Dust & Roses

by Stacatto

Copyright© 2011 by Stacatto

: Jake is a US marshal back in the old west on his way to arrest a crooked sheriff. Along the way he encounters an unexpected happening which will change his life.

Tags: Romantic  

The day had been long, hot, and dusty and Jake was ready for supper, some rest and even a beer if he could find one. Shimmering off in the distance he could see the town where he was planning to spend the night, the image dancing in the oppressive heat. His mouth was parched and he felt sorry for his animals as he was sure they had to be as thirsty as he was.

As Jake entered town, his horses plodding down the main street, he was surprised at the lack of people moving around. Actually, it looked like a ghost town since there was nobody on the streets. He realized it was a hot day, but there were usually some people on the streets of a town this size. Up ahead he saw the sign for a livery stable; he headed down the back street and towards the open barn doors. Spotting a pump in the side yard of the stable, Jack filled a large bucket of water and from the back of the packhorse; he untied a pan and filled it with water for the dogs. He allowed the horses to drink from the trough under the pump. While they drank, Jake pumped another bucket and after removing his hat, poured it over his head. The water wasn't very cool, but the evaporation helped his face feel cooler.

Jake stepped into the dark interior of the barn and called out. There was no answer. He searched for anybody to check in with and when he couldn't find a soul, he decided to take care of the animals and then deal with payment when somebody finally showed up. He found 2 stalls side by side, put some fresh hay and grain into each and then stacked his stuff in a corner of one of the stalls. In the other stall, he made a nest for his dogs to curl up. Jake spoke to his dogs and told them to guard the horses and his gear and he would return to check on them before he went to bed. A long time ago Jake had been saved by some Indians and they had taught him how to communicate with animals. At first he was skeptical, but as he talked with his dogs, he found he could give them complex instructions and they would follow them exactly. Now he trusted his dogs completely ... even with his life. It was dusk when Jake was finally finished with his chores and he headed off to find supper and perhaps that beer.

As he stepped from the side street onto the wooden sidewalk, Jake looked up and down the street for a sign promoting either a restaurant or a hotel. Standing for a moment, he wondered which way to go and as he stood there, he again noticed the lack of people in the town.

Since he could spot a sign for neither a restaurant nor a hotel, he started walking down the sidewalk. He had planned on stopping at which ever of the two businesses' he found first, but the first thing he came across was a bar. The bar was not even very well marked and as he pushed open the swinging doors and entered, he was surprised to find just 2 old men in the whole saloon, hunched over one of the tables and a bartender standing behind the bar. The rest of the place was deserted. When Jake stepped through the swinging doors, both of the old men stopped talking and stared at him. The bartender watched Jake carefully as he walked up to the bar. After gaping at Jake as if he was a ghost, the bartender finally recovered enough to ask what he wanted. When Jake asked for a beer he was told they didn't carry any, instead he had to settle for a shot of liquor.

Jake glanced around the empty room, looked back at the bartender and asked. "Where is everybody?"

The bartender shrugged his shoulders and moved to the far end of the bar. As Jake picked up the glass and took a sip, he thought the bartender to be quite rude considering his silence. The whiskey was of very poor quality and what was even worse was it had been watered down. For some reason, it didn't surprise Jake in the least.

Jake had finished his second sip and as he was setting the glass on the bar, he heard an unfriendly voice behind him. "You've finished your drink, now get your horses and get out of town."

Jake slowly turned towards the voice and found himself looking down on a short, thin man with a large droopy moustache. He was wearing a filthy, sweat-stained hat and his shirt had sweat stains under the arms. His gun belt hung low on his hip and Jake saw that the holster was cut away for a fast draw of his revolver. He also noticed the badge on the diminutive man's vest telling Jake he was the town sheriff. "What's the problem, sheriff?" He asked.

The sheriff's voice had a malicious edge as he informed Jake, "We don't like strangers in our town. It's my job to keep this town safe and you look like trouble to me. Like I said, you've finished your drink, get your horses and leave town ... now."

