by Delun Attwooll
The once exuberant life of Gavin McKinley had plummeted drastically since the war with the North. Before he took up arms with a Southern regiment based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, he was head overseer of slaves and security at the Benton Plantation. Through his twenties, thirties and forties working for the Benton family, he aided in recapturing all but one of the runaway slaves, killed three horse thieves, and made sure that all crops were harvested to perfection, even in the drier seasons. And the rewards had proven to be exquisite. In addition to the provided home and beautiful horse, the Benton family constructed him a small tower with a thick oak ladder on the edge of the fields, where tobacco plants met the parched grass. When his mare needed a break, Gavin could climb to the top and look over the lands, king of his domain. But the war had changed things.
Gavin still worked at the Benton plantation, now as a humble sharecropper, working long hours in dreadful conditions. Overseers were unnecessary professions after the Emancipation, and the limp he acquired during the war made most labor jobs a hefty challenge. The Benton family only offered the job as a 'favor' for his time as overseer, but still forced him out of the home they had previously provided, and into a small shack on the western edge of the property. Soon, Gavin had sold everything he owned of value solely to survive, everything except for his rifle and his horse, Wrangler.
Gavin's life was now simple, and he hated it. He woke up at dawn, and farmed tobacco until his hands bled and the blisters on his feet made for a difficult walk back to the shack, his tower from the life before looming over him, providing the only shade across the vast fields. The Benton family did not allow him to ride Wrangler to work, as it made the other farmers jealous. And there were the nights. Night only providing guilt-ridden nightmares of his time as overseer and soldier. In the mornings he had grown to fear daybreak, and detest the anxiety that accompanied the undeniable return of the sun, beaconing and beckoning him to work the next day.
For the three years since the war, almost every day in the miserable life of Gavin McKinley had been the same. And the sweltering morning of April thirteenth had begun just like all the others.
It started like all the other glum days down in the fields. Gavin aided the other sharecroppers in picking the lugs from the tobacco plants, all attempting to ignore the penetrating heat. William Hicks acquired a rather nasty snakebite, while relieving himself in some bushes by the field, and had to be taken to the plantation house for treatment. Gavin and the rest were ordered to stop gawking and get back to work. Snake bites were nothing new on the Benton farm.
What truly gained Gavin's attention was the sight of Jeremy Benton making his way towards the tobacco field. Jeremy had been the smallest and youngest of the Benton sons, the 'runt' the others used to taunt. But that was a long time ago, and no one was left to make such jokes. Jeremy had been the only one to survive the war. His two older brothers had been ordered to Gettysburg and never returned. Gavin had rarely ever seen Jeremy in the three years since his homecoming, but today the young Benton boy strutted towards the field sporting a fancy short brimmed hat and an ox hide coat; dressing both warm and expensive despite the blistering heat.
Jeremy was accompanied by two men, who walked together a few paces behind him. One with a lengthy beard and a Confederate officer jacket that Gavin recognized from the war. It was the type of attire that would land a man in trouble north of the Carolinas but was still celebrated in the Southern states. The second man was younger, with long, stringy blond hair hanging out from beneath his large brimmed beaver-pelt Stetson. He wore two Colt Navy revolvers on his belt, which he gripped while he walked. Gavin had seen many cocky young gunslingers before the war, but this one was different. He had survived.
"Gather 'round, y'all!" Jeremy barked to Gavin and the other farmers, using the same tone Gavin remembered he had used to address the slaves, despite nearly all of the current sharecroppers being of European descent. Jeremy distrusted and loathed his former slaves after the war, and banished them from the plantation. "This here is Captain Jarret, and Sunrise Jackson." The name brought on a murmur from the crowd, so Jeremy paused to allow the excitement to pass.
"They here lookin' for a convict, up and killed two men in the mountains north of Jacksboro. They think he headed this way. Now, this convict is a colored boy so he'll be standin' out like a wolf in a chicken pen. You boys got the rest the day off to search the property, Captain Jarret is going take point. Any y'all find that boy, you'll be joining me for steak dinners and cold drinks in the house for a month. Now get on!"
Jarret split off the sharecroppers into search parties of two or three. Gavin was partnered with Thomas Delmont, a younger man Gavin had always found bothersome. They were ordered by Jarret and Sunrise to search the southern region of the fields and report back by nightfall. Gavin decided such a futile pursuit was not worth voyaging back to his shack to retrieve his hunting rifle. No convict in his right mind would choose the vast fields located in the southern portion of the Benton property as a place to lay low. It offered little space to hide, and was far from the well. He grumbled as pain split through his feet. Hopefully someone else would find the convict before all the walking aggravated his blisters.
Only two minutes into the search Thomas began the expected endless buzzing in Gavin's ear. "Can you believe it? Only ten feet from Sunrise Jackson. My lord!"
"Ain't like he's the damn president. Just a man like you or me."
Thomas glanced at Gavin with a puzzled look. "You heard how he got that name?"
Like most people of the Confederacy, Gavin had heard. Sunrise Jackson earned his nickname near the end of the war, fighting for a small southern unit with dwindling supplies. Jackson's unit was low on everything from food to ammunition. The only thing they had in abundance was prisoners. One morning at sunrise, Jackson offered one of the prisoners a pistol. He stated if the man could draw before him and shoot him down, then they would be freed. The man agreed to the duel, and Jackson shot him dead in the middle of the camp. This went on for one whole week at every sunrise, each time Jackson proving faster and a better shot than the prisoner he faced. As news spread, he became a hero among the Confederates, who had lost hope by this point in the war. Gavin reckoned it was the only time shooting POWs made someone a hero, and he was far from impressed. "Thomas, those men he forced to face him were starvin' and damn half past dead. Hell, you may have even bested one or two of 'em."
"You really think I could?"
Gavin sighed. It was not meant to appear a compliment.
After a while, Gavin grew tired of the pains searing through his swollen feet and had a seat in the fields to await the end of the search, much to Thomas's dismay. They headed back to report to Captain Jarret at the allotted time, only to learn all the search parties had shared in their lack of success.
"Sorriest damn manhunt I ever seen," Sunrise taunted. "You boys had steak and whiskey on the line. Thought one y'all would find us that damn—"
"Maybe he ain't here," Gavin stated.
Jarret stepped in before Sunrise could respond. "Mr. McKinley, I am under the impression you were once an important overseer of this region, this knowledge correct?"
"Guess so," Gavin said. "Now tell me something," Gavin began, already regretting the decision, "that boy you ride with, Sunrise? . . . he ever tried as a war criminal? For what he done? How the hell a man like that get a job workin' for the law?'
This brought a hush from the crowd, but Sunrise only responded with a mere snicker. Jarret glanced towards Sunrise, before sighing loudly "Mr. McKinley, condemning those I ride with is far from your task at hand. If you want a killer to be judged, then find me that negro. I know a man like you has conducted searches such as this before."
Gavin limped towards his shack as the sun set overhead. He made up his mind he did not care much for Captain Jarret or Sunrise Jackson, and would not aid them any further. "Fuck the whiskey and steak, hotter than the devil's breathe out here anyway," he muttered as he approached the small, one room cabin. Wrangler neighed impatiently as Gavin made his way to the door. He paused a second to calm the excited horse before entering. Usually Wrangler was calmer; Gavin assumed one of the search parties must have aggravated her.
As he entered the shack, he stopped short to wipe growing tears from his eyes. The search for the black convict had opened the door to elapsed memories: the hunts of the past. He remembered the pursuits, chasing down runaway slaves like animals and whipping them into submission, only to be told by the North they were simply men as well. If the North was right in their assessment, then Gavin had done things that could never be forgotten, or forgiven. He wiped his eyes once more before noticed the corner of the room, where his hunting rifle usually sat, perched gathering dust, but now the corner was empty. Someone had taken it.
Gavin heard the familiar click of his rifle cocking and felt the barrel push into his cheek from the side of the doorway. "You one a da men lookin' for me?" asked a deep voice from behind the hunting rifle.
Gavin glanced to the side to see a skinny, dark-skinned man clutching his hunting rifle. The man's face was grimy and the frayed garments that hung loosely over his shoulders were soiled in coal. He held the rifle in an odd stance with the stock pressed into his cheek and both hands gripping desperately around the trigger. Gavin figured it would probably look funny if the barrel end was not planted against his own cheek. "You are holding that damn thing all wrong." Gavin moved slowly to take a seat on his bed, "You shoot me, holding it like that, knock your teeth right out."
"Yeah, mister? You'd 'till be dead," the man responded, following Gavin with the barrel end still lodged firmly to Gavin's head.
"How the hell you kill two men when you can't even hold a rifle right?"
The man appeared taken aback by the question. "I ain't never kill nobody. Who tell you I do dis?"
Gavin reached under his bed to retrieve a small jar of moonshine. "Well, guess we both got some 'splaining to do."
Both men studied each other carefully as Gavin leisurely drank from his jar. "Da poison all white men love." The man muttered. Gavin said nothing. Everything was silent, aside from the restless horse outside. The man eyed him, as if expecting him to say something, before he finally spoke. "I am Bouazza—"
"Can I have my rifle back now?"
"No!" Bouazza responded, before sitting back, stunned and surprised with himself. Gavin guessed he probably had never taken such a tone with a white man before, so he shrugged and returned to his jar, he was too tired for such ordeals "So you never kill nobody, why them lawmen after you?"
Bouazza studied him one last time, before speaking. "Dey aint't no lawmen. I escaped Black Mountain Mine, mister."
"Don't nobody mister me. Name is Gavin McKinley. Hell is Black Mountain?"
"A mine company. 'Dier mine caved on top, and we were stuck on other side 'way from white men. We climb rocks, see 'way out. Went our own ways, and . . . run." It appeared a simple story when recited, but Gavin knew the complexities involved in the chase, even if he had only witnessed it from the opposing side.
"Wait . . . " Gavin set down the jar and looked up towards Bouazza, "You were a slave?"
"Yes, I run away."
"God damn. Son, how long you been running? Slavery has been over for 'bout three years."
Bouazza stared at Gavin as if wondering if that was a joke or a lie. "Only nine days."
A slave-operated mine still functioning post-Emancipation, Gavin had to admit, it sounded like some colored campfire story that blacks would recite to scare each other at night. But this man had details, horrible details. Stories no imagination could conjure out of thin air, and he was scared, truly scared. So Gavin decided to listen, and after Bouazza was willing to talk, he told Gavin all about Black Mountain Mine, deep in the Smoky Mountains.
Black Mountain Mining Company flourished in the previous few decades before the Emancipation, supplying coal to most of Tennessee and the neighboring states. Production slowed drastically after the start of the war and never resumed to previous heights. Those who returned from the war claimed the South had won, and things would pick back where they had left off. They forced Bouazza and the other mine slaves deeper into the mountains, into more treacherous mines than ever before. After a mere few months, less and less of them would began to exit the mine than enter. There were not many slaves left when Bouazza and the others made their escape during the cave in.
"Why should I believe you?" Gavin waited patiently for the end of the story before becoming inquisitive. "What if that's all a bunch of horse piss, and you're a killer, like the good ol' Captain Jarret say?"
Bouazza fumbled for speech, before setting the rifle to the ground. "Would a killer do that?"
"One who couldn't hold a damn gun to begin with may." Gavin glanced down towards the gun and reached down slowly towards the floor. Bouazza did not move in response. Gavin grabbed the bottle of shine next to the rifle and rose again. He took another long sip as he slouched back on the bed.
"Dis whole time . . . " Bouazza sat amongst the dust covering the shack floor. "I been a free man. The South never won like dey say."
The shock on his face told Gavin everything he needed to know. This was a man, not a slave, a concept Gavin previously failed to recognize. This situation that found him, that sought him out could be his final chance to fix his past, to end the nightmares. This could be the only way to escape the cracking whip that chased him through his dreams, "Reckon you stay for one night, long as you quiet." Bouazza stared up at him. "Tomorrow we get you on your feet. If them men ain't lawmen, but lyin' mining company gun-hands they surely got no problem killin' the both of us. So keep damn quiet." Bouazza nodded as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Gavin guessed it must have been days since he had the safety to attempt sleep. Gavin took one more sip of the shine before lying back in the bed, trying in vain to ignore the voice in his head asking him what the hell he was doing harboring this tired, wreck of a man.
* * *
Sunrise Jackson gnawed on the remnants of his chicken breast as he stared up at the large decorative painting of the Benton family that hung on the wall in the dining hall. The family appeared united and jubilant, with a youthful McKinley, atop his short wooden tower, frozen into the better times of the painting's background. Only two members of the unmoving joyful family still lived; Jeremy and his young niece, Luanne. War and sickness had confined the rest to paintings and memories. Luanne and Jeremy sat across Sunrise and Jarret at the enormous dining table, built when the family was much larger than its present state.
"You know, Sunrise, being a guest in the Benton house also entitles us to the use of their silverware," Jarret joked, watching his counterpart pick apart his meal.
"Pay it no mind," Jeremy smiled. "You catch that Negro running amuck, you may eat in any manner you please." Luanne watched Sunrise devour the chicken breast with a mix of fear and disgust, appearing not to share Jeremy's sentiments. Sunrise took a long sip of whiskey, smiling towards Luanne as he set the cup down, before returning to dismantling the remains of his chicken. Luanne excused herself early.
When the meat was picked clean, Sunrise finally spoke. "Who was that old timer farmhand who gave me that back talk down in them fields?"
Jeremy grinned. "Jarret hasn't told you? Well, my apologies for his behavior earlier. Mr. McKinley has always been set in his ways. My father hired him as head overseer long ago. After the war I didn't have much use for a crippled has-been overseer. But he's always been part of this place since I was a youngin. Let him stay as a cropper."
"He talks to me like that 'gin, may be inclined to shoot 'em," Sunrise stated bluntly, staring at Jeremy to measure his reaction. The words echoed throughout the plantation home, through the large, empty rooms.
Jeremy straightened up as if attempting to grow beyond his small stature. "I do not mean to upset this joyful meal and lead down a path of vulgarity but Mr. McKinley is . . . a relic of my plantation here. Only thing left here that reminds me of father. It would be a grave mistake to remove him from the world."
here. Only thing left here that reminds me of father. It would be a grave mistake to remove him from the world."
Captain Jarret laughed loudly, nudging Sunrise under the table. "My apologies Mr. Benton. My partner here has a rather perplexing sense of humor." Sunrise hated when Jarret treated him like a child, as if he could not speak for himself. People had begun to forget who he was; his legacy. Working for a slave-operated mine had provided another opportunity instead of bowing down before the 'mighty North,' but Black Mountain Mining Company was not what he had hoped. There was too much tracking of runaways, and pretending to be lawmen had quickly grown tiresome. He missed the war. Sunrise stared back up at the painting, his eyes meeting those of McKinley, unmoved upon his tower surrounded by painted fields. As Jarret and Jeremy began plotting new areas to search, Sunrise paid them no mind. He simply smiled, staring towards the painting, as he imagined shooting McKinley from his post in the low glow of the rising sun.
