by Debra Kraft
Milt Wilcox unpinned the badge from his vest and hefted it in his palm. It didn't weigh much. Didn't look like much either, coated as it was with trail dust and smudged with ash. Too many campfires, he reckoned. He ought to polish it.
Rubbing his thumb across the engraved letters—U.S. MARSHAL—he remembered a time when polish mattered, years ago, well before he'd taken this job and headed west.
His name had been different then. There'd been more words and letters to it, so many it wasn't worth the breath it took to say them all. 'Milt Wilcox' was a whole lot easier to spit out. Back in that other life, the only thing that had distinguished him from his father had been a number at the end of all that nonsense. Maybe it had been fitting, back then. Milt had looked after his brothers almost like he'd been a second father to them.
A glance at the sleeping youngster on the other side of his fire brought one of those brothers to mind. Henry had been the youngest of Milt's four younger brothers, and the one Milt had felt the strongest need to protect.
Damn you, Henry, Milt said to the figure in his head as he closed his fist around the badge.
Then he looked across his fire again and tried to reckon why seeing the good-for-nothing kid lying there brought long-buried memories of his kin flooding back to life.
Until the kid had mentioned his pa—a word Milt's own father would have abhorred—Milt hadn't given any measure of thought to his latest prisoner. And he sure hadn't given any measure of thought to the life he'd led back east since he'd turned his eyes to the frontier.
What made that night at that campfire with that particular convict so different from any other that it drove Milt to do so much damned thinking?
The afternoon had been the same as any other since he'd first pinned on his badge. He'd taken a convicted murderer off the hands of a local sheriff to transport him for incarceration at the territorial prison. That's all this kid had been to Milt right then: just another outlaw, no different from the long string of no-goods, young and old, Milt had corralled over the years on behalf of the United States justice system. Outlaws were outlaws, pure and simple. Most were about as mangy as that kid, although some were almost as polished as Milt's father had been.
Then that kid had called him sir, thanked him for the blanket and the bowl of half-cooked beans, and, to top it all, he'd told Milt, "You remind me of my pa."
Milt had squinted over at him, calculating in his head just what the kid might have meant.
"Pa was a sheriff," the kid added. "A good one. Not like the one who sent me here."
Studying him more closely, Milt started to see him as a youngster, a boy who should be out catching tadpoles.
Still, he was an outlaw. A wanted man. Milt had better things to think about.
"I wanted to be a lawman, too," the kid said later. "I was going to be just like him."
Those words came out in a woe-begotten tone that had hit Milt bone deep. He'd had to hit back. "You're a long way from being a lawman, kid. So why don't you quit your jawin'?"
The kid took that hit right in the eyes. "I wanted him to be proud of me," he replied in choked gasps as tears started to spill from the wound Milt had struck. He sounded more like a lost little boy than a convict. "Pa was the best man I ever knew. Better'n any man alive." With his hands cuffed in front of him, it was as awkward for him to rub the tears away with his shirt sleeve as it was for Milt to watch him do it.
Then Milt had made the mistake of looking deeper, deep enough to see that boy loved his pa with the same fierce intensity Milt had seen in his youngest brother's eyes in the seconds before they'd gone empty. Henry had loved their father so much he'd been willing to kill or die for the sake of that love, even as Milt had been willing to kill or die to stop the ugly polish from spreading like the sort of disease it was. Civil War is what they called it, a polished name meant to mask the worst kind of mangy ugliness.
This kid wasn't Henry, but he was just as blind. Love like what Milt saw in that boy's eyes was deadly. Milt reckoned it a sure sign of cold, hard contagion. "There's not a man on earth who's better than any other," Milt had scolded.
"My pa was! Everyone said so!"
Milt hadn't even bothered to grunt in response. Teaching the kid about how folks mask their ugly wasn't his responsibility. Getting him to prison was.
The boy sure was young though, younger than Milt had been, maybe as young as Henry, back when Milt had finally seen past his father's mask all those years ago. Milt had found his father wiping blood from his boots. The elder William Charles Milton Wilcox had been standing beside the corpse of a slave named Tobias, a man Milt might have called friend, had their stations in life been different.
"He tried to escape," Milt's father had said casually, as though he'd just tossed out a rotten apple. Then, the apple forgotten, he'd smiled and cheerfully asked whether Milt had invited a polished friend to Sunday dinner.
"I wanted to kill him." This time the kid's words could have come from Milt's own lips.
"Why?" Milt rasped around something thick in his throat. "Because he was too damn good for you?"
Frustrated, Milt had shot back at the boy, "Why would you want to kill your pa?"
The kid's face had turned ashen. "No. I didn't mean . . . " He shook his head slowly, his Adam's apple bobbing in a heavy swallow. "I . . . I meant the man who killed my pa. Gunslinger shot him down in cold blood, right in the middle of the street. Pa never even had a chance to draw."
Milt got thrown by that answer. Pure instinct had him throw something right back. "Vengeance is a fool's excuse, kid. Damn shame. Too young to know any better, but old enough to face a judge."
"I did know better. I didn't kill him. I wanted to, but I didn't. Pa wouldn't ever forgive me if I had."
"Hate to tell you, but corpses don't do much forgiving."
There'd come that ashen look again. Milt almost felt bad for saying what he had, but he wasn't about to apologize for it. The boy had to learn sooner or later. Besides, Milt didn't much like the way the kid was causing him to think.
In a memory far worse than that of his father's bloodied boots and harder to bury, Milt saw himself on a battlefield, facing young brother Henry. A fateful twist of irony had Milt in Union blue and Henry in ragged, rebel grey. Henry, impassioned with all sorts of ugly contagion, hadn't hesitated like Milt had. Henry had shot to kill, but his aim had been off. Milt's shot, which should have gone wide from Henry's bullet burrowing into his arm, had hit its mark with a precision that would haunt Milt until his dying day. Henry had been dead before he'd hit the ground. Never even had the chance to blink.
That battlefield was years behind Milt and miles away. And the kid on the other side of his campfire wasn't Henry. And Milt sure wasn't that boy convict's older brother.
"Who was it, then?" Milt had asked. Maybe if he got the boy to talking, Henry would go back to being buried. "Whose life was worth throwin' yours away?"
The kid's eyes had clouded up with more of those little boy tears. "It wasn't my fault he died. But they wouldn't listen to me. I tried to save him. I swear I did."
So did I, Milt told himself. Trouble is, you can't save someone who doesn't know he needs saving.
And you can't pretend something's buried if you keep carrying it around with you.
Milt stopped breathing when realization hit him with more force than Henry's bullet. He'd never actually buried his father's legacy, had he? No. He'd embraced it. The only difference between them now was what kind of ugly they were hiding. Milt's ugly was a thing called the law. He'd let the law blind him to justice.
There hadn't been anything just about two brothers fighting against each other all those years ago over two different ideals of right and wrong.
And there wasn't anything just about delivering a dead sheriff's scared, young, grieving son to prison.
Another look at the badge cuffed in his palm showed Milt it was crusted over with a whole lot of ugly, the kind of ugly he'd seen in the bloodied polish of his father's boots.
Milt's hand moved before his thinking could stop it. By the time thinking kicked in, the badge was sitting in the fire, getting all its ugly licked clean by the flames.
And finally Milt could breathe easy. Instinct felt a whole lot more comfortable than all that gut-churning thinking.
Grabbing a key from the saddlebag beside him, Milt pushed himself to his feet and stepped to the other side of the fire. The kid stirred again, looking like he wanted to come awake but just didn't have the energy for it. That boy was far too young to be in irons. He hadn't even learned how to keep wary out on the trail. A grown man would've come awake before Milt had taken a single step toward him. The boy should be in a bed in a warm house with a mother and father looking after him. Or an older brother.
The chains clattered when Milt released them. That's what finally brought the kid around.
"Wha . . . what are you doing?"
"You'll sleep better without this weight." Milt started to slip the key into his pocket out of pure habit. Then, realizing he wouldn't have any need for it anymore, he tossed it into the fire instead. "If you want my advice, leave at dawn. Take the bay. She's a good animal, but not so fine as to catch any notice. Your best bet is to head north. Keep clear of as many folk as you can for the next hundred miles or so. You should be good once you reach Montana, but if you keep going north all the way to Canada, you'll be even better. Take a new name. Start clean."
The kid stared at him.
Milt turned away. "You don't have to wait for me to fall asleep, if you'd rather light out now," Milt settled himself into his bedroll. "But you'll get farther if you're rested. I ain't gonna chase you down, either way."
Still, the boy didn't move. Milt was reminded of an injured coyote pup separated from his pack and eyeing a momma wolf to see whether she was planning to eat him or feed him. Damn. He didn't trust Milt. And why should he? The thought stirred a memory of big brother Milton coaxing ten-year-old Henry out of hiding from the monsters in the woods.
You'll be safe with me, Milt had promised.
"Why?" The question came as a whisper, so soft and uncertain, Milt almost didn't hear it.
Sighing, Milt turned, facing the kid again. "Because," he said, looking right into the boy's frightened gaze, "prison isn't the right place for a boy like you, no matter what you've done."
Because, Milt added silently, the monsters in prison are real, and there wouldn't be a damned thing I could do to protect you from them.
"I told you, I didn't do it."
"It don't matter."
"If it was anyone's fault, it was Bobby's. He snuck up behind me and tried to push me in the river."
Milt said nothing.
"He was always messin' with me," the kid went on. "Always laughin' at me, and makin' the others laugh, too. When he pushed
me, I . . . I grabbed onto him," the boy clutched two fistfuls of air. "But I fell anyway, and
I . . . I guess I pulled him in, too. The current took us. I thought we were both done for. Then I got
caught up in a bunch of tree roots. I held on tight, and I hollered at Bobby to take my hand. He . . . ignored
me. Like I wasn't even there, like he always did when he wasn't lookin' for a laugh. He was a Prescott, and I was just the new kid.
I guess he didn't even figure I was good enough to save his life. The last I saw of him, he was hangin' onto a log. Then it rolled
over on him. He never came back up."
It was the longest string of words the kid had pulled together since Milt had taken him off the hands of the Prescott's bought and paid for sheriff.
"That it?" Milt asked.
The boy gave a hesitant shrug. ""I . . . I reckon."
Milt nodded, then rolled over to go to sleep.
"I can't just . . . run."
"My pa would say running's for cowards. He'd say I have to clear my name, or . . . or accept the consequences."
Milt sat up to face him again. "Kid, some of the bravest men I ever thought I knew turned out to be the biggest fools.
Now, I'd rather be a livin' coward than a dead fool. What about you?"
* * *
After two days of hard riding and four more spent weeding through tall tales and the marginally reliable words of town and trail gossips, Milt spotted chimney smoke floating upwards from the trees. The sight was both welcome and disturbing. Any other outlaw would have taken off that first night at the campfire. But this kid wasn't like any other outlaw.
Dismounting in front of the tumbledown cabin, Milt ground-tied his horse, and then headed inside to find the boy standing frozen, facing the door, eyes wide with something that looked a little like fear and too much like hope.
"You came back," the boy said.
"Said I would, didn't I?" Milt dropped his hat onto a table that no longer showed any of the dirt and dust that had covered it when he'd left. Frowning, he glanced around to see that the boy had kept himself busy cleaning things while Milt had been gone.
Milt swung his attention back to the kid. "Guess I'm not sure why you stayed."
"Said I would, didn't I?"
Fighting the smile that wanted to emerge after hearing the boy throw his own words back at him, Milt shot back, "Even after I warned you there were long odds against me being able to change anything?"
"Where would I go?"
"I told you where to go! A man can get lost up north."
"I'd never shake having a price on my head."
"That kid Judge Miltass sent to prison can't shake it."
"But you don't have to be that kid. Not anymore."
"I can't change who I am."
"Boy, everyone changes who he is at one time or another."
"Wasn't talkin' about me."
"I said everyone, didn't I?"
The kid blinked and turned away from Milt's glare. "What'd you find out?" he asked quietly.
"You were right. The Prescott's own these parts. There's not a soul around who'd speak out against 'em."
"Then you believe me?" The kid looked at Milt again.
"I believe Robert Prescott was a worthless, yellow-bellied scoundrel who'd be alive today if he'd trusted you."
"Then you believe me." Hope flared in those young eyes.
Damn shame Milt was going to have to snuff it. "It's not me you need to convince. It's them folks in town. And none of 'em will talk for you instead of Prescott."
"I wanted to help him, but the current was too strong."
"The law says different. You pushed him into that river. You're lucky the judge had enough of a conscience not to have you hung."
"I guess this is it, then." The boy took a deep breath, puffing out his chest. "Thank you, Marshal. You did more for me than anyone ever has, other than my pa. He would've been proud to know you."
The kid's bearing changed then. For the first time since Milt had taken him from the Prescott's roughshod jail, the kid showed signs of the man he had yet to become, a man resolute to accept a fate he didn't deserve.
"Something tells me," Milt said, "I would've been prouder to know him."
