Rescue from Indian Caverns
by Will Oliver
He belonged to the Penateka tribe of Comancheria; He was Comanche. Born a warrior on the killing fields of the buffalo where his mother had been stretching hides, the medicine man named him "buffalo bull's back" for the name was to foretell his future as a powerful warrior with a strong back. The Texians just called him, "Buffalo Hump."
The man who named him had practiced good medicine, for Buffalo Hump grew to become a strong Comanche warrior. He had learned to ride before he could walk and legend told how he learned to shoot before he could talk. Invited at an early age on his first buffalo hunt, it was Buffalo Hump who obtained first kill.
For this he was honored with a great feast.
He then made his medicine, and his vision foretold one day he would be a strong War Chief. He would unite his people and together: they would drive out the White man.
For this his father gave him two horses.
He then rode against the White man, glorifying himself in battle, bringing honor to both his father and his people.
For this he was honored with a Give Away Dance.
Other warriors, many much older than Buffalo Hump, followed him into battle. He honored them with many raids from which they could return to the tribe and count coup.
For this he had earned the highest honor: respect.
Upon the tribe's return from the summer buffalo hunt, Buffalo Hump planned his next raid on the white settlers. He had learned the Texians had been defeated at a place called Alamo, and he wanted to see the place where Mexicans had counted coup against the White man. He wanted to make sure the teibos there had been destroyed.
They conducted their war dance then traveled south early the next morning to the caves of the bears. There, they hunted in the darkness of the cave to kill a bear upon whose meat they feasted, as they gloried in the lust of the impending battle.
The following morning, after preparing for battle by spreading bear grease across their bodies, they traveled first west, then south, so as to enter the settlement from a less populated route on the night of the full moon; Comanche moon.
For the young Comanche Indians, the raid would make them warriors.
For the older Comanches, the raid would allow them to profit in goods and reputation.
For Buffalo Hump, it was one more battle to ensure that his vision quest came true.
* * *
A man came walking south down a dusty trail. He had no horse, but carried a worn leather saddle slung over his left shoulder to which was tied a knapsack. His only other possessions were his hat, the clothes he wore, a knife, and a Brown Bess he had picked up off a dead Mexican, which he carried in his right hand.
The road he was on was the El Camino Real, the road leading into San Antonio de Bexar. It was August 27, 1836, a Saturday afternoon when he arrived.
His true interest for coming to San Anton was to take a gander at the Alamo and see how it had fared.
As he approached that hallowed ground, he remembered the shouts that echoed forever after: "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" It gave him a curious sense of satisfaction.
He could see that many of the walls had been torn down and there were scorch marks where the Mexicans had tried, but failed, to burn it down. He thought it was fitting that they could not completely destroy it, just as they could not completely destroy Texas.
There was, however, much destruction. Only a few buildings had actually survived, while the chapel was left in ruins. There were some canons left behind, but by the looks of it, they had been spiked. The Long Barracks appeared to have survived, and the building at the south wall gate was still mostly intact. Otherwise, it was a shell of a building. He wondered if they would rebuild it or tear it down.
He moved on, crossed the bridge, and entered town. As he walked down Presidio Street heading toward the main plaza, he scanned the buildings ahead as he went.
Almost at the main plaza, he found what he was looking for, a saloon. He was in need of both food and drink, preferably the drink first. He had worked up a mighty thirst walking so far afoot.
He entered the saloon, which was nearly empty. He approached a table, looked around, dropped his saddle on the ground, propped his rifle against it, and sat down in a chair.
It felt good to sit.
He looked up, took off his hat, wiped his brow, and placed the hat back on his head. He tipped it back, looked at the barkeep, and asked for something to eat and drink.
"What'll you have?" the barkeep asked.
"I'm might thirsty, so I'll start with a beer. As for grub, I'll take anything you got."
"Easy enough. Beers coming up and I'll fetch you a bowl of soup. It's mostly beef and broth, but there are a few vegetables floating around in it and some taters."
The barkeep brought the beer, then disappeared into the back. In a few minutes, he brought out a bowl of soup and a chunk of bread, which looked to be a day or two old. He noticed the beer glass was empty.
The barkeep maneuvered behind the bar, and poured the glass full from the tap.
"Stranger in town?" the barkeep asked as he closed off the tap.
"Where you from?"
"Well, I was from Mina, but I seem to have lost my place in the runaway scrape."
"That's a shame. But they got ole Santa Anna."
"I know. I was there."
"What's your name, son?"
"Logan. Logan Sterling. What's yours?"
"Sam. Like the man who's soon gonna be the President of Texas."
"Elections coming up soon, ain't it?
"Sure is. Next month."
"Has Sam Houston put his name in yet?" asked Sterling. He had been walking for several weeks and hadn't heard much news.
"Sure has. Last week. He's going to beat Austin for sure. Sam Houston's the new name in Texas. So, how was it you were with him?"
"Well, I came out of the hills of Tennessee green as a cut seed watermelon. Pretty soon, I did what everyone else did, I had gone to Texas. I settled in Mina and was trying to get me a place started and was a courtin' when Santa Anna chased us all out. Seein' as how I didn't appreciate being pushed, I joined a group calling themselves the Mina Volunteers and we joined up with ole' Sam Houston."
"And you were there when it ended?"
"What was it like?"
"A turkey shoot. We surprised them and they ran. Houston gave us a speech and then we followed him in. We ran a bit, but then we realized we didn't need to. We opened fire and they up an' ran away. We were screaming 'Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!' and pretty soon the Mexicans were all begging "Me no Alamo! No, Goliad!'"
"That's what a lot of the local boys said. Many of them were there cause of what happened at the Alamo."
"Say, where are all the locals? This place is empty."
"Their gettin' ready to crown the new Belle of San Antonio."
"Belles!" Sterling said as he started to get up, "I need to see them."
"Take it easy, son. You can finish your meal first. They first come down the main street here and then to the plaza where the election is held. You can see them as they come by."
"I appreciate that," said Sterling as he regained his seat and continued to eat.
Sterling finished his meal and his second beer, and the barkeep proffered him a third one on the house for his service to Texas. Sterling thanked him and, kicking back, slowly began drinking his third beer. His eyelids were starting to get heavy.
"Say, what happened to your horse," asked the barkeep.
"Done got shot out from under me. I didn't want to go into a fight on foot, but the Mexicans forced me into it. After everything was over and I was obliged to leave, there were no spare horses, so I hoofed it back to Mina. There wasn't much there and one fellow said the Comanches picked over everyone and everything that remained. So, I decided to make my way down to see what was left of this fair town."
"Well, welcome to San Antonio. I think I am hearing the parade coming down the street now. You might want to have a look at some of the pretty ladies."
"Thanks. I reckon I will."
Sterling paid for the meal and two beers, stood up feeling much better, if not a bit light headed, grabbed his saddle and 'ole Bess and headed out the door of the saloon.
A throng of people, mostly men and boys, were moving ahead of a group of ladies, who were walking down the street, smiling and waving to everyone. Sterling stood on the wooden sidewalk, watching the spectacle go by. That was until he caught sight of one young lady, walking towards him. She was so beautiful it took his breath away. She was a little over 5' 4" tall, slender, with brunette hair and big brown eyes. The skirt and blouse she wore were of Mexican design, which complimented her figure nicely. As she walked by, she looked up and smiled at him. He tipped his hat, stepped down from the sidewalk, and fell in alongside her, still carrying his saddle and rifle.
"Howdy, Ma'am. You sure are pretty."
"Why thank you, stranger."
"So, you're the Belle of San Antonio."
"No, I am a contestant to become the Belle."
"Well, Ma'am, as I see it, you're the prettiest one here which means you'll soon be the Belle."
"Well, I hope the judges are of the same opinion as you. Now, I thank you, but I must be going."
As the lady walked away, waving and smiling at the other men, she heard the man ask, "What's your name?"
She turned, smiled, and said, "Muriel Hill. Miss Muriel Hill."
Logan watched her walk away, smiling at how she had emphasized the word "Miss."
He was tired and needed some sleep, not to mention a bath, but he couldn't resist watching Muriel Hill being crowned the winner so he could say, "I told you so." He decided to continue on and join the crowd in the main plaza.
After the ladies gathered together in the main plaza, each was introduced and asked to say something to the crowd. Some old guy talked for a bit and introduced a table where three other old men, all with bushy beards, sat. Then another young lady was introduced, and Logan figured out she had been crowned last year's Belle of San Antonio.
Finally, the old guy said he was going to announce the winner, and, just as Logan had predicted, it was Muriel Hill. There was a lot of cheering and then a decorative headpiece was given to Muriel by the previous Belle. People then began migrating over to where the food and drinks were set out and a band had started playing.
Logan Sterling, still toting his saddle and rifle, walked up to Muriel.
"I told you, you would win."
"It seems you were right, Mr. . . . ?"
"Logan. Logan Sterling."
"Well, I appreciate your confidence in me, Mr. Sterling."
"Call me Logan, Ma'am. Like I said, you were the prettiest lady by far in the bunch, it didn't take much to figure out you would win."
"Are you always right in your predictions?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Most of the time. Like I predict I'm gonna marry you."
"Excuse me, Mr. Sterling? You're not from around here are you?"
"But you say you are going to marry me."
"Do you have a job, Mr. Sterling?"
"Do you have land, Mr. Sterling?"
"Um, no, Ma'am, but I got some comin' to me."
"Then how do you expect to support a new bride, Mr. Sterling?"
"Well, I'm supposed to get some land for helpin' out Mr. Houston, so I thought I could file on some land in Mina. It's a beautiful area with lots of trees, so the land could be cleared for farming, a garden and a cabin. We can sell the timber to people a comin' to Texas, and anything we don't 'et."
"I am sorry, Mr. Sterling. I am a practical woman, and a man without a job or a deed to land is simply not fit to marry. I wish you well, Mr. Sterling. I really do."
"Well, thank you Ma'am. I'll see about that job and the land and I'll let you know," he said, entirely undiscouraged.
"You do that, Mr. Sterling," she replied with a half-smile at the man's rather matter-of-fact way of talking. She then turned and joined the crowd for refreshments.
Logan, tired of lugging the saddle and the rifle, was also just plain tired, so he sought out a hotel to bed down in. He had seen one on the way down Presidio while he was looking for the saloon, so he made his way back up the street toward the bridge.
He came to the hotel, obtained a key, and went up to the room. He planned to rest a moment, then find himself some new clothes and a bath. However, as soon as he sat down on the bed to rest, he was fast asleep.
* * *
He awoke with a start, not entirely sure where he was. He recalled the hotel room he had rented in San Antonio and realized he was in bed having fallen asleep.
It was nighttime and the room was dark. He looked around trying to figure out what had disturbed his sleep and it was then he heard the gunshots and the shouting outside on the street.
He sat up, stepped out of bed, and made his way to the window. There were some horses traveling north out of town, crossing the bridge, but he could not make them out in the dark. Their profiles in the dark were not what he would have expected to see. The horses were small and the frames of the men did not have the right shape to them.
He looked down the other end of the street, toward the plaza, and he heard a lot of shouting. Men were starting to come out onto the street with either pistols or rifles in hand. Logan, being already dressed, grabbed his rifle and headed out of his rented room.
When he made it out onto the street, there was still a commotion going on, with a number of men talking about what the Indians had run off with, who was injured, and what to do about it. He then heard someone yell that Ranger Cole was coming up the street, and everyone turned.
An older man with a full mustache and several day's growth of dark stubble came riding up the street on horseback, flanked by two other men, also astride horses. They pulled up their reins in front of the crowd, and the man in the center asked, "What happened here?"
Everyone starting shouting at once.
"One at a time, one at a time," the man said.
One of the men in the crowd, evidently a known authority figure, began speaking.
"The Comanches came into town just before Midnight and hit us quick. They emptied out the livery stable, shot several of the men who tried to stop them as they fled with the horses, and they captured Muriel."
Logan's stomach turned at the name and he asked, "Muriel, the lady who just became Belle?"
"That's her," came the reply.
Logan looked up at the men on horseback and asked, "Are you all going to do something?"
The man looked down to find the person with the pertinent voice and, upon spying Logan, said, "What do you expect me to do son?"
"Someone called you Ranger Cole, shouldn't the Rangers be going after them?"
"I wish I could son, I wish I could. We've had raids all over this area from the Indians as they think we're vulnerable because the Mexicans have retreated south. In part, they're right. And now the problem is, Santa Anna's gone agin' the treaty he signed at Velasco and he's amassing his soldiers along the border. I've been ordered to recall all of the Rangers in the area and to head south to protect against another invasion. I can't spare the men."
"Then give me a horse and I'll go," demanded Logan.
"I can't son. I can only provide a horse to a Ranger."
"Then make me a Ranger."
The man in the center, Ranger Cole, turned to the other two and started talking amongst themselves. After what seemed like forever to Logan, Ranger Cole looked to the other two for what looked like approval and, both giving a nod, he turned back to face Logan.
"Alright son, I hate to see the little lady come to harm. I can swear you in as a Ranger and give you a horse. I'll also give you these two men to go with you. This here is Noah Smith, he's a good tracker and can help you foller them Comanches. This other gent is Ranger Bill McGee. I need to leave one Ranger back here in San Anton, so I reckon I can be him."
"Thank you, Sir. I'll grab my saddle from the hotel room and be right back down."
"You a stranger in town?" Cole asked.
"Yes, sir. Name's Logan Sterling."
"How come you ain't got a hoss?"
"I was from Mina and joined the Mina Volunteers who fought with Sam Houston. My horse was shot by the Mexicans."
"Good man that Houston. You get your things together, then I'll swear you in, while Noah fetches you a hoss."
As Logan Sterling had little in the way of possessions, it did not take him long to grab his hat, knife, and saddle. He checked over ole' Bess to make sure she was ready and that he still had enough ammunition. Once again, he threw his saddle over his shoulder picked up his rifle and went to check out of the hotel. The proprietor, having heard the exchange outside, told him his room was free and he wished him luck in recovering Miss Hill. And with a polite thank you, Sterling was out the door.
At the same time, Noah Smith came riding up the street trailing a fine looking Black. He handed the reins to Sterling and, upon taking them, he took the time to introduce himself to the horse. He talked to her gently, telling her what was in store for them, and that she would get to do some fast riding. Assured of at least some connection to the horse, he threw his saddle up over the saddle blanket Smith had already placed on the horse, cinched and buckled the straps, and with one final gesture to the dignity of the horse, he mounted her and drew rein.
He turned to Ranger Cole, who asked him to raise his right hand, and he swore an oath. Cole told him he would be paid $1.25 a day, but he was going to have to pay for his own horse out of the money he earned. He also told him that although McGee only had a month on, he was technically in charge, but then each Ranger needed to think and act for himself. "I wish you Godspeed in rescuing Miss Hill and thanks for volunteering."
Logan, thanking him in turn, looked over toward McGee and Smith.
"Are you gentlemen ready?" he asked.
