by Larry Garascia
The sun rode up into the eastern horizon and changed from soft pink to brilliant yellow and then to dazzling white as it blessed the town of St. Claire, Montana, with its abundant warmth. It was November and winter had arrived. A blanket of new snow lay on the ground and for the last three days a blistering wind ravaged the town. But on this morning the sky was cobalt blue and endless sunshine streamed like liquid gold.
St. Claire was a lumber town built on a plateau at the base of ragged hills. A cascading waterfall which tumbled down from the highest peak in frothy white fury provided the power for the mill. The powerful stream of water was channeled into a chute and shot from the chute against the wide wooden paddles of a great wheel. The enormous wheel turned with an eagerness which turned the shaft which turned elaborate brass gears which powered the whirling saw blade which cut a stream of new fallen pine.
A fierce growth of towering pines growing up the sides of the hills provided the trees. Some of the trees stretched more than three hundred feet into the air. Such was the abundance of trees that the trees went on forever in an endless procession up into the hills.
St. Claire was not a large town. In fact it could be considered small. There were only two streets of packed red dirt which turned into mud whenever it rained. There were three rows of five white houses on Main Street, each row neatly behind one another. Each house was small and tidy with only one floor and a red brick chimney and shutters on the windows. There were two churches and a rail yard, a livery stable and a doctor's office next to the undertaker.
There was no school with its own building but every Monday and Wednesday after breakfast in the Elm Café a teacher held classes in reading, mathematics, grammar and American history.
There was no saloon in St. Claire. But there was whisky. If you wanted a drink you went to Teeters General store and stood in the back where a plank of pine rested between two barrels and served as a bar. Whisky was fifty cents a glass. Sometimes there was no whisky if the weather was bad and the supply wagon didn't make it up from Flat Head. The bar was open from five to seven and was busy every afternoon as thirsty mill workers fresh from the first shift jostled for space at the raw plank bar. They were almost always big men dressed in heavy flannel shirts and sturdy pants and wore thick stocking caps pushed back on their heads. They spoke in hard edge voices with authority and were not afraid of much.
Moss Teeter owned the general store and was also the part time mayor. There was a part time sheriff named Nesby Platt who was sixty years old and arthritic and walked with a cane and did not carry a gun. When one of the mill workers drank too much he was locked up by the sheriff in the back of the store in a room behind the bar which served as a jail. But this didn't happen very often as there were only three hundred people in St. Claire and thirty-six of them were children.
Yet on this November in 1890, the town was filled with anger and rage, for there had taken place the savage rape and brutal murder of a woman. She was nineteen years old and newly married and had been raped and killed on a Saturday evening as she walked home from the Elm Café where she worked as a waitress.
Marshal Cody Justus, based in Flat Head, had traveled by train to St. Claire and within three days had arrested a drifter named Milton Scroll. Now the prisoner was being held in the storeroom in the back of the general store and the whole town was anxious for a trial followed by a hanging. That there would be a hanging was not deniable. St. Claire was a law and order town and the citizens would have their hanging.
And in every way Scroll was a despicable person. He was five feet eight inches tall with an ugly round face covered by angry red splotches and floppy ears and a fat nose and heavy cheeks. His curly red hair was thick and dirty and his teeth yellow from tobacco. He was sloppy all over and had large, ham like arms and very big hands and even bigger feet and walked in an awkward way. He had black eyes that shone with intense anger and he was never well dressed or equipped with good manners. Scroll went unshaved, his clothes were always dirty and he stank of sweat and alcohol. He disliked women and children and went out of his way to be rude. And almost every afternoon he was at the bar, throwing down whisky after whisky until he was drunk. Then he became mean and surly. He would curse and flail his arms about and shout threats at the men standing at the bar. Then the sheriff and several men would have to take Scroll into the back room and leave him there chained to the floor until he was sober, which usually took all night and part of the next morning and sometimes longer than that.
Scroll had no morals. Life meant little too him. He was good with a knife and a six gun and was drunk every day and Scroll said he was drunk when he raped and killed Ann Babcock. He said he was so drunk he didn't know he had shot her five times and stabbed her through the neck. Now he sat chained to the floor of the store room awaiting trial. He was fed twice a day and taken to the outhouse twice a day and he tried all day and night to pull the chain from the floor. But it was a sturdy chain attached to a heavy iron divot screwed deep into the floor and he was unable to move the chain even a little.
Meanwhile, Cody was having dinner at the Elm Café. Yesterday he had captured Scroll and locked him in the storage room. Cody did not like having to keep a killer in such a primitive jail but the town wanted a trial and he had no choice. While he ate he listened to talk from several men at a table next to his.
"Ask me, we don't need no trial", a stout man with a brown beard said."Just ought to take the skunk out behind the store and hang him."
"I agree with you Amos", a thin man with a bald head wearing a blue shirt said. "Don't make sense wasting time and all on a trial. Everybody knows he done it."
"Well, we need to have a trial so the town don't look bad", replied a third man. He was tall with wide shoulders and dressed all in gray. "Won't take but half a day. Besides, we already sent for the judge."
"I heard he's a hanging judge", Amos said. "That's the only good thing about having a trial."
"Say, who's gonna do the hanging?", asked the man in the blue shirt.
Amos, working on a huge wedge of apple pie set his fork down and leaned back in his chair, his eyes wide with wonderment. "I never thought about it", he said. "We never had no hanging before."
"Somebody has to hang him", the man in the blue shirt replied.
Amos looked perplexed. "I guess we gotta have a meetin and talk about it", he said, picking up his fork, attacking his pie.
The man in gray pushed his plate away and looked over at Amos. "Would you hang him?', he asked.
"Who, me?", Amos replied, startled, a forkful of pie halfway to his mouth.
"What if the town wants you to hang him? Would you?", the man in gray asked Amos.
"Well, I don't know", Amos told his table companions. "I just don't know", he said, leaning back, setting his fork on his plate.
The man in gray took a pipe and tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket, filled the pipe, struck a match and lit up, puffing vigorously, blowing little clouds of blue smoke. "Course, we could hire a hangman", he said.
"Well I just don't know", Amos said. "How much would it cost?"
"Two hundred dollars. Maybe three hundred", the man in gray replied.
"That's a lot of money!", Amos said.
"Nobody in town wants to do it, we gotta hire it done", the man in gray said, puffing on his pipe.
"Now I'll tell you Silus, we gotta think this over", Amos answered. "That's a lot of money for a hangin."
"What if we give you a hundred dollars? You do the Job, Amos?", Silus asked.
"Well I don't know. I just don't know", Amos answered, looking troubled.
"Problem is, if we don't get someone from St. Claire, we gotta pay to have it done", Silus said with finality.
"Are we gonna build a gallows?", the man in the blue shirt asked.
"A gallows. Why that could take four, maybe five days", Amos exclaimed.
"Then how we gonna hang him?', the blue shirt asked.
"I guess we put him on a horse and throw a rope over a tree", Amso answered.
Cody turned and looked at the three men. "You could let me take him to Flat Head."
"Now marshal, we got respect for the law in St. Claire", Amos told Cody. "But we gotta handle this ourselves. Right here. We don't need you to take Scroll to Flat Head."
"Suit yourselves", Cody said, pushing back from his chair as he stood up and walked to the counter where he paid his bill and left the café.
The three men finished dinner, paid their bills and left the café and walked out into the street where the night was turning cold. "When's the judge supposed to get here?", Amos asked.
"Day after tomorrow", Silus answered, rolling and lighting a cigarette.
"They gonna close the mill for the trail", Amos told him. "Be a big thing to see."
"Biggest thing ever in St. Claire", Silus said. "Well, good night Amos. See you in the morning", he told his friend as he turned and walked down the street towards his little white house.
Several minutes later Cody went to the general store and walked into the back, fished a key from his pocket and opened the door to check on the prisoner who was just finishing dinner. "They was late with my supper", Scroll said, wiping at a tin plate with a hunk of bread, looking up at Cody, a wall mounted oil lamp casting splotches of yellow light into the room.
"Your lucky the town's feeding you at all", Cody told him. " And just so you know the judge'll be here day after tomorrow."
"Yeah, well maybe I won't be here", Scroll snarled up at Cody.
"You'll be here all right", Cody told him, pulling the door shut and locking it.
But then the judge did not come. A great storm gathered itself and blew for three days and deluged Montana with several feet of snow. Trains could not run and there was no way for the judge to make it for at least several more days and maybe he wouldn't make it for a week.
The town grew restless waiting for the judge and one cold Friday afternoon, while wind raced over the little town and snow clouds gathered, the bar at Teeters was crowded two deep. Men drank too much and jostled for position. "I don't think we outa wait any more for a judge", Amos said, standing in front of the bar, addressing the men.
"Let's just go hang him now", a tall man with a long gray beard said.
"All we need's a rope and a horse", another man said. "We can take him out behind Teeters. There's a big pine right behind the outhouse."
"Yeah, let's string him up", another man in a red flannel shirt said.
"Now just a minute", Silus said, shoving through the crowd to stand next to Amos. "We can't hang him. We ain't had a trail. We gotta wait for the judge."
"No we don't! The hell you say", shouted a young man at the end of the bar. "You forgetin what he done?"
"No, I ain't forgetin", Silus replied. "But we gotta follow the law."
"And you will follow the law!", Cody said, pushing his way to the front of the bar. "They'll be no lynching!" The crowd quieted down and Amos looked uncomfortable as he stood looking at Cody. "I'm closing the bar now. It's going to stay closed until the judge get's here."
"When's that gonna be?", Amos asked.
"I don't know. But if he doesn't get her in two days, I'm taking the prisoner to Flat Head. Now break it up and go home!"
But the crowd did not like it. Not even a little. They gathered outside and talked in agitated tones and then went to their homes and returned in front of the store with a collection of guns: rifles, shotguns, big pistols and even an old blunderbuss. Then the crowd began walking to Teeter's store. Two of the men held a coiled rope with a noose fashioned at one end and another man led a gray plow horse. The men were serious, intent and angry. They walked in a tight knot of fifteen men.
As they approached the store and drew close Cody Justus opened the door and stood on the porch, a rifle in his right hand. "Go home!",Cody shouted. But the men kept coming. Cody fired two shots over the head of the crowd and they drew up suddenly and stopped.
"You aim to shoot us all marshal?", Amos called out from the front of the crowd. He was holding a shotgun.
"You'll be the first man I shoot", Cody replied. "I told you there'd be no lynching. Now go home!"
"We ain't going home", a man called out. "We're gonna hang that murdering scum right now."
Cody fired another round over the head of the crowd. "Don't ask for trouble", he shouted.
Then Amos raised his shotgun and pointed it at Cody and suddenly Cody lowered his rifle and fired a shot. The slug slammed into the right arm of Amos and he dropped the shotgun and grasped his right arm and called out in pain. "Now the next one will mean business!", Cody yelled. "Any man here wants to die, come on ahead." Cody looked at the crowd and could tell they were wavering and then Silus took Amos and began walking him over to the doctors' office so he could have his arm looked after.
But then a man at the front of the crowd drew a pistol and fired at Cody and Cody went down on the porch and drew his pistol and fired at the man and sent a slug straight into his chest. The man did an awkward little right turn and went down dead onto the street. Cody fired at another man who was raising his rifle and sent a bulleting crashing into his left shoulder and the man spun down hard onto the dirt.
Then the old sheriff was there with a double barrel shotgun and he fired one barrel go into the air and the crowd turned and looked at him. "There's been enough killing. We ain't gonna have no more, lest I do it. Put your guns on the ground. All of you!" For an old man he had a stern voice and the crowd was startled by his sudden appearance and his willingness to use the shotgun and they lay down their weapons in the street and stood back. "Now, go home. It's over. You can come by Teeter's in the morning and pick up your guns", he said and one by one the crowd dispersed and the old sheriff went over to Cody and helped him up off the porch.
Lawrence Garascia is a retired sales professional who lives in Cincinnati. He has traveled the West extensively, including Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, and has always been interested in western themed fiction. His work has only been published in Frontier Tales and he plans to send more stories for publication consideration.
