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©The Guns of Gideon

Written by James Gilbreath

(copyright 1994)


            Suddenly Jim Crofter was wondering why he was standing in the saloon facing the grinning gunman who had killed his pa.

            Oh yea, that’s why. The man had pushed his pa into a gunfight. Pa didn’t have a chance. He was a farmer and a miner and a father. He was no gunfighter, but in his anger he went for his gun and now, Jim, in his anger, was about to do the same thing; die.

            Jim had rushed into the saloon and made accusations, shouting and challenging the gunslinger, who stood at the bar with his three friends. Other witnesses crowded the room.

            Now the anger had subsided as reality, disguised as fear, crept in. He was just a fourteen year old boy who had never pulled a gun on another person. He didn’t even own a holster. The old Colt pistol was stuck in his belt. Beads of sweat popped out on the red haired, freckle faced boy’s forehead. He was definitely holding a dead man’s hand.

            He wanted to close his eyes and make it all go away, but this was no dream and without a miracle from God, Jim was going to be buried beside his pa come tomorrow.

            Despite the intense silence in the saloon no one heard the three men ride up to the hitching post just outside the swinging doors. No one heard nor saw them dismount and step up on the boardwalk.

            The youngest of the three was Talbert Balister, a tall, muscular nineteen year old boy from east Texas. He pushed his hat back and looked northward along the empty street.

            The biggest of the three was Ryne Corland, a six foot eleven inch, three hundred and twenty pound mountain man. He pulled his huge hand down across his thick beard and stroked it twice.

            The shortest of the three was Smokey Parker the left handed gunfighter whom most people thought was dead. He was very much alive.

            Ryne pushed through the swinging doors first and immediately stopped as he realized he was standing between two men ready to limber their gun arms. Ryne knew both men, one a ruthless killer, the other the son of a friend.

            Ryne remained between the two as he turned and faced his friend’s son. Talbert and Smokey stepped into the room keeping their eyes on the other man and his three friends.

            “Jimmy,” Ryne said with a grin. The boy’s face was flooded with relief. “I thought I told you to stay out of trouble.” Ryne could see the boy was scared and looking for an out. The big man turned to face the gunman at the other end of the room. “Howdy, Kelly.”

            Kelly Haydn’s grin was frozen on his slim face. His pale green eyes were piercing. He had kid killed his first man when he was fifteen. It was a fair fight and all the other killings since then, at least, appeared to be the same. But as everyone knows, appearances can be deceiving.

            “Hello, Ryne,” Kelly acknowledged the man before him. A man Kelly wished he had killed many years before. A man who had been a thorn in his side on more than one occasion.

            “You weren’t plannin’ on killin’ this boy were ya’?”

            “I don’t want to kill him,” Kelly lied, “but he wasn’t leavin’ me no choice.”

            “I tell you what I’ll do, Kelly. You let the boy alone and I’ll let you live.”

            Kelly’s three friends pushed away from the bar and turned to face this new foe. “Hold on, boys,” Kelly commanded. “I’ll handle this.” He looked from Ryne to Talbert and Smokey then he smiled. “Like I said, Ryne, I didn’t want it, but the boy kept pushin’ and you know me.”

            “Yea, unfortunately I do.” The smile slipped off of Kelly’s face as Tyne turned to the boy. “Jimmy, you gonna leave Mr. Haydn alone and quit pushin’ him?”

            “Yes, sir,” Jim said from behind his pa’s big friend. The lump in his throat was gone and he could swallow again.

            “What’s it gonna be, Kelly?” Ryne asked as he turned back to face the four men he knew as killers.

            Kelly Haydn put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll let him off, but I’m not turning my back on him.”

            “Don’t worry. Jimmy won’t shoot you in the back.”

            The four men at the bar finally turned back to their drinks. Ryne took the boy to a table as Talbert and Smokey followed. The four pulled out the chairs and sat down as all the others in the bar began to get back to their own business.

            Ryne looked at Jim and asked, “Is it true what he said? You started the fight?”

            Jim Crofter shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Yes sir, he told the truth.”

            “Why, Jimmy? He would have killed you and walked away a free man.”

            “I know. That’s what he did to pa.”

