Incident of A Dead Town

A Rawhide Story by Carla Keehn

This story is written for entertainment purposes only, not for profit, and is not meant to infringe on any existing copyrights.

Gil Favor silently stared at the solid sheets of rain as it blew across the plains. The late summer storm had moved in from the mountains with frightening speed, forcing the trail boss and his men to make camp early in the day.

From the safety of the drovers' hastily built shelter, Favor noticed that the rain had suddenly intensified. The trail boss scowled with displeasure.

"The herd bedded down okay?" He asked without turning to his men.

"Yes, sir," long-time drover Jim Quince replied, shedding his wet slicker. "Them beeves ain't happy 'bout this rain but they'll get through it okay."

"Coffee's ready," Wishbone announced gruffly, lining up a row of tin cups. The older man began pouring the steaming liquid from a heavy iron pan. "Any sign of Rowdy and Pete yet?"

"No," Favor replied. "And it's startin' to worry me. They should've been back by now."

"Well you got no one to blame but yourself!" Wishbone lectured sharply. He handed one of the cups to Favor. "I've been sayin' all along one of them wheels on the chuck wagon needed fixin'! But you kept pushin' us to keep goin' - now look where that got us!"

"That's enough, Wish!" an irritated Favor growled.

"Most likely Rowdy and Pete are just holed up somewhere waitin' for the storm to let up," Quince added helpfully.

"Maybe . . ." Favor agreed. "But it don't take all day to go into town to pick up supplies and get a wagon wheel replaced. If they ain't turned up by the evening meal, we'll start looking . . ."

Meanwhile, a distance away from the drover's camp, it was the sound of the rain pounding on the overturned wagon that forced a stunned Rowdy Yates to consciousness.

Ignoring the pain that coursed through his body, Yates shifted uncomfortably on the muddy ground until his body came to rest against the side of the wagon.

The world around him was spinning. He put a hand to his throbbing head then swore softly, noticing the blood on his fingers. Clumsily, Rowdy undid the bandanna around his neck and pressed it against his forehead to stop the bleeding.

Memories of the accident still rumbled through his mind. The horses bolted . . . He thought, his mind still hazy. Lost control of the wagon . . .

Yates looked at the wagon and groaned inwardly: it was wrecked beyond repair. The supplies that he and Pete Nolan had been hauling were strewn out on the hillside; the new wagon wheel they'd bought lay on the ground in splinters.

Mr. Favor's really gonna chew Pete and me out for this . . . Rowdy thought miserably.

Just then an awful feeling suddenly spread through him. Where is Pete . . .?

The bandanna fell to the ground as Yates roused himself and stumbled to his feet.

The ramrod's search was slow, hampered by the waves of dizziness coursing through him and the unsteady footing he had on the slippery ground.

After a few anxious moments, he saw the scout's body on the other side of the wagon. Yates held his breath as he rolled over his friend's unconscious form.

"Pete!" He called, gently slapping the man's face. "Pete!"

The dark-haired man moaned softly. Rowdy let out a sigh of relief as the man's eyes slowly opened.

"Where are you hurt?" He asked.

"Sh-shoulder," Nolan stammered, swallowing hard.

Yates looked up for a moment, his eyes squinting against the onslaught of rain.

"The wagon's wrecked and we lost the horses." Rowdy explained, not sure of how much Pete could understand. "I thought I saw a town or somethin' back there just over the hill, we can wait out the storm there."

"Ain't nothin' on the map between our camp and Crescent City, where we got them supplies." Nolan groaned as he forced himself to his feet.

"Map or no map, I saw some sort of town back there and it's better than stayin' out here," Yates replied adamantly. "Can you make it?"

"Ain't got much choice, do I?"

"Don't guess either one of us does," Rowdy agreed. "Let's get goin' . . ."

Later that afternoon, Gil Favor slipped the rain slicker over his head. He turned, soberly, to face his men.

"Quince, you're in charge while we're gone," Favor ordered. "I want the night guard doubled, just in case the beeves get skittish with the weather."

Quince nodded. "Yes, sir, Mr. Favor. How long you expect you and Wish'll be?"

"That depends on what we find after we track down Rowdy and Pete. I was plannin' to hold over here a couple of days so the cattle could rest up. If we're not back by then, the owner's papers are locked in Wish's strongbox; Mushy has the key. I know that you and the other men'll be able to get the herd in on time."

"I'll look after things, Mr. Favor," Quince continued. "Gonna be hard to pick up their trail in this rain."

"Yeah . . ." the distracted trail boss agreed. "You about ready, Wish?"

"Ready when you are, Mr. Favor," the older man replied, grabbing the cloth satchel that he'd just finished packing. "I think I got enough supplies in here as long there ain't too much doctorin' needed."

"I'm hopin' we don't need none at all– let's get movin'!"

At the same time, the injured drovers had made it to the town and taken shelter in a livery stable that stood just on the outskirts.

Soaked through to the skin, Rowdy Yates shuddered against the chill as he glanced around at their new surroundings. It was obvious that the building hadn't been used by anyone, human or animal, in a long time.

Resting back, the ramrod peered out through one of the broken wooden slats in the wall to get his bearings. What he saw didn't raise any hope of their chances for getting help.

Yates decided that the town was a sad example of what happens when the mines dry up and the people leave. Built into a rocky hillside, the main street appeared to consist of several rows of rundown cabins and one or two other rows of boarded up buildings, one of which looked to be a combination general store/saloon.

Rowdy struggled to make out the faint lettering on the sign above the saloon.

"The Painted Ladies of Mercer Flats . . . " He murmured. "Mercer Flats . . . you ever hear of it, Pete?"

"Nope." Nolan replied weakly. "And I think I been in just about every town in these parts."

Rowdy turned his attention back to the outside world. The windows in all of the buildings were dark. Except for the sound of the raging storm, he didn't see anyone or anything moving around outside.

Yates swallowed hard for a moment as the driving rain gave the dead town an eerie appearance. "It looks like a ghost town out there."

"That takes care of any chance of us bein' found - -" Pete said hoarsely, his body convulsing. After a long moment, he continued speaking. "I don't know how much longer I'm gonna be able to stomach this pain, Rowdy. I'd even be willin' to take one of Wish's potions right about now."

Fighting against his growing inertia, Yates struggled alongside of Nolan. "All we gotta do is hang on a little while longer," Rowdy said, hoping he sounded more positive than he felt. He made a quick check of the makeshift sling that he'd rigged for the scout's injured shoulder. "You know as well as I do that Mr. Favor's probably already lookin' for us."

Frustrated, Yates glanced around again, in the hopes that he'd missed something during their initial search of their surroundings. Aside from a couple of dry rotted blankets, the drovers hadn't found anything in the way of supplies that would help either of them.

What we could really use is some whiskey . . . Rowdy thought miserably.

