By: praire-schooner

This is a fan fiction novel based on the Popular classic TV Western Series "The Rifleman" about a widowed father Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) trying to raise his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), in the 1880's New Mexico Territory. Lucas must hunt down a band of outlaw's to retrieve his son.

This was one of my favorite shows and I thought it might be fun to try and write a novel depicting the characters as closely to the series as possible.

Prologue: Salt Creek, Texas

Several weeks earlier:
The last afternoon sun had already begun to cut long deep shadows across the wide dirt track street as the two men slowly rode into the quiet little town of Salt Creek, Texas. Against the flickering glare of fading orange their features appeared in silhouette as they passed by the dozen or so cruelty wooden structures lined up on either side. Though strangers were not an usual site in the small cattle town which bordered along the edge of New Mexico Territory, their arrival nevertheless drew interest from several of the towns locals.

With collars turn up against the cool breeze of late spring, it was how their coat flaps remained flipped open to the sides exposing the nickel plated hardware and their posture in the saddle that caused the curiosity. For these men were not the usual cow tramps, gamblers or even the occasional wayward western traveler that often passed trough Salt Creek. They were a different breed. They were gunslingers.

The older of the two rode slightly ahead of their younger companion. Slouched casualty back in the saddle and holding the rein of his horse loosely it appeared as if he were indifferent to the stares. But to the more experience, his eyes were keenly focused, alert to any shift or unusual movement. His gaze shifted past his gilded above the shops which the basic of needs: a general store, a feed and grain, a gun shop & leathery, a cafe/hotel, and a tent laundry, pausing only briefly at the sheriff's office before finally settling on the building at the far end of the street.

The second rider, who was on the closer side of the teenager than a man, set straighter in the saddle and, wearing the brim of his hat low to conceal his eyes, silently watched the reactions of the town people as they passed. A shopkeeper momentarily halted his sweeping; a women with a youngin' waited next to a buckboard wagon loaded with supplies tugged her child a little closer to her apron skirt; two men along men along the boardwalk slowed their pace to a cautious step. The young gun had seen it before. It was always the same whenever they entered a town; respect underlined by nervous curiosity.  He understood their reactions and rightly so.

A short distance from the saloon, they came to a halt. Dismounting, a gust of devil blew a cloud of dust up from the street and then circled passed them as if in greeting, or perhaps warning, as they tethered the lathered horses to a sagging hitching post near a watering trough. Their boots thumped heavily against the warn wooden planks of the raised boardwalk as they made their way towards the saloon.

At the far end of the musty, dimly lit room, stood a crudely built bar held up on each end in the middle by large wooden rain barrels. A Middle-ages bartender with bushy eyebrows and thinning hair stood behind the table drying some glasses. Since evening hasn't quite settle in, apart from the bartender only a small group was present inside, a young saloon girl named Mavis, a tinhorn gambler and an old prospector who at the moment lay slumped over a table with an empty bottle of whiskey tipped on its side.

The gambler who went by the name of Kentucky Jack, sat at a empty table across the room waiting for the locals to start filtering in. Though a deck of cards were spread out before him in a came of solitaire, the gambler found it more entertaining to people watch at the moment his interest was directed at the young saloon girl perched on the edge of a barstool trying to ignore the look of disapproval coming from the barkeeper.

"I'm telling you for your own good stay away from that Clayton fellow Mavis," he heard the bartender say.

The young pretty brunette gave the bartender a sour look. "Thanks for the advice Sid but in case you haven't noticed, I am a full grown woman capable of making by own decisions."

The bartender's snort made Mavis roll her eyes dramatically.

Well I am! Honestly sometimes your worse than my old man ever was," she said exasperatedly.

The bartender bushy eyebrows came down into a straight line. "He's just looking for a little fun, honey. I wouldn't put too much stock into any of those promises he's been making lately."

"Not that it is any of your business but Cole's not like that!" Mavis declared empathically.

The bartender sighed' "Oh, I ain't saying he doesn't have a few feelings for you, but his daddy owns the biggest spread around these parts not to mention half the town and he's got bigger plans for that  boy than....." He left the rest of the sentence drop.

"Than what Sid? Someone like me?" But Sid's lack of response was answer enough. Definitely she crossed her arms for she'd had this conversation with the over-protective barkeeper before. "Well don't worry none. I can take care of myself!" She turned away from the bartender. Sid sighed and went back to drying more glasses as a stiff silence hung in the air.

So when the swinging doors of the Lucky Seven suddenly swung opened, everyone, everyone with the exception of the boozed out prospector, looked up with interest as the newcomer enter.

Pausing briefly just inside the dim interior, the strange walked with measured steps across the room while his younger companion held back, choosing to linger near the door, one hand resting loosely at the hip just above the exposed gun belt. The movement did not go unnoticed by the experience eye of the bartender.

Nevertheless, he greeted the strange as he stepped up to the bar. "Welcome to the Lucky Seven, what can I get ya' mister?"


"Comin' right up."

Retrieving a bottle from under the counter, Sid poured a measure of amber liquid into a glass. But as he went to put the bottle away, the stranger placed his hand over the top.

"Leave it!"

Glancing up, Sid replied. "Whole bottle will cost you 3 dollars, mister."

Digging into his vest pocket, the man flipped several coins unto the counter. Satisfied the bartender released the bottle without argument and went back to his task of drying the glasses.

