A Higher Law
by Dick Derham
- 1 -
Trevor Colby hated courtrooms. He hated every hour he had spent squirming on the hard-bottomed benches where men like him sat, breathing in the stuffy air produced by dozens of bodies, some with their jailhouse stink, waiting and listening to the yakking of book-smart townies who never saw more of the world than could be seen from their swivel-chair offices. None of them ever found one of their partners, a vigorous man they had worked with for years, bloody-shirted and left to leak out his life under the scorching sun. None of them ever had to call upon the widow, give her the heart-rending news, and make the promise that he would extract justice.
A man belonged on horseback, riding purposefully across the open range, iron on his hip, rifle under his thigh, breathing God's free air, basking in the warmth of sunshine, or welcoming the freshness of rain, making things happen, not waiting helplessly for some wizened old man looking down from his high dais who, if Colby read the omens right, was about make a mockery of his promise to Fred Allred's widow.
"Upon the evidence before me," the judge's reedy voice intoned, as though by stretching out his decision and using high-sounding words he would mask the injustice of his ruling, "considering the lack of corroboration of the testimony of the arresting officer," that was Colby, "cognizant of the claims of alibi," false though Colby knew them to be, "and in recognition of the obligation of the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt," and now came the damning words, "I find the defendant not guilty."
Not for the first time did Colby resent the limitations imposed on him by his badge which made the law's claims of the justice a travesty. Not for the first time did he consider that a truer verdict could be administered in the field without the need of black-robed interference. In his anger, he squirmed in his seat, waiting for the courtroom to clear, not out of respect for the judge who had just set a killer free, but because his pay demanded the semblance of submissiveness. He was still sitting as Eugene Darnell strode out, smirking at Colby as he passed.
"You won't see a judge next time I hunt you, Darnell," Colby called after the killer. "Just my jury of six."
Out on the street, Colby took three steps and paused to fill his lungs with unpolluted air as he tried to master his fury.
Colby was a tall, Texas man-of-the-saddle, chin scraped clean this morning because of the judge's dictum of proper decorum, but still sporting a thick black mustache on his upper lip, and with muscular hands that had grown comfortable around the grip of the forty-five secured snuggly against his thigh. For what purpose, he asked himself. Ten years riding for the law, and Fred Allred's killer rides free.
"They say law and order works back East," a voice sounded in Colby's ears. "Maybe someday it will work here, too. But for now . . . "
Colby had vaguely noticed the man in the courtroom. Now, in one brief glance, he made a quick but complete catalog. Pushing forty, medium height, clean-shaven except for a well-trained mustache, wearing a deep outdoorsman's tan, dressed for cow country, but reasonably prosperous, unfaded flannel shirt under a tailored brown brush jacket, woolen trousers that didn't seem to be patched, serviceable riding boots, but polished to a sheen that seldom went with a dirt-and-sweat cowhand. No gun belt, a man in Colby's profession noticed that right off. The High Plains hat identified him as an outlander to Texas.
"Leaves a bad taste in a man's mouth," Colby muttered.
"Only one way to deal with that," the man was saying. "Come, let me buy you a drink."
In minutes, Colby had settled himself at a table against the rear wall of the Alamo Saloon while his new acquaintance visited the bar and picked up a bottle and two glasses. "Double Anchor," Colby said appreciatively. "Good whiskey's a way to get a man's attention."
"This kind of miscarriage of justice happen often?" the man asked. "Having the goods on a killer and watching him walk free."
Colby eyeballed the man whose name he still didn't know. In his experience, what he didn't say seldom got him in trouble.
"Got a good reputation, you have," the man continued when he saw his question would remain unanswered. "Skilled, competent, a conscientious lawman who always gets the job done."
"Didn't get it done this time. Sometimes the law . . . " Colby instantly regretted showing what was really in his mind.
The man buying the whiskey seemed to change the subject. "Looks to me like you're pushing thirty. Time a man starts fulfilling his ambitions. Looking down the trail, given your best hopes, where do you want to be in five years?"
"Always figured on having a small ranch someday."
"Takes money," the man told him. "Starting your own ranch, even a small one on free grass. Twenty-five hundred to buy a small starter herd, more for gear and equipment, and enough to pay a couple of hands until your first shipment. I figure you need up to four thousand to get set up, maybe more."
Colby had nothing to say. Starting his own ranch had been his dream since he threw his first calf at another man's branding fire. More than ten years later, he was no closer and it seemed the dream was moving beyond him. But surrendering a man's dreams makes him a failure. Colby wasn't willing admit that to this stranger nor even to himself.
"Save much on a deputy's wages?"
Colby shifted resentfully in his seat. "Arrest fees don't add up very fast."
"Must be an opportunity for some nice bonuses in your pocket from time to time." The man's comment seemed just a casual observation, but enunciated too deliberately for its meaning not to be clear.
"You're pushing hard, mister man-without-a-name. Like to tell me where you're going."
"Names Merv Hatcher. Come from Wyoming. Man I work for understands it's tough to start a ranch. Likes to help young men along the way."
"All out of his spirit of generosity, no doubt," Colby replied. "All I'm hearing is air."
Hatcher paused thoughtfully, looking over Colby, as though judging whether he'd found the right man for his proposition. "Up in Wyoming, there's work for a someone who believes in law and order. And my boss is willing to pay."
Colby shifted uncomfortably. "I ain't someone's paid assassin. The men who ate my lead all had the choice of letting me bring them in."
"Living on principle is an admirable thing," Hatcher said. "It represents the world all of us hope to see some day. Meanwhile, sometimes the law needs a little help to clean up a range. I guess you know that." While Colby reflected on Fred Allred, Hatcher added a final inducement "Five hundred dollars in your pocket just to ride up to Wyoming with me and talk it over with my boss, Mike Ralston of the MR-Connected. You can make your decision, then."
"When opportunity knocks, only a fool don't answer the door."
* * *
A three day train ride, first on the Kansas Pacific north, a stopover to transfer to the westbound, still on the Kansas Pacific to Denver, then the Denver Pacific to Cheyenne, and finally by spur line to Casper, Wyoming, leaves travelers with nothing to do but sleep, look out the window as the flatlands of Texas and Kansas clickity-clacked by. And talk. Over three days two men get used to each other, begin to understand each other, and to form a deeper bond than a shared drink in a small Texas saloon can produce.
Initially, the suppressed tension of their first meeting continued unabated. Theirs was a business relationship only. And Colby wasn't sure he understood what Mr. Ralston had in mind. Their trip wasn't about friendship. Don't need to like each other, Colby told himself. It can only get in the way.
Filling in long silences was easy. Just making conversation, Hatcher asked about Darnell, let Colby describe the vicious killing of Colby's friend and colleague Fred Allred, the challenges of the three weeks he spent hunting the killer in the unfriendly country of Indian Territory, and the close escape when two of Darnell's gang near turned the tables and caught the hunter in their trap. "That sort of thing happen often?" Hatcher asked.
"Often enough that the judge is always hiring replacement deputies," Colby said. Then he went on to the frustration of the trial. "Lawyers," he nearly spit the word. "They get you up on the witness chair and twist what you say and by the time they're through, you hardly believe yourself."
Hatcher's tone of commiseration started building a common bond between the two men. "Guilty men get set free often?"
"We lay our lives on the line to bring them in. They get turned loose, and we have to go after them and do it all over again." Colby was surprised at the bitterness in his own words, a bitterness he now realized had been building every time an outlaw he risked his life to arrest had walked smirking out of the courthouse.
"Just like Wyoming," Hatcher said. "Can't find a jury to convict a rustler, even when we bring in a cowhide that shows the brand blotting."
By the end of the first day's travel, while they were overnighting to catch the westbound to Denver, Hatcher had learned the depth of commitment of Colby to what he had always believed the badge represented, an almost holy calling. "Law's what makes us better than wild animals in the jungle," Colby had told him. And that gave Hatcher a basis to get philosophical.
"You swore to uphold the law, isn't that right?" Hatcher said. "But what is the law? Is it that an outlaw shouldn't kill a lawman? Or that a judge should turn the killer loose?"
Colby remembered the threat, the promise, he had given to Darnell as the killer left the courtroom. He wasn't even conscious that he was muttering his private thoughts. "Maybe there's a higher law."
Hatcher let that sit, at least for that night.
On the second day, as the train traveled west through the vastness of the Kansas prairie, Hatcher pointed to herds scattered in small clusters across the range. "Good honest work, ranching," Hatcher said. "Been at it eighteen years. Now riding for Mr. Ralston and the MR-Connected. Worked my way up to ranch Segundo."
Hatcher spoke about ranching, about the joys of riding the open range, about the camaraderie around the round-up fire, about the good honest burn of muscles as a man throws a heifer to receive its brand. "Never seen a cow shoot back at me."
Just riding in the seat next to Hatcher, listening to him talk about the glories of ranching, revived and built Colby's dream. "If I like the work you got for me in Wyoming, won't be long before I'll be muscling my own cows to the branding fire."
"And building a good ranch if I read your strength and hardiness right."
Then Hatcher sighed regretfully. "Of course, that's what the world is like in Texas. Up at my parts, ranching's not what it used to be. From what I hear, Texas has its range under control. We're fighting the lawless elements and it's getting worse. Not sure who's going to win."
"Rustlers are a big problem," Hatcher told Colby, "bleeding an honest rancher of his property. Is the law nothing more than what bought-and-paid-for judges and corrupt juries say it is? Is that how they see the law in Texas?"
Colby said some words, but they didn't matter. Hatcher could see he was mouthing platitudes he no longer believed.
Colby had questions. Of course, he had questions. But Hatcher had answers. "The rustlers got the votes, and they got the law on their side."
Colby was outraged. "Texans know how to deal with that."
"That's why we need someone strong, someone with a Texan's understanding of the law and the right of a rancher to run his own business, someone who don't have no truck with outlaws."
And so Colby came to understand that if he took the job, he would be bringing his lawman's perspective to Wyoming, helping protect a man's property. Technically, outside the written law, maybe, but what can a man do when the local sheriff disgraces the badge by taking up with rustlers?
- 2 -
When the train chugged to a stop at the Casper depot, the afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch across the land. "Got a hand from the ranch, should be around somewhere with horses," Hatcher said. "No need to lollygag in town when we can get ten miles under our hooves before we make camp."
The M-R ranch hand was easy to find. Colby and Hatcher were just unloading their gear from the overhead rack when he shouldered his way down the aisle and hoisted Hatcher's valise. "Carry that for you, boss," the cowhand said, as he swapped the spare gun rig in his hand for the valise.
"This here's Boyd Reynolds, Trevor." Hatcher made the introductions. "Boyd, Colby here looks to give us a good hand on our troubles." Colby thought to speak up that he hadn't signed on yet, that he still had questions, but Reynold's handshake was firm and strong and it wasn't the time to talk business. Reynolds was a chunky cowhand in his early twenties, his yellow stringy hair overflowing the side of his Plainsman's hat, a two-day tawny stubble softening the set of his jaw, and a twinkling in his eye and a curvature of his lip that reached out to Colby at once. The convivial strength of his handshake started forming the bond of friendship between the two men that would grow over the days ahead.
As soon as they stepped onto the platform, Hatcher strapped his holster around his waist automatically. "Never go anywhere in Wyoming without your gun, Trev." Then Colby slapped his saddlebags on the horse Reynolds led to him, up-stirruped and followed Hatcher as the three men walked their horses up Salt Creek Street out of town and north along the Post Road.
After an hour, Hatcher turned off the road and led Colby to a small hollow by a feeder stream where they could make their camp undisturbed by travelers along the road. After supper, Reynolds pulled out the bottle he had purchased in Casper and the men relaxed. Hatcher leaned back, content to let Reynolds become acquainted with Colby. Camp talk began like it always does when men of the range meet each other, a little sniffing, a little pushing, a little taunting each other over the War Between the States, which still lived in memory on both sides of the great divide. Finally, Reynolds pulled out his banjo.
"Don't suppose you'll join me in a rip-roaring version of Marching Through Georgia," Reynolds poked at Colby, his eyes a-twinkle.
"Sure thing," Colby agreed. "As long as you know the words of "Bonnie Blue Flag."
"Pappy never taught me them words," Reynolds said. "How about "John Brown's Body?"
Colby turned to Hatcher. "Are all you Yankees this troublesome?"
* * *
The next morning, the three men broke camp and began their trek north well before the heat of the day began to build. To Colby, it was an enjoyable ride, the coolness of a Wyoming spring replacing the scorching weather of Indian Territory, the tension that all-too-frequently gave his rides a life-threatening purpose replaced by the conviviality of banter with Boyd Reynolds.
After two hours on the trail, a wagon trace angled off to the east. Hatcher sent Reynolds back to the ranch while he and Colby continued. The absence of the lighthearted Reynolds, reminded Colby that the trip was about business.
As they rode, Colby was seeing the land with new eyes, with the eyes of a man soon to be owner of his own ranch. "Wyoming sure ain't like Texas," he said as he admired the tall, lush, green buffalo grass with all the envy of a future rancher.
"Snow melt came late," Hatcher said. "Come back in August, and you'll see why access to the creeks is so vital. Some of the squatters like Ranger Jones are fencing off the creek so we can't even graze the uplands."
"Jones a homesteader?"
"That's what all the rustlers call themselves," Hatcher said. "They wave a piece of paper in your face and order you off their land." He snorted. "Their land! Like we'd not been grazing since the end of the Sioux Wars over a decade ago."
The two men rode in silence for a few minutes before Hatcher spoke again. "Maybe rustlers don't seem as full of evil as folks like Darnell—"
Colby's interruption showed his uncompromising opinion. "They're breaking the law," he said.
"And hurting honest people," Hatcher added. "But the law lets them get away with it. What was it you said about the higher law?"
"Judges ain't God Almighty."
"That's the way Mr. Ralston looks at it, too."
That afternoon, the two men left the Post Road. In a few minutes, they topped a small hogback and looked down. "That's the Miller cabin," Hatcher said. "We run him off two years back and laid claim to it ourselves as a line cabin. No one will bother you using it as your base of operations."
The cabin was small, but serviceable for a one-month stay. A small trestle table, a single chair, a woodstove, and a single bunk with a freshly-stuffed mattress were all a man needed. Colby saw that the shelves had been stocked with a variety of airtight cans, a kerosene lantern and a fresh supply of kerosene. The woodpile was filled. Most important, a can of Arbuckle's Coffee was on the shelf, waiting for the travelers.
While water for coffee to come to a boil, Hatcher unfolded a map of the area and spread it on the table. "Mr. Ralston and the other leading ranchers have compiled a wanted list of the worst offenders," he told Colby. "I marked the map to show where some can be found." He passed the paper to Colby. "We know you won't get them all. Just do what you can."
"Looks like they've infested the entire range, Merv."
"They have. The worst is Nate Champion, he's their ringleader. They chose him to head the illegal round-up they plan to hold two weeks before the one sanctioned by the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association."
"So they can glom onto all the mavericks for themselves?"
"Along with a good share of calves trailing behind a M-R Connected mama," Hatcher replied as he drained his coffee and got ready to leave. "I'll send Reynolds over tomorrow. He can show you around the range." He got to his feet and his eyes met Colby's. "Boyd don't need to know about the List."
As Hatcher opened the door to leave, Colby reminded Hatcher of his promise that Colby would talk with Mr. Ralston before committing himself. "He's in Cheyenne for the Stock Growers' meeting. You'll see him when he gets back. But you pretty much know everything anyway."
And it was true. Colby understood the lawlessness that overwhelmed the Wyoming frontier. He understood how the outlaws had taken over the legal system, leaving honest men no protection for their property. And he understood how a man with Texas values, a man who considered the legal order sacred, could set things right.
Hatcher paused by his horse ready to swing up to remind Colby that there was a business side to the deal. "Mr. Ralston's formal offer is to pay fifty dollars for every rustler you arrest. We'll make sure charges get filed on any you bring in." Colby nodded as Hatcher continued. "Of course, some will resist. To compensate you for the extra risk, Mr. Ralston will pay two hundred fifty a head." He paused and let his eyes make sure his meaning was understood.
"Not likely many of your hardcases will be excited about raising their hands to ride off to Buffalo with a gun-heeled stranger," Colby said. But the way Hatcher worded it, he wasn't being hired as a paid assassin. Hatcher waited for Colby to nod his acknowledgment of the terms and their business was concluded.
"Do as much as you can in a month, and if you're as good as I think you are, you'll have the stake you need for your ranch."
* * *
The next morning, Boyd Reynolds rode into the ranch yard just as Colby finished his breakfast.
"Boss said I should show you around, maybe take you up to Buffalo and let you get the lay of the land." He paused as though not certain what say. "Don't tell me nothing I don't need to know."
As they rode north, Colby continued to be envious of the lush, rolling grasslands so different from the flat arid tabletop of Texas. From time to time Reynolds would point off the road in one direction or another, "over there a couple miles is where Jack Flagg has his cow camp." Or "down by the Crazy Woman Creek is where John Tisdale and his family live." Late the first afternoon they encountered a wagon coming south on the road and pulled to the side to let it pass. The driver reined to a halt to let his mules take a breather. "How's things at MR-Connected, Boyd? They still paying you for what you call work?"
"Not near as much as I'm worth, Ranger," Reynolds laughed.
He gestured to his riding companion. "Meet my new friend Trevor Colby, up from Texas for a visit." Reynolds quickly made the introduction: "this here's Ranger Jones, used to be a good sort of fellow when he rode for us, but he had to get a hat two sizes bigger since he went off and became an independent."
Colby reached over and took the proffered hand on the man Hatcher had mentioned. "Howdy."
"They got anyone lined up to run against Red Angus for Sheriff this year?" Reynolds asked Jones.
"Nah. Be a waste of time. We got the votes sewed up tighter than a shrinking rawhide."
As they left Jones behind and rode further north, Colby noticed fewer and fewer MR-Connected cattle. "We'll be driving a herd north next week," Reynolds told him. "We only use this area in spring, because we can't get the cattle to water with all the squatters along the creek."
"Squatters like Ranger Jones?"
"Yep, Ranger's one, but mainly they all fence off the water."
That evening, they made camp by Crazy Woman Creek a few miles above Buffalo, and Colby found Reynolds to be as good a trail cook as a companion over whiskey. Relaxing at the end of the day, it was natural for the men to reflect on their lives and their aspirations. "Mr. Ralston is a good man to work for," Reynolds told Colby, "cares about his men. Keeps a full bunkhouse through the winter, even when most outfits cut back. So, he's got a loyal crew."
