A Killing in Coyote Junction
by Victoria Randall
The door was ajar. Alex Winter pushed it open slowly with his left hand, gun in his right. The late morning sunlight fell across the floor, lighting the dim interior, the simple pine table and chairs, the rough-hewn ladder to the sleeping loft above.
He grimaced at the blood spatter on the floor and stepped to one side of it. He kept his gun drawn, but there was no sign of occupants and no place to hide if anyone had wanted to. He crossed to the far wall, where he saw another pool of blood beside the table, and holstered the gun with a shake of his head.
The bodies were gone, taken away a couple of days ago for burial by the townsfolk. Alex turned slowly, looking for any hint of what might have happened or who might have been responsible. His brother Jake sat in the Coyote Junction jail, accused of the murders, and Alex was having a hard time wrapping his head around that. His brother was pretty much good for nothing, shiftless, self-centered, avoiding honest work like it was poison, but murder? That was another thing. He wasn't believing that.
It looked like the husband had been shot in the doorway, on the threshold, and the woman between the ladder stairway and the table. She had no doubt screamed, maybe begged for her life. What happened here was harsh. There was no sign of Indians, and the town had had no Indian problems for a decade. This was something else.
He found no footprints in the cabin; nobody had stepped in the blood. A chest in the corner was thrown open, the contents scattered—plates, utensils, a tablecloth. He doubted they'd found any money, if that's what they'd been looking for. The rough furniture had been built with care, a braided rag rug lay under the window; the general impression was of a hard-working, frugal couple. After another turn around the room, he shook his head and turned to go.
A sound from above halted him. He cocked his head and drew his pistol again, holding his breath. An animal? It was a faint wail, maybe a trapped cat. It came again, fainter this time.
He went to the ladder and climbed, pistol at the ready, glancing quickly around the loft before he climbed all the way up. Nobody in sight. A straw mattress filled most of the space and a carved wooden chest stood against the wall. The lid was propped open an inch or two with a Bible. Funny place to keep a Bible, he thought.
The faint wail came again, and this time he recognized the sound. He lifted the lid of the chest and stared down at the baby inside, red faced, waving clenched fists. "Hey," he said, and bent down to lift the baby up. "Looks like you got overlooked. Maybe a good thing for you."
The baby was soaking wet, his face squinched up in distress. Alex looked around, then thought of looking in the chest, but he found nothing there to use for a diaper. He set the baby on the straw mattress, gingerly untied the rag he wore and dropped it on the floor. Remembering that he had seen a rag downstairs, he hurried down, found it, and hurried up again. He wiped the baby off and tied the rag around him. Having no idea of how women did these things, he did his best to cover crucial spots.
He found a woolen shawl draped on a wall peg and wrapped it around the baby. The boy must have been there two or three days at least, since the bodies had been found Sunday and this was Tuesday. There was nothing in the cabin to feed a child.
"Come on, son. Let's get you to town." He climbed down the ladder, balancing the child carefully against his chest. He paused to rig a carrier out of the shawl, Indian style, so he could carry the child and ride.
He closed the door behind him to keep out varmints. No doubt neighbors would come eventually and clean up the cabin. He paused for a moment to look at the ground, marked with a confusion of hoofprints and boot prints. The boot marks had been scuffed out, by chance or design. He whistled to his horse. Grabbing the reins with one hand, he mounted swiftly, turned him, and set off for Coyote Junction.
* * *
Alex drew rein in front of the sheriff's office a little after noon. He nodded to an oldster leaning back on a chair outside the door. "Howdy," he said. "Roust out the sheriff for me, would you? I've got a young'un here." He nodded at the baby wrapped in the shawl, a bare foot sticking out.
The man brought his chair legs down, raised his eyebrows, and swiveled to the sheriff's door. "Harvey," he called inside. "Man here wants to see you."
The sheriff came to the door, frowning. "What is it, mister?" He wore a mustache and his paunch strained the buttons of his shirt and vest.
"Found this young'un at the Yates place," said Alex. "Can you point me to a woman might be able to help him out? He hasn't been fed for a few days."
"The Yates place!" The sheriff widened his eyes. "What were you doing around there? That's a crime scene."
"I'm Jake Winter's brother. I heard he was sitting in your jail, so I went to take a look, and found this kid that everyone seems to have overlooked."
"His brother, eh? We don't need anyone sticking their nose into this business—"
Alex shook his head. "We can hash all that out later. Where can I get this baby some milk? He can't wait all week."
"Right." The sheriff frowned in thought. "Take him up to the church. The pastor's wife, Mrs. Pilchuck, should be able to help. If not she'll know who can."
Alex nodded and wheeled his horse. The church, a white-washed frame building with a steeple, stood at the head of the street. He dismounted outside the house set beside it and knocked. He heard a trampling of small feet before a woman answered the door. She was stout, with a kindly face and two small children clinging to her skirts. "Can I help you?"
He took off his hat. "The sheriff sent me up here, ma'am. Found this baby—he's been on his own a few days. Any way you could help him out or point me to someone who could?"
She lifted the shawl from the baby, who gave a mewling sigh and began to cry. "Oh, the poor dear! Give him to me."
He untied the shawl and handed the baby to her. "Come on in," she said, turning away. As he entered, she was already unbuttoning her blouse and giving him the breast. With a gasp the baby latched on and drank as if he were starving. Which he probably was, Alex thought.
The room was clean and as neat as could be expected with five or six busy children. A couple of them came to peer at the baby as their mother settled into a rocking chair.
"Cassie, you and Peter go and play, let the baby drink. Have a seat, mister . . . "
"Winter," said Alex. "Thank you, ma'am. Reckon you saved his life."
"Oh, of course," she said. "What happened to his mother?"
She looked up from the baby, her mouth open. "No. Is that the poor couple I heard about, the Yates? Now I remember hearing they had a baby some time back. Those stupid men! They went out to recover the bodies, but never thought to look for the child."
Alex set his hat on his knee. "The mother hid him, probably when she realized trouble was coming. Most likely he was asleep when the posse came for his parents. Just a good thing he woke up when I was there."
"Yes. Thank you so much for bringing him here." She gave him a warm, motherly smile.
"Do you know if they had any folks in town? Any family?"
"I don't recall any. No, I think they came from back east, like a lot of the young settlers. But don't fret none. The Reverend and I will be happy to add this young 'un to our flock. He'll fit right in. Caleb there will be two in a couple of months." She pointed at a chubby boy who was teasing the cat with a length of string.
"Just one thing," said Alex. "Maybe you want to keep it quiet that he's here, for now. In case whoever came after his parents decides to finish the job."
She frowned in horror. "But you don't think—who would want to hurt a baby?"
He shook his head. "Just to be on the safe side. Because nobody knows why his parents got shot yet."
"But I heard they have a drifter in jail—a Jake Winter—oh. Are you a relative?"
"Jake's my brother." He hardened his mouth. "He's a rapscallion and a lazy son of a gun, but no murderer. I know him."
"Well, I'll surely pray for him, and that they catch whoever did it."
"Thank you, ma'am. Appreciate it." He rose, settling his hat back on his head. "I'm glad the baby's in good hands."
"You don't happen to know his name, do you?" she asked. She rose, pulling her blouse closed. The baby had fallen into a blissful milk-smeared sleep.
"I wish I'd thought to look in the Bible, but no, I don't."
She nodded. "I'll ask around. Someone will know. But I'll wait, as you said. No sense in stirring up trouble."
* * *
Leaves skittered across the street, and a couple of dust devils whirled in his path before they petered out as Alex led his horse back to the sheriff's office. The last time he had talked to his brother had been a couple of years ago, and it had ended in hard words. Jake had ridden away and had been avoiding him, seemed like, since then. Alex wasn't looking forward to this conversation, but Jake was blood. He couldn't just walk away, especially not with the gallows the townsfolk were busy constructing at the end of the street.
The sheriff wasn't in his office. A deputy lounged with feet up on his desk, cleaning his fingernails with a knife. He lunged to his feet. "Hey, you can't go in there!" he said as Alex passed him.
"Relax. I'm just going to talk to him."
The light in the cells was dim. Alex could just make out someone on the bench against the wall, head in his hands. "Jake?" he said.
The man looked up and got to his feet. "Alex?" he asked. "Is that you?"
Alex folded his arms. "What have you gotten yourself into now?"
Jake came to the bars and grabbed them. His beard was scruffy, the whites of his eyes shining with fear. He was only nineteen, but he looked to have aged five years since Alex had seen him last. "I didn't do what they say, I swear! I would never do anything like that. They're tryin' to frame me."
"Why do they think you did it?"
"They found the man's horse—I was minding my own business, making camp near town, and this horse wandered in. No saddle, no way to know whose it was. I figured to turn it in in the morning. But they rode up on me before dawn, said I was a murderer and I shot a couple the other side of the valley. But I didn't! It wasn't me. Alex, you gotta believe me."
Alex regarded him in silence. Slowly he nodded. "I believe you. Next question is, who did it?"
Jake spread his hands. "No idea. I've just been hanging around the town, doing odd jobs here and there. I worked on Eastman's ranch for a while, but I don't know the people in town."
"No closer to settling down than you ever were," said Alex.
"I'm not a saint, Alex, God knows. But I'm not a killer! You know me better'n that."
"I do. But that kind of shiftless life'll end you up in trouble sooner or later. Like now."
"What do you expect me to do, become a banker? Buy a feed store and stand behind a counter all day? I can't do that."
"No." Alex sighed. "Guess I don't expect nothing from you but what you've always done. Get in trouble and expect me to get you out."
Jake bit his lip, tears in his eyes. Alex hated to see that. "Can you help me or not?"
"I'll see what I can do."
The deputy came to the door. "Sheriff wants to talk to you."
"All right," Alex said. "I'll think on it, Jake. Don't give up yet."
"They want to hang me, Alex. I'm counting on you."
* * *
The sheriff sat behind his desk puffing on a cigar. As Alex came in, the street door opened and a group of men entered. First came a thin man with a genial grin in a dark suit and a bowler hat. He was followed by a short man with a no-nonsense expression and a string tie, and after him swaggered a stolid looking rancher with a silver belt buckle and a show-off Stetson. A couple of ranch hands slouched in behind him.
Alex hooked his thumbs in his belt and nodded to the sheriff. The nameplate on the desk read Nate Rodgers. "Sheriff Rodgers," Alex said. "You wanted to see me?"
"Just want to make sure you're not interferin' with my prisoner."
"Just chatting with him," said Alex, "seeing as he's my brother."
"Ah,' said the thin man, 'you're his brother. Allow me to introduce myself; I'm Morris Stadler. I'm sorry you find yourself embroiled in this miserable business, Mr. Winter." He held out a hand, and Alex shook it.
"Mr. Stadler," said the sheriff drily, "is Coyote Junction's undertaker."
Alex dropped his hand. "Don't expect any business from my brother, mister."
"No, no," said Stadler. "Nothing personal, I assure you. And this is Doc Jeffries, our medical man, and Carleton Eastman, who owns a spread north of town. We just stopped by to make sure everything's in order."
"That's fine," said Alex. "I've got the same thing in mind. Let me ask you, Sheriff, what have you done to find the culprits?"
The sheriff leaned his elbows on the desk and his gaze bored into Alex's, his gray eyes hard. "Seems to me we have the culprit in jail."
"Have you found any clues aside from a wandering horse?"
"Don't see that we need any more. You said 'culprits.' Do you think he had an accomplice?"
"I'm sure you checked the prints out at the house, and noticed that two of the men who left tracks were wearing boots. The ones who let the horse out of the corral. The townsfolk who recovered the bodies were wearing regular shoes, I'm betting."
"He has the right of that," put in the doc. "I went out with the folks to bring back the bodies, and we were all townsfolk. I don't recall anyone in boots."
"That's as may be, Mr. Winter," said the sheriff. "But your brother had the victim's horse."
"That's no kind of proof he killed those folks."
"It might be proof enough for the judge. We'll have to wait and see on that."
"Mr. Winter," put in the rancher. He had ruddy cheeks, bristling white eyebrows, and a cigar stuck in his mouth. "I'm Carlton Eastman, as Mr. Stadler mentioned. Your concern for your brother does you credit, and we all appreciate that. This is a hard thing to face up to. But it's not something you're responsible for, and it might be a good idea for you to distance yourself from the whole situation. Leave it in the hands of the law. Your brother will get a fair trial."
"Eastman," said Alex. "I think Jake said he worked for you for a while."
"Yes." Eastman took the cigar from his mouth and stared at it. "He helped with the branding last spring. A good worker, when he wasn't drunk. But face it, he's a drifter. Can't stay in one place for too long. And this crime, it's the kind of thing drifters tend to do."
Alex allowed himself a crooked smile. "That's some mighty twisted up thinking, Mr. Eastman. Sheriff, who gets the Yates' land, now that they're dead?"
"Well, now." Rodgers rubbed his head. "If they had any kin, it would go to them. We may end up writing back east, but I'm not sure who we'd write to. So then, it would go to whoever wants to buy it, I reckon. It's good land, down in the valley there, so it might be any number of folks."
"You ever make Yates an offer for that land, Mr. Eastman?" Alex asked.
"If I did or I didn't, it's neither here nor there, Mr. Winter. What are you implying?" Eastman gave Alex a hard stare. Behind him, a ranch hand with a squint shifted his gaze to his neighbor on his right and pursed his lips.
Alex shrugged. "Just a passing thought. Meaning no harm by it." He settled his hat back on his head. "Well, gentlemen, it's been a pleasure, but I'm heading over to the hotel to see about a room. Any idea when that judge is due in town?"
"Not for sure," said Rodgers. "Might be a couple of weeks."
Alex nodded. "No hurry then."
"As I suggested, Mr. Winter," Eastman said, "You might consider cutting your losses and going about your business. You can't do your brother any good by hanging around and sharing in his misery."
"Is that your general way of doing things, Eastman? Run out on family when they get in trouble?" Alex shook his head. "Don't strike me as the right way to go about things, but I'm a simple cowboy, not a high-powered rancher. Guess things look different from that exalted height. Adios."
* * *
Alex crossed the street and headed for the building which boasted a signboard labeled "Mesquite Hotel" over the door. Before he could reach for the handle, a young woman scurried up to him. "Are you a friend of Jake Winter's?" she asked in a whispery voice.
"I'm his brother," he said. "What—"
"He didn't do it!" she said. She glanced behind her and across the street as she spoke, then looked up at him in appeal. She had a pert nose and big brown eyes, and would have been pretty if she hadn't looked so frightened. "I know it for sure."
"How do you know?" he asked. "Who are you?"
"I'm . . . his friend. I'm Clarissa. I've got to go. My father mustn't see me. Please help him." She hurried off down the boardwalk toward a buggy waiting some distance away.
Alex shoved his hat back and scratched his head, then opened the hotel door.
* * *
That evening as Alex headed for the saloon, he noticed several knots of people clustering along the sidewalk. He drifted unnoticed up behind the largest group and heard Eastman's drover with the squint making a speech. "Justice is what we want, not just letting a killer sit in the jail enjoyin' home cooked meals."
"When's the judge due to show up?" asked an elderly man.
"We don't know. Do we want to wait on that?
Alex said in a quiet voice to the man next to him, "What's that fella's name?"
"That's Lyle Higgins. He works for Eastman," said the man. Alex nodded and drifted away, back to the saloon.
When he sat down at a table, he noticed several men eyeing him, a couple of them with hostility. The cook set his order on the table with a noticeable lack of hospitality. Alex glanced up. "Somebody have a problem with me?" he asked.
"You're that killer's brother, aren't you?"
"Innocent until found guilty, is how I understand it."
"Maybe," said the cook with a sneer as he turned away. "And maybe you were in on it with him."
Alex ate his dinner, taking his time, but keeping an eye on the others at the tables. When he finished, he wandered out to the sidewalk and leaned against the building, staying in shadow. Within a quarter of an hour, the man named Higgins sauntered out in company with his partner who had also been in the sheriff's office. They went down the street, weaving between passersby, and Alex followed them at a discreet distance.
They meandered into the stable where he assumed their horses were tied. He slipped around behind the building and drew close to the back. Through chinks in the wall he could make out their voices.
"I don't like it," said the partner. "His bastard brother's nosing around too much."
"Relax," said Higgins. He spoke louder and sounded as if he'd had a little too much to drink. "You're too nervous, Rufus. There's nothing to connect us, and even if there was, we can get a crowd of the boss's men to swear we was at the ranch playing cards. Eastman's no dummy."
"I know he's not, but I don't want to end up his fall guy. He's not the one pulled the trigger."
"Stop being such a worrywart. Sheriff has that drifter in jail, and he'll take the drop. I guarantee it."
Alex leaned against the wall, gritting his teeth in frustration. He had half a mind to confront the two of them, even haul them at gunpoint down to the sheriff's office. Little good that would do: it would be their word against his. In silence he made his way back to the street and the hotel.
* * *
Alex went to see Jake the next day. His brother stood staring out the cell window into the alley. From his cell he couldn't see the gallows being constructed at the end of the street, but the sound of hammers rang loud.
"Jake," he said.
Jake turned and came to the door. His face was in shadow, but Alex could see the strain in it as he grabbed the bars. "Have you found out anything?" he asked.
