By Ed Baranosky
Zack Terrel sat astride the big black stallion. He was on the East bank of the Pecos River. He was contemplating where to cross. The river was swollen with spring rains.
Downstream the river narrowed and there was a swift current. Upstream the river was wider and it appeared to be a less turbulent. It was there he decided to cross. He took off his gun-belt and buckled it around his neck. He wrapped his Winchester in his slicker to keep the water out.
He touched the flank of the horse with his heel and went upstream. It was there horse and rider went into the water. Coming out on the West side of the river both were soaked through.
If he were to make it to Santa Fe by nightfall he would have to stop and make a fire to dry off. Riding wet would chafe the back of the stallion.
There was a small rise just ahead with a stand of cotton woods. A small brook ran alongside the rise. When Zack got there he dismounted and took the saddle off the black.
Gathering some dead branches he started a fire. He then stripped naked and dried himself off.
When his blanket dried he rubbed down the horse. His clothes dried and he got dressed. The saddle was going to take a while to dry. He went to the brook, filled a pot for coffee and topped off his canteen. He put some oats into his hat and fed the horse.
He sat with his back against a cotton wood sipping the strong brew in his coffee cup and pondered about what had happened a week ago in the saloon in Castle Rock, Colorado. He was in a four-man poker game. A kid about 21 years old sat on his left. Two gamblers sat across the table from them.
They had been playing for an hour or so. It was obvious to Zack that the game was crooked. The gamblers were working together. They would wait for the pot to be worth their while and then would do some fancy dealing.
Zack looked over to the kid. The kid seemed to read Zack’s mind. Zack decided it was time to call the gamblers on their cheating.
When Zack did they all stood up. Damn the gambler facing Zack was fast. As the gambler’s gun cleared leather he heard the distinct sound of the click of a single action Colt being cocked as the Kid drew.
In that split second the gambler facing Zack was distracted. Zack’s .44 slug hit him in the chest throwing him backward. Zack heard the gamblers bullet go past his ear.
The kid’s slug hit the gambler facing him under the chin, whipping his head back and his body followed. That gambler’s bullet went into the ceiling. All this occurred within a fraction of a single tick of a clock.
Zack put out his hand and said “Zack Terrel.” The Kid shook it and said “Dixie Ragsdale.”
Zack walked around the table to where the gambler he shot was lying and with the muzzle of his gun flipped open his coat. In a pocket of the gambler’s vest he saw a derringer pistol. Zack took the small gun and tucked it in his belt. Zack then went to the table picked up the money, counted it and gave half to Dixie.
The bartender came over to Zack and the Kid and said “I seen it all. They drew first but that ain’t going to mean nothing. You just cost the sheriff his whiskey money. They were giving him a cut of their take. If I were you I’d leave before he gets back from Denver.”
Zack asked “when is he coming back?”
“The stage runs between Fort Collins and Pueblo. If he gets on the stage at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning he’ll be here by two.”
They didn’t have to hurry before the sheriff got back. Zack turned to Dixie and asked
Zack asked the bartender where they might get a meal. The bartender went to the swinging doors and pointed to a place called “Mollie’s.” Zack turned to Dixie and said “let’s go.”
Dixie pointing to the two bodies asked, “What about those two?” Zack snickered “between the bartender and the undertaker they’ll probably be buried in their longjohns.”
At the eatery while waiting for their steaks Zack asked “where you headed?” Dixie answered “I’m going to Cheyenne to buy some horses for our ranch. My family has a spread outside El Paso.”
Zack asked “was that the money for the horses you gambled?” Dixie replied “Hell no. That was my poke I was using. My father telegraphed the bank in Cheyenne and has a draft waiting for me.”
Dixie asked, “What about you?”
Zack answered “I’m Going to Santa Fe.” A man I was in the army with is the sheriff there, he needs my help for some reason or another.”
After finishing their meal they paid their bill. Dixie said “If you’re ever down El Paso way look me up. Anyone within 50 miles of El Paso knows where the Double R ranch is.”
Outside, they shook hands said “adios” and parted ways.
Zack must have dozed off because he was awakened by the stallion nudging his shoulder with it’s nose. Zack shook himself awake, realized where he was and got up.
The saddle had dried. Zack cleaned his utensils in the brook, stomped out the embers of the fire and saddled the horse. He put his left foot in the stirrup swung his right leg over the saddle, touched his heels to the stallion’s flanks and headed for Santa Fe.