Jake paused for a moment and then tried smiling at the undersized man, "Sheriff, I've been on the trail all day long ... I was just looking for a hot meal and a place to bunk for the night, I'll be out of town before sun up tomorrow."

The sheriff quickly retorted, "No ... we don't have a hotel or a restaurant ... and you'll be out of town tonight ... or I'll arrest you, put you in jail and see that you spend 90 days up at the prison."

Jake looked at the little man for a moment, seriously considering telling him who Jake was, but then thought better of it. He didn't want anybody to know what his business was and where he was headed. He picked up his drink to finish it and before he could drink the rest, the sheriff told him to put it down.

"I told you ... you're finished with that drink." Jake sat the glass down and the sheriff tossed a coin on the bar. "Let's go ... I want you outa town in half an hour."

As Jake entered the stable, the dogs lifted up their heads and Jake told them they had to move on, explaining to them what was going on. Jake gathered up his supplies and as he repacked the packhorse, he checked to see if anybody had been going through his stuff. Casually checking to see if his personal items were still there, he noticed his belongings had been rifled, but Jake was relived to find nothing missing. This clown sheriff had not found the secret hiding place in his gear and he had not found out who Jake was, after all.

Jake led his horse outside, tied the reins of the packhorse to the back of his saddle and mounted his horse. He whistled for the dogs and headed off through town. As he passed one of the last buildings at the edge of town, he thought he noticed the sheriff standing deep in the shadows watching him leave. Jake chuckled to himself ... if the sheriff had any idea who Jake was and what he had just done, he would have crapped his pants. He didn't know it now, but tonight was the beginning of the end of his reign as sheriff.

With the sun down, the evening was much cooler and a large moon was lifting its head off the horizon. Even though Jake was tired, it was easy to see and riding was easy. After about half an hour, he saw lights ahead. As he neared the lights, he notice it was a house nestled up against a large hill with a barn standing next to it.

Jake stopped in front of the hitching rail and tied up his horses. Still standing by the rail, he called out, "Hello the house!" Just walking up to a door in the country at night was likely to get you shot. The night air smelled of roses and the light shining through the windows of the house made it feel comfortable. Jake liked the house. After hearing no response from inside the house, he stepped up onto the porch and approached the door, then knocked. After a while, he heard a woman's voice call out from inside of the house, "Who is it?"

Jake called back, "Good evening Ma'am. May I speak to your man?"

"Who are you?" The woman called back.

"My name is Jake, Jake Reed. The name means nothing to you as we have never met. I am passing through and I wanted to stay back in town for the night, but the sheriff made me leave. He told me it was something about not allowing any strangers in town. I'd like to ask your husband if I could spend the night in your barn. I'll pay you for feed and be out of here before you are up. Could you get your man for me, please?"

There was a slight pause before the woman's voice continued, "He's upstairs right now, but if you want, I am sure you can use the barn. I'll get you a lantern. Go on to the barn and I'll meet you there."

Jake stepped off the porch and walked past a row of rose bushes, their scent filling the warm night air. When he returned to the hitchin' rail he untied his animals and led them back to the barn, the dogs following behind. By the time he reached the barn, there was a woman standing next to the open barn doors with 2 lanterns in her hands, one of them glowing and the other unlit. She handed Jake the unlit one along with a couple of matches. He struck the match on the door jam and lit the lantern, then stepped into the barn.

Jake followed the woman deeper into the barn where she showed him two stalls to bed his horses. Between the stalls was a support post with a nail sticking out and Jake hung the lantern on the nail, which now cast enough light for him to see. He didn't pay much attention to the woman and just called over his shoulder thanks and started putting feed and fresh hay out for the horses. He had the horses fed and watered when he noticed he was not alone.

Jake turned back to the woman and she asked, "Are you hungry?"

Jake paused and then replied, "Ma'am, I'm just grateful for the place to bed down. I don't want to put you out any more than I have. If your husband will tell me what I owe for the feed, I'll leave it here when I go in the morning."

