This is a fanfiction novel based on the popular classic TV Western series "The Rifleman" about a widowed father, Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) trying to raise his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), in the 1880's New Mexico Territory.

This was one of my favorite shows and I thought it would be fun to try and write a novel depicting the characters as closely to the series as possible. This is my first attempt of writing a novel and I would appreciate the feedback, but please be kind to this shy closet writer, lol.

Hope you enjoy it!

(Chapters reposted after correcting many boo boos. Sorry everyone, I'm a lousy proofreader!)

Prologue: Salt Creek, Texas

Several weeks earlier:

The late afternoon sun had already begun to cut long deep shadows across the wide dirt track street as the two men slowly rode into the quiet little town of Salt Creek, Texas. Against the flickering glare of fading orange their features appeared in silhouette as they passed by the dozen or so crudely built wooden structures lined up on either side. Though strangers were not an unusual site in the small cattle town which bordered along the edge of New Mexico Territory, their arrival nevertheless drew interest from several of the town's locals.

With collars turned up against the cool breeze of late Spring, it was how their coat flaps remained flipped open to the sides exposing the nickel plated hardware and their posture in saddle that caused the curiosity. For these men were not the usual cow traps, gamblers or even the occasional wayward western traveler that often passed through Salt Creek. They were a different breed. They were gunslingers.

The older of the two rode slightly ahead of his younger companion. Slouched casually back in the saddle and holding the reins of his horse loosely it appeared as if he were indifferent to the stares. But to the more experienced, his eyes were keenly focused, alert to any shift or unusual movement. His gaze shifted past the gilded lettering above the shops which advertised the basic of needs: a general store, a feed & grain, a gun shop & leathery, a café/hotel, and a tent laundry, pausing only briefly at the sheriff's office before finally settling on the building at the far end of the street.

The second rider, who was on the closer side of a teenager than a man, sat straighter in the saddle and, wearing the brim on his hat low to conceal his eyes, silently watched the reactions of the town people as they passed. A shopkeeper momentarily halted his sweeping; a woman with a youngin' waiting next to a buckboard wagon loaded with supplies tugged her child a little closer to her apron skirt; two men along the boardwalk slowed their pace to a cautious step. The young gun had seen it before. It was always the same whenever they entered a town: respect underlined by nervous curiosity. He understood their reaction and rightly so.

A short distance from the saloon, they came to a halt. Dismounting, a gust of devil wind blew a cloud of dust up from the street then circled passed them as if in greeting, or perhaps warning, as they tethered the lathered horses to a sagging hitching post near a watering trough. Their boots thumped heavily against the worn wooden planks of the raised boardwalk as they made their way towards the saloon.

At the far end of the musty, dimly lit room, stood a crudely built bar held up on each end and in the middle by large wooden rain barrels. A middle-aged bartender with bushy eyebrows and thinning hair stood behind the table drying some glasses. Since evening had not quite settled in, apart from the bartender only a small group was present inside: a young saloon girl named Mavis, a tinhorn gambler and an old prospector who at the moment lay slumped over a table with an empty bottle of whiskey tipped on its side.

The gambler, who went by the name of Kentucky Jack, sat at an empty table across the room waiting for the locals to start filtering in. Though a deck of cards was spread out before him in a game of solitaire, the gambler found it more entertaining to people watch and at the moment his interest was directed at the young saloon girl perched on the edge of a barstool trying to ignore the look of disapproval coming from the barkeeper.

"I'm telling you for your own good stay away from that Clayton fellow Mavis," he heard the bartender say.

The young pretty brunette gave the bartender a sour look. "Thanks for the advice Sid but in case you haven't noticed, I am a full grown woman capable of making my own decisions."

The bartender's snort made Mavis roll her eyes dramatically.

"Well I am! Honestly sometimes your worse that my old man ever was," she said exasperatedly.

The barkeeper's bushy eyebrows came down into a straight line. "He's just looking for a little fun, honey. I wouldn't put too much stock into any of those promises he's been making lately."

"Not that it's any of your business but Cole's not like that!" Mavis declared emphatically.

The bartender sighed. "Oh, I ain't saying he doesn't have a few feelings for you, but his daddy owns the biggest spread around these parts not to mention half the town and he's got bigger plans for that boy than…." He let the rest of his sentence drop.

"Than what Sid? Someone like me?" But Sid's lack of response was answer enough. Defiantly she crossed her arms for she'd had this conversation with the over-protective bar keeper before. "Well don't you worry none. I can take care of myself!" She turned away from the bartender. Sid sighed at went back to drying more glasses as a stiff silence hung in the air.

So when the swinging doors of the Lucky Seven suddenly swung opened, everyone, with the exception of the boozed out prospector, looked up with interest as the newcomers entered.

Pausing briefly just inside the dim interior, the stranger walked with measured steps across the room while his younger companion held back, choosing to linger near the door, one hand resting loosely at the hip just above the exposed gun belt. The movement did not go unnoticed by the experienced eye of the bartender.

Nevertheless, he greeted the stranger as he stepped up to the bar. "Welcome to the Lucky Seven. What can I get ya, mister?"


"Comin' right up."

Retrieving a bottle from under the counter, Sid poured a measure of amber liquid into a glass. But as he went to put the bottle away, the stranger placed his hand over the top.

"Leave it."

Glancing up, Sid replied. "Whole bottle will cost ya three dollars, mister."