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by Dave Barr
The sun hadn't come up over the distant New Mexican hills when Naco heard the horses in the yard. The carpenter realized it must be something important, but his hangover refused to let him out of bed. So, he waited until someone started pounding on his door before rolling off the bunk, and staggered to the basin where he splashed water in his face. The cracked mirror above the bowl revealed the mustached face of a man in his thirties with a small tuft of beard curling under his lip. The eyes were bleary, and there were deep creases along both cheeks. It was a face that had seen many Las Vegas mornings, and would probably go on seeing them for years to come.
Whoever was at his door began shouting, the voice raspy from the morning chill. "Ai! Naco! Wake up, you butcher of trees! There is someone who will pay for your skill! Wake up and greet the sun, you dirty devil!"
Rodriguez. Of all the people in town, why did it have to be Rodriguez? Naco groaned as he yanked the front door open in irritation. "And what do you want this early?" he asked.
Rodriguez wrinkled his nose, "Ah, it is good that you are up amigo! We come from the village to fetch you and your tools. The rich owner of a broken wagon is in a great hurry, there is dinero to be made! So, come Naco, and greet the sun!"
"Let them bring it here," Naco grumped, and made to shut the door, but Rodriguez had stuck his boot against it.
"Oh no, amigo! This is a job you must go to!" The man smiled showing off his gold tooth.
Naco leaned against his doorway, knowing that Rodriguez was not above playing a trick on him, even at this ungodly hour of the morning. Fortunately, there was another rider present, a young man Naco had seen around lately. "Is he lying?" he asked.
The young man grinned, "No, señor, there is a wagon that needs repaired." He shrugged. "That is all I know of it."
Naco sighed, "Let me dress, and gather some tools." Twenty minutes later the carpenter had pulled on an almost clean shirt, and stuffed his pants into the top of his boots. Naco packed his tool chest on the donkey while the others saddled his old gelding for him. As they rode to town Naco asked, "Who is this person that wakes a man with the promise of money?"
Rodriguez' face was hidden in the shadows of his sombrero, "Not an hombre, Naco! A woman of surpassing beauty! I think she is running from something, so she will pay you well for your services!" He smiled.
Naco's stomach heeled over at the mention of a young woman. "Where is she from, this woman?"
"I believe she mentioned Chihuahua," Rodriguez answered.
Now Naco knew why Rodriguez had ridden all the way to his place to fetch him. He reined in his horse. "Rodriguez, you know I would rather not—"
But the vaquero interrupted, "Naco, how can you turn down work when you owe money to so many of your friends?" Then Rodriguez reached over, and slapped Naco's horse with his reins. The old horse jumped and trotted ahead, pulling the donkey's lead line so that the ass brayed its annoyance into the sunrise.
Naco resigned himself to making the best of a bad job, and the two riders closed up behind him. The new man spoke to Rodriguez. "Why would he not take this job?"
"It's not the job," Rodriquez answered, "It's where it comes from. You are new around here, so you don't know señor Naco like the rest of us."
The rider looked at the carpenter's back. "Why is he so special?"
Rodriguez gestured at Naco. "The man on that horse used to be one of the toughest pistoleros in Old Mexico, and he was very quick on the draw." The vaquero's laugh was a brittle sound in the cool of the morning, "But one day there was a gunfight in a little fly-speck village called St. Vincente." Rodriguez shrugged. "There was shooting. Our carpenter heard noises behind a fence, and fired his guns through it, killing a young girl who was shielding her little brother. It was an accident, but the girl's death broke our Naco. He left Chihuahua, and moved north. Now he kills trees instead of people. He is a good carpenter when he is sober, but it is getting harder and harder to catch him in that state," Rodriguez laughed again.
Naco listened to Rodriguez tell his story. The carpenter thought back to that day when his reflexes had ended a young life. He had sworn never to kill again, and he had kept that vow but, God in Heaven, it was hard to do when he had to listen to someone like Rodriguez talking about him. The trio arrived in Las Vegas just as the cocks were crowing from the manure heaps, waking the town from a night's sleep.
The woman was in the plaza waiting for them. Although she called herself Señora Consuela, Naco was certain she could not be more than sixteen years old. The carpenter shrugged. He knew there were many girls in Mexico who already had several children at this age. Naco winced inwardly at the thought of children, and went to look at the wagon. The señora had loaded a heavy trunk in the rear of a one horse buckboard, and driven over trails too rough for the light vehicle. Now the wagon was in a sad state of repair. There were cracked boards in the wagons bed, which had allowed the rear springs to pull loose, and the wheels to slide out of alignment.
Naco looked the job over. Not as bad as he feared, but worse than he could fix quickly. "I probably can get it fixed by tomorrow, señora," he shrugged. "I'll need to make some parts to replace what is broken. Your trunk is too heavy for the wagon," he pointed out," it will have to be removed for the work to progress."
Consuela baulked at this. "I would prefer not to remove my things. I have a small bag I can change out of," she said.
Naco sighed, "It will slow the job down . . . "
"Señor . . . Naco," Consuela said, "I do not wish the trunk to be removed from the wagon. I trust I have made that clear. Now, can you repair it or not?"
Naco looked at the job. "Si señora." He shook his head in disgust, and unhitched the horse. The wagon was so light that he should have been able to move it himself but, with the trunk in the back, Naco found it stiff going. Rodriguez only laughed when Naco asked for a hand pushing the wagon over to the livery stable, but the other rider dismounted and helped.
"Damn thing weighs a ton," Naco grunted as he heaved, and the rider agreed. "You're new in town," the carpenter said as he surveyed the damages.
The man nodded. "I'm just passing through," he said as he dusted off his hands, and selected his next words with care. "Your friend told me an interesting story about you."
Naco grunted. "That one talks and talks. His words mean nothing," but he did not look at the new man as he answered.
"Is it true?" the young man asked as he leaned against the doorway.
The carpenter paused and turned to look at the new man. Naco had a feeling that he already knew this fellow, although he had never met him until this morning. "A man can be in two places, and be two different men, amigo," he said slowly. "The Naco who came from Chihuahua is not the Naco you are talking to now."
The young man considered this wisdom for a moment before nodding solemnly and leaving the carpenter to his work.
Naco labored on the wagon all day. It was good to be busy for a change, but the job was difficult because of the trunk. As evening fell the carpenter looked over toward the cantina where the señora was staying the night since Las Vegas had no hotel. Naco looked at the lights, listened to the laughter, and made a decision about that damn trunk. There was a block and tackle hanging from a rafter in the livery, and with the trunk out of the wagon he could be done this evening. Naco shrugged, and started working the chains under the heavy box.
Over in the cantina Rodriguez nursed a beer, and tried to think what to do next. At first, he thought he would go over, and talk to that pretty Señora Consuela, but she made it clear she wasn't interested in a rangy vaquero. Rodriquez didn't have enough money to gamble, so he decided to see if that splinter-shaver Naco was still on the job. Maybe he would get lucky, and catch the son-of-bitch drunk, or asleep under the wagon.
But Naco was hard at work when Rodriguez strutted into the stable. The lady's trunk was sitting on the floor now, and the repairs were going much faster. "I thought she didn't want that moved?" Rodriguez said.
"I had no choice, and if you keep your mouth shut for a change, she doesn't need to know it ever was," Naco said, without looking up.
"Looks like you dropped it," Rodriguez pointed to a dent in the dirt floor.
"That's nothing, the trunk is very sturdy," the carpenter replied. "Hand me that block if you're not doing anything. With a little luck I will have this done tonight!"
Rodriguez nodded, and sat on a bale of straw to watch.
"Hey hombre," Naco said as he fastened a board down. "I got a little money, why don't you go buy us some mescal for later?"
Rodriguez thought this was an excellent idea, and went for the drink. But Naco never turned up, so the vaquero finished the bottle alone.
The riders came at daybreak. There were three hard men, each packing two pistols, and looking for a certain buckboard wagon. They found Consuela in the cantina, and hustled her across the street to the livery where the wagon and trunk were. The girl was forced to produce the key, and the lid opened, but the trunk was empty. "The carpenter has robbed me!" Consuela wailed.
Just then a whistle from the square drew everyone's attention. The banditos looked out into the plaza, and saw a pistolero lounging by the fountain with the morning sun at his back. The man was dressed in black from his sombrero to his boots. A red bandanna was tied around his forehead under his hat, and the ruffles on his white shirt fluttered in the morning breeze. Naco the pistolero stood relaxed although his hands hovered close to the well-worn holsters carrying long-barreled .44's.
Seeing that there was only one man the bandits strode out of the barn, and lined up facing the stranger. The leader slowly cut a piece of chewing tobacco, and looked at their adversary. "Hey hombre, what you want here?" he asked as he tucked the plug away.
Naco stood easy with his boot cocked up on a silver spur. "I come for the girl," he said.
The leader glanced at Consuela standing beside one of his men, "She don't look like she wants to go, amigo," the man chewed, and spat juice, "I think you should go now, and leave this business to us."
"She owes me money for my repairs," Naco said.
The leader was puzzled now, "You the carpenter?" he asked.
"I know wood," Naco answered, and stroked his mustache.
"Then you know what was in the trunk," the leader chewed slowly.
"More importantly, I know where it is now," Naco grinned, "Release the girl, and I tell you something."
"Just like that, eh?" the leader smiled.
"Si. Just like that," the carpenter said.
As this scene was playing itself out, Rodriguez stumbled into the cantina through the backdoor. The vaquero's head was thumping from a hangover and he couldn't quite remember where Naco had found the silver for the mescal. Rodriguez smiled at the thought of drinking all of the liquor without sharing with the carpenter, and he poured a cup of black coffee before walking into the barroom. Nobody greeted him though; everyone was looking out into the square. Rodriguez walked over to the swinging doors, and saw Naco facing down three men.
"Christo!" he said, "The hombre is loco!"
The new man in town looked up from loading his guns, and nodded, "Si, two guns against six aren't good odds."
"Two guns my ass!" Rodriguez said, "That fool sold me his pistols when he came to town! He doesn't own a gun!"
The new man gritted his teeth as he looked out the door. "I believe señor Naco could use some help then," he said, and stepped out into the square taking up a place to Naco's left.
Rodriguez stood in the cantina a moment fuming to himself before storming out the swinging doors muttering, "I'll be damned if a fool carpenter is gonna show me up . . . " and took a stand on Naco's right.
Naco played the sudden appearance of help to perfection. He leaned back a little, and turned to his neighbor on the left, "Are the others in position?" he asked loudly.
The new man smiled and nodded.
Naco faced the bandits. "Drop the iron, or die," he said.
One bandit looked around uncertainly, but the leader went for his guns, and then the others did as well. The quiet plaza suddenly became a shooting gallery with lead flying everywhere. When the smoke cleared the bandits were dead. The new man had received a slight wound while Rodriguez had his hat shot off his head, but Naco, who had never drawn his guns, was shot in the chest and had seen his last sunrise.
The two men knelt over the fallen carpenter, trying to ease his last moments. Consuela ran up with a dipper of water from the fountain. The dying man smiled at her, "It's . . . in the livery stalls," he whispered to her, "the . . . trunk slipped . . . when I moved it."
"What's in the stalls?" Rodriguez asked.
"The silver those men stole from us in Chihuahua," the girl answered.
Naco winced in pain as he explained, "I . . . had to move . . . the trunk, señora. It slipped . . . and popped open . . . when it hit the floor. When I saw . . . what was inside . . . I knew . . . that someone very bad . . . would be following you. So . . . I hid . . . the silver. I . . . thought to replace . . . it before you . . . left town. But . . . when I rode home . . . last night . . . those three were camped . . . by the road. I heard them . . . talking," he gasped for breath.
The new man took up the tale. "Consuela and I found bags of silver coins buried in a cave," he said. "It is very old, perhaps dating from when the Spaniards were in Mexico, and those men stole it from us, but we tricked them, and left them locked in a calaboose in Chihuahua. Consuela and I decided to come north, and start a new life here, so I came ahead looking for a place for us." The new man paused, and looked at the carpenter sternly, "That was when I heard of señor Naco from this man," he nodded to Rodriguez, "and knew I must avenge my sister."
Naco smiled. "It's been . . . fifteen years, but . . . I knew you looked . . . familiar." Blood clogged his mouth.
"If you see her, I think she might forgive you," the young man said quietly.
"Do . . . you?" Naco asked.
"When you put yourself out there for Consuela you earned my forgiveness and respect." The younger man nodded grimly."Your past is wiped clean." Then he smiled faintly as he drew Consuela to him, and looked at Naco's still holstered guns.
