by Raymond Paltoo
Summer had erupted in full profusion, and the plant and animal life had blossomed from winter sterility to summer vigor with a vengeance. The gentle spring rains had paved the way for a warm and fertile summer in the mountains, where our folks lived. But the forest, lush and green, was now still and quiet. The atmosphere was pregnant with the sudden stillness of a bated breath, expectantly waiting and listening for something to happen. No wind stirred the leaves. Two Colors was hunting. He flitted from tree to tree, soundlessly blending in with the forest. He was like a phantom, an ephemeral smoke that came and was soon gone. He was Two Colors, the supreme hunter warrior of the hills.
He was hunting Benjamin Scrumple and the Scrumple gang!
I was going on nigh twelve that summer and glad to be out of school. No real boy wanted to be indoors in the summer, and my mother had arranged for me to go to the Holler. This was somewhere out in the Smoky Mountains where Ma had grown up. She wanted me to get to know her family and spend time with her sister and family. Ma had been born there and lived there until the day my Pa had passed through the town doing his legal work for people who had little or no schooling. When my Pa had seen her, he told me later that he was plumb knocked out and felt that he had to marry her and bring her to the city to live with him and his fancy friends.
Well, I took the stage to the Holler, and my mother, with a few sniffs into her handkerchief, told me to straighten my back and walk tall and proud as if her people were better than the poor trash in the Holler. My mother was a straight one with a backbone of steel. She walked like it also, firmly and steadily. She had kept herself slim and graceful despite having three youngsters and allowed no one to mess with her or our family. She was a regular church-going woman who did not cotton to the slackers and hangers-on who came to my Pa with problems. He was a lawyer with a lot of schooling and a learned way of talking, especially after he had what he called a "few" with the boys at the tavern. Most people in town respected him, and I believe he gave honest service to all the crooks and gentlemen of low character, as my mother would call them. However, Ma thought he was a sucker for any sob story those thugs would relate to him.
Honestly, I felt that she treated him the same as my sisters and me, as someone to be hugged every now and then but needing discipline. She never raised her voice in public with him, but I often would hear him being scolded at home in the night as if he had been her child, like my sisters and me. Nevertheless, they got along as good or better than my friends' parents in our town, who would regularly have some dangerous confrontations ending in black eyes and burst lips. With the characteristic sniff of her sharp nose, my mother would remark that they were common trash and no better than the hill folk in the Holler. So, she had me carted off to her sister for the summer, telling me that Uncle Abner would need me to help him in the store since he had no boys of his own but one measly daughter who, by all accounts, was a very flighty girl with no common sense.
I quickly made friends with a few boys of my age in town, and we had a great time at the fishing hole where we lazed the summer days away. But, of course, we all had to do chores at home because Uncle Abner was an important man in Oakwood and owned the biggest, which just happened to be the only, Emporium in town. Herb and Pete were the two boys with whom I often played after work at the Emporium, and they filled me in on the Scrumples.
The Scrumples had moved into this neck of the woods a mere twenty years ago, homesteading on the mountain's higher reaches. Their cabins clung precariously to the mountainsides like ticks on a dog's hide. They were a lazy and shiftless lot and made moonshine in their stills for sale to the flatlanders. As personified by Sheriff Boog Lawson, the law was afraid of the tribe and avoided them like the plague. They were known to be good with their squirrel rifles, and soon they multiplied and grew in numbers, with Scrumples joining them from other locations out of state; and even marrying their kin. Soon, the town folk would call anyone behaving like these folk "Scrumples!". The saying would be, "Don't be a Scrumple!" if a person would act in a crude and obnoxious manner or be guilty of generally unrefined or extremely uncouth behavior.
That was the unfortunate reputation the Scrumples had amassed in the time they had dwelt in the Holler. The old man, or Patriarch of the family, was Jacob Scrumple. Consistent with the precept of his biblical forebear, he had himself a passel of young'uns with seven boys and two girls. The girls of the clan would come into town on a Saturday to make their groceries and go shopping at Old Abner's Emporium. They were usually a scared-looking lot, shepherded by harsh-faced older women folk who brooked no nonsense. Our town of Oakwood was only about six hundred. Still, the population became considerably swollen on weekends when the young men and women from outlying homesteads would come in to socialize and shop.
Now, Benjamin Scrumple was the last of Old man Jacob's boys, and he was different. He was good-looking, kept himself neatly groomed with shining blond hair, and was said to be an excellent sweet-talker with the ladies, for whom he had quite an eye. The town mothers kept a close eye on their girls when he was around. My cousin Laura, Old Abner's gal, was used to helping her Pappy in the general store on weekends. During the week, she was our part-time school teacher, for in summer, we didn't have regular classes, and she was a tough one at that! Sometimes Benjamin would sidle up to her and start chatting away. She was the belle of the town with her blue eyes and cornflower blonde hair and did not seem to mind his sweet talk. Since her mammy, my Aunt Bella, was not always there, no one suspected anything until the morning when Old Abner found a note on his kitchen table saying she had run off with Benjamin to get married. Then all hell broke loose!
Well, Old Abner was furious, and rightly so. She was all the get he had, and he treasured her mightily. But he happened to be the town's mayor and the richest man in the county. He did not want her wasting her life with backwoods trash like the Scrumples. So, he called an emergency meeting of the Town Council to try and get back his daughter. But, of course, he did not tell them that she had gone off voluntarily. "He took her!' he cried vehemently, "you know he has those taking ways, and he fooled my poor innocent daughter!"
The Council hemmed and hawed because no one wanted to go into those hills to run up against the Scrumples. As I may have mentioned previously, they were a fearsome, godless lot. Some of the Council members wanted to get the county's sheriff involved, but the scandal might have been too much for Old Abner and his wife. In any case, Sheriff Lawson was known to be scared of the Scrumples. Finally, the Council decided to place a bounty on getting her back from Benjamin Scrumple and see if the latter could be eliminated somehow or the other.
Eventually, someone brought up the name of the hunter and tracker, Two Colors. Fortunately, Herb, Pete, and me were listening in on their conversation in the Council chamber unbeknownst to them.
The council members looked at each other uneasily. "He's just as bad as the Scrumples, maybe even worse, so I hear," Councilman Joel blurted out.
"Well, did you ever hear about fighting fire with fire? We need someone as bad to go in there and bring her out, and I never heered about him kidnapping girls," Councilman Thomas shifted his chaw and emphasized his point with a well-aimed stream of tobacco juice into the nearby spittoon. There and then, I figured I would try to practice that technique, as it was mighty impressive.
"Ever consider that she may not want to come home?" Councilman Joel wiped his sweating face apologetically as Abner glared at him.
"I told you he forced her to go with him, practically kidnapped her. We will get the hunter. I'll pay him real well."
The next afternoon, a tall, slim boyish-looking young man clad in buckskins got down of his horse, hitched it loosely to the post outside Abner's Emporium, and walked inside. He trod lightly on the balls of his moccasin-clad feet in a peculiar cat-like fashion with toes turned in, Indian-style.
"Heard you wanted to hire me for a job, sir?" He said to Abner.
"You Two Colors?" asked Abner in some surprise and dismay. Such a well-built personable young man could not possibly be the much-heralded and feared bounty hunter! The man spoke precisely, without the idioms and the accent of the backcountry boys, of whom there were a great many in this neck of the woods.
"Sure am," he replied. And he smiled, the whiteness of his teeth being more in evidence because of his noticeable, permanent outdoor tan. There was something in the high cheekbones of his face and the dark coloring which betrayed some of his Indian heritage.
"Come in! Come in!" Old Abner hooked his thumbs in the front straps of his suspenders, which seemed to be in danger of bursting because of Abner's considerable girth, and he conducted the young man to the office where he explained the problem.
"Two things, Mr. Abner," the young man was polite and matter of fact. "She may not want to come home and," he hesitated a bit, "you have to be prepared for what folks might say about her spending the night up there with those Scrumples."
Abner's face turned almost purple, but then he recovered. "I'll give you a note for her to read, and she will understand. As for the folks in town, they can damn well think what they can!"
"Very well, sir. I'll have her back as soon as I can." He spoke matter-of-factly, almost casually offhand, not seeming the least concerned about the job, and walked out the door, closing it carefully behind him. He left Old Abner feeling relieved with more confidence that the task was as good as done. To us, boys, he was someone to admire. We looked at him in awe as he swung easily into the saddle of the bay, his face unemotional and calm as if he had no care in the world. The big six-gun rested comfortably on his right thigh, and he balanced it with a Bowie knife on the left. The rest of this story I got from my cousin Laura. She was really not a bad sort of a gal but tended to be bossy. I think that Ma's family, at least the females in it, must have been all like that.
Two Colors' movements became cautious as he hunkered down on his heels surveying the cabins below. He waited. He was good at waiting.
Suddenly there was a commotion as one of the Scrumple men ran out of a small cabin alongside the main house. He was in pain and bleeding from a visible wound on his head. "Damn that woman! She sure is a wild one!" he practically screamed. And the hunter, an interested observer, surmised that he had gone in there, a-courting, and was not exactly welcome. He saw a girl move out into the yard with a heavy iron skillet in her hand and knew that it had been her weapon of choice. He chuckled to himself. "They did not know what they were getting into," he thought to himself, and he admired the gumption of the unknown girl and suddenly realized that she most certainly would be Old Abner's gal.
Some of the folk from the other cabins came out to see what the ruckus was about and started laughing at the discomfited young man.
Two Colors marked the cabin and settled down to wait for nightfall.
As night closed in and darkness overwhelmed the clearing, he saw the lanterns wink into existence in each cabin. He waited until a well-setup young man, whom he supposed to be Benjamin Scrumple, knocked on the cabin door, which opened to let him in.
Two Colors crouched low to the ground, keeping himself invisible to anyone in the clearing, and snaked his way silently to the back of the cabin until he could hear the raised voices. "You let him come in here?" he heard her say, her voice raised in anger. "Sure, he didn't mean anything. He's my older brother," was the low-voiced reply.
"Well, you could have fooled me because it was plain what he wanted, and I am not going to lie down with any man until this finger has a ring on it and a parson has said the right words over us as I told you before, Mr. Benjamin Scrumple!" He heard a loud slap and a thud as a body fell. "Don't sass me, gal, if you know what's good for you. There's plenty more where that came from!" And another whack followed. He heard the sounds of a struggle and her voice saying, "You're all beasts! I should have known," with the sound of a choking sob. He heard her voice raised defiantly.
A loud laugh and, "A bit late for that, ain't it, Missie? The town folk and your dad know you are here. No need to act so high and mighty. You're just like all the rest of those town girls. Just want a little lovin' from the right man!" Two Colors heard another thud and realized that it was time for him to act, and he quickly slipped inside. He was familiar with the crude single wooden latch and, efficiently and swiftly, lifted it silently with his knife. However, he knew he had to work fast. Before Benjamin could turn around and start to talk, a steely arm was whipped across his throat, and the right hand came down with a heavy object on his head. He went out cold. Two Colors caught his body and gently laid him on the ground.
The girl got up from the floor, bleeding from her lip, and her eyes widened at his sudden appearance. "Your father sent me. Read this." And he thrust the paper into her hand.
"Come, we have to go quickly." He took her hand, lifted the backdoor latch, and hurried her to the shadows. Once they melted silently into the forest, he made his way surely and swiftly until he came to a clearing where he had hidden the two horses. Then, in a few moments, they were on their way. There was no way the brothers and other clan members would catch up with them now.
"How did you know where to find me?" She asked.
"Been here all day observing the clearing. So easy! You did a fine job on that guy who came a-courting early on." And he laughed soundlessly, his shoulders shaking with mirth.
"He treated me like a regular floozy," she snapped back, offended by his ready laughter. "I did not imagine I would be shared among the brothers!"
"Well, you learned something about them. If I were you, I wouldn't give your parents and friends that bit of information. The less said, the better." You could see that he was enjoying himself.
Once they hit the flats, the horses broke into a canter, and soon the town came into view. The dawn was breaking by the time they were at the door
He knocked at the entrance of the big house, and Abner came out. His daughter ran into his arms, crying in relief, "Oh, Dad! I am so sorry."
He looked at Two Colors.
"She's unharmed, sir." His answer was simple and straight.
"Wait up a bit, son. Come in while I get your reward." The young man followed him and walked in to see the lady of the house preparing breakfast. "Would you care for some tea or coffee, Mr. Two Colors?" she asked.
"Some tea would be fine, Ma'am." He doffed his hat, hung it carefully on the hat rack, and sat at the kitchen table; his long legs tucked neatly under the leaves. "The name is not Two Colors, ma'am but Joe. Two Colors is just my Indian moniker. My mother told me that it was my father's way of saying that I belong to two worlds, Indian and white." He looked around at the Chintz curtains, varnished wooden furniture, and the neat china cabinet, all signs of a prosperous home at that time. "Nice place you've got. Reminds me of home."
She looked at him in surprise.
"My mother's a schoolmarm and keeps a very tidy home," he explained sheepishly and smiled.
"Laura, come and help me get breakfast ready. Joe is staying to eat with us."
Laura and her father entered the room. "She is a good cook, you know, son."