The boy flashed him a smile that vanished on the trail of a heavy breath. "I'm ready," he announced.
"To go to prison."
Sighing, Milt shook his head. "No, boy. You're not. And you never will be."
"I don't have much choice."
The words, bravely spoken, told Milt to follow his instincts. "Yeah, you do," he said. "I was thinkin' about heading north. Try some homesteading. Maybe open a trading company. Call it . . . Marshall and Son."
"Look, kid. An appeal might help, or it might not. Ain't no guarantees. That's the way of the law. But I know what's right. Locking a boy like you in prison isn't even close."
"The Prescott's think it's right."
"Don't you worry about them. I can promise you they'll get theirs." He met the boy's gaze, letting his own eyes say words he would never voice: he'd set things in motion; the Prescott's rule would be brought to an end, and justice would win out. But it was going to take time. "Just like you'll get yours," he added, "outside of prison."
The kid stared at him, his brows drawn, looking scared and confused. The coyote pup again.
Milt shrugged. "If you're so cocksure ready to go, you'll have to get there on your own."
The kid's eyes widened.
"Otherwise," Milt added. "I'd be proud to have you ride with me for a while." He held out his hand. "Name's Jacob Marshall. Most folks call me Jake."
The boy's mouth flopped open.
"I hear folks call you Emmett," Milt added. "Emmett Marshall."
Milt looked him square in the eye. "I'd be honored to finish what your pa started in raising you."
"But you'd be breaking the law."
"I'd be doing what's right."
Hesitantly, the kid took his hand. "Emmett?"
Milt shrugged. "If you like. Name's up to you, son."
The kid's eyes glistened, but his smile was genuine. "Emmett's fine." He tightened his grip, almost like he was afraid the current might wash him away as it had Bobby Prescott.
Or maybe like he was aiming to keep Milt from washing away.
But they weren't caught up in a flooded river. Instead, they were about to bring a flood, one that would wipe clean as much mangy ugliness as ugly polish.
And for the first time in his life, Milt found himself unmasked.
Debra Kraft is an easterner who forged a lifelong love for the West through the wonders of 1960s television. She has been writing since she first put crayon to paper, with works that include poetry, fiction, and just about anything else that involves painting, drawing, engineering, or simply doodling with a pallet of words. Find out more at debrakraft.net.
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To Marry a Gunfighter: A Western Romance
Part 1 of 2
by Buck Immov
Chapter 1 – Pointed Views
* * *
We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.
The aspen leaves had just begun to turn before Snakeskin Anderson decided that he had finished enough fencing to get some cattle. The hay had long since been cut and stored in the barns and the haying crew had gone back to Nebraska and their own little farms.
It was a good time to move cattle. The rivers were low enough to make them easy to cross and the heat had left the deserts, but snow had not yet fallen in the high country. There had been many messages coming and going from Snakeskin's ranch. Finally, he announced that he was going over to Beaver in Utah to pick up a herd next week.
When Snakeskin came in from work the next day, there was a note wedged his the door that said, "Come see me." The note was not signed, but he knew who sent it. He was bringing a bucket of water from the well when the cook came in with the stew and biscuits. "Just put it on the table, Coosie," he said, "and thanks."
He sat down for a quick dinner and then quickly undressed, washed up with a sponge and a basin, threw the water out, put on clean riding clothes, saddled up, and rode through the twilight toward the Salt Works Ranch. As he rode up, Annawest stepped out from behind the barn. She was wearing a yellow dress with her hair loose around her shoulders. Snakeskin rode over and tied BettyBea to a hitching post, loosened the cinch, and turned to Annawest. She stepped into his arms for a kiss and led him to a low bench she had brought out from the house. They sat down and she turned to him. "Snakeskin . . . " she said and hesitated.
He picked up a stick from the ground, examined it, and started whittling. After a few strokes, he looked up at her.
"Snakeskin," she said, "There's twice men have tried to shoot you from you bein' a bounty hunter . . . "
"That's don't happen much . . . doesn't," said Snakeskin, "Everybody knows I always tried to make a deal. Get them a lawyer. Split the reward. Git their wife a job. Slip them a lock pick or two if they weren't killers. There aint't . . . aren't that many looking for me. You know."
" I know I've seen two people try to shoot you. Suppose . . . suppose we could leave here and you could find a less dangerous way making a livin'."
Snakeskin stopped whittling. "Like what?"
"Well, if you sold your ranch, we could move back east and start a business of some kind."
Snakeskin dropped his stick, turned and looked at her with an open mouth and an incredulous brow. "Do what now? Do what now? Sell everything I've worked half my life for to go east and be a counter-jumper? You're talking wild."
She held her hands out to him. "But it would be safer. I wouldn't have to worry about you gettin' killed and you wouldn't have to worry about getting so sick when you have to shoot somebody."
He ignored her hands. "When a counter-jumper walks down the street in the kind of clothes he's got to wear, all the waddies call him a yellow dog. They say, 'Here boy, Here boy, Here boy!'. And nobody listens to a thing he's got to say."
She leaned towards him and put one hand on the bench. He stayed sitting straight and kept frowning. "Snakeskin," she said, "businessmen get plenty of respect."
"From other counter-jumpers."
Annawest sighed, "I understand about pride. But risking your life for pride every time you leave the house is plum de trop. It's going too far."
"Oh yeah?" said Snakeskin. "I can't believe you're talking like this. You know how I feel about this kind of life, because you feel the same way. We like horses, we like the country, we like life a little wild. We ain't indoor people and we sure ain't city people. Aren't."
Annawest sat up straight, "I know, but is it worth gittin' shot? Why do you have to be a cowboy?"
Snakeskin jumped up and walked a step away. When Annawest started to follow him, he held up a hand to stop her. He put his knife away and clenched both his fists hard and took a deep breath. He let it out and relaxed his hands. Finally he sat back down and turned to her. "I've never told this to anybody," he said. She folded her hands in her lap and assumed a listening attitude. "I never told you all about Saint Elmo," he began.
"My uncle Crate was a mine owner and rough on the people that worked for him. And those labor troubles that got so bloody were just starting up. And that schoolteacher! She was easy on me because Crate was a mine owner but she let the other kids know they were trash as far as she was concerned. She didn't use the word trash but she might as well have. She'd scream at them, "Bad home influence! That's what's the matter with you. Bad home influence!"
"There were three brothers living next door that were still in school. Miner's sons. Soon as those three brothers left the house every morning, they were looking for somebody to pick on. Especially somebody that wasn't called trash. I remember one time, I was about six and they were eleven at least. They walked up to me and one of them punched me in the face and knocked me down. They grabbed my arms and one of them put his hands on either side of my face and slapped me back and forth a dozen times. I told my Aunt, but she didn't believe me. She grew up in a little farming community in Nebraska where they didn't do that kind of thing. Every time they saw me, they were after me. I tried to fight, but it wasn't any use. They were bigger than I was and there were three of them. They'd grab me and . . . well you get the idea.
Snakeskin paused and half covered his face with one hand and looked away. "I . . . I used to run to school and hide in the boy's outhouse until the teacher rang the bell. They used to call me . . . well, you don't want to know."
"So I swore, I swore a hundred times that when I got old enough, I was going to have respect no matter what it cost me." Snakeskin's hands had curled into fists. He stood, picked up a pine knot, and hurled as hard as he could at a fence post. He missed. He slumped back on the bench. "I've never told anybody about this because there's nothing worse than a man that feels sorry for himself," he said.
Annawest nodded, "I understand but there are other ways of getting' respect than . . . "
Snakeskin interrupted, finally raising his voice, "No you don't understand. I got to have respect for being a Cowboy of the Pecos, I got to have respect for being tough."
"Everybody knows how tough you are," said Annawest, "you git all kinds of respect."
"How long would I keep that respect if everybody knew that a woman pushed me into giving up a ranch I've worked half my life to get?"
"You men and your cultus pride."
"So my pride means nothing to you does it?"
"I didn't say that," snapped Annawest. "And what about your headaches and throwin' up. Do you like them? And someday someone is going to shoot you when you are flat on your back bein' sick because you killed somebody."
Snakeskin jumped up and faced her, hands on hips, "I'll tell you what you said," he snarled, "you said that what I want—what I got to have—don't mean nothing to you compared to what you want. I can't have a wife that's that selfish."
Annawest jumped up, looked down her nose at Snakeskin, and said with perfect diction, "I have not agreed to be your wife."
"A woman like you shouldn't be anybody's wife. Maybe you ought to catch a boat to Egypt and get yourself elected queen of Sheba."
"I'm going." He stomped over to his horse, untied her, turned back to Annawest, and said with forced calm. "I'm going over to Beaver to pick up a herd of cattle. I won't be back for three-four weeks. If ever."
He untied BettyBea, put his foot on a boulder, leapt into the saddle, and started to gallop off. He had forgotten to tighten the cinch, however, so the saddle slipped and ended up on BettyBea's belly. Snakeskin fell off and lost the reins. BettyBea stopped, turned around, and sniffed at him. Snakeskin jumped to his feet spouting the kind of profanity he rarely used and had never before uttered in the presence of a woman.
Annawest leaned forward with clenched fists, "Watch your #*!@, #*!@, #*!@ language!" she shouted.
She turned to march back into the house and saw that the hullabaloo had drawn all the Salt Works cowboys out of their bunkhouse. "What are you lookin' at?" she yelled at them. They all turned and looked away.
As they went, she heard Old Pete say, "Y'know Ah heard of this woman once that tried to train her cat not to catch mice. It didn't work a'course and she got herself all scratched to blazes, too."
"Ahh!" snarled Annawest, "Pete . . . " She stopped herself and strode into the house. Waypatoo, drawn to the door, jumped back just in time to keep from getting run over.
On the day Snakeskin left for Beaver, Annawest saddled her horse, a little buckskin she called Joann, and rode to the top of a small hill a short distance from the station and watched the train go away. She stood there for some time and then took a long ride across the park. She gave her mare her head and let her wander and was surprised when they ended up at Cottonwood Creek, near the spot where Snakeskin had first taken her fishing. The water was low and the stream was quiet. The sand and the rocks under water still had a touch of gold that was echoed in the yellow cottonwood leaves that slowly circled in the current.
She dismounted and looked at the water. Tears came to her eyes. She hugged her horse around its neck, said, "Damn," and wiped her tears away. The horse gave her a puzzled look. "I can not be weak, Joann" she told her horse, "You can not be weak out here. You got to stick to your decisions." She mounted and rode up and out of the canyon and across the flat.
Chapter 2 – Trout Diem
You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.
Annawest looked up at the mountains as she rode. The aspen formed a band of gold above the dark conifers. "That's really pretty," she thought, "Snakeskin is really missing . . . damn." She kicked BettyBea into a gallop for half a mile and then cantered the rest of the way back to the ranch. Once there, she walked her horse cool, brushed her down, and checked her hooves then went down to the house. Once there, Annawest hung her hat on a peg and stood gritting her teeth at it.
Her foster mother, Waypatoo, was sitting at her loom. "Among the Dineh," she said in Navajo, "it is rare that a woman gets to marry a man she loves. First comes duty to families and clan."
"Were you that fortunate?" said Annawest frowning at the mirror and fixing her hair.
"No," said Waypatoo, turning to her weaving. "I loved a man deeply, but we never married. No, I never even got to make love with him. The defeat of our people gave me many, many regrets, but none as keen as that one."
Annawest turned and gave her a straight look. "And I'm throwin' my chance away. Is that what you're sayin'?" she said in English.
"In this," said Waypatoo, "I can give you no advices, Shiheart. There are, maybe, regrets in every choice. In one, I think you know, is some joys."
"You're telling me to marry him and get my heart broken when he gits killed."
"I tell you nothings. You must decide," said Waypatoo. She went on with her weaving for a moment; then she looked up. "I could never love a man who would not kill for me. Could you?"
Annawest fled to her room. She tripped over a fold in the rug and gave it a kick. The rug stayed put because she was standing on it. She kicked a stool that bounced off the wall with a satisfying clatter. "Mi vache, mi vache, mi vache!" she said. "Maybe poetry will calm me down. It used to."
She dragged down her copy of the Rubiyat, flumped down, turned to a random page, and read:
Ah, my Belov'ed fill the Cup that clears
To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow!--Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.
"Dang it," she said and opened another page.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some,
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
"Oh mi vache merde!" Annawest hissed and reached for her Shakespeare. By chance, she picked up 'Twelfth Night' opened it and read:
What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
"#*!@, #*!@, #*!@, #*!@!" Annawest said. Then she jumped up and threw the book across the room. Waypatoo looked in, saw Annawest standing with her fists clenched and wisely retreated. Annawest threw her hands to heaven. "I have got to find out," she said.
Next morning saw her wearing her best traveling outfit and supervising the loading of a trunk onto the train to Beaver. She also had a blue handbag decorated with the skins of the red pacific rattlesnake, a present from Snakeskin. It was rather larger than the usual woman's bag, almost ten inches square, because it contained a revolver. She had left a note for her father. The heavens would probably not fall too far, since she took Waypatoo with her as a chaperone. When the train stopped in Leadville, she had just time enough to visit a jewelry store and a drugstore.
