AUTHOR: Rod Knowles

RATED: PG-13 for mild offensive language

CROSSROADS

by

Rod Knowles

Introduction

Welcome to Texas, the mid-1880s, and a tiny incidental desert hamlet named Crossroads. It's a little known, seldom spoken of frontier town, snugly nestled beneath majestic mountains along the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico, and morally poised between virtue and corruption. It's a mundane community barely on the maps of this vast region, a unique shade of gray in this harsh black and white world. It's a tiny society unto itself where the sublime sometimes means the surreal. It is a place where wandering souls come for a variety of reasons. For some it's to seek a better life away from the increasingly modernized mayhem of progress. For some it's a place to hang their hat before moving on to their destiny. Still for others it's a sanctuary from the past, a last chance of sorts to start anew.

Yes, the town of Crossroads is many things to many people but for its residents, it's merely a place where they try to live their lives according to their wants and beliefs. Each man, woman and child who stops here knows and understands that every day is another precious opportunity to fulfill a dream, to realize happiness or to achieve redemption. For those souls who wander here searching for solace, retribution or a just brief sabbatical from their sobering lives, they'll find their journey's end has led them to a point of decision. A decision everyone must make upon arrival at Crossroads.

So welcome, my friend. Welcome to a town where last chances meet new beginnings. Welcome to a town on the edge of the American spirit, where the unimaginable is cultivated from the seeds of the human condition.

Welcome... to Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~{"Black Hat With A Gold Band"}~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

The midday sun seared the brow of Dexter Pennyworth as he stepped down from the stagecoach. He is a smallish man, slight of build and pale complexion. He had tufts of salt-n-pepper along the sides of his head but was bald on top. His blue eyes still manage a twinkle now and again. To appearances, Dexter Pennyworth would appear to be an undertaker by trade. It's far from it actually. Instead he's more interested in people's lives than their deaths. He's a writer of well known persons, a chronicler of those whom society places on the pedestal of abject admiration and envy for their words or deeds. He's written about kings and queens, presidents and heroes. He's rubbed elbows with some of this time's most notable human beings. Yes, Dexter Pennyworth fancies himself a well-traveled businessman and looks the very part to a 'tee'. At the age of forty-four, he's been all over the east coast. He's even been to England twice. However on this foray, he was heading into a different slice of God's handiwork.

The West. The storied frontier.

It's the land of rowdy trail-hardened cowboys and intolerance of those with a different skin tone. It's the land of heroes and outlaws. It's the land where justice is sometimes measured by the speed of a drawn gun and the law is less than sympathetic to the truth. It's a land where a man can make his mark by living up to his word and dying for his principles. It's a harsh new world unlike anything ever seen before.

As he looked out the window of the rollicking Concord coach he rode in, Dexter Pennyworth was sure that only he would deserve such a coveted and prestigious an endeavor. He'd been traveling now for several days, taking a train from St Louis to Red River Station. From there he's ridden by stage to Fort Davis, a long arduous journey fraught with the perils of life in the frontier. He'd been just a few days out of Fort Davis enroute to Fort Bliss to interview and illustrate the life story of Colonel Hudson McCrane, a highly decorated and famous military figure. His backside felt as though it'd been ten years on that stage from the way it ached. As the short, lean biographer straightened out his black top hat and righted his round spectacles, he spotted McMurphy's General Store. His eyes widened and a slight smile creased his parched lips as he made his way across the dusty dirty street to the shop.

Stepping through the large doorway, Dexter Pennyworth's smile widened. He'd only been in The West for a short period of time, traveling from St Louis to Texas for his employer, The St Louis Chronicler, St Louis' foremost newspaper of the day. He surveyed the shop's interior. The shop was well stocked with most modern goods and textiles available today. Wool blankets, candles, perfumes, hard candy, jerky, leather goods as well as a vast array of dry goods and canned goods. At the counter was a tall rugged man dressed in brown leather chaps and vest was talking with the clerk as they examined a 1873 Colt .45 military pistol with short barrel and an ivory handle.

"...not sure what's wrong with it, Larry. Every once in awhile she just locks up and won't discharge," the tall man said. "Darndest thing I every seen, Larry."

"Hmph," replied Larry McMurphy, the store's rotund proprietor sliding it back across the counter to Johnson. "Well Rafe, you want me to have the gunsmith check it over?"

Deputy Rafe Johnson spun the gun around in his hand in the fashion of a trick shootist before looking it over one final time.

"Naw, she's never let me down when it counted. I just couldn't part with 'er. Not yet." replied Johnson. "I'll be needin' some more bullets though"

"Sure enough. That's all I've got out here but I've got more out back so gimme a minute and I'll get'em for you."

"I'm gonna have me some of this jerky here too.""Help yourself," says Larry. "Be right back"

Dexter Pennyworth studied the man a moment. He appeared to be a fairly rugged individual with strong chiseled jaw and facial features. His skin was tanned and weathered like that of an old leather saddlebag. He decided to approach the man but was abruptly interrupted by a booming voice from behind.

"Alright Johnson, it's time we settled our lil score"

Pennyworth instinctively ducked behind a stack of steamer trunks. He peered around the trunks to see a stocky bearded man standing in the doorway, his six-gun in hand and ready for action. Pennyworth's breath began to quicken. He was not a violent man himself, in fact, truth be told, cowardice was one of his better attributes. His hands began to sweat and tremble as he watched Dawson walk towards the tall deputy at the counter.