            Ryne just stared incredulously at his friend’s son for a very long moment. “He killed Frank…in a gunfight?” Jim nodded his head. “What’s happening? You and your pa both gone crazy?” The boy hung his head. Ryne took a deep breath and asked, “What happened, Jimmy?”

            Jim slowly raised his head toward Ryne. There were tears in the boy’s eyes. “Those men showed up in town about a week ago and they’ve just been hangin’ around. Yesterday pa was in town and that Kelly Haydn killed him in, what witnesses said was a fair fight. You know pa never carried a handgun. He apparently tried to shoot it out with his Winchester. He must have lost his temper to have tried a fool thing like that.”

            “Who were these witnesses?” Ryne asked.

            “Haydn’s three friends and Sheriff Moone. I think the sheriff is just too scared to stand up to them.”

            “Or too drunk.” Ryne had known Wilbur Moone for many years and he had never been anything more than a drunk. He got the job as sheriff of Gideon because no one else wanted it. He was just a clown in a man suit with a tin badge and as useless as tits on a boar hog.

            Ryne introduced Talbert and Smokey to Jim. “Smokey Parker?” Jim repeated, “The left handed gunfighter?”

            Ryne and Talbert looked at Smokey and grinned. “That’s him,” Ryne answered.

            “I heard you was killed down in Tascosa about a year or so ago.”

            “I heard that, too,” Smokey said. “The story got exaggerated with the tellin’.”

            “Not much, though,” Ryne added and they all laughed as the four gunmen at the bar gave a sideways glance.

            “Is old Jed Burland still around?” Ryne asked Jim.

            Ain’t seen him in a couple of weeks. He ought to be in for supplies soon.”

            “He still workin that mine up on the Eagle Back?”

            “Last I heard.”

            Ryne turned to Talbert and Smokey. “You boys want to ride up there with me? I’ve got some mail for him. Been carryin’ it nigh on to a year now.”

            “Well, I came with you to see some mountains,” Talbert said as he stood up, “So let’s go.”

            Ryne and Smokey stood up pushing their chairs back with a great clatter. Jim didn’t stand with as much gusto as he watched the men at bar who didn’t seem to be paying any attention, then he followed Ryne outside.

            Standing in the dirt and mud street Ryne put his big hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I’m real sorry about your pa. Me and him went back a long ways. He was a good friend.” He looked back toward the saloon doors then back at Jim. “You get on back home and take care of your ma and your sister. They need you now more than ever and they need you alive. So don’t try anymore fool stunts. I may not be around to save you the next time.”

            Jim had a sheepish smile on his face. “Yes sir. I see in a much better light, now.” The boy got on his horse.

            “Tell your ma I’ll be out to see her ‘fore we leave.”

            “Yes sir,” Jim said and he nudged his horse and rode off down the street and out of town.

            Ryne pointed to a mountain looming in the north. It was shaped like a perching eagle. “That’s where we’re headin’.”

            Ryne! Ryne Corland!” The three men turned to see a skinny man with a big mustache walking toward them. Ryne’s face beamed with recognition.

            “George Lorent, you old horse doctor.” The two men met in the middle of the street and when they shook Ryne’s hand actually swallowed George’s. “What in the world are you doing up here? I thought you were a warm weather man.”

            “I’m doing what I always did, pullin’ teeth and settin’ bones and digging bullets out of the ones that live.” He grinned. “I’ve been workin’ a little claim, too.”

            “I figured an old gambler like you would be somewhere on the circuit.”

            “Oh, I can still get a poker game going every once in a while, but there’s more important things in life than gambling.”

            Ryne just stared at his friend with an astonished look. The last time he saw George the man would rather gamble than eat or sleep.

            Ryne started to introduce his companions when a beautiful, dark haired woman caught everyone’s attention as she strolled across the street and stopped beside George. “Ryne, I would like you to meet the most thing in my life; my wife, Ruth.” George smiled at the trance she seemed to put men in. “Ruth, this is Ryne Corland.”

            “It’s nice to meet you. George has told me a lot about you,” Ruth admitted. Her eyes were as dark as her hair. She had a beauty rarely seen outside of big cities, but it was especially rare in near ghost towns like Gideon.

            Ryne finally opened his mouth. “It’s nice meeting’ you, ma’am.” He couldn’t take his eyes off of her.

            “Why don’t you and your friends join us for lunch at the dining room?” George pointed to a place just down the street.

