'The End of Baxter's Band'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers and Deputies in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, are part of the posse which does for a vicious group of bandits.

Note:— 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—

The Ingleson Hills, Territory of Arizona, for what they were which wasn't much, sat some twenty-five miles south-west of Red Flume. Two miles to the east of the foothills lay the township, hamlet really, of Garner's Close—close to what being a mystery unknown to one and all, the surrounding scrub and grasslands being third-rate cattle country at the best. But up in the feeble mounds of rock calling themselves a range of hills lay Topper's Mine, now long closed, but still useful to passing wayfarers and general characters of little if any moral worth. Such a group the citizens, all forty-three of them, of the distant hamlet discovering one windy morning in August, 187-, when a few of a then unknown larger band of bandits rode into town to buy goods and food. Instant recognition following this sighting of Baxter, whose wanted posters were set up Territory wide, it wasn't long before an outrider was sent poste-haste to raise the alarm in the thriving metropolis that was Red Flume, also seat of the county Sheriff, Charles Donaldson and his famed deputies Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and her more or less openly acknowledged partner and lover, Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols.

As a result of this interesting piece of local gossip arriving in Red Flume on the Monday afternoon a posse made up of 17 men and women arrived in Garner's Close just after midday on the Tuesday, armed for bear and ready to distribute condign punishment across the board without mercy or pity.

They all, an hour later, congregated in the small schoolroom of the hamlet, the children having been given an unexpected but welcome holiday. Present were Sheriff Donaldson, Henrietta, Sally, and fourteen more, including three other women, all loaded, armed, and willing.

"Jes' t'tell ya all agin' what the why of it all is." Sheriff Donaldson bringing the dusty group to order. "Lem'me start by givin' a potted history o'Baxter, an' his fellow brigands. Baxter, dam' his soul ter damnation without end, is in either his late twenties or early thirties; it not matterin' much which, seein' his last stop on the journey of Life is rapidly approachin' him faster than he realises. He came t'the fore some five year since, robbin' small outposts, rustlin', murderin' fer profit, even if only two dollars, an' sexual, fergive the strong language ladies, assault. This latter bein' aginst children as well as mature women. He bein' known t'have assaulted at least five kids under the age o'fourteen to certin' knowledge—the last jes' five weeks since up near Phoenix."

"Piece o'sh-t."

"Jes' so, Sal." Donaldson acquiescing without restraint. "The rest of his gang adds up ter seven—three o'which we doesn't yet know the names of; the others bein' Tom Reynolds, rustler, Hank Jenkins, general thief, Sam Vernon, bank robber, Kinneal Foster, general thug. These last two also known ter have joined their leader in the assaults on the young folks, over the last six month."

"Garbage, the lot'ta 'em." Grace Lannaird, daughter of a Red Flume shop-owner, making plain the group's general opinion.

"So, what's our plan, Sheriff?" Henrietta coming to the fore, though she already knew the broad map Donaldson had privately laid out to her and Sally earlier that morning.

"Two things, people." Donaldson pausing a moment to gain everyone's attention. "First, there's the Laws of the Land—by which I means we corrals up the ingrates, leads 'em ter the local cells, puts 'em on trial, and watches as their several punishments unfolds."

A low grumble filtered through the schoolroom, as of dissent and dissension.

"Yeah, I know, don't seem much considerin' their acts, especial the sex things." Donaldson agreeing with the majority without constraint. "So, we comes ter number two—what ter do, instead?"

"Shoot the whole gang down like dogs, is how I see's it." Someone in the heart of the posse sang out loudly; his tone making clear his determination in this view.

"As it happens, folks, that there's my plan, too." Donaldson looking over his posse with a passionate glance. "Rustlin's one thing, mighty bad in itsel', but yer knows where yer are there. Hoss-stealin's jes' an arbitrary act o'war, an' the set punishment follows as read. Knockin' down a bank, an' stealin' folk's hard-earned savings is despicable across the board, an' punishment fer sich cain't be long enough in my opinion. But then there's the last, aah, crime—"

"The kids?" Henrietta on top of the discussion, sounding meaner than a rattlesnake with the toothache.

"Jes' so. The kids." Donaldson paused again, to haul his thoughts together. "Over the last year we know fer a fact five kids, gals all under fourteen have bin, not ter be mealy-mouthed about it, raped by these monsters; on more'n one occasion by several attackers at once. Now, I'm a fair man, always meanin' an' lookin' ter uphold the Laws of Ameriky. But sometimes, not often—even dam' rarely, but sometimes, there comes a play where-in the Laws o'the Land jes' don't cut the mustard."

