Gon Fer Gud Banthar
by Gerald DiPego
1. The Meeting
The creaking, rough-scarred door was opening slowly as a young woman leaned her face into the coolish morning, slowly bringing an old rifle to her shoulder. Even squinting, she was pretty-faced, and her body, covered to the ankles in a tattered garment that may have been a dress or a cut-and-sewn tablecloth, was slim. She was squinting because the coming rider was far off, like a lonely period on a large golden page. As she studied him, youth and experience were jostling for command of her face. She was called Pash.
The rider was a man, mounted on a smallish pinto and leading a mule burdened with packs. He was in the middle of his thirties and wore a blanket-like coat, a wide hat, cavalry trousers, dusty boots. The leather strap that belted his coat held a holster for his pistol, ammunition, and a knife in a fringed and decorated scabbard in the style of the tribes.
He had a beard as blond as the hair that poked from his hat, but it was close-cropped and tidy. He was sunburned and lightly freckled, and he was doing a queer thing for a person who was nearing a prairie home where a woman stood in its doorway aiming a rifle his way. He was smiling—big and bright as the early day, and he sent a shout ahead to the young woman, still 40 yards away, as he walked his mount closer. His name was Boyd Timms.
"Ho, the house! Greetings! I think I must be rocking in the arms of a dream, dear lady, instead of rocking on this boney, mis-jointed animal. Oh, my Lord, look at you! Are you real—in your tiny home out here, adrift like a ship on a windy ocean . . . What? What is that you are saying?"
The girl shouted back, "I said shut up! And come no farther or I will shoot you just to stop your talkin'! Jesusmary! Who are you and what in hell do you want?"
Boyd stopped his horse and lost his smile, looking affronted and massively disappointed.
"Why, Miss, I mean you no kind of harm, and if my tongue runs on, it is because I have spoken only to this horse and mule for three days, and they stubbornly refuse any discourse. Might you lower your weapon? I am saying please."
"Come on real slow," Pash said, "and tell me what you want, and keep in your mind that I can shoot the shell off a turtle."
Boyd's smile returned as he nudged his mount, and his ramshackle caravan slowly approached the home. "I have never done battle with a turtle, Miss, but I am no stranger to the firearm and once shot the eye out of a hurricane."
Pash giggled at that, unguarded laughter that somehow turned her prettiness into three seconds of aching beauty. She moved the barrel of her gun off the man, but did not ground the weapon. The sound of her laughter had skated over the distance to Boyd, causing a grin nearly as wide as the cloudless sky. He stopped his horse a dozen feet from her and slowly dismounted, stiff in every joint. As he smacked the dust from his clothes, his manner grew serious.
"I have a problem, Miss. I am afraid I need to make my water. It is urgent, and I see your outhouse is beyond my walking range at this moment."
Pash answered, "Just turn around and get to business."
Boyd recovered his grin and turned, saying, "I will do that, but do not think you can shoot me in the back while I am occupied, dear woman, because this horse will let me know your every move."
But the girl countered, "No she won't. She's on my side."
During the next ten minutes Boyd walked his animals into the wobbly corral, watered them, unsaddled the horse and unburdened the mule. He put aside his long rifle held in its leather, opened one mule pack and carried from there a wooden case as he came toward the house where Pash waited, her rifle hanging loosely, but still in her hand. While he had been unloading his mule, she had run a hand through her hair and corrected her posture. He approached her, a smile in his eyes that seemed warm and true.
"My name is Boyd Timms, Miss, and I wonder if I could sleep a few hours on your porch as long as your parents do not object. Might your father be at home?"
"My father's dead, may he rest in pieces, and I'm a missus. My name's Pash Banthar and my husband ain't here, and you won't be layin' about on any porch. You'll come inside and split a breakfast with me and sleep on a pallet tonight if you're stayin' over to rest. I ain't worried and can take good care of myself. You step in first. I don't trust you behind me yet."
Inside, they shared biscuits, churned butter, strong coffee and a wandering conversation.
"Your name . . . 'Pash'?"
"Short for Passion."
"Really. What a fine, no, a beautiful name. Did your mother . . . "
"The girls named me."
"Oh . . . your sisters?"
"Nope. My father sold me to a whore house when I was fourteen. Some of them girls mothered me, some sistered me and some were pure snakes.
"I . . . I am very, very sorry. Truly sorr—"
"Oh, to hell with men who are sorry. Sick of it. Dan Banthar wanted me all to himself, and I figured that's a better story: me in my own home with a man that don't beat me except when he's drunk and even then not nearly as hard as my father. I crack him in the face when he's drunk asleep, and I tell 'im in the morning that he just has to stop fallin' out of that bed."
Here she giggled again, a scale of notes running high. "Broke his nose twice! He's out huntin' for days. Sells the birds and meat to the store and the hotel in Mantry, so he ain't around to bother me much. Gets lonely, though." She stared a moment at the pity and sorrow she saw in his eyes and swatted at it. "You can stop lookin' so deep and troubled at me, Boyd Timms, and tell me about the world I'm missin' and tell me about yourself. Where you comin' from?"
He studied the girl and could not shake the pain he felt for her and the black anger for her husband. "This 'Banthar' is not a man, Pash. This is a snake with legs. Why not leave him far behind, and make another life?"
"Doin' what? Where? It's too many miles to anywhere but Mantry—back where I started from. Tell me something about you and have another biscuit and finish the coffee you didn't finish. Your pants tell me you was a cavalryman."
Boyd took his time, moving his mind away from Pash's troubles with great effort, like the action of giant gears and pulleys. "No. No, Pash, not a soldier, but I recently had some business at Fort Steel."
"Oh, hell, Fort Steel? Troopers would come from there into the whorehouse plenty of times, some of 'em awful wild. Two corporals had a fight over me once, a bad one, so I got a gun and fired it into the ceilin' yellin' 'The loser gets me!'" She gave Boyd a proud, bright-eyed smile. "Those fools stopped cold and didn't know what to do!"
She giggled again, and Boyd laughed loudly with his head thrown back in surprise and deep delight at this girl and the picture she had painted for him. His laughter ignited her, and she joined him until she had the breath to speak again.
"Now you! Go ahead! I need to hear somethin' else, somethin' . . . not me, somethin' new. You got that long rifle in the fancy case. You a hunter, too? Ever kill a bear? Ever kill a man? Tell me."
He rocked a bit on his chair legs. "Well . . . Pash . . . a Comanche warrior once hit me with an arrow, and I shot him off his horse. I don't know if the man expired because I fled the field with my friends and never looked back."
Pash stared deeply a moment. "Where'd that arrow hit you?"
"I cannot discuss that with a lady."
She smiled, then her eyes widened with a thought. "He unmanned you?!"
"No . . . he put a hole in my caboose."
Pash laughed loudly and banged the table with her hand so that the cups danced, and Boyd was thankful that he, at least, had given her that.
"So you're an Indian fighter."
"No—it was just one brief skirmish between the Comanche and the Utes. I was with the Utes.
"I lived with the Utes on and off for two happy years. A fine people. I appreciated their friendship and they appreciated my work."
"Showing them just what I saw when I looked at their faces."
While she was wondering, Boyd opened his wooden case and carefully lifted from it a sheet of stiff paper, blank on one side, and when he turned it, Pash saw the painting of a Ute woman staring at her, half smiling, saw her hair and upper dress, saw her eyes and into her eyes and the living humanity there, and it caused Pash to capture her breath and hold it still, and the room and the day were also still for several heartbeats.
"You done that? It looks like she's gonna talk any minute! Like I know her. Goshall, Boyd."
"It is what I do, Pash." He pulled another unframed painting from his case, a Ute man, strong, with stories in his eyes, and Pash, again, marveled.
"Look at that! Was he the chief?!
"No, a close friend."
"And . . . you go around sellin' these? Bet you sell a bunch!"
"There is a gallery in the states where they sell, in Chicago, and some are in a book and some in museums. Before the Utes, I painted the Osage in Missouri. I'm traveling to the railroad now, to Laramie and on to Illinois, to bring these to the gallery.
She held the paintings carefully, finger and thumb on the very edges and studied again. "We had some paintin's in the house and in the bar below but nobody seemed like they was gonna step right off the paper." She handed the pictures to him very carefully. He took them and was replacing them in the case when he said it.
"I'd like to paint you, Pash, if you allow."
"Me? You mean . . . now? Here? Put me on the paper?"
He nodded and Pash lit the surrounding countryside and Boyd's heart with her wonder and her smile.
2. The Interruption
After nearly two hours, all of this was exploded by sound and swift motion as the door was kicked fully open and Dan Banthar was swinging the butt of his rifle into the head of a half-rising and wildly surprised Boyd Timms, who flew back into his easel, splashing the paints into the face of Pash as she reared back, breaking the unstable chair and landing on the floor. Boyd, too, lay on his back, stunned, his foggy sight showing Banthar pointing a rifle at his heart.
Banthar now stared wildly at his young wife who was splattered by a dozen colors and lay on the floor shouting at him.
"He was paintin' me, Dan!"
Banthar was shocked by this statement, his mouth fully open as he studied his many-colored wife and then shifted his crazed look to Boyd, shouting "Why?! Why'd you put paint on my wife, you crazy bastard?!"
Pash was trying to rise. "No, Dan. He was paintin' me! Like—"
Banthar aimed his rifle at Boyd's forehead now. "Paintin' on women, you crazy fool! What else did you do to her?!"
"Dan!" Pash untangled herself from the broken rocker. "Don't!" Boyd was slowly rising to his knees, his consciousness unable to fully come to roost.
Banthar pushed the muzzle of his hunting gun closer to him, shouting, "I heard you from outside sayin' 'Don't move, don't move, Pash—'"
"He paints people, Dan!"
"That's plain crazy," Banthar screamed, as Boyd was slowly standing, swaying, his eyes foggy.
"Don't shoot him!" Pash moved beside Boyd. "Don't!"
"Shut up!" Banthar shouted. "I'll deal with you later! Get yourself away from this woman-painter! I'm gonna blast him!"
Boyd's vision was clearing, though he still tilted. His words were mush. "Mr. Banthar . . . I was trying . . . to capture Pash's—
"Capture her?! I'll kill you where you stand, you—"
"Dan! You can't shoot him!"
"Cause it was me he done it to, and I should be the one to shoot him down! Here! Wait . . . !" She moved quickly to a blanket on a shelf and from its folds drew an enormous Navy Colt pistol, turning it toward Boyd and cocking the weapon as she held it with both hands and pointed it at his chest. "I'm gonna do it, Dan! Not you!"
Boyd was blinking in wonder, staring at this young woman who had upon her all his chosen colors and held, along with a heavy pistol, all the love in his heart.
"Then shoot!" Banthar shouted.
"Watch him so he don't move, Dan!" And when Banthar's eyes flicked toward Boyd, Pash shot her husband. The explosion seemed to lift the home and shake it, the man knocked back into a corner and losing the rifle and falling to the floor, as Boyd's mouth dropped and Pash stood there in the smoke from her weapon, wide-eyed at the figure on the floor. Boyd's open mouth and the smoke from the pistol and Pash's hard-focused stare seemed to last beyond all time. Then Boyd walked to Banthar's crumpled form and knelt there, and Pash, not able to speak until then, asked "Is he mortified? I aimed for his shoulder."
Boyd was inspecting the man's wound. "Your shot broke his arm."
She came to stand over Boyd. Her husband's eyes were closed. He was twitching. "He'll be riled," she said. "He'll be awful riled."
Boyd's long sigh seemed to take in every moment of this amazing day. Then he spoke. "No. No, Pash . . . not riled. I believe . . . your husband is suffering an attack, a heart attack."
It took only seconds, and then Daniel Banthar no longer existed. Boyd rose, steady now, though his head throbbed like an engine. He stared at Pash, then took the heavy revolver from her hand. She remained staring at the dead man who had abused her, but had taken her from a whorehouse to a home. She felt an ache, but no tears.
"It's me that done it," she said, "made him die."
"What you did, Pash, is save a life. My life. That is what you did, and only winged your husband, who then died of natural causes, and that is the bottom truth of it. Do you know the sheriff in Mantry?"
"The sheriff? Sure, he owns half the whorehouse and he and Banthar were thick." They stared a moment, then she added, "You best sit down."
While Pash applied cold well water to Boyd's throbbing head, she sent her mind ahead to the future. "What if the sheriff comes lookin' for 'im, for the huntin'? What do I say?"
"You best not be here. Pash, why stay? Leave this place, and I will take you wherever you want to go."
"I don't know where to go."
"Come with me. We'll travel far from here, and then you can make up your mind. It would be an honor to have you with me."
"It would?" Her question seemed to erase all other sound.
Boyd made sure he had her eyes, and he nodded. "It truly would."
A smile came trembling to her face, small and broken. Then she turned again toward the corner where the body lay. "What about . . . ?"
Boyd sighed again, long and heavy, then asked the question."Pick and shovel?"
