Three Steps

I’m three steps from meeting my maker. Three more steps to the noose. I am ready to die; I reckon I deserve to die. I have killed before, but never for such a frivolous reason as brings me to these last three steps.

The whole mess started down El Paso way when I walked into that little cantina. It was a bucket of blood, a real dive. But I had a thirst to slack and it was the first saloon I saw as I rode into town. Once inside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. When I could see again, I saw a bar against the far wall. Two men were leaning against it, staring into their drinks. A few tables were scattered around the room—all empty. It was mid-day, so that was no surprise.

I made my way to the bar and put my foot on the brass rail. The barman was a little slow in coming my way. I had just rode twenty-five miles and the dust was thick in my throat. I had no patience for a slow-movin’ barkeep. When he was opposite me, I grabbed his shirt and pulled his face to mine. Looking him dead in the eye, I said, “Give me your finest rotgut and if you dilly-dally, I’ll put a bullet in your leg.” As I said it, I drew my .45 from its leather. His eyes widened and he reached under the bar and came up with an almost full bottle of some good stuff. “Here, mister, it’s on the house,” he stuttered.

With that taken care of, I picked up the bottle and, leaving the glass where it was, took a good pull. I had ridden my horse almost to death. I had to move fast, they were on my trail. Yes, I had killed two men, but they were trying to kill me. I finally lost the posse in the badlands. Now I’m only a few miles from Mexico and freedom. But as it turned out, I might as well have been a million miles from the border.

I don’t know what she was doing coming into that hellhole of a bar, but when I saw her, my plans flew out the window. She pushed through the swing doors as though she owned the place. And, in a way, she did. She was tall and blonde. Her figure had more curves than a coiled rattler. Her hair was up—her smile could kill. Her eyes were gray and they looked my way.

She strolled right up and in a voice that would have made strong men weep, she said, “Ain’t you the big one.”

Without a word, I took the empty glass from the bar and poured some of the amber liquid into it. She took the proffered glass and said, “My name is Rose and I like a man who will buy a girl a drink.”

When we had worked the bottle down to half empty, she told me to grab it and took me by the hand. She led me to the stairs and we ascended to the second floor, to a door at the far end of the hall. “This is where I call home,” she purred. By now I had forgotten about the twenty-five dust-coated miles, the posse, the killings—everything.

Once in the room with the door locked, she pointed to a table and said, “You’ll find some glasses over there. Pour us a shot.” I found the glasses, blew the dust out of ’em, and did as I was told. When I turned back around, she was sitting on the bed. Patting the mattress, she beckoned softly. “Come and sit by me.”

Well, partners, that was all she wrote. For the next three days, we barely left that room. We had our hooch and food sent up. I had never known a woman like her. I’d mostly only been with whores, but she was no whore. She told me that she loved me. We spent three days exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, and I fell in love for the first time in my life.

It was on the morning of the fourth day that my head started to clear. We were lying in bed. I was on my back and she was propped up on one elbow, running her finger down my chest when she said she wanted to go to Mexico with me. I told her that was fine by me, but there was no rush. That’s when she got a funny look on her face and exclaimed, “No, we have to leave today!” Before I could say anything else, there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants. I knew who it was; it was the little Mex boy who had been bringing us our food and booze. I usually took the tray at the door and handed him a dollar. But this time was different. He beckoned me out into the hall and asked that I shut the door. When it was closed behind me, he whispered, “Señor, you have been good to me, so I must tell you that you are in great danger.”

I took the tray from his hands and said, “Don’t worry, son. This is the kind of danger I like,” and winked at him.

I started to turn, but he grabbed my arm. “You do not understand. She belongs to another man, a bad man. She has done this before and three men have died. Her man will be back tomorrow, so today she will ask you to leave and take her with you. If you are here tomorrow, José will kill you.”

I put the tray on the floor and asked the boy to tell me all that he knew. He told me people were making bets with each other if I’d get away before José got back or if I’d be planted up on the hill with the other three. It seemed Rose, my great love, was using me to get away from José. In this country, a woman can’t travel alone. And besides, as the boy told me, José leaves her with no money when he goes away.

The news kinda punched me in the gut. I gave the boy a five-dollar gold piece and thanked him. Picking up the tray, I entered the room with a smile on my face.

“Where have you been? I missed you, big boy.”

Still smiling, I placed the tray on the bed. “You chow down. I’m gonna have me a drink.”

I had me some thinking to do.

As I sat in the chair and watched her eat, I weighed my options. We could leave together and avoid this man José, or I could leave alone. Or, we could stay and could have it out with José. The problem was I didn’t know if she was worth it. She had played me. If I took her with me, would she ditch me once we were in Mexico?

I was still thinking on those thoughts when she broke my reverie by saying, “I want to be out of here by noon. I’m going to take a bath; you pack and then settle our bill. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.”

Still smiling, I said, “I’ll see you at the livery.” She gathered up some clothes, got herself dressed, and left to take her bath.

When she had gone, I sat there in thought and added another option to the other three. I could just kill the lying bitch and be done with her.