Discouraged, Yates slumped down, leaning back against the wall. All of his moving around was making the pounding in his head worse.

The throbbing intensified. Rowdy felt his stomach lurch. Then his body heaved and he slumped over, emptying what little was left in his stomach. As he lay there, listening to the howling wind, the pain and exhaustion closed in, rendering him senseless . . .

It was after dark and the rain was just beginning to slack off when Gil Favor and Wishbone found the scene of the accident.

"How do you think this happened?" Wish said in amazement, lifting his lantern higher so the two men could get a better look.

Frustrated, Favor swore under his breath. "I expect we'll get the answer to that once we find Rowdy and Pete," the trail boss muttered his temper growing worse by the second.

Then the two men were silent as they began the grim task of searching through the debris. Favor glanced down and caught sight of something on the ground next to the overturned wagon.

"Wish, over here!" Favor called, bending down. He picked up the bandanna and held it out to Wishbone. "It's Rowdy's." Then he noticed the dark spots on the cloth. "Looks like one of'em might be hurt."

Wish peered at the bandanna intently. "Those are blood spots, all right."

"All right," Favor said, rising to his feet, "how far could they have gone and where?"

"They won't get too far on foot, not in a rain like this." The older man thought for a moment. "Wasn't there a town back there, just over the hill as we rode by, Mr. Favor?"

"Come to think of it, there was." Favor frowned. "That's as good a place as any to start." The weary trail boss motioned to a thicket of trees just ahead. "We'll rest up the horses there for a bit before moving on."

"We ain't got time for that!" Wishbone sputtered.

"Wish - -" Favor began. He checked himself and took a calming breath. "I'm in as big a hurry as you are to be movin' on but the fact is that runnin' us, or the horses, into the ground, won't help Rowdy or Pete . . ."

Meanwhile, it was the eerie feeling that the two drovers were no longer alone that penetrated the cocoon of senselessness around Rowdy. Yates hovered at the edge of wakefulness, reluctant to become aware again of the physical injuries that plagued him.

He opened his eyes and lay still, allowing time for them to adjust to the darkness.

Then he realized that there was no darkness; the barn was now dimly lit - -

His senses still dulled, Rowdy raised himself up slightly and stared blankly at the blurry picture slowly sharpening into focus in front of him. He saw the intruder get on both knees beside Pete Nolan. The other person leaned over making it difficult for him to see both Nolan's body and the other person's movements. A small lantern next to the injured scout gave off tiny flickers of light that made the drops of water on the intruder's rain slicker shimmer, giving the visitor an unearthly appearance.

It's the fever . . . I must be out of my head . . . Rowdy reasoned as he struggled to clear the haze that clouded his mind. This is a dead town . . . I saw it with my own eyes . . .

Despite his obscured vision, Rowdy's ears and senses told him that Pete was not receptive to the intruder's presence.

"Rowdy, help - -" the scout cried out as he thrashed about.

No longer concerned about whether or not what he was seeing was real, the agony in the man's voice forced Rowdy into action. Summoning the little reserve of strength he had, Yates moved forward, roughly grabbing the apparition by the arm. At first, the intruder held strong against Yates' pull. Determined, Rowdy continued his onslaught until he felt the other person's grip on Nolan loosen. With one last tug, Yates flung the intruder away from Pete's body.

The jerky movement caused the hood of the slicker to fall away. Rowdy stared in dumbfounded amazement for a moment at the long brown curls that tumbled out from underneath and the warm brown eyes that were staring at him wide with fear.

The woman pleaded with him in a soft voice. "I don't mean you any harm, I want to help - -"

Yates' attention wandered, until he caught sight of the bandages and other supplies spread out on the ground around her.

She motioned to Pete. "Look for yourself."

Rowdy peered more closely and noticed that the crude bandaging that he'd done earlier that day had been redone with far more skill than he had.

"I gave your friend something for the pain," the woman continued. "He'll sleep now."

Then before the ramrod could respond, the woman began tending to his injuries. Rowdy protested at first, but she ignored him.

"Who are you?" He asked, swallowing hard.

The woman remained silent, her eyes lowered as she concentrated on her work.

"Are you real?" Rowdy questioned more insistently of the hazy outline in front of him.

It was becoming harder and harder for him to think. Her gentle probing of the wound on his head was making the pain worse and Yates wasn't sure how much longer it would be before he gave in to the exhaustion.

He choked, at first, when she forced the sticky, sweet liquid into him. A short time later, the drowsiness won out and Rowdy let himself fall into a dreamless sleep . . .

It wasn't until she was sure that the two men were deep in sleep that Alice Mercer left the livery stable. With her shoulders hunched against the rain and her basket of supplies clutched tightly against her body, she scurried along the dark main street.

The young woman glanced around nervously at the ghostly shadows cast by the wildly growing brush and decayed structures that hovered over the town. She stared up at the mines burrowed deep into the hillside above and felt a shiver run down her spine. Even though the mines had been abandoned many years earlier, looking at them still made her uneasy as they stood watch over the dead town.

Alice thought of the two men she'd just left and tried to remember how long it had been since anyone had wandered into Mercer Flats. The town's not even on any of the maps now . . . she thought fretfully.

She paused outside one of the cabins before quietly pushing open the splintered door. She tiptoed in to the dimly lit front room, quietly setting the basket down next to the door.

"Where were you?" The cold, deep voice demanded, seemingly from out of nowhere.

The woman jumped with a start. "I-I was with those men I told you I saw earlier today." She stuttered, her eyes darting around nervously the room, "They're hurt."

"You went to them?"

Frightened by the anger she heard in the voice, the woman took a step backwards as the burly man came out of the darkness towards her. She saw the whiskey bottle tightly clenched in the man's hand and felt her stomach lurch.

"I just told ya, Pa, they're hurt - they need doctorin'."

The gnarled man waved the half-empty bottle at her. "They ain't gettin' anymore doctorin' from you!" he shouted angrily.

"But, Pa, they're hurt bad, we can't just leave them there!" She smoothed the front of her apron nervously. "They don't look like nothin' but a couple of cowhands. You don't need to worry yourself about them!"

"Don't tell me what I need to worry about!" He ranted wildly. "You just said that someone's seen you - I can't take a chance on havin' anyone becomin' suspicious and decide to stay on here!"

The woman bit her lip anxiously as she prayed that the man's rage would subside quickly. "They're out of their heads from what's ailin' them – ain't likely they will even remember seein' me. Mercer Flats died a long time ago, Pa," she continued in a sad voice. "The town don't need your protection no more."

The storm's intensity increased suddenly, rattling the windows of the dilapidated bungalow. Alice visibly shuddered at the high pitched whine of the howling wind.

"You hear that, girl?" The man whispered with an intensity that frightened her. "It's them that's buried up in the mines cryin' out to me – they're tellin' me that I gotta keep doin' what's right for the town . . ."