"Under the porch."
3. The Stranger
"Shit," she said.
Boyd left the porch, saying "Come with me."
They walked to the corral, and Boyd dipped into one of the mule packs and pulled from there a slender telescope. He put it to his eye and found the rider in the glass, adjusting the instrument and then handing it to Pash. She faltered at first and then brought a large man on a large horse into focus. Boyd asked, "Know him?"
"Nope. But he's comin' from the direction of Mantry." Boyd removed his rifle from its leather, cocked it and held it at his side. They looked at each other for a moment, her speckled with paint and him still carrying his headache, then they put their eyes back on the coming man and watched as he also took a rifle from its scabbard and held it across his horse as he came on.
"You are certain you never saw him, Pash?"
"Sure as rain."
Boyd had not heard that expression, but took its meaning and nodded. Then he said, "I'll be Banthar."
"You will?" He nodded, still watching the oncomer as Pash stared at him. "You don't look much like Banthar and you sure don't talk like Banthar, y'know?"
"I will try it."
"What if he knows Banthar?"
"Have you ever played poker, Pash?"
They walked out of the corral and stood waiting as the large man came to them with no hurry, still carrying his rifle crossways in front of him. He was powerful looking, though quite overweight. His slack and shaven face was without greeting and his eyes were hard on Boyd, who spoke, attempting the vernacular.
"Why'd you uncase that rifle, Mister?"
"I come here to kill Dan Banthar."
Pash opened her mouth without any words, and Boyd stared, thinking hard, and then asked "Why?"
"That's my business," said the man.
"My business, too," said Boyd. "I'm Banthar."
"No you ain't."
"Banthar's a bigger man, and you're a liar."
Pash said, "Don't you call him a liar. He just quit drinkin'."
Both men were stymied for a moment, then the big man asked "What?"
And Pash said, "That's how he lost the weight." Boyd picked up this idea.
"The whiskey was doing harm to our marriage and making me fat, like you."
The big man's eyes narrowed on Boyd, then shifted to Pash. "Why she painted like that?"
"She's part Ute, and we're finished talking here."
"No we ain't. Banthar's a taller man. I seen him once, and you ain't him."
Boyd hesitated for two more seconds. "Ever hear of Cross boots?"
"They have extra tall heels, puts more height on a man. Had to give them up because they hurt my ankles, so that makes me Dan Banthar and that means you're sitting on my property and threatening my life, and I'm allowed to shoot you in the heart."
Pash joined in here. "My man can shoot the eye out of a . . . blackbird, so you better give it up and go away."
The man kept his stare on Boyd. "So you're Banthar."
"That I am and true, so what?"
"So you hit my cousin with a bar stool last winter and that's why I'm here and that's why I'm gonna kill you." Their guns were not aimed, but each man moved a finger and found his trigger, while Boyd was thinking and Pash staring at him. He finally spoke.
"Did I kill your cousin?"
"No, but he didn't even know his name for a long time."
"He know it now?"
"Yeah, but you put him through a lot of pain, and he's got a dent in his forehead.
Boyd took another moment. "I was drinking then and don't remember that scuffle, but if he's above ground and able to walk and talk then you are not allowed to kill me. I hereby apologize for the bar stool incident."
"That won't clear it. He still has a dent in his head."
"Well . . . I'll tell you what: I'll pay him five dollars for the dent and pay you five dollars for your trouble coming here. Otherwise . . . lift that rifle and die."
Pash held her breath for the longest moment of her lifetime until the big man finally cracked the silence, shouting, "Ten! Ten dollars and no less! Each!"
Boyd turned to Pash. "Reach into my hip pocket, dear'un, and pull out a twenty-piece."
She did so and then approached the man and held out the coin in her hand, staring at him in visible triumph. The man took the money, and Boyd said, "Case that rifle," and the man slid his gun into its case, turned his horse and left in a slow gait, and they watched him shrink and disappear into the wide prairie.
"So, he will now go and spread this story," Boyd said.
"Like honey on bread," Pash added.
And Boyd finished with, "And Banthar will be alive to the whole world." They turned then, walking to the house.
"What's that you called me," she asked, "when you sent me for the money?"
"Oh, 'dear 'un.' It's what my grandfather called my grandmother. 'Dear one'. Do you mind?"
She took his free hand as they walked. "Say it again?"
"Dear 'un." And he watched her smile grow as they went on, but then she turned on him with a darker thought. "But someday they'll come here for Banthar and his huntin', and . . . What'll the sheriff think? He gonna come after me?"
"We will be far, far gone, Pash. But to make sure, we'll have Banthar leave a message. Could he write?"
"Just some. Not much."
"We could carve it right into the wall."
"Yeah, carve it big, right over the fireplace. What'll it say?
Gon Fer Gud Banthar
Gerald DiPego is the author of five published novels, two stories and thirty produced screenplays. He lives in California's
Santa Ynez Valley, and looks back on years of horse-packing in the mountains of the West. www.geralddipego.com.
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by Stan Dryer
When half the men in town are away on the cattle drive, I usually get a chance to relax a bit. I was sitting on the boardwalk outside my office having a quiet smoke and thinking I might head down to The Lazy Mañana for lunch when I spied a horseman headed into town from the north. Even at a distance, I could tell he was riding hard. I got up and stretched. In the sheriff business, someone coming in a rush generally means trouble coming in a hurry.
The rider was young Ben Turgis. He and his sister Nancy were watching their father's ranch while their old man and their two ranch hands were off on the cattle drive. Nancy is around twenty, Ben, five or six years younger. Since their mother died four years ago, Nancy has been handling the business end of the ranch and raising Ben in the bargain.
Ben pulled up his horse in front, slid out of the saddle and threw the reins around the hitching rail. He was a tall young man, dressed like one more cowpuncher. He came over to where I was standing. "Sheriff," he said, "if you burn down someone's house, is that a hanging offense?"
"I think it's called arson. If they catch you for doing it, do you hang?"
"I don't think so," I said. "If I caught such a varmint, I'd lock him up and he'd go to trial. Probably go to prison for ten years plus. Of course if the person whose house he burned down got to him first, there might not have to be a trial. What the hell is this all about?"
"Sis and I were over at the schoolhouse for a couple of hours. When we got back, someone had set our house on fire. It was too far gone. Just had to watch it burn."
"And your sister wants me to go after the men who did it?"
"No. She's gone after them. I want you to go after her and stop her before she kills whoever did it."
Who would do this? I thought, and Steve McLeelan came instantly to mind. He owned the spread next to the Turgis land and had been pushing to buy them out for years with niggardly offers of half what the property is worth. Rumor had it he had just hired the Taggart brothers and their worthless cousin Wayne. You didn't hire those three to run a kindergarten.
"We'd better get going," I said. "Your sister may be in big trouble."
Ben smiled. "No, she'll take care of herself."
"Come on," I said, "let's round up a posse."
We headed down to the Lazy Mañana. I pushed open the swinging doors and stood for a moment letting my eyes get accustomed to the darkness of the place. Then I did my usual quick sweep of the room to see if any of the faces of the men seated behind their drinks matched the pictures on the wanted posters hanging in my office. I noted a couple of faces that should have been on one of those posters, but no actual matches.
"There he is," I said. Ben followed me over to the table where Injun Yano was seated. He was sound asleep with his head down on his hands. He was obviously sleeping off his current drunk.
"Mug of coffee," I shouted to Carlos who was behind the bar. "Make it quick."
Injun Yano had wandered into town some three months ago. He was thought of by most of the residents of Dustville as our pet drunken Indian, a savage tamed into stupidity by fire water. I knew differently. He probably drank because the world made him an outcast. No one but me would hire him thanks to the color of his skin. I happened to know he was, when sober, the best tracker in the whole county. His ability to smell out an ambush had saved my skin just a month before.
Carlos brought over a big mug of hot coffee and I set it in front of Yano. I grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him awake. "Yano," I said, "we need your help to track down some bad white men."
Yano blinked awake. "Which bad white men?" he said.
"We'll know when you find them." I pointed to the chair next to him and said to Ben, "Have a seat. Make him drink that coffee. Don't let him go back to sleep."
I figured we needed at least one more gun so I headed over to the poker table where a half-dozen men who were too lazy or smart to have gone on the cattle drive were seated.
"Someone burned down the Turgis place," I said. "I'm rounding up a posse to track them down. Anyone interested?"
No one answered. It looked as if anyone smart enough not to go on a cattle drive was smart enough not to volunteer to get shot at.
Finally Noflush Watson spoke. He was a runt of a cowboy who had earned his nickname in a game long ago where he had bluffed a professional gambler out of close to a hundred. Unfortunately, things had gone downhill for him since then. While Noflush was a hopeless gambler, I knew he could be trusted to stand with me in a showdown. There had been a couple of times I'd seen him take gambles in a gunfight that I wouldn't have gone near.
"Sheriff," Noflush said, "I sure would like to go along on your man hunt, but I just lost my revolver to Jake." There was, in fact, a revolver sitting on the pile of chips in front of Jake.
Jake picked up the revolver and pushed it across the table to Noflush. "For the purpose of seeing justice rendered, I'm loaning you back your gun." He grinned, revealing his three missing front teeth set in a face way beyond ugly.
Everyone but Noflush burst into laughter. I wasn't disappointed in my recruiting effort. "Let's go," I said to Noflush. "You haven't also lost your horse?"
"No." He rose reluctantly. I waved to Ben. He pulled Yano to his feet and steered him after us out the door.
It took us about a half hour to get the gear together, rent a horse for Yano and dole out a small arsenal of weapons. I didn't bother to try to talk Ben into staying behind. I'd just have to make sure he didn't do anything foolish if we got into a gunfight.
We white men mounted up. Yano placed his hand on the horse's head, said something into its ear, then eased into the saddle.
* * *
There wasn't much left of the Turgis' house when we got to their spread. The barn was untouched. Yano slid off his horse and went out to do a wide sweep around the outskirts of the yard. He came back and looked at me. "Three horses come from road, leave to west. Maybe head for hills. Another horse follow them. Maybe sister of Ben. Maybe they shake white woman. Not shake Yano." He smiled at me, an evil little grin. I was very glad I wasn't one of those hombres he was about to track.
"Should we get going?" I asked.
"Wait. Yano have question. Why evil men not burn barn?"
I hadn't thought about it, but an answer came instantly to mind. "Probably whoever set this up figured he might be buying the property after the fire. Why burn down a useful barn?"
"McLeelan," said Yano. There was no love in that one word. I remembered there was a rumor around about how McLeelan's father had cleaned an Indian family off of a piece of real estate he wanted.
"Look," I said, "I don't want you killing anyone unless we get in a shootout. If there are going to be any accidental deaths, leave those to me."
"When you hang evil men, Yano watch?"
"Definitely. Front row seat."
Yano had seen something that interested him. He walked over to the corral fence, bent down and started to pick up what looked like old tin cans. He placed six of them side by side on the top rail of the fence.
Yano pointed to the cans. "All cans have bullet holes," he said. That was true. Each can had multiple bullet holes all of them clustered halfway between the can ends.
"My sister likes to shoot cans," Ben said.
"Long gun or hand gun?" said Yano.
"Revolver." Ben backed away from the fence a few feet and pointed his hand like a gun at the cans. "Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam," he shouted, moving his hand slightly to the side between each bam.
"She shoot from where you stand?" said Yano.
"Oh no. She likes to shoot from what used to be our front porch."
Yano looked over at the remains of the porch which was a good hundred feet away. He shook his head. "Coyote Woman," he said. "Come back in form of white woman."
"Is he insulting my sister?" Ben said to me.
"I don't think so," I said. "I think it's a compliment. He's saying he thinks your sister is some kind of Injun goddess."
"We go back to town now," said Yano. "Only fools burn home of Coyote Woman. All soon be dead fools."
"I kind of agree with you," I said, "but we white men are more civilized. We like to bury our dead proper." I knew if I didn't pick up the bodies and haul them back to town, Kalegg would be all over me. Kalegg is our town mortician and barber. The latter is sort of a free bonus. No one ever gets buried who isn't clean shaven.
The sun was getting a bit close to the western hills. "Let's get going," I said to my posse. "We'll go as far as we can with the daylight that's left."
Yano rode in front. Every now and then he would hang down off his moving horse with his face a foot off the ground, a move he had probably learned it in his youth practicing counting coup.
We covered over twenty miles before even Yano couldn't see the tracks. We were already in the beginning of the hills. We dry camped, built a fire and digested some of the canned beans I'd brought along, wet down by coffee out of my old battered pot.
After what passed for dinner, Ben came over to where I was sitting and dropped down beside me. "Can I talk to you man to man?" he said.
"Sure," I said, hoping it wasn't going to be all about how to get into the drawers of some fifteen year old girl he was besotted with.
"I got expelled from school because I punched Harry Mavis after he called my sister a bad name."
"How bad a punch?"