"What do you want now, Dawson?", says Johnson.

"Whaddaya think I want, Johnson?" says Dawson, "I want your blood fer what you've done! Didja think I'd jus'.. jus' fergit about what happened?"

Johnson turned to face Dawson. Johnson had already placed his six-gun back in it's holster so Dawson had the drop on him. Something on Johnson's chest gleamed in the sun. Pennyworth squinted hard. It was a deputy's badge.

"You're drunk, Dawson," Johnson chided, "Go home and sleep it off 'fore you do something stupid and get someone hurt."

Dawson bristles with indignance at Johnson's suggestion.

"Only one who's gonna get hurt here is you!", says Dawson as he points his revolver at Johnson. Johnson stares back hard at Dawson. Sweat trickled down into Pennyworth's eyes as he watched both men. He wiped the sweat from his brow as his heart was pounding in his chest.

"Dawson, I ain't gonna draw with you," says Johnson with a slight grin. "Only way you shoot me is in the back. Now go on home!"

Johnson turns back to the counter, his back now exposed to the infuriated Dawson. Dawson blinks in disbelief twice. He swallows hard and then speaks once more.

"You killed my..."

"I killed Johnny in self-defense, Dawson an' you know it! He was drunk same as you. He began shootin' up the saloon and when I came to take his guns... he fired on me. I had no choice but to shoot him. That's the truth an' you know it! Now get outta here before I lose what lil patience I have fer you!"

"Only thing I know is my brother's dead, Johnson. His blood's on yer hands an' that badge. You killed him sure as I'm standin' here", Dawson says in a low, measured tone. "You think that tin star pinned ta yer chest gives you absolution from murder? Well it doesn't. An' if you wanna die with yer back ta me? That's fine too. Either way... today my brother gets justice!"

BLAM!

Dawson's gun fired. Johnson arches backwards and he slumps down against the counter, facing his killer. Johnson pulls his ivory-handled six-gun shakily, and squeezes the trigger.

CLICK!

Misfire. The gun didn't discharge. Johnson's eyes widen with the horrific realization that his murderer is about to get away with murder. He stares in disbelief at his six-gun then up at Dawson. Dawson is on him quickly, grabbing away the gun from Johnson's dying grasp.

"Not today, Johnson. Another Dawson won't die today," says Dawson with a wicked yellow-toothed grin as he leans down in Johnson's face. "Not today. Not ever again!"

"You'll pay, Dawson," says Johnson through his pain-clenched teeth, "and when you do...it'll be MY face you'll see last...unnnh..."

And with those parting words, the spirit of Deputy Rafe Johnson left this mortal world behind. Dawson stares at Johnson's lifeless form, blinking incessantly as if shaken by the deputy's final words.

"Hah!", spits Dawson. He quickly looks around for witnesses. Satisfied that there were none, he turns for the door. At that moment a steamer trunk falls from atop the stack, crashing to the floor with a thud. Dawson whirls around in a flash to see Dexter Pennyworth cowering before him.

"Who the hell...?", sputters Dawson as he points Johnson's six-gun at the trembling Pennyworth. "Wrong place wrong time, mister!"

Pennyworth covers his face as a grinning Dawson confidently squeezes his finger on the trigger.

CLICK!

"Bah!" bellows the frustrated Dawson, reaching for his own gun to finish the deed.

"I think it came from in McMurphy's!", said a voice was heard from outside.

Dawson's eyes shift to the front door and the quickening sounds of approaching footsteps. Dawson's attention quickly returns to the quivering Dexter Pennyworth with these threatening words.

"You breath so much as one word about any of this and I swear... I'll hunt you down an' fix you same as I did him!"

Dawson's intense stare was more than enough to convince Pennyworth of the sincerity in Dawson's threat. Dawson then quickly makes his exit through a door in the back of the shop, unseen by anyone else but Pennyworth. He's still staring at the back door when the first of several townspeople rushes into the shop.

"Are you alright, mister?" a young man said, leaning over Pennyworth.

"It's Rafe Johnson! He's been shot!" said a voice from the direction of the counter.

"What's going on here?" demands the rotund clerk, just now returning from his storage room.

"It's Rafe. Rafe Johnson. He's been killed." said another man.

Suddenly another tall, ruggedly handsome man thickly built and with gun drawn entered the shop. The badge on his chest marks him as the town's marshal, Joshua Picus. Joshua Picus is the sort of man who could calm the nerves with just a single glance. He had an even temperament and was not given quickly to anger. He has a keen wit about him and some even profess to have known him to actually have a sense of humor, though rarely was it on display. To the townspeople of Crossroads, Joshua Picus was as tough as saddle leather but most of all, he was a fair man. Many a time he'd quelled civic uprising with his words and not his gun.

He'd only known Rafe Johnson for about a year. That's when Rafe came into town on the noon stage. Over that year they'd become a comfortable fit with each other. Each trusted the other with his life, both literally and figuratively. Now the man he'd come to know as deputy and friend, lie dead before him. His steely gray eyes quickly survey the gruesome scene. No words came to his lips as his eyes narrowed at the grizzly discovery.

"He was... he was shot in the back, Marshal", said a stunned old man with a grizzly old beard. "What kinda cowardly sonuva - ?"

"Hey!" shouts Marshal Picus. Picus was now leaning over Dexter Pennyworth himself. He helped Dexter up to his feet. Dexter Pennyworth's hands were still shaking as the marshal spoke to him.

