I Ain’t Dead Yet (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Bordertown
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,300


Faster than the speed of sound, faster than the speed of thought, and certainly faster than what Marshal Jack Craddock could move after seeing the man pointing a gun at him, the small chunk of lead slammed into his shoulder, throwing him hard against the tree he was standing beside. A single small, blue feather drifted down to land on his hat as the bluejay that had been fussing at the Marshal took to the air and disappeared. The buckskin mare that had been standing nearby decided now was the time for her to go on down the trail. So off she went at a dead run, dodging under and around trees and low hanging branches. For a moment, Jack seemed to hang there, then he slowly, oh so slowly, slipped down to sit under the big ponderosa pine.

It was as if time stood still. He was numb, numb all over. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t even wiggle his little finger, and certainly couldn’t even think about pulling the Colt 45 revolver that sat in the holster at his side. Even though he wanted to very much, oh so much, to be able to pull his gun and start shooting at the man that stood in front of him. Oh, how he wanted to kill that man, but it felt like he couldn’t even breathe. He felt like his whole body was paralyzed from the inside out. It felt as if his heart wasn’t even beating. It even felt as if he was outside his body watching what was going on. It was as if he could see himself crumpled beside the tree, head leaned back against the trunk, his left arm hanging with his left hand on the ground, his right hand laying on his thigh, palm up, still unable to reach for his gun. His right leg was bent at the knee, while his left leg was outstretched in front of him. He could even see the bright blue feather that lay on the brim of his hat. Now how could he see that while the hat was still on his head?

The man still had his own pistol out and pointed at Jack. As Jack watched, unable to do anything but stare, the man stepped forward, squatted down before him and looked him in the eye. “You dead yet, Marshal?”

“NO!” Jack wanted to yell; he was sure he had hollered at the man. But he was also sure he hadn’t said anything, that no sound had come out of his mouth. “No, I ain’t dead,” he wanted to yell, but couldn’t make the words come out. He couldn’t even open his lips. All he could do was sit and stare at this man that had killed him. Yeah, he thought, this is the one. Knew it would happen someday, but why today? Why like this?

The man stood and turned to his companion, who was just coming out of the trees to the south of where Jack had been looking for their tracks. This man was leading two horses. Jack noticed that one of their horses was a good-looking black, and the other was a bay that had seen better days. He was able to notice that the man who had shot him was tall, maybe taller than he was, with long reddish-brown hair with a beard to match. He had on better clothes than one would expect to see on an outlaw. A fine leather coat over a white linen shirt, and shiny black boots were pulled up over the cuff of a pair of tight, dark brown pants. A black bowler hat covered the red curly hair. Yeah, that had been the description of the man who had robbed and killed the old storekeeper in the small community of Sawmill Creek. The other man, leading the horses, was as he would have expected, wearing a typical cowpuncher outfit of homespun shirt, and pants, with an old, battered hat, and run-over boots. Just about the same as what Jack was wearing.

“He dead, Hodges?” asked the man with the horses.

“Yes,” answered the man that had shot the Marshal. “Any time I set my sights on a man, I make sure he is dead.” He laughed gruffly. “Sure wouldn’t want it to be the other way.”

“Then let’s get goin’. That there posse ain’t more than a few minutes behind us. If that much. You catch his horse? Mine’s all done in.”

“No. It took off. Maybe we’ll catch it farther on. Guess your old nag will have to do for now.” The man called Hodges took the reins of the black horse and quickly mounted. The two outlaws never looked back at the man sitting under the tree as they rode on down the trail at a steady gallop.

Jack was now beginning to feel an intense pain invading his body. It started in his shoulder and seemed to roll over him. He could feel the trickle of warm blood as it leaked from the bullet wound and ran down over his chest to puddle at his waist. He finally managed to raise his right hand and pull at the neck of his coat and shirt. The powerful pain spun through him causing him to stop moving. He knew he needed to stop the bleeding, but how to do it was a big problem when he couldn’t even attempt to change position. But he knew he had to. Gritting his teeth, he forced his hand to try to untie the bandana around his neck. The horrible pain gripped him again. With a groan, he gave up, his eyes closed, and he sat there, trying to make the pain go away.

It may have been seconds, or minutes, or longer when he realized he was hearing the sound of several horses moving toward him. He opened his eyes, tried to lift his head higher to see better, and to call out for help but all he got out was a moan. In moments, eight horses and riders had entered the small clearing near the big pine tree.

“Told ya I heard a gun shot. There’s a man over there,” said one rider.

“Who is he?” asked another.

A third man rode closer then dismounted and walked over to where Jack sat. “It’s that there Marshal from Bordertown. The one that come into Sawmill Creek just after Colin got his self killed.”

“He alive?”

The man moved closer and squatted down in front of the Marshal. Gingerly he felt the Marshals right wrist for a pulse. Then he waved his hand in front of Jack’s face. “Don’t think so. He looks dead to me. His eyes is wide open like he’s dead.”

I ain’t dead, thought Jack. I ain’t dead, he tried to say but as before no words came from his mouth.

“Well we can’t do him no good,” said the man as he stood up and remounted his horse. “Best we get on after them two that done killed Colin. We can’t let ’em get away with killin’ an old man like that. Colin was my friend.”

“Wilson, ya think someone ought a ride to Bordertown and let that there Mountie know about that there dead Marshal?”

“Yeah, Brooks, you just do that. You been wantin’ an excuse to get out  a ridin’ with this posse. So you do that. That Mountie can’t do nothin’ for a dead man either.” Wilson wheeled his horse and rode on down the trail. All of the others followed him except the one called Brooks.

