Sunday, 27 November 2016

Stars

Ever get lonesome sometimes? Maybe you do. Most times it’ll pass in a couple of hours. Other times it won’t. Folks get an emptiness inside that makes them feel helpless in a world where nobody cares, and that’s when loneliness really bites, ‘cause it’s a sorrowful thing to feel alone in the world, especially at night. Maybe you feel that way sometimes. Well, sit a spell and listen good, and I’ll tell you a little secret.

Course you might wonder what a lean mean rooting tooting fella like me knows about loneliness. Everyone knows I’m happy to roll along and take life’s big peaks and little peaks in my stride, but it wasn’t always so.

Once upon a long time ago a little boy was sitting on a porch. Just six years old, he was alone in the dark. He’d been whupped again and though his tears had dried, he carried a heavy heart. He wasn’t a bad kid, but in a house where praise and affection were unknown, his Pa’s fearsome temper left his Mama with little say in the upbringing of their son. It wasn’t the first time the boy had cried alone, only this night things were different. His Aunt Mabel was staying over.

‘Levitt?’

Aunt Mabel knelt and put an arm around the little boy, with a warmth and kindness that sent tears rolling down the boy’s cheeks. Then she took him into her arms and hugged him real close.

‘Levitt, please don’t cry. I know it’s hard for you to understand, but your Pa loves you, I know he does. He just doesn’t know how to show it. And your Mama loves you. She loves you so much and so do I. We all love you, Levitt.’
 
Then Aunt Mabel told the boy something he’d remember for the rest of his life.

‘Look at the stars, Levitt. See the stars? The stars always know when somebody's watching. One of them is yours and it’s looking at you right now. And when your star sees you looking up at the sky, it’ll puff out its chest and in a squeaky little starry voice it’ll shout to all the others. 'Look at me! I’m Levitt's star and he's watching me right now.’ And because your star is so happy, it’ll shine brighter still. Can you see it Levitt? Can you see a star that shines more brightly than the others?’

The boy squinted up his eyes and stared, real hard, at the sky. Sure enough, one star shone brighter than the rest.

‘Wherever you go and whatever you do, remember your star is watching and you’ll never be alone. And if ever you’re sad and blue, your star will be too, and you wouldn’t want that now, would you? Now dry your eyes and put your face straight. I’ll fix you some supper.’

Well, the little boy grew up to be a lean mean rooting tooting fella. No matter where he went, or whatever he did, he never felt lonesome again. Even on cloudy nights he knew his star was up there somewhere, and that was enough. So next time you're feeling low just look to the sky, and look for the star that shines brighter than any other. It’ll be yours.


Reckon I’m done now. If you remember me for anything, remember me for that. In the morning I’ll be moving on. Thanks for your company.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Restless

D’you ever wonder why we’re here, living and breathing, and doing our damndest to survive this thing called life? I mean, it all seems so damned temporary and at the end of it all… well, what I’m wondering is does life have a purpose or don’t it? Everyone needs a purpose, I reckon. Makes no sense otherwise, though I’m damned if I know where I fit in.

I thought I could leave my old ways behind me. I thought I could knuckle down, raise crops and reap the rewards of my labor like any other good citizen. Yeah, a lean mean rootin’ tootin’ fella like me, trading potatoes and tomatoes for sugar and spice. Hell, I was even gonna fix the barn, but it ain’t gonna happen now. Miss JJ was right; farmer I ain’t. If I didn’t know it before the crows came and took every seed I sowed, I surely knew it when Miss April asked how I was gonna make the water run uphill from the creek.

Course I wouldn’t admit I was licked, not then. Earlier this evening I was still telling Nameless about the big plans I had. Trying to convince myself, I guess. Well, Nameless ain’t dumb. He just looked at me with those big sorrowful eyes and shamed me into silence. There’s no fooling a dog that knows what you’re feeling inside. There just ain’t.

When truth hits you in the eye and the wayward wind calls, the wayward get restless. There’s a big world out there, a world where a man can come and go, do as he will, and answer to no one. It’s my world. And that’s where I belong, with or without a purpose.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Farmer Called Valance 2

Remember me saying I had to go to the creek for water? Well I won’t be going there much longer, ‘cause I’m bringing the creek to me. Yup, you heard right. Irrigation, it’s called, and when I’m done cutting a ditch from here to there, I’ll have all the water I need. Good thing I’m smart, huh? Course it might take a while, ‘specially now I’ve cut my expenses. I took the mules back to Ike. Danged things weren’t earning their keep and when a good friend said she wanted to lose weight, I knew just how to help. Since she's big on desire and short on dedication, I’ve signed her up for the Valance health and fitness program. Cost me a new plow but I’m happy to call it an investment. My client’s happy too, and so she ought to be; for a one-off payment of a bottle of whiskey and a hot meal a day, she’s getting it cheap.

Well, coffee break's over. It’s time I got back to work…

'Okay Miss April… start pulling!’


Monday, 21 November 2016

A Farmer Called Valance 1

Working the land ain’t easy. The days are long, progress is slow and every new furrow brings more sweat and blisters. Some doubted me, I know, but I’m a changed man. Give me a sack of seeds and a field to plow, and I’m happy little sodbuster. Course that ain’t strictly true but if say it often enough, I might get to believe it. Leastways I’m trying hard. I just wish I didn’t have to break my back hauling buckets of water from the creek.

 

I got the mules from Ike Mason. Forty cents a day for the pair seemed fair, till I saw how much they ate. I never saw two mules get through so much feed, and staring at their back ends all day, well, ain’t no wonder I’ve named them April and JJ. Anyhow, while there’s daylight to spare, I’ve no time for jawing. I gotta get back to work.


Saturday, 19 November 2016

A New Start

I took Nameless out into the hills today. After being away so long, I figured I owed him something and it pleased me greatly to see him running free and having a good sniff around. I knew just how he felt. Course he don’t run so fast these days but that’s only to be expected, now that he’s getting gray hairs. Comes to us all, I guess.

I remember my first gray hair. It came as quite a shock to see it, on my nuts, as I soaked in the tub one day. Housty came running when she heard me yell and when I showed her what I was yelling at, she yanked it out and I yelled some more, danged woman.

(Sigh) 

Housty ain’t coming back, I know that now. Course I hoped she’d be sitting here waiting for me when I came home… but a year’s a long time and I guess a woman can’t wait forever. 

(Sigh)

I gotta face facts; Housty ain’t coming back, the money I made on my travels is running low and thanks to a hole in the roof, the two thousand dollars I had stashed in the barn is a soggy mess of pulp and bird shit.

(Sigh)

Ain’t no use moping. I gotta look to the future now, and make a new start. Farming, that’s the way ahead, I reckon. It’s gonna be hard, but while I’ve got Nameless, I ain’t short of company. Shame he didn’t learn to stand on his own four feet while I was away but that don’t matter so much, if someone took care of him. He didn’t go hungry, that’s for sure, if the bones I found on the porch are anything to go by. Hmm, maybe he ate Housty?

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Denver

I always wanted to go to Denver. No special reason. A liking for the name’s all it was, but that liking became a calling when I had to get out of Blogsville. A month’s ride, I figured, but a week in the saddle is seven days enough for a man in need of a drink. Eighty miles to the good on my promise to the sheriff, I followed a sign post to Stirrup Creek, a mining town on the Muddy River.