The man's words cut through to her heart. The mines . . . For as long as she could remember it was the mines that controlled the town, not the people that lived there. It was the mines that had given birth to Mercer Flats just as later it would be the mines that were the cause of the town's death.

"Are you listenin' to me, girl?"

She swallowed hard and nodded slowly. "Yes, Pa."

The man took a long draw from the whiskey bottle before continuing to speak. "Whether you like it or not, if those two don't ride out of here tomorrow mornin', I'm gonna' take care of'em, once and for all . . ."

Early the next morning, Gil Favor straightened in his saddle and glanced up at the sky. Favor took a deep breath of fresh air to clear his head and took a moment to appreciate the clear blue skies and warm sunshine that had replaced the storm of the day before.

Sitting astride their horses, Favor and Wishbone paused at the outskirts of Mercer Flats.

Wishbone shook his head in confusion. "I don't remember there bein' a dead town in these parts, Mr. Favor."

"I don't recall seeing a town on any of the maps," The trail boss replied in a tired voice. "Ain't likely that Rowdy and Pete'd find much help here."

The two men dismounted from their horses. Their eyes flickered around as they looked for any clues that would help them find the missing drovers.

"They could be holed up in one of them shacks," Wish suggested. "Even spendin' the night here'd be better than out in that storm." He motioned to their tired horses. "You want me to tie the horses up over there, in front of the saloon?"

Favor thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, we'll leave'em here," he replied hesitantly. "There's somethin' about a dead town that just never sets right with me."

The older man agreed as he secured the reins to a sturdy branch in the nearby brush. "Yeah - Just lookin' at the place from here gives me a bad feelin'."

Favor nodded. "We'd better get started. You take the saloon; I'll take this side of the street. Keep your eyes open for anything unusual."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Favor."

A twenty-minute search of the dilapidated buildings left Favor feeling more frustrated than ever as he and Wishbone met up in the middle of the main street.

"Any sign of'em, Wish?"

"Nothin'!" The older man shook his head grimly. "It don't make no sense neither, they couldn't have got farther than this."

"Only place left is the livery stable. We'll look there and then . . ." Favor's voice trailed off. He didn't want to think about what decisions he would be forced to make next if the missing drovers weren't soon found.

A short distance away, Alice Mercer was watching Favor and Wishbone from the doorway of her cabin. She sighed heavily. Sleep had eluded her all night as she'd rehashed the argument with her father over and over again in her mind. And although she remained convinced that the two strangers were harmless, her father's words continued to prick at her.

I can't go on pretending that there's nothin' wrong with pa . . . she thought, her mind returning to the present. At first she'd blamed his fits of rage on the whiskey. But for the past month, his spells had been coming more often and had been more violent. It was impossible for her to ignore the truth any longer - years of living alone with the ghosts of the past had deprived her father of his reason.

She watched the two men disappear into the livery stable. They must've come for them other two . . .

Ignoring the fatigue that tugged at her, Alice forced her body into action, her thoughts racing. I have to warn them . . .

With luck it would be some time before her father woke from his drunken stupor. Alice grabbed the rifle leaning against the wall by the door and ran towards the livery stable . . .

The roughly hewn door of the livery stable creaked in protest when Favor opened it. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light provided by the thin rays of sunshine filtering in, Favor felt his stomach lurch at the sight of the motionless bodies splayed out on the ground.

The trail boss watched anxiously as Wishbone began to examine the unconscious men.

"Well, Wish?" Favor finally spoke, unable to control his impatience any longer.

"They're alive," the older man mumbled, making a quick examination of the bandage on Rowdy's head before moving on to Pete. "I'll know more once we bring'em around."

"Rowdy," Favor prodded. "Can you hear me?"

Yates groaned softly in protest at the sound of the man's voice. His mind still reeling from the events of the previous day, Rowdy's eyes opened and he stared in confusion at the two men for a moment, unsure if what he was seeing was real or a continuation of his feverish dream of the night before.

"Mr. Favor? You really here?" The ramrod's weak voice was slurry. "Or are you . . .goin' to dis . . . appear . . . like . . . she did . . ."

"She?" Favor looked uneasily at Wishbone. "Is that fever talkin', Wish?"

"I ain't sure," Wishbone muttered, taking a closer look at the bandage on Rowdy's head. "He's got a nasty bump on that thick head of his, I can tell you that."

"C'mon, Pete, wake up," Favor continued, his voice concerned.

Nolan mumbled inaudibly in reply, forcing Favor to lean closer as he strained to hear what his scout said.

"What's the matter with them, Wish?" Favor asked, straightening. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that the two of'em were lit up to the gills. "

His eyes glanced down and came to rest on a tin cup lying next to Nolan. The trail boss picked up the cup and sniffed it.

"You make anythin' of this?" Favor asked, making a face.

The older man took the cup. "Smells like somethin' I'd brew up." Wishbone replied. "That explains why they're actin' so jug-bitten. So what Rowdy said is true, someone else was here."

"You don't think one of them made it?"

Wishbone shook his head. "Ain't likely, not in the condition they're in."

"Why would someone go through the trouble of doctorin' them and then not help us find them?" Favor said thinking out loud. "From the looks of it, this town's been deserted for a while."

"The town must not be as deserted as we thought," Wishbone muttered uneasily. "I told you before I had a bad feelin' about this place. I won't breath easy 'til we're back at camp."

"You won't hear any arguments from me about that," Favor agreed. "How soon can we move them?"

"We'll need a wagon," the older man replied. "And blankets or anything else we can find to keep the chill from settin' in worse."

His nerves already on edge, the older man's reply chafed against the trail boss. "We've seen enough of this place to know we're not goin' to find anything we can use around here." Favor glared at the older man. "There's no chance of them bein' able to ride? "

Wishbone shook his head. "Not if you're lookin' to get them back to camp in one piece. They're won't be able to stand the pounding they'll get on horseback."

Just then, the trail boss's well-honed senses heard a sound outside. He held up a hand in warning to silence Wishbone, then listened intently again for a moment.

"Cover Rowdy and Pete from the back," Favor mouthed softly. "I'll take the door."

The older man nodded and disappeared into a darkened corner of the livery stable.

From his position just inside the door, Favor listened again. The sounds stopped abruptly. The trail boss withdrew his gun from its holster, his body tensing.

Then the door creaked and slowly began to open . . .

Favor saw the rifle first, then the woman. She paused just inside the doorway, giving the trail boss an opportunity to get a good look at her. The wan-faced young woman looked very nervous and was obviously having a difficult time managing the rifle she carried.

Then she was moving again towards his men.

"That's far enough," Favor growled from out of the darkness.

The startled woman stopped in her tracks. Wishbone stepped out of the shadows with his gun squarely aimed at the woman.

At the same time, Favor emerged from behind the door and came up behind her, poking his gun firmly into her back.

