Ace trudged through the sand as he followed the dry wash bed. The sun had cracked his bottom lip and split it down the middle. He tasted blood every time he licked his dry lips. He brought his canteen to his mouth and sucked the last drop from the opening. He could feel the drop run down his tongue and disappear into his sticky gums.
He reached the first shade he had seen in miles and let himself fall into the dusty circle of heaven. The midday sun had not yet scorched the rocks and sand underneath the desert mesquite tree. He dropped the leather saddle bag that had been slung over his shoulder and drug it until it rested behind him. With what little strength he had, he rested his head on the warm saddle bag.
He had lost his pack mule yesterday from lack of water. Two days earlier, he had lost the trail that he had been on. And two days before that, he had been in the pleasant town of Prescott, Arizona. In a comfortable room, with as much water to drink and food to eat as one could possibly consume.
Ace grabbed his leg as another powerful cramp constricted all the muscles in his leg at the same time. As soon as the leg eased, his back arched uncontrollably squeezing a grunt from his lips. The cramps had started a couple hours earlier and had steadily gotten worse the further he trekked.
He desperately wanted to close his eyes. If he could rest a while in the shade, then when the sun fell a little lower in the sky, he could drag his dusty boots through the sand and dirt again. His tongue was so dry that it felt as though it was scraping the inside of his mouth. Ace rested his salt crusted hat over his face. The smell of sweat mixed with desert dirt filled his crusty nose.
Slowly, he drifted off. It wasn't a restful sleep. It was more like falling out of consciousness and letting go of what little grasp on the world that he had.
The sound that Ace heard after being drug into the darkness was the sound of a horse snorting. Then, a boot scraping the leather stirrup and a man grunting as his feet hit the dirt.
As hard as he tried, Ace couldn't open his eyes more than a slit. He tried to sit up, but the muscles in his body refuse to cooperate. After failing a second time to address the stranger that now stood over him, he fell back to his sandy resting place. His mind unable to function properly, shut down. Once again, he was gone to the world.
When he slowly crawled his way back into consciousness again, his eyes still felt glued shut, crusted with salt and dirt. His mouth was moist and the muscles in his back and leg were no longer causing the excruciating pain that he had felt before. A powerful scent seemed to swirl around him. The scent of flowers after a rain.
The sweet sound of a woman's voice soothed any anxieties that Ace had felt. He couldn't tell what she was saying. To Ace, it was like listening to the sound of a well-tuned symphony, sweet and soft.
"Oh, I think he is awake, Doc."
The voice of a man responded to the woman. “Grace, let him rest. You can talk to him when he wakes. Besides, he probably doesn't know anything about Jed, anyway.”
"How do know he wasn't there with him? You had better believe that I'm gonna be right here when this man wakes up."
The man cleared his throat nervously. "Sometimes Grace, when a man goes through a trauma like this, he loses his memory. He might not remember a thing."
Ace heard the shuffling of footsteps and a wood door quietly shut. Slowly, he lifted himself up off the pillow and rubbed the sleep from his crusty eyes. The room had one chair, a dresser, and a bed. That left little room for one to walk around the bed. He leaned up against the adobe brick wall that stood behind him.
On the chair beside the bed sat an empty cup and a pitcher full of cool, clear water. Like a magnet to the water, he filled and emptied the glass several times until his stomach hurt from so much so quickly.
The door opened, and a well-dressed woman walked in. The moment she entered, her eyes grew wide.
"Oh, you are awake."
She lunged at him. "How dare you show your face here, after what you all did?"
Ace must have looked more than a little confused.
"Oh, don't give me that." The woman glared at Ace. "You know exactly what I am talking about. Don't play innocent with me."
Ace shifted uneasily in the bed. “Ma'am I haven't a clue as to what you are talking about. To be perfectly honest, I haven't the foggiest notion as to how I arrived in this bed. I don't know who you are and sure as I sit here, don't know what it is that you think that I did." His voice still scratchy.
The woman stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. It was a long time before she finally came back. This time, she returned with the doctor.
After a few quick questions, the doctor cleared Ace to leave the bed.
"You will need to take it easy. You were unconscious for at least a day. You need to let your body recover." The doctor turned to the woman. "He will need lots of rest and must drink lots of fluids, and no whiskey." He looked at Ace. "You got that, mister? No saloon."
Ace waved him off. "I got it, doc."
The woman spoke to the doctor, completely ignoring the man in her bed. "He sure looks a lot like him, doesn't he?"
"You mean Jed? Yes, I suppose he does."