I’ve been in towns all over the west, Tucson, Dodge and all the rest, yet I rarely saw so much temptation in one place. A drink, a whore and a bed for the night would have suited me fine, if the price of a bottle hadn’t left me broke. No matter, another night under the stars hurt none. Sleep don’t come easy anyhow, when your mind’s chasing a hundred ways of making a living. 

Sometime next morning I woke in a pasture, sure I could hear music. Leastways I thought so but when I raised my aching bones, weren’t nothing to be heard but birdsong and the trickle of piss, as I irrigated the grass between my feet. Seemed my mind had been playing tricks on me, but even as I packed my bedroll and saddled my horse, the music came back. Sounded like a circus coming to town.


At a corral on the edge of town, folks were gathered around a covered wagon, where a little fella in a big hat and a dandy suit turned the handle on a barrel organ. Hell, what a disappointment. I hoped to see an elephant or a rhi-noseerus or something, not some sawn-off fairground hustler. Well, the music stopped and the little fella turned to his audience. Tugging on his lapels, he puffed himself up to a good five foot two before speaking.

‘Gather round ladies and gentlemen, gather round. Mayhew’s the name, shooting’s the game. I see a lot of fine people before me; people who wear guns and know how to use them. Why, the evidence of my eyes is clear, the finest shots in Stirrup Creek are right here. But how good are you? And how fast are you? For a small stake here’s your chance to find out, with a guaranteed ten dollar prize for the winner. Now, who’s first?’

Amidst a whole lot of mumbling, the first volunteer shuffled forward. Then a fulsome beauty at the rear of us set to work. 


‘C’mon boys, here’s your chance to impress me. It might be the one chance you get, so what are you waiting for?’

Holding a banner high, she sashayed into the crowd and my, was she something special. With a swish in her hips that’d shake a dime out of any man, she started a stampede that had Mayhew snatching money as fast as he could, and piling it into his hat. 

‘Say Mister, you’re packing a gun. What’s holding you back? Don’t you wanna show a girl how good you are?’

Lord my sinful mind, what a woman. I most surely did, but she passed me by without a second glance when I told her I was broke. I’ll admit to feeling a mite sorry for myself when her sauntering ass disappeared into the crowd, but even as I turned to skulk away, an old timer sidled over.

‘Forgive my intrusion son, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping. Tell me, can you use that gun as well as I think you can?’

For a grizzled old buzzard with more food in his whiskers than I'd eaten in days, he wasn’t a bad judge. ‘Better than most,’ I said.

He pressed a dime into my hand. ‘Here, take this and show them what you can do. I was good with a gun once. My eyes ain’t so sharp these days, but that don’t mean I don’t know a winner when I see one.’

For a moment I was plain stuck for words. Thanking the old fella didn’t seem enough, but I thanked him anyway, best I could. 


After drawing straws we played off, one to one, six shots apiece at ten paces, firing at wooden backed wanted posters. Sure bruised my pride to miss with my first shot but from thereon, my shooting was clean. My five out of six easily beat the nothing score of a greenhorn who couldn’t hit a barn door with a shotgun. 
 
After five rounds we were shooting from twenty paces against a count of ten. The contenders were coming through, the best being a kid with a steady hand and an ice cold stare. If he missed a single shot, I didn’t see it and it came as no surprise to see him beside me in the final shoot out. 

From twenty five paces I hit six out six. He matched me, and when he did it a second time, so did I. Same thing happened thrice more. When it seemed nothing was gonna separate us, Mayhew suggested we split the prize. That was fine by me, but not so agreeable to the kid. 

‘You expect me to share with the likes of him?’ he said.

Course I didn’t take kindly to his words or his sneer, but I’ve been around long enough to know there’s a time for keeping a cool head, and a time for kicking someone’s teeth out in a dark alley. 

‘Alright!’ said Mayhew, ‘we’ll settle this by cigarette. Maybelle!’ 

Settling something by cigarette was a new one on me. I was still scratching my head when his shapely helper wiggled into view with a cigarette stick. After taking a bow, she propped herself against the corral fence.

Mayhew got up on his tiptoes again. ‘Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the beautiful Maybelle. As a means to settling this contest Maybelle will place a cigarette in the holder. She will then place the holder in her mouth. Our finalists – Hollister Byrne and Levitt E. Valance – will take turns apiece at shooting the cigarette. When one of them misses, and the other one hits, we’ll have our winner; may the best man win. Mister Valance, you’re first.’ 

Amidst a lot of whooping and cheering, Maybelle made quite a play of handling that stick and fixing a cigarette in the tip. Meantime, I just concentrated and waited for hush.

‘Your call, Valance.’

‘Okay Miss Maybelle. Put it in your mouth, I’m about ready to shoot.’

‘Mister, you sure know how to make a girl blush.’

Well, a cheer erupted and, the proceedings turned to chaos as people doubled up with laughter. Maybelle laughed, Mayhew laughed, I laughed. Seemed everybody laughed but that miserable kid.


Once everyone had settled down, we tried again. I thought I’d cleared my head but even as I squeezed the trigger, the yippety shakes came back and feared of hitting Maybelle, I pulled the shot, firing high and wide.

Course the kid had no such trouble. The surly cuss blasted the cigarette in half, no trouble at all. Win some; lose some, that’s how it goes. You shrug it off and walk away. As the crowd dispersed I wandered into the deserted corral and found a perch to sit and roll a cigarette. Solitude is good for the soul, only guilt got a hold on me when I remembered the old man who’d staked me, and no amount of cigarettes could change to that.


I’d been there an hour or more when a loud ‘Hey Mister!’ jumped me out of my melancholy. It was Maybelle. 

‘My husband would like to talk to you.’

A moment of uncertainty passed when I realized she meant Theodore Mayhew. How an old rascal like him had hooked a fine looking woman like her was none of my business, though I couldn’t help wondering anyway. I caught up with him outside the General Store, where he was loading supplies onto his wagon. Leastways I think he was. The way he was grunting over a sack of flour, I couldn’t tell if he was lifting it or making love to it. 

‘How would you like to earn some easy money?’ he asked, twixt a lot of puffing and panting.

Hell, what sweet music. I had that wagon loaded in no time, earning dinner in a fancy restaurant while he got down to business.

‘We made an eight dollar profit today,’ said Mayhew. ‘Not a bad day’s work, I know, but it could be so much better. I have the brains, Maybelle has the beauty. What’s missing is someone like you. Together, the three of us could be rich.’

Rich always gets my interest. I told him to go on.

‘I’ll cut to the quick; I need a mysterious stranger to ride in on the day of the contest and take the prize.’

‘Hmm, this mysterious stranger… his prize wouldn’t happen to be a three way share in a whole pot of money, would it?’

Mayhew beamed. ‘Simple, isn’t it? I’ve had the idea for some time. I’ve just been waiting for the right man. Today I found him. You are that man.’

‘What about the kid? He won, remember?’

‘No, not him. His kind are too dangerous, and I don’t think he’d have beaten you but for Maybelle.’ 

It ain’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard, a little sneaky maybe, but nothing that compromised my principles. They knew how to shake the money tree, that’s for sure, and I’d back myself against most men, but most ain’t all and there’s always a chance someone could get lucky. ‘What if someone better than me comes along?’ I asked.

