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 Muggyon Rim country was bleak and grey as the north wind scoured the landscape. There was a single, vaguely bright spot in the featureless grey of the winter sky that marked where the sun hid, but little light filtered through to brighten the stark landscape. To his right, Alex could catch glimpses of the old highway as it wound its way over the rim and north toward Show Low. To the west was a huge expanse of young pines intermingled with the dead and rotting corpses of the old growth trees that had burned to make room for the new growth. Judging by the sizes of the new trees, that fire must have occurred some years before the Sickness. Down below, the Tonto basin was as desolate as it must have been before white men came, bringing their houses and their irrigation. Here and there, Alex could see the crumbling remains of a house surrounded by the grey skeletons of the trees its owner had planted, nurturing them with water piped in from far away.
Nowadays, if you wanted water, you had to pump it out of the ground, or go where it was. Alex figured that was the way things were meant to be. Folks before the Sickness had changed the rules for a little while, but in the end, Nature went back to doing things the way she'd always done. Already, the crumbling remains of the civilization that men had built were being turned to dust and gravel by the relentless grinding of wind, rain and searing heat. Where there was water, the plants were tearing down the old buildings even faster. Something deep inside Alex felt satisfaction at that thought and he leaned over and stroked the buckskin's powerful neck.
"Don't make no difference, do it, boy," he told the horse softly. "We humans think we're almighty clever, but ol' Nature, she just bides her time. She ain't in no hurry, cause she knows that in the end, it's all gonna be hers again."
The buckskin snorted and tossed his head as if in agreement, the cold wind catching the long hair of his mane and whipping it about.
Much as he hated to leave the shelter offered by the scattered pines, Alex nudged the buckskin with his heels as he slacked up on the reins and touched them to the right side of Buck's neck.
"I reckon we'd better mosey on along, Buck," Alex told his mount, "I can smell the snow acomin' same as you, and I reckon we oughta get down a might lower if we don't want to get snowed in."
Buck knew where the trail down from the rim was, and didn't need any more guidance than to be pointed in the right direction. Placing his hooves carefully, the stallion stepped lightly as he carried them down the switchbacks of the barely visible trail.
As he rode, Alex reflected on the differences between the written names of things and the way folks pronounced them. Pops had insisted he learn to read and write and to understand counting and numbers, but it sure was puzzle sometimes. Even today, folks, when they wrote at all, copied the spelling Alex had seen on signs all over the countryside. 'Mogollon'. Now, the way Pops taught him, that ought to be pronounced 'Mo-go-lon' or, the way folks from down below the Fence would say it, 'Mo-go-yown'. Everybody that lived on or in the shadow of the Rim, however, pronounced it, 'Muggyon'.
Buck didn't give his rider time to solve the puzzle. His head came up sharply and his ears stood up straight, pointing down the trail like a man would aim a telescope. Suddenly, a shot rang out, and Alex slid his Winchester from its boot under his right leg, every sense alert. He stroked the buckskin's neck and muttered calming words to him as they both scanned the trail ahead with every available sense.
Alex urged the horse forward slowly, but he hadn't gone more than a few steps when the 'boom' of a shotgun halted them again. There were at least two guns in play somewhere, not too far ahead, and Alex eased Buck forward, keeping just the slightest tension on the reins as he nudged him with his heels.
Buck knew about gunfire, and he knew that caution was in order whenever it was nearby. He stepped lightly, nervously ahead. In the distance, Alex's ears caught the sound of hoofbeats that sounded like they were headed rapidly downhill, a pretty reckless endeavor unless the rider was damn sure of his trail. Easing around a bend in the trail, Alex saw a dark lump lying in the dust of the trail next to a ground-hitched horse.
The horse lifted her head and whinnied at Buck, then, satisfied that the two of them meant her no harm, went back to cropping the meager tufts of grass alongside the trail.
Alex dismounted a couple of hundred feet away, taking his time about scanning the slopes above and below the strange horse, while staying out of most lines of fire that covered the portion of the trail on which the shapeless form lay. He had a pretty good idea what that thing on the trail was, and if he was right, he'd do no one any good if he rode into an ambush.
