Bobcats and Wild Hogs
by J. David Thayer
Snow began fallin that afternoon. The sort a storm that pounds for hours. By morning the ground would be hidden under eight inches a new snow. Pa'd come home just before dark but he never took off his coat.
I could hear him and Mama fighting in the bedroom. Weren't nothing new. Usually when they'd start in I'd head out ta the shed and go back ta working hides. Tanning's hard work but it keeps ya focused on what you's doin. I's pretty good at it. But I didn't do that this time. I stayed an listened. They's somethin different in they voices I'd never heard before. Caught my attention. They's desperate, but not like cause we was hungry or couldn't pay the note. I know what that sounds like. This was somethin different. It bothered me and it should have. I caught some of what they's sayin through the walls.
"Stephen! Ya can't shoot em all, damn it! They'll kill you an then they'll find us! An ya know what they'll do to us! To our children!"
"That's why I have to go, Jean. Comes to us either way. Ain't no other shelter for a thousand acres in ever direction. They know their way about these woods an they'll find us. This way I catch 'em unawares. I got plenty a shells. I can do it. It's our only chance anyway."
"They's a dozen of em if they's two! How many shots ya think you c'n get off fore they kill you?"
"I'm doing this and there's an end to it!"
The door opened.
"Jeremiah! You been listening to things ya ain't supposed to, boy?"
"I reckon." Why fear a whoopin now?
"Snot-nosed bastard! Always was a mama's boy. Fact is I don't know as you has any a me in ya at all. But we ain't got time ta sort that out. Right now ya need to know some things. Listen ta me. The Morley Gang's back. They's down by the creek right now. Spotted 'em when I made my last pick right before I come in. That blizzard comin is serious. They'll need outta the snow come mornin an that'll drive 'em straight here. Member when they come through Springfield last summer, don't cha?"
I did. A course I did. We all knew what they done. Farmers an ranchers hanged an butchered an all their stores pillaged. Barns set afire an nothin left alive on the place but those flames ablazin away, licking on the bones of another ruined homestead. You'd see the smoke off in the distance an follow it an always find the same thing but too late ta help. An if ya coulda gotten there, you'd be just as dead right along with 'em. We knowed all a them families and a couple of they kids was good friends a mine.
"Then you know why I have ta go down there an kill 'em all."
That was a crazy idea, but I did understand. What the hell else could he do? Just one a them things can't be helped. Seem like sometimes the only thing they is ta do is head straight off inta hell, bent on doin somethin ya already knowed ya can't. Ya gonna lose an ya gonna go anyway. It's bad luck, I guess, but that don't change the facts.
"Ya have ta protect ya mama an Little Anna. An I need ya ta tend them traps we set on the west ridge too. Good chance we snagged a cat up that way. Seen some tracks two mornings back. That snow'll ruin the pelt fore it thaws. Can't wait. Now we done good this winter. They's money enough to make it well inta spring. Hear me, boy?"
That was the last thing he ever said ta me. I was just as scared as Mama but I knowed more words wouldn't change nothin. Words. My grandad always said: ya can cook bacon, but ya can't cook a promise. Finally made some sense. Pa picked up his thirty aught six an three boxes a shells an he headed out into the cold an the dark. Little Anna began to sob. I lied to her an promised everything would be alright.
* * *
Leghold traps don't care who ya are or what y'are. Step on one an it bites ya. Squirrels an rabbits found 'em often enough an theys good eatin. But bobcat is the real prize. Fifty good rabbits can't match one decent bobcat. A good pelt'd fetch twenty dollars in cash an twice that in trade. But sometimes the traps also caught wild hogs. They's dangerous an useless besides. We never et 'em. No one ever et 'em I ever heard about.
When I's young I asked Pa why we weren't gonna eat a hog we just shot when I knowed we hungry an broke an he said it was on account a hogs is dirty an evil. Said they has a piece a the devil inside 'em an if you et one you'd be the same way. Worse off than starvin. Nobody on the mountain eats them hogs. Don't matter how lean the crops come in. If they sprung a trap, ya always found em alive an snarlin an eager ta rip ya asunder. I looked a few in the eyes a time or two an I seen what Pa was talkin about. Feral but more'n that. Legion's livestock. The other animals know it same as Pa. If ya found one in a trap ya shot it from a ways off an then drug it off somewheres an not even the coyotes or buzzards would get after it. Carcass would just lay right there where you left it, stinkin an rottin an still whole until all the flesh withered up an the bones bleached in the sun. Look like a new dinosaur after about two months or so. An still you steered clear of it.
Pa was a superstitious man. Winter told him everthin he needed ta know about the year ahead. If the traps caught hogs, he knowed we was in for hard times. Started puttin back extra grain an stashin coins in coffee cans and whatnot. But if we happened to bag a bobcat, Pa'd feel real good about things. He'd get a little spendy an each a us'd get a few extras here an there. It really didn't make no sense ta me, but somehow things did normally seem ta line up about like Pa said they would. If you was of a mind ta look at it that a way. I always thought it said more about Pa than it did anything else, but it pro'ly never said nothin about anything either way. But I drank my root beer when he'd buy me some just the same.
* * *
Morning came an I did what I's told. Like I tried ta do ever day. I headed off in the general direction of the west ridge, but findin the traps amongst the drifts was not gonna be easy. The sun was bright on the snow an it was hard ta see. I squinted hard against it. When I shut out as much light as I could an quit tryin ta see anything at all, I smelled it for the first time. A faint whiff a smoke on the wind an some other stench I couldn't quite place. Death an heat an old somehow. I forced open my eyes an I looked around the ridge with my hands cupped over my forehead. I seen a campfire in a clearing some five-hundred yards away. Men were there. Pa was there.
Couldn't make sense a none of it. I knowed Pa's coat even at that distance. The creek where they's supposed ta be was three miles off t'other way. They shoulda not been there at all. As for what Pa was doin' in they camp was somethin' else altogether. I figured he needed savin an I was readyin m'self ta try. Maybe he'd got off a few shots an then they took him. That had ta be it. That or somethin like it. But Pa shore didn't look it. He just set there same as the rest of 'em.
I crouched as low as I could manage an made for the treeline. They didn't make me. Trappers know how ta move quietly in the woods. I had enough cover ta sneak up on 'em near as fifty yards or so. I set there watchin the Morley Gang an my Pa an what theys doin and I couldn't half believe none of it. Theys right there in front a me, but it weren't even real. None of it. If not for the cold up ta ma knees I'd a thought I's home abed an dreamin. But I wasn't. It was real alright.
Two facts was as clear as sun comin up and I had ta catch up ta both of em real quick. Either one of 'em woulda been more'n enough for one day. The first un was Pa never went out inta them woods ta kill nobody in the Morley Gang. Oh, no. He was in the gang hisself. No doubt about that. Truth is, they looked like they's followin his lead if anything. The second fact mighta been even worse. They's all settin around that fire eatin, an over that fire they had a wild hog turnin on they spit. An they was lickin they fingers an gobblin at the bones like watermelon rind in late summer. An they couldn't seem ta get enough of it. Like hog grease was gold an eating gold was the best thing a man could ever do. I seen a lot a hunger in my day an they beat everthing. Pa most of all.
Suddenly Pa looks over in my direction. I ducked down under a boulder real quick an then I peaked up over it again. He was still lookin my way. I sorta eased up an sat up straight an tried ta work out whether he's really looking at me or just at somethin else in the woods. Then I swear he nodded at me. Not sos anybody else in the camp'd notice. Just a little. An then he nodded with his head ta point me back down the trail the way I come in. Sendin me back home. Was this always the plan?
I left out quiet as I could. But when I felt I's far enough away, I ran as hard as I could, in the knee-deep snow, carvin' out post holes with ever step. I's crying while I's running an I never knowed a person could do that. At first I's confused an then I wasn't confused no more. I's absolutely sure. An bein sure was way worse'n not understanding an still feeling good about keepin some doubt. Old mysteries about my pa began ta solve themselves in my mind. Pa was gone sometimes an no one ever knowed where. Sometimes clothes were bloodied when he come home from trappin an they's burned rather'n washed. Hard as we had ta work ta get clothes at all made ya notice things like that. An more'n all a that, an because a all that, I knowed one thing more: he was leadin his gang away from us, but Pa was sayin goodbye in doin it. He wanted me ta find em settin there sos I'd know it an could tell it without anybody arguin about it.
* * *
I got back ta the cabin outta all the breath I'd normally collect an spend in a week's time, an I told Mama the truth Pa wanted her ta know. Said I'd seen the Morley Gang shoot Pa an drag his body off somewheres down the mountain. We'd never find it an there weren't no point in lookin for it. I held her as she sobbed an I told her everything'd be alright an I believed that. But Mama use ta hep him burn all them clothes an she never wanted ta talk about why he went missing ever so often. So who knows what she knowed an didn't know this whole time. Me least of all. I'll just let that simmer.
After Ma got out a good cry she went into Little Anna's room an told her Pa weren't coming back. That was more'n I wanted to see an I'd seen plenty that mornin. I slipped outside an finished checking the traps up along t'other side of our land. As far away from the west ridge as I could get without trespassin. Some traps was disturbed too. Good signs.
We stayed pretty steady from that day after. Enough rabbits an squirrels ta get us by alright, along with Pa's money tucked away. I knowed about his coffee cans an I think he wanted me to. Made it to spring, anyway, an then we was in the clear. Even though nothing really changes, everything always feels easier once spring gets here.
Never saw a bobcat that whole winter. Still ain't seen one. Not even tracks. But they'll be back one day, I expect. They ain't really left, truth told. Seen some hogs though, crossin the west ridge. They say they's more these days than they usta be. Invasive. Long shadows at dusk. Squeals in the dark. Fields all tore up come mornin. They stop to rest a spell an ya feel it all up ya neck. But it don't last. Wait it out, I learnt. Breathe an stay quiet. Wait and watch. Soon enough they'll head off somewheres else.
J. David Thayer is an educator living in Texas. His works have appeared in 24-Hour Short Story Contest (2nd Place), The First Line, The Last Line, Fantasy/Sci-Fi Film Festival, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bewildering Stories, 101 Word Stories, Tall Tale TV, Black Petals, Farther Stars Than These, Terror House Magazine, 50-Word Stories, The Drabble, 365 Tomorrows, 42 Stories Anthology, Scarlet Leaf Review, Sirens Call eZine, Teleport Magazine, Sci-Fi Lampoon, The Free Bundle, Piker Press, and Pilcrow & Dagger.
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For Sapphires and Gold
by G. D. McFetridge
The two men were dusty, faces browned by the summer sun, their muscles corded and lean. Hard work and sweat soiled their tattered clothes and their leather boots had worn thin. The sun, approaching the shadowless hour of midday, had turned hot and as the two men led their mules through a stand of ponderosa pines, ticks and chiggers waited in the trailside brush; gnats sought the moisture of their eyes and hungry deerflies buzzed the backs of their necks and arms, yet no matter how vigorously the men swatted, the flies were too quick.
The men had once been young and strong but they had searched the mountains for sapphires and gold for such a long time they weren't so young anymore. For a time they'd had a helper and his name was Joady, but after three years without a gold strike or that dreamed of vein of sapphires, Wayman told the young man to take a job of work as floor-sweep and keg-tender at the Iron Door Saloon. Joady was glad whenever his two old friends came to town, pleased to say hello and ask if their luck had changed. Today the weary and disheartened looks on their faces told him that nothing so good had happened.
"Levi! Wayman!" Joady hollered, standing tall and gangly, the saloon doors swinging behind him on squeaky hinges. "I didn't notice when you first came to town but I hear you had business at the assay office. Maybe I'd come back to work for you now."
Wayman and Levi had taken Joady in after his father died from a rattlesnake bite six years ago. Time had not diminished the young man's affection for his two old friends.
"You're doing just fine where you are," Wayman said. "Let them rich prospectors fill your pockets with tips. Working the mountains is feverishly hard and a mighty long gamble and the gamble ain't been overly kind to me and Levi."
"I was discouraged on account of no luck."
"Don't think on it," Wayman said. "Standing in your boots I'd done the same."
"I got myself worried, that's all . . . but maybe I'd come back."
"No, no, the assay office paid us scant little for our ore," Wayman insisted. "Hardly worth the effort to haul it. And we ain't laid eyes on any sapphires."
"Come in then and let me buy you both a beer," Joady said and gestured to the door.
"Now there's a fine idea. So get on now and show us the way inside."
The men tied off their mules and sat at the long wooden bar. On the wall hung the head of a grizzly, his beady eyes fixed in an unconscious gaze. Working men and prospectors were drinking and talking loud. One prospector claimed he'd found a gold nugget big as a chicken's egg. Another said a large grizzly had raided supplies from a lumberjack camp just across the Idaho border. Wayman's brow scrunched up as he listened.
Joady distracted him. "Could I order you supplies for next time?" he asked, pulling a pencil from behind his ear. "The stage comes twice a month now."
Wayman shrugged. "What we need is luck but I don't reckon luck has ever come to town on no stage."
Men sitting nearby laughed and laughter spread from one man to the next, and when the laughter quieted, Levi said, "You bought us beers Joady boy, that's all any man can ask. Day after tomorrow we'll be back in them mountains, in them dry canyons hoping that luck ain't forsaken us altogether."
"Remember how it was when you first took me in?"
Levi considered the question for a moment. "After a fashion I do, but things was better back then. There was reason to reckon favorably on a man's chances. We figured to make such a big strike that a third would be bigger than a half."
Men laughed again. Wayman rubbed his knuckles against his whiskery chin. "Do you remember when that big mountain cat came after the pack animals and mistook you for a two-legged donkey?"
