned the sheriff a while back.” He paused for a moment. “You’d best watch yourself, Will.”

“I always do,” Will grinned. “C’mon—let’s have at those brews.”

Slick was gaining weight and strength daily. Out in the pasture now, he’d established himself as the top gun, and the other horses kept their distance from him, moving away from the water as he approached the trough and grazing with a good bit of ground between themselves and the Appaloosa.

One morning, as Will and Lucas leaned on the pasture fence, Lucas said, “I guess I might owe you a stud fee.”

“How’s that?”

“Yesterday, when you was out shootin’, my bay mare come into strong heat, struttin’ round with her tail up, drippin’ like a leaky roof durin’ a rainstorm. Slick, he figured he’d calm her down some—humped three times that I saw an’ probably a couple more times I didn’t see.”

Will laughed. “Slick likes the ladies OK,” he said. That mare is a real good looker, built nice, handy an’ quick on her feet. If she took, you’ll end up with a hell of a foal.”

“That’s how I see it,” Lucas smiled. “An’ I got no doubt she took, after all the times Slick climbed on her.”

Will rolled a smoke, eyes still on his horse. “I’m gonna bring Slick in today, look him over. If he’s back in shape I’ll ride him out to Hiram’s place.”

Lucas nodded. “I figured that was comin’,” he said. “I guess I can’t talk you outta it.”

“Nope.”

“Gettin’ a li’l weary of pumpin’ lead at rocks an’ suckin’ beer like you done the last week or so?”

Slick, standing in the crossties in the barn, was rock hard and twice as feisty, stomping his hooves, snorting, ready to feel Will’s rig on his back. The new brand was crusted over nicely with no moisture weeping from it. Will filled two of his new canteens and secured them with latigo strings around his horn and saddled the Appaloosa up, slipped the low port bit in his mouth, and led the horse out of the barn. Lucas stood by the pasture fence, chewing on a blade of grass, waiting for the show he was pretty sure would come.

Will stepped into a stirrup, swung aboard—and Slick sunfished, all four hooves off the ground, all his pent-up energy released. He went up again like an unbroken bronc and Lucas yelled out, “whoooo—eeee! Ride ’em, Will!”

Will waved his hat, face showing his joy. “Mr. Blacksmith,” he yelled, “you tol’ me this horse was broke when I bought him off ya!”

“Well,” Lucas called, laughing, “kinda green broke. Give him eight, ten years an’ he’ll calm right down.”

Will allowed Slick to play for a few more moments and then reined him in. He waved to Lucas and set out at a quick jog toward what had been his brother’s home—and that of his brother’s wife and twin daughters.

Slick shook his head, trying to get under the bit. Tired of wrestling with him, Will gave him all the rein he wanted. The Appaloosa surged ahead as if he’d been fired from a cannon and was in a full gallop within a bit of a second. Chunks of dirt and grass leaped into the air from under all four hooves as Slick stretched out and poured on all the power and speed he had. As it always did, the rush of pure strength and willingness of the animal at speed cleared Will’s mind of everything but the hot wind whipping his face, the smooth pumping of Slick’s shoulders, and the sensation of flying rather than riding.

Will checked the horse after most of a mile, tapping lightly at his mouth with the bit to slow him from the headlong gallop. Slick, initial burst expended, slowed to an easy lope, his chest and flanks breaking sweat.

TheWest Texassun beat down on man and horse as if it had a personal vendetta against them. Will shared his first canteen with his horse and rode on.

The first indication Will had that he’d come upon his brother’s ranch was a tall pile of rough-cut fence posts and two coils of barbed wire. One of the top posts had an arrow sticking in it, surrounded by a dinner-plate-sized scorch mark. Maybe because the posts were too green, the intended fire never got started. In the distance Will saw a stone fireplace and chimney standing guard over the rubble around it.

The house hadn’t been large—probably two bedrooms and a loft above. There’d been a porch around the front, and part of an overturned rocker lay on the burned surface. Pieces of glass sparkled in what would have been the inside of the house, no doubt from Sarah’s canned fruits and vegetables exploding in the conflagration. There was no discernable furniture: all the wood and fabric must have been consumed by the fire. A singed arm and hairless head of a rag doll protruded from under a collapsed, burned-through loft beam. A cluster of wires and burned wood confused Will at first. Then he saw the few piano keys that had partially survived. A lump rose in his throat, making breathing difficult. He wiped his face on a sleeve and swung Slick to the barn, a couple hundred feet from where the house had stood. There was next to nothing left of it. Will figured Hiram must have had his first cutting of hay in for the summer—and hay burns as readily as gunpowder.

