Mitchell and the Killing at Safford
by Dick Derham
Three rough men sitting around an unsteady plank table, three pairs of avaricious eyes watching stacks of greenbacks grow higher, the small shack itself, reflecting the industry of its owner, so unkempt that the two visitors had spread their blankets under the stars while they waited for the day appointed for their business in Safford. Finally, Grover Farley's hand held only a single twenty-dollar greenback. He deposited it on the stack in front of his callow-faced host whose spindly arms told the world that here was a farmer who expected the corn to do most of the work.
"I'll give you the last one, Amos. Otherwise, me and Mac might get to fighting over it."
The ruddy-faced man whose blond walrus mustache only partially concealed the harshness of his lips laughed as he knew he was expected to. His hands closed on his share of the take as he got to his feet. "I'll go bring the horses around."
Amos Strander's jaw slackened as he looked at the friendly face of the hearty man across the table. "I hoped you'd stay a couple more days, Grove. It's lonely out here."
Lonely as hell. No other reason could have induced Farley to descend upon his forgettable school mate who no one was likely to go out of his way to visit. Located in small defile two miles back from the county road, the shack had assured the privacy they needed.
"Business, Amos. We got a lead on some good-paying work over by Las Vegas. We got to keep to the schedule our insider gave us."
Strander sighed his disappointment as he got to his feet. "At least you'll drink a whiskey with me to celebrate." He retrieved the bottle and glasses from a rickety shelf nailed into the wall, and reached for a dingy wash cloth to wipe off the accumulated dust. He filled two of the glasses and handed one to his friend, then raised his own in toast.
"Sure was a lucky day for me you cut your old school buddy in on this sweet deal," Strander said. "Crops have been poorly lately. I can use the money." Strander had already forgotten the dead man.
"You always done your part, Amos," Farley said. "You lined up with me every time we figured a way to show folks what we thought of their rules."
Strander sought to extend Farley's visit by reminiscing about the past. "Remember that time you trapped a raccoon and snuck it onto the top shelf of Miss Adams' supply cabinet? Then you had me hide all of the blackboard erasers." He laughed as he began to recount the incident. "Seemed like she'd never stop scribbling 'goes into' problems on the blackboard, and we kept fidgeting at our desks waiting for her to need to wipe the board clean." He leaned his head back and guffawed. "Remember her face when she opened the cabinet and the raccoon jumped on her?"
Farley let his laughter humor the little runt that no one had liked in their school days, a hanger-on nuisance, a fellow easy to manipulate into the mischief they could use him for, and today, a fellow who didn't have his picture on the wall in the Post Office, who could visit town without causing notice, and who could handle the simple task assigned to him. Let him feel part of the planning like in the old days, let him swell his chest as the partner of two tough men and he had eagerly done their bidding.
"It was worth the hiding she gave us," Farley agreed.
"Horses are ready." Desmond's large form filled in the doorway.
Strander refilled his own and Farley's glasses and poured a third for Desmond. He looked hopefully at Farley. "You know, I might could saddle up and ride with you Grove— give you another hand when you need it. Like today."
Farley's quick reply forestalled Desmond's objection. "Sorry, Amos, can't have you go missing right after our work in town." A lie always came easy to Farley. "Maybe we'll swing back after our Las Vegas job."
Strander's head bobbed eagerly as he envisioned himself riding tall, a full partner of two sturdy men of the saddle. "We'll be a good team, you and me, just like the old days." The three men raised their glasses to toast their success in Safford.
The empty glasses clinked on the table. Farley got to his feet. Strander picked up the bottle and turned to place it back on the shelf.
"Goodbye, Amos," Farley said, with the chuckle that always went with some new deviltry.
When Strander turned, arm outstretched for the shake, Farley's filled hand was in its upswing. Two shots echoed loudly in the confined quarters of the small shack, hurtling Strander's body backward, crashing into the stove, staggering sideways, knocking dishware off the sideboard, and finally sprawling to the floor. Desmond was grinning as he stepped around the table and fired an insurance shot into the back of the dying man's skull.
Farley handed half of Strander's share to Desmond. "In the schoolyard, he was always the first to snitch."
* * *
"I knew you'd want to see it the way we found it," Sheriff Emerson told his two companions, one a short, stocky man with a face accustomed to authority, the other of average height, but with the power in his arms and chest of a man who had earned his living, such as it was, swinging a sledgehammer at defenseless rocks. If the sheriff suspected where those rocks yielded their dignity, his thoughts remained unspoken.
"Don't see how looking at bloodstains on the floor will tell you who done it," the sheriff continued. "But you're the hotshots from the big city. Far as I can tell, it happened just at closing time, but no one knew until Corbett—he's your local man—didn't open up in the morning."
The two agents followed the sheriff into the small storefront on Bowie Street where Wells Fargo accepted items for shipment and received deliveries from the afternoon stage. The standard efficient layout included a side table just inside the door with forms to be completed, a counter across most of the fifteen-foot store width, and behind the counter, aside from a narrow hallway that led to the back door, a small desk with a few unfinished papers spread out, and the vault, its door now standing open.
"The killer did his work quiet," the sheriff continued, "a quick blade across the throat. You can see where Corbett's blood pooled." Emerson shook his head. "Young fellow, Sam Corbett was. Getting married to Annie over at the diner next month."
While Chet Collins, the senior agent of the team, pushed past the sheriff into the rear of the office, Dave Mitchell leaned on the counter, trying to see what he could learn. Collins paused briefly to look down at the rusty-brown stain, before stepping into the vault "Some boxes stacked in the vault not even touched," Collins said. "They knew what they were after."
"Likely the Freeport Copper Mine payroll," the sheriff reported. "The mine manager and two guards rode in this morning to pick it up."
Collins stepped down the narrow hallway and tried the door. "The door to the street was closed and locked from the inside, the blinds drawn, like always," the sheriff told them. "Back door was unlocked. So that's how they left."
"They?" Collins prompted.
"I figure a single man came in the front just before closing, just one, and not a threatening man or Corbett would have had his guard up. A gun in his face and he'd have considered his bride-to-be before he thought about playing the hero. There's fresh sign in the alley of three horsemen."
"Anyone see his last customer come in?"
"No one," the sheriff said. "Could be anyone. No telling who they were."
Mitchell challenged that conclusion. "Who's Amos?" Emerson's grunt was as good as a question and Mitchell swung around the transaction ledger that lay spread open on the countertop. "Corbett had started signing in a shipment, but only got as far as the first name."
"Must be Amos Carmack, he's the town barber," Emerson said. "Been here since the town was formed back in the '70s. Keeps to himself, him and his wife and his passel of kids. Bishop at the Mormon Church."
Collins and Mitchell exchanged glances, and shook their heads. "Anyone can go wrong, but . . . "
"See Lou Peters, over at the general store," Emerson said. "He's our postmaster. Maybe he knows someone out on the range."
* * *
Collins and Mitchell waited impatiently while the merchant and a housewife discussed the quality of material on the yardage counter, exchanged gossip about the new schoolteacher, and concluded their business. Finally, they had his attention.
Peters scratched his beard as he considered their question. "Only Amos who gets any mail is Mr. Carmack," he told them. He thought a moment and waved a dismissive hand. "Of course, there's Amos Strander out in the country, but no one writes to him. Anyway, he don't have the gumption. I went to school with him. Wimpy little kid back then—nothing more now."
But it was all the agents had to go on. "Tell us about him," Collins prompted.
"Only time he ever got in trouble was when one of the bigger boys talked him into it." Peters laughed at the memory. "Once Grove got Amos to put two chickens down the hole in the girls' outhouse. When Mary Wilson squatted, they started cackling. She screamed so loud we thought she'd fallen in. The teacher broke off her yakking and flew out to see what happened. Don't know where Farley went to, but he sure—"
"Farley?" Mitchell challenged. "Grover Farley, round, smiley-faced fellow that always looks like he's up to mischief?"
"That's the fellow. You know him?"
Mitchell turned to Collins. "I bunked under him my last year in Yuma." Mitchell ignored the sharp stare that statement drew from the postmaster. He didn't have to explain his early career as a stage robber to Peters, or the circumstances that led him to partnering the last three years with Chet Collins. He knew, and Wells Fargo knew, and most important to him, Collins knew that he had found a trail for his life far more satisfying than the one that had landed him in Yuma for five years.
"He's the kind of man made me glad I always worked alone," Mitchell said. "Surprised he's out this quick."
Mitchell pondered the question. "Hard to tell. They don't let a man do much talking on the rock pile and the mess hall could be a Benedictine Monastery." He paused. "But behind his smiley face, you could see a hardness in his eyes. I'd keep my back facing away from him if I could."
* * *
Two hours later, the agents met back at the sheriff's office to share the results of their separate investigations. "Not much to report," Mitchell told Collins and Sheriff Emerson. "The Strander farm was easy to find. So was the farmer. Two shots to the chest and one to the back of his head."
"So that's our Amos." Collins said.
"Much good it will do us. Three whiskey glasses on the table, which fits what Peters told us about him being a trusting pawn of a man like Farley."
"Farley and one other," Collins said. "I've sent a wire to Yuma asking if someone else got out when he did."
"Two horsemen laid down a trail traveling toward New Mexico," Mitchell continued. "I followed it a mile or so before reporting back. If they stick to that, they got to skirt round the Peloncillo Mountains. Always assuming we're going to turn man-chasers, I figure we can close some distance on them."
For his part, Collins had ridden out to the Freeport Copper Mine. "They expected money for payroll and expenses, a total of $20,000."
"That's too much money," Mitchell declared.
"They had the proof, receipts for $20,000 in money packets, countersigned by the Wells Fargo agent in Tucson."
Mitchell shook his head decisively. "That's why I liked to work alone." He grinned at Collins. "Hope this don't disillusion you about human nature, Chet, but outlaws ain't always the most upright of people." His face turned grim as he continued.
"Never knew a man who'd think my life was worth more than an extra share of a big haul like that."
* * *
The two agents reached Strander's cabin shortly before dark, spread their blankets under the stars, and were on the trail at first light. Shortly after splashing across San Simon Creek, they found the charred remains of the fire circle where Farley and Desmond had cooked their meal. Upwind of the fire, the robbers had smoothed the rocks and spread their blankets.
"Got a man's soogans left behind, Chet," Mitchell said as he approached the lumpy blankets. Looking down at the bullet hole in the dead man's forehead, one thing was clear. "That walrus mustache don't belong to Grover Farley."
While Collins began scraping out a narrow hole for the body, Mitchell got his arms under the corpse and yanked it out of the blankets. The man had stripped to his union suit for sleep, but his trousers and shirt were rolled up inside the bedding. Mitchell spread them out and examined them.
"Find anything in his pockets to tell who he is?" Collins asked when Mitchell had finished his search.
"Not in his pockets, Chet. But take a gander at his shirt." The well-worn workshirt, a sun-faded blue flannel, had nothing unique about it, nothing except for a two-inch circle over his left chest pocket.
"You figure a badge?" Collins asked.
"Looks like it, and the material hasn't even started to fade. We're looking for someone who tossed in his badge not long ago."
* * *
Fighting crime in the West fell largely upon the network of sheriffs, marshals, and Rangers throughout the frontier. With a deep knowledge of their localities, for most offenses local law was effective and responsive.
But the more ambitious outlaws, men who relied upon their mobility, who seldom stayed in the jurisdiction of their major crimes longer than a horse ride to the county line, such men posed a challenge for which local law lacked the tools.
One of the principal resources available to Wells Fargo, and not to sheriffs was the "RI" telegram. And so, in the early morning hours, Wells Fargo stage stations and express offices across New Mexico and Arizona received a message from headquarters at San Francisco.