Another low growl, this time of assent with the Sheriff's thoughts, wafted through the schoolroom.

"So, ter-day, I'm gon'na say something I've never said a'fore, nor hopes ter ever have ter say anytime in the future agin'." Donaldson scanning the waiting posse with gleaming eyes. "When we goes out ter the Ingleson's, an' hits Topper's Mine, we takes no prisoners, entire. We calls on 'em ter surrender an' give up without a fight—in which case, thet bein' the way they handles their case, we herds 'em all in a line, stands back some, an' shoots the swine as dead as last April, no holds barred."

A thrill of something like excitement passed through his hypnotised audience.

"But say they hauls-off and takes ter shootin' promiscus' at one an' all?—all I got'ta say is, folks, it's possum-shootin' time—take yer marks, fire like there's no tomorrow, an' take no note whatever of ensuin' cries fer mercy or surrender. What I wants, at the end of all this, is a line o'dead bodies makin' up the last mortal remains of as merciless a bunch o'demons as ever polluted the Territory. In short, folks, our plan's murder an' killin' wholesale, retail, an' fer export, no holds barred. Any brigand, thief, or robber still alive when the shootin' stops gets the contents o'my Savage Navy full in his face, fer keeps. What we drags back ter Red Flume bein', without discussion or argyment, dead bodies across the board, entire. Y'all got thet?"

The growl which now rent the air of the classroom showed perfectly clearly that, indeed, his posse had got the message, and meant to follow it through with determination and focus to the end.

"Right, let's go."

—O—

The scrub covered rolling Ingleson Hills never, at any point, reached a greater elevation than three hundred and twenty feet; hardly being, indeed, foothills, rather slight undulations in the common flow of the surrounding country; but a silver mine had operated there for some five years when the silver craze was at its peak back in the '40's. Now long abandoned the huts, offices, and smelting houses were still in pretty fair condition; offering shelter, temporarily at least, for travelers passing that way. Baxter and his companions, thinking it a great place for rest, had let themselves go, not making any effort to camouflage their presence. Their horses were tied to makeshift rails outside the largest building, piles of gear lay haphazardly around on the ground, and smoke from a fireplace inside flowed from the chimney of the main building as if lived in by honest citizens going about their lawful purposes.

Across, on the peak of a nearby hill, they having left their mounts some twenty yards down their side of the incline, the posse lay on their bellies studying the lay of the land through a variety of field-glasses, telescopes, spy-glasses, and unwieldy binoculars.

"They're all there." Sally, easing her shoulders as she lay prone beside Henrietta, nodded happily. "We've seen all eight comin' an' goin'; beaverin' about like flies on treacle."

"Yeah, looks like they may be preparin' ter haul ass an' head on out sommers." Henrietta adding her reading of the scene.

"Well, we got a surprise fer 'em, is all." Donaldson growling like a bear that had just missed it's fifth river salmon of the morning. "OK, folks, this is it. We mounts up, rides in like Quantrill's Raiders with jes' as much idee of jollity an' friendliness, an' lays waste ter every livin' thing in the confines o'the premises. Oh, by the way—no-one goes inside any building. If they takes shelter in sich we merely waits outside, lights the tarred torches we've brought along an' emulates the late but highly intelligent Roman Emperor Nero, thet time in Rome. Let's do it!"

—O—

The first the gang of thieves knew they were under attack was as the posse rode past the front of the main building, shooting their weapons like a group of cowbusters on a night out—but with far deadlier intent. Tom Reynolds, leaning against a wooden upright pillar, went for his pistol but was forestalled by five revolver bullets, one load of buckshot, and two rifle cartridges—the result making the ensuing remains unrecognisable as they lay bleeding in the dust. Hank Jenkins, bowed down over a wooden crate some twenty yards off, stood erect, opened his mouth in astonishment, and was then peremptorily sent to Hades by eleven bullets hitting him all at once—there being less recognisably left of him than Reynolds. The others, two of whom appeared for a moment at the building's main entrance, dove back into the interior obscurity and began a course of self-defence by shooting back from inside, to no great effect.

The posse, having had a successful first run, came to a halt some hundred yards on the other side of the group of buildings to reassemble.

"Thet's jes' great, boys an' gals." Donaldson in fine mettle. "Now, let's split up—there's at least two renegado's over t'thet shack due west o'the big building; the others', I fancies, is set fair in the main block. One more run past the main, then we concentrates on the shack fer starter's. Remember, no prisoners!"