Her voice took on a tone of impatience, "You didn't answer my question. Are you hungry?"

Jake hung his head for a moment like a scolded schoolboy, and then looked up at her. "Ma'am, I really don't want to put you out."

The woman now asked with an exasperated tone in her voice, "What do I have to do to get an answer out of you? Are you hungry?"

Sheepishly, Jake answered, "Yes ma'am, I've not had a chance all day to eat."

"There, was that so difficult?" The woman snapped. She turned to go, calling over her shoulder as she walked out of the barn. "Come over to the house. Bring the dogs and I will feed all of you."

Once more Jake tried to explain his feelings to the woman. "Ma'am, I really don't want to put you out any more than I have. I feel badly about showing up here in the night as is."

"Jake is it?" He nodded his head, "My name is Alice, I have extra stew and I would like for you to come over and let me feed you. Now stop all this talk and come with me."

Jake realized he was not going to win this argument. "Thank you, ma'am..." Jake called to the dogs informing them they were going to be fed and the dogs took off towards the farmhouse following the woman. When they entered, Jake noticed the room was quite cool and very comfortable after the warm outdoors. She motioned for Jake to go to the sink and wash up. He pumped up some water and washed his hands and face. By the time he was done, he was aware she had put down three bowls on the floor and the dogs were eating as fast as they could. She motioned for Jake to sit at the table where she handed him a large bowl of stew.

On the table was a fresh loaf of bread and Alice sliced off a couple of pieces. Jake felt the stew smelled wonderful and tasted even better. As he sat there wolfing down his dinner, he realized just how hungry he had been. He looked up at her and told her just how fantastic it tasted. She laughed and told him it was because he was so hungry, and she didn't know if it was compliment or not.

For the first time since they had met, Jake leaned back in his chair, taking a long look at her. Her medium length auburn hair was pulled back and clipped on both sides, revealing an attractive face with blue eyes looking back at him. Her shirt was old and faded, but revealed the forms of pleasantly sized breasts. Her jeans were just as old and faded as her shirt, and they too showed off her appealing figure. All in all, this was a very handsome woman. Jake was impressed.

"Is your husband coming down?" he asked.

There was a long pause before she answered; Jake could tell she was trying to decide something, eventually she spoke. "I lied to you ... I probably am stupid to tell you this, but my husband is not here. Actually he has been gone for several months..." Alice paused, trying to decide if she wanted to tell this stranger any more.

Jake interrupted her thoughts, "Where is he?"

Alice decided to tell Jake all of the truth, "Sheriff Barker, the one who ran you out of town tonight, wouldn't leave me alone. He kept coming out here when Jim would be gone and made crude suggestions. Finally, Jim had enough and went in to town to confront Barker. Jim never returned. I went into town that afternoon and asked the sheriff if he knew where Jim was and he claimed he hadn't seen Jim for a couple of weeks. I talked to folks I knew what had seen Jim in town talking to Barker." A much longer pause ensued as Alice tried to decide just how much she wanted to share. "The problem is ... there're rumors about Barker ... people who cross him end up missing ... if ya knows what I mean?" Jake nodded his head. "I didn't think it was wise to ask too many questions after that."

Jake thought over what the woman had just told him and he wondered if it was safe to confide in Alice. The more Jake thought about it, the more he felt she seemed to be exactly who she represented herself to be so he decided to take a chance. "Alice, what I am about to tell you must remain a secret for a while. My name really is Jake Reed, but to be more accurate, it is Marshal Jake Reed, I am a federal US Marshal. Right now, I am on my way up to Overville to deal with their corrupt sheriff. There are 5 of us marshals who are going to meet just outside of Overville in 3 days. We have warrants for several of the dishonest sheriffs around this district of the territory ... including Barker

'We have known about the problems out here, but didn't have the resources to do anything about it till now. We will be getting around to Sheriff Barker, not for what happened to your husband, but when he is arrested, he will be asked about your husband. The sheriff up in Overville is a bit more corrupt than your sheriff ... if you can believe that. We don't want any of the sheriffs to get wind of what's coming ... Sheriff Barker was two other marshals' assignment, but I am going to pull rank and deal with him myself."