And with only a confirmation nod, Sterling directed the horse up Presidio, across the bridge and out of town.
* * *
The tracks of the unshod ponies were easy enough to follow in the light of the full moon (technically the day after it had been full). It was also clear after a dozen miles or so that they were headed due north, for regardless of the terrain, they did not appear to waiver from that direction.
Logan, who had been in the lead, fell back alongside Smith.
"What's due north of here?"
"Not much," came Smith's reply. "Between here and the Colorado River, is the Guadalupe, the Blanco, and the Pedernales."
"Can they make the Colorado in a day."
"Sure, they got spare horses."
"And above it?"
"By tomorrow night, yeah, they'll be just across the Colorado."
"But not back into Comanche territory."
"Well, the ways that see it, everywhere is their territory."
"But they won't quite be back amongst the safety of their people."
"No, that wouldn't be until the day after."
"They'll stop somewhere. Where?"
And with that, Logan Sterling spurred on ahead and they continued traveling north in silence, following the tracks of the unshod ponies by moonlight.
When the sun came up, it made the tracking easier. As the tracks continued traveling roughly due north, even when they lost them because of changes in the terrain, they just continued north until they picked them up again. Although Smith was the tracker, Logan remained out front, in part because the tracks were easy to follow, but mostly because he was desperate to rescue Muriel before anything happened to her.
They stopped with little frequency, only long enough to rest their horses. Logan knew he was pushing them hard, but he had no choice. The Comanches had spare horses, captured from the livery stable; they did not. The Black was a good horse and she was holding her own. As both Smith and McGee's horses were keeping up, Logan continued to push throughout the day.
By sundown they were approaching the Colorado.
Logan turned toward Smith and asked, "Where are they planning to cross the Colorado?"
"Their headin' for the shoals, it's an easy crossing. West of there the water is too wide and east of there it gets too deep."
"So, what's due north of the shoals?"
Smith thought about it some, but before he could answer, the man who had spoken nary a word since they left spoke up.
"Bear Cave," was all he said.
"He's right. They're far enough north to believe they're safe from pursuit, and it would be the perfect place for them to stay until sunrise," added Smith.
"Do you know the caves?" asked Logan.
"Sure do. I grew up in that area and used to play around in 'em even though Pa said to stay away from 'em cause they were dangerous. Heck! That was why I always went there," replied Smith.
"All right, Bear Cave it is."
* * *
The sun was down and the moon was up over Central Texas, and the three Rangers continued following the tracks of the Comanche horses by the light of the moon. They reached an area where Smith held up his hand and McGee stopped beside him. Logan, hearing the other horses pull up, turned, directing his horse back to the other two.
"This is it. We dismount and walk it in from here," whispered Noah Smith.
The three men dismounted, tethered their horses to a tree, and Smith led the way with Logan immediately behind him; McGee watched the rear.
As they moved forward, the terrain began to change, becoming more hilly, with rocky outcroppings and less trees. Smith moved around the base of the area, looking to approach from a particular vantage point. As they did so, Logan thought he heard the blow of a horse from ahead of him, not from behind. There was a good chance their hunch was correct.
Smith found the angle of approach he wanted and using hand signals, he asked Sterling to follow him and McGee to stay put. They moved forward in a low crouch, trying to move quietly in their boots. As they approached nearer, they could smell smoke, but could not see it. Smith then pointed toward an area that was elevated, but mostly flat.
As Logan focused his eyes, he could see what Smith had been pointing at. There was a large round opening in the earth, large enough to fit two riders abreast. There was a faint wisp of smoke rising out of the hole.
Smith touched Sterling's arm, then motioned toward the ground. There was Indian sign leading up toward the hole. Their hunch was now confirmed. The Indians had stopped, thinking they weren't being pursued, to stay overnight in the comforts of the cave. Muriel had to be in there.
Smith waved his hand, motioning for them to retreat. They backed up slowly, keeping their eyes on the hill, before finally turning and joining back up with McGee. Smith then entered the woods and began walking away, back toward the horses.
Once there, he crouched down and began to whisper.
"They're in there all right. Their horses are probably tethered on the other side of the hill, but other than a guard, most of them are probably in the cave. Through that hole in the earth, you can climb down to the cavern floor and it is a big wide cave right there. Plenty of room for them to rest and have a fire without it showing.
"We need to enter the cave from another entrance I know. The problem is, we're going to have to pick our way through the dark, but once we do, we'll be able to surprise 'em. We'll have time. They won't be leavin' until right before sunup.
"If you have any matches or candles in your saddlebags, bring 'em along. Get everything you need, we won't be comin' back here until we have what we came for."
Smith and McGee made their way over to their saddlebags and opened them up. Logan remained where he was. He had nothing else he could bring, other than Ole Bess and his knife.
Once they were all ready, they followed Smith through the woods, moving away from the hole in the earth. Again, they came to an area were the woods gave way to more rocky terrain and where the chaparral, thought Logan, was as thick as the hair on a dog's back.
As they picked their way through, Smith suddenly stopped and began peering around. Logan could see the earth dropped away in several places and there were more rocks protruding from the earth. Smith then apparently found what he was looking for as he began to climb down into some semblance of an arroyo. They followed the bottom until they came to the end of what looked to be a gully. In the side of the hill stood an opening into the earth wide enough that a man could fit through as long as he walked in a crouch.
"Stay close," Smith said as he looked back at the others.
"We need to move very cautiously or we might find ourselves in a hornet's nest."
That was all he said before turning back toward the hole, crouching down, and entering the tunnel. Logan wondered if he meant that for real, envisioning a hornet's nest inside the cave, before he ducked his head and entered, McGee following.
Making their way through the tunnel, it was not long before they could stand upright, which made movement a lot easier. However, they no longer had any light from the moon, and Logan thought to himself if was as dark as the inside of a cow, but as cool as a Texas morning. The air was almost cold, causing Logan to shiver once, and like everything else in Texas, it was humid.
Smith continued to pick his way slowly through the caves, sometimes halting because his foot had run into something. The passageway he was taking them on was crooked, and often so narrow, they had to turn sidewise at times. At other times, it was wide enough for two men to travel abreast and Logan sometimes found himself walking next to, but still slightly behind Smith.
The Stygian darkness, however, was unnerving for Logan. Holding his hand in front of his face, he could not see it. In addition, there were strange smells, including the strong smells of minerals and that of ammonia.
At one point, when Smith had halted, Logan whispered, "What's that smell?"
Smith had a simple reply: "Bat shit."
They continued moving forward, stepping over and around rock formations they could not see. Logan was thankful Ranger Cole had sent Smith along with him, as he probably would have found the first entrance to the cave and would have entered that way, knowing of no other alternative. It was because of Ranger Cole and Smith, he was probably still alive at that very moment.
Smith halted again and whispered, "This is it. I think we're getting close. No more words and try not to make a sound until we get to the large cave. There should be at least some light from the fire and the opening in the ceiling should give us the moon to see by."
He was right. They came to a place where there was a sudden bend to the right and, once making that turn, they had their first sign of light. They could see the embers of the Indian's fire glowing in the distance. Because their eyes had been in the dark so long, that little light seemed to light up their entire surroundings.
The time it had taken to reach the large cave must have been several hours, Logan reckoned, for it now had to be well past Midnight.
As they drew closer, they could see the location of the fire more clearly. They then followed the smoke from the fire as it drifted upward toward the ceiling where it gathered there before drifting out of a hole in the ceiling about 30' high; the first entrance to the cave. There was what amounted to a pile of rocks leading up to the opening, so a person could climb up out of the hole or down into the cave by scurrying up and down those rocks.
The Indians were all asleep, lying some distance away from the fire, just on the edge of darkness. There appeared to be no one standing guard as they were evidently confident they had not been followed. On the far side of the cave, where no Indian slept, there was the carcass of a bear, the skin and head off to one side, and chunks of meat and bone off to another.
Logan spotted Muriel in no time. She was at the back of the cave, lying on an Indian blanket, bound hand and foot, beside a very large warrior. He started to make a move toward her, but McGee stopped him in his tracks. The quiet man pointed at Smith and pointed left. He then pointed at himself and pointed to the right. Then he pointed at Sterling, followed by the girl.
Sterling understood. They would watch his back and flanks as he approached Muriel to try and rescue her. He nodded and began moving straight for the girl lying on the floor.
He made it half-way across the cave to where she was lying when she suddenly sat up. Unlike the Indians, she had not fallen asleep, and had seen Logan. Her sudden movement, however, caused the large Indian to move; Buffalo Hump sensed something was wrong.
What happened next was a blur. Logan brought Ole Bess up and fired, but the Indian was rolling away and the shot missed. As it struck the ground where the Indian had been, it ricocheted upward, leaving Buffalo Hump unharmed. The report of the rifle blast, followed by a scream, echoed so loudly through the cave, not a soul remained asleep.
Two Indians charged Logan before he could reach Muriel, but another rifle blast, simultaneous shots from Smith and McGee, echoed throughout the cave and one of the two dropped to the cavern floor. McGee had found his mark.
Smith, being the closest to the fire, ran forward and kicked it, trying to stomp out the fire in the hopes of gaining an edge on the Comanches and adding to their confusion.
The other Indian rushing Logan came in so fast, Logan could only manage to raise Ole Bess to defend himself. The Comanche was faster and managed to duck under the rifle as it came up, and was on Logan before he knew it. Although he had the advantage on the Comanche by weight, the Indian was wiry and quick as a cat. Logan tried grabbing on to him, but found he was as slick as an eel. Logan realized he was difficult to hold onto because he was greased from head to foot in bear grease.
Logan and the Comanche were now in a wrestling match, but every time Logan managed to throw the Indian to the ground, he would squirm away like a snake and pop right back up and jump on Logan again. He could not manage to hold him still for more than a moment because of the oil, which Logan soon found himself covered in.
As the two wrestled, Smith and McGee had moved in to prevent any Indian from joining in the fight or attempting to retrieve Muriel. Any that tried were met with a smashing blow from their rifle butts.
The Comanche again moved in on Logan, his black eyes gleaming like a panther's in the dark. Logan sidestepped, turning his body, and placing his foot behind him, he backhanded him directly into the cavern wall. As the Comanche spun around, his forward movement was arrested suddenly, his head having struck rock. He was momentarily stunned as blood began pouring from a head wound. It was all the time Logan needed to draw his knife and drive it deep into the Comanche's chest. The Indian collapsed, dead, stabbed in the heart. Logan was pleased to have sent the Comanche to the "Happy Hunting Ground" in the sky.
Once again, becoming aware of his surroundings, Logan saw Smith and McGee's backs were to him, and Buffalo Hump and the other Indians were making their way out of the hole in the ceiling.
"Grab the girl," McGee said, "They'll be back when they realize they're not surrounded."
Logan, realizing the truth of McGee's statement, moved toward the girl, reached down, and manhandling her, he threw her over his shoulder. He turned as Smith lit a candle, illuminating the cavern.
"Let's move," was all Smith said as he started to return from the way they had come.
Logan followed and McGee again took the rear position. The candle flickered as they tried moving quickly, knowing full well they would soon be pursued. Smith tried shielding the guttering candle with his hand, but it reduced the amount of light, causing them to have to slow down anyway.
They could hear the Comanches beginning their pursuit, while at the same time they were hit again with the horrid smell of ammonia. This time, with the benefit of the light, they could see the bat guano spread across the cavern floor and, looking up, the colony of bats the guano belonged to.
"Stop," said Logan, as he pulled up short.
He turned to McGee.
"Reload your rifle and fire it toward the ceiling."
McGee caught on quickly, and was loading his rifle as they listened to the sound of moccasins slapping on the cavern floor behind them.
McGee had the rifle loaded and turning, just in time to see the first Comanche warrior round the large rock, fired into the ceiling. The explosion echoed loudly throughout the cavern complex as the colony of a million bats took flight all at once, filling the cave with chaos.
"Keep moving," shouted Logan above the din of the squealing bats who were making their way toward the cavern opening, flying straight into the Comanches. The Rangers continued to move as fast as they could without extinguishing the candle.
* * *
They first rode southwest before eventually turning due south. They had found their way safely out of the cave and back to their horses, cutting Muriel's bonds, before riding. Knowing it was only a matter of time before they were pursued, all three of the men thought the same thing without speaking: if they could just make it across the Colorado, more than likely, the Comanches would not pursue.
They were wrong. They did pursue.
Buffalo Hump had tried to slow the young ones up, but they did not want to lose their rightful honor to count coup upon returning to their people. So, the pursuit had continued. The Comanches, however, no longer had the advantage of fresh horses for they had abandoned the extra horses in their haste to catch up to the Rangers.
The three Rangers, with Muriel riding on the Black with Logan, had made it across the shoals before the Indians reached them. The Comanches had been delayed by locating the Ranger's trail and because there was no one leading them anymore; they had effectively become a mob when they abandoned Buffalo Hump.
After making the southern shore of the river, they turned and fired, scattering the Indians, who then cautiously crossed at different locations, while the four continued their race south for San Antonio.
They rode hard, and their horses were nearly spent, but they kept ahead of the Comanches, who had settled into the chase. Logan remained in the lead with the other two close behind. When they were able to see San Antonio in the distance, Logan fired 'ole Bess into the air. Smith and McGee, seeing what the new Ranger was doing, also fired at intervals into the air. As they drew closer to town and saw some movement ahead, they took off their hats to wave frantically at the townsfolk and to spur their horses onward.
Coming up fast on the bridge, they could see men forming up on the other side, with their rifles pointed in their direction. All they had to do was make it across the bridge, and they would be in the safe embrace of San Antonio and a host of proud Texans with their guns. As soon as they hit the bridge, they knew they were safe.
Once all three horses cleared the bridge, the townsmen closed up the gap, leaving no space by which the Comanches could pass, and they began to open fire. The Indian pursuers were forced to pull up their horses and change directions as none were foolish enough to enter the bridge. They shouted and gestured at the Texans in one final act of defiance, but their bravado was lost on the cheering huzzah that came from the other side of the bridge.
As the Indians retreated, so too did the Texans, as they made their way back into town to gather around the Rangers. Logan and the others had slowed to a trot and stopped where everyone was gathering to hear the story that derived from all the commotion. He helped Muriel down from the horse to take a seat on the steps up to the wooden sidewalk. As the townsmen returned on horseback and on foot, the story unfolded, and cheers went up for the rescue of the Belle of San Antonio.
About the time the story was finished being told, Ranger Cole came over on horseback, congratulating his Rangers for a job well down. He looked over at Smith and McGee and told them they could take time to get fed and rest up, and they could join them down on the border later in the week.
"As for you, Mr. Logan," said Cole as he turned toward the young man. "Stephen F. Austin authorized me to issue land grants in lieu of cash rewards for any heroics in encounters with the Comanches."
He handed Logan a piece of paper.
"I think your rescue of the young lady qualifies. Not sure what is going to happen with the upcoming election, but I am sure it will be honored."
