1. A Storm Gathers

Ominous clouds blotted out the winter sun, and a damp heaviness hung in the air. By the smell of it, rain was coming fast and hard. The town of Arroyo Seco needed it. Just last week, a cat had fallen into a yawning crack in the street’s hardpan, never to be seen again. Most of the wells had gone dry. Even the saguaro looked withered.

Townsfolk stepped out into the main street with eyes turned upward, hope evident on their parched faces as massive thunderheads fermented like a mad scientist’s experiment gone wrong. The parson stood beside the whore, the cowboy by the doctor, all united in one desire: to see water drop from the sky.

The saloon doors burst open, shattering their earnest serenity, and two figures rolled into the dust grappling at each other’s throat. The larger, black-bearded gent pinned his much younger opponent to the ground with ease and smacked a turkey-sized fist across the youth’s face, whipping it side to side. Paralyzed by the blows, the kid groaned as blood spurted from his nose and mouth.

The townsfolk abandoned their sky-gazing to encircle the fight, giving its participants a wide berth. Some in the crowd cringed at the young man’s plight. The cowboy glanced at the doctor, and the whore nudged the parson, who squeezed his eyes shut and prayed.

The bruiser laughed out loud, towering over his opponent. “C’mon boy!” he taunted. “Get up and fight me like a man!” He rammed a boot into the kid’s ribs.

Face blood-spackled, the youth rose onto an elbow and spat into the dust. “I’m no match for you in a fist fight, Mister.”

“Damned right!” he guffawed, turning to the crowd. “He admits it!”

Some chuckled.

“But you’re no match against me in a gunfight.” The kid hadn’t raised his voice.

The bruiser’s fists tightened, crimson knuckles popping. “A gunfight?” He narrowed his gaze. “Against you?”

With a cough, the youth nodded at the old parson. “Pastor Mather, you’ll keep it fair?”

The parson’s eyes shot open, but no words came. He shambled forward a step. “How’s that, Calvin?”

“You’ll dump out the rounds save one. We’ll each have a bullet in the same chamber, but only you’ll know which.” He spat to clear his mouth. “Would you do that, Pastor?”

The parson’s brow furrowed. “Well, I suppose…”

The bruiser chuckled. “Can’t say I’ve ever gone up against a scrawny runt such as yourself, but I’m game for it. Maybe I’ll teach you a thing or two—before I plant some lead in your chest!”

The crowd murmured as Pastor Mather helped the young fellow to his feet. “You know what you’re getting yourself into, Cal? This is Blackbeard Bronson, the fastest draw north of Mexico!”

“I’ve still got a fair shot at beating him,” Calvin said, smearing blood across a sleeve.

“Even if it means losing your life to this wicked man?”

“C’mon, preacher!” Blackbeard hollered, tossing his six-gun into the dust. “Let’s get a move on.”

Locking eyes with him, Pastor Mather stooped to retrieve the weapon and flipped open the cylinder. Clinking cartridges dropped into the palm of his hand. “Twenty paces.” He nodded for Blackbeard to start walking.

Calvin handed over his Colt revolver, and the parson emptied it. Then turning his back on the two combatants, Pastor Mather slipped one cartridge into each gun and rotated the cylinders so that both weapons held their single rounds in corresponding chambers.

“Leave them just as they are,” he warned, tossing each to its owner.

Blackbeard caught his in one hand and holstered it. “How do I know you ain’t given that runt the advantage?”

The parson held his gaze. “Believe it or not, I don’t want either one of you to die. God loves all men, even the most wicked.”

The big man snickered. “You believe in God, boy?”

Calvin cased his weapon. With a glance at the parson, he replied, “Working on it.”

Pastor Mather held up his spindly arms to address the crowd. “Step back, folks. Even the most practiced marksmen can miss a target. I’d hate for any of you to suffer the consequences.”

Murmuring among themselves, the townsfolk cleared the street, leaving the two gunfighters twenty paces apart on the cracked hardpan. The roiling storm clouds above had already kicked up a wind that swirled the dust in eddies, flapping Blackbeard’s coat and Calvin’s sandy-colored locks. Both hovered shooting hands over their holsters, ready to strike like rattlers at a moment’s notice.

“All right now.” The parson’s voice rang out strong and true. “When I give the word, you pull. And may the Good Lord have mercy on your souls.”

Blackbeard sniggered. Calvin licked his lips. The parson glanced from one to the other, then above, as if asking forgiveness.

“Draw!” he shouted.

Blackbeard cleared leather a split-second before Calvin, but both their chambers clicked empty, and the townsfolk rumbled with excitement as the weapons returned to their holsters.

The parson nodded, taking a breath. “Draw!”

Again the hammers clinked on empty chambers. Blackbeard was just that much faster than the kid, but that’s all it would take when the real shooting started.     

The crowd erupted in spontaneous applause, and in one corner bets were hastily laid as tension spread like the pox. Both gunfighters did their best to breathe easy, shooters cased and waiting.

Pastor Mather called “Draw!” at the same moment the sky shook with thunder, and the townsfolk cried out. For that was when the boy drew his gun, slamming back the hammer with his left hand, squeezing the trigger with his right.

The shot exploded like a bomb, and Blackbeard jerked back with a slug in the chest as he went down—but not before pulling his own trigger.

2. Reaping the Whirlwind

Calvin dropped the shooter and clutched his right arm, gritting his teeth as both eyes welled up. A crimson stain blossomed on his sleeve.

Blackbeard lay flat on his back, staring up into rain that pelted the earth with a vengeance. The townsfolk cheered—maybe for the deluge, maybe because Goliath had been slain in their street by an unlikely David, maybe because a few had actually bet on the kid’s victory and won. Regardless, a spontaneous celebration erupted as they danced and hollered and fired off their weapons, splashing and hugging and forgetting entirely the wounded youth who’d sunk to his knees in the mud, staring at the man he’d slain.

“Help me get him to Marguerite’s,” the parson said to the doctor, and they hoisted up a dazed Calvin, slinging his left arm over the doctor’s neck. Unnoticed by anyone but the steely eyed town sheriff seated on his porch, they carried Calvin to the boarding house.

“Boy’s a harbinger,” the sheriff muttered. No one paid him any mind, often uncomfortable with his dark prophecies. “Gonna reap the whirlwind.”

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Calvin awoke with a start the next morning to rain thudding against the windowpane above his headboard. The bed itself was unfamiliar with its clean white linens, but the small room’s flowery scent caused a smile to spread across his lips.


