Robert Hale Ltd published their first Western in 1936, and have been publishing Westerns continuously since that time, firstly under their own imprint, and since the mid 1980s under their wholly owned imprint Black Horse Westerns.
Walt sat on the veranda in his rocking chair. He made the chair himself those three years past and he reckoned it just got more comfortable with time. He stretched his legs out and managed to get the heel of his boot on the rail and he crossed his ankles and sat with his legs straightened out in front. He decided to have a smoke; he favoured brown papers and dark Mexican tobacco. He rolled himself a cigarette, dragged a match across a wooden post and lit up. He took a long pull and inhaled deep into his lungs enjoying the smooth mellow flavour. He blew a slow cloud of grey blue smoke that hung in the air for a moment before it broke up and the rich smell was lost in the slight breeze. Walt picked a piece of tobacco off his tongue held the cigarette between his yellowed fingers and rested his head against the spindles of the chair back, pushing his hat low over his forehead.
Walt was forty but he had looked forty for over ten years, he was as thin and tough as old leather with a crumpled face lined with deep wrinkles, salt and pepper hair and a beard streaked with grey. His breath whistled like the down draught in a bunged up chimney. He sat with the cigarette in his mouth, his eyes closed and cigarette ash dusting the front of his blue check flannel shirt.
The sun was hot on the boards and the parched planking creaked with the heat. He could see the brightness of the sky through his closed eyelids. He decided to have a set down before he started on the land behind the barn.
The thump of shoed horses on the hard packed earth made him open his eyes. He saw three riders emerge from the shadow of the draw that cut through the hills and followed the trail down the long sloping valley where it fanned out onto the bluff above the river.
Walt rubbed the last of the cigarette with his fingers opened his hand and let the breeze take the pieces; he sat up and rested his hands on his knees. He watched the riders come on up the low grade through the dappled shade of the trees and then over the grass to the cut bank. They waded into the slow river that eased its way through lichen covered rocks and Walt could hear the horses splash through the water and clatter out onto the shale bank. They started on the trail that ran past the railed fence that marked the boundary of Walt’s land on the north side, maybe twenty paces away from where Walt sat.
‘Morning,’ said Walt and half raised a hand in greeting. The riders, two men and a woman, turned his way but did not speak.
The men had sullen faces filled with arrogance and cruelty. They gazed at him with lidless reptile eyes that sized him up, took the measure of him and then dismissed him. Walt let his hand drop. The men were aged maybe twenty and forty and the woman nearer the younger mans age. They were all wiry looking and all dressed in dark clothes. The woman was as thin and tough as a buggy whip and wore a skirt and jacket that looked a tight fit on her compact hard body. She had white corn silk hair and pale skin. Her dark deep watchful eyes missed absolutely nothing and gave nothing in return, like a shadow within a shadow.
The three of them looked as sinewy and lean as three hungry timber wolves. As they passed by the two men turned away from Walt, their eyes straight ahead their hands laid on their saddle horns and their bodies rocking with the rhythm of their horses. The woman kept her red rimmed gaze fastened on Walt even after she had passed the cabin. She brought a lonely chill with her that made Walt shiver despite the hot sun overhead. She glared at him with a wicked malevolent light in her eyes.
It was a stare that made Walt turn and look for his gun.
Her horse was a reddish-brown dun with a dark stripe down his back, his tail and mane darker than the body coat, he looked up swished his tail, shook his head and huffed. Walt saw her tighten her knees against the horse’s shoulders but she kept her eyes riveted on Walt as she did it.
Walt’s dog came running around the side of the cabin his tail whipping but he pulled up short, stood stiff legged and the hackles rose across his shoulders and the back of his neck, he bared his teeth and growled low in the back of his throat.
‘Quiet down Tucker,’ said Walt, he knelt down and patted the dog but continued to look at the staring woman from the shadow under the brim of his hat. She still watched him, her eyes now as blue and empty as the hot sky. Finally as they moved past the cabin she turned away, her horse walked on swished his tail and snorted but the woman made no sound and sat like a tightly wound spring, taut with suppressed energy.
Walt struggled to breathe as if a cold hand gripped his heart. He stood up and his knee cracked as he straightened his leg, he rubbed it absentmindedly. His head seemed as light as a balloon; he swallowed and ran his tongue across his dry lips. He felt like he had been rope drug through a patch of musk thistles.
The three riders followed the rutted track until just before it entered the woods, where the thick tree canopy created a shaded tunnel and pine needles and dead leaves layered the ground, she swung in the saddle and glared at him again. Her skin looked as smooth and white as bone.