"Yeah, I have. But I have a question. You're friends with Clarissa?"
Jake's hands tightened on the bars. "I know her. Told you I worked for Eastman. He's her father."
"Is he?" Alex chewed that over for a minute. "She says she has proof you didn't do the killings."
The muscles in Jake's jaw bunched. "She would say that. She's good-hearted, probably just wants to help out."
"So you don't think she has any real proof?"
"Doubt it. But you said you found out something."
"Yes, but keep your shirt on. I overheard Eastman's two hands talking about it. They as much as admitted they did it under orders from their boss."
"Higgins and Hawkins? Those two?"
"Yeah, if Hawkins's name is Rufus.'
"Then you've got them! And Eastman put them up to it? He must have wanted that land real bad. I can't believe it." Jake stared into the distance. "Well, maybe I can. He was a hard man to work for. Didn't cut anybody any slack. One of the men got hurt on the ranch—gored by a bull. Eastman just fired him, cut him off cold. Said, 'if he can't do the work, I've got no use for him.' Like we were all just tools. A tool breaks and you can't fix it, you just throw it away."
"That would account for his men being nervous he'd dump all the blame on them. And his daughter seems plenty scared of him," Alex said.
Jake's eyes lit up. "But you heard them admit to it! So they can let me off—"
"I said to keep your shirt on. I've got no proof. It's my word against theirs. And one of them said they can get a slew of cowpokes to swear they were both playing cards all that night."
"Damn. You're right. What can we do?"
Alex looked away from the disappointment in his brother's face; it hurt to see it. "I'll figure out something. I'll go out to the Yates' place again. Bound to be some kind of proof somewhere."
"I 'preciate it, brother. But watch your back. If Eastman is behind this, he might not stop with the Yates."
"I will. And you're sure that girl doesn't know anything? Clarissa?"
Jake shrugged, turning away. "What could she know? Nah, she's just kind-hearted that way. Couldn't do cold-blooded murder herself, so figures I couldn't either."
"Well, somebody sure did." Alex watched Jake slump down on the bench again, and sighed. "Don't give up. I'll come back tonight."
* * *
It was nearly dusk when Alex rode back into town from the Yates' place. He felt bone tired after riding and searching for clues most of the day, but headed for the sheriff's office, meaning to ask whether he'd heard any more about when the judge would show up. When he got within sight of the office, he sensed an atmosphere of violence. A knot of men had gathered in front of the door. Some of the men carried torches that flared and guttered in the fading light, and he heard raised voices.
The sheriff stood in front of his office, arms folded, facing the milling crowd which was growing to resemble a mob. He raised a hand. "You folks go on about your business. If you got business with me, come back in the morning."
"We want justice!" yelled a man in front. "That murderer is just sitting in there taking it easy."
Alex hitched his horse to the post in front of the hotel and headed across the street, although he had no idea what he would do. He slowed his step as he noticed a buggy down the street in front of the feed and drygoods store. A couple was climbing into it. He recognized Mrs. Pilchuck, the pastor's wife, with the baby in her arms. He turned in their direction.
"Mr. Winter," she said as he reached the couple. 'I'd like you to meet my husband, Reverend Pilchuck. Charles, this is the man who rescued Noah."
"Pleased to meet you," said the Reverend. His handshake was firm; he struck Alex as a man who could weather storms and stay standing. "We're happy to have the little fella with us as long as he needs us. Do you know if any of his relatives have been located?"
"Not that I know of," Alex said. "Did you call him Noah?"
"I checked the church records, and he was baptized Noah Yates several months ago by my predecessor," said the Reverend.
"Good to know," said Alex slowly, thoughts stirring in his mind. "It may be time to let folks know that he's around. Would you mind coming down to the sheriff's office?"
The Reverend cast an eye at the crowd in front of the office and hesitated. Then he squared his shoulders. "Anything we can do to help. Do you mind, dear?"
"Of course not. The sheriff should know he survived," said his wife. "I do hope we can keep Noah, though. All our children love him."
They made their way down the street to the office. At the end of the street, the gallows cast a shadow in the moonlight, its noose dancing in the wind. Alex felt a chill run down his spine.
He pushed his way through the crowd outside. He heard a few angry comments, but the presence of the pastor and his wife seemed to put a damper on the worst of it. He edged into the crowded office, the couple behind him.
Carlton Eastman was leaning over the sheriff's desk, expostulating. "I don't see any reason for a hold up. I'd like to get the issue of the land squared away."
"Well now, Mr. Eastman," the sheriff said, "maybe the judge could weigh in on that. No need to hurry."
Eastman straightened up and scowled at Alex. "What do you want?"
"Are you talking about the Yates' property?" Alex asked.
"What if we are?" Eastman demanded. "It's got nothing to do with your no-good brother."
"Let me ask you, Mr. Eastman, did you make Yates an offer for his land, and he turned you down? Would that be why you sent your boys over to get him out of the way permanently?"
There was a shocked silence. "What did you say?" Eastman asked, a smile of disbelief on his face.
Alex nodded at the two ranch hands who stood against the wall, Higgins and his pal Rufus Hawkins. "I overheard those two jawing about their part in the murders, and how Eastman put them up to it. They're nervous because they don't trust him to have their backs if they get caught."
"That's an outrageous accusation," said Eastman. "You can't be serious."
"And it's a shame," went on Alex, "because it wouldn't work out anyway. The Yates land should by rights go to their son, Noah Yates here." He nodded at the baby in Mrs. Pilchuck's arms, who stared at him solemnly and blew a spit bubble.
Eastman looked at the baby in silence, his face growing thunderous. Higgins began to edge toward the door, but a glare from his boss stopped him.
"I have to object," said Mr. Stadler. "Jake Winter had Yates's horse, so it's clear he had to be there to commit the killings."
"That's not true!" shouted a new voice, a girl's voice. "I can prove he didn't do it."
Everyone turned to see who had spoken. A slight figure made her way through the crowd, who gave way before her.
"He didn't do it. I was with him that night." It was Clarissa, her face set with determination.
Eastman turned red. "What are you doing here?! You go home, girl! Higgins, see that she gets home."
"No, daddy,' she said. "We just talked all night, but I kept quiet because I knew you would be mad. He wasn't anywhere near the Yates' place. I was there when the horse wandered in."
"Get Jake Winter out here," the sheriff growled to his deputy. He hurried back to the cells, and a few minutes later Jake stumbled into the office. His hands were cuffed in front of him and he looked around as if dazed.
"What do you have to say for yourself," said the sheriff.
"Just . . . I didn't do it," he said.
"That's enough jawing," shouted a man from the crowd. "You've got the culprit. He needs his neck stretched."
"Just hold on." The sheriff stood up and raised a hand. "Is what this girl says true, Winter? Was she with you that night?"
Jake stared at the girl. "She . . . no, she's just trying to help me. I was alone."
Alex groaned in frustration. "You muttonhead. What's wrong with you? Do you want to swing for something you didn't do?"
Jake shook his head at the girl. "Clarissa, you didn't ought to get mixed up in this."
Tears were streaming down her face, but she bit her lip. "I care about you, Jake. I know you didn't do it."
"You can't know anything of the kind," said Eastman. "You are in deep trouble, girl. Just you go on home." He turned to Alex. "You've got no proof my men were involved in any of this."
"Oh, Mr. Winter," said Mrs. Pilchuck. "I meant to give you this. I washed it." She held out a square of folded cloth to Alex.
He took it and shook it open: a bright red neckerchief. Looking at Rufus, he said, "You lose your bandana, Rufus?"
Rufus's hand went to his neck. "Yeah, I wondered where that went."
Higgins elbowed him. "That's not yours," he hissed.
"Yeah, it is," Rufus said. "It's got that notch where I caught it . . . oh." He finally noticed Higgins' glare. "No, on second thoughts, I reckon it's not mine."
"I reckon it is," Alex said. He handed it to the sheriff. "I found it in the Yates' house." He could picture it: the hot day, Rufus sweating with the heat, nervous after shooting Mr. and Mrs. Yates. He had taken off his neckerchief to wipe his forehead, stuck it in his back pocket, and it had fallen out.
"This looks like proof to me," said the sheriff.
"No, no. We was just following orders!" Rufus said.
"Those boys are under arrest for murder," said the sheriff. "Mr. Eastman, we need to have a chat." He nodded at Jake. "You can take those cuffs off, deputy. The rest of you folks, go on home." He waved off the mob outside, but they had already begun to melt away.
"You featherbrain!" Alex said to Jake as the deputy unlocked his cuffs. "You could have hung if this little lady hadn't spoken up."
Jake looked at her with pride. "She's one in a million, for sure." He put his arm around her. "So are you, brother."
Alex nodded. "Well, maybe you're finally growing up, little brother."
"Just one thing," the sheriff said to Alex. "How did Mrs. Pilchuck end up with Rufus's bandana?"
"Oh, that," said Alex. "I used it for the baby's diaper. Didn't have nothing else."
Victoria grew up in New York and Chicago, where her father was a well-known pin-up artist, creator of Bill Randall's Datebook. Her first job as a teen was working on a cattle ranch in South Dakota; later she worked as a waitress, fabric salesperson, mail sorter, social worker, and registered nurse. She attended Oberlin College. She has four children, including Keith Graham, an artist, and Brandon Graham, author of graphic novels King City and Escalator. She writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, but enjoys westerns. Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/victoriarandallauthor
Her Amazon author page is https://www.amazon.com/Victoria-Randall/e/B00DSD6IUW
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<Blood of Abilene
by Samuel Kennedy
It was midmorning. The Texas sun was beating down on the homestead. The only sounds were the creaking of the windmill, pumping water to the thirsty field, and the harsh crack of splitting wood. A single rider approached the homestead at an easy lope.
Rasmus Albrecksson heard the approaching hooves as they drew closer. The ax stopped mid-stroke above the firewood, coming to rest in his tanned, calloused hands. He glanced over at the musket leaning against the porch wall. His eyes turned from the gun to the chicken coop on the other side of the yard, where his ten-year-old son was feeding the chickens from a burlap sack.
The rider came around the house and into view a moment later. A brown mare, with a pack of provisions, and a Springfield rifle in a Comanche blanket. The rider pulled back gently on the reins, easing to a stop a few feet from where Rasmus was splitting wood. He looked down at the homesteader from beneath a dusty, broad-brimmed hat. His hand rested on his belt, within easy reach of the Colt horse revolver.
"Morning, Rasmus," he said, his friendly smile contrasting with the weapons he carried.
Rasmus let the ax-head rest on the ground as he acknowledged the man's greeting. "Morning, Bill. Indian trouble?"
Bill Destry shook his head. "No, the Indians are quiet for now. No rustlers, either. I'm going to war, Rasmus. Just wanted to let you know. Say goodbye and ask you to check on my place once in a while till I get back."
Rasmus looked over at his son, who had stopped his work to listen breathlessly to the conversation. "You think that's wise, Bill? You've got a pretty nice place. Nothing's certain in war."
"Yeah, I know," Bill answered. "Still, if nobody fights back, them Yankees will lick us sure as shootin'. I got to help out." He glanced over at the boy leaning against the fence, eyes glued to the gun in his belt. "I think somebody here wants to go to war too."
Rasmus turned to his son. "Take care of those chickens!" As the boy reluctantly turned away, Rasmus looked back up at his friend. "He doesn't know any better. I caught him yesterday practicing with my old Colt Navy behind the barn."
Bill chuckled. "He any good?"
A sigh escaped the father. "Too good. Faster and more accurate than a boy his age has any business being. I want to keep him out of trouble." He looked up at his friend. "You stay out of trouble, too. You hear?"
Bill nodded, a faint smile pulling the corner of his mouth up. "Don't worry about me. This war shouldn't last long. Tell you the truth, I wouldn't be surprised one bit if it was over before I even got there."
"One can only hope," replied Rasmus.
Bill nodded again. "Well," he said slowly, turning his horse, "guess I'll see you soon, friend."
He extended his hand. Rasmus shook it, then watched in silence as Bill Destry turned and rode away. He rode east, toward the battlefields. Rasmus shook his head, looking once more over at his son. The boy had stopped his work again, watching the rider head out. This time, Rasmus didn't bother correcting him. And when the horse and rider finally disappeared into the horizon, he lifted his ax and went back to splitting wood.
He was far from a coward, but he had no desire to fight Yankees on some faraway battlefield. His own battlefield was right here, fighting the land, the Indians, the outlaws, and the elements. As he swung the ax he looked over at his son once more. He didn't need to go get himself killed in a war between North and South. He needed to be here, taking care of his family.
* * *
Five years passed over the Texas homestead. Rasmus fought the land to keep his family fed. He fought right up to the end, when a sudden illness claimed him. His friends and neighbors gathered to bury him on the hill overlooking the homestead, beneath the shade of a Texas ash. His wife and son stood under the hot sun dressed in black until the last person had paid their respects and ridden off by horse or buckboard.
Then, with the sun just starting to set, the widow turned and walked down the hill toward the house. The son remained, staring at the wooden slab that marked his father's final resting place. It had been a bad year. Drought had decimated the crops and thinned the livestock. Meanwhile, reports had been coming in from the surrounding counties of outlaws roaming in large bands. Soldiers who had lost their war and lost their country had been sent home to poverty in an occupied state.
Now, with his father gone, the farm didn't feel like home anymore. And he had no idea how he would keep it from going under.
He turned and looked up as a horse and rider approached from the east. As they came closer, the boy recognized the old brown mare, but the rider almost seemed a stranger.
It was the face of Bill Destry, now creased with wrinkles and a scar just in front of his ear. The eyes were vigilant, but they also appeared sunken in, like coals glaring out of a skull. A filthy Confederate coat sat on his shoulders, stripes and insignia all ripped off. As he came closer, the boy saw that Destry still carried his massive Colt revolver after five years, but the handle was worn by use and the elements. The Springfield was gone, replaced by a repeating rifle the boy didn't recognize.
Destry made no move to pull back on the reins, but the horse still came to a stop next to the grave. The fifteen-year-old held back his tears, and looked up in the steely eyes of the veteran.
The kid merely nodded, not trusting his voice to remain steady.
Bill Destry stepped down from the saddle and pulled the reins over the horse's head. He let out a sigh, lifting his hat with his other hand. "Sorry about your pa. He was a good man."
Again, the kid nodded.
"How's your ma?"
Finally, the kid spoke. "She'll be alright, I reckon. Just give it time."
"And how about you?"
"This country's a hellhole now that the war is over. Sod-busting's dead, and we got carpet-baggers and renegades taking everything that ain't tied down. There's still opportunities for good hands, though."
Destry pulled a cigarette from within his coat and lit up. The smoke drifted up lazily on the still evening air. The kid never moved, still staring at his father's grave.
"Ogden's got a herd. About five thousand head. Some feller named McCoy is spreading word around that there's a rail in Abilene. They'll take every steer they can get." Destry drew in another breath of his cigarette, watching the kid closely. "Two months. Thirty-five dollars a month for good hands. You know how to ride, don't you?"
The kid didn't answer, instead looking toward the house. "What about my mother?"
"She can stay with the Weavers. They said they need another set of hands around the homestead. They got better land, better water. Better chances."
The kid nodded, but still no answer. Destry turned and climbed back into the saddle. Sitting for a moment, he watched the kid. Just as he set his hat back on his head and turned to leave, the kid spoke.
"I'll see if she's willing to leave. If she is, I'll take the job."
Destry nodded. Tipping his cap in a final farewell to his deceased friend, he turned his horse and rose silently away.
* * *
A month in the wild. The cattle trail led through some of the worst country in Texas. Nothing but scrub brush, wild horses, and wilder men. The Kid felt as if his horse was an extension of his legs, the rope an extension of his hand. He didn't even think about his bullwhip anymore, as if it was merely another finger. The Navy Colt on his hip was a weight he felt naked without, the leather chaps a second skin. He'd spent long days without food, dark nights without sleep.
When the herd stopped to graze, Bill Destry had taken the Kid aside. As the son of his good friend, he seemed to feel it was his responsibility to teach the Kid everything he could. How to swing a lariat, how to find food and water on the trail, how to predict a steer's movements before the steer itself knew what it was going to do. And how to handle the bullwhip and Bowie knife.
One day as the herd moved over the open range, the Kid rode ahead to search for water. He was smiling as he rode along, in spite of the sun beating down and the roughness of the terrain. After a month, he'd learned to love the life of a cowhand. Sure, it was hard work, but there was a sort of freedom on the open range. The hardships and dangers only made it more appealing. Life on the trail had a sense of excitement that his days on the homestead couldn't match. In the never-ending openness that surrounded the sprawling herd, anything could happen.
He heard the lapping of water as he came over the ridge. At the same time, he heard the snorting of horses.
As he pulled up, four riders faced him, their hands resting on their guns. Unshaven and covered with the dust of the trail, they grinned maliciously as he came into view. One of the men—clearly the leader—pushed his hat back as he nudged his horse forward a step.
"You with that herd we saw, boy?" he asked roughly.
The Kid noticed the way the man's hand rested on the cut-off stock of a double-barreled shotgun, which he wore cross-draw on his hip as if it were a pistol. His finger twitched near the trigger as he waited impatiently for the Kid's answer.