"You won't be needin' that rifle," the trail boss warned, gripping her arm tightly with his free hand. "Drop it on the ground, nice and easy, in front of you."

"I - -" she swallowed hard. "I came here to warn you." The woman tensed as she carefully tossed the rifle down. "You're in danger here, you have to ride out now - -"

"Would that danger be from you, miss?" Favor asked, nodding at her weapon. "Or is there something else that we don't know about?" He watched with satisfaction as Wishbone collected the discarded rifle.

At that moment a rustling sound broke the tension in the room. Favor looked over and noticed that Rowdy had suddenly become very active and was thrashing around on the ground.

"Wish, I've got the lady covered - you see to Rowdy," Favor ordered in a steely voice. Despite Wishbone's practiced efforts to settle the injured drover, Favor saw that Yates' agitation was increasing.

"Mr. Favor - -!" Rowdy called out anxiously.

It was the expression on Yates' face that roused the trail boss's curiosity; his ramrod appeared to be mesmerized by the woman.

Looks as if Rowdy's seen her before . . .Favor thought. I wonder . . .

"Just take it easy, Rowdy," Favor answered calmly, turning his attention back to the woman. The trail boss holstered his gun and turned the woman around to face him, grabbing her firmly by the shoulders.

"Nothin'd make us happier then to leave, but my men ain't fit to ride right now," he replied. "But I expect you knew that before Wish an' me since you're the one that doctored them last night."

His words hit their mark. Favor could tell by the startled look on her face that his hunch had been right.

"You're right, I was the one who was here." she whispered after a long silence. "I came last night for the same reason I came today - because I didn't want to see anyone hurt."

Then before Favor or Wishbone could answer, another voice shattered the early morning calm.

"Alice! Show yourself now!" The slurred voice roared. "You'd better answer me – 'cause if you're in there with them cowhands, I'll shoot you down too, you hear me, girl?"

Favor tensed. He glanced at Wishbone and saw the older man put a reassuring hand on the gun at his side. The trail boss felt the woman begin to tremble and saw the rest of the color drain out of her face.

"The best thing for all of us might be for you to explain who that is comin' and why we're not welcome in this town." Favor steadied the frightened woman. "It sounds like you're in some kind of trouble. Maybe we can help each other."

Then without waiting for an answer, he gently let go of her and moved to the door.

Favor peered out into the dusty street and saw a burley man half walking, half staggering towards the livery stable. He turned back to the woman.

"Who is that coming after you?" Favor pressed urgently. "And why are you afraid?"

"He's– -" she whispered haltingly. "He's my pa."

"Your pa?" Wishbone sputtered in surprise. "But he said he'd - -"

Favor continued watching the street. He saw the man stop and wave the rifle around, firing off a round into the air.

"Please –" she pleaded. "It's not safe for any of us to be here when he's like this!"

"I don't understand," Favor asked, his curiosity aroused. "If the man's drunk, Wish an' I can handle him. We'll do our best not to hurt him."

"It's not just that, it's - -" She lurched forward and grabbed at the trail boss. "I can't answer questions now, just come with me – I know a safe place - -"

"Don't believe her, Mr. Favor!" Wishbone shouted. "If any of what she said was true, she wouldn't have come in here waving that rifle at us. If you ask me, she's talkin' nonsense." The older man gave the woman a pointed look. "Don't you worry, missy. If the jasper that's comin' wants a fight, we'll give him one he'll never forget, just you wait and see!"

Favor stayed silent, his weary eyes searching the woman's care worn face. Whatever the woman's true intentions, it was obvious that her fear was real. He thought about the man's threat to shoot her as well as he and his men. His eyes flickered around, taking stock of their surroundings and what that might mean if there was gunplay. He quickly decided that he didn't like what he saw.

"I'm not sure that we'd win in a fight, Wish," Favor finally replied with uncertainty. "Not with two injured men and a lady to look out for."

The older man scowled. "I'm tellin you, you're makin' a mistake trusting her, Mr. Favor!"

"Until we come up with a way to get Rowdy and Pete back to camp, we ain't got much choice but to trust her, at least until we know better what we're up against." Favor said, taking the rifle back from the older man. "Wish, you give Pete a hand, I'll see to Rowdy." The trail boss looked at the woman gravely as he held out the rifle to her. "Well, miss - -?"

"Alice Mercer," she replied breathlessly. "Hurry, there's no time to waste!"

Favor knelt down next to his injured ramrod. "Lead the way - -"

Alice ran to the back of the livery stable and led Favor and his men out of a rear exit and through the alley. A short time later they came to a halt in back of one of the other cabins.

"In here," Alice replied as she fumbled with the lock on the door. The lock gave way with a groan. "You'll be safe here," the woman said, pulling open the door.

Favor shifted Rowdy's weight so he could steady himself. He paused in the doorway, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as they came to rest on the outline of silhouettes that looked like they were standing guard inside.

His nerves on edge, the trail boss's free hand rested lightly on the butt of his gun.

"What is this place?" He asked warily.

"It's a dress shop," she stammered. "My dress shop."

"A dress shop?" Wishbone sputtered indignantly. "I rather be dead than seen in a place like this!"

"If we stand out here talkin' much longer, that might happen," Favor replied as he crossed over the threshold. Grateful to be relieved of the extra weight he carried, the trail boss eased Yates' body down, using a pile of matted down fabric bolts for bedding. He glanced up at the older man. "Wish, you see to Rowdy and Pete. The lady and I have some talkin' to do."

Wishbone glared at the woman in reply as Favor took her by the arm and led her past the ghostly dress forms and into the main area of the store. Stepping between the woman and the front window, Favor glanced out and quickly scanned the quiet main street. Relieved, the trail boss decided that moving to a new location had given them the time they needed to try and find out more about whatever was going on in Mercer Flats.

"You said this shop was yours?" Favor asked, still surveying the street.

"It used to be," she replied. "I know that Mercer Flats don't look like much, but there was time when the town was alive with people and prosperity."

"That must have been a long time ago."

Favor turned away from the window and studied the woman who had started pacing back and forth while she spoke.

Alice nodded. "My family owned this town, Mr. Favor." She paused, noticing the look of surprise that flickered across Favor's face. "It's true. We owned the businesses, the mines, livestock, everything. Until . . ."

"Until what?" the curious trail boss asked.

"Before I tell you anything else, I want your promise that when you leave here, you won't ever tell a soul that you saw anyone in Mercer Flats."

"What harm would it do if people knew you were here?" Favor shook his head. "I'm sorry but I can't agree to that, or anything else, not until you explain what went on back in that livery stable."

The woman sucked in a deep breath. "My pa - - he's been ailing for a long time. It just wouldn't be good for him to have folks hanging around town."

"You can both rest easy, Miss Mercer." Favor replied quietly. "We have no business in your town other then to collect our men and leave. No offense intended, miss," the trail boss continued, "but sometimes all it takes to cure a man of whatever's ailin' him is to keep him away from the whiskey bottle."

