Trapper Jake and the Lost Canyon
by Holly Seal Kunicki
Trapper Jake, as folks liked to call him, would go hunting for game in the high country once a year. One day while on one of his forays he spotted a white-tail deer near a towering rock wall that seemed to go on for miles. As he pursued his prey, the deer suddenly ducked into the thick shrubbery along the cliffside. Not one to give up easily, Jake followed, parting the branches and stepping forward. He took a few uneasy strides amidst the tangled foliage when suddenly he lost the grip on his rifle and felt himself careening head over heels down a steep slope, landing at the bottom with a thud. A bit shook up but not hurt, Jake found himself in a small chamber which was connected to a narrow passageway. Too dark to see clearly he reached into his pocket and lit a match. Pictographs covering the walls with various Indian signs came into view. The most prominent of these was the evil eye. Because his wife was a descendant of a great Indian chief, he was well aware these signs were taboo and forewarned of a terrible retribution to anyone who revealed the location of the Indians' sacred canyon.
Jake had heard the old timers tell of a lost canyon that held great wealth and had been jealously guarded by the Indians, but like everyone else he figured the stories were just old folklore. One of Jake's favorite tales was of a colorful old prospector named Willie Banks who believed in the canyon's existence and vowed he would find it even if it took him a lifetime. When Willie would come down from the hills for supplies folks would buy him a drink in the local canteen while he would regale them of his many adventures and narrow escapes from the Indians. Year after year Willie continued his search with his mule, Matilda, as his only companion. According to the story, one day cavalry soldiers out on maneuvers came across Willie's mule wandering about aimlessly. Since then no one had ever seen hide or hair of the old man again and most people, including Jake, figured some terrible calamity had befallen him.
Now to his shock and surprise Jake realized he was standing in the entrance of the lost canyon, the same one that old Willie had been searching for all those long years ago. Jake had great respect for the Indians and, being somewhat superstitious, he felt the right thing to do was to turn back, but he was only human and curiosity got the best of him. He decided to follow the passageway to see where it would lead him. Being a resourceful man he made a crude torch from long branches and debris that had fallen from the opening above. He skillfully wrapped his bandana around the end of his torch and set it ablaze. Cautiously he ventured forward along the narrow passage that frequently twisted and turned. At some point the rock walls began to widen and bright light filtered in to reveal the lost canyon in all its glory. Jake extinguished his torch and stood at the threshold, awed by the sight before him. Streaks of copper ran the length of the canyon walls, shimmering in the sunlight and almost blinding him. There were turquoise nuggets of every size strewn across the canyon floor. He could see remnants of broken pottery, scattered animal bones and a large stockpile of obsidian rocks. Trapper Jake felt as if he had stepped through a time portal and into an ancient world. Except for a few Indian artifacts, he could only imagine the canyon itself had remained remarkably unchanged down through the centuries of time, all the way back to its very creation.
Jake was deep in thought when suddenly a shadow from above caused him to look up to see one lone hawk circling the canyon. It was eerily silent now and Jake wondered just how long it had been since any human had been here. The original inhabitants that had once occupied this region were now gone and their descendants were mostly scattered or living on reservations. It was easy to see why they had wanted to keep their sacred canyon hidden. If the location had been known, greedy men would have come to plunder, kill and destroy. The wealth of the Indians would have been stolen and they would have been driven from their home. Here in this beautiful canyon they had everything they needed. The copper and turquoise would have been used to fashion jewelry for adornment or for trade with other tribes. Obsidian was of great value to the Indians for making arrow and spear heads, knives, hide scrapers and even mirrors. Jake also knew that obsidian was used as a form of money among the tribes. Religious ceremonies would have also taken place here.
Jake closed his eyes and envisioned the Indians in all their adornment dancing around the ancient fire pits, chanting as they called out to their gods for protection and guidance. The canyon itself would have made a wonderful hiding place in times of trouble.
Trapper Jake decided to explore further and walked to the far side of the canyon which was now in shadow. Abruptly he stopped and his mouth widened and gaped, for there before him was a human skeleton with an arrow protruding from its torso. It was obvious that some poor soul had never made it out of the canyon alive to tell his tale. Not too far from the skeleton Jake spotted a small pick ax. Always thinking ahead, he made the decision to put it in his backpack in case he might have need of it later. Still further on lay a tattered and weathered saddle bag half filled with turquoise nuggets. The rest of the stones had spilled out onto the canyon floor. Jake moved closer to inspect the saddle bag and could barely make out the crude initials WB scratched into the leather. So this is what had become of poor old Willie Banks. He had finally found the lost canyon that he had been searching for but he had lost his life in the bargain. Jake bowed his head and observed a moment of silence, for the old man had no one else to mourn for him.
Suddenly Jake felt like a trespasser and a cold chill went up his spine. He felt that eyes were watching him and although he wanted desperately to take a souvenir of his adventure, maybe a turquoise nugget, he knew it would be wrong to disturb this sacred place. Perhaps he would anger the Indian spirits and they would seek the retribution forewarned in the pictographs at the entrance of the canyon. Soon the sun would be setting and he must find his way out of the canyon before darkness fell. Anxious to be back at his campsite, he hurried towards the opening in the canyon wall. This time he used his matches as he navigated the passageway, staying close to the rock walls for guidance until he reached the small chamber. Before him was the slope that would lead him out of the canyon. The lower part was in shadow, but higher up he could still see the slightest glow of yellow and orange from the setting sun in the western sky. It was then he realized just how steep the slope was he had fallen down. The Indians must have used some sort of rope ladder to enter and exit the canyon. Willie's pick ax would come in handy now. Perspiration beaded across his forehead as he dropped to his knees and started to crawl. At some point the slope steepened even further which forced Jake to lie in a prone position and slowly inch his way upward towards the dwindling light. Half way up the slope the pick ax gave way in the loose earth causing small stones and debris to shower down upon him. Jake slid downward several feet before he could gain a foothold to stop his fall. Now for the first time real fear gripped him. He closed his eyes and silently prayed to the Indian spirits to allow him to escape the canyon with his life. With a renewed surge of energy Jake continued his upward climb. After what seemed like an eternity he finally reached the top, exhausted but grateful to be standing on solid ground. Jake then retrieved his rifle from a tangle of branches and emerged from the thick shrubbery just as the sun set.
Back at his campsite while sitting on his bedroll Jake made a silent vow never to tell a living soul of his discovery, not even his wife. The secret of the lost canyon and its location would die with him. He thought of Willie Banks and decided it was a fitting place for the old man to spend his eternity. It's what Willie would have wanted. The Indian spirits had been kind to him on this day and his hope was that their sacred canyon would remain untouched for all time. Suddenly Jake realized just how tired he was as he removed his soiled clothing in preparation for sleep. He began by shaking the sand out of his shirt pocket into a pile on the ground when he discovered a good sized turquoise nugget among the debris. Apparently it must have lodged in his pocket as he climbed up the slope. Jake had his souvenir after all! He figured it was a gift from the Indian spirits for keeping their secret. It would remain his lucky charm for the rest of his life. Years later Trapper Jake returned to the area on a hunting trip where he discovered a massive rock slide had sealed the entrance of the lost canyon forever.
Hello Western fans, my name is Holly Seal kunicki. I currently live in Florida and was a former resident of New
York in my formative years. I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1968 and worked in New York
until my retirement. I love to write poems and short stories, many of my poems have been published. As a young girl
my parents took the family to a dude ranch in upstate New York where we rode horses, square danced, canoed and even
went mining for gemstones. Since then I've been hooked on everything Western.
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by Scott Howey
"I'm going to kill you."
Todd Griffin was a drunk. A no good drunk. He had a history of making a fool of himself. It didn't matter whether it was a wedding, a christening or a funeral the man had a habit of getting into trouble. Predominantly it was his loud mouth that caused him grief but without the liquor the man was at least wise enough to mind his own business, most of the time. Once a glass of alcohol passed his lips the man grew ten feet tall. He became loud and antagonistic. Obnoxious and raw. He threw his weight around. He was the kind of man who sought his joy in the misfortune of others. Men, women and children. It didn't matter. He found happiness in someone else's misery.
The man stood an even six feet tall. His shoulders were narrower than his hips and sloped downward at a sharp angle. He carried more weight around the middle than one would find comfortable. His nose was wide, broken one too many times. His eyes were round and poked a little too far out of their sockets. A scar, an inch long, perched over his right eye. It was wide and rigid, tinged a sickening purple. A smaller scar sat beneath his lips. It was clean and thin. Unlike the man himself.
Griffin went to speak again and thought better of it. He wiped the back of his left hand across his mouth and rubbed the remnants of his spit on his shirt. Stepping closer to the table he settled into a fighting stance. His legs, shoulder width apart. He balled his hands into fists and released them. He repeated this a number of times as he moved his neck from side to side. It cracked like a whip. His chest rising and falling. Griffin smiled and picked his teeth with a dirty fingernail before spitting what was left of his lunch on the table.
The stranger sat with his back to the wall. He was new to Driftwood. Driftwood was a middling sized town thirty miles south-west of Austin. He had been there all of thirty minutes, seeking respite from the rain. He had settled into the corner of what passed for a saloon, the Wanderers Inn, seeking shelter from the rain that had since turned the streets into mud. His hair was long, shoulder length, and a beard as wild and as free as the man himself covered his face. He was in need of some grooming, but it wasn't high on his priority list.
His head was low and he cupped his glass in his right hand. He tried to ignore the antagonist, but in his forty years he had never let himself be harangued willingly. He knew he wouldn't let it happen here. He was too much of a man to back down to a yokel with an ax to grind and a mouth as loose as his ego. Still, of late he was slow to temper. He wasn't a young man anymore, when his temper had led him down a path of death, destruction and mayhem. It was the type of life that had worn thin over time.
Griffin's voice, loud and tinged with drunkenness, cut through his thoughts. "How long since you've had a scrub fella? You're stinking up the place and I for one, want you out."
The stranger didn't move. The anger welled within him, but he didn't look up. As soon as they saw his face they'd know who he was and then there would be a certain expectation that would fall upon him. People had a habit of expecting others to behave a particular way and when they didn't they got offended, like they had a right to.
The antagonist laughed. It was throaty and condescending. His voice took a keener edge as he narrowed his eyes on the stranger. "You're yellow. Yellower than the driven sun. I've never met a man as yellow."
Still, the man said nothing. He took another sip of his whiskey and ignored the man before him. The anger caused him to roll his shoulders a little. In his youth he would have been standing over a bloody corpse already, toasting the man's death. He would have been basking in the glory heaped upon him as often as a free drink was pushed into his hand. Time changes a man. Perhaps his stint in one of Texas's toughest prisons, Pentridge, had something to do with it. But when a man has a lot of time to think, he may as well do so. It's the ones that don't, that go crazy.
The men at the bar, who found the incident humorous and entertaining at first, had begun to lose interest. Griffin wasn't liked, but the man was mean, and out of fear for their own safety they had laughed along. A tall skinny man, dressed in brown. The top button of his shirt undone, smiled and his long lean face indicated that he had had enough with Griffin's exploits. He took half a dozen lazy liquor filled steps and laid his left hand on his partner's right shoulder. "Come on Griff. There ain't no point fighting a coward."
The word coward sank itself into the stranger's thoughts and filtered their way down his body and into his feet. He drained the rest of his whiskey and stood slowly to his full height which was two inches taller than Griffin. He held the glass in his hand and without making eye contact moved slowly to the right. A dozen solid, yet quiet steps further, he leaned against the bar and signaled to the old woman behind the bar for a refill.
His movements gave the tall man and Griffin an opportunity to eye the coward. He was tall and wide across the shoulders which tapered down to firm and square hips. His walk was methodical. Every step was taken with an awareness of his surroundings. The tall man moved away from his partner and made his way back to the bar. He saw something in the man that Griffin did not. He couldn't point anything out specifically, but when a feeling bites into your flesh you better take notice. The tall man was wise enough to know that.
The old woman responded to the stranger's order and decided it was best to give the man a friendly word of advice. But before she uttered her words she filled his glass. As she did she leaned in closer. She couldn't see the man's face because he was staring at the bar top and his long hair swept the bar and obscured any look she may have had. Her words were a muffled whisper and though the other patrons, itching for some entertainment, could hear her they couldn't make out what she said. "Griffin is not to be trifled with. These men are his partners and they will join the fight."
He didn't look at her when he spoke, his voice carried that harshness whenever he spoke. "Leave the bottle."
She responded and stepped back. She had an uneasy feeling that some of her rotten furniture was about to be broken.
Griffin turned and faced the unkempt man in his slicker. His long hair hanging over his shoulders. Everything about the man irritated him. Then again, it didn't take much for Todd Griffin, the local tough of Driftwood to ire. "Turn around so I can see the face of the man I'm going to beat to a bloody pulp."
