'The Blockade'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, find themselves, and everyone else in the town, besieged by scores of unknown enemies.

Note:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.

Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.

—O—

"The telegraph's down, Sheriff."

21 year old up-and-coming reporter Roger Bennet had only been installed in his position as new telegraphist at the local newspaper office for 3 weeks; the previous holder, 64 year old Ben Carrington, having just a month previous tripped over an apple box some kid had left lying at the edge of the sidewalk; he breaking his left leg, then going on to develop pneumonia, before finally passing on to the Great City in the Sky by way of blood poisoning in course of a rusty nail in the apple box.

The El Paso – Tucson – Phoenix – Yuma - San Diego Railroad, the EP&SDR in common parlance, though not running through Red Flume felt its location allowed a straighter line to Phoenix for its associated telegraph, hence the terminal in the local newspaper office, 'The Red Flume Scout'.

"As fine a set of tragedies as could be wished fer; like ter one o'they Classical Greek efforts, in fact." Sheriff Charles Donaldson had unwisely pronounced in public at Carrington's well-attended obsequies, before standing back to wonder if he had quite hit the correct tone of the occasion.

"What?"

"The telegraph, Sheriff, it's broke—no messages comin' through, nor able t'go out."

"Y'sure, youngster?" Donaldson gazing at the youth with all the suspicious experience of his fifty-odd years.

Roger for all his youth, or probably because of same, reddened in the face, breathed deeply and looked as if he was in the market for physical retribution; but then better intentions prevailed.

"There ain't a sound on the wire, Sheriff—no connection. The wire must be broke, somewhere a'tween here an' Yellow Dog, the next station down the line; meb'be even further off, actually."

Donaldson mused on this morsel for a considerable time, then asked the question anyone in authority was duty bound to bring up.

"Why not in the other direction—Claverton, twelve mile west o'us as we sits here right now?"

Roger, pressed to the limits of his endurance, sighed pitifully like a rattlesnake with the gripe.

"Claverton's upwind—I mean, up the line from the head station in Tucson. The power comes from Tucson, with a relay station twenty miles east at Pemberley." Roger rattling these facts off like a schoolboy reciting his lesson. "If Claverton were down, local, we'd still be up—active; but we ain't, so the break's somewhere east of us, Yellow Dog way."

"Ah."

A lengthy pause in communication now enforced itself in the small office on Main Street, Red Flume, Arizona Territory, Donaldson having nothing further to add on the matter. Finally, Roger caught onto this and erupted in righteous wrath.

"Well, what's t'be done, Sheriff?"

Donaldson took this assault on his ears with all the ease of someone who in his time had been in 4 gunfights, been shot at by 17 outlaws, deadbeats, rustlers, and gamblers, and been the target of 3 sticks of dynamite, thrown at separate times all with malice aforethought.

"Y'askin' me? Why?"

Taken aback Roger stood gobbling silently like a turkey with a sore throat for a few seconds, before recovering the capacity of speech.

"You're the Sheriff, ain't you? Ain't you duty bound t'do somethin'?"

Donaldson, caught by this interesting supposition, gave it some serious thought.

"Why, I ain't connected ter the newspaper, nor telegraph, in any way." He hunched his shoulders, where he sat behind his desk. "My opinion, wait fer a few hours, see if'n it don't come back of its own accord. If not, take a ride down ter Yellow Dog, see what state they're in. Lackin' which, the next step's obviously a stage ride ter Tucson, ter see what the bigwigs at Head Office have ter say. OK?"

Stonewalled to perfection Roger stood gazing at the official face of Law in the small community for what seemed to him like the passing of the Ages, but was probably something less than 30 seconds—then he gave up.

"Pshaw, that's some help, I got'ta say. Could'a got'ten better judgement from my Aunt Hepsabelle, an' she's been gone these eighteen year. G'bye."

Turning his youthful visage from the Sheriff Roger headed for the office's door with the determination to make it rue the day it had been set in place facing the road outside. But as he, necessary preliminary, opened the door wide he was faced with two approaching women, dressed in men's attire and armed to the teeth—so, not being an idiot, he thought better of his plan and merely went out with set jaw and black brow.

"He seems in a bit of a bind." Sally Nichols sailing into Donaldson's presence like a Spanish galleon of old, closely followed by her amour Henrietta Knappe. "What's his grievance, then?"

"New newspaper telegraphist, came t'tell me the telegraph's off fer the foreseeable future—wanted me ter do somethin' significant about same. Told him I couldn't—"

"—exit, pursued by a bear, ha-ha." Henrietta showing away with her sense of humor.

"Har-har." Donaldson, always one for a good joke, joining in the fun. "All the same, can't have Red Flume sittin' here in the middle o'the desert incommunicado with the outside world, can we?"

"Yeah," Sally not particularly interested in Red Flume's position on the world stage. "meb'be Queen Victoria'll kick the bucket, out'ta the blue, an' we'll be the last ter know. Think o'the shame."

"Id-yeet." Henrietta giving this surmise all the attention it deserved—none.