Walt took a step backwards and even as the gloomy shadows of the trees swallowed her up it seemed that she still looked at him from their thick darkness. A flock of birds rose like ashes from a fire caught on a breeze and the horse snickered beneath them. The solid dark trees gave nothing away but the leaves rustled and whispered some bleak secret amongst themselves.
Walt never did make a start on the land behind the barn he felt too on edge and unsettled. In the end he set back down on the porch and started to clean his rifle, he figured it was the sort of day where he needed a gun in his hands. Tucker his dog seemed more relaxed as he stretched out and slept at his side.
A few hours later when Walt had just started to unwind Tucker’s head came up and three horses loomed out of the woodland and followed the track back the way they had passed him that morning. Walt cussed. His hands felt thick and stiff as he fumbled with a box of cartridges and started to feed bullets into his yellow boy Winchester rifle. He glanced up, his head began to throb like a Shoshone war drum.
He saw that things had changed some, the older man sat slumped in his saddle holding his arm. His right arm hung useless at his side and the sleeve of his jacket was stained dark with blood. Behind him the body of the young man lay across the horses withers, Walt assumed it was the younger man all he could see was a head hanging down by the stirrups and bobbing with the motion of the horse, his hair ruffling with the slight breeze.
Behind them rode the woman on the dun, she sat up in the saddle as straight and rigid as a gun barrel. Walt tried hard to swallow but his mouth felt like it was filled with dust. He could not speak and he could not move. Tucker sank to the floor and started to whine but Walt did not have the energy to tell him to quieten down.
The riders moved steadily forward but this time as they reached the railed fence the wounded older man did not look Walt’s way, he kept his head down tucked into his bony hunched shoulders.
The riders and horses slid by, the only sounds the jingle of a bridle the creak of saddle leather and the powdery thud of hooves on the dusty trail. Walt dropped his eyes and figured he would try and sort out his feelings while they passed him by.
His heart lurched with the sound he dreaded most of all, silence. He forced himself to look up, it felt like someone had tightened a band of wire around his head – the woman had stopped her horse right by his gate and sat staring at him again. The dun’s muzzle was coated in dust and his mane roped with sweat and dirt. The woman looked as still and cold as ice, her eyes did not move, stray or blink they locked on his face and stayed put. They bored into him until he could hear his own pulse throbbing in his ears and feel the sweat prickle across his back. Now Walt had fought at the Battle of Manassas Gap and the Battle of Appomattox Station but he had never felt as afraid as he did today standing on his porch in the sunshine. He knew absolute terror.
He looked on in fascination while she drew a rifle from her saddle holster. Her movements were slow and deliberate he felt completely at her mercy and she knew it.
She sat on her horse and swung in the saddle towards him as she levered a cartridge into the chamber, she raised the gun and aimed at him. He just knew it was plumb centre of his chest, that she could shoot real well, that she had killed before and that he was as good as dead. He was frozen with fear, he felt like his body was wrapped in chains, he could not breathe and his arms felt heavy and locked to his sides. He saw her finger tighten on the trigger and waited for death to come hurtling towards him
‘Faye,’ the older man said without turning around ‘Leave him be …please, you’ve done enough.’
Faye paused and Walt felt an intense tension that could have lasted a second or an hour. Faye lowered the rifle although her eyes still said I’ll kill you utterly and you know it. She slid the Henry back into the saddle holster
‘It’ll work out different next time Mister, why I’ll go through you like a shortcut,’ she said in a clear confident voice, she turned and slid away like the shadow of a wild cat.
Walt started to breath loudly through his mouth, he heard Tucker take off around the back of the cabin like someone had just put a boot up his backside.
He watched them ride away, the scorching sun fixed on him like an unblinking eye. He waited until they faded from sight up the draw and into the hills then he dropped his rifle and let it clatter to the floor. He slumped down heavily in his chair. His shirt was soddened and the sweat still ran down his back like a warm hand, he felt totally wrung out. He lifted his Stetson and ran his sleeve across his forehead letting the breeze cool his damp hair, a drop of sweat rolled into his eye and he wiped it away with the palm of his hand.
Walt slept in the barn for a week with his dog and his rifle in the stall and his horse saddled next to him. He never did set out at the front again.
John McNally lives in Bronte country in West Yorkshire, England. He has written two Black Horse Westerns, Revenge at Powder River and A Gift from Crick which is to be released in October 2018.
“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.
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.’
He came in from the scorching alkali flats late in the afternoon. At first glance, the speck in the distance could have been mistaken for a mirage amid the shimmering heat haze, but as the horse and rider drew nearer it became obvious that it was not.
The immediate thoughts of the two old-timers who sat out the front of the Hell’s End saloon was “outlaw”.