"Just one, but his nose bled a lot. Anyhow Miss Gallagher expelled me. So when I got home, Sis decided to go over to the schoolhouse and get me back in school."
"And while you were away, your house got burned down?"
"Yes. Sis's really angry with me. Says she doesn't know why she bothers to keep me in school seeing as how I hate it so much."
"Do you?" I said.
"Yeah. What's the use anyway? What good are penmanship and grammar and mathematics if you're going to be wrangling cattle?"
"That's all you want to do?"
"Sis keeps telling me I'll own the ranch someday, so that's what I'll be doing."
"Suppose you owned the ranch and McLeelan wanted to buy the place. You wanted to send him a letter saying he could stuff it up his ass, but you didn't want to use those words. Think you could write that letter?"
Ben thought that over for a while. "You mean like he reads the letter and gets pissed off but can't figure out why he's pissed?"
"Miss Gallagher did talk about that when we were reading some story. Implied meaning she called it."
"See what I mean?" I said.
"I guess so."
Yano stood up at this point. "Who watch camp?" he said.
"Bedtime," I said to Ben. "I'll take the first watch," I said to Yano, "you take over about midnight." Keeping watch was definitely necessary. When you're tracking varmints, sometimes the hunted will come back in the night and try to be the hunters.
Coming down the draw we'd camped in was the only clean way anyone could approach our campsite. I picked a couple of close together trees off to the side and blended into their shadow. There was a half-moon giving a bit of light. No one could slip by, no matter how soft-footed they were.
The only intruder that appeared was a coyote. He stopped halfway down the draw, sniffed the air, smelled sheriff and disappeared back the way he had come.
At close to midnight Yano materialized beside me. There had been no sight or sound to his approach. He was suddenly just there. "You know you give a person a bit of a fright with that Indian stealth shit," I said. "Couldn't you have kicked a stick by mistake or something?"
"Sorry," said Yano, "sometime it hard to learn white man's ways."
"All right," I said, "but if someone unfriendly shows up, none of this silent-kill Indian craft. You bring him back alive and healthy. No tying anyone down on an anthill either. Understand?"
"Yano never tie enemy on ant hill. Perhaps tie down someone for wolves to find. Never use ant hill." It was never clear with Yano how many of the nasty things he talked about he had actually done and how many he had read about in those copies of Western Truth Magazine he's been reading. I put a lot of blame on that mission school he says taught him how to read.
I went back to the remains of the campfire, crawled into my bedroll and was soon asleep.
It must have been close to three in the morning when a foot nudged me awake. "Here is alive and healthy bad white man," said Yano's voice.
I sat up and took a look. Yano had thrown a couple of logs on the embers of the fire. In the light of the new flames, there stood Yano pointing his rifle at Wayne, the Taggart brothers' cousin. His hands were tied behind his back.
"It ain't what it looks like, Sheriff," said Wayne. For a supposed tough hombre, there was a lot of fear in his voice.
"You're saying you weren't planning a little private midnight massacre?" I said.
"No. I was coming to give myself up. You gotta protect me Sheriff. That she-devil is coming for me. Take me in to town. Lock me up. Get someone to guard the cell. Keep her away."
"Well I don't know," I said. "I can't lock someone up unless they've committed a crime. You got any suggestions?"
"Yeah, of course. I did it. I helped the Taggarts torch the Turgis place."
"Well, that confession will get you locked up, but it won't provide any guard. You'll be all alone in your cell all night. Anyone could break in the back door of the place in the middle of the night and administer some lead poisoning. Now if we were protecting a witness before a trial that would be a different matter."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Wayne was not exactly an intellectual giant.
"You and your cousins obviously didn't decide to burn down the Turgis place just for the fun of it. Somebody put you up to it. Now if you were willing to say who that was at that person's trial, we'd have to guard you ahead of the trial."
Wayne was silent for a couple of minutes mulling over his options in what passed for a brain. Was he more frightened of McLeelan or Nancy?
I guess he finally decided it was McLeelan as he said, "Okay, just take me in and lock me up. No need to guard me."
"Okay," I said, "but I'm kind of wondering just why a big mean hombre like you should be so frightened by a slip of a girl."
"That's no slip of a girl. That is a she-devil."
"So what happened?" I said.
"When we were sure the house was really burning, the Taggarts and I took off. We'd been told to head for the hills until things cooled down. We made it up into the foothills until it got too dark and we made camp. We figured we'd shaken anyone following. We were about to sack in when Slim Taggart sees this light way off in the distance. Just a flicker, but still a light.
"We figured it was a campfire and someone was on our trail. Slim and Willie talked it over. Slim was for saddling up and seeing how far we could get in the dark. Willie was for going back and killing whoever was tracking us. Willie won out. He rode out. Slim and I waited. After about fifteen minutes there were three shots. After a short pause there were two more shots.
"We waited. Twenty minutes later Willie's horse came walking into the light from the fire. His saddle was empty."
"Then what did you do?" I said.
"That empty saddle made us right uneasy. We tried to figure out who was following us and decided it must be that Turgis girl. We were sitting there discussing what to do next when the coffeepot exploded."
"Well it sounded like an explosion. The pot was sitting on a stone next to the fire and someone shot it. It jumped and overturned into the fire. That she-devil girl was out there with a rifle and could shoot right accurate. Slim went loco. He jumped up, grabbed his saddle and threw it on his horse. Off he goes hell for leather up the trail we'd been following. He couldn't have gone a hundred feet when he lets out this ghastly scream and I hear a crash like a body falling."
"So what did you do?"
"I figured that she-devil was out there in front of us. No way was I going to check on what had happened to Slim. I saddled up and started back the way we had come. With any luck there would be a posse following the girl. Lucky I found you."
"Well," I said, "we can't do much tonight. We'll check things out tomorrow. We might as well turn in for the rest of the night."
Yano disappeared and returned a few minutes later leading Wayne's horse. We trussed up Wayne to keep him out of trouble and we all turned in.
We were off at dawn with Wayne on his horse with his hands tied in front. Yano picked up the trail and we followed. About five miles further up into the hills we came across an interesting scene. Next to the ashes of a campfire there was a large log with a bunch of rocks piled along one side. Maybe fifteen feet from the log lay the body of a man face down.
I dismounted, went over and turned over the body. "Is that Willie?" I said to Wayne.
Yano had dismounted. He came over and looked at the body, the log and the campfire. He looked over at Ben. "Your sister have Cheyenne blood?"
"No, of course not," said Ben. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Old Cheyenne trick." Yano pointed at the log. "Cover log with blanket. Looks like sleeping man. Bad hombre come softly. Fire gun into blanket to kill sleeping man. Coyote Woman come up behind bad man. Kill him."
"Self-defense," I said, "definitely self-defense."
We loaded the body onto the back of Wayne's horse. "Show us the way to where you camped," I said to Wayne.
It was about a quarter mile up to where Wayne and the Taggarts had camped. There in the ashes of the fire was the coffeepot with a bullet hole plumb in the center of one side. Yano disappeared into the scrub and came back in a couple of minutes leading a saddled horse, obviously Willie's. We transferred the body to that horse.
"Now which way did Slim ride?" I asked Wayne.
Wayne pointed to an opening in the scrub that led to an open trail. I walked where he pointed. A hundred feet ahead I came upon another body, this one with a head that looked like it had been half twisted off.
"That Slim?" I said to Wayne.
Yano looked at the body and then looked around at the trees next to the trail. "Your sister have Apache blood?" he asked Ben.
"Of course not," said Ben. "Why does he keep asking me if she's part Injun?"
"Old Apache trick," said Yano. He pointed at one large pine beside the trail and then at another across from it. "See bark torn there?"
Sure enough, by looking closely, I could see a faint line circling each of the trees where the bark had been roughed up.
"Tie rope across trail at height of neck of man on horse. Frighten man. He ride hard. Neck snap easy like woman break kindling for fire."
"Well," I said, "that's one explanation. However, it sounds like Slim did saddle up in kind of a hurry. Might not have cinched the saddle up tight."
I turned to Yano. "See if you can find the horse."
Yano disappeared again and returned with Slim's mount. The saddle was hanging sideways on the horse. "Looks like that's what happened," I said. "He fell off his horse and hit his head on the ground. Accidental death."
We loaded Slim's body onto the horse.
"Now," I said to Wayne, "We need one more bit of information. Just who put you up to burning the Turgis house?"
"I can't tell you that," whined Wayne. "My life wouldn't be worth shit if he found out I'd squealed on him."
"You see any anthills on your way up here?" I said to Yano. "Lively ones full of those big red ants?"
Yano looked over at Wayne and smiled. "One quarter mile back," he said. He spread his hands. "Bigger than man's body."
The light was beginning to dawn in Wayne's thick skull. "Wait a minute. You wouldn't turn me over to that Injun. That's inhuman."
"You bring honey?" Yano said to me.
"No, but I have the rest of the syrup we didn't use on the flapjacks this morning,"
"Okay, okay," Wayne was almost shouting. "It was McLeelan. He set up the whole thing."
"Guess we should head over to his spread," I said. "Yano, lead the way."
* * *
Three hours later we were on the road leading to the McLeelan ranch. As we approached, three riders came towards us, riding hard. I held up my hand and they stopped.
"What's going on?" I said.
"That devil woman. That's what's going on. Told us to go packing. We've worked there three years. Just like that. 'Go packing. You're not needed anymore.'"
"What did McLeelan have to say about your leaving?" I asked.
"Nothing. Couldn't say much what with her holding a gun on him."
"Better get on your way," I said.
They took off and were out of sight in a minute.
We rode on and stopped our horses facing the ranch house. There on the porch sat two figures in rocking chairs. On the left was Nancy dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. On the right sat a very unhappy McLeelan in his wealthy rancher shirt and bow tie but solidly roped to his chair.
"I was wondering when you'd get here," said Nancy, not moving the rifle she was pointing at McLeelan. "Time to get some answers."
She started to get up but was interrupted by McLeelan. "Awfully glad to see you, Noflush. I need your help."
That statement was puzzling. How could Noflush help him?
"Good to see you, Sir," said Noflush in a voice that totally belied that statement.
"I'm calling in my chips," said McLeelan. "Please ask this young lady to untie me."
Suddenly all was clear. I had wondered why Noflush could keep losing big time at the poker table. McLeelan had been funding him. I wondered just how much this loser must owe the rancher.
"Just do as I ask," said McLeelan, "and your debt is cancelled. All square and even."
"Yes, Sir," said Noflush. He drew his gun and pointed it at Nancy. He was close enough so there was no chance he would miss if he fired. "Miss Nancy," he said, "toss that gun down on the floor." He nodded at me, Ben and Yano. "The three of you drop your guns on the ground or I shoot her."
There was nothing else we could do. We dropped our weapons into the dust.
"Now," said Noflush, "Nancy, I want you to untie Mr. McLeelan. And then I want—"
He stopped talking and looked down at the knife that was sticking in his chest. The gun fell out of his hand and he pitched out of his saddle onto the ground. He twitched once, a long shudder, then no longer moved.
I looked over at Yano. He was holding a second knife and grinning at me. "Only need one," he said.
"Yano," I said. "Throwing knives isn't an Indian skill. Tomahawks maybe, but not knives."
"Find ad in Western Truth Magazine. Learn to throw knives. Complete kit one dollar. White-man skills sometimes useful."
Nancy had retrieved her rifle and was again pointing it at the rancher. He made one more try at escaping her clutches. "Sheriff," he said, "as one of the foremost citizens of Dustville, I demand you have this woman untie me."
"I don't see any reason to interfere while you and Nancy work out your little problem," I said.
Nancy smiled at me and disappeared through the open door to the ranch house. Ten minutes later she emerged from the house followed by a cloud of grey smoke that billowed up from the doorway.
"You can't do that," shouted McLeelan. "That's arson. Sheriff, stop her."
I said nothing. Nancy went over, grabbed the rancher's chair by the back and dragged it into the house. She reappeared and called back through the open doorway. "Let me know when you're ready to talk."
McLeelan held out for about five minutes. We could hear him coughing and swearing inside. Finally he called out, "Alright, get me out of here."
Nancy went inside and dragged him back out. "Now," she said, "did you order the Taggarts and Wayne to burn down my home?"
"Yes." His voice was faint but it was a definite yes.
"Sheriff," said Nancy, "he's all yours."
I swung down from my horse. I was not looking forward to having McLeelan in my jail. Too many people in town owed him too much. Expensive slick lawyers would be plying Judge Framway's ear and pointing out all the errors I had made in making my case.
I was wondering how to get McLeelan back to town when a new voice interrupted me. "I don't mean to interfere with your prerogatives, but I think I have jurisdiction in this case."
"What?" I said. I turned and stared at Yano. The slouching hungover Indian had disappeared, replaced by a tall man with a badge on his chest that read U. S. Marshall.
"When the hell did you turn into a U.S. Marshall?" I demanded.
"Right after law school."
"And where did all that crazy Injun talk come from?"
