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Cactus Valley

“That you, Mister Llano?” The voice bellowed over me, familiar and right welcoming.

I don’t know how long I was out, but it was daylight and the sun was beating down on my curled up frame, covered with mud and silt from the wash that had shrunk to little more than a creek.

Billy Nevil swung down off the bay and slipped over the bank to where I lay, lookin’ feeble and helpless. “Thought you was cut down by Injuns after taking out on your own a couple days back. Folks in the train figured you’d done left us, Mister Llano.”

I stumbled to my feet and braced myself against a twisted greasewood, wiping off the sand and mud. “Someone took a shot at me. Burned me across the scalp. Lost my horse.”

Billy smiled. “We found him. He come back our way ‘bout the time our wagon busted a wheel.”

I took up my hat and beat it on a rock. “Reckon everybody’s yonder, waitin’ on me.”

He looked at me kinda serious. “Nope.” Billy was shaking his head. “Train done went on without us.”


“Yup. Folks got sceer’d of being washed out or trapped during the rain, and hightailed it.”

Your ma okay?”

Billy nodded. “She’s a fixin’ grub over yonder. Reckon she’ll be relieved, on account of us needing some help with that busted wheel.”

Billy rode back while I washed up in the creek, for the water ran clear now. The scar on my head had already scabbed over. The creek water tasted cool and sweet.

When I walked into their camp Billy’s ma come out from behind the wagon fussin’ over me. “We thought you was lost or shot up.”

I nodded to her. “Reckon you is right, on account I was lost for a spell, and someone did take a shot at me.” Sitting on a boulder near the fire I drank from the cup Billy’s mother handed me. “Yuh see, a feller can git hisself in some trouble out here, just like I did. Better to stay close, like your ma says, Billy.”

“We got your horse, Llano. He come right back where we was camped during that storm. I got him ground hitched round back of the wagon.”

“I appreciate that, young feller. E’vry man needs a friend like you around.”

We broke camp after repairing the broken wheel and found our way back to the main trail. Wispy clouds hung lazily as we plodded westward. I rode back a ways so I could take in the country and watch our back trail. The scab under my hat kept me thinkin’ about that unknown gunman. Just the three of us were alone out here now, and if someone was lookin’ to make trouble I’d have to be ready for it.

Late afternoon I was riding back a ways when we come up over a high ridge. Billy was sitting with his legs dangling over the back of the wagon, looking through his glass scope across the brush flats below. His ma was at the reins.

Before I knew it, one of their mules suddenly rears up and jerks the wagon off the trail and down the steep hillside, leading the team with it. So I put spurs to my horse and raced to catch up, only to see the wagon take a final bounce and slam into an outcrop of boulders. In good fortune, Billy had tumbled off the back of the wagon before it had gone far.

He was on his feet in a dead run behind me, down the slope to the bottom of the ravine. Fearing the worst, I caught up Billy when I seen his ma lying twisted amongst the boulders. There was nothing we could do. Her final plea was to rear the boy up right.

His screaming eventually melted into sobs, and by sundown he struggled to occupy himself with the chores of gathering wood for a fire and setting up camp. I dug the grave and we honed out a crucifix and come up with a prayer to recite over Mrs. Nevil.

Later that evening I did what could be done to repair the wagon’s fractured axle. We took out north under the stars toward the mountains poking up across the far plains. The desert was behind us and our direction angled slightly east instead of toward the coast.

I’d seen nobody in that wagon train who cared enough to take in Billy. Most were tending to their young or lookin’ to strike it big in gold country. Spots in California had played out, but occasional word got around of a silver strike or a gold vein that spurred folks to a frenzied migration.

Me, I didn’t set store to mining. It was a life for some I’d met back in Arizona country. Maybe it was ranchin’ I’d someday settled down to. First I had dreams of sailin’ on the great sea. Suddenly that notion was growing dimmer.

Billy handled the reins behind four good oxen. The wagon carried an ample supply of grub and what other possessions that hadn’t been smashed against the rocks.

