by Lawrence F. Bassett
The old man rising slow in the desert morning, not a tiredness on him nor crippled up. Biding his time. Thinking one thing a man learns, getting old, is time moves with you. Don't want time rushing you, don't hurry it.
* * *
Make breakfast, tend the mules. Sit on the porch and watch the day from sun come up to sun gone down. The day between.
Carrying water to the mules he sees riders coming, five of them, riding out of the east, the sun behind them sending their shadows out long in front of them across the desert floor. They ride four together, in a line, the fifth a little back of them, keeping to one side.
"What's this place?" one of the four says when they've come to the old man's yard, just an open place with corral and barn and the house around. Talking to the old man.
"Just a place," the old man says.
"It got a name?" the rider says.
"Nah," the old man says. Puts the buckets he's been carrying down. Hands empty at his sides.
"You got a name?" the rider says.
"Yep," the old man says.
Fifth rider keeping back from the other four. Sun behind him, hat pulled low, the old man can't make out his face. But he'd know him anywhere.
"You trying to be funny?" the rider asking all the questions says.
"I guess not . . . no," the old man says.
"He trying to be funny?" the rider doing all the talking says. Asking those who ride with him.
"Old man like that ought to be more careful," a rider says. Another of the four.
"Hear that, old man?" the rider who's so talkative says. "Fella here says you ought to be more careful, the way you talk."
"No," the old man says.
"No?" the rider who's the talker says. "What kind of talk is that?"
The fifth rider knees his horse, nudges it ahead. "Let's go," he says.
The other riders look at him. "Say what?" the one with the questions says, but the fifth rider moves by, past him, past the old man, too, out of the yard, back into the desert.
"What the . . . " one of the four riders says.
"Aw, hell," the one who's been talking so much says. "Come on." Following the rider.
When the four catch up with the fifth, the old man sees, he lets them pass by, settles in behind them again, riding off a little to one side.
Why, he's all growed up, the old man thinks.
Picks up his buckets, goes on to the mules.
"Crazy old man," one rider says.
"What's wrong with him, you think?" another says.
"Out in this desert too long," says a third. "Heat must of fried his brain."
"Yeah? Well, what's wrong with this one, then?" someone says, jerking his head back at the fifth rider, riding back there alone.
"Oh, shut up," the rider who'd been so talkative before says.
"Ought to call him Moses," Grif Ritter saying. Meaning the boy they'd found that morning.
* * *
"Oh? Why's that?" Charlie Kincaid said, Grif's partner. The one who'd found the boy.
"Why, from the Bible," Grif said. "After that boy Moses Pharaoh's wife found in that basket there in the bulrushes by the river Nile."
"Probably has a name," Charlie said.
"Too young to know it, then."
"You don't know that."
"Why don't you ask him, then?" Grif said. "Hey, what's your name, boy," he said. Saying to the boy.
The boy they'd found hid under the burnt-out wagon. The boy just looked at him.
"See, I told you," Grif said.
"Yeah, you did," Charlie said. Thinking it queer how the boy wasn't crying when he'd found him, and not because he'd cried himself out, neither. No tear tracks on the boy's face, all grimed with soot and smoke. What boy wouldn't cry, seeing all he must of seen, his folks all killed there, their wagon burnt?
"Well, he's an orphan, sure enough," Grif said.
"Yeah," Charlie said.
"Got nobody in the whole wide world," Grif said.
"Except us," Charlie said.
They watched the boy across the campfire.
* * *
"He's sure a quiet one," Grif said. Not wanting to let on it made him nervous, the boy never making a sound, just looking at them. Pale eyes watching everything.
"Quiet's not so bad," Charlie said.
"You saying I talk too much?" Grif said. Maybe the boy smiled when he said it. He didn't know. Maybe just a look in the boy's pale eyes.
"Just saying quiet's good, is all," Charlie said. "Fella learns more listening than talking."
"That so?" Grif said.
"Sure," Charlie said. Maybe he'd seen the boy smile, too. Or thought he had.
"That how you got so all-fired smart?" Grif said.
"Sure," Charlie said. The boy's mouth hadn't moved, though, when he thought he'd seen him smile. Yeah . . . something in his eyes, maybe.
"We gonna keep him?" Grif said.
"Can't leave him out here," Charlie said.
"Kinda young to ride with us," Grif said.
"Time'll fix that," Charlie said.
"If you say so."
"Yeah," Charlie said. "I'd say."
"Hey, now, look at this," Grif said. Watching the gang of boys in the town where they'd stopped coming up to their boy, the one they'd found. Four or five of them, bigger and older than their boy.
* * *
The boy sat on the edge of the boardwalk in front of the saloon where they were fancying to have a drink. Not doing anything. Just sitting. Maybe watching the other boys, them making remarks and pressing up close to him.
"Hey, I'm talking to you," one of them said. "Can't you talk?"
The boy just looking at him.
"Ain't you got no manners?" the other boy said. "'Cause if you ain't, I can learn you some."
"Hey, now—" Grif started to say.
"Leave him be," Charlie said, shushing him.
"Yeah, learn you some manners," the other boy said. A bully. The boys with him giggled. He was mean. They were glad to have his meanness lighting on the boy and not on them.
"But Charlie—" Grif said.
"Hush," Charlie said.
The bully reached in at the boy. Not punching him, but digging a finger into his skinny chest. Hurt more than a punch, that could, Charlie thought.
The boy rocked back, the bully backing up to admire his handiwork.
"Now see—" the bully started to say to the other boys. The ones used to his bullying.
The boy stood up. He wasn't tall, Charlie thought. He made a fist, delivered a blow to the side of the bully's head, right by his ear. Bully sat right down in the dirt of the street. Just like he'd been shot dead. And he went and wet his pants, Charlie saw.
Boy who rode with them sat back on the boardwalk.
"He'p him up," Charlie told the other boys, who grabbed the bully up by his arms and dragged him away down the street. Lifeless as a sack of feed.
"Moses ain't no name for him," Grif said. Looking at the boy there, sitting. "No, sir. Proper name for him'd be Samson."
"That from the Bible, too?" Charlie said.
"Hell, yes, from the Bible," Grif said. "Why, in the Bible, Samson, he—"
"You and your Bible," Charlie said. Spitting on the ground.
When they rode, the boy rode in the saddle in front of Charlie, hands folded on the saddle horn. Not gripping it but resting easy.
* * *
Queer, Charlie thought, the boy not leaning back on him. Not leaning forward neither, the way you'd lean if you dozed off. But maybe he didn't doze, Charlie thought. The boy.
He slept under Charlie's blanket when they made camp at night, his sleep untroubled, as far as Charlie could tell, by any dreams of what had been. What happened back at the wagon.
They'd been drifting to the south and west, Grif and Charlie, when they found the boy, summer's pay in their pockets and plenty of time to spend it. Drifting, before it turned cold and they'd be obliged to fort up for the winter. Find jobs, maybe, to hold them over, keep them in eats until the weather warmed again for another herd to harry north.
* * *
With the boy, though, Charlie thought. With the boy with them, it might be a better thing to winter in a town somewhere. A town, maybe, with a school.
* * *
"A school?" Grif said.
* * *
"Why not?" Charlie said.
"I guess so. Sure . . . why not?"
The girl who kept the school inquired: "How old is the boy?" "What schooling has he had?" "Can he read?" "Know his numbers and his letters?" "What's his name?"
"What's your name?" she asked the boy, kneeling down in her long dress to look him in the eye.
"Clarence," said the boy. Saying it right out like talking away at folks was the commonest thing he ever did.
"Wha—?" Grif said, jaw dropping so hard you'd have thought you heard it strike his chest.
"Not Moses?" Charlie said. "Not Samson?" Laughing at Grif. His Bible names.
"Clarence," the boy said. As if they should have known.
"Well, I'll be damned," Grif said.
"Please . . . your language," the school teacher said. "This your son?" she said. Asking Charlie.
"Your poor thing," she said. Addressing the boy.
"Clarence," said the boy. "Clarence Stone."
"How is he?" Clarence said. Looking down at Grif on the bunkhouse bed, his face as pale as the pillow case his head was resting on.
* * *
"He's dying," Charlie said.
"Oh," Clarence said.
He sat on the bed beside the man, took up one of his hands. Held it in both of his.
"Damn fool to get himself shot like that," Charlie said.
"Yeah," Clarence said.
"A good man, though, Grif was."
"Yeah," Clarence said. "I know."
"Talked a fair amount, though."
"Yeah, he did."
"But he loved you like a son."
"Yeah," Clarence said. "I know."
"That your horse out there?" Clarence said. Talking to the man beside him at the bar.
* * *
"Yeah. So?" said the man.
"Just wondering. Knew a man had a horse like that."
"Yep. Right down to that scar on that horse's flank out there. I was with him when he rode into that bob wire, tore up that horse like that."
"You don't say?"
"Nursed that horse like a baby, he did. The way it was hurt like that."
"You mean something, or you just talking?" the man said.
"Just talking," Clarence said. "It's good to talk about a good man when he's gone."
"Gone, you say?"
"Tending another man's cows, he was. Got shot's what happened."
"Shot, you say?"
"In the back," Clarence said.
"Well now, that's a shame," the man said. The true shame, though, was how he felt when he turned. Saw the look on Clarence's face. "Now, just wait a minute," he said.
"I guess not," Clarence said. "There's some things won't wait worth a damn."
"You mean to tell me," the sheriff said, looking from the bartender to Clarence and then back again. "You mean to tell me that Pete Hopkins drew first, and then this kid, here, shot him?"
"Wouldn't of believed it myself," the bartender said. "If I hadn't seen it."
"Nah," the sheriff said. "That can't be right."
"I'm just saying what I saw," the bartender said. "Pete was drawing, see, and then this kid, here, pulled his own gun out of his belt and shot him dead. Why, Pete's gun was halfway drawed when the kid, here, started drawing, but he never cleared leather, Pete didn't, afore he was shot. And then this kid, here, he just laid his gun on the bar and just stood here, is all, waiting for you to come."
"Well, don't that beat all?" the sheriff said.
"Beat Pete, sure as hell," the bartender said.
Another saloon. Two women at the bar when Charlie and Clarence came in, dust of trails long-ridden on their clothes, their skin. The women henna-haired and rouged, one younger than the other, the younger not much more than a girl. Except around her eyes.
The women watched the two men drink, hats pushed back on their heads, white circles of dried sweat on their shirts spreading out from under their arms, the beers in their hands washing down the dust in their throats.
"Buy a girl a drink, handsome?" the younger woman said, who had come down the bar to stand by Clarence. Talking to him.