Again, the soundless laugh and the shaking shoulders, "I guess she knows how to handle a skillet, sir." Laura glared at his inappropriate levity, giving him a look with which he was to become all too familiar for many a year thereafter!
Ray is a retired Urologist living in Tampa, Florida. He was born in 1945 in the Caribbean and worked his way through College and Medical school in Canada. After specialization, he went to the Caribbean where he started a department of Urology for the government of Trinidad. He returned to the USA where he practiced in Southwest Kansas. He was a two-term secretary of the Kansas Medical Society. He is currently living and writing in Tampa and has published one novel, "ReBirth", dealing with humanity arising from a post-nuclear holocaust. He writes western and science-fiction stories.
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by M.F. Robinson
Yonder dwells a prophet. Middle-aged and barefooted. His spine is crooked and his teeth are false. The emblem of a crucifix on his bolo tie hangs over his chest. Among his property is an unbroken Spanish stallion named Winged Death that was raised and once ridden by a Comanche war chief.
He is considered by many a thief and a bandit and pitiful criminal. There is a prospect yet held by a certain few who regard him as the flesh of Christ incarnate.
* * *
In early 1879 in Wild Yona County, Indian Territory, the prophet is brought to jail on charges held against him for the murder of God and will be sentenced to death by hanging.
He hires no attorney and the honorable Adam Herrod Adams allows for him to testify on his own behalf.
A sea of whiskers lay littered across the prophet's hollow cheek bones. His hair is slicked back with bear's grease and flower oils from a can of Buffalo Heart Pomade. A hollow and demented glare rifles through his sockets and a flea drowns in the blood of his left eye, where it had come to sup.
"It is your right to judgment," he says, "and I know I am not without sin. But hear this, hear it now. And understand it or don't. I am a son of God."
He says he has come far and wide, all the way from the east, then back again from the west, to preach the gospel and to save mankind from ruin.
His father was a slaveowner, a farmer, philosopher and painter, lawyer and gardener, former soldier of brave merit and a grand singer of poems, and would serve as mayor of Leotie, Georgia for eighteen years. Modeled almost perfectly after the Founding Fathers. His mother was one of the more brilliant minds the country had ever produced, though the world will not know her name, save through the blood of the prophet.
He studied theology at the University of Georgia in the class of 1859 before spending a year in India dedicated to learning the practice of animal medicine. The anatomy of a fish. Elephants and horses. He learned in this tenure the stuff of their hearts. Preaching often thereafter the significance of wild animals and kind-hearted animals and the role of the shepherd as written in the King James Bible, and that in India, in the middle-ages, kings could not inherit the thrown until they could stalk and kill a tiger, and then breathe into its soul life again.
He is hired as a medical assistant for the staff of King Hiram, the name given to a bear famous for gathering crowds by the thousands in San Francisco every Sunday to witness it as it fights to the death, bulls imported from Spain and dozens of wolves at a time said to be bred and raised out of Hell.
After the southern states secede from the Republic of America, he enlists in the Union Army as a chaplain and surgeon. He holds many prayers, many hearts in his hands. Amputates many limbs.
Hears a scream so horrid from the battlefield and in the hospitals, it never fades from within his eardrums so long as he lives, roaring amongst his visions each night while he lay sleeping.
His sermons from these years are published in books no longer in print. He becomes a well-recognized name amongst the ranks and is called in often to General U.S. Grant's quarters for prayer sessions which descent typically into drunkenness. Sharing whiskey and playing cards. Speaking seldomly and when they do speak, they speak of horses.
The prohpet has a spiritual crisis and gives up belief in this world when the Army suffers a two-month long starvation while occupied in Chattanooga, and can be found mumbling daily in drunken slumber, and by the time the Battles for Chattanooga are victorious he cannot be found at all, unconscious somewhere and accounted for in the causality report as dead.
When he is found finally, he is found by Confederates in Leotie, Georgia and they pick his ass up and carry him and then say, "One, two, three," before hurling him into the back of a wagon bound for a prison camp located in Andersonville, Georgia.
He is given one cracker per week, drinks water from a creek which the Rebel guards use as a toilet, is given no soap, and loses eighty-four pounds until he resembles a filthy wraith wandering through a chamber built beneath earth.
He offers sermons each afternoon and as consequence is beaten by guards with the butts of rifles ramming against the center of his spine, and is dragged away each time from the congregation. And comes crawling back, limp-legged with slouched shoulders like some soul lost from eternity and then found amongst us, again and again.
After nine months he collapses, dropping to his knees, then falling against his face upon the embers of a dwindling campfire, gasping one of those last-breath gasps, and does not rise up from the ashes for three days. And on the third day his body is carried off by guards who count out, "One, two, three," before swinging his ass into the back of a wagon filled with twelve other corpses and the stench of death and stained forever in their own feces and urine.
The wagon rolls three miles to a burial ground where in the night the dead are dumped to be buried come the morning. And come dawn the prophet does awaken and cough up clouds of dust and spurted blood, and rises in the darkness with his bones seeming to tear through the garment of his own flesh, appearing under the pale moon as a skeleton resurrected from under its own tombstone.
* * *
In his travels he does not know where is going, and in his travels he offers blessed prayer to homeowners in trade for a cot and quilt to sleep each night and a day's labor for shelter and food. In his travels he lives to see the Confederacy defeated and their slaves emancipated and then a heightened hatred for the newly freed that exceeded even an anger held against Satan.
Once the prophet fully recovers his health, he volunteers again, as a preacher and doctor for the U.S. Cavalry in a new war, this time with the orders from the nation's capital reading, The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian.
He is given boots and decent wages, proper rations of food every day, and he shaves his face with a knife. Sharpens the blade with stone. Washes off the blood on his cheek in creeks. Gives sermons each night by firelight.
There are soldiers whose life in prison was pardoned, and were given freedom under the terms they pledge to hunt down and obliterate Indian savages, and these men, many of them, cannot read and these men, some of them learn from the prophet the words written down in the King James Bible.
The prophet will mark a tombstone with a wooden cross and give a eulogy to all who die in the desert, American soldier and American Indian. Burying men by the hundreds, in the name of American expansion, and burying women and children too.
One night while all the soldiers lay sleeping, they awake finally to the itching sensation of blades gliding across their faces, opening their eyes and they see, that their hands are tied in manger knots by the rope used for their horses, and their mouths gagged with cotton sheets torn from their own shirts and lubricated in buffalo grease where flies swarm within their lips, knives fastened against their cheeks each of them by a Comanche warrior, and they see in the middle of the circle their chief who asks among them who is the one here that claims to speak to your god, and the soldiers scream, Ermm and Arww, stabbing their heads and pointing their gazes upon the prophet who is pushed down to his knees with the chief standing behind him, peering down the manacled soldiers how a priest dwells behind the pulpit.
The chief says he lets them live this night so they can live rest of their days in nightmare, even when they wake shall they see this image for all of time: And he takes out his knife, and presses it into the crown of the prophet's head and the prophet can hear in his own mind clutched thunder, and once his scalp is loose upon his head it is bitten off and completely severed from him by the chief and the warriors ride off with the scalp between the chief's lips.
The prophet will forever be known along the western plains as the Scalped Word of God. In the morning he uses a pocket mirror to see and a steel file to dig into his head, piercing the instrument against his dipole so that the skin on his head will grow back again.
Eight days later, while the warriors are on a hunting party and in their village only are the women and children and a few of the older men, their village is ransacked by the cavalry and burned and its dwellers are killed and massacred mercilessly and violently and savagely.
This is where the prophet first meets the horse Winged Death and it is deemed deaf and demented and dangerous, and when he tries speaking to it, the horse kicks him in the jaw until his teeth are knocked loose from his mouth and crown his head where he lays in the dust as they were the stars of his own constellation.
A soldier molding a tobacco pouch out of one of the dead girl's breasts points to the prophet and to the horse standing over the prophet and laughs, saying, "Call that horse the gait of God, or call it a whore. It don't know no better, no-how."
* * *
From his time in Tennessee during the Civil War the prophet has learned a recipe for moonshine, and after sweeping over the raided and burned Indian villages in North Texas and New Mexico he has discovered in their homes the plant and the uses of the plant called peyote, and through the duration of his time spent in the U.S. Army he has developed a partial addiction to morphine.
From these ingredients, he does develop-by the time he arrives in Wild Yona County in 1871, clad to near nothingness save for a buffalo hide painted in images of Navajo moons-a medicine that he will bottle and distribute as The Holy Ghost.
Sketched into the label are doves descending from clouds possessed with facial features, coming out from the lips, and coming toward the cupped hands of a prisoner on his knees, who is being swarmed by a shadow-wave cast across the desert, and his own shadow manifests the form of a monstrous creature with horns and shark teeth and fire breathing out from its mouth, and eagle's wings spawned from its shoulders spanning the length of its legs and body.
The prophet builds a stage over the grounds of buried buffalo bones and human skulls, hammering boards together left behind of abandoned wagons and old churches.
Framed withing an awning above the stage is a sign that reads, The Altar of The Holy Ghost. Come and See. Come and Hear. Be Wedded by God in the Flesh.
It had been well-known by the citizens of Wild Yona that in their county, for as long as they could remember, there existed no god.
When the prophet arrived, it was in response to a vision he had after sipping from the very first remedy of The Holy Ghost, while living for a year, alone, in the Painted Desert in near death and nailed all over in cactus needles, where he saw the words come from God telling him to track down this land which does not know his name, and he emerged there and could be seen, far off scaling the desert, approaching through waves of dust against the horizon saddled to Winged Death, like a dime-book hero with a rifle and a bible in his saddlebag.
His services open and he appears from behind a curtain which when drawn, is drawn in the image of a red ocean with waves parting.
In the beginning, he speaks to a congregation of seven souls, who buy his medicine and spread his word amongst the townsfolk and eventually he preaches before a flock over one thousand in number.
They say they have seen God come from the skies and also, his image dwelling before them, speaking to them. That is right, they say, God speaks to them through The Holy Ghost as delivered by this prophet come to them as a sign and a thing of miraculous chance.
Many lost souls, then, wandering across the deserts of America, find themselves gathered before the prophet's stage, drinking from his sup claiming to witness God and saying they are found.
He becomes known as a mystical healer, he becomes known throughout a thousand-mile radius and he becomes known as the prophet.
There is an orphanage in which he visits often run by Madame Georgette who teaches the children residing there, whose parents they've lost to Civil War, grammar and writing, arithmetic, daily chores and how to build a fire. The prophet speaks to them the stories of Christ.
Next door is the brothel also run by the same madame where he spends his time playing cards and drinking whiskey, and spends his earnings upstairs in a room where a lady named Beatrice Della lives whose blood is comprised from many lineages, the ancestry of slaves and Cherokee, whites and Hispanics.
On a cold and dreary Easter morning one of the orphans named John Hazel Paul searches for the prophet, after waiting a half hour for him to arrive and give service, looking throughout the town square where men and women shrug and say, "Haven't seen him," and the orphan finally walks up the stairs of the brothel and knocks on Della's door. The hinges creak and the door cracks open. The prophet is naked and still drunk, and falls out of bed, struggling to put on his trousers, trips over his feet and falls upon his face, the sunlight blading through the window pane, and he is moaning with his teeth in a cup of water on the bedstand, and the child stares at him where he is sprawled out on the floor. The child whispers with a hardened breath, asking if he is their new daddy.
* * *
In his time the prophet writes and performs many stage plays and musicals as part of his sermons, titled, Shall He Suffereth Divine, and Jesus was an Outlaw, and Coming Home to Heaven on the Union Pacific Rail Road, all inspired and adapted from Christian scripture, applying Jesus in a Western setting, singing that Jesus came high and low, and in between, and far off in the desert and the desert was mean.
He hires one of King Hiram's cubs to be a dancing bear for his show, and in a few performances the bear is witnessed speaking to the crowd in plain English.
Della portrays Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary and the wife of Moses and in one show, after Jesus is crucified by hanging, she goes to defend her husband's tomb-with the epitaph reading, Moses: Still Waiting on God-from the devil and the devil is singing and the bear is dancing and Della's character bites the devil's throat until blood spurts from his neck, and she drinks it and eats his Adam's apple from her palm and he who was in the tomb rises.
The prophet's church becomes know from either coastline and is considered the most exciting spectacle in the West, rivaled only by the town's fantastic hangings.
Over forty men are hanged in Wild Yona in the 1870's, and two women too, and at least one child not thirteen years old, and the prophet tries to save them each from eternal damnation for the small price of all the currency they have left on their person, or in the bank, or buried somewhere on their property.
Among the convicted is Gabriel Finch, who in 1872 claims to kill the notorious outlaw named Rintrah 'Rinny' Hoover-wanted in five states for a variety of murder and robbery charge, and when Finch comes to collect the price on the outlaw's head he realizes he did not shoot Hoover but a fourteen year-old boy named Johnathan Kyd after he had just finished a school-play production of American Outlaw, where he portrayed the outlaw in an accolade performance, and even as he lays dead in the dust with a black hole through his mind outlined by a trickling red circle, his resemblance to the outlaw Hoover is uncanny.
