by John Robinson
Part Two: Politics And Other Wars
F Street Lobby, Willard Hotel, Washington, D. C. June 28, 1904.
On a hot, humid Washington evening, Godfrey retired to the lobby in search of the coziest chair he could find for his chronically stiff back. One could smell campaign season in the stuffy air. Thankfully not that kind, Godfrey mused, recalling Washington in the summer of 1861. The Democratic National Convention was scheduled for July 6 through 10 in St. Louis.
The Republican National Convention had concluded a week earlier in Chicago. The political skills of his Ohio friends had resulted in the re-nomination of Senator William McKinley (the loser to Bryan eight years before). Whereas McKinley's failed front porch campaign of 1896 had been a tactical decision, in 1904 it seemed a constraint of nature. At 61, McKinley appeared aged beyond his years, in part due to the onset of as yet undiagnosed heart disease that would eventually kill him. But it was obvious to any campaign watcher that McKinley's health was an issue. He could not deliver a rousing stump speech. He seemed short of breath and somewhat discombobulated in regular conversation.
As Godfrey relaxed, he slowly looked around the lobby. He recognized several congressman. Seated nearby was Senator Joseph Foraker from Ohio, who was in conversation with a portly, middle aged man whom Godfrey didn't know. At some point, Senator Foraker had apparently noticed Godfrey, catching his gaze and nodding with a smile. They had met years before in an Ohio veteran's reunion.
Godfrey nodded back, while the portly man glanced over. But then the Senator beckoned for Godfrey to come join them. Godfrey forced a smile and obliged. The two men stood as he approached, and Senator Foraker extended his hand.
"Well, if it isn't the Hero of the Little Bighorn!"
"The Senator knows all too well that the credit goes to the entire regiment," Godfrey replied.
"Quite. Quite. Colonel Godfrey, may I present Judge Taft of the Federal 6th Circuit in Cincinnati."
Godfrey nodded, shook Taft's hand, and they all took their seats. The Senator ordered a round of brandy, and the three men sat for a moment in silence.
"I don't mean to interrupt your conversation," began Godfrey.
"Not at all, not at all," exclaimed Senator Foraker. "We were just discussing the national pastime, what with the conventions and all. Actually, you're just the man I would want to ask. Not to put you on the spot, Colonel, but I'm curious for your non-partisan take on the match-up of McKinley versus your former commander."
Godfrey hesitated. Like Custer, he identified with the Northern Democratic Party, going back to his Midwestern farm roots. The first vote for president he ever cast was for George McClellan over Lincoln in 1864. But he wasn't inclined to share any of that in mixed company.
His mind went to his rehearsed speech. It was not uncommon to be asked about his association with George Custer. It was, of course, much easier to talk about the 7th Cavalry and the Indian Wars. Custer's administrative and political foibles in his latter military career were dicier subjects that Godfrey tried to avoid. Custer's entry into politics only heightened this.
Future historians would characterize the Custer administration as a low period in U.S. politics and governance. Custer was selected and retained as Bryan's Vice President on the basis of being an American hero, and specifically to help carry Ohio and Michigan. His place on the ticket probably helped with the latter, but that was all the benefit Bryan got. Custer was forever selfish and occasionally disloyal. Moreover, Custer's ineffective speeches and public appearances were a source of embarrassing gaffes and incendiary comments.
Bryan's death was therefore a shock to the political establishment as well as to the nation. The Custer Administration was born at the end of the Gilded Age and at the dawn of U.S. global power. In three years Custer had achieved little, for better or worse. Laissez-fair was the standing order in domestic affairs. The Administration was frankly too incoherent and ineffective to garner successful legislative victories such as tariff reform, or relief for farmers, or protections for factory labor. Still, there had been no foreign wars, and no internal conflict since the closing of the West. The one achievement Custer's supporters could point to was, surprisingly, a liberal reform of reservation welfare and cultural policies by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
What Custer lacked in executive achievement, he made up for in controversy. His Administration did not appear to be guided by policy or party loyalty as much as to maintain a cult of personality. The President openly displayed the narcissism and self-promotion that he had been hated for by his military critics and rivals. Godfrey cared little about this, except for the worry that Custer the news hound might follow a flattering newspaper editorial right into a war with Spain.
Populists, progressives and classical liberals of the day all judged President Custer as autocratic. Unfortunately, in Godfrey's eyes, Custer's most ardent and vocal supporters were nativists and white supremacists who viewed Custer as an architect of Manifest Destiny. While Bryan's populism had temporarily united industrial labor with western and southern agrarian interests, Custer overtly appealed to Southern Democrats, turning a blind eye to Klan violence and oppression of Negroes. This culminated in last year's May Day "riot" when federal troops were brought out to violently suppress anti-lynching protesters in Washington D. C.
Another disturbing characteristic of Custer's presidency was the incidence of cronyism and corruption. The most controversial of these scandals were revelations that Custer, his family, and some of his cabinet officials were acquiring interests in Mexican oil, railroads, and agricultural production, in return for granting diplomatic and military favors to President Diaz. The political uproar over this situation had raised questions about the possibility of alternative candidates standing for nomination at the upcoming convention.
Godfrey was keenly aware of all of these failings. The curse of his association with the 7th Cavalry was the temptation to get caught up in the judgements, reactions, and ambitions of others. But in general, Godfrey always tried to maintain a separation between him and things beyond his control. Other than the Tom Custer, Godfrey never cared for the regimental sycophants in Custer's inner circle. But neither had he catered to the complaints, jealousies, and enmity of Benteen and Reno. It was such a waste of time and energy, especially given their proximity to mortal danger, thought Godfrey, recollecting the late Private Foley.
"My experience in martial contests leaves me unqualified to predict the outcome of political ones," offered Godfrey.
"Oh, come now, Colonel. Surely you have an opinion about how the President will run his campaign. After all, you campaigned with him out West."
Godfrey sighed. "My opinion wouldn't be worth much. Politics today mainly involves personal and partisan attacks against the other side's candidate. It's so . . . arbitrary. Anyway, I cannot afford the luxury of such sport. I've always had clear responsibilities to my company, my battalion, or my regiment. Frankly, the deadly seriousness of our business made outside passions and conflicts seem, well, rather absurd."
"Ah, the stoic philosopher inside every soldier. Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros."
"Fire tests gold; adversity: strong men. The author escapes me."
Godfrey was silent. The Senator's words triggered a fleeting memory of Gall. The strongest man on the planet, thought Godfrey then, and now.
"Seneca," said Taft in a deep, resonant voice.
The raised eyebrows of the Ohioan soldier silently asked, "The Indian Tribe?"
"Roman philosopher, playwright, and imperial counselor," expounded Taft.
"I'm afraid my few classics came already translated, by way of one eccentric instructor," smiled Godfrey.
"So, Colonel," the Senator continued," What then if the character of your commander compromised the effectiveness or safety of the men under your charge?"
"Are you saying that the country is in danger if Custer is elected?"
"There are many who think so."
"I suppose every man must decide that for himself," Godfrey said, hoping to conclude the topic.
But the Senator persisted. "Many Union veterans such as ourselves see the current violence and degradation of the negroes as a backward step and a betrayal. We fought to free the slaves. How then can we sit back and sully ourselves with Klansmen and Know Nothings?"
"I didn't say anybody should sit back," said Godfrey. "But every man must work out his own political choices. I would not presume that another man would mentally or morally weight all the issues of the day the same as I would. Yet we both have to choose from the same small slate of candidates. Different weightings will produce different voting decisions." Godfrey paused. "And furthermore, I do not consider myself sullied by attitudes I myself do not hold, nor by actions that I have not taken. That's . . . I forget the term."
"Argumentum ad hominem. Guilt by association," Taft chimed in.
"Yes, thank you," said Godfrey, taking a longer drink of the brandy.
The Senator stared at Godfrey. Godfrey stared back. He knew Senator Foraker had led some of the calls for censure and impeachment. For as much as Godfrey could criticize the present administration, he found the partisan reaction equally extreme and unjustified. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Maybe they are informed and logical, or maybe not. But to judge them morally requires either omniscience or extreme presumption.
Taft continued, "Interesting to bring Seneca into this. He was a great teacher of the stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance - well, maybe not temperance so much. Anyway, however stellar his personal piety, his public reputation is forever tainted by his being an accessory to the tyranny of Emperor Nero."
"So, you are saying that you cannot be virtuous if you only confine it to your private life," said the Senator, glancing at Godfrey.
"You can only be judged by your choices in life over which you actually had control, whether private or public. Seneca could control what he told Nero and what he did on Nero's behalf. But Seneca couldn't control Nero," explained Taft.
"Except through regicide," the Senator quipped.
"A particularly Roman form of the franchise," chuckled Taft. The Senator's laughter and Godfrey's grin combined to break the tension a little.
"Perhaps Seneca had reason to think that Nero could improve," Godfrey mused through the brandy's warmth. "Perhaps Seneca's good counsel prevented even more bad behavior from Nero."
"That's not saying much," said the Senator
"Compared to what?" answered Godfrey. "Was the imperial heir any better?" The Senator shrugged and smiled, ordering another round of brandy.
"A cup of tea, please," said Taft. "Well," he continued, "at least the current administration is not catering to the populist radicals with their nationalization of railroads and debasement of the currency."
The Senator scoffed, "Bryan stirred them up enough to get just enough of their votes in the states where it mattered. But neither he nor they could turn that into legislation. That's the failing of the so-called populists. They didn't elect legislatures nor senators. Hence they did not make policy as they should have done, by passing laws."
Taft intoned, "The constitution provides for the peoples' voices to be heard, and it isn't through an unrestrained executive or a politicized judiciary. That's where Bryan was heading . . . " his voice trailed off.
"Yes, and look what he left us with!" barked the Senator. "And you don't think Custer favors executive power? He has acted like a military commander, not a politician."
Godfrey was remembering back on Custer's leadership style - no, indeed, not one for collaboration or compromise. Except, ironically, perhaps on the way to the Little Bighorn.
Turning to Godfrey, the Senator asked, "Is that your view of it, Colonel?"
Godfrey answered, "It is well known that General Custer was an instinctive tactician - even impulsive. He did not generally seek counsel in arriving at his command decisions."
The Senator smiled.
Taft also answered, "He appears military in his bearing, but not in his actual administration other than a few executive orders. His personal behavior has encouraged Congress to assert itself, which is a good thing. If there is to be reform legislation of any kind, let it come through the process that the Founding Fathers created. All the branches of the federal government should do their job. Checks and balances."
Then lifting his tea cup, Taft added, "George Washington likened the House of Representatives to this steaming cup, and the Senate to this cooling saucer."
"And where is the judiciary in that analogy?" asked the Senator.
"Why, savoring the essence, of course," smiled Taft, taking a sip.
LaFayette Square -- Later that Evening
His earlier meal digested along with the double brandy digestif, Godfrey exited the hotel via the F-Street lobby. He walked the block to 15th Street, and then took a leisurely stroll north to Pennsylvania Avenue, and finally a left towards the White House.
With his poor hearing, he noticed the sizeable crowd across the street before he heard any sound of it. His military eye sized it up at several hundred people. Someone was making a speech, but at first all he could make out was applause and cheering.
He must be giving a really good speech, thought Godfrey. He crossed the street to get within earshot when he had a flash of recognition.
" . . . We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them! "
The crowd in LaFayette Square roared at this point, and Godfrey recognized the words. The speaker was reciting Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech. Maybe it's the anniversary, Godfrey wondered.
"The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth . . . "
Godfrey drew closer and listened intently. He had read Bryan's speech enough times that he had sections of it memorized—the less technical material, anyway. The platform of tariff reform, income taxes, and bimetallism was pretty staid stuff. But his military mind had always stumbled over these very points he now heard repeated—" . . . Robespierre . . . no tyrant who will spring up from among the people . . . Jackson." Godfrey's father had voted for President Jackson, and Godfrey had seen General Jackson as a role model for his military career. But he grew up hearing Jackson described as either an American Savior or Caesar. So was Jackson an example of the robustness of, or risks to, American democracy? Maybe both, wondered Godfrey, who now wished he had asked that question of Taft. At any rate, Godfrey's practice was to automatically apply partisan political criticisms to both sides. If we should fear tyranny of the mob, from whence shall she come? From these populist masses in LaFayette Square? Or from a more conservative despot with his rich sponsors, as in Mexico? Or as in the U.S. Senate? Best to on guard from both, the soldier reasoned.
" . . . There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it."
That last statement triggered a Godfrey Family "Hmmnnph!", a doubtful expression his father would make when he didn't really believe some assertion that he didn't have time to think through. Only these two ideas of government? Godfrey's inner West Point instructor might have called it a false dichotomy. Godfrey's views of economic development and welfare were admittedly colored by his farm upbringing and his time in the West. He had come to support the older Whig policies of President Lincoln, whom he had ironically opposed in the election of 1864. Make capital available to people in the form of land, education, and technology, and let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Godfrey saw the sweat equity of such policies as a guard against waste and corruption.
Now Godfrey could hear the recitation drawing to its climax. The reaction of the crowd was an audible crescendo of shouting out the final lines in unison.
" . . . Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses [YES!! AMEN!!] , we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this CROWN OF THORNS. YOU SHALL NOT CRUCIFY MANKIND UPON A CROSS . . . OF . . . GOLD!"
Placards were waved and fists were shaken in the direction of the White House. No question about for whom this demonstration is being staged, thought Godfrey. He watched intently at the pattern of the crowd's movement. The demonstration had apparently climaxed and now it was visibly fading. People began milling around near the grand stand. There was a circle of people holding hands, apparently in prayer. The crowd had transformed into many scattered clumps of people. It had been a nostalgic exercise. Assuming their domesticated, agrarian backgrounds, Godfrey allowed himself the rhetorical question of whether sheep were capable of stampeding.
The late setting summer sun had turned the sky a lovely rose color. Godfrey reflected back over the 43 years since he saw his first sunset over Washington. The southern states had all left the Union by then. Secession in succession—the ultimate stampede. With that question and slavery having both been settled by war and constitutional amendment, the remaining threats to civil order that Godfrey could see were short term: riots, urban violence, and the mob rule that Taft fears.
Checking his pocket watch, Godfrey strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue to just opposite the main entrance to the White House. Crossing the street, he approached the check point. The guard on duty was not wearing a uniform. Godfrey guessed that he might be a Pinkerton man since President Custer was using them for security and intelligence. And then it struck him that here was another facilitator of chaos and violence, as during the Homestead Steel Strike a dozen years before. If we should fear tyranny of the mob, from whence shall she come? From these populist masses? Or from an industry titan and his Pinkertons? At Homestead it appeared to Godfrey that it had been both.
"Name, please," asked the Pinkerton guard.
"Godfrey, Edward. Lt. Colonel, United States Army," answered Godfrey.
"We'll need to establish a code name for your visits here, Colonel."
"How about 'Seneca'?"
The guard squinted. "The Roman?"
The Ohioan replied, "The Indian tribe."