“Keep a good eye out for rattlers,” I told him. “I suspect that’s what frightened the animals while going over that ridge. Them snakes sun themselves on high points, and I should’ve thought of that.”

I rode within view of Billy, watching for water and places to camp while he kept the wagon aimed at the mountains. Three days passed with no sign of human life in any direction.

We come up over a ridge and paused near a stand of pines when I seen four riders running their horses hard across a wide valley below us. Dust stirred up as they cut into a trail that ran straight for about two miles until it bent eastward into a small town.

Taking our time, we followed that trail and crossed a creek meandering out of a hollow along side a canyon peppered with cactus and mesquite. Cloud shadows blotted out the barren ground as we plodded on. A cool breeze blew from the west.

Then we seen their sign: Cactus Valley.

We walked alongside our stock as we come into town. On the main street folks were about. We stopped at a water trough across from the bank and a clapboard hotel. Tents and a few shanty buildings lined one side of the street toward the end of town.

A livery with a pole-corral out back bordered the creek. Next to it was a blacksmith and a general store, both buildings bleached out by the blazing sun. An eating house had been erected across the way. A stream of dusty miners and motley drifters flowed in and out of a saloon. It was called the Hitching Post, the largest of three gambling establishments in a stretch of two blocks.

By the time our oxen had their fill, we’d seen a good part of the town come and go—some the likes of upstanding citizens with a purpose to grow the little startup town. Others had a notion to take what they could and leave.

Billy and me, we stood there and watched one roistering lot ride in from the hills west.  Cactus Valley had some side streets that ran into the main drag, and there were at least two alleys that ran out toward the creek and some pastures on both sides of town.

From another direction, three galoots come up the street whooping it up, firing pistols into the air. Their mounts kicked up clouds of blowing dust as they drew up in front of the Hitching Post.

The townspeople walking along the boardwalks scattered and ducked into doorways as the three gents popped off more shots, then looked around to fancy their handy work. A tall lanky man wearing a black vest caught my eye. His strong jawbones chewed and spat beneath brutal white eyes. Turning toward the street, he tossed his head in laughter, then pushed through the batwing doors into the Hitching Post. His partners, two powerful hombres, dirty and unshaven, followed him inside, one pausing to slap the buttocks of a lady trying to get out of the way.

This obnoxious demeanor rankled me, and got me wondering about the jailhouse, which looked to be abandoned.

And no sign of a lawman.

Sure, there was a time to blow off steam and make a ruckus, but not when it jeopardized the rights of decent people building a future for the town.

No sign of the law meant what?

Few amongst the town folk looked able or willing to stand up to the bullies and trouble hunters we’d seen in the minutes we’d stood at the trough. The noise inside the saloons was constant, explosive. Yet it was barely past noon! I could only imagine these same characters carryin’ on after nightfall.

I had Billy turn the wagon into some shaded ground along the creek bed. He ground-hitched the livestock. We were good and hungry and hadn’t a real meal in several days, not since the day Billy’s ma got throwed off the wagon.

We dusted ourselves off. Billy beat the Stetson hat his pa had given him on his denim jeans. He stuck it back on his head, pullin’ it back a mite and smiled up at me feeling right proud.

That boy was a survivor.

I hitched up my guns and bunched my hair up under my hat, then we walked into the eatin’ house.  The sign out front read:

Darla’s Diner,

25 cents a plate.

No Liquor Served!

The lady who ran the place wanted no trouble and made it clear enough for folks to abide. Inside, a young girl about Billy’s age come over to greet us. She wiped her hands on her apron, then looked Billy up and down with big eyes. Gathering her wits, she recited the menu.

“Reckon I’ll git me a plate of beef ‘n beans. As for you, Billy, what’ll it be?”

“Sand-wich,” was all that come out of his mouth. His eyes was wide and gazin’ all about the place … like he ain’t never been in a restaurant in all his days. Finally, I grinned up at the young girl. “Beef sandwich for my partner, ma’am. Extra sauce.”

