Western Wednesdays—DARK VOYAGE OF THE MITTIE STEPHENS

I have to be honest, I chose today’s book solely because of its title. While not nearly the cardinal sin as judging a book by its cover (and I know I’m not the only one who does that), I do feel a little guilty. However, I have to say that the book lived up to its ominous and intriguing title. Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens by Johnny D. Boggs pulled me in from the get go just as I’m sure it will you. Enjoy everyone!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Creeping clouds blanketed the bright moon like a shroud, covering the City of the Dead in darkness. The deep blackness came as an answer to Bobby Randow’s prayer as he squeezed between two tombs, one granite, the other marble, and tried to catch his breath, afraid the men trying to kill him would hear his heart pounding. Gripping the butt of the Dance revolver in his right hand, Randow listened, chancing a quick glance skyward, knowing the clouds would soon pass, and the cemetery would be bathed in moonlight.

He’d die here in this century-old, above-ground graveyard, die in the midnight fog, die violently and alone, and no monument would note his passing, no newspaper would publish his obituary. No one would know he was dead, not even his mother, except his killers—and the catfish feeding on his remains after his murderers disemboweled him, filled his insides with stones, and sank his corpse into the Mississippi or Pontchartrain.

Well, it was his own fault. No one else to blame. He had tossed in his ante in a crooked game because of greed, decided to become a criminal instead of a wandering gambler, justified it with claims that the Yankees owed him plenty for four years of suffering, for the deaths of his father and brother. $100,000 in gold had lured him, but some deep-seated honesty, or the quiet Episcopal morality inherited from his father, had broken its spell, and he had tried to back out of this deal. Randow could have left New Orleans, simply slithered out of the city like a serpent, and would have been sitting in the saloon on a stern-wheeler heading upriver now, dealing draw poker, but he had decided to face his comrades, tell them why he wasn’t going through with the plan. Southern pride. Texas stubborn streak. Lunacy. Whatever the reason, it had likely gotten him killed.

He had known that was coming, too. That’s why he had cleaned and loaded the revolver before leaving his hotel, why he had placed six percussion caps on the Dance. Most men, scared of blowing off a toe, kept the nipple underneath a revolver’s hammer naked. The memory caused him to check the pistol by feel, for the night remained black. His thumb rested on the cocked hammer, finger twitching inside the trigger guard. He had fired three rounds, put two bullets in Victor Desiderio’s stomach when the shooting commenced, sent another shot chasing three other killers. Or had he pulled the trigger four times? He bit his bottom lip, tried to concentrate. His memory kept fading. He. . . .

Hushed voices. Moments later, footsteps tapped the stones lining the cemetery’s path near Randow’s sanctuary. Then silence.

Randow lifted the .44 and waited. The clouds cleared, and the moon, just a couple of days past full, soaked the thickening fog and cold, damp houses of the dead. He pressed his body against the granite tomb, and pushed wet bangs off his forehead. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his hat.

“There he is!” A bullet’s whine followed the shout. Randow crouched, pivoted, and answered the shot, firing blindly. Two rounds left.

“There!”

“I saw it.”

Too late he realized his error. They hadn’t seen him, couldn’t have, until he panicked, and they spotted the muzzle flash. It had been a bluff, not even a good one if he had played his hand smart, shown a fip’s worth of patience. Rifles cracked repeatedly, lead chipping the marble tomb, ricocheting off it and the granite over his head, behind him, in front of him, peppering the cramped quarters, and a fear swallowed him that he had not felt since 1862, when he had been caught in the federal enfilade at Corinth. Death had hovered near him that day, and again this night. Instinctively Randow covered his face with his arms, although only the grace of God could protect him now.

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Western Wednesdays—OPEN RANGE by Lauran Paine

I have to admit, I saw the movie Open Range before I ever read the book by Lauran Paine. In my opinion, the film was successful in many ways in adapting the source material to the big screen. But, Lauran Paine is Lauran Paine. He’s a hell of a storyteller. His books have a rhythm all their own, and his words create a unique experience that film simply can’t replicate. I’m previewing two chapters of Open Range today because, well,  I’m of the opinion that the more time spent with Paine’s characters, the better.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

A Gray World

Everything had a uniform drabness: the sky, the earth, and everything in between was gray. Sudden downpours from squall winds added to the dreary sameness. Even glimpses of some distant mountains showed them also to be gray.