Why else would a man on a played-out horse enter town from that direction? The only thing out there was miles and miles of nothing. That made him either stupid or outlaw and their bet was on the latter.
The big black staggered into town on wobbly legs. It was covered head to tail in alkali dust, most of which had turned to mud from the sweat and foam produced by such an arduous trek. The rider was covered in much the same manner.
The man was dressed in black. Pants, shirt, low-crowned hat, even his neckerchief, but after coming off the flats, the layer of dust had transformed each item of clothing into a dull and murky grey.
The sturdy horse reached the saloon where the two old timers lounged lazily before it emitted a low shuddering moan and slowly sank to the ground.
The rider on its back seemed to have all the time in the world as he casually reached for the .45-.75 calibre Winchester in the saddle boot.
He stepped from the stirrups then watched the black roll onto its side, give its final pained moan then died.
The stranger turned and looked across at the two men sitting in their chairs.
“Is there any place around here I can get another horse?” he asked casually.
“You might try Elmer down at the livery,” one of them answered without taking his eyes from the dead horse.
“But he’s closed up at the moment,” put in the other. “Had to go out of town to see about somethin’. Said he’ll be back tomorrow.”
The stranger nodded. “Guess I’ll have to wait then.”
The was a brief period of uncertain silence before the stranger walked across to the water trough outside the Hell’s End saloon.
He looked up at the sign and muttered, “Seems mighty appropriate name for a town after comin’ in from the alkali flats.”
“What was that stranger?” an old timer asked.
The man ignored the question and stepped up to the trough. He leaned the rifle against it then unbuckled the gun belt he wore. Housed in its holster was a single action Colt .45 which he dropped to the ground. Finally, he removed his low-crowned hat and tossed it beside the gun belt.
One of the old timers frowned. “Say, what are you up to stranger?”
The man looked over at them and smiled. For the first time, without his hat, they could see the thick coat of dust on his unshaven face.
“Well, if it is all right with you, I’m goin’ to take me a bath.”
Without waiting for them to answer, the stranger took off his dust-coated leather boots and climbed into the trough, clothes and all.
Once he’d settled in, he drew a deep breath then slipped beneath the water. He resurfaced after a brief sojourn and spat out a mouthful of water. He was now dust free.
The stranger climbed back out.
“There, that’s better,” he said sounding satisfied.
He turned towards the two men in time to see their expressions change from amusement to one of astonishment.
“My lord,” one of them whispered hoarsely.
“I know you,” the other blurted out. “You’re Josh Ford.”
Ford nodded and reached into his top breast pocket and took out a shiny, nickel-plated badge.
“I am,” he acknowledged.
Josh Ford, United States Marshal. A man to look up to and one to be feared.
Ford was thirty-one and stood six-feet-one. He had black hair, blue eyes and his face was tanned a nut-brown colour. He was solidly built and moved with a casual ease.
Beneath his wet shirt, his body bore the scars of a tough life on the frontier. Knife wounds, bullet scars, even a couple of old arrow wounds.
“Now that you know me, how about you tell me your names.”
The old timer on the left was the first to find his voice.
“I’m Hank,” he told Ford and motioned to his friend. “This is Clem.”
“Right pleased to meet you,” Ford smiled. He looked about and frowned. “Where is everybody?”
“What’s left of them are at the funeral,” Hank answered.
“Yeah, our Mayor died,” Clem added.
“So why ain’t you two there?”
Both of them shrugged. “Didn’t like him.”
Can’t argue with that Ford decided.
Hank cleared his throat and picked up the courage to ask the question that had been bugging them both.
“Why is it you’re comin’ in off the flats Marshal? There ain’t nothin’ out there except heat and dust. How else do you think Hell’s End got its name?”
Ford nodded his understanding. “Let’s say it seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
He paused and looked at the carcase of his horse. “Now I ain’t so sure.”
“Are you runnin’ from somethin’?” Clem asked.
“You could say that,” Ford allowed. “I had me a disagreement with a feller in Hadley and his brother kind of took exception to it.”
Hadley was a small town sixty miles the other side of the merciless flats.
“Who was the feller?” asked a new voice.
Ford looked up at the man standing just inside the saloon’s bat-wing doors.
“Craig Black,” Ford informed him.
“Harvey Black’s brother?”
The two old timers started. Everyone had heard of Harvey Black. He was a notorious badman who rode with a gang of cutthroats. Killers, every man jack of them.
The man stepped out onto the boardwalk. He was mid-forties, built solid and stood approximately six-feet-two tall. His hair and eyes were dark brown and his face was weathered from years in the sun.
The clothes he wore consisted of dark jeans, a blue shirt and a black broad-brimmed hat.
About his hips, he wore a double gun-rig that housed twin Remingtons.