Joady grinned. "I just about soiled my trousers when he charged out of that brush. Only Levi's deadly eye stopped him. I still remember the high stink of that dead cat."
"Sometimes I wonder if I remember or if I just remember Levi telling it. He's told that story fifty times to those who'd listen."
"I remember everything about them years," Joady said. "Sometimes I figure they was the best years of my life."
"You're too young to seen your best years," Levi said. "Wait till your chin whiskers go gray and you're stove in a bit."
"Let me come back. I got a feeling your luck will change."
"Don't think there's no charm in your offer, Joady, but you stay put," Wayman said. "Let's have us another beer. And maybe a round of whiskeys."
The next morning Joady walked with his two friends and when they finally reached the trailhead, Joady glanced at Wayman. "I got no work tomorrow. I could walk with you today and head back to town in the morning. Plus I brought something you like." Joady reached into his pocket for a square of chewing tobacco.
"Well then," Wayman said, "I reckon you'll walk with us."
Joady tossed the tobacco to Wayman and he bit off a chunk and passed it to Levi. Levi did the same and then put the tobacco in his pocket. Heavy clouds were building the southeast. Levi shaded his eyes. "Maybe we'll get a thundershower later today."
Joady swatted at a deerfly. "Rain is okay but I'd rather not see any hungry bears."
Levi spit. "In my younger days I once run across a grizzly that stood twelve feet and weighed no less than two mules. Fortunately, I was riding a fast horse."
Wayman looked at Joady. "There ain't so many grizzlies nowadays. Most of them been shot and skinned, except up in Canada, up in those Rocky Mountains."
"Could your rifle bring down a grizzly, Levi?" Joady wanted to know.
"The shot would have to be dead straight. A grizzly's skull's so thick, if a bullet strikes poorly it'll glance off. Then he'll kill you just for spite."
By late afternoon, the sun was not so hot and the trail began switch backing up a high finger-like ridge. Beyond the ridge was a broad meadow with a meandering creek but the water was running low except for pools where spring floods had cut deep. Wayman called ahead to Levi to water the mules. Levi waved his acknowledgement. The creases in his forehead were grimy with sweat and powdery dust. He pulled his mule's lead rope and started across the meadow to the creek. A blue jay lit in a pine and squawked.
"Why not camp here tonight." Wayman said. "The pass is a hard climb still and it wouldn't do for me to walk much longer. The mules can graze all night."
Levi nodded. "I lack the spunk myself and there's soreness in my feet. Don't reckon I'm fit for much more service."
"I'll gather up firewood," Joady offered and started across the meadow toward a dead tree.
Wayman unstrapped the heavy pack and let it slide off his mule. Levi removed his rifle from the canvas sheath tied to his pack. It was a big bore single shot. He aimed at an imaginary target in the distance. "Maybe was I to circle the meadow, I'd spot something for dinner," he said.
Wayman chuckled. "Go shoot us a fat turkey and I'll get to hobbling the mules."
As Levi headed up the trail, Joady was busy chopping up branches with a hand axe. Ten minutes later he returned with a bundle. "This piney kindling will make a good blaze," he said.
Wayman kicked at the dry weeds. "Yup . . . but first we need a firebreak."
The mules had moved upstream and were grazing on greener grass nearer the creek's edge. Wayman untied a short handled shovel from his pack and began a clearing for the fire, while Joady collected rocks and built a ring. Levi was working his way through the shadowed tree line.
"If you made a big strike, would you take me back?" Joady asked.
Wayman, satisfied with the firebreak he'd made, leaned on the shovel. "A big strike would make enough to go around even and square. We'd need plenty of help just to haul all that gold to town."
"Or maybe sacks full of blue-sparkly sapphires." Joady smiled and began chopping branches into fire-size lengths. The sun was just over the western peaks and high feathery clouds had turned orange, highlighted in amber and rose.
"Do you figure Levi will shoot something for dinner?" Joady asked.
"I'm inclined to doubt it. We're not lucky in gold or turkeys. And I don't see Levi is light-footed enough to sneak up on a deer. I'd settle for a fat tree squirrel."
"What will that leave us to eat?"
"Don't worry, on account I put up a few days' worth of sweet corn fritters. Maybe if we was to poke around those pools and cut banks we could scare up an unwary fish or two."
He showed Joady how to whittle gigs from thin branches and they snagged five small trout, which he gutted and cleaned and then laid over sticks to roast. When Levi returned to camp the last sliver of the sun had slipped behind the ridgeline. A fire glowed underneath an iron pan and lard popped like tiny firecrackers as Wayman spooned in corn fritters. Levi had collected wild greens from near the creek and they fried along with the fritters.
After darkness settled in and the men told stories, they bedded down around the campfire. Wayman rolled up his trousers for a pillow, curled up in a wool blanket and was soon asleep and dreaming of a big strike. Later that night, he woke and got stiffly to his feet. The fire's embers were cold and Levi was snoring. Wayman walked barefooted a few paces and pissed on a tree. From across the meadow, he heard a sudden loud noise. Like dry branches snapping. He canted his head. A large animal was moving through the woods. Wayman kicked Levi's foot. "What is it?" he grumbled.
"Something's out there."
"A deer maybe?"
"I can't see a damn thing."
"Get your rifle, Levi."
Another loud noise crashed and thumped out in the darkness. Levi got to his feet.
"Might be a bear," he said. "Where's my rifle?"
"Leaned against your pack."
Levi dropped to his hands and knees and felt his way to his pack, patting his hands for the feel of the steel barrel.
"Where the damned mules?" Wayman said.
Joady woke and stared dumbly into the inky night.
"Wayman . . . Wayman!" he called.
"Over here," Wayman answered.
Levi was still searching for the rifle. "Something's moving closer."
"If it's a bear he's after the mules," Wayman said.
"Joady boy, where did I leave the rifle?" asked Levi.
"The last time I saw was when you returned from hunting. Maybe you leaned it on the tree."
A loud splashing sound came from upstream, like a large animal running through shallow water. Wayman strained his eyes hoping to catch sight of the mules but all he saw were patterns of gray and black. Levi finally felt the cool steel of the rifle and he crept toward Wayman.
One of the mules snorted. "We best get those mules in a hurry."
"Reckon we'd better."
"Stay here Joady," Wayman cautioned. "See if you can get a fire going."
The creek lay ahead and patches of white sand shone like grayish blurs among the shadows. Wayman and Levi tiptoed forward.
"How many loads you got?" Wayman whispered.
"One in the rifle and three in my pocket."
"They say you smell a grizzly before you ever see him."
"I don't smell nothing. Where them mules? How come they don't smell that bear?"
Another loud splashing sound came from upstream. Wayman felt his gut tighten. If they lost their mules they'd be finished, for the work of prospecting was impossible without pack animals. The clouds that had obscured the sky parted and starlight fell on the meadow, enough so to make a vague silhouette of the closest mule. He whickered softly as Wayman gathered the halter strap in his hand. The second mule, a few yards farther upstream, was stutter stepping against his hobbles.
"There he is," Levi said in a loud whisper.
Wayman barely spotted the mule's outline. Levi secured the first mule and Wayman hurried ahead to grab the other, then with both animals in tow, they turned towards camp. Joady had managed to get a thatch of twigs and a few sticks burning, and the three of them sat listening.
"You think it was a bear?" Wayman said.
"A bear don't quit if he's hungry," said Levi.
"Must have been a deer."
"A mighty clumsy deer by the racket."
No one slept much that night even though Levi and Wayman took turns standing watch. At first light, they packed the mules and were ready to leave. Joady looked to Wayman. "Guess I'd better get started."
"Don't dawdle," Wayman cautioned. "Hurry down that trail as if the devil himself was behind you."
"Maybe it was just a little black bear or a hungry coyote," Joady said hopefully.
"Probably that's right," Levi agreed. "In the middle of a dark night even a raccoon sounds like a tribe of elephants!"
The men laughed. Joady forced a smile. "I should stay, in case you need help."
"You get back to your job. Keep a good clip you'll be home in time for lunch," Wayman said.
"But what if it was a grizzly and he stalks me?"
The two men looked at each other. "Let the boy take your Smithy .32," Levi said. "We got little use for it."
"It's just a pistol, ain't all too accurate," Joady complained.
"But it makes a powerful-loud blast. That's enough to scare off a bear, and it's damn sure better than attacking him with your farts."
"I'd rather attack him with a big Winchester 45-90."
"You'll be fine, Joady boy, just keep your feet moving," Levi said.
Wayman tugged at the pack straps to make sure they were tight and Levi slung the rifle over his shoulder. They watched Joady disappear down the trail and then coaxed the mules for the high ridge. As the sun rose above the distant peaks, Wayman said, "It was a bear last night, Levi. And I'll bet it was a grizzly."
Levi looked up. "I figured as much. Do you think the boy will be all right?"
"The bear will follow us. He'll follow the scent of the mules."
By noon clouds rose in the southeast. The men had trudged up the canyon to the high valley and the mules were sweaty. The stream, fed by snowmelt from the highest peaks, would still be running. Wayman called ahead to Levi and told him to turn for the streambed. Levi waved a hand and tugged his mule's lead rope. The animal threw his head and then followed him down a narrow coulee.
Unlike some men, Wayman held no superstitions about grizzlies, but he kept looking over his shoulder, checking the tree line left and right. The stream flowed well, nearly twenty feet across and several feet deep. The mules waded into the shallows to drink. Levi leaned the rifle against a young blue fir and began stripping off his clothes. "I'm cooked like Irish stew, what say we make camp," he said. He waded into the chilly water and with great ceremony splashed and hollered, and then dunked himself under. A blue jay cocked his head, watching from a treetop. The mules lifted their heads and twitched their ears toward Levi's commotion.
Wayman was cautious and methodical, always had been, but Levi was excitable, impulsive and full of energy. While he splashed water under his arms and scoured his shaggy hair with his fingertips, Wayman heard something. Just beyond the heavy growth at the far side of the rocky bank something moved. The blue jay squawked an alarm and flew to higher branches. Wayman's mule snorted and suddenly bolted toward the bank and leapt onto the grassy shelf at the water's edge. The other mule followed and the two galloped up the coulee toward the trail.
Wayman started for the mules. A grizzly's head appeared, pushing his way through a patch of blackberries. Levi saw the bear but knew he couldn't move fast enough to escape a charge, so he went headfirst under the water and frog-stroked along the bottom, the current moving him quickly downstream. The bear, clear of the thicket, saw only Wayman lifting the rifle to his shoulder. The huge animal rose up on hind legs.
Downstream Levi's head surfaced and he grabbed a tree root to stay against the current. Wayman steadied his hands and tried to take aim but the bear dropped on his forepaws, turned back into the tangle of berry vines and disappeared into the underbrush. Levi waded from the stream and hurried to where Wayman stood. "Good thing he followed us and not the boy," he said.
"I thought he would."
"Grizzlies are sly. He might circle back on us."
"We'll hope not." Wayman's legs were trembling as he started for the coulee. He handed the rifle to Levi and they made their way to the trail. The mules were jumpy and wild-eyed but as Wayman drew nearer, his mule submitted to his master's custody.
Several hours later, the valley narrowed to another canyon cutting along a granite-studded ridge, which flattened into an expanse of pine forest where the stream angled northeast and then cut through rocky deposits where water slipped over white sands and polished stones before reaching a shelf over which it plunged into a deep pool. Tired from the long day's tribulations, Wayman and Levi decided to camp in the clearing near the waterfall. The high meadow was another five or six hours through increasingly rugged landscape, and neither man nor mule had the desire to push ahead. Wayman stopped short of the pool and wiped his forehead. Levi surveyed the pool for a moment before dropping his mule's lead rope and flinging himself down to drink at the water's edge. He dipped his head under, hat included, then sat on a flat rock.
"Levi," Wayman said crossly, "don't go leaving your rifle strapped on the pack."
"The bear won't follow us this high into the mountains."
"He followed us from the first meadow," Wayman insisted.
"Maybe it weren't the same bear."
"It had to been the same bear."
Levi said nothing. Wayman walked from the water's edge to Levi's mule to untie the rifle. "Levi!" he hollered over the sounds of the waterfall. "Where's the ammo?"
"In the side pack." Levi lay on the flat rock with his hands under his head.
Wayman untied the canvas flap and pulled out the box of shells. He took off the lid and inspected the contents. Two rows of shiny brass casings. He pulled a round from the box and loaded the rifle, put two more in his pocket and set about hobbling the mules.
When twilight left it was dark except for the glow of the campfire. Levi's legs stretched before him to take the warmth. Wayman spooned beans from the tin plate and mopped the last bit of grease with a crust of bread. Then he drank a cup of water.
"One of us should keep watch," Wayman said. "That bear might still be nearby."
Levi opened an eyelid. "Forget the bear. He's long gone in other directions. If I don't catch a full night's rest I'll feel puny in the morning."
Despite Levi's lack of concern, Wayman stayed awake for several hours, listening to his friend's snoring, the darkness alive with the sounds of insects and night birds.
Early next morning the two men ascended into heavier forest of lodge poles and blue firs, where strange mists moved ahead of them like ghostly apparitions. By afternoon, they'd walked a ridgeline stretching between rocky highlands and small gladed gaps where the trees grew stunted in unyielding soil.
On a shortcut around a rocky bluff, Wayman spotted an unusual formation. He picked up an oddly colored stone. Fifty feet farther, he came to an escarpment bordered by a stand of young firs growing from cracks in a rocky ledge. A boulder of rosy granite caught his attention. He inspected the monolith and noticed a lengthy splay of fool's gold running beside a vein of quartz. He wiped sweat from his brow and glanced over his shoulder. Levi's mule was just disappearing around a bend in the trail. Wayman looked again at the rock and rubbed his eyes, as if to improve their focus.