* * *
Gavin woke at dawn to the rhythmic, painful pounding of his skull. Moonshine had once again proved to be a cruel mistress. He sat up from his small cot as the memories from the night flooded back to him. Gavin sighed, staring down at Bouazza sleeping on the wooden floorboards. He had drunkenly handed sanctuary to a man who was pursued by Black Mountain thugs posing as lawmen, and one of them was debatably the most dangerous man of the Confederacy. Gavin ran his hands over his face as he tried to make sense of it. After the war, once the slaves were emancipated, Gavin was more than willing to cooperate. He had always been a stickler for the law and had figured if a war was fought to free these men, then there must be some justice involved. Maybe that was why he let the poor man take shelter. Maybe he was simply bored with his miserable farm life. Maybe he had a death wish. Gavin sat up as he came to a realization; he had no idea why he did what he did. It could be the guilt, the guilt that rose every dark night since the war, when his mind replayed every crack of the whip, and every returning scream.
Gavin nudged the sleeping Bouazza with his foot. It took a few more nudges before Bouazza finally opened his eyes and awoke. "There is a supply shack the Bentons use a little north from here. Reckon I steal you a little food and you can get on your way." Gavin felt strange, as if he somehow owed this man something, a debt for all those before him.
Bouazza stretched before sitting up. "Tank you. You . . . you not like other white men. You are . . . good."
Gavin stared down at Bouazza before giving a quick nod and walking out of the shack door. He wondered if there was truth behind Bouazza's words as he climbed atop Wrangler. Perhaps that was the reason he helped the unfortunate man in need. Maybe, despite all he had done in the past, he was a good man.
* * *
Sunrise tossed back and forth as morning light engulfed the room, invading the darkness through the thick white curtains. He was not used to curtains, or oversized fluff-filled pillows. All the time spent in the war and in the Tennessee Mountains had made him become all too familiar with pitched tents and hard ground. It was now hard to sleep anywhere else.
Sunrise finally admitted defeat and sat up to face the day. A golden teapot sat on a table next to his gun belt at the foot of his bed, awaiting his indulgence. Sunrise shook his head as he grabbed one of his revolvers from the table and poked at the tea pot, pushing it to the edge. He thought about shattering it upon the floor, possibly blaming one of the Negro maids if Jeremy inquired. He had quickly grown to hate this house, and all of the glorified 'dècor.' It had a pristine fakeness about it camouflaging the sorrow and loss. A purple curtains and golden teapots, it made him sick.
Captain Jarret opened the enormous doors and entered the room, frowning in disproval as he watched Sunrise pushing the teapot to the side with his sidearm. "Thought it was 'polite' to knock," Sunrise said bitterly. "You see this damn shit? Golden god damn tea-thing! Now I know what these fancy folks were doin' while we fightin' their war."
"Benton family was decimated in the war, Sunrise." Jarret responded, as he moved to sit in a cushion-filled armchair by the bed.
Decimated, Sunrise wondered what it meant but did not dare ask for fear of a smug response.
"I came here to inform you that Jeremy has sent for dogs from some former trackers in which he is acquainted, a mere half day away. They should be here by sometime this afternoon. We will finally get this done. I cannot tell you how I long to get back to my wife, hell, even back to those mines."
"We caught the others without no damn dogs." Sunrise grumbled pushing the pot off the table's edge with a light tap of the gun. Tea spilled onto the decorative rug, a brown smudge spreading through the expensive fabric. Sunrise smiled as he watched.
Jarret sighed, as he crouched and attempted to wipe the growing muddle. "I need your assurance that the white man from yesterday's search will see no harm by your hand. After the war he returned different . . . the man is just a farmhand, haunted by those days he bore the whip."
Sunrise observed Jarret with disgust. "Them your words? Or Mr. Benton?"
"Suppose a mixture of both. Sunrise, I need your word. We do not harm people like him, it is not our assignment. People like Jeremy may seem like pushovers, but, I'm telling you boy, you do not want to turn against them. They are the authority out here."
Sunrise scoffed. It had taken no time for the extravagant mansion to expose his partner. Jarret was just like many others he had met, placing wealth above legacy. Bowing before golden teapots and oversized bed sheets, pretending he was not a common mining company gun-hand. "You just lucky he ain't know what we really are, lawman," Sunrise glanced down towards the spilled tea, and back to Jarret. "Finish cleaning that shit up." Placing his hat firmly on his head, Sunrise headed down the elaborate staircase, dirt from his soiled boots following his every step.
* * *
An hour or so later Gavin returned back at the shack with food from the storage. After tying the horse back on the old familiar post, he entered into his cabin, but stopped short at the sight before him. Bouaazza sat on his knees, staring down at Gavin's old overseer whip, a whip Gavin himself had long forgotten. His old black whip made mostly of cowhide. It lay roughly eight feet in length not including the handle, which was composed of a thick lead. He could tell Bouazza knew whips such as this all too well.
"I was goin' to run 'way when I seen dis under da bed," Bouazza said. The Caribbean accent sounding stronger when distraught, "But den I remember, dere nowhere to run.
"That whip . . . it's from another life. Long ago. That man . . . he ain't 'round no more." Gavin did not know what he was attempting to say. Guilt and shame rose in his chest. He no longer was the acclaimed head overseer of the Benton plantation. He was an older, broken man, but possibly a better man as well.
"Dis man, he ever coming back?"
"You know, sometimes I wish he would." Gavin snatched the whip and tossed it back under the bed. "But I 'spose he is long gone now."
Bouazza remained still for a moment before rising. "Lies, like all white men," he muttered as he passed Gavin and proceeded out the door.
"Hey now, stop!" Gavin yelled, hoping to remedy the situation. "What if . . . let me come with you." Bouazza halted, and turned. A look of cautious curiosity spread across his face.
In a way, the idea even astonished Gavin. Then he gave the notion time to sink in. He had worked in the Benton employ in one occupation or another for nearly all his life, but now had nothing to show for all his time, besides a horse, a shack and a crippled leg. Aiding this man in need revived the thought of a world he had long forgotten: the land beyond the fields.
Bouazza said nothing. He simply stood, surprised and stunned as Gavin continued, "We'll head north, tell the right folks 'bout what Black Mountain Mining Company is pullin' down here with them illegal slaves. They'll pay some mind to what you got to say. Then we can start headin' west. Hear they got rivers of gold. Now, I don't believe all that hogwash, but rumors got to come from somewhere, ain't they? I could dicker away what I got, get us more supplies at trading posts . . . " It was the most Gavin had talked in ages, rambling on through imagined adventures of the western frontier. Bouazza turned and listen, as rumors and facts of the west flooded over him. He listened closely and even smiling on occasion.
* * *
The laughter from the yard agitated Sunrise, and forced him to choose a seat further away from the window. Jeremy and Jarret had been playing croquet all morning, with Luanne bringing refreshments, and sometimes joining in on the game as well. Sunrise found the game idiotic and pointless (especially given the fact there was a runaway slave to hunt), but Jeremy said the hunt would not begin until the dogs arrived. Somewhere along the way, Jeremy Benton had taken charge of his manhunt. Sunrise forced a smile as Luanne entered to retrieve more tea. "Think, you got my partner feelin' right at home out there, actin' all sweet, ain't ya?"
"We—me and Jeremy—try to accommodate our guests, to the best of our abilities, Mr. Jackson. Besides, the m-maids are busy creating a dinner f-feast." She shuffled nervously as she passed him. Sunrise enjoyed her discomfort.
"Why don't you put down them glasses, let your hair down and come here to 'accomm-ate' me some?" Sunrise moved his feet up onto the table as he lounged. Luanne's eyes darted towards the kitchen.
Before she could respond with an excuse to make a quick exit, Thomas Delmont burst into the room from the main doors. "I-I am sorry for my intrusion, Miss Benton, but I got something real important that needs saying." He attempted to catch his breath before continuing. "McKinley ain't show up for work today. I got scared that killer negro got 'em so I go alookin.' That's when I see him over by the supply shack takin' things that ain't his. I followed him and seen him talkin' with some fella. Get closer and realize the fella was black as night! He . . . I think McKinley is helpin' the Negro hide, Mr. Jackson."
Sunrise sneered as he rose from his decorative chair and perched his hat delicately onto his head. He now had a perfect excuse to eliminate the old man who had humiliated him the previous day, and catch the runaway too, all while Captain Jarret played croquet.
"Should I tell Mr. Benton and Captain Jarret what I seen?" Thomas asked, still hunched regaining his strength.
"There will be no need to bother them none," Sunrise responded.
"What will you do to him, Mr. Jackson?" Luanne inquired, the fear evident in her voice. Sunrise gripped his gun belt and tilted his hat in her direction as he exited, leaving the two watching him walk slowly towards the fields. Luanne gripped tightly to her dress. She knew her question had answered itself.
* * *
The dirt path that led to the main gate of the Benton property was located far from the tobacco fields that were currently in use, so Gavin decided there should be no harm in using it for their exit route. He aided Bouazza in packing the little supplies available onto Wrangler, and they began their journey. Gavin whistled and grinned with excitement as the two hurried along the path. He had never considered a life away from the harsh world of the plantation. He had always felt a close relation to the Benton family, and his injury would have made it hard to survive in the world alone. Now, in helping a man he would have surely condemned in his life before, the whole world had opened up to him to experience for the first time outside of war. Gavin and Bouazza rode along towards the gate, discussing ox-driven caravans and their usage in long travels. Bouazza had never seen an ox before and was naturally inquisitive over the beast.
Gavin's enthusiasm swiftly diminished, as he noticed a figure in the dirt road before them. With his hat low over his eyes and his hands gripping the twin Colts at his sides, stood Sunrise Jackson. A pose Gavin imagined the man had long practiced in his downtime.
"You two best think twice 'bout high tailin' away! Got Jarrett up in your former tower with his rifle, just waitin' for yal to turn 'round, and come back that way!" Sunrise called.
"Don't break pace. Can you ride a horse?" Gavin muttered, attempting to hide his fear and dismay from his new friend.
"Yessir," Bouazza whispered. They were now close to twenty paces from the man in the road. The hot sun beat down overhead.
"Well, Mr. McKinley," Sunrise smirked, "I spent all morning and good bit o' last night thinkin' for a reason to shoot you after your mouthin', but you made it damn easy." His eyes locked on Bouazza, before returning to Gavin.
"Your feelings hurt a bit easy, Mr. Jackson. Lively character such as you should 'spect some ridicule," Gavin said. He was met by silence, so he continued as Bouazza shuffled nervously. "Bou-azza here told me you ain't no lawman or no bounty hunter." Still, Sunrise offered nothing in way of response. "Slavery is over, Mr. Jack—"
"Hell it is," Sunrise replied, pulling a revolver from his holster and tossing it to Gavin's feet. "I heard from Mr. Benton you killed a posse of horse thieves while back, so I'll make this interestin'. Pick it up and we duel like damn men and I put you down, or you hand over my prisoner."
Fear nearly caused Gavin to consider handing Bouazza over, but he quickly dismissed such thoughts. "I believe prisoners of yours' got a long history of gettin' shot. You ain't no man; just mining company scum. "
Sunrise's smirk widened, "No? Was hopin' you'd say that. "If I truly am 'mining company scum, reckon I shoot you whether you join in this here duel or don't." Sunrise reached across his gun belt. From his belt, he withdrew an extra holster, as if he had planned on a situation such as this to occur. "Stick that on your belt side there." He said, tossing it next to the pistol in the grass. Bouazza remained still, his face subdued in petrified silence.
Gavin squinted towards Sunrise, "This here is murder—"
"Don't go talkin' no more!" Sunrise shouted. "Pick it up, cripple!"
Gavin glanced back to the revolver. He wondered if it was too late. It all had escalated so quickly, he was unsure where things actually stood. One minute he was attempting to aid a poor man in a bad situation, now he found himself in a forced duel with an angry gun thug who was known to excel at such an activity. Gavin half-heartedly placed the holster and gun on his side. "You look for a chance, you take my horse and ride." Gavin whispered to Bouazza.
Gavin felt his trembling, blistered fingers on the holster. Cold sweat trickled down his face into his eyes. He wondered what those Yanks were thinking when Sunrise forced them to duel. He glanced towards Bouazza, and noticed tears rolling slowly down the man's cheeks. This man truly cared about him, despite all the evil he had done before. A sense of calm swept over him, Gavin had to help this man escape to the North.
Gavin reached, but it was already too late. Sunrise drew, catching Gavin twice in the chest before Gavin could clear the holster. The shots rang out into the silent morning air. Before Sunrise could turn the gun upon him, Bouazza hopped onto Wrangler's back and galloping across the field towards the main gate. Sunrise took aim, but before he could fire, another shot rang out. It came from the grass before him. Gavin struggled to sit as he fired the gun against the ground. Sunrise noticed Gavin stirring and attempting to raise the revolver from his side towards him despite the blood trickling down from his chest. Sunrise's eyes darted from Gavin to Bouazza. "Stay down, you old son of a bitch!" he yelled, yet Gavin still rose. Sunrise cursed as he turned to Gavin, shooting him again, and then twice more out of anger. When looking back up to return to Bouazza, Wrangler had nearly reached the gate. Sunrise attempted the shot, but missed wide to the right. His gun was empty and the man was gone. Sunrise threw the revolver in anger. Sharecropper gathered around, some shouting angrily towards Sunrise at the sight of McKinley prone and unmoved in the grass. None applauded; none treated him like a legend, only words of hate and agitation range out. Sunrise pulled his hat from his head. It was over.
* * *
Gavin smiled, as he sprawled in the tall grass. A cold feeling lulled over him, despite the heat. He thought of Bouazza, but with new clothes, sporting a black suit. Up north, or out in the west, smiling and laughing, surrounded by buildings and friends, walking along paved roads. Far from the mines, in the land beyond the fields.
Delun Attwooll is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. After he graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in creative writing, he moved to Japan to teach English. He currently enjoys travelling Japan, soccer and of course, writing. Twitter- @AttwoollDelun
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Naomi Brett Rourke
Heyoka arranged the sheathed knife on his hip and slowly bent to slip his feet into his soft, brown leather moccasins. He took his small medicine bag out of habit and placed it around his neck, lifting his greying hair at the back to slip the cord underneath. The great medicine bundle he would leave in his tipi. If he came back, he would need it. If not . . .
It was still dark outside, early and quiet. He sat heavily and poured his tea into a cup before sipping it slowly. Although he was hungry, he would not eat. Atonement had its price and so did reckoning. He would not eat until he had finished his task, and if he did not finish it, it wouldn't matter. He sighed and poured water into his emptied cup, swirled it around, poured it out, and wiped the cup clean before putting it away. Once, his wife would have done this for him. Now he did it himself. He lifted the flap, taking up his coup stick, and walked silently out into the camp. His tipi was on the extreme end of the camp., No member of the tribe wanted to be near him. He was sica, bad.