‘I’ll fire you and hire him,’ he said.

I had to admire his pragmatism. I hoped he’d admire mine when I told him I needed a bath, a bed, and the means to take care of my horse at the feed and grain store. I suggested a twenty dollar advance. He turned me down.

‘Let’s make it ten,’ he said. 

I leaned across the table and gave him the evil eye. ‘I’ll settle for fifteen. A nickel less and you can watch your ticket to riches walk right out of that door.’

We shook hands on fifteen. Course I was bluffing. I never meant to squeeze Mayhew, but when providence deals an ace, it deals it for a reason. Five dollars covered my mortal needs. The rest satisfied a spiritual need; it warmed my soul to catch up with the old fella that staked me and see his ten dollar smile. I slept like a baby that night and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t all down to clean sheets and a soft pillow. Next morning I was up with the birds. Bathed, shaved and smelling like roses, I saddled my horse and met up with the Mayhews.

Out on the plains I rode on the wagon, where a spell at the reins got me a good look at Maybelle. Sure was a fine built woman. A little broad at the hip maybe, but that’s no bad thing. Ain’t nothing like a good loving woman with a few extra pounds for giving as good as she gets. And her hair, well, she had the kind of hair that inspires a man to poetry. In big wavy tresses it tumbled to her shoulders, shiny as the dew and black as a winter crow. I figured she couldn’t have been much older than thirty, thirty five at most. Way too young for a man like Mayhew, who had to be sixty or more. Strange woman though. One minute she was sitting beside me, all sweet and smiley, next minute she was sour faced and climbing into the back of the wagon. 

Course Mayhew had plenty to say. No conversation was ever gonna run dry with him around. Just got a little one sided, that’s all. I got no objection to someone telling me where they were born, where they were raised and the size of the eggs that were laid by their chickens. It all helps pass the time. And I got no objection to hearing about a life on the fair, an acrobat Pa, and a Ma who earned a living as a bearded lady, but I sure got sick of hearing nothing else from noon till sundown.

‘Goodnight Mister Valance,’ he said, when we turned in for the night. ‘I’m glad you’re with us, and not just because your presence gives us protection from hostiles and road agents and the like.’

I pulled my hat over my face, and wondered how he handled hostiles and road agents before I came along. Maybe he talked them to death.


It amused me some to find myself on the road to Oblivion. Ain’t much of a town but Mayhew said it was big enough to trial his plan. He and Maybelle would get to work right away, and have everything set for me riding in next day.

Well, it couldn’t have worked out better. Everything went just the way Mayhew planned it, easy as picking pork from a pig tree. An eighteen dollar pot ain’t a bad start, only I didn’t see a cent of it. After claiming three dollars for expenses, the little jasper split the balance three ways and pocketed my share, with a reminder that I still owed him ten dollars. 


We didn’t do so good at Ledger's Crossing, rained all the time we were there, but Pine Ridge and Alvaro made up for that. Mariette went well too. By the time we hit Redwood… well, you never saw anything so slick. I mean real slick. I came out of there with dollar bills stuffed down my boots. In a matter of weeks we’d cleaned out every town twixt Coburg and Flat Rock. I even acquired myself a money belt. Imagine that, huh? Seemed we could do nothing wrong. Then came Bayfield.

‘I like the smell of this place,’ said Mayhew, when we set eyes on the biggest town yet. ‘I can smell money, big money, the kind of money that’ll take three days to shake loose.’

Since he’d got everything right till then, I had no mind to quarrel. I just couldn’t see why I had to spend three days out on the prairie when I could be having a good time in town and sleeping in a cozy hotel bed. 

‘We can’t be seen together before the contest, you know that,’ Mayhew said. ‘People might get mistrustful.’

‘Then we’ll pretend we don’t know each other,’ I said. ‘Less it pains you to pass me by.’ 

‘Don’t flatter yourself, Mister Valance. Pretending I don’t know you will present no difficulty whatsoever. Alright, follow us into town if you must, but I insist you give us two hours clear. As of right now, not another word shall pass between us until the contest is over.’

Oh my, did I have a time. I think. Seems I got drunk as a skunk for three days. When I came to, I was laid out in the back of the wagon on the way to Juniper Springs. When I asked Maybelle what happened, she hushed me and told me to go back to sleep.

Mayhew was grumpy for a while. Understandably, I guess, since it must have cut him deep to pay out the prize money. I found out later he was all for firing me and leaving me behind, till Maybelle talked him round. 

‘One more chance and that’s all you’re getting,’ he said, when he lowered himself to speak to me again.

Since the ways of a woman have bamboozled man for two thousand years, I don’t readily subject myself to sufferance, yet I couldn’t help wondering why Maybelle stuck up for me. I just couldn’t work her out. One minute she’d be sugar sweet, next minute her face was longer than an undertaker’s coat. Then just when I’d get to thinking she hated my guts, she’d be touching my arm and laughing and joking. I wondered about that, too. Partial as I am to a lady’s attentions, it discomforts me greatly to receive them in front of her husband, but if Mayhew minded, he never said. Truth is I don’t think he even noticed.

I redeemed myself at Juniper Springs. Ain’t modest to say, I know, but I blasted everyone out of sight. Maybelle was all smiles, and I even got a pat on the back from Mayhew. Hell, I must have been good. 

Buffalo Station; Zachariah; Cooper Falls; we fleeced them all. Kingdom Wells too, though we almost came unstuck when we were seen leaving together. The sheriff caught up with us a mile out of town, and though Mayhew’s flim-flam got us off the hook, we were told never to come back.   

I guess it’s easy to get complacent when things are running smoothly Setting aside a run in with some scavengers, we had little trouble on our travels between towns, but if we’d rode our luck till then, it ran out when Maybelle went down with a fever. A day later Mayhew got it. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, I made camp and went looking for weeds. Sounds dumb, I know. I’d probably think so too if I’d never met Old Dan Wise. Must be twenty years or more since Dan taught me about weeds, but I’ve never forgotten. 

A potion of boiled fireweed and skunkbush berries don’t smell so good. Don’t taste so good either, but it’s a fine thing for treating a fever. I got Maybelle to take a few sips before she drifted back to sleep, but Mayhew just wasn’t for drinking.

‘C’mon, this’ll do you good,’ I hollered.

I don’t know if the distrustful cuss thought I was trying to poison him, but he wouldn’t touch a drop till he’d seen me try some. I got my own back though. Just as soon as I got the mug to his lips, I pinched the little bastard’s nose and poured it down his throat till he passed out. 


Sitting by the fire that night I did some serious thinking. Medicine ain’t enough, sick people need nutrients and since there were was no shortage of possums around… well, critter soup, boiled up with weeds and berries did me no harm, and I spoon fed my patients three times a day with no complaints. Other than keeping a fire going and making sure they were warm and comfortable, that’s about all I could do. 

Two, maybe three days later I heard Mayhew yelling. I ran to the wagon and found him sitting up with sweat pouring off his face. ‘A hundred dollars! We’ll offer a prize of a hundred dollars!’ he said.

Poor fella was out of his mind. After hushing him and turning his pillow, I got him to lie down again and once I’d cooled his brow, he soon settled. Then I saw Maybelle, eyes wide open, smiling at me. I asked if she was fever crazy too.

