pdale was the county seat in this dry area of Oklahoma. A wide, dusty street separated two rows of buildings, mostly made of planks of wood whitened by the glaring sun. One building was of dull red brick, rising two floors with a small and circular third floor that rose like the stump of a tree. It was the county courthouse.

Roofs were mostly of corrugated metal, save for a few, like the Sheriff's office next to the brick building, made of sod and with a flat sod roof.

Spurts of dust rose from the hoofs of a big golden horse that came down the street, ridden by a big man with mild but searching eyes.

A tall, lanky man with a badge on his leather vest came out of the Sheriff's office and stepped out into the street. The sheriff had weather-browned features including a square jaw and brown eyes that, despite his Stetson, were slitted against the afternoon sun.

Reaching the middle of the street, he help up a hand, not in greeting but in a manner that indicated 'Halt!'

The big man murmured something to his magnificent stallion and rubbed its glowing mane. They stopped a few feet short of the sheriff.

"Are you Jim Silver, also known as Silvertip and Arizona Jim?" he asked.

Silvertip pushed back the brim of his hat revealing the two strips of grey in his hair that gave him his name. He bowed his head in a fashion more Latin than western. A slight grin on his face, he replied, "Guilty, Sheriff. What can I do for you?"

A calico-dressed young woman joined the sheriff. Silver's eyes immediately noticed the henna red of the girl's hair, and wondered what secrets she was hiding.

"I know your reputation, Silvertip," the sheriff responded. "Trouble seems to follow you. I want no trouble in Updale."

"All I do with trouble is squash it like a bug, Sheriff. I have no intentions of causing it. May I spend a restful night in your town?"

Putting his arm around the woman's shoulders, the sheriff said, "Got no objections, as long as it's restful, Silvertip."

From a window on the second floor of the brick building, two men were watching, one small but as deadly as a scorpion, one skinny but leather-tough, looked at each other. "Silvertip! I don't like that, Jake!" said the smaller one.

Jake shook his head, "Me neither, Runt! That Silvertip is bad news! Not only that, he's talking to the sheriff and that new schoolmarm. What're we gonna do?"

The room they were in contained two desks, standing on their backs, and the walls were lined with shelves, stacked with documents. Several flies buzzed lazily around. A slight breeze came through the window, but that did little to reduce the heat inside. With the blade of his hand, Runt wiped sweat from his brow.

"That schoolmarm worries me 'bout as much as Silver," he declared. "After all, it's that new school of hers that --"

"Shut up, Runt! Haven't you heard that old saying about the walls having ears?" Jake cut in. "Mebbe we should check with the banker," he said. "Or," he added, "we could kill 'em both right now!"

"Ain't no way!" Runt objected. "That Silver, he got a instinct about them things. Heard about a guy what slipped up behind Silver, had his gun out, and Silver whipped about and shot his gun outta his hand! We ain't gonna be that stupid. I wish Blackjack had shown up sooner. He'd be great on our side."

"Blackjack?" Jake asked. "Sounds like a gambler."

"More'n that, Jake." A chuckle rattled in Runt's throat. "Ain't been in our area long. Come from Louisiana, I think. He'd be good on our side. They sez he's fast on the cards, but even faster with his gun and his knives!"

"Knives?" Runt's chuckle rattled again. "Damn right! Gun on one side, three knives on t'other. They say he does 'em both same time, and it's hard to tell if the bullet or the knife makes it first! Anyways, whoever he's after dies." He shook his head in wonder. "Let's go out the back way and see the banker."

On the street below, Silvertip was thoughtfully eyeing the woman with hennaed hair. She was young, and her beauty was soiled by a look of worry on her face. In his inborn manner, he saw trouble riding her.

"If you don't mind, ma'am," he said, "who are you hiding from?"

A look of startlement crossed her face. "I, why, I --"

Squeezing his hand on her shoulder, the sheriff said, "You don't hafta tell him, Rachel."

The girl's gaze took in Silver's features. Taking a deep breath, she patted the hand on her shoulder and said, "I want to, John," she told him softly. Her blue eyes met those of Silver, then she looked hesitantly at the stallion. "Will your horse mind if I move closer?" she queried.