He tried to sit up but fell back with a groan. Reaching across his chest, he dabbed at the fresh wrap on his right arm. It throbbed, but the bleeding had stopped.

A rustle of skirts and quick click of heels came from the next room.

“Ah, you are awake, mon cheri.” Marguerite leaned over him and kissed each of his cheeks. Resting her hands on his bare chest, she gazed into his eyes. “And how are you today, Master Gunfighter?”

“I’m no gunslinger.” He smirked, gesturing at his wound. “Did you do this?”

She shook her head, loose brunette curls bouncing. “The doctor. He and the good parson brought you in—”

Calvin pulled her close for a sudden kiss, right on the lips.

“Oh, Calveen!” She blushed, breaking free. “I am too old for you!”

He grinned, stroking her arm. “Maybe. But what’s a couple years when you’re in love?” She gasped as he tugged her down for another kiss, but she returned the gesture with equal fervor.

Until someone cleared his throat at the door.

“Oh—Pastor Mather!” Marguerite disentangled herself from Calvin and adjusted her attire.

“Morning, Pastor.” Calvin met the parson’s world-weary gaze. There was something troubling the old man, but it didn’t appear to be the pre-marital romancing he’d just witnessed. “Something wrong?”

The parson stood by the foot of the bed, his hat in his large hands. Swallowing, he said, “Blackbeard Bronson’s brood of belligerent bandits are on their way here to blow you to bits.”

Sacré bleu!” Marguerite covered her mouth. “They will kill Calveen?”

The parson gave a slow nod.

Calvin frowned. “It was a fair fight.”

“I’m afraid they won’t care, Cal.” He cleared his throat, glancing at Marguerite as she squeezed the young man’s hand in both of hers, not seeming to notice it was attached to his wounded arm. “But you don’t have to be here when they arrive,” the parson added.

“I’m not running. I didn’t break any laws.”

The parson raised an eyebrow.

“Except for the killing,” Calvin muttered. “But it was a kill or be killed situation, and I don’t reckon the Good Lord would have wanted me to turn the other cheek right then. Do you?”

“I don’t presume to know the mind of God. But this I do know: if you stay here, it won’t be just your life in danger.” He looked at Marguerite.

“Let them come!” She clutched Calvin’s hand harder, and he grimaced. A fine, French vintage of fury kindled in her eyes. “They will kill Calveen over my dead body!”

The parson’s shoulders slumped. “That may be.” He shuffled his feet, preparing to leave. “Rest up, Cal. They’ll probably ride into town after nightfall. You’re gonna need your strength.”

“Can’t the sheriff—”

“He won’t interfere, says this is your fight.” He paused. “Sheriff Coggins is the one who told me they were coming.”

“He’s seen them?”

The parson looked altogether uncomfortable. “In his way, yes.”

With that, whatever it meant, the old man took his leave.

“Oh, Calveen!” Marguerite fell upon the youth and wrapped her arms around his neck. “How I wish you had not killed that man.”

He rested his chin against her forehead and ran a hand along her back, traversing the ridges of her tight-laced corset. “Me, too,” he sighed. “But it sure seemed like the right thing at the time.”

3. Siege by Night

Darkness fell like a soggy blanket, and the deluge had yet to let up. No moon, no stars, no lights in Arroyo Seco but the intermittent lanterns mounted along porches of the town’s finest establishments. A cold wind flickered their flames behind rain-spotted glass.

Calvin sat up in bed, dressed with his six-gun on his lap in a loose grip. The lamp in his room was out, and he waited in the dark. The parson hadn’t said how many of Blackbeard’s men were on the way, but even three against one was a fight Calvin hadn’t dealt with before. He tried not to think about how easy it would be to run. Not that he could leave Marguerite here; without a doubt, they would use her against him.

A sudden noise echoed out in the front room—the crack of a rifle bolt.

Heart galloping, Calvin rose, careful not to let the bedsprings squeak. Gun raised, he approached the door in his stocking feet, listening as steps just as soft padded across the floor outside. He leaned against the doorframe and thumbed the hammer of his shooter. Then he stepped out.

“Calveen!” Marguerite hissed at the sight of him with his weapon at the ready. “Don’t point that at me!”

He holstered it and grabbed her arm. “What are you doing?”

“I said ‘over my dead body’ and I meant it!”

Even in the dark, the fire in her eyes was clear to see. “I don’t need your help.”

“You are just a boy—”

“I am not. I’m almost fifteen—”

“To me you are still a boy.”

He drew her close, holding her rifle at arm’s length, though she did not relinquish her grip. He kissed her, long and hard. “Could a boy do that?”

“Not in my experience.” She kissed him back.

Hoof beats sloshed outside.

“You want to help? Cover me.” He pointed to the staircase.

She scurried upstairs and blew him a kiss, rifle at the ready.

Low voices rumbled outside as Bronson’s men dropped into the mud and trudged toward the porch. They weren’t making their arrival any secret. Calvin couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like there were at least a half-dozen of them.

He bent low and crept beneath the front window. In a lightning flash, he caught sight of two men approaching, one with a shotgun, the other with his six-gun in hand. Calvin eased back the hammer on his Colt and waited, pulse throbbing in his ears.

“You in there, kid?” shouted a gravel-throated hombre who remained mounted on an antsy horse shuffling in the mud. “C’mon out. We just want to talk.”

Like hell they did. Calvin sank to the floor in a squat, glancing from the window to the door.

“We heard you got Blackbeard with one shot, dead center.” The mounted man whistled as the other two continued to advance. Were there only three of them? “That’s some good shooting, son. How ‘bout you come show us what you’ve got.”

Glass shattered upstairs and a rifle shot exploded. Marguerite cried out. Calvin leapt to his feet, sprinting for the stairs just as the window smashed inward and the front door caved in with two men firing their weapons at the dark interior. The wall in front of Calvin splintered with their shots, and he whirled to return fire, slapping back the hammer with his left hand, squeezing the trigger with his weakened right. The man at the window left the same way he’d entered, releasing a shriek as he pitched over backwards. The one by the door ducked behind an armchair and fired blindly. Calvin leapt three steps up the stairway and returned fire, his rounds punching through the chair. The man slumped to the floor and lay still.

“Marguerite!” Calvin charged through the open doorway of the first room he came to. Rain blew in the broken window, and she stood over the lifeless body of a rough-looking stranger. The rifle in her hands smoldered at the muzzle.

“He-he tried to—”

“You did good.” He moved to take the rifle, his left arm encircling her.

