Greg Stermolle

18071 Rawhide Ct.

Tehachapi, CA 93561

QUIET JOHN

PART I

I came to this dusty little cow town looking for a man. The stagecoach let off just outside the telegraph office, a lonely building on the outskirts. A large, filthy wooden porch encircled the structure like a moat, about as inviting as cobweb curtains to a proper city girl. Of course the inside was no better; sweat, dirt, and old paper swirled together in an almost unbearably vile country potpourri. The operator at the telegraph office suggested I talk to the bartender in the saloon. His country twang sounded more like notes from a harmonica than words as he said, "Now, you go down yonder tah the saloon and ask fer the barkeep. Make sure ya talk tah the one with the beard missy, cause t'other is a lyin' cheatin' sunova . . ." But, blushing with embarrassment, he cut himself off before he could finish. I could just see him and his little country wife sitting on their small porch, a pitcher of sweet tea between them, whittling and sewing their way into the evening. It seems there may be a hint of chivalry left in the world, even if it is out here at the edge of the frontier.

Looking out from the wooden plank porch surrounding the telegraph office, I could picture the same sparse cactus shoots garnishing the ground right up to the lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean. Though, the salty cool breeze of the sea was weeks, perhaps even a month of hard riding away. As I turned the corner and stared through the heart of town, I saw the same desert; only thus interrupted by square, one and two-story buildings, a formation of prickly weeds rolling along the street, and the occasional parched cowboy leaning on a rail or ambling, bowlegged down the street.

The town was old, covered in dust, and smelled like stale manure smeared over sweaty men in dirty cotton shirts. I walked from the office and headed down the main street, so aptly named "Main Street." A school teacher, probably in her thirties, scurried along the boardwalk towing seven little children. Her dress was a pretty blue with a white apron and matching blue bonnet, something akin to "Ms. Betsy" on the cover of some horribly inadequate general store catalogue. She was not a very pretty woman; undoubtedly worn down by a hard life. The teacher walked with her head down, eyes darting between the ground and her children. Probably another in a long list of women taken advantage of or used by hungry cowboys with one thing on their mind. Then she winced as she passed a small group of them leaning against a tie rail. I saw fear, hurt, and anxiety in her movements, and at that moment the rugged men went from handsome to rancorous. They frightened her and at once, I hated them. My mind went wild as I pictured a group of them circling the poor woman like a pack of wolves, poking and prodding until she lost the will to struggle.

"LOOKOUT!" Someone yelled from inside the general store. More bastards I thought as a trio of riders galloped out from an alley and down the street toward the end of town; small bursts of dust rising into the air around the pounding hooves. A short rotund man wearing a tin star also rode down the street in what appeared to be a rather lethargic pursuit. As the men reached the last building, their horses still pitching dirt and mud from beneath their rusty shoes, the round man with the star, obviously satisfied with the effort, gave up and turned his horse back in the direction of the store. He stopped short however, tied his horse to a post in front of the inn and triumphantly waltzed his way into the foyer, a word I am sure he is entirely unfamiliar with.

As I continued in the direction of the saloon, flies whizzed through the air thick as smoke, buzzing the piles of dung left near hitching rails. Landing and flying off like small children seeing how much pestering they can accomplish before being chased off with a broom and harsh words. I appeared to be the only person paying them any mind so I did my best to ignore their presence. The frontier is nothing like the city; coarse and disheveled, rotting wood instead of concrete, hoards of flies instead of pigeons, and filthy animals braying and farting instead of automobiles quietly putting down the road.

My path took me down the walk and I noticed a man in a top hat, suit, and handlebar moustache smile warmly as I neared the Barber Shop. The red and white candy cane sign was home to more than one set of bullet holes, adding perfectly to the rustic, bucolic décor. I heard the man's steel tipped boots quickly clicking against the wood behind me after I'd passed. "Pardon me miss," he said shuffling up at my back. I winced as I turned to address the seedy character. "I don't believe I have had the pleasure, Miss . . ." he asked, the words dripping like saliva from his lips. After seeing the piteous teacher, I had to wonder if this façade worked on all the women in town.

He took off his hat and bowed deeply, like a prince in the King's Court or something equally ridiculous. "Why, gracious no" I said, sounding flattered proportionately to the bow, and hid my trenchant sneering behind a come hither smile. "I do not believe you have. And perhaps a fine upstanding man like your self," my eyelashes fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird, "would be so kind as to aid a poor weary traveler?"

I have been riding train, horse and carriage for over a month on this quest. And wasting time with pompous fools such as this was not on my, to do list.

"Tyson Earl Woolen, at your service ma'am," He said, returning his hat to the pinnacle of his stature and wrapping his finely manicured talons around the lapels of his cheap coat.