Brooks looked at the Marshal. “Well, I can’t do nothin’ fer ya, either, Marshal. I ain’t even got a shovel to bury ya with. I’ll just be on my way and let that Mountie know what’s been goin’ on here.”

Good, thought Jack. Sure glad you don’t have a shovel. You go on now and let Bennett know. Maybe I really will be dead by the time he gets here. Moments after Brooks rode off Jack closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

Something brushed across his face, almost rough, but with a tickle to it. Jack Craddock came awake with a jerk. He started to brush away what ever had awakened him, but the first bit of movement brought back the pain. He almost growled at the memory of being shot. Using only his eyes, he surveyed what was around him. Instead of sitting upright against the tree, he was laying over on his side. At first, all he saw was dirt with a few scattered grass blades, a dried weed stalk, and two small, black tree trunks. One of the tree trunks bent and moved closer to him. Now he was staring at a horse’s hoof. Jack realized the tree trunks were the front legs of a horse. He didn’t dare move. A horse meant a rider. A rider could be an enemy.

Something dangled across his face again. Something else tickled his check, while a tiny wind sweep over him. The muzzle of the horse came into view. Long whisker-like hairs around the mouth of the animal, and on its chin, caused the tickle, and the wind was when it had breathed on him. One rein was draped across his injured shoulder. When he looked higher, a buckskin face came into his sight with a narrow, white blaze running down it. Two big, brown eyes gazed at him as if wondering what he was doing laying on the ground. It was the buckskin mare he had borrowed in Little Creek. But was anyone with her?

First he hoped there was someone that could help him, and then he hoped not when he remembered the outlaws had wanted his horse as one of theirs was played out. His limited vision didn’t show him anyone or any other horses. He did see that one bridle was broken as if the mare had stepped on it in her wild flight earlier. Both reins were dirty and muddy from dragging on the ground.

With an effort Jack pushed himself up until he was leaning against the tree again. There was no one around that he could see. He was relieved but knew he could have used some help from a friend or passerby.

He wanted a drink. His mouth felt as if it were full of cotton and dirt. And there hung his canteen on his saddle. But it was so far away. Oh, so very far away. He felt the blood beginning to run down his chest under his shirt. Movement had started the wound bleeding. It was difficult to untie his bandana with one hand, since his left refused to work, but after several long minutes of struggling he had it off. Without looking Jack eased the bandana under his shirt and pushed it against the ragged hole in his shoulder. He didn’t want to look at it. He was afraid if he did, he would pass out again. Briefly he thought about what Marie would say if she saw him using the dirty, sweaty bandana to plug the hole and stop the bleeding. She sure wouldn’t like it, but it was all he had and he just hoped it did stop the bleeding.

Jack sat there for several long minutes wondering if he had what it took to stand up and get the canteen. The mare patiently stood waiting for him. When he had ridden into Sawmill Creek, his palomino had been very tired and had a slight limp. He had planned to spend the night and let the horse rest before he started on for Bordertown. The people of the town had told him that just minutes before he had arrived, a store had been robbed and the storekeeper killed. When he had informed them that his horse wasn’t able to continue, a man at a stable had offered the use of the buckskin mare. Quickly he had switched his saddle and gear from the palomino to the buckskin and left to try to follow the trail of the thieves. He had been glad to find that the mare was fast, strong and responded well when he asked her to walk, trot, lope, or just to stand quietly while he looked for tracks. And he was especially glad that she had returned to him after being frightened off when he was shot by the robbers.

And now that he was thinking about the robbers, Jack wondered how he had ever let his guard down enough that the two men had been able to sneak up on him. Maybe he had been more tired than he had thought when he had started out on the outlaws trail. And he was used to his palomino nickering or doing something to let him know that there were other horses nearby. And maybe the mare had tried to alert him. It seemed that he did remember her turning around and looking behind them while he had been searching for tracks on the ground. He had been tired. And it was a horse he wasn’t sure of. And he just hadn’t been paying attention.

Now that he was remembering all that had happened, he remembered the posse that had come by and wondered where they were. Had they caught up with the outlaws? And had that one fella made it back to Bordertown and told Bennett about his being shot? Jack though for a minute. And he remembered that the outlaws and the posse had assumed he was dead.

Why had they done that?

“I ain’t dead,” he whispered out loud. He wondered again why they had thought he was dead when he had been very much alive and watching them. And why hadn’t he called out to them?

In a louder voice he said, “I ain’t dead. At least, not yet I’m not.”

The buckskin mare had been eating a bit of grass. She looked at him and whickered softly, then lowered her head to sniff at him.

“Good girl,” Jack said, “you’re a good mare for comin’ back. Really didn’t expect that.” He petted her on her soft black nose. “Guess I gotta give it a try, don’t I, girl?” He put his good hand on the ground and shifted over so that he was on his knees. He almost fell back as the ground and tree seemed to whirl round and round with him. He leaned against the tree until his head cleared, then using the tree for support he forced himself up to a standing position. The pain from his injured shoulder raced up and down, and black spots jumped around in front of his eyes. After several long minutes, Jack was able to stand without the aid of the tree. He took two steps and almost fell against the mare’s side. She didn’t move as he leaned on her, holding on to the saddle horn. And finally he was able to get the canteen and take a long drink. Water had never tasted so good.

*****

The Mountie looked up when the door to his office opened and a man walked in. “May I help you?” asked Corporal Clive Bennett as the man approached his desk. Bennett was glad for the interruption. His fingers were starting to cramp from writing reports.

“Yeah, I guess so. You’re that there Mountie fella, ain’t you? I seen you around when I come to Bordertown before.” The man took of his hat and turned it round and round in his hands.

Clive stood up and held out his hand. “Yes, I’m Corporal Bennett. And you are…?”

