The Barefoot Odyssey
by James Burke
Kit Carson cursed General Kearny for getting him into this mess as he crawled on his belly in the dark. He'd advised the old fool to bypass the town, but Kearny insisted on a show of force through the village of San Pasqual. Carson had also advised keeping a closer formation. But Kearny sent him and the cavalry so far ahead they galloped right into the enemy's ambush.
Barely two days ago Carson had been knocked from his horse, nearly trampled by American dragoons, and nearly skewered by Mexican lancers! His rifle split in half in the fall, he'd been making due with a musket. Now he crawled, unarmed, through the California desert. If his seafaring comrade and he were spotted, guns would do them no good.
Lieutenant Beagle scratched along loudly beside him. Carson gripped the sailor's shoulder hard. Beagle looked up to see Carson's face shining in the moonlight and silently mouthing, "Quietly!" Beagle nodded, knowing it was meant as a hiss, and softened his grind through the sand.
They froze in the cool night air as Spanish voices echoed nearby. Heavy steps thudded through the tumble weed and cacti. Carson recognized the hooves of mounted lancers thumping towards them. They'd seen the sentinels on the hill as they began their crawl, but now the Mexicans were roving. The sight of two-dozen American soldiers turned to pin cushions in the desert sun flashed before Carson's eyes as the enemy trampled closer.
Carson figured the enemy would expect such a desperate move. He and a hundred other Americans had been trapped on that hill for over a day and had barely fired a shot. Perhaps betraying their dwindling ammunition. Sending runners for help was the only sensible thing left to do, except surrender and take their chances. Carson advised against the white flag. Mexicans weren't much friendlier to invaders than Indians.
Some famous leader once said something about desperate times calling for desperate action. Carson couldn't remember who as he took one of his own. He pulled his boots off his belt and signaled Beagle to do the same. The sailor did so nervously and looked at Carson in confusion. Carson pointed back the way they'd crawled and mouthed the words "Throw them now!"
Four boots swooped through the air like owls and thumped loudly to the ground. The Mexicans yelped in surprise and cursed the sudden noise. The two Americans resumed their desperate crawl. They dropped flat as two pistol shots split the air. The horses shrieked at the explosions so close to their ears.
Carson sighed, they were only warning shots to ward off desperate Yankees, like them, trying to escape. Thankful for the enemy's shifted focus, Carson and Beagle crawled on. They fell silent again as a few more lancers galloped past them, barely more than ten yards away. Evidently another patrol investigating the shots.
Several minutes more crept by as the trapper and the sailor clawed through rough sand and pebbles. Carson hissed like a snake as his palm struck a cactus. He cursed himself for the noise. "What's next? A nest of rattlers?" he thought.
The hills on the western horizon appeared as they slinked through the dirt like diamond-backs. Thirty miles further was San Diego, Commodore Stockton, and help. Carson figured they might reach the city by nightfall if they ran as much as they could. It would be risky. They had no food or water. Only their clothes and hats to protect them from the scorching sun.
Eventually all they heard was the howling wind and distant coyotes. Carson stood up and signaled Beagle it was safe. The main road was within eyeshot, but Carson knew better than to use it. Lancers would be on patrol. Carson instructed Beagle to keep to the hills in sight of the road. To keep to cover and dive to the ground if he heard hooves. Carson would go the straight route over the hills and through the wilderness. Whoever arrived at the city first would send help. "He who arrives last will buy the tequila," Carson chuckled.
The sailor nodded and huffed a giggle, but his eyes betrayed utter terror. Carson grimaced down at the man's bare feet. Beagle might have lost his sea legs by now, but his land legs wouldn't last long without boots. Carson wasn't looking forward to climbing hills and running sands barefoot either. What he wouldn't have given just for a pair of moccasins!
"If we don't make it, Kearny and the others are dead. You understand, Lieutenant?" he asked gravely. Beagle lowered his head, swallowing hard, then looked up and nodded firmly. Carson nodded back and both bolted into the night. "Godspeed, sailor," Carson huffed as he broke into a dead run. Best to take advantage of the cool night while it lasted. He doubted he'd ever see the sailor again.
Carson ran like lives depended on it, which they did. Sharp rocks tore at his soles and heels with every step. The hills were steep and rocky, but he climbed on. His toes were helpful in gripping the slopes, but rough edges tore at the skin. One faulty edge bent his toenails upward. Carson bit back a cry of agony and growled up the peak. "No time for pain, just keep going!" he urged himself.
Daylight crept over the horizon as Carson charged down another slope and hissed as his feet slid through jagged stones at the base. Crippling pain brought him to his knees as his heel landed on a cactus. A legendary hero whose only weakness was his heels flashed Carson's memory. He couldn't remember the name of the hero nor the man who told him. It didn't matter. No time for pain, just keep going!
The sun climbed higher, casting light on the desert. Carson took a periodic glance over his shoulder. No Lancers gave chase. Only red footprints followed him in the sand. His life blood trailed the way back to Kearny. Carson thought of the Californios painting the desert with the blood of American soldiers. No time to bleed, just keep going!
The sun reached noon and Carson slowed to a trot, the blazing sun weighed him down. What he wouldn't have given to be lying in bed beside his wife. She'd bring him a jug of cool water and dab his head with a wet cloth. How did he ever let that buffoon Kearny rope him into being his guide?
"To hell with your dispatches, son," Kearny had sneered at Carson's urgent messages for President Polk. "I need a guide to San Diego! You're it!"
"As the General thinks best," Carson humbly complied. How he wished he'd told the old fool to go to hell! Carson had half a mind to walk to the nearest Indian village, barter for moccasins and tread lightly the rest of his way home, leaving the over-ambitious general to his fate.
Carson shook the traitorous thought from his head. He cursed himself for even contemplating such treachery. He'd given Kearny his word! What's more his native land was at war! Could he hold his head high among Americans if he abandoned a hundred of them to the mercy of the enemy? Would his beloved Josefa ever look at him the same way again knowing her husband was a liar and a traitor? No! Just keep going!
The desert floor became a stove as the afternoon dragged on. Carson felt the flesh and blood of his soles sizzle like beef on a griddle with every step. He took little comfort knowing his wounds were likely cauterized. Carson recalled a bible verse from what little of the good book he'd bothered to read over the years. Something about walking through fire and not being harmed. It occurred to him he might be graced with such a miracle if he'd yielded to Josefa's pleads to attend mass together. "Maybe next week," he grunted at himself as he charged across the burning sand.
Sweat ran down every inch of Carson's body. He felt like he'd just splashed out of a river, minus the soothing cool of December waters. Exhaustion stabbed him as he remembered how close it was to Christmas. He promised himself he'd find something nice for Josefa at San Diego. And in one of his finer moments of self-deception, he promised never to leave home again.
Carson willed his mind back into consciousness as his knees struck ground. If he fell asleep he'd wake up half eaten by coyotes. For all he knew Beagle had already fallen to a similar fate. Mounted predators would devour a hundred helpless men. He growled like a wolf as he lunged back to his feet. No time to rest, just keep going!
Carson's fatigued mind wavered as the sun began to set. He staggered breathlessly up another hill then stumbled down the other side. A rattler shook its tail and coiled as Carson passed. Never mind it, just keep going! Coyotes sang loud nearby as the sun vanished beneath the horizon. Just keep going! The wind blew hard and dusty behind him, urging him on.
Torchlight flickered in the distance. Carson's eyes widened, jolting his brain out of delirium, as he realized he'd made it! There was San Diego! The mountain man huffed a sigh of relief and sprinted towards the city. No time to celebrate, just keep going!
Carson staggered to a halt at the gate. A sentry caught him as he lost balance. He looked up at the blue uniformed soldier and tried to utter his message, only a hoarse croak came out. The private quickly put a canteen to his lips and poured deliciously cool water down the exhausted trapper's throat.
Carson nodded in gratitude. "Kearney," he began.
"Is surrounded on a hill outside San Pasqual," the soldier finished, to Carson's disbelief. "The Lieutenant arrived just a while ago. The Commodore is readying a rescue force now, sir."
Another private appeared and helped Carson into the city and down the road to the hospital. The hospital had plenty of business, mostly fever and sunburn. Carson felt he'd fit into either category. He laid down on a vacant cot and blinked in surprise to see Lt. Beagle laying alongside.
Beagle's feet were thickly bandaged, a wet rag draped over his sunburnt brow. He breathed heavily and stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling. Carson was ashamed of underestimating the seafarer. Sailors were fancied as rough and tough men, capable of anything. Carson's own bloated legend had made him skeptical of others.
"Good work, Lieutenant," Carson coughed, still parched. Beagle didn't answer. Carson didn't blame him. "For what it's worth, you won the race!" Carson chuckled. "The tequila is on me!"
James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. He served four years in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged from the service in 2011. In 2016 he graduated from the University of Saint Francis in Joliet, IL with a bachelor's degree in history. He lives in South Carolina.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Estep Incident
by Mickey Bellman
A hint of winter still lingered in the air although the calendar said it was May in Haypress Meadows. A lone honey bee flew lazily past the small cabin while Ezra sat on a nearby stump enjoying the warm sunshine. He aimed a stream of tobacco juice at a small stone, turning the gray rock brown in one splash. In the mountain meadow stretching before him, elk cows and their new-born calves were contentedly feeding on the lush grass. It was a quiet, pastoral scene, one that Ezra had come to appreciate in his 63 years.
* * *
The ramshackle log cabin looked older than its eight years. Ezra had built the cabin himself, mostly by trial and error–the errors had been many but all chinked up with mud and moss. The one room cabin was barely high enough for Ezra to stand up straight, but it was big enough for the old widower. Rags of clothes, tools, pans and pots, a rifle and coffee cans filled with odd collections of things were scattered about the cabin in a disheveled pattern.
There was no order where things hung on wooden pegs. A rough wooden table was the only furniture other than a single chair and a corner bed. In the center of the room stood a small, pot-bellied stove that served as both cook stove and heat source. And heat meant survival for Ezra throughout the long winter months when snow measured four feet deep outside the cabin door.
He could have been like other prospectors, packing up and heading for town to avoid the brutal Idaho weather. But Ezra enjoyed the months of white silence and solitude. Winter was a quiet time without work or hurry, a time when Ezra could reflect about a wife long dead and two sons he last saw 35 years earlier. It was a time to regret the fight in the saloon when he hit the stranger just once with a bottle. Sheriff Dobbs never thought it was a friendly fight and tried to lock Ezra up for murder. That's when Ezra fled to his self-imposed exile in the wilderness. He often wondered if the sheriff had retired and the event forgotten in McCall. Eight years in the wilderness ought to be enough to atone for the error. Then Ezra chuckled as he considered the incident was about to make him a wealthy man. Another brown stream arced through the air as he leaned back against the cabin wall and dozed in the mid-day warmth.
There had never been a lot of gold, at least not until he stumbled upon the miner's pick half-buried in the litter of the forest. Ezra had been prospecting on Deerhorn Creek when he found the rusted tool and suspected there might be something of value nearby. After several days of exploration, he discovered a small cave that had been carefully concealed with brush, rocks and logs. There was barely enough room to crawl through the opening, but once inside a vein a of glittering quartz and gold greeted Ezra's eyes. There was a shovel with a handle long since rotted away, an old lantern, a hammer and a drill bit. The original prospector had met some unknown fate and the mine now belonged to Ezra. Only he knew of its existence and he guarded his secret closely.
The Grim boys had already dropped off Ezra's springtime supplies at the cabin–flour, coffee, dried beans, tin milk and a large pouch of chewing tobacco. Jim and Ben were the local packers out of Yellowbottom. They managed a meager living packing supplies to what few miners still lived in the mountains. They packed in supplies in the Spring, packed out miners and their gold in the Fall, all except for Ezra who stayed in Haypress year round.
Ezra had come to trust the boys; they packed out what little gold he found to deposit it in the Citizens Bank of Yellowbottom. Always they returned in the spring to drop off supplies and the bank receipt. Jim and Ben pretended to be friendly relating all the local gossip after each trip to town–who had died, who gave up and pulled out, how the preacher and the school marm had taken up together. Ezra politely listened each time although he was quickly bored with the talk. He thanked the boys and then closed the cabin door to end the conversation. The Grims seldom took offense at this and simply knew it was time to depart. It had been the same every year and this spring had been no different.
Ezra dreamily swatted at a bothersome fly near his face. The lazy movement was enough to startle a nearby elk cow and her calf, sending them galloping across the meadow. They stopped at the meadow's edge to stare at the old hermit and his cabin and then trotted up the hillside to find another place to graze.
"What do you think, Jim? You suppose he's found it yet?" Ben stirred the embers of the campfire trying to coax a little more heat from it. Two hours after sunset the temperature was falling rapidly in the clear sky.
* * *
"Can't really tell, Ben. He don't seem no different then last Fall, 'cept he did smile once this year. Never known him to smile in all these years we've been packin' for him. We took out 22 ounces for him last year, some pretty big nuggets. If he hasn't found the mother lode yet, he's sure getting' close." Jim sat on a log staring into the dying fire. His sheepskin vest and rough slicker still could not ward off the cold and his 28-year-old body shivered in the dark. Old boots, old jeans, dirty Stetson–everything about Jim seemed old and worn out.
"We've worked this friendship thing for a long time, all because he showed us a few big nuggets. We've packed out a couple thousand dollars worth of gold for the old coot and all we got to show for it is a good crop of saddle sores. I say this is the last year. We keep a close eye on him this season and figure out where he gets the gold. If nothin' turns up by the time we pack out in the Fall, we just take whatever gold he has and keep riding. He won't know anything's wrong until we don't show up next Spring. By then we can be in Colorado or California." Ben waited for a reaction from his older brother and stared into the campfire.