"I asked you a question, boy. Polite thing to do is answer."
"Didn't realize I was in polite company," the Kid answered calmly. "But yes, I'm with that herd."
The man snorted. "Name's Jeremiah Carter, and this is my land. Y'all are feeding your herd on my grass, and this is my water here." He jabbed a thumb at the stream that ran behind them.
"Really?" the Kid asked. While the men all kept their hands hovering near their guns, the Kid sat with both hands folded on his saddle horn. "I understood this to be open range."
"You understood wrong," Carter snarled. "But for a toll, I'll let y'all pass through."
A hint of a smile appeared on the Kid's face. "A toll? What might that be?"
"It's a big herd you folks got," the man replied. "I'll take 100 head as payment."
Now the Kid chuckled. "And if we refuse to pay?"
At this point, Carter openly placed a hand on the shotgun. "Then we'll kill you and stampede the herd. Five minutes work for us, and you'll spend days trying to round 'em up. Well," and here he chuckled, "you won't. But your pals will. What do you say to that?"
The Kid gently twisted the reins around his saddle horn and let his hands fall to his thighs. "I say this is open range. You get nothing."
Carter stared at the Kid for a moment, then a smirk appeared on his face. "Well," he growled, "in that case . . . "
A gunshot rang out, the ball whizzing right past Carter's face. A second shot took the next man's hat right off his head. His shotgun still only half-drawn, Carter stared down the barrel of the Kid's smoking gun.
"You get nothing," the Kid repeated. "If there's a toll to be paid, I'll pay it in lead. And you can reimburse me in blood."
Carter stared in shock into the unflinching eyes of the fifteen-year-old. They weren't a killer's eyes, that was plain enough to see. Not the eyes of someone who had killed before. But, as he looked closer, Carter realized they were the eyes of a man who could kill if he needed to. And that gun hand was fast. Fast and accurate.
Still staring, Carter slowly backed up on his horse. Then, turning abruptly, he galloped away from the Kid, the other men following.
The Kid returned his revolver to his gunbelt. As the men disappeared from view, he turned to ride back to the herd. He could tell them he'd found water.
* * *
Abilene. Little more than a cluster of log cabins sitting in the middle of nowhere. But there was a railhead there, next to those log cabins. South of the city proper were the shacks and tents of the cowboys. With the sudden arrival of the railroad and the great migration of the Texas longhorns, the town's population had grown faster than its infrastructure. It was a wild, raucous town, where beef turned into money, and money turned into whiskey. And the cowboys and businessmen alike loved it.
Two months on the trail. Another week cutting the herd and running the steers into the pens. Then finding buyers and collecting their pay. A single, lump sum of two months of starving for a good time and friendly company. Abilene may have been new to the cattle business, but she was already more than willing to take the cowboys' cattle and their cash too.
The Kid sat in the corner, half-tipsy on cheap liquor. Through the fog of his own thoughts, a voice told him he should probably stop before things got out of hand. But that voice was drowned out by the whooping and hollering of the other cow hands, and the wild laughter of the saloon girls.
"Another round!" a voice shouted, and without a second thought, the Kid threw back the contents of his glass. Fire stung his throat, and a haze enveloped the room. He let out a contented sigh. Driving cows was thirsty work.
On the other side of the log cabin, next to the bar, a banjo was playing a rough resemblance of some Eastern tune. The Kid found his foot tapping along to the offbeat melody. Abilene was a beautiful town. Perfect in every way.
He turned as someone sat down next to him. It was Bill Destry, his dad's old friend, his mentor on the Chisolm Trail. Fancy seeing him here.
Destry looked at the Kid's flushed features, then at the bottle sitting on the table. "Drinking alone?"
"Sure. And why not?" the Kid suppressed a hiccup, refilling his glass if only to give his hands something to do. "Better than being sober alone."
"Sound logic," Destry remarked drily. His eyes narrowed as he watched the Kid gulp the whiskey down. "How much have you had?"
The Kid set the glass on the table. That voice was there again, telling him he was doing something wrong, that this was a bad idea. The only problem was, he couldn't figure out what the voice meant. But maybe the whiskey would help him hear things better.
Destry took the bottle before the Kid could reach it, filling his own glass. "Good to have those cattle sold, isn't it?"
The Kid nodded, not quite sure what cattle Destry was talking about—or why he was talking about cows at all. He watched the bottle that the trail boss held annoyingly out of his reach.
"You got $70, right?"
The Kid nodded, grinning broadly. "Yep, and not Confederate money either. Fresh new green . . . " his voice trailed off abruptly as he caught sight of a familiar face at the bar.
As if sensing his gaze, the man looked up, only to have his jaw drop as he saw the Kid sitting at the table in the corner. It was none other than Jeremiah Carter, the bushwhacker he'd met on the trail.
"Kid?" Destry turned to see what the Kid was looking at.
The Kid stood up quickly, then caught at the table as the blood rushed to his head. "That son of a . . . Whoa." He steadied himself for a moment before glaring at Carter. "What in tarnation are you doing here?"
The noise in the room grew more subdued as he shouted.
Carter gulped down his drink and stood up to face the Kid. "Getting drunk. What are you doing here?"
The Kid glanced back at the bottle Destry was still holding as he watched the strange reunion in surprise. "Same as you, I reckon."
The two men stood for another moment, glaring at each other across the room but unsure what to do next.
Destry poured himself another drink and chugged it down. "Uh, Kid . . . "
The Kid looked down at him. "Did I tell you about the worthless bushwhackers I ran into on the, on the trail?"
"Maybe another time, Kid—"
"I shot one bullet past his head, and then I shot his friend's hat off. Hey, Jeremiah Carter, where's your friend?"
"None of your business," Carter growled.
The Kid laughed, even though he wasn't sure what was funny. "Is he still running, hm? Maybe he's still looking for his hat."
Destry was standing, and he put a hand on the Kid's shoulder. "We should call it a night, Kid."
The Kid nodded, noticing every eye in the saloon staring at him. He suddenly felt silly for causing such a commotion. With Destry's hand still on his shoulder, he made his way toward the door. Behind him, though, he heard Carter start to snicker.
"The little boy can't handle his liquor. Better go home with your pa, Kid."
The whiskey boiled in the Kid's veins. Go home with his pa? What did Carter know about his pa?
He shrugged off Destry's hand and whirled back toward the bar. His revolver was leveled at Carter's chest before he even realized he'd drawn. Anyone in front of the wildly waving barrel dove out of the way. Carter froze.
The Kid glared at him with a rage he had never known before radiating from his eyes. "Can't handle my liquor?!" he shouted. "Too bad you can't handle a gun, you spineless bushwhacker!"
Carter bit his lip, glaring back at the Kid with murder in his eyes. He set his glass on the bar; his hand drifted closer to his own pistol.
"Just try it," the Kid taunted. "I can empty this gun before you can clear leather, and I never miss."
Destry decided to move in before things got any further out of hand. He stepped in front of the Kid's revolver, between the two men. "Fellas," he said slowly, "there's no reason this has to escalate. You can both walk away."
The Kid continued glaring, but he knew Destry was right. "Okay." Still holding the gun on Carter, he took a step backward.
Destry fell in step beside him. Carter never moved. Not until they had both left the saloon, and the jingling of their spurs had faded. Then he picked up his glass and finished his drink. Whether his hands shook from fear or rage, no one there could say.
* * *
The Kid awoke with a throbbing headache, and only a vague memory of what had happened before. He rolled over to see Destry sitting in the entrance of the tent, glaring at him.
He let out a sigh. "I drank too much, didn't I?"
"I made a fool of myself?"
Again, the nod.
"You met Carter?"
The Kid winced at the disapproval in Destry's voice. He thought back to the drunken drama of the night before. "I wanted to kill him," he admitted in a low whisper, more to himself than to Destry.
The veteran heard him regardless. He sighed as he lit a cigarette. "You may get a chance yet."
At the tone in his voice, the Kid sat up. He noticed for the first time Destry's Henry rifle laying across his knees. He looked out through the open tent flap. Up the street, leaning against the porch of the saloon was Carter's friend, the one whose hat the Kid had shot off.
The Kid fell back on his bedroll, letting out a sigh. He should have listened to the voice that said the booze was a bad idea. "I got myself into this, Destry. I'll get out of it."
"Will you, Kid?" Destry's voice was pained. "You're not the first boy I've seen that thought he was invincible. You caught them by surprise before. If they come at you today, it will be different. They'll be coming for blood. Even if you win, you lose. Trust me."
The Kid felt the sadness in the veteran's voice. He knew he didn't really want to kill Carter and his friend, but he didn't see a way out of it. If they wanted a fight, he would give it to them.
Destry sighed, recognizing the look in the Kid's eyes. There was nothing more to be said, so he simply poured a cup of black coffee and passed it to the Kid. Things would turn out how they had to be.
Abilene was a town that thrived after dark. In the light of day, the streets were deserted. It seemed everyone in town was hungover in bed, waiting for the next big herd to arrive from the south, and the whole cycle to begin again. As the Kid stepped into the street, the only other movement was the lone tumbleweed that rolled across his path.
He took a deep breath. The dust in the air stung his nostrils; dust and the smell of cattle.
Carter and his unnamed friend were thirty paces up the street, leaning against the rails of the saloon's front porch. Their gunbelts rode easy on their hips, holsters tied off and guns unstrapped. Carter had replaced his sawed-off with a more manageable and more accurate Colt revolver. They stood up straighter as the Kid made his way up the street.
Not looking at either of them, the Kid walked slowly but steadily toward the general store across from the saloon. There were some things he needed to pick up. He wasn't sure what they were yet, but there had to be something.
Carter and the other man watched him coming closer and closer with every step. Just before he stepped onto the porch of the general store, Carter stepped out into the street.
"Hey, Kid. Looks like I found my friend."
The Kid turned to face them, both hands folded over his belt buckle. Like the men he was facing, he had already unstrapped his gun.
"So I see. How's your hat, friend?"
The man growled at him.
Carter took another step forward. "They don't sell brains at this store, Kid. Maybe you should go back to Texas to find yours."
"Maybe I will," the Kid answered. "Or maybe I'll have a look at yours."
Something changed in Carter's eyes. His hand snatched down toward his belt.
The Colt Navy leapt from the Kid's holster. The hammer dropped.
A gunshot shattered the morning stillness. Crimson spread across Carter's plaid shirt.
His friend cleared leather, but the Kid's hammer fell again. Before the echo from the first shot had faded, the man fell facedown in the street, blood pooling from the hole in his forehead.
Carter screamed in pain and rage. He raised his revolver.
A third shot from the Navy Colt silenced him forever.
After a few moments of silence, the people of Abilene began to emerge from the buildings on either side of the street. As yet, there was no sheriff in Abilene, so the undertaker simply pulled up with a wagon to cart away the corpses in preparation for their plots on Boot Hill. No one said a word to the Kid, or even looked his way after his gun was back in its holster.
He stood there in the street a moment longer, though, staring down at what he had done. Two lives were over, with no way to take it back now. Three bullets, and their lives were reduced to blood soaking into the dust of the street.
Without a word, he turned away, unable to look at his handiwork anymore. He couldn't stay here in Abilene. He wanted to go home, but he didn't feel that was an option either. Not now: he wouldn't be coming back the same boy who'd left. He couldn't stay, but he had nowhere to go. Back to the open range, perhaps; to the freedom and adventure he'd felt before.
As he passed by Destry, he reached into his pocket and pulled the $70, placing it in Destry's hand. The veteran looked at him in surprise.
"Give it to my ma," he croaked, his throat tightening.
Without waiting for a response, he gathered his few belongings from inside the tent and walked the rest of the way to the corral. He saddled his horse and rode away, leaving Abilene behind forever.
But as he rode, he felt the familiar weight of the Colt Navy on his hip. And the voice was in his head, telling him that wherever he and his gun went, they would take Abilene with them. He was Abilene. The Abilene Kid.
Samuel Kennedy is a blogger, author, and unapologetic fan of the Western genre. His stories
of the Wild West are meant to present an honest look at the real difficulties of taming a
frontier—and at the type of men it took to get the job done. Samuel Kennedy can be found
online at https://samuelkennedywritesstuff.home.blog/
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The Plains in Winter
by Arnold Johnston
The early winter sun had all but set. The layers of gray-white clouds that congested the western sky were edged with a metallic lemon hue. Moving slowly among the tufts of sagebrush and occasional cedars that dotted the plateau, the small wagon might have been on its way forever from nowhere to nowhere.
The driver of the wagon, though he could have described colorfully and at length where he had been—like many a tinker before him—had only vague notions of where his meandering easterly course would take him. Gallup, maybe. But anyway east.
The tinker was a small round-shouldered man with a large awkward-looking head. His face, large-pored and asymmetrical, might have formed by accumulation, the way wax builds around a burning candle. His eyes were dull brown and curiously unfocused. To most people he encountered their almost constant movement seemed merely an idle, wandering gaze.
Now that gaze kept returning to the thin wavering line of smoke that hung some miles before him above what looked like a group of buildings. Not just Navajo hogans, but real white man's buildings with a windmill among them, an unhoped-for punctuation in the dull immensity between Holbrook and Gallup, maybe even a chance to turn a profit.
Profits had been few lately, and though Fleming had not actually decided on his next course of action, his mind kept circling around the notion of selling his stock and heading farther east, maybe to open a store in a town, somewhere he wasn't known. Too many people were sticking in one place these days, people with a memory for anything that moved, especially a traveling man who might try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the stops he made.
The game had gone out of it, with distances between houses and law offices shrinking, and people huddling together like prairie dogs. Better now to try a bigger place, where the marks moved instead of him, where he could see a few sights other than the rear end of a mule, get off this desert where a man felt like a tick on a steer's flank.
As the scatter of buildings ahead became clearer, Fleming saw that his chances there would be slight. It appeared to be a town, at least the start of one, but stillborn or dying, its breath of life reduced to the thin exhalation of smoke trickling from the only building that seemed in decent repair. Who could be there? Indian squatters? Fleming doubted it; that wasn't the Indian way. Maybe another traveler sheltering for the night. That seemed more likely. Well, he'd know soon enough.
Fleming began ringing his bell long before the wagon came within rifle-shot of the ghost town, pulling the rope that hung at his left hand with a slow, steady rhythm. No sense getting shot at for want of an ample warning. Nerves could lead to a quick trigger in this loneliness. The flat monotonous ringing lost itself quickly in the thin air and vast space. Fleming, inured to it, scarcely heard the bell's muted clangor, and his mule, after a brief twitch of its ears, gave the sound no further attention. The scene ahead remained unchanged, as if there were no other ears to hear the tinker's approach.
But as he drew closer to the town Fleming's scrutiny shifted from the slowly rising smoke to the building below, and there at last he saw a conclusive sign of life. The front door of the building swung open and a man stepped out onto the wide front porch, one hand shading his eyes against the dying glare of the sun at Fleming's back. With a preliminary movement of his shoulders that might have been a shrug, or a shiver brought on by the chilling air, the man sat down on a porch step, obviously waiting, evidently not eager enough at the sight of a stranger to meet him halfway.
Finally though, when Fleming's wagon trundled within a hundred feet or so of the building, close enough for the tinker to read the sign it bore—Buckley's General Store & Stage Stop, GPO, Sheriff—the man rose. He was of medium height, unremarkable in dress or physical appearance. A battered wide-brimmed hat covered his head, and he wore a collarless shirt beneath a grimy, dun-colored jacket. A pistol rode high on the hip of the rough-cut wide-legged trousers he wore outside his boots. The lines on his face and the gray flecks in his dark sidewhiskers would make him about fifty, Fleming thought. Only one unusual feature marked the man: the five-cornered star he wore next to his left lapel.
"Evenin'," the man said. "At first I thought you might be the Army. Where you bound?"
"Just east," Fleming replied. "Maybe Gallup. I didn't expect to run into much on the way, except maybe Injuns."
The man eyed the sign on Fleming's wagon. "Well, Mr. Fleming," he said, "you wouldn't even have run into me if you'd been a few days later. I'll be gone, whole toot and scramble, soon as the Army gets here.
Fleming, in turn, inclined his head toward the sign on the building before him. "You must be Sheriff Buckley."
The man chuckled sourly. "Yes. That's me, all right. I'm not resigned yet." Then he forced a smile. "But climb on down and share supper with me, such as it may be."
"Obliged," Fleming said. He got down from the wagon, felt the hard earth under his feet. Just my luck, he thought. One other man in the middle of this waste, and he's not only the law, he's competition, too. But what in hell was going on here? Head tilted, nose twitching, Fleming looked around him. The town was silent, save for the random creakings of sun-dried wood. Like the air in a long-closed room, a parched, antique odor filled his nostrils, then faded with the dying breeze.
"You can stable your mule over there." Buckley indicated a building across the street with a cracked sign on which were printed the words, LIVERY STABLE, GEO. MILLS, PROP. "My two mares are in there. There's water and feed both."
Buckley accompanied Fleming and watched as the tinker tended to his animal. A wagon laden with furniture, crates of hard goods, and roughly-wrapped packages stood beneath the shelter of a lean-to at one side of the stable.