"Are you really a federal marshal? You aren't even wearing a gun." Alice asked with obvious doubt in her voice.

"If you want, I can go get my badge and papers ... I have them hidden on my pack horse ... I didn't want anybody to know who I am and what I am up to. I find that if I don't wear a gun, things seem to be a bit more peaceful for me. The idea is to surprise them and have as little problem with the civilian population as possible."

Alice quickly replied, "NO ... I believe you ... it just seems so fantastic you would show up at my door step. I wanted to do something about Barker, but I just didn't know where to turn."

"Not to worry, I will deal with him in due time." The way Jake said those words made Alice shiver. Looking at Jake, she knew she didn't want this man to come looking for her. The man before her would never be considered as handsome, but his eyes were kindly ... yet she could see menace in them as well. She felt totally comfortable with him, but she also could tell there was a steel resolve about him.

Alice noticed his bowl was empty and asked if he wanted more. Jake was still hungry, but he didn't want to appear greedy. Somehow, she could see in his face he was still hungry and she picked up his bowl, went to the stove and scooped up another helping. Without asking, she went to an open door at the back of the kitchen and he could hear her going down a set of steps. She disappeared for a few moments and when she returned, she had a bottle of beer in her hand and Jake could see condensation running down the sides. He asked her, "Where did you get a cold beer?"

Alice laughed and replied, "The reason Jim built so close to the hill is he found an opening at the base of the hill ... a cave if you will that went back a ways and then drops a long way down. Jim dug out a section under the house and then behind the hill ... there is an area in the back that for some reason stays really cold ... Jim said there was some sort of a deep opening down into the ground which draws cold air in all the time. He even had to build a door in front of it to keep the house from getting cold. From time to time, I make beer and then store it down in the cellar. It keeps a long time since it's so cold ... I thought you might like one since you mentioned you had wanted one back in town."

Jake opened the bottle and took a long drink. The taste was crisp and the beer was excellent ... actually, it seemed like the best beer he had ever had in his life. "This is amazing ... you brew this yourself?"

Alice looked down a bit sheepishly and nodded her head yes. "I have always liked the taste of beer ... I know it ain't very lady like, but it does taste good."

Jake laughed and she laughed with him. He asked her why she wasn't having a beer with him then and she asked him if it was ok. He told her since it was her house, he really didn't see why she needed to ask. She explained she knew women were not supposed to drink in front of a man and Jake laughed once more. Alice stood and went back down into the cellar and came back with 2 more bottles, one for her and one more for him.

The stew was gone, Jake was feeling fat, and happy which made Jake smile at Alice and tell her how happy she had made him. He continued telling her how he felt very beholden and he wanted her to know that. Jake was pleased Alice had trusted him and allowed him to come into her home and feed him.

They started to talk about various subjects, touching on her farm and she explained she had 2 Mexicans who came out and helped her with various chores. She went on to explain to Jake how she raised a special breed of horses. These horses were in huge demand and provided her with an excellent cash flow. She explained how the sheriff wanted to buy the ranch and had been out a couple of times after Jim had disappeared; but the Mexicans always stayed with her when he was there and he would finally leave in disgust.

The subject of her husband came up and Jake asked her if it had been a good marriage. Alice sat staring off into space for a long time. Finally, she spoke in a voice so soft it was difficult to hear. "Maybe in the beginning ... it was good in the beginning ... but we were fighting a lot at the end. Having the sheriff hanging around didn't help things either. We were becoming different people than when we first got together. I don't know if we would even be together if he was still around now."

Another long pause and Jake knew there was more she wanted to say, but she needed time to put it together in her head. Finally there was a deep sigh and she continued, "I feel bad that he's probably dead ... I mean the things I hear about Barker, I doubt if Jim is sill alive ... but regardless of how things were between us, there ain't no reason why he should be dead." Jake didn't tell her he was pretty sure Jim was dead. Jake knew men like Barker and he was not the type to let somebody like Jim live.