            Ryne finally broke himself away from Ruth’s face. “Oh, we can’t.” Then he shook his big head. “I can’t believe myself, George, this Talbert Balister and Smokey Parker.” Everyone shook hands. “We’re headin’ up to the Eagle Back right now.” He nodded toward the mountain. “But we should be back before dinner.”

            George laughed. “Okay, Ryne, we’ll meet ya’ll for dinner.” He paused a moment then said, “Smokey Parker? I heard you were killed.”

            Smokey winked and grinned. “You know, I’ve that so much I’m to believe it.”

            George and his wife started to walk away, but Ryne stopped him. “what’s Kelly Haydn and his friends doinhangin’ around Gideon?”

            “I don’t know, Ryne. I saw you talking to Jim Crofter. I guess he told you about Frank.”

            “Yea, but it don’t make no sense, Frank challenging a known gunfighter. Did you see anything?”

            “No, but the witnesses said…”

            “Yea, yea, I heard about the witnesses. In my book none of them are reliable. Somethin’ just ain’t right and I’m thinkin’ maybe I’ll hang around and find out what it is.”

            “The people of Gideon are scared of those men. Don’t stir things up, Ryne. Maybe they’ll just get bored and move on.”

            “I don’t want ‘em to move on until I find out why Frank Crofter is dead.”

            “Well I was always glad you were my friend and not my enemy.”

            “If you were my enemy I wouldn’t of let you dig those bullets outta my back when that upstart left me in that alley in Prescott.”

            “If I hadn’t got ‘em out you would have died in that alley.”

            “But if you were my enemy I would have died on your table.” George raised his eyebrows as he realized what his big friend meant. “Tell me something,” Ryne continued, “did Frank Crofter have any enemies in Gideon?”

            “You mean besides Kelly Haydn?”

            “I mean residents. Kelly wasn’t Frank’s enemy. I think he was hired.”

            “Aw come on, Ryne. You think someone in Gideon hired Haydn to kill Frank?”

            Ryne bit his lower lip. “I don’t know what I think, George. Did Frank have any words with anyone lately?”

            George thought a moment. “Samuel Baxtram, the banker, was having some heated words with Frank a while back over some money Frank had borrowed. But Frank paid that back. Besides, I know Samuel Baxtram real good. He wouldn’t hire killers because somebody owed him money.” George saw the skepticism in Ryne’s blue eyes. “For God’s sake, Ryne, he’s a banker. Lot’s of people owe him money. He has legal way of handling debts. Sam wouldn’t hire someone killed. I just won’t even think such a thing.”

            Ryne took a deep breath. “You’re probably right. I just want to know why Frank is dead, that’s all.”

            “You’ll have to ask the man who killed him to get an answer to that question.”

            “That’s right, George, I just may have to do that. If I thought the man would give me a straight answer.” He pause a moment then pointed to the mountain peak north of town. “You know Jed Burland?”

            “Oh sure. Haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks, though. He stays up there eking bits of color out of that dried up hole.”

            “Jed’s mine used to be a big producer.”

            “A lot of mines around here used to be big producers. But those days are long gone.”

            George and his wife walked across the street to the hotel. Ryne, Talbert and Smokey mounted their horses and rode north out of Gideon. Talbert took off his sheepskin coat. It was starting to get warm.


            Jed Burland went to the window of his cabin and looked down the mountain trail. His old mule’s warning was true again. Riders were approaching. The Killers were coming again. They had been up on the back three times. The first time they came up Jed was away. When he returned his partner, Will, was dead; shot to pieces.

            Jed knew why they were here. He knew he had to lay low after he buried his friend a few yards from the mine.

            Jed had known they were coming. He had warned Will and Frank to be alert, because he had heard a month earlier Martin Stanza was shot down in a gunfight in Tucson. Martin was no gunfighter. Then two weeks later Johan Wattz was shot to death in Cheyenne.

            Jed knew it was no coincidence. Four of the five men were now dead and he was number five. Now, the killers were coming up the trail again.

            Jed pulled his old rifle from the post above the door and moved to the rear of his cabin, which was built into the side of the mountain. It was a solid fortress, but the most important thing about it was the hidden passage into the mine. Through that he escaped and by pushing a rock back against the hole it remained hidden.