End Part 1
 Navajo term of endearment
If you liked this story, and want to find out more about Snakeskin and Annawest, you can go to
smashwords.com/books/view/752509, or search
Amazon for 'Buck Immov' or 'Trouble at Saddleback Creek'.
The author grew up in the Colorado Rockies. He went to college and graduate school in Oregon and did research
fellowships in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Virginia. He spent the next 25 years as a diver, a marine biologist, in
California, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. Subsequently, he taught biology courses at several California colleges.
He has published 25 articles on science. He lives in Rainbow, California. He can be reached at:
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by Dave Barr
In 1867, I emigrated from Erie to the Reconstructing United States with the object of settling in distant California.
My fortune led me from job to job until I found myself working as a teller in Zion's Bank of St. George, Utah Territory.
One morning in spring, I arrived for work to find a strange armored wagon parked in front of the bank and several beefy
individuals hauling canvas sacks to the safe in Mr. Dotson's office. My superior was stationed beside the front door,
discussing something with the leader of this odd shipment, and he paused in his chat long enough to sternly shoo me away.
"Come back in twenty minutes, Riley," he said.
I adjourned to the shade of a nearby tamarisk tree where our second teller, Mr. Davis, was lounging. Davis informed me
that our safe was being coopted for the next twenty-four hours to store some ex-Confederate specie that had turned up in
Arizona. "It's being sent on to Denver for re-minting," he said. Davis then prattled on about some government survey crew
in the area who had lost a barge in the spring floods. While this was fascinating news I failed to see how anyone could
profit from having a boat in a desert, so I commenced daydreaming about California until the strangers finished their
unloading and we were allowed to go to work. Mr. Dotson didn't even dock us.
Despite the irregularity of the large amount of strange specie in our safe, the day went well until about twenty minutes
before three, when five men in long dusters walked into the lobby and went straight to work. The first man produced a short,
double-barreled shotgun from under his coat, the second whipped out a brace of heavy pistols which he used to cover Davis
and me, while the third man flipped our 'open' sign to 'closed' and locked the front door. Meanwhile, the remaining two men
had walked to Mr. Dotson's office, and knocked.
"What is it?" Mr. Dotson shouted.
The bandit leader smiled before answering in a broad southern drawl. "We found another sack of specie in the van, sir; we
need to put it in the safe."
Mr. Dotson's door opened, and he was confronted with a revolver pointed at his nose. The bandit leader pushed passed our boss
and into the office where the safe was located. "I'm Captain Moxley, CSA," he said by way of introduction. "My men and I have
come for the gold you're storing, sir." The Captain turned to another of the bandits. "Private Jackson? Check the back please."
One of the men nodded, and went to examine our alley. "Private Harrison? Watch the lobby. Richards? Bring the tellers in here
where we can get better acquainted, and Sergeant Billings, you may bring up the wagon, if you please."
We tellers were ushered into Mr. Dotson's office, where we joined our boss on the divan. Captain Moxley leaned against the safe, and waved a hand in invitation. "Open it," he commanded. Our boss stared back at him. Moxley nodded, took two steps and punched Davis in the face before looking at Mr. Dotson again. "Open it," he repeated. Again, the president merely stared at the Captain who sighed, and produced a large bowie knife which he held to my throat. Davis fainted, Private Richards sniggered, and Mr. Dotson licked his lips while I felt distinctly queasy. "Open it, or you're going to need some new tellers," the Captain said casually. I stared at Mr. Dotson, the steel at my throat gleamed in the sunlight. The president finally walked to the safe, and began working the combination. Captain Moxley smiled as he put away the knife, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once the safe was opened, Moxley was careful to take only the canvas sacks. The other funds were not disturbed, and the Captain stood guard with the shotgun as the privates carried the loot to a wagon Sergeant Billings had parked out back, "Federals comin' sir," Private Harrison reported from the lobby.
Moxley reacted coolly. "How many?"
"Looks like three of that crew that brought the gold," the man answered.
"Just a patrol, but bad timing for us." Moxley turned to me, and pointed with the shotgun. "You, on the wagon, we must insist you accompany us as hostage for a time."
I climbed in the back of the wagon, and was seated between eight heavy sacks of coins. The Captain and Harrison mounted horses while the sergeant and the other privates climbed on the wagon. Moxley gave them their orders. "You know where to go, wait there till dark; we'll let the hostage go when we leave. Clear?"
"Yes sir." The men saluted, and the sergeant whipped up the team, guiding them out of town, while keeping the bank building between us and the street. I heard a commotion, followed by the BOOM of the shotgun, then the sound of galloping horses, "Captain's drawin' em off," one of the privates grinned as we headed out of town toward the Virgin river.
Four hours later, dusk found me examining a wooden boat moored in the silt colored floodwater of the Virgin river. The craft was about eighteen feet long and four feet wide, with a covered bow that formed a little cabin forward. The craft was rigged with two sets of oars and a tiller over the stern. The bandits seemed to be planning a river trip because ,while the sergeant drove off in the wagon, I was detailed to load the cabin with supplies and the eight sacks of coins.
Private Richards grinned. "What's your name, boy?" he asked. I told him. "Well, Riley, what's it feel like handling a hundred thousand dollars in gold?" I said it felt pretty damned heavy, and he laughed. "You did pretty well back there Riley, not everyone could take having a Bowie knife at their throat without shakin'," I thanked him, then asked where all this money came from, and how did they find a boat out here in the desert?
Private Jackson walked over, "The money's the pay for General Sibley's Army of the West." He looked around at the empty desert, "We're kinda' under strength right now."
Richards chuckled "The boat used to belong to the United States Geological Survey," he laughed, "Captain heard that several were built for some expedition that went downriver a couple of years ago mappin' and explorin'."
Jackson took up the tale. "Captain says that the river goes all the way to Mexico, so why not use it to haul the loot?"
"You both talk too much," the sergeant growled as he walked back into camp.
"Aww, Sarge, we didn't mean nothin' by it," Jackson said.
"One of you should be on watch," the sergeant continued "We're wanted men now, and I heard a horse comin'."
"I'll see to it," Richards picked up a rifle, and walked into the surrounding scrub, but he returned almost immediately. "It's the Captain," he said, "Should I stay out just in case?"
Captain Moxley answered the question as he rode in. "Sergeant, we shove off immediately. I'm being followed." He didn't look happy at the prospect.
The troopers looked at each other, "Sir . . . " one finally spoke up, "shouldn't we wait for Harrison?"
Moxley strode to the boat. "Harrison's dead. The posse caught us." He began untying a rope.
"So, we're a man short on the oars now," Private Richards said.
"No, we're not." The Captain motioned to me. "Riley is your name, I believe?" he said. "Well, Mr. Riley, I'm impressing you into the Confederate Navy." He smiled. "Get in." Then he took off his duster and wrapped it around the stubby shotgun.
"More horses comin' sir!" Richards called out.
"Quickly, get aboard!" Moxley called out as he stowed the bundle under the rear bench of the boat, and we cast off, drifting south with the current. A posse pulled up at our launching site, and several shots were fired after us in the gathering darkness.
"Well," the sergeant drawled, "they know which way we're headin."
"Knowing and doing something about it are two different things," Moxley said, as he worked the tiller.
I decided to venture a comment. "The ground's pretty flat for several miles along here. They can go cross-country, and be ready before we round the bend."
"Not if we are faster," Captain Moxley spoke. "Time to man the oars, Sergeant."
"Right ,sir. Let's go lads, put your backs into it!"
Sergeant Billings set a fast pace and the heavy boat shot through the flood, but we still weren't quite fast enough to best the horsemen. The posse had five men lined up on the riverbank as we rounded the dusk-shrouded river bend, and they opened fire as soon as they saw us. Captain Moxley steered toward the far bank as the posse's bullets started kicking up the water around the boat. "Richards, Jackson, aim for their mounts, you may fire at will," he ordered. The troopers fished around in the darkness, and rested two rifled muskets on the gunwale, taking their time as they sighted on the outlines of the posse's mounts.
Ka-POW! Ka-POW! Two shots answered the posse's challenge, and a horse whinnied in pain. "I'll count that as a hit!" Jackson chuckled.
"Just man your oar," the sergeant laughed.
"That should slow one of them down anyway." The Captain nudged me with his foot. "How're you doing sailor?"
"Ready to be moving on, Captain," I replied.
"Nothing much riles you, does it?" Captain Moxley grinned.
"Oh, when my actions might have some meaning, you might see me get upset, sir. But right now?" I shrugged, "I prefer to play it safe."
"An intelligent man," Moxley said. "Sergeant, I believe we can pick up the pace a bit more, don't you?"
"Very well, Captain," the sergeant replied as he increased the pace. But they need not have bothered, we only saw the posse once more when they appeared behind us at another landing. They tried several more wild shots, but by then it was too dark for them to aim well, and the Captain didn't have the trooper's fire back.
We followed the river as it flowed southwest into the surrounding hills where the rocks seemed to tumble right down to the water's edge. The Captain kept us rowing the rest of the night. We pulled through canyons that towered so high around us that the sky was only a narrow band of stars punctuated by a half moon. Occasionally, a little creek emptied into the river, dumping its load of sand and gravel where the watercourses merged. The Captain finally allowed us to land by one of these little sand bars as the sun rose for a cold breakfast of dried fruit and water. After our exertions, the food tasted like ambrosia to me and I wolfed my portion down.
As we ate, the Captain eyed me. "You're taking this very well, Riley," he ventured.
I nodded, "I don't see myself as a combatant, sir," I replied. "I'm Irish, and didn't arrive here until the war was over."
Moxley nodded, "Well, if we get this money to General Sibley, the war just might start back up," he grinned. "Right, Sergeant?" The sergeant paused in his chewing, and nodded dutifully, but I noticed the two privates looking hard at each other as if they had other ideas.
"Aren't you worried about the posse catching up?" I asked.
"Not at all," the Captain replied. "This terrain is so broken and rough around these rivers that I doubt if even the Indians come through here often."
We continued rowing for the next three days. My suit and shirt were considerably distressed by the end of that time, and I was accorded a pair of heavy butternut colored pants from some stocks stored in the tiny cabin. Richards gave me a battered straw hat, and commented that now I was either a Confederate soldier, or a perfect scarecrow which drew a chuckle from the others.
We passed Callville in the night where the Virgin is swallowed by the larger Colorado River, and noticed a difference in the current almost immediately. The water was moving much faster and there were more boulders and snags to demand our attention. We found ourselves careening through chutes, and passages that made the channel almost impossible to follow. The Captain decided that we would have to stop running at night since the river was so dangerous.
"How do you even know we can get through here?" I finally asked after one particularly difficult stretch of water.
The Captain relaxed on the tiller and grinned. "I attended a lecture on this subject given by a one-armed US Major named Powell," he said. "He made this trip several years ago, and mapped the river and the canyons. I realized there was a route to Mexico available to me that a posse couldn't follow."
"So, you know where this river comes out then?" I asked.
"Yes, Riley, it comes out in the Gulf of California," he laughed, "but we'll probably dispense with your services close to Yuma. You can do what you like there."
I thanked him for the information but noticed that the other three men seemed strangely quiet about the possibility of a safe arrival. We sighted our first Indians not long after that on a cliff overlooking the river. There were three of them, and Sergeant Billings eyed them carefully as we floated along with the current. "Apaches, most likely," he said. "The east bank is Arizona, and that's their territory."
"Think they'll bother us?" Private Richards asked.
"Only if they can figure out how to get down here," the sergeant replied, as our boat carried us out of sight of the warriors.
We stopped early that day and camped on a little peninsula surrounded by scrub willows. The place looked unreachable from the cliffs above, and we felt safe enough to light a fire for cooking. Captain Moxley decided we should send out a picket just in case, and Private Jackson was detailed. It turned out that he was the safest of all of us, because as soon as it got dark the Indians started shooting into the camp aiming at the fire, and hoping to hit one of us.
"Damn," Billings tried to kick sand into the embers, but the Indians had the range now, and every once in a while a shot would plow up the soil where the fire light still glowed. No one was hit, but nobody slept either. Moxley moved us out at first light, shoving off into the current of a river covered in mist. We never did see our tormentors, but we knew they were up there.
The canyon walls narrowed into sheer sheets of red sandstone that seemed to reach upward forever, and the river couldn't have been more than twenty-five yards across. We were speeding along at a fine clip, dozing at the oars, almost lulled to sleep by the deep throated murmuring of the water when something splashed behind us. We looked up we saw the Indians again; Sergeant Billings was the first to realize what was happening. "They're dropping rocks on us!" he shouted, and pointed as another stone missile arced out from the top of the canyon toward us. There was nothing we could do; Moxley swung the tiller from side to side trying to make the heavy boat veer, but the rock landed close on the starboard side sending a plume of gritty red water geysering over us. The Indians pointed, and their laughter echoed through the canyon.