In 1875, Cecil Blevins is one of the passengers in a train when it is robbed by a man in a black bandanna disguising his face and claiming to be Rintrah Hoover-discovered later to be Earl 'The Squirrel' Byrl. After he leaves with the money, Blevins trails him quoted by his wife in the papers as saying, "I just need to find a place in the woods for a breath of fresh air right quick and relieve myself. I'll be right back before you can say, We was just robbed by Skinny Rinny Hoover." He saddles his horse and it leaps outside the train cart, tracking the robber back to his house and killing him, saying, "I'm a kill your skinny ass," before realizing the man he kills is not the wicked outlaw Hoover, and Blevins confesses later to the prophet that as he was about to pull the trigger, the man said, "I ain't Hoover. It's me, the Squirrel. I only wanted the cash." And Blevins killed him anyway. When the prophet tells him he can be saved so long he gives the prophet all that he owns, Blevins says he's as broke as a little ole pitiful pony horse.
"What about the money from the train robbery?"
"I shot him before I asked where he hid it. I never did find it."
The prophet digs up the property, tearing up floorboards and knocking down walls, destroying the house but the money is never found.
In 1877, John Hazel Paul, who had left town for six years and wandered in the desert, returns for Madame Georgette's funeral and commits only the crime of resembling Rintrah Hoover so much he could have passed as an identical twin and the town along with the town's lawmen are convinced he's the outlaw Hoover in the flesh and will be convinced none otherwise. In bringing him to justice, three men are killed in a fight over the reward of $10,000, and Hazel Paul will be the only man to hang in Wild Yona to spit on the prophet's face instead of asking from him forgiveness.
* * *
During the service following Hazel's Paul's hanging, Della comes to the stage leaning on her knees and panting, with skin so sensitive if she is touched she swears someone is cutting her or striking fire upon her flesh, that her vision is blurred and she vomits all hours of the day.
It is demons possessed inside her, declares the prophet, saying that Satan has seeded her with his sperm. He passes around a gold chalice filled with The Holy Ghost and all partake and he lays Bella down on the floor and touches her belly and pretends to play a piano just above her soul and her face.
"Now be still," says he, "and get thee behind me."
The congregation watches in silence as The Holy Ghost settles within their stomachs.
"Death and Hell begone from you woman," the prophet demands. "You abominable creature and foul seducer. Foe of virtue. Monster, give way to Christ. Everlasting damnation waits for you."
He breathes into her face, down her body. Speaks a whispered and chanted prayer just above her womb. He speaks then to all the congregation there with tremendous treble, and almost trembling, saying, "I said for your soul be rid of Death and Hell."
As he speaks they can see, his clouded breath shrouding her form, her screaming, and the fangs of some monstrous creature departing from her womb, a pool of blood upon which stands the prophet, throated death-cries sounding as demons, and fleeing through the cloud as it disintegrates are the screeches and hairy wings of a hundred bats fluttering out from within her and flying away into the sky where they drown.
The prophet is on his knees and is holding his hands spread above his head. "The demons fear her now," he says, "as they would God."
The collection plate is passed and he peers down those who gather from their pockets and give currency, and those who do not, and he says, "Do not be shy now. Have I not made you a witness to God?"
* * *
Three days after Christmas in 1878 there is a new child taken in by the orphanage. He is twelve years old and intellectually inadequate, burdened with a feeble mind that he has been stunted with since infancy, who breathes as a frightened mule and can only make grunting sounds with his mouth. His name is Joshua.
He is brought to the prophet to be healed and cured. The prophet says he shall be saved or Jesus Christ dies here, tonight, and he draws a crowd of thousands, leading Joshua to the river where they walk until waist deep and he holds the child's head by the hair and pinches his nostrils shut. The child squirms and squeals retardedly while being pulled down and held underwater.
The prophet says, "Do not show unto him your justice, Lord. Give him mercy. Save this child from his own flesh. Let nothing hurt him anymore. Touch his heart, Lord. Come inside him."
Tree branches sway on the river banks, pulled and plucked by the winds. Nearby is a chime pealing with silver echoes. Birds learning to sing and learning to fly. Clouds come overhead and the sunlight bleeds through, and shines directly above the prophet. He speaks as though angels lift and carry his words from God and deliver them to the flock.
By the time he lifts Joshua's head above water and releases his grip from his face, the child's face slaps against the river where his legs rise and he floats, with the calm current, bobbing up and under the surface, dead.
The prophet is arrested and brought before a jury where he says it was not he who drowned the child but God who took him up.
The last words he speaks from his lips before the dark mask is put over his head, before a crowd of thousands, the scaffold under his feet breaking as does his neck, him there dangling from the noose, like a church bell clapper that sways without touching the bell's lip: This world is nothing. Even Jesus Christ was killed in it.
M.F. Robinson is the founding editor of the Leotie Review which can be read here:
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by Jason Crager
Snake Creek, Montana
Although the air was still crisp, the rolling winds which regularly meandered down from the peaks of the Bears Paw Mountains had come to a temporary halt and the late-morning sun held strong in a clear, blue sky. The surrounding landscape was pale in every direction, an unattractive scene of grays, browns and yellows. Unless from region-trained eyes, spotting game in this season was a near impossible task.
Lewis Bordeaux, clad in treated hides and a cap of fur, held still, crouched and concealed behind a jutting stone in the foothills; his rifle loaded, poised and ready. At the age of twelve, he knew that his single shot, .22 long was not enough to fall a mountain lion. Still, with four head of cattle already slain at the hands of this beast and his father, ignoring sleep to watch after the remainder of the small herd, becoming more stressed each day, Lewis hoped to find the cat and wound it, at the very least. If he could manage to put a hole in it, then it would become clumsy and slower, less agile. Furthermore, the animal may leave behind a blood trail that could lead Lewis's father to its den, or a place of hiding.
Knowing the risks involved, he had not told his father of these daily hunts. He simply undermined them as scouts for small game, which his father encouraged by allowing Lewis ten grams of black powder for each trip. At five grams a shot, this allowance would keep Lewis's hunts short and bring him back to the cabin in time for dinner each evening, be it through boredom or lack of ammunition.
Lewis relaxed his grip on the rifle and laid his cheek upon the cold rock. He was beginning to feel the exhaustion of staying awake for several nights with the hopes of being there when his dad killed the predator that threatened their Winter's food supply. His eyelids grew heavy and his body relaxed. Just as he was on the brink of dozing off, there came a movement in the hills above him. He lifted his head, squinted and strained his eyes in search of the nature of this movement.
Then, he saw it. It was a feline of thick and ragged coat, much larger than he had imagined it to be. The animal stood atop a narrow precipice, its shoulders thick and proud, looking down at Lewis. He slowly inched the stock of his rifle back to his shoulder as the cat stirred in alarm, scanning its perimeter for an escape route. As the animal lowered its thick body to spring away, Lewis sprang to his feet and began to take aim.
As he came up, his right foot skidded across a patch of loose gravel and before he could gain balance, Lewis tumbled to the hardened earth, knocking the side of his head against the surface of the rock he hid behind, his rifle leaving his grip. Cursing his own clumsiness, he quickly scooped the gun up and went back to seeking his target. The mountain lion was gone.
Lewis ran his fingers across the painful lump on the side of his head and they came back red. He could feel the blood trickling down his neck. Discouraged, he knew that he needed to head back down to the cabin and find a way to explain this mishap to his father. One last time, he looked up to verify to himself that his intended prey was no longer there. The precipice was vacant. His shoulders slumped in disappointment and he turned to head home just as a shuffling above stopped him in his tracks.
In an effort to not startle anything again, Lewis raised his rifle back into firing position and very slowly tucked his chin to aim before he began to turn around. Once his sights were set on the location where the nuisance cat had stood, he paused in confusion.
There before him, not thirty feet away and much closer than the feline had been, stood a magnificent, short maned steed, the definition of its rippled muscles shining in the sunlight. The horse stared at Lewis, its ears perked and its breathing steady. It was a fully-grown stallion with a muzzle of mottled skin and bright white sclera in its eyes. The horse's front quarters were of a sleek and flawless, jet black, and the rear was snow white marked with randomly located and oddly shaped spots of black. Its wide hoofs were dark with distinct, golden lines running vertically through them.
Suddenly, the stallion gave a loud snort and then let out a tremendous neigh which echoed through the slopes and off the cliffs above, its front legs rising and kicking into the air before it leapt and broke into a full gallop directly at Lewis. Terrified, Lewis turned and fled as fast as his feet would carry him, running towards his home. Without looking back, he crossed the hundred, downhill and lightly wooded yards to Snake Creek, his heart thumping and his eyes watering, hearing the stomping hooves behind him all the while. He nearly lost his balance as his legs went crashing into the clear, icy waters of the creek and he plowed straight into his father, knocking the tin sifting sieve from the prospector's hand.
"Lewis, what the hell you doing?" William Bordeaux demanded, wrapping his strong arms around his son's thin frame and bringing the boy to a halt.
Lewis, trembling and sobbing while gasping for air, held his father tightly and pressed his cheek to his chest. It took some time for the boy to calm himself enough to realize that the dry thump of approaching hooves had ceased. Sniffling and opening his eyes, he scanned the perimeter in search of any sign from the great horse. There was nothing. All was still and no dust was disturbed into the air. It was silent except for the lazy trickle of the creek's water.
"Dad! There was a giant horse, a wild one! It was chasing me through the hills!"
William guided Lewis to the opposite bank of the shallow creek. There, he sat the boy down and retrieved his .44 caliber, Allen & Wheelock breech rifle from the rock he had leant it against in the early morning hours. He shouldered the trusty rifle and began a field search of the trees and hillsides across the creek, clear up to what visible bluffs there were of the Bears Paw Mountains. Satisfied that there were no immediate dangers lurking, he returned his attention to his son.
"Lewis, what happened? Why are you bleeding?"
In the heat of the moment, Lewis had forgotten all about the opened lump on the side of his head. He touched it now, and winced away in pain, hissing between clenched teeth. "Dad, the horse was after me. I didn't do anything to it, I promise. It just came after me for no good reason."
Knowing that the boy had never been one for creating tall tales, William once again squinted and peered into the hills. Again, he saw no trace of any wildlife nearby. Upon looking back to his son, he could see that regardless of what Lewis may have thought he saw, the boy's back to his son, he could see that regardless of what Lewis may have thought he saw, the boy's fear was genuine.
"Where's your twenty-two, boy?"
Lewis looked around and suddenly realized that in his escape, he had failed to bring his rifle along. His shoulders slumped, knowing that his oversight would be the cause of disappointment from his father. Long was the lecture that his father had given him in regards to the level of responsibility that came with receiving his first rifle and now, the reality of his having let his father down was quickly setting in. Tears welled in Lewis's eyes and he looked down into his own lap.
"I'm sorry. I must have left it up there."
William sighed and bit his tongue, knowing that now was not the time to berate the boy for his error. "Do you remember where you were?"
"Well, we best go get it, then."
Lewis led his father up to his secret hunting spot. There, behind the stone ledge and partially covered in silt, they located the .22 long. William silently scanned the earth surrounding the ledge, searching for evidence of the boy's horse story. That there were no prints or visible disturbance of the landscape confused William. Surely, he thought, Lewis must have seen something around here that spooked him enough to leave his rifle behind.
"I swear, it was here, Dad." Lewis attempted to erase his father's unspoken doubt.
William noticed a smudge of fresh blood smeared across a sharp point on the ledge's surface. "Did you hit your head, Lewis?"
"Yes, I slipped in the sand on accident."
"Were you holding your rifle when you fell?"
Lewis hesitated. "Yes, I was, sir."
"You have to be more careful when carrying a firearm, son. It could have ended very bad for you," William pointed out. "Did you bump your head before, or after you say you seen this horse?"
"It was before," Lewis recalled, quietly.
William nodded in understanding of what he now believed occurred up here. "My guess is that you clobbered yourself a good one and probably blacked out. That would be when you thought you seen the horse. It's not uncommon for someone to wake up in a panic after taking a fall like that, Lewis." He put his arm around the boy's shoulder and looked up into the steeper hills.
"Besides, there ain't no wild horses 'round these parts anymore. They've all been domesticated, killed, or ran off by now. Come on, let's get you home and cleaned up."
The Bordeaux homestead was a small plot of unclaimed, flat land that they had squatted on many years ago. At just a short walk from the Eastern bank of Snake Creek's shallowest stretch, which ran along the edge of Bears Paw Mountains to the West, and virtually no neighbors to compete with for riches or wildlife, it was the ideal location for William Bordeaux to settle and begin his quest for gold. The house itself was a small, dirt floored cabin constructed of earth and wood. It was basic, with one, ground level room that served as the living quarters, the kitchen, and a bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Bordeaux. A ladder in the corner led up to a tiny loft where Lewis slept on a bed of straw covered with his mother's handmade linens. A fireplace with chimney built of stone debris from the mountains and clay from beneath the creek provided heat, light, and means for cooking hot meals.