"Never looked at things through the eyeballs of a rancher before," Colby said. "I'll remember what you said now that it looks like I'm getting my own ranch started." Colby told Reynolds of his ambitions and his hopes. "And before long, maybe a woman and a passel of kids."
Reynolds eyes showed his envy. "Got friends who're making a stab at that," he said. "But it's tough up here."
Reynolds paused a minute. Then shrugged. "That's just part of ranching." He seemed not to want to talk about the problems of ranchers. "I ride for Mr. Ralston," he said. "He pays for my loyalty and I back whatever he wants done."
Reynolds brought the conversation to an end by pulling out his harmonica and wheezing through a couple of Stephen Foster melodies. Then, with a mischievous twinkle he struck up the universally recognizable opening "Hurrah, Hurrah" of the Marching Through Georgia chorus.
"Careful," Colby growled. "Unless you want that mouth organ rammed down your throat."
Reynolds grinned back at the Texan's threat as he knew he was expected to, but slid his harmonica into his shirt pocket just the same. "That piece of music is kind of a family hymn," he said. "My Pappy fought under Sherman."
Colby grinned back. "You Damn Yankees never did get far into Texas," he said. "We're ready to have another go anytime you want."
* * *
On the return south from Buffalo, Reynolds turned west toward the Big Horn Mountains, up the Middle Fork of the Powder River and then across Parker Creek into the area known as the Hole-in-the-Wall, a large area west of the Red Wall noted for its remoteness, most especially its remoteness from interfering lawmen. "A lot of cow camps in here," Reynolds told Colby. "Small, start-up operations. None of the syndicates run beef west of the Wall."
"No rustlers then?"
Reynolds seemed uncomfortable. "Guess that depends on who you ask. Some say they all are, Trev. Others say mavrericking's the only way a man can get a start. What else can they do? they'll ask. One calf per cow a year would take them deep into next century to build a herd. Who wants to wait that long?"
Reynolds shook his head angrily before continuing. "There are some who will even kill a mama cow and take her unweaned calf. I got no truck for anyone like that."
After they crossed Parker Creek, from time to time they encountered men going about their business. Reynolds introduced Colby "visiting the area," he told them. "just showing him where we do our elk hunting."
By late afternoon, they had ridden past several cow camps, seen various brands grazing on the range, and Colby found himself getting an education on the cattle business to rival what he knew about the law business. "See that steer over there," Reynolds pointed out. "Some say the brand looks too much like the PB Mark to be coincidence. When you register your brand, Trev, make sure a running iron artist can't make it look like something else."
Finally, as the afternoon was running late, Reynolds led them back through the famous gap in the Red Wall that was the Hole that gave the area its name. When Colby started to turn south toward the Miller cabin, Reynolds gestured east. "Want you to meet a special friend of mine."
Three ramshackle buildings, an unpainted house, a barn, and a storage shed, represented a struggling cow camp. It was there they found Nate Champion pounding nails and making repairs in his barn. Champion heard Reynolds "hello the house" and joined his visitors.
"Folks really look up to Nate," Reynolds said. "They elected him the head of their round-up drive starting next month."
"Just making me do more work, Boyd. When you going to register your own brand?"
Reynolds grew serious. "You know I can't do that. I get caught with my own branding iron in my saddlebags and they'll give me a Jim Averill necktie."
Champion explained to Colby. "Some ranchers got the idea that Jim and his woman were rustlers and fitted them out with hemp ropes a couple of years back. A man has to be careful."
Invited to share supper, Cody used the opportunity to listen to Champion talk about ranching through the eyes of a startup cowman, probing for the challenges and testing the experiences as he tried to learn what he would need to know in his new life. As the evening went on, the three men talked about the kind of things cattleman always discuss—how the spring grass was coming along, whether the wolves were worse, speculated on the price of fall beef, and, finally Champion broke out the cards for an evening of three-handed rummy.
Riding away in the morning, Reynolds said. "Friendly fellow, Nate Champion. Always got a sociable drink for a man who stops by."
"But a rustler still?"
Reynolds seemed uncomfortable. "With what happened to Jim Averill, I don't like to say that word." He rode on in silence and in fifteen minutes waved goodbye as the two men separated, Reynolds to the MR Connected bunkhouse and Colby to the Miller cabin. Colby reflected that he had learned a lot, and had a lot to think about.
One week was down, and he was at the point where his actions would commit him. So, he reviewed what he knew about the layout of the range. He studied the map Hatcher had left, made marks and noted names and locations of the cow camps Reynolds had shown him. He could identify areas where the big syndicates seemed in control, where along the margins of their ranges they were most vulnerable, where the lawbreakers were concentrated.
And he reflected on what he had learned about ranching in the campfire conversations with Reynolds and later in the evening with Champion. But also, what he learned about how easy it was to steal from ranchers. He saw Wyoming outlaws clearly now. Maybe they called themselves "homesteaders" but how different were they really from Darnell and his bank robbing gang? Taking a man's hard-earned property was a Thou Shalt Not Steal" proposition either way.
With his new wisdom, he understood that Wyoming needed law as much as Indian Territory and honest ranchers had to hire their own men to enforce the law, or let the jungle rule.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, the headlines from the Buffalo Bulletin told the story.
"Ranger Jones Shot from Ambush. No leads."
"John Tisdale Killed on Casper Road. Sheriff at a loss."
One morning, after a productive two days, Colby remained in the cabin under a gray sky that hinted of a cold wind from Canada and maybe a pelting High Plains drencher. It gave him a good day to review what he had accomplished, and consider what malefactors to visit next.
He sketched out what he remembered from Hole-in-the-Wall whose limited access points called for a single in-and-out operation before the rustlers of the "Hole" were alerted. A moon waxing toward full would help a traveler unfamiliar with the trails. And closer to the cabin, he remembered where to find Jack Flagg and a couple of other "homesteaders" Boyd had pointed out to him along Salt Creek, convenient for a quick ride over and back.
By midmorning, Colby was letting his mind wander to his new ranch when a horseman approached the cabin. A moment later, Merv Hatcher stepped in, shucked his wet yellow slicker and hung it on a peg on the wall next to Colby's gun leather.
It was a business trip for Hatcher, of course, but the visit started as any meeting between two friends should, a warm masculine handclasp and shared swallows from Hatcher's flask.
With the whiskey warming their bellies, Hatcher turned to business. "The newspapers have been interesting reading of late," he said, as he slapped the current edition of the Buffalo Bulletin on the table.
"Two men dead on Mud Creek Road. Northern Stock Growers' Association demands action."
"Bringing law to the jungle always makes good reading," Colby replied. "I've been sitting here this morning thinking about where my next trip will be."
"Plenty of places you could go," Hatcher said. "And every one of them needing a visit." Hatcher pulled out his shirt front and undid the buckle on his leather money belt. As he started counting out the greenbacks, he did the calculations "You've got one thousand earned so far," he said "plus the five hundred just for making the trip."
"I visited two just sawing away in their blankets down on Crazy Woman Creek last night," Colby reported, "and there's another dead rustler up near Pumpkin Butte the paper hasn't reported yet."
"I go by your count," Hatcher said as he counted out a thick stack of greenbacks. "One more week and then it's pushing things to keep going."
"Then it's back to Texas for me."
Their business done, Hatcher and Colby relaxed in each other's companionship, sharing whiskey and talking about the challenges of starting a new ranch. Finally, the rain let up and Hatcher rose to leave. "Good having you as a friend, Trev," Hatcher said as he reached out his hand. "Good hunting. See you a week from today."
* * *
Five nights later, Colby made his venture through the gap in the Red Wall. He ensconced himself on a high point and settled down for the three hours of sleep he allowed himself until the first rays of the rising sun stirred him into wakefulness. During the day, he watched the comings and goings, a man on a wagon heading toward town, a man driving two skinny calves bleating their protest and calling for their mamas, a sure sign of a rustler. Colby made note of where that trail led. And throughout the day, he watched other men going about their business.
When night fell, his work was easy. No man had thought there was a need to hide his tracks. On the way back to the Miller Cabin, Colby made one more stop, perhaps the most important of the entire week.
As he down-saddled in the pre-dawn light, Colby felt a sense of accomplishment even greater than the day he brought in the Anderson Brothers after the McClatchie murders. Inside the cabin, he shucked his sheepskin and hung his holster on its peg inside the door. He stripped for the sack, splashed some cold water on his chest and rubbed vigorously to purge the pores of the sweaty stickiness from his day under the sun.
Feeling clean, he slid into his blankets, and quickly lapsed into the happy sleep of a new Texas rancher.
- 3 -
Colby awoke to the sound of the cabin door. He blinked his eyes open and Merv Hatcher stood framed in the doorway.
Colby's welcoming grin started with his eyes and ended with most of his teeth visible behind his upturned lips. He tossed back the blanket and swung his legs to the floor. "Morning, Merv," he greeted. "If I'd known you was coming this early, I'd have had the coffee ready."
As Hatcher stepped into the cabin, he raised the flask he carried in his hand. "Whiskey'll do just fine."
Colby quickly yanked on his trousers and got to his feet. As he reached for his shirt, Reynolds stepped through the door, sidestepped and without a word of greeting, took up a position leaning stiffly against the wall.
"Hey, Boyd," Colby welcomed the good-natured MR-Connected cow hand enthusiastically, "come to see me off to Texas?" When he got no reaction from his erstwhile camping companion, he prompted his friend with the standard jibe, "once you learn the words to "Bonnie Blue Flag" you can forget cold winters and I'll sign you on as a top hand in my new ranch."
Reynolds grunted. His eyes darted toward Colby and skittered nervously away, unable to meet Colby's eyes and Colby remembered that Reynolds had been friendly with some of the rustlers on the list.
Colby turned back to Hatcher, affable as always standing across the table with his whiskey flask. Colby put a well-earned swagger in his voice. "I brought some Texas law to Wyoming, like I said I would.
"Done it well, too, better than Mr. Ralston hoped." Hatcher chuckled. "Some of the fake 'homesteaders' are already pulling up stakes and looking for somewhere else to practice their larcenous trade," Hatcher told him. "Been an honor to work with you."
The heartiness of Hatcher's words filled the cabin with conviviality. "Hey, Boyd, hear that?" Colby said. When he got no reaction, he turned back to Hatcher and brought him up-to-date on his visit to Hole-in-the-Wall. "On my way back last night I stopped by to see Nate Champion. He had a man staying with him."
"Nick Ray. Just as bad as the rest of them. Mr. Ralston appreciates it. When you take on a job, you do it thorough."
"A couple on Salt Creek earlier this week. So, all told, that's fifteen. That's another two thousand I've got coming." Colby face showed his pride in his accomplishment. "I've got a good bankroll for my new ranch. That the way you see it?"
As they turned to talk of money, Hatcher's affability seemed to shift subtly, replaced by a new, awkward businesslike formality that seemed to belie the warmth of his words of praise. "When I recruited you, Trev, I knew Wyoming outlaws would meet their match." Generous words. But Hatcher wasn't reaching for his money belt.
Colby tried to penetrate the relaxed smile and understand what was happening. "I done my work, Merv. Is there a problem?"
"No problem, Trev. Like you say, your work's done. "
In the mounting tension, Colby waited but Hatcher didn't continue down a trail perhaps neither man wanted to travel. Finally, Colby prompted. "And?"
Hatcher seemed to falter, but just for a moment, then his smile faded and he became all business. "What do you do when you're done with yesterday's chaw?"
Suddenly Colby felt the walls close in on him. His eyes flicked to Reynolds, whose fixed stare against some spot on the cabin's back wall told him he would find no help there. And his own six-gun was hanging on its peg by the door.
Hatcher let the question hang in the air for a long moment. Both men knew the answer. "Mr. Ralston wants you to know it's nothing personal. In fact, he thinks you're first-class."
Colby's heart was racing and his breath was coming in great gulps as he stared across the table at Hatcher. "This don't make no sense to me, Merv. Thought we were friends. Didn't figure you for a man who works for a welsher."
"Just routine politics, Trev," Hatcher explained as casually as if they were chit-chatting about nothing more momentous than the quality of a saddle horse. "We got statehood coming. Mr. Ralston has plans to be Senator." In an unhurried movement, Hatcher eased his revolver into his hand and looked at it thoughtfully. "Some things are best never talked about."
"I'll be in Texas." Colby promised as though the urgency of his assurance could change what was going to happen.
Hatcher's words were gentle, almost regretful. "No, Trev, you won't." Hatcher sighed, reluctant to pronounce the final sentence. "Mr. Ralston said 'make sure.'"
A red anger surged in Colby, an empty, helpless anger. "This ain't right, Merv. You know it ain't."
Hatcher didn't let Colby's anger upset his equanimity. "Life's never about right, Trev. It's about orders."
Hatcher gave Colby the courtesy of waiting until the Texan was in control of himself again. Then he offered the flask to Colby. "As a sign of respect, Mr. Ralston sent you the whiskey he reserves for special company. Take a deep draw."
Colby hesitated, then, reluctantly, yielded to his fate. He raised the flask to his lips, bent his head back and stared up at the ceiling as the liquid flowed down his throat. He took three nervous gulps before the flask slipped from his limp fingers and clattered to the floor.
Boyd Reynolds was unprepared for what happened next. But he was a loose end.
Authors note: students of the history of the West will recognize "A Higher Law" as alternative history, and as
perhaps a more successful strategy than that adopted by Wyoming's Johnson County ranchers in 1892. The story
reflects the perspective of Wyoming in 1890 that informed Owen Wister's "The Virginian," not Jack Schaefer's "Shane."
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, he has written over a dozen stories for Frontier Tales.
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The Ballad of Beeve Wellington;
or, the Large and the Short of It
An Authentic Tale of the Western Frontier,
Faithfully Recounted by William H. Bonney
and Set Down by His Own Hand
by Peter Ullian
He stood somewhere between four and five feet when I first saw him, the first night I walked into Beaver Smith's Saloon. The Regulators had broken up by then, after we'd pretty much lost the Lincoln County War, and gone off in a million different directions. Only a few of us—Tom O'Folliard, Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, Jim French, Dave Rudabaugh, Fred Waite, and me stuck together and went to Fort Sumner, where we were told we would be welcome, because the town was mostly Mexican, and the Mexicans liked us for taking on the Murphy-Dolan House and the Jesse Evans Gang, who were cruel to Mexicans, mostly. I was fine with settling into a Mexican town, white as I were. It reminded me of growing up in Silver City before my mother died, when I used to hang about in the Spanish part of town and dance with the Spanish girls, and learn their dances and their music and their tongue. I was older now, but I still liked Spanish music and dancing and girls.
Anyway, I don't drink much, but we went to Beaver Smith's that night, and there he was, not four foot and a half, if that, manning the door with a stick about as wide as my thigh and nearly as tall as he. I couldn't see how a fellow as small as him could handle drunks and cowboys and such, but when he instructed us to leave our guns with him before entering the facility, he didn't sound like he meant to negotiate, so we did as he told us. I didn't mind much. I didn't have no enemies in Fort Sumner, not as far as I knew. Not then.
Beaver Smith's weren't much to look at, just a frame structure made of unfinished wood and a bar made out of a door nailed atop some wooden barrels, the whole place smelling of tobacco and whiskey and beer, but the music was sprightly and the Senoritas would dance with you for a nickel a dance, and it brought me right back to my younger years in Silver City, only now I was nineteen, almost twenty, and not fourteen no more like I were then. So, dance I did, and dance and dance and dance, and that was where I first met Paulita Maxwell. She weren't a dancing girl, she was just a girl, the younger sister of Pete Maxwell, the rancher who lived next door, and so she didn't charge for dancing, she only danced with a fellow if she wanted to dance with him, and I guess she wanted to dance with me, because she did and I hadn't been so happy in some long while. Paulita Maxwell didn't belong to no one, not even her older brother Pete, even though she weren't older than seventeen. She was willful and she was brash and she was just about the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I won't say she got me to forget my former sweetheart, Sallie Chisum, who qhad left behind Lincoln County—and me—when her Uncle, John Chisum, had recently moved his cattle operation to the Texas Panhandle—but she came close. I always prided myself on being able to dance with some agility, and I guess Paulita agreed, because dance we did, the rest of the night, together.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, because my story with Paulita is really another story other than this one, and this one is a story about the short fellow and the giant Longhorn and Susan McSween and the Three Rivers Ranch. So, anyway, getting back to that story, later on that evening, some saddle tramp from somewhere who looked like he hadn't slept under a roof in a long time, nor taken a bath in even longer, got a little too familiar with a Senorita, and the small man at the door marched right up to him, struck him in the gut with his huge stick, causing the man to bend over, and struck him again on the back of his head. The man fell flat on his face. He was out cold. The bartender, a slim and hugely tall man of at least six feet four inches with one of the most impressive mustaches I had ever seen, dragged the fellow out into the street by the collar. I didn't know it then, but that bartender was Pat Garrett, who would later become Sheriff of Lincoln County and try to hunt me down, but that's another story for another time.
I told the small fellow I admired his facility with the stick, and he asked me my name, and I told him Billy Bonney, and I asked him his, and he told me "Alias" and I said, "Alias what?" and he repeated "Alias." So, that's when I met Alias. He seemed a pleasant fellow, and one could not help but admire the way he handled himself with that stick, using the disadvantage of his stature to his advantage by hitting the saddle tramp low and bending him over to get a good shot at the man's skull. Anyway, later that night I sang "Turkey in the Straw" with the musicians, and our performance were greeted warmly by the customers at Beaver Smith's. I followed that up with "Silver Threads Among the Gold," which had been a song I had sung many times to my mother when she lay dying of consumption, it being her favorite song. To my surprise, Alias joined in, and he had the voice of an angel, a high tenor, like an Irishman's, and I wondered if maybe he was a leprechaun, but I put that thought aside, because it were a dumb thought and even I knew there ain't no such a thing. By the time we had sung the song together, we had the entire saloon weeping. So, we followed with a sprightlier tune to raise everyone's spirits, "Goober Peas," a song which was always an assured pleaser of crowds.