"You said you were headed for Overville ... right?"

"Yes ... why?"

"That's just barely a days ride ... you said you had 3 days to get there ... ain't ya worried if you get there too early the sheriff might find out?"

"I was going to keep to myself ... finding some place to camp out till I was supposed to meet with the others."

Alice hesitated and then spoke, "You're welcome to stay here for a couple of days. I would enjoy the company."

Jake sat and stared at her for a while. Her offer pleased him but he wanted to positively know she wanted him around. "Are you sure? Won't having me here be a bother?"

"Like I said, I really would enjoy the company." Alice smiled broadly at him. She wanted to say more, but due to the shortness of time they had been together, she didn't want to appear to be too forward. Jake smiled back. As he stood, he told her it had been a long hard day and he was tired. He thanked her for the meal and started to head out to make up a place to sleep in the barn with his animals. She stopped him, offering him the spare bedroom and he found he was too tired to refuse. The dogs were curled up in the kitchen and Alice showed him were to sleep. He remembered taking off his clothes and kind of getting in bed, the next thing he knew it was morning.

Jake woke to the smell of bacon cooking, it smelled amazing. When he came into the kitchen, he noticed the door open to the cellar again. When he stepped over to shut it, Alice told him to leave it open. She explained how the crack in the cellar kept a constant stream of very cold air in the cellar. When she cooked in the summer, she opened the door and it kept the kitchen nice and comfortable.

Alice poured him a cup of coffee and motioned for him to take a seat at the table. After she served him, she sat down across from him. As they ate, Jake thanked her for putting up with him and she smiled. "It gets real lonesome out here Jake, I enjoy having the company. It has been a long time since I made breakfast for somebody ... it's fun after such long time."

"Have you ever thought about moving?" He asked

"Well ... I'm sure Jim is dead, but until I know for sure, I just can't move. I don't know what to do. Does it make sense?"

"In a way it does ... but you mentioned last night that things were not going well with the two of you when he ... ah..."

"Went to town?" she finished.

"OK ... that works. You said you were unhappy, but you still stay here?"

"I know if seems strange ... but I want some sort of ending. I want to know what happened to him. If I left here, I would always wonder what happened. I know Barker will never tell me what he did with Jim, so in a way I guess I am just wasting my time. Kinda dumb ... huh?"

"Actually, I understand."

Alice took a sip of coffee and sat the cup back down. He smiled at Jake and asked, "so Jake, are you married?'

"Nope ... with being a Marshal and all, I am on the move all the time and I never really had the time to properly settle down with a woman. Now that I'm getting as old as I am, I guess no woman wants to deal with me ... I'm too old to train properly."

Alice laughed and reached over to pat his hand. "From what I've seen of you, a woman would be very lucky to have you for her man."

"You hardly know me..."

Alice interrupted him, "Last night I saw you were considerate ... you wanted to make sure I felt safe with you. As soon as you knew it was a woman behind the door when you rode up, you wanted to talk to 'my man' as you put it. You didn't want to put me out, even thought you were starving. I had to force you to come in and eat," Jake hung his head in embarrassment.

"No ... it's OK ... it just made me feel more comfortable with you. I wanted to feed you and have you sleep in the house. Trust me when I tell you, most men are not as considerate of a woman's feelings as you are.

"I've also watched you with your animals ... you are kind and considerate to them as well and that shows me a lot about you. Trust me ... I think I know you better than you realize!" Jake was sure he'd blushed from her comments.

Alice spent the morning showing Jake around her ranch. He was most impressed with the horses she was raising and he met her 2 workers. After lunch, they went for a ride and she showed him the long stretches of the back part of the ranch. The hills were high and rocky and after they tied off their horses, they climbed up one of the hills. Sitting on the top, they could see far off in the distance, the ranch nestled below them.

"This is my thinking place," Alice told him. "I come up here and just sit and think. It's quiet and I love the view."

