The instant that the teacher rang the three-thirty dismissal bell, Bert Lonigan and Davey Canby bolted for the school house door. The sixth graders leaped down the front steps of the one room school and dashed to the end of the schoolyard. There they picked up the pitchforks that stood against a tree. Bertâs fork once had five tines, but one was missing. Daveyâs was a four-tiner, but the handle had been broken off about two feet above the tines.
* * *
Bert and Daveyâs Paâs allowed the twelve year old boys to take the old forks to school that Friday, so they could walk along Dutch Creek on their way home and try to spear a trout. In late May the creek was full of carp and an occasional trout swimming upstream.
Bert, small in stature, but well muscled like his father, seldom reacted to any situation rashly. He calculated, made a decision and then acted. His friend, Davey, was tall and wiry. He leaped into action instinctively, usually not considering possible consequences.
Taking the West Verde road that ran by their respective farms, was shorter and quicker than following along the creek bank, of course, but as long as they got home in time to do their chores, things were fine. Nothing could beat the fun of spearing fish in Dutch Creek.
Dutch Creek meandered through open pastures near the road for the first mile from the school, then it turned south and made a horseshoe-like U-turn through a dense thicket. After leaving the thicket the creek zigzagged back north, then turned west again, passing under a bridge near the lane that led to Loniganâs farm.
Tall cottonwoods, clumps of oaks, box elder trees, milk weeds and brush surrounded ahidden, grassy, quarter acre clearing in the middle of the thicket. To get to the clearing, the boyshiked a narrow path along the creek bank, or walked in the water. If on horseback, they couldenter this hideaway only by riding in the stream. Bert and Davey often met there on Sunday afternoon, speared carp, and had âshootoutsâ with imaginary Indians or bandits. They called this secluded spot their âHideoutâ. It was a mystical, country boyâs paradise.
Davey could follow the creek for about one mile before he reached the driveway that led to his house. Bert could keep following the creek through the thicket, or stay on the road for about another mile until he came to the lane that led to his home. Five miles beyond the Lonigan farm, lay the town of Verde.
The boys walked slowly along the banks of Dutch Creek, one on each side, carefully watching for ripples in the small stream; ripples that might mean a trout was swimming by. The boys were free! Chores were two hours away, and Bert and Davey could imagine a huge trout dangling at the end of the fork.
âThereâs a carp!â said Bert.
Davey dropped to one knee on the bank and made a lunging stab at the fat, yellowish, scaly, fish with his short-handled fork. In the process he lost his balance and his right foot slipped into the water, soaking his shoe, sock, and bib overall up to the knee.
âGot him!â Davey said as he pulled his muddy foot from the water. âIâll take him home to the hogs.â But he forgot that the fork had no barbs, and the slippery fish slipped off of fork. Fortunately, it landed on the bank and Davey speared the flopping fish once more before it could gain the stream.
Bert looked at Daveyâs soaked leg and laughed. âYouâre all wet! Your Ma will be mad.â
âSo what,â said Davey. âItâll dry out.â
âWish youâda got a trout. Iâm mighty partial to trout. Ma fries âem up and boy theyâre good,â Bert said. âYou canât eat carp . . . but I guess the hogs like to root around with âem.â
Fifteen minutes later they reached Canbyâs lane. âYou gonna follow the road or go through our hideout in the thicket?â Davey asked.
Bert squinted into the late afternoon sun. âI got enough time. I think Iâll go through the thicket. Might be a trout in there.â
Davey shook his wet foot, then turned up the half-mile graveled driveway that led to the house, leaving a wet footprint with every other step. âOkay. Gotta go. Iâll see you Sunday at church.â
Bert waved to his friend, walked along the bank for another ten minutes and then took the narrow path into the thicket. He stepped softly, watched the water, and wondered if fish could hear. He came to a sudden stop. He listened. I hear voices. Voices! Then quiet.
* * *
The muffled whinny of a horse broke the silence.
âDammit Oney, keep those horses quiet,â came a mysterious utterance from the hideout. âYou want some dumb sodbuster to find us here?â
âWhy ainât we movinâ on?â said Oney. âHell Jarvis, ainât nobody gonna look in these brambles.â
âWe wait until dark,â said Jarvis. âAinât that right Bob?â
âWe come nigh to fifty mile,â muttered Bob, in a low sober tone. âWe play it safe and wait 'til dark. Two more full nightâs ride and weâll reach the border.â
Bert slinked backward slowly and softly. A dry twig snapped under his foot.
âI think I heared something,â said Bob. âOney take a look-see on the other side of that creek . . . but stay out of sight.â
Bert froze. Crouching low, he eased back a few more paces.
âI dinât hear a damn thing,â said Oney. âBob, you been hearinâ things ever since we robbed that Holbrook stage. Anyhow, if some sodbuster does find us here, weâd have to shoot him. Thatâd cause some fireworks.â Following a drawn out, subtle, silence, he added, âAll right Bob, all right. Iâll take a look-see.â
âAny sodbuster cominâ in here is a dead man. Thatâs for damn sure.â said Bob.