The boat yawed as someone stood up behind me, "Gawd durn cowards!" I heard a rifle lock click.
"Richards! Hold your fire!" Moxley shouted.
"Yessir." Richards was clearly disgusted as he lowered the weapon and dropped it to the deck. Ka-POW!
I felt a hot wind blow past my ear, and Captain Moxley suddenly sprouted a red blossom at the base of his throat, and he tumbled over the boat's stern into the water. Time seemed to stop, and the Captain's body floated in a slow arc around the side of the boat, trailing a spreading red stain.
"Jeezus, Rich, you kilt him!" Jackson gasped.
"It was an accident!" Richards said. "The gun just went off!"
Sergeant Billings tried to fish the body out of the river, but it had already floated beyond our reach. Up on the cliff the Indians laughed, and yelling something in Spanish that we couldn't make out because the murmur of the river was rapidly changing to a dull roar. We realized that we were heading into a stretch of really bad water, and tried to pull for the bank, but with no one to steer all we did was make things worse. Billings grabbed the tiller just as we went over what seemed to be at least a ten-foot drop.
The roaring river below churned over a vast collection of rocks and logs. The boat hit hard, and there was a cracking noise from somewhere underneath. I could hear Billings cursing, calling for us to pull. Jackson and I were still at our oars, so we kept trying to stroke, sometimes hitting rocks, and sometimes paddling water. Spray soaked us, and then the boat struck something hard that flipped the entire craft up on its side. As we twisted in our seats I saw Richards launched into the air, his windmilling arms searching for a support that wasn't there, and then the red water closed around him, and he was gone.
The current twisted us around, and now we were heading through the rapids backwards. Jackson was praying while the sergeant tried desperately to get the boat pointed in the right direction again. I stopped trying to row, and just held on as the craft bucked and careened down the river. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the wild ride was over, and the river quieted as we floated out of the maelstrom. Billings slumped over the shattered tiller, while Jackson looked stupidly at his own split oar. I released my death grip on my own oar and leaned over the gunwale and was sick. After my stomach quit heaving, I settled down on the bench again, and that was when I noticed the water swirling around my ankles.
"We need to bail that out," Billings said.
"I need to feel dirt under my feet again," Jackson muttered.
Between the three of us we managed to get the boat beached on the far shore. We stumbled onto the sand like castaways on a desert isle. "I wonder what happened to Rich?" Jackson said.
"He's drowned, nobody could go through that alive," Billings answered as he dropped to the earth.
"We did," Jackson pointed out.
"Well, you're welcome to go back and look for 'im," the sergeant replied without looking up.
"What happens now?" I asked quietly.
The two ex-confederate soldiers looked at each other, and then back at me. "What do you mean, Riley?" the sergeant asked, as he took off his shirt to wring it out.
I leaned back on the sand, "I was wondering . . . do we really have to finish this trip?" I asked casually. The two troopers looked at each other, and I continued. "There's a hundred thousand gold dollars in those sacks. The war has been over for quite a while, and I hear Sibley is soldiering for the Mexicans now. IF you make it to Mexico City with the money, how much of it are you going to be allowed to keep?" I got up then, and started examining the boat for damage, leaving them to work matters out for themselves.
I found that although the vessel was well built, the last set of rapids had dealt some serious blows to it. There was a lot of water inside the hull, and I figured that was the first priority to take care of. I had just removed a bundle from under the rear seat to a safer location in the cabin, and was searching for a pot large enough to use as a bailing tool when I heard raised voices.
"I say we split, and go our separate ways!" yelled Jackson.
"We should at least go to Yuma, and see if anyone is waiting for us there!" Sergeant Billings retorted.
"And what then?" Jackson replied. "Give it all up to someone else?" He stomped back and forth in his fury. "Billings, we fought that war longer than anyone else! Now it's over! Let's take something for ourselves!"
"Gentleman," I interceded, "before you think too much on dividing things up we need to get out of these canyons, and that means repairs to the boat I'm afraid . . . " That quieted both men down; we were able to bail out the vessel, and staunch several sprung boards with green willow sticks and canvas, but without any tar that was all we could do.
After two days work, we were able to resume our journey. We had lost a lot of equipment in the great rapids behind us, and much of our supplies had gotten wet. Now we were in a bit of a race to reach Yuma before our food ran out. We had saved two oars, and managed to make a new tiller out of the second bench. Billings guided the boat while Jackson and I took turns rowing and bailing. The current continued to be strong, and the river narrow; and I prayed that there wouldn't be anymore rapids. We saw no more of the Indians; I suppose they figured we were drowned.
We floated down the river like that for a long time. The days sort of ran together as we fretted, and the boat twisted and groaned its way through the stretches of rough water. Our makeshift rudder worked well enough in quiet water, but for the rapids it was totally inadequate. We finally stopped rowing all together; and just tried to keep the boat bailed out. Billings and Jackson worked together, but there was a stiffness in their attitude toward one another that hadn't been there before the Captain's death. Perhaps I was partially the cause of this awkwardness since I was a constant reminder to them of the decision they needed to make; should they remain true to a lost cause, or surrender to their own desires for the first time in a decade?
Things came to a head when we finally drifted out of the canyon country into the flatter land beyond. We had drawn the boat up on a sand beach, and we were cooking a prairie grouse that Jackson had caught. The sun was well down, and the night was coming on. "Are we going to set a watch?" I asked, as I added a stick to the fire.
"I suppose so," Billings replied. "You want to take first watch Jackson?"
Billings looked at the man, "What do ya mean 'No'? There's Indians out there man . . . "
"And there's damn all we are going to do about it if they come!" Jackson growled as he bit into a piece of the bird. "We've lost the rifles in the river; I haven't seen the shotgun since before the captain was kilt. All we got is our pistols, and they haven't been cleaned or oiled since I don't know when." He tossed the bones in the fire. "I say get some sleep, and be damned to anything that's out there!"
Billings looked at the fire for a moment, and then sighed, "Private Jackson, you will take first watch or you will be disciplined," he said slowly.
Jackson said something unprintable, and stood up. "I'm not in your army anymore, Billings. Tomorrow I'm taking a share of that gold and I'm leaving."
"If you do, I'll kill you. We got a job to do," Billings answered.
"No, we don't, not anymore." The private walked over to the boat and snuggled down inside her.
Billings looked at me, "What about you Riley?"
"What about me?" I answered.
"Are you with him or . . . " he paused.
"Moxley said I could leave when we made it to Yuma."
"Moxely's dead. I figure we're on our own here," he said, and poked the fire.
"But you're going to shoot him if he tries to leave tomorrow."
"Yes. We need to stay together; this desert will kill him slowly if the Indians don't find him first."
"I'm a townie, I never spent too much time roughing it. What you say is good enough for me," I allowed. That seemed to settle matters for the night anyway. But when we woke from our exhausted sleep in the morning, Private Jackson and two sacks of the gold were missing.
"The trails plain enough," I pointed out some tracks, "are you going after him?"
Billings thought for a moment. "No, he's made his bed; he'll have to lie in it."
"What's out there?" I asked.
"Mexicans if he's lucky, Apaches if he isn't . . . either way, he's a dead man." The ex-sergeant started loading the boat. With no one to row, we just drifted with the current. I caught some fish with a pocket line I found in the cabin, but they tasted muddy, and what wouldn't after living in that silt-filled water? Billings watched the left bank for the Gila River. He said that would mean we were getting close to Yuma. "We're supposed to meet our guides into Mexico there," he said. "You'll be able to go wherever you want then, Riley."
I agreed. We spotted a small fire on the right bank just as we were thinking we had missed the rendezvous. There were three Mexicans, and one Anglo sitting around a camp, they walked down to the water's edge, "Campbell?" Billings called out.
"Moxley?" Someone called back. After we got the boat to shore there were a lot of explanations, and sighs. We had coffee with our dinner for the first time in a week, and unloaded the gold. That was when the Mexicans tried to rob us.
Campbell and Billings were sitting by the fire swapping stories while I was rummaging in the boat unwrapping a bundle I had stowed in the cabin when the Mexicans made their move. They didn't say a word; they just pulled their guns, and started shooting. Billings was killed outright, but Campbell got his gun out, and shot one of the attackers before toppling over. The remaining two Mexicans turned toward me, "Hey Gringo, out of the boat now. We let you start running before we shoot," one said, and the other man laughed.
"No thanks," I replied, and leveled the Captains shotgun over the gunwale before squeezing both triggers. I made sure they were dead before I checked on Campbell and Billings. The sergeant was gone, but Campbell was still alive. I kneeled in the sand beside him, and he stared at me.
"Who're . . . you?" he choked out.
"Riley," I shrugged.
"Well, Riley . . . looks like you . . . win,"
I reloaded the shotgun, and looked around, "There's nobody expecting this gold, is there?" I asked.
He smiled, "No . . . "
"You were going to double cross Moxley?"
"Moxley . . . would've insisted . . . we haul it to Mexico City." Blood started seeping from around the man's mouth.
"I'll see it's put to good use," I told him, but he was gone, and now I was a rich man.
Dave Barr has hiked and traveled around the American West for almost forty years. He enjoys writing about
the places he's been to, and has had two stories published in Frontier Tales. Currently he has a novella
circulating, and is working on a book.
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The 8:10 To Chicago
by B. Craig Grafton
"Call the next case, bailiff," shouted Judge Jackson Davis of Jeff Davis County Texas.
"State of Texas versus Nels Albright," bellowed the bailiff.
"What do we have here, Mr. Bean?" Judge Jackson asked the County Prosecutor as he drew his coat up over his shoulders trying to keep warm in his unheated west Texas courtroom this wintry, blustery cold March morning 1893.
"Your Honor, the Defendant here stole some spurs and a lariat from the Double Trouble Ranch and, in addition, never paid for his room and board at Mrs. Shapiro's boarding house here in town for three days. I have here signed written confessions by the Defendant admitting to both these charges, Your Honor." 'Mean' John Bean, as he was known, was smiling from ear to ear as he handed the judge the confessions.
The judge looked them over then looked up to see who was in his courtroom.
The defendant was broke. That was obvious from his affidavit and appearance. He had no money for an attorney. A public defender had to be appointed for him. Willard Wigleaf was about to get that job.
Attorney Wigleaf, a veteran of many a court battle, was sitting in the back of the courtroom, trying to keep warm, not paying any attention when the call went out.
"Willard, get up here now," squawked Judge Davis.
Attorney Wigleaf got up and answered the judge's beck and call.
"Willard, I'm appointing you to represent this indigent defendant here," the Judge said craning his neck toward Nels Albright. "One Nels Albright from Chicago. Charged with theft."
"Your Honor, remember what you said last time you appointed me counsel for the indigent. After that trial, you said it'd be a cold day in Hell before you ever appointed me as such again."
That was true. Wigleaf had convinced the jury that time that his client was innocent. The Judge knew he was guilty. Everybody in the courtroom knew he was guilty. But somehow Wigleaf had brought the jury to tears with his over-emoted final argument and got his client off. And that's when Judge Davis swore he would never ever again appoint Wigleaf to represent another guilty indigent defendant.
"Well, that's true, Willard, but it is a cold day in Hell this morning and, besides, you're the only other attorney here in the courtroom. So, against my better judgment, I'm appointing you."
The judge blew on his coupled hands trying to warm them and to emphasize that it was indeed a cold day in Hell today. "Your client's looking at a max of five. How's he plead?"
"Not guilty, Your Honor," answered Wigleaf reflexively.
"Very well then," Judge Davis looked at his calendar in front of him. "The matter is set for trial one month from today on the 13th of April at nine a.m. That's it for now, gentlemen. Next case, bailiff."
"What about bail, Your Honor?" spoke up Wigleaf, again automatically.
Judge Davis rolled his eyes. "Mr. Bean, what say you," he said in an obviously irritated voice.
"Bail? Bail, Your Honor? That's ridiculous. The defendant here is a bum, a hobo, unemployed. He came to town here riding the rails. Stowed away on the Santa Fe. He's a definite flight risk, Your Honor. If he's out on bail, he's long gone."
Attorney Wigleaf raised his hand, ready to dispute the prosecutor. "Your Honor—"
"Forget it, Wigleaf. Bean's right. No bail. Take the defendant away, bailiff."
Head down, shoulders slumped, feet shackled, Nels Albright was manhandled toward the door by a big brute of a bailiff.
"I'll see you tomorrow sometime," Wigleaf hollered to his new scrawny, shoddily clothed, youth of a client.
John Bean turned to Wigleaf. "No plea bargain deals this time Willard. I'm asking for the max here, five years."
"You're asking for the max here because those Double Trouble brothers want the max. That's why you're asking for the max, John. They control everything round here, including you. For God's sake, for once in your life, can't you ever give someone a break?"