Jim grunted in agreement. The pack string had flourished until the gold strike played out, leaving the Grim boys with a lot of expensive horses and gear but no supplies to pack. There were few miners left in the wilderness, not enough business to provide the brothers with more than a minimal existence. Every winter they hibernated in a cabin near McCall; neither had ever married and they were looked on by everyone in a gay sort of way.
The next morning it was time to go to work. No one else was around the meadow and Ezra could slip away to Deerhorn Creek. He grabbed up two wooden buckets and disappeared into the forest.
* * *
"He's not at the cabin, Ben." Jim slipped off his horse and began loosening the cinch of the saddle. "He's gone off somewhere again. We'll have to keep our eyes open. If we find him, we can always say we're out scouting for elk."
* * *
Ben nodded. He had been busy with camp chores while Jim had ridden the mountain trails. "He'll turn up. Always does before long."
Ezra watched his back trail, making sure no one had followed him to his golden ledge. He figured the Grim boys were the only ones about, but he did not want even them to know his secret, not yet anyway. He carefully moved away the screen of brush and a shaft of sunlight bounded among the crystals and flecks of gold. He began chipping quietly at the ledge with his pick, breaking off just enough to fill his two buckets. Ezra would conceal the mine and return to his cabin to separate the yellow mineral from the worthless quartz. Even at just two buckets a day the gold was accumulating quickly. By Fall Ezra planned to have enough gold to quit the wilderness forever.
* * *
He kept at it every day, filling his two buckets with gold ore and panning the gold back at his cabin. Some nuggets were as big as his thumb and Ezra danced a little jig whenever he discovered a large one. His small poke of gold became two pokes, then four. He was running out of places to hide the gold in his small cabin. It was proving to be a rich strike, more than enough to get him out of Idaho and out of the country.
"He's on to something, Ben. He's never at the cabin in the morning, but always back around noon, down at the creek, panning from those two buckets. I've been watchin' him from up on the ridge. Once I saw him do a little jig after he picked something from the pan. He's found it, Ben. He's found the mother lode."
* * *
Ben nodded, his steel eyes narrowing to gray slits. "You're probably right. A couple times I stopped at his cabin to snoop around when he wasn't there. Plenty of old tailings down at the creek. And there are four nice-size pokes hid under his bed. Let him do all the work for now and we'll help him divide it up come Fall. 'fact maybe we ought to be neighborly and pay Ezra a visit this afternoon. You still got that bottle tucked in your bedroll?"
Jim smiled and nodded. "Yeah, sure. We'll just be neighborly today."
" 'afternoon, Ezra." Ben was just gushing with friendliness. " 'figured you might like some company. How ya been? Any luck?"
* * *
Ezra heard the clank of horseshoes on the rocky trail before he saw two riders enter the meadow. He had already hid the biggest nuggets in the soft mud, to be retrieved after the Grims had left.
"Oh, been having a little luck. A few flecks here and there but pretty sparse. Why don't you boys step down and I'll brew us up a pot of coffee?" Jim and Ben looked bewildered-never before had Ezra asked them to stay awhile.
"We'll do that. Well, lookee here what I found." Jim fumbled in his saddlebag to find a bottle of Wild Turkey. "Maybe we can use this to kill the taste of that mud you call coffee." At the sight of the bottle, Ezra's eyes widened and he grinned.
"By golly, you boys is all right!"
While Ezra disappeared into the cabin to boil coffee grounds, Jim and Ben each found a comfortable stump close to the cabin door. In short order Ezra returned with three tin cups and a pot of coffee. He poured each cup half full while Jim added the Wild Turkey sweetener, making sure Ezra got a double shot.
"Looks like there'll be plenty of elk come Fall. Most of the cows we've seen have calves. Saw a couple of branched bulls up on the ridge."
Ezra nodded in agreement. "Yeah, an' I've been seein' quite a few moose. Do you suppose I could have another shot of that Turkey? Was a long winter, ya' know. Pretty soon I'll be able to buy all the Wild Turkey I want. That is, if I have any luck this year." Jim filled Ezra's cup about half full, leaving just enough room for a splash of coffee. Ezra resumed his place on the stump, enjoying the warm sunshine and the effects of the whiskey.
"I sure appreciate you boys haulin' my supplies every year. I can always count on you. But you won't be packing supplies to me no more. I've had enough of this place and I'm going out with you in the Fall." The whiskey was taking its toll on Ezra. "Let me show you something." Ezra staggered into the cabin, rummaged around a bit and returned with a fist-size leather pouch.
"I mean for you boys to have this when you get me to Yellowbottom. I know I ain't been the best of neighbors, but you've been plenty good to me. Look at this."
Ezra grabbed a semi-clean tin plate and poured out the contents of the poke. Flakes of gold dust and small nuggets cascaded into the plate. Jim and Ben fairly jumped from their stumps to see the gold.
"Why you old coot! All this time you been tellin' us you ain't hardly found nothin'. Must have taken you months to scrounge up this much. Where . . . "
Ezra's tongue had been well loosened and he was enjoying the attention. "Naw. Dug it up in just a couple of days. And I sure can't tell you horse thieves where 'cause you might jump my claim. Har! Har! Har!"
Jim and Ben glanced at one another. He really had found the mother lode. All their years of saddle sores and fake friendliness was about to pay off. Ezra was the key to their wealth and the one obstacle to be eliminated.
"How about another splash of that joy juice?" Ezra was feeling no pain.
The drinking and laughter continued till sundown. Every time the talk turned to the mine's location, however, Ezra changed the subject. The Grims knew it was close by since he never disappeared more than a few hours. Meanwhile, Ezra bragged about the $20 pans he had been taking out all summer.
"Well boys, I've had enough of this place. When you figure to pull out?"
"We're going out for supplies in two weeks. McGregors and Johnsons up on Beaver Creek need some things. Then we'll pull out for the winter."
"That will be just fine. By then I ought to have a few more socks filled." Ezra carefully gathered up the gold from the plate. "I'll just keep this for you boys till then. Mark my words, it's yours just as sure as an elk sheds its horns."
Ezra staggered to the cabin door and disappeared inside. A rhythmic growl soon issued from the cabin and the boys knew the party was over–Ezra had passed out.
"Did you see the size of that poke? And those nuggets? Big as marbles. There must be $5000 worth of gold in that one pouch." Ben was gasping with excitement and anticipation. "He's got more and gonna get more. You heard him Jim, didn't you? Give him a couple more weeks and we'll be rich!"
Jim let his horse walk the moonlit trail without guidance. "I got an idea. When we go out with him, we'll put him on old Cleaver. That horse will spook if he sees his own shadow. We'll just ride along nice and friendly until we get to the Estep Trail. Then there's gonna be a little accident when Cleaver gets spooked off the trail and takes Ezra with him. Can't be more than 700 feet to the bottom. It will just be one of those unfortunate mountain accidents and we'll forget to tell anyone about the gold."
In the darkness surrounding the Idaho trail, Ben smiled with satisfaction. He could always count on his older brother for a plan. Maybe that's why he loved him so.
The elk were bugling by early September, but Ezra paid them no mind as he panned his buckets of gold. The Grims continued packing supplies from Yellowbottom to the solitary miners scattered along Beaver Creek. Every time they passed Ezra's cabin, they stopped for a friendly visit. Ezra never suspected their true intentions and even came to enjoy these times. He showed the boys more pokes of nuggets, complaining how his mattress was getting mighty lumpy. Each time the Grims fawned bewilderment that such good fortune would befall the old hermit. And each time the Grims rode away, more determined to have it all.
* * *
By late September the high mountain frost had performed its alchemy on the aspens, transforming the green leaves of summer into golden flakes that shimmered in every breeze. Ezra had run out of leather pokes and was filling his socks with the yellow mineral.
October bit with a vengeance when the first storm arrived out of the north. For two days all was silent and white, blanketed by a foot of snow. Ezra stayed in the cabin to avoid making any tracks to his mine, staying close to the stove and dreaming about his new wealth. He cleaned and oiled his .30-30 carbine, and then resacked all the gold dust and nuggets–two flour sacks, a coffee tin, five pokes and a couple socks held all his wealth and future happiness. With his savings in the Yellowbottom Bank Ezra figured he had close to half a million dollars, more than enough to bypass McCall and get to San Francisco.
The early storm was short-lived and the returning sun quickly melted the snow. Ezra basked in the Indian summer weather and waited for the Grims to return. He was dozing when a nickering horse announced Jim and Ben were coming.
"Are you ready, you old coot?" Jim and Ben laughed as they handed Ezra the bottle of whiskey to celebrate the departure.
" 'bout time you two showed up. I was beginning to wonder if you remembered that poke."
"We remembered, Ezra. C'mon we got two pack horses for your gear. We brung old Cleaver for you to rest your bones on." Both boys tried to hide their surprise when Ezra brought out the sacks of gold. "You gonna make us haul all this yellow gravel clear to town?"
"Now boys, be nice to me. These old bones haven't straddled a horse in a long time." Ezra tied his carbine to the saddle horn with a piece of twine. "That's in case some notorious bandits try to bushwhack us on the trail. Har! Har! Har!"
"How about one for the trail? A toast to the Hermit of Haypress Meadows." Ezra took a big gulp of the offered whiskey, and then another for good measure.
"That's the last time I go through that cabin door. You boys are welcome to the place next year."
"Say, Ezra, you never did tell us the where-abouts of your mine. Now that you're pullin' out, how's about telling your good friends here . . . " Ben tried to coax the old man out of his secret.
"Why, I can't tell you that. 'suppose I want to come back someday and make another withdrawal? You boys might call me a claim jumper and shoot me. Besides even if I told you exactly where to look, you couldn't find it if you were standing on top of it. I hid it real good." Jim and Ben winced a bit but there was plenty of gold in the saddle bags, at least for now.
With that they all swung into their saddles and started down the trail towards Yellowbottom. Ezra never even glanced back at the cabin that had been his home for so many years. It would be a 25-mile ride to town and after sundown when they got there. Jim took the lead with the two pack horses now weighted down with gold. Ezra followed on Cleaver. Ben trailed behind with a single pack horse and more gold.
The horses walked easily along the trail while the riders relaxed in their saddles. Ezra soon began a soft, rhythmic growl as his head bobbed and drooped under the warm sun. Jim swung around to look behind, and Ben silently nodded. It wasn't far to the Estep Trail.
Jim deliberately slowed the pace as they approached the narrow path carved into the rock slope. Ben slipped quietly from his horse and climbed above Ezra on the steep slope. Cleaver, already skittish from the narrow trail, saw Ben approaching from above.
"Ezra, it's time to go."
"What the . . . "
Ben gave a loud whoop and sprang towards the horse. Cleaver never hesitated and jumped away from the fright and off the trail. Ezra grabbed for the saddle horn and reins but it was already too late. The horse was pointed straight down the mountain and beginning his first cartwheel. Ezra was catapulted from his saddle trying to distance himself from the tumbling horse and the flailing hooves. The canyon was filled with the screams of a terrified horse and an old man. A small avalanche of rocks and dirt cascaded down the mountainside as Ben and Jim stared in fascination at the horrific sight. A hundred feet below a cloud of dust obscured the rolling carnage. As suddenly as it had begun, the silence of the wilderness returned. Only a cloud of brown dust marked the tragedy that had just occurred.
"Well, that's that. Let's get to Yellowbottom."
"Don't you suppose we ought to go look, Jim? What if he ain't dead?"
"Oh for crying out loud. How many times have you seen anything fall off this trail and live?" Jim silently shook his head. He'd seen horses and mules go off before and every one of them was dead before it quit rolling down the mountain.
"C'mon, it's finished. Let's get to the trailhead before dark. We've got some celebrating to do tonight." The two riders with their gold-laden pack horses resumed their ride down the steep trail.
An hour later Ezra opened his eyes. The blood had dried and crusted on his face, and it was a struggle just to see. He coughed heavily, spitting out two teeth in the process. He was lying on his back staring into the sky atop a patch of brush. It was the brush patch that had cushioned his fall and kept him from tumbling further down the mountain. Before he even tried to move, he knew his left arm was broken.
* * *
He was stunned, laying on the mountainside, trying to remember what had happened. There had been a gentle ride, a drowsy nap in the saddle and then the terror of falling. Where were Jim and Ben? Only the silence of the wilderness answered his thoughts.
As his head cleared, the memories came flooding back. His horse had reared and fallen, frightened by . . . Ben! He and Jim meant to kill him for his gold! They had only to keep their mouths shut when they rode through Yellowbottom and keep riding. It would be spring before anyone would discover that an old man and his horse had fallen off a wilderness trail.
Ezra wiped his face with his right hand. He dislodged another tooth and coughed out more blood. As the shock wore off, the waves of pain began–smashed jaw, broken arm, twisted knee. It took several tries before he could even sit upright. The hills spun crazily around as he tried to focus his eyes. His left arm hung uselessly and painfully at his side while he slowly struggled to stand. Ezra clutched at the wisps of brush to steady himself.
He could see his mangled horse at the bottom of the draw. Ezra staggered on his feet and began to slowly hobble down the steep hillside knowing the draw would eventually cross the trail that led to Yellowbottom. Another loose rock sent Ezra sliding down the slope and a loud groan filled the canyon. It would be a long walk to Yellowbottom.