The clink of silver on the counter seemed to cat the young saloon girl's interest or perhaps she was still a little piqued at the over-protected bartender's assessment of her prospects. Either way, she scooted off the stool and sashayed across to the end of the bar where the stranger was propped against the counter. Sid's warning glance to watch herself with this one, only managed to illicit a defiant smile.

With a rogue painted face and crimson lips she leaned against the bar. Wearing a black lacey dress with a red satin beneath and a large boa feather in her dark hair, she left the thin shawl slip off the one should exposing the creamy white flesh while resting her brightly painted fingers lightly on her corset tighten waist.

Wetting her lips, she smiled coyly. "Say mister, that drink looks mighty fine. How 'bout sharin' one with a lady?"

As the strange swiveled his head to the side, Mavis caught sight of a pair of steely grey eyes regarding her intently. Several seconds seemed to  pass before he nodded indifferently.

Silently, Sid produced another glass for the girl though his bushy eyebrows seemed to form one straight disapproving line.

Ignoring the bartender, Mavis gripped the drink and sipped on it slowly. She tipped her glass towards the stranger and smiled. "Appreciate the drink mister."

"Anything for a lady,"  the stranger mockingly drawled sliding his graze from the low cut of her dress, already begun to show signs of wear. Once youthful, her face now bore fine crow's lines at the corners when she smiled, a reminder of the harshness faced to a single woman without man prospects in the western frontier.

"Sure a chilly day out there today," she attempted small talk, but the stranger continued tp sip his drink in silence. "You're not from around here. Just passing through?"

"You could say that," he replied coolly.

Beneath several days' growth of whiskers, his features appeared sharply chiseled and may have ever been considered handsome if not for the steel grey eyes which continued you to bore down at her.

"I'm Mavis," she finally said when the stranger made no more effort to carry on the conversation. She ran her fingertips along the lace trim of her dress. Unfortunately the movement appeared more nervous than seductive making the stranger's mouth curl with slight amusement. Despite Sid's position only a couple of yards away, Mavis' earlier bravado appeared to falter slightly.

Breaking eye contact, she looked towards the swing doors, where his lanky companion was stilled positioned and asked, "What about your friend? He panning on holding up the door all night?"

He shrugged indifferently. "If he has a mind to."

Then quite suddenly the stranger leaned in close. The movement was so unexpected that Mavis found herself backed up against the bar. She felt the stranger's warm breath, with its lingering a aroma of tobacco mixed with whiskey, fanning her cheek. But it was those steely orbs only inches away that kept her frozen. They seemed to penetrate like the blade of a sharp precision knife and the sudden shiver that went up the lace strappings of he dress had nothing to do with a chill from a cold afternoon.

Sid, sensing trouble, glanced down at the sawed off shot gun within easy reach under the bar. But instead of grabbing Mavis as half expected, the strange simply stretched his arm around her and retrieved another glass from the tray Sid had been drying.

Showing it to her, he smiled wickedly at a reaction, tipped his hat, then gathered the bottle and glass and moved to the other side of the room.

On the other end of the saloon, Kentucky Jack quietly watched the the exchange. A gambler by trade, he had made a fair living by reading people well and found the strangers to be a curious pair. The older of the two was clearly in charge, his manner cool but authoritative. He was tall, lean and hard, in more ways then one. The gambler had seen the likes of him before and knew such men should be handled with care.

The younger man, who had still not left his post, but was almost as tall but lankier not quiet grown into himself. His attention seem to shift back and forth between his companion and the empty street outside, his hand never far from the pistol holstered at his side. Though he had a cocky appearance which tried to mirror his partner, he was edgier, like a colt not quite broken in.

Wondering to what purpose the two had in such a dust bowl of town as Salt Creek and with his luck having run cold recently, the gambler tapped the deck of cards to the table hoping tp draw the attention of the man for a game. But the stranger ignored him and opted to settle at one of the tables on the other side of the room well away from those that would have a mind to stretch an ear.

With his back to the door and his eyes on the swinging doors, he pulled off the black leathered gloves and slapped them on the table. Grabbing the bottle, he refilled his glass and jerked his towards his partner.

The young gun settled in a chair across from him. The stranger gulped his whiskey down without so much as a flinch then slid another glass across the table. Picking the amber liquid up, the young gun tried to do the same but ended up choking as the rock gut burned his throat. The stranger's bemused caused hi to shift edgily in his seat. Finishing a second shot, the man then tipped his chair back so it propped against the wall, lifted his boots atop the arm of the chair next to him and placed his hat over his face. He crossed his arms loosely and appeared content to settle in for a spell.

At the table the young gun sat with slumped shoulders as his impatiently rolled the rim of the shoot glass around in his hands. They'd ridden hard for the last several days and despite his weariness he was antsy.

After what seems like a considerable time had passes, he leaned in and ask in a voice that didn't carry across the room, "How much longer Lloyd?"

A heavy silence followed. Beneath the black felt hat came the cool reply. 'Till I say."

This didn't seem to set well with the young gun who seemed to have as much difficulty sitting still in his seat as the stranger had in ease. He let out an impatience sigh.

The stranger tipped his black hat back enough to reveal the grey dark eyes which lately had an underlying edge of impatience and something else. "Something wrong?"

Looking to the swinging doors he shrugged and then went back to rolling his shot glass impatiently. "Just itching to get on with it that's all, I guess."