The stranger looked to his left at the man standing next to him. The man looked stunned at what he saw and leaving his drink on the bar backed away past Griffin to the other side of the room. The next man along the bar, stunned by his friend's movement, looked up and once recognizing who stood before him followed his drinking buddy to the opposite wall. The tall man who first called the man a coward looked over his shoulder at the men who vacated their position willingly and then stepped closer to the stranger. The light from the bat wings silhouetting him against the fading light. The rain was loud but not as loud as the fear that consumed him, once recognition dawned. He froze and swallowed hard as he stared at the man he had called a coward a minute ago. It was the first time he had ever seen him, but he looked just as the stories he heard said he looked.
Griffin looked to his compadre and back to the man he was trying so hard to fight and stepped closer. "What's going on, Slim?"
The stranger turned and leaned against the bar. He flung his head backwards and he ran his fingers through his hair so Griffin could see him clearly. The antagonist paused and he looked over his left shoulder to the men who had vacated the bar "Get over here."
They moved themselves into position, one either side of Griffin. The tall man took a few steps to his right so that four men in a semi-circle had the stranger boxed in against the bar ten yards away. It was the leader of the group who spoke. His voice held its nerve even though he knew the man. "Lincoln Brady. What are you doing in Driftwood?"
The man's face was covered in a thick red beard, but a dull red. It was streaked with gray, the onset of age had made its presence known in the man's appearance, but his movements were as lithe and as youthful as they've ever been. But it wasn't the beard that made them recognize the rebel lawman, it was the different color eyes. His right eye was a piercing blue. The color of lake water on a clear day. His left eye was almost white. Thanks to his father. The eye looked faded and deformed, but the man's vision was perfect. A scar ran over his left eye and down his cheek, disappearing beneath the beard. It was a permanent reminder of the type of man his father was. A colt .45 sat nestled on his hip.
The first man to leave the bar looked nervous and you could hear the fear in his voice. "Come on, Griff, let's get out of here."
The man ignored him and stepped closer to Brady. "Last I heard they took your badge away and threw you in the calaboose."
Brady responded. "Is that so?"
Griffin smirked. "That's right, after what your father did to your Ma, I heard you hunted the polecat down and took the law into your own hands."
It was the truth and he had no need to deny it. "That sounds about right." Feeling confident, Griffin pushed his luck, "What are you doing here, in my town?"
The man in question raised his left hand slowly and pulled his slicker to the side to display the star pinned to his shirt.
Griffin nodded and smiled. The fact that he now knew the man and that he wore a badge meant nothing to him. He had started on a course of action moments earlier and he would see it through. "I'll repeat my question. What are you doing in Driftwood?"
Brady leaned off the bar and stood firm. "Driftwood needs a lawman."
"Is that right?"
The lawman smiled. "That's right. So, before you do anything rash, know this. I play for keeps. I'm not here to make friends. I don't care who you are, or who you think you are. Your reputation means nothing to me. I've been tasked with establishing law and order in Driftwood and I will see it done."
It was the tall man, the man called Slim, who spoke. "Driftwood is peaceable enough, Brady, without the likes of you throwing their weight around. It seems unlikely that the law would see fit to give a man like yourself a badge, considering what you have done."
His partners chuckled. Feeling important he decided to goad the lawman some more. "Do you have warrants? Seems to me you'll need quite a passel. Driftwood doesn't take kindly to lawmen."
Brady smiled and waved the man forward.
Slim looked from Griffin to Brady and back again. He stepped forward tentatively and stopped just to the right of Lincoln Brady.
"I'm not here to arrest anyone; if you know what I mean." Quick as a flash the lawman reached around and grabbed the tall man by the back of the hair and slammed his head into the bar. His nose made a sickening sound as blood squirted from the destroyed aperture. The old woman behind the bar recoiled as blood flew through the air and left a discordant pattern on the ailing décor. The tall man was unconscious and Brady held him by the hair and the seat of his pants and hurled him towards his partners.
The man to Griffin's right instinctively went for his hogleg but he was hopelessly inept and the lawman blasted a hole in him. The man wavered, his gun discharging into the rotten floorboards by his feet. He tried to eye his killer one last time. As he lifted his head, blood ran from his mouth and down his chin. The man fell forward in a lifeless heap. The man on Griffin's left turned to run and copped a slug in his leg for the trouble. Brady had never shot a man in the back, and wasn't about to start now. The man fell in a crushing heap. His high pitch squeal echoed in the small room. Griffin didn't sport a gun and stepped forward. His huge bulk, closing in.
Brady reholstered clean and stepped backwards. His back against the bar. Griffin swung but it was easily blocked and countered. A straight right fist found Griffin's guard down and hit him clean on the point of the chin. The big man's knees buckled and that was all Brady needed to step to the side and kick Griffin's legs from underneath him. The latter fell to his knees and Brady moved deftly behind him and grabbed his hair. He proceeded to deliver a series of blows to the man's right ear. Griffin tried to protect himself but it was hard. Brady let go of him and kicked him in the back right between the shoulder blades. Griffin fell forward and rolled onto his back only to be met with the imposing bulk that sat on his chest and grabbed him by the hair again. He unleashed a series of right hands that cut the prone man's face open. He let go of his hair, his head thudding against the floor. Griffin was unconscious and bloody. He would have permanent scars to remind him of the day he tangled with Marshal Brady.
The lawman stood, but not before wiping the blood on his fists on the unconscious man's shirt. He grabbed the whiskey bottle and eyed the old woman seriously. "I don't know what kind of place you're running here, but you haven't seen the last of me."
Brady took a hefty swig and shattered the bottle against the bar. The old woman jumped, and he smiled. Moving to the batwings he heard the familiar click of a Colt but in the time it took to think about it Brady had turned, drawn his own Colt and shot the wounded man through the head. His brain matter added to the filth that was the seediest saloon in Driftwood.
He pushed through the batwings and stepped into the street, rain falling heavily. His boots sloshing in the mud. He cleaned his hands in the horse trough, unhitched the palomino and began the long walk down the main street of town. Men and women came out of hiding to investigate the origin of the gunshots. They peered along the boardwalks without braving the downpour. All they saw was a wild looking man leading his mount. He watched them all, left and right. After all, many a lawman in Driftwood had been found dead with lead in his back. He wasn't about to be the next.
A bullet hit mud behind him. The report of the Colt was muffled in the heavy rain. He turned on his heels and removed his Winchester from the scabbard on the stallion.
Todd Griffin, blood running down his face staggered out into the street with his dead companion's hogleg. He raised the pistol and fired again. The shooting brought more people out into the street and this time they clambered along the shopfronts to get a better view of the unfolding dilemma. Griffin stumbled to his right, righted himself and fired again. The distance was too great. The slug hardly made an impact as it buried itself in the mud.
Todd Griffin yelled. "Damn you, Brady."
The latter moved away from his mount, raised the rifle. Steady and true he sighted the bloody figure of Todd Griffin and squeezed the trigger. Griffin fell face first, without a sound. There was complete silence. The only sound was the pitter-patter of rain.
Brady stood with the Winchester at his waist as he turned slowly and faced the citizens of Driftwood. Young women and old men stared at him. Some indifferent, others with hate, and some with joy. Griffin wasn't well-liked by the law-abiding citizens of Driftwood, but a bully only has friends while he is alive. In death, no one will mourn him. A frightened child clung close to her mother. From his left a man scurried off the steps to check on Griffin. In the rain, he could be seen shaking his head.
No-one spoke. They stared aimlessly at the stranger. He cut quite an imposing figure, but he knew despite the shooting they were staring at his face. It was always the same. People were more interested in his appearance than they ever were in the man himself.
A squat man forced his way to the front of the onlookers. He was ugly and knew it. "How do we know you're the law?"
Brady moved his slicker and the badge, dull in the fading light, caused the man to nod his head. "What did you say your name was mister?"
He stepped closer to the man. "I'm Marshal Lincoln Brady of Driftwood, and law has come to town."
Scott Howey is a western author of eleven novels, four of them currently published. These include Vengeance
and Shadow of the Father. The latest being his first novel. He is a teacher, and a father of thee. Scott grew
up watching Western movies and reading Western novels and comics. He set himself the task of writing his first
novel in 2017 and continues to write short stories and novels in his favorite genre.
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A Westward Adventure
by Robert L. Nelis
Michael Hollenzoher's entire extended family came to his going away dinner. His mother and many other women cried. All expected his leaving Germany to be permanent, with little chance of future communication. Because he was the family's youngest son, no opportunity existed to obtain a big enough farm to support a family. In 1800, he accepted an "indentured servant contract" as a farm worker in a place called Virginia. For seven years of service the property owner would pay for the trip's cost.
While shaking hands with his father before getting into the coach, he said, "Father, I will be fine. Remember, this is an exciting adventure."
The Cornwall's farm located near Waynesboro, Virginia provided a small bedroom in the barn. The indentured female house servant would bring out his meals. Robert Cornwall proved to be a fair and reasonable boss. The work was no harder than in Germany. Sundays, the Lord's day, he could rest except for the morning and evening cow milking.
The indentured contract allowed Michael to pursue his own projects when his tasks were completed. Skilled at wood craft, he would make stocks for long rifles, and sell them to the gunsmith.
Life took an upturn when the existing house servant's seven years were up. Michael, who had picked up basic English, asked "What you do now?"
With a beaming face, "I'm marrying Kent, the tack makers apprentice. I can't wait."
Mr. Cornwall asked Michael to drive him to the coach station to pick up the new indentured house servant. He translated for Gertrude Newberg from Germany. Twinkling blue eyes dominated her happy smile.
As she started to work, he provided almost daily translations. Gertrude had experience with the necessary chores; she just needed instructions on the timing of tasks. In six months, she learned enough English to work on her own.
On a light duty Sunday, five months after she started her service, Michael saw Gertrude sitting against a front yard tree with an unhappy expression. Definitely not her usual smile. In German, he asked, "Why are you upset?"
"I have two sisters and three brothers and miss them. They worry about me and I wish to tell them that I live with good people and the work is not too hard."
"Can you write?
"Only a little."
"I will help write a letter to them and take it to the mail station. No way to tell if it will ever be delivered." Together they wrote one. He never told Gertrude the postage fee cost the amount of money he made selling one gun stock. No response ever came.
From that day forward, Gertrude found reason to visit Michael daily. Also, they began to eat every Sunday lunch together. The bond between the two grew.
Nearing the end of the seven years, he asked Mr. Cornwall, "When I finish my time, could I buy out Gertrude's last year? We want to wed."
"It will take six months to find and train a replacement. I'll let you buy out her last six months and pay you farm hand wages until she is free." A handshake sealed the deal.
In town, Michael heard of a man selling 100-acre farms over the mountains in Ohio. With a down payment, the remainder was due in four annual payments. Profits from gun stock sales provided enough money for the first land installment, farm tools, a wagon, and two draft horses.
The Cornwalls paid for a wedding reception. With affection gained over years, they wished the happy couple success on their thrilling adventure.
As they drove away Michael said, "Gertrude, things will be hard for a while. Because we'll arrive there in September, I will cut logs and build a cabin."
She smiled, "My love, this is our adventure."
The roads leading to Wellston, Ohio were so rough, Michael led the horses while walking; Gertrude also walked. They arrived in mid-September, and the salesman let them pick out their parcel choice. He chose one with 75 acres of grass and 25 of woods. "The more timber we cut for our buildings, the more farm- able land we will have," he said.
By 1814 the house, barn, and fencing had been built. The Canadian British government decided to disrupt American expansion into their heretofore monopoly of the Indian trading by arming some Native American tribes. They unleashed attacks on western settlements, including Ohio's.
When the attack came, the local people took their children and created a defensive position around the church. The Indians burnt Hollenzoher's buildings and almost-grown crops to the ground. Without a crop to sell they faced losing the farm, on which they still owed two annual payments, and the ability to rebuild their house and shed.
Their neighbor, Jacob Smith, offered to buy their farm by paying them the value of their last two installments and he would then pick up the remaining two.
After the children slept, Michael and Gertrude sat next to their campfire. Their mood and voice remained somber. "Well, wife, we can't spend the upcoming winter in a tent."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, we can't afford any farm in Virginia; so, we can't go back. However, with the sale money, we can buy a wagon, two horses, living supplies, and some tools."
Gertrude threw a stone on the fire. "Then what?"
"Remember that revival preacher that came through about six months ago?" She nodded. "He talked about the area around Memphis, Tennessee where most landowners don't have slaves. Farm work exists. He recommended that some of our young men should move there."
After throwing another rock on the fire and speaking with a strained voice, "Start all over again." With tears in her eyes, "Do we have a choice?"
Michael tossed a stone. "It's another adventure. We can work to make money. Me on a farm and making gun stocks; you sewing clothes and maybe even doing some housework. We now have enough for a flatboat ride to Memphis."
With a smile he said, "You always knew we would have adventures."
They stayed for seven years. After working several farms Michael spent the last three years managing Horatio Philbin's farm. He also continued fabricating quality gun stocks, which allowed local smiths to concentrate on the metal parts and increase their sales. Gertrude developed a reputation for superior sewing.
They saved enough money to make a down payment on the Philbin farm. Unfortunately, Horatio died, and the will gave it to his Memphis-dwelling son. He enjoyed the city life, therefore sold the property at a price twice what the Hollenzohers could afford.