"I . . . carved them . . . last night," the carpenter whispered. "I . . . thought I could bluff . . . them." He looked at Rodriguez. "Hey . . . I leave you my tools . . . Quit . . . talking so much . . . learn a trade . . . You'll live longer . . . " And Naco faded away.
"Madre de Dios," Rodriguez muttered as he pulled a .44 from Naco's holster. The splinter-shaver had faced his last battle with pistols made of wood.
Dave Barr has enjoyed traveling around the American west for over thirty years. He's had several stories
published by Frontier Tales, and has completed a western novella. Dave currently resides in Columbus,
Ohio where he tends his garden and dreams of hiking the canyons of Utah.
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by Steve Myers
The day he came riding through the creek, crossing in the shallows with the water rippling over the rocks and sparkling in the sunlight, she was sitting in her straight-back chair with the cushion, sitting on the back porch and just looking straight ahead out across the creek and through the trees toward the far fields and the long plain beyond like she had done every afternoon until sunset since I knew her, for six years by then, as more than "that crazy old lady the Comanche took", ever since my mother ordered me to do "Miss Beckett's chores and do them right or first it'll be me and then it'll be your father that will take a switch to your backside." She was wrong about the switch—Dad liked the razor strop—but I didn't argue about it. I was eight and old enough to take over the job from my brother Henry, who had taken it over from cousin Lucas when Lucas went to the War- Between-the-States.
Miss Beckett was old and frail and lived alone on the edge of town. Twice a week the preacher's wife or one of the daughters or two church ladies brought her a basket of food covered by a white cloth. They didn't visit. They set the food down on the front porch, knocked on the door, and left. Once in a great while, someone would leave store goods like a bolt of cloth or lady's shoes or such. My mother always sent flour or sugar or stuff she'd canned, like peaches and pears. One winter when Miss Beckett was sick with fever my mother stayed three whole days watching over her, putting cold cloths on her head, and sitting there next to the bed and reading the bible. She said it was little to do considering what all had happened to the poor woman.
You see, Miss Beckett was fifteen when the Comanche raided her folks' place back in thirty-five and killed her mother and father and three brothers and took her off. She lived with them for eleven years until the Rangers came across a Comanche camp. There was a hell of a fight and the Rangers escaped but rescued Miss Beckett. The story was the youngest Ranger, Henry Collins, was the one who snatched her up and rode out with her hanging on while arrows flew. He was the only man come visit her and about twice a month he'd bring a chair out onto the porch and sit with her and smoke his pipe. He'd talk to her in a low soft voice like you would to a baby almost or a horse that you were trying to calm. He'd talk but she'd never answer, at least not any time I was around carrying water or chopping wood. He was about fifty or so and still fit. He quit the Rangers and had a good ranch, where he spent most of his time, but when he planned to visit Miss Beckett he'd spend a few days in town with his sister. Folks said it was a shame he'd never married, being so set on Miss Violet Beckett once he rescued her. They said that of course no white man could marry a woman who'd "been violated" by Comanches. (I asked my mother what violated meant and she said, "Something you're not to know." Dad said, "It's what Comanche do to women." I didn't understand because she wasn't scalped or cut up at all. By the time I was twelve I understood it had to do with sex and she had married an Indian.)
Mr. Collins was a true live hero. He fought against the Mexicans in that war and was the only Ranger to survive the Sandford Wells massacre. After his wounds healed, he hunted down the renegade Apache Jack's gang and killed all six by himself. My father said, "Hank has a backbone of iron and a will to match." Then he fought against the Yankees under Colonel Perry. He came back to face down the Priestly brothers in a shootout. He killed all three but took a bullet in his left shoulder and two in his right leg. He had a slight limp and he said that a chunk of lead was still "hiding somewheres" in his thigh.
That afternoon I had just filled her wood box with kindling and was carrying her water pail to the well when I heard something and looked over to the creek and there he was, coming through the shallows. He was dressed like a drover with a wide-brimmed hat and a red neckerchief. He wore a side-arm and there was a carbine in the scabbard on the horse. I watched him as he crossed the creek, slowly passed the woodshed and outhouse, and paused by the well. Then I saw he was an Indian, maybe forty or so. His black hair was chopped just below his ears and a white scar went from his ear to his chin along the left cheek. He gave me a hard look and then rode up to the porch.
I set the pail down and went to the porch. I didn't know what he meant to do, and I thought I needed, somehow, to protect Miss Beckett. I was fourteen and near man-sized.
He looked down at me and smiled. "You get water?"
"Well, get water."
I looked at Miss Beckett. She nodded.
While I dropped the wooden well-bucket down, filled it, and then filled the water pail from it, the Indian waited. I carried the water by him and into the house. When I went back out, he was standing on the ground in front of the porch.
He said something I didn't understand. I guess it was Indian talk, maybe Comanche. But it wasn't rough or harsh—it was soft and easy, almost musical, like a song floating on his breath. Miss Beckett only looked at me, said nothing and didn't move.
He asked, "You forgot? So long, so long. They stole that too?"
Miss Beckett's mouth opened but she didn't speak. She clutched her dress with both hands and began to cry, not loud or shaking, no, not like that, but a silent deep down sort of crying like I'd seen my mother do at my grandmother's grave.
"Where is he? Is he here? This house?" He nodded toward me. "His son?"
Miss Beckett shook her head.
He said something again, harsher this time.
Miss Beckett stiffened. She answered so quietly it was not much more than a whisper: "They will kill you."
He turned to me. "Bring me water to drink."
I looked at Miss Beckett and she said, "Do as he says."
I went in and filled a dipper from the bucket. I brought it out to him and he drank it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He handed me the dipper and said to Miss Beckett. "They have tried many times and I am still here."
Miss Beckett said, "Boy, find Mr. Collins. Bring him here."
"You want me to get Mr. Collins?"
That afternoon was the first time she had spoken to me. All those years the most she'd ever do is nod or point. I figured it had to be important, so I ran straight to his sister's.
Mr. Collins was in the parlor with his sister's husband.
I rushed in and said, "Mr. Collins, Miss Beckett wants to see you right away."
"What? What? She does?"
"She sure does. There's a man there and—"
"Yes, sir, an Indian."
"What? An Indian?"
The sister's husband said, "Don't sound right, Hank. You better go armed. Maybe I best go with you."
Mr. Collins took his gun belt and holster and Colt from the hook on the wall and strapped it on under his coat. "I can handle any damn Indian by myself, Fred." Then to me: "Get going—I'm right behind you."
I ran back to Miss Beckett's with Mr. Collins following as fast as he could. When we went around the corner of the house, the Indian was standing there waiting. Miss Beckett stood up so suddenly her chair tipped over and the cushion slid to the porch.
Mr. Collins said, "Violet, you all right?"
Miss Beckett pointed at Mr. Collins and said, "He's the one."
The Indian drew his pistol and shot Mr. Collins. I jumped back at the flash and froze. Mr. Collins lay on the ground with a hole in his forehead. The Indian gave me a long look, holstered the pistol, turned, got on his horse, and slowly rode by the wall, past the outhouse and shed, crossed the creek at the shallows, went through the trees, and headed out to the plains beyond.
Miss Beckett righted the chair, placed the cushion just the way she wanted, and sat down. She watched the Indian ride away.
I told what happened to the sheriff, the Rangers, the newspapermen from Dallas and all the way to St. Louis, and anyone else who stopped by. I couldn't say more than what I saw since there was no way I understood it.
Miss Beckett? She never spoke another word for eleven years until the day she died and mumbled something. Some people said it was in Comanche and some said it meant "son" but my dad said, "Damn fools can't speak Comanche any more than my dog."
Steve Myers grew up in small coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where his father and great-grandfather were miners. He served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam war. These experiences and others acquainted him intimately with the brutality that all types of people are capable of, as well as the tenderness that surfaces in unexpected places.
After his military service, Steve graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Kent State University. He has worked as an electrician and in data acquisition and analysis, and is retired from Procter & Gamble. Steve has published short fiction, poetry, and novels. Find Steve at www.stevenjmyersstories.com
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The Black Coin, Part 1 of 3
by David Armand
The sun slid down the massive mauve sky like an egg yolk in a heavily-larded cast-iron skillet, putting the
plateaus in the distance in stark silhouette as young Billy Ketchum looked up and then past the blackening
circle the campfire made around the chaparral. He looked out over the naked grasslands to the west, where he
watched the sun descend and then its subsequent majestic limning of the moon—everything beneath the
planets turning a dark navy color as the myriad spray of stars glossed the firmament in misty white light.
Billy's father was lying in the dirt just a few feet away, his black Stetson cocked over his eyes and his
legs crossed just at the knees, his slightly-dusted boots close to the clicking flamelight as he slept, or
at least seemed to. It had been a long day for the both of them.
Behind the boy and to his right two painted horses nickered. One was his and the other belonged to his father.
The horses' flared nostrils chuffed up little clouds of dust like smoke from one of the trains back at the
railhead, which you could see just across the flatland during the day but which was as invisible now as the
sun tucked behind the plateau. They would be there come morning—near the Aransas Pass Railway—and
then they would continue on, farther west into Presidio County where they would look for ranch work.
Billy listened as the horses nudged restlessly at the splayed clusters of switchgrass, which looked like the ends
of old paintbrushes jutting out from the ground. He could hear their ropes creak as the horses tugged against the
Joshua trees to which they were hitched, occasionally breathing out notes of warm air as a singular coyote moaned in the distant and newly-minted dark. The boy sat in the fire's warmth and watched his father sleep, snoring loudly. He had drunk a good bit of Old Crow that evening and was out cold.
Billy leaned over and laid a blanket over him. It was cooling off from what it had been earlier in the day. By midnight it would be fifty degrees. The boy then pulled his own dusty Navajo blanket across his shoulders and spit into the dying fire, whose sporadic light made his pale and dirtied face look like a carefully-sculpted saucer of dough with charcoal fingerprints run across it. He would have to wash at the next river or creekbed he came to. But for now he'd stay dirty. It made him look older anyway, and that might prove to his benefit if he went through with what he was thinking about doing.
Then the boy stood, kicking a tiny spray of dirt onto the fire to see if it would wake his father. He waited there for a moment to see if his old man would stir and when he didn't Billy crept over to one of the Joshua trees where his father's Colt Single Action Army revolver hung in its worn holster from one of the tree's warped branches. It was as though some curved arm were passing the holster to the boy. Billy lifted it, looked down at his father again, who was still asleep, and then he looked at the nickeled barrel of the gun: the worn wooden handle, the etchings made there by some careful hand, probably put there before he was even born.
Loosing the thong over the hammer, Billy took out the gun and turned the heavy weapon over in his palm, feeling its heft and the deadly weight of it. The gun seemed to almost flicker under the moonlight, its reflection coruscating over Billy's pale skin. It was as if it were alive. The boy thought about what this weapon had done earlier today. How it had taken another man's life. And how it seemed to quiver now in his seemingly small fingers.
Briefly the boy thought about shooting his father but he knew he could never do that. He still loved him. And he would miss him. He knew that too. And although he would pine for those long days on horseback, riding across the flatlands under the sun with his father, he knew he had to leave. But it would be hard. For every day in his collection of memories they had ridden like that. The two of them together. The boy and his father. And it was always the ride—endless-seeming and full of mystery even—which kept the boy next to his old man up until now, a man who himself was an enigma: quiet, a smoker of tobacco and a drinker of Old Crow whiskey. He kept a pewter shotglass tied to his saddle's worn pommel with a length of frayed rope and when they stopped somewhere to rest, his father would fill the squat cup with the warm, amber-and-dusty-looking liquid and drink it.
Once he had shared his whiskey with the boy and Billy can still remember the warmth of it going down his gullet all the way to his stomach and somehow he could feel it go down to the tips of his toes. It was a warmth he would not know again until he was much older: when he would lie down with a girl in a hayrick in the back of a weather-worn and slatted old barn somewhere out in the desert at a ranch he was working in Mexico—the sunlight and the tiny motes of dust coming in through the slats in sporadic straight lines like myriad ribs of light. It is the warmth that can be derived only from good whiskey or a woman, but the boy would not know this for several years to come. Until now he had been at the mercy of his father and the experiences the old man had created for them. Which up until earlier today had been mostly good ones. Working and riding the uncharted land. Seeing new things. Meeting new people.
