Robert Hale Ltd published their first Western in 1936, and have been publishing Western fiction continuously since that time, firstly under their own imprint, and since the mid 1980s under their wholly owned imprint BLACK HORSE WESTERNS. In 2015 Robert Hale and its Black Horse imprint became part of The Crowood Press, a family owned publishing house, which is committed to continuing with the Black
Long before Old John Halloran opened up his Saloon and Pool Hall in Dogbite with the added attraction of the ladies upstairs, Halloran had been a fair country doctor who quit his practice to go hunting gold in California. He was years too late and he did not find any gold worth a damn but he did find that his knowledge as a practitioner of medicine stood him in high demand in a vast country where doctors were still few and far between and those that were in practice were usually horse doctors who tended humans on the side which was ok if you had bloat or saddle sores. John Halloran’s reputation was greatly admired and folk with any kind of an ailment travelled far and wide to be treated by the good doctor and his services were paid for with the goods of their particular trade if paper money or silver coin were not available. Cattle were common, milk cows or beef, sheep, produce of all kinds and when none of the former was available well, then there was gold dust. And with the gold dust tucked away in a San Fernando bank Halloran upped stakes and moved to Dogbite in Wyoming telling his Californian friends, with a smile, that he had found ‘gold in them thar pills’ and he was taking his share back to the state of his birth.
Halloran opened up his saloon and bought out the local livery stable, general store and opened his own bank. He was a kindly, fair man, popular with the locals but he never let on that he was a sawbones by profession and was happy with his lot, happy that is until one spring morning when he became, possibly, the last person ever to remove a Cheyenne war arrow from a white man’s backside.
Henry Lee found the cave at about four in the early spring afternoon of a Friday, the last Friday before he and his partner Henry lee were due to close down the cabin and head back to the Rocking W’s headquarters. The pair were in the last week of their winter stint at the Rocking W’s northern line shack. It had been a pleasant enough winter, the fences had held the drifts and very few steers were lost to the few days and nights of bitter weather inevitable in the shadow of the mountains that were such a magnificent part of the Wyoming landscape. There had been very little friction between the two men, the tobacco had lasted, the food had been good with plenty of fresh meat from shot game and the winnings in their seemingly endless matchstick poker games had evened out nicely to Lee owing Crow a mere four dollars. They were happy with their cowboying lot, happy that is until Crow found the cave.
Lee stumbled upon the cave by accident whilst following the bloody tracks of a beef that had, possibly, according to the sign, been mauled by a big cat. Although not common in Wyoming, cougars were seen from time to time and given a short trial by ranchers and cowhands alike. He had found the dead animal and more cougar sign but not much to tell him where the cat had gone. By the spore left behind though, it looked like a big animal and Lee felt duty bound to track it down and, reluctantly, kill it. He pulled his Marlin lever action from the saddle boot and dismounted, tied off his pony and circled the clearing for sign. A trace here, a trace there and he was moving north towards the rimrock not too far to the west of where Butch and Sundance had ridden forth at the head their Hole in the Wall Gang of assorted outlaws if the stories were to be believed.
Dan Crow awoke about midday on the Friday that Henry Lee went looking for the big cat and found the rimrock cave. Crow had been out most of the night and Lee had spelled him just before dawn and taken over the last check of the fence agreeing that Crow should get some shuteye and then square away the cabin so they could quit the place the following morning which was Saturday and head back to the main ranch and get there in time for supper and then head out for Dogbite, a bath, maybe a haircut, certainly a drink and again, possibly, a visit to a couple of Halloran’s girls. All ablutions and delights were dependent upon the ranch foreman being able to give them some kind of advance on the three months’ pay due to them for spending the winter in back of nowhere. The only problem with their plan, as far as Crow could see, was why the hell hadn’t Lee got back from the fence seeing as it was getting late into the afternoon. Still, he wasn’t too concerned and was happy with the way the day had gone, happy that is until he decided to look for Lee and hurry him along.
The cave was dank, the entrance almost hidden by brush and a small rock fall. Lee paused at the entrance wondering if the cat had gone inside or was somewhere close by watching him. He worked the lever of the Marlin chambering a round and lowered the hammer to half cock. He thought he could smell snake but no cat or bear. He cleared the entrance and found the cave to be larger than he had expected, he did not even have to stoop to enter. The sun was behind him and the interior shadowed but clearly visible. A large candle sat atop a flat rock in the centre of the cleared floor, its sides ridged with dribbled grey wax from a long-ago flame. Lee fished a blue top from his vest pocket, fired it and lit the blackened wick. He cast a quick look around but saw no sign of the cat or any other wildlife. Relaxing he set the carbine against the altar-like rock, picked up the candle and surveyed the room. His shadow bent up the wall and across the ceiling as he moved from one side of the cave to the other. Indian, possibly Lakota Sioux but, most likely, Northern Cheyenne, the crowd that whipped Custer on the Greasy Grass River back in the day. Earthenware jars, tin plates, a US Cavalry canteen, some deer hides, a dusty blanket, a rusted hunting knife, mostly domestic implements you could expect to find in an old rock dwelling place. The fire pit was close by the entrance, a circle of blackened round rocks and fifty year old, cold grey ash. The candle flickered and something in the furthest corner caught Lee’s roaming eye, a roll of some kind. He moved closer and found it to be a neatly rolled deerskin, tied tightly with rawhide thongs. Curious, he set the candle down and examined the roll. It was near airtight. A medicine bundle, the rawhide knots were rigid. He took out his folding knife and cut them through before carefully laying out the skin on the dusty floor and unrolling it. ‘Jesus,’ Lee muttered in awe, ‘you are one lucky cowboy. A hundred bucks from anywhere. A real goddamned artefact and all yours.’
It was a bow, a beautiful three foot bow, maybe ash or Hickory, Lee could not be certain, and set beside the bow a quiver of four eagle feathered dogwood arrows with the markings clear on their shafts. Both bow and arrows looked as fresh as the last time they had seen the light of day maybe fifty years before the cougar had killed the Rocking W steer. He strung the bow and tested the pull. Excellent, still supple, a rare discovery. Lee was very happy with his find, happy that is until he heard the cougar spitting at the cave entrance.
Crow pushed his pony up the slope and found the carcass of the dead steer and watched as a pair of wolves slunk back into the brush at his approach. He knew he should have at least tried to shoot them but he had a fondness for the grey animals something not widely shared by other cowhands. The tracks of Lee, his pony and a cougar were clearly defined and he did not dismount but skirted the dead animal and followed his partner’s tracks further up the slope toward the rimrock. When he found Lee’s ground-hitched horse he swung down and tied off his own mount watching amused as the two animals appeared to greet each other with soft vaporised snorts through cold expanded nostrils. He released the hammer loop from his sidearm and slowly climbed the hill. Crow was a happy man filled with Saturday night fever, happy that is until the Cheyenne war arrow flashed out of nowhere and impaled itself in his backside.
Henry reached for the Marlin and moved to the entrance. It was a big cat, a very big cat and it showed no fear in its yellow eyes as it stared at the man. Lee was good with a rifle, very fast, in a split second the gun was shouldered the hammer fully cocked the bead drawn and the trigger squeezed and the gun silent. A misfire. He worked the lever but it only moved an inch or so as the ejector jammed on the faulty round. The cat moved toward him. Lee stepped back into the cave picked up the bow notched an arrow, pulled and released with one motion. The shaft zipped past the head of the cat with a whining hiss, the startled animal leapt over the rocks to its right and vanished. And Lee was happy, happy that is until he heard the horrendous yell from the rocks below.
It took four hours to get back to the Rocking W then, skirting the ranch, and heading straight for Dogbite had taken another half hour. It would have been a painful journey for any man with an arrow in him but for a man with an arrow in his backside trying to ride a horse it was doubly painful. Lee had broken the shaft about an inch from where it had entered Crow’s flesh. ‘I can’t go any closer, Dan, you need a doc real bad.’
Crow said nothing. He hadn’t spoken a single word since the scream following the arrow whipping out of the rocks and imbedding itself in his backside as he had turned to look back down the slope in case the cougar was following him instead of him following the cougar. He had heard stories of just such a happening.
