'Ralston Richards Stands Firm'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers and Deputy's in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, search for a renegade outlaw and shootist.

Note:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.

Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.

—O—

"Here's a fine state o'affairs."

Up to this grumbling ejaculation on the part of Sheriff Charles Donaldson everything had been quiet, calm, and in no way out of sorts in the small office on Main Street where he and his deputies had their headquarters. Now, nudged awake from the states of near torpor in which both Henrietta Knappe and her partner Sally Nichols, both deputies, had fallen over the last slumberingly quiescent half hour of this morning of June 187-, in the small town of Red Flume, Territory of Arizona, they both sat up and took notice of their revered leader.

"What's up, Charlie?" Sally hitting her stride first. "Got a bellyache? Told ya not t'eat those boiled kale leaves last night; not along with thet underdone steak, but ya wouldn't listen."

"Nah, nah, somethin' dam' else." Charles shook his head, waving a crumpled sheet of paper in the air so his underlings could see the source of his consternation. "This here letter from Sheriff Neilson, over to Quinstock, has jest grabbed my attention. Ya want I read it out?"

"Why?" Henrietta curling a supercilious lip, hardly interested.

"Wha' d'ya mean—why?" Charles taking umbrage, as the situation clearly required. "Ain't ya both my depities, or ain't ya?"

"Wa-al—," Henrietta hardly in the frame of mind to have their working relationship so publicly stated.

"Yeah, ya both are, so listen up here." Charles taking no prisoners, flattening the letter in the fingers of his large hand. "Right, Sheriff Neilson—ya both know him, o'course—"

"Now, hold on up there, Charlie." Sally frowning as she put her mind to searching her memory for any trace of the person so named. "Did I ever meet him? Hmm, was thet the tall, grey-haired individ'ool who tried t'get me kicked out'ta this here job, some six month since, fer bein' a woman—seemingly a species o'the Human Race he took no cognisance of in his day t'day routine? Thet sun'na-a-b-tch?"

Charles, well-used to dealing with the sometimes unusual mental processes of the two women presently his near neighbours, was still hard pressed to keep a firm and even temper.

"Sal, I likes yer dearly, but will ya, fer God's Sake, wake up an' smell the dam' roses?"

Sally considered this piece of lightning repartee, then nodded as if wholly understanding of its intention.

"So, thet's a no, then? Oh well, in thet case ditto fer me—no."

"No?" Charles now flummoxed in turn. "What in damnation d'ya mean—no? No ter what?"

"Yer asked, jes' a minute, or less, ago, whether I'd met Sheriff Neilson." Sally smiling broadly, now in complete control of the exchange. "An' havin' thought some, but not much I allows, about the sun'naer, the Sheriff, I can absolutely state I's never set eyes on him a'fore. Thet clear the question up fer ya, Charlie?"

Charles, attacked on all sides by one solitary woman in this manner, sat back on his chair, gripped the arms tightly and closed his eyes—the more so to sink into a calm private world of his own, if only for a few seconds, where Sally and Henrietta didn't exist.

"Harry?"

"Yip?"

"You got anythin' t'add ter yer partner's jes' past discourse?"

"Met him once, some four year since."

Charles opened his eyes and sat up, somewhat astonished, but happy.

"Ya have? I'll be da—thet is, well, well, you'll recognise him, when ya both hit Quinstock, then."

A quiet silence, as of the Ages gently maturing, enfiladed its way into the small office; then Henrietta responded to her kind leader's remark.

"We're, Sal an' I, goin' ter pollute the environs o'Quinstock in the near future, are we? News ter me."

"It's a order is what it is." Charles having none of this sarcastic mutinous behaviour. "It's early morn, yet; no way's past ten, even—so get hossed-up an' git ter headin' Quinstock way, depities."

A second silence, near cousin to its earlier comrade, now whistled gently through the open door leading to the street; but its presence only lasted five seconds more before Sally jumped in with a sassy rejoinder.

"Why?"

"Why?—What?—Why?" Charles nonplussed by this repetition of Henrietta's earlier remark. "Not you too? What in hell's the matter with this town, this dam' mornin'? Was there somethin' in both yer mornin' coffee's, or what? What in hell're ya gettin' at, Sal? Can't ya follow a straight order, no more?"

