A Western Story


Dedicated to the memory of Bertram A. Stone. A kind gentleman and loving father, he taught by honorable example. Respect the rights of others, but defend against those who would deny yours.


Suddenly, as I swung my body over to grab for another handhold, the wall around me collapsed. Once committed there was no way back. Rock and gravel peeled away and in one terrible, gut-wrenching instant I found myself dangling in midair, facing out away from the wall. I was suspended totally by my right arm, my hand wedged into a small crack in the rock face.

I tried to dig in, flailing back with my heels, but the hard rock had given way to a sandy, loose gravel that wouldn’t allow me to gain a decent purchase. Desperately I threw my weight across my shoulder and succeeded in rolling over to a toe-in position, face flat against the wall. My grip was firm enough, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever….

Chapter One

The boy strained hard against the powerful arms pinning him back. Although strong for his age, the thirteen- year-old was clearly no match for three adults, especially men as ruthless as these.

The youth screamed angrily, violently kicking and thrashing about as he watched the knife being drawn from its sheath. His eyes widened in terror as the cowboy thumbed the edge of his blade. He had to know it was useless to struggle, but this boy was Kiowa and the thought of quitting never occurred to him. It would be better to die fighting—at least then his spirit would live on, forever proud.

I practically rode my Morgan stallion into the ground trying to reach him, but made little if any progress. It seemed as if the very ground itself was fighting against me. Sweat flew from the bay’s neck as the sun’s heat combined with droplets from his nose to produce small clouds of steam.

The stallion snorted as we raced on, tugging furiously at the reins, but, strangely, the more we rode, the longer the distance we had to cover grew. It was as though time itself had stood still.

A hairy arm raised a long razor-sharp dagger, its wicked triangular blade reflecting the sun’s glare. The Indian boy’s chest heaved, but his Kiowa war cry was suddenly cut short as the arm holding the knife plunged downward. The three men all laughed as his limp body fell slowly toward the ground.

My own scream caught in my throat as I bolted upright in bed, sweat dripping down my face. I shook my head clear of the dream, and, as I regained my senses, I immediately regretted having taken that siesta. It was one local custom I never truly learned to appreciate.

I got up, walked over to the dresser at the far end of the room, and poured some water from a large clay pitcher into its matching bowl. After washing up, I took an old rose-patterned towel off the wall hook and dried myself while staring out the window. The second-story room of the boarding house where I currently rented overlooked the town’s main street, but, as usual for this time of day, there was nothing to be seen but the occasional tumbleweed.

It didn’t take me long to decide on two things. One was that I was badly in need of a change of scenery. The second was that at least for now I’d settle for a stiff drink.

It was a lousy way to start the afternoon.

The sign outside read Las Tres Campanas—The Three Bells. There wasn’t a bell anywhere in sight. It was just a typical cantina and like others common to that part of the country, small, brown, hot, and dusty. No piano players or fancy mirrors would ever be found decorating this place, although there were a few ropes and some old wine bottles hung up on the walls.

The town of San Rafael hadn’t grown much in the last couple of years since it wasn’t close enough to the main border crossings to attract the cattle trade. Some Texicans did occasionally drift in, but aside from a few tired and overheated local peasants, the only other regular patron of the cantina was a scrawny cur dog who was currently sitting in the corner chewing contentedly on the remains of a big gray rat. Dogs, I’d noticed, tend to be better ratters than most cats.

The cur had a notched right ear and, ever since a horse had stomped him, was missing half his tail. The dog smelled so badly everyone tried to give him a wide berth, but even though the room was big enough to hold more than a dozen tables, his stench was still annoying, even at the opposite end near the door. Of course that wasn’t enough to stop the locals from drinking there, since the tequila served in Las Tres Campanas was the smoothest in town. The cantina’s owner, Felipe, also cooked the best plate of enchiladas, frijoles, and Mexican rice anyone ever tasted.

I was leaning on the bar at the far corner, sipping mescal and trying to forget a heat that was already making rippled waves outside. I had learned to favor the drink even though I still couldn’t bring myself intentionally to swallow the ever present worm that most mejicanos swear is the best part.

Admittedly Las Tres Campanas wasn’t much when compared to other saloons I’d been in. Its bar was just a five-foot high wall of adobe with four planks laid down on top, and the wood was so poorly cut there wasn’t a straight or level surface in the whole affair. There were a few lit candle stubs stuck into some old cut-out peach cans running along its length, but most of the light in the cantina came from a couple of hanging oil lamps that offered up more smoke and smell than actual brightness.

Two large round ceiling beams ran down to the bar top. They were meant to support the roof, but most days it seemed they were used more as targets for knife throwing practice. It was a situation that caused considerable displeasure for the bartender, a short burly sort named Ramon, who was constantly forced to duck for his life.

I had been inside the cantina for about an hour, minding my own business, when a conversation between two young vaqueros caught my ear. I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, but what with them sitting at the nearest table I couldn’t help overhearing. When they started talking about a drive west, I perked up.

My pa always said that my curiosity would get me in big trouble someday, and, as always, things would eventually prove him right. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that, but, even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. If one more person in town had commented to me on how the humidity was actually worse than the heat, I would have plugged him on the spot, and in general I’m a peaceful sort. That’s how bad things had gotten.

It was hot, I was bored, and the prospect of leaving this pueblo had finally gotten the better of me. While my

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