Billy smiled at that and watched the girl skip off to the kitchen.

“I believe she has an eye for you, boy.”

He flushed red in the cheeks but said nothin’. Just sat there watching folks hurry along the street and past the windows. Inside the place was cool and clean with few patrons.

Two ladies occupied themselves with gossip in a corner of the room while a couple of businessmen smoked cigars over mumbled talk of how too many outsiders were takin’ over the town.

Reckon it was that way everywhere there was talk of gold. Still, folks don’t cotton much to changes, especially when it means more strangers pouring in. I listened with interest, but it was hard to hear much over the ruckus outside. Drunken miners occasionally firing off their pistols and whooping it up in the street.

Was this how these little California towns conducted their business?

There was a fight heating up in the street ‘bout the time a buxom middle-aged woman brought us our food. That was my chance to make inquiries.

“You must be Darla. Pardon me for sayin’ so’, but we ain’t seen hide nor hair of the law since we come to town. What with all the roistering and shootin’, you folks must have a sheriff or a marshal here in Cactus Valley.”

Pursing her lips, Darla shook her head: “Last two marshals on that job are lying side by side in Boot Hill, and one before them was run clean out of town.”

“That’s mighty unfortunate, ma’am. How’s a town to git along like this?”

“Power and money,” she answered flatly. “It’s that Henry Drake teaming up with a proprietor named Vance Stromberg. They’re poison mean but they got a lot of money, so they more or less run the town. Some say they jumped the best gold claims and ran the good men out … or had them killed.”

“Any decent fellers with some pull around here?” I asked casually.

 “A few tough landowners are all we got to keep the lid from blowin’ off … but they’re too busy feuding over water rights.”

“A cross b’twixt bad and worse.”

Darla smiled non-committedly and drifted over to the table where the ladies had been sitting.

Billy and me, we dug into our grub in silence. Gave me a chance to do me some thinkin’ about what I was gonna do with the boy before I’d…

“Dos tequila, por fa’vor! … That means two whiskeys, in greaser talk.” The first one roared to his partner as both hombres come crashing through the front door.

“Them Mexicans sure do talk funny.”

“I want my whiskey on rye!” the first one laughed.

I could see both had a snoot full. And by the way them two staggered in and plopped down at a table near the window, I was bracin’ for trouble.

Suddenly, Darla come bustin’ out of the kitchen waving a quirt. “We don’t serve liquor here … and I don’t allow drunks in my diner. Get out!”

My palm slid down over my pistol and released the thong that held it down—a habit that come to me years back when trouble was about. Billy, he just stared at that woman, unbelieving. Reckon he’d never seen the likes of her … or this crazy town.

I sat there grinning at her spunk as my heart raced and hackles sprouted up my back. A hyped readiness stirred inside me. For I had a stern distaste for a man’s rudeness and disrespect, especially toward a lady proprietor.

The big-mouth blond rose to his feet and glared over at me and Billy.

“What are you lookin’ at?”

Seeing my face unreadable, he turned back to Ms. Darla. “Ain’t goin’ no-where, ma’am … not til I git me a drink and mebbe a dance with the pritty lady!”

Seeing nothing of the cowering response he expected from a woman, big blond’s menacing blue eyes grew cold and ugly. The handlebar mustache under his crooked nose twitched nervously. Swaying side to side, he waited for her to back down.

That Ms. Darla, she had sand!

Took two bold steps toward ‘em and pointed at the door with the quirt. “This is no drinking establishment. And I don’t dance with dogs. So beat it.”

“… and if we don’t?” He turned grinning back at his pal.

“Then I’ll throw you out on yer ass!”

The growl bellowed across the room in a tone I’d not heard from myself before. Now Big Blond, he spun around to face me, all wicked eyed. I was on my feet a man’s length behind Darla, angled to her left.

“Now dere’s something I wanna see!” he grunted slowly. “A whoopin’ from a breed.”