"Levi!" he hollered. "Come back here and have a look. There's the queerest vein of fool's gold in this red boulder."
Levi deliberated for a moment before turning his mule. After tying both mules' lead ropes together, he grunted his displeasure at having to indulge his old friend's curiosity. When he arrived at Wayman's side, he bent forward and looked where Wayman was pointing. Levi squinted. He unscrewed his canteen and splashed water on the rock, using his bandana to rub the shiny vein.
"By God and by Jesus! Wayman have you been struck blind?" he shouted. "That ain't no fool's gold. That's the real thing."
Wayman's jaw went slack. "You must be dreaming," he laughed.
Levi pushed him aside and dug the point of his hunting knife into the yellow streak. The soft metal peeled back like cold beeswax. "Dang straight hell yes it is! All these years of working these unfriendly mountains and we've found us a vein of pure gold."
"Now I can buy some land. Always wanted a ranch, a big ranch," Wayman said.
"You can buy a damned castle if you want to."
"Who needs a castle? I just want a place to call my own, some good bottomland to grow my food, a house I can fix up if I feel like it . . . or not fix it up if I don't feel like it. A place where nobody can run me off."
"I want to go to San Francisco and live it up! Have a hot bath every day."
Through the pines not twenty-five feet from where the men joined in reverie, the head of a grizzly appeared above the undergrowth, the dark muzzle raised, neck stretched, his black nostrils sniffing the air. A swarm of flies buzzed around his head. He lumbered forward and woofed out a blast of air from his nose and mouth. Wayman stood. The bear shifted his weight. Levi back-stepped toward the mules and the rifle.
Wayman didn't like his position beside the craggy shelf but the bear was too close to make a run for it. He hoped Levi would aim and shoot before the animal charged. The frightened mules bolted, but with lead ropes tied together they were at odds, dancing in circles, tossing their heads. Levi seized his mule's halter; the other mule jerked hard and snapped his threadbare lead rope like a shoelace. The grizzly snorted and charged, swiping Wayman off his feet with a massive paw. Wayman flipped over and fell headfirst. The blow left him limp, like a pile of blankets. Levi pulled at the knot in the leather strap as the mule brayed and bucked. The bear sniffed over the body, then he took Wayman in his jaws and turned toward the trees, his yellow teeth clapped down on Wayman's ribcage, carrying the limp body the way a dog would carry a dead kitten.
Levi lost his grip on the mule's halter and the animal pulled loose. He lunged at the mule and caught the rope but the mule bucked and the rifle tore loose, landing barrel first in the dirt. All Levi could see was the bear's broad hindquarters disappearing into the trees. He grabbed the rifle, cleared the barrel and fired. The bullet grazed the bear's back side and he dropped Wayman and turned, then rose up on his hind legs. Levi reloaded and fire again. The slug ripped into the bear's massive shoulder and he swatted at the air as if warding off an unseen enemy. Levi started to reload but the bear charged and as Levi tried to chamber the bullet, his fingers failed him and he dropped it in the dirt. He turned and ran, hoping to buy enough time to get another shell from his pocket.
The bear bounded forward ten-feet at a leap. Hearing the bear closing, Levi turned and shoved the bullet into the chamber. The beast was coming like an avalanche of muscle and teeth. Levi fired, the rifle spitting forth another cloud of blue-gray smoke. The slug hammered the bear's breastplate, sending ripples through his fur and splintering bone. He fell hard on his forepaws. He snarled and showed his long canines and beet-red tongue. Levi shoved his last bullet into the breech and raised the rifle. The bear charged again and Levi pulled the trigger.
The bullet entered the back of the grizzly's throat and cut the spinal cord, dropping him in his tracks. The cloud of smoke thinning as it rose into the sky.
"Levi . . . " Wayman cried.
Levi looked to the sound of his friend's voice. He scrambled up the slope to the edge of the small pines. Blood was flowing from deep gashes in Wayman's thigh where the grizzly's claws had torn a path. "Wayman, I got to get your leg tied off in a hurry."
Wayman couldn't find enough breath to speak. Levi undid his belt and cinched it tightly around Wayman's thigh.
"You gotta hold the belt tight. Can you do that?"
Wayman reached for the belt with his good hand. Levi scrambled down the slope and across the rocky flats to where the mules stood. He calmed his mule and got a blanket and roll of cotton wrap from his medicine bag. When he returned, Wayman's face was paler than spilt milk, his teeth clamped against the pain. Levi balled up the blanket and put it under Wayman's head, then used his knife to cut through the pant leg.
"I ain't gonna make it," Wayman said in a loud whisper. Blood spattered out with the words, leaving a thin residue on his lips.
"Don't give out on me, now. Just let me get this wound wrapped. The bleeding has slowed. A tight binding will stop it altogether."
"It's not my leg, Levi. It's my chest. Bubbles are coming out of the hole in my chest," Wayman said helplessly.
Levi saw a tear in Wayman's shirt. Blood was oozing as would water from a spring, its flow interrupted at each breath by escaping air. Levi unbuttoned the shirt. Between a pair of bony ribs, was a hole the width of a man's thumb.
"Oh, Jesus," Levi mumbled. Wayman tried to speak but choked and spit out a dark clot that caught on his whiskers and dangled from his chin. Levi winced.
"I'm drowning in my own blood," Wayman whispered. He wretched, his lungs making gurgling sounds with each breath.
"I got to get you propped up, help the blood drain."
Levi gently raised his friend by the armpits. Wayman cried out and spat flecks of half-clotted blood, losing his grip on the leather belt.
"Oh, mercy," Levi said, his face raw with desperation.
"It ain't no use, Levi. Just bring me a chunk of that gold and let me hold it before I go. And see to it that you take care of the boy. Promise you'll let him have my share."
Levi leaned forward, close enough to smell blood on Wayman's breath. "I'll take care of the boy, don't fret none, but damn it don't you go and die on me. We've worked ourselves to death and finally hit the big one. You hang on, Wayman, hang on."
Wayman couldn't get enough air for a reply and used his good hand to push Levi away, his eyes drifting as he gestured toward the red granite. Levi rose to his feet and looked down on his friend's broken body. He ran to the boulder and crouched, set the knifepoint against the gold, grabbed up a fist-sized rock and pounded furiously, prying out a wedge of soft yellow metal.
"Wayman, here's a chunk of pure shiny gold," he said.
Wayman held it up in the sunlight between his thumb and forefinger.
"Damn foolish man that I am . . . to think I spent the best years of my life scratching and scrapping for this."
Levi took his hand. "We did it because we thought we'd be the lucky ones, but the simple truth is, in this world there ain't enough luck to go around."
Wayman coughed again and bloody mist sprayed from his mouth. Then he grimaced and his chin fell to his chest. "Levi, see to it the boy don't listen to lies and waste his life hunting for gold. Tell him what you just said." His eyelids closed and his breathing stopped. His chest releasing a soft whistling sound, like a breeze blowing through a field of wheat. A blue jay lit atop a nearby pine. He considered the two men. Levi's face twisted up in anger, his cheeks flushing as he stood and raised a clenched fist and shook it at the sky.
"This ain't fair, goddamned you know it ain't. It just ain't fair," he bellowed to the emptiness above.
The blue jay cocked his head and made a squawking plaintive call, and then flew toward the valley and the hazy sunset, the amber light soon to leave the fading sky.
G. D. McFetridge writes from the unspoiled wilderness of Montana's majestic Sapphire Mountains. His short
stories and essays are published in academic journals and literary magazines across the US, in Canada, the
UK, Ireland, New Zealand and India. Here's a list of some of magazines that have published his work:
Black Dandy, Auckland, New Zealand
Fiction Southeast, LSU, Louisiana
The Tampa Review, University of Florida
The Bombay Review, New York and India
El Portal, University of Eastern New Mexico
Helen; a literary magazine, Las Vegas, NV
The Long Story, Lawrence, Massachusetts
The Lost Country, Fort Worth, Texas
The Lampeter Review, University of Wales, UK
Confrontation, Univ. of Long Island, NY
Broadkill Review, Delaware
Foliate Oak, Univ. of Arkansas
Weber, The Contemporary West, Weber State College, Utah
Cottonwood, Univ. of Kansas
Tales of the Talisman, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Big Muddy, Southeast Missouri State Univ.
South Dakota Review, Univ. of South Dakota
Louisiana Literature, Southeastern Louisiana Univ.
The Antigonish Review, St. Francis Xavier Univ., Nova Scotia
Talking River, Lewis-Clark State College, Idaho
The Texas Review, Sam Houston State University
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Texas Jack and the Fatal Hand
by Michael Gygi
There was stillness in the Pine Box saloon that night. Ol' Stubby Jones looked down wistfully at the ivory keys as if inspiration would come to him. The mood was melancholy, it was getting late and customers were few. Kat McKenzie, the redheaded torch singer with the sultry green eyes stood by the piano wondering if she should prod Stubby for another song or if all she really needed was another drink. She pulled up on the top of her bustier and straightened the seams on her stockings in hopes of a little more action. Pete Griggs stood stalwart at the end of the bar, wiping out a shot glass with an old ragged towel. His large frame and rough rugged face gave customers the indication he could handle more than just the drinks.
No one ever gave Pete any trouble. If Pete could not bring order to the Pine Box, there was a 12 gauge under the counter that could. Business had not been bad, but it could have been better, it was more like Sunday afternoon than Saturday night. Pete looked around the tables in the nearly empty saloon and wondered "Why hadn't the Rankin boys been by tonight?" Of course after they had a few drinks in their belly who knows what trouble they could whoop up. Pete reassured himself the Pine Box was probably better off with those boys rustling someone's cattle.
At the other end of the bar, all alone, sat Jack Rose. He was strong, silent and mysterious. Jack's reputation was bigger than life. In fact, if Jack had done all the things that folks had conjured up about him, well he would have lived more than 5 lifetimes. Two things were for sure: one, you don't trifle with Jack, his left-handed draw was faster than sidewinders on the hot desert sand. The second—you don't play cards with Jack. No one really knew if Jack was just a shifty cheater or the luckiest man on earth, but everyone agreed: Jack never loses!
Word had it that Jack had journeyed from Texas, and little else was known about him. In fact, one of the monikers Jack carried with him was the Black Rose of Texas, although no one knew why. Jack pretty much kept to himself. He enjoyed his whiskey and an occasional dance or two with Kat. Aside from that, he was a loner. There had been the occasional altercation in the bar which always ended with the sound of two shots, a dead stranger on the floor, and a smoking barrel in the left hand of Jack Rose.
Jack eyed the whiskey glass he held with the thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand. With his left hand he twirled one end of his waxed moustache. As he brought the glass to his lips, his stone face would grimace as he sipped upon his sordid fluid. It certainly was not the best whiskey, but then again, it was the only whiskey available. As he put the glass down, he smiled at Pete as he said, "Barkeep, I'll have another, and strain it this time!" A smile crossed the burley bartender's lips. Pete retorted, "If I do that, the only thing left will be crick water!" Both men laughed as Pete slid another shot down the bar at Jack.
The weather was misty and damp that night. Although storm season had passed, there was an undiscernible sound in the distance, possibly thunder. It went unnoticed to the patrons of the Pine Box. Then it happened again and this time the sound was louder and closer.
"Did y'all hear that?" Stubby said.
"Keep playin'," said Jack, "It's nothin'."
There were more sounds, but not all distinguishable. A hammering rain came out of nowhere beating down on the Pine Box. There was a commotion outside baring the sound of hoof beats and the bay of horses. Pete Griggs looked at the crowd and said, "I guess the Rankin boys have finally made it and brought a storm with them." Kat McKenzie got up and straightened her scarlet locks to greet the new arrivals in hopes she may be in for some more money or at least a few free drinks. As she moved towards the loosely swinging doors, hinged by a few rusty nails, she peered out through the missing slats and stared at the rain. The streets had been turned to mud. There, outside in front of the Pine Box, stood six wide-eyed black stallions completely covered in sweat, rain and filth. They looked beaten and exhausted.
"It's not the Rankin boys," hollered Kat, "It's a coach!"
"A coach? Why, the stage never runs at night through here. What in the devil's name is a coach doing here?"
Kat stepped away from the doors. She could not make out who was driving the coach through the thrashing torrent. Kat thought the driver must have stepped down or was at the other side of the coach helping someone out. Then it dawned on her, no one was driving the coach! When the coach door opened, a dark stranger emerged. He was hard to make out in the pouring rain. He was tall and appeared to be dressed for the inclement weather. He wore a cloak with a hood and held a staff in his hand.
Kat continued to back away from the door. Although curious, she was frightened. The stranger did not move. He just stood outside the saloon by the coach in the rain. "Who was he? What did he want? Why was he here," Kat thought to herself. Finally, the stranger spoke. In a grisly, gravelly voice he called out, "Jack Rose, come forth and meet your destiny."
Everyone in the Pine Box froze. All eyes were on Jack. Jack sat at the bar, unmoved and brought the glass to his lips once more. "Sounds like another kid wants to make a name for himself," Jack said. "Well, we'll see that you make a name for yourself and we'll put it above your grave." Jack laughed out loud.
Jack slowly turned to face the entrance of the saloon. He put down the glass. As he stood up, his left hand inched its way up on his hip, his hand was steady. Pete's hands began to move under the bar. He did not want any trouble and he was not taking any chances.
Jack hollered out, "Who dares to disturb me during my time of solace? Who is it that yearns for death?"
The small crowd hustled for shelter, crawling under tables and moving behind chairs in the back of the bar room. They knew all too well what this meant. The voice from the darkness outside the saloon replied, "It is not I that yearn for death, but Death that comes for thee."