But Billy's father was a stern man. Quiet. With a hint of anger about his countenance. The boy often studied him as they rode. Once he sketched him with a piece of charcoal on some crumpled yellowed paper he kept in his satchel. The old man always had a perpetual hint of beard, like sandpaper, sprouting across his weathered cheeks, only the handlebars of a thick black mustache fully grown in and graying more and more each day, it seemed. The charcoal sketching captured these things, somehow the worried look in his father's eyes making him look older in the portrait than his actual years bespoke.
Come to think of it, Billy didn't even know how old his father was, didn't even know the man's middle name, or if he had one at all. He knew his father's first name was Thomas, and Billy just called him "Paw." And at the end of the day that's all that really mattered to him anyway: having a father. Nothing else. Not a middle name. Certainly not his age—those were just numbers after all, weren't they? The man never mentioned those things to Billy and so to the boy they didn't matter either.
What mattered during those long days of riding was this: the shadows cast over the plains by the slowly-moving thunderheads, which loped across the sky like buffalo, their obese shadows moving over the endless grasslands to his left or to his right, and sailing slowly over the prairie as if on their own time, the chronos of a fogged memory, a tableau. A dream.
And this: the land spooling out flat before them like reams of paper coming out of a printing press. The drooping strands of rusted barbed wire, set like a plumb line, hung on weathered wooden posts, some decorated with the tails of rattlesnakes or the skulls of cattle, long dead, dangling like so many talisman and bleached by the unforgiving white disc of sun that seemed to always sit, looking down, baking everything beneath it into a dry, hard crust.
Occasionally Billy would also see the hulking shadows of wooden oil derricks in the distance—like so many Eiffel towers in miniature, their pumpjacks in perpetual movement as those mechanical arms pulled the oil up from beneath the earth. How rich the men who owned those must have been, Billy thought. How different their lives from his, which was always in motion: going from one place to the next in search of work with his father. Wrangling someone else's stock, working another man's land. But Billy loved his father and wouldn't have traded any of this for all the money that oil could bring. Money wasn't permanent. It was the land that would always be here. Waiting for him.
And it was because his father rarely said a word during these seemingly endless drives across the oft-vacant cattle country of West Texas that all there was for the boy to do was to look out at the only land he had known his whole life and think about all of these things. It still managed to mystify him, too, still put him in a state of awe and wonder. The oranges, browns, mauves, reds, all juxtaposed against a cobalt blue sky. Sometimes it felt like too much for him to bear, like if the old horse he rode on was carrying too much weight and suddenly its knobbed legs would just buckle, shooting plumes of dust up into the air as the horse collapsed in the middle of the desert somewhere. Where would he be then?
Billy looked ahead and he didn't speak as they rode, the horses' unshod hooves pounding against the hardpan like an Indian drum mallet, a taut leather hide pulled over its round head and counting out iambs like an endless heartbeat across the plains. The only other sound was the windrush through the boy's hair and across the brim of his hat as they rode, the occasional nicker from one of their horses. They had ridden for almost two hundred miles like this and it was the last leg of their journey before reaching the ranch in Presidio County where his father expected to have work for some time coming. Billy had once hoped they wouldn't ever have to move again. But now, after what had happened today, he knew he would be moving for the rest of his life, whether he decided to stay with his old man or not.
Billy sat in the dark while his father slept nearby—whiskey-deep and next to the fire—the boy's boots scraping at the caliche the whole while as he anticipated his next move. He thought again about riding through the plains with his father to find work. And what he'd seen earlier. What he'd learned about his father, Thomas Ketchum. The boy turned his old man's gun over and over in his hand as he thought about the recently-passed day. He listened to the horses stomp at the dusty ground and chuff out warm air from their nostrils as they pulled at the switchgrass and crunched it between their fat orange-and-yellow teeth. He simply didn't know what else to do but listen and think and watch.
Then the boy finally stood among the chaparral and looked into the dark, slowly placing the gun in its holster, then hanging it back onto the branch of the Joshua tree. The two horses stood like sentinels on the cracked ground—the myriad tiny fissures like so many veins carved into the hardpan: like an old map of various unexplored rivers or trails perhaps, their endless angles etched out in random patterns that couldn't be deciphered by any man, could certainly not be known by the likes of this boy and his father, who until earlier today had seemed hardworking and predictable. But that had all changed when his father held up a saloon and they had gone on the run. This is what had happened:
They had come to Langtry, Texas. The town was about what you'd expect. Wooden hitching rails lined the storefronts, some of which looked long abandoned, their soaped windows covered with yellowed newspapers, flapping downward where the tape had lost its grip, owing a brief view inside at the dusty, sun-deprived air, the empty wooden shelves which in better times had stocked dry goods and various tack for the animals people here had once depended on. Now it was all vacant. Dark and with lonely motes of dust floating in the air.
After riding down the muddy avenue that cut through the center of the town like a hatchet mark, and getting a fairly good look at the place, Billy and his father finally stopped in front of a small saloon. It was called The Jersey Lilly. The two dismounted, then hitched their horses to one of the wooden rails in front of the drooping building.
Billy's father unholstered his Colt .45, flipped open the loading gate, and spun the cylinder once for good measure before clicking it in place. Then he put the gun back. You could see the wooden grip protruding from the top of the holster now as the barrel rested against his thigh. He never went inside a place without doing this first. Checking his gun to be sure it was loaded. And for the boy, this was a ritual that he had come to depend on seeing every time they went somewhere. Something about watching his father do this comforted him, even though the old man never seemed to find cause to use the gun. But he soon would, Billy would learn.
The boy and his father stood before the sagging porch for a moment, simultaneously looking at the dilapidated stairwell leading up, and then looking at the sky and then across the muted flatlands. The old man stretched his arms behind his head and adjusted his Stetson to better shade his eyes as a slow train clattered past a few hundred yards beyond. You could see the cattles' horns—and the silhouette of the bovine shapes to which they belonged—protruding from the wooden-slatted cattlecars as the train loped through the mostly-deserted town, disappearing into the grasslands, the boy and his father watching, waiting for it to pass before they went inside the eating place.
If they had seen another man standing there, waiting on the other side of the train, watching them through the slats of the railcars, they hadn't made note of it to themselves. Billy's father kept his eyes squinted against the sunglare and Billy himself kept his eyes on his father, who was now bringing down his arms and taking off one of his black riding gloves. Then Thomas Ketchum reached into his shirtpocket and pulled out a twist of tobacco wrapped up in a yellowed handbill that announced a job at a silver mine in Presidio County, in a town called Shafter, Texas. They were planning to stop there first to see if one of the mines would pay out for them. If not, it would be on to the ranch to work as cattlehands. Thomas shook out a clump of the tobacco into his calloused palm, then rolled a tiny cigarette in just under thirty seconds. When he was finished, he put the cigarette in his lip and lit it with a bent match.
Billy watched this and he looked forward to the day when he could start smoking with impunity. He wondered when that day might come. His father said that he had started smoking while working on a cattle ranch in Laredo when he was fifteen. Billy was now thirteen, getting closer to fourteen. Maybe next year, he thought. He had already toyed with the idea of just swiping a smoke from his old man, just to try it, but was afraid of the consequences. His father could be harsh when it came to things like stealing or lying. He had a sense of Old Testament justice about him, and he wasn't above whipping his son with the belt he kept around his waist. The old man had done it before once, and not but two weeks ago when he had caught Billy looking in on a woman as she was dressing.
Thomas Ketchum's justice that day had been swift and the boy barely had time to register what he was seeing through that blurred window: the white of a woman's laced corset and the lines of her neck and spine—how they formed a nearly perfect arch leading up to the nape of her neck from which a waterfall of blonde hair cascaded down and over her shoulders, covering the creamy hills of her breasts, smooth and squeezed taut by the lace and wires of the corset and powdered with talcum as fine as untouched snow.
The belt met with Billy's leg just near his thigh and it left a pink welt on his skin that would stay there for days afterward, reminding the boy of his indiscretion while simultaneously bringing back that old thrill and despair of seeing a woman halfclad and beautiful and yet infinitely beyond his reach. He was still too young to understand any of this, but he did understand why his father had hit him. The old man never mentioned it again. And so neither did the boy.
For now Billy would have to settle on just watching his father smoke, smelling the tobacco and the sulfur from that little Diamond matchbook the old man kept in his shirtpocket. It was a process among many with which the boy was enamored, fascinated, especially when they related to his father in some way. The boy loved his father and he never once missed being around other boys, going to school. He loved the country out here too. Billy had already decided that he was going to grow up and be just like his old man, for better or for worse. It's all he really desired from this life up until now.
As the slightly-distant train vanished, Billy and his father walked around to check on their horses. They still didn't notice the other man walking across the tracks, toward them. Billy could smell the hay and the dust and the sweaty horseflesh as the horses nickered and stomped against the caliche. There was also the sweet smell of manure in the air. The horses looked back at them—their large black eyes like onyx carefully embedded into a tree trunk, whittled smooth by time and wind and water perhaps. They were beautiful, thought the boy. Yet one more thing to confound his senses. Women, whiskey, tobacco, horses. What else could this life possibly offer him that would prove better than this?
End Part 1
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He now teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University,
where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. He has published three novels,
a memoir, and collection of poetry. His website is: www.davidarmandauthor.com.
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The Last Fight
by R. J. Gahen
Sheriff George Anderson chewed on his thick, gray walrus mustache as he read the telegram. He was troubled by the orders he'd just received. He re-read the message again and sighed. He was to transport his prisoner, Ethan Rogers, to Dodge City for trial. That would be a one-week, round trip journey. At his age, fifty-six, he was definitely not up to it. His first deputy, James Horner, couldn't go because he'd busted his arm and some ribs when his horse threw him. That just left his second deputy, Luther Pike, as his only option; not a good option. Oh, Luther was a good man, just kind of young, inexperienced and sometimes quite capable of making foolish decisions.
The door to the Sheriff's office opened and a blast of sunlight blinded George. He quickly brought a sun weathered hand to his face to block the glare from his aging eyes.
"Shut that door afore ya blind me!"
"Sorry, Sheriff," said a young boyish voice, "Just had to come and talk to ya 'bout somethin."
George rubbed his eyes and squinted at the man standing in front of him, then sighed. Luther was physically everything he used to be; an inch below six feet tall, broad shoulders layered with muscle, slim waist and good looks. He compared his own shrunken five feet seven-inch frame complete with sagging belly, bowed legs, hunched shoulders, and gray hair with the man standing in front of him and thought if only . . .
Shaking his head, he said, "What is it, Luther?"
"Sheriff, I'm turning in my resignation."
"Yes, sir, I'm pulling my stakes and heading off to Californy. I got me a letter from my brother yesterday. He says he's got a good place. Says he's been getting real good color and that I should hightail it out there and give him a hand. I thought it over last night and decided it was 'bout time I moved on anyway, so, there ya have it. I'm pointing that 'ole roan horse of mine west just as soon as I walk out that door."
George was stunned. That would leave only himself to escort Rogers to Dodge! Argue as he might, George couldn't convince Luther to stay. With a final word of thanks and a handshake, Luther tossed his deputy badge on the desk and left. George hauled himself up out of his chair and walked across the creaky, wooden floor to the door. He opened it and stepped out on the boardwalk just in time to see Luther turn the roan and start down the street.
George looked up and down the street, mentally going over the townsmen to see if any would be able to fill in as a temporary deputy and make the trip for him. They all had businesses or jobs of their own. None could afford to take off the week to ride to Dodge and back, half of that time guarding a dangerous criminal.
He turned his mind to the ranches and the men who worked them. Again, the owners couldn't afford the time away, and he didn't think he could trust any of the young cowboys to do the job. They'd probably get tired of the so-called adventure and either let Ethan go or, conveniently, make an easy escape possible.
He looked up at the blue sky and squinted. The sun was about a quarter of the way up and it was already hot. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple to his jaw. He felt a sinking feeling of doom rise up in his stomach, like maybe he was headed for his last fight. He looked back down the street in the direction Luther had gone. The dust was thick in the street. It hadn't rained for over a month. Horses tied at the rails swished their tails and stamped their feet at flies. An old hound dog lay under the boardwalk in front of The Clementine, Joe Harvey's saloon. His eyes went to Maggie's Café. Breakfast was long since over and it was too early for the lunch crowd. He smiled, tugged at his mustache and walked over for a cup of coffee.
