Standing in a Dead Man's Boots
by Dave Crerand
The unforgiving sun bore down on the lone figure sprawled behind a small pile of rocks at the edge of the dried-out creek bed. He had assumed there would be more traffic on the trail than there was. He had arrived just before dawn and the sun had since arced past it's mid- day point. Using water from his canteen he had coated the barrel of the rifle with mud, so there would be no warning reflection. He was down to one swallow left in the canteen and he only had the one bullet. It ended today.
Amos Whitley was tired of having nothing. Seems he'd had nothing for more years than he could remember. When a man has nothing for so long, well, he starts to feel like nothing.
His wife and son died ages ago, succumbing to fever on the hard trail west. They were buried side-by-side beneath an anonymous stone cairn somewhere on the Great Plains. Once they were gone Amos just drifted where life took him. Town to town, job to job, but lately, mostly just from saloon to saloon.
He had tried mining, but had no luck and no friends to teach him the things he didn't know. He tried working the herds, driving cattle, eating dust from the mountains of Montana to the Rio Grande. But the vastness of the land made him feel too tiny. It had gotten inside of him. He had felt compelled to retreat to the more secure villages and towns springing up across the territories.
But town type jobs were for town type folks, and Amos could never fit that mold. He had no skill with numbers to work in a bank or a store. He wasn't clever or skilled with his hands. So, he sold the strength of his back, and with so many younger men around his rates had to be cheap.
But his very first try at thieving had gone quite well. A few days back, while mucking stalls in some barn for a meal and a bed, he'd found an old buffalo rifle. The gun was worn and rusty but all the parts were there so he'd cleaned it up and made it work. The previous owner would never miss it. He bought one shell with his last three cents.
Amos didn't have to look into the face of the man he'd killed since the powerful rifle had taken the rider's head clean off. The young cowboy's boots amazed Amos. The stitching was good, they had obviously cost plenty, and the tooling was nicely detailed, remarkable in its complex patterns. But the truly amazing thing was that the boot leather had been dyed the same bright blue of a clear Texan sky. They were beautiful, and the condition of their upkeep showed how proud the young cowboy had been of them. He kept them clean, polished and his spur straps were cinched neatly. The heel of the right boot was worn much more than the left. Amos figured that some injury had caused the cowboy to drag his foot when he walked. Sure enough, minutes later as he stripped the clothing from the unfortunate lad, he found the scar, mid-thigh, where a steer's horn was most likely to catch a rider.
Amos was pleased by the take. He had a new pair of pistols, horse and saddle, some gold coins that had been buried deep in the saddlebag. He had a 'new' pair of trousers, and a coat and vest that he had found with the coins. He couldn't salvage the shirt and left it in bloody tatters, fluttering on the headless corpse. He had a shiny pocket watch on a chain and a key to a lock that he would never find. He kept the key anyway. He had some money in his pocket and for the first time in a long time, he had hope for a fresh start.
Before mounting up, Amos, using some sticks, scratched out a shallow grave for the unknown cowboy. The boy didn't deserve buzzards. As Amos dragged the body into its final resting place, he thanked the stranger. He hadn't prayed in a long, long time, so he stood silently, awkwardly fiddling with his hat, before returning it to his head. It was a shame that this young man had to die for Amos to be re-born, but nothing came easy in the west.
As he rode, Amos pondered his new situation. Dozens of men were cutting back and forth across the territories, making names for themselves by taking what they wanted at the end of a gun. Why couldn't he? Who's to say he couldn't do some taking of his own? He'd have to practice with the new pistols and he'd have to learn how to stare a man down. He would probably have to kill some more. Well, this time had gone alright he guessed. He might get himself killed but it wasn't like he'd been doing much living anyway.
There was a new town up ahead. What better place to celebrate a new life? He'd have a bath, a steak and a bottle of the good stuff. He'd have a fine cigar, a game of cards and even a whore. Tonight, he was going to kick up his heels, speaking of which, he'd have to find a cobbler to repair the heel on his new boots. They made him walk funny.
In a saloon up ahead, a gunslinger sat alone at the table furthest from the door. He twirled a shiny five-dollar gold piece. A single shot of whiskey was sitting on the table before him, patiently waiting. When people hired him, they wrongly thought he cared why someone had to die. But it never mattered to him. This was just easy money. This particular job even easier than most. After all, how many cowboys wore blue boots and walked with a limp.
Dave Crerand has enjoyed telling tales and writing stories for a long time, dating back to his childhood. Now that he's retired, he has the time to share them.
"Little Eddy's Dark Friend"—Lost Worlds, March 1997, Vol. 9 No. 5
"Trailblazers"—Crossroads, June 1997, Vol. 6 No. 18
"Pick of the Litter"—Dogwood Tales, Jan./Feb. 1998, Vol. 5 Issue 3
"The Village: Part One - The Squire"—The Dark Sire, Issue 1, Fall 2019 https://joom.ag/JY7e
"The Village: Part Two - The Apprentices"—The Dark Sire, Issue 2, Winter 2019 https://joom.ag/J8oe
"The Village: Part Three - The Baroness"—The Dark Sire, Issue 3, Spring 2020 https//joom.ag/hcaC
"The Village: Part Four - The Orphan"—The Dark Sire, Issue 4, Summer 2020 https://joom.ag/l0AC
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by John Jones
Pa! Always telling me what to do. Always ordering me around. As if I had no sense at all. He must think I'm stupid! Doesn't he think I can think for myself? Just because those cows got away and got stuck in that mud hole wasn't my fault. Cows have no sense anyway. I was away for only a couple of hours. How was I to know that they would wander that far away.
Well I wasn't going to take anymore of this. I'm seventeen now and lots of boys are men at that age, doing a man's work. I'll show him. I can do what I want. I don't need him telling me anything anymore.
Like my friends, the Dugen boys. He keeps telling me that they're no good, that they're trouble. But we have fun together. Go camping, raise a little hell now and then. No one gets hurt. And their father is really nice. He understands that we need to kick up our heels now and then. Even gives us a little hooch for our camping trips.
Pa says I should stay away from them, that they are nothing but trouble. If it was up to him, I would be home every night, studying for some way to get ahead. For what? I want to have some fun now. Later will take care of itself.
Like tonight. We're going into town and have some fun. Have a few drinks, maybe play some cards. That sounds a lot better than going home and studying some boring subject by lamplight.
When I got to town, the Dugens were already there. Their nags were tied in front of the Dry Throat saloon. I pushed through the doors, feeling important to be in a man's world. The three boys were leaning on the bar, looking real satisfied with themselves. I walked up to them, feeling like a real man to be here in a man's world. The bar keep came over and said "What you want son?" I just looked at him. "Son?" Who is he calling "son?" Will people never learn that I am growed up, a man? Well I'll just let that one slide. No need to fight over it. He is kind of big anyway. I"ll let it go for now. I ordered a whiskey. When it came, I slide a coin onto the bar and tossed it down in one gulp. And just about died. It burned my throat raw, brought tears to my eyes, left me breathless and I couldn't talk.
"You OK son?" He looked at me with what looked like a little smirk, but I couldn't be sure. I couldn't see well enough to tell, my eyes were all teared up. I just looked away, like it was no concern, but I could see smirks on the Dugen boys' faces too. We stood there for a while talking, telling stories about all the crazy and fun things we had done. Well, they did most of the talking. It took me a while to get my voice back. Most of what they were saying were lies and exaggerations that I had heard before and I didn't need to get involved trying to match them. Most of what I had done had been a lot of nothing and boring anyway.
After a while a man in a black broadcloth suit came up to us and said " Would you men like to sit in on a friendly game of cards? There's only two of us and we need a few more to get a game going."
Men? He called us "men!" Now that was more like it. About time that people were recognizing us as men. After all we were seventeen. Or some of us were. Now I didn't know too much about cards, but me and the Dugens had us a deck and often played for acorns. Didn't seem too hard. You just played whatever you were dealt. So we all straightened up real tall, hitched up our belts and ambled over. We sat down like we were used to playing cards all our lives.
That man in the black suit looked like a real gentleman. Had a white shirt and a black string tie. Clean hands, nails all trimmed nice. And a real friendly smile on his face. Made us feel real welcome. He shuffled the cards kind of clumsy, cut them and dealt five to each of us. I drew a pair of twos and a pair of fours. Wow. Two pair right off the start. This looked like it might be a good night. I didn't have much money, so I asked Rob Dugen if he could loan me some. He pulled out a wad of bills and pealed some off and handed them to me. Where did he get that much money? I didn't know that he even had a job, except for doing some chores for the widow Mahoney once in a while. Well, I'll ask him later. The dealer had an odd look on his face when he saw that roll of bills that Rob had, but I had two pair and wasn't really thinking about that.
I drew one card and it was a four. A full house! This game is easy! I won a modest size pot and felt real good. The other boys were looking real eager when they saw all that money stacked in front of me. I returned Rob's loan to him and we settled down to really play.
At first, we all won some hands, small pots, but we could see that this fellow in the black suit wasn't much of a player. He was kind of clumsy and shuffled a lot. As time went on, a big pot built up. I was dealt four hearts and one spade. Should I draw to a flush? The way my night was going, I took a chance and called and drew one card. A club. I lost almost all I had. The night started going bad for all of us. Finally, we were all cleaned out. And the Dugens were mad. Rob accused that man in the black suit of cheating. He got a real sly smile on his face and said "Boys shouldn't sit in on a man's game." He pushed back his chair and his hand went inside his coat. Instantly Rob pulled his hand out from under the table. He had an old revolver and fired it once, point blank into that man in the black suit. He got a real surprised look on his face, and looked down at his chest at the little hole in his suit. His mouth worked as he tried to say something, then slumped forward onto the table and died right there in front of us.
We sat there stunned. No one moved. The bar keep came over and said "What did you do that for?"
Rob dropped the gun on the table and sat there shaking and white faced. "He was cheating and went for his gun."
The bar keep pulled the body upright and opened his coat. No gun. "I don't see a gun. You shot an unarmed man. And how do you know he was cheating? Can you prove it?" We all just sat there, no one knowing what to do.
The bar keep reached over and took Rob's gun and pointed it at us and said "We're going down to the sheriff's office and see what he says about this." We all walked out of that saloon and down the old walk toward the sheriff's office. Folks had heard the shot and had come out to see what had happened. We all shuffled along, heads hanging down, in a daze over what had happened. Seeing that man dying in front of us was a shock we weren't prepared for. I felt all sick inside and thought I might throw up right there.
When we got to the sheriff's office, he was sitting behind his desk, looking stern. "I heard a shot, then I saw you boys coming down here with Sam holding a gun on you. What is this all about?"
Sam described what had happened. Then the sheriff turned to us and said "What do you boys say about this?" Rob explained that he felt that we had been suckered into a game with a gambler that was pretending not to know much about cards, and had then cleaned us out by cheating. And when he put his hand into his coat, he thought he had a gun.
"But he didn't, did he? And can you prove that he was cheating? You boys are going to jail until we can sort this thing out. You'll be lucky if you don't hang." Hang! I didn't do anything, I didn't shoot him, why should I hang? I was so scared I felt like I was in a trance. The sheriff marched us all into the back and locked us up behind bars.
I just sat there looking at the Dugens sitting on the bunk across from me. I started to really see them for the first time. The youngest one was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees crying, his nose running down his chin. Big ears, wide flat face, usually had a dumb expressionless grin, over nothing. Rob was sitting there with that strange kind of wheeze when he breathed, probably from that strange sunken in chest that he had. And that other one. He was the biggest. And a bully. I saw him pick up a smaller kid once when he had been drinking and throw him over a wagon just for fun. What was I doing with this bunch anyway?
That night was the longest night of my life. None of us could sleep. The Dugens argued among themselves, blaming each other for what had happened. As I thought it over I began to wonder why we had been so stupid not to have seen the signs of what was happening. We should have recognized that man for the gambler that he was. If we hadn't been drinking we would have been thinking more clearly as we played cards. We should have seen how he was setting us up. I should have been thinking for myself, not letting myself get roped into doing things that someone else had dreamed up. Right about now I would have been happy to be off by myself somewhere where I could do my own thinking. I wouldn't even mind being out there in the middle of nowhere pulling those cows out of the mud. Be a whole lot better then sitting here with this bunch of idiots waiting to hang.
The more that I thought it over, the more I blamed myself for where I was.
When morning came, we heard voices in the office. After a short while, they stopped and it was quiet again. An hour later, the door suddenly opened, and when I looked up, it was Pa. He just stood there looking at me, not saying a thing. Looking more through me than at me. For several long minutes he just stood there looking at me. Then he slowly turned around and walked out. I heard more talking, then the sheriff came in.
He opened the cell door and told us to come out. Here it is, I thought, they're going to hang us. Well, we probably deserve it, we must look like a sorry bunch of no goods.
"Lucky for you boys that this boy's Pa came. He went and talked to others in that saloon and then went and had a look at the gamblers body. He found a hide out gun hidden in an inside pocket. And he was a known card shark, had a warrant out for his arrest. And there was a reward on him too. Since none of you would admit to pulling the trigger on that gun, I am going to give the reward to your Pa. He was the one who figured this out and saved you boys from getting your necks stretched. He can do with it as he sees fit."
