Blessed are the Peacemakers
by Curtis H. Stratton
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." —Matthew 5:9
Against the backdrop of true wilderness, the ambush turned into a massacre. Hollowed with years of war and haunted by the failure of their lost cause, the captors were gaunt. A new life once waited south of the border, Old Mexico way. Now, with Emperor Maximillian dead and the South overrun by scalawags and carpetbaggers both, the soldiers turned to what they knew best. After all, Brazil always needed good soldiers and new slaves; why would they mind a few dead Yankees and captured freedmen more?
The soldado pleaded for his life. Crawling backward on his elbows, he reached up with broken fingers. Boots crunched against discarded shells and broken bones. Uniformed corpses littered the valley. The occasional cry of pain met a coyote's howl.
He reached up toward the approaching figure. "Por favor . . . por Dios, ayudame," the boy of no more than eighteen said.
"You're missing a rifle," came the careful drawl in response. A revolver clicked its hammer back as the man crouched down. "Where'd the niggers go?"
The soldado stammered in Spanish. A bloody cough rose from the ravine. "He don't speak English, amigo." Grey coattails dragged across jagged rock as he inspected the Pinkerton, like a hunter does its prey.
"Pinkerton," the man said.
The Pinkerton looked at the man's uniform. "War's been over for some time, Colonel."
"Not if Dom Pedro has anything to say about it."
Saturday—as a drunken father named him—grimaced against a bloody laugh. "I know who you are. You've already fought two losing causes. Is that what you're doing this far north, Colonel? Leading some of your fucking redskin half-breeds back through Old Mexico? And for what? To keep on fighting?"
The colonel flicked through his revolver, loading and unloading the bullets. "A keen eye you have, Pinkerton."
Saturday fell back onto the ground. "What a regular Moses you are. It's true what they say about Southerners: y'all don't know how to pick a goddamn fight."
The butt of the revolver whipped Saturday before he could react. The young colonel was a wolf in blond sideburns. He leered at the sight of an oncoming column of mounted rifles. Between them, shackled freedmen marched.
"I don't hate Pinkertons as much I do Yankees, so I'll give you a chance to choose between your profession or your yellow-bellied heritage." The colonel paused. "Where did the negroes go?"
Saturday eyed the colonel. "What negroes?"
The colonel sighed, gesturing over his aide-de-camp. "Search the hills. They can't have gotten far." The aide saluted and handed him his stallion, which the colonel mounted with his gold-plated spurs. Giving Saturday one final look, he fired a single shot, smoke billowing from the barrel.
"Send my regards to President Juarez, wherever he burns."
Springing a Lawman
Mark Oliver was born with a death wish. Growing up, his hero was William Travis of Alamo fame. On the banks of the Red River, he would reenact the man's final moments alongside the band of boys he invariably led—a de facto leader throughout his childhood. His brother would play Davy Crockett, swinging a tree limb like a rifle's butt at imaginary Mexicans streaming over the walls. As for Mark, his back was always against the wall, slowly and dramatically clicking and firing his fictional revolver while bullets riddled his body. He not only understood the value of a final stand in defense of one's duty: he cherished it.
Duty once compelled him to serve under Colonel Davis of the 1st Texas Cavalry alongside other Texan Unionists. Four long years later, General Lee surrendered, and men like Davis now governed the recently readmitted Texas. Once again, duty took Oliver across the state on Governor Davis' orders. It was some hundred miles south of the massacre that the posse formed on the shores of the sin city itself, Galveston.
There, the war was once a distant occurrence, with a sporadic naval engagement to brighten the distant night's sky. It shocked Mark Oliver to find freedmen continuing to walk the streets as house servants and sharecroppers, years after Appomattox Courthouse. Here he was, thinking the war was over.
"I'd be careful with the water here, Captain," Mr. Ladd cautioned as the two rode through the streets. Men with pallor staggered from dirtied watering holes.
Oliver looked over at the former slave and nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Ladd," he said, mindful of his courtesies. In truth, he heard many men call Ladd his first name. "Washington" sounded foreign on his tongue, especially for a man like Ladd. Eight years ago, Oliver might've seen him working in the same fields his family tilled by the Red River.
In any case, he came to appreciate the man's attentiveness to his health on the ride across the state. Despite cholera not being what laid Oliver on a hospital bunk in Fort Griffin the month prior, much as Ladd thought, a keen eye was a worthy trait. Cholera sounded official enough, but the pox had taken him all the same. With their mission, it seemed only appropriate that the price of coffins seemed likely to rise.
A paper boy's cry from the courthouse steps announced to the unknowing city that Governor Davis authorized a posse. Its task: to hunt down the former commander of the infamous Mississippi Mounted Rifles, ex-Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Wyatt. Oliver and Ladd dismounted to join the gathering crowd. Several cast Ladd, who dressed as a Southern gentleman with a rifle slung across his back, a peculiar look, but he and Oliver paid them little heed.
"Grant gives amnesty to former Confederates! Davis sends State Police to hunt Wyatt! Connors set to hang," came the shrill boy's cry as he brandished yellowed newspapers.
"That last piece of news might interest you the most, Captain," a raspy voice whispered from behind. Oliver and Ladd turned to see an ashy man in a bowler wincing as he offered his hand in greeting.
"Joe Saturday, if it please you," the man said. Oliver nodded, remembering the orders he received from Governor Davis.
"You must be the Pinkerton," Oliver said. "Allow me to introduce my companion, Washington Ladd."
Saturday eyed Ladd but shook his hand all the same.
"Tell me, Mr. Saturday—" Ladd began before Saturday held up his hand. "Saturday, boy, that'll do."
"Very well," he continued. "Saturday, do the people here not know times have changed? I see negroes walking around like chattels, seven years after Lincoln, and to hear the talk on the streets, Lee and Kirby Smith never surrendered."
"Now is not the time to press the issue, boy. The last thing we want is to be thought of as carpetbaggers or scalawags. We need a few guns more before we take on the whole damn state."
Oliver watched the exchange with displeasure, interjecting before Ladd could respond. "Mr. Ladd is a welcome member of this posse, Mr. Saturday, and I have no problem finishing the job Wyatt did on you should you call him 'boy' one more time." To emphasize his point, he flicked free his dual holsters, a six-gun each.
Saturday eyed the revolvers with a gleam of respect. "The new Peacemakers, is that it?"
Oliver nodded. "And so, they will make peace." He glanced over his shoulder at the commotion emerging from the courthouse doors. "As you were saying, Saturday, it appears we'll have to spring a lawman from the gallows to make this posse complete."
Deputies dragged a heavyset man wearing a sheriff's badge down the court steps. The sheriff shouted at the assembled crowd as they did so. "A jury of my peers, you say?" the sheriff yelled. "What 'peers' do I see here?"
Oliver glanced at Ladd and Saturday, fumbling in his pocket and handing them both glinting Texas State Police badges. "Put those on; we're going to need them. Free your weapons, and follow me."
Ladd unslung his rifle and put on the badge, looking uncertain with the weapon as Saturday loaded his double-gauge shotgun. Oliver pushed his way through the crowd to the makeshift gallows. Ladd whispered to Oliver as the crowd grew more boisterous at the potential hanging. "Who is that man?
Saturday piped up in reply. "A former sheriff, evidently."
Oliver continued. "A former bounty hunter, a Mexican War veteran, and an old friend."
The deputies had the man on the gallows' platform, firing their guns to silence the crowd. "Jacob Connors is set to die for the crime of aiding the enemy!"
"They're not the enemy, you idiot," Connors spat from his knees. "The war is long over."
A deputy cocked his revolver while the other punched Connors across the face. "Selling munitions to Republicans is a crime in these parts, sheriff."
"Not anymore," Oliver said as he mounted the gallows steps. The deputies recoiled in surprise at the sudden appearance of the three-man posse.
"Who in the hell are you?" the older deputy demanded.
"Captain Mark Oliver, and you're about to hang one of my men."
Connors looked up, his eyes widening at Oliver. "Well, Chrissalmighty, I'll be damned."
Oliver nodded to his old companion. "Jacob Connors is hereby deputized to aid in the hunt for Jesse Wyatt and his Mounted Rifles for the capturing and trafficking of freedmen."
The crowd swelled as one at the announcement.
"Yankees, a bunch of you are, ain't it?"
"Hang the nigger!"
Saturday grabbed Oliver by the shoulder. "Captain, it might not be best to make our presence too known. These people remember when the country was bleeding."
"What a difference seven years can make," Ladd said. "And now the war is over and the people free. What could be better than that?"
"I've never heard better news said so poorly," Saturday hissed. "This isn't some time to proclaim forty goddamn acres and a mule for every fucking negro this side of Texarkana."
"Enough," Oliver said.
"This talk will get us killed!" Saturday insisted.
Oliver held Saturday's gaze for several seconds as the crowd continued to cry out, louder and louder. "Then, you can still leave, Mr. Saturday," Oliver replied. "The dance hasn't quite yet begun."
"Arrowhead," Connors said as he stuffed dip into his cheek.
"I thought the Coahuiltecans were gone," Ladd said as he inspected the dead horse and its rider, his grey coat tattered and bloodied. Oliver kept watch on the hills surrounding them.
"Not all of them," Connors sighed as he adjusted his straining belt. "Most of them are as bad as the negroes who ran off and started killing everybody a few years before the war ended. Savages and renegades is all they are. Some are old women and children."
"I still don't see why we came this way, Captain," Saturday said. "Wyatt would head down the coast. He's past Padre at this point."
Oliver shook his head. "Word is that he's friendly with the sheriff in Victoria, which has a large Imperialist Tejano population—men who still remember Maximilian's cause and despised Juarez. Wyatt needs to dump off some of his excess wares, restock, rest. He's been running south nonstop for weeks, trying to get back to Brazil. The man's tired."
"If you can call him that," Ladd grumbled. "Fifty dead, over three hundred missing."
"You don't need to remind me," Saturday said, lifting his shirt to show the raw scar.
"Plenty of numbers you got there, huh?" Connors laughed. "Never had much mind for figures."
Ladd and Connors began to bicker while Oliver sat on his horse, swaying in place.
"Fifty-one thousand dead at Gettysburg," he finally offered. The three men turned to face him. "Many more to die soon, it seems. This land needs a God, not more guns. It makes you wonder when enough will be enough."
"When all men are truly free, Captain," Ladd replied, removing his hat in reverence. "When all men are truly free, and this mission is but a continuing effort in Lincoln's own vein."
"That's not the kind of confident talk you want to hear from a Texas State policeman," Connors said, letting out a belch. "We're here for a good bounty, and killing Confederados is easy work."
"For God's sake, are all Texans such somber company?" Saturday said.
It was then that an arrow buried itself in his neck, with the Pinkerton jolting forward and falling head-over-heels to the ground. Connors lit up and began firing at the hills.
"Goddamn Injuns!" he roared.
Ladd ran to his horse in a panic, while Oliver reared his to get a better view at the band which encircled them. He fired a warning shot and shouted to the approaching shadows, "Texas State Police, do not shoot!"
The men did not lower their bows, but the one who appeared to be their leader held up a hand as he approached Oliver. A scowl etched itself across his face.
"Lawman," the Indian said. Oliver nodded, pointing to the badge on his, Ladd's, and Connors' chests.
"What are you doing on one's land?" the man said, glancing at Saturday's body.
"We are looking for an ex-Confederate officer by the name of Jesse Wyatt. He's headed toward Victoria through these hills."
The Indian was at Oliver's stirrup before he could react. He pointed at the dead ex-Confederates on the ground. "These would be more of Lawman's Greycoats then, would it not?"
Oliver nodded, trying to maintain a cool composure, despite being outnumbered. "It would."
The Indian sighed and said something to his men, who lowered their bows and knelt, eyeing the posse.
"Who are you?" Connors said, his finger still poised on the trigger.
"One's father called one Many Wounds."
"What are you doing in these hills?" Ladd asked.
"The Greycoats held one for three days. They killed the young ones. One came here to pray."
"Did you see where they were going?" Ladd asked.
Many Wounds allowed himself a faint smile. "One did, Blackskin. One will show you. But first, bury your dead man. Remember the dead. They will remember us."
Bad Company, or, When Victoria Burned
"How are we sure he's here?"