“Howdy Laramie,” Ford said.
The gunfighter nodded back. “Been a while, Josh.”
“Sure has,” Ford agreed. “I hear tell you’ve been busy.”
“You still ride that old crowbait of yours?” Ford asked, referring to Bo, Laramie’s big chocolate coloured appaloosa.
Laramie’s face remained passive.
“He’s in a might better shape than your bronc at the minute,” the gunfighter pointed out.
Ford glanced once more at his horse.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “And you know what? I actually liked that one.”
“Come on in and have a drink,” Laramie invited him and cast a thumb over his shoulder. “I got me a bottle waitin’.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Ford accepted. “I might be a bit damp, though.”
He pulled on his boots and hooked his gun belt over his shoulder. He scooped up the Winchester and hat and headed towards the steps.
He paused and frowned.
“What’s the matter?” Laramie asked.
“What’ll I do about the horse?”
Laramie shrugged. He and Ford turned their gazes to Hank and Clem.
Hank responded first. “Leave him there,” he shrugged hunched shoulders. “He ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
Gunfighter and marshal shook their heads and disappeared inside.
Hank dug his elbow into his friend’s ribs. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“Told me what?” asked Clem.
“That other feller.”
“What about him?”
“He’s that gunfighter, Laramie Davis.”
“Are they still chasin’ you?” Laramie asked.
Ford tossed back his third shot of whiskey and placed the glass back on the scarred tabletop.
“As far as I know,” Ford guessed. “You know Harvey. He ain’t likely to stop.”
“Yeah,” Laramie agreed. “He still ridin’ with eleven other hardcases?”
Ford shook his head. “Nope. Along with him, they number ten. When I shot his brother, I also ventilated Mush Potter. They was together in Hadley. I saw ’em both and braced ’em. I guess they were casin’ the bank for Harvey. Once word got out, I’d killed his brother, he come ridin’ in hell for leather. The alkali flats were the only way out.”
Laramie understood. He’d been there before. You do what you have to do to survive.
The silence in the room was almost deafening. Apart from them, the rotund barkeep was the only other person there.
For such a small, dead-end town, the saloon was rather large. The main bar room was as wide as it was long. The hardwood bar stretched across two-thirds of the room before turning at right angles and terminating at the back wall.
From the ceiling hung a chandelier which threw little illumination, while wall lamps lit up patches of the striped wallpaper. A long staircase led up to a sizeable landing that had hallways running left and right. Each had five rooms on either side.
“What do you plan on doin?” Laramie asked.
Ford was about to answer when Hank burst in through the bat-wings.
“Marshal,” he said urgently, “I think you might want to take a look at this.”
Both Ford and Laramie stood up and walked to the doors. As Ford went, he buckled on his six-gun. Once they were out on the boardwalk, Hank said nothing but pointed out across the alkali flats.
A large plume of dust billowed up from the dry wasteland obscuring the clarity of the azure sky.
“I guess we’re about to find out,” Ford said answering Laramie’s question.
“I guess we are,” the gunfighter agreed.
Ford pulled his six-gun and checked his loads. Laramie did the same for his Remingtons while the marshal checked the Winchester.
Laramie disappeared inside the saloon. He walked over to the bar and asked the barkeep, “Have you got a coach gun behind there?”
“Sure,” the man replied.
“Give it over and get the hell out of here,” Laramie ordered. “Trouble’s comin’.”
The barkeep hurriedly handed it over along with a handful of shells and disappeared out the back.
When Laramie stepped out onto the boardwalk, the dust cloud had doubled in size.
“This is your show,” Laramie commented. “How do you want to play it?”
“This ain’t your fight, Laramie.”
“We’ll give ’em a chance to surrender,” Ford said succinctly.
“And when that don’t work?”
“You, my friend are my ace-in-the-hole,” Ford told him. “Stay out of sight. They’re only expectin’ it to be me.”
Laramie nodded, “Fair enough. Let’s get it done.”
Ford turned to Hank and Clem. “You got a sheriff in this town?”
“Sure,” said Hank.
“You’d best get him then,” Ford told them.
“Can’t,” said Clem. “He ain’t in town.”
The marshal wasn’t surprised in the least at the news. “Figures. All right then go and hide some place until this is over. I’d hate for you to get caught in the crossfire.”
The two old timers didn’t require further urging and promptly disappeared.
At the base of the huge dust cloud, ten men rode with purpose. Beneath them foam-flecked, dust-covered horses laboured hard.
Out front on a mean-tempered blue roan stallion was a bear of a man with a bushy, black beard and small, mean eyes.
Harvey Black put spur to his labouring horse once more, trying to wring out the last vestiges of speed.