‘I am a hell of a sorry, Crow,’ Lee babbled. ‘Cougar was there, bow was there and the Marlin jammed on a faulty round,.’ There was a pleading in Lee’s voice. ‘All I could think to do was shoot the critter with the bow and I never shot one before, not ever. Just seen them fired, I’ve never touched one before, but that cat was there and looking meaner than hell, big yellow eyes all over me and I had no idea you were there and even if’n I had known you were down there I would still probably have tried. A chance in a million I would hit you, especially hit you in the ass. Crow, old buddy, I am so sorry. Forget the five bucks you owe me. Damned bow, it was just…’
Crow, on the lead horse, turned painfully and stared at his companion, speaking through gritted teeth and very tight lips. ‘Lee, will you please just shut up, please, just shut the fuck up and ride on ahead to Dogbite, send someone to Bailey for the doc and let me ride on down there easy in the God given peace and quiet I do so deserve before I die or pass out. Will you just do that me, Henry, and please do not say another godamned word?’
John Halloran was a tired man, it had been a long Friday and it would be an even longer
Saturday. But the Friday got even longer when a breathless Henry Lee galloped into town, dismounted his winded horse at a run and burst in through the swing doors of the near empty saloon yelling for someone to ride to Bailey for the doc, fast, as his pony was plumb run out.
Halloran looked up from his half-finished mug of black coffee, startled by the wild-eyed appearance of the usually quiet old cowhand. ‘What’s the trouble, Henry, you look done in, you hurting?’
‘No, Sir,’ Lee gasped, ‘not me, it’s Henry Lee, he’s been shot in the ass with a Cheyenne arrow…’
‘Ease down there, Crow, how do you know it was a Cheyenne arrow?’ Asked Halloran calmly.
‘What the hell does it matter what kind of arrow it was, Mister Halloran, man needs a sawbones and pronto.’
Halloran continued in his calming voice, ‘Not a great deal I suppose but it was most likely Arapaho or Shoshone in this part of the country, could be Northern Cheyenne though I suppose.’
Lee said, ‘he’s hurting real bad.’
‘When he gets here, lay him out on the covered pool table and I’ll get my bag and tend to him,’ Halloran said, his voice calm, gentle, then slowly relighting his cigar.
‘No offence, Mister Halloran, but what do you know about doctoring?’
‘Apparently a little more than you do about Indian arrows,’ said Halloran, moving away and calling over his shoulder, ‘How did it happen?’
‘Long story,’ muttered Lee softly, ‘long story.’
‘You done a fine job there, Mister Halloran,’ Crow said, quietly, ‘a real doc couldn’t have done none better.’ Halloran looked down at the stitched up and wound-dressed naked buttocks of the deeply sleeping, laudanum dosed, Henry Lee. He had done a fine job right enough, a two-dollar job at that. Maybe it was time to add a doctor’s shingle to his other Dogbite enterprises, it was a sure and certain fact that there was still gold in them thar pills.
George Snyder has written: The Gunman and The Angel, Dry Gulch Outlaws and Shadow Shooters. A bachelor who lives aboard and sails his small sloop in Southern California, George Snyder has published 53-plus books and dozens of short stories and articles. Early short stories were published in men’s pulpmagazines during the sixties and seventies, with his first novel published in 1963 by Nova Paperbacks. Matt Warshaw, editor of the surfing book, Zero Break described George as “a durable pulp fiction novelist.”
He retired at 55 as Senior Editor of Technical Publications from McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing).
After completing the four-part western saga, The Gunfighter’s Lady he is now committed to writing westerns, and has started his western Hawkstone series of novels while pursuing other interests of reading, films, tournament billiards, sailing, snorkeling, ocean fishing, motorcycling, tent camping, metal detecting, gold prospecting/panning, hiking, and travel. He is a fanatic NFL fan. Go Seahawks!
“You ain’t going to do nothin’, Saturday.” Staines grinned, nuzzling his face into the ample cleavage dark-haired young saloon girl. “You’re outnumbered twelve to one, you try and take me and these men here will gun you down like the old dog you are. Face it old man: you can’t touch me.”
An aging Texas Ranger with a formidable reputation stood facing the Thermopylae’s long counter. Behind him the Cow Boy gang all but filled the ground floor of the saloon, a collection of brooding and rank-smelling rough necks who were all armed to the teeth, foul tempered and desperate. But for all their individual crimes not one of them was worth as much in silver dollars nor as dangerous as their swaggering leader Virgil Staines, a man whose apparent charm was a thin veil for a dark and predatory nature. Staines would never walk out of another saloon, not as a free man anyway, Texas Ranger John W. Saturday was going to make sure of that.
Saturday was a robust man, even by comparison to some of the Cow Boy gang’s most imposing members. Towering above the drunks that were perched and sprawled along the polished mahogany counter, the ranger glowered into the mirror that ran the length of the bar. “THE THERMOPYLAE, SILVER CITY” was printed on the glass in front of him in garish green and gold letters, but he could still make out the reed-thin Staines, whose pointed face reminded Saturday of a runt terrier, but his grin was that of a wolf.
The saloon keeper waddled up to Saturday, the flush faced old man looking at the Texas Ranger over his spectacles with a measured glassy eyed terror. With an even voice he asked: “What’ll be, mister?”
Saturday raised his right hand, a silver dollar held between his index and middle fingers. “Two fingers of whiskey, bar-keep.”
The old man nodded with the solemnity of a holy man and waddled off, processing down the aisle of glass bottles to select Saturday’s whiskey. Saturday, in the meantime, lifted the carpet bag he held in his left hand and placed it on the counter with an audible clank, laid both hands flat on the counter and closed his eyes, waiting for the bar keeper.
One of Staines’ men, a lanky and unkempt Confederate guerrilla turned train robber named Magruder, sidled up behind Saturday and, brushing passed him, stopped by his side. Magruder was grinning to himself and sloshing his beer around in its mug, like he was holding back something that he wanted to say. Saturday knew that much without even opening his eyes, he also knew it was Magruder by the smell; the man’s rankness was well known. It was told that he hadn’t washed since the Civil War and that that his stink was bad enough to kill man woman or beast from ten paces. There was a whore nor a hotel in the West that would willingly take him in for the night.
“What’s in the bag, Saturday? Your Sunday dresses?” The joke clearly delighted Magruder greatly, but when Saturday opened his eyes and looked at Magruder, Saturday’s expression choked off Magruder’s laughter.
“That,” Saturday said,” ain’t none of your concern, Magruder.”
The saloon keeper returned and placed a gleaming tumbler and a dark coloured bottle of amber liquid on the counter in front of Saturday. “Take as many measures as you like, it isn’t often we have law such as yourself around here.”
Saturday nodded his thanks and uncorked the bottle. It was then he heard the shot, like a cannon blast in the enclosed space, and a wine bottle inches shy of the trembling bartender’s head shattered into a plume of crimson liquid and emerald green glass shards. Saturday’s eyes darted to the mirror and he saw Staines was holding a smoking long-barrelled Remington revolver and it took all his resolve not to turn around a blow the outlaws hand away with his Colt SAA.
Staines had dumped the girl on the floor and was standing with his shirt half undone and his revolver held loosely in his hand. His face had that animal snarl that betrayed his true nature.
“You don’t give this law man anything without my say so, old man, you hear?” Staines hissed through gritted teeth. He holstered the revolver, the weapon shushing into the black holster that dangled from his gun rig. “The only ones that get anything free around here are me and the boys, you got me? Nobody keeps anything from us.”
The old man nodded, a dark wet patch growing on his trouser leg. “Yessir, Mister Staines, of course sir.”
Saturday swallowed a measure of whiskey and placed the empty glass back on the counter top. “There’s nothing you’ve done Staines that deserves anyone’s gratitude, the only thing you deserve is a hangin’.”
Staines grumbled, his reflection’s gaze meeting Saturday’s. “No old fat man with a badge will put a noose around the necks of me or mine while I live in Silver City. Us and the people here have ourselves an understanding.”
“Like you and the folks in Skelter’s Fork?” Saturday spat. “Is that what you call it when you shoot up a Sunday meeting? When you butcher the pastor and commit murder and worse on his kid daughter? An agreement?”
It wouldn’t do any good for Saturday to think about finding Janey Stubbs the way he did, nor what these bastards had done to her. She was fourteen years of age and she’d suffered before they’d finally killed her. Saturday willed the rage building in his chest to be choked off or quenched, like a fire being drowned by water, but it wouldn’t. He kept hearing the screams of the Skelter’s Fork massacre survivors and the incoherent sobbing of the girl’s grandmother, as she wept over the child’s broken body, echoing in his brain.
A cold heavy silence fell on the saloon, the chat and carousing of the gamblers and saloon regulars was swiftly cut off as though Saturday had killed all sound with his last remark. None of these men were associated with Staines, and sobriety and temperance had dawned on them like sharp slap to the face. Quickly, quietly, many of them gathered their things and left the saloon; leaving the Cow Boy Gang alone with Captain John W. Saturday.