The old wagon blended into the gloominess. There was a waterproofed texas someone had made by raising a pole underneath the cloth, high in the center so water would run downward instead of accumulating in the center of the top, causing a hazardous sag. There was a shallow shovel-width trench completely around the wagon, which carried off most of the water. The ground beneath the texas was wet but not soggy.

Everything seasoned rangemen could do to mitigate wetness had been done, but after the second day of steady rainfall nothing could keep the moisture out completely. Even the air inside the wagon was damp.

There had been very little warning. One night when the men bedded down they saw a few fleecy clouds in the sky. The clouds looked soiled around the edges but they were not numerous. Sometime during the night the storm had arrived. Its intensity gradually built up from one of those customary summer showers that cattlemen welcomed until it became a genuine gully washer that had not slackened for two days and nights.

The cattle were out there, invisible to the range-men whenever the cattle were more than a hundred yards away. The same with the horses—two half-ton bay harness animals and eight saddle horses.

This kind of a storm, out in the middle of a thousand miles of rolling-to-flat grassland with a monotonous view in all directions, had an effect on men whose thoughts, habits, and customs had made them individuals who coveted wide open spaces. Suddenly the weather had forced their horizons to shrink way back to the perimeter of the old wagon, along with most of their activities. By the second day of the downpour they had gone from inhabitants of an almost limitless world to being prisoners of an area no more than sixty feet long by about twelve feet wide.

They played poker with a greasy and dog-eared deck of cards. They slept as often as they cared to. They talked about other times, other places, other people and events. Finally, they took to smoking beneath the texas, coat collars turned up, shirts closed all the way to the gullet, hat brims pulled in front and back so water could run off down the sides. The rangemen buckled their chaps into place, leaving the part below the knee swinging free, because leather kept water out, for a while anyway.

The eldest of them was Boss Spearman. Sixty-odd years earlier his mother had named her beautiful little chubby baby boy Bluebonnet because his eyes were the color of the flower, but no one had called him anything but Boss for about half a century.

His mother wouldn’t have recognized him now. Boss was a little under six feet tall, lean, scarred, lined, craggy with a shock of rarely combed iron-gray hair. Like all orphaned Texans left on their own in the wake of a ruinous war, Boss Spearman had reached manhood by clawing his way. Whatever was said about him, he was resourceful. He was taciturn among townfolks and strangers, and he was as shrewd as they came, tough and sinewy. His thoughts, movements, and actions were those of a much younger man.

The youngest of the rangemen was a waif called Button, which was a common name for youngsters. Boss and Charley Waite had rescued Button from an alley fight where townsmen in western New Mexico had pitted him against another boy and placed bets on the outcome. Button was getting whipped to a frazzle when Boss and Charley broke it up and took him out to the wagoncamp with them.

Now Button was sixteen, doing a man’s work in a man’s world, growing like a weed, thin as a rail, with hair the color of dirty straw.

Charley had trailed cattle west with Boss Spearman. He was a little less than average in height, had muscle packed inside a powerful frame, had dark hair and eyes, and could do something few other men ever learned. He could rope equally well with either hand. Charley’s full name was Charles Travis Postelwaite. Before he’d reached twenty he shortened it to Charley Waite. He looked to be about forty-five but in fact was thirty-five.

The last of them was well over six feet tall and weighed better than two hundred pounds. He had nondescript dark hair and deep-set gray eyes, a wide mouth, and scars. His name was Mosely Harrison. They called him Mose.

Big Mose, leaning against the tailgate beneath the canvas, was the first to see the rent in the sky far eastward and say, “It’s goin’ to break up. Look yonder.”

But the storm didn’t break up. Not for another twenty-four hours, and then it ended the same way it had arrived, silently in the soggy night. When they rolled out in the morning to get a cooking fire started with damp wood, there was only a misty dampness to the air. The downpour had stopped.

For another few days, though, the ground would be too treacherous underfoot to do much, and there were seepage springs everywhere that underlying layers of rock would not allow water to penetrate.

Charley was frying sidemeat. The old pot held the last of their coffee. When the others squatted to eat in silence, Charley rationed out soggy fried spuds, meat, and three baking-powder biscuits to each plate. He sat down with his tin dish. “Nice little rain,” he said. “Grass’ll be strong all the way into July maybe.”