As he waited for the sun, he watched the mountains for signs of the thunder-god and pondered where his life had gone wrong. He had been born to a chief and married to a beautiful girl from a good family. He had a son who filled him with joy.
He swallowed and his eyes teared up for a minute. When had it gone wrong?
From the day I was born.
* * *
Otaktay, the chief of the White Bear tribe was sitting at the edge of the fire. The screaming had died down and an uneasy silence had fallen on the camp. His lovely wife, Wichahpi, the star of his life, was in childbirth with his first child, and the birth had been difficult.
For hours the screaming had come from his tent where his wife lay with the kun `si, the midwives, and the medicine man. For hours his teeth had been on edge with fear for his delicate wife. He was a large man, well over six feet with heavy shoulders and a thick neck. He was the biggest man in camp, feared in battle, but, when he saw Wichahpi for the first time, he felt the power drain from his body and wanted nothing but to lay his head in her lap and lie there forever.
He had fashioned a love flute and played it every day on the hill when Wichahpi was going to and fro in the camp. She smiled when she went by but, as was the custom with love flutes and courting, she did not look at him. Her father finally agreed that Otaktay could court his daughter. When he placed the first deer at the door of Wichahpi's tipi, he glanced up and saw her smiling shyly, and when he first lay with his wife, he trembled lest he hurt her.
He had not hurt her, and the pleasure she gave him filled his heart. When he heard she was with child, he rejoiced, but a little voice in his head nagged him of the difference between his hulking warrior's body and her delicate one.
Now a kun `si was coming out of his tipi, and he sprang up. The grandmother smiled sadly and said, "Your son."
Reaching for the boy, Otaktay said, "And Wichahpi?"
A tear fell out of the kun `si's wrinkled eye and stopped, glittering, on her cheek. "Wichahpi is no more. She has gone to join her ancestors. She was very brave, and she gave you a son."
Otaktay's arms stopped just short of his infant. "What?"
"She's dead, my chief. She gave her life so you could have your son." She held out the wriggling bundle to him. He stepped back. He thought about Wichahpi's shy smile and lithe walk and her gentle hands, and then he looked at the boy, so wrinkled and puny.
"No," he said and walked out of camp. He didn't come back for three days, and he never took his son into his tipi.
The boy, named Chaska, or eldest son, was raised by his auntie . When he was finally a man, foolish and unloved, the tribe changed his name to Heyoka, after the spirit of perversity and chaos. He went to live on the outskirts of the camp and, no matter where they moved to follow the game, he was an outsider in his own tribe.
* * *
Heyoka heard a whisper behind him. The sun was up, just peering over the horizon, tinting the fluffy clouds pink, warming the mountains. He turned and saw the entire tribe standing in two facing rows on either side of him. They were so quiet.
Through the rows came his father, Chief Otaktay. Heyoka felt a momentary disappointment. He didn't expect anyone from his family to stand by his side, but it would have been heartening.
"Heyoka," Otaktay's words dripped abhorrence, "you stand accused of murder. You have been a scourge to the tribe and an embarrassment to me. You are a foolish man and sica. I hand you over to the medicine man, Matoska, so he may do what he wants with you."
* * *
His wife. Chumani. His jewel. Although Heyoka thought she didn't want to marry a man with bad luck, she obeyed her parents and married the son of the chief. Maybe she thought it would be all right, and he would make everything better one day. But, the days went on and her displeasure in him was always in her eyes. Her fine brown eyes. He became lost in them whenever he was near her.
She was silent. She always did her duties as his wife, but always with an air of dissatisfaction which grew as the years went by. And after the event, the event which broke any feeling of love that had ever been, her dissatisfaction turned to hate. They lived that way for years, until Chumani took a lover, the beautiful son of the warrior, Akecheta. When Heyoka found them together, and saw the contempt in their eyes, saw their limbs draped over their naked and sweaty bodies, saw her eyes, her fine eyes, shining with laughter and scorn, what else could Heyoka do but thrust his knife into her lover's body again and again? While she was screaming at him, grasping at him, he cut her throat and gouged out her fine eyes.
When a member of the tribe opened the flap to the tipi and gasped, Heyoka was sitting with his wife's bloody head in his lap, crooning over her lifeless body, saying "thechihila, I love you," over and over again. He raised his head and, when Akecheta thrust his head into the tipi and roared in his anger and his grief, Heyoka gently placed Chumani on the ground, and buried his knife in the lover's head, smiling through his tears.
* * *
Matoska came forward. A wizened man with lean ropy muscles and a drooping jaw. His eyes sparkled without humor in his aesthete face, and his fingers played constantly with the fringes of his medicine bag.
"It is decided," he said in a smoky voice, "and this is the tribe's reckoning."
He slid a look to Otaktay. Although the chief was disgusted with his son, it would do well to remember Heyoka was the only son of the chief, and the chief might change his mind someday. Better make sure he, Matoska, could not be held accountable.
"Heyoka, you have a second chance to do well for your tribe. See those mountains?" His arm traced a circle to the north. "There Wakinyan, Thunderbird, lives with his brothers and sisters. He is a magical bird, bigger than three eagles, who brings the thunder and lightening and who has an untold thing he holds most dear in his nest. You are to climb up to the nest and steal this most precious object so your tribe can prosper and have the luck of the Thunderbird, the luck you stole from us at your birth."
Heyoka stared at Matoska without moving a muscle.
"I do not count coup?" he whispered.
Matoska was impassive. Heyoka looked to his father, who would not meet his eyes but instead stared at the mountainous home of Thunderbird, so far away. This was unexpected. To climb up the mountain and gently hit Thunderbird with his coup stick would show bravery and fortitude, two of the four virtues, with wisdom and generosity, that every good tribesman should have. Thunderbird would respect and forgive a man who accomplished coup. Theft of Thunderbird's own property was another thing altogether.
Slowly he bent his head. The crowd was silent as death. Heyoka again slid his eyes to his father, but he would get no support from him. He dropped his coup stick in the dust and gazed at it, then he turned on his heel and walked away, spine straight, head high. He heard a hiss and immediately after, a laugh. Reaching higher with his head, he strode away until he was far past the camp, and then sagged against a Ponderosa pine and sobbed.
In time, he trudged away from his tribe and hope.
Heyoka walked through hot, dusty days where the vulture circled in the sky and the eagle dove down to strike with a fierce cry. He walked through dark cold nights where the moon was his only friend and the shadows of the trees matched the shadows of his heart. He napped periodically but rose up to walk more. He stopped for drinks of water from the gourd tied onto his belt. but ignored the gnawing in his stomach. He had been through ceremonies where he couldn't eat for days—his vision quest, sweat lodges, and the Sun Dance—he knew what hunger felt like, and he had mastered it a long time ago. He was aware of the tightening of his gut, but didn't think about it. He was thinking of Thunderbird.
Everyone in the tribe knew the stories: Grandmother Spider, White Buffalo Woman, and, the hero, Rabbit Boy. But the belief that carried the most weight in the camp was Thunderbird. Thunderbird was the spirit of thunder and lightning. He could give the tribe rain when it was most needed or send a lighting bolt to decimate the camp. He could send a fog and make the ground soft so a brave could creep up on a deer and its flight would be hampered by the muddy ground pulling and sucking at their feet when it most needed to flee. He could send lightening to make a foe aware of your presence so they could kill you before you did the same to them. Thunderbird was a fickle spirit, and most people in Heyoka's village did their best to live their lives so as not to anger Thunderbird. Since he was a spirit, he knew your secret thoughts. He punished the liar, the cheat, and, unfortunately for Heyoka, the foolish.
This, Heyoka thought, was the best of punishments the medicine man could have chosen. If he was seen by Thunderbird while he was stealing from his nest, he would be killed. But, since Thunderbird knew his thoughts, he would be killed anyway for being both a thief and foolish. This was the tribe's reckoning. This was Matoska's safety. Heyoka's blood would be on Thunderbird's claws, not Matoska's hands, so the chief couldn't hold him accountable for Heyoka's death. Heyoka knew he was heading for his death and would never bring back the thing Thunderbird holds most dear.
How many of my people grasped that fact? How many of them knew this was a fool's errand and I would never be coming back?
He walked and walked, day and night, toward the great mountain where Thunderbird lived. Raising his hand to block the glare, he gazed through sun-squinted eyes at the circle of clouds surrounding the apex of the god's eyrie. Dropping his eyes to the ground, he saw rabbits and squirrels scurrying for safety. Snakes slithered desultorily out of his path and wolves trotted by showing the whites of their eyes, but none bothered him. Just like his tribe, none wanted him. He was one with the tumbleweeds. Insignificant. Invisible. Intangible.
Heyoka finally reached the mountain without having seen Thunderbird. He had hoped that the god had seen him and would put an end to his foolish task, but no. He was even too inconsequential for Thunderbird, who knows all men's thoughts, to come down and punish him. Heyoka would have to make the climb after all. Thoughts of running away never entered his mind. This was his reckoning and he deserved it. Yes, he did. He swallowed painfully, his water gourd having given up the last sips the day before.
At first, the going was easy. He trotted along the ascending trails and hardly even noticed that he was leaving the ponderosa and spruce behind as he ran higher and higher. Now, all about him were scrubby bushes and, when he looked up, he saw an occasional spruce. Soon the trails and large boulders gave way to a more difficult terrain, and he raised his arms to grasp the first of the many rocks which he would use to ascend higher and higher.
Up to Thunderbird and his own doom.
As he climbed higher and higher, and had to concentrate on his ascent, he could not keep his mind from why he was there in the first place. His heart was black and empty.
Heyoka shook his head at the memory. So many memories.
He sweated in the day when the sun beat down on his head and shoulders, and he froze in the night when the fog came in, but he never stopped. I have been foolish, he thought. I have lost everything precious to me. I have killed. There is no room on the Great Father's earth for such as me; there is no room in Wakan-Tanka's world for me. His thoughts were as black as the night sky on the Dark Moon. I should have been better. I should have walked in balance. But I did not. His thoughts swirled forebodingly as he climbed.
After two days of solid climbing, he reached a wide cliff and paused to rest. Looking up, he ruminated on the best way to climb to the pinnacle where the Wakinyan would be waiting. It was cooler here and he shivered. When he made his choice of ascension routes, he tied his hair back again, and began to climb once more. I have never done anything right but I can climb.
* * *
In the battle with the neighboring tribe, Heyoka, who was still called Chaska, was given the task of keeping the horses safe. It wasn't a real war. It was one of the constant shows of battle expertise where the women and animals were up for grabs and the warriors would count coup by touching their foes with their coup sticks. In this way, the braves could keep their war skills sharp but no deaths occurred. Warriors were needed in the tribes and unless this was a serious battle, it was best to let each tribe keep their men intact with only bruises to show for it.
Chaska was only twelve, but he was already under an unlucky cloud. His father thought to raise the boy's reputation with an easy task, and besides, there would be another warrior riding with Chaska. If he did something stupid, Kangee, who was named for the crafty raven, would make sure to fix it.
Chaska liked guarding the horses. He admired the warrior's proud mounts and liked the small ponies that nuzzled at his hands when he gave them grain. Bay, roan, dun, dappled, and buckskin, he loved then all, especially the ancient Palomino his mother had ridden when she was alive. It was near to death, blind and half deaf, but he felt closer to her when the Palomino nipped his arm for carrots and she stood still while he brushed and brushed her still-shining coat. He had never met his mother, but he could still brush and feed her horse, and thereby feel close to her.
When the neighboring tribe did attack, though, the trick was so simple, so elementary, it couldn't help but work. Obviously, the other tribe had a traitor in Chaska's camp, one who informed the others that the extra horses would be protected by a boy, a young, green, and foolish boy. A boy who was afraid of thunder.
While three braves were causing a distraction on the other side of the corral keeping Kangee busy, two men crept behind the boy, who was sitting nervously on his mount at the gate of the corral. One brave shook a thunder stick almost in the boy's ear. Chaska started, his horse reared, and he tumbled off into the dry, choking dust. The other warriors lifted the latch of the corral and the first rode in, spooking the horses and herding them out and in the direction of the other camp. When Kangee galloped up, the boy was motionless, head down, a trickle of urine tracking down his leg, and tears on his cheeks. Kangee, disgusted, rode to tell Otaktay of the calamity. From that day on, the boy Chaska was given another name—Heyoka—and his father never looked at him again, except in distain.
* * *
Heyoka climbed and climbed, his mood as black as Otaktay's black stallion. He rested a bit, gasping for air, sitting on a sharp rock. He was sweating, and he sucked some of the water off his arm. It did him no good, being salty and warm, but he was so thirsty. Maybe the end will come soon. He looked at the sun, slowly slipping down to the horizon.
When it was dark, Heyoka found a wide place and snuggled up with his back to the mountain. It was cold now, and he wrapped his tired arms around his torso and shivered into the night. He napped on and off and, when the sun made its appearance making the clouds pink and blue and orange, Heyoka stood up, shook himself like a dog, and continued his ascent.
* * *
When the old warrior Tahatan's hunting dog, Talutah had puppies, everyone in the camp wanted one. Talutah was the best hunter in the camp, and it was said—and Tahatan did not deny it—that she had mated with a wolf, so her puppies were highly anticipated. Chaska longed for one, but since it was well known the chief had turned his back on his son, Chaska didn't think to ask for one. His auntie, Kimimela, hugged him and left the tipi, going in the direction of Akecheta's tipi. She was gone for a long time but when she came back, she carried a bundle in her arms. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, she patted the ground next to her, and Chaska, his heart suddenly in his mouth, obediently sat. From out of the bundle came a questing nose, and a snout, and then the whole puppy was in Chaska's arms, jumping up and licking his face, arms, and grabbing his hair with his sharp and tiny teeth, and licking, licking. Chaska laughed and hugged the dog to him. He had never in his life felt so much love.
Kimimela smiled sadly, knowing this boy had little enough in his life to make him laugh. She was glad she had braved Otaktay's anger to demand the pup for his son. She had to pay a hefty sum to Akecheta for the puppy, but it was all worth it to see the boy rolling around on the floor of the tipi with his new brother and friend.
Chaska named the puppy Kohana, meaning swift, with the hopes that the puppy would turn into a brave and fast hunter. Maybe Otatkay would be happy with him, for once. Maybe he would be able to be his loved son once again if he raised the dog to be the best hunter in camp.
Day after day, Chaska trained the puppy, and when training was over, they ran into the forest and played. Once, Kohana found a skunk, and when Chaska and the dog came back to camp, the whole camp laughed and threw things at them to keep them, and the smell, out. Chaska laughed too and didn't mind it. It was the same thing they would have done to anyone in the camp, and he felt that he was finally accepted. He didn't mind staying outside the camp, plunging with Kohana into the stream and rubbing aromatic leaves on them both. When he was finally let back into the camp, he felt a couple of pats on his shoulder as he walked proudly back to his auntie's tipi. He had met the problem and successfully surmounted it. He was seven years old.
