'The Tiger That Stalked Red Flume'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— An old-timer, somewhere around 1912, remembers the first meeting of Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, eventual lovers in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, as they struggle with a form of wildlife which is decidely not local.

Note 01:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.

Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.

—O—

"Does I recall the day Red Flume suffer'd the depreedashuns of a tiger? I sure 'nuff does thet."

Old Charlie Donaldson sat in his high-backed wicker chair, on the verandah of the ancient Arizona farm-house. He was evoking a time long past; a time when bandits, robbers, rustlers, bushwhackers, and lowdown mean hoss-thiefs roamed the landscape of the only now, March 1912, recently admitted State of the Union; before, a mere Territory. Jimmy Huckley, almost as old and ornery as the man he held in conversation, had mentioned the curious episode, and the young people gathered in the shade of the verandah at the lawn-party had called for the official three-point headlines and full report. So Charlie, now long retired from his position as Sheriff of the nearby thriving town of Red Flume, had frowned deeply as he brought his memory to bear, then come up to scratch with the goods.

"Yep, that was some kind'a a day, an' no mistake." He grunted in mirth as he salvaged the details from the dusty lumber-room of his memory. "There surely were some right-scared citizens gallivantin' around the streets thet day. Or, rather, gettin' off said thoroughfares just as fast as they could run."

"What? A real honest t'God tiger?" Someone called from the sidelines. "Where'd it come from?"

"Ain't I just moseyin' up t'that very point?" Never one to enjoy being interrupted, Charlie glared at his interlocutor in annoyance, then returned to the subject. "There'd been a sort of'a quiet spell in the town, before that; some'ers around June, '73, if'n I rec'lect a'right. Or, at least, as quiet as you could hope for considerin' I was Sheriff with, eventual, thet equal wild an' wholly uncontrollable Sally Snapshot Nichols an' her dear pal Henrietta Harry Knappe as Depities; both paradin' the streets, in the long run, as if they owned same—which, more nor less, was pretty much the truth as Life turned out."

"Oh dear." Miss Allen, the schoolmistress, spoke up; but no-one took any notice of her.

"As I was sayin'," Charlie sat forward, the nature of his remembrances instilling nervous energy in his thin frame. "Nothin' much had passed across the vision o'the populace lately—other than that miserable crittur Jake Malley bein' sent to Paradise by a bullet from my Savage point forty-four; that time he tried t'hold up the Savings Bank on Main Street thinkin' I an' my Depities was out'ta town—a misinterpretation of my schedule Jake surely paid for wholesale an' complete, instead o'rakin' in the gold doubloons, as he had expected."

"Mighty quick justice, I believe." An elderly lawyer grunted, somewhat irritably.

"I never was slow, nor given t'deliberation, when it came right down t'instances—especially when they tended t'affect my pers'nal health pretty close—sort'a capri'soos that way, y'know. Anyways, that was all forgotten when the circus came t'town a few days later."

A flutter of understanding passed through the small crowd listening to the unfolding drama; the nature and reason for the wild feline's presence now being clear to all.

"It might be easier on the understandin' if'n I gives out some details of just who was waftin' about the town, durin' subsequent events." Charlie was now well into his discourse, a slight smile playing across his lips. "First-off there was my estimable, if you remember'd t'stay well on my right side, self. Then there was those variegated examples o'womanhood, Sal Snapshot Nichols an' Henrietta Harry Knappe. Sal, at this point in her infamous his'try, would be just into her mid-twenties; as mean, short-tempered, an' ready t'rip your guts out, as a wildcat with a headache; whiles Harry was a Rocky Mountain trapper, gen'rally recognised as bein' the best shot with her Sharps point fifty rifle this side o'the Mississippi."

"Didn't they used to be, er, friends; close friends?" A young woman in a blue dress asked the question with a faint blush.

"Such was the rumur, lady." Charlie condescended to consider the point. "But at this time they were just sort'a amblin' round, takin' stock each of the other. Harry, I recalls, about this time would have been some twenty-seven summers inta her existence. Then we had the first o'the new arrivals, with the circus; Ariadne Jameson. She held the position of Assist'nt Manager in said show; she bein' a touch younger than Sal. The orig'nal Manager havin' hissel' been unfort'natly clawed t'within an inch o'his life by a irate caged cougar three month previous."

"A lady in charge of a circus! How appalling an', an', undignified." This from Mrs Dawright, well-known local social organiser and universally disliked do-gooder.

"I've met worse; an' heerd of a sight meaner, by far. P'rhaps you ought'ta think about widenin' your horizons, ma'am? Nothin' like widenin' horizons for refreshin' the mind, so I've bin told—an' who's t'say such ain't the case. Anyways, where was I?"

"The delectable Miss Jameson." A young rip put in from the safety of the outskirts of the audience.

"Ha!" Charlie nodded, then got down to business. "She could shoot; she could ride a hoss fancy-ways, like a circus performer—which, in course, she was. She could play faro or poker, winnin' ev'ry time—a propensity t'play off the bottom o'the deck never interposin' its oncert'n moral shadow over her endev'rs thataways. An' final, she could cuss like a St Louis riverboat pilot, an' do so for twenty minutes straight without once repeatin' herself."

"Why can't I meet ladies like that?" A overly-macassared young dandy laughed, only to be immediately overpowered by the unanimous shushings of the female contingent of the audience.

"Bringin' up the rear of dangerous women—I'm bein' some p'lite here y'understand—it'd be better t'avoid wholesale in the vicinity was that paragon o'badness, Bella 'Bandana' Thomson." Charlie shook his head as he recalled the ruthless bandit. "Wanted in four states for a wide vari'ty o'misdeemen'rs; rustlin', stealin', an' kidnappin' being merely the mild entrée's of her reg'lar despol'atins."

