The Saturday Night Special: “Old Garfield’s Heart” by Robert E. Howard (1933)

"Old Garfield's Heart" by Robert E. Howard in The Chamber Magazine

I WAS SITTING on the porch when my grandfather hobbled out and sank down on his favorite chair with the cushioned seat, and began to stuff tobacco in his old corncob-pipe.

“I thought you’d be goin’ to the dance,” he said.

“I’m waiting for Doc Blaine,” I answered. “I’m going over to old man Garfield’s with him.”

My grandfather sucked at his pipe awhile before he spoke again.

“Old Jim purty bad off?”

“Doc says he hasn’t a chance.”

“Who’s takin’ care of him?”

“Joe Braxton—­against Garfield’s wishes. But somebody had to stay with him.”

My grandfather sucked his pipe noisily, and watched the heat lightning playing away off up in the hills; then he said: “You think old Jim’s the biggest liar in this county, don’t you?”

“He tells some pretty tall tales,” I admitted. “Some of the things he claimed he took part in, must have happened before he was born.”

“I came from Tennesee to Texas in 1870,” my grandfather said abruptly. “I saw this town of Lost Knob grow up from nothin’. There wasn’t even a log-hut store here when I came. But old Jim Garfield was here, livin’ in the same place he lives now, only then it was a log cabin. He don’t look a day older now than he did the first time I saw him.”

“You never mentioned that before,” I said in some surprise.

“I knew you’d put it down to an old man’s maunderin’s,” he answered. “Old Jim was the first white man to settle in this country. He built his cabin a good fifty miles west of the frontier. God knows how he done it, for these hills swarmed with Comanches then.

“I remember the first time I ever saw him. Even then everybody called him ‘old Jim.’

“I remember him tellin’ me the same tales he’s told you—­how he was at the battle of San Jacinto when he was a youngster, and how he’d rode with Ewen Cameron and Jack Hayes. Only I believe him, and you don’t.”

“That was so long ago—­” I protested.

“The last Indian raid through this country was in 1874,” said my grandfather, engrossed in his own reminiscences. “I was in on that fight, and so was old Jim. I saw him knock old Yellow Tail off his mustang at seven hundred yards with a buffalo rifle.

“But before that I was with him in a fight up near the head of Locust Creek. A band of Comanches came down Mesquital, lootin’ and burnin’, rode through the hills and started back up Locust Creek, and a scout of us were hot on their heels. We ran on to them just at sundown in a mesquite flat. We killed seven of them, and the rest skinned out through the brush on foot. But three of our boys were killed, and Jim Garfield got a thrust in the breast with a lance.

“It was an awful wound. He lay like a dead man, and it seemed sure nobody could live after a wound like that. But an old Indian came out of the brush, and when we aimed our guns at him, he made the peace sign and spoke to us in Spanish. I don’t know why the boys didn’t shoot him in his tracks, because our blood was heated with the fightin’ and killin’, but somethin’ about him made us hold our fire. He said he wasn’t a Comanche, but was an old friend of Garfield’s, and wanted to help him. He asked us to carry Jim into a clump of mesquite, and leave him alone with him, and to this day I don’t know why we did, but we did. It was an awful time—­the wounded moanin’ and callin’ for water, the starin’ corpses strewn about the camp, night comin’ on, and no way of knowin’ that the Indians wouldn’t return when dark fell.

“We made camp right there, because the horses were fagged out, and we watched all night, but the Comanches didn’t come back. I don’t know what went on out in the mesquite where Jim Garfield’s body lay, because I never saw that strange Indian again; but durin’ the night I kept hearin’ a weird moanin’ that wasn’t made by the dyin’ men, and an owl hooted from midnight till dawn.

“And at sunrise Jim Garfield came walkin’ out of the mesquite, pale and haggard, but alive, and already the wound in his breast had closed and begun to heal. And since then he’s never mentioned that wound, nor that fight, nor the strange Indian who came and went so mysteriously. And he hasn’t aged a bit; he looks now just like he did then—­a man of about fifty.”

In the silence that followed, a car began to purr down the road, and twin shafts of light cut through the dusk.

“That’s Doc Blaine,” I said. “When I come back I’ll tell you how Garfield is.”

Doc Blaine was prompt with his predictions as we drove the three miles of post-oak covered hills that lay between Lost Knob and the Garfield farm.

“I’ll be surprised to find him alive,” he said, “smashed up like he is. A man his age ought to have more sense than to try to break a young horse.”

“He doesn’t look so old,” I remarked.

“I’ll be fifty, my next birthday,” answered Doc Blaine. “I’ve known him all my life, and he must have been at least fifty the first time I ever saw him. His looks are deceiving.”

Old Garfield’s dwelling-place was reminiscent of the past. The boards of the low squat house had never known paint. Orchard fence and corrals were built of rails.

Old Jim lay on his rude bed, tended crudely but efficiently by the man Doc Blaine had hired over the old man’s protests. As I looked at him, I was impressed anew by his evident vitality. His frame was stooped but unwithered, his limbs rounded out with springy muscles. In his corded neck and in his face, drawn though it was with suffering, was apparent an innate virility. His eyes, though partly glazed with pain, burned with the same unquenchable element.

“He’s been ravin’,” said Joe Braxton stolidly.

“First white man in this country,” muttered old Jim, becoming intelligible. “Hills no white man ever set foot in before. Gettin’ too old. Have to settle down. Can’t move on like I used to. Settle down here. Good country before it filled up with cow-men and squatters. Wish Ewen Cameron could see this country. The Mexicans shot him. Damn ’em!”

Doc Blaine shook his head. “He’s all smashed up inside. He won’t live till daylight.”

Garfield unexpectedly lifted his head and looked at us with clear eyes.

“Wrong, Doc,” he wheezed, his breath whistling with pain. “I’ll live. What’s broken bones and twisted guts? Nothin’! It’s the heart that counts. Long as the heart keeps pumpin’, a man can’t die. My heart’s sound. Listen to it! Feel of it!”

He groped painfully for Doc Blaine’s wrist, dragged his hand to his bosom and held it there, staring up into the doctor’s face with avid intensity.

“Regular dynamo, ain’t it?” he gasped. “Stronger’n a gasoline engine!”

Blaine beckoned me. “Lay your hand here,” he said, placing my hand on the old man’s bare breast. “He does have a remarkable heart action.”

I noted, in the light of the coal-oil lamp, a great livid scar in the gaunt arching breast—­such a scar as might be made by a flint-headed spear. I laid my hand directly on this scar, and an exclamation escaped my lips.