"I . . . " Clarence said.
"Go ahead," Charlie said.
"Well . . . " Clarence said. Nodding at the bartender to give the girl a beer.
"You lonely?" said the girl when she'd had some beer, foam from it on her upper lip.
Pretty enough, considering, Charlie thought. Letting his eyes drift down the bar to the older one. Not pretty at all anymore, that one. If she had ever been.
"Lonely?" Clarence said. "Well, I . . . "
"I've got a room upstairs," said the girl.
"I . . . " Clarence said. Who could of been blushing, Charlie thought. Hard to tell, though, the sunburn on his trail-tanned skin.
"We'd have us a time," the girl said.
"Well, I . . . " Clarence said.
"Go on," Charlie said. "She'll show you what to do."
"All right," Clarence said. Putting down his beer. Letting the girl take him by the arm, lead him away.
"Interesting," the bartender said, watching them go.
"Oh? How's that?" Charlie said.
"Well, that's Stone, ain't it? The gunman?"
"His name's Stone," Charlie said.
"It just sounds like he's never been with a woman before, is all."
"No . . . that's right," Charlie said.
"Well, it's just queer, is all," the bartender said. "Him killing all those men, and never been with a woman."
"Yeah, it's unusual, I guess," Charlie said. But what the hell? he thought. Looking down the bar at the older woman, who showed bad teeth when she smiled back at him.
"You gotta start somewhere, though," he said. Talking to the bartender.
"So, Stone . . . " the talkative rider says when they've ridden a way into the desert from the old man's place. The one the others call Bishop.
* * *
If Clarence hears him, he doesn't let on.
"Hey, Stone . . . I'm talking to you," Bishop says.
"Quiet, ain't he?" another rider says.
"Could be he's deaf," a third rider says.
"And dumb . . . deaf and dumb," says the fourth.
"That it, Stone?" the one they call Bishop says. "You plumb deaf and dumb?"
"Yeah," Clarence says. His voice in the still desert air startling the others.
"Hey, he can talk," the second rider says.
"Well, if'n you can talk," the third rider says, "how come you won't talk to us?"
"Yeah . . . ain't we good company?" Bishop says.
"No," Clarence says.
They ride along in silence, listening to the leather-creak of their saddles, the metal-clink of their spurs. Trying to think what to say.
"You know why you're here?" the man behind the desk says. Talking to Clarence. Looking past Clarence and out the window, he can see the other four, the riders who've brought Stone to him here, idling in the street outside the office. It's quiet in the man's office, the man wearing a suit like a banker's to sit behind his desk. Clarence standing, looking at him.
* * *
"I said, you know why you're here?" the man says.
Clarence still quiet, watching.
"Yeah," he says.
There's a sound in the room, like somebody sucking in air. It startles the man behind the desk. It was him who made the sound. He'd been holding his breath.
"Well, then . . . " the man says. "You know what to do."
Clarence nods and turns. Going to the door.
At the door he stops. Looks back at the man behind the desk.
"You keep them leashed," he says. Meaning the four of them outside. "Don't need them in my way."
Clarence sits his horse at the top of the hill, watching the place spread out down below beside the little stream. A house and a barn. Corral. Patch of corn. A garden planted to vegetables. Cows pastured, eating. The corn, Clarence thinks, will be for the cows, when their summer pasture's wintered out.
* * *
From where he sits, he can see the people down there, too. A woman . . . that would be the wife. Some men at work . . . the woman's husband, he suspects Some hands he's hired. Children, too. Three of them, playing some game with a stick and a hoop.
It's the man that Clarence takes to be the woman's husband who comes out to meet him as he rides down off the hill and into their little yard.
"How do," says the man.
"'Lo," Clarence says.
"Been riding far?"
"You'll water your horse?"
"Long way from town," the man says when Clarence swings down off his horse, walks it to the watering trough beside the man's well. "You passing through?"
"No," Clarence says.
"You looking for work?"
"Got a job," Clarence says.
"Well . . . " the man says. "Hey, I plumb forgot my manners." Putting out his hand. "I'm Gus . . . Gus Gunderson. This here's my place."
Clarence doesn't want to shake this Gus Gunderson's hand. Won't make it any easier, shaking his hand, to do what he's come to do. He has an earnest smile, though, Clarence thinks, this Gunderson.
"Clarence," he says. Shaking the man's hand.
"This work of yours," Gunderson says. "It around here?"
"Yeah," Clarence says.
"Well, welcome, then," says Gunderson. "Always good to have a new face around."
"Is it?" Clarence says.
When Gunderson asks if he'll stay to supper, Clarence does.
* * *
They all eat together in the house . . . Gunderson and his wife Sarah, the hired men, the children. The hired men's names don't matter. The children are Elizabeth and Annie and George.
"Where you from?" George, the boy, says. Asking Clarence.
"Hush, now," his mother tells him. The boy's younger than his sisters, Clarence sees. The favorite of the family, used to getting his way. "He's just curious, is all," the mother, Sarah, says. Explaining the boy to Clarence.
"You want to know something, you've got to ask, I always tell him," Gus Gunderson says. "It's why he's not shy around strangers."
"Oh," Clarence says.
The two girls whispering secrets to each other and giggling.
The hired men hurry their supper. Excuse themselves and go.
"I should be going, too," Clarence says.
"Want a look around the place?" says Gunderson. Clarence can see the pride of it . . . the man pleased with what he's got here, with what he's done with the place.
"No," Clarence says. He's seen all he needs to see.
Clarence rides back into town the same way he came, not looking back as he climbs the hill at the Gundersons or their place.
"Well?" the man in the banker's suit behind the desk in the office says when Clarence is back in town. There's a little nameplate on the man's desk that says "Roebling."
"In the morning," Clarence says.
"So soon?" the man whose name is Roebling says.
"Why wait?" Clarence says.
"Buy you a drink?" Roebling says. Taking a bottle out of a drawer in his desk.
"No," Clarence says.
"Not a drinking man?" Roebling says. "Well, I am," he says.
There's a sound like a gunshot from the street outside the office, and the man named Roebling jumps at the sound, spilling a little of the whiskey that he's pouring. If he's embarrassed by being startled, it doesn't show.
He doesn't see that Clarence hasn't moved.
"That there's what they call a backfire," Roebling says. Explaining the sound from outside. "It's a sound like that that's going to make men rich."
"That so?" Clarence says.
"Well, not the backfire," Roebling says. "But the automobiles that make that sound. They run on gasoline, and that gasoline comes from oil . . . oil like is out there on that Gunderson place."
"Oil," Clarence says.
"That's right . . . oil," Roebling says. "Why, someday, there'll be more automobiles than horses, and whoever's got the oil to make the gasoline for them'll be richer than you can imagine."
"But not Gunderson," Clarence says.
"Oh, hell no . . . not Gunderson," Roebling says.
Clarence lies on the hill above the Gundersons', the sun coming up, rifle laid on the ground in front of him across the blanket roll he's taken from behind his saddle. It's the new bolt-action Springfield, his rifle, the one they're just now issuing to the Army. Looking over its open sights, he can see the light from the Gundersons' windows, their candles and lanterns lit because you can't always wait for the sun to come up to tend your stock. A man who wants to farm needs to start his work in the dark.
* * *
They'll be outside soon, though, Clarence thinks. He'll wait.
He goes on watching.
When the sun does rise, Clarence watches over his rifle's sight as the place below him stirs, Gunderson and the hired men out and about, moving between house and barn, barn and corral. The work they're doing is work Clarence has done, too—some of it, anyway—and they do it well. Far away from them on his hilltop, Clarence can feel their effort, the pride that goes into their work.
* * *
Above Clarence, the sky is cloudless, blue, and the sun warms his back. Below, the woman comes out on the house porch. Clarence can't hear her calling the menfolk, but he knows that she does and, hearing her, the men slack off their work, go inside.
Going inside for their breakfast.
The sun rising higher, warmer on Clarence's back as he lies on the hilltop, watching.
When the men come back outside, the children come, too, skipping and running in the bright morning sun, not weighed down a bit by their breakfast.
Oh, hell, Clarence thinks, but he doesn't say. He hasn't yet chambered a round in his Springfield, nor does he now, but slowly rises from where he's been lying, walks back to where his tethered horse is waiting.
The four of them are waiting. Bishop below and the other three set up back in some trees, down by the river where a rider might pause his horse to drink.
* * *
"Think he's coming?" one says.
"Shut up," Bishop says.
Clarence comes, and Bishop rides down to meet him.
* * *
It's Bishop who moves first, like they've arranged it, giving a sign as he trots his horse away, not looking back at Clarence. That sign, though, is all that goes as they've planned.
* * *
Clarence sees the puff of smoke in the trees. He feels the bullet strike. Hears the rifle's report.
* * *
Before he hears the sound, trailing along after the bullet like a dog behind its master, he falls, rolling down off his saddle.
His gun already drawn.
Bullets kick up dust all around him. Some strike him, but the others whine away. Ricochets.
On the ground, waiting for whoever's been shooting to show themselves, he can take stock of his wounds. The only one that troubles him is the one in his belly. The others won't kill him, he knows, if he has the chance to get the bleeding stopped.
His right arm's not hurt.
The one with the pistol in its hand.
"We got him! We got him!" Clarence hears someone whoop, and when the three of them run out of the trees he knows them. The ones who rode with Bishop.
He lets them come. They're almost to him when he cuts them down, the three falling as fast, almost, as he can thumb back the hammer, pull the trigger of the pistol in his hand.
Bishop watches them fall. Somebody's got got, he thinks. The damn fools.
All right, he thinks. I can wait.
He can't wait, though. Roebling's paying him to kill a man, not watch him bleed to death. He can shoot him from up in the trees, too, but that's not the way. Killing a man is close up work. He'll have to go down to do it. Let him bleed some first, though.
It's queer, things you remember, Clarence thinks. The burning in his belly almost gone. All he feels there now is just a dull ache. Reminds him how hungry he was, hiding under that wagon, before Grif and Charlie came along. Queer, he thinks, what you remember.
* * *
How long's he going to wait? he wonders.
Do it right, Clarence thinks, have the patience, and you'll wait until the critters come. A man can lie a long time, not moving, hurt bad, even in the hottest sun, but when a bird comes pecking . . .
When Bishop comes down out of the trees, Clarence sees he's carrying a rifle. Holding it in both hands, down at his belt, the muzzle pointing at Clarence. He could shoot it from there, Clarence knows, but he won't. He'll want to put the stock on his shoulder. Aim. Be as sure as he can of his shot.