"Good." I returned, still fervently batting my lashes. "I'm looking for Quiet John."

His face fell slack and he blinked twice before clearing his throat. His moustache trembled slightly and stuck out above his lip, almost in a pout. Seeing him squirm filled me with warmth. "I see." He said, gathering himself for a response. "Are you an acquaintance?"

The coy smile never left my face, nor did my oscillating eyelashes fail to keep their flirtatious rhythm. He was visibly bothered by the name, and I noticed a bead of sweat gallop down the side of his face. "You might say that. Do you know him, Mr. Woolen?" The sound of his own name seemed to wrinkle his brow beneath the unnecessarily tall hat, obviously overcompensating for something else. His discomfort caused him to recoil a step, the heel of his shiny boots reluctantly dragging against the grit on the walk. Mr. Woolen is obviously not accustomed to being verbally mastered by a woman. Perhaps I will find a calling here after all.

"Oh," he said as a reaction, "I believe I saw him near the Saloon. Good day Ma'am." His gait demonstrated an attempt of confidence, horribly overdone, then further evidenced as he tripped over a rock, and staring back at the rock, stepped in a large pile of dung as he crossed the street. Petty fool, I thought and turned my attention to the Saloon. Quiet John would not be acerbated nearly as easily.

I could have followed the overpowering stench of booze and sweat like arrows drawn on a treasure map. The jovial conversation was the second sign, followed closely by the lazy piano solo chiming out Stephen Foster's notes of fricassee. I stepped toward the swinging doors like a rat following the entrancing melody of the pied piper. But as I reached out to push my way inside, a shoddy smelling and unmistakably intoxicated man, came stumbling out holding a short-barreled pistol is his right hand. He was yelling something unintelligible then stumbled off the edge of the walk and landed on his back in a cloud of slurred words and occluding dust. Another, equally soiled fellow, burst through the doors like a rampaging bull; he had a red face, red eyes, and was grunting like a locomotive. I could feel his breath pass over my shoulder like the breath of my dog who liked to wake me up by panting in my face. Argh, will boys never cease, even when they become men? The whole ordeal is probably over some saloon tramp who has already found herself another arm to hang from.

The swinging doors slammed so hard against the wall they came back and knocked the flustered man off balance. He was holding two long barreled pistols and when he attempted to regain his balance, inadvertently fired both guns putting two holes in the wood floor. Splinters and fragments shot into the air like a firework on Independence Day.

The man on the ground tried to stand but never found his footing and fell over again. His gun went off as his hand hit the dirt, firing a bullet that traveled just beneath the saloon floor. I was trapped adjacent to the swinging door, frozen in fear and awe. My courage and mettle shattered as I had never witnessed two men in a fight for their lives. My own expertise lay in a command of verbal maneuvering and the power of suggestion, never in the physical art of combat. Someone grabbed me and pulled me around the corner of the saloon, but I broke the grasp and poked my head out to observe the conclusion of the gun fight.

The combatant whose words I could understand was yelling something about a girl named Mary and then something else about a bet. He was yelling and shooting and walking, but not doing anything with any precision. His shots were wild, striking the dirt in every direction but the direction of his target. The other man, the one on the ground, fired three more shots as he tried to stand up, two went up in the air and the third back into the ground. Several more errant shots were fired and finally all guns were empty. Both men dropped their guns and the fight continued with fists and feet. They rolled around for a few moments in the street finding the only puddle of mud for a mile. Although, I believe they deposited more dirt and grime from their clothes than they accumulated on their clothes. Then, when both men were physically beaten, the rotund Sheriff appeared, and with two helpers, dragged the two men off toward the jail.

The scene had played out just like in my imagination of the Wild West: gunfights, brawls, public drunkenness, and sly cretins preying on unsuspecting women. My preconceptions continued to prove correct as I watched the patrons file back into the saloon, slapping each other on the back and laughing cheerfully. I followed the last woman inside and took in the combination of sweet booze, stale dirty sweat of man and beast, old rotting wood, fresh cigarettes, cheap perfume, and raw oakey pipe smoke; an aroma exclusive to saloons of the frontier. I watched the people return to their places almost like actors in a play; I watched their eyes, their movements, I could tell who was drunk and who was going to win the next big hand. I even saw a gambler, who did not run to the door, putting back the cards of other players after thoroughly looking them over.

The piano player ambled back to his stool and continued his lithe portrayal of the pied piper. The card games resumed as did the jovial banter at the bar. The staircase and second floor appeared empty. Walking to the bar, a clean shaven man with slick hair, flawless tie materialized offering to pour me a drink.

