by Jason Crager
It was one hell of a homecoming. No welcoming party. No overzealous lawman quick to investigate the motive behind their arrival. No old friends eagerly offering to buy them their first drink. No parade of painted ladies lining up to present themselves before the eyes of fresh meat. Not so much as a hello, how are you, or how do you do.
The two strangers who were not strangers came into Bad End on foot, leading their horses, a pair of tiresome duns, by the reins. The men were clad in long dusters the color of the desert they'd come from and the rest of their clothing matched the dusters. On their heads they wore what would have once been considered top hats but were now so ragged and repeatedly crushed that they bore no resemblance to their former shapes. Their beards were long and tangled, stained tobacco yellow around the mouth. The heels on their boots were rubbed to mere stubs with soles paper thin. The shorter, frailer of the two had a Greener shotgun in a scabbard strapped to his back while the one who'd managed to keep some weight on his bones openly carried a pistol at each hip.
Theirs was a mood of indifference. It didn't matter that no Bad End residents recalled their existence. The buildings and the dirt roads remembered them. The constant, dry breeze remembered them. The small tumbleweed that rolled slowly by remembered them. Or, at least a distant cousin of it would have.
The two paused to stand staring at Saint Mary's Benevolent Orphanarium, a rare three-story structure at the outskirts of town, long and narrow with flat roof and uniform rows of windows stretching from one end to another. The panes of the windows had long since been busted through as targets for hurling rocks and in the empty yard there stood only the abandoned, crooked frame of a swing set and the rusted remains of a now seatless seesaw, all overgrown with dead shrubbery.
What these two particular men observed before them was an entirely different scene, though. What they saw was a grand playground in all the glory of its prime, filled with the rumpus activity and gleeful laughter of children with uncertain destinies enjoying their only retreat from a cruel, cruel world. They saw two boys, the best of friends lonely together, shunned by even their own peers, teetering contentedly on the seesaw.
Then, a group of kids from the outside, kids with well prepared life paths lying ahead of them, approaching the grounds and stopping at the edge to marvel at the less fortunate than themselves. Their jeers and chants rang loud and clear. "Those unwanted, those unwanted, those unwanted!"
After some time spent transfixed in their mutual vision, the bigger man cleared his throat to lure his partner back into the present. "Ah, forget it, Danboy. It don't mean anything now."
Danboy nodded his silent agreeance and without more ado, the two proceeded further into Bad End. The one who was not called Danboy and went by the name of Grover walked in an awkward, limping and waddling fashion brought on by an improperly healed femur that had been cracked by a forty-four slug, courtesy of a reluctant adversary.
When you grow up an orphan without the luxury of parental guidance or the means to proper education, your future is always an unreachable mirage. You learn to live your life day by day, creating your own version of stability that comes only in brief instances. It's a glum road to wander with no destination in sight and the elements always against you. Like a hand of poker where everyone except you gets a wild card. Of course, that's until you discover how easy it is to kill them all and walk away a winner.
It all got started unintentionally. A chance encounter with a murdering thief in some nameless hole in the wall town outside of Yuma. Unknowingly interrupting the thief while in the process of plying his trade at the expense of a defenseless innkeeper. The thief turning his weapon on the intruders only to be gunned down for the sake of self-preservation. This, before Grover and Danboy had any knowledge of the bounty hanging over the dead man's head. Turned out killing can not only be easy, but quite profitable as well.
With a growing reputation as men capable of getting the job done in their favor, demand for their services soon became plentiful. They took on only those hunts that included a dead or alive clause. Rounding up and delivering the wanted into the mercy of the courts was just too much of an extra hassle. Much less fun involved that way too. Best to execute, collect, and move on.
At the time, it was hard to imagine that the business of exchanging lives for money would lead them back here of all places but, when the papers reached their hands, they knew that this job could only be for them. When there's nothing tying you down, it's simple to leave what little you have at the drop of a dime. It was important to make sure they were first to get here, and they were not denied that victory.
Bad End. A name that was just a place to most but to Grover and Danboy, a fitting description based upon their own history here. If there was a Good End, it would be everything that this town was not. Every bad beginning has to someday reach a bad end, and today was that day.
To their recollection, Father Time had not left any distinct mark on the place. Everything appeared as it always had, for the most part. A new sign here, a fresh coat of paint or an updated roof there, but nothing that reached beneath the surface. Just the same establishments with the same lack of morals. The same faces with different generations. The same hateful memories.
The road narrowed and buildings along each side grew closer together as the two men neared the town's center. They passed Sue's Diner on the left and her competitor the Boar's Head Cafe on the right. A tack shop and general store right there where they've always been. Same with the livery. Taylor's Gunsmith still stood as an unchanged staple. A house, one of very few built of brick, once belonging to an original settler had long since been converted to serve as a Sheriff's Office and three cell jail. From the outside, no activity to be seen there. Inside? Possibly a snoozing law dog, or perhaps one enjoying a taste of the afternoon delight with a local whore.
Six or seven mounts were hobbled in front of the Palo Verde Saloon. Mostly buckskins, along with a paint or two. They guided the duns up to the hitching post there. Their horses snorted and put up a bit of agitated resistance. Just as the men despised the people of Bad End, seemed their horses didn't much care for the animals either. They got the duns secured and headed into the saloon. One of the batwings hung loosely on a single hinge and had a hole blown through it. It screeched loudly and closed with a crack as Grover and Danboy entered.
Lighting was scarce inside the saloon save for what sun shone through small windows, floating dust made visible in the rays. Four men sat lounging around a card table, having abandoned the game in trade for drinking whiskey and telling tall tales of exploits with Mexican women. A bottle half full with amber liquid made for the table's center piece. One in a flat brimmed black hat who had his feet crossed and boots resting on the edge of the table looked up at the two newcomers as they passed, giving them a crooked smile that revealed a shining eyetooth of gold.
Upon a stool at the far end of the bar there sat a young man alone and down on his luck. He had a bushy blond mustache that curled upward at the corners and seemed out of place on his youthful face. In silence, he smoked a quirley and watched a fly march circles around the rim of an empty glass on the bar top before him. Another patron, tall and slim, dressed in the garb of a wrangler with sun bleached denims, finished his drink and made for the exit. Grover and Danboy blocked the man's way and examined his features closely before they were satisfied enough to allow his departure.
The barkeep was a potbellied man with balding head and more than one chin. He wore a white button down shirt one size too small and an unlit stogie occupied the corner of his mouth. There hung a gigantic mirror as backdrop behind him and a shelf displaying unlabeled bottles of booze ranging in color from chocolate brown to crystal clear. His fat fingers impatiently drummed against the bar top as he waited for the strangers to approach, something they took their sweet time in doing.
"What can I get ya?" The barkeep asked, annoyance evident in his voice.
"Two waters," Danboy requested.
The barkeep's eyes rolled upward and he shook his head. Someone at the card table snickered. "Listen, fellas," the barkeep said. "In case you haven't noticed, this here is a bar. Men don't come in here just looking to wet their whistles. They come in to get drunk." More laughing from the card table. "Now, I'll ask you again and this time, you try not to be so cute about it. What can I get ya?"
Both Danboy and Grover allowed their eyes to wander about the room. The open space, the distance between themselves and the men at the card table. The staring faces of those men, and that of the growing hot under the collar barkeep's. They saw not the mature, whiskered faces of grown men. They saw the faces of kids whom they never could forget. Instead of the tense silence that existed, Danboy and Grover's ears were filled with chants. "Those unwanted, those unwanted, those unwanted."
"Well?" The barkeep prodded.
Danboy and Grover met the eyes of each other, speaking without word. Danboy's cheek twitched and Grover gave a slight nod of his head. Suddenly, Danboy threw an arm up over his shoulder and unsheathed the Greener from its scabbard, bringing it down to his side and using the bar top to level the barrels at the barkeep's ample gut.
The explosion rocked the entire building to its core and the barkeep's torso was instantly painted red. The impact sent his bulk backward, crashing into the liquor bottles and shattering the big mirror. Shards of reflective glass rained down over him, slicing into his bare scalp and carving gashes into his face. He collapsed to the floor and his feet kicked before his soul gave up the fight. The stogie never left his mouth.
For a short moment, time stood still as minds wrapped around what had just happened. Then, Danboy hurdled himself up onto the bar top, stood square, shouldered the shotgun and emptied its second barrel. His target, a confused and off guard man still seated at the card table was thrown back in his chair and his lifeless body slid across the floor.
Black Hat pulled his feet from atop the table and quickly skinned a Colt, firing at the shooter. Danboy grunted and fell out of sight behind the bar. The other two men left their seats and made for their sidearms but by this time Grover had both his pistols in hand, charging forward and unleashing a fury of hot lead and smoke, cutting the men down before they cleared leather.
Black Hat flipped the table onto its side and dove to safety behind the barrier. It was too late, Grover had already closed the distance and lunging, he drove his shoulder into the upturned table. His force was so strong that the table's wooden surface split down its center and Grover crashed into Black Hat. In the collision, Black Hat's Colt was knocked from his hand and bounced off the floor, going off and sending an errant bullet toward the saloon's ceiling.
Grover had also lost hold of one of his guns. Beneath him, a now panicked Black Hat tried desperately to free himself, reaching for the discarded Colt with an arm too short. Grover clutched Black Hat by the throat and pinned his head to the floor. He stabbed the bad end of his pistol into Black Hat's jaw and squeezed the trigger. The bottom of Black Hat's face erupted into a sideways spray of blood, teeth and bone fragment. His scream was shriller than that of any woman alive as he brought his fingers up to touch something no longer there.
Grover released the man under him and came to his feet. He kicked the Colt father away and retrieved his own pistol from where it had landed on the floor. Then he stood over Black Hat, watching his agony with no more emotion than an indescribable feeling of pleasure. Black Hat's groans and cries came through as weak moans and choking gurgles. Grover pointed both pistols downward and shot them simultaneously, finishing off nearly all that remained of Black Hat's head.
The barroom was filled with a blue haze of gun smoke and the nose tingling aroma of spent black powder. All was still and pin drop quiet until Grover looked to the bar and called out, "Danboy, you dead?"
"Naw, I ain't dead," came Danboy's reply. "Bastard winged me in the arm, though. You wasn't lying, it burns like hell." Danboy's chuckle that followed verified his well being.
Grover eyed the puddle of slop that had once been part of Black Hat's face. Crouching, he fished a shiny nugget from a pool of dark red. He wiped some blood off of it onto the front of his pants. Between his thumb and forefinger, he held the piece up for examination. He brought it to his mouth and bit down on it enough to test its durability. He smiled and dropped the gold tooth into a pocket.
By the time that the sheriff, the sounds of nearby gunfire having disturbed him in whatever he had or hadn't been doing, arrived at the Palo Verde Saloon, he discovered five bloodied bodies lined up side by side in the center of the floor. At a table, Grover and Danboy sat across from one another, sipping from glasses of fresh water. Danboy's bicep was wrapped tightly with a bar towel and five posters lay spread out between the two.
"Christ, what happened in here?" The sheriff demanded.
Grover cleared his throat and set his water glass down. "These men held up a stagecoach north of Yuma. Killed the driver, the messenger, and a passenger who happened to be an off duty lawman on his way east to visit his dying mother. We come to place them in custody and they drew down us."
"Reward says dead or alive," Danboy added. "They chose dead."
The sheriff stepped closer to the table and bent low to gain a better view of the papers. Though in crude sketch, each of the five faces were easily recognizable to the sheriff. "Good enough for me," he said. He straightened and looked around the mess of a room. "But damn it, I like to drink just as much as the next man, and I like to do my drinkin' here. Now who's supposed to run the saloon?"
"I'll do it," offered a new voice from somewhere back in a darkened corner. Having been quick about stowing himself away in the shadows as soon as the gunplay began, the young man with the out of place mustache now came forth into the cast light of a window.
"Franklin, that you?" The sheriff asked, his eyes squinting.
"Yes, sir, it is," the young man replied.
The sheriff gave it some thought, and then shrugged. "Well, I guess that's settled. I'll take a whiskey."
After getting his start in contemporary short stories, Jason Crager has since transitioned into primarily a writer of westerns. Aside from his western novels and short story collections, Jason's work has been featured in literary journals, a number of anthologies, and published in various magazines. He lives a happy and peaceful life with his family in the beautiful river and bluff country of De Soto, Wisconsin, USA.