I put on my shirt and boots, strapped on my .45, and went downstairs still undecided. By the time I reached the livery, I had decided that I’d leave without her. She was a fine-looking woman and the sex was good, but I had enough trouble in my life without no crazy man coming after me. I saddled my pinto and started down the street at a slow pace. As I passed the saloon, Rose pushed through the swing doors and saw me. She dropped her bags and ran up, grabbed ahold of the saddle horn, and walked alongside. Looking up at me, she implored, “Where you going? Wait! I’ll get my horse.”

“I’m sorry. It was nice, but this here is where we go down our separate trails.”

She wouldn’t let go, so I picked up the pace a mite. She still hung on. Then I saw her look down the street and the look on her face said it all. She let go and hightailed it back to the saloon.

Astride a sorrel rode a big man … a big, mean-looking man. It had to be José. As we came abreast of each other, he grabbed the reins of my horse. There we stood, eye to eye, neither one of us speaking. Finally he said in a very deep voice, “Whatcha doin’ with my woman?”

“Nothing, just tryin’ to get outta town,” I answered.

I saw it in his eyes; he was going to draw on me. I may be slow when it comes to women, but I’m fast when it comes to gun play. I had a bullet through his forehead before he cleared leather. That was my mistake, that and taking up with Rose. I should have let him draw first. The whole thing was seen by the town marshal and I was quickly arrested. I thought for a moment of killing the marshal before he arrested me, but I never did kill no man that was not trying to kill me.

For three days, I knew of love. In three steps, I die.

48 Hour Deal!!!

Mahoney is on sale for 99 cents today and tomorrow (March 23rd & 24th). Reviews are averaging 4.8 stars.

“In this compelling, richly researched novel, author Andrew Joyce tells a story of determination and grit as the Mahoney clan fights to gain a foothold in America. From the first page to the last, Mahoney is a riveting, historically accurate tale of adventure, endurance, and hope.”

In the second year of an Gorta Mhór—the Great Famine—nineteen-year-old Devin Mahoney lies on the dirt floor of his small, dark cabin. He has not eaten in five days. His only hope of survival is to get to America, the land of milk and honey. After surviving disease and storms at sea that decimate crew and passengers alike, Devin’s ship limps into New York Harbor three days before Christmas, 1849. Thus starts an epic journey that will take him and his descendants through one hundred and fourteen years of American history, including the Civil War, the Wild West, and the Great Depression.

 

 

Jeanie

Jake

Here’s the follow-up to the Everything’s Jake story.

It’s two hours before dawn, moonlight shafts in through the open window. In a darkened corner, deep in the shadows, sits a woman. She has been sitting there for hours. She looks toward the bed. Lying on the bed is a man, a big man. The woman is crying, the man is snoring, and they are waiting. The man does not know that he is waiting … but he is.

What a mess I’ve made of things, thinks the woman. She recalls back five years when she was just a seventeen-year-old girl in Two Mule, Kansas. Back then her favorite saying was, “This may be Two Mule, but it’s a one-horse town as far as I’m concerned.”

Then the big man came to town; he was handsome in a rugged sort of way. Jeanie took one look at him and knew that he was her ticket to freedom. At that thought, Jeanie has to laugh. Freedom! I haven’t had a free day since I left home. But she did not know what was in store for her then. At the time, all she wanted was to get away, and Mac was only too happy to oblige her.

He told her he would take her to Chicago, maybe even New York. But when they left, in the middle of the night, they headed west. He told her he needed a grubstake and was going to do a little panning for gold. But Mac did his panning with a knife.

They would wander into a gold camp, set up his tent, and Mac would pretend to pan during the day, always out of sight of the others. What he did was mostly drink and sleep. However, at night as the men sat around the fire, he would ascertain the man with the biggest poke, as he listened to their talk.

After two or three days, when he had picked out his target, he would creep into the man’s tent as he slept, slit his throat, and take his dust. Then he and Jeanie would hightail it out there. When you traveled with Mac Conway, you were always leaving places in the middle of the night. And tonight, thought Jeanie, as she sat in her corner, will be no different. Mac, you’ll be leaving in the night, but not with me … not this time.

It wasn’t long before Jeanie cottoned to what Mac was doing. That didn’t bother her too much, but what stuck in her craw was the fact that Mac had no intention of taking her to Chicago or anywhere else but two-bit tank towns. That’s when she first ran away from him.

As he lay passed out, dead drunk, she had lifted his purse and what dust she could find. Her big mistake—if you don’t count her not killing him outright—was leaving his horse.

He had caught up with her pretty fast and gave her a good beating to teach her not to do anything like that again. He said, as he beat her, “You belong to me and if you ever leave me again, I’ll kill ya!” It was then that Jeanie knew she would need the help of a man if she was going to escape Mac.

It was fourteen months before she found the right man; at least he seemed right at the time. Jake was full of talk of all the places he’d been. He said he was passing through town on his way to California where he was going to buy a ranch and raise cattle.

Once she had Jake picked out, she worked on him when Mac wasn’t around.