The man shook the Mounties hand. “Brooks. My name is Brooks. I’m from over toward Sawmill Creek. Got me a little farm over there. Was in town early yesterday mornin’ when some fellers came in and robbed ol’ man Colin’s store and kilt him.”

Clive furrowed his brow trying to remember what he could about the little wide spot in the road known as Sawmill Creek. It wasn’t much. “Sawmill Creek. That’s over to the southeast of here?”

“Yeah, it is. It ain’t much. But it has a good store, and saloon.”

“It’s on the American side, though. You’ll need to talk to Marshal Craddock. And he’s not here right now.”

“Yeah, I know he ain’t here. That’s why I done rode here to see you, ’cause that there Marshal done got his self kilt.”

Shock rolled over Clive’s face as he realized what Brooks had told him. The Marshal was dead. “Are you sure it was Marshal Craddock? How? What happened?”

“Well, the Marshal rode in to Sawmill Creek just right after ol’ Colin’s store was robbed. So he took on off after the two that done it, while some of us got a posse together. We rode after the Marshal and after about ten miles or so we found him sittin’ under a tree and he was dead. The others thought I should come on here and let you know while they rode on after them two outlaws.”

“You’re sure he was dead?” Clive couldn’t believe that he was hearing the man right. Craddock couldn’t be dead.

“Well, yeah, I guess so. One of the other fellers said he was. I didn’t see no reason for me to touch him or nothin’. I didn’t have no shovel or nothing and his horse wasn’t ’round no where to bring his body back with. So I just left him there.”

The thought of his friend and partner being dead caused Clive to go cold. It just couldn’t be. He picked up his gunbelt where it lay on his desk and strapped it around his waist. “Let me get my horse and you can show me where you left him.”

“Heck, Corporal, I been ridin’ all day. I need to get me a bite to eat. Can’t it wait for a hour or so?”

Clive spoke softly but his voice carried well. “No, no it can’t wait. You get a sandwich or something real quick over at the saloon while I get my horse, and you had better be ready to ride when I get back here.” As the Mountie reached for his hat and coat, he saw a woman standing just outside the open door. “Marie.”

The lady doctor’s face was white as a sheet; her hands twisted in her skirt, as she tried to keep the tears from pouring down her face. “I heard, Clive,” her voice was rough with the emotion she was trying to hold back. “I am going with you, Clive.”

“No, Marie. You can’t. You should stay here. I’ll take care of…of…what ever needs to be done.”

She raised her head a bit higher as she looked him in the eye. “Saddle my horse, Clive. I am going. And you can not stop me.”

*****

The water made him a little sick to his stomach but he managed to keep it down. He knew he needed to. That the water would help. Or he hoped it would. And he guessed it did, at least a little. Maybe the water and standing caused his head to clear a bit. At least it seemed easier to think now. And his thoughts told him he needed to get on the horse and head for home. For Bordertown. Bordertown was where the French woman Marie Dumont would be. Marie was a doctor, or sort of was. Her husband had been a doctor, and he had taught her what he knew. When he died, she took over his practice. She would take care of his wound.

The buckskin mare had waited patiently as he stood leaning against her and sipping at the water. Now she shifted her weight from one foot to another, causing the Marshal to almost fall. He looked at her and the saddle. He had to get on the horse, but he knew it was going to be painful. His left arm was useless so he would have to mount with just his right. First he tied the ends of the reins together and slid them over the head of the mare so that they hung around her neck. The reins were a little to short because she had stepped on them and broke the ends in her earlier wild flight but they would have to do. He took hold of the saddle horn with his right hand. Taking a breath, he raised his left foot and slid his booted toe into the stirrup. He hesitated. Taking another breath, he pulled himself up so that he could drag his right leg over the saddle and the mare’s rump. And then he was sitting in the saddle. Well, short of. He felt as if he might fall of at any moment, but so far so good. At least it was a start, even if the throbbing in his shoulder was worse. After taking another breath, he took hold of the reins, lifting them slightly and clucked to the mare. She walked off.

The mare seemed to realize that the Marshal wasn’t too steady in the saddle. She walked slowly, stopping now and then to allow him to regain his balance. At first, Jack was worried about where they were going. He certainly wasn’t sure. If he had been on his palomino or one of his other horses, he knew that the horse would have headed home to Bordertown without any direction from him. But the mare wasn’t from Bordertown. But she was from Sawmill Creek, and at least it was a town with people that would help him if he could get there. So he just let the mare have her head. All horses would eventually go back to the place they were fed.

The horse walked on and the Marshal nodded in the saddle in time with her footsteps. He tried to ignore the pain of each step but it was hard. He didn’t know how long they had been walking when the mare stopped and stood still. He looked up and realized he had no idea where he was but it was growing dark. The sun was down and soon it would be full dark. And he was so tired.

With an effort, he slid off the mare, and his knees buckled as his feet touched the ground. Jack would have fallen if he hadn’t managed to hook his right arm though the stirrup. With a groan and pushing off the ground, he pulled himself back up into a standing position where he leaned resting his forehead on the seat of the saddle. “All right, girl, you deserve a rest and I know you need some water and food and ain’t neither of us in any shape to go any farther. Or anyways, I’m not.” Jack threw the stirrup over the saddle, loosened the cinch and with a tug let the saddle slide to the ground.

The mare breathed a sigh of relief, and dropped her head, licking her lips as horses do when they understand what is happening. She knew or at least hoped the bridle would come off next. And it did. The Marshall stood, bridle in hand, as the mare took three steps, dropped to her knees, and then all the way down so she could roll on the lush grass to scratch the dried sweat off her back and sides. She came back up and shook like a dog shaking off water, and ambled over to the creek to get a big drink of the fresh water.