"You know that's your problem, kid. You're always in too much in a hurry," Lloyd berated. "It'll get you killed before your time." 

The young gun bristled. "I can take care of myself!" he stubbornly insisted. Though he was nearly seventeen he'd already been on his own for some time even before he decided to join up with Lloyd. And although he could easily outdraw most men he was still often thought of as just a kid.

Reading his, Lloyd snorted, "A fast draw isn't the only thing that will keep you alive boy. You still got a hell of a lot to learn, especially when it come to following orders."

The young gun shifted uncomfortably in his seat. By the gruffness in his tone, he knew Lloyd was still annoyed by the latest stunt he pulled.

"I knew I should have had Duke and Elliot hog tie you to your horse and drag your butt of with them."

Almost a week earlier, Lloyd and his men had been in a jovial mood celebrating their latest successful heist and escape. But that had changed when a messenger rode hard into their camp. He didn't know what was said, but almost instantly Lloyd's mood had changed and the young gun sensed something big was up. Later that night Lloyd and the two Craxton  brothers, Duke and Elliot, had gotten into a heated argument over Lloyd's sudden decision to change their plans. Originally they were going to head up north. After the success of the several jobs had begun to generate a little too much too much heat with the local law, the gang had decided it was time to move on. Duke & Elliot had family up in Taos they were eager to see and where they also knew they could lay lo for a while. Bud Lloyd's sudden announcement to head south into Texas created a riff.

With hefty bounties on their heads already, and their faces too well know in Texas, the Craxton brothers didn't want to take the risk. Though Duke had tried to talk Lloyd out of it, he'd remain adamant. Unable to reach a compromise, they eventually decided to split up. Ordering the young gun to go with them, Lloyd told his men he's meet them up north later after he finished his business in Texas.

But the young gun had other plans. Early the next morning Lloyd had set off alone. Defiantly, the young gun had followed, tailing Lloyd for almost two days before the outlaw had doubled back, cornered him, and had nearly blown his head off in the process. By then it had been too late too turn back and Lloyd was reluctantly forced into bring him along. 

We've been through all this before, Lloyd. I'm sticking with you. Besides you might need my health.

His choice of words seem to bring about a reaction in Lloyd that was far less reassuring than the young gun had hoped for. Bringing his chairs on all fours, once again the young gun felt the weight of Lloyds displeasure.

Across the table, he regarded his young protégé intensely. Though perhaps Lloyd had given him more leniency than he usually bestowed on the rest of the men, after several weeks his patience was beginning to wane.

The steel eyes narrowed in sharp focus. "Then you better see to it that you do exactly as your told. This isn't a game kid and I want no more mistakes like the one in El Paso understand?" Lloyd warned ominously.

The young gun's glaze dropped to his glass. El Paso was a pretty sore point between them. It had been the first time he'd experience Lloyd's wrath personally and was not eager to repeat the experience. Nevertheless he was determine to prove his worth.

"You can count on me," he re-assured firmly.

Lloyd poured himself another measure of whiskey, but his features remained hard and less then convinced.

A short while later a third man entered the saloon, his age somewhere between the first two men. Also packing, his holster riding low on narrow hips, he walked over and stood before them holding his hands in front of him, thumbs hooked easily into his gun belt. Though it had been some time the young gun recognized him immediately.

"Hey Briggs," he said a little sheepishly.

Briggs eyes narrowed as if surprised to see him. "Is that who I think it is?"

"In the flesh," Lloyd muttered sternly.

Briggs threw Lloyd a confused look.

Lloyd turned to the young gun. "Get lost for a while, kid. Briggs and I need to talk."

"But....." he started to protest but was stopped in mid sentence.

"Do as I say now." Lloyd didn't raise his voice, but the tone spoke of no argument.

The young gun's lips thinned into a stubborn angry line but, nevertheless got up and left without another word knowing he was already on thin ice as it was the outlaw leader. Briggs watched him go, then swung the seat just vacated around and straddled it. He poured himself a shot to wet down his parched throat.

He shook his head. "Kid's stung tighter than rawhide strapped to a fence post."

"And your point?"

He shrugged. "Just surprised you bring him along, that's all."

"I didn't." Lloyd went on to explain the circumstances for this young gun's presence.

Briggs couldn't help but chuckle slightly. "Yeah, that sounds just like the kid." Never did have as ounce of sense." Cocking his head to the side he noticed the bartender throwing them a curious sideways glance. His smile faded and once again grew serious. "I don't know Lloyd. You sure you can trust him? I mean this job ain't like the others you know."

Lloyd looked hard at Briggs, eyes narrowing.

"You got something to say, spit it out."

"I've know you for a long time, long enough to know the score. But the kid?"

"Go on."

Briggs looked directly at him. "He's young and cocky and maybe out to prove himself, especially to you, but he's still got somethin' you and I lost a long time ago, my friend."

"And what might that be?"

"A conscience."

The outlaw leader nodded grimly. For the most part, ever since the kid had hooded up with him, Lloyd had deliberately kept him out of the main action despite his eagerness to be more involved. In this business Lloyd couldn't afford mistakes, especially from a cocky teenager that sometimes had more thickheaded stubbornness than common sense. Instead he used him primarily as a lookout. And so far they've been damn lucky. Except for El Paso, most jobs have gone off without a hitch.

