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(Tombstone, Arizona Territory, 1880)

In the cool morning breeze, a lone tumbleweed bounced across the street. A red rooster crowed in the cool morning air as early risers went about their business. Frannie May’s death the day before hadn’t seemed to change much in the town of Tombstone. Dressed shabby, as he always was, the cow-puncher-turned-gambler rode his donkey up the dry street from the direction of his house, having slept there for the first time in months. Dic began to smile when he spied Amos, slumped in a chair outside the saloon, snoring up a storm, beard on his chest.

Grinning, he dismounted and approached, slowly so as not to wake his friend. Removing a spare carrot from his pocket, showing it to his ride, he placed it upon Amos’ left shoulder near his chin. Standing back, waiting, he looked at the donkey and motioned with bushy eyebrows towards the sleeping man. It looked up at its master, then at the tasty carrot, took a cautious step forward, small hoof clopping the clapboard. Looking again at Dic, who nodded with a grin, the animal mounted the sidewalk and made for the succulent tuber.

Carefully, big lips sought to lay hold of the orange prize. Soft, warm breath issued as they brushed Amos’ greying whiskers. Dic saw Amos smile as he nuzzled closer, head trapping part of the carrot. Big wet lips parted wide, showing yellow teeth as the donkey used his tongue to deftly grab the end of it, licking Amos in process.

“What the hell…” Amos said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Trying to steady himself as he stood, his hand reached for the arm of the chair but missed – and fell over.

Slapping his thigh, Dic laughed, “I think you’ve made a new acquaintance, Amos, she’s awfully cute!”

The donkey munched, looking at them both.

Amos tried to get back up on his feet, but then tripped again.

“Amos, you durn fool.” Dic shook his head. “How you going to ride posse with a hangover? Let’s go get you some coffee so you can sober up before the deputy arrives.”

~~

Looking proudly at his reflection while combing the last strands of his thinning hair into place, Deputy Kade finally felt satisfied that he looked the part he’d always hoped to play: A proper lawman. Ever since, as a small child, he witnessed a lawman standing up for a lady, he dreamed that he’d be that man someday. Today was the day.

Kade arrived late at the posse’s meeting point at half past nine, looking at the men in front of him, five in all. I’m really scrapin’ the bottom of the barrel here. What a sorry bunch. Noting the burro, he said, “Dic, you can’t keep up with that ass! We’ve got to ride hard after this killer!”

“Well, seein’ as you’re keepin’ banker’s hours on this mission of grave promptitude, and a half hour late to boot, doesn’t seem we’re in much of a hurry. Besides, my mountain canary will put all your horses to shame once we reach the foothills of the Dragoons. That’s where he’ll be headin’, I surmise – Apache territory. And, bein’ as I’m the tracker, you have to follow me anyway.”

“But he’ll get away!” Kade said, exasperated.

Dic looked at the posse’s leader, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.'”

“Ah, whatever!”

The others stood around waiting, having gathered with their horses. “Now, listen up, all of you,” Deputy Kade said, his voice as official as he could make it, “I deputize each of you to administer the laws of the Arizona Territory faithfully, do you agree?” All murmured some form of “yes”. Kade handed each a tin star. Removing his hat, placing it on his heart, he said, “Now, I know we all mourn for Frannie May, but I won’t have any vigilante rough stuff going on. No one’s gonna get strung up without a fair hearing. If we take him alive, he comes to face justice fair and square just like everyone else. Now, mount up, men! Follow me!”

~~

Siding up to his half-draft horse, Big Shirley opened his saddle bag, checking it’s precious cargo. Smiling at the young poodle panting in the confined space, he reached in and scratched her ears. “Just until we get out of town, Gloria, then you can ride up front with me,” he assured her.

Barely more than a pup, Gloria, a little ball of energy, had come to him as a present from a madam in Tombstone; one of Frannie’s competitors. The rival madam said the big Swede was one of her most faithful customers; good with the ladies and handy in the evenings if drunks got out of hand. Poodles, Shirley was told, being in association with bordellos, were looked down upon by polite society, but that didn’t bother him. He loved his little Gloria with all his heart.