It's when Bishop starts to raise the rifle that Clarence fires. Two shots that strike Bishop right over the heart, and placed so close you could cover the holes with a single gold piece.
There, Clarence thinks.
Goes about the work of getting up. The work of getting back on his horse. The work of riding on.
The old man can see the rider sway in his saddle as he comes.
* * *
"Clarence," he says, when the rider's close enough to hear.
"'Lo, Charlie," Clarence says.
"Here, let me help you down," Charlie says.
"Don't bother, Charlie," Clarence says. "I—"
"So that's what happened?" the old man says to the rider who's stopped by his place to water his horse, to maybe have a bite to eat.
"Yep," says the rider. "It was that Stone fella sure. A whole posse they sent after him, and he kilt them all. Ambushed them is what they say. Now the oil company's got a reward for him. Got detectives, too, out looking for him."
"That so?" the old man says.
"Ain't nobody found him, though. Ain't nobody knows where he's gone."
"Maybe he just went home," the old man says.
"Home?" the rider says. "Men like that Stone fella ain't got no homes."
"Everybody's got a home," the old man says.
Smiling, maybe, as he looks around his place. His mules there in the corral nickering, already fed.
Lawrence was born in a small Pennsylvania town just after the Second World War, and after an indelibly ordinary and
uneventful childhood, he finished high school, went to college. Quite by accident he became a high school English
teacher and moonlighted over the years as an electrician, a stagehand, a motion picture projectionist, a climbing
and skiing instructor, a township road worker, an advertising copywriter and creative director, and a public-address
sports announcer. He retired from teaching in another Pennsylvania town not fifty miles from where he started out,
and now lives and writes in Williamsport, PA with his wife, cartoonist Karen Choate-Bassett, and their cats.
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The Twenty-Third Psalm
Part 3 of 3
by Steve Myers
At the town of Independence he learned that a man with half an ear and his wife had bought provisions and joined a wagon train taking the Oregon Trail. In a crossroads tavern outside of Westport he asked about a man wearing a beaver hat. He was told, "Yup, he come through here with two mules. Made a trade for a horse and saddle with a farmer who had his boy take the mules while he—the farmer I mean—got falling down drunk right there where you're standing."
* * *
"Know which way he went?"
"Home, I guess. His wife sent the boy to come get him. The boy drug him out."
"I don't mean the farmer."
"You mean the man in the beaver hat? Oh, well, he took up with three Texans . . . part of that freebooter Snively's gang of murdering thieves. Suppose they're gone to kill more Mexicans down along the Sante Fe Trail. Won't do 'em much good once the dragoons get after 'em."
James decided to get Vance first, then Howard. The next day he joined a caravan of five wagons loaded with trade goods—from farm implements to men's cotton shirts and women's aprons to barrels of smoked salted pork—headed to Sante Fe.
The lead teamster, called Slim, was pleased to have another gun along. He had four outriders with rifles and one extra gunman in two wagons, but he wasn't sure that was enough. James rode with him on the first wagon. Slim liked to talk and went on about everything from the fine points of mules over horses and oxen to the virtues of the senoritas in Sante Fe. "Is that your reason for this trek, son, the dark-eyed beauties in the cantinas?"
James didn't answer. He only looked ahead, past the team's bobbing heads and thought about Charlie Vance.
"No shame in that, my boy. Nope, there's no shame in that."
At night two men stood guard, which rotated until dawn. James took his turn. All the time he thought over his hunt and the men he'd killed and intended to kill. When the memory of Rachel Wetzel began to cloud his mind like a sore ache, he thought of his brother and how he carried him home and how little Willie cried. His heart stiffened then—yes, there were two more needed killing.
On the fourth night, Slim said, "Some time tomorrow we'll hit the Arkansas. That's where I wash my feet and take a dip that'll last all the way to Sante Fe. Yeah, all the way to Sante Fe."
By the time the sun was shining through the trees, the breakfast of beans and ham fat was eaten and the teams hitched. Just as the drivers climbed onto the wagons, nine raiders came roaring out of the trees and high grass with rifles and pistols firing and a cloud of gunsmoke forming around them. Slim was hit and two of the outriders. The others hid under the wagons and returned fire.
James knelt beside a wagon, aimed carefully, and shot the closest raider. Reloaded, he shot another. The outriders, expert shots with rifles, shot four more. The other three quickly turned their horses and headed for the woods. Several bullets chased them. James saw that one of the three wore a beaver hat.
One of the outriders was killed, but the other one and Slim weren't badly wounded. James got his horse and mounted. He told Slim: "I'm going after them."
"Hell, let 'em go. They won't bother us no more."
"No, there's one I want."
"Want? What you want him for?"
"I intend to kill him."
"Serious? Something personal?"
"Well, good luck, boy. But you take some grub and a canteen of fresh water. Yes, and a rifle and caps and cartridges. That rifle do you better'n that carbine. You got to understand there's three of 'em and damn Texan freebooters at that. I'd send someone with you, but can't do it. I got to get this freight to Sante Fe."
James smiled. "All the way?"
Slim laughed. "Yeah, all the way to Sante Fe."
James never followed an easier trail. It led through the trees then cut south across a wide stretch of tall grass, then brush, then toward more trees and the river beyond that. When he came on them they were crossing at a ford, the water low this time of year. Two were still in the river and Vance, the beaver hat cocked, had just started up the far bank. James shouldered the rifle and fired quickly. Vance's horse reared and fell sideways and Vance jumped free as the horse slid down the bank. The other two glanced back at James and slapped their horses' rumps. They rushed up the bank, knocking Vance to the side.
James dropped the rifle, grabbed the carbine, and slid off his horse.
Vance scrambled up the bank.
When Vance reached the top, James aimed for the center of the back and fired. Vance jerked, reached around to his lower back, turned around to look across the river, stepped forward, and slid down the bank with his face scraping the dirt. He lay there at the edge of the water, the beaver hat next to him. He tried to push himself up but fell back down. He twisted one way then another. He groaned.
James watched with the freshly loaded carbine ready. He waited a long time to be sure the others wouldn't return, then he mounted his horse and slowly rode down to the river and crossed.
Vance now lay on his back and looked up at James. His face was white and twisted from the pain.
James dismounted, cocked the carbine, put it to Vance's chest, and fired. He mounted and crossed the river. He left the beaver hat.
For nearly five years James tried to trace Howard. He asked everywhere he went but usually no one remembered a man missing a piece of ear. He worked at all kinds of odd jobs: sweeping and shoveling manure in a livery stable and feeding the horses, digging ditches, often hauling freight, whatever he could get to keep his belly full. Finally he met a man who scouted for wagon trains to the Oregon territory. The scout recalled Howard and the girl because Howard was maybe the ugliest man he'd ever seen with only a piece of ear but the girl had the prettiest green eyes. "She warn't much otherwise, mind, too skinny, but those green eyes just shined . . . sparkled . . . like . . . like pebbles in a stream . . . you know, like when the water rushes over them in the shallows."
* * *
Six months later James rode into a valley in the Oregon territory. At a general store he asked about John Howard.
The storekeeper shook his head. "Don't know him. No, don't know anybody by that name."
"He has a piece of his ear missing. He'd be with a woman."
"Yes? A piece of his ear? Can't say I know him. What you want him for?"
"I've been hunting him now for some time. It's important."
"Why you hunting him?"
James thought a moment, then said, "His Pa died and left him near a thousand dollars and the farm with fifty or more milk cows. My folks want to buy the place."
"Back home, in Kentucky."
"You come all the way from Kentucky to tell him? You could've wrote a letter."
"Pap did but got no answer."
"All right, I know him . . . but he calls hisself Jack Howell. He has a place out past Gardner's mill."
A man, standing by a barrel with axe handles, said, "It's five or six miles north along the mill stream but a ways off the road. He's got a wife and a boy now, 'bout five or so. He's a neighbor. Borrowed a mule and a plow from me when he first come here. Seed too. Helped him build his cabin, me and my sons. Christian to give a man a helping hand. Just head north and follow the stream. I wondered when Daniel there was going to get around to telling you the truth."
"Well, Abner, you can't be too careful."
"Well, Daniel, you shouldn't be so suspicious—the man looks honest enough."
As James walked out, the two men continued discussing the virtues and faults of caution and suspicion.
James heard the thump and then the wood splitting before he saw the man through the trees. The sunlight slanted between the trees and striped the shadows as the man brought the axe down hard into a cut log end. A woman appeared in the cabin doorway and called, "Jack? Jack, little John wants to come out to help."
"All right . . . long as he keeps clear."
A small boy in home-made overalls came running out. The man stopped and set the axe down. The boy ran toward the man, ran through the slants of sunlight and shadow, sunlight and shadow.
James watched the man and the boy for a minute, then turned his horse and rode away.
Steve Myers grew up in small coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where his father and great-grandfather
were miners. He served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam war. These experiences and others acquainted him
intimately with the brutality that all types of people are capable of, as well as the tenderness that surfaces in
After his military service, Steve graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Kent State University. He has
worked as an electrician and in data acquisition and analysis, and is retired from Procter & Gamble.
Steve has published short fiction, poetry, and novels. Find Steve at www.stevenjmyersstories.com
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The Passage at Muscle Hill
by Tom Sheehan
Here was Morgan Gautry in a stoned-up cave, both hands smashed by a rifle butt, a renegade leader sparing him at length at the whim of his woman, a woman who liked the younger boy's looks, a woman who had smiled at him so many times he couldn't remember.
"Let him live, Atur," Donna Cartè had said to the leader of the pack, "and I will be good to you for a month. We gain nothing by killing him, you and I. Not a thing. Lock him in a cave. Put rocks around him. He will not get out for a long time . . . if he ever does get out. We'll be long gone, but leave some food for him." She smiled her smile of smiles, and said, "Let's play a game with that boy and see if he lives and see if he can catch up to us out there." The lone female in the gang pointed to the mountains and the grassy plains that spread between them. "Don't you think it's impossible for him to find us—out there? Wouldn't that be fun? We could play checkers waiting for him . . . or whatever else."
The leader loved her humor and assented, but demanded that she do the work. "Cater to the boy, Donna Cartè, but only food for a week. He won't last that long anyway."
She decided to willfully disobeyed him, leaving enough food and water for one man for a few weeks, and to drop her knife so he could hear it fall in the back of the cave. And in one high niche she would place a stick of dynamite, which she would hide in her clothes along with what fuse she could find and flint. Her heart hurt for the boy, but he'd have a chance if he was alert, resourceful. She dared not look back when the party of renegades left the area, and Atur riding beside her.