The puppy grew, as Chaska did, and in a year the puppy looked like a full-grown dog. He might have had wolf in him because the legs were gangly and the tail, bushy. The snout was brightened by two intelligent, deep brown eyes, and his fur was soft but with the coarseness of a wolf, brown and gray. He was a beautiful animal and the boy was as proud of him as he could be. The tribal members remarked on how beautiful a dog he was and how well trained he was. Chaska's chest swelled with pride. Kohana would be the best dog in the camp.
The only problem Kohana had was the command "stop." Maybe it was that he was still a puppy at heart, maybe it was that he became too excited. Maybe it was that he was willful. Chaska had trained him and trained him, but Kohana only followed the command half of the time. It was the only black mark in Kohana's training and Chaska racked his brains to find out what would work, but nothing did.
One day Otaktay called the tribe together. "There is a bear," he said," and it is a danger to our tribe. We must track it and kill it. I will take the strongest braves and the best dogs."
Chaska stood up proudly and announced, "You can have my Kohana. He'll find the bear."
Otaktay looked down at the boy. "Are you sure he said he is ready?"
"Yes," replied the boy. And so they accompanied the men and their dogs to tree the bear and to kill it.
For two days they tracked the bear and when at last it was cornered, it was massive. The head was like a boulder with sharp yellow teeth, and the claws were long and merciless. When it saw the men and dogs it raised its head and roared its challenge. The din from the barking dogs was deafening and the men loosed their dogs with a mix of whistles and clicks and the dogs leapt upon the bear, dancing around it, slipping through its legs, and snapping at its hindquarters. One dog caught a swipe of the paw and yelped as it flew through the air to crash on a tree trunk. After sliding down and shaking itself, it launched into the battle again.
Chaska watched Kohana with trepidation at first, but then with pride as the dog raced in to snatch a bite, then danced out to avoid the sharp claws and teeth. The bear was forced, inch, by inch into a tight clump of birches.
"Hold back," Otaktay called," it will be desperate. Call back the dogs."
Again a series of whistles, clicks from the masters and all the dogs came panting back to let the men finish off the bear. All, of course, but Kohana.
"Kohana, no!" the boy cried, but it was all for naught, as the dog, perhaps maddened by the fight as much as the bear, continued baiting the bear, coming closer and closer into danger. When the bear grabbed Kohana, it swept him up in its paws and Chaska heard Kohana's wail as claws gouged flesh and he the heard the crunch of dog's skull between massive jaws, but he had already fallen to his knees in horror and grief.
The bear was dead when Chaska could at last kneel at the dog's side, gazing at the rents in his soft grey fur and the ruined head Chaska had stroked time and time again. He vomited and fell alongside the remains and wailed like Kohana had wailed at the last of his life. When he was at last snuffling and gasping for breath, Chaska saw everyone had gone back to camp but his father, who stood watching him, leaning against a solitary birch tree. Chaska stood and ran to his father, hoping for a kind word, a hug, or anything else that would comfort an eight-year-old boy at the killing of his dog.
Otaktay stared at him for a moment, then said very softly, "waste." Then, he turned and loped back to the village, leaving Chaska to follow slowly back. When Chaska reached the camp, all was as it was before Kohana had been adopted. Chaska was sica, and even his auntie had trouble looking at him kindly, for the waste of a hunting dog in the tribe was considered one of the worst sins.
People said, "Of course it would happen, how would it have not with that boy?"
The next litter Talutah dropped, Chaska went to the far side of the camp and cried.
* * *
Heyoka put a hand up and felt nothing. Snapping his head up, he saw sky and realized he had come to the end of his journey. He felt around carefully and his fingers touched straw, down, and twigs. Thunderbird's nest.
Heyoka cautiously found a higher toehold and boosted himself up so he could peer above the precipice. The nest was empty of the spirit Thunderbird. Good. Heyoka sat on the edge of the rock, gazing at the nest. It was like any other nest, but so enormous. It could fit three of him comfortably, he thought. What a monstrous thing is a god. Beyond our comprehension. Heyoka was careful not to touch the nest. He trembled, thinking that Thunderbird could hunt him down and sweep him off the pinnacle at any time. He needed to get Wakinyan's thing he held most dear and get down off the mountain as soon as possible.
The thing he holds most dear! He had made it to Thunderbird's home, and he might actually make it back to the camp. He might be able to resolve his bad luck and be a hero to his tribe. In the three days travelling to his task, he had never once thought it was possible to survive, but here he was. It could be done.
Heyoka got to his feet and, crouching over so Thunderbird might not see him, crept his way along the perimeter of the nest, peering, questing. He stopped and stared. The thing he holds most dear. The only thing of value in the nest. An egg.
* * *
Hotah clutched at the air, attempting to reach the birds high above. "Look, At`e, birds." Heyoka smiled at his son but then the smile faded as he fought to keep the canoe heading forward into the rapids of the river. Most of the water was calm and clear, but in this one place, the only way to get to the tribe's land by canoe, was treacherous and required constant attention. Hotah loved watching birds and he had recently taken to running after them, his strong, pudgy legs trotting like Heyoka's favorite horse. Heyoka thought this was a good sign and someday he would be a great hunter. He dreamed of that day, not only for his son, but for himself, for having a great hunter as a son would do much to repair the father's damaged reputation and the bad luck that forever haunted him. Hotah meant strong, and he would be strong and brave and smart.
Heyoka drove his paddle into the roaring rapids and changed direction slightly to take advantage of the change in water speed. Many men had flipped their boats in these rapids and some had come out minus a boat, shaking their heads, grateful to be alive, but many had not.
"Look, At`e, tiny bird!" Heyoka's attention was drawn to his son who was now pointing above him. He looked up. A brilliant orange and black butterfly was dancing overhead, gliding on the gentle breeze.
"Oh, oh," called Hotah, straining up to reach the butterfly who, like most butterflies, was careful to stay out of reach.
"Heyoka!" The call came from the bank of the river. Heyoka peered over to see his wife, hand raised, yelling something at him. The rushing waters beneath him masked her voice and he shook his head to indicate he couldn't hear her. He felt a wave of annoyance. Why couldn't she tell him when he beached the canoe? What was so important now that it couldn't wait? Didn't she know that these waters were dangerous?
"At`e! At`e! Father!" He turned to see his son standing up in the boat, so close to catching the butterfly.
"Hotah! Sit down!" he yelled, but it was too late.
The canoe's nose dipped suddenly and shot back up to send the boy flying. Hotah, his face shocked and dismayed—Heyoka would see his face from that day forward in his dreams—bounced out of the boat and fell into the churning water below. Heyoka wrestled with the canoe, fighting to bring it around to grab the boy, who was helpless in the foaming water and was quickly moving toward the merciless rocks. Chumani screamed from the shore. Heyoka desperately fought the waves to position his canoe to the place where his son struggled to keep his head above water, but the canoe stubbornly resisted his efforts. As Heyoka fought with the canoe, Hotah, paddling wildly, bobbed into the center of the tumult and was flung with frightening speed, slammed into a submerged boulder headfirst. Red stained the water and the boy floated with all the leaves and twigs, but didn't move.
Heyoka cried out and dove into the water. His boat would later be found several miles downstream, intact. As Heyoka's head breached the water, he looked about wildly for his son. A white hand bobbed limply on the water. Heyoka swam furiously and caught it just as it was disappearing beneath the red-hued water. He swam one-handed while his son dangled and bounced lifelessly in the waves around them.
At last, Heyoka felt the ground beneath his feet and he charged out of the river, placing the child gently on the river bank. The gash in his head was red with blood, but it was not bleeding profusely anymore. Hotah's eyes were open but he did not see the butterflies—five or six of them—that landed in the shallow water still upon his chest. Heyoka placed his ear upon the child's chest and heard nothing. Chumani swooped down to gather up the boy's body to her breast, screaming incoherently at Heyoka.
"Wife, let me tend to him." Perhaps he could breath for the boy until he could breathe for himself. Perhaps he could push the water out of his lungs, rolling him over and over on a log.
"No! You've killed him. You've killed him." She rocked back and forth with the body of her only child grasped to her and her eyes flashed at Heyoka. "You ruin everything. You are a bad father and a bad husband." She lowered her head and nuzzled the cold, wet head of her child. "You are a monster! No. You are nothing."
That is how the tribe found them when they came to claim the body of the dead child. Heyoka never looked up as they helped the woman up and carried Hotah back to the camp.
Heyoka stayed kneeling at the bank of the river for a day and a half and when he could kneel no more, when grief, exposure, and hopelessness took him, he gave one shriek and fell to the earth unconscious.
* * *
Tears were streaming down Heyoka's cheeks. His strong boy, his brave boy. Lost forever. Because he, Heyoka, was not watching him for a minute. How quickly one second could change the world. And the only item in Thunderbird's nest, the thing he holds most dear, was an egg. Thunderbird's son. Heyoka's legs were numb and he fell on his knees, clutching the end of the nest, which crumbled into scratchy pieces surrounded by down.
Heyoka's arms and legs trembled. His hands scrabbled in the nest's branches and down. Heyoka gulped, then he set his jaw.
So be it. I lost my son; Thunderbird will lose his and I will become a god to my people because I, I bested Thunderbird and stole his son.
Excitement surged through Heyoka's body, energizing him. He hopped up and tiptoed on the narrow rock to where he could reach the egg. He looked around. There was Thunderbird, far off, hunting. He would never make it back to his nest in time to prevent the theft. It seemed like Heyoka caught Thunderbird's eye, and he froze. Then Thunderbird was soaring the other direction and Heyoka continued, but he was confused and suddenly dizzy. He sat down, clutching the rough nest to make sure he didn't topple off the cliff.
Why doesn't Thunderbird come over to stop me? He can read men's minds. He met my eye. I know it! Why doesn't he come to kill me?
The strength left Heyoka's body and he sagged against the cliff. Heyoka pondered, picking idly at a twig. His thirst had left him and he felt oddly hollow. He hadn't made water for three days and he hadn't really slept since he left the camp. He hadn't eaten either, such was the nature of his punishment and the retribution of the tribe.
I suppose I'm dying. I suppose I'm already partly a ghost and that's why Thunderbird doesn't see me. I'll join the winds when I die and howl my sorrow and the tribe will hear me and be glad.
His eyesight faded and sharpened. A quick movement far beyond nest caught his eye. He narrowed his lids to peer at Thunderbird so far away, floating with the air currents. Or was he? Where was he? A sudden thought passed through his mind.
Could it be he doesn't know my mind? Maybe he can't read my mind and my heart. Or maybe Thunderbird is welcoming me to show me my true nature.
Suddenly the air was filled with feathers. Tiny down feathers crammed in Heyoka's mouth and immense flight feathers of blue and brown and white beat his head. Sharp talons scratched his arms, drawing beads of blood, and a huge beak gashed his shoulder, but they hurt him less than Hotah's butterflies. Heyoka grinned and a small hoot of laughter emerged from his dry mouth.
Thunderbird cannot hurt me. I must be a god. My life up to this time was a test. I now know myself for what I am. Good, then. I will steal the egg and go down and be the chief my people. I will change my own name. I had two the tribe gave me but I will . . . I will rule as Thunderbird's Thief.
He reached for the egg and, just short of it, stopped.
A gust passed his ear quickly, but so gently, softly.
What was that?
No, it is impossible. It's hunger. It's exhaustion.
"NO!" Heyoka grabbed the egg and put it in his pouch. He crawled to the other edge of the nest and eased his body over the side, finding toeholds and preparing for descent. Far away, a cry pierced the air. Thunderbird.
Heyoka looked over his shoulder. The bird was still hunting far away. He hadn't seen the theft, and he hadn't been here attacking the egg thief. Heyoka heaved a sigh of relief and turning his head, saw a tiny bit of down clinging resolutely to the nest. It was soft, so soft, and it blew in the breeze like Hotah's downy hair when he had been an infant. Hotah had looked up into Heyoka's face and Heyoka felt a squeezing at his heart, a catch in his throat. This little child. Mine. All mine. He would do anything for him.
Heyoka gazed at the piece of down, unable to move for a long, long time.
My son. Thunderbird's son.
A`te, A`te! Tiny bird!
Heyoka swallowed. There seemed to be a lump as big as the egg in his throat. He guzzled air and there didn't seem to be enough for breath. His eyes suddenly were filmed with tears.
I lost my son, my most precious thing. I was unworthy. Thunderbird should have his. Who am I to steal the thing he holds most dear?
He clung there for a long time with legs that trembled and fingers that grew numb. Then, gasping with pain, Heyoka reached into his pouch, cradling the egg, and drew it out. Reaching up as high as he could, he released the egg onto the edge of the nest and watched it as it rolled gently to the middle and settled into the soft down in the center of the nest.
I am not Thunderbird's Thief. I am not a god. I am not sica. I am only a foolish man. I have been foolish my whole life. My foolishness lost me my father, my wife, and my brave boy. I am nothing. This is the tribe's retribution. This is who I am.
He sighed and looked out at Thunderbird, hunting so far away. He looked down and saw the ground so far below. Tears streamed down his cheeks and the whipping wind made frigid lines down his face.
But there is one thing I can do.
Heyoka gathered up the last of his ebbing strength and launched himself from the pinnacle.
I can fly.
Naomi Brett Rourke is a writer, teacher, and theatre director living in Southern California with kids,
grandkids, a whole passel of animals and her wonderful husband. She has stories published in magazines,
journals, and anthologies, most recently in the best-selling anthology STRAIGHT OUTTA TOMBSTONE, edited
by David Boop, and in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. She finished her first novel and continues to write short
stories, screenplays, correct papers, and love life. Visit her at www.naomibrettrourke.com, on Facebook at Naomibrettrourke, on Instagram at Naomibrettrourke,
and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NaomiBRourke.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Robert Gilbert
Mirar la Luna
The Spanish devil returned again to haunt the night, wafting across the vast landscape of the Apache Desert. The sky, that vast canvas, remained a blanket of ebony beyond the horizon. Along the eastern edge, a minute cloud formation momentarily lingered, floating in front of a full moon. That huge, silvery orb created a mysterious spirit about the place, giving off a rich brightness that illuminated the surrounding dunes, till the shadows of dawn appeared once again. Then, as the sun yawned its sunset greeting in the Apache sky, the gallows beckoned for the next to be hanged.
Beyond Mansako Ridge, the stair-step tips of the Kolenga Mountains gradually ascended into a dark night and scattered in the distance. On the other side of that ridge, barren rocks decreased in size and eventually formed an elongated plateau that extended north of Black Edge Bluff and Miner Creek. The creek bed was shallow, but as it snaked through Iunka Valley, it increased in both width and depth, until it merged downstream with the Rio Grande River.