Gertrude and Michael held another somber meeting, this time in front of their cabin's fireplace. Looking at his wife, "Now what?"
She responded, "If we don't own something, we'll be bounced around again and again. Can't we buy some fertile dirt?"
"The people who own fertile farm properties keep them in their family. But the papers talk about now in 1824, the Mexican government offers land at no cost in a place called Texas. The program encourages settlers who will purchase supplies from existing vendors, set up defenses for fighting off Indian raids, and pay taxes."
Gertrude stood. "Another adventure. After having three of them and at the same time raising four children, this must be my last."
He stood and put his arm around her, "We have enough money to buy a Conestoga wagon and fill it with all the household things we need. Ah . . . it's free land and our chance."
A river boat took then to Natchez, Mississippi from which a crude road led to a city called Nacogdoches, Texas. They took the second-to-last place in the wagon train. The Indians almost always attacked the tail end of a train because fewer defensive guns could be pointed at them.
Ten cowhands rode up to chase off the attackers. They found the last two wagons burnt, their animals gone, and all but the youngest Hollenzoher child killed.
The Second Adventure
The rescue posse guessed that boy child had been left because he looked dead due to a very bloody cut on his head. Kirby Johnson bandaged the boy's wounds. When the boy became conscious, he could remember his first name was Calvin, but several times changed the pronunciation of his last.
One of the other cowboys regarded the kid lying on the blanket and asked, "Who will take care of him?"
"Well, I'm the only one of us with my own cabin. I'll take this kid. That old grandma O'Brian lost her whole family, so I'll hire her to do housework for my new son Calvin Johnson."
When one of the cowboys asked why a single guy wanted the child, he responded,"I can use a worker on my spread."
With lots of hard work, the Johnson ranch became successful. Mrs. O'Brian handled the cabin chores; after her death, Mrs. Lopez took over. Yearly, the neighbor ranchers drove cattle to Nacogdoches or San Antonio. Kirby taught Calvin ranching operations and insisted he attend school along with church. Their relationship started as father and son, but when Calvin became an adult it developed into a partnership.
Kirby never married but once a month did spend a weekend enjoying the pleasures of the Bent Hoof tavern. He often told his son how beneficial a wife could be but after much looking he unfortunately never found one. This point apparently stuck in Calvin's head because as he got older, he began to scan the local crop of women. The only available were squaws lured from a tribe, prostitutes, or very few white females. The subject periodically crossed his mind, but no solutions existed. Cow wrangling consumed his time, until the trip to Austin.
* * *
The friars of San Hubro accepted any child Jesus placed at their mission. One was a little girl crying at the gate. In honor of the Blessed Virgin and the saints she was baptized Maria Santos. The monks assigned all foundlings to families who accepted them as the will of God.
Franciscan's missions generally were built with similar architecture; the church, rectory, administration building, workshops, storage rooms and residences were enclosed by a wall. It had several purposes. First, it defined the place in which the friars controlled all activities. Second, it created a location for proselytizing. Third, it protected from the raids of the Kiowa, Apaches, lesser known tribes, and Comancheros.
Strict rules existed. Children lived with their parents until they were 8 years old. Then they moved into the school and dormitory complex and only visited home one weekend a month. The Franciscans believed that if taught to read, a person could spread the word of the Lord. Boys and girls learned in both Spanish and English,
Dormitory life also contained much prayer and task-oriented discipline to serve the goal of producing obedient Catholics. When twelve years old, the boys began to learn a trade and the girls how to perform homemaker skills. At sixteen years, boys were apprenticed, and parents began seeking husbands for the young women.
In the case of Maria, her adopted family routinely took in foundlings. She never became close to her assigned parents because their loving parental spirit had been worn down by the orphans they kept getting; she was the twelfth of sixteen.
Maria chafed under the regimen. She lost count of the punishment rosaries she said while kneeling on the chapel floor. Senior-aged ladies applied a strap to disobedient girls. She felt its sting on numerous occasions. Despite this fact, the friars proposed sending her to a convent in Mexico City. Another disciplined lifestyle held absolutely no appeal. Neither did her parents' efforts to find a husband. She rejected the nunnery, and prospective husbands found her rebellious spirit would never make an obedient wife.
* * *
To obtain Texas land controlled by Mexico, immigrants had to accept Roman Catholic baptism. Most quickly ignored the act without fear of local Mexican government officials inposing any consequences. However, a few families decided damnation followed lying to God; these baptized their children and participated in Church traditions. Kirby Johnson's family fit into this category. Calvin took part in Church member activities when ranch duties allowed and attended infrequent masses offered by roving priests.
In 1839, a group of neighboring ranchers decided to send spokesmen to the new independent government in Austin. For the experience, Calvin's father sent him along. The men reached the San Hubro Mission where they stopped for food and shelter. A small fee paid for both.
Maria, now eighteen years old and passed over by several potential husbands, served in the cafeteria when travelers came to eat. Customers picked up meals at a counter before sitting down.
This girl with tan skin looked right at Calvin and with a mischievous smile asked him, "Well mister rancher, how many cows do you own?"
Surprised by a direct question from a girl, he stumbled for an answer, "Ah . . . more than you do."
Maria laughed out loud at this, "You can bet on that. I don't own the clothes on my back, but the friars won't let me take them off to give them back."
That response froze him. Not having a clue as to how to respond, he blushed and carried his food away.
After finishing dinner, Calvin noticed Maria performing all the cleanup tasks. The supervisor told him the other assigned server became sick, so she would finish by herself. Without thinking, he asked if he could help. The friar, foreseeing no trouble, agreed and thanked him.
The two started the cleanup and found conversation awkward at first. As the work continued, they talked more and more. A task that should last one hour ended taking three. Maria's humor kept bubbling through. Calvin's determination to make ranching a success also showed.
He asked her about her background. Maria, without any hint of embarrassment, said, "White men like enjoying village women but don't recognize the products of the relationships. The discarded children, like me, end up in a mission." With a laugh she added, "I'm part something else like Indian, Mexican, or Comanchero. Maybe I've eaten cows stolen from your ranch." Calvin smiled at this comment.
After the next morning's breakfast, Calvin kept sneaking glances at Maria. The rancher delegation continued on its journey. He, however, could not stop thinking about the girl and the comments of his father. Something clicked.
The social norm in his county was to despise squaws, who were considered worse than prostitutes. Mexicans, except the rich ones, occupied the step just above squaws. Comancheros traded guns and supplies with the Indian raiders for stolen material and animals. They were the most hated because they encouraged the killing of white people. Calvin pondered the implications, but Maria stirred something in him.
At the conclusion of the Austin business, the ranchers planned to return by a different course. Calvin told them, "I saw several interesting horses located near the Mission and I want to take another look." Because no Indian trouble had occurred this year, the others thought it was safe to travel alone.
He found one small horse and offered a bargain price if the sale included a saddle. The owner, glad to be rid of the runt, accepted. Calvin also purchased a donkey to carry supplies. While riding toward St. Hubro's he said out loud, "It might not work, but it certainly will be an adventure."
When the travelers gathered for a Mission dinner, Maria served his meal. With a big smile she said, "Hello, mister rancher."
Calvin projected earnest intent when he whispered, "I'll have two horses outside the main gate at midnight."
She was stunned. Needing time to think, she retreated into the kitchen and began to shake. She realized somehow this adventure would change her life. It only took a few moments before deciding. As she cleaned the table she whispered, "I can get a rope; I will be over the wall at midnight." With nothing but the clothes on her back, she scaled the wall and mounted the horse.
Without speaking, both understood they needed to put some distance between themselves and the mission in case a sheriff pursued them. The moon illuminated the road, and they traveled at a quick pace for almost four hours. They rested for three hours on a dry creek bed. No travelers passed them.
Food serving girls worked on different shifts; no one missed Maria until she didn't appear for dinner duty. The friars conducted a search and asked questions. When one worker reported seeing a rope hanging over the wall near the front gate, the friars recognized the obvious. They included her in evening prayers but decided not to pursue a grown foundling with a troublesome record.
While eating dinner the second night Maria said, "Calvin, I want to be married. I know what people call me because I don't have a father." She also didn't want to be a casual fling with a white rancher but thought better than to say that to him.
The small towns though which they would pass normally contained a little church operated by the Franciscans. Maria knew from years at San Hubro that these little churches rarely received donations. A wedding only required a small one. Besides, Catholic couples acting within the sacraments made a priest feel fulfilled. The next day Friar Rafael performed the ceremony at a mass and wrote a paper testimony to the fact.
Some of Maria's mission chores had required working with farm animals. The old lady that instructed girls on sex never explained anything beyond cleaning up menstrual blood. She understood how male and female beasts mated. Without any hesitation, she participated in consummating their marriage.
Maria's minimal clothing did not include undergarments which were only worn during a woman's cycle. San Hubro did not want to spend the money, so it required girls to wash and share them. Recognizing she would need several outfit changes and a sun hat, Calvin acquired items as they passed through small villages.
Never before in her life had Maria owned so many clothes. At first the broad-brimmed hat seemed unnecessary; she never wore one in the mission. Riding across open sun-drenched grasslands convinced her of its value. He told her that a cobbler took a day to make her a pair of boots. She asked, "Why, I've worn sandals all my life."
"My wife, I don't know mission life, but on a ranch cows and horses drop things on the ground you don't want to step in." They both chuckled.
The only problem occurred on their fifth night together. Maria announced, "I am going to put on all of these wonderful clothes and sleep in them tonight." Calvin's kiss changed her mind. In the village of Water Crossing, they found a wedding ring. She spent the next hour ignoring the road while looking at something she never imagined owning.
Approaching Prairie, they continued to ride at a leisurely pace. Calvin's father, showing concern over his son's delay, put the word out about wanting to be notified as soon as his son returned. One of the men saw them from a distance and rode out to tell him. He said, "He rides with two other horses and a woman sits on one." Kirby spurred his horse toward town.
In small towns everyone knows each other and when one does something unusual, the others unabashedly stare. The fact that Maria wore her scooped neck Mexican blouse increased the intensity of the inspection. The sheriff called out, "Hey Calvin, how are you doing?"
"Very well Sheriff. I want you to meet my wife, Maria Johnson." Turning and waving his hand at her, "Maria, this is Prairie's sheriff, Norm Paxton."
With her almost ever-present smile she said, "Good morning, Sheriff Paxton, I'm glad to meet you."
Surprise delayed his response but did not hide the evaluating look. Social rules required a man to tip his hat to white women but not to prostitutes or dark-skinned women. Norm walked next to Maria's horse and said, "Pleased to meet you."
Calvin leaned far over his saddle horn and with a somber look and sound said, "Norm, Maria Johnson is my wife, but you forgot to tip your hat."
For a moment, the sheriff shot a squint-eyed look at Calvin to evaluate what would happen if he ignored what just was said. Then with a smile he faced Maria and tipped his hat saying, "Pardon my temporary manner slip, the total surprise caused it."
Maria leaned back in her saddle, looked at her husband, and said, "Believe me, sheriff, it was a sudden surprise to me, as well." She glanced back at Norm and rendered another warm smile.
Maria never recognized the tremendous significance of this seeming minor exchange.
"Your father wondered what caused your return delay. I see now the reason. The other men said you went to look at horses, but no one guessed a charming lady would be riding one." The newlyweds smiled.
Several other townspeople had gathered on a near front porch. Men and women began to introduce themselves and welcome Maria. All men tipped their hats.
A half-mile out-of-town Kirby rode up. Calvin never told Maria that he was anxious about this meeting. A combination of curiosity and surprise blanketed his father's face. After the introduction to his new daughter-in-law a smile appeared, and he tipped his hat while saying with sincerity in his voice, "Maria, I'm glad you have come."
While riding toward the ranch, the three talked constantly. Maria explained how they met and then the wedding. Conveniently she left the impression that their departure was blessed. The marriage certificate was important to her, so she showed it to Kirby. Calvin's father was charmed and never doubted any details of the story.
After dinner, Maria ordered, "You two men get out of here. This kitchen is a mess and I'll straighten it out." They sat on the porch while she attacked the room's disorganized and dirty facilities.
After looking at the evening sky for a few minutes, his father reached over a slapped his son's shoulder, "She is a good woman," he said. A simple phrase that carried a mountain of positive meaning. Calvin understood and grinned.
They would raise three children, the first of which was Michael. Ann was next and Gabriel followed. A fourth, Joseph, died two weeks after birth. All were baptized, received traditional Catholic names and participated in church activities. It became common understanding among Prairie's people that whenever a Johnson did something out of the ordinary, they would all nod their heads when one of them said, "You know the Johnsons have Indian in them."
Ranch land located near the Johnson's periodically became available when raids chased off settlers, or the immigrants just found the grassland too hard to tame. Calvin would offer bargain purchase prices. Thus, the ranch grew to one of the largest in the county.
At ten years old the Johnson children would begin doing some of the more serious ranch chores. Between six and ten they only performed minor tasks. Maria insisted the children between ages of eight and sixteen attend school to learn reading and math.
