.


WANTED
Dead or Alive

by Alan A Sandercott

Novelette

162 pages. Perfect bound. 5" X 8".
First printing December 2000
ISBN 0-9684708-7-2

[Out of Print]


  When Chuck Coleman stepped in to protect a young saloon girl from the harassment of the spoiled town bully, he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. A rich cattle baron then seeks revenge through his corrupt sheriff, and the "Wanted" poster goes out. Chuck begins his flight from the law, a law that would afford him no justice. With the Mexican border at hand, he finds himself drawn into the problems of a small border town. Driven by his convictions, he risks not only his freedom, but his life as well.


NOTE: This previously published work is covered by copyright.
No printing, copying or use by any means without written permission from the author.


 
WANTED - Dead or Alive    by Alan A Sandercott

Chapter One:

       Chuck's horse had been favoring a badly swollen foreleg for the last ten miles, the last two of which Chuck had led him on foot. He could see nothing obvious, but as Chuck held his horse's foreleg and gently inspected the swollen area, the horse jerked its leg free. Right then Chuck knew the leg was painful and wasn't about to heal by itself, and certainly not at the pace they were setting.
       "Damn!" Chuck muttered to himself. Here he was in New Mexico on the run from the law and now his horse was coming up lame. He knew he couldn't keep pushing the horse. Walking was a waste of valuable time, so like it or not he had to get the leg fixed or find another horse.

       The sun dropped lower, turning the evening sky to crimson. The scalding heat of the day would soon turn to bone chilling night. Chuck decided to make camp early that day. There was a wooded gulley ahead of him that would do nicely.

       As far as he knew, there was a small town a few miles ahead, down along the river bottom. He recalled seeing it on a map; La Messa, just north of a safe crossing into Mexico. With any luck there would be a blacksmith there that could do something with his horse. He needed some supplies anyway, and figured he might as well make the best of it. He'd bed down early for the night; they could both use the extra rest.

       He pulled the saddle from the horse's back and sat it down by his bedroll. The cold was setting in fast. He decided to risk having a small fire.

       What a mess to get himself into, all because he had gotten into a gunfight back in Colorado. Problem was, he had been fighting most of his life. Chuck, whose father had been killed in the War between the States, had grown up on his own. He was always a target for other kid's jokes and many a day he came home from school with a bloody nose.

       As a young man, Chuck Coleman grew up idolizing the hometown Sheriff who befriended the fatherless boy. It had been the Sheriff that taught Chuck how to use a gun if necessary, and while Chuck was very good with a gun, he never abused its use. He was big enough to defend himself, standing over six feet; his twenty-seven year old body was all muscle. A weathered hat covered his curly brown hair. With a Colt 45 Peacemaker slung low on his right hip, Chuck didn't go looking trouble: trouble just seemed to naturally find him.

       Several days earlier, Chuck had killed a man in a saloon fight in a dirty little Colorado cattle town. Now he was on the run for his life. He didn't even know the man he'd shot, but quickly learned he'd killed the son of old man Howard, the biggest cattle buyer in the state. He was the same man who had paid off Chuck and the rest of the drovers at the end of the cattle drive.

       Sitting close to his small fire, Chuck recalled that night in the saloon back in Colorado. Some loud mouth was slapping around one of the saloon girls; her face was cut and bleeding at the mouth. No one in the saloon made a move to help her. Chuck didn't know it at the time, but most everyone else knew who the bully was, and they didn't want to get involved. Even if Chuck had known, it wouldn't have mattered. He wasn't going to sit there and watch that poor girl take a beating, so he walked over and grabbed the guy by his arm.
       "That's enough!" Chuck insisted. "Leave her alone."
       The guy whirled around to face Chuck, wrenching his arm free.
       "Mind your own damn business."
       "Leave the girl alone," Chuck ordered again.
       "Go to hell!" the man snapped. He stepped back a bit and then took a swing at Chuck's face with a closed fist.
       Chuck blocked the swing and using the full force of his hand on the man's chest, sent him sprawling to the floor.

       The room suddenly grew very silent. All eyes were on the man sprawled on the floor, trying to regain his footing.
       "That does it," the man said, drawing himself up from the floor. His hand slowly and very intentionally brushed aside his coat to expose the gun strapped to his side.
       "I'll teach you to mind your own business," the man spat. His hand suddenly streaked to his gun.

       Two simultaneous shots filled the room. Through the haze of gunpowder smoke, everyone's eyes were on the man slumping to the floor. Chuck was still standing; his gun in hand, his bullet had found its mark. The old Sheriff had taught him well. He also taught Chuck that when someone draws down on you, you aim to kill.

       One of the men in the room leaned over the body on the floor and confirmed the inevitable.
       "He's dead. Now you're fer it mister."
       "He started it," Chuck countered. "You all seen it."
       "Don't matter none," the man said, standing again. "You just shot 'ol man Howard's kid."
       "No matter. He drew first. You all saw it. I had no choice."
       The bartender ducked out from behind the bar and headed for the doors.
       "I'm going for the Sheriff," he said.

       Chuck remained where he was, thinking. They were right, if the dead man was Howard's son, then Chuck was in deep trouble. Warwick was old man Howard's town, and no one in the room was going to back Chuck, not if they wanted to work again.

       A man from behind Chuck stepped up along side and said quietly, "If I was you fella, I'd git the hell out of this here town. They likes a good hanging 'round these parts."

       With his gun still in hand, Chuck backed out the swinging doors and headed for his waiting horse. He headed straight back to the stock pens and bunkhouses where he and the rest of the trail hands were staying. There he grabbed his bedroll and headed out of town, fast.

       It was pure self-defense, but when you shoot the son of T.J.Howard, the town's leading, and richest businessman, even if he was the biggest crook in town, you're going to be guilty. No one was going to admit Howard's kid started the fight, and Chuck didn't hang around to wait for the Sheriff. It was Howard's town and everyone knew the Sheriff worked for Howard.

       Once clear of Warwick, Chuck followed the Rio Grande River south out of Colorado, skirting all the towns he came to. He was sure there would be a posse on his trail by morning, so Mexico was his only hope.

       But before he could get to Mexico, he would have to get his horse patched up before it went totally lame.

       Chapter Two:

       Chuck stirred earlier than usual the next morning so he could get an early start. The cold air bit into him. He thought about rekindling his fire from the night before, but didn't feel he had time for such luxuries. He would settle for his blanket draped around his shoulders.

       When time came to hit the trail, he walked his horse to the top of a ravine. From there he could just make out the image of the small border town off to the southeast. With any luck the blacksmith would be up and around by the time he got there.

       The town streets were deserted with the exception of a drunk who was sleeping it off on a bench outside the only saloon.

       Chuck led his limping horse up the side of the street looking for the Blacksmith's shop.

       Then there was movement from the shadows. His eyes settled on a dog running down the street towards him.
       "That's all I need," Chuck said, under his breath, "some damn dog barking and waking up the whole town."
       Luckily, the dog did not bark. It slowed as it approached; its tail started wagging like crazy.
       "Nice dog, take it easy, boy."
       He gave the animal a thankful pat on the head and kept going. The dog happily followed along behind.

       The town was not that large. The San Regas Mission sat right in the middle of a square, with dusty streets running off in different directions.

       Down near the far end of one, a wagon turned onto the street and slowly made its way towards Chuck. The driver appeared to be sleeping, dependent on the horse knowing where to go.

       To Chuck's left, a store was just opening and he could see someone moving around inside. Next to what appeared to be the only hotel in town was a little eating-place. An old faded sign above the door read, "Pedro's". It was open, and the cook busy packing trash out of the side door.

       Finally Chuck spotted what he needed near the end of the street; the Blacksmith shop. He looked up and down the virtually empty street. All was quiet, just the way he wanted it. Inside the shop stood a big man wearing a big black leather apron, coffee in hand, firing up his forge.

       Chuck walked his horse up to the open doors where he stopped and dropped the reins.
       "Mornin," Chuck called to the man.
       "Morning young fella," he replied. "You're up and around early ain't ya?"

       Arnold Smith was a big burly man who looked like a blacksmith. He had started blacksmithing in La Messa when he ran out of money. He had been on his way west to seek fame and fortune.
       "How are you at doctoring horses? Mine has a festered leg."
       The Blacksmith studied Chuck for a moment, and then walked over to where Chuck's horse stood favoring its sore leg.
       "What happened?" he asked, lifting the leg and examining the ankle.
       "I don't rightly know for sure. It just started swelling. He's been favoring it more and more."
       "Snake bit most like. If so, I can bleed it and bandage it up, but the leg is gonna have to be rested some," Smith said. "You from 'round these parts?"
       "No."
       The man studied Chuck for a moment. "You got some kinda business to do in La Messa, do ya?"
       "No. Just wanna get my horse's leg doctored, that's all."
       "Well I can do that, but you're gonna have to hold up here for awhile till he can walk on it."

       That wasn't what Chuck wanted to hear. What he needed was to keep going, and as soon as possible.
       "How long?"
       "Couple days maybe. Maybe more. Don't rightly know."
       "Damn!" Chuck exclaimed. "I don't have a couple days."

       The blacksmith stepped back to get a good look at the horse.
       "You wanna sell him, maybe? Got a nice mare round back. I can make you a good deal."
       "Nope. He's not for sale."
       Chuck knew damned well he could never sell his horse. It was the only friend he had.
       "Do what you have to," he told the man. "I'll come back later."
       "It'll cost you a dollar," Smith said, with a toothy grin on has face. He held out a grimy hand.
       "Yeah, okay," Chuck said, reaching into his pocket for the money. "I'll be back in a while. I'm going to get me something to eat."

       Chuck pulled his rifle from the scabbard and headed back out onto the street. The idea of holding up for a few days rested heavily on his mind. He couldn't risk sitting around town waiting for his horse. He figured he'd be better off walking the horse down the trail a safe distance, and then making camp and waiting there until its leg was fit to travel. That way he could stay out of sight.

       He headed back up the street to where he had seen Pedro's. There was nobody inside, so he wandered in, sitting by the window where he could see the street.

       The 'ol blacksmith had watched as Chuck walked down the street. Then he quickly led the horse over to a stall and tied it up. He went back to the door to see where Chuck was, and then slipped out the back way.

       The back door to the Sheriff's office burst open as the blacksmith, puffing hard from his run down the back alley, charged into the room.
       "Where's the Sheriff?"
       A man glanced up from his desk, rather surprised at Smith's urgency.
       "He ain't here yet. What's your problem, Smith?"

       Logan was the Deputy Sheriff in town. He started work early in the mornings so the Sheriff, who worked late at nights, could sleep in.