"I'm actually looking for the bartender with a beard," was my answer. A good amount of strength had left my body after the gunfight in the street. I felt warm and flustered, even excited. The whole experience was intoxicating, wild and romantic. I could almost forget the downtrodden woman and her seven children. My manners were reserved and even a bit shy in reaction to my elevated emotions. When the bartender looked me up and down I got a shiver. He winked, and walked off. I hoped, in search of the other bartender. I imagined him traipsing out the back door and conducting a clandestine meeting with Ty Woolen, the man with the top hat, to discuss secret plans of world domination. Like I said, I have an interesting imagination. But to my surprise, the bearded bartender approached and coaxed me to a quiet end of the bar.

"What can I do ya fer missy?" he asked, somehow instantly earning my trust and gratification. Something about his smile was refreshingly genuine, the way it spread across his whole face and into his eyes rather then simply arching the corners of his mouth. He reminded me of my grandfather when he would catch me out romping in the flowers or playing in the mud. I felt comfortable and safe, like I was a little girl again. "Hello, my name is Elizabeth Crawley." He smiled and nodded his head, beckoning me to continue. "I have need of some help, some . . . specific help." The sureness returned to my tone; I heard it more than I felt it in my chest but my heart continued to double time. "I was told to track down, Quiet John. My search has led me here." The little girl was gone and the hard, trained woman slowly returned. His reaction was, there was no reaction; nothing. He stood for a moment studying me just as I studied him, and something told me he had gained too much knowledge about me for what I had learned in return. The old man was hiding something.

"Well, I spose' the best thing would be, go strait to the man. That's him, sittin' there in the corner." The old bony finger shook in the direction of the far, back corner of the saloon. I had studied the room, looked at everyone when I entered, but I did not remember seeing him. I rescanned the room, checking for the obvious, but nothing else was out of place. I had simply missed the man in the corner, almost as if I couldn't see him unless he wanted himself seen. I looked back and the bartender and he winked, but a genuine, knowing wink further putting my nerves on alert. I do not like other people putting me at ease.

I turned and stood for a moment studying the creature in the corner; Quiet John the Bounty Hunter. As ruthless as he is dark they say, inescapable. His wide, dark hat pulled down to cover nearly all of his face. The only visible feature was a chin with a deep dimple in the middle covered in short dark stubble. A red bandanna covered his neck, tied on the right and flung over his left shoulder. I wondered how many women had wrapped themselves around that neck. Draped over his torso was a black duster, probably leather, its tails streaming in two ribbons to the floor and then out beneath the table. The jacket was loose which left much to the imagination. The table mostly obscured his trousers, but his boots were odd. Shaped like normal riding boots, but the sole was covered with some sort of material the likes of which I had never seen before; it appeared soft or padded.

I mustered up my courage and strode across the room, blithely ignoring the stares of the men I passed. A bottle of whiskey sat on the table next to an empty shot glass. I reached the small table in the corner and pulled a chair from an adjacent card game. The whiskey bottle atop the table was empty; strange, it's far too early to have gone through an entire bottle. I began to take my seat when he said, "Don't sit." I don't know why, but his words caused me to lurch back to my feet. Immediately embarrassed, I felt the warm flow of blood spread across my cheeks and out to the end of my nose. My jaw clenched inadvertently and I must have looked askance. His voice was cold and distant, like he was living in another land, and all I heard were the echoing remnants of a sound, long lost to this world.

"Excuse me sir. I apologize for,"

"Don't apologize," he interrupted, "you're only wasting oxygen. Turn around, and go back the way you came." I was stunned. He didn't even glance up to look me in the eye. I felt wronged or heartbroken, or maybe it was both. Maybe he did not like me, or was it a smudge on my face. "Your feet glued to the floor? The door is behind you. And if you're as smart as you act, you will move with haste."

I sensed something in his voice that did not pertain to me. His concentration was elsewhere, and once again I took the good advice to heart. Spinning around on my heels, I walked back to the swinging door. As I reached the door, I turned for one last look and saw that both his pistols were drawn and lying in his lap beneath the table. Another vital detail I had missed at first glance. The small, blued ends of the barrels protruded from folds in his long black coat.

A jocund racket from the staircase swept my attention to the second floor, and I watched two men and three women waltz nimbly down the stairs. The women stopped halfway, as if crossing the threshold would bring upon them death itself, the men appeared content and did not seem to notice. They continued down the stairs, patting each other on the back and talking boisterously until they reached the bottom.

Exiting the staircase put the two men with their backs to the wraith in the corner, although, before the last turn their view would have been right at him. "Joe and Henry Stark. Don't move." His voice was louder this time and its effect was felt throughout the saloon. All movement stopped, including the two men who a moment before, couldn't have had a care in the world. Two crusty men close to the back door skittered out like rats running from a sinking ship. One kicked a spittoon and the metallic clatter was the only noise until the quiet man spoke again. "You have bounties in the states of Oklahoma and Texas, dead or alive as I understand the terms."