"That's the way Indians talk in Western Truth Magazine," said the Marshall. "Part of my cover. It is amazing what you hear in a barroom when everyone thinks you are a passed-out drunk."
"You got to be a Marshall because you went to law school?" Ben asked.
Ben looked at his new hero with an expression heavy in the awe department. It was going to be difficult to keep him out of school in the future.
I had a sudden thought. "Nancy," I shouted, "shouldn't we be putting out the fire in the ranch house?"
"Not to worry." She disappeared into the house and returned in a moment. No further smoke came out the door. "The fire is out," she called. "I just built a fire in the fireplace and stuffed up the chimney with an old blanket I had. I just pulled the blanket out of the chimney."
The new Marshall walked over and looked down at the rancher. "Steven McLeelan, I am arresting you for violation of Federal Statutes relating to the unlawful accession of tribal lands." He then recited the code numbers of a half dozen laws. You didn't have to be a legal genius to figure that lot of violations added up to a goodly time in the slammer.
"You can't arrest me," shouted McLeelan, "I did everything according to law."
"Maybe your idea of the law," said the Marshall, "but not the Federal Government's. And, by the way, when we're done with you, there'll be a State charge of conspiring to commit arson waiting for you."
Yano looked over at Nancy. "Coyote Woman get day in court," he said.
Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. Prior to 1990 he published 17
short stories in magazines that included Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Three of these stories were later republished in anthologies.
He has now returned to fiction writing and has recently had eleven short stories published in such magazines as
Fabula Argentea, Mystery Magazine and Adelaide Magazine. To read some of Stan's work and find out more about him,
visit his blog at www.standryer.com.
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Plumbeck the Fiddler
by Tom Sheehan
Watching every move about the campfire, studying each face lit up by the flickering flames, the fiddler Sam Plumbeck idly held onto his instrument, waiting for the proper moment. Time, he could feel, was pressing down on him; it had different parts that moved in different ways. The stars all the way to the horizon dip were many and miraculous, the horses silent for the most part even though a coyote cry filtered in now and then, and the darkness beyond wrapped them like a giant robe spread under those stars. He had ridden in, apparently aimlessly to all the trail hands, and joined up with them on their way back to their ranch, the promise of music being hailed by all the hands who had delivered the herd, were through with the drive.
He alone, out of all these trail hands who had hit the jackpot, knew what was coming down on them. Nothing is supposed to be perfect or fair; at least this side of heaven, or the mass of a blue sky, or the dash of sunlight on a rainy day. And he, just a picker of strings, with not a coin of the gold in the lot having his name on it, could only wait it all out, hoping for the best and only seeing the worst coming up.
It had been that way for him since his wife Elsie had died and left him to tend their 8-year-old daughter Alma.
And now Alma was gone, stolen from him a night earlier, right from their little cabin, in the middle of the night, and him bleary-eyed and hung over and not knowing until well after dawn that she was gone.
They had made themselves known a day later, riding up from right out of the cluster pinon pines, as if they were lost, to greet him in the yard. They rode two roans and a paint that looked out of place for a minute, and Plumbeck noted the animals seemed well cared for. Small signs gave bits of evidence he could trust as being the real thing. A long time ago he had learned that a man's audience gave away as much as it took in, whether they knew it or not.
There were three of them, well-armed, with six shooters on both hips and rifles tucked into saddle leather, the stocks he saw scarred and showing long wear or use. Because they were strangers, he studied the three men quickly, putting away as much detail as he could; right off he swore he could pick two of them off skyline silhouettes, how they rode tall in the saddle like they owned the earth. He decided he didn't like them, any of them, and wondered why else he had made such a quick decision.
It didn't take long for him to discover why.
The slim fellow, in a Stetson fitting on his head like a giant mushroom, too big for the little stem of a man, did the talking, though the other two riders were bigger men, thicker in the chest, wider in the shoulders, meaner than each other, if that was possible. They all wore trail-dusted outfits, and a bit raggy at that, heavily-worked denim shirts and pants grained with the trail they rode, and each one with a dark red bandana looped at the neck. All three of them were soft riders, he said to himself, sat the saddle well, were at home there.
"Know your audience from the very first note," his father had told him long ago, in advance of life alone, life in front of people, fiddlers holding sway in the family for generations.
The slim speaker's voice came softly, almost diminutive, the words deliberate, as if he was a bank teller doing regular business with regular customers. "We know where your daughter is, Mister Plumbeck, with friends of ours. She's okay, but to get her back, and safely at that, you have to do a few favors for us. It should be pretty easy work." He stared at Plumbeck the way a teller stares at a little old man struggling to put a few dollars to account.
Plumbeck, quickly alert to other causes, said, "She's not hurt, is she? She's all I have. What do you want?" He tried to remember Alma's face; only small pieces of it came back, how her lips curled in an honest smile, how the dimple, like Elsie's, came back before anything else and lasted longer.
It was the dimple he was seeing now. He couldn't remember if he had kissed her when he came in from town, or the Mexican woman who took care of her some nights. Sometimes he kissed her too, and now and then she'd kiss him back when Alma was asleep or when they were in the barn saddling her horse to go home.
"First off, you were pretty much out of it last night. We walked in and walked out with your daughter all wrapped up and warm. She's with lady friends. A ways from here. You'd never find her. Neither would the sheriff, not a posse either if they mounted one for searching, which I doubt they'd do anyway. "
"What do you want of me?"
"You see the Double-Bar X boys in town the other night, after they delivered the herd?"
"I heard them more than I saw them."
The slim talker said, "They worked off a whole lot of the trail in town, now they're going to head back home with a passel of horses, and a whole lot of money that didn't get put into the bank. The safe was blown up a few weeks ago, by some hombres not us. I don't like big noise. We know their money's in the chuck wagon and we aim to get it. But they won't let us ride in on top of them in the daylight, and they'll be twice on guard at night. With a week on the trail ahead of them, there's time enough for trouble to set down on them."
"Where's that leave me?"
"They know you, every one of those boys. They liked your music in the saloon those two nights of resting up. Really liked it, how you pick at that thing like you're a magician. Not often we hear the likes of it. Not that way, leastly. We could tell from all the way across the road. You had them boys really hooting it up. Brought the Texas right up out of their boots, them dancing like they did, half-crazy with all the ladies of the premises, like there was a full moon shining down on them." His eyes closed for the merest second. "Especially that one called Wilma who wears all that red stuff comes a shining back in the night when you least expect it." His eyes went flickering and shining and sent off messages that Plumbeck knew from way back when he was the youngest fiddler in a Texas band, fourteen if he was a day and life opening like an open road across the wide prairie.
"How's that go for me and my daughter?" He was hoping he could stay in some kind of control, not of them but of himself. He saw Elsie's dimple and it sat like a warm pool or a small star on Alma's face, grabbing all the attention he could muster, and there came the same secret smile that she could flash when nobody could see her but him, like it was a signal of times to come.
He began to add things up: there were two of them, the ladies in his life, but really, at this time, there were none of them. They were both gone. All he had left was the fiddle, and the mule, wherever he was chewing the cud now, and this suddenly diminished piece of property.
"You somehow get yourself attached to them, play them a few songs, warm them up and relax them. Can you do that? We got an extra horse here for you, in place of that old mule you ride. By the way, where's your mule?"
"I fell off him last night and lost him. Just about got home."
"You know the song She's Just a Mountain Girl?'
"Yes, I do."
"Let's hear how you do it." He sounded like a bank president more than a teller.
Plumbeck reached behind him and picked up the fiddle. In a swift and trained movement, he swung into She's Just a Mountain Girl as easy as plucking strings, all of them.
Mr. Smooth Talker turned to his riding pards. "Listen to how it sounds. That's how we'll know when to rush them, when he plays this song." His head was moving smoothly, as if still in tune with the music, remembering another time, another girl shining in red. He turned to Plumbeck and said, "Play it again, Sam."
Plumbeck, natural as they come with the strings in his hand, bounced through the song again. The way he played it, with all he could get from those thin wires, had the two big pokes bouncing in their saddles, nodding at the rhythm, accepting his delivery, maybe wishing it was Saturday night all over again. It was in their faces, but wasn't that way with the little gent, the slow talker. He decided there was no music the second time around in the obvious leader of the pack, but only because the other two were so open, so transparent. The big cheese had to keep some secrets from the open mix.
"Let's go talk in the cabin, if you will," Mr. Smooth Talker said, as if he was putting the frosting on Plumbeck's idea of him. "There are a few facts I want to make sure you understand." He nodded at the other two, and said, "Keep your eyes open for any strangers. Make sure nobody has any idea of what we're up to. There's a sweet payday coming. We can count on that." He waved the two big hombres away from the cabin. "Keep your eyes open. Never know who's tracking us from back there." He looked off toward the town a few miles away.
Plumbeck had hailed the trail boss from a distance, waving at him, yelling his name. "Hi-yo, Alec. It's Plumbeck here. Heading back to Texas and I'd like to ride along. I brought my fiddle."
Alec Winship said, "It'll be a pleasure having good company, Sam. Boys'll love it. They had a hard time coming up here. You sure had 'em goin' the other night. Really got them goin'. You do that every time out of the corral?" He looked at Plumbeck's horse. "You been ridin' hard to catch us? Don't wear that animal out. Out here he's your best friend. Even comes ahead of that there fiddle you're totin'."
"I didn't want to be alone tonight, not out here," Plumbeck said, putting a little doubt into his voice, shrugging his shoulders, appearing fearful of the open plains.
"Well, we all got company tonight, Sam, and plenty of vittles. Homer says he's got bean soup and steak and his best biscuits for the night meal. How's that sound?"
Plumbeck slapped his fiddle. "I got my vittles' chit right here, all tuned up." He shrugged his shoulders in a universal gesture, some decision left up to others, a yes or no in the movement as if he was asked a question that might not demand an answer. At the same time his eyes shifted across the grassy horizon, and then glanced east and west, north and south, the whole compass in two moves.
He was sly about it; thought he could be nauseous if he let himself go.
They rode after the chuck wagon setting up for the night less than a mile ahead of them just before a narrow pass in the hills. The two men had fifteen minutes of honest conversation while riding. The evening sun, beginning its descent, touched the tops of the hills in a fond farewell to another good day. No stars had shown up yet, but the moon pushed up its silver crescent in the eastern sky and gave off the promise the sun had set free that morning. Horses, driven together, snickered as if they too were having late conversations.
Six hands were setting up camp for the night stop, and odors had already begun to circulate from the chuck wagon. Beans and onion smells swirled smoothly in the air. A few other hands continued tying up ropes for a horse tether for the night. All of them, in turn, hailed Plumbeck with favored salutations. "Hey, fiddler, we wuz talkin' about you all day, 'cause that wuz some night we had for ourselves, that last one." "Glad to have your company, fiddlin' man, and I see you brung the tools." "Hey, that you, Sam? You look different sittin' that animal 'stead a strummin'. That thing you're carryin' there, does it get shook out of tune ridin' side saddle like that?"
"Hi-yo, Sam, you headin' back to God's country? Sure can make this trip short."
To a man they were pleased to see him, perhaps a bit excited. Their jabbering said so, even the unintelligible parts of it, the distant remarks called out across the good grass, the asides tossed to one another at odd tasks: "Oh, what that man can do with skinny wire," or "We got a good time comin' tonight even if them girls ain't there," while the food smells continued to swell and circulate in the late evening air. A coyote acknowledged the speed that aromas moved on the seemingly still air. The crescent moon continued its ride into the night sky, even the slice of it promising hence its full golden orb. Another coyote, from another direction, started a conversation about the infiltrating aromas. Man was again penetrating domains.
Plumbeck, hearing a distant sound that sounded like a trumpet call, spun about quickly, on guard, until he realized the sound was coming from Bugle Pass ahead of them. He'd been there before, the wind whistling in from the other side of the hills and hustling through a series of boulders set on the peak of the hill in the long past by the Indians. He didn't know what tribe had erected the odd formations but believed they were musical in their nature. At another time, in another place, he'd think about Retreat being sounded behind a fort barricade.
Winship, eating from his tin plate across the campfire, was staring at him in somewhat of a lazy manner, smiling, enjoying his meal, fully at ease, the easy-riding crescent moon sailing across the ocean of the sky. The jug he had promised the crew sat untapped at his side, like a reward to be earned.
He smiled again at Plumbeck and raised his hand when his plate was clean, as if he was the maestro out in front of an orchestra.
The single musical instrument in the campsite appeared from the slight flames touching the edge of the circle. The boss man's signal had been sent.
Pot and pan and tinny sounds stopped as Plumbeck stood up with the fiddle. A few notes escaped their long internment and fled across the wide grass, the slivered moon giving a hint of silver in its touch at grass. The distant coyotes, nuzzled in satisfaction, did not take note of the signal. Night began to move on.