Jack tossed the bridle down on the saddle and sank down beside it. He lifted his canteen and drank. The water was slightly stale but he didn’t have what it would take to go to the creek to refill it. He longed for a cup of strong, black coffee and he even had some and a pan to make it in his saddle bags, but he was just too tired to gather any firewood. He got the single blanket he had wrapped in his slicker and wrapped it around himself, then added the slicker. From his saddle bag, he dug out some jerky, hard cheese, and a couple of crackers wrapped in a piece of brown paper. He chewed on a mouthful and took a better look around the small clearing.

The mare had stopped by a huge pine log that had fallen a long time ago. There was a jumble of huckleberry bushes and scrub oak growing beside it. Jack was lying by the saddle that had fallen by the log. Now the mare was eating grass in the center of the clearing which was only about forty feet across. To Jack’s left was the tiny creek, only about a foot wide, with a forest of trees on the other side of it. Actually, the trees seemed to completely surround the clearing. Except for the grassy area, Jack and the mare were fairly well hid, unless someone came into the little meadow.

The sun dipped farther to the west, shining in under the branches of the trees for a few minutes and then it was dark. The birds that had been chirping in the trees were quiet now. Jack laid his head on the saddle using it for a makeshift pillow. He wished it was a bit softer. A real pillow might make his shoulder feel better. The throbbing and burning intensified, making him wonder if infection was starting to set in. He tried to ignore it as there didn’t seem to be anything he could do for the time being. He figured the best thing was to get a few hours of sleep and tomorrow he would try to make his way to Sawmill Creek, or better yet, Bordertown. Off to the north, a coyote yipped; another answered it with a long, drawn-out howl to the east. In a moment, several answered the first two and then they were quiet. The sound of the mare tearing and chewing grass was calming. Unseen or heard, a small bat flitted through the trees snatching at a few insects. As Jack dozed off he wondered how he would ever get the saddle back on the mare.

*****

 “I know this is where he was,” whined Brooks as he, Corporal Bennett and Marie stood and stared at the tree Brooks had led them too.

“There isn’t anyone here now,” stated Bennett.

Marie walked closer to the tree and knelt beside it. The setting sun gave her enough light to see a dark spot on the tree close to the ground. She touched it with one finger. Then she smelled it. “Blood,” she said. “Clive, someone was here and they were bleeding.”

Bennett walked around the area. “The ground is really disturbed here. Horse tracks, and maybe the tracks of a man. And it seems like the horse left, walking that way.” He pointed to the south into trees. “And it’s to dark to try to track it tonight. We’ll camp here and try in the morning.”

“But Clive, what if Jack is still alive? He needs help. Morning might be too late. We should try to go on!” She stood by her pretty appaloosa horse, white with the scattering of black spots. She was ready to mount and ride on, ready to do anything to find Jack. She was filled with grief and the need to find her friend.

“I wish we could, Marie, but if we tried to track in the dark, we could lose the trail and it might take even longer to find him. We had better wait here.” He looked at the worried woman. “I would rather go on and find Jack, too, Marie. But I don’t think we should.”

“Be best, ma’am; it’s late and me and these horses is tired. No sense wearin’ out the horses. Mornin’ be comin’ soon enough.” Brooks was more than glad not to have to go on. He hadn’t figured on having to come back out here today. At least there was a woman along that could do the cooking. He didn’t approve of a woman wearing pants like she was, but he was more than glad to let her do the work. He loosened the cinch on his horse. “I do hope one of you might have something we can eat. I don’t think I got a thing.”

“Quite your belly aching, Brooks, and see if you can gather some wood and start a fire,” growled Clive as he unsaddled his and Marie’s horses. He wished that Brooks wouldn’t complain so much. It was getting on his nerves and he was sure it was upsetting Marie, too. He had needed the man to show him the way to this place that he said he and the posse had found the Marshall’s body, but tomorrow he would send him back to Sawmill Creek or where ever the man wanted to go.

Marie sank onto a nearby log to rest a little as Clive and Brooks set up a small camp. When they had a fire going, she put on a pan of water to heat for tea, which Brooks complained about, as he wanted coffee. She fried strips of bacon in a skillet that Clive had, then she opened a jar of home canned tomatoes and another of peaches. It wasn’t much split three ways, but would have to do.

After the small meal, each of them sat by the fire, leaning on their saddles with blankets spread over them; Brooks was on one side of the fire, while Clive and Marie sat near each other on the other side. Soon Brooks was snoring but the Mountie and the lady doctor took longer to let the flickering fire lull them to sleep. They were too worried about their friend. Several times, Clive added wood to fire and checked on the horses. It seemed to be a long night.

At the first crack of dawn, Marie and Clive were up and fixing a quick breakfast of coffee and bacon.

“That all ya got?” complained Brooks as he rolled up his blanket.

“Yes, this is all we have,” said Marie. She knew it wasn’t but she wanted to stretch the food as far as it would go, since she had no idea how long they might be away from a place where they could replenish their supplies.

“Sure ain’t much to fill my belly.”

Clive looked daggers at the man that went unnoticed. “You want more, you can ride back to town.”

“I’ll just do that, Mountie. I done showed you where that there Marshal was. I ain’t no hand at trackin’. I’ll just saddle up and go. Soon as I get me some of that.” He reached for a piece of bacon in the skillet.

“No,” said Marie, slapping his hand. “You can have a cup of coffee, but if you are going back to town, you can eat there.”

Clive smiled but didn’t say anything, while Brooks whined about starving as he filled his tin cup with coffee and sipped at the hot brew. Minutes later, the still complaining man saddled his horse and left.

