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Wyoming, 1905

Sam built up the fire, then hit the blanket. He was drifting off when he heard a low rumbling off in the distance. He grabbed his Winchester and scrambled up to the top of a low ridge. From there, with the sun sinking low, he took in the scrubland he’d been crossing for the last three days, ever since he’d left Ashtown with the aim of bringing in Killer Cole Steele. In the middle of it all, bouncing along, was an automobile, its two brass lamps cutting a path of light through the gloam.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sam said.

It was the automobile that had shown up in Ashtown the day he’d ridden off in search of Steele. The driver, a young man named Barton, was making the first automobile journey across America and had stopped in for supplies. He and his machine had caused quite a stir, for nobody in Ashtown, not even marshal Sam Cross, had seen an automobile before.

“It’s a curved dashed Oldsmobile Runabout,” Barton proudly told the townsfolk gathered about, his crisp Yankee accent leaving no doubt as to his pedigree. “I’ve driven her all the way from New York City. She goes seven-miles-an-hour tops. By the way, this is California, isn’t it?”

“Wyoming,” Sam replied.

As the curious inspected the contrivance, Sam headed for the hotel where Mary May, taking a break from her job as cook, was eying the spectacle from a safe distance. Before Sam could utter a word, she said, “I don’t like that man.”

Sam told her not to worry. “He’ll be gone soon enough.”

He climbed onto Paint, his horse. As he did, he confessed, “This is the last time. I’m too old to be chasing outlaws down over hell and gone. Once I get that reward, we’re gonna settle down.”

Mary May found comfort in the thought. “Be safe,” she said, squeezing his hand.

As Sam headed out of town, he passed the automobile. As he did, Barton stepped away from signing up riders.

“I say, marshal?” Barton asked. “Can you tell me the way to Minerville? I’m told I might find a few bona fide outlaws there. Oh, I’m just dying to see a real, honest-to-God cutthroat.”

“I suggest you find another way,” Sam warned the man.

He spurred Paint on and was gone.

***

Two days later, Sam, on the ridgeline, watched as that same automobile slowly motored its way through the dark.

“The damn fool,” Sam said. “He’s heading for Minerville.”

Sam returned to the fire and there, sitting smartly as if trained to do so, was the ugliest dog he’d ever seen. He drew back, fearing the beast was wild and diseased. The dog was size of a yearling calf, had a square head and a short coat that gave shape to hard, sinewy muscles. Its coat was orange-black, like it once had stripes, but the rain and whatnot had smudged them all into one big mess. It barked, as if welcoming Sam home, then rolled over wanting a tummy rub.

“Well, I’ll be,” Sam said, holstering his pistol. “Where’d you come from, boy?”

At the sound of Sam’s voice, the dog sat up, like it had been well-trained. Its left ear stood straight up while the right one was gone, bitten clean off at the skull.

“Ain’t you a sight,” Sam said, kneeling to shake the paw the dog was offering. “Smart too,” Sam added. “No, I ain’t playing. I gotta get some shut eye. Now scram, okay?”

Sam hit the blanket. No sooner had he done so when a long, wet tongue started giving him a face wash under his hat.

“Look,” Sam said, sitting up. “If I give you some jerky, will you scram?”

The dog sat up, the promise of jerky a treat the dog seemed to know quite well.

“Okay,” Sam sighed. “You win.”

He reached into his saddle bag and brought out a piece of jerky. Mary May, bless her heart, had packed it along with some bread so he wouldn’t go hungry on the trail.

The dog zeroed in on the meat but made no move to grab it.

“Well, ain’t you the gentleman,” Sam said.

He tossed the jerky as far as he could. The dog, as expected, tore after it and vanished into the night.

The next morning, Sam rode on and soon found the automobile’s twisting tire tracks. He followed them, for they were heading straight for Minerville, the place Killer Cole Steele was reportedly shooting up. He was wanted for bank robbery. The reward for bringing him in was five-hundred silver dollars paid by the bank in Ashtown.

Five-hundred silver dollars, Sam thought, as he rode on. With money like that, he could buy Mary May a wedding ring. Maybe even a ranch.

With the sun riding high, Sam reined up at a stream and let Paint drink. As he did, Sam rolled a cigarette and watched his hand shake. He’d chased many an outlaw in his day and had never gotten the shakes before. But this time was different. Gone were the days when he could bring in a gang of outlaws single-handed. Now he was slow on the draw and he knew it. He also knew he should’ve raised a posse, but he’d chosen not too. If he was going to start a new life with Mary May, he needed all that reward money for himself.

He was about to ride on when he felt something from behind. He froze. He grabbed his Winchester only to realize that it wasn’t road agents creeping up on him. It was that dog again—old one-ear—sitting there ready to play.

“Shooo!” Sam said, waving his hat at the dog. “Go on. Get! I ain’t got nothing so beat it.”

The dog replied with a bark, then rolled over wanting a tummy rub.