The pass made by the posse in front of the main building once more brought a mediocre resistance from its inmates who's shots, they having been brought up short by surprise and not having any plan of defence, had no effect on the racing lawmen and women as they swept past—laying down a mighty harsh enfilade in doing so—before taking aim at the small shack on the other side.

There being no safe way of assessing casualties in the larger building the posse focused on the shack—a long low decrepit shanty, the exterior shingles of which were severally falling away from the frame, as having lost interest any longer in being part of an upstanding structure after all these abandoned years.

"There's two fer certin' inside." Donaldson nodding with intent. "I saw one go in, an' Molly here sez she saw another pint a rifle out one o'the winders. So, we takes a break here-around, shoots promiscus' through the shack's frame, an' don't stop till something big collapses. Got me, folks?"

"What if one or t'other comes out a'wailin' fer mercy?" Someone asked in an unpleasant tone.

"Shoot 'em." Donaldson affirming his previous stance. "We ain't here t'form a Sunday School picnic; we're here ter rid the Territory o' as filthy a bunch o'swine as ever polluted anywhere. Shoot 'em dead, whether they bawls fer mercy, pity, a second chance, or calls fer time ter write a partin' note ter their mothers'. Shoot 'em all the same—cold-blooded, pitilessly, an' as hard-hearted as ye may wish, is all. Thet clar yer minds o'any oncertainty in the matter, folks?"

Having been given such precise orders across the board the resulting growl of acceptance from everyone around was all that was required for Donaldson to know that things would henceforth work out to his satisfaction.

"OK, here's the shack—commence firin', people; an' don't stop till the inmates' souls is beggin' Cerberus in person fer mercy at the Gates o' Hell."

By this time the posse had split into groups, the majority staying in front of the shack while a smaller number made their way round to the rear to stop escapees in that direction.

"It only has the one door." Sally, sitting her mount by Henrietta's side fifty yards off out of range of anything except a rifle, nodded knowingly. "The usual specimen of it's type. A window on each side with a central door; probably two more winders t'other side, but thet'll be it. Anyone wantin' ter head fer home thet way'll need'ta climb through one o'the winders—our pals back there havin' a fine time in consequence."

Whether Donaldson gave an actual command or not the posse suddenly opened up as one on the frail building; rifles, carbines, shotguns, single-shot and repeating revolvers, en masse; the noise being only equaled by the thick rolling mists of acrid gunsmoke, they mostly being black powder weapons. The front of the shack burst into a mist of its own, made up of dust and shattered fragments of wood as the bullets and shot made themselves felt against the framework. Very obviously to the trained eye a large contingent of the bullets also made their way inside the structure, to have whatever effect on those entombed there could only be imagined.

Suddenly the door was wrenched open and a figure, with one arm raised in some sort of gesture, ran out; but, before he had made a handful of yards distance, he was hit, from head to toe, by the massed ranks of the posse's artillery firing as one—the words and instructions of the Sheriff still ringing loudly in their ears. The man, unidentified and likely to stay so, flew backwards off his feet not hitting the dust till he had measured his length in the air; after which there was, not surprisingly, no further movement on his part.

"Keep firin', there's still one inside." Someone called through the rolling banks of gunsmoke.

As if only waiting this added push the broadside opened up once more; the front of the shack actually trembling to the eye of the observer as it took the full brunt of the renewed assault. Clouds of gunsmoke could be seen rising in the air from behind the shack also, as the posse there did their duty without restraint or pause. So well, in fact, that those in front of the building had to spread out wider and take cover lying down in the dirt themselves to avoid being hit by bullets from their associates on the other side of the shack, going right through the structure.

"Hell, this's gettin' hot." Sally, lying by her lover's side though somehow still managing to aim both her .38 Smith and Wesson revolvers as she spoke. "Come on, ain't ya got thet naval gun workin' yet? There'll be no-one left ter kill if ya don't make it snappy."

A Henry rifle, with a magazine able to hold all of sixteen cartridges, was a weapon which took some time to reload at the best of times; the present situation not being such by any means. Henrietta, pushing the last of her bullets into the chamber, merely grunted in reply.

"Cover yer ears, gal, I'm about ter open promis'cus an' free fer all."

Having said which Henrietta shuffled into position, took aim through the clouds of dust and smoke, and started to shoot in sequence as fast as she could. The rifle's heavy calibre cartridges, each every ounce of .44, especially fired thus like a naval broadside, took visible effect on their target; part of the frame of the right-hand window suddenly coming apart in a cloud of splinters, falling to the ground leaving the window a mere dark empty shadow as a result.