As the doors flew open the stranger stood in their midst, immediately recognizable to all. His dark cloak, and the glaring eyes that appeared from deep inside his hood meant there was no mistaking the stranger's identity. Jack eyed the scythe the stranger was clutching in his right hand. It was Death.
"Goodnight Pete," "Thanks Kat," and "We'll be seein' ya" were the only sounds heard while the patrons hurried out the back door. Stubby Jones was still at the piano, frozen in time. Kat McKenzie stood at his back with her trembling hands upon his shoulders. Pete Griggs kept his squinted eyes fixed upon the stranger. He realized the shotgun was useless and resumed wiping out shot glasses with the same ragged towel. Jack Rose sat at the edge of the bar with an uneasy soberness in his face as Death approached him.
"It is time, Jack." A single skeletal finger emerged from Death's cloak and beckoned Jack.
"You wouldn't deny me one last drink, would ya?" Jack replied as he tried to cut through the tension and make light of the seriousness awaiting him.
"Go ahead, have another. I have time. You will not cheat me this time," was Death's counter.
A half smile was beginning to develop across Jack's sunken, strained face. Death was right, this was not the first time he and Jack had come face to face. Jack was no stranger to precarious situations. He had scars on his hands, arms, and cheek indicating there had been life threatening predicaments in the past. Jack smiled staring Death straight in the eye and replied, "You wouldn't be referring to Widow's Peak, Dead Man's Gulch or the Running 'J' incidents, now would ya?"
Jack struck a deep, sour chord with that remark. Death was not amused. Jack knew he was playing with fire, but he had to buy time. Was his number really up? Jack had never run from a fight or backed down from anyone. But this was Death. When Death says it is time, it is time. Then it came to him. Legend had it that Death had a weakness— cards. Maybe, just maybe, one hand, winner take all, could be the answer. The stakes would be high of course— Jack's life.
Jack looked up at Death and put it to him,
"Word has it you're a card player."
"I have played a game or two. What's your play?"
"One final game," Jack said, "the highest stakes. If I win, I keep my life; if you win, I go with you."
Death shook his head. "What is in it for me? I am already here and you're going with me regardless. The game would prove nothing."
"You're wrong. You have more to gain. You know as well as I, I never lose at cards. Imagine being able to say, not only did you take Jack Rose to meet his maker, you also beat him at his own game, cards. No one else can make that statement. That would be quite a notch on that scythe of yours now wouldn't it? That's what's in it for you."
Death thought about Jack's proposition. The appeal to Death's vanity was taking effect. Death pointed to one of the card tables and said, "You are on. How do you want it?"
"5 card stud," Jack replied, "One hand, winner take all."
Death nodded in agreement. Jack and Death walked over to the table in the middle of the room. Both men sat down opposite each other.
"Pete, bring us some cards, and another whiskey for me.", Jack said.
"Not to worry," Death replied as he reached inside his cloak and brought forth a new deck.
"So, you had cards with you," Jack laughed.
"Well, you never know," acknowledged Death.
"So, who deals?" Jack asked.
"Certainly not you!" was Death's reply.
Death looked around the room. His glaring eyes became fixed upon Kat McKenzie.
"What about her," he said as he pointed to Kat. "I like her."
"Oh no!" Kat exclaimed, "You can't mean . . . I mean . . . I just couldn't . . . "
"I want the girl to deal," said Death.
"It's OK Kat," Jack assured her as he raised the glass to his lips once more. "You'll be fine. Hey Stubby, give us a little card playin' music."
Kat slowly made her way to the table while Stubby's fingers stumbled across the keys. She sat down with Jack to her right and Death on her left. Death handed her the cards. His bones were icy to the touch and sent chills up her arm. Kat opened the deck and discarded the jokers. She split the deck in half and started to shuffle.
"I'm scared, Jack," she said, as she paused to catch her breath.
"Don't you worry; you just shuffle and deal, I'll do the rest." Jack reassured.
Kat shuffled the deck eight times while fumbling the cards back and forth in her small hands. She put the deck whole again and planted the cards face down in front of Death. Death gave Kat a slight nod, and cut the cards. Kat took the deck back and began to deal.
"OK, boys," she said, "5 card stud and the first one is down and dirty."
Kat dealt each player a card face down. Jack cupped his hands over his card and raised it ever so slightly to reveal its value. Interestingly enough, Death did not even look at his. Kat eyed both players and dealt another card to each, this time face up.
"Round two comin' out boys and it looks like Mr. Death will get a trey. And the dealer sends Texas Jack an ace."
Jack's poker face was replaced with a look of confidence for the moment. Both men continued to stare intensely at each other. Kat dealt a third card to each player.
"OK," she called out, "We're going to 3rd Street."
This time Death drew a King and Jack drew an eight. Jack's ace was still high to Death's king. Jack once again cupped his hands over his hidden treasure and glanced at it again. Death remained unmoved.
Kat held the cards firmly in her grip, her right thumb on the top of the deck
"Let's move on down to 4th street."
As she turned over a card to Death and then another to Jack she remarked, "Our dark gloomy friend draws another King; and Jack sees another eight. Kings lookin' at eights."
Jack looked down at the cards that were now determining his fate. Jack knew what he was holding, but what was Death holding? Jack wondered why Death had not even looked at his face down card. "What was his game?" Jack remained cool on the surface but on the inside, he was like a feather bed unraveling. Jack looked down at the cards and said, "The game is all wrong, there's no wager. I just can't play the game without a wager."
"We have made a wager; your life." Death spoke up irritably, "One hand, winner take all!"
"No, No, NO,"said Jack, "That was just the ante. You know as well as I do, the real skill is in playing your hand. You can't play your hand unless there is a wager behind it."
Death brought his elbow up on the table. He scratched his chin as he pondered what Jack had said. Silence echoed in the near empty hall. At length he spoke,
"Jack, you're right. There is no wager. In order to continue and play our hands, value needs to be added and put upon the table. The question is: what are you willing to lose? Is there anything else of value that you have and I want?" Death surveyed the room. Nothing of value spoke to him. All he could see were the old chairs, weathered tables, the bar, a piano and some bawdy paintings on the wall.
"I know," said Death, "I will wager the lives of everyone in here that I have the better hand. If you do not agree to match the wager and fold, we leave now for the coach. If you do match the wager and lose, your friends here will keep you company on the long ride."
"You can't be serious," cried Pete from across the bar.
"Jack, do something," Kat said with her voice cracking.
"You can't do that," Jack stood up defiantly, "I can't put these people's lives up as a wager, they aren't mine to gamble with. These people have no quarrel with you. You just can't walk in here and toy with their lives."
"Yes, I can. Have you forgotten that I am Death? That is the wager. Put up or fold!"
Jack thought for a moment; his plan was backfiring right before his eyes. It was one thing to be gambling with his own life but now he had endangered the lives of his friends. Death had thrown down the gauntlet. Dare he pick it up? He was playing a new game of Russian Roulette, only this time there were 5 slugs in the chambers. Jack sat back down. He took another sip from the glass and began to tug at his moustache.
"I'll even up the wager;" he said. "I'll put up the lives of my friends on these two conditions. One, they must all agree to the wager. Second, if I win the hand, you must leave and never darken our path again until we have lived out long, healthy, and full lives."
"I'm with ya Jack," hollered Pete from behind the bar. Stubby also called out, "You take 'em, Jack, take that slimy roach down!" Jack looked over at Kat who sat at the table quivering.
"Oh Jack, I don't know. I wasn't planning on this."
"Don't fret girl, I can take him. But if you can't throw in, I'll fold and be done with it."
Kat swallowed the lump that was building in her throat. In a soft voice she said, "I'm in."
"The wager is set. Deal," quipped Death with glee.
Kat McKenzie again picked up the cards.
"So now we go down to the river."
Kat drew the card from the top of the deck and placed it face up with the rest of Death's hand. "Three kings," Kat cried out. She looked at Jack, her hand shaking as she drew up his card. Kat let out scream "Aces and eights", she cried.
"How appropriate is that?" said Death sarcastically.
Stubby's piano playing abruptly stopped. "The dead man's hand," gasped Pete.
"I have you now," said Death. "The cards have spoken."
Jack could not believe his horror. There they were staring him straight in the face: aces and eights. He looked across the table at Death's cards, three kings and a trey. What was he holding underneath? Jack was now beginning to feel Death's icy grip around his throat. Jack tried to read him, he looked up but saw no face, only the red glare emanating from the dark sockets inside his hood.
"What is your wager now, Texas Jack," laughed Death. "You are at the end of your rope. It is over. You know I've been patient, sitting here waiting to turn over my fourth king. The coach awaits!"
"Just a minute," cried Jack, "I fold."
"You cannot fold, your card has been dealt, I am high hand and the wager is to me. I stay and I call," Death replied.
"No, you offered me a fold, I'm taking it," pleaded Jack.
"Absolutely not, the wager stands. You lost your chance when you upped the wager. I am pat and I am calling you."
Jack stared hard into Death's dark void. Both men were fixed upon each other, neither wavering in position. Death leaned forward to turn over his last card. He groaned a deep growling laugh. He leaned closer to Jack and said,
"It is over Jack, for you and your friends. Make your peace." Death turned over his card and Kat exclaimed, "A trey, Death has a full house with kings over treys!"
Jack paused staring at Death's full house, his face remaining unchanged. Silence took over the Pine Box as Jack put his left hand on top of the hidden card. Jack's trigger finger flipped it over, for all to see, as if firing at Death.
"Ace" shouted Kat, another full house, aces over eights, Jack wins!"
Death roared in anguish while he struck the table. He knew somehow, someway, Jack had cheated him again. Disgusted, and humiliated, Death stood up and stormed through the bar room doors tearing them off their hinges. Death's anger carried him into the coach. Before anyone could get to the door, he was gone.
To this very day, everyone 'round these parts still talks about the night Jack Rose got the best of Death. Of course, everyone has their own theory of how Jack managed to pull out that ace, or what actually happened to the fourth king. Some say he cheated; others say he is just lucky. But as for me, I believe the glittering rock that now adorns the ring finger of Kat McKenzie Rose, lends credence to the possibility there were three hands in that game.
Michael Gygi has been freelance writing for several years while working as a computer scientist in Aerospace.
He's had several articles published in a senior living magazine. He has a BS in Communications and an MS in
Education. Readers can reach him through his email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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by Jack Clevenger
An intense gnawing in my gut told me something was not quite right, and for a single rider on the Jornada de Los Muertos, that spelled trouble.
My horse, Gabe, raised his head higher and pinned his ears back as if he too were aware that something was amiss, and his primal instinct in sensing danger was something I always paid attention to. Pulling Gabe to a stop, I turned in my saddle and looked off in the distance behind me. A cloud of dust was rising from the dry desert floor. My heartbeat quickened with the thought it might be Apaches. From the amount of dust being kicked up, there appeared several. Whoever it was they were not running their horses, merely hanging back and keeping their distance. This mystified me as I was unsure of the reason.
Turning back around, I reached down and rubbed Gabe's neck saying, "Well it looks like we got company coming up behind us Gabe, and they could be Apaches." Talking to Gabe helped to think through challenges I might incur when alone and away from home.
This was the start of our fourth day on the trail and while Gabe was good company, the loneliness was starting to wear on me. After leaving Albuquerque late yesterday, we had reached Belen a little after dark. There were no rooms available, and I spent a restless night having to spread my bedroll in the livery stable with Gabe and where the ground seemed a whole lot harder than what I remembered in my youth. Rising early, we left Belen before sunrise and now headed to Socorro, then hopefully on home to San Antonio before nightfall. It would be a hard ride, but I was in a hurry.
Urging Gabe on down the trail, I thought more about my situation, recalling when in Doc Tuttle's office yesterday how he had suddenly stopped what he was doing and said, "Ben, you might want to see about that horse of yours, right now there's a bunch of Indians looking mighty interested in him." I turned and looked out the window where four Apaches were walking around Gabe admiring him. "Excuse me a moment," I told the Doc and headed for the door. Walking outside, I made straight for my horse and asked them what they wanted. A big muscular Indian wearing a light-colored tunic, a deerskin loincloth, and knee-high moccasins turned to me and said, "Good horse, we trade?" I walked towards him and said, "My horse is not for sale or trade". Perhaps because of the forcefulness in the way I spoke or my hand resting on the Colt six-shooter hanging at my side, the Indians turned and left. I waited a while watching as they got on their horses and rode out of town. Turning, I went back into Doc's office.
The big sorrel had something of a reputation in this part of the country and always attracted a lot of attention, so I hadn't given it a lot of thought at the time. I now realized I should've. Most likely, it was that same bunch of Indians creating that cloud of dust behind us. Apaches are known for being great horsemen, and when they admired a horse, they often wanted it. And it's generally understood they weren't always in favor of buying them.
I again encouraged Gabe up a small rise, eager to try and get a better view. Stopping, I stood up in the stirrups, squinted to combat the bright sun, and tried to see how many riders there were. I couldn't tell, not from this distance. Maybe when younger, but at fifty-two, my eyes were no longer as good as they once were, nor for that matter was the rest of my body. Simply twisting in the saddle had caused my side to ache, the result of a wound from an Apache arrow. It had occurred when riding with several others looking for Jim Docken's ten-year-old daughter who had disappeared and was believed stolen by Apaches. We had followed tracks south of San Antonio and found her with a small group of Indians camped out in Rock Canyon. In the resulting skirmish to rescue her, I took an arrow in the side. It had damn near killed me, would've too, if Jim's Ute squaw wife and my Elaine hadn't worked a miracle. But if Apaches were on my tail, a failing body and old wounds were the least of my worries.