Having free reign of the open land, the family always utilized its grassy resources to their full extent. They maintained a herd of approximately fifteen beef cattle, minus those that had recently fallen prey to the mountain lion, that they used for food source and bred with cheaply purchased cows from the Idaho territory. The Bordeauxs also kept a thriving field of wheat, as well as a large potato patch. They had four aging, yet able mules, a quality quarter horse gained in trade from the Crow, and a number of chickens pecking randomly about the property, plucking pea gravel and wild oats from beneath the soil. At the Southeast corner of what they knew to be their property, there was a buried crate where William stored the highest quality of his discovered nuggets.
William Bordeaux had no intention of becoming a lifelong prospector. He simply dreamed of one day accumulating enough of the precious mineral to move his family to the Eastern civilization of Pennsylvania and sell his score for profit enough to live a comfortable lifestyle. Having lost his wife to polio five years ago, he now held onto that same dream for the benefit of himself and his only son.
When they drew near their cabin, they could see the saddled horses in front of it, even over some distance. William instructed Lewis to remain behind him and keep his mouth shut as they approached the house; William's rifle leveled and ready, his finger on the trigger as three men emerged from the cabin's door, two were white men dressed in military blues, complete with yellow accents, caps, and polished boots. The third, who wore a more aged version of the blue jacket, was a dark-skinned man with yellowed eyes, the sides of his head shaved to the scalp and a dirtied red bandana over his brow.
"Who goes there?" William yelled, startling the men, two of whom were quick to draw sidearms and set their sights on Lewis's father.
"Mr. Bordeaux?" The officer with the stripes who had not drawn his weapon questioned.
William answered with a slight nod, standing his ground and never lowering the long barrel of his Allen & Wheelock.
"Stand down, men." The other two soldiers lowered their pistols, the regret evident on their faces. "I am Commander Samuel D. Sturgis of the United States Army. My brigade is camped a few miles back and we have come to scout these premises."
William held his aim. "Scout for what?" He asked.
"For Injuns," the other soldier piped in, a low, guttural laugh rising from within his lungs.
Lewis bent over and snuck a peek beyond his father's waist. Having seen Yankees before, the bearded men in uniform were not foreign to him. It was the one in the red bandana, on the other hand, who grabbed at the youngster's curiosity. This one, quiet and straight backed with thin, pressed lips and an air of wisdom about him fascinated Lewis. This one stared steady eyes directly through his father and into the very soul of Lewis himself.
"Commander Sturgis, I'd appreciate it if you and your men would be so kind as to step away from my home. Then, we can talk." The three complied and William finally lowered his rifle.
The men talked openly as William tended to the side of Lewis's head, cleaning the wound with hot, sanitized water and bandaging it with a strip of white, cotton cloth. All of this doctoring seemed rather unnecessary to Lewis, but he allowed his father to proceed with whatever he felt to be best at the time. Although never making direct eye contact with the man, Lewis could feel the eyes of the one in the red bandana upon him the entire time.
"Ain't been no Indians around here, Mr. Sturgis." William assured him.
"No, maybe not yet. We've received word from Oliver Howard that the Nez Perce are, without question, heading this way, though. Word is, they should be coming through somewhere near these parts before daybreak tomorrow."
"If you don't mind me asking, why these parts, Sir? The Idaho territory's a far more abundant land than these. What would they want here?"
The other military man, whom they learned was called Crazy Pete, snickered and spat over his shoulder. "You been missing a lot of updates all the way out here by yourselves, Bordeaux." This man with the scraggly, red beard and the tobacco juice stains on the collar of his coat now began to stare at Lewis with a crooked, sinister grin at the corner of his mouth. Lewis felt threatened by Crazy Pete's glare.
"It's true," Samuel Sturgis confirmed, stuffing his pipe full of tobacco from a small pouch he kept concealed within the breast pocket of his navy colored jacket. He put fire to his pipe and released a cloud of sweet scented, blue smoke from his lungs.
"Seems that their Chief Joseph, along with his brother Ollokot, are not so keen on taking their generously given place in the reservation to make room for expansion of Lewiston City. Seems the Wallowa band also has a knack for killing government officials. After rebelling and committing murder, they've ran their red asses north to get in with the Crow. Word is, the Crow won't have them, tough. So now, we've received wire that the Nez Perce plan to head straight through here on their way to Canada."
William finished nursing Lewis's head and motioned for the boy to give the adults their private space to continue this conversation. Lewis was quick to make his presence vanish around the corner of the cabin, the silent scout with the red bandana's eyes following his retreat. There, out of sight from the grown men, Lewis squatted and strained his ears to hear the rest of their words.
"Where'd you get the Injun boy?" Crazy Pete interjected before his leader could continue speaking.
"That's no Indian. That's my son, and if you have any issues with him, then why don't you just come right out and say what's on your mind, Pete?" The malice in William's voice was evident to all as he lowered his hand to the butt of the .44 rifle that lay ready across his knees.
Crazy Pete grinned and motioned to reach for his revolver. "Leave it be, Pete," Sturgis ordered.
Although Crazy Pete's words still stung, Lewis knew that the soldier referred to him, and he was not in any way ashamed. His father had always made sure that he knew his heritage well. Even at a young age, he had always been aware of his obvious difference in appearance. With his sienna eyes, pointed chin and prominent cheek bones, along with the soft, straight and long, ebony hair which he kept tucked back into a tightly knotted tail, Lewis always knew that there was something odd about him. The tanned, almost olive colored skin only reinforced his suspicions.
At the age of seven, shortly after the passing of his beloved and nurturing mother, Lewis's father had made it a point to let the child know the nature of his physical features. He explained to the boy how the Bordeauxs of years past had been French-Canadian explorers and fur traders who made their way south in search of the original Oregon trail, and the bountiful trapping opportunities along that route. Some of that early clan found a love for the Pacific Northwest and remained in the area while the rest of the expedition moved on. One who stayed behind was Lewis's grandfather, William's father.
Growing up within such close proximity to the indigenous people of the region, they learned to peacefully coexist with these tribes, sharing in the spoils of the land without stepping on each other's toes. Young William Bordeaux soon fell in love with a beautiful maiden of the Nez Perce. After much argument and council, it was decided that as a symbol of the mutual agreement between the Bordeauxs and the Nez Perce, the two would be permitted to wed according to native traditions. Lewis was conceived shortly after their marriage.
"Why Canada? Why would Chief Joseph choose Canada for his people?" William asked Commander Sturgis.
"Well, with the prices on their heads and the warrants for murder on their tails, they're outnumbered and starting to realize that making war with the United Sates government wasn't such a good idea. Since the Crow won't have them, their last hope is to find refuge with that scoundrel Sitting Bull, and the dirty Lakota who followed him into Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn."
"We plan to stop 'em." Crazy Pete added.
William looked over the three men, individually sizing them up. "All by yourselves?" He raised a brow.
"Far from it, Mr. Bordeaux." Samuel Sturgis looked towards the towering peaks of the Bears Paw Mountains. "I'll have you know that once our brigade combines with Oliver Howard's outfit after daybreak tomorrow, this field and those hills will be full with over fifteen hundred armed soldiers. The way we got it figured, that'll be right around the time them Nez Perce should be passing through. We're expecting a band of close to eight hundred of 'em, all desperate."
The officer turned his head, looking deep into the eyes of William Bordeaux, an expression of concern on his face. "I suggest that you and your, uh, boy hightail it out of here before things get messy in these parts. That's the best advice I can give you."
Lewis, still listening in from just out of sight around the front corner of the cabin, also looked to the hills. They were calm and tranquil, just miles of beautiful and untarnished, American landscape. Why would anyone choose this peaceful place as a scene for war? Why would someone befoul this country in such a way? He allowed his eyes to drift across the northern horizon and into the east, trying to imagine these vacant lands becoming a battlefield, a place of slaughter.
His sights came to rest on a darkened shadow in the far distance. He did not have to wonder what the figure was. He knew it to be the very same steed he had seen, or thought he seen earlier up in the hills. It stood statuesque in the fading sun, as if keeping a close, almost protective eye over Lewis. He thought it best not to disturb the adults by informing his father of the animal's presence.
The massive, orange sun was now beginning to dive behind the rocky mountain tops. It was the time of day when October temperatures dropped rapidly in this region, with the sun's warmth diminishing and the northwestern winds picking up force on their way through the hills. The chill quickly broke through Lewis's clothes. He folded his arms across his chest and squeezed himself tightly. His head was now throbbing from his earlier fall, and his stomach felt empty.
"Well, Commander Sturgis, I thank you for the warning, but I'm afraid we'll just have to take our chances here in our home. This ain't our conflict. Whatever dispute you may have with them Nez Perce . . . "
"Injuns," Crazy Pete spat.
"Whatever dispute you may have with them Indians," William continued, "has nothing to do with me and my son. We will hunker down, protect ourselves, and stay out of everything." He made this decision just as he spoke, all while thinking of his buried treasure at the corner of his land. "I'll get up with the sun and move what's left of my cattle out, but we will not give up our home."
William rose to his feet, the .44 propped in the crook of his arm. "Now, gentlemen, I'm afraid it's not much, but I can offer you a dish of home cooked, beef stew and a hot cup of coffee before you head back to your camp."
After the three scouts had thoroughly filled their bellies, showed their gratitude and departed, William and Lewis Bordeaux sat for some time in silence, warming themselves before the fire, rifles beside them and each lost in his own thoughts. Confronted with the bigger picture of the things that Samuel D. Sturgis had informed William of, he made no mention, negative or otherwise, in reference to his son's earlier lack of responsibility in leaving the .22 long behind in the hills. He also did not question the boy any further about the horse he had supposedly seen up there. After a while, they simply said their goodnights and Lewis climbed up into his loft for a try at sleep, something that he knew would not come easily.
After much struggle, Lewis did eventually manage to catch a short period of restless shuteye. This came at a price, though, as his dreams were plagued with vivid visions of smoke and fire, of the only home he'd ever known being attacked by savages, and being forced onto the bare back of a wild, bucking and unbroken horse, a black and white one with short hair and spots across its hind quarters.
Lewis awoke in a cold sweat, startled by the thundering sounds outside and the bumpy trembling of his loft. He sat up and threw his bedding aside. Having lain down in his clothes, he threw his cowhide, outer coat on, along with his well-worn boots, and hurried down the ladder, where he found his father at the opened front door, Allen & Wheelock in hand. The yellowish-gray, predawn light barely filtered through the doorway and into the small home.
Lewis rushed over for a look through the cabin's eastern window just in time to see what remained of their cattle fleeing into the unknown lands beyond while the four mules remained secure to the hitching post, grunting and stomping in a nervous state of panic. All of the chickens had apparently scattered as the thundering drew nearer and now seemed to be right on top of them. Cookware fell from its hanging place on the wall and what was left of the fireplace's flames flickered and flinched as the coals and remaining wood shifted in the rumble.
He grabbed his still loaded and ready to shoot .22 long from the corner he had left it propped in the night before, and he joined his father at the cabin's door. "Dad! What's happening?"
"Horses, Lewis! Hundreds of them!" William shouted over the noise, watching the spectacle outside in amazement.
Lewis focused, searching through the thick, mushrooming cloud of dust in search of what his father seemed so fascinated by. Suddenly, his vision adjusted and he began to make out the figures tromping through the field, powerful horses as numbered as the stars, galloping in a single mass for as far as the eye could see. Lewis watched in shock and awe at this breathtaking display, as the pack strived for some unknown destination to the north. It was the most amazing sight the boy had ever laid eyes on.
Then, there began to filter in another line of horses, these outside the perimeter of the pack and mounted by armed men in scant clothes, all howling and hollering in high pitched voices. William reached to his side and brushed young Lewis behind him. When he looked back, Lewis could now see the alarm in his father's eyes, which caused the scared boy to glance away for a brief instant.
Before he had the chance to turn forward again, a ground-shaking blast rang out and Lewis felt a warm liquid splash across his face, clouding his vision and flooding his mouth with the taste of iron. William's limp body crumbled to the floor and Lewis ran, screaming, to a back corner of the house.
The man who entered the cabin, stepping over his fallen father with still smoking revolver in hand, had a majestic appearance. There was a warrior's demeanor to him. His bare, browned torso was cut with muscle and his flowing, black hair waved wildly about; a single feather, large and brightly colored, hung from behind an ear. The man made eye contact with Lewis as the boy raised his rifle, attempting to level it at his father's killer with unsteady hands. A look of confusion seemed to cross the man's facial features and then, he turned on his heels and ran off before Lewis could muster the courage to fire his weapon.
Now, the unmistakable sound of multiple guns erupting outside filled the room. Lewis rushed to the eastern window, which seemed to be the primary source of this gunfire, and he peered out. The newly rising sun lit up the horizon in that direction and Lewis could see a mighty cavalry of soldiers approaching, mounted upon thinner and lesser animals than those in the northbound pack, all firing at will with both pistols and muskets, the gun smoke floating above them like a massive storm cloud of blue. Horses and men fell in their fury as the valiant army progressed with increasing speed.
Lewis turned and slumped to the floor, his back against the wall. His breathing came in short, quick gasps and his eyes filled with tears as he watched the sickening pool of dark red spread through the dirt around his father's shattered skull. Lewis managed to suppress his tears and fear enough to give his next step a rational thought. Discarding his .22 long for a moment, he went in a bent over run to his father's body and retrieved the more powerful .44 caliber.