"RI stop Identify man stop 28-30 years old, 5'10", blond, bushy mustache stop Believed present or recently resigned lawman stop."
"Response Immediate" did not mean "when convenient" or "if it's not too much trouble." And so, at 8:24, the telegraph wires began clicking in Safford and by 8:30 Collins and Mitchell were on the trail to Tucson.
* * *
The Pima County Sheriff greeted Collins and Mitchell with the usual reserve that lawmen always bestow on interlopers on their turf. When he learned that any disparagement for failure to solve the Safford robbery would fall on the Graham County Sheriff, he unlimbered a bit.
"Desmond? He wore the badge for three years. Couldn't really complain about the way he handled his shifts, but ambitious, always looking for a big chance. He got plans to get hitched to Josie Allen, up at the Freeport Copper and Gold Company, but I couldn't give him the raise he wanted. Truth is, I never really trusted him, so I didn't waste my breath when he tossed in the badge ten days back. Don't know where he went to."
The agents knew, of course, but as long as people thought he was still alive, Desmond might be useful. "Guess we know how the robbers learned there would be a good haul waiting for them in Safford," Collins said.
At the mining company headquarters, they learned that Josie Allen had given her notice a week ago and quit the prior day. "Always figured her to be the loyal spinster type, but she's off to join her beau," the mine Treasurer told them. "Efficient bookkeeper. She handled all our money movements."
After the men left the mining headquarters. Dave Mitchell changed into his shabbiest of his range garb, grimy, shiny-seated pants, and a blue flannel shirt still showing brown stains which would never fully wash out from the bullet he had taken outside Willcox; but his riding boots and gun belt, which she would recognize as important tools of the trade, showed careful attention, as did the Stetson hat that even a back-hills outlaw wore with Texan pride.
Walking up Alvarado Street, his bedroll under his arm, Mitchell forced himself back into the habits of a man who "rode free" as he once would have said; first his jaw, not relaxed in the manner of a someone who found cities a friendly environment, but clenched in a hard, intimidating visage against the unknown dangers a man on the unfriendly side of the law found around himself, then his eyes, flitting nervously from side to side, intentionally assessing each person he neared as a possible threat. Finally, his gait, a jerky pace driven by tensed leg muscles ready for action. Soon, Dave Mitchell had become the old Dave Mitchell, the outlaw, the ex-convict, cautious around people; his actions would come natural to him and seem true to her.
As he approached the boardinghouse, a young woman stepped onto the street, suitcase in hand. In her mid-20s, getting long in the tooth for a woman looking to snag a man, her brown cheeks came out of Arizona sunshine, not a modern cosmetic box; her brunette hair had been cropped short and barely emerged from her pillbox hat; her lips taut and firm, not overly attractive he reflected, but maybe the kind of woman a man like Desmond would take a shine to, not a simpering hothouse plant that a man needed to gentle, but a woman with a strength—no, he decided, a hardness—that would willingly sell out her employer without a thought to get the man she wanted.
"Miss Allen," he began as he stood astride her path, "got us a mutual friend asked me to make sure you had a hand if you needed it." Without waiting, he reached for her grip.
Her eyes flashed with hostility at the abrupt assertion of male dominance by an unknown ruffian. "You're from—"
"No names," Mitchell interrupted gruffly, as his eyes swiveled to spot any interloper within range. "Not in the trade. Sometimes there's big ears trying to listen in. Business like me and him are in don't need a lot of public palaver, savvy?"
She seemed chastened, or at least silenced. As she let him take her grip, he could sense uncertainty war with her need to rely upon a strong man. "I've never been out of Tucson," she began. "He told me he'd meet me at—"
Mitchell's cough interrupted her before she could speak of their destination. Would she be crafty enough to give a false meeting spot to trap him? Doubtful, but . . . As they walked slowly toward the train station, Mitchell remained the taciturn man of Yuma, asking no questions, not with the likelihood a question would show his ignorance of Desmond, his habits, his personality, things one of his associates should know.
In the five-minute walk to the station, she had seemed to find reassurance in his presence. He put down the bag. "You'll not want to call attention to yourself by traveling with a plug-ugly like me."
Mitchell hastened to reinforce her growing dependence on his strength. "We'll go in separate, but I'll sit not far behind you, keeping an eye out so no one can bother you." With that reassurance, she relaxed and let him open the door for her, so it was natural that he stood in line behind her at the ticket window and where he could hear her say "Las Vegas."
As he turned away from the window with his own ticket, he saw Chet Collins enter. It took Mitchell just a moment to turn back to the ticket clerk. "When's the train get into Las Vegas?" he asked, his voice loud enough so that Collins would hear.
* * *
When the train pulled to the depot at Las Vegas, N. M. T., it was Chet Collins who stood up and helped Josie Allen retrieve her bag from the overhead rack. And it was Collins who escorted her up the street to the Anderson House, an unfashionable three-story building that asked no more questions of any traveler seeking lodging than their business required. Mitchell ambled inconspicuously behind and once inside the small lobby, sought refuge in a dark corner, as any man used to life in the shadows naturally would, while Josie Allen and Collins stepped to the registration desk.
A gray-haired man in his shirt-sleeves responded to the summons of the door's tinkle bell and pushed the registration book across to Josie. When she had signed in, she asked, "are there any messages for me? Has Mr. Desmond checked in yet?"
"Not likely," Collins standing by her side, snorted. He ignored her questioning glance as he flashed his Wells Fargo badge to the clerk. "What about a man fitting this description." He proceeded to describe Grover Farley.
"No, ma'am," the clerk replied to Josie, studiously ignoring questions from a man packing a badge, questions which some guests might not welcome.
Josie's eyes pierced Collins angrily. "What do you mean, 'not likely,'" she demanded. "Do you know him? He promised to meet me here."
"I work for Wells Fargo, ma'am. I'm tracking a vicious robber. He used the name Grover Farley during his spell in Yuma. No telling what name he's using now. Killed three men in the last week, a good man who worked for Wells Fargo over in Safford being the only one to care about. The other two just being the kind of trash he partnered with. That man Desmond was got rid of easy, one shot to the head while he slept."
Collins touched his hat as he turned away. "Have a good day, Miss Allen."
Collins' deliberate brutality left her shaken, uncertain, alone. Mitchell stepped forward. "Help you with your bag, ma'am?"
Upstairs, once Mitchell closed the door to her room behind them, she sank to the bed, her shoulders sagged and she lost all the rigidness that had sustained her since hearing Collins' shocking news. She was vulnerable. She was alone in a strange town. She needed someone to trust, someone to talk to. Mitchell waited.
"That man," she began, still dazed at Collins' news, "he said—"
"Do you believe . . . "
"Me, I got to know Farley in Yuma. Killing a man in his sleep is safer than back-shooting him."
"But you are . . . "
"A man works with all kinds in this business, Miss Allen. The work he lined up paid good enough for the risks. He told me he'd give me my split of the Willcox bank job we did a week ago and we'd link up for the next robbery he had planned. Then I figured to split off on my own, maybe with Desmond if I trusted him."
"But that man killed Mac." She began to tear up. Mitchell almost believed she was thinking about something other than herself. "After this week, Mac told me we'd go to Denver. It was my chance to live a good life. But now, I don't know what I'll do. I have no money, no job, no place to go."
But she had information that Mitchell needed. "As to money, seems like you should have Desmond's share. I'll collect it for you when I catch up to Farley."
"Will he let you have my money?" Mitchell noticed how easily she accepted the stolen loot that cost three men their lives as hers by right.
"I don't figure to give the son-of-a-skunk no choice. He crossed me. Me and Desmond." Mitchell had no difficulty sounding like the callous Yuma convict she expected. "I'm an honest man, Miss Allen. I won't take no more off his carcass than he owes me. But I don't see no problem collecting for you, too."
Mitchell scratched his jaw as he made a show of thinking ahead. She wasn't ready to hear a direct question. He needed to prompt her to speak. "Trouble is, him and Mac and me was to meet here for the next job. Now that he's done for Mac, it don't seem likely he'll swing by to drop off my pay. And he didn't say what kind of job he had lined up."
Josie probed him with her eyes, as her greed gradually overcame her doubts about trusting a man she had only met. But the conclusion she reached was clear. Here was her chance to be rich with Desmond's half of the $20,000.
"Something about Wells Fargo," she began, still cautious, but starting to talk. "I think that's what Mac mentioned."
"Lots of stages. Not much to go on."
"A silver shipment, I think," she added hesitantly, not yet ready to trust him as far as confessing her complicity. Mitchell waited until she continued. "A mine somewhere . . . Somewhere near a town called Mora, I think."
"Then that's where I'll find the sidewinder."
* * *
At the diner down the street, he and Josie ordered supper. She understood him enough by now to know that there would be no conversation in a public place.
As Mitchell spooned in his beef stew, he saw Collins and a man wearing a badge enter. A brief nod confirmed that he had learned all he needed. It was the sheriff who crossed the room. "Miss Allen, you're under arrest as accessory to robbery and murder."
If she expected support from Mitchell, she found the man who had never so much as winged a shotgun rider during his outlaw years held uncompromising views of killing. "There's a sad woman back in Safford who was looking to share her life with Sam Corbitt."
* * *
Mora's fame had come and gone with the Battles of Mora in 1847, when US dragoons quelled the final resistance of the Taos Revolt and destroyed the village. Rebuilt, numbering perhaps 300 souls, it survived to serve the needs of small farms, to provision the mines scattered throughout the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and as county seat of the thinly-populated Mora County.
At the Wells Fargo remount station, the two agents swapped horses shortly after eight and conferred with Phil Yardley, the stationmaster.
"We think one of your wagons will be hit today," Collins began. "There is a man—"
"Two," Mitchell interrupted.
"Two, then," Collins continued.
"Several mines up in the hills use us for shipment," the station agent said, and began to list them.
"All of them locally owned?"
"Most are. Freeport Copper and Gold Company bought out Three Aces a couple of years back. We got a shipment inbound this morning. Should be here by early afternoon."
Mitchell had been studying the map tacked to the wall. He pointed to a black square on the map. "That it?" he asked. "Tell us about the route your wagon takes."
"About thirty miles north along the Mora River, out past Mackley's farm, the Three Aces chopped down enough trees to make a road." His finger traced an unmarked line into the mountains. "It's a long trek like all of them, but that's what Wells Fargo gets paid for."
"No chance for us to get there in time to stop the robbery," Collins said. "Any way out except down the wagon road?"
"Even a crow would get tired winging it over the mountains."
* * *
"Two?" Collins prompted as the agents left the clapboard buildings of the town behind them.
"Farley wouldn't have gotten rid of Desmond so quick unless he had a confederate already working this job with him. Likely someone who went ahead to do a ride of the road and pick some likely holdup spots."
"You're the expert, Dave. How do you figure it?"
"Farley's a savvy operator. He'll hit the wagon at least an hour out of the mine, but no more than a third of the way to Mora, so the natural thing will be for the driver to go back to the mine to give the alarm. He'll figure to get clean away before word of the robbery reaches Mora."
"Or he could just kill, like in Safford."
Mitchell rejected the thought with a resolute shake of his head. "Killing is for amateurs. In Safford, they likely figured with no one to identify Amos Strander, the law wouldn't even have a start looking for them. For a remote stage stop, Farley knows better. No need to kill unless the shotgunner makes a fuss, and a killing likely raises a bounty price that will dog his heels across state lines."
"So, he makes his escape down the wagon road and gets away free."
"Unless he finds a surprise waiting for him on the trail."