Social media link: facebook.com/jasoncragerswriting
Amazon author link: www.amazon.com/Jason-Crager/e/B076VSZ4QQ
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Back to Home
by Rickey R. Phipps and S.L. Phipps
The clap had come from the North. Not a loud penetrating sound, though. A faint, barely audible pop that seemed more ghost like than real. Something that was carried on the wind. It was like a whisper that was more discerned in one's own mind rather than actually heard. Perhaps the man would not have even noticed it at all if he hadn't already been facing that direction studying the thin stream of smoke as it ascended upward from the valley below only to mingle with the low hanging clouds.
It had been raining on and off all morning and the sky was a dim grey even now, making it more difficult to see the wispy trail as it fingered its way up, seemingly reaching for something it needed before disappearing like blood dissolving in a fast moving stream. He shuddered as the brisk autumn wind cut beneath the neck of his duster. It seemed to be making circles around him, coming from everywhere all at once.
Nunley Mountain was a beautiful place in the Fall. To Ethanim Cobb it was the most beautiful place on Earth, second only to his home back in Tellico. It wasn't really a mountain. Not like the ones back home that stood high and proud standing above the clouds. These were plateaus. A chain of formations that protruded from the valley floor but never made peaks. They were higher than hills but lacked the altitude of the mountain ranges of home back in North Carolina. To the locals, however, these were mountains.
If you didn't believe that, then all one had to do is tell a local it wasn't. The wiry tough boys that lived in these hills could convince you pretty quick that they were. Fighters lived here. Survivors lived here. This was their final stand and they would hold it. They were all men who had nowhere else to run. Men just like him.
As Cobb sat on the shelf that extended from the side of the plateau, he considered the situation. The smoke looked more than normally produced from a fireplace and most folks around here didn't usually start a fire till December. If he was guessing right, someone's cabin or barn was burning. He kind of hesitated because folks around here tended to their own problems. It'd do a man good to tend to his own business. You go snooping around the wrong person's cabin, at the wrong time, and see the wrong things then you could get put on the wrong side of the grass pretty quick; right or wrong.
None the less, Cobb was quite sure that the cabin was that of young Colton Nunnaly and the thought of something happening to the kid caused his stomach to churn unpleasantly. Of course, the moniker 'kid' didn't quite seem right coming from him. Ethanim was only two years older than the younger man he'd been raised with, yet he had seen a lot more in his time than Cousin Colt ever had.
"Well," he said to the horse more than himself, "I've got to make sure he's ok. He may need help; I can't ignore it."
Turning the dun down the mountain, the horse bounded like he was born for these rugged hills and made the descent seem effortless. Within minutes the horse and rider were on the bottom and on a direct path to whatever lay ahead.
Covering two miles over the next fifteen minutes, Cobb was approaching the place where Colton's small cabin had been built. A pretty little place next to the stream that flowed out of the gulf between the mountains which provided all the water necessary for the young man and his animals. Colton was only fourteen when Cobb came from the East to stay with Uncle Tom up on the mountain. Over the past couple of years, they had seen each other at the school that Aunt Elizabeth had forced him to attend and the family dances occasionally. They had become good friends yet they hadn't made time to go hunting together or anything. The only reason Cobb knew this was probably Cole's place is because Cole had described his plans in detail while he was building it and told him how to get there. He constantly asked Cobb to come visit but somehow he just never quite made it.
Cobb felt a distinct prickling feeling on his scalp and the back of his neck. A second sense seemed to be warning him of some unknown danger. Peering through the trees, his suspicions were confirmed. Cole's cabin was burnt to the foundation and he didn't see any sign of the boy. Two horses were tied to a rail just in front of the little barn that he had never seen before. Strange, Cobb thought, he knew about everyone's horses that lived in this cove and the surrounding hills.
Careful to keep quiet, Cobb, slid silently out of the saddle tying the ends of the reins and drooping them loosely across the saddle horn before removing his duster and tying it across the back of the saddle. "Stay put, Breeze," he said to the horse, stroking the sides of his neck, "I may need you in a hurry so listen sharp." The horse bobbed its head as if he understood what his master was saying.
Crouching low, he kept to the trees and bushes circling to the right. Being half Cherokee and raised as part of the land itself, silent movement was second nature to him. Many times over the last couple years he had snuck into ol' man Anderson's whiskey still and fetched himself a quart of Tennessee's finest while Anderson lay asleep mere feet away. He never knew that Ethanim was ever there. At least that's what he told himself. Anyway, he was good.
As he approached the back of the place where the house stood smoldering in the cloud dampened evening, he surveyed the surroundings. Disheveled skeletons of charred furniture and tables lay as jeweled heaps of glowing embers in the midst of the ashes, but he saw nothing to suggest his friend was in the rubble. Listening closely, he could hear laughter coming from the barn. Did they have Cole in there? What were they doing to him?
As he looked around, he realized that he had a bit of a problem. From the house to the barn was a distance of about 50 yards. There were no trees, no grass, no ways to hide himself while he closed that gap. The only thing that he had going for him was that it was a cloudy day, otherwise, the sun would silhouette him and he'd be completely exposed. He would be anyway he thought dryly.
He darted back behind the rock that he had crouched behind on his approach as the barn door suddenly flew open knocking over a pitchfork that stood leaning against the wall just seconds before. Watching and listening, he saw a man exit. A tall man. He walked clumsily but with deliberation towards the bay mare which stood at the hitching rail. Reaching out to the saddle bag, the man pulled out a bottle, uncorked it with yellow teeth and splashed the contents down his greasy brown matted up beard before taking a couple long pulls. The bottle shook like he had a palsy in his left hand that Cobb noted as the man swallowed. The tremor continued as he wiped his sleeve on the back of his hand against his chin, coughed a little, stoppered the bottle, and returned it to its hiding place.
Cobb's heart froze as the man gazed directly at him across the saddle. Those eyes. Good God, those eyes were the evilest things that he had ever seen. They were the eyes of the damned. They peered at him commanding him to run yet Cobb stood stock still, refusing to give even a hint from the only cover he had. His breath suddenly started increasing.
Dang it, not now. Not now! He thought to himself as sweat began to bead up on his forehead. He hated when this happened. His breath always started getting out of control when he was playing hide and seek with his friends. It always got him caught. He had to control it. It would get him killed today. Those eyes kept boring into the shadows and squinting. The pale blue of those eyes could be seen even from this distance.
Breathe slow, he told himself, in and out through your nose. Softly, quietly, slowly. Get it under control. Those shards of impenetrable blue pierced everything. Cobb almost felt completely naked from the intensity of the gaze, but then they moved slightly. First to the left, then back towards him, past him, and then right. Suddenly, Cobb realized that he had not really been spotted. The man just sensed his presence, yet he had not located him. Not yet.
"Where you at, Tobe?" a reedy voice from inside the barn yelled. "I need that rope!"
"I saw sumpim'!" he said, "Leastways, I thought I saw sumpim'."
"Don't get all jumpy-like on me, Tobe." Said the voice from the barn," Ain't nobody that knows we're here. Bring me that rope."
The man called Tobe took a couple more passes with his demonic gaze, turned and snatched a rope from the saddle horn of the bay and disappeared back into the barn. Just as the door slammed, Cobb leaped to a crouching position and covered the distance as fast as he could, coming to a stop near the closest wall. He then laid down and rolled beneath the building. It only took a matter of seconds to complete the dash and Cobb did it without as much as breaking a single twig. Right at that same moment, the door of the barn flew back open and Tobe jumped out. Bringing a double barreled shotgun to his shoulder, he fired both barrels. Cobb could not believe how fast this action had been. It was like Tobe had materialized like the demon he was and the rock that he had been crouching behind exploded sending sand rock shrapnel every direction.
"Well, did you get it then?" said the crackling voice in the barn. "Was it Wyatt Earp? Ahhahaha"
Tobe just stared at the bare spot on the ground. The evil blue eyes giving over to unbelieving surprise. "There's nothin' there Kale." He said, "I know I saw somebody. I know I did."
Kale had come out now looking at the rock dust and debris. "Well then, looks like that shotgun just plumb blowed him into thousands of tiny lil' pieces and there's nothing left. Ahahahh" Kale wheezed, laughing at the steely eyed man, "You're drunk, Tobe. Now get back in here and help me with this mutt. I think he's got the phobi. Might need to be put down." And once more he lapsed into raspy laughter.
Cobb knew things were about to go from bad to worse and he was going to have to go into this barn and it wasn't going to be pretty. He'd never been afraid of a fight, no matter how unfair it was going to be. He had come from a whole line of tough people and Ethanim himself was no exception.
In 1840 the state of Tennessee was only forty-four years old. Many things had taken place since the turn of the century for the young state which included the forced removal of the five civilized nations from their homelands in the Southeast to the newly established reservations in the Oklahoma Territory. Most of whom were Cobb's family.
The Cobbs were a Cherokee family from Tellico and many had moved to Oklahoma willingly before the forced removal only to send messengers back to warn the family not to come and informing them that the conditions promised were not the reality. Ethanim's parents had held their ground till the last when the officers finally herded them up like cattle and forced them to march over 800-miles along the Northern Trail of the Trail of Tears to the unpromised land. His father had left him in the care of the Thomas and Elizabeth Nunnally who had once resided near the Yadkin River in what is now North Carolina.
In 1809 the Nunnally's had sold their land and traveled to what is now known as Nunley Mountain in Warren County, Tennessee. A month before the removal, James Cobb had gotten his ol' mule packed up with provisions and sent his son to Tennessee with directions and a tearful goodbye. His mother giving him her only copy of a Bible had said, "I never could read it, but it's still been a comfort for me anytime that I could find someone else who could read it to me. Give Elizabeth a big hug for me when you get there." At the age of 16 Cobb had set out to Tennessee not knowing if he'd ever see his parents again.
The Nunnally's, Nunley's and Nunnerley's were all kinfolk and were wonderful people to boot. They were mixed bloods themselves which allowed them to pass as Americans or Black Dutch and keep their homes secure. Not without their own fights and struggles, however. Needless to say, Tennessee was just as wild, dangerous, and untamed of a place during these years as anywhere else on the continent. The California Gold Rush was still nearly a decade away so the thousands of riffraff, outlaws, and just plain reprobates that would eventually head to the Golden State were still spreading their mischief through the Southeastern states looking for unsuspecting gullible settlers to prey on.
Cobb lay beneath the barn floor trying to collect his thoughts. What to do now? Sounds of scraping footsteps and boisterous laughter came from above. He often had to clench his teeth as a lone cockroach or cave cricket slipped beneath his collar or between the buttons of his shirt, tickling him in sensitive places. Sometimes he heard cries from overhead. He had never heard a cry of pain from Cole's voice, but with a little imagination he could recognize Cole-like qualities in the sounds that he was now hearing. Rage threatened to overcome his own logic as he considered it. They weren't cries of fear, as a child would cry after having a nightmare. No, they were cries of pain followed by waves of maniacal laughter from Kale that seemed to never stop.
Kale was pacing back and forth, chuckling to himself under his breath in a worryingly unhinged manner. Cobb had to do something, and soon. Otherwise, Cole may be dead and these hounds of Hell would be on another trail, sniffing out the innocent, and bellowing out the deep growls that can only originate from the dark crevices of the damned. The sharp intakes of breath from Cole had now grown ragged and the cries had gone eerily quiet.
Noticing the diminishing cadence of his friend's breathing, Cobb finally pulled himself out of the downward spiral toward hyperventilation. Focusing himself and setting his jaw at the task before him, he was now coiling like a pit viper preparing to strike.
The progress beneath the floor seemed painstakingly slow, but he crept on in spite of the bugs and spiders. He needed a plan. He needed a gun! Suddenly, he saw a slight beam of light. It wasn't much. Perhaps a knot hole in the floor but just maybe he could risk a glance into the barn to sum up the situation. He could hear the men's voices, now barely audible, taunting and laughing.
"How you holdin' up runt?" Kale sneered curling his lip like something stank, "Where's your tribe saveege? Ain't you got no friends you filthy lil cur?" As he was laughing Cobb heard the voice of Tobe cackle and he made out the faint shuffle of his drunken feet as he walked across the floor of the small barn. "Would you be the friend of a saveege, Kale? Saveeges ain't got no friends. Saveeges are too filthy for even the buzzards."