After the doctor and woman left the room, Ace stretched painfully. He pulled on his now clean clothes and hobbled to the door. The short hallway was empty and the door to the outside was at the end of the hall. Stiffly, he tiptoed down the creaky hall to the door. Just as he turned the handle, a woman's voice called after him.
"Excuse me, mister. Where do you think you are going?"
Ace turned slightly and answered her. The whole while, he kept making his way out onto the porch. "Uh. I'm just going out for a short walk. I'll be back." With that, he eased the door shut behind him.
His joints were stiff and his head pounded ever so slightly, but other than that, the outside air was doing him good. With any luck, he could sneak out of that horrible woman's house tonight. Ace stopped himself. She wasn't that bad, he thought. She hated whoever she thought he was. And whoever Jed was, poor soul, had better steer clear of this woman for a while.
Ace shuffled through the dirt and dust. He searched the road for the sign of a saloon. Every town he had ever been to had at least one. He knew what the doctor had said about drinking, but one little sip wouldn't hurt him, right? Besides, he needed to know the goings on of this little town. If it were going to be his new home. The best place to find out the local gossip was inside the swinging doors of a saloon.
A voice yelled from behind him. "Hey you!"
Ace turned to see who was making all the racket. Just as soon as he got completely turned around, a bearded man pushed Ace to the ground. It didn't take much, he was still unstable from his adventure in the desert.
"How dare come back here you no good thief."
"Pull in your horns, ya old man. I aint lookin for trouble."
Ace watched as the old man's eyes grew wide. He could see him lurch, but Ace was still too slow to stop him. In an instant, the old man was on top of Ace with a knife to his throat. Ace could feel the sharp blade cutting into his skin, and a drop of warm blood drip along his neck and into the loose dirt under him.
"You stole quite a bit a money from me and these here good folks." The man motioned with his free hand to the surrounding town. "And now I'm gonna kill ya."
The old man snarled, and specks of food fell from his beard onto Ace's face.
"Look I don't who you are talking about, but it aint me. This is the first time I have ever stepped foot in this podunk town. And I sure haven't stolen nothin from nobody."
"How can I believe you?
Ace awkwardly held up his hands, "I don't know. I don't know no one in this hole in the rock."
A voice called from behind the old man. "Jesse, get off that stranger."
The old man, who they apparently called Jesse, turned and immediately pushed himself off Ace. "Sheriff. I didn't hear you come up."
"Jesse. It’s time for you to leave."
The old man dusted off his pants, gave Ace a nasty snarl, and turned toward the nearest bar.
The sheriff was a tall man with broad shoulders. He dropped his hand down and offered it to Ace. "I'm sorry for your rather rude welcoming to my town."
Ace took his hand. The sheriff hauled him off the ground without even changing his expression.
"So where are you from?" The sheriff's face was a little more serious.
Ace told him the story while he dusted himself off. After he finished, the sheriff smiled again.
"So that woman and this man that attacked you both thought that were someone that you aint?" The Sheriff asked.
Ace nodded. “I don't know who this man is, but I must carry some likeness to him."
The sheriff looked him up and down and grinned. "Now that you say something, I think you look awfully like him. But if one thing is certain, you aint him?" The sheriff threw his arm around Ace's shoulders. "And I should know. The man their talking about is my brother."
Ace stepped away. "Your brother?!"
The sheriff nodded, then stuck out his open hand. "The name is Moses. The man that everyone seems to be confusing you with, is my brother Jedidiah."
"My brother, we all just call him Jed. He has been accused, wrongly of course, of some unfortunate events. The woman that was taking care of you, was a girlfriend of his." Moses pointed in the direction that the old man had disappeared in. "That old timer must have seen you leave Grace's house and figured you were my brother."
"What did your brother do?"
Moses just flicked his hand in an abrupt gesture. "Nothin. He didn't do anything." He tipped his hat in the direction that the old man had hobbled off to. "Why don't you wipe off that blood on your neck and then you and I, Ace, can get somethin' to drink. I know the bartender."
Moses and Ace pulled up to the bar. Ace sat next to a man with his head resting on the bar and a hand grasping a drink of something strong. Moses slid a drink toward Ace. Ace caught it, spilling a little onto his hands.
Moses poured the strong drink down his throat and turned to Ace. "So I imagine that you need a job."
"Well, I had heard that there was a fortune to be made mining silver. But seein as how my reception was a little rough, I thought about just movin on. I hear Gillette needs hands processing the ore."
Moses shrugged. "I think there is more money to be made from those mining the silver. It is such a tiring profession that at the end of the day they would rather pay someone to do something than do it themselves." Moses motioned to the surrounding bar. "Of course, miners love to drink. Bars are the most profitable enterprise in this town. That leads me to you."