He tried to pull his shoulders back as he walked, but it just wasn't comfortable to walk that way anymore. It felt like his stomach was dragging the rest of his upper body towards the rough wooden boards. He also walked with a slight limp, thanks to a bullet in the thigh years earlier. It had broken the bone clean through and left him laid up for months. That wasn't the only time he'd been shot in the line of duty, but it probably hurt most. He'd also been shot in the shoulder by a would-be bank robber and had his ribs grazed by a crazy old buffalo hunter with a Sharps fifty caliber who'd tried to steal Doc Benson's matched pair of Morgan horses. He guessed he'd been pretty lucky, really. Twenty years as a peace officer and he'd only been shot three times.
George shuffled through the door to Maggie's Café and paused as his eyes adjusted to the darker interior. He was right, the place was empty. He could hear Maggie in the back with the dishes and he smiled to himself. He walked to the back corner and seated himself at his favorite table covered by a red and white checkered table cloth.
"Can a body get some service around here?" he called out gruffly.
He heard a dish placed down loudly on a counter, then footsteps approaching. Maggie entered the room and stopped. She stared at him, hands on her hips. She was forty-five, her red hair starting to show signs of gray. She wasn't fat, but she wasn't thin either. George thought she was just right. She wore an old calico dress with a thinning blue apron over it. The apron was marked with flour and grease splatters. A sprinkle of freckles played across her nose and her blue eyes twinkled.
"What on earth are you doing here at this time of day, George Anderson?" she questioned with just a hint of Irish accent and a happy smile on her face.
"Well, to tell you the truth," replied George, "you forgot to give me my third cup of coffee this morning with breakfast and I figured I'd come claim it now." He returned her smile.
"Oh, get on with ya!" she exclaimed, but happily picked up a cup and saucer and put it on the table, then turned to fetch the coffee pot, pleased that he'd surprised her with this visit. She poured the coffee, then set the pot on a rag within reaching distance of George's arm. As she started to turn back to the kitchen and the dirty dishes, George reached out and caught her arm.
"Maggie, could you sit a minute with me?" he asked.
She started to reply with a sharp retort about the amount of work she still had before people began showing up for lunch but, upon seeing the seriousness in his eyes, she thought better of it and sat down.
"Maggie," began George, "I've got to take Ethan Rogers over to Dodge City."
"What? That's ridiculous! You can't make that trip, George Anderson! You just send James, or Luther."
"I can't Maggie. James got throwed from his horse and is all busted up. Luther just quit and took off for the Californy gold fields. It's up to me." He wanted to add that he had a bad feeling about it, that maybe he would be riding to his last fight, that he had a sort of uneasy sense of death but, of course, he couldn't say that. If he admitted his fears, Maggie would think he was a coward, wouldn't respect him, couldn't . . . love him. In all his years in the sheriffing business, he'd never felt for a woman like he did for Maggie, nor had he ever shirked his duty. He'd always faced his responsibilities with confidence and strength. This time though, it just felt wrong, like his time was finally up.
Maggie saw the conflict in George's eyes. She didn't know what the problem was, but she could tell something was wrong.
"George, dear," she said as she reached across the table and placed her hand atop of his, "surely there's someone in town or on one of the ranches you can ask to go with you?"
"I've thought about that. Everyone in town is too busy with their own businesses. Same goes for the ranches. No, Maggie, it's mine to do. It's my responsibility, come hell or high water."
Maggie sat up straight, her back stiffening in alarm as she sensed what he was getting at. She felt the darkness of fear creep into her heart as her pulse raced. Was George having a premonition of death?
"And what do you mean by that, sir?"
George flinched slightly at her tone of voice.
"Nothing at all, Maggie. It's just my job to do. Doesn't matter if there ain't anyone else to go with me. I got to do it."
Maggie relaxed slightly, doubt still written across her face and in her eyes. Then she visibly softened. She reached for the coffee pot and topped off his cup. Maggie was a wise woman. She'd been working her café for five years now, ever since her husband had died. She was used to listening to men talk and argue. She had a good sense for when they were telling the truth or telling an enhanced version of the truth. She could also tell when they were confident in their talk and actions and when they were not. She could tell that George had some serious misgivings about the trip. She knew in her heart that if she voiced her concerns, it would only serve to strengthen his own doubts.
"George, dear," she said softly, "if you have to do it, then go ahead. You know I'll be waiting here with the coffee on when you return."
George looked into her deep blue eyes and saw nothing but love and caring; things he'd thought he'd never have in his life. Now, when they appeared to be offered up for his acceptance, he felt terrified that he'd never get them. He coughed quickly to break the mood and slurped noisily at his coffee.
"I'm going to head out in the morning, should be back in about a week or so."
Maggie couldn't help herself. The fear had etched deeper into her heart as they sat talking together.
"George," she whispered, eyes shining brightly, both hands clutching his tightly, "you take care on the trail. Why, given even the wee-est bit o' opportunity, that Ethan would turn on you in an instant and leave you lying face down in the dirt. I canna haf ya leafin me jus yet, now can I?" she asked, slipping back into her Irish lilt. Her cheeks flushed red.
"Now, Maggie, nothin's going to happen," George blustered with false confidence. "I'm not so old that I don't have a few tricks left up my sleeve. Say, would you mind putting some grub together? I'll pick it up in the morning?"
She smiled. "I'll do it, on the condition that you don't get lost on your way back and that you return here in a timely fashion."
They laughed together and stood up.
"I'd better leave then and get things ready," he said. She walked him to the door and glanced up and down the street through the window. Seeing the coast was clear, she placed a hand on either of his cheeks and pulled his face to hers, kissing him soundly, square on the lips. George's eyes flew wide open in shock.
Maggie pulled back and laughed, "It's okay, you old coot. That'll give you something to think about and maybe even keep you a bit warm at night. Get off with yourself then."
George grinned sheepishly, his cheeks redder than the red squares on the tablecloths. He stood there, fumbling for words, not knowing what to do or say, not even sure which way was west. Maggie laughed out loud again and pushed him out the door. She stood in the doorway smiling, watching her man walk down the street. The smile faded to a look of worried concern.
* * *
George walked Ethan out the door of the jail. Both had already eaten. Maggie had brought the week's food and a huge breakfast to them at the jail. Biscuits, ham, eggs, and potatoes overflowed their plates. It was enough to feed four men. She said it was to make sure he had enough energy for the ride.
James Horner was there. He kept apologizing about not being able to make the trip himself. George helped Ethan, whose hands were cuffed behind him, into the saddle. Huffing from the effort, he turned to his own horse, slightly winded.
"George," said James, seeing the effort it had taken, "are you sure this can't wait? Look at yourself. You're gasping like a fish outta water just from getting him in the saddle."
"James, if you don't stop nagging and fussing, I swear I'm gonna get down from this horse and box your ears! You'd think I was so broken down and old that I couldn't do anything. I swear! Besides that, we can't delay. Judge Farmer is only going to be in Dodge City for a few days. Ethan has to get there so he can stand trial."
"Shucks," said Ethan, "I don't mind waiting a while longer Sheriff. I'm not all that anxious to get my neck strung, ya know."
"Shut up, Ethan," said George.
Ethan smirked and said, "Sheriff, I just want to point out how gentle a ride this is gonna be. Not a problem in the world." He laughed low and slow, his eyes dark.
James reached up and grabbed Ethan's shirt front with his one good hand and pulled him roughly down, wincing with pain. "If anything happens to Sheriff Anderson, I will hunt you down and gut you like a fish, Rogers! Do you understand me?"
"Now, Deputy, that's not a very law and orderly thing to do, is it?"
"Mark my word, Rogers. You hurt him in anyway, and I will kill you."
Ethan laughed and straightened back up. "Sure, Deputy, I understand."
James tied Ethan's horse to the pack horse, then handed the pack horse's lead rope to George. He patted the extra Colt in George's saddle holster.
"You keep this handy, you hear?"
George nodded, then turned his horse and led his little train down the street. As he passed Maggie's café, she came out on the boardwalk to watch him leave. He drew abreast of her and she said softly, "You be careful, George Anderson, and come back to me now, d'ya hear?" George smiled and tipped his hat to her.
They'd been on the trail for over an hour when Ethan finally spoke.
"Ya know, Sheriff, I feel obligated to tell you something."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"You're a respected man. You cleaned up that spit puddle of a town from outlaws and crooked gamblers. The people there like you, and Maggie seems to have it real bad for you. Hell, I even like you. I don't want to see you get hurt or even killed."
"What's your point Ethan?"
"Well, to be honest, my boys are coming to get me. You'll never make it all the way to Dodge City with me."
George kept his eyes on the trail ahead, didn't bother with a response.
"You hear me Sheriff? Now if you just unlock these cuffs and let me ride away, you can just turn around and head back to town and Maggie. You can tell them I got the drop on you when you uncuffed me so I could go about my personal business. It's completely believable. What do you say?"
Again, no answer or even an acknowledgment that he'd spoken.
"C'mon, George! Think about it. If you keep going, you're gonna die. Just release me and you can go back and keep enjoying your meals at Maggie's and live a long life."
"Well, firstly, don't call me George, and secondly, just when and where are your friends supposed to meet you?"
Ethan smiled excitedly at the prospect that George might actually accept his plan. "Yes, sir, Sheriff, but you know I can't tell you exactly where and when. That would just spoil the fun."
"You're right," said George, "your plan would probably work and the folks back home would believe that story. Of course, I was also thinking that I could just shoot you and uncuff you after you was dead. I could tell them you were trying to escape. I kinda like my way. The world would be rid of you and I wouldn't have to make this godawful trip. What do you think about that, Ethan?" George chuckled to himself.
Ethan stared daggers into George's back. He was going to enjoy watching the old man die. He laughed softly. In order to try and nettle George, he began talking about everything he could think of. Talking came easily to Ethan, and the stories flowed smoothly.
George kept his horse moving ahead, trying to ignore Ethan, but doubts began filling his mind. Ethan ran with three other men; Joe, Frank, and his little brother Ben. Maybe as a younger man he might have stood a chance in a fight against three men, but not now. His reflexes were not as quick as they used to be. He thought of Maggie and that kiss she'd given him. It was the first time she'd done anything like that. He'd been alone his whole life and was looking forward to finally having someone by his side. Someone to sit beside the fire with and swap stories and laughter, but now it looked like that might not happen. He tugged at his mustache. That feeling of impending death continued to grow.
Two days later, George peered down the trail and made out the smudge of trees where he planned to spend the night. He grunted and shifted yet again trying to find a comfortable position. He moved his Colt to his left hand. After Ethan's claim that his gang was coming, he'd taken to riding with it in his lap for quicker action. His wrist hurt from the weight.
He was tired. Tired of riding all day and sleeping on the ground. Tired of his own cooking and his own stench. Tired of constantly being on the watch for Ethan's friends. Tired of keeping a watchful eye on Ethan when he was uncuffed to relieve himself or eating. Tired of helping him mount his horse. Mostly he was tired of listening to Ethan's non-stop chattering. It did no good to tell him to shut up, he just kept right on talking. He talked about the men he'd known, horses he'd ridden, girls he'd loved, banks he'd robbed and people he'd shot. George just wished the trip was over.
He glanced up. The sky had turned a soft, silky blue with the onset of early evening. Not a cloud dotted the sky. Scanning the prairie, he noted the grass was beginning to change colors. Mostly it was a drab, dusty green, but here and there it was marked by splotches of tan. He detected no movement on the prairie. When the trees were still a quarter mile off, he suddenly noticed that Ethan had stopped talking. He turned in the saddle and looked at him. Ethan stared at the trees, his eyes alight with intensity. George swung back around and looked. He saw movement and a small fire flickering through the trees. As he approached, he pulled his horse up and shifted the Colt back to his right hand.
"Hello the camp."
"Come on in," answered a man's voice.
George nudged his horse forward at a slow pace, his eyes scanning slowly. He counted three horses tied to a rope on the far side of the camp and two men lay against their saddles near the fire.
"Light and set stranger. How's for some coffee?" asked the closest one. He was skinny and dirty and missing a few teeth. The other man was just as dirty, but fat. He just lay on the ground, shifting his eyes from George to Ethan and back again.