They rode steadily through the building heat of the morning, following the road along the Mora River. Shortly after they passed a farm that met the description of the Macklin homestead, they turned west when a wagon road cut into the mountains. They wet their horses' fetlocks as they crossed the Mora River and continued into the cooling shade of the stately forest of white pine, and through a narrow gap into the foothills. After riding half an hour: they rounded a rocky outthrust and entered a clearing where a forest fire in the recent past had left an open expanse of charred trunks and waist-high seedlings.
"We're far enough in that they've got to come past us." Collins pointed to a clump of brush a hundred yards ahead. "From there, I'll have them under my gun once they come around the bend." He gestured back down the trail. "You hide your horse behind those rocks."
A well-planned stake-out, one that brackets the object of the ambush, should go successfully. When the outlaws ride into the trap, the senior man calls on them to surrender. And if the outlaws resist, they find themselves cross-fired to the ground. But an experienced outlaw like Grover Farley has more fight in him. He had ridden ten yards ahead of his partner when Collins ordered the two men to raise their hands.
Farley kicked his horse to a gallop and left his partner to face the hidden danger, slowing his horse to a walk only when a rifle slug fanned the air in front of him.
"Grover," Mitchell called. "Those silver ingots weigh too much for a horse race. Give it up."
"Who's that calling my name?" Farley demanded as he probed the distance for the man behind the voice.
"Dave Mitchell, I bunked under you a spell."
Farley's rifle rested securely in the sheath under his thigh; Mitchell was still too far for effective handgun use. "Remember you from Yuma, Mitchell," Farley said as he let his horse amble unhurriedly down the trail toward Mitchell, his voice and face feigning his pleasure at meeting an old acquaintance. "You and your sidekick caught us by surprise. But you and me, we partner together, we'll run Wells Fargo out of business before we're done." He needed another ten yards to reach hand gun range, so he sweetened his offer. "I'll even split this take with you, even if I earned it all myself."
Farley had just dangled an enticing offer before Mitchell, more money than he would make drawing wages for five years. But the modern Dave Mitchell had no hesitation. "Last chance, Grover. Gun in the dirt, or you in the dirt. Take your choice."
Farley did what he had to, he rammed in the spurs and charged toward Mitchell, slapping his holster as he rode. But as his gun swung up, Mitchell's rifle barked and Farley slumped from the saddle.
Moments later, Mitchell looked up from bandaging his handcuffed prisoner to see Collins leading a second horse with a dead outlaw tied over its saddle.
"How is he?" Collins asked.
"He'll live to hang."
Note: Dave Mitchell's earlier cases appear in Frontier Tales, for July-Nov 2015. Watch for Mitchell and the Rawlins Gang in an upcoming issue.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years.
A member of the Wild West Historical Association, he seeks to bring to life the experiences of real
people as they dealt with frontier challenges.
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The Reverend Had a Few Words To Say
by Grant Guy
Dry Valley was not big on God. The townsfolk had nothing against God but He served little purpose in the day-to-day struggle in their lives. Often they had to commit unbelievable sins just to survive and did not want to be reminded on how wretched they were. But the hard-working folks of Dry Valley were big on preachers. In the western desert town of two hundred and thirty-two people there were one more preacher than there were a sheriff, teacher and undertaker combined. The preachers were the center of entertainment with grand sweeping stories of heroism, blood baths and sex without moralizing.
Once a preacher died he was buried in Final Rest Cemetery and quickly forgotten. Within days a new preacher would arrive in town with a dog-eared Bible in their hands.
Dry Valley was far off the beaten path of travelling theatre troupes of bombastic orators and scantily clad actresses and lectures of erudition. A few years back Mark Twain lectured and regaled at Cimarron but no earnest persuasion would convince him to come to Dry Valley. Being inventive and desperate sort for entertainment to wash the dry sand off existence of their sweaty lives the citizens of Dry Valley offered a five percent tithe from each citizen to each preacher who hung up a shingle. A church and a home were provided to each. The number of preachers at any one time was set a four. The folks of Dry Valley were desperate but not willing to waste hard earned money. The preachers provided weekly entertainment.
If they could sing the Vivaldis, all the better.
The most revered preacher in Dry Valley was Reverend Ron Jenkins. He was a fierce proponent of the law "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword." His sermons overflowed with shootouts, lynchings, sexy women fornicating, and brave heroes. His language was crisp and graphic describing in detail the rotting bodies hanging from a lone tree. In his sermons the parishioner could almost hear an ear or moustache fall off the body and plop on the ground.
On the morning of July 26, 1875, the Reverend set out on Sunday morning from his ranch, a five miles west of town, for his simple church situated next to the funeral home. The Reverend loved the irony. Dry Valley appeared a speck in the far distance as he looked out from the bench of his buckboard. He whipped the reins, and the horses neighed and jerked forward. A taupe plume of dry dust spit out from under the rear wheels. On Sundays he set aside enough time to reach church to finalize his sermon. The two hours before the service were the most thoughtful and meditative of the week. What he did not expect on this Sunday was for his past to catch up to him.
He had only steered his buckboard a half mile when he heard the distinctive pop of gunfire. He turned his around to look back and saw five saddled horses standing outside his ranch house. He could match the horses with their riders. Something in his body told him what was happening was bad. He quickly spun his buckboard in a half circle and raced back toward the ranch house. As he pulled his buckboard up he saw two men dragging his wife out of the ranch house and another two dragging his son and daughter out by their legs. Their cries of help cut the air like a knife. His wife and children were flung onto the ground. A tall man stepped out the front door, removed his Colt from his holster, and fired two bullets each into the wife and children. The man laughed.
Without clearly seeing the face of the killer the Reverend knew him. It was Ace McBurton, a rustler and outlaw the Reverend rode with over a decade ago. Fourteen years earlier McBurton and his gang of badmen stole and killed across the southwest. Other outlaws avoided McBurton's barbarous heart. The day Reverend slipped away from the gang of cursing outlaws was a starless night. When McBurton discovered the Reverend had vamoosed he added two and two together and got three. The sacks of gold stolen from the mining camp were gone. He pointed his stubby finger at the Reverend. His rash accusation failed to notice Phil Seymour was also gone.
For the next twelve years, between rustling and holdups, McBurton kept an ear to the ground, and his heart forged with acid revenge honed to sniff out the Reverend and have him pay the ultimate price for the betrayal.
McBurton and his men, being the men they were, stood in front of the ranch house, killing the Reverend's wife and children, did not notice the Reverend 's arrival. The Reverend was a man of the Logos, he found his six-shooter, a tool of his previous life, useful in welding the Logos with fire and brimstone. The revengeful god earned more applause from his congregation than the namby-pamby words of a merciful god.
And the tools would come in handy now.
The Reverend pulled his widow maker from under his morning coat and moved as quiet as a revenging ghost.
When only a few feet away the Reverend called out,
As McBurton swung around he was hit with a bullet to the heart. His lifeless body crumpled to the ground. Four more shots tore from the Reverend's gun. McBurton's men fell, one by one.
The Reverend thought there was some poetry in what he had done.
He paused briefly, after killing the five men before he looked up at the sun.
"I better hurry or I'll be late for the service."
The scavengers smiled, thankful of their plenty.
Grant Guy is a Winnipeg, Canada, poet, writer and playwright. Former artistic director of Adhere + Deny. His
poems, short stories, essays and art criticism have been published in Canada, the United States, Nigeria,
Wales, India and England. He has three books published: Open Fragments (Lives of Dogs), On the Bright Side
of Down and Bus Stop Bus Stop (Red Dashboard). His plays include A.J. Loves B.B., Song for Simone and an
adaptation of Paradise Lost and the Grand Inquisitor. He was the 2004 recipient of the MAC's 2004 Award of
Distinction and the 2017 recipient of the WAC's Making A Difference Award.
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To Marry a Gunfighter: A Western Romance
Part 2 of 2
by Buck Immov
Chapter 3 – Strange Bedfellows
* * *
A historical romance is the only kind of book where chastity really counts.
How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!
After Annawest got to Beaver, she rented a room at the Lowe Hotel, changed her sooty clothes, freshened up, and admired the herringbone chisel pattern on the hotel stonework. Then she set out with Waypatoo to find Snakeskin. She found him and a few others shooting at tin cans on a distant log. As she came up, Snakeskin fired and knocked a can off the log.
She saw Snakeskin straighten up. "Anybody else want a shot?" he said.
Annawest took a deep breath, straightened her back, removed her left glove, lifted up her left hand, and twiddled her fingers. "Hello Husband," she called out, "surprised to see your little wife? This wedding ring was jis too new. It kept pulling me in my husband's direction and the impulse was plumb ineluctable. That means you can not get rid of it."
"Uhh," said Snakeskin.
"You know a funny thing that happened in Leadville? They were calling for 'Mrs. McMurtry, Mrs. McMurtry' and I jis sat there wonderin' what your mother was doing in Leadville. If Waypatoo hadn't nudged me, I wouldn't have claimed my tickets. Isn't that plum risible? That means funny."
"I would imagine that being Snakeskin McMurtry's wife would take a bit of getting used to," said a voice she knew, "and hello Mrs. McMurtry."
"Oh! Uhh . . . Good afternoon Doctor Holliday, what brings you here?"
"Your brand-new husband. Who seems to be having a bit of trouble getting over his surprise."
"Well," said Snakeskin," I've been seeing you in my dreams so much I thought I was still asleep. Annawest, this is ElPaso Hairyton of the Texas Rangers. He was up here on business and dropped by."
"Mrs. McMurtry," said Doc Holliday, "this is Kate Horony my boon companion in good times and bad. Kate, this is Snakeskin and Annawest McMurtry, old friends of mine."
"Pleased to meet you."
They heard raised voices. Men and Waypatoo. "Oh Luddy Mussy," said Snakeskin, "we better get Waypatoo back to the hotel or there's going to be trouble. There's been a difficulty with the Navajo," he said. "There's been shooting and men killed. It looks bad. The only safe place now for Waypatoo is the reservation. We'll get horses and go over there."
They hurried back to the hotel. Snakeskin walked the women up to their room and excused himself. "I'll send a kid for horses," he said, "meantime I got to go up to my room for my guns."
Snakeskin was in his room when there was a knock on the door. He opened it and in came Annawest and a porter with her trunk. He tipped the porter and turned to Annawest.
"I told them we were married," she said, "any other way, it would look funny."
"Oh" said Snakeskin. He looked at her. "You want to . . . share the bed.
"Yes. I've got to know what it's like to be married to you. Before I take the chance." She sighed and put both hands on his chest, half closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and turned it slightly sideways so their noses wouldn't bump. There was a knock on the door.
Waypatoo entered. "I came to say the horses is ready."
"All right," said Snakeskin, "we better go now. I'll take Cherokee Bill and his shotgun and both of my rifles. We'll be all right. It isn't far. I'll be back for supper."
Annawest watched them ride away. Then she unpacked her trunk, hung up her dresses and got out a nightgown that she thought Snakeskin would like. Then she went down to see about dinner. They had no ice, but the champagne could be cooled in the well. It took a while, but she made them understand about serving dinner in courses.
Then she went back up, got out an iron and started in on her evening dress. It was satin dyed dusky rose. The top of the dress was tight-fitting to her hips, sleeveless, and had a deep, round décolletage with a puff of cream lace at the center, three bows in the front, two on the shoulders, and narrow lace ruffles for sleeves. The skirt measured fourteen feet around the bottom and had a train. The dress came with appropriate spars so that it could be used, in emergencies, as a boat sail. Annawest laid the spars aside and got out long cream-colored gloves with pearl buttons that matched her earrings.