"What happened here, mister?", he asks, "Did you do this?"

Dexter Pennyworth suddenly snaps to reality with the accusation.

"Wha..?", he stammered nervously, "I... no! I didn't have anything to do with this!"

"Well did you see who did it?" asks the marshal.

Dexter Pennyworth's thoughts and gaze return to the backdoor and Dawson's haunting threat; 'You breathe so much as one word about any of this and I swear... I'll hunt you down an' fix you same as I did him!'

"Mister?" a voice is heard in the distance of Dexter's mind.

"Mister!"

This time the voice startles the meek Mr. Pennyworth back to reality once again.

"Mister... I'm about to slap you in irons an' haul you in. Now I'm gonna ask ya one more time" the marshal says sternly, "Did you see who did this or didn't you?"

Sweat trickles down his face as he shakes his head.

"No. No I didn't see a thing! I-I was over here behind the steamer trunks when I heard the shot. When I came around the corner... and th-there he was." says Pennyworth.

"What's your name, mister?" asks the marshal.

"My... name?" says Dexter in stunned fashion," My name is Pennyworth, Dexter Milo Pennyworth."

"Well do you have any guns on you, Mr. Pennyworth?" the marshal inquires.

"Guns? Ah, why no, no I haven't' any guns upon me, sir. I've never owned a gun in my life" says Pennyworth.

"Okay, Mr. Pennyworth, Id' like you to come down to my office to answer a few questions. Maybe we can jog yer memory abit about who did this and what exactly happened here" says the marshal.

"Questions?" asks Pennyworth," But I've already told you...I didn't see anything!"

"Still, I'd like to ask you a few questions" insists the marshal, "Please come with me. Dilby get Doc Bensen over here and the undertaker too. I don't want Rafe seen like this. Get him covered up and bring him around the back way to the undertaker. Is that yours, Mr. Pennyworth?" Dexter's attention shifts to the floor where the marshal is pointing. There on the floor sits a black cowboy hat with a golden band.

"Uh no. The, uh, the dead fellow there was wearing it" stutters Pennyworth nervously.

"I don't recall Rafe wearin' a gold band on his hat" says the marshal.

"Come to think of it", says the clerk," neither do I. Hmph, that's strange."

"I thought you didn't see anything, Mr. ..?" asks the marshal.

"Pennyworth, Mr. Pennyworth and yes, I did see him wearing it when I first came into the shop."

Not quite satisfied with his explanation, the marshal motions for Dexter Pennyworth to come with him.

It was a quarter after three when Dexter Pennyworth walked out of Marshal Picus' office.

"And you're sure you don't know what happened to Johnson's gun?" asks the tall lawman.

"I have no idea what happened to it, marshal," Dexter replies hastily.

"You staying long in town, Mr. Pennyworth?" asks the marshal as he stood in his doorway.

"Just a day," says Pennyworth nervously, "I leave on the morning stage tomorrow for Ft Bliss"

"Well good," says the marshal, "I've got some business out of town tomorrow so I won't be here to see you off. I hope you have a pleasant stay until your stage arrives, Mr. Pennyworth. But until then, stay outta trouble, okay?"

"Most definitely, my dear marshal", Dexter turns and begins walking away. Under his breath his parting words are heard only by himself. "Most definitely."

His eyes suddenly spy Mooney's Last Chance Saloon. He smiles and begins walking towards it with an anxious stride. He steps through the swinging doors and breathes a deep sigh of relief. He makes his way to the far end of the bar and bellies up to it.

"Here's a fella who looks new ta town. Name's Henry Mooney, my friend. Everybody calls me Hank though"

Dexter Pennyworth smiles an uneasy smile and tips his hat.

"Ah, you be Dexter Pennyworth. Well I'm pleased to make your acquaintance sir."

"Well same here," says the bartender with a warm smile. "Welcome to crossroads. Now then, what can I get you Mr. Dexter Pennyworth?" says the middle-aged barkeep with his hair slick back and a handlebar moustache covering his smile.

"I'd like a bit of brandy, if I may, sir-ah, I mean Hank" says Dexter.

The bartender laughs a hearty laugh. "I 'm not sure, heh, heh, I see, heh, heh... the humor in my request"

"Brandy?" says Hank incredulously, "We ain't got any brandy here, mister. We got whiskey and beer. This ain't exactly St Louis y'know?"

The reference to his hometown strikes Dexter an as odd coincidence. Perhaps it's more than just coincidence.

"How did you deduce that I was from St Louis?" asks Dexter tentatively.

"Why, word travels fast in a town like this mister," retorts the barkeep. "'sides, it's all over town how you were in McMurphy's when Deputy Johnson got killed."

The words shock Pennyworth like a lightning bolt. In his mind's eye he relives the incident again the events slowed down to a time's crawl; the gruff Dawson goading the tall Johnson... Dawson firing his six-gun... the bullet striking Johnson in the back... Johnson pulling his gun... the gun misfiring... Johnson's last words... Dawson's gloating... and finally Dawson's haunting threat: 'You breathe so much as one word about any of this and I swear... I'll hunt you down an' fix you same as I did him!'

"Mister!"

Dexter's suddenly shaken back to reality once again.

"Wha... I'm-I'm sorry. I just..." stammers Dexter.

"You seemed like you were lookin' at a ghost there, mister'" says the concerned bartender," You okay?"