“No.” That same fierce determination. “I will help you.”

He couldn’t help grinning. She was one spunky lady.

“Not bad, kid,” came the gruff voice outside. “Think you can take us all?”

Calvin slid beside the window. He figured he had two rounds left; time to reload. “That depends, mister. How many of you are there?” Shell casings clinked across the floorboards.

The mounted man chuckled. “We’ve got you surrounded. Why don’t you just give up? You want more murders counted against you?”

Calvin cocked his gun. “You came here to kill me. I’m just protecting myself.”

“Calveen!” Marguerite hissed.

The body on the floor wasn’t as dead as it looked. Sure, there was a nasty puddle of blood and raw meat where a shoulder should have been, but the fellow was still strong enough to have gotten the drop on Marguerite with a pearl-handled derringer.

“Drop it,” he rasped with a cold shudder, like a corpse rising from its grave.


“Do it.” Calvin had his own gun trained on the back of the fellow’s head.

She let her rifle hit the floorboards with a clatter.

“Now get over there with your boyfriend.” The man rose onto his elbow and squirmed to face Marguerite as she joined Calvin. “I got him!” the man roared, throat choking with blood which he spat to the side. “Drop your shooter, kid. It’s over.”

4. A Sheriff’s Foreknowledge

Calvin didn’t move to obey. “You’ve got one shot.”

“Yeah. One’s all I need.”

“I’ve got six.” Calvin held the Colt in a steady hand. “I’d say you’re outnumbered.”

“Bring him out, Fletcher,” called the mounted man outside, “and we’ll be on our way.”

“Fletcher’s indisposed,” Calvin shouted.

“Shut up you,” Fletcher snarled.

“I bet you can’t even get on your feet. It’s taking all your strength just to hold that itty bitty gun.”

“I said shut up!” His elbow slipped in the blood.

But that was all Calvin needed, firing a shot that pierced his wrist just below the derringer’s grip. With a yowl, Fletcher released his weapon and dropped to the floor, writhing and cursing. Calvin retrieved the small but deadly firearm and the rifle as well, holstering his Colt and tucking the derringer into his belt. Cracking the rifle, he went to the shattered window and stood in plain sight, blinking against the wind-driven rain and aiming the muzzle down at the mounted man.

“You’d best ride out of town, mister.” Calvin’s voice was even, aim steady despite his wounded right arm.

“Well-played, kid.” The man gave a shrill whistle, and horses whinnied as their riders returned. Calvin’s best guess: four of them were left. “But we’ll be back.”

They urged their mounts into sloppy gallops, churning up the mud as they rode off.

Calvin took Marguerite by the hand and tugged her out of the room. “Don’t you go anywhere,” he told Fletcher.

“Damn you!” the man gargled.

“Where are we going?” Marguerite struggled to keep up.

“You can’t stay here.” They went downstairs where the broken door hung open and the window lay in shards. Marguerite let out a gasp at the sight. “You’re going to the hotel. I’m going after them.”

“But why?” She pulled him to her and took his face in her hands. “They have fled!”

He held her gaze. “If I don’t, they’ll come after me again—after you.”

“You know I can take care of myself.”

Maybe she could, but that didn’t change the fact Bronson’s gang had broken into Marguerite’s place and threatened her. He’d never let anyone get away with a thing like that again.

“I’ll be back in a day.” He pulled her close and kissed her.

She clung to him. “Be careful.” Her big, dark eyes implored him.

He nodded, breaking free of her embrace and taking her hand. “Let’s go.”

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

After leaving Marguerite at the hotel, Calvin turned up the collar of his oilskin duster and headed down the soggy street to the sheriff’s office. He expected the swarthy man to be dozing in his chair on the porch as was his custom, rain or shine. But the lawman was seated at his desk with the lamp burning bright and a pair of empty jail cells. Sheriff Coggins should have gone home hours ago, but it struck Calvin right off that the lawman seemed to be waiting for him.


“You plan on burying those men you killed?” Coggins eyed the youth before him with a knowing look.

Calvin halted in his tracks, halfway through the open door.

“Shut that. You’re letting the storm in.” Coggins winced at the wind-driven spray.

Calvin obeyed. “Sheriff, I need your help.”

“You need a lawyer. A good one. You’ve been real busy the last twenty-four hours.”

“They came after me, sir—after what I done to their boss—”

“Bronson. Yes, I know, Calvin. I was there.” He yawned, stretching. “What started that fight anyhow?”

Calvin set his jaw, chin raised. “He had the gall to say something I take from nobody.”

“About your ma.”

“Yes, sir.” How did Coggins know that?

The sheriff watched him. “Now, what kind of country do you think this would be if every son of a dead whore followed your example?”

Calvin swallowed and clenched his fists. “His men are outlaws, sir,” he managed.

“They were members of this town. And you shot them down in cold blood.” Coggins rose to his full, formidable height, his gaze clouding briefly. “But you’re thinking about the one you left alive, upstairs in that little Frenchie’s place.”

“How do you—?” Calvin faltered.

Coggins chuckled. “Well, he ain’t breathing no more. Four deaths, that’s what you’re responsible for. And you’ll have the blood of six more on your hands before the next full moon. You’re a killer.”

Calvin backed up a step. “A judge might see things different.”

Coggins nodded, sliding his hand down to the six-gun holstered on his thigh. “But there ain’t no judge in Arroyo Seco, boy.”

Before he knew it or had a moment to weigh the consequences, Calvin had drawn his Colt.

The sheriff’s eyes widened just a bit. “You’re a fast one, I’ll give you that. But now what? You gonna murder a lawman, too?” Coggins raised his hands as if this situation was no surprise to him. “What would your preacher friend think of what you’ve done? Does he have any idea what kind of cold-blooded killer you are?”

Calvin scowled. “It was a fair fight—I was protecting Marguerite—”

“You keep telling yourself that, boy. But hear this: You’ll never see your little Frenchie again. Not after this.” He glanced at the youth’s gun muzzle, aimed at his own protruding gut. “Dare to remain in this town, I’ll have you hanged.”

Then the sheriff’s eyes got this strange, milky look to them, and he murmured, “A snake and a stranger are in your future. Beware them both, for they will mean the end of you.”

Calvin frowned at the bizarre warning and threw open the door, stepping out into the wind-driven rain. Keeping his gun trained on the lawman, he turned away, coat flailing, pausing for only a moment.

“I’ll be back, sir.” Slamming the door, he was gone.