Digging into his vest pocket, the man flipped several coins onto the counter. Satisfied, the bartender released the bottle without argument and went back to his task of drying glasses.

The clink of silver on the counter seemed to catch the young saloon girl's interest or perhaps she was still a little piqued at the over-protective bartender's assessment of her prospects. Either way, she scooted off the stool and sashayed across to the end of the bar where the stranger was propped against the counter. Sid's warning glance to watch herself with this one, only managed to illicit a defiant smile.

With a rogue painted face and crimson lips she leaned against the bar. Wearing a black lacy dress with red satin beneath and a large boa feather in her dark hair, she let the thin shawl wrap slip off one shoulder exposing the creamy white flesh while resting her brightly painted fingers lightly on her corset tightened waist.

Wetting her lips, she smiled coyly. "Say mister, that drink looks mighty fine. How 'bout sharin' one with a lady?"

As the stranger swiveled his head to the side, Mavis caught site of a pair of steely gray eyes regarding her intently. Several seconds seem to pass before he nodded indifferently.

Silently, Sid produced another glass for the girl though his bushy eyebrows now seemed to form one straight disapproving line.

Ignoring the bartender, Mavis gripped the drink and sipped on it slowly. She tipped her glass towards the stranger and smiled. "Appreciate the drink, mister."

"Anything for a lady," the stranger mockingly drawled sliding his gaze from the low cut of her dress then slowly moving back up to eye level. Mavis' smile faltered slightly. For despite her age the girl, like the dress, already had begun to show signs of wear. Once youthful, her face now bore fine crow's lines at the corners when she smiled, a reminder of the harshness faced to a single woman without many prospects in the western frontier.

"Sure a chilly day out there today," she attempted small talk, but the stranger continued to sip his drink in silence. "You're not from around here. Just passing through?"

"You could say that," he replied coolly.

Beneath several days' growth of whiskers, his features appeared sharply chiseled and may have even been considered handsome if not for the steel grey eyes which continued to bore down at her.

"I'm Mavis," she finally said when the stranger made no more effort to carry on the conversation. She ran her fingertips along the lace trim of her dress. Unfortunately the movement appeared more nervous than seductive making the stranger's mouth curl with slight amusement. Despite Sid's position only a couple yards away, Mavis' earlier bravado appeared to falter slightly.

Breaking eye contact, she looked towards the swinging doors where his lanky companion was still positioned and asked, "What about your friend? He planning on holding up the door all night?"

He shrugged indifferently. "If he has a mind to."

Then quite suddenly the stranger leaned in close. The movement was so unexpected that Mavis found herself backed up against the bar. She felt the stranger's warm breath, with its lingering aroma of tobacco mixed with whiskey, fanning her cheek. But it was those steely orbs only inches away that kept her frozen. They seemed to penetrate like the blade of a sharp precision knife and the sudden shiver that went up the lace strappings of her dress had nothing to do with the chill from a cold afternoon.

Sid, sensing trouble, glanced down at the sawed off shot gun within easy reach under the bar. But instead of grabbing Mavis as half expected, the stranger simply stretched his arm around her and retrieved another glass from the tray Sid had been drying.

Showing it to her, he smiled wickedly at her reaction, tipped his hat, then gathered the bottle and glasses and moved to the other side of the room.

On the other end of the saloon, Kentucky Jack quietly watched the exchange. A gambler by trade, he had made a fair living by reading people well and found the strangers to be a curious pair. The older of the two was clearly in charge, his manner cool but authoritative. He was tall, lean and hard, in more ways than one. The gambler had seen the likes of him before and knew such men should be handled with care.

The younger man, who had still not left his post, was almost as tall but lankier not having quite grown into himself. His attention seemed to shift back and forth between his companion and the empty street outside, his hand never far from the pistol holstered at his side. Though he had a cocky appearance which tried to mirror his partner, he was edgier, like a colt not quite broken in.

Wondering to what purpose the two had in such a dust bowl of a town as Salt Creek and with his luck having run cold recently, the gambler tapped the deck of cards to the table hoping to draw the attention of the man for a game. But the stranger ignored him and opted to settle at one of the tables on the other side of the room well away from those that would have a mind to stretch an ear.

With his back to the wall and his eyes on the swinging doors, he pulled off the black leather gloves and slapped them on the table. Grabbing the bottle, he refilled his glass and jerked his head towards his partner.

The young gun settled in a chair across from him. The stranger gulped the whiskey down without so much as a flinch then slid another glass across the table. Picking the amber liquid up, the young gun tried to do the same but ended up choking as the rock gut burned his throat. The stranger's bemused laugh caused him to shift edgily in his seat. Finishing a second shot, the man then tipped his chair back so it was propped against the wall, lifted his boots atop the arm of the chair next to him and placed his hat over his face. He crossed his arms loosely and appeared content to settle in for a spell.

At the table the young gun sat with slumped shoulders as he impatiently rolled the rim of the shot glass around in hands. They'd ridden hard for the last several days and despite his weariness he was antsy.

After what seemed like a considerable time had passed, he leaned in and asked in a voice that didn't carry across the room, "How much longer Lloyd?"

A heavy silence followed. Beneath the black felt hat came the cool reply. "Till I say."

This didn't seem to set well with the young gun who seemed to have as much difficulty sitting still in his seat as the stranger had in ease. He let out an impatient sigh.