While Calvin grew up, all local families volunteered to perform their share of volunteer work on community improvement projects such as street work and public buildings. Once a month, his family worked on making adobe bricks designated for the construction. Children could stomp in the mud and straw slurry and then place it into brick forms. He learned how to make and build structures with the bricks.
The Spanish constructed buildings with this type of brick, then covered them with a cement-like substance which was painted light tan. Calvin used his skills to erect a large house; later three additions would be added. Anyone visiting on Saturday afternoon ended up participating in brick production.
Because the Prairie area experienced Indian or Comancheros raids, he pierced the house and adobe brick barn's walls with gun ports.
Maria loved her house. "Husband, this I the best home I ever dreamed of having. It just feels wonderful."
As income rose, Maria hired a Mexican seamstress. When given a pattern, she would make the latest fashion dresses for fancy parties. For daily wear, she sewed typical Mexican shirts, skirts, and dresses. One was long and the green color of a summer oak leaf from a tree near the river. Calvin though Maria looked wonderful wearing it, especially with her pistol and holster strapped on.
One time she rode into Prairie wearing the green dress and gun. The sheriff yelled "Mrs. Johnson, you could be one of my assistant sheriffs."
With a smile she said, "No thanks, but if you need a rustler shot just point him out."
The sheriff never knew if she was serious.
Relations with the Indians changed as time passed. When the first fur trappers came to the west, the local tribes did not interfere. In fact, they learned the value of fur skins when trading with white merchants. Traders from Mexico conducted business for many years with the natives. Competition between these merchant groups gave the natives a chance to set higher prices.
The Texas area inhabited by the Native Americans was so huge that the minor intrusion of fur trading did not cause any difficulties. The California gold rush generated a substantial flow of travelers, The natives again found trading opportunities. They swapped meat and other basic assistance for guns, gun powder, and other practical items.
The Native American culture encouraged a certain amount of raiding. The tribes fought many skirmishes with each other. A relatively simple rule evolved: if your party was larger than another, you attacked; if smaller, you prepared your defenses or hightailed out; and if the same size, you met and traded. Some bloody victories and defeats occurred. The whites learned and adopted this tradition.
After the initial gold rush, whites began settling on the open areas. It started as a trickle and ended up as a flood. Tribes recognized the threat to their way of life and the food supply. The raids on settlers and ranches increased and so did the resulting retaliation sorties. Killing occurred on both sides.
A major cultural problem persisted because neither side could clearly distinguish the good people from the bad. Some tribes began to accept the change while others became hostile. Some white people grasped the difference and worked to make peaceful interactions. Others believed all natives embodied evil. Sadly, skin color identifies race, and this easy identification gave rise to the social norm of hating one another.
The US Federal government kept a military presence in outlying Texas before the Civil War. Once it started, all troops of either side were committed to fighting in the east. Residents around Prairie had to defend themselves. The raiding Indians became aware of the power vacuum and took advantage. The settlers formed militias that hunted the raiders. Again, more nasty fights with killing on both sides.
During the Civil War, the Confederate government adopted draft regulations. It also granted exceptions for critical supply producers. Its army consumed huge quantities of beef; thus, Calvin and Michael were not required to join the fighting.
Late in the conflict, as the Confederacy became closer to losing, the Texas authorities began confiscating beef and food supplies. In exchange, the ranchers received paper money whose value rapidly declined. Most ranchers, at the end of the war, were broke.
Twice the Johnson ranch was directly raided. The adobe bricks and the accurate fire from Calvin, Maria, and the children chased off the intruders with minimal loss. Other neighbors were not so lucky; their houses would be burnt.
Calvin told Maria, "We've got enough to make it through some bad years."
She replied, "You better, because I'm not going back to the San Hubro's." They both laughed.
Their third child, Gabriel, became swept up in the emotion of the Civil War. He decided to join the fight. Maria was furious, "Look what the Spanish and French did to Mexican peoples. They made Indians into gold mine slaves and laborers on European-owned ranches. No one should own slaves and your father agrees with me."
Gabriel responded, "Ma, I don't like slavery, but those northerners shouldn't be telling us how to live."
"Son, almost half the people my age down here came from the north."
"Yes, ma. But people down here don't try to jam their ideas down others' throats. A lot of my friends agree with me."
Believing Gabriel had experience working with large operations, the local commanding officer appointed him as a second lieutenant. After four years he had risen to captain of a company and waited on a pending promotion to major. He didn't survive the Battle of Mansfield, a Confederate victory. The fact that General Smith sent a letter describing Gabriel's bravery and promotion to major didn't help the loss.
The situation facing Texas grasslands' open plains didn't improve with the War's end. The US government reestablished itself almost exclusively in the cities; the concentrated population offered far more rehabilitation problems than occurred in the open plains. Indian raids continued for several years, as did the posse retaliation.
Calvin appreciated the difference between hostile and "tame" Indians. The eastern boundary of the ranch contained ridges of high hills. In between two of them a narrow valley existed. It had a small spring feeding a creek and which flowed even during the hot dry months. Once, he chased a bunch of cows into it and came upon an Indian camp.
Because this group included women and children, they were gathering food and not raiding. The chief, utilizing basic sign language, explained the facts. Calvin guessed one cow would keep peace. It did. The visit became an annual event.
He never told his neighbors about the little valley and its yearly visitors because a local posse would kill them all. The price did rise to two cows, but Calvin's Catholic upbringing came into play.
Michael Johnson stood drinking beer at his sister Ann's wedding. Gideon Taylor walked up. They talked for a considerable time about the financial situation facing ranchers. Both operated extensive operations.
Gideon observed Ann and her new husband John Collingsworth for a moment. "There are so few eligible women around here; how did he snag her?"
"My dad became interested in new and growing railroads before the war, and three years after it choose to invest in the Houston and Central Texas Railroad. That got him mixed up with lawyers, and Ann met John at a railroad official's social party. You know she always argues with anybody over anything; perfect woman for an attorney."
Gideon grinned, "My wife always avoided her because she thought Ann didn't know the proper place for a young woman."
Nodding his head, Michael said, "Well, John says he never saw such sparkling brown eyes. They love each other. In the new railroad business, he might have a bright future along with many wife fights." They both laughed.
Gideon filled the glasses, " Ah . . . Michael, will you ever get yourself a woman?"
Shaking his head, "You know there are few eligible women around here. I spend so much time out on the range and on cattle drives, that by the time I see one she is already hitched." Gideon nodded. "The work keeps me from courting."
"Well partner, mail order brides may be your only choice because all the unmarried former soldiers and railroad workers moving out here rope up all the fillies while you play with cows."
* * *
For Bertha Westwood of Rockland, Maine, the time had come to make a change. Her youngest brother, Norbert, just became engaged and there would no longer be a place to live. Being an unmarried 32-year old, she guessed that her only chance of marriage required waiting for a wedded man's wife to die. Not a positive way to live one's life.
Life had already delivered some hard knocks. Her father and mother lived a happy life and produced herself and two younger brothers, Axel and Norbert. When she was eight, her mother died of something the doctors called the "flux." For two years her father mourned. His unmarried older sister came to take care of the children. However, the need to remarry became obvious as the lady began to show her age. He met, courted, and married Jane Stillwell, a widow with one daughter named Rebecca.
Bertha's new mother, daughter of a sea captain and raised in Rockland, found the economic stability of a successful farmer to be appealing. Alas, she thought most of its chores to be beneath her and Rebecca's dignity. Therefore, the two only worked on the inside house chores of cleaning, cooking, and laundry.
After several fights with Bertha's father, Jane negotiated a settlement. Bertha would take care of all gardens, poultry operations, barn jobs, assist milking, and work on planting and harvesting.
Bertha, at about eleven years old, noticed some irritation between the adults and asked her dad, "Are you and mom getting along? You seem mad at each other a lot."
He jumped out of his chair, slapped her hard across the face, and yelled, "That's a terrible question for a child to ask. Never, ever ask it again."
Several months later, Bertha sat reading a newspaper on a Saturday afternoon. Jane came into the room and demanded she go outside to do chores. Bertha politely refused. Jane carried a stick and hit her across her legs.
Bertha screamed, stood and grabbed the stick, broke it in half, and backed Jane up against a wall. "If you ever do that again I'll beat you like a bad dog." The relationship between Jane, Rebecca, and Bertha froze over. Her father chose not to interfere.
Things came to an unfortunate head when Raymond Hunt returned to town. As the son of a sea captain, he sailed for California when only sixteen years old. He asked Jane to wait for his return after he made enough money. He didn't return-+, so Jane waited two years before marrying. After her first husband died, it only took a year before wedding Westwood. Two years after that Hunt returned.
At the town's monthly picnic, Raymond spirited Jane to a talk behind the church. "Jane, I always wanted to marry you. I made a fortune transporting construction supplies for San Francisco. Come with me and live in luxury." He showed her a gold bracelet inset with numerous jewels. "This is your present when you come with me."
"Raymond, I can't stand being a farmer's work woman. I would love to leave with you, but I'm married."
He smiled, "You never have heard of a wet divorce." She shook her head. "Taking a ship around South America requires five or six months of water travel. Once we land in San Francisco, you are my wife. No one will ever know what happened here.
She kissed him. "My daughter too?"
Two Sundays later, Jane told Bertha's father that her daughter was slightly ill. Her dad packed the remaining family off to church, and its following community social gathering kept them to midafternoon. When returned home, they discovered Jane, Rebecca, personal possessions, and their heirloom silver service were gone. High tide allowed the ship to sail before her father could reach the harbor.
Westwood took the abandonment very hard and slipped into debilitating alcohol abuse. At fourteen years old, Bertha knew the farm's production virtually stopped. She recognized the necessity to take charge before dire economic consequences occurred.
She confronted her dad, "We need help and because you are sick; you and I are going to the village to find a farm hand." After he objected, Bertha said, "The boys will tie you into the carriage if you don't agree."
Their pastor suggested a worker might be found at the Sailor's Anchor Tavern . George Strawser agreed to work five and a half days a week provided they gave him living quarters, meals, and enough pay to enjoy all the pleasures at the Anchor.
Bertha told her brothers, "You two must learn to read, write, and do numbers." She then created motivation by yelling "If you don't, I won't cook for you!"
Axel stomped his foot, "School is for city people. Farm people don't need to go."
Pointing a finger at each of their noses she shouted, "Reading and numbers keeps the town people from thinking you are stupid."
That night, after Axel and Norbert slept, she sat on her front porch. Gripping both armrests, looking at the sky, she said, "God, I know lots of people have problems. Please don't leave us out. We could use any help you can give. And to keep my brothers from feeling bad, I promise to only cry at night when everyone is asleep." She kept the vow for the rest of her life.
School was only attended in the mornings. George made lists of duties to be completed in the afternoons and evenings. Like other farm children, neither would attend schooling during planting and harvest times.
After the second year's harvest, George Strawser walked up to Bertha carrying a travel bag. "I'm quitting. The Bramptons offered to triple my wages. Good luck."
"That's it," she told Axel and Norbert, at dinner. "We can't afford a helper, and father can't do anything. So, we are on our own. I'll be in charge, and as you two get older we'll start making money."
They survived with the help of their church members. Each Sunday church ladies gave them two loaves of fresh bread. A neighbor's bull serviced their two cows once a year; the resulting calves were sold. Another man helped plow four acres in the spring, two for oats and two for wheat. On the now unused and grass-covered fields, the cows and a few goats fed. Teenage boys would help with harvest. They raised and sold chickens. When their horse aged beyond usefulness, a senior church member made a permanent loan of his. In five years, they pushed farming from almost charity into profitable.
Bertha provided the push. It was difficult. Many nights on the porch the tears flowed.
When Bertha was 26, Axel got married and moved into the original farmstead house. She, her father, and Norbert lived in the newer, much larger house. They remained in it after her father died.
The living locations completely changed when Norbert announced, "I'm getting wedded to Sally Wentworth." Axel's family, with two children, settled the living arrangements; they would move into the big house and the newlyweds into the farmstead.
She told her brothers, "I must find another place to live because I love my sister-in-law but know two adult women can't share a house."
Bertha started searching for a place to live five months before the wedding. In a copy of a Portland newspaper, she found an advertisement for an agency that assisted women to find husbands in the West—mail order brides. She sat on the front porch chair and slammed her fists on the arm rests and hissed, "I'm 32 and don't want to become a spinster. No husband may ever come." She resolved to explore becoming a mail order bride.
History shows several agencies offered a service to connect prospective spouses. An Iowa agency operated for years and claimed thousands of successful unions. It furnished lists of interested single men and women. Participants wrote short descriptions of themselves, their moral character, expectations from a spouse, and their financial strength.
Bertha chose to correspond with Michael Johnson of Prairie, Texas. They exchanged four letters. He told her about his cattle operation, and she described her farm management experience. They both mentioned the lack of appropriate partners in their home communities caused their interest. The fourth letter from him explained how he was a Roman Catholic, but she didn't need to convert, provided any children must be raised in his religion.
It took several long walks on the farm for her to mull over the religion issue. Along one of the fences she saw a number of different colored flowers. Out loud she said, "God obviously likes variety and so many different religions exist. He seems to be pointing for me to open a new adventure. I'll accept Mr. Johnson's terms."