In a sky placid and dark, the moon dipped toward the horizon, increasing in size as it came to rest between the domed peaks of Okodez Ledge. Iunka Valley remained a desert wasteland, flat and sultry, its sandy terrain sprinkled here and there with sage and yucca, seemingly the only signs of life. Truly, it was the devil's playground, hellish with torrid heat, unbearable and sunbaked. Dead center in the valley lay the desolate town of Silver Ghost, a sparsely inhabited place, as only a few had remained, the caretakers of business.
Once a month, though, when the Apache moon was full, the town was infiltrated with witnesses who clustered at dawn near the base of the gallows. They gathered to watch as a rope executed the fate of any who dared to tempt the law.
The night before, an Apache brave sat alone atop Black Edge Bluff, unleashing a ritual to the spirit moon. His call to the sky was only a faint gesture of few words. Slowly, he moved his red, weathered hands about, quietly designing thoughts in the night air. He squatted then, bracing a tom-tom between his legs, on which he pounded out a haunting rhythm that beat into the dawn until the noose was yanked and the neck was broken.
A veil of darkness had painted the few buildings in town with a thick coat of absolute black. The main road, also ebony, remained abandoned. Reflections from the moon shifted in that direction now and again, shadows dancing here and there, but its luminescent glow would slowly disappear within the next hour.
The waiting area inside the jailhouse was occupied by spectators. In the back room, at either end of the holding cell, two candles flickered, casting extended, elongated shadows to frolic in their glow.
Single file, the would-be onlookers trekked in front of Brance Howard, careful to keep their distance as they gazed at the next victim. Some edged near enough to offer some verbal abuse, followed by a release of warm spit.
Although he continued to utter his claims of innocence, convicted killer Brance Howard could do little to escape his destiny. He did his best to disregard the strangers who heaped scorn and badgering upon him.
As the line of faces slowly disappeared through the rear door, a lone teenager walked forward, accompanied by a jail guard. A key was shoved roughly into the rusty lock and turned, and the cell door yawned open. The young man entered but kept his distance as he listened to the click of the lock being secured.
The youth's lips barely moved, but a vindictive smile found its way to his face. "Do you know who I am, mister?" he asked, his voice little more than a hiss. His dark irises increased in size, and the reflection of the candlelight turned the whites of his eyes to burnt sienna. When no one answered his question, the boy repeated it.
Finally, the accused managed to shake his head and mutter, "Nope."
Suddenly, hauntingly, a rush of warm air filled the entire back room. Swirls of the mysterious heat slowly drifted and danced in and out of the cell block, and the increased temperature was equal to that of high noon across the sultry Apache Desert.
As if to augment the strange, bizarre circumstance, one candle flame stilled, rich in color, with no movement to blemish the shadowy brightness of its texture. Only yards away, the second flame noticeably flickered in the warm breeze, fighting to keep its place on the wick, dimming and obscuring reflections.
Brance Howard sat erect on a wooden chair, half his face reddish orange from the color spray of the firelight. Deep wrinkles formed ravines in his hardened flesh, the remnants of a life lived rugged. His eyes seemed to melt into a deeper tone of black as droplets of salty sweat emerged upon his nervous face. Eventually, a steady flow of perspiration lathered the tough hide of his neck. When he was finally able to speak again, his words were tense and hollow: "Who are ya, boy, and what do ya want with me?"
The young man held his tongue for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts, but not once did his eyes give up their hard stare to a blink. His speech was gruff, that of an old-timer, in spite of his youthful physique. "You oughtta know who I am, considerin' ya done killed my pa!" he spat. Slight hesitation gave way to a rush of warm air around the boy's face, and his lips curled slightly upward as he seethed, "I'm gonna make sure they hang ya high, 'fore you run off again, mister. You knew Pa was lame and sick with fever, and he weren't no good with a gun, but that gave ya no right to kill my kin. Now, you's gonna die too. Come dawn, I'm gonna make sure the rope's good an' tight, just long enough for you ta take one last swallow . . . and I'm sure you ain't gonna end up in as good a place as ya sent my daddy too."
Weakness engulfed Brance's high cheekbones, and his face paled. Dime-sized beads of perspiration formed on his creased forehead. Garbled words from a scared man moved across parted lips, and cold sweat trickled inside his mouth. "I don't know you from Adam, boy. Just who the hell is ya anyways? I never see you before in my life, so what do ya mean, I killed yer pa?"
The kid released a rough chuckle. "Your memory must be awful short, mister," he said. "I come ta visit you last month, when the moon was full, just like tonight. I told ya then the same thing I'm a-tellin' ya now. You's ta be hanged, 'cause you's a killer. I know it were you. See, I never forget a face, 'specially such an ugly kind, with that nasty scar 'cross your cheek. I put that scar there. Don't ya remember? You tried to escape, but I pulled a knife an' got ya good. I only wish I woulda aimed for yer neck. When they tried ta hang ya before, you got lucky. That rope snapped, so they been holdin' ya here for a month now. You must be plain stupid if ya don't recall none o' that."
With one hand, Brance Howard touched his neck, the place where redness from rope burn still remained. With his other, he slowly traced the scar on the right side of his face. Suddenly the lower end of the wound opened, and drops of warm blood covered his chin and fell to the dirt floor in crimson splatters. The prisoner suddenly released a howling scream and declared, "I don't know you, boy! I ain't never seen you before, and I ain't the murderin' kind. I've been in this jail only five days, waitin' for the law ta bring word of my innocence. The marshal from Cheyenne River . . . He'll be here 'fore dawn to clear this mess up."
The boy laughed. "Ain't no marshal from nowhere's gonna save you now!" he shouted. "It's time for you to pay your dues, to get what you deserve." He gave quick glance beyond the bars of the open window and saw that the faint light of dawn was beginning to paint an eastern sky. When he turned to look at Brance again, his lips shed a wicked grin. "That's the light o' day out there, mister, your last day. Purdy soon, Pa won't hafta worry no more. You's just some sorry drifter, passin' through, and you went and shot my kinfolk, left 'im for dead while ya went runnin' off like a scared rabbit."
"But I ain't who you says I is, kid!" Brance shouted, desperate to defend himself. He stood and walked to the far end of the cell, and he lifted his eyes to stare down the dark hallway that led to the front office. "Sheriff!" he yelled, but his bellowing weakened, and he muttered something under his breath as Sheriff Sours entered with rusty handcuffs and leg irons in hand.
"Turn around and put your hands behind your back," the sheriff demanded, "an' keep your legs apart for these boot irons." Mack Sours was a muscular man with hard features. His hands were huge, easily able to subdue any unruly prisoner. His complexion was dark, baked by the sun. There were age lines around his eyes, and his broad mustache, perfectly curled around his upper lips, was peppered with gray
Brance obeyed, and, in one swift motion, the antiquated bracelets were slapped in place, the leg irons locked, and the prisoner spun back around to face the lawman.
The steady candlelight ricocheted flames of color across Brance's scared face as he grasped for the words he hoped would save his life. "Wh-Where's the marshal from Cheyenne River, Sheriff? He's s'posed ta be here by now, carryin' word that I ain't no wanted man. I'm innocent, and that's the damn tru—"
"You ain't neither!" the teenager blurted. "You don't know nothin' 'bout the truth. My kin's dead 'cause o' you, and you's entirely ta blame, guilty as sin. The sun's up now, and it's high time you swing from that rope down the street." Every word dripped with anger as he stood there with his face taut, his teeth clenched, and his eyes menacing, hateful slits.
"Shut up, boy!" Sheriff Sours scolded. "I'm the law 'round here, and I'll decide this man's fate." He then turned toward Brance. "I've waited long enough for Marshal Warren Brothers ta get here from Cheyenne River. Maybe he'll show while we're walkin' to the gallows, but my job demands that I proceed with the hangin' at dawn. I'm sorry, Brance, but the time's come ta get on with business."
Brance Howard froze, paralyzed with fear. He trembled as his mind scrambled for the right words to say, anything that could delay the seemingly inevitable. His eyes were wide with fright, as wide as the full Apache moon he wished would return, and he couldn't peel his gaze off the sheriff.
The peacekeeper reached forward and tightened his thick fingers around Brance's frail arm. "Get a move-on," Mack said in a stern voice. "Maybe Brothers's horse went lame or somethin'. In this part of the territory, ain't no tellin' what his excuse might be, if he's a-comin' at all. He's got about a quarter-hour to show, and he knows the way. In the meantime, I got law to keep."
The fatherless boy was already in the hallway, and he barely turned to look when he heard the clinking and clanking of the ankle chains dragging along the floor. "Hurry on up, Sheriff," he said loudly. "Ain't no need ta wait. He's had plenty 'o borrowed time already, and we're ready to watch the guilty man hang for what he done to my pa." He then entered the office and led the way to the front door, as if he was running the show himself.
Mack Sours continued to pull at Brace's lean arm, and they walked together through the jailhouse entrance and out into the street.
At the edge of town, the gallows came into view, with a single rope dangling beneath the center crossbar. The gathered crowd lined both sides of the road near the wooden structure, the horde increasing in number by the minute. Most were silent and grim-faced, but some dared to whisper their opinions, and those hidden from sight voiced scathing curses every now and then. Some gasped when the young man was the first to arrive at the gallows, anxious and pleading with the sheriff to hurry the process along.
Then, without warning, in a sudden atmospheric change, the light of day dimmed into an overcast draping of gray. The sky cluttered with a thick quilt of dense, dark clouds, rapidly moving across the stormy cosmos. The gentle morning breeze became an angry gale, whipping and sweeping over those who'd scrunched up closer to the gallows for a closer look. From every direction, the furious wind swirled in an endless dance, encircling the fatal framework with a hurricane of desert debris, sand, and sage.
Many witnesses ran for cover, but those brave, stubborn souls who lingered were continually pelted with particles of grit. The tempest was violent and extreme, and the soft rain soon morphed into a wicked downpour. Torrents fell from the fast-moving clouds, soaking the execution sight.
"El viento la muerte! El viento la muerte!" a lone Mexican shouted, clutching his sombrero tightly as he gave his somber warning above the tumult.
Those around him were not sure about every word of his foreign tongue, but "muerte" was a word they recognized. Within moments, his Spanish prophecy came true, for a yellow sickness fell upon all those who watched.
Brance Howard stumbled on the first step of the gallows, but Sheriff Sours fought the storm somehow, keeping his hold on his weak prisoner. Both reached the top platform, and both cursed at the pellets of battering rain. The sheriff moved Brance into position and placed the wet rope around the neck of the restrained victim.
"Sh-Sheriff!" Brance cried, his voice thin, feeble, and debilitated. He struggled to move his face toward Mack Sours. "That Marshal Brothers . . . Where is he? He oughtta be here by now. You said he'd show before dawn, that he knows the way. Why ain't ya out lookin' for him? He's bringin' the truth with him, Sheriff. Yer 'bout ta hang an innocent man!"
The sheriff darted his eyes to and fro over the scant crowd, in search of the town preacher. "I ain't seen no marshal yet, and I've given 'im plenty o' time ta show," he said to Brance. "Pastor? Preacher Deder!" he hollered, time and time again.
The local clergyman ascended the stairs at a slow gait, impeded by the storm, and all three men stood together.
"Go on and say a few words of faith for the dyin', Preacher," the sheriff said, fighting the torrential conditions and eager to get the execution over with.
"Dearly beloved," Deder began, "we are gathered here today to bear witness to this necessary punishment of one of our own kind—"
"This ain't no gospel meetin', Pastor. We ain't got time for no sermon," the sheriff screamed over the whistling wind. "Just read the man his last rites and slap an amen on it so we can get this nasty business over with. Ain't right ta prolong his misery, Preacher . . . nor ours."
The pastor sighed, then spoke in a hurried but sincere tone, "May God have mercy on you and forgive your sins. Amen."
Sours and Deder glanced one last time at Brance Howard, then slowly walked down the slippery steps.
The pastor, soaked to the bone, turned and slowly made his way back to his church at the other end of town, wanting no part of seeing the man take is last breath.
The disgruntled son caught sight of Sheriff Sours and hurried to stand near him at the right base of the gallows, near the pull ring that would release the trapdoor. Few words were spoken as the sheriff breathed heavily and gradually moved his fingers toward the steel ring.
The severe storm viciously pounded Mack Sours' face, lashing a relentless zigzag of violent wind and rain. Sharp, smarting bits of Apache Desert repeatedly stung his hand like a whole nest full of angry hornets while he curled his fingers around the pull ring.
Then, in a sudden, instant change in Mother Nature's demeanor, the rain diminished and scattered, though the wind came on even stronger, stiff and unrelenting as it howled across a gray morning dawn.
Far on the outskirts of town, the battering storm blinded the approaching riders.
The lead horseman removed his Colt and pointed it at the sky. He squeezed the trigger, firing off two quick warning shots, and those were followed by two more echoing through the storm.
Sheriff Sours heard the discharge of bullets and recognized the territorial signal immediately as the approaching of another lawman. He rapidly removed his fingers from the pull ring, stepped away from the gallows, and squinted toward the other end of town, still fighting the rigid storm and its swirling drafts.
Two men on horseback, with bandanas covering their lower faces, struggled against the violent wind, approaching from a good distance away.
The first rider quickly lowered his faded red handkerchief and yelled, in a voice that was as stern and hard as the wind, "Sheriff Sours! I'm Marshal Brothers, and I've got Averil Stanley here with me. Release that prisoner, Sheriff! This one was thought ta be killed, but as you can see, he's alive and well. There was a brawl an' gunfight back in Meredosia Springs, and word spread that Averil was killed by Brance Howard, but that ain't the truth. Howard ain't killed nobody. You can't put a noose on an innocent man."
Averil Stanley tugged at his bandana as the horsemen continued to fight the elements, nearing the gallows. "I come back for my boy. He's a li'l sick in the mind, see. Whenever a full moon comes 'round, he gets ta believin' I'm dead, and he's always got somebody ta blame. He's just confused, needs to be with his pa."
Refusing to believe the reality before him and completely immersed in hallucinations of his father's murder, the boy's eyes remained candlelight orange, and his separated lips formed a chilling smile. "Sheriff!" he screeched, his voice harsh and scratchy, tinged with panic and frustration from his relapsing mental disorder. "Ya can't let a guilty man walk free, Sheriff." In a flash, his hand suddenly gripped the steel ring, and he jerked the center pin out.
The trapdoor swung down, back and forth on silver butt hinges, making an eerie squeaking noise in the violent breeze.
As the rattling ankle chains echoed across the desert, the Indian brave on Black Edge Bluff lowered his sticks. The tom-tom resumed its silence then, not to speak its beat again until the next Apache moon.
Robert Gilbert is an entertainment writer and author. His interest in writing cowboy stories developed when working in Hollywood, California, often visiting the Western back lot of Warner Bros. studio. He has had nine stories published in Frontier Tales and is the author of "RUN WITH THE OUTLAWS, Epic Western Tales." Gilbert and his family live northwest of Chicago.