No one else spoke. They chewed, swallowed, and raised more food to their mouths. They washed the food down with the coffee, then put the tin cups and plates aside to roll smokes. The smoking was a ritual. It signified something: the end of a meal, the end of a day, the spiritual or philosophical girding up for something ahead. Maybe a self-reward for having survived a particular event.

Boss tipped ash into the little fire. “My maw used to say don’t anything happen it don’t bring some good with it.” He pointed with his cigarette hand. They’d been having trouble with the wagon’s wheels through a month of hot weather. “Them tires and spokes and felloes is as tight as when they was new.”

The next morning the sun arrived, huge and orange-yellow with a single cloud in its path toward the meridian. An hour later the ground steamed; the men shed coats and still sweated. They loafed around the wagon doing minor chores until the kid found the horses. One horse anyway. He’d gone out on foot with a bridle draped from one shoulder and a lariat in his right hand.

Boss walked out a ways, remained out there for a while, then returned to lean on the tailgate, scraping mud off his boots as he said, “Not a sight of anything. I got a feeling we’re going to set right here for maybe a week before we find all those damned cattle.”

Mose Harrison was rubbing mold off a saddle fender. “If the ground was harder, we could take the wagon wherever the cattle are instead of was-tin’ days finding them and driving them back here.”

Boss gazed at the hulking man. “Yeah,” he said dryly. “If. All my life it’s been, If.”

Charley went up front where the wagon tongue was held off the ground by a little wooden horseshoe keg. He sat up there until he saw distant movement, then returned to the tailgate area. “He caught one.”

Boss finished cleaning off the mud and pitched the twig into the dying coals of their breakfast fire. “You want to find the other one, Charley?”

When Button finally got back, mud to the knees and leading a roman-nosed, rawboned big sorrel horse with feet the size of dinner plates, Charley went out with an old croaker sack to dry off the animal’s back before saddling up.

The heat had been steadily, muggily building up for over two hours. It would have helped if there had been a little air stirring, but the air was stone-still. Visibility, however, was excellent as Charley reined away heading on an angling northwesterly course. Because there were no tracks, finding any animals would be by sight alone.

They would eventually find them. They’d been through worse situations than this many times. Grazing cattle constantly moved, and this sooner or later brought rangemen face to face with just about every inconvenience or obstacle nature or man could devise.

It was simply a matter of finding which way the cattle had drifted, with their heads down and their rumps to the force of the storm.

What made it unlikely that Charley Waite would find the cattle soon was the duration of the storm. The cattle could drift one hell of a distance in two days.

The roman-nosed horse sweated even at a steady walk. Charley did too. So did the ground, but its sweat was a rising faint mist as hot sunlight cooked soggy earth.

There was a lot of territory on all sides. The only barrier was a range of haze-distanced mountains to the north. They seemed to form around the big prairie in a long-spending curve, like a huge horseshoe.

There were no signs of two-legged life, but there were plenty of pronghorns and deer. Charley came up over a landswell and startled a young, tawny yellow cougar eating a rabbit. They looked at each other in surprise for a couple of seconds before the cat broke away with his belly hairs scraping the ground as he fled eastward. Charley could have shot him. He had his saddlegun along. Instead he turned northward along the rise and stood in his stirrups seeking movement. A rising heat haze shortened visibility a little but he could still see for miles.

The land was empty.

He zigzagged over a mile or two looking for tracks. When he found them, finally, he was about ten miles from camp. From this point on he followed cow sign toward those distant mountains. The cattle would not have got that far, but he loped a little anyway. He needed reassurance that they hadn’t got up in there, because if they had, it was going to be hard work finding them and driving them back to open country.

The mountains did not seem to be getting any closer no matter how far he rode toward them. What he sought was a sighting or, failing that, the scent of cattle.

What he found was a big calf lying dead. Squawking buzzards surrounded the corpse, too engrossed in feeding to notice his approach until he was close enough to yell and startle them. Most of the birds ran along the ground to get airborne, but several ignored the proximity of the man to tear at the carcass, too hungry to depart immediately.

They finally left when Charley was about a hundred feet from the carcass. He rode closer, sat his saddle studying the dead calf, trying to figure out what had killed it. He gave up on that because the body had been torn and dragged until there was little semblance of its original self. Charley rode northward on the wide, perfectly visible trail of a lot of cattle.