A White House Parlor
Godfrey was inwardly startled by the sight of his former commander. He hadn't been in a room with Custer in fifteen years. Only four years older than Godfrey himself, Custer at 65 appeared aged. He had long since lost his famous head of golden hair, leaving only a round patch of white peach fuzz that resembled a papal zucchetto. His trim physique now looked drawn inward. He still sported a long, white moustache, but the contrast with Custer the Boy General was profound.
"Hello, Godfrey," Custer said softly, extending his hand. Godfrey broke off his salute and took the President's hand. A firm grip at least, Godfrey thought.
"Good evening, Mr. President. It's so good to see you, sir." Godfrey felt a swirl of emotions.
"And you as well. Glad that we could catch you while you were here in Washington."
"Of course, sir."
The President sat down and beckoned Godfrey to the chair beside his. Custer began by asking about the 12th Cavalry posting. Godfrey relayed the major activities of his regiment in the last three years: chasing border bandits back across the Rio Grande, and demonstrating there as a deterrent to revolutionary elements in Northern Mexico.
"Tell me how Texas is," said Custer.
"How it is, sir? To what do you specifically refer?"
"Still the magnificent un-tamed empire?" asked Custer, in a wispy tone.
"Wild enough to meet wolves and mountain lions," offered Godfrey. "Still a vast country of brushlands and hills and prairies." But the ranges are fenced, as are the Comanches."
"That is a shame somehow," said Custer.
Godfrey nodded, wondering where this was heading.
Custer spoke more slowly. "Ironically, I feel some grief over the passing of the West, even as a result of our successes. The Plains Tribes were the freest people on this continent. Civilization comes at a cost, and not just to the Indians. We lost something, too."
Glancing up at the opposite wall, Custer gestured toward some stuffed animals. "Maybe that's why I still enjoy taxidermy so much. Like trying to hold on to a vanishing world . . . roaming free in the wilderness. As on the last hunt."
"Yes, sir," said Godfrey. Is the President well? Or, Godfrey wondered, is this Custer of "Glorious War!" chafing in the so-called Long Peace, i.e., the eighteen years since Geronimo's surrender that U.S. military forces had not been in a shooting war.
"Well," smiled Custer, "I am rambling on like the old man I am. Colonel, what is your impression of the situation in Cuba?"
The President launched into a subject that Godfrey and his peers had anticipated for some time—a possible military intervention in the Cuban revolt against Spanish control. Custer basically repeated the case that had already been developed in the printed press: an ongoing rebellion against an Old World European power, and atrocities committed by Spanish authorities against Cuban citizens. And just as Godfrey questioned to himself what might be behind this discussion, the President paused.
"I have an idea for a special assignment for you and your regiment, Colonel Godfrey. I want to describe it to you personally and informally. In order to solidify Congress and the public in favor of a potential campaign, we need a particular . . . action.
"We would assign your regiment to protect our diplomatic and other American property in Havana. While there you may well be forced . . . forced into a defensive situation," Custer stammered.
"I don't really understand, sir."
"We are looking for a diversion, of sorts. Something that will bring the belligerent Spanish intentions out in the open. Then we can openly declare it for what it is."
Godfrey stared at his Commander in Chief. "And what is that, Mr. President?"
"Why, a state of war, of course. A legitimate responses to the likely spilling of American blood, in addition to freeing the Cubans," Custer said more rapidly.
"But as yet . . . "Godfrey began, before a flood of realization stopped him. Why a White House meeting? Would not the War Department just issue the orders for such a mission? And why a cavalry regiment, instead of a gunboat full of marines? Godfrey imagined somehow being offered up as bait for the Spanish, or as bystanders in a crossfire. Whatever was afoot, it sounded dangerous. It also appeared un-thought out, and therefore more dangerous. And then Godfrey's mind returned to something he had realized thirty years before. Custer is, at best, a battlefield tactician. Whose strategic plan was this?
Godfrey's silence and expression appeared to agitate Custer slightly.
"Do you agree to the assignment, Colonel?"
"Agree? Sir, I . . . " hesitated Godfrey. "If you are asking me whether I will follow my orders, I will, as I always have. If you're asking me something else . . . " Godfrey hesitated longer. "Mr. President, I don't understand why this assignment would not have been made through regular channels."
"American interests in Cuba need more security. It's a legitimate military assignment. And if we end up taking Cuba from Spain, it will be like the Texian revolution from Mexico, maybe with its own Alamo and San Jacinto!" said Custer, now excitedly.
Well in that case, thought Godfrey, I would prefer San Jacinto.
Suddenly Custer appeared to switch course. "Oh well, it was all just a thought. I appreciate the military counsel of all my officers. And hello, my dear! Libbie, you remember Godfrey from K Company."
Both men stood. The First Lady was in the doorway, looking very elegant - almost regal. "Good evening, Colonel Godfrey. After all these years, it is so wonderful to see you. And how is Mrs. Godfrey?"
"I am re-married, after Mary passed."
"Oh, my deepest regrets. Mary was such a sweet soul."
"Yes, she was."
The business of the evening apparently ended, the President led Godfrey out of the room and down a long hallway. Just before they parted, Custer looked at Godfrey for a moment, and then said, "You know, Colonel, I have never acknowledged to anyone other than the late Captain Custer that the winning strategy at the Little Bighorn was your plan."
Godfrey was stunned. "Sir, you gave the command, and you orchestrated the victory."
"You were the composer of that victory, sir. Your loyalty over these many years is commendable. Very commendable. Goodnight, sir."
"Goodnight, Mr. President," Godfrey repeated, wondering exactly what Custer meant by the longstanding loyalty reference.
The train ride back to Texas did not bring any resolution to Godfrey's perplexed mind. He had been a soldier all his life. He knew risk and danger, but he considered it a point of honor to follow orders and do his duty. But his encounter in the White House had been strange. It was as if he had a choice, but if so, he hadn't accepted Custer's invitation and volunteered. Perhaps that's why the President seemed a little upset. And what was Godfrey supposed to do now?
Within a day of arriving back at Fort Sam Houston, it all appeared moot. Several incidences of raiding banditos had triggered the normal Army response. Godfrey received orders to temporarily deploy to Fort Ringgold to provide border security, and perhaps punitive action. Within a week Godfrey and his men were riding patrols through the baking thorn scrub of Deep South Texas. The searing temperatures killed several of his troopers from heat stroke. Not another word was heard from the White House or the upper Army chain of command.
Godfrey's regiment returned to San Antonio at the end of September. It was there one afternoon that the Base Commander called him in.
"Colonel, I thought you would want to know this. I have just learned of some Army casualties in Cuba. One of your fellow 7th Cavalry officers was among them, Major Crittendon."
"John Crittendon," echoed Godfrey, thinking of the young 2nd Lieutenant in Calhoun's company. Is that, he wondered, what becomes of someone closer to the Custer inner circle? "What happened, sir? What were they doing there?"
"There are few details. They were apparently escorting some inland cargo shipments when they came under attack. Now I expect we may finally have a war with Spain."
What unfolded next reminded Godfrey of a spreading brush fire. It was reported that the company of American cavalry troopers was guarding a supply convoy for some American-owned sugar plantations. This column was ambushed, and Spanish military forces were blamed. Spain denied involvement, but accused the Americans of supplying arms to the rebels, for which there was some evidence. There were also accusations that the attack was instigated by a renegade rebel faction seeking to hijack an arms shipment. Amidst the confusion and heated passions, Custer appeared to rush to judgement, immediately asking Congress for a declaration of war to avenge the spilling of American blood.
But the Administration had totally misjudged the situation. To begin with, the President's poor reputation guaranteed no bipartisan support for a war with Spain. An energetic Republican congressman named Theodore Roosevelt gave an influential speech linking this proposed war to industrial monopolists. As a matter of fact, most U.S. business interests actually opposed Cuban military intervention. There was the significant opposition within Custer's own party. Bryan had always been against imperialism, as was the official Democratic Party platform. Democratic senators from sugar and tobacco producing states were against anything that increased ties to Cuban agricultural markets.
The public appeared to be completely divided on the issue. When the speeches had ended and the final tally came, the vote against the war measure was almost two to one in both chambers. Custer was thoroughly repudiated, and then only weeks before an election touting him as a Soldier-Statesman.
With Custer sulking in the White House and McKinley drinking lemonade on his front porch, the campaign of 1904 was unusually passive. Custer did well in the Democratic strongholds of the South, plus a few western states. But McKinley mopped up the Electoral College with New England, Mid-Atlantic, Border, and Far West states all in his column. Having won a solid victory, McKinley was too enfeebled to do much with it. It was laissez-fair by default, especially in domestic policy. Any initiative that depended on McKinley's energy, perseverance, or oratory simply died on the vine. Hence there was little progress in labor relations, race relations, safety regulations, monetary reform, or trust busting.
This situation shifted a considerable amount of executive power to McKinley's inner circle at the White House, as well as to his appointments. In foreign policy, the Cuban debacle of the previous administration removed it as a consideration for the Republicans. That did not stop the repositioning of politicians on the issue, like the new found support for the Cuban rebels by newly elected New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.
McKinley sought moderate bi-lateral reductions in tariffs to foster freer trade, and appointed a fellow Ohioan, Judge William Taft as Secretary of State to spearhead the effort. Almost immediately, Taft was pulled into high profile international relations when the Japanese asked McKinley to broker a peace conference between them and the Russian Tsar. The President sent Taft as his designated representative, "The Prince of Peace", as Taft jovially put it. The resulting Treaty of Portsmouth, NH settled the conflict and earned Taft a Nobel Peace Prize as well as national prominence.
Taft would spend the next several years visiting Mexico, South America, and Asia. He was free to promote his own initiative known as "dollar diplomacy", giving low interest loans to influence cooperation of developing countries. It is was on one such trip that Secretary Taft and Colonel Edward Godfrey were reunited.
Coming: Part Three - A Delicate Constitution
The End, Part 2 of 3
John Robinson is a Professor of Agricultural Economics and an Extension Economist at Texas A&M University. His formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees in Entomology and a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, all from Texas A&M University.
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Woman with Child
by Tom Sheehan
Venturing west, a man with two young children loses his pregnant wife in a terrible rock fall accident. Devastated, driven, he moves on and finds hospitable folks in a small town, and a girl "with a past" who needs a strong savior when she is to be sent out of town because she is pregnant and no longer a useful commodity. When she is accosted by a bad drunk, threatened with bodily harm, she is befriended by the western widower who promises her a new life . he will raise her child as his own if she will raise his children. They are married in a hurry, leave town and love comes to both of them on their journey. All looks bright for the future, until the drunk follows them into a deadly confrontation, which ends in a showdown on the trail.
* * *
The yelling came from the street. "Hey, Sheriff, there's a big fight at the saloon. Someone's gonna get killed."
Sabine Thompson, sheriff of Indigo Falls, leaped from his desk to the gun rack and grabbed a Winchester, his hand at the balance point, and rushed from his office. "Probably Toss Devine again, drunk as ever." Never was any part of Kansas quiet when Toss Devine was at the hard stuff.
Thompson stepped into the Black Carriage Saloon, just before a body came crashing down from the second floor, the ladies floor. But the falling body was the houseman. Toss Devine, indeed, was at wild work again, and only one sound would slow him down long enough to listen to any neutral party.
Thompson fired a round over Devine's head and the slug slammed into the woodwork not more than a foot away from the furious drunk.
Devine stopped screaming, as though sober, but of course he wasn't.
Bleary-eyed he looked down into the saloon and the sole image he could make sense of was Thompson waving the rifle at him, threatening another round, the bore pointed straight at him.
"She says she's gonna have a kid and I got to get out of here." He slammed a fist against the wall and the whole building carried the sound along the framework. Thompson had seen Devine this angry a half dozen times and knew he'd have him in a cell for a couple of days at least.
"C'mon down, Toss. No more carrying on. Don't blame the lady."
"Hell, yelled Devine, slobbering in his speech. "I ain't blaming her, they're gonna throw her out."
"We'll take care of that, Toss, me and you," Thompson said as he placed the Winchester on a table and walked to the foot of the stairs.
At that same time, outside of Indigo Falls and coming along the river, was a covered wagon loaded to the hilt with household goods, supplies, one man at the reins, and two children, a girl of 4 and her brother, 5, playing in a tight space directly behind the driver. He was a good-looking man with dark hair, a partial beard that filled out his face, large hands and wrists to match. He wore a gray Stetson sitting at an angle, a gray shirt needing some care, black pants and boots that the pants were tucked into. A Colt revolver sat in a shoulder holster and a rifle lay beneath his feet.
A smile fluttered occasionally on his face as he listened to his children playing.
His name was Clayton Shelburne, 35, widowed a mere month, his wife Adelaide buried back down the trail from rocks that rolled downhill at a campsite and killed her instantly. She was pregnant at the time. Now, mere miles from the next town, on his way wherever he'd find some kind of solitude and hope, the kind that Addy was always talking about. "A cabin on a small hill, Clay, and a garden out front, and a barn, and a look out over the prairie in spring and summer when the color is as wild as the flowers. That's all I want for you and me and the kids."
She'd clasp her hands at that summation and Shelburne knew she was saying her prayers again.
The scene haunted him every moment of the day that the children were not making demands on him.
He drove into Indigo and arranged to set his wagon behind the livery after talking to the livery owner, Burt Palermo, himself widowed but his children grown and moved on. They had shared some of their tales when Palermo asked where the mother of the children was.
"Look here," Palermo said, like negotiating his proposal, "I have a woman living-in who takes care of the place and she'd love to have the kids around her for a couple of days, if you're of a mind to look about, wet your whistle, treat your bones, whatever. It'd be our pleasure 'cause I know how you're feeling right about now."
Shelburne agreed and the children were set down at a dinner table for the first time in a long while. They appeared ravenous, ate well, crouched back against pillows to settle themselves, and fell asleep. Their father went to look at Indigo Falls.
In the Black Carriage Saloon, a small hearse-type vehicle painted at the end of the sign with a flourish, the new visitor to town ordered a drink at the bar.
The bartender said, "I ain't seen you before, mister. You passing through or staying a spell?"
"Oh," Shelburne said, "probably just passing through on my way to wherever, me and my family. But it looks like a nice town. Kind of quiet, but nice folks so far."
"Should have been here earlier. We had a wild drunk throw the houseman through that rail up there," and he pointed overhead where the broken rail showed. "He got tossed right through that broke part."
"Raising hell up there, was he?"
"Yep, he was real mad that one of the ladies is pregnant and she won't have a place here for long. The boss is gonna put her out. That set him off, 'cause he kind of favored her. The sheriff's arranging for her to get a ride out of town, make a new start down the trail a way. He'll find someplace for her. He's done it before." He shrugged his shoulders and added, "They come and they go, and life moves on."
Shelburne didn't like the tone of voice but held his feelings to himself.
Life was tough enough for anybody in a small town.
He had a couple of drinks and walked back to the livery. Evening shadows were settling down in places next to the tallest structures, a soft breeze swirled dust into small zephyrs in the street, and lamps or candles began to show color in a few windows. The ease of the town, in general, came on him like a glove in place, and he felt the soft arrangement of comfort might be worth noting, but the lady's trouble at the saloon sat sore and cumbersome, as though hidden behind some other parts.