Moses took Aces untouched drink and downed it as well. "With all that alcohol, it can lead to more than our fair share of drunks and drunken fights. Right now, it's just me and my little brother, but we could use some help around here. If you're interested."
Moses swiveled in his chair to finally look at Ace. "So what do you say. Will ya help me out?"
Ace ran his hands over his tired prickly face and his dusty, oily hair. "Yeah. Seein as how I aint got a better prospect. I'll help ya out for a while."
Moses grabbed Ace's hand and shook it. "Good to hear. Now I have some sheriff's business to take care of. Have another drink on me and I'll see you first thing tomorrow morning." He got halfway out of the saloon and turned to Ace, smiling. "This could be a very beneficial relationship for the both of us."
The man resting his head on the bar wheezed out, "I'm a dead man." Then he straightened out just long enough to take another drink.
Ace raised an eyebrow as the drunk man's face hit the hard wood again. The bar tender motioned with the rag in his hand at the man, and answered the unspoken question.
"That man came in here this morning moaning that he had been bitten by a centipede and that God had numbered his time. Of course, that was hours ago. If the bug don't kill him soon, the booze will."
The bartender slid closer to Ace, then spoke under his breath so that only Ace could hear. "If I was you, I would leave this place faster than you came. There’s a mess just waitin to happen."
Ace tilted his head in confusion.
"The word is that the sheriff and his brother are mixed up in something big. Anyone that gets too close to them, they gonna be buried in mud right along with them." The man behind the bar shrugged his shoulders. "I'm just lettin ya know, mister. Don't want you to be caught unawares."
Ace nodded and said "Yeah, I heard something about a stage being held up."
The bartender looked around to see who was close. The only other living soul was the drunk drooling on the bar. "Now you didn't hear nothin from me, but the word is that the sheriff's brother Jedd had something to do with that."
Ace cocked an eyebrow "You don't think that Moses had anything to do with that, do you?"
The barkeep shrugged and mumbled out of the corner of his mouth. "Like I said, you didn't hear nothing from me."
"That's the word, huh? Sounds like everyone here has already convicted the poor man with no proofs."
The man behind the counter shrugged again.
"How much was on that stage?" Ace leaned in as he spoke.
"Hard to say, but I had a month's worth of wages locked up in that strongbox. I know a dozen others personally that had at least that much too."
Ace sat back on his stool. "That would be a lot of cash."
As if in agreement, the man sprawled across the bar next to him lost his balance and slid to the wood planked floor.
Ace thanked the bartender and left the dusty bar and the unconscious centipede victim. He stopped and leaned against a post outside of the bar and took in the scrap of a town. The whole of the town followed the dry creek bed Ace had heard called Cottonwood Creek. He figured this creek only flowed when it rained. When the wind shifted, he would catch a whiff of the sewage and rotting garbage. They had built the buildings on the side of the canyon that guarded the small wash.
A voice called from behind him, causing Ace to turn. "Hey you. Hey, mister." The man approaching was tall and thin. He wore an ivory handled Colt on his hip.
"Well, mister, you are lookin better than you did when I found you in that wash." The man held out his hand. "The names Jedd. My brother Moses told me all about you."
"Well Jedd, I guess I owe you." Ace took his hand. "The name is Ace. I appreciate you pulling me out of that ditch out there. You saved my life."
"You'd a done the same for me." Jedd slapped Ace on the back. "Maybe you tell me more why you were out in the middle of the desert, over a bottle."
Ace smiled. "I'd like that, but I need to find a place to stay for the night. Maybe later tonight."
Jedd shrugged and half saluted at Ace. "Your call, I'll catch ya around stranger." Jedd ducked into the bar that Ace had just stepped out of, bursting through the double swinging doors and yelling some obscenity at the barkeep.
Ace had heard about two hotels in the town that offered room and board. He tried the first that stood directly next to the saloon that he had just left. The large scruffy man shooed him away with just a "we're full". Jedd walked along the path that followed above the wash. He passed the cemetery that guarded a small fork in the sandy riverbed.
A man in a second saloon pointed Ace toward the second hotel down the road a ways. Ace watched as a mine car being pulled by a donkey exited a black hole in the mountain's side. It rolled along the tracks until it disappeared behind a house. They had built the town around the mine. Ace shook his head, a man brown with the dirt of the earth and a pick over his shoulder.
Ace had first thought that this was the life that he had wanted. A life in the dark, dusty, sweaty mountain. The long trek through the desert had changed his mind. It was a lucky break that Moses had offered him that position.