"Bella Thomson? Didn't she—" Someone tried to interpose, but was firmly pushed aside by Charlie in full flow.

"O'course she wasn't, as you might say, a bona-fide public citizen o'the town as events unfold'd. She bein' in hidin' in a run-down Hotel in a side street comf'tably close t'the environs o' the youthful settlement, as it then was." Charlie nodded sagely. "She havin' brains, as well as sand."

"What about the tiger?" A wag sniggered, off to the left-hand side of the verandah.

"The tiger, ladies an' gents, was a Indian."

There was a ripple of subdued laughter at this extraordinary remark; most present making the obvious, but entirely erroneous, supposition—quickly rectified by the old raconteour.

"An Indian—y'don't say." Someone spoke up for the majority. "Say, just how does that unload on life in gen'ral?"

"It sashayed into existence in some forest in the north o' the continent of India—thet country, or State, or whichever, bein' way over past Europe, an' Afrikee, folks." Charlie spread his knowledge like chaff at hay-making. "Don't ask me how it formerly made its presence felt in a circus in Arizona—some things are just meant t'be mysteries with no explanation. So, we comes t'the day o'judgement."

"What happened?" A young lady, sitting by her handsome paramour, spoke with a tremor; as shy and afraid of publicity as to the details of the awful event.

"Ah, well," Charlie pursed his lips. "I don't think as anyone ever did come t'the truth o'how the beast took t'roamin the ceevilised streets o'Red Flume. All that could be verified, afterwards, was that in the mornin' around first mealtime it was slouchin' around the confines o'it's cage—awaitin' the appearance of the maitre'd with his offerin's; then, some'ers after ten a.m., it was found the tiger's den was, to put it bluntly, open-doored an' empty-interior'd. Not a state o'play that endear'd itself to all nearby. In fact, readin' the sitooation with hindsight, there was pretty much a panic amongst the circus tents an' wagons—as was only t'be expected. Finally, after the usual runnin' around like a bunch o'headless chickens, somebody came t'their senses an' decided t'offload the affray on the minions o'the law—they, o'course, not knowin' this meant myself; who, presented cold with the facts, was likely t'be some irascible about it all. As, indeed, turned out t'be the case."

"A tiger?" Sez I, heavin' my fancy boots offen my desk mighty put-out about said news event; me bein' some of a dandy in my day, leddies. "Who had the downright grit t'introdoose said animaal into the city limits o'my town?"

The audience, sensing the approach of an interesting point in the old man's narrative edged closer, attending all the more eagerly to his words.

"Ah, a circus, eh?" Me bein' some quick on the uptake, when needs must. "First I done heerd o'the dam' thing"—beggin' pardon, ladies, but I was allus mighty free with language in my hot youth—"Figure I'll jes' mosey over there an' see what's on their bill o'sale one evenin'. Oh yeah, the tiger. So, where is it now?"

"Well ladies, an' those present o'the other sex who actull'y are gents, it took some time an' effort but I finally unnerstood a wild roarin' free an' easy member o'the wildcat nation was on the warpath an', at that very moment, a'lookin' fer scalps." By this time Charlie was well aware he had, so to speak, captivated his listeners; so leant forward in his wicker chair, giving an air of intensity to his next words. "I made out, jes' appearin' in charge o'the affair an' all, t'be mighty mighty cool if a trifle fractious lookin'. I up an' buckled on my Savage single-fire; powerful enuff even fer a tiger, I thought; grabbed a short-barrelled shotgun offen the rack; spat some copious on the floorboards, as was my custom in times o' great danger, an' set off t'instil some sort'a civic understandin' into those id-yeets over by the circus tents."

A warm breeze wafted through the long verandah, but nobody noticed the flapping of the silk sun-curtain across the open front-door, nor the delicate little lace place-settings on the tables making various attempts at freedom from their duties, to fly unhindered to pastures new; Charlie's tale being far too intriguing for small matters of that rank to be taken notice of.

"The gen'ral route t'the edge o'town took in the whole length o'Main Street." Charlie recommenced his tale of the distant past. "Red Flume not at that time havin' pretensions t'lay itself across any map as bein' a downright pint o'interest to any but those who opined t'place their bed-rolls in the vicinity. Well, halfway along said thoroughfare, accompanied by those few citizens who didn't have the sense t'fully unnerstan' what a irate tiger could do when opportunity beckon'd, who should come gallivantin' round a corner full into my face but Sal herself."

A sigh filtered through the crowd on the verandah, like a soft zephyr in a wood; the bad fairy of the tale having made her appearance.

"Sal wasn't, at that time, as fully enraptured of the spirit o'the grain as she subsequent become." Charlie nodded astutely, as he brought the lady in question back to mind. "Which is t'say she wasn't as yet drunk that day. Which, considerin' the play o'events not so much later, was a blessin' an' a joy to all concirn'd."

"Jeez, Charlie,"—sorry, ladies, but this here's a recollection which sticks t'veracity above the mere politenesses—"What in Hell's this? You takin' a congregation t'the sky-pilot's theatre, or what?"—she allus did hold said curates' in some disdain—"It ain't but Wednesday, y'know."

"Miss Nichols"—I havin' only met the young mustang of a girl a few months previous, she not yet a Deputy duty-bound an' regulated, as she later became, me havin personally undertaken to eye her with some wariness till a shrewder an' wiser unnerstandin' evolved; after which I had thought of Depitisin' her, an' Harry, come ter thet—"clear this here sidewalk, if'fen y'please, I got duties t'perform. There's a wild tiger on the loose hereabouts an' I expec's t'be the one t'send it halloo-in' home t'Hell when met."

"Well, this o'course was too much for the young lady." Charlie grinned widely. "Sal stomped her booted foot on the dirty sidewalk, sendin' up a cloud o'dust; slapped her thigh with a gloved fist; and roared with laughter."

