The Gunslinger and the Horse Trader

By: Angela C. Johnson

Cole Logan wiped the sweat from his neck. The only sound that accompanied him along the barren trail was the creaking of the leather saddle and his horse's occasional grunts. He was headed for the little town called Dry Gluch, so named because the old prospector who named the town was illiterate and misspelled Gulch.

His horse plodded along the dusty trail, snuffling at stray scents that drifted past on the hot, dry wind. Jackrabbits watched him from their hiding places under cacti and temporarily stationary tumbleweeds. Sparse, prickly trees the color of sun-bleached bone fought every bit as hard as the animals for the little bit of brown water.

A buzzard circled lazily overhead. It had followed him for the last several miles and was beginning to annoy him. He thought about shooting it. At least then the scraggly coyotes would have something to feed on for a while. The bird let out a harsh croak and veered off in another direction. Probably to one of the jackrabbits that hadn't been fortunate enough to find a place to hide from the sun.

Dry Gluch was over the next ridge and he was grateful. His horse was beginning to pant and swing its head from side to side. They both needed water. His eyes burned from the trail dust and he needed a good shave. Also, the three desperadoes that had followed him for the last several miles were getting antsy. They didn't know he knew they were behind him. They obviously didn't know a thing about tracking. Any fool knows not to stay up-wind of whatever you were hunting if you stink like six months of horse sweat.

The sound of gunshots reached his ears. Lots of gunshots. His first thought was that the Younger Brothers or the James Gang had decided to visit town. Either that or the Apaches had gotten bored with massacring wagon trains and forts again. He crested the ridge and surveyed the town below with narrowed, green eyes. Puffs of gun smoke rose from glistening pistols. The street was packed with people but no one seemed particularly aware of the bullets whizzing through the air.

Dry Gluch was not what he had expected. He thought the town would either be tiny and nearly deserted or tiny and just getting started. It was neither. He rode down the hill to what he assumed was the town limits. A sign read "Dry Gluch Population 750". Quite a huge amount, considering the town had only been existence for two months. Just long enough for trouble to dig its fingers into life's daily routines. That was the whole reason he was even in this part of the country that obviously hadn't asked for much during the seven days of creation.

Beneath that sign was another one. This one read, "Beware Of Open Mine Shafts. Enter at Your Own Risk". Now wasn't that something to draw in the homesteaders? There was a gaping hole not more than twenty feet from where his horse stood, looming beside the Spanish Rose Cantina. A drunk with a bad sense of direction could find himself in a lot of trouble if he wasn't careful.

Cole pulled the telegram out of his pocket and reread it aloud for at least the fifteenth time. "Mister Logan we need your help. Stop. Town of Dry Gluch in hands of dangerous outlaws. Stop. Need your help. Stop. Come immediately. Stop."

So here he was, and here was Dry Gluch. He didn't know what to think. The whole town seemed to be crazy. He counted five fist fight from where he sat and two of them involved women squaring off. He spurred his horse onward, weaving his horse in between the crowd that increasingly thickened as he moved deeper into town.

A crowd had gathered around two wagons and a horse dead-locked in the middle of the street. Red-faced, either from sun, anger, or alcohol, one of the drivers jumped off his wagon and grabbed a two-by-four. He strode over to one of the other wagons. Cole stopped his horse. He hadn't seen a good fight in a long time. Been in one, absolutely, but it had been a long time since he could just sit by and watch one.

The other wagon driver watched the man with the board suspiciously. He was undoubtedly a prospector. Nobody looked as grizzled as a prospector. The one riding the horse was a young woman of about twenty. She would have been pretty if she hadn't been wearing that suspicious frown.

The man with the board stopped in front of the prospector's wagon. "You gonna git outta my way, old man?" he bellowed. The old prospector responded by giving him direction to a place a whole lot hotter than Dry Gluch.

The young man smiled. Cole had seen smiles like that all too often and they usually meant the bearer of the smile was ready to do something crazy. The young man turned and walked away. Then he whirled around and swung the board, right down on the wagon mule's head. The mule's knees buckled and it fell to the ground with a loud, dusty whump!

The prospector jumped out of the wagon. "Whaddya think yer doin'?" He rolled his grimy sleeves up and revealed sun-burned arms with knotted muscles. Cole hoped the young man had a head of steel. He would need it to fend off the blows from those strong arms. The prospector lunged and tackled the young man.

"Get 'em, Buddy! Don't let him beat you like that!" someone in the crowd yelled.

Buddy, the young man, swung a haymaker punch at the prospector, who took a full set of knuckles across the jaw.

"Come on, Curly! Don't you let no whipper-snapper kid make a fool outta you!" another voice from the crowd cheered.