She shook her head. ‘Not anymore.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘A little weak, but I’m alright, I think.’


Maybelle joined me for coffee. After talking awhile, mostly about weeds and fevers, she leaned in close and slipped her arm around mine, and went all soft and womanly on me. 

‘What are you looking for, Valance?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What are you looking for, in life?’

Hell, I didn’t know what to say. When a woman talks soft and starts asking questions, I’m inclined to wonder where the trip wire is.

‘Me? I’m looking for nothing.’

‘Then what are you running from?’

‘Who says I’m running?’

‘Half the world’s looking for something. The other half is running from something, so my Pa used to say. So, if you’re not looking for something, what are you running from?’

I rolled a cigarette while I thought about it. Then I spilled the whole sorry story of why I had to leave Blogsville.

‘And the sheriff made you leave town?’

‘He didn’t make it easy to stay.’

‘That’s awful. I’m sorry. Did you… did you leave a woman behind?’ 

More than one woman came to mind, but a simple yup saved things getting complicated.

‘Is she waiting for you?’

‘I don’t know, maybe,’ I said, as a vision came to mind of Housty sitting on the porch. ‘Could be she’s gazing into the hills right now, just yearning for the day I come home.’

Surprise surprise, Maybelle got all edgy again. Before I could ask if she was alright, she’d upped and ran. To where I don’t know, and I didn’t much care. Course I worried about her after, especially when she didn’t show up till after dark, and I only knew then ‘cause I heard her fixing supper. I figured she’d come around in her own time and she did, and though I was grateful for the beans and cornbread she brought me, her countenance warned me to thank her politely and leave it at that.

She seemed better next morning. Quiet maybe, but she took a mug of coffee whilst brushing her hair. Mayhew was back on his feet too, complaining about a bad taste in his mouth. Bad taste or not, it didn’t stop him talking. Seemed the fever had gone but not the notion of a hundred dollar prize. 

‘Why the blazes would you offer a hundred dollars?’ I asked.

‘So I can charge a dollar entrance fee,’ he said, with a grin as wide as his little fat face.

I told him he was loco. ‘That’s a day’s pay to most men, and men don’t part with a day’s pay so easy.’ 

If I thought I’d killed the idea, I thought wrong. Mayhew wasn’t letting go. While he set to some hard thinking, I threw another log on the fire and boiled some fresh coffee. 

‘I’ve got it! We’ll make it five hundred… and we’ll only charge fifty cents! They’ll enter in their hundreds, thousands even! Think of the money we’ll make.’

‘Yup, and think of the cost if someone outshoots me.’

‘They won’t if you keep off the booze. If we hit the big towns and cities we’ll make a thousand dollars a time. Carson City isn’t that far away. We could be there in a month, maybe less if we cross the Winnemucca plain.’

‘We can’t go that way, that’s Paiute country.’

‘Why not? They’ve never given me any trouble.’

‘Could be there’s an old Injun chief out there with a long memory and a grudge.’

Mayhew gave me one of his suspicious looks. ‘What kind of grudge?’

‘Some years ago Chief Bad Face gave me a hatful of gold for some rifles. We sealed the deal with firewater.’

‘And?’

‘I never got around to going back with the rifles.’

‘Then we’ll go south of Winnemucca and head for Fort Churchill.’

‘Nope, can’t go there.’

‘Why? Has some old army colonel got a grudge against you, too?’

‘No, but a lieutenant with a pretty wife might.’

‘I won’t trouble myself to ask why. If you’ll forgive me saying Mister Valance, you’re a man with a colorful past. Now, if there’s a way of getting to Carson City without endangering your scalp, your accoutrements or your general wellbeing, perhaps you’d care to share it?’

I liked Mayhew, but he sure knew how to make me squirm. I proposed that we strike north to Sweetlove, clear of Paiute territory, then west to Carson City. A practical solution, I figured, but Mayhew didn’t like it. He didn’t say so, but he didn’t have to. I sensed it in the silence as he traded anxious glances with Maybelle.

‘Or we could backtrack a little and circle around Fort Churchill,’ I said, throwing them a rope.

We backtracked.

A showman all his life, Theodore Mayhew knew what he was doing, but when greed gets hold of a man, he takes risks he don’t have to. To my mind a five hundred dollar prize is an invitation to trouble and with every gunslinger in the territory likely to take part, my chances of winning were…well, no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t help thinking a small slice of something was better than a large slice of nothing with a cherry on top. Not Mayhew though, he got more excited with each passing day. ‘I’ll get posters printed, lots of them. Tickets too,’ he said. ‘Hot diggety, we’ll draw the biggest crowd Carson City has ever seen!’ 

I kept my thoughts to myself. Ain’t that I begrudged the little fella his hopes and dreams, I just didn’t care for the weight being heaped on my shoulders, and as the days went by, that weight got heavier. Bathing in the creek gave me an excuse to get away for a while, but there was no escape from my troubled mind.


I’d been there some time, just cooling in the water, when Maybelle came by.

‘Do you mind if I move these?’ Without waiting for a reply, she tossed my clothes to the ground and perched herself on the rock where I’d left them. ‘You’ve been out here so long I was getting worried about you.’

The last thing I needed right then was a highly strung woman. Truth is I wasn’t in the best of moods myself. Could be I was a mite fractious, even.

‘Is something wrong?’

‘Nope.’

‘Are you sure? You’ve been awful quiet lately’

‘Nope, nothing’s wrong, leastways nothing that a bottle of whiskey and a frisky woman couldn’t put right.’ 

Maybelle’s laughter set me at ease. A problem shared ain’t quite a problem halved but it helped some.

‘You’ve nothing to worry about,’ said Maybelle, when I’d done spilling my troubles. ‘I’ll make sure you win, just like I did in Pine Ridge… and Mariette, when I called you for six when you only hit five, or Buffalo Station, where you should have been out in the first round.’ 

Quicker than I could raise my eyebrows, a wicked smile spread across her face. 

‘Everyone trusts the little lady calling the shots. Only I’m not quite the little lady they think I am.’

Since she’d never once taken her eyes off my hoopladoopla, I didn’t doubt it.

‘Water’s nice and clear, isn’t it?’ she said.

‘You shouldn’t be looking.’

‘I never saw one that big before.’

Lord, I was sorely tempted but with Mayhew close by, I figured I’d better get my clothes on before the devil took a bow and led me astray.

‘Well, I never had you down as the bashful kind,’ said Maybelle, when I’d tucked everything in and buttoned up.

‘Yup, Mister Bashful, that’s me.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

Hell, I didn’t believe it either, but every dog has its day and once in a while my head overrules my pants. ‘Believe what you like,’ I said. ‘Won’t matter anyway, if you’re gonna run along now and ignore me for the rest of the day.’

Maybelle smiled again. Then she got up on her tippy toes and kissed my cheek.

‘What was that for?’

‘For being mean to you. I’m sorry.’

Maybe I should have said sorry too. I know I can be a prickly cuss sometimes, and it ruffled my feathers to hear what she said about my shooting, but a question needed asking.
 
‘What are you running from?’

‘Who says I’m running?’

‘Half the world’s looking for something, you said. I see how that applies to Mayhew, but not you. That makes you a runner, so suppose you spit it out?’