"He's not my horse," Silvertip said, smiling.

"What? But. . . ."

"He's my partner," Silver corrected, stroking his steed's neck. "You might have noticed there is no bit in his mouth. I don't have spurs. We go together, Parade and me." He murmured something to Parade.

Even though she was standing close, Rachel couldn't make out the words and wasn't, in fact, sure that words were used. "He won't, mind if I come close?" she asked, hesitantly.

A faint smile touched Silvertip's lips. "It's all right, Rachel. What did you want?"

Stepping closer, the girl said, "I just wanted to tell you my story, and not the whole town." She looked up at Silver swallowed, and began. "It started almost a year ago, back in my home in Louisiana. My younger sister, Jean, lived there with her new husband. She was mad about him at first, but then she found out he was a gambler and a dangerous man!" She swallowed again, and paused.

"You don't have to, Rachel," the sheriff said, squeezing her shoulder.

"No, John; but I want to!" Then the words came tumbling out. "I was a seamstress, saving up money so's I could open a business downtown and Jean came to me and said she needed to hide, to get away from that man and she was pregnant and didn't want him to have the child and she needed to get away and could I help her?"

"What was his name?" Silver asked softly.

"Dirk Enfinger. He was best known as Blackjack," the girl replied.

Silvertip nodded absently. "Go on," he said. To the sheriff, there was something about the big man that said her answer was what he had expected.

"I agreed, and got my cash and we went to the train station, went north a hundred miles to a family I knew and trusted. They had a big farm and lotsa hands that were loyal. I asked them to hide Jean, and they agreed.”

Rachel gulped in air.

“I went back home, changed trains, told the people I talked to that I was Jean. Went west as far as it would go. Tried leaving a false trail. Found a wagon train headed further west." She took a deep breath, then continued. "Made friends with a girl I met, a girl about my age. She said she was a teacher, heading for Updale to a new school. She was real excited about it. Then. . .well, she got stung by a scorpion.” Rachel shook her head sadly. “Wasn't nobody could do anything about it. I had told her my story, and she said I should take her papers and take her place. Made me promise."

Rachel looked at the sheriff, then back at Silver. "I, well I thought I could do what she wanted. Came out here. John met me, showed me around, and I started teaching. Things went fine until, well, until they had a big ball at the Algonquin Hotel to welcome me. That's when--"

She swallowed again, and looked at the sheriff. "Could, could you tell him, John?"

"A'course," the sheriff said, looking at Rachel and then up to Silver. "I liked Rachel right off," he began. "Knew she was hidin' something, but figgered she had good reason. While I was dancing with her, she stiffened when a slick-looking hombre walked in. Ducking her head, asked me to take her outside.

"We sat on the porch swing, and she told me the whole story, said the slick one was Blackjack. She had reddened her hair, but she was afraid he still might recognize her. 'Bout then, he comes out on the porch and spots us. Walks over, bold as brass, and eyes Rachel.

"'Don't I know you?' he asks. Rachel clung to me and I said, 'But the lady doesn't want to know you. I'm Sheriff John Ricker, and I suggest you leave her alone.'

"He smiled, kinda like a coyote, and said, real smooth, 'Why, Sheriff, I'm a real law-abidin' man. I'll leave the young lady alone. Unless there might be sumpin' she wants to tell me?'

"Rachel just shook her head, face against my chest. 'That means 'no', I told him. He just shrugged and went back inside."

"There gamblin' in Updale?" Silver asked.

"Kinda," the sheriff answered. "The Algonquin has it ever weekend, and lets folks play cards in their room, so long's there no trouble."

Silvertip nodded, then his head jerked up at the sound of hoof beats down the street. Five riders were heading their way, and two of them had pistols in their hands. Shots split the afternoon air.

Silver leaned over, swooped Rachel up with one hand, pressed her against the denim shirt that covered his broad chest and headed Parade for the sheriff's office. The sheriff pulled his gun, but Silvertip shouted, "No time! Run for it!" Even as he said it, Parade reared to a stop at the sod building. The big man moved swiftly, leaping off Parade and pulling the girl into the office. The sheriff was right behind him.