5. Killer or Hero

Calvin dashed through the storm past the edge of town to where the chapel’s steeple, backlit by lightning, pierced the black sky. But he hadn’t come to pray. With a wary glance over his shoulder, he pounded twice on the parsonage door and waited, pulling his collar up against the rain.

A lantern flared to life behind curtains in the front window. Pastor Mather tugged them aside and squinted into the night. “Calvin?”

“Please open up, Pastor.” Calvin entered as soon as the door swung inward. “I don’t have much time.”

“What’s going on? I heard shooting—”

“They came for me—Bronson’s gang. I got two—three—of them, but the rest rode out, and I aim to follow.”


“The sheriff thinks I’m a killer. I was hoping he’d send out a posse to round up those outlaws, but now he’ll probably send one after me instead.” He wiped the rain from his face, remembering to remove his hat and shut the door. “I need your help, Pastor.”

The parson’s eyebrows arched. “I don’t think I’d make you much of a posse, Calvin.”

“I just need a horse, if you can spare it.”

“Of course—” He reached for the lantern.

Calvin added, “There’s no way Coggins could’ve known what he did. It’s like he was at Marguerite’s watching—but what kind of cowardly sheriff wouldn’t step in to help?”

The parson paused. “Sheriff Coggins is no coward. But from what I can tell, he doesn’t follow the teachings of the Good Book. Particularly those that tell us to leave spiritualism alone.” Pastor Mather led the way to the back door and the shed outside where a lone mare stood sheltered from the storm. She whinnied in recognition at his approach.


“I believe he’s made a certain deal with the devil, Calvin. It enables him to see things ahead of time, at the cost of his eternal soul.” The parson sighed heavily. “That’s how he knew you’d killed those men.”

“But I was protecting—”

“Killing is killing. That’s how God sees it, and I’m afraid the law would agree. But I understand the circumstances, you know I do. And if Coggins drags you before a judge, I’ll be there to testify in your defense.” He hesitated.

“What is it, Pastor?”

“You going after that gang.” He shook his head. “I don’t see how it will do more than bring you another heap of trouble.”

Calvin stood beside the horse and patted her neck. She knew him and had no problem with him saddling her up. “If I don’t, they’ll come back. And next time, they could hurt Marguerite.”

“Ride out then, Cal. And never come back.”

“That’s what Coggins told me to do,” the youth muttered.

“If it’s her safety you’re after and not vengeance, then that’s the path you’ll take. But if your desire is to kill those men…” He shook his head again. “There’s a line between being a hero and a killer, son. As long as you look to Him, God will be with you.”

Calvin climbed into the saddle. “Thanks Pastor. I never claimed to be a hero. But I’ll be damned before I become the killer Coggins thinks I am.”

Tipping his hat, he rode out of the yard and into the pouring rain, the mare’s hooves clumping through the muck as she galloped out of town.

6. A Stranger Foretold

Dawn broke, and with it came a respite from the severe cloudbursts. A cold mist clung to the ground, and besides the steady clumping of Calvin’s mount, everything was still. The calm before another storm—Calvin could feel it in his bones.

At first he’d thought it would be impossible to follow the outlaws’ tracks, that the rain would have washed them out. But the hoof prints left in the mud were so distinct, he’d been able to pick his way along the trail throughout the night.

Finally, in the early light, he caught sight of a paint horse tied to a thicket of scrub brush half a mile in the distance. A man’s body lay under the dense branches. Injured or dead? It was too soon to tell.

Calvin’s first thought was it had to be a member of Bronson’s gang left behind to keep watch. His right hand slid to his Colt as he tapped the horse’s flanks with his boot heels, urging her forward.

Approaching the campsite, he slowed to a trot. The sleeping man didn’t look like one of Bronson’s gang. For one thing, he was too old, and for another, criminals had a way of sleeping with one eye open. This balding, stoop-shouldered fellow was sawing logs.

As Calvin dismounted, he kept an eye on the man who didn’t appear to expect any trouble. But trouble has a way of finding just about anybody. Calvin knew it firsthand. And this fellow was about to have himself a review lesson.

The rattler was the longest, fattest of its kind Calvin had ever seen, and it had slithered up alongside the sleeping man’s torso, coiling with glistening eyes focused on his bare neck. The creature didn’t seem to notice Calvin, who drew his shooting iron in a flash and fired.

The snake’s skull exploded, and the rest of the thing twitched in spasms. At the gunshot, the sleeping fellow had yelped and jumped to his feet, dancing and shouting like a native.

“What the heck’re you doin’, kid? Tryin’ to kill a man in his sleep? That ain’t very Christian! Gonna steal what meager possessions I’ve got, eh? Well? Speak up, you fool!”

Holstering his six-gun, Calvin nodded at the snake’s decapitated remains, just inches from the man’s bedroll.

Eyes like dinner plates, the old fellow’s mouth dropped wide open and his false teeth fell out. “Whoah…” He grabbed his teeth and slapped them back into place. Unable to remove his gaze from the dead snake, he stood next to Calvin and reached to give the taller youth a pat on the back. “Reckon I owe you my life, son.”

“The name’s Calvin, Mister.” He stuck out his hand.

He grasped the youth’s hand in a firm grip. “Call me Big Yap.”

“Big Yap?”

“Well, yeah, that’s what my friends used to call me. Except they’re all dead now. I always used to jaw so much and stick my boot in my mouth—just a cliché, by the way—that’s how I earned the moniker, and it’s stuck with me ever since. You’ve saved me from certain death, and I’d say that qualifies you to be my friend, and as such, you go ahead and call me Big Yap. And since I owe you my life, there won’t be no shakin’ me until my debt is paid. How old are you anyway?” His bushy grey eyebrows arched upward.

Calvin stood to his fullest height. “Uh—nineteen.”

Big Yap looked like he was going to chuckle at that, but he did a good job of masking his grin. “Well, then, in that case, I’d say—”

“You think I’m just a kid.”

“No, sir, no I don’t. Anybody else your age—whether it’s nineteen or fifteen—might be a kid. But you, I’d say you’re a man. Yessir.” He gave a short nod. “I can see it in your eyes, son. You’ve lived your share of what life’s handed you, and it ain’t been easy. Would I be right in guessin’ you’re on your own now?” He backed away and held up one hand. “Tell me to step off if it’s none of my business, which it ain’t in all truth, as I know full well.”

Calvin glanced into the distance where there remained no sign of his quarry. “My ma, she died when I was young. Never knew my pa.”