“You’re not afraid of him, are you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then you’re the man for me. We can be one hundred miles gone before he even misses me. And don’t worry; he’ll be glad to be quit of me.”

However, after they left and word got around that Mac was looking for them, Jake started to go to pieces. He was always looking over his shoulder and saying things like, “How far back you reckon Mac is?” Or, “I don’t think we’d better stay here more than a day. Mac could be close by.” It was enough to drive a person crazy, thought Jeanie as she sat in her chair, in the corner, in the dark.

After eight months of Jake jumping at every bump in the night and loud noise during the day, she’d had enough of his frightened ways and started to play the piano player, no pun intended. Well … perhaps some pun intended.

The beautiful thing about Señor Piano Player was that he didn’t know of Mac, but Mac soon found out about him. When Mac finally caught up with her and the piano player, he didn’t beat her, he did not kill her, he simply told her she was responsible for the death of two men. He took great joy in telling her how Jake Tapper had died. So, two men were now dead and she was still with Mac.

If she was to get away, she would have to take care of things herself.

It was now a month later and they were in a new town. Mac came in every night roaring drunk. Some nights he would ravage her; other nights he’d just pass out. That is what gave her the idea.

She could have lifted his gun out of the holster as he slept. It was always hanging from the bedpost at night. And she could have pulled back the hammer, placed the barrel in his ear, and squeezed the trigger. But, that is not a woman’s way. And besides, she would most likely be hung for murder if she did it that way.

That afternoon, she had gone to McGuire’s Emporium and bought a bottle of laudanum, which is also known as tincture of opium. Before she left, she asked Mr. McGuire how much was safe to take.

“One tablespoon is alright, two if you are in a lot of pain.”

“How much is dangerous?”

“It depends on body weight.”

“What would happen if I drank half the bottle?”

“You would go to sleep and die.”

“Thank you, Mr. McGuire.”

“Good day, Jeanie. Say hello to Mac for me.”

Like everyone else in town, McGuire was fearful of Mac Conway.

Jeanie returned to the hotel, and before heading upstairs, stopped at the bar to buy a bottle of Mac’s favorite whiskey.

When she was alone in the confines of her room, she poured half the contents of the whiskey bottle into the wash basin. She then uncorked the laudanum and poured all of it into the bottle. Laudanum has a bitter taste. Jeanie was hoping Mac’s inebriation and the whiskey would mask the taste.

That night, Mac slammed opened the door when he returned, he was drunk as usual. As he reached for her, she said, “Hello, lover. Let’s have a drink first.”

Jeanie knew that Mac never declined an invitation for libation. She went to the table and poured a portion of the doctored liquid into a glass. Mac, as she knew he would, grabbed the bottle from her and took a healthy swallow. Well … it would have been a healthy swallow if not for the laudanum.

She was able to keep away from him until the bottle was empty, then she guided him to the bed where he sat for a moment, his head hung low, before he fell backwards and passed out.

That had been hours ago. Now Jeanie sat and waited—waited for the son-of-a-bitch to die. Just before sunrise, the snoring stopped. She hesitated for only a moment before going over to the bed. She had to know.

Yes, he was dead.

Before leaving the room, she went through his pockets and took anything of value. Then she went out to meet the rising sun.

Everything’s Jake

Cowboy

It was early morning when the man rode into town from the east, the sun at his back, his long shadow before him. The street was deserted except for an old mongrel dog sniffing its way home after a long night’s prowl.

He proceeded on the main thoroughfare—the town’s only thoroughfare—until he came abreast of the Blue Moon Café with its “WE NEVER CLOSE” sign hanging from the ramada. Spurring his horse over to the hitching post outside the café, he dismounted and entered the establishment.

At that time in the morning, the chairs were on the tables, and the only occupants were a boy sweeping the floor and a disheveled, overweight man behind the bar wiping a glass with a dirty rag. The barkeep watched the stranger approach.

“How ’bout some whiskey?” said the stranger.

When the barman was slow in responding, the man grabbed his collar, pulled him down until he was bent over the bar — their eyes level.

“I said whiskey,” growled the stranger.

“Yes sir, right away,” was the barkeep’s quick response.

When released, and with a shaking hand, he placed the glass he had been wiping on the bar, grabbed a bottle from beneath the counter, and poured a liberal amount of an amber liquid into it.

As he started to re-cork the bottle, he was told to leave it on the bar.

“Yes sir.”

Turning his back to the bar and placing his elbows thereon, he called to the youth doing the sweeping.

“Hey you, boy, come over here.”

Placing his broom against the nearest table, the boy did as he was bid.

“You got a name, son?”

“Yes sir. It’s Billy.”

“Well, Billy, do you know a man by the name of Jake Tapper?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes sir.”

Reaching into his vest pocket, the man withdrew a silver dollar and flicked it in the boy’s direction. “You go tell Jake that Mac’s in town.”