"It does have a fantastic view," Jake agreed. "I can see why you would like it up here." Jake glanced off to the left and thought he saw a flash of light. "Do you see that flash of something over there?" As he pointed to where he saw the light.

"Oh ... there's a story to that..." Alice said with a laugh. "There is a spring just above the light. What you are seeing is the top of a shed Jim built. He set it up so water collects and the sun heats it up during the day. Just below it, Jim built a large wooden tub. If you turn a valve, the tub fills up with hot water and you can also put in some of the spring water to cool it down. At night you can sit in it, look at the stars and drink beer. At the bottom of the tub is another valve, which drains the tub. If you like, I'll show it to you later." Jake nodded his head yes. Jake had never heard of anything like it ... a tub out in the open that was heated by the sun. "How big is the tub?" Jake asked.

"Two people can fit in with ease," Alice told him, and then she realized what she had said and the implication of her comments and she blushed.

Jake smiled warmly at her and he told her, "Sounds fun."

As they continued to set there side by side, each one was becoming aware of the other person sitting next to them. Finally Alice asked, "Do you ever get lonely, Jake?"

"Sure ... but doin' what I do ... being a marshal and all, I don't think it's fair to have a woman ... there is an uncertainty to what I do and I could never ask a woman to deal with that ... if you understand what I mean? Why'd ya ask?"

"Just wondering. I guess I have been alone too long. I know how lonely I

get and I wonder if others feel the same way."

"Why don't ya see if you can find a man... ?"

Alice looked over at the man sitting next to her. "How, Jake? I can't go to town ... Barker follows me every place I go when I have to go in for supplies. Besides, if I even looked at a man, Barker would probably have him sent to jail ... or worse."

Jake nodded, "Yeah ... I think I see where that would cause some problems." As they continued to sit on the hill, both of them started to think about their conversation. Jake thought Alice was beautiful and he could understand why she was afraid to talk to any man in town. As he considered what a warm woman she was, he wondered what Alice thought about him. His thoughts continued and he wondered what it would be like to give up being a Marshal. He was overdue to retire and every time he thought about retirement, he realized he didn't have anything waiting for him to do. It was just easier for him if he just kept working, as it gave him something to do.

As Jake looked out across the vista before him, he wondered again about retirement and what it would feel like to finally settle down. Up until now, he had always thought he would be killed in the line of duty and that retirement wasn't something he really needed to consider.

Alice too sat wrapped in her thoughts. She hadn't even considered meeting anybody new. She'd been serious when she told Jake that Barker would probably kill anybody she tried to befriend in town. Alice turned and looked again at the man sitting next to her. As if she had told him to look at her, he turned his head and their eyes met. Something in that moment clicked and both of them had to turn away.

Jake thought for a moment, wondering if he should keep still or if he should share these feelings with Alice. As he sat there, he remembered the few times in his life when he wished he had of spoken up when he could have ... and didn't. He decided this was a time to take a chance. "Ah, Alice..." Jake paused, searching for the right words.

Alice wondered if he was going to say something about the moment that had just passed between them. She had decided if he didn't, she was going to speak up. "Yes, Jake... ?" She encouraged him.

"You know ... I think you are a fine looking woman..."

"Why thank you Jake. You know, I think you are a very handsome man. I just can't believe no woman hasn't snatched you up."

Jake laughed, "You are too kind. Up until now I never felt it was right to ask a woman to be with me because my life is so uncertain ... it ain't fair to ask a woman to wonder every day if that was the day she might become a widow. But anyway ... that ain't what I wanted to say ... what I wanted to say ... ah ... well..."

"Yes, Jake ... just say it..."

"Let me put it this way ... when I finish with my business in Overville ... well ... I'd like to come back and visit with you some more. If that's ok with you and all."

Alice smiled at him, a warm feeling growing her heart for this man, "Jake, I would really like that. I like the way you make me feel when we talk. Yes ... I would really like for you to come back."

"No promises or anything...

"Jake, that goes both ways ... you come back and let's see what happens."