He had not found the brand back there. If he’d cared to dismount and roll the carcass over to expose the right side, he probably could have found it. Boss Spearman, for some private reason, used one C-iron to make three letter Cs on the right rib cage of his cattle. Charley Waite had been with Spearman six years and still did not know what the three Cs stood for.

Some coyotes appeared through stirrup-high grass following the scent of blood. Charley saw them, then lost them, only to see them again in other places. He thought there were about fifteen of the varmints. There was no doubt about what they were seeking and would ultimately find. When that happened the buzzards would leave, and would stay away.

With the sun coming down the far side of heaven to make Charley tip down his hat to protect his eyes, he finally detected dark movement far ahead.

The cattle.

By count there were supposed to be four hundred cows, mostly wet ones with sassy-fat calves, along with about two hundred and fifty big marketable steers and something like fifteen bulls, a bigger ratio than most cattlemen used. But then, most cattlemen had particular ranges; their cows were not always moving.

Charley turned back, satisfied with this part of his mission. Now he concentrated on locating the horses. With them a man could never be as certain of eventual success. True, there had been no lightning and thunder to spook them out of the country, but they could still be a long way off.

Chapter Two

Getting Back to Normal

He found the horses by riding the course of a crooked creek that had the only tree shade for many miles. The horses were absorbing filtered sunshine while simultaneously stamping and flailing their tails at myriads of flying insects.

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ReCOVERy Room: HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON’S WEB

Click for original cover copy.

Bring some adventure to your Monday with this week’s ReCOVERy Room featuring the action-packed Hunt Through Napoleon’s Web by Gabriel Hunt. The crew at Dorchester tested this one out at lunch, and I have to say it got a little crazy. But I guess that will happen when people start throwing out fictional places for geographic locations (but really, who didn’t want to travel to Middle Earth and Narnia when they were kids?). Take a stab at it with your lunchmates and see where the road takes you!

Cheers,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

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Hunt Through Napoleon’s Web ReCOVERy Room PDF

Western Wednesdays—GALLOWS by Robert J. Randisi

There’s not many who could ride into danger as calm and collected as Robert J. Randisi’s iconic hero, Lancaster. But Lancaster’s found trouble he’s not yet known when he comes to the aid of a widow in Gallows. While his actions are on the side of the law, those sworn to uphold the law have their own corrupt interests—interests that have Lancaster facing the hangman’s noose. Preview the first two chapters below!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Lancaster spotted the house and felt lucky. His horse was in need of water and some rest. He’d passed a sign post a few miles back that told him he was twenty miles from the town of Gallows, but the horse was worn out. All he needed was a couple of hours and then he could make the rest of the trip.

There was a well right outside the house, but he knew how people were about their water, especially on a small spread. He needed to get permission from the owner before he tried to use it. He’d seen men die over less than a bucket of water. He also noticed that there were three horses tied off in front of the house. He didn’t know what he was riding into. All the more reason to ride into it carefully.

He wanted his horse to walk slowly toward the water, but the animal could smell it and was headstrong to get to it. Lancaster took strong hold of the reins, though, and kept the animal from rushing in. They could wait the few minutes it would take to find the owner.

As he approached the house, though, the feeling of luck quickly turned to something else as the door to the house opened and three men dragged a dark-haired woman outside with them.

“Bitch!” one of them shouted. “I never did trust her.”

“We’ll make her pay now,” another man said.

They dragged her toward the well. Lancaster wondered whether they were intending to throw her in. He found it odd that while the men were shouting at her, cursing and taunting her, the woman was not resisting, and was not making a sound. Then again, she probably felt that, as outnumbered as she was, it was futile to fight them.

All three men were wearing trail clothes, minus hats, and were carrying sidearms. If he intervened on behalf of the woman he was going to have to be ready to deal with three armed men. On the other hand, he didn’t have much of a choice. He couldn’t just watch them chuck her down the well, or worse, kill her.

He gigged his horse and trotted the last fifty feet, which brought him right up to them. At the sound of the horse the three men stopped and looked at him. They all released the woman, who slumped to the ground. Lancaster could see that her eyes were open, but he took his eyes away from her and put them on the three men. Looking at the woman too long could end up getting him killed.

“Looks like some excitement,” Lancastersaid. “Mind if I water my horse before you finish up?”

“Get outta here, mister,” one of the men said. “This ain’t none of your business.”

“I know that,” Lancastersaid, “I was just asking to water my horse.”

“Go water it someplace else,” the second man told him.

“Where’s the nearest water after here?” he asked.