With reputations of ferocity to maintain, both men battled it out frontier-style. The only rule was neither of the fighters were allowed to show any mercy for their opponents. Cole had seen men that had their fingers bitten off and their eyes gouged out from those kinds of fights. They were the winners.

The woman tried to steer her horse around the fighters. Each way she turned was blocked by the fighters or the crowd that gathered to watch. Her horse, frightened by the shouts and the fighting men, danced around in a way that meant she wasn't going to be able to control it much longer.

Curly swung at Buddy, once with a left and once with a right. Buddy dodged the left but the right caught him flush across the cheek. He stumbled backward into the woman's horse. Frightened by the sudden dead weight across its flank, the horse reared. The helpless rider flew through the air and landed beside the unconscious mule. She shook off her surprise and leaned against the wagon to steady her knees. Then, with an angry scowl, she picked up the board Buddy had dropped and ran at the two fighters.

"Thatta girl, Tempest! You show 'em who's boss!" It was the same voice that had cheered Curly. So much for loyalty.

She swung at Curly and the board caught him across the shoulders. He dropped to his knees and turned around, too surprised to fight back.

"What you hittin' me fer? I didn't knock you offa that horse!" He held up his arms to fend off another blow.

"You knocked him into me!" she yelled and swung again.

Buddy made the mistake of grabbing her from behind. "Tempest, that's enough!" he yelled.

"You want a hit in the head, too? That's fine by me!" She flung the board at his head. Buddy ducked. The force of the swing spun her around. The board slammed into Curly, who was just climbing to his feet. He landed on the ground for the second time. Instead of getting up, he crawled away on his hands and knees and hid under the wagon. Curly was no fool.

Cole shook his head and spurred the horse on. As much as he wanted to see the outcome, he needed to talk to the town council. They had sent the message. The poetic desperation spoke for itself.

He skirted the last of the onlookers. He still heard Tempest's outraged screaming. She had a right to be angry, he would give her that, but she was probably a handful on a good day. Cole shook his head, pitying the poor fool that ever married up with that one.

A squat, old Mexican man was taking a siesta beneath a small tree growing between Jones's Dry Good Store and The Spanish Rose Cantina. He pushed his large sombrero up on his forehead with a thick finger. He studied Cole for a long time, his dark eyes glittering like fool's gold. He smiled finally, and it was the friendliest smile Cole had ever seen.

He seemed to be the only person in town not taking an interest in the fight. Cole rested his arm on the saddle horn and spoke amicably. "What's up, amigo? You not know there's a good fight down the street?"

"Si, Manuel knows. It is no big thing. Tempest, she fight all the time. Very strong tempered. A little loco in the cabasa." He folded his arms across his large paunch.

Cole chuckled. "I gathered that much. Maybe you could help me. I'm looking for the town council. Where might they be this time of day?"

Manuel squinted at him. "You the gringo they bring in to fight the Mash brothers?"

"That's me."

He frowned. "You are professional gun fighter?"

"When I have to be?" Cole tried to keep his expression even. Something about the old man's questions, or rather the way he asked them, bothered him. He acted as if he had seen this scenario played out before, and it didn't have a happy outcome.

Manuel stood. A cat that had been taking its own siesta in his shadow sat up and licked it paws then slunk off to another cool spot. Manuel took off his sombrero as he approached Cole. His narrow black eyes acted as if they wanted to look pleading but didn't know quite how.

"Senor, perhaps you will need my help. You don't know what you are up against, but I do."

Cole once again kept his voice friendly. He liked the old man. "How can you help me? No offense, but you don't look like a very fast draw."

Manuel smiled. He was missing several of his teeth. "Manuel, he not very fast with the guns, but he very fast with the brains."

Cole couldn't help but chuckle. "All right, old man, you won me over. Maybe you can help me. Can I share a secret with you?"

"Manuel tells no one secrets," he said gravely.

"That's good." Cole swung his leg over the saddle and settled lightly on the ground. His boots kicked up tiny puffs of dust. He took the reins to his horse and followed Manuel down the street. The sounds of the fight hadn't died away yet. Tempest must have a temper greater than the mighty Mississippi.

He handed the telegram to the old man. "See, I'm here because you people need my help. They sent me another telegram after this one, promising me money if I came and helped them. Now, I've had doings with people like this before. They're slick sons of mules. I'm wanting to make a lot of money off this deal. A whole lot, but I don't know much about negotiations and things like that. Horse traders love to see me coming, if you know what I mean."

Manuel grunted. "Si, Manuel knows. I live to be this old because I am good dealer. I do not have to fight for a living."

"That's just what I'm talking about. If the two of us work together, maybe we can both set ourselves up quite nicely."

Manuel stopped, catching Cole's arm and turning him around. "You won't swindle, no?"