The meal finished, tasks completed, a good number of men relaxed, some obviously still on night tasks with the animals or night riding, Plumbeck rose with the fiddle in one hand. It swung easily in that hand. Standing at the edge of flame light, he played a series of favorite songs for them. They were boisterous, but listened well, especially at refrains that rose up and fled across the grass, lifted up to the moon as if being freed forever.
The whole crew liked the first medley, Round Tree Willy and Moses Ward Goes Astray and The Girl from Calico, all of them fiddler favorites for as long as he could remember. Plumbeck had often thought that The Girl from Calico had been his father's favorite and many times he had wondered if there was some secret behind that favoritism. He had come to accept, and even forgive, many of his father's transgressions beyond the front porch back in Tennessee. Starkly he recalled when his younger sister died from a child-bearing incident resulting from an abusive salesman, his father angrily striding off with his rifle never to be seen again.
That disappearance shifted his mind again, recalled alertness from where it had gone. He heard a coyote from as far away as imagination would allow, perhaps in the depths of a canyon, then a whistling moan from Bugle Pass, and a wolf, loudest at the top of the food chain, taking vocal command of the once silent world.
Across the fire, almost prone on his night blanket, his gun belt flopped at the edge of the blanket as well as his rifle, Winship turned his head to listen to the same sounds Plumbeck had heard. He lifted the jug off the blanket and Plumbeck, at that movement, suddenly broke into She's Just a Mountain Girl.
He was hardly into the song when five men, from the shadows like Indian ghosts raised from dark graves, broke into camp, their rifles leveled and ready to fire.
The Smooth Talker, his hat still too big for his frame, his body still slight out here in the darkness, but his voice decidedly harsher than Plumbeck could remember it, was yelling at them.
"Don't reach for any guns. First man gets a gun in his hand gets dead in a hurry." He swung his rifle around at the men at the campfire. "I mean it well, don't grab an iron or you're dead in a minute. We just want the gold in the wagon. We want every last piece of it. From where I stand, I don't think we can see any heroes. Whoever decides he wants to be a hero gets dead just that quicker."
He looked at Winship, without a weapon in his hands, still flat on the blanket, his boots standing beside him like sentinels. "The rest of your crew sleeping under the wagon, Boss Man? Better get them out here under the same terms; they're dead if they go for their weapons."
Later, much later, Plumbeck remembered how cool Winship had been. That coolness was in his voice as he said, "They don't need to go for their weapons, mister, 'cause they already have them and there's four fully loaded rifles pointed at your midsections right about now. This I can tell you, four of you die in the first round, and one will live for a bare second until he gets rounds from all them rifles together. You think about that hero stuff. And put this in your pipe and smoke it . the gold's not in the wagon 'cause we buried it earlier out on the range, and one of the boys has gone off to get the sheriff. We knew you were coming. It's that easy. The fiddler there, he's no fool. If we find his daughter is the slightest dead, you guys get strung up on the nearest tree we find. Now what do you say to that?"
The loudest sound was from the darkness as rifle bolts slapped home.
The intruders dropped their weapons at the side of the fire, and Winship, all Texas coming up from his bare feet, jammed his revolver into the mouth of one of the two big men that Plumbeck had told him about. "Where's the girl? I am only going to count to three." He raised three fingers and dropped one immediately, as he counted, "One-two- ...."
"Wait," the big guy mumbled, "she's at the Kilgore place, the other side of town. She's okay. Nobody touched her, I swear."
He looked fearfully at the Smooth Talker, just as Plumbeck, with all his vented fury, remembering his sister, his wife Elsie long gone down the trail as well as his father, his daughter tossed into strange hands, smashed his fiddle down atop the head of the Smooth Talker.
Winship nodded at the coming silence, knowing what a fair swap was.
Tom Sheehan, in his 94th year, has published 53 books, has work in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings, Copperfield Review, Literally Stories, Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine, He's earned 18 Pushcart nominations, and 6 Best of Net nominations, with one winner. Last year he won Ageless Writers story contest with The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny, and has submitted other books including $20 Grand, In the Garden of Long Shadows, Jehrico's the Collector's Collection, Murder Down Canada Way, Silas Tully, Saugus Cop, An Accountable Death, Death by Punishment, Beneath My Feet This Rare Earth often Slips into the Far-side of Another's Telescope.
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The Sins of Our Brothers
by Issac Withrow
Thieving, I guess you could say, was in my blood. I started stealing about the same time the war heated up, in about '61, when I was, oh, fourteen. It was little things at first: a penny candy from the jar at Tucker's General Store, a few onions from old man Herbert's garden or some eggs from his coop, a shirt from a stranger's clothesline. But it didn't take me long to realize I enjoyed it. I liked the little charge stealing gave me. A penny stolen, as the saying goes, is sweeter than a penny earned.
My older brother Henry was put together different. Henry loved being honest like I loved stealing. I once saw Henry, when he was clerking at Tucker's General, walk two miles out of town, all the way to Mr. Granby's farm to deliver four cents of forgotten change. Me? I'd just as likely sprout wings and fly to Granby's farm as walk there to give away free money, but that was Henry. Other than occasionally giving money away, Henry was a pretty smart guy.
He got drafted and marched off to war in '62, about a month after he turned eighteen. He rose up through the ranks pretty quick. They made him a sergeant and moved him from infantry to cavalry: and not just any cavalry, but the proudest division in the South, the 1st Virginia, under General Jeb Stuart. Henry was with the general when the great man fell at Yellow Tavern, and was embarrassed by how inconsequential his own bullet wound, taken in that same battle, was in comparison. He came home with a limp but never had to buy himself a drink in the South again.
As the Federals strangled Virginia in the Summer of '64, Ma and me slunk into Richmond—the last safe place in the Confederacy, or so we'd heard—along with the rest of the unwashed masses from the countryside. I had never known my father. If rumors could be believed—and they usually could, in my experience—he was a common highwayman, holding up travelers in the Virginia backcountry, until one day he disappeared when I was a babe at the breast, blown west by the promise of gold or left along a roadside with a bullet in his head, depending on which rumor you wanted to believe. Either way he was long gone, and we had nothing. Just common white trash in a country full of it.
Richmond, in a lot of ways, reminded me of Tucker's General Store; everything in it was mine for the taking. The city was crowded, and folks were anxious or nervous or pretending what was happening outside the city wasn't really happening. The Confederacy was collapsing, and the distracted upper crust was my own private bank. I made a lot of withdrawals in that last year of the war. Purses, wallets, anything left unattended went straight into my pocket, then to one of the many fences that popped up around the city like mushrooms after a rainstorm, or to buy food, although that became ever harder to get at any price. Henry was bravely defending our homefolk while I mercilessly picked their pockets. Ma died right around the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, in the Spring of '65, took by a fever. When the war ended, I found myself adrift. I was a leaf floating on a great river, going where the current took me. I had no one to answer to or care for. The world was wide open in front of me. I missed Ma, sure, and Henry. And I felt a vague responsibility to track down my older brother and we could decide, together, the next path in our lives, but for now it felt right to just be. The great current carried me west, as it did for so many others then. Away from war and mass graves and politics and cities and orphanages and veterans' hospitals and military districts, to the lawless new country.
This is all just my long, winding way of saying that it was exceedingly strange to find myself, less than a year later, shivering outside the Broken Top Savings Bank in Dakota territory, while Henry was inside robbing it.
The Dakota sky was dark as a gun barrel and the clouds hung heavy, threatening the season's first snow. The pleasant smell of woodsmoke hung over the seemingly empty town and frost edged the hoofprints of Broken Top's muddy main street, crackling gently with each of my mare's plodding steps. I tucked my leather gloved hands into my armpits and kept my head low, into the upturned collar of my coat. Three riderless horses trailed behind me on long reins.
I walked my four-horse team west, away from the bank and past the stout brick buildings and well-lighted hotels that marked the prosperous end of town. The well-constructed buildings gave way to smaller, shoddier looking wooden structures: saloons, brothels, blacksmith shops, the tannery with its thick chemical smell. Beyond these was Chinatown with its crudely fashioned shacks and tents, where the Freedmen and Chinese laborers lived their hand-to-mouth existences. I tried to look casual as I turned around and headed back toward the bank.
The large clock jutting from the bank's brick face read ten past two. Some mechanical problem with the gears inside made the minute hand stick, quivering, for three minutes at a time, then leap forward in bursts. It took a leap now, to 2:13. Almost time. I kept my easy pace, but my heart hammered in my chest. Everything looked normal, except the guard who normally stood outside was nowhere to be seen, and was in fact, I knew, lying inside with his hands bound tightly behind his back. A single shot rang out from inside the bank, echoing along the storefronts of the empty street, and screams followed.
Henry came out first, wide-eyed, his pistol holstered, a red bandana masking the lower half of his face. He trotted to his horse with his little limp and mounted the Appaloosa with a fluid grace. Joe and Gus came out together, guns drawn. Joe held the familiar hemp sack: the money bag. It was clearly heavy and the sides bulged with bills. Joe cast a wary eye up and down the still empty main street, then the former cavalry captain holstered his gun and effortlessly mounted his own nag. With a practiced hand, he looped the money bag around his saddlehorn and secured it tightly. Gus, fat and sweating and wild-eyed, came last, his bandana pulled below his huge chin, his thick black beard spilling over. He waved his pistol menacingly back inside the bank, then swung onto his own mare and the four of us laid spurs, riding like hell east, kicking up cold clumps of mud, aiming for the spot where Main Street curved sharp like a dog's leg and led out of town and to the wild hill country beyond.
As we neared the bend, I glanced over my shoulder. There, fifty yards back, was a middle-aged balding man in shirtsleeves, calmly walking to the middle of the muddy street. He sank to a knee with a practiced ease and leveled a long rifle at our backs. Nothing to ruin your trousers over, fella, I thought. We'll just be on our way. He rested his left elbow on his knee, closed an eye and took careful aim. Now there's a man that's done this before. The bend was just ahead. I ducked low in my saddle and shouted, "Go! Go! Go!" as I spurred my mare ahead, expecting the fiery pain of a bullet any moment. I angled toward the bend and safety. Twenty yards. Ten. The shot boomed behind, the loudest sound I'd ever heard. Gus, riding beside me, grunted and spun in his saddle. His gun flew from his left hand and landed in the mud with a wet plop just as we made the safety of the corner. Bloody splatters painted his white mare's mane. Gus's blue workshirt had a fist-sized hole in the front, next to his armpit. An alarming amount of blood already stained it black. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, and in his right he clutched something small and shiny. I hurried his mare along with my own as we cleared the last few buildings and the weathered old sign welcoming visitors to Broken Top. Soon, we veered off the main path and onto the old overgrown trail that was supposed to lead us to freedom.
Best Laid Plans
Distance had been our escape plan. The three cavalry veterans could ride superhuman distances, and I, never lacking confidence, was sure I could keep up. We'd spent weeks scouting and provisioning a spot deep in the hills, probably forty miles north of town. We'd found a natural cave that would provide shelter and concealment. We'd ride through the night and hole up for a few weeks, then move on, out of the territory. No one in Broken Top would ever see or hear of us again. Instead, with Gus dying a slow and agonizing death, we stopped at an abandoned mining shack about a mile up the trail. It wasn't far off the path and was almost certain to be discovered by anyone following us, but the veterans insisted we get Gus off his horse and tend to his wound.
The shack was perched on high ground between two boulders, reachable by a footpath that stopped dead at the boarded over mine entrance beyond the shack. And old, rotting set of wooden stairs led to the shack's thick door. The single window was open to the elements. A persistent wind swirled through and had pushed a pile of dead leaves into a back corner and the roof had a hole where the chimney of a long gone woodstove had once poked through.
Gus slumped, moaning in his saddle. A bright streak of Gus's blood ran down his mare's foreleg.
"James, go tie up the horses," said Henry. "Far enough off the trail they won't be noticed, but close enough we can grab 'em quick if we need to. Understand?"
I nodded. Joe and Henry stood to the right of Gus's horse and began easing the fat man down.
"You want me to help with that?" I asked as they awkwardly hefted him, nearly dropping him the last couple feet. Henry had always tended toward skinny, but his war service had left him positively scarecrow-like. Joe, his former captain, was a little stouter, but like many returning Confederates, his gaunt face still showed the effects of the years of starvation rations and brutally long marches and rides. Gus, with his prodigious belly, showed none of those effects. I had also suffered from a shortage of food during the war, but at nineteen, my already broad shoulders and barrel-shaped chest often fit poorly into traditional shirts, a fact made more difficult because I had stolen every shirt I ever remember owning.
"No, I reckon we ought to," replied my brother. "You just get them horses along."
Once they had Gus off his horse and were struggling with him up the steps, I mounted, gathered the reins and led the four horses around the boulders and through the thick underbrush behind the shack. Run, a voice in my head shouted once I was out of sight. Run now, save yourself. I ignored it as I picked my way through the brush. I tied the horses out in a spot easy to find if you knew to look for it.
