Finish the Western

Anderson’s Gulch was a sleepy town, with not much going on since the silver mine went bust. Some of the local farmers had stuck around, growing corn and beans, and Anderson’s Gulch was on a stock route, but all in all, The Gulch was a town trying to find itself again.

Tommy stood behind the bar of the Tumbleweed Saloon, polishing the shot glasses. He only had one customer, One Eyed Hank, and he was snoring at the corner table. Tommy yawned. It was going to be another boring day. Even Sheriff Wilson hadn’t bothered to patrol the dusty streets in over a week. There just wasn’t anything going on.

Tommy winced as the bat-wing doors swung open, the setting sun pouring into the saloon. The silhoutted figure stood for a moment, then strode in. Tommy’s eyes goggled and he dropped the shot glass, shattering it on the floor. A tall, willowy woman wearing chaps had just walked in. Her hair, pulled back in a neat plait, was the color of fire.

“Afternoon,” she said, dropping her pistol on the bar. “Whiskey.”

“A-a-fternoon.” sputtered Tommy. “Yer not from around these parts, are ya”.

“Well, if I was, wouldn’t you have noticed me?” she answered.

“I guess so.” Tommy relplied.

He gave her the glass he had just cleaned, put the bottle on the bar and was about to pour her a shot when she said “Just leave it there. I’ll help myself.”

Tommy obliged, picked up another glass and started in on it, watching her closely.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“Nope. Nothin’ wrong”.

“So where is everybody?”

“I ‘spect they’re workin’. Yah know, farmin, workin’ the stock.”

“Anybody new in town?” she asked. “Besides me, I mean.” She smiled.

“Matter of fact, a fella came in jus’ yesterday. Big hombre. Didn’t hear a name.”

“You don’t say,” she said. “Any idea where he might be?”

“Hotel, I 'spect”, he answered.

She down the contents of her glass and dropped some coins on the bar. She was gone without another word.

Sheriff Wilson sat in a rocking chair on the porch outside the jailhouse, staining the wooden flooring with more tobacco juice. He was a tall, skinny man, somewhat lazy, since Anderson’s Gulch was a fairly easy town to sheriff.

But even he raised an eyebrow as the tall redhead left the Tumbleweed. He had briefly opened an eye as the stranger rode up on a big paint horse, but he hadn’t realized it was a woman until she came back out again. He watched as she mounted up and rode down the street.

Sighing, figuring he should be doing his sheriffly duties, he heaved himself out of the chair and headed to the Tumbleweed to ask Tommy what was going on.

Meanwhile, at the Silverlode Hotel, the “big hombre” sat morosely on the edge of his lumpy, spring mattress bed, contemplating his gnarled, work roughened hands. The hotel had seen better days, when the mine was booming, and the gently faded and peeling wallpaper, and the oval, slightly warped mirror, were a testament to that.

Bart Conroy knew he had to make a decision, one way or another. He was tired, and wanted to stop running. But the hard part would be dealing with all those people he had hurt, who wouldn’t believe he had changed.

His head snapped up as there was a hard rapping on the door to his room.

He rolled quickly to the other side of the bed, sliding his Colt out of its holster in one fluid motion. He trained it on the door, and called, “C’mon in. It’s unlocked.”

The door eased open. He waited until he saw the toe of a boot cross the threshhold. He raised his foot to kick the door, but at the last moment, stopped short.

He’d recognize that boot anywhere. “Hello Belle,” he said. “Lookin’ for me?”

She turned toward him as he spoke. “Damn right I am,” she said. “And you know why.”

Tommy poured the sheriff a shot of whiskey. “She was tall, with red hair,” he said as One Eyed Hank snored in the corner. “She asked if anyone new had come to town. I tole her about that new guy who checked into the hotel.”

Sheriff Wilson downed the liquor. “You mean the one who checked in on Tuesday? The one who’d been ridden hard and put up wet?”

Tommy nodded. “Ayuh. That’s the one.”

Wilson waved away the bottle. “I better go down to the Silverlode then. Having two strangers come to town in the space of a week is mighty unusual.”

One Eyed Hank continued to make snoring noises, even though he was awake. He’d give the sheriff a few more minutes, then he’d pretend to wake up and wander off.

Down to the Silverlode. He had to warn them.

Wilson strode purposefully back towards his office. The lazy days, it seemed, might be coming to an end. After years of cleaning up various boom towns, he thought he wanted a quiet life. Other than the occasional rowdy drunk, Anderson’s Gulch had provided just that.
At his office, he checked the loads in his revolver, and pulled a double barreled shotgun from the rack beside his desk. Like Earp, Holliday, Masterson, and the others , he knew that a shotgun is the best way to deal with pistoleros.
He absently straightened the star on his vest, settled his hat more firmly, and headed for the Silverlode.