“Forget it,” Sam said. “What do you think this is, some kind of boondoggle?”

While the dog was doing its business, Sam rode off. A mile down the trail, Sam figured he was in the clear when there it was again—that damn dog—keeping pace like he could run for all eternity and never get tired.

Sam reined up and there they stood, man and dog, each waiting for the other to make the next move.

“Look,” Sam said, dismounting. “Don’t take this personal.”

He cut off a length of lariat, tied one end around the dog's neck and the other around a dead tree. As he rode off, the dog didn’t whine or cry out. Instead, it sat there smartly and watched Sam go, the tire tracks leading him up to the edge of Minerville at last.

Sam reined up. He checked his pistol and Winchester to make sure he was ready. Satisfied, he rode on, wishing he had a posse. His mother, long since passed, always said his pigheadedness would get him into trouble one day.

“Well, ma,” Sam said, as he rode alone into Minerville. “I guess you was right.”

Minerville was two rows of weather-beaten buildings staring at each other across a strip of dust passing for a street. Quicksilver had put it on the map. When the vein ran out, the miners, merchants and miscreants had all moved on, for the long-promised railway never arrived. In the meantime, outlaws knew it was a good place to lie low. Yet as Sam rode into town, nobody stirred. Everything was shut tight. As for the tire tracks, they went straight through and out the other side without stopping.

A lone bay tied up in front of the saloon drew Sam in for a closer look. Steele was last seen riding a stolen bay with four white socks. Seeing four white socks, Sam felt his stomach knot. He pulled his hat down, then stepped up to the swinging doors leading into the saloon. The smell of stale cigars and cheap whiskey came wafting out of black so dark and deep it seemed he was peering into a tomb.

Sam hesitated. He’d ridden the length of three counties with an arrest warrant and a dream of building a new life with the woman he loved. And that dream, like it or not, went straight through Killer Cole Steele.

Sam pushed his way inside. Golden sheafs of sunlight flooding in through a window gave the place a holy sense of silence. A chandelier, a relic from the good old days, hung from the ceiling by a rope, its crystals all shot off. Spittoons flanked the bar lining the back wall. A staircase led up to rooms advertised at “Fifty cents a night, ten cents an hour.”

Behind the bar, a barkeep was busy spit-shining shot glasses. He wore a dirty white shirt and a stained apron. His greasy black hair was combed flat across his head while his viperous eyes said he had a sawed-off shotgun within easy reach.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m looking for Cole Steele,” Sam said.

The barkeep arched a brow as he glanced across the empty room at a lone man reading in the light of a window table.

“Drink?” the barkeep asked Sam.

Sam shook his head, then approached the man by the window. He was young, twenty if that, with barely a whisker on his chin.

“You Cole Steele?” Sam asked straight up.

“Steele?” the outlaw replied, as if his own name confused him. “Oh, yes. Yes, I am. That’s me, all right. Killer Cole Steele. Might I ask who you are?”

“Sam Cross. U.S. Marshall.”

Word had it that Steele was a giant with polecat eyes. The thought made Sam smile. Nothing was further from the truth. Steele was not only a babe but a clown, for his clothes were a sight. On top was a big black, forty-gallon hat while around his neck was a white flowing scarf. Under his sheep skin vest was a clean blue shirt while his pants were velveteen. His tall red boots were topped off with Mexican spurs the size of small plates. He wasn’t drinking or gambling but reading a book, a novel of some description, it seemed.

Sam held up a piece of paper.

“I got a warrant for your arrest,” he said.

Steele closed the book. “I see. Well, in that case…”

He promptly stood. Sam drew first. Amused by Sam’s aggression, Steele raised his hands, then happily handed over two of the most beautiful silver pistols Sam had ever seen.

“I had them custom made at Tiffany’s,” Steele explained. “Well? Aren’t you going to arrest me?”

“So you admit to robbing banks all them banks?” Sam asked.

“Oh, yes,” Steele confessed. “Ten in all for the holy sum of fifty-thousand dollars. I know it’s not much…”

“Not much?” Sam scoffed in disbelief. “Where is it?”

“The money? Why, right here.”

As Steele reached down, Sam raised his pistol. The outlaw, good to his word, produced a canvas money bag he placed on the table.

“Oh, and this,” Steele suddenly said.

He pulled out a great wad of bills and stuffed it inside the money bag.

“You’re looking at ten years in Leavenworth,” Sam told him.

“Leavenworth? What’s that?”

“Prison,” Sam replied.

“Well,” Steele replied with not an ounce of worry. “We’ll just have to see about that.”

He held out his hands. Sam cuffed him and pushed him outside onto his horse.

“They’ll get you for horse thieving too,” Sam told Steele.

“I didn’t steal this beast,” Steele protested. “I bought him fair and square from a man in Cheyenne. I even have the receipt. It’s in my pocket.”