"No, nothing like that. If I say I'm gonna do a job, then I do the job. That's how my Pa raised me. But I want to be well paid for my efforts. Skill ain't cheap, you know."

Manuel stuck out his pudgy hand. "Then I am in."

"Good deal, partner." Cole shook his hand. "Now, let's go see them town council fellas and take them for everything they got."

Manuel grinned. "I do the talking."

"You got it, partner."

Cole followed the squat old man down the dusty street. The crowd was nonexistent at this end of the street. Everyone wanted a good seat at the fight.

"I want to ask you something," Cole said. Manuel slowed his pace to a crawl and Cole almost ran over him. "I want to know if there's really a mine running underneath this street."

"Si, she runs right under the Cantina, hooks left, and goes to the big vein of gold."

"That was a dang fool thing to do," Cole muttered. "Run a mine shaft underneath a building."

The Town Hall wasn't much to look at. It was the smallest building in town. Inside, several rows of chairs flanked a path to the upraised platform that served as a stage. A rough-lumber podium adorned the stage and an American flag served as the backdrop. The room had a feeling of disuse about it. The room still smelled of fresh lumber and dust. Apparently no one cared enough to try to settle the town's upheaval. Either that, or no one had the nerve.

Cole stood in the center of the room. "Hey, Mayor!" His voice boomed against the rafters. He heard the sounds of scuffling from the back room, chairs being hastily shoved back, and the jingling of loose money.

Manuel leaned forward and whispered, "They don't want no one to know they gamble."

Cole nodded. He drew himself up to his full height and set his hat at a jaunty angle. He fixed his expression into a shifty, squinty stare and turned his mouth down into a hard frown. Best to let them think he was the half-crazy gunslinger they hoped he was. He had even dressed the part, from the weathered brown boots to the dusty chaps, the well-oiled gun belt and the long black duster. Yes, the clothes definitely make the man and right now he wanted to be a gunslinger.

The men emerged from the backroom. One was white haired and carried a pocket watch on a long gold chain that was clipped to the breast pocket of his silk vest. Just by the clothes alone, Cole knew he was the mayor. The other two, though well-tailored, did not quite meet those dandy standard. Toadies, both of them.

Manuel folded his hands together and stepped forward as reverently as he might approach the collection plate at church. The mayor frowned. "What is it now, Manuel? You know we have more important things to do than bother with the things you bring us."

"Not even if I bring you Cole Logan, the famous gunslinger?" he asked softly.

The three gentlemen's eyes widened as they peered over his broad shoulders. Cole leveled them with a steely gaze. His mouth was a hard, derisive line. If they only knew how long he had sat in front of a mirror and practiced that look!

The mayor lowered his voice to a more respectful tone. "You - uh - you never mentioned you knew Cole Logan

He shrugged, the gesture strangely delicate for the heavy framed man. "The time never came to mention it. I did not know he was coming until he was here. But now, since he comes to help my town, I help him, to take care of his best interest."

"What are his best interests?" the mayor asked. His two toadies shared a swift, suspicious glance.

"My good friend spends much money to come here. He expects to be well paid for what he is going to do for you."

The mayor cocked a white eyebrow. "How much?"

"Say," Manuel turned his face down in thought, his pudgy index finger stroking his chin. "Five thousand dollars?"

"Five thousand dollars!" The veins in the mayor's neck stood out. "That's highway robbery! Where are we supposed to get that much money?"

The other town council members seemed ready to faint. Manuel shrugged again. "That is what he wants. It is also something little for me. That is his offer, and not to be haggled."

The mayor wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. "Let me, let me discuss it with the council." He motioned for the other two to follow him. They retreated to the corner and began arguing in mumbled tones. Cole listened closely. That was one of his many cultivated talents.

"You really think he's good enough for what you want?" the bald one asked.

"I think so. Good heavens, he sure looks mean enough." The mayor glanced over his shoulder. Cole made certain to give him an extra mean scowl for good measure. The mayor quickly averted his eyes.

"I sure hope you know what you're doing," the other said.

"It's my last hope." The mayor and the others turned back. Each wore a fresh smile that was identical to the others. The mayor extended his hand. "Mister Logan, you'll have your five thousand dollars when you rid our town of those dangerous desperadoes."

Cole grunted. "I want half, up front."

The mayor ground his teeth and his words. "All right. You drive a hard bargain. You'll get half tonight at the Forth of July Festival. It will take us that long to scrape it together."

He held out his hand again. Cole studied it, just long enough to make the trio uncomfortable, then gripped the mayor's hand and squeezed it as hard as he could.

The mayor grimaced and pulled free. "That's quite an impressive handshake you have, Mister Logan."

Another grunt.

Manuel nodded to the three men. "I am going to make sure my friend gets settled in at the Cantina."