"I told you before, it's not just the whiskey!" she answered indignantly. "He gets these . . ." she paused, her mind fumbling for the right words, "spells that get him so riled up that he can't do nothin' but worry about the town. I can't explain it other then that. For some reason, you and your men bein' here has pa more worked up than I've ever seen him be."

Wishbone spoke up suddenly. "That don't make no sense - - If the man's ailing, you should be someplace where a doctor can look after him, not out here in the middle of nowhere!"

Alice sighed heavily, looking back and forth at the two men anxiously. It was obvious that Favor and the others were practical men. Not men who would be easily convinced to do what she wanted without reasonable answers to their questions.

"All right, I was hopin' not to have to - -" her voice broke suddenly. "But you won't be satisfied . . . until you've heard it . . . all."

Overcome by emotion, she turned away from the drovers and stared out at the hillside above the town. "Ten years ago, there was an accident at the mines . . ." Her voice trailed off. She remembered as clearly as if it were yesterday when the rotted timbers had given way, sending out thick clouds of black smoke to hang over the town like a funeral shroud.

"I'm sorry," Favor whispered. "What happened then?"

She roused herself from her thoughts. "After the townspeople got tired of buryin' their dead they went looking for justice. There was an inquest. Pa

was found guilty of mismanaging the mines."

"These spells your father gets," Favor asked, "They're because of the trial?"

"Yes." she replied sadly. "After the accident the mines closed down and Mercer Flats began to die, slowly, until one day everyone was gone . . . except for us."

"Why did you stay behind?" Favor asked in concern. "Seems to me that you'd both been better off movin' on like the others."

"I've begged Pa for years to leave but he won't listen- and I can't leave him here." Alice began pleading with the drovers. "I'd always hoped that stayin' behind would help Pa get rid of whatever demons were ridin' him - instead, he's only gotten worse. That's why it's so important that no one knows about us bein' here, Mr. Favor. Pa's afraid that anyone who comes to Mercer Flats will find out about his part in the accident. If he finds any of you here, he'll kill you, he said as much to me last night."

"That's hogwash!" Wishbone commented. "The man's already been tried once for what happened, the law ain't got no right to do it again!"

"Wish is right, there's no cause for either of you to worry about the law."

"I know," Alice replied, "but Pa won't believe that, I've tried so many times . . ."

"I'm sorry about your troubles, miss," Favor said, "but even if I gave you my word about not tellin' anyone else about your bein' here, I couldn't make my men do the same. Besides, from what we heard earlier, it might not be safe for you to stay here any longer."

Alice listened intently, knowing that everything Favor said was true. But fear of what might happen if she left Mercer Flats gnawed at her.

"You'd be welcome to ride along with us until we come to a town that has a stage stop." Favor continued. "Once you got started in a new town, you could come back for your father, get him whatever medical help he needs."

"I'm just not sure leavin' is the right think for me to do - - I just got this feelin' that somethin' bad will happen if I leave."

"Somethin' bad could happen if you stay."

""Pa wouldn't hurt me, I know he wouldn't," she replied, trying to make light of the drovers concerns. And he'd never understand why I left – why he could be dead by the time I came back or so lost in the past that there won't be no way to reach him."

"You have to do whatever you think is best but I can't give you too long to make up your mind." Favor replied. "We've got a large herd waiting for us not to far from here. That means we'll have to be moving on soon."

"I won't need much time to think about it." she replied. Distressed by the turn that the conversation had taken, Alice's gaze shifted nervously around the room, reminding Favor of a caged animal.

"Please don't leave here," She warned. "I've been away too long and I don't want Pa to start looking for you again. I'll be back as soon as I can with a wagon and horses - -"

Then without waiting for an answer, the woman turned and ran into the back of the store and out into the alley . . .

A short time later, as a result of Wishbone's doctoring, Rowdy Yates had regained consciousness and positioned himself in the front of the store, near the window. The injured ramrod shifted against the wall in a struggle to find a comfortable position.

He was feverish. And sore. Most of all, he decided that he was tired of being poked and prodded at by Wishbone. Grateful that the older man's attentions were now on Pete Nolan, Yates' looked outside again.

"No sign of anyone, Mr. Favor," Yates muttered with a heavy sigh. "Nothin' but tumbleweeds."

"Boss," Nolan said, his face twisting into a grimace because of Wishbone's ministrations. "Rowdy and me feel pretty bad about what happened to the wagon. If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be in this mess right now."

"Forget it, Pete, it ain't worth worryin' about." Favor replied. "How are they doin', Wish?"

"I done all I can," Wishbone grumbled without looking up from his work. "But this ain't no place to be tryin' to fight off an infection or treat a fever. We need to get them back to camp, the sooner the better."

"Don't worry about us, Mr. Favor," Rowdy reassured the trail boss. "Pete and me'll be ready to ride anytime you say, ain't that right, Pete?"

Nolan nodded. "You just give the word, Boss."

"Just do whatever Wish tells you to do and save your strength for the ride back to camp," Favor ordered gruffly. "You're gonna need it."

In spite of the injured drovers' quick assurances, it was plain to the trail boss that Wishbone was right; his men were in a bad way. He sighed heavily; anyway he looked at it, he was putting their lives in more danger if they didn't leave as soon as they could. Then he thought for a moment about what could happen to Alice if her father's condition continued to get worse.

Favor realized that someone was speaking to him. He forced his troubled thoughts aside.

"Do you really think the girl will be back with that wagon, Mr. Favor?" Nolan asked.

"I don't know what to think, Pete. The only thing I am sure of is that she means it when she says that she doesn't want to see anyone hurt."

"It don't seem right, boss, us just leavin' her here," Rowdy said. " Especially if the old man's as bad off as she says."

"What other choice have we got, Rowdy?" Nolan asked. "We can't make her come with us."

"If she was comin' back, she'd done it before now," Wishbone muttered. "I told you before it was wrong to trust her. We already got more troubles than we need! And any man'd threaten to shoot down his own kin ain't someone we should be tanglin' with."

"How can you say that, Wish?" Rowdy argued. "What if we leave and the old man hurts her – I couldn't stomach that and I don't think anyone else here could!"

"Well you're wrong!" Wishbone shot back angrily. "And that's the difference between you and me, Rowdy Yates, you're too softhearted for your own good, especially when there's a pretty girl around - -"

"That's enough from the both of you!" Favor growled. "I've been thinkin' about that wagon and horses the girl mentioned; they can't be far from here."

"You ain't really thinkin' about leavin' without her, are you, Boss?" Rowdy asked.

"I'm not lookin' to do that, Rowdy," Favor answered tersely, "but we might not have a choice – It's gonna be a rough enough ride back without worrying about catching up with Quince and the others on the trail." Favor explained.

"I still don't like the idea," Rowdy groused.