"Where's your other man?" George asked, nodding to the three horses.
"Oh, he's off in the bushes making an offerin' to Mother Nature," he laughed, but his eyes weren't laughing. He was staring hard at George, no hint of humor on his face.
"Come on, Sheriff," said Ethan, "help me down from here. My hind quarters are tired and sore and I could sure use some coffee."
George ignored him and swung his eyes around the edge of the camp, searching for the missing man. He turned his horse slightly, positioning his gun barrel closer to the men on the ground. He didn't see any weapons, but he didn't want to take any chances. He was worried about the third man. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling. My last fight?
"Sheriff? Ya hear that, Frank? We got us a sheriff joining us for the night," said the skinny man. "Who ya got there, Sheriff? Some low-down outlaw?"
"Yeah, I heard Joe." Frank stood up. "Ya want some help getting him off'n his hoss, Sheriff?"
Joe stood also. They both started towards George and Ethan.
"That's far enough!" ordered George, raising his gun so they could see it. Frank and Joe stopped in their tracks.
"Now see here, Sheriff," said Frank, "Ethan's brother Ben is over in the trees behind ya with a rifle pointed at your back, so just lower that six-shooter of yours." An ugly gleam shone in his eyes.
George kept his eyes trained on the two men. He believed them, but he didn't lower his Colt.
"We aim to take Ethan down from his hoss, then you're a gonna give us the keys to them handcuffs so's we can take 'em off and if you're careful, ya just might live," said Frank.
George waited three heartbeats. His last fight was here. I can't give in. I gotta fight.
When the men stepped forward again, he opened up with his Colt. His first shot drilled Frank in the stomach. With a stunned look on his face, Frank slowly sank to his knees. His next shot missed Joe and hit the coffee pot sitting next to the fire, scattering sparks and ashes. Joe was panicking and scrambling to get away. George fired twice more. The first kicked up dirt, the second hit Joe in the hip causing him to twist and fall. A shot came from behind George and he felt a heavy blow strike him in the back. It took his breath away and he clung to the saddle horn to keep from falling. With an effort, he turned and tried to bring his gun to bear on the unseen gunman. His horse, nervous from the gunfire, shifted, helping George into a better position. Flame shot from a muzzle in the trees and George heard the angry zing of the bullet fly by his ear. Mustering his strength, he raised his pistol and fired at the flash. Two shots stabbed from his Colt, then a click as the hammer fell on a spent shell. Ethan screamed for his friends to come and get him, to kill George, to keep shooting.
George dropped his Colt to the ground and struggled to reach his second pistol in the saddle holster. Joe was screaming in pain. Frank lay on his side, pale with shock while the dry earth drank up his blood.
"I'm gonna kill you for this, Sheriff!" screamed Joe. He was lying on his back, reaching for the pistol he had dropped. George swung his eyes back to Joe. He had his hands on the gun and was beginning to swing it in George's direction. George's own gun was out of the holster now, but it was so heavy. His strength was fading quickly and his left shoulder was on fire. With a herculean effort, George swung the gun at Joe. Joe's gun went off too quickly, the bullet dug into the dirt.
George took a deep breath and sighted at Joe, then fired. Joe flew backwards, his arms outstretched to the sky as the bullet tore apart his heart.
"Ben!" yelled Ethan. "Ben! Shoot this old bastard! Shoot him now!"
George turned his horse back to where the rifle had fired. His shoulder was hurting bad, but the rest seemed to be okay. Nothing moved in the trees. Taking another deep breath, he slowly slid from his horse and grabbed the stirrup to steady himself. Ethan was hollering for Ben to keep shooting, but no shots came though.
George gathered his strength and walked carefully towards the trees. He kept his horse between Ben's last location and himself, his six-shooter waist high. His left shoulder throbbed mightily. He glanced down and saw a blood stain growing on his shirt front. The bullet had gone all the way through, then. He staggered slightly, the earth seemed to spin awkwardly for a moment. He steadied himself against his horse, then continued forward slowly, carefully, scanning for any kind of movement. He spotted a small area of white. He moved towards it, then breathed a sigh of relief as a body came into view. Ben lay on the ground, eyes wide open in a sightless stare. There was a round hole right between his eyes. He shook his head in relief, thankful that sometimes luck still played a part in life.
As George returned to the fire, Ethan quit yelling. George looked up at him, shifted the still smoking Colt at him and said, "You wanna make a try at running now? Go right ahead."
When Ethan didn't reply, George staggered back to the fire where Frank was gasping and moaning in pain. Ethan sat on his horse, his mouth wide open in shock. Reaching up with his good arm, George grabbed Ethan by the shirt and dragged him off the horse. Ethan hit the ground with a thud, then grunted again when George landed on top of him. Groaning in pain, George rolled off then painfully pulled himself to his hands and knees.
The fall seemed to snap Ethan out of shock.
"I'm gonna kill ya, George! You hear me? I'm gonna kill ya!" he screamed.
He rolled over and over until he came up next to Joe's saddle. He put his head against the cantle and pulled his knees up to his stomach. Struggling, he got his feet under him and stood. Turning, he advanced on George, who was still on his hands and knees, and swung a kick as hard as he could into the older man's stomach. George let out a loud "whoof" and rolled over painfully. Ethan advanced on him and swung his leg back to kick again, but George rolled away, just out of reach. Ethan rushed forward and swung his leg again, but this time, George rolled towards Ethan as hard as he could. He struck Ethan in the leg still anchored to the ground, knocking him to his back.
George regained his hands and knees and crawled towards Joe, who lay dead scarcely ten feet away. Ethan, yelling in frustration rolled to his stomach and again worked to stand. He made it to his feet and with a savage cry, he turned to run at George, then stopped dead in his tracks.
George sat on the ground, his six-shooter in hand with the business end pointed right at Ethan's heart. He motioned with it, and Ethan sank to the ground. George remained where he was, building his strength. Finally, groaning with effort, he climbed to his feet. He swayed back and forth, the world moved in and out of focus. Staggering, he made it to his horse. Digging in the saddlebags, he pulled out a fresh shirt then untied his lariat from the saddle.
Returning to Ethan, he spoke in a raspy voice, "Roll over on your stomach."
"Now wait a minute, George, I—"
George put a boot on his shoulder and shoved hard, pushing Ethan onto his side. He pushed again and Ethan rolled to his stomach.
"George, wait! Don't do this George! I'm telling ya, don't!"
"I told you to call me Sheriff. Only respectful men call me by my name."
He looped the end of his rope around one of Ethan's feet then ran the other end up and through the handcuffs and back down to the other foot where he tied it off. He didn't pull it too tight, just enough to make it impossible for Ethan to stand up. Ethan continued protesting, begging to be let go. George pulled the neckerchief from his neck, carefully leaned over and stuffed it into Ethan's mouth.
"There, maybe that'll keep you quiet."
He looked at Frank. The man was dead, a look of surprise mingled with pain on his face. The ground below him wet with blood. He got the fire going again with the remaining coals and by sunset, he had water boiling and was cleaning his wound. He ripped his fresh shirt into pieces and did the best he could to bandage his wounds. He hoped it would be okay until the next day when he reached Dodge City. He was exhausted. Glancing at Ethan to make sure he was still secure, he leaned back against Frank's saddle and immediately fell asleep.
* * *
George rode slowly down the main street, painfully hunched over the saddle. He was leading his pack horse, Ethan's horse and the three outlaws' horses. Dust kicked up with every step. People continued about their daily chores, not paying him much attention until they saw the man on the third horse with his hands behind his back and a dirty red neckerchief stuffed in his mouth. A crowd gathered as he pulled up in front of the U.S. Marshall's office.
"Are you Marshall Hagen?" George weakly asked the man sitting on the porch.
"That'd be me. What can I do you for?"
"I'm Sheriff George Anderson. I got Ethan Rogers for you."
"Looks like you played hob getting him here," replied Marshall Hagen as he stood up and walked down the steps towards Ethan.
"I surely did, and I'd appreciate it if you would take him off my hands now. As soon as I get your sawbones to look at this here shoulder, I'm heading home. It appears this wasn't my last fight after all. I think I probably have a few household squabbles ahead of me," he said with a twinkle in his eye and a tug on his mustache.
R. J. Gahen is a retired Air Force pilot. He grew up in Idaho reading westerns, farming and riding in rodeos. He
and his wife have been happily married for 31 years and he enjoys spending time with his four children and five
grandchildren. His new love is telling stories about the West. You can reach him at RJGahen@gmail.com if you'd
care to comment on any of his stories.
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Mitchell and the Rawlins Gang
by Dick Derham
Through the sweltering heat of a High Plains Wyoming September day, in an old wolver's cabin on the western slope of Medicine Bow Butte, two hours southeast of Rawlins, three men lazed through the day and only began to stir as the shadows finally brought some hesitating relief from the worst of the sun's punishment.
A rough plank table stood in the center of the one-room cabin, a wood stove against one wall, a double bunk against another, and a single bed under the window that opened west toward the setting sun. Both doors—the front one by the window, the rear one to the outhouse—stood open for whatever cooling relief they might admit. A whiskey bottle rested on one side of the table, in easy reach of each of the card players.
Men who had established a successful working relationship over months of labor felt at ease with each other and had no need of formalities. Thus, as he shuffled the cards, the man with the thick black beard, Dakota Hammond was his name, sat bare-chested in his summer-length drawers and stocking feet, as he had all day. If the thick matting of dark hair that covered his hard-muscled pectorals showcased the raw physicality that made 'Kota Hammond a man of power to which others must defer, it declared him the natural leader of the two young colts just getting a start in the business that he'd recruited in a Cheyenne saloon at the beginning of the work season, Hammond tossed in a white chip from his growing stack, shuffled and dealt the cards, five to each man.
To Hammond's right, the young Den Rogers had shirted up for the day, but the buttons were open to the waist and the shirt hung loosely from his slender shoulders. Only of average bulk, lacking the rope-scarred hands or healthy biceps of a working cowhand, Rogers had quickly acceded to Hammond's dominance. Getting the job done counted to Rogers, not some senseless rivalry for status. At least, that's what Den Rogers told himself whenever Hammond preened himself in his most imperious state.
The lanky Doug Stevens, too, eased at the table. Two years "more experienced" than Den's twenty-three, Stevens prided himself that his "questions" had usually prompted Hammond to organize their work effectively. Arrogant men like the one he and Den had recruited in Cheyenne for this year's operations were easy to control as long as you let them think they bossed the show, or so Stevens assured himself. Only Stevens, with a lifetime of high plains summer heat in his experience, was full-dressed with flannel shirt buttoned to the neck, boots on; he had even "gone formal" in the morning when he strapped on his gun belt, with its full circuit of .45 cartridges. Perhaps he thought the glistening of the shells in the lantern's light made Hammond take him more seriously.
Not likely. Hammond's fingers drummed impatiently on the table. "Speed it up," he growled. "Are you in or out?"
Stevens anted his white chip, picked up his five cards and let out a telling sigh. When Rogers opened and it came around to him, he matched Den's blue chip to stay in the game and tossed down three cards. "You can do me better than this, 'Kota."
"Means you're holding a pair—likely aces—and trying for three of a kind," Hammond commented as he tossed over the new cards. "Who knows," he smirked, "maybe you got a full house now. But you'll have to pay to see whether that beats what I'm holding."
Den drew two cards, but 'Kota only one. Two pair, that's what 'Kota's one-card draw likely meant, that or he hoped to fill a flush or straight. Or, Stevens considered, this being 'Kota, he was running a bluff. But it wasn't worth a chip to find out, not with only a pair of fives. Stevens tossed down his cards and reached for the whiskey bottle.
"Your cousin's due out tomorrow, if I counted the days right," Hammond said. "Now that we got our work done for the season, all that's left is the final divvy."
"Raked in a lot of money, working with you, 'Kota," Rogers said.
"Not a bad season, even cooped up with a couple of Wyoming would-be hard cases," Hammond reflected, "but now's when a man rewards himself for his long work. I'm heading for cold beer, good eats, and hot women in Denver. If you boys want to trail along, I'll show you the best places before we split up."
"Not us," Stevens said. "We ain't about fattening some Denver saloon keeper's money belt. We got our eyes on taking us up a ranch."
"Suit yourself. I'll be back when the business starts up again next spring."