“I am glad he is gone,” said Marie. “I have never seen anyone complain so much.”

“I agree with you on that,” said Clive as he ate a stripe of the bacon.

After the quick meal he saddled the horses while Marie packed their gear. Moments later they were in the saddle and following the trail that Clive had found the evening before.

*****

Slowly Jack Craddock came awake. He didn’t move, didn’t make a sound as he tried to look around the clearing. He cursed silently from the pain caused by his wound. It was still dark but there was a hint of light to the east. And he was warm, warmer than he would normally be when he woke up in the outdoors. There was a big, warm bulk at his back that was breathing gently. It smelled like horse. Tentatively, he eased out a hand to pet it and let it know he was awake, then he eased into a sitting position leaning against the horse. There was the slightest shift in its breathing and a big head came around to lightly smell at Jack. Has to be that buckskin mare, he thought, wondering what had caused her to lay down that close to him. He wasn’t going to complain ’cause she had kept him warmer.

Then he heard the voice again. He was sure it was the sound that had woke him.

“Ain’t nothin’ out there, Hodges.”

Hodges, thought the Marshal. Where had he heard that name? Then he remembered. The man who had shot him had been called Hodges. He sat perfectly sit and hoped the mare wouldn’t move. If she should decide to stand up or whinny, she would give them away. He slipped his revolver out of its holster that lay beside him. Forcing himself to do it, he reached out his injured arm and lightly gripped the mare’s nose, hoping it would keep her from whinnying.

“I said I heard something, Munder. There’s something in that bunch of brush and trees. Could be that Marshal’s horse. You catch that horse, we can make better time without that wore-out nag of yours. See what it is.”

Jack could hear the shifting of the two horses as they came a bit closer to the scrub oak and huckleberry bushes that kept them hid from him, and he from them. The mare shifted slightly as if thinking of getting up and he tightened his hold on her nose. At that moment, there was another sound just a few feet from where he and the mare lay. With a lunge, a big buck deer burst out of the trees just to the side of the oak thicket. Another deer followed the first and they both disappeared through the thick growth of trees.

“Damn, it’s just a couple of deer,” complained the man called Munder.

“Yeah, it is. We can’t make any time with that nag of yours. Sure wish it had been another horse.”

“Me, too. But another horse wouldn’t keep us from being lost. I still swear we’re headed back toward that there town were you killed that shop keeper.”

“We ain’t lost,” growled Hodges. “We just can’t see nothin’ through all these trees and the brush. Come on, let’s get goin’.”

Jack heard the outlaws’ horses as they moved farther and farther away. He breathed a sigh of relief, but waited a few more minutes before allowing the mare to get to her feet. The mare went back to grazing on what was left of the grass she hadn’t eaten the evening before. The Marshall leaned against the pine log, considering how he was going to get first the saddle and then himself onto the mare.

Craddock wasn’t sure how long he lay there — it could have been only a few minutes or a lot longer — when he heard horses coming toward the clearing again. He raised the pistol that he still held in his hand, and then he heard a woman’s voice.

“Clive, are you sure we are still on the trail? It seems to be going in circles.”

“Yes, Marie, we are on the same trail, but I don’t think the rider is guiding the horse. It’s as if the horse is going where ever it wants.”

The Marshal sighed in relief, lowering the Colt 45 so that it lay beside him on the ground. The buckskin mare neighed to the riders horses. At the sound, the Mountie reined up his bay horse, motioning for Marie to stay behind him. He drew his pistol and pointed it toward the horse hidden in the nearby oak thicket.

“Come out of there with your hands up,” commanded Bennett.

“Can’t very well do that, Clive,” called out the Marshal to his friend.

“Jack,” squealed Marie. It thrilled her to hear his voice when there had been a very good chance he was dead. She pounded her heals on the sides of the little appaloosa horse she rode and urged it through the brush to where she could see the injured man. She stammered a long string of French words that Jack didn’t understand then switched to English. “You are alive.” She jumped off her horse and ran to the Marshal and knelt beside him. “Are you hurt?”

“Yeah, I guess I am,” agreed Jack. Marie tried to move his shirt back from his injured shoulder so she could see the wound. “Now don’t go makin’ a big fuss out of a little scratch.” He knew Marie was going to make a fuss, but for the moment, he was kind of glad, although he wasn’t about to let her know. “It sure is good to see you,” he allowed himself to say. “Clive,” he looked up at his friend who stood by Marie, “the men that did this were here not long ago. They could still be around. So be careful.”

Marie returned to her horse for her doctor’s bag that hung from her saddle and set to work taking care of the gunshot wound in Jack’s shoulder.

Clive spent several minutes looking around the small clearing and in the brush to make sure there was no one else in the area. Deciding they were the only ones there, he started a fire and collected several large arm loads of firewood to feed it with. He heated a pan of water for Marie to use cleaning Jack’s wound, and another to make coffee in. “How is he?” he asked.

“Not good,” answered Marie. “The bullet went through his shoulder, but it may have done a lot of damage and I think some infection has set in. He has a fever.”

“Could a told you that myself,” put in Jack. “And I ain’t even a doctor. But I ain’t dead yet, am I?”

“No, you are not. And I will do my best to make sure that does not happen.” Marie turned to Clive. “I wonder why that man, Brooks, was so sure that Jack was dead?”

“I keep wonderin’ that myself,” said Jack. “I kept tryin’ to tell him and that posse that I weren’t dead but it was as if they couldn’t even hear me. Or maybe I wasn’t really gettin’ the words out, even though I was tryin’ to. And none of them idiots had enough sense to even check for sure.” He hesitated. “But, well, maybe that there Brooks, or someone of that posse did feel for a pulse in my wrist. Seems like I do remember that.”