Cobb silently slid closer to the knot hole. Nervous sweat beading up on his forehead. Propping up on his elbow, he peered in trying to focus on the scene before him. Kale was leaning against the door of the barn with a bottle in his hand. His head hung stupidly and he giggled incessantly. Not at anything in particular it seemed. Just laughing for the sake of laughing. Tobe was now standing within inches of Cole who was a pitiful sight. Ethanim might not have recognized the younger man if he had not seen the moccasins that Cole wore. He'd helped Cole make those shoes the summer before. The boy was always hunting and moccasins are the finest footwear for silent stalking ever made. Cole was sure proud of his. He had since added a few chevron beads to the ties, a personal touch.
They had stripped him bare from the waist up, leaving the boy dressed in nothing but his moccasins and a pair of newfangled denim trousers. They were the kind the coal miners wore in the mountains all around. Cobb noted that their indigo was still dark and they were turned up at the cuff, he'd not had a chance to alter them yet. Cobb remembered how happy Cole had been to get them on his trip to Moffit Station about a month earlier. They were now discolored by dark streaks of dried blood that came from nasty wounds across Cole's chest and torso. The blood had streamed down bare skin, wicked into the waist band to the point of oversaturation and then streaked down both legs in sick crooked uneven fingers.
Without any warning, Tobe rolled his shoulder into a massive back hand that seemed to lift Cole completely off the floor. He would have collapsed to the ground had it not been for the rope that was tied around both wrists and thrown around the rafter. It had sufficient tension to hold Cole just high enough that his toes only touched the ground with his shoulders and wrists holding the bulk of his bodyweight.
Another roar of laughter poured from Kale, who swayed under the heavy burden of liquor. His wheezy voice was slurred to the point Cobb had to listen carefully to understand as he spoke. "Look at him twitch, like a poppin' bug. His lip bobs like a baby robbin's butt. Whatchu say we scalp him, Tobe?" More laughter crackled out across the barn that had been transformed into a makeshift torture chamber.
"Soon, Kale," Tobe said with a contemptuous smile, "Soon but first, I want to see the fear in his eyes. I want him to tremble and squirm like the rotting carcass he is. He's been tough, but I'm going to break him. He's going to look at me pleading for mercy. Begging me to kill him so the pain will stop. I want him to look into my eyes and see his damnation. I need him to scream and beg before he dies. I want him to 'pologize to me for being born a filthy breed." Inching up real close to Cole, he gazed at him through those depraved eyes, "You hearin' me ain't ya?", he asked, "I'm goin' ta' have fun with you."
The only reply he received from Cole was a huge flying wad of blood and spit that clouded his vision and stung the eyes that seconds before had radiated so much evil. Surprised by such a reaction, he raised the hand clutching the bottle and brought it down on Cole's head with a blow that sent whiskey and glass ricocheting away into the dark recesses of the barn. Cobb cussed under his breath as he himself flinched from the ferocity and brutality of the attack. He was out of time. He had to do something.
Dang, he felt stupid. Why didn't he have a gun? There was fighting and killing all over the country but he had gotten so used to the security of Nunley Mountain and the tight knit family. He had let his guard down. As he mentally chastised himself, his mind began forming a plan from the resources he had. Slowly and quietly, he slithered along the ground beneath the barn.
Cobb was tired but he was a long way from spent. His muscles had been toned and hardened from the hours spent off stacking at the lumber mill and throwing hay on the farm. Occasionally he broke horses for miscellaneous people and that built a man's lungs as well as coaxed out hard muscles that lay at his mid-section in two neat rows. He was young, and while he was inexperienced, he was smart enough to know that he could be killed. He needed a miracle. Suddenly his leg brushed something. Looking down he saw a small wooden box. Reaching in, he withdrew his hands excitedly. Cole, you little devil, he thought to himself. Dynamite.
Tobe still stood in front of the bloody body of Colton Nunnaly which swung gently as if stirred by a summer breeze. He stared at the boy with wide eyed hate, Cole not even giving him the satisfaction of flinching at his glare. He took a sinister step toward the kid.
"You know what is coming to ya don't ya?" he started, "I'm gonna kill you but it's gonna be the hardest thing you ever did and when I get through with you, you'll just be lost fer ever and ever cause God hates injuns and he hates them heathen gods that injuns worship, and dem' injun gods hates white folk and you're even hated by them cause of your whorin' ma was half white. Nobody wants you in this world or the next. Hell boy, I know Satan and even he is beggin' me to spare you. Seems they don't even want your kind in Hell. You kyarny Mangy mongrel. The way I see it, Me and Kole is doin the world a service. Makin' room for folks who deserve to be here. This land has been cursed by the presence of your kind long enough."
Tobe caught and steadied himself on the tail of the rope dangling from the rafters, as he staggered. The sudden change caused Colton to lift slightly farther off the ground, straining his terribly aching shoulders and arms even more.
"Firs' thing I'm going to do is cut yer eyelids off." He said with more laughter bubbling out from the drunken Kale, still leaning against the barn door. "That way you can't close em. You'll have to watch me while I scalp ye." Tobe continued.
"You'll have to see me smilin' the whole time. That way you'll know how much I'm enjoyin' myself. I wouldn't want you to think that you were goin' through all this for nothin'. Then I'm gonna break all your fingers and your legs and I'm gonna start pulling your teeth out. Not all at once. I wouldn't do you that way. Naw, I'm gonna pull them slowly one at a time." Stabbing a knife into the pole just over Cole's head as punctuation, Tobe grinned wickedly, his icy eyes themselves glittering like freshly sharpened daggers. "Now, I'm just gonna let yer imagination dwell on what I'm gonna do with this when I'm ready for it."
"Tarnation, Tobe" said Kale with an uneasy, wheezing chuckle, propping his elbows on the inner crossbar of the barn door and leaning back to make himself more comfortable. "I'd sure hate to be on your bad side."
"I'm easy to get along with, Kale" said Tobe, "All you got to do is be is something other than an injun' or some other abomination. Now, why don't you loan me your skinning knife? I figure it'd be ideal for eyelids."
There was pause. Tobe's face flushing with a sudden wave of anger at his partner's stupor, spun to face the scarecrow of a man who had stopped laughing. "Don't just stand there, I said let me see yer..." He noticed something didn't look right. The laughter had not only fallen silent but the inebriated man had an expression on his face that was out of place. Kind of a mixture of shock and fear but motionless. "What's wrong with you, Kale?" There was no answer, the man just stared blankly past his shoulder.
Tobe glanced around to see what could shock Kale dumb and mute. When he could discern nothing, he walked across the floor and grabbed Kale by the shoulders, shaking the man violently, clenching his teeth, angrier than ever. They were hard men. This was unacceptable.
Kale didn't resist the provoking of Tobe. Instead he fell forward. Tobe stumbled back from his drunken friend only to discover that Kale was never going to laugh again. His eyes widened as Kale's lifeless body slumped to the floor. Tobe could see the bloody prongs of a pitch fork shoved vertically through the crack between the boards in the barn door. Just a second before, they had been buried inches deep into the back of Kale who now lay dead at Tobe's feet. At the same instant the barn doors flew open, banging against the walls and the figure of Ethanim Cobb stood silhouetted in the opening holding a stick of dynamite in his outstretched hand. It was lit.
"You got a short time to make an eternal decision, Mister" yelled Cobb, "I suggest you get that boy cut down and mighty fast. Otherwise, we are all going to face our judgment. I got a feeling that you ain't ready. Knowing where you're headed."
Tobe's demonic blue eyes squinted. The fear quickly fading leaving nothing but hate. "Just who in blazes are you?" He roared, spit flying through clinched teeth.
"Absolutely none of your business. You gonna stand there and talk or are we gonna jes' sit here and wait til' God shows up? Looks like we got bout thirty seconds." Cobb actually estimated that it would be more like 2 minutes. He hoped he was right.
Cussing under his breath, Tobe ran to the back, yanked the knife from the pole, and cut the rope. Cole's body fell like a sack of potatoes to the floor. Tobe almost descended on Cole with his knife but abstained himself. At least twenty seconds had passed and he still needed to get out of the barn. Cole bounded up with speed that Cobb wouldn't have even thought possible considering the beating the boy had taken and the loss of blood. He clawed at the knife still clutched in the outlaw's hands, slicing through his bonds like a razor blade. Throwing off the ropes, he ran past Cobb, jerked the reins of both horses from the hitching rail, and leaped into the saddle of the bay. At the last possible moment, Cobb threw the dynamite into the barn, slammed the door jamming it with a shovel that was propped up next to the place where the pitch fork had once stood. Swiftly he leaped into the saddle of the grey and shouted, "INENA!" as he dug his heels into the sides of the horse and both men stormed off. The raging screams of the outlaw could be heard over the hoof beats.
They were barely 60 yards away in a dead run when the barn boomed with one explosion followed by another in rapid succession. The second blast being larger as the stash beneath the floor ignited. The horses ran in blind panic, now. Like the Devil himself was on their heels. The Devil, Cobb thought, just went to Hell in a barn. The dun's head jerked as it heard a shrill whistle coming from the direction of the escaping horses. Without a moment's hesitation, he darted in a dead run. Closing the distance between him and the two boys with remarkable speed. They let the outlaw horses carry them into the gathering darkness of twilight. Hell bent for safety.
The dun was a fine animal. It had been a product of an accidental cross up in Kentucky. The Kentuckians loved horse races and were always trying to breed the fastest animals. Thomas Mason was making a name for himself as having the finest race horses in North America and had gotten himself obsessed with the sport.
A few years ago, Mason had acquired a mustang from out west somewhere which proved wilder than a bar tramp in Ross's Landing. He was used to tease the mares only. Mason wouldn't allow such a horse to actually breed his prize mares, but the animal was useful. The mustang was used to encourage the brood stock to cycle faster preparing them for breeding and it kept the prize stallions from getting kicked or lamed in the process. If the savage horse was lamed, it could be put down with only a minimal loss. However, the wily ol' stallion done a little bit more than teasing.
During the night, while the hands were asleep, the mustang had simply butted his chest against the barbed wire fence and walked through it. The strands making kind of a high pitched tone as they stretched and snapped under the tension. Mason was furious. By the end of the night his best mare was bred and the mustang never seen again.
Four years later, Cobb had showed up in town with a couple other guys from Tennessee. They had come up looking to purchase a lumber mill and Mason had begged him to take this demon horse and even paid him five dollars to promise that he'd never reveal where the animal came from. That had been a year ago and the training process was anything but gentle on them both, but now they made an unstoppable team of man and horseflesh, inseparable, with deep respect for each other.
The moon shone brightly off of Sarah's dark hair as she made her way up towards the house from the barn. She loved spending time there on a quiet evening like this one. The cool of the night air mingled with the crisp smell of leaves and the warm scent of horses as she walked. Her bare feet soaked in the newly fallen dew as she crossed the lawn, wiggling her toes in the grass.
There were always chores to do on her parent's homestead and sometimes the work was hard. Even at this hour of the night there were things to be tended to. She had been checking on a mare that was due to foal any day now. Being as this was her first foal and the time was getting so near, Sarah had taken to walking down and checking every couple hours. It added to her normal duties but she reveled in it.
Just like her brothers before her, Sarah had her daily chores. She did everything from cleaning the stalls, spreading sawdust, keeping straw in the nesting boxes, collecting eggs, and the like to hauling water from the well, washing the clothes and tending to the garden. She liked it though. It was good work and it felt good to feel the sun on her face and the sweat on her brow. There was something calming about it, comforting in its own way. Sometimes she liked just curling up in the hay loft to read a book or write in her journal, sometimes she would even fall asleep propped up against the sturdy timbers.
She loved being around the animals. Her Pa had even let her pick out her own hen and it was the most beautiful hen in the whole lot. He had traded for ten of the fat speckled birds on his trip to Moffit Station with two of her brothers last month. Joseph had picked him a glossy black fighting cock and Colton had gotten one just like it along with a couple of pullets of the same breed.
They claimed that these black birds had somehow come from a man's private stock. Some man by the name of James Shy had been developing the breed in Lexington, Ky. Her brothers were always fighting roosters around the mountain with their friends. When they got home, they bragged about winning every match they could enter and vowed to raise this breed of feathered warriors for the rest of their lives, and they were the only folk in Tennessee that had them.
As she crunched up the leafy path headed towards the house, enjoying the sound of freshly fallen leaves underfoot, she heard another sound. She turned to listen more carefully as she identified the sound of running horses approaching. Who would be running so fast in the dark and, more importantly, who would come to visit at this hour?