"Like it or not, that's the situation we're in." Favor said. "Wish, I want you and Pete to check on the horses we left tied up near the livery stable. Rowdy and me'll scout around for the wagon. If anyone sees the girl, we'll try to talk her into coming with us one more time and that's it – after that, we leave, with or without her . . ."

Meanwhile, Alice had returned home after finding the livery stable empty. As she neared the cabin, she saw that her father was hard at work sorting through the tools that he kept in a bin on the front porch.

She knew instinctively that something was wrong by the look on the man's face. "Where have you been, girl?" he growled, casting a suspicious eye at her. "Didn't you hear me hollerin' for you earlier?"

She collected herself, smoothing the front of her apron. "I was searching for those men, Pa. They was gone by the time I got to the livery stable."

"You're lyin' - I know you was in there with them." He reached over and picked up a rifle that was leaning against the wall beside the tool bin. "You left this behind, made it easy to track you."

She started in surprise. There was an uncomfortably long silence between them as her mind raced for what to say next. "But I ain't lyin' to you, Pa," she finally sputtered as convincingly as she could. "I must've put the rifle down and forgot to pick it back up." She nodded at the tools, grateful for the distraction.

"Why are you lookin' through them tools? Been quite a spell since you had a need for'em."

"I got need for'em today," he answered, without looking up. "I got to go and open up one of the mines."

"Oh?" She asked, growing nervous. "It don't seem right, you goin' up there. When I was a little girl you always used to say that it wasn't right to disturb the restin' place of the dead, no matter where it was."

The man's temper suddenly erupted without warning. He slammed down the tool in his hand and glared at his daughter. "You never gave one ounce of thought to what the dead up in them mines wanted done for this town – not one ounce! And I know you've been with them cowpunchers. Just like I know that there's more of'em here - I found two horses tied up outside of town a short time ago."

Alice swallowed hard. "That don't mean nothin'," She stammered, her voice growing less confident. "I told you, I didn't see no one in town or any horses anywhere."

"You're lyin' to me again!" He grabbed her roughly by the arm. "I always knew this would happen – you takin' their side against me! And I don't like it!" With his free hand he slapped her hard on the face, sending the woman reeling backwards. "I been doin' some thinkin'. It wouldn't look right to have fresh graves in a deserted town like this. So I figure it'd be best if we got rid of the bodies in the mine. Won't be no trace of'em that way."

"Bodies?" She whispered, a chill running up her spine. "What bodies?"

"Why the bodies of them cowpunchers, if that's what they really are. Seems to me that the only folks that'd have any cause to come through here nowadays is the law."

Alice felt her heart begin to pound. "Now, Pa, you ain't thinkin' clearly - even if the law does come through here," she reasoned, rubbing the sore spot on her cheek, "it don't matter none - they can't do nothin' to you. Just like the dead up in them mines can't say nothin' against you!"

He continued his tirade, wagging a finger at her. "I swore on the graves of our family that the Mercer name and the town wouldn't ever be shamed by that accident! And I plan on keepin' that promise, even if that means burying you along with the others!" He reached down and hauled the woman to her feet. "Now where have you got those men hidden? You'll tell me or I'll throttle the life out of you, so help me - -"

Later, at the Mercer cabin, it wasn't until she heard the door slam and her father's footsteps fading away that Alice dared force her crumpled body to stir.

Using a table for support, the woman forced herself up, pausing halfway to look at her reflection in the mirror on the wall.

She ran a shaky hand lightly along the bruise on her cheek and the side of her mouth. All the while, her eyes flickered around the room, taking in the shambles around her: the broken furniture and glass as well as a trail of smashed whiskey bottles leading up to the door; all the result of her father's rampaging anger.

She stared at her reflection again, hating herself for not standing up to the man's attack. Then she pulled her hand away and stared at the droplets of blood on her fingers.

Hangman's Hands . . .That's what these are . . . Alice thought, the shame burning her face. All she'd wanted to do from the start was to help the drovers and, instead, she'd put their lives in danger. There'd be more blood spilled than what was on her hands if she didn't get to the dress shop before her father did.

The rifle was still on the porch, right where he'd left it. She bowed her head and stared at it for a long while, wondering if she'd be able to use it against her father if that's what it came down to.

Deep in thought, Alice didn't notice that the two drovers had come up behind her.

"Miss Mercer?" Favor called quietly.

She looked up as the last of her strength faded. "Mr. Favor - -"

Yates saw her knees buckle and gathered the fainting woman in his arms. He looked down and winced at the darkening bruises on her face. "Look at what he did to her, boss," he muttered, his anger rising.

"Let's get her inside," Favor said, opening the door. As the two drovers half carried, half dragged the women inside they stopped just inside the door as they reacted to the destruction all around them.

"Now we know why she didn't come back right away," the trail boss said through gritted teeth. "Hang on to her, Rowdy, I'm goin' to look around for something to bring her around with."

A few seconds later, Favor was back with a small flask that he'd found in one of the rooms. Between the two men, they forced several drops of the pungent liquid between the woman's lips and she began to stir.

"Miss Mercer, can you hear me?" Favor asked.

The woman's eyes flickered open. The trail boss saw the fear register on the woman's face and continued speaking in a soothing voice.

"Just take it easy, miss, you're safe now . . . can you tell us what happened?"

"No . . .time," she cried, clutching at Rowdy's arm. "Pa knows . . . about you . . . he's out of his mind, said he'd kill . . . all of you . . . hide the bodies in the mine . . ."

"What are we gonna do, Mr. Favor?" Rowdy asked with growing alarm.

"Where was he headed?" Favor asked the semi-conscious woman.

"The dress shop . . ."

At the same time, Wishbone was returning from his search of the area around the dress shop.

"Anything, Wish?" Nolan asked.

"Nothin'!" the older man snapped.

"That's all we're gonna find if we keep waitin' around here," The scout prodded, tugging at the cook's arm. "Let's move on."

Just as they headed towards the back door, a shot rang out. The bullet ricocheted off of the wall in front of the drovers, freezing them in their tracks.

"That's far enough," the older Mercer ordered from behind.

Pete Nolan swore under his breath at the tightly knotted sling that prevented him from drawing his gun.

"Now wait a minute - -" Wishbone protested loudly.

The man cut the cook off in mid-sentence, waving the rifle at the drovers in a threatening way. "Start moving!" He growled in a low tone.

"Better not argue with him, Wish," the scout warned.

As the two drovers walked, Nolan caught Wishbone's attention and gave a slight nod towards the gunman. Hoping that the cook had understood his meaning, the scout lunged at the older Mercer. The man was startled by what had happened, giving Pete the chance he he'd hoped for. Using all of his strength, Nolan forced the man down. The rifle clattered to the floor, coming to rest a short distance away from the brawling men.