"Go, Parade!" Silvertip shouted. Even as he yelled, the riders were shooting past the door. Parade lashed out with his black-stockinged hind legs and hit a horse, which screamed and fell to the ground, on top of its rider. "Go!" the big man repeated to the horse, and slammed the door.

A quick glance showed Silvertip that wide planks lined the walls and floor. Near one wall was the sheriff's desk. Opposite was an empty cell, door open. The ceiling was held up by thick beams, on which the planks were that supported the sod roof.

The sheriff was holding Rachel, who had her arms around him. He looked at Silver. "What the hell is that all about?" he asked angrily. "I told you --"

"Not my trouble," the big man replied calmly. "I didn't recognize even one of 'em."

"Then what are they up to?"

Before Silvertip could answer, the riders came back. Shots were fired and bullets slapped into the sod. Two windows shattered and some cowpokes shouted.

Rachel bit her lip. "Could, could Blackjack have hired them?"

"Why?" the big man asked. "Killing you wouldn't get him any information. No, it's something else." He turned to the sheriff.

"What kindsa citizens in your town, John?"

"What?"

"Will any of 'em come to your rescue?"

The lanky sheriff's face was grim. "No," he said. "They mostly gentlefolk. That's why they need a sheriff."

"No young bucks with blood in 'em?"

"Yeah," Sheriff John told him. "At least one of 'em out there shootin' at us! Mebbe more."

+ + +

hat should work," the banker said. "Best of all, it includes the sheriff as well as that young school teacher. Three birds with one stone."

"I dunno," Jake said, worry on his leathery face.

"What do you mean?" the banker asked impatiently. "Runt is with those ruffians, keeping things in line. There's no way they can escape."

Jake shook his head dolefully. "I dunno why, but Silvertip always seems to escape. It's like he was a ghost or something, getting away."

The banker slapped his hand on his desk. "Superstitious nonsense!" he snapped. "He's human, just like us! They are ours!"

+ + +

ilvertip shook his head at the sheriff's comment about those outside. "Dunno what set 'em off," he said, "but looks like they plan on leavin' anytime soon." There was a slot in the heavy wooden door. The big man chanced a quick look out. "They're still there."

"Them tales about you just made up?" John asked. "Way I heard it, you took on more'n that by yourself before."

"Not," Silver said softly, "when other lives were involved." He looked at the clock on the wall. "Still a coupla hours till dark," he murmured. "Any back way outta here?"

Sheriff John shook his head. "We're stuck." He held out a hand. "I'm John Ricker," he said. "This is Rachel Larson"

"Ricker?" Silver asked, raising an eyebrow. The name touched a memory. "From that big Ricker Ranch?"

The sheriff nodded. "Been the biggest around for years. Just built the schoolhouse on the edge of it."

Silvertip's slitted eyes had a distant look to him as he probed remembrances. Then he asked, "Wasn't it a gold mine that really put Updale on the map?"

"The Griffin Mine," John Ricker agreed. "A few years ago, it finally dried up."

Silver smiled, and there was something deadly in his expression. "Guess they were competition, being your neighbors and all that."

John Ricker shook his head. "Not really. They didn't need lots of room, so we had plenty of acres for our livestock to graze. Sold the mine’s cook beef, milk and vegetables. Worked together, really. Lots of new businesses moved in. Most of 'em stayed when the mine went dry."

Thoughts tumbled through Silver's brain. There had to be some way out, some way he could save these people from what waited outside.

Nothing came.

He knew he had been in bad trouble before, knew he always either figured a way out or one came to him somewhere along the line, but nothing was coming now. If he could just get out, he knew he could find help, find a way to save John and Rachel, and he knew it always came, but sometimes it was just dumb luck.

As Silvertip lay on the bunk, a late-afternoon beam of light shown through to hit high on the opposite wall, and the reflected light brightened the ceiling. His gaze on the wooden planks above him, he hatched a plan. Looking at the sheriff, he asked, "Moon rises late tonight, don't it?" When John nodded, Silvertip's mouth formed a slight smile of satisfaction. "Not much rain, huh?" he added.

"You kiddin'?" John snorted. "Wouldn't have a flat roof on this soddy if there was much rain."

Darkness had been closing in. Silver pushed the sheriff's desk to the center of the room.