Standing still in the yard, facing the direction of the rapidly oncoming riders, Sarah squinted into the darkness trying to see. Suddenly the familiar figures of Colton and Ethanim materialize from the inky night. They were riding unknown horses, followed closely by Ethanim's dun. Ethanim had a hand on Cole's shoulder as if he were trying to prevent him from falling. Her eyes widened and her heart skipped when she realized that her brother was covered with blood and from all appearances, dang near dead.
"Pa! Pa!" she screamed as she hurried up to the riders that were now slowing as they reached the front of the house.
John Nunnaly came running out on the porch with nothing on but his trousers. Galluses dangling down the sides of his massive legs and around his back. He was average in height but strong built. Even for a middle aged man, the muscles in his arms were chiseled with years of hard labor, supported by massive shoulders, and a stump of a neck. His face was lean and hard.
Concern and horror filled his warm brown eyes and sweat instantly popped out in the balding area that stood out of his raven black hair like an island. The sides neatly trimmed and slicked back. His wife followed closely behind, clutching a shawl around her shoulders. Her silver hair glittered under the lantern light and her face seemed to age twenty years as her eyes took in her son's wounds.
"What happened?" His voice thrummed with deep baritones that seemed to vibrate the structure of the porch and the very fibers of Ethanim's body. The Nunnalys gathered around their fallen son and began to clean his wounds. Ethanim started to recount the events of the evening beginning with his observation of the smoke and the sound of the shot. Suddenly, he started. The shot! He had completely forgotten that he had heard the shot. Had they shot Cole?
With all the cuts, marks, and dried blood, it was no easy task to find the wound. The bullet had entered Cole's lower right side making a nasty exit just to the right of his naval.
"Filthy cowards, they shot him in the back!" Ethanim exclaimed. His hands shaking from anger and emotion, the tears welling up in his eyes and threatening to overflow. "I bet they shot him while he was running to the barn for cover. Lord, he's bled a lot Uncle John. I killed em. I killed em both for what they did. Hang on Cole, we're gonna to get you patched up. Hold on, you tough ol' rascal"
Sarah noticed that Ethanim was getting borderline hysterical, his breathing coming in little shallow gasps, and gently laid her hand on Ethanim's arm. His heart was pounding and she could feel it through the young man's hard muscles as if he had a ten-pound hammer working away in his chest. He must have seen some and been part of some terrible things.
She squeezed his arm gently with her delicate fingers. "Ethanim, let me and Ma work. You've done all you can do. Thank you for bringing my brother home." She said softly. As Sarah looked up at the young man through her dark eyelashes, her own tears threatened to overwhelm her.
"She's right, son." Said Uncle John. "I have to go fetch the doctor. Come on in the house and get cleaned up and calmed down some. You've been through hell by the looks of it."
"No!" shouted Ethanim, springing to his feet. "I'll go get Doc Adams."
John looked at Ethanim with shock. "Boy, you're worn out. Doc's place is three miles from here."
"Don't matter," he said, climbing into the saddle of the dun, "I got the fastest horse in the state of Tennessee and he sees better at night than an owl. I can be there and back before you can even get half way there after dressing yourself and saddling your own horse. I'll be back as fast as I can. I'm riding on The Breeze." With that he thumped the dun's sides and both rider and horse evaporated into the night like a ghostly apparition, leaving nothing behind other than the sounds of fading hooves. The thunder of Cobb's retreat gave way to the groans of Cole laying on the porch in pain and the whispers of the praying and crying of a heart broke sister and a desperate mother trying to save her boy's life.
John Nunnaly sat on his porch three days later, smoking his pipe, and listening attentively to what Sheriff Carson had to say. Immediately after learning about the events in the cove, the sheriff had formed a group of men and high tailed it down the mountain to the place, led by Cobb. In spite of the warm autumn day, Carson shuddered as he recalled the scene upon their arrival.
The cabin had been a complete loss along with the barn. The acrid smell of wet ashes and burnt powder still mingled in the valley in spite of the rain that had continued through the night before. The remains of Kale had been quickly located and identified, they were laying on the ground ten yards from where the barn had sat the previous day. Evidently the blast from beneath the floor had just thrown the body and it was pretty much intact with a few singed places here and there.
Planks from the barn had shattered throwing a rain of splinters around the scene with a 70-yard radius. There were even broken planks buried in the sides of trees growing up the hillside behind the barn and many simply driven into the hillside itself. The destruction had been swift and complete.
"John," said Sheriff Carson, "We searched the entire perimeter. We started little circles and continued 'till we were half a mile from the place every direction. The second body was never found."
Carson was a hard man. He'd had to deal with a lot of hard cases in Kentucky and West Virginia. The less inhabited parts of these mountains had some fine folks but there were some that were as lawless as they come. He and his friend Ephraim Hatfield had sure blazed those West Virginia hills. A few horse thieves and one rapist died at his hand, but one man had been sent to prison. Carson shuttered. He had never met a man who had radiated more evil in his life. Just being close to him turned one's stomach. He hoped that he'd never have to see Nester Williams again. If that was his real name. Those Hatfields were sure enough the type of people that this country needed, though, if it was going to grow.
Last year, Ephraim's wife had given birth to a little boy. He sure was a pretty little feller. They named the boy William, after him. Carson had sure hoped the boy had a better shot in life than he had.
Soon after the boy was born, like many others, Carson packed up and moved out for some new scenery. He wasn't drawn the same direction, however. He wasn't after the same thing. As tough men pushed into new frontiers, many headed South to Georgia. It seemed that a prospector named Jesse Hogan had struck pay dirt in Ward's Creek near Dahlonega. It was also rumored that Frank Logan struck gold in Duke's Creek, White County.
Either way, the Eastern gold rush created problems all over the Southern states. People were having to move from their homes, being pushed out by greed. To stay and fight only meant you would be murdered by it. Tennessee was now a clustered mix of immorality and lawlessness, and William Carson hoped that he could do his part in bringing protection and order to innocent folk.
John Nunnaly was now looking at Carson through squinted eyes.
"So you're sayin' the other man didn't die in the blast?" Shaking his fist at the Sheriff's face vigorously he said, "You tellin' me the man that shot my boy, this Tobe somebody, survived a blast like that and remains a threat to my family?"
"No, John." Carson replied smoothly. "I can't confirm that he was killed is what I'm telling you."
"What's the difference?" John's voice boomed.
"A lot," said Carson leaning forward and placing a caring hand on John's knee. "He could very well be dead. There may have been nothing left to find if the dynamite went off directly beneath him and the rain washed whatever was left off, or someone found the body and buried it somewhere without discovering Kale. Heck, all I'm saying is that we cannot just assume he's dead."
"If he is alive, Sheriff, I'll kill him a lot slower than he was going to kill Colton." John's eyes narrowed, "I'll make him pay."
The sheriff leaned back and peered at John. "I know how you feel. I'm fighting strong emotions myself, John, but vigilante justice has never been right or lawful. You'll be no different if you do that. If he's alive, he needs to go before a judge."
John stood up and stared across the pasture then turned slowly. "Cole, has laid in there slipping in and out of consciousness for four days now. Doc Adams says it's only by the grace of the almighty God and sheer grit that he's still alive. If I find the man that did this, I am the judge." With that, John Nunnaly stood up and walked slowly back into the house.
William Carson sat on the porch looking across the beautiful home place that John had built with his own hands. These men were not to be reckoned with and Carson knew it well. They were God fearing men who loved their families with everything in them. Standing up, he looked at the door and said loudly. "Just don't let me know anything about it. I have a job to do." With that he stepped of the porch. The leather creaked as he put his foot in the stirrup and climbed on his horse. Turning down the path, he slowly rode away.
The rain had subsided mostly. Half way up the mountain side, a rock protruded out several feet creating a cavernous space underneath. A light fog had settled along the ground and twilight created a blue haze that added to the serenity of the scene. From time to time a small bird flew past chirping and a squirrel could be seen tapping tree limbs above. It was really cold this time of morning.
The roof of the overhang had been blackened from years of campfires from Cherokees that not so many years ago had dwelt in these rock houses and the intervening years of sojourners spending occasional nights as they passed through. It was just above a winding trail through the mountains and made a perfect place to get out of the rain for travelers like the figure who lay huddled there now.
His body shivered uncontrollably at the chill and the man was dangerously near hypothermia. Raising up clumsily and with much effort he drug himself painfully closer to the small fire that was burning. Adding another damp stick to the already struggling fire, he sat staring and trying to wrap his mind around all that had happened.
Anger filled his veins like the blood pulsing through them. His hatred pulling him down deeper now than he had ever been before. He had never in his life needed something so badly as the rage and his lust for revenge consumed him. He had been beaten. He had been made to panic. He had tasted fear. Hate flashed across his face as the flames flickered, reflecting in his irises adding to the pure unadulterated evil on every feature.
A light rain began to fall again as he sat brooding, he pulled the wide brim of his hat low, obscuring his features in shadow. It wasn't over. He felt the charred hole in his sleeve and flexed his stiffly bandaged hand. No, it was far from over. The fire sizzled as the raindrops fell but there was nothing but the purest fire of wrath from those icy blue eyes. Despite the fact that he was sure he had at least one ear drum ruptured, he heard or maybe felt the rolling of distant thunder.
Rickey R. Phipps was born and raised in the small coal mining town of Coalmont, TN. He grew up spending his summers hunting, fishing, and riding horses through the rugged hills and valleys that he loves. Today he is a machinist by trade and lover of traditional weapons and archery.
S.L. Phipps grew up on the Native American festival circuit as a well-known flute performer, educator and southwestern art and jewelry specialist.
The two met at a powwow and were married in 2014 and together they have shared many interests. Both have become historians in various fields and now are aspiring authors of historical western fictions.
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A Decent Man
by Victor Kreuiter
Pale and pudgy, Walter Hayes looked like a bewildered schoolboy. He sat in the last seat in the last car, his left arm trailing across the top of the bench he occupied, his legs stretched out, his eyes down. Anyone looking at him would see an addled boy with a small round nose in the middle of a plump face, pale eyes, full lips, and a roly-poly chin. The duster he wore and the vest under it, brand new. Out of place was the gun he wore on his hip, the holster strapped tight to his leg. If he was trying to pass as a gunslinger he was failing miserably. He'd never fired a gun in his life. A traveling salesman, sitting across the aisle from him, had been making attempts at conversation. "Hey there fella," he started, "where you headed?"
"I'm Oklahoma bound. Ever been there?"
Again, no response.
"Kid, you okay?"
Walter offered a shrug, a guffaw, then: "I'm god-awful tired of taking orders from women, that's what I am." Did his voice squeak? He didn't look up.
Nineteen years old, Walter was indeed weary, weary of being bossed around by five older sisters, a peckish mother and a demanding father. The sixth of six children—there were five girls before him—his family was close enough to well-to-do that getting the rest of the way didn't matter. Chester Wilmore Hayes, his father, owned three dry goods stores in Philadelphia, knew bankers by their first names and smoked cigars with preachers, police officers, bankers, lawyers and a judge or two. His mother, the former Regina Minnie Clark, taught piano to young ladies waiting to marry. She treated Walter as if he were a chore. So did his sisters.
Frustrated with his position within the family, dispirited and desperate, Walter purchased a train ticket heading west and once underway, legs spread, eyes narrowed, he felt damned proud of himself. He'd made a decision and followed through. He had some money in a small cloth sack inside a small pocket in his vest. He figured it was enough to get him started. Two additional shirts and a pair of trousers were in a canvas satchel sitting beside him, along with sundry items: a change of underclothes, socks, a few handkerchiefs. He wore a grey round-top bowler, pushed back from his brow, tilted up. Just before leaving for the train station he'd told his parents he'd had enough, he would be treated shabbily no more. Why stay where he felt no respect? His father barked. His mother fumed. His sisters started their usual hectoring only to be stopped—shocked—when he told them they could all "go to tarnation." At that his father raised his hand to strike, his mother grasped hands to her chest and the sisters wailed . . . one praying, two crying, two howling outrage.
The salesman, Wilber Prouce, was comfortable talking with strangers. It made travel easier. It made time go by. He'd been attempting to start a conversation since the train sat in the station. He'd explained his merchandise—shoes—aware that all the while that Walter wasn't paying attention to a word he said. Getting nowhere, he thought inquiring about Walter's health, his state of mind—showing some concern—that might get a conversation going. "You running away from something?" he asked.