At the general store, the sign over the top of the door saying Whitby's, half a dozen people mingled on the front boardwalk, and the interior of the newspaper office next door, behind a large window, shone with the brightest light he had seen. He could see the man inside working with the tools of his trade, several lamps lit. Shelburne wondered about the headlines in the coming issue. He was sure it would not be about the lady being "shown out of town."
He discovered the sore spot again down in his gut, and a foul taste rising in his throat. Looks, he thought, were so deceiving. He stared about him again, at all he could see of the town, and knew he was missing the most important parts of all.
Indigo Falls had two spirits, two lives, two flavors. It was disconcerting, and it hit him with heavy notice. He could not shrug it off.
At the livery, Palermo said, "How'd you like the town? Mostly quiet, isn't it?"
"I saw the newspaper being set up and wondered what the headlines on the next issue will be. It won't be about the lady being sent out of town or the drunk who had the big fight about her, will it?"
"Most likely not," Palermo said. "The editor sort of 'manages things,' if you know what I mean. Some things is best hidden, as they say about rattlers and such."
"How'd she come here?" Shelburne said. "What's her name? She have a life before she got here?"
"From what I hear, she was found on the bank of the big river, almost dead.
Must have come awful close to drowning, maybe fell or pushed off one of them river boats."
"Nothing before that? No previous place? No family someplace?"
"Only from back east and nothing else she ever offered up, even to the other ladies there at the Black Carriage. Stories don't get told much except the big lies and you know them right off the first smile. When they don't want nothing else known, they bury it like under a landslide, and it never gets out."
"Got to be some mother or father wondering somewhere about her, or a sister or a brother. Everybody should have family." Palermo saw the sudden shift of pain cross Shelburne's face, the way only a memory can do the job, quick and to the point.
Palermo said, "C'mon, let's go see the kids and Maria and get something to eat. The woman's a great cook and can make something out of nothing almost.
I bet she had a time of it with the kids. She misses her own, off wandering out there she once said, and me knowing she was wishing otherwise. I'm damned lucky I found her."
"How'd that happen?"
"A wagon master came through needing a bad wheel fixed and I had one for him all done off a half-burned wagon. We got talking and I told him about my wife dying and he said there was a woman without a man or a wagon they had found at an old camp and took her along, only with the promise to drop her someplace that'd give her a chance. I took that chance and lucked out.
Let's go eat."
Maria shushed them as they entered the small cabin. "They are so sweet, but they're still sleeping, and on my bed. I'll let them sleep there all night."
Palermo, with a smile, said, "You can bunk in my room, Maria. I'll go back out to the livery with their father. We'll spend the night there and be in for breakfast. I got half a dozen horses to do in the morning."
"I'll help there," Shelburne said, and they sat down for the meal, the aromas teasing Shelburne before he had come into the cabin. He kept nodding as he ate, and Maria kept smiling.
Palermo kept nodding too, but his mind elsewhere.
Maria finally, dishing out another helping of steak and potatoes and greens to both men, said, "Tell me what's happening with Dominique at the Black Carriage. I heard she's going to have a baby and they're going to put her out of town."
"Is that her name?" Shelburne said. "First time I heard it."
"Oh," Maria said, "I don't think that's her real name. It's like a stage name, I'd guess. I talked to her once at the store. She's pretty as a picture, but carries a lot of pain about with her, like a leash tied on her, or hard reins." Her voice caught a breath, and she resumed. "I heard the sheriff has got space for her on the afternoon stage. It's going to Livermore, which might be the end of the world for her."
Shelburne said, "She ever tell you about where she came from? About her family?"
"Not a word." Maria said, "like they don't want anything about where they're at now getting back to the family. That's real sad. I wish my family could find me again, my son and my daughter. I hope they're still alive. I hope they have kids of their own and that's why they can't come looking for me."
She looked across the room and she could see into the room and the two children asleep in the bed, but the boy beginning to stir.
"I think he smells the steak," she said, and the smile came back.
Palermo smiled too.
In the livery, Palermo said, "You climb up, Clay, and get comfortable. I got a few things to do, but I'll wake you early. We can rush the day." He slapped Shelburne on the back.
In the comfort of the hay soft as a mattress under him, Shelburne went to sleep quicker than he had in months. He slept deeply, soundly.
In the morning the two men did the work needed to be done, moved horses as necessary, Palermo conducting his business as usual, then the two of them headed back for breakfast. Shelburne could smell the meal just as they stepped out of the livery into the clear air. A vision of Adelaide at morning preparations accosted him and made him inhale deeply.
At the audible inhalation, Palermo, smarter than a lot of men Shelburne had met, said, "That's more than smelling breakfast, Clay, ain't it? I know just what it's like. I've been there lots of time."
Maria couldn't hold the kids back, and both of them scrambled to meet their father.
The boy, Todd, said, "Molly was crying last night and almost kept me awake."
He hugged his father and clarified his story, "But she wasn't hurt, just sad. Said Maria cooks just like Momma."
Molly hugged her father when he picked her up.
Maria, on the small porch, said, "Clay, they are beautiful, and so well-mannered. They'll bring the graces to anyplace you settle down.
After breakfast, without a word being said, Shelburne went ahead of Palermo back to the livery and began to do some of the odd jobs yet to be done. As he worked he kept thinking about what Maria had said about "bringing the graces" to anyplace where he'd settle down. He wondered where that would be, how far away, how the journey would pass.
When Palermo came back to the livery, he said, "Oh, my, that woman loves those kids. If you ever have a problem with leaving them anyplace, here with her would be the best place of all. She's been ecstatic since they came here.
Shelburne had no comment and continued working.
Suddenly, from a fit of extensive effort at moving some of the manure and taking it to the back of the cabin and a little garden sitting in bright sunlight, Shelburne dropped the shovel and walked off into town.
Palermo watched him striding off without saying a word. "He's made up his mind about something," he said to the mare he was brushing down, "and that's a good sign, old girl." He patted the horse on the rump, looked out the rear door and saw Maria sitting on the small porch, the children beside her. He thought he heard them laughing but was not sure of the sound. It seemed most proper and likely, a mother at work of being warmer than her surroundings.
Shelburne, in a full stride, headed right to the sheriff's office, passing the Black Carriage Saloon on the way, almost changing his stride to go to the saloon, but he didn't change.
He stepped into the sheriff's office and the first thing he saw was Sheriff Sabine Thompson sitting back in a chair at a desk with a single piece of paper on the top of the desk, a ring of keys, and a revolver. The essence of a woman, a secret of perfume, crawled under Shelburne's skin as unnerving as it could be. He swung about and Dominique, beautiful Dominique, sat in a chair against the front wall, a bag at her feet, a wrap or coat lying atop the bag, tears falling on her cheeks.
She was the loneliest and loveliest woman Shelburne had seen in a long time, and her tears crushed him.
Thompson, in deep thought himself, looked up and said, "You the fella helping Burt at the livery? I heard you were doing some work for him and he's mighty pleased. That your wagon parked out back of his place? What brings you here?"
"Well, Sheriff," Shelburne said, "I have to talk to you and her," and he pointed to Dominique, "whatever her real name is."
"About what?" the sheriff said, surprise running across his face, standing beside his desk like something was getting away from him, or getting past him.
"I got a proposition for the lady," Shelburne said.
She looked up, no expression on her face at first.
Thompson said, "Well, let's hear it."
"It's for me and the lady first, Sheriff, if you don't mind. Just for her and me for starters. We can fill you in later, but I'd like some privacy for me and the lady."
Dominique was open-mouthed, hearing this stranger say "lady" two or three times to the sheriff and asking the sheriff to leave the office as politely as he could ask. A stirring began to move in her body that was more than surprise.
The sheriff was about to say, "Well, this is my office," but didn't.
Something about Shelburne had pulled at him with surprising force. He assented, took his revolver off the desk, slapped it into his holster, and said, "Good luck,"
He walked out of the office, saying, "I'll be back in an hour or so. Anybody looking for me, I'll be in the saloon or the barbershop."
The door closed firmly behind him.
"Ma'am, Dominique or whatever your name is, I have something to say that I want you to listen to very carefully. I'll try not to rush it, but please listen."
"But I don't know who you are," she said.
"That's all the better," he said, then he added, "I'd like to know what your real name is. I don't want any stage names hanging out in the air between us. My name is Clayton Shelburne, and all folks call me Clay. I'm a widower and my wife was killed a while ago under a landslide and that's where she's buried, probably forever."
"Oh, how horrible," she said. The look on her face said it was an honest reaction. A new tear started in her right eye and moved onto her cheek.
"And I have a boy and a girl, 5 and 4, and my wife was with child when she died."
The next tear was alive, too, and began its course on her other cheek. "I'm so sorry about your wife, but you have something from her. That counts a lot. I bet she was a grand lady and the children must miss her."
Another tear started. "My name is Rosalie and I am with child. They are putting me out of town."
"I know all that," he said, "and here's my proposition; you come with me, wherever I'm headed, to find the perfect place that my wife used to dream about, and I'll raise your baby as mine and you raise my kids as yours.
That's all I ask. I'm a hard worker. I know cows and horses and the land under my feet. I've farmed and drove cows and gathered horses and used some tools to good advantage. I like steak and potatoes and corn and anything green on my plate and a good stiff drink once in a while, but mostly for occasions."
Tears were not in volume, but more flowed, as she said, "Would you marry me?
Are you saying that too?"
"You're damned tooting I am," Shelburne said, "but we won't get married here in Indigo Falls. We'll get married down the line somewhere. The honeymoon will be in a covered wagon heading someplace beyond."
He smiled at her as more tears began to fall, and an expression of joy passed on her face as full realization came to her.
But his sincerity, she felt, was above her joy. Trust began building in her on the spot, where trust had longed for some place to roost within her.
"Is it real?" she said.
"It is," he replied, his hand taking her hand, and each of them knew a newness passing into the other. It carried trust, belief, free choice in the matter, respect longed for in her and given at last by him.
There was an exquisite moment for each of them, when the door suddenly burst open, and Toss Devine, utterly drunk and stupid-looking once more, pounded into the office.
"I heard you was in here with him. You're comin' with me right now. Right now, or I'll knock you silly again."
He had her by the arm and was about to grip her wildly about her waist, the slightly plump waist, when Shelburne, in a fit of anger, swung his fist once in a round-house arc and slammed Devine flush on the jaw. He went down like a cow with two front legs trussed in a lariat and stayed still.
Shelburne, looking around, spotted the cell keys hanging on the wall. He grabbed them, then hefted Devine and lugged him into a cell, put his hat on his head, and locked the door behind him when he left the cell.
"I'll go get the sheriff," he said, just as the door opened and Thompson came in. "I heard Toss Devine was here. Where'd he go?"
Over his shoulder, pointing, Shelburne said, "He's in a cell, Sheriff, locked in. He assaulted the lady here and I had to bang him a good one. He's not hurt much, but he'll be out of it for a while."
"Well that's good work, Clay, and quick. Couldn't do better myself." He looked at her and said, "What happens now?"
She said, "We're leaving here, Sheriff. I'm going with him. We're getting married."
"Oh," he said, "that's great. Where are you getting married?"
Shelburne said, "Down the trail some place, but away from here," and he pointed over his shoulder, "and him."
"I can do it here," Sheriff Sabine Thompson said, and free of cost. It's legal. The town council gave me the right since we ain't got any ministers here."
"Don't we need a witness?" she said.
"We got one," the sheriff said, 'and he's just fallen asleep, but he's a witness. And it'll sure burn the hell out of him when he finds out, I hope."
"You do that for us, Sheriff, and keep him in there for a while. He might be a bit nasty when he wakes up. Me and the lady will really appreciate it."
"Okay, Clay, do you take Dominique to be your wife, all legal and such?"
She said, "My name is Rosalie Bertrand, Sheriff. My honest to goodness name."
"Okay," the sheriff said. "Do you Clay Shelburne take Rosalie Bertrand to be your lawful and legal wife?"
"Do you, Rosalie Bertrand take Clay Shelburne to be your husband, lawful and legal all the way?"
"Kiss her," the sheriff said, "She's now your wife and I give you my best wishes, and my promise to keep him here for a few days. If he raises any hell, I'll keep him longer. He ain't a real bad guy when he's not drinking, but otherwise, he's hell and twice the pain. Now you two mosey back to the livery and get out of town as soon as you can."
Palermo and Maria were happy at the news, and Maria hugged Rosalie and told her, "You got two great kids coming to your skirts. You'll love them. And good luck with the next one. You'll have a fine family, I know." They hugged each other.
In the first streak of dawn's light, Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Shelburne, nee Rosalie Bertrand, soon to be mother, were on their way out of Indigo Falls and heading further west.
Three weeks later, Rosalie idyllic, her husband finding new love in his whole person, the children at comfort with their new mother, they joined up with a wagon train. They liked their new companions and enjoyed their company in the evenings and at chores during the day. Most nights the children slept in the covered wagon and the newlyweds slept under the wagon in a tussle of blankets.
Often, she'd say things he loved to hear, "Oh, Clay, look at the stars tonight, how they gather up like bouquets just for us, coming down on us like we're on the bridal path." She'd hug him dearly, and often try to bring up her past in a kind of penance. He would shush her, and say, "We're into a new life, with our children. I promise to do the best possible for you and them."
"Clay, you came along when I had no hope. Now I know that whenever I need you, you'll be there."
He went to sleep hearing her words repeated again and again.
In the morning, about to get on the way, he came back from communal tasks and said, "We're leaving the wagon train just down the road, Rosalie. I just found out that one of the riders who came in yesterday is on his way back to Indigo Falls. I think he recognized you, said something to one of the gents who told me. He looks like he wants to wave his tongue like a sheet on the line. It's best we leave the train. I don't trust Devine, not knowing how long he spent in jail or what he's really thinking."
Rosalie leaned on him. "Oh, Clay, will it ever leave us?" She hugged him and he felt the shiver course through her now ample frame.
In a few more weeks, after leaving the train, they hitched up with another train and were approaching the Rockies, the wagon master saying they would come to a special pass that would allow them to save some time.
Shelburne, talking to many men on the way west, some of whom had crossed over, had serious reservations about the special way through the mountains.
He tossed a decision over in his mind a number of times but knew that he'd not go that special way.
He pulled his wagon off with another wagon and the two men decided on another route. A day on their new route, the woman on the other wagon fell ill, and her husband said he'd ride back and get the doctor who rode with the previous wagon train. Shelburne and his family would stay with the sick woman.
That evening Shelburne went off a way to see if he could kill a deer or a sheep. He was anxious that he didn't see or hear any game and was worried about the women and the children. He started on the way back and was not far away from the wagons when he heard a scream.
It was Rosalie, he was sure, and spurred his horse to greater speed. He halted a way off from the wagon when he heard the yells coming from a male.
It was, of course, Toss Devine screaming his anger, having traced them most likely from the day he got out of jail.
Rosalie was screaming too. "The baby. Don't hurt my baby. Don't hurt my baby."