Two days later that sound of the falling knife rang in the ears of Morgan Gautry, the way a bell might sound to a dazed fighter.
Morgan Gautry, from the beginning, hadn't bargained for any of this, hadn't seen any of it in his dreams or fantasies of heading west, the promised land waiting on him. He believed in dreams, fantasies, eloquence of travel sifting from geographies, Atlases that practically pulled him through the pale colored pages with their high come-ons and deliberated adventures, but never any signs telling him to go back.
"He's a strapping 6 foot tall and then some," as his mother used to say, and "He has strong arms, legs, and a back like a mountain," his father would chime in. His father knew such bodily traits were needed as he had fought much of his time in the Appalachians and the Ozarks in younger days before settling down in Oak Ridge, the village near Chicago his wife had dreamed about.
But Gautry always believed that he had found the West Due Company to be the best way for him to get further west. In reality, it was Cavan Grady who had seen him looking around the outskirts of Chicago hunting for a group heading west and not particular about the destination "as long as it was away."
Grady had seen the young man, he figured to be about 23, take part in a rope pull and instantly recognized power, strength, willingness, and a certain flair for intelligence that marked the lad. He handled himself with a deal of patience, as though he was sure of any outcome, and that spelled confidence for Grady who knew that the young man would be invaluable on the trip. He saw it with his eyes, felt it in his bones.
"I'd like to hire you on, son," Grady said, "pay comes at the end of the journey, but you get fed on the way, and all your needs supplied. It's a good way to get west and you don't have to go through any Indian or renegade country by yourself. Numbers count out there. I've been there three times already, and you need many men to complete the journey." He showed him both bullet and arrow scars on his arms and thighs. "You've got to be lucky too," he added, "finding someone somewhere who likes you, favors you highly. I call it intercession. It all counts."
There was a distinctive pause in his words, and then he explained, "I've dropped a few young fellows right into the lap of heaven, with some coin in their britches. Where are you from anyway?"
"Oh, not far from here, the village of Oak Ridge, near the west side of the city. I hear they're going to change the name of the place, but I'm moving on anyway and I accept your offer."
He set out two days later in a group of twenty-one men, three wagons, three dozen horses, a set of oxen Grady won in a poker game, and a string of mules. Grady was exhilarated to get on the move and young Gautry shared his joyous mood, and his outlook.
That attitude was in focus until they hit the river at Muscle Hill. It was a difficult crossing in normal times, but the mad rush of the water they met this time forced them into a passage that would call on every ounce of energy of man and animal. Part of it was uphill, part downhill, and part on a precipitous ledge barely two oxen wide.
"We gotta go this way, Boss?" said one of the men. "It looks ornery if you ask me. You been here before?"
Grady said, "Once before on this route, but never so loaded as now. But it saves us a couple of weeks in tough country. No one out there likely to like us but our goods and animals, and all our guns. I'll take this chance before them, renegades, Sioux, you name it. They don't like this way any better than we do, so they stay away most times I would guess. They crave whiskey and salt and ammunition like we all do. A chance is better than half a chance."
All supplies had to be broken down from wagons and carried by man or single animal twice on the route, and every man kept on the constant lookout for trouble. It was most difficult carrying a load and a rifle at the ready, so Grady ordered the first two men and the last two men in the column to carry a smaller load and their rifles at the ready. All the others were made to carry as much weight as they could, with Grady demanding that important supplies be distributed between a number of carriers.
The column was about halfway through the passage, when one of the lead men yelled out, just before a rifle shot took him right off the narrow ledge and into the river . . . his pack and his rifle going down with him. The echo of his yell, "Renegades," rang off a cliff face before a barrage of rifle shot from hidden sites across the river ploughed into the crew. The firing was heavy and well-aimed, and came from good cover.
Grady lost 7 men immediately, all of them dead on the spot, and four others were found wounded when the firing stopped. Grady and the upstanding survivors were fully exposed on the narrow ledge. Gautry was one of the lightly wounded men at the front of the group, having been hit in the leg after he had shucked his load onto the trail and tried to hide behind it. The slug passed through his thigh, but with no serious structural damage. His rifle was empty and he had fired more than a dozen rounds in the engagement.
In the silence after initial fusillade of rifle fire, men moaning, and one mule, hit and trying to move in reaction to the pain, simply fell over the edge and disappeared quick as the gun fire had come. The animal made no sound as he fell or when he landed, so deep was the drop onto rocks or into the river.
That's when a voice, from the other side, said, "We have each one of you in our rifle sights. All of you will die unless you do what I tell you. I want an answer or we will start shooting." With that statement at least two dozen rifles were waved in the air and then quickly disappeared.
"Do you understand me? You, Brown Legs, at the end there, I think you are boss. I'll let you and your men go back on the trail, but leave all your packs right there. Right where you stand now. We'll shoot the first man who tries to dump his load. Then we shoot everyone. Do you understand me? I'll let you carry off one rifle for every three men. That looks to me like three rifles. That's a pretty good bargain. I am trading it for your goods and supplies. I don't want them dropped in the river. Is that not a good deal for you? But you have to say so right now."
There ensued a lengthy silence and the renegade leader said, "I want you to know that we are just hunters, like mountain men who kill bears and cougars, trappers who take all the beaver from the ponds, buffalo hunters who take hundreds of hides and leave the meat to rot in the sun. Rotted meat, I can tell you, which could feed whole villages for months." His head shook in significance of such loss. He wore a fur hat with a reddish hue, possibly a fox fur, his shirt was a dour and drab gray under a black vest and a loaded bandolier rolled over one shoulder. In his hands he wielded a repeating rifle, much like the one Grady and Gautry carried and some of the other men.
Cavan Grady had heard and understood it all, saw the plight of his surviving men. He put down his rifle and said, "We will go back," then added, "and we will take the wounded with us."
The renegade leader said, "No. That will take too long for you to make your way back. We will take care of the wounded. You have two minutes to start back with no supplies, three rifles, and the ammunition three men can carry in their belts or bandoliers. That's all. It'll be enough to get by with while you make your way back to some village. Better go now or we shoot."
Ten men left, including Cavan Grady, carrying only three rifles and minimal ammunition for a party of 10.
In half an hour they were back down the trail, while a host of renegades converged on the upper trail. All supplies were taken along the trail and into a deep cavern, along with the lone wounded man who survived the journey, Morgan Gautry. Two others died soon after they were picked up, and the third man, after a tussle, was simply dropped over the side into the river.
Gautry marked the man who had pushed his friend off the ledge.
The female member of the renegade band, Donna Cartè, was a beautiful woman with very dark hair and dark eyes, who could not take her eyes off handsome, and youthful, Morgan Gautry. The young man brought a persistent smile to sit at the corners or her mouth as she looked upon him, tended his wounds, saw the results where Atur had battered Gautry's hands with his rifle butt to insure he'd raise no problems.
"I only have half a heart, young man. Half a heart," Atur said to Gautry, "and that half belongs to Donna Cartè, the Beauteous One."
Atur ran his fingers through her hair, but Donna Cartè smiled at Gautry instead, and for perhaps the 10th time her fingers touched lightly at his wrist, sending messages unsaid but understood. He had been packed atop a mule and brought down with the band.
The whole band was in the cavern down below, the goods being distributed by Atur, and after the distribution, Donna Cartè led Gautry into a cave. She whispered, "You can get out of here if you try real hard. They'll only block the way with a pile of stones. Let your hands heal. Do not hurt them further." She kissed him on the cheek and said, "I could stay with you forever, but he would kill us. You remind me of my little brother in a way. Be careful. Don't rush out of here. He will chase you down, but watch who and what is around you all the time."
"Who and what?" Gautry said. "You're the who that's here. What is what else?" He was trying to interpret the look on her face and the meaning of her words. She was secretive in many ways but her real goodness shone through.
"If you know all you can, find all you can, you will become a good man and live a long time. Don't let Atur trick you. Know who and what is around you."
She left and the rocks came in a sudden pile from many hands, walling him off from sunlight.
Gautry, in persistent but minor pain, finally feel asleep on a single blanket and some fir boughs and the last image he had was remembering the touch of Donna Cartè's fingers on his wrist.
His sleep was sound and long and he woke in the darkness but saw a thin shaft of light through the rock pile at the cave mouth. It was day, and a slight sense of air movement passed across his face. The air was obviously passing upward when it came into the cave and escaped through an unseen higher opening; the draft of it was steady, slow but steady. If he could get a fire going the smoke might also pass upward. Perhaps it would give his presence away, but it was worth a chance . . . and he could eat and have some light to see by.
He began to talk to himself, finding a bit of comfort in it and a bit of sanity. "The fir branches I slept on might be dry enough for a fire. I hope my matches are intact." He fished in his fob pocket and found a small tin of matches. "Father told me this day would come. Bless you father."
"Don't hurry, fool," he said aloud. "Don't spoil your chance. Be careful. Don't waste anything." He acknowledged that his pain had decreased, nodded at the self-message and gathered a few twigs from beneath his sleeping place. They were dry and lit easily when he struck a match. He marveled where he was, saw the interior darkness, heard nothing moving deeper in the cave, and saw a thin trail of smoke start rising to escape.
"I hope Atur is long gone and does not see the smoke. If I keep the fire small, feed it slowly, just warm some dried meat, I can stay here for a few days. I'll look around after my next sleep, whenever that comes."
He ate warm dry meat, a kind of jerky, ate a hard biscuit, chewed on an apple until his teeth hurt. Falling asleep again, he woke with a start to put some more branches on the fire, found a few bigger pieces of dry wood, started to re-think his planned stay and knew he had to be out of there in two days. Again he slept, woke to mere embers, fed a small flame he roused from its sleepiness, and heard the clink of knife come like a savior's echo. The knife was where Donna Cartè had dropped it, and then he found the stick of dynamite.
"Bless her heart!" he exclaimed as he gripped the dynamite, held it aloft, and then he kissed it, saying, "That's for you, girl."
Holding the dynamite over his head in a second salute, he yelled, "Thank you, Donna Cartè. May we meet again." The dynamite was in one hand and the knife was in the other hand.
Settled down, planning moves, he said in a thoughtful manner as though he was convincing himself, "I can't set it off today. I have to wait until the next light. They can't be waiting outside to see what I'll do. And I'll have to make some kind of longer fuse so I can get away from the blast. I'll have to place the dynamite as far into the pile as I can and then make sure I'm in the deepest part of the cave." Around the arc of the dim light and shadows still holding their places he stared, putting space in its place in his mind.