But as Briggs had said, this wasn't like any other job and Lloyd still wasn't convinced the kid had the stomach ti travel down the same road Lloyd had been on for the last fifteen years. Perhaps it was time enough they both came to an understanding.

"Well, I guess it's about time we rectified that, don't you think?"

Briggs regarded him darkly but knew better to argue the point.

Getting back to matters at hand, Lloyd ask, "So what did you find out?"

After taking another sip of whiskey, Briggs filled him in. "Wagon stopped about five miles outside of town, near the old way station but looks like it's heading into town under escort."

Lloyd frowned. The fact that they were changing their route didn't set well.

"Why, what's up?"

"Not sure, but probably not good. All I know is that they sent someone out from the station and a little while later the sheriff rode up with a couple of men."

"How many?"

 "Three, plus the two men on the wagon."

Lloyd muttered under his breath. If that good for nothing piece of hog flesh blew it, Lloyd would sting him up to a tree himself.

"Where's Smitty?"

"Trailing them back into town. I rode up ahead through a back trail." Briggs looked at him squarely. "Are we gonna do the job here?"

Lloyd shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was to draw unnecessary attention. 

"No we'll wait, least until we find out what the hell's gone on. Take the kid with you and make sure you stay out of sight."

Briggs nodded, rose and left.

Casey the piano player wandered downstairs and took position behind the ivory keys as darkness began to fall. Soon the saloon was filled with lively ivory tunes with the hope of enticing the locals to come in.

The young, who had been leaning against the hitching post outside, straightened up as Briggs approach. Though annoyed at being brushed aside he couldn't help but avert his eyes at Briggs' look of disapproval.

"Just what the hell do you think your doing?"

"Guess Lloyd filled you in, huh?"

Briggs nodded grimily. "You've pulled some stupid stunts in the past kid, but this takes the cake. You should have gone up north!"

But the boy's stubbornness returned. "I already told Lloyd I'm not leaving so no sense for you to try and talk me out of it either. Whatever Lloyd's got planned he's going to need some help."

Briggs sighed and shook his head. "This isn't the place for you, boy. Not this time."

The young gun's temper flared. "I wish everyone would quit treating me like I'm some baby that needs watching,"

Briggs scoffed. "The maybe you should start acting like one." Briggs sighed. This ain't no life for you kid. It will make you old or dead before your time."

"I've been on my own since I was fifteen. I can take care of myself!"

Briggs crossed his arms. "Geez, your as stubborn and thickheaded as ever aren't ya?"

When the young gun reared his head defiantly back Briggs could see the pointlessness in arguing further and beside they had work to do. Maybe Lloyd was right. Maybe it was time the kid understood what Lloyd was really about. But the thought brought him little pleasure.

"All right kid, as long as you know the score. But I'm warning you right now. don't mess with Lloyd. this isn't the time or the place for screw ups."

From the shadows across the street Briggs saw movement. A dark figure was waving them over. Briggs nodded. "Come on."

"Were are we going?" The young gun asked curiously.

"Just shut up and keep out of sight!"

They crossed the street, avoiding the lantern lit walkways as much as possible and joined up with the third man. Briggs briefly introduced him as Smitty. The two followed the man down the street until they came to a dark alleyway.

Motioning the young gun to position himself at the entrance of the alley, Briggs and Smitty headed towards the back of the two story wooden building before the young gun could protest. Fuming, he was forced to remain at his post watching guard over an empty street, once again feeling left out of the action.

Back in the saloon, seeing the stranger was not alone, Kentucky Jack walked over to his table shuffling the deck of cards with one hand. Dressed neatly in a pin striped coat and white ruffed shirt, he flashed a pearly smile.

"How about a game mister? I'm feeling kinda lucky tonight."

The stranger looked up from his drink and indifferently offered the man a seat.

Once settle Kentucky Jack motioned for Mavis. She walked over and place her hand on his shoulder. Looking up he gave her a bright friendly smile.

"Honey, how 'bout fixing me a sandwich?"

"Sure Jack." She glanced a little uncertainty at the stranger. "How 'bout you mister?" We ain't got the selection of the cafe but we do have beefsteak sandwiches."

He shrugged. "Why not, mame?"

Mavis met his stare and hurriedly departed.

"Never seen Mavis so skittish,' Kentucky Jack chuckled as he shuffled the deck. He pulled out a cigar and lit it slowly. "Jacks wild, okay with you?"

The stranger merely waved his hand in agreement.

The gambler dealt the hand. "So what brings you to this fair little town? Business or pleasure?" He asked clinching the cigar lightly in his teeth.

The stranger seemed in no rush to answer. "Perhaps a little of both, I suppose you could say I'm meeting an old friend here."

With one arched brow, Kentucky Jack probed a little more. "Oh? Seems an odd little place to meet, this being such a quiet little town."

"I happen to like quiet little towns, especially when they don't ask a lot of questions."

The gambler raised his hands off the table. "Didn't mean to step on any toes, I'll say no more friend."

The two played for a while, the gambler unable to read much from the aloof stranger. Mavis brought the sandwiches and refreshed their drinks, pouring one for herself. Kentucky Jack kept the conversation flowing lightly, but whenever it steered too far into the stranger's business, he was stonewalled.

Slowly as the evening set in, one by one some of the locals wandered in. A few joined the card game and Kentucky Jack wasn't able to learn anything more.