Big Yap nodded and cleared his throat. “So where are you headed? To a girl? Away from one?” He jabbed Calvin in the ribs with a wink. “Eh?”

Calvin remained grim. “I’m on the trail of some men who want me dead.”

Big Yap blinked at that, features slack. “Ain’t it usually the other way around? I mean, shouldn’t they be following you?”

Calvin looked back toward Arroyo Seco. “They came after me, and I got a few of them. The rest lit out, heading this way.” He narrowed his gaze at Big Yap. “You hear anybody last night?”

“With all that rain—and the way I snore?” He chuckled, then grew serious. “Not meaning to pry, of course, but you mind tellin’ me why they want to kill you?”

“I beat their boss in a gunfight.”

The bushy eyebrows lifted again. “You some kind of gunslinger?”

The youth shook his head. “It was a fair fight, but the sheriff thinks I murdered the man in cold blood. And I can’t go back without the threat of a lynching.” Again he looked south. “Wouldn’t be surprised to see a posse coming after me.”

Big Yap sucked on his teeth, nodding pensively. “So what you’re saying is you’ve got men ahead of you who want to kill you, and men behind you who want to do the same.”

Calvin nodded. It was an astute summation of his predicament.

Big Yap nodded. Then he grinned. “Looks like you could use a sidekick!”

7. Trailing the Gang

Heading north on the trail out of Arroyo Seco, Calvin and Big Yap rode abreast, their galloping steeds kicking up loose clumps of mud. The youth glanced at his new companion and marveled at how quickly they had bonded. He couldn’t help wondering if something greater than fate had brought them together, and why the sheriff with his fantastic foresight had said such a stranger would mean him harm.

No matter, he was thankful for the older man’s presence, that he was willing to risk his life to come to Calvin’s aid. Big Yap wore a sawed-off shotgun in a scabbard slung across his back and said he was pretty good with it. That remained to be seen, but by the looks of the weapon, it had been in plenty of action.

“You never did answer my question,” Big Yap shouted over the spluttering hoof beats.

“How’s that?”

“Got a girl back in that town of yours?”

Calvin almost smiled. “Prettier than you could imagine.”

Big Yap chuckled, bouncing in his saddle. “I don’t know about that. I’ve got a good imagination!”

They both laughed.

“You love her?”

Calvin set his gaze ahead, remembering what Sheriff Coggins had said—that Calvin would never see Marguerite again. “Yes. I do.”

Big Yap nodded. “I reckon the sheriff don’t need to know if you was to return to town under cover of nightfall and get her out. After we’re through with this here mission, of course.”

Calvin shook his head. “I won’t be sneaking back. I’ll meet Coggins face to face.”

Big Yap frowned. “Sheriff Coggins, eh?” He cleared his throat. “Ain’t he some kind of weird spiritualist?”

“That’s what I’ve heard.” He turned in the saddle to face his new sidekick. “He predicted my future. Said I was a killer, that I’d have the blood of ten men on my hands.”

“Sounds like a real chipper fella.” The older man cleared his throat. “Well, you know what they say about fate.”

Calvin nodded resolutely. “A man makes his own.”

He drew rein, and Big Yap did likewise. The muddy trail forked in two directions, one to the northeast, the other to the northwest.

“They split up.” Calvin gazed out across the barren terrain to where foothills loomed twenty miles in the distance. He glanced at the other trail. “Green Valley is a couple days ride that way.”

“Take a closer look, son.”

With a curious frown, Calvin dismounted to inspect the tracks. Those that led toward the town of Green Valley were shallower than the ones leading to the hills.

“Riding double,” he muttered, returning to his saddle.

Big Yap nodded. “It’s an old trick, but it’s thrown off plenty of trackers, let me tell you. They divide their pursuers, half getting the wild goose chase while the other’s treated to an ambush.”

“There will be no ambush,” Calvin said, kicking his mare into a gallop.

“What? You seeing the future now?”

They headed northwest.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Meanwhile, back in Arroyo Seco, Sheriff Coggins addressed the men of the town from the front stoop of his office where he stood head and shoulders above the tallest of them. Most had a clue why they’d been summoned: it had all the earmarks of a posse roundup.

Coggins cleared his throat once he had the men’s attention. “Reckon you know what this is about. Last night, Calvin—we all know the boy—” The crowd nodded, murmuring. “Calvin pulled on me, just as quick as he did on Blackbeard Bronson yesterday.” Gasps ran through the throng. “And this was after he shot down three men in cold blood over at the Frenchie’s boarding house.”

“They were members of Bronson’s gang!” The parson raised a hand at the edge of the crowd, and all eyes turned to him. “They were seeking vengeance.”

Coggins narrowed his eyes. “I don’t blame them, Pastor. I’m not all that convinced the gunfight was fair. Wasn’t it the boy’s idea—when it was clear he couldn’t stand up to Bronson with his fists?” The crowd murmured, nodding again. “You deny that, Pastor?”

The parson licked his lips. “Bronson would have beat him to death otherwise.”

“We don’t know that. And we never will. Because Calvin shot him dead.”

Pastor Mather clenched fists down at his sides.

The sheriff turned away from him as if the old man was no longer relevant. “I don’t want that boy back in this town, and it’s up to you all to keep him out while I’m away.”

They looked dumbfounded.

“Uh,” one of the men in the front row spoke up. “Aren’t you going to pick us for your posse?”

“Already got me a posse, and we’re heading out immediately. If that boy somehow manages to double back on us, you keep him out! Anyone caught aiding and abetting him will find himself in my jail!”

“What about Marguerite?” asked Smythe, the hotel owner.

“Lock her in her room, and don’t let anybody in there.” Coggins’ gaze swept over the crowd, his eyes holding a faraway look that most of the men found a little disconcerting. “The boy’s determined to bring bad luck on us all, but I won’t allow it. He may be a harbinger of doom, but it won’t befall my town. Not on my watch.”

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

“Whoah,” Calvin slowed his mount.

“What is it?”

Calvin glanced at Big Yap. “The tracks veer due south.”

“Back to Arroyo Seco?”

It made no sense. Why would they return? He’d assumed all along they were leading him out into the wilderness for some kind of final reckoning. But now it appeared the end of this story was about to take place back at the beginning.

Calvin turned his horse around and kicked her into a gallop without a word. With a shrug, Big Yap followed.

8. The Sheriff’s Posse

Five rough-looking characters were waiting in the sheriff’s office when he returned. Lounging around his oak desk, they greeted him with silent nods as he locked the door and collapsed into his chair. Glancing at the body of his deputy—lying on the floor with a knife buried hilt-deep in his back—he cursed.