"The kid already got a break when Big Ed and Big Fred agreed to hire him as a ranch hand and he took advantage of their good nature. Hell the kid probably never worked as a cowboy a day in his life. Probably lied to them about working for that ranch around Dallas somewhere. Hell, he was no cowboy. Look how he's dressed. He's wearing rags. Only one change of clothes in his kit bag and he didn't have any chaps or boots or gloves or a hat like a cowboy wears in it. Anyway, the brothers themselves caught him red handed, pilfering through the tack room on their ranch. No way does he deserve a break. He's going away."
"You just want the McCorkle brothers' support for the upcoming election this fall. That's it, isn't it, John? And you're going to do what they tell you to do to get it. Aren't you?"
John Bean adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses, straightened his tie, pulled down his vest, turned, and left the courtroom in a huff without another word said.
Willard Wigleaf was up against it, to say the least. The confession would stand. He knew that. But he was a veteran of thirty-five years of fighting with prosecutors, long before this young dude, John Bean from back east somewhere, had come wandering along. Bean might be tough, but he didn't know the territory, as they say. Furthermore, old Willard Wigleaf had a bag of legal tools available to him that he had acquired over the years, tools of his trade as he called them, tricks of the trade as others called them, and they didn't include just quoting cases and citing statutes.
Next morning Attorney Wigleaf appeared at the boarding house of Sophie Shapiro.
"Morning, Ma'am," he said with a tip of his hat.
"And good morning to you too, sir," said Mrs.Shapiro, her Russian accent coming through loud and clear.
"Could I speak to you for a few minutes about my client, Nels Albright?"
"Oh, that poor boy," she said, her hands clutching the sides of her head at the mention of his name. "I hope nothing terrible happens to him."
Willard Wigleaf could tell from her facial expressions and from the tone of her voice that Mrs. Shapiro was truly worried about his client. Her motherly instincts were kicking in concerning that boy.
"I didn't care about the money that he owes me," she blurted out. "He promised to pay me from his wages. I was willing to wait, but Mr.Bean said no, I couldn't do that. That I had to sign that complaint he handed me. Oh, I feel so sorry for that poor young man. I pray to God they don't send him to prison." She said all this in a frenzied hysteria as she fluttered back and forth across the room, waving her hands up and down in the air in frustration.
Attorney Wigleaf knew he had to calm her down so he spoke up and said, "So do I, Ma'am, that's why I need your help. Can I count on you?""
"He's mean, that Mr. Bean," said Mrs. Shapiro, oblivious to the question just put before her. "Ooooh he just gets me so upset, so mad." She said all this shaking her head side to side while gritting her teeth and sucking in air. "I don't like that man. I was scared of him. He was such a bully that I was afraid I'd get in trouble if I didn't sign that complaint for him. I'm from Russia, you know," she said. "From the Pale of the Settlement."
Everyone in town knew she was from Russia. Everyone in town knew she was Jewish, a widow. And everyone in town knew she worked hard, saved up her money, and sent her only child, her son, back east to go to college.
"You know, in Russia you dared not defy the Tsar's men. If you did, you disappeared like my father did during one of their pogroms in '84. That's why my husband, Lev—God rest his soul—and I came to this country. To get away from all that. Not to live in fear for your life every day. And now this." She wiped a tear from her eye with her finger. "Sorry," she said, "but whenever I think of the old country, I get so upset."
"Here," said Willard taking a handkerchief from his vest pocket and handing it to her. She's going to make a great witness for us, he thought to himself.
"That poor boy's Jewish too, you know, just like us. His family came from Moravia though. How can I help him?" she asked, straightening herself upright in her chair, wiping her tears away, wanting to get down to business now.
"Well, when I question you, I want you to think of that poor Jewish boy and I want you to think back to your father and all the atrocities of the all pogroms back in Russia."
"But if I do that I'll start crying."
"That's okay. That's what I want. I'll hand you a handkerchief then to wipe away your tears. You take it. Thank me and start sobbing. And whatever you do, don't bring your own handkerchief. I'll hand you mine. Okay? I'll come back at a later time and we'll sit down and discuss all this, and how I want you to testify, how you're to act on the stand, and what I want you to do. We'll go over everything and practice and practice it until we get it right. Okay?"
"I'll do whatever you tell me to do, Mr. Wigleaf. Anything to help that young man. His folks are dead. He's all alone in the world, you know. You just tell me what to do."
"Don't worry, I will, and just trust me on this, Mrs Shapiro. Just trust me, if you want to help this poor boy, and do as I say. I'll clue you in on everything later."
"You know, my son wants to be a lawyer. But I want him to be a doctor, though. He's in college in Chicago."
"Have him be a doctor, Mrs. Shapiro. Believe me, it's a much, much more honorable profession than being a lawyer."
Attorney Wigleaf left. He later came back, like he said he would, and explained his plan to Mrs. Shapiro. They practiced their lines over and over until she got them and everything else down pat. Mrs. Shapiro now knew exactly what to do and say when she took the stand.
In the meantime, Willard Wigleaf visited his client at the county lock up.
"You know I can't do anything about that confession you signed," he informed his client. "I have a hearing set to suppress it, but old Judge Davis won't grant my motion. I'm just going through the motions here with that, you understand."
"Yes. I know. I knew I shouldn't have signed it but I thought they'd give me a break of some kind if I fessed up."
"Don't worry about it. It still shows your remorse to the jury. I'll point out where you said you were sorry and apologized. Juries like that kind of stuff."
"Say, Mrs. Shapiro told me you're Jewish, Nels. No offense intended, but you don't look Jewish."
"My father's family came from Moravia. They were Jewish. My mother's from Sweden. That's why I got kind of blondish hair and blue eyes and the name Nels. But I'm not really Jewish since my mother wasn't Jewish."
"Well, don't mention anything about your heritage to the jury while you're on the stand. Just to be safe that is. I want the jury to accept you as just another American that moved west to start over. How'd you come to be here in Texas, anyway?"
"Well, I was working in a meat packing plant in Chicago. But after a while I couldn't take it there anymore. You wouldn't believe what they do there. What they do with the offal. What they dump in the Chicago River. What the working conditions and hours are. Believe me, you do not want to eat canned meat. You have no idea what goes into it. Anyway, finally, I just couldn't take all that any more. I up and quit and just took off and headed west with just the clothes on my back and less than five dollars in my pocket." He stopped and closed his eyes. "How hopeless is it for me?"
"Well, it doesn't look good, I'll admit that. But you never know what a jury will buy. I've got a defense that I think will work for us. It's called the tools of the trade defense. Based on old English common law that says a man has a right to the tools of his profession in order to support himself. That's all you were doing that night. Just obtaining the tools of your trade as a cowboy so that you could support yourself. Right?"
"Right, I guess, if you say so. But it sounds kind of weak and corny to me."
"Trust me on this one young man. I know the tools of the trade defense."
The trial began right on time that morning of April 13th, 1893, and Prosecutor Bean called Big Ed McCorkle as his first witness. After a few preliminary questions, things got down to brass tacks.
"What did you observe the Defendant doing that night in your tack room at your ranch?"
"I caught the fool standing there, holding some old spurs in one hand and a lariat in the other, trying to steal them. I yelled at him and he dropped them. Then I hollered for my brother. He came and the two of us subdued him and took him to the sheriff."
"Then we stood over him there and told him to write out a confession or else we'd go much harder on him, and he did. Then the sheriff locked him up. And we're here now to send him away."
"At this time I'd like to introduce as state's evidence the handwritten confession of one Mr. Nels Albright, as mentioned by the witness, Your Honor."
"No objections, Your Honor," said attorney Wigleaf.
"So admitted. Anything else for this witness, Mr.Bean?"
"No, Your Honor."
"You may cross examine, Mr. Wigleaf."
Willard Wigleaf rose from his chair, straightened himself out, approached the witness, and got in his face,
"You hired Mr. Albright to be a ranch hand, a cowboy, didn't you, Mr. McCorkle?"
"Ya, but he was lying. He was no cowboy. He was just a thieving hobo, riding the rails."
"And he had no spurs, chaps, rope, or any other cowboy gear or tools of any kind that a cowboy would have when you hired him, did he?" continued Wigleaf.
"Ya, that's right. He had none. Obviously that's why he was stealing them."
"And those things are absolutely necessary, aren't they, if one is to work as a cowboy, aren't they? These tools of the cowboy trade that is, lariat, spurs, chaps, gloves etc."
"You're damn right they're necessary. Like I said, that's why he was stealing them. He didn't have any of those things."
"No further questions, Your Honor."
The next witness called by the State of Texas was Big Fred McCorkle. His testimony was a repeat of his brother's. And on cross examination, Attorney Wigleaf got Fred McCorkle to admit, just like his brother had, that his client was stealing tools of the cowboy trade and they'd go easy on him if he signed a confession.
Then it was Mrs. Shapiro's turn to testify for the state. After Mr. Bean ever so politely took her through some preliminary background questions, he went for the jugular.
"So he never paid you anything for room and board for three days did he?'
Mean John Bean cut her off. "Just yes or no, Ma'am. I don't want any buts. You got that?"
"No ya buts."
Judge Davis intervened. "Just answer the question yes or no, Sophie, unless you're asked to explain. If Mr. Wigleaf wants anything explained, he will ask you to do that. Okay?"
"Okay," she answered meekly.
"He didn't pay you for the three days he was with you before he was caught stealing, did he?" John Bean continued in the same vein of questioning, but he was smart enough not to badger the witness too much. Wigleaf never objected to any of his questioning, so he decided to quit while he was ahead. "Your witness, Mr. Wigleaf."
"No questions at this time. The defense will be calling Mrs. Shapiro as a witness for the defense later, Your Honor."
"Mr. Bean, anything else?" asked Judge Davis.
"The State of Texas rests, Your Honor."
"Call your first witness then, Mr. Wigleaf."
"The Defense calls the Defendant, Nels Albright."
Nels Albright was sworn in and took the stand.
"Nels, please tell the jury what you were doing on the night you were arrested."
"I went to the Double Trouble Ranch to see what gear I would need for my job as a cowboy there."
"And as I was looking it over, Mr. McCorkle—Ed, that is—came in the room and then his brother came and they grabbed me and took me to the sheriff's office."
"Now, when you were at the sheriff's office, did you sign a confession?"
"Yes, the McCorkle brothers told me that if I signed one they'd go easy on me."
"And did you write that confession yourself and in it apologize to the McCorkles."
"Your Honor, at this time I'd like to read into the record the last page of the confession where the defendant apologizes profusely for his alleged wrongdoing."
"Objection, Your Honor. The jury can read it for themselves. It's already in evidence."
"Objection sustained, Mr. Wigleaf," ruled Judge Davis.
That was fine with Willard Wigleaf. He had gotten the result he wanted. He was sure now that the jury would read the confession as a matter of curiosity. It would stick with them better in the jury room with them reading it there themselves, rather than him reading it here in open court to them. Plus, he had gotten into evidence the brothers' testimony that they would go easy on him if he signed the confession.
"Changing the subject now, why'd you come here to Texas for in the first place, Nels?"
"Well, my folks are dead. I am an only child. I got no one to stay in Chicago for. I had a terrible job at a slaughterhouse and I wanted to get away from all that and start my life over out here in the west." Attorney Wigleaf and his client had practiced this speech over and over and it came off perfectly, without a hitch. Wigleaf then had the Defendant explain the living hell of working in the meatpacking industry and subsistence living in the slum tenements of Chicago.
"So you switched professions, went west, and became a cowboy," Wigleaf repeated for the umpteenth time. "Is that right?"
But before Attorney Bean could object as to it being a leading question and that it had already been asked and answered, Nels Albright answered, "Right" And Willard Wigleaf spat out, "Your witness, Mr. Bean."
Frustrated, John Bean began. "Mr. Albright when you applied for a job at the Double Trouble Ranch you told the McCorkle brothers that you had worked with cattle before, didn't you?"
"But you didn't tell them that was at a slaughterhouse, did you?"
"So you lied to them then. Got them to believe that you had worked with cattle like a cowboy works with cattle when, if fact, you never had. Isn't that correct?
"And as to this confession you so voluntarily signed. The McCorkles didn't hold a gun to your head while you did so, did they?"
John Bean then cut him off just like he had cut off Mrs. Shapiro. "No buts, Mr. Albright. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about all this. You voluntarily signed that confession, didn't you? Didn't you?"
Attorney Wigleaf let Mean John Bean badger his client, hoping the jury would start to sympathize with him and forget about his client's previous testimony as to working in the 'cattle industry.'
"And as to these tools of the trade, these cowboy tools of the trade, as your attorney so gallantly refers to them, you didn't have any, did you?"
"No, I didn't."
"And that's because you weren't a cowboy were you? You worked at a slaughterhouse in the meatpacking industry, shoveling away offal, didn't you? The tools of your trade being a scoop shovel and a broom, weren't they?"
"Well. I had quit that job. They weren't my tools anymore."
"Now, when the McCorkle brothers caught you in their tack room on their ranch, it was a little after one in the morning, wasn't it?"
"I suppose so."