But his eyes lost some of their ambition as he surveyed my narrow hips and broad shoulders, for I was built well beyond the average lean Indian, but my face said otherwise; bronze with prominent cheekbones. Coal black hair spilling from under my black-crowned hat. A breed I was … with enough Irish fight in me to beat him clean across the Pecos.

I glimpsed his partner to see if there’d be any gunplay in this little scuffle, but neither of ‘em wore guns. Big Blond’s pal had sobered up a mite, shuffling toward the front door.

I wasn’t lookin’ to maim or kill, just willing to rough up any man who took the liberties to ignore this lady’s house rules.

Darla could sense the danger in the  belligerent man groping her. And she sensed I needed more space to take him on, so she scooted back out of my way.

With lightning speed in a clear path, I stepped in toward the big one and delivered a powerful right to his jaw, shaking him to his knees. He rose quickly in a trembling chorus of muscles and madness, and let loose a wild round-house that whistled in the air over me. A clean miss as I ducked, giving me the opportunity to land a wicked blow to his wind. Blond doubled over slightly before taking up a wooden chair in his massive hands.

The chair exploded over the floor as I side stepped it, and I sprang forward with a well-planted left, followed by a series of right-handed sucker punches. He went down in a heap and before he had time to recoil, I grabbed him by the scuff of the collar and dragged him out the door.

When his buddy come through the door, my eyes met him with authority.

He shook a finger at me. “We’ll be back, Injun boy. Back for you later!”

“Now’s as good as any, ain’t it?”

He said nothing to my challenge, but I could see the devil’s contempt in his eyes. He was a mite more tactful of a man who could wait. A man who yearned for brawlin’ when the cards were stacked in his favor … a gun to his hand.

Billy was just inside the door when I come back inside. Darla stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders in a protective gesture.

“You need not have done that, Mister …?”

“Name’s Llano, ma’am.”

The boy, he piped up right quick: “They call him the Llano Kid, ma’am. He’s the one people say can shoot the gun out—.”

“That’s enough, Billy,” I coughed. “No point in bustin’ open the whole watermelon.”

Darla smiled but it wasn’t a happy smile. “That’s nice, Billy,” she said with a glare in my direction. “This town is no place for a bold man to take a stand. There are too many bad ones who will just cut him down like a dog. I suggest you both ride out of here before they come back with more of the same lot.”

“I do appreciate your concern, ma’am, but we ain’t leavin’ so soon. In fact, I think we like it here.”

I didn’t know exactly what made me say that to her cuz I did not like what I saw in Cactus Valley. Was more about righting a wrong?

Billy and me, we finished our meal without a word, but my thoughts were on what the lady had said. It rankled because I wasn’t one to run away from trouble when it needed to be confronted.

We got up and I paid for our food. Darla thanked me and smiled at Billy. From inside looking out, I felt something bad brewing on the street. So, I told Billy to slip out the backdoor and return to the wagon. I’d be along later.

After the backdoor slammed behind him I hitched up my guns and checked my loads. From inside the front window, out of the line of fire, my eyes searched the street. The scene outside grew tense, with an outlaw element gathering. There was no longer any sign of law-abiding folk. No doubt, a showdown was building.

Was it something amongst themselves? Or was it me they wanted? I hadn’t been in town long enough to learn their patterns, but I was willing to bet on the latter. I’d seen Indians and Mexicans beat up or gunned down by mobs of such, more than once.

The deuces I’d run out of Darla’s were licking their wounds and ranting on about the Injun in the diner. Nearby a dozen miners loafed in the street. Others loitered further down in front of the gamblin’ joints—tough unkempt men with battered clothes and well-worn six-shooters on their hips. Men eager to blow off steam.

Would there be an ambush the moment I stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of Darla’s place? In this town, what was one more dead man? How many had died before now, at the hands of greed and bad whiskey?

But my number wasn’t up.

Nor was a pointless battle to take place at Darla’s Diner. And I whispered as much to her.

