Word count 2,258
Val Crawford had trouble, and he knew it.
He had signed on as a deputy with an old codger of a sheriff in a small whippet of a town called Bezel, just across the California line. It seemed a good idea at the time. The town was quiet enough. He had a roof over his head, a bed to sleep on, food in his gullet, and it paid enough to buy him bullets and beer. For Val, that was a fair deal.
Old Will liked to fish, so Val had the town to himself quite a bit. That was okay too. He could have gotten used to the whole situation until the day the Mack Gang rode into town. Five riders who looked as mangy as the horses they rode in on.
Val could abide a man looking rough to ride. Hell, he was no city slicker himself with a scruff of a beard and unkempt hair. Clothes that might have been clean and new once upon a time. But there was no worth in a man who would let a horse get worn down. Not when your life might depend on it.
He sat in a chair on the jailhouse porch, rolling a smoke and watching.
The riders wore dusters more brown from dirt than white. To a man, they had pushed them back from their hips. Making sure the locals could see the low-slung holsters.
Val wondered if they at least took care of their hardware. That would be more foolhardy than lazy but, then, the show they were putting on didn’t speak to sense. The two on the end looked like they had just rolled out from under a stable. Jittery, their eyes darted around the street.
Val dismissed them quickly.
The three in front, though. Hats pulled low over their eyes. Sitting smooth in the saddle. The lead rider seemed to stare straight ahead. Val figured that was only by appearance. He looked to be older. His frame a little stockier. To his left rode a man similar in size and stature. To the right someone much younger. Yellow hair long under his hat.
Val flashed on the wanted posters he had been looking over that morning. Nothing stood out, but they were trouble, and looking for trouble, he could feel it in his gut. It didn’t take long for his gut to be proven right.
Old Will took just that moment to return from his favorite fishing hole. Pulling his short rig right in front of them as they stopped at the saloon. Val was too far away to hear what was said. He could just imagine the old Sheriff demanding to know their names and motives. He heard the gunshots, though. And saw Will crumple to the ground.
He was on his feet, gun in hand but pulled up short in the alley beside the jail. Stepping into the shadows as he realized the folly of running head long into five guns without a plan.
The lead man stepped into the street, firing a few rounds into the air as an attention getter.
“Y’all listen up and listen up now!” He shouted in a dust clogged, hoarse voice. “My name is Buck Maxwell and me and my boys here are gonna be needing your town for a few days.” He hacked a cough and spat into the dirt next to the fallen Sheriff. “Now, if’n you don’t get in our way and give us what we want, when we want it, you won’t need to be ending up like this old man here.” He spit again for emphasis and stepped back onto the boardwalk, heading for the swinging doors of the saloon.
“Slim, who’s buying?” He said loudly.
The fellow who rode in on his right-hand side cackled. “Why, the town’s buying Buck! Ain’t I right, boys?”
From his station pressed against the alley wall, Val listened to the laughter and hoot calls from Maxwell’s gang. The pieces were coming together now. The Maxwell Gang. Wanted in Texas, California and Arkansas. And several territories across the border. Only vague descriptions dressed the Wanted flyers. They left a trail of destroyed towns littered with broken and dead bodies. Those left alive had either been hidden away from the carnage, too traumatized or just plain too afraid to offer identifications.
Val heard scuffling coming behind him and was a second from gunning down Jonas, the town’s banker and old Henry, the stable man. Henry dropped back, hands in the air. Jonas skidded to a stop. Eyes wide and face pale.
“Whoaa, Deputy,” Henry gasped.
The banker didn’t seem to have the sense to know he had come so close to joining the Sheriff.
“Well, aren’t you going after them?” He exclaimed. “You’re the law here now!”
“He ain’t no dadblamed fool!” Old Henry snapped. “Deputy, I got your horse saddled and ready. You best be getting on out of here. Your’ns life ain’t worth a plugged nickel if you stay. And you know that’s to the true!”