            Once through the hole he could go one of two directions depending on which side of the mountain he wanted to be on.

            Jed was sixty nine years old and had been a trapper and a miner all his life. In his younger days he was as tough a board soaked in crude oil for four years. In those days he would have stood his ground and fought.

            Now his eyesight and his health were both bad. The odds were stacked against him. He learned how to be an old man by not fighting the odds.

            Jed moved with ease through the dark passages of the old mine. He didn’t need any light. He knew the way by heart. He was like a blind man in familiar surroundings. He had lived on and in that mountain for over ten years.


            Ryne, Talbert and Smokey stopped in front of the cabin built into the side of the mountain and dismounted.

            “Hello the house,” Ryne shouted the familiar greeting, but there was no response. A small tendril of smoke rose from the chimney. Nothing else stirred.

            Ryne shouted again as the three men walked toward the cabin door. Their eyes searched the surrounding area for any movement.

            Ryne drew his gun. The other two followed his lead. With the butt of his weapon the big man knocked on the door. When there was still no answer he lifted the latch and, standing back to one side with his friends on the other side, pushed the door open.

            As their view of the room widened all they saw were the comforts of a room which had very recently been occupied.

            “There’s something wrong,” Ryne said, even though there was no sign of a struggle. He walked over to the secret door. He pushed the rock from the opening and turned to his friends. “Wait here for me and keep your eyes open.” He pointed the widow the crawled through the secret passage.

            He felt along the walls as he walked quietly and slowly through the mine. It seemed like hours before he finally saw light. He also saw Jed standing with rifle ready while looking down the mountain.

            Staying back in the shelter of the rock walls, Ryne called, “Jed!” The old man spun around with his rifle ready to fire, but within a moment a smile formed on his lips. There were only two other people besides himself who knew about the secret door and one of them was dead.

            Ryne?” Jed called. “Is that you?”

            “The one and only,” Ryne answered as he walked out into the late morning sun.

            “My friend,” Jed said as he grabbed Ryne’s outstretched hand, “It is mighty good to see you; mighty good indeed. I thought you were the man who killed Will, coming back to get me.”

            “Will’s dead?” Ryne exclaimed and Jed nodded. “What’s going on around here, Jed?”

            “Who are the two men with you?” Jed seemed to be changing the subject.

            “Friends; Good friends just like you.”

            “Then lets go down and be sociable and I’ll tell you the whole story.”


            In the cabin Ryne introduced all his friends to each other while Jed put coffee on the fire. Then the four men sat down and the old miner started at the beginning.

            “About twelve years ago, just before I met you in Prescott, I was living in Tucson. A good citizen and friend was murdered. A posse was formed and outside of town we split up into groups. Our group of five men captured the murderer. At least we thought he was the murderer.

            “We were all so worked up by that time the young man didn’t have a chance. I still had my wits about me enough that I tried to stop the lynching, but things were too out of hand. Within minutes the suspected murderer, who was no more than a boy, was hanging by his neck from a sturdy oak limb.

            “I remember how he kicked as his face turned blue, then he died. That picture hasn’t faded from my memory one bit in all these years. I’ll carry it to my grave.”

            The three men were staring at him. “But you didn’t help them.” Ryne tried to assure his friend, but he knew it didn’t matter.

            “But I didn’t stop them, so I’m as guilty as the other four. After the deed was done we came to our senses and decided to bury the body and not tell anyone what we had done. Even believing at the time we had executed a murderer we realized we had acted outside the law. We had committed murdered even if it was a guilty man.” Jed paused, staring at the flames in the fireplace. His eyes filled with tears. “Then it later turned out the boy was innocent. The real killer was caught and tried by the courts and he, too was hung. But he was guilty and got what he deserved through the court system. We had hung and innocent man; a boy.

            “We kept out secret among the five of us. All those years we thought no one else knew, until just over a month ago, when one of the five was killed in a gunfight in Tucson, where he was still living. I knew Martin was no gunfighter, but I didn’t think much about it until two weeks later when another of the five was found shot to death at his home in Cheyenne.

            “The other three men live here or I should say lived. They were my partner, Will and…”

            “Frank Crofter,” Ryne completed his sentence.

            “I tried to warn them, but they said the secret was safe. The other two deaths were just a coincidence.