Dexter nods and swallows hard.

"I-I'm just fine, good man," replies Pennyworth,"Uh, how about a glass of whiskey then, hmmm? In fact..." he says reaching into his pocket and placing a coin upon the bar top, "...bring the bottle too"

"Okay, whiskey it is" says the barkeep.

Within moments, the bartender returns with a shotglass of whiskey and a bottle. Dexter downs the whiskey and quickly fills the glass again. He downs that too, refilling the shotglass once more. He slowly looks around the room. 'So this is the wild wild west, hmm?' he thought to himself. 'Oh Dexter Pennyworth, what have you gotten yourself into, m'lad?'

Another glass of whiskey finds it's way to his stomach.

' Okay, it's very simple', he thinks to himself, 'all I've got to do is stay out of the way, keep out of trouble. That shouldn't be a problem for Dexter Pennyworth."

Just then the doors to the saloon swing open and in steps the man named Dawson. Dexter gasps aloud and spins around back to the bar, his glass shaking in his once steady hand.

"You alright, friend?" asks the bartender.

"Th-that man... the one who just walked in... ", he sputters.

"Oh you wanna stay clear of him. That's Deke Dawson, one of the Dawson Boys, the nastiest, foul-tempered men that ever came through this way. He's only been here but a few days and already his brother's dead."

"Why? How?" asks Dexter.

"Well the way I heard it, his brother Darrow caught a fella trying to cheat in a card game over at The Palomino. Darrow drew on the man but the man wasn't heeled. Now Deputy Johnson was there and told Darrow to calm down or he'd run 'im in. Darrow was liquored up and turned and fired at Johnson. Johnson returned fire, killin' Darrow where he stood. Well ol' Deke here has been spoutin' off that he was gonna see Johnson dead 'fore he left this world. Most folks figger it was him who did the deputy in today. I guess after this mornin', Deke figgers he got his wish too."

"Yes," Dexter whispered to himself, "I believe he does"

Dawson makes his way over to the far opposite end of the bar from Dexter.

"Bartender! Gimme a bottle of yer best whiskey! " bellows Dawson as he slams the bar top with a meaty fist. "That no-good Deputy finally got his I heard! "'bout gawdam time! 'Bout time there was a lil justice 'round here! Yes sir!"

The bartender serves up a bottle to the already drunken Dawson. The brutish Dawson pops the top off the bottle and downs a healthy swig. Wiping away the excess from his lips and setting the bottle upon the bar, he spies Dexter Pennyworth. Dexter tries to hide in plain sight as it were, to no avail. Dawson squints again at Pennyworth. Then suddenly his eyes widen and his expression becomes one of anger. He snatches the bottle from the bar top and makes his way down the bar, brushing rudely into and past the other patrons at the bar, paying no heed to them in his haste. They all scatter and leave in his wake, emptying out the place in a hurry. Dawson comes to a stop in front of the demure Mr. Pennyworth.

"Whadaya... think yer funny, mister?" he says in a drunken slur.

"Now Mr Dawson, he's not bothering anybody," says the barkeep, "Why don't you just leave him be?"

"Shad up, barkeep!", he hisses at the bartender. The bartender decides that retreat is the better part of valor and removes himself to a backroom behind the bar.

"I asked you a question, pal. You think... you think yer bein' funny?"

Dexter Pennyworth slowly turns on his stool and shyly faces Dawson.

"I-I'm not sure what you mean, sir", Dexter says with mock confidence, "Do I know you?"

"Whadaya mean do I know you?" says Dawson with impunity, "Lissen here, I ain't one fer games, mister! You ain't funny!"

Dexter Pennyworth is now truly puzzled.

"I-I assure you sir, I'm not trying to be 'funny' as you say in any way, shape or form" says Pennyworth.

"You know damn well what I mean, mister!" says Dawson even more agitated now than before. "I'm talkin' about that right there!"

All eyes at the bar shift to where Dawson's finger points. There on the bar top at the end ... is a black cowboy hat with a golden band. Pennyworth stares in disbelief as does Dawson.

"Now, you gonna tell me you didn't bring that in here?" sputters Dawson in anger.

"I-I don't know how that got there! I swear!" pleads Dexter. A disbelieving Dawson takes another swig from his whiskey bottle and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Mister, I told you before an' I ain't gonna tell ya again!" says Dawson in a low, menacing tone. "Don't get cute with me, pal. You steer clear of Deke Dawson... cuz if ya don't? I'll fix ya. I'll

fix ya good!"

Dawson backs up and out the door, his eyes firmly and frantically focused upon the black hat with the gold band. With Dawson's departure, Dexter Pennyworth downs one more shot of whiskey and placing another coin upon the bar, decides to find a room where he can settle in for the evening. Before leaving, Pennyworth turns to look once more at the black hat with the golden band. He scratches his balding head in confusion and exits into the street.

Dinnertime finds Dexter Pennyworth enjoying the last few morsels of a hearty meal courtesy of Lady Vera's Kitchen located in the Grandview Hotel. He'd spent the remainder of the afternoon in his room there and had ventured down for a bite to eat.

"How's the steak, sir?" asked a lovely young woman as she cleaned up an adjacent table.

"Better than any steak in St Louis, my dear lady," Pennyworth happily replied dabbing his napkin at the corners of his mouth. "And the potatoes were simple splendid as well. My compliments to the cook"

The woman smiled politely.