"And the brothers hadn't given you permission to be there at one in the morning to go through their stuff, did they?"
"No further questions. Your witness, Mr. Wigleaf."
"Nels, you never did remove any of the McCorkle's brothers' gear from the premises, did you?"
"No, Mr. Wigleaf, I did not." He said this defiantly, now recomposed, sitting upright now, no longer slumped down in the witness chair from being intimidated by Mr. Bean.
"No further questions for this witness, Your Honor. The Defense now calls Sophie Shapiro. Attorney Wigleaf had made sure that Mrs. Shapiro would be the last one to testify that day.
"Mrs. Shapiro, did you feel sorry for Mr. Albright? Is that why you took him in?"
"Yes, that's why. The poor lad was down on his luck. Not a penny in his pockets. Not a coat in this cold weather. His clothes so worn and threadbare, I was afraid he'd catch cold and die. He hadn't had a decent meal in days, he told me, and hadn't slept in a bed for weeks. I felt sorry for the poor lad and told him he could pay me after he got paid."
"And where was Nels from?"
"He told me he was from Chicago."
" And did he tell you that he left the slums there to come out west here, start over, begin a new life, and make an honest living?" Wigleaf couldn't get this point across often enough, as far as he was concerned, because pretty much everybody here in the courtroom had done likewise.
"And did he tell you both his parents were dead and he was an only child?"
"And did he tell you his parents came from Europe, the Old World, just like yours did, and like a lot of the other people's folks here in town did?"
"And did he tell you of all the hard times his folks suffered through in the Old Country?
"Yes." And now, as if on cue, a tear came to the eyes of Mrs. Shapiro. Attorney Wigleaf pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket and handed it to her.
"Thank you," she said, as she wiped her eye and smelled the handkerchief. It smelled of onions. Mr. Wigleaf had kept a bunch of chopped onions in it overnight, just like he told her he would. And, like he instructed her, she continued to wipe her eyes with it so that they teared up more and more and she couldn't stop crying.
"I just wanted to help him," she sobbed. "He's such a good boy. He means well. Prison's no place for a fine young man like him. He's no criminal." Mrs. Shapiro went on crying, and it got to the point where Judge Davis intervened.
"We'll take a few minutes here while the witness composes herself," he said.
With the opportunity before him now, Attorney Wigleaf looked to his plants in the courtroom. He got up and went over to each one of them—there were six in number—and handed each of the ladies a handkerchief, an onion soaked handkerchief, to wipe away their fake tears. Then, when a Mrs. Hoogerwerf—who wasn't in Attorney Wigleaf's entourage—asked him for one, he told her he had run out of handkerchiefs. But Mrs. Hoogerwerf's husband, who was on the jury, got up, came over, and gave her his. Then some of the other gentleman jurors got up and offered their handkerchiefs to some of the other ladies in the courtroom who began crying too, for it seemed as if crying had suddenly become contagious there. And soon all the ladies there were wiping away their tears. Attorney Wigleaf smiled inwardly, for he dared not smile outwardly.
During final arguments, Attorney Wigleaf hit home, saying that under English Common Law—which applied in Texas like every other state, except Louisiana where the Code Napoleon applied—a mechanic had an inborn right to the tools of his trade and this law applied to cowboys too, just like it did to blacksmiths, coopers, and wheelwrights of medieval England.
But Mean John Bean blew that all to Hell, though, when he pointed out that they didn't have any cowboys in England in medieval times.
The jury found the Defendant guilty. "Guilty but," said the Foreman. And here Mean John Bean couldn't object to this but. The but was that the jury made a recommendation to Judge Davis for him to go easy on the Defendant, very easy. The old onions in the handkerchief trick had worked and gotten the jury's sympathy and everyone else's in the courtroom too, for that matter. Except for Mean John Bean's, that is.
Attorney Wigleaf smiled outwardly this time and elbowed his client.
"Didn't I tell you it would work?"
"What do you mean? The jury found me guilty."
But before Wigleaf could explain, Judge Davis spoke up. "Well I normally don't do this, take a jury's recommendation that is, but since the Defendant is eligible for the maximum term of five years imprisonment, I'm going to take the matter under advisement overnight and rule tomorrow morning. Would counsel please approach the bench?"
Judge Davis also was up for election again that fall. He wasn't going to do anything to hurt his chances. The jury and those in the crowd had spoken volumes for the electorate.
"Counselors—and I already know, Mr. Bean, you won't like this, but—under the circumstances, everybody seems to be sympathetic to the Defendant. Therefore I'm releasing the defendant from jail. Mr. Wigleaf, I suggest your client be on the next train out of town—that means tonight, Counselor, tonight—and never show his face here in Texas again. I don't want to have to rule tomorrow on how many years I have to give this poor lad before I suspend his sentence. And you, Mr. Bean, you're under court order not to breathe a word of this to anybody. You got that?"
Mean John Bean barely mumbled a "Yes, Your Honor."
"Back to your seats, gentlemen. Court's adjourned until 10 o'clock tomorrow morning."
Nels Albright was on the train headed out of town that evening. Mr.Wigleaf had bought the ticket. Mrs. Shapiro had packed him a lunch and together they and Judge Davis had grub staked the young man to the tune of twenty dollars.
"See, I told you the tools of the trade defense would work," attorney Wigleaf said to his client as they waited for the incoming train to roll to a stop that evening. "Didn't I?"
"But it didn't, Mr. Wigleaf," responded Nels. "They found me guilty."
"But it did. It's the tools of my trade that worked. Not that silly English common law tools of the trade nonsense that I fed the jury."
Nels Albright never knew what his attorney was talking about as he got on the train.
"Adios Buckaroo," hollered Wigleaf as the train pulled away in a wake of puffy white smoke.
Nels Albright was on the 8:10 back to Chicago.
Author has had three books published recently and available on Amazon under the name Bryan Grafton. This story has been
expanded into a novella entitled: "An Old West Texas Attorney and the 8:10 to Chicago." The other two are "An Old West Texas Attorney:
The Apache Custody Case" and "An Old West Texas Attorney and the Fort Davis Black Sox Scandal."
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by James Burke
Private Brian McMourn couldn't sleep. It was more than just the tropical heat gushing in from the Gulf of Mexico. The smell of his own sweat soaked uniform and body didn't help. The howling of prowling wolves were a nuisance but the musket beside him and the army around him assured safety. It wasn't even the clouds of mosquitos obscuring the moon and stars as they hummed across the sky. The little monsters had already sucked enough of his blood to flood a butcher's shop!
It was the war that kept Brian awake. The war everyone waited for. The war that started only a week ago, when the Mexican Army crossed the Rio Grande and ambushed a patrol of American dragoons. The war that erupted the previous morning with the rumble of cannons on the southern horizon. Mexican artillery had begun to pummel the U.S. Army at Fort Texas; America and Mexico were at war.
Brian ran his fingers through his dense black hair as his thoughts wandered. Why had he let those recruiters talk him into enlisting that dreary morning along the banks of the Hudson River? He knew the answer, like he did every time he asked himself. It was either join up and provide for the family, or beg for scraps on the streets of New York.
The recruiters needed only promise steady feed, seven dollars a month, and citizenship for himself and the family. Brian was a month or two south of proper age, but the recruiters didn't bother to ask. Father only let pride be shown as his son signed the enlistment papers. Mother and his little sister Kathy wept miserably. Mother's father had died a redcoat at Bunker Hill and Napoleon had taken her older brother at Waterloo. Brian soothed them both with kisses and swore an oath not to die. A hollow promise. The November air had thundered with crowds cheering the new President, James K. Polk, and clamoring for war with Mexico; a wish now granted.
Cannons boomed in the distance as the Mexican Army pounded Fort Texas mercilessly, not even allowing the garrison a night's rest. Brian knew how they felt. Anticipation barraged his consciousness, denying him sleep. He'd heard heroic tales of battle throughout his childhood, but also horror stories of death and mutilation on the battlefield. But even the most gruesome death seemed mercy compared to this infernal waiting. Brian prayed in vain that the sun would rise just to get it over with.
He'd always been impatient. Mother often chided him for stamping his foot irritably in waiting. "The Lord loves you, Brain," she'd say. "But don't expect him to paddle the stream of time faster just for you!" He clutched the rosary in his pocket and whispered the Lord's Prayer before exhaustion claimed him.
Morning came in the blink of an eye. Brian's sleep had been mercifully dreamless, he'd dreaded nightmares of brutal death by a Mexican lance. Thankful for his restful oblivion, Brian went looking for breakfast.
Corporal Oliver Tyndale, Brian's squad leader and petulant bully, mostly ignored Brian as he paced about the huddled troops of F Company. "Paddy," and "Papist," were the kindest words Brian could ever expect from the fat Corporal. Thankfully the self-righteous protestant pastor's son was too busy stuffing his face to bombard his favorite prey with insults. Perhaps he was as nervous as all the others. Brian quietly said grace over his cornbread and bacon then savored every bite of the meal. For all he knew it was his last.
Sergeant Richards stomped up. Richards was the model soldier; brave, strong, and loyal. He pushed his men and kept the reins tight, but also took care of them. Richards had made certain Brain was properly equipped for the march from New Orleans and personally saw to his training.
Richards explained the situation to the platoon. General Zachary Taylor's orders were to break camp and line up in formation. The army would march south in column until they found the Mexican Army. "As for what we do when we find the Mexicans . . . well use your imaginations!" Richards finished with a smile. The soldiers gulped down the last of breakfast and went about their business.
Once the wagons were loaded, Brian and the rest of the 4th Infantry lined up. Brian and the others checked their muskets, better safe than sorry. Lieutenant Grant approached the platoon, and looked the men over. He smiled and nodded at Brian, who had never once been late or out of order.
Grant wasn't like most officers, who fancied themselves above all hardship and toil. The lieutenant never hesitated to get down and dirty with the men, in work or training. He often marched with the men for great distances. Being without a company of his own, Grant always marched with Brian's platoon. F Company's commander, Captain Page, appreciated the help.
Soon the familiar order echoed down the line. "FORWARD, MARCH!" Taylor's army stomped south down the road. Next stop Fort Texas and the war.
They marched for hours. Noon came and went without even a pause for lunch. The tall trees and chaparral along the road walled the formation in. The army was caged, nowhere to go but forward.
Mosquitoes hovered loudly overhead. The buzzing clouds did little to shield the men from the hammering sun. Howling off to the side reminded them mosquitoes weren't the only bloodthirsty creatures stalking the column. An occasional vulture passed over, giving an instant of shade. Brian wondered if nature's beasts could see the future.
The afternoon dragged on. The looming sun assured Brian it was hours till dusk. Eventually the trees and thick brush gave way to open prairie. At first Brian thought it liberating, then realized it was the perfect spot for wide formations of infantry and cavalry. Voices echoed down the line as Colonel Twiggs ordered his brigade to a halt.
The order to form a battle line passed down to the 4th. The soldiers obeyed, stepping off the road and into shoulder high grass. The sharp-tipped grass reminded Brian of Mexico's infamous lancers. Lances were ancient but brutally effective. "If it's not broke, don't fix it," Sergeant Richards had said to Tyndale weeks ago when the fat corporal mocked the medieval weaponry.
Brian's breath caught in his throat as he looked out across the prairie. A few miles out, just in front of the tree line, was the Mexican Army. His eyes widened at the overwhelming force ahead. Taylor's 2,000 men were out-numbered, at least, two to one!
Brian gazed in shocked wonder at the enemy troops. Most of the infantry wore dark blue and yellow, but some wrapped themselves in every color of the rainbow. A vibrant contrast to U.S. Army's light blue. The lancers, however, were uniformly red and green. Their shiny-tipped spears stood twice as tall as a man. Brian gripped the stock of his musket and felt for the bayonet at his side. It was about to happen.
"FORWARD, MARCH!" the shout repeated down the line and the 4th infantry advanced. The spear-like grass folded over easily under their boots. The earth rumbled as Mexican artillery erupted, barely visible in the tree line ahead. A shiver rippled through the advancing army.
To Brian's disbelief, the cannon balls slumped to the ground hundreds of yards short! Clouds of dirt sprang up in their wake as they bounced and rolled the rest of the way to their targets. Bewildered soldiers stepped aside as the metal balls rolled harmlessly through their ranks. The line paused as the soldiers grimaced and giggled in amusement at their enemy's pathetic hostility. "They're four-pounders," Lt. Grant called out. "We're well out of range, the fools don't know what they're doing. Keep moving!"
Again and again the men side-stepped to let the bronze bowling balls roll past their intended pins. On they marched as the rolling barrage intensified. Brian figured someone was furious his plan wasn't working and thought wasting ammunition would fix things. "Perhaps they're trying to trip us," he laughed.
Col. Twiggs halted the brigade half a mile from the enemy. Moments later the heavy artillery opened up to the left of the 4th, in the center of the American lines. The eighteen-pounders thundered with the wrath of America, peppering the Mexicans with canister and grapeshot. Clusters of iron balls ripped through dozens of enemy troops. "Giant shotguns they are!" Brian gasped in awe of the carnage.