Reaching down I patted my big horse on the neck and said, "What do ya think Gabe, we gonna have to make a run for it?" No doubt talking with Gabe was as much for myself as for him. Over the years I've spent so many lonely hours riding trail, it became a habit. Besides, it was good to occasionally hear a voice, even if it was my own. I also had this belief that Gabe understood most things I said, and whether that was true or not, talking to him seemed to create a stronger bond between us. We had been through a lot together, and I trusted him more than I would a lot of men. Gabe was short for Gabriel, for he was as brave and swift as God's angelic messenger. I'd yet to find another horse that had his stamina or could outrun him. And in this country, a good horse, especially one with speed, could make the difference between living and dying.
Stopping once more, I dismounted, removed my hat, and pulled out my kerchief and wiped my brow and face. The harsh July sun made the sweat run off me like summer rain, although in this part of New Mexico, summer rains are rare. They speak of monsoons, but they don't occur with any regularity. I reached for my canteen and shook it to see how much water remained. Even though my cracked lips and dry mouth made me thirst for water, I took only a short swig after spitting out a wad of chew, then taking my hat I poured the remainder in it for Gabe. As thirsty as I was, his thirst would be greater.
Reaching up on the saddle, I made sure the package tied there was secure, then I took a fresh plug of chew from my shirt pocket and bit off a big hunk. I pulled my Henry .44 caliber rifle from its scabbard, chambered a round into the barrel and placed it back. Mr. Henry had conceived this sixteen shot repeating rifle, one that gave a lone man enough firepower to do considerable damage to anyone seeking to cause trouble. A fast horse, a fresh chew, and my trusted Henry provided some comfort, but not so much I didn't need to remain vigilant.
I had made the trip to Albuquerque to get medicine for my boy, twelve-year-old Ely. Elaine and I thought he might have cholera because he had cramps and diarrhea. But Doc Tuttle thought it was enteritis and gave me some Laudanum and told me to keep him rested. Then staring at my weather-beaten face and worn-out appearance, the Doc said, "You know, Ben Johnson, I don't wish to involve myself in your business, but only a fool would be out on the Camino Real Trail alone. Why don't you wait until there's another party going south and tie-up with them?"
Of course, the doc offered sound advice for I sure wasn't wanting to add myself to the trail that had already claimed so many desperate souls over the years. And while I didn't like the idea of the Doc thinking me a fool, I couldn't wait. I answered, saying, "Well, my son's mighty sick, Doc, and he's a good boy, so the decision to come here didn't take a lot of thought, and I reckon it won't take a lot more for me to go back alone. I'm a little wore out, but I've seen worse."
The doc had stared at me with a grim look on his face, and then shook his head and said, "Well, it's your skin." Hearing the Doc's words made me recall earlier days when I saw just what Indians could do to a fellow's skin, and it wasn't a sight for those with a weak stomach. But I'd made it through tough spots before and believed I could do so again.
Doc's words were starting to reveal their truth as I thought more about the Indians behind us. Still, I had known the dangers beforehand and chosen to go alone. Turning towards Gabe, I rubbed his forehead, "Well Gabe," I said, "we've made one trip on this lonely old trail, we gonna get back down it one more time?" Gabe's ears pricked up at the sound of my voice, as if he understood what I was saying, and damn if sometimes I didn't think he could. There's something about him that seemed almost human at times. And I sure as hell liked being with him a lot more than some folks I've known.
This lonely stretch of the desert was notorious for raiding and plundering by Indians, and a single rider surely appeared an easy target. Apaches are fierce warriors and skillful strategists, a curious lot that requires understanding their changing disposition on any given occasion. They could be your friend one moment and your enemy the next if you had something they wanted.
It hadn't always been that way. Apaches, for the most part, had hated and fought with the Mexicans and been friends with Americans. That all changed five years ago, when a young, and incompetent Lieutenant George Bascom, from Fort Buchanan, entered the picture. He lured Cochise, chief of the feared Chiricahua Apache under the pretense of a "white flag" to discuss the disappearance of a young boy whom, Bascom believed, Cochise's tribe kidnapped. Cochise denied any part in the kidnapping, but Bascom accused him of lying and held him and his family captive. Cochise managed to escape but was wounded in the process. That single event set off a reign of terror with the Apaches and ever since a consistent pattern of trust had become difficult to establish. Then, it wasn't always easy determining truth from fiction when dealing with stories about Apaches anyway.
Remounting, I continued down the trail. The Apaches hadn't made any effort to catch up, and that bothered me. I wondered if there might be another group ahead. Bringing Gabe to a sudden stop, I mulled over that last thought. If there were Indians ahead, they would most likely be waiting south of Socorro in the Sierra Ladrones, a refuge of canyons and ravines from which the Apaches would often raid the Camino Real Trail. Many unsuspecting and weary travelers, who never reached their destination, littered that part of the trail. I didn't plan to join them. "Damn it, am I getting addle-headed?" I muttered, cursing the Apaches, and wondering if I might be losing a little of my edge with age. I should've thought of it earlier.
A man needs to stay alert to survive in this country. It didn't tolerate uncertainty. I understood the Indians who roamed it, or at least I thought I did.
I figured I'd covered about twenty-five miles and guessed that another twenty remained before reaching San Antonio. Gabe waas no doubt growing weary, yet experience told me he would be ready when called upon. I hoped that I would be too. I needed to stay alert. The Indians had enough of an advantage. Allowing self-doubt to creep into my thoughts wasn't going to get me through this scrape.
Riding alone, a person has a lot of time to think about his past. I'd been reacting and trying to survive dangerous situations a good part of my life. A man never knew what was in him until faced with trouble. Somehow, I'd always managed to find inner strength, as if something inside of me was saying, "You can do it, Ben, dig deeper." Not realizing the Indians might be setting a trap, now made me wonder if this voice wasn't becoming more distant with age. I'd ridden this trail many times. Every arroyo, mountain, valley, and bend in the Rio Grande River was familiar to me. I hoped that knowledge would be comforting, but my nerves were not completely supporting that thought.
Doubts continued to creep into my mind, and I thought back to younger days and my first experience fighting Indians. I was a brash young man who never harbored doubts about his ability to do most things. That was a long time ago and I'd gotten a lot older. Too many escapades with Indians over the years had given me a steadfast understanding of the meaning of fear. The intrepid spirit in that young man was no longer present, having as surely vanished over the years as a desert mirage. Thoughts about my younger self only provided evidence of someone who often had more daring than good sense. A smile crept across my face, but I fast suppressed it, knowing I still had Indians to deal with.
It was past noon. The blistering New Mexico sun continued to beat down, adding to my weariness. There was little shade in the upper reaches of the Chihuahuan desert. To most, a vast, dry, inhospitable place, which the early Spaniards fittingly called the Journey of the Dead. And for good reason, it was barren and treacherous with only the occasional Juniper and Pinion tree. Low lying chamisa, creosote bushes, a scattering of tall ocotillos, and the occasional Apache Plume dotted the rest of the terrain. Thinking of Apache Plume made me wince, as the Apaches used the strong limbs of this bush to make their arrow shafts.
Upon coming to this country, I was at first dismayed. Growing up in the hills of Missouri, there were rivers, trees, and greenery everywhere. In the beginning, New Mexico's red desolate terrain left me unsure of how I felt about it. But I soon discovered that there's something original about this raw land and only foreboding to those who saw it with just their eyes. You had to feel this country, to live it, to let it become a part of you. There was little doubt about it being a strong and difficult land, but that was the very thing that kept me here. Once acquainted, it had grabbed me and didn't let go. I'd found a hidden beauty in its rugged terrain, an enchantment, one that drew me to it as surely as a warm fire on a cold winter's night. And with any luck, I would be able to enjoy it a few years longer.
It was two o'clock when I rode into the small pueblo of Socorro, stopping once more to rest and water my
horse. It was risky to stop, but Gabe had been going since before dawn this morning, and it was necessary
to give him frequent short rests and water. It was siesta time and the narrow, dusty streets had little
activity. Spotting a young Mexican boy sitting in front of a small adobe house, I said, "Hola, Joven, està allí un poco de agua para mi Caballo?"
"Sí, sí aquí, señor." The young boy disappeared into his house and soon returned carrying a bucket of water.
"Gracias, Joven," and digging into my pocket, I pulled out five pennies and gave them to the boy.
"Muchas gracias, Señor," the boy said with a big smile, and then disappeared back into the house, no doubt eager to show off the unexpected good fortune he'd received.
I halfway refilled my canteen from the bucket and then gave the rest to Gabe. As I watched him drink, I thought about the friendliness of the people I'd come to know since first coming to this country twenty-eight years ago. I had been amazed at their willingness to help. The village of Socorro, which means "refuge", has always provided shelter for weary travelers on this trail.
As Gabe continued drinking, my thoughts drifted back to my first trip into New Mexico in 1846, two years before it became a U.S. possession. I was a strapping young man working my way west over the much-traveled Santa Fe Trail with a teamster hauling goods into Santa Fe. I'd been signed on in Springfield, Missouri because handling a gun and riding were second nature with me. I figured my size at six foot three and two hundred pounds hadn't hurt me either.
It was on my third trip to Santa Fe that I gained my first experience fighting Indians. We were twelve days out of Independence, Missouri, when spotted hanging back behind the caravan was a small band of Kiowa, no doubt with the intention of attacking when the opportunity arose.
That evening after we'd made camp and had our evening meal, I sat with Tom Singer around the fire. An older man and part Cherokee from Tennessee, Tom's dark weathered features reflected the many days he'd spent riding trail. His long black hair slid down from under an old Bowler crusted with sweat and dust. He wore a buckskin shirt with fringe across the front, said he'd traded a Bowie Knife won in a poker game for the shirt. At the time he'd been in the Idaho territory trapping and a Nez Perce had become overly excited at wanting the knife. He then added, he wasn't that good with it anyway and much preferred his Texas Colt 36 revolver in the event of trouble. I'd come to respect Tom and listened with interest to his many stories hoping to learn from his experiences.
While we were sitting there, John Sipes, the head drover came over and, looking at Tom, said, "Tom, those damn Indians trailing behind will never leave us alone until they steal some of our cargo or livestock or kill someone in the process of trying. Do you think you and Ben might be able to find where they're camped and run off their horses?"
With a frown on his face, Tom reached up, removed his hat, and scratched his head before answering as if needing to think about committing to such an endeavor. Then in a slow deliberate manner answered, "Well, John, I reckon we might give it a try. Could be dangerous though and someone might get hurt or killed."
Not yet having a full grip on the meaning of being fearful, and not paying attention to Tom's last words, I jumped in and said, "Yes sir, I reckon we can." Old Tom looked over at me and smiled, knowing my eagerness and enthusiasm were due to my youth and a lack of understanding the dangers involved in what was being asked.
Later that evening we experienced a heavy downpour. Tom and I had moved under a makeshift canvas cover and looking out into the darkness, Tom said, "Some Indians lack the strength of mind to fight during the night, afraid if killed, their spirit will roam forever in the darkness, but I'm unsure if that's true of Kiowa."
After some discussion, Tom thought the Indians might camp somewhere off to the south of us on the Arkansas River as it offered a source of water and forage for their horses. Waiting until close to midnight, we slipped out of camp.
It had stopped raining and the night was pitch black, offering good protection. Whatever moon existed remained hidden by a sky still filled with dark swollen clouds looking as if they might cut loose again at any moment. We were hopeful the Indians hadn't made camp until after the rain stopped, as that would make it easier to track them. We lost their trail a few times, and after nearly three hours searching, we were about to give up when we finally picked it up again and tracked them to a ravine beside the Arkansas, just as Tom had thought.
The darkness nearly became our downfall as we came close to stumbling into their camp while they lay rolled up in blankets asleep. Quietly backtracking, we led our horses to a grove of cottonwoods a hundred yards away. I suggested to Tom there was no need in both going back down there and that he should let me go. "I think we'll stand a better chance, don't you?"
Understanding that youth was perhaps better in this instance, Tom agreed, but not without some hesitation. He then stated, "Listen to me carefully Ben, I don't want to have to take you back to camp slung over your horse," and then gave instructions on how I should approach their camp. After he finished, I started off, crawling through Buffalo grass for the last few yards toward where we'd previously spotted their horses tied up. The closer I got to my destination, the more my heart tried its best to pound through my chest, no doubt caused by a little loss of the eagerness I'd displayed back in camp. I can hear old Tom's words now telling me, "You're beginning to grasp the difference between doin' and sayin'."
Even though downwind from the horses, Tom had said there was still a chance they might spook upon seeing me. He warned, "When you get close to the horses, just hang there a while and let them catch a whiff of you, if they don't spook, then you can move on in slowly." With Tom's advice and good fortune guiding me that night, I was able to sneak up on them and cut them loose. The Kiowa got off some shots at me with the few old muzzleloaders they possessed, but in the darkness, they couldn't get a good target, and I got away unscathed. Old Tom looked relieved when I returned, perhaps no more so than I.
Gabe finished drinking, and I placed the empty wooden bucket back by the door. There would be no more stopping until we reached San Antonio.
I checked the cinch on my saddle, stretched my tired muscles from too many days away from home and remounted. As I threw my leg over the creaking saddle, I felt a pain on my left side, which I tried ignoring. Thinking better about it, I reached down with my hand and feeling moisture, knew the wound had broken open, and begun bleeding. Grabbing my kerchief, I stuffed it down inside my shirt, hoping to temporally stem the flow of blood. It would have to do.
"Well, we're about home Gabe, I guess about ten or twelve more miles. Think you're up to it, fella?" Reaching down, I stroked and patted the big sorrel's neck, telling him, "Okay Gabe, we're on the final stretch. We've made it this far, we can do the rest." I then headed east out of Socorro, slipping down into an arroyo just outside of town that would hide us from view, and headed towards the Rio Grande.