Just as he returned to the relative safety of his place beneath the eastern window, a very near shot boomed from beyond, followed by a loud braying and a heavy, earth pounding thud. He peered over the window's wooden ledge and watched a blue coat soldier pressing the barrel of his revolver against the side of the head of his next victims, another of the Bordeauxs' mules, mules not branded with the U.S. military's stamp of approval. Even with a disheveled uniform and dirt covered face, Lewis recognized the man as Crazy Pete.
"Hey!" Lewis yelled, knowing that his family's, and now his own every day existence relied heavily upon those very mules.
Crazy Pete's trigger finger froze in place and he turned to look at the boy with scorn and bloodlust in his eyes. "Injun," he snarled, spotting young Lewis through the window and smiling with joy.
Crazy Pete turned the business end of his gun toward Lewis just as the boy made to lift the heavy Allen & Wheelock, but before either one could manage to get a single shot off, there came a loud whinny followed by a bone splintering crack and Crazy Pete went flying into the air, landing with a cry onto the hard earth, his revolver dropping from his hand. There, next to the window, stood the large, spotted steed of black and white, his brutal kick having made quick work of the man who intended to shoot Lewis. As the injured Crazy Pete looked on in disbelief from his back, Lewis leveled his father's rifle and pulled the tight trigger, laying the soldier to eternal rest.
Understanding that holing up and single-handedly defending his homestead was no longer a realistic option, Lewis began to plan for his own escape amidst the mayhem outside. He scanned the room with eyes in search of his father's ammo and located the pouch still hanging from a jagged spike near the front door. As he began to lift himself to his feet, a shadow cast by the vibrant, morning sun filled the room. It seemed that William Bordeaux's slayer had returned to claim his trophy.
The warrior produced a short and stout, stone blade from a leather sheath at his side. He leaned over and, brushing pink flesh and gray matter aside, he pulled at a gnarled tuft of the dead man's hair, lowering his blade with a crazed look in his eyes. Just as the sharpened stone dug into what remained of his victim's scalp, a hand wielding a large and shining flat of solid steel crept swiftly over his shoulder from behind. There was a clean, slashing sound, much like that of beef being butchered, and the warrior's form slumped atop the body of William. He twitched and gurgled on his own blood before stiffening and then going limp.
There, in the doorway, stood the dark-skinned man with the mohawk and dirty red bandana who had visited Lewis and William alongside Commander Sturgis on the previous day. The tall man made a slow bow in Lewis's direction and then, for the first time, he spoke. "Come."
Somehow knowing that he had no other choice but to obey this man's beckon, Lewis gripped his father's .44 and followed him out of the house, reaching up to pull the ammo pouch from the wall on his way by the two deceased men.
Outside, as the gunfire, pounding, crying and hollering continued all around, the strong beyond his appearance man in the red bandana snatched Lewis up by the back of his collar and easily hoisted the boy onto the unsaddled back of the spotted stallion. With a loud 'whoop' and a quick slap to the horse's rear end, the man sent Lewis and the horse on their way. Gripping the steed's short main between his small fingers, Lewis rode the wild animal along the path of least resistance, joining in with the stampeding pack of unmounted and unguided, northbound horses, leaving the death behind and watching man, woman and child being gunned down in random slaughter as they left.
The Battle of Bears Paw Mountain ensued for five long days, nearly a week of havoc resulting in the deaths of approximately a hundred and twenty-five United States Army men, and substantially more people of the Nez Perce. In the aftermath, over four hundred of the Nez Perce surrendered and were eventually transferred by train to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Lewis Bordeaux and his spirit horse were accepted into the tribe and took up with the Lamatta band, led by the brave White Bird, who managed to escape safely across the Canadian border, which was a mere forty miles away from Snake Creek. The Bordeaux fortune of buried gold was never discovered.
Jason Crager is an author of westerns and contemporary stories. Aside from his western novels and short story collections,
Jason's work has been featured in literary journals, a number of anthologies, and published to various magazines. He lives
a happy and peaceful life in the beautiful river and bluff country of De Soto, Wisconsin, USA.
Social media link: facebook.com/jasoncragerswriting
Amazon author link: https://www.amazon.com/Jason-Crager/e/B076VSZ4QQ
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by Phillip R. Eaton
A solitary oil lamp sat in the center of the table in the drafty old cabin. Its flame flickered from the gale force winds that whistled through the cracks in the walls. The sounds were deafening.
Annie Randolph stared at the logs stacked next to the fireplace and worried about running out if the temperature continued its downward plunge. If she was going to make a trip to the woodshed, she'd better do it now while there was still some semblance of daylight outside. Sunset was only minutes away. She emptied the canvas sack of the few logs that were left in it, wrapped herself in a blanket and headed out. A strong gust of wind nearly knocked her off her feet as she tried to pull the door closed behind her.
Snow was beginning to fall, and Annie figured she'd have to make several trips in order to have enough wood to last her through the night. The frozen ground, combined with the strong wind, made walking difficult. A couple of gusts were powerful enough that Annie lost her footing and tumbled head over heels. She got a small reprieve when she finally made it to the shed. The open side of the lean-to faced away from the wind, and she was able to catch her breath. The walk back to the cabin was made a little easier by the additional weight of the firewood, but the flurries were increasing by the second, and visibility was getting worse.
After stacking the wood neatly along the inside cabin wall, Annie moved the rocking chair closer to the fire to warm her frozen toes. She had never been much of a coffee drinker, but she thought that a piping hot cup of joe would work wonders to warm her insides right about now and set a kettle next to the fire.
Annie's stomach growled; it was time to think about dinner. Her choice was easy, yet another bowl of the rabbit stew that she'd been eating for the last three days. Cooking for one was tough. She could rustle up something new, but she hated waste, so she forced herself to eat the same thing every day before it went bad.
* * *
Being alone on the prairie was not what she had in mind when she answered the ad in the Raliegh Tribune for a wife.
The Civil War had wreaked havoc on her hometown. The Union Army had torched every plantation estate, stripped them of their crops, and stolen all of their animals. Her two brothers never returned from the battlefield, and her mother and father perished trying to save their house.
The Homestead Act had made land available in Kansas, where some of the men who settled there placed advertisements for wives in the local papers back east. Annie longed to escape the horrors of the war, and an invitation to move west and create a new life was tempting.
Annie answered an ad from a Mr. Everett Randolph. She was so enchanted by the letter he wrote back that she packed what few belongings she had and caught the next available westbound train out of Raliegh.
When the train arrived at Dodge City, Mr. Randolph met her at the station. They exchanged introductions, and he invited her to share a dinner with him at a local hotel. He was much younger than she expected. She had heard stories that all men who advertised for wives were smelly old geezers. She made the trip anyway, figuring that even if it was true, it would be better than her prospects back home. Annie was pleasantly surprised to find Mr. Randolph clean cut, well dressed and gentlemanly.
What she was not prepared for, was what she found upon her arrival at her new home. The one room rustic cabin of Mr. Randolph was not exactly what she had envisioned. After growing up on one of the largest plantations in Raliegh County, with her very own house servant, she was ill prepared for her new life.
Until Annie and Everett were married by the traveling circuit preacher, Everett slept in the barn with the horses, surrendering his comfy rope bed to Annie.
Being a prairie wife was physically challenging, but Annie surprised herself in how well she adapted to it. Everett wasn't the demanding type, and he was patient beyond words as she learned how to do the household chores, like cooking, that she had never done before. Many times, she would see the pained faces Everett would make as he chewed his meal, but he never complained, and always complimented her on how good it was.
Everett worked the farm by himself. At harvest time, he would pick the crops, bring them in from the fields, and Annie would stock them in the cold cellar. One day she realized that she had forgotten to take Everett something to eat for his midday meal. She walked out to the almost picked-bare field, and she noticed that old Betsy, their plow horse, was standing still. As she got closer, she found Everett face down in the dirt.
The doctor from Dodge City said his best guess was that Everett's heart was probably diseased and just stopped. He hadn't yet reached his fortieth birthday, and Annie was now faced with trying to survive her first winter in Kansas all alone.
* * *
The hurricane force winds made the air feel much colder than the actual temperature. Facing the prospects of a long night, Annie rearranged the furniture by dragging the bed closer to the fire. She dug out every blanket she had from her hope chest and spread them all out on the bed.
Annie scooped out a couple more pieces of stew meat from the pot hanging over the fire. She placed them into her bowl and set it on the floor for Mouser, the kitten she rescued from the barn. After tossing a couple more logs on the fire, she was now ready to snuggle between the blankets for the night. As soon as the meat was devoured, Mouser joined her on the bed and curled up in a tight little ball on the pillow next to her head. The motion of the flames dancing on the oak logs soon lulled them both to sleep.
* * *
Annie awoke in the morning to a cold cabin. She had slept so soundly that she had allowed the fire to burn out. It was cold enough that Mouser had crawled under the covers with her. Thankfully there were still some glowing embers in the fireplace. Annie left the warm confines of her bed and restoked the fire. Within minutes the mighty flames were warming up the cabin once again.
Beams of light were shining through the curtains. Annie pulled them back and peeked outside. The winds had subsided but left huge mounds of drifted snow surrounding the barn. She would have to make her way out there, the horses needed to be fed and watered.
Annie bundled up in her husband's coveralls and heavy winter coat and ventured outside. The glare of the sun reflecting off the new fallen snow was almost blinding, but the movement of something off in the distance got her attention. She could barely make out the shape of a horse and rider. They were coming straight towards her. She was nervous about being alone and ran back into the cabin to retrieve her shotgun. The closer they got, the easier she could see that the rider was slumped over in his saddle.
Annie yelled out to the stranger to stop and not come any closer, but the horse kept coming. She pulled the hammers back, lifted the barrel of the shotgun, and aimed directly at the rider. The horse took about two more steps and the stranger fell off into a pile of snow. Annie walked cautiously over to where he laid and nudged him with the gun. There was no response. She thought to herself that he must be dead.
She knelt down to check for a pulse and found one. It was very weak, and he was cold to the touch. She wasn't sure what to do, but she knew she couldn't just let him die, so she mustered up every ounce of strength she had and dragged his body into the cabin.
Annie struggled to peel the stranger from his frozen outer clothes and get him onto the bed. He looked to be a rather tall man. He wasn't fat, but he didn't look like he had missed too many meals. She took off his gun belt and boots and put them by the door.
One thing was for sure, he hadn't had a bath in a month of Sundays, he smelled worse than a wet dog. She stripped him down to his long johns, covered him with blankets, and threw more logs in the fireplace. She needed to thaw him out.
Her thoughts turned to the poor horse. She had no idea how long that mare had been without food, so she went back outside and put the horse in her barn and gave it some oats and water.
* * *
Three days went by and still no sign of life from her houseguest, except for his snoring. He was so loud that Annie was sure he must be disturbing the horses in the barn.
His stench had become unbearable to the point that Annie felt compelled to do something about it. She got as daring as a woman living alone, with an unknown stranger in her bed, could get. She stripped him naked, washed his clothing and gave him a sponge bath. It was then that she noticed a hole just above his hip. He'd been shot. She hadn't been able to tell the difference between the blood stain and dirt on his clothes. It took several buckets of hot water before he appeared to be halfway human, and her nose could tolerate him.
It was two more days before he opened his eyes. Annie was grateful that he was alive, but more importantly, now he could be on his way, and she could have her bed back. She was tired of trying to sleep in the rocking chair.
Annie stood over him and offered him a sip of water.
"Where am I, and who are you? And what have you done with my clothes? Where's my gun?"
"One question at a time. The first one is mine. What's your name? I'd like to know how to refer to the man in my bed."
"You can call me Bill." He said as he looked around the room and saw that they were alone. "Where's your husband?" He asked as he tried to get out of bed, but he was too weak to move.
Annie helped him lay back down and told him to rest.
"Answer my questions." He demanded.
Annie was hesitant to tell him that Everett had died, so she lied and said that he was out hunting.
Bill told her how he had gotten caught up in the storm and last thing he remembered, was that he was very, very cold.
Annie relayed how he had rode onto her property during the storm and how she dragged him inside, warmed him, and cleaned him up.
"You stripped me naked?"
"Well, I couldn't stand the smell of you. It was either that or throw your sorry ass back outside. Would you have rather froze to death?"
"Where's my clothes?" He grumbled.
"On the footstool. Washed and folded. Now, how about some hot rabbit stew? After a good night's sleep, you should feel better tomorrow, and we'll see about you getting up and getting your strength back."
Bill gladly accepted the stew. He also told her that he knew he'd been shot, but that it had been a while ago and hadn't been near a town to find a doctor to remove the bullet. He begged Annie to do it for him.
"Under one condition." She told him. "I noticed you got a real nice rifle on your saddle. I suppose you know how to use it. You get better and before you leave, you do some hunting for me. I'm a little low on meat, and if I'm going to be feeding you while you recover, I'll be left with even less to get me through."
"I thought you said your husband was out hunting."
"Oh, yeah, about that." She hesitated. "I wasn't exactly telling you the truth. I was afraid to tell you that he passed away a couple of months ago."
"So, you're all alone. Why tell me now?"
"You are too weak to do much, and I have your gun, your horse, and your clothes. I kind of have the upper hand."