       Logan wasn't in La Messa by choice. After being injured in a mining accident a few years earlier, he had taken a part-time job helping the Sheriff for a while until he got better. When he took a liking to the job, he stayed on as the Deputy.
       "Sheriff wanted to know 'bout any strangers in town."
       "Well he ain't here now, so what you got?" Logan asked, impatiently.
       "A drifter just came in with a lame horse," Smith explained, still trying to catch his breath. "He looks like another one them gun-fighters."
       "Where's he now?"
       "Just went into Pedro's place to eat."
       "Did he see you come in here?"
       "No. I came up the back alley."
       "Okay. You go on back to your shop. I'll let the Sheriff know. And stay off the street so he don't see you."
       "What you gonna do?" Smith asked, backing towards the door.
       "Don't worry. I'll take care of it. You just go back to work an act normal like."

       The Mexican cook brought over the coffee pot and a cup.
       "Buenos dias amigo!" the cook said, as he started pouring coffee. "Cafe?"
       "Ahh ... yeah, okay," Chuck replied. Suddenly hearing the Mexican talk, he realized he may have a problem across the border; he didn't know how to speak Mexican, and that's where he was heading. The language had never entered his mind.

       The cook looked at Chuck for a second and then, pointing at a menu board on the wall, he asked, "You hungry, senor?"

       There were a bunch of words on the board Chuck could barely recognize, obviously the cook's best attempt at writing English. However, Chuck managed to figure it out. "Sure, give me a steak and a couple of those eggs ... a beef steak, okay?" Chuck clarified, remembering all the sheep and goats he had been seeing lately. "Si senor," the cook said, heading back across the floor towards the back.

       After gulping down some of the strong coffee, Chuck surveyed the town through the window.
       "Damn," he said to himself, in a low voice. "That's good coffee." What little coffee he had on the trail was boiled so often it hardly tasted like coffee.

       It was still quiet outside. 'So far so good', he thought. He started thinking again of what he was going to do once he reached Mexico. His money wasn't going to last for ever and finding work down there would not be easy.

       Once in Mexico, he intended to work his way west and come up into California. Providing there were no wanted posters on him out there, no one would know him and he would be able to settle down. Maybe he could get himself a woman, do some ranching, who knows? Maybe things would work out after all, he hoped.

       Reality of the moment returned when the cook came shuffling across the floor with a big plate in one hand and the coffee pot in the other.
       "More cafe, Senor?"
       "Yeah," Chuck answered, sliding his cup across the table.

       He wolfed down the breakfast, not able to remember the last time he'd had chicken eggs. They sure beat those little sage hen eggs from along the trail.

       Back across town, Logan the Deputy, headed up the boarding house stairs to the Sheriff's room. Normally, he wouldn't think of disturbing the aging lawman, but this was different.

       He knocked at the door and listened for sounds of life inside. After a couple more loud thumps on the door, he heard the Sheriff bellow from inside. "Who is it?"
       "Logan. I have to talk to you. It's important."
       "Bloody well better be."

       There was a long quiet pause. Logan thumped the door once more.
       "Hang on," came the reply from inside. A few seconds later Logan heard the lock on the door click and the door opened a bit.
       "Come on in."

       Closing the door behind him, Logan could make out the figure of the Sheriff lighting a lamp on the bed table.

       Sheriff Carson was a good deal older than Logan and a lot bigger, even if it was mostly fat. The man had a weakness for eating and loved his beer. He lived alone, which was not uncommon for lawmen. There had been four different Sheriffs since Logan had come to this town about ten years earlier. Two of them had been shot dead!

       "What's so important you have to pull me out of bed in the middle of the night?" the Sheriff growled.
       "There's a drifter in town. Showed up at the Smith's early this morning. If he's a gunfighter, he may be--"
       "Where's he now?" the Sheriff asked, with a sudden interest.
       "Back in his shop, I spect."
       "Not Smith. The drifter. Where is he?"
       "Pedro's."
       "Well get back out there and keep an eye open. I'll meet you at the office after I get dressed."

       The drunk from the bench staggered into Pedro's in bad need of coffee.
       Chuck motioned for the cook to bring the pot his way as well. He felt uncomfortable just sitting around, but the coffee was good and the Blacksmith would need a bit of time to work on the horse.

       After finishing off the last of his breakfast, Chuck paid the cook and headed back to the street. Looking up and down and seeing no one, he crossed over to the store for supplies.

       The clerk surveyed Chuck with a suspicious eye. He nervously watched as Chuck gathered up a few supplies and placed them on the counter. The man's nervousness was so evident that Chuck had to ask, "Is something wrong, mister?"
       "Ahh ... no sir. No sir." But he continued to stammer and fumble nervously as he placed the goods into an empty potato sack.

       Later, armed with the sack of supplies, Chuck worked his way back down the street towards the Blacksmith Shop.

       The town was slowly coming to life. The sounds of Smith's heavy hammer striking an anvil echoed up and down the quiet streets, heralding the dawn of a new day.

       Entering the Blacksmith's shop, Chuck headed straight to his horse. The blacksmith had put the horse in a stall and fixed him up with some feed oats and clean straw. He obviously expected to keep it in there for a while.

       The old Blacksmith, hunched over the anvil with hammer in one hand and pliers grasping a red-hot horseshoe in the other, was busy with his work.

       Looking down, Chuck noticed the bandage wrapped around his horse's leg. His saddle was draped over the side rail of the stall. As he opened one of the saddlebags to store his supplies, Chuck noticed the scared look on the Blacksmith's face, almost like that of the storekeeper's.

       Soon as Chuck closed the saddlebag, he turned towards the old Smith who immediately straightened up and started backing away. His movements all seemed a little strange.

       It didn't take long for Chuck to realize something was wrong. Rather than returning his rifle to its scabbard, he held onto it.

       His suspicions were correct, for when he turned towards the door to the street, he found himself staring straight into the double barrels of a shotgun. The light in the shop was poor, but good enough for Chuck to see the white flames of the forge reflecting off the sheriff's star.
       "What the--" Chuck started to exclaim. It wasn't the first time he's stared down the barrel of a gun, but the holes in the end of that shotgun looked overly large.
       "Don't do anything stupid," the Sheriff warned. "Drop the rifle."

       The moment Chuck had feared since fleeing from Colorado was upon him. He had thought about it many times on the trail. He knew what he had to do. He stared into the lawman's eyes as his hand poised above his gun, ready to draw.

       Then he heard another voice; a voice from behind him, somewhere from inside the shop.
       "If you plan on walking outta here, you better do like the Sheriff says and drop that there rifle." The Deputy moved out from one of the stalls and stood behind Chuck.

       Any thought of shooting his way out, disappeared right then. Chuck did not move, his eyes still focused on the Sheriff. 'How did he find out so fast?' Chuck wondered. He figured it must have been the Blacksmith who called the Sheriff. 'But why?' There couldn't possibly be a wanted poster so far south, so fast.

       "What's the problem?" Chuck asked. "What's going on?" He hoped the Sheriff might explain.
       "Shut up!" the Sheriff replied, roughly. "Drop that rifle, now!"

       With another gun behind him, Chuck decided to cooperate. He let the rifle slide from his grip.
       "We know who you are. I found some letters in your saddlebags. You didn't think I'd just let you walk right into town?" the Sheriff asked.
       Now, Chuck was totally confused. Was he expected?

       The Deputy worked his way out from behind. The man appeared a bit older than Chuck, and a quick glance confirmed there was a badge on him, too.
       "What's going on?" Chuck asked. "I don't understand. I haven't done anything wrong."
       "Don't give me that," the sheriff snapped. "I know why you're here and we don't want your type in our town?"
       "Listen, I don't know who you think I am, but you've got the wrong man," Chuck explained. "I really don't know what you're talking about."
       "Jus shut your mouth," the Deputy ordered.
       "I'm not from around here. I only came in here to get my horse fixed up. Ask him," Chuck tried to explain, motioning with his head towards the Blacksmith hiding near the back door to the shop.

       Chuck could feel his gun being lifted from its holster by the Deputy.
       "Careful now," the Sheriff said. "Drop the gun belt, slowly."

       Again, Chuck hesitated, not sure what to do, trying to buy time to think. His hand loosened the buckle and his gun belt dropped to the floor. "This is crazy!" Chuck insisted. "I'm telling you. I don't know what is going on. But you've got the wrong man."

       The Deputy's rifle poked into Chuck's back, a hand felt around his waist and pant legs for weapons, then pushed him forward.
       "Get moving, Coleman," the Sheriff ordered. "You can tell it all to our Circuit Judge."

       Right then, Chuck realized there was little he could do. He looked around for the Blacksmith. He needed to make sure his horse would be cared for, but the old man was nowhere to be seen. Now Chuck was sure. The Blacksmith had turned him in, he just didn't know why.

       The cell door slammed closed behind Chuck as he surveyed the tiny cubical around him, lit only by daylight streaming in through the small barred window.

       There was a musty smelling mattress rolled up on the bunk in the corner. It didn't look too inviting. 'What the hell,' Chuck thought; it would be better than the wood planks the bunk had to offer. He flipped the mattress down over the bunk and sat down to try and figure out what he was going to do. He had to get out of there; that was for sure. If the Sheriff managed to find out that he was wanted, he would send him back north and that would be it, he would hang for sure.

       "Damn!" Chuck muttered to himself. The border couldn't be more than twenty miles; he was almost in Mexico. Damn his luck. He was wishing he could have just kept on going and never heard of La Messa.

       It wasn't much consolation, but at least he had a good meal under his belt. He laid back and pulled his hat over his eyes.

       The snoring of a man in the next cell reminded Chuck of his days back on the cattle drives. He wished he were back there.

       Chapter Three:

       Two days passed and Chuck was still in his cell, none the wiser as to his future. The Sheriff avoided Chuck's questions and kept insisting he knew why Chuck was in town. Neither the Sheriff nor the Deputy would come right out and say why Chuck had been arrested.

       In the front office, the Sheriff was uncomfortable. He had sent a telegram to the US Marshall with Chuck's description and asking for his help. When Logan came in with Chuck's breakfast, he saw the strange look on the Sheriff's face.
       "What's up?" he asked, setting the tray down on the desk.
       "I don't know, it just don't feel right. Where's the rest of them? Where's the Marshall? We should have heard from him by now."
       "He's probably on his way here, or out the trail somewhere."
       "I hope not," the Sheriff responded, in a worried tone. "He better get here with some help fore this guy's missed. They come in here after him now...."
       "Why not try sending the Marshall 'nother telegram?"
       "Maybe I will," the Sheriff said. He grunted his way up from his chair. "Has Coleman said anything to you?"
       "Nope. Just keeps insisting we got the wrong man."
       "I don't think so. The way he carries that gun of his. He's a gunfighter all right. My guess is he's in town to check things out. What else would he be doing here?"
       "His horse? Smith says its leg was bad swelled up."
       "I don't know," the Sheriff said, shaking his head. "Still don't sit right."
       "Well, maybe when this guy don't come back they'll just keep going."
       "Maybe," the Sheriff said, walking over to the street window. "But I'm guessing they'll soon come in looking for him."
       "I hope you're wrong," Logan said, picking up the tray and heading towards the cells.