He was still sitting behind the small table. Quiet John had placed himself in the perfect position to ambush the brothers as they walked down the stairs. A large mirror, just his side of the stairs, probably gave him a perfect view of their hands, and the fact they were isolated in the middle of the room provided them nothing for cover.

"We can do this the easy," he started, watching their heads turn and then in a blur they spun in unison and pulled one gun each from their waists. Joe, the more hairy of the two got the hammer of his gun stuck in a loop of his trousers and could not retrieve it. The other man jerked his pistol but took precious moments to find his target and take aim. A practiced gunman, his first bullet would have surely killed a lesser man.

As they spun, Quiet John kicked the table up in the air, sending the empty bottle and empty glass flying across the room. Joe put up his hands to block the bottle while Henry simply ducked the small glass. But the distraction was enough for the bounty hunter to take a steady, experienced aim. He fired two shots so close together, it sounded like one report. One bullet struck Joe between the eyes and sprayed the people behind with gray matter, blood, and pieces of wet skull. He was dead before he hit the floor. The other bullet hit Henry in the shoulder spinning him like a top and sending the gun clattering along the floor. He fell in a heap, wailing and writhing in pain.

"You BASTARD! You killed my brother?" Henry screamed as he tried to push himself up. The man in the dark duster walked to him, guns still out, and kicked him in his bloody shoulder. Henry fell to the floor and the bounty hunter slammed the heel of his boot on the wound.

"I killed your brother because his bounty is dead or alive. Yours on the other hand, adds an extra fifty dollars in Abilene if you are returned alive. If not for that, you would be just as dead. Now, the live bounty is only fifty dollars. If you become more than fifty dollars worth of trouble, you will join your brother in the afterlife, just as sure as bear shit is thick and greasy."

This scene had not played into my imagination at all. There was no glory, no romance, not even a hint at fair play; just life, death, blood, and the remains of a young man's brain strewn in a collage pattern on the wall of the saloon. No jovial banter, no piano, no card games, so showdown at high noon. As the bounty hunter secured his guns, most of the patrons filed out in a big hurry. The bearded barkeep walked over to me and softly put his hands on my shoulders. "This way miss," he said. "This won't be much of a place fer a lady fer some time, I reckon."

We started for the Inn, but I stopped, "What happens to those men now?"

"Well," he said, "they'll be thrown in an armored wagon and taken tah Abilene."

"Together? I mean, in the same cabin?" The thought of riding in the cabin of a stagecoach with one's dead brother was enough to turn my stomach.

"Yes, ma'am. Those two are wanted fer robbing a stage, killing a family on the range, stealin' their horses, and other charges of misconduct. If it weren't fer the money, both them boys would be lyin' dead on the floor of that there saloon right now."

Killing men for a living had never sounded like a great way to get through life. But in the romanticized newspapers of the East, it almost sounded glorious. Like fighting the good fight against the terrors of evil men, Charlemagne roaming the countryside with his knights, or something to that effect. But this was not it, not the same at all. Witnessing it first hand told a thousand stories a book could never begin to relate. Smelling the burnt powder, tasting the salty metallic warm blood in the air, and hearing the coldness in Quiet John's voice was like sitting next to a gong as someone struck it with a giant hammer. I watched John drag the only brother still breathing out of the saloon by his ankle. I wanted to stay and watch the rest, blood and death and dead bodies were something I had always avoided, and therefore was a source of fascination. But the old barkeep shooed me toward a small restaurant with promises of fresh tortillas, a homemade sour mash, and the best beans this side of the Rio Grande. But my thoughts stayed in the saloon. What do you say to the brother of the man you just killed? Who cleans up the bloody mess, and does the bounty hunter see the men he has killed in his dreams? Is sleeping with a killer, different than sleeping with any other man?

PART II

The food was disgustingly delicious and I struggled not to make a pig of myself. A glance at the décor however, left much to be desired. Several large chandeliers made of deer and moose antlers sat above the twelve tables and spread the sparse light throughout the room. The bar looked surprisingly clean, glasses and bottles stowed in neat rows against the back wall, but a large portrait of a badly disproportioned woman, barely clothed, sat above. The sour mash was little better than turpentine. It did, however, loosen up the conversation with the barkeep. He finally told me his name, Lonny Marshall; a little black man with gray hair, matching beard, round features, and a fatherly smile that melted my heart. Lonny's hands were steady and the tips of his fingers worn, as if he built things or maybe tinkered, obviously not the hands of a career barman. I learned his family had been killed during the war, but I could not get out of him what sort of relationship he had with the Bounty Hunter.