Under my hand old Jim Garfield’s heart pulsed, but its throb was like no other heart action I have ever observed. Its power was astounding; his ribs vibrated to its steady throb. It felt more like the vibrating of a dynamo than the action of a human organ. I could feel its amazing vitality radiating from his breast, stealing up into my hand and up my arm, until my own heart seemed to speed up in response.

“I can’t die,” old Jim gasped. “Not so long as my heart’s in my breast. Only a bullet through the brain can kill me. And even then I wouldn’t be rightly dead, as long as my heart beats in my breast. Yet it ain’t rightly mine, either. It belongs to Ghost Man, the Lipan chief. It was the heart of a god the Lipans worshipped before the Comanches drove ’em out of their native hills.

“I knew Ghost Man down on the Rio Grande, when I was with Ewen Cameron. I saved his life from the Mexicans once. He tied the string of ghost wampum between him and me—­the wampum no man but me and him can see or feel. He came when he knowed I needed him, in that fight up on the headwaters of Locust Creek, when I got this scar.

“I was dead as a man can be. My heart was sliced in two, like the heart of a butchered beef steer.

“All night Ghost Man did magic, callin’ my ghost back from spirit-land. I remember that flight, a little. It was dark, and gray-like, and I drifted through gray mists and heard the dead wailin’ past me in the mist. But Ghost Man brought me back.

“He took out what was left of my mortal heart, and put the heart of the god in my bosom. But it’s his, and when I’m through with it, he’ll come for it. It’s kept me alive and strong for the lifetime of a man. Age can’t touch me. What do I care if these fools around here call me an old liar? What I know, I know. But hark’ee!”

His fingers became claws, clamping fiercely on Doc Blaine’s wrist. His old eyes, old yet strangely young, burned fierce as those of an eagle under his bushy brows.

“If by some mischance I should die, now or later, promise me this! Cut into my bosom and take out the heart Ghost Man lent me so long ago! It’s his. And as long as it beats in my body, my spirit’ll be tied to that body, though my head be crushed like an egg underfoot! A livin’ thing in a rottin’ body! Promise!”

“All right, I promise,” replied Doc Blaine, to humor him, and old Jim Garfield sank back with a whistling sigh of relief.

He did not die that night, nor the next, nor the next. I well remember the next day, because it was that day that I had the fight with Jack Kirby.

People will take a good deal from a bully, rather than to spill blood. Because nobody had gone to the trouble of killing him, Kirby thought the whole countryside was afraid of him.

He had bought a steer from my father, and when my father went to collect for it, Kirby told him that he had paid the money to me—­which was a lie. I went looking for Kirby, and came upon him in a bootleg joint, boasting of his toughness, and telling the crowd that he was going to beat me up and make me say that he had paid me the money, and that I had stuck it into my own pocket. When I heard him say that, I saw red, and ran in on him with a stockman’s knife, and cut him across the face, and in the neck, side, breast and belly, and the only thing that saved his life was the fact that the crowd pulled me off.

There was a preliminary hearing, and I was indicted on a charge of assault, and my trial was set for the following term of court. Kirby was as tough-fibered as a post-oak country bully ought to be, and he recovered, swearing vengeance, for he was vain of his looks, though God knows why, and I had permanently impaired them.

And while Jack Kirby was recovering, old man Garfield recovered too, to the amazement of everybody, especially Doc Blaine.

I well remember the night Doc Blaine took me again out to old Jim Garfield’s farm. I was in Shifty Corlan’s joint, trying to drink enough of the slop he called beer to get a kick out of it, when Doc Blaine came in and persuaded me to go with him.

As we drove along the winding old road in Doc’s car, I asked: “Why are you insistent that I go with you this particular night? This isn’t a professional call, is it?”

“No,” he said. “You couldn’t kill old Jim with a post-oak maul. He’s completely recovered from injuries that ought to have killed an ox. To tell the truth, Jack Kirby is in Lost Knob, swearing he’ll shoot you on sight.”

“Well, for God’s sake!” I exclaimed angrily. “Now everybody’ll think I left town because I was afraid of him. Turn around and take me back, damn it!”

“Be reasonable,” said Doc. “Everybody knows you’re not afraid of Kirby. Nobody’s afraid of him now. His bluff’s broken, and that’s why he’s so wild against you. But you can’t afford to have any more trouble with him now, and your trial only a short time off.”

I laughed and said: “Well, if he’s looking for me hard enough, he can find me as easily at old Garfield’s as in town, because Shifty Corlan heard you say where we were going. And Shifty’s hated me ever since I skinned him in that horse-swap last fall. He’ll tell Kirby where I went.”

“I never thought of that,” said Doc Blaine, worried.

“Hell, forget it,” I advised. “Kirby hasn’t got guts enough to do anything but blow.”

But I was mistaken. Puncture a bully’s vanity and you touch his one vital spot.

Old Jim had not gone to bed when we got there. He was sitting in the room opening on to his sagging porch, the room which was at once living-room and bedroom, smoking his old cob pipe and trying to read a newspaper by the light of his coal-oil lamp. All the windows and doors were wide open for the coolness, and the insects which swarmed in and fluttered around the lamp didn’t seem to bother him.

We sat down and discussed the weather—­which isn’t so inane as one might suppose, in a country where men’s livelihood depends on sun and rain, and is at the mercy of wind and drouth. The talk drifted into other kindred channels, and after some time, Doc Blaine bluntly spoke of something that hung in his mind.

“Jim,” he said, “that night I thought you were dying, you babbled a lot of stuff about your heart, and an Indian who lent you his. How much of that was delirium?”

“None, Doc,” said Garfield, pulling at his pipe. “It was gospel truth. Ghost Man, the Lipan priest of the Gods of Night, replaced my dead, torn heart with one from somethin’ he worshipped. I ain’t sure myself just what that somethin’ is—­somethin’ from away back and a long way off, he said. But bein’ a god, it can do without its heart for awhile. But when I die—­if I ever get my head smashed so my consciousness is destroyed—­the heart must be given back to Ghost Man.”

“You mean you were in earnest about cutting out your heart?” demanded Doc Blaine.

“It has to be,” answered old Garfield. “A livin’ thing in a dead thing is opposed to nat’er. That’s what Ghost Man said.”

“Who the devil was Ghost Man?”

“I told you. A witch-doctor of the Lipans, who dwelt in this country before the Comanches came down from the Staked Plains and drove ’em south across the Rio Grande. I was a friend to ’em. I reckon Ghost Man is the only one left alive.”