Behind him rode his gang. Nine men, all killers. They went by names such as Cody, Mike, One-Eyed Bob, Kramer, Pete, Miller, Rio, Grady and Lon.
Their horses in identical condition to the one Black rode. Almost dead from being ridden into the ground across the parched alkali flats.
Where Harvey went, they followed and at this point in time, Harvey Black had hate in his heart and murder in his eye. Nothing was going to stop him from killing United States Marshal Josh Ford.
Ahead of them, the false-fronted buildings of Hell’s End grew larger. They seemed to sprout from the flat expanse of ground like a long-stalked length of prairie grass.
It wouldn’t be long now. The outlaw bunch would get fresh mounts and continue after Ford. And once they caught him, he’d wish they’d have killed him right off.
Josh Ford stood in the middle of Hell’s End’s main street waiting for the outlaw’s arrival. His Colt was still holstered while his Winchester sat with its butt plate on his hip.
He could make out the riders plainly now as the drove their horses on relentlessly.
As they thundered into town, Ford remained unmoved; a sentinel against the oncoming horde with the afternoon sun slowly sinking at his back.
The outlaws grew closer, without bothering to check their pace.
Ford swung the Winchester down level and thumbed back the hammer.
Still they came on. Their intent he assumed was to ride him down.
Casually, Ford squeezed the trigger and the sound of the shot cracked loudly above the thunder of hooves.
The outlaw who rode a bay horse to the left of Harvey Black found himself atop a dead mount.
As Ford worked the lever of the Winchester to jack another round into the breech, the horse went down on its nose.
The outlaw, Miller, pitched forward over the dead horse’s head and landed with a sickening thud in the street’s powdery dust.
Amid shouts and cussing, the other outlaws hauled back on the reins of their mounts and brought them to a sliding halt where they milled about, snorting and stomping.
Black looked down at Miller. The outlaw was obviously dead, his head bent at an unnatural angle.
The outlaw leader’s cold, hard gaze settled on Ford.
“That’s another of my men you’ve killed you son of a bitch,” Black rasped, his throat dry from the alkali dust.
Ford shrugged. “Makes no never mind to me. It ain’t like they never deserved it.”
“You killed my brother,” Black added.
“And I’ll kill you too if you don’t get down off that there horse and unbuckle that gun belt of yours.”
Black laughed harshly. “What? You’re just one man. What are you goin’ to do against ten of us?”
The clunk of boots on the boardwalk reached out across the street and without looking around Ford said, “There’s two of us.”
Black switched his gaze to the left and saw Laramie standing there with the cut-off express gun.
“Well I’ll be,” the outlaw said shaking his head. “Laramie Davis, as I live and breathe. The Legend himself.”
“Howdy Harvey,” Laramie greeted him. “Listen to the marshal. If you keep ridin’ down this trail you’re apt to wind up dead.”
“Two against ten,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Laramie allowed. “We don’t have a chance in a stand-up fight against you fellers but I believe there’s only nine now.”
“Damn right you ain’t, even one man down,” Black asserted.
“Yep, no chance in a stand-up fight whatsoever,” Laramie repeated. “What say you, Josh?”
There was a look of satisfaction on Harvey Black’s face that grated against the marshal.
“Nope. Not a chance in hell,” Ford agreed and pulled the trigger on the Winchester.
The .45-.75 calibre slug hit Black full in the chest and knocked him back out of the saddle. A bright scarlet spray spattered the man beside him.
Laramie cut loose with the express gun and the effect of the buckshot on the close-knit group was devastating. Small lead balls cut a swathe through the outlaws and put three of them down. Cody, Rio and Grady all tumbled from their saddles. The first two were clean shot while Grady was hit in the lungs and middle and was still alive and writhed in pain on the ground.
Ford worked the lever of the Winchester and lay down a hail of lead which took down the outlaw called One-Eyed Bob, hit in the chest and dead before he touched the ground.
Laramie tossed the shotgun aside and drew his Remingtons in a smooth, fluid motion. He fired methodically, trying to pick his targets.
The remaining outlaws had recovered from the initial shock of it all and were now starting to return fire.
The outlaw called Pete, an older man from Kansas cut loose with his Colt Lightning at Laramie. His first bullet missed and smashed the window of the barbershop behind the gunfighter. The next bullet was closer and ripped a hole in his sleeve as it passed.
Laramie fired back but in that instant the buckskin the outlaw was on reared up and its brain bore the brunt of the slug instead of Pete.
The horse went down and spilled the rider into the dust. Pete struggled to his knees and tried to draw a bead on Laramie but the gunfighter was way ahead of him. Laramie’s next bullet smashed into Pete’s head and blew a large hole out the back of it.