He was referring to the upcoming election on September 5th between Austin and Houston.
Logan turned toward Muriel and looked her in the eyes.
"Well, Miss Muriel, I now have a job and some land, along with the land from fight'n with Mr. Houston. We can get married now. All's we need is a preacher."
One of the men in the crowd who had been at the bridge with his rifle spoke up.
"I'm a preacher, son."
Logan looked at the man then back to Muriel.
"Will you marry me Ma'am? Right now?"
Muriel flushed and she said, "Yes!"
The preacher broke out his Bible, said some words from the Good Book, then pronounced them man and wife.
After Logan kissed the bride, he went over to his saddle and took out a piece of paper from his saddlebag. He turned back to Muriel and presented her the papers.
"Here's the land papers for fightin' with General Houston, and here's the paper for land for rescuing you. Pick us out a nice piece of land up near Mina, and make it official. When I get back, we can move onto the property."
Muriel looked stunned. She asked him, "Where are you going?"
"To the border," he replied, "I'm a Texas Ranger now!"
Will Oliver is a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. As
a professor of policing, he has always been fascinated by the history of the Texas Rangers. While visiting
the Longhorn Caverns west of Austin, he heard a short version of this story. Finding no factual evidence to
corroborate the incident, he decided to tell his own version of the story.
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Train to Damnation
by Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope NV
In a soft, secretive voice the dapper man said, "Wyatt?"
"What Bat?" The lawman replied as if waking.
"What are we doing here?"
Earp looked around the train car from his vantage point in the last seat. "I don't know. Don't remember, but this isn't where I was last." He paused, "Come to think on it, I don't remember where I was last."
"I recognize some men around here, but some are new to me." Masterson pointed. "That's Pat Garrett and, if I'm not wrong, that's Hickock's tresses in the front seat."
Wyatt leaned over to address the man sitting on the bench to his left. "Aren't you Bass Reeves?" The distinguished man with a prominent mustache nodded politely.
From the next seat forward a man turned to address Bat and Wyatt. "Dallas Stoudenmire here—out of El Paso. I've been tryin' to fathom this out myself. One thing I can say is some of the lawmen here are from our years, but some are from later on. That's Frank Hamer sitting across from Hickock. He was a baby when you were in Tombstone. Have no idea how I know that, but whatever he did, it must have been something great to get him on this train.
Bass spoke up as he pointed to the window in the door behind them. "If I am not mistaken, Billy the Kid looked in here a time back." The four men stared at each other for a long minute.
"Well, we need to find out what is going on," said Bat. "I'll bet the conductor can tell us. Watch for him."
They sat pensively while the train clicked and clacked its way along. No one knew how long they were waiting—time had no meaning. Finally, a conductor entered the car from the far end and made his way down the aisle punching tickets. "Tickers please, have your tickets ready."
"Wyatt, I don't have a ticket," said Bat.
"Yes, you do, it's in your hat band,"
Bat reached up and took the ticket then commented, "There's one in your hat band too."
Just then the conductor reached the back of the car. "Sir," Wyatt addressed, "Can you tell us what we are doing on this train?"
The railroad man answered sardonically while punching Wyatt's ticket. "Just read your ticket." The conductor opened the door and left the car.
All four men read their tickets. ONE WAY—DESTINATION: DAMNATION.
The terrain outside was mostly flat, tan and featureless. Slowly, their knowledge and memories expanded, so eventually they knew all the riders and little details about their lives.
Wyatt rose and addressed everyone. "Gentlemen, it seems we have been brought here for some reason. Pat, Bill Bonney has been seen, so we can assume that our old foes are somewhere about."
Just then, a railroad clerk burst through the door. Winded with a concerned face, he caught his breath. "Oh! So good to see you here. I had to climb over the outlaw car back there, so they wouldn't see me."
With all eyes on the man, Wyatt asked, "Who are you sir?"
"E.C. Woodcock, express car attendant."
Stoudenmire looked at him hard. "You were the guy who wouldn't open the rail car for Cassidy up in Wyoming, so they blew up the car. "
"Yes, but this is more important," Woodcock answered. "In my car there is a chest, strapped in iron and triple locked. I've got word that it contains a map to the Great Mother Lode. Right now, the outlaws don't know this, but in time it will come to mind, and I fear they will attack my car and take it."
Hickock interjected. "That's supposed to be the biggest cache of gold and silver ever found. I thought it was just a story."
"Either way, it is addressed to the Purgatory Bank in Damnation. I hear it is the only place in Purgatory that the outlaws can't rob. You need to protect it until it gets there."
"Purgatory. So that's where we are." Bat mused.
There were twenty-three lawmen in all, and they gathered near the middle of the car. They were all men of action and not accustomed to taking orders, but as Wyatt had taken the lead, they agreed to follow him. "Whatever we do, we have to get to the express car and hole up there. It would be better if the outlaws don't see us."
"Why can't we just follow Woodcock back over the other car?" Pat Garrett said.
"Yes, that sounds right. I'll need half a dozen of you to go," followed Wyatt.
Garrett, Captain Jack Hayes, Bass Reeves, Frank Dalton, Heck Thomas and Bill Tilghman headed out, following Woodcock up the access ladder to the top of the outlaw car. This was the first time the lawmen could see the whole train. There was the engine and coal car, two passenger cars, the express car and a caboose. Going at full tilt, the train was rocking side to side and it was hard to hold on while moving across the roof. Several lawmen held onto Woodcock as he stood up and waved to attract the attention of engineer, Casey Jones. Woodcock signaled to slow the train and Jones let off the throttle. The guards made it to the express car, but as they filed into the car, they noticed Butch Cassidy watching them through the outlaw car's window. He realized what was up and turned to the rest of the outlaws.
Getting a jump on the outlaws, several lawmen from their car moved out onto the platform between the cars, brandished their pistols and donned threatening faces. Soon, several outlaws moved to their platform and scowled back at them.
Cole Younger pointed his piece at Bat. "Might have figured this was some Union trick."
"Not sure what this is but looks like an outlaw ruse to me. Either way, we seem to be stuck on this moving Mexican standoff." Bat doffed his Derby hat and wiped his brow.
The men in the express car barred the door and took defensive positions. It did not take long before the outlaws were pounding on the car. "Hey, open up! What you got in there?"
Hickock sent a round through the top of the door. "You ain't getting in here."
"When we get in there, you're all dead." Several shotgun blasts followed, destroying the door lock.
The guards opened fire, shooting through the wall and door. They wounded most of the outlaws, so the others backed down into their rail car. The bad men made a few more attempts to get into the express car. One time, the bandits went over the top of the car and tried to come through the back door. Anticipating this, the guards had barred the door with lumber they found in the car. The guards proved too much for the outlaws and things quieted down.
The uneasy truce lasted for an undetermined length of time until the train's whistle alerted them to their arrival at Damnation. The town was like hundreds of communities in the old west; a dusty main street lined with rough buildings, hitching posts, horse troughs, and the railroad tracks crossing the street at one end of the town. The Purgatory Bank was the only stone building. It was situated between a saloon and the dry grocer half-way down the street from the railroad platform.
The lawmen and outlaws jumped off the train before it came to a full stop. Each group claimed their turf. Woodcock opened the large side door of the express car and the guards jumped down to form a cordon around the door. The lawmen hurried over to support them as a few men pulled the strong box off the train.
Butch and his gang surrounded them, trying to pin them against the train.
"Hey," yelled Billy the Kid. "Is that the bushwhacker, Pat Garrett, I see there?"
Pat stepped forward, ready for action. "You were my friend once, but you were a killer then and by the look of things you still are."
The tension was thick. Rufus Buck, being a young hot head, had been twitching since the train arrived. He could not stand it any longer and bolted at Wyatt. Bat shot Rufus dead, no one moved. The attention returned to Billy and Pat.
'You need to think better of this Billy or that will be you in a moment," Pat's eyes fixed on Billy's eyes.
"Well Pat, I don't see any other way." With that Billy fired and Pat fired back. After several rounds both lawman and outlaw lay in the dust.
Several men picked up the chest and the rest gathered around them. They started moving as a block towards the bank.
"Wait up Wyatt," called out Cassidy, "We have a claim on what's in that box."
"Ain't gonna happen Butch,"
"Enough of this jaw flappin'," bellowed Bill Doolin as he leveled his shotgun and destroyed Seth Bullock.
After that, guns blazed as outlaws and lawmen scattered to take cover as best they could. After a few rounds all combatants found that no matter how many shots they fired, their pistols never ran out of ammunition. They just blasted and blasted and blasted away.
Wyatt stood out in the open and kept shooting. At first his luck held with rounds passing through his hat, his coat tails and pants. Then, a bullet found his middle and suddenly he could not breathe. Leaning over he kept firing wildly when shots tore into his shoulder and hip. No longer able to stand, he fell to his knees, then face first beneath the express car.
Hickock found shelter under the train platform and firing with both pistols downed more outlaws than anyone else. He might have survived except Jonny Ringo found some dynamite and blew up Wild Bill and the platform. Ringo had to get out in the open to toss the dynamite and Elfego Baca gunned him down.
Bat, Reeves and Stoudenmire had the chest and were making their way down the sidewalk heading to the bank when Black Jack Ketchum and five others opened up on them from an ally across the street. Bat and the others took turns dragging the chest and shooting. Eventually, Reeves and Stoudenmire went down and Bat was hampered by a bullet deep in his thigh and other wounds. There were only two outlaws left from across the street, Cherokee Bill and Black Bart They ran to Bat looking to finish him off. Bat watched them coming and as then they stepped up to the side walk, he ripped into them with a two-gun fusillade.
There was still the sound of sporadic gunfire around the train depot as Bat dragged himself and the strong box into the bank. There, several tellers took the chest and secured it in their ghost-proof safe where upon Bat died.
Time passed in silence, how long is unknown, then each of the gunmen felt something stir in their bodies. Bat struggled to his feet and stepped out onto the street. There, all the combatants stood were they fell, knocking the sleep out of their heads.
At the depot Butch also came back and watched those around him. "Wyatt, Wyatt are you out there?" He called out at top voice.
"Ya," responded Earp. "Down here by the tracks."
The two men came together. "Did we have a time, or did we have a time?" Butch smiled.
"Cannot remember having a better time. Did my heart good. Felt great," responded the lawman as he took the outlaws hand in a grand shake.
The rest of the gunman gathered at the train laughing and reminiscing on the gunfight. There was a lot of back -slapping, embracing, and light-hearted banter. Casey Jones, Woodcock and the conductor joined the festivities.
Cassidy put his arm around Earp. "Oh, Wyatt, we have got to do this again next year."
Wyatt looked at him quizzically. "Next year, Butch? Let's do this again tomorrow!"
"Yes, yes, yes! Next time bring Doc"
"And make sure Sundance comes too."
Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope Nevada is an active Cowboy Action Shooter from Florida and a retired
Physics teacher, but that's not who Willy really is . . .
Born in 1854 in Missouri, he found the answer to life in 1923 in Carson City Nevada. Starting out with the
railroad, he becoming an engineer at the age of 21. Holding many jobs, like station agent in Fallon NV and
railroad detective, he ended up as Constable of Calliope, Nevada, This is where we meet him through his
stories in Frontier Tales.
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Horse crippled. He looks 360 round the horizon. Nowhere to go he can't be tracked. Tips his hat back. Scratches at the two-day beard. Sighs.
Might jes as well chew that chaw I was savin. What the hell. What else?
Thinks: If this is it, guess I might regret a few things. That whore I never took upstairs at Sadie's. Still owe Brad sixty dollars. Caint do much bout that now.
Damn, this is good chaw. Ever git outta this, never gonna chew nuthin else. Life's too short for bad chaw. Damn! Never got to see California . . . What the hell.
He steps back into the shack. For the third time he unloads and reloads his rifle and his colt. For the third time, counts the reloads, mutters to himself: left pockets rifle, right pockets colt. Looks around the shack again, taking stock: table, chair, empty shelf, water bucket, shovel. One door, one busted window. Shakes his head. Spits again.
How did he let himself get into this trap? He had a good lead. Cut across this open range.
Two more hours, I'd a been in the canyons, I'd a lost em. Dammit, got cocky. Didn't think two steps ahead. Not thinkin what could go wrong, an that's when they always do.
Horse pulled up lame. Two hours became five. Here he was at this shack. Sandy soil for miles every direction. His grandma could follow the track. He'd still be miles from the canyons when they caught up. In the open, no cover, easily surrounded. No way was he letting them take him back! Public trial? No chance it'd be fair. Then a public hanging.
No thank you. Die out here first.
He'd already expended all his repertoire of cusses, first on the horse, then himself. Now he was stuck here, outta luck.
Earlier that morning, after the shootout, several times he'd circled back, waited on his back trail, fired shots over their heads, sending them scrambling, slowing them down. Wishes he had those bullets back now. Seven riders. Woulda been tough pickin em off. Too many to stand an fight. Besides, he had no stomach for more killing. Not less he had to. What a mess. They'd be going slow, at least, maybe three hours before they caught up.
Dried up waterhole. Abandoned pony express relay station, no more than a shack. His horse, no fool, rests in the shade the east wall of the shack gives from the afternoon sun. From under the overhang of what passes for a porch, he surveys the horizon again. Nothing to see, just rocks, bare sand, here and there some patches of grass, some mesquite. One big bush about fifty yards out. Nothing to do but wait.
Damn. I aint ready to die.
Not here an not out there tryin to reach the canyons on foot. Goddammit! Must be sumthin! Think!
He takes inventory again: The shack, his guns, saddlebags.
Something. Anything. Gotta be sumthin . . .
His eyes, still studying the land, keep coming back to that big mesquite bush fifty yards out. Then it all falls into place and he sees it clearly, his chance:
hole in floor
trails leadin away
brush away tracks
Jes maybe. Better'n doin nuthin! Got maybe three hours. Better git started.
He walks back into the shack, picks up the shovel. Walks out to that big mesquite bush, starts chopping at its roots. A loud buzzing sound.
Whoa. Rattler. He lifts up the lowest branches with the shovel. Yep. There she is. A big un. Hey sweetheart! Yer gonna help me out!
Putting down the shovel, he walks back to where his horse stands patiently in the shadows. Opening a saddlebag, he pulls out a shirt. Knots bottom and sleeves. Back at the bush, he pins the snake down with the shovel handle, grasps it behind its head. Lifts it up, lowers it into the open shirt neck. With the snake inside, he carries his makeshift bag by the shirtneck back to the shack, hangs it on a hook on the back of the door. He watches for a minute. The squirming bulge eventually calms down.
Back to the bush. He cuts the roots, digs it up, puts it aside.
Tall as a man, jes as wide. Yep. Might work. Sandy soil, easy to dig. Carefully he piles the dirt, one side of the hole.
Damn, that sun is hot!
Finally, deep enough, long enough, wide enough. He squats down in the hole.
Tight, but not so's a man caint deal with it.
From here, he'll be looking at the shack and a little either side, including the false trails he figures to make.