"Hell," Devine screamed back at her, "it might be mine too." He grabbed her again. The other woman screamed.
Rosalie screamed, "Clay, Clay, where are you?"
Devine let her go when he heard Shelburne say, "I'm right here, Rosalie.
Don't worry, he's not going to hurt you anymore." He came into the flickering light of the campfire, his rifle leveled at Devine.
Devine grabbed Rosalie again and shoved her ahead of him. At that precise moment, when he moved to shift her more in front so she'd become the perfect shield, the sick woman jammed a stick from the fire between his legs. He stumbled, let go of Rosalie, swing his gun up to shoot Shelburne who now had his rifle dead on Devine.
Two shots roared out. The women screamed. The children screamed. Toss Devine let out an ungainly cry, stepped forward and fell on his face, the rifle bullet hitting him right above his heart. He was dead before he hit the ground.
"Oh, Clay, you promised you'd be here when I needed you, and you were." She hugged him.
"I love you more than anything I've ever known in my life." She hugged him again as the sick woman, feeling better, smiled and hugged the children, both mothers at their work.
The stars overhead were dazzling in the black sky, the campfire glittered and glowed on leaves in nearby trees, a coyote said hello downrange somewhere, another answered, one shooting star ablaze fled ahead of its flame across the sky and lost itself in myriad peaks poking the sky.
Clay Shelburne said, "I was thinking out there that the place I saw yesterday, on the rise on the other side of the valley, is the place Adelaide was talking about. Looks just like it from another angle. After the doctor gets here to take care of our heroine, we're going to take another look. Maybe our traveling days are done."
Each of them felt "home" settling around them, and in the distance, they heard, coming from the darkness when the sick woman's husband and doctor identified themselves in a familiar voice, "Hello, the campfire."
Rosalie Shelburne, a long way from a riverboat and the Black Carriage Saloon, in love with as fine a man as she had ever met, felt the rumblings inside her waistline. The rumblings were unmistakable.
Sheehan, in his 95th year, Korean War veteran 1950-52, Boston College graduate 1956, author of 58 books, quarterback on four undefeated teams at various levels, selected as Man of the Year by his hometown of Saugus, Massachusetts in September, recently hailed by Literally Stories in UK with The Tom Sheehan Festival for his 200 stories on that site, lived the last 70 years in a house built in 1742, which he totally redesigned the interior using cast-off packing wood at no cost from a former employer, Raytheon Company, retiring 35 years ago. He found a child's high button shoe showing she must have been crippled dragging it through her young life, nailed as an anting-anting inside one wall by the builder, probably her father. Impact galore!
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The Last Days of Billy the Kid
by Chuck Kappus
I don't even know how to begin. What can I tell you that you would believe, anyway? Folks seem to think they already know my life inside out, so what's the point? Tall tales and gossip, mostly. A load of cow shit, if you ask me.
But this here's my chance to set the record straight. So here goes.
First of all, you need to know one thing above all else. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Yes, I killed a few men, eight or nine, I guess. But there ain't one of them sons of bitches that didn't deserve it. You don't turn your back on a fella' out to get ya' and you don't get mixed up with the killing of a sheriff, not if you want to go on living. So friend, you ain't lying when you say I had it coming.
Yessir, I could've high-tailed it to Mexico, settled down some place. Coulda' lived to be an old man. I know I was crazy to go back to Fort Sumner. Crazy in love, that is. And I didn't stick around for just one woman, neither. They was two.
Do you know the strangest thing about this whole Billy the Kid story? It's the notion that my husband was some kind of hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was just a matter of two men living their lives, doin' what they had to do. They weren't friends or nuthin', but they respected each other. And when their paths crossed, they followed their instincts. It's just as simple as that.
Some people talk about "mixed emotions" when they talk about Billy. I guess there's some truth to that. Most men were afraid of him. Sam Granger was one. Billy stole his horse on a Thursday and Sam ended up giving him supper and a bed Friday night.
My sister was another. She couldn't wait for her old man to leave on business. Celsa would light a lamp and put it on the ledge in her bedroom window, and he'd be visiting directly. She was like an older sister to Billy, hearing his side of everything and offering up advice. I suspect there was more to it to than that. We all have our moments of weakness, and I know what my sister was capable of. But it was friendship, mainly.
They say blood is thicker than mud and there's some truth to that, too. I didn't want my sister mixed up with Billy any more than Pete Maxwell did. You can't keep no secrets in a small town like this one. I can tell you this: Nobody cried harder for Billy that night than my sister. And nobody understands why my husband killed him more than me.
"Don't go to her tonight," I told him.
But Billy didn't listen. He never listened to nobody, especially me. When you're 18 years old and in love, you think you're bulletproof.
Sometimes I think he enjoyed pushin' his luck. Even when he was sentenced to hang for the killing of Sheriff Brady, Billy had a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face. He wasn't the only one smiling. You never seen such a choir of smug, satisfied folks in your life. The landowners and the cattle barons run this territory and they don't care a whit about the truth. They could convict him, but they couldn't hold him. I knew he would return to me. But I couldn't hold him neither.
I know one thing for Gospel: never underestimate the wrath of a jealous man. They were all jealous of Billy. Specially my man, Saval.
I knew my husband would be fit to be tied if he found out that me and Billy were friends. So, I waited until he was gone on business for a day a more. Come nightfall I would put a candle in the kitchen window and hope Billy would see it from the rise outside the Maxwell compound. I put him up here three, no, four times.
He even told me he loved me, but he watered it down. Said he was hoping marryin' Paulita might bring him a bit of respectability and—how did he put it—favor with the law. Paulita was crazy about him, but she knew her big brother would kill her if she got involved with a wanted man, so she kept it a secret. When it comes to matters of the heart, a girl needs someone to tell is all. Paulita didn't know there was anything between Billy and me, so she spilled the beans. My heart felt like a piece of meat a tangle of coyotes were fighting over, pulled every which way. Billy could do no wrong in her eyes, and that's the way she was supposed to feel. You remember what if was like bein' a teenager in love?
I admit it—I was jealous of those two. Saval's daddy and mine just set our lives together for practical reasons, with no regard to the kind of people we were. I guess a lot of marriages were set up like that back then, men looking to replace a wife and mother taken by a sudden wave of smallpox; Women from back East answering newspaper ads, willing to risk everything to escape a dead-end life. The only thing that matters to my man is getting' more horses and cattle, then finding a way to feed 'em. I need the kind of man that can give himself to a woman, body and soul. Billy was that kind of person. 'Cept he wasn't cut out for giving it to just one girl.
I remember that barn dance just outside of town, right before the winter. I think Billy danced with every unescorted girl there, and maybe even a few of the ones with escorts. If you want to know the truth, I think he put his outlaw reputation to good use—even if was overblown.
My man Saval was a good example of how Billy could intimidate a man. He wouldn't even come with me that night, knowin' Billy might be there, so I came along with Pat and Apolonaria. It was Billy who helped me down from the wagon when we arrived and Billy who took me home when the evening was over. Nobody needs to know how we stopped by the riverbank. How Billy was more than polite and friendly. I guess I lost my head a bit just being with him. Guess you could say I dodged a bullet. We all know he didn't.
I saw a lot of myself in Billy. Neither of us had nothin' and nobody would ever let us be nothin'. I was taken from my momma when I was six; His momma died when he was 13. By that time, I was a housemaid in Fort Sumner. I got kidnapped by a band of Utes when I was a little girl. You know what it feels like to be sold? Like you was a piece of meat?
Most of my tribe was rounded up and marched to Sumner when I was 16. Maybe that's why I don't give a spit about American authority, why I see Billy's side of things, why I tried to be the momma he lost at 13. Long time ago my momma told me, "You can't defeat money," and if you ask me, that's Billy's life in a nutshell.
I guess Billy had plenty of women around here wanting to protect him. Something in his manner, something in that smile. Billy could be a gentleman when he wanted to. But if you crossed him, he could be plenty ornery, too.
One time I went to a barn dance with Paulita—just to chaperone—nobody wants to see this on the dance floor—and when it came time for everyone to go home, Billy wanted to keep having fun. Rigoberto Chavez, a short burly fella' who owned a ranch on the east side of the Pecos, had his three teen-aged daughters there, representin' about a third of the ladies on hand to dance. When he told his daughters it was time to get their shawls on and get in the buggy, Billy was fit to be tied.
"This here party just got started," Billy told the daddy, with the father holding his middle daughter by the wrist.
"You set down and play that fiddle," Billy told one of the men in the band, and you better believe he sat right back down.
Mister Chavez got right up in Billy's face and they started jawing pretty good. Some of the other men were afraid what might happen, so they had both Billy and Rigo take off their gun belts and settle it outside. Mano y mano. Billy might have been younger and lighter on his feet, but that old rancher had wrestled quite a few animals in his time, and Billy was no match for his strength. Billy got pinned pretty quick and said uncle. Then they got up and dusted themselves off and shook hands and laughed about it as they went their separate ways.
My little boy could be downright honorable.
Folks is always sayin' how Billy'd give ya' the shirt of his back. Or put himself out for a friend. Like the time Pete's cousin got a little mouthy at a catina up north. Almost got hisself killed. Woulda' if Billy hadn't just stepped in and had the house buy everybody a round. Like the good book says, "blessed be the peacemakers."
There's so many lies flying around, so much hogwash people say and repeat without any regard for the truth, just makes it impossible to even have a sober conversation about Billy. One thing people usually get right is that he was a charmer. He was. Probably had a girlfriend in every little town he'd hide out in. I know for a fact he had two or three right here in Sumner. I guess that's what held me back; Billy could never love one woman any more than he could settle down in one place.
Yes, he could dance, and he'd bring you gifts, and be polite as all get out—when he wanted something. I guess I had a big advantage there. Deluvina used to store up food for weeks just to give him a saddlebag full of provisions for himself and the guys he was riding with.
Sometimes she used to let him use the little storeroom as a place to sleep. One time she let Billy and I use her bedroom so we could have a little privacy. Another time she told my big brother Pete that I was having a lady's time so he wouldn't bother us in my bedroom.
Right to the end, Deluvina did whatever she could for Billy. He knew he could trust her to pass on a message, and that's what she did on the last afternoon of his life. I'll never forget how she whispered in my ear while settin' down the plate of tortillas at lunch.
"He says he'll meet you in the peach orchard at sunset," she said.
I guess she read the fear on my face. "Go to him," she urged.
When we met at dusk, I could hardly believe it was Billy I was with. He never opened up like that before. There were so many things he said about his life and me and our future together. Like me and him riding off to Mexico and changing our names and getting our own little place and starting over fresh and new.
Then he kissed me long and slow and worked open the buttons of my blouse. Hands that spread four aces on a table in a saloon. Hands that could draw a revolver so fast and sure. How could those same hands be so gentle?
Hands and lips and tongue that could give a girl so much pleasure. We were under a tree and he rolled me on top and slid my skirt up and for an instant I imagined him facing off against Pat Garret. He made to enter me, smooth as butter, and I knew it wasn't his first time.
"Stop," I said. He stopped. I didn't want him to. Sometimes I think he'd still be alive if I just let him. That's what haunts me. I think about that every day of my life.
We saw a group of men coming and he thought it could be Garret, so both of us hurried home.
Fray Benito Chavez, OFM
Ours is a simple parish, with a modest place of worship. Two dozen rows of wooden benches for the congregation, a stone table for an altar, and a stained-glass window for every station of the cross. The good farmers and ranchers don't mind kneeling on the cold dirt floor, and I suffer Sister Juana's poor playing on an out-of-tune piano hauled up from Mexico by mules in the back of a weather-beaten cart. Even when the cold winds of winter pierce the cracks in our humble wooden building, we find a way to celebrate mass. There is comfort in the presence of the Lord.
There are men who work the land, men who trade horses and raise cattle. Most are honest and diligent, but a few who fall prey to the evil landowners and sly politicians. There are women who generally stand by these men, stirring dirty clothes in great steaming pots, baking a simple kind of bread out of almost nothing, keeping the brave homesteads going. They give comfort in the darkness out of duty; Sullen, they wake up to face another dreary day.
There is no way out. Waves of hardship wash over the people like an ocean, drought in the intense summer and unexplained fever and chills in the long winter, yet they find refuge here in this place with their God. With only Juanita, my mayor domo, helping when she can, I keep the church going like an innkeeper in Bethlehem, only here there is always room.
All of the candles were burned down to stubs, and I was replacing them one afternoon when I saw him standing outside next to his horse, tentatively peering in like a young boy courting his first sweetheart. The two men with him were dissatisfied and impatient and didn't bother to dismount, but the third had come to see me, and he was the leader and would not be denied.
The big front door groaned and some sand blew inside as he stepped in. He was no more than a boy, but the look in his eye spoke of loss and tragedy and he carried something with him that almost gave me goose flesh.
"Padre," he began respectfully.
"Si, mi ejo," I answered, softly as I could.
"Can you hear my confession?"
He spoke in both English and Spanish like myself, I thought.
"Confessions are Saturday and today is only Friday, my brother."
The look he gave me engendered a depth of compassion I had never experienced before or felt since. It was if I had the crucified Christ in my presence, bearing his wounds.
"Follow me," I said, and led him down the aisle to the front railing and then off to the left where a little room was waiting. At that moment I knew why we built that confessional and why good Father Esteban had this church erected in the most lonesome arm pit of this God-forsaken desert. And it was with a calm sense of duty that I went back to the sacristy, removed my vestments from the closet, and solemnly dressed the part of Franciscan priest.
Someone must have told him something of the sacrament, for he was already kneeling on the other side of the partition. Remarkably, his turned-up cowboy hat rested outside the door.
"Repeat after me, son," I whispered through the daylight in the caned screen between us. And then it seemed our low voices were booming together, echoing through the entire church.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
Then there was silence, plain and empty and dark as the vast night sky.
"Tell the Lord what you have done, my son."
There was a long pause, and I could hear him licking his lips, feel the agony in his wincing face.
"I killed a man," he said. "They was two of them . . . "
And I stifled a laugh when he added, "but the sons of bitches deserved it."
And he told me the whole story and how they arrested him for something he hadn't done and put him in irons and held him in a jail cell and were fixing to put him on trial. That he had broken out and killed two men and would be halfway to Mexico if not for someone he had to see one more time. As his narrative continued, a strong wind came up and we could feel the sand and tumbleweeds hitting the other side of the wall. I reached up to the screen and made a cross over his sobbing profile. The Holy Dove was present, and I knew he wasn't going to get of this alive. I gave him absolution and last rites together and when it was over, he hugged me and pressed three gold pieces in my hand and turned and walked out the door.
I watched through the window as three men on horseback rode through a dust storm toward the horizon. I felt my pocket watch chime inside my vest pocket. It was three o'clock in the afternoon.
Two nights before Billy died, Saval was on top of me and he was doing it—I won't call it making love—he was doing it and he was plenty angry and taunting, me too.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Ain't this how Billy does it? How come you like when it's him?"