Snakeskin came back in time to dress for dinner and they went down. The pop of the champagne cork startled some of the buscaderos into drawing their guns and the flying cork hit one in the eye. The waiter also soaked his sleeve with champagne but no serious harm was done. All the guns were quickly holstered again, the pain in the cowboy's eye assuaged with a shot of the O-be-Joyful, and the waiter's sleeve was as good as new after the cook wrung it out into a small dishpan. He then fetched a funnel from the kitchen and offered to put the wringings back into the champagne bottle, but Annawest talked him out of it.
In the middle of the soup course, Snakeskin stopped with the spoon halfway to his mouth. "Dang," he said.
"What is it dear?" The phrase came naturally.
"Pony Dahl. In the bar." Snakeskin casually drew one gun and held it on his left knee and calmly went on eating with his right hand.
Annawest saw a huge cowboy standing in the doorway between the bar and the restaurant. He had muscular shoulders and his neck was so short that he had trouble turning his head. His body was powerful but twisted. He had a strong chin, but it sagged and the corner of his mouth hung open revealing a big yellow dogtooth. His hat was thrown back and Annawest could see a broad, white scar starting on the left side of his forehead and running back through his reddish hair. He had tried to disguise the scar by combing his hair over it. He had tarnished silver conchos on his vest, his holster, and his hatband. His clothes were of good quality, but needed washing. A lot of washing. He spotted Snakeskin and shambled over, leading with his left shoulder and dragging his right foot a little. "Evenin' Snakeskin," he said.
"Evenin' Pony," said Snakeskin "You might take your hat off to the lady."
"Lady? Oh sure." Pony took off his hat with a smile that was half a leer and bowed more deeply than was necessary. " Ma'am. " he said. Then he straightened up and put his hat back on. "Heered you were hirin' buscaderos. Thought I'd come an' apply. You owe me that much for this," he touched the scar on this forehead. "And the time I spent in jail."
"Well Pony," said Snakeskin, "I'm a little short right now."
"Looks like you got plenty dinero t'me," said Pony nodding sideways in Annawest's direction.
"The lady bought her own dress," said Snakeskin. His smile was late and did not reach his eyes. Annawest moved her feet so that she could easily jump out of her chair. "I did have some money but I hadta spent most of it on land and cattle," said Snakeskin.
"Take your note," said Pony.
"Don't like doing business like that in this sort of situation. You end up settling' accounts with lead. Look. Lemme think about it; maybe I kin git some more cash. Meantime, here's a silver dollar. Have a drink or two on me."
"Well thanks," said Pony. "Don't mind if I do. But y'know I could really use the money. I don't have a tail feather left."
"Do what I can," said Snakeskin shortly. Pony started towards the bar door.
"Nice to have met you," said Annawest.
Pony turned around and said, with the same exaggerated bow and leer, "Likewise I'm sure, mam."
Pony went through into the bar. In a moment he reappeared in the open bar door carrying a shot of whisky. He raised it towards Snakeskin in a gesture that carried a slight, but unmistakable threat. Snakeskin and Annawest raised their champagne glasses in response and drank politely. Pony turned back to the bar.
"Pony Dahl. If I don't hire him on, he might shoot me and if I do hire him on, he might shoot me. Maybe I could send him on some kind of an errand out of town." Snakeskin rubbed his chin with the handle of his fork. "Well let's enjoy this boss supper of yours."
Between courses, Snakeskin excused himself, went over to Pony and spoke to him. Pony grinned, nodded, and rode out.
After dinner was over, Annawest waved goodbye to the crowd admiring her dress outside the window and the couple went up to their hotel room. And closed the door.
The breakfast was wonderful. The eggs, the blueberry compote, and the flour used in the pancakes were all fresh from Mormon farms. The high point of the meal was the region's famous cantaloupe.
* * *
"Luddy Mussy," said Snakeskin, "I've had good times before but nothing like this. If my usual good time was a ride to the top of Mount Elbert, this one would be a flight to heaven in a chariot pulled by wild swans."
Annawest smiled at him. "Yes, that . . . cantaloupe was a daisy. It's a good thing we both have hearty appetites."
"You know, we got to keep the hands busy or they'll start shooting one another."
"Oh, dances and horse races would do."
Annawest rounded up some women and arranged a dance. She had to use all her charm, dignity, and imperiousness to stop trouble, but she did it. She was exhausted afterwards. The horse race was easier due to the arrival of a cheerful old man called Dave Blonger who said his tired old brown gelding, Tornado, could beat any horse In Utah. On the morning of the race, Annawest looked closely at Blonger's brown. She couldn't understand the way it was acting for a while, but then suspicion dawned.
"Oh poor Tornado," she said, "nobody is bettin' on you. I'm sure you feel terrible. I'll bet on you. Who's man enough to give me odds?" Several did.
Just before the race started Pony Dahl rode in. He dismounted and shambled over to Snakeskin and said, "Going to pan out. The cattle will be here in two-three days."
"What's going on?" said Dahl.
"Just a horse race."
"Yeah?" said Dahl. "Maybe I'll put a little money down." He joined the crowd. After a little palaver he came over to Annawest and insisted on betting his five-dollar gold piece on Blonger's brown at odds of three to one.
Tornado crossed the finish line an easy three lengths ahead. Annawest and Blonger were the only ones shouting. They turned to collect their bets from a mostly dumbfounded crowd.
The buscaderos headed for the bar to console themselves with the Oh-be-Joyful. Snakeskin and Annawest went back up to their hotel room.
"Well," said Snakeskin some time later, "let's get up and get dressed and go down to supper. Say, before we go down, how did you know that Tornado would win?"
"Well," said Annawest, "I have never seen such a change in a horse. The old Tornado was about the laziest horse I ever saw. The horse that came up to the startin' line looked like Tornado but didn't act like him. He was prancin', holdin' his tail up, and his coat jis gleamed. There was only one possibility. It wasn't the same horse."
"Hah. No wonder Blonger left town so fast. Congratulations. Maybe you don't want to try to collect from Pony Dahl, though. He just isn't right in the head."
"Oh he won't shoot me."
"Annawest . . .
"Oh let's go down to supper. I'm hungry." On the way down the stairs she asked, "Why are you using those funny-looking bullets with the holes in the end?"
"Hollow points?" said Snakeskin. "I don't usually use them because they make a terrible mess, but they're better in the kind of a crowd we have here because they don't go through the man you're shooting at and hit somebody else."
Annawest frowned, but said nothing.
Their evening passed pleasantly but uneventfully. They woke up early next morning and had a late breakfast. After breakfast, Snakeskin went down to the saloon to play poker. Annawest and Kate Horony involved themselves in tea and commiseration.
Afterwards, Kate went upstairs for a nap. Annawest went down to the Maw Cheryl's saloon to look in on Snakeskin. He was playing poker with Doc Holiday and some men she did not know. She was about to pass on, but noticed that Pony Dahl was a member of the party. Ladies did not go into saloons, but that man owed her money! She pushed aside the swinging doors and marched in. "Mr. Dahl," she said, "you owe me fifteen dollars."
Pony Dahl did not look up from his cards. "Now what makes you think I would give fifteen dollars to a two-bit whore?" He looked at her body. "You'd have to work for three days in a bed with silk sheets for me to give you a dime."
Annawest was speechless with fury. The cowboys gave Dahl angry looks and looked at Snakeskin. Dahl didn't notice. He was looking at his cards with muzzy concentration.
Snakeskin didn't react. He looked at his cards and said, "Well I guess you got to play the hand you're dealt no matter how bad it is. Change seats with me Pony, maybe that'll change my luck." Pony obliviously complied. Now Pony was sitting on the right side of the table. To shoot down the long barroom toward the door, he would have to swing his pistol across his body.
Snakeskin sat down, looked at Doc Holiday, and nodded sideways at Annawest who had not moved. Holiday put his cards down on the table and waited. The other card players, except Dahl, slid their feet back under their chairs.
Then Snakeskin said. "Ahh there's only one way to play this." He threw in his cards, unfastened the thongs on his pistols said, "Excuse me, gents," and walked toward the door, carefully watching Dahl in the mirror behind the bar. He took ten steps and turned around. Holliday took Annawest firmly by the arm and drew her to one side. The other card players put their cards in their vest pockets and backed away from the table. The young bartender finally noticed something was happening, but did nothing except goggle, his huge Adam's apple moving up and down.
Pony Dahl raised his eyes from his cards and looked around in a puzzled way. His eye lit on Snakeskin. "Wha . . . ?" he said.
"I tried to tell you that was a lady, Pony," said Snakeskin, "but you wouldn't listen. Am I going to have to count three? One . . . "
Pony dropped his cards and jerked his gun out of its holster. As he tried to swing it across his body, the barrel hit the table. Then it was too late. One of Snakeskin's bullets hit him above the eye and one just below his breastbone. They threw him back up against the wall and he landed limp on the floor. One booted foot landed on his chair.
Maw Cheryl stuck her head out of the back room. "No other way he was going to end up," she said. "What a mess. Wall too. She stepped back into the back room and came out with a mop and a pail. "Better get it cleaned up when it's fresh," she said.
"Ahh, Ahh!" said Annawest. "Oh! Oh!"
Maw Cheryl dropped the pail, "Oh you poor child. Don't stand there looking at it. Come into the back room and sit down. Tea might help." Still Annawest stood there. Maw took her arm and drew her away. Annawest moved stiffly as if she had forgotten how to walk.
Later, Snakeskin took Annawest up to their hotel room. She stood facing the wall and refused to look at him. "I can not stand this," she said. "I can not this. You said it almost never happened and this is three times. I can not stand this."
"Look, Annawest . . . "
"It was my fault he thought I was a prostitute. I was dressed too fancy. And he was drunk and crazy and had no idea what was goin' on and you killed him anyway."
"I know, but those cowboys really like you and respect you and half of them are half in love with you," said Snakeskin.
Snakeskin spread his arms, palms out. "So Pony was dead just as soon as he called you a whore. If I hadn't shot him somebody else would of."
"Well you didn't have to do it."
"If I hadn't, they would of figured I was a coward."
"You men and your cultus pride," snapped Annawest.
"An' then," Snakeskin went on, "they'd of tried to take you away from me. Men would of died then. Me for one. Me for almost sure. Look Annawest, the West is calming down. Few years, your waddies probably won't even be wearing six-guns. All you got to be is patient."
"Patient!" She made fists of her hands and pressed them to her forehead. She gulped and ground her teeth. She set her jaw and turned around. She did not sob, but the tears were pouring down her cheeks.
"IF I married you," she said. "I don't think I can now. I want to, but I don't think I can. Bein' married to you would be wonderful but I jis can not stand . . . Oh it was awful seein' that."
"Acgh," said Snakeskin, hooked the chamber pot out from under the bed and vomited into it. "Oh Gawd," said Snakeskin who never swore in the presence of women. "Drunk and crazy. And it was me that creased his head like that in the first place. Acgh." He vomited again.
Annawest turned back as Snakeskin got the dry heaves, "Oh! It's happenin' again isn't it?"
Snakeskin was kneeling on the floor facing the chamber pot. He clutched the right side of his head. "Oh Luddy," he said, "Oh Luddy. Here comes the headache. This is going to be a bad one. Worse than being shot. AAAch." He heaved again.
"Oh dear," said Annawest, "here, drink some water."
"I . . . I can't see it very well. My vision is fading out. It starts from the middle and spreads." Annawest caught his hand and put the glass into it. Snakeskin drank it, but it came right back up again. "Oh Luddy," he said. "Close the drapes and talk quiet. This is going to be a bad one. Drunk and crazy."