The question bothered Oliver, but he kept his eyes firmly on the road heading through Victoria. Ladd shifted his body sideways, further down the ridge toward where their horses were grazing out-of-sight. Connors spat out some dip and shook his head.
"You know Wyatt has friends outside here, don't you?"
Oliver's gaze didn't waver. "How so?" he asked.
"Didn't you hear about those Mormons who turned savage up by the Colorado? Led by a nasty fellow—Hollister was his name, I think. Had to arrest a bunch of cattle rubes a year or two back, was it, and they told me about a fort north of Bishop's Lodge, toward the climb into the mountains."
"I did hear about Hollister," Oliver conceded. "But, I don't put him with Wyatt. Two very different men."
"Oh, sure, one was grey, one was blue, but Yanks and Rebs had their own types of renegades, didn't they?" Connors grinned a tobacco-stained smile. "Wyatt was the grey menace, and some folks considered a little group of Union Texan turncoats to be just like . . . him."
Connors pointed at a small retinue of men exiting a dark building off the main street, one of whom resembled Wyatt. Red crept up Oliver's neck at the suggestion. "Wyatt and I are nothing alike," he hissed.
Connors laughed. "War's over, Captain, and here you are, chasing your old phantom like it's still 1861. He burned homesteads, you cut down women—" Connors leaned in. "Not much difference there, if you ask me. Not that I'm surprised," he sighed. "Brothers tend to be apples from the same tree."
Ladd returned in time to see Oliver pin Connors against the ground, a Peacemaker shoved under one of his chins.
"Captain!" Ladd said in surprise.
"You never knew when to shut your fucking mouth, did you?" Oliver said, applying pressure to the revolver. Ladd ran up and pulled Oliver back as Connors rubbed the gun barrel impression left on his neck.
"Oh, sure, let the negro pull you back, Oliver." Connors spat out the rest of his dip. "Don't make the words any less true."
Oliver shrugged Ladd off his back, straightening his coat and holstering his revolver. Ladd looked between the two men. "Is it true what he said, Mark?" he finally asked, somewhat timid in his tone.
The captain's eyes were piercing as he lifted them from the ground, tears of frustration welling in the corners. "What children our mothers have after us aren't ours to bear," he managed. Looking back at the town, it appeared Wyatt had left the building and headed in the other direction.
Oliver turned to Connors. "And it takes scum to catch scum. So, if you're still looking for a bounty, this is the time to come along. Until then, you'll keep your mouth shut," he said, pointing with emphasis. Oliver then walked toward his horse, not looking back at the remaining posse. "There's still some killing left to do."
Many Wounds told them he would gather his remaining warriors once the posse gave the signal that they had found Wyatt. Ladd rode into the hills to inform him as Oliver and Connors took the back streets into Victoria. The building they saw Wyatt exit was painted with large, bold lettering on both front and back: "The Alhambra."
"Most famous cathouse this side of the Mississippi," Connors said.
"Let's hope the girls know to cooperate with the law," Oliver replied as he dismounted. He gestured at Connors' chest. "Make sure your badge is showing, and ready your shotgun. We want to take Wyatt before dawn."
"I'm sorry, Captain," the madam apologized in the Alhambra's dining room. "I don't expect the man you described to be back before noon."
"And why is that?" Oliver asked. Connors fumbled around with the bottles behind the bar.
"It isn't polite to inquire too heavily into the affairs of our patrons," she elaborated. "But, I heard him mention Gonzales, which is at least a half-day's ride from here."
"See," Connors said, biting a cork out of a whiskey bottle. "He's headed north, just like I said."
Oliver ignored him. "Well, in any case, I thank you, ma'am."
"Not at all," she said. "You are your man are welcome to stay here until he returns, Captain. Complements of the house."
"We might just have to take you up on that offer," Oliver replied as Ladd entered through the front, flanked on both sides by Many Wounds and five warriors. The madam shrank back at the sight.
"And . . . are these men also part of your . . . posse?" she asked. He placed a hand on hers, smiling reassuringly. "I assure you, ma'am, they are just here to aid me in taking Jesse Wyatt peacefully. After that, we leave."
The posse was given two rooms on the second floor, both overlooking the main street. While Oliver complained about the small number of warriors Many Wounds brought with him, armed with only bows, arrows, and knives to boot, he was glad to bolster their ranks however he could. In stints of half-hours, the posse of nine took turns resting as the day came and the sun grew hotter, nearing the noon hour.
"How good are your men with those things?" Connors asked Many Wounds while they kept watch. Many Wounds sat quietly.
"Good enough, I'd imagine" Ladd said. "What bad company we're about to have, I'd take what we can get."
"That's because you're a dumb schoolboy who's never been in a fight," Connors stood, adjusting his belt. "Trust me, boy, this thing will get bloody, and we won't be fighting buffalo." He picked up an arrow and pretended to pick his teeth with it.
"Shut the hell up, Connors," Oliver said from the bed, his hat covering his eyes.
"All I'm saying—"
"Be quiet!" It was Ladd this time as he ducked beneath the windowsill. "There, look!"
Many Wounds leaned back from the window, and Connors and Oliver both joined them to see over one hundred mounted rifles riding into town.
"Chrissalmighty," Connors cursed. "How the hell did they know we were here?"
Oliver's jaw clenched. "Ladd, get the madam up here. Many Wounds, are your men ready?"
"Yes, Lawman," the man said. "One is ready to avenge the little ones."
"Good," Oliver nodded. Ladd rushed out of the room, only to return moments later with the madam, who looked flustered and terrified. "Captain," she said. "You and your men have to leave, now!"
Oliver walked up to her. "Get your girls, and meet with them down in the lobby. We're going to try and talk with—"
A loud cracking sound accompanied a shattered window in the hallway. An oiled rag smoked around a piece of wood, small flickers of flame catching at the carpet. Wyatt rode brazenly down the main street, shouting at the townsfolk to get their guns in the name of Maximilian.
"Fucker," Connors said. "He's trying to smoke us out."
"Get the girls," Oliver repeated, his mind racing. "Ladd, go with them, and go through the back door. Connors—"
Connors was already exiting the room. "Where are you going?" Oliver asked.
Connors shook his head. "I didn't sign up for this, Captain. Keep the bounty. I'm going home."
Oliver tried to get in front of him. "We saved you from the gallows, or did you forget?" Connors brushed by. "You owe this country, Connors!"
Connors glanced over his shoulder from the stairs. "No, Mark. You do."
Oliver rejoined Many Wounds at the window as Ladd corralled the madam and her girls in the lobby. The smoke was filling the hallway as more torches were thrown through the windows. Oliver saw Wyatt talking with some of his men.
"Say the word, Lawman," Many Wounds said. "One will place an arrow in the Greycoat."
"Wait," Oliver said. "Let's see what they do with Connors." Connors walked down the front steps, his shotgun held over his head. Wyatt trained a revolver at him, and for a second, Oliver feared that Wyatt would gun him down. Then, Connors handed his shotgun to Wyatt, and Wyatt exchanged him a rifle. Without a word, Connors mounted a horse amidst the mounted rifles, aimed at the window, and fired.
"Son of a bitch!" Oliver yelled as the mounted rifles joined Connors in firing on the Alhambra.
"It seems Pigman sold one out," Many Wounds shouted. "Fire back, Lawman, fire back!"
Many Wounds flicked arrows from his bow in one fluid motion, picking off Confederates with each shot. Oliver steadied himself, adjusted his grip on his revolvers, and fired them at the street below. Victoria became a battleground. Ex-Confederates threw torches; the Alhambra blazed alongside the adjacent buildings; Oliver and Many Wounds' warriors returned fire. An occasional cry entered the air as one of the Coahuiltecans fell, and soon it was only Oliver and Many Wounds remaining.
"Did Blackskin leave?" Many Wounds panted, bleeding steadily from several bullet wounds. Oliver fared a little better, his ammunition belt nearly empty. He nodded, catching his breath. "I think he managed to get the girls out of town."
"And what of the other blackskins?" Many Wounds asked.
"I gave him orders to head north to Austin to tell Governor Davis what he knows. If Davis acts quickly, they ought to catch the freedmen before they cross into Mexico and are shipped to Brazil."
Many Wounds grew somber. "And what of you, Lawman?"
Oliver met the Indian's gaze, counted out the six remaining bullets he had, and loaded three in each revolver. He held out a hand to the man and smiled.
Downstairs, Oliver waited until Many Wounds began shooting arrows again before bursting out of the Alhambra doors, rolling behind several barrels. He yelled as he fired a single shot at a lieutenant, killing him and distracting Wyatt's men from Many Wounds.
An arrow flitted from overhead, taking a sergeant in the chest. Steadying himself, Oliver slid out and sprinted toward an overturned cart. Many Wounds covered him, taking Connors in the neck and sending him to the ground.
Two bullets remained: one for each Peacemaker. The townsfolk had joined in the fray, now surrounding the Alhambra on all sides and supporting the seventy-odd ex-Confederates still remaining. Oliver heard Wyatt shouting orders over the fracas, and Oliver imagined where the man was based off of his voice. Closing his eyes, he pictured the shot before he took it. Rifles crackled from down the road as Victoria made its way to him. Knowing he would soon lose the shot, Oliver stood up, fired, and roared, "Blessed are the Peacemakers, Jesse Wyatt."
Curtis H. Stratton is the author of "War Coin," an acclaimed narrative nonfiction account of the history of
mercenaries. A former military journalist and current historian, he lives in the Washington, D.C. area. For
more, be sure to visit facebook.com/cstrattonofficial.
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The Phantom Terrace
by Edward Sheehy
Belching clouds of smoke and steam, the iron horse of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad wheezed to a stop alongside the platform at Silver Cliff. The billowing vapors shrouded the arriving passengers in an ethereal gray fog.
The slender young man stood with a leather valise at his feet—the one he'd monogramed with the initials for Jacob Worthington before he left on this misbegotten mission. As he looked around, he immediately felt out of place. His tailored frock coat and vest punctuated by a small bow tie and a bowler hat set him apart from the disheveled mine workers awaiting the next departure. Grabbing his valise, the young man set out for the town—a scattering of clapboard buildings and canvas tents flapping in the prairie wind. The muddy street soiled his new lace-up brogans.
By all accounts, Silver Cliff was booming. The Geyser mine was the deepest in Colorado and the richest strike in recent memory. The U. S. Treasury gobbled up the extracted metal and minted the coins that paid for everything from bullets to bonnets. The rush was on. A cacophony of jangling buckboards, pounding hammers, braying mules, and shouts from saloons filled the dusty air. The clatter, however, was primitive compared to the cosmopolitan hum of Philadelphia, a metropolis of nearly a million people and host to the Centennial International Exhibition where Jacob had marveled at the latest inventions: the typewriter and the telephone. Most of all, he missed the sublime delight of a Sunday afternoon watching the regattas on the Schuylkill with his betrothed—the lovely (and wealthy) Amelia Pennypacker. Whereas in this godforsaken dump of tailings and sludge, the entire populace of Silver Cliff seemed entirely consumed with digging a hole in the ground. "Bunch of damn chipmunks," he muttered.
* * *
A deep and resonant voice cut through the commotion and pulled him to a tent wedged between a brothel and a blacksmith. Pushing aside the flap, Jacob saw a barrel-chested man with flowing white hair and an untamed beard pacing in front of a meager congregation of men seated on rough-hewn planks of pine. The preacher exhorted the men to forsake whores and whiskey and turn their eyes heavenward. "Brothers, by the sweat of your brow, I know your trials and tribulations. I, too, was a miner once. Worked the Diablo silver mine. Some of you may have heard of it."
A murmur rippled among the men.
"We dug so deep I smelled Satan's sulfurous stink. Then a dang fool brought a candle into the mine." The preacher's hands flew apart. "Ka-Boom! Thirty-six miners blown to smithereens. God bless their souls." The preacher bowed his head and his right hand made the sign of the cross across his broad chest. After a moment of silence, he added, "I was one of the lucky survivors. And I tell you men, as I lay buried in rubble in that pitch black hole, I swore to the heavenly Father that if I survived that I would devote the rest of my life to bringing His Word to the less fortunate among us. And that's why I am here today."