I'd decided in Socorro to leave the trail and take my chances by heading east toward the Rio Grande, and then follow it south. It would not cause a delay in getting home, as the town of San Antonio and my spread bordered the river. If there were any Indians ahead, leaving the main trail would force them out from their planned spot of ambush, and into the open where I might stand a better chance.
While stopped for only a few moments in Socorro, I knew the Indians following had gained ground. Still, with the Indians behind me, I liked my chances a whole lot better. It was the thought that there might be more in front that had me worried.
I'd come up out the arroyo and figured I was about seven miles south of Socorro when I noticed a cloud of dust coming from the southwest. The Apaches who had been waiting in the Sierra Ladrones either guessed I had changed directions or had someone located outside of Socorro that spotted me going down into the arroyo. But it made little difference how they knew for they were now coming straight at me, intent on cutting me off and blocking my route. My heart quickened at the thought of having Indians behind and in front of me.
Judging from the amount of dust kicked up from the group in front, I guessed there to be four or five Indians. If there were that many behind me, the odds were against me. I might have stood a better chance of slipping away if it were night. But wishful thinking wasn't going to help, and it appeared my only choice was to get my big horse to run and run hard. I clung to the hope that he would be able to get ahead of the Indians coming from the west. If not, I would have to stop and find a place with cover and make a stand. I didn't want to do that.
Spurring my big horse hard, I told him, "Okay, Gabe, it's time to go. Let's show those damn Apaches their little ponies ain't no match for you."
I loosened the reins and gave him his head to run as fast as he could. Gabe soon was tearing across the cracked desert floor, his strong legs eating up the ground so fast that he kicked up enough dust for three or four horses. I could feel the strength of his muscles beneath me as they contracted and expanded with each stride as he flew across the desert, his hooves barely touching the ground. His nostrils flared to their fullest, and if tired, he did not let it slow him down. Surefooted, Gabe soared over rocks and bushes, jumping small arroyos with ease.
Even with Gabe's speed, I soon realized the Indians coming from the west were going to intercept me before I could get by them. I thought if I can't beat them to that spot, I'd surprise them and head straight at them and start shooting, maybe that'll make them scatter. Reaching down I pulled my Henry from its scabbard. Riding and shooting had been something I'd learned after tiring of making many trips to Santa Fe. Joining up to hunt buffalo with the likes of Bill Tilghman and Thomas Nixon in Kansas and Oklahoma, I had learned to shoot well enough from the saddle.
Giving Gabe a kick on his left side, I headed him straight at the Apaches. Letting go of the reins, I raised my rifle and let loose with a volley over their heads, meant only to scare them in the hopes they would hold up and scatter. It soon became apparent this was not going to work. They not only continued towards me at a full gallop but were returning my fire with the few rifles they had in their possession. Hearing the bullets whiz by, meant they were shooting to kill. It was time I did the same.
Continuing to race straight towards them, I raised my rifle once more, this time taking careful aim at the lead Indian and squeezing the trigger; he immediately tumbled from his horse. No sooner had I shot than I felt a sharp pain as a bullet tore through the fleshy part of my left arm, nearly causing me to drop my rifle. Glancing down, blood had begun to cover my shirtsleeve at a point above my elbow. It hurt like hell, but I could do nothing about it now. Taking a quick look behind, I saw the following Apaches coming on strong. Both groups were fast coming together, and they numbered close to ten or more.
I hadn't always been a particularly religious man, and I wasn't yet ready to meet my Maker, as there were a few things hangin' loose that I needed to get straight with him. Still, if I didn't fast come up with a plan to get out of this mess, I might have to reckon with him sooner than I'd intended.
The group ahead only slowed for a moment when my last shot felled one of their members. I needed to think fast, or I would soon have both groups on top of me. I gave Gabe a kick on the right side, reining him hard to the left and headed for the Rio Grande, where the river was deep with a shallow but steep bank. Realizing this was my only choice, I replaced my rifle in its scabbard and spurred Gabe towards the river. As we got close, Gabe hesitated, I spurred him on, saying, "It's alright big guy, you can do it, let's go."
Once more, I loosened the reins and edged Gabe down the bank. As soon as we were in the water, I slipped off the saddle, hanging on to the saddle horn, my head barely visible above the water. This placed the horse between the Indians and me. Guiding Gabe to the far side of the river, I kept low so that the Indians wouldn't have a shot, sure they wouldn't risk shooting for fear of hitting Gabe. Both groups of Indians now joined on the bank, no more than fifty or sixty yards away considering their next course of action. Perhaps they had given up the chase. That thought soon proved wrong as several of the braves slipped down the bank and into the river almost directly across from me.
Urging Gabe on, I recalled that no more than a hundred yards downriver, maybe less, was an arroyo that emptied water into the Rio Grande during the rainy season. If I could reach it, I was sure we could make it home safe. Snorting and breathing hard, Gabe struggled to swim downriver, he wanted to feel firm ground under his feet, but I needed to keep him in the river until we reached that arroyo. Pushing Gabe from the side to keep him going downstream, I began talking to calm him down. "Steady Gabe. Just stay in the water. We'll get out of this mess soon, fella."
I spotted the arroyo and noticed at the same time the Indians who'd remained on the bank driving their horses into the river slightly ahead of my position. It was obvious they intended to cut me off, but they were too late as I had already reached the arroyo. Guiding Gabe towards it, he soon began to feel the river bottom. Waiting a little longer, I slipped my foot into the stirrup, throwing my other over the saddle. It was difficult because I couldn't use my left arm. Laying low I spurred Gabe hard and we came clear of the water and up into the dry arroyo. Reaching down and stroking the horse's neck, I said, "Okay, Gabe, one more time fella. Let's get the hell out of here."
As tired as he was, Gabe still responded, taking off at a full run. I spurred him on, wanting to place as much distance as possible before the Indians got out of the river. I hoped we could put a hundred yards between them and ourselves before they reached dry ground. I urged my big horse on, to once again race across the desert floor. San Antonio and safety were less than two miles away.
Gunshots rang out as the Indians came up out of the river and galloping at full speed in their attempt to catch me. The Indian ponies were tough, and the Indians wouldn't hesitate to run them into the ground. Gabe, however, was too fast for them and he'd already stretched his lead. Even so, the Apaches remained relentless, continuing to shoot at me.
Off in the distance ahead, dust rose in the air, I was hopeful it was men from San Antonio who had heard the rifle shots. Gabe continued to build his lead as he stretched his long powerful legs, literally flying across the ground. His breathing was labored, and he was sweating freely, but he didn't let up. Gabe's big heart was never more evident than right now.
I could see nine riders coming at me strong from straight ahead, rifles in their hands ready to fire once they'd got by me and Gabe. Glancing around, turning to look back, the Indians had begun reining up their horses and starting to turn around. The riders held up as they approached me, wanting to know that I was all right. I told them yes, and that I would go back with them, but they insisted they didn't need my help, spotting the blood on my shirtsleeve they told me to get on home and galloped off after the Apaches. I realized they would only chase them until they were sure they had crossed back over the river.
I was glad to be home as I rode my horse into the area in front of my house and dismounted. Having heard the gunshots, Elaina stood on the porch by the front step with a rifle in her hand. Placing the rifle next to the door she came running out and threw her arms around me, and then noticing the blood covering the sleeve of my left arm, "You've been shot."
"It's just a flesh wound, we can take care of it later. Besides, it doesn't hurt that much," I said lying.
A stern look on Elaine's face told me she didn't accept that. "Ben Johnson, you're not telling me the truth. With all that blood, there's no way it doesn't hurt."
Letting her words pass without comment, I reached back and untied the package from the saddle, handing it to her I asked, "How's Ely doing?"
"He's about the same, the sickness hasn't seemed to have gotten any worse. He's sleeping right now."
We walked into the house and straight to Ely's room. He was a big boy for his age, yet he looked helpless lying there. His eyes swollen and red, it looked like he'd lost weight, but his mother's cooking would take care of that once he was over his sickness.
And then, as if Elaina were reading my thoughts, she said, "He hasn't eaten much since you left, but I think his fever has broken. With luck, the medicine will help. I'll give it to him as soon as he wakes up." Ben reached down and felt his son's forehead and then bent over and lightly brushed his hair.
They both turned, looked at each other, and crept out of the room.
"I'm going to put Gabe up. When I get through, you can take a look at my arm."
"I'm worried about that wound. Why don't you let me look at it now? Besides, I can take care of Gabe and put him in the barn."
"No, that's alright. I'll take care of Gabe, then you can look at my arm." Starting for the door, I stopped, turned around, and stepped back close to Elaina. There was a smile on my face as I put my one good arm around her and drew her next to me in a warm embrace. Elaina was a woman whose strong Spanish blood had given her a fiery spirit and a bright free will, but who at night was as warm and pliable as warm butter, and I loved her for all she was. I kissed her with perhaps more passion than usual, then turned around and headed for the door, whispering at her as I was leaving, "I'm glad to be home."
Looking surprised and with a smile on her face, she answered, "So am I. Hurry up, Ben, all that blood on your sleeve makes me believe it's bad." Suddenly she gasped as she noticed the side of his shirt had blood all over it. "Your side's bleeding."
"My old wound, but you can fix that too," I said, walking out the door. No amount of pain was going to stop me from taking care of Gabe.
I grabbed the reins of the big horse and led him to the barn where I removed the saddle and wet blanket, rubbed him down, and then fed him. It was difficult with one arm, but I'd have done it with no arms if necessary. After finishing, I stood staring at the big horse, thinking about the events of the last four days. I had pressed him hard today and he'd responded with the courage he'd always shown. A man never needs a lot out of life, and I was blessed because I had more than most. Hesitating, I looked at Gabe and thought, yes, I had a whole lot more. This big powerful horse had never flinched when I asked him to run. He just gave his all, and no doubt had saved my life and given Ely a chance to live. I hoped he could sense my gratitude. I knew I would never own another horse as good as Gabe. I reached over and smoothed down his mane with my hand and said, "Thanks for getting me back home, big fella."
Reaching into my shirt pocket to grab a fresh chew, I pulled out a big soggy mess and threw it on the ground. I turned to leave, but once more I patted the huge sorrel on the neck. He turned his big bold head, his large eyes staring at me. I let my hand linger for a moment on his neck and he shook his head, as if acknowledging and responding to my touch, and I reflected on the special relationship that existed between us.
I thought about the three things when out on the trail that always made me feel good: a fast horse, a fresh chew, and my trusted Henry rifle. But in the end, only one of these gave me real satisfaction, and that was this big sorrel. I was tired, wore-out, and my body hurt. Grabbing my rifle to clean it, I headed for the house and hoped that the medicine would make Ely well.
Jack Clevenger writes primarily short literary fiction, all genres, and began rather late in life to write seriously. He is an avid reader, a college graduate, with graduate studies in creative writing from New Mexico State University. Most importantly, however, he lives in New Mexico, a place rich in history, where great western stories—both factual and made-up—have not only had their beginnings but have been the inspiration for many great writers.
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Mitchell and the Death of a Shotgunner
by Dick Derham
Ike Loney tensed at the sound of the approaching horse. Only one man knew where he had holed up, and he wasn't expected. No surprise visitor would be welcome.
Loney was a compact man, as Westerners go, five foot seven inches, 140 pounds, face dominated by the black mustache that the Arizona Territory had plastered across one of its wanted posters. Small, he might be, but the resolute set to his stubbled jaw identified him as a man who made the world dance to his tune. Clad this morning only in his bloodied longjohns, and those unbuttoned to the waist and peeled back to expose the left side of his skimpy chest where he had been peppered by the blast of the shotgun, he had been sagging at the small table in what had once been the guard shack to an long-abandoned mine on the eastern slope of the Whetstone Mountains, while he mustered strength to face the pain as he resumed the task of digging out the remaining buckshot.
But now Loney had a visitor. He pushed himself up to his feet with his good arm and stepped over to the wall where his holster was hanging. In a smooth gesture, he eased his revolver into his hand. He turned, faced the door, and waited. The horse come to a halt outside the cabin and Loney heard the saddle creak as the horseman swung down. When his visitor tromped up to the door, Loney raised his pistol, aimed at the center of the door, and cocked. His visitor, whoever he was, had made a one-way trip.
"Hello the house," the newcomer sang out.
Loney down-cocked, slid his pistol back in its holster. As he eased himself back into the chair at the table, he said, "Come."
The newcomer shrugged out of his sheepskin jacket and shook off the snow that had been falling during the ride from Tombstone then reached out his hand to Loney. He was a buff man, with an easy grin on his face that brought a smile to a man's face automatically, as it did now to Loney. He was dressed as a city man might to go for a ride in the rough desert country of the San Pedro Valley . Of an age with Loney, a sense of self-assuredness,, but not a man of the saddle, a city man with a face which lacked the deep sun-darkened skin of men of the outdoors . But the business they'd done together made this man's unexpected visit welcome, especially in his current need. Loney lacked the energy to rise and grasp the sheriff's welcoming handshakes, but his gesture was welcome enough.
"Been forgetting to shave, Ike," the newcomer joshed. "What if some pretty rancher's daughter comes calling, looking for a man of action?"
Despite his fatigue, Loney smiled. "Didn't expect to see you."
"Stage driver said you got tagged. I knew you planned to be far on your trail, but I figured I'd ride out just in case you're needing some help."
Loney started to shrug, and then stopped because of the pain. "Could have been worse. I'm sitting here." He looked up meaningfully. "But I got the job done for you."
"Done him better'n I could've asked. Took the bastard a full agonizing day before he cashed out." He extracted a piece of paper from his pocket and passed it over. "Lancaster lasted long enough to give me a description of the man who done it to him."