“A town called Gallows,” the third man said, “’bout fifteen miles.” He was the youngest of the three, maybe twenty. The other two gave him annoyed looks.

“Fifteen miles,” Lancastersaid. “See, that’s too far. My horse needs some water now. If you’ll just let me water him, I’ll be on my way and you can finish.”

The three men exchanged glances. The woman moaned once, but Lancaster didn’t risk a look at her. The men all turned to face Lancaster squarely. Any chance he had at surprising them was gone. In the old days he would have rode in with his gun blazing. But no…in the old days he would have waited at a distance for them to finish and then watered his horse.

The old days were gone, though. Even though the old ways may have been easier.

He wasn’t the old Lancaster, anymore.

Lancaster turned his horse slightly to the left, exposing his right side to the three men, but keeping his horse’s head from being a factor when he had to snake his own gun.

“What do you boys have against the lady, anyway?” he asked.

“We told ya,” the first man said, “this ain’t none of your affair. Now ride off before ya get hurt.”

“I’d really like to oblige you boys and ride off, but my horse has already caught the scent of that water. I don’t think I could get him away from here if I tried.”

The woman moaned at that point and the oldest of the men kicked her lightly in the ribs and said, “Shut up. We’ll get back to you in a minute, bitch.”

“Hey, come on,” Lancaster said. “That’s really no way to treat a lady.”

Lancaster noticed that the youngest of the three kept looking down at the woman. He was the last one he’d have to worry about. The oldest man had taken the time to kick the woman in the ribs. It was the middle man, the one who kept his eyes onLancaster, that he was going to have to worry about first.

“Mister—” the oldest man said, and then drew his gun.

Lancaster drew and fired. Despite the fact that the oldest man cleared leather first, Lancaster still shot the middle man first. He caught him bringing his gun up. The bullet hit the man in the chest. The man stepped back, tripped over the fallen woman and went down on his back.

The oldest man was bringing his gun to bear as Lancaster snapped off his second shot. As he did so he slid out of the saddle, falling behind his horse. He was hoping to get off a shot underneath the animal but the oldest man, as he fell to his death, managed to squeeze off a wild shot that hit the horse with a perfect killing shot. It was all Lancaster could do to roll away and keep from being pinned.

The youngest man had been startled by the gunplay and went for his gun way too late.

“Don’t do it!” Lancaster yelled at him, getting to one knee.

The young man paid him no mind, probably didn’t even hear the warning because of the blood pounding in his ears. Lancaster had to choice but to shoot him, which he did. He managed to dispatch all three men with three shots, which was the kind of shooting that had made his reputation many years ago, when he was plying his trade as a killer for hire.

“Damn it, I told you not to!” he shouted as the boy fell onto his face.

Lancaster got to his feet and quickly approached the fallen men, kicking their pistols away just in case, but he needn’t have bothered.

They were all dead.

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ReCOVERy Room: PRESSURE by Jeff Strand

Click for original cover copy.

If you have ever read anything by Jeff Strand, be it a full-length horror novel or a short blog post on his Gleefully Macabre website, then you know how funny this man is—dark and twisted, but funny. Pressure, one of Strand’s earlier works, is shocking, gruesome, horrifying (of course), and emotionally memorable. And so it is a tall order today for you folks at home to work your own flavor into this book’s cover copy. Today’s ReCOVERy Room proudly challenges you to reinvent Jeff Strand’s Pressure in eight lines. I think you’re up for it.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Cheers,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

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Pressure ReCOVERy Room PDF

Travel into the future this New Year

While I hope no one celebrates this New Year’s Eve to the point that they do a little time traveling of their own, I do want to wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year. Blackouts aside, time travel is a mystery that we as a society dream about unraveling. So, it’s not surprising that the creative and talented authors of the romance genre have toyed with the concept, weaving adventure and intrigue, love and romance into stories built around this science fiction concept. Afer all, what’s more intriguing than a man from another time, or even another world?

While every author approaches the theory of time travel differently, from time machines to magical spells, they all seem to know how to have fun with the idea and, as always, root the story in the emotional journey of its heroes. Let yourself get carried away in these awe-inspiring, emotionally fierce love stories that transcend time. Literally.

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Click here to view Dorchester’s selection of time travel romances.

Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW LAWMAN by Paul Bagdon

Outlaw Lawman is a book that swept me up in the first chapter. The scene is set so perfectly, I felt as though I was there beside Bagdon’s enigmatic hero Pound as he rode into the unruly bordertown of Gila Bend, his true motives hidden from the reader, and perhaps even himself. The cast of characters that you meet in this excerpt only hint at the depth and complexity of the story to come.  If you want to feel the heat and the sweat, taste the dust in your mouth, hear the desolate sounds of an outlaw town, be transported to the Old West, then this is the book for you.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

I heard the baseball game before I even drew close to it: men whooping and yelling, guns firing, the occasional series of curse words that reached me even over the distance. A sign on a stout fence post told me I was in—or coming into—Gila Bend.

I topped an easy rise and looked directly down at the game. A fat man was at bat. The pitcher gave him a good throw, and the fat man swung hard and arced the ball over the pitcher’s head and into the outfield. It looked like an easy single, even though the heavy man waddled rather than ran. When he reached first base, the baseman swung at him, connected with his chin, and dropped him there in the dust, unconscious. A mixture of cheers and boos sounded as the fat man’s pals dragged him off to the side.

The runner who’d been on second base took off for third as soon as the fat man connected with the ball. The third baseman covered his base—blocked it, actually—and held a thick piece of a tree branch. The runner dove at the baseman, and the two of them rolled about in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust, punching, gouging, biting, and cursing. The runner managed to wrestle the club away from the baseman and beat him unconscious with it. At the same time, the runner who’d been on third was digging for home plate, running hard, knees pumping, head down, arms flailing. It was then that a loop sailed out from the group of observers. Whoever he was, he was one hell of a roper. His loop was small—exactly the right size to drop over the runner’s head and stop him very quickly—so quickly, in fact, that the wet snap of his neck was easily audible over the rest of the racket of the game.

If the baseball game was a fuse, the fight that followed was the explosion. Two masses of bellowing, drunken men met about midfield, swinging, kicking, and in some cases, shooting.

I’d seen lots of bar fights, more than a few gunfights where the loser ended up dead, but I’d never seen anything like this before. Baseball can raise a man’s ire, and a little pushing and maybe slugging is to be expected during a game, particularly when most or all of the players were drunk.

But damn: shooting a base runner? Snapping a fellow’s neck with a lariat? Anybody who threw a loop the way that cowboy had could have widened it a foot or so and made his catch around the runner’s middle.

My horse was getting antsy under me, catching the scent of the horses staked and hobbled down by the game. A slug whispered by my head, then another. A man never forgets that sound once he’s heard it, and I’ve heard it too many times to sit around and wait to hear it again. I heeled my good bay horse into a gallop, swinging back down below the rise, and made a big half circle around the baseball game. From there it was easy enough to follow wagon tracks and hoofprints to Gila Bend.

I swung off the tracks and rode a half mile or so out onto the prairie. The money in my saddlebags was in those waterproof canvas sacks banks and large mercantiles use. I triangulated a nice little rock outcropping with a pair of desert pines, moved some rocks around, and stashed my money. Then I went on back to the trail that led to Gila Bend.

The town looked like most of the little Texas towns of the time—splintered, unpainted wood buildings; hand-painted signs; and the usual array of businesses: a stable, a mercantile, five saloons, a restaurant, a furniture maker/embalmer/mortician, and what may or may not have been at one time a church. It’d been burned, but it looked as though some of the chairs inside may once have been pews.

There were two or three horses tied in front of each gin mill and a few men walking, going into the mercantile or a saloon. Every man I saw was carrying a sidearm, and some carried two.

Some of the men were wearing those big broad hats—sombreros—and I knew for an absolute fact that any cowhand, drifter, saddle-tramp gambler—any American at all—would prefer to have his head broiled over a campfire like chicken than wear one of those Mex hats.

Without being obvious about it, I looked more closely at some of the men under sombreros. I was certain that looking too long at any man in Gila Bend was a bad idea. There was no doubt the fellows were Mexicans.

I was real unclear as to where I was, Texas or Mexico. I figured that in a hellhole like Gila Bend, it didn’t much matter.

I put my horse up at the stable, had new shoes put on him all the way ’round, and paid in advance for a double scoop of crimped oats daily, plus all the good hay he wanted. That horse had done some hard and long traveling, and he more than deserved a respite, some good grub, and some time out from under the saddle.