"Tell ye both what—"

The ladies, who had only come in to pass the time of day with their friend, raised their eyebrows and began to look uncomfortable, knowing full well where the Sheriff's ideas usually took them.

"Oh, God." Sally realising right away her morning had been ruined.

"Gawd—what?" Henrietta facing their combined fate like a martyr of old.

"Buck up, gals, tain't the end o'the world yet, a'ways." Donaldson trying to instil some backbone into his troops; they both being temporary part-time unpaid deputies of his. "What I thinks this present social emergency needs is—observation."

"Obs—what in hell d'ya mean, Charlie?" Sally wholly at sea.

"That youngster, jest pollutin' the vicinity—what's his name—?"

"Rog." Henrietta acting like the town almanac.

"Yeah, right; anyways, what's wanted, takin' his news in'ta account, is fer some on-, er, two ter hit the trail Yellow Dog way, an' see what's happened t'the newspaper's precious telegraph line. See my thinkin' there, gals?"

Neither of his listeners showed any great enthusiasm for this plan; Henrietta starting business proceedings on the right track, however.

"Work like that'll take two, meb'be three, days. With the both o'us at it I'd say, oh, forty dollars'd clear our overheads?"

"Hah, in yer dreams, leddy; what d'ya take the town's finances fer? Cleopatra's gold?"

Sally, ever thirsting after profit, stepped forward—nearly dribbling at the mouth in eager anticipation of striking the mother-lode.

"Have a heart, Sheriff; helluva lot o'work involved, as ye can easy guess. What say, ah, thirty dollars an' expences?"

"Wiirph." Donaldson clearly not impressed with this relative lowering of their combined needs. "Tell ye both what; out'ta the kindness o'my heart, an' 'cause yer friends an' all, I'll give ye five dollars out'ta my own pocket when ye returns with the telegraph back in business. Cain't say fairer than that, sure enough."

Neither woman thought this suggestion either fair or kind, Sally coming to the fore like an avenging Valkyrie in full panoply.

"You got'ta be kiddin', Charlie." She sighed as if all the troubles of the world sat heavy on her slim shoulders. "Fair offer here—we do what you want, find the broken wires, fix 'em an' return conquerin' heroes; for which the town pays us twenty dollars, an' incidental expences not ter overtop ten dollars? How's that sit in your account-book? Both Harry an' I havin' ter make an honest livin', an' all, ye'll allow."

Donaldson sat turning the suggestion over in his mind, then folded under the pressure of they're being the only helpers he presently had to hand, anyway.

"Oh, OK, but the Town Clerk'll have a fit, as ye both knows right well. Wouldn't like ter be standin' in yer boots, either o'ye, when he comes round ter face ye both with his balance sheet in hand."

"Har, let us worry about ol' Hatcherson, Charlie." Sally brightening up no end at the thought of easily gained profit at the end of the day. "My business partner, here, an' I'll get right on it. See ya, Charlie. G'bye."

"An' don't keep callin' me Charlie—Sheriff Donaldson, sir'd, be good once in a while."

"Ha." From either Henrietta or Sally, it not being clear which as they exited the office together.

—O—

"How're we gon'na identify a broken wire—if'n it's jest pulled a mite free from its moorings up on they poles?" Sally making this intelligent remark as they both rode slowly away from Red Flume on the trail to Yellow Dog, 9 miles distant to the east.

Henrietta had been glancing over her shoulder, making sure the pack-pony they had brought loaded with tools and equipment was pacing safely behind on its lead-rein.

"What? Oh, we jest sails along all the way ter Yellow Dog, is all." She having her plan of attack straight in her mind. "If we see's a broken wire, all well'n good. If not we enquires on arrival as ter Yellow Dog's telegraph bein' up or down; if the latter we're b-gg-red, if the former we turns oursel's about an' heads back Red Flume way—keepin' a much closer eye out on the dam' poles this time—easy."

This strategy hardly seemed to encourage Sally, who looked glum but remained silent as they carried on; Henrietta taking foremost interest in the line of poles, while Sally acted as back-up observer. But their odyssey was not to last the full distance as, two miles distant from Red Flume's boundary, they came on an impasse.

Sitting across the trail were five horsemen, strung out in such a way as to completely impede progress. They all wore heavy cotton trousers of a blue colour, dirty greyish shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and long yellowish dusters encrusted with the dirt of many previous trails. They all, also, seemed to be armed to the teeth with unholstered revolvers and at least two long-barreled rifles in view. Henrietta and Sally necessarily coming to a halt ten paces from this living barrier.

"What's up, boys?" Henrietta raising an enquiring eyebrow, the whiles her mind started whirring like a steam engine out of control.

"It's a fine nice mornin' fer a ride in the country, right enough." The apparent leader of the group, in his mid-thirties and sporting a scratchy range of facial hair growth, leaned on his pommel and grinned coldly at the travelers. "But, as things stand hereabouts, it'd be mighty fine o'ye both if'n ye'd kindly turn yer hosses heads about an' returns the way ye came, it pleasin' yer both thataway."