From one part of his shirt sleeve, torn off with difficulty, he tied strips together long enough to promise a burn sufficiently slow to allow him to get to the deepest niche in the cave.
He was thinking of his good fortune after such a horrid start of the journey and found the confidence beginning to rise in him. "I have a knife. My hands feel better. One of them I can squeeze without great pain. I'm in decent shape. I have a chance to get out of here, to make amends." The faces of Donna Cartè and Atur came and passed in a mere seconds. He kept one image longer than the other.
Wedging the stick of dynamite into the rocks as far as he could with his best hand was finally accomplished after several manipulations. It sat tightly in the small space between three large rocks and Gautry sat to rest, the knife in his belt wrapped with the remainder of his sleeve. It created a sense of security. His breathing was controlled and the way back to the deepest point was illuminated by the fire. Pictures of his father fighting the Indians in the Ozarks flashed through his mind and his confidence soared.
He lit the fuse and walked deliberately to the selected spot in the cave, sat down, and blocked his ears.
For a few minutes he waited, not looking at the sleeve remnants and the fuse burning toward a hoped-for result. His hands were pressed tighter against his ears and the breath in his chest seemed to ball up in that cavity.
Morgan Gautry shut his eyes tightly, the ball of breath held itself in one place.
The blast was thunderous. It boomed and banged and burst around him like an artillery duel. Rock particles, shards of rock, pellets newly made, and assorted debris flew into the back of the cave. Next it was like a shooting gallery or a turkey shoot. His ears rang. The repetition came in great waves and the mountain shook above him as if it was about to plunge down on top of him. There was nothing to hold onto except the knife Donna Cartè had left for him. He clutched it tightly. The small fire was blown out by the blast and embers whistled past him in a red and fiery stream. The scent in the cave was brand new, pungent, and almost exotic. It made him see Donna Cartè's face in a new light. Then it went smoky, with carbon and embers and fiery particles loaded in the air.
The rumbles in the mountain slowed, and finally stopped. Smoke continued to fill the air, and the echoes of the explosion still rang about him as if they were pushing him to his knees. The knife was hard and sure in his hand, carrying both vengeance and promise in the grip of it.
He thought time had progressed past 10 minutes, his breath slow in recovery, smoke still strong, but a new scent, that of fresh air, passed across his face the way it might have been breathed in by the cave, by the whole mountain, and went up into whatever hole, whatever escape, there was above him. The freshness and a new scent in the air kept its pace and he finally opened his eyes. A shaft of light streamed in where minutes earlier there had been a stream of fiery particles. The silence nearly overpowered him, the whole mountain quiet, motionless, and hope raced into his entire body.
When he finally looked toward the mouth of the cave, the pile of rocks Atur's men had put there, the light of the sun, the light of a new day, shone through a significant hole. "Donna Cartè," fell from his mouth. Her face came from out beyond the source of light.
Before an hour had passed, he had crawled easily through the new opening, looked all about him, saw a piece of cloth beside a rock. The color and design came back to him: it was from Donna Cartè's blouse and he knew instinctively it was a signal. Behind the rock, under another rock, he found a loaded pistol.
"Bless your heart," he said, in the tone of a solemn supplication, "Bless your heart, Donna Cartè."
His good luck continued before the day was over, finding a saddled horse standing in a small space of ground where a tree that might have clung to the side of the canyon for 100 years had fallen, and locking the animal into nature's corral. The animal Gautry thought he had seen before might have been in either party at the passage incident. He patted the horse gently, said, "Whoa, Boy. Nice, Boy." He said it several times, looked into the small saddlebag still in place and found one small piece of jerky and a piece of hard bread.
Gautry patted the horse once he freed him from the tight space, mounted him, and said, "We're on our way, Boy."
The images returned, of Donna Cartè and Atur, one at her best and one at his worst. He rode out of the canyon, the plain of grass leaping westward in front of him, his mother and father finding space in his thoughts after the images quit him.
His spirit, once more, was high.
On his new route west, he was helped with some supplies by people in a wagon train who listened to the part of his story he told them, but not saying anything about Donna Cartè. Good spirits continued their ascension.
A few days later, on the edge of a wooded foothill below a small range of rocky peaks, he spoke to a prospector who told him a story about a gang of riders. "I saw them coming, about a dozen or more of them, and one was a woman. I stayed out of sight. I don't trust such bands on the loose. They're usually bad if you don't know them or don't recognize them as a posse. Anyway, they went into that pass just up there. It leads into the Curtain Range. It goes deep into the range before it gets really rugged." He nodded and finished by saying, "It's good hide-out country. You can get lost in there, and it can get lonely. I spent a year up in there and came away with nothing but loneliness and a dry throat." He smiled and said, "I made up for both." And he was off on again, on his lonely pursuit of his own dream. His wave goodbye was over one shoulder without even looking back.
Gautry loudly wished him the best of luck, but it sailed off on a soft breeze.
With a supply of food on hand, a weapon and some ammunition, all from the prospector who was counting his own days in concert with those of Gautry, the young avenger watched from a high point. In a small recess in the rocky domain, he had pitched a lean-to of boughs and leaves, and a haven for his horse. Early each morning he climbed to a look-out that offered him a wide scan of the territory, the mountain walls like slammed doors or drawn shades, and the sun, once it had gone past an early hour, sat at his back for nearly half the day. He felt domineering, as if he could whip the world and all the bad guys in it, and few men could find him in the glare.
On the third morning, birds alive, the owls asleep, the coyotes territorial, he spotted two riders coming as if from a door in the wall of a cliff. With juxtaposition and line of sight he marked the place well. And near sunset of that same day he was at the entrance to a very secret and secluded area tucked into mighty walls that shot straight up like a pole all around it.
There were no guards about, no position ready where a sentinel might sit, the walls too steep and forbidding, and looking quite impenetrable.
He advanced on foot, pistol in hand, alert, looking for light, giveaways, a sign of activity.
He almost missed it. Possibly a candle it was, being moved about, one window or one small space letting the flame have passage. The flicker of light was quick as lightning, but he marked the spot, and advanced in the darkness.
The light of the candle or a lamp came back, He didn't know if it was coming through a window, a door, or an open side of a shelter such as his own lean-to.
Then he saw her, the figure in a sudden light. Donna Cartè. The unmistakable figure. Her. Donna Cartè. He tried to give her another name. None of those he came up with would do the job. She was Donna Cartè for always.
"There will be gunfire," he said to himself, keeping his voice very low and whispered. "I have to separate her from them. Draw them off. Get her away from them." He wished he had one more stick of dynamite like the one she had left for him in the niche in the cave. He wondered if they carried a supply in their arms and ammunition. He had to have a plan.
The sound of tethered horses came to him, as the higher shadows began to lift and the sun was beginning to slip into the high reaches of the hide-out. He assessed his position: he was behind the cabin, he saw where the horses were held in small area by a clumsy fence, he had a canteen of water and a belt full of bullets, and he found a place where he could impress his body so it might not be seen by any of the gang when daylight came. That time. He guessed would come in less than an hour.
At that minute he heard the snake in among some fallen rocks. It was a rattler. His mind leaped at possibilities. If he caught the snake it might prove better than dynamite. With the stealth of its own kind, and a rock in his hand, he advanced on the sound of the snake, heard it clearly, and dropped the rock on its head. He leaped in with another rock and slammed the stunned snake on the head again. Twice more he hit it, the flesh of the snake deadening the blows, the blows killing the snake.
Morgan Gautry was nearly giddy as he held the snake up. "Hello, Mr. Dynamite," he said, "thank you for coming to my assistance. The fruition of his plan come to light, came to reality in his mind. He saw the whole effect of it, saw Donna Cartè fleeing with him from the secluded hide-out.
"I must do this quickly and hope it goes as I see it." He looked overhead saw light creeping into high shadows, moved to the fence, not having heard anyone in the cabin move about, and could no longer see Donna Cartè in any way.
He took down two parallel poles from the clumsy corral and put them soundlessly on the ground. "The scent of the snake must be in the air," he said as a couple of horses began to fidget about.
"Get ready," he said again, and whirled the dead snake over his head and into the middle of the horses. The bloody snake landed on the neck of one horse.
It was as good as dynamite! The horse leaped and snorted and let loose with a mighty sound of terror that all the others picked up and every horse bolted out of the little corral space, sped past the cabin on the dead run and headed straightaway for the open plains. The noise was thunderous in the tight little space between high straight walls that went up to meet the coming sun.
The cabin was suddenly alive with noise and shouting and men rushing out to try to stop the runaways. Gautry heard Atur say, "Go get them horse. Go get 'em now."
Atur spun about and said, "Anybody hear anything in here? I didn't hear a sound all night."
While some of the men were chasing after the horses, one of them stepped on the dead snake. He picked up the crushed body where many of the horses had trod on it. "Hey, Atur," he said, "look what I found. This sure got 'em goin'. A rattler, but them horses got even with it. Crushed him all to hell." He held the snake overhead.
Atur said, "We better all go get them horses before the damned law finds them or tracks them back home, back in here, if they ever come back with that damned smell of dead snake in the air."
He said, "Donna Cartè, you stay here and get some vittles going. We'll be hungry when we catch the horses. Make up a big spread, real big now." He turned to one of the men and said, "Joe Vee, you stay and give her a hand. The rest of us are going horse hunting."
The gang left, Donna Cartè went to work, and now behind the cabin where he had gone in all the noise and excitement, Morgan Gautry dropped a pellet of stone that Joe Vee heard. When the unsuspecting Joe Vee came around the corner, Gautry slugged him with a pistol butt and tied him up with his own belt and lashed him to a fence pole.
With his body shaking with anticipation, Gautry went around the front of the cabin and walked in on Donna Cartè. Her back was turned to him as he said, "Hello, Donna Cartè. Thank you for the knife and the stick of dynamite."
She spun about, gleamed at his sight, and rushed at him. Her arms were around him. "Oh," she said in a husky voice, "I didn't know if I'd ever see you again. Ever." She kissed him directly on his lips, and was liquid in his arms.
"We have to hurry," Gautry said. "We have to get out of here. Do you have any more dynamite?"
"Ye," she replied. "Atur keeps some in a box outside. Quick, let's go. Take this canteen of water and I'll get the dynamite. We'll have to get some horses out there. Maybe we can find two someplace."
"Even one will do," Gautry responded, his body more fully alive than it had ever been.
The pair in their quick flight had dynamite, fuses, water, two handguns and bullets, and nobody on their trail.