“Alive? Now?”

“I dunno,” confessed old Jim. “I dunno whether he’s alive or dead. I dunno whether he was alive when he came to me after the fight on Locust Creek, or even if he was alive when I knowed him in the southern country. Alive as we understand life, I mean.”

“What balderdash is this?” demanded Doc Blaine uneasily, and I felt a slight stirring in my hair. Outside was stillness, and the stars, and the black shadows of the post-oak woods. The lamp cast old Garfield’s shadow grotesquely on the wall, so that it did not at all resemble that of a human, and his words were strange as words heard in a nightmare.

“I knowed you wouldn’t understand,” said old Jim. “I don’t understand myself, and I ain’t got the words to explain them things I feel and know without understandin’. The Lipans were kin to the Apaches, and the Apaches learnt curious things from the Pueblos. Ghost Man was—­that’s all I can say—­alive or dead, I don’t know, but he was. What’s more, he is.”

“Is it you or me that’s crazy?” asked Doc Blaine.

“Well,” said old Jim, “I’ll tell you this much—­Ghost Man knew Coronado.”

“Crazy as a loon!” murmured Doc Blaine. Then he lifted his head. “What’s that?”

“Horse turning in from the road,” I said. “Sounds like it stopped.”

I stepped to the door, like a fool, and stood etched in the light behind me. I got a glimpse of a shadowy bulk I knew to be a man on a horse; then Doc Blaine yelled: “Look out!” and threw himself against me, knocking us both sprawling. At the same instant I heard the smashing report of a rifle, and old Garfield grunted and fell heavily.

“Jack Kirby!” screamed Doc Blaine. “He’s killed Jim!”

I scrambled up, hearing the clatter of retreating hoofs, snatched old Jim’s shotgun from the wall, rushed recklessly out on to the sagging porch and let go both barrels at the fleeing shape, dim in the starlight. The charge was too light to kill at that range, but the bird-shot stung the horse and maddened him. He swerved, crashed headlong through a rail fence and charged across the orchard, and a peach tree limb knocked his rider out of the saddle. He never moved after he hit the ground. I ran out there and looked down at him. It was Jack Kirby, right enough, and his neck was broken like a rotten branch.

I let him lie, and ran back to the house. Doc Blaine had stretched old Garfield out on a bench he’d dragged in from the porch, and Doc’s face was whiter than I’d ever seen it. Old Jim was a ghastly sight; he had been shot with an old-fashioned .45-70, and at that range the heavy ball had literally torn off the top of his head. His features were masked with blood and brains. He had been directly behind me, poor old devil, and he had stopped the slug meant for me.

Doc Blaine was trembling, though he was anything but a stranger to such sights.

“Would you pronounce him dead?” he asked.

“That’s for you to say.” I answered. “But even a fool could tell that he’s dead.

“He is dead,” said Doc Blaine in a strained unnatural voice. “Rigor mortis is already setting in. But feel his heart!”

I did, and cried out. The flesh was already cold and clammy; but beneath it that mysterious heart still hammered steadily away, like a dynamo in a deserted house. No blood coursed through those veins; yet the heart pounded, pounded, pounded, like the pulse of Eternity.

“A living thing in a dead thing,” whispered Doc Blaine, cold sweat on his face. “This is opposed to nature. I am going to keep the promise I made him. I’ll assume full responsibility. This is too monstrous to ignore.”

Our implements were a butcher-knife and a hack-saw. Outside only the still stars looked down on the black post-oak shadows and the dead man that lay in the orchard. Inside, the old lamp flickered, making strange shadows move and shiver and cringe in the corners, and glistened on the blood on the floor, and the red-dabbled figure on the bench. The only sound inside was the crunch of the saw-edge in bone; outside an owl began to hoot weirdly.

Doc Blaine thrust a red-stained hand into the aperture he had made, and drew out a red, pulsing object that caught the lamplight. With a choked cry he recoiled, and the thing slipped from his fingers and fell on the table. And I too cried out involuntarily. For it did not fall with a soft meaty thud, as a piece of flesh should fall. It thumped hard on the table.

Impelled by an irresistible urge, I bent and gingerly picked up old Garfield’s heart. The feel of it was brittle, unyielding, like steel or stone, but smoother than either. In size and shape it was the duplicate of a human heart, but it was slick and smooth, and its crimson surface reflected the lamplight like a jewel more lambent than any ruby; and in my hand it still throbbed mightily, sending vibratory radiations of energy up my arm until my own heart seemed swelling and bursting in response. It was cosmic power, beyond my comprehension, concentrated into the likeness of a human heart.

The thought came to me that here was a dynamo of life, the nearest approach to immortality that is possible for the destructible human body, the materialization of a cosmic secret more wonderful than the fabulous fountain sought for by Ponce de Leon. My soul was drawn into that unterrestrial gleam, and I suddenly wished passionately that it hammered and thundered in my own bosom in place of my paltry heart of tissue and muscle.

Doc Blaine ejaculated incoherently. I wheeled.

The noise of his coming had been no greater than the whispering of a night wind through the corn. There in the doorway he stood, tall, dark, inscrutable—­an Indian warrior, in the paint, war bonnet, breech-clout and moccasins of an elder age. His dark eyes burned like fires gleaming deep under fathomless black lakes. Silently he extended his hand, and I dropped Jim Garfield’s heart into it. Then without a word he turned and stalked into the night. But when Doc Blaine and I rushed out into the yard an instant later, there was no sign of any human being. He had vanished like a phantom of the night, and only something that looked like an owl was flying, dwindling from sight, into the rising moon.

Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American writer. He wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. He is well known for his character Conan the Barbarian and is regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre.

Howard was born and raised in Texas. He spent most of his life in the town of Cross Plains, with some time spent in nearby Brownwood. A bookish and intellectual child, he was also a fan of boxing and spent some time in his late teens bodybuilding, eventually taking up amateur boxing. From the age of nine he dreamed of becoming a writer of adventure fiction but did not have real success until he was 23. Thereafter, until his death by suicide at age 30, Howard’s writings were published in a wide selection of magazines, journals, and newspapers, and he became proficient in several subgenres. His greatest success occurred after his death…

from Wikipedia

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Fearsome Touch of Death” also by Robert E. Howard.