“I want you to close up for the afternoon.”

I told her briefly of my plan.

She hesitated, then pulled her apron strings loose and handed me a key to the front door. Upon locking it I escorted her and the young girl working there out the backdoor. We hurried along the backstreet to a small house she indicated was her grandfather’s place.

“Go inside and don’t come out until this mob is dispersed.”

Then, circling around the outskirts of town, I found myself behind the jailhouse. A side door was busted in, so I could enter quietly. The jail cells were littered with trash and the place smelled musty.

With not a sound I surveyed the contents of the office. The ammunition and rifles had been looted from locked storage cabinets. Rats had chewed through the leather desktop. A steel marshal’s badge lay on the wooden floorboards.

The building had seen little use for weeks, if not longer. In a drawer I found keys, which I tried on the cell doors. They worked. Without wasting a minute, I swept out the cells and got to work organizing the office. Surprisingly the front door was locked and the wooden structure was solid.

The men loitering outside Darla’s stood with their backs to the jailhouse, expecting me to come out of the restaurant. But they were liquored up and had lost track of time, thinking I’d eventually play right into their hands.

Finally, someone called me out of Darla’s. Another cussed and made threats. Soon, others joined in as I watched carefully from the dusty desk inside the marshal’s office. I studied their movements, seeking the man with authority in the group. When it came time to lay down the law, he would be my prime target.

Was I crazy … or just a gentleman fool?

Justice was born and bred into me … and now I had thoughts of …  Could I ever get away with it? Would the town mayor approve of what I was about to do? Was there a mayor in Cactus Valley? Darla had never mentioned one.

My head swam with what-ifs as I watched the drunken miners pop off more shots and cuss loudly, biding their time with open threats directed at the Injun using the diner as a hideout.

Deep inside my gut something gradually drove me to action. Was it the many law-abiding towns folk trying to go about their business in Cactus Valley—women like Darla who ran respectable businesses?

Had this been a rough-shod mining camp of only lawless miners, I’d give no more thought but to ride on, taking Billy with me. Such start-ups were common; many died off, while others blossomed into thriving townships.

There was Billy. Leaving him to grow up here would be a moral dilemma. He needed a good home to bring him along. Since the death of his kin, it was on my shoulders to see to it the boy got a fair shake; some social guidance from a mother figure. Soon enough I’d say goodbye to Billy and leave him to grow up like a boy should.

From the fussin’ and carrying on I’d been watching in the street, I soon had me a hunch of who their ring leader was. The one in that lot who’d come riding into town when we was waterin’ our stock at the trough.

Watchin’ this man parade around like the cock-of-the-walk nagged at me. Suddenly I knelt down and took up that badge lying there on the floor. From a shadow inside the window I mentally cataloged the men, their manner, and their hardware.

When I stepped out of the marshal’s office with that badge hangin’ on my buckskin vest and my guns hung low, they hardly knowed what hit ‘em. And so that’s how it happened that I became acting marshal of Cactus Valley.

I stood, unseen on the boardwalk fronting the office, when a pack of them boys goes troopin’ up and starts banging on the diner’s front door. “Send the Injun out, Miss Darla,” the tall one shouted. “We ain’t after nobody but that breed. Got my own way of handlin’ trouble in this town.”

I stepped down onto the street and took three steps toward the crowd.

“And I got my own way of ending it!”

The crowd looked side to side, confused of where the words had come from. My Texas spurs jingled to the rhythm of my footsteps. Now I stood twenty yards from the line of gunmen. Facing me, utterly shocked at what they saw, their ranks spread out over the street’s broad width.

The badge on my breast pocket glinted in the afternoon sun. It represented a new command in Cactus Valley.

The self-appointed leader of this ugly lot in the black vest had situated himself in the middle. His hands spread out, indicating he was in charge, and I was for his taking.

“Who the hell are you?” He sneered. “Don’t recall givin’ no Injun the privilege of wearin’ a marshal’s badge in Cactus.”