She held him by one hand as she slipped the three sticks of dynamite inside his shirt. She was finding her own newness. "Once we get outside the entrance we have to go to the right, into a canyon that has a way out through a tight pass in the rocks at the deep end. We can block it if we have to." Her hand touched the bulge of dynamite.
Her eyes looked into his. "Oh, Morgan, to be free. To be free. I have dreamed of it for almost a year. You are my savior."
"No, Donna Cartè," he quickly responded, "you are my savior." He kissed her in a hurry and was comfortable with her, an essence coming at him, and newness also.
They did not find any horse as they managed to get into the next canyon. From one rocky pinnacle Gautry saw some of the gang out of the prairie, two of them now riding recaptured horses. "Soon they'll have all the horses back," he told Donna Cartè. "We'll have to keep them off our trail once they find you're gone. I don't think Joe Vee ever saw me, so they'll have no idea about what's going on. We'll have to keep it that way."
Donna Cartè led him to the back of the next canyon and they squirmed through. She said, "It's only been a few hours and Atur will come this way. When they find Joe Vee and I'm not there and they didn't see me out on the grass, they'll come this way. I am sure of that, so you'll have to do your best to stop him. I can't go back there with him, ever." Her voice trembled with imploration.
Gautry looked back at the narrow aperture they had come through, picked the likeliest spot and set two of the sticks of dynamite with the one fuse. The spot he had picked, he believed, would be the one to loose the least sound into the air, the mountain itself holding most of it. "Maybe they'll think it's an earthquake or a landslide," he explained to her, and she nodded back and smiled.
He looked back out on the prairie, saw that all men were on horseback and headed for the hide-out. He set the charge and waited sufficient time for them to get to the cabin, perhaps find Joe Vee, realize Donna Cartè was loose.
The blast was muffled in the canyon, the mountain taking much off the noise into itself. At the hide-out there was much consternation and swearing, and Joe Vee saying he never saw anybody. "Maybe Donna Cartè hit me on the head. I don't know."
Atur almost shot him, he was so mad, and then he saw the cover off the box of dynamite they kept outside the cabin. He knew someone must have helped her escape. He did not think of Morgan Gautry at first and then remembered her fascination with the young man. "I should have killed him," he finally said to himself.
The gang kept asking him what they were going to do, and Atur kept putting things back in place, all the possibilities, all of them. Then, when he was rehashing every detail in his mind, he recalled the ground shaking when the thought it might be an earthquake of a landslide.
"Quick," Atur said, "We have to check out the escape route in the next canyon. Donna Cartè must have gone that way. She took some dynamite. Three sticks were missing from the box."
They rode quickly to their planned escape route, if it was ever needed.
There was no escape route. The way was clogged with huge hunks of rock, and the smell, of detonation still hung in the air, and dust on flat surfaces.
On the other side, she said to Gautry, "It'll take them at least four days to go around. We better move as fast as we can and get some horses."
Two days later, the savior and the savior's savior were on two saddled horses they had bargained for, putting the knife and the third stick of dynamite into the bargain.
They headed west again, dreams and freedom riding with both of them.
Sheehan has published 30 books and multiple works in Literally Stories, Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving
House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, In Other Words-Merida,
Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Green Silk Journal, etc. Has received 32 Pushcart nominations
and 5 Best of Net nominations with one winner, and other awards. Newer books are Swan River Daisy, Jehrico,
The Cowboys, and Vigilantes East, with 3 books being considered, and one in production cycle at
Pocol Press, Beside the Broken Trail.
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The Running Iron Incident
by Mickey Bellman
Cleave grabbed the tin dipper from the water barrel and raised it to his lips. A trickle of coolness dribbled down his open shirt while he studied the stark horizon on his backtrail. The sagebrush flat disappeared in the distance, obscured by the heat mirages that blanketed the Alvord Desert. He was squinting to see if the dust cloud still followed. It was, and the distance had closed. Perhaps it was just another wagon full of settlers heading west like himself. Perhaps it was the sheriff of Ely, but he did not want to find out in the middle of an open desert.
A mile ahead lay some low sandhills. There, Cleave thought he might find a draw to hide in, or make a stand if need be. He still had the Sharps .50 caliber, a sawed-off 12-gauge and a skinning knife in his boot. He had always been good with a knife, perhaps too good. Cleave hung the dipper on the water barrel and picked up the short whip. Both oxen were resting in their yoke but lurched ahead when the bull whip cracked above their heads. Cleave glanced back at the trailing dust cloud and decided it was time to hurry.
"Hey up there, Blue, Shorty. Git up there," and the black whip cracked again in the still desert air.
The track was faint although wagons had used the trail in years past. It was well-marked with the remnants of campfires, discarded cans and empty bottles. Occasionally, there was a dresser or trunk some settler left behind to lighten the load. And there was one small grave. Two barrel staves had been lashed together to form a crude cross marking the lonely spot. The faint track led west towards the Cascade Mountains, hopefully to a place where Cleave was unknown.
Cleave was crossing the desert alone with just the two oxen for company. He had almost been married once, except he changed his mind when the girl's pa found the two of them in the hay loft without a stitch of clothing. That was the first time Cleave had to leave town in a hurry. He drifted from town to town after that, working at odd jobs and finally drifting into Ely. Along the way he learned how to drink, fight and gamble. He preyed on the weak, the gullible and the drunks, using his easy-going nature to get close to a man and lift his poke of gold. In Ely the pickings were easy whenever miners showed up and drank too much whiskey. But the scheme caught up with Cleave when he hit one miner in a back alley and killed the poor devil. Someone had seen the robbery and reported it to the sheriff.
Cleave wasted no time getting out of town. His horse pulled up lame and he just barely made it to a stage stop. He could not borrow or buy a horse from the stage master, but there was a pair of oxen and a small wagon. Smallpox had left the previous owners dead and buried, and the station master was glad to sell the outfit for twenty dollars in gold just to be shed of it. Cleave thought it would be a good alibi if anyone came looking for him.
"Hey up, you two. Git movin' there." Cleave was anxious to get into the security of the sandhills.
Cleave gulped hard when two riders galloped over a hill towards him. Now he was boxed in, no chance to hide or avoid a meeting. There was determination in these riders as they rode directly towards Cleave. Each wore leather chaps, dirty Stetsons, leather vests and checkered shirts. Both looked like cowboys but only the rider on the brown horse carried a rifle in a saddle scabbard. The other man—the one on the Appaloosa—carried a short, black gun across his saddle. When Cleave saw the white glint of metal on one man's chest, he knew they were lawmen looking for something. Cleave had an awful, sick feeling in his stomach and let the oxen slow their pace, and then stop. He edged closer to the side of the wagon and glanced at the seat where his own shotgun lay. He could reach it if and when the time came.
The two deputies rode up within twenty feet and stopped, never taking their eyes from Cleave-the-settler. They seemed tense and suspicious while Cleave leaned against the wagon within easy reach of his shotgun.
"Howdy. We're lookin' for some men with some stolen cattle. Seen anyone?" It was the big man on the Appaloosa who spoke. His voice betrayed the weariness of a long ride. The other deputy rode slowly around the back of the wagon, eyeing it suspiciously.
"Nah. Just me and my two ox, Blue and Shorty." Cleave was trying to watch the circling deputy and talk to the man with the shotgun across his saddle.
"Been on the trail long?" This time it was the circling deputy who spoke. Cleave half turned to face the man now sitting on his horse at the rear of the wagon. The deputy seemed to be extremely interested in the contents of the small wagon.
"Couple weeks. Come down the Snake and crossed over at Wieser."
"Where ya headin'?" asked the shotgun deputy. Cleave was getting nervous having to turn back and forth between the two men.
"Headin' for the Cascades and the Willamette Valley. Find me a farm and settle down."
"All by yourself? No family? No wagon train?" The second deputy was still asking questions but did not even look at Cleave while he stared into the wagon. He was a small man but the Colt that hung on his hip made him anyone's equal. It had been well-used judging from the well-oiled holster.
"Wife died a couple weeks ago. Buried her in Wieser." Cleave casually stretched his arm towards the shotgun on the seat of the wagon.
"Hold it right there, mister!"
Cleave never hesitated and grabbed for the 12-gauge. Whatever was bothering the deputies had boiled to a head. Cleave was lifting the gun from the seat when the first bullet hit him in the back below the ribs. Cleave gasped but continued to lift the shotgun and cock the hammers. A second bullet grazed his shoulder as he whirled towards the deputy on the Appaloosa.
When the third bullet hit Cleave in the forearm, he jerked the triggers of the 12-gauge and fired harmlessly into the air. He spun to the ground and lay sprawled in the dirt as the second deputy leaped from his horse and stood over him with his .45 pointed at Cleave. The deputy on the Appaloosa finally got his horse under control and sat there dumbly looking at the scene.
"What the hell, Jake? What was that all about?"
Jake never took his eyes off Cleave, watching the man bleed to death on the ground. "Go look in the back of the wagon."
The big deputy rode over and looked inside. His eyes grew wide when he recognized the running iron in the back of the wagon. "Well I'll be . . . You're right, Jake. Looks like we caught us a rustler. He's got to be the one who's been changing the brands."
The deputy reached into the wagon and pulled out a steel branding iron that a skilled rustler could use to change horse and cattle brands to suit himself. "Mighty nice piece of iron at that."
Cleave was listening but growing weaker as the blood seeped out of his body and into the sand. He had wondered what that peculiar black iron in the back of the wagon was, and now he finally knew.
Mickey Bellman has earned a living for five decades as a professional forester in western Oregon. In his
spare time he has written hundreds of articles for hunting and forestry magazines as well as numerous
newspapers. A wife and two Golden Retrievers reside with him in Salem, Oregon.
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The Raglun Oracle
by Alex Bernstein
Christmas last year will not be a day that I—nor anyone in my family—
will soon forget, I dare say. I write this comfortably from a bed at my Aunt Sara's house. As you know, we did not make it to Sara's last year. And we were anything but comfortable. The storms and snow of last year were greater than any we'd seen in decades. And while that would not usually stop my daddy from makin' the trip, Ethan, as you know, was quite sick.
Poor Ethan—all of four years—had been a fairly strong boy till that last year—when various sickness overtook him. I had been packing an overnight bag for the trip up north when my Uncle Campbell told me that Ethan was burning up and we'd have to stay put. Daddy had gone for the doctor—a half-day trip, at the least. Ma was in her bedroom laying compresses on Ethan. His fever was high.