Jim and Ben leaned heavily on the rough boards of the Silver Shoe Bar. "Give us another shot with a chaser. That trail was really dusty. We worked up a sweat coming down Estep." They looked at one another with a wry smile and a wink. Hilda the barkeep obliged them with another round. They were the only ones in the bar.
* * *
His broken arm dangled uselessly at his side; every step reminded him with a shot of pain. Ezra undid his belt to use as a crude sling and immobilize the arm. He looped the belt around his neck and ever so slowly lifted his broken arm into the sling. Twice he nearly passed out from the pain but it was finally done and he tottered down the slope.
* * *
In the bottom of the draw a mountain stream flowed toward Beaver Creek. It was mid afternoon when he splashed some of the cold water on his parched lips and washed away some of the caked blood. After a short rest Ezra continued to stumble downhill to a well-used elk trail that followed the stream. Two hours later he discovered the pack trail leading to Yellowbottom. And again he rested, gathering strength for the long walk to town.
"Whoa. Good grief what in the hell happened to you?" Kell sat astride his gray saddle mare staring down at the broken prospector. Ezra turned his head slightly to acknowledge the young fur trapper but said nothing. Kell slipped from his worn saddle and walked over to Ezra.
* * *
"Did you get throwed off your horse? Looks like you landed pretty hard." Kell was hesitant to even touch Ezra fearing he would only hurt the old man. He drew a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the nearby stream. Ezra accepted the rag and dabbed at his face.
"Damn kids scared my horse up on Estep in that steep spot. Horse and me went rolling down the hill. They done it deliberately, Kell. They meant to kill me."
"Who did it? The Grim boys?" Kell knew that, other than he, they were the only "kids" in the backcountry.
"Yeah, it was them. They were being real friendly 'cause I was going out with all my gold. Damn them anyhow."
Kell was still unsure how to exactly help Ezra. He turned to his saddlebag and found a used t-shirt that he ripped into bandage-like strips. With that he fashioned a sling for the broken arm to hold it securely against Ezra's chest. Ezra groaned from the pain but accepted the help.
"Let's get you up in my saddle. I've been meaning to stretch my legs anyhow. It ain't but a couple hours to Yellowbottom." With that he helped the old man into the saddle on Rosie.
With his arm secure in the new sling, Ezra heaved a sigh of relief. Kell began to lead Rosie, followed by the two pack horses. Only the sound of hooves on the stony trail were to be heard as they plodded toward Yellowbottom.
"How about it, Hilda? Just one more round? We'll be going out for good in the morning. Had enuf of this country." With that Jim slapped a leather poke of gold dust on the bar. Hilda's eyes bugged out as she realized what it was.
* * *
"Now you take just what's due for the drinks and then take an extra little pinch for yourself so that you'll remember us. I gotta go out back for a minute but Ben will be watching you." Jim turned around and staggered towards the privy out back.
"Well, we're just about there. Maybe Hilda can find you someplace to rest up in the back room, maybe fix you up better than me."
Ezra stared down at the ground and then Kell. "I'll make this up to you somehow when I get all healed . . . "
Ezra stopped in mid-sentence as he looked past Kell towards the hitching rail in front of the saloon. The darkened street was deserted except for the five horses standing there. He knew instantly who owned them.
"Why those . . . " Ezra eased himself off his horse. It took a minute to steady himself and then he limped towards the Silver Shoe. Kell tried to stop him.
"Ezra, you're in no condition to do nothing. Let 'em go for now. In a couple days I'll get you to McCall and the sheriff can handle it."
"They'll be long gone by then. Better take care of things right now." Ezra continued walking unsteadily towards the dim light. Kell stood there holding the reins knowing something bad was about to happen.
Ezra peered through the glass into the dimly lit saloon. Ben was leaning on the bar watching Hilda measure out the gold dust–his gold dust! Jim was nowhere to be seen. Ezra guessed Jim just might be out back in the privy. He silently slipped away from the window and shuffled around to the back of the squatty building.
In the dim moonlight Ezra could see Jim leaning against a tree and unfastening the buttons of his pants. Ezra looked about and saw the rusty hatchet Hilda used for cutting firewood atop the chopping block. Then he knew what to do.
Jim was still leaning in the same position, quietly humming to himself, unaware of Ezra. He was in a drunken stupor dreaming of the gold and all that it would buy in Colorado. He was still dreaming when the rusty hatchet split his skull wide open.
Ben was also supremely drunk, swaying at the bar, watching Hilda, telling her how they struck it rich. He bragged on about himself, his brother, the vein of gold and all that it would soon buy them. Hilda only nodded while coyly working the gold poke for a couple extra pinches.
"Hey, Jim. Jim? Where'd you go? Where'd he go" You know where he went?"
Hilda smiled towards the back door. "Must still be out back." She schemed that, if Ben would wander outside, she might replace some of the gold dust with rocks of equal weight.
"Oh, maybe you're right. I'm gonna go find him," and Ben walked unsteadily towards the door. He slipped the latch and swung open the heavy door.
"Ez . . . Ezra??" He never finished his thought but the hatchet finished it for him. Ezra had been standing there in the doorway waiting. The hatchet was still imbedded in Ben's forehead when he fell back into the barroom.
Hilda stood speechless behind the bar, eyes wide with terror. One dead man gushing blood and brains on the floor, another man looking half dead standing in the doorway. Kell had just stepped though the front door as Ben went down. He grimly looked at Ben, then Ezra.
"Geez, what a mess you made, Ezra." He carefully stepped around the body and the growing pool of blood to grab Ezra's arm. "If you're done, maybe you ought to sit down," and he guided the prospector to a chair. "Hilda, do you suppose you could find something to splint his arm and wash some of the blood off? Maybe get him something to wash that trail dust down his throat?" At that Hilda disappeared into the back room that served as her bedroom.
"'Tried to kill me and steal my gold. That ain't right. Ain't right at all. They had it comin'."
Kell sympathized. "Yeah Ezra. I know. Self defense, plain and simple. Backwoods justice is done."
Mickey Bellman is a professional forester who has lived and worked in western Oregon for 48 years. He enjoys freelance, short story writing and lives with his wife Ginny and two Golden Retrievers.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by A. Elizabeth Herting
* * *
The snow blanketed the land in every direction, the towering pine and aspen trees keeping watch over the mountain like sentinels in a storm.
Ol' Sourdough rubbed the sleep from his eyes, getting up from the warm pallet as his old bones creaked and popped. He had been alive for a long, long time and seen many a storm. This one here was a good'n. He knew that his shelter was completely buried, but for the first time in days, the whistling and groaning of the winter wind had mercifully stopped. The silence was deafening as Sourdough broke through the top layer of ice in his water bin and quickly wet his lips. He would have some work to do today if he were to have any hopes of seeing the sun again.
As soon as he was growed enough, Sourdough had lit out for the West, spending years traversing the hills and streams of fur country in the Shining Mountains, otherwise known as the Rockies. He had been a free trapper, trader, prospector and guide, helping many a tenderfoot navigate their way across the mountain passes and rugged trails that crisscrossed the land. He never stayed in one place very long, and had no family laying claim on him. Sourdough was totally alone, or as he thought of it, living the life of a free man. He traveled with an old mule he named Sara (after a long-lost love) that helped him lug the timber up and down the mule trails of Santa Fe mountain, the railroad paying him for each load they delivered. He and Sara traipsed up and down the mountain in fine fettle until the first leaves turned. Then that old girl laid down and died, having lived a good life of service to him. Sourdough was not the sentimental sort, but he was getting up there in years and decided to settle down on the spot where he had buried his old friend, just to wait out the winter.
* * *
Sourdough reached into his possibles bag and fetched his pipe and the very last of the tobacco he had traded for last summer out at Bent's Old Fort, before he and Sara headed up into the hills. He took a long, satisfying pull on the pipe and threw a handful of kindling onto the small fire.
* * *
The smoke hole was holding up pretty well, he thought. The heat was melting the snow around the hole, keeping the place warm while the snow and winds raged outside. With the pemmican and the few food items he still had stored away, Sourdough knew that he could last a lot longer in here but was beginning to feel the itch, knowing that many a mountain man had gone under after being stuck in one place for too long. It was known as "seeing the elephant," that giant, monstrous beast of a vision that made many a free man lose his wits and will to survive. That was one old gal Sourdough had no intention of meeting. He closed one eye and peered up the smoke hole, looking for the sun and praying that he would find it shining through. He could see a small sliver of bright light and knew that this was it, his golden opportunity.
* * *
Charles James, affectionately known to his family and friends as CJ, was on a bit of an adventure. He had been slightly adrift, having recently graduated from high school, spending all summer working with his hands at any job he could possibly get that would keep him outdoors and moving. He wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do with his life, just that he was impatient for it to actually begin. He always had what his mother called "the wanderlust," a desire to see what lies over the next hill, down the farthest path or better yet, off of it. His parents nagged at him constantly to choose a college or career, but CJ held out, saving his money and getting stronger from the physical demands of each new job, closing his eyes every night with the satisfaction of a hard day's work well done.
His cell phone chirped out a warning to him that he was getting low on juice; the charger in his old red Ford pickup wasn't the greatest. It was a crisp, winter Colorado morning and CJ was determined to get out at first light. The weather was unusually warm this year, leaving him with the perfect opportunity to accomplish his goal. His constant companion, a young Golden Retriever named Cassie, sat beside him, joyfully sticking her head out of the window into the thin mountain air as they rounded the bend and the old mining town of Idaho Springs loomed into their view.
His father had taken him up here for as long as he could remember. They owned eighty acres on North Santa Fe mountain and almost every year without fail, CJ and his dad would brave the rugged, rocky dirt road that was only accessible by a four-wheel-drive to go and pick out the perfect Christmas tree. They would make a great adventure out of it, hiking through the thick woods, making sure they found the very best one that would make his mother and sisters laugh with delight. Once they found it, Dad would reverently take his hand and they would both touch the trunk of the tree, gauging its size and exactly which tools they would need.
* * *
By the time he was ten, CJ could wield the ax like a pro, Dad always watching with a sharp eye to make sure he was being safe. Once the tree was down, they would gently pack it up, stopping for a picnic lunch somewhere along the way, drinking in the magnificent sights and sounds of nature all around them. CJ had spent years of his young life camping, hiking, and wandering the great outdoors, but the time spent on Santa Fe mountain with his father was special. The conversations they would have, the skills his father would teach him and always, there was the mountain, the one place where CJ felt his heart swell with freedom and joy. His father would regale him with stories of the hearty trappers and mountain men that had actually lived on the mountain and more than once CJ would close his eyes and imagine what that must have been like, wishing more than anything that he could be one of them.
Cassie let out a sharp bark as CJ rounded the bend to where the paved road stopped and the dirt one began. It was a long, treacherous climb up the mountain and CJ laughed as he remembered his mother and sisters covering their eyes on the way up, afraid to look straight down into the abyss. There wasn't a single guardrail in sight. CJ loved it, craning his head as far out of the window as Dad would allow while Mom watched him nervously through her fingers.
* * *
"Well, this is it, girl. Are you ready?" he said to Cassie as he stopped the truck and put it into four-wheel-drive, excited as he always was, to get back up to his beloved mountain.
* * *
Sourdough spent the better part of the morning digging himself out. Using his old pickaxe, he hammered away relentlessly at the wall of snow and ice, inch by inch, until the first rays of the sun beamed down upon his grizzled old face. By midday, he had just about cleared the doorway and was able to take his first step into the outside world in over a week. The sun was blinding as Sourdough took a moment to acclimate himself, feeling the crisp, thin mountain air on his face. It was a white, shining paradise all around him in every direction, and Sourdough thought that if this wasn't Heaven, it was the closest thing to it. As always, he thanked The Man Above for making him the luckiest and freest creature on the face of this old earth: a mountain man.
He turned to survey his handiwork. The cabin had held up remarkably well, he thought with pride. He and Sara had lugged enough lumber up and down the trail for him to keep a few logs. He had worked away all summer into the fall, his mule keeping him company until she left him, and the skeleton of his cabin was completed. He had just laid down the roof and filled all the gaps with mud when the first snows began, ending in an epic, swirling storm that kept him holed up for nearly a week. Crude though it was, Sourdough had to admit that it was the finest home he could recall, having lived under the stars for the better part of forty years.
It would be a real shame to leave it in the spring, he thought— maybe I'll stay a spell. He could certainly still set his traps, although every year he had to climb higher and higher to find beavers. Before long there wouldn't be any of the little critters left.
Sourdough pointed his makeshift snowshoes downward and began the long trek. With his old Hawken muzzle-loading rifle slung over his back, he slowly made his way through the snow in search of provisions. He didn't expect he'd find a buck, but a nice tasty squirrel was a real possibility. Sourdough could see that the afternoon was beginning to turn dark again, snow clouds getting ready for another go—he had better be quick. He had gone on for a long while when he noticed that the snow was completely melted from the ground. He stopped and looked back. Behind him, there was a foot or more, the prints from his snowshoes staring back at him defiantly. Here, where he was standing, there was nothing. It was like the storm had never happened. He was about to turn back to investigate when a sudden sound startled him, unlike anything he had ever heard before, piercing the still afternoon air. A rumbling, menacing sound.
A train engine? No that's not possible; there are no trains anywhere near the mountain. Sourdough flattened himself against the trunk of a large aspen and waited. He had managed to keep his topknot for nigh on seventy years now, despite almost getting scalped by a Pawnee brave some years back. He hadn't gotten to be this advanced age by being careless.
A sudden mist sprung up out of the ground, putting him instantly on guard. Something strange was afoot, all of his senses were on fire. Out of the spidery haze an astonishing vision barreled into his line of sight, roaring past him as Sourdough clutched his rifle in abject terror.