Jake smiled as he reached over and took her hand in his and held it. Alice squeezed his hand to show how much she appreciated having him hold her hand. The two of them sat for a long time, both of them looking off into the distance, each of them wrapped in their own thoughts ... their hands still wrapped together.

It was dark as Jake rode up to the small cabin where the other marshals had agreed to meet. When Jake entered the cabin, they expressed their concern because he was so late in arriving. He didn't want to share his experiences of Alice with them so he provided his fellow officers with a non-committal answer. However, his promise to her was still fresh in his mind. As they had parted on her front porch, he had told her, "I am leaving one of the dogs here with you. They all mind very well and you just have to tell them once what you want from them. I know this sounds strange, but they do understand everything you tell them to do. Max here will protect you. Just talk to him like you talk to me and he understands."

Alice had a hard time believing him completely, but she had noticed how he spoke to the dogs and how they seemed to really understand and do exactly as he asked of them. She may have had her doubts, but if Jake told her that was the way it was, she believed him.

Jake paused for a moment and was surprised with the new sensation of pain in his heart for having to leave. He spoke from his heart when he told her, "Alice ... I promise, if I'm able, I'll come back. I promise. You can count on it."

Alice had reached up, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him passionately on the lips. After their lips had parted she told him softly, "I want you to come back ... I really do and I expect you to honor your promise ... please be careful." She leaned forward once more and gave him a soft peck on his cheek. Jake knew he wanted to return as much as she wanted him to come back.

The cabin was silent as each of the officers were apprehensive about the next day ... there was very little talk amongst them. Everybody found a place to bed down for the night and soon the cabin was completely silent except for the sounds of sleep.

The next day was bright and sunny with a light wind from the north. As the group prepared to saddle up, they also checked their weapons, making sure everything was loaded and all of them had plenty of firepower. They had heard this was going to be the most difficult town to deal with as most of the deputies were involved in the graft and corruption in town. Once everybody was satisfied with their weapons, they stepped up to their saddles and rode off to take back the town from the corrupt "peace officers".

The previous evening one of the marshals had slipped into town and had spoken to some of the reliable townsfolk, asking them to spread the news they were coming to town and for the people to stay off the streets and out of harm's way.

Jake and the others stopped at the edge of town, dismounted and tied off their horses. Jake stooped down and explained to his dogs what he wanted them to do. After giving each of them a playful scratch behind their ears, each of them silently slipped away, heading down back streets and watching for what Jake had asked them to do.

The seven marshals stood shoulder to shoulder, spreading across the street as they started to walk down the middle of the main street. One of the marshals noticed movement on his left and before he could defend himself, a crooked deputy had fired, hitting the marshal in the arm. Two of the other marshals opened fire at the deputy, killing him instantly. The injured marshal was only nicked in the arm and still able to continue, but now the rest of the marshals were on notice and when another marshal saw a movement, he shot immediately and another of the town's crooked deputies fell.

Jake heard one of the dogs barking down one of the alleys and he told the others to wait for a moment. He stepped into the small street and at the end, found one of the crooked deputies. Jake called for the man to stop and as the deputy turned, he drew his revolver. Jake had anticipated this and was prepared. Two shots rang out and the deputy dropped to the ground ... dead. Jake felt a burning on the outside of his left arm and when he glanced down, noticed there was now a hole in his shirt and the sleeve was turning red with blood. Jake reached over and scratched his dog behind his ear and told him what a good dog he was.

Jake returned to the other marshal's and the head marshal asked him if he was OK. Jake motioned to his sleeve and told the others he was fine. Jake pointed towards town and said, "Let's go ... we have work to do."

Before moving any further down the street, the head marshal called out, "Sheriff Jackson ... this is federal Marshal Davenport. I have a warrant for your arrest. Come out now and surrender and you will not be harmed. If you refuse, I have the authority to bring you in ... dead or alive ... It makes no difference to me."

Davenport's statement drew gunfire from 3 different locations and the marshals returned fire with all the force at their disposal. In a matter of seconds, 3 more bodies fell victim to the hail of bullets fired their way. Davenport again called out, "Sheriff Jackson ... it doesn't have to be this way. All of you come out now and we can end this."