Meanwhile, outside of town,

“So, how much further is it to this ‘Anderson’s Gulch’, anyway?” Al Parker asked the tall quiet man riding next to him. “We’ve been in the saddle for days and my ass is killing me.”

Clem Jackson sighed. Al was a steady shot, and a good man to have beside you in a fight, be it with fists, knife, or gun, but he just talked too damn much.

“It’s not much further. We should be there tomorrow.”

“But what if she’s not there?” Parker persisted, a worried tone in his voice.

“Al, don’t worry so much. She’ll be there. We know she’s been heading in this general direction, and that Indian band we ran into yesterday confirmed that they had seen a ‘white woman with firehair’ in the area just a few days back. Anderson’s Gulch is the only town for miles. Look, this is a simple job. We just have to get Boss’s papers back.”

Parker seemed reassured. He thought for a minute, his forehead wrinkling in concentration, and asked, “But, Clem? What do we do with her once we get his papers back from her?”

Jackson looked at Parker then, and his eyes were like ice. “We kill her.”, he answered.

Ol’ Hank is a war hero but his heroism cost him an eye. If not for that, he would have turned to gunfighting after the war. Instead, he became a miner and worked the Excelsior. He’s a stocky fellow with broad shoulders and swinging a pickaxe gave him strong arms. His axe finally struck paydirt one day and he hasn’t been back in the mine much since then. He’s something of a businessman now, preferring to stay in town and keep abreast of the goings on. He didn’t recognize Bart right away but as soon as Bart spoke…there’s no mistaking that voice. Hank hadn’t heard that voice since the war, nearly a decade decade later it still sends a chill down his spine. Hank had an idea of what was about to happen, he also knew that it was up to him to stop it.

“Belle,” said Bart in an urgent tone, “we both know you have a right to be upset. But I promise, I’m going to make it up to you. Your Pa was my friend, and I watched you grow up. And, well, uh, somethin’s happened that’s changed me, made me better I hope. You might not believe it, but I…”

“Promise? Changed? Better? Believe you?” sneered Belle, as she curled a delicate looking lip. “You’d better talk fast, you turn-coat. I’ve got something right here in my pocket that could send you away for good!”

“Belle, I’m telling the truth for once, last year I…”

This time both of their heads snapped around and there came a soft tapping at the door to Bart’s room.

A shaky voice came from the other side of the door. “Bart? It’s Hank, Hank Poole.”

A quizzical expression crossed Belle’s pretty face, “Who?” she whispered to Bart. Bart simply held up a hand.

“Bart, I know you’re in there. There’s been some bad blood between us in the past but whatever’s going on with you now, I’d like to help. You’ll know where to find me if you decide to accept my offer. By the way, the Sheriff is coming to see you.” And with that, Hank rushed down the hotel’s back stairs.

The sheriff walked into the Silverlode, nodding to the desk clerk as he went in. Al and Clem were only steps behind him, and wary of lawmen as all outlaws are, took great pains to act casual.

“Hey, Joe,” the sheriff said, Al and Clem nonchalantly lighting cigarillos and waiting their turn. “This new hombre that checked in…what do you know about him?”

“Well, he’s mighty popular, Sheriff,” Joe replied. “You’re the second person to ask about him, but I don’t think he’d take it too kindly if you interrupted him jes’ now.”

“Oh, why is that?”

“Some purty lady’s up there with him,” Joe said, lowering an eyelid in a lewd wink. “Tall, with red hair.”

Al and Clem looked at each other knowingly, and sidled closer.

“What was that all about?” asked Belle in an accusing tone. “Are you in trouble again already?”

“Don’t rightly know” replied Burt, “Don’t think so, only been here a day, and I haven’t even had a drink. But Poole’s a guy who was in my outfit back in the war, when I done some bad things. He turned me in and I got drunk and sore, and told him I’d get back at him, but before that we were friends. He knew your Pa too, before he was hurt. Didn’t know he was here.”

By now Belle knew she needed to figure things out. Between what Burt was saying(he’s not drinking?) and those papers in her pocket, she needed time. She knew she mostl likely had folks after her too, so a hiding place could come in mighty handy.
She came to a fast decision.

“Let’s take him up on his offer, for now anyway. You got much gear here?”

“Just the one bag here.” As they turned to go he added “Belle, I meant what I said before, and I’m going to work things out for you. But say, that last letter I got from your Pa said you were getting married, to that Jesse fella, Jesse Parker was it? Something happen?”

Hank runs to his home on the edge of town and swings onto his horse. He doesn’t quite trust Bart so he’s going to need somone with better vision to back him up. He needs to pay a visit to Charlie Charging Bear. Charlie had been an Indian scout for Hank’s division even though he was just a teenager at the time. Hank noticed something special about Charlie and insisted that Charlie be signed up. The two have been good friends ever since.