Down the street, a prison wagon stood outside the back of Snivley & Sons Undertaking. It was quarter pass nine. The only source of dark in the otherwise dark alley came from the door left ajar. Inside stretched out on the table the soles of a pair of black boots could be seen.

In the background, the faint sound of Casey's piano could be heard drifting out from the saloon just down the street as two dark figures concealed themselves behind several wooden crates in the alley. Near the back door the sheriff stood talking to one of the guards. "Alright, tell me what happened again."

"We already explained," the guard said annoyingly.

"Just like to make sure I have all the facts straight for my report, so amuse me," the sheriff replied.

Briggs and Smitty listened as the guard went over the details again.

They had been transporting two two condemned felons from Galveston back to Fort Sumner for hanging when a fight broke out in the back of the lock cell. By the time the guards had managed to unlock the iron door one man lay dead, his neck snapped and lying in an odd angle. Still in chains, the other man was dragged out but not without some difficulty. He'd finally been subdued only after a rifle butt had been put up to the side of his head. But the guard's partner hadn't come off unscathed from the shuffle having received a broken arm and a gash in the forehead for the effort.

But as part of their policy, they were required to notify the local authorities and get the necessary paperwork filled out on the body they were leaving behind for their superiors.

The local undertaker came out from the back office followed by the second guard, his arm now in a sling and his head bandaged. With the nearest medical doctor nearly fifty miles away, the undertaker sometimes as the town's un-official saw-bones.

"Well that will at least get you to Rauglings but I doubt arm' s gonna be of much use for a while."

"Thanks doc," as he struggled up into the wagon.

Both guards were in a foul mood, knowing they would have much to explain when they reach their final destination.

Sheriff Walt O'Malley stood outside the back door, shot gun in hand, having escorted the prison wagon back into town.

A portly man with a handlebar moustache, he was eager to see them on their way disliking everything about the whole nasty set-up and the two guards in particular.

But beyond getting the required information he had little authority in this matter. Once satisfied, the sheriff agreed to continue to let them on their way but told them he'd wire the sheriff over in Raulings to meet them and help escort them the rest of the way into Fort Sumner.

"You sure your gonna be aright until then?" he asked, glancing at the injured guard then at the back of the prison wagon with distain. The guards nodded. From the back he could hear the prisoners groaning as he came to. "What about him?" the sheriff asked.

The guard holding the reins glanced briefly back, a wicked smug smile crossing over his craggy face. The two guards would be glad to be rid of the condemned man. From the start he could been more then a handful and both were getting tired of listening to the paranoid ranting and threats over the last several days.

"He's not going anywhere. He won't be giving us anymore trouble.

"Very well," the sheriff said sourly, despising the guards as much as the situation that had brought the prison wagon into town in the first place.

From the back chains rattled and a craze angry voice shouted. "You lousy pigs! Just you wait, when I get out of her you're both dead meat, ya' hear?"

The guard pounded the side of the prison wagon. "Quiet down back there unless you want this rifle upside your head again!"

"Your gonna pay! Nobody lays a hand on me and gets away with it!"

"You're the one who'll be paying, stretched out on the end of the rope!" The other guard hissed.

The prisoner pounded the walls of the wagon as the driver set the team in motion.

The sheriff watched the wagon head out of town what kind of men could possibly want a job like that. But the appearance of the two guards, he knew his answer. When they were out of sight, he gave a sigh of relief. He hated the site of those things. They were usually nothing but trouble.

Down the ally, the two figures crouched in the shadows quietly retreated as the wagon pulled away.

Once regrouped, Briggs led Smitty and the young gun almost completely out of town.

"Where are we going now?" the young gun asked.

"You'll see."

Briggs cut between two buildings and across the field full of tall grass before stopping. Taking a pocket knife out he motioned the young gun to give him a boost. Briggs climb to the top and cut the telegraph wires leading into town before shimming back down.

A short time later Briggs returned to the saloon and nodded over at Lloyd before retreating back outside. Finishing his hand, he picked up his winnings, tipped his hat to Mavis and quietly left without a word.

As the men left, Sid who had been wiping down the counter, stepped over to the swinging doors and watched as the three men mounted up, turn their horses about and head out of town. Once out of sight, he walked over to the gambler's table.

"What's going on?" Mavis asked.

"Nothin' they're ridin' out."

"What do you think they're up to?"

"Not sure," Sid replied.

Mavis looked towards the doors. "Well, I'm not sorry to see them go. That tall one gave me the creeps."

"You did seem a bit skittish, Mavis honey," the gambler replied.

"You would be to if you looked into those cold eyes. Maybe we should let Walt know."

"And tell him what?" Sid asked. "They haven't done anything. Besides they left town anyway. Most likely they're just passing through."

Kentucky Jack just shook his head. "I don't know."

"Why, what ya' find out?" Sid asked the gambler.

The gambler shrugged, "Not much. He's got a pretty good poker face. Said he was just meeting his friend."

"Well I think you should still tell Walt." Mavis insisted.

"Well, Walt should be back anytime." Sid informed them. "Said he had to take care of some business but that was quite a while ago. I'll mention it to him when he gets back."

Just then four men entered. They were regulars, wranglers from the Triple T. Mavis' eyes suddenly brightened as she spotted the familiar tall dark haired man. As she rushed over to his side Kentucky Jack didn't miss the extremely sour look that crossed the barkeep's face.