Ford felt the harsh burn of a slug across his ribs and saw Mike lined up to take another shot. Instantly the marshal dropped the Winchester and rolled left. The bullet from the outlaw’s gun dug into the ground where he’d been moments before.
Ford palmed up his Colt and fired two shots. One punched into the outlaw’s middle while the other blew a hole in his throat, spaying a fine mist of blood into the air.
Only Kramer and Lon were left. Almost instantly they realised they’d bitten off more than they could chew.
Without further hesitation, the blond headed Kramer dropped his six-gun and threw up his hands.
“Don’t shoot!” he cried. “I give up. I don’t want to die.”
Lon, on the other hand, threw his weapon away and raked his mount savagely with large rowelled spurs. The horse lunged forward and only took a few yards to gather itself and settle into full stride.
Ford dived out of the way as the startled animal rushed past him. He came up and sighted his Colt on the fleeing outlaw’s back and squeezed the trigger.
Lon threw up his arms as the bullet struck him squarely in the centre of his back. He cried out in pain and fell from the mount into the alkali-covered street.
Ford turned to meet the next threat but none came. Instead, a scene of carnage stood before him. Bodies of wounded and dead men lay in the street. Horses nervously milled about, the scent of fresh blood putting them on edge. Kramer still sat with his hands held high.
Grady was still alive though his cries of pain were nothing more than low moans.
Laramie stepped down from the boardwalk and joined Ford out in the street.
“I guess we got lucky,” the gunfighter surmised.
Ford let down the hammer on his Colt. “I think you’d be right.”
Both men reloaded their sidearms and walked forward until they stood over the motionless form of Harvey Black. He lay there with his sightless eyes wide open and a large red stain on his shirt where the Winchester’s bullet had entered.
Townsfolk started to appear, the sound of the gunfire had drawn their attention. Like wraiths, Hank and Clem reappeared.
“Dang,” Hank blurted out excitedly. “That sure was some wild shootin’.”
Laramie and Ford spotted a man hurrying along the street with his six-gun drawn.
“What the hell is goin’ on here?” he called out as he got closer, his face an angry red.
“Who are you?” Ford asked
“I’m Deputy Sheriff Sampson,” he shot back.
Ford and Laramie turned steely gazes to the two old timers.
Hank shrugged innocently. “You never asked.”
Ford tightened the girth strap and cursed as the blue roan blew out his belly once more.
“Having problems?” Laramie asked with a wry smile.
Ford looked up at the gunfighter as he sat easily on the big appaloosa. Bo took one look at the roan and snorted.
The mean tempered roan lashed out with his left rear hoof. It was a token gesture as Bo was well out of reach.
“Nothin’ I can’t handle,” Ford said, giving the horse a savage look. The damned thing had already bitten him on the back of the shoulder. “Even if I have to use a bullet.”
The roan snorted and moved his head around to have another nip at the marshal.
“I told you to take one of them other horses,” Laramie reminded him.
“I like this one.”
“Suit yourself, your funeral,” Laramie said. “Where you headed?”
“Wherever the bad guys are. How about you?”
“I’m layin’ … tryin’ to lay low. Had me some trouble up in Canada that led back to Kansas.”
Ford nodded. He’d heard about it through his travels. He also had heard where the trail led. “Watch your back Laramie. Clay Nash is a real dangerous man.”
Laramie nodded nonchalantly and waved his arm in an offhand gesture. “Take care, Josh. I’ll be seein’ you.”
Laramie eased Bo around behind the roan, giving it a wide berth. Ford watched him go and reiterated his warning, “Watch your back, Laramie. Watch your back.”
Dan Pearson kicked out the fire and cursed the cold. A small column of brown smoke flecked with glittering orange sparks floated up into the bitter morning air. He pulled the collar of his slicker higher trying to keep out the biting autumn chill. It was only a matter of time before the first snows would fall in this part of Wyoming and he wanted to be out of the high country before that happened.
Dan wasn’t a big man, he stood a touch over five and a half feet in his socks. His collar length hair was brown and shaggy, most of it hidden away under a black, low-crowned hat. His face was deeply tanned, almost leathery, and made him look somewhat older than his thirty years. It did however, give him a ruggedly handsome appearance which many women found alluring.
Pearson shivered again as the insidious cold crept beneath his slicker and through his woollen shirt. Tall pines and cedar blocked out the morning sun’s warmth and the heavy air caused the wood smoke from his now defunct camp fire to drift like a blanket of fog halfway up the trunks of the tall rough-barked trees.
A creature of habit, Pearson checked the loads in his single-action Colt army model and then the Winchester which was chambered for a .45-.75 cartridge.