       After Chuck finished off the breakfast Logan had brought in, he left the tray by the door and sat back on the bunk. He sipped cold coffee, while his mind slipped deep in thought.

       Suddenly, he heard a shot from somewhere out on the street. He sat upright and listened. He heard the Deputy moving around in the front office, then the front office door opening, and the sound of footsteps running outside.

       The next thing Chuck heard was shouting from out on the street, and then several shots rang out. Chuck looked out his window, then went back and rattled the cell door. No one came. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the front office.

       Then all was quiet again, except for a drunk in the other cell who, like the first, was snoring and oblivious to anything.

       Outside on the street, all hell was breaking loose. The Sheriff braced himself for the three riders closing at a dead gallop, straight at him with guns drawn. The first shot had drawn the Sheriff out of the saloon and away from his breakfast beer. Shooting on the streets always meant trouble.

       Logan had already crossed the street and was working his way in the direction of the first shots. A sudden barrage of shots from the three riders sent Logan spinning around. One bullet slammed into his right arm just below the elbow. He ducked back into a doorway, grabbing for his arm. Bullets continued to whiz past as he tried to make himself as small a target as possible.

       As soon as they passed he ripped his upper sleeve free and wrapped it around his bleeding arm. Then he picked up his gun with his good arm and fired two shots in the direction of the riders.

       Seeing Logan get shot and go down, the Sheriff tried to cross the street to help him, but the riders were closing too fast. Before he was able to return to safety, the riders cut him down. Hit twice, the Sheriff slumped forward against a hitching post. He was hit bad and he knew it. Unable to move any farther, he dropped to one knee and turned his gun on his attackers. He managed only one shot before a bullet smashed into his chest. He looked down at his blood soaked shirt, took a couple gurgled breaths, and crumpled to the ground. The three riders, yelling and whooping, rode past.

       From up the street, Logan had watched helplessly as the Sheriff tried to get out of the rider's line of fire. All he could do was empty his weapon at the riders as they gunned down his friend, and then rode off down the street.

       When a second group of riders closed on him with guns blazing, Logan rolled back against a door. He felt a sudden sting on the side of his neck. Reaching for the wound, he felt his warm blood on his hand. Much to his relief, the door behind him opened, and arms from within dragged him to safety.

       The riders were the same ones the Sheriff had been expecting. They continued riding up and down the streets, randomly firing their guns as they rode.

       Back in the jail, Chuck could only guess what was happening out on the streets.

       Then the commotion drew closer and the front door of the Sheriff's office crashed open, slamming against the wall. Chuck heard two voices yelling and laughing in the front office. It sounded like furniture was being thrown around.

       Then the door to the cellblock area burst open and a young man came through the door, gun in hand.
       "Hey Jessie," he yelled out. "They got some guys locked up in here."

       Chuck tried to size up the guy. He wasn't much more than a boy, not even old enough to shave. The way the kid waved his gun around, Chuck began to feel uneasy.
       "What they lock you up for?" the kid asked.
       "Fighting."
       "Fighting ... so what's wrong with that?" he laughed.
       "I had a bit too much to drink and bust up more than I could pay for."

       The second man, Jessie, came up to the door and stared at Chuck for what seemed like a lifetime. Then a smile came over his face. He grabbed the keys off a hook by the door and unlocked Chuck's cell.
       "What's your name?"
       "Chuck."
       "Well, Chuck," Jessie said, "this here's your lucky day. I'm cuttin ya loose."
       "Where's the Sheriff?" Chuck asked.
       "He ain't here right now. But I don't think he'll say anything if I turn you all loose," Jessie laughed.

       The kid walked over and kicked the door where the drunk was sleeping, but the drunk didn't move. "Looks like this one's passed out." "Hey kid, leave him. Let's get out of here and get a drink."

       Chuck's cell door swung open and he stepped out. No one said anything so he returned and grabbed his hat.
       "If it's all the same to you guys," Chuck said, "I'll just clear out. I want to put some distance between me and this town."
       "You ain't going nowhere, mister," Jessie growled at him. "You need to be coming with us."
       "At least let me get my things, okay?" Chuck asked.
       The kid looked at his partner who just shrugged his shoulders.
       "Yeah," the kid said. "Just make it fast."

       Chuck looked for something to break the padlock on the rifle rack.
       "Look out," the kid said, as he raised his rifle barrel up to the lock and pulled the trigger. The rusty lock shattered, allowing Chuck to pull the chain through and remove his rifle.

       His gun belt was in a locked drawer that opened easily with the help of his rifle butt. He was feeling better already as he strapped on his gun.
       "Let's git that drink," Jessie said, motioning Chuck towards the door.

       Chuck figured there was no use starting anything until he knew what he was up against. At least he was out of jail.

       Once on the street, Chuck saw evidence of what had happened. He saw a body laying on the street, apparently dead. When he stopped in front of it, he realized it was the Sheriff. The Deputy was nowhere to be seen.
       "What happened?" Chuck asked.
       "They was our welcoming committee. Only they wasn't to happy to see us," Jessie chuckled. "The Sheriff didn't want us in his town. So we killed him. Now this here's our town. Any objections?"

       "Nope." Chuck decided to leave it alone for the moment. He needed to know how many of them there were, so he decided to play along for a while.

       He could see signs of the local folks cowering inside doors and windows. Whatever local resistance there had been, it was all over.

       There were several men in the saloon when Chuck followed Jessie in. They were bellied up to the bar trying their best to get drunk as fast as they could. They had a young girl wedged between them, and from the look on her face she wasn't enjoying their company.

       A young Mexican sat in one corner nervously strumming his guitar. It was the same Mexican music Chuck had heard over and over till all hours of the morning.

       The bartender behind the bar was scared; it showed all over his face. He had good reason, as his current clientele were deadly and very unpredictable.

       The gun on Chuck's hip made him feel a whole lot better. At least now if something started he could defend himself.

       Jessie pulled a chair up to the table and yelled at the bartender to bring a bottle and some glasses.
       "Sit," he motioned at Chuck. "Have a drink."

       One of the men from the bar wandered over. His name was Snake, and he was as mean looking as the rest, with a nasty scar snaking down his cheek, obviously lending to his name.
       "Where'd you find him?" he asked.
       "The jail. Locked up for fighting," Jessie laughed. "I figure he'll be joinin' up with us. Where's Snodgrass?"
       "Up stairs. He's having a private party with some woman. He don't want ta be bothered."

       The young girl at the bar began to cry. The men were pawing at her and forcing her to drink. The more she choked on the cheap whiskey, the more they laughed.

       It was just like back in Colorado, Chuck thought. All along his trail south, Chuck had remembered that night in the saloon. If he had minded his own business, nothing would have happened and he wouldn't be on the run. But that's not the way he was raised. Now it was happening to him again.

       "She ain't too social like," Jessie laughed. "I'll bet she wants to dance."
       He handed the bottle to Chuck and then walked over to the bar. He grabbed the girl and dragged her back away from the others. When one of the men objected and said something, Jessie reacted violently, shoving the guy, knocking him sideways against the bar.

       At first, Chuck expected there would be a fight, but the man thought better of it and backed down. Obviously Jessie was not someone to be fooled with in the gang. Chuck made a mental note of Jessie's dominance over the gang members. If he was to break free and get out of town, he may first have to face Jessie's wrath.

       Meanwhile, Jessie dragged the girl around the floor in some kind of drunken dance. She cried and fought against him.
       "Please," she begged. "Let me go."
       Jessie just laughed and kept dragging her around, one hand clamped to her wrist, the other around her neck.

       Then in desperation, she bit into his hand to make him let go.
       "Damn you!" Jessie shouted, and shoved her away from him.
       She screamed as she crashed against a table.
       "Leave her alone!" yelled the bartender.
       For whatever reason, he suddenly dredged up the courage to speak out. Then he reached for something below the bar.
       Jessie didn't wait to see what the bartender would come up with. A gun suddenly filled his hand and he fired. The bartender froze for a second, a look of disbelief on his face, and then he sank behind the bar.

       A door closed somewhere on the second floor. The shot had drawn someone's attention up there, but when Chuck looked up, the person had retreated back into the room.

       Seeing the bartender fall, the girl screamed and ran for the door, only to be stopped by a man at the bar who grabbed her and pulled her to his side.

       "That she-cat bit me!" Jessie exclaimed. "I need me another drink. Then I'll teach her not to bit me." He licked at his hand, flicked his wrist a few times, and then reached for the bottle. He took a long pull of the whiskey, and then slumped down into a chair.

       Chuck felt trapped. He wanted to help the girl, but knew he wouldn't have a chance against so many guns. All he would accomplish would be getting himself killed, and probably her too. He needed to look out for himself. He needed to figure a way of getting out of town, and soon.

       Long minutes passed. Jessie sat and sucked up the rock-gut whiskey, all the while his eyes were on the girl. Then he suddenly slammed the bottle down hard on the table. The man at the bar must have sensed Jessie was about to react, because he suddenly headed for the door.
       "I'm going over to that Mex's an git me something ta eat," he said. "Who's comin wit me?"
       "Yeah," replied the kid on the other side of the girl.
       "I'm hungry, too," Snake piped up from behind the bar. "But I ain't eatin none them Mex beans." He had moved in behind the bar after Jessie shot the bartender.

       A fourth man, drinking by himself at the end of the bar said nothing. But when the others started leaving, he decided to move down the bar after the girl.

       Chuck watched somewhat relieved as the three men left through the doors. He finished his glass of whiskey and pushed the empty glass to the middle of the table.
       "Well, I gotta get going," he said, wondering what kind of reaction he'd get from Jessie.
       "Where to?" Jessie asked.
       "California. I figure to get some work there."
       "What you wanna do that for? We can always use another gun."
       "I appreciate you busting me outta jail, but I'm no good with a gun. I'd probably shoot myself in the foot."
       "How come you wear it then?"
       "Wouldn't look right without one, would it?"
       Jessie laughed at that.

       Chuck felt things easing a bit. At least now the odds were a bit better.
       "You need to wait. See what Snodgrass has to say bout it," Jessie said.
       "Who's that?"
       "He's the leader. He gets the say." He stood up, bottle in hand, and headed for the bar where the remaining cowboy was trying to calm down the girl.

       Chuck figured it was now or never. He got to his feet.
       "Thanks anyway. Maybe we'll meet up again some time."
       Jessie was preoccupied with the girl so Chuck slowly made his way to the door.
       "Hold it!" Jessie scowled.
       Chuck froze. Was this it? Would Jessie try and stop him from Leaving?
       "What?" Chuck asked, slowly turning to give himself a better position in case he had to draw and fire. He thought he might be able to take Jessie, but he needed to remember, there were two them.