Ace walked up to the second hotel, which nestled next to the third saloon in town. It too, was full. The mines were busy and the room full. He had one last idea, and it made his stomach churn.
The house that they had hauled him to was mostly adobe brick and rock, but the front wall that faced the road, they had constructed out of wood slats. A rare find in the middle of a desert. Grace was on the front porch, sweeping off the accumulated dirt and dust. Ace took his hat off and stood there in the front of her house waiting for her to notice him.
Ace stood there for an uncomfortable minute as the woman kept working. He watched her hair as cascaded down her shoulders and across her back. His light blue dress had the usual dusty hem where it occasionally drug through the dust, but other than that minor detail, there was no way to tell that she was in a small mining town in the middle of the Bradshaws.
Ace cleared his throat. The lady continued working, not looking up from her task. Ace shifted where he was standing. He cleared his throat again. This time he was sure the miners across the wash could have heard him, too.
Grace sighed loudly. She leaned the broom against the wall of her house and finally turned to Ace. "Yes, mister. How can I help you?" Her hands were resting on her hips.
Ace bowed his head and turned his hat in his hands. "Well, Miss Grace. I am mighty grateful for your hospitality and everything that you have done for me. I realize that I have been an inconvenience and..."
"Just spit it out."
"Well, it seems that I have found myself some employment in town and am now just lookin for a place to lay my head, as it were."
Grace drilled a hole into Ace with her eyes, causing him to squirm as he waited for a response.
Much to Ace's relief, she spoke. "I expect the rent every Monday, and you will understand that these are not permanent arrangements. I expect you to find something somewhere else soon."
Ace let out a sigh of relief. "Yes Ma'am. Of course."
"Good." She held out her hand. "I don't think that they have properly introduced us. I'm Grace."
"Pleasure to meet you Grace, I'm Ace." He took her hand and smiled.
"You had better step away, mister." A voice that Ace vaguely remembered called from behind him.
Grace gasped. "Jedd? What are you doing here?"
Jedd didn't move his gaze from Ace. "This ain't your place, now step away." Ace heard the familiar sound of the action on a revolver click back. "I'm tellin' you one last time. Step away."
"I dropped this lost dog at your doorstep so that you could hand him over to the doc. Not so that you would fall for him."
Ace did as he asked and took a step back. He kept his eye on the cocked revolver, all the while trying to listen to what Jedd was saying.
"You don't own me Jedd. I can talk to whoever I choose. I told you a long time ago that I don't want to see your face again."
Jedd's face went soft. "I've missed you, baby. I just want us to be together. I'll treat you right, I promise." Jedd uncocked his pistol and slid it back into the leather holster. "Look, I just want to talk."
Grace pointed menacingly at Jedd with her thin finger as she spoke. "You need to get off of my property."
"Or what? What are you going to do?"
"I'm warning you Jedd."
"Really what are you going to do? Call the sheriff? You forget. I think he'll be on my side. Moses was always a loyal brother." Jedd moved closer to the porch and to Grace. She took a step back toward the front door of her home.
"Come on, baby. Let's get out of this place, and these dogs." Jedd motion with his head to Ace, who was still standing there between the two.
Ace turned to completely face Jedd. "Look mister. I don't think this lady wants to go with you."
"You stay out of this dog. I should have left you out there to die." Jedd sprayed spit as he spoke.
Ace tensed. "Look. I'm grateful for the help out there, but you aint got no right to force this woman to go with you. And you sure as hell aint got no right to call me a dog."
Jedd got within inches of Ace's face. He could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath. "This aint none of your business. Dog." Jedd reached around Ace and grabbed for Grace's arm.
Ace didn't give him the chance. Placing both hands on the drunk man's chest, Ace shoved hard. Jedd went sprawling into the dust, landing on his back pockets. He lay there in the street, the alcohol and surprise, not letting him respond.
He didn't have to, however. The man who had appeared out of the dust responded for Jedd. It was Moses, the sheriff. "What’s going on here Jedd?"
Jedd coughed the dust out of his lungs, then answered his brother. "I was just trying to talk Grace is all. And this dog here pushed me off that there porch."
Moses turned his massive body to Grace, who was standing with one hand on the front door. "Is this true Grace? Did this man push my brother unprovoked?"
Grace stood completely still, obviously weighing the consequences of her choices. Slowly, she parted her lips and half spoke, half whispered. "No Moses. Jedd was trying to take me against my will. He grabbed for me when this gentleman, Ace, Pushed him away from me, and off the porch."