Sally, always careful and quiet in the lead up to a dangerous stand-off, spoke gently in her turn.

"My partner an' I havin' business along the trail t'Yellow Dog, I fears we cain't indulge ye in yer request. If'n ye jest parts the way, we'll head on along, thank'ee kindly."

This reply did not meet with unalloyed approval, the men looking from one to the other with a variety of expressions, none friendly.

"Well, leddies, ye see, we cain't rightly allow sech." The leader shrugging his shoulders and playing with his Smith and Wesson revolver in a threatening manner. "It bein' our present role in life ter make sure all residents o'the fair metropolis o'Red Flume stays within their town borders fer the foreseeable future, an' doesn't pollute the rest o'the Territory with their presence a'whiles yet, ye see."

"An' why would that be, friend?" Henrietta realising the danger of the moment and wondering how quickly she and Sally would have to move to throw down on all five men, and come out winners.

"Ah, the why an' the wherefore needn't be gone in'ta as we sits here jawin', leddies." He shuffled his shoulders beneath his dirty duster again. "All ye needs ter know is, it's been decided appropriate thet sich is the day's orders. An' I see's yer both well fixed by way o'firearms? Enough weaponry there, a'tween ye both, ter start a mighty fine small war. Is thet a Henry rifle a'hind yer saddle, leddy? Anyway's, a'fore ye both attempts ter become local heroes, meb'be ye'd like fine ter meet some of our partners in this here enterprise? Ahoy, there, Ahoy!"

Accompanying this shout with a prolonged wave of his left arm the leader gazed from right to left across the sagebrush covered terrain on either hand. Henrietta and Sally sat their mounts in something like confusion, if not downright fear as, obviously reacting to his shouted command some twenty further men, spread out equally fifteen yards or so away on each side of the trail, stood up from their concealed positions.

"So, ye see's leddies, tryin' anythin' silly would be, in fact, simply silly." The gang leader sat forward comfortably, arms crossed on his pommel watching the women with the faint hint of a smile. "What I proposes is, a'fore this here meetin' descends t'the sad level of a Mexican stand-off, we jest sez adieu t'each other an' parts company real friendly—we stayin' right here, an' you two headin' back the way ye came, with no idee of returnin', oh, this time three days from now—OK?"

"F-ck." From Sally, nothing in the way of a viable defence occuring to her.

"Jeez." Henrietta also so hindered in her thinking by unfolding events.

"Right, nice meetin' ye, leddies; hopes any further meetin's'll be in friendlier circumstances in the future. Red Flume's thetaway, if'n ye needs directions, leddies."

—O—

"What?"

Sheriff Donaldson showing both shock, disbelief, and rage, all in one.

"Yep." Sally nodding encouragingly as the three sat once more in his office.

"Yeah, that's about the way it unrolled, Charlie." Henrietta shrugging mournfully. "There's a gang, an army really, o'dubious characters out Yellow Dog way who seem determined that all Red Flume citizens stays within the town limits an' doesn't stray none Yellow Dog way fer some days—God knows why."

"Well, we'll see about that, right now." Donaldson rising from his chair with all the authority of an Old Testament Prophet about to cast fire and brimstone on the unbelievers. "This bein' a posse matter you two're corralled fer the duration, in'course. I'll send Art here t'round up the usual other depities."

Art being his one paid deputy, leaving under his orders with a wave of his hand to the ladies as he exited the office door. A door which did not stay shut for long thereafter.

"Sheriff, sheriff, where be ye?"

The woman who enthusiastically entered, slamming the door back on its hinges with a bang, was small in height but broad in girth; her person enveloped in a green gingham dress supported by a wide leather belt, while her feet were encased in stout leather boots.

"Mrs Slocum, how do, what fer ye wants ter see me ter'day?"

"I jest been on my way Phoenix bound, in my gig—but what happen's some mile out'ta Red Flume?"

Here she stopped, with an expression obviously wishing the face of Law in the community to further an adequate explanation of a situation she had not exactly clearly defined.

"—er,—"

Losing patience Mrs Slocum got down to details.

"Jest there, a mile out'ta town, a gang o'hoodlums an' cattle rustlers an' bank robbers, or what ye will, sat their steeds across the trail an' on my askin' 'em t'clear the way they sez, right out in the open, they had no sich inclination thetaway ter-day—nor fer the ensuing three days ter come, so would I mind terribly turning my gig about an' high-tailin' it back ter Red Flume, please! Well, I never!"

"How many of 'em was there, Mrs Slocum?" Sally reaching out for details, as was her custom.

"How many?" The lady, here casting herself down on the chair Henrietta had vacated for her use, paused to think and draw breath. "I didn't count, but there was a mite o'them, sure enough. Numbers? Well, if'n I said some six ter ten I wouldn't be far outside the borders o'the truth, I'm thinkin'."

Donaldson sighed, slowly reseating himself after Mrs Slocum had left, leaning his elbows on his desk chin in hand, as he pondered the escalating situation.