The stranger tipped his hat back enough to reveal the grey dark eyes which lately had an underlying edge of impatience and something else. "Something wrong?"

Looking to the swinging doors he shrugged then went back to rolling his shot glass around impatiently. "Just itching to get on with it that's all, I guess."

"You know that's your problem, kid. You're always in too much in a hurry," Lloyd berated. "It'll get you killed before your time."

The young gun bristled. "I can take care of myself!" he stubbornly insisted. Though he was nearly seventeen he'd already been on his own for some time even before he decided to join up with Lloyd. And although he could easily outdraw most men he was still often thought of as just a kid.

Reading his, Lloyd snorted. "A fast draw isn't the only thing that will keep you alive boy. You still got a hell of a lot to learn, especially when it comes to following orders."

The young gun shifted uncomfortably in his seat. By the gruffness in his tone, he knew Lloyd was still annoyed by the latest stunt he pulled.

"I knew I should have had Duke and Elliot hog tie you to your horse and drag your butt up with them."

Almost a week earlier, Lloyd and his men had been in a jovial mood celebrating their latest successful heist and escape. But that had changed when a messenger rode hard into their camp. He didn't know what was said, but almost instantly Lloyd's mood had changed and the young gun sensed something big was up. Later that night Lloyd and the two Craxton brothers, Duke and Elliot, had gotten into a heated argument over Lloyd's sudden decision to change their plans. Originally they were going to head up north. After the success of several jobs had begun to generate a little too much heat with the local law, the gang had decided it was time to move on. Duke and Elliot had family up in Taos they were eager to see and where they also knew they could lay low for a while. But Lloyd's sudden announcement to head south into Texas created a rift.

With hefty bounties on their heads already, and their faces too well know in Texas, the Craxton brothers didn't to want take the risk. Though Duke had tried to talk Lloyd out of it, he'd remained adamant. Unable to reach a compromise, they eventually decided to split up. Ordering the young gun to go with them, Lloyd told his men he'd meet them up north later after he finished his business in Texas.

But the young gun had other plans. Early the next morning Lloyd had set off alone. Defiantly, the young gun had followed, tailing Lloyd for almost two days before the outlaw had doubled back, cornered him, and had nearly blown his head off in the process. But by then it had been too late to turn back and Lloyd was reluctantly forced into bringing him along.

"We've been through all this before, Lloyd. I'm sticking with you. Besides you might need help."

His choice of words seemed to bring about a reaction in Lloyd that was far less reassuring than the young gun had hoped for. Bringing his chair down on all fours, once again the young gun felt the weight of Lloyd's displeasure.

Across the table, he regarded his young protégé intensely. Though perhaps Lloyd had given him more leniency than he usually bestowed on the rest of his men, after several weeks his patience was beginning to wane.

The steel eyes narrowed in sharp focus. "Then you better see to it that you do exactly as you're told. This isn't a game kid and I want no more mistakes like the one in El Paso understand?" Lloyd warned ominously.

The young gun's gaze dropped to his glass. El Paso was still a pretty sore point between them. It had been the first time he'd experienced Lloyd's wrath personally and was not eager to repeat the experience. Nevertheless he was determined to prove his worth.

"You can count on me," he re-assured firmly.

Lloyd poured himself another measure of whiskey, but his features remained hard and less than convinced.

A short while later a third man entered the saloon, his age somewhere between the first two men. Also packing, his holster riding low on narrow hips, he walked over and stood before them holding his hands in front of him, thumbs hooked easily into his gun belt. Though it had been some time the young gun recognized him immediately.

"Hey Briggs," he said a little sheepishly.

Briggs' eyes narrowed as if surprised to see him. "Is that who I think it is?"

"In the flesh," Lloyd muttered sternly.

Briggs threw Lloyd a confused look

Lloyd turned to the young gun. "Get lost for a while, kid. Briggs and I need to talk."

"But..." he started to protest but was stopped in mid-sentence.

"Do as I say, now." Lloyd didn't raise his voice, but the tone spoke of no argument.

The young gun's lips thinned into a stubborn angry line but, nevertheless got up and left without another word knowing he was already on thin ice as it was with the outlaw leader. Briggs watched him go, then swung the seat just vacated around and straddled it. He poured himself a shot to wet down his parched throat.

He shook his head. "Kid's strung tighter than rawhide strapped to a fence post."

"And your point?"

He shrugged. "Just surprised you'd bring him along that's all."

"I didn't." Lloyd went on to explain the circumstances for this young gun's presence.

Briggs couldn't help but chuckle slightly. "Yeah, that sounds just like the kid. Never did have an ounce of sense." Cocking his head to the side he noticed the bartender throwing them a curious sideways glance. His smile faded and once again grew serious. "I don't know Lloyd. You sure can trust him? I mean this job ain't like the others you know."

Lloyd looked hard at Briggs, eyes narrowing.

"You got something to say spit it out."

"I've known you a long time, long enough to know the score. But the kid?"

"Go on."

Briggs looked directly at him. "He's young and cocky and maybe out to prove himself, especially to you, but he's still got somethin' you and I lost a long time ago, my friend."

"And what would that be?"

"A conscience."

The outlaw leader nodded grimly. For the most part, ever since the kid had hooked up with them, Lloyd had deliberately kept him out of the main action despite his eagerness to be more involved. In this business Lloyd couldn't afford mistakes, especially from a cocky teenager that sometimes had more thickheaded stubbornness than common sense. Instead he'd used him primarily as a lookout. And so far they'd been damn lucky. Except for El Paso, most jobs had gone off without a hitch.