Loney picked up the paper. "Short, dark-haired, wears a Stetson. Not even a drawing. Be hard to run a man in on this."
"Guess that's why it's not Dead or Alive. Wells, Fargo's got a hotshot team of investigators coming down from Denver to run you to the ground and sweat a confession out of you so the hanging can be all right and proper."
"Got to find me first. I'm pulling out for Tucson in the morning and then on the train to California to have a good time spending what I earned here. More than $10,000. I've got a fatter money belt then I've had in ten years of making gunsmoke," Loney said.
While they were talking, Loney slid his bloodied Bowie Knife across the table. "I spent most of yesterday afternoon digging up the buckshot that son of a bitch gave me, but some are hard to get to. Maybe you can give me a hand."
The knife fit easily in the visitor's hand as he stepped around the table and squatted next to Loney. "Take a pull on your whiskey first, then I'll start carving away."
Loney stuffed his left hand under his butt to get the arm out of the way, held tight to the table with the other, braced himself and said "go ahead." The pain was no less under someone else's hands than under his own, and to distract himself, Loney made conversation.
In five minutes, three buckshot had been sliced out, in what would've taken Loney half an hour, but there were still several more to go. He signaled to rest a moment. "Lucky day for me when you matched me with that Arizona Territorial dodger. Maybe being a notorious outlaw has its advantages."
"I see a couple more pellets," the visitor said as he knelt by Loney's side again and raised the Bowie knife . Loney clenched his teeth in anticipation and nodded to go ahead.
The knife slipped an eighth of an inch into Loney's side and probed for the pellet. ""You're a good man to work with, Ike. Just one more thing, since you're still here." Loney was listening. "Need to make sure that our little deal stays secret between us."
The pellet popped out and Loney could speak again. "You got nothing to worry about. I'll never rat you out."
"I know." The Bowie knife rammed hard up to the hilt and twisted viciously on its way out, as the killer quickly backed out of splatter range.
Loney gasped as pain spread across his innards. "You stinking polecat . . . " He slumped sideways, and hit the floor with a loud thud.
The cleanup took less than five minutes. While the aorta finished spewing blood, the killer gathered up the dead man's saddle, saddlebags, and gear and dumped them in the mine's air shaft. Then he dragged the corpse through the snow and toppled it in. The falling snow would quickly cover the two parallel tracks made by the dead man's boot heels. The killer gave one final look around the cabin. Anyone from town who swung by the shack, maybe as a base for elk hunting, would know the shack had been used as a hideout , but everything looked like the outlaw had pulled out with his loot.
* * *
David Mitchell's last visit to the Cochise County Courthouse in Tombstone had been lacking in either the
freedom he had always valued or the purpose he felt now. Less than a day it had taken for the prosecutor
to make his case, the jury to nod their agreement, and the judge to pronounce the expected, unwelcome, words: "Five years in Yuma."
A strange path he had been on, after youthful years earning his living by relieving Wells, Fargo stages of extra weight. A free life,
a life dedicated to pleasure, and he now knew, an empty life. He would claim no credit if St. Peter made him explain how he came by
the badge on his pocket. All credit belonged to the man by his side, Chet Collins, at five foot six inches the biggest man he had ever known. A man he had been inspired to be like, to try to imitate, even if it meant giving up the freedom to take what he wanted and instead to work for what he would have called paltry wages.
"It was a better bargain than I could have imagined," he told his partner as they walked up the steps to the Courthouse.
"Badge stink, I think you called it back then," Collins reminded his colleague and friend.
"Turns out, it was the fragrance of good honest sweat."
As a courtesy and sign of respect—and to size up what, if any cooperation might be expected—the two Wells, Fargo agents routinely began any assignment by introducing themselves to the local sheriff.
Sheriff Alvin Dinkins greeted them jovially. "Always glad to have someone do my work for me," he told them. "Don't know you'll get far." He explained that the robbery and murder had taken place at night, "by the time I learned of the robbery and got out to Rocky Point where poor Butch Lancaster was murdered, the trail was getting cold. The robber rode back toward Benson a few miles, I could tell that. Then he waded in a small creek. Couldn't find where he came out."
"We're not trackers ourselves," Collins said. "If you couldn't follow it, we'd have been no better." The tone of deference Collins had developed over the years to ease any tension in the natural resentment to "outsiders trying to do my job" that the agents had encountered from Idaho to Wyoming to New Mexico.
"You're welcome to try," Dinkins said. "I figure the robber is long gone, but you boys ain't limited by county line jurisdiction problems, and maybe you can track him down. Sure hope so. Folks liked Butch Lancaster "
"We'll do our best," Collins assured the sheriff. "Wells, Fargo's records show that stage robberies are down from the early years in Tombstone. How about crime generally?"
"There are our share of bad actors out in the bush," Dinkins said, "but mainly they make their money stealing Mexican cattle." Dinkins told the agents. "All sorts of robberies are down."
"Down since you been sheriff?"
Dinkins nodded, modestly avoiding any claim of credit. "Not as much money slopping around as in the early days. Never had a haul this big since I put on the badge."
As they got to up to leave, the agents promised to keep him up-to-date on whatever they found.
"The robber is long gone, your money with him," Dinkins said. "Good luck to you if you can find it. Folks here won't be happy until the murderer of Butch Lancaster is swinging from the gallows."
Dinkins watched the two agents leave his office with a politician's satisfaction. The more they looked, the less the Tombstone Epitaph could rant about his performance.
Since the driver of the stage quote was out on a run, the Tombstone Epitaph, as it turned out, was the next stop on the agents' itinerary. The Epitaph editor, always a good reporter, welcomed them to his shop and brought out the issues with reporting on the robbery and murder. But first he made sure he got their names and spelling right for his next issue. "Dave Mitchell? Name sounds familiar."
"Been here before," Mitchell admitted. "Wells, Fargo and me didn't see things the same way back then."
The newspaper report gave limited details about the robbery, nothing more than they had received from sheriff Dinkins. But there was a side-bar article expressing the community's grief at the loss of a "first-rate public spirited citizen" in Butch Lancaster. It concluded with the statement that the Republican Party would meet soon to select its new nominee for Sheriff.
The Tombstone Nugget went into more details about the robbery, focusing on the efforts of Sheriff Dinkins to track the robber and concluded that "no fault can be assigned to our competent sheriff that darkness and weather allowed the robber to escape."
"I notice you don't say much about Lancaster," Mitchell pointed out. "What do folks think about him?"
"He made himself popular in town, like politicians do, claiming he would bring law and order to Tombstone," the editor said. "But out in the county, which is sheriff's responsibility, most folks think he was just a troublemaker, trying to run down Dinkins in order to build himself up. Too bad he got killed, but none of the Democrats in the county turned up at his funeral."
Andy Clay was a stout man in his 40s who had driven for Wells, Fargo out of the Tucson District for ten years. They had already established that he had a good record, and was well-regarded by his superiors. The agents were waiting for him when he turned the stage into the Wells, Fargo yard after his run from Bisbee. Mitchell stepped forward to help him unharness the team, as Collins began loosening him up to talk about the robbery.
"Been knocked over maybe twenty times," Clay said. "More in the early years. Back then, it seemed, most of our robbers were down-and-outers, and would knock over a stage just for the money in passenger's pockets."
"Anything different about this robbery?" Collins asked.
"Now that you ask, yes. And I've been wrestling with it. Not got around to telling the sheriff yet. But
there's kind of a pattern you learn to expect. Usually, the robber tells you to stop and orders the shotgunner
to throw down his gun. Everybody knows it's the policy of Wells, Fargo to not make a gunfight with passengers
on board. But this fellow, first we knew he was there was when he fired his rifle and hit Butch. Didn't do for
Butch right away, and Butch got off both barrels of the shotgun before he fell off the coach. Funny, though,
after that, the robber seemed real experienced. Don't know what to make of it."
"You almost make it sound like an assassination rather than a routine killing," Mitchell said.
Clay pondered that. "Yes, you could say that." He thought a moment. "But no one around here has it in for Butch, so I guess that don't make much sense. Probably just an outlaw skittish about guns."
"How often did Lancaster ride with you?" Collins asked
"Like you know, Wells, Fargo only pays for a guard when it has something worth the guarding."
Mitchell confirmed that. "Unless I was down to my last two nickels, when I saw a stage without a guard, I let it go by and waited for the next one."
Clay continued. "I guess Butch rode for us maybe six, eight times a month. Wells, Fargo had a couple other men they could call on from time to time.
* * *
Both newspapers carried reports of their arrival and the start of their investigation. The Epitaph opined that "finally the murderer of Butch Lancaster faces real professionals who will bring him to justice." The Nugget had a different view: "Whether two out-of-towners can do what our sheriff hasn't been able to accomplish remains to be seen."
In the morning, the agents visited the office of the Contention Mining Company on Toughnut Street. The mine
manager was happy to talk to them about the robbery. "Don't know that I can tell you much, though," he said.
His main interest was in making sure Wells, Fargo was standing by its duty to make good his loss.
"No problem with that," Collins said.
Mitchell asked the obvious question . "Who would know of the shipment?"
"Anyone could know that the payroll was paid, twice a month. Sheriff Dinkins told us we should space up the
deliveries, and so we'd spread them out, and could be any day of the four or five days before payroll is due.
As to who would know? Well, there'd be me and my payroll clerk, the bank," he seemed almost embarrassed to
mention it, "and Wells, Fargo of course. And anyone who knew that Lancaster was working that night."
Later in the morning, the agents stopped in at the Oriental Saloon at Fifth and Allen Streets, their approach timed to beat the saloon's crowded time hours. The men coming off the mine's night shift had done their drinking and gone to their rooms to sleep, the day crowd had not yet come in for their lunch break and early afternoon drinking. So, after the bartender placed there beers in front of them, they were able to get a few minutes of his undistracted time.
"Butch Lancaster," Collins said, "you know him?"
"Sure did. He was a regular here."
"Trying to get a line on him. The way the two newspapers write about him, he could be two different people."
"Politics. The Epitaph is the Republican paper, it speaks for most of us folks here in town. The, Nugget, now, it gets most of its readers from the country. The Cow-Boys almost see it as their own property. So, with an election coming up, the Epitaph takes one side and the Nugget takes the other."
"Elections come and go," Mitchell said. "Anything to make this especially rancorous?"
The bartender looked nervously around at who was with me in earshot. "I'm happy to serve whiskey to Republicans, Democrats, even had a Monarchist hold forth once on why Louis XIV was the greatest man ever lived."
The bartender moved away to fill some other orders and Collins and Mitchell took their beers over to an empty table and sat down to reflect on what they had learned.
"What do you think, Dave?" Collins asked.
Mitchell reflected. "The sheriff lost the trail, and tells us there's no known outlaw in this area that
would pull off a job like this." He cocked his head to one side. "From what we know about the job so far,
I'm inclined to agree with him. It sounds like a good piece of work by a solitary robber. He knew what he
was doing, got himself a big haul, and pulled it off clean. That's not what someone does on his first try,
and if an experienced robber like that were in the area, there would be other crimes to prove it."
"So you think Dinkins is right that the robber has made his stake and pulled out."
"If it had been me, I'd have been twenty miles away by daylight, and lost in Tucson before anyone could track me." He paused reflectively. "Except for the time I was shot outside Leadville. Then I had no choice but to hunker down."
"Just buckshot, and we don't know how bad it was."
"True enough," Mitchell said. "but it would slow him down a day at least. It's a big countryside out there, but if we can find out where he holed up before the job, maybe we find some leads." He sipped thoughtfully at his beer before continuing.
"The one thing I can't really get to my mind, though, is the shooting of Lancaster," Mitchell said. "Without that, it was just money. And no one but Wells, Fargo would care about them. Any killing makes news across the territory. Yet the way Clay tells it, that almost seems the first thing on the robber's mind."
"So you're saying we should be looking for Lancaster's enemies?" But when Mitchell nodded, Collins pointed out, "Folks tell us he was pretty popular."
"That's why the whole thing puzzles me," Mitchell said.
The agents fell silent as each contemplated the mystery. In a moment, they looked up to see a white-bearded man slouching by their table. "Bartender said you are the two Wells, Fargo men in town looking to find who killed my friend Butch Lancaster."
Never be impatient, Collins had once told Mitchell. Even old codgers mumbling in their beer can sometimes give you a fact you need. So they waved the newcomer to a spare chair and said, "That's us. We've been wondering what folks in town have to say about who the robber is."
"Don't know," the man said. "Not a local, the way I see it, since he needed to use the old abandoned Prosperity Mine as his hideout before the robbery."
"You see him up there?"
"Just from a distance, Just a dark-haired man with a big caterpillar on his lip, nothing much to go on there. But nobody else goes out to Prosperity Mine these days. I mentioned it to Sheriff Dinkins the day after the robbery, so I figure if there were anything out there, he seen it." The man got up to leave. "Good luck to you. Butch didn't deserve what they did to him."
"Before you go," Collins said, "whereabouts we find this mine?"
* * *
The agents visit to Rocky Point did nothing to dispel Mitchell's intuition that the robber knew his business. Lancaster had been shot while the team was straining near the top of a long up-grade. The stage had stopped, the payroll transferred, and the robber had quickly been on his way, not even bothering to search the two passengers for their valuables. Mitchell found where the horse had left its calling card during the wait for the stop, a few boot prints in the dust, but nothing to stand out.
They followed the road north to the turnoff for Prosperity Mine. "Sheriff Dinkins thought he'd have turned here if he was hurt so badly he needed to go to town," Mitchell said. "But Sheriff Dinkins said he kept riding until he hit Iron Creek, so likely he's drinking up Wells, Fargo's money in Tucson."