This led to regular appearances at Beaver Smith's, where I sang and danced Irish jigs, and Alias sang and danced Irish jigs, and Doc Scurlock recited poems that may or may not have been his own. Other than the stealing of poems, the former Regulators refrained from thievery of any other kind, such as cattle or horse rustling, during this time, which is why, I supposed, that when Pete Maxwell wanted someone to escort his prize stud bull named Beeve Wellington to Susan McSween's Three Rivers Ranch in Three Rivers on the far side of the Sierra Blanca, near the reservation, he asked us. Mrs. McSween had been left widowed and destitute by the Lincoln County War, but cattle baron John Chisum had gifted her fifty heifers, and she wanted a prize stud to breed them. Pete Maxwell was selling off his remaining stock, intending to retire and live off the proceeds, which were considerable, while renting out his prize bull, a service for which he charged a handsome fee. I don't know how Mrs. McSween, poor as she was, afforded Beeve Wellington, even to rent, but the deal had been made, and Maxwell wanted a team to escort the prize stud to Three Rivers in a hurry, because some of the heifers were already in heat, and Susan McSween wanted to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak. We were to stay at the Three Rivers Ranch for however long it took that prize stud bull to complete his Longhorn duty, which was likely going to take at least two or three months, then escort him back to Pete Maxwell.
I don't know what Pete thought when only me—a skinny kid of nineteen, five eight and barely a hundred and thirty pounds, and Alias, halfway between four and five feet and weighing I don't know how much but less than me, I'd guess—took him up on it. The rest of the Regulators knew the Murphy-Dolan House and Jesse Evans Gang would want to stop us if they could, not wanting the widow of Alexander McSween to compete with the House in a new cattle venture. Murphy himself was dead by then, and the House, as the Murphy-Dolan gang was called, was in debt up to their earlobes, and close to ruin, I had heard tell. This cattle competition could force them into bankruptcy, so they'd be desperate to stop it. They had thought, now that Chisum had moved his operation to the Texas Panhandle, that the cattle business in the area was all theirs, and they would not want to be proven wrong. That was what made the assignment attractive to me, however. I still harbored resentment towards the Murphy-Dolan House and Jesse Evans Gang for beating us in the Lincoln County War. And I don't like to lose.
So, we set off, just me on my painted mare and Alias sitting as tall as he could manage in a custom-made saddle atop a Spanish Mustang sixteen hands high. He used a small step-ladder to get up there, which he then pulled up and lashed to his saddle. I was armed with two pistols on my belt and a Winchester in a saddle scabbard. Alias was armed with a pair of Colts at his sides. His arms were short, but his hands were bigger than mine, so he could grip a Colt as well as anyone. I asked him why he didn't take his huge stick with him, and he said because you can't hit a cattle rustler at seventy-five yards with a big stick, and I asked him if he could hit a cattle rustler at seventy-five yards with a Colt, and he said, no, not with a Colt, but with a bullet fired from one, sure, every time. Beeve Wellington, easily the largest animal I had ever seen at a good six feet tall and I have no idea how many pounds, was, thankfully, docile and cooperative. Maybe he knew that if he did not make trouble, he would find himself in the midst of a fifty-heifer-harem, which must have been extremely tempting for a Longhorn stud. It was the smallest cattle drive in history, I imagine, but with the biggest bull. I don't know what we would have done if he'd bolted. We could have chased him down and roped him easy enough, but then what? I didn't like to think on it.
As we rode along, we spotted first a Western Meadowlark, its bright, showy yellow breast gleaming in the sun as it bounced along the prairie grasses. We next spied a young Mule Deer buck, its antlers sitting atop its head like a fuzzy crown, eating grass by a brook that ran into the Pecos. The Mule Deer chewed, and the running brook glistened. We saw Tiger Swallowtails flitting about from plant to plant, drinking in the nectar. We saw a Spruce Grouse and her chicks pecking through the scrub; we saw five Desert Bighorn Sheep grazing together, looking with their massive horns for all the world like they owned the place; we saw a Stellar Jay perched on a tree branch, its Union-soldier-blue plumage framed against the gray bark; we saw Mountain Chickadees and Juncos; we saw a Pygmy Nuthatch and a Hairy Woodpecker; we gazed at cholla and cactus flowers, deep purple, more purple than the sky at night; we gazed at prickly pear cactus blooms, yellow and orange like exploding suns; we saw a gray-coated, white-muzzled, golden-brown-eyed coyote, who looked right at us, even though he was far away; and we saw a diamondback curled up in the dust, having a snooze, whom we watched cautiously as we rode by. Once we passed the diamondback, Alias asked me out of the blue if I knew the poems Doc Scurlock recited in our performances at Beaver Smith's weren't Doc's own compositions, but poems by other better-known poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Wordsworth. I told him I'd suspected as much, as our mutual friend and my former sweetheart until her uncle moved her along with his ranch to the Texas panhandle, Sallie Chisum, had once called him out on it. Alias asked me if I were the Billy Bonney who also went by the names Henry Antrim, Kid Antrim, the Kid, and Billy the Kid. I said no one had ever called me "Billy the Kid" before, but I was the fellow who belonged to the other names. He asked me which one were my true name, and I told him I no longer recalled. This was not entirely true, because I well knew I had been born Willian Henry McCarty, but that name seemed to belong to another life, a life I barely recalled, a life spent living in a stinking New York Tenement in the Five Points with the smell of gunpowder from the Draft Riots outside our window until at last we moved to the wide-open spaces and fresh air of the Western Frontier. My mother had said we were chasing a dream, but I guess I forgot to ask what precisely the dream was we were chasing, and she died before telling me.
Alias said he'd had so many aliases as well that now he couldn't recall his original one and he just went by "Alias" so as not to get all of his various identities confused.
As it turned out, Alias and me had some things in common. We'd both been on the stage, as actors in travelling Shakespeare shows in our younger years. We were both good at cards, and with horses. We both spoke Spanish, and we could both shoot a cactus flower off a cactus while running our mounts full speed and hanging off the side of the horse. We both liked to dance, and we both liked dancing with the Senoritas. But whereas my adventures had mostly occurred in the Southwestern states and territories, Alias had been all over, and his ranging had involved whole legends worth of stories, which he shared with me on our journey:
"I suppose my story really began," Alias said, "when I joined the Union Army during the War to do my part to put down the Southern Rebellion. I knew they wouldn't take me as a proper soldier because of my diminutive stature, so I lied about my age and joined as a drummer boy. I was still young enough and my face was unlined enough that I could pull off such a deception. At the Battle of Shiloh I survived shrapnel that went right through my drum, and at the Battle of Chickamauga, I shot an enemy colonel dead, so they promoted me to sergeant, even though they thought I weren't no more than eleven years old. After the war, I ranged around a while, and took up cards, for which it turns out I have a fair degree of aptitude. I found I could make a good living at cards, but I also found not everyone too kindly disposed towards my success. There seemed to be a general feeling among some that I encountered that a person of such small stature as mine should not be successful in cards or at war, and although I had proved my capacity at both, it turned out I had to keep on proving it, over and over again. The first such proving ground was in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, outside the Lyon House, where a drunken gambler name of Davis Tutt Junior took exception to losing to me and challenged me to a gunfight. Although peaceful by nature, I do not shrink from a fight, as hard experience has learned me the lesson that a fellow of my size has to be willing to fight back or else become the world's punching bag. Tutt Junior made the—in his case—fatal mistake of thinking that because I am small, I cannot shoot, but I can shoot, and, it turned out, I could shoot a lot better than Tutt Junior, who ended up dead. They don't call the Colt the Equalizer for nothing, I guess. The next time I had to fight a fellow who didn't approve of my success at cards, it was in Sausalito, California, when a man named John Soto took exception to the hand of cards he'd been dealt, and then dealt his own, so to speak, when he tried to shoot me right there at the card table. He was drunk, though, and he couldn't quite manage to rise and clear leather at the same time, so I made for the door and got out into the street before he came after me, armed with a pistol in each hand and another in his belt. Soto kept shooting at me, and I kept running, and weaving, and dodging, and he kept missing, until, at length, at about one hundred yards, I turned to face him and, with dust from missed shots kicking up all around me, I raised my pistol and took careful aim and fired and put one through his forehead. The next time I had to use my Equalizer in self-defense was in the town of Dodge City in Kansas, in the Long Branch Saloon, when a gambler by the name of Levi Richardson objected when I drew an Ace of Hearts and he drew a Jack of Spades. He rose and commenced firing at me right there at the table, emptying his pistol in the process, but in this case my diminutive stature proved a blessing, as his bullets all sailed above my head as I drew my own six-shooter and put one bullet in his chest, another in his side, and one more for good measure in his arm. He fell dead and the coroner's inquest ruled in my favor. There's been a few more scrapes since, but those are the most noteworthy I can think of at the moment."
When Alias finished, I asked him if those stories he had told me did not, in point of fact, involve individuals by the names of Johnny Clem, Bill Hickok, Harry Morse, and Frank Loving. He readily conceded that they did, claiming those were all previous aliases of his. And after all, he added, was not the Western Frontier but a dream, anyway, a vast expanse of landscape and imagination wherein a fellow could try on, discard, and try on again a variety of personages until he found the one that fit him like a second skin? Until he found the right dream? The dream that best suited him? Was not, he said, the West big enough for everybody's dream, even his, who, small though he was, could dream as big as any man, could even dream as big as Beeve Wellington himself, if stud bulls could dream. I did not know what he meant by any of this, but although I had never heard that these events of his telling, widely recounted and shared on the Western Frontier at that time, involved a fellow of diminutive stature, nor had I ever heard that they did not, and so I chose not to question Alias's history.
At length we arrived at the Three Rivers Ranch. Susan McSween, attended by her one-armed lawyer, Huston Chapman, was happy to see us, and ooed and ahhed over her new bull. The bull meekly submitted to her flattering caresses, and I was beginning to wonder if the bull had enough spirit to do a proper bull's job. Susan McSween even went so far as to examine the bull's testicles, announcing herself delighted with their dimension, which were considerable. "Here is the fount of my dreams, boys," she declared, indicating the stud's bollocks, "all my dreams are contained inside this beast's ball-sack." This caused me to blush, but she went on about how it was those testicles with which she would start her cattle dynasty, which would rise up from the ashes of the Lincoln County War and avenge her husband's murder by bringing down the Murphy-Dolan House, and I had no cause to doubt her. Her ranch was not large, but she had good pasture, and about half a dozen men, cowboys and vaqueros both, who seemed to know their business. She handed Beeve Wellington off to one of her ranch hands, who led the bull to a large paddock, where there waited a heifer in heat, and then let the stud bull do what nature intended, which Beeve and the heifer immediately commenced to do.
It seemed Beeve Wellington did indeed have the requisite spirit for the task.
A few months previous, the night when Mrs. McSween got widowed, me and her and her then-still-living husband, Alexander McSween, and about a half a dozen Regulators were besieged by the Murphy-Dolan House and Jesse Evans Gang in her house in Lincoln, with the US Calvary camped nearby doing nothing at all to preserve order because their commander, Colonel Dudley, was just as crooked as the rest of the Murphy-Dolan House and Jesse Evans Gang. We'd repelled attacks for days, but they eventually set fire to the house. As the fire burned, taking one room at a time, we moved Susan McSween's piano from room to room ahead of the fire, and Susan McSween played it, and we sang songs to keep our spirits up, while firing back at the enemy.
Eventually we had to make a run for it, leaving the piano to burn. That's when Alexander McSween was gunned down, along with four Regulators. But now, living in Three Rivers, Susan McSween had a new piano, and instead of a stand-up piano, it were a full grand piano, quite a luxury for her nice but modestly-proportioned house, taking up as it did most of her sitting room. To celebrate the successful delivery of Beeve Wellington, and, presumably from the sounds going on among the heifers-in-heat outside as they were delivered to the stud waiting for them in the paddock, the commencement of the successful insemination of the Three Rivers stock, Susan McSween played her piano and we sang and Alias sang too, and he made me a little jealous, I admit, because while I am somewhat renowned for the quality of my voice, Alias, as I have earlier indicated, sang like an angel, and don't think I didn't notice that Susan McSween noticed, too.
Susan McSween, I should mention, was only about thirty-five years old at this time, and while I had never given much amorous thought to her when her husband was still alive, I will confess to noticing for the first time, now that she was a widow, what a handsome lady she was, and a fairly young one at that, although fully fifteen years my senior. I hoped to get an opportunity to dance with her, but when it came time to dance with her, I was the only one beside Susan McSween herself who could play the piano, although I had only limited skill on the instrument. Even so, I played, and Alias proffered a courtly bow, and, despite his diminutive stature, took Susan McSween by the hand and danced with her most expertly and with considerable sprightliness throughout the evening. When it came time to bunk down for the night, before I knew what had happened, Alias and Susan McSween had disappeared into her bedroom and I was left alone in the sitting room, where I stretched out on the couch and listened to the sounds of what I assumed to be successful animal husbandry outside, with occasional cries and sighs of pleasure from Susan McSween's bedroom, inside.
We stayed with the Three Rivers Ranch for several months, me sleeping in the bunk house, and Alias, that rascal, sleeping in the main house in Susan McSween's bedroom, night after night. Alias and me worked as ranch hands, helping to round up heifers as they came into heat and bring them to Beeve Wellington's paddock. Beeve Wellington would do his due diligence with the heifer, whereupon we would round up the next one and bring her to Beeve Wellington and he would do his due diligence all over again. The bull stud, even-tempered as he was, was also indefatigable, and I understood why he were such a prized stud bull.
I was lying in the bunk house that night all them weeks later, wide awake, thinking of Susan McSween with Alias, thinking of Sallie Chisum, thinking of Paulita Maxwell, and thinking of Beeve Wellington and all his heifers, when I heard the sound of gunfire coming from outside. I had enough time to grab my pistols but not my boots and went outside to see what was amiss, and along the far side of the paddock fence I spied three fellows firing pistols at Beeve Wellington. I figured them for Murphy-Dolan men or Jesse Evans men, and as my eyes adjusted to the nighttime glow of the moon on the landscape of dust and scrub and prairie grass and fence and cattle, I could indeed make out three men I knew but had no love for: Tom Hill, George Davis, and Dick Lloyd, all of them from the Jesse Evans Gang. They were evidently trying to stop Susan McSween's dynasty before it started, to kill her dreams while they still resided inside Beeve Wellington's bollocks. But, of course, I couldn't let that happen.
Now, you may have thought, if you are a reader of them dime novels they have out East, that every cowboy in the West is a sharpshooter and every bullet hits its mark, but I am here to tell you, that ain't necessarily so. Why, I'm just about as good a shot as any, and I miss half the time if there's any commotion involved. So, the three pistoleers were shooting at the stud, and their bullets kept missing the bull and kicking up clods of dirt all around him, and so I started shooting back at them, and then they started splitting their time between shooting at the bull and shooting at me. Beeve Wellington just sort of stood there, seemingly unconcerned, bullets flying all around him, until I heard a loud snort and I turned and saw that the stud bull who had been so easy-going was now mad as a hornet, and he charged at the men at the paddock fence. Then I realized that Alias was riding atop Beeve Wellington. This was a remarkable thing. People of any size did not ride prize bull Longhorns. It was an incautious way to travel for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the temperamentality of the bulls in general. But there Alias was, riding on the bull's neck, shooting both his pistols at the attempted cattle-killers. I don't know what Tom Hill, George Davis, and Dick Lloyd thought, seeing this small person, too big for a child and too small for a man, rushing towards them atop the biggest bull in creation, but I suspect by their reaction that they were disconcerted considerably. They flailed about, redirecting their fire at the bull and at its rider and away from me, but Beeve Wellington did not slacken his pace, and Alias did not flag in his attentions towards sending bullets flying in their direction. I saw George Davis go down first as Alias demonstrated the deadliness of his aim, George's left eye blown out the back of his head in a misty spray of blood, bone, and brain. This caused Dick Lloyd to panic and try to flee, but his boot got caught in-between the fence rails, and while he struggled to get loose, Alias put two slugs in his chest, and Dick stopped struggling. Tom Hill, to his credit, never wavered, firing back at Beeve Wellington and Alias, and standing his ground perched on the paddock fence. Alias ran out of ammunition, but he just bent low on the Longhorn's neck and Beeve Wellington continued his charge, bullets flying past him, until the bull hit that fence, sending a rail flying a hundred yards, and skewering Tom Hill through the chest on one of his very long horns. Tom Hill, still alive although impaled by the horn, screamed and hollered and raised quite the fuss as Beeve Wellington began to buck and rock, flying into the sky, and kicking his back legs so that he was standing upright on his front ones. Alias held on to Beeve Wellington's neck for dear life until, at last, the bull gave his head a toss and Tom Hill went flying and screaming for about fifty feet from the corral, his arms flailing about as he flew in the air. He landed with an unpleasant crunching sound and did not scream or move or make any sound at all, if truth be told, following his return to earth. Beeve Wellington was calm again, and Alias smiled at me, and I was about to congratulate him on his shooting when I heard the distant but unmistakable roar of a buffalo gun and, like a giant marionette with its strings cut, Beeve Wellington went over, on his side, just like that, no fuss about it at all. Alias was thrown from the bull and went down hard in the dirt—and Beeve went over, harder, on top of Alias.
I could see no sign of Alias. The beast's huge carcass completely covered him up. Susan McSween's ranch hands hurriedly hooked up oxen to drag Beeve Wellington from atop Alias, but I quietly hoped Alias was already dead, because I knew there was no way they could move Beeve Wellington's corpse in time to free Alias before he suffocated under the Longhorn's weight.
The buffalo gun cracked again and the top of the fencepost exploded into a million splinters and then I saw Susan McSween with a Winchester and she put her rifle to her shoulder and her eyes to the gun sight and took aim and fired back at the faraway man with the buffalo gun. A buffalo gun has a longer range than a Winchester, but a Winchester can hit a target at five hundred yards, which must have been far enough, because the man with the buffalo gun did not shoot again. I cannot say if Susan McSween shot him or simply scared him off.
We looked at the carcass of the former prize bull as the oxen strained to move it, knowing Alias lay crushed and smothered beneath him. Susan McSween remarked that she hoped the bull had done his work in the paddock those past months as diligently as Alias had done his in her bedroom, which caused me to redden from embarrassment, so I did not comment.
The oxen finally managed to drag the Longhorn's carcass from atop Alias, but Alias was quite dead by the time we excavated him. The doctor said later he'd broken his neck either when he hit the ground or when the Longhorn fell atop him, so there weren't nothing we could have done about it no how.
Susan McSween sent a rider out to the Army post at the nearby reservation to bring in soldiers for a proper burial service. The Army complied because they was scared to death of Susan McSween, for her advocacy had resulted not long past in the demotion of Colonel Dudley at Fort Stanton, for his role in the corrupt allegiance with the Murphy-Dolan House.
Another rider went to bring the Mexican priest in from the village. Susan McSween had the local undertaker make a casket just Alias's size, and offered up her own grand piano for the undertaker to use to make a casket big enough for Beeve Wellington. This all took some time. We did not bury Tom Hill, George Davis, and Dick Lloyd. Instead, we loaded them onto a cart and Susan McSween's one-armed lawyer, Huston Chapman, carted them into town to see the Justice of the Peace, with an affidavit attesting to the events of the night before.