And then he slapped me 'cross the face. Hard. And then he gets off and goes off to the back porch and spends the better part of the night takin' swigs from that bottle he hides in the shed. Sometime later on he mounts up and rides off somewheres. I could hear the horses' hooves galloping so clear, loud as a hailstorm on tin roof, then softer and softer until he was gone.
I got up and went the window, the same window where I put the candle those times for Billy to see. And I spend the rest of the night hoping he would come, but he didn't, so I went back to bed. I was half awake with my cheek throbbin' and I started seein' this light in the darkness and I was drawn to and he was drawn to it and in that moment, he was with me again.
"Thanks for all those meals," his voice said, "nobody makes cornbread like you do." I took his hand and put his palm to my face. Soft like a boy's, fragile as a baby chick; Soothing, healing. I kissed him and put his other hand on my breast and he did what came natural. I knew I was robbing the cradle and I didn't care. You can do whatever you like when you're in love. Besides, you only get so many chances in a place like this—and I wasn't gonna' miss it.
I knew it was the last time and he knew it was the last time and I just held on as long as I could with my head on his chest, listenin' to his beating heart while he ran his fingers through my hair, gentle as can be. He was staying with Martinez at the far end of the compound and when he put on his boots and belt, I saw the ivory grip of his pistol and I knew he was goin' to the light again. I decided that's how I'd remember him, a young boy goin' toward the light.
Celsa told me what happened. Saval was a sly one. Two days before Billy came to stay, they had slaughtered a pig and Celsa made enough carne adovada to last a week. But Saval said it had turned—it was a lie—and dumped it all in the ditch for the coyotes to feast on. There was nothin' to eat that night, and when Saval handed Billy the butcher knife, the wheels were in motion.
Mister Peter knew he was coming, and not just for a slice of fresh beef. Some Judas let the master know about Billy's intentions for his sister, and there was no way he was gonna' let that happen. Billy was only careless a moment, but that's all it took.
I can still see his blood running across Mister Peter's bedroom floor. I watched it come in waves, and I saw the beaver hide floating on top. It would still be floating to this day, but Garrett squashed it with his bootheel and that's why all of us go the same way Billy did, sinking down into the next world.
After his body was laid out on the table, I asked everyone to leave so I could take care of my little boy. I removed my clothes and washed him from head to toe, slowly, respectfully, singin' that song he used to like, the one about the fox in the hen house, hummin' that refrain in his ear, knowin' he was hearin' me, never so sure of anything in my life.
When I was finished, I let 'em all in and all the women was crying and moanin' with their hair all around his bare feet and there was wailing like you never heard before or since. I did not shed one tear. Outside it was full dark and the summer wind came up in the night sky and was blowing the stars here and there and I knew Billy was out there, home at last.
I stepped into the room, trying to follow Pete's voice, trying to make out his frame in the darkness. There was a flash and I knew I was hit with hot blood pourin' out my chest. I saw my momma in her bed and she held the handkerchief up to her mouth and it was spotted with blood, too. I was bathed in a white light and floatin' over my own body and overwhelmed with the feeling that everything was all right.
I saw my daddy dropping me off at Miss Sarah's boarding house and then I felt myself shimmying up through the chimney of the jailhouse and when I passed from the darkness into the sunshine on the roof it was like my momma givin' birth and I understood for the first time how I spent my whole life running away.
But now I was a glowing ball of light movin' in space with every other soul who ever lived, John Tunstall and Sheriff Brady and Windy Cahill and all of em', everyone and everything all together in the same swift-moving stream. And I saw myself riding through the desert at night, riding off to find my daddy, riding down by the river with Paulita, riding with gunshots ringing all around me, always riding, riding. Folks always gettin' their suspenders all in a knot about the meanin' of life. Well, I'm here to tell you it's nothing but riding, riding. Every one of us riding toward the sunset just over the next rise.
My body was in a coffin and my coffin was in a wagon and the wagon was carryin' my bones to the graveyard. Deluvina and Paulita and Celsa and other good ladies were walking behind in black shawls and some was weepin' and I wanted to tell em' "Don't you cry, everything's all right," but of course, they couldn't hear me.
That night I came to Paulita as a ghost—and don't go gettin' your long johns in a knot. A ghost is nothin' but a soulless spirit. I knocked a couple of things around and made the Bible fall from a shelf, just to let her know I was there. When she got into bed, I went with her, just so's she could feel my weight beside her. She was cryin' cause I was gone and we never made it out and everybody was sayin' she was growin' large with our child. When I put my arm around her, I could feel her body shakin' and shiverin' and I told her it was all right. Everyone is a liar from the governor to Albert Jennings Fountain all the way down to Garrett and your brother, liars all of 'em. But it's all right. It's all right.
Then I went to Celsa and she was in bed, too, and I put my hand on her cheek and she was healed. She already knew about the light, so's I just reassured her: "You're right, baby . . . you're right." Yes, there was pain, especially tonight, but there is a place beyond those tears where nobody cries no more. She was headin' out for this place, and she was gonna' get there.
When I came to Deluvina, she was out in the darkness beyond the corral lookin' up at the stars. A red-tail hawk was perched on the very top branch of the tall pinon tree next to the railing; That was me. A breeze was blowin' in from the west, lifting the ends of her dark black hair; That was me, too. Her face was set like flint, and I was able to hear her thoughts.
I was floating over Sumner like a huge bird, watching everything. I felt I was a part of everything and everything was a part of me. One with the sky, one with dirt and rocks. Just like the crickets chirpin' in the night.
A bull and two heffers came trundling up to the rail like they wanted to be near her. She was sittin' on the ledge of that big boulder Pete's daddy tried to move out of there with teams of horses but never could. The cowboys used to call it "the rock of ages." It was like she herself was part of that stone, quiet and still and takin' it all in. The stars in sky was as plentiful as the sand on the mesa and their light shone in the darkness and the soft breeze blew 'em all around and it was so, so peaceful. For the first time I understood the pain I caused throughout my life, and I even felt sorry for the families of the fellers I killed.
Deluvina knew what it all meant but she wasn't sayin', so neither will I. You and me and all of us will understand on the last day when it all comes full circle. The ain't one of us that don't need mercy. They ain't one of us who ain't forgiven.
Chuck Kappus is a retired teacher who loves to write about love, sports, travel, politics or anything else he damn well pleases. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Helen, his wife of 40 years, and Queenie, a mini white Aussie.
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by Gary Ives
Sometimes something good can come of bad things – Cicero.
About the only thing the crew talked about on the voyage was California gold. With the rest of her crew three young deckhands jumped ship the Eleanor B, fresh from the Sandwich Isles, leaving her unable to discharge her cargo of badly needed lumber or even weigh anchor.
These three boys, Harrison Wiems, Jasper Spooner, and Frank Gorsch quickly got together a grubstake by robbing drunk miners in the Tenderloin. With hastily assembled gear they headed straight into the Sierra gold fields.
Months later in Calaveras County the sailors got lucky finding glory holes on an outside bend of the Big Willow Creek near Mexican Hat. Scores of deep holes pebbled into basalt by glaciers from the last ice age yielded a trove of nuggets and placer. Harrison reckoned the take was worth $9800. This now lay buried under a cottonwood tree in a canteen wrapped in a flour sack. And they were still panning good color, running $40 to $60 a day. On a sunny day in September Harrison walked the nine miles to San Andreas to file the claim. The three planned to work the stream till the placer yield reduced to $20 a day then sell the claim. Greenhorns hungry for working claims were coming into gold county daily.
The camp on the Big Willow was isolated with no prospectors or ranches close by. A lone adobe house sat atop Mexican Hat where old Captain Bonner lived with his grandson Gabriel on a meager $12 monthly war pension. The veteran of the 1812 War, crippled from war wounds, passed his days confined to a chair scanning the countryside with the same spyglass he'd used aboard ship in that war against the British. The movements of three young gold seekers down below naturally drew the old man's interest. One day he sent Gabriel down to their camp to ask for bacon and coffee, but Jasper, the mean one, had driven the boy off with a stick and a cruel kick to the 12-year-old boy's rear. Old Captain Bonner was furious.
Sundown caught Harrison still three miles from camp on his way back from filing the claim in San Andreas. He reckoned that approaching the campsite in the dark was too risky, what with simple-minded Jasper, crazier than a shithouse rat, and Frank all jumpy after the robbery, and in a constant fret about the law, or claim jumpers, or grizzly bears, or rattlesnakes, or whatever. No, he didn't fancy getting shot in the dark by either of those two Nancys. Besides, his feet hurt something awful, his boot's soles worn thin as carpet slippers. With darkness coming he decided to wait until morning to enter camp, so he made a little campfire under a live oak. This long walk from San Andreas had given Harrison time to think and properly assess his situation. Now in the quiet of his camp he could figure things out. He'd mulled this over for months, the decision made, and Harrison was certain that killing both Frank and Jasper would be easy as pie. In neither Sonora nor San Andreas had there been a single pair of boots to be had, not for love nor money, but he had no trouble buying a packet of strychnine ostensibly for pesky coyotes. From his pack he took the bottle of whiskey he'd bought and into this he dissolved the crystalline strychnine powder. He would arrive at the claim in the morning, show the boys the paper from the claims office, then go over the plan to pan for placer just a while longer. He would break out the whiskey that evening. Harrison would bury the two then head south for Monterrey and sign on any ship bound for Panama then make his way back East. He reckoned he might feel a little remorse for Frank. Gorsch was a good sailor, not much in the way of smarts, and naturally nervous, but he was an excellent rigger, he always paid his debts and was quick to lend a hand. Harrison cared nothing for Jasper. The boy was a landsman with no more intelligence than a rabbit. Big, dumb, and mean; he'd gotten in trouble in Honolulu for beating a whore near to death. No, the world would not miss Jasper Spooner. He would be doing the world a favor putting that one in the ground
Meanwhile, two miners, Harry Murphy and Titus Ines, who had been robbed by the three sailors in San Francisco, had come into San Andreas to take delivery of a long tom they had commissioned. Spotting Harrison they hastened to report the robbery. The sheriff having been shot dead, the county was awaiting an election, so there was no acting sheriff, but a clerk suggested the Vigilance Committee. At the White Grizzly Saloon Doc Fenton, the Committee's judge, asked Murphy and Ines to write out a report charging the sailors with robbery. He then wrote a warrant of arrest for three sailors on Big Willow Creek. "We can bring 'em in and Miner's Court will try those rascals right here in the White Grizzly.
At the same moment Harrison sat before his fire under the live oak three miles away from camp planning their murder, Frank Gorsch and Jasper Spooner sat before their fire conspiring to kill Harrison Wiems as soon as he returned with the filed claim.
Soon after arriving the next morning, Harrison Wiems sat down on a log by the fire to eat; he was awfully hungry. Before he had taken a second bite of cold pinto beans Jasper killed him with a single blow to the head from the flat side of a pick. As his body lay collapsed by the log he had been sitting on, Frank rifled Harrison's pack finding the claim and the bottle of whiskey. "Hey Jasper time to celebrate, mate."
From his chair on the little patio through his spyglass, Captain Bonner watched the wicked men die who had beat his grandson, and didn't he take great pleasure watching Frank and Jasper writhing and convulsing in the mud by the creek's edge all afternoon. Around six he called Gabriel. "Go down there, son, use their shovel to dig just under the lowest branch of that cottonwood, dig up close to the trunk. There's a parcel, fetch it up here. Pay no mind to the dead men. And look to see is there's any bacon, coffee, or sugar. And take care to brush away your footprints. I'll be watching."
The next morning the Vigilantes discovered the fly-blown bodies of the sailors and their claim document. The Miner's Court determined that the sailor's claim on Big Willow Creek should rightfully pass to Murphy and Ines, victims of the wicked sailors.
Captain Bonner bought a store in San Andreas where he and Gabriel prospered for many years.
Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows pears and writes. Dozens of his short stories have been published in
numerous electronic and print magazines. His Can You Come Here for Christmas? earned a Push Cart Prize nomination.
You can find Gary at garyives.wordpress.com
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by James Burke
Captain Ramon Borgia sat like a hawk perched atop his stallion. His long beak-like nose added to his predatory figure. He grinned carnivorously as his piercing eye glared through his spyglass. Down the mountain along the coast stood the last remnant of the Russian Empire in all of California. A tiny fishing town of Indians and Russians. Piterskaya gorka, it was called; Peter's Hill, named for the hill on which St. Peter was crucified. Borgia chuckled, figuring it was in honor of what the natives did to their earliest missionaries. Crucifixion would have been mercy!
A shabby, run-down village of crude huts. The only structure that seemed vaguely well-kept was the domed Orthodox church in the town's center. Borgia spat in disgust. A blight on the face of California! He took sadistic comfort knowing his men and he would put the heretic temple to the torch and its heathen acolytes to the business ends of their lances.
"Captain, I beg of you! Should we not be traveling south to attack the Americans?" Borgia hissed a sigh as he lowered his spyglass and turned to his lieutenant.
"All in good time, Lieutenant Jose-Marie," he forced a smile. Trying very hard not to show his frustration, and failing. "We must first remove this old, festering thorn from our sides before turning to our latest interlopers."
"But Captain, these people have bothered no one for decades!" insisted his younger, more pious, subordinate. "Their government abandoned them! Even the Americans have shunned them. Most of them are not even Russians but Indians, or else half-breeds! They don't even keep guns! What few of them hunt in the woods mostly use bows and arrows!" Borgia's fists clenched so tight he worried he might break his spyglass.
"Your compassion is touching, Lieutenant," he growled, trying to make it sound like a purr. "But of little use in a time of war!" he barked. Jose-Marie and the other lancers behind him were taken aback. Their horses whinnied and shuffled. Borgia's eyes were wild with fury and blood-lust. Even in their dashing, blue uniforms and clutching spears twice as tall as men, their commander's wrath still terrified them.
"These vodka-swilling DOGS should have been gone years ago!" he paused to look past his lieutenant at the hundred mounted men gathered atop the ridge. "Imagine the glory! Imagine the FAME we would win by driving the last of Imperial Russia from our sacred land, then swinging south to join Castro against President Polk's PIGS! We will be the heroes of California! NO! Champions of all MEXICO!" He roared, raising his lance high. A deafening cheer went up as his men mimicked his bravado.
Only Lt. Jose-Marie grimaced in disappointment, self-aware of how cowardly it made him look. To attack that village was not war, but wanton cruelty. Nothing short of murder! But Mexico was at war, California had been invaded, and he was a soldier. A soldier obeys his orders and does his duty. So moments later when Borgia spurred his mount and galloped for the path down the mountain, he followed along with the rest. Though he did not add to the cacophony of wild cheers and screams. Themselves barely audible over the rumbling roar of their horses hooves.
* * *
Peter Volka looked down upon his beloved wife's remains in the casket. Even in death his sweet Natasha was lovely as ever. A ray of sunlight shone through a high window and beamed down on her rave hair. If not for her copper complexion she might have been mistaken for a Russian, though only half on her father's side. The church was crowded with mourners, mostly Indians. She was the joy of his life, the light of his day. And had been the same to many in the village. He was not the only one who had lost someone, but the only one to have lost everything!