       Jessie stared straight at Chuck through blood-shot eyes for what seemed forever.
       Muscles tensed in Chuck's arm as his hand poised above his gun.
       "You need be talking with Snodgrass."

       Chuck wasn't waiting for any more guns. These were the best odds he was going to get.
       "Look. I've gotta get moving." He paused for a second, and then backed up the few paces to the doors. His heart pounding, not knowing what Jessie would do. Nothing happened. Next thing Chuck knew, the swinging doors closed behind him and he was outside.

       Smith was in the Blacksmith shop watching the street from a window. He backed away when he saw Chuck walking towards his shop.
       The scared look returned to his face when Chuck entered.
       "Get my horse ready to go," Chuck ordered.
       "Yes sir. I didn't mean you no harm. The sheriff, he--"
       "All I want is my horse so I can get the hell out of here."
       "Okay, sure mister," Smith said, with a nervous voice.
       "How's his leg? Can he travel?"
       "It was a rock splinter. All festered up. I cleaned it and bandaged it. He'll be okay. Just take it easy for a while."
       "Your sheriff. He figured I was part of this outfit, did he?"
       "Yeah. The Sheriff was expecting them to come. They's a bad bunch. Nothing but trouble. That's why he threw you in jail. He figured you was one of them."
       "Well he was wrong."

       Chuck kept a close eye on the street while Smith saddled the horse. He noticed his horse wasn't limping when Smith walked him out of the stall. He quickly slid his rifle into the scabbard and mounted.

       The street was empty except for the sheriff's body, still laying where he fell. Chuck wheeled his horse around.
       "Where you headed, mister?" Smith called after him.
       "Anywhere but here," he said, and headed off retracing his tracks out of town. There was nothing to stop him now. He'd soon be across the border into Mexico.

       Chuck kept an eye on his horse's leg as he worked the horse back up the hill out of town. Glancing up at the sun, he knew he had several hours of daylight left, plenty to put some distance between him and Jessie's bunch.

       Chapter Four:

       The next morning, Chuck remained in camp much longer than usual. He waited in his bedroll for the sun to rise and shed a little warmth. His horse seemed eager, which was encouraging.

       He broke camp and hit the trail. By mid-day when the sun sent temperatures soaring, Chuck had covered a good five miles.

       By all indications, there was a ranch ahead of him. So, wanting to remain out of sight, he decided to skirt around and pick up the road again on the other side.

       He followed a tree line off to the left that afforded him some cover. In the distance he could make out a couple ranch buildings.

       When he got closer he could make out signs of life outside the ranch house. People were moving around out front. A man was standing in the doorway of the ranch house with a shotgun in his hands. He was talking with one of two men watering their horses in the water trough beside the well.

       Out of curiosity, Chuck paused a moment to watch, confident they couldn't see him.

       Then a third rider came into view, walking his horse towards the house and threatening with a rifle. In an instant, two quick shots rang out and Chuck watched the man crumple to the ground beside his horse.
       Chuck urged on his horse. He wanted no part of what ever was happening at the ranch. It was none of his business. At least it wasn't until he heard a woman's screams fill the air.

       Chuck paused once more. He watched as the man from the doorway walked a few feet towards the well and then fell face down. The woman was in the doorway, screaming. When she ran out towards the body of the man from the house, one of the two remaining riders spurred his horse. He blocking her way, and knocked her down.

       More than anything, Chuck wanted to turn and ride off, but he knew he couldn't turn his back on the woman, not like he'd done in town. He knew he had to go down there, he want to, but he was going.

       If he was lucky, and quiet, the trees would provide the cover he needed until he reached the far side of the ranch were he could then approach on foot, he hoped. He also knew he was up against two or more guns.

       Following the trees, Chuck guided his horse in behind the barn. He could hear a ruckus coming from the front of the house, but could see nothing from where he was. He had to get closer. Tying his horse, he pulled the rifle from its scabbard, and moved in slowly to a corner of the barn from where he could see the house. There he checked both his rifle and handgun.

       Cautiously, Chuck peered around the corner towards the house. There was a good one hundred feet of open ground to cover. There was still no one in sight, but he knew he was done for if he got caught out in the open.

       His heart pounded as he covered the distance to the back of the house. Once there he released the breath he'd held on his crossing. He remembered how good he had felt when he rode out of La Messa, leaving behind all the trouble. Now he was right back in the middle again, cursing himself for getting involved.

       He pressed tightly to the back of the house. From around front, Chuck could hear the woman crying aloud, "Please don't hurt him. Please!" "Shoot him!" a man's voice called out. "He killed Willie. Shoot him!"

       Chuck worked his way along side the house to a corner by the chimney. A pile of firewood allowed Chuck to see out into the yard and still provide a bit of cover. He could see one of the two men at the well. He had the rancher tied back against the well frame. There was blood all over the rancher's face and he appeared to be shot in the chest or stomach, blood was everywhere. If they didn't shoot him he would probably bleed to death anyway.

       The Woman was still laying on the ground about ten feet from the well. She looked okay, no sign of blood or anything but she was crying and begging the men not to shoot her husband.

       Then Chuck got a surprise. As the man at the well turned, Chuck recognized Snake, one of the men from Jessie's bunch. 'How did he get here?' Chuck wondered. 'Where is the rest of the gang?' Chuck rolled back against the wall, his mind working rapidly trying to figure out what to do next. Things were about to happen fast.

       Snake was poking his gun into the rancher's ribs and threatening to shoot him. His partner, who had been in the saloon as well, was still on his horse, his gun still in its holster. He stayed between the woman and her husband, laughing and yelling at Snake to, "Shoot him. Shoot him."

       Chuck figured he could easily take them by surprise. He'd deal with Snake first, and then the other one. What he didn't know was, how many more of the gang were there?

       Chuck's hand was steady as he raised the sight of his revolver on Snake.
       "Snake!" Chuck yelled, taking him totally by surprise. "Drop it!"
       Snake wheeled; gun in hand. Chuck didn't hesitate. He fired, hitting Snake square in the chest sending him crashing backwards to the ground. Snake's eyes were real wide and his mouth open as he fell, his gun dropping from his hand.

       Instinctively, Chuck swung his aim towards the other man who was staring at Snake as he fell. The man suddenly swore and wheeled back with his horse. His hand reached for his gun while kicking furiously at his horse's flanks.

       The gun kicked in Chuck's hand as he fired. He saw the man buckle over the saddle horn as the horse bolted away. He took aim once more to finish the rider, but before he could shoot, the woman was on her feet and directly in the line of fire.
       "Get down!" Chuck yelled at her. But she didn't. She ran towards Chuck looking for his protection.

       By the time Chuck got clear of the woman and raised his rifle, the horse and rider had disappeared into the trees. He swore to himself, furious that the rider had escaped.

       Snake hadn't moved since hitting the ground, but Chuck wasn't sure of the first man down; the one the rancher had shot. He advanced with drawn gun, until he was standing over the body. Taking no chances, he kicked the man's gun away, and then rolled the body over with his foot. It was the young kid from the jail, the one with Jessie. Blood oozed from the shotgun blast to his chest. He was deader than hell. He couldn't help but feel sorry for the kid. 'Hell of a way to end up," he thought.

       "Are you okay?" he asked the woman, now kneeling before her husband.
       "Please!" she begged. "Help my man."
       "It's okay now," Chuck assured her.
       He looked down at Snake, laying flat on his back, his surprised eyes looking straight up. He reached out and took the reins of Snake's horse.

       The rancher was in tough shape. He'd lost a lot of blood and was barely conscious. She was right, he needed help fast or he wouldn't make it.

       Chuck had a decision to make; go after the wounded rider, or see to the rancher.
       "My man," the woman pleaded again. "You have to help him."

       Reluctantly, Chuck dropped the horse's reins and knelt down by the rancher. He untied him and lowered him to the ground. It was important that he get the bleeding stopped, fast.
       "Get me something to use as a bandage," he told her.
       He balled the man's shirt up against the wound to stop the flow of blood. Then he leaned against the well frame. The fighting was over, but his heart was still pounding.

       With the woman's help he managed to get the husband inside and bandage the wound. Fortunately, the bleeding had stopped.
       "He's lost a lot of blood but he'll be okay," Chuck told the concerned woman.
       "Thank you. If you hadn't come we'd be dead."
       "You're okay now," Chuck reassured her again.

       The woman was young, much younger than the rancher. Dark eyes and long dark hair suggested she had either Mexican or Indian blood. From the looks of their house, she and her husband led a hard life, scraping an existence from an unforgiving land.

       Chuck would have to do something with the two men outside. He couldn't just leave them there.
       "I'm going out and get a shovel from the barn to bury those two," he told her. "I'll be back in a while."

       Later, Chuck sat on the porch of the house wondering what to do next. He worried about the rest of the gang. If the man that got away hooked up with the others, they'd come after him for sure. Jessie wouldn't be so friendly next time.
       'Maybe tomorrow,' he thought. 'Maybe the next day, but they will come.'

       Chapter Five:

       Chuck was sure the woman and her husband would be okay. The two dead gang members were in the ground, and with a little luck the third may be dead as well. As much as he wanted to believe that, he couldn't. Men like Jessie had a mean streak and a desire for vengeance.

       After planting Snake and the kid, Chuck had put their horses into the barn. Small compensation for the rancher, but it was better than nothing.

       Back up on the porch, Chuck settled into an old rocking chair and stared off into the distance.

       After a while the woman came through the door with some coffee. He felt he needed something stronger, but coffee would have to do.
       "Thanks," he said, accepting the cup. "How's your husband?"
       "He's sleeping now," she said. "You's a brave man."

       Her words made Chuck feel a lot better. It had been a long time since Chuck had felt good about himself. He often wondered if the saloon gal back in Colorado felt grateful for what he had done for her.
       "Did you come through La Messa?" she asked.
       "Yeah."
       "I heard one them say the Sheriff was killed?"
       "I'm afraid so."
       "You one them lawmen?"
       "No. I was just..."
       "You think these be the men what killed the sheriff?"
       "They are. And there's more of them," he told her. "Their type don't mind killing. They killed the sheriff and his Deputy for no good reason. They'll more likely keep on killing."
       His words did little more than scare the woman even worse. She returned to tend her husband and left Chuck to his thoughts.

       Deep down, Chuck had the nagging feeling he would have to face Jessie and the gang once more. The man he had wounded would hightail it back to the gang. Chuck knew if he rode for Mexico, the gang would probably follow. Only the law stopped at the border, not Jessie and his kind. He also knew if he left, the rancher and his wife would be in danger. The gang might return to finish what Snake started. The more he thought about it, the more he realized it had to end now.