            “The killers would have got me, too, but I was out hunting the first time they came by. That was when I found Will. I buried him out by the mine.

            “They’ve been back, but they’ve lost that element of surprise and I slipped out through the secret door. They’re not gonna quit ‘til I’m dead, too.”

            “Kelly Haydn ain’t gonna kill anyone else unless he kills me first,” Ryne said as he stood up and walked to the window. “Do you think the killers were hired or avenging the hanging for themselves?”

            “None of us had ever seen the boy before,” Jed said. “We never knew his name, but I know Kelly Haydn and his men. They kill for fun or for money, not revenge.”

            “Still, there could be a family connection,” Talbert assured. “I’m just wondering, whoever it is, why they waited so long?”

            Ryne looked at Talbert as moment as he was thinking about the question, then he moved his gaze to Jed, who said, “Like I said, we had no idea who the boy was. We buried him there where we hung him. We never heard of anyone reporting anyone missing around Tucson. As far as I know nobody outside of our group of five ever knew what happened.

            “Martin Stanza had a bad habit of talking too much when he drank and he loved to drink. My guess is, since he was the first killed, he must have said the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

            “Well, that don’t really matter now,” Ryne said. “The main thing is to keep you alive. We’re gonna head back to town and find out the truth. Keep your eyes open. If Kelly is trying to kill you he may have followed us up. We’ll watch for him, but just in case…” He left the sentence open for any conclusion.

            “Don’t worry,” Jed patted his rifle, “a man don’t live to be my age without being alert.”

            On the way out the door Ryne stopped. “Oh, by the way,” he pulled the dirty, worn out envelopes from his coat pocket and handed them to Jed, “I been carryin’ your mail around for about a year.”

            Ryne, Talbert and Smokey left the old man alone in his mountain cabin. When they had mounted up Ryne turned to his two friends. “Knowing the men we’re about to confront, this will probably come to shooting. It’s not you fight and I’ll understand if you choose to stay out of it.”

            Talbert looked at Smokey then back at Ryne. “We’ve been together for several months, now, and every time it came to fighting we stood together. Nothin’s changed with me.”

            “Shoot,” Smokey said, “I’m making an investment. I may need you to back me up one day.” He smiled. He owed his life to the two men beside him. They pulled him out of the life and death of a drunkard. He would stand with these men anywhere, anytime.


            The three men rode down the main street of Gideon. Several townspeople watched them curiously. They didn’t see any signs or tracks of anyone besides themselves on the road from the mountain.

            Sheriff Moone stood inside his office looking at them through a dirty window. The banker stepped outside to watch them. Everyone in the area knew they were in town and where they had been.

            The four killers were standing on the boardwalk in front of the saloon when Ryne and his two friends stopped their horses facing the four.

            “Is he up there?” Kelly asked as he pointed up toward the Eagle back mountain.

            Ryne slowly nodded his head. “You should have followed us up, then we could have taken care of this in private. But either there or here, you’re only gettin’ to him through us.”

            The three men with Kelly spread out beside him. “I’ve been paid to do a job and you know me, Ryne. I got it to do.” He let his arm drop to his side, but as he lifted the cold metal from its holster he felt something hit him in the chest, then again. He stared up at the black bore of Ryne’s forty-five as his own gun dropped from his hand and he was falling. He could hear more gunshots above him as he stared up into blue sky.

            In less than ten seconds it was over. Two of the killers were lying on the boardwalk. Kelly and the other one were in the street. Ryne, Talbert and Smokey dismounted, thankful their horses hadn’t been hit. Ryne walked over to Kelly.

            Some of the townspeople were walking over, including Jimmy Crofter. He watched as Ryne knelt down beside the man who had killed his pa.

            “Who hired you, Kelly?” The man just stared up at Ryne. “Do one decent thing before you die.” Kelly whispered and Ryne leaned closer. The Killer whispered again, then stopped breathing. Ryne just looked up at Talbert and Smokey.

            “Did he tell you?” Talbert asked.

            “Yea, I’m afraid he did.” Ryne stood up and started walking across the street toward the bank. Talbert and Smokey followed.

            Samuel Baxtram watched the trio crossing the street toward him. When they reached the boardwalk they turned and walked north to the dentist/doctor’s office.