After the departure of the one-armed lawyer, we dug the grave for Alias, first. Then we all set about digging the grave for the bull. Several men suggested we eat Beeve Wellington instead of burying him, but Susan McSween wouldn't hear of it. Digging that second grave took all day.
I rode out once the graves were dug but before either funeral, my heart broken for the loss of both my friend Alias, brave and dutiful man that he was, as well as my friend Beeve Wellington, brave and dutiful bull that he was. I couldn't bear to watch them both lowered into the ground, and I figured someone had better get word to Pete Maxwell pretty quick not to be expecting the return of his prize bull.
A bit of a ways from the ranch, despite my intention to skip out on the ceremonies, I halted my painted mare and turned and watched the funerals from there, from a ways off: first the little coffin lowered into the ground, with Alias inside of it, and then the big one, made from a piano, with Beeve Wellington inside of that.
I don't deny that as I sat there atop my mare, I wept, and wept bitter tears at that.
If you were to ask me which friend I wept for the more bitterly, I do not know that I would be able to tell you for a certainty.
* * *
I made my way back to Fort Sumner without incident. I reported the events as they transpired to Pete Maxwell and, unsurprisingly, he was furious and cursed me out considerable.
Feeling low, I went to Beaver Smith's, nodded politely to Pat Garret, now manning the door in Alias's absence, and ordered whiskey. I do not, in general, like to drink even beer, but, as I previously remarked, I was feeling low. I choked down the amber liquid, and just as I felt it hit my brain, a nickel rolled on the table in front of me.
I looked up and saw Paulita Maxwell, standing there looking at me, and looking just as fine as a young man could hope a young woman might look.
"You can keep that nickel if you give me a dance, cowboy," she said to me.
And dance we did, the whole night through, which brightened my spirits, considerable.
And I didn't even charge her one more nickel.
Peter Ullian is the author of short stories that have appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine, Hardboiled Magazine, and the DAW Books Anthology Star Colonies. His post-apocalypse, post-pandemic, near future neo-Western, The Last Electric House, is published by Swamp Angel Press. He was the 2019-2020 Poet Laureate of Beacon, New York, and his poetry has been published in anthologies and periodicals and nominated for the Rhysling Award and the Pushcart Prize. His work for the stage has been produced off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally, and published by Broadway Play Publishing, NoPassport Press, and Smith & Kraus.
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The Ballad of Santa Rosa
by Chris Platt
Will Coogan was sweeping the porch of the small ranch when two men on horseback approached. Coogan squinted in the New Mexico sun as both men dismounted and walked over. The men wore six-shooters on their belts and walked with arrogance.
"Help you fellers?" asked Coogan.
"More like we can help you."
"We'd like to make you an offer on your ranch."
"Not for sale."
"That might not be the smartest move, hombre. These are dangerous days. And you're not getting any younger."
"I'll take my chances. Now, get off my land."
Coogan stepped forward, adjusting his grip on the broom handle. The two men glanced at each other, one of them shook his head.
"Let us know when you're ready to sell."
Coogan watched as the men mounted their horses and rode back in the direction of Santa Rosa. He sighed. Back in his younger days the two men would have been shot where they stood. Now in his fifties he did not want any more lead throwing. He just wanted to be left alone. He went back into the house, kicking the door shut behind him.
The following afternoon a rider approached Coogan's ranch. Coogan went outside to meet the rider. He recognised the man as the owner of a nearby ranch. He tied his horse and stepped onto the porch.
"Afternoon, Pat. Want some coffee?"
Pat Richards was around twenty years old. He and his wife ran a nearby ranch. He had fair hair and blue eyes. There was still something of the boy about him. That afternoon he had a worried look on his face.
As Will poured coffee in his small kitchen his neighbour spoke.
"Men came to the ranch yesterday. Said they wanted to buy us out. Said it real mean, like we had no choice in the matter. I told them no and they got nasty. They said this ain't the last of it. We're barely breaking even as it is. If there's gonna be trouble I just don't see how we'll be able to stay on."
"I've had the same visitors. We'll just have to see what happens."
"What can we do? We're just farmers, aren't we?"
Will took a gulp of coffee before speaking.
"Should we go see the sheriff in Santa Rosa? Tell him everything."
"Shoot, Will, law won't do nothing. Besides, what we gonna tell the sheriff? Dudes came wanting to buy us out? And when the trouble comes you know we won't be able to prove anything."
* * *
The next morning Coogan rode into town to pick up supplies. Santa Rosa was made up of one main street. Clusters of buildings huddled together as though to protect themselves from the wilderness all around. As he rode down the main street Coogan saw something was different this morning. The normal busy raised walkways were quieter. The white adobe buildings still reflected the morning sun but store owners were not trying to sell their wares. Not today. This morning they were repairing damaged doors and windows, sweeping the wooden walks of broken glass. Coogan swore. Santa Rosa had never been the prettiest or quietest of towns but trouble of this scale was unheard of.
He tied up his horse and went over to the General Store. The owner, a man of a similar age to Coogan, was clearing the broken glass from out front of his store. He turned to Coogan as he neared, anger and sadness burned in his eyes.
"Look at this."
"Last night as I was closing up two dudes came in. They said they wanted to buy my store. Of course I said no. They went berserk. Trashed my place. I hear this morning they've done the same to every business in town."
"Same punks came to my ranch too."
"I don't think we've seen the last of them. I can't afford to lose any trade because of this trouble. And most of the other folks in town are the same."
"Tell you what, I'll help you clean up here and then you can get me my groceries."
The store owner nodded.
* * *
As Coogan rode back to the ranch and despite the cloudless sky overhead he felt a storm brewing. He pushed his horse on. The saddle bags were laden with supplies including a bottle of whiskey. He agreed with the others that the dudes attacking the town were not done yet. And someone had to be behind it. It would be suicide for two punks to be doing this on their own. Coogan had left his wild days behind him. He had hoped to see out his days in peace. That was what he found particularly troubling about the attacks.
* * *
Two nights later Coogan heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of town. He swore. Poured himself a measure of whiskey. He gulped down the fiery liquor. He felt the burn run down his throat. He grabbed his hat. Placing it on his head he made his way out the door.
* * *
The dark street was alive with gunfire. A dozen men were charging up and down on horseback, yelling and hollering, firing their pistols in the air. Coogan rode towards them. His hand automatically went to his hip. It was an old instinct. He no longer carried a gun. He wove through the chaos in the dusty street. He tied his horse and went into the saloon.
In the lamp glow he noticed the usual array of drinkers and card players. Every man looked worried by the scenes going on outside. Some knocked back liquor with red eyes, others chewed fingernails and glanced out the window. Coogan went to the bar. He ordered a whiskey. As the barman slid over his drink Coogan spoke. He nodded to the street outside.
"What's with the evening entertainment?"
"It's them hoople-heads that want to buy us all out. Except looks like the brought a few of their amigos with them."
Coogan went to find a table. He chose a seat facing the room. He took a sip of liquor and waited.
* * *
An hour later the crowd tearing up the street had had enough. The dozen men stormed into the saloon. Each man wore a gun on his hip and swaggered like they owned the place. As they crossed the room they kicked over tables and chairs, they downed people's drinks, daring someone to challenge them. Coogan recognised the two men who had visited his ranch.
The men approached the bar. They ordered whiskey and drank without paying. Even across the room Coogan saw resignation on the barman's face. One of the men who had come to his ranch turned and spoke to the room.
"Any of you folks ready to sell yet?"
"Nope? You'll come round. Let's see how long y'all can hold out."
The man spun and fired his pistol. A bottle of whiskey on the bar shattered. Coogan got to his feet. The whole room watched as he walked slowly, deliberately towards the gunslinger.
"Time you boys were leaving," said Coogan.
"Just who are you to tell us to leave?"
The man waved his pistol menacingly.
"Well, ain't you just the tough guy. Waving that gun at an unarmed man. If you was to put that pistol away, maybe we'd see you ain't so tough."
The guy placed his pistol on the bar. He shrugged.
"Now, I'm unarmed too, old-timer. What are you—"
Coogan slammed a fist into the guy's face. He crashed to the floor. Blood poured from his nose, a look of shock on his face. He jumped to his feet. Shock turned to anger. Coogan snatched the guy's pistol from the bar. Pointed it at him. He drew back the hammer. The other men drew their weapons.
"I said it was time you were leaving."
"You kill me and my boys will shoot you where you stand."
"Sounds like we got ourselves a deal. I'm game if you are. What do you say?"
The guy's shoulders slumped. He shook his head.
"What about my pistol."
Coogan smiled. He tipped the gun up, emptied all the bullets. He tossed the gun to the man.
"We'll be back," he snarled.
"I'll be waiting," said Coogan.
The men rushed out of the saloon doors. Horses' hooves thundered down the street as they left town. Coogan noticed the sheriff cowering in one corner. The barrel chested man had fear in his eyes. Coogan just shook his head.
* * *
The following morning Pat Richards rode to see Will Coogan. He looked to the older man with excited eyes.
"Heard about what happened in the saloon last night. They way you stood up to a dozen armed men.'
"That's not quite how it happened."
"They say you handled yourself like a real gun fighter. That what you was, Will? A mean son of a bitch gunslinger?"
"My killing days were a long time ago. I've seen wicked things and done much worse. But that was then."
"You ain't that person no more?"
"Make no mistake, son. I'm still him."
"If that's so what are you doing working on a ranch?"
"Never figured on living this long."
* * *
When Coogan crossed the saloon that evening people shook his hand and patted him on the back. He just shrugged. He refused offers to buy him a drink by saying he wouldn't take a drink from a man like he was a lady being courted.
* * *
Around noon the next day Coogan heard horses coming up the dirt track to his ranch. He took a deep breath. He opened the door. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. He waited a second for the dust to settle then went out onto the porch. Ten men on horseback glared at him. At the head of the group was the man he'd punched in the saloon. Next to him was a man in his forties. He had flecks of silver in his beard. He had the air of a man who was used to getting what he wanted.
"My name's Michael Turner. I understand you had a little altercation with one of my men, Jim Cody, here."
Coogan didn't speak.
"The fact remains, Mr Coogan, that I would like to buy your property. I am interested in this entire area."
"Like I told Mister Cody, here, this place ain't for sale. Now, if you'll excuse me."
"I am not a man who takes no for an answer. I'm sure you will reconsider with the necessary persuasion."
"That sounds like a threat."
"Does it? Does it really?" smiled Turner.
* * *
Two days later. Coogan rode into town. The sun beat down from the cloudless sky. It was so hot that it hurt to breathe. Each breath seemed to draw in as much dust as hot air. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. As he rode slowly down the main street he noticed a tense atmosphere. People were huddled in groups talking very seriously. Coogan knew the reason for the nerves. Michael Turner had been making his so-called offers all around town.
The owner of the General Store confirmed his suspicions. This Michael Turner had approached practically the whole of Santa Rosa making his thinly veiled threats. So far nobody had agreed to sell up but Coogan knew it was only a matter of time.
* * *
Just after midnight Coogan was woke by the sound of riders approaching. He peered out the window. In the pale moonlight he could see Jim Cody, Michael Turner and around ten other men. Each of them had their pistols drawn. They rushed their horses right up to the house. They fired shots at the house. It sounded like an awful thunder storm as bullets tore into the walls and windows. Coogan swore. He crouched and leaned against the adobe wall.
The volley of gunfire continued for what felt like hours but could only have been around ten minutes. In the silence that followed Michael Turner called out.
"What about now, Coogan? Ready to sell? Me and my boys are just getting started."
Turner gave the order and they headed back down the dusty track.
Coogan, still slumped on the floor, knew that he had no option but to go back to the wild days he had put behind him.
* * *
Coogan joined the other townsfolk in the saloon the next evening. They discussed exactly what could and should be done. Some were saying they'd had enough and wanted to sell to Turner. Others, his neighbour Pat Richards included, said they should tough it out. Just as the impromptu meeting was drawing to a close the saloon doors burst open. Something had been flung into the room. It crashed to a heap on the floor. Except it wasn't a thing. It was the bloody, beat up, dead body of the sheriff. Panic broke out across the room. People screamed, yelled and trembled. The barman tossed a cloth over the body. He told someone to take the body across to the undertakers and call the Padre.
"It's clear that Turner is warning us." said Pat. "This is a message."
"I reckon," said Coogan, "it's about time we sent a message of our own."
* * *
Coogan spent the next morning patching up his ranch house as best he could. The repair job wasn't great but it would have to do. Besides, he had more pressing matters to tend to. He had a glass of whiskey. He sighed. Then a determination took hold of him. He gritted his teeth.
He went through to the bedroom. He reached under the bed. He pulled out a carved wooden chest. He took the chest through to the kitchen table. He sat for a long moment, his hands resting on the lid of the box. Then he opened it.
He took out the bundle. Peeled back the cloth. He picked the object up. The six-shooter felt good in his hands. The weight of the gun and that it spelt death to anyone on the wrong side of it was a pleasantly familiar sensation. He checked and oiled the gun.
He got to his feet. He strapped the holster around his waist. He drew the pistol, aimed at a spot on the wall. He did a few more practise draws. Yes, it was all coming back to him. Will Coogan, the cold-blooded killer was back.
* * *
Coogan called on Pat Richards. The young man gasped when he saw the pistol on his hip. He told Richards to follow him into town. Richards nodded. Coogan turned his horse and road for Santa Rosa.
He tied his horse outside the saloon. He marched into the bar room. People stared when they was the pistol and the glint in his eye.
"Tell everyone who wants to keep their business to get their behinds in here now," Coogan yelled.
He sipped a whiskey at the bar and waited.
Thirty minutes later a crowd had gathered. Word had gone round and people flocked to hear what he had to say. Coogan downed the whiskey and turned to the people.
"You've all been visited by Turner. You've had trouble from his boys. Last night my place was shot up. Then the sheriff was killed."
A roar of anger went up.
"The only way to stop these sons of bitches is to put them in the ground."
"I don't want any part of the fighting. Violence is not the answer," one man said.
"Well," Coogan said, "When you figure out just what is the answer you can let them that are left know what you've come up with."
"I can't hold off any longer," said another.
"The way I see it," said Pat, "we haven't got a great deal of choice. Either we sell to Turner or we make a stand."
"Full of sand, aren't you, boy?" someone said.
"But Pat's young. He's got his future at stake."
The group discussed and debated for over an hour. Coogan slouched in a chair by the window watching the street.
"Will?" Pat called.
Coogan went over. Again all eyes watched him.
"If we did as you said, if we stand up against Turner and his men, I mean, how? We're farmers and store owners. We ain't gunslingers."
"But you could be," said Coogan.
"Give me two days in the desert. And if you want this town badly enough you'll fight for it."
The room fell silent.
Coogan saw determination shining amidst the fear in people's eyes.
* * *
As afternoon turned to evening Coogan got to his feet. He put his hat on and headed for the doors. The townsfolk watched him. Their eyes asked where he was going. He called over his shoulder.
"We'll be needing guns."
* * *
A while later Coogan entered the sprawling, bustling town of El Paso. The barman had mentioned that he'd overheard some of Turner's men say they were going to be drinking and whoring in El Paso that evening. Perfect, Coogan thought.
El Paso was a thriving place. It was twice, maybe three times the size of Santa Rosa. Perhaps Turner wanted to turn the small town into something of that magnitude and rake in the profits. The noise from the number of people going up and down the boardwalks was in stark contrast to the fairly subdued walks of Santa Rosa.
Coogan entered the first cantina he came across. He pulled his hat down low. His eyes scanned the room. He didn't recognise any of the men from the attacks on Santa Rosa. He tried the next place.
He crossed the room. He took in every face in the lamp glow. Ten of Turner's men were in one corner. They were drunk, yelling abuse at random strangers. Coogan slipped his pistol from its holster. He took his other pistol tucked into his belt at the small of his back. He held his hands behind his flowing overcoat. He went over to the group.
"Howdy, fellers. Any of you know where I can find those sons of bitches who shot my place up last night?"
The group turned. In the second it took them to recognise Coogan he swung his pistols. He blasted shot after shot. His old skills came flooding back. A minute later the men were slumped dead where they had been sitting.
Coogan picked his way through the bodies and scooped up their gun belts. He slung the belts over his shoulders.
"Thank you, fellers. Much obliged."
With their still warm bodies bleeding onto the wooden floor Coogan mounted his horse and headed off into the night.
* * *
At nine o'clock the next morning ten of the men of Santa Rosa were gathered in the saloon. Two days in the desert. That's what they had prepared for. Horses were packed and ready. Coogan entered. He handed each man a gun belt. Each man strapped the belt around their waist in awkward, unfamiliar movements.
The men left in the town, and the families of those off with Coogan, had been told to shut up shop for two days. If any of Turner's men cam calling then they would be told that they would have their answer regarding selling at noon in two days time.
As the men mounted up Coogan caught Pat Richards' eye. He gave him a nod. Richards tapped his hat in reply. Coogan rode hard out into the desert. The others followed. Several hours later he stopped. He told the men they would be setting up camp here. Once camp had been set up and the horses tended to, Coogan gathered the men. They stood around him baking and squinting in the desert sun.
"First thing you gotta know is how to draw."
In one fluid movement his pistol was out of the holster and in his hand. He explained that a quick draw just might save their lives. He told them that a draw should be one smooth motion. Just let the arm flick down and then forwards, like you are swatting a fly. The men listened hard, concentrating. From what Coogan heard they were keeping their nerves at bay by focusing on the fact that they were doing something about their problem. One way or another, things would be sorted out.
Over the next two days Coogan taught them the finer points of being a gunman. He showed them how to aim and aim quick. He showed them how to aim at a man's chest to kill him. He told them little things he had picked up along the way, like never sitting with your back to a room and sleeping with your gun belt hanging off the bed post.
* * *
Michael Turner stared at the store owner's wife. He rubbed his beard in thought.
"Two days, you say? I'm not a patient man. I will be back, as you say, at noon in two days. But don't expect me to be in good humour. This delay will affect the price I give you on your business."
He snatched a bottle from the shelf and launched it at the wall. The woman screamed.
"Be seeing you."
* * *
Two days later. Noon.
Turner and his men thundered towards Santa Rosa. Their horses kicked up a cloud of dust. The riders neared the small town. Turner had fury in his eyes. If the town failed to decide today then he would burn the entire town to the ground.