*****

Jake lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. It was much too early to be awake, but since she left, he’d found it hard to sleep. It had been a heady eight months. He had never loved a woman as he had loved Jeanie. Sure, it was taking a chance messing with Mac Conway’s woman, but it had been worth it. Now that she had run off with that piano player from the Blue Moon, he thought he’d just stop running from Mac. Might as well get it over with, thought Jake.

Then there was a knock at his door. “Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Mister Tapper. Billy Doyle.”

“Whatcha want, Billy?”

“A man down to the Blue Moon told me to tell you that Mac is in town. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“Alright, Billy. You tell him I’ll be right there.”

Jake packed his few belongings and left the room. Instead of going to the Blue Moon, he went to the livery stable and saddled his horse. Then he mounted and headed out of town as fast as the beast could carry him.

It is one thing to think brave thoughts in the seclusion of your room, but it’s another thing to face Mac Conway in a saloon. Hell, it ain’t healthy to face off with Mac anywhere. Now that Jeanie’s gone, there’s no reason to git myself killed.

The next day Mac caught up with Jake, and then he went looking for Jeanie.

Everything’s Jake

Everything’s Jake

 It was early in the morning when the man rode into town from the east, the sun at his back, his long shadow before him. The street was deserted except for an old mongrel dog sniffing its way home after a long night’s prowl.

He proceeded on the main thoroughfare—the town’s only thoroughfare—until he came abreast of the Blue Moon Café with its “WE NEVER CLOSE” sign hanging from the ramada. Spurring his horse over to the hitching post outside the café, he dismounted and entered the establishment.

At that time in the morning, the chairs were on the tables, and the only occupants were a boy sweeping the floor and a disheveled, overweight man behind the bar wiping a glass with a dirty rag. The barkeep watched the stranger approach.

“How ’bout some whiskey?” said the stranger.

When the barman was slow in responding, the man grabbed his collar, pulled him down until he was bent over the bar and their eyes were staring into each other’s.

“I said whiskey,” growled the stranger.

“Yes sir, right away,” was the barkeep’s quick response.

When released, with a shaking hand, he placed the glass he had been wiping on the bar, grabbed a bottle from beneath the counter, and poured a liberal amount of an amber liquid into it.

As he started to re-cork the bottle, he was told to leave it.

“Yes sir.”

Turning his back to the bar and placing his elbows thereon, he called to the youth doing the sweeping.

“Hey you, boy, come over here.”

Placing his broom against the nearest table, the boy did as he was bid.

“You got a name, son?”

“Yes sir. It’s Billy.”

“Well, Billy, do you know a man by the name of Jake Tapper?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes sir.”

Reaching into his vest pocket, the man withdrew a silver dollar and flicked it in the boy’s direction. “You go tell Jake that Mac’s in town.”

Jake lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. It was much too early to be awake, but since she left him, he found it hard to sleep. It had been a heady eight months. He had never loved a woman as he had loved Jeanie. Sure, it was taking a chance messing with Mac Conway’s woman, but it had been worth it. Now that she had run off with that piano player from the Blue Moon, he thought he’d just stop running from Mac. Might as well get it over with, thought Jake.

Then there was a knock at his door. “Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Mister Tapper. Billy Doyle.”

“Whatcha want, Billy?”

“A man down to the Blue Moon told me to tell you that Mac is in town. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“Alright, Billy. You tell him I’ll be right there.”

Jake packed his few belongings and left the room. Instead of going to the Blue Moon, he went to the livery stable and saddled his horse. Then he mounted and headed out of town as fast as the beast could carry him.

It is one thing to think brave thoughts in the seclusion of your room, but it’s another thing to face Mac Conway in a saloon. Hell, it ain’t healthy to face off with Mac anywhere. Now that Jeanie’s gone, there’s no reason to git myself killed.

The next day Mac caught up with Jake, and then went looking for Jeanie.

Part Two

Jeanie

It’s two hours before dawn and moonlight shafts in through the window. In a darkened corner, in the shadows, sits a woman. She has been sitting there for hours. She looks toward the bed. Lying on the bed is a man, a big man. The woman is crying, the man is snoring, and they are waiting. The man does not know that he is waiting, but he is.

What a mess I’ve made of things, thinks the woman. She thinks back five years to when she was just a seventeen year-old girl in Two Mule, Kansas. Back then her favorite saying was, “This may be Two Mule, but it’s a one-horse town as far as I’m concerned.”

Then the big man came to town; he was handsome in a rugged sort of way. Jeanie, that is the woman’s name, took one look at him and knew that he was her ticket to freedom. At that thought Jeanie has to laugh. Freedom! I haven’t had a free day since we left. But she did not know what was in store for her then. At the time, all she wanted was to get away, and Mac was only too happy to oblige her.

He told her he would take her to Chicago, maybe even New York. But when they left, in the middle of the night, they headed west. He told her he needed a grubstake and was going to do a little panning for gold. But Mac did his panning with a knife.

They would wander into a gold camp, set up his tent, and Mac would pretend to pan during the day, always out of sight of the others. What he did was drink and sleep. However, at night as the men sat around the fire, he would ascertain the man with the biggest poke, as he listened to their talk.