Bronze balls continued rolling by, but faster. Still time to move but it was getting difficult. Grant and Richards kept their eyes peeled and motioned the men aside. Tyndale needed to be dragged out of the way one time. The corporal gulped hard in Richards' grasp. Brian thought he heard a great fart amid the thundering howitzers.
Mexican muskets blazed to life. Brian knew those guns anywhere, Brown Bess muskets; the former weapon of the British Empire. Even across the Atlantic and halfway across the continent, Britain managed to spit at him. Orders to return fire echoed and American muskets answered. As he reloaded, Brian saw Grant shake his head through the smoke. Brian understood; muskets were for close range, both armies were too far out. Both side's shots flew safely overhead.
The order to advance rolled down the line and the 4th Infantry marched ever closer to the foe. The line halted within fifty yards of the enemy. Captain Page bellowed the orders, "TAKE AIM! FIRE!" Mexican troops fell by the dozen in an explosion of musketry. The fallen were quickly replaced and the enemy replied with their own hail of hot lead. Men fell screaming around Brian as he reloaded. He tried not to hear their agonized cries, suddenly thankful for the ringing in his ears and the rumble of artillery. Richards and Grant kept the men focused as they stepped up to replace the fallen.
After another volley, Brian noticed Tyndale struggling to reload. His sweaty, shaky hands could barely hold the weapon. Brian froze in horror as the corporal's head vanished, his body slumped to the ground. A cannon ball! They were in range! Another went down in a burst of momentum beside him. Grant rushed to the fallen man's aid. Brian nearly dropped his musket at the sight of Captain Page gurgling helpless, and jawless, on the grass.
Brian's stomach heaved as he willed himself to finish reloading. He forced his breakfast back down his throat as he took aim. Grant roared with fury "FIRE AT WILL!" his eyes ablaze with vengeance. Brian obeyed, glad to be on his side.
Musket smoke belched so thick Brian could barely see the enemy. His nose built up immunity to the chocking stench of gunpowder. All he could do was load and shoot. Brian lost all sense of time as the fog of war screened the sun. Several times he felt balls whistle past his ears. Load and shoot.
At times Brian felt the Earth rumble. Too rapid to be the competing canons. Horses? American Dragoons? Mexican Lancers? Brian had no time to ask and the smoke was too thick to see more than vague outlines. If Lancers were charging, he'd know soon enough. Load and shoot.
Flames danced through the smokescreen. "BRUSHFIRE!" Grant barked. "GET BACK!" Brian's eyes widened as he remembered his cartridge pouch. If the flames licked close enough he'd be blown in half! The 4th stumbled back several paces. The dry grass went up like kindling. All gunfire ceased. Fire and smoke blinded even the artillery. Everyone waited.
Soon the doctors and their assistants came to collect the wounded. The bloodied, moaning figures were carried on stretchers to the rear, where the medical tents were set up. Brian felt himself over for injury and was relieved beyond belief to find none. He didn't dare look away from the brushfire, for fear he'd find his friends lying dead or wounded.
A wave of emotion enveloped Brian as the heat of the flames consumed the last of his wits. Relief, sorrow, guilt, joy, hatred; he didn't know what he felt. He searched his memory for a bible verse. First came the wind, but God was not in the wind. Then the rain, but God was not in the rain. Then the thunder, then the fire. Then the silence.
Silence took the day as the flames flickered out and the crackling ceased. The sun had nearly set when the smoke cleared. The Mexican Army was gone, the grassy field littered with their dead and dying. No commands were given. The entire army crumbled to the ground with the last flash of sunlight. Soldier lay exhausted beside soldier. Separation of rank was forgotten.
Looking up at the stars, Brian struggled to sleep again. The clouds of mosquitos had cleared. No wolves howled in the dark. The only sounds were moans and groans of wounded Mexicans across the way. No one dared go to their aid for fear of a trap.
The Lord's Prayer echoed in a soft Spanish voice. Brian didn't speak the language but had heard it in every church south of Corpus Christi. The wounded Mexican's wavering voice was soon joined by others. Brian produced his rosary and entered the prayer in English. He blinked in surprise as his fellow Americans joined him, he'd forgotten Protestants say it too. Peaceful silence swept the field as American and Mexican voices chimed "amen."
James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. He served four years in the U.S. Navy and was honorably
discharged from the service in 2011. In 2016 he graduated University of Saint Francis, Joliet, IL,
with a bachelor's degree in history. He lives in South Carolina.
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Third Day into the Chase
by Robert Gilbert
I eased up on the reins and took in the overflow of beautiful landscape in front of me. The beginning of a wide canyon filled the view for several miles, like the grand entrance to a temple of strength. Around me, the season was changing; soon, the warm earth would be chilled by the cooler air, and the days were growing ever shorter as Old Man Winter prepared to blast us with the first snow.
I withdrew my pocket watch and glanced at the time: eight o'clock on the nose. The last two days would be spent atop a hard saddle, through Horseshoe Canyon, upward into mountain sky country, glancing now and then at the surrounding valley speckled with tall pines. The moonlit hours were spent in various hollowed inlets along Ash Creek, the waterway that would eventually flow into Powder River. My destination wasn't that far away, so whether they knew it or not, Hodge Daniels' and Cole Bibber's time on the run was coming to an end.
Another drag off my rolled smoke filled my lungs as I rested the thin, paper cigarette against my lip. I exhaled, and a slight gray cloud lifted above my face, carried on the biting breeze. I slowly raised the collar of my heavy duster to ward off the nip of autumn. I'd traveled that lengthy, lean path before, heading up into high country, surrounded by tall firs, like a whole slew of arrows pointing skyward, casting their long shadows before me on the trail.
I moved on for another mile, taking in the greenery around me and inhaling the piney scent. The higher I rode, the more obvious the chill in my lungs. I was engulfed in the crisp silence, broken only by the clip-clopping of my horse's hooves. Where there was an occasional opening in the pines, distant rocks and boulders of various sizes formed sculptures against the deep lavender mountains, painted against the pale blue horizon. The lay of the land hadn't changed, but every once in a while, I discovered something new in the territory, and I made a mental note so I could chew the fat with my deputy marshal over it when I returned to Cheyenne River.
In my shirt pocket was a telegram, scribbled instructions to meet with Nade Wilson, a longtime friend and sheriff of Cook Ridge. We'd known each other for years, and I considered the man almost a brother. I knew him best when he served as the lawman in Morgan, some twenty miles east. Nade lost his wife to a nasty spreading fever, but he mentioned his beloved's name every now and then when we spoke. The last time, he had to look away, and when he cast his gaze back on me, I noticed that he was striving to hold back a well of tears. I couldn't blame him really. After all, his Mary was a sweet woman with a young, beautiful face, always glad to make room at the dinner table for me. She was the hardworking sort, yet she always found time as she toiled with her household chores to have a chat. She kept her eye on the latest styles that came in from Kansas City and Chicago, and she often made mention of the new fashions that arrived at the ladies' boutique in the center of town. Mary was always gabbin' to me about those frilly dresses, trying to impress me with her selections, and I never left her kitchen without an earful of woman talk. I'll make time to visit the cemetery, since she always made time for me, I silently vowed with a smile and a pat on my horse's neck.
I paused momentarily as the stillness evaporated. Off to my right, hidden in a clump of greenery, I caught sight of two dark eyes peering in my direction. I was in the midst of Crow country, about a mile or so away from the widest part of Yellowstone River that wiggled far away to the north. Whoever the onlooker was, he remained peaceful, just staring as I passed by on the trail, as if he wanted to make sure I didn't wander too far off the beaten path. I heard scurrying in the brush as he followed me, until I disappeared over the next ridge.
An hour or so later, I eased my bay into Cook Ridge, right on the edge of Danshire Creek. Wagons and townsfolk meandered around me as I gave the reins a tug, then dismounted in front of the sheriff's office
Most people paid me little mind, but Nade was out front, anticipating my arrival. He'd maintained his tall, muscular physique, but age lines were etched across the widower's sun-bronzed face, hidden in the shadow of the brim of his well-worn hat. He walked forward to shake my hand with a grip as strong as my own. "Gonna be gettin' on winter pert' soon," he said, then darted his eyes around.
"Yup. We'd best get a start if we're gonna catch them two sons-o'-bitches," I said.
"I ain't startin' nothin' without coffee first," Nade argued. "Plus, we got certain things we oughtta go over."
We made our way across the dirt road and stepped up on the boardwalk. The Grizzly Bear Saloon was busy, and it was one of my favorite places to visit because there was a pool table in the back, whereas most places only had poker tables. Several of the bar patrons worked at the Dooley Mine two miles away, so the establishment had both, and I envied that and wished they'd make room for billiards at our ol' Gray Owl back home.
Nade and I sat at a round table on a small, raised platform near the front, his favorite spot because he could see the whole room from there and watch for trouble. "I like to sit here at night, nursin' my coffee with my shotgun 'cross my lap. I tell ya, the sound of buckshot goin' off in a crowded saloon gets everyone's attention real quick like," he said.
"I reckon I gotta agree with ya there, Nade," I said, as my deputy and I had experienced situations like that. "A double-barrel's got a
tendency to leave a serious mark across a body if'n anybody decides to, uh . . . challenge authority."
When the hot coffee finally came, Nade added a tidbit of whiskey to his. "Try it, Warren. Makes it taste a li'l better," he encouraged, looking my direction before he took his first sip and donned a satisfied smile.
As I was about to sip from my own cup, a woman slowly walked to our table and sat next to Nade. I could tell she was pretty once, as she still had a temptingly curved mouth; unfortunately, her smile revealed unsightly, stained teeth. "You must be Marshal Warren Brothers, the one this scoundrel's always yakkin' about," she said, pointing a thumb toward Nade.
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am, the one and only," I said.
"Warren, this is Miss Evers," Nade introduced.
"Norma," she corrected, her shrill voice dancing with delight. "Ain't no need to be so formal 'round here, Nade." Her eyes glowed with enjoyment as she did her best to memorize my face.
I nodded again and continued to sip my coffee, then sat in silence as Norma spilled the story of her hard life.
"Once you turn into a barroom whore . . . " she said, what was left of her smile fading into a serious frown.
"Well, seems things can really change with time. Y'all prob'ly won't believe me, but I was once real upstandin', a church-goin'
girl. That was back in Ohio, but it seems like years ago." She bit her lip with her rotten teeth and stood there in a daze for a
minute, as if she was caught in a dream. "Yep, every Sunday, like clockwork, I was right there in the second row, singin' and
prayin' that my life would follow a good path. I was young then, still had that sparkle in my eyes and a bit, white smile on my
face. Then some man came along and offered me his damn whiskey, 'Jus' a nip,' he said. 'It won't hurt ya none.' See, the trouble
was that the first nip made me feel real good, better than I ever felt before. I took another and another, till I almost didn't
feel nothin' at all. He had too much, too, and it weren't long before he started havin' fun with my body. I was drunk stupid,
and that good girl I was turned nasty. Now . . . Well, here I am, still stinkin' of that whiskey I never shoulda touched."
Her pretty face had aged considerably, and her breasts, which were probably once perky and plump, now sagged from too many men toying with her. I wasn't sure about the valley between her legs, but I had to guess that was a pretty well-worn trail, too, traveled by too many cowboys.
Without even askin', Norma borrowed my pouch of tobacco, rolled her own, and blew smoke right in my face. She let out a giggle, amused at her own antics. "Business is slow, Warren," she said, looking my direction with her hazel eyes beneath sweeping lashes.
"And do you expect me to change that?" I asked, realizing she was lonely and looking for a good time.
"I'll let ya . . . at no charge neither," she said, her voice calm and silky.
"I came here with a job to do," I explained, my tone steady and firm. "I appreciate the offer, miss, but the closest I'm gonna get to entertainment is a cold beer. Maybe I'll treat myself to somethin' special when I get back, but it ain't a priority right now."
She watched me finish my coffee and said nothing more.
Nade was already standing, impatiently glaring at me, resting his hand on the half-opened saloon door. "C'mon, Warren! You can come back for fuckin' later," he said, never one to hold back.
We walked out onto the boardwalk, then crossed the dirt road and headed toward the sheriff's office.
On the way, Nade began preachin' and rantin'. He wasn't necessarily mad, but he was pretty straightforward when it came to givin' what he thought was sound advice. It was really nothin' new to me, as I was plenty familiar with women like her in cowboy towns like his.
"Norma is damn trash," he warned. "You ought not associate with her kind no how, especially without yer britches. She's been lurkin' 'round here for years, beddin' down with God-knows-who. Who knows what diseases she's carryin'? Doc Weaver's always warnin' fellas 'bout enjoying the favors of women like her."
I nodded in agreement, but my mind was actually on another threat, the two fugitives on the loose for horse stealin' and robbin' the bank in Steeple Pass.
"We're heading to Bended Canyon, right?" Nade asked as we walked into the office.