"What are you doing?" Rachel asked.

"Working on a rescue," the big man answered. After a look up at the ceiling, he pushed the desk another foot. He took a deep breath, shook his head, then looked at Rachel again. "Will need some noise in a bit." He handed her the granite coffee pot from the sheriff's desk.

"When I ask you, rattle this against the cell bars and sing something loud."

"Sing?" she said in disbelief. "I can't sing."

"Try!" Silver insisted, as he got up on the desk. "John, stand up here beside me. I'll shove up one of the ceiling planks, and need you to push it aside."

Without comment, John managed to get up and stand beside Silvertip.

Both of them had to bend over beneath the wooden planks. Placing his shoulders against a plank, Silver looked at Rachel. "Mostly, I want noise to cover what we're doin'," he said.

Shrugging, Rachel started banging the coffeepot against the bars and began shouting more than singing as Silvertip pushed up with his shoulders. The plank grudgingly shifted and, when it was high enough, John Ricker grunted and pushed it aside and small bits of sod fell on them.

Gradually a triangular slit opened and was widened revealing a starry dark sky.

"Thanks, Rachel," Silver said, lowering himself to sit on the desk. He shook his head to loosen more dirt, then started taking off his boots.

"Your boots?" Rachel asked.

Silver nodded. "Might need my toes to climb down," he said. "Besides, I can move around quieter on bare feet." Dropping the boots on the floor, he stood up and slipped his head through the opening they'd made. He listened a moment, and heard nothing.

Deciding the threatening lurkers were straining to hear anything, he cautiously placed the palms of his hands on the sod above where a beam held the roof in place. With care, he pushed up until he could lift a leg up and onto the sod. Slowly he pulled up the rest of his body.

In his mind appeared the leering ghost of a scythe-weaving skeleton. "Get lost," he told it silently, as he lay down on the sod and edged himself to the edge of the roof. Seeing no one waiting in the eight-foot stretch between the soddy and the brick building, he turned and put a leg over, felt with his toes for a purchase, then brought his other leg down. With great care, he made the few feet to the ground and stepped down -- onto dry grass that rustled. It was a slight noise, but it sent a jolt through Silvertip, and brought an exclamation from across the street.

"What was that?" Runt asked.

"What?" asked another.

"I heard sumpin'!" Runt shot back. "Shut up!"

Not daring to breathe, Silver froze. A minute passed. While waiting, Silver checked to be certain he still had both guns after the drop. Eyes adjusted to the dark, he finally took another step. No dry grass, just dirt met the ball of his foot. With great care, he proceeded back until he was across the eight feet stretch and behind the brick building with no further outbreak. Breathing easier, he went past the brick building and passed a couple more before heading for the street. The Algonquin Hotel was on the other side. Walking casually, as if he belonged there, Silvertip crossed over.

Inside the hotel, he padded across the lobby as if his bare feet meant nothing and went to the stairs. At the top, he strolled along the hall with ears tuned. Behind one door he detected conversation and the click of poker chips. Without stopping, he went to the end of the hall, turned, and waited. Should he just walk in, or wait? How long might he have to wait? How long did he have before the group in front of the sheriff's office decided to act? Taking a deep breath, he started back for the door, and then paused when it opened.

"Ain't got no more," said the man revealed. "You too good for me."

From inside the room, there were other voices of agreement. As Silver stood there, three men exited. No one saw him because they didn't expect to. The last one to leave didn't close the door all the way, so Silvertip walked up, pushed it open, and went in with his arms, hands empty, stretched out in front of him. As the gambler looked up, Silver said, "Hello, Dirk. Got nothing in my hands, as you can see."

"Don't mean beans, Jim," Blackjack said softly. "With most guys it would, but I know you can pull out your gun faster than most could pull their triggers."

"But you know you're as fast as I am, Dirk. You could hit me with a bullet and a knife in next to no time."

Blackjack's eyes traveled over Silver. "Barefoot, hmm? Means you're serious, doesn't it?"

"Dead serious," Silver responded. Then he added, "Do you want that redhead killed?"

"What? Hell no! What's going on, Jim?"

"She's in the sheriff's office right now. A bunch of wild ones are outside, wanting to wipe her and the sheriff and, they think, me right out of existence."

