Aurora was a bay more squat and sturdy than most. His thick neck and body sat atop his thin, but strong, black legs that looked like a bunch of smoldering matchsticks as they faded into his dirt-filled copper coat.
* * *
The seller told James he had blood from English knight horses. "Able to carry all that armor and the like," said the man out one side of his mouth, the other full of chew.
James didn't believe any of it, he'd been raised in Coloma during the rush and heard all kinds of tales, hardly any of them true. But he had a keen enough eye, and there was no doubt Aurora could carry a large, broad shouldered man like himself.
He gave the seller a fair price, but when the man asked where he was headed, he gave a glare like he often did when he didn't care for an intrusive question. Without a response he put a saddle and his gear on Aurora. He headed West for a few miles, then doubled back on a lonely road, toward the East, bound for the Colorado River, sure that he wasn't being followed.
Earlier in the day a thin, long-faced man with puffy dark eyes sat in a chair atop the Dayler Hotel veranda and told James about a man shot just outside of Crystal Springs. "He'd done something real stupid," said the man. "Spotted what he thought was a mustang. A big, beautiful dark horse with no saddle. So he hopped on, claimed him as his own."
James for a moment thought it was just a man telling tales out of boredom the way some do. "Go on," he said, as he looked across the horizon as the sun began to rise and make the shadows retreat.
The man pulled on the tuft of hairs around his chin, a habit he probably did anytime he was a bit anxious. "Well that so-called mustang was someone's horse. And not just anybody's horse. It was Slick Terry Simm's." The man's voice began to shake as he continued. "This poor fool was an eastern fellow, never been to Crystal Springs or anywhere near here. He didn't know about Slick, and he wasn't about to give up a nice horse just because someone else made claim. Eventually there was gunplay, and that fellow took a bullet to the chest, courtesy of one beady-eyed Slick Terry Simm."
"You need to be careful," said James as he tipped his cap. "Taking a fellow's horse." He began to move inside from the veranda, but the man held up his hand.
"But that's not the best part of the story. The man robbed a bank in Coloma. Some wealthy prospector named Vance Nichols had all his money there. He took it and split for a place called Little Fork near the Colorado River."
James squatted down to the man's eye level. Being from Coloma he'd heard of Vance Nichols. And he also knew no one in Crystal Springs aside from him would know that name unless they heard it from someone who'd been there. He looked the man in the eyes. "How do you know all this?"
"Slick Terry came in here last night with his men, drinking and hollering. He told the bartender about how the man lay in the creek, begging for his life, telling him about where he'd stuck the loot. Slick sat and listened, finding out as much as he could before putting another bullet in the man."
After a quick look across the veranda to find the direction of the creek, James nodded at the stranger and made his way inside, paid for his room, and took his horse toward the location of the dead body.
James didn't even bother stepping down from his horse. He saw the body awkwardly up against some small rocks, a few fish trapped and flopping beside the torso. The rambling man was telling the truth.
As James headed back into town, his horse slowed its pace, no longer responded to his heels, and was covered with a sheen of sweat uncharacteristic for a relatively cool morning.
He tied his horse to the post outside the Dayler Hotel and told the bartender the thin, dark-eyed fellow could have him. "He's getting too old to carry someone my size," said James. "He won't fetch me much anyhow. I'll find another."
"There's a man named Olly next to the Gimbler Ranch. He's got a nice, strong bay."
James nodded. "When Slick came in here last night, did he say he was headed right for Little Fork?"
The bartender turned and adjusted some of the liquor bottles on the back counter. "I'd go on and look at that bay," he said.
He rode all afternoon at a good pace, and with the sun setting, Aurora still seemed like he could go through the night without slowing. But James wanted to build a fire while there was still a bit of light.
* * *
The land was open, harsh, and unsheltered, not normally a good place to stop. But he brought his own wood and a tent.
It took him only twenty minutes get a fire going and stake the tent. As he rested his head he wondered what he'd do with all of Vance Nichol's money. Certainly, not buy up all the mining land and leave everyone for broke like that crook did.
James had been raised by two parents who told him to work hard, that Lady Luck would seek out those who first paid the earth with their hands. When he reached eighteen, his father no longer had work in Coloma. Vance Nichols had his own crew for working the mines, which meant the family had to up and move to another town.
Then was as good a time as any for James to leave his family. He moved further East as his parents went South. James got good with a horse, and great with a gun. He earned money any way he could, some of it honest, but more often than not, like some young men roaming from town to town, he needed to do a little bit of stealing, helping gangs whenever the opportunity arose.
He worked with Slick Terry once on a job just South of Crystal Springs. The crew ambushed a wagon carrying a safe full of money. A kid named Will set everything up, found the route where the wagon was headed. But he proved terrible with a gun, and Slick cut the kid out of the job at the last minute. The kid didn't dare object. He just told Slick he'd do his best to work on his gun.