In response, Hayes spewed lukewarm vitriol about his sisters, his irritable mother and his imperious father. "No, I'm not running away," he said. "I'm escaping." He explained to Prouce that he was heading west "where a man is free to fashion his own future." He was certain, he told the salesman, that in time his family would hear of his accomplishments and lament their poor treatment of him. When Prouce inquired as to whether Hayes had ever been "out west" the reply was a humph and under-the-breath, indiscernible muttering.
"You might want to think about where you're heading," Prouce said. "There's more work out there than pay."
Hearing unsolicited advice, Walter raised his eyes and stared at Prouce, sniffed, stood up and walked forward, passing occupied and unoccupied seats before slumping into a vacancy and staring out the window. Prouce inspected his fingernails, scratched at his scalp, licked his lips, swallowed, leaned forward to see where the boy had landed, smiled, shrugged, then put his head down, closed his eyes and fell asleep. What that boy was up to was none of his business.
Walter was able, mostly, to stave off the anxieties that descended on him for the few days it took to get to his destination, St Louis, Missouri. On arrival he found cheap lodging and spent two days examining the downtown business district and the bustle down at the river, assessing his situation and weighing his options.
His situation? Easy. He was away from home for the first time in his life, knew no one and no one knew him.
His options? Simple. Get a job or go home.
On day three he found employment at a soap factory just blocks up from the Mississippi. He was unsuited for the work, unpracticed at laboring, and after two uncomfortable weeks, unemployed. His employer paid him out and told him he needn't return, no reason given. The earnings covered most of Walter's room and board in an aging boarding house just south of the business district. Unemployed, he went back to assessing his situation and weighing his options, finally deciding to continue moving west. Was he homesick yet? Perhaps, but not so homesick he wanted to see his family. He'd been thinking about Kansas. He'd heard about Kansas. Wide open plains. Sunshine and fresh air. Opportunities for anyone willing to work hard.
There were cattle in Kansas. There was money in cattle, wasn't there? As a boy he'd heard his father declare a Kansas City steak a delicacy. Wouldn't it be something to return home a successful cattleman? Walter Hayes knew nothing about cattle and precious little about the state of Kansas before stepping off the train in Wichita, where he slept in a less-than-desirable saloon for two nights, spending his days wandering the streets and wondering what in the world he would do with himself in the state of Kansas.
In the saloon, The Sugar Beet, he met a local farmer—Hayes assumed he was a rancher—who bought him a drink and offered him room and board in exchange for his labor. Walter accepted. It was a start, wasn't it? How was he to know that Riley Milburn, who was drunk when they met, spent more time intoxicated than he did sober? So, on Walter's third day in Wichita, Riley Milburn put several bottles of liquid encouragement into his worn-out buckboard, told Walter to climb aboard, and directed his listless nag to deliver them to Riley's farm, a few miles outside Wichita. Arriving, Milburn pointed to a structure struggling to withstand the Kansas zephyr and said "You sleep in the barn." Stepping off the buckboard Milburn ordered Hayes to get the horse taken care of and lurched toward the house, which was in no better condition than the barn.
Milburn held no paper on the land he'd been living on for months. A drifter, he'd wandered past an abandoned house on a plot of land outside Wichita, slept there one night, spent the next day sleeping more, then decided he'd stay until he was run off. As fortune would have it, no one cared about the house, the barn, or the land. He'd done little since he arrived and had no plans to do more. Drinking was his occupation. He liked to drink and it came easy. Farming was work. When Walter Hayes showed up in the only saloon Milburn could afford to drink in, and when Hayes said he was looking for work, Milburn's brain wasn't so fogged that he didn't see opportunity. It was possible, he figured, to get some labor out of an obviously naíve young boy, and so for three days in a row they worked, cleaning scrub from a garden grown over, working on a fence that held nothing in and nothing out, and dragging trash out of the house and setting it to flame. All three days Milburn went without a drink; for him, that was the hardest part of those three days. He snarled at Hayes morning, noon and night—Hayes had little idea of what he was supposed to do even after Milburn barked at him—and after three days Milburn "fired" Walter Hayes, claiming he'd earned not a penny with his lazy ways. Walter, afraid to argue, walked the railroad tracks back into Wichita and returned to the saloon where he'd previously slept in an upstairs room no bigger than a closet. Frustrated and exhausted, running low on money, his resolve wavering, he found himself growing bitter. For two days he stayed inside The Sugar Beet, anxious and adversarial, running his mouth about his bad luck. He sounded much like his sisters, whining, complaining, carping, grousing.
"Keep it down," the bar owner—Wayford Hellrung—told him every other hour or so. The Sugar Beet was near the railroad tracks, several blocks from the railroad station, and the clientele it served were those least likely to succeed at anything they attempted. It was not a happy place and its customers were there for one reason: solace found in alcohol. Hayes' bitching was not appreciated. It didn't help that the bartender (i.e., the owner, Hellrung) spent half his time telling himself he ought to lay off the drink and the other half holding a drink and thinking he ought to put it down. Hellrung had few acquain'tances, no friends and had been in business for several years. He was not succeeding at owning and running a drinking establishment.
Hearing Hellrung's admonishments, Hayes reply was always something like "I got things I need to get off my chest." It was the best retort he could think of. No one in the bar paid him much attention.
On his second day back of constant complaining, a man sitting in a dark corner of the bar—Walter hadn't seen him—stood up and walked to where Walter was cursing his luck and his lack of opportunity. The bar owner licked his lips, took a hesitant step toward Walter Hayes, raised a finger as if to signal him to be silent, and said: "Don't want no trouble."
The man looked at the bar owner and smiled. "Won't be none." He stopped just short of the boy, stared at the six-gun Walter was sporting, and said "Ever use that thing?"
Walter huffed. "I know how to handle myself," he said. He became, of a sudden, jittery.
"But," the man continued, "do you know how to handle that gun?" He looked neither friendly nor acrimonious, yawned, looked to the owner of the bar, looked at the only other customer—an old man avoiding making eye contact with anyone—then moved his gaze to Walter Hayes and waited for an answer. Hellrung said "Now let's not have no trouble," and the man looked at him, sighed, looked back at the boy and said "How much you want for that gun?" Walter took to breathing hard. "I'd like me that gun," the man said. "Doubt you need it. Doubt you'd know what to do with it."
Walter was shaking, felt it and tried to stop. He was looking down, frowning, and had to force himself to look up, which he did, and he looked this man up and down and saw he was without a weapon. Was that good news or bad? "Gun ain't for sale," he said.
The man walked back to the table he'd been sitting at, rummaged around in a coat, came back with a gun in his hand, pointed it at Walter, cocked it and said, "Boy, take that gun off, real slow. Be real careful."
Walter shuddered and didn't move.
The man stepped closer, slapped Walter once with his free hand, watched Walter suck in air, then smacked Walter at his temple, twice, with the butt of his gun. Walter dropped, put on hand on the holster, held up a hand as if to say "stop." His attacker knelt on the floor next to him, patiently relieved Walter of his gun, removed Walter's belt and holster and stood up.
Now Wayford Hellrung was shaking. The attacker looked at the bartender, walked over to him, put Walter's belt, holster and gun on the bar like it didn't matter anymore and said, "Don't want no trouble, do we?" The bartender shook his head. The man took some money out of his pocket, held it up for Walter to see, showed the bartender, then put it on the bar and said "Fair price for your gun." He looked at the bartender and handed him some coins. "Get that boy some food, get him to bed, and tomorrow make sure he gets on a train going somewhere else." He walked to his table, grabbed his coat, walked to the bar and grabbed his new gun, belt and holster and walked out the door.
Twenty-four hours later Walter Hayes boarded a train heading east—he'd assessed his situation, pondered his options and concluded heading home might be best. The man who'd taken Walter's gun was standing on the platform, watching the train depart, as was Wayford Hellrung. As the train pulled out the man walked over to Hellrung and said "Decent kid. He'll grow and be a decent man."
Three days later Walter Hayes strode into his home—late, after dark—and that arrival caused quite a brouhaha. His father went furious. His mother started blubbering. His sisters came running down the stairs and started in on him right away. His oldest sister Helen—as furious as her father—walked to him and slapped him twice—hard—and was winding up for number three when Walter stepped toward her and threw a roundhouse that landed squarely on her jaw. She went down, flat on her back. At that, the homecoming grew even more hysterical.
His father roared, moved toward his son and Walter put up his fists and said "I ain't putting up with this no more! All you on me all the time! You hear?" He was dog-tired, drawn in the face and ready for a decent meal, but facing the same situation he'd escaped from, he knew it was fight now or live with the unacceptable. His father stopped, barked again, started again then stopped when Walter raised fists higher. The boy had lost some weight, needed a bath, could use a shave. Chester Hayes' hands were at his side, fisted, and he studied his son's face, looked into his eyes, seeing something there. What was it? He'd never seen it before. Walter's mother went to muttering to herself. Walter looked at her—it was not a compassionate look—took a step toward his sister Helen, still on the floor, and offered a hand. She looked away.
He drew a breath, looked at his father, his mother, shaking his head. It grew very quiet.
"I'm gonna have me a bath," he said finally, and ignoring his family he strode to the steps and climbed the stairs up to the bedrooms and the bathroom and that's the last the family saw him until the next morning when he showed for breakfast, fully dressed, and told his father he decided he'd be working at the store on Gillingham Street for a while. It was the newest of their three stores and the most modern. His father said nothing, his mother said nothing, his sisters said nothing, and as he walked out the door his mother asked if he'd be home for lunch.
He did not respond.
At the store on Gillingham Street he told the help he was in charge. The man who'd been managing the store thought otherwise until Walter told him he would be getting a small raise in pay. Walter gave everyone in the store a small raise in pay, told his father about it in the evening, listened to his father rant and rave and ignored him.
Within a year the Gillingham store was making more than the other two stores combined and when his family praised him, Walter announced he'd found a small apartment near the store, would be moving out, and did. Next, the other two stores were expanded, using Walter's model and his planning; this took almost two years.
When he was twenty-six he married a girl who was a maid—his mother and his sisters were mortified, his father indifferent. The newlyweds moved to Wichita, Kansas, and with a bank loan—he'd asked for nothing from his father—they opened a small dry goods store. That store grew into what would be known as a "department" store, and as that store grew Walter added a small dining room—lunch specials being especially lucrative. Wayford Hellrung—sober, married, now a deacon at his church—applied for the position of running that dining room and Walter hired him immediately.
The store grew larger. Walter bought the building next to it and had it converted into a hotel. It, too, was successful. Both enterprises were so successful, in fact, that Hayes recognized the need for some form of security. A banker friend pushed the issue and he decided the time was right, word got out that he might hire, and one day a tight-lipped man, Jenet Wehmeyer, walked in and inquired about that position. Hayes recognized him instantly.
On Wehmeyer's first day he walked into Walter Hayes' office on the second floor of the department store, carrying with him a pistol, a belt, and a holster. He put those items on Hayes' desk, stepped back and nodded. Walter stood up from his chair, inspected the items then shook his head. "Thanks," he said, "but I don't need no gun and don't want one." He stared into Jenet Wehmeyer's eyes long enough that Wehmeyer dropped his gaze, stared at the gun, belt, holster, picked them up and walked back out of the office. Hayes would never see that gun, that belt, that holster again.
Jenet Wehmeyer would work for Walter Hayes for the remainder of his life, dying in his sleep in Room 306 of the Wichita Hotel at the age of fifty-seven. Walter spent better than a year looking for Wehmeyer's family, never found any and gave up. Wehmeyer was buried in a sanctified cemetery. Walter Hayes paid for it all, including the headstone upon which read this inscription:
A DECENT MAN
Victor Kreuiter has had stories printed in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Halfway Down The Stairs, Del Sol Review,
and other print and online publications. He lives, reads, and writes in the Midwest.
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Lucille and Sara's Train Ride
by Thomas J. Hale
Their train pulled into a stop-over station in Ogallala, Nebraska, a much needed chance to work their sore legs, get their blood moving. Lucille and Sara stepped onto the train station's platform and looked around. The station was located just one street off of Main Street, the town's central avenue. Lucille checked her coin bag, hoping to afford a glass of lemonade and maybe a piece of chocolate. Disappointed, she resigned herself to a sip of water from the communal fountain.
"Don't worry," Sara said,"I'll get this stop, you can get the next." Once again Lucille silently thanked God that Sara had come along. The two friends walked, arm in arm, to the station's cantina. Sara had expected to see nothing but cowboys out here, but it was driving season and all the cowboys in Nebraska were working a herd. Mostly they saw families and single men, coming and going. The girls each got a glass of lemonade and piece of chocolate and returned to the platform to wait for the train to be ready for reboarding.