"All set to go." Buckley nodded at the wagon. Before Fleming could ask him where he intended going, the sheriff said, "Let's eat," and led the way back across the street.
Inside, Buckley's place looked much like any other general store, except that its shelves were empty and its pot-bellied stove stood cold and black. A bench ran along the wall to the left of the front door, presumably for waiting stage customers, and a faded timetable hung at eye level next to the door-jamb. The room was dark, illuminated only by the glow from an open doorway in the back wall.
"Back here," Buckley said, walking toward the light.
Fleming followed the sheriff into the back of the store and found himself in what at one time must have been comfortable living quarters, one large and two small rooms, too much really for a single man. Clearly Buckley had stripped the place of all he intended to remove, except for the few bedclothes, dishes, and foodstuffs he would need until the Army, whatever its purpose could be, arrived at the town. But the fluttering brilliance from the fireplace and the softer light from the oil lamp on the main room's lone bare table emphasized that the town, even in its present state of neglect, was nonetheless a refuge from the barren sameness of the great cold plateau.
When the two men were seated at the table, eating a makeshift meal of tinned meat, beans, hard biscuit, and black tea, Fleming finally moved to satisfy his curiosity.
"How do you come to be here?" he asked.
"Well," Buckley said, still chewing but settling back in his chair as if welcoming a pause in the meal, "back about ten years ago this town bid pretty fair to be a going concern, as much as any of those down southwest of here. The story's not so new, not in these parts. A silver town, that's what we were, and thought we would be for a long time to come. We called ourselves Mercer, after the man who made the strike. The mine was in the hills about ten miles northeast of here. But this is where the water was. My wife and I settled here and opened up the store. After we got established, the stage line came through and approached me about running a station. We finally got enough people to be a real town, and folks decided I ought to be sheriff, too. Wasn't any trouble at all. Wasn't a job, really. Give a miner a bed to sleep off the drink on weekends. Break up a fight or two. Things went along fine for about five or six years. Then the mine played out. After that, things just went from bad to worse. An old, old story."
Buckley interrupted the flow of his narrative for almost half a minute during which he stared down at his tin plate, apparently searching for words complex enough to describe simple reality. He finally abandoned the effort.
"I married late," he said, his voice congested. "My wife was young, a good deal younger than me. I wanted children, and it looked as if my prayers would be answered. But it wasn't to be. It was as if when that mine closed down, God's mercy for this town ran out, too. I lost them both. Wife and child." Again Buckley fell silent, turned for a time to look at the fire.
"Not too long after that," he said, "we had an outbreak of fever that took seven people. From then on folks began to leave. The last man, old George Mills, left last year."
"But not you," Fleming said, his sly opaque gaze avoiding the other man's eyes. "What kept you here?"
Buckley sighed and poured more tea for himself, then Fleming. "Everything was here," he said. "I couldn't think of leaving at first. I couldn't leave Willa and the child to lie here in this loneliness."
Crazy, Fleming thought. Grief and isolation. But maybe not too unbalanced to know truth from fantasy. If so, there might be a way yet to make something out of this encounter. Buckley had to be leaving something out. "But what about the Army?" he said. "You mentioned the Army."
"The Army." Buckley repeated the words tonelessly, as though distracted from other thoughts. But haltingly he spoke again. "Uh, they're coming—to move us."
"Us?" Fleming repeated. Then, without waiting for Buckley's response, he continued. "But why? What does the Army want out here?"
"Nothing." Buckley rose and crossed to the fireplace, where he stirred the burning brushwood awkwardly with the toe of his boot. Then he turned back to face the tinker. "A few months ago," he said, "a fellow came out here on a wagon. He was some kind of government man—'horticulturist,' he called himself. He said he'd heard about Mercer and wanted to come and look for himself. Said the fact we already had a well made the place ideal for what he wanted to do. Some kind of project, growing things in the desert."
Fleming shifted in his chair. "Wouldn't that bring the town back to life?"
"No." Buckley shook his head. "Oh, Morecambe told me he was authorized to pay me for the property, the well and all. But I didn't rightly feel I could take anything. That well was the town's, and we failed. Yes, we failed. Least we can do now is step aside for somebody else."
Fleming stared in disbelief, but Buckley seemed not to notice. "You mean you didn't set any terms at all?"
Buckley turned again toward the fire and began to speak in a voice so low that Fleming had to lean forward in his chair and strain to hear. "Yes, I set terms—I suppose you could say that. I couldn't stand to leave Willa and the child out here. Then I got to thinking about all the rest of the folks . . . I'd be deserting, too. So I asked Morecambe if there was some way I could get the . . . dead moved . . . to a cemetery in some thriving town, where they could be near the living. He said he thought the Army could do it. So . . . we're waiting."
Buckley crossed to the table and picked up the oil lamp. "Out here," he said, walking toward the back door. Fleming, responding automatically, rose and followed.
Outside, Buckley held the lamp high, spilling light over and among the coffins. At least Fleming supposed they were coffins. They lay in three irregular rows, narrow oblong wicker baskets, like long wasps' nests. Here and there among them were ordinary wooden coffins. But by far in the majority were the curious basketlike contrivances. A dry ancient odor hung in the cool desert night. Fleming, his skin tightening, noted dark patches in the lids of the things, apparently openings of some sort.
"What the hell?" he said.
Buckley, who had been standing immobile, turned to him, the movement of his lamp causing abrupt siftings of light and darkness among the dead. "Wood's scarce around here, you know. Some people were able to afford wooden coffins, but not too many. We had some Indians around town, and Kinney the undertaker had them weave these others. Come closer and look."
Fleming approached the coffins and stood at Buckley's shoulder. As he had dimly perceived in the gloom, the coffins were partially open at one end, where the basket fibers widened into a sort of latticework just above the faces of the corpses. Through the lid of the nearest coffin Fleming caught a glimpse of wizened, mummified flesh and, as Buckley's lamp swayed, the flash of a gold or silver tooth. Fleming felt vague stirrings within, a sense of something unreachable lying before him. His throat felt dry, constricted. The tooth winked again from the shadows.
"Why?" The tinker's voice sounded disembodied and without resonance in the night.
Gazing down steadily Buckley spoke. "The Indians done it. They couldn't see burying the dead in the first place. They said it held their spirits back from Heaven. Kinney did get them to weave the coffins, though. But he couldn't make them close those openings. They were stubborn. They said if the dead ones had to be kept from the sky, they should be able to breathe with the earth. Damned stubborn. Most folks gave in to it."
Fleming looked sharply at the other man. "You surely didn't let those heathens tell you how to bury your wife and child."
"No," Buckley said. He inclined his head toward one of the wooden coffins. "There they are, together."
They stood in silence for a time. The enormous bright haze of worlds and suns in the blackness above seemed to be pressing almost physically upon them.
Fleming finally broke the spell of quiet. "Do you really mean to say you're not getting anything out of all this?"
"I'm alive," Buckley said.
Fleming shifted his weight impatiently. "But damn it, man, you should take some profit from it. Look at those coffins—there must be a deal of precious metal to be had there—rings, watches, teeth—something."
Buckley swung around abruptly, so that the tinker had to shade his eyes against the lamp's glare. "I spent a good many years watching over these folks while they were alive and didn't really need me." His voice had taken on a hard edge. "The least I can do now is see them safe through these last few days."
A brief uneasy silence followed. Then Buckley, in the tone of a final pronouncement, said, "The night's cool. You're welcome to bed down inside."
Fleming cursed himself for his impulsive outburst. The man was deranged. Profit meant nothing to a crazy man. It was always best to keep your own counsel. Indoors would be nice. But not now. And a notion was beginning to form.
"I'm obliged," Fleming said, "for the offer. And for the meal, too. But I'm better under the sky, used to it. I'll probably get an early start, and I don't want to rouse you."
Buckley nodded shortly. "Good night to you then." He began to walk toward the house, then stopped. "Will you need the lamp to see the way to your wagon?"
The tinker shook his head. "Thank you," he said grudgingly. "I see well enough by the stars."
After Buckley was gone, Fleming remained, staring at the dark squares that screened the dead faces before him. They had no eyes to see in the night. He shivered as the air moved, cold, around him. Better to sit in the wagon and think.
At the livery stable Fleming left his bedroll tied up. Half-squatting, half-sitting, he balanced against the bedroll behind the seat of his wagon. Looking diagonally across the street at Buckley's place, the tinker could see the movement of light through the side window as Buckley presumably readied himself for sleep.
When at last the light went out, Fleming sighed audibly and sank forward on his knees, poised to rise. But he remained in place for almost a quarter of an hour, waiting. The only slight sounds to disturb the silence came from the animals shifting in their stalls. Finally satisfied that the moment was right, Fleming rose and climbed down from the wagon, his joints and muscles aching from the long spell of motionless crouching.
Realizing he'd better be ready for a quick departure, he hauled his mule from its stall as quietly as he could and hitched it to the wagon. "Keep quiet," he said, clapping the animal's flank.
The proper course was obvious. Goods were of no value to a crazy man, and Buckley's laden wagon stood invitingly nearby. No need to be greedy, Fleming thought. He'd take only what he fancied. His wagon was too small and too full of his own trade goods to carry much more. But together with what he'd accumulated through sharp trading and thimble-rigging, this haul might allow him to think seriously about settling somewhere and opening his own general store, becoming an upright town-dweller. Maybe even get elected mayor.
The trick, he thought, was to disturb the load as little as possible. The job proved to be easy. Buckley had stowed things snugly and methodically, and Fleming was able to unload them with a minimum of effort. Smiling, he transferred several packages from Buckley's wagon to his own—tinned peaches, a small box of bone-handled cutlery, a bolt-end of silk.
But something nagged at him. His satisfaction was incomplete. He paused, forearms resting on a box of tinned salmon he has just deposited in his wagon. A tiny point of light hung in the darkness of his mind.
A silver tooth.
Suddenly decisive, he leaned farther into his wagon and groped for a few moments in a wooden tool chest. He withdrew a small slender crowbar. Hefting the implement in his right hand, he glanced up at the river of stars, then moved off deliberately across the street.
Fleming had no need to search among the coffins. The tooth might have been burning in the night like a beacon. Time enough for the other bodies later. And a man vain enough to pay for an ornament like the tooth might well have more to offer.
After only a momentary hesitation, Fleming slipped the crowbar under the fastenings of the cocoon-like basket. He was able to pry the coffin open with surprising ease. Then he reached down and pushed back the lid.
The timeless face of death lay before him, eyeless and voracious. Amid dusty tatters of clothing and wrinkled smears of flesh the color and texture of spoiled fruit, Fleming saw planes and anges of bone thrusting like bedrock through eroded earth. And gleaming in the starlight a silver tooth. The tinker bent forward as if in a trance, his hand outstretched.
"What in God's name are you doing there?"
Fleming's head snapped back, and for a dizzying instant the night sky was a vast black and spangled hole into which he might plunge forever.
Then, righting himself, he spun around to confront Buckley, who stood over him in a long white nightshirt, a double-barreled shotgun held across his body, looking like an improbable avenging angel.
Without pausing to think or speak, Fleming swung his crowbar in a tight arc at Buckley's head. Buckley raised his arm instinctively, trying to ward off the blow with his shotgun, but the crowbar struck him solidly just above his left wrist. Face contorted, Buckley fell back onto one knee, still holding the shotgun in his right hand, his left arm rigid with pain, pressed against his body.
Following his advantage, Fleming lunged forward, driving the sharp end of the crowbar at Buckley's chest. The implement tore a ragged gash down Buckley's ribcage and lodged in his stomach. Grunting with the effort, Fleming pulled the crowbar free.
Still clutching the shotgun, Buckley fell heavily on his back. And as if triggered by the impact, both barrels of the weapon discharged, their thunder a brief focal point in the immensity of the plain. One charge sprayed harmlessly past Fleming's head. The second smashed into his right shoulder and lower jaw, showering blood and bone fragments into the night in a momentary black explosion, spinning the tinker's body completely and slamming it to the earth where it lay half-propped against the open coffin.
Buckley, his ripped nightshirt soaked with his own blood, struggled to his knees, then fell forward. He half-crawled, half-dragged himself to where the tinker lay and, turning, sat down heavily, his legs splayed, his back braced against the coffin. For a few moments he looked in turn at each of the two ruined faces flanking him. Then his head sank forward.
The slight shifting jarred the tinker's body, which slipped sidewise, the head coming partly to rest on Buckley's right thigh. Fleming's eyes briefly took in the great shiny flood of stars above him, and he realized that he'd be settling in a town after all. Then the stars faded and the night sky bore down on him.
The sound of gunfire had long since died away.
* * *
Lieutenant Van Epps was perplexed. Sweat tickled his legs behind the knees. The detail had been singular and unpopular from the beginning. The men had grumbled steadily throughout the trek to Mercer. Even sighting the town this morning had failed to raise their spirits.
Sergeant Quillen had put it succinctly as a sergeant could, part explanation, part complaint. "Regular cavalry on a civilian burial detail—and not even a military connection. It's a strange business."
And now this. Van Epps looked down at the bodies, the one cradling what was left of the other's head, as if in a pose of comfort. The shotgun. The bloody crowbar. The open coffin. And all of these strange basket affairs ranged about them like something out of an Egyptian tomb.
The lieutenant found himself considering the scene as he would have a classroom tactical problem in his days as a cadet at West Point. What would he write in his report? What had been won here, what lost?
He looked around at his men, at Sergeant Quillen, who pursed his lips, waiting. Somehow, Van Epps felt, the answer lay as much with the town and these strange . . . sarcophagi . . . as with the two more recently dead men. The simplest course, as usual, was action.
"What do you think about this?"
The sergeant rubbed at the stubble on his chin. Then he said, "I'd guess it's like the man that wanted to start him a dog-fightin' ring."
Some of the men were listening now. So long as he wasn't out to get you, the sergeant was always good for a story.
"Well," Quillen went on, "the fella ordered two pit bulls to be shipped to him, and when the crate arrive it was empty. He says to his partner, 'What d'you suppose happened to them?'" His partner says, 'Hell, they must of ate each other.'"
The men guffawed, and Van Epps felt himself reddening. "Very funny, sergeant," he said. "Have two men wrap these bodies in blankets and close up that . . . coffin. Have the rest of the detail pair up and load the wagons. Let's get this damn business over and done with."
Satisfied that he'd reasserted his authority, Lieutenant Van Epps moved off at a leisurely pace toward the livery stable. Sooner or later the goods on the wagons there would have to be inventoried, for he knew the men weren't above pilfering.
As he walked, the lieutenant glanced up at the sky. This morning the great blue void was obscured by a gray wintry haze so close to the earth it seemed a man might reach up and touch it.
Arnold Johnston lives in Kalamazoo and South Haven, MI. His poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translations
have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. His books include the following: poetry chapbooks
Sonnets: Signs and Portents and What the Earth Taught Us; and The Witching Voice: A Novel
from the Life of Robert Burns. A full-length poetry collection, Where We're Going, Where We've Been,
appeared recently from FutureCycle Press, and a novel, Swept Away is currently under contract. His
translations of Jacques Brel's songs have appeared in numerous musical revues nationwide, and are also featured
on his CD, Jacques Brel: I'm Here! His plays, and others written in collaboration with his wife, Deborah
Ann Percy, have won some 200 productions, as well as numerous awards and publications across the country and
internationally; and they've written, co-written, edited, or translated some twenty books. From 2009-2012 they
were joint Arts and Entertainment columnists for the award-winning national quarterly journal Phi Kappa Phi
Forum. Arnie is a member of the Dramatists Guild, Poets & Writers, the Associated Writing Programs, and the
American Literary Translators Association. He was chairman of the English Department (1997-2007) and taught
creative writing for many years at Western Michigan University. He is now a full-time writer.
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by Dawn DeBraal
Hadley Whittman first laid eyes on his future wife in a magazine advertising mail-order brides. He thought Ulyana was so beautiful that he put his pen to paper writing a heartfelt letter telling her all about the life of a frontiersman living near Grass Valley in 1848. He made this life sound grander than it was, deciding no intelligent well-bred woman would want to come to America to work as a slave from sun up to sun down on a farm.
It was several months before he heard from Ulyana. She found a woman in Ukraine who translated Hadley's letter and helped her write a letter back to him. Excited by his stories, she said she dreamed of coming to America to be a pioneer woman. She was learning English from the same friend so she could understand him if they ever met.
Hadley was filled with joy at the possibility of finding a wife, a woman willing to come out to the unsettled territory. He wrote back to Ulyana adding a little more about himself. He told her how he built his own cabin, and his farm—a two-day ride from Grass Valley—would support them both. He let her know how lonely he was and that he longed for the company of a fine woman such as she.
For a year the letters went back and forth, leading to Hadley proposing to her. He told her he would send tickets for transportation and a little money for travel expenses if she'd agree to be his wife. Ulyana accepted.
It was a leap of faith for Hadley who booked her passage on a ship, a train, and finally, a stagecoach. Grass Valley was her final destination, where he would meet her with his wagon.
Hadley dressed in his finest suit the day she was to arrive. The stagecoach was expected at noon. Standing on the street waiting for its arrival, Hadley checked his pocket watch. Bat Bowdry came by asking him why he was dressed so finely?