“They call me the Kid, the Llano Kid.”

Suddenly he paled, then quickly composed himself. Glaring at one of his partners, he growled: “Thought you left him in the desert for—”.

“—for dead?” my tone was cold, dry.

I eagle-eyed him, remembering the rifle shot I’d taken down by the wash. I’d been stalked and assumed dead by one in this wicked lot.

“Life is full of surprises, ain’t it?

Their leader wore an ugly sneer upon his face, and I wasn’t sure if his contempt was greater for me or for his partner who’d bragged about killing the Llano Kid back at camp.

“Why don’t you try it marshal?”

The others moved well off to the side. That’s when I noticed a couple of men in broadcloth suits standing alongside the buildings, rifle in hand. My guess was they were not with these rawhide hombres, but rather the landowners Darla had spoken of.

I gambled on the notion they’d back me up, or at least serve as a deterrent to dirty play.

“We’ll do it my way.” My reply came out matter-of-fact. “I’m gonna count. You either ride … or start shooting b‘fore I git to ten.”

The tall one, he didn’t expect this. Not from a stranger half-breed in town, wearing a marshal’s badge. It rankled him and the fury in his eyes showed it.

I began counting, knowing this could be my final breath.

No matter. I had a job to do … and I had opened the ball. “Three … four …”  My counting was slow and easy, ready as I could be for a draw.

But he stood there looking me over, unsure of where I’d been … and who I was. Then I got to seven and his hand swept down for iron.

My right gun came up, my left hand working the hammer as I leveled the barrel on his hand. His gun spouted flame, and a slug whizzed by my ear, another tugged at my shirt sleeve. Suddenly he was standing in disbelief, both his pistols lying on the dusty street in front of his feet. One hand was bathed in blood. The other missing a finger.

“Injun Marshal done shot the guns right out of my hands!” he shouted.

I walked forward and holstered my gun, my eyes wary of the others flanking me on both sides. They all seemed astonished that a man could stop another man like I had done … with no killing!

I picked up his two guns and glanced at each of the others. Holster them guns, boys. And from now on you’ll leave ‘em quiet unless you have to defend yourself. If you can’t foller them rules I take ‘em away. Got it?”

Without a word, the men dispersed. Some I didn’t see for days. The two suited men with rifles approached me later, introducing themselves, a rancher and the owner of the general store. I stated my intent to stick around until a permanent lawman could be hired. My wages would come from ordinary taxes. I’d keep a room inside the jailhouse.

Later that afternoon I circulated about the town, greeted by citizens who thanked me for my bold efforts. Word got around mighty quick about my square shootin’ which seemed to quiet the lawless ones … for the time being.

Later I saw the big blonde man—the one I’d sucker punched over at Darla’s place. He eyed me real evil like, and I reminded him of who’s in charge here. B’twix the grunts and the evil looks, I knew I wasn’t shut of him.

Darla took in Billy, and he was soon learning to read along with Lizzy, the girl who helped Darla at the diner. Billy seemed happy with his new friends, but I knew he needed some confidence before I could pull up stakes and leave.

The boy was eager to learn at the little schoolhouse and he caught on fast. He started deciphering books right away. Lizzy had learned a mite and the two were happy to read to each other at night in front of Darla and when they called on her grandfather for a visit.

Billy and I agreed to pay Darla the money we got for selling the wagon and the oxen. Some of that money would be set aside for Billy when he struck out on his own someday.

He and I often rode out on the prairie where I taught him more about the gun—how to respect it and use it proper like. We also talked about hunting small game and deer. I taught him how to stalk the animal, unseen. “When he’s eating that’s when you move in. Watch his tail. It starts a swishin’ means he suspects danger. Then his head comes up. That’s when you stand still. Wait till he goes back to grazin’ before you move in closer.”

We shot us one and dressed it out there on the hillside. Billy, he was mighty proud to be the one pulling the trigger on that buck. On the way back to town I pointed out some edible plants that have saved many a feller’s life on the range.