The mayor jumped ahead like an adoring puppy. "I'll tag along. Introduce you to some of the folk as we go."

Manuel looked at Cole. He studied the mayor for a few moments, then nodded his consent. The mayor smiled. "See, I like that. A man of few words. Let's his gun do the talking for him. You know, I haven't properly introduced myself. My name's Hector Gentry, but all my friends call me Heck. You can call me that, too."

Cole nodded, a curt jerk of his head. He could barely keep from grinning. This was going too well. He had the whole town eating out of his hand. Manuel strutted beside him like a bantam rooster, pleased with his newfound status with the town council. Cole could see gold coins shining in his black eyes.

Mayor Gentry held the door open for them. The hot wind hit them like a gust from a blast furnace and carried the sounds of a beating. That fight was still going on! If anything, the crowd had only gotten larger. None of the council members seemed to notice or care. Fights were that much of a common place.

The mayor turned to his toadies. "When my daughter gets back, tell her to go on to the house and get supper started. We'll be having company tonight." He favored Cole with another of those endless adoring smiles. "You really oughta meet my daughter, Tempest. She's quite a gal."

Cole almost lost his composure as shock loosened his jaw. Tempest was the mayor's daughter? There was a maverick offspring if one had ever existed.

Manuel chuckled. "Tempest has been back for quite some time."

"Oh?" The mayor seemed surprised. "Then where is she? She promised to see me just as soon as she got to town.

The crowd cheered suddenly and a voice rang out above all of it. "Let me go, you stinking ugly son of a pig!"

Manuel gave his best attempt to hide his smile. "She is a little sidetracked."

The mayor turned ashen and slack-jawed, then red-faced furious. He ran at the crowd like a suicide run and the council followed him at a much slower place. "Heck, calm down!" the bald one called after him, to no avail.

Cole and Manuel followed, barely able to keep up, Cole at a quick trot and Manuel at his slow, lumbering gait. The mayor stopped at the edge of the crowd. Three new had entered the fight and looked like they were trying to kidnap Tempest. The wind shifted and with one whiff Cole knew these were the hombres that had followed him into town.

Tempest held her own against them, dirty and a little bloody, though Cole doubted any of it was hers. She swung madly at anyone she could hit. For the most part, the other men looked like they just wanted to escape.

"What's going on?" Mayor Gentry yelled.

If Cole was going to be a hero, there was no better time than now. He pushed through the crowd and grabbed the one closest to him. He knew in an instant these were the men that had followed him into Dry Gluch. The man he grabbed stank of horse sweat, so much that he almost gagged. He flipped the smaller man over his shoulder and body-slammed him into the dust.

The largest one, a man built like a steam locomotive, ran at him with his tree trunk arms outstretched to catch him. Instead of backing away, Cole stepped into the onslaught and slammed his fist into the larger man's face. His nose cracked like rock under a sledgehammer. He dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands, screaming like a child. Blood dribbled between his meaty fingers.

Momentarily distracted by the sudden help, Tempest gawked at Cole. The smallest man, a wiry, pitifully underfed thing almost half Tempest's size, grabbed her arm and tried to drag her through the crowd. She swung him around and threw a haymaker into his face. He fell to his knees, dazed. The remaining man, exactly the middle between the other two desperadoes, grabbed the smaller, fallen man from the dust and dragged him through the crowd that parted for them like the Red Sea did for Moses. The lumbering giant staggered to his feet and followed his friends. They mounted their jittery horses and thundered out of town in a cloud of dust.

Tempest wiped her face with the back of her sleeve. Angry tears streaked through the dusts coating her cheeks like powder. Cole forgot his fa├žade and laid his hands gently on his shoulders. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

She jerked away from him. "I'm just fine!" she shouted. "You sure took your own sweet time helping me."

Feeling the eyes of the whole crowd watching him, Cole suddenly remembered that this was not the place to show his gentle side, not if he wanted the whole town to think he was a tough-as-nails gunfighter. He scowled and turned to the crowd. "Anybody know who they were?" he roared.

Several heads ducked and everyone avoided his eyes. A little boy in a beaten straw hat tugged on the tail of Cole's duster. "Them was the Mash brothers, Mister," He stared up at Cole with eyes as big as the heads of railroad spikes. His mother grabbed his arm and dragged him away, fastidiously avoiding Cole's penetrating stare.

The mayor laid his hands on his daughter's shoulders. "Don't you worry none, pumpkin, because it's over. You run along home now and have Maria clean you up. That's no way for a fine upstanding lady like yourself to look."