"Mavis Honey! How's my favorite girl?" The wrangler said scooping the saloon girl up and spinning her around.

Mavis laughed. "Just fine Cole, now that you're here," she said a little breathlessly, her eyes sparkled with delight. "But I haven't see you in nearly a month" she pouted.

He let her down, but held her lightly by the waist. This was one wrangler Mavis didn't mind in the least holding her. A slight blush appeared on her face.

The wrangler smiled down at her and gave her a quick kiss followed by a pat on the rump. "Sorry honey, buy my old man's been keeping me busy repairing fence line and trying to round up every stupid stray in these hills! But I'm here now and the boys and I intend to have a little fun. So how about wiping that pout off your face and fixing up a round for me and the boys? It's cold out there and I'm in the mood to be warmed up."

"You got it!" Mavis said.

Almost immediately two of the cowhands saddled up to Kentucky Jack's table. With fresh fruit for the pickings, the gamble smiled  widened.

As the hour grew later, more men entered the saloon. Casey kept the place lively with music and the whiskey flowed, the voices rose. Soon Sid, Mavis and Kentucky Jack forgot about the strangers.

After Walt finished up at the undertakers, he set off to make his remaining rounds hoping the rest of his night would be better. But it wasn't to be his luck. Half way through he heard the crash of glass and turned to see two men careen through the front window of the Lucky Seven. Sid immediately erupted from the saloon with shotgun in hand cursing loudly with Mavis quickly in pursuit. Cole, obviously drunk, had Kentucky Jack by the collar and leveled an upper cut to his jaw sending the gambler reeling into the nearby water trough. Several cowboys emerged from the saloon cheering him on as Cole accused the gambler at cheating at cards. The sheriff arrived in the middle of the commotion just as Mavis tried to keep Sid from leveling the shotgun at her handsome wrangler.

For the next several hours Walt had his hands full dealing with several drunken cowboys and an unconscious gamble with the same time trying to calm the livid bartender down about the cost of the broken plate glass window, not to mention several chairs and a half a dozen bottles of good red eye. It was to be a long night.

Four miles outside of Salt Creek, concealed behind a grove of trees, the group of men on horseback watched as the prison wagon lumbered by. The moon was nearly full and cast the wagon in a shadowy silhouette. The riders left it pass and move ahead some distance before following slowly behind. Once it round a bend and entered more hilly terrain, the riders turned off the road and cut across the open country until they joined up with the road again, this time ahead of the wagon.

Four miles outside of Salt Creek, concealed behind a grove of trees, the group of men on horse back watched as the prison wagon lumbered by. The moon was nearly full and cast the wagon in a shadowy silhouette. The riders left it pass and move ahead some distance before following slowly behind. Once it rounded a bend and entered more hilly terrain, the riders turned off the road and cut across the open country until they joined up with the road again, this time ahead of the wagon.

Lloyd motioned his men to take their positions.

The two guards never had a chance. Out of the darkness the wagon was immediately surrounded by four men on horseback taking the guards completely by surprise. In a reckless move the injured guard riding shotgun awkwardly attempted to raise his rifle only to receive a bullet in his chest for the effort. He slummed motionless in his seat as the single shot echoed loudly into the darkness.

Smoke drifted from the piece Briggs held in his hand. As the young gun moved in from the side he glanced from the dead man quickly over at Briggs.

The steely eyed outlaw threw Briggs a sharp look before approaching the remaining guard who quickly dropped the reins and raised his hands in the air. Lloyd leveled his pistol calmly at the man's chest.

"Get down," he ordered.

Scrambling out of the wagon, the guard nearly missed his footing as he eyed the group of men nervously. Lloyd walked over and stood before the shaken guard. He motioned to the locked cell door with the wave of his pistol.

"Now open it up," he directed.

"I can't do that."

The driver heard the hammered being cocked and cringed.

"Unless you want to end up like your friend over there, I'd advise you to cooperate. I don't like to ask twice."

Next to Lloyd the young gun felt the adrenaline starting to rush through his veins. For despite Briggs' apparently hasty maneuver, Lloyd had once more taken the situation over smoothly.

With his eyes staring eyes starring straight down the barrel of Lloyd's gun the guard had little choice but to comply. He put up a trembling hand. "All right.....just please don't shoot."

Briggs' escorted the guard to the back of the wagon. With shaky fingers, he unlocked the large metal lock and the iron door squeaked open.

A large heavy man was inside. His hair was matted wildly with the dried blood plastered to the side of his face; his right cheek was swollen and bruised. Sagging jowls were covered in dark stubble and his eyes were round and kinda bulged out from the sockets giving him a crazed look.

As he climbed out he said, "Bout time you showed up!"

"Nice to see you too Roark jeered contemptuously back. The convict was in a fool mood showing little gratitude for his freedom.

"Hardly," Lloyd drawled. "In case you've forgotten, we still have some unfinished business."

Roark through him a hard menacing look. "I haven't forgotten a thing, especially the last five years I spent in that army stink hole."

"For your own stupidity," Lloyd replied calmly. "And just to set the record straight the only reason I'm even I'm even bothering with your sorry ass is to get what's due me"

Roark looked down at the dead guard and shook his head, laughing without humor. "And what if I said I don't have it anymore, that it's probably long gone?"