Steele was without a doubt the strangest bird Sam had ever come across. Everything about him screamed fraud, but the money spoke otherwise. Sam had never held so much cold hard cash. Suddenly, his mind raced with what he could do with it but quickly banished the thought. He had a job to do. He draped the money bag over his saddle horn, then swung a leg over Paint.

As Sam lead Steele away, the few remaining townsfolk came out of hiding. They offered baskets of food, meager morsels to show their appreciation for Sam saving their town from the outlaw in the velveteen pants. Sam thanked them one and all and told them to keep their gifts.

“I didn’t shoot anything up,” Steele protested as Sam led him away. “I was just doing a little target practice. A little harmless fun.”

“Tell it to the judge,” Same replied

As Minerville receded in the distance, Steele spoke up again. “I say, marshal? I do believe we have company.”

Sam, tiring of the outlaw’s reedy voice, looked in the direction Steele was pointing. A plume of dust was trailing behind what Sam thought was a wagon coming toward them. The closer it got the more Sam realized it wasn’t a wagon but an automobile. It pulled up to a stop. As the dust settled, a man climbed out. He wore goggles which he pulled off. One look and Sam knew it was Barton, the man who’d stopped off in Ashtown days before.

“Why, marshal,” Barton said. “We meet again. Not only that but you found him. Thank, God.”

“Found who?” Sam asked, not trusting the man for a moment.

“My baby brother,” Barton replied. He turned to Steele. “Hello, brother. Time to come home.”

“Get away from him,” Sam ordered, as he drew on Barton.

“Marshal,” Barton said with a snide air. “Our father is Hollace Vandergeld.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He owns all the banks west of the Mississippi. Well, most all, anyway.”

“You been stealing from your old man’s banks?” Sam said, squaring his look on Steele.

“I wasn’t stealing,” Steele whined. “I told you. I was just having a bit of fun. Before I go back to Harvard.”

“My baby brother,” Barton explained, “is studying medicine. School starts soon and father wants him back. Right, brother? Time to hit the books.”

Sam fixed his gaze on the outlaw. “So your name ain’t Steele?” he asked.

“Oh, gosh no,” the outlaw replied, as innocent as any angel. “I made it up. A cutthroat must have a proper name, you know. My real name is Earnest.”

“Well, I’m still taking you in,” Sam replied, spurring Paint on.

Just then, Barton grabbed Paint’s reins and stopped Sam cold.

“Marshal,” he said directly. “You fail to realize who we are.”

“If you don’t get out of my way,” Sam warned, “I’ll haul your ass off too.”

“If my brother goes to court,” Barton said, “he’ll get off. Our father has the best lawyers in the land. Besides, nobody was hurt. Right, brother?”

“No harm, no foul,” the outlaw replied. “That’s what I always say. By the way, where’s Fred?”

“In back,” Barton replied.

Sam turned to the automobile, expecting a third brother. What he saw was a sleeping dog, the same one-eared cur he’d tied up back on the trail.

“Fred’s been with me since the start,” Barton said, giving the dog a good scratch. “Oh, you are a devil. You do like to run and hunt, don’t you? Anything for a free meal.”

Sam uncuffed outlaw. He knew it was wrong, but in their breeding, it was clear that these two easterners and their dog were more trouble than they were worth.

“Hey!” Sam yelled as the two drove off. “What about the money?”

“Keep it!” they yelled back. “Don’t spend it all at once!”

With that, they were gone.

As Sam pulled the wad of bills out of the bag, every dream he and Mary May ever had flashed through his mind. That night by firelight, he held that same wad of bills only to put it back, hating himself for what he was thinking as he pulled the drawstrings tight.

Back in Ashtown, Sam reined up in front of the bank, then looked down at the money bag hanging off his saddle horn. All I have to do is ride, he thought. Ride and never look back.

“Sam?” Mary May asked, crossing over from the hotel. “Is that you? Sam, what’s wrong?”

“There’s fifty-thousand in this bag,” he told her. “That’s enough to…”

“Sam? You’re not thinking of…”

“No,” Sam replied, coming to his senses. “No.”

He entered the bank, the money bag clenched in hand.

“This is the money Steele stole,” he proudly told the manager. “All fifty-thousand.”

Sam dumped the money onto the manger’s desk. All gasped, Mary May too, for there was the wad of bills, but that was it. The rest was books, well-thumbed novels and penny dreadfuls.

Sam reached for one, surprise ripping through him like sheet lightning. On the cover was a six-shooting outlaw with a black, forty-gallon hat, a sheepskin vest, a blue shirt, velveteen pants, red boots and Mexican spurs as big as pie plates. The title was Killer Cole Steele. Bank Robber of the Old West.

“Sam?” the bank manager said. “Is this some kind of joke? Sam? I’m sorry, but if you were expecting a reward…”

Sam headed outside and sank onto the step, hat in hand. Looking up, he saw the one-eared dog coming down the street. The beast glanced at Sam in passing, then trotted on, as if the man and his dreams were of no matter.

End

Bruce Stirling

https://brucetoefl.com/

 

 

 

 

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