But as Briggs had said, this wasn't like any other job and Lloyd still wasn't convinced the kid had the stomach to travel down the same road Lloyd had been on for the last fifteen years. Perhaps it was time enough they both came to an understanding.

"Well, I guess it's about time we rectified that, don't you think?"

Briggs regarded him darkly but knew better than to argue the point.

Getting back to matters at hand, Lloyd asked, "So, what did you find out?"

After taking another sip of whiskey, Briggs filled him in. "Wagon stopped about five miles out of town, near the old way station but looks like it's heading into town under escort."

Lloyd frowned. The fact that they were changing their route didn't set well.

"Why, what's up?"

"Not sure, but probably not good. All I know is they sent someone out from the station and a little while later the sheriff rode up with a couple of men."

"How many?"

"Three, plus the two men on the wagon."

Lloyd muttered under his breath. If that good for nothing piece of hog flesh blew it, Lloyd would string him up to a tree himself.

"Where's Smitty?"

"Trailing them back into town. I rode up ahead through a back trail." Briggs looked at him squarely. "Are we gonna do the job here?"

Lloyd shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was draw unnecessary attention.

"No we'll wait, least until we find out what the hell's going on. Take the kid with you and make sure you stay out of sight."

Briggs nodded, rose and left.

Casey the piano player wandered downstairs and took position behind the ivory keys as darkness began to fall. Soon the saloon was filled with lively ivory tunes with the hopes of enticing the locals to come in.

The young gun, who had been leaning against the hitching post outside, straightened up as Briggs approached. Though still annoyed at being brushed aside he couldn't help but avert his eyes at Briggs' look of disapproval.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Guess Lloyd filled you in, huh?"

Briggs nodded grimly. "You've pulled some stupid stunts in the past kid, but this takes the cake! You should have gone up north!"

But the boy's stubbornness returned. "I already told Lloyd I'm not leaving so no sense for you to try and talk me out of it either. Whatever Lloyd's got planned he's going to need some help."

Briggs sighed and shook his head. "This isn't the place for you, boy. Not this time."

The young gun's temper flared. "I wish everyone would quit treating me like I'm some baby that needs watching!"

Briggs scoffed. "Then maybe you should start acting like one." Briggs sighed. "This ain't no life for you kid. It will make you old or dead before your time."

"I've been on my own since before I was fifteen. I can take care of myself!"

Briggs crossed his arms. "Geez, you're as stubborn and thickheaded as ever aren't ya?"

When the young gun reared his head defiantly back Briggs could see the pointlessness in arguing further and besides they had work to do. Maybe Lloyd was right. Maybe it was time the kid understood what Lloyd was really about. But the thought brought him little pleasure.

"All right kid, as long as you know the score. But I'm warning you right now. Don't mess with Lloyd. This isn't the time or the place for screw ups."

From the shadows across the street Briggs saw movement. A dark figure was waving them over. Briggs nodded. "Come on."

"Where are we going?" the young gun asked curiously.

"Just shut up and keep out of sight!"

They crossed the street, avoiding the lantern lit walkways as much as possible and joined up with the third man. Briggs briefly introduced him as Smitty. The two followed the man down the street until they came to a dark alleyway.

Motioning the young gun to position himself at the entrance of the alley, Briggs and Smitty headed towards the back of the two story wooden building before the young gun could protest. Fuming, he was forced to remain at his post watching guard over an empty street, once again feeling left out of the action.

Back in the saloon, seeing the stranger was now alone, Kentucky Jack walked over to his table shuffling the deck on cards with one hard. Dressed neatly in a pin stripped coat and white ruffled shirt, he flashed a pearly white smile.

"How 'bout a game mister? I'm feeling kinda lucky tonight."

The stranger looked up from his drink and indifferently offered the man a seat.

Once settled Kentucky Jack motioned for Mavis. She walked over and placed her hand on his shoulder. Looking up he gave her a bright friendly smile.

"Honey, how 'bout fixin' me a sandwich?"

"Sure Jack." She glanced a little uncertainly at the stranger. "How 'bout you mister? We ain't got the selection of the café but we do have beefsteak sandwiches."

He shrugged. "Why not, mame?"

Mavis met his stare and hurriedly departed.

"Never seen Mavis so skittish," Kentucky Jack chuckled as he shuffled the deck. He pulled out a cigar and lit it slowly. "Jacks Wild okay with you?"

The stranger merely waved his hand in agreement.

The gambler dealt the hand. "So what brings you to this fair little town? Business or pleasure?" He asked clinching the cigar lightly in his teeth.

The stranger seemed in no rush to answer. "Perhaps a little of both. I suppose you could say I'm meeting an old friend."

With one arched brow, Kentucky Jack probed a little more. "Oh? Seems an odd little place to meet, this being such a quiet little town."

"I happen to like quiet little towns, especially when they don't ask a lot of questions."

The gambler raised his hands off the table. "Didn't mean to step on any toes. I'll say no more friend."

The two played for a while, the gambler unable to read much from the aloof stranger. Mavis brought the sandwiches and refreshed their drinks, pouring one for herself. Kentucky Jack kept the conversation flowing lightly, but whenever it steered too far into the stranger's business, he was stonewalled.