Four weeks after sending her acceptance letter, a telegram from the agency arrived. It stated Mr. Johnson would pay for her transportation to a place called Galveston.
Waiting until the whole family sat at Sunday dinner she announced, "I made a decision about my future." Everyone intently listened. "I've agreed to marry Mr. Johnson from Prairie, Texas."
It was a bombshell. Older brother Axel yelled "You are going to be a mail order bride? That is terrible."
Sally, the future sister-in-law, with a disapproving facial expression added, "Is that not prostitution?"
Comments flew. "You'll find him to be a murderer." "Only trash rebels live in Texas." "Is he half savage?" The barrage delivered in shouts lasted fifteen minutes. After the angry energy seemed to be expelled. Bertha calmly waited, then said, "If I stay here, what choices remain? I won't wait until some old widower wants a caretaker."
After they ate, she sat with her two brothers in the parlor. Axel said, "Listen, we love you and will build you a small house. But in Texas all sorts of bad things could happen."
Norbert added, "We hoped you could take care of the kids we plan on having. That would allow Axel, me, and our wives to make this farm even more successful."
She stood, walked to the window and took a few moments. Facing the brothers, her face turned red as she yelled, "Living in a small house and taking care of other people's children. NO, NO, NO."
After walking to stand in front of the two, with a less angry voice, "Why can't I raise some of my own? I love you two, and we've been through hard years but it's time for me to move on." Both opened their mouths to speak, but she held up her hand in a silencing gesture. "I have already accepted Mr. Johnson's proposal. No more discussions." They knew Bertha, unlike many of her peers, could make firm decisions.
Before she departed, the brothers asked to meet. Axel offered an envelope and said, "We wish you well, so here is $300 dollars to cover your expenses." At the time this was a substantial sum.
Norbert said, "If you find things not to your liking, we'll send you money for return tickets."
Bertha thanked them and firmly added, "I plan to make things work out." She noted to herself that neither brother said anything about dividing up the family farm estate.
A train took her and a trunk to St Louis and a river boat to New Orleans. The trip let her experience many new and fascinating things about which she had read. A coastal steamer provided the ride to Galveston.
Several times she thought about her future husband. One night while sitting on a railroad layover hotel's porch she looked at the stars and said out loud, "This is a done deal. It's a real adventure. I'm not going to worry. I'll just live and do my best to enjoy it."
Travel time schedules were not exact due to the various transportation modes. The agency told her in which Galveston hotel to stay as actual arrivals could vary by as much as a week early or late
Galveston provided a revelation for New England eyes. A swirl of people with different toned skin moved around. None spoke quietly. Wagons carrying an intriguing variety of items, horse riders, and foot traffic covered all the streets. Women wore clothes that referenced eastern fashions, but for practicality, they had simplified the dresses and undergarments. The men used many styles of garb but almost all had some type of broad-brimmed hat. Boots also seemed to be a requirement. Dust and animal smells filled the air. Bertha took walks and sat on the hotel's deck. She absorbed the sights and smiled.
Mid-morning on the second day as she sat watching Galveston, a man walked up, took off his hat, and said, "The lobby desk told me you are Miss Bertha Westwood. I'm Michael Johnson of Prairie, Texas."
She had wondered what this greeting would be like. Horror, humor, shock. Instead, while standing up she felt the launching of her adventure. She smiled at the shaved man who stood several inches taller than her and wore, besides the hat, a clean coat, shirt, pants and boots. "I'm pleased to meet you."
His smile almost went ear to ear, "Ma'am, I'm really glad to meet you. The agency requires us to get hitched right away, but the priest must marry us in his rectory, because of your religion. He won't be available until this afternoon, so would you mind eating lunch? The trip made me hungry.''
Also, smiling she said, "Sure, Mr. Johnson."
The meal consisted of steak and eggs. Due to the whole situation, she didn't have an appetite; she asked for an egg. After ordering, he said, "Ah . . . , seeing how we are about to be hitched, let's use first names." They did while discussing his ranch and her farm experiences. Both tried to spark up the descriptions with humorous stories.
Michael finished and stood, "Are you ready?"
Bertha wiped her mouth with a napkin, took in a deep breath, let it out, and said, "I am."
In the rectory Father Miguel had secured two witnesses. She noted the wording of the Catholic service closely resembled the protestant ones. It wasn't a romantic high point, but somehow, she felt very pleased.
A young woman giving up her virginity to an almost complete stranger husband seemed strange. Bertha again felt the adventure and did not hesitate. He respected her request to be gentle.
Michael realized his wife needed some Texas attire. He outfitted her in Galveston's stores. The haul included boots, several scarves, a leather vest, thick gloves and a broad-brimmed hat. Shopping proved quite enjoyable.
On the third day after the wedding they took the train to Fort Worth. The next day's stagecoach ride brought them to Prairie. Mike telegraphed ahead the time of their arrival. Bertha couldn't believe that a big party awaited them. Friendly neighbors warmly greeted her and congratulated Michael. She kept repeating, "I'm glad to be here and married to Michael." A drunk husband slept through the night, but she didn't mind.
The next day they got into a coach. "The spread is only two miles."
"Please let me drive the wagon. You need to see that an eastern farm girl can do it."
Surprise registered on Michael's face as he waved his hand in a "Let's go" gesture.
The main house's structure consisted of white painted wood to which several similar additions had been added. With a smile she said, "This doesn't look like New England."
With a gentle slap on her back, "You're right."
"My adventure begins."
It took several months for the two to adjust to each other. Mike, like his peers, believed the man absolutely ran the house. Bertha would agree up to a point but, once crossed, without hesitation would loudly argue and insist on her views. Prairie townsfolk quickly learned she never missed a chance to confront stupidity.
Unlike her brother's prediction, Prairie proved to be safe to live. Its men wore guns; some had been in Indian skirmishes; some fought on different sides of the Civil War; some had driven railroad spikes with twenty-pound sledgehammers the impact of which sounded like rapid-fire rifles. Outlaws and different raider bands avoided the place.
They had three children: two boys and one girl. They picked Angela as the girl's name. She inherited all of her grandmother Maria's genes; darker skin, deep brown eyes, and smooth black hair. The older brothers would physically straighten out anyone who disparaged her obvious ethnic background.
Over the years when a new acquaintance asked Michael about his mail order bride he always responded, "I never ordered her, God sent her to me." Any time Bertha heard this answer she immediately gave him a hug.
All their children often recalled Bertha's constant reminder, "Go have adventures."
Robert L Nelis began his writing career as he commuted to and from his job as a municipal official in Chicago suburbs, creating characters and laying out plots as he drove and sketching them out later. Now retired, he enjoys having time to write the stories he planned over his twenty-seven years of commuting.
Rob received a master's degree in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois where he also served as adjunct faculty. He lives in Chicago with his wife of 42 years in a 110-year-old house and enjoys his four grandchildren.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Dreaming of Pesach with the Last Bandito
by Peter Ullian
Historical note: Emil Harris was a real person, one of the first policemen in frontier Los Angeles in the 1870s, and the only Jew on the force at that time. Some events depicted in this story really happened. Others could have. Some are purely imaginative. In all three cases, creative liberties have been taken.
We were in the hallway on the third floor outside the recently opened grand hotel Casa de Pico. We were standing on either side of the door to room 31, behind which, we had reason to believe, we would find the bandit Three-Fingered Jack Dunleavy, possibly in the arms of one of our rare pueblo of Los Angeles beauties.
I stood to the right of the door, my Henry repeater rifle in my hands. My partner, George Gard, stood to the left, holding a Whitney twelve-gage. We both stood in the hallway in our stockinged feet, having left our boots in the lobby to minimize the possibility that the sound of our footfalls would alert our three-fingered quarry of our presence.
I pantomimed my instruction that we drop low, as Three-Fingered Jack was known to make often reckless use of a pepperbox pistol, which could often prove quite deadly, not to say wildly painful.
We crouched on either side of the door, and I counted silently on my fingers . . . one . . . two . . .
Before I got to three, the door exploded and pellets flew across the hall and above our heads and embedded themselves in the painting that hung across the hall, which depicted a vista of Los Angeles from 1859 from the vantage of Fort Hill, overlooking the pueblo that at that time contained just over four thousand people.
Now, in 1874, the city was much bigger— we had recently reached six thousand residents, according to local officials.
I peeked through the hole in the jagged wood of the door, and I could see Jack sitting on his bed in his long-johns, trying to reload his pepperbox. He was indeed accompanied by a rare Angeleno beauty who sat beside him, regarding him with poorly concealed amusement, and wearing considerably less than long-johns, clothed, as she was, in only her natural splendor; I recognized her at once as Sadie "Angel Eyes" Margolis.
I kicked open the door, dived into the room in a rolling somersault, and came up at the foot of the bed, with my Henry pointed inches from Jack's face.
"Damnit!" Three-Fingered Jack cried. "Damnit all to hell and damnation! This ain't fair! This ain't fair at all! You didn't give me no kind of a chance whatsoever!"
"Jack, I'm not supposed to give you a chance, I'm supposed to take you into custody," I said, quite reasonably, I thought.
Muttering about how poorly life had treated him, Jack continued to clumsily attempt to reload his pepperbox, an outdated and cumbersome weapon, but the favorite of this notorious bandit, road agent, horse thief, and train robber.
I jacked the lever on my Henry, hoping that most fearsome and intimidating sound would assist in bringing Jack into a more subdued state of compliance.
"Jack," I said. "I have the drop on you. Please put up your hands so I am not forced to shoot you in the face."
That seemed to take some of the wind out of his sails. Jack raised his hands and looked at me with all the bravado of a beaten dog.
He was an unhandsome man, with broken teeth, a crooked nose, and the kind of beard that looked as if it had never quite fully grown in, although he was easily in his late thirties by this time. He looked at me with such pathetic eyes that I felt sorry for him and somewhat kindly disposed. He had piled up an impressive record of robbing stagecoaches in Los Angeles County, which made him primarily Sheriff Rowland's problem, but since he was now hiding out in the City of Los Angeles proper, that made him ours.
"He's got another gun under the sheets, Detective Harris," Sadie said to me in Yiddish, as she pulled a Colt Dragoon from under the covers and handed it to me.
"Don't give him my pistol, you damned silly woman," Jack said.
I gently took the pistol from her. The Colt Dragoon is a cumbersome, heavy weapon, but it packs a wallop when used either as a firearm or a club.
"I'd have shot you when you came through that door, but this damnable pepperbox keeps discharging all its six barrels at once, instead of just one at a time," Jack said, sulkily. "So, that necessitated for me to reload, which cost me precious time."
"Why didn't you use the Dragoon?" I asked. I did not want to encourage better defensive measures on his part when next I came to bring him to justice, but I did not expect there to be a next time, given the crimes he was accused of. He had never killed a man as far as I knew, but he had parted so many of them from their purses and so many coaches from their strongboxes that I saw very little hope for him when he appeared before Judge Widney.
"I prefer the pepperbox to the Dragoon," he said, his forehead furrowed, as if the question mystified him. "The Dragoon is a weighty and incommodious weapon. I'd have killed you right good and proper if my pepperbox hadn't misfired."
"I wouldn't have let him kill you, Detective Harris," said Sadie kindly, again in Yiddish. "You have always been good to me."
Jack glared at her. Although I doubted he understood Yiddish, he did find suspicious the easy manner Sadie and I had with one another. "He your pimp?" he growled at her. "I wish you woulda told me your pimp was a Los Angeles Police Detective."
"I am not her pimp, sir," I said, quietly but firmly, and in English. "That is an offensive suggestion."
"Why, Detective Harris ain't no pimp, you fiddle-headed bottom-feeder," Sadie said, also in English for Jack's benefit.
"I just bet he ain't," said Jack, doubtfully.
I should like to pause this narrative for a moment here to clarify that I am neither a pimp nor a frequenter of the services of prostitutes. I am trusted and well-regarded among the Sporting Ladies of Los Angeles, but that is precisely because I am not a pimp nor a frequenter of their services, unlike several Los Angeles city and county lawmen I could name but choose not to. I endeavor to be a fair and just policeman, and while I am far from perfect, I am not corrupt.
"I never thought you'd come for Jack at Pico House," Sadie said to me, again in Yiddish, as George put our prisoner in shackles. "I thought for certain you'd be in Sonoratown looking for Tiburcio Vásquez."
George and I exchanged a glance. He did not understand or speak Yiddish, as I did, he being a gentile and me a Jew; but he recognized the name: Tiburcio Vásquez was the most-wanted man in California at that time, a price on his head of $6000 dead and $8000 if taken alive. Neither one of us had any idea he was in Los Angeles.
"Well," I replied to Sadie, also in Yiddish. "We can't be everywhere all at once, can we?"
"I suppose his girl must have paid you off, you damn pimp," Jack grumbled. He too recognized the name Tiburcio Vásquez amidst the Yiddish. Tiburcio Vásquez was the name that was on everybody's lips in the Spring of that year. "I guess if la Coneja paid me off, I'd look the other way, too."