Still, with all the set-up Will put into the job, James found it sour that Slick didn't give the kid even a few dollars for his trouble.
James thought about his old jobs as he listened to Aurora huff. He rested his head, doing his best to sleep.
Just after sunrise, Aurora stomped his hoofs, kicking up a cloud of dirt that blew against the tent making a whooshing sound that woke James from his slumber.
* * *
James moved from the tent with a knife in hand, expecting that a snake had got Aurora all worked up.
It was a snake, but not one that slithers. Slick Terry and his beady eyes was charging forward on a grey horse with his gun drawn, another rider following closely behind, doing his best to keep up. James swapped out his knife for his gun.
There looked to be no time for discussion. Slick Terry must have known James was in pursuit, that he'd be looking to make a claim to Vance Nichol's money.
A bullet fired by Slick's gun took a couple hairs from Aurora's head. The next would be headed for James. But James drew quick, fanned his gun, and sent a hellfire of bullets the other way.
The companion rider took a bullet to the neck and fell from his horse.
Slick, trying to change direction, fumbled his gun, dropping it to the ground. He cursed, leaned flat against his horse, and rode full-out before James could get his six reloaded.
James didn't waste too much time with the dead rider. He looked under his vest, didn't find anything of use. The rider's horse was narrow and built for speed, not strength. James directed the horse toward town and smacked its hind to send it bolting away.
He picked up Slick's gun, gathered his gear, and checked to see if Aurora was okay. When the bullet spit by, the horse didn't even flinch. Maybe he did have bloodlines from English knight horses.
With Slick now needing to circle around and go the long way, James knew he'd gained an edge. He'd be first to Vance Nichol's money if he could find it.
James had never been as far East as Little Fork. He came to realize that the town was divided into to two small gatherings only a few miles apart. Upon his arrival, he saw a staked sign that read "West Fork."
A few small, crooked buildings shot up from the ground, scattered by the road next to a rail line like wildflowers.
Out front of the hotel a bald man with gray hair hammered some nails to fix the front step. When the man stood and wiped his brow, James noticed that the man's back stayed arched.
The man took a quick look at James and smiled.
James thought about offering the man his hat, but he knew it might be a long day looking for that buried loot.
"Good day," said the bald man. "Would you like a room?"
"Not at the moment," said James as he looked around the rest of the nearby buildings that seemed like they could fall with a good gust of wind. "I may need one later tonight. I'll let you know."
"Always open. We're never full."
James nodded and did his best to contain his smirk. "Have you had any run-ins with a man coming from Coloma recently?"
"No, can't say I have. We don't tend to get people from that far West too often."
"He's from the East, but came from Coloma."
"From the East, but came from Coloma," the man repeated. "I'm really sorry, but I can't recall. What kind of man? Banker? Farmer?"
"One who's probably never done an honest day of work in his life."
The old man lifted his head slightly to indicate understanding. "Someone like that would have more use in East Fork, across the way. They have saloons that gangs frequent, gun stores, that type of thing. And not a lawman anywhere to speak of."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, sir. I wouldn't venture there myself. But you look like a man who can handle himself just fine."
James nodded and made his way to East Fork, ignoring the roads, and cutting across the property of what seemed to be a rundown, abandoned ranch on a beautiful piece of land. Large fruit trees dotted the fence line, a stream cut across on a slant. Too bad a tree had fallen and smashed through one corner of the house.
But there was no time to enjoy the scenery, Slick Terry was surely on his way.
As James came upon East Fork he saw that there were some solid buildings with proper masonry. Given what the old man had said, some gang money was no doubt given to the business owners to keep the law out of town.
The Eaglefoot Saloon seemed as good a place as any to ask around about the stolen money. It was full of people and noise, with someone hitting the piano keys with an upbeat tune.
Three dandified males stood by the winged doors as James entered. They had high black hats, bandana's around their necks, and rose colored shirts covered in dirt and filth. James had to step around them to make his way to the bar.
"Can we help you with anything?" asked the tallest of the three. He had a scraggily, uneven beard, which appeared to be tied in little knots along the chin.
"Was wondering if you ever met a man coming from Coloma?"
The tall man provided quick glances to the other two men. "Not too long back. A yappy, aggressive little dog. Talked about some money he had from there. I thought he was pushing for someone to put a bullet in him."
"Someone did," said James.
The man's eyes widened. "Are you a lawman? Are you looking for this man's killer?"
"No to both. I'm looking for the loot he stole."
The man bellowed a laugh which managed to cut through all of the noise and echo around the bar. "You and everyone else. If we knew where it was it'd be gone by now."
James nodded and smiled, then managed his way to the bar area. He wanted a word with the bartender, they always knew best.