"Then I suppose I'll put a bullet in your head right now and save the law the cost of a rope."

The convict chuckled. "See you haven't changed much. Roark scratched his stubbed cheek as if trying to weigh his options then winced as his fingers moved over the swollen welt on his cheek. Titling his head he looked at Lloyd through the narrow pudgy slit of one eye. "And just suppose I do happen to know where it is? What's my guarantee if I tell you, you're not going to plug me anyway?"

Lloyd stepped closer. "Guess your just going to have to trust me, partner," he said with a certain amount of sarcasm that made the convict frown back.

"Well why don't you get these damn chains off of me and maybe we'll talk some business."

"Oh there be no maybe about it fat friend, I guarantee that," Lloyd replied hardly. "Five years ago we had a deal, and now it's time to pay up, one way or the other." Roark shot Lloyd a dark look.

The outlaw leader directed the young gun standing on the side lines to retrieve the keys for the shackles off the dead guard. As he climbed up into the wagon and patted the man down, he tried to avert his eyes from the lifeless face staring back at him.

While they waited Roark glanced over at Lloyd's right hand man. "Nice seeing you again Briggs, he said sarcastically.

Briggs tipped his had briefly with the barrel of his pistol. There seemed to be no love loss between these two men either.

As the shackles were released, Roark looked curious at the new lanky member of the outlaw gang. Tossing the chains aside, he rubbed his raw wrist the jerked his head towards Lloyd.

"Startin' them a little young, ain't ya?" he said sarcastically.

But Roark's attention had already shifted back to the remaining guard. A twisted smile crept across the pudgy swollen face as the guard shrank back against the slant of the wagon. With slow deliberation he approached the guard. Reaching out, he grabbed him by the shirt in a two-fisted iron grip.

"Now who's calling the shots, eh funny man?" he snared menacingly near lifting the man off the ground.

The guard's face began to take a mottle purple, his eyes frightened and pleading as he tried to pry the meaty fingers away from his throat. The young gun's weight shifted hesitantly.

Finally he heard Lloyd say, "Let him go Roark."

But the convict, intend on extracting his revenge, ignored him. "Five years! "Five years!" It was only when the feel of cold steel shoved into the back of Roark's neck that his grip loosened.

"I said let him go or I'll match that lump on your fat face to another to the back of your head," he said with calmness. He didn't raise his voice, but instead emphasized his point by jabbing the barrel of the pistol a little further into the pudgy flesh.

Roark reluctantly released him, shoving the guard hard against the wagon. He gasped for air and sank to his knees as the convict swung around glaring viciously at Lloyd. "What's it to you? He's a walking dead man anyway!" He demanded through gritted teeth.

"I have my reasons," Lloyd replied slowly.

Roark snorted. "They better be good ones. No one pulls a gun on me and gets away with it. Not even you."

Lloyd cocked his head slightly to one side. "Would you prefer I stick you back in that wagon and leave you here? A few days in that metal box in the sun without food or water ought to fry your brain up real well. Or maybe get lucky and the law will find you in plenty of time to put a rope around your neck."

Eyes piercing and cold, Lloyd remained almost casually poised as a stiff tension formed in the air. The young gun watched the exchanged silently from the sidelines as Lloyd once again established the hierarchy in the group, letting the convict know who was in charged.

Finally Roark backed down. "Whatever you say..... for now."

Lloyd just glared back at him before turning his attention to the terrified guard. "What's your name mister?" he asked almost casually as if nothing unusual had just occurred.

When the guard didn't answer right away, Lloyd leveled the gun to his face.

"N...Nelson," he relied hoarsely, still gripping his sore throat.

"Nelson," Lloyd repeated slowly. "Now that wasn't so bad." He deliberately paused. "Do you want to live, Nelson?" he asked matter-of-factly.

The guard nodded nervously eyes darting from one man to the next.

Than almost as if having a conversation with an old friend, Lloyd asked, "Got any family, Nelson?"

"A...a wife and three kids," he stuttered in confusion and swallowed hard.

"Three kids, my, my, my." Lloyd nodded, impressed. "I imagine they keep their ma pretty busy."

"I guess." The guards eyes continued to dart anxiously about.

Lloyd squatted down on his heels and waved the gun in the guard's face bringing the man eyes back to his attention.

The man paled and visibly trembled. "Please mister, I w...won't give ya' any trouble, just don't shoot me."

Lloyd smiled pleasantly.

"You got me all wrong, Nelson." Reaching out, he straightened the man's shirt. "Relax man, we're just having a little friendly conversation," okay?"

The guard nodded again like a puppet.

"No need to be uncivilized, you've cooperated, unlike your friend over there who did something stupid," Lloyd said nodding to the dead guard. "I've got what I came for. I've got no quarrel with you. So just keep cooperating and everything will work out fine between all of us, understand?

"S...Sure, mister. Whatever you say."

"Mighty respectful, I like that. You keep thinking like that. As Lloyd withdrew the gun from the man's face and stood up, the guard let out a long shaky sign and sank back against the wagon wheel, seat beading down his face.

Roark started to take a step forward in protest, but Briggs blocked his way, holding his gun up in warning not to intervene.

The young gun, dually impressed moved closer, for this is how Lloyd worked, always in control.