“Then I wonder why they would have thought you were dead,” said Marie as she folded a bandage and made Jack whence as she placed it over the hole in his shoulder. “Be still.”

“I’m tryin’ but you’re makin’ me feel worse than I was ‘fore you got here.”

Clive poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Jack. “I would think that those men were maybe scared, and didn’t check as good as they should have,” he said. He was as glad that his friend was alive as Marie was.

“Yeah, they sure didn’t. And if I get a chance I’m sure gonna let ’em know ’bout it,” grumbled the Marshal.

Clive grinned, “I’m sure they are in for a surprise the next time they see you.”

“Good,” said Marie. “It will serve them right for leaving Jack out here.”

“It sure will, Marie. Now is there any chance that you or Clive brought some kind of food with you? And Clive would you make sure that there buckskin mare is all right. She took better care of me that those other men did. That’s for sure.” He told them about how the mare had come back to him after running away, how she had allowed him to climb back on her, and how she had laid by him during the night, keeping him warm.

After a camp meal and a nap for a couple of hours, Jack was feeling better and wanted to head back for Bordertown. Marie had tried to convince Clive that the Marshal needed to stay there for the night at least, but the Mountie was concerned that they weren’t safe since the outlaws had been by there that morning, according to what Jack had heard. And the Marshal was concerned too. While Jack rested, Clive scouted the area and found a better place to spend the night about a mile away. Quickly they packed their gear, saddled the horses and made the move to the new camp. Jack and Marie agreed it was much better, with more grass for the horses, and more wood for a fire that could be built under a cliff overhang so that it wouldn’t show as well to any one that might be looking for them.

Giving a sigh of relief at not having to ride all the way to Bordertown, Jack sank down on his blanket that Marie had laid over the softest pine bough tips she could to make him a bed. He was also glad that she had thought to add a couple of extra blankets to her pack when she and Clive had come looking for him. He laid there, eyes closed, listening to his two friends set up another camp and half dozing. He smelled the smoke of the fire and the rich aroma of coffee that he was sure was made mostly for him as he knew that Marie and Clive preferred tea. Probably got some a that there tea on, too, he thought. He dozed some more, and dreamed of blue feathers floating though the air, and a man in a bowler hat laughing at him while pointing a gun at him.

“Jack,” Marie said as she sat down beside him and touched his arm.

Jack woke with a start, his right hand reaching for his gun.

“It’s all right, Jack. There is nothing wrong. I have made you some soup.” She had a bowl of stew she had made out of a couple of potatoes, some carrots, an onion and a bit of roast she had brought in her pack.

The Marshal relaxed back onto his blanket and saddle, the wild look in his eyes gradually fading. “Sorry, Marie. Guess I was dreamin’.” He scrapped his hand across his face, trying to chase the dream away. Trying to hide from Marie how much it hurt, he managed to get to a sitting position and took the tin bowl from her, balanced it on his leg and tried a spoonful. “Tastes good.”

“What were you dreaming about?” asked Marie with a smile. She tried not to let him know she had realized how he had to struggle to sit up. She had wanted to help him, to baby him, but knew he wouldn’t like it. He still looked feverish, his eyes had dark circles under them, his beard was coming in heavy, and he looked as if he had lost weight. She hated seeing him hurting but kept thinking about how wonderful it was that he was alive after she had thought he was dead.

As he ate, Jack sneaked a look at the lady doctor sitting by him. He could tell she was tired from what must have been a hard ride yesterday and today to find him, and then from having to take care of him, as well as doing the cooking and other camp chores. She wore pants, a shirt with a light jacket over it, boots, and a felt hat, and all were showing wrinkles and stains. It was an outfit and situation most women would have been horrified to find themselves in, while here was Marie smiling as if there was nothing wrong, as if they were on a simple picnic for an hour or so. They don’t come no better than Marie, he thought, or more pretty.

He finished the soup and handed her the bowl. “I was dreamin’ ’bout the man that shot me. He was standin’ there in that bowler hat, pointin’ his gun at me, and there was these blue feathers floatin’ around, and one was hung on my hat.” He though about the dream and about how he had been shot. “That really happened. I think. I remember that man Hodges standin’ in front of me after I was shot and askin’ if I was dead. And I remember seein’ myself leanin’ against a tree staring at Hodges and this little blue feather came floatin’ down and landed on the crown of my hat and stayed there.” He thought again. “But I was still wearin’ my hat. I couldn’t a seen that feather, could I? Not while my hat was still on my head.”

Marie worried her lip with her teeth as she thought about what Jack had said. It made her think about a story her late husband had told her. “Maybe you were dreaming then, Jack. You could not have seen the feather if you were wearing your hat.”

“Had you ever seen this Hodges before?” asked Clive. He was more concerned about who the shooter was.

“Don’t think so.” He had already given Clive a brief description of the men but he did it again. He hoped he would have another chance to come face to face with Hodges and that the outcome would be a lot different.

*****

It was two days before Marie would allow Jack to make the trip back to Bordertown. It was a long, slow trip with several stops to rest. As before, the buckskin mare seemed to do her best to make the ride as easy on the Marshal as possible. Jack was already thinking of how he could find enough money to buy the mare. She was as well trained as any horse he had ever ridden. And that included his palomino he was so fond of and had left in Sawmill Creek. He hoped the horse was getting good care while he was gone. And it sure was good to get back to Bordertown. It was good to be alive to see it again. It still made him mad to think that the posse from Sawmill Creek had assumed he was dead when he wasn’t, and had left him there to manage on his own, instead of helping him when he had needed it so badly. As he had done so many times, he wondered why they had left him for dead when he wasn’t. He sure planned to find out why.