A shot rings out when he reaches the fence surrounding Charlie’s ranch and Hank winces as he’s hit by bark from a nearby tree. A young voice shouts, “Hold it right there, mister!” Hank can make out a small figure on Charlie’s porch, the figure has a Winchester propped on the railing.

“It’s me, Sally, Hank!” Hank called out. “Get your father, quick! Bart’s in town and he’s in trouble1”

“Uncle Hank?” The teenaged girl lowered her weapon and peered into the deepening twilight. “How I know it’s you?”

“Because, Sally girl, I was the one who rode hell-bent for the doctor when you was born. Now get your daddy!” Hank slung off his horse while the girl ran into the ranch house, hollering for her father.

“Is that a fact?” Wilson said in a flat voice that caused the leer to fall from Joe’s face. “I guess I’ll just go on up and risk spoiling their little party.”
As Wilson spoke, he was watched Al and Clem’s dim reflections in the polished shade of the kerosene lantern on the front desk. The years of being the only law in places both dangerous and bloody had given him the habits of noting the location of everybody in a room and watching his own back. He was determined that he would not die like Hickock.
Those two jaspers puffed on their cigars and did their best to look nice as pie, but everything from the way they wore their guns to the the way they stood not blocking eachother’s line of fire said “trouble.”
Stepping away from the counter and to Al and Clem’s flank, Wilson spun brought up the shotgun and said “Let’s just you two get your hands in the air.”

“Jesse’s dead,” Belle said flatly. She cocked her head as she heard yelling from downstairs.

“Quick,” she said, opening the shutters. “Out the window.”

“Are you crazy?” Bart hollered. “We’re on the second floor!”

Belle pulled out her pistol and motioned with the muzzle. “I saw a haywagon outside.” She pushed him toward window, patting her pocket to make sure the papers were still safe. “I don’t know what that rumpus is downstairs, but we’re not going to be a part of it. Now, hoss your freight!”

Bart tumbled out the window, and Belle jumped after him, landing neatly on the hay wagon. The horse whinnied at the sudden impact, but Belle was already yanking Bart down and around to her horse. A tired gray was beside it.

“Get up,” she said, tying the gray’s reins to her own horse’s reins. “Don’t think of running. Diablo can kick you flat and not even break a sweat.”

Belle and Bart thundered off out of town, galloping at top speed. After they had ridden out of sight of town Bart hollered at Belle “Hold up a minute!” Belle finally pulled them up “What do you want?”

“I want to tell you what Poole was talking about. I know a place we can go from here, instead of just runnin’ blind.”

“You trying to fool me?” she shot back.

"Nope, there’s a guy from my old outfit near hear, has a ranch. That’s why I was headed this way in the first place. Guess Hank knew he was here too, that’s why he said what he did.

“Well, I guess a rest wouldn’t hurt”, she conceded “I’m about all worn out. I’ll cut the reins too”

As Bart got them headed for the ranch, up a road in a dry-wash gully, he asked “Not meaning to pry or anything, but you were after me, and sure as shooting’ someone is after you too. That got anything to do with that Jesse of yours?”

As Hank took a seat on the stoop, a woman emerged from a toolshed and walked toward him. She’s a bit tall with dark hair and a ruddy complexion. “Sorry about that, Hank. Sally’s been jumpy ever since them bushwhackers tried to run us off.”

“Yeah, I know, you’d think she would have gotten used to me by now.”

“What’s this about Bart being in town?”

“Dunno. He showed up yesterday and today some woman came looking for him. I’m not quite sure what’s he’s gotten himself into but he’ll probably need our help.” Hank suddenly became aware of a presence behind him. “Charlie, you’ve got to quit sneaking up on your friends!”

Charlie is an imposing figure as he nearly fills the entire doorway. “I guess old habits die hard, Hank,” he says. “So, Bart’s in town and you want us to help him. Why?”

Hank replies, “Good question. I can’t put my finger on it but there’s something different about him. I didn’t even recognize him when he stepped into the saloon. He’s not the same man he was, I can tell.”

“Good enough for me,” says Charlie. “What’s the plan?”

“Ah, Sheriff,” Al drawled, dropping his hand casually to his hip. “Is this the way to greet visitors to this here fair town of yours?”

“Hands up, mister. Your friend too.”

Clem stepped back a pace. “Sounds like it’s two against one, Sheriff. Why don’t you just move aside and let us wander upstairs? Our business is nothing to do with you.”

“Everything that goes on in this town is my business. I ain’t going to tell you again. Hands in the air.” Sheriff Wilson pulled back the hammer on his shotgun.

Al and Clem glanced at each other, then stepped away from each other, their hands hovering above their holsters.

There was another click. Joe had pulled his own horse pistol from under the counter. “I’ve won shooting contests all over this state,” he said. “I can shoot your gut or your groin before you can take a breath. Now listen to the sheriff. If you done nothing wrong, the worst that will happen is a nice little nap at the jail.”