“Why’d you go and do that?”

One of the men chuckled, sounding like he had gravel deep in his throat. “He didn’t like our looks.” He shrugged thick shoulders. “We didn’t like his.” The other men guffawed.

Sheriff Coggins glowered with disdain.

“Did we offend you?” sneered the ruffian.

“I had my arrangement with your boss, Graves. Not you.” He shook his head with a low curse. “But here we are.” He reached into the desk and fished out five badges.

“Looks like we made the posse, boys.” They chuckled.

“Consider yourselves deputized.” Coggins tossed them each a shiny tin star. “You lead me where Blackbeard buried that box, and everybody gets a share. Then we part company. Understood?”

Graves smirked. “Honestly, I don’t see a reason to bring you along, Sheriff.” He tossed the badge back. The other men looked confused, fingering their stars but not pinning them to their vests just yet.

Coggin’s gaze went ice cold. “Bronson liked what I brought to the table.”

“Yeah? And what’s that, exactly?” Graves leaned over the seated sheriff with one hand on the butt of his six-gun.

“I knew when he was going to die.”

A peculiar silence settled on the men. There was something strange in the sheriff’s tone they knew better than to question.

“Look how that worked out for him,” Graves sneered.

“I never told Bronson. But I’ll tell you—if you take me along.”

Graves searched the sheriff’s eyes and glanced back at the other outlaws. “You want a share, maybe you’ll have to fight for it.”

Half a smile tugged at the corner of Coggins’ mouth. “Maybe I’ll have some help.”

The other men looked bewildered.

“You got some other posse?”

Coggins appeared completely at ease. “I mean a certain boy who chased you out of town. One with a draw faster than a bolt of lightning.”

Graves frowned. “Didn’t you just tell your God-fearing townsfolk you were going after that kid for murder?”

Coggins rose to his feet, staring down the ruffian and backing him up a step. “Wouldn’t you like to know how you’re gonna die?”

Graves paled.

“You do what I say, and we all get what we want.” Coggins adjusted his gun belt, hands hovering over his two shooters. “Or we could just see how fast you are.”

The outlaws glanced from the lawman to their new leader and back. For his part, Graves stood his ground. But after a moment or two of glaring into Coggins’ uncanny eyes, his hand drifted away from his holster, and he tried to clear his throat.

“We take our share of the gold, and we get to kill the kid. That’s the deal.”

The sheriff smiled broadly. “Fair enough.”

A thunderclap ripped through the darkening sky above Arroyo Seco. Another storm was on the way.

9. An Unexpected Visitor

This time the rain came colder, the wind fiercer, with explosions in the sky that rumbled as streaks of lightning ripped across the black expanse.

Cowering beneath the deluge, Marguerite urged her filly northward along the trail out of town, kicking her mount’s flanks with boots she’d borrowed from the hotel owner’s wife. The sheriff had ordered Mr. Smythe to lock her in her room, but Mrs. Smythe had received no such command. Once her husband had fallen asleep, she’d aided Marguerite in her escape to warn Calvin that a peculiar posse was after him. But the horse wouldn’t go faster than a swift trot now with the storm, and she had no idea if she had lost her way.

Shivering, teeth chattering, she pulled her coat collar up and tugged down her borrowed hat as ice water trickled down her neck, turning her skin to gooseflesh. She had to find Calvin before it was too late. There was no turning back.

“Hold it right there, mister!” came a sharp cry.

Startled, Marguerite halted her mount. A man stepped forward holding a shotgun and seized her filly’s reins.

“Cal!” he hollered over his shoulder. “Got us a visitor!”

A soggy shadow emerged behind the gunman.

“Calveen?” Marguerite could scarcely believe her eyes.

“Marguerite?” He ran to her side and reached for her.

“Oh, Calveen!” She dismounted into his arms.

“Reckon you were right,” said the other man with a sharp whistle. “She’s a real beaut!”

Calvin led her into the cave where they’d taken shelter, and his older friend tethered her horse beside their two mounts. Shaking the rain from his duster, he joined them momentarily.

“Calveen, who is this?” She eyed the grizzled fellow.

Calvin’s strong hand remained in hers. He gave it a squeeze and grinned. “Marguerite, meet Big Yap. He’s—”

“I’m his sidekick!” The older fellow beamed and stuck out a hand, which she took warily. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. You know, Cal’s been talking a lot about you, said you were the most beautiful creature this side of the Mississippi—those weren’t his exact words, mind you; I’m elaborating a bit. But boy oh boy, he wasn’t exaggerating. Look at you. You’re a peach!”

She blinked at that. “Thank you?”

“Come warm yourself. You’re chattering like a woodpecker.” Calvin pulled her close and they knelt beside their campfire inside the cave’s mouth. Marguerite held out both hands and rubbed them together, closing her eyes for a moment to feel the heat on her face as it thawed.

“Not that it ain’t nice to finally meet you and all,” Big Yap continued, “but you mind telling us what the heck you’re doing out here? It ain’t exactly the best weather for riding.”

Marguerite nodded, her expression somber as she faced Calvin. “I had to warn you. Those men—”

“We know.” He touched her cheek. “They’re back in town.”

“I saw them ride into town, yes, but they went straight to the sheriff’s office. This I saw with my own eyes from the hotel.” She paused. “Sheriff Coggins…he knows those men. They are in cahoots!”

10. Through the Storm

Lightning struck a massive elm, splitting it down the middle with a plume of smoke. Branches creaked and crashed across the trail.

“This is suicide!” one of Coggins’ deputies shouted as his horse reared.

“Shut up!” The sheriff led the way around the fallen tree and dug his spurs into the flanks of his mount without mercy, cussing the animal. Frightened, it would go no faster than a trot through the mud.

“We should’ve waited it out!” yelled Graves. “You trying to kill us?”

“You won’t die out here. Trust me. Now lead on!”

Another bolt of lightning tore through the sky, illuminating the landscape before them for a split-second.

“Look, a cave,” said one of the more observant deputies. “We could dry off a bit.”

“Very well.” The sheriff’s eyes clouded, but the other men didn’t seem to notice. “Yes,” he murmured, gazing into their future, “very well.”

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Big Yap sighed, seeing the look in Marguerite’s eyes and the way she clung to Calvin’s arm. Somebody had to keep watch, and he’d been hoping to catch some shuteye. But he knew better than to separate these two, not after their reunion being as adorable as it was. Alas, he was a softy.