"When I get out of this bed, I could kill you."
"Well," she shrugged, "that might not be worse than being out here all alone."
Bill took another bite of stew.
"So, what'ya say? Will you hunt for me?"
"That's all you want?"
"That's all I want. Deal?"
* * *
After a hot meal and a good night's sleep, Bill felt good enough to undergo having the bullet removed from his side. Annie had never done anything like it before, but like everything else in her new life, there was a first time for everything. Luckily the bullet wasn't embedded very deep which made it an easy procedure.
One more day of rest and Bill was feeling enough better to get out of bed and get dressed. Annie laid out his laundered clothes on the table and retrieved his boots from the front door.
Bill sat up and swung his feet to the floor. "How about you turning your back so I can get dressed?"
"Really? You remember me telling you that I bathed you? There ain't nothin' you can show me that I ain't already seen. Get out of my bed. It's time for you to regain your strength and be on your way."
"Okay then." As Bill stood up, he felt a little lightheaded and woozy. After all he had been flat on his back for several days. His knees began to buckle, and he looked as though he was about to keel over, when Annie quickly stepped in front of him. She reached her arms around his back, and interlocked her hands, holding him up. He clung on to her until he had his wits about him again.
"Wow. Sorry." He said apologetically. "It felt like all the blood rushed from my head."
Annie never heard the words he said. Here she was standing in the middle of her cabin with her arms around a buck-naked stranger, it didn't feel right.
"You alright now?" She inquired as she stepped back from him.
"Yeah, I think I'll be fine. Thank you." Bill grabbed the bedpost and steadied himself, momentarily forgetting that he had not gotten dressed yet.
"If you are truly okay, may I suggest that you at least put your pants on?"
* * *
"I'm sorry that you have to eat rabbit stew again," Annie exclaimed as she scraped the bottom of the pot, "but I promise you that this is the end of it."
"Believe me, it's okay. It has been a long time since I've had a hot meal this many days in a row. I'm grateful."
"I know that I've been really anxious for you to leave, but with all the time I've spent taking care of you, there are some chores around here that aren't getting done. Do you think that maybe you're grateful enough to clean the barn out and feed the horses tonight, and maybe do a little hunting in the morning?"
"I think I'm up to it, so I'd be happy to."
* * *
Annie got a good night's sleep in her comfy bed once again. Bill, even though he was regulated to his bed roll on the floor in front of the fireplace, was happy to be able to sleep indoors.
When she awoke, Bill was nowhere to be seen. Instant panic set in until she noticed his bed roll was still on the floor. Annie heard a noise from outside and went to the window to see. The barn door was opening, and out came Bill with his saddled horse and Betsy.
Annie flung open the front door and yelled, "Hey, what are you doing with Betsy?"
"Don't worry, I need her help. I'll be back as soon as I can."
A short time later, she looked out the window again, only to see Bill with Betsy in tow, dragging something. Annie threw her coat on and went out to see Betsy, pulling the biggest deer she had ever laid eyes on, behind her.
"I think we can eat on this for a while, don't you?" Bill said with a proud grin on his face.
Annie nodded with approval, and thought to herself, did he just say we?
* * *
Annie and Bill sat down to a fine venison dinner, complete with roast potatoes and biscuits. It had only been a couple of weeks since Bill arrived, but Annie was becoming very fond of his company, and like her husband, Bill never complained about her cooking. Bill tried his best to repay her by caring for the animals and gathering wood. Annie was very content to staying in the warm cabin and looking after Bill.
"I know that I've been anxious for you to leave ever since you got here, and I'm sure you need to be somewhere else. I still don't know much about you, but I wouldn't mind if you saw your way to staying a while longer. That is, if you want to."
Bill didn't say anything at first, but Annie suspected that if she waited long enough, he'd respond.
"There is nothing about me that would interest you, and I don't stay in any one place very long." There was a long pause. Bill took a deep breath and continued, "However, I must admit that having a warm shelter, a good meal, and fine company, is a very likable combination. Something I haven't experienced in a very long time. So, yes, I'd like to stay, but only until the weather gets better. Then I'm off."
"That's okay." Annie said. "And I promise to get better at cooking."
* * *
The days and nights of the winter passed quickly for Annie. Her fears of being alone vanished with her unexpected housemate to keep her company. She soon realized that Bill was highly intelligent, and more than just another drifter.
To pass the time, Bill taught her how to play card games, how to whittle wood, and how to shoot a rifle. He had read every single book that she possessed and could talk on any topic of her liking. The two of them had long drawn-out conversations about anything and everything and figured that by springtime they would have solved all of the world's problems. One topic of conversation that always seemed to be avoided, was Bill's past. Anytime Annie would question him about it, he would change the subject.
One night after dinner, while enjoying their coffee in front of the fire, out of nowhere Bill started reflecting on his wartime memories, of having coffee surrounding a fire with his comrades after a horrific battle. He told Annie of his fellow soldiers falling all around him from the enemy bullets. How he wondered why he had survived when so many others did not. He got up and walked away from her when he teared up.
The fact that Bill wore a blue Union uniform during the war bothered Annie. Those damn Yankees were the reason she lost her family. But the war was over, and it would do her no good to dwell on the past. Bill had obviously suffered too.
Annie waited a couple of seconds and followed him to the other side of the cabin. She walked up behind him and gave him a big hug. Bill spun around and returned her embrace.
"I'm sorry you have those memories. Maybe it's time to create new ones for you."
"What are you talking about?"
Annie thought carefully before she continued, "Bill, it's been nice having a man around. And I'm starting to care for you. I see no need for you to continue sleeping on the floor. The bed is big enough for two. Would you lay with me?"
"You mean . . . "
"I know it's not appropriate, not being your wife and all, but I would like it if you would say yes."
* * *
Springtime was just around the corner. The snow had all but disappeared and the crocuses were popping up. Daffodils were sure to soon follow. Annie took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to hang the bedding outside on the clothesline, and to air out the cabin.
"Annie, we need to talk."
Annie was afraid of this day. Bill had told her from the beginning that he would only stay until the weather got better. The current weather was better than it had been since before he arrived.
"I don't want to have this conversation." She could feel her eyes well up.
"Well, we need to. I think that we need to start thinking about buying some seed if we're going to have any crops this year. It'll soon be time to plant."
"But I thought you were going to tell me . . . "
"I changed my mind. If that's all right with you."
Annie threw her arms around him. "Oh, Bill, I love that you're going to stay."
"Okay then. I'll go hitch up the buckboard and we'll go into town. Get yourself ready."
* * *
Bill was loading the buckboard with the items Annie had purchased at the general store when the sound of spurs coming from behind him got increasingly louder.
Suddenly, all was quiet. He could sense someone was close and turned to see who it was. He found himself staring down the barrel of a Colt-45.
"Well, if it ain't Jessie Dalton in the flesh." Said the well-dressed stranger. "I thought it might be you. You know, there is a very large bounty on your head. Now, hand over your side iron. Nice and slow. We're gonna take a little stroll over to the Sheriff's office, and I'm gonna get me that reward money."
Bill did as he was told and slowly pulled up on his pistol. Just as the barrel cleared the holster, he cocked the hammer and jammed it into the stranger's gut.
"Now, who do you think is going to pull the trigger first?" Bill calmly asked him.
"Care to place any bets? Either way, I heard not too many survive a gut shot. So, give me your gun, turn around and walk away and hope I don't shoot you in the back. Oh, by the way, just for the record, you got the wrong guy. My name is Bill. Don't you forget that."
Annie approached the wagon and put more bags in the back. "Who were you talking to Bill, and why'd he call you Jesse?"
"Can't say as I know. He mistook me for someone else. If you're ready, let's go home."
"Home. I sure do like the sounds of that." Annie climbed up onto the buckboard and got herself situated on the seat. Bill followed her, grabbed the reins and yelled to the horse to giddy up.
* * *
The rooster started crowing just as the sun lit up the morning sky. Bill pulled the covers up over their heads.
"Tell that old bird to shut the hell up. I ain't ready to get up."
Annie rubbed her eyes and sat up. "What's that?"
"The goddam rooster. That's what."
"No. I hear horses."
Bill jumped out of bed and strapped his gun belt on over his long-johns and ran to the window. He pulled the curtains back to see three riders approaching the cabin. Two were carrying rifles and one had a shotgun.
"Jesse Dalton. This is the district Marshall. We know you're in there. Come out with your hands in the air."
Sure enough, the big guy in the middle was wearing a badge over his heart. On one side of him was the Sheriff, on the other, the well-dressed stranger from town who snuck up on him.
Annie sprang to Bill's side and looked out the window. "Who are those men, and what do they want?"
"Go back to bed. I'll handle this." Bill pushed Annie away from the window, and she reluctantly got back into bed.
Bill stepped outside and stood face to face with three gun barrels aimed right at him.
"Marshall, you got a case of mistaken identity here. My name's not Jesse Dalton. I suggest that you turn around and be on your way."
"That's not happening, Dalton. Now, drop the gun belt and come along peaceful."
"No, Marshall, I'm not going to do that." Bill slowly undid his hammer loop.
The door of the cabin creaked open. Without turning around, Bill told Annie to get back inside.
"I'm not gonna do that, Bill, or should I say Jesse." She pressed the cold steel of the double barrel shotgun against the back of his neck.
"Now, Marshall," she yelled, "about that reward money. How much did you say that was?"
* * *
"Good evening, Sheriff, I hope you don't mind but I brought you some supper."
"Thank you, Mrs. Randolph. That's very kind of you. Chicken and biscuits, my favorite."
"Please, call me Annie. I brought a little extra for your prisoner too. Do you want me to take it to him while you eat?"
"Do you really want to go back there?"
"Well, he probably doesn't want to see me, but I'd like to say good riddance to him."
"Okay then. Just don't get too close."
"I'll be careful."
Annie walked down the dimly lit hallway to the cellblock. Bill jumped to his feet and pushed his face between the bars.
"I don't want to see you." He growled.
"I brought you some dinner."
"I don't want your god damned cooking."
Annie put her finger to her mouth, "Shh."
"Don't shush me woman." He screamed.
Annie checked to make sure the Sheriff wasn't coming back there.
"Shut up and listen to me. If I hadn't stopped you, you would've ended up dead. I don't know what you done, and I don't rightly care. All I know is that I fell for you, and I'm gonna get you outta here."
"And just how do you plan on doing that?"
"I added a little laudanum in the Sheriff's gravy. He should sleep like a baby tonight. I'm gonna get his keys, unlock your cell, and we are going to casually walk right out of here."
* * *
Bill was antsy with the slowness of the buckboard. The bright light of the full moon made them an easy target, but no one followed.
When they reached the cabin, Bill strapped on his gun belt and threw some scraps of food in a sack.
"What are you doing?" Annie asked.
"This old cabin of yours is the first place they'll look come sunup. If I leave now, I can get a good couple of hours head start on them. Now where's that money."
"I got you out of jail so we could be together."
"I am a wanted man. There will always be somebody looking for me. You'd get in my way. Now give me that money."
Bill violently tore through the cabin searching for the reward money and screamed at Annie to tell him where she put it. She got scared and finally broke down and told him to look in the cupboard by the sink.
"There's only a hundred dollars here. The price on my head was a thousand dollars." Bill pinned Annie against the wall and yelled, "Where's the rest."
"Alright, alright." Annie said as she started to cry. "It's in your saddle bags."
"You'd better not be lying to me." Bill stormed out and headed to the barn.
Annie waited until Bill opened the barn door and was out of sight. She grabbed the shotgun from the mantle above the fireplace and followed him.
She stood a few feet away from the doorway, raised the double-barrel shotgun and pulled the hammers back.
Bill's head snapped around, "Annie, think twice about what you're doing. I could draw my gun and shoot you dead before you could pull that trigger."
"The wanted poster said, 'dead or alive'. You ain't leaving with my money, Jesse Dalton. Toss me the saddle bags."
Bill swung his arm in the direction of his hip, and Annie squeezed the trigger sending a load of buckshot into his gut, doubling him over. He looked up at Annie in total disbelief before collapsing in a heap on the barn floor.
Annie stood and watched the blood gradually pool around his lifeless body while smoke trickled out of the end of the shotgun. She walked over to the spooked mare to retrieve the saddle bags, then causally strolled back to the cabin, mumbling under her breath, "Damn Yankee."
* * *
As the sun rose over the eastern horizon, Annie once again heard the sound of horses charging down the laneway. She peeked between the curtains, and just as Bill said, there was the Sheriff along with several men from town.
A cloud of dust swirled around the horses as they pulled up just short of the cabin. With all of their guns drawn, the Sheriff yelled out, "Jesse Dalton. You're under arrest. You've got three seconds to throw out your gun and show yourself."
Annie swung the door open and yelled back, "Don't shoot", and stepped outside.
"Where's Dalton?" The Sheriff yelled to her.
"He's in the barn waiting for you Sheriff. But you won't need your gun."
"He came here during the night and tried to rob me of my reward money. It seems as though he wasn't as fast with his gun as he thought he was. He'll give you no trouble now."