“Old Garfield’s Heart” was first published in Weird Tales in December, 1933.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at  To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to

“Dime Novel” Dark Western by Kenneth Schalhoub

"Dime Novel" Dark Western by Kenneth Schalhoub
Oil Painting by Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk, Distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I find myself in a horseless stagecoach with a notebook in my lap. The cover is blank. I have no memory of who I am. I know nothing beyond the dead brush and prickly pears of this lonely prairie.

Morning sun is fully above the horizon. Wavy heat mirages dance above the autumn wasteland. The stage’s inside, where I currently sit, is already unbearably still, buggy, and hot. I wipe the sweat from my face; the woolen sleeve scrapes the skin. I decide to investigate the notebook while waiting for someone to come.

The desiccated binding makes a cracking sound as I carefully bend it back. The page edges are darkened by ash from an imaginary campfire. I find a few rock-hard biscuits in my pocket and a half-full canteen of water. I chew the edge of a biscuit and listen to the silence between wind gusts. I read the first page.


Billy Bowles paid for space up top as a hanger on. He lay between tied down mailbags keeping him from falling off and landing in dried brush and prickly pear. He was a teenage drifter from Missouri. The product of a well-educated antislavery family, Billy felt ashamed when he witnessed the immoral crimes committed by the fraudulent anti-slavery Red Legs. At the age of fifteen he watched families being murdered by the vile invaders who used the ruse of anti-slavery enforcement to inflict fear and misery on anyone they chose. Cavernous black holes between the eyes of murdered townsfolk filled Billy’s dreams.

The day they came for his father, Billy gathered his critical possessions including the Derringer his grandfather had given him when he was too young to use it. On that same day he kissed his mother goodbye, mounted his chestnut quarter horse, and slowly rode through town. There was nothing else to do, but ride away. His mount whinnied and picked up speed when they passed Billy’s dead father propped up in front of the jailhouse with black bullet hole in his head, both ears taken for trophies, and scalped. A Red Leg held a thirty-inch sword with a score of impaled scalps. Billy watched as the man impaled his father’s scalp, wiping the blood on his face.

He reached the end of town and watched his mother try to resist what was inevitable. She was going to be raped, shot, and scalped. Billy watched the leader throw her to the ground and mount her like a dog. Billy did not need to kick his mount; she had already begun to gallop. The screaming faded with distance, but he feared the memory would never wane.

The following morning Billy woke to granite clouds. He had dreamed of his father’s-imposed philosophy of what it meant to be a good farming man. Billy did not want to be a farmer and he hated rules. None of that mattered now. He turned sixteen two days ago and was on his own. His dead parents would vanish into his uneventful history without imposing guilt. “It’s a dangerous country,” his father once said. “Don’t be cryin’ if me and your mother get killed or other such thing. You take care of yourself. All I ask is you honor the Bowles name wherever you travel.”

Billy’s thoughts were interrupted by voices from below. Inside the coach five fat men discussed their situation, a couple wanting to return to the comfortable East.

“I told you we’d get goddam stuck here,” a voice said loud enough t0 hear over the wheels crunching the withered prairie. “We’re vagabonds in this fuckin hellhole.”

“It’s not so bad,” a second voice said.

“Not so bad? Look around you. This is a goddamn wasteland.”

“A silver wasteland,” the second voice said.

“Well, we better find more—”

One woman also traveled in the coach, alone. She was on her way to visit her estranged mother who lives in Santa Fe.

The passengers had stopped talking. Billy listened and heard the pounding hooves of distant riders approaching from the north. He had overheard some poker players say three riders split from the Dalton gang in Kansas and were headed for New Mexico.

The Reinsman, or Jehu, as they are sometimes called, pushed the team to maintain a steady pace.

Billy searched for his Derringer to ensure himself it was still there in his jacket pocket. It was. The coach lantern provided no light on the trail ahead. The Jehu had to trust his memory and the horses’ senses to navigate the way.

Billy listened. He could no longer hear the approaching hooves.

The three riders hid behind a bluff northwest of the stage with pistols and rifle ready.

They listened.

A man wearing a duster, rode a quarter mile behind the stage. His belt holster held a Colt Army and his saddle’s rifle holster stowed a Winchester 1873, lever action. He followed the stage like a patient predator. He was a man on one mission and the stage was the bait, although no one including the Jehu nor conductor knew. The man had read about the three gunmen from Kansas. Capturing all three, dead or alive, meant ten thousand dollars. A sizeable sum. And the territory was worth many times more. New Mexico was the hub of lawlessness with every decent gunman looking to cheat at cards, rob banks, holdup stages, and kill if necessary. They were a disease that needed to be cured. He was the territory’s remedy.


A burst of desiccated air blows the notebook closed as if it wanted me to stop reading. The early fall sun is still summer strong. It sits high overhead, building thermal layers for the hawks and buzzards. I hear gunshots in the distance, but no evidence of riders. And who is the duster man?

I sip from the canteen to help push the sand-like crumbs from the biscuit down my throat. Someone should be coming soon.

I read until dusk, slam the notebook shut, and gaze into the diminishing orange. A figure walks through my vision, stops, looks at me, and moves from my sight. I could be dreaming; it is becoming difficult to know. I rest on a mailsack and see the figure again. It is a wolf. My pounding heart wakes me. Crickets chirp.

After sunset, only two eyes shine through the black. And then howls fill the air. Quakes of fear rumble through me until I remember what a Missouri mountain man once said. “Wolves don’t attack us, they protect us.”


The duster man knew there was quite a bit of jewelry and cash on persons in the coach. Also, a trunk with more valuables was in the rear boot. The man’s experience told him this was the perfect stagecoach to ambush. The Jayhawkers were about to become road agents in New Mexico.

The duster man listened.

Wheels and hooves approached the bluff from the southeast. Multiple shots cracked the air. One man armed with a Henry repeater shot out the lantern and began firing at the horses. The other two fired their Colt revolvers in the direction of team. Panicked horses forced the Jehu to pull hard on the lines. The Jayhawkers sprayed the four horses with enough lead to sink a ship. Ears and eyes flew into the night with trails of blood. They were dead on their hooves.

Quickly holstering their weapons, the Kansas men mounted up and galloped toward the stage.

Duster man stopped and dismounted. His horse stood motionless. He sat on a boulder and listened to the hooves and shots. He had never known a Jayhawker, but it did not matter. Outlaws broke laws and bounty hunters caught them, dead or alive.

Billy Bowles remained in hiding among the mailbags, straining to see how many gunmen there were. The horses continued to bleed out. Both the Jehu and conductor jumped from the box and hid behind one of the dead horses. Their eyes fixed north.