            Ryne lifted the latch and pushed the door open. As he looked around the empty room Jimmy Crofter came running up. “You lookin’ for Doc?” the boy asked with heavy breath.

            “Yea, Jimmy. You seen him?”

            “He rode hard out of town right after you rode in. Did he hire those men to kill pa?”

            “Yea, boy, I’m afraid he did.”

            “But why? I thought he was pa’s friend.”

            “I’ll explain it later, Jimmy. Right now I’ve got to get up to the Eagle Back before he kills Jed.”

            Jimmy stood on the boardwalk and watched the three men mount up and ride out of Gideon for the second time that day.


            It was late afternoon and the sun was getting low in the sky. It shone brightly through the front windows of Jed’s cabin. Jed watched the mountain trail beyond the dust particles that floated through the rays of light.

            As he looked from one window to the other, a flash of movement from the woods caught his eye. Without a second thought he threw himself away from the window and to the floor. In the same instant the window shattered and the wood on the ceiling splintered.

            The first thought in Jed’s mind was how that glass lasted through almost ten years of adverse weather and liquor related incidents. It was like a life taken for granted then suddenly it’s over.


            As Ryne and his traveling companions worked their way up the mountain trail, the late afternoon calm was broken by a distant gunshot echoing through the mountains and beyond. The three nudged their horses onward toward Jed’s cabin.

            They pulled up about four hundred yards from the smoking chimney and moved the rest of the way on foot. Another shot was fired from the woods above them as they worked their way from tree to tree, nearing the spot where the shooter was concealed.

            About twenty-five yards away Ryne could see his old friend, George Lorent, getting ready to fire at Jed’s cabin again.

            “George!” Ryne shouted and his crazed friend turned and fired. The bullet hit a pine tree just inches from Ryne’s face, spraying dirt and splinters in the big man’s eyes.

            Ryne moved back under the cover of the trees as George fired again. The big man rubbed his eyes until he could see again. He told Talbert and Smokey to hold their fire. He had known George too long. He hoped to take him alive.

            “Talk to me, George. Why are you doing this?” Ryne tried to reason with his old friend. A friend who had saved his life once and now he hope to return the favor.

            “Don’t try to stop me, Ryne. Just get on your horse and ride out of here. This doesn’t concern you.” George possessed with hatred.

            “This does concern me, George. You’re my friend and so is Jed. I don’t want to see either one of you die.”

            “I had lost touch with my sister for some fifteen year,” George explained, “but several months ago I found her out in California. Her son had been missing for some twelve years and was assumed dead. I asked around and followed his long cold trail into San Francisco and from there into Arizona. The trail stopped in Tucson. I finally found an old drunk who started talking. Before he was through I knew what had happened to my nephew. Five self-righteous men played judge and jury and executed an innocent boy. Now I’ve set myself up as their judge and jury. There’s only one difference. They’re guilty.”

            “George, they were wrong, but so are you.”

            George fired two more shots at the trees where Ryne was hiding. “I’m not wrong!” He shouted, sounding like a wounded animal; a trapped, wounded animal.

            Suddenly a shot was fired from farther up the mountain then there was silence. Ryne looked at Talbert and Smokey. “George!” he shouted, but there was no answer. He called again. Nothing.

            “He’s not going to answer you, Mr. Corland.”

            Ryne looked carefully up through the trees to see Jimmy Crofter standing near the spot where George had been. The boy was holding a Winchester in his hands.

            “I had it to do. I heard what he said my pa did and it made me sad, but it didn’t give him the right to do what he did.”

            Ryne looked up at the cabin. “You okay, Jed?” The cabin door slowly opened. “It’s all over,” Ryne assured.

            Jed stepped out of his cabin. The setting sun edged the roof with gold. He looked down the mountain side as Ryne, Talbert and Smokey were approaching Jimmy Crofter. He was a boy who was taking care of his family all by himself.

            Back in Gideon, Ruth Lorent didn’t know she was a widow.

            Jed looked at Ryne as the big man approached the cabin and said, “I guess I should turn myself in and face the punishment for my crime.”

            “From what you told me,” Ryne concluded, “I’d say the men responsible have been punished.”

            As Ryne, Talbert, Smokey and the man known as Jim started for their horses to head back to town, Jed shouted, “Thanks for the mail.”



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