About an hour into the conversation, John came strolling in, horribly filthy and dragging his feet just a bit. Lonny and I were sitting at a table in the back corner of the restaurant, if that was actually what this establishment was called. John walked toward the small bar to the left of the door and poured himself a large frosty glass of beer from the tap. He leaned against the barrel for a moment, studying me, and then took three big gulps. Several long tired strides took him to the other side of the room; then he stuck his head into the kitchen. The Bounty hunter said something to the cooks in Spanish I couldn't make out; the reply came back as giggles and a sultry Si Senor. I don't want to say I was jealous, but the smile on his face as he turned made me scowl. He weaved around the dusty wood tables and finally took off his hat as he came to rest in a chair across from me. He set down the glass and started a conversation without even acknowledging my presence.

"Ok, Lon. Those two are ready to head out, Joe's in a box and Henry's sewn up enough to make it to the gallows. I'll be leaving in the morning, you coming this time?"

"Actually John, I was thinkin' I'd take those two." Lonny nodded over in my direction, "Seems you could have more pressin' business here."

The Bounty Hunter took another big gulp from his glass which was now nearly empty, then locked eyes with me. I felt a dreadfully unsettling rush sweep through my body. His eyes were dark blue, like the images my imagination held of the deep Pacific Ocean. And aside from the three day growth of dark beard, his features were sharp and masculine. His hair was also dark, but unkempt as if the majority of its life had been spent wasting away beneath his black hat. The smile was nonexistent now, and again I almost wished for it on my account. Tanned skin stretched over high cheek bones and a strong chin would have been sufficient bait to snare nearly any woman. His emotionless demeanor only magnified his rugged good looks. I wondered momentarily if that was something he used to his advantage as he tracked down lawless criminals, perhaps to loosen the tongues of young women.

I starred for a moment too long as I realized I could not decide the right way to play him. I wanted to think a coy, demure facade would work best, and for my part may even be enjoyable. But the little voice in the back of my mind was whispering honesty and strength were the way to overcome this man.

"Well," he asked, raising his eyebrows, his face askew. "I know you speak, you started in the saloon. Continue miss, you have my undivided attention now."

"Do you pride your self in making sport of young ladies, sir?"

"Well, occasionally I do consider myself a sporting man, especially when it concerns young ladies. And while young you may be, a lady you are not." He took another long draw from the frosty glass, his eyes never leaving mine.

I knew he was studying me, it was exciting. Like a poker player, he was much more interested in my body language than the words coming from my mouth. He watched my hands, my face, even my throat to see if I swallowed hard or held my breath. Although it pained me to do so, I needed to end this quickly. "Well, although most women would be irreversibly marred by such an underhanded insinuation, I also, happen to play poker Mr. . ."

He put the glass back on the table as a loathsome grin began to crease his powerful jaw. "Seeing as how you have not given your name, I see no need to give mine."

I flashed an artificial smile to hide my elation. "But you have only to ask, sir. I am Rachel Haggerty." I held out my hand, only to have him take the last swallow of his beer, completely ignoring my gesture.

"So, Rachel Haggerty, I shall assume you are here because you want something from me?"

"I would like to ask for your help but I still do not know your name sir."

"Most people, who know me, call me Quiet John. For now, Ms. Haggerty, that will suffice."

There was so much mystery to this man, I could not help but be drawn to him. The Masonic ring he wore on his right hand typified the cryptic information I've received trying to find a way to crack through these unbreakable barriers. "Very well Mr. John, my brother has been kidnapped by a group of thieves who are holding him for ransom."

His eyes closed nearly to slits, trying to read into my expressionless face. "I do not work for free Ms. Haggerty."

"I realize that sir. I have plenty of money."

"You must, as of yet you have not asked what this little venture will cost you, unless of course you already know."

"Do not flatter yourself to think you are not the only one with connections Mr. John."

"Perhaps; what do you do for a living Ms. Haggerty?"

"My family owns the steel company responsible for the tracks being laid across the west."

"Very well, if you are worth so much, why not simply pay the ransom? Why come all the way out here begging for my assistance?"

"I am not begging." For every question he asked, there were three unasked questions answered only by my responses. "The ransom is not for money sir. I have information they have deemed vital. These men seem to be after more than just money."

"So it would appear Ms. Haggerty. What information is so important, it would lead a group of men to kidnapping and extortion when train robbing is such a lucrative business for those with a stomach for the work?"

"I do not see how that is . . ."

"Because honestly, I do not believe a word of this anecdote you've concocted Ms. Haggerty."