“Conductor!” a man inside barked.

“Shut the fuck up! Keep yer heads low, below the windows!” the conductor yelled back.

Billy lifted his head. Three clouds of dust trailed three riders rapidly approaching. When he saw their weapons, he knew they were facing road agents.

“Howdy!” one of the three said.

“You shot our damn horses!” the conductor shouted with twelve-gauge Hartford shotgun loaded and ready.

The Kansas man looked at the rider to his left. “Was that you Jude shootin’ them horses?”

“Not me, Charlie.”

Charlie looked at the rider to his right. “Was that you Henry shootin’ them horses?”

“Not me, Charlie.”

“Seems it weren’t us,” Charlie said, then spit. “We’re jest some poor boys from Kansas lookin’ for some help. Maybe ask you kind New Mexicans for a few dollars so’s we can eat.”

The three men laughed.

The conductor had little choice. He could blow one man off his mount but would surely be shot immediately by the other two. He did not want to die as he had so many times in his nightmares. But he was paid to protect the paying customers and the valuables.

“You bastards killed our team and yer gonna pay for it!” the conductor shouted.

“Calm down now, mister conductor and slide that shotgun over to Jude, nice and easy,” Charley said.

The conductor cocked both barrels.

“Let’s all jest calm down,” the Jehu said with hands raised.

“Okay, Mister Jehu, ain’t you responsible for the passengers’ wellbein’?” Charlie asked with a stained smirk. “Cause if y’are, then you better throw that Colt to me and tell your conductor to slide his shotgun to Jude. Otherwise, can’t say what might happen.”

“We’re expected in Santa Fe by nightfall,” the Jehu said.

“One more time, Mister Jehu, and Mister Conductor, throw me yer weapons or get shot. It’s as simple as that. We’ll be long gone before anyone in Santa Fe gets word of our little robbery here.”


The wolf was gone the next morning, but I had a feeling he would be back. I read through the day with the cry of hunting raptors as music. The steady wind keeps them aloft indefinitely while their eyes focus on the prey below.

The sun begins to turn orange. I realize this horseless stage will be my home another night with nothing but the last of the biscuits, water, and oil lantern.

I break off small biscuit pieces and eat them without wasting water. Crumbs, like microscopic sponges, steal what moisture is left in my throat. I gag and throw up the saturated bits.

The pages beg me to begin reading again. Turning to the next page is what keeps me sane in this wasteland.

I light the wick.

I see the eyes.

I am safe another night.


Billy remained undetected. His sweaty hand gripped the Derringer. He doubted these gunmen wanted mail. They wanted money and jewelry. He thought about being a hero, but with only two shots and probably missing with both, his death would be assured. He kept his head down and listened.

The Jehu surrendered his Colt.

“In Kansas, we riders generally take what we want with the Law nippin’ at our butts,” Charie said. “I don’t see much law here in these parts to stop us. So folks, this is what I want ya t’do. Empty all yer pockets n bags and place them by Jude here.”

Nobody moved.

“Perhaps, Madam, you will come out first?” Charlie said and nodded to Jude, who opened the door and pulled the woman out with such force she lost her hat and tripped to the ground, skinning her knees through brand-new silk stockings.

Charlie dismounted yanked the sobbing woman up by the collar. “No need to cry, I’m not plannin’ to hurt ya. Jest hand over all yer jewelry n what cash you’re carryin’.” She fell back to ground and surrendered to Jude.

“We’ll git yer jewelry after,” Jude said and began to unbuckle his trousers.

Billy heard a faint sound from behind. Steady crunching of corn-kernel dirt grew louder until it stopped. A new voice sounded in the dead air. “I don’t think so.”

Billy took the gamble and raised his head.

Everyone stared at the new man with the baritone voice.

“Who the hell’re you?” Charley asked.

The man looked at each gunman with friendly eyes and chiseled jaw. His long coat was his calling card.

“Name’s John Stanton. You’d know me if you were outlaws in this territory.”

“We heard about you and yer duster roamin’ these parts, but you ain’t got business here,” Charlie said and spit some chew.

“But I do. I’m plannin’ on takin’ you boys back to Kansas and collectin’ my ten grand.”

No one said a word. The Jayhawkers appeared uneasy.

“Dead or alive, your choice,” Stanton said.

“Jest how’re ya gonna pull that off Mister—?”

John Stanton did not answer. Billy watched an explosion of bullets as the bloodbath unfolded.

Charlie fired at Stanton, missed.

The wayward bullet tore into the woman’s gut. Blood shot from the black hole.

The Jehu shot his pistol at Charlie who had re-cocked and returned fire.

The Jehu fell to the ground, rapidly staining the brown dirt scarlet.

Stanton fired his .44 caliber Army at Charley. His knee shattered into a spray of bloody bones. Stanton’s next shot exploded Charlie’s shooting hand, propelling his pistol into the darkness.

Standon obliged Jude and Henry with their own shot-up knees.

The three Jayhawkers fell from their saddles. Cries of pain filled the camp.

It had all happened in an instant. Billy’s heart pounded so loudly he could barely hear the shots.

“Reinsman’s been hit!” the conductor yelled.

The men stood over him and heard the gurgle of death. He stared straight up. Billy imagined how the stars might look to a dying man. Maybe a person can take one final memory to the next life.

Billy shook his head. Can’t be thinking of that now. With a burst of bravery, he jumped down and walked toward the crying woman.

“Where’d you come from?” Stanton asked.

“Hanger on…sir. The woman needs help, I think.”

“What’s your name?”

“Casper William Bowles, known in these parts as Billy Bowles.”

“Never heard of ya. Go see on her,” Stanton said.

Billy looked at a terrified conductor and five trembling male passengers. Their situation offered only one option, wait for the next stage, and hope these passengers could hang on until then.

“Can I please have your attention?” Stanton shouted. “We need to discuss a plan.”

“Plan?! He ain’t got no plan!” Charley screamed. “Yer all gonna die with us!”

The Jayhawkers’ cries echoed down the gulch.

“You know what they say in this territory, Charley? Shoot a man in the head or heart if you wanna killim. Shoot’em in the knees if you wanna hearim cry,” Stanton turned to the panicked passengers. “Pay him no mind. I’m takin’ him and the other two back to Kansas. They’ll be facin’ the hangin’ tree soon enough. I’m plannin’ to leave within the hour.”

“What about us?” one of the male passengers asked.

“Next stage should have room up top,” the conductor said.