"I am meeting my future wife," Hadley told him.
"Wife? You found a woman to come to this God-forsaken land?" Bat asked incredulously. "Where did you find such a person?"
"Magazine," Hadley told him. "We've been conversing for a year, she agreed to be my wife." Bat stopped what he was doing.
"I think I will wait with you and find out what kind of woman comes from a magazine!" he chuckled. They could see the stagecoach in the distance. Hadley's heart pounded in excitement.
Ulyana stepped off the stage with the help of the driver, wearing her best dress, Hadley felt. She looked around the dusty town. There wasn't much to see. A dry goods store, a tavern, livery, hotel, and many, many men.
Ulyana was a bit intimidated by the number of men. They stopped in the street, seeing a woman in their town, and impolitely stared. Hadley took out his handkerchief and waved it in the air calling her name. Ulyana's smile blossomed. She thought Hadley was just as handsome as his picture. They came together with a handshake.
"Welcome!" Hadley bowed to her in honor. Ulyana smiled brightly.
"Tak, Hello." She said hesitantly. Bat Bowdry started to laugh.
"A dream come true, a woman who can't speak English." He laughed. Hadley gave him a withering look and took Ulyana's bag from her, carrying it to his wagon. Ulyana walked around his horses, checking their stature. They were good horses and well cared for. She was relieved to see that. A man who treated his animals well would treat his family better.
Ulyana spoke very little English. Hadley had no other language skills than English. The conversation between them did not flow. He asked if she were willing to get married and she answered yes. He took Ulyana down to the Justice of the Peace office where they signed a marriage agreement and became man and wife.
Hadley suggested to his new wife to change out of her good clothes into something more comfortable. They had a two-day ride to his farm. She understood and got her suitcase from the wagon. Hadley changed out of his suit and waited for his wife. When she did not appear, he made his way back to the Justice of the Peace office. Ulyana was trying to move around Bat Bowdry who had forced himself in front of her. He could see the look on his new wife's face, she was very uncomfortable.
"Get away from my wife, Bowdry!" shouted Hadley, his hand on his gun.
"She ain't your wife Hadley, she's a whore from Ukraine posing as your wife." Hadley ran into the man and knocked him to the ground. Bat was up in seconds ready to fight. Ulyana shouted, "No," dragging Hadley by the arm. Bat didn't want to fight the man. He watched as they walked back to the wagon. Bat admired her spunk, getting in between two fighting men. She would need that spunk to live in this backward town. He walked off, leaving Hadley and his bride alone. Hadley realized because of the shortage of women in Grass Valley he would have to defend this woman for the rest of his days. He was up for the challenge.
Ulyana was exhausted after weeks of travel. She fell asleep in the bed Hadley made for her in the back of the wagon. She didn't wake up when he camped that night. The next day they arrived at his farm.
Her face fell when she saw the cabin. The farm was not as grand as Hadley portrayed in his letters and the house was even more disappointing. Hadley scratched his beard when he saw the look on her face, admitting that he might have exaggerated a little on the size of the farm but that they would be well off and comfortable and they could always add onto the house, especially if they had young'uns.
She didn't understand much of what he said. Hadley carried his bride over the threshold and let her get her bearings in her new home while he went out to unhitch the wagon and care for the livestock.
Ulyana looked around the cabin, moving back to the kitchen. Hadley had enough supplies for her to make some biscuits. She started a fire with kindling in a bucket at the base of the stove. She had the dough rising and a pot of water set to boil when she went out into the yard catching a chicken. With a quick whip of her wrist, its neck was broken.
Ulyana carried the chicken to the wood stump and cut its head off. All the while, Hadley peeked through the barn door. What an amazing woman! There was no time to pluck the chicken, so she pulled a filet knife out of the porch post. After she expertly skinned the chicken, she threw it into the pot of water she had set to boil on the stove. She rolled out the biscuits, making circles with a cup she twisted back and forth in the dough. She put them on a pan sliding them into the oven, she found herself humming a song from her beloved country.
When Hadley came into the house, dinner was almost ready. Ulyana handed him a pan of warm water and a bar of soap and motioned to him to take the pan outside and clean himself up before dinner. Hadley laughed at her at first, then remembered the quick work she made of the chicken. He obeyed his wife and went outside, giving himself a sponge bath. He threw out the water and walked into the house.
Ulyana pulled out his chair for him to be seated. She folded her hands and bowed her head in prayer. Hadley quickly adapted. He hadn't prayed since he was a boy under the direction of his mother. She prayed simply. Hadley did not know what she said but was put at peace by her comfortable demeanor.
He waited for her to begin dinner. Now was a crucial time to set the patterns they would follow in their married life. He wanted her to direct how she wanted things. If he didn't like it, he would change. So far it was going well, he thought.
Ulyana dished up his dinner and then hers. They ate their first meal together in their home. Hadley was relieved, it was a good dinner. He gazed over the table at Ulyana's fair face. He looked forward to the time when they could converse back and forth. He pointed to the chair and exaggeratedly said, "Chair." Then he motioned to her. Ulyana nodded her head that she understood.
Hadley was trying to break the ice. "Chair," she repeated tapping the chair and looked at Hadley, "stilets," Ulyana offered. Hadley repeated "stilets." Then tapping with both hands on the table he said, "table." Ulyana repeated "table" and then said "stil," as she tapped the table.
Hadley was quite taken with her looks, he asked her, "How do you say beautiful?" He pointed at her. Ulyana looked confused for a second and then a smile came over her face. "Ulyana!" she shouted.
"Yes, Yes!" Hadley smiled agreeing with her. It was a start. They were communicating. Hadley made a makeshift bed in front of the fireplace. He would give Ulyana her privacy. He wanted his wife to come to him when she was ready to be his wife. He would not force her.
When evening fell, Hadley showed Ulyana to the bedroom. Bowing as he closed the door. He poked at the fire in the fireplace and stripped down to his long johns before laying on the hard floor with a quilt. He was nearly asleep when he heard the bedroom door open.
Hadley thought he should have shown Ulyana the thunder jug under the bed so she wouldn't need to go out in the cold evening to use the outhouse. Ulyana did not go out to the outhouse, she stood in front of Hadley at the fireplace. He looked at her face, trying to figure out what she wanted. Then it dawned on him. He opened his blanket allowing Ulyana to crawl in next to him. They snuggled. Despite the hard floor beneath him, Hadley Whittman had the best night of sleep he'd had in a long time.
Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two rat terriers, and a cat. She has discovered that her
love of telling a good story can be written. She has published stories with Palm-sized Press, Spillwords, Mercurial
Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Edify Fiction, Zimbell House Publishing, Clarendon House Publishing, Blood Song Books,
Black Hare Press, Fantasia Divinity, Cafelit, Reanimated Writers, Guilty Pleasures, Unholy Trinity, The World of Myth,
Dastaan World, Vamp Cat, Runcible Spoon, Siren's Call, and is the Falling Star Magazine 2019 Pushcart Nominee. You can
find her work at https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-DeBraal/e/B07STL8DLX
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by Larry Flewin
She was an American 4-4-0 coal burner, fresh out of the Rogers Locomotive Works of Paterson, N.J. Weighing in at 68,000 pounds she boasted 54-inch driving wheels, 24-inch cylinders and an adjustable cinder screen that could be controlled from the cab by the fireman.
Shipped west as dead freight on another train, she'd crossed the Mississippi at Council Bluffs and reached her destination at the Omaha roundhouse before anyone noticed she was missing parts.
Setting her aside had been a difficult and expensive decision but the Kansas Pacific Railway needed engines and not problems. Time was money and there was no money in getting up steam for a dead engine. She'd been abandoned to her fate alongside a number of broken-down cattle cars, switch stands and hand cars.
Her rescuers—two diehard railroaders, Rufus Grainger and Abner Dowd—refused to leave her be. Engineer and fireman respectively, they boasted more railroad time together than the company they worked for. They stumbled across her sitting on an abandoned stretch of track behind the roundhouse and a sorry sight she was, dulled brass work, faded paint, rust running in streaks down the boiler.
It seemed a crying shame to leave her sit there and rust away to nothing so they rolled up their sleeves and got right to work. They spent endless hours of their own time tracking down missing parts and on more than one occasion making what they needed in the roundhouse machine shop.
Two months later the sight of her slowly chugging into the yard, bright with paint and gleaming brass work was the talk of the roundhouse. Work stopped as everyone from fitters to managers came running over to see the miracle for themselves. They cheered themselves hoarse as Kansas Pacific's newest engine gently rolled to a stop on the turntable, ready to go to work.
As a thank you for all their hard work, Kansas Pacific gave her the number 40, reflecting the time the two railroaders had spent together running freight and cattle across the wide-open prairie of Kansas and Missouri. As for her name, well, that was a different story.
Rufus was a widower, his dear wife Gertie having passed on some time back from consumption. The tough old railroader missed her sorely and was moved to shed a tear or two when Abner suggested they call her Gert. 40 be damned, he said, she had a heart and soul like all good engines, be a crying shame iffen we didn't! Rufus proudly painted her name on both sides of the coal tender with a lick of gold paint scrounged from the paint shop.
As for Abner, he had a son long since grown up and moved out west where he was an engineer for the Union Pacific. His wife, Abigail, ran a rooming house back in Kansas City, proud as punch that both of the men in her life were railroaders.
Gert made a name for herself by reaching the unheard-of speed of 82 miles per hour on her inaugural run. Hauling a string of empty cattle cars and a caboose out west to Ogden, Rufus and Abner stoked her firebox red-hot and darn near boiled her dry before declaring their first trip an overwhelming success! They were Throttle Hogs!
Today they had their work cut out for themselves. They had 'ol Gert running for her life, tearing up the track between Omaha and Abilene at a speed that threatened to melt the rails. Thick black smoke streamed out of her straight stack in a long greasy plume that dulled the shine of the brass cap. It blew back along the length of the train enveloping it in a thin layer of soot.
Rufus and Abner were determined to get every ounce of speed out of her, they had to if they were to outrun the local range rider they were racing against. Their very reputations were on the line. They were hauling a couple of empty cattle cars and a caboose but they could have used another tender. With all that extra stoking to do, they were in danger of running out of coal before they reached the finish line!
"Well Abner," gasped Rufus over the roar of the engine. "I'm thinkin' we're doing good right now. We're up to full speed and pressure still reads good on the boiler."
"Yesirree bob it does," said Abner loudly in reply. "That'll stand us in good stead all the way to Abilene! She's got to iffen we're gonna whup that rider fellah! He seemed mighty sure of hisself giving 'ol Gert the evil eye an' all. Well we'll show him won't we ol' girl!" He blew the whistle long and loud as if to signal her agreement. She sure was feeling her oats, could be she might set another speed record or two this trip!
With the eastern conflict over, travel west had gone from a trickle to a stampede. Seemed like everyone and his dog wanted a new life and were heading west to start one. Railroads like the Kansas Pacific were laying new track as fast as they could in order to meet the demand. It took time and money which they had aplenty, along with that fierce western pride of being the best in the west when it came to running a railroad.
A friendly race between steam engine and horse was always a crowd pleaser. It set the stage for the railroad's arrival in town, an event that promised to change people's lives and make cattlemen rich.
Sodbusters, ranch hands, townsfolk and the just plain curious gathered from miles around to watch the race. Liquor flowed freely and sides of beef smoked deliciously over open fires making race day almost as much a holiday as the Fourth of July!
Kansas Pacific turned to 'ol Gert to represent them as she was the newest engine in the fleet and stoked by the two most experienced railroaders in the west. Rufus and Abner had run 'ol Gert through a handful of races already, quickly becoming the favorite of the local crowds.
The race was much the same no matter what the town they steamed into. Today it was Stillman's siding, newly sprung up along the main line and looking to make a name for itself as a whistle stop. A local rider cantered up to 'ol Gert a whoopin' and a hollerin' to beat all. He swore on his mother's grave to ride her into the dirt, much to the amusement of the half-drunk crowd. Gert blew off some steam through her pistons in reply.
Come race time the local law swaggered out to the tracks and climbed up onto Gert's cowcatcher. A shot from his Colt Peacemaker quieted the crowd, allowing for some speechifying by local businessmen and the mayor. Rail was progress, rail was the way of the future, rail meant prosperity for all.
A man of the cloth being present, a brief prayer to the good Lord for honesty and fair play was offered up. A moment of silence, followed by a loud amen, and the crowd exploded back into life, liquor and money flowing freely as before.
A second pistol shot announced the start of the race and the horse and rider leaped into action. They streaked down the track along the ballast while 'ol Gert got up steam and slowly chugged to life. Rufus and Abner knew they would be well behind until she was at full pressure, then she would fly down the track and rapidly overtake the rider.
Finally, up to full steam, 'ol Gert swayed gently from side to side as she tore down the track at breakneck speed. The rider was too far ahead to be seen but Rufus and Abner were confident they would catch him up soon. Horses were fast and full of heart but Gert was faster and full of coal.
"Tarnation but that's a lot of coal," gasped Abner. "I'm all but done in and we ain't even a half-hour in! You sure you cain't see him yet?" He was leaning against the side of the coal bunker, sweat streaking his coal dusted face. It was like stoking a boiler in Hades it was so hot and noisy.
"Nope!" hollered Rufus from his perch on the engineer's seat. "Don't see nuthin' no how but he'll show hisself soon enough, you mark my words." He looked back at Abner, took in the heaving chest and sweat soaked bandana and shook his head. Stubborn old fool, no race was worth a heart attack. But they were Throttle Hogs, kinda came with the job.
"You look all done in Ab, tell yuh what," said Rufus sliding off his seat into the tender. "You set a spell and let me stoke some, no sense in overdoin' it now, not with Gert running as sweet as she is."
"Thanks Rufe, don't mind if I do." Abner slumped down gratefully onto the driver's seat and stuck his head out the cab window. The rush of cool prairie air on his skin felt mighty good. Rufus tore a chaw off his plug of tobacco and got to it.
A few minutes to catch his breath and Abner was back to his crusty old self. It was then that he saw something off in the distance, far enough up the track to be little more than a smudge. But it was right in front of them and coming up fast! And right on the rails!
"Hey Rufe, come and see this! What do you make of that?"
Rufus put down his shovel, plunked himself down on the fireman's seat and peered out the cab window. The smudge grew rapidly until they could see it was some sodbuster or other standing smack dab in the middle of tracks, waving his arms hard as he could. And 'ol Gert tearing up the rails like they were afire.
Just up the line was a Conestoga wagon, front wheels driven right up to the ballast, the falling tongue draped across the tracks. On the other side a lone piebald quietly grazing on the short prairie grasses. What in Sam hill was going on?
Abner hauled on the whistle cord, sending a long loud wail to warn the old fool to clear the tracks. Instead he kept on waving his arms and started running towards them.
The two railroaders came to the same conclusion, leaped off their seats and pulled hard on the brake levers. That locked 'ol Gert's 54" drive wheels up tight sending her into a teeth-rattling, bone-jarring slide. She shot down the rails in a shower of fiery orange sparks, screeching mightily in protest. Behind her the cars banged hard on their couplings. Steam roared out of the pistons as she did her best to stop before she walloped the wagon and sent it spinning across the prairie.
"C'mon old girl!" roared Rufus. "You kin do it! Yeah I know he's a damn fool sodbuster but he don't deserve to get hisself kilt!"
Engine, tender, cattle cars and caboose rattled to a grinding halt in a great cloud of steam and smoke, the wagon barely a foot from the pointed nose of Gert's cowcatcher.
"Thank God you stopped!" hollered the sodbuster as he ran up to the cab. "Thank God almighty! She's close to time and the wagon done broke down on me." He doubled over gasping for breath as Rufus jumped down from the cab. He pulled a bright red and white checked neckcloth from his back pocket and mopped his sweaty brow, face and neck.
"Glad to oblige mister tho' I don't suppose 'ol Gert was none too happy. Darn near hit that there wagon o' yourn, woulda smashed it all to kindling."
The sodbuster straightened up after a time, extending a gnarled hand to shake Rufe's with a firm prairie grip. Out west a handshake told a story all its own, soft as a tenderfoot or muscled as old oak. His spoke of a hard-working homesteader grateful they'd stopped in time.
"Name's Bill, yonder's Annie," he said, nodding at the wagon. "She needs a doctor real bad!"
Jumping down from the cab to join Rufus, Abner gasped in disbelief at what he was hearing. "What're you telling me, there's someone in there?" he said nodding at the wagon.
"Yessirree! Be muh wife, Annie. She's gonna have a baby, our first, and it don't look too good. She needs a doctor bad but my wagon broke down as we were trying to cross. Looking to reach the trail just north of here, mebbe find some help. Then you boys come along." He looked anxious as any new father might.
"Well," said Abner. "Nearest doc I know is down the track a ways near Picot Junction. Some Frenchie or other settled down there after the war, set hisself up as a Doctor, does some tooth pulling and the like. Might be he can help."
He looked over at Rufus, knowing what he was about to say was going to cost them the race, and maybe a little money on the side. Neither could be called gambling men but a friendly wager on a race wasn't above them.