"Begins ter look mighty like something Quantrill's Raiders got up to during the past little conflict." Donaldson frowned darkly at this remembrance. "The which I disallows whole ter take place in the environs o'this here seat of Law an' Order. Come on, gals, what we got'ta do is go through Red Flume like ter a dose o'medicinal salts, draggin' out in'ta the light o'day all those known ter professin' ter bein' upstandin' citizens—an' if'n any sich displays hesitation in joinin' our happy throng, start bein' mean, OK?"

—O—

The results of an hour and a half's extended traipsing through a variety of the town's streets banging on doors resulted, back at the Sheriff's office, in a group of some thirty men and two young women; the latter wearing long tight-waisted flowing leather skirts and boots. Donaldson wasted no time in handing out the orders of the day.

"Ye'll be broken in'ta four parties, Miss Nichols an' Miss Knappe stayin' behind fer further orders." He gazed at his deputies with a stony gleam in his grey eyes. "We cover the four main trails in'ta town, an' the two lesser trails t'the north-west an' south-east. What I wants is information; so don't engage with anyone in the way of bandits ye finds out there. I wants ter know if all the routes in'ta an' out'ta the town are closed, that's all—meb'be with a count o'how many's coverin' each trail, so's we can figure a total of the bandits, near as possible. Got that? Right, on yer ways, an' remember, no gunplay—jest look, listen, an' come back an' report. OK, go. Sally, Harry, I got somethin' fer you two."

The crowd of deputies left the office in a chattering throng, taking they're mounts from the rail outside and riding off in the different directions of the main routes out of town. Only the two women and Donaldson being left in the bare office afterwards.

"What ye got, Charlie?" Sally gazing at the man with a glint in her green eyes.

"Yeah, something out'ta the ord'nary, eh?" Henrietta raising an eyebrow in enquiry.

"Somethin' like." Donaldson looking over his shoulder as he took a rifle from the rack on the wall. "While I'm headin' out the Phoenix trail; you two are gon'na head out t'wards Garnick Mesa, takin' the bare scrub ground behind Lanesse Street t'start ye on yer ways. Thet's so far off the beaten track even these bandits won't know yer gone thetaways. Any questions?"

"What d'we do when we reaches the Mesa?" Henrietta pinpointing the major detail.

"Ah, y'see, up there ye'll have a panoramic view o'the whole o'Red Flume—it bein' only some two mile distant t'the south." Donaldson grinning widely at his astuteness. "And of all the major routes in an' out. Ye'll be able ter see, with these here spyglasses, every detail of whatever's going on along each trail fer, oh, some five mile in each direction. Take care o'these glasses now, gals, they bein' Government issue an' all."

"It's what, eleven in the mornin' right now." Sally taking control of the ensuing activities, as well as the pair of binoculars handed over by the Sheriff; he at the same time giving Henrietta another pair. "We'll take an hour t'get comfortable up on the Mesa; say from noon ter four in the afternoon we can take note o'the going's-on everywhere—then we returns here t'give yer the news hot off the press. How's that sound, Sheriff?"

"Sounds jest what I wants ter hear at this critical juncture, leddies; go to it."

"Right, g'bye, Charlie."

"See yer in the gloamin', Charlie, but not fer the usual reasons thetaway." Henrietta smiling as she showed off her recent reading of a dog-eared copy of Robert Burns' poems.

"Git, leddies, git—the righteous upholdin' of Law an' Order in the Territory o'Arizona, God help it, restin' on yer not standin' on yer goin', but jest goin'." Sheriff Donaldson trumping Henrietta's Burns' with his Shakespeare. "Git, the pair o'ye."

"Har."

"Heh-heh."

—O—

Garnick Mesa was really more of an extended flat-topped ridge, it having a high, 300 foot, plateau reached by climbing the easily accessible grass and scrub covered rolling slopes which curved in and out, serving as its flanks. Once on the peak, or top at least, one could walk or ride along the mile and a half plateau with a wide view of the countryside below—of which the main point of interest, on its northern side, was the town of Red Flume. The higher slopes and extended peak of the Mesa was mostly boulders and bare ground, so there were a multitude of hiding-places for the women to use as vantage-points in their observation of the panorama spread out below them.

Just on the stroke of midday, though Henrietta didn't bother consulting her half-hunter on the matter, the women reached the flat plateau which made up the top of the high mesa; this extending behind them almost a mile and a half south-westwards. Having ridden up the grass covered incline of one of its low-angled slopes the ladies now sat their mounts on the edge of the plateau, regarding the view spread out below.

"Seems a lot further down than three hundred feet." Sally considering the relative aspects of their position.

"More like three hundred an' twenty ter fifty in places." Henrietta having crossed the mesa several times in years gone by. "It's an optical illusion, is all. Anyway, we've got these spankin' new bi-noc'lars t'help."

"Yeah, great, ain't they?" Sally fondling her own pair in her gloved hands. "Let's see—jeez, it's like I'm standin' down there, right in Main Street. I can see Mrs Kleinestein headin' up ter ol' man Fitchley's general store, like t'as if I was walkin' by her side."