"Charlie, y'get me ev'ry time." She continued to chortle with glee, not havin' many opportunities t'engage in such. "A tigree, by all that's holy. That's the best yet. Is there a wild man-eatin' python t'accompany it? Or one o'those thar' hellifants a rampagin' aroun' too? My, but it's gon'na be a mighty rumbunctious day, eh? Say, who gets t'shootin' the wildlife first, then? I got'ta tell ya, Charlie, I got'ta partiality t'shoot a tiger—it bein' one o'my gentle wishes from back when I wus a little angelic gal."

"It bein' well understood by all the surroundin' audience o'this interchange o'opinions that Sal had never been an angelic girl there was some interest as to how the hot-tempered representative of the Law, me, or as much of it as ever was present in Red Flume, would take this light-hearted banter." Charlie regarded those closely packed around him, hanging on his every word. "But events hereaways caught up with everyone. From some distant unseen part of the metropolis, over eastways, came a low but mighty penetratin' roar. Now, it should be made plain here that nary a soul in Red Flume had ever before experienced a tiger's roar. But, on this here occasion it was plenty clear t'all an' sundry that what that deep rollin' growl represented was a hungry tiger, lookin' fer its dinner."

From a far corner of the old ranch sounded the tinkling of a silver bell, notification that lunch was ready; but no-one gathered round the old story-teller took any notice.

"Sal was the first t'recover her wits." Charlie carried on, smiling grimly.

"Jeez, Charlie, I think yer right." She shook her shoulders, inside the disreputable buckskin jacket she habitually contaminat'd the streets in, an' glared all round. "That sounds like one mighty pis—unhappy member o'the cat race. How big is it, did ya say?"

"Before I could commence t'defendin' mysef' against this thirst fer a knowledge I didn't have a new voice saunter'd into the gen'ral discourse."

"She's four years old; is nearly six feet eight inches in length; an' weighs in at a level five hundred an' eighty pounds." The few remainin' members o'the previous crowd parted to reveal the source of this information as a young lady in leather trousers, chequered shirt, and short linen jacket. "Name's Ariadne Jameson, Marshall. Manager of the circus. I came t'tell you we lost a tiger."

"We already sort'a made the discovery off'n our own bat, Miss." Me bein' ever the gentleman, where ladies were concirn'd. "An' it's Sheriff, t'be exact, not that it matters a darn. So, a tiger? How do tigers genr'lly spend their day—when they're free t'make their own plans, thet is?"

"They stalk—that's what they're made for." Ariadne had obviously decided that truth overcame restraint in the matter. "They hunt; they corner; they kill; then they eat. That about covers the whole subjec'."

"There came a pause here, ladies an' gents, while I an' my associate consider'd the whole sorry affair." Charlie turned his head, giving everyone nearby a sharp glance. "It ain't every day you're told there's a cold unfeelin' killin' machine runnin' amok in your neighbourhood, an' such takes some musin' over. Final, I ups an' expresses my considered opinion."

"Folks, we got us a real nasty set o'circumstances here." I takin' a slow glance at the seven or eight people still blocking the sidewalk. "What we needs, I'm thinkin', is a posse—"

Charlie looked all round at his entranced audience once more, a sad expression permeating his grizzled features.

"Folks, it's my unhappy duty t'tell y'all that seven seconds later—countin' by Doc Hall's silver watch, which ain't ever lost more'n two seconds in a month—there were remainin' on the sidewalk, outside Louis Carter's dry-goods store, only mysef', Sal, an' Ariadne. Sech bein' the low-down natur' o'human morality."

"Damn, that probably put a spoke in your plans, I'd say." Someone muttered on the right-hand side of the verandah.

"Y'forget, we're here dealin' with mysef', an' Snapshot Nichols." Charlie focussed on the important points of the unfolding drama. "Me, by this point as mean as a sick coyote; an' Sal, faster t'take offence an' commence t'shootin' than any other woman west o'the Pecos."

There was a murmer of consent throughout the audience at the eminent truth of this description.

"Well, now y'know who yer friends are, Charlie—nobody." Even in a tight corner Sal liked her little joke.

"Humph!" Me never appreciatin' sarcasm at any pint. "What's that there item you're carryin' under yer arm, Miss Jameson?"

"This here's my Winchester repeater, Marshall." Ariadne observed, sort'a cool an' efficient like. "But I got'ta tell ya I don't think it'll be much good against a leapin' tiger. They sort'a take small bullets in their stride, y'know."

"No, I didn't know same, an' am mighty disappointed t'learn said information now." I allows I grunted this with less than my usual level of humour—which item, I admits, was never visibly measurable even on my best days. "OK, what we need's a plan. A pretty good plan too, I'm thinkin'. Anyone got any idee's they wan'na share?"

"Now, at this low pint in the proceedin's, y'all might be excus'd fer supposin' we'all was in somethin' of a tight spot." Charlie eyed his avid listeners from under bushy brows. "But sech was nary the case. Bellyin' up t'the bar like a good un, Sal came up with the goods."

"It occurs t'my, admittedly female—an' thereby certainly superior—turn o'mind there's a pretty fair chance o'cornerin' said animal, an' puttin' her unwanted attentions out'ta play entire."

"Oh, yeah?" I bein' hardly convinced, an' not takin' her words at any value whatever. "Well, lem'me hear it, anyways."

"What we got'ta do," She commenc'd, undeterr'd by perceived amateur criticism. "is t'get the dam' animal into a corner—up a cul-de-sac, impasse, no-thoroughfare, or whatever. Where it ain't got no way t'escape. Then we aims fer the head, an' lets fly with the lead from ev'ry gun we owns; like one o'them Navy ships firin' off a broadside. That should do the trick."

"A quiet moment now ensued, as ev'ryone present consider'd the merits of this plan. Ariadne was first to offer her opinion."