Volka and Father Ivan were the only full-blooded Russians left in the village of Peter's Hill. When the rest of the Russian-American Company pulled up stakes and left for Alaska, he had chosen to stay with his wife and her people. The townsfolk had all long-since converted to Orthodoxy and Father Ivan refused to abandon his flock. So there they were.
Volka was an old man, over fifty; though still lean and in fine shape. His milky-white hair and lined skin told a long and tragic tale. He had left Russia as an orphan to become a trapper. Had fought in Indian wars, been clawed by cougars, mauled by a bear, pierced by arrows, cleaved by tomahawks, and shot many times. Yet still he endured and thrived in spite of the odds against him in the American Northwest. Then, a mere ten years ago, a much younger woman saw good in him. Even as he stood trembling over her casket in the church he could not fathom what it was she saw that made him worthy of her. It had been a happy marriage, though she proved barren and gave him no sons. He had been confident she would find a man to give her many children when he was gone. A nasty fever had other plans.
The old trapper had seen men lose wives. He had seen them lose brothers, fathers, and even children. He lost his wife and had no children; none would be left to mourn him. He tried to say a prayer as he returned to his pew for Fr. Ivan to finish the service, but no words came out. He wanted to sob but no tears came. Even as his neighbors lined up to carry Natasha's casket out to the graveyard outside of town.
He was numb as frostbite when he rose to his feet and followed the procession out of the church. Felt no warmth from the sun as they exited the building. Fr. Ivan's words of comfort were only faint echoes as they walked. Volka barely even felt the rumble of hooves beneath his feet. A sudden cry went up, the blast of a pistol, and Natasha's casket cracked and splintered on the ground as the townsfolk scattered.
The priest and the widower froze in unison. Volka's gaze never left the shattered casket, or the limp, delicate hand protruding from the side of it. He noticed the mounted lancers in his peripheral vision, as he did the body of the murdered Indian who had received the pistol shot moments ago. Fr. Ivan began shouting his objections, some of them in words a priest should not use. All around him the world had descended into chaos.
Running women and children scampered for shelter only to be trampled by hooves, impaled on lances, or downed by pistol shots. A woman with an infant in her arms had just made it through the door of her hut when a lance skewered mother and child alike. Some of the men emerged from their homes with bows to loose some desperate arrows, few found their mark. One old Indian brandished a rusted old musket and leveled it at a Mexican with a hooked nose and fancier uniform than the others. He pulled the trigger only for it to explode in his hands. The old man wailed in agony, his fingers mangled and his eyes gouged by powder and metal. The big-nosed officer, who had frozen in terror when he saw the weapon pointed at him, gave a hearty laugh before ending the Indian's misery with a swift thrust of his lance.
To Volka, it was a scene all-too-familiar. He had seen many of such massacres by Russian trappers and Indians, he had even taken part in some; to his everlasting shame. Memories of the slaughter of the innocents at Sitka in the Sappling Fort flashed before his eyes, his earliest experience in America. Neither Russian trappers nor Indian braves were much interested in taking prisoners on the warpath. Such was the life he had chosen as a boy. Such was the life he had hoped and prayed he had left behind. Such was the life that found it's way back to him.
* * *
Borgia reigned his mount to a halt before a shattered coffin in the dirt outside the town's church. A dozen of his men had rallied with him, including the melancholy Lt. Jose-Marie, who had yet to fire his weapon, and his lance was still shiny and clean. Not only was Borgia's lance dripping with blood, but he was down to his last bullet. Which he paused to load into his pistol as the Russian clergyman unleashed a storm of obscenity and vulgarity that was unbecoming of any priest. The old priest's Spanish was barely understandable, but Borgia could tell he was calling him a Philistine and his soldiers Pharaoh's army, and assuring him they would meet the same fate as both Biblical menaces.
The two figures before him and his men were a most bizarre pair. The priest wore thick and elaborate robes and a beard so long and thick his mouth was barely visible! Beside him was another bearded figure. Short, old, and clad in buckskins; most likely a trapper. Borgia snickered, at the elderly frontiersman, whose gaze was locked upon the broken casket at his mount's feet. Doubtless a senile simpleton. Fur trappers were a dying breed whose success had spelled their own doom as the beaver population dwindled. Some of the Americans invading California to the south were even trappers. It would be a pleasure to kill yet another foreign interloper who sought to exploit Mexican soil for it's wealth!
"Lt. Jose-Marie, kill this loud-mouth priest!" Borgia sighed in annoyance. As he suspected, his subordinate turned to him in wide-eyed horror.
"Captain! He is a priest!"
"A HEATHEN PRIEST!" Borgia roared. "A HERETIC! AND AN ENEMY OF CALIFORNIA AND ALL OF MEXICO!" he paused to catch his breath and eye the rest of his men. All were staring at Jose-Marie with contempt. "That is a direct order, Lieutenant. Now DO IT!" Borgia eyed the priest and noticed for the first time that the old trapper was now looking at him. Something about his eyes made him feel uneasy. He turned his glare back to Jose-Marie, still gaping in speechless shock. Borgia thumbed back the hammer of his pistol and his glare blazed even hotter over his hawk-like nose. "If you refuse," he growled. "I will take it as desertion in the face of the enemy."
Lt. Jose-Marie's eyes fell as his pistol-hand went up. With a deep breath he took aim for the priest, who had now gone silent and crossed himself. He met the lieutenant's pitiful gaze of remorse with sternness. The soldier had his orders, but both knew it was no excuse. His thumb shakily went up to pull back the hammer, but folded back down in defeat. His pistol-arm slumped to his side.
"Captain, I beg of you! Spare his life!" The lieutenant was cut off by the blast of Borgia's pistol. Jose-Marie's body fell limp from the saddle.
"Filthy coward!" Borgia spat. "A disgrace to California!" He smirked darkly as the enlisted men around him huffed laughs of agreement. With a swift upward motion, his left hand went up with his lance and buried its tip in the priest's throat. An instant later he retracted it and the clergyman fell dead. The old trapper, who seemed to be in a trance until that moment, suddenly drew up his hand and with the flick of the wrist sent a small knife flying into Borgia's throat. The captain dropped both weapons to grasp his neck. Desperate to stem the tide of warm blood but knowing it was in vain. With the last of his strength he eyed his shocked soldiers, thrust his finger towards his killer and gasped. Mouthing the words "kill him!" before toppling from his horse.
* * *
Volka acted quickly. The moment Borgia hit the dirt he drew both pistols behind his back, hidden by the folds of his buckskin coat. He fired both at the two nearest lancers, downing both. The sudden ruckus caused the horses to kick and whinny, which bought Volka precious time. Flipping the pistols in his hands to hold them by the barrels, he swung them up and flung them at the heads of two other foes. The solid wood and iron struck both men in the sides of their faces, near the eyes. A faint cracking noise was heard from both before they fell. Sensing the pistols training on him, Volka rolled aside as several shots peppered the ground where he was standing. He dove for Jose-Marie's body, retrieved the lieutenant's loaded pistol and stood in time to fire in unison with another attacker. The lancer's shot missed, Volka's didn't.
Having sensed a flanking foe, the trapper allowed the momentum of the pistol shot to spin him around to catch the lance of a galloping Mexican with his hands and deflect its tip. He then shifted his weight, dragged the man from his horse and slammed him to the ground with a thud. Not taking any chances, he took the spent pistol by the barrel and caved the fallen enemy's skull. Another warlike cry in Spanish caused Volka to rise, draw his tomahawk, dodge another lance-thrust and bury the head of his weapon in the belly of a lancer before dragging him to the ground. He ripped the tomahawk from the fallen foe's gut only to cleave his skull to the teeth.
Yet another lancer came galloping with spear at the ready. Volka snatched up his latest victim's pistol, took aim, and fired. Metal clicked, but no explosion. Empty! Mere seconds before the lance should have skewered him, he chucked the empty pistol at the lancer's head. It knocked him over backwards, swinging the lance high and out of his grasp as he fell. Volka caught the lance in midair, strode to the fallen lancer, swiftly inserted and retracted the tip from his heart, then spun to dodge and impale another attacking lancer.
A pistol shot rang out and a bullet zipped past Volka's head. He turned to heave the long lance at his oncoming foe. It struck home and sent him flying from his horse. Volka's foot struck something and he looked down to see he had circled back to Borgia's corpse. In a fluent motion he knelt to retrieve his knife from the captain's throat then rose to deflect an oncoming lance with his tomahawk and slice the attacker's belly with his knife. More lancers took notice of him and charged gallantly to their deaths.
Around the village, the tide began to turn. The Mexican attackers watched in horror as a single, elderly man in buckskins slaughtered an increasing number of their comrades. The defenders watched in awe as their neighbor, an old man, felled one foe after another. The Indians took heart and fought back in the defense of their homes and loved ones with renewed vigor. They cheered in defiance and loosed even more arrows. More of them found home. One very fat Mexican sergeant with a particularly bloody lance was soon perforated with arrows and fell to resemble a large blue porcupine.
All of while more lancers fell to Volka's tomahawk and knife. At times he looted pistols from fallen enemies. At times they were even loaded. But even unloaded flintlock pistols could still be deadly missiles. Eventually the hundred lancers Borgia had led into the village had been whittled down to less than twenty! Spanish cries of "RETREAT!" went up and the few remaining lancers wheeled to gallop for their lives. Arrows caught a few more as they fled. Soon they were only a trail of dust streaking up the mountain.
A cheer went up from the men of the village, men raised their hands and roared triumphantly in Russian. Some even approached Volka as he stood dazed in the street. He regarded the greetings, cheers, and pats on the shoulder mechanically. But soon the men's eyes fell on the carnage, and the jovial cheer faded to somber silence. So many had died. Many husbands were made widowers, many wives made widows. Couples childless, sons and daughters orphaned. The ruthless interlopers had spared no one. Sobs, cries, and prayers went up across the town. Wounded were tended to as best they could, the dead were gathered to be carried to the graveyard. The lancers were piled in a field outside town and left for carrion. With his neighbors busy with their own departed loved ones, it fell to Volka to scoop Natasha up in his arms one last time, carry her to the cemetery and bury her.
Few slept as the sun set on that sorrowful day. Volka sat in silence at the door of the church until sun-up. Anticipating another raid. About an hour after daylight hooves thundered down the mountain and the entire town readied for another onslaught. Volka cried out for the men to hold their fire as he recognized the approaching riders. They were not Mexicans but Americans. About a hundred of them, none in uniform, all armed, and waving a flag with what looked like a bear stenciled on it. Volka greeted their leader as he reigned his horse to a halt in front of him. A burly man in buckskins and a coon-skin cap. Likely a fellow trapper.
"We see you boys have had you a Mexican problem," the leader said.
"We have," Volka replied in English.
"Seems you can handle yourselves," he paused to look back at his men. They all exchanged glances and nodded before their leader turned back to Volka. "Care to join us and help give the Mexicans a Bear problem?" he finished with a wink.
Volka turned to the men of the village and translated. Their hard stares gave him the answer. He turned back to the American leader and nodded.
James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. He served 4 years in the Navy and graduated college with a Bachelor's Degree in 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Frontier Tales Magazine since 2017 and he has self-published the e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond. He lives in Greenville County, South Carolina.
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Barclay Always Gets His Man
by Stephen Gaspar
IT IS NOT surprising that over the years tall tales and legends grew up around the North-West Mounted. In 1874 three-hundred men crossed half of Canada to police a wilderness area larger than some small countries. After an auspicious beginning like that, almost any story one might concoct would not seem farfetched. Surpassing all others, the most famous legend of the Force was that 'a Mountie always gets his man'. This saying was first coined by a newspaperman writing for the Record out of Fort Benton, Montana Territory, but once this expression gained some notoriety, every member of the Force felt they had to live up to that reputation.
In the summer of 1878, I was stationed at a lonely substation south of Fort Walsh. The reason for my banishment to such lowly duty was mainly due to the fact that my name was mentioned most prominently in the reports sent back to Ottawa regarding my part in the signing of Treaty No. 6, and that I had given the entire Sioux Nation my permission to settle in Canada along with my personal assurance that they would not be harassed while they were here and were under the Queen's protection. 'This man's interference must be curbed', a Minister, who shall remain nameless, stated in a letter to my superior. 'Please find some duty for him where he cannot get into any more mischief.' And so, I found myself exiled to an isolated spot where not much ever happened.
That was until the middle of August when summer had set in with its usual severity. The heat began in the early morning and rose steadily as the day progressed. By noon the great yellow sphere reached its apex and seemed to linger there a might longer than it normally did. Water was not exactly scarce, but it was never a good idea to travel without a full canteen. The grey-brown landscape of the shortgrass plains was broken only by the pink hues of pincushion cactus.
While out on patrol duty I took it upon myself to visit the Boscovich farm where I had become acquainted with the entire Boscovich family, especially their daughter Laura. When I first met Laura, she was a very pretty young girl of sixteen and I found the two of us seemed particularly fond of each other, though our relationship was purely platonic, as would any between a respectable, fine young lady, and an upstanding gentleman such as myself. Since my life as a Mounted Policeman was often full and busy with duties and responsibilities, we had seldom seen one another since our initial meeting, though I did write her long letters during the lonely winter months that generally kept me close to the fort.
I had purposely dressed in my red serge that day with the intention of calling on Laura. I rode up to the Boscovich farm with great anticipation on the pretext of getting a cool drink of water from their well. When I arrived, Laura came out to meet me. She was even more beautiful than I remembered her. Her lovely face radiated a warm healthy glow and her rich brown hair cascaded down around her shoulders. She had on a plain, simple dress, but wore it with such grace and elegance that it might have been a fancy gown from Paris. Seeing her I could not help but recall the words of William Wordsworth:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Besides the springs of Dove,
A maid to whom there were none to praise:
And very few to love:
Or so I thought.
Laura greeted me with a warm smile, and I gave her the bouquet of prairie roses I picked on the trail. She took them and smelled their fragrance, and as she held them, I noticed how the beauty of the flowers paled next to her own.
"How wonderful it is to see you again, Corporal Barclay," she said in a charming European accent, and her blue eyes sparkling. "The family will all be pleased you have come for a visit. We get so few visitors out here, and today we have had two."
"Two?" I repeated. "Pray tell, who is the other?"
"Why young Mr. Peter Cord, of course" she answered still smiling, "our neighbour to the south. He left just a short time ago. Surely you have met him."
I had indeed met Mr. Peter Cord late of Fort Benton, Montana, who had come north just a year ago to homestead and begin a small farm. He was young man, only two years my senior, and was, I suppose, what some woman might regard as ruggedly handsome, and charming, but there was always something about Peter Cord that I did not like, though I was at a loss to know what it was. A young woman like Laura might be susceptible to his charms, and I was not too ashamed to say I did not like it.
I was invited to have lunch with the Boscovichs and afterward I entertained the family with a recitation of When We Two Parted, which I thought appropriate since it was time for me to go.
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years . . .
I took my leave telling Laura I would look forward to seeing her again. She said that would be fine, but it could not be next Saturday, since that was when she had promised to go for a buggy ride with Peter Cord.