Maybelle lowered her head. Seemed another flounce was coming, till I saw her shaking. When she found her voice again she talked slow, real slow.

‘A man… a man who’ll kill me if he ever finds me.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s the kind of man he is.’

‘Has this got anything to do with Sweetlove?’

Maybelle nodded.

‘How long have you been running?’

‘A year.’

‘And you really think he’s still looking for you?’

‘I know he is. Ain’t a day goes by that I don’t get the feeling he’s out there somewhere, closing in.’ 

‘Couldn’t you have gone to the sheriff or something?’

Maybelle shook her head and said something about a lawless town. For a moment I thought she was gonna cry. She didn’t, but she sure got angry and the words she used in her hate for that man… well, she sure didn’t learn them in Sunday school.

It must be a terrible thing to live in fear so long: scared of dying; scared of living. Poor Maybelle. It explained a lot of things but confiding in me helped, I reckon, since we got along better after that. Sure, she still had her bad times, but a steady hand and a quiet word pulled her through, and I was happy to tag along when she wanted to bathe in the river one day. Said she’d feel safer if I went with her.

‘But I expect you to behave like a gentleman’ she said, when we got there.

I gave her my word. Then like a good gentleman I peeped through my fingers. 


Nobody was gonna harm Maybelle while I was around, though it flummoxed me why they should want to. I just couldn’t make sense of it. Then I got to wondering how she and Mayhew came together, and when. Something wasn’t right. They just didn’t act like a married couple; for one thing they were too darned polite to each other. And they didn’t sleep together. Hell, they didn’t even bathe together. Yup, it all seemed mighty strange.


A month out of Kingdom Wells, we crossed the Carson River. Late that afternoon, on a hill above Eagle Valley, Mayhew did a jig. Before us, Carson City stretched as far as the eye could see. From the railroad to the east, to the workings of the Comstock Silver Mine on the far side of the valley, sure was a wonderful sight.

‘Look at it, just look at it!’ he said. ‘There must be a couple of thousand dollars waiting for us down there! Maybe three!’

Course me and him had another squabble when he suggested I stay out in the hills till Saturday.

‘Are you kidding? Today’s Monday. Saturday’s five days away.’

‘Correct, Mister Valance. I owe you an apology. You’re a lot smarter than I give you credit for.’

‘Putting aside the fact that I ain’t had a drink for a month and I’m low on tobacco, what am I supposed to do till then?’

‘How about some shooting practice?’

Hell, that Mayhew sure knew how to get me riled. Maybelle settled things with a quiet supplication. ‘Please Theodore, I’d feel much safer if he’s close by.’

Mayhew backed down, but his final word was conditional. ‘Alright!’ he said. ‘But stay out here until tomorrow! And stay out of our way till the contest. And stay away from liquor, you hear?’

I heard, loud and clear. Just as soon as the puffed up little toad had done jabbing his finger in my face, I got my saddle from the wagon, and unhitched my horse.


After watching the wagon get swallowed up in the valley, I stretched out for some rest. I figured I’d sneak down at sundown for some tobacco and a bite to eat, and maybe a quiet drink before finding a bed for the night, only it wasn’t to be. Next thing I knew I was shivering in the dark. After crawling on my hands and knees, I found my bedroll and went back to sleep. 


Mayhew hadn’t wasted any time, I found out, when I rode into town and stabled my horse next morning.

‘How long do you want me to hold him for?’ the man at the livery asked. 

‘A few days, that’s all.’

‘You’ll be here for the shooting contest then.’ 

‘What contest?’ I said, all pure and innocent. Course I had to suffer his yap awhile, but he did me a favor when I left, directing me to an eating house across the street. ‘You won’t get a better breakfast in the whole state of Nevada,’ he said, and he was right. Hot bread, fried potatoes, boiled ham and vegetables had my ribs so fit to bust that it was a small mercy to get outside and suck in some fresh air. Well, lo and behold, what should be the first thing I see?

And when I got some tobacco…

And strolled down the street…


And passed the laundry…


Hell, those posters everywhere. And I mean everywhere.


And everywhere I went, everyone was talking about the same thing. A backstreet watering hole seemed as good a refuge as any but inside…


…barflies were already picking winners and laying bets on local heroes. Since the fastest gun in the west lives in just about every town I’ve ever known, I had no mind to listen, though I couldn’t help hearing strong backing for a man named Brogan, and someone called Hollister Byrne; there was something familiar about that name, only I just couldn’t place it. Someone from way back, I figured, as I drank up and moseyed on over to the bathhouse.


I felt a whole lot fresher when I came out of there. Got my clothes washed, too. Since I was just a shave away from being a new man, I went looking for a barbershop, only I found myself standing outside a high class whorehouse…


…and ended up staying the night. Some folks frown upon my sinful ways, I know, but I never spent two dollars better. Ain’t sure what time I got to sleep but when I did; I slept like a log till noon next day.

A cigarette and a cup of coffee set me up fine for an afternoon stroll, yet I’d no sooner stepped out of the coffee house when I heard a familiar voice up the street. So what if I promised I’d stay clear, that didn’t mean I couldn’t sneak up the sidewalk… 


…and take a little peep.


Yup, Mayhew and Maybelle were doing a fine job. Seemed everything was going to plan and I looked as disinterested as I could as I wandered off in the opposite direction… 


…and came to a big ol’ saloon. Weren’t one of those spit and sawdust places either, but a brick built saloon with its windows intact, and the sign above the door – The Lucky Stranger – well, if ever I saw an omen. Since I had time on my hands and a thirst in need of a slaking, I dropped in, only my call for a bottle went unheard, on account of some rowdy young bucks further along the bar. Second time round, I spoke up good and loud.

The bartender set a bottle of whiskey down with a heavy thud. ‘You in town for the contest, Mister?’

‘Maybe,’ I muttered, as I shot him a dirty look for inviting the world to hear my business.

‘Hey, Mister!’ one of the bucks shouted, a tall kid with a big nose and an even bigger mouth. ‘You ain’t got a chance! Ain’t that so, Hollis?’

Propped against the bar with his back to me, the one he called Hollis turned around, real slow, then looked me up and down. ‘Who? Him?’ He shook his head. ‘No, he ain’t got a chance.’

I knew him right away. Hollister Byrne, backed by many to win the shooting contest, was the same miserable cuss who’d looked down his nose at me in Stirrup Creek. 

‘You remember me, don’t you?’ he said. ‘Sure you do, and I remember you, you’re a man called Valance. I smelled you as soon as you walked in.’

Course his friends loved that. While they pissed their pants, Mister Big Man Byrne stuck his thumbs in his belt and came forward all a swagger. In words aimed at me he talked to his buddies. ‘Mister Valance ain’t bad with a gun. Truth is he’s pretty good. Just not as good as me.’

I had a pretty good idea what was coming next and it sure as hell wasn’t the sheriff. I’ve never known a lawman turn up at the right time yet. 

‘Think you can take me, Valance? Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you.’

‘Know what I think Hollis? He’s yeller!’

‘Yeah, he’s yeller!’

The harder Byrne and his buddies pushed, the more I backed off. Sure, I was all boiled up inside, but with so much at stake, well; you should have heard the laughter when I slunk out of there with my tail between my legs. Running away ain’t easy, anytime, and it helped none to feel I’d left my balls on the bar with my whiskey.