"Was sort'a hopin' t'capture the gal alive, an' take her back t'her cage in one piece."

"I, in duty bound, looked pained at this naïve viewpint, an' rose t'my full height; which was consid'rable, back-aways, then."

"I, ma'am, was sort'a hopin'—along with Sal here—t'shoot the beast without warnin' nor fair chance given; thereby ensurin' I lived t'fight another day." I growlin' low, therein expressing serious unspoken doubts about my visitor's sanity. "Sech, I think y'll find, bein' the gen'ral opinion present as we speak."

"Havin' dealt with this purile statement I then got back on track showin', fer the first time, my ingrained capacity t'think on the run."

"Right, here's what we do. You, Sal, take the remainder o'the Main Street—moseyin' along its centre, keepin' yer eyes peeled all round."

"Got'cha."

"You, Miss Jameson, take that side-lane over there, an' commence t'investigatin' the dark corners behind Main Street." I then, I recalls, looked somewhat shy as I covered my own part. "I, meanwhile, will be goin' over t'Hope Street, where most'a the stores that sell food are located. Maybe the animal'll be drawn t'the smell o'raw food, thataways. Got it? OK, lets go; we ain't got much time, y'know. This here town harbourin' a mighty obstrep'rous bunch o'citizens, when it comes t'tigers on the loose."

Charlie's audience were now fully caught up in the thrill of the tale; like one of the new cinematograph dramas showing to packed enthralled audiences in the newly opened local Nickelodeon in the nearby town. But this old tale of Charlie's, of a Wild West long gone if it ever truly existed at all, held the trump over the new black and white moving pictures—truth and historical veracity.

"Ariadne," Charlie continued, after wetting his tonsils with an appropriate drink located by his left elbow, "disappeared down the lane, like a big-game hunter on a hot scent; while Sal stomped along the centre o' Main Street as if it had been opened special for her, and she was now inspectin' its substance an' quality; her six-shooters already in hand. I, as explain'd previous, had strolled over to the next street along where the shops sold a deal o'comestibles."

Charlie put his arm out to capture his glass once more, putting it down again with a smack of his lips.

"Then we final got to action. A tiger in its wild habitat, ladies an' gents, may well blend in with the surroundin' forest, or savannah, or tall grassy veldt, or whatever—as I believe its curious markings is meant t'facilitate—but no-one in Red Flume could suppose for a minute it'd find any handy spot t'disappear into the shaderr's hereabouts; Red Flume, as a whole, bein' constitooted mostly of raw planks an' adobe brick."

"Y'sayin' that great cat couldn't hide itsel' anywheres in the town?" This from a balding Bank manager, with an habitual acidic expression brought on by the too high expectations of his many customers.

"It could skulk, like a highway robber." Charlie took the comment in his stride. "But it couldn't hide; not fer long, anyways. Everybody's doors were firmly locked. It hadn't as yet figured out how t'jump through a glass winder, if'n one wide enough offer'd. An' the few streets an' lanes all led, eventual, back inter each other. So it was only a matter o'time before someone hit on the beast."

"An' who was the lucky hunter?" A loquacious example of Red Flume's youth culture asked this with a grin; he not as yet fully getting into the drama of the tale.

"Will y'all let up on the lasso'in' questions?" Charlie growled in disdain. "Ain't I gettin' right down t'the heart o'the matter? OK, lem'me see—OK, Sal was paradin' Main Street like she owned the whole town; Ariadne an' I both were off about our own parts in the business; everyone else had finally seen sense an' abandoned the streets to the tumbleweed an' our trio of hunters. Then came the first scene o'the drama—a shot rang out, clear as day in the quiet o'the empty thoroughfares."

"Someone shot the tiger?" A rather excitable young lady cried with a terrified note in her voice.

"No sech luck." Charlie rode over the interruption unmoved. "Havin' no-one t'discuss the matter with Sal had decided t'run on over t'Hope Street, an' take up the incident with mysef'. Now here, ladies an' gents, things become a trifle confused fer a time. You'll all unnerstan' the complexity o'the sitooatin. Three people, loaded t'the armpits with a variety o'weapons; one mad as hell tiger searchin' the less-populated lanes fer its long overdue dinner; an' a shot from dam' knows where. Well, what could we all do, but head on across, as our individuul ears hinted, towards the place where said shot come from."

"Oh Goodness, this is so terrifyin'." A female listener of mature years gasped in horror. "I just can't say how worried I am about those poor people—well, you, anyway."

"Don't have any fears, ma'am, I allus could take main care o'mysef; me bein', as is clearly obvious, still here." Charlie took the opportunity for another swallow of the tincture that revives, then carried on, no whit put out. "Eventual, as was only t'be expected, we all met up at the corner o'one lane an' another. An' here things got to be even more interestin' than they had bin up t'then. Halfway down the lane we'all hadn't yet honoured with our presence the tall straight form of a young woman, in trousers an' jacket, could be made out some twenty yards off—she also wavin' a large rifle around, like as if she was lookin' fer a stray bear."

"God A'mighty," sez I with a deep angry breath—sorry ladies, but y'all just got'ta bear with me fer the good o'the tale, apologies later—"If'n it ain't dam' Bella Thomson. Just what I needs at this more'n busy part o'my day. Sal, just pop off yer six-gun at the bitc—lady; see if'n y'can hit her at this range. I got more important matters on my mind presently."

"Howsomever, blastin' with intent wasn't needed, as it turned out." Charlie gave one of his grunting laughs. "Bella turned on her heel and let loose with a whoop o'pure joy—after all, it ain't every day yer gets t'shoot at a honest t'God tiger in South Arizona. An' when presented with sech opportunity Bella was never one t'turn the other cheek."