"Ya said you'd gotten a letter from Neilson." Sally primly aware she held the moral high ground in this confrontation. "Yer wavin' it about there, as we speak, some energetic—like a flag on the Fourth o'July. I've a pretty good idee if ya only get ter readin' its contents out, then Harry, here, an' I'll have a clearer understandin' fer decidin' if, or if not, we goes over ter Quinstock. If yer gets my drift, thet is, Charlie."

Yet another Silence permeated the confines of the office, from who knows where, for the third time in less than five minutes—this possibly making a record for the present place and group; then Charles, having in the meantime realistically replicated a state of death, jerked back to life.

"Oh, God!" But, clear at last on the reason for the late difficulties in communication, gave in gracefully and crinkled the sheet of paper in his hand once again. "It's a letter from Sheriff Neilson—"

"If'n ya tell's us jes' one more time, Charlie, who thet dam' beggin' letter came from, I'm jes' gon'na have'ta throw up, is all." Henrietta having lost every iota of her self-control and patience together. "Get on with the dam' thing, fer God's Sake."

"Dam' ingrates."

"What was thet, ya just muttered under yer breath, Charlie?" Sally not one to take derisive personal comments lightly; or at all, in fact.

"What? Oh, nuthin', nuthin' o'any worth." Charles taking immediate defensive action, knowing which way his personal fair wind blew, if handled properly. "So, this here letter, from—thet is, this's what Nei—er, the Sheriff, sez—'Dear Sir,—he should'a used my personal name, y'know; he bein' a sight too formal fer his own good—"

"Charlie?" Henrietta's tone holding all the needful warning signs of a nearing volcanic eruption.

"OK, OK, gim'me a chance—cut me some rope, cain't ya both?" Charles, attacked without mercy looking for a quick and safe escape route. "OK, the letter—'I writes ter tell ya thet the infamous outlaw an' shootist, Ralston Richards, has been sighted near to, and in the environs of, Quinstock over these last six weeks. News having jes' this minute reached me on the matter I have set my single Depity ter searching the town fer his rotten hide—but no success as I writes this here missive. Wonderin' if ya might find it neighbourly ter send over a couple o'spare Depities o'yer own ter help out in the search, I here signs off as yer great an' constant friend, Sheriff—';—er, thet's where it ends."

A fourth Silence, in the act of pushing through the street-door, was waylaid by Henrietta before it could gain entry.

"Hah!,—dam' Ralston dam' Richards, eh?"

"The very same." Charles heaving a metaphorical sigh of relief at the successful conclusion of his homily.

Sally perked-up no end at this news; she ever being one for adventure and action.

"Richards? Lem'me see—ah, got it?"

"Jeez, is it catchin'?" Henrietta not going to let this beautiful opportunity pass idly by unregarded.

"Idiot." Sally curling her lip in disdain at this childish remark. "Right, Richards—he's wanted fer crimes against Humanity carried out durin' the late conflict between the States; fer murder in the process of stage-coach robbery; fer ditto, the stage-coach robbery; fer mulctin' innocent citizens out'ta their money by way of griftin' in all manner o'slimy ways; an' fer bein' jes' a real piece o'sh-t, whichever angle yer takes him from. Thet about cover the sun'na-a-b-tch?"

Henrietta looked over at Charlie, who returned the compliment; both nodding in approval of Sally's character assessment.

"Left out bein' a mean-minded shootist." Henrietta crossing the t's. "He's been in seven shoot-out's thet we knows of; killin' five. An' there's some evidence he hires hisself out ter the highest bidder t'do their dirty work in cancelin' the salaries of various persons previously annoyin' said bidder's."

"Altogether, not someone you'd casually invite ter yer next birthday party?" Sally smirking lewdly all round, as she put a hand on the butt of her left-hand Smith and Wesson .38. "Although, I got'ta say, I'd like fine ter meet the g-d'd-m moron in a face ter face shoot-out som'mers."

Henrietta, on her part, looked less than happy about this particular wish of her loved partner.

"First, we got'ta find him. So, looks like we're goin' over ter Quinstock, after all, Charlie."

"Thank God fer thet—I mean's, well, don't let me stop yer both, none—time's a'wastin' as we sits here chawin' tobacco—go fer it, Ladies."

"Har!"