       His only real hope was that the gang was still in town. If they were and he could get back before they rode out, he might have a chance. The thought of going back into town scared the hell out of him, but he didn't figure there was any other way. 'Besides,' he thought, 'they will never expect me to come after them'.

       The more he thought about it, the more he could feel his stomach knotting up inside. He leaned back in the chair, staring towards the setting sun. He couldn't do anything that night. It was too late.

       Chuck woke early. He must have dozed off right in the chair, and the blanket covering him must have been placed there during the night.

       He went inside to find the coffee on the stove was cold, but it helped to wake him. The rancher was sleeping on the bed where Chuck had bandaged him. The woman lay curled beside her man, her outstretched arm draped across his body.

       Chuck returned to the porch to think. He needed to plan how he was going to stop the gang and not get himself killed in the process. It would be daylight shortly. He had to hit the trail if he expected to be in town by nightfall. He would need time in town if he hoped to round up some help.

       All was quiet in the ranch house as Chuck saddled his horse and quietly rode off in the direction of town. Unknown to him, back at the ranch house, the woman stood in the doorway clutching an old tattered bible. Tears ran down her face as she watched their savior disappear into the trees. She knew the trail Chuck followed would lead back La Messa. All she could offer was a prayer for Chuck's safety.

       During his long ride, Chuck hoped he would come across the body of the gang member he'd shot. That would change everything. He would be able to turn south. But mile after mile, there was no sign, just the burning sun above and the nagging fear of what lay ahead.

       Stars had replaced the sun as Chuck topped the ridge over looking La Messa. He scanned the small town for signs of life but it was quiet, too quiet. Was the gang gone? Was he too late? He would have spotted that many horses on the trail, so he knew they hadn't passed. If they had left when Snake did, then he wouldn't know where they were. What if they had returned to the ranch after he'd left?

       He had no choice, he had to go into La Messa and find out. He nudged his horse ahead and down through the ravine he had used two days earlier.

       Closer in, Chuck walked his horse as quiet as he could, hoping he could get to the Blacksmith shop undetected, hoping that damn dog was sleeping.

       Turning the corner by the Blacksmith shop, he saw an empty street. No sign of life. Noise coming from the saloon signaled the possibility the gang might still in town.

       He tied his horse behind the shop and moved inside by a window to watch the street. He had made it safely into town, but 'now what?' he wondered. He knew no one in town, so there wasn't much he could do but wait for first light. He brought his horse inside and gave him a good rubdown and some feed oats before settling in for the night.

       Chapter Six:

       Chuck got little sleep during the night. The sound of Mexican music drifted on the air. The occasional outburst from the saloon and the odd gunshot kept him on his guard.

       By first light, Chuck was still waiting for the blacksmith to show up for work. He would know what was happening. And, hopefully, he would be able to get Chuck some help to deal with what was left of the gang.

       He didn't have long to wait. Almost by command, old Smith crossed the street. He carried a shotgun in his hand this time, not coffee.

       Discovering Chuck's presence in the shadows almost had disastrous consequences. Smith raised the shotgun to fire. At the last second he recognized Chuck moving into the light, otherwise the whole town would have heard.

       Chuck then motioned Smith to be quiet, and then waved him in out of the doorway.
       "Is the gang still in the saloon?" Chuck whispered.
       Nodding in confirmation, Smith asked, "How come you came back?"
       "I ran into some of the gang yesterday at a ranch south of town. They shot the rancher and scared the hell out of his wife.
       "What rancher?" Smith asked. He knew everybody for miles around.
       "I don't know. He managed to shot one of the gang before they got him, though."
       "The same gang that's here?"
       "Yep. Only now there's two less of 'em. Maybe three. I got one and winged another. I figure he'd come back here. Did you see anyone ride into town last night around dark?"
       "Nope. What you gonna do?" Smith asked.
       "I don't know. How many are there in town?"
       "Not sure. They're in the saloon. Got two gals and the store keeper in there."
       "How about the Deputy? They kill him too?"
       "Naw. That fella's a might too tough. Hit in the neck and arm. He's in a room at the hotel."
       "Is there anyone in this town I can depend on for help?"
       "For what?"
       "I need to stop this bunch before they kill anyone else. But I need help."
       "I ain't no gunfighter, but I'll help." Smith patted the shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm.
       "Anyone else?"
       "Manuel. He helps me sometimes. He's a crack shot with a long gun. And that Deputy, he's still got a good arm."

       Chuck thought for a moment, and then said, "Go bring that Deputy over here. Don't let anyone see you. We need to surprise them."
       Smith nodded his understanding and then headed out the back door into the darkness. Chuck went back to watching the street, especially in the direction of the saloon. He felt a little better. With four guns and a little luck he might walk away from this yet.

       Ten minutes later, Smith came in through the back with the Deputy. Chuck stared at him. The star on his chest brought back memories of the man that had stuck a rifle in his back and shoved him all the way to a jail cell.

       The Deputy was in tough shape; his arm was all trussed up in a sling, but he had a gun in the other. His face showed a look of determination that he meant business. "Sorry 'bout what happened, Coleman," the Deputy said. "The Sheriff and I naturally figured you fer one of them."
       "Yeah, well you damn near got me killed. And my name's, Chuck."
       "Okay, Chuck. No hard feelings 'bout what happened afore?"
       "All back in the dust now," Chuck said.
       "Smith toll me 'bout you tangling with some of Snodgrass's boys yesterday? I don't get it? I'd a figured you'd be heading the other way 'bout now?"
       "Yeah, well the only reason I'm here is cause one of 'em got away. I figure he beat a path back here. I didn't want the whole bunch on my tail. If I gotta tangle with 'em, I don't wanna do it alone. I plan to put an end to it here an now. I could use your help."
       "I was hopin' you'd be helpin' me," Logan said.
       "Don't spose it much matters who helps who here. Can you use that gun hand of yours?"
       "You bet. I'm no lefty, but I can still shoot."
       "Okay," Chuck said. "The way I figure it, I have no choice. I have to stop them here or they're going to come after me. You want them out of your town, so you need my help."
       "They killed the Sheriff. I tend to make 'em pay," the Deputy said.
       "Think we can really take 'em?" Smith asked.
       "Won't much matter if we don't," replied Chuck. "Spect we'll be dead. No sense worrying. Might just as well get to it fore it gets light out. Maybe we can catch 'em sleeping."
       "Right," Logan agreed, moving towards the window. "We need to get the drop on 'em. How we gonna do that?"
       "How many in there?" Chuck asked.
       "Don't rightly know," Logan replied.
       "Well, figuring the two dead at the ranch, maybe three, I make it four of 'em, maybe five," Chuck said. "With luck, some of 'em may be upstairs sleeping. If I can get inside, we can take 'em by surprise."
       "How you plan on getting inside?" Logan asked.
       "Walk right in. Way I see it, if the guy I shot didn't make it back, they wouldn't know 'bout the ranch. I could probably walk right in there," Chuck said.
       "And if he did make it back, you wouldn't get past the door."
       "You got a better idea?" Chuck asked.
       "There's a back way into the saloon. You give me a bit of time, I think I can get in there okay," Logan said. "That way we'll have 'em between us."
       "What ever we do, we can't let 'em get outside, else everything goes up in smoke, along with the whole town."
       "They won't if you can enter through the front."

       Chuck thought for a moment. He turned to Smith. "Can we count on this Manuel guy?" Chuck asked.
       "Sure," Smith said.
       "Manuel? He's good with that rifle of his," Logan replied. "If Manuel gets up on the roof across from the saloon, he could see the whole street. Smith here can wait across the street with his scattergun. No way them guys is getting outta that saloon alive."
       Chuck turned to Smith.
       "You make sure you and Manuel don't start shooting 'till we do, hear? You go get Manuel while I saddle my horse. It needs to look like I just got into town."
       Smith nodded.
       "You make sure you and that Manuel don't go shooting at me," Chuck cautioned.
       Smith nodded once more and slipped out the back.

       After Smith left, Chuck and Logan finalized their plan. They waited a good fifteen minutes to give Smith and Manuel time to get into position. Then Chuck and the Deputy looked at each other.
       "You ready?" Chuck asked.
       "Let's do it."
       "Okay," Chuck said, "I'll give you time to get in the back way before I ride up. If they don't shoot me first, I'll see you inside."
       "Good luck," Logan said, and the two men slipped outside into the hint of daybreak.

       Chapter Seven:

       Chuck had never felt more alone than he did while walking his horse along the quiet street. He had the strangest feeling that he was being watched from behind windows, but there was no one in sight.

       At one point he thought he caught a glance of the Deputy near the back of some buildings. He would have to give him a few more minutes to get into position. While he waited he drew his revolver and checked the action. He couldn't help thinking he must be crazy.

       Across from the saloon, Chuck stopped and looked around. The town was dead quiet and there was no sound coming from behind the Saloon's swinging doors.

       If he was wrong, and the injured gang member was inside, Chuck would be greeted with a hail of lead. "Too late now," he said, under his breath. He took one last look around, and then mounted his horse. If things went wrong, he needed to get to cover, fast.

       From across town a dog started yapping. That's when Chuck made his move.
       "Hey Jessie, you in there?" he called loudly.

       There was an immediate commotion from inside. Chuck waited impatiently, reins in hand, spurs poised to excite his horse to instant action. His right hand rested on the butt of the colt revolver in its holster. He suddenly wondered if 'ol Smith and his helper were in position yet? Then the thought dawned on him that if the shooting started now, he was smack in the line of fire.

       The interior of the saloon seemed eerily quiet. Chuck though he could make out the image of a figure at one of the front windows, but he couldn't be sure. It took every bit of his nerve not to spur his horse and get the hell out of there.

       Then one of the swinging doors opened, then the other, and finally a silhouette filled the opening. It was Jessie; gun in hand. He stared suspiciously at Chuck for a moment, and then checked the streets.
       "Thought you was gone?"
       "Planned to be. Had some trouble with my horse," Chuck explained. He slowly dismounted, stepping into the shadow of his horse.

       Jessie said nothing. He continued to stare at Chuck, not revealing his mood one-way or the other. It made Chuck very nervous. "Yeah, near froze my ass off last night. Sure could use a drink," Chuck said, watching the expression on Jessie's face.

       Chuck had committed himself. There was no turning back, so he slowly took the few steps to the front of his horse. Jessie did nothing. If he knew anything of the ranch gunfight he wasn't showing it, so Chuck took the imitative and began walking his horse towards the saloon. At the hitching rail, he stopped and wrapped the reins. Then he turned to face Jessie. "How 'bout that drink?"

       It seemed to take forever before the dumb smile again crossed Jessie's face. Then he backed through the doors into the darkened interior.
       "Better get yurself in here and help yurself. We ain't got no barkeep, remember?"