"Lucille," whispered Sara into Lucille's ear, "don't look right away, but that man looks just like Buffalo Bill!" Lucille turned, sure enough the man standing behind their bench looked remarkably like William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the greatest cowboy in America. They had seen posters of the famous scout's Wild West Show the last time it came through Chicago, but had been unable to convince Ms. Garvey that seeing his circus would "bring their history classes to life," as they had told her.
"Yes, but surely many men look like Buffalo Bill out here," said Lucille, not believing the celebrity would be waiting on a train in Ogallala. "He's not even wearing the right clothes, though." The man in question was wearing Cody's trademark mustache and goatee, but not his buckskin shirt and trousers and white hat. Instead he wore a sensible pair of denim pants, green waist-coat, and a black wide brimmed hat. Still, the similarity was remarkable. Their brush with greatness, real or not, was over, and the girls turned back to the tracks to wait on their train.
"Excuse me, miss," a rough voice behind them said. The girls turned to see the man they had been looking at standing behind them, looking down at Lucille. "I wonder, this may be an odd question, but are you Lucille Stoneweller?"
"Why, yes, I am," said Lucille. "Do I know you, sir?" Sara was speechless, her mouth slightly agape as she stared at the tall man.
"No, but I know your father, Stoneweller," said the man. "My name is William Cody," he said. "Do you ladies mind if I sit? I'm a good friend of Stoneweller, and I just can't believe this luck."
Lucille nodded, now it was her turn to lose the power of speech. Sara picked up the conversation. "William Cody? As in Buffalo Bill Cody?" she asked.
Cody chuckled. "Yes, that's me, at your service. I hope I'm not a disappointment, I don't usually travel with the Wild West Show unless we're on tour. I hope you won't hold that against me," he said with a wink.
"You said you knew Stoneweller," said Lucille.
"Yes, ma'am, he showed me your picture every time I blew through Hopewell. That's how I spotted you, by the way. I wasn't sure it was you but I figured I might as well take a chance. You're not travelling with him are you?" He looked around, hoping to see his friend somewhere else on the platform.
"No, Mr. Cody, we're not. Excuse my manners, this is Miss Sara Nightingale, my friend from Chicago, travelling back home with me. No, Stoneweller is not with us, Mr. Cody, he's actually, well, he's . . . " Lucille struggled to form the words. A tear moistened her left eye and left a trail down her cheek.
"Not Stoneweller," said Cody. "Don't tell me Stoneweller has passed on."
Lucille nodded. "Yes, he has."
"Well, how did it happen?" he asked, still unbelieving. "I've known Stoneweller since our scouting days back in the sixties. Never have I known a surer shot or more steady hand than Stoneweller." The train whistle blew. "Here, we better board. You all come with me to my private bunk."
"But our tickets are for the common cars, won't we get in trouble?" asked Sara.
"Little sister, you just stick with me and you'll be fine," Cody said. The girls looked at each other, shrugged, and picked up their luggage. "Oh no, we'll get the porter to handle that," Cody insisted. "Now let's head on back."
Cody's private quarters, or "bunk" as he called it, consisted of a bed, wash stand with water basin and towel, and a cushioned bench. The bed was large enough for two to sleep on but only if they were comfortable with each other. The bench allowed two to sit comfortably, three if necessary. Cody sat on the end of the bed, the girls took the bench. Once their luggage was delivered and the porter had left, Cody poured them each a glass of whiskey and one for himself.
"You'll need it for this, trust me," he said when they held up their hands. They had never tasted alcohol before, other than a toast of champagne on New Year's Eve. "It helps with the grieving process, trust me." They accepted the glasses, took a sip, and immediately began coughing as liquid fire crept down their throats. Cody laughed softly. "I guess it does burn, doesn't it? I must have burned my throat dull by now." He considered his empty tumbler, considered another drink, and thought against it. "Now, tell me about Stoneweller. And call me Bill, since we've broken bread together, in a manner of speaking."
Lucille nodded and lifted the glass to her lips before remembering the burning in her throat. She sat it down next to Sara's empty glass, and to her amazement her friend finished it for her. She looked at Sara with wide eyes, but Sara just shrugged and smiled.
"Well, Mr. Cody, er, Bill, I mean, I don't know much, I'm afraid. I received a telegram at my school in Chicago just yesterday, and all I know is that he passed away. No word of an illness, or an accident, or anything."
"Is he still, ahem, with Miss Ellie?" Cody asked, slipping back into the present tense.
"Yes, in their own way, they are, were, still together. They never did marry, though. I don't think the church would have had Miss Ellie, and Stoneweller wasn't exactly the most religious man, I'm afraid."
"No, Stoneweller went his own way, that's for sure. Did he ever buy that ranch he had always wanted? I sure hope so."
Cody and Stoneweller must have been closer than she had thought, Lucille thought to herself. "Yes, he did buy the ranch, a small plot, really, but big enough for Stoneweller and Miss Ellie. A few hundred acres, nice stream right through it for the fifty head of cattle he was able to scrounge up. Plenty of grass, plenty of water, plenty of quiet for the two of them. Miss Ellie was able to quit the Hopewell Inn and move out there. I was only able to get back during the summers, though, so I'm not terribly acquainted with it."
Cody had lit a pipe and was now puffing on it. "He sure did talk about that ranch though, at least his dream of it." He exhaled smoke out the open window. He followed its path out the window, his eyes leaving the present and looking back on his history with Stoneweller. He told them a story. "I met Stoneweller back in '66, you know. Long time ago. Thirty years, damn near, come to think of it."
* * *
Junction City, Kansas, 1866. Buffalo Bill had been scouting for the US Army for some time for Colonel Custer and the troops out of Fort Elsworth, always moving ahead of the troops, often by himself but occasionally with his friend and fellow scout Wild Bill Hickock. Many of the troops under Custer looked on the scouts with something like awe mixed with confusion. These scouts were impressive and more than handy in a fight, but the regulars could not understand how they could be so comfortable on their own in hostile territory. The troops believed in safety in numbers, but the scouts knew the greenhorn regular soldiers would be next to useless against the Cheyenne braves they would be expected to go against. One war cry from a young warrior, swinging his war club and tomahawk with abandon as their bullets whined around him, and these regular troops were just as likely to turn tail and race back to the fort as to fight. The ones that did fight and managed to survive often grew into useful help, the scouts agreed. The fort's veteran soldiers were useful in a fight, but the scouts viewed the rest of the men with contempt and boredom.
The keenest aspect of scouting for the Army, in Cody's opinion, was the excuse it gave him to go for a ride with no particular place to go. Just go see what he could see, and if he saw anything worth reporting, well, he did. He had run into his share of natives, but only hunting parties that allowed him to ride on by without any trouble. Cody had nothing against these people, considered them superior to most whites that he knew, but did wish they would just read the leaves and see what the future held. His kind would just keep coming, Cody knew, and no treaty or pact would keep them from taking all of this land.
There was plenty of land, he thought as he rode along this fine day, plenty for everyone that wanted some. His buddy Hickock was with him, but he had ridden over a hill to take a look at whatever might be over there. It was late in the afternoon, getting on to suppertime, so Cody decided to call it a day and get camp started, they could get back to the fort in the morning to report on the total lack of excitement they had scared up.
Cody was building their campfire when Hickock rode in. "I like my coffee hot, if possible, Bill," said Hickock. He dismounted his horse, took off her saddle, and gave her a quick brushdown. "Don't worry about the sugar, I can rough it if you can," he said over his shoulder.
"You'll get your coffee just as soon as it's ready," said Cody, "and not a minute sooner." He flipped the bacon on the skillet, it popped and sizzled in the grease. "You see anything worth seeing?"
Hickock squatted by the fire next to Cody. "Not much, no sign, no buffalo neither," he said, his words wrapped around his chewing tobacco. "What've you been up to?"
Cody sat back and let the bacon fry and lit his pipe. He considered Hickock's chew habit disgusting but he had seen worse habits out here. "Nothing worth telling. Looks to be a pretty quiet night, you reckon we play some cards?"
"Well I forgot my fiddle so I guess cards will do," said Hickock. Cody had taken the bacon out of the skillet and divvied up the pieces on their plates. Next he sliced a few pieces of bread and laid them in the bacon grease to fry up. This soaked up the bacon grease so he would not have to clean the skillet and also produced something resembling toast.
"I'd drink that coffee up quick, Bill. Them Cheyenne over there probably won't have any for you," said Cody. Hickock turned over his shoulder to where Cody was looking. Four Cheyenne braves had appeared about fifty yards away, riding up over one of the little hillocks surrounding them.
"What happened, Bill?" Sara had forgotten how odd it was to call Buffalo Bill by his given name, she was so engrossed in his tale. Lucille nodded with her, prodding Cody to continue.
"Well, I'll tell you, Miss Sara and Miss Lucille, only let me get a few sips of my memory potion to make sure I get the facts straight," he said. He winked at them as he pulled from his flask. "Now, as to what happened next."
* * *
Cody and Hickock cursed themselves for their mistakes. Camped without a clear view of the plain, left their weapons too far away to do any good. The only thing to do was bluff their way out, see if these boys riding up on them were looking for blood or just out for a ride, same as they were. There were four braves in the group, their mean looking leader and three youngsters. The leader had a yellow feather tied into his braid. The youngsters looked a little skittish, but their leader looked like he was ready for business. He was holding an old rifle in his right hand, aiming down at the ground. In his left he carried his hatchet. The hatchet was probably the more lethal weapon, at least in the right hands.
"Howdy boys," said Cody as nonchalantly as he could. "We're just putting the coffee on, you're more than welcome to stay and share some bacon with us." He moved to ready a plate but the leader lifted his rifle to his hip. He pointed it in the direction of the camp, not directly at Cody or Hickock, but the message was clear. "Well mayhaps we don't need no bacon right now."
The leader dismounted gracefully, one fluid motion, never letting his rifle leave the two scouts. His band remained mounted. Without taking his eyes off of Cody and Hickock he waved his tomahawk in a circle around his head. His men got the hint and circled the camp. Cody and Hickock were now surrounded on all sides. The Cheyenne leader kept his eyes on them as he squatted down to grab a piece of bacon and shove it into his mouth, grease and all.
"That's right, just help your own self, that's how we do it in this camp," said Hickock. "Ain't that right, Billy?"
"That's right, Billy," said Cody. "We just take it nice and easy."
The Cheyenne wiped his mouth with the back of his tomahawk hand. If he understood English he gave no indication of it, just stared at them with a stone face. The scouts did not like that stone face. The horses crept closer, their circle tightening around the camp. Cody looked at Hickock, they may not have any chance of surviving this mess but if they fought they might avoid a slow death by torture later.
"Well hello there, Yellow Feather," a voice announced from atop the hillock behind the Cheyenne leader. Every head turned to see Stoneweller riding his horse at an easy trot into the camp. "I see you met my friends, Bill and Bill. Or is it Billy and Billy? William and William? Willy and Willy?" The Cheyenne leader, Yellow Feather, as it were, seemed to smile in spite of himself. "Whatever they go by, it looks like you've met their acquaintance." Stoneweller dismounted and approached Yellow Feather like he was an old schoolmate he had the luck to run into on Main Street. Each man clasped the other's right forearm in greeting.
"These friends of yours?" Yellow Feather asked Stoneweller.
"Well friends may be a bit strong, but I would say we know each other, yes." He turned to look at Cody and Hickock. "Ain't that right boys? Or would you say we're friends? Are we friends and I never knowed it?"
"Friends, I'd say we're friends, friends enough," said Cody. Hickock nodded agreement.
"Well there you go, I guess we're friends," Stoneweller said to Yellow Feather. "And what about these boys?" he asked, indicating the rest of Yellow Feather's band. "Are these your friends? Brothers? Tag alongs?"
"These are my best men," said Yellow Feather. "My best hunters. Not much to hunt now, thanks to likes of them," he pointed at Hickock and Cody with his chin, "and like of you, Stoneweller. We out on hunt, but only came across two ugly white men frying bacon and being too loud for their own good."
"Well don't lump me in with these boys, Yellow Feather. Looks like you're fixin' to do a little more than huntin' though."
Yellow Feather shrugged. "We might as well take these men back to village, let Chief decide what to do with them. Not a war party, but still do not like the sight of white faces riding around in our land, free and without worry."