"Why thank you kindly sir" she said. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"As fine a meal as I've ever partaken of, yes sir", says Pennyworth as he stands and places a few coins onto the table. "Good evening, madam" he says, tipping his top hat as he exits the building into the cool night air. He retrieves a new cigar from his breast pocket and lights it up.

"Aaaah" he says with satisfaction. "Nothing like a good smoke after a good meal."

A cold gruff voice from the adjoining alleyway interrupts Dexter Pennyworth's peace. It makes his blood run cold and the hackles stand up on his neck. His heart begins pounding like a trip hammer as the voice speaks.

"You pull another lil trick like you did in the saloon an' that meal'll be yer last", it says. Out from the twilight shadows steps Deke Dawson. The smell of whiskey was almost overpowering, even at this distance. He slowly makes his way towards Pennyworth constantly surveying the neighboring area as if wishing to avoid notice in his advance.

"I-I told you, Mr. Dawson," says Pennyworth with an audible shakiness in his voice now, "I didn't do anything!"

"Keep yer tone low or I'll shut yer trap fer good", threatens Dawson through his clenched yellow teeth.

"Wha-what do you want?" stammers Pennyworth. "I didn't tell the Marshal anything! I haven't said anything to anyone! Please... just leave me alone!"

Dawson smiles a greasy grin in the moonlight.

"An' if you wanna keep on breathin' ya best not stray from that line of thinkin' mister"

Dexter Pennyworth squeezes his eyes shut, hoping that this is not happening.

"I understand, Mr. Dawson," says Pennyworth, trying to regain some composure. "My lips are sealed."

"They damn well better be or I'll... I'll. "Dawson stops mid-sentence, his eyes widen with horror.

Dexter Pennyworth's terror turns to confusion.

"What-what's the matter?" he asks the outlaw.

"You-you think that's a funny joke doncha?" sputters Dawson.

"What are you talking about?" asks Pennyworth confounded.

"I've got a good mind ta kill ya right here an' now!" growls Dawson.

"But I haven't said anything, I tell you!"

Dawson reaches into his gunbelt and pulls out a gun. It was an ivory-handled Colt .45. It was Deputy Rafe Johnson's gun. Pennyworth drops to his knees on the boardwalk, starring in wide-eyed horror as Dawson points the gun straight at him. With a mere six-to-eight feet between them, even Dexter Pennyworth knows he'd be a dead man. He covers his face, awaiting the inevitable report which would undoubtedly signal his death. Dawson squeezed the trigger slowly as he speaks once more.

"Say hello ta that deputy fer me"

CLICK!

"Damned pistol!" bellowed Dawson as Pennyworth peered through his fingers covering his face. He saw Dawson trying to loosen up the gun's hammer in an effort to finish his deadly task... with no avail. Dawson looks at Pennyworth... no. He looks past Dexter Pennyworth, his eyes still wide with disbelief. Dawson grunts and backs away, tripping over the boardwalk in his escape back to the alley. Dexter Pennyworth stands up and turns around to see something gleaming through a storefront window. He walks closer, soon realizing that what the moon's light has touched is a gold band... a gold band on a black cowboy hat.

The store's window has the words Gruden's Hats and Petticoats. Dexter Pennyworth continues to stare at the hat as if being comforted by an unknown hand.

"It-it couldn't be...", he whispers to the night. "Could it?"

The night never answers and Dexter Pennyworth feels somehow thankful for that.

Ten o'clock in the morning. Dexter Pennyworth has checked out of the Grandview and is passing the time he has left in Crossroads at a poker table inside The Palomino. He'd learned to play the card game with his father and uncles growing up and had fancied himself quite a good player. This morning he was on a particularly grand streak of luck. He'd already relieved a hefty sum from the men at the table and appeared to have no inclination of stopping. Seated at the table with him were four men; an apparent aged transient with more than a few teeth missing, a well-groomed businessman, a quiet, somber fellow with a hard face and Rollie Butterman, the town's barber. All five men were intently studying their cards.

"Okay, I'm in for five dollars," says Rollie with a confident smirk.

"I'll see that," says the quiet man dropping a few coins atop the table.

"I'm down ta m'last ten dollars, boys," says the toothless transient. "But I believe my luck's about ta change. I'm in fer the five and I'll raise ya another two"

"Rollie kicks in his two as does the quiet man but with a grunt of discontent accompanying his coins.

"What about you, Mr. Pennyworth?", asks Rollie. "Still feeling lucky?"

Pennyworth shows no emotion as he surveys his options. He soon drops his money into the pot with a stoic confidence.

"I do believe lady luck is a hold of my arm here today."

"Well she had better find another dance partner soon, my friend, as I'm tired of seeing my hard-earned money line your pockets" says the staunch businessman." I'm in gents. Let's have a look now shall we?"

Rollie lays his cards out on the table.

"Pair of tens and deuces", he says with a hopeful grin.

"Hah!" says the quiet man throwing his cards down on the table in disgust.

"Well I'm be gawdamned," says the transient, staring down at his cards, "Lady luck jus' ain't got the taste fer my means, I guess" He lays them out on the table; an ace of hearts, five of clubs, six of diamonds, six of clubs and ten of hearts. He shakes his head in sad resignation yet manages to still keep a slight grin on his mush.

"Let's see what ya got there, Pennyworth," says Rollie.

"It's just you and I, Mr. Pennyworth," says the businessman with arrogance, "Still have lady luck riding shotgun?"