From inside one of the buildings a shot rang out and another deputy came stumbling out, shot by one of the townspeople who were fed up with the crooked law men they had been forced to live with for the past few years. Up ahead, 2 of the deputies came walking down the street towards the marshals with their hands held over their heads. Shots came from inside the sheriff's office, both deputies who had tried to surrender dropped to the ground, shot by whoever was hiding in the sheriff's office.

All of the marshals turned towards the office. The air was filled with the sounds of gunfire and the front of the sheriffs' office exploded as the bullets tore away wood from the front. Davenport held up his hand and the firing stopped. "If you want to surrender, come out now and you will not shoot." The door opened and 3 deputies came running out with their hands held high. As the last man stepped through the door, several shots rang out from inside the office and 2 of the 3 deputies staggered and fell to the ground. The third dropped his arms and stated to run. It took a moment before Jake realized this deputy had a gun in his hand and before any of the marshals could react, the deputy had fired. Jake felt a bullet tear through his leg. As his leg started to yield under his weight, Jake pulled the trigger on his shotgun removing the top half of the crooked deputy's head.

Jake found he could no longer put weight on his leg, but as he sat in the street, along with the other marshals he started to shoot into the sheriffs' office. When his pistol stopped firing, he picked up his shotgun, but Marshal Davenport placed his hand on top of Jake's hat and told him to wait. The town was now eerily silent and the marshals' waited to see if it was over. When one of Jake's dogs came to him, he told the dog to go around to the back of the sheriff's office and see if there was anybody alive. In a few minutes Jake heard the dog bark, signaling that it was safe to enter the office.

Jake was moved so he could sit in a chair under the roof on the wood sidewalk. The other marshals parted company and began to search the town for any of the other corrupt officials. When Marshal Davenport returned, he had 2 more of the deputies in tow.

Town's folk had started to gather around the sheriff's office, wanting to see for themselves that Sheriff Jackson was truly dead and they were hoping things would change soon. Marshal Davenport had the sheriff's body drug out into the street for all to see. Davenport looked at the gathered townspeople and address them, "I need to find a sheriff ... or at least a temporary one. Talk amongst yourselves and see if there is anybody who wants to be sheriff ... at least until we can find you one." All of the Marshals' had other duties which would not allow them stay and to be the sheriff. Eventually a young man stepped forward and agreed to try for a while; or at least until a new sheriff could be located.

Jake's dogs had returned and now sat on each side of the chair. There were two small wounds in his left arm, but the wound in his leg was the worst. He had staunched the bleeding and he wanted to see if he could return to Alice's home. Jake thought he was in good enough shape to ride that far. Davenport tried to talk him out of leaving, but Jake told him he had made a promise he needed to keep. Two marshals helped Jake up into his saddle and he called his dogs and then headed out of town.

As he rode up in front of Alice's house, he finally slumped over in the saddle. Carefully he tried to dismount from his saddle but the pain from the movement of his leg caused him to black out and when Alice came out to greet him, she found him on the ground passed out. She quickly summoned her two workers and the three of them packed Jake into the house as best they could. She had them carry him to her bedroom and place him on her bed.

Alice gave orders to one of her workers to see to Jake's horse and dogs and asked the other worker to go and find the doctor; warning him not to tell Sheriff Barker that Jake was at her house. After she was alone, she removed Jake's boots and then took a pair of scissors and started to cut up his bloody pants leg. When she saw how badly his wound was and how it was oozing blood, she became alarmed. Reaching around behind his leg, she could feel where the bullet had passed through the leg and she was relieved to find the bullet wasn't lodged somewhere in his thigh. She washed the wound as best she could and waited for the doctor.

Jake's first thoughts were pain ... mainly the pain in his leg. As he tried to move, the pain shot through his body and he moaned. Alice reached out and took his hand. "Please lay still. A doctor is on his way."

"Where am I?" Jake murmured.

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