Taking a pair of moccasins from his saddlebag, Alex removed his boots and slipped the moccasins on his feet. He tied his boots to his saddle and started uphill from where he was, moving silently through the brush and pine needles. At the top of the ridge, he turned parallel to the trail below and soon found himself looking down on the waiting horse.
From this angle, it was pretty clear that the bundle on the ground was, indeed, a human body. Moving further along the ridge, he came to the spot where the ambusher must have waited. The matted needles on the ground behind a big pine had been scuffed and disturbed by someone who stood and waited for some time. A spent 5.52mm shell lay on the ground a little distance away, ejected, no doubt, from the gun that killed the person below. Alex pocketed the shell out of habit, and scoured the surroundings for clues.
The watcher's horse had been tied further back, out of sight from the trail. From the tracks, that must have been the one he heard hightailing it downhill. There were, however human shoe prints in the dirt and vegetation leading downhill toward the trail. Following carefully, so as not to overlay any sign with his own tracks, Alex found the place where the ambusher had suddenly jumped or been thrown aside, and had then rolled downhill a few yards, before scrambling back to the top in an almighty hurry.
Torn leaves on a nearby bush gave Alex a clue as to why the sudden jump and reversal of direction.
"Birdshot," he muttered under his breath. "Somebody was a huntin' out here with a shotgun and musta persuaded this feller that he didn't want to go down to that there body after all. Musta got a couple of pellets into 'im, too, from the look of them blood droplets yonder."
Sighting from the location of the ambusher's jump, through the bush that got clipped by the shotgun blast, Alex was able to find the place further along the top of the ridge from which the bird hunter had presented his argument against the bushwhacker going to pay his respects to the body below.
Climbing back to the top, he went cautiously to the spot he had picked out from below. This one was much better in the wild, and left little sign, but Alex was able to piece out a shadow of a trail that showed he had slipped up on the bushwhacker and taken a shot, but apparently stayed out of sight 'til the killer had hightailed it out of there. There was a faint set of prints that led down to the body. Presumably the hunter had come down to check on the victim after the killer made his escape. In the dust of the trail, he found where someone wearing moccasins similar to his had walked over to the body, knelt on the trail, then disappeared, probably about the time the other horse noticed Buck coming down the trail.
Now here was a puzzle. Should he go after the ambusher or the bird hunter? He might be able to catch the shooter if he hurried, but if he missed him, the bird hunter might be able to tell him who he was looking for. Might even have seen the shooting, and had certainly seen the shooter.
The weather made up his mind for him. Flakes of snow started settling on the trail and the surrounding vegetation, and if Alex was any judge, this was going to be a bad one on top of the Rim. Down below, he might still be able to pick up the killer's trail. He quickly went through the dead man's pockets, finding only a letter in a sealed envelope. On the outside of the envelope, written in a neat hand, was: Merrilee Dunstan, Flagstaff.
Alex tucked the envelope inside his shirt for safekeeping and quickly hoisted the body across the saddle of the waiting horse, tying it in place with a short length of the rope that hung from the saddle.
The dead man wore clean clothing, old but kept in good repair. His hat was a stetson, like the one Alex wore, but grey in color, and it was stained with sweat. The man also wore sensible western boots with high heels; the kind that made it almost impossible for one's foot to slip through the stirrup and get caught. His hair was short, brown and roughly cut, but his beard couldn't have been more than a day old. He wore a Smith & Wesson .38 special, double-action revolver with a six inch barrel in a belt holster, high up on his waist. He also carried a 9mm Glock in a shoulder holster under his coat. Neither gun had been drawn and the bolt action rifle was still in the saddle boot.
The bullet that killed him had entered his back just under his left shoulder, had torn through his heart and exited beneath his rib-cage on the right side. Alex could see where it had grazed the cantle of the western saddle before losing itself in detritus somewhere along the trail.
Miz Jane had told him once that folks before the Sickness had been able to compare bullets fired from various guns with the bullet that killed somebody. From that, they could figure out which gun did the killin'. That was almighty interesting, but Alex couldn't do it, and anyway, he had no time to search for the bullet.