What manner of creature is this? He desperately tried to make sense out of his predicament as the strange monster came to a stop just yards below him. It was enormous, made of some kind of iron, garishly red and demonic with smoke bellowing from its underbelly. Sourdough aimed his Hawken straight at it then nearly fainted dead away as it opened itself up and a man with a big golden dog stepped out. Both were wearing some unearthly shade of orange and Sourdough pondered that he must have fallen into Hell. All of this simply could not be real.
* * *
CJ checked to make sure Cassie's optic-orange vest was secure. There were always hunters on Santa Fe mountain and he didn't want his dog mistaken for a deer, or himself for that matter. He made sure he had everything he needed--tools, ax, knife, bear spray. He had never heard of bears being on the mountain before, but he was very careful about his surroundings. He always took precautions, knowing the mountain can turn on you in a heartbeat. He packed up the last of his provisions, making sure there was enough food and water for the day and turned to look at the mountain.
He was feeling a little distant from his family these days. His father had been too busy with work and couldn't make it up to the mountain this year. CJ was the youngest of three and his sisters were both in college. There really was no time or reason to keep up their annual Christmas tradition; no one was expecting it. CJ felt that bringing back the perfect Christmas tree would be a special gift to them, his way of showing his appreciation. He also wanted to prove that he was finally responsible enough to carry on the tradition all on his own, for he had no doubt that someday he would bring his own children up to the mountain. If he could find a way, perhaps he would even make the mountain his permanent home.
* * *
He felt a slight change in the air as a light mist began to gather around his feet. The morning had been clear, but clouds were starting to gather off in the distance. He whistled to Cassie and found her completely still, locked onto something about halfway up the first hill. A light growl escaped her throat, a sound he knew all too well, especially when there was a squirrel anywhere nearby. He looked up to see why she was staring so intently. Nothing. Complete stillness.
* * *
He got a sudden sensation that he was being watched as his hand instinctively reached for the large hunting knife on his hip.
"Hello? Is there anyone there?" Cassie barked once, breaking him out of his reverie. She ran up to him, tail wagging in anticipation. The feeling passed and CJ guessed that whatever it was had gone. He started up the mountain with Cassie running ahead in excitement. He remembered a certain clearing with a large copse of pine trees about a half-mile up. He would find his tree there. Man and dog made their way up the mountain as the feathery mist continued to grow and billow out behind them, the first snowflakes falling gently to the earth.
* * *
Sourdough deftly followed the man and dog as they made their way up the north side of the mountain. He was an expert tracker, but he had to admit that the dog almost flushed him out, he needed to watch his every move. He could see that the man was young, little more than a boy. He was still beardless, with short yellow hair, carrying a large satchel on his back. He wore strange clothing, including a painfully-bright orange garment of a shade Sourdough had never seen before, perfectly matching the one on his long-haired dog. They made quite a pair as they lumbered their way up to the clearing ahead. The boy seemed to know his way around the mountain, but he wouldn't keep his hair on his head very long if the Ute were tracking him. They would hear him coming a mile away.
Sourdough looked up and saw the most peculiar thing—the sky appeared to be bending, moving and shimmering in a way he couldn't fathom. He felt a sudden pressure in his head, a ringing in his ears and saw the boy and dog begin to flicker, like flames.
What in tarnation is going on? They made the clearing and the boy stopped in front of a decent-sized pine tree, circled around and looked at it from every direction. He said something to the dog (Cassie? Is that what he called her? ) and pulled an ax from his sack. The boy laid his hand on the trunk of the tree in some sort of ritual then backed away and took his first swing. Sourdough had to admit that the boy was pretty handy with an ax as he watched him bring down the tree, then expertly truss it up and harness it onto his back.
Now why did he choose that particular tree out of all the ones along the way? The boy checked to make sure the harness was secure then took the whole thing off and proceeded to throw a stick for the dog laughing in pure delight as she nearly knocked him over. Sourdough held back a chuckle, feeling the camaraderie of man and beast. Just like how he and old Sara used to be. Lord, how he missed that old mule! He continued to watch as they played, then settled in for a midday meal on the stump of a tree, the boy throwing scraps of meat to his over-eager dog. Sourdough grabbed some pemmican from his bag and took a bite, keeping a close watch on the pair as the odd, rippling sky suddenly opened up and the snow began to come down in waves.
* * *
CJ knew it was the one as soon as they hit the clearing. It stood apart from the others, proud and perfectly formed. He placed his hand gently on its trunk in the well-loved tradition, a hundred memories hitting him all at once.
He could picture the tree in their front window, decorated with all of his mother's favorite ornaments. She always had to get an ornament at every single family trip or event-- they took up the entire tree. Bing Crosby would be singing in the background as he and his sisters looped string after string of lights around the tree, laughing at their Mom's self-proclaimed, tacky decorating style. Everyone at home for the holidays, all of them together.
CJ had prepared a travois that he planned to harness to his back in order to bring the tree down the mountain, just as his father had taught him. The weather seemed to be holding out, he figured they had time for lunch and a quick round of fetch before heading back to the truck. A movement in the sky caught his eye and he looked up into an incredible sight. The sky was filled with colors, like a wavy, psychedelic Aurora Borealis. CJ stood up, feeling lightheaded as he watched the sky tumble and churn. A random jumble of high-pitched sounds hit him all at once, making his head spin. He jumped up in alarm, calling Cassie to him and quickly gathered up his gear to head back. He wasn't sure what was happening but every instinct was telling him he needed to go immediately. He had just enough time to put on the harness before the first wave of snow literally fell from the sky, like God opening up a trap door.
* * *
In a matter of minutes, CJ was caught in an almost total whiteout. He called out to Cassie, saw a flash of orange coming towards him and managed to clip on her leash, the two of them being blown and battered by the powerful wind. He was grateful that he remembered to put on her vest, if he hadn't she would be completely lost to him out here. His initial shock turned into survival mode as he grabbed his compass. He watched in disbelief as it shattered in his hand, leaving him lost in the swirling storm, unsure of the way back. He made a decision and trudged ahead with the tree dragging behind and Cassie close at his side. Each step was a chore, the wind was stronger than anything he had ever experienced. The icy sleet constantly assaulted him, like glass shards hitting every exposed inch of his body. After a while, he felt the terrain change slightly and prayed that his instinct was true, that they would find their way back to the truck, to shelter. CJ was in excellent shape, but the pull and grind of the fierce wind began to wear him down. With a heavy heart, he took off the harness and left the tree behind, knowing his chances were better without it. He hung onto Cassie's leash as they battled the hellish storm together. Inch by inch they went on into the supernatural whiteness, leaving the tree behind to be buried in its wake.
* * *
He had never been through anything of the like. The boy and dog were caught up in the worst blizzard Sourdough had ever seen while he watched from under a clear blue mountain sky. He wondered what manner of hoodoo it was that caused this phenomenon, how it was even possible. Not a single snowflake was falling on him while only feet away, the boy was fighting for his life. He continued to track them, watching in awe as the boy and dog painfully navigated their way through the blinding snow, lost in their own separate world.
Sourdough wondered what would happen if he were to run straight at them, if he could break through or somehow switch places with them. Whatever is happening, Sourdough knew that it was not of this world. He mulled over the sickening possibility that he was dead.
He saw the boy drop the tree. He'd figured that would happen, there really was no other choice given the situation. He didn't know why, but Sourdough felt a bit of sadness that he should have gone to so much trouble, only to leave the tree behind. Sourdough knew that the boy was trying to get back to his machine, but had gotten turned around in the storm. He felt a sudden protectiveness, seeing the boy as a kindred spirit. Sourdough figured that if this was it, if he had actually gone under, then he might as well be useful.
Sourdough ran ahead of the boy, still completely untouched by the storm and got out in front of him. He could see that the boy was really tiring, he would need to act quickly if there was to be any chance of survival. His cabin was just a few yards ahead, if the boy could reach it, he would have shelter. That is, if his cabin still existed in whatever world the boy and his dog inhabited. The dog locked eyes with him through the strange barrier, barking loudly at Sourdough, pulling on the leash and dragging the boy forward. This is it, he thought in sudden joy, this will be his salvation! Sourdough focused all of his energy and let out a whistle that would wake the dead, hootin' and a hollerin' as loud as he could and praying that the dog would follow his lead.
* * *
CJ had never been so tired in all of his life. He tried to focus on every step, willing his feet forward as the relentless wind and cold battered at him. Cassie stayed right by him, every inch the fighter. He would hate to be the cause of her demise. She really had been his very best friend. He wondered if his parents would ever discover where he was, for surely they would find his truck up here someday.
"No! You mustn't give up! Keep moving!" In his mind he could hear his mother talking to him, see his father's face cheering him on, just like he had at one of his old football games: "Never give up, CJ! Compete! Be your best!"
Again, the bizarre ringing sounds danced around in his head as he continued his futile march against the turbulent storm. He went on for what seemed like a lifetime when he decided that a little rest was just what he needed. If he could stop to close his eyes for just a moment, he would build up the strength to make it back. Just for a minute, no longer.
All of a sudden Cassie went completely crazy, barking and yanking at her leash, almost knocking him over. CJ was instantly jolted awake, scrabbling to stay on his feet and keep up with the dog. She was on a mission. He had never seen her so determined. She pulled him forward at an unrelenting pace, forcing him to follow. He was too exhausted to put up much of a fight, allowing her to take the lead in the hope that she was going in the right direction. On and on they went, dog dragging man until CJ ran headfirst into a hard surface. Snow blind, he put his hands out in front of him and felt the grooved surface of a notched log. He groped around in desperation, putting his frozen hands over every inch until he literally fell through the cabin door.
His first sensation was of Cassie licking his face, both of them miraculously out of the elements. He blinked and slowly looked around at his surroundings. He was in a small cabin. It was warm, the embers of a fire pit were still glowing. He kicked the door shut and fell facedown onto a makeshift pallet in one corner. His final thought was of the owner of the cabin and how he would react to finding him here, before sleep finally overtook him. Cassie curled up at his feet, alert and on guard as the merciless storm continued to rage all around them.
* * *
Sourdough whooped and hollered as the boy and dog finally made it into the cabin. He couldn't remember the last time he was so relieved about anything. This boy sure had gotten under his skin. He was still dumbstruck that his surroundings were clear and warm while the boy was caught in such a melee. He wasn't sure about the rules of his new situation, but felt an overwhelming urge to go inside and check on his boarder.
The dog was standing at attention, growling as menacingly as possible, which really wasn't much at all. Sourdough entered the room and saw that the boy was dead asleep, the fire just beginning to peter out. He stepped in and held his hand out tentatively to the dog, talking to her in the soothing tones that he always used with Sara whenever she was in a mood.
"Hello, Cassie old girl, I mean you no harm." Sourdough saw the dog relax just a little, but still wary and alert. He reached into his possibles bag and held out a piece of his pemmican jerky, Cassie stepped closer in curiosity.
"I just want to get a look at him, old girl, just for a moment," he said as Cassie reached his hand and gently took the offering. Sourdough patted her on the head, feeling a warmth spread through him that he hadn't felt since his Sara was alive.
He looked the boy over, making sure he was well and covered up. He checked each of his extremities for frostbite and piled him high with his warmest buffalo and deer skin blankets. The boy was lucky. His fingers and toes did not have the telltale signs of black. Sourdough made sure the boy was warm and kept the fire going throughout the night. He washed off his face and refilled the water bin for when the boy awoke the next day. He left out the remainder of his provisions and spent the rest of the night in Cassie's company, petting her soft fur before slipping out into the dawn.
Sourdough quietly made his way back down the hill, the unnatural, shimmering sky lighting his way through the darkness. As he reached the bottom, he could see something in the distance, leaning up against a large aspen tree. The ground around him was still clear as he headed over to the tree to investigate, finding the object partially buried under three feet of fresh snow.
* * *
He dropped to his knees and began to dig, his task becoming all the more urgent as he uncovered the frozen body of a man. He could feel his heart pounding out of his chest, or at least what he always thought was a beating heart, as he discovered the identity of the dead man at the base of the tree.
Sourdough let out a slow whistle between his teeth as he gazed upon his own grizzled countenance. Ol' Sourdough had finally gone under, he was well and truly dead, encased in an icy grave upon his own beloved mountain.
* * *
CJ woke up slowly, parts of the dream still playing in his head. (An old prospector? No. Free man. Mountain man. ) He slowly opened his eyes and saw Cassie laying at his feet. He was piled high with blankets, actually sweating in their warmth. He looked over and saw that there was a bin of water and some sort of food laid out on the table.
"Hello? Is there anyone here?" In response, Cassie came running over, licking him and jumping up in exuberance.
"How did we get here, girl?" he asked, trying hard to remember. He pulled on his socks and boots."What happened?"
He had vague recollections of fighting through the snow, the terrifying thought of being lost, the sudden horrific storm. The lost tree. He jumped up and threw the cabin door open, expecting the snow to fall in all around him. What he saw actually caused him to gasp in amazement.
The land as far as he could see was bone dry with not a bit of snow in sight, the sun shining down on a perfect winter morning. He stepped out in shock, wondering about his sanity. He looked at the little cabin and walked all around it in complete astonishment. Something caught his eye at the very back of the cabin, a small wooden cross. He walked over to it and saw that it was very old, had been battered and worn throughout many long years.
It simply said "Sara."