Slowly as the evening set in, one by one some of the locals wandered in. A few joined the card game and Kentucky Jack wasn't able to learn anything more.

Down the street, a prison wagon stood outside the back of Snivley & Sons Undertaking. It was quarter past nine. The only source of light in the otherwise dark alley came from the door left ajar. Inside stretched out on a table the soles of a pair of black boots could be seen.

In the background, the faint sound of Casey's piano could be heard drifting out from the saloon just down the street as two dark figures concealed themselves behind several wooden crates in the alley. Near the back door the sheriff stood talking to one of the guards. "All right tell me what happened again."

"We already explained," the guard said annoyingly.

"Just like to make sure I have all the facts straight for my report, so amuse me," the sheriff replied.

Briggs and Smitty listened as the guard went over the details again.

They had been transporting two condemned felons from Galveston back to Fort Sumner for hanging when a fight broke out in back of the locked cell. By the time the guards had managed to unlock the iron door one man lay dead, his neck snapped and laying at an odd angle. Still in chains, the other man was dragged out but not without some difficulty. He'd finally been subdued only after a rifle butt had been put up to the side of his head. But the guard's partner hadn't come off unscathed from the scuffle having received a broken arm and a gash in the forehead for the effort.

But as part of their policy, they were required to notify the local authorities and get the necessary paper work filled out on the body they were leaving behind for their superiors.

The local undertaker came out of the back office followed by the second guard, his arm now in a sling and his head bandaged. With the nearest medical doctor almost fifty miles away, the undertaker sometimes had to fill in as the town's unofficial saw-bones.

"Well that will get you at least to Raulings but I doubt that arm's gonna be of much use for a while."

"Thanks doc," the guard said as he struggled up into the wagon.

Both guards were in a foul mood, knowing that would have much to explain when they reached their final destination.

Sheriff Walt O'Malley stood outside the back door, shotgun in hand, having escorted the prison wagon back into town. A portly man with a handlebar mustache, he was eager to see them on their way disliking everything about the whole nasty set-up and the two guards in particular.

But beyond getting the required information he had little authority in this matter. Once satisfied, the sheriff agreed to let them continue on their way but told them he'd wire the sheriff over in Raulings to meet them and help escort them the rest of the way into Fort Sumner.

"You sure you are gonna be all right until then?" he asked, glancing at the injured guard then at the back of the prison wagon with distain. The guards nodded. From the back he could hear the prisoner groaning as he came to. "What about him?" The sheriff asked.

The guard holding the reins glanced briefly back, a wicked smug smile crossing over his craggy face. The two guards would be glad to be rid of the condemned man. From the start he'd been more than a handful and both were getting tired of listening to the paranoid rantings and threats over the last several days.

"He's not going anywhere. He won't be giving us anymore trouble."

"Very well," the sheriff said sourly, despising the two guards as much as the situation that had brought the prison wagon into town in the first place.

From the back chains rattled and a crazed angry voice shouted. "You lousy pigs! Just you wait, when I get out of here you're both dead meat, ya hear!"

The guard pounded the side of the prison wagon. "Quiet down back there unless you want this rifle upside your head again!"

"You're gonna pay! Nobody lays a hand on me and gets away with it!"

"You're the one who'll be paying, stretched out on the end of a rope!" The other guard hissed.

The prisoner pounded the walls of the wagon as the driver set the team in motion.

The sheriff watched the wagon head out of town wondering what kind of men could possible want a job like that. But by the appearance of the two guards, he knew his answer. When they were out of sight, he gave a sigh of relief. He hated the sight of those things. They were usually nothing but trouble.

Down the alley, the two figures crouched in the shadows quietly retreated as the wagon pulled away.

Once regrouped, Briggs led Smitty and the young gun almost completely out of town.

"Where are we going now?" the young gun asked.

"You'll see"

Briggs cut between two buildings and across a field full of tall grass before stopping. Taking a pocket knife out he motioned the young gun to give him a boost. Briggs climbed to the top and cut the telegraph wires leading into town before shimming back down.

A short time later Briggs returned to the saloon and nodded over at Lloyd before retreating back outside. Finishing his hand, he picked his winnings, tipped his hat to Mavis and quietly left without a word.

As the men left, Sid who had been wiping down the counter, stepped over to the swinging doors and watched as the three men mounted up, turn their horses about and head out of town. Once out of sight, he walked over to the gambler's table.

"What's going on?" Mavis asked.

"Nothin'. They're riding out."

"What do you think they're up to?"

"Not sure." Sid replied.

Mavis looked towards the doors. "Well, I'm not sorry to see them go. That tall one gave me the creeps."

"You did seem a might skittish Mavis honey," the gambler replied.

"You would be too if you looked into those cold eyes. Maybe we should let Walt know."

"And tell him what?" Sid asked "They haven't done anything. Besides they left town anyways. Most likely they're just passing through."

Kentucky Jack shook his head. "I don't know."

"Why? What ya find out?" Sid asked the gambler.

The gambler shrugged "Not much. He's got a pretty good poker face. Said he was just meeting his friend."

"Well I think you should still tell Walt," Mavis insisted.

"Well, Walt ought to be back any time," Sid informed them. "Said he had to take care of some business but that was quite a while ago. I'll mention it to him when he gets back."

Just then four men entered. They were regulars, wranglers from the Triple T. Mavis' eyes suddenly brightened as she spotted the familiar tall dark haired man. As she rushed over to his side Kentucky Jack didn't miss the extremely sour looked that crossed the barkeeper's face.