Gotta keep movin.
In the shack, he finds a warped floorboard, one end sticking up above the floor. Using the shovel as a crowbar, he pries it up, takes it outside. Old dry wood, it'll splinter some, break easy. Using the side of the shovel as an ax, he breaks the board into four sections. At the hole, he wedges them either side, enough space between to settle into, shovels dirt between them and the outside of the hole. More boards needed for back and over the hole. Back in the shack, he considers. More floorboards? Way it is now, a man could squeeze through, go under the floor. No reason to pull up another. Walking to the back, he swings the shovel hard against the wall boards. A few more swings, boards start coming loose. He drops the shovel, kicks at the loose boards. One, another, a third falls out. He picks up the shovel, steps through the opening. stands over the three boards, measuring them by eye. Two, long as a man, one a bit longer. OK. Three from the long board for the back, two each from the other two for over head. Put em in place, shovel dirt back in behind and over.
A little later, he regards his handiwork. On hands and knees, backs in, sits. From here, got the shack, fifty feet either side in his sights. He drags the bush over, covers the hole. Walks around it. OK. He frowns at the pile of leftover dirt. Different look than the ground around the hole. Back to the shack for the bucket. Each bucketful down the hole in the floor until he's done. Last bucketful, he takes the shovel with him. On his knees, he reaches through the opening in the floorboards, pushes the dirt back in under the floor, out of sight. Next he throws the bucket and shovel back under. Now, some confusion. First the table. Flipped and dragged, it almost covers the hole. Next he pulls down the shelf, uses it to cover most of the busted window. Like someone holed up inside would do.
Now, outside. Got all those tracks back an forth. From behind his saddle, he unties, takes down, unrolls his trail blanket. Starting at the hole, he makes his way backwards to the shack, working the blanket like a big broom, obliterating the footprints. Satisfied, he shakes it out, rolls, ties it again back of the saddle.
Sorry, fella. He swings up into the saddle. Gotta put you t' work.
Round the shack again and again, spiraling outward, ten yards past the hideyhole, then back, forth, in, out, every direction. Hoofprints everywhere.
Now some false trails. He looks at the sun in the west, calculates. Maybe another hour. Goes inside for rifle and canteen. Could be he figured wrong. Never know. Might need them. Could be they arrive sooner. He slides the rifle back in its scabbard, slings the canteen over the saddle horn. He strikes out to one side of the shack. Staying line of sight with the big mesquite bush, he moves away. Several hundred yards out, he dismounts. Drops reins.
Good boy. Don't move now.
Another hundred yards, walking. There's a piece of luck. A gully, hard pan, difficult to track a man on. He walks down into it, then another twenty paces. Far enough. Walking backwards now, in between the prints made walking out, he uses his hands to brush away his backward steps, back to the horse. He carefully steps into the two footprints he made getting down. Saddled again, he pats the horse.
Yer a good fella. Jes a little more.
Making a wide turn, he comes back in behind the shack, until the horse's hoofprints merge with the others around the shack. Out again, other side of the shack, he does the same, going wide the other way, to come back in the same trail behind the shack.
He knows his horse is in bad shape. Lameness worse. Suffering from the sun, the heat. He lifts its head, pours some precious water from his canteen into its mouth.
OK, fella. Almost done.
He unties and unrolls the blanket, flips it up onto the low roof, one corner over the edge. Something else for them to puzzle over. What else? He dismounts at the porch, leaving no footprints on the ground. Inside, his eyes light on the chair. He chuckles.
What the hell. Might as well have some fun. Holding the chair, he hops on one leg from the porch, sets it down facing the porch, hops back on the other leg. That'll have em scratchin their heads.
Now my new sweetheart.
Inside, he unhooks the shirt, holding it at arm's length by the shirt collar. Gingerly he remounts as the bag's contents begin to stir. He feels his horse tense up as the buzzing starts.
Easy, boy, easy. Don't you spook on me now.
He waits until the rattling stops.
Spiraling out from the shack, they come to the hole on the fifth time around. Just at the entrance, still holding the shirt bag away to the side, he swings down. This time, he doesn't drop the reins, leaving them on the saddle horn. He unslings the canteen, lays it down. He unsheathes the rifle, leans it against the bush. Still holding the shirtbag out away, he rests its weight for a moment on the ground. Gently with his free hand, he pulls the horse's head over against his own.
Y'done all a man could ask. Gotta apologize, all that cussin. Not yer fault.
Moving back, he reaches over, slaps its rump.
Now git some rest!
The horse limps away to the shaded east side of the shack.
He moves the bush, enough to crawl in backwards, shirt bag still at arm's length, rifle in other hand. In the hole, he sets the rifle down, reaches out, brings in the canteen. He smoothes over the footprints at the entrance with one hand, the other still occupied with the shirt holding the snake. He pulls the bush over his hideout, shrugs the snake out of the shirt. It wriggles into the shade of the bush, coils up just past the entrance. He pulls the shirt in, unknots, folds it, rests the rifle on it, just inside.
OK. Let em come.
It's hard going, getting out his chaw. Damn! Mighty confined in here. Wish I'd a thought to put it in my shirt pocket. Not that back pocket where he'd stuck it. Finally he digs it out. Almost broke a sweat. He settles into it, working up some juice, spits carefully left at the boards.
Lotsa ifs. If they don't figure it out. If they come in, don't find him, leave. If he can hide out until nightfall, new moon, just stars, might maybe make it to the canyons unseen. They'll leave his lame horse behind. Slow em down. He hopes coming back they'll take it with them. Just so's they don't shoot im.
Twenty minutes, a half hour. Horses somewhere behind him to the left, on his trail, as expected. A man calls out to the shack. Sounds long off, long range, even for a rifle. He hears hooves. Sounds like a single horse making a wide circle. Smart. He sees horse and rider left side of the shack, far off. Yep. Rider's yellin. They hit the false trail. He hears more horses, sees them ride over, still giving the shack a wide berth. Excited voices, then four ride off down the trail. Three stay behind and dismount, watching the shack. He looks over to where his horse stands in the shadows. They aint seen you yet, pal.
After a few minutes, he sees the four returning, but from behind the shack. Damn! Sure didn't take em long! Guess the foot trail didn't fool em. Least ways, horsetracks everywhere now. Shortly, all ride out of sight behind the house. Maybe now they're looking at the trail leading back in. Minutes pass. They reappear the other side. Coming across the other trail out, only two ride off, this time returning quickly. He's disappointed. Hoped for more. Not a good sign.
Now they approach closer and stop. Still a tough shot, even with a good rifle. They dismount and gather, keeping the horses between them and the shack. Voices too far to make out what they're saying.
One approaches the shack from behind the cover of his horse. The rest stay back. Horse and man stop seventy-five yards out. Safe from anyone in the shack, but not from here. He turns his head, carefully spits. Could pick him off. But then what?
The man shouts: "We know you're in there. You got nowhere to go. Tough luck, the horse."
Damn! They knew his horse was lame. Saw right through the false trails. He shakes his head, turns, spits again. Gotta be a tracker!
"Come out now, an we won't shoot. No way to fight yer way outta here. You aint got a chance. Standin trial's better'n gettin shot down like a dog."
Silence. Then, "Suit yerself. We ain't gonna wait for dark, so's you can sneak on outta there."
The man turns, yells to the others, "Come on, boys, like we planned."
Addressing the shack again, the man yells, "Start shootin, don't care you shoot one a us or not, you aint gonna die easy!"
He watches the others saddle up, spreading out to encircle the shack. Three move out of sight behind him. The ones he can still see begin coming in, walking their horses, using them for cover. The same distance out as the first, they all stop. He knows the three he can't see must be doing the same. "Last chance!" the first man yells. A short wait. Then, "OK, boys!"
He marks their weapons, their outfits, the four he can see. That first un now, givin orders. Town-dressed, but nuthin fancy. Maybe sheriff. Left an right, coupla cowpokes. All three, rifles over saddles, pointed at the shack. The other on the left, town clothes, pistol. Lookin mighty antsy. Comes to a shootout, he's last.
They start angling in left to right. He hears a horse coming up from the left behind him. He sees the last two, left and right now. Two more cowboys, two more rifles. Whoa! He looks again at the one on the right, half-hidden behind his pinto. Halfbreed! Gotta be the tracker! Maybe a Paiute?
Just to his left, the last horse and man move into view in front of him, so close he catches his breath. Short. Pudgy. Suit pants, fancy shirt soaked with sweat. No cowboy. Card dealer or piano player, more like it. Face white as his shirt. Barely able to reach over the saddle seat with his pistol, hand shaking so hard. Only a few feet away . . .
A poke with the rifle barrel, thinking better of it soon as he does it. The rattler, still coiled up under the bush outside the entrance, shakes its rattles. The horse spooks. The man fires wildly at the bush, but the shots go wide. Suddenly shots from all sides at the shack, some going high, zipping past shooters on the other side. More shots. Yelling. More. Finally: "Goddamit! Cease fire!" From the fellow who was maybe the sheriff. Silence. "Anyone shot? No? Can someone tell me what damn fool shot first? I know it didn't come from in there!"
"Me, sheriff. Snake! Sorry!" From the fellow directly in front of him now, still struggling to rein in his jumpy horse.
"Goddamit, Charles! Everybody reload! Don't shoot 'less you see that sonovabitch. Fer godsake, don't shoot each other!"
Shakes his head. Fool thing to do. Stupid. Coulda been found out. Lucky that tinhorn caint shoot straight. Took an awful chance. Coulda just got the drop on the fool, took his horse an took off. Let em chase me to the canyons! Mighta made it.
He marks how the Paiute was the only one who didn't panic, didn't shoot.
Smart injun. Don't waste a bullet. Gotta worry bout you.
All he can do now is sit and watch. Seems like forever, but they finally get to the shack, send the Paiute inside. He comes out, shakes his head. Two stand outside while the others go in. They'll be checking under the floorboards, probably have the Paiute crawl below looking for him. Outside again, and one is pointing at the blanket, pulling it down. They're walking all around. Good! Muddy the waters! But that damn Paiute picks out his footprints, following them out to the chair and back. Gesturing to the sheriff. Now hopping out to the chair on one foot, hopping back on the other. More gestures. All of them standing around now. Have to chuckle at that.
He considers his chances. Shoot the Paiute first, maybe the sheriff an a cowboy next, fore they take cover.
Shoot any that go fer the horses. Then shoot the horses, 'cept one 'sides his own. Ferget the tinhorn and other
town fella an their pistols. Leaves jes one, two others t' worry bout. Sundown comin soon, odds're good I git outta this.
He considers it. Considers the killing he'd have to do. Lord knows I don't like killin. Not hosses. Not people.
One thing killin when you got no choice. Reckon this time I still got a choice.
No, he'd sit tight. Bide his time. Wait. Hope for the best.
The sheriff is gesturing, pointing to different men. They saddle up, except the Paiute. Guess he's gonna look around some more. The six others ride off in pairs spiraling out from the shack, looking for sign. How long before they return? The Indian walks his pinto over to join the other horse in the shade. Watching the Paiute, he nods approvingly, turns his head and spits again. A good horse, that pinto. More than he had hoped for.
Rifle in hand, the Paiute walks around the shack for several minutes, studying the ground. He steps up on the porch, then inside. After a few minutes, he comes out, walks out to the chair, sits, rifle across his lap, facing the shack.
Good. Others maybe a good mile away now.
The Paiute stands, slowly turns, cataloguing every detail in the landscape. He stops turning. Stares at the mesquite bush, maybe figures it out. Too late. Even from fifty yards, he hears the hammer click. Just the slightest movement in the bush, but now he sees the glint of the rifle barrel protruding from the bottom branches, pointing straight at him.
"Move a goddam inch an yer dead. Y' hear me?" A nod. No fear in his face or frame, but the Paiute remains motionless. "Do what I say an maybe I don't shoot you an ride off on yer horse right now. Drop the rifle." He does. "Turn around." He does. "Now get up on that chair." He does. "Stay like that. Do sumthin I don't like, I shoot you dead. Nod yer head, so I know you got all that!" He does. "OK, then."
One eye on the Indian, he pokes the rifle barrel at the snake. It rattles.
He pokes again. Reluctantly it uncoils, moving away from the shelter of the
bush. He crawls out, canteen and shirt in left hand, rifle butt tucked under his right arm, hand cradling the trigger guard. He stands. Stretches. Takes a deep breath. Turns his head and spits. Shifts the rifle, tucks it under his left arm, takes out his colt.
"I'm comin over. You stay up there. OK? Nod." He does.
He keeps a bead on the Paiute all the while it takes to get the dropped rifle. Has him take the chair out another fifty feet from the shack, far from any cover, and stand on it again facing away. He checks out the saddle on the pinto. It'll do. In short order, he has his own saddle bags on the pinto, his rifle scabbard tied down alongside the Indian's, both rifles sheathed, the blanket that had been lying in the dirt, now shaken out, rolled and tied behind the saddle.
Before swinging up, he warns the Paiute: "This hoss gives me any trouble, I won't think twice bout shootin you, so don't try nuthin. OK? Nod." The Paiute has remained motionless and silent the entire time. He nods again.
Saddled, he walks the Paiute a mile out toward the canyons, following on the pinto. Finally he tells him to stop. The Paiute stops, waits. He takes the horse wide around and then turns to face the Indian, who remains motionless. He leans down. "I don't aim t' shoot you. An not jes cuz they'd hear it. I seen you before. Got yer own place outside of town. Nice little valley. Be obliged fer the loan of yer hoss an rifle. Ain't no thief. Jes mean to borrow em fer a while. Now that hoss back there at the shack, he's a good hoss. Jes needs care an rest. You take care of him, fix im up. I'll be back, an we'll trade. You'll git yers back. Saddle, rifle too. I find y'ain't got my hoss no more, spect I'll keep yourn. You keep quiet now. Start hollerin so's they come ridin back in fore I git clear, fer sure I will come back an shoot you. Don't want that. Won't do it less'n I have to. We clear on this?" The Paiute nods. "Wal, alright then. When yer friends come back, tell 'em how I coulda shot you dead, or tied you up an put a knife to you. Coulda shot any of you back there or back on the trail. Got nuthin against you. Nuthin against them. You tell em to go home. Track me, by god, I'll kill you soon as spit. Tell 'em they follow, I kill whoever's ridin point. An if they still wanna follow, I kill the next. OK? You tell 'em. Nod yes." The Paiute nods.
He straightens up, and moves off at a trot, looking back now and then over his shoulder. The Paiute never moves. Finally, he goes over a rise, and looking back a last time, no longer sees the Indian.
He clucks, almost spurs the pinto, thinks better of it. Paiute had no spurs. He clucks again, leaning forward, pressing in with his knees. The pinto breaks into a gallop. He puts a few more miles between him and the shack, then slows to a trot again. He calculates two hours or less to the canyons, another hour into them before he can safely rest.