The preacher walked over to a table and lifted up a bible for all to see. "Isaiah the prophet knew what it was like in the mines. The eternal darkness in the shaft is like our souls mired in ignorance and sin, waiting for the lantern to show us the way to the sweet air of heaven and home." He pressed the bible to his forehead and closed his eyes. "The Lord will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known. And I will turn the darkness before them into light. Isaiah, chapter 42, verse 16."
Something was off kilter about the preacher, head tilted askew, as if he was looking over the heads of the men or searching the heavens for inspiration. The preacher turned on his heels, then stumbled on the uneven ground of the dirt floor before regaining balance from a helping hand in the first row. "Aye, we all need a helping hand now and then, don't we men?" It occurred to Jacob that the preacher was blind.
Pathetic fools, Jacob mused, praying for heaven to rescue them from their hellish lives. The sermon was a far cry from the philosophy of Ben Franklin, a man whom Jacob much admired. One of Philadelphia's most renowned citizens, Franklin believed in reason and science rather than divine intervention in the affairs of men. When the coal bucket came around for a collection, Jacob withdrew from the tent and walked across the street to the Excelsior Hotel. He rented a room, stowed his luggage, and shouldered his way into the adjoining saloon. His eye was immediately drawn to an extremely large bear with cinnamon-colored fur propped in a corner. The beast stood on its hind legs, towering nine feet in height. Teeth bared; the powerful jaws gaped as if unleashing a silent roar on the assembled patrons. A sign identified the stuffed attraction as Ursus arctos horribilis.
At the bar, he ordered a beer, then turned to survey the roughnecks and gamblers in the smoky room. Hardly the enterprising businessmen his father had told him to seek out a few weeks ago in the parlor of the family brownstone on Chestnut Street. "Go west, Jacob," he said. "Visit every mining town you can find. That's where the money is. Find new markets for Worthington Tool & Die. Make us a fortune, son." Then he threw an arm around Jacob's shoulder and drew him close. "Don't come back without a briefcase full of contracts." Judging by the reprobates in the Excelsior saloon, there was little likelihood of that happening on his first foray into the wild west.
A ruckus from outside the saloon interrupted the din of conversation and piano music. Men gathered on the boardwalk to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. Curious, Jacob joined the throng and saw a tall skinny man in the street, clad only in long underwear and boots, shouting and staggering in circles.
"The lights! They're back! The lights!"
Jacob turned to the fellow next to him and asked what the man was raving about.
The old-timer eyed Jacob's city clothes and removed a cigar from his mouth. "A few years back, a dozen miners died in a cave-in. Some folks claim the lights are the souls of the miners come back to warn us. Other say it's the Will-O'-the-Wisp. I say swamp gas."
The skinny man pleaded with the men to follow him to the cemetery. As a lark, Jacob joined the group running toward the north end of town. When they arrived at the graveyard, a collective gasp arose from the men. An array of bluish white globes of light danced and bobbed among the tombstones.
Bemused, Jacob watched as the men shouted and laughed and tried to grab hold of the globes, but their hands just passed through the light. One man threw his coat over a globe and wrestled it to the ground, only to find when he lifted the garment that there was nothing underneath.
More damn fools, Jacob thought, chasing swamp bubbles! After a few minutes, fatigue set in from a long day of travel, and he left the rubes to their folly and retired to the hotel. Perhaps the morning would bring more auspicious prospects. Back in the room, Jacob placed a photograph of Amelia on the night table before his head hit the pillow.
* * *
After breakfast in the hotel, Jacob strolled the boardwalk to confirm his first impression of the town in bright daylight. Nothing had changed. Silver Cliff was sprouting like mushrooms after a rain—a fever dream of construction and industry fueled by the Geyser strike. Jacob, though, was bored by the prospect of looking for new business for tools and machines. He was not a slab of Worthington sheet metal to be molded and stamped into the image of his father. If he was going to roam the western frontier he would do as he pleased and bring back a story that would impress Amelia and the regatta boys.
He wandered into a dry goods shop and was greeted by a clerk with muttonchops and a smile. " Good morning, sir. What can I do for you?"
"Well for starters, you can tell me what else there is to do in this town besides drinking and digging dirt."
The smile on the clerk's face widened into a toothy grin. "That's easy, sir. For a newcomer such as yourself, I suggest you go see the Continental Divide. It is said to be the grandest sight in the land. The very backbone of the country. Yes, indeed! Folks say that to the east, you can see the Atlantic Ocean, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean, and all that lies in between. If the Greeks had known about it, the Great Divide would have been the eighth wonder of the world. Yes sir, that's what I would do."
"Have you seen it?" Jacob asked.
"Me, sir? Oh no. I run a store and have a family and can't run off on such an adventure. But I've spoken with prospectors who have seen the Divide. And they say it is breathtaking. Not to be missed."
"Well, where is this Continental Divide? How do I get there?"
"It's not a trip to be taken lightly sir. I can outfit you with the needed supplies. But there is only one man I know that can guide you to the divide. Knows the mountains and valleys like the back of his hand. Yes sir. He can get you there."
"What the name of this guide? Where do I find him?"
"I don't know his Christian name. People just call him the old scout. Lives in a shack, out by the cemetery. Can't miss it."
"Get my supplies ready. I'll be back." Jacob said and headed out the door toward the cemetery.
The shack was easy to find as it was the only structure within sight of the same graveyard he'd visited last night. A man sat in a chair by the front door whittling a long stick. As Jacob drew closer, something about the man looked familiar. The white hair flowing out from under the broad flat brim of a sombrero, the wild beard. The blind preacher!
"You lost, brother," the old man said.
Puzzled, Jacob hesitated. "You asking me?"
"Wasn't a question."
"I'm looking for the old scout, but you're . . . "
"Blind? Right you are, sonny boy."
"I heard you last night, in the tent."
"Yep, and I smelled you. Those new leather shoes you're wearing and that soap on your skin."
Reflexively, Jacob raised his hand to his nose.
The old man continued whittling the stick with a buckhorn knife.
Jacob kicked some dirt. "Well, uh, a clerk told me about the Continental Divide, and I thought I might take a look. Said you were the best guide to get me there. But I don't . . . " his voice trailed off.
"Understand how a blind man can be a mountain guide? Let me tell you something, sonny. I may have lost my sight, but the Lord made my other senses sharp as a tack. I can smell a coyote turd a mile away. I can hear a jackrabbit scratch its arse ten feet under the ground. And I can drink a glass of milk and show you where the cow ate the grass."
"I didn't know . . . "
"What you don't know son would fill the Geyser mine shaft." The old scout spat a stream of black juice in the dirt. "The trail up to the divide ain't no picnic. And you're gonna have to cross the Phantom Terrace to get there. Think you got what it takes?"
"Phantom what?" Jacob stammered.
The old scout chuckled. "You're new around here, so I 'spose you haven't heard. The story goes that the Phantom Terrace was once a sacred pathway over the mountain to buffalo hunting grounds. One day a chief sent his son Kuruk to guard the pathway against intruders. Raven flew up to the mountain and became a princess and lured the boy off the pathway to his death. Since then, Kuruk's spirit is said to still warn off intruders. I should know. It was Kuruk who done this to my eyes." The old scout spat again. "Still want to go, son?"
First his father's ultimatum not to come home without a briefcase full of contracts, now this old man was challenging him if he had the guts to hike up a damn mountain. And he wasn't going to be scared off by some fairy tale. Just more hog wash like the salvation he'd peddled to the miners for a few coins.
"Look old man, will you take me up the damn mountain or not?"
"Sangre de Christo."
"The name of the mountain range where you want to go. Means Blood of Christ. Meet me here at sun-up tomorrow. And don't wear them city clothes. You might get a bit chilly up there." He laughed, then loosed another stream of tobacco juice, and disappeared into the dark interior of the shack.
* * *
The new boots pinched his toes and the heavy rucksack chafed his shoulders. The dry goods clerk had stuffed the bag with a bedroll, tent, blanket, coffee pot, canteen, and enough food to last a couple of days. The gear rattled and clinked with each step he took.
As he trudged toward the shack, sunrise peeked over the Sangre ridgeline painting the underbelly of the clouds in shades of pink and purple. The old scout was already mounted on a large Appaloosa when Jacob arrived. The scout wore the sombrero and a pair of blue-tinted round spectacles. Pointing to a mule tied to a lodgepole pine, he said, "Saddle up, son. Ain't got all day."
Jacob untied the beast and struggled to get his boot in the stirrup as the mule refused to stand still. He danced around on one leg before he was able to hoist himself up. Cursing the jackass, he caught up with the old scout where the trail wound through stands of aspens and spruce. Cool broken light spilled upon mosses and ferns. They passed the gray weathered timbers of an old homestead listing crazily on its foundation like a shipwreck in the forest. After an hour of easy riding, the old scout reined his horse beside a large cottonwood. "This is it," he announced.
Jacob twisted in the saddle, looking over both shoulders. "This is what?"
"Where you get off Ol' Betsy and walk the rest of the way" the scout gestured to a barely discernable patch of flattened grass. "Follow this trail up to the lake. Camp there. In the morning, you'll see the Phantom Terrace that leads you to the great divide."
"Wait a minute," Jacob protested. "I thought you were going to take me up there."
"It's Sunday. Gotta get back to my church. Don't worry, son, the path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. Proverbs 4." The old scout spat in the dirt, and when he spoke again all folksiness from his voice was gone, the tone now stern, no nonsense, "Just be careful at the Phantom Terrace. It's a narrow ledge, son. Don't take any fool chances with Kuruk. Seek God's grace and mercy with every step and you'll be fine."
Grumbling, Jacob dismounted the mule and pressed a few coins in the old scout's hand. Maybe it was best to be on his own than have to listen to more bunkum about Kuruk from a bible thumper. He was going to prove something to his father alright, but it wasn't going to involve a briefcase of contracts.
"Hold on a minute," the scout said. From a rifle scabbard tied to his saddle, he retrieved the long stick the man had been whittling yesterday and handed it down to Jacob. The stick was adorned with intricate carvings of forest animals, birds, and snakes. "Here, take this." the old scout said. "Might come in handy." Incredulous that a sightless old man could craft such an elaborate design, Jacob ran his hand over the carvings as if its true origin might be revealed. He mumbled thanks and fumbled with the rucksack and by the time he looked up, the Appaloosa was heading back to the shack. Without turning around, the old scout raised an arm and hollered, "Adios, amigo. Look out for the grizz!"
Jacob froze in place. Thoughts of the nine-foot horribilis in the Excelsior saloon sprang to mind: the five-inch claws and massive canines. A flutter of movement in the shrubs, then an explosion from the underbrush as a grouse took frantic flight almost caused Jacob to evacuate his bowels.
Mustering what little courage he possessed, he forged ahead on a path that quickly gained elevation with each switchback. After several strenuous hours he arrived at the alpine lake with bleeding blisters from the ill-fitting boots. He made camp and built a small fire. Supper was coffee and hardtack. Toward dusk, the sky clouded and pelted the landscape with pebble-sized hailstones. Jacob sought refuge in the canvas shelter and trembled with each thunderclap echoing in the canyon walls and reverberating in his bones. The wind roared down the slopes and shook the flimsy tent like a cougar tearing at a carcass. Curled under a blanket, he pledged eternal love to Amelia if he should survive the tempest. Fortunately, the storm's fury was brief, and soon a crease of blue sky reappeared with a rainbow arching over the valley below. The planet Venus was visible over the spine of a nearby ridge and a full moon rose in the east like a white poker chip on a table of black velvet. Seeing all of this as a sign of good fortune, Jacob dismissed his silly fears of a moment ago and slept soundly the rest of the night.
Shortly after dawn, Jacob shouldered the rucksack and picked up a semblance of trail that skirted the lake, cut through a field of loose rock, and ended at a steeply slanted slope of low meadow growth and boulders. Now where? Jacob stared intently at the slope, searching for a way across. He squatted on his haunches to get a level view, and that's when he saw it. A narrow ledge, barely the width of his foot, cut into the side of a sharply angled hillside. The ledge meandered across the slope and led to a saddle in the upper ridge. The traverse had to be the Phantom Terrace.