Finding everything in order, Pearson mounted his buckskin mare, and with slight knee pressure, the horse moved off in a slow walk, picking its way along the narrow, winding trail towards the town of Woodsville.
It was late morning when the mountain trail opened out into a lush alpine meadow bordered by immense ponderosa pines and giant cedars. West of the town a stand of silver barked aspen sparkled, leaves of gold and orange standing out against a back drop of green.
In the midst of it all, situated on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream, was the town of Woodsville.
Woodsville had humble beginnings as a lumber camp. Trees were felled in the mountains and the stripped logs freighted down from the camp to the timber mills at the foot of the range.
The discovery of gold some twelve months later saw the camp boom with an influx of miners, keen to make their fortune. The rush lasted three years before the last of the placer mines played out and the miners left. In their wake was left a town that struggled to survive.
An English timber man, Edward Fox, had made his fortune selling milled lumber to the miners. Though little was known about him, rumour had it that many years before he’d gone into exile from his native homeland after the suspicious murder of his wife and her lover. Though in reality, nobody actually knew.
Fox and his son had arrived with the first miners. He brought machinery and men with him and soon after, had his lumberjacks felling in the best stands. He supplied timber hand over fist to the miners at exorbitant prices.
Other timber companies saw an opportunity for themselves to come in and take a share of the profits but Fox would have none of it. The first time a rival company tried to move machines into the high country, the freighters were ambushed and the equipment destroyed. It was a single ill-fated attempt.
Therein Fox found another way to make money. He offered to buy ready-to-mill logs from his opposition, at a substantially reduced price.
Of course, the deal was refused. Rather than sell to Fox, they chose to keep freighting it down out of the mountains. Once again, it was tried only once. From then on, they were at the mercy of Edward Fox.
After the miners left, Fox’s profits slumped, but the “entrepreneur”, as he referred to himself, was not one to stand idly by and let money escape his grasp. He began to buy the most lucrative businesses in Woodsville and once more was making money.
Pearson reined up on the outskirts of town and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a nickel-plated star and pinned it to his chest, high and on the left side.
He’d worn it for the past two years in a small town called Tawny Creek. Tired of wandering, he’d looked for an opportunity to settle down, and Tawny Creek had provided that for him.
Pearson leaned forward and rubbed his horse between the ears. “I guess this is it girl. Let’s ride in and get it done.”
Pearson’s first stop was the livery stable. Not much more than a large barn, it had double doors at both ends and a corral out the back. The hostler’s name was Orville. He was a middle-aged man with grey hair and a limp courtesy of a Reb minie ball.
“What can I do for you stranger?” Orville asked warmly while Pearson was tethering the buckskin to a wobbly hitch-rail.
Pearson turned around and the hostler noticed the badge.
He swallowed hard and his warm demeanour shifted to one of nervousness. “What can I do for you sheriff?”
“A stall for the night if you’ve got one?”
“Sure, no problem,” Orville answered. “People around here call me Orville. Are you just passin’ through sheriff?”
“The name’s Pearson,” Pearson told him. “And no I’m not passin’ through.”
The hostler’s face fell. “No, I didn’t think you were. The stall will be four bits for the night.”
“With feed and rub down?”
“Feed is included, but it’ll cost you an extra two bits for the rub down.”
Pearson nodded. “Fine.”
After the horse was stabled Pearson said, “I’m lookin’ for two men. One rides a paint and the other rides a chestnut. Do you know of anyone around here who forks broncs like that?”
Orville shook his head but his eyes gave him away. “Nope, I don’t know anyone around here who rides them kinda horses. Come to think of it I don’t think I’ve ever seen any such horses like that in town, ever.”
“That’s funny,” Pearson said, “because I was told I could find ’em here in Woodsville.”
The hostler shook his head vigorously. “Nope. Whomever told you that must’ve been drunk when they told you that. Yes sir, blamed drunk.”
The next time Pearson spoke, his voice possessed an edge. “Is everybody in town runnin’ scared like you?”
An indignant expression came over the hostler’s face, all but fleeting. He knew what Pearson meant, but denied it anyway.
“What do you mean?” Orville asked, refusing to meet the lawman’s eyes.
“You know what I mean,” Pearson snapped. “You also know who I’m after and that they blamed well live here in town.”
“Sheriff, I know nothin’.”
“You mean you choose to know nothin’,” Pearson scolded him as he would a child. “Where can I find the local law?”
“The jail is about halfway along main street on your left,” Orville informed him. “It won’t do you any good.”
“Why?” Pearson asked harshly.
Orville didn’t answer. He turned and limped away.
Pearson entered the law office and found the sheriff sitting behind a scarred, dark timber desk, drinking a steaming mug of coffee laced with rot gut whiskey.