Back to Top
Back to Home
Dead Man's Hand
by Michael Joe Morris
I woke up on my back in the snow after the party of Blackfoot came down on us. I could hear the horses rushing past and the screams, both of the fighting and of the dying, but I could not get up to look around. There was a throbbing pain in my back and I knew that it was an arrow, but I could not remember being hit with it, nor seeing the advance of Indians, nor of hearing a call for them. One minute our party of twenty-three free trappers was headed for the distant Green River to meet with Bridger and Co., loaded down with fifteen thousand dollars worth of beaver plews, and the next I was laying on my back arrow-stuck and helpless as my friends were being cut to pieces.
I waited my turn.
Minutes passed and the sounds of screams and shots were followed by hatchets rising and falling and then by low exclamations. Eventually the sound died away entirely, and I watched the gray clouds of winter that hung low in the sky floating overhead between the sparse gnarled arms of the boxelders.
I realized at once that the Indians were gone and that I was far from dead but in a bad way. Trying to stand, I turned my head and saw the fallen bodies of Captain Williamson and Caleb Bull some forty feet apart, separated by the sprawled body of a mule felled incidentally with errant fusee fire.With a great deal of pain, I managed to roll over and push myself up onto my feet. There was no shaft of dogwood nor reed protruding out of my chest and I could not feel anything on my back: no blood, no shaft, no feathers. Just a sharp pain between the shoulder blades every time I inhaled.
All around there was death. Some of the mules had been killed in the fighting although the Indians had not stripped their packs of the furs. Finch had died trying to run into the woods on foot, and Carter had been crushed by his horse when it fell. Some of the bodies had been cut up with hatchets and some had not. As far as I could tell none had survived save myself. I did not tarry long to look at them. There were no horses or mules milling about on the loose and I was too near to death to loot the pockets of men whom I knew well. I simply started walking. Strides did not come easy and I could see my breath. Williamson had told us it was forty miles to the Green River but I knew it was closer to sixty. A gambler might've figured some odds.
I was no gambler.
I did not know how badly my back was injured. I could not feel an open wound of a ball nor a blade, and there was no blood on my coat. Still, the pain persisted. I ignored it the best I could. The long and short of it was that I had to cover sixty miles worth of territory on foot before I was likely to meet the second party of men on the river. I had nothing to eat, no water, and no vessel to store water in should I find some. What I had was a tin of cloth and a good piece of chert for fire starting, a belt hatchet, a heavy german horse pistol tucked into my trousers, and two good feet donning a pair of stiff leather boots wrapped in moose skin that had been brought down to a rendezvous long ago by a Canadian named Wentz.
I walked out the daylight that was left to be walked in and could see no use in stopping for night. Dusk meant nothing to me and darkness that much less. The plain was flat and stretched as far as I could see with little variation excepting the grass clumps that stood notably higher than the other grass clumps, and a handful of trees far off that resembled cheap knickknacks sitting on a windowpane in a house with oil lights. I stopped to take a few long breaths and wondered if I would ever again light an oil lantern in Missouri or Arkansas or anywhere else. I spat in the thin snow that was slowly giving way to grass underfoot with each stride.
It made no difference.
Just after I started walking again I realized something was following me. Way back, several hundred yards. All I could see was a shadow in the dusky light, moving south, just as I was. I drew the german pistol from my waist and tamped the barrel twice. Then I started walking again. Whatever was back there was probably just an animal, a lone buffalo maybe. Not likely, but if it was not a buffalo then it was an Indian, and I didn't fear meeting just one of either.
Still yet, I was afraid.
I marched on through the night. The sky cleared off some a few hours before sunrise and I could see the gossamery light put off by the individual bodies of heaven with pristine clarity. Finch had known the names of the stars. He was a smart boy. The smartest I ever saw. His daddy was a learned business man from Maryland who had moved to Pennsylvania, and would eventually draw up a manufacturing device that would allow some boys from Hartford with a factory to put type-writers together twice as fast as they could previously. It was a sad story, that his father made a pert sum of cash working on machines that would allow others to spin tales and histories, but he had no tales of his own. I asked Finch one time, "What are you in the mountains for?" and he said, "I had to get away from home." He never spoke of being beaten, nor of drinking, nor of misfortune of any kind on the part of his family. He said he woke up one morning and realized that he had heard all of his father's stories and that he would not want to marry his mother. Now he was dead. With no story of his own. Finch, just like Williamson, Bull, Carter, and the others, were just bloody spots for magpies to pick at.
What would become of me?
Morning brought with it a mystery. I had lost ground on the thing that followed. Dawn showed it behind me, shadowy but not so far away, and as the Earth turned slowly and gave the sun a purchase on the flat expanse, I saw that I was being followed by a man. Not an Indian, but a white man under a gray brimmed hat whose ears were covered by long black hair, and who wore animal skins of a kind I had never seen before, and have never seen again. I did not know him.
There was no good reason for a white man to be walking over the plain in early winter, yet, here I was. Misfortune had brought such circumstances upon me, but this man, I couldn't say. A hundred yards separated us. I was all at once of a mind to bolt away and to run as hard and fast as I could but I didn't move. My thoughts were careless and unfounded. Even if the stranger harbored ill-will, there was nothing to quarrel about out here. I stopped with my hands on my hips and waited, facing him.
He did not hurry.
"How'do?" Came my offered greeting as he approached, without pause or glance to size me up. There was no response. The man just stood before me, coughed casually into his palm, and gestured towards the Green River in the distance. "You'll follow me from here on out," he said. Then he started walking.
"Pardon, friend? Who are you? Where did you come from? Where am I to follow you to?"
He did not acknowledge that I had spoken, and tramped off without another word. I rattled him with exclamations as I followed behind, unsure of his odd manner and becoming more and more irate as the moments passed. The very least one could do upon meeting a stranger in this land was to introduce oneself. I had the thought to draw my pistol and to put it in this rude fellow's back and to make him talk. The thought had no more than come to mind when I felt fluid burning down my face and saw the swirling world through blurred eyes.
I was laying on my back, propped up by the elbows looking at the strange man who had produced a jet black handgun and thrust it in my face. It looked like a small cannon and I wondered where it had came from. No where in the states, that's for certain. Maybe Mexico. My mouth was bleeding where the barrel had slammed my lower lip into my teeth. I wiped the oily gash with the back of my hand.
"Don't try that again," the Strange Man said. He started off again. I followed.
"My name's Walter Madison," I said.
The Strange Man turned and looked. "I know your name. I know you're twenty-five years in this world. Your family hails from a town called Dover, in Arkansas, and your pap has a farm twelve miles to the northeast. You ran away from home at sixteen and mailed your letters home from St. Louis and Lexington, and you worked as a wagon driver in town."
"How do you know these things?"
"Your baby sister's name was Beth. She followed in your footsteps and left home at nineteen to see the big ole world. Two years she worked in Independence before dying of jaundice in the moldy upstairs store-room of a sir Thomas Crawborne."
"I was told she married Crawborne. He was a newspaper writer. He wrote me a letter of grief."
"Hah!" The Strange Man clasped his hands. "Married! As for the journalist, have you ever known one to tell the truth?"
"Go to hell!"
"In short time, my friend. In short time."
My fists showed white tendons at my sides. I'd never been a pick in a close fight but I wanted to sock the pretty talker until his eyes lollied out of his head. Still, I stayed myself. Blood was still dripping from my face.
He was a strange man.
"How long have you been following me?" I asked.
"A long time Madison. A pert long time." He turned and started walking again, and I trotted behind him like a starved dog. There was no more talking. Just the crunch of one foot besting the other all day long atop the crisp frozen plains-grass below. Towards night we came across a shallow gulley and I got down on my knees, busted the shelf ice with my hatchet, sank my face into the icy current, and drank myself full. When I got up and turned around, the Strange Man was sitting on the ground over a blazing fire with a stack of ironwood just beside, at arms length.
"Where? How?" I stammered.
"You ask too many questions," he said, and added nothing more.
The fire burned hot and it felt good to my stiff fingers. I sat beside it while the Strange Man produced a sack of honeyed sweet cakes from his coat and began smacking them up with relish.
After a moment I said, "I suppose you're going to eat them all."
He shrugged. "What do you expect?"
I stared at him.
"Sorry friend, but this is the way of things. Nothing I throw around is free. If you want a sweet-cake or anything else you'll have to wager. Otherwise, I'd never stay in business."
"Too damn many questions friend. Wager or don't. Makes me no difference."
"What do I have to wager you? I'm played out and starving."
Another shrug. "Best think of something."
I scooted away from the fire that was blistering my face and noted that the grass beneath it had fallen away to a sort of sandy off-colored loam. It struck me as odd in a country of black-soil.
A lot of things struck me as odd.
I thought of waiting for the strange man to go to sleep before shooting him in the face with my pistol, but he sat up by the fire all night and did not move save to shift another piece of dark wood from the stack to the cinders. I was weak from hunger and the long two days of walking and soon was asleep despite an attempt to remain otherwise.
I woke up staring at a noon day sun covered in sweat. Instantly I was on my feet, looking around in horror. The ground beneath me was sand. The ground behind was sand. Three feet to my left was a flowering prickly pear. A kit fox watched timidly and twitched her batty ears from atop a broken rock a hundred yards distant.
The Strange Man was gone.
The iron-wood ashes were strewn about though the fire was dead and cold and a lone set of footprints lay in a dotted line to the south. A greasewood snag lay where the Stranger had sat the night before. It was draped with a water bag full to the seams. I took off my coat and laid it on the sand-hoping I would not need it again, slung the water over my shoulder, and set off in the Strange Man's footsteps hoping to catch him before dark.
We were going to have some words.
When darkness began to overtake the hostile landscape once again, I was still alone. Sweat poured down my face and the water bag was drier than a bad joke told with a mouthful of rye bread in the summertime. The greater sum of my clothes were laying in various places six miles behind. The heavy coat and skins I had bought and tended to for the purpose of surviving the bitter cold of the Blackfoot country were much too hot to wear in this barren land under a sun that burnt the clouds before it could ever blink behind them. I still carted an old pair of canvas trousers on my legs, which had been beaded up by a bored Shoshone gal I knew long before. My shoulders and my head were bare, however.
When night fell in force, the sand sucked up every bit of warmth in the world and took it down to a great flaming hole in the center of the Earth, or might as well have. It got cold and I shivered through the night, afraid of freezing to death should I stop to rest. I could not see the Strange Man's campfire in the distance though I was still following his tracks.
Morning of my last day found me still on my feet.
At least, I supposed it was my last day. I had no water left and could claim no sign of the man who had the answers to the mysteries of this strange place. I no longer knew where I was going. I might as well have known the Green River was on the moon. I did not have the senses to fear anything in addition to dying without the scientific answer to the transpiring events.
It was on the third day that I saw the second set of tracks, walking along beside the Strange Man's. I could not say how long they had been paralleling the trail. My mind was getting foggy. I could not think. The sun beat down harder than ever and I ran out of sweat to sting my eyes. For two hours more I followed the curious pair of prints, before hearing a call up ahead.
"Who's there?" I shouted.
"Why, Madison! You look like a desert rat whose momma never told him no better."
The Strange Man was perched atop an eight foot column of rock fifty yards up the trail, sitting with his legs crossed like a gal with curlycue hair over milked tea in Boston. I wanted to kill the man, but I knew he was right. My bare shoulders were red, with fine silver lines hatching them and long sheaves of ribbony skin peeling off. "Where the hell am I?"
"You're late." He replied, and leapt clear of the rock, landing with a thud. Dust rose around his boot-soles. I coughed. "You have any water?" I asked.
"No. I entrusted it all to you, friend."
"A water bag for two days travel through this hellhole!"
"I did not expect it to take you two days. Let's carry on now, the way isn't far."
The Strange Man started walking. He was placing his feet in yet a third set of footprints, which followed along just offsetting the second. "Mister," I said. "Whose tracks are those?"
He stopped this time, turned, and looked back at my dry, sun-burnt face. "These?" He pointed under his own feet at the tracks he was stepping in, "These are mine. Those? Well, those are Jedediah Smith's." The Strange Man was gesturing to the second set of tracks, which I had come upon many hours before finding him atop his rock perch. "You must be joking," I said. "You're a madman. That isn't possible. Jed Smith's been dead for four years now. Killed by Comanches on a trip to Santa Fe with a company including Thomas Fitzpatrick."
"Nonsense!" The Strange Man replied. "You know, I'm beginning to think ole broken-handed Tom just made that story up. Jed Smith walked this trail with me four years ago, just like you're doing now. He wagered me for a swallow of water."
"No!" I said. "That's not possible. "These tracks will be gone in a few days. They wouldn't last a week, let alone four years."
"Ah," The Strange Man sighed, "That's the problem with you men, you never consider or realize how long the imprints of your feet will last once you leave the divots behind."
"Men? What the hell are you?"
"Too many questions friend. Too many." The Strange Man began walking South again, alongside the tracks that I was told were none other than Captain Smith's.
"Do you have a name?" I asked.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Even Satan has a name," I said.
"Hmm. You can just call me California, if you have to call me anything."
We walked on in the heat. Late in the evening we came upon an old stack of sun bleached hop-hornbeam with a pile of dark ashes a few feet distant. "This is it," California said. He commenced making camp.
"This is what?" I asked.
California didn't answer. Within minutes he had another blaze going and was sitting on his rump in the sand. All at once he had a mouth harp and was playing and stomping his foot like a careless goof. I looked around the camp and noted that the tracks of Captain Smith ended alongside California's campfire and went no further.
I shouted for him to quit playing and to be sensible. "What's this all about?" I yelled. My heart was pounding. "What the hell am I doing here? What do you want?"
California just tossed the harmonica into the desert casually. It hit the ground with a little huff of sound. His fingers padded together before his knees where he sat and he stared me right in the eyes.
I realized he was waiting.
"Is this about the time I tried to hang my older brother? Because, I do not regret it. He grew up to be a raging drunk that beat his children and died in a blazing hotel room in a stupor that withstood the flames."
California said nothing.
I continued. "I do not regret stealing Peter Abbott's hardware wagon from the warehouse in St. Louis. The man spent his whole life selling boxes of forty-five nails marked 'Fifty Count.'"
California chuckled. A light wind carried dust across the flat and blew smoke into my eyes. All at once it picked up in velocity and a name was blasted into my ears from the heavens: Cries-Half-The-Time.
All at once my stomach was so tight I figured my guts were going to run down my leg and stain the sand.