I walked into the sheriff's office and there was Pa waiting for me. Still didn't say a thing. He turned around and went outside and I followed. His horse was there and he had mine waiting for me. We mounted and began the long ride home. Neither of us said a thing. When we got there he dismounted and walked into the house. I put away the horses and got busy doing whatever chores I could find. When midday came, I didn't go in for something to eat, I saddled up and went to check on the cows and stayed out there until dark.
When I did go in, it was late. Ma had left some food on the table for me so I ate. No one was saying anything. Laying on the table was one of those books that Pa was always hoping I would study, so I picked it up and started looking though it. It was by someone by the name of Blackstone, one of Pa's favorites. It was about the rights of man and principles of justice. I started to read and after a couple of hours I realized that the others had gone to bed. I hadn't noticed, I was so engrossed in what was being said in this book. It was making a lot of sense. Men needed to live by principles. Principles needed to be developed in men for civilization to advance. Justice needed to be administered for civilization to exist. This was really interesting when you stopped to really think about it and digest it.
Maybe Pa was right. I would do some more reading at night after I finished my day's work. The next day I thought about what I had read and realized something. Mr. Blackstone was a lot better companion to be with than the Dugen boys.
John Jones has done many things in his life. He always thought about writing, but never really knew how to pursue it. Then he realized, he can ride, he can handle a gun, he has spent lots of time outdoors hiking, hunting and had more trouble in his life than he cares to remember. He remembered reading that if you want to write a story, write about things and people that you know about. And weave a story around them. These are his efforts.
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Run No More
by Robert Gilbert
"Foley Swain was held in Lincoln County Jail, accused of bank robbery in Holcomb."
So said the printed words on the unfolded telegram in front of me. In addition to that, it went on to inform me that two gents, Joe Blanche and Willie Harris, known to Swain, had walked into the jailhouse with guns drawn. Thereafter, Swain exchanged places with the deputy sheriff who was on duty to keep an eye on the prisoner. After the deputy was locked up, all three desperadoes hightailed it north, to somewhere in the vicinity of the Pawnee Buttes. I knew that was a big area to get lost in, acquainted with that part o' Colorado, and was pert' sure why Sheriff Sam Mays had me in mind for the task. There was no question about that, matter of fact. That stretch of land was level country but real rugged, then it carried upward, where it was surrounded by rust-colored, flat-rimmed mountains. It was an unforgiving place, and a man who didn't know his way 'round in there would likely end up being nothing but a skeleton for somebody to trip over years later.
"Becker?" I said, my voice throaty and raw as I lifted my eyes from the printed message to look at the man standing in front of my desk.
Our town telegraph operator was a heavyset gentleman, his gut strainin' against the cotton of his shirt. He was always sweaty as a pig, wet under the arms and 'round his collar. His face was etched with concern as he listened with seemingly composed interest, as lines of concentration deepened along his brows.
"Take down this message," I said.
Becker moved forward until that tortured fabric on his belly touched my desk.
"Here's pencil and paper. You tell that ol' son-o'-bitch Sheriff Mays that I'll be along as fast as my horse can run." I paused and shook my head. "Ya know, Becker, it seems as if I'm always doin' everybody's jobs in these parts, includin' my own. I guess it's lucky for Mays that he's got a lawman friend to do his dirty work up there in the Buttes."
"Uh, Marshal, do you want me to put it just that way? Sounds kinda . . . nasty."
I grinned at the chubby fella and shook my head. "Yep. Tell it just the way I said it, and you can sign it with my name, Warren Brothers."
Becker nodded and scribbled without looking up.
"Ol' Sam Mays'll understand," I assured him, as my mouth curved into a faint smile. "Me and Sam go way back in the law profession. I know he enjoys wearin' that sheriff badge up there in Grover, just as I do right here in Cheyenne River. We see each other now and then, mostly for business, but sometimes, we get to spend a weekend fishin' on Crow Creek. I never have figured out why them critters bite better for him than they do for me. I oughtta ask him what his secret is."
"Should I mention that, too, sir?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "No, Becker. I've said too many words already. Just get straight to the point. Ain't no need to turn it into a sermon. That's for the preacher on Sunday mornin's."
"Yes, sir. I'll get it out right away."
"Good. Get to doin' your job, Becker, and I'll head north to do mine . . . and Mays's."
Becker left the pencil on my desk and turned to leave my office without another word.
I stood and walked around my desk to give a short glance to the map of Colorado, pinned up on the wall next to the current wanted sheets. Blackfoot Trail was the easiest northward route from Cheyenne River to Grover, on the west end of the Buttes. On the way, I'd have to deal with Three Mile Pass, rugged territory that had its ups and downs, a cruel mixture of grassland and hard-to-travel broken soil.
Just as Becker was waddling out, Deputy Max Dells returned from walking the town. "Everything seems fit and proper, Warren," he said, tipping his hat at me.
"Well, there's something goin' on elsewhere, Max," I said, then went on to explain the situation. "Looks like I'm gonna hafta head north to give Sheriff Mays a hand with those three villains."
"You gonna be all right without me?" Max asked, his face twisting up with worry. "The Buttes . . . That's a big area to cover all by your lonesome, Warren. Sure you don't need some help? I'm happy to saddle up and ride along."
"I 'ppreciate the offer, Max, but I'll be just fine. Sam Mays will join me. Besides, we need you to stick around and take care o' Cheyenne River."
After retrieving my three-stocking chestnut from the livery, I tied his reins to the rail in front of the office. Saddlebags were filled with supplies, my Winchester secured, and a full canteen strapped over the saddle horn. A quick sweep made sure our jailhouse was looking respectable and in order, and I went over my plans once more with Max before I took off.
Yep, she's fully loaded, I thought as I checked my Colt .44. I stepped down from the boardwalk to the dirt road, mounted up, and took an easy stroll through town. Before long, with Cheyenne River disappearing behind me, my horse kicked up dust and galloped ahead to the long, extended trail.
Somethin' 'bout a rambling trail always gave me time to think. Ideas about this and that hopped into my head, though nothin' particularly special. Around me, in every direction, I was canopied by warm clouds streaking the horizon ahead. Within a little while, the land ahead began its gradual upward rise. I felt a brief rush of wind whipping around and into my face, cool and drifting, as I made my way through Three Mile Pass. Those surprisingly easy travels reminded me a lot of my start in Cheyenne River.
I'd never fancied too many words, even when meetin' folks, but Sam Mays sure did give me a warm welcome when I first arrived. At that time, the gov'ment was looking for a real good U.S. Marshal to deal with the ruffians and scalawags who thought they had the upper hand in running the town. Sheriff Mays thought otherwise. After our introductions and strong handshakes, we met up with some local shop owners and the bank president in the U.S. Marshal office. It turned out that just like the other townsfolk, the businesspeople weren't lookin' for a fancy, hard-nosed marshal. They just needed somebody who could and would take care of the bums and keep the drunks off the streets of Cheyenne River, so they could safely go on about their lives.
I accepted the job, and it wasn't long before I had my first big ruckus to deal with, smack dab in the middle of the road in front of our Gray Owl Saloon. That ol' Brock Skinner was mouthin' off too much, braggin' that it was gonna be real easy for him to whip my ass. "He's just a freshman lawman," Brock spat, slurring his words. "He ain't gonna do this town no damn good!"
Brock stumbled for a bit, then came chargin' at me with a serious look on his face and his fists all balled up. He tried a right cut to my jaw and thought he had me, but I backed away and felt nothin'. My first and only punch caught 'im square in the face. He went down in the dirt in a hurry and decided that, for the time bein', he was the one who was whipped.
Somebody yelled over to Brock, "Looks like you ain't as strong as that freshman lawman after all, Skinner!"
Everyone crowded around the fallen drunk bellowed in laughter, but they soon helped him up and found their way back inside the saloon.
That was just the first of many such encounters at my new job post. There was nothin' I couldn't handle, but it was a good feeling to hire Deputy Max Dells so I had somebody by my side in case things went south. He was a respectable person, and he'd been with me for going on four years now. Between the two of us, we knew Cheyenne River well, and we managed to keep it downright goodly. Skinner could brag all he wanted, but Dells and I took care of the people of Cheyenne River, and that was a damn fact we weren't shy about bragging about to anybody.
As I neared the end of Three Mile Pass, the terrain around me began to steadily increase in elevation. My chestnut ride hemmed and hawed a little as he made the climb. In the distance, I could see the shadowy outline of the Pawnee Buttes, juttin' out of the earth like guardians of the plains, all stretched out and rigid.
Suddenly, a fast horse came in my direction, kicking up dust at a pace I hadn't seen in quite a while. The rider drew near, then gave the reins a hard tug to stop his bay. Salty sweat lathered his face, and he was breathing heavily as he tried to calm his horse and move forward. "You Marshal Brothers from Cheyenne River?" he asked, between huffing and puffing.
"Yes, sure am. Who are you?" I asked, immediately suspicious.
He momentarily removed his hat and used his filthy right sleeve to wipe the perspiration off his brow. When he did, I noticed faint tears in his squinting eyes.
"What's goin' on?" I said.
"The bank in Grover! Marshal, it's been robbed. There was three men who done it, and . . . " He trailed off for a minute, then sniffled and said, "Sheriff Mays was shot up real bad. Two bullets got 'im square in the chest. I'm purdy sure he's dead. One o' them robbers took a bullet in his midsection, too, but he was still able to ride off with the other two. Ain't no tellin' 'bout his condition though. Maybe he'll drop dead somewhere."
Caught off guard by what he said about Sam Mays, I heard a stream of curses falling from my own mouth as I just stared at the forlorn rider.
"Somebody said I might find you out here. I heard tell that the sheriff had sent you a telegram, askin' you to come. I'm so glad I found ya, Marshal Brothers."
"Were those the same three outlaws who done that jailbreak over in Lincoln County after robbin' the Holcomb bank? Swain, Blanche, and Harris?"
"Might be. Marshal. Can't say for sure, but there was mention of those names," he said as he used his other sleeve to wipe more sticky sweat off his face.
"Well, come on then," I said.
As fast as possible, we rode in the direction of Grover. As we rode, I learned that the man beside me was Tom Thatcher, a Colorado cattle rancher with land that almost touched the Wyoming line.
"I was in town, just standin' on the boardwalk and talkin' to Jed Blain, owner of the mercantile, 'bout feed for my head of beef. Then, all the sudden, we heard gunfire outside the bank. I saw three men mount up, with their saddlebags full o' cash. More shootin' erupted between them and townsfolk as they thundered down the main road, tryin' to get outta town. All that excitement brought Sheriff Mays to the street, with Colt in hand. He fired till it was empty and left one of them rascals bleedin' from his gut. Somehow, one of the bad guys got the better aim and hit the sheriff twice, square in the chest. Mays did his best to stand his ground, but he didn't last long 'fore he . . . He just slumped over, fell, and died right there in the dirt road in front of the bank. Our town doc' took a look at him, but he said nothin' coulda been done to save him," Tom said, overcome with emotion. "Anyways, somebody in town said you were comin' to Grover, so I quickly saddled up to meet you halfway."
A short while later, we rode into Grover. I introduced myself to the angry, grieving crowd. Not only had their money been stolen, but they'd also lost their beloved sheriff, a good man. As for me personally, those crooks had robbed me of a good friend. I immediately paid my respects to his missus and promised to return for his funeral.
After that, I brought the townspeople together in the saloon. The respectable women questioned that choice, as they didn't want to be associated with what they called the "dancehall whores," but it was the biggest place in town for everyone to meet.
Before I arrived, a posse had already rode east into the Buttes. Soon thereafter, they returned to the saloon without any word on where the robbers were holing up. I still had the telegram in my pocket, the message from Sam, so I read it aloud to the crowd, hoping somebody might have some information about the three names from the Holcomb robbery.
Several times, people mentioned that one of the robbers had been shot. I was a little encouraged by that; riding hard would slow them down somewhat, because it would definitely be a strain on the injured man. Then again, I thought, those bad boys might just be inclined to leave their fellow cowboy behind in the wilderness somewhere. With nightfall coming in just a few hours, the probability was that the three would have to make camp somewhere along Cottonwood Creek. I knew it eventually wiggled south a ways, into the sizeable Pawnee Creek.
"There's an inlet that cuts into the far part of the Buttes, too, Marshal," somebody shouted from the back of the saloon. "It's not easily seen, but it's close enough to Cottonwood Creek to make camp near ample water. Beyond that point, there's plenty of open country to make for a purdy easy escape, though it's kinda rugged out there till it finally levels off inside Nebraska."
I thanked them all for their helpful advice and eyewitness accounts of the goings-on, then prepared to go on my way.
Just as I was about to leave the saloon, an older man with whiskers nudged me from behind and whispered, with a noticeable drawl, "One o' them three you're after is Willie Harris, a mean-streak son-o'-bitch if there ever was one. He's real bad news, Marshal. I think that snake would kill his own mama and stand over her body and laugh about it. True as my word on that."