Glad it worked out. Enough killing that morning. No choice. But it still weighs on him hard. Weeks or months before he gets his head round what he'd done that morning. He tells himself again: No choice.
The next few days, he circles back at intervals, watches his backtrail. No one. He heads west.
Next year, come back, git my hoss. Nobody lookin fer me by then. Fer now, gotta put some miles between me an trouble. Maybe I'll git t' see California after all.
A longtime Greenwich Village resident, Gordon writes and performs poetry, songs and monologues at spoken
word events in the NYC metropolitan area. He has also authored several short stories and a play, Monologues
from the Old Folks Home, produced 8 times at various Manhattan venues. Gordon has hosted many readings
celebrating famous poets and writers (especially the beat generation), and for several years has held a
"Remembrances of 9/11" reading in September. He does English translations and subtitles for Peruvian
photographer/filmmaker, Luis Salcedo and collaborated with him on a trilingual book for young adults.
To contact Gordon: email@example.com
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The Preacher of Dry Gulch
by Grant Guy
Dry Valley was not big on God. The townsfolk had nothing against God but He served little purpose in the day-to-day struggle in their lives. Often they had to commit unbelievable sins just to survive and did not want to be reminded on how wretched they were. But the hard-working folks of Dry Valley were big on preachers. In the western desert town of two hundred and thirty-two people there were one more preacher than there were a sheriff, teacher and undertaker combined. The preachers were a source of entertainment with grand sweeping stories of heroism, blood baths and sex without moralizing.
Once a preacher died he was buried in Final Rest Cemetery and quickly forgotten. Within days a new preacher would arrive in town with a dog eared Bible in their hands.
Dry Valley was far off the beaten path of travelling theatre troupes of bombastic orators and scantily clad actresses and lectures of erudition. A few years back Mark Twain lectured and regaled at Cimarron but no earnest persuasion would convince him to come to Dry Valley. Being inventive and desperate sort for entertainment to wash the dry sand off existence of their sweaty lives the citizens of Dry Valley offered a fifteen percent tithe from each citizen to the preacher who hung up a shingle. A church and a home were provided. The number of preachers at any one time was four. Preaching hours were eleven, twelve thirty, two o'clock and three thirty. The preachers were weekly entertainment, and if they could sing the vivaldis all the better.
The most revered preacher in Dry Valley was Reverend Ron Jenkins. He was a fierce proponent of the law "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword." His sermons overflowed with shootouts, lynchings, fornicating women and brave heroes. His language was crisp and graphic describing in detail the rotting bodies hanging from a tree. In his sermons the parishioner could almost hear an ear or moustache fall off the body and plop on the ground.
On the morning of July 26, 1875 the Reverend set out on Sunday morning from his ranch, a five miles west of town, for his simple church situated next to the funeral home. The Reverend loved the irony. Dry Valley appeared a speck in the far distance as he looked out from the bench of his buckboard. He whipped the reins, and the horses neighed and jerked forward. A taupe plume of dry dust spit out from under the rear wheels. On Sundays he set aside enough time to reach church to finalize his sermon. The two hours before the service were the most thoughtful and meditative of the week. What he did not expect on this Sunday was for his past to catch up to him.
He had only steered his buckboard a half mile when he hard the distinctive pop of gunfire. He turned his around to look back and saw five saddled horses standing outside his ranch house. He could match the horses with their riders. Something in his body told him what was happening was bad. He quickly spun his buckboard in a half circle and raced back toward the ranch house. As he pulled his buckboard up he saw two men dragging his wife out of the ranch house and another two dragging his son and daughter out by their legs. Their cries of help cut the air like a knife. His wife and children were flung onto the ground. A tall man stepped out the front door removed his Colt from his holster and fired two bullets each into the wife and children. The man laughed.
Without clearly seeing his face of the killer the Reverend knew him. It was Ace McBurton, a rustler and outlaw the Reverend rode with over a decade ago. Fourteen years earlier McBurton and his gang of bad men stole and killed across the southwest. Other outlaws avoided McBurton's barbarous heart. The day Reverend slipped away from the gang of cursing outlaws was a starless night. When McBurton discovered the Reverend had vamoosed he added two and two together and got three. The sacks of gold stolen from the mining camp were gone. He pointed his stubby finger at the Reverend. His rash accusation failed to notice Phil Seymour was also gone.
For the next twelve years, between rustling and holdups, McBurton kept an ear to the ground, and his heart forged with acid revenge honed to sniff out the Reverend and have him pay the ultimate price for the betrayal.
McBurton and his men, being men they were, stood in front of the ranch house, killing the Reverend's wife and children, did not notice the Reverend 's arrival. The Reverend was a man of the Logos, he found his six-shooter, a tool of his previous life, useful in welding the Logos with fire and brimstone. The revengeful god earned more applause from his congregation than the namby-pamby words of a merciful god.
And the tools would come in handy now. The Reverend pulled his widow maker from under his mourning coat and moved as quiet as a revenging ghost. When only a few feet away the Reverend called out,
As McBurton swung around he was hit with a bullet to the heart. His lifeless body crumpled to the ground. Four more shots tore from his gun. McBurton's men fell one by one. The Reverend thought there was some poetry in what he had done. He paused briefly, after killing the five men before he looked up at the sun.
"I better hurry or I'll be late for the service."
The scavengers smiled, thankful of their plenty.
Grant Guy is a Winnipeg, Canada, poet, writer and playwright. His poems, short stories, essays and art
criticism have been published in Canada, the United States, Nigeria, Wales, India and England. He has
three books published: Open Fragments (Lives of Dogs), On the Bright Side of Down, and Bus Stop Bus Stop
(Red Dashboard). His plays include A.J. Loves B.B., Song for Simone, and an adaptation of Paradise Lost
and the Grand Inquisitor. He was the 2004 recipient of the MAC's 2004 Award of Distinction and the 2017
recipient of the WAC's Making A Difference Award.
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by Brian J. Buchanan
Things were looking bad. The horse-thief gang that T.L. was in, Gates's, had poached on the territory of another gang. Gates's gang of five had corralled their stolen stallions and mares in a small abandoned town they didn't know the name of in southwestern New Mexico, in 1881. Whatever townsfolk had been there fled when Gates's gang came thundering in towing a dozen horses by the reins. And within an hour here came the other gang over the hill, in a rising wind.
There was no negotiation. T.L.'s gang was outnumbered two-to-one in the big showdown gunfight. A lot of running around and shooting. One of theirs fell, but that was the extent of T.L.'s gang's success. T.L.'s leader, Gates, went down first next to a drinking trough. T.L. holed up in the general store, glass shattering left and right, and before he got the door closed the next thing he knew was nothing—black.
When T.L. awoke, bloody, the sun was going down red in gray streaks of clouds. He lay on the floorboards of the general store. As near as he could figure, he had fallen and caught the side of his head on a nail on the wall. That accounted for the blood, on his face and wall and floor. He could find no other wound. Checking himself over, he found that his left boot-heel had a bullet in it. It must have been what knocked him off his feet.
T.L. saw a dozen bullet holes in the wall. The one in his heel may have saved him, taking him down, the blood from the nail convincing the other gang that he was dead.
He crawled slowly out of the general store. His guns and ammunition had been taken. So had his horse and saddlebag with the thieving money. Silence, breeze, tumbleweeds. A man lay dead to his right, one of his friends, Les. T.L. took Les's flat-brimmed black hat. It was a good one. Somehow T.L. had lost his hat in the confusion. All his other friends were dead in the dirt and on the walk, in various poses, some hellish, some sleep-like. The one dead opponent, left behind, was also stripped of guns, bullets and anything else valuable.
T.L. headed into the saloon and found two loaded pistols behind the bar. He hefted them as he drank a shot of whiskey, then another. Tumbleweeds blew past. It had never been much of a town—no church, no theater, no schoolhouse, as far as he could tell from the look of the buildings. As T.L. washed his face in a basin of unclean water he heard hoofbeats.
A rider in a white hat approached on a spotted gray horse, rode up to the saloon, tied his horse to the rail, and entered the saloon, gun drawn. Crouching behind the bar, heart pounding, T.L. aimed at the man's gun hand as he came through the doors. His shot hit him in the gut instead.
Dust blew in from the street onto the man's face. T.L. went to him.
"I was trying to shoot the gun out of your hand," T.L. said. "I didn't mean to get you so bad."
The man breathed shallowly, past answering. T.L. scrambled back behind the bar for a shot of whiskey to give him but by the time he returned the man was dead.
T.L. pulled the saddlebag off the white-hatted stranger's horse and found a few dollars in cash, some bread and sausage, some wrapped cheese, several cheroots, matches, a letter from a sweetheart, postmarked San Francisco, and a paper containing what looked like a safe combination. He found the safe in a back room, tried the numbers, and found $28,000 in cash and several silver bars.
Sitting down next to the safe in a near faint, T.L. listened for what he assumed would be the inevitable arrival of other hostile forces. None came. He felt in desperate need of a cheroot and grabbed one from the stranger's saddlebag.
The smoke from the cheroot drifted slowly down the now windless street. Cheap as the cigar was, it tasted good. T.L. looked back at the saloon. Under the swinging doors he could see the dead man's boots. He let out an involuntary oath, dragged hard on the cheroot until it was down to his fingers. He pitched it into the dust.
His left boot, T.L. noticed with annoyance, didn't walk right with the bullet in it. The heel seemed about to fall off. He tried on the stranger's boots, found they fit all right. T.L. put everything into the stranger's saddlebag and checked the canteen on the horse. It was full of water. As he started to ride away, T.L. pulled up, went back, dismounted, and tied his old boots onto the horse.
Feeling like a god with the cash and silver, T.L. galloped north. He yelled into the arid New Mexico air. He hardly knew what to think, let alone what to do next. At age fifteen he had ridden out from Nebraska, a middle child of eight, having slipped away from a father who rode fences and wasn't around much and a mother overwhelmed with care. He was not much missed, except for the help his father had expected on the range.
Some days later, with the sun long down, it was getting cold; time to make camp. This was rough, wild, stony country, massive tall stones and rough going, not much of what you could call a trail. T.L. was tired. The sagebrush fire took quickly. He added stray twigs and a substantial clump of branches, ate some of the white-hatted stranger's bread and sausage, drank from a whiskey bottle taken from the saloon, then a little water.
As he began to doze off, leaning against a high rock face, T.L. sensed the presence of someone. His eyes popped open to find an Indian, approaching on foot, hands raised as T.L. fumbled for a pistol.
The Indian, possibly Navajo, T.L. thought, pointed to the fire, then to his woven bag, then to his sheathed knife. He squatted and offered the knife to T.L., who from some instinct of hospitality or politeness shook his head. The Navajo seemed to be on the run from someone, kept looking around, listening into the dark. He set the knife on the ground just out of easy reach. T.L. watched closely as the Navajo brought out flatbread, tore off a chunk and offered it. The air had become quite cold. The Navajo pointed again to the fire. T.L. threw on more branches, accepted the flatbread, offered in return sausage, cheese and bread from the saddlebag, water from the canteen. The Navajo ate and drank sparingly and wrapped himself in a large, rough blanket that hung from his shoulder. Talk proved useless; they could not understand each other. The Navajo lay down near the fire.
Near dawn T.L. awoke with a start, angry with himself at having nodded off with a potential murderous enemy nearby. The Navajo was gone. In a panic T.L. pawed through the saddlebag but found nothing missing.
Weeks passed. T.L. reached San Francisco, lodged in a hotel room, found a nearby bar, ordered whiskey. After one sip he sat motionless for a half-hour.
"I didn't mean to kill him," he mumbled.
That drew the bartender over.
"Did you want another? You've barely touched that one."
T.L. bolted the whiskey and said "yes." A piano played in the background, a new tune T.L. had never heard.
"I killed a man and didn't mean to," he said, as the bartender handed him his second whiskey and wiped the counter.
"Did you go to the police?"
"The police? This was way down in New Mexico. Way down. Now I have his money, or somebody's money."
T.L. drained the second whiskey. The bartender slid a bottle in front of him.
"Run you a tab?"
"You know," said the bartender, "one time a man came in here, ordered whiskey, drank it slowly, and after an hour signaled me over, beckoned me close, and said, 'I've just been stabbed. I don't know what to do.' I said, 'We can send for a doctor.' 'No,' he said, 'no doctor. Too many questions.' I said, 'Doctors usually don't ask questions.' He said, 'Are there women upstairs?' I sent him to Agnes, who's the kind one. He went up. She cleaned his wound and said he should still see a doctor. The man left and I don't know what happened after that."
"Is Agnes still up there?" T.L. asked.
T.L. went up. Agnes was occupied so he waited. When he got in to see her he told her the whole story.
"You were defending yourself," she said.
"I thought I was. But I had the drop on him. I could have just told him to put down the gun. Instead I shot him."
"You were aiming at his gun."
"That's what I keep telling myself."
Silence followed. T.L. sat in the only chair in the small room, a rickety wooden thing at the foot of the bed. Agnes was pretty, in a haggard sort of way. He had no desire for her.
"Would this make you feel better?" Agnes matter-of-factly opened her blouse, then took it off. Her body was not all that attractive to T.L., but still, it was a young woman's body. His desire stirred a bit.
"No," he said.
"I don't know what to tell you," she said.
"You can't be expected to tell me anything."
"You'll be all right. I still have to charge you. For the time."
He nodded, paid her and left.
T.L. banked the money, invested with great luck, given his lack of experience, became quite wealthy. His wealth gathered him friends. He showed them his boot-heel with the bullet still in it, told his story again and again until he grew sick of it.
When he decided he needed a lawyer to oversee his affairs, T.L. walked into a law office at random, without appointment, demanded the most experienced lawyer in the firm, and was shown in to the office of Cullen Alfred Porter. Porter's gray hair satisfied T.L. on the score of experience. For some minutes T.L. sat staring across the desk. Porter let him sit, in no hurry to rush the business, whatever it was. Porter saw a man thin of face, gray-eyed, with thin brown hair.
"I have some money and silver," T.L. said. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"I'd prefer you didn't. We can go outside and talk, if you'd like."
"No, I want it private, in here. I want to open an account."
"I'm sure that can be arranged. How much money are we talking about?"
The amount surprised Porter. He was old-fashioned and had qualms about the source of the cash and silver. It was, after all, 1881, and there was a lot of funny business going on out West. T.L.'s clothes were clearly brand-new. Was the money from a bank robbery? Porter's questions were delicate. T.L.'s tale emerged only gradually as he and Porter began to work out his affairs, his facial expressions showing something proud yet lost at the same time. Certain looks, Porter noticed, suggested a strange combination of defiance and shame. T.L. had raised himself up out of horse thievery—or rather he had been raised out of it by chance, Porter saw. Chance and more than a hint of dishonor, making him feel a fraud, but a fraud with means. And he was spooked by the killing.