Henrietta smiled quietly as the women dismounted, tying their mounts to an outcrop of scrub oak beside a large boulder high enough to give the horses shade from the overbearing sun. The women then stepped cautiously across the flat ground to the opposite edge of the plateau, giving a view of the eastern approaches to the town. Finding a line of heavy boulders near the edge they settled down behind one, peering round its side to the ground far below.

"There's the trail t'Yellow Dog, an' there's those varmints, still pollutin' the vicinity where we met 'em."

"Yeah," Henrietta, lying prone and gazing past the side of the boulder offering her protection. "Don't seem t'have moved far, either. Set in fer the day, obvious. I'll keep my eye on them; you check the near edge o'town, see when the posse appears, and what transpires thereon."

"Right."

But it didn't take Sally longer than ten seconds to report back on this issue.

"Hey! I see 'em. The posse's already out on the trail; Hell, they cain't be more'n quarter of a mile away from the bandits." Sally's voice rising in timbre as she excitedly watched the figures on the trail far below and away. "Looks like they had a head start on us."

"Yeah, well, they did, sure enough."

"Looks like Ted Rogers, sittin' his mount ten yards in front o'the rest o'the boys." Sally continuing her reportage, for her companion's sake. "Sittin' there like General Grant in front of his troops."

"Ha, sounds like ter ol' Rogers, right enough." Henrietta still keeping her own gaze on the group of bandits on the trail some way east of Sally's viewpoint. "My boys don't seem t'be doin' anythin' other than sit in a group, chewin' the fat. Don't think they've noticed Rogers' posse yet."

"Good, the last thing we wants is an engagement—with gunfire, wounded an' what-all." Sally coming it the tactician. "That'd jest put the cat among the pigeons ter no purpose, far's I can see."

"Yeah, yeah, yer probably right." Henrietta still viewing the bandits with an intense purposefulness. "God, these glasses is good; can almost make out each o'their features, even at this distance."

This notion caught Sally's interest straight off.

"Is that so? Recognise any o'them? Cain't say as I did, when we met 'em earlier."

"Why? Yer lookin' ter collar the reward on any that's got warrants out on 'em?"

"Why not?" Sally hunching down and lowering her binoculars to stare at her companion. "It's a way o'makin' a livin', ain't it?"

"Yeah, yeah, cool down, leddy." Henrietta only just stopping herself from laughing out loud. "Somehow I don't think this sity-ation's gon'na work out by way o'collectin' rewards, is all."

"Oh, yeah? How so?"

Henrietta took time to consider this question before replying.

"Because this's a sort'a war footin', y'see." She glanced sideways at the woman she loved so strongly it almost hurt deep down inside when she thought of it. "Two opposin' sides, both quite large an' strong. Those bandits down there seem t'have enough numbers t'cover all the trails leadin' in'ta the town, y'see."

"Yeah?"

"So, I think someone's at the head o'the whole ploy; someone who's stayin' behind the lines, out'ta harm's way—like someone playin' chess on a grand scale."

"But why?" Sally returning to the aspect of the day's activities which still needed answering. "Donaldson don't know; I don't know; If'n you knows, let it rip, sis, 'cause y'know what? I want's ter know, too."

"Hah!"

—O—

The ladies' split up; Sally moving over to where she could comfortably keep an eye on the Phoenix trail, while Henrietta kept an eye on the Yellow Dog trail. Some quarter of an hour after their first appearance on the mesa's summit they were now laying on the ground at the edge of the plateau some forty yards apart, looking in almost opposite directions. It was Sally who came up with the first new aspect of the ongoing drama.

"Hey, Harry, they're workin' their lay backwards, too!"

Henrietta struggled round, in her prone position, to look over to where she could just see her partner lying on the ground amongst the boulders in the distance.

"What? Ya wan'na be a little more specific, gal?"

"These characters on the Phoenix trail; they're holdin' up a wagon that's jest come from Phoenix direction. They ain't lettin' it pass through t'Red Flume."

"Iz'zat so?" Henrietta stayed on the ground, rubbing her chin with a finger, musing on this update to the unfolding scenario. "They really seems ter have a bee in their bonnets about lettin' Red Flume stew in its own juice, without friend nor favour. Wonder why?"

"What can we do, up here, Harry?"

"Nuthin' but watch an' take note, gal." Henrietta pursed her lips in thought, looking for some reason behind the tactics of the outlaws far below. "Jest cain't make out what they're purpose can possibly be. D'ya think Donaldson was right, after all?"

"Donaldson?" Sally's voice giving away her bemusement. "What'd he say, agin'?"

"Ye remember, he mentioned the fact that what these bandits is up to reminded him of Quantrill's Raiders."

"Oh, yeah." Sally thought this over for a few seconds. "Y'mean these outlaws down there is workin' up ter invadin' Red Flume, guns blazin', an' attemptin' ter carry out a massacre in all directions? Don't see it, myself; I mean, what reason'd they have?"