Billy sat with the injured woman. He felt embarrassed. His hair was too long, and he needed a bath. It did not matter; she paid him no mind.


The dim lantern light tires my eyes. Early morning, before first light, chilled desert breezes snake through the coach. I mark my place and close the notebook. It comes to mind that I have not yet searched the surroundings. I pull all the mailbags from under both coach benches. The gold lever of a new Winchester 1873 reflects the lantern light. A woman’s handbag was hidden behind the gun. I open it and find a few pounds of gold jewelry, one-hundred twenty-dollar Double Eagle gold coins, and an unknown amount of paper currency.

Are all these valuables under my charge? Is someone coming with a team to move this stage?

I lie back and listen to the distant howl of a wolf, possibly the same one I’ve seen. The one who is watching over me.

The sun is high when I wake. The air is still and fouled by rotting horses. In the distance I hear hooves.

I listen.

The sound tells me there are two horses coming toward the stage. I load the shiny Winchester with fifteen rounds and wait. Then I listen again, only wind. I rest my head on a mail sack and close my eyes. The wind stops, revealing the crunch of boots on the gravely prairie. My mind is fatigued and cannot be trusted. I lie again on the sack. More gusts blow through the coach.

Then the wind stops.

“What’s this, Frank? A brandy-new stage with a dead team.”

“Never seen nothin’ like it, Tommy.”

“I’ll check it,” Frank says.

I hear a man cock his revolver and dismount. I stay inside the stage.

“Well, howdy. Waitin’ for someone?” Frank asks.

It is my move. Pounding heart, sweaty hands, and no experience firing a Winchester, I must hide everything I am feeling. What I say next could mean my life.

“Maybe I was waitin’ for you two,” I say with the strongest voice I can muster.

“How’d you know we was comin’?”

As I suspect, they are not the brightest thinkers. “Word’s out you two were hangin’ around the territory. I’m here to protect what’s in this stage.” I suspect one man protecting a loot hidden in a grounded stage is irresistible to them. But I’m a wild card they weren’t expecting.

“Who the hell’re you?” Frank questions me. I see anger through the dripping sweat stinging his eyes.

Memories of the past two days do not include my name. I pick the first one that comes to mind under the stress of the situation.

“Name’s Billy Bowles.”

“Bowles? The same Bowles who knows that bounty man, John Stanton?”

“The same,” I lie, playing along. I’ve never met a John Stanton, bounty hunter.

“Listen, Mister Bowles, we don’t want no trouble. You can keep that there Winchester where it’s at, and we’ll be off. Tell Mister Stanton we was jest visitin’.” Frank says. He nods to Tommy.

I watch both men kick their mounts and head north.

The scene plays over and over in my mind. My alleged association with a bounty hunter is all that saved me.

Once calm, I find the pages.


The ensuing stage was scheduled for noon the next day. John Stanton had already left for Kansas with the three broken outlaws. He spoke to Billy before leaving.

“We need to talk.”

Billy knew bounty hunters could be just as dangerous as road agents and gunmen. He was not sure if he should feel fear.

“The conductor is a coward,” Stanton whispered. “Watch him.”

“Mister Stanton, I’m not sure if—”

“—no time for that now. Listen to me. The gold and other valuables will have to stay with the stage until another carriage with room can take them.”

“When will that be?” Billy asked.

“Can’t say. Let the others go. You gotta stay with the valuables until they can be retrieved.”

“Why me? I can’t shoot. And all I have is my Derringer,” Billy said.

“Look around. Who else besides you?”

Billy watched the bounty hunter gather the reins of the three horses carrying three whimpering Jayhawkers. They disappeared into the lawless night “Search the coach!” Stanton shouted to Billy.

The conductor and the five male passengers argued in loud whispers. Billy continued to sit with the woman. Blood slowly spilled from her stomach.

“You, there! Hanger on—”

“Name’s Billy Bowles.”

“Yeah, Bowles, we have a plan,” the conductor said.

“Did the plan come from Mister Stanton?” Billy asked.

“I’m the conductor and without our Jehu, I’m now in charge.”

“I don’t care what you all do. Mister Stanton told me to guard the valuables until a proper carriage could be dispatched from Santa Fe. And that’s what I plan to do.”

“Well, we plan to hop onto the top of the next stage,” the conductor said.

“What about the woman?” Billy asked.

“The plan doesn’t include her. Anyway, she’s just a rich whore who bought herself a seat inside the coach. She don’t deserve a space. Besides, she’s been hit. She ain’t long for this world.”

Billy looked at the woman. Her head had fallen into her lap. Black blood dried on her stockings. She was also bleeding from her gut; crimson stained her dress.

The men went their separate ways to sleep the remainder of the night.

Billy turned toward the woman. “How bad is it?”

She shook her head.

“May I ask your name…please?”

The woman looked at Billy with swollen eyes. “Margaret.”

“Show me where you were hit.”

Margaret opened her shawl. Billy saw a black hole in her stomach oozing too much blood.

“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better, Miss Margaret?”

“I’m terrified and dying and in too much pain to cry. But my mother is expecting me. Are you going with the others?”

“I’m staying with the stage. Stanton’s orders. You can stay with me.”

He told her the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He assured her she would be fine until they made it to Santa Fe. He lied, but what did it matter? Billy doubted the woman would live to see the next stage.

“Tomorrow a stage will come?” Margaret asked.


She handed him an addressed envelope for a house in Santa Fe. Inside was a letter. “I wrote this to my mother just in case—”

“—something like this happened.”

“Yes, you understand. If you are saved and travel to Santa Fe, would you mind giving her this short missive?”

Billy saw the pain in her eyes. He stowed the letter in his breast pocket and waited for death to arrive.

The wolf howled. Billy hoped it would take Miss Margaret to a better life.

When the sun began to heat the air and the flies became a morning nuisance, the five men, and conductor pissed in unison a few yards from the stage.

Margaret stared into the morning light; the wolf had not taken her.

No one spoke.

When the sun reached zenith, wheels and hooves sounded from the east.

“I see dust!” one of the men shouted.

Wheels and hooves grew louder. Gusty wind blew dust into everyone’s eyes. The Reinsman’s voice could be heard slowing the team until the stage came to a stop.

“You the folks we need to carry?” he asked.

“We’ll ride up top,” the conductor said.

“That’s the only room we got,” the Reinsman said.

“What about the woman?” Billy asked.

“No room,” the conductor said. “She ain’t gonna make it anyway.”

The stage left.

Margaret lay on her side, blood still seeping from the bullet wound in her stomach.