"You know him, huh, old-timer?"
"Damn sure do. We was on the gray side fightin' at Vicksburg 'gainst them blue bellies that come down with Grant from Illinois. Bloodiest time I've ever been in. Willie too!"
"What's he look like?" I asked. "Anything recognizable about him, somethin' that might stand out?"
"Well, he carries a .44 on one side and a long knife on the other. He don't like people neither. If anybody gets close to him, even just wantin' to be his friend, he'll knife 'em in the gut. Like I said, he's a real nasty viper, just a mean bastard."
"Any scars from the war? Missin' any fingers?" I questioned, hoping for a telltale sign.
"No, sir," he replied. "Still wears his reb' cap, though, even though it's all worn out and dirty white."
With only that much to go on, I mounted up and made my way east, into the Pawnee Buttes. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was on my back. Absolute sweltering heat engulfed me like I was a skillet put over a hot flame. It wasn't long before my canteen was half-empty, but I rode on, blinking the beads of sweat away as they dripped down my brow and coated my face and neck. My bronze skin was damp, and strands of wet hair beneath my Stetson curled against my forehead.
By sunset, I found the inlet that cut into the Buttes, the one the man mentioned in Grover. A short distance in front of me was Cottonwood Creek. I moseyed to the edge of the lazy waterway, filled my canteen, and gave my chestnut time to drink.
When I returned to the inlet, I discovered that it did, indeed, go back a ways, deep inside, providing a way to lie low. Scraps of wood made perfect kindling for me to start a shallow fire that wouldn't blow too much smoke or be seen from far away. My meal was easy fixin's, and about two hours after I filled my belly, nightfall painted the sky, like an ebony blanket glittering with a thousand diamonds. Thankful that the air was cooler around me, I rested my head against my Stetson for a pillow and kept warm by wrapping myself up in a lengthy Mexican sarape.
I dozed off, and time passed as I enjoyed restful winks. Suddenly, I was awakened by faint sounds behind me and coming closer. They were deep, continual moaning sounds, maybe five minutes apart, moving my direction. As the racket continued, I slowly reached inside my sarape and wrapped my fingers around my trusty Colt.
"I'm bleedin' purdy bad, Willie," a deep voice uttered. "Where ya been anyhow? That bullet got me real good. I figured I might find ya campin' here, but I was way inside the inlet, just in case the law came snoopin' around. What the hell were you thinkin'? You knew I'd be waitin' for ya somewheres." His words were slow and uttered between groans. Clearly, he was confused as to why his so-called partner didn't return to help him tend to the spent cartridge inside his midsection.
I continued to play opossum, staying quiet and unmoving; I figured if I didn't play dead, them boys might make me dead for real. I could feel the closeness of the injured bank robber coming closer. When he was almost right in my face, in a rapid movement, I tossed the sarape aside and pressed the cold steel of my Colt into his chest. He immediately jumped back and reached for his sidearm. By the time he had it partially out of the holster, I'd already fired one shot that gouged deep inside his left shoulder. That was the second gunshot wound he'd suffered that day, and I didn't expect him to live much longer.
"You ain't Willie! Who the hell are you?" he managed as he threw a hand up to cover the gushing new hole in his body.
"Marshal Brothers," I said. "From Cheyenne River. You Blanche?"
"Yeah, Joe, Joe Blanche," he admitted weakly, knowing he was had and that his time on this Earth was short.
My voice was harsh and demanding and devoid of pity for the dying man when I asked where the other two were. I could have been real nasty about it and put some noticeable bruises on his dirty face, but I knew he was about to meet his maker and would, sooner or later, spit out some valuable information.
Other than tellin' me his name, Blanche's first reaction was to remain tight-lipped. He wasn't so inclined to squeal on his friends.
"You know, Joe," I said, "you might have a good chance of livin' if we head back to Grover. They've got a good doctor there."
Convincing the idiot took time as I worked to patch up his bullet holes, but he finally opened up to me.
As the morning sun began to peek over the eastern horizon, bringing bright yellow and lavender hues to the sky, we mounted up.
"The other fellows you're lookin' for are Willie Harris and Foley Swain, Marshal," Joe said. "They told me to meet 'em at Cobb Lookout, ten miles east o' here. It's just a dusty hole in the ground. Ain't much there but rickety, old buildings. The saloon and hotel are all run down, and the two or three whores that work there are missin' most of their teeth."
"We're gonna ride back to Grover," I said in a hard tone. "Doc's waitin' for ya."
"Ain't . . . gonna make it, Marsh—"
Before he could even finish my name, Blanche fell from his horse. He grabbed at his middle and tried to reach for the reins. The fingers of his left hand managed to clutch the leather straps, so he could tempt the horse closer. Another minute passed, and then even his fingers stopped twitching.
I pushed his body over his saddle, grabbed the reins of his sorrel, and made my way to Cobb Lookout, with Joe in tow. There was no sense in heading back to Grover, now that a doctor wasn't going to do him no good. I was somewhat familiar with the half-deserted town, and I knew it wasn't a place for law and order, just an empty place in the middle of nowhere. I wiped a little sweat from my brow as I slowly rode in that direction.
Up ahead, I saw noticeable wagon ruts, dusty and dry at that time of year. I kept a steady pace, slow and easy, not sure what I might encounter on my way.
What I had heard about Cobb Lookout was nothing in comparison to the actual location. It was just a heap of neglected, dilapidated buildings, along with a stable that looked like it might fall down any minute. As I rode into the place, I felt long stares coming from two men sitting on chairs on the boardwalk, and they whispered amongst themselves. It seemed there wasn't much news for gossipin' about in those parts, so a stranger pulling a dead cowboy along gave them something to talk about while they rocked back and forth on their creaky, old chairs.
I didn't expect a hearty welcome, nor did I want one. I was there strictly on business, nothing more and nothing less.
I met the stable owner in front of his business, introduced myself, and told him to find space in the local cemetery for the lifeless man beside me. The proprietor nodded in understanding, without a word of complaint. For all I knew, he served as the town undertaker as well as the keeper of the livery.
After dismounting, I asked him to be sure my chestnut had plenty of shade and water.
Again, he nodded in silence. Clearly, he wasn't much for conversation.
My whole throat and mouth felt parched, even though my canteen was still filled with creek water. I made my way to the Platte Saloon and pushed the batten doors open. Darkness filled my vision as I looked around, and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust so I could slowly saunter over to the bar. The place was small and smelled musty. Cheap wood kept the building standing. Three men were studying their cards at a nearby poker table. The gamblers paused and peered curiously over their hands of cards, intrigued by my arrival.
The barkeep looked at me questioningly as he served me a beer upon my request. "Not too many strangers come through Cobb Lookout," he said in a gruff voice. He stood tall and burly, like a towering spruce, and there was inherent strength in his face.
"Nope, I s'pose not, from the looks of it," I said, then gulped down my beer.
"How 'bout another, Marshal, on the house?" he offered, though his gaze remained hard and observant, his face clouded with uneasiness.
I didn't have to introduce myself, as my badge was in full view. I nodded to accept the refill, then said, "You been 'round here long? I'm guessin' you know most ever'body in this little, faraway place, don't ya?"
He nodded, still glaring at me with skepticism and confusion. "Most of 'em, yeah," he answered.
"I'm lookin' for two men who might have traveled through here, or maybe they're still here. Can you help me?"
"I guess it don't hurt to ask," the bartender said, with a shrug and a faint smile.
"First one's Willie Harris. I've heard he's kinda tall and mean lookin' and carries a .44 and a knife. Might be wearing a faded reb' cap too. You seen anybody like that?"
The bartender's eyes rested on mine, but he said nothing.
"The other fella is Foley Swain, probably a hard-lookin' cowboy."
"Don't know nothin' 'bout 'em," he said, unable to look me in the eye as he wiped a mug down with a dirty rag.
"Really now?" I said in a sarcastic tone. Suddenly, I reached across the bar, grabbed his thick shirt, and used it to pull him nearly halfway across the counter. "Listen up and listen good, you worthless piece o' shit," I hollered, my face mere inches from his. "I know them two rode into this town. One is real noticeable with that .44 and knife, and I know you didn't miss sight of that reb' cap neither!" I released him, then watched as he pointed nervously with his fat thumb.
"O-Out b-back," he stuttered, his eyes shifted to the right. "The reb' said the outhouse was a-callin'. That's one of your fellas, but I don't know tha other. Might try the hotel. It ain't much, but gives a man a place to lay his head down for a bit."
I nodded and walked in the direction of the back door. As I took my exit, sunlight burned into my eyes, and I struggled to regain my focus. A few yards in the distance was the privy, and the door was closed. I waited patiently, quite certain of who was in there makin' a stink.
When the door finally opened so the occupant could have a little sunlight by which to properly button his trousers and strap his gun belt around his waist, I recognized him right away.
"Willie Harris!" I shouted, wrapping my hand around my Colt. "I'm Marshal Brothers, and you're under arrest for bank robbery and murder."
Harris glared at me and grinned in a crazed way, as if my threat was amusing to him. His laughter was low and throaty before he argued, in a thick, Southern drawl, "Damn, Marshal, can't a man take a shit in peace 'round here? I never done nothin' like you said."
"Wrong, Harris. I got a witness back in Grover who says so."
"What witness?" he said, still scowling as he stepped out of the outhouse.
"You were part of those bloody fights in Vicksburg, weren't ya? You musta been, 'cause one of your old war buddies recognized you coming out of the bank. Does that refresh your memory?"
Harris's fingers were immediately around his .44, lifting it from its aged, well-weathered, leather holster.
My reply was instant, and I fired only once from my Colt.
As hot lead burned into his skin, Harris stumbled back into the outhouse. His legs turned to rubber, they gave out on him, forcing him to fall into a sitting position. He died like that, upright on the shitter, with his 'reb cap lowered to shade his open eyes.
I left Harris where he was and crossed the road to enter the hotel. The woman behind the stained, cracked counter had a generous body but a lot of telling wrinkles in her face. "Ma'am," I said, tipping my hat to her, "do you know Foley Swain?"
Through a smile of broken teeth, she replied in a raspy, aged voice, "Upstairs, to the left."
Other than the creaking, there was silence as I made my way up the unsteady stairs. After I reached the top, I saw a shadowy figure lurking behind a splintered pillar. When the dark silhouette came into full view, I saw the glint of a gun pointed in my direction.
Instantly the sound of gun fire filled the air.
My adversary immediately fired off two rounds, but neither found its mark, and both bullets dug into the wall beside me. Before a third shot could be fired, I leveled my Colt with true aim and pulled the trigger.
Foley Swain jerked backward a pace, offered a tentative smile, and fell limp to the grimy, dusty floor.
After I calmed the hotel clerk down from her screaming, I spoke to the stable owner again. "You're gonna need two more spaces in that cemetery," I said.
Still speechless, he only nodded and reached over to the wall of his stable to retrieve a shovel.
My ride back to Grover was slow and easy. It gave me time to reflect on the man who introduced me to wear a badge. Continual smiles crossed my face as I galloped along, reminiscing about my dear friend Sam Mays and the loving widow he'd left behind.
Bio: Robert Gilbert is author of Run With the Outlaws, a collection of Western short stories (amazon). Hooked
on Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California, as a entertainment writer. He spent numerous
occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. studio. Ten of his short stories have been published in
Frontier Tales. Another story, Blanchard County, will be published in the May 2021 edition of Frontier Tales.
Gilbert has written over twenty-five Western short stories. Visit his website at: www.robertlouisgilbert.com.
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Mitchell and the Po8
by Dick Derham
Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morning
perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I'll lay it on
My condition can't be worse
And if there's money in that box
'tis money in my purse.
—Black Bart the Po8
"Wadsworth Longfellow's got nothing to worry about," the Wells, Fargo agent told his partner. "Paul Revere's Ride it's not."
"He's been leaving scraps of paper with poems like this every time he robs a Wells, Fargo stage," Collins said. "He's playing with us."
Mitchell read the poem again. Maybe the words did tell him something. "'Tis money in my purse,' isn't the way any of my cellmates at Yuma ever talked."
Dave Mitchell's trail to the small diner on San Francisco's Kearney Street had been an unusual one for a trusted Wells, Fargo agent. Sixteen when he had left his father's endless farm chores behind and hired on as a trail hand with an outfit delivering a Texas herd to the new lands of Arizona, he had never looked back. Paid off in Gila River Valley, he had found he liked having money in his pockets and when another hand had told him that Wells, Fargo stages had money free-for-the-taking, he had begun to expand his world. Arizona and New Mexico in the winter months, the fresh green lands of the Colorado Mining District when things warmed up, relishing the free life, only eighteen, but certain he'd hit on the ideal life for a man bold enough to take it. Five years in Yuma as the "guest" of the government had failed to make him penitent, and he had resumed his career intending to lose no time in making up for the lost whiskey and good times that Wells, Fargo and its bloodhounds had stolen from him. Then a chance encounter—"Providence" the old Methodist preacher his parents had made him suffer through might call it—had introduced him to Chet Collins, at 5'6", the biggest man he had ever met. That encounter changed his life.