"Stop treating me like a little kid!" she snapped. With those tear stains on her round face and with her eyes so large and shining so brightly, she looked exactly like a child. "Right now, I'm a businessman just like the five of you, and those hombres are trying to take my gold mine. I want them strung up by their ears and left for the buzzards." She leveled Cole with a cool, blue-eyes stare. "You the gun-for-hire that's gonna take care of those Mash brothers?"

The mayor cut in smoothly, smiling chagrinned, apologizing for his daughter's less than hospitable manners. "I told you I would take care of things and I am. We'll walk with you home and then we men will sit down and figure out how to take care of those cutthroats."

Tempest snorted. "You men couldn't figure your way out of a gunny-sack without someone leading you by the hands."

She grabbed her horse's reins and stormed off down the street, shoving people aside when they didn't move quickly enough for her. The mayor shook his head and motioned for them to follow him, and he followed her though at a far enough distance to keep her from being able to turn around and come after them for another round.

Good luck marrying that one off. Cole felt sorry for the dumb fool stupid enough to hitch up with that one.

The mayor's house was a stately white two-story house with a small yard and a white picket fence. What little grass grew in the yard was of the stubborn desert variety and Cole doubted even fire could eradicate it. He eyed the house appreciatively. There wasn't enough raw lumber in this area to build a house like this, which meant it had to be shipped in by rail. That cost a pretty penny, no doubt. The mayor and his daughter seemed to be well-enough off to be living in the outskirts of hell.

Tempest tied her horse to the hitching post outside her house. Cole did the same with his. Tempest watched him with the most contemptuous look he had ever seen a woman wear. Whoever she was, she didn't seem to have much use for anyone. Cole stared back at her impassively. She threw her hands up in disgust and stomped up the wooden steps and onto the front porch. Her father held the door for her, she barged through without a thank you or acknowledgment. She continued up the stairs. It was only then that Cole noticed the rip in the seat of her pants, and the way the cuffs were frayed around her boots. Bedraggled and dirty, she had fought down a trio of kidnappers with a ferocity that would make most bounty hunters cry for their mamas. Pioneer women, he reflected, they had grit.

The mayor pushed open the doors leading to the den. He went straight to the heavy oak cabinet and broke out the liquor and glasses. Cole leaned against the wall, partially hidden in the late afternoon shadows. "How many Mash brothers are there?"

The mayor jumped, almost dropping the glass and the bottle of bourbon. "Three. There's three of them, and then they have some sisters."

Cole turned the full force of his penetrating glare on the old man. There was a faint resemblance between him and Tempest, most noticeably in the shifty set of their eyes. "You didn't seem to awful upset when they tried to kidnap your daughter."

The mayor smiled nervously. "Why, Mister Logan, I knew you would step in and take care of it. I mean, a man of your fine character wouldn't stand by and let a passel of trash like them hurt a woman."

The bald one chuckled. "If it's possible to hurt Tempest. She's mean as a rattlesnake and-"

The mayor silenced him with a severe glare. "That's quite enough, Frank."

Cole shook his head. "Why would the Mash brothers try to kidnap her? It seems to me that everybody knows how - spirited - she is. Why would they put up with the trouble?"

The mayor slumped into the chair behind his desk and nursed his drink. The leather creaked like an old body. "Tempest owns one of the biggest gold mines in the territory. She came across it by accident. While every other dang fool with a pick and a shovel was out digging up the mountains, my daughter falls into a cave right on the edge of town. There are pitfalls all around the north end of town. Turns out, that cave leads right to the biggest vein of gold in the territory. Since that new law came about that women can own property, it's all hers."

Cole could barely keep the surprise off his face. He turned to Manuel, who confirmed the mayor's story with a nod. The wealthy mayor had a wealthy daughter. A wealthy independent daughter. This job kept looking better and better by the second.

"That's why they tried to kidnap her," the mayor continued. "They were going to make her sign the property over to them."

"Clever," Cole said.

"I expect them to try it again," the mayor said. "Tonight, at the Fourth of July Festival. That's the kind of sneakiness I'd expect from a side-winding bunch of no-goods like them."

Cole nodded. "Then we'll just have to care of them, won't we?"

*****

It was an hour before dusk and the celebration was already in full-swing. Brightly colored banners draped across the street from building to building. A huge bonfire rose into the sky and melted with the flaming sunset. Several old huskers played guitars, banjoes, and harmonicas. It wasn't a New Orleans Ball, Cole reflected, but it wasn't half bad for a frontier hoe-down.

Square dancers traded partners and traded again. Everyone in town seemed to be there, except for the one person Cole was looking for. He hadn't seen Tempest since he left the mayor's house earlier today. The more he thought about her (and thought about her he had, despite his best attempts not to), he realized she wasn't the ill-tempered shrew the town thought she was. She was just tough as shoe leather, and very, very nice to look at. Part of him wondered if she really was a shrew and he was just seeing her through the eyes of the smitten.