Another voice in my head hoped for Gus to die quickly, so we could get back to the plan. This one I didn't ignore. I wished we could just leave him and go, but the others often spoke of bonds formed and promises made, of brotherhoods. I could never know what they'd gone through together, but I understood enough to keep my distance and let them handle things their own way. For good or ill, I'd come along with this plot willingly, and now my fate was tied to theirs. Whatever we were about to face, I'd face it with my brother. I slung my saddlebag over my shoulder and walked back to the shack in the gathering darkness.
Gus lay, pale and shivering on the dead leaves, drifting in and out of consciousness. Joe had cut away his blood-soaked shirt. His bone white belly seemed to almost glow in the dim light of the shack. The gaping wound, which Joe had cleaned as best he could with no real supplies, was black and obscene on his nearly hairless chest. A line of blood ran from beneath the leaves and across the slanting floor, tracing a dark trail along the gaps in the rough floorboards.
"That was no amateur," Henry said quietly. "That was a serious weapon, and well aimed."
"Lucky shot," said Joe, squinting out the window.
"My ass. James, you saw him take aim, yeah?"
"And he just happened to take out Gus here? The man who went crazy?" he asked, voice rising.
Henry moved over to Gus's prone body, careful to step over the seeping blood, and stared into the wound. Gus's eyes fluttered sightlessly, somewhere between deep sleep and death, and his slow, ragged breathing was accompanied by an alarming sucking noise from his chest.
"Keep your voice down," Joe said from the window.
Henry's head snapped toward his former commander. He let out a grunt that sounded halfway between a laugh and a sob.
"My voice? You're worried about my voice?" he asked, with no attempt to keep it down. "Do you honestly think we'll survive this night? We're dead. We might as well be waiting outside the bank for the marshals to come scoop us up. How long do you reckon it'll take for them to form a posse and cover the, what, mile between there and here? With Gus bleeding like a damn stuck hog? A blind man could follow our trail. Here we are, lined up like carnival targets while they collect guns and men."
"What would you have us do?" asked Joe. "Leave him?"
Henry paused. "Course not," he said in a near whisper. "I just wish he wouldn't'a killed that girl is all. There was no cause for that."
"Well, what's done is done," Joe replied. "If she woulda done like he said, she'd still be alive."
Henry grunted and moved near the window.
I edged closer to Gus's prostrate form. I was hit with the metallic smell of blood, and with the sharper smell that I associated with animal butchery or skinning a deer: the smell of an animal's insides. In his right hand, he loosely clutched a beautiful golden brooch, worked expertly into the shape of a shamrock, with a green emerald in its center. A jagged bit of blue fabric snaked from the brooch's back.
We kept watch, one after another, all night.
At dawn, Gus died. As he breathed his last, Joe and Henry were drawn to the window by a noise that I hadn't heard. Each man peered out of a corner, gun at the ready. I heard the soft jingle of horse tack outside, then the quiet scrape of a horseshoe against stone. A snapped branch. Henry and Joe remained silent and motionless for what seemed an eternity, staring out the window. I stayed well away. Finally, Joe holstered his pistol and cursed quietly. He moved away from the window. Henry remained, surveying the scene outside. He ticked off the men he counted on his fingers, held up for us to see: two, three, four.
I studied Joe's face in the slowly blooming light. A range of emotions passed over it, almost at once. It was too late to run now. He stood over Gus's body and looked like he wanted to spit on it, then kiss it. Finally, he bent down and snatched the golden brooch from Gus's dead fingers. He stared at it with a sneer as if it, not Gus's hot-headedness, had gotten us into this mess. He closed his fist around the brooch until his knuckles were white with strain. He let out a growl. Henry's head snapped around from the window. Joe's growl turned to a scream. He stepped to the window and flung the brooch far out into the morning air.
The crack of the rifle sounded far away, but the aim was true. The shack was filled with specks of warm blood as Joe's body stiffened awkwardly and fell in a silent heap. Henry scuttled away from the window, until he was sitting next to me along the back wall. Bright red blood pooled from Joe's body and mixed with the tacky, darker blood already kaleidoscoping the wooden floor. I stared at Joe's lifeless body and the gaping hole where the back of his head used to be for a long time before turning to my brother.
Henry also stared at his fallen comrade, horror on his face. Finally, he blinked and shook his head and swallowed hard, as if trying to swallow an emotion.
"Well, hell," he said finally. "That's some damn good shootin. That's two shots, two kills. One a man on horseback, which ain't easy, and this one from a good distance."
I nodded, not sure what to say.
"They gonna come to us, you reckon?" I finally asked.
"Naw, no reason to. We got the high ground and cover. And this rickety shack ain't much, but the walls are sturdy, so they can't just fill it full of lead and be done with it, and they can't burn it without burnin the money. They know they got us outnumbered and outgunned. Coming to us would mean danger. They can just stay put and wait for us to do something stupid or get scared and hungry enough to surrender."
"So what do we do now?"
"I guess we wait. Thinkin' would be good, too. You were always better at that than me. Any ideas?"
I shook my head sadly.
We gazed out the open window at the stark grey sky beyond. The last sky I'll ever see, I thought glumly. I'd never missed the warmth of an early fall in Virginia as much as I did then, although at least the sky here was moody and interesting. No point dying under a boring sky.
Henry put his arm around my shoulders. It was a simple gesture, but one I didn't remember him ever doing before. I had always been big for my age and he small, so we were constantly mistaken for twins growing up. Now, fully grown, I was four inches taller and seventy pounds heavier, so the avuncular gesture probably would have looked ridiculous had anyone seen it, but I leaned against him, this little man who had seen and done so much, who now seemed to belong to a different generation than me, on what was more than likely the last morning of our lives. The war had drawn an invisible but solid line between those who had served and those who had not. He, like so many others, had experienced a lifetime's worth of pain and adventure at a time when he was barely old enough to shave. He seemed to accept the violent deaths of his two best friends matter-of-factly. I suspected he would grieve for them in some private way, but later, when he was out of danger. And it pained me to think how dear that skill must have been to learn.
The sun peeked through the cloud-covered morning. A rectangle of sunlight framed Joe's dead body and slowly crept toward us, but the shack remained bitterly cold.
I finally worked up my courage.
"Henry, there's something I got to tell you."
"You figured a way out of here?"
I chuckled dryly. "No, a confession."
Henry looked at me askance.
"I got drafted."
"No, you were too young," Henry said.
"They moved the conscription age to seventeen in '64," I continued. "I got my notice early that year. In the winter."
Henry dropped his arm from my shoulder and slid away, taking me in with his full gaze, shaking his head rapidly.
"What did you do, James?" he asked.
I couldn't answer.
He repeated the question.
I studied the rotting floorboards and picked absently at a splintered piece. A cold breeze coming up through a gap tickled my palm and fingers.
Finally, I answered in a small voice.
"I didn't do anything. I just ignored the letter. Folks were comin back by then, terms over I guess, or deserters. Sad men with no shoes, no uniforms. Missing arms and legs. Or blind. That was no army I wanted to fight in. Besides, the newspapers said it was all over. They said—"
"Goddammit James! We needed men then. More than ever, maybe. We still had fight in us. If we coulda replaced our losses, why, that mighta been enough."
Henry scooted further away and turned his head to the far wall and crossed his arms.
"Brother's a goddammed coward," he muttered.
I let out a shaky breath and tried to speak. I faltered, began again, then was quiet. Well, that was well timed, James. You're both about to leave this world and that's the note you choose to end on. Still, it felt good to get it off my chest. I'd not only never told anyone, but most days I didn't even allow myself to think on it, sort of like it never happened at all. But it did, of course. Not that I regretted my decision. One more thief—a seventeen-year-old thief at that—added to that ragged army wasn't going to turn the tide of the war. My only regret was that I wouldn't get to share that great adventure that so many had, that thing done in youth that would eventually be the defining moment of a lifetime. And I knew I'd never have friends as close as the three men—one living, two now dead—in the shack. In fact, I would probably never be as close to my own brother as he was to his brothers in arms, but I guess that's just the way of things.
Henry sulked for a long time, avoiding eye contact and mumbling to himself. The rectangle of sunlight on the floor narrowed as it moved right to left before the afternoon clouds snuffed it out. Henry trained his gun loosely on the door while I moved my hand back and forth over the breeze coming out of the floor, feeling it gently push my fingers and brush the fine hairs on the back of my hand. Suddenly, I froze.
"Hey big brother."
"Yeah?" Still sulking.
"You feel this wind coming out of the floor?"
"The wind. From under the floor. Do you feel it?" I asked, moving my hand back and forth to show him. He felt along the boards.
"No. Wait, yeah, there it is. What about it?"
"It's gotta be coming from somewhere, right? Somewhere outside."
The realization struck him. Our hands flew over the boards, mapping out the places where the subfloor had rotted away, where there might be a path to freedom. The area was about three feet square, against the back corner of the shack. We tried working our fingers into the gaps but they were too narrow. The boards were still sturdy, and there was nothing in the shack to pry them loose.
I rummaged through my saddlebag, past the hardtack, ammunition, blanket, and horse brush, and finally found a box of wooden matches. We pried a few slivers from the floor and walls and Henry grabbed a fistful of greenbacks from the overstuffed money bag and wadded them. He laid the crumpled bills in the center of a floorboard, where the breeze wouldn't knock the flame out straightaway, and I stacked my small collection of kindling on top, like I was building a miniature campfire.
I struck the match and held it to a twenty. The bill darkened as a line of flame spread across, but the flame wouldn't take.
"Cotton," I said. "The bills are made of cotton so they don't tear as easy. I guess that means they don't burn so well either."
I brushed the crumpled notes away and carefully reconstructed the teepee of small splinters. The next match I held directly to the wood. It finally took, a hesitant, sickly little flame. We gently fanned it, silently willing it to catch the boards beneath. The wood was dry and there was little smoke, but I knew the men in the woods would smell it right away even if they couldn't see it, and they would know something was going on. They would be fine, I was sure, with us burning ourselves to death, but they wouldn't let us take the money with us.
The old pine boards proved a willing fuel to the expanding fire. We waved our hats over the hungry flames to dissipate the smoke and help the fire spread. The dry boards crackled and buckled as the flames grew. After a couple of minutes I stood, crouching, and stomped at the center of the fire, sending sparks and embers dancing, but the floor held. I braced myself on the wall and stomped again. This time the boards gave a little. I stood taller and stomped with everything I had. My foot broke through with a sharp crack. Bits of wood and flame rained down, briefly illuminating a small hollow beneath the floor. Now wind rushed up through the hole, flaring the remaining flames. Henry went to work prying up the ends of the burnt boards with his thick leather cavalry gloves. They came easier now, snapping in the burnt places. Soon the hole looked big enough to shimmy through.
"Okay," Henry panted. "Go on down there and check it out. I'll keep an eye on our friends out there."
I chuckled. "Brother," I said, "unless you've got a vat of butter stashed away in here somewhere, there's not a chance on God's green earth that I'm fitting through that hole. Now wriggle your skinny ass down there and see if there's a way out. I'll keep an eye out."
Henry hesitated, then took off his hat and gun belt and patted down an area of smoldering wood. He sat, perched on the edge of the small hole, his feet disappearing into the darkness below.
"I love you, big brother," I said.
He looked at me queerly. The last—and only, as far as I remembered—time I'd ever told him that was the day he'd gone off to war in his stiff butternut uniform, five long years before.
"I love you too, James. And hey . . . "
I looked at him.
"I'm glad you didn't come fight in that stupid war. Too many good men died for a bad cause. You were right to not come."
Then he was gone. I lowered his gunbelt and hat down into the darkness.
"I see light!" he said moments later, his voice drifting up from what seemed like very far away. "There's a gap in the rocks. It's pretty small, but I think . . . yeah, I can fit."
I moved near Gus's body. I grabbed a double handful of leaves and came back and dropped them onto the fire. The thin blue smoke gave way to a boiling white cloud as the fire hungrily flared. The shack filled immediately. I dropped to the floor and sucked in fresh air from the hole.
"Henry?" I shouted into the hole, stifling a cough.
"Yeah?" his voice came back, like that of a ghost.
"Are you out?"
"Yeah, but it's tight. I think I'll have to pull you through somehow."
"Henry, listen. Head dead north about a quarter mile. You'll come to a small meadow. The horses are tied along the eastern edge. Go. Get your horse, ride as fast and as far as you can, and never look back."
"Now wait a minute—"
I closed my eyes against the burn and waited at the hole, but it was silent. Good. I pulled my gun, crawled to the window, stood and opened my eyes. As I blinked the burn away, I saw two men outside, yards from the stairs, moving toward the shack, pistols in hand. I crouched back down and heaved the heavy money bag over my head and out the window. Then I raised my gun and fired two quick shots, far enough away to not hit them, but near enough, I hoped, to pin them down. I sat with my back to the wall, listening, until a coughing fit overtook me. When that passed, I heard nothing over the hiss and pop of the fire. I put the gun out and fired twice more, blindly.