"Whadda ya say we take her to the junction Rufe," said Abner. "Means we lose out today, might be the railroad won't take to kindly to that."
Rufus paused for a moment to shift his plug a mite and squirt some juice out of the side of his mouth. He looked hard at Abner. "Well sir, might be we lose the race an' all, but we got us a woman needs help, not the kind we can give. Be up to 'ol Gert here to get us there in good time. I reckon she can do her part." He turned back to the sodbuster. "Shore 'nuff Bill, let's get you two into the boxcar and we'll make tracks."
"Yer a good man Rufus Grainger," said Abner slapping him hard on the back. "Just thinkin' the same thing myself. You get 'em on board and I'll see to Gert. Might be she's still got a little extry something in her."
Rufus stumped over to the broken-down wagon and helped a very pregnant woman down off the tailgate and over to the door of the boxcar. He slammed it open and, with the help of Bill, managed to get the Annie on board. Judging by her moans and groans she was near her time. They were going to have to hurry!
No sooner was Rufus climbing into the cab than Abner released the brakes to send Gert on her way. Her drive wheels jerked to life, fighting hard to grip the rails and get a move on. It was as if she could sense the danger Annie was in and was doing her darndest to be as helpful as Abner and Rufus. Ready or not, that child was coming into the world and it was going to need a whole lotta help. The needle on the pressure gauge began to nudge the red line.
Picot Junction was a maybe a mile or so down the tracks, little more than a stop for coal and water. It was the smallest settlement in the old west graced by a doctor. He was a veteran of the recent war between the States, a French gentleman who had travelled to the United States to see something of it. Instead he got caught up in the fracas, not taking a side but setting up a practice near to Sharpsburg, doctoring to whomever came to his office.
The war over, he continued with his travels, finding himself stranded out in the middle of the great prairie when the train he was riding on broke down at the junction. He wasn't there more than a day before patients came a knockin'. Before he knew it, he was setting up shop inside an old tool shed. That soon grew into a house, a barn, and finally a surgery that treated all and sundry.
Patients arrived by rail, horseback, wagon, and even on foot, so many that he became his own town, mayor, doctor and undertaker. As the junction was on newly laid track just to the south of the Santa Fe trail, it became a favourite stop along the way for long lines of Sooners heading west.
In no time they were flying down the tracks, smoking streaming out of 'ol Gert's straight stack. Abner and Rufus shovelled as never before, determined to get to Picot and the doctor as fast as was humanly possible. The heat from the boiler was so intense they had to shovel with their faces covered by bandannas. And the noise, louder than the Union guns at Antietam.
Both men were aware of the difficulty facing them, a woman facing a difficult birth with no help in sight for miles, except the two of them and ol' Gert. They were confident they could get to the junction in time to welcome this new life into the world. With any luck he'd grow up to be a railroader just like them.
Yet again it was Abner who spotted trouble down the line, another arm waver frantically trying to get their attention.
"We ain't stopping, Rufe!" roared Abner, sweat-soaked and half deaf. "We gotta get that there baby to Picot so's it can be born! Whoever it is we'll come back for 'em!"
"Sounds right by me," Rufus roared back. "Slow down some so's I can tell him. Mebbe he can jump on board but we cain't stop, take too long for 'ol Gert to get up steam again."
"Right you are!" He worked the brakes to slow Gert a little. The waver alongside the tracks was all buckskin and boots, a pair of saddlebags slung over a brawny shoulder. The range rider. A cheery wave turned to a look of concern as Gert slowly chugged past him. He loped easily alongside the cab as Rufus leaned down to explain things.
"Sorry son cain't stop none! Got us a woman on board needs a doc real bad. We're making for Picot fast as we can. Mebbe you can grab onto that boxcar back there," he said pointing back to the open door.
"Obliged mister," said the rider. "Much obliged for the ride". And with that he dropped back eyeing the open door as it came up. Rufus watched him hurl his bags and then himself into the boxcar. He nodded at Abner who threw the throttles wide open. Gert leaped forward like she'd been stung by a bee.
Both men were grim-faced knowing they'd maybe put Annie and the baby in further danger just by slowing down for the rider. They grabbed shovels and jumped to it, feeding the boiler hard and fast. God fearin' men, they said every prayer they knew to try and give their passenger every help possible.
The coal in the tender was running a little low when Picot Junction finally came into view, the water tower marking the place in an otherwise flat and featureless prairie. The doctor's surgery was a short distance back of the tracks, sitting a narrow gully and not easy to see. Both men knew where it was but was the doctor home?
Gert rolled into the junction, soot stained and smoky, whistle blowing long loud and hard, brass bell ringing furiously. To their dismay no one came out to greet them, Picot junction was silent as a grave.
"Damnation," gasped Rufus. "Ain't nobody to home! We done got here fast as fast, ol' Gert done give it her all! Tain't fair I tells ya, tain't fair!" He slammed his fist into his palm in frustration, that baby was gonna have to come along on his own.
"Hold on there, old friend, lemme go see if anyone's over to the doc's! Could be he's busy or asleep or some damn thing. Be right back!" And with that Abner leaped from the cab and hot-footed towards the gully and the doctor's office.
He came back a short time later shaking his head, the doc wasn't there, a note pinned to his door saying he was gone west to help with another birth. With nothing but bad news in his heart he was staggered to hear a high-pitched screech coming from the track where Gert sat huffing and puffing.
Rufus was standing beside the open door of the boxcar cradling a bundle of cloth in his arms, a bundle that was making a loud wailing noise. Beside him stood the sodbuster, and the range rider. All three were staring at Rufus, sporting grins as wide as the Mississippi.
"What the Sam Hill?" gasped a puzzled Abner.
"Sam Hill nuthin', lookee here," said the proud sodbuster. "Got me a new son and all on account of him." He slapped the rider on the back. "Weren't fer you, Annie woulda had too hard a time birthing my boy, but you done saved 'em both. Cain't thank you enough!" Another slap on the back.
"You did this?" said Abner, peering into the little face that looked up at him from the depths of Rufus's arms.
"Yessir, did my best and it come out okay. Did a lot of doctoring for the army way back, fixed a lot of arms and legs and more than few ribs. But never did no baby before. Leastwise not a child, done a lot of sheep and horses back on the farm so's I figured it couldn't much different. Turns out I was right."
"His ma's okay?" asked Abner. He didn't see her anywhere. Yeah was the reply, she's just taking her ease on some straw in the boxcar. Be right as rain soon enough.
"Well if that don't beat all," said Abner. "Wait 'til Abigail hears about this. I'm supposed to be running freight and cattle, not babies. She'll never let me live it down."
"That ain't all," boasted Rufus. "We's uncles you an' me, she done named the boy Abner Rufus!"
"I shoulda knowed," boasted Abner. "Another Throttle Hog!"
Larry Flewin lives and writes in Winnipeg, Canada. His love of writing runs the gamut from children's books
to mystery and western short fiction. He has many online publishing credits and several full-length novels.
Larry is passionate about his craft and is never far from a pen; plots are where you find them. He is active
in his community, works for a local food bank and is a long-time member of the Freelancers writing group.
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The Damned of Bovee Draw
by Joe Jackson
"The lights are out, but that don't mean they ain't in there," Sebastian said, his face gaunt in the moonlight, his eyes flashing as he appraised the shack in the distance. "I heard they hang up buffalo skins on the windows."
Thump, the scrawnier of the two, crawled forward in the grass. His hand slithered to his hip, felt at the pistol stuffed in his pants, and stopped for a moment. His breath suspended.
"I don't hear nothin'."
It didn't help that Thump was short an ear. A knot of scabbed flesh presided over where his left should have been.
"Ain't many people dumb enough to try and rob the Three Mile Ranch," Sebastian whispered.
The shack was backlit by a summer moon and awash with shadows.
"Why not, Seb?"
"Because I hear the German in there will cut you up with a butter knife."
Sebastian hocked a wad of tobacco spit.
"Ain't bullshit," he said. "He's already done it."
"'Member Crazy Jesse?"
"Guy who ran hooch up by the Cambria Salt Mine?"
"That's him. I heard he tried to rip Three Mile off and they strung him out between two cottonwoods and filleted him like a catfish and then chopped him up until the pieces could fit through a sieve. Then they dumped him in the Platte."
Thump gave an involuntary shiver, muttered bullshit once more and lowered himself closer to the ground.
"Let's go," Sebastian breathed, and like lizards the two rogues crawled forward.
Thump curled around once to make sure nothing was following him—he had an image of the big German sneaking up behind him and driving a knife, still greased with butter, down through his spine—but saw only the celestial lights of Fort Laramie, the nearby military outpost and biggest settlement for miles.
"Why don't we just shake down the general store out there?" he said.
"Because Fort Laramie don't have an entire wall's worth of cash in a backroom," Sebastian replied. Then he held out one quivering hand.
Thump turned his remaining ear toward Sebastian, and he suddenly caught the faintest glow of amber behind one of darkened windows. A light. Then a shadow passing before it.
"Let's go around back," Thump croaked, his jaw trembling.
"Naw. Climb the roof."
"I'd bet my hat they got the front and back doors guarded and locked. We climb up and go down the chimney," Sebastian hissed. "Like Santa Claus."
"What if they got a fire?"
"It's goddam July out here, Thump."
And so they climbed, their sinewy fingers clenching and their bare feet wrapping around the contours of stone and log like gargoyles. They didn't make a sound on the ascent, a feat organized and practiced on many a home in St. Louis, where three years prior they'd robbed enough cash to make their way westward on the tracks of the Union Pacific. Thump had always been the one to go first. That's just how it was. Just like Sebastian was always the better shot so he held back with his pistol at the ready in case things went wrong. At least that's what he'd always told Thump—"You go ahead, I'll hang back and guard ya."
Once on the roof they crept across chopped shingles, their breath eager but soundless, their ears primed for any hint of sound from inside. Thump suppressed a sneeze, retched silently in the moonlight, and tottered in a precarious stupor before Sebastian smacked him back to his senses. Then they reached the chimney.
"Down the hatch," Sebastian said.
That was never how it went, and Thump knew it.
"Not me," Sebastian said. "You're the canary."
"What's that mean?"
"If you go down first and we manage to make it out of this butcher shop alive, I'll tell ya on the hike back to camp."
"On my great-aunt's grave."
The bandits shook hands and Thump plunged down the orifice, blacker than the sky itself, without another word.
* * *
It was cold, the air dense with woodsmoke and liquor. Thump pulled himself through the channel of rock and felt his bare feet meet the floor. He stopped and listened. Sebastian was still shuffling up above. Muffled conversation was coming from somewhere.
Thump could see he was in a dimly-lit room, the walls paved in limestone grout, an ornate dining table set about the middle, bamboo rugs stretched across the floor, deer and antelope heads staring down like jailors.
Something behind him, from nowhere.
Then the big oneiric German flashed through his mind and a hand came down over his mouth and he swallowed a scream.
"Shut up," Sebastian breathed, and he pulled his hand away. His eyes were wide, the pupils huge like an owl's. Thump didn't like the look in them.
"Scared me," he hissed.
A roar of laughter came from another room. Then something softer, steadier, closer. Like breathing.
Sebastian peered out from under the mantel and saw nestled in a corner the shape of a bed, with a heap of blankets in the middle rising and falling like waves. Someone was sleeping there.
He whipped back into the fireplace.
"What?" Thump said.
Sebastian shook his head, motioned like he was sleeping, and pointed behind himself to the corner.
"Do you suppose now's really the time for a nap?" Thump hissed.
Sebastian growled, rolled his eyes.
"If you're not dumber than a circus clown, then I'm Buffalo Bill," he said. "Someone is sleeping back there."
Thump leaned out, saw what Sebastian was referring to, and returned.
"Looks like a hooker."
So Sebastian looked. The bed's occupant had shifted, revealing themself to be a rather husky woman amongst a tangle of sheets. She was gently snoring.
"I ain't ever seen that much skin on a woman before."
"Nor I," Thump said. He was breathing heavily. "I think we should say hi."
"You mental? The German uses them good time gals as agents," Sebastian said.
It was no secret, indeed, that the Three Mile Ranch employed and retained many such women on contract. Their specialty was in purveying ale and whiskey and laudanum, which sold like cannon fodder among Fort Laramie's enlisted men and the vagrants of the Platte River valley, but the Ranch was also the only establishment for miles where a fellow could pay for a room and a gal to go with it. It was a secret, however, that when a man didn't return to Fort Laramie and was dismissed as AWOL by his regiment, nine times out of ten it was because he was shot through the skull by the gun of a soiled angel.
"Half of 'em he's trained to rob and assassinate customers," Sebastian breathed. "Now let's go."
Thump stared longingly for a moment at the most skin he'd ever seen—"I bet she'd keep it quiet!"—before Sebastian yanked him across the room. They splayed themselves against the far wall, adjacent to the door, and listened again. The muted voices had grown louder, accompanied by roaring laughter and the signatures of shot glasses, pool cues, cards slapping on the table.
"Bet my hat that's the barroom," Sebastian mouthed.
"So where's the cash?"
"I've deduced it to be in a hidden storage closet behind or below the bar mirror," Sebastian said, flashing his eyes toward the hooker who was shifting and moaning in her sleep. In a moment she settled and was silent. "And," he continued, "Colonel Oliphant told me that he once saw the barkeep stoop beneath the counter and disappear . . . I'd bet my—"
"Hat," Thump interjected.
"—that there's some secret entrance below the bar. Maybe it's a cellar, of sorts."
Thump looked puzzled.
"You don't believe me?" Sebastian said.
"No, I do."
"Then what's the problem? All we gotta do is find out how to get behind the bar."
"But what's deduced mean?"
Sebastian was cocking his arm to give Thump a good swat over the head when the door flung open. Shadows burst into the room; yelling, growling, panting.
"Fetch me the rope, Jules."
One of the figures marched across the room, opened a chest in the corner and withdrew a length of rope. Whoever had spoken did so with the guttural signature of a Bavarian.
Thumps hackles rocketed erect. It was the big man, it had to be.
The entrepreneur, the ex-scout, the disciplinarian; 'the butter-knife killer', 'the witch', 'the devil', 'bordello boss', 'Cyprian pimp' . . .
. . . the German.
"Cut it," the German said. "Give me one length to tie his arms, and another to tie his noose."
Whoever they were planning to tie sputtered and pleaded. Unperturbed, the shadow of Jules crossed the room, then the door was pulled closed until the wedge of dusty light shrunk into darkness. Thump and Sebastian were staring at each other, colder than they'd ever been before, and the roaring from the barroom crescendoed into one discernible word that shook the house:
Rapid footsteps made the floor quake, several glasses broke to punctuate what sounded like a collective exit. Then all was quiet.
"You can almost hear the moon," Thump whispered.
Sebastian fiddled with the door handle and eased it open. No sound from the hall. The roars and laughter had settled like fog.
Into more unknown he went, and Thump was about to follow when:
It was a soft voice, tinged with drowsiness and confusion, but all of the bandits' three ears pricked when it registered that it belonged to a woman.
"It's Jules," Sebastian said, thinking fast, adopting an ersatz German accent. "As you were, my lady."
Thump was cowering against the wall but flashed his partner a grin.
She moaned again and they heard her collapse back into the sheets.
"Bye, my love," Thump whispered, quiet enough that Sebastian couldn't hear him, and then he pulled the door shut behind him.
* * *
The mob moved like a swarm of ants in the dark, stumbling in palsy directions, some still toting their shot glasses and their tankards. Tobacco smoke writhed into the air. Adolf was at the head of the crowd, a torch held in one hand and the collar of the rascal in the other. Jules followed suit, juggling the rope as he wrapped and cinched the thirteen.
"I'm not the one you want!" the bound man shouted.
The mob roared, though without much knowledge of what they were roaring at. Most were just happy to see a rope come out.
Adolf said nothing but continued on, staring through the gloom of firelight. Crickets sang the hangman's lament. Off to the north a screech owl screamed.
"Here," the German said, pointing with a gnarled finger at a foundation of thick roots that had materialized.
He held the torch up, and as one the bar's patrons craned their eyes up at the towering cottonwood. Jules took the cue and clambered up the base, his hands like a spider's around the channels of bark, the rope clamped in his teeth, before long reaching the first robust branch and adjusting the rope's length.
"It's not me," the hangman pleaded. "I'm not the one you want."
"And what makes you suppose that?" Adolf asked.
"YOU WAS SNOOPING UNDER THE COUNTER!" came a drunken shout.
"Was not! I'll have you know that such an act by a man of my station would be met with consequences far surpassing in severity than that of a lynching—"
"A man of your station?" Adolf said, a smile growing on his stony face. "And what station is that?"
"I am Lieutenant Colonel James Oliphant of the 6th Infantry Regiment."
"Our establishment doesn't attract too many officers," Jules sneered from the tree. "You've all got marching orders corkscrewed up your rear-ends."
"Indeed," Adolf said. "What amusement should a Colonel Oliphant expect at the Three Mile Ranch?"
Jules lowered the noose and Adolf fit it around Oliphant's neck.
"I didn't come for amusement," he said. "I came to discourage or otherwise block two men who I understood to have the intention of robbing you."
Adolf was the first to scoff.