The Sheriff sent two men from the posse to the barn to retrieve Bill's body.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Randolph for any inconvenience you were caused by Dalton, and I thank you for all your help in capturing him. Of course, the reward money is yours to keep and if there is anything else, please be sure to let me know."
"Well Sheriff, seeing as though he won't be needing it anymore, if you could see your way to leaving me his rifle, I would appreciate that."
"I'll tell you what, I will give you his rifle, if you will make me some more of your chicken and biscuits. That was the best I ever had."
"You have yourself a deal, Sheriff, but are you saying that you actually LIKE my cooking?"
"Mrs. Randolph, you don't know the half of it. Not only was that the best dinner, but I slept like a baby last night. The fact of the matter is, I actually slept too good. Dalton somehow managed to escape right from under my nose."
The Sheriff tipped his hat and turned his horse back towards town. The posse, with Bill's body draped over his horse, followed closely behind.
Annie watched until they were out of sight, then went back inside the cabin. A smile came over her face as she sat down at the table and flipped through a stack of money she had dumped from the saddle bags.
Phillip R. Eaton is an author from Western New York. He has published two non-fiction historical novellas:
Col. Frank N. Wicker, from Lockport to Alaska and Beyond, and My Civil War Uncles, and also
writes fictional short stories, exploring sci-fi, westerns, sports and some romantic fantasies.
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Getting Swept Away
by Ginger Strivelli
"That saloon is haunted I tell you'ens!" The Cowboy was nearly seven feet tall with his ten gallon hat on. His arms were as big as lesser men's legs. He looked like he could wrestle a buffalo. "I'm not fooling with that place."
"Now Buck, you know there ain't no such thing as ghosts. There ain't nothing in Miss Darlene's Saloon but cancan dancers, drunks, gamblers, and the piano player, Long Winter.`" The undertaker looked up to the giant cowboy shaking his head at the brute of a man's cowardice.
"That piano playin' Hopi man doesn't always play. Sometimes he sits by the bar and lets the piano play itself."
"It's a player piano from back East. You can stick one of them rollers in it and it plays itself." The Undertaker said.
"I saw Long Winter walk away from it without putting a roll in it and it still played itself."
Miss Darlene heard the commotion outside but she was having to get into costume to dance herself, filling in for a sick dancer. She didn't have time or inclination to argue. That rumor of her place being haunted had cost her more business than watered down drinks would.
The undertaker left the big cowboy outside and went in alone. He sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey. He would have joined the card game but everyone thought he brought bad luck because he was the undertaker.
Buck sat outside by the feed store in one of their rocking chairs. He sipped from his own bottle of spirits, eyeing the saloon door for any wandering spirits of the other kind.
The town Barber, Tex came out to join him. He took up in the other rocking chair on the feed shop's porch. He didn't say dog in the way of an introduction, not so much as a howdy do. He just sat there rocking with Buck and watching the saloon doors with just as an uncomfortable look as Buck had.
"You from here?" Buck finally asked him.
"Saloon's haunted, ain't it?"
Just then, interrupting their chewing the fat so eloquently, a man came flying out the saloon's swinging doors on a broomstick, like a fairy tale witch. Both men came flying out of their rocking chairs like they were winged fairies from the same fairy tale. Buck landed on his feet in the middle of the road. He drew his gun like some highwayman had jumped him. He aimed the gun at the man who was getting himself up outta the dirt where he fell from the broomstick that laid a few feet from him on the ground. Buck would have bet his horse that the broomstick was still twitching like it wanted to fly.
Miss Darlene came out the swinging doors and threw a tattered brown hat at the man on the ground. "Get yourself outta here. Don't ever come in my saloon again, I tell ya. You are a cheat and I don't allow no cheating in here. That is why she's called The Justice Room." Miss Darlene said pointing to the fancy painted sign that hung above the swinging door. It surely did say; The Justice Room.
Buck had lowered but not holstered his gun and backed away back to his rocking chair. Tex was back in his but looking as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. He waited till Miss Darlene went back inside the saloon before he spoke.
"It's called the Justice Room cause they used to use it for court, before we built the courthouse a couple years back, I heard tell." Buck said.
"Haunted by men that were sentenced to hang, I reckoned,"Buck said. "But I heard there were two women sentenced to be burned at the stake too." He turned and spit into the dirt. "Witches?" Buck whispered.
"Yup." Tex looked around and saw the streets clear before he said "She's one too, I heard tell."
In The Justice Room Saloon, Miss Darlene was changing out of the dancing girl outfit and back into a proper lady's black and lilac colored shirtwaist and skirt. She wore a bit more makeup and jewelry than the average storekeeper's wife but she was no soiled dove. Oh she had a couple in her employ in the saloon. The men came looking for that service too but she mostly employed dancing girls, card dealers, and Long Winter, the Hopi musician who played the piano some and played some big skin drums from his village other times. She served as hostess and read tea leaves or tarot cards for people who knew to ask her for that service.
It made for an entertaining place for people to come drink, gamble, and have fun. Miss Darlene made good money and it had let her make her own way after her husband died on their way out West. If only the dann locals would stop telling everyone it was haunted. It was haunted though.
Buck and Tex sat till about midnight drinking from their own bottles outside. The gamblers and drinkers inside all drank from Miss Darlene's fancy french crystal glasses till about midnight. Then she started shooing them out into the street, even if they couldn't walk right from being drunk. They had to get out. It was almost midnight.
Miss Darlene got all her customers out, then rushed her dancers, and bartender out right after them. She looked around to be sure everyone was out except her and Old Long Winter. They were so she locked up for the night, shutting the full doors that closed behind the swinging doors.
"Are you ready, Long Winter?" She whispered.
Outside, Tex told Buck that the real show was about to begin and had got him to creep up the alley beside the saloon to look in a window. It was stained glass from England, made to look like a Queen of Coins tarot card. Tex showed Buck where you could peek through the Queen's white shoes and see pretty clearly what was going on inside the saloon. So there they both stood, eyes up to the two shoes of the Queen on the card.
"I'm ready." Long Winter told Miss Darlene.
"Okay, ladies. You can come out now and get your fill of screaming and hollering." Miss Darlene said, opening the player piano's cabinet.
Two women started hollering. They were wearing only white petticoats and corsets. They came flying out. They were solid looking, not the translucent ghosts that Buck was expecting. He pressed his face right against the glass shoe piece of the stained glass window.
"Are they ghosts? They look as real as you and me." Buck whispered.
"Yup." Tex said.
Long Winter pulled his drum from under one of the saloon tables and started playing a heartbeat like rhythm. The girls swirled in midair like vultures circling fresh carion in the desert. Their petticoats swirled around them and the air turned ice cold in the saloon as they danced.
"What in tarnation are they doing?" Buck asked Tex though he still didn't know Tex was his name.
"Devil's work, I reckon. Yup, that's what they are doing."
Miss Darlene pulled her shawl from the coat rack by the door as the room got colder and colder still. The ghost sisters danced on above Long Winter as he played his drum.
"Aren't they 'bout done?" Miss Darlene asked the Hopi man.
He just shook his head, keeping up the heartbeat rhythm on his drum. She sat down at a nearby table and watched as the spell lingered on for longer than usual that night. Finally Long Winter started to slow the heartbeat down. He slowed it and slowed it till he was only striking the drum once per breath. The two ghost sisters slowed their circling above him and were almost just hovering still. Then they did start to turn translucent and fade away. Miss Darlene jumped up to open the piano cabinet back open and with a broom she swept the fading spirits back into the piano and latched it securely shut.
"What took so long tonight, Long Winter?"
"They had more negativity to banish tonight with the uproar over the poker cheat and Miss Anne the dancing girl, she didn't have fever, she has a broken heart. She hid from us. The sisters of course sensed it and had to clear all that darkness from the Justice Room tonight too." He said.
She took the same broom she'd swept the ghosts into the piano with and swept off the drum's rawhide top and said; "Be off with any darkness, I sweep away any sadness. I banish any madness, all the good I do harness!"
"She is a witch," Buck said, still glued to the stained glass window watching.
Ginger Strivelli has written for Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Third Flatiron, Jokes Review, The New Accelerator, Cabinet of Heed Literary Journal, and several other publications. Her most recent story was published in Frontier Tales' 2021 July issue. She has a forthcoming story coming out in Sci Fi Lampoon.
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Gallagher and Gaines
by Victor Kreuiter
He was asleep when they came; the dog woke up him, huffing, growling, scratching at the door. He woke with a start, rolled over and shushed the dog . . . sshhhh . . . kept himself low, crept to his rifle, slowly straightened up and listened.
"Gallagher! You in there?"
That's what he heard outside; he couldn't tell how far away they were, him standing perfectly still, ears on alert, eyes adjusting to the dark. No window in the shack; it was early morning, hours before sunup.
"Gallagher! Come out."
He was in the new shack; he'd built it with a wood floor and that damn floor creaked. The first shack—the old one he was going to use as a coop—it was under some dogwoods, maybe fifty feet behind him. Gallagher stood still a bit longer, him in longjohns. The dog huffed and he clicked his tongue to quiet him, tiptoed to the door and shushed the dog again: "Ssshhh. "
It was Franklin Jessup's men outside, he knew that. Jessup wanted his land. Jessup's riders had been by to tell him . . . twice. Both times he'd told them the land wasn't for sale and both times the response was the same: Franklin Jessup wants the land.
Jessup already had a lot of land, a lot of cattle, a lot of money. Gallagher had worked for him a couple years until he'd had enough. You can't respect the man you work for . . . why work for him? Gallagher quitting . . . that displeased Franklin Jessup. Gallagher knew displeasing Jessup could be problematic. Owning land that Franklin Jessup wanted? Well . . . no point in wondering how that would end.
"Come on out." Same voice; it sounded like Matt Hagis. Hagis knew Gallagher and Gallagher knew Hagis. Hagis followed orders real good. "Let's talk!"
Gallagher slowly made his way to the door and cracked it open, staying out of view. "Who are ya?" It was dark out . . . a full moon turning everything silver, giving everything a slight halo. He knew who it was, and he knew Matt Hagis was trouble. Not too bright, not all that tough, but trouble nonetheless. Franklin Jessup liked to hire men like Hagis . . . use 'em up and throw 'em away; men like Hagis . . . they never caught on.
Hagis again: "Step out!"
"I'm good where I am," Gallagher answered.
He heard more talking . . . able to pick out a word or two . . . then he cracked the door and peeked around to see three riders out forty feet, still mounted. He figured Hagis as the one in the middle.
"Look here," Hagis shouted, "our hands are up." Gallagher cracked the door more and leaned out; all three riders had hands in the air. The moon pushed their long shadows right toward him; their faces were in the dark.
Gallagher stepped out, rifle pointing down, stoop creaking under his weight. "Come back in daylight," he said. He turned sideways a bit to make his profile smaller. To his right, in a small corral, his chestnut snorted.
"We talked already . . . remember?"
He remembered. "Tell Jessup I'm not interested in selling." Gallagher had known they'd come back. "I got legal paper on this place," he said. Aaron Gallagher knew Jessup's men had ways to convince folks to give up their land. Some took the money. Some tried to hold out for more money . . . a mistake. Some took the safe route and left in the dark. Some stayed—not interested in selling—then lost their land and their lives. Where was the law on all this? Gallagher thought of that when he worked for Jessup, when he quit and got his own place, when he heard of one more forced sale, or worse—somebody shot trying to fight off Franklin Jessup's men. The law wasn't around much, that's what Gallagher decided. The law was mostly absent when Franklin Jessup wanted what he wanted.
"Jessup needs your place," Hagis said. All three riders had lowered their hands and Aaron Gallagher didn't like seeing that. "Gonna close the sale tomorrow," Hagis said, and his horse snorted and stepped a step forward . . . then took one more . . . and Aaron Gallagher inched back to the door and raised his rifle and pointed it at Matt Hagis.
"Sorry, not interested," Gallagher said. Franklin Jessup had never mentioned a price and Gallagher had never asked . . . no point in talking about what wasn't going to happen.
The riders on both sides of Hagis were quiet, their horses scuffling and snorting. It was one of those nights when the air is cool and the ground is warm and the trees and vegetation are little more than clumps of shadow and the few clouds in the sky reflect just enough moonlight to glow. It was a still night . . . stillness like that meaning something is coming to an end or something is starting up.
"Be in town tomorrow," Hagis said. "Jessup will be there. You can sign it over."
Town was a one-hour ride. Aaron Gallagher was not going into town tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that. "In the morning, early," Hagis said, then the three of them turned and sauntered off. Gallagher watched them go, then squatted down and the dog came out on the porch and rubbed against him and he scratched that dog's jaw and neck and scratched behind both ears and when the dog whined Gallagher said "Ssshh . . . quiet now." He stood, stepped off the stoop and looked around. His chestnut was standing still, head drooping. "Them boys plan to run us off," he said. He was talking to the dog; the chestnut wasn't listening.
