"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.