CJ and Cassie found their way down the mountain pretty easily. Now that the snow was gone, it didn't take them very long at all. CJ was still trying to decide if he was delusional, combing every inch of the land, looking for any sign of snow as they hiked back to the road. Cassie was her usual, spirited self, leading them down the mountain with gusto. As they turned onto the final bend and his truck came looming into view, CJ felt a sudden jolt of shock. For there, propped up against his old Ford, was the tree. All trussed up and ready to go. Silent tears ran down his face as he reached the truck, placing his hand upon the trunk of the tree in pure wonder. He said a silent prayer as he loaded it up, Cassie taking her usual spot in the front seat. They drove away with the warm winter sun beaming down and not a single cloud in sight.
* * *
Sourdough had to admit that his old cabin had never looked so good. CJ had turned into quite a man over the years, coming up to Santa Fe mountain and making his old shelter into a home. The man had kept the original cabin right where it was and built up a great big new one next to it, notching the logs one by one just as Sourdough had done way back when. He had left the old cabin intact, sprucing it up in fine fashion, better than Sourdough could have ever imagined. His family would come here every Christmas, the man taking everyone up to the clearing where he had found his original tree and telling them the story of Sourdough's cabin. Sourdough would stay on the outskirts, feeling like he was part of the family in some small way, proud to bursting of the man the boy had become.
He didn't know why he still lingered on the mountain after all these years, but he didn't mind. His mountain was always a kind of heaven for him, a fitting place for an old mountain man to spend eternity.
Cassie ran over to CJ, tail wagging. The years had been kind to her, only the snow white of her face marking the passage of time. They turned and walked together over to where two small children were running and playing. The man took the little boy's hand and placed it gently onto the trunk of a pine tree. The girl moved in to join them as the man beamed with pride, carefully handing his daughter the old ax and letting her have the first swing.
Sourdough smiled at the sight of them, happy beyond all measure that they were a part of this land. The inheritors of his mountain. Off in the distance, he could hear the sound of a mule braying. He looked over and saw his Sara waiting for him under the glorious backdrop of a Rocky Mountain winter sky. Finally, after all this time, she had come for him.
He said a silent prayer, thanking The Man Above once again for making him a free, mountain man and went to join his old friend. He and Sara set out, ready to take on their new adventure, eager to see what was over the next hill. Together again at long last.
For Charlie, my own mountain man, the true inheritor of the Rocky Mountains
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Clumsy Quips, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Everyday Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Literally Stories, New Realm, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Scrutiny Journal, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine, bioStories, and completed a novel called "Wet Birds Don't Fly at Night" that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter
Back to Top
Back to Home
What's Grey and What's Gold
by Ian Thompsett
I was tired and waiting for Dill to bring the good news. I sat atop Mush, my horse, until I realized that we would soon leave for a long ride so I swung my leg heavily over the side of him and stepped off to the ground. Dill had advised me against naming Mush but it just didn't seem fit to spend such a long amount of time with another being without a name to call it by. That's just how my Momma raised me. I glanced down the road and spotted a woman with golden hair placing something in a bag on the ground. Once she noticed I was looking she threw the bag over her shoulder and disappeared between two buildings. I wasn't offended by it though. It's not uncommon for men who look like me to do unspeakable things to pretty women like her. If I'm being honest I would like to do those things to her, I just would want her to want me to do them. I hope that doesn't make me sound like a bad man. I'm not. I wouldn't be very good any of that though, at least I don't imagine I would be. I've never really had the chance.
My Momma used to tell me that I would grow into being handsome. She always said I had a man's features, which is why the girls in town didn't like me. She'd say that once those girls realized that they wanted a man, instead of a boy, they would come running. They never really did. I'm not sure if she was lying to me or if I was just too different but I guess it doesn't really matter. I once had a date planned with a girl named Penny, but when I was supposed to meet her I got the idea in my head that the whole thing was just a mean joke being played on me so I never showed up. Momma is a kind woman. I hope that at the end of this journey I will have enough money to set her up real good. I'll head back home to her and take over her farm so she can rest in her old age. She is part way through sixty but still works every day. It was tough to leave her but she swore she would be fine. Momma is a strong woman. Dill is an old friend of hers who needed a partner to ride with him as he traveled to California and back to check in on some family. He told me that I would make some good money along the way and at the end of it all I could keep the horse so I agreed to join him.
It was late in the evening but the streets were much quieter than I had imagined they would be. The sun was low and cast a soft and warm glow over the buildings. The town was called Cripple Creek which is a bit strange but at the time I didn't think much of it. Dill and I had been riding together only a few weeks then, mostly working bounties. It's not the most enjoyable work I'd ever done, but it pays well and Dill does the hardest part of the jobs. The killing. He's got great stories from the war. Dill fought in the big battle over at Palmito Ranch about seven years ago, but he told me not to tell everybody about it because he said that even though the war is over, people still have their sides. I had never seen a man die before Dill and I completed our first bounty, and I have still never killed a man. I don't look forward to it but I have a gun and I understand that this is dangerous work. I still struggle with visions of the first time I saw a man die.
After Dill shot him in the stomach, he fell to the ground and heaved out all the food he had along with a fair amount of blood. Dill could have shot him in the head and killed him much more quickly, the man was unarmed and we were only a few feet away, which always bothered me but I never brought it up. The man lay there, crying and coughing, spitting out blood and bits of food for a few minutes before he eventually collapsed to the ground. His face landing squarely in the pile of wretch on the ground. The hole in his abdomen continued to leak a stream of thick dark blood like. I turned away from the body and then I threw up as well. I had guessed Dill would be cruel to me about this but he was not. He placed his hand on my shoulder and handed me my canteen. He told me that the first man he saw die was the first man that he killed in the war. Dill was in training when he misfired a weapon and blew a hole through another confederates face. The bullet hit him in the back left side of his jaw and blew his teeth out of his mouth. Dill said that he fainted when he saw what he did, and when he woke up they had taken the body away but the teeth were still there. Dill tied the bounty to the back of his horse and drug him the few miles from where we found him to town. I asked Dill if I could ride in front of him but he said I had to stay behind and watch the body, make sure it didn't come unhitched from the horse before we turned it into the sheriff. A lot of the images I see are from that ride to town. How the body looked as it quickly became covered in dust.
Dill came out of the building and motioned for me to approach him. He said that there was a bounty here but we would stay in town for the night and head out with the sun. This sounded wonderful to me since we had been sleeping in the dirt for weeks. I also thought that perhaps the comfort of a real bed would make it easier for me to block out the visions and get some real sleep. Luckily Dill had asked me to stay awake through most of the last night for fear of being robbed since we were so close to the next town so I was sure I could fall asleep quite easy now. I remounted Mush, and Dill and I rode a few buildings down the road to the inn. If Cripple Creek had one thing of note, it was the Inn. A large wooden sign, embellished with ivory and copper, hung over the front door: The Grey Mare. We dismounted our horses outside of the inn and I took a moment to hitch them to the post outside. The ropes we used for hitching were largely stained with blood because they were the same ropes we used for dragging the bounties in. Dill said that would keep people from trying to steal the horses. I had a short image of the unarmed man and his pile of retch and blood. The way he would bounce off rocks and holes on the ground as we drug his lifeless body into town, at some points almost looking to be alive and struggling. Inside of the Inn was just as impressive. A large chandelier hung from the roof and filled the room with a warm light, much like the light that filled the town just as the sun set. Behind the bar were a few large cabinets with paned glass to show the bottles of gin and whiskey that were held inside. The tables and chairs were made with a fine and dark red wood. The legs of each had intricate patterns carved in them, also accented with copper just as the sign that hung outside. Dill handed me a key with a small piece of wood hanging from the end. On the wood was a carved number four which was, of course, adorned with copper. I slung my bag over my shoulder and climbed the stairs to the rooms. I walked down the hall and stuck my key into the hole on the door of my room. I spun the key and pushed the door in and walked inside. There was a bag of clothes on the bed and some toiletries on the dresser. I turned to look back at the door and I noticed the number three on the door. Dill stood in the doorway glancing around the room as I rushed out and closed the door. I moved to the next door down and as I stepped inside Dill grabbed my shoulder and asked for the key. I handed it to him and moved into our quarters. The room was clean and looked unlike any inn I had ever seen. There were nice paintings on the walls and fine crystal ashtray next to the bed. As I dropped my bag to the ground I fell into the bed and went to sleep almost instantly. I was awoken some time later by gunshots.
I rose from my bed and rushed out the door and down the hall. A crowd of locals and other guests of the inn stood staring out the windows and out of the front door. The gunshots continued. More sounds came from the confrontation. The smashing of glass. Screams and cries and shouts of anger and pain. More gunshots. Dill rushed past me and down the stairs with his rifle in his hands and his bag on his shoulder. I reached down for my revolver and remembered that it was still in my bag in the room. I turned and ran back for my gun. Down the hall I entered the room and grabbed my bag, removing the pistol from the side pouch. I threw the bag over my shoulder and turned back and headed down the stairs. As all the locals stared out the window, I noticed Dill, crouched behind the bar passing bottles of booze from the cabinet to his bag. I know I have seen Dill kill an unarmed man but I still was surprised to see him take advantage of such a situation. When he noticed me heading for the door he pulled his bag back over his shoulder and stood up, moving out from behind the bar. Dill then pushed past the small crowd and moved outside. I followed and when we got to our horses Dill tossed his bag on his mare and told me to take the horses and head around the back side of the inn. I guessed that we must have been taking a different angle of attack. Perhaps Dill was sending me to flank. I wasn't quite ready for a fight anyway so I was fine taking the indirect route since it would allow me time to prepare for what I may have to do. I reminded myself that these innocent people were being taken advantage of by some outlaw scum. I would have no problem killing them. For an instant I even thought I may keep one alive and drag him behind my horse until he passes on, but then I knew that was too cruel.
I led the horses quietly around to the back side of the inn when I saw a small bag land on the ground. I glanced up at the second-floor window and I saw Dill peering down and pointing to the bag on the ground. I opened the bag and noticed a bit of clothes, some simple jewelry, two candlesticks and a crystal ashtray. It took me a few moments, but just as Dill opened the next window over I realized that he was stealing from the rooms while the occupants were distracted with the events happening across the road. I never agreed to steal from anyone. Up to this point, we had only hurt people who were wanted by the law, murderers and even some people just wanted for robbery. The same crime that he was committing at that moment. Dill tossed down another bag. This one made a much louder, more metallic sound. I stared into the window, waiting for Dill to appear so I could signal him to stop. Anger pulsed through my veins causing my hands to clench involuntarily. Dill opened the fourth window and I heard another gunshot, followed by a scream, this one from inside the inn. Then I heard a shot from Dill's rifle which smashed through the top pane of glass of the window. I recognized the scream. It was Dill. I ran quickly and hid against the wall so that if the shooter looked out the window they would not see me. There was more commotion up above, one guest shouted to the others that they were being robbed. I was unsure what to do for an instant before I realized something. I had both of our horses, both of our shares from all the jobs. I thought for a moment that I may leave Dills horse and bag behind as a sort of payment to the patrons who had almost been robbed by Dill. My next thought was of my mother. It didn't take long for me to climb onto Mush, grabbing the hitching rope that still hung Dill's horses neck to pull him along with me. I rode out of town as gunshots continued to ring.
Ian Thompsett is a student at Cal State Northridge studying history, with a passion for writing. His love for
both subjects combine and push him to write pieces in the many periods of history he loves, including the
American Civil War and gold rush.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Tunnel of Blood
by Dave Barr
The shrill blast of the whistle cut through the clear Colorado air as No. 66 towed its four cars up the snow-clad Gold Pass to the tunnel near the mountain's peak. Engineer Mike Murdock looked backwards and checked his train, the passenger, baggage, and freight cars were trundling along smoothly, with the red caboose bringing up the rear. Looking forward presented Murdock with more of a challenge though, the icy March wind made looking passed No. 66's curving snowplow difficult at best. Not being able to see the track made the engineer uneasy, but he had driven over this route many times, and thought he knew where to watch for danger, "A little more coal if you please, Joe," he shouted to his fireman.
* * *
"Shore, Mike," Joe White, the negro fireman, interrupted his current spiritual long enough to spread fuel across the boiler grate.
"We're making good time, Mike," conductor, Albert Krause, said as he checked his watch from the comfort of an old kitchen chair they kept in the tender.
The engineer nodded absently as he tried to check the rails again, looking for anything out of the ordinary, "Where's Billy?" He asked suddenly.
"Started back across the car tops a moment ago," the conductor answered.
"Hell of a job," Joe muttered as he raked the glowing embers.
"But necessary," Mike grinned, "We couldn't slow down on the grades without someone setting the brakes on the cars."
"Still, that's just crazy, running back and forth on top of a moving train," the fireman said, "He could slip, or trip over a roof vent . . . " the fireman shivered, and left the rest of the sentence unsaid.
"I have to agree with Joe," Albert joined in, "I spoke to the man about jumping from car-to-car. Told him to be more careful, and you know what he said?"
Mike grinned, "He told you he WAS being careful," the engineer checked a pressure gauge, "I talked to him myself."
"Tunnel comin' up Mike," Joe pointed out.
"Yeah," Mike frowned at the gaping mouth of the curving tunnel, "I hate this approach, you can't see into the tunnel until the last minute," the engineer's feeling of unease was worse than ever now. Murdock winced as he spotted the brakeman running across the car tops. No doubt the man wanted to be back at the front of the train as they headed downhill. The wind abated for a moment, and Mike looked into the tunnel, instantly realizing what was bothering him; there was no light at the western end.