I walked down the rutted street past the first saloon I came to. The beer and booze were singing out to me, but I kept walking. I was looking for a specific and recognizable man, and I knew I’d eventually find him.

I walked by what had once been a sheriff’s office. The front door was battered and broken and hung from its top hinge. It was riddled with bullet holes, too. I looked inside as I walked by. There was an overturned rolltop desk that was partially burned. A cut chain hung from what had obviously been a rifle cabinet. There was a Stetson on the floor near the desk with several bullet holes in it and flaking, dried blood around the holes. It’d probably been a fine hat at one time; Stetson didn’t make junk.

There’s always at least one of the bar-rags I was looking for in Texas towns; I figured Gila Bend would have a couple of them—Mexican or Texan—and perhaps three. They were hardcore drunks, who, since they were incapable of working and too stupid to steal, spent their days cadging or begging drinks. Sometimes they exchanged good information for a belt of redeye and a schooner of beer. Often the information was mindless babble or pure fabrication; once in a while it was good.

I almost passed a barber shop, but then took a couple of steps back and entered. A bath was thirty cents, which was kind of steep. The shave and the haircut came to two bits.

The barber was a surly oaf who smelled of pomade, talcum powder, and stale beer. Usually those fellows would talk your ear off about nothing, but this guy was an exception. He grunted every so often as he went about his work but said not a word. When we evened up, I added a nickel tip, which was customary.

The barber’s eyes opened wide in a parody of joyous surprise. “Hot goddamn!” he said. “Now I can buy me a few hundred acres of good land and a thousand head of prime, fat beef, an’ maybe even a runnin’ horse, an’ make yet more money!”

I took the nickel back from the counter and put it in my pocket. “Hey, Mr. …” he began angrily.

“Another word and I’ll step on your goddamn face real hard, you pile of shit,” I said. The barber snorted and glared but didn’t say anything.

I stood there a moment, trying to convince myself that doing what I had in mind made no sense at all. I couldn’t do it. There was a shelf behind the barber chair that held maybe ten or so bottles of various stuff—cologne and such. I drew and blew the living piss out of six of them. The barber had hit the floor and was curled into a ball like a dung beetle. I stood there while I reloaded and then went on my way.

There was a burned-out building next to the barber shop and the next business was a saloon with a broad, poorly lettered sign over its batwings that said BAR—DRINK.  Just outside was where the bar-rag latched on to me.

“Ahh, my good friend,” he slurred as he stepped in front of me from where he’d been standing just outside the saloon. The man was a textbook illustration of what constant drunkenness, dissolution, malnutrition, and general booze-generated stupidity could do to a fellow. The poor sonofabitch wasn’t worth the bullet it’d take to put him out of his misery.

“You looking for a drink?” I asked.

“I don’t generally imbibe spirits, but I see that you’re new in Gila Bend, and I’ll be pleased to join you—on you, of course.”

I was more than a tad astonished at how well this rummy spoke. I pushed through the batwings and held one side open for the man. As he passed me, I got a closer look at him. His hair was gray—he wore no hat—and it seemed to have fallen out in lumps, leaving deathly pallid patches of scalp behind. It seemed to me that he was too gaunt to live; his wrists were like sticks, and his neck was so thin that his Adam’s apple appeared to be the size of a ripe melon. He wore a work shirt that at one time must have belonged to a shorter man—the cuffs barely passed his elbows. His coveralls—large enough to accommodate three men his size—hung from his shoulders like drapes. His feet were bare and horrible to look upon; the nails of his toes were long and a vomit-yellow hue, and the grime on his ankles and the upper length of his foot would be impossible to remove. It was part of his flesh, part of his being. The stench of his body was bad; I gagged as he walked past me. He smelled dead—long dead.

I picked up two schooners of beer, two shot glasses, and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and carried all that on a tray to where my new colleague was sitting at a table. “My name’s Pound,” I said. “Yours?”

“I’m called Calvin,” he said, “although various bartenders and others have different names for me—bad names, names that sometimes hurt.”

I couldn’t help asking, “Then why not crawl out of the bottle and do something with yourself?”

Calvin poured a shot with a trembling hand, spilling as much booze on the table as he got into the shot glass. He drained his schooner in one long, gulping, gasping swallow. He followed the beer immediately with the shot. “’Cause I don’t want to,” he said. “Bein’ a bar-rag suits me. It ain’t the noblest of professions, but it works for me.”  He refilled his shot glass with considerable less shaking this time and dumped it down, smacking his lips as if he’d just had a bite of a crisp, tart apple. “I suspect you’re looking for information—or did you set up drinks to ask me the name of my tailor?”