"Hiirph!"

—O—

Quinstock town lay some 15 miles north-west of Red Flume, in a rolling scrub country only good for mesquite, coyotes, and bushwhackers spread thinly across the landscape. In size it took up approximately half the area of its near neighbour, but with double the number of saloons; the result of the large cattle ranches all round its perimeters. The citizens were of that ambulatory type, so near cousins of tumbleweed, floating into the town one week and floating out heading for pastures new the next week: the idea of a fixed permanent township being against all ideas of sober moral thought to those who lived there, if for ever so short a period. One church, listlessly active; one hotel, always full; three blacksmiths, always sweating throughout their busy days; and one Sheriff, ditto Deputy. When Henrietta and Sally rode in, some way past 2.00pm, the township showed all the aspects of being moribund, preparatory to actual decline and fall.

"God!" Sally, as she dismounted in front of the Sheriff's Office, taking the place's tone in one all-encompassing glance. "So this's what a ghost town looks like, when the ghosts are still in residence?"

"Har, come on; we got'ta jaw with Neilson a'fore the sun goes down, y'know."

Inside the office showed as pokier than Donaldson's back in Red Flume; there being only one resident sitting behind a desk covered in loose documents and other frip-frappery.

"Ha, be ye both the depities over t'Red Flume?"

"Thet we be, Sheriff Neilson; mighty fine ter shake yer hand." Sally coming it the hostess of the party. "This here's my partner Harry Knappe."

Neilson, standing to do the honours, regarded Henrietta with a keen blue-eyed glance.

"Not the Harry Knappe? As can take down a grizzly at five hunnerd yards with yer Sharp's?"

"The same, Sheriff; thet's me, in person."

"Well, I'll be dam'med." Then Neilson recovered his composure. "Say, where's my manners? Take these chairs, ladies, they ain't Balmoral Castle, but they does their duty. So, Charlie got my letter, eh?"

"More like a call ter arms, Sheriff." Sally cutting to the quick. "So, Ralston Richards's pollutin' the neighbourhood, eh?"

"Wa-al, more like hoppin' in of an evenin', fer a card game, then high-tailin' it out agin a'fore I kin git my bearin's on his position, like." Neilson frowning horribly at the memory. "He, as I highly suspec's, bein' a boarder over t'the Three-Bars ranch."

"Where be thet?" Henrietta all for pinning down her suspect as quickly as possible.

"Out ter the Broad Hills, some ten mile west." Neilson shaking his head mournfully. "Ain't got anywhere near enough depities, nor those as'd kick fer temporary same, ter make-up a big enough posse ter face thet bunch."

"What's this ranch like, then, Sheriff?" Sally taking the offered chair and doffing her dubiously clean hat. "Den o'thieves, or what?"

"Jes' thet, ma'am." Neilson re-seating himself and sighing heavily. "Clark Jameson owns the joint, runs it more nor less like a real ranch, but hires all sorts'a deadbeat hands. Got me a fine idee he runs a bushwhackin' line out'ta his place; meb'be even a touch o'rustlin', as a side-line. Figure he also gives hidin' ter rougher characters yet; bank robbers, thieves, murderers, thet sort o'low life. I'm pretty sure Ralston's dirtyin' the bedsheets over thet way, but I ain't got the men nor power t'do anythin' useful about the set-up, at the moment. Hopes you two arrivin' so providential'll make some of a difference, though."

Henrietta thought about the professed set-up of the ranch in question, mulling over its possibilities.

"Not much even we can do; still not a big enough crew t'stand off a mixed bunch like thet ya says lives there." Henrietta coming to the only likely solution. "Looks like we got'ta catch him in situ, as the eddicated Nobs say, when he's here in Quinstock, playin' from the bottom o'the deck in whichever saloon he's partial t'annoyin' with his presence."

"Which'd thet be, Sheriff?" Sally backing up her partner.

"Call me Rob, ladies, if'n ye pleases; all this Sheriffin' may go t'my head otherwise."

"Har, so be it, Rob." Henrietta liking the thirty-something man all the more. "Right, what's our plan gon'na be?"

"From what Jake, my depity, has found out over the last few weeks he, Ralston thet is, likes two saloons—the Yellow Canary over t'Dailles Street, an' the Silver Flute, on Barkley Street. It bein' a toss-up whichever night he may be in whichever doss-house, as the Limeys say."