Nah, couldn't be that. He wasn't stupid enough to let himself fall in love. Still, she was nice to look at, or would be if he had the chance to see her cleaned up and not beaten to a bloody pulp. He had always liked dark-haired women and her hair was as close to black as it could be without actually being black. She had a sweet face she tried to hide behind her orneriness but he saw through that. The girl was no fool and wasn't about to let her guard down to be taken advantage of by some unscrupulous fellow after her money.

He glimpsed a streak of crimson in a head of dark hair, then tempest separated herself from the crowd and sauntered toward him. Watching her try to walk tough in a dress was a hilarious sight and he expected her to pitch over face first in the dirt any moment. She was definitely more used to riding pants than hoop skirts.

Cole kept his expression hard. He looked at her, then away into the settling darkness, pretending to be uninterested.

"Nice night for a shin-dig," she said.

"Uh-huh," he said.

Tempest folded her arms over her chest and stared at him cockeyed. "Look, don't make this hard for me. I want to apologize for snapping at you for helping me. When you we late, I mean."

"I paid no never mind," Cole said, realizing his mother would slap him sideways if she ever heard him using such bad grammar. It rankled his own more refined sensibilities, but it worked for the act so he was willing to cope.

"Oh," She squinted at him suspiciously. "You must think you're pretty smart, don't you?"

"No, ma'am," he said. "Just fast on the draw."

"I bet I'm faster than you." she said.

"What makes you think so?" Cole kept his voice even but his stomach fluttered. Maybe she had figured him out as easily as he had figured her out.

"You just look like you think you're pulling the biggest joke on the whole world. That's what makes me say I bet you ain't the fastest draw in these parts." She raised her hands to her sides and mimed pistols with her hands. "Reach for it, mister!" she yelled as she drew. Cole, using his own fingers as pistols, drew faster and pointed his index fingers between her eyes before she raised her hands three inches.

Her mouth dropped open. She was completely stupefied. "I guess I was wrong."

"About the draw, yes." Cole blew imaginary smoke off the end of his fingers and pretended to holster his pistols. "Actually, I don't fight very often with guns. I use my brains and my good looks." He grinned at her disbelief. "I learned a long time ago that no matter how tough you are, there's always somebody a little bit tougher and that person is very likely to put a bullet through your head just as soon look at you."

Tempest weighed his words. "That's remarkable insight, especially for a man. Most of the men I know would rather let their guns do the talking. Which isn't always a bad thing, considering that when they open their mouths something stupid usually comes out."

Cole leaned down close to her ear, not believing what he was getting ready to say but for some reason couldn't stop himself. "I'll share a secret with you. I wasn't even born out here. I was born in Boston but I didn't like the enclosed spaces. I always liked a lot of room to breathe. How about you?"

"Oh, I always liked a lot of breathing room, but it gets so boring out here. There's only so many jackrabbits you can shoot before it gets old. You see the same old people every day and carry on the same old conversations with them. I guess that's why I act a little crazy. At it's a change."

"So it is an act," he said.

She thrust out her chin stubbornly. "You ain't exactly been honest, either, Mister Six-Irons. You're supposed to be some big shot gunslinger and you're not. You're probably just some fast-talking swindler with a better-than-average quick draw. Even if you are fast, I bet you always turn tail and run."

"Ma'am, I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a coward. You should be happy that someone as smart as I am is helping you."

Tempest cackled. "Hah! If you were even half as smart as you think you are, you would already have those Mash brothers in jail by now. I thought my father was a smart man, but him hiring you proves otherwise."

Gunshots cut off any comeback Cole might have been thinking of making. Three men on horseback appeared at the end of the street. Several other men separated themselves from the darkness behind them, and kept coming until a way of them blocked the north road out of town.

The mayor tore through the crowd like a bald eagle, trailed by his ever present toadies. Manuel followed them at his slower lumber.

"It's the Mash brothers," the mayor said as he put his hands on his knees and sucked down air.

"All of them?" Cole shouted, losing the calm exterior in sake of burgeoning panic. "You said there was only three of them."

"I said they had some sisters," the mayor said between breaths. "Those men with them are their brothers-in-law."

"So how many sisters do they have," Cole said, doing a quick mental inventory of his guns and ammunition. Not enough. Not even close to enough to deal with this problem.

"Nine sisters," Manuel said.

"Great," Cole muttered.

"And I think I see some of their older sons with them," Tempest said. Her own eyes were narrowed to slits of gun steel gray. Of all of them, she had the most methodical expression of them all. If he didn't know better, she was picking the order she was going to shoot them in.