“Those folks turned on us, Captain Saturday. They turned on us and got what was coming to them.” Staines drank from a glass of wine that sat in front of him and wiped a trickle of crimson liquid that ran from the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “We got what we wanted from them. What they owed us for their contempt. We got it in spades.”
The clamour of voices, the echoes of memories and heartbreak welled up in Saturday till it seemed the past – like a high pitched ringing in his ears – was muffling out everything in the present. The rage was swelling with it, like a monstrous storm cloud growing on the horizon and it was swiftly consuming everything to which he held fast like duty, reason and compassion. He was holding on by the very tips of his fingers, he knew that. Meanwhile Staines, cocksure and ignorant, only pressed his tirade while his assassins and robbers leered like a pack of coyotes awaiting the order to attack.
“You ain’t got the guts to do what needs to be done. You law types hide behind badges and rules and you never do what really needs doing. A real man, worth his grit, would have come in here guns blazing. Shot first and asked questions later, but what did you do Saturday?”
“I’m getting tired of hearing your voice, boy.” Saturday said, his low voice like a rumble of thunder and his eyes clamped tightly shut. Staines went on as though he didn’t hear.
“I said what did you do? You skulked in here, a coward hiding behind a Ranger’s badge.”
“Who said I’m wearing a badge?” Saturday opened his eyes and reached into the pocket of his leather lined vest, withdrawing something silver-coloured that caught the light. It took Staines, and the Cow Boys, a moment to realise what it was: a Texas Marshal badge, slightly dulled and tarnished with wear but no less recognisable.
Magruder, who was still standing beside Saturday, looked wide eyed. Canasta, an almost toothless and leather-skinned mountain man that had ridden with Staines for the past decade, hissed through a gap in his tar-black teeth. Corey, a former Union field surgeon turned gambler, straightened noticeably in his chair and ran a black gloved hand down along the side of his vest where he kept his Colt Lightning. A number of these men had rode with Staines since the end of the war, since the Union Army had ousted him for abuses of rank and acts of sadism committed on prisoners of war and the enemy on the battlefield. Others he’d picked up along the way were a testament to his infamy and celebrity among a certain caste of frontier society – the outlaw. Every single one of them were hardened, forged in the flames of one battle or other and deadlier than a knot of riled up rattlers. Though, in that moment, the room seemed to have turned icy cold with their collective fear. It was only then, too, that Staines missed the girl, she’d disappeared like the local barflies and gamblers. Fury erupted in Staines’ chest, he would not be intimidated by this man or any man.
“Am I supposed to be scared?” Staines cried, his face turning crimson with rage. He balled a fist on the table and stood up. His shirt was still undone, a dented holy medal hung from a chain around his neck. “Have you not been listening, Saturday? These men will put you down if you push me.”
The tempest broke. Saturday turned to face Staines, to face the Cow Boys.
“That’ll be the day.” Saturday growled and then, with the Colt SAA nobody saw him draw from his hip-holster, he fired. The bullet sliced into the side of Staines’ neck, causing the outlaw to fall backwards of his chair so violently that it was as though he’d taken a mortar to the chest. Staines, wounded but alive, barked the order and the Cow Boys hauled iron. It was the last mistake they ever made.
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Jake Smithers glared at me from his bunk and remained seated.
‘If I have to, I’ll get Jonas and Billy and we’ll carry you out.’ I paused. ‘Don’t let them see you scared, Jake. Walk out there on your own. It’s going to happen no matter what you do, so you might as well make the best of it.’
‘I ain’t scared.’
He was lying, of course. Beads of sweat covered his forehead and there was dew on his upper lip. He was scared, sure enough, but who wouldn’t be?
Two months ago, Dave Johnson came bursting in my office, his face ashen and a look of horror on his face. He had gone out to see the Wheelers to buy some cheese and found them both dead, their throats cut. Molly Wheeler, their daughter, was nowhere to be found.
It took two days and circling vultures to find Molly. She was on the west bank of Dead Man Wash and it was an ugly scene. She was half naked and she had died of stab wounds to her chest. There was blood and skin under her nails. She was fifteen.
‘Sheriff! Come look at this!’ Billy Burdette, one of my two deputies, had followed a faint trail where the long grass was still slightly bent and had found something. It proved to be a long, bone-handled knife with traces of blood and dirt on the blade. Someone had tried to clean it by plunging it into the ground. It must have fallen out as the murderer hurried away.
‘Recognize it?’ Jonas Philbin, my other deputy, had ridden down from the slope overlooking the creek to join us.
‘Maybe. It looks like something that blacksmith John Turnbull, over at Cordes, might have made.’
The small town of Cordes was a stop for the California and Arizona stage line, where John Turnbull’s smithy shop flourished with the ranching, mining and stagecoach trade. I dismounted and watched for a moment as the hammer rose and fell again and again in the shaping and forging of a shoe.
He paused in his labor and glanced over at me. I showed him the knife and asked if he had made it. He had. Turnbull glanced at the knife and nodded. ‘Yup. Made that for Devin Colburn, that card sharp who deals at the Bucket of Blood in Prescott.’
I found Devin Colburn at the Palace on Whiskey Row, where I handed him the knife and asked what he knew about it. Colburn turned the knife over in his hands. ‘Who’s asking?’ He peered up at me through shaggy brows. He was seated at a table playing solitaire at ten o’clock in the morning, a cup of coffee steaming in front of him.
‘I’m Tim Grace, Yavapai County sheriff.’
‘Well, sir, I lost this knife high carding with a man two months ago. He put up a gold watch.’ He glanced up at me. ‘I think he cheated me.’
I chuckled. ‘That must have been some trick! I heard you can cut an ace anytime you want.’
‘Not when the other man has a gun pointed at me.’ Colburn smiled. He may have been a card slick, but he had a sense of humor.
‘Did the winner have a name?’
‘He called himself Jake Smithers. Older man, maybe six feet tall, but thin as a bed sheet. What’s he wanted for?’
‘Know where I can find him?’
‘Haven’t seen him around directly. I hear he has himself a cabin up by Crown King. Does some panning up there when he needs a stake.’
Jonas positioned himself behind the cabin with his revolving shotgun while Billy found a spot in the rocks where he could cover the front door and south side. I was also in front and just down the path from the door. We had been there since daybreak, and I was considering going in when I heard footsteps coming up the path and a man came into view. He had already seen me so I decided to play a part.
‘Who the hell are you and what do you want up here?’ He was a tall, thin man, and there were long, healing scratches on his cheek and throat. He glanced around nervously, but Billy and Jonas were both out of sight.
‘I bought me a claim on the creek down yonder, and then I spotted this here cabin. I’m wondering if the owner might be interested in selling?’
‘I’m the owner, and anything is for sale if the price is right.’
I stuck out my hand. ‘Cal Peters is the name.’
He took my hand reluctantly. ‘Name’s Smithers.’
I waved him on. ‘After you, sir.’
He stepped in front of me and I palmed my revolver, eased back the hammer and pressed the cold muzzle into the back of his neck. He stiffened and halted.
‘I’m Sheriff Tim Grace, and you, Mister Smithers, are under arrest for the murders of Joseph and Christine Wheeler and their daughter, Molly. Put your hands in the air.’
‘Never heard of ’em.’
Jonas finished putting the irons on his ankles and wrists and left to fetch the wagon. Billy appeared at the cabin door where he had been looking for evidence and motioned to me. I chained Smithers to a pine and walked over.
‘Would you look at this, Sheriff? I found this on a shelf next to his bunk. Good Lord!’ Billy looked sick.
It was a tintype likeness of Molly Wheeler.
The trial lasted one day. Mrs. Tyler had gone to the Wheelers’ to buy a round of cheese on the day of the murders and she testified that Jake Smithers was the man who opened the gate for her and helped load the cheese into her buckboard. She broke down in tears because, she said, other than Smithers, she was the last person to see the Wheelers alive.
It was devastating statement, but the clincher was Billy Burdette. When he testified that he had found Molly’s picture next to Smithers’ bunk, the jury gasped in horror, and Smithers’ fate was sealed.
‘Turn around. Put your hands behind you and between the bars.’ He complied grudgingly and I clamped on the irons. At my nod, Billy opened the cell and Jonas put on the leg irons and a wide belt around his waist, to which we fastened the irons around his wrist.
‘Keep your head up high, Jake, and keep moving.’