To the true. Yes, he knew it was true. But he also knew another truth. That was the badge pinned to his vest. Just a hunk of metal shaped like a star but a hunk of metal on which he had sworn an oath to protect and serve. He also knew another truth. Chances of back up in this town was going to be slim. He could already see, and hear, doors being locked. Shutters drawn. Jonas had already skittered back down the alley and was going in the back door of the bank. Probably throwing all the money down to the last silver coin into the fancy new vault he’d brought in from the East. Maybe even crawling in there with it all… That would last until Buck Maxwell decided it was time to make a withdrawal. A few well-placed bullets, in a safe or a man, could do wonders to loosen tongues, fingers and cylinders.
Val was loading guns and packing in ammunition when he heard the first scream. Miss Marnie, part time cook, part time bartender came running from the saloon. Her hair flying, dress torn and face bruised, she ran into the street, stopped, and looked around like a frightened animal. Her wild eyes widened as they landed on the jail and she started toward it. A single shot rang out. Marnie stopped still. Looked down at her breast, her face froze in incredulousness.
Val had yanked the door open as he saw her running toward him. Had chambered the rifle when the shot sounded and was now staring at her face as she crumpled and fell. Oh, hell, no! Marnie was brassy, loud and never hurt a fly. Good for a meal and beer whether it was after hours or he was running short before payday. He was still in the shadow of the doorway as the Maxwell Gang tumbled out of the bar.
“Aw, hell’s bells, Slim!” The yellow haired kid snarled. “You poked her. Ya coulda least let me get some target practice in!”
Val felt the bile rise in his throat. A last glance at the crumpled remains of Marnie and his decision was made.
Val was trying to figure a way out. Maybe the old stable hand was right, and he should have just jumped on his horse and high-tailed it out of there. Leave the town to its own devices. The badge on his chest weighed heavy, but Marnie’s dying in front of his very eyes weighed even heavier. He had to take them out. There was only one way to do it: One at a time. He was going to need a whole lot of luck to even do that.
He had the sudden memory of a friend from his riding days. Johnny Madrid. They were caught on the wrong side of a fence line war; in a line shack surrounded by men whose only aim was to kill them. After coming to the conclusion that the 20 or so men firing potshots at the shack weren’t just going to up and surrender to the two of them, he and Johnny concluded they were just going to have to fight their way out. And soon, before anymore riders caught up to them. They reloaded guns and rifles. Checked them. Then checked them again. The kid looked at him with that same shit-eating grin he’d seen a hundred times.
“No time like the present,” Madrid said, then barreled out the door. Guns blazing from both hands. He had no choice but to follow. Crisscrossing the yard to the tree line where their horses were tied out of sight.
To this day he didn’t know how they made it. Luck, and maybe a higher being were on their side. Well…maybe that same combination would show up today.
“No time like the present,” he murmured.
Maxwell, Slim, and yellow hair were grouped around the hitching post. The two hanger ons lounged against the wall, slurping beer. Val took aim center mass and emptied his rifle. In the commotion, he dashed from the jail and around the corner out of sight. Maxwell fell flat. The bullets hitting the mark in his head and chest. One of the hanger-on’s was dropped as well. The other grabbed his arm. Cursing, the kid threw himself through the saloon doors. Slim bounded up the side stairs. Val melted into the shadows by the stable. Waiting. Watching. He could hear yellow hair screaming from inside the saloon. Kicking furniture and shooting bottles. Swearing was coming from the roof top as well. Vows of vengeance for a dead brother. Good. Let them be angry. People make mistakes when they are angry. And he needed every edge he could get.
A whistle caught his attention. He looked up to see Old Henry leaning from the hayloft door, pointing toward the roofs across the street. Slim was on the move. Jumping from one roof to the next.
“Get back, ya’ old fool,” Val hissed. “Before you get shot off your perch there!”