"I s'pose. Been there before," I said.
"This time o' year, we might come across a coatin' of snow, but that ain't fer sure."
"Spauding Falls is there too," I said. "We can rest there a spell if we have to, unless it's too damn bitter cold."
Nade agreed. "I rode through there 'bout three summers ago, but it was hot as hell then, that scaldin' kinda heat that baked blisters onto my face and hands. Ridin' weren't pretty a'tall then. Hell, the sweat turned my ol' Stetson into a dirty rag, truth be told!"
"Who was you chasin' then?" I asked after we both shared a laugh.
"Rig Anoe," Nade said, "a real beast of a man. That ol' dog had massive shoulders, all big and powerful, and his smile was just as ugly as the rest of him."
"Rig, huh? I heard he carried a big grudge over you killin' his brother 'cause o' some argument."
"Hemp?" Nade asked arching his brow at me. "That man weren't nothin' but an old drunk. He come after me, pointin' his gun my way. I gave 'im a warnin', but he wasn't interested in what I had to say 'bout that."
"What happened to Rig?"
"Same story, only he weren't drunk. That crazy bastard squared his shotgun at me, and I was damn lucky it jammed."
"Well, let's hope luck's on our side this time too. We got ridin' to do," I said.
Cook Ridge was still a-bustlin' with people when we stepped outside to mount up, me on my bay and Nade on his chestnut. We moseyed out of town to the north, and I glanced back only once, giving a cursory eye to Norma, who was standing out on the boardwalk in front of our saloon, waving and giving me a yellow-toothed smile.
Nade and I had plenty of time for conversation, since Bended Canyon was at least an hour away, and Mary occupied much of that discussion. "A man's marriage is s'posed to last his lifetime," Nade said. "Ain't right to have to lay your bride to rest."
"Yeah, that's what I've heard."
"Every day, it was like wakin' up to somethin' better."
"'Cause you could do stuff together?" I asked, having never put a ring on a lady myself.
"Yes, sir! That's the way it oughtta be done."
"Just sharin' chores and fixin' meals and whatnot, huh?"
"Yup. Things are better when you got somebody to enjoy 'em with, even them mundane things," he said, reminiscing as we trotted along. "We wanted to raise a family everybody would look up to, but then . . . Well, that horrible sickness came along and ruined all that."
"You done ever'thing you could, Nade," I assured him when I heard him sniffle and saw him look away.
"Doc Weaver took care o' her for days."
"Nothin' more he could do neither."
"Shameful, but that's true."
"You know my thoughts are with you . . . and Mary."
"Yeah, well, you ain't alone in that, Warren. All them church people are always tellin' me they're still prayin' for me too. 'Course, I gotta wonder what good that does. They were prayin' before, too, and the good Lord still took my Mary," Nade said with a sigh, then continued to ramble on.
I had trouble picking up what he was mumbling, but his wife's name came up often. Then his words drifted in other directions about the good people who sympathized with him after her death, and soon, his voice faded into a whisper.
Part of the reason I couldn't hear him was because we passed the Yellowstone River lower falls, and the increased noise from the beautiful sight was deafening. Nade and I pulled our reins and, for the next quarter-hour, just listened to and watched the roaring waterfall as it splashed down, bathing the boulders in an instant bath. We were near enough that the foam spray danced across our clothing. The canyons around us differed in size, but we knew the brownish stone walls would darken to hues of shadowy blue and back as night fell.
On the other side of the falls, we found a secluded location and took time to compare notes as to where we thought Hodge Daniels and Cole Bibber might be hiding. Our advantage was that we knew the rugged terrain of that vast Wyoming Territory better than most; we'd both been up that way many times over the years. The outlaws likely had reason to believe they were smarter than us, but while it would not be an easy task for us by any means, we knew the law would prevail in the end.
We came across a dusty road to the west of the lower falls, and I had a hunch we'd reach a cabin soon. It was once owned by Kad Rummer and his wife Anna, and just as I suspected, the little building was still there. I thought social visit would be a nice surprise, but I wasn't sure. "Well, seems things can really change with time," Norma the whore had said, and I knew she was right about that. I only hoped the Rummers and their kin hadn't.
After dismounting we hitched our horses to the rail. Before we even had a chance to step forward we spotted the barrel of a Winchester pointing out the front door, aimed straight at us. Nevertheless, I stood beside my roan, making sure my badge was showing.
"I knows why you's here," said a woman's voice.
"That you, Anna?" I asked. "If it is, why you pointin' that rifle at me?"
"Marshal, I see ya, and that other fella's Nade. Y'all been through here before."
"Yep, we have, and we just wanna talk," I said.
"What for? Ain't nobody here but me."
"Where's Kad?" I said.
"None o' your business," she spat.
"You ain't tellin' the truth," I said. "This place is Kad's too."
"He went away," she said, "just hightailed it with some strangers, left me all alone."
"Put the rifle down so we can talk," Nade begged.
Slowly, the rifle was lowered, and the door yawned open.
"You don't happen to have any coffee goin', do ya?" I asked. "In this high country this time o' year, we could use something to warm our bones."
"Fresh on the stove," Anna said with a crooked smile. "I was just fixin' a pie too. Gotta use up the last of them late fall apples."
Nade and I walked in and inhaled the welcoming aroma.
"Well, don't just stand there," Anna said. "You'll find cups over yonder, in the cupboard. I ain't your mama or your missus, and it ain't my duty to serve you'ns. You're grown men and can get yer coffee for yerselves."
Nate and I fetched some mismatched mugs, filled them, then sat across from each other at the table, with Anna to my left.
"If you two are lookin' for two guilty men, you're on the right track," Anna blurted as we sipped the hot, delicious coffee. "They was here, braggin' 'bout all they've done, as if it were somethin' to be proud of."
"Bank robbin' and horse stealin'?" I asked.
"Macon Trust Bank, in Steeple Pass?" I asked.
Again, she nodded.
"Witnesses say there was a dead bank owner too."
"And Circle D ranch is missin' a half-dozen or so fine horses," Nade said.
"Yeah, I heard that too," Anna said with another nod.
"Where did you say Kad went?" I asked again.
"Them boys talked that fool of a man into goin' with 'em," she said. "They said they don't know the area well."
"Got any hunch where Kad mighta led 'em?" I asked.
"Well, he made more than one mention of Muskrat Peaks," she said.
"Hmm. That ain't too far from here," Nade said, scratching his chin.
"That depends on which way ya go," she said. "Kad knows the long way to get lost."
"Antelope Slope's smack dab in the middle," Nate chimed in.
Anna smile at him, clearly impressed. "Sure is, right after Rock Point."
We stood and thanked her for the coffee and the hospitality. Outside, we mounted up and lifted our collars to stave off the breath of the oncoming winter.
Anna stood in the doorway, shivering from the cold, and gave a wave as she watched us disappear to a higher elevation.
"You sure she weren't just pullin' our leg, tryin' to throw us off?" Nade asked as we rode, concerned about Anna's truthfulness. "We ain't got time for no wild goose chases."
"Well, you know a better way?"
"Actually, I do. There's a shortcut to Rock Point. I say we take it."
I followed his lead, and about halfway to noon, we rode onto a much narrower trail, single file, with Nade in the lead.
"There's a cut-off point over yonder," he said, pointing into the distance. "It's a perty good size most of the way, but we can take turns bein' point man when need be."
Single file or not, the surroundings were rough going, with jagged rocks on both sides. One misstep would have proven deadly, so we moseyed along, slow and careful, keeping our eyes darting around in all directions. The higher we rode, the more difficult it became for us to breathe. The air was chillier up there, thinner and thinner, and my duster began to feel thinner, too, as the wafting draft blew right through me.
Suddenly, a rifle shot rang out, and the bullet whizzed by Nade to the right, causing his horse to jerk to the left. He quickly dismounted and secured his Winchester, and I immediately followed suit. We hurriedly led our horses to a safe location, then took cover behind two enormous boulders, rifles in hand.
A second rife shot rang out, and the bullet chipped off a piece of hard rock just above my head.
"They're shootin' from two different directions!" Nade yelled. "I figure it's Cole Bibber up top. Let's put some distance between us, maybe twenty feet or so."
We rapidly scurried apart.
"Gotcha," Nade whispered when he scoped his rifle upward and saw that he had a clear shot. A tattered cowboy hat was lifting up and down, with Bibber's head beneath it, completely unaware that the sheriff's eye was on him, his finger on the trigger.
"I see where you're aimin'," I said, keeping my attention on the other outlaw.
Just then, a third bullet came closer and actually cut into my sleeve and shaved off a bit of my skin, leaving a bloody mess behind. Ignoring the pain, I took aim and fired at the villain. I then crept farther away from Nade, inching upward, higher along a hidden stretch of small boulders, camouflaged by low-hanging branches of surrounding trees.
Meanwhile, Nade also moved higher, till he was out of my sight. I knew where he was, though, because I heard the crackling of his footsteps as he traveled over the brush, breaking twigs but wisely hiding among the brush, stones, and undergrowth.
Another bullet whizzed by from above, and I jumped backward to avoid it, making sure not to let on that I'd been scraped by the previous one. I didn't want to give the bastard above me the satisfaction of realizing he'd wounded me, but then I reasoned it might be wise to play a few games with him. "Hodge Daniels, I'm hit!" I cried. "That's some pretty good shootin' for a sorry, lowlife bank robber."
His laugh echoed off the nearby cliffs and boulders, as if he was proud of his dirty deeds.
My movement was gradual, pushing my boots into hard dirt until I eventually found a good hidin' spot. I swung my head up, down, left, and right, trying to determine Nade's position.
Suddenly, two rifle shots echoed from above Nade, one shot right after the other, as fast as the second bullet could be shoved into the chamber. Somehow, Nade had leaned too far forward and upward, giving away his location, and I feared he would pay for it dearly.
"Nade, you hit?" I asked, terrified to hear the answer or, worse, no answer at all. "Nade?"
There was only silence, save for the chuckles of the shooters.
"Shit!" I yelled. "Nade, hold on!" I said, but I had a feeling that it was too late for words.
Staying well out of sight, I made my way along a narrow divide. With every movement I made, more and more blood seeped through my shirt sleeve, but I suppressed the groans that wanted to accompany the stinging throb of my injury.
Finally, I was at a high enough elevation to see them, Hodge Daniels and Cole Bibber, with poor Kad Rummer behind them, hogtied and flat on the ground. "Hey!" I yelled, aiming my rifle in their direction. "Both of y'all look here!"
Cole Bibber, the farthest from me, turned to face me and had the gall to wear a small but tentative smile. He raised his Winchester and tried to shoot, but I was quicker on the trigger, and my ammunition dug a hole in his chest, dropping to the ground in a dead heap.
I didn't have to turn far to face off with Hodge Daniels. He had a moment to fire, but I still bested him with a quick flick of my hard-skinned finger. In an instant, the bank robber suddenly became a standing stone, then crumbled in place as blood painted across his dead body.
Later, Kad Rummer and I buried the outlaws in shallow graves, just a couple of dirt mounds with some stones haphazardly strewn on top of them, like the filth they were. It certainly wasn't a pretty final resting place, but we figured if the buzzards ate all the flesh off their bones come spring, they'd still be getting better than what they deserved.
We mounted up and placed Nade, belly down over his saddle. We took off at a slow trot, with his horse in tow behind mine, heading downward in the direction of Kad and Anna's homestead. It was easier going that way, and it didn't take us long to happen upon the cabin, just after the wide place in the trail.
Anna, standing in the doorway, let out a gasp and ran to us. She gave her husband a onceover but then cast a sad eye upon Nade's corpse behind us.
"Sorry I took off on ya like that, darlin'," Kad said. "I just wanted them varmints away from you and our place."
Anna was nice enough to bandage my wound, but she warned me sternly, "This'll do for now, but you best pay Doc Weaver a visit once you get to Cook Ridge." As usual, she already had coffee going, and she hastened to fix a good meal for me. "This'll give you strength for healin' in the meanwhile," she said, serving me a well-piled plate.
I thanked the sincerely good people for their help, then took my leave, pulling my makeshift brother behind me.
By mid-afternoon, I was in Cook Ridge. A crowd gathered around me as I made my way to see the undertaker, but I didn't speak a word to any of them. I had a lot to chew on, and I was seeking my own peace, because I had truly lost a dear friend.
The next day, it was time to pay our respects and lay my friend to rest. Word musta spread, and Nade musta been well respected, because people came from miles around. The womenfolk shed many tears, and even Norma was there, not even carin' what people thought about her and what she did for a living.
Nade was a good fella, and I would miss him. He was buried next to Mary, and for all the days of my life, I would wonder if he was clawin' away at that cold earth, trying to get to his sweet wife, to hold and touch her once again.
Robert Gilbert has had eight stories published in Frontier Tales. He is also the author of the recently
published Western book: RUN WITH THE OUTLAWS, Epic Western Tales. He is an entertainment writer who lives northwest of Chicago.
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