       Chuck remembered only too well. He started up the steps to the saloon, crossed the rough boardwalk and pushed one of the swinging doors aside.

       It took a few seconds for his eyes to focus, but when they did, he saw the body of a man crumpled on the floor by the bar. The man appeared like he had been shot. He didn't know why, but, 'That's one less,' Chuck thought.

       The room was dimly lit, the air full of smoke and the stink of rock-gut whiskey and stale beer.

       Once inside, Chuck saw one of the gang sprawled out on the bar sound asleep. Another man was sitting in a chair by a table. The girl from before was there too. She was slumped over with her head on her arms. She looked beat up, her clothes all tattered, and her hair was a shamble. He felt a sudden pang of guilt for abandoning her to the gang when he rode out of town.

       The Mexican with the guitar was still there, but now he was slumped down in the corner sleeping, his wide brimmed hat covering his face.

       "Help yurself'" Jessie said, dropping into a chair next to the girl.
       Chuck walked over and in behind the bar, hoping to see some sign of the Deputy, but he saw nothing. At the end of the bar, a partly open door led off somewhere. Chuck could only hope the Deputy would be in there.

       Stepping over the dead bartender, who Jessie had shot on the first day, Chuck grabbed a whiskey bottle and retreated from behind the bar. Wandering over to the table, Chuck noticed something peculiar; the man in the chair was bound and gagged. His hair was matted with blood that ran down across his face.
       "What happened to him?" Chuck asked.
       "Don't mind him none. He's just another one of the locals that don't like us. We're holding him for a little protection."
       "From who? I thought the law was dead?"
       "They is, but Snodgrass wants him here 'til we pull out. What you think of that?" Jessie asked, prodding the man.
       "Where's Snodgrass?"
       "Upstairs sleeping. You better know. He was some mad when you took off. He expected you to ride with us."
       "I told you, I ain't much good with a gun."
       "Don't matter none. You gotta do what the boss wants, else yur dead."

       Just then Jessie took a swipe at the girl. "Wake up girl," he snarled. "Git me another bottle."
       The girl jerked back in fright. Chuck could then see her bruised face. They must have really worked her over.
       "Leave her be," Chuck said, pushing his bottle towards Jessie. "She looks like she needs a doctor."

       Jessie glared at Chuck. He obviously didn't appreciate Chuck butting in with the girl. There was no mistaking the look in Jessie's eyes. Chuck had seen it the first day when Jessie had shot the bartender and threatened to shoot one of the gang as well.

       The man laying on the bar was obviously asleep because he suddenly began snoring. Chuck knew it had to be now, before Snodgrass and whoever else came downstairs. He suddenly pushed hard on the table, jamming Jessie back against a post. The man was taken by surprise. He shoved back and struggled to push the table away. Chuck saw Jessie's hand reaching for his gun. But Chuck's gun was already in his hand, and as the table crashed out of the way, Chuck fired. Jessie didn't stand a chance. The bullet ripped into his gut, sending him sideways to the floor, blood leaking through the fingers of the hand clutching his stomach. "Dam yer rotten hide!" Jessie blurted. The gun in his other hand bucked, the slug tore through Chuck's left leg.

       Chuck didn't give Jessie another chance. His next shot struck the man in the chest. Jessie went limp and he lay back, his head hitting the floor with a sickening thud.

       The next thing Chuck knew, two shots rang out and his shoulder exploded as a bullet struck him from behind. He hadn't expected the man on the bar to react so fast. His leg wouldn't respond as he tried to twist and return fire. He winced in pain, expecting the worst.

       Then he heard the dreaded shot. His body tensed, but he felt nothing. All he heard was the muffled grunt of a man and the sound of a body falling heavily to the floor.

       Then a voice called out, "You okay?" It was the Deputy. Two of the three shots fired had been his. Chuck turned to see the dead body of the gang member on the floor between two stools.
       "I don't feel so good. First I get shot in the leg, and then that guy tries to blow my shoulder off," Chuck complained. He dragged his bleeding leg as he sought cover behind a post.
       "Sorry 'bout that," the Deputy said. "I missed the guy the first time. Had to change hands, but I got him."
       Chuck turned his attention to the second floor. "Watch the landing. Snodgrass is still up there."

       The girl by the table lay on the floor. She had both hands covering her head, while she uttered muffled sobs.
       "Stay down on the floor," Chuck told her. She didn't appear anxious to go anywhere.

       There was nothing Chuck could do for the man tied to the chair. He sat staring at Chuck. His eyes expressed the terror he was going through.

       With one eye trained on the landing, Chuck leaned on the post to reload his gun. Blood streamed down his arm as he pressed against on the wound in his shoulder, trying to stem the bleeding.

       The Deputy moved in behind the bar for better cover, and Chuck noticed he had switched to a shotgun. He'd found it under the bar; the same one the bartender had been reaching for when Jessie killed him.

       The saloon was quiet for a moment until a girl screamed from behind one of the upstairs doors. Then the door jerked open and a girl's figure appeared. "Don't shoot me," she pleaded. "Don't shoot, please."
       Snodgrass was right behind her, his arm tight around her neck, holding her struggling body in front of him for a shield.

       Chuck had never seen Snodgrass before that moment. It was easy to see how he could power over the men in his gang. He was a huge man, with bushy black hair and beard. His eyes squinted of hate. He looked like some old buffalo hunter who thought nothing of killing anything or anyone.
       "I'm coming down," Snodgrass yelled. He kept his gun pointed to the side of the girl's head. "Try stopping me and I'll blow her head clean off."
       He moved to the edge of the railing, his eyes taking in the floor below.
       "Jessie?" he called down. "Where the hell are you?"

       Neither Chuck nor the Deputy responded. They both remained fixed with their guns trained on Snodgrass, both waiting for an opening.
       "They're all dead," Logan told him. "You're all alone. Throw your gun down and let the woman go."

       Moving back against the wall, Snodgrass began making his way slowly down the stairs. He retained his tight grip on the girl, keeping her body in front of him.
       "I'm warning you," he said, in a scowling voice. "I'll kill her, sure."
       Chuck had no reason to doubt Snodgrass's threats. He was like a caged animal; very dangerous.
       "Take it easy," he called up to the man.

       Time was running out with each step Snodgrass took down the staircase. Once he reached the main floor, there was only a short distance to the doors, but they couldn't risk taking a shot at him with the girl in the way. All they could do was watch as Snodgrass reached the bottom of the stairs and then started for the doors.

       Once there, Snodgrass quickly glanced out over the street. Seeing nothing he backed out the swinging doors, dragging the girl with him to cover his retreat. It was Chuck's last chance for a shot. He hobbled over to a window and rested his gun on the sill.
       "Don't hit the girl," Logan warned him.

       Chuck couldn't get a decent shot so he relaxed his gun. He was beginning to feel dizzy. Loss of blood was getting to him. He fought off unconsciousness.

       Outside, the street was empty except for Snodgrass and the girl. The shooting had awakened the town, but the only evidence of people was the subtle movement of window curtains and partially open doors.

       The Deputy suddenly turned and moved back towards bar.
       "I'm going 'round back and cut him off," Logan said.
       Chuck mustered his strength and moved over to the swinging doors. He carefully looked out to see where Snodgrass was. By then the man was down the steps and untying Chuck's horse.

       Snodgrass had the upper hand. He wasn't stupid. He was using the horse and the girl as cover in an attempt to cross the street. Chuck knew that if Snodgrass made it across, he could make a run for it between the buildings.

       Weak as he was, Chuck tried easing one of the doors open to take a shot, but the squeak of a rusty hinge gave him away. Snodgrass wheeled and fired. The bullet splintered the wooden door casing above Chuck's head. He spun backwards and around the corner out of the line of fire. He'd been a fool to even try such a dangerous move.
       'Damn, that was close,' He thought, having received a head full of wood slivers for his effort. He felt his leg shaking and strained with his good leg to stay on his feet.

       The next thing Chuck heard was a rifle shot from out on the street, followed a woman's scream. Chuck's heart stopped, he closed his eyes tight. Wincing, he envisioned the girl's body laying on the street and Snodgrass getting away, until...
       "I got him," a voice yelled out. Chuck knew it wasn't Logan's voice.

       Chuck rolled his body along the wall towards the doors to see out. Just as they opened, his leg gave out and folded beneath him. It was a good thing it did, because as he fell, both barrels of a shotgun shattered the doors above him. Had he been standing up, the blast would have cut him in half! It had been Smith. He had panicked when he saw the doors opening. He feared another gang member was coming out, and he pulled both the triggers of his trusty scattergun.

       From flat on wooden walkway, Chuck watched as his horse moved aside, exposing a body a body laying in the street. It was Snodgrass, laying face down with blood streaming from his head. A few feet away, the girl stood with hands covering her face, sobbing hysterically.

       Across the street on the rooftop, Chuck could make out the silhouette of a man with a rifle in his hand. That was the last thing he remembered before his world went black.

       Chapter Eight:

       When Chuck awoke he was flat on his back in bed. The girl, who had been sitting at the table in the Saloon, was sitting by his side holding his hand. He tried raising his head to look around, but the effort was too painful.
       "Where am I?" he asked.
       "You're in the hotel," the girl explained, in a soft voice. "Doc bandaged you up. You'll be okay, but you need rest."

       His shoulder was bandaged, and his arm strapped tightly to his side. He could feel bandages on his leg, but it was numb to his touch. "What's your name?"
       "Amie," the girl replied with a smile.
       "Are you okay?"
       "Fine, thanks to you."
       "How's that Deputy?"
       "He's okay. He's over at the jail. You shouldn't talk now. You need rest."
       "What about the gang? What about Snodgrass?"
       "He's dead. It's all over now. Get some rest. The doctor will be around later."
       She turned and left the room before he could ask anything else.

       It was dark outside when the doctor woke Chuck to change his bandages.
       "You're a lucky young man," the doctor told him. "You lost a lot of blood. You've been delirious for days--"
       "How long have I been here?" Chuck asked, trying to get up.
       The doctor pushed his patient back down.
       "Watch out. You'll tear the stitches out of your shoulder."
       "How long, Doc?"
       "Three days. You're lucky to be alive. You nearly bled to death."
       "How bad is it?"
       "You'll live, providing you take it easy, that is"
       "It hurts like hell."
       "The bullet shattered the bone, but I managed to dig out most of the pieces. That shoulder is going to be sore for a long time."
       "And my leg?"
       "Good. The bullet went right through. It'll be good a new."
       "When can I ride?"
       "You can't. Not for quite a while. Right now you need rest. You have to regain your strength."