There was the cracking of rifle fire. Shot after shot rang out. Michael Turner and his men were thrown to the dirt as their horses were hit. They picked themselves up. They dusted the dirt from their clothes. Turner swore. He drew his pistol. His men did the same.
They entered Santa Rosa on foot. The only sound was the crunch of their boots on the dusty track. Then there came the sound of other footsteps on the street.
A row of gunslingers walked out to meet Turner and his men. The gunslingers were dressed in dark coats and hats. The men moved as one. In unison, pistols were whipped from holsters.
"So, that's it, Santa Rosa? Hired guns to face me?"
"We are Santa Rosa," growled one man.
"You sure you want to do this?" said another.
"Think you can take on the whole town?" called a third.
"You got the sand for this, Turner?"
There was silence. Michael Turner stared at the line of men blocking his way into town. They were the townsfolk. And they were unmoving. His eyes found Coogan's glare. He was in the centre of the line.
Coogan stared, his eyes flashed with warning, don't do this. Beside him the young Pat Richards wielded his pistol like he was an outlaw. The two lines of men stood facing each other, watching, waiting, daring the other to make a move.
"Have it your way, Santa Rosa. I will take my enterprise elsewhere," said Turner.
He half turned to leave. Then stopped.
"But there is just one thing before I go."
Turner flicked his gun arm up. He fired off three quick shots. The first shot went wide but the second and third punched Coogan in the chest. As he fell back through the air Coogan fired back. He caught Turner in the throat. He went down. Both men lay dying in the dirt. The men of Santa Rosa opened fire. Turner's men fired back. Gunsmoke and dust filled the air.
As the townsfolk gained the upper hand Turner's leaderless men turned and ran for their lives. The villagers let them leave.
Pat Richards ignored the pain from the bullet in his shoulder. He joined the others beside the body of Will Coogan. The dead gunslinger seemed quite at peace, lying there with his gun in his hand.
"Thank you, Will," he said.
Chris Platt has been writing stories for as long as he can remember. He writes in a wide variety of genres,
from crime thrillers and westerns to horror and science fiction. An avid reader and film fan, Chris gets his
inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. He can often be found jotting down a quick note of an idea for a
story. His favourite authors are varied. They include Irvine Welsh, Lee Child, Douglas Adams, Stephen King,
Ray Bradbury, and Philip K Dick.
He lives in the North West UK with his wife and black Labrador.
His Booksie link is below:
His Amazon stories can be found as below, including a full-length Western entitled Charlie Barton.
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Four Days from San Francisco
by Gavin Gray
They arrested him outside of the town saloon, or more accurately, what the locals referred to as a saloon. Truthfully, it was little more than a dusty shack which sold the occasional cot for the night. Hui stood with a shotgun aimed at the bounty, while Dodson stood further away with his pistol in hand.
By this point a small crowd of townspeople had begun to form around them. Hardly a dozen of them, though in this isolated patch of eastern California it constituted a significant portion of the community. "Who are these interlopers?" they murmured amongst themselves, and how could a man of the Orient dare to detain a white man?
Dodson, who had neither the proper mood nor the inclination to explain the legality of their abduction, felt a warning shot would better suffice. He discharged a chamber of his Navy revolver skywards and the crowd, not feeling any particular loyalty towards the detained man, quickly dispersed.
Holding it from the waist, Hui kept the shotgun trained on the man as Dodson tied his hands behind his back with a length of rope. After he finished, Dodson stepped in front of the man to observe his face, before nodding to Hui in conformation. This was indeed David Cribbs.
Cribbs did nothing to protest the situation. He remained calm, if somewhat annoyed, in his demeanor. He paused for a moment to glare at Hui, before turning to Dodson to ask, "You let that Chinaman have a gun?""It's my shotgun," Dodson replied, "Can't be trusted with a pistol. C'mon let's go." Hui handed over the shotgun, which Dodson subsequently strapped to his saddle bag.
What Dodson had said was not entirely true, although he did not know it. Hui had purchased a Derringer pistol with the money from their last job. He had to keep it hidden away in his left pocket, as carrying it with him was strictly against the term of his employment. Although he doubted he would ever use it, just feeling the weight of it in his pocket gave him a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. This was one part of his life that Dodson could not control.
Hui remained stoic as they led Cribbs out of the town, however he could hardly contain the excitement of their forthcoming financial windfall. Finding Cribbs out here was the result of a tremendous stroke of luck. He could have easily disappeared into the nameless village, which most searching for him would have likely never discovered existed. Indeed, Cribbs would have vanished entirely had it not been for the fact that the neighbour with whom he decided to confide his escape plan happened to employ Hui's cousin.
For several hours they rode their horses in silence. Cribbs, now tied to Dodson's horse, awkwardly shuffled behind. He struggled on the rolling California hills, and eventually it became evident that Cribbs was no longer able to keep up without risk of collapsing. Hui and Dodson found a small clearing in the pine, and brought their horses to a halt. This was to be their stop for the night.
Dodson allowed Cribbs to sit down on a log, before reattaching his rope to a nearby tree. Dodson himself sat a few paces away, near enough to keep an eye on him while also out of his physical reach if he decided to put up a fight. He began disassembling his revolver to clean, while Hui began to work on their fire for the night.
After regaining his breath, Cribbs became the first to break the silence. "This ain't right," Cribbs murmured in protest, "I am an honorable man. I fought in the War."
Dodson continued to focus on his revolver, running a small cotton cord through the now empty chamber. His brows furrowed, and without looking up he replied, "Just about everyone did. I fought in the Army of Mississippi."
Cribbs's eyes lit up and he leaned forward with an intense expression of excitement, his legs struggling to retain his balance. He said, "I didn't think you to be another Southron! I myself served as an officer directly under Robert Lee." This revelation caught Dodson off guard, and his furrough lifted as he looked up in interest. Starstruck, he replied, "You knew General Lee?"
A smirk began to creep over Cribbs's face, "I did indeed. I was a captain in his cavalry."
Dodson chuckled, "Well damn. I don't run into too many of us out here. I've never been up there, but my nephew fought in northern Virginia too. Have you ever heard of the Daughly plantation?"
Hui by this point had finished setting up the campfire. He continued to kneel by it to ensure that the flame had sufficiently taken to the kindling, before rising to his feet to walk over to Dodson. Hui kneeled next to him, and quietly muttered that he needed to speak with him.
"Don't interrupt!" Dodson angrily muttered in response, before happily returning to chatter with his new comrade in arms. Exacerbated, Hui left his side and retired to the edge of the campsite to sleep.
From the edge of the site Hui watched the two excitedly exchanging stories. The inconsistent flicker of the campfire offered brief windows where he could see their expressions. Dodson, wide-eyed and grinning, loudly boasted of his various feats in Atlanta or other sites Hui did not recognize. By contrast, Cribbs sat calmly and did most of the listening. Cribbs sat attentively and politely, although Hui could see the clear hint of a smug grin in the corners of his lips. After a while their voices grew softer, and Hui could no longer make out what they were saying. It appeared as though the roles had shifted, and Cribbs was now doing most of the speaking. As Hui faded into sleep, he thought he saw Cribbs motioning in his direction.
* * *
The sound of four metallic clicks woke Hui. Opening his eyes, he saw Dodson peering down at him with his pistol pressed against Hui's forehead. Hui darted his eyes from left to right, scanning the scene. Cribbs was nowhere to be seen.Hui finally managed to force some words out of his mouth to ask, "What are you doing?"
Dodson replied, "I heard over in Monterey they're looking for a Chinaman who's guilty of a killing, matches your description. I'm fixing to bring you there to face justice."
Under the blanket, Hui began slowly reaching into his left pocket to retrieve his derringer, taking care not to elevate his hand. He said to Dodson, "You know that's not me. I've been with you for the past few months."
"Now that I don't know," Dodson replied sarcastically, "And it can't be helped either way. I've decided not to bring in Cribbs, I ain't going to bring in any more of my brothers who fought for the Cause. I still need the bounty, so I'm taking you in instead."
Hui lay silent. He was surprised not so much by Dodson's betrayal, but by his foolishness. He knew that Dodson thought of him as little more than an extra set of hands, however he had put up with Dodson's bigotry and abuse under the assumption that he at least knew what he was doing. Hui didn't figure him for the type to fall for such a simple con. He asked, "Dodson, do you remember what Cribbs is wanted for?"
"Yeah, he killed his landlord. What's your point?"
"The notice said he killed his landlord of ten years. He couldn't have fought in Virginia."
Dodson's eyes widened as he processed the information. He exhaled a frustrated sigh, angrily muttered something incomprehensible, and for a brief moment moved his eyes upwards. Hui saw the brief window of opportunity before him, and unveiled his left hand from the blanket. By the time Dodson's eyes returned downwards it was too late for him, Hui discharged his Derringer directly into his neck.
Dodson fired his pistol in response as he fell, though the bullet safely flew away from Hui in the direction of some nearby brush. As he lay bleeding out, Hui retrieved Dodson's pistol and placed it in his own waistband.
Hui surveyed the land around him, endless hills of grey pine trees enveloped him as he now stood alone. Travelling alone as a Chinese man on the long ride back to San Francisco was dangerous enough. Now he would also have to explain the absence of Dodson when he returned, while another man of similar appearance was also wanted for a killing. A description which now factually applied to Hui, the right of self defense not being a luxury typically afforded to his people. He collapsed in despair, capitulating in his struggle to retain the tears which now flowed freely down his cheeks. The grey pines stood as somber gallows, enveloping and endless, with little hope of salvation beyond.
Gavin Gray is an English teacher from San Antonio, Texas. You can follow his writing at
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Point of Order!
by Charles Shotwell
I arrived in the Arizona Territories on a hot day. The train blew steam into the sky. It sounded shrill, like the call of a bird, and the chugging of the wheels was like the hoofbeats of a dozen riders. An old man in his 70s, with hunched shoulders, was sweeping up along the rails. I was still wearing my fine suit when I got off, but it was fully sweated through. The wind was so harsh my bowler kept getting blown off, so I had to have one hand free just to keep it on my head, while the other shielded my eyes from sand and grit.
Almost as soon as I stepped off the train, a rather old, stern cowboy was there waiting for me with two horses. He had dirty gray hair tucked under a Stetson, and a Smith and Wesson at his hip.
"I'm Sheriff Gray of Rio Lobo. I assume you are the lawyer?"
"Yup," I said, hopping onto the spare horse, a black-and-white mare with lazy eyes. I didn't ride much up in Boston, the college didn't permit it, but I had ridden at my uncle's house in Buffalo. I suppose I didn't like it very much, seeing as the beasts were far too high and could buck me off at any moment.
"It's a bit of a ride," Gray said. "Few hours."
The Sheriff spurred his stallion, and I followed him into the desert. Before long, we had crested a small hill, and all sight of the train was lost. I could still hear the steam-stacks whistling and the chugging of the rails, but it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. A truly odd feeling. Up in Boston, things were always bustling, moving, happening. You could put out your arm and touch at least two other people at any moment. That simply wasn't the same here.
Gray and I didn't speak. I had been filled in on the case already, and, as we rode, I took the opportunity to make sure I had all the facts right.
Billy Hargrove, the richest man in Gila County and tycoon for the railroad, turned up dead the other day. He had been shot, along with ten of his workers, by arrows. Hargrove was nearing the end of his life anyway and had been diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis. Before he died, the tycoon had worked out with the local Lakajara Indians that he would sell the lands to them after his passing. However, now that they were the prime suspects in his murder, Hargrove's nephew, an outlaw, and an overall bully, Quick Jim, was to be the new owner. Rio Lobo couldn't have that. He needed to stand trial at least.
That's where I came in. I was to find some way to get Quick Jim discredited and made ineligible to inherit his uncle's business. It wouldn't be easy, but if my experience at Harvard was an indicator, anything was possible in law.
It was evening when Gray and I reached Rio Lobo. Not a large town, but one that had been much smaller before the railroad came in. There was a jailhouse, a saloon, a general store, everything one would expect in that dusty corner of the earth. All of the buildings were made out of soft adobe and some sort of creaky wood. The sheriff helped me hitch my horse by the hotel before taking me inside and leading me up to a small room. It was on the second floor, meaning that it was entirely enveloped in a stifling, rising heat. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about centipedes at such an altitude, though spiders were still a big threat. Already, I missed Boston, and the safety it provided.
"What's the matter, you nervous?" Gray asked.
"No, it's just . . . When is the trial, again?"
"Tomorrow, high noon. I'll come and take you to the courthouse. We're paying you to make sure Quick Jim doesn't take over our town. Do it."
Gray left the room. Once I was sure I was alone, I undid my briefcase and looked over some papers. I had a pretty clear strategy in order. I would prove that the Lakajara Indians hadn't killed Bill Hargrove, and then that Quick Jim was a convicted felon, a murderer who had served time in Yuma. No jury from here up to Yankee country would let him take over the railroad, and thus, Rio Lobo's only means at profit. Or so I hoped.
In time, my eyes became blurry with edicts and articles and evidence, so I laid down on the cot and fell asleep. At least the beds in Arizona were good.
* * *
The next day wasn't any cooler than the last. Gray and I met at the courthouse, a wooden building in the middle of town. There were about twenty people inside, a jury of twelve, a judge with beady eyes and brass spectacles, a few lawmen, a couple of mean-looking guys with guns, an Indian chief, the old man who I saw sweeping at the railroad, and Quick Jim. He was a big, hard cowboy, with gruff eyes and arms like tree trunks. The only guns on him were the Colt he wouldn't make any issue of drawing, and the 12 gauge Sheriff Gray pointed at his gut.
"Order, order!" The judge called in a warbling turkey voice. "All rise for the honorable Judge Swearengen, Law of the Gila. The trial of Sheriff Gray and Chief Winding Snake vs. Jim Hargrove is now in session. The plaintiff may issue his opening remark."
I stepped forward. "Yes, your honor. I know I am the plaintiff, but in a way, I am also the defendant. I am defending the good people of this town, and the noble Lakajara Indians of the region. Bill Hargrove was killed on Tuesday by a few unseen assailants. They were in and out within a matter of minutes, and when they cleared, eleven people were dead. I don't think those were Lakajara. I think they were people meant to resemble Lakajara, paid by Quick Jim, a known gunfighter and criminal. He killed Mr. Hargrove so he could inherit his fortune. Not only should he be barred from taking over Rio Lobo's railroad, but he should also be charged for the killing. I yield my time."
There were whispers throughout the courthouse. This was certainly an aggressive stance to take. Judge Swearengen banged his gavel and called up Quick Jim, who was defending himself.
"All that was just said was wrong," the cowboy called in a gruff voice. "I did not kill my uncle Bill. I was at the railroad that day, I worked for him as I had for the last month, and then I left. When I came back the next morning, he was dead. Now, whoever killed my uncle came in fast, shot him with arrows, and left to the west. If that doesn't sound like Indians I don't know what does. And if Sheriff Gray and the people of Rio Lobo want to really give those lands to murderers and savages, they can. I'll say though, that they are just butthurt someone new is coming in to do their town right. That is a criminal injustice, I tell you!"
Quick Jim sat down. He had spoken with passion certainly, and yet I felt I had more evidence. Nine times out of ten, the person who discovers the body is the murderer. Swearengen looked regally at the crowd, before saying:
"I will now call in Smithy, the maintenance worker at the railroads, and a witness to the crime."
The old man walked up and took a seat at the wooden booth. He had large gray whiskers on his nose and on his chin, with wild eyes. The idea that this codger could formulate any lucid thought, much less testify, was ludicrous.
"Hello," he croaked in a voice not too much different than a bird's. "I'm Smithy. I've worked on the railroads sweeping up for over thirty years. Bill Hargrove was a friend of mine. I've watched his nephew grow up. He is a good, honest boy, and would never think of harming anyone."
"Strike that from the record," I said, exasperated. "Mr. Hargrove has been incarcerated numerous times for murder."
Judge Swearengen nodded. "I'll allow it. Continue, Smithy."
"I was there both times the Lakajara Injuns attacked the railroad. The first time, Jim was just a boy. They rode in, shot up some people with arrows, and left in a few minutes. If you look, you'll see that he caught one of them in his shoulder. It was meant for his uncle, but he jumped in front."
Quick Jim nodded from his seat. The judge waved his hand to indicate something, and the big man rose, taking off his duster and slowly unbuttoning part of his tunic. Sure enough, weaved over his left shoulder, was a deep scar. I groaned. That wouldn't be good.
"Do you think that a man who took an arrow for Bill would then kill him?" Smithy continued. "I think he's innocent. I didn't see Bill die but I did hear it. I was in the middle of my sweeping when the train came right in front, rounding the bend. Hargrove was on the other side, tending to a few things. Then, as the train rode, I heard two very clear sounds on the other side of the tracks. One was the hoofbeats of around a dozen horses, and the other was a high, shrill whistle. Everyone knows the Lakajara use eagle-bone whistles to inspire fear in their opponents. When the train cleared, everyone was dead."
"Alright, thank you Smithy," Swearengen said. "You may take a seat."
"What?" the geezer yelled. "I already am sitting!"
"Down by the rest of the witnesses," the judge added on, gritting his teeth.
"Sorry, I'm a bit hard of hearing." Smithy rose from the booth and slowly limped down to his bench, mumbling all the way. As he did, the bones in his back audibly creaked, as if he was a birch tree being felled by lumberjacks in the Hudson Bay. I stood.
"Now, just to clarify, there is no proof that Quick Jim jumped in front of an arrow meant for his uncle. He might have just been hit. There is also no proof that an altercation with the Indians ever occurred. No one died, and if they did, Bill Hargrove certainly didn't press charges. That brings me to my next point. I would like to call to the stage, Chief Winding Snake of the Lakajara tribe."
A rather old Indian stepped up from the plaintiff panel and walked proudly to the booth by Swearengen. He had long, braided, black hair and grayish red skin. Leather strings jangled with beads on his shoulders. Despite being hated by probably everyone in the room, Winding Snake still had a confidence in him, a nobility. He didn't care if people thought he was a murderer, or a savage, because he knew he wasn't. As did I. I had seen Indians up in Boston many times, mostly Chappaquiddick and Mohicans, to the point that they no longer terrified me like they did most white men. What terrified me was the idea that they might be wrongfully charged for the murder of a man.
"I'd like to explain what happened when Quick Jim was a boy," Winding Snake said in a low, dark voice. "His uncle had taken a lot of the land my people owned and turned it into the railroad. I was angry at this, and so I rode down with my men to confront him. Nothing happened, and we didn't shoot anyone. Bill and I spoke calmly and eventually came to an agreement. He would own the land in the desert until he died, or retired, and then he would give them back to the Lakajara people."