La Coneja was a renowned Californio beauty and Sporting Woman who worked out of Sonoratown. She was rumored to be the favorite of Vásquez, who was renowned as much for his amorousness as his outlawry.
George and I exchanged another glance.
George raised an eyebrow.
I thought it over.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep interfering with my sober judgement; we had staked out the Bell Union Hotel all the last night previous, in the mistaken belief that Three-Fingered Jack was staying there. Then, when we discovered our error, we had spent all the day and into the next evening setting about to correct it, and find our fugitive. So, we had not slept and perhaps should not have made the decision that we did.
But we made it.
I looked at George and nodded my agreement.
George unlocked one of the shackles that bound Jack's wrists, strung the chain through the headboard, and then re-shackled Jack's free wrist. The desperado was now chained to the bed frame.
"What's all this about?" Jack inquired.
"We'll be taking these, Jack," I said, gathering up his weapons. "We hope you've learned your lesson. A life of crime and excess can only lead to ruination."
Jack shrugged. "I already lost two fingers to a life of crime," he said. "I guess you're right at that. I wouldn't like to lose no more."
"We will be back to take you to the jail house," I said. "But first we have some business to attend to in Sonoratown."
Three-Fingered Jack was a worthy arrest, but Tiburcio Vásquez was another thing entirely.
* * *
It was a fine Spring evening as we made our way to Sonoratown, our boots back upon our feet. Sonoratown was only a block North of Pico House, which was in turn on the Plaza de Los Ángeles. The scent of primrose, nightshade, and California buckeye wafted by on a temperate breeze, competing with the brine off the Pacific, and with the stench of horse piss and beer, odors which pervaded much of the city.
Sonoratown was a neighborhood of mostly old adobe houses, many of them from the days before the American conquest when the flag of Mexico still flew above el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, or the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, as it was then known. The neighborhood got its name from the flood of Mexicans who went North to pan for gold, and who returned South when their claims went bust, or when they were kicked off of them by unscrupulous whites. Many returned to Mexico, but some settled in Los Angeles, in the neighborhood North of the Plaza. Not all of the Mexican 49ers were from Sonora, but many of them were. They joined the Californios, the original California-born Mexican residents, already living there.
The Sonoratown residents were naturally suspicious of whites, and I could not blame them for that. But even here, I had my confidants.
At the intersection of Ord and North Main Street, George waited outside while I stepped into Diego's Cantina, and greeted its proprietor, Diego Salinas, a Mexican Jew, in Ladino, the language of Jews from Spanish-speaking countries.
I speak English, Spanish, German, Yiddish, and Ladino. I am also friendly with the residents of Chinatown, whose persons I attempted to defend, with only partial success, during the horrific Chinatown Massacre in 1871, although I do not speak their languages. These associations, of language and friendship, have assisted me in securing the return of stolen goods and apprehending fugitives, because there is always someone from one of those communities who knows something useful.
Securing information that would lead us to the capture of Vásquez, however would prove unusually elusive.
"I know why you're here, Detective," Diego said.
"Why am I here then, friend?" I replied.
"You are here to find Tiburcio Vásquez."
I frowned. "Does everybody know where Vásquez is hiding except for the Los Angeles police?"
Diego shrugged. "Everyone in Sonoratown does. And not one of them will tell you where he's hiding. Vásquez is a great hero to everyone here. He defends the rights of Sonorans, Mexicans, and Californios against the oppression of the norteamericanos."
This perplexed me. "He's a common highwayman," I said.
Diego raised an eyebrow. "What is the conquest of California by the norteamericanos if not common highway robbery, dressed up in flags and banners?"
When California became American, I was still in Prussia, and barely a decade into my life, so I did not have deeply considered opinions on the subject. Still, I could imagine that what to me, a poor Jewish immigrant from Europe, had seemed like the land of opportunity, could well have seemed like a stolen opportunity to a poor Jewish immigrant from Sonora like Diego.
"I suppose this means you are declining to tell me where he is hiding?" I said.
"I cannot," Diego said, sadly. "I also hope you will take your leave of Sonoratown and refrain from seeking him out. He is an excellent marksman and has escaped many a lawman's best efforts."
"You know I cannot do that, Diego," I said.
"Then I wish you good health, my friend," Diego said. "But I cannot wish you success in this endeavor. Even so, I hope you come through it unscathed."
* * *
"Why, that damn Sonoran swindler," George said, when I reported my conversation with Diego. "Why, we oughta place him under arrest for the obstruction of the execution of our lawful duties."
"Never mind about that," I said. "If we don't know where to find Vásquez, I think I know where we can find la Coneja. Perhaps one will lead to the other."
* * *
We were only a few blocks from Diego's Cantina when we were accosted by both City Marshal William C. Warren, who was not only in charge of the by-now-twelve-man Los Angeles police department, but who also had the dubious distinction of being both a scoundrel and a fool, alongside Special Officer Joseph Franklin Dye, who was among one of the most unscrupulous characters yet to serve as a Los Angeles policeman. Dye had been a member of the murderous Mason-Henry Gang during the War, and as a policeman cared much more for reward money than he did for his civic duty.
They were accompanied by Warren's sycophantic deputy, Jacob F. Jerkins, a small bespectacled man with a talent for taking notes and saying "yes sir" on cue.
"Now see here, Harris and Gard, what are you doing in Sonoratown?" Marshal Warren demanded.
Jerkins looked at us severely, aping his superior's disposition.
"We are patrolling the streets, and keeping the peace," I said. "I believe that is in our job description."
"Well, get the hell out of Sonoratown," Dye said, waving his walking stick at us menacingly. "If you know what's good for you."
I did not relish being threatened by such a poor excuse for a policeman as Joe Dye. I was severely tempted to snatch that walking stick out of his hand and break it over his head. But I let it pass for the sake of expediency.
"Yes, go, and go now . . . unless you know the whereabouts of Tiburcio Vásquez," the Marshal said. "That being the case, I order you to share said information with me, and with dispatch."
I was not certain how Warren had learned of Vásquez's presence in Sonoratown. Warren had never made much effort to garner the kind of trust among Angelenos that would have made him privy to such a secret, even if that secret appeared to be very much an open one. I suppose it was possible he had beaten or intimidated a suspect for the information. Certainly, if Joe Dye had been by his side, such an approach was likelier than not.
Regardless of how he had come about it, here he was.
"I do not know the whereabouts of Tiburcio Vásquez," I said, which was not a lie— I did not know where Vásquez was hiding . . . even if I had a pretty good idea where to find la Coneja. "Do you have reason to believe he is in Sonoratown?" I asked, innocently.
"Of course not!" Marshal Warren exclaimed.
"You'd better not get in our way, Harris," Dye said, waving his walking stick again. "If you know what's good for you!"
At that moment I felt what would have been most good for me was to punch Dye in his bullying face, but I resisted.
"Get in your way?" I asked, tamping down my wroth and playing the innocent. "Get in your way whilst you are doing what, exactly?"
Warren and Dye exchanged glances.
"You just move yourselves on out of Sonoratown," the Marshal said.
"Yes sir," I said.
They began to move down Ord Street together, Dye turning around periodically to glower at me and wave his walking stick threateningly, while Jerkins turned to wag a finger at me menacingly.
We waited until they had turned a corner and disappeared.
"They are going in the wrong direction," I said. "Let's get moving before they figure that out."
"Then we're not leaving Sonoratown?" George asked.
"Certainly not," I said. "Law must be enforced and justice upheld. We can't rely on that trio to do it, can we?"
* * *
We reached our destination and walked quietly down a dimly-lantern-lit alleyway towards one of the few two-storied adobes in the neighborhood, in which I believed la Coneja to reside. Despite our stealth, however, a second-floor window opened, a pistol that appeared to be a Navy Colt manifested itself, and two shots were fired in quick succession, blowing out clods of dirt at our feet, leaving billowing dust clouds in the street before us.
George and I drew our weapons and returned fire clumsily as we charged towards the elevated wooden sidewalk to our right, taking cover behind some formidable wooden barrels, filled with what we knew not, but which we hoped would prove adequate to our purpose.
"Emil Harris?" called a voice from the second floor.
George looked at me in perplexity. "Vásquez knows you by name?" he said.
"I've never met the man," I said.
"Emil Harris?" the voice repeated. "My name is Tiburcio Vásquez." He spoke with elegant diction and an upper-class Californio accent.
"I know your name," I said. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't know who you are. How do you know me?"
"La Coneja has only kind things to say about you," he called. "She says unlike your partner, George Gard, you are neither corrupt nor stupid."
"Hey!" George cried. "I ain't corrupt at all! You tell him that, Emil! Tell him I ain't never took no dime I wasn't owed proper!"
I bade George to maintain his silence.
"I appreciate la Coneja's compliments," I said, "but how does that bear upon our present circumstances?"
"I would like to appeal to you on a more elevated level than that with which banditos and lawmen normally converse," he said. "You are a Jew, I am told?"
"You are correct," I confirmed.
"Then surely, you must see the parallels between the story of your Judah Maccabeus and my own struggle?" he said.
I was surprised and somewhat flattered that Vásquez knew anything at all of the traditions of my people. I wondered for a moment why he attempted to appeal to me through the story of Hanukkah, which was still far off in the coming Fall, instead of Pesach, or Passover, which was just around the corner, as we were already well into the Spring. Perhaps he was not familiar with the Jewish calendar; or perhaps he simply found the story of Judah Maccabeus a closer parallel.
Either way, flattered as I was, I found such a parallel to be a bit of a stretch, and I told him so.
"But Emil," he said, using my given name in a show of familiarity, "Judah Maccabeus fought against the oppressive Hellenistic Seleucid Imperial Hegemony that sought to crush not only the political independence of your Hebraic ancestral nation, but also to destroy your very culture. The story of this rebellion against the oppressor forms the basis for your festival of Hanukkah, does it not?"
I confessed to him that it does.
"Do you not see the parallels to the norteamericanos efforts to crush not only Californio political power," Vásquez said, "but our very identity?"
"What in tarnation is he on about?" George whispered to me.
I confess I thought Vásquez had a point, and I told him so. "How do you know so much about the stories of my tribe?" I asked.
"I am an educated man, Emil," said Vásquez. "I am not the ignorant desperado you imagine me to be, although I am friend to the ignorant and the educated both, to both the patrician and the peasant, and very generous with my dinero towards those in need."
"I don't imagine you to be an ignorant desperado, and I commend you on your generosity, even if you are being generous with ill-gotten gains," I said.
"But Emil," Vásquez said. "What is California to the norteamericanos but an ill-gotten gain?"
I thought Vásquez again had another point, and again I told him so. "But Tiburcio," I said. "Men have been killed in your efforts."
"But not by me," Vásquez said. "Never once by me. I have never killed even one man, although I have known many that were deserving."
"But men have been killed by your men in your unlawful endeavors, Tiburcio," I said. "Which makes their deaths every bit as much on your head as on those of the men who pulled the trigger. So, even if I could overlook your theft of property and cash— which, as a lawman, I cannot— how can I overlook the taking of human life in the exercise of criminal activity?"
"Did your Judah Maccabeus not take human life?" Tiburcio said. "Did he not kill Hellenistic Jews as well as Seleucids?"
"Well, yes," I admitted. "But that probably was not the most prudent tactic. It led to years more conflict before independence was achieved."
"But independence was achieved," Vásquez pointed out.
"But only after the death of Judah Maccabeus," I countered.
"Are you saying my people will only be free after my death?" Vásquez said. He sounded for the first time uncertain.
"I cannot speak to that," I said. "But I think we both know that the age of banditos such as yourself is coming to an end."
This point was met with silence.
"Why don't we just blast our way in there, for the love of God?" George said, impatiently.
"Vásquez is said to be extraordinarily good with a pistol," I said. "Do you really want to abandon our cover?"
"Well, how do you propose we bring him in, then?" George asked.
"I am in the process of working that out," I said.
"Emil," Vásquez called. "La Coneja says you are an honorable man."
"I do my best," I confessed.
"If she comes out to you do you promise me she will come to no harm, and you will allow her to walk away from here? This conflict does not involve her."
"You have my word," I said.
George whispered in my ear. "He obviously cares about the woman," he said. "We should hold her with a gun to her head until he surrenders."
"Absolutely not, George," I said.
"You are a damn stubborn man, Emil," George grumbled.
"I know it," I said. "It is in my nature."
La Coneja emerged from the door to the adobe. She wore a colorful dress in the Mexican style, red with printed yellow and light blue flowers embroidered around the shoulders and at the hem. Her hair, long and lustrous and black, cascaded down her shoulders. She was tall and long-limbed, and with a high forehead and a thin, elegant nose.
"My gosh," George said. "She is quite the rare beauty, ain't she? Why do they call her la Coneja? Don't that mean "rabbit?"
I confessed to George that I did not know how she had obtained that particular moniker. Then I handed him my pistol and my Henry and Three-Finger Jack's Dragoon and pepperbox and walked out into the street with my hands raised.
"I am unarmed, Tiburcio," I said. "I am at your mercy."