A small boy of about thirteen popped from the press of horses and stumbled forward, as ungainly as a colt on new legs. His thrust out a letter in his bony hand and shoved it at Cole. He turned and bolted back to the others without waiting to see if Cole had it. He fumbled for the letter before finally catching it. He opened it and tried to decipher it. After several attempts by himself, Tempest, the mayor, his toadies, and Manuel, they decided on a translation from the hen-scratched jumbled on the soiled paper.

"Hand over the deed to the mine or we massacre the town. This time we got the men to do it." Cole crumpled the note and tossed it away. "At least they're keep it simple."

"Well," Tempest asked, more than a little belligerently. "What are you gonna do?"

"Give them the mine," Cole cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to the mounted crowd, "You low-down turkey buzzards want the deed to that mine? You meet me back here in one hour. You show up one second sooner or later and the deal is off!"

The Mash brothers murmured between themselves, nodded, then the skinny, underfed one (the one Cole assumed to be the eldest), shouted back. "Alright, Gunslinger! I figured you for a coward and I was right. One hour, and you better not try nothing smart.

He and the rest of the mob led their horses to the hitching posts in front of the Spanish Rose Cantina. An hour free was an hour to drunk.

Tempest punched his shoulder with all the strength inside her small body. "Are you stupid? I ain't giving up my gold mine to a bunch of no-account thieves!"

"We aren't giving them the gold mine," Cole said. "But we're giving them the shaft." We grabbed Manuel's arm and pulled him aside. "You know where to get some dynamite?"

He nodded. "The town, she is full of it. Everybody uses it."

"Good. You go get us one stick of dynamite and meet us back here as soon as you can."

"There's some in the shed behind my house. I keep it for emergencies," Tempest added when her father's eyes widened with surprise. "I got it stashed all over the place."

Manuel smiled cavalierly and lumbered toward the mayor's house. The street had lost most of its merry-makers as soon as the first Mash brother hit town.

The mayor eyeballed him suspiciously. "What are you up to?"

"There's too many of them to fight, even if we did get the Sheriff." Cole said.

"That's what we hired you to do!" the mayor yelled. "You're supposed to fight the bad guys."

"There's no sense in killing a bunch of people over nothing. Besides, I have a plan that will scare them so bad they'll never bother anyone again."

The mayor looked skeptical. "I hope you're worth what we're paying you."

"Believe me, I am. Mayor, you and the rest of the town council run and get the Sheriff. Have him use the back door and go into the Cantina when the Mash brothers leave through the front. We're gonna need him once this is all over. "

The mayor sighed heavily, debating, then motioned for the other two to follow him. Manuel passed them, carrying one stick of dynamite in his pudgy paw of a hand. It was time to put his plan into operation. Cole turned to Tempest and held one of his own pistols out to her. "I'm assuming you're a decent shot?"

She accepted it with the confidence of a sharpshooter. "One of the best in these parts."

"Good. You hide in the town hall. When they come running by, you start shooting. Don't kill them, just scare them," he said when the devilish glint filled her eyes.

She frowned. "What makes you think they'll be running?"

"Trust me, they will." He handed his other pistol to Manuel. "You get on the other side of the street and do just what Tempest does. We'll make them think they're in one of the biggest shootouts in the west."

"But how are you gonna get them to run?" Tempest asked, trotting behind him. "You gave both your guns to us. What kind of gunslinger are you?"

"The best," he said, holding up the stick of dynamite. "Now get to your posts."

The hour wound down to nothing, and right on cue the entire Mash clan emptied out of the Cantina and into the street. Cole couldn't help but wonder how such a gaggle of sloppy drunks had managed to terrify an entire town. They certainly weren't the smartest crew of cutthroats he had ever encountered.

The eldest Mash brother hitched his pants up and pulled his hat down at a jaunty angle. He opened his filthy duster and gripped the pistols in his belt. "Alright, you yeller coward! Hand it over!"

Cole lit the stick of dynamite and held it above his hands. "You boys see this? If you fellas don't high-tail it out of town right now, I'm gonna blow you clear to Kansas!"

They stepped back collectively, but the oldest one refused to be bullied. Smart just crossed the line into stupid. Never argue with a man holding a stick of lit dynamite. Cole charged them with a rebel yell, his black coat sailing out behind him like a demon unleashed from hell. The Mash family turned and ran, only to be herded into the path of Tempest's and Manuel's gunfire. The panicked family took shelter in the only place they could find - the Spanish Rose Cantina. Where the Sheriff was waiting for them.

Cole flung the stick of dynamite as far away as he could. It arced like a shooting star through the darkness, then it sailed into the open pit beside the cantina.

"Not the mine shaft!" Tempest yelled. "I got dynamite down there!"

The Spanish Rose Cantina exploded into a fireball that could be seen in the next territory.