As he was turning away from the body, he heard a slight noise upslope and whirled around, a six-gun in his hand, cocked and ready. He noticed a little movement of a bush at the top of the ridge that couldn't have been caused by the wind.
"I know you ain't the one that killed this fella," he called, his eyes carefully scanning the sparse brush and scattered trees, "but if you seen who done it, you could be a powerful help to me in findin' the bushwhacker."
He listened carefully, but there was no answer and no further movement,
Whistling Buck up, he changed back into his boots as the snow started coming down in earnest. Fortunately, the shooter had fled downhill to the trail, then stayed on the trail going downhill, so he and Buck followed along at a good clip, trailing the other horse and its grisly cargo. Before he had gone too far, however, the snow had covered any chance of following the tracks of his quarry.
Still, this trail had no branches, and Alex urged Buck onward, turning up his collar against the blowing snow. As they neared the floor of the basin, the temperature rose high enough that the snow no longer accumulated, and sure enough, Alex again found the hoofprints of the shooter's horse.
By the worn-down condition of toe and heel of each shoe, he guessed that this was a horse that spent a lot of time on pavement. Its rider was light, and judging by the height of branches along the trail further up, from which the snow had been brushed by his passing, not very tall. Alex was a couple of inches over six feet, and he was pushing aside branches almost a foot above those the other rider had already cleared of snow.
Down on the floor of the desert, the rider ahead kept north, paralleling the old highway. He was a good way ahead of Alex and apparently no longer worried about pursuit, now that he'd outdistanced the guy with the shotgun. Not long after he reached the bottom of the trail, the rider had apparently stopped to treat his wounds. Alex found where his horse had stood for a while, shifting from foot to foot and pawing at the dusty ground, and on a nearby bush, he found a scrap of torn fabric with a little blood on it. This, too, he pocketed.
From the top of a rise, Alex caught a glimpse of his quarry just disappearing over another a couple of miles ahead. He was tempted to speed up and try to close the distance, but at the moment, the bushwhacker didn't seem to know he was being followed and in this open country, there was no way Alex could close the gap without being spotted, so he kept a steady pace. Whenever Alex topped a rise or crossed a flat, he looked for all the world like a weary traveler with many miles behind him and many more to go.
In the low places, however, where the rider ahead was unlikely to see him, Alex continued to study the tracks of the killer's horse and look for any other sign he might leave behind.
The rider never wavered, nor, as far as Alex could tell, looked behind him.
The sun made a brief appearance between the clouds and the Rim just before sinking out of sight for the night, painting another brilliant masterpiece in red, yellow, orange and purple on the canvas of the cloud cover. Alex marveled again at the way nature had of switching from drab to brilliant in only a moment.
Such thoughts had been foreign to him before 'Cilla chose him as her husband. It was she who opened his eyes and his heart to the wonders that he had always taken for granted. Now, every time he saw a sunset, or a high meadow covered in a pristine blanket of snow, or any of nature's myriad other treasures, he could not help but think of 'Cilla. He still had trouble reconciling the memory of her horrible death with the joy her image brought to his heart.
Miz Jane had told him he loved 'Cilla, and he reckoned she had the right of it, but it was an almighty confusing kind of thing to be afflicted with.
It was well after dark by the time Buck and the other horse plodded into Show Low. There were few lights showing except in the saloon and across the street at Molly's. From the few hairs he had found he knew the horse he was looking for was grey, probably with black stockings, but there was no such horse tied up on the street, either in front of Molly's or the saloon.
He went first to the saloon, and brought its patrons and a lantern out to see if anyone could identify the body. Most shook their heads and went back to their drinks. One man, though, leaned in for a closer look and said, "I think I seen this feller over ta Molly Sim's whorehouse th' other night. Yep, I reco'nize that fancy vest he 'uz a'wearin'. Seems to me, he 'uz talkin' sump'n over with Jack Overstreet. I 'member cuz Molly was some pissed when he left 'thout samplin' none o' the girls' wares."