After two or three days, when he had picked out his target, he would creep into the man’s tent as he slept, slit his throat, and take his dust. Then he and Jeanie would leave. When you traveled with Mac Conway, you were always leaving places in the middle of the night. And tonight, thought Jeanie, as she sat in her corner, will be no different. Mac, you’ll be leaving in the night, but not with me. Not this time.

It wasn’t long before Jeanie cottoned to what Mac was doing. That didn’t bother her too much, but what stuck in her craw was the fact that Mac had no intention of taking her to Chicago or anywhere else but two-bit tank towns. That’s when she first ran away from him.

As he lay passed out, drunk, she lifted his purse and what dust she could find. Her big mistake—if you don’t count her not killing him outright—was leaving his horse.

He had caught up with her pretty fast and gave her a good beating to teach her not to do anything like that again. He said, as he beat her, “You belong to me and if you ever leave me again, I’ll kill ya!” It was then that Jeanie knew she would need the help of a man if she was going to escape Mac.

It was fourteen months before she found the right man; at least he seemed right at the time. Jake was full of talk of all the places he’d been. He said he was passing through town on his way to California where he was going to buy a ranch and raise cattle.

Once she had Jake picked out, she worked on him when Mac wasn’t around.

“You’re not afraid of him, are you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then you’re the man for me. We can be one hundred miles gone before he even misses me. And don’t worry; he’ll be glad to be quit of me.”

However, after they left and word got around that Mac was looking for them, Jake started to go to pieces. He was always looking over his shoulder and saying things like, “How far back you reckon Mac is?” Or, “I don’t think we’d better stay here more than a day. Mac could be close by.” It was enough to drive me crazy, thought Jeanie as she sat in her chair, in the corner, in the dark.

After eight months of Jake’s jumping at every bump in the night and loud noise during the day, she started to play the piano player, no pun intended. Well … perhaps some pun intended.

The beautiful thing about Señor Piano Player was that he didn’t know of Mac. But Mac soon found out about him. When Mac finally caught up with her and the piano player, he didn’t beat her, he did not kill her, he simply told her she was responsible for the deaths of two men. He took great joy in telling her how Jake Tapper had died. So, two men were dead. If she was to get away from Mac, she would have to take care of things herself.

Now it was a month later and they were in a new town. Mac came in every night roaring drunk. Some nights he would ravage her; other nights he’d just pass out. That is what gave her the idea.

She could have lifted his gun out of the holster as he slept. It was always hanging from the bedpost at night. Then she could have pulled back the hammer, placed the barrel in his ear, and squeezed the trigger. But, that is not a woman’s way. And besides, she would most likely be hung for murder if she did it that way.

That afternoon, she went to McGuire’s Emporium and bought a bottle of laudanum, which is also known as tincture of opium. Before she left, she asked Mr. McGuire how much was safe to take.

“One tablespoon is alright, two if you are in a lot of pain.”

“How much is dangerous?”

“It depends on body weight.”

“What would happen if I drank half the bottle?”

“You would go to sleep and die.”

“Thank you, Mr. McGuire.”

“Good day, Jeanie. Say hello to Mac for me.”

Like everyone else in town, McGuire was fearful of Mac Conway.

On the way upstairs, after she returned home, Jeanie bought a bottle of Mac’s favorite whiskey.

When she was alone in the confines of her room, she poured most of the contents of the whiskey bottle into the wash basin. Then she uncorked the laudanum and poured all of it into the bottle. Laudanum has a bitter taste. Jeanie was hoping Mac’s inebriation and the whiskey would mask the taste. In this, she was right.

That night, Mac slammed opened the door when he returned, he was drunk as usual. As he reached for her, she said, “Hello, lover. Let’s have a drink first.”

Jeanie knew that Mac never declined an invitation for libation. She went to the table and poured a portion of the doctored liquid into a glass. Mac, as she knew he would, grabbed the bottle from her and he took a healthy swallow. Well, it would have been a healthy swallow if not for the laudanum.

She was able to keep away from him until the bottle was empty, then she guided him to the bed where he sat for a moment, head hung down, before he fell backwards and passed out.

That was hours ago. Now she sat and waited, waited for the son-of-a-bitch to die. Just before sunrise, the snoring stopped. She hesitated for only a moment before going over to the bed. She had to know.

Yes, he was dead.

Before leaving the room, she went through his pockets and took anything of value. Then she went out and met the rising sun, and walked into a new life.

The End

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Three Steps

I’m three steps from meeting my maker. Three more steps to the noose. I am ready to die; I reckon I deserve to die. I have killed before, but never for such a frivolous reason as brings me to these last three steps.

The whole mess started down El Paso way when I walked into that little cantina. It was a bucket of blood, a real dive. But I had a thirst and it was the first saloon I saw as I rode into town. Once inside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. When I could see again, I saw a bar against the far wall. Two men were leaning against it, staring into their drinks. A few tables were scattered around the room—all empty. It was mid-day, so that was no surprise.