I rode off with my mind in a whirl contemplating the possibilities, and I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to have a talk with Mr. Peter Cord and find out his true intentions regarding Laura.
I took the trail to his farm that lay some miles to the south. I was halfway there when the sound of gunfire caused me to pull Alfred up short. At first, I was afraid some renegade Indians were perhaps on the warpath, but the sound of the gunfire convinced me it was not Indians. I put my heels to Alfred and rode on with cautious haste.
The terrain was hilly with clumps of poplars, and around one bend I saw a saddled horse standing nervously about as the gunplay continued. I dismounted and warily proceeded on foot. Huddled behind a rock and bleeding from a wound in his right shoulder was Peter Cord. He had the look of a trapped animal and I somehow thought that if Laura could see him now, it might bring him down a peg or two in her eyes. I instantly put such petty feelings aside and rushed to the man's aid.
"Corporal Barclay!" he exclaimed, surprised at seeing me. "What are you doing here?"
"I was on patrol and heard the gunshots," I said. "Are you badly hurt?"
"It's not good," he responded.
"What happened?" I asked as I took off his neckerchief and had him hold it against the wound to staunch the bleeding.
"I was riding along and was ambushed by two desperados."
"We will see about that," I said and moved out from behind the rock.
"I am Corporal Barclay of the North-West Mounted Police!" I announced in a loud authoritative voice. "I order you to stop in the Queen's name!"
I was answered by several shots that struck the ground around me, and I once again took refuge behind the rock.
"You can't talk to those men, Barclay," Peter Cord admonished. "Those are very dangerous men you're dealing with."
"I cannot believe they shot at me after I said I was a policeman, after all, I wear the red coat of the Queen," I said amazed.
"They don't care who you are, Barclay, and as for that red jacket, it only makes you a more tempting target."
Perhaps Cord was right, and I decided more forceful methods were required. He had been holding the gun with his left hand, but he was now using that hand to keep from bleeding. I took his gun and drawing my own Smith and Wesson revolver I made my way to a more advantageous position. I spied out my adversaries who had taken cover within a small grove of poplars. One was a tall man with a bright red shirt and white hat. The other wore a black hat, a large black neckerchief that stood out against a white shirt. Both wore two guns but were using rifles. I decided not to call out another warning but began to fire into the trees where they were. No gunfire was returned and soon I heard the beat of horses' hoofs, and I was certain the desperados were in retreat.
Making my way back to Peter Cord, I put him on his horse and the two of us rode on to his small farm. There I saw to his wound, and he took the opportunity to thank me.
"That was a brave thing you did back there, Corporal," he said. "I can't believe you were able to drive them off that way. I thank you kindly."
"You can thank me by telling me who those men are and why they attacked you."
Cord looked at me with a start. "What makes you think I know those men or what they wanted?"
"The way you spoke of them seemed to reflect familiarity," I said.
"I don't know them or what they wanted," he insisted.
"I do not believe that is true," I said, looking him in the eye.
He stared back at me but could not hold my gaze long.
"Alright," he finally said, looking away. "I suppose since you did come to my aid, I'll tell you. The truth is I do know them, and I do know why they ambushed me."
I sat at the table across from him and listened to his story.
"Those two men are outlaws by the name of Tom Wilkinson and Jim Ryan. I knew them down in Montana. At one time not long ago, I was part of their gang. A year ago, I decided to go straight, so I quit them, but found out it ain't that easy to quit Jim Ryan. It's his gang, and he don't like anybody walking away from it. The story goes that Ryan is from Texas and I don't believe I ever met a meaner man. That was one of the reasons I quit his gang. But I did quit and decided to come up here and live the honest life of a farmer. I swear Corporal Barclay, that's the God's-honest truth."
I took this all in and could only think of one thing; once Laura Boscovich learned of Cord's past, she would no longer consider him a right and proper suitor. Still, there had to be a way that I could make certain she would look more favourably in my direction. In a minute I had come up with a way that she would.
I rose from the table and prepared to leave.
"What are you going to do now?" Peter Cord asked anxiously. "Where are you going?"
"I am going after Ryan and his men, of course," I said. "I am going to bring them back and charge them with attempted murder, resisting arrest, and firing a weapon at a member of the Force."
"You can't go after these men, Barclay! You don't know them. They're killers. They don't have any respect for the law. I heard tell Ryan even shot a Texas Ranger when he was down south. These are very dangerous men, Barclay!"
"If they did not want trouble, they should not have come to Canada," I said and left him.
I packed what supplies I might need and rode south following the trail Ryan and his compatriot had made where they ambushed Cord. I lost the trail south of the border and decided to proceed to Fort Benton on the Missouri River.
Fort Benton was one of the last remnants of the now defunct fur trade. It began as a trading post in 1846, and because it could be reached by the steamboats that plied the mighty Missouri, it was heralded as North America's innermost port.
Fort Benton was one of the largest towns I had seen since coming to the western territories. Though it was the largest civilized centre in the west, it bespoke the worst of civilization, that which caters to man's most lowly and sordid weaknesses. On the outskirts of town were dirty whiskey shanties and dens of iniquity. In the town proper were more fancy saloons and what most referred to as hurdy-gurdy establishments. A United States Cavalry infantry had been stationed in Fort Benton to help control the Indian problem but had recently moved out. Their garrison, which was beginning to show signs of decay, was presently being occupied by local residents. I was to learn later that in Fort Benton, the best kept establishments were the ones that made money, namely the bars, saloons, and bawdyhouses. At first appearance I suspected the town lacked any law enforcement whatsoever, but in this I was mistaken. In the centre of town, I found the jailhouse across from the town square where a flagpole proudly flew the red, white and blue stars and stripes, and where also sat a canon that someone had brought as a memento from the American Civil War.
I thought it prudent to check in with the local constabulary, a courtesy call, so-to-speak, from one law enforcement officer to another. I had ridden down to Montana in my frontier garb—fringed buckskins, wide-brimmed hat—but decided I would make a better impression upon the local sheriff in my uniform. Sheriff Jerome Morgan seemed like a competent man, though his physical appearance did not fill one with confidence. Morgan was short and stout, with three-day-old whiskers on his round face. He was slovenly dressed, and his overall demeanour seemed unconcerned with events that did not directly concern him.
"So, you're one of them Mountie-boys I've heard tell of," Sheriff Morgan said in a casual manner. "I just become Sheriff here in Benton eight months ago, but I heard you Canada-boys have been through here before."
"Sheriff Morgan I'm here to inquire into the whereabouts of a known desperado named Jim Ryan. I heard he has a gang and sometimes operates out of Fort Benton."
Morgan nodded slowly. "Yep, I heard of Jim Ryan, and yep, I know where he is."
"That is excellent, Sheriff. He is wanted in Canada and must answer to a number of charges, so if you can tell me where he is I would like—"
My sentence was interrupted by a man who burst into the Sheriff's office and slammed the door behind him. He was a tall man, slightly taller than me and several years older. He wore a large hat with a tall crown and wide brim. His clothes looked more like something a cow-herder might wear, with batwing chaps and a long dusty slicker. His boots were pointed, and his spurs had spiky rowels. A Colt .45 hung on his right hip in a worn leather scabbard.
"I'm lookin' for the sheriff!" the man announced. His brows were heavy, and he sported a wide sweeping moustache. He spoke with a noticeable accent which was enhanced by a rather large wad of chewing tobacco that bulged on the left side of his mouth. "You Morgan?"
Sheriff Morgan nodded and regarded the big man with the same impassive manner he did me—perhaps even more so.
"My name's Dolan, I'm a Texas Ranger," the man said, pulling back his slicker to reveal a tin star within a circle. "I'm here lookin' for a man named Ryan. He's wanted."
"What's he wanted for?" Sheriff Morgan asked impassively.
"Murder. He killed a man down in El Paso a year ago. I'm here to find him and take him back to Texas—dead or alive."
I was slightly taken aback at the Texan's abrupt manner. He certainly seemed the type who needed a lesson in manners.
"Seems like Ryan's a very popular man," Morgan said to Dolan. "This Canada boy is lookin' for Ryan too."
The Texas Ranger looked me up and down from my hat to my spurs, then glared at me and regarded me hostilely. "I don't care who else wants Ryan, I got prior claim. If anyone is going to get hold of that murderer, it's going to be me."
I did not appreciate the man's abrasive impudence—especially coming from a lawman—and was about to tell him so when Sheriff Morgan spoke up.
"It don't make no difference who wants Ryan or who's got prior claim. Fact is I got Ryan locked up in my jail."
"What are the charges?" I wished to know.
"Discharging his weapon in public and resisting arrest."
"What?!" Dolan and I said together.
"Last night Ryan got drunk and started firing his revolver in the street. Some citizens almost got shot. When I went to get Ryan to stop, he threatened me with his weapon and resisted arrest. I managed to knock him insensible and he's in the back locked up."
"With all due respect, Sheriff Morgan," I said, "Ryan fired on a member of the North-West Mounted Police and wounded a farmer while trying to kill him."
"I got you both beat," Dolan proclaimed. "I told you Ryan murdered a man. Well, it just weren't any man. Ryan killed a Texas Ranger, a fellow lawman. As far as I'm concerned, I've got the most right to the man."
"Excuse me Ranger Dolan," I said, "but Ryan committed these crimes in Canada only recently. Your murder is a year old."
"What has that to do with it?" Dolan demanded.
"It took you an entire year to track down Ryan and I found him in a day. Now it would appear to me—"
"Look it here, mister fancy pants, you can't come down here with your fancy red coat and those shiny black boots and arrest an American citizen. I don't very much care what you think or how you do things in Canada. You're in the U.S. of A. now, and your ways ain't our ways. Now Sheriff, when do I get Ryan?"
"You don't," Morgan told him.
"Very good, Sheriff," I said, trying not to gloat too much. "I will make immediate arrangements to—"
"You don't get him either, Corporal Barclay. Ryan stays just where he is until the circuit court judge gets here and decides who gets who."
"Whom," I corrected him.
"What?" Morgan asked.
"The judge will decide who gets whom."
Both men regarded me strangely, and I thought it best to let the matter rest and refrain from correcting them in what they considered the English language.
Neither the Texas Ranger nor I were happy with Sheriff Morgan's decision, but there was little we could do. Dolan told me he was returning to Texas, but I decided to stay in Fort Benton with the hopes that in time I could persuade Morgan to turn Ryan over to me. It did not occur to me to inform the Sheriff that one of the reasons I was intent on bringing Ryan back to Canada was to impress Laura Boscovich, as I did not believe it would be of any of his concern.
I did not have to wait long before something happened. I had made arrangements for Alfred to be cared for in the local hostelry and for a little extra I was allowed to stay in the hay loft. Sometime in the middle of the night I was wakened by some commotion in town. Commotion in Fort Benton was quite common and went late into the evening hours, but something had happened that was of some importance. I went down into the street and heard some people talking about a jailbreak. A large crowd had gathered around the jail, but I did manage to push my way inside. There I found the town doctor bending over Sheriff Morgan who bled freely from what looked like a bullet wound.
"What happened?" I asked.
"From what I can tell, some men came in and busted their friend out of jail," the doctor replied, not looking up for he was busy bandaging up the sheriff.
"How is he?"
"Not good," the doctor replied. "He took a bullet in the chest near his left shoulder."
The voice was weak and hoarse and came from Sheriff Morgan who struggled for breath. I bent over his body.
"I am here, Sheriff."
His eyelids fluttered as he spoke. "They got Ryan. Pick up their trail. They're probably headed south for Coyote Canyon. Bring them back, Barclay. I know you can."
It was all he had the strength to say, and his eyes closed. I left the scene trusting the doctor to see to the wounded sheriff. Arresting Jim Ryan now became more than a means of impressing a girl; now a man who might die entrusted me to bring him in, and I felt duty-bound to do just that.
I asked a few locals how I might find Coyote Canyon, then immediately saddled Alfred and rode south. By morning I picked up the trail of five horses. As I rode on, the terrain had grown rocky, and the trail was getting harder to follow. The day gave way to evening, and I was trying to decide which way to go next when I heard a horse up ahead. I dismounted and moved forward cautiously. As my eyes came to rest upon a strange horse, the hairs on the nape of my neck rose from the feel of cold steel being placed up against the back of my head.
"Put up your hands," said a familiar voice with a southern drawl.
I raised my hands and half turned my head. "Ranger Dolan?" I said.
"If that's the way you sneak up on someone, you won't last long going against Jim Ryan," Dolan said, returning his Colt .45 back into its holster.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"I told you; I want Ryan."
"But I thought you left town when Sheriff Morgan refused to hand Ryan over to you."
"That was your mistake," Dolan said. "Say, Barclay, you ain't too bright, are ya?"
I ignored this remark, and he said, "I told you why I want Ryan; why do you want him?"
"As I stated before," I said with a hint of indignation, "Ryan is wanted in Canada for shooting a man and firing upon a member of the Force."
"So you said before," Dolan uttered with a suspicious glare. "What's the real reason?"
"Whatever do you mean?" I said.
"There must be some other reason you're so blamed set on bringing Ryan back with you. What is it?"
I turned away not able to look the Texan in the eye, for I could not tell him my reason for arresting Jim Ryan was more to impress a young lady than upholding the law.
"I suppose you do not know that the men who helped Ryan escape from Fort Benton wounded Sheriff Morgan?" I said. "Before the sheriff lost consciousness, he entrusted me to bring Ryan in."
The Texan ran a hand over his stubbled jaw. "Listen to me, Barclay," Dolan began as if he were about to reveal something important, then thought better of it. "I'm sorry about Morgan, I truly am, but that's the chances we take as lawmen. I know you got some special reason why you want Ryan, but if you don't want to tell me that reason . . . fine. I don't want to know. But what you need to know is that I am going to get him, and I don't need you getting in my way. So why don't you get on that pony of yours and head north until you reach Canada."
"Why not join forces, and after we get Ryan, we can decide what to do with him?" I proposed somewhat judiciously.
"Get it through your head Barclay, I don't want to join forces with you, and I already decided what to do with Ryan!"
I nodded my understanding to him and asked, "Are you opposed to sharing a camp before we part company?"
Dolan shook his head in exasperation. "Do you have coffee?" he asked.
"I have tea," I said.
A short time later we were sipping our tea, or should I say I was sipping, and Dolan was slurping.
"Just what do you boys do up there in Canada, anyway?" the Texas Ranger asked.
"We keep the peace and maintain the rights of all," I responded proudly.
"What's it like up there in Canada—cold?"
"The winters are cold."
"What's the land like?"
"It is . . . big," I said, realizing there was no better way to describe it. "You have never seen a land so big. There are lakes and rivers, and a sea of grass. There are pink and white wild roses, yellow and silver wolf willow, cottonwoods and poplar. Further west are the foothills and the mountains."
"Sounds right nice," he said. "Ever been down to Texas, Barclay?"
"No sir, I have not."
"You should get down there someday. Wide open spaces like your Canada, but we got more desert than snow down there. There's no sea of grass, instead we got sagebrush, and cactus and chaparral, but we do have wild roses. You should get down to Texas someday. Thanks for the tea, Barclay."