"Howdy Charlie, ain't this just the grandest day ever?" She bein' unperturbed by the show o'armament now approachin' her, wholesale. "Hi'ya Sal, thought y'were pollutin' the atmosphere som'er's about. A g-d'd-m tiger, as I live an' breathe. I gets first straight shot at it, Charlie. I ain't takin' no backseat on this here performance—yer gets in my way, yer gets in the way o'my Henry point forty-four."

The audience had by this time forgotten all notion of lunch, gripped by the old man's tale. They crowded even nearer, jostling each other's shoulders in the attempt to come as close to the raconteur as possible.

"We'all will discuss yer citizenship rights in this here town at a later date." Sez I, as stand-offish as a English Lord at a hoedown. "Meanwhiles I appints yer both temp'ry depities, with powers pinted exclusive at downin' that dam' tiger, wherever the hell she may be hidin' her obnox'us presence. What's your caliber, Sal?"

"I got two thirty-eights', Charlie."

"Your's, Miss Jameson?"

"Point thirty-eight, soft-nosed."

"An' your weapon's a forty-four, Bella?"

"Sho'nuff is that, Charlie; sixteen round rimfire repeater. Lem'me get that cat in my sights jes' one more time, an' she's dead meat, filled full'a lead." Sez the female bandit, with a grin. "Be's there a reward goin' fer this here act o'mercy we'all's imbroiled in?"

"No, there dam' well ain't." I now bein' less than calm, considerin' the run o'events. "Lay-off the fancy talk, lady, will ya."

"Yeah," Butts in Sal, no ways happy at the unannounce'd appearance o'what she rightly see's as an opponent fer my attentions, an' any reward goin'. "Keep yerself t'yerself, lady, if'n you wan'na keep in health. Aim fer the dam' tiger, an' leave cavortin' with the Law alone, if yer value those brown tresses o' your'n."

"What might'a proceeded, along of this idle talk, no-one can now tell; for I came in with a question o'some note, hereabouts—showin' I, at least, was still minded t'the main event."

"What for did you fire off that previous shot, Bella?" Me aimin' my full consideration at the tall outlaw as I spoke. "Was you just firin' in a state o' overwhelmin' joy; or did ya have a partic'lar prey in sight?"

Everyone crowded round Charlie now leaned forward as one, deeply desiring not to miss a single word of the proceedings. No other sound could be heard the length of the long verandah but the old man's deep voice.

"Why Charlie, as if I'd let off a stray round—knowin' full well you were sittin' comf'table as a bedbug in your office over on Main Street." Bella sneered outright at this simple idea. "I was engaged in keepin' stum an' invisible t'all around, when I heerd a curious sound out in the alley by the side o' my winder. Lookin' out kind'a idle like, what does I see but a dam' tiger, large as life, an' somewhat more colourful than I expect'd. So, not wantin' t'waste this golden Heaven-sent opper-tun'ty, I grabs my Henry, checks it's loaded, runs downstairs, an' comes out in the alley just as the tiger turns t'face me, some thirty yards off. Well, there was a kind'a a Mexican stand-off fer a few seconds, while we each consider'd the other's likely character. Then, obviously noticin' I was armed t'the teeth, she whips round an' makes fer the nearest corner. I shoots off a single round, but sees it bang inter the house-wall two inches over the tiger's head just before it disappear'd from view. An' thet's how things stand at the present moment."

"Well folks," Charlie smiled round at the onlookers eagerly paying attention to his every word. "I didn't take this information with any sign o' downright joy nor enthusiasm; me thinkin', thetaway, thet when a person's confronted by a wild tiger said person is duty-bound t'down said feline without delay."

"Bella, y'allus was a rotten shot." I declinin' straight t'butter my words with considerat'n or approbation. "What for'd ya miss the dam' thing? Ain't it big enuff fer ya?"

"Charlie," Returns the most feered female buccaneer o'Arizona an' all parts further West, commencin' t'get riled some at this unenthusiastic rejoinder from the main represent'tive o'the Law. "I begin's t'feel some left out o'the congratulary circuit aroun' the hunt fer this here dam' overfed cat. As a result I opines t' saunter off into the undergrowth—meanin' all these dam' dirty lanes an' outhouses pollutin' the present distric',—an' hunt down the dammed animaal mysel'. How d'ya take that, boys an' gals? An' that last means you specific, Sal."

A thrill, almost of joy, ran through the spectators of Charlie's tale at this clear jab at the figure of Sal Nichols; those gathered round the story-teller knowing full well the female gunslinger's reputation for taking umbrage at the slightest low remark.

"Yep, folks," Charlie recommenced. "Sal was about as riled-up as a firework that'd been lit an' was jest holdin' back to consider who exac'ly it was gon'na head straight fer. But before open civil war could break out—an' sech was surely on the cards as the next ondoubt'd acteevity due t'unfold on the dusty, an' none too clean, streets o'Red Flume that day—as in all good things somethin' came along, like a loose steer, t'spile the upcomin' party; an' that thing was yet another shot from God knows where, som'mers way along Main Street. This shot bein' in the line o'somethin' approximatin' t'a artillery cannon goin' off at close range."

"F-ck me," Sez I, now complete fed up t'the gills with the day's unfoldin' events—sorry ladies, but what happened, happened, an' what was said was said from the depths of a wholly despondent heart. "who in Hell's pollutin' the fine atmosphere o'my town with gunpowder now? Has the whole American Cavalry come t'pay its respec's, or what?"

"By this time we'd all mosey'd back onto the open prairie that went by the name o'Main Street." Charlie nodded to himself, as the details came flooding back. "An' what preesent'd itself t'the jaded eyes o'the hunters? Why, a ragged-lookin' hoss, careerin' towards them from the direction o'nowhere, beyond the confines o'the town-limits—otherwise know as the Arizona Badlands. This here steed bein' somewhat lackin' in civ'lised comportment—bein' no more'n a wild bronco, goin' by exterior appearances alone. An' the rider was nuthin' t'look at, either—bein' a strongly-made tall woman in buckskin trousers an' jacket, with a dirty broken-down wide-brimmed hat coverin' a long mane o'black hair, an' wavin' what appeered t'the onlookers t'be a small cannon in the air."