Henrietta had been going over the position mentally as this conversation went on; now she let loose with the whole freight of her thinking.

"There cain't be a definitive reason—I mean, they ain't gon'na invade an' ravage the town wholesale, or anythin' like—"

"Ye thinks so?" Sally still sounding less than convinced. "For why?"

"—'cause even with enough men ter cover all the trails in'ta Red Flume, they still doesn't have enough fer a full-scale attack." Henrietta nodded to herself at this logical outlook. "They'd be caught up in the streets an' alleys; an' not enough o'them'd be able t'storm any buildings of note t'give them a headquarters. They'd have ter rush in, fire a few shots, then head fer the open desert again, quick as a flash."

"Ye thinks?"

"Yeah, I does." Henrietta now absolutely certain of the ineffectuality of the surrounding bandits to cause any real danger to the township. "All they can do is mess around, stoppin' travelers goin' to an' fro, as they seems ter be doin' at the moment. But they ain't got enough man nor firepower ter mount anythin' like an attack on the town."

Sally paused for a minute turning this over in her mind; then shook her head, not for the first time that day.

"Then what in damnation d'they think they're doin'?" She spat on the stony ground where she lay. "Jest bein' spiteful to one an' all, 'cause they feels like so doin' ter'day? Sounds childish ter me."

"There must'a been a primary reason thet set them all off." Henrietta pursuing her logical thought as far as it seemed likely to take her. "Meb'be since, they've lost track of the main motive of their shenanigans, an' now're jest doin' like ye said—bein' mean fer meanesses sake—though I don't see sich, myself."

"Neither does I, leddy."

"Ha, be helpful, why don't ya."

"Idiot."

Silence enfolded the sea of boulders and rocks on the plateau as the women set-to doing some heavy-duty thinking; it being Henrietta again who first came up with a workable option.

"I wonder—"

"In this heat, babe; ain't thet dangerous ter yer health, an' all?"

"Clown; ye ever thought o'runnin' off ter join a circus—sich givin' me a refreshing break, is all."

"Har-har. So, what were ye wonderin? Come on, I'll fall fer it, if'n jest ter keep yer spirits up."

"I was jest ponderin' whether ter break out my Henry, is all."

This odd suggestion made Sally turn on the ground and slide warily across to her partner, like a rattlesnake with a broken hip.

"OK, OK, let me get that once more. I thought I heard ye say ye were about t'try'n blast those bandits with yer Henry point fifty? Was I right?"

"More nor less, yeah." A whining tone appearing in the taller darker woman's pleading voice.

"Darlin', a Henry point fifty's a mighty fine rifle—none knowin' it more'n me. But those thugs, I imagine you're talkin' about them down on the Yellow Dog trail, is about two an' a half miles distant, an' three hundred and fifty feet lower than us." Having given her partner these necessary facts Sally raised her brows, ready for the master-stroke. "Which means even your Henry, capable o'downin' a grizzly at eight hundred yards, is still far too weak to hit any o'them, down there."

Henrietta pulled a face, as if losing out on a slice of apple-pie at dinner.

"They'd hear the report, though; might make 'em think twice an', er, ride off or whatever."

Sally had in her time heard her revered and loved other half come up with some crazy ideas but this—

"Harry, I think the sun really has got ter yer intellects. What say we scramble over ter that stand of scrub oaks, an' sit in the shade fer a while—might help, y'know."

"Ain't nuthin' wrong with my intellects, leddy." Henrietta rightfully annoyed at the proposition. "However, it is near enough lunchtime. You go back'n get that pair of spyglasses ye left over there. We can make a meal on the water an' biscuits I brought in my saddlebag. Not much, but it's food. Go on, I'm hungry."

Sally scooted back to her look-out point, keeping low, and grabbed the binoculars. Then, as she raised her head for one last glance down over the landscape below something caught her eye that galvanised her in every muscle. Ignoring the need for carefulness she rose to her feet and came back over to Henrietta at a run, bending low at the waist all the same.

"Harry, they're comin' up here?"

"What? Who? Where?"

"The bandits down on the Phoenix trail." Sally was almost breathless with excitement. "That rig they halted's turned an' gone back Phoenix way; but they, the bandits, have all upped sticks an' broken the trail, headin' over the rough scrub obviously aiming fer one o'the slopes thet leads straight up here t'the plateau. There's about twenty o'them, meb'be twenty-five. When they gets here, in about quarter of an hour, they'll be sure t'find us. Wha'd'we do, babe?"

"Jeez, lem'me think."

"Better make it quick, lover, is all."

"Jeez!"

—O—

"They're comin' over the top o'the Mesa 'cause it's a straighter line than goin' through Red Flume ter get ter the Yellow Dog trail an' their companions—they not bein' able, in course, t'ride through the town, anyway."

"They'll still fall over us, when they gets here."

"I knows it, I knows it."

"So, what's our plan?"