Dolan, who had been resting on his haunches, stood up, walked over and mounted his horse.
"It is getting dark," I said. "I planned on camping here for the night." Dolan regarded me questioningly to which I said, "I would be honoured if you shared my camp."
The Ranger looked about and wordlessly climbed down off his horse.
That night I prepared rechaud, which was pemmican fried with onions and potatoes that I purchased in Fort Benton. From his saddlebag Dolan brought forth a still-fresh hare, which he promptly skinned and placed on a spit over our campfire. I explained to Dolan that this was high living for a Mountie on patrol. The Texan had never eaten rechaud before, and in his own way complimented my cooking by saying he had eaten worse. We brought out our bedrolls and placed them on opposite sides of the campfire that was now dwindling coals. Dolan's mood turned sullen and silent, so I thought I might entertain him with a rendition of Shelley's To Night.
Swiftly walk o'er the western wave,
Spirit of night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear,
Swift be thy flight!
When I finished and thought he had fallen to sleep he asked, "What are you doing here, Barclay?"
"The same as you, I suppose."
"No, I mean why did you come west, and why did you want to be a lawman?"
"I never gave it much thought," said I, marvelling that I had never asked myself this question outright. "I suppose it was a way of serving my country, seeing new lands, new people. I wanted to find adventure."
"Is it everything you hoped?"
"Yes sir, it surely is."
"I'm taking' Ryan, Barclay," he said. "This is more than an adventure for me. You can have his compadres if you want."
"I do not want them; I want Ryan," I uttered. "And despite what I said before, I take my duties very seriously."
"Are all you Mountie boys this stubborn?" he asked.
"Only in the performance of our duty."
"Listen here, Barclay," Dolan said, "I don't know why you want Ryan, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret, though I don't know why since it ain't none of your business. I told you the reason I'm bringing Ryan back to Texas was because he murdered a Texas Ranger. But what I didn't tell you, was that the Ranger he killed was my brother. Now, what do you think of that?"
Dolan's announcement left me speechless. Here I was trying to bring in a man simply to impress Laura Boscovich, while Dolan was hoping to see justice done in order to honour a fellow law enforcement officer and a brother. I felt ashamed of myself, but I chose not to reveal this to Dolan.
"Alright, Ranger Dolan, I will help you get Ryan to take him back to Texas," I said.
"Who says I want or need your help?" Dolan said. "We happen to have a saying down in Texas—one riot; one Ranger."
"Simply a neighbourly gesture; decline it if you wish."
"We ain't neighbours, and you weren't invited to this hoedown; so why don't you mosey on back to Canada and arrest a moose or something."
"Alright, Dolan, have it your way," I said, and I turned over in my bedroll and went to sleep.
When I woke in the morning Dolan had already ridden off. I broke camp and continued after the outlaws. Despite what Dolan had said the night before, I was still intent on tracking down Ryan and his men. I had been told by a number of my superiors that I was a very determined man—actually they had all used the term bull-headed, but I believed they meant to say determined. I rode all that day without seeing anyone, though at times I felt I was being followed and assumed it was Dolan, though why he might be behind me, I could not say.
Later that evening I believed I was closing in on Ryan's gang. Finally, I saw the light of a campfire near a copse of poplar. From where I sat, I could still observe the outlaws undetected. The sun had gone down, and I believed I could approach them under the cover of darkness.
Ryan and his men were settling down to a hot supper, and I figured this was the best time to make a move. I made my way stealthily down to the camp. Considering everything I heard regarding Ryan and his men, I decided to approach the desperadoes with my Smith and Wesson revolver drawn. Fortunately for me I am light on my feet and learned to sneak up on people from Andre Messier, a Métis scout. I was practically into the camp before any of them knew it.
I levelled my weapon and announced, "I am Corporal Henry Barclay of the North-West Mounted Police, and I am placing you men under arrest. Which one of you is Jim Ryan?"
A man rose slowly, but with little concern. He was dressed in a bright red shirt and black hat. He was a tough-looking, pug-nose man whose eyes reflected danger and whose mouth spoke of cruelty. This man was not to be trusted and I did not plan on giving him any opportunity for treachery.
"I'm Jim Ryan," he responded, keeping his hands away from the guns that hung at his side. "Do I know you, Mister?"
"You are under arrest for the assault and attempted murder of Mr. Peter Cord."
Comprehension dawned on the face of Ryan. "You're the one who came to his rescue. I recognize the red coat. So you plan on taking me back to Canada, Mountie boy?"
"I can either take you back to Canada, or hand you over to Sheriff Morgan in Fort Benton," I told him. "From what I hear, you are wanted all over. Now you four men are coming with me, and . . . " I stopped short and counted them again. Ryan smiled a wicked smile, and I heard the cock of a revolver very close to my ear.
Up until that moment I believed I had had a short but illustrious career with the North-West Mounted Police. I had faced certain death on a number of occasions. I had battled the elements, faced down whiskey traders, and hostile natives, and though danger was a part of my life, I somehow knew I could always thwart death. I was not afraid of dying, and I always hoped that when my time came, I would face my death with the dignity befitting a member of the Force. It appeared that time was now.
I sat upon Alfred with my hands tied behind my back and a noose around my neck and the other end tied around the feeble branch of a dead tree. Ryan and his men were enjoying my predicament. They brought out a bottle of spirits and were getting intoxicated. Every once in a while one of them would smack Alfred on the rear in mocking jest, but Alfred was an excellent horse who knew his master was in danger and would not do anything to put my life at risk.
It was late now, and a campfire burned. Jim Ryan approached me with his gun drawn.
"Well, Mountie-boy, it looks like this is the end of the trail for you. You got anything to say?"
"I have made my peace with God," I said bravely. "And I have asked the Almighty to have mercy on your souls."
They all laughed at this. Obviously, these were not God-fearing men, and had given no thought to the day of Retribution. Little did they know that day was closer than they thought.
"Raise your hands, you miserable coyotes! I got you covered. One move and I'll fill you full of lead."
They all turned to the darkness where the voice issued. I recognized it as the voice of the Texas Ranger, Dolan. The outlaws raised their hands and Dolan entered the light of the campfire.
"Alright, you polecats," Dolan uttered, "which of you is going to untie him and take that noose from around his neck?" The Ranger glanced around uneasily and said, "There's one of you missing, ain't there?"
I drew in a breath to utter a cry of warning to my rescuer, but too late. One of the outlaws who had slipped into the shadows when Dolan burst onto the scene had worked his way behind the Texan and swinging a rifle like a club had knocked the Ranger senseless.
Dolan revived a short time later and he was not at all pleased with the outcome, for there he sat next to me on his horse with his hands tied behind his back and a noose around his neck.
"Are you alright, Ranger Dolan?" I asked, concerned.
The Ranger took a moment to appreciate his predicament. "If that ain't the most dern foolish question I ever heard," he said regarding me coldly.
"I do not wish you to think I do not appreciate your attempt to help me, Mr. Dolan," I said.
"I don't want to hear it, Barclay," he said. "If you'd listen to me this would never have happened."
"You make it sound as if this were entirely my fault."
"It is entirely your fault!" Dolan spoke.
"I do not see how—"
"That's enough of that," Ryan said. "You two should have knowed better than to try to get the drop on us, and now you're gonna' pay the price."
"Wait," I said. "As condemned men, are we not entitled to a last request?"
The outlaws looked at one another questioningly and shrugged.
"What's your request?" Ryan said.
"I would like the opportunity to recite Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade one last time," I said stoically.
"Do me a favour and kill me now," I heard Dolan mutter under his breath.
"You go ahead and say your last words, Mountie-boy," Ryan said.
I cleared my throat and began my recitation. I chose The Charge of the Light Brigade because it always was a personal favourite of mine. They were fitting words to meet one's end, and plus it was a lengthy piece, and I was determined to remain on this earth as long as possible.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred . . .
I was only halfway through my recitation when Ryan interrupted and said, "That's enough of that. It's time to breathe your last."
I looked upward and smiled.
"Take heart, Mr. Dolan," I whispered. "They have made a grievous error. They have tied both ropes to the same branch which cannot support our combined weight. When we drop, the branch will break and that is our chance to catch them unaware and make our escape in the dark."
Dolan did not look at me nor change his facial expression, but simply nodded slightly.
Ryan stood nearby and simultaneously slapped our horses on which we sat. The horses bolted and Dolan and I dropped. I felt the noose around my throat tighten, and I waited for the branch to break and anticipated the fall to the ground. As I hung there, the realization was thrust upon me that my calculation regarding our weight breaking the branch was in error. In my long and distinguished career as a member of the North-West Mounted Police I have faced certain death many times, but perhaps no situation ever brought me so near the brink of death as when I hung from the neck and felt the noose tighten around my throat. I grew unaware of my surroundings as everything went dark.
I woke on the ground and Dolan was bending over me offering a cup of water. My head was swimming, and my throat was sore.
"What happened?" I choked out.
"It seems both of us will have to meet our Maker some other time," the Texan said simply, then indicated the outlaws who sat with their hands tied, while standing guard over them with a rifle in his hand was Sheriff Morgan.
"No one invited me to this necktie party, but I figured I'd come anyway," Morgan said, then asked me, "You alright?"
I nodded and asked, "How did you find us?"
"You two weren't the only ones who wanted these men. I know how to follow a trail too, you know. When I arrived, it looked as if you two could use some help."
"But when I left you in Fort Benton, you had been shot in the chest," I said. "I thought you were near death."
"It takes more than one bullet to keep me down," Morgan remarked.
"I, for one, am thankful for your timely arrival Sheriff, and am grateful for assistance."
"That's Barclay's way of sayin' 'much obliged'," Dolan nodded.
We camped there that night and took turns guarding the prisoners. In the morning Dolan, Morgan and I escorted the prisoners to Fort Benton.
The next day I went to see Sheriff Morgan in his office to discuss the prisoner, Ryan. I was not wearing my red serge but had dressed in my buckskin riding clothes. I expressed to Sheriff Morgan that I still was intent on taking Ryan back to Canada to answer charges.
"I'm sorry Corporal Barclay, but I turned Ryan over to Dolan. I figure the murder charge facing Ryan down in Texas took precedent over your charge of attempted murder up in Canada. I'm sorry Barclay, but that's the way it is. If you have charges against any of the other prisoners . . . "
"No thank you, Sheriff," I said disappointed. "I only wanted Jim Ryan and a man named Tom Wilkinson."
"I know Wilkinson," Morgan admitted. "Him and Ryan usually ride together. I'm surprised he wasn't with Ryan when we took the gang. I'll tell you what, Corporal Barclay, if I come across Wilkinson, I'll personally hold him for you. That's the best I can do."
I left the sheriff's office dejected with the intention of leaving Fort Benton immediately. My attention was arrested when I heard my name called out over the din of the noisy street. Texas Ranger Dolan approached me from across the street. He stuck out his right hand in a friendly gesture and I shook it.
"Heading back to Canada, Barclay?" he asked. I nodded. "Yeah, well, I'm taking' Ryan back to Texas today. Listen, Barclay, I'm sorry for the way things turned out, and that you're going back empty-handed. All I can say is better luck next time."
I nodded and turned toward the livery where Alfred was stabled.
"Barclay!" Dolan called out to me. I turned and he said, "How about a drink before I go?"
"I don't drink."
He was slightly taken aback at my disclosure, as if he did not understand what I had just said. Then he nodded and said, "That figures. Come on to the saloon with me anyway. Maybe I can buy you a cup of tea."
I agreed and we entered one of the larger establishments on the main street.
At the bar I noticed a moustachioed man who kept glancing over at us. His actions were suspicious as he endeavoured to appear as if he were not watching us. He was dressed in a white shirt with a black hat and a black neckerchief. Two six-guns hung on his hips. I tried to remember where I had seen the man before.
"You would excuse me for a moment, Mr. Dolan," I said. "I believe I know that man."
I approached the man at the bar who watched me from the corner of his eye.
"Excuse me, sir, but your name would not happen to be Tom Wilkinson, would it?"
As soon as I spoke these words, the room grew eerily silent, and I was aware of men moving away from me.
The man turned and faced me slowly. His eyes narrowed menacingly, and he spoke in a low, gruff voice.
"You ain't in Canada anymore, mister," he said. "Here in Fort Benton people mind their own business."
"How do you know I am from Canada?" I asked. When he did not answer, I continued. "I believe we had a slight altercation some days ago when you and Jim Ryan ambushed Mr. Peter Cord."
"You got anything else to say, mister?" the man said.
"Yes, I do. I am placing you under arrest and taking you back to Canada to answer charges of attempted murder."
The man's right hand moved, and he had almost gotten his gun out of its holster before a bottle crashed onto his head knocking him to the floor unconscious. Dolan stood with the broken neck of a bottle in his hand and said, "I thought maybe you might need some help."
"Thank you, Ranger Dolan."
Dolan and I parted company and I was able to escort Tom Wilkinson back to Canada without incident. I was happy not to be going back empty-handed, and I was eager to see the look on Laura Boscovich's lovely face when I successfully returned with one of the men who tried to kill Peter Cord. Though surely Laura already held me in high esteem, I was certain her admiration could not help but soar when she saw me now.
At Fort Walsh I turned Tom Wilkinson over to the officer of the guardhouse and filled out my report. Upon returning to my sub-station my first patrol took me out to the Boscovich farm. I arrived with a bouquet of black-eyed Susans and, as always, was warmly welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Boscovich, who were thrilled and amazed at the account of my adventure since I saw them last, from my coming to the aid of Peter Cord to my returning with one of the men who attempted to kill him.
"Where is Laura?" I asked them. "I would like to tell her all about it."
"Oh, she is not here," Mrs. Boscovich said with a heavy Russian accent. "She is over at Peter Cord's farm."
"Peter Cord's farm!" I repeated.
"Yep, yep," Mr. Boscovich said, nodding his head. "Ever since Peter was shot, Laura has been helping him get better."
"She has gone over to visit him every day," Mrs. Boscovich said with suppressed enthusiasm. "With all the time they spent together, it did not take long for them to fall in love."
"In love?" was all I managed to say.
"Yep, yep," Mr. Boscovich added. "Them two plan to marry next spring."
"It will be a fine wedding," Mrs. Boscovich said, moved to tears. "And we want you to be there, Corporal Barclay. After all, you practically saved Peter's life."
"Yes, I did."
I left the Boscovich farm dejected and morose. Sensing my mood Alfred rode me away slowly, plodding along his head hanging down dejected, somewhat like mine. And like a poor Romeo of the wilderness, all my plans and efforts to be with my Juliette had ended not so much tragically, but with a hint of the ironic.
So, whereas the adage was true that the Mountie always gets his man, it was also true that in the end, the Mountie does not always get the girl.
Stephen Gaspar is a writer of historical detective fiction. He and his wife Susan, have lived in Windsor, Ontario, Canada all their lives. He has written three Sherlock Holmes books, and some of his other detectives include a Templar Knight, a Benedictine monk, and a Roman tribune.
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