I made my way to the bar and put my foot on the brass rail. The barman was a little slow in coming my way. I had just rode twenty-five miles and the dust was thick in my throat. I had no patience for a slow-movin’ barkeep. When he was opposite me, I grabbed his shirt and pulled his face to mine. Looking him dead in the eye, I said, “Give me your finest rotgut and if you dilly-dally, I’ll put a bullet in your leg.” As I said it, I drew my .44 from its leather and pointed the barrel at his right leg. His eyes widened and he reached under the bar and came up with an almost full bottle of some good stuff. “Here, mister, it’s on the house,” he stuttered.

With that taken care of, I picked up the bottle and, leaving the glass where it was, took a good pull. I had ridden my horse almost to death. I had to move fast, they were on my trail. I mean the posse. Yes, I had killed two men, but they were trying to kill me. I finally lost the posse in the badlands. Now I’m only a few miles from Mexico and freedom. But as it turned out, I might as well have been a million miles from the border.

I don’t know what she was doing coming into that hellhole of a bar, but when I saw her, my plans changed. She pushed through the swing doors as though she owned the place. And, in a way, she did. She was tall and blonde. Her figure had more curves than a coiled rattler. Her hair was up—her smile could kill. Her eyes were gray and they looked my way.

She strolled right up to me and in a voice that would have made strong men weep, she said, “Ain’t you the big one.”

Without a word, I took the empty glass from the bar and poured some of the amber liquid into it. She took the proffered glass and said, “My name is Rose and I like a man that will buy a girl a drink.”

When we had worked the bottle down to half empty, she told me to grab it and took me by the hand. She led me to the stairs and we ascended to the second floor, to a door at the far end of the hall. “This is where I call home,” she purred. By now I had forgotten about the twenty-five dust-coated miles, the posse, the killings—everything.

Once in the room with the door locked, she pointed to a table and said, “You’ll find some glasses over there. Pour us a shot.” I found the glasses, blew the dust out of ’em, and did as I was told. When I turned back around, she was sitting on the bed. Patting the mattress, she beckoned softly. “Come and sit by me.”

Well, partners, that was all she wrote. For the next three days, we barely left that room. We had our hooch and food sent up. I had never known a woman like her. I’d mostly only been with whores, but she was no whore. She told me that she loved me. We spent three days exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, and I fell in love for the first time in my life.

It was on the morning of the fourth day that my head started to clear. We were lying in bed. I was on my back and she was propped up on one elbow running her finger down my chest when she said she wanted to go to Mexico with me. I told her that was fine by me, but there was no rush. That’s when she got a funny look on her face and exclaimed, “No, we have to leave today!” Before I could say anything else, there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants. I knew who it was; it was the little Mex boy who had been bringing us our food and booze. I usually took the tray at the door and handed him a dollar. But this time was different. He beckoned me out into the hall and asked that I shut the door. When it was closed behind me, he whispered, “Señor, you have been good to me, so I must tell you that you are in great danger.”

I took the tray from his hands and said, “Don’t worry, son. This is the kind of danger I like,” and winked at him.

I started to turn, but he grabbed my arm. “You do not understand. She belongs to another man, a bad man. She has done this before and three men have died. Her man will be back tomorrow, so today she will ask you to leave and take her with you. If you are here tomorrow, José will kill you.”

I put the tray on the floor and asked the boy to tell me all that he knew. He told me people were making bets with each other if I’d get away before José got back or if I’d be planted up on the hill with the other three. It seemed Rose, my great love, was using me to get away from José. In this country, a woman can’t travel alone. And besides, as the boy told me, José leaves her with no money when he goes away.

The news kinda punched me in the gut. I gave the boy a five-dollar gold piece and thanked him. Picking up the tray, I entered the room with a smile on my face.

“Where have you been? I missed you, big boy.”

Still smiling, I placed the tray on the bed. “You chow down. I’m gonna have me a drink.”

I had me some thinking to do.

As I sat in the chair and watched her eat, I weighed my options. We could leave together and avoid this man José, or I could leave alone. Or, we could stay and I could have it out with José. The problem was I didn’t know if she was worth it. She had played me. If I took her with me, would she ditch me once we were in Mexico?

I was still thinking on those thoughts when she broke my reverie by saying, “I want to be out of here by noon. I’m going to take a bath; you pack and then settle our bill. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.” Still smiling, I answered, “I’ll see you at the livery.” She gathered up some clothes, got herself dressed, and left to take her bath.

When she had gone, I sat there in thought and added another option to the other three. I could just kill the lying bitch and be done with her. What to do? What to do?

I put on my shirt and boots, strapped on my .45, and went downstairs still undecided. By the time I reached the livery, I had decided that I’d leave without her. She was a fine-looking woman and the sex was good, but I had enough trouble in my life without no crazy man coming after me. I saddled my pinto and started down the street at a slow pace. As I passed the saloon, Rose pushed through the swing doors and saw me. She dropped her bags and ran up, grabbed ahold of the saddle horn, and walked alongside. Looking up at me, she implored, “Where you going? Wait! I’ll get my horse.”