Jonas took one arm and Billy the other. I opened the door and stepped out on the boardwalk, motioning people to stand back. The Wheelers were well loved, and that alone was enough to stir up anger, but the brutal killing of Molly made Smithers the most hated man in the territory.
‘You folks stand back, and let justice be done in a lawful matter. This man is about to pay his debt, so don’t interfere. This is Jake Smithers’ day to die, not yours’
There was some angry mumbling, but the crowd drew back and gave us room. I signaled to my deputies and they brought the prisoner out.
I let Billy and Jonas pass with Smithers and followed them, keeping an eye on the crowd. There were some muttered words, but no one seemed willing to do more. They parted and let us walk to the gallows in peace.
Just before we reached the steps, Smithers’ knees buckled slightly, but no one seemed to notice. We mounted the steps one by one and reached the platform. Preacher Thomas was there waiting for us, but the hangman was nowhere in sight.
While Jonas pulled the leather belts tight around Smithers’ elbows and ankles, and the preacher began to intone the scripture, Billy went to find the missing hangman. When Jonas was done, I moved Smithers over the trapdoor, and fitted the noose around his neck and tightened it, placing the knot under his left ear. I pulled the black hood out of my belt and placed it over his head. I put my mouth close to his ear and spoke quietly.
‘Buck up, Jake. You’re doing fine. You won’t feel a thing and then you’ll finally be at peace.’ I stepped back and waited for Preacher Thomas to finish.
Billy came up the stairs with a perplexed look on his face. He walked over and spoke in a low tone. ‘The hangman is over at Doc’s. They think he may have had a heart attack or something. He’s alert and all, but he says he ain’t up to it. He’s says you’ll have to do it.’
I looked around at the crowd and swallowed hard. I was a lawman, not a hangman, but I couldn’t put anyone through this twice, not even a man like Jake Smithers. Preacher Thomas was wrapping up, so I walked over to the trap lever. The crowd had been watching all this and knew something was wrong, so they gasped when I took the hangman’s position.
Preacher Thomas said his amen and backed up. It was my turn.
‘Jacob Smithers, you have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of the capital crime of murder and sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul.’
And, just like that, I pulled the lever. There was a startled whimper of terror from the black hood as the floor fell away and his sudden downward plunge began. Then his body abruptly hit the end of the rope with an audible snap. I walked over to the trap and looked down, my hand automatically reaching for the taut rope, which proved to be a bad mistake. His body was in spasms, quivering and trembling in the throes of death and all of it was transmitted up the rope, through my hand, and into my conscience forever. I released my grip quickly and, just for a moment, I thought I would be sick right up there in front of everyone.
The crowd began to drift away, and I went beneath the gallows with my deputies to remove the body. As I did, my Aunt Betty suddenly appeared and made a request that stunned me. ‘I want to see that man’s face up close, Tim. It’s important. I think I know him.’
‘He’ll be at the undertakers and cleaned up tomorrow. You can see him then. He’s not fit to view right now.’
‘No. I must see him now before he’s all powdered up. It’s important, Tim. You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t.’
My spinster Aunt Betty had raised me. My mother had died bearing me, and my father had been killed earlier. I shrugged my shoulders and removed the hood. His face was mottled and the skin of his throat had been ripped open by the rope, but all in all, he didn’t look that bad. Aunt Betty peered at him for a long moment and slowly nodded her head.
She straightened up. ‘I’ve seen what I wanted. You can take him now.’
I didn’t say anything until after we finished dinner that night. Even then I waited. Finally, Aunt Betty placed a cup of coffee in front of me and drew up a chair with her evening cup of tea.
‘I didn’t involve myself in the Wheeler murders, Tim, because there was little I could do, so I stayed back and out of the way. When you arrested Jake Smithers, the name meant nothing to me. I stayed out of the trial and I was satisfied with the verdict. But I’ve always felt it’s a citizen’s duty to witness a public hanging, ugly as they are, because it is the culmination of justice for our neighbors.’ She took a sip of tea. ‘When I saw that man for the first time this morning, I was shocked. I thought I recognized him just before you put on the hood and then I had to know. He was someone I knew very well at one time in my life, Tim. His real name was John Benton.’
She stirred her tea and then looked up at me. ‘He was my husband.’
I was stunned. I had always thought my aunt was a spinster because no husband had ever been mentioned. After a moment, she went on.
‘I was only married for a few months, Tim. Then, one day, I learned that my husband was an evil man. In fact, he was a monster. You see, I found out he had molested my sixteen year old sister.’
She raised her eyes to me. ‘He impregnated your mother, Tim. Your father wasn’t killed years ago. That was a lie meant to protect you. John Benton was your father.’
A quiet Sunday afternoon, the eternal Wyoming breeze drifted across the valley easing away some of the trapped heat surrounding the yard and buildings of the Rocking W. The only activity, small dun-coloured birds dusting themselves in the empty corral and Henry Lee, one of the two men seated in the shade of the bunkhouse veranda, his leg on the veranda rail, tossing a short rope loop at his boot, catching it, undoing it and then doing it again.
It was that nothing kind of a Sunday afternoon, and hot.
‘What did your old man do for a dollar?’ Lee asked his silently dozing companion, Dan Crow.
Crow sighed deeply and stretched, irritated. Crow was happy to just sit in the shade of the veranda, his hat tilted low over his weathered face, his gnarled hands occasionally moving a horsefly along.
‘He was a railroad engineer as far as I hear tell, he didn’t actually hang around long enough for me to get to know him. Seems he took one look at me and another look at Ma and put a lot of gone between us and him. Gone to Texas, as the saying goes’.
‘You ever figure where that saying came from?’ Asked Lee.
‘Sure, it means lose yourself in someplace big. Texas sure is that. And your old man?’
‘My daddy was a onetime deputy US marshal, rode under an Oklahoma warrant. That there Colt was his.’ He nodded to the holstered pistol hanging on the sun-bleached arm of the spare rocker. ‘Gave it my older brother before he died, he don’t like firearms of any kind around the place, so he gave it to me and I guess I’ll give it to his son if he’s got balls enough to own it. I was never sure my brother had a pair but I guess he must have, he got married. Yeah, and he had a boy so he must have. I’ll give it to the boy when I’m done with it and he can give to his boy and so on, a sort of family heirloom, a Colt Thunderer .41 that once belonged to Billy Bonney.’
‘You have no provenance on that claim. That’s bullshit and you know it.’
‘Yep, provenance. It means proof, something to actually prove it belonged to Billy.’
‘My daddy told me it was so and his daddy told him, so it must be.’ A slight note of irritation was creeping into Lee’s tobacco stained voice, this argument was like chewing over old bones, he had been there before one way or another. Sunday afternoons did that to a man.
‘He write that down anywhere for your daddy? A sworn affidavit, like in front of a lawyer?’
‘You would trust a lawyer before taking my old man’s word, Crow? What kind of asshole are you all of a sudden, you said you wouldn’t trust a shyster lawyer with your eatin’ teeth.’
‘I don’t have no special eatin’ teeth, these here choppers are all my own.’
‘I went to the tooth doc in Bailey last fall,’ Lee muttered. ‘Went on account of eating all that half-cooked beef in Californy and he said they was fine for my age, couldn’t find anything wrong, charged me two bits.’ Lee was happy to steer the conversation away from Billy’s six-shooter. ‘How come he charged me a quarter to tell me there wasn’t a thing wrong with them?’
Crow thought about it for a moment and asked, ‘you would rather he had found something wrong with them?’
‘There is another kind of provenance,’ Crow interrupted, changing the subject back to the one he knew was annoying his old friend. ‘If you don’t want to see a lawyer and that would be the actual billing of the gun to Bonney, if he bought it that is and didn’t steal it like he did most other things, there would be a bill of sale somewheres.’
It was that nothing kind of a Sunday afternoon, and hot.
‘Some claim he’s still alive, an old man someplace. Garret let him run for Mexico because of an old friendship.’ Lee retrieved the rope one more time dropped it by his rocker and pulled the makings from his shirt pocket.
‘That’s more bullshit, Lee, they said that about Jessie James, never cottoned to him either and then about Butch and Sundance, it’s just that folk don’t like to think of their heroes as being dead and gone. And why the hell they make train robbers and back shooters into heroes I’ll never know.’
‘Those Mex believed it down by the Bravo, when they had us dead to rights and under their guns. You telling them you was Butch and all.’
‘Yeah, they surely did flee.’ Crow smiled at the memory of the encounter. ‘That was back before we were riders of the silver screen.’
‘Billy was no back shooter, Crow, he was a lot of bad things maybe, but he was no back shooter.’