Surveying the final approach, he understood that the exposed ledge would not be without risk. No margin for error. No forgiveness for a stumble or a misstep. Thoughts of tumbling down the slope, crashing into boulders, breaking bones, filled his mind with dread. Or he could simply turn around right now and no one would be the wiser and he could make up any story he desired. Except the wind was at his back, pushing him forward, as if the matter was already settled. He stood for what seemed an eternity, pondering the consequences of a slip, swallowed hard, then placed his right foot on the path, and felt the ground tilt precipitously toward the ravine hundreds of feet below. Almost immediately, the shakes started in the knees. He concentrated on the careful placement of his boots on the terrace when a bright light caught his eye. It appeared to be coming from the upper saddle, white and radiant. The elevation on the ridge too high for swamp gas—but maybe not for Kuruk.
But right now, Jacob could not afford to be distracted by such thoughts. He averted his eyes and focused on the sharply angled slope. Step-by-step he made way across the knife edge. But that damn light in his peripheral vision grew more intense, disorienting. What the hell was it? Surely there must be a rational scientific explanation for the phenomena. Now within a few yards of completing the traverse, the enveloping light flashed whiter than a dying star, his retinas aflame as if threaded with a hot needle. Dark spots clouded both eyes. Panic seized him on the ledge. Any second, he might perish down the ravine. Damn you, Kuruk! And for the first time in his life, Jacob cried out for salvation, "Lord, have mercy on my soul. Show me the path of the righteous." As he tapped the ground with the walking stick, his mind's eye imagined the narrow terrace. He ventured a small step. Would his next step be his last?
* * *
Three days later, Silver Cliff gossip was all about the city boy who'd staggered down main street and collapsed in front of the Excelsior Hotel. Men from the saloon had helped Jacob to his room and summoned the itinerant doctor employed by the mining company. An examination revealed an assortment of contusions, a bad case of dehydration, along with an occlusion in both eyes, the size of a small yellow disc. After sipping water, Jacob regained coherence. "What on earth did you do to yourself, son?" the doctor asked. "You been staring at the sun or something?"
A warm damp cloth covered Jacob's eyes. He'd heard the question but did not respond. No one would believe the answer. He didn't believe it himself. Instead, he asked for someone to bring the old scout to him for a visit. The walking stick had saved his life during the precarious descent. The doctor scratched his stubbled chin and delivered the bad news. The old scout had been preaching to the congregation the other day when he grabbed his chest and keeled over.
"Get plenty of bed rest and liquids." The doctor turned before leaving the room, "You're lucky to be alive, Mr. Worthington."
* * *
Several days passed, and when Jacob felt sufficiently revived, he ventured out of the hotel and experienced an amazing awakening. Other than impaired vision, his other senses were as fine-tuned as a Worthington lathe. Every moment brought a new sensory revelation unlike anything Jacob had ever known. A northeasterly breeze carried a bouquet of distinct flora: larkspur, columbine, and prickly rose. The trills and chirps of distant chickadees filled his mind with an exquisite musical composition. Yes indeed, he was lucky, and thankful, to be alive on such a magnificent Colorado morning.
Wearing spectacles with dark lenses, he tapped the walking stick on the boardwalk to identify steps and obstacles on his way toward the telegraph office where he would send two messages: one to his father, and one to Amelia. He would not worry them about his accident— the doctor had said vision loss was often temporary—but simply assure them that he was safe and that plans were proceeding, although truth be told, he had no plans as to what he would do next.
His attention was drawn to the sobbing and sniffles of a woman. He tapped his way over to edge of a crowd gathered in front of the sheriff's office.
"I found his shirt by the creek. What if he went swimming and . . . " The woman couldn't finish the thought. "We've got to find him."
A man's voice broke in, "Alright, calm down, ma'am. He probably just wandered off. Don't you worry. We'll find Will, you'll see."
"May I have the boy's shirt for a moment?" said Jacob.
Grumbles of consternation over the intrusion by the city boy rained down on Jacob. Finally, a hand passed him the shirt.
Jacob thrust his face into the rough cotton shirt, inhaled deeply. "I smell the bacon he ate for breakfast, a chicken coop, three dogs, and a cat." The boy's mother gasped and nodded. Jacob cocked his head like a bloodhound in hot pursuit. "I think I know where he is and if I'm right, we don't have much time."
The sheriff mounted a horse and decided. "I don't know if this young man is right or wrong, but he found his way down from the Phantom Terrace, alone and blind, and that counts for something. Half you men ride out to the creek and search there. The rest follow me." He reached down and pulled Jacob up behind him. Jacob's enhanced olfactory sense led the search party to an abandoned mining camp—a ghostly slag heap littered with rusted machinery, ramshackle buildings, and enormous piles of exploded rock. The surrounding hills had been stripped of timber to stoke the smelters, leaving behind only jagged stumps like the rotting teeth of a monstrous reptile. The entrance to shaft was boarded-up—except one board had been pried off, exposing a gap wide enough for an eight-year old boy to crawl through. The deputies got to work and managed to strip off the remaining boards.
"Maybe we should send someone to get the map and safety lanterns," said a deputy who had worked the mine. "It ain't safe in there. A cave-in a few years back. A man could get lost, or worse."
Ignoring the deputy's warning, Jacob dropped his walking stick and plunged into the shaft, navigating the labyrinthian darkness by the scent of the boy's shirt. Water in the tunnel filled his boots. Though sightless, Jacob sensed the coffin-like closeness of the narrow shaft. He shuddered at the thought of being buried alive, when a tingling sensation prickled the back of his neck. A vibration in the air indicated a presence, not heard so much as felt, like a cold hand laid upon the heart. Perhaps the souls of the lost miners that had danced in the cemetery.
He brushed against an ore bucket used to transport miners down vertical shafts and almost toppled into a bottomless chasm. Fresh air blowing in from a ventilation shaft seemed like a good bet as to what direction the boy might have headed.
"Will! Will!" Jacob called out. "Can you hear me, Will!"
From deep inside the blackest depths of the mountain, a small frightened voice ricocheted off the tunnel walls. "Help! Help! Over here!" Jacob turned in a circle desperately trying to locate the direction of the cry. "Keep shouting! Keep shouting, Will." Using the heightened sensitivity of his inner ear, Jacob traced the echo of Will's voice down one tunnel, then another, until he found the trembling boy huddled in a fissure.
"Take my hand," Jacob said, and together they backtracked out of the confusing maze. A breeze ruffled his hair and signaled to Jacob that they were getting close to the entrance. Outside, he heard the deputies discussing plans for going into the shaft. One man had fashioned a torch from a tree branch and pine resin. Jacob sensed the heat on his cheeks. Then he detected something else. Gas.
"Get back!" Jacob shouted. "Don't bring that torch in here!"
"Mama!" Will cried.
Jacob dropped the kid's hand. "Run, Will! Run!"
The boy sprinted ahead like a frightened deer through the last stretch of tunnel and into his mother's arms just as the deputy with the torch stepped into the tunnel. The deafening explosion shattered the walls and beams framing the tunnel. A plume of smoke poured out of the entrance, driving the search party back, coughing and hacking, and sealing the shaft in a jumble of rocks and timbers.
* * *
A week had passed since the funeral, but Will had not been allowed to attend. I'm probably gonna get another whupping, Will thought as he slipped outside the cabin after midnight and made his way to the north end of Sliver Cliff. He'd scared his folks to death when he'd gone exploring the mine shaft and if they discovered him missing again there's was no telling what punishment they might inflict.
Will carried the walking stick that one of the deputies had handed him after the rescue. It was the only remaining possession of the man who'd died while saving his life. He rattled the stick against the wrought iron fence that encircled the graveyard. In the darkness of the new moon, it would be near impossible to find the right headstone. Standing at the gate, he saw a lantern. Maybe a caretaker. His first instinct was to hide, but then the lantern seemed to hover above a single tombstone located in a corner of the cemetery. The luminous manifestation now appeared spherical and radiated a bluish white glow. The glow brightened as Will crept closer to the marker, making it easier to see the inscription on the stone tablet:
1855 - 1876
Note: Reported sightings of dancing blue lights in the cemetery on the outskirts of Silver Cliff, Colorado are factual and date back to the 1870's. A story on the lights of Silver Cliff cemetery was featured in National Geographic Magazine, August 1969.
Short stories by Edward Sheehy have appeared in The Boston Literary Magazine; The Write Launch;
The Book Smuggler's Den; and in Lake Street Stories, published by Flexible Press. Dog Ear
Publishing released his novel, Cade's Rebellion, in 2018. He lives in Minneapolis, on the West Bank
of the Mississippi River.
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Why God Created Cowboys
by Paul Grella
Supply! Demand! The cattle business was as simple as that. Texas had the beef; the rest of civilized America had the appetite. Thus the cattle drive was born. When the cattle drive was born so was the cowboy.
Cattle, almost beyond count, roamed wild in central Texas in the mid-1800s, feeding on the grassy prairie like all the other game animals. And south of San Antonio still more wild cattle foraged freely, having been abandoned by their Mexican owners after the Texas War and constant border fighting. In 1845 the cattle running loose were almost beyond count.
Crafty visionaries, and as mercenary a lot as there ever was, like Charles Goodnight, C.C. Slaughter, John Wesley Iliff, Dudley Snyder, The Marquis De Mores, three dozen entrepreneurs in all, recognized the opportunity instantly and found the solution just as fast. Each in his own devious manner gobbled up more than twenty-million acres of raw Texas dirt, private and public and, without the blink of an eye, owned all the land and all the beef that was grazing on it.
Buying and selling cattle became a way of life. By legal means or not, cattle barons stockpiled beef on the hoof as fast as their insatiable avarice for money would allow. America was learning to savor sirloin, porterhouse, T-bone and filet, so it became imperative that all the cattle in Texas be brought to market because it represented instant money, and a lot of it to be had. A cow roaming wild on the range was worth $4. At market the same cow brought $40 without argument.
Railheads in Colorado, Kansas and Missouri beckoned. Towns like Dodge City, Hays, Ellsworth, Wichita and Newton, Kansas became boom towns in short order once the cows were delivered to the railheads there. Kansas City, Sedalia, even St. Louis, Missouri were also waiting, as were Denver and Pueblo, Colorado. In later years, vast areas of the Wyoming, Montana and the Dakota Territory became delivery points of herds sent there not to be slaughtered but to breed.
The process of delivery was evolutionary, yet elementary. The cattle simply had to be walked from Texas to the railheads. It was a walk of seven hundred to a thousand miles, through blistering heat, threatening thunderstorms, sub-zero winters, raging rivers and hostile Indian country. In the blink of an eye all of this would be accomplished by a bunch of young, adventuresome kids, irrepressible, but instantly energized by the enormous challenge.
They were called cowboys because they were boys leading cows. Eventually, 40,000 young men took to the trails and became, yep, bona-fide cowboys. One out of three was Negro or Mexican. They sat proudly on horseback twelve hours a day and endured six months of torturous, tedious, dangerous work. For all their toil and sweat they earned one hundred dollars, more or less, depending on how much they borrowed from the trail boss during the trek.
Most of Texas was far from an arid, dust-ridden prairie or the cattle barons would never have staked themselves to such a profitless, pointless endeavor. Covering the vast, alien prairies were the sweet and nutritious gamma and buffalo grasses appearing like lush, emerald carpets spread out over the rolling hills. The vast landscape flourished with verdant feeding grounds. Cattle on the march savored every step of the way, eating all they could, even though the trek ended up as a one-way trip to Del Monaco's Steak House for the tastiest parts of them.
Water was the other vital necessity during this grand march to Valhalla. Though not as plentiful as the abundant grasslands, water could always be found. At least six major rivers had to be forded for the cattle to be brought to market. Dotting the way, were streams, lakes and ponds that provided fueling stations for these hungry and thirsty bovines. The object of the entire trail drive principle was to bring each cow in to the slaughterhouses weighing substantially more than they did when the drive started. Payment was made at the end of the drive based on poundage.
Four major trails were chiseled out of the southwestern prairie. Each giant pathway led to different parts of the railway system that ran from Chicago, through Missouri and Kansas to Denver. Drop-off points dotted the way for the many herds that made the trek.
Charles Goodnight teamed up with Oliver Loving, two of the early cattle barons, to forge one of the first and the most prominent trails. In their typical lack of modesty, they named the trail after themselves. It coursed its way due west from central Texas to avoid marauding and hostile Indians in the North. Once the herd crossed the Pecos River the trail headed due north to Pueblo, Denver and Cheyenne. When it reached there it was safe from at least one element of danger for the drovers and their paychecks.