Trotting slowly, Shirley brought up the rear of the posse, as the six men left Tombstone on the trail of the man who shot Frannie May.

~~

Derek stirred as the sun was coming up. It hadn’t been a bad night, warm enough; he felt rested and not too sore, despite the hard riding. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the clean desert morning air with hints of flowers, and felt the tranquility it brought him, even in the midst of their trouble. Looking around for where his young friend was, he found Fallon sitting on a flat rock, watching the glow rising in the east. He gazed at her brown curls highlighted against the coming day, her shoulders and figure outlined in the lifting darkness. That’s the prettiest picture I’s ever seen.

He stood up and dusted off the back side of his britches with quick slaps of his hat, walking over to her, “You’s okay, Miss Fallon?”

After a moment she said softly, “I always used to watch the sun rise. It was the only time I had to myself. Apache women worked me from sun up to sun down, gatherin’, makin’, cookin’. Once I learned a few of their words, I enjoyed being with them. . .but I still loved sittin’ alone, lookin’ at the day come up all new and fresh.”

Derek noted a far away sound in her voice, like she was somewhere else.

“I feel like I’m caught between two worlds, Derek. I love parts of each, and I hate parts of each. I just don’t know where I belong anymore. . .where I fit in.” She turned to look up at him, her eyes searching, “You ever feel that way?”

The big scout came near and, crouching down, handed a biscuit to his new friend, pondering his thoughts as he ate his. Looking towards her, Derek said, “I’s a simple man, and words don’t come easy. But, I’s always thought there’s something good ahead for me, somewhere. . .that’s why I kept movin’ even when things seemed bad. What you feel is real deep, like a well that you’s don’t know where the bottom is.” He paused for a moment, then said, “But as long as you’s wants it, you gots a place with me.”

Fallon looked at him and smiled, face softening. “That’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.”

Standing up, turning towards the hills, Derek said, “Let’s get a move on.”

He turned to look at Fallon, who was gazing at the mountains, peaks being lit by the sun. “You know who’s up there, Derek?” she asked.

“Apache, I reckon.” He smiled. “But I’s bettin’ those who are after us knows that, too.”

“The army killed some of their womenfolk when they took me. I don’t know what they will do.”

~~

Riding his horse behind the burro, Kade saw the Dragoon Mountains looming in the distance.

Dic said, “We shouldn’t go past the stagecoach station. There’s Apache in them hills.”

Kade, paying little attention to what his tracker said, blissfully imagined the sheriff patting him on the back, welcoming him back as an equal, having bravely gone after the fugitive. ‘What initiative, Kade, I am impressed! Come, sit with me a spell, and tell me all about it!’ He pictured the sheriff pouring him a glass of bourbon from the special bottle he kept down in the side drawer of his desk. ‘You’re a mighty brave man.’

Everyone knows we ain’t gonna to catch him, Kade realized, but its the tryin’ that’s noble, that’s what they’ll remember. The dangerous hunt for Frannie May’s killer is what folks will be talkin’ about over free drinks for weeks to come!

Emerging from his reverie, Kade noticed that Big Shirley had let his horse drop behind the group a few lengths, then reached behind him and brought the white poodle pup around and up to his saddle horn, placing her gently in front of his big stomach, as Gloria sniffed the wind. You brought a poodle to a manhunt? He rolled his eyes.

Listening to the dog yap at the sky, Kade trotted his horse to the front of the pack, when he saw a large shadow flow over the ground, momentarily blocking the sun. A loud single thunderclap sounded, the pressure wave felt moments later. Shivering in the sunlight, shading his eyes with his hat, he exclaimed, “What the hell?!” Everyone else craned their necks upwards searching to see what caused it, too. There in the heavens, with violet tinges wings, a bird, bigger than anyone had ever laid eyes on, flapped, then glided, then flapped again. An ear-piercing cry from the feathered behemoth startled hundreds of lesser fowl, bolting up from their thickets for miles around all at once, rising in a riot of cacophonous noises. Horses snorted and whinnied, eyes wild, prancing nervously underneath their riders. Kade looked around and saw Shirley holding Gloria tight to his chest.