“Let me move you closer to the stage,” Billy said. He dragged her limp body over the brush while she moaned. He positioned her out of the sun and wet her lips with his canteen water.

Tireless buzzards circled the dead horses.

“Do you have a gun?” she asked.

Billy could not answer her. He knew she was in too much pain to continue the slow death she was facing. And he suspected she wanted him to take her out of her misery as if she were a mount.

“Do you have a gun!”

After a long pause, “I do, Miss.”

“How many bullets?”

“Only two in my Derringer.”

“Would you be so brave as to use one on me?” Her swollen eyes begged him.

“I’ll get you to a doc—”

“—too late. No one survives a bullet in the stomach.”

Billy never had a reason to kill another person. And even if he did have a reason, his trigger finger might still resist.

“Let me get you inside.”

“Please, shoot me between the eyes and get it over with. The pain—”

Billy removed the Derringer in his pocket. He looked at Margaret and saw a black hole. The Derringer slipped from his nervous hand and fell to the ground. She was asking him to be a murderer.

He knelt to retrieve his gun. “I don’t know if I can do this—”

“—you must!” Margaret screamed. “Please,” she whispered.

What choice did he have? What choice did she have? He aimed his Derringer, unconvinced finger touching the trigger. His dead father’s black bullet hole filled his vision. Then he saw Margaret’s unblemished forehead.

“Please God, if you’re up there, you know I have no choice.”

Sweat dripped into his eyes.

He held his breath.

He closed his eyes—

—and fired.

He opened his eyes and stared at the black hole in her forehead knowing he was a murderer regardless of her sanction.


The chapter ends. My stomach growls for meat. I have been feeling unsteady of late. I know I’m dehydrated, but with only half a canteen left I should conserve. Funny, it seems to never empty, although I know I’ve been drinking from the canteen for almost three days.

The last pages beg me to finish.


Billy dropped the Derringer, fell to his knees crying as a baby. Her face and his mother’s merged somehow. He had saved Margaret from unbearable pain and should have saved his mother from the rape. He wished he had shot his mother between the eyes. He pictured how her face would look with the hole. He placed a blanket over Margaret and retired to the coach, wondering how he would live with this crime he had committed.

He drifted into a daydream with a never-ending dead people’s parade, everyone’s forehead decorated with an oozing, cavernous, black bullet hole.

The wolf’s cry startled him. He could not remember where he was. The sun had almost disappeared, replaced with a full Moon. Tripping from the coach and skinning his knees, a reflection caught his eye. He turned and saw a silver broach pinned to a dead woman. Between her eyes was a bullet hole.

Who was this woman?

Who shot her?

Billy stumbled to the coach, unable to breath, heart pounding in his ears.


I read through the night. The horror Billy had to endure feels personal. When dawn finally arrives, I know I must leave the coach and evaluate my chances of survival. Another stage should have already come but has not. I look up and wonder if the buzzards are waiting for me to die.

I open the coach door. Blustery morning wind greets me. The reflection from a silver broach blinds me. A blanket partially covering something leans against the stage. The pop of a discharged Derringer strikes my ears. The image of a woman about to die flashes in front of me. I pull the blanket off a woman’s body with a black hole in her forehead.


Billy’s water ran out. Ants stole what was left of the biscuits.

He prayed to hear the baritone voice again.

He listened for wheels and hooves.


I listen for wheels and hooves.

My canteen is dry. Ants have taken my biscuits. A dead woman leans against the stage.

I sit next to her, and stare, in horror, at the bullet hole between her eyes, knowing I too will soon be dead.


A shadow blocks the unrelenting sun. A man in a duster kneels at my side. He wets his neckerchief and places it on my forehead. I try to decide if this is death.


I remember the notebook has a man in a duster.

I remember hiding among mailbags as a hanger on.

I remember the duster man saved the stage from Jayhawker road agents.

I remember ending Miss Margaret’s suffering.

“Billy…answer me”

I remember his name, John.

I remember my name, Billy, Billy Bowles.

“It’s over. I’ve brought a carriage.”

I remember a carriage was supposed to come.

“I murdered Miss Margaret,” I say. “Murder” is a word I have never said out loud.

“That’s and unfair word, Billy. You did what I’m sure she asked you to do.”

I rest against the broken stage next to Margaret. Maggots blanket the fallen team. John Stanton moves Margaret’s body to the carriage. Then he lifts my dehydrated body over his shoulder and deposits me next to the trunk full of valuables hidden in the rear boot. The two-horse team responds to John’s encouragement with a spirited pace.

“What’s next, John?”

“That’s up to you, Billy.”

And then I remember the last piece; the one I need to close the circle. The whole story is up to me, and I have not yet written the final chapter.

 Kenneth is a writer of short stories. His publications include science fiction and period fiction. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his family.

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“Beefeater” Dark Western Fiction by Joshua Mertz

"Beefeater" Dark Western Fiction by Joshua Mertz

Did you say you were a friend of Zeke’s?  He’s dead, you know. Actually, worse than that. I’ll tell you, but I don’t think your boss will want to put it in his newspaper. Here comes the waiter. You tell him what you want while I collect my thoughts.

We had a small run out of Casper down here to Cheyenne. Only a hundred fifty-three head of cattle. I figured a little over two weeks. It was getting on into October and I wanted to beat Kincaid coming up from Colorado with almost a thousand head, so we took this short cut Zeke had heard about. Swore it would save us five days.

            We were ten days out, and had been driving the cattle hard for last two, when we came out of the plains and into an area of low, rolling hills. The cattle were worn to a nub and cranky as all git out. We kept our eyes peeled for water, but the animals smelled it first. Just a little creek. Did us all good. Being as how we had a long ways to go yet, I decided we should stop for a day to let the herd rest.

            Can’t tell you exactly where we were. Probably couldn’t lead you there either. Wouldn’t want to. We made camp and I sent three men to get the animals watered and gathered for the night while Snuffy whipped up some grub.

            I walked off a ways to have me a smoke and appreciate the Lord’s gift of the great outdoors. Trail boss’s privilege, you know. It was just after sundown and the sky was every color of red you can imagine against a blue that was almost black. The cattle were all down by the creek and the men were either caring to the horses or helping with the fire. It should have set my heart at ease to see my crew so engaged.

            But something was wrong. Something in the wind. The animals were restless and the men did not talk and joke much while they worked. I gazed at the fading hills and thought I saw something move far away. Like a thicket of scrub moving in the wind, only there wasn’t any wind. It was a long ways off and it was getting dark fast, so I figured it was probably just my eyes being weary.