"Where's this Jake, as we speaks?" Sally glancing around the otherwise deserted office.

"Home in bed, he bein' some consumptive." Rob sighed again. "Reckon he ain't got long t'go as an active member o'the law-abidin' community. He's out, iff'n ye were thinkin' of him as makin' up our numbers."

"Oh." Sally sad to hear of the deputy's plight. "Well, that makes it, in some ways, all the simpler."

"As how, ma'am?"

"Takin' all things in'ta consideration, Rob, what we got here's a clear case o'makin' play fer a face ter face stand-off." Sally stubbing her fingertip on the desk to verify each point as she made them. "Findin' the reptile, which I thinks won't take much effort; callin' him out in front of his cronies, so's he ain't got no manner o'escape, without he shows his yeller backbone in public; then shootin' ter kill, no holds barred. Thet there bein' my plan."

A quiet refined silence, much like those which regularly imposed their presences on Red Flume, now made its careful way amongst those present in the small office, before Rob, somewhat taken aback by the cold-blooded outlook just made plain to him, responded.

"Ain't that some unlawful, ma'am? Jes' sayin', in a purely theological sense." He nonetheless raising enquiring eyebrows towards both women. "Some close ter outright murder, ain't it?"

"Doesn't worry me, none." Sally showing her cold hard side. "Some people, like this here Ralston, ya jes' got'ta shoot dead, is all. There's some hooligans ye can reason with, some ye can put in jug fer a few days, easy as pie, some a spell in the local hoosegaw sorts 'em out real fine; then some, like Ralston, jes' answers ter bein' killed outright, an' nuthin' else."

"Reckon I backs my partner, here, dead t'rights, Rob." Henrietta nodding in agreement. "He's a cold, hard killer, everyone an' their Gran'ma knows same. What'd work with others ain't gon'na pass muster in his vicinity. Only killin' the reprobate'll answer any ways comfortable, fer all concerned. Thet's goin' straight an' plain by Hoyle."

It took Rob only seconds to consider the ins and outs of the plan placed before him.

"Right, we hits the Yeller Canary at eight o'clock this evenin'; if not there, we heads immediate ter the Silver Flute, where we finds him in residence fer sure. What're yer firearms, by way o'interest?"

Sally stood up, reaching to her waist to draw both her Smith and Wesson .38's; just as Henrietta took her place beside the brown-haired Valkyrie, showing her own single Colt .45.

"I gen'rally likes ter make my play at a distance, y'knows, with my Sharps point fifty." Henrietta jiggling the revolver in her hand as she spoke. "But at close quarters I finds this here forty-five shows adequate results."

"When she lets fly, on one ter one, Rob, she gen'rally off-loads the entire chamber." Sally coming across with probably unwanted details. "Tends ter make, wa-al, quite some mess as a result. But, on the happy side, the reprobate in question de-fee-nitely ends up a customer o'the local sky-pilot, no bets taken as otherwise by the surroundin' spectators."

Rob looked carefully at Sally, switched his gaze to Henrietta, then sighed once again; wondering just what precisely his late letter had gotten him into.

—O—

The Yellow Canary, on Dailles Street, had no pretensions to being anything other than a mean low-down drinking den. It consisted of one long room; the waist-high bar running along three-quarters of the left-hand wall; the rest of the floor packed with round tables where customers could drink or play faro, poker, or whatever other card game took their fancy. There were, contrary to accepted custom, no loose women swanning around offering favours of dubious moral quality to the highest bidder. There was an upright piano at the far end of the room, but the last player as such had died some three months ago from imbibing too much of the local drink masquerading as whisky. When the three upholders of what passed for the local Law turned up the place was packed with its usual clientele, a mixed bunch of cowpokes, citizens in name if not truly the certain fact, and layabouts, rousters, bushwhackers and rustlers to your heart's content. Needless to say, Quinstock being an open town thataway, the amount of firearms present could equip a small army in time of need.