“This is the worst hangover I’ve ever had!” Amos hollered out, holding his head,

Tall saguaro cacti swayed in unison back and forth like some country soiree. Gusts of wind thrust down on the posse, causing dust to rise around them. The horse of the young man closest to Kade reared, almost tossing his rider, zig zagging back and forth, trying desperately to remain upright as the ground shook underneath it. Everything moved, as more cries from the sky pierced their ears.

Kade, in the downward blast of wind and swirling dust, yelled, “Earthquake! Keep your horses, men, don’t let them run off!” That was easier said than done as primal fear raced through their equine bodies.

Then, everything stopped moving, returning to normal.

Kade looked back at the men and horses, “Everyone alright?” Each one gave their okay. The sky looked brown, with the sun a pale disk just hanging there. My God, what was that? Kade shivered again, realizing the bird was ten times the size of any eagle he’d ever seen. Wiping his brow with his hanky, he wondered if he’d bitten off more than he and his crew could chew.

~~~

The posse rode in silence, once they’d gotten their horses to calm and the dust settled enough. Kade noted even their resident know-it-all was quiet, seemingly lost in his thoughts, too. The deputy wondered if the walking encyclopedia was busily searching every scrap of knowledge he knew, trying to find some explanation. At the periphery of his mind, Kade felt a disquieting conclusion taking shape, threatening to overwhelm his reason. If felt like a door had just opened and something from beyond had just entered their world. All those Injun stories he’d heard about spirit birds suddenly sprang to life.

Riding up, Lighting Draw Clyde declared, “I’ll scout ahead to see what’s up there.”

“No, don’t leave the group!” Kade barked. “This man’s a killer, we need to face him together!”

“My condition was to face him alone if it comes to it.” Clyde said. “How else people going to know I’m a gunslinger!” Then he galloped off.

Kade shouted after him, “You’ll obscure the trail, you durn fool!”

Dic came up alongside the lawman, shaking his head. “This isn’t going to end well.”

~~~

Derek said, “I thinks the men back at the stagecoach station thought somethin’ was up,” as they rode off that morning, side by side toward the Dragoon Springs up the canyon.

Indeed, as Derek and Fallon had ridden into the Stage coach station the day before, the man outside had eyed them, suspicious. As Derek dismounted, the spry, old sourdough asked, “What’s your business, stranger?”

“Supplies, if you’s gots some to sell.”

Raising and hairy eyebrow, after a moment, walking with a limp, he showed the big scout inside, with Fallon in tow. Derek bought a couple cases of riffle bullets, a couple of canteens, and grain for their horses.

“Where you goin’ to, mister?” the clerk asked as he bundled up their purchase.

“North.”

Looking at the girl next to Derek, the young clerk said, “You’d best wait for the stage to travel with, mister, or else wait for a wagon train and hitch yourself to that. Apache are on the warpath. It ain’t safe out there. There’s a Calvary regiment supposed to reach here tomorrow, too; you’d best wait up for them.”

Lifting the bag over his shoulder, Derek just said, “Thanks,” and left.

The old man outside called out after them as the rode out, “You can’t take a lady out in these hills, those red devils will skin you alive and then do God knows what to your woman!”

Fallon, face suddenly angry, turned and shouted, “Apaches are good people! Just because they’re different doesn’t make them bad!”

The man stood speechless. Derek gently spurred his horse into a loping gate towards the hills ahead.

~~

Today, after a long ride, Derek watched Fallon brink a handful of spring water on her lips. She drank deeply, as the horses did, also. Having been spooked by an earthquake and thunderclap they felt a few miles back, the gilding and mare needed some time to rest and calm down. Derek, climbed up on a rock, laid down, and scanned the horizon through his spy glass, studied a particular place towards the base of the hills for a long while. Below them, perhaps 3 miles, he watched five men, four on horseback, following a man on a donkey, slowly make their way towards them.

Suddenly Fallon stood up, still as stone, listening intently. Derek collapsed his glass, came down from the rock and came near, hearing her quivering voice say, “Put your gun down slowly, don’t make any sudden moves.” Hair standing up on the back of his neck, he looked around he felt their presence, but saw no one.

“Please, Derek, trust me.”

SEOIB.