Dexter Pennyworth seemingly ignores the comment and continues to stare at his cards. He parses his lips and sighs. He begins to speak but something stops him before the first word escapes his lips. He draws in a deep breath. You can feel the anticipation building. Finally the still scene is shattered.

"Quit beatin' the blamed devil 'round the stump an' lay'em down" commands the quiet man impatiently. Pennyworth looks all four gentlemen in the eye before slowly laying down his cards.

"Ain't it a sight? Three kings and a pair of ladies, gents" says Dexter Pennyworth with as much glee in his voice as he could muster.

"That's a mighty high hand, Mr. Pennyworth," says Rollie as he turns to the businessman. "How bout it, mister, you beat that?"

The businessman bristles at Pennyworth's cards. He downs the last of his whiskey and slams the shotglass down on the table as he lays down his cards. He has a queen of clubs, the two of diamonds, the seven of spades, the eight of spades and the queen of spades.

"Hosanna, I'm on a roll!" exclaims Dexter Pennyworth.

"Bah!" grunts the quiet man. "Alright, next deal. I wanna win my money back. Let's go!"

"Everybody still in?" asks Rollie.

"Not me, amigo," says the transient. "I'm gettin' out whilst I still got me enough fer a bottle of whiskey!"

"Well thank you for your contribution to my coffers, my good man," says Dexter Pennyworth with a touch of arrogance. The man tips his hat to Pennyworth and exits to the bar. "Now then gentlemen, who's in? Hmmm? Five card stud, aces wild?" says Dexter with the giddiness of a child at Christmas.

"We've only got four," says the businessman. "The odds are beginning to come my way"

"Well I can take three men's money as well as four" says Dexter happily, handing the cards to Rollie for the deal.

"Make it five", says a gruff voice from the bar just beyond the table. The four seated gentlemen all shift to view the latest entry into their game. When the man comes into view, Dexter Pennyworth's jaw drops and his hands begin to quiver.

"I mean... you do have room fer one more, right?" asks Deke Dawson with a wide grin.

He reeks of whiskey as he takes the transient's seat at the table. "Didn't think you'd object Mister Pennyworth"

Pennyworth takes a drink of his whiskey and swallows hard, as if forcing it down his gullet. Dawson sets his bottle down on the table, nearly spilling it in the process.

"I hear you've hit a good run of luck", says Dawson in a drunken drawl. "Let's see if ol' Deke can't change that luck, huh? Dealer hand 'em out and let's get this dance started."

Rollie gives a look of contempt as he shuffles the cards then passes them out. Once all the rounds have been dealt, the pot begins.

"Okay folks," says Rollie, "I'll add in another five dollars."

The businessman runs the tip of his right forefinger over the tops of his cards in contemplation. After a moment he brings them together and drops five silver dollars on the table.

"I'm most definitely in" he says with a calm assurance. Eyes shift to the quiet man. He sits there silently looking over his hand. His eyes peek over the cards and shift between all the players. He closes his hand and drops the cards on the table.

"I know when I ain't got life." he says, "I'm out"

Next up is Dexter Pennyworth. He loosens up the collar on his shirt. Perspiration now dots his brow. He can feel his heartbeat thunder like a team of wild horses. He'd won eleven straight hands. He'd taken in somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred dollars in total. Maybe he should just fold his hand and bow out. But something told him not to. Something, almost like a guided unseen hand, placed his money into the pot.

"I-I believe my luck is still strong," he says nervously.

Dawson looks at his cards like Michelangelo laboring over the Sistine Chapel. He'd snort and grunt and look over at Pennyworth with an evil, one-eyed glare. Finally he drops five silver dollars onto the pile of coins.

"Alrighty, then," says Rollie, "let's see who lady luck's smiled on" Rollie lays down his hand. He's got a small straight. He smiles confidently and turns to the businessman. The businessman taps his finger on his cards and then sits straight up in his chair.

"Alas, I believe lady luck has forsaken me once again" he says, laying down his hand of a pair of clubs, pair of hearts and the three of diamonds. Now it was Dexter Pennyworth's turn. He blinked hard as he stared at his cards.

"Well?" roared Dawson. "You gonna take them cards to yer grave?"

The words shook Pennyworth back to reality. He slowly lays down his cards one by one.

The ace of diamonds...

The ace of hearts...

The ace of clubs...

The four of spades...

Dexter Pennyworth swallowed again before laying down his last card. All eyes, especially those of Deke Dawson, were fixed on the last card as Pennyworth flipped it over onto the table.

The ace of spades.

"That ain't possible!" shouted Dawson, standing up in his position at the table. "There ain't no possible means that you could've won twelve straight hands... and-and to win with a loaded hand like that?"

"Easy now, Deke," says Rollie, "I was the dealer so's the hand was fairly dealt."

"I won't sit still fer cheatin'! No sir!" roars the outlaw, knocking his chair over backwards. "I think you're a four-flushin' cheater. Pennyworth! An' I want justice!"

Deke backs up or rather staggers backwards abit and jerks his own six-gun from it's holster and the ivory-handled pistol he took from the dead deputy.

"Deke put those guns away!" shouts Rollie. "I mean it! I'll get Marshal Picus and then..."

Deke now turns the guns on Rollie with a mean, hard stare.

"You so much as twitch fer that door, Rollie, and I'll send ya ta the Almighty right gawdam now!"