Henrietta had armed herself with a borrowed carbine scattergun from Neilson's official collection; Sally had her two Smith and Wesson .38's fully loaded, with loose spare ammo in her jacket pockets. Sheriff Neilson had armed himself with a repeating rifle, as well as his usual Colt Army .38 revolver. Both ladies were dressed in their ordinary clothes, consisting of heavy cotton dark-blue trousers, held at the waist by wide leather belts, dark shirts tucked in at the waist, short button-up jackets, and calf-length leather boots; they also sporting wide-brimmed low-crowned hats of unknown age. Added to which they now favoured the assembled customers with official square-jawed expressions of competent determination to get the job done.

"Hold it, everybody."

Neilson giving this command rather after the fact, the loud rumble of conversation which had greeted the ears of the trio of Law officers having quieted to a low susurration immediately on their entrance.

"We're lookin' fer Ralston Richards; if he be here let him stand an' face his Nemesis right now."

There was a rustle as the card games at the tables came to a halt, the sitting patrons glancing from one to another, affecting not to know the person so named.

"Anyone here know where he be?"

In answer there was a sudden flurry of activity at the far end of the crowded room as someone jumped to their feet, advancing on the man and two women hindering escape by way of the front entrance to the street.

"I won't be took alive—I won't!"

The man, as he approached, turned out to be middle-aged, with long grizzled hair and clothes which could have benefited by being renewed for this decade's fashion. His expression, under a grey scratchy shadow of beard, was mean as a coyote with the mange, and his eyes were red with excitement and the effects of rotgut hooch.

"I won't be took, ya b-st-rds!"

With this fine show of defiance echoing in the now silent room he then wrote out and signed his own death warrant by way of grabbing at his waistbelt for a decrepit revolver, which he managed to half draw before the aforesaid Nemesis caught up with him.

Sally, being faster on the draw than a striking rattler, already had both her .38's out and in action before the man had finished speaking; hot on her heels Henrietta's .45 filled the public arena with its mighty roar, making all right-minded citizens, and whoever else was present, dive for cover; while Neilson settled the issue by pumping three rifle shots into the man's chest before he had so much as reacted to the earlier hits.

As the clouds of grey smoke wavered in the dense air in the saloon the man quivered from head to foot; his dirty greenish shirt suddenly took on an ever-spreading wash of a darker hue; he buckled slowly at the knees, then softly collapsed on the dusty floor in a heap; looking for all the world like a pile of dirty clothes left behind by some uncaring washerwoman.

"Who the f-ck's this?" Sheriff Neilson, with a sour expression, making this official request of the company to hand.

"Ain't he Ralston, then?" Sally some miffed to have wasted good bullets on a no-name.

"Nah, nothin' like." Neilson bending down to examine the late offender. "Some kind'a deadbeat, fer sure—but no-one important. Must'a had a bad conscience about somethin', sure e'nuff, though. So, you bunch o'sorry reprobates, where in hell's Ralston?"

Another murmur of gentle discourse wafted throughout the room as this question was debated by those present; then one, more brave than his companions, carefully stood up, making plain he had no war-like intentions towards the three Law officers.

"He ain't here, now. Came in an hour ago, but said, mighty plain t'one an' all, he took aginst the primary atmosphere of coldness an' inefficiency heretofore on offer, an' said he was minded t'pollute the Silver Flute—there bein', he said some mean, a better class o'cardsharp there-aways."

"G-d'd-m an' b-gg-ry." Neilson thwarted at the first hurdle. "Right, Hopkins? Where the hell are ye, Hopkins?"

"Here. Here I be. What for ye've made sich a dam' mess? Couldn't ya have took the cretin outside a'fore dealin' with him?" The man, of medium height, brown hair, and in his forties, had walked round the near end of the bar. "Look at the mess; he's dam' bleedin' all over my pinewood floor."

"Dam' yer floor, Hopkins." Neilson no longer in the mood that makes friends. "See ter him; wrap the remains up in a sheet an' have it taken along ter Doc Martin's office. Right, ladies', the Silver Flute beckons; dam' glad it's on the other side o'the town; these here military actions jes' concluded no way makin' their presence felt thet far off. Come on, time's a'wastin'. Goodbye, Hopkins; yer don't want the same happenin' in future, take better mind ter the quality o'yer clientele, is all."