       It was late the following day before Chuck awoke. Amie had brought him some food.
       "You have to eat something," she told him, after he pushed away the tray.
       "I can't. What time is it?"
       "I don't know. Late afternoon. It'll be getting dark soon. You slept all day."
       "I've got to get up," he said, trying to sit up in bed.
       Amie immediately stopped him and made him lay back down.
       "The doc said you have to stay off your leg. He said you might be able to get up for a while tomorrow." She adjusted his pillow, allowing him to raise his head a little.

       A few minutes later Chuck dozed off. He was still sleeping that evening when the doc dropped by to check on him.

       Next day, just before noon, Amie showed up with Chuck's clothes, all freshly washed.
       "Doc said you could get up for awhile today, providing you take it easy," she told him.

       Those were the words Chuck had been waiting for. He was sick of laying down, and he was feeling much stronger. He needed to get up and move around.
       "'Bout time." He reached for the clothes, and then paused.
       "I'm going to need your help to get these on?"
       It was a struggle, but they managed to get him into his pants and then onto his feet. His leg had felt pretty good until the moment he put weight on it. Being much weaker than he wanted to admit, he nearly collapsed. When Amie turned to steady him, he felt a sudden embarrassment, and then surprise that a wisp of a woman was able to support his weight.
       "Doc left that there crutch for you to use," she said, pointing to the crutch leaning behind the door.

       Face to face, their eyes met. Neither spoke for several seconds, then Amie's face flushed. She quickly broke the silence.
       "I had to get you a new shirt. Your old one was a mess," she said, helping him put it on.
       "I can pay you for it."
       "No need. Mr. Drieger at the store wouldn't take any money."
       "Why not?"
       "He says you saved his life."
       "How?"
       "He was in the saloon when you--"
       "Was he the guy in the chair?"
       "Yes, and he says he wants you to come into his store when you're feeling better. You can have anything you want, he says. Everybody in town, 'cluding Logan, is talking about you and what you did. They want to make you the new Sheriff."
       "Didn't do nothing I didn't have to," Chuck said, rather surprised at what she had just told him. He grinned at the idea of him being a lawman. It was far too dangerous work for his taste.

       Amie had just finished helping Chuck on with his boots when there was a knock on the door.
       Amie opened it to find the Deputy standing there.
       "How's he doing?" Logan asked.
       "Much better. I was just going to take him out for a walk so he can get some fresh air."
       "Good to see you up and 'round," Logan said, stepping into the room. "The Marshall, here, wants to meet you."

       Logan's words struck like a knife. The last person Chuck wanted to see was another lawman.

       The man that followed Logan through the door was taller and bigger. He had a withered face; like some of the cowpokes that spent most of their lives on the trail, only this one had a star pinned to his coat.

       Taking a step forward, the Marshal held out his hand and said, "Glad you're feeling better. Logan here told me about Snodgrass and his boys. It took a lot of guts for you to face them down."

       Chuck used his crutch to steady himself as he nervously shook the Marshall's hand. He found it strange to be shaking hands with a man who may end up throwing him in jail.
       "Thanks," Chuck replied. "I didn't expect...." Chuck swallowed hard. At any minute he expected the Marshal to recognize his face.
       "There's poster out on Snodgrass. A five hundred dollar reward, too. No reason why you shouldn't collect it." Chuck wasn't sure what to say. One minute he's expecting handcuffs, the next he's being offered a reward.
       "Fine. I wasn't alone, though. The Deputy here saved my ass but good."
       "That's his job. He can't claim a reward, so it's all yours. Drop by the Sheriff's office when you're fit. I'll be needing a statement from you about your little fracas out at some ranch. I'll see about getting the reward money for you"
       "Yeah. Sure. Okay," Chuck said, leaning back against the bed for support.

       After Amie helped him finish dressing, Chuck searched around the room. His gun belt wasn't there. He figured the Deputy had probably taken it to his office. He felt uneasy without his gun.

       "So, are you hungry?" Amie asked.
       "Starved. Like as not I could eat the hind end out of..." He stopped, remembering he wasn't talking to some trail hand.

       She stood for a second and stared at Chuck with a curious look on her face.
       "What's wrong?" he asked.
       She smiled, "Let's do something with that sleeve."
       With his arm all trussed up, his sleeve hung loosely at his side. They had put the shirt right over the sling on his arm. It seemed the right thing to do at the time.

       Rolling the sleeve up, she took a pin from her hair and secured the sleeve. Then stepping back again, she smiled with approval.
       "That's better," she said. "Let's go eat."

       Later, when they came out of Pedro's place into the afternoon sun, Chuck felt so much better. A good meal and easy conversation with a woman were things Chuck had not experienced in a long time.

       Amie had still not made mention of her ordeal in the Saloon, but Chuck knew she had gone through hell. So he deliberately didn't bring it up, figuring she probably wanted to forget it.

       The streets were quiet. It was siesta time. Down in that part of the country people tended to take it easy during the hot part of the day.

       It took Chuck a while to master walking with the crutch, but with Amie's help they managed. Passing the Sheriff's office, Amie stopped. Chuck nudged her forward, but she hesitated.
       "The Marshall did say he wanted to see you," she reminded him.

       He really didn't want to go in, but he five hundred good reasons. He also worried the Marshal may get suspicious if he deliberately avoided him.
       "Maybe you're right. Maybe I should." All he wanted was to get the money and get out of there. He made up his mind to clear out of La Messa that very night, regardless what the doctor wanted.

       Logan was sitting at the desk busy with some paper work. Chuck couldn't see the Marshal.
       "The Marshal wanted to talk with me?" Chuck asked, from the open doorway.
       "Right," Logan said, looking up. "Come in. I'll get him. He's laying down in the back."

       Chuck entered the office slowly, Amie close at his side. He couldn't help noticing the padlock on the rifle rack that he'd smashed. It had been replaced with a new one, but the drawer where he'd found his gunbelt was still busted. For a second he considered checking to see if his gun was in it. He would have, except the Marshal suddenly came through the door from the cells.

       "Thanks for coming over," he said. "I do have some paperwork to complete, but first..." He walked up to the desk where he opened a saddlebag and pulled out a folder of papers. "First I need to clear up something." He motioned for Chuck to sit, but he refused the Marshall's offer of a chair. It was far less painful to stand and lean on the crutch. Besides, it was the Sheriff's expression was making him a little uneasy.
       "Where'd you come from before you got to La Messa?" the Marshall asked.

       Chuck suddenly felt more than just uneasy. Memories of the jail cell in the back flashed to mind. He cast a glance at the door, and then back at the lawman. He wasn't going anywhere in his condition.
       "Why do you ask?"

       The Marshall looked Chuck straight in the eye for a moment, and then slid a piece of paper towards Chuck.
       "When I went looking for the poster on Snodgrass, I found this."

       It was just as Chuck had feared; he found himself staring at his own wanted poster. The words, "dead or alive", jumped up at him. His name was emblazoned across the page, and the description fit him perfectly. He suddenly cursed himself for being dumb enough to let his name be known in town. And worse, old man Howard had put up a reward for him of $2000. It bothered him that the reward for Snodgrass was only $500. 'How come?' he wondered?
       "That's you, isn't it, son?" the Marshall asked.
       "I..." Chuck started, and then his mind went blank. He collapsed into the chair.

       "It don't look too good," the Marshal said, still looking at Chuck. "This here poster is current. Far's I can tell, it's you? You best be telling me the truth about this."
       Chuck didn't answer. He only stared at the paper and then glanced back at Amie. He was trapped and he knew it.
       "Tell him," Amie said. "Tell the Marshall that's not you."
       Chuck didn't respond, but she could see it in his eyes.
       "No!" she yelled aloud. "It can't be you. There must be a mistake?" She turned her gaze to the Marshall, her eyes questioning him.
       "I don't think there's any mistake," the Marshall said. "It's you, isn't it?"

       Chuck looked down at the wanted poster and then back up at the Marshall.
       "Yeah," he finally admitted. "But you don't understand. I didn't murder anyone."
       "Did you shoot that fella back in Warwick?"
       "Yes, But I had no choice. He drew fist."
       "Then you shouldn't have any problem. Running only makes it worse. It makes you look guilty as hell to a judge."
       "You don't know old man Howard. There was no way I would stand a chance. He even owns the Sheriff. I'd be dead if I had stayed there. Listen, it was Howard's son that was shot. There's no way I can go back there. Old man Howard will make sure I hang."

       The Marshall pulled the poster back and read it again.
       "I'm sorry, son, but I gotta hold you 'til I contact the Marshall up in Durango."

       Chuck kicked out at the desk in frustration. The resulting pain shot through his body like lightening. Amie began crying while Chuck shook his head in disbelief.

       "That's what I get for coming back here. I should have kept riding and let that Snodgrass have his way with this here town."
       "I'm sorry, Chuck," the Deputy, said. He had been standing quietly by the cell door. "I didn't know anything bout any poster, honest."
       "I never should have come back here, Chuck repeated, bitterly.
       "Look, I know this is a rotten deal," the Marshall replied. "Especially after what you did for this town, but there's nothing I can do about it right now,"
       "You can't!" Amie screamed at the Marshall. "They would have killed me if it not for Chuck. Mr. Drieger, too. Ask him. It's not fair."

       The Marshal didn't respond, he appeared uneasy, but had his job to do.
       "I'm sorry, but ... I'm going to have to lock you up."
       He motioned to the Deputy, still standing off to the side, "Deputy, I want you to put this man in a cell."

       Chuck couldn't believe his ears. He turned to see Amie staring at him in shock. Then she turned and ran sobbing out the door onto the street.

       Once again, Chuck heard the sound of a cell door slamming shut behind him.

       Chapter Nine:

       During the next couple of days Chuck overheard various people come in to talk with the Marshal. Mostly the people were upset that Chuck had been thrown in jail after risking his life to get rid of the Snodgrass Gang.

       Every time Amie or the doctor came to visit, they would plead Chuck's case, but with little success. Chuck was really touched with the way in which Amie was standing by him. Sure, he was responsible for getting her out of a serious situation, but he sensed their feelings toward one another were more than that. He was feeling closer to this woman than he'd ever felt about any other woman. 'Too bad,' he thought, 'that it had to be under these circumstances.'

       After a sleepless night, thanks in part to the Mexican music that had resumed in the Saloon, Chuck felt very depressed about his predicament. He knew the Marshal was waiting for a reply to a telegram he had sent to the US Marshal in Durango, Colorado.

       Chuck hated the waiting but there wasn't much he could do about it from the confines of a cell. All he could hope for was some opportunity to break out and make a run for it.

       Through the partially open door to the front office, Chuck could hear someone talking to the Marshall. It sounded like a woman's voice, and something to do with her husband out in a wagon. They left, and after a short while, Chuck heard voices from in the front office again. He strained to hear. "Help him into the chair by the desk," the Marshall said.