Marshall Craddock spent several more days at Marie’s recovering, and then returned to his duties as Marshall. Or he had sort of returned to his duties. He was still spending more time sitting at his desk than walking the streets but that would come soon. What was really bothering him was the fact that he still didn’t feel good enough to do any riding and make an attempt to find the men that had robbed the store in Sawmill Creek, killed the storekeeper and shot him. He had, with Clive’s help, sent notices to all the towns in the area, telling what had happened and adding a description of the man in the bowler hat. He had hoped that he would hear from a lawman somewhere saying that the man had been arrested but so far there hadn’t been any messages sent back to him.

It was mid-afternoon when Clive entered the office that was split by the border between Canada and the United States to find Jack sitting at his desk cleaning one of his guns. “You busy?” he asked.

“Sure I am,” said Jack as he wiped an oily rag over the pistol. “Can’t you see that, Corporal?”

“Why sure, Craddock, I can see how busy you are, but I thought I’d offer to stand you to a cup of coffee down at the saloon. That is, if you could tear your self away from all that important work you’re doing there.”

Jack stared at his friend for several long moments then took his time putting his gun cleaning tools into a desk drawer. He stood, slid the Colt 45 into his holster, and fastened it around his waist. “Well, Mountie, I guess since you’re offerin’ to buy, I’ll make the time to take you up on your offer.” He winced slightly as he reached his left hand up to remove his hat from the hook where it was hanging by the door and settled it on his head. He led the way out the door with Clive following.

They walked down the boardwalk side by side toward the saloon, speaking to several men that they passed on the way. As Clive pushed the swinging door open to the saloon, there came a shout from across the street.

“Corporal. Marshal,” yelled a man running up to them. “There’s some fellers in the store over there talkin’ real bad to that there lady that runs it. I heard ‘em when I was goin’ in and didn’t go in but come to get you.”

Clive was off running across the street with Jack trying as hard as he could to keep up with him. They would have been concerned for any one that was being hassled, but the man had indicated the store that Marie ran when she wasn’t doing medical work. But it was Sally instead of Marie that the two lawmen saw standing behind the counter when they entered the store. Marie’s part-time store clerk had her hands up and looked like she might pass out from fright. Two men stood in front of her with their guns drawn and pointed at the woman.

One of the men tossed a burlap bag onto the counter in front of Sally who screeched and jumped back as if the sack might bit her. “Quite your snivelin’, woman, and fill that there sack with the money in that there cash drawer,” said the man.

Sally mumbled something and slowly reached out one hand to pick up the sack with two fingers. She started to side step down the length of the counter to where the cash register sat.

“Hurry up!” yelled the other man at her.

She yelped again in surprise but opened the cash drawer and pulled a stack of bills out and put them in the bag, then added a handful of coins. She held out the bag toward the robbers.

“Get the rest,” demanded one of the men.

Sally dropped the bag on the counter and pushed it over toward the man. “That’s…that’s all there is,” she whimpered.

“That’s all?!”

“Uh – huh.”

The two men looked at each other. “Munder, I thought you said there would be lots of money at this store.”

“Well, I thought there would be, Hodges. Don’t yell at me ’bout how much there is.”

The man called Hodges shook his head in disgust at his partner, then grabbed the sack off the counter. “Come on. Let’s get outa here ‘fore someone else comes in.” He turned around and headed for the door with Munder behind him.

As they went through the door, they didn’t see the two lawmen — one on each side of the door — waiting for them to come out. The two outlaws stopped short as a pistol was jammed into each of their backs.

“Hold it right there,” commanded Marshal Craddock. “Drop those guns.”

“You’re under arrest,” said Corporal Bennett.

Both would-be robbers let their pistols drop to the boardwalk.

Craddock grabbed one of the robbers by the arm and slammed him up against the wall of the store, keeping his gun pointed at him. He looked at the man for a moment then reached up and pulled the bowler hat off of him. “Bennett, I do believe we not only caught us a couple of store robbers but the man that murdered that there store clerk over at Sawmill Creek a couple of weeks ago. Which would mean that this is the feller that shot me and left me for dead.” The Marshall slapped the bowler hat at the man. “Now he’s gonna get to spend a lot a time in jail.” He spun the man around and gave him a shove, causing the man to fall face first into the street where he landed in a mud puddle. Craddock leaned down, picked up the pistols the men had dropped, and tucked them behind his belt.

Bennett gave the other man a little shove toward his friend lying in the street. “Help him up and start walking toward the jail.”

“Don’t push,” said Munder as he stumbled over toward Hodges. He reached down and helped the man up who then shoved Munder aside.

“Don’t need your help,” growled Hodges as he started across the street with the Marshal right behind him.

*****

The buckskin mare walked down the one short street that made up the small community named after the creek that ran nearby. The mare’s rider looked around, searching for the small stable run by the man that had loaned the mare to him. It had been a week since Marshal Jack Craddock had caught the two robbers that had murdered the store clerk in Sawmill Creek and had shot him, leaving him for dead. They were still in his jail but a couple of deputies from Fort Benton should be arriving soon to take them back to stand trial. Now he finally felt well enough to return the buckskin mare to her owner and reclaim his palomino.

A man stood outside of the single saloon in the would-be town. As he watched the Marshal, his jaw dropped and his mouth opened and stayed that way for several seconds. Then he whirled around and darted through the bat wing doors of the saloon. Jack grinned. He was fairly sure the man was going to tell his friends that the dead Marshal had come back to life. Jack would have thought the fact that he was still alive would have made its way to Sawmill Creek by now, but maybe not everyone had believed he was alive.