I didn’t trouble myself to drink anyplace else. Ain’t like I didn’t need one, pained as I was, but I figured temperance was the only way I’d make it through till Saturday. Meantime, the only way I was gonna make it through the next hour was to keep walking.


At the quietest place in Carson City I stopped walking and spent a long time brooding. Much as I wanted to go back and teach those smirking jaspers some manners, my head kept telling me to stay calm. Saturday would be here soon enough and when the contest was over… well, I knew where I’d be heading.

Silent company is fine by day, but if anything scares me more than an Irishwoman with a frying pan, it’s a bone yard at night. Come sundown, I traipsed back into town, wanting nothing more than a bite to eat and a bed with clean sheets. Well, I got that bite to eat but I was out of luck at the hotel.

‘Sorry Mister. All rooms are taken. We’re busy right now with folks staying over for the shooting contest.’ 

I got the same answer at the next place I tried too. That left the big hotel on the main street. What the hell, I deserved some comfort, whatever the expense.



Two signatures in the book caught my eye when I checked in – Theodore and Maybelle Mayhew. Well, well, what a surprise. Separate rooms, too. 

‘Room nine, left at the top of the stairs.’

Trust Mayhew to have nothing but the best. I might have known. Stay away he said, and I had. Ain’t my fault I finished up at the same hotel. 


And it ain’t my fault I finished up spending the night with Maybelle. She must have heard me in the lobby, ‘cause she pounced the minute I got upstairs and lured me to her room. 

Yeah, I know, I’m easily lured. 

Well, before long we were horizontally acquainted and going for glory. I ain’t one for boasting but when Maybelle let out a yell, I thought it was business as usual and gave her an extra hard poke. How was I to know Mayhew had walked in? Till I heard him apologize and slam the door on his way out, I didn’t even know he was there. Some husband, huh?

When we got around to pillow talk, Mrs. Mayhew spun an interesting tale…

‘Pa raised me on his own when Ma died young. Wasn’t easy for him or me, but Pa never stopped trying. Between the lean times and the hard times, he stretched the good times as far as he could. Then when Pa died a couple of years ago, a man called Sam Larkin came to see me. I didn’t know him so well; I just knew he was a big man in Sweetlove. He said Pa owed him a lot of money. I don’t know if that was true, but me being alone with no kin, I let him talk me into turning over our spread in payment. In return he gave me a job and a room at the saloon. The pay was nothing to shout about but I got to know the other girls and it was fun meeting people. For a while I thought I was special to Sam, but it wasn’t so. When I asked him if he loved me, he just laughed in my face. I hated him for that. I was just another piece of property to him, cheap at that, and there was no way out.

 ‘Sorry’

‘Then one day a funny little man came to town; Theodore, selling pots and pans from his wagon. Before the day was out I found him unconscious in the street. He’d been beaten and robbed, so I ran for Doc. Neither of us thought he’d pull through, but Theodore’s a fighter and in little more than a week he was sitting up in bed and telling us he was moving on to better things. It was wonderful to see and when he said he’d be looking for an assistant, well, my heart just skipped a beat. Theodore saw my interest and asked me if I’d like to go with him. I told him I’d love to, but I was scared Sam might find out.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, he might have got mean.’ 

‘So what did Theodore say?’

‘About Sam? Nothing, he just told me to name the time and place, and he’d be there. And he was, at sunrise next morning outside the saloon. I just skipped into the back of the wagon and away we went.’

‘And you’ve been together since?’

‘Yes, just moving from town to town. I don’t like being in one place too long.’

‘That figures. But if Sam Larkin is the man you’re running from…’

‘He’s not.  The man I’m running from is T.T. Sloane… a hired killer. He’s the one that does Sam’s dirty work.’

‘Well I still don’t get it. I can see you might have hurt the man’s pride, maybe, but that’s no reason for him wanting you dead.’

‘Can you keep a secret?’

‘Try me.’

‘Okay, before I left I stole a thousand dollars. And I set fire to the saloon.’

‘Holy sh…’

‘I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but he I figured he owed me something. Running away didn’t seem enough. I wanted to hit back. Told you I’m not the little lady people think I am, didn’t I?’

‘I guess you did. Hmm, are you sure it’s Sloane that’s after you?’ 

‘Yes, I saw him in Rockfield, just before we left for Stirrup Creek. Theodore was looking for someone to join us anyway, and with Sloane on our tail… well, that’s when you came along.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me this when I signed on?’ 

‘You were good with gun, that’s all I knew. I wasn’t to know I could trust you.’

‘Theodore knows all this?’

‘Sure, he knew about the fire, he saw the smoke. I told him about the money later. I knew he wouldn’t tell anyone.’

‘He’s very loyal to you.’

‘I know. He’s a real sweetie.’

‘Is that why you married him?’

Maybelle smiled and gave me a playful slap. ‘Fooled you for a while, didn’t we? Pretending we were married was Theodore’s idea. He said traveling as man and wife would make me harder to find, and spare me the attentions of drunks and no goods.’ 

‘That’s what he thought, huh? So you became Mrs. Mayhew. What about Maybelle, is that your real name?’

‘No, my real name is Beulah. Like it?’

‘It’s alright, but I like Maybelle better; you look like a Maybelle. You sure don’t look like a Mayhew though. Could be Theodore wishes you were married. Have you ever thought of that?’

‘I have. He tried to kiss me once. I think I hurt his feelings when I brushed him off. He’s such a sweet, kind, thoughtful man and I am fond of him, but that’s as far as it goes. When we first met I saw him as the little man who wouldn’t lie down. He reminded me of my Pa. Still does. But I do think a lot of him, and I know he thinks an awful lot of me.’

‘Can’t blame him for that, there’s an awful lot of you to think of,’ I said, as I gave her ass a slap.

Maybelle rolled into my arms and giggled, and slid her hand under the blanket. ‘There’s an awful lot of you too, Mister Valance. Now what shall we do next?’

She got her answer when I rolled on top of her and whispered in her ear.

Maybelle giggled. ‘Mister,’ she said. ‘You sure know how to make a girl blush.’


Maybelle was gone when I woke on Thursday morning. Out banging the drum with Mayhew somewhere, I figured, once I’d cleared my head.  With little to do but satisfy a rumbling gut, I threw my duds on and followed my nose to the steakhouse. Steak and onions never tasted so good, and I swear I smelled money in the air when I came out of there I crossed the busy main street to the gunsmith’s. The man behind the counter looked real pleased to see me and called me Sir; I liked that. Since a hundred cartridges would cover an hour’s practice and leave plenty over for the contest, that’s what I asked for.

‘There you are Sir, a hundred cartridges. That’ll be twenty dollars.’

‘Someone making ammunition in gold now?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve never known hundred’s go for more than ten.’

‘They do in this store when there’s a shooting contest on. Twenty dollars, that’s the price.’

‘Forget it, I’ll take forty.’

‘That’ll be ten dollars.’

‘Aw c’mon, if twenty buys a hundred then...’

‘Forty comes without discount. Take it or leave it.’

Forty came without a Sir too, I noticed, as I handed him ten dollars. Hell, I couldn’t wait to see Mayhew’s face when I tried claiming that on expenses. 