For five years, he had worked with the senior agent, tracking down Wells, Fargo robbers from Arizona to Wyoming to Idaho, and building a success record that so marked the duo as the go-to investigators that it caught the attention of the "suits" in San Francisco. After the company's agents on the ground in California had spent years failing to put an end to the scourge which had been visiting stages in the Sacramento Mining District and throughout the state with nothing to show for their efforts except scraps of doggerel, James Hume, chief of detectives, summoned Collins and Mitchell.
"There are some clues in there, Dave," Chet Collins said, "if we can only figure them out." That was Collins' way. If Mitchell's "professional" experience taught him to understand critical elements others might miss in the conduct of the robbery itself, Collins looked inside the robbers for understanding, different approaches that combined to end the careers of more than two dozen of the West's worst highwaymen.
Mitchell read slower this time, trying to get the diction, "He's got a lot of words. Sounds like he spent a spell of time learning from McGuffey's Reader."
"Frank James, the word is, always carried a set of Shakespeare plays in his saddlebags." Collins reminded Mitchell.
There wasn't much on the surface of the words to tell them who Black Bart was, or where to find him. "Don't read like a young man," Mitchell said. "Had some book learning, but it don't take a lot. Cowhands riding night herd spend a lot of lonely hours putting words together. Could be he just has a lot of time on his hands." That insight was a clue, though not one the agents recognized at the time.
* * *
At that moment, three blocks up Kearney Street at Ware's Laundry, an Irish washerwoman watched as a slim man left with his laundry package tucked under his arm. His dapper manner of dress, straight-backed carriage, his ornate cane, all combined to make him a recognizable man about town.
"Now there's a proper gentleman, is Mr. Bolton," the washerwoman said, more to the walls than to the new customer. "Always has a pleasant word and tips his derby to the ladies on the street. And with just a touch of the old country lilt to his voice."
The object of her admiration, Charles Bolton, a mining expert who described his mining interests, somewhat vaguely, as located on the California-Nevada border, dressed as befits a middle-aged man of affairs, wearing a salt-and-pepper tweed suit with a diamond stick pin and a velvet-colored overcoat, neat but not ostentatious. A well-trained silvery mustache, coupled with the tendency to gray at his temples completed a perfect picture of a moderately prosperous, distinguished middle-class man in a striving community.
Whether playing cards at the Elite Saloon on Kearney Street, or dining a few doors away where he frequently sat at the table with detectives of the San Francisco Police Department, he was popular for his witty conversation about widely separated topics and, the hallmark of a true gentleman, without inflicting on his auditors endless anecdotes of his own biography. Far more likely he would be to give a critical review of the visiting troupe's performance of Bizet's Carmen or other highlights of the cultural life of a town trying to raise itself above its provincial origins.
That evening, however, he sat alone at table, treating himself to a repast of oysters paid for by the generosity of Wells, Fargo. Not stolen money, he assured himself, money he was owed, a simple reimbursement of the damages Wells, Fargo had inflicted upon him that had devastated his Montana mining ambitions.
* * *
The American Civil War had been a great clashing of armies that transformed the United States from a collection of cultures and societies into a truly unified nation well on its way to asserting its place in the forefront of world history.
But it had been more: a platform, a testing ground, a factory if you will where men were built into something greater than their simple lives as a Michigan farmer or a Massachusetts cobbler, where their iron was refined into the steel that would transform their own lives as it became an essential resource for the conquest of a continent.
For some men, that is. For many men, perhaps. But not for all. Perhaps, seeing the wider world awakened dormant desires, perhaps it created ambitions beyond man's capabilities, or perhaps it just freed men from the obligations of family and farm. The new wave of restless, some would say shiftless, men coincided with the opening of the trans-Mississippi West with its limitless opportunities for the builders of Empire, but the same magnet drew men seeking to escape stifling responsibilities, seeking to build new lives in the expectation that riches in this new world came easily with none of the hard work required of an Illinois farmer.
To a man who had heard the cannons roar, sniffed the cordite, who had participated in the historic importance of the siege of Vicksburg, who had dealt with the life-defining urgency of combat from The Battle of Atlanta to the March to the Sea, who carried the consequences of battle as proud scars on both hip and abdomen, a man who had marched down Constitution Avenue in the Grand Reunion, the two-day celebration of the Union victory, to such a man a life of four children, a wife, and the cyclical drudgery of plowing, cultivating, and harvesting, seemed small , unworthy, confining. And when such a man had been promoted over the course of the war from private to company First Sergeant, being one more mud-stained farmer out of the thousands in Illinois did not offer the honor and respect to which he had become accustomed. To such a man, the lure of riches in the Montana gold fields, at least when read about from afar, promised the same broad canvas, the same bold colors, the same thrills of victory, and a triumph that did not vanish with the smoke of a single battle. So, it appeared to many men.
So, perhaps it appeared to Charles Boles, late of company B, 116th, Illinois Infantry Regiment, battle-hardened, wounded, his quality as a soldier testified to by his attainment of the rank of First Sergeant by war's end. That success in mining can produce both honor and riches is unarguable. But mining can also be more work than farming, its success can prove illusory, returns may prove fleeting, and failure more probable. Perhaps Wells, Fargo's actions destroyed a miner's hopes; perhaps that was simply a convenient excuse. But in any event, at some time in the 1870s, Mr. Boles disappeared.
* * *
The thick file took the agents most of the morning to read through. The "Po8" had been generous in his attention to California, not playing favorites by confining his activities to any single locality. Over twenty-five robberies, over eight years but increasing in frequency in recent years, he had conducted his "transactions" with Wells, Fargo in Siskiyou and Shasta Counties in the north, in Mendocino County on the Pacific coast, and in Sonoma County in California's central mining area, all just within the last year. He seemed ubiquitous in California, and the standard techniques of plotting the robberies on a map to find a pattern wouldn't work. But if it had been that easy, Collins and Mitchell would still be in Denver.
Mitchell looked up from the file he was reading. "Must be quite a walker. This report says he goes everywhere on foot." He looked at his partner. "Even with a head start, you'd think the local sheriff could run a walker into the ground."
"We're not in Colorado anymore," Collins said. "Did you spend much time looking out the window as we were coming through the jagged peaks of the Sierra? These hills are high and all scrunched together. Somehow the Rockies don't seem so exalted when you're already over a mile high. Even when we got down from the mountains, the country looked pretty rough on horses trying to track a man. Likely that's especially true in the mining district."
By the time they had each read the file, they knew several salient things. Black Bart was not a blood-thirsty robber. Not only had he never killed anyone, he had never so much as fired the shotgun that he carried on each robbery. He was authoritative in bearing and demeanor, "military," Collins said. His erect and commanding posture when reinforced with the persuasiveness of a double-barreled shotgun produced the alacrity with which drivers complied with his orders. He quickly adapted to Wells, Fargo's changing practices. In the early robberies "throw down the box" had been enough to get the strongbox on the road where he could open it at his leisure. When Wells, Fargo frustrated the robbers by bolting the box to the coach, Black Bart learned to bring a hatchet to break into the box.
He was always polite, interspersing his commands with an occasional "please." Never swore at the drivers or in any way demeaned them personally, not even relieving them of their money belts or watches. As to rich passengers he made himself clear. "I'm not here to rob you," he told one frightened passenger. "I only take from Wells, Fargo."
"Smart," Mitchell said. "Local folks elect Sheriffs. If no one is shot, and no one is robbed, it's never likely a sheriff will swear in a posse to go galloping around the county at taxpayer expense just to run down a robber who specializes in stealing from a corporation that has no votes."
His physical description was both clear and unhelpful. Five foot eight inches, the reports agreed. Small-boned, not husky. But there it stopped. The flour sack over his head with two eyeholes obscured anything that could go on a useful wanted poster. Was he dark or fair? Did he wear a full beard, or was he clean-shaven? For that matter, was he bald? The reports gave no information.
Still some patterns were clear Black Bart always worked alone. He came and went on foot, covering long distances with only his blanket roll and tools of the trade, his shotgun and hatchet. He had never—yet, anyway—fired his shotgun.
"Careful man," Mitchell said. "Drivers aren't paid to be heroes. But shooting a gun off can bring all sorts of trouble down on a man."
"Not a typical saloon tough of the kind we know," Collins said.
"Not by any means," Mitchell agreed.
* * *
So here I've stood while wind and rain
have set the trees a-sobbin'
and risked my life for that damned stage
that wasn't worth the robbin'.
—Black Bart, the Po8
Dave Mitchell was unsurprised to find himself at the foot of Market Street awaiting the departure of the morning boat. If there was one lodestar in all of Chet Collins' techniques as a Wells, Fargo agent, it was that a visit to the scene of a robbery was always the first step.
The report of the latest two robberies only a day apart but thirty miles cross-country with difficult terrain separating them, had come in overnight and these robberies not in the mining district where Bart usually worked, but in the coastal plain of Mendocino County north of San Francisco. "Hume tells me this is sheep-shearing season," Collins told Mitchell, "and that means a lot of cash is transported."
Perhaps the robberies were bad news to Wells, Fargo, but they were good news to Mitchell and Collins, who at last had an opportunity to move beyond digesting interview reports of drivers and investigators over the years, and to become men of action, taking their investigation out to the field where crimes were solved.
At the Wells, Fargo station at Ukiah, they requisitioned the use of two horses and rode out on the road. Following the stagecoach route south, they came to a series of switchbacks where the road climbed a ridge. Two thirds of the way up the hill Collins, reached out his arm and pointed to a large boulder around which the next switchback curved. "Robbers Rock, the driver called it."
"Hold up here a minute, Chet," Mitchell said. "On horseback, you're close to the same height as Fowler was on top of a Concord Coach. Let me go up and check out the view from the other side of the rock."
Mitchell rounded the bend in the road, down-stirruped and wound the reins around a small bush. "Man-sized, sure enough," Mitchell called back to his partner. He stepped off the road to conceal himself behind the rock. "I'm taller than Bart, and I can't see overhead."
"Or be seen," Collins replied.
Mitchell left the road and walked uphill, looking for something not there by nature's hand. "He had to wait somewhere where no stray traveler on the road would see him and sound a warning," he called to his partner, "but he still had to be able to get into position quick when he heard the stagecoach lumbering up the hill."
As Mitchell imagined himself lounging out of sight behind a convenient screen of trees, he scanned the ground for any telltale leavings. "Paper bag up here," he reported. "I see some apple cores. Looks like he brought his lunch." He squatted down and closed his eyes, focusing on what a highwayman would hear. Then he got to his feet and emerged from behind the tree.
"From here, he'd be able to step out and get the driver under his shotgun before the coach topped the grade and the driver could let the team out for a downhill run. The driver said Bart was fifteen feet from the road when he heard Bart cock the shotgun."
"That would get a man's attention."
Mitchell trudged back to where Collins waited with the horses. "Man knows his business, I'd say," Collins said.
"At least part of it." Mitchell said "there was no one riding shotgun. That's a standard tipoff that there was nothing in the box worth guarding. Even at eighteen, I'd have known enough to let the coach go on. Do we know what he got?"
"Aside from hundreds of dollars of checks he couldn't cash, all he got from the robbery was $12.50."
Mitchell laughed. "Wells, Fargo will get a bad rep among highwaymen if that's all they have on offer."
They found the hollow where Bart had split open the mail pouch and gone through his take from the strongbox. Mainly whatever had been thrown away had been gathered in by the sheriff when he reached the scene. A couple of white papers got Mitchell's attention. "Letters, so I gather we got the right spot."
"So, he took the mail sack and used his hatchet to break into the strongbox," Collins said. "That tell you anything?"
"Never touched the mail myself. Didn't want to find out what the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth is like. Mail is mainly checks you can't cash. Nothing worth the risk."
"In the mining district, he always hits the coach on its downhill run, away from the mines," Collins said. "Miners sometimes send out gold dust in their letters. No problem cashing that."
"As a simple robber, I wouldn't have known how to do that without looking suspicious." Mitchell thought a moment. "Unless he's in the mining business somehow."
Before he lost track of Bart, the Sheriff's initial pursuit had tracked the robber to a small sheep ranch and the agents followed that trail. The main road led them through towering trees and narrow vistas, but when the land leveled off Bart's trail diverged to a narrow road through grassy meadows. Soon they came across the ranch house they had been seeking.
The hired hands were out in the field penning up and shearing the animals, but they found the rancher's wife busy over the stove.
"Mrs. Vann," Collins began. "Understand you had a visitor a day ago. We'd like to talk to you about him."
"Told everything I know to that other man." Her briskness was not hostility, just letting Collins know that she had work to do and no time for useless conversation.
"Yes ma'am, and we've read what he wrote. But I find sometimes different people will hear different things." He adopted his most apologetic manner. "I know you're busy with a big group to feed. I'd appreciate just a minute or so."