The two men wrestled back and forth for a few long minutes as each tried to make a grab for the rifle. Then the weakened drover's strength failed giving the older Mercer an opportunity to get on his feet and grab the rifle before Wishbone, pushing the cook to the ground in the process. Overcome by fury, the man used the rifle like a club, striking Pete on his injured shoulder. The blow sent fresh courses of agony through the scout's body and he doubled over.

As Wishbone scrambled to his feet, his hand was moving towards the gun at his side. Then he heard a soft click and saw that Mercer had the rifle squarely aimed at Nolan's struggling body.

"Don't do it – or I'll put your friend out of his misery right now - -"

The cook's shoulders slumped in defeat and he let his gun hand relax.

"That's more like it," the gunman commented as he reached over and relieved Wishbone of his gun. Then he stooped down and removed Nolan's gun as well and threw the two guns across the room.

"Get on your feet," Mercer ordered, jabbing the scout with the rifle. "And I don't want anymore trouble outta either one of you!"

"Where are you takin' us?" Wishbone demanded as he helped Pete to his feet.

"Up there," the man answered, gesturing with his free hand at the mines. "That's the final restin' place for lawmen that ain't got enough sense to mind their own business."

"Lawmen?" Nolan sputtered in surprise. "We ain't lawmen!" Hunched over, the scout pulled his hand away and saw that his shoulder had started bleeding again.

"He's tellin' the truth, we ain't nothin' but a couple of drovers." Wishbone scowled as he used his bandanna to stop the bleeding.

"Save your breath, Wish," Pete replied in a pain filled voice. "He ain't listenin' to us."

Mercer propelled the men forward with the rifle. "Don't hand me no story about you bein' drovers – only men that'd have cause to come through here is the law, plain and simple. Now stop your jawin' and keep movin' - -"

A short time later, Favor, Rowdy Yates and Alice Mercer had almost made their way back to the dress shop when a loud slamming sound cut through the air. The trio stopped suddenly, taking cover behind a nearby structure.

"What was that?" Rowdy asked, his body tensing. "Gunshots?"

"I'm not sure," Favor replied in a low tone.

They heard the sound again, louder, and, after drawing their guns, began moving again, with more caution.

As they rounded the corner, Gil Favor saw the open front door of the shop. The midday breeze caught hold of the door and slammed it against the building again. The trail boss scowled and uttered an oath under his breath.

"We're too late, Rowdy," Favor muttered angrily.

They quickly entered the building. Favor glanced down and noticed the discarded bandanna on the floor. He fingered the fabric and sniffed at the red spots that had rubbed from the bandanna onto his fingertips.

"Take a look at this," the trail boss said, passing the bandanna to his ramrod.

"The blood isn't dry yet," Yates replied hopefully. "That means they don't have too much of a head start on us."

"How far is it to the mines?" Favor asked the woman standing beside him.

"It's less than a half hour's ride," Alice replied. "Pa found your horses, I expect he put'em in our the corral."

"We still might have time to catch up." The trail boss took the girl by the arm. "Take us to the horses."

"Mr. Favor, wait," Alice protested, not moving with the drovers. "You have to promise me, you won't hurt pa. No matter what he's done, it's not his fault."

"That may be, but I can't make any promises," Favor replied. "We didn't come here to kill anyone but I will if I have to, if it means saving my men." He tightened his grip on the woman, forcing her to move on. "Let's go, we don't have any time to waste."

The wagon ride to the mine was rough. Ignoring the waves of pain that pricked at him, Pete Nolan glanced up at the driver for a moment before slowly forcing his body along the side of the wagon until he was next to Wishbone.

Nolan took quick stock of their situation and shook his head in frustration. Relieved of their guns and with Wishbone's hands tied, there wasn't much either of the drovers could do, at least not until they arrived at their destination.

"Think we should try and jump for it?" Wishbone asked. "We'd put some distance between us and him that way . . ."

"We wouldn't get far. All we'd be doin' is giving him an excuse to blow our heads off before we get to where he's takin' us." Nolan shook his head. "Besides, you can bet that Mr. Favor and Rowdy have figured out what happened by now and will be comin' after us."

"I don't see no dust cloud behind us," the cook griped. "Suppose they don't have it figured?"

"I don't know," Nolan murmured. "We'll have to figure out somethin' else once the wagon stops movin'."

Then, a short time later, the wagon rolled to a halt outside the boarded up mine entrance.

The drovers took stock of their new surroundings. What they saw filled them with great unease. Though the mines had been abandoned long ago, the blackened lanterns and piles of rotted/charred lumber painted all too clear a picture for the drovers of the disaster that had occurred there.

Nolan's eyes flickered around and spotted a pile of weathered remains in the nearby brush. The scout felt his stomach churn. He saw a battered wooden marker with the word "unknown" carved in the center towering over the remains.

Then Mercer jumped down from his seat, forcing Nolan's attention to the matters at hand. The drovers strained to see what the old man was doing as he fumbled for a moment with something under the driver's seat. Finally, Wishbone forced himself up as far as he could in an effort to see what the man was doing.

The older man slammed the tools down on the driver's seat before coming around to the back of the wagon. The drovers tensed in expectation.

Using the rifle as a prod, Mercer poked at Nolan for a few uncomfortable moments.

Pete glared up at the man sullenly, not wanting to give their captor the satisfaction of knowing what agonies he was causing.

"You ain't goin' no where," he muttered to the scout as he moved on to Wishbone. Satisfied that the cook's hands were still tied, Mercer separated the two men, lashing Wishbone's already bound hands to the other end of the wagon.

"Don't want you two tryin' nothin'," Mercer mumbled, as he collected his tools.

It took several minutes of hard effort for the older man to open the mine. The weather beaten wooden boards resisted mightily at first. Finally, one of the boards gave way with a loud groan and the others soon followed.

Then Mercer untied Wishbone's hands before forcing his prisoners out of the back of the wagon.

"You - walk in front." Mercer ordered, waving the rifle at Pete. "You follow behind," he said to Wishbone. "And if you try anything funny, you're friend's gonna get it first, in the back."

Reluctantly, the drovers obeyed without resistance. As they turned towards the mine, they noticed that a cloud of dust was coming towards them. Then they heard it, faintly at first, the sound of horses approaching at a breakneck pace.

"You hear that, there's riders comin' in," Pete announced to the gunman. "You're wrong about us bein' lawmen. Why don't you stop this now before someone gets hurt."

"Whoever it is ain't gonna make it here in time to save you," The man hissed. "So move - -"

Astride his horse, Favor saw the three men enter the mine. He urged his animal forward, forcing Rowdy and the girl to keep up with him. Then they arrived at the mine and dismounted near the empty wagon. Favor and Rowdy withdrew their guns.

"Please, Mr. Favor, let me talk to him," Alice begged. "I know I can make him see reason!"

"It wouldn't hurt to give her a chance, boss," Rowdy pushed. "Maybe she's right, maybe this can be settled without anyone getting hurt."