—O—

Barkley Street lay on the far side of the small community which, though relatively small, was still large enough for the late shoot-out at the Yellow Canary not to have ruffled either feathers nor feelings in the broken-down joint there passing itself off as a functioning place of relaxation and quiet contemplation under the title of the Silver Flute. This place was one of those where women who were certainly no better than they ought to be did trade their wares; the upper floor, reached by a wide banistered staircase rising up the side of the right wall before cutting to the left, containing several rooms where a couple could be certain of some level of privacy for whatever took their fancy. On the ground floor the layout was similar to the Yellow Canary; ie. a long bar against the right wall, the rest of the wide room filled with clusters of tables, with a few separate for those who preferred their own company whilst imbibing the brew that rots the gut. As usual the place was well-attended by a mixed group made up, essentially, of the lower orders of what might, though only on a very good day indeed, be described as representatives of the Human Race.

By this time, and now aware that unexpected outcomes were certainly to be looked for, Sheriff Neilson had worked out his method of approach.

"OK, simmer down, you lot. I'm here fer Ralston Richards, an' him alone; though anyone wantin' ter stand by him gets took off promiscus' too, by my assembled artillery, here. We ain't takin' prisoners on this here rabbit hunt; all we want's is Ralston, plain an' simple. So, stand up an' face Justice, yer piece o'sh-t, where-e're ye be in this disease-ridden ruin."

The following silence, on the Sheriff's concluding his claim for understanding, and call to uphold the generally recognised moral social imperatives, on the part of the saloon's customers, was long and all-embracing. Finally, as if pushed to it by forces beyond their control, a group of men, towards the back of the main room jumped up and started shooting wholesale and seemingly with little thought as to their targets.

There was a responding swift clatter of booted feet accompanied by a soaring universal clamour as the majority of the customers took cover under tables, or raced for the door, while bullets seemed to fly about the confines of the room like dust in a sandstorm. Sally only able to see, through the ever-increasing gunsmoke, her opponents as various shadows at the far end of the crowded room, had pulled her pistols but was prevented firing because of the throng of obviously innocent, at least in present circumstances, people rushing to find safety, wherever that might be. Henrietta, raising her carbine scattergun was also unable to fire because of the men pushing against her shoulders as they headed for the street entrance; their terrified mingling and swaying and swerving making it almost impossible to see where the opposing attack was coming from. And still the bullets flew everywhere; taking splinters out of table-tops; ricocheting from the walls and the long bar-edge, or kicking up further shrapnel in hitting the dry floorboards—every so often someone unseen crying in pain as they were hit by stray bullets; the wounded clearly rising with every passing second.

"G-d'd-m it, they've made it out the dam' door." Neilson, using his height, having kept an eagle eye on this single means of escape. "Three o'them; get after 'em, gals."

Out in the wide street all was, if this was possible, even more confused; the refugees from the saloon, now out of the danger area inside the building, stood around in groups or duo's as if spectating at a rodeo; seemingly have lost their fear of the ongoing fray now they were in the wild outdoors. However, the outlaws now used this partial cover to rain down a hail of fire on the emerging Law officers from the anonymous safety and obscurity of numbers in the street.

Henrietta and Sally ducked and swerved to avoid the passing bullets, still not sure of the direction and position of their attackers. Neilson, having unwisely paused to take cognisance of the spreading panic, grunted as a bullet hit him on the left side, passing across the ribs there, causing him to drop his rifle and collapse to the ground. He rolled over, clutching his side, but also leaning up to wave a hand in the air towards his two Deputies to show he was not mortally wounded. Henrietta, somewhat reassured, glanced both ways along the street, then marked her prey.

"Sal, to your left—red shirt, green trousers—the other's the grey hat with the buckskin jacket—cain't see the third yet."

So directed Sally took a mere second to verify the facts, then started shooting, this time with deadly intent. The great thing about .38 revolvers is their rapid fire and good aim; with her first three shots she hit her first target with two—the third unfortunately hitting a bystander in the leg—but these things happen in war. The man with the green trousers, an unfortunate fashion choice at best, fell to the ground like a log, raising a cloud of dust as he met his final resting place but one. Turning slightly Sally now brought the second bushwhacker into play. His wearing a buckskin jacket making him somewhat stand out in a crowd, which was just what Sally most desired in present circumstances. Marking him like a raccoon, she dropped her empty right-hand weapon and used both hands to aim with precision with her left-hand weapon.

Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang.