‘You got provenance for that statement?’
Lee ran his tongue along the edge of the yellow paper and smoothed the quirly, drawing his fingers along its length, shaping it. He pulled the sack back tight with his teeth and fished a blue top match from his pants pocket and struck it with his thumbnail. The sweet smell of the Durham drifted across to Crow. Lee watched and waited, saying, ‘what if it had his name carved on the grip, would that be provenance enough for you?’
‘No,’ Crow replied, ‘anyone can carve a name on a pistol grip. Why you asking? Has your daddy’s piece got Billy’s name carved on it?’
‘No, I was just asking.’
‘You going to share those makings with me or what? You know I’m out of tobacco until I ride into Dogbite after supper.’
Lee smiled and tossed the sack over.
Crow rolled and lit a cigarette, drawing the smoke in deeply. ‘John Wesley Hardin, now there was gunfighter, killed over forty men they say not counting Mex or Indians. You believe that? Fastest on the pull of all of them though was that Texican Judas Coffin, maybe you’ve never heard of him, but I’ll tell you about him sometime. Your daddy have their pistols as well? They must have been smoking hot, especially Coffin’s,’ Crow said, picking a flake of loose tobacco from his lip.
‘He may have, but I never heard of Coffin.’ Lee replied, ‘Daddy had a whole bunch of firearms though, one could have belonged to Coffin.’
‘He have provenance on any of them?’ Crow asked pushing it hard.
Lee sighed, ‘Not as I recall, no, I doubt he knew the meaning of the word not being like you and having a little book to help him.’
‘Uhmm,’ Crow sighed again. ‘Hickok, Wes Hardin, Jesse James and others all ended up back shot, does that tell you something about them?’ He paused a moment waiting for a reply that was not forthcoming. ‘It tells you they was real bad at character reading to let friends like that creep up on them and shoot them down like dogs when they wasn’t looking for it. Sort of thing Billy would do you reckon? Least Garret shot him from the front.’
‘You got provenance on that, Crow, or you just read it in one of them damn books you buy?’ Lee smiled quietly to himself.
Before Crow could reply, the cook shack triangle rattled out followed by the old cook’s fractured voice, words that were echoed across the prairie from ranch to ranch at that time of day, ‘Come and get it or I’ll throw it to the hogs.’
The two men stood slowly and stretched their arms wide. ‘Sometimes I doubt even they would eat it.’ Crow muttered. ‘Like I said, I’m going into Dogbite after supper, over to Halloran’s Bar, in back and upstairs to visit with Rosie, get my bell rope pulled.’
‘At your age, Crow?’ Smiled Lee, ‘you sure it still rings?’
Crow stretched and yawned, a smile of anticipation edging into his voice. ‘I’ll let you know about that in the morning.’
And the pair wandered over to the cook shack, shoulder to shoulder, the long empty day behind them.
A nothing kind of a Sunday afternoon, and hot.
*Author’s note: You may well meet Judas Coffin, a man handy with a gun and a Rio Grande Bowie knife later in the year…
The one-armed man came in now and again, but he wasn’t no regular. He had something of the army about him, the look of a veteran of some hard war. Maybe it cost him his arm; we didn’t know and we didn’t study on it.
He kept himself to himself for the most part. Never spoke much except to order a drink or mention the weather and such. Friendly, like. I didn’t know his name, where he lived or how he made a living; I don’t reckon any of us did.
Randle Hogg and Stillman Lott worked the big spread over by Rogue River, the one just past Grave Creek if you know those parts. Lott was all right most times, if he was on his own or with some of the others, but he was trouble when he drank with Hogg. Hogg was spiteful; the way folk are when they know no one likes them.
They’d been drinking most of the day and gotten rowdy, laughing too loud at their own jokes, looking at the rest of us then whispering and snickering like kids. We didn’t pay them no mind, but it was annoying, and you could tell everyone hoped they’d leave soon enough. You didn’t look their way unless you wanted trouble, so we kept our eyes down.
Then the one-armed man came in. I nodded howdy and he smiled back, got his drink and sat down in a corner. I don’t know why Hogg and Lott decided to pick on him that night; they’d seen him before and not said anything, but tonight he seemed to rile them from the off.
I couldn’t hear what Hogg said to him but Hogg and Lott laughed too long and too hard until even Lott looked a bit embarrassed.
The one-armed man kept his head down like he hadn’t heard, but I could see the back of his neck flush.
They quietened down for a while, but Hogg kept looking across at him, and it was right clear that for some reason Hogg wasn’t going to let it go there. It was like ignoring him just made Hogg more annoyed. He sat looking at him like a dog waiting for an order to attack.
The one-armed man was a slim feller. I’d say he was about thirty, clean shaved and healthy-looking, although one side of his face was wrinkled and cracked like old dried out saddle leather; that was the same side as his missing arm. He wore his jacket with the empty sleeve tucked in the pocket.
Randle Hogg was running to fat, red faced with an oily look, he had a snub nose and heavy grey jowls, coated with dark stubble that looked like grit rubbed into his jaw. He wore a wide-brimmed grey Stetson with a sweat-stained crown. He had the smell of an old horse blanket about him. They say he killed a man over in Grants Pass in a brawl about something and nothing. I don’t know if it was true but you could easily believe it; he was surly, loud-mouthed and looked as tough as a boarding house dumpling.
Stillman Lott was a miserable sod; he always looked like he’d just swallowed his last cent. He had a mop of black hair, a narrow face and deep-set eyes that were too close together; you know, a face like a muddy puddle. I reckon he was pushing forty and forty wasn’t pushing back.
Anyhow, Hogg stood up and drove his chair backwards with his legs. That screech made us all look over, which I figure is what he had in mind when he did it. He clumped across to the bar and the floor creaked with his weight. He ordered and then turned to look at the one-armed man. He leaned back with both elbows on the counter and his stomach hanging over his belt. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and made it obvious to all of us that he was staring at him.
The one-armed man took a drink from his glass and stared right back, his thoughts hidden behind his dark eyes. He plugged his one hand deep in his jacket pocket, pulled out a tobacco pouch and tossed it on to the table. He took a paper out, flattened it with the palm of his hand and sprinkled some blackish strong-looking tobacco along it. Next thing, he rolled a cigarette and it was the damndest thing to see; I don’t know how he managed it, but he had the paper and tobacco off the table and in his hand, he rolled it between his fingers, licked the paper down and put the cigarette in his mouth.
I swear you could have heard a feather fall.
He took a match from a box, flicked it alight with his thumb and drew deeply on the cigarette. Then he flicked the bottom of the match, again with his thumb, and killed the flame. Now I reckoned that he was showing Hogg that he was as good as any man even with only the one arm. But when I thought about it later, what with everything that happened an’ all, I don’t think he’d ever try to impress anyone – he was just lighting a goddamned cigarette in his own way.
Anyhow, he looked down and blew cigarette smoke against the table, where it flattened and curled outwards before it drifted away in a blue cloud. It sure had a rich smooth smell. His hat lifted and he gazed out from under the brim at Hogg. He sat with intense stillness but he wasn’t afraid; we could all tell that. His eyes, glazed by the light from the lamp, shone like a wolf’s eyes in the firelight. I ain’t lying neither; there wasn’t no give in him at all.
It somehow made you think that Hogg had been turned inside out with that one look, and you could see Hogg felt it. The one-armed man’s silence pressed down on him and he couldn’t take it.
I think a nagging fear started up in Hogg’s belly then, and he figured he had to show folks he wasn’t scared. He could have left it there and gone. That’s what we all wanted, just for him to put some gone between us. None of us would have made anything of it later. Well, not much, anyway, and not when Hogg was around. As it turned out, he could have saved himself a whole sight of trouble. But no, he had to play it tough.
Hogg took his Colt out, the metal shiny and smooth with holster wear. He opened the loading gate, pulled back the hammer and turned the cylinder, ticking the chambers through one at a time, like he was checking it was loaded before he used it. He slid it back in his rig and took a cigar out of his vest pocket. He lit the cigar, and it was a mite embarrassing because he tried to look as calm and in control as the one-armed man, but he couldn’t pull it off. He just showed himself up and he knew it. He spoke through a cloud of cigar smoke. ‘Get out.’ He pointed at the one-armed man with his cigar, his face set with a grin like concrete. Now I didn’t know what to expect; none of us did. First off, Stillman Lott walks over and stands next to Hogg. He didn’t look to have his heart in it, though.
Next thing, Jep Mudge surprised all of us, although I suspect he surprised himself most of all, when he stood up, walked down the bar and said, ‘Now hold on, there ain’t no dadburned call for any of this.’ He sure was annoyed; he don’t normally cuss.