The Chisholm Trail was the most complex and the widely used by the drovers. A Scotch-Cherokee trader named, Jesse Chisholm, forged it. In five years it carried more than a million head and carved a path that was sometimes 400 yards wide. This trail eventually carried more than half of all the beef that was trail shipped north. It had many starting points, some as far south as Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Victoria, but all converged at the Red River Station and followed a straight route north to Ellsworth, Wichita, Newton or Abilene, Kansas. Here hundreds of thousands of cows were penned, awaiting the impatient palates of royalty and rabble.
The Shawnee Trail also started at Brownsville, the southernmost point in Texas, traveled past Dallas north, northeast to Kansas City, Sedalia or St. Louis, to the railheads there.
The Western Trail began in the area of San Antonio. It took a straight route north; northwest all the way to the Dakota, Wyoming and Montana Territories, mostly to bring herds there for breeding purposes.
All but the Goodnight-Loving trail had to pass through hostile Indian country, and each had to forge five or six giant, sometimes raging rivers on the way. Natural enemies like these created unforgettable experiences for the young cowboys. Many never made it to the end of the trail and payday.
The process of organizing a trail drive team developed into an extremely efficient machine in a short space of time. The first drives assumed that it would take one cowboy to handle 200 head of cattle. In no time, the uncanny wit and native ability of the young drover proved that he could easily handle twice as many. That became the general ratio used on all succeeding drives.
A trail boss, always called Mister by his subordinates, led the drive. He spent much time far ahead of the herd, searching for water and good pasture land. As the herd stretched out into almost single file, two point men held the lead steers in tow. Behind them a swingman rode on each side of the long line of beef and behind them two flank men kept the stragglers on the move.
There were usually three drag men who had the worst job of all. All day long they sucked in the powdery, red Texas dust that the thousands of hoofs churned up. These poor cowpokes always wore bandannas in an effort not to eat too much dust. But it was a dismal and fruitless task.
Only the cook, who rode alongside the herd in his chuck wagon drawn by two horses or Jennies, and the wranglers were spared drag duty. The wranglers, who often became the cook's helpers, maintained a very large remuda of healthy horses under control somewhere near the tail end of the herd.
There were sometimes as many as eighty horses in the remuda because even the best mount could only last four or five hours before it had to be rested. Every morning all the drovers picked out fresh horses from the remuda to start off their days' work. They made sure to allow their mounts plenty of rest during the journey, hence the need for so many fit and ready steeds standing by.
A goodly percentage of drovers attached themselves to the large ranches they worked for. They worked in the line camps during the off-season, mostly winter. They set up shacks every six or eight miles where cowboys stayed for months on end to separate branded cattle, search out strays and round up all the cattle when branding time came around.
The line camp was a lonely life for the cowboy. Most, apparently, enjoyed the solitude as opposed to the violent nature of trail driving. When they went to their line camp shacks, cowboys brought books to read, that is, if they could read at all, tobacco and, most important of all, pets. Cats proved to be the favorite pet for the two cowboys who shared their small bunkhouse together.
The drover's trail food fare was simple. Beans, sowbelly, syrupy coffee and, on rare occasions when a cow had to be slaughtered, the cook made sonofabitch stew. It consisted of beef heart, liver, sweetbreads, brains, testicles, marrow gut and was almost always flavored with Louisiana hot sauce, quite possibly to kill the foul taste of all the other ingredients
But beans, and more beans were the conventional fare. Some cowboy with some semblance of backhouse humor fondly called them Pecos Strawberries. The name stuck. Sowbelly, or bacon, was called, of all things, overland trout. The cook made sourdough biscuits if he was in a good mood and, rarely, he would concoct vinegar pie. He held all the men in good stead with whatever slop he served them. The cook was, after all, the second most important drover on the trail drive. All the cowboys looked out for him. In turn, he fed them, doctored them, listened kindly to their troubles and consoled them, mostly with a slug of hard cider or whiskey.
His kitchen was a wooden wagon driven by two Jennies or horses. It was a sideboard wagon with a high cabinet in back called the chuck box that housed flour, sugar, dried fruit, coffee beans, pinto beans other food stuffs as well as medicine, utensils and whiskey.
It traveled mostly as a convertible although there were steel bows over which a canvas cover could be stretched in case of foul weather. The cowboys stowed all their gear in the bed of the chuck wagon, usually not more than a bedroll and a small bag of personal items.
Most of a cowboy's possessions were carried on his back. He never went anywhere without a hat. It was wide brimmed to protect him from the fierce, merciless prairie sun. The sugar-loaf sombrero, with its high peak, was the most popular. It made even the shortest cowboy appear much taller. A cowboy almost always wore chaps over his trousers whenever he was in the saddle. These provided protection against dense and prickly brush, rope burns, even horse bites. All cowboys wore boots. They couldn't get a job without them. And spurs were an integral part of his boots. The working cowboy wore the simplest kind although there were many types, plain and fancy. It was called a work spur. It did its intended job and didn't injure his horse's flanks if used properly and wisely.
He usually had his own saddle and kept it polished like a prideful owner should since he spent much of the day in an intimate position with it. All cowboys wore bandannas. No one could be without them. In summer the cowboy soaked his bandanna at a water hole, and then wrapped it around his neck. It kept him cool. It was his air conditioner.
In winter, he wrapped it around his ears to keep them from freezing, or he wore it over his nose and mouth to hold in his warm breath. And he used it constantly when he drew drag duty to protect him against the cursed dust.
In truth, all cowboys hoped that their four to six month ride would be uneventful. If not, driving cattle could be a harrowing experience. The cowboy unknowingly faced grave dangers. The most horrifying was a stampede. The small-brained cow could be frightened into running by nothing more than a prairie dog crossing its path.
Other natural elements, though, were more serious. Thunder, lightning, even gentle raindrops could spook a herd into running through hell and high water. Hail was a guaranteed threat, because prairie hailstones are sometimes enormous. Cowboys jumped off their mounts during a hailstorm and covered their heads with their saddles.
If the herd became spooked and began to run, all the drovers had a specific job to do. Getting a drover to gallop next to the lead steers and try to turn them into themselves and form a circular formation was the fastest and best way to snuff a stampede. But this wasn't always easy. Steers were stubborn when they were frightened. A foolhardy drover trying to change their direction put his very life on the line.
His mount could be easily gored and he and his horse would surely be trampled to death. There are many tiny grave markers along the lonesome trail that gave testimony to the dangers that faced hard-nosed, adventurous boys playing out a man's game.
Fording rivers were always among the most dangerous parts of the journey north. The trail boss always rode ahead looking for the safest place to turn the herd into the rushing water. It was at these places that most of the cattle were lost. Some got mired in mud and were left behind to die. Others were simply washed downstream to drown. Worst of all was the bottleneck at river entry. Hapless cattle drowned when they were pushed to the bottom of the river by frightened cows climbing over them.
All were chaotic situations, none more harrowing than crossing the Red River into hostile Indian Territory. In the beginning the savages stampeded herds and attacked drovers who were vainly trying to quell the wildly galloping mass. The Indians then killed as many drovers as they could and usually stole more cattle than they needed.
Eventually, however, a form of unsettled peace developed between the drovers and the Indians. The Indians decided that it was easier simply to impose a toll. After all, it was their land. For every drive that passed through what is now Oklahoma, they got all the beef-on-the-hoof they wanted, and nobody got hurt.
The trail drive wasn't all work. The herd often passed little settlements and larger towns. If the grazing was good, the trail boss had his men quiet the herd to a standstill and let them stoke up. Meanwhile, he gave each of his drovers a small stipend and let them ride to town, provided that there were at least two drovers to stand guard.
Some sainted trail bosses whose consciences and morals were almost above reproach only let his boys enter a town during daylight, when the saloons were usually empty and the brothels closed. Other bosses believed in letting their boys have all the fun they bargained for and gave them free run. These rare instances were a great catharsis to the young drovers. It gave them the spunk to continue on whatever the cost.
The great days of the trail drive only lasted twenty years because it no longer became practical. Droving died almost as quickly as it had been born and with it, sadly, the cowboy. Suddenly he was no more. But, in that short span of time, he became one of the most recognized and copied images on the face of the earth.
All for a hundred bucks and a long ride on the lonesome trail.
Paul Grella is a graphic designer and writer, now retired. He is proud to have created the 'Fiesta Bowl'
logo among his other accomplishments. He lives in Scottsdale and has for the past 60 years, generating
interest about the only "real" cowboys, the drovers. There were forty thousand of them.
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by Robert D. McKee
Sheriff Piedmont Lore winked at Tom, flipped the dominoes onto their faces, and gave them a shuffle with the palms of his broad, thick-fingered hands.
"Judging by the severe beating young Tom and I are giving you Hartmeyers," the sheriff said, "a fella might think you two look-alikes'd never played Forty-two in your lives."
Tom felt himself smile. Red-assin' was a big part of the sheriff's jail-house domino games, and once it started, it was hard to stop.
Gus Hartmeyer rolled his eyes, groaned, and leaned forward in his chair. Scowling at the sheriff, he asked, "Do you know what the worst part of losing to you is, Monty?"
"It's the chin wagging that comes along with it. I swear, if you'd promise not to say another word for the rest of this game, I would gladly give you and Deputy Pissant here half-again more than whatever me and Luke might lose."
Tom took offense at the pissant comment, but he tried not to let it show. It didn't pay to be thin-skinned around this bunch.
Gus was sole owner of Amarillo's largest feed lot, which made him one of the Panhandle's richest men. But his coughing up more than he lost was not likely. The old miser still had eight cents of the first dime he'd ever made. Tom had the urge to point that out, but he did not have the courage.
Although Tom had only worked as Sheriff Lore's deputy for a little over a month, he had known these curmudgeons since he was a boy. His father had become good friends with Monty
and the Hartmeyer twins seventeen years earlier when he and Tom first moved to the Panhandle. Tom was two at the time, and he had watched them berate one another for as long as he could remember. Though he'd never admit it, Tom was pleased to have been allowed into their abusive fraternity. Still, he didn't dare deliver any gibes.
"Hell, Gus, pointing out you boys's weaknesses in the fine art of domino playing is the best part of winning. The money's not nearly as gratifying as those humbled expressions on your two matching mugs."
Luke Hartmeyer now joined the fray. "You're a unique man, Sheriff. Anyone can be a poor loser. But it takes a special sort of son of a bitch to be a poor winner."
Luke had graduated from Sam Houston Normal in Hunstville and had taught history at Amarillo Secondary ever since its first year of operation in the old courthouse. Being a respected teacher, Luke seldom used profanity, except when insulting his best friend.
Tom knew the sheriff would never allow Luke's jab to slide, but as Monty was about to let the school teacher have it, the jail's front door banged open, blowing in a blast of freezing, December wind. Also blowing in was Cal Cooper, Potter County's prosecuting attorney.
"Christ-in-a-pup-tent," scolded Gus. Tom had no idea what this curse meant. "Shut the damned door."
"I tell ya, boys," Cooper said, making a big show of putting his shoulder into closing the door against the wailing wind, "it's colder tonight than a kiss from a two-dollar whore."
"Cal," said Luke with a smile, "are you spending as much as two dollars these days on your whores?"
Calvin crossed the room, and lifting the tail of his great coat, he aimed his backside at the Ben Franklin.
The sheriff's eyes narrowed. "If you're going to block the heat, Lawyer, put some more wood in the stove. You brought a chill in with you."
"He does that," said Luke, "even in July."
Calvin twisted the handle on the Franklin's iron door and tossed in a log. "It's gonna get a lot chillier for you, Monty, before the night's done."
"I got some news for you."
Monty stiffened. Whenever a citizen came into the office to provide the county sheriff with "news," the news was almost always bad. Bad news was even more likely when it came from the county attorney.
"Earlier this evening," said Cal, "the grand jury indicted George and Chubbyboy Ballard. I've got the charging papers and arrest warrants right here in my pocket." He patted the side of his coat. "I had the magistrate sign the warrants just before I came over. So chilly night or not, you need to go out to their place and bring 'em in. We can do their arraignments in the morning before we start Chet's trial."
Monty's big hands came away from the dominoes. "What'd they get indicted for?"
"Threatening the life of a witness. Chubbyboy and George told Maggie they were going to kill her if she testified against their brother tomorrow."