"Oh no," said Annawest, "I made it worse, didn't I."
"Oh Luddy," said Snakeskin. "The world has started spinning on me. Help me to the bed. Bring the chamber pot. You might have to help me throw up." Pain's worst when I throw up. It's never been so bad. Ah, give me my pistol, please, please."
Annawest started to give him the pistol. Then she jerked it back, "NO!" she said. She opened the loading gate and took all the bullets out, dropping half of them on the floor. Then she did the other pistol.
"It . . . it would just be for comfort," said Snakeskin.
Just then there was a knock on the door. "Oh no," said Annawest. "Who is it?"
"Doc and Kate. How's Snakeskin?"
"Well I . . . Could you come back later?" said Annawest.
"It's bad, isn't it," said Doc.
"It's awful," replied Annawest.
"Well," said Doc, "if it's that bad, you're going to need help. Begging your pardon, but we're coming in." There wasn't much that they could do. Snakeskin lay on the bed half comatose with his hand pressed to his head, sweating, vomiting, and snarling at anybody who made a noise.
After the second day, Annawest found it difficult to keep calm. She said to a gathering in their hotel room, "Jis listen. He was raised with the Navajo. On a tradin' post. He got their religion enough so that an Enemy Way Dance will bring him out of it. That's the only thing that will. We have got to take him into the Navajo reservation."
"Do whut now?" said ElPaso. "Yore talking wild. You cain't do that. The Navajo is on the warpath. They'd chop you up inta little pieces and make you eat 'em."
"What he says is true," said Doc Holliday. "The Navajo are in a blind fury over a killing and . . . other violence. Snakeskin told me that he came close to being shot himself when he took Waypatoo to the reservation."
Annawest put her hands on her hips and gave the gathering a hard stare. "Well I don't care. I'm going anyway. I can not stand to see him sufferin'. He tried to kill himself, it was so bad."
"Annawest," said Kate, "the Navajo are very angry over the . . . mistreatment of some of their women. They want to pay the white man back in his own coin."
"You mean rape. I'm still goin'," said Annawest.
"You try, we're liable to hog-tie ye," said ElPaso.
Annawest opened her eyes wide and eyebrows came together and down. She thrust her chin out, her lips became thin, and a line of teeth showed between them. Her hands doubled into fists at her waist and she took a step toward ElPaso. ElPaso stepped back.
Snakeskin lifted his head and one shoulder from the bed. "Don't . . . don't . . . Annawest don't go," he croaked and fell back. "Oh Luddy . . . " he said.
Annawest closed her mouth firmly and left the room. Ten minutes later she was renting a buckboard and team from the livery stable. Fifteen minutes after that, she was in the general store. Her purchases included brown shoe polish, two narrow Navajo blankets, hair dye, a wide leather belt, a wash basin, and a big canteen.
She was introducing herself to the horses, blowing into their noses, when she noticed a small crowd coming. It included ElPaso, Doc Holiday, Kate, and the sheriff. In the lead was Maw Cheryl with her sleeves rolled up over her powerful arms. She was wearing her business face. Fifteen minutes later Annawest was inside a jail cell protesting at the top of her voice. All except Annawest expressed their thanks to Maw Cheryl who refused payment but accepted Kate's offer to treat the bruises on her shins.
"By Dang!" said Maw Cheryl, walking out, "I've had less trouble with two-hundred pound drunks."
"You can not keep me in here without charges!" shouted Annawest.
"Suspicion of cattle rustlin'," said the sheriff, sitting down at his desk.
It was some time before Annawest quieted down, but the sheriff might have been deaf for all the effect it had on him. Annawest sat down on the bunk with a thump. She folded her arms and stared at the floor.
After a good while she looked up. "Sheriff," she said in her sweetest and most ladylike voice, "it is so dull in here with nothin' to do. Could you please bring me my handbag? It has my sewin' things in it. You may remove the revolver, if you wish. Also, could you bring me the Navajo blankets from the buckboard? I wish to make myself a raincoat."
"Yes, Navajo blankets shed water you know. And they are très stainchable. That means plum durable."
"You can buy a raincoat."
"I know, but a woman doesn't want to look like every other woman, does she? It jis isn't chic."
"Well, you got a point there, I guess. OK, I'll send somebody."
"By the way," said Annawest, "what did you do with my goods?"
"They're in the livery stable. I can have them run up to your room if you want."
"No thank you," she said. "Jis leave them there."
Anna spent the afternoon sewing the blankets together. She sewed the bottom sides of the blankets together to make a skirt. Next she sewed just the top corners of the blankets together. She tried it on. She put her head through the gap in the top of the blankets and her arms out the sides. The fit was reasonable. When she put on the blankets and the belt, she would be wearing a Navajo woman's dress. She took it off and laid it aside.
In the early evening, the sheriff went out for supper and old an swamper came in. She introduced herself and after some very cordial conversation she said, "I wonder if you could do me a favor," she said. "I don't have my Butterick sewin' patterns with me. I left them in Snakeskin's Gladstone bag. Things are so dull in here. Could you please get that bag for me? Here's the room key."
The swamper scratched his hairy ear. "Well, Uhh . . . "
"I give you my word, there aren't any weapons in there," she said, giving him here sweetest smile.
"Well, Uhh . . . "
"I'll give you a dollar for a few drinks."
When the swamper came back Annawest turned her back to him and put the bag on the bunk. She bent over from the waist so that her skirt lifted to expose her ankles. She thought the swamper would be sufficiently distracted to not see what she was taking out of the Gladstone bag and hiding under the mattress.
"Oh dear," she said, "they're not in here. Where could I have put them?"
"Well," said the swamper, "you could look in your handbag, there."
"Oh of course," she said and found them there. "How silly. Sorry to have troubled you."
"Pshaw, 'tain't no trouble at all."
Annawest was diligently sewing when the sheriff came in. "Well Ma'am. is there anythin' you want before I go home?"
"No thank you."
As soon as the door closed, Annawest pulled Snakeskin's locksmithing book from under her mattress and opened the book to the chapter on lock picking. She had found the description of the jailhouse lock, selected the proper picks
She soon got the lock open, wedged the door with a knitting needle, then lay down and slept. Three hours before dawn she got up, put her revolver and her bag in Snakeskin's valise, opened the door, and ran down to the livery stable. In half an hour she had the horses harnessed and all her goods loaded.
She led the horses to the back of the hotel. She unlocked the back door with a simple skeleton key and went up the stairs as quietly as she could. She drew her pistol and entered her room.
Snakeskin lay muttering and twitching on the bed. Kate sat dozing in a chair. As Annawest came in, Kate roused, looked at Annawest, down at her revolver, and up at her face again. Annawest lowered her pistol.
"You have to help me get him downstairs," she said, "Please."
Kate looked at Snakeskin, bit her lips, and arose. The two of them got Snakeskin down to the buckboard without making too much noise. He hardly seemed to know what was happening. She covered Snakeskin with the blankets and drove away as quietly as she could. Once out of town, she whipped the horses to a trot.
The eastern horizon was turning white and making silhouettes of the mountains as she drove up to the borders of the reservation. She pulled up, set the brake, and tied the reins to a piñon tree. She removed her traveling dress, folded it, and carefully put it in the valise. She tied a short white cape around her shoulders, and poured water into a wash basin and added the contents of a bottle. She took a comb, dipped it into the basin and drew it through her hair starting at the roots. As she combed, her hair turned darker and darker until it was black. Next, she removed her cape and her chemise and applied brown shoe polish it to her face, arms, and shoulders. She put on the blanket dress and the belt with the silver conchos. Then she put her hair into a bun, and climbed into the seat of the buckboard. She snapped the reins and said "Giddyap!"
Annawest was careful to keep her voice calm and her hands steady on the reins. She sang to the horses as she drove. Every few minutes, she looked back at Snakeskin. He was much the same, sweating, muttering, and half-conscious. She resisted the urge to hurry. She did not want to tire the horses.
She topped a rise and saw a dead cottonwood tree with a sign on it. The sign was white with black lettering, but the light of dawn made it look blood-red. She noticed several objects fastened to the sign that looked like small swatches of cloth.
Flies rose up and swarmed around her when she reached the sign. "Navajo Reservation," the sign said. "The territory beyond this sign is not within federal or state jurisdiction. Any entering here are not protected by either federal or state authority. Pass at your own risk." She looked and saw that what she had taken for swatches of cloth were not cloth at all, but scalps. The red hair on one was long and whipped back and forth in the wind. It could have been a woman's scalp. She hesitated. Snakeskin gave a gasp and a groan. She looked back, set her jaw, and snapped the reins, "Giddyap," she said.
 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 Keith 'Doc' Raymond, MD
I was born on Jupiter. I heard it burned up not long ago. It was a good saloon. Clean women and the liquor wasn't watered down. My Momma died shortly after I was born, from sex, whiskey, or both. Doesn't matter. Things never lasted long back then, whether it came from Jupiter or Montana.
I was raised by them women. Ill repute but good hearts. I was a barkeep at eight, and a gunslinger at twelve. Standing in front of a gaudy mirror in Saucy Sadie's room one day, I struck some poses. Did some quick draws. Saw a smart lookin' fella with a fake mustache. Brown eyes, dark skin, black hair. Nice vest on, but a crap shirt. Must have some Injun blood in him.
Later that day, I was working the bar. Part up the middle, hair slicked back. Poured a red headed cowpoke a drink. He looked me up and down.
"Hey there lad, you remind me of someone!"
"Keep drinkin' and I bet you'll remember," I answered, and poured him another shot after he finished the first.
"Thanks neighbor! Now where was I . . . that's right, Tim, that's him. Back in Tallahassee."
From then on, I was known as Tallahassee Tim, even though my name was John. Them women taught me everything I needed to know about courtin' and lovin'. Them men taught me everything about ridin', shootin', and naturally, the stare down. Never cottoned much to reading nor writing.
Time came for Tallahassee Tim to move on. I was a man by then, killed a few, befriended a few. Joined a cattle drive out to San Francisco. A thousand head of cattle all along the northern trail, then down the coast. Learned ropin' along the way. Earned my saddle sores, I did.
When I left Jupiter, each of my Mommas gave me something to remind me of them. One gave me a locket, another a curl of hair, one even gave me a book. I looked at her queer. She showed me it was filled with pressed flowers from the prairie, to remind me of home. I think I liked that one the most.
With my stake from the cattle drive, I bought a burned out saloon near Chinatown. Took a while, but it succeeded. The landed gentry called it the Fixer Upper and the name stuck.
"Tallahassee Tim, how come you've got no woman?" the Mayor asked me one night.
"Whatdya mean? I've a whole stable of women! You got just one."
"You know what I mean."
"Hey, you there, barkeep!" yelled a mean-looking cowboy in a bowler hat instead of a ten gallon.
"Yes Sir," I answered.
"Them boys cheatin'! What kind a poker tables you runnin'?" He had them green eyes like a crazy rattlesnake. Sounded like he hissed his words.
"They ain't my tables!" I answered, "Speak to China Sal over there, by the player piano."
As he turned I drew down on him. "Now just before you go, I want you to ease them six guns out of your holster nice and slow. Lay them on the bar right thar." The Mayor eased back away from me, sensing trouble.
"I ain't gonna . . . " that cowboy hissed over his shoulder. Then he whipped around pulling his pistols and fired, but I already had him dead to rights. Shot him down.
When the smoke cleared, the Mayor and I walked over to where he lay bleeding and mouthin' dyin' curses. I looked down and said, "Politeness. Thus endeth the lesson, feller. Courtesy of Tallahassee Tim."