* * *
Gallagher didn't go into town the next day and nobody came from the Jessup ranch to ask where'd he'd been or how come he didn't show. He spent the day looking over his property, always keeping an eye on the horizon, wondering why he wanted to stay. Why be stubborn? He wasn't going to be a farmer, that's for sure. Cattle? He'd punched enough cattle for one lifetime. When he'd quit Jessup . . . when he told him he'd got his own place and was going to work it on his own, Jessup had refused him his pay . . . what was Gallagher going to do? Jessup called him a fool, told him a small place . . . some small patch of nothing . . . wasn't worth owning all by itself. "Stay with me," Jessup had advised. "Work here, for me . . . a man like you . . . you could have your own crew. Make some real money. Make something of yourself." Every word coming out of Franklin Jessup's mouth sounded like a sales pitch, sounded like a threat, sounded like a poorly-told lie . . . so why in hell would decent men line up behind a man like Franklin Jessup? That's what Gallagher wondered. The day he rode off he heard a couple rounds go off behind him . . . Jessup's men laughing at him and whooping it up. He never looked back.
* * *
The three of them came back two days later, in the dark, under less moon. Gallagher had spent the last two nights outside . . . fifty feet from the shack, sleeping next to his chestnut, in a thicket of trees. Being careful.
Jessup's boys use the same approach. "Gallagher!"
He didn't respond. He could catch a few words of them talking and it didn't sound friendly. One of the riders dropped off his horse, walked up to the new shack, knocked, waited, opened the door, looked in, turned and waved. "Empty!"
"Go on look at that old shack in back," Hagis said.
Gallagher watched the rider walk toward the little shack in back. The two men still mounted were talking . . . Gallagher could pick out the occasional word . . . dangerous . . . careful . . . let's finish this. The first man came back waving one hand. "Empty," he said. He stood next to his horse, listening to the other two talk, pawing through his saddle bags. He took something out, took a step toward the shack and now voices rose enough that Gallagher could clearly hear: "Jessup figured he'd be gone. Hell, that Gallagher . . . I worked with him . . . he's a strange one." Hagis was doing the talking. "Kept to himself . . . talked to himself." Hagis dismounted, started digging through his saddle bags, looked at the rider still on his horse and said "Keep an eye."
Hagis and the first man started toward the shack, stopped short and knelt, and when they stood up Hagis had a burning rag in his hand, held it out and took a step toward the shack.
Aaron Gallagher decided it was time to talk.
"Don't go burning my shack," he said. Relaxed tone. He was mostly hidden in that thicket of trees. Everything was shadow. The two men stopped, then Hagis started toward the shack, burning rag in hand. The other man knelt, drawing a pistol. The third, still mounted, turned his horse and made his move toward the trees, pistol out. Gallagher stood quietly and when that rider got near he fired once, twice, three times . . . placing shots through the trees . . . none of them close. Gallagher raised his rifle and put a bullet in that rider's chest, knocking him off his horse. The horse bolted left, running out away from the shack. Gallagher turned and fired at the two near his shack, grabbed the reins of his chestnut and backed it off another twenty or thirty feet, then ran back into the trees. The two riders at the shack fired wide, Hagis ran to the shack, pitched the rag onto the porch and disappeared around the side. The other man ran for the horses. Gallagher shot the horse nearest to him; it jumped, swayed, snorted, then collapsed. The runner got to the second horse, swung up onto it and yanked at the reins and the horse, spooked, twisted sideways, shuffled backwards and Gallagher shot twice. The rider fell off, jumped back up quick, and Gallagher shot two more times. The man went down and the horse bolted, then, like it always does, it went quiet . . . the only sound made by the down horse, struggling, whinnying, squealing, snorting.
Gallagher figured Hagis had taken cover behind his shack; flames were starting to spread along the front. The rider he'd shot off his horse? Not a sound. Dead? If he wasn't, he would be. Gallagher backed out of the trees, moving to his left, crouching low . . . moving toward his shack.
"It don't have to be like this," a voice said. That wasn't Hagis . . . it was the rider who'd tried to mount up. Gallagher listened carefully, went back into the copse of trees and cocked an ear. Hagis was behind the shack, most likely working his way toward Gallagher. Fire spread across the face of the shack; there was no way to stop it. Gallagher backed out of the thicket, looked toward the shack, then ran to his right, out into the open where two horses were snorting and stamping, wondering what to do. There was a lump where he'd dropped the rider who ran for the horses. Still alive? Didn't matter. He reversed course again, retraced his steps and got to his chestnut, patted its flank and walked it in a semi-circle, away from the burning shack. When he got far enough out he mounted, rode out and grabbed the riders' two horses, took them out to a wash and left them and his chestnut tied to scrub mesquite. He squatted, surveyed the land around his shack, took a breath, then started moving, keeping an ear cocked, stopping often, hearing nothing except the whoosh of growing flame.
* * *
Just before daybreak, Gallagher moved to his right, staying down, staying as silent as possible, going slow. The shack wasn't much more than embers. He crossed a slight ridge to his right and began slowly working his way toward the red coals of his shack. He swung out even further, saw no one, heard nothing, swung out even more and worked himself back to where he could see his first cabin and the dogwoods that surrounded it. The door was open . . . he hadn't been in that shack for weeks. Slowly, to his right, keeping distance, he was watching that shack when he saw a body move, heading away from him. He ducked, swung out even further, used the few mesquite trees as cover, and watched as Hagis came around the far side of the shack and moved out past the remains of his burnt-out shack, trying to get to the horses. Running, Gallagher retraced his steps, using that ridge for cover once more, then positioned himself facing due east, hoping a rising sun would reveal Hagis before he got to the horses. It worked.
He fired and dropped Matt Hagis before he even got close to the horses. The rider who'd been thrown? Gallagher hoped he'd been hit, wasn't sure, and cautiously made his way toward him. He could make out the figure, lying perfectly still, and approached slowly; the man was on his right side, facing away, legs twisted out, one hand clutching a hip and one hand stretched out in front of him. When Gallagher stood over him he could hear the harsh breathing. "How many men Jessup got?" Gallagher asked him
The man shuddered, tried to roll back toward Aaron Gallagher and failed.
Gallagher leaned down, tapped him on his shoulder with the barrel of his pistol. "Look here," he said, "how many men Jessup got now?"
Franklin Jessup never spent a dime he didn't have to . . . Gallagher figured that at this time of year he couldn't have more than three, maybe four or five steady hands . . . and most likely they weren't muscle.
"Hear me?" Gallagher asked.
The down man got his head to turn, got his eyes to focus, twisted his neck and looked at Gallagher and tried to speak but he didn't have enough left. Gallagher walked over to the copse of trees where the first rider had been foolish enough to charge . . . found the body . . . mouth open and eyes closed. He turned, walked toward the shack and found Hagis, breathing heavily, his chest twisted one way and his hips twisted the other. He didn't have long. Gallagher turned and walked back and dragged the last living of the three to the thicket of trees, leaned down and looked the body over before speaking. "You're shot two times," he said. "Legs." He stepped out in front of the man, knelt down and touched the man's neck, could feel a pulse, then pushed the man's head back and waited until he opened his eyes again.
"How many men has Jessup got?" he asked.
Mouth open, breathing hard, the rider said nothing.
Gallagher stood up. "You sure know by now Franklin Jessup will use a man up and throw him away." The man couldn't lift his head. "I'll leave you a horse, just in case you make it" he said, then turned and walked to his chestnut, swung up, rode over and grabbed the reins of one of the other horses and started toward the Franklin place. He hadn't gone far when the dog showed up, trotting beside.
* * *
It was light when he got to the Jessup ranch, a corral on each side of the big house, a bunkhouse on the left, a good size shed behind it and a slightly larger barn behind the shed. Nobody was out, which was interesting. Jessup not working with the sun up? Unusual. The whole place was up a short rise and Gallagher sat a couple hundred yards out, watching the house, watching left and right. He dismounted, stood beside his horse, checked and reloaded his rifle, reloaded his pistol, and wondered how much Franklin Jessup planned to pay for his land.
Two men stepped out of the bunkhouse, one hustled to the big house and knocked and entered, and one stayed put. Shortly, two men stepped out of the big house, stood and looked out at him, did some talking, then one went back in the house and the other started walking toward Gallagher. Gallagher raised his rifle over his head with both hands, waved it, then started walking toward the big house, slowing as Jessup's man got close.
"Need Jessup," Gallagher said.
Jessup's man stopped and raised both hands. "I got no gun," he said.
"I got a couple," Gallagher said. "Now go on back and have Jessup come out here . . . by himself . . . and tell him to bring my money. I got the legal paper with me. We can do this right here."
"Where's them others?"
"You don't know?"
"What I know and what you want to know don't necessarily line up, understand?"
Another question started when Gallagher shook his head. "Me and you are done," he said. "Mr. Jessup wants my property; go let him know this is his chance."
Franklin's man leaned over, looked around Aaron Gallagher. "Whose horse you got there?"
"Turned up at my place," Gallagher said.
The man turned and walked, never looking back. He didn't stop, walked inside and everything got slowed down. There was two men now standing right in front of the bunkhouse . . . didn't seem to be in a hurry to get to work. A horse and rider stepped out of the barn and stopped. Eventually the front door on the big house opened and out stepped Franklin Jessup and another man . . . they started walking toward Aaron Gallagher and when they were about halfway Gallagher held his rifle up, took a step toward the two and said, loud: "Jessup only," he said. "It's just me and Jessup got business . . . "
The two talked, then Jessup and the man started walking again. Gallagher raised his rifle off his shoulder and shouted, "You, go on back to the house." Franklin stopped, turned and said something and the man turned and started to return to the house while Jessup approached Gallagher. When he arrived he was not smiling. "That horse . . . " he said.
Gallagher turned and walked to the horse, grabbed the reins and walked it back to Franklin Jessup. "Consider it a gift," he said and handed the reins to Jessup.
"Where's the man was riding it?" Jessup asked.
Gallagher shrugged. "Musta got lost somewhere," he said. He walked to his chestnut, opened a saddle bag and pulled out some papers, walked to Jessup and handed them to him. Jessup stared at them, taking his time, then looked up at Gallagher. "We never set no price."
Gallagher hung his head, chewed on his lip, looked at Jessup then stepped to him and pulled the reins back out of his hands. "This horse'll do," he said. "That seem fair?"
Jessup was looking at the paperwork again, didn't raise his head when he spoke. "Think you can get away?"
Gallagher let the reins drop, touched Jessup on the arm and motioned for him to step aside . . . Jessup took two or three steps, then Gallagher pulled the rifle from its holster, aimed at the house and fired twice. The house boasted two windows in front, ground level; they exploded. He looked at Franklin Jessup and said, "Telling me I can't?"
Jessup looked back at his house. "Glass ain't cheap," he said, "and I sure do remember you, Mr. Gallagher."
"Then here's what you need to forget," Gallagher said. "Forget about me and forget about which way I head out. Understand? You can stew on this . . . if you like . . . or you can be sensible and figure this here deal is mutually advantageous." Gallagher didn't wait for an answer. He turned, slipped the rifle back into its holster, pulled a rope out of his saddle bags and tied the Jessup horse to his saddle, mounted his chestnut and stared at the Franklin place. There was a couple more men out now in front of the bunkhouse . . . looked armed.
"Don't send nobody after me," Gallagher said. "Your payroll got smaller this morning. Maybe I did you a favor, think of it that way." He clicked his teeth, looked down at the dog and said, "You coming?"
Jessup raised a hand and two riders stepped out of the barn. Aaron Gallagher saw that, shook his head and looked at Jessup. "You want to get back to your house a healthy man?"
Jessup stared at his house, turned and looked at Aaron Gallagher a long time without speaking, then: "You gonna shoot an unarmed man? In the back?"
Gallagher nudged the chestnut to Jessup, drew a pistol and pointed it at him. "Anybody follows me, I'll kill 'em. When I'm done killing 'em all, I'll come back for you. Would you want that? That make sense to you? I mean . . . think about it . . . the land you wanted is yours. You can hire who you want, pay 'em what you want. Maybe you ought to be smart and declare yourself the winner here."
* * *
Gallagher rode southwest for a day. Nobody following. He rode west for another day and skirted around ranches, crossed a few trails and kept to himself. Turned north and rode hard for two, three days, then turned and rode due east, trailing the Platte, and then the Missouri. Followed the Missouri until it rolled into the Mississippi, then turned north.
One day a cowboy, two horses and a dog showed up in Peoria, Illinois. The cowboy, going by the name of Eric Gaines, found work, put down roots, and after a few years went by married a widow woman whose husband had owned a blacksmith shop and a dry goods store. Eric Gaines never said much, was respectful of others and honest in his dealings and over time he learned how to run both those businesses real good. He gave all the credit to the widow woman he married. Sat beside her in church on Sundays and took her on buggy rides and picnics and helped her in her garden and nobody ever saw him in a saloon . . . he'd get teased about that a bit and it never bothered him.
The only issue between him and the wife was the dog. She did not sit with a dog indoors. Did they argue about it? No, never. She gave up after a time . . . every time she'd shoo that dog out, Eric Gaines would go out, pet it, talk to it, and bring it back in.
"What do you see in that dog?" she'd ask him, and he'd laugh, try to pat her hand or give her a kiss and she'd laugh and push him away. "Oh," he said, "he looks out for me. You gotta understand, we've been through a bit together."
Victor Kreuiter has published fiction in the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Halfway Down The Stairs and Literally Stories. He lives and writes in the Midwest.
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