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(Arizona Territory, 1880)

I don’t like this, Dic thought, looking up at the clouds moving in fast from the south, wind picking up around their little posse. Tightening his stampede strap on his old hat, he looked around and then back at the others. The vanishing point of this slope doesn’t bode well for any of us. Surveying the lay of the land, Dic surmised they weren’t following any dry river bed or gully. From experience he knew that it could rain miles away and a wall of water appear unexpectedly, pushing a small mountain of debris before it, subsuming everything in its path. If you had nowhere to run, you were a gonner.

And the big bird! A shiver went through his mind as he raced through his encyclopedic odds and ends of knowledge, cubby-holed in that vast storehouse of his photographic memory. An unusual child, people didn’t know what to think of him as a small boy. He didn’t speak a word until he was seven, and then only in complete sentences. Father, a professor of law at Virginia’s William & Mary University, was always studying in the evenings, as little Richard, silent and somewhat neglected, sat nearby. Father let him look at books, thinking how cute it was when he pretended to read. One day, Dic remembered as if yesterday, a visitor stopped by and he overhead the rotund wife of another academic say, “I’m sorry about your boy, Gladys, some just don’t turn out right. Its not your fault, there’s always next time.” It wasn’t what she said, though he understood it, but how she said it, like he was a half-baked biscuit, about to be tossed in the rubbish. Even as an innocent three-year-old, it didn’t feel good.

Today, though, as a man, he flipped through the pages of all the books on ornithology in his father’s library, searching for any shred of information on the gigantic bird they’d witnessed earlier. Everything he ever read was as crystal clear in his mind as the day his young eyes saw it. Even a Vultur gryphus, the giant condor of the Andes, didn’t fit the bill. Then, reluctantly, he moved on to mythology, scanning Roman, Greek, and finally, as if dragged by the scruff of his intellectual neck, to native Indian legends. In the back of his mind he suspected even before he remembered it; the ink drawing of the Great Lakes Iroquois Indians, who believed in a large bird that caused the sky to thunder and lightning while fighting the Great Horned Serpent of the underworld.

“What ya thinkin’ about, Dic?” Amos asked, matching the donkey’s slow pace, finally sober enough to be chipper.

His train of thought derailing, Dic frowned. “I don’t like those cumulonimbus clouds up ahead, I think we’re in for a storm.”

“Yeah, don’t look good. Hope it passes, it can rain somethin’ furious out here in the desert.”

Dic looked up at the clouds again and saw a strange violet lightning illuminate them, flashing from one end to the other. Against his better judgment, he said out loud, “Thunderbird.”

~~

Fallon’s heart beat fast, eyes wide on her flushed face. She looked at the man who pointed his six shooter at her as he said, “I can shoot you both, if that’s the way you want it, but I aim to make it a fair fight, give him a chance. Now get aside, before I lose patience!”

Thinking fast, Fallon turned to look at Derek, still semi-conscious, but the bleeding had slowed. “It will be alright, Derek,” she whispered. Getting up slowly, she thought, What do I do? He’s in no shape to fight, it can’t end here!

Turning around, putting her hands to her face, Fallon began to cry hysterically, saying, “No, no, please, mister!” Shaking her head, she cried, “I’m so afraid! Please, please, please!”

As Fallon blubbered, Clyde walked over, grabbing her roughly, exasperated by her emotional display, and drug her out of the way of his intended shootout. “Be quiet!” He raised his hand, threatening to hit her. Fallon, putting her arm up to cover her head, cringed and quieted.

From the ground behind him, she watched in horror as the spectacled gunfighter approached Derek, “Get up you low down, mangy dog. Let’s finish this thing.” Derek’s half-glazed eyes met Fallon’s. It broke her heart to watch him, even injured, trying so hard to stand up and protect her, then fall to his knees, then try again, this time managing to remain on his feet. He straightened his back but stood very wobbly. She knew it was only his feelings for her that kept that magnificent man upright, but he was in no shape to fight. This is not fair. With the man’s attention focused on Derek, Fallon quietly slipped away towards the horses.

“Put your hand on your gun, you black devil!” Clyde said, backing up a few paces until his back pressed against a tree branch. With less than twenty feet between them, Derek searched for the handle of his revolver, finding it.

Laughing, the would-be gunslinger said, “I’ve been dreaming of this all my life. Today, Lightnin’ Draw becomes a legend!”

As the small man laughed again, Fallon lifted the shotgun she’d retrieved from the scabbard on her horse. Left hand on the cool barrel, the butt firmly against her shoulder, she sighted, just like Daddy taught her, squeezing the trigger slow but firm, and… boom! The branch next to Derek’s attacker burst into pieces, splinters and buckshot flying everywhere, some digging into the left side of the startled man’s face. Fallon moved the gun sight slightly over and down to the man’s midriff, “Throw away your gun, mister – or the next one cuts ya in half!”

Smelling the gunpowder at end of the smoking barrel, Fallon saw Clyde’s hand touch his bleeding face. Dropping to his knees, the shaking man tossed his gun clear. Both men looked at Fallon, one shocked, the other surprised. Derek walked with effort to the kneeling man, putting his own pistol to the man’s sweating temple, cocking the hammer. Unexpectedly, Clyde sobbed, then cried, “Please, sir, I don’t want to die, please don’t shoot me, I’m not worth killin’!” Then, grabbing the toes of Derek’s boots, he begged, face to the dusty ground, “Please, oh God please, I don’t want to die!”

Fallon saw Derek hesitate, which she thought was more due to surprise than pity, seeing as the man was plumb contemptible. “Wait, Derek, I have a better idea.”

~~

Dic looked up to the mountain ahead, hearing the shotgun blast at the same time as everyone else. Kade galloped up from behind, saying, “They’re just up ahead in that valley, I think we have them!”

“Not so fast, Deputy,” Dic said. “They have the high ground, and a storm is almost on us. We need to seek some shelter and wait it out.”

“Hell, no! I’m out here to catch a killer, not wait out the weather!” Kade turned his horse, circled back toward the posse, yelling, “Come on men! We’ve got ’em! Let’s go!”

Dic yelled after him from the cloud of dust that engulfed him, “You’re going to get someone killed if you go after him without a plan!” His words trailed off as the riders vanished in the direction the sound had come from. He looked up at the sky, just as a big raindrop splashed on his cheek. My God, shaking his head, I don’t like the look of this.

~~

Fallon rolled up Clyde’s shirt and pants inside his chaps, and tied the bundle on the back of her saddle. Derek sat on the ground, his lone Smith and Wesson still trained on the dejected shooter. When everything was ready, she came over, helping her protector up onto his own gelding. Tying the reigns of the extra horse to the back of Derek’s saddle, she walked ahead and mounted hers. Shaking one of the canteens, she tossed it on the ground near where their captive stood.

Reigning her mare around, Fallon leveled Clyde’s own six shooter at the frightened man, his hands crisscrossed between his legs, covering his privates. “By rights I should shoot you, but you’re gettin’ off easy this time.” Glancing briefly up the mountain, she smiled back at Clyde, dressed only in his hat, poncho, and boots, adding, “If I were you, I’d high tail it down this valley just as fast as those scrawny legs can move.” Chuckling, she shook her head, “‘Cause unlike me, mister, Apache don’t have a sense of humor.”

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