"AVALANCHE!" the engineer shouted, and hit the engine's brake lever. No.66 suddenly changed from a safe vehicle of transportation into 33 tons of metal sliding into a granite-walled tomb. Just as the rear of the caboose entered the tunnel the plow hit the wall of ice on the opposite end. The shock of the impact caused another cascade of snow down Gold mountain that covered the eastern entrance of the tunnel as well. No.66 and everyone on her were buried alive.
Of the three men in the engine's cab only the engineer had a chance to brace for the crash. Now Murdock relaxed, and looked around in the semi-darkness, the fireman was picking himself up off the floor, but the conductor was stretched out in the tender, stunned, with a bleeding head wound.
"Joe, can you see to Albert? I need to check the train and the passengers!" Mike shouted as he jumped down onto the gravel ballast of the tracks. Despite the semi-darkness the engineer could tell that No. 66 had stayed on the rails. That was a relief, if an engine derailed you need a crane to right matters, but if an engine derailed inside a tunnel, you needed to move a mountain before you could bring in the crane . . .
Murdock's eyes were still adjusting to the dimness when he tripped over the prostrate form of his brakeman lying upside down in the snow. The crash's impact had launched the man over the engine, and into the wall of ice blocking the tunnel. Billy Williams had somehow missed the snowplow which was why he was still alive, but the man was unconscious and probably hurt. Mike eased Billy into a more comfortable position before hurrying back toward the passenger car, "Joe! I found Billy out here in the snow! He's alive but hurt! Wait till I get back to move him!" He called as he trotted by the cab.
"OK Mike," Joe answered, "I'm seeing to Albert!"
I am awakened by a severe jolt. Realizing my haven is breached I sit up, and the earth of my homeland spills out onto the floor. Memory returns, and I recall how I planned this journey, patterning my coffins after those designed by the Master. I sense humans nearby, and the hunger makes itself felt; an ache that tells me it has been ages since I have tasted fresh blood. I transform into bat shape, and escape through a roof vent.
* * *
After a quick survey, I conclude that the train is trapped in a tunnel. Outside I sense the sun is shining on these walls of granite, but its hateful light will not penetrate here. I may act with impunity, and my search for sustenance is rewarded. I feel the presence of a healthy male in the car just ahead of my own. He is alone, and that suits my needs perfectly. I enter through another vent and transform into human shape. The place is in disarray, and my victim is just standing up as I creep up behind him.
I can hardly control myself as I sense his rich pulsing blood, and reach out eagerly to grab him. He turns at my touch, and tries to scream, but I slap him, and the blow sends the fool crashing into the rear wall where he collapses in a heap. I have forgotten how fragile a human is, not that I care if I hurt this one, but my need is great, and he must be alive when I drain him. I kneel beside his body and began to dine, losing myself in an orgy of bloodlust.
As Murdock trotted up to the passenger car he noticed nothing out of ordinary with both the baggage and freight cars, but most of the caboose was still hidden around the curve in the tunnel. The engineer had hoped they could back out of here, but the absence of outside light wasn't a good sign. As Mike swung up on the passenger car's steps he became aware of a low moaning, and assumed one of the passengers was hurt.
* * *
When Murdock entered the passenger car he was greeted by a scene of dimly lit confusion. People were picking themselves up, and the place was littered with personal articles that had been tossed by the crash. He saw no serious injuries though, and tried to sound reassuring as he spoke to the five men and one woman, "Folks," he began, "I regret to inform you that the line is currently blocked. I'm not sure how serious the problem is, or if there is any damage to the train that would keep us here. Please be patient while I see what is what, and I'll be getting back to you shortly. Oh, and please refrain from using the comfort station while the train is stopped," he turned to leave, but the passengers started asking questions.
"Are we de-railed?" a chubby man with a sample case asked.
"Nope," a prisoner in handcuffs laughed. "You'd have felt the wheels jump the tracks."
"Shud-up ew," snarled his guard, an aging Marshal who had received a bloody nose from crashing into the carriage wall.
"So, we're trapped?" the young woman asked as she struggled up from the floor with a pile of papers that had spilled.
"I don't know yet," Mike lied.
"What's making that moaning noise?" A man dressed as a rancher asked.
"I'm on my way to check that now," Mike said as he turned to leave.
"I'll go with you," the rancher said.
"As will I," said a cadaverously thin man dressed as a gambler, "Anything is better than sitting here in the dark." He stood, and suddenly began coughing. The young woman looked at the gambler worriedly, "Nothing to be concerned about Miss," the thin man smiled as he wiped his mouth, "Just a touch of soot in my lungs," he said as the three men exited the car.
"Sounds tubercular to me," grumbled the chubby salesman.
"Then you won't die fat," the prisoner chuckled. "Although I won't give odds on any of our chances right now," he smirked.
"I tawd I told ew to shud-up?" The Marshal growled as he wiped more blood from his nose.
"C'mon Marshal," the prisoner said. "Use your head. Is the train moving? Are they trying to get out? Why is the engineer back here talking to us instead of the conductor?" He laughed, "We're stuck here!"
"You can't be serious!" the young woman said, as she tried to look out the window, but her breath merely frosted the glass.
"By prisoner es bery knowledgeable aboud drains Miss," the Marshal replied. "He's aboud to begin a dwendy year sendence for exploiding dat knowledge."
The salesman looked at the prisoner. "He's a train robber?"
"Was," the Marshal corrected, and finally got the bleeding to stop.
"I prefer to think of my current circumstances as a sidetrack on my path to success," the chained man smiled.
"Whatever," the Marshal growled as he dabbed at his nose some more. "Now SHUT-UP!"
Outside the three men walked carefully in the loose ballast as they made their way toward the baggage car. The moaning definitely was coming from inside, and the engineer looked at his companions, "There's a clerk in there, he must be hurt," he said. "Help me up and I'll unlock the padlock on the door," the gambler and rancher lifted the engineer up enough for him unlock, and roll back the door revealing a dark jumbled interior.
"Gary?" The engineer called out. "Where are you?" There was a flutter of wings and a large bat sailed out the open door. "What the hell?" the engineer cried as he ducked. The three men climbed inside the car and looked around. Most of the loose items in the car were now piled against the front wall.
"Here's a lamp . . . with some oil . . . still in it," the Gambler said between coughs. The rancher produced a match and struck a light.
AGH! That light is blinding! Those fools almost injured me! For a moment, I consider returning to human form, and punishing these brainless lumps like the cattle they are, but then I remember I am vulnerable to their weapons in human shape. Not that these weaklings have any clue that I am here. I restrain my anger, remembering that the Master always said that the less the humans suspect the better it is for us. I watch, and reflect that humans seem to have changed since I was last active. They didn't use to have the ability to create light so quickly. I wonder what else has changed, and listen in as they converse, but whatever language they are speaking, it isn't good German. There are some words I understand, but most of it is gibberish. That could pose a problem . . .
* * *
They found the clerk towards the back of the car. His shirt had been shredded and there was blood oozing from several cuts around his throat. The man was unconscious and there was a large bruise forming on the side of his face.
* * *
Mike knelt beside the injured man and examined his wounds. "Must have hit the wall in the crash," he said.
The rancher looked around. "How come he's back here instead of up front with the rest of the loose stuff?"
The gambler held the lamp over the clerk and coughed. "It looks . . . like he was in a fight with a mountain lion . . . see how his shirt is shredded?"
"I've never seen injuries like that before," Mike said. "Can you two get him up to the engine where it's warmer, while I check the rest of the train? Then ask the fireman and the conductor to meet me in the passenger car."
The two men nodded, and turned their attention to the injured man.
Damn them! They are taking my food! How can I ease this bloodlust if they keep interfering with my meal? If the victim awakes, and tells what he has seen the others will be forewarned. I must finish him quickly, but my powers are still weak from my long sleep. So, I'll follow, and watch for an opening to finish my feast.
* * *
Mike Murdock stood staring at the wall of snow that had engulfed the rear of the train; they were trapped, alright. The engineer shivered from the cold and climbed inside the caboose. Looking for anything that might be of use, he gathered up several lanterns, an axe, and a very bright carbide emergency lamp before heading back to the passenger car to spread the news.
* * *
Ten minutes later he was concluding his assessment of their problems. "So that's it folks," Murdock explained, "we're stuck here until someone can dig us out."
"We should have picked up the mail at Gillytown by now," the conductor said, as he held some ice to his head. "They'll realize something's up. If the telegraph isn't out they can check with Denver and see if we're on time."
"We're a long way from Denver," the fireman pointed out.
"And the nearest work train is in Glenwood Springs," Mike said. "We also have no idea how much snow is between us and them."
"So, what do we do?" The salesman butted in. "I have appointments in Grand Junction."
"You better re-schedule," the prisoner laughed.
"Are we going to starve?" the young woman asked suddenly.
"No," Mike answered as he held up a clipboard, "this is our manifest for the freight car." He thumbed through the papers. "We got a portable sawmill, boxes of clothes, four crates of something labeled as 'Miners Earth' whatever that is, and crates of canned foods." The engineer looked around. "It'll be cold and smelly in here, but we won't starve."
"We won't freeze either," Joe piped up. "There's still over half a tender of coal to keep us warm, and I can melt snow for us to drink."
The gambler snickered. "Only thing water's good for is washing," he wheezed.
"Now, sir," the young woman said, "I would think a man in your condition would pay more attention to his health—" she would have continued to lecture, but the engineer interrupted.
"Since we are going to be in pretty close quarters for the foreseeable future, I think it would be good to introduce ourselves. I'm Mike Murdock, engineer. This is Albert Krause, your conductor, and Joe White, the fireman. The two injured crew members are Billy Williams, brakeman, and Gary Perot, clerk."
"Pete Barrow, rancher."
"Nathan Banks, gentleman of leisure," the gambler said, with a little bow and a cough.
"Axel Roseman, purveyor of fine kitchen appliances," the salesman said with a touch of a German accent.
"Amelia Roamer," the lady paused before adding, "I'm a writer."
"Marshal Ed Teagarten," the lawman said, "and this . . . is Mr. John Curry."
The shackled man smiled as the others recognized the name of a notorious train robber. "It's nice to be noticed," he said.
"I told you to shut-up," the Marshal barked.
"Yet I keep talking. One of us isn't listening, Marshal." Curry laughed.
"Well, I guess the next order of business is to open that box car," the engineer said quickly. "I don't have the key for that padlock so I guess we'll have to break in."
Everyone turned and looked at John Curry who smiled, and held up his manacled hands. "I'd love to help but I'm tied up right now."
Excellent! They are trooping off on some errand leaving the two injured males stretched out on the floor of the engine. The black man shoveled coal into the boiler before he left, and the heat and light are extremely vexing, but I must finish the meal I started. I can't go on to the next throat before the last one is fully drained; there are cosmic rules about such things, after all.
* * *
The padlock on the box car was as big as a man's fist, but the prisoner popped it open quickly using Amelia's hair pins. "Those big ones are usually pretty easy to open," Curry grinned as he handed the pins back to the young woman. "Will I be up on further charges now, Marshal?" he asked innocently.
* * *
Marshal Teagarten glowered at his prisoner. "Under the circumstances I'd say you're safe for now." The Marshal held up the manacles. "Let's put these on, and get you back in the passenger car where I can keep an eye on you." Curry shrugged and held out his hands.
"Marshal," Amelia asked, "Is that really necessary? It's not like he can run off."
"I'm responsible for getting him to the territorial prison in Mesa Verde, Miss Roamer," the Marshal said as they walked off. "I don't intend to let him get away."
"I admire your dedication, Marshal," the rancher said. He and the engineer rolled back the freight car's door, and climbed into the dark interior where they were confronted with a mess. "Apparently the cargo came loose," Mr. Barrow said, scuffing his foot in the loam covering the floor. "Where the hell did all this dirt come from?"
"One of those crates of Miners Earth is broken open," said the engineer as he held up a lantern to check packing labels. "Here's a crate of canned fruit, and another with what looks like smoked hams! Folks, we've hit the jackpot!"
"Let's get the food up to the passenger car," Pete said. "Mr. Banks, could you and Mr. Roseman carry some of this stuff while we look around some more?"
"Certainly." The gambler grabbed a box, and began coughing.
Amelia relieved Mr. Banks of the load, "I'll take it," she said sharply, and walked away before he could stop her.
Meanwhile, as the Marshal and the prisoner were approaching the passenger car, John Curry murmured to his escort, "Make you a bet, Marshal."
"On what?" the lawman asked.
"Five thousand dollars to your one that I get away when we get out of here," Curry answered.
"I'd have to let you go for that to happen."
"Well, you've already said I'm pretty good at escapes," Curry smiled, "and you'd win five thousand dollars. Just think about it."
"I doubt I will," the Marshal said.
Oh, that was delicious! I enjoyed the meal, and reduced the chances of my discovery to zero. But in my haste to avoid the light and heat of the engine I made a mess of my food by dragging it onto the roadbed. I look down at the wreck of a man, and smile as I wipe my mouth. My bloodlust is still strong, and I am tempted to feed on the other injured man, but I can hear the rest of the herd approaching, so I transform, and fly into the welcoming darkness. Usually after a large meal I like to rest, but these new experiences are so interesting I don't feel like stretching out in my grave just yet. I resolve to wait a bit, and see what the herd does when they discover the death of the one they called a 'clerk.'
* * *
The first person back to the engine was Joe White. The fireman was pleased they had found food, and eager to share the news with the injured men. But when Joe climbed up into No. 66's cab he was sickened by what he found. Gary, the clerk, was lying in the gravel on the far side of the engine. The clerk was very dead, and the side of No. 66 was spattered with his blood. Billy, the brakeman, was curled up on the floor, shivering like he had the ague.