The abandoned mine was ten miles west of a small intermittent creek in the foothills of the Whetstone mountains northwest of Tombstone and the agents were there by early afternoon. Except for patches in the shade, the snow had melted, leaving behind it the set of dusty, dirty ramshackle structures typical of any mining operation and which had not had their share of maintenance in the hot, dry, Southwest.
They swung down in front of the shack and, revolvers in hand just in case, swung open the door. At first glance, the shack looked as deserted as it probably had been since the mine closed. There was a bunk bed up against the wall, with a flattened and torn mattress, a table and chair in the center, and a stove against the wall.
"Been used lately," Collins quickly said. "Stovetop doesn't have dust on it ." He looked inside. "The ashes are a few days old, not more." But there was little more to see. No convenient saddlebags hanging on the wall with name and address of the robber, no letter from home. "Looks like we found the hideout all right. But he's long gone."
"Gone, all right," Mitchell said. "But maybe not the way Dinkins thought . Someone died here, Chet, got murdered here." Mitchell pointed to the thick bloodstain on the floor. "That means there's a body if we can find it."
The ventilation shaft was only fifty yards away, and had a rickety wooden ladder nailed into its wall. Down that ladder with its rot-weakened steps, Mitchell descended. When he got to the bottom, he turned and yelled to his partner "drop me down a rope."
With one end of the rope tightly under the arms of the dead man, the two agents together pulled and soon what was left of Ike Loney lay on the ground. Mitchell went back for Loney's discarded clothing and his saddlebags. "Shirt and Stetson may help the driver recognize him."
* * *
Back in Tombstone, Collins and Mitchell next stopped by the office of the Chief of Police. After introductions, Collins got right to the point. "Do you have any wanted posters for a fellow named Ike Loney?"
The chief rustled through some papers and pulled out one and handed it Collins. He scanned it and passed it to Mitchell. "Looks like a match."
"One more thing," Mitchell said. "We've been hearing you got a rip-roaring election coming up. But no one will tell us what it's about."
The chief nodded. "I tried to leave politics to the politicians ," he said . "But Butch was making that hard, with the charges he was making. He was telling everyone who would listen that Sheriff Dinkins was corrupt. Not that that would matter so much, politics being what it is, but he said Dinkins was getting paid by the Cow-Boys to let them have the run of things. I got to walk a narrow line here. Some folks in town think that the Cow-Boys only come to town to make trouble and they want me to come down hard on them. But the businesses, the saloons and such, they see the Cow-Boys as good business. So I tried to keep a loose rein on them so they had their fun without getting too far out of line. That means I tried to stay out of the fight Lancaster was looking for."
"Any special way Dinkins was supposed to be getting his pay?"
"Lancaster was making the charge that the rustlers were paying Dinkins a head tax on every Mexican steer they brought in to the Tombstone butchers. Not saying whether it's true, but it sure riled Dinkins up. And I don't see how it will help you run down your money."
"We're beginning to think it never left Cochise County. When we finish here, we're going over to compare our thoughts with Sheriff Dinkins. It may be interesting. Why don't you come along?"
* * *
Sheriff Dinkins looked up jovially from his desk when the two agents entered his office. "Afternoon, chief," he said as the Tombstone Police Chief came in behind them.
"He was asking how our investigation is coming," Collins explained, "so we figured it would save time if we all thought it out together, especially since it has some Tombstone angles."
"Got a lead on your money then?" Dinkens asked.
"First step is finding the man responsible for the killing, and Dave has come up with some thoughts about that. Tell him, Dave."
"There is an abandoned mine a few miles up in the hills, the Prosperity Mine. You know it, Sheriff?"
"Someone told me they'd seen things up there, and I went up to check it out," Dinkins replied. "Nothing there."
"Nothing in the shack, you mean. Mitchell said. "Nothing, except a big, thick bloodstain on the floor, not even old enough to collect dust. Someone was killed there, Sheriff, and not many days ago."
Dinkins was paying close attention. "And you figure . . . "
"Got a dodger for Ike Loney in your stack?" Mitchell asked.
Dinkins opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He began thumbing through them. "Who's Loney?"
"He is the man who killed Lancaster. The driver identified the body and his name was inked inside his empty money belt."
Sheriff Dinkins thumbed through his papers again. "Can't find one with that name."
"Thought you might not," Mitchell said. "The chief brought the Tombstone Police dodger along with him." He passed it over to Dinkins. "The description matches what Clay told us from the robbery, and fits the corpse."
Collins took the dodger back. "Take a look at what the dodger says. Loney is not a common robber, who just killed in the course of a robbery. He's a cold, calculating killer for money. Just the kind of man someone would hire. Especially if he could arrange it so Wells, Fargo would pay the bill."
Mitchell resumed the story. "The way we figure, the plan was that he would take the money as his pay for the murder and disappear. But when he got wounded and needed to go to ground, where maybe a couple of Wells, Fargo agents would find him, it was safer to kill him."
"Finding Loney's body, murdered by someone he trusted to get in close with a knife, was the key to solving the case. Anyone could have taken a notion to rob a big payroll," Mitchell said. "But we've come up with only one person who had a motive to kill Butch Lancaster."
Collins took the story up from there. "You knew Butch Lancaster was going to be guarding that shipment. And with him dead, nothing would interfere with the graft you're collecting from the Cow-Boys."
The chief stepped forward. "Alvin Dinkins, I am arresting you for murder and robbery."
The telltale stack of greenbacks from the payroll turned up when the Dinkins house was searched.
* * *
Mitchell took one look back on Tombstone as they crested the hill northwest of town. "Got to say my acquaintance with the Tombstone jail was more fulfilling this time than last time."
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 eleventh of Dave Mitchell's Wells, Fargo
cases which have been reported in Frontier Tales.
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The Man of Boot Hill
by Chino Nunez
The temperatures were in the 90s, easily. The streets were bustling with the people of the town, wagons rolling by and horses carrying their travelers to their destination, both parties aching for a cold drink. Inside the Perro Y Toro Cantina, the tables were filled with patrons from both sides of the border, occupied with many different things, from card games to drinks to whores. A man in a derby hat was pounding away at the stand-up piano, along with a trumpeter and a fiddler, all three just barely able to be heard over the noise of the saloon. A few men had bellied up to the bar including a man in a suit and a man in a white jacket.
"I heard ol' USG is planning on giving people good federal jobs based on what they can do, rather than who they know," said the man in the suit, "as if that'll change anything. Probably get thrown out by the next president anyhow." The man took a swig of the beer in front of him. "What do you think about this whole mess, Charlie?"
"I think those bastards in Washington don't know their ass from their tail feathers. They should just leave us alone over here. What are they gonna do from several thousand miles away, write me a strongly worded letter?" the man in the white coat, identified as Charlie, stated. They both shared a hearty laugh before taking another drink.
While the two men were talking, a man came bursting in through the door. Disheveled and panicky, he yelled "Magruder's comin'!"
At this, a man in the back yelled back, "Magruder ain't nothin'. I could beat him with one arm tied behind my back." He proceeded to laugh, not noticing the large figure in the doorway.
"Oh, you could, could you? Tell me, what's your name?" said the figure, the saloon going dead quiet at it. The man in the back just gulped as the people parted for the figure as he walked through.
"Well come on now. You said you could beat me with one hand tied behind your back. I want to know the name of the man who could beat Mean Magruder in a fistfight." His voice was almost playful, like a cat stalking a ball of yarn
"S-Simon, sir. Simon Baptiste." The man said, stuttering.
"Well Simon," said Magruder, looping an arm around Simon's shoulders, "You claim something that most men won't, or can't, claim. I like that. Respect it even. There may be a spot for you in my gang, what with the bravado you just showed."
"R-r-really?" Simon said, smiling.
"No." Magruder said, gripping Simon's jaw with one hand and extending his arm, snapping Simon's neck. "Anyone else want to man up against me?" he said, observing the crowd. "What about you, farmer boy?" he said, pointing at a young man in overalls, enjoying a Sarsaparilla. The boy coughed, shaking his head. He went on, challenging anyone that looked his way.
"So, nobody wants to fight, eh? Too chickenshit to fight one man? Pathetic, all of you." Magruder said, his eyes landing on Charlie. "What about you, Slick? You some kinda road agent or something? With your fancy white coat and pants."
Charlie turned to Magruder, his eyes chips of obsidian in a rock face. "I don't reckon I am, mister. It's mighty hot outside, and this is my only set that won't stink after a day. Unlike you, I prefer not to smell of skunk and garbage whenever I go anywhere." he said, meeting Magruder's glare.
Having never had a person stand up to him before, Magruder was, understandably, baffled. Soon, he recovered and said, "What did you say, you piece of trail trash?"
Charlie stood up, matching Magruder eye to eye and coming toe to toe. "What I said was," he began, "that you smell terrible. Did you wallow in the mud with the pigs on the outskirts of town, or do you just naturally smell that bad? Not to mention you look like the middle of main street in San Antonio after a hard rain."
Magruder had gone redder than a lobster and was steaming like one too. He called out, "Arnold, Smith, get over here and help me beat this man into submission." He put on his gloves while his two associates burst into the barroom, a club in one set of hands and a hammer in the other.
"Hold it right there, Magruder. I don't care if you start a fight in my bar, but if you do, it'll be a damn fair one," the bartender piped up, leveling a shotgun at the two henchmen.
Grimacing, Magruder gave in, "All right, old man, I won't start anything in here." He pointed at Charlie and said, "You. Meet me outside in ten. I'm gonna teach you where exactly you stand to me."
Charlie seemed unaffected, lighting a stogie and chuffing it before responding, "All right. Make sure you're there on time, alright? That's when the big hand is on the six. Do you think you can manage it?"
Magruder looked ready to burst, but knew if he started anything, he'd be without two henchmen, and by the way this man was talking, he might need more than two. "Alright boys let's go. We'll teach this filth what it means to be a part of Mean Magruder's gang." he said, walking out, followed by his lackeys.
The saloon was silent until he left, then burst with noise, primarily questions for the insane stranger in white. "What are you doing?" "What were you thinking?" "Are you really going to fight him?" "Can I have that coat when you die?" were some of them that were prominent. Despite the questions, Charlie didn't look fazed.
His friend leaned over and asked, "Are you sure you want to go with this? He could seriously hurt you."
Charlie cast his gaze to his friend and said, "Of course I'm scared. In my line of work though, fear is often present."
His friend gained a knowing look before returning to his drink. "You think there'll be enough to get them all?" A solemn nod was his answer. "And the ones that run?" Another nod. "Well, I wish you luck then. You'd best get out there, it's almost time."
"Alright. Keep the beer cool, will you? I don't want to come back to warm beer." Charlie said. The crowd was baffled at this man who seemed more concerned with the temperature of his beer, than the most dangerous criminal this side of the Mississippi. Nonetheless, they parted for the supposed madman, the men taking off their hats in respect for this dead man walking.
As Charlie walked out, a flash of light hit his eye, and he waved it off, revealing Magruder crouched next to a little boy, around 13 years old, if Charlie had to guess. Magruder caught his eye and waved the boy off.
"My son here was wondering if he could be a man like me someday. I told him to watch this slaughter to see if he likes this life. He's saw it before, I just want him to see you beg for your life as I kill you, to remind him to never be weak." Magruder said, a grin splitting his face.
Charlie stood in the center of the street, one hand brushing his coat back to reveal a pitch-black Schofield with ivory inlays, saying "Be a shame for a kid to see his old man be chucked in the dirt so young."
Magruder's grin shrunk into a straight line across his face, taking his place across from Charlie, mimicking his stance. He sized up the man across from him. Nothing too special, just a fancy dressed smack talker whose scraggly hair likely blinded him to an extent. Despite that, Magruder could feel those cold, black pits staring at, no, through him. Almost like he wasn't there. Like the bumpkin had sized him up and dismissed him.
The man across from Magruder was stone cold, he could tell. There was no fear in his eyes, no trembles in his body. Hell, his moustache didn't even twitch. Magruder called out to his boy, saying "Call it out, Mac. This one's on you."
A second went by, then a boy's voice pierced the silence with a "Draw!"
Magruder knew he was fast. He had bested several of the fastest men of his time. He could make snakes look slow with his drawing and firing. Which is why it was a surprise when he saw the stranger's hand flash down and up, then firing while he was still drawing. He didn't get time to process this as a chunk of molten lead came screaming at him, making its home right in Magruder's heart.
Young Mac didn't know what had happened. When he yelled 'Draw', he expected his dad and uncle Arnold to fire at the same time, taking the man down immediately. What had happened was his father getting killed, and his uncle Arnold nowhere to be found.
Mac got his answer when New Mexico Rangers, Pinkertons and a few local police came out of the buildings where the gang was stationed in case the man wasn't fair. Right behind the law officers was the rest of the gang, bound and gagged, being dragged along by the lawmen.
White hot rage was what Mac felt, and he decided to take it out on the man that was supposed to die. "You bastard, you killed my pappy!" he yelled, fumbling with his own .36 revolver. Before he could level it, the man in the suit batted it out of his hand and rapped the kid on the head with his own pistol.
Charlie, having noticed this, thanked the man, adding "If you need anything from me, William, let me know."
William nodded and said, "You've done far more than I could have. Thank you, Charlie." The two were quickly surrounded by officers, all congratulating each other. "What other names you got? If you don't mind me askin', that is," said a local deputy, barely out of his twenties.
Charlie stretched a bit before answering. "I only got two. Charlie Indigo, my Christian name, and the one I got on that fateful day fifteen years ago," he looked at the crowd, all of who had leaned in closer, "Charlie Casket, The Man of Boot Hill."
Chino Nunez is a Graduate of Full Sail University and has graduated with a Bachelor's in Creative Writing.
He has a Wix site at https://csnunez1.wixsite.com/mysite. He updates it when he can
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