“Over yonder, that Indian thistle is a staple. The roots are edible, as most flowers of cactus are south of here,” I told him.

Cactus Valley was chiefly a mining town, in its humble beginnings. But many of the grounded folks living there now had come as outfitters, selling tools, grub, clothes, and all kinds of products that miners needed as they flooded into town. Those proprietors were as much the driving force to township maturity as the miners and prospectors had been.

In 1876 Cactus Valley had not only a small schoolhouse, but a church and a bank. A few ranches sprung up outside of town, supplying beef and bringing investment money to the town as its population grew to over two hundred year-round residents. The miners came and went, some moving on north and east into Nevada where news of pay-dirt was still making it around the campfires.

My job as marshal settled in after a few weeks of weeding out the hard-bitten hombres determined to run things their own way. Gambling attracted some of the bad element in the three saloons that hosted games and sold whiskey on the cheap. I’d seen some dirty dealing at the tables that too often erupted into gunplay and murder in cold blood.

The town’s people were now paying me a hundred dollars a month to finish what I’d started that day I stood up against the gunman known as Judd Reese. No doubt he’d return for me … once his hand healed over from my bullet. Killing another man without hesitation or remorse was in men like Reese.

Couple of his riders were getting’ a mite restless one evening, determined to challenge my “no shooting” rule in town. The saloons were in full swing, and I was doing my rounds when I heard the shots.

Three trigger-happy hombres were puttin’ holes in the boardwalk outside Darla’s restaurant when I come up behind ‘em.

“Hand them irons over, boys. You’re played out tonight.” My pistol was drawn, on account of their guns were out and shootin’ up town property. “Drop your gunbelts, fellas. You can claim ‘em back in the morning at the jailhouse.”

One of ‘em figured he could buck me for a fool and said as much. “I don’t take orders from no breed!”

“Mebbe not,” I told him casually. “But you will take orders from the law.”

I inched up closer, seeing he wasn’t ready to back down. One of his pals had complied with my order and stepped back after his rig hit the dirt. A third with keen eyes studied the odds, stepping behind the first one. He knew I had ‘em dead to rights but wanted to see my sand.

In one swift motion my pistol swung up against the red-faced jowls of the big mouth man still clinging to his gun, which suddenly clattered onto the busted planks and through the hole he’d blasted open. Dropping to his knees, he cussed me out but made no trouble as I picked up the gun belts and their pistols.

“How ‘bout you?” My eyes drilled the hold-out, now standing in the street. He was the brute who’d promised to come after me again the day I dragged his partner out of Darla’s place.

Suddenly his gun fell to the dirt. “I’m done in for the night,” he wheezed. “Reckon we’ll be back in the morning to claim our stuff.”

I gestured toward the shot-up boards. “Not till you gents repair the damage. Now, the lot of you, git.”

I walked back to the office grinning to myself. Inside I hung their hardware on the remaining pegs screwed into the wall. There were others I’d taken that night—half dozen or more pistols, taken from insolent boys in big bodies.

The next day I paid a visit to the Rusty’s Carpentry Shop. Rusty was an old fella who’d built near half the town. Nowadays he stuck to cabinets and tables.

“Hey, Llano, how’s the marshallin’ business today? Jailhouse full?” He was a cheerful old fellow, graying on the sides and bald on top. He was a man with a practical touch for doing things right.

“Got enough guns in there to fill a Texas armory,” I replied wryly. “Need a favor.”

“For you, anything! Can’t thank you enough for takin’ the bull by the horns. You be careful, Marshal. Plenty of trouble swirling around this here town.”

“Can yuh make up three dozen wooden pegs, to start? The kind that screw into the wall.”

He cocked his head. “Why, sure! Whatcha got in mind with all them pegs?”

“Got me a new law for this here town, Rusty. You make them pegs and I’ll have the saloon owner drop by and pick ‘em up. Have a bill ready for Vance Stromberg.”