"Winder's out—fire through the dam' thing." Someone—obviously with an ongoing desire to command on his own part—called; an unofficial order that several of the posse instantly took advantage of.

Sally twisted round on her side, pulling herself into a flat crouch to re-load one of her revolvers just as a series of puffs of dust sprang into the air just in front of her head.

"Mind yersel, lover, those id'yeets on the far side's shootin' without concern fer us, thet's clar." Henrietta taking time out to make certain her partner was alright.

"Yeah, sure, lady." Sally, having reloaded, turning back to the main event unconcerned. "Look, you take the right-hand side, I'll take the left. Let's make thet shack rue the day it was ever born."

While this discussion was ongoing the rest of the posse had been holding their end up heroically; the amount of ammunition expended so far easily equaling several noted small engagements in the late War. Finally Donaldson, from somewhere over to the ladies' left, called out for a ceasefire which, rather reluctantly, finally brought a close to the shoot-out.

"How's it lookin'?" Henrietta glancing from side to side, but not rising to her feet, still doubtful of return fire from the shack.

"Let's give it a minute, folks." Donaldson taking the lead in the ongoing stand-off. "Meb'be we've already done fer whoever's left in there. Let's take a breather, an' see."

"What about the main building?" Henrietta calling out in her turn. "There's only a handful of our men there, an' they haven't fired a shot, nor yet been shot at ter my knowledge. We need'ta take note o'that, Sheriff."

"We'll get round ter thet in due time, Harry." Donaldson's voice coming over the dusty ground more strongly now the noise had abated. "First, we see if'n the piece o'scum in this here shack is still mobile an' spittin' fire or not. Wan'na go for'rard, an' see, Harry—Sal?"

"Oh, f-ckin' thanks." Sally taking personal umbrage at being so imperiously chosen for scout. "After ye, Harry."

"Har!"

—O—

Squirrelling across dusty earth, with a posse of armed angry shootists behind and a possibly live and still kicking cold-blooded deadbeat killer holed up in the wreck of the shack in front, was not an activity likely to appeal to anyone, never mind two deputies in pursuance of their daily duties. Henrietta, in front, reached the side of the shack first, pausing till her partner slid up beside her, they both staying long and low near the ground.

"What d'ya think?" Sally gasping for breath in the hot air, rubbing her nose to take away some of the resinous smell of freshly broken wood and splinters which now surrounded them.

"I'm gon'na jump up an take a quick peek through the remains of the window above us here." Henrietta keeping her voice low. "Don't worry, it won't take half a second. Ready?"

Frowning heavily Sally shrugged her shoulders then nodded gloomily in reply.

Shuffling around till she was in a low crouch Henrietta, having left her Henry rifle behind, raised her .45 Colt to head height; then, in an instantaneous movement jumped up, took a snap glance into the dark interior of the shack, then fell back quickly to lie beside her lover again.

"What?"

Henrietta took a couple of breaths, before turning on her heels to face her lover.

"Pretty dark, but there's enough light t'see the inside." She sure of her facts. "There's a body lying on the floor of what must be the main room. No movement, probably dead, I'd say."

Sally rocked back on her heels, considering this news.

"Ah, hell. Goin' in?"

Henrietta thought about this query for a time then turned to face back across the open ground to the distant prone forms of the rest of the posse.

"Donaldson!" She raising her voice to cover the distance. "A likely body. We're gon'na go in ter see. If'n we start shootin' stay easy, OK?"

There was a long pause, then the Sheriff shouted back his answer.

"OK, make it snappy. If ye start shootin', then don't come back out after, we're gon'na fall on thet shack wholesale like the Assyrian on the fold, sure as Hell."

Backed by this strong and appropriate standby the women stared at each other then shrugged in unison.

"After you, dear."

"Sal, fer God's sake stop sayin' thet, ye're gettin' ter be annoyin', thet way."

Taking a minute to catch their breath, make sure their individual weapons were loaded and cocked, and scuffling around to get into position, they glanced at each other then both rose to their feet and rushed the almost derelict door, already three-quarters open and off its hinges.

A clatter came as the remnants of the door hit the floor in a cloud of noxious dust, then the women were in the centre of the room weapons trained unwaveringly on the prone body lying there, like a bundle of dirty washing. They took a few seconds to determine if there was indeed any likelihood of life still being present, finally crouching a little to take a closer look, gun barrels almost touching the dirty jacket of the seemingly lifeless man. It being Sally who reached across to grab a shoulder of the prone form and turn it over.