"Mavis, honey! How's my favorite girl?" the wrangler said scooping the saloon girl up and spinning her around.

Mavis laughed. "Just fine Cole, now that you're here," she said a little breathlessly, her eyes sparkling with delight. "But I haven't seen you in a nearly a month!" she pouted.

He let her down, but held her lightly by the waist. This was one wrangler Mavis didn't mind in the least holding her. A slight blush appeared on her face.

The wrangler smiled down at her and gave her a quick kiss followed by a pat on the rump. "Sorry honey but my old man's been keeping me busy repairing fence line and trying to round up every stupid stray up in these hills! But I'm here now and the boys and I intend to have a little fun. So how about wiping that pout off your face and fixing up a round for me and the boys? It's cold out there and I'm in the mood to be warmed up."

"You got it!" Mavis said.

Almost immediately two of the cowhands saddled up to Kentucky Jack's table. With fresh fruit for the pickings, the gambler's smile widened.

As the hour grew later, more men entered the saloon. Casey kept the place lively with music and as the whiskey flowed, the voices rose. Soon Sid, Mavis and Kentucky Jack forgot about the strangers.

After Walt finished up at the undertaker's, he set off to make his remaining rounds hoping the rest of his night would be better. But it wasn't to be his luck. Half way through he heard the crash of glass and turned to see two men careen through the front window of the Lucky Seven. Sid immediately erupted from the saloon with shotgun in hand cursing loudly with Mavis quickly in pursuit. Cole, obviously drunk, had Kentucky Jack by the collar and leveled an upper cut to his jaw sending the gambler reeling into the nearby watering trough. Several cowboys emerged from the saloon cheering him on as Cole accused the gambler of cheating at cards. The sheriff arrived in the middle of the commotion just as Mavis tried to keep Sid from leveling the shotgun at her handsome wrangler.

For the next several hours Walt had his hands full dealing with several drunken cowboys and an unconscious gambler while at the same time trying to calm the livid bartender down about the cost of a broken plate glass window, not to mention several chairs and a half dozen bottles of good red eye. It was to be a long night.

Four miles outside of Salt Creek, concealed behind a grove of trees, the group of men on horseback watched as the prison wagon lumbered by. The moon was nearly full and cast the wagon in a shadowy silhouette. The riders let it pass and move ahead some distance before following slowly behind. Once it rounded a bend and entered more hilly terrain, the riders turned off the road and cut across open country until they joined up with the road again, this time ahead of the wagon.

Lloyd motioned his men to take their positions.

The two guards never had a chance. Out of the darkness the wagon was immediately surrounded by the four men on horseback taking the guards completely by surprise. It a reckless move the injured guard riding shotgun awkwardly attempted to raise his rifle only to receive a bullet in his chest for the effort. He slumped motionless in his seat as the single shot echoed loudly into the quiet darkness.

Smoke drifted from the piece Briggs held in his hand. As the young gun moved in from the side he glanced from the dead man quickly over at Briggs.

The steely eyed outlaw threw Briggs a sharp look before approaching the remaining guard who quickly dropped the reins and raised his hands in the air. Lloyd leveled his pistol calmly at the man's chest.

"Get down," he ordered.

Scrambling out off the wagon, the guard nearly missed his footing as he eyed the group of men nervously. Lloyd walked over and stood before the shaken guard. He motioned to the locked cell door with a wave of his pistol.

"Now open it up," he directed.

"I can't do that."

The driver heard the hammer being cocked and cringed.

"Unless you want to end up like your friend over there, I'd advise you to cooperate. I don't like to ask twice."

Next to Lloyd the young gun felt the adrenaline starting to rush through his veins. For despite Briggs' apparent hasty maneuver, Lloyd had once more taken the situation over smoothly.

With his eyes staring straight down the barrel of Lloyd's gun the guard had little choice but to comply. He put up a trembling hand. "All right…..just please don't shoot."

Briggs escorted the guard to the back of the wagon. With shaky fingers, he unlocked the large metal lock and the iron door squeaked open.

A large heavy set man in chains was inside. His hair was matted wildly about with dried blood plastered to the side of his face; his right cheek was swollen and bruised. Sagging jowls were covered in dark stubble and his eyes were round and kinda bulged out from the sockets giving him a crazed look.

As he climbed out he said, "'Bout time you showed up!"

"Nice to see you too Roark," Lloyd mocked staring at the over-weight sorry example of a man.

"Thought maybe you'd forgotten about me," Roark jeered contemptuously back. The convict was in a fool mood showing little gratitude for his freedom.

"Hardly," Lloyd drawled. "In case you've forgotten, we still have some unfinished business."

Roark threw him a hard menacing look. "I haven't forgotten a thing, especially the last five years I spent in that army stink hole."

"For your own stupidity," Lloyd replied calmly. "And just to set the record straight the only reason I'm even bothering with your sorry ass is to get what's due me."

Roark looked down at the dead guard and shook his head, laughing without humor. "And what if I said I don't have it anymore, that it's probably long gone?"

"Then I suppose I'll just put a bullet in your head right now and save the law the cost of a rope."

The convict chuckled. "See you haven't changed much." Roark scratched his stubbled cheek as if trying to weigh his options then winced as his fingers moved over the swollen welt on his cheek. Tilting his head he looked at Lloyd through the narrow pudgy slit of one eye. "And just suppose I do happen to know where it is? What's my guarantee that if I tell you, you're not going to plug me anyway?"