* * *
"What happened?" Mike asked when he arrived. "How'd Gary get out there?"
"Perhaps he woke up and didn't know where he was," the rancher replied. "He stood up, and fell out of the cab."
"And right into a buzz saw, apparently," the prisoner spoke up as he toed the body with his foot.
"Stop that," the Marshal said, and poked Curry. "Help pick that man up so we can cover him in snow. Why don't you try and show some respect for a change?"
"He's light as a feather," Joe said as they lifted the clerk.
"The dead show no respect for the living." Mr. Roseman sounded frightened as he helped move the body away from the engine.
"See something unusual?" the prisoner asked.
Roseman acted embarrassed. "No. Nothing." The man looked around nervously as a large bat flew past.
"There seem to be a lot of bats in this tunnel," the rancher pointed out as they dug a hole in the snow. "Has anyone else noticed?"
"Tunnel's a natural place for bats," Joe pointed out.
"I hate them," Amelia said suddenly. "There's something about the way they flit around that makes my skin crawl."
"They're just hunting for food, my dear," the gambler said.
"Sir," Amelia said stiffly, "I am NOT your dear."
"Bats are a harbinger of evil," Roseman said nervously. "We should make peace with God."
"Take it easy, Mr. Roseman," Mike said. "We'll be out of here soon. The railroad will send help."
"I hope you're right, Mr. Murdock," the portly salesman said.
So, even after the first death, they suspect nothing. How quaint. If only I could understand more of their language. True, it would be like hearing dogs talk, but it would make things more interesting for me as I instill the proper fear in them. And some of them taste fear already. Just look at how the female reacted when I flew past. That was amusing. I think I'll rest a bit now. But first, a little treat for the long-limbed cow . . .
* * *
After packing the clerk's body in snow, the survivors walked back toward the passenger car in the chilly semi-darkness. The large bat swooped down among them. The animal was perhaps the size of a rat, with wings almost a foot across, and it looped around Amelia, causing the woman to shriek and protect her face.
* * *
Nathan Banks, the gambler, stretched a protective arm around her. "There, there, missy, it's gone now."
"Oh, I hate those horrid things!" Amelia cried.
"Strange how it did that," the rancher said.
"Yes, strange indeed," Mr. Roseman replied as he turned up his coat collar.
As they passed the engine a weak voice called to them. The brakeman had managed to pull himself over to the steps. "Mike!" he pleaded. "Don't leave me alone, Mike! She'll come back!"
The engineer was mystified, but tried to calm his crewmate. "Billy, you had a bad dream. We're in a fix here, but we got food, and help'll come soon."
Billy shook his head weakly, "No! Whatever killed Gary was real! And she'll come back!"
"C'mon Mike," Albert murmured from behind the engineer. "He's delirious . . . nothing we can do."
Mike shrugged off Albert's urging. "She?" he asked.
"A woman . . . dressed in white rags . . . she tossed Gary onto the roadbed . . . and bit his neck," the injured man said.
"What then, Billy?" Mike asked. He could feel Albert standing behind him, suddenly interested in what the brakeman was saying.
"She thought I was asleep . . . she looked at me, and smiled as she licked blood off her lips!" The terrified man passed out.
Mike turned to Albert. "Stay with him. I'll send Joe back to relieve you after we eat."
"And then what?" the conductor asked.
"And then we're gonna search this train," the engineer replied grimly.
Ahhh! The real pleasure of a good meal is often found after it is complete. I enjoy the feeling of fullness as I draw strength from the soil of my grave. These humans are fat with red blood, and I can hardly wait to reach Glenwood Springs. The place is supposed to be a booming mining town, and yet it is secluded enough to keep human interference at a minimum while I lay out the locations of my new vaults. Who knows? Perhaps there will be enough food material there for me to create a lackey or two of my own, just as Master Dracula created me.
* * *
The meal in the passenger car was a gloomy one. People sat on the hard-wooden benches munching pieces of ham, and whatever was in the can they had opened. After they had listened to the engineer's conversation with the injured brakeman everyone studiously avoided looking at the only woman in the car.
* * *
"Are you insinuating that I killed that man?" Amelia asked huffily.
"Nothing of the sort," Mike said easily. "You were with us all of the time."
"Small comfort there," the young woman replied as she stabbed a peach from the can in her lap.
"Miss, nothing could be further from our minds," the gambler said with a wheeze.
"So, somebody else is on the train?" the rancher asked.
"That's what it sounds like," Mike said.
"Then we need to start a search," the Marshal stood up.
"I will not search," Axel Roseman spoke up.
Everyone looked at the salesman. "Why not, Mr. Roseman?" Mike asked.
"Because you might find what you're looking for," Curry suddenly piped up.
"What's that mean?" the Marshal said.
The prisoner pointed his shackled hands at the salesman. "Look at him. It's freezing in here, but he's sweating. He knows something but doesn't want to tell us."
"I think it's time to stop fooling around," Joe White suddenly said. "We should start digging out of here. The sooner we're away from this tunnel the better." He crossed his huge arms as if he was daring someone to contradict him.
Mike looked at his fireman in surprise. Joe was usually much more reserved, "That's not a bad idea, Joe," he replied before turning to the Marshal. "Do you think we could borrow your prisoner to help with the digging?"
The Marshal looked hard at Mr. Curry, "I'd rather he didn't get out of those irons, he's as slippery as an eel."
The rancher stood up. "How about if I take Mr. Curry with me, and search the interiors of the cars? That way he will be inside a train car, inside a tunnel, which is inside a mountain. I can hardly see how he could escape from all that," the man smiled.
"Oh, I'd find a way," Curry laughed, "Just ask the Marshal."
The lawman seemed to be struggling with some thought before pulling his keys from his pocket, "Alright Curry, against my better judgment I'm placing you on parole for the duration of this emergency. You may assist Mr. Barrow with the search."
For once the prisoner had nothing to say, he simply held out his hands for the manacles to be removed. Once he was free Curry stretched his cramped muscles before turning to the rancher. "OK partner, let's go hunting!"
Mike turned to the salesman who had remained firmly rooted in his seat staring straight forward, "Mr. Roseman, since you feel so strongly about NOT searching, will you help Joe dig?"
The engineer thought the man was going to refuse again, but the salesman suddenly stood up, and nodded at Joe before exiting the car, muttering in German.
The engineer looked around. Albert was still up in No. 66, nursing Billy, so of the available work force, all that remained were the girl, the sick gambler, and the Marshal.
"Marshal, I'd appreciate your help in the search," Murdock said. The marshal stood up and checked his pistol. "Mr. Banks, Miss Roamer, I'm sure you aren't overly familiar with trains, so I'll ask you to bring us some warm clothes from the box car. We're going to be camping here for the next couple of days, so we might as well get as comfortable as possible."
"Of course, sir." The gambler stood, and offered his thin arm to the young woman who took it reluctantly as they made their way out of the car.
Mike picked up a lantern, "Well," he sighed as he turned to the Marshal, "let's get started."
Pete Barrow, the rancher, and the prisoner, John Curry, decided to skip looking in the passenger car since that was their base of operations. The two men walked past the unused comfort station and back to the baggage car, where they started going through the luggage. "Nothing here is large enough to hide in," Barrow said, as he shivered in the cold.
"You're right," Curry answered as he held up a package, and estimated its weight. "But sometimes the best stuff is in little boxes," he grinned.
"You really robbed trains, eh?" the rancher asked.
"Oh yes," Curry replied. "It's been proven in Colorado territorial courts, so it must be true," he laughed.
"It doesn't seem to bother you much," the rancher said as they climbed down and started toward the box car.
"Why should it?" Curry smirked, "I made more money in one job than the Marshal has made in his entire career."
"The papers say the money has never been recovered," Pete pointed out.
"That's right," Curry answered. "But it was all insured, so what do they care? When they caught me, I went without a fight, I told them everything I had stolen, and how I did it. The one thing they couldn't get from me is where the money is." He laughed. "I may go to prison, but I'll have something when I get out!"
They reached the box car, and climbed inside, "Jeeze, what a mess," the rancher said as he surveyed the place. "Look, that big bat is trapped in here!" He pointed.
"Train wrecks aren't pretty," Curry sighed. "Leave the door open; the bat'll find its way out. C'mon, let's get started," he shivered. "Lordy, is it cold in here!"
I am disturbed at repose by these two cretins fumbling around my bower. Briefly, I consider killing them, and leaving the bodies beside the rails for the others to find. That would be amusing, but I must not waste food until I am closer to my destination. Once I am firmly ensconced in Glenwood Springs, I can do what I please, but for now I must follow the Master's example and be circumspect. That is boring, really, but necessary.
* * *
I transform, and fly out the door as the humans enter. Perhaps it is best that I leave anyhow, the males have brought a light source, and that is annoying. I realize that the destruction of as many of their lamps as possible should have been one of my first moves, but I allowed my hunger to control me, and the chance has slipped away. The Master always counseled me not to give in to my urges, but after so long asleep the bloodlust was too strong. I will look around, and see what the others are doing.
Joe White stopped by No. 66 to fetch his shovel and hand the conductor his meal. "We're gonna start digging out, Albert," he said as he turned to Mr. Roseman. "You'll have to use the spare," pointing to another tool hanging from a bracket in the tender.
* * *
Albert Krause accepted the food and nodded. "Bout time," he growled. "This tunnel is starting to give me the willies."
Joe nodded. "I know what you mean, it's so close in here, and those bats—"
Axel Roseman interrupted. "You gentleman should watch out for the bats," he said nervously.
"Why?" Albert grinned "They won't eat you."
Roseman hefted the spare shovel. "You might think differently if you were raised on tales from the old country. There is danger, being trapped in a tunnel with a large bat."
"Bats," Albert corrected, "there are bats in the tunnel, sir."
Roseman looked at the conductor, "Really? Are you certain of that? Why haven't we seen more than one at a time?" He turned abruptly and climbed down from the cab, dragging his shovel behind him.
Albert and Joe looked at each other, and the fireman shrugged. "Won't matter if he's crazy once we get out of here." He followed the salesman, humming a spiritual under his breath.
The conductor leaned back and sucked at the juice from the can of peaches Joe had brought. Billy Williams, the brakeman, stirred as if he were in the grip of some nightmare, "There there . . . " the conductor murmured as he patted the injured man, "There there . . . "
Amelia and Nathan Banks didn't walk together very far. Despite the chill, the young woman firmly disengaged herself from the thin man once they had exited the passenger car, "That will be quite enough of your assistance," she said.
Banks turned to her, "Amelia, please, if I had only known—"
"That sir; was something you could have found out with a single letter, or perhaps you might have passed by at some point, and checked in with my mother," she said icily.
Nathan Banks, professional gambler, had been approached by Amelia Roamer at a hotel in Denver where she had introduced herself as his daughter. At first the gambler had laughed, but then the girl mentioned who her mother was, and where she had grown up, and Banks knew the truth. Now, as his life was winding down, Nathan Banks discovered he was the father of a spirited woman who followed him everywhere while purporting to despise his very existence. Banks coughed into his handkerchief. "If you would only . . . tell me what you want . . . perhaps we could . . . come to some sort of arrangement, my dear," he said as he tucked the soiled kerchief in his jacket pocket.
Amelia's scorn was as cold as the ice that imprisoned them, "I doubt your ability to provide me with anything I'd value, sir," she replied before changing the subject. "Oh, Mr. Barrows and Mr. Curry are searching this car," they looked inside where the two men had swept up much of the spilled dirt and pushed the broken box out of the way so they could better search the freight car's interior. Amelia glared a warning at her father before speaking, "Gentlemen, could you assist me up, please?"
Well, my little herd of humans is certainly busy about their own pursuits. I shall change that in short order though. Soon they will only be concerned with my needs. Briefly I reflect on how Fate led me to my present exalted status while they remain mere mortals. But I quickly grow tired of metaphysics. I desire action, and decide to toy with my pets a bit.
* * *
Nathan Banks lugged the pile of clothing Amelia had selected for their use into the passenger car. He dropped the clothes onto a bench, and rested for a moment, trying to think of a way to make a connection with his daughter. So far, she had rebuffed all his advances, and he really couldn't blame her. He closed his eyes, and tried not to think about the ache in his chest. The doctor had said his lung condition was probably fatal. The thought of dying made him smile sadly, he'd lived a full life, but it would be nice to make amends with Amelia before he cashed in. Banks took a deep breath, and his chest convulsed in a cough. He wiped his lips, and noticed blood on the handkerchief. That was happening more often now. Wearily he leaned back on the bench, closed his eyes, then wondered; What was that fluttering sound?
* * *
Ahh. The sick one tries to rest. I am moved to compassion, and will tease him a bit to ease his suffering. But wait . . . what is on that filthy rag in his hand? Blood? Oh . . . lovely, fresh, red blood! I feel my resolve failing. Perhaps just a taste . . . how could it hurt? I transform in the aisle behind him. Now comes the part I most enjoy, that dawning look of comprehension, then the fear, as they realize my awful power over them.
* * *
The sick one sees me. His rheumy eyes widen and he stiffens at my touch. Gently I caress him, and take my first bite. The blood is thin, and weak-flavored; I suddenly recall how I only intended to toy with this one instead of actually draining him. He moves beneath me and I feel something pressed against my side—
The twin .45 slugs from the derringer ripped into the vampire at point blank range, blasting the monster into the far wall of the coach where it hit hard and sagged to the floor, trailing a thick smear of blood on the cream-colored paint. The gambler gasped, and heaved himself upright, his ears ringing from the pistol's reports. Outside people were shouting, and the injured monster looked at Banks hatefully as it bared its fangs and struggled upright. Nathan Banks fumbled in his pockets, searching for more bullets for his gun, but he needn't have bothered. The creature stood still, and began to turn transparent. Boots thudded on the steps, and then the Marshal was standing there, firing his pistol. Window glass shattered, but the creature seemed to have disappeared, leaving only a large brown bat which fluttered out the ruined window into the darkness.