“I’ll take first watch.” He slipped his shotgun from its scabbard and shook a finger at them both. “But I’m right here, so no hanky panky.”

“Hanky—?” Marguerite wondered.

Calvin grinned. “Thanks, Yap.” He fell onto his bedroll and beckoned for Marguerite to join him.

At first she was demure about it, looking as if she might decline.

“You can take mine,” Big Yap said, “but I’m afraid it might smell none too sweet.”

“No, thank you.” Wrestling her skirts, she knelt beside Calvin and managed to lie under his arm. He kissed her on the forehead and pulled her close. She shut her eyes as though she’d found the safest place on earth.

Big Yap smiled at the sight. Calvin was quite a kid, and his breed was scarce these days. As the storm raged outside, Big Yap settled in to wait it out, shotgun at the ready, eyes trained on the black beyond their fire.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Halfway through the night, Marguerite awoke with a start. Outside, the rain had let up, and in place of the downpour came the sound of spluttering hoof beats.

“Is it—?”

“It’s them.” Calvin nodded, already awake.

She kissed his cheek, laying the palm of her hand against his chest. “Are you afraid?”

They both could feel his heart racing. “Maybe a little.”

Big Yap shuffled toward them, the fire cold. “Posse’s here,” he whispered, his voice echoing against the earthen walls. “Five ugly hombres with badges, and the sheriff in the lead.”

“How did they know where to find us?” Marguerite clapped a hand over her mouth. “They followed my tracks,” she gasped.

Calvin took her by the shoulders. “Don’t go blaming yourself. It’s me they want.”

Marguerite pulled him into a kiss. “End this.” She dropped back from him. “And do not forget: I’m here to help.”

He recalled her hand at the rifle; this woman knew how to use a gun. “Yap, you got a shooter?”

He glanced at Calvin’s holster. “One ain’t good enough for you?”

“For the lady.”

Big Yap’s jaw dropped open a bit, but no words came. He blinked. Then he nodded toward his bedroll and loaded six-gun.

11. The Final Showdown

Six soggy and bedraggled riders approached the cave.

“Ain’t never been this wet in all my life,” grumbled Graves.

“Quit your complaining.” Then the sheriff’s eyes clouded, and he ducked alongside his saddle. “Take cover!”

A shot whizzed over Coggins’ mount. His deputies leapt from their saddles and scrambled through the mud like greased pigs searching for shelter.

“Who goes there?” the sheriff called out, slipping down from his horse and crouching behind an outcrop of rock.

“Why don’t you tell me?” came the clear voice of a kid too full of himself for his own good.

Coggins nodded. “We’ve got you outnumbered, Calvin. You’d best come on out.”

“Did you know he was here?” Graves demanded.

“I’m not alone, Sheriff,” the boy shouted. “You might want to think twice before sending in your deputies.” He paused. “I’ve got to question your judgment in forming that posse, sir. Bronson’s men aren’t known for being the best shots.”

Graves growled deep in his chest and jumped to his feet—only to drop back into the mud with his hat shot clean off his head. “They’ve got us pinned down!”

“You’re through, Sheriff.” The kid wouldn’t shut up. “You might as well toss out your gun.”

“You think you’re going to kill me?” Coggins laughed out loud. “That’s not how this ends, boy. I’ve seen it. And there’s nothing you can do to change your fate.”

“I’ve already taken four men’s lives, as you well know. I don’t plan on taking any more.”

“Well then,” Graves grunted, jumping to his feet with his shooter at the ready, palming back the hammer as he pulled the trigger.

Coggins looked away. He’d already foreseen this man’s head explode with a load of buckshot. He didn’t have to watch it happen again.

But it didn’t.

Instead, the buckshot plowed into rock, sending grit upward into the ruffian’s eyes. With an oath, he ducked, cursing and rubbing at his sockets, shooting iron discarded into the mud.

“Down to four deputies, Sheriff,” the kid called. “Sure you want to keep this up?”

Coggins scowled at Graves. This was not how things played out, not at all what he’d foreseen. Glaring at two deputies who made the mistake of looking his way, he gestured for them to go flank the cave. They looked at each other, then back at him, shaking their heads. He pulled both his shooters, aiming one at each of them.

“Get a move on,” he commanded, and they obeyed, cursing under their breath. Then, to Calvin: “You’re a killer, boy. Nothing’s going to change that.”

“Sheriff, you’re conspiring with members of Bronson’s gang. They’re responsible for killing eighteen men, two of them on that stage they robbed last month carrying a strongbox of Confederate gold.” The kid paused. “Don’t tell me that’s what this is all about.” He sounded disappointed.

“You think you’re real smart,” Coggins shouted. “Yet you have no idea when you’re going to die. Wouldn’t you like to know? You could live your whole life without fearing death up until that fateful day, knowing nothing would ever be able to end you. Think it over, son. Give yourself up, and I’ll let you in on something any man on God’s green earth would die to find out!”

The boy answered with two shots. Groans erupted as the men Coggins had sent dropped into the mud.

“You’re digging your own grave, son!”

“They’re not dead,” the boy returned. “But they won’t be pulling anything with those hands for a while.”

Coggins licked his lips, glancing at the near-blind ruffian beside him who hadn’t stopped scrubbing his eyes. Curled up in the brush, the remaining pair of outlaws avoided his gaze. The cowards.

“I’m faster than you, Sheriff.” It was a statement of fact. The kid had already proven it in Coggins’ office.

“Keep sending your men at us, and we’ll keep wingin’ ‘em!” hollered a stranger’s voice the sheriff didn’t recognize. “Cuz if I done my arithmetics right, you only got two more besides yourself in fighting condition. And that makes us just about even now!”

Coggins raised an eyebrow. “Who else do you have with you, Calvin?” He’d seen one stranger in his vision, but his sight of the boy’s other companion remained obscure.

“None of your beeswax!” the stranger returned.

“Your move, Sheriff,” Calvin said. “I had planned to round up Bronson’s gang and bring them to you, but seeing how you’re in cahoots with them, I’ll just have to ride for the marshal in Galveston. I’m sure he’ll be mighty interested in your activities and associations.”

Coggins laughed at the boy’s threat. “There will be no marshal, and there will be no chance for you to play the hero. You’re going to die at my hand, Calvin. I’ve already seen it happen.”