"Well, I can tell you right off it's a waste of time. He couldn't have been a robber. When I first saw him walking down the road with his blanket roll, I knew at once he was a gentleman, wearing his derby hat and all. He stopped and asked for something to eat, polite as he could be, and so of course we fed him. I told him the charge was twenty-five cents, but he insisted on paying fifty cents because he said he was really hungry. Now I ask you, would any robber do that?"
"Probably not," Collins agreed. "The sheriff said he seemed middle-aged."
As is so often the case, once a witness begins to talk, information flows. "Middle-aged, medium height," Mrs. Vann said. "Not much to make him stand out. Quite a distinguished mustache. I told my man he should grow one." She took a moment to stir the pot on the stove. "Oh," she softened. "And the bluest of eyes, all friendly. Not a bit of the trashy man about him."
"Did he talk much?" Collins asked.
"No, he wasn't very talkative. I guess because he had walked a long way and was hungry. I wish he had spoken more, he had such a pleasing deep voice." A gentle smile came to her face as she thought back. "He could be a preacher," she offered, "with his dignity and that voice."
That prompted Mitchell to join the conversation. "What did he sound like? A southern gentleman? Maybe soft-spoken like me?"
"Oh no, nothing like that." The abrupt rejection of the idea by flick of her hand, a Texan could have found offensive, but it only brought the hint of a smile to Mitchell's cheeks. "Proper speech, good diction," then she added a thought. "just a touch of lilt to it. Made him seem educated, well spoken."
Collins thanked her and they were about to leave when she volunteered something she hadn't mentioned to the sheriff. "I did notice that when he set down his bedroll, it didn't collapse, but stood up on its own."
"Like it was wrapped around a rifle or shotgun?"
"Well, yes. He may have been hunting deer. It's a good season for it."
* * *
After they gave the waitress their orders in the New York Bakery, Mitchell looked around the restaurant. "Hume was right to recommend this place," he told Collins. "Cops know their territory. If they eat here, it's good."
"Over there in the corner, with the dapper-looking man. Those two are street bulls." He grinned at his partner. "Some instincts you never lose."
And in the corner table, Captain Stone was shaking his head at the editorial in the San Francisco Bulletin and its denunciation of the police's "incompetence" in the search for Black Bart. "You'd think a man who goes everywhere on foot, someone would catch up to him. What do you think Mr. Bolton?"
Their companion shook his head unhelpfully. "Mining's my game. Can't help you on police work."
As they ate, Collins and Mitchell reviewed their visit to Mendocino County. "What did we learn, Chet, besides what we already knew from reading the reports, except maybe he has a mining connection?"
Collins raised his fork in the air as he pondered. "First, we've got a feel for how he works. Methodical, but not imaginative. I wonder how he would do if he had to adjust his plan in the middle of a robbery. And either he hasn't figured out that unguarded stages will be slim pickings, or he's a nervous man who shies away from serious confrontation. Probably a man who would rather sit meekly at some restaurant waiting to be served beef stew than standing at a bar in a cowman's saloon carving a slice of roast beef off the free lunch."
Mitchell added his own thoughts. "And what you say goes with him being soft-spoken like Mrs. Vann said, with 'just a touch of the old-world lilt'. You're right, I didn't feel I knew him from reading the reports, but I'm getting to feel I would recognize him if I met him."
Even later, the agents had no notion of how close to the truth they were. But why should they, if Captain Stone had no idea himself.
* * *
I've labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
but on my corns too long you've tread
you fine-haired sons of bitches.
—Black Bart, the Po8
"We got another live one, Dave."
Collins and Mitchell had been awakened long before the November sun deigned to make its gloomy appearance through San Francisco's infamous fog. When Collins opened the door, a messenger had placed an envelope in his hand.
"Who's ever heard of Copperopolis?" Mitchell grumbled as he stomped into his boots.
"Our honored employer, for one," Collins replied. "It's on the stage line from Sonora in the mining district down to Milton."
At Stockton they requisitioned horses from the Wells, Fargo station and rode east toward Milton, where they were in luck and met the stage driver, Reason McConnell, about to begin his daily trip to Sonora.
"The stage was driving along at an easy jog," McConnell reported. "We had just crossed the Stanislaus at Reynolds Ferry and were lumbering our way up Funk Hill. Just before we got to the top, the horses stopped because there was a man right up ahead of them with a black overcoat and striped pants. He had a flower sack with two eyeholes over his head." He paused meaningfully, "and a shotgun pointed in an unfriendly direction. Still, when called for me to toss down the express box and mail sack he asked politely, saying 'please.' Real easy going get-along fellow, except for the two black holes in that shotgun barrel. I tossed down the mail sack right away, but the express box was not so easy. As you know, Wells, Fargo might be a big organization, but it can learn from experience. The strongbox was bolted securely to the coach."
So far, Mitchell thought, he could almost recite the story from the twenty-seven reports he read. But as McConnell continued, things started to change.
"We gave him a problem he hadn't expected," McConnell said. "Had me a young passenger hitching a ride with his rifle to go deer hunting. I dropped him at the bottom of Funk Hill just before we started up. When he heard the coach stop, he thought maybe I needed some help, and started walking up the hill while Bart was hammering away trying to break into the strongbox.
"Him and Bart must've seen each other at the same time. When Bart saw Jimmy and his old Henry rifle, he got all flustered and broke off work on the express box." McConnell laughed at the memory. "He took off running and jumped into the brush when Jimmy's shot zinged near him. Would've thought it funny at the time if I wasn't so mad about being robbed."
Funk Hill was easy to find and the agents quickly confirmed what they could of the driver's story. They spent only a moment of order to where Bart had stopped to slit open the mail pouch and riffle through the contents. "A T-shape cut in the mail pouch is Bart's way," Collins said "but I can 't see we can learn much here."
"The sheriff wanted to know where he was going," Mitchell said. "I'd like to see where he hunkered down and waited."
Mitchell's instincts led him to a secluded area one hundred feet back from the road. "Being shot at must have flustered him." Mitchell reported. "He forgot to come back for his hat." Then, in a cleft of rock, Mitchell found a package with a few items wrapped in a handkerchief.
"Crenellated silk," Mitchell told Collins. "Our friendly poet is a fastidious dresser. We won't be finding him in some cold-water outlaw hideout. He is a city man"
Collins reached for the handkerchief. "Let me see that," Collins said. He held it up close to his eyes. "Look at that. The lettering is faint, but we can make it out. F. X. O. 7. That's a launderer's mark."
With ninety-one laundries in San Francisco, and no assurance that Bart even operated out of the city, the agents found their days monopolized by tedious city police work instead of open-air outlaw hunting, but a job is a job.
"No, that's not our mark." "We only use numbers." "Don't know whose that is." On Wednesday. On Thursday. On Friday. The words varied but the meaning was always the same.
Then Mitchell walked into Ware's Laundry at Third and Bush Street. "Why surely, 'tis our mark," the washerwoman assured him. "And I don't need to look it up in our book. A fine piece of crenellated silk like this belongs to our gentleman customer, Mr. Bolton."
"I have some business matters with him," Mitchell said. "Do you know where I might find him?"
Mr. Ware himself stepped forward. "He lives at the Webb House over on Second Street. It's just a couple of blocks. I have some errands to run. Let me take you there."
They had just turned off Bush onto Second when Ware pointed to a man approaching them.
"Why here comes the gentleman, now."
Mitchell saw a dapper middle-aged man of medium height walking up the street toward them, with the well-trimmed mustache, the graying temples, and as he got close, the riveting blue eyes that Mrs. Vann had described. Mitchell reached out his hand to the man he felt he already knew. "Dave Mitchell, Mr. Bolton. My partner and I are looking for advice from a man with your mining experience."
"Well . . . " Bolton seemed reluctant.
"Of course, we'll pay for your time."
And so, minutes later, Mitchell ushered Bolton into a nondescript office on Montgomery Street and introduced him to his "partner," not Chet Collins of course, but James Hume, chief detective for Wells, Fargo. They had barely got beyond the introductions when Mitchell reached into his pocket and withdrew the handkerchief.
As he slid it across the desk, he said "I believe I have some property of yours."
* * *
The next afternoon, when the train stopped at Sacramento, Collins procured the local newspaper. He read the article to Mitchell.
"James Hume is to be commended for his excellent police work in bringing to an end the depredations of the notorious Black Bart. He has well earned his reputation as a genius for law enforcement."
"Give credit where credit is due," Mitchell said. "Took pure genius to bring in the only two men who could solve the crime."
The two agents were chuckling contentedly as the train picked up speed toward the Sierra Nevada taking them back to what both men considered the real America.
Authors note: Black Bart was one of the most prolific road agents faced by Wells, Fargo in the nineteenth century. Whether in fact he blamed Wells, Fargo for the collapse of his mining venture in Montana, or whether that venture was itself a mirage, what is clear is that his demeanor in San Francisco was such that few, including his frequent dinner companion Captain Stone, found his guilt easy to accept.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A member
of the Wild West Historical Association, this is the ninth of Dave Mitchell's Wells, Fargo cases which have been
reported in Frontier Tales.
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Horseshoe Nail Stew
by VT Dorchester
A Re-telling of the Stone Soup Folktale
Five soldiers were walking their way homeward back from the war.
The land they were crossing was hot and drying, and scarce early crops withered in the fields they passed.
They had not eaten for two days. They travelled this way:
First, John Aughtenbright, always straying a little ahead of the others, circling back, straying ahead again.
Last, the eldest, Daniel Byrne, called Preacher. His limp grew heavier with the passing of each day.
And the three who walked together.
Hyacinth Morrison, who when questioned about his name would say, my mother also gave me her life, so I would come to be in this world. I use the name she left me with pride.
His prickly companion, Shannon, would dare anyone to try and make something of that.
And young Rauck, least in size, who often would play a tune on his mouth harp, or start a song for all to sing as they marched. Which suited some more than others. Preacher joined them in song only very rarely.
These five men had not found anyone willing to give them food or shelter in the villages that lay behind them. Now, evening was falling.
And Shannon said, "We won the war, didn't we? But instead of being welcomed as heroes, we're looked down at as if we were tramps or dirty beggars."
"We look a bit like dirty beggars," Hyacinth said.
They had not shaved in several days, their clothes were dusty, and Rauck's jacket was missing buttons. Shannon's shoulder-length dark hair looked as if a sparrow had nested there, and perhaps never left. The bandage around Preacher's leg was dirty.
Shannon said, "Still, iffen I'm told there is nothing to be had again, I will break open the doors to dig it out."
Rauck said, "People say they have nothing to give or sell."
Scoffed Shannon, "How can you be so simple? They must still have food; they've still got old men. They're not that hungry, only mean."
"What have old men have to do with it?" Rauck asked.
"Old men starve first," Shannon said. "At least in half-civilized countries."
"Why would they not let us buy food, if they have it?"
"Its been a long war for the farms and villages as well as for soldiers," Preacher said, "this land has grown afraid to share a little for fear of losing all."
Shannon added to his complaints, "It's been a few days tramping on this so-called shortcut of yours, Aughtenbright, and I don't see any train. Don't even see any railway."
"I'm sorry," Aughtenbright said, "But I didn't order any of you to come along."
Shannon said, "You've gotten us lost."
"We're not lost," Aughtenbright said. "And perhaps we would have more luck buying food if you didn't always scowl."
Shannon said, "Oh, it's my fault? Maybe I do only have myself to blame. I should have known better then join your band of merry men. We've got a stupid kid that doesn't know enough to duck, with medals to prove it. An apostate preacher with no faith in his heretics, and a man who calls himself a flower. And you, lawyer Aughtenbright. Who made you President?"
"We are not lost," Rauck said.
"Then where are we, stupid?"
"Right . . . here," Rauck said somewhat tremulously.
"Ha!" shouted Shannon.
Preacher could speak with a voice like the first drops of rain on a parched land, soft, but catching to the ear. "Leave the boy be," said he.
Aughtenbright was quite worried for a moment that Shannon wouldn't. But instead Shannon threw up his hands and snarled, "Fine."
They marched on steadily, having learned how to measure their energy over a long way.
"Perhaps we could gather purslane," Aughtenbright eventually suggested, "to eat."
"I don't want to eat weeds," Hyacinth said, "I want to get home."
"I want to get home too," Rauck said.
"What fer?" Shannon demanded.
"What do you mean, what for? Because it is home. My father needs help with the farm. Do you not have something waiting for you?"
"I've work guaranteed," Shannon said.
"My wife is going to have another baby." Hyacinth said. "I haven't seen any of them right new yet, what with one thing or another. Sorta would like to see one within its first hour. As I remember, you have a fiancé you write to, Aughtenbright."
"When did you get her a letter last?"
"Not that long ago. A month. Or two."
"Or three?" suggested Shannon.
"What's waiting for you at home, Preacher?" Rauck asked.
Preacher said nothing, and then he said, "There was a cat. Half-wild thing, wouldn't let anyone touch it. It would come mewling around every so often. I would feed it."
They walked on, looking for a place to spend the night.
* * *
Eventually, they came upon a small copse of trees around a spring and there made camp.
The men drew up logs and rocks to sit around a fire, the fire crackling as the evening gloaming grew around them.