"Thank you kindly, mister," Alex told the man. The fellow's eyes lit up when he saw the Phoenician credit piece that Alex gave him. A whole credit would buy a sight of whiskey in Show Low.
"You want anythin' else, mister," he said, "you jes' call on ol' Jasper. Jasper Warburg. Don't you forget, now. Jasper Warburg's your man."
"I won't forget, Jasper," Alex told him, turning to lead the dead man's horse across the street.
It was a slow night at Molly Sim's place, and all the girls in Molly's waiting room jumped up with big smiles on their faces when the door opened. When they saw it was Alex, the smiles faded a little, and they returned to their seats, but their greetings were friendly enough.
"Awful late for you to be out, ain't it Alex?"
They all knew Alex by name, and liked him, but they also knew he wasn't going to be a paying customer.
Alex swept the black stetson from his head and wiped his boots on the little rug by the entrance door as he let the door swing to behind him. He used his hat to knock some of the dust off his clothes before he moved beyond the rug.
"Evenin' ladies," he told them politely. "Has Jack Overstreet been in tonight?"
"Ain't seem him, Alex," one of the younger girls teased him. "You want to go upstairs for a quickie? Maybe he'll come in by the time we're done?"
As she had known he would, Alex blushed under his tan as he replied, "That's very kind of you, Miss Sue, but I don't reckon I'd better. Anybody know where Jack lives?"
"I reckon Annie ought to if anybody does," answered a redhead whose breasts spilled over the top of the bustier she wore. "She's the one he asks for all the time."
"Thank you kindly, Miss Polly," Alex replied. "Could I trouble you to point Annie out to me? I don't reckon I know which one she is."
"She's new since you visited us last, Kid," Polly smiled, looking around the room, "but I don't see her. Maybe she's a little under the weather. Ain't no customers tonight 'cept Boo Dalton, an' he's upstairs with Carmen."
"Maybe who's under the weather?" Molly asked, bustling in from the back of the building. On seeing Alex, her face brightened, "Why if it isn't Mr. Alex, the Apache Kid. What brings our very own justiceman to my parlor on such a cold, blustery night?"
Molly's 'parlor' had once been the waiting room for a small medical clinic. The former examining rooms had beds and other paraphernalia for certain kinds of activity. Upstairs were the girls' own apartments. Before the Sickness, those rooms had been apartments for rent. Most of the customers only got to see the rooms on the ground floor, but occasionally one of the girls would feel comfortable enough with a 'John' to take him 'home' with her.
"He's askin' about Jack, Molly," Miss Sue answered, before Alex could formulate a reply. "Polly told him to talk to Annie."
Molly shot Polly a warning glance. She didn't like her girls talking about each other.
"I only told him that Jack Overstreet always asked for Annie, Molly," Polly told her boss with a venomous glance at Sue. "You know I wouldn't tell tales on none of the other girls. I might yank some of their hair out, though, if they get on my bad side."
Sue's hand went to her curls as Polly said this and her eyes went wide, but she got the message and kept her mouth shut.
"Where is Miss Annie, anyway?" Molly asked, looking around. "I know she ain't got a customer. That girl better not be doin' no business on the side, or I'll tan her hide!"
"I'm right here, Molly," said a voice from the top of the stairs. The speaker was a petite woman with black hair and pretty face that gave Alex the impression of looking at a closed door. It was pleasant enough to look at, but you couldn't tell what was going on inside. "I reckon I musta overslept."
She was wearing a silk nightgown that came to her knees, and a light robe over it.
"Well come on down here, girl," Molly told her. "This here's Alex. Some folks call him the Apache Kid. He's as close to law as we got around here, so you be nice to him."
"Nice? You mean don't charge him?" Annie looked Alex up and down appraisingly, then finished with a predatory smile. "I reckon I could do that."
"That won't be necessary, ma'am," Alex said, blushing again, "I just wanted to ask you some questions about a murder I come across today."
The girl's face was suddenly deathly pale and her hand flew involuntarily to her breast.
"Murder?" She almost whispered. "Who got killed? Did you see who did it?"