I stood up, and clasped open my briefcase, before taking out a piece of paper and passing it around. It was the original telegram Bill Hargrove had sent Winding Snake twenty years ago, the contract that said he would bequeath his lands upon death to its rightful owners. Swearengen looked it over with a lazy, muted sneer, while Quick Jim only scoffed.
"I would like to ask the jury why Winding Snake would want to kill Bill Hargrove when he already knew the man was about to die of tuberculosis in a matter of months?" I asked. "All that served would be to discredit the validity of the tribe and besmirch their right at inheritance. Is that so, Chief?"
"It is," Winding Snake echoed. He never really smiled, but there seemed to be an excitement behind his word. "The Lakajara people are a peaceful tribe unless provoked. The eagle-bone whistles that Smithy said he heard the night of the killing are only meant for rituals and rites of passage, not war. That very night, I was back at our camp in the desert, holding a sacred ceremony to welcome a new brave into our tribe. Anyone there can testify. We didn't go to the railroads, and we certainly didn't kill Bill Hargrove."
"Alright," Judge Swearengen said, oddly distant. "And yet, those men down by the booths say otherwise." He gestured to three mean-looking roughriders that had been glaring at Sheriff Gray and I since we got there. They all looked very similar to each other, with sandy blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and stern features. They rose together and walked on the defendant's aisle to the stage. They passed Winding Snake on the way, who the youngest of them looked like he might punch right then and there.
"Quick Jim, would you like to explain who these people are?"
"Those are the Bronco Brothers. I met them in Albuquerque a few years ago," he replied as if it were obvious. "They work as hired hands and bounty hunters. I had told my uncle about them when I arrived in Rio Lobo, and they rode in for some work."
"What kind of work?" I asked, curious.
"Labor, heavy-lifting, drilling. Rob there has quite the keen eye. He was going to work as a spotter, watching the trains come in and such."
"This does not pertain to the trial, strike that from the questioning," the judge butted in. "Now, for the three Bronco Brothers, Rob, Eddie, and Joe, would you like to explain what you were doing the night of Bill Hargrove's murder?"
"We was riding in to do some work," the middle boy, Eddie, said. "A few miles from the railroad, and maybe a dozen from town."
"Yes," the elder brother, Rob, added on. "I thought we could make it by that night, but Eddie and Joe said we should stop. So we did."
"And that's when we saw the Injuns," Joe called. "There were a lot of them, over thirty, all wearing weird clothes and stuff. They had horses and bows and a big, big bonfire."
"The point is, Winding Snake wasn't there," Rob said, exasperated with his brothers. "At least a dozen horses were missing. When we looked over the desert we could see them riding back towards us from the train tracks. We quickly broke up camp and rode away. We didn't find out what happened until we reached Rio Lobo, and Quick Jim brought us to the scene."
"I hadn't seen a body up until then," Joe sighed as if he was disappointed with the fact.
"Objection!" I called, raising up from my seat again with a red face. "Your honor, these men are obviously criminals. Of course, Joe has seen a body."
"And why is that?" Swearengen asked.
"For one, they have a legacy as the Bronco Boys, robbing trains and stagecoaches from here to Nevada. For two, Quick Jim said he met them in Albuquerque. He only went there during that twenty-year period after he was supposedly shot by an Indian arrow, and before he returned to find his uncle dead. In that time, he resorted to a life of crime, murdering, thieving, doing all sorts of unsavory acts. I think he met the Bronco Boys during his double life, and only came back to Rio Lobo when he found out that his uncle was going to die and he had a chance at inheritance. They would act as witnesses to support his case, and he would give them a cut."
"Hold up,' Quick Jim called. "You think I only came back here because I wanted money? How 'bout I only came back so I could care for my dying uncle in his final days?"
"Alright, alright!" Judge Swearengen yelled while slamming his gavel. "We've heard a lot of conflicting views and seen a lot of evidence today. I think the only thing to do now is let the jury deliberate."
The jury was a loose collection of local farmers, housewives, and cowboys. They all stood and very slowly walked out of the courthouse. Then came the silence. My eyes darted back and forth between Quick Jim, who was obviously angry, Sheriff Gray, looking hard, Winding Snake with his cool demeanor, the steely-eyed Bronco Boys, and Old Smithy, who was confused on exactly why he was there. I wondered what I was? Probably nervous, and sweating bullets. It wasn't often that a Yankee attorney from Harvard found himself in the middle of Arizona on a case like this. Even worse, I wasn't sure I had the upper hand.
Just then, the jury came back. Some looked downright miffed, while the others were quite pleased with themselves. Everyone glanced at the twelve people, hanging on the edge of their seats for a verdict. One of the farmers whispered something to Judge Swearengen, who sighed, adjusted his brass spectacles, and addressed the crowd with a disappointed air.
"The vote is 6-6. We have a hung jury."
That wasn't good. Any deadlock vote meant more time for the defendant to come up with a good argument. "We will require a revote, but as it is already supper time, I'm afeard the trial will have to continue tomorrow. This court is adjourned."
Swearengen banged his gavel, and, feeling quite angry, I stormed out onto the dusty streets of Rio Lobo. How could I have lost? The evidence was overwhelming. Once I was a few paces down I looked over and saw Winding Snake and Sheriff Gray parting ways, both slow and sad in their movements. Quick Jim was talking with the Bronco Boys by the water well on the far end of the courthouse They were laughing amongst themselves as if it all were some joke. This wasn't a joke to me though, this was my career. Trials were never like this in Boston.
I went back to the hotel and lay down on the cot. I could give up right now, call it quits, head back to my home. Everyone knew, if a jury hadn't convicted Quick Jim today, they certainly wouldn't tomorrow. And yet there was no honor at that. It was nighttime when there came a rap at my door. I got up, and walked over to it, expecting to see Sheriff Gray. He would tell me that the trial was off, that Quick Jim was to be acquitted, etc, etc. Instead, standing right there, was Quick Jim himself.
"I . . . why are you here?" I stuttered, glancing at the Colt holstered on the cowboy's side.
"Because I want you to stop what you're doing. The jury has already agreed to rule in my favor. You should too. Leave tonight. Go back to Yankee country where you belong." The outlaw said this with a calm, vicious demeanor, much different than how he appeared in court. And yet, there seemed to be a fire in his eyes, like if I disrespected him, he might snap. For good measure, Quick Jim added on: "Nothing good happens to Yankees in Arizona."
"You're pressuring the jury aren't you?" I asked, the 6-6 vote suddenly making perfect sense. This man didn't scare me, at least not as much as he thought he did. He was a mere bully. "You probably pressured the witnesses too!"
"That's none of your business," Jim hissed, surprised. Yankees weren't known to be this stubborn. Most of them were pushovers. "All you need to know is that I didn't kill my uncle. Winding Snake and his men did. Got that?"
I stepped back. The room was small, but I still felt the need to get away from him. By the window, I reached for a pack of cigarettes and lit one. The breeze was blowing on the street, spreading sand and dust all over Rio Lobo. There was a wagon below my window, positioned right by my black-and-white horse down by the end of the hotel. Joe Bronco was sitting in the back, a Winchester in his arms. The other two were nearby. Eddie was standing with a pistol in hand, while Rob waited in the seat, ready to drive off. I knew if I moved a muscle, either Quick Jim or one of the three goons would shoot me. I thought about things like this a lot in Boston, where they never happened. I thought I would be scared. But right now, when I was actually in one of those situations, I felt nothing.
"I'll do what you say," I whispered, putting the cigarette in my mouth and tasting the bitterness as a leaf of tobacco fell on my tongue. In my peripheral vision, I could see that giant hunk of a man, Quick Jim, waiting for any instance to shoot me. But he didn't.
"You'll leave Rio Lobo."
"Good." Quick Jim turned around and walked out. His footsteps banged on the wooden panels in the corridor for almost a minute before I saw him disappear out the door of the hotel and walk out into the town. The Bronco Boys' wagon also spurred up, heading out in a cloud of dust. I set to packing immediately. I piled my books, my papers, all my unused stratagems for the trial into the briefcase, along with some suits and button-up shirts. Then, I ran out of the hotel in quite a huff, paying the man at the door a buck, and hopped onto the horse Sheriff Gray loaned me.
There was a train scheduled to leave that evening. I had to ride quick. Within moments, the clay adobe of Rio Lobo was behind me, and I was in the desert, passing saguaros, sand, and rocks glittering in the moonlight. The fear of my encounter caught up then, like a wave of opium. I felt the sight of the Bronco Boys' guns, Quick Jim right there, and thought about all the dangerous things those men could have done to me. But I was safe now. Soon, I would be on a train, a metal cage protecting me from the outside world, which would take me right up to Boston. There, I could do real trials, with real people who obeyed the law and had real careers.
As I left, I could feel the desert watching me. In Arizona, everything was incredibly young. Every patch of sand and plot of saguaro could have been the first touched by human eyes. In Massachusetts, the buildings, graveyards, and churches were all old as sin. I missed it. At least there, things didn't feel like they were watching me at all moments. Like they didn't want me to be there.
When I did reach the train stop at midnight, I was a bit early. Smithy wasn't there, he was staying back in town awaiting the court tomorrow, and all the other workers had been killed last Tuesday, so I was all alone. The biting metal of the railroad extended like a snake for miles, winding east towards Texas and then up to Massachusetts. The small shackled building, like a tollbooth, where Bill Hargrove worked, was standing on the other end of the tracks. I tried to imagine what it looked like, Hargrove and 10 other people, shot down in a matter of seconds, arrows flowing through their bodies and leaving them dead like ragdolls on the hot sand.
My morbid thoughts were interrupted by a sharp whistle. Bright lights flooded over me. The grill of the train grew closer, and closer, and slower, before stopping at my side. When it was driving, the wheels had made a sound, a low, thumping noise, like the riding of horses. And the shrill shriek of the smokestack was exactly like the eagle-bone whistles of the Lakajara Indians.
The door of the train opened, revealing a conductor with a cheery smile. "Headed east, feller?" he asked.
"No," I replied. My attention was elsewhere, on Quick Jim, the Bronco Boys, Chief Winding Snake, Judge Swearengen, and everyone that had been at the trial I abandoned. A vaguely satisfied look of realization crossed over my face. "I'm headed back west."
With new passion under its hooves, the black-and-white horse turned around and rode away. Behind me, I heard the train scream and continue on its path into the desert, while I rode, determined, back to Rio Lobo.
* * *
The next morning, Judge Swearengen swore the jury into the court. More people were in the room than yesterday, townsfolk who had come to witness the biggest thing that had happened to Rio Lobo since the railroad came in. Sheriff Gray was standing with the other lawmen, while Winding Snake hid behind his posse of Indians. Quick Jim and the Bronco Boys were oddly satisfied. As long as the Yankee lawyer was gone, there was no reason for them to be afraid.
"Order, order!" the judge yelled. "It seems that the plaintiff has fled the trial. In that case, there is no prosecution. Keeping in mind all the accounts of the various witnesses, Smithy, the Bronco Brothers, and Winding Snake, the jury may now deliberate."
All twelve of the jurors stood from their panel and left. When they came back, none of them were peeved like last time. They sat down on the bench, shuffling into place, while the same farmer who was acting as bailiff yesterday stood and addressed the room.
"The jury may now read the verdict," Judge Swearengen called. The air in the courthouse grew tighter. Everyone leaned in, dying to know. The farmer glanced back and forth between Sheriff Gray and Quick Jim, law and chaos. Jim nodded subtly, his gait wide-spread and unflinching. The bailiff looked up, sweating bullets, and spoke. "The jury finds Jim Hargrove not guilty, your honor."
A collective groan emerged from one side of the court. Sheriff Gray looked like he might bang his head against the table. Winding Snake and his Indians bowed their heads. The Bronco Boys patted each other on the back, whispering sounds of appraisal. Quick Jim still held his stance, as firm as a rock. It would be silly to get ahead of himself now that he was so close.
"So say you all?" The judge asked.
"Yes, your honor." The bailiff took a seat, sighing in relief.
"Well then, Jim Hargrove is hereby declared innocent of all charges for the murder of his uncle." Now the outlaw grinned. "Chief Winding Snake, whenever he returns or is inevitably caught, will be sentenced for the crime as well." Swearengen raised his gavel to finalize this verdict.
"Wait!" said a voice from the other end of the courthouse. It was higher, thinner, and did not have the Arizonan drawl that everyone else had. The crowd dispersed, gasping at the sight.
I had been riding for the past many hours. My hair was in disarray, my knees were knobbed, and I looked sufficiently bushed. Not the look required for a jury, even one so backward and informal as this. And yet, I still carried that briefcase, evidence inside, and stood stolid in my task. "I rise to a point of order!"
Judge Swearengen raised his eyebrows. "Point of order?"
"Yes." I felt the heat of over two dozen eyes on me. Sheriff Gray was confused, while everyone else was just annoyed. "This is an improper procedure. The jury that acquitted Quick Jim is impartial. He threatened them!"
"I'll allow it. The point is well taken," the Judge said with a shrug. "But what makes you say that?"
"Because he and the Bronco Boys paid me a visit in my hotel room just last night!"
The courtroom gasped. A smile spread on Sheriff Gray's face, and Swearengen's eyes went wide. "You realize sir, that you have just made some very serious accusations?"
I nodded. "Yes, your honor, I am aware. But that isn't the worst of it." Taking a deep breath, I faced the jury and pointed to old Smithy. "Yesterday, you heard from this railroad worker that on the night of Bill Hargrove's murder, he heard the sound of hoofbeats and the Lakajara Indian's eagle bone whistle. Is this true, Mr. Smithy?"
The old man nodded, quizzical. "Yessir."
"Well then," I continued, "would you happen to know that this very railroad makes those sounds when it arrives? Yes, when the evening train rolls into Rio Lobo from the west, it makes the sound of riding hooves with its wheels, and a shrill shriek with its whistle. Not exactly of course, but enough to make an old man such as Smithy, who confessed to being hard of hearing, assume the attack was done by Indians!" Sheriff Gray jumped up from his seat. "Yes, yes, that's it!"
I looked back and forth between the townsfolk. Some were happy, some were not. Smithy merely shrugged. "Yeah, that checks out," he said.
"Well then, I suppose we realize that Quick Jim and the Bronco Boys are the actual murderers of Bill Hargrove and that the Lakajara Indians are innocent, having been framed," I said, setting down my briefcase. "As per Mr. Hargrove's telegram, the tribe should be the rightful inheritors of the Rio Lobo Railroad. I rest my case."
There were claps and boos from both sides. Judge Swearengen nodded and looked downright impressed. "Well then," he said, fingering the gavel, "I suppose, what with this new evidence, the jury must vote again." He hesitated, thinking. "And, as we have seen them to be impartial, let's trade out the jury for some folks who haven't recently talked with Quick Jim."
I sighed in relief. The case was done. Chief Winding Snake would be acquitted and Quick Jim sentenced. My employer, Sheriff Gray, gave me a pat on the back as I walked from the bench back down to the desk. Finally, this blasted affair in the south was over, and I could get back to Boston where I knew how things were done.
"Hold on," said a voice from behind me. I turned, and so did Sheriff Gray. Standing there were the Bronco Boys and Quick Jim, all wielding guns. The Broncos immediately pointed their Winchesters at the jury and the lawmen, including the Sheriff, while Quick Jim leveled his Colt at me.
"I got a point of order too," he said, cool as a winter breeze in Massachusetts. "I'm pointing my gun at you, and I'm ordering you to stop."
My eyes went wide, and, instinctively, I raised my hands. Sheriff Gray stood up and reached for his own revolver. Immediately, a stack of papers next to him went exploding from Eddie's Henry.
"I mean it," Quick Jim said, then grinned. "Now I ain't no lawyer, but I know, if they don't like the way a case is playing out, one attorney can challenge another attorney to a duel. As I am representing myself in this case, I am challenging you, Mr. Yankee, to such a duel."
I blinked twice and thought for a moment that I hadn't correctly. Judge Swearengen sighed and banged his gavel. "Overruled, this is ridiculous. Mr. Hargrove, you lost the case, now sit down and face your sentencing."
The Bronco Boys shrugged. "We ain't got no sentencing till the duel is done, your honor," Rob said.
Eddie laughed. "If this Yankee refuses, then we win by forfeit. And if he accepts and loses, we win by forfeit as well. Now that's just the law."
There was a moment of silence as Judge Swearengen reached under his podium and produced a large brown tome. He began perusing the pages, mumbling to himself about various law terms. Meanwhile, I glanced to Quick Jim, who casually clicked back his Colt.
"It would appear," the Judge said, after slamming the book closed, "That Mr. Hargrove's challenge is legally sound. If the plaintiff would like to refuse, then the case will automatically be ruled against Rio Lobo's favor."
Quick Jim grinned. "So Yankee, you gonna accept?" I looked back and forth, wide-eyed, across the courtroom. Sheriff Gray seemed like he could jump up and get into a brawl right then and there if he didn't have a gun pointed at him. I, meanwhile, was merely thinking about my luck. How was it that, in this place, someone could win a case, and then legally lose it through bullets?
"I, I accept," I stammered, before shutting my eyes and hoping all of this was just a bad dream. They were bleary from lack of sleep, and my muscles ached. But I knew, I had to at least give it a try, for Sheriff Gray, and Rio Lobo, and the Lakajara Indians.
The Bronco Boys hooted and hollered. "Yeehaw!" Joe yelled, taking his Winchester and firing it at the ceiling. There was a blast of gunsmoke and all of the bailiffs jumped. Then Quick Jim slowly walked forward and grabbed me by the collar. I squeaked with fear as the big outlaw pulled me down the aisle.
Outside, the whole town gathered at high noon. Judge Swearengen, rather burly and wearing his black garb, positioned himself by the courthouse, while Sheriff Gray and the lawmen stood on either end of the street.
The Lakajara Indians all got on their horses and rode off into the desert as if they couldn't see what was about to transpire. Before he left, Chief Winding Snake came up close. "If you win this, then you'll be the greatest brave our tribe has ever seen," he said solemnly. Then he too vanished into the desert through a cloud of sand.
I was nervous as a cat when Sheriff Gray walked up and put a heavy Smith and Wesson in my hand.
"This is my own firearm," he, looking me dead set in the eyes. "If I could shoot it myself, I would. Just remember, aim for the heart."
And then all of the chaos died down and things were silent. Unlike duels in Yankee country, there were no laws. No ten steps back, no honor, nothing of that sort. Only the whistling winds, the tumbleweeds, and the guns that twinkled in the light. Quick Jim looked me in the eye from the other side of Rio Lobo. He had a grin on his face. That's when I knew I was helpless.