Preacher had his pocketknife and a piece of wood and began to whittle.
Slowly the piece of wood was being shaped, and Shannon couldn't help himself from saying, "What's the purpose of it? You only throw the things you make away."
Preacher continued slivering off wood from the stick.
"Something to do with my hands," he said, "I suppose it's fretwork."
Shannon, of course, said, "No, it's not. That isn't fretwork."
"Oh?" Preacher said, "Then what is?"
"Well, it's . . . fretwork is . . . patterns carved into wood, or onto it . . . designs for . . . fancy buildings, like . . . it's different. That's not fretwork."
"Mmm," said Preacher.
Hyacinth yawned and went to lay down away from the others, as he snored.
The fire crackled and the moon came out, a bird flew over with a cry.
Aughtenbright frowned. There was an idea tickling him behind his nose . . . something someone had once said . . . a story from his grandmother?
"How about a story?" Rauck said.
A little time passed and Preacher looked up to see six eyes on him.
"What about the story of Jonah and the whale?" asked Rauck.
Preacher said, "Why look to me? I might still know the words of faith, but . . . "
Rauck said, "You tell stories best."
"As long as I can remember the words, perhaps," Preacher said, "But it's Aughtenbright who comes up with the new stories."
"I don't want a new one," Rauck said, "I want the one about the whale."
Sometimes it was easy to remember that despite his heroics at fifteen years of age, Rauck was still a child. At night it was easiest to remember.
"Very well," Preacher said, and he spun the story long.
When it was over Shannon was yawning and scratching and dropped into his bed quickly. Rauck got up and walked past the firelight for a few moments of privacy.
Aughtenbright slowly came out of a reverie. Preacher placed the small whale shape he had whittled on a log beside himself.
"I have an idea," Aughtenbright murmured, "Yes, I think it just might work."
He added, "How do you feel?"
"All right," Preacher said.
Aughtenbright did not entirely believe him.
"I am sorry," Aughtenbright said, "about leading you off the main road. I was certain this way would be shorter, that we would get to the railway faster than we have."
Preacher said, "If she hasn't waited, she's not worthy of heartache."
"It's a long time to wait," Aughtenbright said.
Aughtenbright said, "Yes, well, the . . . camp . . . options . . . haven't really appealed to me."
"They do to some."
Aughtenbright thought about Shannon. And of the women who followed the armies. Some of them really were seamstresses.
"Anyway, I don't want to keep you too long from your alley cat," Aughtenbright said.
Preacher shifted his shoulders and made no response, and Aughtenbright looked at the man's face in the firelight. They had marched alongside each other for almost two years, but were they friends? Aughtenbright was not yet sure.
* * *
The first meeting between Aughtenbright and Preacher was on the night Aughtenbright's brother was killed. The soldier-preacher was dragged forth by young Rauck to perform ministrations, but Aughtenbright had met him with curses. Preacher had simply responded "I'm sorry," and walked away.
Only he had never been far away since.
There were rumours about Preacher, of acts of viciousness and kindnesses. Of madness. Preacher hardly spoke of himself at all.
A log in the fire split with a crack and Aughtenbright flinched.
The two men sat quietly beside each other for a moment longer.
Then, Rauck returning, Aughtenbright nodded a few times.
"Thank you," he said to Preacher, and went to lay on the other side of the fire.
* * *
Rauck only woke them once with muffled cries come through his nightmare recollections. Shannon, first awake the next morning, saw Preacher's arm thrown around Rauck's shoulder as they slept side by side.
About this, at least, Shannon held his tongue. He picked up the whittled whale and tucked it into a pocket, before the others woke.
* * *
Before they returned to the road the next morning, Aughtenbright insisted that they wash.
"And now," said Aughtenbright, as they started down the road again, "I want each of you to pick a stone, as we go along, and give it to me."
Said Shannon, "You do need a few more rocks for your head."
Aughtenbright said, "I have a plan."
Shannon said, "Is this plan better than the plan to take a shortcut to the railway?"
"Yes," said Aughtenbright, fingers crossed.
Rauck said. "As long as we keep heading east, we will get home eventually." And Rauck picked up a dusty stone. "Would this do?"
"As long as we keep heading east, we'll run into sea eventually," Shannon said.
The others ignored this.
"If you like it," Aughtenbright said, "you can use that stone. But you'll have most of the day. Choose a stone you like, something unusual or well coloured. Something special."
Hyacinth kicked at the path. "A special stone?"
"Yes," Aughtenbright said. "Five special stones, one each. And I will see that we eat tonight."
"You're a wizard?" Shannon said.
"Play along," Hyacinth said. "What harm?"
Rauck looked at the stone he held and then threw it down.
The men walked down the road. Once and awhile, one or the other would stop and stoop.
Aughtenbright was yet a little more eager this day. And Preacher was a little slower a little earlier.
* * *
The men continued to walk east.
Aughtenbright found himself ahead by quite a piece and stopped to wait, sitting on what was left of someone's split-rail fence.
His fiancé hadn't written . . . no, he corrected himself, he hadn't received a letter from her, which wasn't really the same thing at all, for five months. At first, he had been getting letters once a week.
He wasn't as upset about this as perhaps he should have been. The truth was he was having a hard time imagining being at home again at all.
Aughtenbright contemplated his choice of stone while he waited.
Aughtenbright had chosen, from the firepit this morning, a black stone, which had at first looked like shiny charcoal.
* * *
When Hyacinth and Shannon and Rauck caught up to Aughtenbright, Hyacinth gave him his choice of stone, a rough piece of granite with pink spots. Then, waiting only to see that Preacher was still coming, they went on.
Rauck was feeling his hunger so he began to sing:
Bile them cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round
The only song that I can sing,
Is bile them cabbage down!
Hyacinth began to pelt him with pebbles.
* * *
Aughtenbright called a halt late afternoon as the next village came into view, down the bottom of a gentle-sloped valley.
To his surprise, Shannon gave him a clear quartz stone along with his customary scowl. It looked like a bit of fogged river ice.
Rauck handed Aughtenbright a horseshoe nail.
"This is not a stone," Aughtenbright said, "this is a horseshoe nail."
Rauck said, "Maybe it is lucky. I have a stone too, if you want it."
"It's certainly shiny," Hyacinth said, "Can't have been laying out long."
Aughtenbright considered. "It might work. Yes, all right." And he added the nail to the collection in his palm. There were four objects in his hand:
His own coal-black pebble.
Hyacinth's pink granite.
Rauck's horseshoe nail.
And Shannon's clear quartz.
But there was one missing, until Preacher caught up to them, sweating.
"How do you feel?" Rauck asked.
"Like a sack full of drowned dead skunks," Preacher confessed. He handed Aughtenbright his contribution.
The dust-coloured pebble bore nothing at all to distinguish it from the others on the road.
"Spit on it," said Preacher.
The pebble transformed, from dust tan to chocolate - a thin black band around its middle. It was beautiful, although even as they watched its colours again faded.
Now there were five gifts, ready to be used in Aughtenbright's plan. He smiled and crossed his fingers again and said to Rauck, "Play something on your mouth box. The rest of you, look pleasant, please." And down they went into the valley village.
* * *
The people of the settlement of Sweetwell were beginning to shut their houses against the coming night. On the buildings, paint faded. The saloon was open, but the restaurant next to it was shuttered.
Outside of the general hardware store, an old man sat in a rocking chair. He wore nothing but red flannel underwear, which covered him from wrist to ankle to neck and, fortunately, everywhere in between.
"Good evening!" Aughtenbright said, loudly and cheerfully.
Two hens scratched in the dirt of the street.
"Nothing for strangers here," the old man said. "You best be moving on. We're all cleaned out. Cupboards bare."
Aughtenbright grabbed on to Shannon's arm before he could object.
Aughtenbright said, "Gather around! After long years faring here and away, I and my noble companions—stop picking your nose Hyacinth—have made a great discovery. That of a recipe that will always fill bellies, in bad times and good."
Aughtenbright kept talking. A second old man came out of the saloon. This one was fully clothed.
Aughtenbright turned to Hyacinth and asked, "Was it when we dined with General Carr that we last ate this stew? I seem to recall that it was."
"Wha . . . yes," Hyacinth replied.
The old men snorted in unison.
"We would be happy to share this recipe with you," Aughtenbright said, as a few passer-byers stopped to listen.
Sweetwell had in common with a great number of small towns that there was not a great deal of entertainment on offer of a Tuesday evening.
"Yes, we have discovered, through trial and tribulation, a recipe of plenty. A stew, gentlemen and dear ladies, that has a taste beyond all rival. Horseshoe Nail and Four Stone Stew. You, ma'am, have you heard of Horseshoe Nail Stew?" Aughtenbright directed his question at an older lady who was peering in his direction.
"No, I have not."
"Perhaps someone can lend us, for a short time, a large kettle of some kind?"
A small cat climbed down the steps of the saloon and joined the growing crowd around Aughtenbright.
"You can buy a new bathtub off'r me," red flannel man said.
A bathtub, thought Aughtenbright. Well, it's the only offer we've had in three days.
"I will purchase your bathtub," Aughtenbright said, "On the understanding that a fire be built, over which it will sit, here, in the street."
The store owner sold Aughtenbright the bath at an eye-watering price. Rauck went into the store and dragged the large tin tub, booming and thumping, into the street.
Next, Aughtenbright directed the creation of a long cooking fire, over which he propped the bathtub. The water from the livery stable pump was clear, and Hyacinth and Shannon (mostly Hyacinth) went to work filling the tub.
"Rauck, play us another tune," Aughtenbright suggested, and Rauck did.
Preacher, meanwhile, sat down on the edge of the town's short elevated sidewalk.
A woman, dressed in dark faded green and an outdated bonnet, retrieved the cat, shooting a glance in Preacher's direction.
Aughtenbright, meanwhile, smiled at a blonde woman.
"Fairest lady," Aughtenbright said, "would you care to assist us with this stew?"
"I would not," the lady said.
Aughtenbright nodded. With a flourish, he placed the four stones and nail into an almost clean handkerchief and tied it tight.
"The secret ingredients," he declared. He dropped the package into the tub now filled with warming water.
Shannon looked askance.
Some children came closer.
"Ah, how I look forward to making this stew again," Aughtenbright said, and, after just a little while, stirring the water, he inhaled deeply.
"Oh, I begin to smell the goodness. Come, Shannon, don't you smell it too? Come smell."
Shannon came and leaned over the bath tub.
"Yes," he said, "there is certainly something smelly going on."
Aughtenbright rolled his eyes. Then he grinned again. "I've just had a thought, an idea to improve the brew, although it is near divine already."
"What's that," a boy from the growing crowd asked.
"Well," said Aughtenbright, "I'm wondering if perhaps it wouldn't be even tastier if we added a few pinches of salt."
"But we do not have any salt," Rauck said.
"No," said Aughtenbright. And he looked at the boy who had spoken. "Would you happen to have any salt?"
"No," he said. "but maybe teacher does. Shall I ask her for you, mister?"
"That would be of great help," Aughtenbright said.
The little boy went to ask the teacher, who turned out to be the woman in green holding the cat, if she had any salt.
* * *
It went so quiet for a moment that the purring of the cat was all that could be heard.
Then, "I have some salt. I have a few old carrots too, if carrots might also be called for in your recipe."
Aughtenbright said most sincerely, "Dear lady, they would."
The teacher put the cat down and walked down the street to her home. She came back quickly with a small bunch of sad limp overwintered carrots and a cellar of salt.
As the teacher brought him the carrots and salt, she said under her breath to Aughtenbright, "I believe I know what you're doing."
Aughtenbright bowed, and cut the carrots into pieces into the pot. The teacher shook the contents of her small silver cellar into the water.
Then she turned and openly studied Preacher, who blushed.
The carrots began to cook. "Mmmmm," said Aughtenbright. "I can taste it already."
"I wonder," the teacher said, in a to-the-back-of-the-schoolhouse voice, "if perhaps a few potatoes are called for?"
"Potatoes improve anything," Hyacinth said.
"Sadly," the teacher said, "I do not have any potatoes. But I believe Mr. Alberts has."
Alberts, it transpired, was the older gentleman lounging in his flannel.
The schoolmarm said to him, "think how educational this will be for your grandchildren, to learn an entirely new way of making stew."
"For the girls, perhaps," said Mr. Alberts.
"And the boys," the schoolmarm said firmly.
"We would of course pay," Aughtenbright added.
Mr. Alberts went to the cold cellar underneath the general store and brought forth a small sack of small potatoes. Some were starting to sprout.
"Surely you're not going to charge these men for such pitiful specimens," the teacher said. "Have you no shame?"
Seeing his grandchildren watching him, Mr. Alberts gave Aughtenbright the potatoes to add to the stew. Aughtenbright was careful to remove any green from the potatoes before dropping them into the tub.
Preacher asked a student what the teacher's name was.
He was told, "Miss Ginny Johnson. She is an old maid."
"She looks to be a fine lady," Preacher said.
Aughtenbright continued to stir the pot. It takes a long time for a bathtub of water resting over a log fire in the middle of a street to start boiling, but this one was getting there.