The three Ballards, Chet, George, and young Felix—better known as Chubbyboy—were a trashy group who lived together in a ramshackle clapboard a couple of miles west of Old Oneida. Chet Ballard, the eldest, was now behind bars in a cell not thirty feet from where Monty, Tom, and the twins played their game of Texas Forty-two. Chet was charged with the murder of Joleen Stewart, a waitress at the Plainsman Café, and was set to go to trial the next day.
All during the domino game, Tom had heard the prisoner snoring. Now, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ballard push himself up from his bunk and swing his stockinged feet onto the floor.
Gus noticed it, too. "Rise and shine, killer. That cozy cell's gonna get crowded. You're 'bout to have yourself a family reunion."
"That may be," Ballard said. He wiped sleep from his eyes "But I doubt the reunion'll be the way you figure."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Calvin dropped his coattails and took a step toward the cell. Tom knew the reason the lawyer stepped away from the stove was not because he'd gotten hot—not from the fire, anyway. The cocksure Chet Ballard brought out the fight in Cal, and Cal approached Ballard's cell like a spurred fighting cock strutting across a sawdust ring. Calvin Cooper had no use for the Ballards, any of them, least of all Chet, and he was sworn to see every one of them in prison, or, better yet, hanged. "Hanging," Cal was fond of saying, "would be a just death for every one of those murderous Ballards."
Ballard lifted his head toward the lawyer and scrutinized him through the bars. His eyes were mean, and the lights behind them dim, but, even so, they showed an ever-present confidence and a grasp of this world that Tom both resented and envied.
"My brothers ain't what you'd call civilized. You go to our place with the mind to arrest them boys and there's likely to be hell to pay." His pants and shirt hung from a hook on the wall opposite his bunk. He crossed the cell and pulled them on over his long johns. "Chubbyboy and George can be wild ones; that's for sure, and once they taste blood, why, there ain't no telling what horrible things they might do." He offered everyone a dingy grin, showing stubby, beige teeth beneath large, pink gums.
The Ballards, along with a dozen or so of their rumored-to-be-inbred kin, had migrated to Potter County from East Texas back in 1891. Their father, Eber, had killed a man over a pig not long after their arrival and had been prosecuted by Lawyer Cooper and hanged by the county's new sheriff, Piedmont Lore. The Ballards had held a grudge ever since.
The sheriff pushed away from the table, leaned back, and folded his hands over his belt buckle. "What exactly did George and Chubbyboy do?"
"Here. Read it for yourself." The lawyer dug into his coat and handed the sheriff a handful of papers. Monty read what he'd been given, and when he was finished, he tossed the documents onto the table. Providing a quick paraphrase to the others, who sat around wearing curious expressions, he said, "Seems the Ballards accosted Maggie Larsen in the street this afternoon, dragged her into an alley, and held a knife to her throat. They told her they were going to watch for her tomorrow morning, and if she headed to the courthouse to testify at Chester's trial, they were going to cut her open and dress her out like a deer." It seemed Lawyer Cooper had drafted his pleadings in his usual colorful language.
Chet coughed out a high-pitched laugh. "They'll do 'er, too. Georgie likes to cut girls—always has."
"Shut up," said the sheriff. He looked toward Calvin. "You didn't waste any time getting the indictments."
Cal kept a standing grand jury for just such occasions. "Justice delayed," he said with a smile, "is justice denied."
"I'm surprised they didn't kill Maggie right on the spot."
"She figured they would have," Calvin said, "except she kicked Chubbyboy in the balls as hard as she could and ran out of the alley screaming at the top of her lungs."
The Hartmeyers both chuckled when they heard the part about Maggie's kicking Chubbyboy, but Tom winced. He knew her. She was only a year older than he was, and they had grown up together. These days she was a proper and respected young businesswoman who owned a successful dress shop. But in her earlier years, the smart and beautiful Maggie Larsen had been feisty and tough and a little scary. Tom had been in love with the girl most of his life, but he'd never found it within himself to let her know.
Sheriff Lore took Cal's documents off the table and tucked them into the inside pocket of his heavy winter vest. "Well, Chet," he said, "seems like the fellas on the grand jury agree with you. They don't figure Chubbyboy and George are civilized, neither." He crossed to a large wardrobe at the rear of the room, dug out his wool coat, and dropped it onto the table where they'd been playing their game. "Deputy Mason," he said as he headed for the gun rack, "grab your jacket." He took down his big Marlin and placed it on the table next to his coat. "I'd appreciate it if you'd run to the livery and fetch our mounts."
* * *
Tom hated the cold. When he stepped through the office door and onto the boardwalk, the icy northern gale sent a chill into him that ran from his toes to the roots of his hair. He began to shiver before he got across the street, but he knew his shakes came, not only from the cold, but from his fear of what would be waiting for them at the Ballard place.
Though only nineteen, Tom knew himself. He was nothing like his boss, the courageous Sheriff Lore. Tom was not cut out for being a deputy. And he told the sheriff that when the sheriff asked if Tom was willing to pin on a badge.
"What else is there for you, Tom? You're a clever young fella, and you don't wanna be sweeping out the saloon and washing spittoons for the rest of your days. Artie would never forgive me if he knew I let you do that when I had a way to help."
The sheriff and Tom's father had become as close as brothers. Monty Lore had even delivered the eulogy at Arthur Mason's funeral a year earlier.
And the sheriff was right. Working at the Silver Spur was a nasty job that Tom hated, but even so . . .
"Nobody around here's hiring for anything worth a damn." The sheriff tapped a thumb against his thick chest. "But I've needed a deputy ever since Buster got married and headed to Oklahoma. Even the penny-pinching county commissioners know that. They keep asking when I'm gonna get somebody new."
Tom shook his head. "I'd like to help you, Sheriff, but I'd be a poor lawman."
Sheriff Lore persisted. "That's nonsense. I've seen you shoot. You're better with firearms than any man I've ever known. Folks like you. And you've got common sense. That's all it takes, son. Come with me to the courthouse. I'll swear you in right now and tell the clerk to put you on the payroll."
In the end, the sheriff had won, and Tom had gone with him; but even as he raised his hand to take the oath, he told himself—and he had told himself every day since—that being a deputy sheriff was no job for a coward, and Tom Mason had been a coward all his life. The only difference between Tom and most cowards was that Tom was willing to admit it.
At least, to himself.
* * *
The liveryman, Ivan Duchamp, was both a drinker and a creature of habit. Every day at six o'clock he'd lock his stables, go to the Spur and order whatever Tillie, the cook, was serving that night. He would eat his supper. Then, every second night, when he had finished eating, he would purchase a bottle of the cheapest whiskey available and return to his shack behind the livery. To his credit, Ivan made the bottle last two days because he didn't want folks to think he had a problem.
At a little after nine, pounding on the door to Ivan's shack and shouting over the roar of the wind, Tom called out, "Ivan, I need you to open the stables." It took a while, but eventually the liveryman, rheumy-eyed and staggering, came out tugging on his coat and digging for his key.
"Whachya up to on a blustery night like this, Tommy?"
"The sheriff and I are heading to Old Town to arrest George and Chubbyboy Ballard."
"Damn, son," said Ivan as he searched for the keyhole on the large padlock fastened to the stable's double-doors. "Caint it wait 'til mornin'?"
"Guess not. The county attorney wants them fellas in jail tonight."
Ivan wasn't moving fast, so once they were inside, Tom helped him locate his and the sheriff's tack. Together they saddled the horses, although Tom had his sorrel saddled while Ivan still worked on the sheriff's roan. "Here," said Tom, "let me give you a hand."
Once Tom was atop his horse and held the roan's reins, he said, "Sorry to bother you after closing hours."
"Doancha worry 'bout it, boy," Ivan said as he searched his pockets looking for his key.
Tom nodded toward the stable doors. The padlock's shackle was still hooked into the staple. "You left your key in the lock, Ivan."
Ivan turned and squinted through the dim light. "By golly, I did." As Ivan wobbled to the door, Tom clicked his tongue, and the sorrel moved in behind the tipsy liveryman.
"You be careful, Tommy," said Ivan when they were outside. "Them Ballard brothers are real bad. They'd as soon kill you and the sheriff as spit."
* * *
As he rode back to the jail, Ivan's comment about the Ballards caused Tom's mouth to go desert-dry. They kept a couple of canteens filled with water hanging on pegs just inside the office door. He would grab one for his and the sheriff's nighttime ride. The mercury was dropping fast, and Tom's shivering had begun again. With a humorless smile, he wondered if he could get all the way to the Ballards's and back without the canteen's contents freezing solid.
That is, if they made it back at all.
Tom chastised himself for that dark thought, but try as he might, he couldn't hold it at bay. He recalled his father's admonition. "You think about the world and all its doings way too much, Tommy. You take every little thing and hold it to the light. You turn it this way and that, trying to understand how it works. That's an admirable quality up to a point, but there's no need to over think things, son. Most of life is not complex."
Good advice, Tom supposed, and he tried, without luck, to follow it.
After Arthur Mason caught his cancer, Tom watched his father wither away. And the thoughts and questions and worries that had plagued Tom all his young life boiled down to one thing: death.
And not only his father's looming death, but the whole idea of death. The inevitable fact of death. It clung to him the way the bitter cold clung to him now.
Though Tom tried to explain these thoughts and feelings, he was a boy and didn't have the words.
But his father understood, and even as Arthur Mason lay dying, he reassured Tom that it was all right. From his deathbed, he whispered, "Dying's not complicated, Tommy." He placed his hand on the tearful boy's forearm, and in his soft, raspy voice, he added, "After all, son, it's just death. It happens to us all."
* * *
The second he rounded the corner a half block from the jail, Tom saw a yellow shaft of light that spilled across the boardwalk and into the street. The light came through the office's open door.
Tom stared at that shaft of light for a full sixty seconds trying to make sense of what he was seeing. But no sense could be made of it. There had to be something wrong. No one would leave the front door open in this cold.
He slid from his saddle and tied both horses's reins to the rail in front of the hardware store.
As he crossed the street, he lifted the lower edge of his jacket over the butt of his Schofield Model 3. He'd had this Smith and Wesson since he was twelve and had used it to send many cans and paper targets to their just rewards. Though Tom was a hunter, he'd never shot this pistol at anything that moved. Not even a prairie dog or snake. And he had certainly never fired it at anything that could shoot back.
Tom avoided confrontation. He'd never fired any of his guns in anger, and he could not imagine he ever would. The closest to a fight he had come was a few days after swearing his oath as deputy. A breathless Maggie had rushed into the office and gasped out that Chet Ballard had just killed Joleen Stewart. Maggie had seen it happen from the back window of her rooms at the rear of her dress shop. Joleen was now lying dead in the field behind the Plainsman Café.
As Tom and the sheriff ran to where Maggie had said they would find the body, they spotted Chet ambling down the street. He must have heard them coming because he turned in their direction. With a cocky smile, he shoved his hat onto the back of his head, hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt, and watched them as they approached. By the look in Ballard's eyes, Tom was convinced the man was going to pull his piece and start shooting. But he didn't. He just watched them come. When they were six feet away, Chet lifted his right thumb out of his belt and placed his fingertips along the outside of his holster. "'Morning, boys," he said, still smiling. Chet's certainty that he could easily kill these two was obvious. Tom tried to swallow, but something clogged his throat, and he could feel his heartbeat hammer in his chest. He tensed himself for what was about to happen. "What brings you fellas out on such a nippy November day?" asked Chester. But the sheriff didn't answer. In a flash, his .44-40 was in his fist. He rushed forward and crashed its blue barrel into the center of Chester Ballard's forehead. The man hit the ground like an egg rolling off a table.
No, Tom Mason was nothing like the fearless Piedmont Lore, and he considered handing over his star that very day. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. He had told the sheriff that he'd make a poor deputy, but he'd not told him why. If he quit now, the sheriff would know the truth.
* * *
If anything was happening in the office, Tom couldn't hear it over the howling wind. He decided that rather than step into the light, he'd go to the rear of the jail and get in through the backdoor.
He crept past the flagpole outside the office and into the alley. As he did, he could feel his insides flap the way Old Glory and the Lone Star flapped above his head.
The jail's rear door opened into a storeroom, and the storeroom had a door that opened into the office.