"I don't know who it was, ma'am," Alex answered, "but maybe you can help me with that. I heard he was talkin' to Jack Overstreet the other night, an' maybe you saw him."
"Jack's always talkin' to somebody or other," Annie said, "I don't usually pay them no mind."
"Well, I got him outside on his horse, ma'am, and I'd be much obliged if you could take a look and tell me if you ever seen him before. Miss Molly, could I trouble you for a lantern so she can see this feller's face?"
"Of course, dear," Molly replied. "Sue, fetch the Kid a lantern."
"While we're waitin', ma'am," Alex said to Annie, "could you tell me where Jack Overstreet lives? I reckon I ought to talk to him, too."
"Well, we don't spend a lot of time talkin' when he's with me, sugar," Annie replied, "but I seem to remember him sayin' somethin' about runnin' some cows under the Rim over west of town. Ain't never been out there though."
"I seen some cows out that way a time or two. I reckon that rocking JO brand must be his. I've got to go over to Flagstaff anyhow, so I reckon I'll stop in and pay Jack a visit on the way. Why, thank you kindly Miss Sue!"
Alex flushed again when Sue pressed her nearly naked body against his as she handed him a lit lantern.
"Don't mention it, sweetie," she told him in a sultry voice. "You come back and see me some time when you're off duty. I'll do you for free."
"Now that's a right nice offer, ma'am," Alex said, stepping back and putting on his hat, "but it don't seem right to take nothin' for free. I done it once or twice and it turned out it weren't so free after all. Now if you'll excuse me, Miss Sue. Miss Annie?"
He offered the black-haired girl his arm, then, remembering what the weather was like outside, he handed her the lantern, instead, and took off his coat to wrap it around her shoulders.
"Well aren't you the gentleman!" Annie told him, once more giving him the once-over.
"I don't know how a gentleman ought to act ma'am," Alex replied, offering his arm again, and taking the lantern from her, "but it's snowin' up on the Rim, and that cold air's just a runnin' down them hills like a mountain stream. The way you're dressed you'd catch your death out there without that coat."
The lamp guttered and smoked a bit as the first gusts hit, but the glass chimney did its job and the lantern stayed lit. Alex stepped off the sidewalk and gave Annie his arm for support as she negotiated the step in her high heeled slippers.
"You ever seen this feller before?" Alex asked as he reached the horse with the body over the saddle. He raised the head up using a handful of the man's greasy hair as a handle, and held the lantern close by.
"Can't say that I ha..." Annie started to say, when Polly, who had come out with some of the other girls to see what all the fuss was about, interrupted.
"Why sure you have, Annie! Don't you remember? He was in here just last night. Jack introduced him as his foreman out at the ranch. Hell, between him and Alex here not wantin' none, it's lookin' to be mighty slim pickin's this week. Ain't there no real men out there no more?"
Annie, flustered, stammered, "Why, now that you m-mention it ... Here. Hold the lamp over here ... Why yes! That is Marv Beeman. Didn't recognize him at first. Can't imagine why anybody'd bushwhack him. He seemed harmless enough."
Alex looked at her sharply for a moment, but his tone was mild as he said, "Thank you, Miss Annie, Miss Polly. If it's all right with you, Miz Sims, I'll take this feller over to the undertaker, then me 'n Buck'll bed down in your stable."
"What about that other horse?" Molly asked as they hurried back inside. "Hay ain't cheap, and you ain't spent a penny here since I been open. You nor that old man you used to hang out with."
Alex gave her a five Credit bill with the Phoenix symbol prominent on its face and said, "I 'spect I'll want to use your stable ever now an' then, Miss Molly, so you just let me know when that runs out and I'll get you some more."
Molly had never seen five Credits all at once before, much less in one piece of money, and she stood staring at it as Alex took his coat back from Annie and put it back on.
As he headed for the door, Molly managed to stammer, "You and Buck are welcome anytime, Mr. Alex. Anytime at all! Hell, if you don't want none of my girls, for another one of these, I'll send one of 'em out for Buck!"