"We have some squash," a girl said, "would they go well with your stew, mister?"
Soon the people of Sweetwell were giving Aughtenbright parsnips, dry beans and peas. They gave him old onions, and herbs that had hung from window sills through the winter and were faded yet still had some flavour to impart to the world. All these things were, it seemed, included in the recipe for Horseshoe Nail stew.
"But what about cabbage?" Rauck said.
Mary Rattle, the midwife, produced a jar of sauerkraut. In it went, into the stew, as Rauck led into singing:
Bile them cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round . . .
Soon the stew was boiling, its warm scent lifting into the air.
Lanterns were lit along the street.
Villagers stood and sat around the bathtub, having nothing better to do than watch and feel their stomach's growl.
"All right," Shannon said to Aughtenbright, "So you have a bit of the Blarney in you."
Said Aughtenbright, "I am a lawyer."
He scooped a bit of the stew into his cup and tested it.
"Nearly ready," he pronounced. He tested his luck, "I wonder if anyone has some bread or . . . hoe cakes?"
A big man who was missing his left arm stepped forward. "I have some bread," he said, "but I'm just learning how to bake. I was a blacksmith before the war and I'm afraid my bread tends to get a little . . . overdone."
"We can cut off the burnt bits," Aughtenbright said.
"I'm sure your bread'll be just grand," Shannon said.
The baker-blacksmith went and got his bread.
"Will the stew taste as good as it smells?" A boy's voice from the crowd asked. It was very dark now, except for the where the lanterns shone and the fire burned.
"I hope so," Aughtenbright said, and he added, "I thank you for allowing us to show you how to make Horseshoe Nail Stew."
"Four Stone and One Horseshoe Nail Stew," a girl's voice corrected him.
Aughtenbright scooped stew into Rauck's cup, and into Hyacinth's cup, and Shannon's cup, and Preacher limped over and his cup was filled too.
Aughtenbright slurped up a big mouthful of broth.
"Yum," Hyacinth said, and Shannon took a big bite out of a piece of bread.
It was not, in fact, the best stew ever tasted, but it was close.
After taking several more gulps, Aughtenbright realized that neither Rauck or Preacher were eating. And the crowd that had gathered was still there.
"What's the matter?" Aughtenbright asked.
"Is it really good?" a voice came from the shadows.
"It is," Aughtenbright said.
"It's been a long time since I had stew," a girl said.
Aughtenbright ate another mouthful, this one with carrot.
"Aughtenbright?" Rauck said.
Now Hyacinth wasn't eating either.
"Are we not sharing?" Rauck asked.
"Why would we?" Shannon said. "We made it. We never said we would share it."
* * *
Aughtenbright had been so busy thinking of how to get the stew made, he hadn't thought about sharing or not sharing, beyond his companions, at all. He looked at Rauck, and he looked at the stew in the bathtub. He looked at Preacher, who looked back at him.
Aughtenbright looked again at the bathtub of stew. There was a bathtub full of stew! He hadn't realized they had made so much.
"Of course we'll share," he said.
"What?" said Shannon, "Now hold on."
"Shannon . . . " Aughtenbright said.
Shannon said, "There are more people in this crowd than people who contributed to this stew."
"That's not the point."
"And what was it that you contributed, again?"
"I helped fill the tub," Shannon said. Which was true, to a point. "And I contributed one of the magic ingredients." Aughtenbright wouldn't argue that point, either.
"We'll want tables, and bowls and spoons," the blonde woman said. "Let's get the doors off the hinges and across the trestles, ladies."
"We won't eat on plain board," another lady said, "I'll fetch my tablecloths."
"And I'll get some pitchers so that we can have water at table," her friend said.
The deacon said, "I have some cider I could share." And he brought several jugs of fermented apples forth.
Soon, the road around the fire was all a jumble with tables, chairs and people.
The tables were covered with many different tablecloths. Some were plain, some checked, some fine, some rough, some embroidered only at the corners and some nearly all embroidery. One table was clothed with what looked quite a lot like window curtains.
Children added bouquets of early flowering weeds to the tables.
Mary Rattle added several dusty jars of preserves.
Two men brought out fiddles, and another an accordion.
Nearly everyone in the village now found some small way they could contribute to the feast. Those who didn't have any food or music to share helped by carrying and serving and keeping babies out of the fire.
There was one who did nothing at all but wait for food. It seems there is always one.
For now, Aughtenbright was ladling stew into bowls that the people of the village brought to him.
The deacon said a prayer. Then they all began to feast.
There was so much stew made from those four stones and that horseshoe nail that all who wanted second servings could have them, and even thirds.
With preserves to smear all over it, no one minded the bread was somewhat . . . dark.
Miss Johnson the teacher sat next to Mary Rattle and confided, "the oldest stranger reminds me of a man I once knew."
"That man is not well," Mary Rattle said.
"Yes, no," said Miss Johnson. "I wonder if I dare . . . "
Soon everyone was feeling much fuller and slightly sticky mouthed, and some were a little tipsy from the cider. There was talking and laughing. We won't mention again the state the deacon found himself in. Aughtenbright thought that perhaps Shannon even smiled, but it was more likely a trick of the light.
The light from the lanterns danced over the tables, and Sweetwell now looked a very merry town indeed, no longer the tired dusty thing it had been only an hour or two ago.
In the midst of this joy, a small boy toddled over to Preacher, wanting anyone to pick him up, as small children sometimes do.
* * *
Preacher gave a strangled gasp and scraped his chair back, lurched away into the dark up the street.
Ginny Johnson stood quickly, but Aughtenbright went after Preacher first.
As Aughtenbright came up alongside him, Preacher said, "He reminded me of my son."
Aughtenbright was glad of the darkness away from the party, because he was flushed with uncertainty, not knowing what was best to do. Preacher had never spoken of family before.
"Your son?" Aughtenbright asked.
"Tobias," Preacher said and his voice cracked his son's name in two. "One morning he was there in our yard, safe, and then he was gone. Just gone. How I looked for him! I still look for him. We never found a single sign. Not of man or beast. I . . . I searched. Days. Nights. I couldn't stop. Not until I came down with brain fever.
"He would wrap his arms around my neck and squeeze so hard he'd near to choke me. It would frighten me and I would pry him off and put him down. Now I just want to hold him again. That is all I want."
Preacher shuddered, grabbed onto Aughtenbright's cambric shirt and leaned his face against Aughtenbright's shoulder.
Aughtenbright, somewhat unnerved, put his arms around Preacher awkwardly.
After a moment, Preacher stepped away, rubbed his face and gave Aughtenbright a little smile. "And I'd like to get back east, too."
Ginny came out from the gloom, took Preacher's hand and led him into her small house without a word.
He is my friend, Aughtenbright thought. I am glad, though not glad of this sorrow.
Aughtenbright returned to the party.
The men with fiddles and accordion got the people dancing. Aughtenbright, trying to shake off sentiment, was soon dancing with the blonde. He saw Rauck tripping over a pretty girl's limbs, as Hyacinth was caught up in a widow's glee. Shannon leaned close to speak with the baker.
The dancing and the music went on and on. A dog chased bread crumbs across one of the tables with its tongue.
Mr. Alberts, taking another quaff of cider, generously agreed to purchase the bath tub back from Aughtenbright for almost half its original selling price.
* * *
At last weariness settled over the town. At the end of the celebration, Rauck led them all in singing "Home Sweet Home." The notes and voices reached into the night, where Miss Johnson still held Preacher's hand.
All the five soldiers found a place to rest, all full and happy, more or less.
* * *
In the morning, not too early, five travelling soldiers bid goodbye to Sweetwell.
"Perhaps you could stay here, Mister Byrne," Ginny said to a freshly-bandaged Preacher as he stood on her porch, hat in hand.
"I started along a course, I'll do my best to see it through," Preacher said.
"Well go on then, if you're going," Ginny said. "See these boys safe home."
"Yes ma'am," Preacher said.
Ginny went back inside her house and closed the door.
Aughtenbright took Preacher's pack from him and transferred its contents amongst his and those of the other three, despite Preacher's objections.
"Thank you," Preacher said, eventually.
As they were leaving, the baker shouted after them, "Bless you!"
And the rest of Sweetwell joined in offering well wishes, as, with a wave, the five set out eastward once more.
V.T. Dorchester is the buckskin-wearing alter ego of a millennial plains-city raised writer. They now live in a small valley town in British Columbia, Canada. Their work has been published in Running Wild Anthology of Stories - Volume 3; and Havik. Follow their digital trail on twitter @VtDorch.
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by Dave Barr
Al Ramsey rode the mare slowly into the single long street of the village of Marimont, Texas and reined in to look the place over. What he saw wasn't particularly encouraging; the town buildings were all unpainted clapboards, sanded smooth by windblown dust, and baked dry by the west Texas sun. The few people visible didn't seem eager to make the cowboy's acquaintance. They either averted their heads or busied themselves with some little task as he rode by. Al ignored the lack of welcome though. He hadn't come to Marimont to make friends. The hungry cowpoke was just looking for a bar where he could get a free lunch and a cool drink to wash it down with before moving on.
The drifter spotted a free lunch sign up the street at a place called the Knuckleduster Saloon, so he looped the mare's reins around a post on the shady side of the building and sauntered up some steps and through the swinging doors. Heads turned and conversation ceased when Al entered the room, and there was a flurry of motion as the two-dollar whores scurried for the back room and the half-breed swamper fearfully ducked behind the bar. "Must not see many strange faces in here," Al thought as he ordered a beer, and surveyed the platters of free lunch on the sideboard. "Well, let 'em have their look as long as I get to eat!"
The barkeep nervously asked for payment for the beer and flinched as Al reached for a coin. The man suspiciously bit the money before drawing the lager and sliding the foaming schooner the length of the bar. Al cut the dust with a long drink, then wiped the foam from his lips as he turned to the sideboard and began building himself a sandwich, piling meat and cheese on a slab of fresh bread as he wondered about the odd silence that seemed to be centered on his presence. "Hey, bartender," he finally asked as he slathered mustard on his creation. "Why are these hombres so interested in me?"
The man smiled nervously as he fiddled with something under the bar. "Oh, they just didn't expect to see ya around Marimont, is all."
Al was puzzled by this answer, but he turned to the room and said loudly, "Well, let 'em get a good gander, so I kin get on with my lunch."
The cowboy heard a scraping sound behind him, and when he looked around, he was staring into the double barrels of a sawed-off shotgun wielded by the barman, "Now don't you move, Grady!" The barkeep squeaked as he nervously pointed the hand cannon at Al. "You shoulda knowed better than to come back here so soon!" The nervous bartender kicked at something behind the bar, "Now, Poncho, you run get Sheriff Moss right away. Tell 'im Grady Hawkins is here! Hurry boy, run!" The kid scooted out from behind the bar and ran to the swinging doors before looking back. Poncho seemed to be expecting something, but when Al didn't react the young half-breed took off down the street.
Al's jaw sagged, "What in tarnation is going on?" He asked in amazement. "Why 're you calling me Grady?"
"Now don't start that with us!" The barkeep answered. "We knows who you are, Grady Hawkins! You kilt a man in here two weeks ago! Now you just settle yourself down. The sheriff'll be here in a minute, and he'll take care of you!"
The drifter looked at the quivering shotgun barrels and decided not to antagonize the nervous liquor jockey. "Ya mind if I eat my lunch?" Al asked slowly. "I hate talkin' to the sheriff with my mouth full." This request wasn't what the barkeeper expected, but he assented with a curt nod without lowering the shotgun, and Al dug into his sandwich and beer. The cowboy was just polishing off the last of his food and drink when Poncho returned with the sheriff.
Al almost choked when the sheriff of Marimont pushed through the swinging doors. Sheriff Moss was five feet six in his boots, bald as a cue ball, and had a bad case of Dunlap's disease that caused his enormous belly to sag over the two gunbelts that were lurking somewhere under the flab. The sheriff took one look at Al and paled. "Gawd damn! It's him!" he exclaimed nervously as he pawed for one of his guns.
Al leaned against the bar, and tried to smile reassuringly. "Sheriff, these people seem to have me confused—"
"Just hold it right there, mister!" The sheriff interrupted as he finally got one of his guns out. "You're under arrest for the murder of Dunn Carlton, right here in this very room!" The sheriff cocked the revolver. "Now, you can march to the jailhouse, or ah can plug you where you stand!"
Al could see this situation was deteriorating rapidly, and since he had no other option, he raised his hands slowly and asked, "Which way is the jail, sheriff?"
Sheriff Moss laughed as he gestured with his pistol, "As if you don't know, Grady! We ain't moved it since your last stay! Now you just keep them hands where I kin see 'em, while Poncho there takes yer gunbelt off ya." Al slowly raised his hands and stood as still as he could while the kid edged up and slowly unbuckling his holstered Remington. "Be careful with that, kid," the cowboy said. "It's got a real light trigger an' I won't want anyone hurt."
"I will be extra careful, señor," the kid said as he carefully wrapped the belt around the pistol.