"It's a plan all right, 'Kota," Stevens agreed, "it suit you, Den?"
Rogers let a puckish expression cross his face. "'Nother year listening to him grousing about nurse-maiding two kids?" Rogers punched Holland's bicep playfully. "How 'bout we just kill him instead, Doug."
Stevens appeared thoughtful for a moment as he played along. "That could work," he agreed. "We wait till morning so the meat don't turn rancid before we plant it. We'll just truss him up after last hand so he don't accidentally wander off overnight." He turned to Hammond. "That work for you, 'Kota?"
Hammond glowered at the juvenile frivolity. With the work season finally over, he'd be shuck of two boys who were not the serious fellows they pretended back in Cheyenne. He dealt out another hand of cards.
Before Stevens could fist the face-down cards, Rogers slammed his hand down over them and grinned at Stevens. "High hand gets trigger pull. That okay with you?"
After six months of robbing stages and express stations with his confederates, Hammond's impatience with Rogers' dark humor was exhausted. His antics had spoiled the last deal so Hammond gathered the cards in, shuffled, and redealt them.
"Poker's a serious game, boys. Ante up."
* * *
Dave Mitchell read the brief story in the Denver Union Democrat for the third time, trying to mine it for all he could learn. "Daring Daylight Payroll Holdup" the headline screamed. Newspaper talk never gave the full truth. To a pen-wielding scrivener bent over a desk who had never fanned a .45 in a stage driver's face, every holdup was "daring," but in the eyes of a man who had made his way in the world taking money from Wells Fargo stages for three years before Arizona sent him to his "vacation" at Yuma Penitentiary, Mitchell was trying to see what was daring about three masked riders waving down a wagon and taking what they wanted.
By the time a story gets reported, written, edited, and then condensed to three column-inches, important facts always get left out, while others are overtaken by an editor's literary ambitions, and even worse, false embellishments intrude into the report. Mitchell's task for the morning required that he learn what he could from the newspaper, while keeping his mind uncluttered from the chaff of fake news until he had confirmed facts on the ground. That's what Chet Collins had drilled into him from the time Mitchell's life had taken its unexpected turn.
Mitchell set the paper down on the seat beside him and let the rhythmic clickety-clack, clickety-clack of iron wheels over expansion joints lull him for the moment. He stared out the window at the peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising in the distance, shimmering brilliantly from their fresh coating from last night's early snowfall. Jagged and lonely, each peak rose in its own isolation, complete and whole in itself.
Mitchell envied the mountains their stolid, self-assured confidence. Today, the man who had once gladly robbed stages solo felt incomplete without his partner sitting on the seat beside him. The wire from San Francisco directing the team to Rawlins had been addressed to Collins, not to a junior agent not yet proven he could be trusted on his own. Mitchell had responded immediately, perhaps too fast. "Collins testifying Farley murder," he had wired back. "Proceeding to Rawlins." Now he had doubts. How would the suits in San Francisco react? Would his initiative be welcomed? Was this his chance to convince them they had not made a mistake in trusting a professional stage robber to carry a Wells Fargo badge? Or would he bungle through his inadequacy without Collins as his guide?
Mitchell turned back to the paper. In its essence, three robbers had intercepted a Wells Fargo special shipment on the road to Bridger's Pass, gun-blasted the box open, and ridden off with the payroll intended for Sand Peak's Mine. Reading it once again, Mitchell asked himself what Collins would make of it.
He turned from the skimpy "facts" about the robbery to the description of the robbers. There was a little more to go on, even if the story could be believed. "The gang leader," Mitchell filed that phrase for later thought, "was barrel-chested, a deep voice with a black beard showing under his kerchief," or so said the driver. A black beard among western men of the tall grass? Not much to go on. Mitchell ran his mind down the list of outlaws Wells Fargo had posters on. One stood out, a man who had worked stages in Colorado for two years but had gone missing. What was his name? Dakota Hammond, he remembered. A name wouldn't help much, but remembering details of how Hammond worked might.
The rest of the story told little more. Just a simple express wagon stop out in the middle of an uninhabited territory, a robbery he could have handled his first year in the business. The paper did not get to the real mystery: how had the robbers known this shipment was worth their time? While the size of the take finally got San Francisco's attention, South Wyoming had experienced a series of robberies during the summer. He ran down the list. Locations varied, some close into Rawlins, some as far as fifty miles out. One single unifying fact that left him envious: each of them carried a profit bigger than all but the luckiest take of his own career.
* * *
Doug Stevens greeted his cousin as he down-saddled at the corral. "Got the saddlebags waiting for you in the cabin," he said. "Been a good year for all of us."
A mug of steaming coffee welcomed the newcomer as he came in the rear door. "Thank you, Den," he said as he rounded the table and sat down across from the bare-chested man clad only in his underwear despite the briskness of the morning air. "Morning, 'Kota. You sure handled the pay wagon smoothly. Got attention all the way to San Fran." He pulled a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, unfolded it and pushed it across the table. "They even doubled your price, you got them so worried, even if they got no name to go with it." He turned to Stevens. "Got a price on his two confederates too, but it's only $100, there's no description, and they only pay if the evildoers are still breathing when they're turned in." Stevens and Rogers returned his laughter.
The newcomer placed his hand on the saddlebags lying on the table. "Guess this is for the savings pile," he said. "This has been the best year ever, 'Kota. The boys piled up quite a stake."
"Den and me figured we got enough now to go buy that ranch the three of us have been talking about," Stevens told his cousin. "Now that operations are over, we'll be riding east and checking out the ranges around Laramie."
"We got us our eye on a spread just about the right size," Rogers added. "A widow woman with three young 'uns should take the price we offer."
"If she hasn't already sold."
"She ain't a widow yet," Rogers explained.
Stevens reached for the poster still lying on the table in front of Hammond. "Here's some good news, 'Kota. They don't even care whether you're talking when you come in." He looked over at Rogers. "He could pay for some prime breeder bulls for the ranch."
Stevens' cousin pulled another paper from his pocket. "There's one more job too good to pass up," he said. "There's a cash shipment going out on the afternoon stage to the Bank of Medicine Bow. Should be quick and easy." He looked across the table. "Guess you'll miss the fun on this one, 'Kota, but the boys should be able to handle it without you."
As his cousin got to his feet, Stevens handed him the saddlebags. "Toss them on the stack from the last three years," he said. "'Kota and us will be on the trail in a few minutes."
As the visitor walked around the table toward the door, he rested his hand briefly on Holland's shoulder and laughed lightly as he took his leave. "Have a good trip to town, 'Kota."
Even through the thick muffled gag, the meaning of the angry cursing was clear.
* * *
The Carbon County Sheriff was seated at his desk shuffling through wanted posters when Mitchell swung open the jailhouse door and stepped in. As he presented his credentials, he quickly sized up the lawman. A firm handshake, frank, steady eyes, a few years older than Mitchell, but still a man building his future, not a washed-up swivel-chair sheriff easing his way on the downslope of life.
"Think I got a name for that robber you're looking for," Mitchell announced. "Dakota Hammond. Wanted for his work in the Colorado mining district and done some work in Kansas, too."
Sheriff Cavendish showed less interest then Mitchell had expected. "Then that's the name we'll put on his grave marker."
For Hammond had already been brought in, the reward claimed, and the dead man now waited in the carpenter's shed for his cheap pine box.
"Man who turned him in, some fellow called Link Anders, saw the poster, figured out it must be a loner who had a tent set up near Anders' cow camp up toward Devil's Gate and went over to visit him this morning. Just getting up, this fellow you call Hammond was. Still in his undies." The sheriff shrugged. "Guess a man can die that way just as well as wearing his britches. When Anders told him to put his hands up, the other fellow went for his gun. All he got was a hole in his chest."
"You look at the dead man?"
"Enough to see he was sure enough dead. And the expressman swung by and identified him. Wells Fargo can forget him. Likely the others are no-account cowhands he picked up for the robbery, men without the gumption to hit a stage without him."
Case closed. Or was it? Collins had trained him not to accept loose ends, and too many nagged at Mitchell's mind. Where were the other two robbers, for starters? How did a veteran, like Dakota Hammond let himself be taken so easy? One man who might give some leads, this fellow Anders, could describe the outlaw's camp. But there were other leads he could get to right away.
At the Wells Fargo office, Mitchell shook hands with Efraim Fulmer, an officious little man, puffed up in his status the way he brushed aside Mitchell's credentials and dismissed the interruption. "Busy time," Fulmer told Mitchell. "Stage going out in an hour."
Being rushed never sat well with Mitchell. Sometimes it meant a man had something to hide, sometimes just that he never saw the importance of anyone else's job. "For now, a simple question. Was the payroll something folks knew about, being sent out every month on schedule, or was this special?"
"Special," Fulmer said. "I talked to Mr. Diamond out at Sand Peak's to make sure it never went at the same time." He bristled. "No one in this office goes around spilling to robbers, if you're slinging accusations." Fulmer signaled the end of the unwelcome interruption of his work by abruptly turning his back on Mitchell and returning to the manifest for the afternoon stage.
Outside in the staging yard, Mitchell found John Mantell checking over his horses and getting them into traces for the afternoon run to Medicine Bow. Stage drivers are blunt, honest, hard-working men, except when they aren't, so Mitchell listened as Mantell told the story, much as the Denver Union Democrat had reported. Dakota Hammond had fired one shot in the air as he rode out into the road in front of Mantell's wagon. "Them other two fired their rifles, so we knew we was surrounded." A good professional stop, but Dakota Hammond knew his business.
"Didn't say he was the leader," Mantell replied to Mitchell's question. "Just said he was the front man, the only one I could give a description of. The other two, though, they seem to know their business. Like they'd done stages a few times."
What did that tell Mitchell? Maybe he knew less now that he had before, three men, Hammond in the front, but maybe the other two weren't pick-up novices like Sheriff Cavendish assumed. But then, why was Hammond camping alone?
Mitchell's next stop was the carpenter's shed where he showed his credentials. The carpenter was gruff, busy at his work, and no happier at the interruption then Fulmer. He motioned Mitchell toward the bench in the rear where the lumpish remains of Dakota Hammond waited while the carpenter cut some scrap lumber to length and nailed together a rough box for the planting. The outlaw fit the descriptions from the Colorado jobs; Dakota Hammond could be scratched off their wanted list.
Working only for County pay with no one likely to care about looking inside the coffin, the carpenter hadn't bothered cleaning the body. Now Holland lay on his back in his soiled drawers, his chest covered with dried blood.
"Got a damp cloth I can use?" Mitchell gradually, gently stroked at the dried blood, exposing the flesh around the wound for a close examination. Whether what he learned mattered, Mitchell had yet to decide.
Mitchell found Cavendish in the Silver Spur Saloon matching whiskeys with Fulmer. "Having us is celebration for the end of Holland's robbing spree," Fulmer told him. "Join us?"
Business came first for Mitchell. "I need to find Anders, that man who turned Holland in."
"What for. He's already been paid."
Mitchell paused a moment, unsure of how much to tell the sheriff with Fulmer listening. "Anders lied. Hammond wasn't shot from across his camp just rolling out of his blankets. I washed off the blood. The muzzle flash burned chest hair from a two-inch circle. Powder burns cut deep into his flesh."
Cavendish shrugged. "Anders didn't say he was across the clearing from Hammond, just said Hammond went for his gun."
"With his hands tied behind him?" That brought sharp looks from both men. "Hammond's wrists were bloody and chafed raw. He struggled a long time against a rope. That man was murdered, sheriff. Executed. Probably by the men who are running this show."
"Mantell said Hammond was leader."
"Not if you listen close, Sheriff. Hammond was just a pawn sacrifice, murdered by his partners. Likely they're done for the season and didn't need Hammond anymore." He paused grimly. "I cell-mated with a man or two cold-blooded enough to play that game."
"Just an outlaw, anyway," Fulmer said with a dismissive gesture of his hand. "Wells Fargo put out paper on him dead. I guess it don't matter how he got that way."
Bile surged in the innards of the former outlaw. "It matters to Wells Fargo," Mitchell snapped. "We pay to stop crime, not to foment murder."
Cavendish had been silent, listening to Mitchell. Now he spoke. "Mitchell's right. If Hammond was bound and tied, Anders had no need to kill him." He shook his head. "Wish I knew where to find him."