The red-haired bartender was busy moving whiskey to the thirsty patrons, breaking only to wipe his sweat with a cloth.
Another bellowing laugh came from the tall man at the doorway. James turned and caught a glimpse of Slick Terry talking to the men.
James panicked over the thought of gunfire causing chaos in the bar. He dropped his hat on the ground as an attempt to remove any recognizable items. He ducked down, as much as a man his size could, and moved his way around the bar into the back room.
Off to the side some older men played poker. He continued around and found a staircase. It was occupied by a man pressed on top of a girl. James attempted to remove his hat out of habit, forgetting he'd already taken it off. He squeezed by the narrow passage and found his way upstairs.
Double doors led to a veranda, and James made his way to them in a hurry. He stepped outside, moved to the end of the long veranda, and looked down. The building was higher than most, and even to hang and drop meant a good chance of a big man rolling over on his ankle. A lame man would take a bullet pretty easy.
During his indecision the double doors swung open. Just the head of a small gun poked out and fired two shots in the opposite direction. James pressed his back against the wall, and sucked in his gut, knowing some silver was coming his way.
Another two shots, one grazed his chest, but did even less damage than the one that clipped Aurora.
Quick thinking, James stuck out his foot and kicked the veranda rail, ripping out the nails and sending planks of wood tumbling to the ground.
Slick Terry rushed out of the doorway with his eyes wide, directed at the railing.
James drew his gun and fired without hesitation.
Slick's eyes fell upon James, but he had no time to draw his gun. All Slick could do was watch as the bullet entered his chest.
The noise throughout the bar had hushed. The piano had stopped. James stepped to Slick and took a knee, hearing his wheezing gasps for air.
"Too fast," said Slick looking up at James with those beady eyes.
James touched him on the shoulder. "The money. It's no use to you now. Where is it?"
"Don't know. Was hoping you'd already found it." Slick smiled briefly, but it vanished as he seemed overcome by the pain.
"What did the little guy you killed say?"
"West Fork. Under a tree."
James stood and looked over the railing toward West Fork. There were a great number of trees. He wondered if it was one right in town, or any of the hundreds on the outskirts.
A sudden excitement filled his chest and made his fingers tingle. He was too anxious to run back downstairs. Nor did he want to be questioned by the gang of dandified men. James sat and put his legs to the edge of the overhang. He didn't care about a little rolled ankle. The money was his as long as no one else had come to the same realization.
He hung tight on the overhang and dropped down from the veranda. He landed flush on his feet and squatted to brace his fall. It was perfection.
Aurora stomped his hoofs if to say he was ready run. James hopped on and they made their way to the abandoned ranch.
There seemed to be determination in the way Aurora ran, as if he sensed James' urgency. When they came upon the ranch, Aurora leapt the fence and splashed his way through the stream.
The fallen tree that crushed the corner of the house left a gap in the structure big enough for James to squeeze through. Rain had previously fallen in the opening making puddles that smelled sour.
A dresser, thick and sturdy like Auroa's body, held the weight of the fallen tree. James opened the top drawer and found a metal lock box. The box had been dented and busted open.
James opened the lid and inside found a wad of money. He counted it out. He wasn't sure how much the little man had taken before he was shot by Slick, but he left near $30,000.
Thoughts about what to do with all that money gave James quite a bit of thinking to do. He stepped out from the sour smelling home and stood next to Aurora, overlooking the beautiful land.
He didn't drink enough to spend it on booze, nor did he want to set up a saloon and attract patrons he didn't care to see. He felt too old and tame to blow it all on strange women. $30,000 was more than he ever needed.
James hopped on Aurora and took a saunter through West Fork. The bald man was still hammering away at the step of the rundown hotel.
"Hello again," said the bald man, squinting up with a smile.
James reached into his vest and pulled out about $5,000. "Take this."
The man looked confused, and as he stepped closer to the money, his hand seemed to shake with fear.
"It's okay," said James. "Go on and take it."
"What's it for?"
"Fix up this hotel, and buy yourself a hat."
The bald man smiled for a moment, but long lines of worry again drew on his face. "If this is money that youâ€”"
"It's found money. I've got no claim to it any more than anyone else. If anyone comes asking where you got it, you say your cousin from the West Coast gave it to you. If they keep asking, you send them to me."
"Where will you be?"
James pointed his thumb back at the ranch. "I'll be fixing up this place."
And in the days and years to come, James did more than fix up just the ranch. He gave money to the hard-working people of West Fork who needed it. He rode around with Aurora looking for ways to make it stronger. As he got older, he helped Logan Miles, the town Sheriff, by becoming a deputy and making sure none of the crime from East Fork made its way across.
West Fork blossomed into a beautiful area and the people had a place to be proud of. It just needed a little help to its foundation, and James was happy to provide it.