Over the past few years, my family had fallen into something of an isolation from the rest of the town, as tends to happen with farming families. Arguments are started and never resolved. Families lose touch and keep to themselves. And so, the begrudging offer to visit from my Aunt was quickly discarded when Ethan fell ill. Soon, a pallor lay over our house as wind crept in through chipped planks causing a low, solemn whistle. The holiday tree I'd cut down myself stood bent over, unseasonable.
Our town, Raglun, is a small one. There aren't but forty, fifty families—all of whom I can name by sight. There's little crime, no jail, and half the townsfolk can't write or read proper. In fact, a great many, in this year of our lord 1873, still believe Lincoln runs the capital, if you can believe that.
Which may be why Ethan's sickness—and his babbling in particular—came off so unsettling.
I was the one heard it first. I had woken up early that morning to his kicking and writhing. Still asleep, but tossing, turning. And saying words over and over that I couldn't understand:
Nixon meant nothing to me or ma. It was simply a nonsense word for which we had no particular reference. It was Uncle Cam, who had taught himself to write a bit and had been teaching me, who said that it sounded like something out of Alice—a book he'd seen at the general store—that was full of its own strange puzzles. Cam was the one who had started listening closely to Ethan, like what he was saying might actually mean something.
At first, he thought Nixon might be a city or a port. But of course, we had no map to look on. Our curiosities about Ethan's poor fortune did not exactly sit well with my ma, and we made efforts to keep our thoughts to ourselves. But that afternoon, after my mother fell asleep rocking him, Cam and I began takin' notes of his babbling.
Our roof leaked, and Cam had heard of "plumbers" back east. As my mother slept, Cam whispered gently to my poor brother to expand on his phrases.
"Boy—what is Nixon?"
"Ask about the water sluice, Uncle Cam," I whispered.
"It's not a sluice," he brayed at me. "He said it's a—gate."
"Ethan," Cam whispered, "what is the water gate?"
Ethan tossed, back and forth, "re-elect— re-elect—"
"Re-elect who?" whispered Uncle Cam, mesmerized.
"Re-elect . . . the president."
"The President—" said Ethan.
"We did," Cam said. "Grant was re-elected!"
"Nixon," moaned Ethan. "Re-elect Nixon." His quaking woke up my mother.
"Leave him be!" she scolded.
We removed ourselves to the outer room. Cam's eyes were afire. He studied our notes.
"What's wrong with him, Uncle Cam? What's Nixon?"
"Not what boy. Who. And only the President of the United States, I'd reckon."
"Oh no. After."
My eyes went wide.
"Boy, there's never been a President Nixon. Not ever. So, who is he? A made-up name? D'you know anyone named 'Nixon'? Your family ever met anyone—"
"Not that I—"
"'Course not. Even if you did, that boy's only four. He couldn't possible remember anyone with that name. Which means what he's sayin' is either utter nonsense. Or—"
"Or he's telling the future."
I stared at Cam, stunned.
"I've read of this. People in trances—taught to see things other than what's really there—"
"But nobody's told him nothing. He's just sick."
"Don't ask me to explain it. In a boy like Ethan—who knows what a fever's unlocked?"
Cam was excited, but I could only think of my little brother in pain, overcome by some demon.
"Will he be okay?" I asked.
Cam looked at me, blankly, the thrill drained from his face. He knelt beside me.
"'Course he will! 'Course he will! Bless that boy! You know you two are the best things ever happened to your daddy and Mary. You listen to me. Your daddy'll be back with that doctor and they'll take care of things. I promise."
Cam's words encouraged me. From my mother's bedroom Ethan groaned: Agnew.
Cam pressed the paper and pencil into my hand.
"Here! Stay helpful to your ma—and keep takin' notes. Maybe it's delirium. Or maybe he does know something."
"Like maybe this 'Nixon' is going to be president. Maybe the next president."
Cam grabbed his coat and headed to the door.
"Where're you going?"
"To McCall's, to think this through. And remember—this is just between you and me! So, don't upset your ma."
And Uncle Cam was gone. After two hours at McCall's, more likely than not, he wouldn't even remember Nixon. But now, somethin' was roused in me. Despite a gross burden of shame, I gave in to shiftless curiosity. Folding the paper neatly into my pocket, I went to help watch over Ethan, but secretly took notes as ma changed and cleaned his linens.
Two hours later, daddy still hadn't returned, and Ethan was more restless than ever. Ma rushed about, frantically switching between cooling him down, keeping our fire lit and prayer.
Uncle Cam returned, drenched in a staleness of beer and accompanied by Morton, a stocky farmer, and Bridwell, a shopkeeper. All came in, respectful, removing their hats. Bridwell had brown-paper-wrapped meats and coffee, and presented them graciously to my mother.
"Heard about the boy. Terrible news. Awful way to spend Christmas. Anything we or the wives can do—you tell us."
"That's kind of you, Charlie."
"Is he awake?" asked Morton, meekly.
"No, he's sleeping," said my mother.
The men looked at each other.
"Thank goodness," they agreed.
Bridwell helped ma take the packages to the kitchen. Uncle Cam and Mr. Morton quickly took me aside.
"Well, what's he said? Have you got anything?"
"I thought this was between us?"
"It is! This is just Morton! Bridwell! Neighbors!"
He knelt beside me.
"Now, boy—news like this, we need more minds to reflect on."
"But just these two? That's it?"
"I solemnly swear."
Mr. Morton peered down at me, his breath as sour as Cam's.
"Let spill, son. What've you got?"
I withdrew my notes.
"As I can make it out, he's said: Krogh, Colson, Hunt. He called them plumbers. He said: Creep. All part of creep . . . "
The men looked at each other, perplexed.
"Like creeping around?" said Morton.
"Sounded to me like more of a group," I said. "Like that was the name of their club."
"Ah," said Cam. "It's an organization. That's what I said!"
"That's what I said!" said Bridwell, rejoining us.
There was a slam at the front door as my daddy and the doctor—a burly man—came in, covered with snow.
"Where is he?" The doctor demanded.
"In the bedroom," said Cam. The two men went in, while the others returned their attention to me.
"Gray destroys evidence. Liddy. Cover up. He said that one an awful lot— Cover up. Cover up. Ma kept putting blankets on him, but he kept sayin' it. He said— Nixon knew and Cox resigns—"
Morton leaned in.
"There's a Wilfred Cox in Langston! He's a congressman."
"He's postmaster," corrected Bridwell.
"Same thing," barked Morton.
"This next part," I said, "I didn't really understand. Tapes, he said. Missing tapes. Said it a few times. An' then he quieted down."
The men looked at each other.
"What would he need measuring tape for?"
Bridwell stepped away from us, glaring.
"Confound it, Campbell! You drag us three miles in blistering snow—"
"Lower your voice!" said Cam. He looked at me, helpless.
"I don't think it was for measuring," I said, fumbling through my notes.
Morton grabbed the paper from me, remembered he couldn't read and passed it to my uncle. I pointed to a scrawled line.
"Something about— recordings—and they're—they're missing—"
"Harrumph" went Bridwell.
"Maybe these tapes are like—newspapers," I started, "Maybe they were recording their conversations and—"
"Of course," cried Cam. "You see what this means?!"
We all looked at him, confused.
"Scandal?" the other men gasped.
I didn't follow the implication, but Bridwell and Morton were now staring as wildly as Cam.
"Of the highest order! This man—this Nixon—president-to-be—becomes implicated in some—some cover-up. That's what he means. Right, boy?! Not that he was cold?"
"Maybe," I answered.
"He keeps some journal—some recording of their conversation—and this Cox finds it! And turns it in! To the papers! The authorities! And then— scandal!"
"You think so?" asked Bridwell.
"Has to be," said Uncle. "It's all there."
"But who are these people?!" asked Morton.
"They're from the future, Ben!"
"Unbelievable!" said Bridwell. "It's too fantastic!"
From the bedroom a creaky voice called:
"Impeachment!" the men echoed.
"We must go to the boy!" said Morton. "We have to hear more!"
Suddenly, a thin banshee's wail issued from the room, and then, just as quick, the house fell silent. The doctor came back out.
"How is he?" asked Morton.
"Sick," said the doctor. "He needs as much rest as possible."
"Of course," said Bridwell.
"I gave him something to sleep."
"You what?!" Morton blurted.
The doctor looked at them, perplexed. Cam stepped forward.
"Good. Good. Everything for the best. We've been quite worried."
The doctor eyed them, suspiciously, pulled his coat on.
"Will he—babble later?" Bridwell interrupted.
"Now, see here," said the doctor, glaring at them. "What're the three of you on about?!"
The men exchanged a glance.
"Alright, Doc," started Cam. "What do you know about tapes?"
Within hours of the doctor's departure, the word had gotten out, and our house had become a place of pilgrimage. By ten-thirty, despite the harsh weather, some forty people had come and gone. Some were sincerely concerned with Ethan's health and expressed their sympathies to his suffering. But many had intentions not so respectable.
Despite the size of the crowd, my folks seemed ignorant of their true reasons for coming. And this surprised me, as everyone following the story had developed highly complex opinions which they had great difficulty keeping to themselves.
"Ford?! He named Ford vice-president?! That bumbler!"
"Had to! Agnew resigned!"
"He was appointed! That Nixon could've picked anybody!"
"He should've appointed Kissinger!"
"Kissinger's not American!"
"Have they impeached him, yet?"
"Not yet! Anytime now!"
"Has he said what year it is!?"
"It's 1899—he said—"
"He didn't say that! He hasn't said what year yet!"
"It's got to be later! Turn of the century!"
"Three dollars says its 1902!"
"I'll take that bet!"
"And what on earth is Viet Nam?"
Most folks brought food. Many brought wreaths and decorations and a few decent types brought gifts. My mother—oblivious to the conversations—took comfort from the crowd. My aunts Min and Sara came—the three women having fallen out over raspberry pie disagreements some two-odd years ago. And there was tree trimming, laughter and drink, disrupted occasionally, by the reminder that we were all here because a small boy was suffering.
By the end of the evening what few people were left had either renewed friendships with my folks or were plain snoopers, waiting for Ethan's story's proper conclusion.
It was early the next morning when the doctor stepped out of my mother's room and rustled my daddy awake. All remaining guests lay asleep on chairs and the floor.
"Fever's broke," the doctor whispered.
"The boy—?" asked my father.
"Fine," said the doctor. "He'll be fine."
"He's sleeping," added my mother, coming out of the room and locking the door. "He's peaceful. Won't be any babbling anymore."
The doctor buttoned up his coat and left. Bridwell and Morton, dazed, got to their feet. They looked at my mother.
"Did he—did he—" Morton stuttered.
"Did he say anything?" Bridwell asked.