"No, I can see that, I can see that point of view there, yes sir," said Stoneweller. "But look here, these are friends of mine, Yellow Feather. Ain't that count for somethin'?"
Yellow Feather considered this. He stared at Hickock and Cody, then at their horses, then at Stoneweller. "It counts for something, but not everything. Price must be paid, Stoneweller. Price must be paid for intruding so deep into our land."
"Yes, I expect it does," said Stoneweller. He sucked the inside of his cheek, his habit when thinking over a problem. "What does it cost, Yellow Feather?"
Yellow Feather considered the question. What did it cost, short of their lives, for white men to travel freely in his land? The young men with him were watching, waiting to see what price their leader would exact for this intrusion. He must set the example for them, let them see that the pride and honor of their people has not left them.
"Your horses are fresh, and strong. We will take them."
"Well now, that leaves us in a hole, now doesn't it, Yellow Feather," said Stoneweller. He did not relish the thought of being afoot. "Where's that leave us?"
"It leaves you right here, to get home as you please. Look around you, Stoneweller. We make a fair bargain."
"Is this all I get for saving your life?" asked Stoneweller. "A death sentence, walking home?"
"If this were a death sentence you would already be dead," said Yellow Feather. He waved his tomahawk above his head and his men corralled their horses. "Go in peace, Stoneweller." The Cheyenne rode off and were soon out of sight.
"Go in peace," Stoneweller said to an empty prairie.
* * *
"So we walked home," concluded Cody. "We left most of our supplies there. Never did see them horses again, that was a shame." He looked out the window. "That was a good horse."
"Stoneweller saved Yellow Feather's life?" asked Sara. "How did he do that? What's that story?"
"Stoneweller never did say, and don't think we didn't pester him the whole way back to the fort for that story. Stoneweller never was much for talking about himself."
"No," Lucille said, "he never did talk much at all, really." A fresh wave of sadness welled up inside her. She took a sip of water and stared out the window until it passed.
Cody watched her hide her grief. "Well, I expect I better get some shut eye afore we get too far along. Good night, ladies." With that he lay down on his bunk and covered his eyes with his hat. He did not sleep though, not right away. His mind was awake now, awake and alive with memories of years past. His friends, enemies, men and women he had not thought of in years. Stoneweller was always there, if not in flesh then in spirit. Now he was gone, like so many of Cody's friends. A parade of gunfighters, scouts, and sharpshooters galloped through his mind as he finally drifted off to sleep.
Thomas J. Hale lives in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and two daughters. He is an Air Force veteran who developed a taste for Western stories and culture growing up with his Mamaw and watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and reading Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. You can connect with him on Instagram, @tom_halebooks and on Facebook,Tom Hale.
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by E. K. Riley
When Ben grabbed the fife I was whittling and tossed it in the fire out of spite that I wouldn't let him play it, I grabbed a fistful of hair and started pummeling him. He pummeled right back. Usually around Pa you tried to disguise the fighting as rough-housing. In a one-room cabin like ours there was little enough space for living, let alone wrestling. But all the pent-up frustration of an autumn cut short by the Territory winter and having a sick mother gave our fists more bite than usual. It didn't help that Ben was nearly my size now and wanting to prove himself. Before you knew it, we were rolling on the floor, a blur of fists and curses.
Pa yelled quit it from his seat in front of the fire, and Jackson, our long-haired cur, raised up from where he lay at Pa's feet, barking at the sudden commotion. Ma, sweat slicking her jaundiced face, also raised up on an elbow in the bed to see what the problem was, and Katy Starr came to her feet in annoyance, the cloth she'd been wiping Ma's face with still in her hand.
Her movement distracted Ben just long enough that I was able to maneuver a knee between us and kick hard, tossing him away toward Pa and the fire. I heard Ma's anguished voice anticipating and the hard scrape of Pa's chair against the wooden floor as he stood. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katy Starr snatch at the air where Ben had been a moment before, but Ben was wind-milling, trying to stop his backward motion toward Jackson who was caught three-ways: between the boots drying in front of the fireplace, Pa on one side, and Ben coming at him. The dog tried to leap over Ben to avoid being hit, but Ben's pinwheeling arms knocked the dog backwards, and the next thing we knew, the boots and dog were in the fire.
Jackson lit out, fur and flames streaming behind him. He raced madly around the cabin, yelping and crying, his howls rending a space that was already thick with the smell of melted snow and unwashed bodies. Ma covered her ears and wailed along with the dog, while Pa reached to yank the boots away from the fire. The one boot that was afire, he savagely kicked all the way into the fireplace, and stamped out the sparks on the ones he'd pulled clear.
Jackson leapt and howled, twisting in mid-air to snap at the fire on his fur. I scrambled helplessly after him, but his pain made him fast and the fire made him impossible to grab. Katy Starr ran for the bucket of water we kept by the door, and I saw Ma, who had been unable to stand for eleven days, rear up out of her sickbed on unsteady feet and, with too-thin arms, snatch the quilt off of it to dampen the dog with.
The sound of the gun shot reverberated in the cabin like a thunder clap. Jackson gave one quick yelp and collapsed, dead. We looked to Pa who stood before the fireplace, his rifle at his eye. He lowered the gun, then moved quickly to snatch the quilt from Ma's hands and throw it over the still burning body of the dog. He smothered the flames, slapping at the sparks starting to catch the pitch of the logs until all were extinguished.
My ears were ringing from the rifle shot in the enclosed space, and Ben, who'd been frozen at Pa's feet and closest to the gun, had his hands over his ears. I guessed none of us could hear much right then, but as Pa rose to his feet and turned to glare at us, it was apparent that hearing wasn't necessary to glean his feelings.
Katy Starr lowered the bucket and came to kneel next to Jackson's body. She lay one hand on top of the quilt that covered him. She never could stand to see an injured animal and her quiet sorrow was almost worse than the fury in Pa's eyes.
Ma sat down heavily on the bed, her greasy hair hanging wild. In her tired expression I could see her recounting her whole history with Jackson, how he'd made the trip west with her as a pup and how she'd named him after the President she most respected, how he'd once held off a black bear until Pa could get hold of his gun, and how he'd waited patiently outside the cabin through every childbirth and kept her company as she grieved the death of the ones who hadn't survived.
Pa knelt and pulled the quilt off the dead dog, shoving it at my sister. The smell of singed fur and cooked meat wafted off the material, filling my mouth with spit equal parts disgust and hunger. Pa gathered Jackson's body up in his arms and rose to his feet, giving my brother and I one fierce look before he strode out the cabin door into the lightly blowing snow. Ben went to stand in the open door. I joined him and we gazed out after Pa, watching him make his ways across the snow-covered field toward the woods beyond as he threw Jackson's limp carcass over one shoulder so as to have a hand free to balance if he should hit ice underneath.
"Come away from there and close that," Katy Starr said, helping Ma back into the bed. "Ma will freeze." She tucked one limb after the other under the sheet on the bed still stained yellow from the various things that had leaked from our mother during her illness. My sister's hands were red and cracked from scouring the sheet with scalding water and ash lye, but she never complained. She gathered our sleeping blankets from the floor and arranged them over Ma who had gone silent. "And take that thing outside and throw it in the snow," Katy Starr said, waving vaguely at the boot still burning in the fire, its smoky reek of burning hide and fur pouring from the fireplace.
Chastened and glad for something to do, I took the iron tongs and grabbed the steaming boot between the pincers. Ben held the door wide for me as I walked it outside to a snow bank and plunged it in with a sizzle, watching the snow melt around it and form a delicate ice shelf at the top of the hole. When I looked up, Pa was striding back through the snow toward us, empty-handed and flint-eyed. He grabbed me up by the back of my coat collar and half-dragged me behind him to the door where Ben stood open-mouthed. Pa put one large hand on Ben's shoulder and pushed. Ben stumbled backwards into the cabin and sat down hard with a cry, then began bawling, whether from realization of what we'd done or because he was hurt, I couldn't say. Me, Pa dropped inside the door jamb like a deer he about was to dress. I was sick with the turn of events, equal parts grief over Jackson and fear of what Pa would do to us.
Pa whirled on me. "Get the shovel and the pick."
Pa went to Ma's side and whispered something to her that we couldn't hear. Ben told me later he thought he saw her nod, but I was running for the tools that leaned against one wall, not wanting to provoke Pa any further. I handed the shovel to Ben as he climbed to his feet and rubbed his backside where he'd come down hard. The three of us children watched quietly as our father helped Ma to a seating position and knelt at her feet to tenderly pull her thick wool stockings up around her calves. He was a big man, Pa was, but never did he look bigger than right then when he scooped Ma up, blankets and all, and turned to face us with her cradled in his arms.
"You're going to bury that dog," he told us, and carried Ma to the door of the cabin. Ma's face, ill-looking and tear-stained, was propped against his broad chest. I didn't know what was harder to take: Pa's tone or the fact that Ma wouldn't look at us. Over from the foot of the bed where she'd moved, I heard Katy Starr stifle a sob.
"Clean this mess up, girl," Pa said to her as the sound reminded him of her presence.
"Yes, Pa," Katy Starr said, and fell to crying softly.
To us, he said, "You two, come with me."
"But Pa," Ben wailed, pointing to his foot. "I only have one boot." I wanted to push Ben down just like Pa had. I wanted to pummel him all over again.
Pa stopped in the door, his back going stiff. He didn't turn around, and I wanted to believe he might be weighing the potential of a frost-bitten foot, but I saw him set his shoulders and heft my Ma in his arms to be more comfortable, and I knew instead he was weighing the cost of adding additional violence to the day. I elbowed my brother hard and his crying caught in his throat.
We followed a little ways behind Pa as he carried Ma across the field to where he'd left Jackson. Standing a distance off, we watched as he lowered himself to one knee next to the burnt carcass, balancing Ma on the knee so she, unlike Ben with his unshod foot, didn't need to touch the snow at all. Blocked from view as she was by my Pa's form, we could see little of her until, from behind Pa's broad back, one frail hand reached out and touched Jackson's snout. It combed the singed hair there, caressed the back of the animal's untouched neck. Ma left her hand there, buried in Jackson's scruff, as the snow lightly swirled around them. I began to cry, and then Ben did.
When Ma drew her hand back, Pa struggled to his feet, holding her tight against his chest as if he was protecting her not from the cold but from the sorrow that I saw etched across her face when they turned back to us. I thought about how Ma loved Jackson more than anything in this world, and about how Pa loved Ma more than anything. We children were the ones stood between both of them true loves, hoping for some scrap to fall for us.
His eyes red-rimmed but his expression stony, Pa glared at us as he carried Ma past. "Bury him deep so the animals don't get him."
Ben and I watched him carry her back to the cabin. He slipped once, his foot coming out
from under him, but his upper body seemed not to be affected at all. He remained as steady as an ox.
When they were gone, Ben and I wiped our noses and turned to the task, our tears a cold penitence we paid along with the raw and bleeding hands we would hold up to the fire later that night as Ma kept her face to the wall, never, we'd come to find out, to look back again.
I cleared a patch of ground, even scraping an area right down to the frozen grass underneath so that Ben would not have to stand in the snow anymore. Then I took the pick from him and began to swing it at the spot I'd cleared. The contact with the frozen ground set my arms to wobbling each time I struck. Ben removed the dirt with the shovel, and when I grew tired, we swapped jobs. We spent the better part of two hours digging a hole to put Jackson in. A half hour in, I stopped and gave Ben the boot off my foot.
Later, as we tried to rub the life back into our feet and hands before the fire, I played and re-played the events in my mind: the clatter of the wooden fife hitting the back of the stone fireplace, the soft give of Ben's stomach as my knee drove into it, the anguish in Ma's "No, no, no!" marking Jackson's leaps and yelps, and the sound of the bullet whistling close past me and thudding into the dog. Ma loved Jackson and Pa loved Ma, and forever after, whenever I looked at the little stump where my pinkie toe had been, I found myself wondering how true my father's aim had been.
E.K. Riley was a regional Tetris champion when he was young. Then he served in Desert Storm as a combat engineer. Now he writes computer code for a car company and post-apocalyptic video games for fun. He has a goldfish named Harry and a fondness for Shark Week.
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Rolle's East Florida Frontier Narrative
by George Kotlik
May 15, 1777. Rolle rides atop his Thoroughbred into St. Augustine, the capital of British East Florida. He tethers his horse in front of the governor's mansion. A British regular of the 14th Regiment of Foot stands at attention by the mansion's entryway. Entering the governor's house, a lieutenant greets Rolle.