"Maybe it can," Favor agreed reluctantly, though it was hard to ignore the ominous feeling that tugged at his insides. "All right, Miss Mercer, you can try talkin' to him but if that don't work, we'll have to do this my way - -"

A grateful Alice rushed into the mine ahead of the drovers. "Pa!" She shouted as she ran. "Pa, where are you?"

Inside the mine, the drovers were moving slowly though the narrow passages. The mine was eerily silent, except for the sound of the steadily dripping water that seeped in from the hillside. The envelope of darkness around them was dimly illuminated by thin trickles of light that filtered in from the outside.

Then, without warning, the corridor came to a dead end and the man stopped.

"This is the end for you lawmen – down there." Mercer said, pointing down a long, dark shaft that led to the level below them.

"We told you before, we're not the law!" Wish shouted angrily.

Pete's attention wandered towards the shaft. A chill ran up his spine as he remembered the remains they'd seen outside. Certain that whatever was waiting for them at the bottom would be just as bad, or worse than what they'd already seen, the scout took a step forward.

"If you want to kill us," he said, "then you're gonna have to do it now - 'cause we ain't goin' down there!"

Mercer's jaw tightening in anger. "You'll do as you're told or - -"

At that moment, the wind outside rose up, carrying Alice's voice towards them. The older Mercer stopped, surprised to hear the sound of his daughter's voice.

Then the drovers heard footsteps rushing through the passage towards them. With relief evident in their faces, Nolan and Wishbone saw Alice running towards them, followed closely behind by Favor and Rowdy, their guns ready.

"Pa, don't hurt them, they ain't done nothin' wrong!" She pleaded.

The man waved her away with the rifle. "Stay out of it, daughter, this ain't any business of yours!"

"Pa, listen to me," she cried as she tried to move forward again. "Killing these men is wrong - -"

The man's face twisted into a frozen mask of anger. Then, for a moment, it looked to the trail boss like the man's hand was tightening on the trigger of the rifle.

"Stay back!" Favor hissed, putting himself between Alice and the gunman.

The wind continued to build until it reached the fever pitch it had been during the storm. The ghostly stillness of the mine was suddenly broken by a high pitched whine, fueled by the increasingly strong gusts that traveled through the mine.

"No!" Mercer shouted, his head turning in all directions, as though trying to catch a glimpse of the wind. "You can't bring me to trial . . . Take all I got, all that I worked for . . . I own this town . . . I OWN this town - -"

"Let's get him," Rowdy urged as he tried to move forward.

The trail boss shook his head "No, Rowdy, no one moves. If he uses that rifle in here, we'll all be killed."

"We've got to do something, Boss," Yates argued.

"Not 'til I give the order," Favor said, using his body to block the ramrod from moving past.

The whining sounds continued, rising in pitch and strength. Though their nerves were on edge, Favor and his men noticed the sound of the wind was beginning to have a strange effect on the gunman.

In only a matter of seconds, the anger in the man's eyes evaporated. His threatening stance disappeared and Mercer's body suddenly seemed to shrink in size. Tremors began coursing through him, causing the gunman's body to quake all over.

Then Mercer began speaking again in a rambling, hurt voice.

"Your honor," he stuttered, "that accident weren't my fault . . ."

The drovers shifted uncomfortably as they watched the man's eyes glaze over until it looked like he was staring right through them.

"It's them," Mercer shouted, shoving Wishbone and Pete back towards the others with the rifle. "It's them miners, they're the ones to blame!"

The two drovers inched slowly backwards, not wanting to attract the gunman's attention. Just as they made it back to the others, the anger returned to the man's body with a vengeance. Mercer waved his fist in the air defiantly, taking long, staggering steps towards the open shaft.

"Pa, no!" Alice called fearfully.

Unaware of anything else around him, the magnitude of the man's anger increased. The words continued to spew out of his mouth. "They got what they deserved!" He shouted belligerently, yelling in the direction the shaft. "Always complainin' about their wages, never satisfied with what they was given - -"

Favor and the others watched with bated breath as the man stopped in front of the open shaft. The trail boss saw the rifle falter and began moving forward.

"Now - -" Favor ordered.

It was too late. Favor, Wishbone and Rowdy rushed forward just as the man took his final step and tumbled down the shaft. Alice screamed and tried to run after them. Pete grabbed the woman and held on, even though she fought hard against his grip.

A sickening scream rent the air. Rowdy weakly slumped against the wall while Favor and Wishbone continued past him.

Several agonizingly long seconds passed as Favor and Wishbone knelt down alongside of the opening. Then Wishbone looked away quickly and Favor let out a heavy breath. His eyes met Rowdy and Pete's, a grim expression on his face.

"Is he - -?" Rowdy asked.

The trail boss nodded slowly.

"He stepped into that shaft on purpose . . .like he wanted to die . . ." Wishbone whispered.

Then the woman stopped fighting with Nolan and collapsed against him in a torrent of tears . . .

By late afternoon, Favor and his men were ready to begin their journey back to camp.

With the two injured drovers watching from the back of the wagon, Wishbone and Alice Mercer stood silently outside of the mine and as Favor pounded a wooden cross marker into a small pile of rocks that the drovers had moved in front of the entrance.

"I'm sorry," Favor said as they began walking towards the wagon and waiting horses. "I wish this things hadn't turned out this way."

"I'm grateful to you, Mr. Favor," Alice replied in a shaky voice. "And to your men, for all that you've done. You didn't have to, not after everything that happened to you here."

You're sure, about wanting to go on to Crescent City?" Favor asked. "We don't mind takin' you along with us, if you want to go someplace else. We'll be goin' by a lot of towns, any one of them'd be a good place for you to settle."

She shook her head. "I'm sure. I thank you for the offer, Mr. Favor, but whether I like it or not, I'll always be tied to Mercer Flats because of Pa . . . " her voice broke for a moment. "bein' here. I ain't got no choice but to stay close by."

"I understand." Favor replied quietly. He helped the woman up into her saddle before moving on to check on the wagon.

"Wish, you'd better get started. Tell Quince we'll be holding over a couple more days to give Rowdy and Pete a chance to mend. I'll be back before the noon meal tomorrow, after I take Miss Mercer to Crescent City."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Favor," Wishbone replied. "Don't you worry none, we'll look after things till you get back."

Favor waited until the wagon was a distance away before mounting his horse. He noticed that Alice's attention had wandered and that the woman was staring vacantly at the cross marker.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to stay longer and say whatever good byes you need to say?"

"No . . . I'm okay." The woman forced a smile. "I was just thinkin' that the man that died today wasn't really my father . . ." She replied haltingly. "I realized back there in the mine that my father died . . . a long, long time ago . . . just like the town did . . ."

Then the two horses rode off towards the darkening night sky, leaving the deserted town and it's dead at rest for the first time in its tragic history.

The End.