Catching sight of the stable, he reined in at the doorway to the little barn. He swung down off the mare and stood there a moment, looking into the dark building trying to see if there was anyone inside. A man in his late fifties walked around the corner of the barn and up to the lawman. A boy of about ten years followed him.

“Marshal Craddock. Sure is good to see you up and about. And you brought the mare back.” He and the Marshal shook hands.

“It’s good to be able to be ridin’ again, Mr. Norton. And I want to thank you for the loan of this mare. She sure is a good horse. Really well trained.”

“That she is, Marshal. She was one of the last one’s my son trained before he was killed by a crazy bull that got loose one day ’bout a year or so ago.”

Jack was a bit shocked at the man’s story. “Sorry about your loss, Mr. Norton. He must have been a fine man. Wish I had known him.”

“He was, sir. My dad was a really good horse trainer,” the boy that had followed Norton spoke up. “And I sure am glad you brought Angel back to us.” The boy went to the mare and reached out a hand to pet her soft nose. She gave a low whicker of recognition, and allowed the boy to hug her neck.

“Angel. So that’s her name. It’s a good one.” A guardian angel maybe, thought Jack. The mare had helped him when he needed it most. “I don’t suppose you would be willing to sell her, would you, Mr. Norton?” He was sure the answer would be no, but he had to ask. “I sure would like to have her.”

“Marshal, this is my grandson, Taylor. And no, I don’t think he wants to sell the horse his pa left to him. She’s his horse.”

“No, sir. She ain’t for sale,” said Taylor with a tremor in his voice as if he was afraid that the Marshal might insist that he sale her.

“No, Taylor, I didn’t figure she was, but I had to ask, just in case. She is one fine mare.” Jack walked to the mare, tossed the stirrup over the seat of the saddle, loosened the cinch, and pulled the saddle off. “You got a halter or rope you can put on her when I take my bridle off?”

Taylor looked at the Marshal as if he had insulted him. “She don’t need one.” He unbuckled the throat latch and the mare dropped her head lower, so the boy could slide the bridle over her ears and off. Taylor handed the bridle to Jack, and turned to go into the barn with Angel following him.

“Yeah,” said Norton. “Taylor and that mare got somethin’ special goin’ on between ’em. He’s gonna be able to train horses like his pa did.”

“Sure looks like,” agreed Jack.

“I got your palomino out back in my pasture,” said Norton. “Now that there is a good horse, too. Let’s go get him.”

“Yeah, he is. What do I owe you for his keep while you had him?” asked Jack.

“You don’t. Henry Colin was a good friend of mine. I’m just glad you done caught those two that killed him. ‘Sides you took good care of the mare. Fact is, she looks like she might have gained a few pounds while you had her.”

Jack chuckled. “Yeah, she might have. Once we got to Bordertown, she didn’t have nothin’ to do but stand around and eat for a couple a weeks while I was gettin’ better from where that Hodges feller shot me.”

Norton led the way around the barn and opened a gate that led to a pasture where several horses were. He had picked up a rope hanging on the gate as he went through it. Jack followed him and saw his palomino in the group of horses watching the men as they made their way toward them. Norton slipped the rope over the head of the palomino and handed it to the Marshal. The palomino lowered his head and sniffed all over his owner. Jack reached a hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a piece of peppermint candy and held it out in the palm of his hand for the horse. The palomino lipped it up and crunched the sweet gratefully.

“You ain’t no slouch with horses your own self, Marshal. You know that most of ’em really do like that peppermint candy.”

“I learned a long time ago that the best way to get along with a horse is to treat ’em right, and feed ’em well. And that includes some treats like candy and carrots, when I got ’em. I would a liked to a had the mare but didn’t figure you would sell her, but that there Hodges feller that killed your friend, Colin, had a nice black stud I plan on keepin’. Should make a good one, too, after I do some more trainin’ with him.”

With Norton following, Jack led the palomino back to where his saddle was. He pulled a curry comb out of his saddle bag and brushed the horse, then put first the saddle blanket on him and then the saddle, fastening the cinch but leaving it loose. “I sure hope he ain’t too frisky after not being ridden for so long. Don’t know if I’m up to havin’ him doin’ any buckin’.”

“Don’t fret, Marshal. Taylor’s been ridin’ him some the past few days. Figured you’d be here soon for him, and didn’t want him to be too fresh.”

Jack walked the horse a few feet up the street and led him back. “Obliged for the consideration, Mr. Norton.” He pulled the cinch a little tighter.

“Name’s Edgar. Not Mr. Norton.”

“Sure, Edgar, and mine’s Jack.”

Edgar scratched his neck, and rubbed his chin. “Been tryin’ to figure out why the posse, and especially Brooks, thought you was dead when they found you out there. When Brooks came back, he told us all about how you was dead and he rode to Bordertown and then showed that Mountie and French lady doc where your body should a been. Ol’ Brooks, he flat refused to believe that there cowboy that rode in a couple a weeks ago and said that the Marshal was alive and well in Bordertown.”

Jack shook his head. He wished he could figure out why they had left him for dead, too. “I can’t say, Edgar. I know I kept tryin’ to tell them I wasn’t dead, but seemed like I couldn’t get the words out. Marie, Dr. Dumont. She told me about some patients her husband had had that seemed to be dead and then they weren’t.”

Jack tightened the cinch once more to the proper place around the palomino. He put the bridle on, took the rope off and handed it to Edgar. He mounted the horse which stood still like it was supposed to. “But I’ll tell you this, Edgar. Whatever happened out there, I sure am glad I ain’t dead, yet.”

Taylor, with the buckskin mare following, came out of the barn. “Bye, Marshal.”

“Bye Taylor, Edgar. Be seeing you around.”

***The End***

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