"A'la la la la'yee-aaa!" Shouts this female apparition on arrivin' cons'quent t'me an' my minions an' reinin' in; thereby creatin' a cloud o'dust which went a'ways t'chokin' us assorted big-game hunters. "Hi'ya, Marshall, I see's me a dam lion further back along the Street. Would ya believe that? A dam' lion! Well, Hell, I just managed one shot, an' would ya believe it, missed the sunna-va-bitch"—sorry ladies, those whose ears is overdelicate might consider headin' over t'the lunch table while I finishes this here odyysey—"but I intends t'get me another go at it without delay. Where is the dam' thing now?"

Curiously, considering the wild and unrestrained epithets now echoing along the verandah, no-one took the opportunity for first dibs on the cold meat and champagne cocktails laid out nearby—which just goes to show two things, the interest taken in the unfolding drama, and the modern open—some might say too open—moral outlook of the majority of Charlie's listeners.

"It's a dam' tiger; an' I'm the dam' Sheriff." Me bein' entirely fed up with events by now, y'see. "An' who the Hell'r you, anyway. Not that another gun ain't welcome, don't take me wrong, lady. An' just what the Hell is that dam' cannon y'r carryin'?"

"Y'know me, Mar—Sheriff," Pipes up the Valkyrie, for thet's the impression she gave sittin' high on her wild horse, black hair a'wavin' in the breeze, an' grinnin' ferocious the while. "I'm the gal y'threw out'ta town last Fall, when I tried t'mulct ya for a huntin' licence, opin'nin' I'd pay on credit. As I recall, y'didn't take t'my offer none too kindly. Harry Knappe's the name, an' this here piece o'artillery's my famed Sharpe's point fifty rifle—with which I've bin known t'drop a buffalo at a quarter a mile."

"But not today." Sez Sal right off, meaner than a skulkin' coyote; that bein' her way; pale-green eyes sparklin' some malicious.

"Harry sits back in her saddle at this uncalled for interruption, pushes a stray dark tress off'n her face with a dirty glove, an' condescends t'cast a cold blue eye over her critic." Charlie regaled his audience with a broad grin. "Harry never bein' one t'take it on the chin when she could as easily sock the party o'the second part on their chin instead."

"Well, dam' me from here t'Colchester, Illinois." The trapper cocks a disapprov'in eye on her critic an' registers recognit'n instanter. "If'n it ain't Snapshot Nichols in person, an' twice as spiteful. So, what goes; are y'helpin' or hinderin' ol' Charlie here?"

"Ladies," I breaks in, doin' ny best in tryin' circumstances. "I begins t'feel like I'm at a Temperance meetin'; the same unholy language an' unchecked feelin's bein' given free range here as there. If'n everyone now congregated holds off on the insults an' brings their minds t'bear on the matter under investigation, I'd be mighty pleased. To put it blunt—are we huntin' a dam' tiger here; or are we merely tradin' pes'nal an' undignified abuse?"

"Well, ladies," Charlie made a short bow in recognition of the presence of the opposite sex. "those o'you at least who still have the grit t'bear with my ancient reminiscences, anyways, an' assorted gents; the above was, I allows, somethin' rich, comin' as it did, from a man known t'be able t'cuss outright an' at consid'rable length, in American, English, bits o'French, an' three dialects o'various Indian languages; though I doesn't mean ter swank overly about sich cap'bilities."

"Reminds me o'my Grand'ma." A young woman at a nearby table mused; who then, turning her head and realising she'd spoken out loud, relapsed into blushin' shame.

Noon had long passed, on the splendid lawn in front of the old ranch-house, and the ham slices laid out on the trestle tables nearby had commenced to curling at the edges, but no-one amongst the enthralled crowd listening to the old story-teller gave this tragedy any thought—the recollection of ancient times in Old Arizona holding their full attention.

"Along-bout's this pint in the drama," Charlie, refreshed once more, enlarged on the unfolding activities of his hero and heroines. "Bella, who'd been some left on the trailin' edge o'the action up'til that pertic'ler moment, now waded inter the throng o'the accusations bein' bandied back an' forth."

"Charlie, an' ladies if yer inter'sted, way 'long the thoroughfare there, some-er's aroun' three hun'ner yards West thataways, see?" She obligin'ly pintin' her right arm, still carryin' her heavy Henry .44, straight out in said direction. "That there animal that's just shook itsel' free o'the shadders on the left o'the street—any idee's? Just askin', in a purely intellectual search fer enlightenment, y'unnerstan'."

"Holy Hallelujah," Splutters out Ariadne, somewhat took aback by the appearance o'her late lodger, onexpec'ed like. "There she is. That's my 'Rani',—all five hunner' an' eighty pounds o'her,—er, what now?"

"Well, folks," Charlie cast a humurous eye over the crowd. "y'all no doubt are supposin' that right about here the respected hunters all commenc'd t'shootin'? Nuthin' further from the truth actilly took place."

The crowd, meanwhile, swayed in mutual terror at the gravity of the scene; some ladies letting out quiet screams of excitement.

"Fac'd with a gen'wine real-as-mud stalkin' tiger, pretty much at close quart'rs, what I an' the ladies then present, did was freeze in shock. Tigers', close up, havin' that unfort'nat effec' on people." With the quiet authority of a maestro Charlie took a sustained pull at his glass, then proceeded with the tale. "A pause, whose duration no-one subsequent could ever fully quantify, reigned supreme for an apprec'ble round o'a watch's second hand. Then life return'd t'the hunters, in vary'in ways."