Lloyd stepped closer. "Guess you just going to have to trust me, partner," he said with a certain amount of sarcasm that made the convict frown back.

"Well, why don't you just get these damn chains off me and maybe we'll talk some business."

"Oh they'll be no maybe about it my fat friend, I guarantee that," Lloyd replied hardly. "Five years ago we had a deal, and now it's time to pay up, one way or the other." Roark shot Lloyd a dark look.

The outlaw leader directed the young gun standing on the sidelines to retrieve the keys for the shackles off the dead guard. As he climbed up into the wagon and patted the man down, he tried to avert his eyes from the lifeless face staring back at him.

While they waited Roark glanced over at Lloyd's right hand man. "Nice seein' you again Briggs," he said sarcastically.

Briggs tipped his hat briefly with the barrel of his pistol. There seemed to be no love loss between these two men either.

As the shackles were released, Roark looked curiously at the newest lanky member of the outlaw gang. Tossing the chains aside, he rubbed his raw wrists then jerked his head towards Lloyd.

"Startin' them a little young, ain't ya?" he laughed sarcastically. The young gun bristled in agitation.

But Roark's attention had already shifted back to the remaining guard. A twisted smile crept across the pudgy swollen face as the guard shrank back against the slats of the wagon. With slow deliberation he approached the guard. Reaching out, he grabbed him by the shirt in a two-fisted iron grip.

"Now who's calling the shots, eh funny man?" he snarled menacingly nearly lifting the man off the ground.

The guard, seeing the wild look of pleasure in Roark's eyes, trembled.

"You should have finished me off back there when you had the chance, pig."

Meaty fingers wrapped around the man's throat and slowly started to squeeze. As the guard struggled to breath, Roark's smile grew wider. Five years of beatings and humiliation in that army stink hole. It was time to extract some payback.

The guard's face began to take on a mottle purple, his eyes frightened and pleading as he tried to pry the meaty fingers away from his throat. The young gun's weight shifted hesitantly.

Finally he heard Lloyd said, "Let him go, Roark."

But the convict, intent on extracting his revenge, ignored him. "Five years! Five years!" It was only when the feel of cold steel shoved into the back of Roark's neck that his grip loosened.

"I said let him go or I'll match that lump on you fat face with another to the back on the head," he said with deadly calmness. He didn't raise his voice, but instead emphasized his point by jabbing the barrel of the pistol a little further into the pudgy flesh.

Roark reluctantly released him, shoving the guard hard against the wagon. He gasped for air and sank to his knees as the convict swung around glaring viciously at Lloyd. "What's it to you? He's a walking dead man anyway!" he demanded through gritted teeth.

"I have my reasons," Lloyd replied slowly.

Roark snorted. "They better be good ones. No one pulls a gun on me and gets away with it. Not even you."

Lloyd cocked his head slightly to one side. "Would you prefer I stick you back in that wagon and leave you here? A few days in that metal box in the sun without food or water ought to fry your brain up real well. Or you may get lucky and the law will find you in plenty of time to put a rope around your neck."

Eyes piercing and cold, Lloyd remained almost casually poised as a stiff tension formed in the air. The young gun watched the exchange silently from the sidelines as Lloyd once again established the hierarchy in the group, letting the convict know who was to be in charge.

Finally Roark back down. "Whatever you say…. for now."

Lloyd just glared back at him before turning his attention to the terrified guard. "What's your name mister?" he asked almost casually as if nothing unusual had just occurred.

When the guard didn't answer right aware, Lloyd leveled the gun at his face.

"N…Nelson," he replied hoarsely, still gripping his sore throat.

"Nelson," Lloyd repeated slowly. "Now that wasn't so bad." He deliberately paused. "Do you want to live, Nelson?" he asked matter-of-factly.

The guard nodded nervously eyes darting from one man to the next.

Then almost as if having a conversation with an old friend, Lloyd asked, "Got any family, Nelson?"

"A…a wife and three kids," he stuttered in confusion and swallowed hard.

"Three kids, my, my, my." Lloyd nodded, impressed. "I imagine they keep their ma pretty busy."

"I guess." The guard's eyes continued to dart anxiously about.

Lloyd squatted down on his heels and waved the gun in the guard's face bringing the man eyes back to his attention.

The man paled and visibly trembled. "Please mister, I w…won't give ya any trouble, just don't shoot me."

Lloyd smiled pleasantly.

"You got me all wrong, Nelson." Reaching out, he straightened the man's shirt. "Relax man, we're just having a friendly conversation, okay?"

The guard nodded again like a puppet.

"No need to be uncivilized. You've cooperated, unlike your friend over there who did something very stupid," Lloyd said nodding to the dead guard. "I've got what I came for. I've got no quarrel with you. So you just keep cooperating and everything will work out fine between all of us, understand?"

"S...Sure, mister. Whatever you say."

"Mighty respectful, I like that. You just keep thinking like that."

As Lloyd withdrew the gun from the man's face and stood up, the guard let out a long shaky sigh and sank back against the wagon wheel, sweat beading down his face.

Roark started to take a step forward in protest, but Briggs blocked his way, holding his gun up in warning not to intervene.

The young gun, dually impressed moved closer, for this is how Lloyd worked, always in control.