Blackjack got to his feet. "What're we waiting for?"

Silvertip paused, then said, "If we win, I'll ask you a favor."

"What d'you mean, if we win?" Blackjack said. "There's what, six or eight of them? They don't have a chance!" It was said without bravado or sarcasm; just stating a fact. He swallowed a breath, then said, "What's the favor?"

"If we win," Silvertip repeated. "You go out the back way, come up behind them. I'll go down the street and call 'em out."

Nodding, Blackjack headed for the door. Silver stepped aside, then followed down the stairs. "I'll wait to give you a chance to get around," he said.

Outside, he waited at the door, then slowly started walking toward the sheriff's office. He felt the hardpan under his bare feet, and the occasional pebble. Getting near, he desperately hoped he had timed it right and stepped out into the middle of the street.

"I got out," he announced.

"What? Who? How the hell?" Runt stammered, then said, "Spread out, guys. Even Silvertip can't get us all!"

That was what Silver had wanted. He let out a shrill whistle. As if the great steed was waiting for the cue, Parade came galloping toward the men. Drawing both guns, Silver blasted two of them as Blackjack came out from behind a building the other side of the lurkers. His gun spoke and one, then two knives flew through the air and hit their targets.

Silver stood, guns in his hands.

Runt, the one remaining alive, stuck his hands up in the air. "I sed you was a ghost," he cursed.

Silver took Runt to the sheriff's office, Blackjack right behind them. John Ricker had obviously been watching through the door slit, as the door opened for them. Pushing Runt into the cell, Silver slammed the door. John locked it, then looked at Silver, shaking his head. "You sure picked some strange help," he stated, shifting his gaze to Blackjack.

"I knew he could do it," was all Silver said. Rachel clung to John, trembling.

"I want some information," Blackjack asked her.

"I asked for a favor," Silver told the gambler.

"What?"

"I want you to leave the girl alone."

"But her sister is my wife! She bore my son! I want him," Blackjack insisted.

"If her sister's anything like Rachel, the boy'll be in good hands," Silver said. "Drop it." There was firmness in his voice.

Blackjack stared at him, breathing deeply. With a sigh, he finally dropped his gaze. "All right," he muttered.

"Goodbye, Dirk," Silver said and, after Blackjack closed the door, Silvertip turned to the man in the cell. "Sheriff," he began, even though looking at Runt, "I think this man has something to tell us. It's about the gold mine, isn't it?" he asked Runt.

"What?" Rachel asked.

Still looking at Runt, Silver said, "It's the only thing that makes sense. Tell us."

Runt stared at him, then backed up to sit on the bunk. He put his face in his hands. "If you already know, why ask?" he muttered.

"What gold?" Rachel asked. "You mean, the old dried-up mine?"

Silver nodded. "Seems right to me," he said, then looked at Ricker. "The new school is close to the old mine, is it?"

"Why, why yes," the sheriff said. "Just a few hundred feet away. But how did you come up with that?'

Silver glanced at the bunk. "While lying there this afternoon, I kept trying to figure it all out. That answer seemed to fit." He stared at Runt. "They started it up again, didn't they? They didn't like the schoolhouse there, because they were afraid the noise they made digging would be heard. Who's behind it?" he asked. "Who owns the mine now?"

"He'll kill me," Runt moaned. Then he looked at Silvertip. "Hell, you're likely to kill me if I don't tell ya!"

He didn't know that Silvertip never killed someone who was unarmed.

With a sigh, Runt stretched out on the bunk. "The banker," he muttered. "They took over the mine when it went dry. But he thought there was more there. He was right."

Silvertip looked at Sheriff John Ricker. "It's up to you, now," he said.

Rachel gasped, looked from Blackjack to Silver. "Just, just like that?" she asked. "I mean, it's great and all, but how can we be sure Blackjack, Dirk, will stay away?"

"He always keeps his word," Silver told her.

"But, but how can you be certain?" she asked.

Silvertip observed the knowing look on the sheriff's face and grinned wryly. "I think, due to Blackjack's durability, speed and luck, the sheriff has already figgered it out. It's because Dirk's my brother," he said.

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