Bert looked for a place to hide. Behind him, about six feet away stood a tall cottonwood tree. He crept to the back side, grabbed a low branch, and started to climb. Remembering his fork, he reached down and took it with him. About fifteen feet in the air, the huge tree divided into two branches with a large limb bending away from the main trunk. Bert crawled on it, and lying on his stomach, placed the fork next to him. He wasnât sure if anyone standing below the limb could see him.
Oney walked right under him. A tall gaunt man, he wore high boots and a torn plaid shirt. Seeing the six-gun tucked in the waistband of his dirty trousers sent a shiver down Bertâs spine. âThere ainât a damn thing âcross the creek,â Oney announced as he headed back toward the hidden clearing.
Bert was trapped. He had heard his folks comment on a stage robbery that had taken place near Holbrook, but the Verde Weekly reported that the posse chasing the three robbers headed east, toward New Mexico, not down here in Verde Valley. He struggled to remain calm when he remembered that the robbers had murdered the stage guard.
Bert knew his folks would worry when he was late. Then it struck him. Pa will come lookinâ look for me. Heâll walk right into these killers.
The leaves of the cottonwood shimmered in the slight breeze. Bert peered through them and could see that there was about an hour, maybe two, of daylight remaining. Pa will be here before sunset.
Bert froze on the limb. By 5:15 Ma will start to worry. Pa will just be mad. Heâll think I stopped at Daveyâs house. By dinner time Pa will start to worry too. Then heâll come looking for me.
Bert knew he should do something. But what? Should he try to get down and run? They were too close. Theyâd hear, and shoot me sure. Wait until dark. He stayed quiet, and listened.
âWhy donât we divvy up now and then I can ride out?â asked Oney.
âNo you fool!â Bob demanded. He sounds like the boss. âYouâd spend yours at the first saloon. Then the law would back track you and all of us would get shot.â
âHell Oney,â added Jarvis. âJust wait. Itâs only a couple of hours âtil dark.â
âAw damn,â Oney moaned. âJarvis, toss me that bottle.â
âQuit pullinâ on that jug. Yer gonna drown yer brains . . . what little you have,â threatened Bob.
âWhere is that boy?â asked Sarah Lonigan as she dried her calloused hands in her apron. She pushed back her silver-streaked dark hair and turned to Hank, who wiped his boots on the door mat as he entered the kitchen. âHeâs way late. Shouldnât you go looking for him?â
* * *
Hank hung up his straw hat, wiped the sweat off his balding head with his sleeve, and poured water in the basin. He grabbed the soap, washed and dried his hands, using the towel that hung on a peg. The towel hung limp in his hands. âThe boyâs gotta learn some responsibility. I just done his chores.â
He glanced at the clock that hung between the cupboards. âGood heavens, is it nearly supper time? Heâs never been this late.â
Sarahâs motherly intuition leaped to full alert. âSomething is wrong. Look for him now, before it gets dark. Take the buggy and go look for him!â
Hank forgot his hunger and the anger subsided. Concern, fatherly love and instant courage replaced it. âIâm going to ride over to Canbyâs. He mightâve took sick there or something.â
Sarahâs forehead wrinkled with worry. âIâm going along.â
Gus, Davey, and Betty Canby had just finished the evening chores and entered the house, when Hank and Sarah rode up in their buggy.
* * *
Betty opened the screen door. She wore her customary manâs bib overalls and held three potatoes and a paring knife. Davey and his Pa stepped outside to greet the visitors. âWhat brings you over? Care to take supper with us?â
âIâm looking for Bert,â said Hank. âHe hasnât come home from school yet, and I—â
âWhat?â interrupted Davey. âHe said he was gonna go through the thicket when I left him. He shouldâa been home an hour ago.â
âI didnât see him on the road when we rode over. I was hoping he was here,â said Hank. âHe must have followed Dutch Creek into the thicket then.â
Gus Canby did not hesitate. A tall, strong, burly man of action, he donned his straw hat, covering up a huge shock of coal black hair. âLetâs go. Iâll help you look for him Hank.â
Gus took down the double barreled ten gauge shotgun from over the fireplace and grabbed a few shells. âNever can tell, Bert might have been treed by some wolves or javelina or something.â Then he hurried to the barn and hitched up the buck board.
Betty climbed in. âMaybe we can help.â Then watching a teary-eyed Sarah, she said, âGus, ride in the buggy with Hank. Sarah, Davey, come ride with me in the buckboard.â
Hank slapped the reins and urged the horse into a trot. Puffs of dust rose behind the buggy. The men rode in silence as the shadows lengthened and cool evening temperatures arrived.