Raising his piece, Lloyd ran the barrel against his stubbled cheek as if in thought. "'Course I do have one little problem." The sudden change in Lloyd's tone caused the young gun's brow to knit into a frown. "You see, my fat friend over here," he said jerking the gun towards Roark, "and I have some rather important business to attend to, one I don't necessarily want to invite a party to, understand?"

The guard nodded.

"So you see my problem, I can't exactly have you taking off for the law as soon as we're gone."

The guard tensed up again, pressing his back against the wheel. Hurriedly, he said, "I swear, mister. I won't tell a soul! I'll stay right here for as long as you say. You won't get a peep out of me for a month of Sundays."

"I would like to believe I could trust that, trust and loyalty being very important traits in a man, don't you agree?"

Confused at the direction of the conversation the guard simply stared back.

Without turning his back Lloyd motioned the young gun to his side. "I want you to take care of this kid. Understand?" Lloyd said slowly.

The young gun looked down at the pathetic frightened guard who was trying to shrink back against the spokes of the wagon as far as he could get. Standing awkwardly at Lloyd's side it took several seconds before his full meaning sank in. The outlaw leader wanted no witnesses. The young gun bit down on his lower lip. It was one thing to shoot back on a man firing at you, but quiet another to do it in cold blood.

"But…" he started to say, but Lloyd whipped around silencing him with a razor sharp tongue.

"If you want to ride with me then I think it's time for you to realize this isn't a game. I play for keeps, understand?" Lloyd snapped. "And those that get in my way get hurt. You chose to come; now it's time to earn your keep."

A thick tension followed as Lloyd waited for his response.

Finally the young gun replied, "All right. Sure Lloyd."

With a heavy step forward, he slowly raised the pistol. The guard gripped the spokes of the wagon wheel until his knuckles turned white, eyes terrified.

The guard pleaded soulfully. "I'm begging ya, please don't kill me!"

As he slowly cocked the gun and tightened his finger over the trigger, the guard dropped his head, a pathetic sob issuing forth. "Please, please, I don't want to die."

The young gun swallowed hard against the bile rising in the back of his throat. With each passing second he could feel the weight of Lloyd's stare like heavy bands constricting his chest. But try as he might he found himself hesitating.

The single shot that rang out a second later startled everyone. It was hard to say who was the more surprised, the young gun or the defenseless guard. Then, as if in slow motion, the young gun watched the guard slowly topple motionlessly over, landing face down in the dirt.

Smoke drifted from the gun in Lloyd's outstretched hand. Numbly the young gun turned back and stared at the growing pool of blood on the ground while Lloyd glanced down at it as if it were no more than a puddle of water.

Stepping closer until he was only inches from the young gun's face, he said in a flat voice devoid of emotion, "That's the difference between the two of us kid. I can and it's time you finally understood that!" There was not an ounce of pity or remorse in his eyes, just hard, black coldness.

It was only Roark's twisted chuckle from the sidelines that caused him to break eye contact. "Damn Lloyd. Couldn't have killed him better myself. I see you haven't lost your touch."

Anger, humiliation and something he couldn't even put into words churned like vomit. Reflexively he raised his pistol and directed it at convict's fat face.

Roark jeered. "Go ahead kid, if you got the guts!"

The young gun stood for several long seconds clenching his teeth but did not fire.

"Yellow! I knew it!" Roark said in disgust, then laughed. "You got yourself a pansy boy here Lloyd."

Without warning, the young gun squeezed the trigger. Roark let out a resounding yelp as the bullet creased the side of his boot, making the outlaw do a quick dance to the side.

"Son of a bitch!' he bellowed, landing on his rear as he grabbed his foot. Smoke drifted off the worn leather. The bullet hadn't ripped a hole in the boot but had left a nasty crease and probably a nice bruise on Roark's foot to go along with it.

"You damn near shot my foot off!" Roark bellowed in surprise.

"If that had been my intention, it would be gone," he snapped back.

"Why you…" Roark growled struggling to raise his bulky frame into a standing position.

"Enough! Both of you!" Lloyd snapped. Turning to the young gun, he ordered, "Go help Briggs get these men and wagon out of sight before we're noticed."

"Listen here Lloyd, if you think I'm going to allow some snot nosed kid to mess with me…" the convict began to protest.

"Shut up Roark and mount up before I decide to shoot you myself."

Smitty tossed Roark the reins to the extra horse they had brought along. Seeing the fury in Lloyd's posture, Roark decided not to push the issue. Besides, for the moment he was right. Best thing they needed to do right now was to get the hell out of here.

Once mounted, Lloyd tossed Roark a gun belt but glared at him in clear warning. Smiling, Roark slid the gun out of the holster, enjoying the grip of cold steel again. Looking down at the two dead guards he shook his head and chuckled, replacing the gun in its sheath. Lloyd was almost as cold as he was. It was an admirable quality.

The young gun couldn't quite keep the trimmer from his hand as the two dead men were placed in the back of the prison wagon. When he looked down he saw that his hand was covered in blood. He stared at it curiously before slowly wiping it off on the dead man's pants. For all his talk of being a fast draw, he had little experience with cold-blooded death. Briggs turned to him with a look of sympathy. The kid had learned a hard lesson today, one he better not soon forget.

Climbing into the driver's seat, Briggs turned the team off the road, hiding the wagon in a small box canyon.

Satisfied the outlaw leader turned to the others. "Let's ride."