Cries-Half-the-Time was a Shoshone woman two springs younger than I was as a green kid in the mountains. I met her at my first rendezvous under contract with Fitzpatrick after Campbell had sold his company out to him. Lord, I thought I loved her. She was tall for a Snake and pleasant to look at, and she had heart to work hard, but she only had one eye and didn't speak english well. She kept telling a joke about a red squirrel who choked himself to death trying to swallow a whole pinecone backwards, viz. with the spikes going down first. It was funny the first time, and I laughed a good deal, but that was all she knew how to say to me and after awhile I was compelled to retire from her company for want of real conversation. The next day of Rendezvous, her poor father hunted me up and begged me to marry her for two horses and a jug of whiskey. He was an old man who couldn't see well enough to shoot piss and he was some desperate to be rid of her. But, as I have said, she only had one eye and knew just one joke. Besides, my contract with Fitzpatrick had just terminated and Williamson had offered me a part in an expedition north with a coalition of trappers for five-hundred dollars. So, I traded the old fellow a pipe tomahawk for some beaver pelts and sent him on his way. I found out later that Wentz had brought her with him on an expedition into Blackfoot country. Damned fool. It was his last trip, and I cannot say for certain, but with Cries-Half-The-Time being a Snake and having just one eye besides, she was likely put to the torture.
Sometimes, I do not sleep well at night.
California just looked on through me. "You ever seen five-hundred dollars in gold pieces?"
I shook my head. "I am owed that figure at the end of this trip."
California gestured with a limp arm. "Why don't you check your pantaloons?"
I could tell before I ever moved my hand that my pockets were full of gold. I pulled one of the coins out to look at it, glinting in the light. I swore and looked up. "What happened to Captain Smith?"
California shrugged. "We made a wager. He lost."
I stood up now, my head clear with understanding. I shoveled the coins from my pockets one and all, and threw them in a heap at California's feet. "Take it," I said. "I've no use for it."
"Won't do," he said.
"I'm serious. I've no use for it. I wish I'd never seen it. If I ever get out of this godless place I will board the first keelboat that rides a set of poles back to Lexington and I will shovel horse-shit for the rest of my days and be glad to do it."
"Too thin," California said. He pulled a cigarette from his hatband. It lit spontaneously as he touched it to his lips and drew a breath. "I thought you'd have learned long ago that a life is worth a great deal more than five-hundred dollars."
I stepped away from him. "So that's the wager? My life."
"That's it, friend. An ante of sorts. Soul and whatnot's the round bet. You ever played five card?"
"I have watched dandies from Pittsburg play five card in Missouri grog shops."
"Good," he whispered. California dropped the cigarette into the sand, pulled a purple-backed deck from his pocket, and shuffled it in one swift stroke of his fingertips. "Cut," he said, holding the stack out atop his palm. I made a shallow cut and he dealt five cards facedown.I looked at the cards on the ground before me, reflecting the smooth orange light of the fire in a shattered purple hue. The man across from myself did not pick his up nor glance at them. "You're all in," he said. "Care to draw?"
I would have sooner played blackjack with a rattlesnake in a busy street during a lightning storm than have touched those cards. I took a deep breath, expecting California was growing a mite impatient with his business. I said, "I can't beat you, can I?"
He shrugged. "Anything can happen I suppose. But, nobody ever has."
I stood up and backed away. The horse pistol was still in my waistband and I could shoot as well as anybody from ten feet's distance. Still, my hand did not move. I thought of everything I knew of in the world and of how much I would have liked to have known more of it while I had the chance.
"Draw!" California screamed. "Draw! The cards have been dealt, kid. Draw! Where's your nerve? Draw! Draw dammit!"
I took a step back. "The cards have been dealt a long time, friend. I will follow you no longer."
I turned to walk away into the dark to God only knows where, but was faced with Captain Williamson's visage staring right into mine. There was a light behind him brighter than an irish gal's reflection just after a good bath.
"Lad," he was saying. "We thought you were gone some time now."
"What?" I said. I looked around. Snow was falling on my face-getting in my eyes. I was laying on my back wrapped in a buffalo peel on a wooden travois, and a group of men were gathering around. Among them were Caleb Bull and J.G. Finch. I noticed the pain in my back again right off and set to cussing. "What's going on?" I asked.
Williamson spoke. "You took a fall off your mule nigh on to four days ago. Damn near broke your back and your head too. You've been sleeping like a dead man and we never figured on keeping enough water in your throat to keep you from-from joining ranks with Captain Smith, as you always say."
I laughed. "How far is it to the Green?"
Finch cringed. "Well, can't you hear it? About forty feet. We beat Bridger to the spot and are camped out a' waiting on the old man. Somebody found Wentz's old whiskey cache. It's a shining time pard. I'm going to beg Bridger to tell his tale about the box canyon run from Comanche's tonight like a whole mob of deaf men heckling a fiddle player."
"Well, sit tight, Finch. If you boys will fetch me a drink of water I'll tell you a sight of a story myself."
Michael J. Morris is a retired outdoor journalist who writes fiction from his home in Hector, Arkansas.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Gambler from Norcross
by Tom Sheehan
My grandfather Johnny Igoe said it was so. On many occasions, as we sat side by side listening to "The Lone Ranger" on the radio long before there was television, he told me about "The Gambler from Norcross," out there in Wyoming, his perky pipe throwing off its Edgeworth aroma or, in darkness only lit by the radio dial, a single and momentary glow from that small briar as he puffed at it, a faint star pointing its location on the far horizon. Oh, how that little old man loved the Lone Ranger and the cowboy west of his youth. Those hours, on a dark porch or a dim room by firelight, were magic and mythic, framing so much around the two of us.
Believe me, I can see it all now, smell it all now, hear his voice at the edge of my soul, if there is such a place that harkens to me. Perhaps on that far and dim horizon.
Grandfather said, and more than once as if he was reading from a kept script, "This man believed in odds and gods, perseverance and, most of all, human frailty. All this made him legendary in the old west, the Gambler from Norcross, Wyoming, William Lear Blacklin. He was buried in Lizard Creek, Wyoming beneath an especially big tree on the side of a hill, by an appointed town lackey, on April 29, 1882. There were no mourners, no friends, no respects paid. He was 37 years old, if that was to be believed. Always, without fail, when sitting down to a poker game, he'd say, 'When you rub two tricks together you get smoke and then you get fire, so beware, gentlemen, that I trust nobody this side of tomorrow.'"
Two shiny Colt revolvers, with life and death evidence marked into polished handles clearly exposed, helped stress the fact of his statement.
My grandfather, a small Irish man who had come to America as a young boy, found Blacklin's grave by found clues and intensive search, and later headed back east out of Wyoming with a piece of the trove that had been buried near Blacklin. He had, of course, satisfied a huge curiosity and greater love for the "new American west" and the promise it held out for young immigrants, which had made him dig for more detailed information about the gambler from Norcross.
Norcross, as he found out, was a small town at the end of the Shagatuck Valley in the foothills of Wyoming mountains. Its location he had heard, from the center of town up through the valley, was as true north as could be predicted. The Snake River was up there, and Canada, the North Pole, gold and card players of all ranks. Norcross, it has also been said, disappeared in an avalanche and was not heard from again. Nor has William Lear Blacklin been the subject of talk until now.
"The day I heard his middle name," my grandfather said, "I had this improbable feeling of connection come over me, as if we were destined. Shakespeare's work had continually roused the magic in me, the music and the myth. Out there I read some of his plays in treasured books I had come across or small pamphlets that traveling bards read from or memorized their lines from. Sometimes there was a single page or a loose pamphlet found behind a saloon bar where I was pouring, as if a troubadour had traded a secret passion for a last-call pint. Once, working in a livery in another lost town in Wyoming, I found a small bundle of pamphlets obviously lost by a traveling bard. It was like finding gold without looking for it. The music of Shakespeare's language always called up something in me from my youngest days around a night fire in the old sod hut back home, much as we are gathered now."
He'd tap his pipe, nod, loose that far look in his eyes as he sought Clooniquin or fair Ross or dear Elphin itself. "There were teachers in our family in the old country, to which I was aimed, until the failures came acropping and I had to leave. But, me wee bucko, back to Blacklin we go."
"I first looked at W. Lear Blacklin as an actor. He was a polished stage hand dredged up by William Shakespeare himself. His introduction at each table, at each game, was legendary. Oftentimes words would fly, guns drawn, shots fired, and Blacklin, standing alone, would say, 'Of course, all you sirs saw that neat dead man there on the floor draw his weapon first as if I had insulted him, whereas I was only making waves in the world of card playing, in this small ocean of chance where we expose our deep failings and frailties, where cheats come to their calling.'"
"He'd draw that gaze of his, that hard-eyed look, and let it fall into the eyes of all onlookers. Oh, I saw him twice in that same scene, almost identical in each instance, delicately scripted right down the slight thrust of deadly promise in his chin and that cold stare he could manufacture on the spot. A London or a New York or a Chicago stage would have welcomed him, tossed his name up there on sidewalk marquees, and headlined him. Imagine him grander than Wild Bill or Custer himself or the fiercest Indian chief, on stage an unforgettable presence. "
"But frailties exist even for the doughtiest, and in Lizard Creek one day of doom, with no eye witnesses, he shot another card player when the barkeep was out of sight. The sheriff locked him up pending a trial, and Blacklin told the sheriff he had a bad feeling, as if a curtain were being drawn. 'If I die,' he said, 'have me buried up there on the hill outside of town where the huge tree sits alone by that small cave.' As projected by the gambler himself, knowing about all the odds, stacked or otherwise, he was shot through an open window in the middle of the night when the sheriff was off chasing some fool errand, which may have been a framed distraction. Blacklin was buried the following day, as detailed above.
And so it was that the little Irish man, jiggered by too many pints, yelling at a man yelling about "furriners all over the country," awoke in the morning in the same cell where William Lear Blacklin had been shot. In his morning misery, still collapsed on the hard bunk, his eye fell on a few arrows scratched into adobe bricks as if they were trail markers. His innate curiosity forced him from the bunk to search the cell. In an adobe crevice, stuffed deeply, was a piece of paper with the following note: "The deal is not mine this turn. I will be buried under the big tree on the north hill. Near is what I buried before I came into town. Who finds this, if ever, is my inheritor and I bequeath all unto him. Wm. L. B."
Quickly sober, extremely apologetic to the sheriff, he went digging, found the cache, one magnificent bar of gold. Thereafter, through all the territories, the new states, the old states, he escorted that bar of gold on the back of a mule named Maude. Though he mentally travelled alone, he always tied himself to some traveling group, counting on them for safety. He brought that bar of gold into Malden, Massachusetts, became the dump master of the city dump, and for years shaved, sawed, broke off or melted portions of that bar of gold into handy currency. He married a girl he had known in Ireland whom he met on a corner market in Chicago on the way east, eventually had nine children, told stories for the next 63 years, leaving a mark on all of his grandchildren. The bar of gold was his retirement fund.
Grandpa continued: "Oh, fault me for having misgivings about its attainment, in what manner he did get his hands on it, the questions banging on my conscience. I wondered about its acquisition early, but there were no markings on the bar at all. I determined it was not government formed or molded. In fact, it was a bit rugged in shape, like homemade bread, the kind that grandma pops up with about every day, as opposed to bakery-bought bread, like the Cushman's delivers off the truck doing the neighborhood rounds."
I could not let it all go so easily, curiosity gnawing at me. "But what made Blacklin so special, other than he had a saying for all games, like it was a warning? Don't you really think he stole it somehow, or won it in a game and who knows how that loser had come by it?" My mind was open to all the possibilities.
"Well, Bucko," he said, "the west in those days was like a day camp. There was a counselor, like a sheriff or a mayor, or sometimes a town council. There was a mess hall, like at the hotel or at a corner of a saloon, where things were said or voted on and carried out from, and often where justice sat without its robes. A general store had whatever provisions could come by wagon or by train, not expensive, sometimes rare but always necessary. Meat was made handy by the regional herds. Wheat and grains were raised and treated, baked and fried. Coffee and salt were necessities, almost like water. For information, we knew mostly what we saw or heard, whether actual or created. We were limited. But we had our places in the scheme of things."
"William Lear Blacklin had his place too. He lightened some dark days. He darkened some otherwise happy days. Stage-wise, often the center of attention, things turned on him, whether hero or anti-hero. He was like a hero-villain on the stage, a Robin Hood, a William Tell, a Jimmy Cagney or Errol Flynn in the celluloid. We might hate what he was doing or had done, but we enjoyed the hours in which he captivated us."
Grandpa, this one particular day on his summer porch on Main Street, leaned over and gave me that be-alert look, the one that said I'm letting you in on some grown-up stuff, so listen and remember. "There was a woman who kept company with the gambler." He smiled again, that adult smile at child education. "A beautiful lady I saw on a few occasions. She was called Cat-tail Sally and she seemed to be around every game that Blacklin played in, saloon or not. They called her Cat-tail Sally because she sashayed about like a kitten on the loose, her in red finery that few woman out that way had in their possession. But I learned from some observant gents, who'd been around longer than I had, that she could spot a cheat all the way across a smoky saloon."
"One night Cat-tail Sally was in a saloon with Big Nose Anna. That was a pair of opposites, I'll tell you," and added, raising his eyebrows, "like night and day, summer and winter, foul and fair, as the Good Bard has said on the occasion of the Three Wicked Sisters. It was about that time I heard from a couple of barkeeps that Alice had previously spoken funny words, had an odd usage of words, such as "The sow is on the loose, or the "Cow is in the room. They said she might sing it from across the room after a sashay or two around the card table. Some folks that day thought she was talking about Big Nose Anna who was no beauty to say the least. But each time such words were used, a cheat was challenged, drew his gun, was shot by Blacklin without a tear in his eye. Then, in each instance, an ace was pulled from the dead cheat's sleeve, or from his beltline. No cheater himself, Blacklin often spit on the man as he lay on the floor, his blood free as a river.
"I eventually figured it was some kind of code through which Cat-tail Sally let Blacklin know someone had an ace up his sleeve or on his person somewhere. Like SOW meant something like sign of white or slip of white, or COW meant card on wrist. Simple, sort of crazy, but easily a clue for Blacklin to look closer at the players.
"But that's the part that hurts, really. I let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. In my cups a bit before the wagon took me on as a customer, I told a gent what I had figured out. The next night, Blacklin ended up in jail, like it had been set up. I haven't gotten over it yet. I rode the wagon until it got back under my skin. That's the main reason I only have one bourbon a day with a boiled potato, for my lunch, thinking about my slip of the lip as the placards say about the war now."
I remember how his gaze would look elsewhere; out the window at the First Iron Works in America, down the twist of the river, down the coastline, onto a hard, long, dry road heading west, a card table in a small saloon, and Lear on stage, every minute on stage, the way the Old Bard set him up.
"Norcross," he said once near his end at 95, "was an invisible town."
I'm still trying to figure that out.
Sheehan served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, graduated Boston College 1956, published 32 books, multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, DM du Jour, Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Westerns. Has received 33 Pushcart nominations and 5 Best of Net nominations, sundry other awards
Back to Top
Back to Home
Last Train to Florence
by Sydney Jarvis
Just my luck, Nancy Butler thought as the portly preacher seated across from her continued chatting away like an excitable little hen. It seemed like the train hardly moved before she knew his whole life story. That he was born and raised in Boston and how he moved out west to replace his uncle as the prison chaplain for the Yuma Territorial Prison, and now he was moving again, to the new facility in Florence. She smiled and nodded as politely as she could while her brother Virgil seemed to hang on the preacher's every word, or at least pretended to. He'd always been more of a people person, even when they were kids.