Rollie holds his ground as Dawson turns his attention back to the cowering Pennyworth.

"Pennyworth, get on yer feet and get outside," the outlaw commanded in a drunken slur. "I've about had it with you and I think it's time we take care of business proper like. Now get in the street. I want satisfaction! I know you cheated! They all know you cheated! Nobody cheats Deke Dawson at poker and walks away with his money! Not you, not anyone!"

Dexter Pennyworth places his hands in the air and slowly makes his way towards the backdoor.

"Mr. Dawson, please sir, I'm begging you," says Dexter sweat mixing with possible tears on his face, "I didn't cheat! Those were the cards I was dealt! You must believe me!"

Dawson stabs the barrel of his colt pistol into the back of Dexter Pennyworth. Dexter lurches forward from the jolt.

"Pennyworth, we've been comin' ta a head fer awhile now," says Dawson, "Today I aim ta end our acquaintance in the street fer everybody ta see."

Once at the doorway, Dawson pauses, turning around to face the crowd within. He waves his gun sloppily side to side.

"Lissen up! The first man or woman that comes thru this door lookin' ta find that tinhorn marshal, gets a lead bullet fer their effort. Unnerstand?"

The consensus is one of fear and acquiescence. Dawson, satisfied that he's got no heroes to worry about, turns back towards the door. Before exiting however, something catches his eye... a glint of shiny metal to his left. He shields his eyes from the sunlight coming through the front window causing the shine. When Dawson finally sees the object, his eyes widen with abject horror and disbelief. There, hanging on the wall amidst the usual headwear and coats is some- thing he'd hoped he'd never see again.

A black hat with a gold band.

In his shock and horror, he drops his guns. He quickens picks them back up and backs through the doorway, falling down at the feet of Dexter Pennyworth. He collects himself and looks up at the endless gray clouds above. He ponders for a brief second why the sun has abandoned the sky. He looks around to discover that the street is also abandoned, not a soul in sight. His brow furrows with confusion as to where everybody is. His ponderment is short-lived however as he then he sees the face of Dexter Pennyworth before him. His eyes fill with rage, his face with anger. He gets to his feet and shoves Pennyworth backwards.

"I told you, Pennyworth," says Dawson, practically spitting as he talks thanks to his whiskey intake, "I told you I didn't like jokes!"

"Wha-what do you mean? I didn't - "stutters Pennyworth.

"Shaddup! I told you and now I've had it! First ya play games with...with that hat..."

"What... hat?" asks Pennyworth innocently.

"You know what hat!" roars Dawson, pointing the barrel of his six-gun straight at Pennyworth's face. "That damned black hat!"

"Black... hat?" says Pennyworth, not believing he'd heard Dawson right.

"Yes, that cursed black hat with the golden band! You know whose hat it is! Yer just playing games with me! Well the games are over now! Get into that street!"

"W-why?" says Pennyworth, fearing that he already knows the fatal reason.

"We're gonna settle this like men, Pennyworth... with lead!"

"But I-I don't even own a gun!" pleads Pennyworth as he drops to his knees. "Please! I beg of you! Don't kill me in cold blood!"

The sight of Pennyworth begging only seems to further infuriate Dawson. He walks over to Pennyworth, shoves a gun into Pennyworth's hands. As he backs away, he begins go smile.

"Well now.. never let it be said that Deke Dawson ever shot an unarmed man!" he says backing up a few more steps. "Now you've got a gun. Go ahead! Take a good look at it! Now it's yers. And you better learn how ta use pretty damned quick because in ten seconds I'm drawin'. If yer gun ain't drawn, then you'll die with it in yer belly, and it don't make a lick of difference ta me! Now get on yer feet!"

Slowly Dexter Pennyworth gets to his feet.

'How did I get here?' he thinks to himself, 'How did it come to this? Why am I going to die? I'm just a biographer! I'm not a gunfighter! Why? Why?' The answers lie in the mind of his adversary and would-be killer, Deke Dawson.

"Are you ready? Pennyworth?, asks Dawson in a menacingly playful manner. "Are you ready ta meet yer maker? Well you be sure'n tell'em who sent ya. You tell'em it was Deke Dawson! And you tell that deputy hi from the Dawson Boys"

Dawson is now approximately fifty feet away from Pennyworth. He checks his six-gun, spinning the chamber around in a taunting fashion. He slaps it to a halt and holsters it.

"I'm gonna count down from ten, Pennyworth!" shouts Dawson. "When I get ta one, ya best make yer best play... and kiss this ol' world goodbye!"

There's a sudden calmness that comes over Dexter Pennyworth. It's the calmness of peaceful resignation. The quieting acceptance of fate's hand as it guides you to your destiny. He tucks the ivory-handled six-gun into his waistband and stands tall.

"Ten!" shouts Dawson.

'Just stay calm' Pennyworth thinks to himself.

"Nine!"

'Just lift the gun out, point and fire' he thinks.

"Eight!"

'It'll work. It has to work!' thinks Dexter Pennyworth.

"Seven!"

'Just pull it out slowly...'

"Six!"

'..aim it straight...'

"Five!"

'..and squeeze the trigger.'

"Four!"

'Who am I kidding!'

"Three!"

'He's a killer! It'd take a miracle to beat him.'

"Two!"

'Nothing short of a miracle...', Dexter thought, closing his eyes tight.

"One!"