            We built a fire and had a nice hot dinner, then laid down in our bedrolls to sleep. Didn’t have to post a night man; cattle won’t stray from a water source. It was damn peaceful but I had a hard time getting to sleep. I laid on my back with my eyes open, listening to the cattle and trying to name what it was that was eating at me. There were a lot of shooting stars that night.

            Here comes the waiter with your salad. Go on, eat up. I’ll wait for the main course. You just dig on into those greens while I talk.

            The next morning I had barely got my bed rolled up when Hank ran into camp yelling that the cattle had been stolen. Well that got everybody stirred up and I was right sore with Hank for causing such a ruckus. I finally got the men to quieten down and we took a count and found out forty-seven head were missing. Mind you, that’s almost a third of the herd.

            Those cattle were not stolen. You sleep good out on the range, but you sleep light. Nobody could have stolen the cattle; we would have heard the jingle of a bridle or our horses would have smelled the other horses. In fact, I woke up several times that night and was amazed at how deadly quiet it was.

            Near as I can tell those cattle just up and walked away. Sneaked away is more like it. Easy thing, you think, to follow a bunch of stupid cattle out into the rolling scrub land?  Harder than you might imagine. At first it was easy, the tracks stayed pretty much together.

            And then they stopped.

            I mean stopped completely, like they had run into a wall. Just over a rise the dirt and weeds went from trampled down to untouched. You could follow the line with your eye. It was weird.

            On a hunch, I sent the men out alone to search for any signs of the missing cattle. I would fire my gun in a half hour and they would come back to report.

            The time passed and I shot off my pistol and one by one the men arrived with nothing at all to report. Then Zeke came back. He had found some tracks off to the north.

            We followed him out to where he’d found the tracks. You could tell the cattle were confused. The tracks split up and wandered off into the countryside. I had each of the men follow a track.

            We gathered in another half hour. The men reported strange things. Sometimes the tracks would stop, then start again some hundred yards away. Jed told about how the track he was following went straight as an arrow for a good quarter mile, then began to go in circles. I myself followed one where it looked like the cow had been dragged for hundreds of yards. And all the tracks led in the same general direction. We followed.

            Long about midday we came upon a clearing. It was several hundred feet across and looked like it had been dug up. Not plowed; plowing leaves neat rows. This looked it had been churned. There was a single dead tree out in the middle. The horses wouldn’t come near it.

            Tracks came in from all directions and stopped about twenty feet from the edge of the clearing. Not one of us was willing to venture out onto the barren dirt. There was no sign of the missing cattle.

            It was late afternoon by the time we got back to camp. I tried to keep spirits up by making sure everybody was busy. We were just about to sit down to dinner when the lookout came into camp and said one of the cattle was heading back.

            We rode out to meet it. It was walking funny and had several deep gashes on one side. Zeke dropped the lasso on the its neck and had a loop of rope around the saddle horn when the animal slipped up and bit him on the leg.

            Now, cattle don’t bite. You probably already know that. They might nip at you if you try to take their food away, but I have never seen a cow up and bite a person like that one bit Zeke. Bit him hard, too. Took a chunk out of his thigh.

            We got Zeke back to camp and Snuffy and I cleaned the wound and got him bandaged up as best we could. He was in a lot of pain, but we got him to lay down on his bedroll. We put several blankets over him and went to look at the animal.

            It was tied to a stake and stared at us in a most… unusual way. Like it was sizing us up. When the other cattle would pass by it would try to lick them. Some cattle came right up to the crazy one and let it lick their faces. I ordered the animal tied beyond reach of the herd.

            It was a quiet dinner. We watched Zeke slip into a fever. We sat by him all night, keeping his brow cool, talking to him. I cleaned his wound several times that night and it kept oozing out this green stuff that stunk like something from Hell. Zeke spoke in tongues and screamed in terror. He spat up a lot of blood. We did what we could, but to no avail. He died not long after sunrise.

            We buried Zeke on a hilltop  Buried him deep so the coyotes wouldn’t get him. I said a few words and Jed read a little bit from his Bible and we filled in the grave and put rocks on top.

            Again, it was too late to break camp. After dinner I put two men to watch the herd and went to look in on the cow that bit Zeke. It was laying down, breathing heavy. The gashes on its side glowed faintly green and had that stink-from-Hell. I planned to shoot it in the morning and bury the damn thing. Had a hard time sleeping again that night. Bad dreams. I would wake up and hear the others moaning and muttering in their sleep.

            In the morning I went to take care of the sick cow. It was gone. It had chewed through its rope and wandered away. Over breakfast I enlisted a couple of the men to help me track it down. Then we saw Hank staring at something. We followed his gaze and there wasn’t a man there whose blood did not freeze.

            The hilltop where we had buried Zeke was dug up.

            We hurried up to the top of the hill. This was not anything the coyotes did, no matter what the others may tell you.

            Nobody had dug up the grave.

            Something had dug its way out of Zeke’s grave. And then that something had walked away to the north. The trail was not hard to follow. We knew where it would lead.

            The tracks didn’t stop away from the clearing like all the others – they led out into the dirt. The horses caught wind of that churned earth and went crazy. We had to stop damn near a quarter mile away.

             I was the only one who would venture onto the barren clearing. The earth felt soft and unstable, like I would sink into it at any moment. I saw a black something and went to it. It was one of Zeke’s boots. I could find no stick, so I tilted it up with my knife and looked inside. There looked to be the remnants of Zeke’s foot in the boot. Big white maggots reared up and hissed at me. All the way back to the horses I felt eyes on me. Gave me the willies.

            So we left. What else was there to do?  We still had a hundred six head of cattle to get here to Cheyenne and we were three days behind schedule. We had done what we could for Zeke.

            We made it here with ninety-eight head. Several had gone mad on the trail and died. Or we shot them. We all agreed to not say a thing about it. Kincaid had beat us here, so we sold what we had at auction for a fair to middlin’ price. Some of restaurants here in town bought several on account of the reasonable prices.

            But that first crazy cow – the one that bit Zeke — it’s got me worried. Licked a lot of the other cattle before we took it away. No telling how far that might have gotten around.

            So you go ahead and enjoy that steak. I’m going to have the chicken.

Joshua Mertz is the son of a rocket scientist and a word savvy mother. He has had short stories published in Amazing StoriesAboriginal Science Fiction, New Maps, and three in the award-winning Halloween anthology Harvest Tales and Midnight Revels.

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