This is a story about a FANTASY written for consenting adults. If you're not both of those, don't read it. Characters in a FANTASY don't get sick or die unless I want them to. You don't live in a FANTASY so be safe. The fictional characters in my stories are trained and experienced in acts of FANTASY - don't try to do what they do - someone could get hurt.
If you think you know somebody who resembles any of the characters here, congratulations, but you're wrong - any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person is purely coincidental, since all of these characters are figments of my dirty little imagination.
This is my story, not yours. Don't sell it or put it on a pay site. You can keep it and/or give it away with all of this information intact, but if you make money off of it without my permission, you're breaking the law and pissing me off.
The rider on the buckskin took his time, studying the trail, and, by turns, the terrain ahead. He could tell by the way sand occasionally fell into a hoof print that he was not far behind his quarry. The horse he was following had been ridden hard, and from the way the hooves scraped sand between steps, must have been on its last legs.
The heat made the air shimmer as he studied the rocks and brush ahead for any sign of the man he had chased halfway across the territory. Yesterday, they had even passed through a hole in the Big Fence into what had once been known as Mexico.
The rider pushed his black Stetson back and pulled his 30-30 Winchester from the saddle boot, as if sensing something that he couldn't see.
He felt the slam of the bullet before the report of the rifle reached his ears, and he pitched from the saddle to lie twisting and twitching in the hot sand. After a few moments, he lay still.
As he lay there, his mind drifted...
Alex could not remember a hotter day at Hidden Valley. He took off his black Stetson and wiped the sweat band. A ragged, crusty line of white salt circled the crown about midway up. While some complained about the heat, he relished the sweat that it brought to the surface, especially when it was due to hard work. He wasn't the only one working hard, but even the Phoenicians, trained in desert survival and tough as nails, found it difficult to keep pace with him. He was like a man driven by demons.
He surveyed the new cabin with pride. He had wanted to build it himself, but the Phoenicians' argument that it would take too long soon convinced him to accept their help. Alex had accepted the job they offered, and he couldn't very well take a year off to rebuild before starting his new career.
As it turned out, Hidden Valley, being centrally located within the territory he was to cover, was an ideal location for his headquarters as the frontier's 'justiceman'. 'Lawman' didn't really fit, since there was no law, and since there were no courts or lawyers, either, Alex would have to be a law unto himself.
The new cabin was his design, but with the help of the Phoenicians and their tools and machinery, it had gone up faster than he would have imagined.
Alex's emotions were in turmoil as he gazed on the new construction. There was nothing about the house to remind him of 'Cilla and Josh, or even Pops, for that matter, but the mountains that had formed the backdrop for his life there had not changed, nor had the sunsets. His memory still painted 'Cilla beside him each time he turned his gaze toward the setting sun, her blonde hair blowing gently across his chest as her tiny arms held him around the waist. He could not count the number of sunsets they had watched that way.
At first, he had thought her silly. The sun setting was an everyday occurrence, so why make a fuss over it? Over time, though, those had become his favorite times of the day. He had never felt so complete and so utterly a part of his surroundings as he did watching sunsets with 'Cilla. She had never lost her sense of wonder in the beauty of the orange and purple sky, the flight of an eagle, or the grace of a deer, and soon, he had caught whatever malady afflicted her. When he first noticed that he, too, was looking for the nuances in every unique passage of the sun behind the mountains, or waiting with bated breath for that moment when the sky blazed with brilliant color just as the sun disappeared for another night, he wondered what had come over him.
It wasn't until Miz Jane Gomez, known to her peers as Sgt. Gomez, had explained that he had been in love that he understood. That was soon after he had killed 'Cilla and Josh's murderers, and her loss had not really sunk in at the time.
Those had been times of contentment that he was likely never to see again, and it pained him each time he saw the flowers she had planted, or the wooden horse he had made for Josh's second birthday with his own two hands. 'Cilla had prized birthdays more than anything, perhaps because she had never known when hers was. His birthday and Josh's were causes for major feasting at Hidden Valley, but now they would be commemorated only with sorrow and an aching heart.
'Cilla's made-up birthday, the anniversary of the day they had met, had been two days ago. Alex had quietly slipped away from the bustle of putting the finishing touches on the cabin and laid flowers on her grave. As he wiped the tears from his eyes and turned away, he had found Jane Gomez watching him from a discreet distance, and wondered at the pain in her eyes. She said nothing, but slipped her arm through his and walked back with him to where the others were just knocking off for lunch.
Now, Alex shook the cobwebs from his mind and turned his thoughts to business. Hidden Valley was no longer to be hidden. It was to become the central office for his new endeavor. Pops had not raised Alex with any illusions. He knew that his chances of surviving what he had pledged to do were almighty slim, but it was worth doing, and if a man counted up the cost before he took on the job, he'd likely never get anything done.
"I reckon I'll start makin' the rounds of the settlements tomorrow," he told Sgt. Gomez as she came up beside him. "Any of 'em that wants to be part of this deal will get one of them portable radio things so they can call me if they think they need me."
"All right," Jane nodded, "but remember, you keep the guns we supply you. We don't want those falling into the wrong hands."
"I reckon the guns I got are about all I need," Alex said. Surprisingly, even when the work crews demolished the old stone fireplace down to the hearth so they could build a new one, no one had discovered the hidden cache of weapons and ammo under the hearth, and that was fine with him. If they kept pushing, he'd accept some of their weapons just to avoid questions, but given what he and Pops had squirreled away, the Phoenicia-supplied weapons would just sit around and gather dust. It wasn't so much a matter of distrust that kept him from revealing the cache to his new partners. It was just that Pops had drilled the concept of 'need to know' into him so deeply that he couldn't let go of it. Even the most trusted of friends could let something slip, but nobody could talk about what they didn't know.
"At least take an M16 or M4," Jane told him. "I know you're comfortable with the weapons you carry, but you never know when you might need a little more firepower."
Alex shrugged and accepted the M16 she held out. No point in telling her that there were six of them in his weapons cache already, along with hand grenades, rocket launchers, several shotguns, a 7.62mm machine gun, and a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Those were all fine weapons if you were fighting a war, but for the kind of fighting he expected to do, his revolvers and Winchester would suit him just fine.
Three weeks later, having distributed radio sets to all the settlements that said they wanted his help, he had ridden into San Carlos in response to a call on one of those sets. The trader there had been shot and his store robbed, according to witnesses. Alex did some poking around and asked a few question, but had little to go on, except that the rider had gone south before turning slightly east. There were, of course, no tracks on the pavement of the old streets, but sand had blown across the road in places and it was there that he first picked up the trail. As soon as he got past the buildings and fences, the rider had struck out south by southeast, leaving the paved road behind.
Alex had been on his trail ever since. He almost caught up with the man twice, but something had warned his quarry that Alex was coming, and both times, he had managed to slip away. The second time had been with Alex's bullet whizzing past his ear.
Alex had two horses, his prey only one, and Alex was relentless, never giving the man time to eat or sleep. The killer would run his horse and get a few minutes ahead, but always, Alex showed up, trading horses periodically to keep them fresh, and watering them from the crown of his Stetson when they got thirsty.
This was the day he expected to catch up to the man. This was the day of danger. Like any cornered animal, he expected the man to turn on him when he had nowhere else to run, and he had not been disappointed. Like a fool, he had ridden right into it...
.... There is more of this story ...