Back on the street I was at a loose end and wondering what to do with myself when an itch in my whiskers reminded me a shave was overdue. With time to burn it bothered me none to have to get in line at the barbershop and wait my turn, and though the usual topic of conversation got a mite tedious after a while, my patience wasn’t unduly troubled. Daydreams of riches might have stretched beyond a peaceful half hour if it hadn’t been for a ruckus outside.

‘Sounds like someone’s getting a hiding,’ said the barber.

Since the only people in the place by then were me, him and a fella in the chair with a razor under his nose, I felt obliged to speak up. 

‘Yup,’ I said, as it surely did sound like someone was getting a hiding. Young men, I guessed, being as they were loud and angry. Not that it was any business of mine, though I figured I’d better take a look when a mighty bang shook the door.

I found a little Chinee slumped in the doorway. Poor fella didn’t look so good, and he might have looked a whole lot worse if I hadn’t stepped between him and two jaspers that were giving him a kicking. Course they didn’t take kindly to having their fun spoiled. Not by me, that’s for sure.

‘Hey Willy, do you know who this is? It’s the coward that was in the saloon yesterday!’

‘The one that crawled out on his belly?’


‘Yup, it’s him!’


‘Hey coward, you just made a big mistake.’


Willy made a bigger mistake when he took a swing at me. If he didn’t know it when I snatched his wrist and back-slammed my elbow into his mouth, he sure knew it when he fell to the ground, coughing blood and spitting teeth. His friend made a mistake too, in reaching for his gun, though he had the good sense to freeze when I outdrew him.

‘Pride ain’t worth getting killed for, kid. Walk away while you can. Go on, walk away and there’ll be no more trouble.’

‘H-Hollis ain’t gonna like this. He’s got two notches on his gun already. He’ll get you for sure.’ 

‘Maybe, now turn around and start walking, and take Toothless with you.’

For all the fire in his eyes, the kid saw sense. As he helped his friend away, I asked the little Chinee if he was alright. Ain’t sure what he said, but he didn’t look so bad once he’d dusted himself down. Other than a split lip, it seemed he’d suffered no more than a bruising.

Well, before I knew it a crowd of people were fussing around and wanting to shake my hand, led by the barber, who insisted on giving me a free haircut and shave. ‘Please, I’d consider it an honor,’ he said. I declined. Course I thanked him politely, but I had other priorities by then, the first being to get the hell out of there.


Keeping out of trouble in Carson City ain’t easy, and that’s a fact. Since my own little rain cloud seemed intent on tracking me everywhere, I got to thinking I should stay off the streets till Saturday. I was still chewing it over as I wandered from the rail yard to the backstreet bar, where a couple of shots of whiskey put me at ease while I got down to some serious thinking. Whichever way I looked at it, lying low seemed the right thing to do and after one more whiskey, I made up my mind; I’d go back to my room and stay there it was time for the contest. Only the plan hit a complication the minute I stepped outside. Should I take the quick way back to the hotel and pass The Lucky Stranger, or play safe and take the long way? Well, while I hesitated, the whiskey proposed the quick way and when my heart seconded the motion, my legs just naturally followed.

I’ve no regrets about that. Truth is it felt good to walk with my head high, and I sure walked tall when I passed The Lucky Stranger. And I passed slow… real slow. Course I didn’t get far. 

‘Valance!’

My oh my, Mister Byrne. Well what as surprise. Though his buddies were right behind him, they soon peeled off when I marked my ground in the center of the street. 

Folks scattered as Byrne stepped off the sidewalk and gave me that sneer of his. My, did he think he was something, standing there all high and mighty with his thumbs tucked into his belt. Though he carried two guns, I figured the left was just for show. I’d seen him shoot and I’d seen him drink, and I knew to keep my eyes on his right hand.


‘You’re gonna pay for what you did to my friends, Valance. Hear me? I said you’re gonna pay.’

Forget that stuff about waiting for the other fella to draw first. Live by the code of the west and there’s a good chance you’ll die by it. The code of the Valance suits me better, and the moment he slipped his right thumb from his belt…

BLAM!

Byrne cried out and dropped to his knees, blood pooling on the ground from his shattered right hand. Hell, I never fired a better shot. Then someone poked a gun in my back.

‘Drop it, Mister.’

Wouldn’t you know it, when you need a lawman there’s never one around, and when you don’t need one…


Attempted murder, the marshal said. Course I objected, and I tried to state my case, but he wasn’t interested.

‘Tell it to the judge,’ he said.

A night in the calaboose did nothing for my peace of mind, or my spine. On a bone hard mattress I hardly slept a wink. I just lay there, staring at them bars. Come Friday morning I was aching all over, but that was the least of my problems. I just wished there was some way of contacting Mayhew.

Well, after leaving me to fret for a few hours, who should stroll into the marshal’s office that afternoon but Mayhew himself, and was I glad to see him. Only it wasn’t me he’d come to see me.

‘Howdy Marshal!’

‘Hello Mister Mayhew. Your posters are ready. Give me a minute and I’ll get them for you.’

Seemed Mayhew had dropped by earlier in the week and the marshal was making good a promise to let him have some old wanted posters. 

‘Hey, Theodore!’ I yelled.

Mayhew turned pale when he saw me locked up. 

‘You two know each other?'’ the marshal asked.

‘N-no, we don’t,’ Mayhew spluttered. ‘Though it’s possible this man might know me. As a well traveled man of fine standing, I have, on occasion, suffered the attention of shiftless ne’er do wells, though I certainly don’t recall this one. What’s he in jail for, anyway?’

‘Attempted murder,’ said the marshal.

Mayhew’s chin almost hit the floor.

‘Oh c’mon Marshal, that sneering runt was gonna kill me. I was just defending myself.’

Course I’d told the marshal that a hundred times already, but I had to let Mayhew know what had happened. Well, the posters got handed over and the two of them went outside, but when the marshal returned, he returned alone. If Mayhew had a trick up his sleeve, I hoped he’d play it soon. Till then I could only wait.

Well, Saturday came and Saturday went, and with it went the shooting contest. After waiting for Mayhew all morning, I knew it wasn’t to be when the marshal locked the door at noon, and went off to the contest himself. Course I got angry for a while, and maybe I cussed some, but deep down I knew where the blame lay. Ain’t the first time I’ve let myself down, and it ain’t the first time I’ve let friends down either, and the price of that was a misery that lasted the whole night through.

Come Sunday Mayhew and Maybelle would be moving on, with or without me. Though my words of apology were well practiced for when they came to say goodbye, nobody came, but while there was hope, I hoped, till night fell on another long day and I asked the martial, straight out, if he’d seen them. Without troubling himself to look up from his desk, he just shook his head.

Monday was just as glum. At least the marshal was more sociable. Late in the morning he brought me an extra cup of coffee and asked if I could tell the time. 

‘Sure I can,’ I said.

‘Good. See that clock on the wall over my desk? When it gets to three o’clock, give me a yell.’ 

For three hours and twenty three minutes I stared at that clock. Weren’t like I had anything better to do and when I let out a yell, right on three o’clock, he moseyed over, jangling his keys. Hell was I confused when he unlocked the door and he told me to come out. For a moment I just stood there. Course I moved pretty fast when he repeated it with a threat. ‘C’mon, before I change my mind and lock you in again.’ 