"Lover, if'n I had one, I'd tell yer—but my silence thataways meb'be gives yer a clue as to whether I has one or not?"

"Jeez, this ain't no time t'play the loon, lover—do somethin'—quick."

Henrietta sat up, cross-legged, frowning deeply, then light dawned.

"Sal, what I proposed earlier, but which fell on yer deaf ears—"

"What? What?"

"It's time ter break out my Henry fer real. Ye got yer own rifle t'hand?"

"I got my Spencer repeater, sure enough; ye knows I doesn't go anywhere's without it these days—got plenty o'spare ammo, too." Sally's face set in a determined expression. "If we finds good spots over there on their side o'the plateau, we can pick 'em off as they rides up the slope—the low scrub won't hide 'em from us. God, we might hit the whole bunch, afore they could return anythin' like a reasonable defence fire themselves. Come on, let's get ter sortin' ourselves out. This might well work, ye knows. One o'the best plans ye've ever come up with, lover."

Forbearing to reply to this idiotic assumption, Henrietta merely slid over to her saddle-bag, where she had laid the weapon for which she was renowned as a crackshot across five states, one Territory, and the Badlands.

"God, wish I had my Sharps; s'got twice the range. I could pick 'em off halfway t'the horizon with that."

But Sally was up for this shilly-shallying.

"Single-shot, lover; ye'd spend half yer time reloadin', by which time the gang down there'd've over-run us. Jest be thankful yer Henry takes fifteen; like the man said, load on Sunday, an' spend the rest o'the week shootin'."

"Har."

Having sorted their weapons the women slid across to the edge of the plateau looking down on the slopes leading to the Phoenix trail. As Sally had reported the gang, some twenty-five strong, who had been blocking the trail had given this up and were headed up the lightly inclined slope to the plateau, mighty near to where the women were laid on the ground watching from their cover.

"Something occurs t'me, leddy."

"Oh, yeah—what?"

"We cain't jest open fire promiscus'; I mean, what've they done so far t'allow of sich polite informality on our part?"

Henrietta squirmed round to face her partner.

"They've stopped law-abidin' citizens in the pursuit of their lawful purposes, fer one—meanin' you an' I goin' out the Yellow Dog trail after those dam' broken telegraph wires they obviously cut."

"Hmm, but is thet a shootin' ter kill matter, lover?"

Henrietta racked her brains for further examples, and came up with a winner.

"You saw them with yer own baby blues stoppin' thet rig from Phoenix way, didn't yer?"

"Ye-es."

"Ye don't sound all thet convinced?" Henrietta having made her own mind up on the subject some while since. "Look, Sal, they're stoppin' all an' everyone from comin' or goin' from Red Flume; they've cut the telegraph wires; they've threatened both o'us ter our faces; an' right now they're facin'-off Donaldson on the Phoe—hey, wait a minute! Didn't Donaldson say he was goin' out the Phoenix trail? He did—so what'n hell's he been doin' this past hour?"

Sally raised her eyebrows, frowning in thought, then slid away across the stony ground to the edge of the plateau.

"They're still headed up here—wait a bit—jeez, there's Donaldson at the head o'his posse, right behind 'em; thet's why they're runnin' fer cover up here: he's pursuin' them, like the rats they is. Hell, gunfire—they've opened up on the posse, some couple o'hundred yards behind 'em."

"OK, that's it, babe; they're shootin' at Donaldson—so we got free rein ter shoot at them. Wait till they're in range—wait till yer see the colour o'their eyes—an' wait till yer cain't miss with any shot—"

"Thet there's a mighty fine barrel o'waitin', lover."

"Fool. OK, here they come; an' don't stop firin' till the empty horses rides off in'ta the desert."

"Ha!"

—O—

The group of bandits, slowed somewhat by the necessity to turn in their saddles and take some sort of aim at the pursuing posse, had made it halfway up the slope leading to where Henrietta and Sally looked down on the advancing throng. Donaldson, now recognisable at the head of his deputies, had been firing his pistol, along with his companions; but to no obvious effect, the conditions not being favourable. But now the outlaws were in range of both Henrietta's Henry and Sally's Spencer, Sally being first to open fire.

Bang!—Bang, Bang!

Boom!—Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!

Henrietta's heavier calibre rifle making the rocks resound with the echoes of her piece's shots. Sally had to reload her seven-shot weapon, somewhat carefully and relatively slowly, about twice a minute while Henrietta kept on firing—but then, having to reload fifteen cartridges at a time, Henrietta herself slowed down in her rate of fire: so in the end both women found themselves firing at about the same relative speed, all things considered.

"Got one!"

Even as Sally gave this triumphant cry another bandit fell out of his saddle, victim this time of Henrietta's sharp-shooting skills, creating a cloud of dust as he hit the ground; his companions slowing again and drawing their mounts aside in confusion as they tried to avoid the unfolding catastrophe.

With grim efficiency the women kept up a fast rate of fire, causing their prey to spread out across the slope, trying to get out of harm's way. The fact that Donaldson's posse was coming ever nearer below and behind them also causing further confusion.