“You sure about that? I mean … Mister Stromberg, he don’t—”

“Pay it no mind. You leave him to me.”

Rusty was grinnin’ ear to ear. “I git the picture, Marshal. I’ll have ‘em ready by dark.”

“If our gamblin’ joints start policing their patrons, I won’t have to spend all my time rounding up firearms. Might save a few lives in the process.”

Later that night I did my rounds to see that Rusty’s hooks were put to use. The Hitchin’ Post was my first stop. Inside it was smoky and noisy as ever. The tables were doing business at full tilt.

I glanced over at the bartender. He come over wiping his hands off on a towel.

“Evening, Marshal.”

“Evening, Mel.”

“At first, the boys didn’t take to your new law, Marshal, but when I offered a free drink to anyone who’d use them hooks, why they unbuckled ‘em up right quick.”

“Good. A drinkin’ man don’t always use his best judgment,” I replied quietly. “Better to keep them guns out of easy reach.”

I glanced over a couple of poker games and walked out. The other saloons had followed suit and the town suddenly felt a bit more civilized. For how long, I’d no idea. Gambling and mining are a tough combination. Hard work, fast money, and sudden losses can bring out the poison in a man.

How long could I keep a lid on Cactus Valley? The town had good people but they were sandwiched between remnants of yesterday’s rawhide outlaws. This place would either settle into a refined desert town, or go to hell in a handbasket. Depending on who possessed power and authority. For now it was up to me and a few others to keep a thumb on things. My mind was constantly anticipating what sort of trouble was coming next. For any marshal, keeping the peace was no easy task. For a breed out west? Life was a day-to-day question. Plenty of my foes grew up with Indians, good and bad.

One’s attitude was based on personal experiences, and sometimes a little influence from other men who often didn’t have the straight on things. Over all, a man’s experience was his guide.

Several days passed with but a few encounters that needed some persuasion; little episodes of misguided ways and foolish thinking. And I found myself establishing new codes of conduct in light of safety, especially for the young’uns that were about. I reminded several shop owners to pick up their broken glass and other debris instead of sweeping it into the street. Simple stuff that some folks never thought through.

Other encounters involved outright challenges to the laws of reason and humanity.

One hot afternoon I come up on Stanley Webb, takin’ a whip to his horse, cussing and carrying on.

“Now, what if that whip was to be turned on you?” I asked evenly. “Ain’t never saw no sense in beating a horse lame, let alone any livestock.”

The old man’s back was to me as he spoke: “A man’s got a right to discipline his animal, any which way he wants!” He paused, then suddenly that whip come around at my face.

“I don’t need no two-bit—”

Half expecting this, my hand shot out, gathering in the leather fingers at the end of that horsewhip. With a firm yank I brought the old geezer to his knees.

“—two-bit marshal enforcing the law, Mister Webb?” I growled. “This here town has some laws we all gotta live by. One of them laws is fair treatment of domestic animals. If I catch you at it again we’ll hold us a public auction—sell off all your livestock.”

“Getting to his feet, Webb protested. “You … you can’t do that! Ain’t no such law in Cactus Valley!”

“Is now. I wrote it into the town book of statutes this morning … after hearing ‘bout the way you’re abusing your stock.”

He turned toward the neighbor’s house, a small stone cabin with a flower garden out front and sneered. “Why … I’ll git that little weasel of a—”

“Any more trouble out of you and I’ll throw you in jail, after I tan your hide!”

I walked over to where the horse was standing in the corral, approaching him with a soft tone. He settled a bit, and my fingers probed his cinch. “Fine horse you got here, Stan. I reckon if you’d take that cinch out a mite, you’ll get more cooperation out of him.”

Webb, he pulled off his hat and slapped the dust out of it, shaking his head. I chuckled at the surprised look on his face. He then stomped off toward the house, grumbling under his breath.

“I’ll be seeing yuh round, Stanley.”

Every town had a horse-beater, most often the result of poor education on handling livestock proper like. I’d be paying old man Webb a visit again.