"Maybe you ought to pull up stakes and move to Telegraph Hill," the Mayor suggested as the snake took its last breath. "Bring in a better crowd."
"I like it here just fine. But, I've been thinking of expandin'. Bigger hotel, more ladies, less opium. The smokers don't spend money like the rest of this rabble."
"Give it a look then."
A year later, I opened Golden's Spurs up near Pioneer Park. I kept the Fixer Upper as the gals didn't want to leave Chinatown. Let Sal manage the joint, which was just fine by her. I didn't even mind if she skimmed from the till, especially if the gals needed help.
Leaning on the corner of the bar, admiring my new sleeve garters and smoking a cigar, I watched the opulence before me. Painted women escorting bankers up the grand staircase. The red velvet and gold wallpaper by the poker tables lit by the chandeliers. (The Spurs turned out to be the archetype on which Las Vegas would later be built.)
I was enjoyin' myself when an out-of-place guy in bear-skins came to the bar with a large dog. He ordered whiskey, paid with Alaskan gold. The bartender turned to me and I nodded. The stranger nodded back while the liquor was poured. Then I felt a gun barrel pressed hard to the back of my neck.
"You done killed my brother, now I'm gonna kill you!" a waft of foul breath encircled my head.
I heard the snick as the hammer was pulled back. I saw my end of days, smiled with my accomplishments. When the explosion came, deafening me, I was startled to still be alive. A rifle butt had whizzed past just before the shot, I heard someone stumble and fall. When I turned, a large white dog had the assailant pinned to the floor with two paws on his chest, growling.
The man in bear-skins was still holding his rifle, a smear of blood on the butt. "Looked like you were in a fix. Figured you needed helping out."
"Mighty neighborly of you, sir. I'm Tallahassee Tim, can I fix you a drink?"
"London's the name. Jack London, and yes, you can."
We had that kind of warm handshake given only by best friends. No longer strangers, we shared stories through the night. "You know Jack, if I was a writer, which I ain't, I would write that tale of yours about building a fire."
"I just might, maybe I will," he contemplated over a smoke, petting his dog. The dog smacked his lips and licked happily.
"How'd you come by that dog?"
"Well, that's a long story Tim."
On the roof of Golden's Spurs a child was born that night to another working gal. She screamed louder than a pole cat. Yelled out to the sky at one point, "Jumpin' Jupiter, I'm a wantin' this kid to have a better life than mine!"
One Irving Morrow was born then and there. He was destined to design a suspension bridge in town. He named it after his birthplace.
Doc Raymond is a Family and Emergency Physician who practiced in eight countries in four languages.
Currently living in Austria with a wife and an old stray dog, when not volunteering his practice
skills with refugees, he is writing or lecturing. He has multiple medical citations, and also published
stories and poetry in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Grief Diaries, The Examined Life Journal, RumbleFish Press,
The Satirist, Chicago Literati, and Speculative 66.
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The Raid at Nikninisht-ta Peak
by Tom Sheehan
A group of folks, after a great fire destroyed much of their home property in a small town in Massachusetts, headed west, for open spaces, free land and a new life. Joshua Dannel, a youngish man of 50, adventurous, industrious, led seven wagons out of Missouri bound for the setting sun. They'd taken a boat to New Orleans from Boston, gone up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, added more river travel on the Missouri River to their land mileage, and arrived at Sedalia, Missouri and a contact there for supplies, information, experience, living almost a year on the Osage Plain learning new ways. Adaptation, Dannel knew, was a key to success in the new world.
Dannel was preparing them for life in the far west, a life he envisioned would be a long struggle against a clutch at land, good promises at work, that their past must lend much to the future, both learned as well as lost. And a wish for new riches filled his mind, a shot at making the family a new dynasty.
The handsome elder of the family, dreams as well as hard work part of his vision, enjoyed the leadership responsibilities for the entourage. He could bribe with a smile or a slap on the back, and snap a whip at laggards, if any dared disrupt the aim of each day.
They ended up, 7 wagons of them, near the small town of Great Brentwood in Nevada, with the snowcapped Sierra Mountains standing over them like sentinels.
"That's Nikninisht-ta Peak you're looking at," said the livery man, Ted Cowley, at the first stop on their arrival. The lot of them had been looking at the peak for a few days on their way into
a town that might be their destination. They stared at the spectacle of it.
Ted Cowley explained. "The Indians say that La-Tontinsht or Eagle's Face burned his woman up there when he caught her with a white man, a mountain man named Long Tom something or other, hauled wood through the snow to burn both of them. Nobody's ever found any sign, not that they went looking, but some mountain men have been up that way more than once. Hear them tell about it when they come down to civilize a while, catch up a clear throat, whomp the belly good."
Dannel, a thorough listener, a learner from any source showing signs of knowledge, paid heed to every word Ted Cowley said, who hadn't completed his usual spiel. "That other one," and he pointed to the left of Nikninisht-ta Peak, "is Barren Widow's Plight but I can't say it the way the Indians do, them being Paiute or Sierra Miwok or some such. You can't hardly tell 'em apart except by the way they wear their hair or dress. But it don't make no difference anyway 'cause they're still Indians no matter how they look, and I do admit Barren Widow's Plight does tell a story in itself you can imagine on your own," which meant to Dannel that Ted Cowley did not know it.
"I suppose that the Indians hereabouts," Dannel tossed into the conversation, "have a physical history attached to their long habitat here, like trophies you might say, or souvenirs that reveal more of history than talk. Sort of a lasting memory. Maybe a made-up museum of sorts, a collector's place. Something like that makes for special reverence, a true note on history of a tribe."
Ted Cowley nodded, aware that he knew more than any of the other folks in Great Brentwood about Indians and their ways, like a curator of their lore and now and then got a lead on a hidden portion of their past. He'd always promised himself that he'd get up there someday, take a good look.
"If you mean hidden treasure or sacred pieces from their past, I'd say yes in a minute. I've heard many stories about some hidden cache up in the mountains no Indian would ever reveal lest some god swoop down on him and take his soul to hell or wherever the other place is for them. I suppose they're old squaw tales they entertain the young with, make them tribe-proud and curious at the same time, but you never know the whip from the lash with them."
"Oh," Dannel queried, his eyes leveled in pure innocence like he was no smarter than anyone in town, "you mean you believe there's Indian-style relics locked up there?"
Dannel's smile was the put-on smile of a salesman, the arguer, the manipulator stretching for gain. He looked at Nikninisht-ta Peak first, the closest, then at Barren Widow's Plight and nodded, wondering and doubtful at the same time, waiting for an answer, truth of the matter, if it could be revealed.
Ted Cowley came right back. "Not at Nikninisht-ta Peak. No siree. Not on a bet. They don't go near there at all, in case Eagle's Face wouldn't like it. They're scared, hell his spirit's hanging around up there waiting for people, looking for more than truth about his woman and Long Tom. I understand he ain't never let go his anger, like there'd be no peace ever for him about them two, even if they were locked up by a storm wherever they was at."
"Then," Dannel inferred, "you mean what's stashed away up there for history's sake, for the future, is at Barren Widow's Plight. Did I catch that?" It was his way of buttering bread at the right time, when the table was set, the company at ease.
But alert Ted Cowley shifted in place, open-mouthed, realizing he was a plain old big-mouth caught up again in bravado. "Where'd you folks say you was from? What brought you here?" His stance had changed, and brought a return to his usual business ways, not giving away anything for nothing in return, or trying damned hard to do so.
"Well, thank you, sir, for the local history," Dannel replied. "Very interesting. My son Adam is a historian of note."
A small grin lurked at the corner of his lips. "And I can clarify the reason for our arrival. We're here from elsewhere and I'm looking for a friend who settled here years ago. We need directions to his place, name of Nathan Twombly. You know the man, sir?"
Dannel believed he was gifted in some ways, one of them knowing the answers to many questions before he posed them for anybody. He felt that way now with Ted Cowley, the latest book he was reading.
Ted Cowley's face was a map of information to Dannel, but all of it was mixed in the order of replies at his command. Ted Cowley didn't know how to tell this stranger about Nate Twombly.
His mind leaped back into a host of contacts, meetings here at the livery or out on Nate's place, fishing, hunting cougar, delivering horses, fighting off brigands and Indians, going to dinner at the ranch house with Nate and his daughter, Sarah Jeanne. Nate's face, most of it, came back in quick flashes, then came the wooden cross driven by Ted Cowley's own hands into the ground out there on ranch property, pounded down with a sledge, the last goodbye to Nate Twombly.
Not a soul knew how Nate had been killed, a long distance rifle shot in the back as he stood over a dead steer. No one saw it happen. No one reported it, until his daughter Sarah Jeanne went looking for him after he hadn't come home for lunch or supper.
His horse was loose, on the way home when, she saw him from a distance, her heart leaping with fear.
She found her father as he had died, a rope in his hand, lying across the dead steer, the evening shadows falling down on him like a cape let loose from on high. The wind had taken his gray-white Stetson almost 100 yards away. His revolver was half out of its holster, still gripped in his hand, when he fell, pinning his arm through death. The bullet had ripped clean through him, striking bones, smashing them, tearing him apart.
Cowley had swung the sledge atop the cross, drove it deep, and walked back to his horse, and not returned once in the four months since.
It took some time, but Cowley related the whole episode to Dannel who listened attentively, never interrupted him once, and only asked at the finish if they knew what kind of a rifle had killed Nate Twombly.
"Well," Cowley said, "both the sheriff and the gunsmith over at Dead River say it was a 45-70, maybe a Sharps or a Henry and owned by someone long in the tooth, and mean as hell, them thinking it's an old feud come around again. Sheriff says he'll hang him in a minute he gets guilty sworn on him."
He gave Dannel directions to Twombly's ranch and they headed out after picking up supplies. Eighteen people were in the party. A few hours later, topping a rise in the road, the Twombly ranch loomed low and squat on the far right, set against a wooded foothill that run up against a tall cliff. And the mountains stood guard behind it. It presented a site for many lovely homes, for most anybody really interested . . . and Dannel, of course, was interested.
With one look at Sara Jeanne, a lovely creature, blonde as a Nordic beauty, statuesque, shapely even in work clothes, receptive to visitors, especially old friends of her father, Dannel knew she'd be a great addition to his family . . . and her ranch. Sara Jeanne and Adam would gravitate quickly, he assured himself.
Within hours of their arrival, sitting at two tables drawn together in the main room of the house for a dinner of welcome, she told them they could stay on the land as long as they wanted, could set up in a corner of the ranch at their choosing, all the while her eyes returning time and again to Adam as he brought his love of history into any part of the conversation it would fit.
Dannel was elated, that the attraction was there and that he had foreseen it all. Somewhere, at the back of his brain, in a kind of rush of pictures and strange images, he saw a huge cave filled with artifacts of Indian life, and some of them were self-illuminated by their own gold.
The call of the west was alive.
Life, again, he was sure, would be good again for the family. He'd done his part to this point; the rest would be up to Sara Jeanne and Adam, and, as much as he hated to admit, Ted Cowley would have his part in the play.
It did not take long for Sara Jeanne to fall in love with Adam. He was interesting, he was different, and he had a distinction about his person that magnetized Sara Jeanne from the first day. And the first ride together out on the prairie, loping along on two horses, enjoying the rhythm of the ride, the scenery, the growing attachment and excitement in each of them, brought all of the Dannels closer to a place in the west.
Adam found her as different as she found him. Besides being lovely, she was responsible for everything she did, and said, and managed the ranch the way her father had taught her. He had heard her once say to a hand, "Garvey, that's not the way we were taught, is it? You will do it the right way from now on. Right?" She had lathered it with a smile, but she was serious. He liked that in her.