Cullen Porter came to sympathize with T.L. and urged him to read and gain some education, which he did, largely by reading Washington Irving, mainly Irving's writings on the prairie, and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, especially The Prairie, and the local newspapers. Then T.L. started to drink heavily and went back to that first Frisco saloon he'd visited and tried to woo the prostitute Agnes into marriage. Only with difficulty did Porter steer him away from Agnes, who was far from sure she wanted T.L., toward a reasonably suitable girl of modest means. Her name was Maud. T.L. sobered up to some degree, they married, had four children— who, along with his wife, found T.L. distant and distracted.
"I never knew a thing about him," T.L. would say over and over in Porter's office downtown. "I told him I didn't mean to kill him. I told him. I told him."
At times in the middle of discussing something else, T.L. would gaze out Porter's office window at the broad waters of the bay and say, "I could have told him to drop it. But I didn't. I didn't know what he'd do when surprised. Still, I could have told him to drop it."
"Listen to me," Porter would say. "What's done is done. For all you know, he might have shot you—probably would have. It was apparently his saloon, but we don't know that for sure. Anyway, it's over. This is where you are now. There's nothing you can do about it. You're providing for your family."
Shortly after this T.L. remembered the letter in the white-hatted man's saddlebag. He still had it, unread. It was addressed to a Frank Stilwell at a hotel in Durango, Colorado. It lacked a return address. With trembling fingers T.L. opened it.
Please be careful when you go to Gila Piedras. Have some men with you. I know the money is important but I wish you wouldn't go. I pray for you every day. I love you so much and look forward to our marriage.
Ever yours in love,
The letter still did not prove that the man owned the saloon, Porter pointed out. If it was his saloon, wouldn't he have memorized the combination to the safe? Why commit it to paper? In any case, the letter haunted T.L. He wanted to find this Rachel, but without a last name any such search was bound to be fruitless. Still, T.L. asked Porter to make inquiries, and T.L. himself asked around in the saloons, hoping to locate Rachel and make some sort of amends.
They never found her. T.L. became moodier, at times over-excited, fulminating in Porter's law office.
"That damned Indian could have taken everything, including the horse! Could have killed me or not, but taken everything!"
Porter thought, Some people just don't get over things. That one miserable bullet in his heel was his mark of destiny.
One day in 1886 T.L. was at the opera with his wife. By chance one of his mistresses, unknown to his wife, happened to sit down next to him. As both wife and mistress leaned in simultaneously to speak to T.L., he stood up, said "Excuse me," and left the opera. Neither woman ever saw him again. The next morning T.L. was waiting at Porter's law office when it opened and announced to Porter that he was going on a trip. This was after he had arranged his will.
"Now, what is this trip all about?" Porter asked him.
"Just something I have to do."
He wrote from Gila Piedras some weeks later.
Not much here. General store, saloon, all gone, all different. A few people recall something about a big shootout long since but no details. I'm going to try to find my old homestead in Nebraska now, where I grew up.
He didn't have much success there, either. No cabin stood where his family's had. Nobody remembered his family's name. Seven brothers and sisters in his family and not one traceable. One last letter to Porter didn't say where he planned to go next.
A few months later, Porter received a visit from T.L.'s wife, Maud. She had a letter from the coroner in St. Louis. She seemed more resigned than sorrowful. T.L. had died "in a public establishment," apparently of heart trouble. At least his family was well provided for.
"I don't know what he thought he was doing," Porter told a colleague. "He had a life here in San Francisco. Maybe he was trying to fix in his mind where he'd come from and how he got to where he was, locate some people who could tell him a little more about all of it. I don't know. T.L. was not an intelligent man," Porter said, "but he seemed to be trying to put something together."
On the day that Maud came in to wrap up the will with Cullen Porter, she brought the boot. Porter was taken aback, seeing it, the actual life-saving, fatal artifact of T.L.'s life. He could see the bottom of the bullet almost an inch inside the heel.
"T.L. kept this," Maud said. "I don't want it."
Brian J. Buchanan is a writer in Nashville, Tenn. His reviews, essays, poems, and short stories have appeared or will
appear in Crannog, Chronicles, The Westchester Review, Literary Matters, Modern Age, Cumberland River Review, Potomac
Review, Puckerbrush Review, the Nashville Tennessean, and elsewhere. Buchanan was named co-winner of the 2017
Meringoff Fiction Award from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers for his short story, "Wisdom
Teeth." The award judge was Brad Leithauser.
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Revenge for Garret Byrne
by Tom Sheehan
On the gray, dull morning of April 6, 1878, in the Wyoming town of Westlynne on a crude gallows made overnight by a couple of drinking patrons pulled from the Wild Horse Saloon by the sheriff, young Garret Byrnes was hung and left on the rope until the coffin maker finished his assigned task. It took several hours for that job to get completed.
The sheriff, Corpus Chrysler, had arrested Byrnes the week before for the murder of a young lady Byrnes had been seeing against her father's wishes. The case was presented to a hastily drawn court and a most curious judge who had been en route to another town, evidence presented, and the jury of townsfolk, in a rapid decision, declared him guilty on the basis of the father's evidence, and other supposed eye witness accounts.
All participants, except Byrnes, retired immediately to the saloon and spent the latter part of the day with free drinks provided by the girl's father, celebrating the verdict as the chief witness in the case.
Byrnes did not kill his sweetheart, which you all must understand from this moment, from here at the outset of this chronicle. The young man had never aimed a gun at any man, or woman, in his life, never mind pulling the trigger on them. He was as innocent as a babe on an Indian cradle board.
In his last words, speaking after the verdict was delivered, Byrnes said, "I admit I only did two good things in my life. One was to break the wildest horses you can imagine, the whole lot of you," said as he looked directly at the jury and then at the rest of the congregation from the town, "and I loved MaryGrace Bartlett as she will never be loved again in this poor life."
It seemed it was all over at that point, records show, except he had one more thing to add to his last words. At that particular moment few of those in attendance were paying much attention to him; it was over and done with and he might cry and wail all the way to the rope, but they'd be busy otherwise.
Byrnes, in a subdued voice that the judge heard clearly along with a few of the jurors and the sheriff himself, said, "My brothers will come looking for me. You will answer to them, for me and for MaryGrace." Those last words were delivered directly to Mel Bartlett, sitting in the first row between two of his hired hands. The man had shown little remorse for the death of his daughter.
A long time after Garret Byrnes was hung, left for hours on the rope, and buried outside town, and long after his final words had been swept into far yesterday, a rider came into town on a gray stallion that was as big as any horse in town. The man, perhaps in his mid-30s, a decent looking man with a chiseled face, cheeks that seemed to wear the sun in them, and a soft but steady voice, rented a room for a week at the Harmony Hotel above the Wild Horse Saloon. The room looked out over much of Westlynne and presented a view of the white capped peaks in the distant range where the morning sun would rise in stark contrast.
The rider said he was an advance man for the railroad company.
All that late afternoon a handful of townsfolk noticed him sitting at the window of his room, looking down on the town, and then looking off to the mountains in the distance, as though he was committing both scenes to memory, possibly setting up a route of railroad tracks firmly in his mind . . . around a rim of the mountains, down along the river, and out onto the wide grass coming up against Westlynne.
In reality, Corbett Wilson, as he had registered in the hotel book, was getting a feeling about the town that had hung his kid brother.
Two nights later, after several incidents in the town and at the Wild Horse Saloon, the sheriff said to him. "You come with a lot of trouble in your saddle bags, mister. You're running the plow low and the land's all gone dry around you."
Wilson, who had raised some agitation with certain people over past incidents, said, "This is a town born for trouble, Sheriff, and most of it hasn't come by yet."
Sheriff Chrysler realized it was more a threat than an off-hand remark; he'd found a load of sincerity in Wilson's tone and in his eyes when they closed down. They made him wonder what the young man was seeing in the back of his mind, what images clawed for attention.
"How come you keep asking questions all over town, Wilson, getting people upset about old stuff? Let's face it, we grow so fast here, like your railroad coming along some day, that history gets left behind in a big hurry. Nothing much in the past can help us today. We got to ride and rope and dig our way every day. It's dirty work. It's hard work."
"You're not kidding it's dirty work, Sheriff, and there's a whole lot more coming this way. There's more than a loud steam engine coming down the line. You can bet the pot on that."
It wasn't the image that had collared Wilson's mind, for there had come to him the words spoken at a line camp not more than a month earlier:
The day's work was done. Loose cattle run into a box canyon. Breaks in a fence fixed. A fire lit outside the canyon as the stars began to appear, the brightest one coming first and low on the horizon. The hired cowpokes talking around the fire, the coffee pot set for pouring. Corporal Jameson, an old hand for the ranch, said, "This is the end of it. The boss is makin' one more drive and then sellin' out to Purdy. He's going back to Chicago before they have to ship him back, like that kid I heard of up in Westlynne who got hung for killin' the girl he loved, but some people I know don't think he did it. They buried him on boot hill 'cause they didn't know where he was from. Was kinda close-mouthed, as I heard it. They left him for a couple of hours hangin' there, on the rope, like he was a bounty critter. Could have been all day for that matter, far as I know.'Magine that, hangin' like a pelt in the sun and no one to cut him down, them folks all drinkin' in the saloon. Don't say much for dyin' there, even if no place is good for dyin'."
"You hear the kid's name?"
"All I heard was 'Garret' and don't know anything else, like if it was first name or last, but maybe he was about 22. Yup, maybe 22 and a good looking kid the girl loved. Oh, yuh," he added, "they said he could break horses like he was born for it."
He had summed up a life.
"No," the other man had quickly said. "Not 22. Only 20." And he left the fire and got his saddle and his horse and left the line camp.
All the events of that sad and gruesome day of the past had been relayed to him by a few more friends at the ranch and out on the trail. He had started out for Westlynne in the early hours of the following morning.
On the way he turned over a lot of things on his mind, and recollected the special ones, all the way back to his early days.
"There's always tendin' to be done," their father had said. He'd said it at a hundred campfires on the drives, a hundred times in the kitchen around the old iron stove or the stone fireplace, both giving off the crackling sounds of wood popping and splitting from its own heat.
"There's always tendin' to be done. You always owe somebody in this life, from your mother's first pains, to those who ran you right into this day." He was a big man, raised on hard work, his hands and shoulders and forearms showing what they had reaped from his labors. A hard, square firmness sat about him as he talked, as if to say, "You better believe what I'm sayin', 'cause I've been where you're goin' and it ain't easy gettin' there."
He'd pause to look into the eyes of his sons, like a doom master was afoot in the firelight, and carry on with his message.
"Don't forget who gave you a hand, who gave you a lift when it was needed. They could've kept goin' wherever and left you lookin', so don't forget none of them when it comes to tendin'. They made the difference. And it binds us like the best leather made, like the best rope we can twist."
Once arrived in Westlynne the first move Corbett Wilson had decided on was to take a look at Mel Bartlett's ranch, and make Bartlett and those around him think the railroad was coming across their grass. The land was already changing; and it would change some more. The railroads were seeing to that all over the country, and heading all the way to the Pacific and the coastal states beyond the mountains.
Bartlett, being introduced, said, "My foreman says you want to look over my ranch. That you're a railroad man coming ahead of the tracks, looking for the best place to put them down. We've been waiting a long time for some railroad action out this way. We knew it was coming sometime after we heard rumors and whispers coming down the range. Just had to come. Glad you came by. I'll be very interested if the proposition is right." His smile was a thorough one, coming on like it was lard in the skillet, setting the pace for cooking.
Wilson, still in the saddle, his face posed at quizzical, said, "Are all your papers in good order? Your claim? The land office records you're supposed to have on hand? I can't work without them being in good order. I can't make an offer if there's any doubt. Too many places around here are looking for a chance to get the railroad across their spread. They know what changes will come to them. I'm sure you understand that."
"No problem," Bartlett said. "Everything is tight as a noose. No loop holes. Cinched true and tight. All the signatures in place and been there for a spell." There was an instant pause in his voice. "Or the one signature that's really needed, my daughter's when she signed the place over to me. It had been her mother's place."
"Oh," Wilson said, more puzzled than before. "How did she get it? Inherit it? Buy it? Win it in a card game?"
"Hell, no," Bartlett said. "That woman was a damned Apache I had to take the strap to a few times. Straighten her out. Get her in order. But she'd been married before." He shook his head with a quizzical shake. "Why I married that woman I'll never know. Well, I can say she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw, Indian or no Indian. Apache or no Apache. As beautiful as they can come to a tribe. And I stole her from some kind of chief, from what I heard. Always wagging that in front of me, and trouble from the first day."
His smile was a rudimentary clue in giving away inside information, and Wilson would like nothing better than to play poker against him.
"Why'd your daughter sign them over? She sick or generous or with the family's best interests? I'd like to meet her sometime."
Bartlett wasn't about to be knocked off his stride. "She's dead," he said. "Some saddle tramp shot her one night. I never did like that prairie rat, sneaking in here at night to see her, or getting her to sneak out, but I caught them and scared him off. But he came back one night and she was out in the barn to meet him and he must have thought she was someone else and plain killed her on the spot. We grabbed him and his smoking pistol and stood up against him in court and he was hung the way he ought to be."
Wilson, showing great interest in the events, said, "You gents were right on the spot, ready to protect the ranch and all your possessions, from what I can see. That's real interesting, and you got the murderer's gun for evidence. You should be a detective or at least the sheriff. I can see that you'll protect the railroad interests out this way. I'll make sure that information gets sent along to my boss who's the one that'll make the decision on where the new tracks'll go. And he'll handle the money side of things too."
The curious railroad man said, "What does the law do with a weapon that's used in a crime, and is solid evidence? Do they put it on display? Hang it up for the whole town and any new potential killers to take a gander at and think things over before pulling the trigger? Do they make sure it gets sent to the family of the killer or sold off or what? That kind of stuff is real interesting to me."
"Oh, no," Bartlett said. "The sheriff gave it to me and I have it inside to remind me of a real bad night around here."
Wilson said, "A regular Peacemaker, I'd guess. Can always be used by someone."
"Not a Colt. No sir. It's a Remington, Army model. Sits on the shelf in the house. Keeps me aware of what's all around us."
"The killer's gun, huh?"
"That's it. That's what we call it, me and my boys."
Riding back to town, Wilson kept thinking of all the things Bartlett had said. The first one he'd talk to would be the sheriff again, but from a new angle. In town, he went right to the sheriff's office.
Corpus Chrysler, sheriff, saw Wilson coming down the street, and didn't like the feeling that had come over him since Wilson came into town. The feeling mounted as Wilson reined up in front of his office.
"I've been out to the Bartlett place, giving it the look-over and discussing the possibilities of a purchase with Bartlett. I had a good talk with him about things in general."
Wilson sat on the edge of the sheriff's desk, as much an intruder as a visitor.
Chrysler felt his nerves and muscles tighten and a ball of doubt sink low in his gut. The room seemed smaller, the walls closer than he thought. His breathing pattern unveiled a change in him and he spoke haltingly. "He tell you how they caught the killer red-handed, that Byrnes kid, a saddle tramp."