As a bullet passed close to her left ear Sally felt strands of her hair whip back in the agitated air, then the effects of her own shots took effect. The man, still half-obscured by running citizens finding themselves once more in the field of fire, grabbed his chest, swiveled sideways, took a few steps, then fell to his knees. A moment later he gave up the hard task of living, falling motionless on his face in the dust.

Meanwhile Henrietta was having difficulties of her own. The third man, now having made himself known by the simple expedient of shooting at point blank range a passing stranger in the chest, who happened to be in his line of sight, now having clear sight of Henrietta, gave forth with his challenge.

"I stands firm, ye harridan from hell. I stands all comers. Come'n take me if ye dares, ye brazen hussy."

With this impassioned speech off his chest the man, dressed in an anonymous light grey suit, aimed a long barreled pistol in Henrietta's direction and opened fire—the roaring explosions taking precedence over all other nearby sources of sound. In doing so he gave himself cover by the very thickness of the clouds of grey smoke occasioned by the cartridges he was using—clearly black powder.

But, in doing so he had laid himself open to return fire, Henrietta now having spotted her prey as she did with grizzly bears at long range. Rejecting her .45 revolver she raided her scattergun to her shoulder, aimed with cold precision, taking no cognisance of two passing bullets which missed her by fractions of an inch, then fired twice. The man bent double, literally thrown off his feet as he was jerked backwards by the impact of two rounds of double-shot 12 bore pellets, crashing to the ground in a cloud of further dust—he making, then, no further movement. The shoot-out was over.

—O—

"I thought he was gon'na get me fer sure." Henrietta standing over the remains of the third man, he lying in the dust of the street as she, Sally, and Sheriff Neilson stood over him. Neilson having made it known his wound was a mere glancing flesh wound of no real substance medically speaking. "So, thet there's Ralston Richards, eh? A tough nut, sure enough; but mighty glad I've done fer the sun'na-a-b-tch, all the same."

Although in some ongoing pain Neilson had been taking careful note of the body at their feet, and now gave his professional opinion.

"Thet there ain't Ralston. Don't know, personal, who he is; but Ralston he ain't. I knows by the wanted posters back in my office, an' by gen'ral descriptions o'the same, previous."

"What? What the hell!" Henrietta more than a trifle miffed at not being the gal who kicked Ralston off this mortal coil, after all.

"On the other hand, thet fell'a, over there." Neilson now pointing across the street to the first thug Sally had downed. "That guy ye dropped like a hare, right between the eyes, Sal? Even from here I kin tell he is the right bojunkus, all round. Thet there's Ralston Richards without a doubt. Gives ye happiness o'yer good fortin', Sally. There bein' a mighty fine reward out fer the skulkin' wastrel, as I knows official from my wanted posters. Ya wan'na come back ter my office an' sign the pertinent papers, Sal? From memory I thinks it might be all'a three thousand."

Sally, taken aback as much as her revered partner, stood blankly looking from one body in the street to the others, hardly knowing what had just happened; then she regained her power of speech.

"Three thousand dollars? Good God, I kin go ter Boston an' swan along amongst the Ladies', there, with that kind'a fortin'."

"Huh! Dream on, gal." Henrietta still some in the dumps at being done out of her supposed fame as the woman who had downed the infamous outlaw. "Y'sure, Rob? I mean, dead t'rights sure, thet's Ralston over there? Not this heap o'old clothes under our feet, presently? Y'sure; me only askin' sich fer matters o'clarity, an' all."

But Rob was absolutely clear on the subject, he having studied the posters in his office for long hours over the previous few weeks.

"I've looked at a variety o'wanted posters, an' spoke with those who've known him intimate." Rob shook his head decisively. "This here pile o'assorted debris which, I got'ta allow, ye've dam' nearly cut in half, Harry, is nobody—not ter know by name or reputation, anyhow. On the other hand, thet heap o'dross over there, the which ye downed with yer first shots, Sal, is the infamous rustler, murderer, bank-robber, an' gen'ral piece o'sh-t known colloquially as Ralston Richards, without a doubt."

"G-d'd-m it!" From Henrietta, disappointed as hell.

"Yee-hah!" From Sally, on the other hand, bright and cheerful as a lark at break of day arising.

The End

—O—

Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.