With that, the sheriff stood, eyes clouded white, six-shooter in each hand. The cowering Bronson gang watched in awe as he stepped into the open and fired both guns, ducking and sidestepping every shot that came his way as if he were able to slow down time to see each round. Taking heart at his courage, the two uninjured outlaws crawled out from the underbrush and took aim.

But after two gunshots, both of them went to the ground moaning and writhing with bloody shooting hands.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Calvin ducked inside the cave to reload. Bronson’s gang were no longer a factor; he’d managed to disarm four of them, and Yap had blinded the fifth. Now only the sheriff remained, and he was a major force to be reckoned with, seemingly impervious to bullets as every shot missed him by a wide margin. Coggins’ rounds, however, drove them deeper into the cave.

“Black magic!” Big Yap hollered, cringing as rock nearby shattered with the lawman’s advancing fire. “We can’t touch him!”

“Calveen?” Marguerite knelt with Yap’s gun clutched in trembling hands. “You are retreating?”

Calvin caught his breath, leaning against the cave wall as he slipped fresh cartridges into his Colt. There was no telling how far back this cave went, and he hated the idea of being trapped in here, shot down like fish in a barrel.

“I am the harbinger of your death, boy!” the sheriff boomed as he approached the mouth of the cave. He too paused to reload. “Look upon me as you would the very gates of hell!”

“He’s got a real way with words,” said Yap. “You see his eyes?”

Calvin nodded. “Pastor Mather said Coggins made some kind of deal with the devil.”

“Based on what we’re seeing, I’m apt to believe it.”

“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Marguerite said with sudden inspiration. “Does he?”

“I won’t let him—”

“No, Calveen, you do not understand.” She rose to join him. “If he does not know, then he cannot see.”

12. Saving the Day

Coggins could feel the power flowing through him. Knowing the future definitely had its benefits. For example, he knew for a fact he would not die in this encounter. There was perhaps a third party he could not quite see for reasons that eluded him, but he had no reason to believe that foggy specter would cause him any harm.

Calvin and his friends would meet their end, sealed in their own tomb. Graves and the outlaw posse would lead the way to the gold, and there Coggins would gun down what remained of Bronson’s gang, making it look like there had been a falling out among them.

Sheriff Coggins would return to Arroyo Seco as the richest man in town. After that? He’d foreseen quite a few possibilities he fancied, one of which included becoming mayor and smoking a fat cigar every day. He liked that one a lot.

Both shooters reloaded, he entered the cave, firing nonstop, unable to see anything in the darkness but the future: Calvin, already wounded, going down with fresh crimson blooming across his chest, the old stranger dropping with half a face—

“You.” Coggins’ eyes cleared in surprise as his guns clicked empty. “What are you doing here? I told Smythe to lock you up!”

The Frenchie held a six-gun level with his throat.

Mrs. Smythe was given no such order, Mr. Coggins.” There was fire in her eyes. He’d never seen a woman so fierce. “Drop your weapons and step outside. Calveen will not die today.”

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Riding through the downpour, Calvin, Big Yap, and Marguerite led Sheriff Coggins, Graves, and the other outlaws on foot, bound by knotted lengths of rope, their horses trailing behind. Coggins had been adamant Calvin would never set foot in Arroyo Seco again; the men of the town had been tasked with fortifying it against his return. But when they trotted in, they found no garrison to turn them back. In fact, very few lights were on in any of the clapboard establishments along the vacant main street.

Cursing under his breath, Coggins entered one of his own jail cells with his five companions. Calvin swung the steel door shut behind them and locked it, holding onto the ring of keys.

“Well, now,” Big Yap sighed, kicking back in the sheriff’s chair and propping his muddy boots on the desk. “I’d say this is a mighty fine turn of events. For one thing, we’re out of that infernal rain, but more importantly, we’re alive. And we’ve got these outlaws right where they belong.”

“You just wait till morning,” Coggins snarled. “My town won’t stand for this.” He spat, and the spittle clung to the bars. “A kid holding the town sheriff in his own jail?” He laughed out loud. “They’ll break me right out!”

Calvin raised an eyebrow. “What about your friends?” He nodded to Coggins’ cellmates nursing their wounds.

“They’ll hang!” the sheriff bellowed.

Big Yap whistled. “Oh no, you didn’t.” He chuckled, lacing his fingers behind his head and watching as the outlaws encircled the sheriff.

“Your constituents might break you out, but we might have something to say about a lynching. You see, there’s a certain strongbox and a certain deal a certain lawman had with our boss.” Graves chuckled, gravel clogging his throat. “So what’s the future hold now, Sheriff?”

The cell erupted with shouts as Coggins tried to intimidate the men with his foresight; only thing was, they weren’t having any of it.

Marguerite took Calvin by the hand and led him to a dark corner of the office where she kissed him. “My very brave Calveen.”

He pulled her close, savoring the curves of her body. A broad smile broke across his lips as he gazed into her eyes, so dark and warm. “You’re the brave one, Marguerite.” He shook his head in admiration. “Facing down Coggins like that.”

Her slight shoulders lifted. “I could not let him hurt you. He may think he sees the future, but I have a better view than he.” She took Calvin’s face in her hands and gazed into his eyes. “Every hero is a boy, once upon a time.”

“I’m almost fifteen,” he countered. “When will I be more than a boy to you?”

Big Yap cleared his throat. Apparently there was nothing wrong with his hearing, even across the room. “You’re missing the point, son. The lady said you’re gonna be a hero. I for one plan to stick with you until that day comes. Heck, maybe even afterwards.”

Calvin half-turned to face his new friend. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Yap.” Then to Marguerite, as he touched her chin: “A hero, huh?”

She smiled, blinking feathery lashes. She glanced at the jail and the verbal battle raging. “I think we could use one in this town. And not only us—the West. Look at what you did here.”

“I didn’t do it alone. I couldn’t have.” He held her close. “You made this happen.”

A warm smile spread across her lips. “This modesty is why you will make us a great hero someday.”

He couldn’t help remembering what Pastor Mather had said: “There’s a line between being a killer and a hero, son.”

Yes, he’d killed Blackbeard and three of his outlaws in self-defense, but that was the end of it. There would be no more killing unless the situation absolutely demanded it.

He wouldn’t live up to the future Sheriff Coggins had foretold. He wouldn’t be known as a gunslinger. He’d change his destiny and be known as something else.

Maybe even a hero.

# # #

Harbinger of Arroyo Seco by Milo James Fowler
originally published in the Spring 2013 print edition


Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, writer by night. Visit him anytime at www.milo-inmediasres.com.

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