Adam, too, seemed interested in her father's death, afraid at first to speak of it openly, but Sara Jeanne felt the regard and said, "You don't have to be sensitive with me about my father's death, Adam. It was no accident. It was murder. Somehow, I'll find out who did it. Then there'll be hell to pay."
He loved that in her and told her so. The bond was in place all the way.
The Dannels, with Sara Jeanne's open invitation to light anywhere on the property, had set up camp in a lovely corner away from the main house.
Dannel had said to Sara Jeanne, "Among the things we want to do while we are in the area, for some months anyway, is to do some historical research that Adam is deeply interested in. We plan to do some exploring up there around Barren Widow's Plight."
The mention of Barren Widow's Plight brought up a new expression on Sara Jeanne's face and Dannel, ready to read a face at an instance, understood her fear of never having children by the man she loved, Adam Dannel, and the threat of all the Dannels leaving the area was left dancing in the air.
"Of course," Sara Jeanne said, "and if you need any help I can assign some of my men to help you, like carrying supplies or handling animals. Whatever." The sincerity of her offer was open to see.
"Oh, no, Sara Jeanne," Dannel replied instantly. "We can handle everything ourselves. We're fully equipped to take on such interesting work. Adam will be thrilled with this expedition." He patted her on the shoulder.
Dannel, his son Adam, and two rugged nephews, Paul and Clay Gentry, left on horseback and a mule loaded with supplies. They had planned for a two-week stay at Barren Widow's Plight.
As they left the Twombly ranch, Adam asked his father, "What did Ted Cowley say that piqued your interest, Pa?"
"I was in Great Brentwood three times and spoke to him each trip and he eventually told me, on the promise of a percentage of find, that all the stories say there is one cave inside of another cave that was carved out of the heart of the mountain. They say it took almost a hundred years to carve it out of rock, and he believes that every time some Indian went in there to work, he brought some gold or other piece of value with him. Said more than once, 'The place has got to be loaded with gold and artifacts we can't begin to imagine.' He swears one drunken Indian that he fed drink into loosened up one night and told him one story that put the cave in a cave in the southern-most canyon near the high level of the Barren Widow's Plight, using their name for it which I can't collar yet."
"You believe him, Pa?"
"I have to believe him, Adam. I don't think he can lie about that, make up such a story." The sincerity in his eyes was believable and made the story carry. "Legend or lore or fancy hoping, whatever it is, we're going to check it out, and as far as we can go.
Adam thought it over for a while, and replied. "I've heard about steps and tunnels being carved over whole generations for places of worship, but never a cave inside of a cave. The Pueblo Indians and the Anasazi and other tribes did some amazing work, and did it for centuries in some places. If all of it's true, something will grow out of it."
"We will grow," Dannel said. "We will grow."
A week later they were in a large cave near the peak of Barren Widow's Plight. Sounds carried like a tunnel caught in the wind, and animals of various kinds added to the music of the cave; it was vibrato and tremolo in one sense and minutes later a basso profundo delivery came like an echo from deeper in the bowels of the mountain.
The party might have missed it, a message of sorts carved in the rock face of the cave, down near the floor of the cave, nearly out of view of dust, dirt, debris and old leavings from predators.
Adam, with a swinging torch almost passed by it, too, but a few characters reined in his passage, and he knelt to study the series of symbols. He let out an exclamation, "Aha," lowered his torch, and uttered, "Imagine, a road map."
Hastening to his son's side, Dannel said, "What is it, Adam? Can you decipher it? Is it a true sign?"
"I figure, Pa, that it's part of a direction sign, pointing the way. I'm sure we are in the right cave. And the entrance to the next cave must be near here. We'll have to go over every square inch of the place." He stood up and pointed further on. "It must be that way. This is too close to direct us to the exit. Go that way."
Adam Dannel started tapping on the walls, listening to the reply, measuring that echo. When he was sure the sounds were different from one area, he raised the torch, saw the stone set against the wall, and leaned on it.
It moved away from the wall easier that he thought it would.
And there, cut out of the wall how many centuries in the past he could not begin to imagine, was an entrance.
"This is it, Pa. This is it." The excitement bubbled out of him.
The elder Dannel, taken aback, dreams flourishing already about the find, the eventual trading with the world's ultimate powers of finance, said, "You go on in, Adam. You deserve it, but tell me what you see as soon as you can." He patted his son on the back, lit up a new torch and handed it to him.
Adam Dannel, historical student and buff of old remains, feeling the magnitude of expectation, thinking of Sara Jeanne and how she'd greet his discovery, knelt, fit himself torch first into the narrow opening and crawled into the end of one world and the beginning of a new one he was sure, seeing the harvest of all harvests.
The first thing his eyes lit on was a six-pointed star sitting directly in front of him as though set there long ago to be the lead-in piece of s most holy place. Its sheen in the flare of the torch jumped into a series of golden flashes, from the core of the star to the six rounded points. It was only as big as his hand, so he put his hand forward, grasped the star and stuck it into his shirt. The cold touch of the star made him shiver at first, and then the thought of the largest chunk of gold he had ever seen set his mind ablaze. The rumbles in his heart and chest seemed part of that burst of heat.
Lifting the torch on high, he realized he could stand to full height, so stand he did, slowly flashed the flickering torch about him, the swift tongues of fire leaping, fading away, leaving the source of their being, and saw the treasure of treasures. There was no doubt about it . . . it was the most amazing find he had ever heard about or ever read about. And nothing like this had he ever seen. The amazement touched again at the bottom of his feet, running the length of his body.
There were niches and shelves and fissures cut into the cave, hundreds of them, some shallow, some slim, some vertical or horizontal, some with shadows so deep they appeared to be exits, cut to fit each piece contained, for in each one loomed a piece of history. The artifacts were not trinkets or trifles, not paltry or frivolous, but made of gold and assorted gems the types of which he had no idea, except they shone in their settings, in the torch's glare, in a cave in the heart of a mountain.
"We hit it, Pa!" he yelled out, the echo of his words leaping back like quick thunder, a shaking in the walls they had seemed to set off.
He yelled out again and heard the echo before his father said, "Hold it down, Adam. Hold it down. Now come out and let me take a look."
Adam, left the torch burning in a fissure, gleams of gold behind it, and crawled out of the cave.
"Pa," he said as he came out of the opening, "you won't believe it until you see it. Nothing like it ever seen. Go take a look. Bring a new torch with you. I don't know how long the one I left in there will last. Go now, Pa."
"I will, Adam, but tell those boys we want them to go back and get another two weeks supply. Tell them we've found some signs that definitely say we're on track. Tell them leave what we have and be back in three days. We'll live on what we have left. Do it now, Adam, but don't be so excited. Don't give them a clue so they'll run off at the mouth. Keep it in the family."
The elder Dannel knelt, thrust the torch ahead of him and squeezed into the opening. He had already heard his first offer to the banker who had taken the family fortune: "It's like I have said, Mr. Stocker . . . this is the last offer I am going to make to buy your institution, or it'll fall in ruins at your feet." It made him feel good, before he had seen a single artifact, the shaking in his abdomen part of his excitement.
Then he spotted the glitter, the exorbitant treasure enough for any family in the known world. Adam was right! It was beyond dreams. He stood in the midst of glory of the Nations, back past most beginnings. Staring at the walls aglow with gold sheen and precious stones, he felt overcome, but the break with the sorry past was at hand.
Adam, as bidden, sent the others off on the requested errand, and sat to enjoy a rest. The water was sweet on his tongue, in his throat, and he got a small snack for himself and one for his father. He was putting them in a sack to carry back to the cave, along with three other sacks folded tightly together, when his feet started shaking as they had done previously.
He stood to listen, to get away from the tremors at his feet, until he realized the whole mountain was shaking. He felt it all before he saw walls of the canyon begin to shiver, crack, give off explosive sounds, and a separation from the past began in earnest.
He screamed, "Pa!" and rushed toward the initial cave entrance and the thunder came from inside as he heard much of Barren Widow's Peak feel nature's next cataclysmic struggle with its being. The roar and the thunder seemed to generate movement, shifting of atoms as large as the imagination, while the heart of one whole mountain felt the strain.
Joshua Dannel, once Massachusetts, dreamer, fortune hunter, was interred forever with the greatest cache of precious items and historical artifacts of significant value that the whole continent might ever reveal.
Who knows what piece he might have held in his hand when the mountain came down on top of him, interloper at history's feet?
Sara Jeanne was glad that Adam was not too very much like his father. He didn't need all the riches that his father dreamed about, of which he had made the center of his life. Adam would be fine with just her; she had enough for both him and her right there where Barren Widow's Plight looked down on them, along with Nikninisht-ta Peak, like a pair of sentinels on high.
A good life sat in front of them in spite of the magnitude of the loss.
Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-56) has published 32 books, has multiple works
in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Literally Stories, TQR (Total Quality Reading) Copperfield Review, Frontier
Tales, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Rope & Wire Magazine, and many others. He has 33 Pushcart nominations, 5
Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Back Home in Saugus (a collection) is being considered, as
is Valor's Commission (a collection of war and post-war tales reflecting the impact of PTSD) and a
novel, The Keating Script. His latest book, Beside the Broken Trail, was released December,
2017 by Pocol Press.
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The High Line Incident
by Mickey Bellman
The rain had been relentless. Creeks were at flood stage, prairie depressions full of water, and the sodden skies offered no hint the weather would soon change.
Bert sat inside the cabin staring through the single, grimy pane of glass that served as a window; a rickety door barred most of the winter from entering. A pot-belly stove added a bit of warmth to the secluded shack while a kerosene lamp provided a dismal sort of light. The young cowboy sat at a small table oiling a leather harness.
It had been a brutal winter on the High Line of Montana. Winter blizzards had lashed the barren range for months with deep snows. Finally, a warm Chinook wind arrived in February and most of the snow had melted, only to be replaced with an onslaught of spring rain.
Outside, his horse Rosie nickered in the corral. A dilapidated shed offered some shelter for the beast while she searched the small pasture for any bit of greenery. A three-strand barb wire fence surrounded Rosie and controlled her desire to find greener pastures.
For three months Bert had endured a lonely existence in the line shack. He had visitors only twice—other out-of-work cowboys riding the High Line, looking for a plate of beans and a place to bed down. Bert's "job" had been to push the range cattle back towards the TR Ranch if they started to drift before the blizzard gales. For this work he was allowed to stay in the shack and exist on beans and bacon. There was no pay for the work he was expected to do—just the food and the shack.
Rosie perked up her ears and pointed her head toward the shapeless horizon. A dark silhouette was moving slowly towards the shack. Still a mile away, it might be a steer, a stray buffalo or a horse and rider. It was the most interesting thing Bert had seen in many days.
"Good eye, Rosie." Bert moved to the door and leaned against it as he stared at the dark form.
Rain water continued to drip from the shack's roof after an afternoon squall had passed. Bert hiked up the collar of his wool Mackinaw while a stealthy gust of cold sought out his flesh. It might be spring but Old Man Winter was not giving up just yet.
The dark form took shape as a horse and rider. Bert's hand slipped inside the door to feel the blue steel of his .30-30 Winchester. Just to be safe, just to be ready for whatever.
Fifty yards from the shack the horse and rider stopped. Bert only stared from the doorway, uneasy this stranger had arrived.
"Hello in the shack. I'm looking for Bert Evans. Might you be he?" Black Stetson, worn slicker, fancy saddle, chestnut mare.
"Maybe. Who's looking for him?"