"I lays five t'one Sal down's the ren'gade feline with her first shot!" A sporting man near the verandah steps laying his offer out fair and square.

"Huh!" Charlie making his disregard of this remark clear to all around, then continued.

"I got's her dead t'rights—gim'me room." Growls Sal, raising both her Smith an' Wesson .38's at arm's length.

"Will ya bloody get out'ta m'way?" Snarls Bella, havin' trouble some bringin' her Henry rifle t'the level; both Harry's hoss an' Sal gettin' in her firin'-line precocious like."

"The b-tch's mine." Hollers Harry, still sittin' atop her wild stallion an' flingin' her long-barreled Sharps' cannon t'her left shoulder.

"Jeesus, I forgot t'reload m'dam' shotgun." I bellows, wholly irate an' fumin' with rage.

"Don't shoot her, she wouldn't harm ya." Screams Ariadne, droppin' her Winchester in anxiety, an' grabbin' the rein o'Harry's hoss promis'cus, haulin' it's head round.

"I drops my useless shotgun like a hot pertater, ducks down t'retrieve Ariadne's Winchester from the dust; thereby also managin' t'trip Bella's ankle, makin' her loose-off a shot inter the wild blue yonder t'no useful effec'; an' final comes up, some nerve-wracked, a-serchin' fer my target. Sal screws one green eye shut, an' takes careful note o'direction an' range with the other—allus a bad move when aimin' at movin' prey with mor'n one weapon. Ariadne continued tryin' t'haul the nervus hoss's head round t'face the far Pacific; blockin' my own sightin' the while. Bella, swearin' somethin' awful t'hear, was tryin' t'free her now jammed weapon. An' Harry also, atop her prancin' Pegasus,—no doubt a'fearin' t'be left out'ta things—commenced t'showin' off her remark'ble grasp o'every cuss word an' phrase in the English lang'widge."

"Final, Sal was first t'let loose in any official sense o'the term, bangin' away left an' right with a rollin' fire like a ship's broadside." Charlie snorted in glee at the memory. "An' no good what'ever did it do her, neither, point thirty-eight's havin' no sort'a effect on a wild tiger, no way. Not forgettin' the cat was well out'ta her pistols' range, anyways."

A sigh of horror passed across the tightly-packed crowd.

"All her fire did, like Bella's abortiv' shot some previous, was t'attract the tiger's attention, as bullets puffed up the dust in the street some fifty or more yards short o' where the animal stood sniffin' the putrid air o'the town, an' no doubt findin' it wantin' as far as wild tigers' go." Charlie shook his head, the scene obviously sharp in his mind. "The cat, an' it presented one fine sight, if'n y'were appreciat'ive o'sich, quietly took stock o'Sal's fire, clearly decidin' she was a dreadful shot, ignored the flying dust as the bullets continued t'miss her, landin' short by miles, an' turned her head t'wander, some regally, in the direction o'the wild outdoors, or empty terrain outside the town limits."

"Oh Goodness," Sang out a particularly excited matron amongst Charlie's listeners. "What did you'all do?"

"What we did, ma'am, was engage in mutual reproach an' in-fightin' o'the worst sort." Charlie shook his head sadly, at the remembrance. "Atop her hoss Harry un-stirrupp'd her left boot, put it firmly against the shoulder o' her female attacker, an' pushed Ariadne aside, makin' her fall at length in the dust. I, some riled at this unpolite action against womankind, jumps forward, drops my Winchester in the heat o'my rage an', grabbin' Harry's loose booted leg, makes no effort at conceal'in my outrage by haulin' the mountain-gal off'n her hoss to crash in the dust hersel'. Bella, takin' turns t'berate her broken Henry with horrible cussin' interspersed with anxious glances at her distant an' ever decreasin' target, was crouched over twirling in circles a'fightin' her reluctant piece like as if she had the bellyache bad. Sal, all this while, continu'in' t'fire her over-heatin' thirty-eight's uselessly at the departin' feline—she, Sal, havin', as everyone who knew her allowed, somethin' of a one track mind in sech sitooatin's."

While Charlie refreshed his dry vocal chords with the right liquid from a frosted glass, the crowd on the verandah muttered together, wondering what the outcome could possibly be. Then Charlie settled to his story once more.

"I," Charlie's voice, strengthened by his pick-me-up, rang out firm and strong. "by this time a'sittin' in the dust along with Ariadne, curt'sy of'n Harry's cavortin' bronco, but still a'cussin' Harry like a hero, scrabbled aroun' some serchin' fer my lost Winchester. Not a'findin' it, I commenced t'castigatin' every woman in sight. This, o'course, only served t'rile Sal, who, all this time had been religiously firin' off her artillery at the disappearin' tiger, still t'no avail."

"What for'n ya shoutin' at me, Charlie." She growls, turnin' her head to inspect the mayhem in the dust behind her. "F-ck me, what the Hell d'ya all think y're doin'? Chr-st, am I the only sane person on Main Street. Will som'un please join me in shootin' the bloody tiger?"

"Well, it was no good, in the end." Charlie glanced mournfully around his avid audience. "I clambered t'my full, now dust-coated, height. My hat'd gone the same way's the Winchester, God knows where. Ariadne continu'd sittin' in the street, obviously thinkin' it the better part o'valor. Harry struggled around in the dirt, tryin' t'rise to her feet graceful, glowerin' somethin' awful', an' aimin' most o'sech towards me. Bella, final gettin' her Henry t'come back t'life, raised it t'her shoulder an' let off a coupl'a shots hasty-like which served no purpose but t'deafen all those aroun'—her bullets goin' Hell knew where, but nowhere's near the dam' tiger, that's fer sure. An' Sal, givin' up on the tiger, final, stomps over t'Harry t'lend her a hand t'drag the bear-trapper t'her feet—which Harry, surprisin', takes with unexpect'it p'liteness, surveyin' her rescuer the while with some interest an' attention—obvis'ly changin' her previous opinion of said gal somewhat as she took hold'a her helpin' hand."