Once Al was disarmed, the sheriff bustled up and prodded him with his revolver. "Okay, you ornery polecat, let's move."
Al started walking followed by the sheriff, with Poncho carrying the wrapped gunbelt bringing up the rear. As the trio passed Al's tethered horse, he decided to make another try at clearing this business up. "Sheriff, that claybank mare there is my horse. In the saddlebags are my discharge papers from where I was in the General Crooks 3rd Cavalry—"
"Oh, you don't need to worry about yer horse, Grady," the sheriff interrupted. "I'll be seein' to it personally, so's it'll be in top notch shape fer the auction!" The fat sheriff laughed as he steered Al down the boardwalk with his pistol, "Ya know I might make enough from the sale o' yer effects to pay fer the hangin' and buryin'!" The sheriff chuckled again, and ten minutes later Al was sitting on a sagging cot in a crummy cell in the Marimont jail. The cell door closed with a clang, and the sheriff pocketed the door key, "You just get comfy there, Grady," he grinned. "I got to go take care o' yer animal," he said as left the office.
Al Ramsey was not a stranger to small town lock-ups, but the Marimont jail was really one of the least distinguished he had ever been incarcerated in. The cot he was sitting on wobbled dangerously when he moved, and the bucket he was supposed to do his business in leaked. There was no glass in the tightly barred window of the cell, and all the flies and mosquitos that couldn't find a meal outdoors freely buzzed in to dine on him. Al picked up his bedding and shook it out, only to be further dismayed by the collection of six and eight legged creatures he had disturbed. The cowboy was eyeing his sorry excuse for a blanket when a noise drew his attention, and he looked up to see Poncho watching him from the doorway. The kid was still clutching Al's pistol protectively, "You really are not Mr. Grady Hawkins, are you?" he asked quietly.
Al frowned, "No, kid, I ain't, but I can't get that blamed sheriff of yours to listen to reason."
"Although you look just like him, I knew something was wrong as soon as you stepped into the Knuckleduster," the kid grinned. "Mr. Grady Hawkins always threatened to beat me when he caught me in there, but Caleb the bartender always let me work, so I took the chance."
Al walked two paces to the front of the cell, "Hey, kid, tell that to the Sheriff."
Poncho looked surprised, "Oh I couldn't do that yet, señor. The town will never forgive me for robbing them of the spectacle of a trial! It will be like a Fourth of July fiesta!"
Al plopped down on the sorry excuse for a cot which swayed dangerously under his weight. "Well that's just great," he sighed. "The only way I'll get out of this mess is if the real Grady Hawkins shows up." The cowboy started to ask Poncho for a broom to sweep out his cell, but the half-breed kid was gone and so was his gun.
Sheriff Moss looked in on the prisoner as soon as he returned from stabling the cowboy's mount, and Al was relieved to see that the sheriff was peering near-sightedly at his discharge papers. "Wal," the fat lawman began, "I had a look in yer saddlebags, partner, an' if'n these don't lie it 'pears we've made a hell of a mistake."
Al sighed in relief, "Then I can go?"
The fat lawman smiled sadly, "Wal . . . ," he looked at the papers again to check the name, "Mr. Albert Ramsey, here's the thing . . . " The Sheriff pulled a straight-backed chair around and straddled it so his short arms spanned the back. "Grady Hawkins is a real proud sombitch who's terrorized this town fer years." He nodded in the direction of the saloon. "I was plum amazed when I heard that ol' Caleb got the drop on ya, and even more surprised when Poncho said ya didn't shoot him fer his trouble."
"Well if you know I ain't yer man, then why ain't you letting me outta here?" Al asked angrily.
Sheriff Moss, chewed the inside of his lip and spat on the floor, "I was wonderin' if I could convince you to stay on in Marimont fer a few days, maybe a week, as a sorta special deputy."
The Sheriff laughed, "Ya see, it won't be long till Grady hears he's been 'arrested.' Man like that, as proud as he is, won't want some other sombitch gettin' credit fer his crimes. He likes to lord 'em over folks. Builds his reputation, if'n ya know what ah mean."
Al was starting to see the light now, "You want me to sit in this cell and hope it draws this Hawkins out of hiding!"
The Sheriff grinned, "Wal, I knew you'd see reason! Son, I kin pay ya ten dollars to sit here fer a week, or you kin fuss and bother about things an' I'll just go away till you get hungry, then offer ya the same deal." He stood up to leave, "It's up to you."
Al realized he had no cards to play and folded, "Okay, sheriff, but I want my pistol back, my horse taken care of, an' a better bed to sleep on!"
The fat sheriff scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. "Wal, I kin help wit' two outta three o' those requests . . . " he said. "Don't know where Poncho put your gun, have to ask 'im when ah see 'im next." The sheriff opened another cell and took out the bedding which he passed through the bars to Al. "Since your sorta special, I think we can give ya a double mattress an' blanket, and ah already seen to you animal," he grinned. "I reckon now there ain't nothing we can do but wait."
Time passes slowly when you're locked up in a tiny ill-lighted cell. Sheriff Moss insisted that Al be shown no other special considerations since the public had to think he was really Grady Hawkins. The fat sheriff made a big deal of Al's arrest, and even sent a messenger for the Circuit Judge to come to Marimont to preside over a trial. But Al began to get concerned when Sheriff Moss announced that he was hiring a carpenter to set up a temporary gallows.
"How do I know you won't just string me up instead of this Hawkins?" The cowboy asked as he nervously peeked out his cell window to watch the Mexican carpenter hammering at some lumber.
Sheriff Moss leaned back in his chair and slurped cooling coffee off a saucer as he eyed another breakfast roll, "Wal, ya don't," he said pleasantly as he selected a pastry and took a bite. "What if," the Sheriff said as he chewed, "Grady Hawkins was some sort o' relative o' mine?" He grinned and brushed crumbs off his shirt front. "Or maybe the two o' us were in some crooked deal together, an' that's why I never managed to catch 'im when he was in town?"
Al looked at the Sheriff in horror, "That can't be true," he said flatly.
The fat man chewed contentedly and swallowed. "Naw," he belched. "Ain't true at all." But by Friday the gallows were finished, the judge had arrived, and there was still no sign of Grady Hawkins.
Saturday morning arrived, and Al was awakened by voices coming from the sheriff's office. A lawyerly looking man dressed in a black suit was speaking to Sheriff Moss, "Is he really in there?"
"Shore 'nuff judge," the sheriff answered, and Al heard a chair scrape on the floor as the fat man stood up. "Come on, take a look." Al sat up on his rickety cot just as two heads peeked around the doorway. "See?" Sheriff Moss said.
"I'll be damned!" the Judge said. "Never would have thought . . . " The rest of the conversation was lost on Al as the two men walked out of the office, but the drifter's fear of being hung for another man's crimes increased, because he noticed the Sheriff hadn't mentioned the discharge papers, and that Judge had certainly thought he was Grady Hawkins.
Sheriff Moss returned before lunch with a younger man toting a shotgun. "I'd like ya to make the acquaintance of Special Deputy Jimmy Fallon," the Sheriff grinned and winked, "He's gonna escort ya to your trial," he said as he opened the cell door.
Al stood up, "Sheriff, this has gone on long enough—"
"Yer absolutely right," the xheriff answered sharply. "Deputy Fallon, if'n this man opens his fool mouth one more time you have my permission to bust 'im."
That floored Al almost as much as a real blow would have done. The deputy motioned with the shotgun. "Okay, tough guy, let's take a walk," he said as the Sheriff opened the office door and checked to see if the coast was clear. The largest room in Marimont was the Knuckleduster saloon, and that was where the trial of Grady Hawkins was going to be held. The town was either too cheap or too poor to afford a pair of handcuffs, so Sheriff Moss and the deputy led Al up the street for all the Saturday rubberneckers to gawk at. Al was in no hurry and walked so slowly that the deputy prodded him with the shotgun. "Keep movin' mister," he growled, and the cowboy stepped faster, wishing like hell he had never thought to stop in this lousy flea-bitten town.
As the little procession neared the saloon, Al noticed Poncho sitting by the swinging doors with a lunch basket on his lap and wondered again what the kid had done with his pistol. Poncho smiled and waved a half-eaten tortilla, "Go with God señor!" He said excitedly before ducking into the bar. The lawmen were hustling their charge up the steps of the bar when a hue and cry erupted from somewhere down the street.
Al looked up to see five masked men galloping their horses toward them. The riders were whooping and shouting curses as they fired indiscriminately, forcing the good people of Marimont to duck into buildings or dive behind wagons for cover. Sheriff Moss frowned at the hurricane of dust and bullets blowing up his street, and tried to pull one of his pistols, but his flabby belly got in the way, and a ricochet struck his bald head, knocking the lawman down before he could get the gun clear. With the sheriff down, and a storm of horsemen approaching, Deputy Fallon opted for discretion, and dove behind a watering trough, leaving Al standing alone on the steps. The cowboy was thinking that now might be the best time to get the hell out of Marimont, but before he could act on his inclination, one of the masked riders galloped up and pulled his bandanna down.
Al stared into his own face. Grady Hawkins had come for the trial after all. "So, you're the piss-willy varmint 'at's been pretendin' to be me!" Hawkins shouted as he leveled a revolver at the surprised drifter, "Wal, 'at's gonna stop right now!"
The cowboy reacted instinctively, diving through the swing doors of the saloon as two bullets whined passed him. Al plowed through the sawdust on the floor, and came up looking into the smiling face of Poncho who offered him his lunch basket. There nestled among the tortillas and dried prickly pears was Al's Remington! The cowboy snatched up the weapon, and hurriedly strapped the holster around his waist, sighing with relief as he checked the gun's loads, and tried to think what to do next.
Grady Hawkins peered from the back of his animal into the bar's darkness and shouted. "C'mon out ya' rat-bastard!" But when this insult didn't evoke a response, the furious owlhoot kicked his horse's flanks, urging the beast up the steps, and through the swinging doors. Al didn't have time to aim as the horse burst into the saloon with a raving maniac on its back. He pointed the Remington and touched the hair trigger. The gun cracked off a round and the horse collapsed, but Hawkins threw himself clear of the dying beast while Al sprinted outside, only to realize he had traded the frying pan for the fire.
With their lawman down, the citizens of Marimont had grabbed their own firearms, and had begun trading pot-shots with the riders in the street. The gunfire had claimed two of the masked men, and the others were just vamoosing when Al appeared, and the well-meaning citizens turned their fire on the man they had been told was Grady Hawkins.
Al ducked behind a nearby freight wagon, wondering how he could get out of this mess. Chunks of wood flew as the wagon began to take hits, and just when the drifter thought things couldn't get worse, the swinging doors of the Knuckleduster parted, and Grady Hawkins himself stepped into the noonday sunlight. At the outlaw's appearance the gunfire first slackened, and then halted all together as the townspeople realized there were two identical targets before them, but which man was the real Grady Hawkins?
The outlaw spotted Al, and smiled as he slowly reloaded his pistol, "Boy, you just cost me a good horse, and two o' my best outriders," he said as he closed the cylinder with a snap, "Now I done a lot o' things in my life, but I ain't never kilt a man 'at looks like me . . . " and he started down the steps toward Al, "till now."
The cowboy thought about running, but there was nowhere to go, so Al stood up and took a position in the middle of the dusty street facing his antagonist. Hawkins paused, and his eyes narrowed when he saw what Al intended, then he smiled thinly and spoke, "So, you think you're fast enough to take me, huh?"
The drifter cracked the knuckles on his gun hand and nodded. "Reckon we'll found out."
Hawkins nodded, "Fair 'nuff," he said, and walked toward the middle of the street. But before he had gone more than a couple of paces, the outlaw spun and raised his pistol, only to discover that Al was ready for him. The cowboy slapped leather, raising and firing the Remington all in one motion, and the bullet hit Grady Hawkins high in the chest, knocking him full length into the dust of the street. The outlaw lay on his back, twitching in a spreading pool of blood as the townsfolk gathered around to gawk. "Better hold that trial soon," someone said, "'fore he bleeds to death."
Somebody fetched Doc Smithers who patched up the Sheriff and staunched the outlaw's wound. The judge was already on hand, but there was a dead horse in the proposed courtroom, so they held the trial of Grady Hawkins on the steps of the Knuckleduster. The evidence was overwhelming, and after the judge pronounced sentence Deputy Fallon hustled the condemned man to the gallows. Al and Poncho were watching the show from the steps of the saloon while they munched on prickly pear wrapped in fresh tortillas when the sheriff slouched up wearing a new white bandage around his bald head. "Tol' ya he'd come," the fat man laughed weakly as he handed Al his ten dollars. "Now, what're ya goin' do next, young fella?"
Al took the money and gave half to the surprised Poncho, "Leave town an' grow a beard," he said as he headed toward the livery stable to collect his mare.
Dave Barr has written several stories for both Frontier Tales and Outlaws Echo, and recently had a book length
collection of tales posted on Amazon. He currently has another collection of stories ready for publishing.
Dave lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he grows his own vegetables and plans his next trip west of the Mississippi.
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