After I’d signed for my things, the marshal tossed me my gun belt. 

‘You said you came to Carson City for the shooting contest, right?’

‘That’s right.’

‘And now that it’s over, you’ve no further business here, right?’

‘Right.’

‘So you’ll be leaving just as fast as you can get on your horse?’

‘Well, sure, once I’ve settled up at the hotel, but I thought I had to see a judge?’

‘What do we need a judge for? There’s no case to answer.’

‘Then you believe me?’

‘I believed you all along. I’ve no time for Byrne, or his friends, and it doesn’t displease me that you’ve taken them down a notch or two, but it’s my job to keep the peace around here and it’s an undeniable fact that keeping you in jail has made my job easier. Take it from me; blowing Byrne’s hand off wouldn’t have been the end of it.’

I couldn’t argue with the marshal’s reasoning. Didn’t much matter anyhow, now the contest was over and done. I just needed to know if Mayhew was still in town, yet when I asked marshal, his reply left me stunned.

‘What’s it to you? Ain’t fixing to pester Mrs. Mayhew again, are you? That’s surprised you, ain’t it? Yeah, I know all about that, too. Mister Mayhew told me, poor man, when we had our little talk outside. Keeping you in jail for another twenty four hours was the least I could do. Anyhow, they’ll be long gone now, and with the help that’s escorting them, I’d advise you to stay away.’

‘What kind of help?’

‘Frank Brogan, the fastest gun in the west, that kind of help. He’s the man who won the shooting contest. That reminds me…’ 

The marshal pulled a letter from his pocket. ‘Mister Mayhew asked me to give you this note. A warning, I guess.’

I came out of the marshal’s office with my head in a spin. Mayhew was always good for a trick, but I never expected that, and when I opened the note the marshal had given me…


I knew I’d been hornswoggled. Mayhew must have cut a deal with Brogan. Before or after the contest is anyone’s guess.

After saddling my horse, I rode out and didn’t look back till I was high on the hill beyond the valley. Only then did I remember my hotel bill. Since I never once slept in my own bed I had no mind to worry; didn’t use my own name, anyhow. For a few minutes I rested on the saddle horn whilst I rolled and smoked a cigarette. I had a pretty good idea where my partners were bound – Reno ain’t thirty miles to the north – and traveling in a wagon, they couldn’t have gotten far, yet I had no mind to go after them. Win some; lose some, that’s how it goes. That it grieved me to think I’d never see Maybelle again don’t matter. Then I thought of Mayhew, hopping up and down and jabbing his finger me… and I knew I’d miss him too.


That night on the prairie I was drawn like a moth to a campfire. ‘Rider coming in,’ I hollered. 

Once he was satisfied I offered no threat, a lone man with a rifle welcomed me in for coffee. Well, we talked some, and holy shinbones, did he have a tale to tell.

‘You say you just left Carson City? Did you see or hear tell of a shooting contest?’

‘Sure, but you’re too late. That was two days back.’

‘Pity, I was hoping to take part. How about you?’

‘Nope, not me. I was visiting my poor sick mother.’

‘Then you wouldn’t have seen who was running the contest?’

‘Not a thing,’ I said, getting a little cagey, since I got the sudden notion I knew who he was. ‘Why, are they something special to you?’

‘One of them is. A woman, thirty five years old, dark haired, pretty; calls herself Maybelle. Travels as the wife of a man called Mayhew. And I’m pretty sure a man called Valance is traveling with them. I don’t suppose that means anything to you?’

I shook my head and reached for my tobacco. Hell, did I need a cigarette.

‘I’ve been trailing them for months. They’ve kept a step ahead, so far, but their luck can’t last forever. Say, can you spare cigarette?’

I handed him mine, and I rolled myself another.

‘Thanks. What do they call you?’

‘George… George Washing-ham,’ I said. Dumb, I know, but it sure beats the first name that came to mind.

‘Glad to know you, George. I’m T.T. Sloane. Care for some more coffee?’

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ I said, as I eased my hand to my gun. Mister T.T. Sloane was gonna get blasted the instant he picked up the jug, but even as he reached, his coat gaped open and I saw the glint of a badge on his chest. 

‘Y-you’re a lawman?’

‘That’s right. I’m a deputy in Sweetlove. You seem surprised?’

‘I thought Sweetlove was a lawless town.’

‘You know it?’

‘Not exactly. Something I heard on my Pa’s knee, I guess, a long time ago.’

‘Maybe it was, once, but not in the years Tom Randall’s been sheriff. Nobody beats Tom, not even that woman.’

‘The one you’re looking for?’

‘Yeah, Beulah Price; that’s her real name. She took a knife to man, Sam Larkin the saloon owner, while he slept. Then she cleaned out the safe and set fire to the place. Trying to cover her tracks, I guess. We managed to put out the fire but there was nothing we could do for Sam.’

‘She killed him?’

‘Bled to death. Sam was no angel, he liked the ladies and he liked a drink, but he had a warm heart and he took care of Beulah after her Pa died. He gave her a home, a living and fixed her up with new clothes, only it wasn’t enough. She wanted shoes and rice, and when that didn’t happen, she got mad. Weren’t like Sam had lied to her, or deceived her. He treated her no better or worse than any of his girls, and when he tried straightening her out, she upped and stuck him with a fork. A warning, for sure, but when Tom questioned him about it, he laughed it off and joked about her killing him someday. Well, one day, she did.’

‘Hmm, it’s a sorry tale, but you’re sure going to a lot of trouble for one woman.’

‘You wouldn’t think so if you’d seen what she did and heard Sam screaming. 

Nobody’s beyond the law, that’s what the sheriff says, and I’m bound to prove it.’

‘What are you fixing to do when you catch up with her?’

‘Take her back to Sweetlove. She’ll get a fair trial.’

‘Ain’t you a little far from home for that badge to mean something?’

‘While she’s running free, that’s true, but that’ll change when I catch up with them. She’ll be in jail just as fast as I can tell the local sheriff what I know, that the shooting contests are crooked and that she, Mayhew and Valance are a bunch of swindlers. And I’ve got signed affidavits and witness statements from a whole string of towns to back it up. Once they’re in jail, transferring Beulah into my custody will be a formality. I’ve only got to file the papers.’

Hell, I never drank coffee so fast. I couldn’t get away fast enough. After thanking Sloane for his hospitality, I practically ran to my horse.

‘Are you sure you won’t stay? You’re welcome to share the fire, and bunk down here for the night.’

‘Thanks, but I’d better be making tracks. I don’t think I could sleep yet anyhow, coffee keeps me awake. Oh, I just remembered…I think I heard someone called Brogan won the shooting contest. Course that could be an alias, and Valance too, I reckon. I guess you never can tell with people like that.’

‘Much obliged George. Glad to have met you.’

I bedded down an hour or so later, though sleep was impossible with so much swirling around in my brain. Who’d have thought that about Maybelle, huh? Funny thing is, for all I’d heard, I couldn’t dislike her.

Next morning, tired as I was, blue sky and sunshine gave me the perfect start to a brand new day. With the sun on my back almost as warm as the feeling in my heart, I saddled my horse. North, south, east or west, the choice was mine, and anywhere south of east would suit me fine, since the only place I was going was home. I never made it to Denver.