"How may I help you?" the lieutenant asked.
"I need to speak with Governor Patrick Tonyn."
"The East Florida Rangers."
"One moment, please." The lieutenant disappeared down a corridor. Rolle could hear low murmuring before the officer reappeared. "The governor is ready to see you now."
Governor Patrick Tonyn was seated at his desk. Maps of the St. Marys and St. Johns Rivers sprawled out before him. He looked up from his papers, "How can I help you?"
"I fled from rebel violence in Pennsylvania." Rolle said.
"You and everybody else." Tonyn replied.
"I hear the East Florida Rangers are taking on interested parties," Rolle continued, "I want you to put me in touch with Thomas Brown."
Tonyn leaned in. "Now why would you want to talk to Thomas Brown?"
"Rebel raiders burned my farm and almost took my life. I'd like to kill every one of those damned sons of bitches."
Tonyn smiled. "Thomas Brown," he said, "is due back in town any minute now." Hyah Hyah! A man shouted somewhere outside Tonyn's open window. "In fact, I think that's Brown now. C'mon, follow me." Tonyn led Rolle outside to the main plaza where a party of East Florida Rangers had just returned from a rustling expedition in southern Georgia. Tonyn approached one of the rangers. "Thomas, how was your trip?"
"Good. Eventful. Who is this?" he asked, looking at Rolle.
"This is Rolle, he wants to speak with you."
"How can I be of service?" Brown asked.
"I want to join the East Florida Rangers." Rolle said. "I have military experience. I was a provincial officer in King George's War."
Brown sized Rolle up. "Any references?"
"None I can contact."
"Why're you here?"
"Those damned rebels." Rolle snarled.
Brown shot a glance at Tonyn and smiled. "That's just the attitude we're looking for around here. You got a musket?"
"The pay isn't great."
"How much is it?"
"One shilling a day and you get a set of clothes."
"I'll take it."
"Good, meet us here in the plaza tomorrow morning at sunrise. Don't be late."
* * *
The next morning, Rolle reached the plaza. A group of rangers, Rolle counted twenty, waited for him. The party left town shortly thereafter on horseback. Through marsh and swampland, Rolle galloped on the King's Road— East Florida's only highway— to Cowford on the St. Johns River. After taking the ferry, the party reached the other side of the river unmolested. Three Seminole warriors awaited them. They reported something to Brown after which he ordered everyone on high alert.
Rolle scanned the forest uneasily.
"The rebels are close." A ranger to Rolle's left said. "They're moving inland."
The rangers linked up with a force of twenty regulars and forty-seven militiamen under the command of Major Mark Prevost. Shortly thereafter, Seminole scouts reported that the rebels established a basecamp at Thomas Creek. At ten o' clock the following morning, Rolle and the East Florida Rangers engaged the rebels from behind tree fire.
Musket fire erupted from the forest. Rebel survivors from the initial volley fled in the opposite direction only to meet Prevost and three columns of regulars marching towards them with fixed bayonets. The rebels scattered.
* * *
But it was too late. British forces closed off most exits. As the smoke cleared, Crown troops captured thirty-one rebels. The Battle of Thomas Creek ended with a smattering of rebel forces retreating through mosquito infested swamps all the way back to Georgia.
Suddenly, a musket went off in the camp followed by a piercing scream. One of the Seminoles had killed a prisoner. Prevost immediately stepped forward. "Hold your fire! Don't shoot!"
Another musket went off. Crack! And another. Crack!
"I order you to stand down!" Prevost shouted.
"In the name of the king, cease-fire!" Prevost shouted. Ignoring him, the Seminoles murdered over a dozen prisoners. Unable to bear witness to the slaughter unfolding before him, Prevost came between the Seminoles and what prisoners remained. "Stop! The battle is over! We won."
The Seminoles backed off, but not until after fifteen rebels lay dead.
* * *
After the Battle of Thomas Creek, the East Florida Rangers returned to St. Augustine. Along the way, Rolle made a friend.
"Where did you say you were from, stranger?"
"Pennsylvania," Rolle replied, "but my father hails from Germany."
"German blood, eh? What part of Germany is your father from?"
"Yes; forgive me, who are you?"
"Johannes Schwalm, at your service."
"Nice to meet you." Rolle replied. They shook. "Name's Rolle."
"Nice to meet you, Rolle."
"Where do you hail from?" Rolle asked.
"Hesse-Cassel, by the Schwalm River."
"Never been there."
"Where are you staying, Rolle?"
"In the refugee district."
"You don't want to stay there." Johannes steadied his horse. "My plantation is on Fort George Island. Come work some of my land. I own thousands of acres north of the St. Johns River— entire islands connected by road to Amelia Island and Egmont's plantation. I'll let you keep whatever crop you raise and once you establish yourself then you can pay me whatever you like."
"You don't want to do that." Captain Brown said, riding up alongside Rolle.
"And why is that, exactly?" Johannes said, slightly offended.
"For security," Brown explained, "Governor Tonyn plans to remove all East Florida settlers south of the St. Johns River. Rebel raiding parties are expected to double this summer."
"With all due respect, Captain Brown," Johannes finally said, "But I do not think the rebels will dare strike us so deep in British territory." A crane landed on a branch on an oak tree draped in Spanish Moss. "Fernandina and Egmont's plantation still stand. Amelia Island is a bastion of hope for local loyalists. Think over my offer, Rolle. The land is good."
Rolle considered and contemplated Johannes' proposal. Johannes informed him that he had business in town and would not leave for his plantation until the following morning. As he rode into St. Augustine, Rolle couldn't help but notice a dozen Indians milling about the plaza in front of the governor's house. Tethering his horse to a nearby post, Rolle approached one of the Seminoles.
"Hello," he said, "my name is Rolle, what is your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Cowkeeper." Rolle noticed all the Seminole's were now staring at him.
"Your English is very good. Where did you learn to speak it?" Rolle asked.
"I speak with the British many times." Cowkeeper replied. "They are good allies to my people. We miss Governor James Grant— he treated us very well."
"Indeed? I have never met him, but his diplomacy and talent for public administration is commendable."
After a short exchange of pleasantries, Rolle bid the Indians farewell. "It is nice meeting you. Where are you going now?"
"I have just finished meeting with Governor Patrick Tonyn. I do not like him as much as I liked Grant. Can you speak to King George and replace Tonyn with someone else?"
Rolle chuckled. "I am afraid I do not have the king's ear. He is too important for someone like me. But if I did know him, I would certainly do whatever I could to help you and your people."
Rolle returned to the refugee district and among the city of white canvas tents, decided he would rather take his chances on the frontier. After stew, Rolle packed his belongings and rode to market. Finding Johannes at the butcher, Rolle informed the German that he was going with him to his plantation on Fort George Island.
* * *
The following evening, Rolle and Johannes reached Fort George Island. A small smattering of mostly unoccupied cabins surrounded by dozens of acres of planted crops hacked out of the Florida woods greeted the weary travelers. Rolle had not yet settled in when two dozen escaped African American slaves from Egmont's plantation arrived after sundown.
"A rebel army attacked Fernandina today," they reported. "Rebel soldiers imprisoned the loyalists and are planning to march on St. Augustine." Johannes fed the slaves as best he could, but they refused his offer to stay for the night. Rebels operated close by, they explained, and the area was not safe. Shortly thereafter, the escapees left. Johannes decided it imperative he scout out Amelia Island himself. Rolle offered to go with him.
* * *
In no time, Rolle and Johannes secured several days' worth of supplies and provisions for their trip. They reached Nassau Sound around noon and took the ferry to Amelia Island. Reaching the island unharmed, the rangers encountered a rebel scouting party in the woods. Taking the rebels by surprise, Rolle sniped the officer. Johannes wounded a second rebel, putting the rest, nine in total, into a panic. Exposed and in hostile territory, the rebels collected their wounded and retreated.
"That was easy." Johannes said.
Rolle reloaded his musket. "What do we do now?"
"Let's go back. I've seen enough."
They were forced to wait while the ferry delivered an Indian war party across Nassau Sound.
"Cowkeeper!" Rolle called out to the Seminole chief as he disembarked from the ferry. "What are you doing here?"
"Rolle," Cowkeeper replied, "it is good to see you. We heard rebels attacked Fernandina."
"What you heard is true," Rolle replied. "We just engaged a rebel scouting party. They're reconnoitering the southern end of the island."
Cowkeeper nodded. "We are scouting the entire island."
"Let us go with you." Rolle said.
"Are you mad?" Johannes hissed.
"You want to come with us?" Cowkeeper asked.
"Yes." Rolle replied. "We are rangers."
Johannes interjected. "Chief Cowkeeper, please allow me and my friend to discuss this matter for a brief moment in private."
"Make it quick," Cowkeeper replied, "we leave soon."
"Have you gone mad?" Johannes said in a low voice. "Talk about danger. Let the Indians do it, don't go."
"I am just scouting the area." Rolle said. "Governor Tonyn may reward me for my efforts. It won't take long."
Johannes sighed, "I will hold the ferry until you get back, but if you're not back in twenty-four hours, I must carry out my orders."
* * *
Rolle and company reached Fernandina undetected sometime after sundown. Hiding in the forest at the edge of town, Rolle watched Continental soldiers and Georgia militia torch the town and slaughter all the cattle at Egmont's plantation. After wreaking their havoc, the rebels withdrew to their longboats. By morning, Fernandina had been leveled and the rebels, taking their loyalist prisoners with them, were gone. Securing sufficient intelligence, Rolle traveled to St. Augustine to report his findings.
* * *
Rolle delivered his intelligence to Brown, who was then at the governor's mansion, before he eventually returned to Fort George Island. While Johannes was away on a rustling mission in south Georgia, Rolle guarded and watched over the German's plantation. On his second night on the island, a rebel raiding party stumbled onto the plantation. Their hoof beats alerted Rolle who coincidentally happened to be awake late in the night. He quickly hid in the woods. From a safe distance away, Rolle watched as the rebels set fire to the cabins. After approximately thirty minutes, the rebels rode off into the night. Destitute, Rolle once again traveled to St. Augustine. On the way to the capital, he met a group of loyalist refugees from North Carolina.
"We are headed for London," the group leader announced, "it is much safer there. We have a private vessel docked in St. Augustine. With the way this war is going, I recommend you leave East Florida as fast as you can."
Rolle considered the North Carolinians' advice carefully. In the end, Rolle could not justify living on East Florida's dangerous frontier. He decided to board the next vessel to London.
* * *
"Sorry son, ain't no ships destined for London coming anywhere near us," the grizzled sailor said. "We're at war." He leaned in, inspecting Rolle's face carefully. "Didn't you know that?"
"But the traveler I met on the road said he has a vessel bound for London." Rolle replied.
"Son, whoever told you that was lyin'. 'Round these parts, they'll kill you and steal yer ship. Only a stupid fool would say anything like that."
Rolle thanked the man and walked away. He proceeded wandering down the docks until he spotted the North Carolina loyalists he had previously met on the road. They had not seen him amid the hustle and bustle of dozens of newcomers— refugees from Virginia and South Carolina. Rolle approached the leader.
"Don't tell anyone about your ship." Rolle said quickly.
"It's you!" the leader said.
"Do you hear me? Do not tell anyone about your ship."
"There are a lot of desperate people around here."
The leader studied Rolle's face. "I believe you," he finally said. "What do you want?"
"Nothing, just be careful." Rolle walked away. Later that evening, while Rolle rested in a room he rented at Mary Evans' tavern, inn, and trade store on St. Francis Street, the North Carolinian paid Rolle a visit. Mary Evans directed Rolle to the living room to greet his visitor.
"How can I help you?" Rolle asked.
Making sure no one was listening; the North Carolinian laid his problem bare. "My stepson died a few hours ago. He was ill. We needed him to work the ship. You helped me so I was wondering— would you work the ship in exchange for passage to London? I don't trust anyone here and you don't seem like a bad person. Am I wrong?"
"No, no. You're not wrong."
"So? What do you say? We could use the help."
"How did you find me?"
"We followed you."
Rolle nodded. "Sure."
"We don't have much time. What do you say? Will you join my crew?"
"When do we leave?"
* * *
Rolle arrived safely in London three months later aboard the H.M.S. Loyalty. He never saw his cousin, Denys Rolle, again. After robbing the family and fleeing to East Florida, Denys Rolle could rot in hell.
George lives in Florida.
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