"Anecdote? Sir, I have come to you in a time of dire need. And all you can do is scoff and brush me away like a worthless pest. I thought your dirty, mean, treacherous, and perfidious mannerisms were a façade to the truthful, kind, and chivalrous man beneath. But I see now my earlier assumptions were incorrect. I shot up out of my chair upsetting the table as I did. A single tear dangled at the corner of my eye. "I suppose my brother won't mind holding off justice for another few weeks while I round up someone more amiable but far less qualified. Good day sir." I turned my attention to Lonny, "Mr. Marshall you have been a pleasant gentleman. Thank you for you help and your time. But how you can spend your time with such a despicable man vexes me greatly."

This would be a huge gamble, but the way things were going, I had no choice. I stormed toward the door, and excused myself as I passed a young black girl carrying a large plate of tortillas and meat. She smiled slightly, and I saw Lonny Marshall somewhere deep in her smile.

I caught a glimpse of the two men in a mirror just before I walked out the door. Both were still staring, still studying. As I walked out the door I turned right so I would pass the window and hopefully, find out if my gamble had paid dividends. John mouthed something about money and Lonny answered, But she's hiding something, I know it and then they were out of sight. A very strange thing had occurred. I would have suspected Lonny as the tender one, easy to sway with the kindness of a woman, but it seems he is the untrusting, inquisitive half of this unlikely relationship. Obviously, his taking the brothers to Abilene had turned out to be a blessing. Either way, there has proven to be much more than meets the eye going on between these two men.

I walked to the stable and found another very drunk, scarecrow of a man sprawled out in the first stall. I kicked him several times before he stirred enough to realize it was a foot and not a hoof poking him in the shin. The light was dim; a single lantern lit the stable from a hook about ten feet away. The first two stalls were filled with hay, as was the loft above. My fantasies about cowboys and hay lofts were shattered in an instant. Who could make love with a man like that in a place that smelled like this? But the stable itself seemed very clean, which was a stark contrast to the putrid lush wobbling in front of me.

"I need a horse and a woman's saddle sir, can you accommodate me?"

He found his feet and took two steps around me. A smile crept across his face as if he'd found a cauldron at the end of a rainbow. "Why yes sweet thing, I think we can work something out." He continued around behind and started to put his greasy hand against my cheek when I kicked him between the legs harder than I thought possible. He fell like a sack of flour, clutching at the remains of his manhood. For a moment I thought he had passed out, but then he squeaked, "Bitch."

Content that the nauseating stable rat at my feet was, for the moment indisposed, I began my search for suitable transportation. A wonderfully colored appaloosa was about half-way down the right side of the stable, its head hanging out the door watching me intently. As I neared, I noticed he had very kind eyes. I also saw he was from good stock, strong legs, good fetlocks, and a fairly straight back. I took the bridle from shelf made of horseshoes and led the horse to the back where the saddles were kept. I found a comfortable looking woman's saddle and strapped it on my new horse.

As I passed the man on the ground still lying in the fetal position, I leaned close to his ear and asked what he wanted for the horse. Apparently the pain was more than he could bear as he was no longer able to speak. I took $45 from my wallet and stuck it between the chest hair flowing over the top of his shirt and his stubbly chin. It was more than two horses with saddles, but I didn't have time to negotiate, and it should be enough to dissuade any would-be lawmen. Although, after watching the town sheriff, I wouldn't have to worry about any skilled pursuers.

I mounted the horse and rubbed his neck. The silver tag on the bridle read Moses. "Well Moses, what do you say we make a break for it?" I whispered into his ear. He seemed a bit uneasy, prancing around just a bit. "With a name like Moses, I should think you would be sure footed and slow moving my friend." Either way, I needed to make an exit if this ploy was to look authentic. I spurred him slightly with the heel of my boot and he started off toward the edge of town. I knew the next town was about a two days ride to the north, but I really didn't know which direction north was. I was mostly relying on John or Lonny to come out of the shadows and stop me short. But as I reached the last building, my hopes fell sharply. I started going over what little knowledge of the area I did have. I remembered the stage entering from the end of the town, but it had made a sharp left about ten minutes into the desert.

Moses and I continued through the brush for about two minutes. I was about to turn back and beg for forgiveness at the door of the restaurant when Moses sensed something ahead. I felt his muscles tense beneath the saddle and his steps shortened as if he was tiptoeing, ready to bolt in the other direction at any moment. I pulled in the reins and he eagerly stopped.

"Good evening ma'am. You know, the punishment for horse thieving around here is death."

The figure was dark, and seemed huge, blending delicately with the surrounding shadows. My first thought was the rotund sheriff, but how could he get out here so quickly. Then the figure lit a match and brought it to his mouth. The black hat and dimpled chin was a dead giveaway. "I paid $45 for this horse and saddle sir. And I do not take kindly to being called a thief."