Face-up it was clearly obvious that whoever it was he had taken a one-way ticket to an unknown future, no returns allowed—Henrietta seeing such straight-off.

"Dead as mutton, not a dam' doubt."

"Yep." Sally climbing to her feet to cross to the window. "Gim'me a moment whiles I lets Donaldson know we're OK."

Henrietta watched as her paramour waved an arm in the broken aperture which was all that remained of the window, indicating to one and all outside that the interior of the shack was now public territory to anyone who cared to enter; all that came in reply being another bellow from Donaldson.

"OK, come on back. We got thet there big building ter clear out, yet."

"Never a free moment; always do this, do thet, hoist thet petard, roll them dice." Sally grumbling to herself as the women exited the frail shack back into the sunshine.

"All in a day's work, young 'un." Henrietta almost grinning as they walked over to rejoin the main posse. "Jes' remember, we're bein' paid the goin' daily rate fer chancin' our lives like this fer the good o'the gen'ral citizenry."

"Sheep's b-llocks!"

"Oh, dear!"

—O—

"How many's left?" Sally asking this necessary question as the posse reformed some way distant from the front of the large two-storey building.

"Les'see," Donaldson performing mental arithmetic on his fingers as if engaging in hard physical labour. "There's those two we kicked over the ropes at the start, then the two holed up in thet shack—thet makes four—so there's four left. Baxter his'self, I'm sure, an' three others."

"They all in this here buildin', fer certin'?" Henrietta looking for clarity on an important point.

"Yep, several o'the posse havin' seen 'em all inside, at varyin' times." Donaldson putting this query to rest. "All'a them as is still compos an' kickin's there, whether all on the first floor or second ain't no real consarn, we'll get 'em anyway's. Right, folks, I got'ta plan. Which same is as sich—six o'ye goes round the back, ter stop mutineers abandoning ship unseen thereby. The rest stays here; Morgan you head half a dozen o'the troops, aimin' fer the second floor, if need be. I, an' my lot'll take care o'those others shootin' from the first floor. Now, what I wants is a wide overall blanket coverage—liike as ye all were aiming at a distance but meaning ter make yer hits on something the size of a ord'nary floor carpet—meaning the front of the house thereaway's. Aim fer the door an' winders ter start with—then, if an' when resistance shows itsel', aim thet-away's constant an' unstoppin'. Got thet, boys?—an' gals, inclusive?"

The growl of assent rumbling through the dusty air showed conclusively that the posse had indeed understood their orders, and were more than willing to carry them out complete. There was then a pause while the various units got themselves sorted out and in place surrounding the building; smoke still drifting lazily from its stone chimney on the left side.

"Thomas! Light the torches, we needin' same right soon." Donaldson in his element. "Right folks, the order is—Fire!—an' don't stop fer anythin', includin' the Phoenix Flyer! GO!"

Before the echo of this last word could return from the nearby hills a broadside from numerous weapons, shocking in its intensity and uproar, rent the air. At the same instant the front of the large building, strong still as it was, erupted in a haze of splinters and dust as the fusillade hit. In fact it took only mere seconds for the frontage to almost disappear in a cloud of debris and dust. Allied to the rolling banks of gunsmoke occasioned by the massed firearms it was a mere thirty seconds later that Donaldson had to call for a ceasefire, their target being all but veiled in the smoke and dust.

"Hold hard!" He yelling at the top of his voice. "Give it a minute. There's some chance of—"

But just on these words a fragmented parcel of return fire came from both the first and second floor windows; the bullets kicking up dust around the posse's boots, or to their disgust passing between individual members standing too close together.

"Go at it agin'!"

But Donaldson's words were hardly necessary as the posse off their own bat, having taken umbrage at this cowardly move on the part of the rustlers and robbers holed up in the building, sent an extended barrage of defensive fire across the intervening forty yards of open ground; making the shingles shower down again like tree blossom in the Spring.

"Thomas! Put a coupl'a torch flares on the roof, an' see if'n ye cain't sic one through a winder, there's a good lad." Donaldson widening the scope of his assault as a fine General in the field should.