*****

It was well into the next afternoon before the last of the Mash family, shaken and covered in dirt, was pulled out of the collapsed mine shaft. No one had died but more than a few wished they had. Especially Esmeralda Rodriguez, the owner and the proprietor of the Spanish Rose Cantina. When she saw the crater that had once been her business, she threatened to shoot every man in town.

Cole found Tempest staring into what was left of her mine shaft. "Do you think you'll be able to clean that out?" he asked.

She nodded. "Sure, eventually. That was the stupidest, most idiotic, brilliant plan I've ever seen." She smiled at him. "How did you know they would run?"

"A hunch. Most people would rather run than fight anyway, especially when there's a maniac chasing them with a lit stick of dynamite.

She put her hands on her hips and turned to squint up at him. "I'd like to apologize again, for saying those things about you being a coward and all. I guess I really oughta think before I speak."

Cole shrugged. "Don't fret over it. After all, it's alright for a girl to fight with her husband every now and then. The important thing is that we work together when things count. Just like we did last night."

"Husband?" she asked.

"Sure. Face it, I'm the only man in this territory that ain't scared to death of you. Besides, it don't hurt that we like each other, either."

She cocked her head to the side. "What makes you think I like you?"

"Come on, Tempest. If you didn't like me, you wouldn't be arguing with me right now, would you? You'd just pick up a board and knock my brains out with it.

She gawked, then turned away to keep him from seeing her smile. He saw anyway. "I think we'll have small wedding," he said, "Friends and family. It couldn't be all that big in a town like this anyway."

"I want a big wedding," Tempest said. "After all, a girl has her first wedding just once in her life, and don't think you're gonna be getting off cheap."

Cole held up his hands appeasingly. "That fine. I'm an understanding man, but we've gotta have a lot of kids. Three boys and two girls would be a nice start."

"Three girls and two boys, you mean."

The mayor, wiping his sooty face with a silk handkerchief, parted from the crowd and walked over to them. "What are you two fighting about now?"

"Cole thinks we're gonna have three boys and two girls, but it's going to be the other way around," she said.

The mayor smiled, surprised. "You two are wanting to get married."

"Soon, we hope," Cole said.

"But not so soon we can't have a big wedding," Tempest added.

The mayor beamed. "This is wonderful. I was expecting you to ride into the sunset like all your kind do, but I think you're a smart man. I wouldn't mind having you as a son-in-law."

Neither Cole nor Tempest heard the compliment. They were too busy kissing. The mayor left them alone and strolled down what was left of main street. The entire Mash family sat around what was left of the Sheriff's office. Most were black with soot and battered and bloody.

The Sheriff jangled the keys to the handcuffs in his right hand. "You want me to let them go home now?" he asked.

"I think they've earned it," the mayor said.

The Sheriff unlocked the handcuffs, one set at a time, and each grateful Mash family member rubbed their sore wrists.

Scrawny Joe, the eldest of the three Mash brothers, rubbed the back of his sore neck. "I ain't sure if all we just went through was worth what you're paying us."

The mayor reached inside his jacket and handed him a large sack of gold. "To find a husband for my Tempest, I'll pay anything. She's so ornery, I never thought I'd find a man she'd take to."

"I bet he's the meanest gunslinger to ever walk the face of the earth," Scrawny Joe said.

The mayor laughed. "Are you kidding? I heard about him from my brother in New Orleans. He was claming to be some big-time gambler with a fast draw. He was good at handling himself and smart - a little too smart for his own good. I figured that was good enough for my little girl, so I arranged to get him here."

Scrawny Joe grinned. "That was right smart of you. Do you think they'll ever catch on?"

"Not a chance. If somebody thinks they're smart, they always think they're smarter than they are. Cole and Tempest share that trait. I just let them think that they're pulling something over on the rest of us and everything worked out just like I knew it would."

"Pretty smart," Scrawny Joe said. "Can we go home now? The womenfolk are probably missing us by now."

Joe led his battle-weary family to their horses and they all rode out of town, taking the south way out so no one would notice them leave.

The mayor returned to his daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law. Cole draped his arm around Tempest's shoulder and she elbowed him, but only hard enough to wince, not hard enough to double him over like she would have done to anyone else.

"Listen, mayor. You can keep my cut of the money. I think I got something a little better. But give Manuel his share, alright?"

"For a man that rid our town of such desperate outlaws, I'll do anything." He glanced over his shoulder at Manuel, who sat in the shade of his favorite mesquite tree. Somehow knowing he was the topic of conversation, he pushed the sombrero up with a pudgy thumb and grinned. The sack of gold coins was hidden under the woven blanket spread across his stomach. The mayor had to give Manuel credit for the idea of putting Cole and Tempest together. But after all, Manuel had been one shrewd horse trader in his day.

*****

Adios Amigos!