The coughing was worse now, wracking my whole body. I laid on my side and pressed my nose and mouth into the rough floorboards, trying to stay below the smoke. I watched specks of dirt move in and out in rhythm with my hoarse breathing, until a painful cough blew them away, creating a small, clean spot in front of my face. I closed my eyes. I felt pleasantly warm. The rickety stairs groaned under the weight of the men as I lost consciousness.
Issac Withrow has written for years, in all genres and all lengths, but he always comes back to his first loves: the
Western and the short story. He loves to examine the grittier side of the west: of conflicted heroes and complex
villains. He grew up reading his grandfather's tattered old Louis L'Amour paperbacks, Zane Grey novels, and Elmore
Leonard short stories. He has completed writing programs at the University of Denver and UCLA and currently lives
in South Florida with his wife and five sons, but has spent most of his life in the west.
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Back to Home
by Peter D. McQuade
We have it on reliable authority that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. We are equally aware that the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet both sword and pen pale before the power of that most wondrous and ingenious instrument of our modern age—the telegraph. And tonight, that power is putting me to a test I would rather be spared.
My name is Timothy Gladstone, but to the good folks of Silver City in the territory of Idaho, I am simply the "key tapper." Others style me the "brass pounder." By either title, I am a telegraph operator.
It is nigh on an hour since I was roused from a comfortable slumber in the warmth of my feather bed. Now I sit in frigid darkness, astride a well-mannered sorrel named Sunflower, riding the course of the wire that links Silver City to Boise City. My mission is to seek the cause of its sudden, mysterious inability to convey messages. Indeed, the line fairly overflows with a torrent of mad, undecipherable electrical impulses.
I fear this will be nothing as mundane or easily remedied as a line break, or a cracked insulator, or improperly filled battery jars. In the dozen years of my career—which began in the War as a greenhorn telegrapher with the Army of the Potomac—I've never witnessed anything so bizarre as this sudden aberration. Furthermore, the safety and security of tomorrow's outgoing silver shipment teeters in the balance. For, although the wagons will be escorted by the usual retinue of armed guards, only the telegraph can provide the sheriffs of the two counties along the route with timely notice as to the shipment's departure. And only the telegraph is able to track its progress through the towns along the way. Thus, the line must be fixed, and I have no recourse but to answer this call to duty.
I am grateful for the company of a quick-witted Nez Perce messenger boy of sixteen who rides a sturdy, Dalmatian-spotted Appaloosa. My companion's English name is Darius. His horse's name I cannot spell and am but poorly able to pronounce. I am pleased that Darius aspires to the key tapper's vocation. Already, his fingers are able to tap out the Morse code with the swift certainty of a mountain goat scaling the granite spires and ramparts of the nearby mountains.
The undulating wagon road before us roils with ghostly shadows cast by the miner's kerosene lantern clutched in my left hand. A bone-numbing December wind howls like a pack of wolves hailing the light of a full moon. But this night there is no moon. The sky is a black velvet carpet upon which a cache of diamonds has been strewn. The planet Mars glows red like a railroad switch lamp—or one of those red lamps of a different purpose I have witnessed, from a prudent distance of course, in second-floor windows on the backstreets of my hometown in New Jersey.
Darius calls to me, his voice raised against the wind. "The silver shipment to Boise City must be mightily urgent. Else why would the Black Jack Mill not wait to dispatch a lineman to do the job tomorrow, in daylight?" The lantern light sets Darius's dark, Nez Perce eyes to glimmering.
I shrug to fend off the chill. "Our orders are to ensure the line is working by noontime."
"Timothy, you are a telegraph operator, not a lineman."
"Duty calls," I reply. "Tonight, I will be a lineman."
Darius lifts his gaze to the stars. "The moon sleeps. Perhaps another time would be better."
Indeed, I muse, how welcome a bit of moonlight would be.
"I've been through worse," I mumble. My mind casts an inward glance to a time a decade ago and a place two thousand miles distant—a swamp on the periphery of Richmond, Virginia.
* * *
I am clinging to the branches of a bendy oak. Shrieking hornet-swarms of Rebel bullets shred the leaves around me. I am but sixteen years of age and am stringing a line at General Weitzel's orders. Upon a wilderness floor drenched in scarlet, a dozen men moan prayers and epithets with their final breaths. I continue my work, for a glorious victory for our Union Forces hangs by this thin wire.
From behind a row of bushes, a rifle barrel glints in the sun. "There he is!" a Southern voice shouts. Another joins in, "It's the Yankee brass pounder!"
The rifle muzzle slews toward my direction. "Kill the bastard!" one of the voices bellows.
* * *
I shake my head to cast away the memory, murmuring a prayer of thanksgiving that the Rebel gunman had missed, before he himself was felled by a Union bullet.
"Yes, I've been through worse," I say again to Darius.
We move on, up the side of one hill and down the next, passing one telegraph pole then another, always straining to glimpse the occasional sparkle of lantern light on copper wire. This line connects Silver City to Boise City—and to the world. By this means has mankind harnessed the lightning bolts of Zeus for the noble purpose of rapid communion among the peoples of the Earth. And sadly, as I learned in the War, for far less peaceful endeavors. The wire is barely six months old, and until this night, it has been beset by remarkably few troubles. So far as Darius and I have been able to discern, the cable is in fine fettle—save for having gone mad.
Somewhere over the near ridgeline, a coyote lets out a blood-chilling screech that metamorphoses into a prolonged, wavering banshee howl. In a moment, it is joined by a ghoulish chorus of coyotes.
With one hand, I haul back on the reins and Sunflower slows, then halts. She whinnies and swings her head, side to side. She would rather launch into a full gallop, plunging into the black abyss, anywhere to flee the diabolical choir. I briefly let go the reins and feel for the hand grip of the Colt revolver in my holster. Its touch is reassuring.
I look to Darius. His unperturbed eyes convey a conviction that Coyote, true friend to humankind, is simply being playful tonight. Yet he doesn't smile. "Humans," he says, "they are the true menace. Nature is animated by neither greed nor deception."
Underneath my legs, Sunflower snorts and strains against the reins.
"If we aren't looking for a break in the line," Darius says, "then what do you expect to find?"
"The line's not dead," I reply. "If anything, it's too much alive."
"With gibberish. You said that earlier." He jabs a finger toward the strand of copper above us.
My eyes narrow. "Yes, gibberish. Like nothing I've ever heard."
We continue on the road, our horses progressing gingerly, skittishly.
"It's a long way to Boise City," Darius replies. "And the wind is angry."
I attempt to reassure him. "No doubt, other linemen will have left Boise by now, searching in our direction. At worst, we'll meet them halfway, in daylight."
Suddenly Sunflower lurches to the left and thrusts her head sideways. Her eyes are wide with terror. She tries to run, but I check her, my knees jammed tightly against the saddle. Her hooves scar the frozen ground and she jerks to a halt at the roadside. She protests with a mournful, gargled grunt.
"What's the matter, girl?" I call, as soothingly as I can. The swaying lantern sends devil shadows dancing through the sagebrush.
Suddenly a dark specter races wildly across the road, averting a collision with Darius's horse by mere inches. Then it is gone.
"Antelope," Darius says, shaking his head. "Spooked . . . Sunflower heard it coming."
I swing the lantern around and find no other creatures in proximity. I rub my horse's neck and murmur gentle things to her. Then, slowly, haltingly, we continue.
"Antelope don't spook without reason," Darius says. "Something is amiss—something beyond our ken."
The road dips and we pass through shallow snowdrifts. Instinctively, I sense that, in the wire high above us, the rogue electrical pulses continue insanely to surge and rattle. No dots and dashes, no intelligent message. Not the bolts of Zeus, harnessed and benign, but rather the malevolent darts and curses of his daughter Eris, the goddess of chaos. I think it again, The line is beyond inoperative. It has gone mad.
Without warning, the blackness overhead lightens to slate gray. "How could that be?" I murmur. "There's no moon, and dawn is hours away." Beneath the woolen collar of my coat, the skin crawls on the back of my neck.
Cresting a ridgeline, we pull up next to another telegraph pole. My mouth hangs open, as does Darius's. Far to the north, the sky above the mountains writhes and swells in streaky waves of phosphorescent green. Could it be the depths of hell have opened before us? I hear the echoes of Darius's warning—Perhaps another time would be better.
"Heaven help us," Darius finally mumbles, his face distorted by the ghastly glow of the phantasmagoria.
"Has the Aurora ever come this far south before?" I ask.
"I've never seen it."
"One could read by this light," I say, with but little exaggeration.
"It is a sign," he says. "The heavens themselves are angry. Even the animals are fearful. We must go back."
I am inclined to agree. However, the call of duty gnaws at the very foundation of my soul. I dismount.
"What are you doing?" Darius asks.
"I'm going to tap the line."
His expression says, Have you lost your mind?
"With this light, it'll be much easier than in the dark." I hand Darius the lantern, whose light is feeble in comparison with the Aurora. I open my saddlebag and fish out a wire-cutter, a hammer, a pouch of large nails and a coil of wire. I cut a several-yards length of wire and stash it in my coat pocket.
Darius watches in tight-jawed silence.
"This won't take but a few minutes," I say. "I was one of the best wire-tappers in the Army. At times, I knew as much about Rebel war plans as did their generals in the field."
"Nevertheless," Darius says, "we should come back in daylight."
I am already pounding a nail into the pole. A moment later, I hoist myself onto it. By the light of the gyrating green sky, I pound a second nail. As I work, my thoughts turn to tomorrow's silver shipment to Boise City. This telegraph line is essential to its safety.
Soon I am hugging the top of the pole. Below me, Darius's shadow dances to the silent auroral rhythm. Over my right shoulder, in a distant valley invisible from here, Silver City sleeps peacefully.
I remove my right glove and drop it to the ground. I grasp the cutter.
Wire-tapping is a simple matter, I remind myself as my heart races. With proper care, there is no danger, as the electrical voltage is too small to cause harm.
The coyotes now howl without pause, answering the call of the strange green heavens. Sunflower whinnies.
"You're fighting Nature," Darius calls. "Don't do it."
I shake my head.
He continues, "Whatever it is that brought the Northern Lights here is also what has possessed the wire."
I must admit this possibility makes a modicum of sense, but I give no reply.
"Don't challenge the spirits of the night realm," he pleads.
"You're being superstitious," I shout over the wind. With one arm, I embrace the pole. With the other, I lean and stretch toward the wire.
"No, Timothy!" he shouts.
"You said it before—Nature isn't the danger. There's no greed or deception in it."
"Listen to me!" Darius implores. "The Sun is restless, the Darkness is in distress. Ghosts will be on the prowl."
"Don't bother me now." I steady my boot's heel between the pole and the top-most nail. My right arm strains as trembling fingertips reach for the wire. Darius's mouth gapes in anticipation.
Suddenly the wire snaps. A shower of orange sparks blinds me. Goddess Eris has flung a thousand darts into my flesh, and every nerve in my body rings with the gibberish of the rogue wire. The world around me becomes hazy and I am filled with a sensation of being drawn into the thin copper strand.
* * *
How much time has passed? Seconds? Minutes? Perhaps hours? I struggle to force my eyelids open. The devilish green Aurora is gone. I am in daylight. I am clinging to the upper branches of a young oak tree. Darius and the horses are nowhere to be seen.
Gradually, I realize I am no longer in the mountains of Idaho, but rather in a Virginia swamp. The breeze is pungent with smoke and death. Richmond is burning.
Below me, a few paces distant, a blue-jacketed soldier gasps his dying breath. A voice shouts to me, "Hurry, boy, hurry! We need that line now!" It is General Weitzel.
Clutching an uncoiling length of telegraph wire in my right hand, I reach to fasten it to a branch.
A rustling in the bushes thirty yards away commands my attention. From out of the cover, a rifle barrel glints in the sun. "There he is!" a voice shouts. It is a Southern voice. Another joins in, "It's the Yankee brass pounder."
My hand tightens around the wire. Through bare fingers, without even the aid of a telegraph key, I feel the gibberish within it.
The rifle muzzle slews toward my direction. "Kill the bastard!" one of the voices bellows.
The gun belches yellow flame and white smoke.
Before the sound of the blast reaches my ears, the impact has already rammed into my left shoulder. I fall through space, still clutching the wire.
* * *
I am in a strange bed in a strange room. Unfamiliar voices mutter. I draw in a raspy, labored breath. The warm air is heavy with the smell of ether. My body is wracked with pain, from crown to sole, and my immediate impulse is to return to the nothingness of slumber.
However, a softly-spoken entreaty halts my retreat. "Can you hear me?" Unlike the others, this voice is familiar. I blink several times, until I am able to associate the person's slowly emerging image with his voice. It is Darius. He is standing a few paces away, his hat in his hand.
"Where am I?" I croak.
"In the infirmary," he says. "In Silver City."
"Not Richmond?" I reply.