Tom took a quivery breath and stepped inside.
Once inside, he felt his way through the dark and put his ear to the office door.
Nothing. All he could hear was the wind and his own heavy breathing.
With reluctance, Tom knelt and peered through the keyhole. For some fraction of a second, his brain would not accept what he saw. When it did, he screamed, "Oh, god. Oh, Jesus." He recoiled in panic, fell into a stack of boxes behind him and sent them and himself crashing to the floor.
He stayed on his back with eyes clenched. The shakes he'd had earlier returned in earnest. This time no portion of them could be explained by the freezing wind.
He didn't know how long he lay there, but eventually he pushed himself to his feet, fumbled his way back across the dark room, and stepped into the office.
* * *
They were all dead. The Hartmeyers and Calvin Cooper had been lined up on their knees facing the wall and shot in the backs of their heads. Gus must have put up a fight. A bloody gash crossed his cheek where it appeared he'd been struck with something hard and heavy.
Sheriff Lore had been shot three times. Twice in the chest. The third bullet hole was between his eyes and had been delivered at close range.
His Marlin still lay on the table next to his coat.
At first Tom was numb, but then the acrid smells from gun smoke and gore filled his nostrils, and he dashed to the street where he spewed his gorge into the bitter night.
Over and over, his stomach retched even after it was empty.
Once the spasms settled, he gulped in deep breaths of frigid air. Now he welcomed the wind as it cooled his sweat-drenched face.
With dread, Tom went back inside. As he closed the front door, he saw that it had been kicked in. Splinters of wood from the door and its frame were scattered about the floor.
His clouded mind groped to understand what had happened. But it was no mystery. The Ballards had broken in. Likely firing two bullets into the sheriff as the door burst open. Then, one of the Ballards, probably Chubbyboy, held his gun on the Hartmeyers and Calvin as George stood above the sheriff and put the third bullet into him. At some point Gus had tried to fight them, but he'd had no success, and he and the others were lined up and murdered.
After the killings, the younger brothers unlocked the elder brother's cell, and the three made their escape.
Tom knew there had been no witnesses. The cold streets were deserted and with the howling wind, he was certain no one had heard a thing. The killers got away free, but they would not have gone far.
And it fell to Tom to find them.
With that thought he spun and dashed outside where his already-empty gut heaved again. When the retching eased, he sprinted toward his sorrel and ripped his reins from the post. He threw a leg over the saddle, and as he was about to give the horse a kick, he stopped and looked toward the east. That, he thought, was the direction the Ballards had gone. East would lead them to their clapboard where they'd hole up, gather supplies, and, at first light, head for who knew where.
Sitting atop his horse, Tom could not stop his racing mind. He replayed what had happened. He screamed into the wind, smashed his fist into his saddle's pommel, and replayed it all again. He wanted to kill the Ballards. He wanted to watch them wince as his bullets struck—watch them fall into the same sorts of bloody heaps that he had found at the jail.
Tom knew what was expected of him—what he owed the sheriff, the Hartmeyers, and Cal. Tom knew his duty.
And knowing it, he knew he could not fulfill it.
It's not my fault, his mind screamed. I told him I wasn't . . . But Tom's admission about himself meant nothing now.
Tom, the coward, turned toward his and his father's small house west of town and spurred the sorrel to a gallop.
* * *
He rushed down the dark street. Like the Ballards, he, too, was headed home. And, like the Ballards, he, too, would hole up, and also like the Ballards, he would steal away at first light.
Still spurring the horse, he sped past the courthouse, the Silver Spur, the Plainsman, and finally at the end of the long street, Maggie Larsen's dress shop. Three horses were tied at the rail in front of the shop. One was a bay. Chubbyboy Ballard rode a bay.
Tom galloped on. And as always, the never-ending thoughts filled his head. It was not Ballard's horse, he told himself. There are lots of bays.
But it could be.
He pulled rein, stopped in the middle of the street. And thought.
It could be.
It didn't make sense for them to go to Maggie's. Sure, if they were ever captured, she would testify against Chet. But now her testimony didn't matter much. The Ballards would hang anyway for what they'd done at the jail. Why would they waste time stopping at Maggie's?
And, still he thought.
Revenge. If Maggie had stayed quiet, none of this would have happened. Tom knew the way the Ballards would see it. Maggie Larsen was the root of their troubles.
He turned the sorrel around and watched the wind whip the manes and tails of the three horses at the rail. The dress shop was dark. But a light burned in back.
Tom stared at that light and thought. And he continued to think until he knew he had thought enough.
* * *
He led the Ballards's horses to the next street over and tied them off. He then rode to the empty field behind the Plainsman and Maggie's shop, dropped from the saddle, and let his reins fall.
The room at the rear of the shop was well lit, and there was movement. Tom followed the shadows and inched his way across the back porch to a window. Removing his hat, he peeked around the sill and saw that the Ballards were there.
Chet and Chubbyboy leaned against the wall across from the window and watched with broad smiles as their brother methodically used his fists on Maggie. From her bloodied and battered face, Tom could tell she was almost out. But Maggie had fought. A table and chairs were upturned. A tall standing mirror had been knocked over. Its broken glass was scattered about the floor, reflecting the brutal scene in hundreds of tiny images. Maggie had fought, all right. Crimson claw marks ran the length of George's face. Deep gouges surrounded his feral eyes.
But she couldn't fight anymore, and George beat her at will, taking his time, savoring the chore.
"Cut 'er, Georgie," squawked Chubbyboy through a moronic cackle. "Let's see how she likes that." Chester and Chubbyboy were having fun.
"That sounds like a fine idea." George reached to his belt and lifted a bone-handled knife from its sheath. "It surely does."
But before he could use the knife, Tom smashed the muzzle of his Smith and Wesson through the window pane and shot George Ballard in the side of his head.
The bullet blasted through and slammed into the wall between Chet and Chubbyboy. It missed them, but the spray of blood, pieces of skull, and a sizeable chunk of brain did not.
Chubbyboy screamed in horror and rage. Seeing Tom in the window, the youngest Ballard reached for his gun. But his hand never got there. Tom sent his second bullet into the tip of Chubbyboy's nose. Like the first, that bullet, too, slammed into the wall after passing through the head of a Ballard.
Before Tom could get off a third shot, Chet was out of the room and running through the dress shop. Without thought, Tom vaulted the porch rail and dashed into the alley that separated Maggie's place from the Plainsman. When he got to the front, he saw Chet frantically searching for his horse.
"Lose something?" asked Tom.
Chet spun, and like his brother, he went for his shooter. Chet did better than Chubbyboy. He at least got his hand onto his pistol's grip before Tom, still holding the Model 3, pulled the trigger. Chet lurched, his features twisted, and he dropped.
Tom walked to where Ballard fell. He was alive, but the bright red geyser pulsing from his chest made it clear that he wouldn't be for long.
Death was everywhere tonight. The jail. Maggie's rooms. The street.
The usually confident man lying on his back wore a perplexed expression. Without blinking, Chet stared up at Tom. His brow furrowed as though what was happening was an intricate puzzle beyond his ability to solve.
But Tom knew the puzzle was not complex. He peeled back his revolver's hammer. "No need to over think it, Chester. After all," he said, "it's just death. It happens to us all."
He then put a bullet between Ballard's befuddled eyes.
Robert D. McKee's short stories have appeared in more than twenty commercial and literary publications. One
of his stories was selected for the prestigious anthology
Mystery Stories, edited by Otto
Penzler with the assistance that year of visiting editor Michael Connelly. He is the author of four
award-winning western novels: Dakota Trails, Killing Blood, Out of the Darkness, and Gypsy Rock. His fifth
novel, Reckoning at Lost Hope is scheduled for release in June 2021. When not at his computer writing, Bob
can be found rummaging through antique stores in search of vintage fountain pens or roaming the back roads
of Wyoming and Colorado.
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A Gunfighter's Last Call
by Tom Sheehan
He had simply stepped over from one building to the next one, from one flat roof to another, a wide step but one step. The agility in his body, especially in his legs, had diminished from several falls . . . not unexpectedly. The challenge in the beginning, in getting here to the roof of the Trail Drive Saloon and Hotel in Willowbar, Oklahoma, was climbing from his saddle to the porch roof in the back of the general store. His horse had stood still long enough for him to manage his way erect on the saddle so he could pull himself up onto the roof. If he had fallen, it might hurt and be noisy, but noisy he didn't need.
Once up on the porch roof the rest was easy. On the way he flexed his gun hand as often as he could, the fingernails all trimmed the same as in the early days when he never threw a caution aside . . . never let a broken nail mess up a fast draw, never snag on an edge of cloth or leather, never let a life hang in the balance of a broken fingernail. He felt the slight difference from the new to the old and a small laugh started in his chest, but he managed to shut it down. None of them in the saloon had any idea he had slowed down.
They all thought he was dead.
They all thought Leather Goods Gregory was dead.
They all thought he was killed by a posse whose fusillade of bullets cut him down as he rushed from a half-fallen barn on the burnt-out site of Curtis Curly Lockwood's old spread on the Cimarron River. The victim had fallen, rolled over several times in pain, and finally ended up face down in the dust. One man kicked him several times to make sure he was dead. He yelled an exultation loud and clear, "He's dead, boys! He's damned dead! The drinks are on the house!"
They left him there with his elegant holster, made from his design by a Ute maiden as part of her Bear Dance and which brought him the nickname of Leather Goods Gregory. The holster was empty of his special long-barrel pistol created by a Kansas City gunsmith, an infamous weapon of destruction in the hands of this sharpshooter. Here, as sworn by the posse, was the gunman in the dust, still and silent, nevermore to cast a shadow in any direction. Disregarding the possibility of anyone being alive in the barn, they all rushed into town to tell Lockwood. He had promised an open bar at the saloon for all posse riders when Gregory was killed, captured, or run over by a stampede of cattle, even sporting his own brand. Lockwood finally changed that invitation to the whole town, though women were not included.
But names had been noted that once hung in the air. There was a man in the barn who had heard the names called out in the subsequent moments of Gregory being declared dead . . . and the rush to town.
Gregory planned on letting everybody know how wrong they were about his death; especially Lockwood, land baron, land thief, and a plain old bushwhacker who had come all the way from jolly old England like he was a mighty purist bent on nothing but good deeds. The two had a long history of enmity and contention from the time Billy Gregory was just past his 10th birthday . . . a hot July 21, 1867 when his parents were killed by masked renegades during the supper hour. They hadn't even opened the door when they were leveled by gunfire, with the boy still sitting beside the Cimarron River a mile away where the fish were biting as good as ever and he dared not let them be, as though it was a moment in heaven.
It was later as he scrambled on his own around the Cimarron River basin that young Gregory first heard rumors about the suspected association between Lockwood and the masked killers. With insistent poking about, scratching at odd places and various parties, compiling the names of Lockwood's ranch hands, he became convinced Lockwood was responsible for the murders of his parents, and noted the man's subsequent acquisition of his parents' property.
The names hung in place as if they had been spoken only the day before.
When the orphaned lad latched on to a family moving upriver, his hatred and call for revenge went deep under his skin and sat there as he grew into manhood. He paid his dues on every kind of a job, learned how to shoot, how to become so good at it that word of his prowess spread around the territory. In turn he was a lawman, protector of the downtrodden, hired gun in some situations demanding corrective action against crooked operations and crooked men, and a general force against evil no matter what it took, consequences included. A few times he had been jailed and let free by a temperate judge who had looked with approval on Gregory's stands against real criminals.
At 26 years of age, notorious in one manner, infamous in another, he could no longer deny the festering inside him. It had brought him back down the Cimarron River.
Lockwood knew of his arrival in the area, and made the connections. It would pay to keep an eye on Gregory, "that orphan boy who has come to something."
* * *
Now on the roof of the hotel, Gregory found it easy to make his way onto a rear porch roof and gain entry into an unoccupied room on the second floor. The room opened onto a hallway with stair access directly down into the Trail Drive Saloon where Lockwood's open bar extension neared the end of its second day, last call coming at midnight.