Nothing loth Thomas, all of 19 years of age and muscular in proportion, held a burning torch in his left hand, took the measure of the wind and distance then, with one athletic swing, sent the flaring object soaring through the air. It hit on the sloping wooden shingled roof fair and square, sliding down till it rested in the edge guttering, still burning furiously. A second torch, just as well thrown, fell on the right-hand side of the roof, this one sticking where it landed on the broken and twisted shingle roof-covering. Then, as if determined to show his whole worth, Thomas paused to consider the lay-out of the house's façade. Satisfied, he took the third torch, a few bullets from inside the structure kicking up dust close by as he did so, and in one easy movement of arm and body, like an ancient Greek athlete, threw it clear through the left hand first floor window, to a bellow of applause from his compatriots.

"Dam' fine, Thomas, dam' fine!" Donaldson leading this approval. "Right folks, let's see what happens now."

The flares on the roof, settled in position, continued to merely send up thin trails of smoke with a few red flames at their bases; they not as yet fully connecting with the structure around them. The torch that had entered the house, however, had better luck—seeming to have hit on something large, inflammable, and only waiting this opportunity to go up in a riot of roaring fire. The clouds of acrid dark smoke which instantly issued from the open window making it plain to one and all of the spectators that the room inside was now hardly less than a raging inferno.

"Jeez! What'd Thomas put on those flares?" Sally impressed as all get-out.

The building had a centrally placed entrance, with two windows on each level either side of said door. What now transpired on the part of those trapped inside was a tactical withdrawal from the burning wing to that opposite. From the windows, on both floors, of the right-hand side of the house fresh defensive fire now rang out, making the posse members run for cover, hit the dust, or crouch amongst the trailing smoke-clouds to return their own answers to this impolite action.

Henrietta and Sally hunkered down by the side of a long wooden water trough, peering round the corner at their target; every now and then a stray bullet hitting their defensive bulwark making them jerk down nervously.

"It ain't the one's they's aimin'," Sally affronted at this state of affairs. "it's the one's they ain't dam' aimin' thet worries me."

Suddenly one of the posse, young Marie Fletcher, sang out loud and clear.

"Thinks I got one o'the b-st-rds. Saw him go down fer sure, to the far right-hand winder on the ground."

"Bully fer ye, Marie." Donaldson happy to allot praise where it was due. "If'n so, there ain't but three left."

Bucking-up at this good news the rest of the posse put their backs into returning an even more concerted fire than previously; to such an extent indeed that suddenly there was a small explosion over to Sally's right, followed by a bellow of rage from an irate man.

"G-d'd-m! my rifle breach's exploded. Near took my hand off, G-d'd-m it! Anyone got a spare rifle?"

Within a minute of this minor problem something more took place inside the house under attack. From the window nearer the door on the first floor a form jumped out, staggered in regaining his feet, then ran like a jackal for the corner of the building, a revolver in his hand which he fired with no obvious target in view, apparently just from sheer rampant fear. His run for freedom, however, hardly lasted longer than the time it took for three breaths. Having a bona fide prey in clear line of sight it taking the majority of the posse only around half a second to respond to this break-out.

The ensuing barrage of fire was so intense that later, no-one could say exactly whose shot had given the death-blow. The man, hit from several angles, by a multitude of differing calibres of shot, shell, pellets, and bullets, actually disintegrated into pieces—he having been comprehensively cut in two by the flanking fire. Bits crashing to the ground in one direction, while others lay on the other side completely disjointed from the main frame as it were—the resulting mess being so all-encompassing that even Henrietta, bear hunter and skinner as she was, turned her head away feeling some under the weather.

"Sh-t, thet's nasty!"

"Well, at least we knows he's dee-fine-itely dead." Sally, on the other hand, wholly cold and in command of her feelings. "We can certin' strike one off the political register, thet's sure as peanuts."

"Two left?" Henrietta, somewhat ashamed of her reaction, regaining control.

"Yip, one o'whom's Baxter his'self; thet character there, now extinct like the old Monster Lizards, not bein' him."

"How'd ya know thet, young 'un?"

"Baxter, dam' his balls, has grey hair, almost white, an' long an' straggly." Sally making free with the fact she had actually read the Sheriff's wanted posters earlier in the day. "The body over there, now jes' bits an' pieces, has short dark hair—ergo."

"Ha, yer a good 'un, Sal!"

"I tries, lover."

—O—

A desultory pause had taken effect, only a few shots ringing out from the posse to show they still meant business; while from the besieged building a much lesser return fire spat sporadically, these latter shots having no visible effect—the posse being almost forty yards from the house's front. The building presenting as large a target as could be wished for to the attackers; but the posse forming a far smaller hard to detect target for the duo of defenders left inside the building.