"Impeach Nixon?" asked my mother. "No. He resigned."
"Before they could impeach him. Yes," she said, smiling at me.
"Did he ever give a year?"
"Not that I recall," said my mother.
"Hmph. Well," said Bridwell, getting his coat. "The important thing—"
"Yes," said my mother. "The boy is fine. Thank you."
She took Mr. Bridwell's scarf and affectionately wrapped it around his neck, and then led our neighbors to the door.
"You two get home safe," she said.
And they were gone, leaving only me, my family and Uncle Cam, snoring soundly on the floor.
"Who's Nixon?" asked my daddy.
"No one, dear," said my mother. "No one important."
And she came over and covered me with a blanket and kissed me. She stoked the fire and, watching her, I drifted peacefully into a deep, sound sleep.
Alex Bernstein is a pushcart-prize nominated freelance writer and the author of "Plrknib" and "Miserable Holiday Stories".
His work has appeared at Corvus, BluePrintReview, Hobo Pancakes, Gi60, The Rumpus, The Legendary, The Big Jewel, MonkeyBicycle,
McSweeney's, NewPopLit, Yankee Pot Roast, Swink, Litro, Back Hair Advocate, and PopImage, among numerous others.
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The Quickest Gun from the East
by Larry Lefkowitz
In November of the year 1880, Joseph Luban descended from the Southern Pacific Railroad train at Tucson in the Arizona territory, where the train had stopped for refueling and taking on supplies, before continuing to San Francisco. Joseph had planned to look over the city, but when a fellow passenger suggested that if he wanted to see "the real West," he should travel to Tombstone, he decided to do so. He wasn't sure he could return in time to catch the train, but there would be another in a week and he was in no hurry. He took a stagecoach to the "cheerfully named" town, as he later described it to his acquaintances in San Francisco.
The town in some ways looked familiar to him—like a village in Russia laid out along a single main road—and yet different, rougher in some ways. Little green evident, it sat smack in the middle of buff-colored dust. And the men who populated it each had the handle of a six-shooter poking out of the holster on their hips. He noticed that they looked at the place his would be if he had one, and seeing none, dismissed him; some more relaxed for the fact, others with scorn. And he wasn't dressed like they were. They wore jeans and shirts or shirts and vests, and hats with floppy brims.
"Just off the train, eh" one man said passing him, without waiting for an answer. He ran after the man.
"Anything interesting to see here in Tombstone?" he asked.
The man stopped, scratched his ear, and thought for a moment. "You might try Boot Hill."
"The graveyard. Nothing much else special hereabouts. Brown's Saloon is only interesting at night. The O.K. corral might interest you if you like horses." It would take a while before Joseph learned to distinguish between the locals' seriousness and their humor.
Joseph didn't like cemeteries—but it had been recommended; he considered its name disconcerting and at the same time, amusing. It turned out to be unlike any cemetery he had ever seen. The grave-markers were rough, and the people buried, mostly men, had died young. Many from gunfights, as the captions, some humorously, made known. The epitaphs displayed a casualness toward death, if not an irreverence. Boot Hill was named in tribute to those buried there because they had died with their boots on.
The horses in the O.K. Corral seemed to him, well, okay, he thought, fully aware that he knew nothing about horses. The humor of the name of the corral joined to his judgment of the quality of its horses was typical of Joseph's amused reflection on things. In Russia, among other jobs held, he had been a badkhn , a humorist who entertained guests at Jewish weddings. Joseph had an ear, and an eye for humor. And this Tombstone was certainly an amusing place. This might explain why, when the train for San Francisco puffed its way out of the Tucson station, Joseph was not on it. To support himself, he rejected the profession of gunfighter, cowboy, or undertaker as unsuitable to his skills, and found himself a job as a dishwasher in Brown's Saloon.
Joseph's experience as a badkhn helped him to dry out and cut down his effusive, and yet sharp, Yiddish humor—with its Biblical references suitable for the audiences in Russia—to suit the Western folk who doted on the expansive and laconic humor of the American prairie. It soon made him an accepted fellow in the community, which could boast not a few unusual characters among its citizenry. His accent and Indian-like aquiline nose caused some to ask if he was a Sioux or Comanche. His going unarmed also contributed to his semi-celebrity status. An additional factor on his side was that Wyatt Earp, the town marshal, took a liking to him, calling him "the funniest unarmed man I ever met."
He told the locals he came from "somewhere back East," since "Russia", his original explanation, was too much for them. Although he managed quite well with most people, there was occasionally someone ornery or drunk who might not like you for one reason or another, especially in Brown's Saloon where drinking predominated. Joseph usually defused threats with his humor, or someone with standing at the bar came to his assistance, or he simply pointed to the fact that he didn't carry a gun.
Due to this latter peculiarity, one man told him, "In these parts, you'd better learn to be a gunslinger." For a few moments, Joseph wondered if he would have to learn to sling a gun at an adversary, like David sling stones at Goliath, before realizing it probably meant to draw a gun from its holster in order to shoot. Still a greenhorn in the West, Joseph mused.
As a dish washer in Brown's Saloon (at first, a dish-breaker, till he got the hang of it), he witnessed almost every evening a minor fracas that invariably resulted in a shoot-up, or two, that resulted in broken glasses and bottles. It was his duty to replace these by "replenishment" stock kept in another room (out of range). He suggested substituting wooden glasses, but the saloon owner snorted that the effect wasn't the same—"my customers like to hear the tinkle of glass."
"They should attend Jewish weddings," Joseph said, the humor residing in the fact that the groom crushes the wine glass the bride and groom drink from, so that it would not be used for a lesser purpose. Of course, the humor was lost on his boss, "Four-fingers" Hardy, who had never attended a Jewish wedding, nor his own wedding, as he lived with a woman without "the encumbrance of nuptials," as he put it. Hardy had earned his sobriquet because he had once lost a finger in a showdown, and subsequently chose to be a saloon owner as "it was my trigger finger which was unfortunately shot off."
"Four fingers," as he was universally—or at least tombstone called—took a liking to Joseph, who was his sole sober worker, which led to his being promoted from dish washer to the more respectable and responsible job of substitute barman, when the regular barman was ill or, more usually, temporarily incapacitated as a result of being collateral damaged from a shootout or injured from flying glass. This occurred when the cowmen (ranch owners) or cowboys (ranch workers or cattle rustlers) arrived to town to let off steam accumulated in months on the range, and delighted in shooting out the glasses off the shelves, and even bottles of liquor. Hardy didn't mind as the next day the apologetic, sober offenders, if ranch owners, paid double the cost. The cowboys sometimes had to be prodded by Wyatt Earp or other law enforcers, supplemented by Hardy's reminding them that he could shoot "tolerably well" with his non-trigger fingers.
Because of his experience with pogroms in Russia, Joseph had developed a sixth sense when to duck behind the solid mahogany bar, and so escaped flying glass or bullets. He was promoted to fulltime barman after the regular one died as a result of a contaminated splinter—not of glass or bullet, but wooden from Tombstone's boardwalk sidewalks. According to the coroner's report, the splinter entered the barman's buttocks on a night of drunken romancing of "Tigress" Lily Jenkins, who apparently took exception not so much to his suggestion that they retire to an upstairs room (while Joseph filled in for him) as to his "odd physical suggestion," in her words, of what he would do to her there, and threw him out of the establishment onto the pavement, where his naked behind received the splinter. Doc Holiday tried to live up to his name, but the task was too much for him, especially as he was, among other things, a dentist, not a doctor, and not entirely sober. Wyatt had to restrain him from pulling out the victim's teeth as cure.
One night, Wyatt chanced to see Joseph "disarm" a drunk, belligerent man who threatened to "Put a hole" in Joseph, accusing him of being "too slow" on refilling his glass. Joseph's humorous verbal mollifying of the man calmed him down.
Wyatt leaned close to him and said, "Joe, you can't keep bargaining your way out of problems with those types. You have to learn to shoot."
"Thanks, Marshal. I could have used you back in Russia."
"Well, this is Tombstone, not Russia. I'm going to give you a lesson in shooting."
"Much obliged, Mr. Earp." (Joe had gradually picked up the local parlance.)
"Wyatt, Joe. Mister, Sir, and the like are back east titles—except when addressing undertakers."
"Okay, Wyatt, you name the time and place."
Wyatt laughed at the use of the usual gunfight challenge in this capacity. "Tomorrow morning. 10 o'clock. Behind the cemetery."
Not the best omen, thought Joseph.
At ten, Joseph found marshal Wyatt already waiting for him. Wyatt took out his .44 caliber Smith and Wesson and explained its workings to Joseph. He then showed him how to load it. He then pointed it at the tin cans that he had arranged on a log.
"Now here's the way it should work." He proceeded to put a hole smack in the middle of each can which jumped into the air impressively when hit.
Joseph clapped his hands in admiration. His teacher pushed back his hat with the barrel of the pistol and nodded his thanks. "No reason you can't learn to do the same."
Joseph glanced in the direction of Boot Hill. It was of small comfort that he wore shoes and not boots. If anyone could keep him out of there, it was Wyatt.
"Your turn," Wyatt told him. "Here, let me help you." He steadied Joseph's aim, pointing the revolver toward the six new cans he had placed on the log.
"Pull the trigger, slowly!" he ordered. Joseph pulled the trigger. The first can jumped off the log.
"You're a natural shot, Joe," Wyatt encouraged him.
The lesson continued for another half hour. Under Wyatt's tutelage, Joseph made rapid progress. It concluded with instruction on how to quick draw. "Keep the gun," Wyatt added, "I have plenty of spares. Made it a habit to 'borrow' them from those who no longer had any use for them."
"You're ready, pardner." Wyatt clapped him on the shoulder.
For what? Joseph wondered to himself, hopeful he would not be called upon to draw, yet filled with a certain confidence now that his "pre-gunfighter" stage was behind him.
The "for what" occurred two weeks later when a drunken man, hearing Joseph's accent, snarled, "I don't like foreigners." What he said was less important in Joseph's eyes than what he did. He reached for his revolver.
Joseph was faster, thanks to Wyatt's instruction, and shot the man before he realized what he had done.
It was a clear case of self-defense.
Hardy celebrated the event by ordering drinks for everyone on the house. He even served them in place of Joseph. Although the crowd toasted Joseph, his ultimate accolade was Wyatt's.
"Couldn't have done it better myself—well, maybe a split second faster."
Larry Lefkowitz's stories and humor have been widely published. His humorous novel "The Novel, Kunzman, the
Novel!" is available from Lulu.com, Amazon, etc.
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