"Rob the Three Mile Ranch?" came Jules's echo. "Ain't many folk stupid enough to do that."
"You peddle naught but the devil's wares out here," Oliphant continued, "but robbery is of equal shame no matter the victim."
"And who should we expect to be robbing us?" Adolf asked, feigning interest.
"There are two. One is skinny as a willow switch with patched overalls and a little kid face. Calls himself Thump. The other is thicker, smarter, he wears a black hat with a hawk feather stuck in the band. I don't know his name. They tried to sell illegal whiskey to an enlisted man and then they hung him. I cut one of their ears clean off but they managed to escape after that."
"Bad practice to cut off extremities," Adolf said.
"Best to chop up the whole thing," suggested Jules.
"I came here tonight to head them off," Oliphant announced. "Just before I ambushed them I overheard them plotting a robbery of this place. They said they knew of an attic or a backroom where the rumors told of a wall stuffed with cash."
Adolf looked at him for long, unnerving seconds, then:
"You ever heard of the man in Bovee Draw, Colonel?"
The crowd had gone quiet. Some of the more inebriated participants sank to their bellies and snoozed in the grass.
"Back in 1849," Adolf said, "Fort Laramie had just been taken over by you and your government folk. Understand? Fort William and Fort John, both of the fur trading predecessors, had gone bankrupt and the establishment was in disrepair. Settlers and traders moved through on their journeys to Oregon and California, but there was nowhere to stay, nowhere to be at ease, nowhere to get a drink. So the military moved in, made some repairs, built anew, and raised a flag over the parade grounds signalling their ownership of the land by August of that year. They built a hotel and a new bar and resurrected the trading post, and like cattle the crowds thundered in."
"Most of the old Fort John and Fort William loyalists—the ones that'd been there since the beginning—were happy to see the place restored. Business got good again. The grounds were bustling with people, with families, with caravans of happy folk looking to make a new life in the West. But the old general store manager, man by the name of Clifton Spencer, was not among the cheering crowd. The military was taking a cut of his profit. He didn't like that he had to report to a Captain at the end of each business day. Spencer brooded until 1855, when he decided that enough was enough and that he would open a good-time bar and gambling hall of his own. He wouldn't be regulated by soldiers. He had a willing partner, he had the expertise, he just didn't have the money. So his partner suggested he steal it. The combined weekly proceeds of the Fort Laramie hotel, the bar, and the general store were temporarily stored in a safe below the bar counter, where every Friday a Lieutenant would stop by, fetch the cash, and deposit it into more secure coffers."
"Spencer struck on the first night of June. He broke into the bar through the Officer's Club, stole what had to be almost a thousand dollars in cash, and walked right back out like he was fetching a newspaper. He almost got away with it. In fact he was almost to the horses when they caught him. Tied him up and beat him with fire tongs in the middle of the parade ground. Only after he was just about dead did they question him. He tried lying, he tried saying he was looking to purchase Indian leather but didn't have enough cash. Rumors in the post had been saying a big train of men bound for California were coming through and sought entire wagon loads of leather. He was only trying to capitalize on a market. Only trying to help."
"But they told him he would be made to nothing, that he would skip stones mindlessly the rest of his life. Then they strapped him to the surgeon's table and locked the doors and sawed off his head and took him out to Bovee Draw and buried him in a shallow grave. They say he still wanders there at midnight, gathering flat stones and chasing off unwary travelers. His partner had to proceed without him. I had to establish the Three Mile Ranch alone."
He turned and said nothing, the night growing pregnant with crickets and far-off bullfrogs. Then he removed the noose from the Colonel's neck.
"So . . . " Oliphant croaked.
"So," Adolf said. "The military didn't care for Spencer's motives or for his lies. I've learned that it's prudent to do the same."
Jules handed him a hatchet, its blade gleaming like a Crucifix.
"But I wasn't trying to rob you," the Colonel pleaded. "I'm trying to tell you that there are two men that will."
"I've also learned that a captive man will say anything, and that I must turn a deaf ear," Adolf said.
Jules tackled the Colonel into the tree. Pinned him there.
The German raised the hatchet over his head, brought it down in powerful arcs, smooth as a skilled weed thresher, once, twice, three times, and Colonel Oliphant's screams synced with the thump of metal on wood, and Adolf stopped as inky blood streamed like a geyser and the crowd roared and stepped back, and he let the screams melt into sibilance and the cadence of midnight, then he wiped the blade on his apron and handed it back to Jules.
He turned and headed back for the Ranch.
* * *
"THEY'RE ROBBIN' US!"
The hooker's scream split the air like a bullet.
Sebastian was head first down the secret cellar's entrance like he was diving into a badger den, Thump hanging onto his legs and sweating from the effort.
"Shoot her," Sebastian grunted.
Thump promptly let go of the ankles in his hands—"You damn cretin," Sebastian snarled—wheeled around and saw her standing at the door. She was bed-raggled but beautiful, a woman's body veiled only by a diaphanous nightgown; a pair of black eyes that bored into Thump's soul even deeper than the angry void of the pistol in her grasp. His breath caught.
"Hi, honey," she said, her voice divine like a harp.
"Hi." His voice shook.
"I said shoot her," Sebastian said from the dark underground.
Thump's hand crept to his hip then hung in a frozen purgatory.
"You can sure shoot me, honey," she said, the intrigue of her pale skin growing within Thump's mind like larvae. "Or you can kiss me."
He felt his knees buckle.
"Sebastian," he whimpered. "Find it yet?"
"Nothin'. Can't see a damned thing down here."
"You won't find it," she said.
"Th'hell you know about it, tramp?" Sebastian shouted.
Thump frowned. "Watch yer mouth, Seb."
She smiled at him but didn't lower the pistol.
"You're a sweetheart, you know that?"
"I don't suppose I've ever been told," he said.
"Maybe she's not, Seb."
"Do you want to kiss me?"
"Don't answer that."
"You do, don't you?"
"Shoot her, dammit!"
Thump's hand tickled the cold steel of his peacemaker.
"If you kiss me I'll tell you where it's buried."
"You mean that?"
"Cross my heart, darling."
"Thump, don't listen to 'er!"
"But what if it ain't down there, Seb?"
"You look familiar, darling."
"Thump . . . "
"Have you come around here before?"
"I ain't ever been to the Hog Ranch before now. We's bootleggers."
"Is that so?" she twinkled. " To me you look like bandits."
"Well you see, we need us some copper and a pair of horses and a—a—what'd you call that thing, Seb?"
"She don't need to know all that, Thump!"
"It helps to know my man," she smiled.
"For Pete's sake shoot her."
"You'll never find his cash and you'll never get your horses if you do that."
"What if she's right, Seb?"
"I'd say she's lyin', Thump."
"And if I'm not?" she said, her voice suddenly tinged with a snarl. "You've got a barrel pointed at your testicles,"—Thump shuddered—"and you,"—her volume rose to address the subterranean Sebastian—"you're down the cellar like a rat in a trap. Adolf and Jules will be back any minute, and you can bet that they'll be happy to hang two more vagabonds alongside the Colonel."
Silence in the bar room.
"So what do you suggest we do, ma'am?" Sebastian said. "You're kind of holdin' the cards."
"Give me your friend for a little while," she said, stepping toward Thump. "Just a little bittie while is plenty of time. And when we're done I might just tell you that the German's treasure is buried with the man of Bovee Draw."
Thump could suddenly smell her, the sweet musk of her sweat and the intoxicating chemicals of castoreum perfume, then he could feel the heat of her body, see her skin in stirring detail beneath the gossamer fabric of her gown. Then she was touching him. He went light-headed.
The door blasted open in one earth-shattering crack and Thump felt warm flecks spatter his face.
He opened his eyes, unsure of when he'd closed them, to find her lying sprawled on the floor. Curved and voluptuous; mouth askew; eyes wide. Blood pooled beneath her skull. There was a figure in the doorway, a hulking effigy studded with the glint of gunmetal. There wasn't time to identify him nor was there need. It was the German, returned to guard his plunder, sure as the sun rose and the waters of the Laramie flowed. Thump ripped the pistol from his drawers and fired a few stray shots which embedded themselves into the limestone walls.
A bullet ripped past his head and split a bottle of Anheuser-Busch into a million stars. He leapt over the counter and shoved a hand into the anonymous black hole of the cellar. It dangled in the cold for a second before Sebastian's fingers grasped it.
Lead began whizzing through the air like asteroids. Sharp petards of primers being clapped.
The robbers stayed low.
"Out the window, Thump."
Sebastian had the gleam of freedom in his eyes.
"You can go first," Thump hissed.
"Naw. You're the canary."
He grabbed the willowy Thump and heaved him like a battering ram, head first, through the inch-thick glass. For a brief moment the two robbers were struck in a whirling vertigo; a memory; a déjà vu. Back to the window of the St. Louis schoolhouse, the first of three plunders that day. Money notes tucked in their pockets. Two stories over the street. Police closing in like hounds on a cottontail. Sebastian grabbed Thump by the suspenders, the little punk had been even lighter then, and flung him out like he was throwing a haybale. The glass had exploded just like it was doing there in the fleeting hell of Three Mile and Thump caterwauled through air until he struck cobbles, now grass, and now just as then Sebastian dove after him as lead galloped past his ear.
They rolled in unison down a slope in the dark, glass shards striking them like rain drops, and Sebastian squeezed off feral bullets as they regained their feet and made a mad dash for the moon. Shouting had begun anew; the big German was calling for anybody and everybody to "Kill those men!", and the horde of patrons that weren't belly-up drunk were restless with noise.
"We need horses," Sebastian hissed, whirling around, waiting for someone to come flying out of the shadows with a knife like Colonel Oliphant had done when he'd hacked off Thump's ear. Same ol' story. Robbers don't end up doing anything but getting killed. Never even get to enjoy the money they take.
"I thought I saw some tied up over here," Thump panted, leading the way now.
Sure enough, silhouetted against the indigo was a trio of horses tethered up to a rotted fence post near a grove of trees. The bandits undid the knots and leapt on, looking back to view a sea of torches and glinting weaponry flooding toward them. Gunpowder yelped and the horses were gone, ripping through the wind so violently that Thump barely had time to watch the Three Mile ranch disappear behind them. In fact he barely had time to hear the German's screams and last-ditch gunshots echo through the air to join the bullfrogs before he and Sebastian were alone again in the darkness. Everything was still. They rose up out of the river bottoms and found themselves on a limestone ridge leading east, dotted with junipers every which-way that looked like enemies. Only once they summited did they stop to rest.
"I need a cigarette after all of that excitement," Sebastian said, rummaging through his pockets. Soon the tobacco was glowing orange like a little star.
"Think we ought to make it to camp tonight?" Thump said, looking northward from where they'd come.
"Because we're going to Bovee Draw, you idiot."
"What about the German?"
"What about him?"
"He heard that hooker tell us where it was. He'll know we know."
Smoke rippled out of Sebastian's lips.
"We've got his horses, you cretin. They ain't goin' nowhere fast."
"I don't know, Seb."
"Just think how much cash they've gotta have, Thump. It'll be like robbin' the schoolhouse in St. Louis. 'Member that? Just imagine it! So much we can buy land up in the Klondike and take a steamship up there and make it like kings."
Thump remembered the schoolhouse, alright. The school district treasury was in the basement and they snuck in at the crack of dawn, right after the guard swapped shifts. Stuffed the cash down their drawers and then the police showed up and they ran upstairs and Sebastian hucked him out of the window like he was a sack of flour. Thump gulped.
"The draw's too big," he said. "We'll never find where they buried it in the dark."
"That hooker said it was buried with a man. His grave'll be marked."
"I just don't think it's a good idea, Seb. Just like I didn't think it was a good idea to go crawling down that chimney."
"Wouldn't have a shot at a thousand dollars cash if we didn't go down that chimney."
"Wouldn't have the German on our hind-ends if we didn't go down that chimney, neither!" Thump said.
"If it weren't for me and my schemes we wouldn't be anywhere, you know that?" Sebastian hissed. "You're always shy as a Hereford calf to do anything but I'm the one with the balls to hit it big. I'm the reason we could leave St. Louis, I'm the reason we're even survivin' in this hell-hole river valley. I stick my nose out and this is the kind of thanks I get!"
"Who went first out the window of that schoolhouse?" Thump bellowed, his hand shifting dangerously close to his pistol. "Who went first down that damned old chimney? Who got their ear hacked off by the Colonel because you ran when he ambushed us? Me! I always go first. All you do is force me along, all you do is—"
He was stopped cold by the sound of a revolver being cocked.
"One more word out of you and I'll finally put a hole in your skull."
Sebastian's knuckles were white around his gun, the hammer drawn back, the barrel quivering. His eyes were wide and colorless, his mouth agape.
"One more . . . "
Thump swallowed hard and stared down the tube that was pointed straight between his eyes. Lord knew he'd had firearms pointed at him before—shot at him before—but never by Seb.
"Nobody ever insinuates that Sebastian Thorpe is a coward, you hear me?"
Sebastian was glowering now.
Thump nodded, thinking it a very wrong time to ask what 'insinuate' meant. Somewhere in the bottomlands a screech owl squealed.
"We're going to ride to Bovee Draw," Sebastian said, giving his horse a gentle kick in the ribs. "You're in front of me, that's it, and we're gonna ride until we find that grave and then you're going to dig it out or so help me I'll fertilize the sagebrush with your brains."
* * *
When you're brewin' whiskey in the dry country of Wyoming Territory, the main thing to worry about is starting a grass fire. Someone from the Fort would see that from ten miles off and dispatch the cavalry and you'd be hanging from a cottonwood by your neck within the hour. Thump always knew to keep a sharp eye on the fire, tending it frequently, working it with the bellows every so often, feeding it with juniper when it dwindled. Sebastian would smoke and sleep in the shade and tell Thump to wake him up after the 'last of the heads' was gone. This was the first of the corn liquor, and it would glug out in streams as silver as mercury and potent as rattlesnake venom.
"The money-maker," Sebastian would say.
Moonshining ain't every man's game. Sebastian knew it when he bought the rusted oil drum from the depot in Cheyenne, fresh off the locomotive from St. Louis. It was back-breaking, dirty, secretive work, and if it wasn't the feds out to get ya it was competitors or cattle rustlers or goddam Injuns that would chop your face off and pin your scalp on a tree stump. He knew it still when they reached the shores of the North Platte River, when Thump finally collapsed under the weight of the oil drum and the copper pipe and the kettle on his back.
"Only twenty miles, Thump," Sebastian had said. "Just twenty miles."
"Can't you take some of this load?" Thump begged.
"I s'pose I could, but you know how my back got after Antietam."
"Guess I'll just toughen up, then."
"You're stronger anyway, Thumper."
It was twenty-four miles to where they ended up making camp. Sebastian chose the south-side of a tall ridgeline overlooking Fort Laramie, owing to the belief that you should always be able to see your customers. And the enemy. They set up their first distillery in the dark, a tangled contraption of copper and cast-iron and flour putty, then as a test in the morning Thump boiled water and derived a mason jar's worth of purified steam.
"I do believe we got us a moonshine machine," Sebastian crooned.
Thump toiled over the connections between the still and the thump keg and the worm box before he'd agree. "Only problem is we ain't got any corn," he said.
"That's an easy fixture to come by around here."
Next morning they were a dozen rows deep in a corn field south of the river. Thump remembered it like yesterday. They had forded in the dark. Shucked corn like they were employed. Only when the burlap sack was fat with cobs did Sebastian cede that they had enough, but about that time they heard a banshee scream from the west and saw the spires of a pitch fork materialize over the stalk heads. Thump had both ears back then so the declaration pierced his consciousness like obsidian:
The bandits sprawled, tumbled, rolled out of the palisades, then they hopped the barbed wire fence and leapt like injured deer to the river. They collapsed at the foot of a cottonwood. There it was silent except for the dusty thrums of their own blood. And hoofbeats.
Sebastian leapt to his feet and stared through the crook of the tree.
"Palomino. Just one."
Blue wool. Stiff rider. Hat emblazoned with the golden arms of the cavalry. Riding lazily through the trees.
The rider leaned back and removed something from his saddle bag. An amber bottle. He upturned it against his lips, winced, and swallowed.
Sebastian stepped out from behind the tree.
"You nuts, Seb?"
The rider froze, his hand electric against his hip. Against the pistol undoubtedly there.
"Easy," Sebastian said. "We mean no harm. You look like one of Laramie's men."
The soldier spat in the grass.
"Little far from the Parade Ground, eh?"
"On leave," the rider said, and he took another swig from his bottle. His face was raw and dirty, his eyes were shadowed, and he appeared altogether haggard.
"I'd say you look like you've had your fill of Three Mile," Sebastian said.
The rider burped and nodded.
"Only place to get whiskey around here."
He sounded eastern, Thump thought. Like someone they could've known in St. Louis.
"Not the only place, gent," Sebastian said. "The name's Sebastian Thorpe. And this is my associate Thump. We're—uh—purveyors of elixir goods."
The rider's eyebrows rose.
"Elixir goods, huh?"
"The kind that President Hayes would put me in irons for?"
"Kind that'll knock the whole cavalry flat on their kiesters," Thump yelled.
"Twelve a gallon."