Moses rubbed the scruff on his chin. "That's too bad Ace. I was just getting used to the idea of having another deputy around here, but it looks like that just ain't gonna happen. I can't tolerate any physical violence in my city. I'm gonna have to ask you to leave town, now."
Grace stood a little taller, and no longer whispered when she spoke to the sheriff. "You can't do that, you hypocrite. You and I both know that you and your brother are the biggest thieves in the county."
Moses' eyes became little black dots, and Ace could see the veins in his necks bulging. "You will shut your mouth, woman." He breathed through his clenched teeth.
"I know you both held up that stage. What did you do with the money? What did you do with my money?"
"You got me. We did it." The sheriff stormed up the steps to where Grace was standing. He grabbed her arm and pulled her close to him. "If I were you woman, I would keep my mouth shut about this. Not that it matters, no one would believe you, anyway."
“I don't have to, everybody already knows." Grace snarled at the large man.
Moses drew his hand back, his palm ready to strike. Before he could release the large catapult, though, another powerful arm caught it. Ace had caught Moses' hand and was holding it fast.
Without blinking, Moses spun on his heel and redirected his strike, which was now a fist. The large hand caught Ace in the diaphragm and sent him reeling. Moses reached for the revolver that hung from his hip, but before he could clear the leather, a large caliber bullet pierced his chest. He clutched the hole in his rib cage and crumpled to the wood deck of the porch.
In an instant, Ace was on his feet looking all around for the bullet had come from. There from inside the doorway was Grace and a hand full of hot iron. The smoke was still curling out of the barrel of her Colt Peacemaker. Ace couldn't help but think of the saying that 'God created man and Samuel Colt made them equal.'
Jedd scrambled to his feet. He turned and yelled at Ace as he ran. "I'll shoot you Ace. I'll shoot you right in the back."
Ace could feel the adrenaline flow through his body as he rushed back into the room that he had been staying in. Thankfully, Jedd had brought back his saddlebags when he rescued Ace from the slow death in the desert.
He pulled out his pistol rig. He wrapped the belt and holster around his waist and fastened it to his leg. He palmed the gun once to see how it felt in his hand. He holstered it again and turned. Grace stood in the doorway to his room, trembling. She still held the pistol in her hands, unsure what to do with it now.
Slowly, Ace moved closer to Grace. He gently pulled the pistol from her still shaking hands and set it aside. Then he pulled her close. She resisted at first, then held him, burying her face in his chest. Her tears soaked through to his skin, but he didn't even notice.
"What have I done? I killed a man."
Ace touched his finger to her lips. "Shhh. Don't think of it now. You saved my life and yours. It had to be done."
Ace pulled away. "There is one more thing that needs to be done. I’ve got to go get Jedd."
Grace shook her head. "He'll never allow it. He'd rather die than spend a night in prison."
Ace nodded. "Then that will have to be arranged." He dusted off his hat and placed it back into its proper home on his head.
Grace hugged him again. "I can't watch you go to your grave, Ace. Not like this."
Ace pushed away. "Either him, or I."
He left Grace's house with her there, watching from the porch. He knew exactly where Jedd would be, and he wanted to get there before he got too drunk. Ace pushed open the swinging doors to the saloon. There in the corner was Jedd. An open bottle in one hand and a couple of rough looking characters sitting across from him.
"Jedidiah! I am placing you under arrest." All three of the men at the table turned at once. "You are under arrest for the robbery of the stage and murder of its driver and security detail."
Jedd stood and smirked. "You have no authority here."
The bartender spoke up. "Not true. I saw Sheriff Moses make this man a deputy recently."
"Moses is dead! And you killed him." Jedd pointed an accusing finger at Ace.
"Only in self-defense."
The other two men were now standing, their hands resting on the handles of their weapons. Jedd moved into the doorway. The afternoon sun blaring behind him. It gave him a perfect view of the three men.
"If that's the case, then this will be too." Jedd reached for his ivory handled colt, but before his fingers could even touch the gun, he had a bullet in his chest. The man to his right dropped next, and the one to Jedd's left fell last. He was the only one to fire his weapon, but when it was all over, Ace still stood in the doorway. The sun highlighting the man's outline.
Grace burst through the door and grabbed Ace. He flinched as her hand closed on his arm.
"Ace, you 're hurt."
Ace pulled up his sleeve and inspect the wound. The burn mark on his arm where the hot bullet had grazed him hurt worse than it looked.
The bartender peeked up from behind his counter and scanned the room. He turned to Ace and barked. "So, Sheriff. What are we gonna do with all these bodies?"