Here was a problem that Hogg could understand and deal with. He straightened up and punched Jep in the guts real hard, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. Jep’s legs buckled and he hit the floor like a bag of horseshoes.
We all waited. Now the one-armed man didn’t wear a rig and he only had the one arm, of course, so it was obvious he couldn’t do much, but he played it just right. He stood up real slowly, took his hat off, punched and shaped the crown and fitted it back on his head. Next, he walked over and helped Jep to his feet, then he just went out of the door without looking back. This kind of told us all he didn’t want any more of us to be hurt on his account; leastways that’s how I saw it.
The strangest thing is that we all just figured he was a better man than Hogg or Lott and they realized it as well. Without anyone saying a word, every goddamn one of us upped and left that saloon with Hogg and Lott stood there looking like two kinds of nothing.
Emett the barman said Hogg had a face as red and hot as a well timed slap. It seems that Hogg boiled in his own juices for a few minutes, then he cussed the one-armed man, said he’d kill him, and he rushed out with Lott close behind him.
The next day, they found Hogg’s body behind the livery; they said he looked like a turkey that had its neck wrung by an expert. Lott had a broken arm.
Lott don’t come this way no more. They say he never spoke about Hogg or what happened the night they took on the one-armed man. And, you know what, nobody asked.
The one-armed man still comes in and he don’t seem no different; you know he still has the same look of a veteran of some hard war or other. It turns out he’s called Barry Little. He bought Jep a drink the first time we saw him after that night. Now we buy each other a beer now and again, you know, just to wet our dry with something.
I don’t know what got into Hogg that night, I don’t know what Hogg said to him, and I don’t know what Hogg tried when he caught up with him outside. And I don’t want to know, neither.
Barry’s showing me how to roll a cigarette one handed. It sure ain’t easy, though.
Marshal Thomas Lang was old school and saw himself as a bit of a ‘I got here too late but would have been a hell of a star-packer had I been around twenty years ago’ kind of lawman and the first thing he did when appointed by the Bailey town council was to post an ordinance that no firearms were to be worn inside the town limits, an ordnance rigorously supported by the sheriff’s office. Not many town’s folk wanted to pack anyway, the law of the gun was long since gone and the cowhands that drifted in on a Saturday night left their working irons in their saddlebags or back at the bunkhouse. About the week that Lang posted his ordnance, was around the time that Dan Crow noticed a distinct change in the manner of Jack Bones, the oldest and longest serving hand of the Rocking W crew. A man in his sixties, tall, lean of body and face with closely cropped grey hair and a drooping but tidy moustache.
The first time was when Crow was laying on his bed in the deep shade of the bunkhouse, dogging it keeping out of the way of the foreman and hoping he would not be missed and that the day would soon cool down enough for him to resume his duties outside. It was a quiet afternoon and a snooze was not out of the question, the constant buzzing of a bluetail fly trapped against the dusty window was so soporific that the doze was almost inevitable. Crow was not far from sleep, eyelids drooping, mouth a little open, his breathing a gentle whistling sound, when old Jack Bones slouched into the room and stood in front of the indoor washbasin, spreading his hands beneath the brass tap scrubbing away in a frantic motion. Then, without turning, wiping his hands on the grubby grey rag of a towel and stumping out of the room whistling Dixie.
Crow watched from the shadows. Half-awake and half asleep, his eyes followed Bones out of the door, a puzzled expression on his tanned face as he realised what was wrong with the old man’s ablutions. Bones had not turned on the tap, no water, an imaginary wash, an imaginary drying of the hands that were not wet. He kept the hand washing incident to himself, not even sharing it with Henry Lee. He had seen old folk do some strange things in the past and he wrote it off as too long a day in the baking summer sun or, maybe, a long a snifter from the bottle Bones kept in the hay barn not realising his stash was the worst kept secret in Wyoming. The fact that no one else ever touched the bottle was a mark of respect for the old-timer whose days as a cowhand stretched right back before the turn of the century back when The West really was wild and packing a gun was as natural as putting on your hat.
That following week Crow kept his own council but also a very close watch on Jack Bones and if the old man noticed this close scrutiny of his movements and the appearance of Crow at odd times of the day he said nothing about it. One Wednesday evening a week following the phantom hand washing, Crow and Henry Lee along with other Rocking W hands were playing a hand of matchstick poker when Bones walked into the bunkhouse spruced up to the nines in his best Saturday night hat and boots announcing his intention to visit Bailey for the usual payday weekend wingding, and asking why no one else was ready.
Bobby Cole the wrangler, a sour-faced man whose mood often reflected the aches and pains of a lifetime of broken bones, stared at the old man for a long moment then continued dealing the greasy, dog eared Bicycle playing cards saying, ‘because it’s Wednesday, you old fart.’
Bones looked mortified, his lined face darkened and he stared down long and hard at his polished Justin boots, muttered something and shuffled away seeming to fade into the half light of the dimly lit interior, drifting like a spectre across the close boarded floor towards his bunk then, with a deep sigh, rolling onto it.
The silence settled like a fine mist around the quiet room and Crow said, his voice just above a whisper, ‘sure felt like Saturday to me, how about you, Henry Lee?’
‘It sure enough did, Crow,’ said Lee quietly.
Presently the old man was snoring and Crow left the table, crossed the room and covered him with a blanket after gently removing the shining boots.
‘You seen it too?’ Crow asked Lee the following morning as the two men saddled their horses for the north pasture ride and some fence mending.
Lee nodded and swung aboard his bay. ‘Last week he was late back from checking the windmill out at Turner’s Creek, very late, so I rode out in case he had taken a fall. Found him staggering around in the near dark, said that his pony had wandered off but I already found it, that gentle old roan of his was tied off tight to a spruce, no way it wandered.’
Crow’s animal fell in step beside Lee and the pair walked their mounts out of the corral to keep the dust down and off the full washing line the cook had stretched across the yard from cook shack to bunkhouse. ‘So, what do you think?’
‘I think he couldn’t remember where he left it is all.’
‘You didn’t mention it.’ Crow said.
‘And neither did you.’
‘Some things you don’t like to talk about, Lee, and old age and the things that can go with that old age is one of them.’
‘I’ve seen it happen before, but not close up like this with someone you know and work with.’
‘Brings it home with a bang, our supposed youthful mortality is a fragile and passing thing, could happen to anyone of us.’
‘You been reading those damned books again?’ Lee said.
They reined in their ponies when out of view of the ranch house, dismounted, stretched their legs and rolled cigarettes from a shared Bull Durham sack.
‘You and me, Crow, we are no spring chickens either, could be we are headed down the same trail.’
‘You are one cheerful bastard this morning.’
‘Just saying it is all.’
‘Wonder if old Doc Halloran could help, he seems to know about most things.’ Crow dropped his spent cigarette and ground the butt into the dry earth. ‘What do you think?’
‘Could ask him I suppose, he can fix a broken leg, patch up a gunshot wound but I doubt he can prescribe a pill for what ails Jack Bones.’
‘How come some men go that way and others, like old Halloran himself, never miss a step?’ Crow asked.
‘Why do some men die young, fall down a ravine, drown in a flash flood, get trampled by a snuffy or get themselves snake bit? How the hell do I know, that just seems to be the way it is you think? Best thing we can do is to keep an eye on the old goat, he wouldn’t thank us for any interference but it was a nice thing you did, covering him over and taking off his boots. We can do things like that but that’s about all.’
‘You do that for me if I get the way?’ Crow said.
‘Take your boots off? I surely would.’
‘I would rather you put a bullet in me,’ Crow said, soberly, ‘would you do that, Henry Lee, put a bullet in me?’
Lee didn’t answer but he spent the rest of the long morning’s ride in silence, thinking about it and wondering if Crow really meant it.
Lee rode south while Crow took the left that way they could cover the most ground, check the fence and meet back at the starting point and share information of what was needed by way of materials, it was a necessary but boring chore. Crow had only covered a mile when he saw a cloud of dust heading in his direction and minutes later the unmistakeable silhouette of Bobby Cole the wrangler. The man brought his mount to a slithering halt and waved.
‘What the hell you riding so hard for in this sun,’ Crow asked, when he joined the dusty rider.
‘The Boss sent me, wants you to ride into Bailey and check on old man Bones. You got the makings?’
Crow fished the sack out of his vest pocket and silently handed it to the man as he slid from his lathered horse, ground-hitched the animal, walked to the nearby shade of a pine and rolled himself a quirly.