Taking a deep breath, I exchanged glances with Sheriff Gray and hoped for the best. The big Smith and Wesson darted up from my hip, as if it had a mind of its own, and fired. The recoil was greater than I ever expected. My wrist went curling and jolted with pain. A loud sound rang out, and then another one after that.
The Smith and Wesson fell from my hand. My eyes went wide, and for a moment I wondered if I had been shot, if this was the end, if all my Harvard education was going to pay off in Arizona. Then I looked down. That was when I realized my gun had been shot on the chamber, a large dent running along it. Quick Jim had decided to spare me. He had shot my weapon not my body.
A wave of relief ran through my limbs, and, losing all strength, I fell to the ground. Before I could try and stand up, the outlaw had already clicked his Colt back again. This time, Quick Jim wouldn't be so merciful.
"My opponent is disarmed," he shouted. "That counts as a win."
Sheriff Gray and his lawmen stood up. His face was red as a tomato and filled with rage. "No, wait a minute! I challenge you to a duel, Mr. Hargrove!"
The outlaw only chuckled and grinned. "I don't accept, Sheriff. And besides, you don't got no gun."
He pulled me up from the ground. My mind was working slower now, and I could still feel the shock on my wrist when the gun was shot. Quick Jim had used such precision, such timing, to spare me. But why?
The Bronco Boys walked down the aisle of the street and readied their wagon. It was obvious they had been nervous during the duel, but now, all of the outlaws were grinning like idiots. Judge Swearengen frowned and walked back into his courthouse, unable to watch such a wretched display of the law.
Then Quick Jim forced me into the back of his wagon. The Bronco Boys sat in front by the horses, with their rifles still fastened on anyone who got too close.
"Wait a minute," Sheriff Gray shouted. "What are you doing? You can't just kidnap that man!"
Quick Jim shrugged. "He's my hostage. If any of you lawmen try any funny business, then he's gonna get a bullet. Anyways, don't you got something better to do, Sheriff, arresting the Injuns who killed my uncle?" All the outlaws in the wagon laughed. "Anyway," Quick Jim continued, "if you'll excuse me, I got a railroad to inherit."
Then Rob Bronco kicked the horses into a gallop, and the wagon darted down the streets of Rio Lobo. All the lawmen watched helplessly. Sheriff Gray took off his hat and set in on his breast with a look of disappointment. None of them could do anything. Jim and the Broncos had taken over their railroad, and they had lost. When they needed me to, during the duel, I wasn't useful. Now, they couldn't care less what happened to me.
I should have known better. I had a chance to leave town, to forget about all of this. But instead, I got sentimental, and now I was going to be killed. I decided I did it for the Lakajara tribe and Chief Winding Snake, not Sheriff Gray. But even the former had lost too. All the Indians would be arrested, most likely hanged for a murder they didn't commit. Perhaps I was just plain stupid.
Eddie kept his gun trained on me as we entered the desert. "Please," I said. "I didn't do anything. I am just an attorney, making a case. Let me go." When they did not respond, my face grew red and I raised my voice. "Listen to my argument! I can give you money. My family has money in Boston. Just let me go!"
None of them responded. After a while, I fell silent and looked around me. The scenery of Arizona extended for miles in a sea of brown and yellow. I missed beaches. Cape Cod, with the seagulls floating over a gray sky and the ocean crashing against the sand. If only I could be there now. "Why did you do it?" I asked. All the Bronco Boys started laughing.
"He wants to know why we did it!" Rob said, his voice dripping with mirth.
"We ain't gonna tell, are we, Eddie?" Joe slapped his brother on the shoulder, who winked.
"No, we sure ain't."
"I wasn't talking to you," I said with a sigh. "I know why you did it, because of the money. But why Quick Jim?"
The outlaw looked behind him and smiled. "The scar on my shoulder, it wasn't from the Indians," he said. "Years ago, I was a bad kid. I would insult women, bully kids. No wonder I ended up killing and looting. But my uncle, he was a tough man and didn't take kindly to my insolence. One day, after I got in a scrap on the railroad, he took me into his home, dusted me off, and pressed a fire poker to my shoulder. I guess, once I learned the old bastard was gonna die, part of me knew I was running out of time to get my revenge."
The wagon stopped at the railroad. Once again, it was abandoned, with only the screeching iron and lonely wood posts marking it as any different from the rest of the desert. Quick Jim shoved me out of the back and quickly tied me up with some rope. Meanwhile, the Bronco Boys revealed, in the back of the coach, the bows and arrows they had used to kill Bill Hargrove. Meant to look exactly like those of the Lakajara, but a white man's weapon to be sure.
Once they had gotten all set up, Quick Jim looked around, at the shack his uncle worked at, at the tracks, at everything. "Jesus, this is all mine. You never would have thunk it." Then he grinned. "Once we run this town to the ground, boys, we're gonna be rich!"
The Bronco Brothers and their leader let out howls into the afternoon, like a pack of coyotes marveling at their catch. Eddie promptly kicked me down to the tracks and put my head right up to the metal. I tensed up.
"Oh god. Why are you doing this? You don't need me as a hostage anymore!"
I couldn't believe the situation I was in. I kept thinking back to Harvard, all the classes I should have been taking, the women courting, the cases filing. Now, I would forever be remembered as the lawyer who lost a duel and got killed by a disgruntled defendant. In Rio Lobo of all places . . .
From the vibration on the metal, I could tell the train was coming. Quick Jim squinted over the horizon. "Guess you're right, there ain't no reason," he said.
"So you can cut me loose now?" I asked, hopefully.
The Bronco Boys shared a look and laughed. "Oh no," Joe said. "Just 'cause there ain't no reason don't mean we ain't gonna do it. Hell, what's the fun in that?"
Now, the train was closer. I could see it, winding from the west, its iron grill, smokestack, and churning wheels approaching ever closer. So this was the end. Quick Jim only laughed. "I gave you a chance, Yankee, back up at the hotel. If only all that Harvard education could have gotten you half a brain . . . "
Just then, all the outlaws paused. There was a sound coming from the other side of the train tracks. Like the pounding of hooves, and the calling of the Lakajara eagle bone whistle. Quick Jim's eyes went wide. "Indians! Run!"
Rob Bronco pulled me by the back of the neck and tossed me away from the tracks. Just then, the wheels went zipping over the metal where my head had been, and I breathed a sigh of relief at being alive. By now, if the outlaws were so stupid as to be doing what they were doing, I was happy not to say a word. They hadn't paid attention in the trial, and forgot that the train sounded like an approaching Indian horde.
"Quick, go!" Eddie said as he left his group's guns back in the wagon. No longer bothering about hostages, Quick Jim and the Bronco Boys ran for the hills, going on foot, their boots crunching on the soft sand. They went to the west, back towards Rio Lobo, and behind them, the sound of the approaching "Indian horde" was getting louder.
Just then, they reached the top of the hill and met an actual Indian horde. Waiting for the outlaws were the Lakajara tribe. 20 men strong stood proud on their horses, with leathery brown faces, and tanned hide cloaks. Leading them was Chief Winding Snake, who had his bow in one hand, and an eagle bone whistle in the other.
"This is the last time you frame my people," the Chief said. Then he put the whistle into his mouth and blew it in the hot Arizona air.
Quick Jim covered his ears and fell to the ground. The bleating was like the call of death, and much louder than anything the train could ever impersonate. All of the Lakajara pulled back their bows and pointed them at the Bronco Boys. Meanwhile, I looked over and saw the train stop. Like the gates to heaven opening, the doors slid wide, and out from the 3:30 train to Boston came Sheriff Gray and his men.
There was Smithy, and Judge Swearengen, lawmen and the farmers of the Jury. All had come on the railroad they had fought to protect, to see the trial play out on the dueling ground. Old Smithy leaped out and paused. "So that's what an eagle bone whistle sounds like! Damn, I really am hard of hearing," he said.
The Sheriff reached down and pulled me up.
"Thank you," I said, and he cut my ropes with a knife.
"You really think I'd have abandoned the best attorney I ever met, after all you did for us?" he asked. "Even if you're a shit shot."
Then Sheriff Gray turned to the criminals. "You fellas are wanted for the murder of Bill Hargrove and 10 others right here at the Rio Lobo train station. Surrender, or die!"
The Bronco Boys looked fearfully between the Indians, and the lawmen, all pointing their weapons at them. They had nowhere to go. The brothers exchanged a nod, then went running in the direction of the train. Quick Jim didn't have time to call out before the outlaws already surrendered. Eddie fell pleading to the feet of Sheriff Gray, his hard face stained with tears.
"Please," he said, "It was my brothers' fault. Don't hang me!" The lawman merely kicked the outlaw smack dab in the head, knocking him out. Now, it was only Quick Jim, surrounded by the good people of Arizona, as he fingered his lone Colt.
"Well," the outlaw said, chuckling to himself, "I guess I'm beat. But I'll tell you what, I am certain as hell not going back to Yuma. Chief Winding Snake, I challenge you to a duel!"
Quick Jim turned and pointed his gun in the direction of the west. He pointed it up at the Indian Chief on horseback, squinting so as to see over the sun. My eyes went wide as the hammer of the weapon clicked back, and Sheriff Gray's mouth hung open. But the Indians, as well as their chief, not a hint of fear in his eyes, merely pulled back their bows and fired a volley of arrows.
Winding Snake grinned. "Looks like you aren't as quick as you thought, Quick Jim."
The outlaw was impaled by the bolts of all the Lakajara tribe. He fell dead to the ground. By the time all the shafts were stuck in his body, Quick Jim looked like a porcupine. I felt the need to vomit after seeing it, and yet, also, strangely satisfied. As a lawyer, I had always been told not to make things personal, not to want your opponent to lose, for someone to go to jail. And yet, all I had been taught hadn't served me in Arizona. Perhaps Harvard didn't know everything about the law.
Sheriff Gray had his men ride back to Rio Lobo with the Bronco Boys. Their trial would be in a week for the murders. Quick Jim was taken away to be buried next to his uncle in the town cemetery. Riding on his big brown horse, Chief Winding Snake rode down next to Sheriff Gray, Judge Swearengen, and me.
"Thank you," the Chief said to me. "You have saved my tribe and my people." Then he turned to the Sheriff and patted him on the shoulder. "I look forward to dealing with you and your town now that the Lakajara Indians own the railroad."
Gray smiled. "I'm sure you'll do a better job than old Hargrove or Quick Jim ever did."
The Indians all mounted up and rode away into the hills as if nothing had happened. Judge Swearengen faced me. "I'll be writing a letter of recommendation to any law firm you want to go to after Harvard, son. Damn, that point of order stuff was a top-notch argument right there."
Despite not believing that the honorable Judge Swearengen, "Law of the Gila", would have much sway in a Massachusetts firm, I thanked him nonetheless and saw him off with the rest of the party to Rio Lobo. Soon, it was just me and the Sheriff, who looked me in the eyes and nodded. He produced, from his coat, three thousand dollars.
"Here you go son," he said, proud and strong. "You should feel good about yourself. You just saved a town."
I smiled and nodded. "Yup."
Once Sheriff Gray had ridden away, and I was alone, I decided that I did, in fact, feel good about myself. Who would have thought that a small outcrop in the Sonoran Desert could come together so swift and heroic as it did? It truly showed that there was still some semblance of law even in the wildest of frontiers. If not, then what was the point of order?
As soon as the next train came, I boarded it and clutched the three thousand. It was a hot day, so I was excited to cool down inside my car. With a smile on my face, I took a seat by the window and looked out at the sprawling desert of the Arizona Territories. I was sure my grades at Harvard next semester would be splendid.
Winding to the east, the train chugged like horse hooves and screamed like Indians.
Charles Shotwell is an aspiring author from Los Angeles, California. Ever since he was young, he has loved the
western genre, cowboys, and the desert. This is the first western he has tried to publish, but he has written
many others. He also works as an actor, and has starred in several films.
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Back to Home
by Brian Gabriel
After the fourth beating that week, Pa using the whip he only ever used on the slaves, Pete Teyssou decided to pack the compass, knife, pistola—the one his Uncle Pierre gave him, stole off the body of a dead Mexican at San Jacinto, so he told—and saddle up one of the bays and quit for Texas himself, even if Uncle Pierre did end up back in Natchitoches, whipping the slaves to pass the time. Pete could never figure out how anyone could stand all the wailing and screaming and crying; the whole plantation seemed seeded in misery to him, even if the magnolias splayed about absorbed some of the tears. Pa was the sort who thought until a boy whipped a slave by his own hand, he could hardly call himself a man. Pete so far had escaped that initiation, which, grateful as he was, suggested to Pete the sum of Pa's private assessment of him.
Not that he hadn't thought about running before, just that this whipping lit in him the thought hotter than ever. Since the night of his twelfth birthday, when Pa set afire his bed blanket in plain spite, older brother Tony watching like a tree—he'd been beat to submission long before—Pete's mind ran through the ways he might survive in the wild. How much in provisions to carry to make it so far, how much water to load up. Pete even brought up in conversation, as casually as he could, an interest in New Orleans, and in visiting it to see his Aunt Therese, who lived there. Laying crumbs in the wrong direction.
Then on Sunday, feast of St. Joseph, on the walk back from mass, Pete, Tony and Pa heard Tops Purcell telling Isaiah Root about a Comanche—Kiowa, maybe it was—an Indian raid, anyway, on a place called Hartsburg, somewhere west of the Red River, that took a boy straight out of his mother's arms. The Ellis boy, he was called. Pete saw his brother Tony's eyes fill with dread as the story unfolded, and Pete, too, feigned fear of the Indians, but silently thought to himself, full of overconfidence and ignorance, better to meet a satiated bear. Now is the time to face Comanche, if ever. Or Kiowa. No going west except through them, anyway.
He crept out that night after the singing from the slave shack died down, Tony having begun his snoring, and Pa right after, louder than anyone. So that for a time, the singing coming on the night's breeze through the window over his bed— akin, Pete thought, to the wailing of a whipping, but yet so enchanted as to have the effect of spearing his soul while raising his spirit—blended with the sawing of his family, a composition that stirred all his senses, the shadows of the night never starker. He took the remnants of last night's hoecake and stuck it in his pouch, and so, so slowly opened the door leading outside.
He knew taking the bay would mean pursuit. If it was only him missing come dawn, then nobody might notice until sundown. But taking the bay, that would be spotted right off. But the thought of walking to Texas seemed crazier than riding, even a stolen horse. He carefully dodged the magnolia's dried leaves that spread across the path, sending him swishing through some high grass before turning to rejoin the way.
He rode the bay out of the barn and onto the path, passing again the slave shack. Peering through the dark, he saw the shape of a boy, about his age, standing at the door, sending piss into a puddle in his direction. The boy looked up and their eyes met. Sam. He didn't know the slaves' names usually, his father demanding distance, told tales of skin diseases, witchcraft, whatever the priest might have raged about on Sunday. But Pete knew Sam. In the darkness, he yet could see the whites of Sam's eyes, moving from Pete's eyes to the pistola at his side, to the horse, to the pack of supplies tied to the horse's back. The slave boy, shaking the drops of piss off himself, understood: the white boy is running. And even in the darkness, Pete could see the envy in the slave boy's eyes, as clearly as if he was looking him face-to-face.
Pete pondered on it. If the doings of the plantation sent him running, would not bringing along Sam, in his own escape, be at least partial redemption? If nothing more, it would be another possession of Pa's in his hand. And yet, he thought, arresting his impulse, a white boy with a black boy would without doubt invite more scrutiny than Pete alone would.
Before Pete could decide not to take the risk, Sam had already sunk back inside the shack, moonbeams now sparkling in the puddle of piss. Pete rode on, finding soon the road to Shreveport, the night's fading canopy still offering enough glow to avoid falling off the path. Two hours later, Pete saw the sunrays dimpling off the Red River to announce the day's start. Judging by how drunk his father and brother got at supper, their day's start likely still had some distance.
He made it a third of the way to Shreveport before the night came on, moon slim enough now to ensure Tony would not discover him, if he forewent the New Orleans hunt and headed north instead. But Pete remembered the dread in his eyes at the tale of the Ellis boy and figured, west will be his last choice. He would head south to Galveston, east to God knows, all the way to Georgia maybe, before casting wary eyes west. True enough that a fourteen-year-old might not be so common traveling alone in the west, yet it wasn't so uncommon, so that Pete could put his mind at ease enough to ponder on other things.
It pondered again on Sam, pissing in the dark. He remembered the first time he'd heard the boy's name. Pete then was seven years old, come inside from throwing rocks at ducks. His oldest brother saw him, said, "Why's Pa whippin' your ass now?" Except Pa hadn't been for once, so, told that, the brother said, "Musta been that nigger boy Sam then. You two cry the same when Pa whips your asses." Pete then felt a kinship with Sam, forged in like wails, and wondered sometimes about Sam's awful life there.
He didn't see anybody on the road to Shreveport, and then for a week on the Texas Trail, he saw only rabbits and squirrels across his path, which rolled through woods thick with pines, bluejack, and dogwoods. He was glad not to hurry— the air so heavy and wet Pete decided it was air best suited to a saunter. He watered the bay and himself in any creek he came across, filled up his canteen even when only a quarter empty. At sundown Pete would collect wood and fix a fire to warm some beans over, or cook a shot rabbit, keeping his pistola loaded in case of bear, or Indian. He knew most the Caddo had gone, either on their own or otherwise. "Encouragement," Uncle Pierre had called it once, patting the pistola, before he gave it to Pete. And even the ones who ran on their own, that was only because they could see some pistola was coming anyway. Pete understood their reasoning entirely.
He wasn't exactly sure where he would stop. Trail led somewhere, he told himself. Still had enough of Pa's gold and half-eagles so he could buy what he needed for a spell yet. And Pete knew enough from watching the slaves work the plantation, that he felt he could fake it well enough to find work on a farm somewhere. Top of all that, after trapping a couple of rabbits on the trail, then skinning and cooking them, like he'd seen done a thousand times, only with lambs mostly, Pete felt he could survive in the wild, too. He was starting to like Texas.
He lost track of the days. He tried traveling at night, resting in the heat. But the sounds of the night—coyote howls, panther wails, sounds he couldn't recognize—reminded him of the quiet of the day, when the beasts slept, and how he missed it, and so suffered the day's heat for the its silence. He lost also the trail somewhere, for he knew there were settlements not so many days away. And yet he saw none. Not that it bothered him so much, these days being freer and happier than any others he could remember.