Grass was already growing well on the six mounds off to the side of the wreckage of the barn—four large mounds and two small ones. Will sat and stared at the overgrown little hills until Slick began to dance nervously, not understanding the strange, choking sounds coming from his owner.

Will swung his horse away from the barn and house and rode toward Dry Creek.

Lucas was whacking away at a horseshoe on his anvil. When he was satisfied with the shape he looked up at Will.

I’ll be headin’ out in the morning,” Will said. “I figure to buy you one of them steak dinners an’ all the beer you can drink as a send-off tonight.” He held out five gold eagles to the blacksmith. “This oughta take care of your work on Slick an’ his feed an’ the rent on the room.”

“Bullshit,” Lucas said. “I don’t take money from friends—an’ that’s what you are, Will. A friend. Plus, looks like I got a prime foal outta the deal if my mare took good, an’ I think she did. So put your money away.”

Will had anticipated just such a reaction. Five gold eagles rested on the table next to the bed in the hayloft, along with a note that read, “Thanks, Lucas. See you soon, my friend. Will Lewis (of the H&W Cattle Ranch).”

The steaks that evening were prime—thick, juicy, and perfectly cooked. The beer was bitter cold and tasted sharply of hops—the kind of beer a man could drink all night and thoroughly enjoy each and every glug. When they’d finished their meal, Lucas handed over a bill of sale with a crude map drawn on the blank side, showing a few towns and the spot he figured One Dog would swing across the river and intoMexico. Will studied it carefully. “What’re these round things?” he asked.

“Water. Ain’t much of it out there. Far as I know, these here got at least a trickle year-round.”

“Good. Thanks.” He folded the map carefully and put it in his shirt pocket. “What say we belly up to the bar? This brew is tastin’ awful good.”

They’d barely slurped the snow white foam off their first beers at the bar when a voice cut through the saloon chatter and the drunken laughter.

“Weeel Leweees!”

Will tuned slowly, stepping away from the bar. There were two men facing him from about eight feet away. The speaker was Mexican, with long, greasy hair and a drooping mustache that hung two inches below his jaw. He was tall for a Mex—maybe five feet ten—and his holster, tied low on his thigh, held a Colt .45. “You have someteeng my fren’ Meester VanGelder wants. Meester VanGelder, he always gets what he wants.”

The second man was white, short, and scruffy, looking like a cowhand at the end of a drive, except for his tied-down holster. He took a couple steps to the side of his partner.

“Back away, Lucas,” Will said quietly. “You ain’t armed, an’ this is my fight.”

“But—”

“Do it!”

Lucas reluctantly stepped toward the end of the bar.

“Your friend VanGelder is a fat, cowardly pig, an’ you two sows look like you came from the same litter,” Will said in almost a conversational tone of voice. “You got something to take care of with me, let’s get to it. If not, get out an’ don’t bother me.”

The Mexican’s eyes were coal black and glistened like those of a snake. “You make beeg talk,” he snarled, “but now you die. No?” His hand swept to the grips of his pistol.

Will drew and fired twice before the Mexican cleared leather. Both rounds took the man midchest, hurling him back onto a table, which collapsed under his weight. The other was leveling his pistol at Will when Will’s third round plowed a hole in his throat. Blood spurted a foot from his neck and his gun dropped to the floor. He collapsed slowly, clenching his neck, making a liquid, gurgling sound. He was dead before he hit the floor.

There was utter and complete silence in the saloon for a long moment. Then, one of the men who’d scurried away from the bar whispered, “Holy shit.”

Will nodded to the bartender. “Draw us a couple of buckets of beer an’ we’ll drink by ourselves, somewheres else. Tell you the truth, some of your customers kinda piss me off.”

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5 Responses to Western Wednesdays—BAD MEDICINE + Giveaway

  1. Craig Clarke says:

    Bagdon is great, though he can lay the dialect on a little thick at times.

    • Allison Carroll, Editorial and Web Coordinator says:

      Well then, Craig, it’s a good thing you won this Western Wednesday giveaway and not Rio Loco:) Your prize is in the mail—have a great weekend!
      Best,
      Allison Carroll
      Dorchester Publishing

  2. Estella says:

    Have not read this author yet.

  3. Brett Hill says:

    Back in the saddle again… Nice read!

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