‘Seems you and Lee know him best, y‘all been longer on the Rocking W than anyone else. He thinks you can talk some sense into him.’
‘What happened?’ Asked Crow, joining the man in what little shade the stunted pine offered.
‘I don’t know for sure, seems he packed that big old Colt of his and said he was riding hard for Bailey, was going to tree the town or so he claimed. Not been himself for a while that old man.’
Crow thought for a quiet moment and then swung back onto his bay. ‘Ride the fence north, find Henry Lee, tell him what happened and send him on to Bailey.’ Without waiting, he turned the bay and set off at a fast trot and broke into a canter when the animal reached level ground. Bailey was at least an hour away if he did not want to kill his animal so an hour it would have to be.
Bailey’s Main Street was deserted apart from the young tow-haired sheriff’s deputy who loitered on the shady side of the street opposite the Cattleman’s Saloon a Winchester .30.30 rifle cradled in his thin arms. The only other horse at the rail was the old roan Bones always favoured. Crow nodded to the deputy and tied his mount off beside the animal. ‘He in there, Jack Bones of the Rocking W?’
The young deputy nodded. ‘He’s carrying a firearm, I asked him to check it at the marshal’s office but he said he was going to need it in a little while and I was welcome to take it off him if I so desired, then he walked into the saloon and I’m waiting on the Mr Lang and the sheriff to get back from Dogbite. You know him, that old coot I mean?’
Crow nodded, ‘That old coot is a friend of mine so I would suggest you keep your finger well away from the trigger of that long gun you’re toting.’ And with that he turned his back on the youngster and walked into the shadowy afternoon light of the Cattleman’s.
Jack Bones was leaning against the bar, a bottle and three glasses in front of him, one half-filled with whiskey, the other two empty. Without turning he raised the bottle and filled one of the empty glasses. ‘Dan Crow, I figured it would be you or Henry Lee.’ He pushed the glass along to Crow.
‘Lee is on his way. What’s going on with you Jack, I’ve never known you to be a threat to anyone, especially a green kid can hardly be dry behind the ears and wearing a star at that? What the hell you toting that thumb buster for anyway?’
Jack smiled, drew the gun and laid it on the bar. ‘I’m telling you just what I told the kid, I need it today.’
Crow picked up the gun and examined it closely. It was a Colt copy, a Griswold pistol in .38 calibre with a brass frame and round barrel manufactured by the South during the Civil War in a Georgia factory later destroyed by Sherman. A handsome pistol and looking like it had never been fired. He replaced the weapon on the bar and Bones picked it up and dropped it snugly in the tan leather holster on his left hip.
‘Belonged to my daddy but I don’t believe he ever fired it in peace or in war.’
‘What do you aim to do with it this sunny day?’ Lee asked, sipping his whiskey and topping it up from the half-empty bottle.
‘I’m going to tree this burg is what I aim to do.’
‘Maybe you are just a mite old for treeing towns, Jack, how about we check this big iron with the deputy, finish this near finished bottle and pay the man,’ he nodded in the direction of the barkeep deeply absorbed in the town newspaper at the other end of the bar. ‘Then we grab us a bite at the Bluebird Café, I hear they do a mean chilli.’
‘I’m not hungry, Dan, and I knew the Boss would send you two. I know you both been watching over me like I was a kid again. That’s no life for an old man like me. I’m going to tree this town and take on that deputy and anyone who tries to stop me and that includes you and Henry Lee both. Then I’m going to ride on, heading back home to the Big Thicket.’
‘Texas? I didn’t know you came from way down there, Jack, the Thicket is not great cow country as I hear tell.’
‘All trees, Nacogdoches, born along the Sabine River. Lot of things you don’t know about me, Henry Lee, I’ve got a few years even on you.’
Crow shrugged, ‘why today?’
‘Why not today? Maybe because I’m more tired today, wearier than I was yesterday or maybe it’s because I don’t even recall what day it is.’
The old man chuckled. ‘So it is, but I needed you to tell me that. I needed Lee to find me when I was lost the other week. Hell, Crow, I’m always lost these days. Can’t remember where I am sometimes or even who I am. Making a fool of myself and never knowing the how or the why of it. When yesterday looks better than tomorrow it’s time to move along.’ The old man drained his glass and slapped it down on the bar top. ‘Time to get it done, Crow, and I want you to know I will always appreciate what you and Henry Lee done for me but it really is my time to ride on.’ He touched Crow’s arm briefly then turned, crossed the room and gently pushed open the swing doors.
Lee stared into the long bar mirror conscious that the bartender had refilled his glass before moving back down the bar to his crumpled newspaper. For a long moment there was just the mystical echo of the old man’s footsteps on the bare boards embellished with the faint jingle of his spurs then the silence was shattered by three muffled pistol shots closely followed by the louder, solid flat crack of a rifle.
‘He just came out at me, that old smoke-pole in his hand, blazing away like some kind of outlaw…’ The young deputy’s voice trailed off as Crow bent over the crumpled body of old Jack Bones. The man’s eyes were half closed the trace of a smile on his thin lips, blood spreading across his plaid shirt front. Crow ran finger and thumb gently down the lined face closing the eyes then he carefully removed the gun belt and picking up the fallen pistol, dropped it into the holster and stepped back through the swing doors. A small crowd gathered around and gazed down at the dead man some out of curiosity and the few who knew him out of a sadness at the passing of one of their own.
‘What kept you?’ Crow asked as Lee joined him at one of the saloon’s corner tables a fresh bottle and a glass in his hand.
‘Damned horse went lame, had to walk him in the last two miles.’
‘He going to be ok?’
‘Sure, just a split hoof is all. And you, how are you? I heard what happened just about everyone in town is talking about it.’
‘There’s his piece,’ Crow indicated the holstered pistol on the table, he had moved the holster along the belt as far as the buckle and then wrapped the belt around it. ‘Thought I’d keep it as he had no kin that he knew of, told me that one time. It’s a fine gun, I studied on it some before he went out. Only three of the nipples were capped and the three chambers only packed with wadding and powder, no balls, he was firing black powder is all.’
‘The deputy wasn’t to know that,’ Lee whispered.
‘No, he didn’t but I did, Henry, I knew the gun was empty.’
‘It wasn’t our call, Dan, it never was. That’s how he wanted to go, suicide at the hands of a lawman. Weird but practical.’ He topped up their glasses and raised his high. ‘To old Jack Bones, a man to ride the river with.’
‘To Jack Bones, gone home, gone to Texas.’ Crow said quietly, and they clinked their glasses in the smoke-filled gloom of the Cattleman’s Saloon in the Wyoming town of Bailey in the year of Our Lord 1918.
Christmas could be a sad time for the working cowhand, many of them young, transient workers without a real home other than a bunkhouse. It can be an even tougher time for the older, long-time hands who have little to celebrate and little to look forward to other than a couple of days off, a bottle or two from The Boss and, if they were lucky, the foreman as well. Those and a jug or two of forty-rod stashed away for the occasion helped to lighten the load of a heavy few days.
A bottleful of memories is no replacement for a loving family and yet bunkhouse buddies are in many ways a family in their own right. While they no longer believe in a Santa Claus who was long ‘Gone to Texas’ and faraway it was still Christmas. Very few gifts exchanged but an effort is always made to ease the melancholy. Cookie makes a big show, a couple of wild turkeys with all of the fixings, a mountainous apple pie and whisky to round off a Christmas day feast. The evening that followed usually ended late in a tobacco smoke-filled room with a mournful sing-song to a lone guitar or mouthorgan around the red hot, pot-bellied stove.
Such is the cowhand’s lot but, one thing is certain, there has to be a Christmas tree.
Photo Credit: AL_HikesAZ
While the festivities were limited that was a sure enough certainty, there had to be a tree and somebody had to ride ‘The Christmas Tree Run’ and take the small buckboard up to the high ground beyond the Rocking W’s meadowed valley to the pine trees that grew along the north ridge just about where the good winter grass ended and the rocky escarpment began. Those somebodies happened to be Dan Crow and Henry Lee, neither man too happy at the prospect of a sore backside and a long cold ride on a buckboard to the high country with a promise of early snow in the wintery sky.
Their combined protest of ‘we did it last year, Jake,’ to J.C. Cobb, the Rocking W’s ramrod, fell on deaf ears.
‘That’s right, boys and that makes you the best men for the job. Most of the older ha
nds are in Dogbite and if I send a couple of those shave tails up the hill they would likely get lost in the dark on the way back.’