"Wha' d'ya think of openin' surrender terms, Sheriff?" Henrietta calling this out purely from a technical moral angle, not really expecting her query to be taken seriously.

"No chance, leddy." Donaldson, lying prone on the ground some twenty yards to the women's left, shuffled uncomfortably in place. "I ain't aimin' fer surrender; what I wantin' bein' wholesale slaughter complete. They comes out, hands in air, squalin' like babes fer sustenance an' the Rule o'Law, we shoots the b-st-rds down like dogs, anyhow. Make thet yer policy, people! Ya see any o'the two, yer shoots without restraint. Remember thet."

"Hey, Sheriff!" Sally noticing an ongoing event finally coming to fruition. "Looks like the roof's caught fer real, final; goin' up nicely, now."

The flaring torches, previously immersed in a mixture of tar, oil, and paraffin, had at last fully engaged with the dry wooden roof-shingles; the roof now presenting the appearance of hosting two separate bonfires on its structure. Allied to this the left hand wing of the building had now caught comprehensively; the interior clearly a roaring cauldron of intense flames, smoke billowing from both the first, ground, floor and the second above.

"Won't be long, folks, till thet shack ain't habitable ter man nor beast." Donaldson giving his interpretation of the probable outcome unfolding before the posse's eyes. "Likely they'll try fer escape through the door, or winders; if so, no reprieve's the order o'the day."

As if in reply to his words the entrance, now just a black silhouette billowing thick grey smoke the door having long since collapsed in splinters under the previous attack, was darkened by the rapidly moving shadows of two forms crouching low, arms in front of faces as they dashed from the ruined building; splitting up to head in different directions along the front of the burning house.

Curiously, the posse as a man and woman wanting to take Donaldson's words as scripture, now focused entirely on the man running to the left; the man to the right remaining virtually free of incoming fire. The man to the left, obviously heading to turn the corner of the building to escape the posse's attentions out front, found instead his life now shortened to those few strides he made away from the door; within five seconds the whole apparatus of the combined posse opening up on him as one.

"Think," Sally explained later that evening to Henrietta, who had missed the actual event through lying down trying to reload her Henry rifle at the requisite moment. "of a melon bein' hit by six loads o'heavy duty buckshot all at the same time. He exploded—actil' exploded, like to a mess o'beans dropped from a hun'nerd feet onto a concrete floor. God, the mess! It don't take talkin' about, lover!"

"Well, don't, leddy." Henrietta, having herself strolled over after the confrontation had ended, recollecting a personal memory of the sight she firmly wished to forget as soon as possible.

The second man, having been comprehensively ignored by the majority of the posse, had made it to the corner of the burning building; but here he met his Nemesis in the form of one of the posse who had the rear of the building under their eye. Having sprung out from the cover of the building the man immediately gave a harsh cry and crashed to the ground as a bullet took him in the left ankle, sending him flying. Before he could crawl over to recover his pistol, lying in the dust six feet off, the rest of the triumphant posse had surrounded him, taking him in durance vile entire.

—O—

The large building, once general office to the late mining company, was now a mass of roaring flame destined to end in a pile of smoking ash sometime later that night or following morning. Of the band of eight bandits, cut-throats, rustlers, bank-robbers, thieves, murderers, and rapists, only the one remained alive, if sorely wounded—Baxter himself.

It was now some half an hour after the gunfire had echoed its last amongst the deteriorating buildings of the old silver mine. Donaldson had sent the recoverable bodies back to Garner's Close under the control of half his posse. The majority of the others he had packed back to Red Flume; only keeping some six or so close by in order to bury the remnants of those other bandits now too shattered to move from the scene; these members of the posse now busily engaged in digging somewhat perfunctory holes in the dusty ground two hundred yards to the south, nor meaning to leave any individual markers on the site for later comment or discussion.

"Let 'em be fergotten, as they requires; Society not havin' any ongoin' interest in sich, whatever." As Donaldson had explained in giving these orders.

Now all who remained near the furiously burning building were Henrietta, Sally, Donaldson, and the wounded Baxter; who had been making himself an annoyance to one and all in his un-ending pleas for water, medical aid, whisky, and transport to a Doctor sooner rather than later, thank you.

"Well, looks like he came out'ta the whole Armageddon-like affair hardly scratched." Sally looking mean as a jackal that had just missed a plump rabbit by a hair. "What'cha goin' ter do with him now, Sheriff?"