"I have no desire to do you harm, Emil," Tiburcio said. "Only to ensure that no harm comes to la Coneja."
As la Coneja came towards me, I got my first good look at Tiburcio Vásquez as he stood in the open second-floor window, shirtless and handsomely proportioned, dark hair swept back on his head, a trim mustache above a strong and pleasant mouth. I could well see why his reputation as an outlaw was rivaled only by his reputation as a lover.
When la Coneja, this rare Californio beauty, reached me, she said, "Emil, you must not harm Tiburcio."
"I hope not to," I said. "But the matter is not entirely in my hands. Tiburcio will have to surrender if no harm is to come to him."
"Tiburcio will never surrender," she said. "He is not that kind of man."
"As much as I admire his courage," I said, "I have a duty to apprehend him."
"But he means so much to the Californios," la Coneja said. "He is a hero."
No sooner had she said this than I heard the unwelcome blustering voice of City Marshal William C. Warren, who came barreling down the alley towards us, Jerkins struggling to keep up, Dye conspicuously absent.
"Now, what the hell is going on here, Harris?" Warren demanded. "Who is that woman?"
"I have granted her safe passage from the scene," I explained.
"The scene of what? Is that Vásquez up there?" he said, looking at the open window. "I ordered you to tell me if you knew where he was hiding!"
"Hello, Marshal Warren," said Vásquez. "I have my gun sights trained on you as we speak."
"Vásquez!" Warren growled. "Surrender yourself!"
"Thank you for the suggestion," said Vásquez, "But I don't think I will, even so."
Warren took hold of la Coneja by the arm. "Is this your woman?" he shouted. "You come out here now with your hand raised if you don't wish to see any harm come to her."
"Emil!" Vásquez shouted. "You gave me your word!"
"I have guaranteed this woman safe passage, sir," I told the Marshal.
"She'll have her passage," Marshal Warren said. "When I have Vásquez."
The Marshal drew his pistol.
"Emil!" Vásquez shouted.
I knew I had to act quickly before Vásquez shot us both down, leaving only George Gard hiding behind a wooden barrel and Jacob F. Jerkins standing helpless in the middle of the alley, while la Coneja made her escape.
I punched Warren in the face.
He dropped his pistol and let go of la Coneja's arm.
"Run," I told her.
And she ran to the mouth of the alley, turned the corner, and was gone.
Warren sat in the dirt, his hand to his nose.
"Goddamn you, Harris!" he shouted. "I will bring you up on administrative charges for that!" He turned to Jerkins. "Write him up on administrative charges!"
Jerkins scribbled angrily in his notepad.
I shrugged. "I did what I had to do," I said. "You do what you must."
"Thank you, Emil," Vásquez shouted.
Warren picked up his pistol and got to his feet. "Are you in league with this desperado?" he said, pointing to the window.
"Certainly not," I replied. "I resent the suggestion."
"You're a haughty one, Harris," Warren said, holstering his six-shooter. "We'll see if the Common Council's committee on police will take you down a notch or two when you go before them to answer charges of having assaulted your City Marshal!"
"What in hell is going on here, Warren?" shouted a voice from the mouth of the alley.
I turned and saw Special Officer Joseph Dye marching towards us, waving his walking stick in the air.
"Warren!" Dye shouted as he approached. "Are you attempting to take in the bandito without me and claim all the reward for yourself? Is that why you gave me the slip on Ord Street? What do you intend to do in regard to this matter? I want my money!"
"I don't want anything to do with you!" Warren replied.
"But you have defrauded me!" Dye said.
"You're a damned dirty liar!" Warren said.
Dye had reached us and raised his walking stick as if to bring it down upon Warren's head.
Although Warren had holstered his six-shooter, he raised his arm and fired a derringer pistol he had evidently concealed in his hand.
The shot struck Dye in the forehead but seemed to glance off his skull. Dye, stunned, put his hand to his forehead and stared in amazement at the blood on his palm when he took his hand away.
The two men looked at each other, murderously, teeth bared.
Seeing what was coming, I dove out of the way.
The two men drew and emptied their pistols at one another. Neither man was a very good marksman, and bullets flew in all directions, all over the alley. I saw one smash a lantern. I saw another explode into the dirt right near my own head. I heard the sound of another smash into the barrel behind which George cowered. I heard a tinkle of glass from the window where Vásquez looked down upon us, and wondered if he had been hit. I saw the hat on Jerkins' head fly off with a hole in its brim.
"I am killed!" Warren shouted, suddenly.
I got to my feet and found Warren on the ground, one hand holding his groin, the other dry firing at Dye, who stood above him, dry firing back at Warren.
Jerkins stood to one side, aghast but uninjured.
I strode to Dye and punched him in his jaw, knocking him to the ground.
George stood beside me then, pointing his Whitney at Dye.
"Hell and damnation," George said. "The two of them have made a bloody mess of things."
Warren was moaning, holding his wound, which was bleeding quite freely.
Dye looked up at me, enraged. "I'll teach you to hit me, you damn dirty Jew," he said.
"You don't have to teach me," I said. "I already know how."
Then I picked up Dye's walking stick and broke it across his crown, thereby subduing him so we could take him into custody for shooting the Marshal and also so I would no longer have to listen to him shout oaths and epitaphs and insults at our persons.
I instructed George to shackle Dye to a post so he could not flee, and commanded Jerkins to find a surgeon for Warren with the most urgent dispatch, for he would surely die of his wounds if they were not attended to with all possible alacrity.
Then I retrieved my pistol and my Henry and started towards the adobe.
"Where are you going?" George asked.
"I'm going to take Vásquez into custody," I said.
"But he will surely kill you, Emil," George said.
"Well, let's hope for the best, then," I said.
I jacked the lever on my Henry and marched to the front door of the adobe. I kicked it open and entered the first floor, sweeping first right and then left. Satisfied Vásquez was not on the first floor, I climbed the stairs to the second.
The glass in the window from which Vásquez had called to us was indeed smashed, but Vásquez was not in the room.
I rushed to a door at the back of the room. It led out onto a small, wooden landing, and a set of stairs that led to another alley behind the house.
At the end of the alley, I saw Vásquez, running. He had thrown on a shirt, but it hung loose and open and billowed about him as he ran.
I took aim with the Henry.
Vásquez, at the mouth of the alley, stopped, turned to me, and tipped his sombrero.
The gesture was so unexpected that I hesitated.
And then he was around the corner and gone.
Tiburcio Vásquez had escaped.
* * *
George helped carry Warren to the surgeon's and then dragged a shackled Dye to the city jail, while I returned to contend with Three-Fingered Jack.
Back at Pico House, Jack was snoring, still beside Sadie Margolis, also sleeping. Jack was still shackled to the bed.
I felt suddenly very tired. I sat down heavily on the mattress beside Sadie, taking a deep breath.
"Hello, Emil," she said, again in Yiddish. "Did you capture Vásquez?"
I told her I had not.
I was still perplexed by my failure to pull the trigger when I had him dead-to-rights. I supposed while I would happily have taken him in, killing him, while it may have been within my rights as a lawman . . . it simply did not feel right.
However, I said none of this to Sadie.
"Are you here for Jack, then?" she asked.
I told her I was.
She regarded him sadly as he lay there snoring. "Do you suppose they will hang him?"
I shrugged and confessed my ignorance. "It depends on how Judge Widney is feeling that day, I suppose," I said.
"He's not a bad sort, Jack," Sadie said. "His breath is sweet for a desperado, and he bathes whenever he gets into town."
"Perhaps the judge will have mercy on account of his good hygiene," I said, and yawned.
"Here, lie down," she said, patting the mattress beside her. "Jack's not going anywhere."
I was tempted, but attempted resistance. "I think that would be compromising, Sadie," I said.
"I promise I won't compromise you in any way," Sadie said. "I won't even touch you. I'll just lie here beside you."
The invitation seemed too good to pass up. I removed my boots and stretched out on the bed beside Sadie, who stretched out beside Jack, who snored.
"You just catch some winks and dream sweet dreams and when you awake, Jack will be right here, waiting for you to take him to jail," said Sadie.
* * *
I was asleep before I knew it and I did dream, but I don't know if my dreams were sweet.
I dreamed it was Pesach, or Passover, and I was just opening the door to symbolically invite inside the prophet Elijah.
And standing at my doorstep was Tiburcio Vásquez.
I told him he made a surprising manifestation of the prophet Elijah.
He agreed, and then asked me if it were not true that on Passover, every Jew had an obligation to feed those in want who came to their doors.
I admitted that it was true.
He asked me if I was going to invite him inside, then.
I did, and we sat down at my dining table with Sadie, Diego, la Coneja, George, and Three-Fingered Jack.
And together we ate the Pesach meal, and promised to meet next year in Jerusalem.
Peter Ullian's post-apocalypse, post-pandemic, near future neo-Western, The Last Electric House, is published
by Swamp Angel Press. He is the author of short stories that have appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine, Hardboiled
Magazine, Frontier Tales Magazine, and the DAW Books Anthology Star Colonies. He was the 2019-2020 Poet
Laureate of Beacon, New York. His poetry has been published in anthologies and periodicals and nominated for the
hysling Award and the Pushcart Prize. "Dreaming of Pesach with the Last Bandito" is the first story in his projected
historical fiction series inspired by real-life Jewish lawman of the 19th century Western Frontier.
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The Lone Rider
by Ralph S. Souders
It had been a typical Tuesday afternoon in Culverton, three weeks before my fourteenth birthday. The summer had been hot and dry. The wind was blowing a fine dust through the town and everyone and everything felt warm and grimy. The farmers were hoping for rain as they struggled to protect their crops in the fields. The ranchers had already moved their herds to the north where the grasses were still green and the water more plentiful. Nobody expected to see the cattle return before late autumn.
Only a few men remained in the area. The cowboys and the ranch hands had left with the cattle herds and would not be back for a while. The merchants still opened their shops, but business was slow. Except for these businessmen, it seemed as though only women and children populated the town. A few teenage boys such as I were there but we were kept busy helping in the fields or doing various chores around town. It had not been a fun summer.
Late that afternoon, I heard the sound of a lone rider as his horse sauntered into town at a very slow gait. Its hoofs made a distinctive sound as they came in contact with the dry, unpaved street. Being curious, I looked out from inside the general store where I had been sweeping and I saw the rider as he approached. His appearance and his demeanor frightened me.
The rider was wearing dark clothes that were covered with dust. He had obviously been on the trail for many days. There were sweat stains under his arms and around the inner rim of his black hat. A faded, red bandana was tied around his neck. His leather boots were worn and would need replacing soon. A Colt .36 caliber handgun rested in a holster against his hip while a rifle was secured inside a scabbard hanging on his horse directly behind his saddle next to the saddlebags. The rider was smoking a cigarette that he had rolled himself.
As the man arrived at the saloon next door, he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. He glanced at the general store, and he saw me staring out at him. The cold expression never left his face.
"Hey kid, come here," he called to me.
Obediently, I walked outside and stood beside him. I'll never forget how bad he smelled. It was awful.
"Can you take care of my horse?" he asked. "He needs water and oats. He also needs a good wiping down."
"Sure, I can do it," I replied.
The stranger tossed me a five-dollar coin. "Will that cover it?" he asked.
"Yeah, this is plenty," I informed him.
"Good," he said. "Get right on it. I want to leave in thirty minutes."
"Okay," I said. "I'll take care of him. He'll be waiting for you when you're ready to leave."
"See that he is," admonished the rider. "I don't like to be kept waiting."
As I untied the horse and led him to the barn up the street, I saw the man enter the saloon. My instincts told me to service his horse and to have him back in front of the saloon on time. I didn't want to anger this guy. I didn't want any unnecessary problems.
Twenty-five minutes later, the freshly fed and relaxed horse was untied and ready for the rider. I was holding the reins in my hand as I stood outside the saloon's front doors. Suddenly, I heard loud voices and then the sound of gunfire as it erupted inside. Although I quickly counted four shots, my count was interrupted and lost as a stray bullet exited the building through the swinging doors and hit me directly in my right knee. The pain was excruciating. I released the horse's reins and collapsed to the wooden boardwalk. The horse didn't run away. My knee was bleeding badly, and I felt as though I was going to faint.
A woman walking nearby screamed and immediately ran to get the doctor. He arrived at the saloon within a few minutes. He had just begun to examine my wound when the stranger walked through the swinging doors and came outside. He saw me lying on the boardwalk.
"Take care of the kid," he instructed the doctor. "There are two others inside. You can't help them. They're already dead."
The doctor was horrified to hear this. "Somebody get the sheriff!" he shouted to the small crowd that had quickly assembled.
"It's too late," replied the stranger without emotion. "He's lying on the saloon floor."
With that said, the rider mounted his horse. He sneered at the townsfolk and then slowly rode away in the opposite direction from which he had come. With the sheriff dead and few men in town, no attempt was made to form a posse and chase after him. He made a clean escape and was never apprehended. To this day, he remains unidentified and the crime unsolved.