Two days before Christmas and, apart from a couple of snoring early-nighters, the bunkhouse was deserted. Lee was mending the eternal hole in one of his once-white socks and Dan Crow was reading Ben Hur wondering why the hell there were no lawmen or cowboys in it when it was written by the man who really brought about the downfall of Billy the Kid. Was it allegorical, he wondered? He thought of mentioning to it Lee who claimed to own Billy’s pistol, but thought better of it. He dogged the corner of the page, stretched and wandered over to table where Lee was trying to thread a darning needle for the tenth time. Crow tossed the makings onto the table and the pair rolled themselves cigarettes in silence, each thinking the same thing; was there a way out of the cold early morning’s Christmas tree run?
‘You need some eye-glasses,’ Crow said, quietly blowing smoke rings into the warm air.
‘What we both need is a way out of that long, cold ride up the hill to get a damned tree we could have cut before the cold set in.’ Lee said.
‘It would have died.’
‘Ponderosa is evergreen.’
‘Not when its cut down it isn’t. It goes brown and sheds just like any other tree.’
‘I can’t think of no way out of this one, best we learn to live with it and get an early start tomorrow.’
‘We could try The Kentucky Kid again,’ Crow said, wistfully looking over to where the sleeping Kid was gently snoring into his striped pillow.
‘No, he wouldn’t fall for it twice and he let us off easy last time.’
‘He should have thanked us.’ Crow said. ‘He came back with that outlaw pinto real lady broke and gentled. The Boss was tickled pink, invited him up to the house for supper, and his sister has a soft spot for him now, I seen them riding out and they looked good together,’ said Crow, wistfully.
‘Our days and those days,’ said Henry Lee, ‘our time is long gone and I’m glad it worked out for The Kid, I never felt good about what we did to him. Besides, he would get himself lost up there on his own, he’s a close-to-home cowboy, not a hill climber. Lucky he ever found his way back here from wherever that pinto took him.’
‘Took him a while.’
‘Be that as it may, this isn’t a ride for The Kid, he’s not up to it, we have to step up and get her done. I’m not moving on that decision, Crow, so don’t waste both of our times you trying to persuade me otherwise.’
It was a long hard ride to the foothills and the shaggy coated pulling horse was in no mood to hurry. It was late afternoon before they reached the first stand of pines, selected and felled one, gathered a couple of gunny sacks full of cones for the bunkhouse stove, drank some cold bottled coffee, ate their paper wrapped corn dodgers and set off back down the hill.
They had not been on the move for more than five minutes before the sky suddenly darkened to an ominous, slate grey and the southerly wind changed direction for no reason at all as far as Crow could figure, and began blowing the first of the winter’s northern snowflakes hard at their backs. Within moments their range of vision was cut from miles to a few yards, decreased with every step and the temperature dropped sharply. Finally, bitterly cold and tired of fighting the blizzard, they gave up and pulled the small buckboard into the lee of a large rock and unhitched and hobbled the shaggy pony.
‘We have to get a fire going before we freeze to death.’ Crow said, pulling his scarf tighter over his hat and forcing the crumpled brim down to give his ears some protection.
‘We got some paper and we got some matches.’ Lee said, blowing on his hands. ‘We can pull the lower branches off’n that damned tree for kindling, use the cones for starters and break off the sides of the wagon for firewood, but we had best get a move on while we got the energy to do it or we’re going to freeze for sure.’
‘I seen a frozen man onetime,’ Crow said, as they sat beneath the buckboard in front of a crackling fire. ‘He was granite grey, eyes wine red and wide open, a deadly smile on his face, his lips froze apart, jaw clenched, his stiff hands around his long gun, the muzzle under his chin. I think he tried to shoot himself but didn’t have the strength to pull the trigger. You bring your Winchester, Lee?’
Crow grinned. ‘Just asking was all.’
Around midnight the whining north wind dropped as suddenly as it had come and a warmer, fresh southerly quickly blew away much of the drifting snow, clearing much of the downhill trail. A little before dawn, Dan Crow and Henry Lee rode the hardy pulling horse into the yard of the Rocking W, the pair clinging to each other for warmth. The cook banged the triangle and within minutes the two men were helped from the tough little animal’s back and half dragged into the warm bunkhouse. They shivered and their teeth rattled but they had no frostbite and warmed through quickly with the help of a shot or two from the cook’s brandy bottle.
‘That tough little horse okay?’ Asked Crow.
‘In better shape than the pair of you,’ said the ramrod, with some concern in his usually brusk tone.
‘Rough time for you old boys,’ The Boss said, relief in his voice as he refilled their mugs with brandy-laced coffee. ‘Cobb and me thought you were goners, that storm came out of nowhere. I’ll send someone out for the buckboard in a while.’
‘No good, Boss,’ Lee said. ‘We lit a fire under it and it kind of got out of control, burned it out.’
‘And the tree?’
‘That was on the buckboard.’
‘No worries, boys, just so long as y’all are ok. The bunkhouse can have the big tree we’ve got up the house.’
‘You already have a tree up at the ranch house?’ Said Crow.
‘Sure enough, Dan. The Kentucky Kid went up there day before yesterday and cut us a big one.’
Lee stared at Crow and Dan Crow stared long and hard right back at him saying, ‘merry goddamned Christmas, Henry Lee.’ It was all he could think of to say.
Meet the man who writes under the pseudonyms of Abe Dancer & Caleb Rand:
The early years … sitting astride the arm of an art-deco settee, watching Cisco Kid on television, wearing Tom Mix papier-mache hats, toting chrome-plated cap guns with my younger brother Rex, as my enthusiastic side-kick. I saw Gene Autry at the Earls Court in 1955.
Main interests: American Civil War, the films of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, the writings of Jack Schaefer, the artworks of Frederick Remington.
Treasured possessions: A signed colour photograph of Roy Rogers and Trigger. A paperback copy of ‘Shane’ saved since 1954, in the belief that Schaefer’s inscription: ‘To Carl, my first book’, was personal to me.
A little background….
The author Carl Bernard. Photo by Margaret Bonito
After 25 years work in higher education, I realized I was well practised in
dealing and working with the saloon keepers, sodbusters, dudes, ranch hands and herds of cattle that were up against carpetbaggers, bank robbers, tinhorns and crooked sheriffs.
Committee meetings were gunfights at OK corrals; course teams and their educational concerns up against the might of senior managers and their financial rights of way. The black-hatted baddies were in fact the shiny-grey-suited faculty heads. It didn’t take much to transpose the setting and era, put everyone on a horse and give ‘em guns. So, with the end of the century approaching, and with a full cylinder of ready-made stories, I took early retirement and moved away from London. It’s a lot easier to find the right frame of mind among the dunes of Wittering’s East Head, and I got my first two books published inside two years. I like to think back on that as the purging, or good-riddance period.
But you don’t have to be in the higher education sector, to encounter the bad guys. They can turn up anywhere, even as a neighbour. And they do provide a continuing supply of storylines. Even in a small-pond village, there’s no shortage of snappin’ turtles.
Inspiration….. Putting people into thinly disguised characterisations is entertaining. I once told an old friend that I was creating a character who was monumentally degenerate. He thought for a moment, smiled, and asked if I could make it him. Seeing his name in a cowboy book was more than compensation. Thinking up names is good – more than 500 to date. Moss Trinket, Chum Weems, Millie Matches and Hirkham Pond are favourites. Jake Earnley and Cal Birdham were county sheriffs, and Rufus Stone was a US Marshal.
Where do you find your points of reference? I use an extensive collection of reference material that covers just about everything from pistols and horses to costume and transport, trees and shrubs. Web-cams set in the wildernesses of New Mexico and Montana come in handy. One problem, is containing, not living-out the idiom. Skimming a pint of beer thirty feet along the bar top in your local, raises a few eyebrows, and your sons wouldn’t speak to you ever again. People often ask if I’ve visited any ‘western’ locations to research. Well, yes and no. I mean, how much of his time did Arthur C Clarke spend on Alpha Centuri? Or what did Jackie Collins do for her research? Well, yeah, okay!
How prolific are you… Agatha Christie was once asked how much time she usually took between finishing one book and starting the next. Her answer was: ‘about twenty minutes’. Well I can beat that….
Tell us about your covers…….Getting what I have in mind to the book cover of a Black Horse Western is no problem. I supply my wife – Margaret Bonito – with the appropriate information, and three or four days later there’s finished art-work.
Ten of my most memorable westerns are, and not in any particular order:
The Magnificent Seven
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Day Of The Outlaw
Duel At Diablo
Way Out West
Hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about Carl Bernard.