The rider brandished his bottle. "Get a fifth at Three Mile for two."
"They water that down, ya know," Sebastian said. "What we brew you could bomb the Union with. Hundred-eighty proof, that's guaranteed."
"It is. We're fetchin' the corn to whip up a new batch."
"Where can I find ya?"
"Little close to the Colonel, dontcha think?"
"We'll know if he's comin'."
The rider thought for a second, his Palomino shuffling underneath him.
"I'll be there sunrise in four days," he declared.
"And we'll have a gallon waitin' for ya in an artillery box."
Sebastian reached up and shook the rider's hand.
"I'll work the corn into sprouting by tomorrow," Thump had said later, laboring against the load on his back as they hiked up the ridge. The sun was high and hot and cast gray shadows against the limestone. Sweat beaded across his forehead. "Then we can get the mash started."
Sebastian's gun cracked in the air and the sound bounced back and forth across the valley.
"What the hell you doin'?" Thump hissed.
"Rattlesnake," Sebastian said, and he picked up the stringy corpse and threw it down the hillside.
The four days came and went, Thump working about the still for most of it either in the dry bake of the sun or in a sphere of lantern light. When he was satisfied with the mash, he filtered out the liquid and dumped it scoop by scoop into the still barrel and drew the sweet fermented smell deep into his lungs, then he lit a tedious fire beneath it and waited for the clunk of boiling water. It was about midnight that it finally started roiling, and by morning of the fourth day Thump had rendered a few honey jugs worth of clear pearly liquid.
"Try it," he said to Sebastian.
Seb doused his cigarette nervously and sniffed the open jug.
"I'll say," he winced. "That'll burn your nose-hair clean off!" He shoved the jug back at Thump.
"Drink it, you putz," Thump said.
"Naw. You're the canary."
"You said that before, you know that? But you ain't ever told me what it means."
"Once we make this sale I'll tell ya, how's that?"
Thump frowned and took a swig and his stomach twisted up like the Gordian knot.
"That'll burn the Union, alright."
"I said bomb the Union."
"Whatever. It'll get a horse drunker'n a—a—"
Thump's face screwed in thought as he tried to imagine what it could make a horse drunker than. Sebastian caught his breath and held it. The morning was quiet, so quiet that the wind didn't make a sound, it just moved the branches of the junipers in dead little waves. Then metal clicked somewhere. Slowly and lightly, like whatever it was that was making the metal click didn't want it to be heard. But Sebastian heard it alright. He'd heard enough rifle hammers being drawn in ambush at Antietam.
It was a lever action, sure as shootin'. A Spencer-carbine. And God bless the enemy that had one of those.
"Get down, Thump. Now."
Just as soon as Thump got his belly in the dust a pair of bullets split forth, ringing out over the valley and bouncing back once, twice like applause. The still barrel jumped and took both to its gut, two gaping wounds that leaked ferment-smell.
Sebastian ripped the revolver from his pants and sought cover behind a juniper. Another shot barked. If it was the Colonel, he must have had a small force with him. The whole infantry would've let loose an armory's worth of lead by now. It was a detachment. Four, maybe five gents, all crouched up on the skyline, peering down rifle sights and wondering what would be for breakfast in the mess hall. Sebastian turned and dashed up the hill, marking a spot in the limestone that he could tuck himself into to get a view of things. Where he could—
Two skulls met in a concussive burst of stars. Sebastian stumbled but remained on his feet. The obstacle, whatever it was, whoever it was, tumbled head over heels in a plume of dust. A rifle went cartwheeling through the air; a Spencer, sure as shootin'. Sebastian gripped the revolver with white-capped knuckles and the dust cleared to reveal a familiar face. It wasn't the Colonel's detachment at all.
It was the Palomino rider.
Seb scowled. His teeth churned like tectonic plates.
"Sebastian?" It was Thump, his voice muffled. He was probably still face-down in the dirt.
"Yeah it's me, Thumper," Seb shouted back. "Grab the hemp rope, hear?"
Sebastian turned back to the man on the ground.
"Ain't ever paid an honest man for honest work, huh? Just ambush folks, do ya?"
The rider said nothing.
"Where you at, Seb?" Thump shouted.
Thump came huffing through the trees with the rope coiled over his shoulder.
"You?" he said at seeing the rider's face.
"This little putz thought he could rip us off for a gallon of hooch. How'd ya like that, Thumper?"
"Don't like it one bit."
"You know what I say?"
"I say we build this gentleman a good noose. And find him a good tree to dangle it from."
And that's just what they did. Thump yanked the thirteen around the rider's neck and secured the other end to a sturdy branch of a cottonwood down in the bottom lands, then Sebastian fired his pistol once into the air and the Palomino took off for the hills and the rider jerked out of the saddle and jumped when the rope went taught and his neck snapped and his eyes popped like olives and piss ran out his pants like a leaking gutter.
"I'll be damned," Sebastian said, watching the contrail of the Palomino vanish.
Thump was staring up at the swinging corpse, thinking of the rattlesnake Sebastian shot four days before. Before any of this.
"Ain't it a funny thing when someone dies?" he said.
Sebastian turned around.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, one minute you're just livin'. Seeing, hearing, talking. Then the next you're nothing but a carcass." The rope creaked. "Nothin' but weight."
"Damned be the damned," Sebastian said, looking up, too. "This one's goin' to Hell in a stagecoach, bet yer hide."
"And brewin' illegal whiskey, attempting to sell it to a military man, and lynching the same military man . . . " began a new voice. "I'd say you two were going to Hell in an Iron Horse."
Thump and Sebastian spun and were met with the sight of a snarling barrel pointed right at them. A tall man was holding it, a tall man wearing a hat with the golden crest and blue wool secured with buttons that gleamed like Klondike gold. It was the Colonel. Had to be.
Before Thump could even think of doing the same, Sebastian tore out of there like a grouse out of brambles. The Colonel shot once and missed and there was a second where he thought about pursuing the runaway, but ultimately he decided on the bird in hand and grabbed Thump by his overalls and threw him to the ground.
"I wanna know where your operation is," The Colonel panted, his breath hot and ripe. Thump thought it smelled like the mash he'd just boiled.
"You ain't gonna find it."
The Colonel's hand shot to Thump's throat.
"Bet yer hide, I am."
Then he yanked a knife from his belt and pressed it against Thump's neck.
* * *
Thump felt at his scabbed knob of an ear. It felt like they'd been riding forever but it was still dark. Still cold. And the German hadn't caught up to them yet. Maybe that should've been a good sign but Thump didn't see it that way—every minute the Butter-Knife Killer was nowhere to be found was a minute closer to when he'd be there, sure as shootin', because you know he wasn't going to let them ride free with his horses and knowin' where his treasure was.
Thump thought about the hooker . . . how she'd looked at him. Surely she didn't look at just any man like that. That wink. There was something in her eyes. Not love, but not like he was just a customer either. He wondered what her name was. He imagined it would be something nice and simple. Pretty. Like Mary or Katherine. Maybe she was a girl that came west with the Mormons or the settlers bound for the coast, maybe she rode in the wagon but decided one day that she'd had enough and hopped out and hoofed it to the nearest town. Made a living the only way a woman could on the Frontier. He could still see her face staring up from the bar floor as the blood grew around her.
Sebastian's voice was low.
"You hear that?"
Thump didn't hear much of anything except for the ringing that'd been going on since the Colonel filleted him.
"Sounds like splashing."
"That's what I said, splashing. Like rocks kerplunkin'."
This might've been a conversation Thump and Sebastian could've had back in St. Louis, waiting for the train at the edge of the Missouri. Smokin' and watching the negroes fish for carp. Kerplunkin' hooks and sinkers right down to the bottom.
Only now Sebastian was pointing his revolver at the base of Thump's skull.
"You've heard of the man from Bovee Draw ain't ya, Thumper?" Sebastian said, dismounting.
Sebastian started stomping the ground and pacing wide, careful circles.
"He was the post trader out at the fort for the longest time, I heard," he said. "Right up until the military bought it, then he—"
Sebastian stopped and knocked his foot against the ground.
"Ah, nothin'," he scowled at last, then he continued pacing. "Anyway—he was the post trader until the military bought the place then he decided he didn't want to be workin' for them so he tried stealin' from 'em and ended up getting his head sawed off by the surgeon and the Colonel. They told him he'd be cursed to skip stones instead of coins for the rest of his life."
Thump stared at the stars and wished to see Mary-or-Katherine's face again, though without the bullet hole through her eyebrow.
"And you know what they say?" Sebastian whispered, now so close to Thump that the barrel of the revolver was buried against his chin. "They say he still haunts this ol' draw. Damned man can't ever leave. He just wanders, lookin' for his head, lookin' for the money that he knows is rightfully his, lookin' for rocks to skip."
Then there was a splash so loud that even Thump heard it. Adrenaline coursed through his veins.
He whipped around, sure he was about to see a headless body staggering toward him with a knife and a hunger for his other ear, but instead he saw that Sebastian had moved and was now backlit by the moon. Next to him, a crooked cross was shoved in the ground, the wood rotting away like flesh.
"And here he rests," Seb said. "Grab the shovel from the saddlebag."
Thump kicked the blade into the ground and the sound sent gooseflesh riding across his skin. He did it again. Then he stopped and waited for another splash.
"Whatcha waitin' on?" Seb hissed. "The German?"
The shovel sliced through the ground easily and it came away in thick, heavy clumps. Thump's arms were fire after only a few throws, but he kept going. There was a legend along the Oregon Trail that if you didn't dig a grave in one go, the ground would grow stale and the digger would be cursed to an eventual death the exact same as the person they buried. The fable held up well on the trail because half the casualties were of cholera and the gravediggers were the ones most likely to get infected and die, too. Damned to the same fate as the ones before them. Thump didn't know if the logic applied to digging up a body versus puttin' one in, but as the hole got deeper and deeper and colder and colder, as he brushed against the earth and the roots, he figured better safe than sorry. Sebastian didn't move the whole time he dug. The only way Thump knew he was still there was the tiny glowing end of a cigarette. He'd smoke one to the end and light another, another.
Thump's bones ached to the marrow by the time he hit something solid.
When he did, Sebastian's cigarette went out.
Thump knocked the shovel against the bottom of the hole. It made a dull clunk that rattled up the handle.
"Shallow grave," Sebastian said, crouching. "Damned shallow. Surprised the coyotes ain't dug it up."
'Maybe they knew better,' Thump wanted to say. But he didn't.
Sebastian stood back up and his knees crinkled. "Right. Dig out the coffin—that's it. Is that the lid? Right. Open it, but real slow. Is that—?"
"You wanna open it?" Thump growled. His chest was heaving.
"Naw. You do it."
"But you're the only reason we're here."
Then he felt cold metal against his head like a drill, followed by the hot breath of Sebastian against his good ear.
"You're the canary."
"Now just what in the hell does that mean?"
But the gun stole his question.
Thump saw a pang of stars and wondered when it would all go black, but it didn't hurt like he figured getting shot in the head would—or would it?—or maybe Sebastian had missed—he wasn't no Annie Oakley, that much was for certain—or maybe the bullet just grazed him. He clapped a hand to the side of his head, waiting for the warm sludge to trickle down between his fingers. But it didn't. He looked at his hand. Nothing but dirt and callouses. He whirled around.
Sebastian was laying on his side, his entire body shaking like a rattlesnake tail.
No answer, just the sound like an animal being strangled.
He reached up and shook Sebastian's body.
Blood was glistening like spring-water as it streamed from Sebastian's neck. He was trying to breath but it just gurgled out of the new hole in his trachea. Thump reached up and placed his palm over the wound. It was warm and oily. The blood slid between his fingers and he recoiled and wiped his hands on the edge of the grave. That's when he saw Sebastian's pistol and he grabbed it.
As soon as the next gunshot rang forth Thump hit the dirt. There was a sickening squelch and Sebastian's choking stopped. The night went quiet again. Thump checked over Seb's pistol and sat up. The hole was just deep enough that when he sat upright his head was still below ground level. He scooted backward, the rotted lid of the coffin groaning and flexing. There was a dead body below him alright, decayed right down to the skeleton but not quite. Stench leaked. Thump gagged.
"We know there's another one of ya down that hole!" came a shout.
It was Jules. Thump recognized his voice from the backroom at Three Mile.
He winced and dug his thumb into the revolver hammer.
"Come out now and we won't shoot," the German added. "But stay down there like a fox and we'll come pull you out and skin your hide right off."
Thump risked a peek over the lip of the hole. Just as soon as his eyes could register what was out there in the black beyond a bullet sailed past his skull and bored into Sebastian's corpse. He sunk again.
"Have it your way," the German said. "I'll make sure the knife is sharp."
* * *
Adolf and Jules took their time. It might have appeared like they were marching to a rhythm were it not for their stealth. Each step was careful and planned out in the soft dirt where it wouldn't be heard. Jules was carrying a Spencer-carbine on his shoulder, his right trigger finger smart against the lever. Adolf had his pistol drawn in his left hand and a nine-inch knife rising from the other.
"Out the hole now, boy," Adolf hissed.
They could see the void of Clifton's grave. His shallow crypt.
There was no answer.
"Out the hole I said!"
Adolf looked to the heap of Sebastian's body.
"You'd think watchin' his friend get shot through the throat would be enough to make a man surrender," he uttered to Jules.
"These ain't normal fellows we're talkin' about," Jules replied.
"Not many men are dumb enough to rob the Three Mile Ranch."
"Got that right."
"Come out!" the German screamed.
He dropped his pistol and his fist locked around the knife.
"This here's gonna be one sorry son of a bitch," Jules said, inching toward the grave. "But—where is he?"
Jules was staring down the sights of his Spencer into the abyss, his finger on the trigger ready to pounce, every muscle primed for the mule's-kick of combustion. But the grave was empty except for the coffin.
"Little bastard ran," he growled.
"He what?" The German's eyes surged with hatred, with bloodlust. There was a knife in his hand and when that particular knife was in his hand, someone was dyin' soon.
"I said that miserable coward ran," Jules said, standing over the grave and staring down in. "He slunk over the edge of the hole like a snake and must've crawled off in the dark somehow. Right in front of us."
Clifton's rot wafted up through the air and Jules winced. Adolf hocked a big wad of spit down into the grave.
"Dumb as those thieves were," he said, "they know about Clifton. We'll have to move this."
He stepped down into the grave. The coffin protested. Fiber splintered.
"It's been years since I've seen this money," he said, reaching down for the handle. He stopped, half-crouched, his outstretched hand quivering. "They took him to the surgeon, Dr. Kamerdiner's house. Didn't even give him a trial or a chance to write a letter. He had a wife and two babies waiting for him in San Francisco. They sawed his head right off and he was breathing til they got halfway through."
Jules coughed and hocked phlegm.
"So I stuck it to those bastards," Adolf went on. "They were preoccupied and I broke into the safe below the Sutler's hotel and I took all of their reserve money. Forget Clifton's weekly haul." He reached for the handle again, and his fingers met cold, eaten cast-iron. "This—is real money—"
As he yanked up on the handle the entire coffin erupted in splinters. Then sound came bursting from everywhere and light clapped like fleeting, contained solar flares. Bullets. Jules took the first to his groin and he screamed in a pain for which there were no earthly words. He fell sideways in the dirt, and the next two bullets were blocked by Adolf but the fourth took him clean in the forehead. Adolf roared as lead ripped through his shoulder, his thigh, then his neck, and he fell backward, slumped against the shallow grave, and died as blood drowned his body in a mantle.
Six shots and the storm was done. The cylinder was spent.
Smoke curled in threads from the holes in the coffin.
Thump heaved bile onto himself and kicked the lid open, clawing his way out of the loose money and the rot and heaving for clean air. The German's blood was trickling down and mixing with the mold. Thump choked at the sight of the three bodies strewn around him, stuffed his pants with as much money as they would hold, and waddled over to the horses which had strayed with the fright of gunshots. He shoved the money hand over fist into the saddlebag of the Appaloosa, then he went back to the coffin and repeated the transfer—pants to saddlebag—twice more before the money was gone. The only bills he left were those cemented to Clifton's ribcage. Finally he dragged the bodies of Sebastian and Jules into the hole alongside Adolf, alongside the man of Bovee Draw himself, and in the same way he'd kicked the shovel-blade into earth to remove it he flung the pile back into its hole until it was full and packed it down with his boots and righted the crumbling cross.
Sebastian's cigarettes tasted good there below the moon and above the ground. Thump smoked two and he threw the glowing stubs and watched the heat die out of them. He tipped his hat slowly once, twice, three times for the damned, once more for Mary-or-Katherine, God bless her, then he hopped on his horse and rode into the dying night, the nebulous of dawn glowing somewhere on the horizon of cottonwoods and sagebrush.
North, he figured, and the mare obliged.
Joe Jackson grew up in the same area in which Sebastian, the Germans, and eventually Thump met their ends. He
may or may not have also brewed moonshine somewhere along Rattlesnake Ridge, too—but we won't talk about
that. Being raised in an area so rich with Wild West lore made it impossible to resist the fascination, and
though Joe lives in Alaska now, his heart will always long for the smell of sagebrush and the clatter of hoofbeats.
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