Sarah looked toward Betty with anxious eyes. âTainât like him, Betty. Heâs been late before when he stopped to play at your house, but never this late.â
Betty put the reins in one hand and patted Sarahâs forearm. She hid her own concern with resolute words. âHeâs an able lad, Sarah. Donât you fret. Gus and Hank will find him. Heâll be alright.â
The buggy and buckboard hurried down the lane, turned up the road for a half-mile, and stopped where Dutch Creek coiled into the thicket.
Hank secured the reins and got down from the buggy. âThe brush is dense. Keep a sharp eye. Sing out if you see him.â
âIâll hurry around and walk in from the other side. That way weâre sure not to miss him,â said Gus. âDavey, you and Ma stay here with Sarah.â Reluctantly, Davey obeyed.
Lying on the limb, Bert whispered a prayer when he heard the outlaws saddling their horses. Maybe theyâll be gone before Pa gets here.
The setting sun created a dusky amber glow in the thicket. The breeze waned. The hue and calmness created an eerie atmosphere. The only noise came from chirping crickets.
Suddenly a familiar voice shattered the silence. âBert, Bert. Where are you son?â
Bert sat up on the limb, but remained mum, afraid to reply.
âWho the hell is that?â said Bob. âOney, you and Jarvis walk upstream and take a look. Somebodyâs cominâ! Donât shoot unless you have to.â
Oney and Jarvis worked their way through the undergrowth until they were nearly under the tree where Bert hid. Oney looked a foot taller than the squat, bowlegged Jarvis. Jarvis was old. His long, dirty white hair hung out the back of his old floppy hat. When Hank appeared, Jarvis drew his gun. âKeep coming stranger. What the hell are you doinâ in this brush?â
Hank took a step back as he looked at the pistol pointed at him. âIâm lookinâ for my son. He didnât come home from school.â His answer was direct, calm.
âWe ainât seen no kid,â said Jarvis. âOney get Bob. You, Sodbuster, stand where you are!â
Bert stayed quiet. Maybe theyâll just ride out.
Bob came up leading three saddled horses. He had a long scar across his forehead and a huge black beard. He appeared plain-old mean, and straight-out ugly. âWhat the hell is this?â
âSodbuster came through the brush lookin for his kid,â said Oney, pointing at Hank with with his gun. âBut there ainât no kid around here nowheres. Whatâll we do with this plow pusher?â
âCanât have no witnesses that we was here,â said Bob. âYou two get mounted up and Iâll take care of him. Then we ride out fast!â
When Oney and Jarvis were mounted, Bob drew his gun and walked toward Hank.
Bob stopped under the tree where Bert was hiding. Bert grabbed the fork with both hands, aimed, and threw it as hard as he could down at Bobâs gun arm.
âEeeyahhh!â Bob yelled in pain as two tines of the fork went clear through his forearm.He dropped the gun; fell to his knees, then pulled the fork from his bleeding arm. He tried to rise, but Bert leaped from the tree and landed on Bobâs back. With his bloody arm dangling, Bob got up and spun around, but Bert clung to Bobâs neck, riding him like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
Hank charged Bob like a raging bull, driving his head into Bobâs stomach. The three of them flew backward and splashed into Dutch Creek. Hank rose and his fist hit Bobâs jaw like a sledge hammer. Bob flopped back into the water and didnât move.
Oneyâs mount squealed and reared. He desperately tried to calm the horse. Jarvis recovered his wits, drew his gun and pulled the hammer back. He peered through the tall reeds and attempted to get a clear shot at Hank. Paying no attention to Jarvis, Bert and his Pa dragged the unconscious Bob from the creek.
They dropped Bob to the ground, and moved out in the open. Jarvis was about to squeeze the trigger when suddenly the roar of a shotgun erupted from the bushes. Jarvis screamed and grabbed at a gaping wound that had ripped open his side. His startled horse reared and Jarvis tumbled backward and lay twitching in a pile of leaves that reddened with his blood.
Gus emerged from the brush and pointed the shotgun at Oney. âIâve got one shell left for you if you want it. Throw down your gun or expect the same.â
âDonât shoot,â Oney said throwing his arms in the air. âBob did all the killin' . . . twernât me . . . was Bob.â
Bert looked up and saw his Ma, Davey, and Betty, running down the narrow trail. Sarah ran to her son and hugged him.
The isolated calm of the thicket slowly returned.
âWho are these bad men?â asked a wide-eyed Davey.
âTheyâre the robbers who held up the Holbrook stage and killed the guard,â said Bert. âI heard âem talkinâ about it when I hid up in that tree.â
Hank took a deep breath of relief and directed a smile toward his wife and son. âYou know I read that there is a $1000 reward.â Then he whispered a few words to Gus who grinned and nodded.âBoys,â said Hank. âWhen we get the reward money, how would each of you like a real fish spear, one with barbs and a strong handle?â
âYippee!â said Davey.
âMaybe then Iâll get a trout . . . huh Pa?â said Bert.
Davey laughed. âGuess thisâll teach outlaws not to come fiddlinâ around in our hideout!â