He lay low while he listened to the liquor setting deeper into the customers, measuring that depth by the noise rising in the saloon, a constant and hilarious yowl of men caught up in another spirit. That noise grew louder and brought with it several outbreaks between acquaintances, or good friends on a couple of occasions. The spats were resolved by blows to the back of the head by a few of Lockwood's ranch hands brought in just for that purpose. Lockwood was plainly celebrating the death of a man, "Who's hated me for something I didn't do many years ago, and killed three of my men, which no rancher can abide because we'd end up with no faithful hands."
He had qualified it all by adding, "This celebration will not be interrupted for long by a few stupid drunks. If one man fights back ferociously, he'll be clubbed into silence by two gun butts and dragged out of the saloon for deposit in the alley beside the bank." When the drunken mob roared with laughter at that remark, it brought a broad smile to Lockwood. His face, hardened by his 60 years at carving out a large place in the west, was the kind that needed a smile, and the broader the better.
It was his last smile of the evening, for he had been looking for his son Carlton who had not shown up for two days. His son's trips away from the ranch, mysterious to some of his ranch hands and to much of the community, but not to his father, were exclusively connected to his insatiable need to be with, and abuse, young Indian maidens. Lockwood's continuing questioning glances at his top hand standing by the door only brought back shrugs saying he had received no good reports from a few men scattered in a local search for Carlton Lockwood.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs room, Gregory was turning over in his mind all the images and notes and whispers he had accumulated over the years . . . some of them admittedly false but some of them obviously true . . . and used them all to fortify his stance. Foremost of those images was his actual return from the river that fateful day with a dozen fish on his line and his tingling with joy at the prospect of his parents' great pleasure when they'd see his catch.
It was all dashed, crushed, tossed to the wind, just as the catch was, when he saw his parents clutching each other in death, his father lying across his mother, his body riddled with bullets as he had tried to protect her. Young Gregory had suspicions, but using his head as his father had always urged him to make greater use of, he began his collection of evidence against the mighty Lockwood. That collection had grown steadily over the years and had brought him here at this time to exact revenge, the inner darkness too long-carried and now allowed to speak its own mind.
The strong images had provided Gregory with a revelation that he'd toss into Lockwood's lap in front of as many people as possible, as many witnesses as possible, for it was his sole intention to not just bring the big shot rancher to his knees but to end his dominance in the Cimarron River basin. To kill him directly would not be enough; to wound him all around would be better.
Much of it leaped into his mind, the way he ought to present it, what advantages he had to attain, what results he should expect. Clearly none of it was touch and go; he had to be decisive in his plan, in his approach, in his actions.
He had carried plenty of ammunition with him, a rifle, and three hand guns, all ready to do his bidding, to go directly as aimed, to accomplish the act of vengeance. At times he thought it would overpower him and had slowed down his anger and its energy, found the natural pace he had known much of his career.
At one point, after 11 PM, he had slipped the door to the landing open, only to find a young lady, a pretty thing exiting another room, staring at him. He shushed her with a finger to his lips, brandished a revolver, pointed down into the saloon, and directed her back into the room. She did not appear again.
Then, feeling it was time, he slipped out the door with rifle, bandolier, and hand guns, bent low and moved to his right so he could see down into the saloon, see Lockwood at his customary table in the far corner, several men lolling there with him, a few of the ladies running drinks to their table. He kept low, finally knelt back against the landing wall where he could keep his eye on Lockwood and some of his men. Others he spotted in the room: at the bar, at another table, two of them standing at the door like sentinels on army watch, the top hand making slow rounds throughout the room.
If it was to be nothing else, it would be last call for one or more principals.
One hand gun, a Colt repeater, he placed on the floor. Two others were in his gun belt. The rifle was a Winchester Model 1866 lever-action rifle. He was also a skilled shooter with this weapon.
Gregory felt himself ready when another spat broke out down below, two men clubbed from behind and dragged out of the Trail Drive Saloon to be deposited in the alley beside the bank. The patrons to a man laughed at the interruption, as if they could laugh at themselves, saying "At least it's not me. Not yet."
At his table, Lockwood sipped on his drink as he had done all evening, and so did his men at the table. Few others in the saloon, if any, saw them tempered in their drinking, but Lockwood had demanded it from his men: and beware the man who did not obey.
When the clock above the bar said 11:29 PM, a single round slammed into the clock, destroying its acute mechanism. A second round, before any man in the saloon could make a move, slammed into Lockland's table close to his elbow and smashed the glass but inches away. One of Lockwood's men tried to draw his revolver when another round slammed into his side arm.
The yell came from the landing above all of them in the saloon, "Your time is up, Lockwood! Just like the clock says!"
That voice carried instant sobriety to some of the patrons.
Gregory yelled out to the entire saloon. "We have you all covered. None of you move, and that goes special for the biggest killer and murderer in the whole river basin, a ranch stealer, a horse thief, a plain old fashioned killer who hires all his shooters and won't let himself get caught in any crossfire, Curtis Lockwood. And it goes to all of his men spread out through the saloon who haven't been drinking their fill by orders of the big boss. The rest of you are so drunk you couldn't help yourself if war broke out."
At that moment Lockwood yelled out, "Who are you? What do you want?" He appeared as if he wanted to stand up, but didn't dare to.
"You've been calling me Leather Goods Gregory for a long time now, but when I was just 10 years old my folks called me Billy. That's what they called me until they day they were shot by a hail of bullets from a band of masked men. I suspect that some of those same men were in on my "killing" two nights ago when your men, including Danno Hanlon and Iggy Ignawyckz and Slice Diamond, who we'd bet were in on the murder of my parents because they're been working for you all this time. "
Lockwood managed to say, "Who's we? I don't see anybody else with you."
"Oh, we're around. You don't think I'd make this last call by myself, do you?"
A voice from the other end of the room said, "Are you really Billy Gregory, the one I used to go fishing with in the cove where the river bends? Is that really you, Billy? I'm Harvey Dean."
Before Gregory could answer, Lockwood's top hand, and top gun, made a move at his place beside the door, and Gregory put a round into his right forearm that must have carried away fragments of bone with it, as blood went everywhere. He'd never use that arm again to cock a rifle nor toss a saddle on the back of his horse.
Silence reigned in the once noisy saloon. The two bartenders stood their ground, neither one moving. Glasses stopped tinkling. Chair legs sat motionless as dead weights settle onto them.
Lockwood said, trying to fit some steadiness in his voice, "You've got no evidence that said my men had anything to do with that terrible killing of your parents. I'm deeply sorry for that, but it was not me. It was not Danno or Iggy or Slice. They're not that kind of men."
"Oh, yes they are," Gregory said, "because I heard them. I was in the barn when they thought they had killed me. I heard them plain as day. But it was not me, of course, who they shot. It was someone I made put my clothes on in the barn before your men showed up. He was playing around with someone in the barn. I heard the screaming. I heard a girl screaming."
A sudden realization, a sudden fear, slammed through Lockwood. His face turned absolutely white. His chin drooped onto his chest. His mouth fell open, but no words came forth, but his bloodline was telling tales.
The prevailing stillness said that the saloon, in one quick image, was now a kind of courtroom, as well as a wooden mausoleum for broken dreams.
The entire gathering listened as Gregory said, "He had a young girl tied naked to a stall post and was abusing her like Hell had come on Earth for one last fling."
Lockwood knew who that tormentor was. So did his men, the ones who had killed the boss's son. Many in the audience knew too, the stories so difficult to keep hidden forever.
"She was a Ute maiden by the name of Chorita. I took her to her father, Chief Ouray, The Arrow, of the Uncompahgre Utes. You can bet your last drink that he'll be letting you know how the nation feels about it."
At one end of the bar, Territorial Judge Herman Godring, enjoying his last day in town on his rounds of the territory, slammed an empty jug on the bar top and proclaimed loudly and clearly, "Court is now in session."
A half dozen or more of Lockwood's men tried to rush from the saloon but they were swallowed up by the crowd of patrons who suddenly, in two nights of free liquor, felt a lot of old pains, and old memories, break loose from their lack of temerity.
It was a night to remember, even if it was last call for some of them.
Sheehan, in 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in many magazines, etc. He's received 34 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations with one winner, He served in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, graduated from Boston College in 1956.
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Belle Saves the Day
by Larry Lefkowitz
The doors of the bar swung open and the hombre entered. Some of the men in the bar lowered their eyes, others
looked down at their cards, but most recoiled backwards in their chairs because the big man with the scowl
on his meaty face was Brett Tunney. Better known as "Big Brett" because he was big in size and
reputation—he was wanted in three states and one territory "dead or alive." The sheriff had his badge
set on ending Brett's murderous career and now Brett had come to him before he could come to Brett.
"Bet you didn't expect to find me here, Jed," he said to the sheriff.
After a moment's silence, the sheriff replied, "Now that you're here, I expect to find you at the end of a rope."
Both men tensed for the inevitable draw, should the other make a move for his six-shooter.
The men in the bar tensed to dive under the table or try to make it to the exit.
Brett glanced up to the second floor where Belle was leaning on the balustrade outside her "salon," between clients. He smiled, his smile more like a grimace, at her.
He then turned to the sheriff, "I felt you getting close, Jed, and wanted one last time with Belle before I exit this world." He raised his eyes heavenward.
"But first, Belle, me and the sheriff here have to settle our accounts. I can visit you before or after."
Belle knew she had to act. Big Brett was known as a deadly shot when he was sober and he was sober now.
"Before," she said. "Although red is my favorite color in attire, blood red is not a favorite."
"Yeah, the sheriff's blood would disturb you from what I hear."
Belle blushed, despite herself, It was common knowledge that she was "after" the sheriff. He had always refused her "hints," protesting, "My profession would only leave you a widow."
Belle moved quickly. "I got a better idea to settle accounts, as you put it, Brett. Each of you are allowed one bullet. Whoever puts it in the center of the bull's eye of the dart board is the winner. If you win, Brett, the sheriff lets you leave and won't pursue you for a year. If you lose, you enter the sheriff's jail and things will take their course."
Brett, impulsive, hasty, and proud, accepted the challenge. Or maybe he simply believed he was the better shot and the end was a foregone conclusion.
All eyes were on Jed.
The sheriff accepted, too. A refusal would have caused him to lose face and the town would surely choose a sheriff with more cojones.
"We all know you use silver-tipped bullets, Brett, ever since you robbed the silver load from the Wells-Fargo stage," Belle said. "The sheriff uses lead bullets. If the bullet in the bull's eye is silver-tipped, you win. If lead, the sheriff wins."
"Silver always beats lead," Brett boasted.
"We'll see," the sheriff replied.
"When I drop my handkerchief, you both draw and shoot, agreed?"
"Okay," muttered Brett.
"So be it," said the sheriff.
Belle withdrew her perfumed handkerchief between her ample endowments, locally known affectionately as the "Grand Tetons."
Both men nodded.
Belle released the handkerchief and the noise of two shots punctuated the bar. Her handkerchief drifted leisurely downward, but all eyes were fixed on the dart board.
"I'll come down and check the results," said Belle. She tried to keep her knees from shaking.
She descended the stairs slowly to reveal one creamy thigh and leg protruding from her red dress. The men's eyes moved from the dart board to her and, after she descended, back to the dart board. She walked to the target and dug out the two bullets from the bull's-eye with her diamond- studded nail file, the gift of an admirer from "back East." One bullet had struck dead center, the other slightly to the left.
She stared down at the two bullets in her hand for a long, dramatic moment, before she announced, "Lead."
She quickly pocketed the bullets.
The sheriff beamed.
Brett scowled, shook his head in shock, and handed his six-shooter to the sheriff.
The sheriff tipped his hat to Belle and led Brett away in cuffs.
"Wait a minute," protested Brett, "How—" but the sheriff had already pushed him out through the swinging doors.
Had the sheriff really won?
Had Belle faked the results?
If anyone dared thereafter to hint at such to Belle, she simply replied, "You dare to question my integrity?"
No one questioned her integrity because shortly afterward it was clear that the sheriff had mellowed in his refusal to marry Belle and no one wanted to cross him.
The sheriff indeed married Belle. She, after all, in a sense, had provided the dowry.
Belle had to give up her profession, of course, to the chagrin of many of the town's men and the satisfaction of many of the town's women, but she knew that, whereas ladies of pleasure are more plentiful, a good sheriff is hard to find.
Larry Lefkowitz's stories and humor have been widely published. His humorous novel "The Novel, Kunzman, the Novel!" is available from Lulu.com, Amazon, etc.
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