"Sure did. And he told me you gave the killer's gun to him, like a souvenir. But it was a Remington Army model and not a Colt Peacemaker, which most cowpokes carry these days."
"Yup. Least I could do with the gun that killed his girl. Besides, Byrnes had no family around here. Like I said, just a saddle tramp trying to get closer to a good grub stake for the future."
"Ever think the kid might be a relative of those Byrneses down by Cavalry Valley, the ones who own the whole valley almost? If he was he sure wouldn't need any grub stake." He shook his head in mock disgust and put another round in his irony. "You give him the killer's belt and holster, too? Those are nice presents." The facetious remark went right over the sheriff's head.
"No," Chrysler said, "not the holster or the belt. They're still hanging right there on the hook." He pointed to a belt and holster hanging on an iron hook beside a rifle rack. "Been there ever since they brought the kid in for trial. Ain't been moved."
"You sure they're the ones they brought in? "
"Damned sure. Why do you ask?"
"I can see from here, Sheriff, that that holster ain't no holster for a Remington. That's a Peacemaker holster, and that belt was made by Fitzpatrick down in Chilchester. I can tell from the work done on it."
He smiled an insider's smile, and said, "Looks just like mine, don't it?"
Standing beside the desk, he showed Chrysler his belt that was near identical to the one hanging on the iron hook. Then he turned sideways and showed him his holster. It too was a twin to the one hanging with the belt.
The air in the room changed further; it had cooled down, getting icy, but heat was rising in the sheriff's gut. It was like a branding iron had been applied to his stomach. He was slowly coming apart, for all this time he had had questions, but couldn't face up to them. Couldn't bring them to light. Now, he knew, it was all catching up to him, him and his soft stance on the murder of Bartlett's daughter. And him knowing all the time she was not Bartlett's real daughter. That fact had drawn up his interest in the beginning, but he'd let it fall to the side; it would have certainly lead to dangerous and highly unthinkable grounds.
Chrysler said, "You know more than you're letting on, don't you? You're playing with me now. I don't know a whole lot, only what was told me and said in court under oath. In front of the judge and the jury."
Wilson came right after him. "What did the kid say at the trial?"
"Said a shot came from behind him. She got hit. He yelled out that she was dead. "
Wilson continued, "Then they come up behind him? Grabbed him? Called him a murderer? Said he murdered the girl he loved? That it?"
"That's the whole of it. There were three of 'em that swore to it. Bartlett and two of his hands."
"What are their names?" Wilson's voice, the sheriff was sure, carried a threat in it if answers were not forthcoming.
"Chad Burling's the foreman," the sheriff said convincingly, like he was prodded or whipped into line. "And the other was his regular saloon sidekick with him, Hank Waitte, a big redhead and mean as they come. Appears to me to be Burling's watchdog. One of 'em's got the voice, that's Burling, but the other's got the gun, the fast gun. I seen him once on a posse, being mean as they come."
His face showed what was mounting in his stomach, coming along the route of all his nerves. And his eyes began to twitch, with the expression on his face undergoing changes, rapid changes.
Wilson read him easily, as though his cards were dealt face up, and pressure could be applied in a number of ways. He went right at him again. "You're part of it now, Sheriff. Have been since the first, but now I know, too. You're not alone in this anymore. It's just like you finally got it figured out, ain't it? And there's going to be a few trade-offs made here, between you and me. "
There had come the revelation, the opening. The wedge had been slipped into place, presenting the chance to wipe the slate. The sheriff felt better.
Not yet done and as smooth as an old prison interrogator, Wilson jumped in with the clincher, "Now's your chance to get back on the good side, Sheriff, where you should have been all the time. Both of us know the Byrnes kid didn't kill the girl he loved, but someone did and made him the only suspect. You can see now how that was arranged, can't you?"
In a move as old as forever, Wilson dropped a condescending hand on the sheriff's shoulder, locking up the new union. He made it as tight as an Indian drum when he said, "We would have been a great team right from the beginning, Sheriff, if we started out from the same stall. That's my solemn word on it."
The new tandem in the cause of Garret Byrnes cornered their first suspect in the case at the Wild Horse Saloon that evening when Hank Waitte entered and they ran him into a back room before his drinking pal showed up. Hank Waitte's bravado soon disappeared when the sheriff introduced Wilson.
"This gent's real name is Gavin Byrnes, the oldest brother of the kid who was hung for a murder he didn't commit and which was arranged by you-know-who. He's got all this written down in those papers he's writing in now. It's the whole story right up to now with only a few pieces missing and you got one chance to get a break in the whole thing. All we want to know is who planned it, who said it first, who set it up, who pulled the trigger on the Remington that was supposed to be the kid's gun, but really wasn't. And by the way, where's the kid's Peacemaker? Who took that? Where's it at now?"
Chrysler turned to Gavin Byrnes and said, "You got all that written down 'cause now we're going to get some real answers?"
The steel in Byrnes' eyes was enough for the disarmed Hank Waitte.
"Bartlett planned the whole thing," Waitte said." Faked the girl's signature on those papers of his, said he hated her and she wasn't his real daughter and knew some Indian used to slip into the barn when he wasn't around. Figured that Indian was the father, so it didn't bother him none until the railroad thing came up. And she owned the land from her mother from way back and he killed her, the mother, maybe 5 years ago. Got her caught in a rock fall that he rigged on his own. He faked the girl's signature right after she died from that shot."
Waitte was unloading years of dirty work, and Gavin Byrnes was writing it all down.
He let Waitte run his mouth.
"Bartlett knew the kid was sneaking in to visit the girl, at night, like maybe the mother's Indian friend was doing for who knows how long, and we caught them in the middle of you-know-what, in the barn. Burling shot her with a gun that Bartlett gave him, the Remington, his gun. Now Bartlett's got the kid's gun. Wears it on his own belt."
Byrnes hadn't stopped writing in the papers he had put down on a table, the lamp shining on them, where Waitte could see the load of evidence piling up, and the penitentiary coming down the line for him if he didn't get a break.
"What happens now?" Waitte said.
Gavin Byrnes said, "There's a few of the kid's brothers coming this way to straighten things out. We're going to take Garret Byrnes home after we get everything squared away. We're going to do more for this town than any railroad that might come along, but the railroad isn't coming near here anytime in the near future.
He stuffed the papers under his shirt, ready to meet his brothers and finish up some "business that needs tendin'."
Sheehan, in 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet's Wings,
Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, TQR Total Quality Reading,
Rope & Wire, etc. He's received 34 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations with one winner, other awards.
He served as a sgt. in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, graduated from Boston College 1956. His most recent
reading was about the First Iron Works in America for The Saugus Historical Society.
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Mixed Blood, Part 5 of 6
by Abe Dancer
Reba Church ran a finger along a shelf and frowned at the dust.
Watching her, McLane said, "Selwyn weren't a tidy man, but he had honest values." Reba didn't say anything, so he went on, "I'm sorry I took over out there, Reba, but Spool was lying to you. Selwyn didn't make any deal: I know how he felt about this place. There's no way he ever meant to leave it . . . except to you. That makes Spool a liar, and I couldn't let him get away with it."
Reba walked thoughtfully from the small room. Not a window in the house had curtains to keep out the harsh sunlight. The floor was rough finished planks, but she doubted if it had ever been washed down or even seen a broom. The air, even for its recent airing, was stale., The light from the window was thick with the glow of rising dust motes.
"At least I can manage the cleaning, if nothing else," she said, feeling the dirt clinging to her hair. "It won't be done overnight though."
"Does that mean you'll stay?" McLane asked intently. "Are you taking into account that outburst of mine?"
"I might stay for a month. I had no real plan to sell before I looked the place over, you know, Doc. Uncle Selwyn did write, telling me how wonderful the country was. I wasn't going to sell up before I gave the place, or me a chance. Even draper's daughters aren't that dimwitted."
"Hmm, I guess not. What about Mel then?" Doc asked, uncertainly.
Reba lifted the lid of a blanket box and fingered the contents with a glint of approval. "Selwyn didn't write me about him," she said, smiling. "I really don't know. Giving it some thought is the least I can do, though."
"Yeah, that's right, Reba," McLane responded. "I can only imagine what first impression Mel gave you, but it was me asked him to come out here. In two days he's already got the place part fixed, if you overlook the dust. And I don't think he's going off on a war dance over Miner and Casper Spool. I'd say he acted respectable-like, real committed."
"Don't get too long on your praise," Reba suggested. "He's got doubts."
McLane laughed scornfully. "Oh yeah, he's got them all right. He knows how blood spilling affects you. No, Reba. He acted just the way I thought he would. He's the man you're looking for right now."
Reba walked to the door and pushed it fully open. McLane came and stood beside her.
"Give it that month," he said encouragingly. "Whatever heaven on earth looks like, this'll be it, believe me. Casper Spool wants to annex it so bad, that must tell you its true worth. You don't have to move, Reba. You got a life right here. A good life."
"I'd be happier if you knew more about Melvin Cody," she said.
"Well he's got some rough edges, that's for sure. But you got to admit, he gets things moving. Unless there's some other problem you got concerning him, Reba?"
"I'll be out here on my own. What do you think?" Reba murmured.
McLane gulped and looked out toward the barn. "I think it's about trust and goodwill. But if it's some other feeling you're worried about, perhaps you should ride out of here right now. I'll take you back to town. You can sell up to Spool, take the coach right back home."
"Don't be annoyed, Doc," she said, lowering her head in an attempt to mask the fluster. "I just need a little more time."
"Well, Reba, I reckon that's something we're plumb out of."
Reba saw Mel come out of the barn. He led his gray to the corral where he swung up and looked toward the creek. He had a coil of wire slung across his shoulder, a hammer, nails and staples in a saddle bag.
"Give him a chance," McLane said. "He's giving you one. I mean, how much do you need to know about hired help?"
For Reba, the words stung. But McLane was already down the steps, hurrying across the yard.
* * *
McLane removed his hat, dabbed at his forehead. "I reckon I've won her round, Mel," he said guardedly. "She was worried you'd be wanting more'n wages."
Mel's eyes narrowed. "What's changed her mind?"
"I hinted at bear grease and buffalo blankets. You know, that sort of thing."
"You done me a favor then?" he said dryly.
McLane studied him for a moment then breathed a big sigh. "That's up to you. I've always believed that opportunity comes to all who work for it." The doc gestured with his hands. "So good luck. And watch out for Budge Miner. I noticed he had a hungry gleam in his eye. Even if it was a touch bloodshot."
He turned and walked away, but Mel called out, "Hey, Doc. Hold up a minute."
McLane looked back. "Yeah?"
"I don't know what you got in mind," Mel said, "but it might be best if you stayed away. Miner will make a play, and when he does, I don't want you here. But after, well, I'll be moving on. I ain't having no woman boss."
McLane gaped at him. "Why in hell not?" Her dollars are just as good as anyone else's." Then he thought for a moment. "Oh yeah, I forgot," he said, and his face crumpled into a knowing grin. "There's probably some part of you believes that womenfolk find pleasure in doing the chores. Well, suit yourself, but I reckon you got to leave that way of life behind you son, and I don't mean no offence."
"Well there's some taken, Doc." Mel said. "But it cuts both ways."
"Yeah," McLane replied a little cheerlessly."Seems you both got a lot to leave behind . . . a lot of rethinking to do." He raised a farewell hand, and went back to his rig. Clutching the reins, he watched Mel heel his gray off again, down toward the creek.
He swung the rig around outside the front of the house and called out to Reba. "You got nothing to worry about except maybe worrying. For the most part, leave him be. He'll keep his own council most of the time. If you want me for anything, you know where to find me." And with that, McLane gave the horse its head back to Polvo Gris.
* * *
As soon as Mel was out of sight, Reba walked up to the barn. She saw he had cleaned up, tidied sacks and sorted tack. The ladder to the loft had been fitted with a few new rungs and the north wall had been mended.
Looking up, she saw a shirt flapping in the breeze which came through a high window. She listened for a moment, then climbed up until she could see over the edge of the loft flooring. She saw his straw-bagged bedding, his few personal belongings in the fruit box. On top was the sash that Mel wore around his waist. Fascinated, she took another step upwards. She picked up one end of the sash, ran her thumb across the intricate, colored glass beads. She was shocked and couldn't believe that a seemingly brutal man could possibly own such an exquisite object.
Surprised at her inquisitiveness, Reba returned quickly to the yard. She looked to where Mel had been riding, then went back to the house and opened one of her two bags. She changed into working clothes and set to on the floorboards.
Mel rode into the yard at sundown. He was tired, encrusted with dried sweat and dust, but he looked quietly satisfied. From a front window where she'd been sitting for some time, Reba saw him pull off his shirt and wash himself down from the water pail outside of the barn. He seemed to glow in the yellow sunset, and for a moment she was curiously moved by the way his wet glossy hair clung to the muscles of his neck. But then she sniffed and turned away to fix up a cold supper. There was chicken, pickled eggs, cheese and a large slice of peach pie, starter foodstuff that Willow Legge had thoughtfully packed into the rig.
As darkness began to settle Reba lit an oil lamp and a string of happy jack lanterns. Instinctively, she started to set out a table, but thought better of it. Instead, she set Mel's meal on a trencher and carried it to the door.
Mel stood in the doorway of the barn, smoking. When he saw her, he tossed the cigarette aside and went forward to meet her. "I'll bring the plates back in the morning. Thank you, an' good night ma'am," he said quietly, accepting the tray.
Reba brushed a long strand of dusty hair from her face. She realized she'd not bothered to tidy herself since noon. She was still wearing the clothes she'd last worn when sweeping the stoop of her father's store in Jerome City. As Mel looked at her, she hoped the fading light would disguise the color in her cheeks.
"Thank you ma'am," Mel said again. "That's real thoughtful. Tomorrow I'll be gone early. The creek needs to be dragged off, where it's silting. If you want me, thump a stick against something. I'll here it an' come running." He smiled, then was gone and Reba returned to the house. She sat down and looked at the wedge of cheese, the sliver of pie she'd left herself. As tears of exhaustion welled in her eyes she brushed her hand angrily at a fat blowfly. She started to tremble and felt the crush of isolation and loneliness.
Reba was awakened by the sound of the gray's hoofbeats as Mel rode off in the morning. She was surprised to find the light was already creeping around the edges of a blanket she'd pressed into the window frame. Dressing hurriedly, she went to the kitchen and found that he'd already replaced his two supper plates. Somehow she knew they'd be there, but was shocked at discovering that Mel had entered the house while she slept. She moved to the front door, scanned the grass-covered slope, and saw him riding down Only his head and shoulders were visible above the early, low-curling mist.
Reba's shoulders drooped. She didn't know how to take Mel. She went back to the scullery, and ate the food she'd left untouched the night before. She saw the chopped timber he'd piled against the wall just outside the back door, the freshly pumped water in a big pitcher on the table. He'd invaded her privacy, but he was helpful, and that sort of evened things up.