This job had the potential to set them up for a long time, but the less-than-reliable source of the information made Nancy feel uneasy. All they had to go on was what they managed to coax out of an inebriated Jack Mosley, younger brother of outlaw Horace Mosley, the leader of the infamous Mosley gang. Horace currently resided in the Yuma prison. A notorious braggart, it didn't take much for Jack to tell them all about what his older brother had planned.
As the train stopped for water, Nancy spotted four men lingering around the nearby way station, one of whom she recognized as Jack Mosley. She nudged her brother; he took a look at the riders, gave her a nod, and turned his attention back to the chatty preacher.
The preacher was telling them about his aunt in St. Louis when the sound of gunshots cut him off. As the passengers crowded into the right side of the train to get a better look, Nancy and Virgil quietly slipped away to the back of the train.
When they made it to the payroll car, they found two employees leaning out of the window, trying to get a look at the action up front.
"Enjoying the show, boys?" Virgil said. His voice muffled by the bandanna obscuring his features.
The employees turned around to find themselves held at gunpoint by two figures, similarly dressed, except for the silk vest worn by Virgil. The older of the two slowly put his hands up as if he'd been through this sort of thing before, but his younger co-worker seemed hesitant.
"Just put your hands up, boy," the older man said. The tired look in his eyes accented a receding hairline and a drooping gray mustache. "It ain't worth it."
The young man reluctantly did as he was told and the man with the drooping mustache walked over to the safe, he knew what these two were here for.
Nancy kept her gun on the other employee while Virgil held out a bag for the old man to place the money in. The kid couldn't be any older than nineteen, he was as thin as a rail and his pockmarked face was sweating profusely. He had a nervous look about him, and his eyes kept darting over to the scattergun resting on a table.
"Go for that gun and we'll both regret it," she said.
Her words caused everyone in the car to pause, even Virgil. Nancy didn't like to talk much, but when she did, her tone could be grave and commanding. Unsurprisingly, the young man listened and kept his eyes fixed on the floor.
After the last of the payroll was taken from the safe, Virgil handed her the money and went to work tying up the men. Nancy watched him admire his work and loudly cleared her throat to emphasize the fact that they needed to get a move on.
"We'd love to stay and chat, but we've got a schedule to keep. Au revoir, gentlemen," Virgil said, tipping his hat to the men.
Nancy had already left and walked to the car that held their horses. She could hear the commotion that was going on up front and smelled the sharp tang of gunpowder in the air. It sounded like some of the remaining guards were putting up a decent fight, but it wouldn't be long before the Mosley gang had their way. Above the din, she could faintly pick out Jack Mosley's shrill, grating laugh. Unlike his older brother, Jack Mosley had a love for violence and killing. She didn't have high hopes for those guards.
Nancy slid the door open; Virgil hopped in the car and laid the wooden ramp out for the horses. He reappeared leading their mounts, just as the chaos up front had died down. The duo wasted no time and put their horses to a gallop.
After about a half hour of riding, they came to a stop on top of a rise. From their vantage point, the Sonoran Desert stretched before them. They had left the train far behind and all they could see for miles were sunbaked sand, hills, and brush. It was midday, and the sun's rays created bright, wavy lines in the distance.
"Think we lost 'em?" Virgil asked. When it came to dealing cards, his eyes were as sharp as a hawk's, but when it came to any sort of distance, he relied on his sister. Nancy had once suggested he get some spectacles and he'd looked at her as if she'd shot him.
"Nope." She pointed to a large cloud of dust coming across the desert. The riders were nothing more than dots, but that was rapidly changing.
"Jesus, how many of them are there?"
"I'd wager about ten, but from this distance I'm not so sure. Want me to stop and ask 'em?" She raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the approaching gang.
Despite how nervous he looked, Nancy did notice a little smile grace her brother's features as he turned his horse and continued riding. Feeling proud of herself, she also smiled, despite her own anxiety about their current situation, and followed after her brother.
They rode for a little while longer, trying to come up with a plan to lose their pursuers, when they spotted a buckboard carrying two figures. As they approached, they found a farmer and his wife on their way to Tucson. The man had a scraggly, blond beard and the woman had bright, blue eyes that Nancy thought were quite pretty. The couple had the typical drawn look to their faces that was to be expected of those who tried their hand at farming on the frontier. In no time, Virgil had charmed his way into the good graces of the haggard-looking couple and while she kept an eye on where they had come from, he offered them a good price for their wagon. He lied and told them they needed it for their sick father and even offered to throw in their own horses so the couple wouldn't be left afoot. He even gave the man his grey frock coat.
They parted ways, the couple no doubt thinking they had met the nicest man in the world. Nancy hopped in the driver's seat and snapped the reins. Virgil was on lookout, but that didn't stop her from looking over her own shoulder.
"Think they'll be alright when Mosley catches up to 'em?" Nancy said after a stretch of silence.
"Should be. You know how Horace gets around blood," he said.
"Only badman I know that gets woozy around blood. What do you think he was up to during the escape?"
"Probably hid under the box car while his boys did the shooting."
They both shared a laugh and Nancy felt some of the tension ease out of her shoulders, even though she still felt uneasy. Although she was good at hiding it, Nancy always seemed to feel anxious about one thing or another. Growing up without parents on the streets of an unruly town like Dodge City could do that to a person.
"So, where're we heading, sis?" Virgil said, leaning back in his seat. It looked like the nervous feeling her brother had when they first spotted the gang racing across the desert disappeared as quickly as it came. Typical Virgil, she thought. The joke at the expense of their pursuer had done the trick for him. Nancy, on the other hand, clenched her jaw as she focused on the road ahead.
"Hole-in-the-Wall. We can get some fresh horses from Ed and plan our next move." Nancy snapped the reins and put the horses into a trot.
"Hole-in-the-Wall's pretty popular. You think Ed'll keep quiet if Mosley shows up?" he said, giving her a nudge with his elbow. Ever since they were kids, that was his universal sign, known only to them, for her to quit clenching her jaw, as it was known to lead to terrible headaches. These headaches often affected her focus, which, in turn, affected her aim. And being the superior marksman of the two, she couldn't afford to be off her game, especially when they've got a gang of desperadoes on their tail.
"As long as we slide him enough drinking money he should be fine," she said. "It's always worked before."
Virgil nodded his approval of the plan and took another look behind them before putting his hat over his face.
"Wake me up when we get there," he said.
She wondered how he could take a nap when they were on the run from a gang of outlaws, but that was what set them apart. They might've had the same dark hair and hazel eyes, but their personalities couldn't be anymore different. She had asked him once, years ago, how he never seemed to worry about anything. He simply replied that she did enough worrying for the both of them and left it at that. She felt it was a cheap answer, but didn't push it further. Virgil often brushed off questions that involved any sort of introspection, yet another trait that he didn't share with his sister.
Colossal Cave, or Hole-in-the-Wall, as the locals knew it, had been a hideout for criminals long before the Butler twins were born. An old bank robber named Edgar Powell maintained the place and lived in a ranch house near the mouth of the cave. The cave system itself acted as a safe harbor for any and all who needed it, for a price.
They reached Hole-in-the-Wall just before dark, and Edgar was in the corral in front of the ranch house, trying to saddle an unruly buckskin. Virgil called out to him and the old man turned and waved, there was no mistaking Virgil's voice.
"Well, if it isn't the Butlers. Haven't seen you two around here in a while. Must be in some real trouble," Edgar said.
"We sure are, old-timer," Virgil said. "Had a little disagreement with Horace Mosley and his boys, so we're gonna have to borrow your cave for a bit till things cool off."
"That so? Well, I'd love to help you out, but things have been a little tight lately and—"
"You'll get your money," Nancy said, cutting him off. She didn't care much for Edgar Powell. They've been using this place to hide out for years and the arrangement with him was always the same. It annoyed her when he always danced around what he really wanted from them, instead of just getting to the point.
"That's my sister. All business," Virgil said. He hopped out of the wagon and walked to the ranch house with Edgar, while Nancy drove the wagon to the barn nearby.
After removing the harnesses from the horses, placing them in their stables, and shoveling them some hay, Nancy decided to take the time to pick out their new mounts. After some deliberation, she settled on a mellow bay mare for her brother and a lively looking sorrel gelding for herself. She checked both of the horses' feet and liked what she saw. They looked like reliable animals. She made sure they were both fed and watered before taking their belongings and heading to the cave.
They spent the rest of the evening playing cards in one of the cave passages. The Butlers had spent their fair share of time hiding out in caves and they both agreed that Colossal Cave was the best. It was a dry cave; no water source was feeding it, which made for a more pleasant stay when on the dodge.
The next day, Nancy woke before dawn to walk the trails outside the cave. She left a note on the back of an old receipt letting Virgil know which horses they were taking, grabbed her rifle, and left. Her walk took her well into the morning and she stopped on a hill overlooking the ranch with a couple of rabbits she'd managed to shoot. As she stood on the hill, she saw her brother head into the barn and took a moment to survey the landscape and think about where they were going next. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of pounding hooves in the distance. The riders were in sight before she could run down and tell Virgil. She dropped the rabbits, laid down as flat as she could and hunkered down a bit behind the hill to give herself a little cover.
The riders, who she came to recognize as the Mosley gang from the silver Conchos that Horace and Jack wore in their hatbands, rode right up to Edgar. Edgar was once again in the corral trying to saddle the buckskin. She was too far away to hear exactly what they were saying, but she had a good idea. She looked through the telescopic sight mounted onto her Henry rifle and watched Edgar shake his head. From the looks of it he was keeping quiet on her and her brother's whereabouts. That is, until Horace produced a stack of bills from his coat. He tossed the money to the retired bank robber and she watched him count it and, to her dismay, he began pointing to the barn where Virgil was saddling their horses.
The gang dismounted and cautiously made their way to the barn. All of them spread out in a neat little line in front of the door.
"Come on out, Butler," Horace shouted. "We've got the barn surrounded. You can't weasel your way out of this."
Nancy steadied her breathing and took aim at the outlaw who was making his way to the door of the barn. She let him reach out and grab the door and the second she heard it creak she fired. Her shot hit the man between the shoulder blades and he went down with a cry. She turned her aim on the rest of the gang, levering the rifle as fast as she could. She managed to kill another one and wound a couple others before they scrambled for cover. It wouldn't be long before they'd figure out where the shots were coming from and once she saw Virgil make a break for it with the horses, using the shooting as a distraction, she made herself scarce.
She tracked Virgil to where he was hiding with the horses. Everybody looked like they had been put through the wringer, but no one was wounded.
"I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a change of scenery. I'm thinking Tucson." Virgil said. The bag carrying the payroll was safely tied to his saddle.
Nancy was too worn out to give him an answer; she just swung onto the sorrel and headed for Tucson. They made it into town and wasted no time in getting their tickets for a train heading east. Once their way out was settled, they split up. Virgil said he had some business to take care of and Nancy needed to replace the ammunition she spent at Colossal Cave. She met him back at the train station and noticed her brother had a new piece of luggage. She assumed he had simply purchased a new set of clothes while they were separated and climbed aboard the train.
The Butlers found their seats and settled in for a long ride. Their previous ride from Colossal Cave combined with the rocking of the train caused them both to doze off. Nancy awoke from her nap to find nothing but desert outside her window. She was about to go back to sleep when the train began to slow down. Once the train came to a complete stop she noticed the riders approaching the train and her heart sank.
"Ah, hell," she said.
At her words, Virgil woke with a start. He saw the riders surrounding the train car, but he didn't seem to be nearly as worried as she was.
"Ol' Horace just doesn't wanna give up, does he?" He said.
The train was surrounded; there was no way for them to escape without catching some bullets from the Mosley gang. When Horace boarded the car with a couple of his men and laid eyes on Virgil and Nancy, they knew the jig was up. The brother and sister got up from their seats and followed the outlaws off the train.
Standing in the desert, surrounded by Horace Mosley and his gang, Nancy felt as though this might be the end of the line for them.
"Virgil, You know how I feel about shooting, so just hand over the payroll and we'll be on our way," Horace said.
Virgil stood there like an obstinate bull, glaring at Horace. Nancy almost expected him to start pawing the ground, like he was about to charge. The payroll was enough for the both of them to live high on the hog for a long time and he seemed more than reluctant to give it up.
"Oh, now don't give me that look. Consider this payback for when you cheated me out of five hundred in that card game back in St. Louis," he said. "Or if that ain't enough for you I could always have my boys fill you full of lead." The sound of several pistol hammers being pulled back could be heard after Horace spoke.
Virgil quickly came to his senses and handed over the bag. Horace took it and tossed it to one of his men. He mounted his horse and they all appeared to be getting ready to ride off, but Horace turned to face the Butlers.
"You know what? I think I've changed my mind," Horace said, pulling his pistol and leveling it at Virgil. He pulled the hammer back, took aim, and shot Virgil square in the gut. It was so unexpected that Horace Mosley, whom the papers called "The Gun-Shy Bandit," would actually shoot someone that it took Nancy a second to register what had happened. But seeing her twin brother fall to the ground with a heavy thud brought it all into focus. Horace Mosley had shot Virgil, the only family she had left.
Horace laughed and looked immensely pleased with himself. "Well, would you look at that, boys? I believe I've gotten over my aversion to shooting." He and his men continued laughing as they rode away.
Nancy rushed to her brother's side. She tried to speak, but just couldn't find the words; instead she tried to stay focused and find where exactly he had been shot. The tears that started welling up made it hard to see, but despite her blurry vision she was surprised to find that there was no blood, and even more surprised when he started groaning in pain.
"Virgil?" Her voice shook. Her throat felt tight, like some unknown force was squeezing it.
"And you said this thing would never work," he said. He was referring to the vest that was made up of several layers of silk. The man who sold it to him claimed it could stop a bullet, that they were all the rage amongst the gangsters of New York. Nancy thought the man had tricked her brother into paying too much for a stupid vest, but here he was, alive, because of that stupid vest.
"Damn it, Virge," she said, playfully punching him in the shoulder.
She helped him up and he took a moment to dust off his clothes.
"How long do you think it'll take them to realize the money's counterfeit?" Virgil asked.
"So that was what you were doing," Nancy said. "When you said you had business to take care of I figured it involved a saloon."
"It did, but that was after I paid a visit to my friends at The Tucson Citizen," he said. "You know they've got the best printing press in the whole territory?"
"Is that so?"
"Sure is, I'll tell you all about it when we're not baking in this lovely desert heat. Come on, sis. We've got a train waiting for us."
"After you, brother."
Nancy and Virgil Butler walked back to the train, and the small fortune hidden under their seat.
Sydney Jarvis grew up in a military family and has travelled extensively, both overseas and here in the States. She is currently studying for her Master's in English and Creative Writing, and is an aspiring author who is eager to get her work out there. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Back to Top
Back to Home