"Watch out ye doesn't hit the posse; they bein' close behind 'em, now."

Taking note of her lover's caution Sally paused to sight along her barrel. What was apparent was a large cloud of ever-spreading dust as the bandits' mounts, now almost out of their minds with fear, headed in every direction; their riders obviously having difficulty in restraining them, while Donaldson and his deputies kept up a heavy fire from below, though coming ever nearer their quarry. The brigands, now wholly disorganized as a result of taking fire on two fronts, drove their steeds to left and right firing their pistols in disarray at the edge of the plateau cutting the skyline above them, but with no true target that they could pinpoint.

Then suddenly, the combat was over. As Henrietta had said, some few riderless horses stampeded away across the slope, going down and away to the desert below. Several outlaws ran about like headless chickens, hardly knowing what they were doing; while out of the rolling dust-clouds Donaldson appeared on the stony slope below the watching women, like a General at the head of his troops, leading his band of deputies in well-deserved triumph. This battle, at least, was over.

—O—

Back in Sheriff Donaldson's office later that afternoon, Henrietta, Sally and the Sheriff sat taking stock of what had happened.

"So, what's it all been about?" Henrietta coming to the nub of the matter straight off.

"I've jest been interviewing the dross, back there in the cells, in a preliminary sense, y'understands." Donaldson nonetheless smiling broadly at what he had discovered. "Seems a man called Garve Javier was at the head o'the whole concern."

"Garve Javier? Never heerd o'the rat." Sally curling a disdainful lip. "Mighty like ter meet him, face ter face, nonetheless—if'n ye'd like ter vacate the premises fer five minutes, Sheriff? Cain't promise what state he'll be in when ye returns, mind yer."

"We both knows the last bullet fired by this bunch o'bandits scratched the back o'yer hand, Sal; but don't go flyin' off the handle, as a result. The Law'll take care o'everything in it's own good time, don't fret. Does it still hurt, by the by?"

"In course it still hurts." Sally returning fire as if she still had her Spencer to hand. "Dam' near took all my fingers off—scratched a line across the back o'my hand about a'inch deep—don't knows if I'll ever be able ter pick my nose with thet hand ever agin'."

"Sal, pull yerself t'gether." Henrietta, though full of love for her partner, wasn't allowing this level of self pity. "A mere scratch; why, it's hardly bled at all. Another week an' nobody'll ever know ye suffered a mortify'in' wound likely ter have took ye off a'fore the sun sets—hee-hee."

Sally gave the woman she loved wholeheartedly in all the world a look that would have killed a rattler at a hundred yards, then sighed softly in defeat.

"Oh, b-ll-cks. So, what was incitin' this here Garve t'contemplate descendin' on Red Flume like the Assyrian on the fold?" She formed an expression with her lips suggestive of contempt, disgust, and revulsion combined. "Bit of a coward, was he? Needed an entire army o'thugs, vandals, horse-rustlers, an' drunkards to boost his courage?"

"Seems he ran with a wild bunch durin' the late civil conflict." Donaldson shrugged his shoulders. "Also, later, owned a small general store here in town; but fell in'ta debt an' had ter run fer cover without payin'. Since which he's held a sore point against our fair city; contemplating revenge in the form, as I allowed earlier, ye'll both recall, of copying Quantrill an' his nasty habits. End result, dead in the dust on the slope of Garnick Mesa. By the way, it must'a been one o'ye whose bullet took him out, ter ride the Great Plain in the Sky. Doc Thompson ain't done any pokin' around in his innards yet, ter establish which calibre downed him—but it was either o'ye two, certin'."

The women exchanged glances—Henrietta carefully neutral, as if the past gunfight had nothing to do with her, no sir; Sally, however, gradually taking on the expression of a saint at play.

"Ah-ha, thet makes a difference, I'll allow." She broke out into a wide grin. "Him bein' a outlaw, an' all; an' him after doin' what he's jest attempted, Red Flume way, what about the reward, Sheriff? Big, is it? Only askin'."

Henrietta rose, offering a long-suffering arm to help her consort do likewise.

"Come on, Sal, time ye were back in our hotel room; me givin' yer hand, an' other places if necessary, a gentle massage. Bye, Charlie, see ye in the mornin'; this havin' been a somewhat tirin' day, fer some o'us."

"Dam' the massage, babe, a slug o'rot-gut'll go down better." Sally attempting mutiny as they both headed for the office's door.

"Dam' any drinkin', leddy." Henrietta displaying her officious persona to the world. "Ye heerd what Doc Thompson told yer, ter yer face—no spirits fer two days, after thet pint or so o'laudanum he made yer swallow. So ye got a choice, open fer only the next five minutes, mind; a massage, coverin' all eventualities, or no massage. What'll it be?"

"Oh, God, alright, alright. God, ye can be mighty mean, when ye really puts yer mind ter sich, cain't ye, lover?"

"Got'ta keep ye safe an' well somehow, leddy. Bye, agin', Charlie."

"Gawd!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.