Shortly thereafter, I lost consciousness. When I awoke. I was lying on a cot in the doctor's office with my leg heavily bandaged. My mother was there. She was crying. I knew that my wound had to be serious when she allowed the doctor to give me whiskey in an attempt to dull the terrible pain. The doctor believed that he could save my leg and ultimately, he did. Nevertheless, my knee was badly damaged and much of its natural bendability was lost. This would never be regained. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life. All in all, I consider myself to be very lucky.
Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels, Hans Becker's
Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. A native of the Chicago area, he has also lived in South and
Central Florida, Upstate New York and East Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. After
graduation, he worked almost exclusively in executive positions in the American subsidiaries of German manufacturing
companies. There he wrote hundreds of business letters, and this is how he believes he honed his writing skills. Today
he is happily married to his wife of thirty-four years. They are now retired and live in Middle Tennessee.
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by Russell Richardson
The two bandidos abandoned their dead horse and wagon, and they began to cross the desert. Their bent backs carried heavy canvas bags whose fabric bulged with the spoils of a robbery. Rather than their burdens, however, the smaller man complained about a previous grievance.
"Eduardo," said Juarez, "I think we were lied to about that banker. I don't believe those guards just happened to be at his home. I think he knew we were coming."
A giant at almost seven feet tall, Eduardo plodded along with a tense expression on his face. His gray shirt, unbuttoned to his navel, exposed chest hair and his ball-shaped belly. Aggressive flies buzzed around his damp, lank hair and his glistening beard. "It doesn't matter. We got away."
"But Eduardo, Carlo was captured. Our horses were shot. The barn burned! That nag was the only thing left to pull a wagon, and it didn't last long. A goat would have been better. A dog, even!"
Eduardo stopped to scrutinize the distance. He chewed his chapped lips, gripped the strap that looped his shoulder, and resumed his grueling course.
"Silencio," snarled the giant. "We got the money. We're rich!"
Juarez's wet mustache drooped like a limp animal pelt. He was a slim specimen of human jerky who struggled to match his companion's strides. "It felt like a set-up," he mumbled.
"Don't be stupid," was Eduardo's only reply.
They slogged across the blistered land. Intermittent cacti made the earth seem like a great, sleeping insect. Juarez raised his hand to his brow and searched the shimmering expanse for a marker. "You're sure we're headed toward your cousin's house?"
Often, Juarez checked the horizon behind them, too. "No posse, yet," he would report. Once, he added, "I knew Carlo could be trusted not to talk."
"Trust," said Eduardo, as if the word were dubious.
Juarez asked his stone-faced partner: "You disagree?"
Eduardo upheld his steady pace. "You see no posse and believe Carlo has been loyal. To me, no posse means he's dead. They gave him no chance to talk." He stared ahead, into the sun's glare. "We're different, you and me."
"Not so different," said Juarez.
"If you believe that Carlo would not sacrifice us to save himself, we're different," said Eduardo.
Juarez frowned. "I've known Carlo since childhood." He blinked against sweat. "Twenty-five years. Like brothers."
Eduardo shrugged. "I knew him six months. It took thirty seconds to see he'd confess under pressure." He gave a sharp backward glance.
"Careful," said Juarez. His eyes were black. "My friend risked a lot for us—"
"And if you were caught, you'd confess, too," said Eduardo. "Now shut up. Save your energy, perrito."
They trudged on. A buzzard circled above them, a dark shape swooping against the nondescript whiteness. As the day passed the midway point, Juarez's hunger demanded attention, but he reserved his complaints. Eduardo had no patience for them.
Juarez's obsidian eyes scanned the sprawling, mummified earth. The man's small, leathery hands swiped the sweat from his forearms. Heat and worry made him perspire. What if the federales pursued them still? Their two pistols and remaining ammunition were insufficient against a posse that would stubbornly endure this southwestern desert to avenge their slain comrades. And if the posse didn't kill the bandidos, a judge would.
From time to time, Juarez made fretful noises, little bird chirps. Eduardo ignored the pathetic sounds as long as possible. Finally, he asked, "What?"
"I never killed a man before," said Juarez. "That deputy shot at me. It was self-defense."
Eduardo offered only more unbearable silence.
Juarez asked, "Ever killed a man before today?"
Eduardo shrugged. "Just a man?"
"Men, women, kids. Anybody?"
"Yes," said Eduardo, as casually as he waved his hand at the flies that swarmed him.
Juarez slowed, then hastened his pace, tottering nervously. He stayed a few feet from the remorseless killer. "Carlo didn't mention that about you when he arranged the job."
"Maybe he planned to," muttered Eduardo, "but he got shot first."
Juarez looked for whatever distant spot transfixed Eduardo's gaze. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders, but the straps bit down upon him painfully. "You wouldn't kill me though?" he asked meekly.
"Not without good reason," Eduardo replied.
They went on across the caked earth, each step disturbing dry dust plumes, their sweat-soaked shirts hanging like rags. Juarez patted his forehead with his shirttails. "Hey. I think we make a good team."
"Right," said Eduardo.
The sun tortured the men. They stopped at a rock outcrop—large, gritty boulders protruded from the dirt to form a basin—and sat on opposing stones. Juarez nursed sips from his canteen.
Eduardo reached into his bag and scowled. He rooted around inside, closed the flap, folded his hands upon the bag, and sat in silence.
"Where's your canteen?" asked Juarez.
"Must be at the wagon."
Juarez laughed callously. "Oh, man!" He wiped an eye. "That is muy malo for you. Oh, man. How could you forget that?"
Eduardo stared ahead. His jaw flexed. "Give me some," he said.
"Lucky for you," said Juarez, holding up his container. Its dented metal glinted sunlight and sweated tiny droplets. "Mine's pretty full."
Eduardo's eyes crawled over Juarez. "Give," he said.
Juarez raised a finger. "It'll cost you. Say . . . one bundle for one drink?"
Eduardo, expressionless, mulled this proposition. He threw a bundle of bills that bounced off Juarez's chest. The smaller man tossed the container and snatched up the bundle.
The giant caught the canteen and drank long and deep.
Juarez shook his head when he got back his water and weighed the canteen. "That was two bundle's worth," he said.
As they shuffled across the rolling landscape, the sun descended the sky. Juarez became anxious about the oncoming night. They had no prospects for shelter, and the night harbored many threats.
"Don't coyotes worry you?" he asked. He searched the ground for animal markings.
Eduardo stared at the far off, hazy scrawl of earth.
"Maybe you're not concerned because I'm the little guy," said Juarez. He spat. "They'll eat me first."
A smirk cracked Eduardo's sun-blasted face. "Not enough meat for the trouble."
As Juarez's spirits fell, Eduardo's rose. "Maybe they'll take you in," he growled at Juarez. "You're a scrawny dog. Maybe you'll be a big dog's bitch?"
Juarez smoldered in uncommon quiet about his cohort's bitter humor. Eduardo simply chuckled to himself.
They hadn't traveled far when Juarez needed to rest again. He brought out his canteen, drank, and then gestured it toward Eduardo. From his bag, the giant produced another bundle that he tossed to Juarez's feet. The small man passed him the canteen and stashed the money away. The two men sat on the dirt.
Juarez panted and fanned tiny flies from his face. "You're sure your cousin is waiting? It's getting late. I don't want to spend a night in the desert."
"He'll be prepared for us," said Eduardo.
The bleached earth blended into the white sky without demarcation as the sun drew closer to sunset. Juarez shifted and asked, "You spoke to him?"
Eduardo held the canteen while watching Juarez. "Not today," he said, sarcastically.
"Then how are you sure?"
Eduardo took a slug from the canteen. "Intuition. I'd sense if there were problems."
Juarez rolled his head. "That's not reassuring."
Eduardo said, "Reassuring you is not my job."
"But we're partners."
An exaggerated smile broadened Eduardo's face. He had pale pink gums and dagger teeth.
Juarez grunted and wrenched back his canteen. "Enough water for you."
"Partners," Eduardo muttered.
Later, they spotted a lizard, a big dragon monster, perched on a boulder. With his eyes trained upon the prehistoric creature, Juarez unshouldered his bag.
"Dinner," he muttered.
Eduardo grunted. He stood and watched Juarez creep toward the prey. Juarez, now bareback, stretched his shirt between his hands as a net. Eduardo cackled when Juarez dove and emerged from a dust cloud, empty-handed. The lizard raced away and vanished in the dust.
When he returned to where he had discarded his bag, Juarez cursed Eduardo.
"I don't see you trying," muttered Juarez.
Eduardo opened his mouth to retort but froze. Juarez followed his gaze.
Poised on the ground in front of the larger man was a brown scorpion. It was the lethal, Arizona Bark variety of the species. Immobilized by fear, Eduardo whispered, "Get it away."
It was Juarez's turn to laugh. He approached with a swagger. "That pipsqueak scares you, big man?"
The scorpion aimed its crescent tail at the behemoth. Eduardo moaned quietly, while sweat drained from his forehead. "Get it away!"
"O.K., O.K." Juarez bunched his shirt for extra padding, bent over the tiny assassin, and, in one swoop, pinned the arachnid under the cloth. He lifted the balled shirt with the scorpion inside and gestured toward Eduardo.
"Give it a kiss?" he taunted.
Eduardo was unamused and began marching forward. Juarez called, "Hey, wait for me."
It took Juarez a few minutes to retrieve his bag and catch up.
"Don't leave me behind," he said. "We're in this together."
"Water," grunted Eduardo, extending his hand.
Juarez shook his canteen and gave Eduardo an eyeball. "Sorry, amigo. Getting low. The price is double."
Eduardo stopped. He dropped two bundles into the dirt and yanked the canteen into his possession. While he drank, Juarez stuffed the money into his bag and said, "How much farther to your cousin's house now? The sun is setting."
Eduardo dropped the canteen to the ground where it clanged, hollowly. He pointed at a distant spot. "That way. A few more miles."
"We're getting nowhere," grumbled Juarez. He bent to collect the canteen. Its lightness startled him. "Damn you!" he cried.
Eduardo dropped another bundle to the ground to pay for the water he had finished.
Onward they traveled, growing more dehydrated. Both men struggled beneath their heavy bags—especially Juarez, whose bag had gained a small fortune from his water enterprise. Without the water, however, the money was merely a hardship that lost value with each difficult footstep. Juarez browbeat his companion for exhausting their resource. His hunger intensified. Juarez fretted anew that they would never reach their destination, the sanctuary prepared for them by Eduardo's cousin.
The night came. At least its coolness brought relief from the heat. The two men lay on the desert floor with their bags as pillows under their heads. They spoke not at all, except for one snide aside from Eduardo: "I bet you wouldn't mind a posse finding us now."
The sun rose. The travelers limped onward. By noon, Juarez fell to the ground. His insides twisted with cramps, and he felt lightheaded. He gazed up at Eduardo, who towered over him and regarded Juarez with dim curiosity.
"Are you finished?" Eduardo asked.
"I'm dying," said Juarez, paralyzed by pain on the ground. His limbs trembled. "How . . . are you . . . still standing?"
Eduardo smiled cruelly and retreated a few steps. From his bag, he produced his heavy canteen, which he flaunted for Juarez.
"Guess I had water after all," said Eduardo, smiling.
Juarez gasped a soundless scream. He flopped to his belly and clawed forward, raking the earth, trying to reach Eduardo.
The big man stepped backward, like a teasing matador. He lofted the canteen high and slurped. Water spilled down his face and chest.
Juarez crawled by inches toward the man, but the effort was futile. Eduardo clucked his tongue and took up Juarez's bag from the dirt. He propped it against his own. Sitting on the bags, he listened to Juarez gasp and sputter curses and prayers, until, within the hour, the small man became silent.
Eduardo went to Juarez's side and toed his ribs. Then he returned to the bags. Together they were too much to carry. He dumped the remaining bundles from his bag onto the ground. He threw half the stack at Juarez—a tribute for the dead. He took what was left and opened Juarez's bag, intending to combine the total. He reached inside—
—and was stung.
Juarez had kept the scorpion to guard his treasure.
In rapid succession, Eduardo felt the hot venomous stings upon his hands and wrist. Immediate pain sprung up his arm. He leaped to save himself and run—but where? With agony shooting into his torso, Eduardo knew the futility of running. He fell to his knees, collapsed onto his back. Pain made him writhe and begin to vomit. He laughed, maniacally, between his coughs and gags.
Eventually, he stiffened and died.
Not long afterward, Eduardo's cousin arrived on horseback. He stopped beside Juarez to collect the money scattered there. Then he came to Eduardo. The cousin kicked at the buzzards that had already begun to gnaw on the cadaver. He squatted to mutter a brief prayer over his kin and then lashed the fat bag to his saddle.
As his horse galloped in retreat across the desert, he fondled the bag at his hip. He couldn't believe his good fortune. He groped inside for a bundle of cash—
The scorpion was waiting for him.
Russell Richardson has written and published many short stories, illustrated a book of poetry, and created
children's books to benefit kids with cancer. His YA novel, Level Up and Die!
(www.levelupanddie.com) was published in April 2021.
He lives with his wife and sons in Binghamton, NY, the carousel capital of the world.
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