"Buck does just fine with the mares out to my place, Miss Molly," Alex told her, not entirely sure she was joking, "and anyway, I don't think it'd be a good idea, what with him bein' so much bigger an' stronger an' all."
Molly smiled indulgently up at him and laid a perfumed hand on his cheek.
"Such a sweet, innocent boy," she said. "It was too bad what happened to that little slip of a girl you married. That one had some gumption."
"'Cilla was about as good a wife as a man could ask for," Alex nodded. "Well, I reckon I'd best get over and wake up the undertaker."
"When you come back, Alex," Molly told him, "we'll have a room ready for you. No need to bed down in the stable."
"That won't be necessary ma'am. Ridin' around the territory like we do, me 'n Buck get used to sleepin' out in the weather. Sleepin' on hay with a roof over our heads'll be 'bout as much luxury as we can stand. Good night, ma'am. Ladies."
Alex touched the brim of his stetson in the general direction of the girls, then was out the door before Molly could protest. As the doors closed, all the girls gathered round to marvel at her new five-credit note.
It took a couple of minutes of banging on the mortuary door to rouse the undertaker who slept upstairs. The place had once been a funeral home, but now the back room, instead of holding embalming equipment, was set up as a carpentry shop where pine boxes were built to hold the bodies of the dead. One fancy coffin remained on display in the showroom, a reminder from pre-Sickness times of how opulent funerals had been before civilization had fallen apart.
Wearing a heavy coat with his spindly legs sticking out the bottom, the undertaker mumbled under his breath about the ungodly hour as he led Alex back to the coffin shop, the body slung stiffly over Alex's shoulder.
"Just lay him down there," the undertaker told him, waving in the direction of a stainless-steel table. "I ain't even gonna try to unbend him tonight. Prob'ly have to tie him down in the coffin so's we can have a proper burial. Wouldn't do the have him sittin' up, I reckon. We got a name for this feller?"
"Marv Beeman," Alex told him. "He was Jack Overstreet's foreman. Don't know nothin' else about him, but I'm gonna ride out and see Jack tomorrow. I reckon he'll have more to say about arrangements, once he finds out this feller's dead."
"All right, well, good night," the undertaker told him, almost pushing him toward the door.
The stable that Molly kept for her guests had once been a storage building in the lot behind the building in which she did business. She had had a carpenter come in and build stalls and a loft for hay so her overnight guests wouldn't have to worry about their horses.
When Alex led Buck and the foreman's horse inside, he saw a couple of other horses already put up in stalls. One of them, in particular, caught his attention.
It was a grey mare with black stockings. The horse appeared to have been ridden recently and only hurriedly groomed after the saddle was removed. Judging by the sweat and hair embedded in the blanket next to it, the saddle she had worn was sitting on the top rail of the mare's stall. When he examined the saddle, he saw where some blood had been wiped off, about where the rider's left thigh would rest.
Alex added this to the other information he had collected as he turned Buck and the other horse into stalls and removed their saddles. He forked some fresh hay into the stalls and both started munching away as he took his time about grooming them and examining them for wounds or parasites. Other than a few nits clinging to the hair of the on the back legs of the dead man's horse, both were in pretty good shape.
Taking his sleeping bag, Alex climbed into the loft. He worked for a few minutes moving bales around, until he had built a little alcove three bales high and two bales thick on all sides, with the opening facing away from the loft's ladder. With the hay for insulation as well as padding, he was asleep moments after crawling into his sleeping bag.
The sun was just coming up when he finished saddling Buck again. A scoop of Molly's oats served as Buck's breakfast. Alex chewed a piece of jerky, which served him as breakfast until he was well out of town, headed west. Knowing the hours the residents of Molly's house kept, he waited until he was away from the occupied parts of town to build a small fire and boil water for coffee.
He poured the bitter brew into the stainless steel 'travel cup' that Miz Jane had given him, and after making sure that the fire was completely out, continued his journey westward, sipping coffee as he went. He was a few miles outside of town before he started seeing Rocking JO cows, and at least five more miles passed under Buck's hooves before he crossed the well-traveled dirt track that served as a driveway for wagon traffic to the ranch house.