“I’m sorry. It was nice, but this here is where we go down our separate trails.”

She wouldn’t let go, so I picked up the pace a mite. She still hung on. Then I saw her look down the street and the look on her face said it all. She let go and hightailed it back to the saloon.

I didn’t have to look, but I did. Astride a sorrel rode a big man, a big, mean-looking man. It had to be José. As we came abreast of each other, he grabbed the reins of my horse. There we stood, eye to eye, neither one of us speaking. Finally he said in a very deep voice, “Whatcha doin’ with my woman?”

“Nothing, just tryin’ to get outta town,” I answered.

I saw it in his eyes; he was going to draw on me. I may be slow when it comes to women, but I’m fast when it comes to gun play. I had a bullet through his forehead before he cleared leather. That was my mistake, that and taking up with Rose. I should have let him draw first. The whole thing was seen by the town marshal and I was quickly arrested. I thought for a moment of killing the marshal before he arrested me, but I never did kill no man that was not trying to kill me.

For three days, I knew of love. In three steps, I die.

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Kelly

kelly lllHowdy, the name’s Jim Bridger and I’ve got me a story to tell. It ain’t no shoot ‘em up western tale, though it does take place in the west. It ain’t no detective yarn, though something is found. And it sure as hell ain’t no love story, though a love blossoms. I reckon I best be gettin’ to it.

I rode the rodeo circuit all my life, started out as a snot-nosed kid handling stock. Then I was given a chance to break horses for the promoter I worked for. And I was pretty damn good at it. So I saved up the fee and entered myself in the bronco event when we set up in Salinas. I came in second and that was all she wrote. With the prize money, I bought myself a pickup truck and started to follow the circuit. I was never the best, but I made out all right. It wasn’t long before I was entering other events. I was particular to bull riding and steer wrestling. Of course, I had to do chute dogging first to prove myself before I could do any steer wrestling.

I broke my fair share of bones, and nowadays when I wake up in the morning, it takes me ’bout an hour to work out all the kinks before I can walk straight up. I never had no social life. It was just movin’ from town to town, mostly sleeping in my truck. I reckon the only thing I was ever close to was my horse, a gray dun that I had named Tex. I had to put him down five years back when he got the colic.

When all the broken bones and the other abuse I had put my body through finally caught up with me and I couldn’t compete no more, I became a rodeo clown. Then even that became too much for my old bones. I was offered a job handling stock, but that was where I started out thirty years earlier. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I hit the road in my twenty-year-old pickup looking for something, although I had no idea what. I was fifty-five-years old, had a hundred and twenty dollars in my pocket and a half a tank of gas in my truck.

I picked up day labor here and there. It kept me fed and gas in my truck, but one Sunday morning, a year after leaving the rodeo, I found myself out of gas, out of money, and out of hope. There was a gnawin’ in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten in a day. I was outside of Blythe, California, just across from the Arizona line.

The truck coasted to a stop and I looked about. The country looked as desolate as my spirits felt. There was only one building that I could see; it looked like a small farmhouse, but then I noticed the sign. It read: KATE ARCHER, VETERINARIAN. With nothing to lose, I decided to go up and ask to trade some work for a meal. It being Sunday and all, I figured no one would be about, but it was my only option.

As I approached the house, my heart sank. It was in disrepair; it looked as though no one had lived in it for a while. Then I saw the corral. There was a single horse in it, a skinny pinto. I knocked on the back door, which was immediately opened by a woman of about fifty.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you on a Sunday mornin’, but I was wonderin’ if you might have some work that needs doing in exchange for a meal?”

She took so long to say something, I thought she was gonna slam the door in my face. But finally she told me to come in, that she was just fixin’ breakfast.

“Ma’am, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather do the work first.”

She smiled and said, “I can tell you’re hungry, and a man can’t work on an empty stomach. God knows there’s plenty that needs doing, so don’t worry, you’ll earn your meal.” Then she stood aside so that I could enter.

While she busied herself at the stove, I sat at the kitchen table and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Kate Archer, and she was a veterinarian as the sign had suggested. We made small talk until the food was ready. Nothing never looked so good. As I shoveled eggs and bacon into my mouth, Kate said that it was good to see a man enjoy her cooking.

The short of it is, Kate told me there were some shingles that needed replacin’ on the roof, and that there were a stack of ’em in the lean-to out back. I thanked her for the grub, found the ladder and shingles and got to work. Four hours later, just as I was finishing up, she called me down to lunch.

While we were eating, she asked, “So, what are your plans?”

“Reckon when I git done with this here fine food, I’ll walk into town and look for work.”

She looked shocked and asked, “You’ll walk to town? Don’t you have a car?”

“I’ve got a truck, but it’s kinda outta gas.”

Then she wanted to know what kind of work I did.

“Whatever needs doin’. ’Ceptin’ I don’t do no doctorin’ of animals, nothing like that.”

She smiled at my little joke and said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of work that needs doing right here. I can’t pay much, but I’ll feed you and you can sleep in the lean-to.”

I didn’t have to think on it long.