OH, curse that swine! Satan, see how he has injured me! Once again, my bloodlust has betrayed me! It's all that lank fool's fault! If he hadn't spat blood on that rag none of this would have happened! Oh, but he will pay! The Dark One knows how I can make him suffer! I'll make a lute with his tendons! I'll flay the skin from that wreck of a body, and wear it for a shroud! OH Darkness, how this hurts! I must return to my grave to rest and heal, then vengeance will be mine . . .
* * *
The shots had drawn everyone to the passenger car's dimly lit interior. Even the injured brakeman managed to climb inside. Amelia was frantically dabbing at the cuts on her father's neck while the Marshal and the engineer were desperately trying to question the gambler. But Mr. Banks seemed detached from the excitement around him. Calmly, he reloaded his derringer, and dropped the gun into his jacket pocket before answering his questioners.
* * *
"At first, I saw a very pretty, dark-haired, young woman, dressed in white lace and a shroud," he said.
"That's what I saw!" Billy Williams murmured.
"She smelled of death," the gambler said, "and when she touched me I felt very relaxed, almost sleepy. Then she did this to me," he motioned toward his torn shirt, and the fresh bite marks on his neck.
"Did you see where it came from?" the Marshal asked.
"I'll tell you where it came from," Roseman spoke up. "It came from Hell! It's a vampire, and you sir," the salesman pointed at Banks, "have been marked as its next victim!"
"So that's why you wouldn't look for it?" Mike asked.
The salesman looked ashamed. "I didn't think anyone would believe me."
"What's a vampire?" Joe asked.
"A monster from the old country," Albert answered. "They need to drink blood to live."
"True," Roseman said. "A monster that hates light, heat, and anything holy." He looked around despairingly. "And we are trapped in darkness with it!"
"Now wait a minute," Mike said. "We know it's here, and Mr. Banks hurt it. We should be able to fight back."
"We have to," the prisoner suddenly spoke up. "If it gets loose in a populated place we'll never kill it, because we'll never be able to keep up with it."
The Marshal looked at his prisoner with new respect before turning to Roseman. "Is there a way we can fight back, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, there is," the gambler interrupted as he restrained Amelia from further ministrations. "Set a trap, and use me as bait. As Mr. Roseman says, it picked me, so it'll return." The sick man looked at the young woman and smiled. "It's a hand I'll gladly pay the ante for," and he was rewarded with her tearful smile in return.
As the plan took shape, the Marshal turned to Curry. "If this works, I'll take your bet," he said.
"If it doesn't . . . it won't matter," Curry grinned.
Those miserable cretins! What have they done? The dirt from my grave has been swept up and tossed into the box! The broken boards are pushed against the side of the freight car sealing me out! My wounds have made me too weak to move the crate. I collapse in agony, clutching my wounded side. I spy some of my grave dirt piled in the corner where their cursed brooms haven't reached. I clasp it to me, pressing the earth to my wound as I try to draw some power from it . . . but it isn't enough. I rue the impulse that goaded me into attacking the thin man. But I know what must be done. I must finish feeding off of the sick one to gain enough strength to punish these animals. I crouch on the floor of the car crying, and my tears turn the earth into mud in my hands.
* * *
Nathan Banks sat alone in the passenger car, shivering under a pile of warm clothes, his derringer clasped tightly in his right hand. The monster would be back, but he didn't know when, and he wasn't sure how it would come at him. He hoped the others were ready.
* * *
Outside the passenger car, Mike, Albert, and the Marshal waited. Mike carried the ax, Albert a hooded lantern, and the Marshal held his pistol. Off to the opposite side of the tunnel a small improvised choir suddenly struck up a spiritual led by Joe White, the fireman. The psalm echoed off the icy walls of the tunnel as the humans praised a God that none of them was certain existed.
AGH! What fresh Hell is this? Can they think of no other way to torment me? Shrieking like small children in the dark! Infuriated, I rise, and resolve fills my breast. I have had enough of these idiots! I have enough strength to transform now, and the wound is already beginning to heal. I fly out the open door towards my victim. These fools are going to regret the day they were born.
* * *
Banks heard the flutter of wings, and realized the curtain was going up on what could be the final act of his life; he thumbed the hammer on the derringer and waited. The bat came in through the broken window, and Banks pretended to be asleep as he watched through slitted eyes. The creature hung in place, and the outlines of a beautiful woman dressed in a ragged white lace dress draped with a shroud appeared. Banks noted the healing wound in her side as she stepped toward him with her muddy hands outstretched. The gambler lurched upright, and leveled his little pistol. "NOW!" he screamed as he pulled the trigger.
* * *
As the vampire reeled backward from the impact of the .45 slugs in her chest, the door of the comfort station burst open allowing two men to charge out. The rancher trained the brightly burning carbide lamp into the creature's eyes while the prisoner desperately tried to wrap up her arms with his shackles. As the trio wrestled in the aisle, the others rushed into the car, still trying to sing while they joined the fight to pin the menace to the floor. Although weakened, the vampire was still stronger than any one of the humans, but the odds were ten-to-one now, and the creature was soon pinned to the floor, writhing in the harsh carbide light.
"Keep the light in her eyes!" Roseman shouted, as the vampire began pleading in German. "Hah!" the salesman barked, "she promises treasure beyond our wildest dreams to the one who frees her! Don't believe it!"
"What . . . do we . . . do now?" The rancher panted.
"Only one thing to do," Joe White said, and picked up the ax Mike had dropped. "We cut off the head of the serpent."
There was very little blood. They fired No. 66's boiler to a white heat, and fed the pieces of the vampire to the flames. A thin wail filled the tunnel until the corpse was consumed, but nobody minded. Two days later a work train opened the tunnel, and No.66 chuffed out into the sun.
Nathan Banks passed away in Glenwood Springs. A small group of mourners were on hand for the funeral; a young woman who said she was his daughter, several railroad employees, a rancher, a peddler, and the Marshal.
The prisoner, John Curry, escaped not long afterward, and the Marshal set out in the opposite direction to hunt for him.
Dave Barr has hiked and traveled around the American Southwest for almost forty years. He lives in Columbus,
Ohio, where he tends his garden in between fishing and gaming. Dave has published one story with Frontier
Tales, and currently is working on a novella and a full length book.
Back to Top
Back to Home
Last Words of Barney Wiggins
by Lawrence E. Cox
"It was just like Ella said, Marshal. The kid tried to muscle in on that gentleman's negotiations with Myra and take her for his self." The old miner pointed at the lifeless body of a well-dressed dude. Well-dressed, but dead.
* * *
"Was the gent causing any mischief prior to the altercation that you know of?" Asked Marshal Maher.
"None that I could tell, sir. He'd been at that table over there playin' cards. No one at the table was complainin' and the kid wasn't even in the saloon at that time. He'd, the kid that is, just busted in here through the swingers and marched right up to the bar, grabbin' Myra's arm and sayin' he just got paid and 'let's go.' Those were his words, Marshal."
"Thank you . . . "
"Eichler, Oliver Eichler, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Eichler. I'll let you know if I have any questions. Well, I do have one more question at this time. Why did the kid put a bullet in the prostitute? It sounds like he had quite a yearning for the gal."
"I guess cuz she didn't want to go with him. She gave him a good smack up side his right cheek. So, he shot her first and then that guy in the fancy threads."
Marshal Maher took his time scoping out the bloody scene. He'd seen his share of death during the Mexican war and during his twenty years as a lawman and this time it was no different. These kind of shootouts seem to always begin over a woman or over a poker hand. Thinking before someone grabbed for iron was rarely in the equation. "Ella, you got a minute? I just need to confirm what you told me before I have the caretaker and a couple of your customers haul these two for a quicklime bath and pine boxes."
"Of course, Mark. What is it you need confirming?"
"You said it was Barney Wiggins who did the shootin'. I just want to make sure you are positive before I go lookin' for him."
"That's right, Marshal." Ella's jaw clenched for just a moment. "I know that saddle tramp from his previous visits with Myra and I know his smell. How Myra put up with that little vermin is beyond me. He must have paid her well. Yes, Mark, it was Barney Wiggins that started the fracas before gunning down the dude and Myra."
"And you say the city slicker never once went for his sidearm?"
"Nope. All he did was try to tell that hot-headed Breton to back off and get his own whore. Then Myra slapped Barney and all hell broke loose."
"I appreciate your time, Ella." Marshal Maher turned to the caretaker. "Zachary, why don't you get a couple of these cowboys to help you get these bodies out of here. The territory will compensate you for their services. You only need two helpers, Zach, so don't try and do a shake on me." Mark Maher laughed and patted the caretaker on his shoulder.
"You got it, Marshal."
After a few more questions to a few townies and a visit to see Blake at the livery stable, Marshal Mark Maher grabbed some vittles (just in case he would take longer than planned), his bedroll and the double barreled shotgun from his office before mounting his Tennessee Walker to head out to Cold Springs. He was confident the kid would be on a southerly route to 'get a wiggle on' as they say and make his way to the Mexican border. Marshal Maher could make it to Cold Springs by nightfall if he pushed hard enough. The Marshal was not one of those camp-out-under-the-stars kind of guy. At least, not at his old age of forty-three years. Besides, he wanted to get this case down in the books so he could move on with the more pressing everyday monotonous duties of a territorial marshal.
The desert oasis of Cold Springs was inaptly named since there was no water for miles around 'cept what trickled out of the hamlet's one very deep well on the east side of town.
It was on the darker side of twilight when Marshal Mark Maher rode into town. Cold Springs had one fairly clean hotel, a semi-swank bar, a livery with a blacksmith shop and one rowdy saloon for misfits, cowhands, outlaws and the other general troublemaking sort. It was this later mentioned establishment that the marshal reined his horse. He took on long breath before gliding through the open doors.
The place was small but loud. No music other than the clattering of glasses and not much laughter. There was a lot of growling and jawing going on and boasting up one's character. The marshal did a quick check of his surroundings taking more care at focusing on who or what was lurking in the shadows. When he was satisfied at what he saw, he stared directly at the red-headed tall drink of water leaning against the bar. The marshal noted the youngster's piece was hanging dangerously low on his right hip.
"I wondered when you would catch up to me. I had no doubt you would; I just wasn't sure how much time was on my side before I had to go eye to eye with you." Barney Wiggins said calmly and frankly. He was not afraid to look the officer of the law in the eyes. The marshal had to give him that much. "I don't suppose you'd reconsider if I told you I could'a been a decent citizen of this territory if I hadn't been traded to the Comancheros by my step daddy when I was barely taller than a grasshopper?"
"Probably not." The lawman replied.
"It almost seems that you are performin' an injustice bringing me in." Barney Wiggins slowly slid his arm along the bar toward his whiskey glass. "How 'bout lettin' me skip over the territory border where I was headin' anyway and let me disappear, Marshal Maher? I ain't gonna ever retrace my steps and I won't stop until I am in the middle of Mexico. As my word is gold I will never come back this way."
He continued with a slight pitch change of desperation in his voice. "You know I ain't never been dealt a good hand most of my life. I was just doin' what I had to do to survive. I only did what was taught me, Maher . . . marshal . . . sir."
"I'm sure what you tell me is matter of fact." The marshal gave him a grim smile. "You know, Barney, we all carry the dirt and the smell of the trail we ride on in this life. And, that trail can be full of gopher holes to break a leg in; it can be overgrown with low branches to knock your head silly. Hell, that trail can be nothin' but slippery mud givin' you a fit of spills bruisin' up knees and elbows, boy." Maher eyed the bead of sweat stuck in the outlaw's red brow. "Now, you can blame your step daddy and you can curse the Comancheros that raised you. Hell, you can feel sorry you've had nothin' in your life worth the spit on your boots and saddle. You can do all that, Barney Wiggins, but, know this—weren't nobody but you who chose to ride that horse you reined in to town and weren't nobody but you who chose how to use that gun you're packin'. Murder is murder and you managed two murders before dinner, Barney."
Barney stared at the marshal for a moment. It looked like he was taking in all of what Marshal Maher had said and was chewing on it with intent to taste the full meaning the lawman's words. "The pretty-suited cad was a justified shooting over an altercation with that whore, sir." The accused hesitated for a moment. "Dammit, marshal, she started beating on me and yelling. I had no choice." Barney Wiggins then slapped the whiskey filled jigger at the marshal while going for his army-issue Remington.
Alas, Barney Wiggins was outmatched from the very beginning of the conversation. Marshal Maher drew his Colt Peacemaker before the jigger left the palm of young Wiggins' hand. Two bullets sparked from the barrel of marshal's revolver, one hitting Barney Wiggins' Adam's apple severing his windpipe and spinal cord and the other was true through the heart. The young outlaw was dead before he hit the saloon's well-worn wooden floor.
Lawrence E. Cox was born in Boise, Idaho. He worked in the marketing department as a writer of proposals as
well as illustrating for a freight forwarding company newspaper and he was the editor and cartoonist for the
company's employee monthly. He was awarded Grand Master of Fright Write by Valley Daily News in 1996 and has
had two poems published by Arbiter Magazine while attending school. He has enjoyed a long career in
transportation and is currently pumping gas and writing in Central Oregon.
Back to Top
Back to Home