Raising his piece, Lloyd ran the barrel against his stubble cheek as if in thought. "Course I do have one little problem." The sudden change in Lloyd's tone caused the young gun's brow to knit into a frown. "You see, my fat friend over here," he said jerking the gun towards Roark, "and I have some rather important business to attend to, one I don't necessarily want to invite a party to, understand?"

The guard nodded.

"So you see my problem, I can't exactly have you taking off for the law as soon as were gone."

The guard tensed up again, pressing his back against the wheel. Hurriedly, he said, "I swear, mister. I won't tell a soul! I'll stay right here for as long as you say. You won't get a a peep out of me for a month of Sundays."

"I would like to believe I could trust that, trust and loyalty being very important traits of a man, don't you agree?"

Confused at the direction of the conversation the guard simply stared back.

Without turning his back Lloyd motioned the young gun to his side. "I want you to take care of this kid, do you understand?" Lloyd said slowly.

The young gun looked down at the pathetic frightened guard who was trying to shrink back against the spokes of the wagon as far as he could get. Standing awkwardly at Lloyd's side it took several seconds before his full meaning sank in. The outlaw leader wanted no witnesses. The young gun bit down on his lover lip. It was one thing to shoot back on a man firing at you, but quite another to do it in cold blood.

"But..." he started to say, but Lloyd whipped around silencing him with a razor sharp tongue.

"If you want to ride with me then I think it's time for you to realize this isn't a game. I play for keeps, understand?" Lloyd snapped. "And those that get in my way get hurt. You chose to come; now it's time to earn your keep."

A thick tension followed as Lloyd waited for his response.

Finally the young gun replied, "All right. Sure Lloyd."

With a heavy step forward, he slowly raised the pistol. The guard gripped the spokes of the wagon wheel until his knuckles turned white, eyes terrified.

The guard pleaded soulfully. "I'm begging ya, please don't kill me!"

As he slowly cocked the gun and tightened his finger over the trigger, the guard dropped his head, a pathetic sob insuring forth. "Please, please, I don't want to die."

The Young gun swallowed hard against the bile rising in the back of his throat. With each passing second he could feel the weight of Lloyd's stare link heavy bands constricting his chest. But try as he might he found himself hesitating.

The single shot that rang out a second later startled everyone. It was hard to say who was the more surprised. The young gun or the defensive guard. Then, as if in slow motion, the young gun watched the guard slowly topple motionlessly over, landing face down in the dirt.

Smoke drifted from the gun in Lloyd's outstretched hand. Numbly the young gun turned back and stared at the growing pool of  blood on the ground while Lloyd glanced down at it as if it were no more than a puddle of water.

Stepping closer until he was only inches from the young gun's face, he said in a flat voice devoid of emotion, "That's the difference between the two of us kid. I can and it's finally time you understood that!" There was not an ounce of pity or remorse in his eyes, just hard, black coldness.

It was only Roark's twisted chuckle from the sidelines that caused him to break contact. "Dam Lloyd. Couldn't have killed him better myself. I see you haven't lost your touch."

Anger, humiliation and something he couldn't even put into words churned like vomit. Reflexively he raised his pistol and directed it at the convict's face.

Roark jeered, "Go ahead kid, if you've got the guts!"

The young gun stood for several seconds clenching his teeth but did not fire/.

"Yellow! I knew it!" Roark said in disgust, then laughed. "You got yourself a pansy boy his Lloyd."

"Without warning, the young gun squeezed the trigger. Roark let out a resounding yelp as the bullet creased the side of his boot, making the outlaw do a quick dance to the side.

"Son of a bitch!" he bellowed, landing on his rear as he grabbed his foot. Smoke drifted off the worn leather. The bullet hadn't ripped a hole in the boot but had left a nasty crease and probably a nice bruise on Roark's foot to go along with it.

"You dam near shot off my foot!" Roark bellowed in surprise.

"If that had been my intention, it would be gone," he snapped back.

"Why you..." Roark growled struggling to raise his bulky frame into a standing position.

"Enough! Both of you!" Lloyd snapped. Turning to the young un he ordered, "Go help Brigg's get these men and wagon out of sight before we're noticed."

"Listen here Lloyd, If you think I'm going to allow some snot nose kid to mess with me..." the convict began to protest.

"Shut up Roark and mount up before I decide to shoot you myself."

Smitty tossed Roark the reins to the extra horse had brought a long. Seeing the fury in Lloyd's posture, Roark decided not to push the issue. Besides, for the moment he was right. Best thing they needed to do right now was to get the hell out of here.

Once mounted, Lloyd tossed Roark a gun belt but glared at him in clear warning. Smiling, Roark slid the gun out of the holster, enjoying the grip of cold steel again. Looking down at the two dead guards he shook his head and chuckled, replacing the gun in his sheath. Lloyd was almost as cold as he was. It was admirably quality.

The young gun couldn't quite keep the trimmer from his hand as the two dead men were placed in the back of the wagon. When he looked down he saw his hand was covered in blood. He stared at it consciously before slowly wiping it off on the dead man's pants. For all his talk of being a fast draw, he had little experience with cold blooded death. Briggs turned to him with a look of sympathy. The kid had learned a hard lesson today, one he better not soon forget.

Climbing into the driver's seat, Briggs turned the team off the road, hiding the wagon in a small box canyon.

Satisfied the outlaw leader turned to the others. "Let's ride!"