Mitchell took his beer from the barmaid and settled back to try to think things through. Finding some so-called bounty claimant who likely used a fake name and had no ranch in the hills seemed hopeless.
Yet what else did he know? Hammond usually worked with pick-up partners from year-to-year, so a telegram to the agent in the Leadville would tell him nothing. He had the sheriff's description of "Anders," but nothing stood out. "Young fellow", but Wyoming was a country of young men. "Dressed for the range like a cowhand," but that also meant dressed like a long rider.
"Was Anders wearing riding boots, or a farmer's mud boots?"
"Riding boots," the sheriff replied. "Like I said, just a three-for-a-nickel ranny, likely mavericking for his own brand on the side where his boss don't know."
Another question had nagged at Mitchell from the start. "Never told no one about the pay roll coming through," Fulmer insisted. "That's confidential company business. You didn't neither, did you, sheriff?"
"Course, I can't promise what the Sand Peak's folks told people," Fulmer concluded.
Mitchell could see only one lead left. "I need to talk to Anders. If he's not one of the robbers, he can lead me to them."
"I'll ask around about Anders," Cavendish said. "Most I can do."
With sixty miles of open range between Rawlins and Devils Gate, it could take a week or more for Mitchell to scour the countryside. He felt the need of Chet Collins' experience to find a trail worth following.
"Sheriff Cavendish." The three men looked up at the newcomer. "I looked for you at the jail after I pulled into the Wells Fargo yard."
"Mantell, you should be fifty miles down the road by now," Fulmer said.
"Hit me not three miles out of town, they did. Pretty is you please. 'Would you kindly toss down the bank shipment.'" He looked resentfully at Fulmer. "Fire me, if you want, but I ain't paid to get killed."
"How many men?" Cavendish asked. "Tell me about them."
"Two of them this time. Maybe the two that sided Hammond, I can't be sure."
The sheriff seemed satisfied with what he had heard, but Mitchell had more questions. "Where were they from?"
The driver looked at him in amazement. "How would I know that?"
"They gave you orders. Did they have nice soft southern accents like me? Or a High Plains twang like Sheriff Cavendish here? Or a middle border sound like Fulmer?"
"One of them sounded a bit like Efraim. The tall one, the one who did most of the talking, he sounded a lot like the sheriff."
"Where you from, sheriff?" Mitchell asked. "Where did you grow up?"
"Grew up on a farm in Nebraska. My grandpappy died when I was fifteen, and Pa and my two uncles sold the farm and come out to homestead their own claims not long after the railroad came through these parts."
"Big city detective like you should have no problem tracking down a High Plains twang in Wyoming." The chuckle that punctuated Fulmer's words reminded Mitchell that no grizzled agent ever liked an interloper.
Mitchell asked the driver a few more questions. "Young, I'd say. Both seemed like they was enjoying themselves."
After Mantell finished describing the robbery, Mitchell knew what Chet Collins would do. "I'll ride out in the morning and look things over." He turned to the sheriff. "You coming, too?"
Cavendish waved a hand in dismissal. "What for? Mantell's told us what happened." By their exchange of smirks, Cavendish and Fulmer showed their superiority over the young agent from Wells Fargo. Cavendish gave a deprecating laugh. "When you been in this business as long as I have, you'll know you don't get anywhere running around the countryside, tiring out your horseflesh."
* * *
His morning ham steak and eggs did little to improve Mitchell's discontent. Wells Fargo had paid a bounty to the robbers themselves, of that he was convinced. Then a new robbery had been conducted almost under his nose. How could he explain that to San Francisco? Worse, how could he ever explain it to Chet Collins?
He paid for his meal and walked down Front Street past the Union Pacific depot to the Wells Fargo yard where he requisitioned a horse.
"Like Cavendish told you, it's waste of time, riding out to look at the dust where some holdup happened," Fulmer told him. "The Sheriff's been doing his business five-six years now."
"Likely he's right," Mitchell admitted. But any action would relieve his restlessness.
Three miles toward Medicine Bow, where the road dipped between two low-ridged hogbacks, Mitchell drew rein and tried to envision the scene through the eyes of his outlaw experience. The gradual upslope extended for half a mile, with the steepest part at the top where the horses would be winded and not ready to make an escape attempt when the robbers showed themselves. Whatever Sheriff Cavendish believed, Mantell had not been robbed by two amateurs riding in Hammond's slipstream, but by men who knew their business. Maybe that gave him a feel for them, but it didn't tell him where to find them.
After staring at the road several minutes with nothing much coming to his mind, Mitchell let his horse amble to the top of the hill where the stage had been stopped. There he sat his saddle and looked around. Things appeared just as Mantell had described. This is where Carmichael would have turned back to town, having learned nothing more than he expected. Chet Collins would insist that a robbery location had more to teach a man if he knew where to look. Mitchell let his mind drift back to some of his robberies in the Colorado mining district. He had never matched his arrival to the stage. He'd always arrived an hour, sometimes two before he expected the stage and waited out of sight of the road. Likely, these men did, too.
Mitchell kneed his horse off the road and made several slow, expanding circles. The grass where they must have hunkered down had sprung back to full height over night, but horses leave sign, and finally he found where the robbers had squatted waiting for the rattle of the stage to announce its approach. Little remained from their presence except a couple of stubbed-out remains of hand-rolled cigarettes, the leavings of horses, and a half-eaten sandwich which had been thrown away when the stage approached. Nothing more.
And so, an hour later he was back with Fulmer. "Horses left tracks heading north," he reported.
"Toward Devil's Gate, like Anders told Carmichael," Fulmer replied.
"Maybe. Followed them a few hundred yards to make sure they weren't leaving a false trail, but lost them when they waded the North Platte." Mitchell had been laughed at enough by the experienced agent, so he said nothing about horse patties or half eaten sandwiches. "I can tell you, they rolled their own cigarettes," he said and left it at that.
Rawlins had grown since the UP established its division point there, opening the trackless prairie to cattlemen and homesteaders alike. Now, several saloons catered to thirsty cowhands off the range and the noon time business was well underway as Mitchell began to make the rounds. Like saloons across the West, each had its own version of free lunch set out at the end of the bar, a loaf of bread and a slab of meat that could be sliced off for a sandwich to serve the summons of a man's stomach and give a cowhand no need to interrupt his drinking. The first saloon Mitchell entered had a ham roast set out for customers. The second had beef but dark bread. The third, the Spur and Saddle, had what he was looking for: roast beef and sourdough bread.
"Get any strangers in here yesterday around noon?" Mitchell asked the middle-aged man tending bar. "Some riders looking for free lunch?"
The barkeep shrugged. "Cowhands off the range come and go every day."
"Man I'm looking for would have come in with a pard."
"There was then two young cowhands yesterday," a voice down the bar said.
"Horsemen and men of the range, for sure, but not working cowhands." another beer drinker said. "They didn't wear gauntlets on their sleeves."
The next man down chimed in. "I seen them around. They got a cabin up in the hills out past the Brobeck place. Bounty hunters, that's the way I see them. One of those jaspers claimed that robber yesterday."
"Brobeck place?" Mitchell repeated. "Out toward Devil's Gate?"
The man gave him a long stare. "Nowhere near it. Out east near Medicine Bow Bluff."
"Need to talk to that fellow," Mitchell said. "Wells Fargo will pay for your time to take me out to see him."
Mitchell found the sheriff talking with Fulmer when he swung back to the Wells Fargo yard to saddle a horse for another ride. "Baylor here thinks he knows where Anders and the other robber are and will lead me out," he told Fulmer. "Says they got a cabin about twenty miles toward Medicine Bow Bluff."
"That's down east," Fulmer said. "You're chasing the wrong man."
"It's them," Mitchell declared. Quickly he told of tracing the half-eaten sandwich. "Their greed did them in. If they hadn't claimed Holland's bounty, we wouldn't have Baylor here to lead me to them." He turned to Cavendish. "Things go well, you'll have some men filling your cells tonight."
The sheriff got to his feet. "You're riding on Carbon County business. I'm going with you."
* * *
The riders splashed across the North Fork of the Platte River, only fetlock deep that late in the year, and angled southeast. Finally, Baylor drew rein, and stretched out a hand. "Old cabin is just across that rise as I recall."
"Remember, these men are killers," Mitchell reminded his companions. "They may think hot lead is the way to welcome surprise visitors."
The three men down-stirruped, ground-hitched and walked forward, rifles at the ready. As they topped the rise, the slanting sun was behind them. Down below, Mitchell saw a small cabin, an outhouse in the rear, and a corral with two horses.
And a man just coming back from the corral.
"That's him," Baylor said. "That's the man who turned in the robber."
"Sheriff . . . ? Mitchell probed.
"Could be Anders," the sheriff acknowledged cautiously. "Long distance to be sure."
The man was five steps from the cabin and Mitchell didn't wait any longer. "Raise your hands, Anders." he shouted. "This is Dave Mitchell, Special Agent for Wells Fargo. Got some questions you need to answer."
When the man dropped his saddle and broke for the door, Mitchell took his actions as an admission. His rifle swung quickly to his shoulder and blasted. The man, below—Anders?—broke stride, kept upright only when he slammed into the wall of the cabin, and staggered through the open door.
"Like I said," Mitchell shouted again. "I'm from Wells Fargo. Got the sheriff with me. Come out with your hands up, both of you."
Rifle lead flamed from the window and the three men dropped to the ground. Mitchell fired two shots through the window to no apparent effect. "We got them pinned down, but we can't rush the cabin until dark."
"You keep firing a couple of shots from time to time to keep their attention," Cavendish said. "I'll circle around back and see if I can get the drop on them through a window."
"Remember, we want them talking,"
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Cavendish approached the rear of the cabin, carefully picking his way through pebbles, twigs, anything that could give warning of his approach.
At the back door, Cavendish rested his hand on the door latch and gently tried it. It lifted easily enough; he gingerly tested the door and confirmed that the bolt had not been rammed home. He waited until he heard the gunman inside fire two shots at Mitchell, and used that to cover the noise as he split the door open a crack.
"Rest easy, Doug," he said, "it's me."
Stevens looked over his shoulder as Cavendish entered. "You didn't you do us no favor leading them up here," Stevens accused as he turned back to fire again. "Them bastards gave Den a hard one, don't think he'll make it."
"You and Den brought the trouble on yourself, Doug. Working so sloppy that some green Wells Fargo agent could track you down in only twenty-four hours. I figured I'd best be along to make sure things didn't get messy."
"You could have saved Den and me a lot of trouble if you had gunned him before he got his rifle unlimbered. Why didn't you?"
"There's more money in the easy kills, Doug."
Stevens spun away from the window and that's when Cavendish killed him. A casual flick of the wrist toward the groaning Den Rogers made sure neither man would answer any embarrassing questions.
* * *
When their search of the cabin turned up the saddlebags with the bank shipment, the sheriff gave Mitchell his due. "You can tell your head office you broke up the gang of robbers."
As he stared down at the lifeless body of "Anders", thinking of the questions he could no longer ask, Mitchell knew the day's work would earn him credit with the men in San Francisco. But, uneasily, he knew that Collins would tell him he had left the real job unfinished. Of course, the inside man had to be Fulmer, but . . . Then came a flash of clarity.
"I'll take your gun now, sheriff." Mitchell's revolver was already leveled and cocked when Cavendish turned.
"Call it a citizen's arrest. A man just got murdered in my presence."
"He was shooting at you," Cavendish protested. "And then he turned his gun toward me when I came in."
"I'm talking about the man on the bunk, Anders, if that's his name. You see a gun anywhere near him, Baylor?"
When the sheriff had been disarmed and secured with his own handcuffs, Mitchell explained. "I couldn't figure how they always seemed to make good hauls," he said. "I never had it so easy in my stage-robbing days. I had my eye on Fulmer as their confederate." His hand on Carmichael's shoulder began steering his prisoner toward their horses.
"But when you snuffed out the lives of two men I understood. Fulmer told no one about the shipment, except the trusted local lawman. You came to make sure I could ask no questions. Likely you know where to find their stash. I'm betting we'll find the money in your basement."
Dave Mitchell would have lost the bet. The incriminating saddlebags sat in one corner of the sheriff's attic.
Watch for Mitchell and the Denver Express in an upcoming issue of Frontier Tales.
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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