There was still a lot of work ahead, though, and while Reba worked hard all morning, scrubbing, tidying and moving stuff around, she still didn't seem to be achieving much. She found the scattergun above the door and ran the back of her hand along the twin barrels. The stock felt hard and smooth in her grip, then curiously frightened, she replaced it and turned away. She made window curtains from the dress she'd travelled in. The main room started to look like someone's home. It wasn't yet hers, and it saddened her to think of her uncle not having much in the way of comforts.
* * *
Mel returned at noon. He hitched the gray in the overhanging lee of the barn, flipped his hat over the pommel of the saddle, washed his face and walked to the house. Outside the front door he called out, waiting a moment for Reba to appear in the doorway.
"I let myself in earlier . . . had an egg. I didn't disturb you, did I? I got my own coffee makins' in the barn."
"No, that's all right. I never heard a thing," she heard herself saying.
"I got to thinking though. If you want, you can lay out some jerky for me. Perhaps some bread . . . drippins', maybe, when you get set up. I can eat in the saddle."
"That sounds dreadful . . . wouldn't keep a mouse alive," Reba said quickly. "I thought all cowboys ate hugely?"
"I ain't really a cowboy, ma'am. I was brought up on mudfish, nuts an' snake. What I'm asking you for's a real treat."
Reba looked askance at Mel for a moment, raised her chin and half smiled. "I do have a lot to learn, I know," she said. "Don't worry, I'll make sure you get well fed."
"I got to make a pen for them godda . . . . . . Sorry ma'am. Over the Quill Lakes, there's so many geese, they turn the sky black. But here, you got two of 'em just want to peck me to pieces."
"Yes, well we can't have that. You do what you think's best. Will you always have to work this long?" Reba asked.
"As long as I'm here ma'am . . . yes," Mel said slowly, trying to measure the implication."I don't want to burn up in the heat of the day. So for the time being I'll be going out an hour before sun up. I'll come back at eleven. After a bite, I'll work until the sun starts to drop . . . around four."
"There's that much to do, is there?"
"Well I sure ain't making it up. The fences come first, I reckon. Most of 'em need tending, an' they won't wait."
"Yes," Reba said quietly.
Mel nodded, turned and walked away.
"The pump doesn't work properly," she called after him. The words came tumbling, and she realized she must have sounded anxious, as if she wasn't keen to see him leave. She took a breath. "At the side of the house. There's no draw from the pump. I checked the prime and the pump leather. Could it be the well's run dry?"
"No ma'am. Not on this slope. It's one of the good things about the place. I'll take a look at it."
"Thank you. I'll make some food. Will you want to eat it here?"
Mel smiled and pointed to the back of the house. "I'll be working out there this afternoon. There's some fruit trees need cutting back an' a feeder ditch needs clearing out. Doc McLane said there's a market in town every week. Come the fall, you could make some money selling apples."
Reba smiled in return and watched Mel go to the trough above which the pump was set up. Then she went straight back to the house and plumped herself into a chair. She knew she should have controlled her emotions better. Mel Cody was the hired help; a man with whom she could never have anything in common. But as soon as she'd thought it, Reba recognized just how wrong she was.
Half an hour later when Reba came out with his food, the trough was filled to overflowing.
"What was wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing much. It just needed fixing," he said, and thanked her for the trencher.
Again, Reba was perplexed. She felt a curious frustration in the way they conversed.
* * *
Mel tugged at the brim of his hat and settled in the shade of a fruit tree circle that Reba's uncle had planted. He was mopping at gravy and contemplating a smoke, when Reba came around the corner of the house with two mugs of coffee. She was only twenty feet from him, was still thinking about what to say, when a bullet spat into the ground between them. At the echoed crack of the rifle, Reba stopped walking, her mouth opened and closed and she dropped the mugs. She made a small, choking cry, looked at Mel, stunned, then started to tremble.
Mel got to his feet and turned in one smooth movement. Reba lifted her hands to her face, took a step backwards. Then a second bullet smashed into the wooden platter, sent Mel's food plate and his fork flying into the air.
Mel swore. Then he yelled at her. "Get to the house. Go now!"
Reba stood there shaking her head, swaying unsteadily. Mel held out one hand toward her, pointing his gun at the timber where everything appeared normal, unmoving.
"For God's sake, move, woman, or we'll both die out here!" he bellowed, his eyes bright with anger.
Mel's shout shocked Reba from her frozen fear. She turned and fled.
As soon as she rounded the corner of the house, Mel made his way through the trees. Running from the orchard and up the grassy slope, he saw Miles Beckman and another rider bearing down on him from the timber stands. He swerved to the left and ran for a big, fallen spruce. He vaulted the tree and rolled down into its dirt-filled depression. Then he quickly regained his footing, leveled his gun hand across the broad tree trunk and opened fire.
Three of Mel's quick-fire bullets ripped close above the heads of the men's horses, causing them to buck and rear. The riders fought to regain control, as they brought their own guns to bear as Mel ran from cover.
Beckman wheeled his terrified cow pony about. He cut it into a run and rode the top of the slope. His companion, slower to move, saw Mel too, and after firing off a shot whipped his horse the other way.
Mel scrambled up the slope then weaved around some felled perimeter trees. He saw Beckman riding into a long, narrow wash. The other rider was already moving through boot-high grass on the far side. He pushed his gun into his pants top and carefully wiped the sweat and root dirt from his hands, waiting for the two men to ride from sight.
The attack had been carelessly planned, and that confused and worried Mel. He was sure Miner would have come after him himself and would probably have brought more backing than Beckman and another cowhand.
Mel ejected the spent cartridges from his revolver and refilled the cylinder from a handful of bullets he kept in his pocket. Then he turned and made his way back to the fruit grove. He was approaching the back of the house when he saw a rider coming fast along the wagon road. He broke into another run, then ran faster when he recognized the red, meaty face of Budge Miner.
Miner saw Mel, too, and wheeled his horse off the track. He rode straight at Mel, his eyes vengeful. But Mel had outguessed him in time. A desperate, headlong dash for the cover of the water trough along the side wall of the house gave Mel an advantage.
Miner had drawn his gun. He fired, fast and indiscriminately. The bullets cracked into the trough and whined off the pump head Mel had just repaired.
Mel swore as he hit the ground. He rolled, raised himself on his elbows and loosed off two shots in return. Wet dirt spat up into his face and he lay down again, rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
"I'm getting real sick and tired of you, Miner," he yelled, getting to his feet. He stood with his back to the wall and brought up his Colt. Just before Miner swung his horse's head away, Mel fired.
The shot was calculated, the only one he had time to make. It missed. Bent low in the saddle, the Spool foreman was away. Mel stretched out his watched the man ride away. He couldn't pull the trigger for fear of hitting the horse, and he'd never do that. Mel walked toward the fleeing figure, fired one ill-omened shot into the air.
When Miner was out of range he stopped at the edge of the timber. He looked back for a moment, then, lashing his horse's gleaming shoulders, he raced away.
Mel plunged his head into the trough, shuddered and then gulped down the fresh, cool water. Then he rubbed his hands up his face into his hair. As he walked to the front of the house he took the remaining bullets from his pocket and gripped them in his fist. "One of these is for you, Miner, you son-of-a-bitch."
There was deep silence now. Even the geese had found sanctuary under the floor timbers of the house. From near the front door Mel called out, "Miss Church."
With no immediate answer he called again, "Miss Church . . . ma'am," tentatively added, "Reba," then waited a long minute before he heard her telling him to go away.
"OK, if that's what you want," he said, relieved that she wasn't hurt. "An' don't go worrying about them visitors. It's over now." After a few seconds more he added, "They won't be coming back."
Then he turned and walked across to the barn. Five minutes later he came back out, wearing his black coat with his Cree sash around his waist. He led his horse out into the yard, climbed slowly into the saddle.
* * *
From a front window Reba watched him nervously. But there was a difference now, and she felt a pang of shame. He'd stood resolute for her, on her land and faced the bullets that were fired point blank at him.
She saw him ride from the yard, away beyond the barn. She went quickly to the door, and lifted out the security rail. She stepped out onto the veranda and waved her hand.
"Mr. Cody. I'm sorry, I am all right," she called, and listened to the empty echo of her words.
Mel rode down to the creek and made straight for the Spool ranchlands. In the past two days he'd traversed a sizeable section of the Church place, had discovered that Selwyn's fencing abutted not only fertile Spool land but vast tracts of desolate scrub. He cut through a section of fence and, with his hat pulled down hard over his eyes, headed west across the Spool wasteland. He saw tickseed and mallow—drylands plants not fit for graze—and better understood Spool's drive to gain old Selwyn's access to fresh, sweet water.
As he rode, his mind kept going back to the attack on the ranch, and to Reba Church. He wondered, worried that he should have remained, just in case the Spool men returned. But after a while, a slight, dawning smile broke across his face.
Yeah, that was it.
Exactly what he was supposed to think? Miner carried a rifle and could have dropped him from a distance if he'd wanted to. The attack wasn't as carelessly planned as Mel had thought. The ploy was to draw fire, to keep him off the range.
He was riding along a low, stony ridge that rose into higher country when he reined in. To the south, he sighted dust rising above a long finger of pine that ran down from the main timber. He headed off, deeper into Spool country, pushing the gray for a few more miles until the terrain evened out.
The land spread out in big, gently rising slopes. Now he could see the dust again, closer and more clearly. He saw the slow-moving, patchy carpet, the bobbing brown heads of longhorns. It looked like four riders driving the herd, but the trail dust was thick and he was still too far away to be sure. He sat awhile and watched the advance of the herd, wondered why Spool was moving cattle through the crushing heat of the day.
Mel finally drew back and rode to the other side of the ridge. He swung down into a shallow valley, following a fence until it came to a run of the creek. He crossed in the shallows, and let the gray slurp some water before taking a run at the far slope. Within minutes he was looking down into another long trough of country, only this time it was well grassed. A collection of buildings spread midway along its northern aspect.
"Casper Spool," Mel said aloud. "That's just got to be you."
He found a scrub pine and climbed from his horse. With his back against the bole of the tree he hunkered down, and built himself a smoke. From the ranch, he'd be silhouetted against the skyline, would have been an easy see for a lookout. He expected somebody to ride out to meet him with a rifle, but no one came.
Twenty minutes later, Mel was less than a quarter mile from the sandy yard that fronted the main ranch house. Only then did he notice movement from along the columned terrace of the two story building. The rest of the vast spread appeared to be deserted. He walked the gray steadily beneath a timbered archway, picking out the lone figure standing deep within the shade of the house's upper balcony.
When he was thirty yards from the porch rail, Casper Spool stepped forward and leveled a big Spencer rifle on him. But, coolly, Mel held his course and allowed the gray to keep going.
Spool moved a step sideways to position himself alongside one of the columns. "That's far enough, mister. You've not been invited in," he rasped.
Mel let his horse walk a few more paces into the slanting shade before he drew rein.
"You need some iron to ride in here," Spool said.
"Why? I've done nothing wrong by you, have I?"
"Well Miner doesn't think like that. He could be here, just busting to strip your hide," Spool suggested.
"I don't think so, Mr. Spool. Anyway, I rode down here to talk to you . . . I need to ask you something," Mel said.
"Ha. You decided to light out? You and that interfering McLane going to let the girl sell up as she pleases?"
Mel shook his head. "No. No such luck."
"What is it then? What do you want?"
"Well I'm learning, Mr. Spool. I'm curious to know why a smart rancher would herd cattle in this heat?"
Spool regarded him suspiciously. "What the hell are you talking about? What cattle . . . where?" he asked.
"Back a ways. They're being pushed through that bad land of yours. I never got close enough to check the brand, but they certainly ain't Church stock."
"A herd?" Spool asked incredulously.
"Yeah, an' running fast enough to lose most of their lard. Must be pushing three hundred head. That's a herd ain't it?"Mel looked around him, then asked. "It's sure quiet here. Your men out taking . . . some sort of picnic in the badlands?"
"What's that got to do with you? Did you come riding out here to cause trouble, Cody?"
Mel shook his head. "No, why would I do that? Having you for a neighbor don't concern me much either way. But just a couple of hours back, Miner an' Beckman an' another of your rabble paid the Church place a visit. Miner fired off some shots . . . came real close to nailing me. Now that concerns me, Spool. But you know, I got to thinking afterwards. What they was really trying to do was to make me stick real close to the ranch house. Close to Miss Church's skirts, if you get my meaning?"
Spool was plainly confused. He took a step toward the porch steps, held the rifle barrel across the terrace railings. "What the hell are you gnawing at, Cody?"
"As far as I know about this country, there's no other ranches this side of Dog Creek. So those men I saw could be . . . probably are your hands . . . driving your cattle. That's what they never wanted me to see."
Spool mouth twisted into a sneer. "My men are checking the fences, cleaning out Copper's tank ready for next month's drive. That's what they're doing."
"No, they ain't. Come take a ride, we'll see who's right," Mel suggested.
"Go to hell."
"Given time I might well do that. But right now you're coming with me, Spool. I got a claim in this trouble."
"You've got a claim? What the hell's it got to do with you anyway, whether my cattle are being herded or not?" Spool demanded.
"I think it was old Selwyn Church telling me that he never stole cattle . . . never. But the truth didn't stop one of your men shooting him dead. That's one reason." Mel's voice hardened as he continued. "Then, of course, there's your ramrod. I ain't going to sleep too well at night just knowing he's out there somewhere. Maybe he got himself a dose of buck fever today, so I'd like to give him another chance. Beckman can buy in, an' maybe a couple of the others, if they feel that loyal to him."
"You think you're that good, cowboy?"
After a fast, almost imperceptible movement of his right hand, Mel held his Colt, the barrel pointed straight at Spool's broad chest.
"I think maybe I'm good enough," he advised with a thin smile. "Right now, if you pull the trigger of that Spencer, we'll both die. So you got to ask yourself, is it worth it, Spool? Looking around, you got a hell of a lot more to lose than me."
Spool didn't appear to be bothered by Mel's take on the situation, although he dropped the rifle barrel. "These men?" he asked. "Which way are they headed?"
"West. An' the longer we stand here powwowing the further we'll have to ride. If we lose the sun it won't be any easier travelling in that country . . . even for an Injun 'breed."
Spool's breath was heavy. "I'll get me a horse. By hell, Cody, we'll have ourselves a powder burning contest if you're wrong," he growled.
"Concern yourself with what'll happen if I'm right," Mel said, calmly pushing his gun back into his sash.
Continued next month
After 25 years work in London's higher education sector, Carl Bernard was familiar with the customs of saloon
keepers, sodbusters, dudes and ranch hands who were up against institutional carpetbaggers, bank robbers,
tinhorns and crooked sheriffs. It didn't take much to transpose the setting and era, put everyone on a horse
and give 'em guns. When the end of the century approached and with a full cylinder of ready-made stories,
Carl took an early retirement. Under the names of Abe Dancer and Caleb Rand he started to write the first of
his fifty published titles.
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