       After a shuffle of furniture, Chuck heard the Deputy ask, "How are you feeling now?"
       "I'm mending okay," a man's voice replied. "Had to see the town doc. The woman here kept to worrying. Near drive a man to drink."
       "I heard about the trouble you had," Logan said, "but you need to tell the Marshal here more about it."

       The Marshal spent the next half hour questioning the man and wife. He wrote down the details and had the rancher make his mark.

       By then, Chuck had pieced enough of the talk together to know it was the rancher and his wife. 'Now,' Chuck though, 'maybe the Marshal will reconsider.' He felt certain the Marshall would see Chuck for the kind of man he really was.

       Before leaving, Mrs. Marsden asked if she could speak with Chuck. The Marshall consented and Logan showed her towards the cell area where Chuck was standing close the bars.

       "You needn't be lockin that man up. He's a good man. Saved my husband life, he did."
       "I know," the Marshall said, "but this is a different matter."

       The woman who came through the door looked different from the one at the ranch. Chuck knew she was the same one, but now she had on her pretty 'go to town' dress. With her hair brushed back and her hands and face washed clean of farming dirt, she looked more woman-like.

       "You remember Mrs. Marsden?" Logan enquired. "The rancher's wife? She wants to speak to you." He stepped aside to allow the woman to pass.
       She had a sad look on her face when she saw Chuck behind the steel bars.
       "I'm right sorry," she said. "This ain't right. I toll the Marshall what you done fer us."
       "That's good of you," Chuck said, forcing a smile for her benefit. "How's your husband?"
       "Oh, he's doing good. The Marshall is helping to git him back in the wagon. He can't do no work, so I's havin to do both till he mends."

       The Marshall came into the room.
       "Your husband is waiting in the wagon. He says for you to hurry it up."
       "You going ta turn 'im loose now?" she asked the Marshall.
       "Can't. I'm sorry," the Marshal replied, holding the door open for her. "I have no choice."
       She held out her hand to touch Chuck's arm, then smiled in gratitude. When she turned to leave, she gave the Marshall a cold stare.
       "Ain't no way to treat a man that done good. Jus ain't no way."

       As the woman's figure disappeared through the door, Logan held back a moment.
       "Just thought you'd like to know. The Marshall picked up your five hundred dollars reward money from the bank. Claims though, he had to hold it 'til after your trial."
       "My trial? Is he taking me back?"
       "Don't rightly know. He ain't told anything."
       Chuck sat on the bunk and cursed to himself. What little hope he'd had momentarily suddenly vanished with Logan's parting words.

       With each passing day, Chuck knew he was closer to the day when the Marshall would take him back north. According to Amie, the town's people were still pressuring the Marshall to let Chuck go, but the lawman was steadfast in his duty.

       On the evening of his third day in jail, Logan brought in Chuck's supper tray. He twisted the key in the lock and pulled the iron door open. The look on his face bothered Chuck, and as he took the tray, he asked, "What's wrong?"
       "The Marshal got an answer to his telegram this afternoon."
       "And?"
       "The judge in Durango wants you brought back. I'm really sorry, Chuck." He pulled the door closed behind him and turned the key.

       Chuck didn't touch the food. He stood and stared out the window towards the wooded slopes that shaded the road south out of town. They looked so close, and yet so far from his reach.

       When the Deputy returned an hour later to get the supper tray, Chuck was still by the window. He didn't turn around, not even when Logan commented, "You not hungry?"
       "When?" Chuck asked.
       "When what?"
       "When's he going to take me outta here?"
       "First thing tomorrow morning," Chuck replied, opening the door and picking up the tray.
       Chuck wheeled around and advanced on Logan. The Deputy, caught by surprise, stepped back and pulled the door closed.
       "I don't stand a chance. You know that. They're gonna hang me sure."
       "They have to have a trial. I'm sure the Marshall will tell--"
       "Won't matter," Chuck interrupted, slamming the door with the palm of his hand, forcing Logan to take a step backwards. "Won't matter at all. 'Ol man Howard will see to it that I hang. You don't know what's like back there."
       "I'm sorry. Is there anything I can get you?"
       "How bout giving me my gun?"
       "You know I can't do that."

       Chuck leaned against the door, his head dropped to rest on one hand. He stared down at the floor, muttering obscenities. Logan said nothing. There wasn't anything he could say that would help. He turned and packed the try out into the front office.

       After Logan left, Chuck returned to the window. For the longest time he gazed out into the distance.
       Then, thinking back to what had just happened, he turned and cross the few steps to his cell door. He stood silent for a few seconds, listening for sounds from the office. Hearing nothing, he stepped back, and pulled gently on his cell door.
       The Deputy had neglected to lock the cell door.

       Chapter Ten:

       Later that night, after sunset, darkness overtook the small town and the jail holding Chuck Coleman. He lay on his bunk with only one thought on his mind; to break out of jail.

       During his time in jail, some old guy came in as a night guard, but he usually slept all night. His snoring had kept Chuck awake most of the first night.

       As the hours passed, all Chuck could see was a small sliver of light revealing the door to the front office was slightly ajar. The kerosene lamp out front had been turned way down and the room was silent.

       Chuck wasn't sure how many hours passed before he finally decided to make his move. He got up, grabbed his hat, and moved over to the bars from where he might see into the front. Nothing. It was too dark.

       Hearing nothing, he gently opened the door enough to slip through, careful not let the metal hinges squeak. In seconds he was at the door to the front office. 'This is it', he thought. He knew he either had to get away from his cell, and away from La Messa, or the Marshall would take him north to be hanged.

       Ever so careful, he pulled the office door open, stopping only to peer through into the other room. In the dim lamplight, he could make out the form of a man slumped over the desk. For once the man wasn't snoring, and for once Chuck wished he was.

       He moved through the door and headed carefully across the floor towards the back entrance. He was half way to the door before he realized he'd forgotten his crutch, but he'd made it that far and he wasn't going back for it.

       To his right was the rifle rack with several rifles in it, but he knew it was locked. Any noise he made would wake the guard, and he had no idea what he would do if the guard woke up. He tried not to think about it. There was no doubt, though; he'd feel a whole lot better with a gun in his hand.

       A sudden thought crossed his mind, one that sent a shiver down his spine. What if the Marshall, or even the Deputy, happened to catch him making his getaway? Would he end up being shot? He had no reason to trust the Marshal.
       The back door to the alley wasn't locked. It bothered him, but not enough to make him go back. With the door open just a bit, he strained to see outside. He knew the door would lead out into a strange area. He had no idea what to expect.

       The area directly behind the jail was familiar to him. He had spent days staring out from his cell window. He turned in that direction and felt his way along the wall. He would have to make his way behind the buildings to a point where he could cross the street to the blacksmith shop. With any luck, he hoped to find his horse there, or any horse. At this point, he couldn't afford to be particular.

       Suddenly, he heard a horse somewhere in the darkness ahead of him. He froze. The last thing he need was to meet someone back there in the dark. He stiffened, held his breath and waited. Nothing. After a minute he started moving again.

       At the corner of the building he paused, and then slid around into the alley behind the jail. As he recalled, there was a scrub tree near the far corner. He had seen horses tied to it from time to time. Hoping one may just be tired there now; he cautiously made his way towards it.

       His heart beat a little faster as the outline of a horse began to materialize in the darkness. He felt a small smile crease his face. Lady luck was on his side. Right ahead, and within easy reach stood a fully saddled horse, the reins wrapped over a branch of that tree. He assumed it belonged to some cowboy who had probably drunk himself silly and passed out somewhere. He wasn't going to wait to find out. He crossed his fingers, hoping the horse wouldn't kick up a fuss, and it didn't. He took the reins, while rubbing the side of the animal's neck.

       All went smoothly as Chuck led the horse through the darkness towards the end of the alley. He knew it was getting close to first light and he could hear old Smith in his shop getting ready to fire up the forge.

       Not wanting to push his luck by looking for his own horse, he decided to mount and clear out of town. When he reached under the horse's neck to pass the rein around, his hand brushed cold steel. He felt again with his fingers; it was the butt of a rifle. The considerate owner had left a rifle in the scabbard.

       As Chuck swung his good leg up and settled into the saddle, he could feel his confidence returning. Nudging the horse forward, he slowly headed for the trees he'd spent hours staring at from his cell window.

       Chapter Eleven:

       Once over the hill's crest, Chuck urged his mount on towards freedom. He wanted to put distance between himself and that jail. There was just enough light to make out the trail. He was reluctant to push the horse too hard for fear of it missing its footing and coming up lame. That was the last thing he wanted or needed. Fortunately, the horse seemed sure-footed, very much like his own mount.

       Reaching the river, he turned north. The Marshall would expect him to head for the border and Mexico. He hoped to fool him. He could double back later.

       After following along the river for a mile or so, he moved up through a valley that seemed to head towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

       Before long the sun began pushing light over the distant horizon. That was when a glint of light reflecting off silver fittings on the bridle caught Chuck's eye. He reined in the horse. Things about the horse had been a little too familiar; the saddle a little too comfortable, and with good reason. He stepped down and stood beside the horse, his horse!

       There was no way Chuck could explain how his horse ended up in that alley. It was his horse, his trap, and his rifle. He searched his mind trying to figure out who would have.... Then he knew. It had to be the Deputy. It suddenly all made sense Chuck. Logan had deliberately left the cell door unlocked. Logan must have left the horse behind the jail, knowing Chuck would escape out the back way.

       Back in the saddle, Chuck continued his movement up and away from the river. At the upper edge of the valley, he turned his horse west along a rocky escarpment, knowing it would be next to impossible to track him across such terrain.

       The sun was warm by the time Chuck pulled up under some trees. He strained his eyes over the horizon behind. Seeing no sign of anyone following, he climbed down and reached for the canteen of water hanging from the saddle horn.

       The water tasted good. He poured a little in his hat for his horse, then stepped back and stretched. Before replacing the canteen, he splashed water on his face. Until that moment, he hadn't realized how tired he was. His leg pained but felt stronger with his weight on it.

       Before mounting again, he unbuckled his saddlebags to get something to eat. He suddenly realized he was hungry too. More than once during the night, he had regretted not eating the meal Logan had brought. What he found in the saddlebags really surprised him. Not only was the sack of new food supplies in there, but so was his gunbelt. A folded paper also fell from the bag. When he picked it up, he found Snodgrass' wanted poster and the five hundred dollars. That made him smile.

       After strapping the belt to his hip, he withdrew the gun and loaded it. Now he felt complete. He did a quick check of the rest of his gear, tightened his saddle, and remounted.

       Ahead lay Mexico, safety, and California beyond that. His mind drifted back to Amie, the one bright light in another-wise bad dream. 'Someday', he thought.

       A weary Chuck Coleman leaned forward and rubbed his horse's neck and then whispered into its ear, "Lets go to Mexico, amigo."



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