Old Henry just grinned, waved a rifle at him and faded from sight. Val shook his head in wonder, then looked back at the saloon just in time to see the arm wounded hanger on stumble over to his friend and pull him to his feet. Together they half ran, half crawled to their horses, climbed into their saddles and headed out of town. Inside the saloon the yellow haired kid must have realized what was going on. Breaking out a window he started shooting at them. Slim joined in from the roof. Whether they hit their marks or not was going to remain a mystery as the two outlaws crouched over their mounts and disappeared from sight.
Slim started to move again. Val watched him jump roof to roof toward him. Carefully, he took aim. Slow and steady, he reminded himself. Slim leapt from the Mercantile to the Bank. Val fired. Catching the outlaw in mid jump. Who dropped like a pheasant from the sky. His body a twisted mass in the dirt.
The yellow haired kid was yelling from the saloon doors.
“You’re dead, deputy. Dead! Ain’t no lawman dog alive who can outshoot me! Give it up now or show yourself and let’s get this over!”
Val left the shadows and walked out into the street. The kid opened the doors and stepped out, still fuming. Val knew that would be his ace. He could hear Madrid’s words: “A man in this business ain’t got the right to get mad. It takes away his edge.” Val tossed away his rifle and walked toward the
The kid walked into the street.
Not a soul watching from behind the shuttered windows could tell who drew first. The shots that rang out were almost simultaneous. The kid flew back flat on his back. Lifeless eyes staring at the sky.
Val twisted. Feeling the sharp sting of impact in his chest. But he didn’t fall. He straightened back up to make sure yellow hair was no longer a threat, then felt where the bullet hit his chest. Dead square center in the badge. He pulled the badge off and looked at the dinted steel held in his hand.
The townsfolk were coming out of hiding.
Circling around the bodies strewn across the street.
Then Val realized something else. They were looking at him differently. Not like someone who had just rescued them all. But more like the same way they looked at the outlaws. He was just another type of killer. Badge or not.
“You okay, Deputy?” Old Henry asked, coming up unnoticed at his side. Shotgun still in his hand.
“Looked like he got you for sure.”
“He did.” Val held out the hand cradling he badge.
“I’ll be damned.”
“You still got my horse ready?” Val asked.
Val nodded. “I’ll be leaving now.”
Henry looked around at the faces staring their way.
“I expect that’s the thing to do.”
“I expect it is.”
Val tossed the old stableman the badge.
“You make sure the next lawman gets this. So he’ll understand the weight of the badge.” Val looked over Old Henry’s shoulder at the good citizens of Bezel. “Might do for these town folk to know the same.”
Val headed for the rooming house to get his gear. There was the last letter there he’d gotten from Madrid who was somewhere out in California these days…
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14 thoughts on “Hombres by Kathy Smith Barsotti”
Loved this. I love Val stories.
Love those Val stories. So will there be a follow up with Val going after Johnny.
This is an excellent Val Crawford story. He’s a favorite character, and you wrote him perfectly. I’m glad he’s headed to see Madrid, somewhere in California.
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I love Val. Great story.
Nice story, I always liked Val.
I hope you will write how Val will arrive in San Joaquin Valley.
Thank you for writing
I love Val stories and this one is a stand out. Pure Val. I’m glad he’s headed Johnny’s way.
A very clever adventure. Nicely done!
wow! Great story. I loved it!
Clever. Thank you.
Great . I love reading it .thank you for writing it.
Val was such a great character! And even though Madrid was not in this story, he played an important role here. His influence wrapped around Val and supported everything Val did. I’ll be reading this one again! Thank you for sharing!
A very fine sketch of Val in-between his time with Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer.
Always like a good Val story. Is your next one going to be about Val and Johnny meeting up?
Great to see Val get his own story and be the hero. Sad he wasn’t recognized as one. I love the way you brought Johnny Madrid into the story even though he wasn’t physically present. Great job!