"Son, I've just rode six hours to get here. Mind if I step down? My horse could use a drink and so could I."
Bert nodded and waved the rider in while his hand curled around the barrel of the carbine. It had been a year since the saloon fight and he had been watching his back trail ever since. When the stranger stepped down from his horse, Bert caught a glimpse of the six-gun and the silver flash on his chest that could only be a badge. He smiled weakly and stood silent while the rider tied his horse to a coral post. Both horse and rider were well-speckled with Montana prairie.
"I'm Deputy Colin Bensin from over Miles City way. I stopped at the TR Ranch and they told me I might find you here. Your are Bert Evans, aren't you?"
Bert nodded but continued to stare silently at the deputy. A wisp of gray hair showed under the Stetson while a whitened scar crossed his left cheek and tugged his eye downward. A fight-broke nose complimented his whiskered face. From there down it was all well-used cowboy-red kerchief, faded blue shirt, worn leather vest, leather chaps that hid the wornout jeans, gnarly black boots that had seen better days. But it was the low slung gun belt that riveted Bert's attention. It was black, highly polished and filled with cartridges. The Colt in the holster had polished ebony grips. It was not a town deputy's average rig but a real gunfighter . . . or a bounty hunter.
Bert casually lifted the carbine and cradled it across his chest. If there was to be trouble, he wanted to be ready. Deputy Bensin was not unaware of this escalation and continued to tend his horse.
"Son, there's no call to get all riled up. I just came out here to deliver a letter and a message. I knew your ma and she asked me to give this to you." The deputy turned back towards his horse and fumbled through his saddlebags. He deliberately turned his back to show Bert he offered no threat.
At the mention of his mother, Bert was surprised and shifted uneasily. He was already nervous about this stranger-a deputy at that-visiting him 50 miles from nowhere. And now the woman that bore him 26 years earlier was somehow reentering his life. He had not seen her in fifteen years, and then she was half drunk in a saloon entertaining any man any way he desired. That night Bert left her and left town.
"Here it is." The deputy had found the well-soiled and creased envelope at the bottom of his saddlebag. He handed it to Bert who reluctantly took it; he simply stared at the envelope, embarrassed because he had never learned to read. Hesitantly, he glanced at the deputy who sensed the frustration in Bert's eyes and guessed at the reason. "I understand. Maybe you'd like me to read it to you?
"I knew your mother for a number of years. I arrested her several times for . . . well, let's just call it 'behavior unbecoming of a lady.' She could be a hellion sometimes, but these last few months she has been real sick. I took a liking to her and offered her a place to stay out at my little ranch. I'm sorry to tell you this, but she passed away nine days ago. I was there at her side when she passed."
For a moment Bert thought he saw a bit of moisture in the eyes of Deputy Bensin.
"Anyhow, she asked me to personally deliver this to you. And she wanted me to tell you she never forgave herself for not being a better mother." At this Bensin nervously looked at the ground and then the distant horizon.
"You knew ma? You knew that whore who ignored me and drove me out of her life? Now here I am in this miserable shack! Why don't you just take that letter back to Miles City. I've got no desire to hear another word about her." Bert cocked the hammer of his rifle.
Colin cleared his throat and shifted his stance. "She meant this letter for you. Either you read what's in it or I will!" The deputy's hand dropped to his side near the black-handled .45 in his holster.
It was time to put up or shut up. Bert admitted to himself he was no gunfighter, no match for a man with a fancy black holster and an ebony-handed pistol. He let the hammer down and lowered the rifle to his side. The deputy heaved a sigh of relief and then carefully opened the dirty envelope to find a single sheet of stationary. The letter trembled in his hand and he blamed the non-existent wind.
"My dear son," the letter began. "I've not been much of a mother to you and I am ashamed of that. I cannot undo all those hurts and years but I have always thought of you. I know the end is near for me, but I want you to know this: the man who carries this letter . . . "
Bensin stopped in mid-sentence while his eyes raced across the last few sentences. He was suddenly very nervous as he stared at the letter and then at Bert. The non-existent wind rattled the paper again.
"The . . . man who . . . carries this let . . . letter is your father. He is a good man but does not remember me. I wanted you to know this, hoping that it might somehow console you. Please forgive me."
Bert and Colin stood there silently trying to understand what had just happened. Colin was the first to speak.
"I . . . I don't know what to say. She must have been feverish and out of her mind."
"You're right," Bert stammered. "Must be something wrong. Can't be . . . " and Bert's voice trailed off.
The deputy folded the letter back into the envelope while he searched his memory for some meaning to all this. A flicker of remembrance appeared. Colin, too, had once been a wild, young cowboy, fresh off a trail drive . . . reckless, drunk and looking for love in Dodge City. Colin cleared his throat nervously. "Well I guess . . . I've done what she asked. Might as well head back to town."
Bert was still in shock. This man, this deputy—his father? His own mother had never given him a hint of his parentage, but now he was curious. "Gettin' pretty late. Why don't you just head back in the morning? There's plenty of room on the floor and you'll have a roof over your head."
Bensin wanted to leave, but like Bert he was also curious. He looked north to the horizon where dark clouds were forming. "Well, OK. Looks to be some weather moving this direction. Much obliged." He undid the cinch and slipped the saddle off his mount. The horse shook with relief as she was led into the corral with Rosie. Colin carried his saddle and bedroll into a far corner of the shack. An awkward silence followed as neither man knew where to begin or what to say.
"Your ma was a fine woman once you got past her brassy exterior. She was a good cook and never hardly complained. Even when she took sick, she'd still have something on the table when I came home. She did speak of her son from time to time, sometimes real melancholy that he . . . you . . . had gone off like he did. But since you'd never contacted her, she figured it was better to leave the past in the past.
"The doc said it was 'consumption' that got her. It was slow to come on but ended in a big rush. I was there when she died and I buried her at the ranch. She left me only this." Colin reached into his pocket and took out a $10 gold piece.
Bert gently took the coin in his hand slowly turning it over and over, remembering a few good times he had—a summer picnic, a swimming hole, a piece of hard candy she once bought for him. A letter and a $10 gold coin was now all that remained of her.
"I got some worn-out coffee grounds and a few beans in the pot. I'll heat 'em up some. At least you will be warm and dry in here." Both men silently turned to their tasks while the wind rattled the tarpaper on the shack. Each was lost in his own thoughts and memories.
"So, you're a deputy in Miles City? How long you been doin' that? Much excitement in that line of work?"
"Not really. Get a few cowboys like you at the end of a drive. The usual Saturday night drunks and fights, but usually not much trouble. Couple of buffalo hunters tried to rob the bank once. It got pretty lively when they got out their Sharps and tried to shoot their way out of town. They never made the city limits." Colin tapped the ebony-handled Colt on his hip.
"How about you? What you been doing all these years?"
"Been on a couple trail drives between here and Texas. Worked a couple ranches here and there. Just trying to make it through to the next meal. You said she had 'consumption.' Was it painful?"
"Mostly just getting tired, depressed, like a watch winding down." Colin's eyes shifted towards the dirty glass window. He tensed his body and his hand drifted toward his holster.
"You expecting any company?"
Bert turned toward the window and saw the riders in the distance. They were coming hard. "No, but I wasn't expecting you either."
Horse hooves were pounding on the Montana prairie, growing louder. The horses skidded to a stop in front of the shack's door. Three riders sat in their saddles staring at the shack.
"You in the shack!" The voice definitely did not sound friendly. "Bensin! You in there?"
"Yeah. Who wants to know?"
"We heard you were up here on the range. I see two horses in the corral. Who else is in there?"
There was a silence and then the deputy spoke. "Nobody but me." Colin eased himself over to the shack's door and peered through the cracks. Instantly, he recognized the Grimes brothers.
"Not only are you a murdering bushwhacker, but you're a damn liar! Come out here where I can see you and I'll let your friend go clean."
Colin knew why the Grimes boys were outside. "He had it coming, that dirty weasel. He had no call to hurt Julia the way he did."
At the mention of Julia, Bert was really confused. That was his mother's name. He tightened the grip on his carbine.
"My pa wasn't like that. Now are you coming out or do we just start blowing holes in the shack?" The three brothers had slipped from their saddles, careful to keep the horses between themselves and the shack.
Colin turned towards Bert. "Just stay inside and I'll handle this. It's time to finish it anyhow."
The deputy was about to open the door when a bullet from Bert's rifle took off the top of Jamie Grime's head. Bert had not waited and shot through the window.
"What in the hell are you doing?" Colin yelled. Outside it was pandemonium as horses reared and broke away. Jamie lay flat on his back without moving. Cody and Jason began peppering the shack with bullets; the flimsy boards barely slowing the barrage of lead. Colin doubled over as one bullet hit him just above the belt buckle, but he still flung open the shack's door and returned the gunfire.
Cody went down but was still alive enough to keep shooting. Jason had sprinted towards the corral, firing over his shoulder into the shack. He was running full tilt when he hit the strands of barb wire. Bert's last shot took him in the back and Jason was dead, hanging on the fence.
Colin collapsed to the floor, blood gushing from the bullet in his stomach. Bert grabbed a dirty towel and knelt down next to the deputy. He tried to staunch the flow of blood but the rag only became more sodden. It was apparent to both men that Colin would not see the next sun rise.
Bert stammered, "You said 'Julia.' Did you mean my ma?"
Colin nodded and grimaced with pain. "Yeah. Old man Grimes roughed her up real good one night at the saloon. I took off my badge and waited for him outside. I shot him dead in the alley." Colin coughed and a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of his mouth. "I did so love that woman."
"But you don't remember about being my pa?"
"It was a long time ago and I was pretty wild and drunk, just coming off a drive. It was Dodge City. I barely remember a night with a young lady, and then I moved on. After a couple years, I ended up in Miles City. She showed up a year later with you. You were a wild kid and up and disappeared one day, till today." Colin choked again and blood spewed from his mouth.
"She was working the saloons—that's all she knew. I stuck her in jail a couple times and she got pretty melancholy, telling me all about you. She never did admit to me about being your father. Don't know why. Maybe she figured it was better I didn't know.
"When she started taking sick, I felt sorry for her and let her stay out at my place. By then I was pretty fond of her." Another spasm of coughing seized Colin.
Bert chanced to glance through the open door. There was movement outside as Cody Grimes crawled towards the cabin—a gun still in hand. Bert grabbed up Colin's' pistol, pulled the trigger three times and the Grimes brother stopped crawling. When Bert looked back at Colin, the deputy was dead.
Bert rocked back on his heels and slumped to the floor. For a while he had a family of sorts, and now there was just bloody carnage surrounding him. For long minutes Bert stared at the bodies and relived the gunfight. As he stood up, he noticed Colin's Stetson lying nearby. A carefully folded, sweat-stained paper was stuck inside. Curious, and now that he seemed to have inherited the deputy's rig, Bert unfolded the paper. He instantly recognized a Wanted poster, the drawing and the name "Bert Evans Reward $3000." So the saloon fight he survived two years prior had earned him a reputation. It was time to be moving on.
It was a week later when the foreman of the TR Ranch showed up. The line shack was deserted, the horses gone, and four fresh graves dotted the prairie. One grave was marked with a deputy sheriff's badge. The bullet-riddled shack and the pools of dried blood told a grim story. He squatted down on his heels as he rolled a smoke. He'd send word into Miles City about what happened out on the desolate prairie. Meanwhile, there were cattle that needed calving and branding.
Mickey Bellman is a Certified Forester living in Salem, Oregon with a wife and two Golden Retrievers. He
has written hundreds of forestry and hunting articles during his seventy years of life. He can be reached
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