The amber glow from the cigarette gave off chilling shadows streaming and dancing over John's face. "If by paid, you mean using the money pillaged from the blood and sweat of cheap immigrant labor as you whipped their bare backs with a sterling silver bullwhip, then I suppose you did. I know your type Ms. Haggerty. I do not like you and I do not like what you do. People like you always cower behind the guise of innovation, perseverance, and the progression of society. You squeeze money from those who do not have the ability to maneuver their way out of your clutches. Just like in the stable Harley, you think you can buy your way out of anything. And no matter what amount you left under his chin, Felton may have a different story for the owner of that horse when he and his genitals recover. I have half a mind to drag you in right now."

I wanted horribly to see his face and read his expressions, surmise his intentions, but gloom and shadows precluded that at the moment. "Felton had it coming John. As for the workers,"

"Save it Ms. Haggerty. See, I find myself in quite an interesting predicament. I could shoot you there in your saddle as the horse thief you are, relieve you of any cash you may be carrying, probably several hundred dollars, and then collect the $20 reward for horse thieves offered by the sheriff. Or, I could just wound you, in the shoulder maybe, still take your money because no one would take the word of a horse thief over mine, and leave you to the vices of the sheriff and his men. Felton would probably find himself an honored guest to that party." I heard the distinct double click as he pulled back the hammer on his pistol. Then I saw the glint of the moonlight off the barrel just to the right of his saddle horn. I had missed the movement of his hand and the sound of the gun being drawn from his holster. If I can survive this midnight encounter I will have to learn how this man moves so stealthily.

The stage driver wouldn't stop talking about the money he'd received for hauling in a horse thief last week, so I know there the Bounty Hunter's story about is a standing offer of a reward was true. And the thought of being shot fatally and left to die in this sandy wash rattled my nerves and sent my right hand shaking. I was used to dealing with upscale bankers and property owners holding only half the cards. I was never in fear of losing anything more than a few dollars and my reputation should I fail. Now, I had nearly failed and was a practiced and steady trigger pull away from losing my life. My left hand gently eased a throwing knife from a special pouch I had tied on the rear of my saddle. All the advice I was ever given was never to bring a knife to a gunfight, but necessity favors the prepared and as far as weapons, is all I have. He must have heard the metal sliding ever so slightly against the leather. I'm not a master with this weapon but hopefully good enough to make a quick exit, which unfortunately, would still leave me in the middle of the desert, at night, with no direction.

He took a long draw from the cigarette which added a little light to his devilishly handsome face; under other circumstances I would probably find myself blushing with excitement. But this was no time for thoughts of anywhere but here.

"Put your little prick away Ms. Haggerty, I doubt your any good with it even if you could see in the dark. Why don't you start explaining what exactly are you doing out here?"

"As you said, I needed a horse and,"

"No, no, what are you doing out here, in the country, snooping around saloons, stealing horses, and basically becoming a pain in my ass? Lonny is an impeccable judge of character, and he believes you are withholding the reason. Is that true?"

"I told you, it's my brother and,"

"He believes there is some great malice behind your intent."

"Do you plan on letting me finish a sentence?"

"You, ma'am, are in no position to acquire a smart mouth. These guns are still loaded and my bullets do not discriminate between men and women. You should choose your answers very carefully."

My hand stopped shaking and for a second I could halt my urgent mental retreat, gather my thoughts, and get back to what I do best, lie. "I explained my situation. As for hidden meaning, or course there is. You yourself have chosen and odd way to scratch out a living here on the frontier. You chastise me for standing on the shoulders of the second-fiddle, but from what I understand, the highest bidder procures your loyalty. There must be some hidden meaning somewhere in your past. So please hold your high and mighty better than thou attitude for someone who has the time to give a shit. All I know is that I have a job for a man with specific skills, skills you have obviously mastered. It has always been your decision whether or not to take the job so I hope you did not come out here with the idea you could bully me into some sort of half baked confession."

I heard two more clicks followed by the sound of metal against leather. "Felton was deserving of his comeuppance. He cheats and womanizes with the best of them. However, he has given me information on more than one occasion so if I say so, you go to jail. But you happened into my saloon at the most opportune of times. My current state finds me in need of funds. I will smooth things over at the stable and you will return to be my guest while we figure out what to do about your brother, that is, unless of course you have other plans?" Even in the small glow I could see him grin slightly.

Some imaginary figure came by and cut the tension. Even the horses felt the change and set to snacking on the brush sprinkling the sides of the wash. "I admit I did not have a plan when I left the bar and would be forever in your debt Mr. John."