The land gave way to a rise, hickories bowing to grassland. Pete rode to the top of the rise, and saw below, alongside a stream, maybe three hundred yards away, an Indian camp—a dozen dwellings in all, dome-shaped, topped in grass. Five women worked a hide over a rock near some trees to the right. With them was a white boy, young, Pete thought, younger than him anyway. Pete saw no others.
He backed his horse down onto the low side of the rise. He dismounted and scrambled again through the grass to peek at the scene below. The women wore feathers in their long black hair, and colorful beads lined the buckskin they wore. The boy was tied, and bloodstains colored his torn white shirt and the cuts on the pale skin beneath. The kidnapped Ellis boy, Pete guessed. He watched them silently for a few more minutes, then wondered where the men of the tribe were. On a hunt—or a raid, it occurred to him. Not the actions of a satiated bear, Pete noted.
Beneath a wide, blue sky, with only the trees to offer protection, Pete suddenly felt less sure of the appetites of others, and retreated and remounted his horse and turned south, down the other side of the hill, where after an hour's ride he caught the stream rolling south and followed it. He decided against making camp that afternoon and rode straight through the night. His heavy eyes fought sleep, then saw the silhouette of a steeple in the distance against a pinkening sky.
The town wasn't much more than a courthouse built of logs, the church—Church of the Good Reckoning, painted straight above the door—a saloon and a general store. The thought of a glass of milk stirred him, and Pete tied his horse out front. The door was bolted shut from the night before, so Pete sat there on the planks, underneath a creaking sign announcing "Sugar Cane Saloon," stretched his legs, and fell straight asleep. He woke to the sound of boots stomping past him and the squeaking of the door hinges.
Inside, streaks of sunlight cut through the cracks between the pine boards comprising the wall, sending light and shadow at all angles within. Pete took a seat at the bar. "Glass of milk, please, if you got it," Pete said, and the bartender was glad the boy didn't ask for whiskey.
Pete took a long swallow of milk. The cream coated his throat. He heard two voices behind him, one voice high-pitched and squeaky, the other raspy, older.
"Five thousand dollars? For one boy?"
"Ellis Family's loaded, Ben. Won't even notice it's missing."
"Would solve a few of my problems."
"Problem being, first you gotta find the Comanch that got him, then you gotta take him back from them same Comanch. Tall order."
Pete blurted out through milk-frosted lips, "I saw them Indians yesterday."
He looked at the older man. The dust blanketing his beard hid the grey but added years, skeptical brown eyes surrounded by the trails of experience. "That so, sonny?" he croaked. "And you lived to tell the tale, did you?"
"Near the river, a half-day's ride north. Saw a dozen or so huts, rounded at the top and covered in grass, and there was a boy, with five squaws. I saw it all."
The old man looked at Ben, the younger man next to him. Ben's gaze stayed on Pete. "You size us up as fools, boy? No Comanch builds domes—they live in tepees. And the Ellis boy, like I was saying, he was taken by Comanch. You look to run some schoolhouse con, you can find some other goddamn fool."
Pete said, "Maybe whoever said it was the Comanch got it wrong."
The old man peered at Pete. "Or you took a savage boy for one civilized. Young boys are prone to blur the distinction."
"That boy's skin was whiter'n mine, and mine's whiter'n any red man's I ever heard of. Anyway, it's a day's ride. I could show you the way, if you're inclined. Fair share, 'course."
Ben looked at the old man. "Bet we could trade for the boy, if it's him. Them folks give whole cities for a few beads, ain't that the tale? Bet we could get the boy for half that, at least. Pretty good profit to be made." The old man wasn't tipping his thoughts. "We doing anything else, next couple days?"
The old man looked at Pete, oleaginous smile revealing a broken set of teeth within. "Only squaws, you say?"
* * *
They cobbled together seventeen dollars—Spanish silver mostly, a couple of U.S. gold coins—and rode out after Pete swallowed the last of his hoecakes, the men—called Jasper Rosewood and Ben Cooper, Pete learned—sharing a bottle throughout with a third they brought, young T.J. Trotter, a man of some girth and a couple of chins, who they snuck off the Trotter pig farm a mile from town. Safety in numbers, they told him, and Pete saw their point. T.J. even added five more dollars, except he only had Redbacks, so it was almost like he added nothing except his gun, but maybe the Indians wouldn't know the difference.
Soon enough Ben, Jasper and T.J. were making known their thoughts on all manner of things along the way: politics ("I shook Lamar's hand once. Limper'n I expected"), religion ("Them preachers know so much about damnation, all the talk they do, makes you wonder where they been spending all their time"), and horses ("Best horse I ever had's the sorrel I got when my pa died—every single one since been worse than the prior"). At camp that night, over the crackling of burning wood and the trickling of a nearby stream, Pete heard tales of card-cheating, goat-stealing, about how they'd once snuck off with a church's tithing chest somewhere in Arkansas. By the end of it, Pete'd sworn to himself to avoid partners in the future if he could. Pete could almost hear Uncle Pierre laughing beside them.
The sun was well on its way up the sky before Ben, T.J. and Jasper came to consciousness. Pete led them the short ride to the ridge overlooking the Indian camp. The Ellis boy was now working a bone over a deer hide, while a fat woman shouted at him and beat him with a stick as she pointed at the hide. "Wichita," Jasper said. "Thank the good Lord." Ben told T.J. to stay up on the ridge, and to hold his rifle so it could be seen by them below. Ben, Jasper and Pete rode down into the valley to see about a bargain.
They were met by an older man, with grey hair that hung in a stripe along his crown, and shaved clean along the sides. Fading black ink tattoos marked leathery skin in stripes, and a tomahawk with a blade about the size of a hand hung from a leather string at his waist. Behind him stood another old man, his grey hair falling over to one side and decorated with a few feathers on an otherwise shaved head. Leatherface said some words in Spanish to them. Jasper responded likewise, his broken Spanish acting the valve upon his smile's unctuousness.
Except the old warrior didn't want to make a deal. He frowned at Jasper's greeting. Jasper looked at Ben, said, "He won't take the dollars. I even told him they was Spanish mostly."
Ben stared at the Indian, trying to read his inscrutable eyes, a heat rising in him. "What's he want for the boy then, he's such a grand bargainer?" The easy Ellis Five Thousand seemed to stretch away from his grasp.
After another flurry of Spanish, Jasper turned back to Ben. "He said Laughing Bear of the Nokoni Comanch got eighty dollars for a boy even older than the one he's got."
"Eighty dollars? We ain't got eighty damn dollars." Ben's face flushed, and he counted the old men and women he could see. At least ten, and more likely in their huts. He figured he, Jasper and T.J. were probably good for at least three dead Indians each. But the boy?
A thought occurred, and Ben said it before considering it. "Throw in the boy."
Pete wasn't sure he heard that right.
"The boy?" asked Jasper, likewise confused.
"Tell him he'll get the twenty-three dollars, and still have an older boy to sell for eighty dollars."
Ben stared at Jasper, and Jasper looked at Pete, who still wasn't sure he'd understood. Did Ben just offer up his own partner?
Another round of Spanish, then a pause. Pete watched as the old leather-faced Indian turned his gaze on him. Black eyes, black like the slaves' eyes back home, the whites like bone. Pete's stomach dropped as he heard another few Spanish words he didn't know and then a laugh. Jasper turned to Ben: "He said he'll do it." Pete saw Ben's dry lips curl into a crooked smile. Ben's eyes followed, turning on Pete, and Pete now understood what Ben and Jasper and the ancient Indian man intended. Pete watched as Ben reached for his arm.
"Sorry, boy," Ben said, "but a deal's a deal."
In one swift move, Pete reached, grabbed, pulled and swung Leatherface's tomahawk, yanking it clean from the leather string and swinging it hard at the first person the blade could find. Its edge found Jasper's neck, right at the base, slicing through the thin, soft flesh to hit neckbone. Blood splashed red onto Ben's cheek as his mouth dropped in shock.
Leatherface and Featherhead both laughed at the sight of the white boy cutting the white man's neck. Jasper fell to his knees, blood spilling down his neck onto his arms, dripping off his hands onto the dirt. Ben grabbed at Pete's tomahawk, yanked hard on the boy's arms, throwing him to the ground hard and then kicking him harder, the boot getting the boy right in the jaw, cutting his tongue good and knocking him out. The Wichita men stopped laughing.
But by then Jasper was already toppled over, the blood gushing from his neck straight onto the ground now, his eyes lifeless, staring at seeming nothingness. Ben handed the tomahawk back to Leatherface, who whipped it from Ben's hand, now-angry eyes accusing Ben he knew not of what.
Leatherface crouched down and put his hand on Pete's chest, feeling the breaths. His tribesman joined him, and, satisfied their prize was not irreparably harmed, they picked Pete's body off the ground and laid him over the back of Featherhead's horse. Featherhead mounted the horse and heeled it and rode back to the congregation of huts. Ben watched as some women pulled the lifeless Pete off the back of the horse, and handed over the Ellis boy.
Ben pulled Jasper's pistol from his holster, then mounted his horse and watched as Featherhead brought back the Ellis boy. A few minutes later, Ben, T.J. Trotter and the Ellis boy rode back to town, and Leatherface and Featherhead shared a smile, knowing they had exchanged a rabbit for a wolf.
* * *
When Pete regained consciousness, he saw staring at him dozens of faces shrouded in shadow, flames from a nearby fire sending the shadows dancing across the faces, across black stripes and circles tattooed into faces, shaved heads, black hair tangled with feathers hanging down at him, bony teeth shining down on him. He gasped for air and a howl of cries and shrieks broke out from all around, and tawny hands and arms brought down sticks of hard hickory on Pete's head, chest, legs, and arms. He felt the pain shoot through him and cried out, staggered to his feet, tried to escape the beating. Except the Wichita all laughed and tripped him up with their hickory sticks, sending him falling into dirt again, sticks raining down on him, Pete holding up his arm to fend off the blows until he couldn't anymore, until he learned he was theirs, and he blacked out again, his mind reeling back to the beatings that sent him into this land before finally succumbing to the darkness.
As those first days with the Wichita passed, Pete noticed that, when he struck back at his tormentors, wrested a stick from one of their hands, struck blood, he would not then be beat worse, like Pa would do, but instead sensed something else in their laughs and taunts. He sensed they cheered him on.
Over the next two summers and the winter in-between, Pete was taught the tribe's way, fighting at first against whatever the tribe had for him, before learning the freedom of the buffalo hunt and the satisfaction of the spear-kill, of feeling the animal's force in your hands, and it draining into death once the animal fell. After he killed his first deer on his own, spearing it first with an arrow through the neck, then digging his knife into its heart, the men poured its blood down his throat and shaved his head, and Leatherhead gave him his old tomahawk, a gift and a welcome.
But the memory of Ben's smile as the deal was done never left his mind; it held there in the back like a ghost, watching his every move. For these Wichita, deer were a boy's prey; the Wichita boys near his own age killed bears and wildcats to become men of the tribe. White Killer, as the tribe now called him, decided that he would kill Ben Cooper.
But neither Leatherface nor Featherhead nor any of the other elders would allow White Killer to go on this hunt, fearful White Killer would return to the white man and reveal their ways to them, where they hunted and where they hid. White Killer protested he only wanted a trophy like the others, but not even Leatherface was convinced. White Killer sulked, and didn't kill a single deer on the autumn hunt. He told Leatherface the deer have come to fear him, but the old man saw something else in the young man's eyes. When, under clear skies and a full moon, Leatherface watched White Killer arise when the others slept, and watched him duck out into the night, old tomahawk in hand, the old man kept silent, and listened as a horse neighed somewhere. He heard it run off into a distance. Leatherface did not have to see to know that White Killer was astride it.
* * *
White Killer tied his pinto to the post out front and stepped straight into the Sugar Cane Saloon in his buckskins, head shaved at his temple, skin burnt brown, a brute savage to anyone laying eyes. He got thrown out about ten seconds later, Lem Hopkins and T.J. Trotter doing the honors, tossing him into the dirt past the waiting horse. Both had been warming their bellies before setting to the day's work, and Trotter'd failed to recognize White Killer, though White Killer recognized T.J. the moment he saw the skin folding over his chins.
"You are T.J. Trotter, who once shook the hand of Mirabeau Lamar, only to find it limper'n expected?" White Killer was surprised at how easily he spoke the tongue he had not spoken since he had answered to the name Pete. He got back on his feet, moccasins covered in dust.
"Don't see how that's any business of any damned savage, no matter how good's your talk."
"I ain't savage, fool—didn't used to be. Your friend Ben Cooper gave me to the Wichita."
"Ben Cooper? Ben Cooper's dead six months." Trotter looked more confused than usual.
"Fever, or some other way?" asked White Killer.
"Shot in the gut. Right there in the Sugar Cane." He pointed to the saloon, looked back at White Killer, head cocked a crack. "You sure you're savage? You talk better'n any I ever heard."
White Killer ignored the question. "Who killed him?"
Trotter peered hard at White Killer, and a hint of recognition fluttered in his brain, enough to justify telling the tale to yet another semi-stranger: "No one knows who it was. Ben and I, we were th'only ones there in the saloon so early, and I's filling a glass, so missed the prelude. But heard the shot, and then heard the killer say this, as drunk as I got after, I'll never forget it, he said, 'When you stab a man in the back, better stab his brother, too.' Then he ran out. And I ran to Ben but he's dead already, and the man was long gone."
White Killer nodded, mounted his horse, and headed east.
* * *
White Killer took the road through the east country many days, back across the border into the United States, into his home state. He could not distinguish between the hot, wet air of Texas Republic and the hot, wet air of Louisiana and would not have known when he'd left the one for the other, were it not for the cool, lemony scent of the magnolia blossoms that wafted along the lifeless breeze and seemed to invigorate it, the trees rising from the Louisiana soil like silent sentries along his path.
The blossoms could not soothe the fire that burned hotter than ever within the chasm above his guts. The news of Ben's death failed to quench it, indeed did the opposite, for the death was at the hand of another. White Killer could no longer avenge himself, a thought that seemed to open a void within right beside the hot fire, each threatening to consume the other. Ben was dead, but the spirit of the man who wronged him would dance free. White Killer grew impatient to join the spirit world.
He rode east, day into night, his mind wandering into dreams that came at the fall of night or in the shadows of the long afternoon. Not far from Fort Jesup, he stopped beside a stream that had not yet dried under the summer sun and crouched to drink, then saw ahead on the road, coming out of the darkness of a hollow, a figure on horseback, with a young man on a rope walking ahead. White Killer knew, somehow, who it was, and his hand by instinct gripped the handle of his tomahawk.
Tony recognized White Killer right away, too, got right off the horse and approached his brother. "Well, howdy, Pete, been looking high and low for y'awhile now." Tony embraced White Killer, and White Killer absorbed the embrace, hand still on his tomahawk, until Tony stepped back, said, "Heard you ran into some trouble somewhere along the line." White Killer looked down at Sam, the rope tied around his neck like a noose, feet bare, mud-caked, his eyes looking away to the horizon. Tony went on: "You look a sight, what the hell you even got on, boy? What did they do to you? Sure as shit glad I found you, Pete. Pa and Uncle Pierre will be, too."
White Killer didn't say anything. His eyes moved off of Sam's eyes, past the whip curled at the horse's side, and fell on Tony's. Tony's self-satisfied smile acted like a bellows on White Killer's inner furnace.
Tony laughed awkwardly, adjusted the Paterson stuffed into his belt and jabbing his gut, said "Shit, where's your manners, anyway? This here monkey boy, whose name, if he's got one, I've forgotten—more likely, never knew—but least he ken say howdy, after I hit him right a spell or two. Ken't you even say as much? Or do I gotta hit yer sorry ass, too? Just said I been lookin' 'cross all Louisiana and half Texas since I ken't 'member when."
"You were lookin' in the wrong places I guess. You kill Ben Cooper?" White Killer asked.
"Killed the man who sold you to the Comanch. If that's Ben Cooper, then, shit, guess I killed Ben Cooper," said Tony, chin jutting up so he could look down on White Killer a little more.
"The quarrel was mine," said White Killer.
"You made shit work of it. Not that I'm surprised. Found him sucking down whiskey with a whore on his lap, so whatever punishment you was fixin' up, he wasn't suff'rin' it. Now get on the horse, we're going home," said Tony, already turning his attention to turning the horse, expecting Sam to turn around on his own. "Get you outta them buckskins and make you look human again."
"His blood was mine to spill, not yours." White Killer looked at his brother. He did not want to go with him, but wondered who would give way first, if he resisted. His hand reached for the handle of Leatherface's old tomahawk again, wishful of feeling the old warrior's spirit.
"Like I said. Now best get on that horse 'fore I put the whip to you like I do him." Tony reached out to grab White Killer, but White Killer ducked, and Tony grabbed air. Tony wasn't expecting air and lost his balance, and White Killer caught him, held his brother up, then saw Sam reach down at Tony's hip and grab the handle of his Paterson, yank it from Tony's hip. Pete held Tony as Sam aimed the pistol and pulled the trigger. Tony wasn't sure he heard the crack of the gun, but Pete heard it. It rang in Pete's ear and for a bit that's all he heard, all other sounds fading away into silence. Blood gushed from Tony's guts, staining his blue shirt purple and dripping red onto the dirt road. Tony lost his balance again, falling heavy as Pete held him up, and Sam pulled the trigger again, and Tony went limp. Pete laid him down. Blood from the second shot drained from Tony's chest, then dribbled to a stop as the life went out of him.
Sam looked at White Killer in fear, the gun dangling from his fingers, shaking. He shoved the pistol in his pants and mounted Tony's horse, eyes on White Killer the whole time, daring him to stop him. White Killer didn't. Sam grabbed the reins and heeled the horse and rode west down the road. White Killer watched them grow smaller in the distance until a speck. Then White Killer sat next to Tony's corpse and waited.
He later told the privates from Fort Jesup he didn't know the dead man, but that, right after he heard the gunshot, he saw a Negro boy run that way. The soldiers' gaze followed White Killer's finger east, and they peered down the empty road beneath a darkening sky. They told him he should get some clothes on, then they loaded Tony's body onto a travois and rode back to the fort.
White Killer secured his tomahawk to his buckskins, mounted the pinto and rode west. He caught up with Sam about two hours later, near the Texas border. White Killer told Sam, "There are no slaves in Santa Fe, if we can make it," so they heeled their horses, ever faster west.
Brian Gabriel is a writer in Los Angeles, California. He obtained a law degree from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and once worked as an assistant animator on Comedy Central's "South Park."
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