Time seems to slow down to a crawl as both men draw, Dawson, with his lightning reflexes slightly dulled by liquor, Pennyworth, with a slower, clumsy draw. In the gray skies overhead, a clap of thunder roars as the duelists makes their play simultaneously.

BLAM!

There is silence...an unending silence.

It's finally broken by a single sound.

CLICK!

The sound is heard again.

CLICK!

Once more the sound fills the air.

CLICK!

Dexter Pennyworth stands looking down at his midsection in puzzlement. In his right hand is a smoking six-gun. Thirty feet away Deke Dawson stands looking at his gun with confusion. He's pointing at Pennyworth, trying to fire it, but it won't discharge. Dawson looks at Pennyworth with a sad confusion.

"It... won't... fire" he says in disbelief. He stares out at Dexter Pennyworth but notices there's someone else standing there. Someone familiar but he can't quite make out the man's face. He squints harder and finally he recognizes the man.

It's Rafe Johnson.

He's wearing his black hat with the gold band.

And he's smiling.

"You ... you should be dead", says Dawson in a whisper. He aims the gun again and squeezes the trigger.

CLICK!

CLICK!

Dexter Pennyworth flinches as the gun's hammer rises and falls without result. Dawson blinks and the image of Rafe Johnson slowly fades away like morning mist, completely unseen by Pennyworth.

"Why?" he says staring down at the useless weapon in his right hand. "Why won't it fire?"

A trickle of crimson seeps from the corner of Deke Dawson's mouth. There's an expanding bloodstain in the middle of Deke's chest. He slowly drops to his knees, still looking at the gun. He looks out at Dexter Pennyworth with a wide-eyed stare, his mouth agape.

"Why... won't... it... fi – "

Deke Dawson then slowly crumbles forward, landing facedown in the dirt. His eyes still open in a stare of bewilderment. Deke Dawson dies with that question on his lips.

In a matter of minutes, Marshal Picus and several townspeople have gathered around the visibly shaken Dexter Pennyworth. Marshal Picus slowly removes the six-gun from Dexter's frozen grasp.

"What happened here, Mr. Pennyworth?" he asks. Dexter Pennyworth does not hear him, however. All he hears is the roar of a six-gun echoing in his ear.

"Mr. Pennyworth?"

"Deke called him out, Joshua" says Rollie, coming from his front door. "He accused Mr. Pennyworth here of cheating at poker."

"Was he cheating?" asks Picus.

"Heck no," says Rollie, "I was the dealer. Mr. Pennyworth couldn't have set up his hand. Deke just wouldn't have any of it. He dragged poor Mr. Pennyworth here out into the street. Told all of us to stay in the saloon or he'd kill us. He was gonna gun him down, Joshua. In cold blood. Mr. Pennyworth didn't even have a gun, Picus!"

"Who's gun is this then?"

"Deke gave it to him", says Rollie, "He shoved it on Mr. Pennyworth then set about pacin' off for a showdown."

"Well Deke's a fast draw, Rollie, you know that," says Picus. "You tellin' me that our Mister Pennyworth here just outdrew him?"

"No sir", says Rollie with a slight grin, "Deke's gun misfired. He never got off a shot."

The marshal and Rollie both walk the thirty feet to Deke Dawson's final stand. Clutched in his hand is the six-gun which let him down. It was an 1873 Colt .45 military pistol with short barrel...with an ivory handle.

"This-this is Rafe Johnson's gun" says Picus. "It was missing from his body when we found him yesterday."

"What are the chances that ol' Deke here was the one who killed Rafe, Joshua?" asked Rollie.

"I'd reckon you might just be right, Rollie" says Picus, studying the gun, "You might just be right"

Marshal Picus and Rollie walk back to where Dexter Pennyworth is being attended to by several people. As Deke Dawson's body lie dormant and bereft of life, a cold wind begins to blow. An object slowly darts out into the street carried by the breeze. It rolls right up to the body of Deke Dawson as if guided there by some unknown hand. It comes to rest upon the dead man's back.

It is a black hat... with a gold band.

The wind picks up again and the hat is carried off into the desert air, as if an invisible soul has come back to reclaim it. And who knows?

Maybe... just maybe... it did.

O-O

EPILOGUE

O-O

In the coming days, it would be revealed that Deke Dawson was a victim of his own doing. It is widely believed that Deke Dawson simply mixed up the guns in his haste to erase from existence, the sole witness to his crime. It is the ultimate irony for such a persona non gratis who lives by the gun in this frontier. In a game with the highest of stakes, Lady Luck chose another as Deke Dawson played the favorable odds... and came up short in the biggest gamble of his life.

Dexter Pennyworth is found innocent of any wrongdoing. He leaves here soon resumes his life in St. Louis but now lives each day with such vigor as to make one think it were his first on this world. He will no doubt remember the time he spent here in this sleepy little burg. It was here he bore witness to a crime and nearly paid for it with his life. It was here he came face to face with his own mortality and walked away. His life has most certainly changed; some will say for the better, some will say for worse. However, everyone will agree on one point... Dexter Pennyworth's life was most certainly was changed forever.

In the end, we must all face our own mortality at some point and while it may come in a manner much different than that which confronted to Dexter Pennyworth or Deke Dawson, rest assured, it most definitely will come to us all eventually.

It is the decisions we make in our lives every day which bring us to a place of ultimate reckoning. It is a place of consequence and final resolution...a place where fate takes a left turn and leaves you all alone... at Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[ THE END ] ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O