Darius seems quizzical. "Richmond? No."
Gentle hands lift my head and press a water glass to my lips. I sip.
"What day is this?" I ask.
"Monday." Darius steps closer. "You have been unconscious for two days and three nights."
My left leg is afire, and my chest feels as if it has been trampled by a wild horse. "Did the silver shipment make it to Boise City?" I ask.
"Yes," Darius says.
"Good," I reply, struggling to roll to my side. I am unable to do so, for my torso is tightly bandaged and my leg is splinted.
"Your leg was broken in your fall from the pole," Darius says. "The doctor assures us it will heal in a month."
"You saved me," I murmur. "Thank you."
Darius smiles. "There's something you'll be pleased to know," he says.
"What?" I ask, signaling the nurse I need more water.
"The telegraph line is working as if nothing had ever happened."
My eyes become wide as an owl's at midnight. "What about the gibberish?"
"It's gone," Darius says, laying a hand on mine. "Not a shred is left."
"Gone?" I moan.
"Yes, and there is an explanation for it."
I nod for him to go on.
"Telegraph operators from many nations experienced difficulties that night. There is much chatting about it on the wire today." He pauses for me to comprehend.
"And?" I ask.
"An astronomer in England swears it was the result of a disturbance of the Sun—some kind of storm on its surface."
My nose wrinkles and I groan. "A storm on the Sun? Hogwash!"
"They say it's happened before," Darius says, "seventeen years ago. It wreaked havoc with telegraphs—operators suffered electrical shocks."
I shut my eyes against the pain.
"In addition," Darius continues, "it caused an impressive southward migration of the Aurora Borealis."
The twin images of orange sparks and the hellish green-and-black sky threaten to overwhelm me. I blurt, "How could there be a storm on the sun? It has no clouds."
"How am I to know?" Darius replies, shrugging. "I'm just a key tapper, not a scientist."
The nurse offers me more water. Its coolness is calming. "Nevertheless," I say, "the English astronomer's assertion is . . . intriguing. As even hogwash can be."
Darius's grin brings me a glimmer of comfort.
"If what he and you say is true," I continue, "then there was a natural cause for all we endured that night." I sigh at the thought and relax a bit more. "And Richmond . . . was nothing more than a very bad dream."
"Regardless," Darius interjects, "tapping the wire was unwise."
I sneer. "What are you getting at?"
"You challenged the spirits of the night realm."
I sense my face is flushing. "That's superstitious nonsense!"
My companion continues, his eyes now brimming with unwelcomed pity. "We were alone on the hill that night, you and I. And I couldn't have done it—you can trust my word. It had to be the spirits . . . "
"You're making no sense," I say.
Darius fidgets with his hat. "It was the spirits, all right." His voice is calm and reverent. "I find no other logical way to explain it."
"Explain what, for God's sake?"
Darius points to my left shoulder. "Your bullet wound."
Peter D. McQuade grew up wandering the mountains and deserts of Idaho. When he was six, his parents made the mistake of letting him stay up late to watch Wagon Train, Bonanza, and The Twilight Zone. Pete now resides in Colorado and when he's not writing fiction, he's a professor of Space Systems Engineering—sort of a wagonwright on the cosmic frontier. His short stories have been published in Bewildering Stories, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and the 2022 Pikes Peak Writers Anthology. Follow him at PeteMcQuade.com.
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To Live and Die in Bannack
by James A Tweedie
"Gad, dimmit, Harry! If yer gonna puke do it in someone else's saloon."
Tom Badoin—careful to keep the drunk's vomit off his starched white shirt, black vest and string tie—slipped one hand inside the back of Harry Dupont's pants, grabbed the back of his shirt with the other, dragged him across the sawdust-covered floor of the Long Bar Tavern and unceremoniously threw him through the front door, over the wood-plank stoop, and down the two steps that led to the nameless dusty, muddy, manure and horse-piss soaked street that ran through the center of Bannack, Montana.
It was September, 1863, one year and two months after John White found gold in nearby Grasshopper Creek. What had been one of the most remote corners of the Idaho Territory had quickly grown from nothing into a sprawling, lawless mass of 10,000 men.
Most were miners and prospectors, some were outlaws, and others were entrepreneurs setting up storehouses for hardware, dry goods, clothing, food stuffs, or, like Tom Badoin, trying to produce as much beer and bug juice as 10,000 thirsty men could afford to drink.
Badoin knew his trade well and set up a still and a small brewery even before he began building the saloon.
The whiskey was distilled from whatever he could find nearby—Juniper berries, perhaps, or blackberries, with a dash of tobacco and a few drops of molasses to take the edge off a drink that had the potential to leave a man crazy, blind, brain dead, or just flat-out dead. By contrast, the beer was air-temperature warm and, in order to keep up with the demand, Badoin sometimes watered it down to where there wasn't enough alcohol left to kill the cholera, typhoid, and dysentery in the water.
If a man didn't die from Tom Badoin's booze, it wasn't for the lack of trying.
Even if a man was lucky enough to find a trace of gold in the fields there wouldn't be enough of it to claim a fortune and nothing much to spend it on anyways except at the saloon. But keeping the gold in your pocket wasn't a good idea, neither. Over 100 men were murdered in and around Bannack that year, some from bad blood, but most from bandits who shot first and picked the pockets afterwards when it no longer mattered one way or the other to the man who had been wearing the pants.
Everybody knew that a lot of gold and coin were traded for alcohol every evening so it wasn't a question of "if" the Long Bar Tavern was going to be robbed, it was only a matter of "when" and "how often."
18-year old Francis Fell had decided to skip the Civil War and head west. He was flat broke when he arrived in Bannack and thought the Long Bar would be an easy place to collect enough cash to see him back down the Bozeman Trail to Colorado.
On August the 5th, he walked into the saloon with a bandana over his face, pulled out a U.S. Army-issue Colt .44 and swung it around the room until he had everybody lying on the floor.
Tom Badoin calmly pulled a shotgun from under the bar and splattered Francis half-way across the room to the front door.
"Next time they'll shoot me first," he figured, so he hired Jeb Wright to sit against the wall opposite the bar with a shotgun across his knees each evening, just to turn the odds a ways in his favor.
Jeb, it turned out, was more than just a tough-hombre bouncer. Twice, he'd talked his way out of being lynched by a mob, once in Colorado during the Pike's Peak rush a few years past, and once in Bannack back in June when Johnny Matthews fingered him for being a member of the Innocent Gang that robbed him when he was riding back from the new diggings at Alder Gulch.
"'Twarn't me what done it," Jeb said after his hands had been tied behind his back and a freshly-made noose was being fitted over his neck. "You can ask Tom Badoin if'n I war or warn't passed out drunk on his saloon floor when Johnny here was robbed. Go ask him and he'll tell you what's true."
Now no one in Bannack or the emerging settlement of Virginia City at Alder Gulch wanted to get on the wrong side of Tom Badoin 'cause of fear of being locked out from the beer and firewater. So two of the vigilantes were sent into town while Jeb sat on his horse waiting to see how things played out.
"Tom says to let him go," the men said when they returned. "That's all he said. Didn't say if Jeb here was drunk or whether he's guilty as sin. He just said, 'Let him go.'"
So they did. They let him go. They wasn't particularly happy about it, especially Johnny Matthews, but until the town got an honest-to-God judge, Tom's words were as good as law. And if Tom wasn't around to opine there was Henry Plummer who the Bannack folks had elected Sheriff earlier that spring. But the vigilantes trusted Badoin more than Plummer and some suspected the Sheriff wasn't doing all he could to bust up the gang anyways, and maybe had a hidden interest in keeping them in business.
As for Johnny, he became just another statistic when he was found dead in his tent three weeks later—shot in the head while he was asleep, and Jeb had Tom back him up with an alibi for that, too.
The Innocents were a gang of fifteen or maybe as many as fifty or sixty men who took what wasn't theirs whenever they were so inclined. If they were caught, they were hung. If they weren't, they kept at it until their luck ran out.
Even when they were being hung, none of the gang would say who ran the outfit or how the money was divvied up.
When September came around three men walked into the Long Bar Tavern with guns drawn. One walked over to Jeb and took his shotgun and another did the same with Tom behind the bar, giving neither of the two men a chance to make a move.
The third man scooped up the night's takings from the till after which they left the way they came, leaving the two shotguns behind on the stoop on their way out.
As soon as they were through the door, Tom threw on his six-shooter and ran out of the saloon shouting, "C'm on, boys. Let's get 'em and string 'em up."
Jeb and six other men signed on and, within minutes, the eight-man posse was following the dust trail left behind by the robbers.
As they rode, Tom kept thinking about the man who took the money. Even with a bandana over his face, he knew from the man's height, limp, and shock of blonde hair sticking out from under his hat that he was Buller MacQuinn. Who the other two men were he couldn't quite make out but he figured if they caught up they'd know soon enough.
About five miles out of town they had gained enough ground to see one of the men pounding dust a quarter-mile ahead. Off to their left, another plume of dust rose above a wide stretch of sagebrush and juniper.
"Let 'em go," Tom yelled, as he waved his men forward in an attempt to increase the chance to get at least one of the desperados.
But Jeb had a mind of his own and got two of the others to follow him in pursuit of the two that had split off.
Hell's bells, Tom cursed to himself, hoping that five men would be enough and hoping they'd catch up to the lone rider before he hooked up with ten or twenty more.
He needn't have worried, though, because the man they were chasing suddenly pulled up and, with his hands up in the air, waited for the posse to catch up.
"Dutch?" Tom stammered as he recognized the face of his best friend. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What the hell are you doing, Tom?" came the reply. "You've got no cause to be chasin' me half-way to Bozeman. What's going on?"
"Why were you runnin' from us?" Tom demanded,
"Damn if I didn't have three men catch up to me riding all crazy-like. One of 'em whipped my horse and forced me to keep up until they suddenly turned off to the south a-ways back and left me running on my own. Didn't know if you were friend or foe but figured the ones with their faces hid were the bad guys and you must be the good guys so I pulled up."
"No harm done, friend, but we gotta go. Jeb's got three against three and he's gonna need all the help he can get if he rides into a standoff."
With that, Tom and the four other men turned and headed back to where the rest had veered off the trail.
It wasn't five minutes later that they heard the echo of a gunshot ringing through the clear, high-country air. First one shot, then another, then a burst of five or six more.
A riderless horse galloped past, a pinto Tom recognized as belonging to one of the men who had followed Jeb off the trail—a man they soon saw sprawled dead in a pool of blood.
A quarter-mile on they saw the black smoke of gunfire and heard the whistle of lead splitting the air.
With his pistol pointed towards the sky, Tom fired one shot and cut loose with a war whoop that stirred the blood of his four companions to do the same.
A second riderless horse streaked past as they drew closer, a horse Tom did not recognize. Then, from between two dead horses they saw Jeb and his remaining companion jump to their feet and wave them on towards a rising plume of dust moving further to the south.
"Go get 'em, Tom," Jeb yelled. "But don't go stringin' 'em up without me!"
The way Tom saw it, the three robbers had split up and turned back, catching Jeb and his crew in the middle of a crossfire. When the ammunition ran out, and without horses to ride, they would have been dead within minutes if the rest of the posse hadn't shown up.
It wasn't long before Tom caught up with the two remaining riders and after a few wild, desperate shots they halted their exhausted horses, raised their empty guns in the air and dropped them in surrender.
"Buller, you bastard," Tom shouted. "I oughta shoot you and your bastard friend dead and now for what you done, but the law's what we go by around here so I'll let the Sheriff and a jury decide when and where you're going to hang."
When they got back to where Jeb was waiting, they made the two robbers walk the seven miles back to Bannack so Jeb and his surviving partner could ride. The two dead men were draped over the back of two of the posse's horses with one covered in honor and the other covered in spit and urine.
Two weeks later Sidney Edgerton, appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory, arrived in Bannack with his wife and four children—one week too late to preside over a trial that saw a mob of vigilantes decide that Buller MacQuinn and his accomplice had been allowed to breathe longer than necessary and saw to it that the breathing came to an end with the help of two nooses twisted into shape by Jeb Wright.
The lawlessness of the Innocent Gang and the growing lawlessness of the vigilantes came to a head the following January 10 when Sheriff Plummer and his two deputies were lynched by a mob after he was accused of being the gang's leader.
Were Plummer and his deputies guilty? Or innocent?
Only one thing is sure—it was one or the other.
Closing Note: Descriptions of Bannock and Virginia City, Montana, the Innocent Gang, the 100 murders, and the characters of John White, Judge Sidney Edgerton and Sheriff Henry Plummer (including his hanging) are true to history. All other named characters and the story itself are the product of the author's imagination.
James A. Tweedie is a retired pastor who has lived in California, Utah, South Australia, Hawaii, and Long Beach,
Washington, where he and his wife continue to enjoy life on the beach. As founder of Dunecrest Press, he has
published six novels, three collections of poetry and one collection of short stories.
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