I poured myself a shot. “Tell me about Gila Bend,” I said.

“It got started maybe twenty years ago when a fat vein of silver was struck. The vein didn’t play out, neither. It’s a little harder to get to these days, but she’s still there. ‘Course that strike brought lots of others: miners, gamblers, men running from the law, drifters still wearing Reb uniforms, whores, gunfighters, storekeepers, saloons, an’ so forth, just like any burg built on gold or silver does.”

“Why’d they name it Gila Bend?”

“’Cause there was a gila setting right where a miner hit the strike.”

“Let me ask you this: are we in Texas or Mexico?”

“Calvin laughed. “Texas—not that it matters much. You could throw a stone from here to Mexico.”

“What about the law here?”

Calvin grimaced and spat on the floor. “Shit,” he said, “you might have seen the sheriff’s office. He was the fourth one in less than three years. Got shot off his horse from a hundred or better yards away by a fella with a Sharps. The one before him was a little slower on the draw than a shootist who’d moved in. The one before that…well, I think he got a knife in his heart trying to break up a fracas in a saloon. I disremember what happened to the one farthest back, but you can wager he didn’t die from falling out of bed and cracking his head.”

I handed Calvin a pair of ten-cent pieces and had him fetch a couple more beers for us. When I sat down at the table again, Calvin said, “There’s a fellow by the name of Billy Powers. Billy runs Gila Bend.”

“How so?”

“It just happened, I guess. There’s paper out on him and most of his men. They rode in and decided to stay. None of them have much use for Mexico or Mexicans, so they didn’t care to cross over. There’s a bunch of Mexicans in Gila Bend, but they walk real quiet around Billy Powers.”

“What’s the paper on Powers for?” I asked.

“Murder and rape, robbery, the usual stuff. He’s a hired-gun type. He’d shoot his grandmother if the money was adequate.”

“Sounds like a swell guy.”

Calvin laughed, but it was a bad laugh, one with no mirth behind it.

“There’s paper out on maybe half the men in town, Pound. And the other half just haven’t killed or robbed enough to rate posters.”

“How’d this Powers come to take over the town?”

“Well,” Calvin said, “four—maybe five—years ago, Billy beat the piss out of a man who was feared by everyone in Gila Bend. This was a fistfight in a saloon, and it didn’t take but a minute or so.”

I nodded.

“The very next day, Billy was in a saloon where he fancied a whore. He wrestled her clothes off—everything she was wearing—in front of a packed saloon, mind you. Then he slapped her on the ass and carried her upstairs. In a minute she was screaming in pain. Somebody ran for the sheriff, and one of his men warned Billy. They met on the street in front of the saloon. Billy put three slugs in the sheriff’s chest before the lawman’s pistol ever cleared leather.”

I rolled a smoke and pushed my sack of tobacco and my papers across the table to Calvin. He rolled a cigarette that looked every bit as good as one of those fancy-ass store-boughts. He looked longingly at the sheath of papers and the sack of tobacco in front of him as I struck a lucifer and lit both our smokes.

“Keep ’em,” I said. “I got plenty more.”

His full smile showed how very few teeth he had, and the ones left were more brown than yellow, slanted like very old headstones in an ancient cemetery. His gums were a godawful greenish-pink that made my gorge rise hot and stinging in the back of my throat. I had to look away.

I took a long suck of beer. “Why doesn’t the law come in and tear this whole goddamned place down?” I asked.

“’Cause it ain’t worth the time nor the soldiers who’d be killed—and there’d be a whole lot of them.”

I needed to think for a time, and then I said, “You’re either diddling me or running some sort of a scam. I don’t like either choice.”

“I don’t know what you’re…”

“Talking about,” I finished Calvin’s sentence. “It’s this: your language. Your use of words swings from that of a drunken cowhand to that of a college professor and back, often in the same sentence. What’s going on here?”

Calvin poured us each another shot of whiskey. “I was once an instructor in a school in Massachusetts,” he said. “It was a good job, but I drank my way out of it. Then I came West and taught at a school in a town called Hempton’s Stop, and boozed my way out of that one, too. Somehow I ended up here after a couple of years.” He looked at me quizzically. “What was it that indicated to you that I—”

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