Donaldson, however, hardly appeared much put out by this unlucky conclusion to the shoot-out.

"Yeah, appreciates yer outlook on the matter, Sal." He gazing down, meanwhile, at the mighty Savage Navy single-shot .38 revolver which was his passion and pride, held in his left hand. "Dam', got'ta reload this thing; fer defensive purposes o'keepin' an' eye on this reprobate, here; an' yer knows how dam' long thet takes—ball, powder charge, wadding, cap, an' grease, six times over,—'ll take me half an hour, easy. Say, gals, ya wouldn't like ter mosey over ter my hoss—a grey tied by thet low shanty in the distance there, behind this here burnin' pyre,—an' get me a handful o'caps, would ya? They bein' in a leather pouch in the right-hand saddle-bag?"

"Sure thing, Charlie." Sally taking Henrietta's arm to wheel her round. "Me an' my mate'll keep the wheels an' gears o'the Law runnin' smooth, no matter what. Back in a blink o'the eye."

The women left Donaldson in charge of the single survivor of the band of outlaws, prostrate on the ground, but still complaining in a screechy high-pitched voice. They reached the corner of the burning building, keeping some twenty yards off because of the intense heat and clouds of smoke rushing from every window and crack in the near-collapsing frame, and passed from Donaldson's view as they headed over the open dusty ground towards the other, low, building, itself a crumbling wreck of its former self, where they could see the grey mare in question.

"Well, thet all turned out well enough, don't yer think, lover?" Sally making idle conversation as they carried on their way.

"Yeah, Donaldson's idee of murderin' everyone not havin' ter be put in execution, pardon the expression, after all." Henrietta shrugging her shoulders dismissively.

"Well, not entire, no." Sally clearly having doubts about some of the shootings. "Those guys who came runnin' out'ta the burnin' house not bein' given much of a chance—"

"Did yer want they should'a been given the benefit o'mercy, an' all thet?" Henrietta still holding a morose outlook on the character deficits of those involved.

"Well, I'm only sayin', leddy, it seems—"

Bang!—Bang!—Bang!—Bang!

The loud explosive cracks of a Savage single-shot revolver sounded unmistakably, even over the nearby roaring of flames; each shot being recognizably widely separated by the need to re-cock the weapon each time it was fired. After the last of the four shots an almost eerie silence hung over the area—flaming building notwithstanding; then the women, stopped in their tracks by the short fusillade, turned to each other in silence with a wild surmise, like that man in the poem standing on a peak in Darien.

"The f-ck,—?"

"Oh, God, he's only gone an' done it!" Henrietta being first to pin the relevant tail to the donkey.

"What? Sh-t! he's shot Baxter!?" Sally following up her partner's realisation, a close second in the understanding stakes.

They both twisted round in their tracks as one, just in time to see Donaldson turn the corner of the burning building, head bowed over his weapon, still in his hand. He passed his deputies without raising his head to look at them, only making a low growling remark as he went by.

"Self defence, leddies—he went fer thet dam' pistol on the ground by his boots, the which we'd all fergotten about. At least, thet's the tale I'll be tellin' at the inquest. OK?"

Sally, some shocked and pale, looked at her lover. Henrietta, almost lost for words, could only gasp silently before regaining control.

"Aah, yeah, Sheriff—sure thing, an', er, all thet. Self defence, sure! No worries."

"Yeah, yeah," Sally nodding slowly, giving the back of the Sheriff a knowing look. "Self defence, a wonderful thing, surely. We're right behind yer, Sheriff. Sh-t."

As Donaldson continued his stroll into the distance towards his waiting steed Sally and Henrietta gazed at each other, over-awed.

"Didn't quite think he's actil' do it." Sally murmuring this in a low voice.

"Yeah, a surprise, sure." Henrietta agreeing with her lover. "But, when ya comes ter think on it—the rapes an' what-all—well, was there anythin' other he was gon'na do, faced with dam' Baxter still live an' kickin' after all we'd done ter make a different outcome?"

"Suppose not, but I still didn't see it comin'." Sally allowing her surprise at this dramatic turn of events. "Makes yer look on Donaldson in a sort'a different light, don't it?"

Henrietta mused on this for a few seconds as they turned to head for those of the posse still digging holes in the landscape a few hundred yards off.

"Yeah, honours him all the more than ever, in fact. Say, the grave-diggers ain't gon'na be happy when we give 'em the good news."

"Oh, why so, lover o'my heart?"

"They got'ta dig another dam' hole is why, my heart's delight."

"Har!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.