"Yes, you will." He spurred his horse and began trot back into town. I pulled and spurred and eventually convinced Moses to follow the dark figure.

We walked back to the stable and found Henry still in ball on the floor. Quiet John filled a bucket with water from the trough. After motioning for me to remove the money I'd deposited earlier, he doused the man with the cold water. The ploy worked and Henry came alive, yelling and cursing everything in sight. The bounty hunter grabbed him by the throat, picked him up off the ground, and planted him against a wooden post next to the lantern. He whispered something in the man's ear and I head a faint hissing from the hostler. "If I can't hear you Felton, then neither can she." The man's face had now gone from red to purple.

"Sorry ma'am." This time is was intelligible and the Bounty Hunter released his grip. The man fell again in a heap, this time holding his throat and gasping for air. I unsaddled the horse and put everything back where I'd found it.

"The Sheriff's niece owns that saddle, so we'll have to find you a replacement. But that horse belonged to Joe Stark. Coincidentally, old Moses is in need of a good home. I'm sure Felton would be more than happy to offer you a fair price." He turned his head back to the man on the floor, "Twenty dollars sound about right to you Felton?" A moment lapsed with no reply. He took an angry step toward the man and started, "I asked, "

"Yes, yes John. Twenty would be fine." Then he crawled back to his hay bed, found the bottle of brown liquid, and took a long swig.

"Felton, make sure Moses is brushed and ready to go in the morning. We will be by early." I gave the stable hand the twenty dollars and followed John back to his restaurant.

"You can't wear that dress where we're going Ms. Haggerty. I'm sure the girls will have something that will fit you. And with your slippery tongue, I'm sure you'll be able to talk them out of a saddle too. You can stay upstairs, but make sure and sleep, we will be riding out at first light. By the way, have you ridden cross-county before Ms. Haggerty?"

"Well, not really." It wasn't really a lie, but experience told me exceeding a man's expectations was a quick way to earn his trust. I needed t get past the Bounty Hunter and find the man beneath the crusty black layers. I needed to open him up and see the gears that turned this heartless killer. Every man has an exploitable weakness if you can dig deep enough and find the trigger, the reins so to speak. Any man can be driven.

PART III

A light rustle woke me from a wonderfully pleasant sleep. The rustle was the young black girl I saw last night setting a fresh set of jeans and a cotton shirt on the foot of my bed. I rolled over to look out the window, and although the sun hadn't yet broken the horizon, it was beginning to warm the belly of a thunderhead off in the east. I got up to examine my new clothes. The jeans were far from new, worn in the knees and the butt, but still quite serviceable. The shirt was green with black buttons, a bit frayed at the shoulders but repaired by a talented seamstress. The ensemble smelled clean like fresh soap and an afternoon breeze. I put it on and was pleasantly surprised by a near perfect fit. A cool draft blew through the window and brought the thought of a quilted jacket to my mind.

A found a pair of serviceable boots under the bed and grabbed a brown hat with beaded hat band from the rack near the door. As I made my way down to the main floor, the smell of sizzling bacon beckoned me toward the kitchen. A western style saddle sat near the door covered in a tan duster just about my size. The aroma of fresh bacon took me past the wooden tables in the bar and toward the kitchen. A plate full of the aromatic bacon flanked by several eggs, and a few pieces of toast greeted me at the door to the kitchen; it was enough food to feed three of me. Good thing I was hungry enough for three people.

John walked in and perched himself against the door, mouth agape as he watched me dispose of the last few morsels. "You must have a hollow leg Ms. Haggerty, I didn't think there was enough room in those pants for all that food."

Quiet John smiled warmly as he poked fun at my appetite and I blushed a little at the compliment. "I was taught to clean my plate, and how can I convince you to please call me Rachel. Ms. Haggerty is what I call my grandmother."

"Very well Rachel, if you're quite finished devouring our winter stores, we need to be getting on the trail."

"Yes, quite finished, thank you. I think if I ate another bite I'd ruin the jeans."

He took a long look, "Yes, that is certainly a concern." Then he sat down across from me, removed his hat and set it on the table. "Now, do you know where these men are holding your cousin, or did they just give you a location to meet?"

Cousin? Another test, a trap to catch me in a lie, and if planned on making it through this ordeal in one piece, I was going to have to stay on alert from now on. "It's my brother John, and I do not know if they are keeping him at Lender's Bluff, but that is where they said to meet."

"Ok, Lender's Bluff is about a week and half away. We'll pack for two weeks. There is another town on the way, but if they're smart they will have scouts in the town watching for you and whoever you ride in with. A few extra days will allow us to come in through the back and get a good look at what sort of defenses, if any, they've constructed." He was rubbing his chin and staring out the door as if constructing a battle plan to assault Bunker Hill.