I pushed my truck into the yard, put my kit in the lean-to, then went up to the kitchen door and knocked. When she opened it, I said, “All moved in, ma’am. What do you want me to tackle first?”

“First, I want you to call me Kate. Then I want you to get comfortable. That lean-to needs some fixing up if you’re going to live in it. So why don’t you work on that for now. At dinner I’ll give you a list of things to get started on and you can get to them in the morning. It’s Sunday after all, a day of rest.”

That’s how it started. There were always things that needed looking after, both inside the house and out. And somehow, I just never left. But after almost two years, I had the place looking pretty good and a few dollars in my pocket, so I reckoned it was time to move on.

Generally Kate was gone during the day making her rounds. So I was alone out back at the corral replacing a cracked board when Kelly trotted into my life. She was a black mustang . . . not much more than a foal. Of course her name wasn’t Kelly then. She was just a scrawny little filly looking the worse for wear. I gave her water and some oats and put her in the corral, then went about my work.

When Kate got back that night, a troubled look crossed her face. I was rubbing the mustang down in the lean-to and talking to her gently. “Hello,” said Kate. “How did she get here?”

I was startled for I had not heard her drive up, probably because all my attention was on the mustang. But I recovered quickly and answered her question. “I don’t know how she got here. She just came into the yard, trotted right up and nuzzled me. I think it was love at first sight on both our parts.”

“Well, we have a problem. That horse belongs to John Middleton and he’s not a very nice man. It’s likely when he learns she’s here, he’ll swear you stole her and have the law on you.”

I stopped rubbing the mustang and said, “Hang John Middleton! This horse has been mistreated and if I ever meet up with the man, I’ll beat the tar outta him. This horse goes back to him over my dead body.”

Kate sighed and said, “Put her in the corral and come inside. We’ll talk about it.”

As I sat down at the table, a name flashed in my head. KELLY!

Kate made us a drink of bourbon and water and sat down opposite me. “Jim, we’ll talk about the horse in a minute. But first I want to talk about us.” She saw that I was uncomfortable, so she hurried on. “You’ve been making noises over the last few weeks about leaving. I just want to ask you, aren’t you happy here?”

I sipped my whiskey and told her the truth. “Kate, when I showed up at your door, I was a broken man. I didn’t have a dime to my name and my prospects were zero. You fed me and housed me. For two years now, this has been my home. The only home I’ve ever known. I never told you, but I was an orphan. I ran away from the place at seventeen, and in all these years, you are the only person that showed me any kindness.”

I noticed that my glass was empty and stood to pour me another shot. Seeing her glass was still half full, I sat back down and continued. “I can’t stay here. If I do, I won’t have no self-respect. There’s no work here anymore.”

Kate sighed, downed her drink in one gulp, and said, “Make yourself useful. Pour me another one, no water this time.”

When I handed her the drink, she put it down, leaned back in her chair, and stared at me for a long minute. She shook her head before saying, “Now you listen here, Mister Jim Bridger. This place was worthless until you showed up. It’s now worth three times what it was. You work all day and then if I have a night call, you drive me. You have a way with animals. There were many a time if you had not been there to calm a sick and scared horse, I might have been trampled. I figure you earned your way into a partnership. And I dare you to say otherwise!” With that she downed the entire contents of her glass.

I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never seen her like that, I mean angry. She stood up and retrieved the bottle from the counter, saying, “This will save steps because we’re not leaving this table until we work things out.”

There was nothing to say to that neither, so I sat there with my mouth shut. But Kate sure had more to say. “For two years now, every single day we’ve eaten our meals together. We go shopping together. We talk on the porch in the cool of the evening. And not once, Jim Bridger, have you ever made a move on me. What’s wrong with me? You make a girl feel unattractive.”

She was so wrong. I thought her the most beautiful woman in the world, at least to me. There were many a night I lay in my bed and I thought of her. How I wanted to say something to let her know how I felt. But a man with nothing has no right to speak of such things to a woman.

There we sat, across the table from each other, neither one of us speaking. Then Kate got up, came over, and plopped herself right down on my lap. She put her arms around my neck and gave me the longest, deepest kiss I’ve ever had. It took me a few seconds, but then I returned it.

When we broke apart, she said, “Now that we have that settled, go get your things and move them into our bedroom.”

“I will. As soon as you get up off my lap.” She laughed and told me that she might not ever get up.

With her arms still around my neck, I asked her what we were going to do about Kelly. Kate tilted her head sideways and said, “Kelly?”

“The filly out in the corral.”

“Oh yes, her. Middleton is a son-of-a-bitch, but he owes me money. I’ll tell him I’m taking the horse as payment. If he gives me any trouble, I’ll report him for animal cruelty. What is her name again?”

“Kelly.”

“A nice name.”

That was the day I got me two first-class fillies. A year later, we sold the house, Kate sold her practice, and together with Kelly, we moved to Montana. We bought a small cabin and I built a heated barn for Kelly.

Now when it snows, Kelly is content in her barn. And Kate and I are content in each other’s arms.

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