"I, eventual, tramped over t'Ariadne an' hauled her vertical agin' too, no-one else appearin' interested in accomplishin' sech." Charlie's head shook despairingly. "There then intervened a certin' amount o'time whilst our party engaged in mutual dustin' of our clothes, an' whatnot. Then Ariadne grabbed her unwanted Winchester from the entrance of a store across the sidewalk, where it'd slid in the affray; I retrieved my hat an' useless shotgun, from the dust under the edge of said sidewalk; Bella bowed over her Henry, tryin' once more t'clear its jammed loading—they bein' prone t'such at excitable moments; Harry picked up her Sharps' cannon; an' Sal, some ashamed, proceeds t'reload her thirty-eight's, as if sech had any purpose."

"What about Rani?" A young business-man, a golden-haired girl hanging on his left arm, called out.

"Well, this very questin' occurred to us hunters, too." Charlie's eyes now shone cheerily.

"Jeez, I've lost track o'the beast." Sings out Sal, snarling with rage as she stood by the female trappers' side. "You see her anywhere's, Harry?"

"Naw, she's gone." Harry shrugged her shoulders, under her buckskin jacket, an' put a hand on Sal's shoulder—an act fiercer people would'a baulked at. "Looks like she's headed off fer pastures new; or the mountains, anyways."

"Oh, Hell." Sez Ariadne, dam' unladylike. "What's the goin' rate fer sum'un t'track said tiger t'wherever she's thinkin' o'makin' her new lair?"

"Count me out, gal." Sez Harry, quick as a riled rattler. "I got other things t'do than risk my hide goin' after wild tigers."

"F-ckin' g-dd-m bloody animaal!" Sez Bella, obviously feelin' the loss in her innocent heart. "Go an' track the g-dd-m thing yersel', lady; an' I jes' g-dd-m wish I could be in the vicinity when y'meet the dammed rep'brate."

"I don't like cats." Sal mutters, lookin' the while at the tall bronzed mountain-trapper as if she's just found a lost sister, or sum'thin'. "Say, Harry, y'got a camp sum'ers out on the prairie? I feels like takin' a short holiday, away from the fast pace and excitements o'this dam' unwholesum village."

"Could do with a partner fer a while, now y'come t'mention it." Harry dusts her jeans some more, lookin' somewhat shy the while. "OK, y're on; soon'as y'grab yer bedroll an' hoss we can head on out, an' blow the dust o'this depressin' community out'ta our hair."

"The two ladies then walked off back along the street, Harry holdin' the reins of her rambunct'shoos hoss with one hand, while with the other she grasped Sal's unresistin' paw."

Charlie here paused, twiddling his half-empty glass by his elbow, as if finished with his story. The crowd as one started mumbling, until one woman, more anxious to hear the outcome than most present, spoke out high and clear.

"So, what happened, Mr Donaldson?" She cast an eye round the waiting audience, as if to confirm her interest. "Where'd the tiger go? An' did someone shoot it, final? An' what did this Harry an' Sal do, in the end? How'd Bella take it all? Where'd Ariadne an' her circus go? An' what'd you think, final, o'the whole affair?"

"Well, ma'am, them's a mighty fine bundle o'questin's, an' no mistake." Charlie, regarding his now empty glass with fond regret, brought his attention back to the matter in hand. "T'take 'em one after t'other—Harry an' Sal rode off into the open desert an' had themselves a merry ol' time fer some consid'ble spell; they workin' up a pow'ful pes'nal friendship along the way; then returned t'Red Flume, where they both became upstandin' citizens an' Depities o'the community—upstandin', anyways, if'n ye didn't get on their wrong sides, thet is."

"Ariadne, feelin' Red Flume was inhospitable t'her finer feelin's, took her circus off sum'ers else, an' never dirtied her feet with the dust o'our pertikler municipality agin." Charlie scratched his stubbly chin, as he catalogued the movements of his characters in memory. "Bella, bein' told outright an' with malice aforethought some time later that day by mysef' her services were no longer requir'd within the conservative environs o'Red Flume, departed in a cloud o'dust an' unrestrained cussin'."

"I, well, I took things some philosophical—allus asservatin', when the subjec' ever come up in conversation, that no-one could be supposed t'list a wild tiger as bein' in any way a likely guilty party vis-a-vis civic misdeemenors in a South Arizona town; so put the whole thing out'ta my mind, complete: an' very few in later years, as you'd ecpec', have ever had the grit t'bring the subjec' up in public in my presence; present company excepted, o'course."

Once more Charlie paused, as if the long story had drained his physical, as well as mental, resources. Finally a man close to the ranch-house entrance asked the necessary question.

"And the tiger, Mr Donaldson? What about it?"

"Ah, the tiger." Charlie, for the last time, glanced around his audience; something of a smile faintly shadowing the corners of his mouth. "The tiger headed out into the open plains; probably aimin' fer the far mountains—said animaals likin' that sort'a wooded terrain. Fer some few years afterwards various ranchers an' suchlike made sporadic reports o'their steers bein' mysteriously torn t'pieces Northaways, in the foothills. Then the trail ran cold an', after about five year, narry another sightin' o'said tiger was ever heerd of agin'."

"An' Sal an' Harry?" Someone asked, obviously intrigued by the burgeoning friendship between the two seemingly contrasting women.

"Ah," Charlie smiled, as he slowly rose and reached for his hat. "Sal an' Harry, it'pears, came t'be lifelong partners; an' took t'moseyin' about the country, annoyin' people in duo, as it were, rather than as the mere soloists they'd been previous. G'bye, everyone; it's been a fine party. If'n spared, I'll be glad invite y'all agin' next year. Bye."

The End

—O—

Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.