Pearson stood in front of the desk. “My name’s Pearson. I’m the sheriff of Tawny Creek. It’s a small town south of here. I’m lookin’ for two men who robbed the Tawny Creek stage and killed the driver and messenger. They stole four thousand dollars from the strong box the Concorde was carryin’.”
Pearson could tell from the expression on the lawman’s face that he knew exactly who Pearson meant even without mentioning names.
The sheriff was an overweight man who looked as though he’d not moved from his chair in years. His puffy face had turned a pale sickly colour.
“I’m sheriff James,” he croaked. “If there is any way I can help, just ask.”
Pearson knew that there was no heart in the offer.
“The men I’m after live here,” he said, knowing he didn’t need to add the last bit of information. “One rides a paint and the other a chestnut. Do you know ’em?”
“Nope. Never heard of ’em,” James answered with a shake of his head.
“You too sheriff?”
All he got in return was a puzzled look.
“Hell James, you know who I’m talkin’ about. Let’s see if this jogs your memory. Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene. They were the two who hit the stage and did the killin’. I’m here to take ’em back for trial, so you can either help me or stay the hell out of my way.”
Pearson paused briefly then continued. “I’ve been here five minutes and it’s not hard to tell that Edward Fox has this town buffaloed. So tell me, where can I find ’em?”
“I … I don’t know where they are,” the fat man stammered.
Pearson’s eyes grew flinty. “So that’s how it’s going to be is it?”
“You could try the saloon across the street,” James said acting as if he was being helpful. “The Cross Cut it’s called. They could be there.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Pearson said icily. “Thanks for all your help.”
With that the Tawny Creek sheriff turned on his heel and stalked out the door.
James waited until he saw Pearson enter the saloon before he rushed from his office and lumbered along the street to the office of Fox and Son.
Edward Fox sat at a large, finely hand-tooled cedar desk, in a leather upholstered chair. His son, Jonathan sat on a lounge along a side wall, with his cohort Abilene. A pot-bellied stove in the far corner emitted sufficient heat to warm the room.
Fox senior was a thin man with fine, grey hair which was immaculately groomed. He was a man who exuded an aura of great confidence.
Junior was a younger version of the same while Abilene was an average looking young man with lake blue eyes, blond hair and a right arm that could pull a six-gun in the blink of an eye.
“What can we do for our esteemed peace officer today?” the elder Fox asked in a voice that dripped sarcasm.
“You got a problem that just rode into town,” the big man gasped out and pointed at the young men on the lounge. “Actually, it’s you two who have the problem.”
Jonathan and Abilene gave him a questioning look.
“What the hell do you mean?” Jonathan snapped.
“Well, just lately I had noticed you two have been flashin’ money around town. More than usual and today a lawman from down Tawny Creek shows up with a story about a stage heist and lookin’ for you two.”
The two young men remained silent.
Edward Fox looked over at them, his eyes narrowed with his rage.
“What have you two gone and done now?” he hissed.
His son shrugged nonchalantly. “When we went and took care of that business for you, we picked up a little spendin’ money along the way. Nothin’ much.”
Fox’s face turned crimson. “Of all the stupid, idiotic things to do. What the hell were you two idiots thinking?”
“They killed the driver and the shotgun messenger too,” James put in.
“Watch your mouth fat man,” Abilene warned.
“Shut up!” Fox exploded. “I can’t believe that the pair of you thought that I wouldn’t find out. And now your stupidity has brought outside law here.”
Abilene leapt to his feet, drew his Colt .45 and checked its loads.
“Where is he?” he asked staring hard at James. “I’ll fix the problem right now.”
“He went over to the Cross Cut,” the sheriff answered.
Fox held up a gnarled hand. “Just hold up. You two have caused enough trouble. I’ll sort this out. Meanwhile, you two go up to the cabin at Deep Creek and lay low. Don’t come back to town until I send for you.”
The two young men left and Fox turned his steely gaze on the sheriff. “Go and find Wells for me. Tell him I have a job for him and have him meet me at my house.”
When Pearson entered the saloon, most patrons turned to stare at the stranger with the badge pinned to his chest. The room went silent for a time before the noise levels returned to normal once again.
Pearson looked about from his position just inside the bat-wing doors. A sawdust covered plank floor held round tables with scarred tops which were scattered throughout the room. The bar was constructed of hardwood and stretched across most of the width of the room while a long rectangle mirror on the rear wall sat above shelves of bottles.
Percentage girls were ensconced on the knees of customers, encouraging them to part with more money, while the faro table appeared busy.
Pearson weaved his way through the crowd as he crossed the smoke-filled room and bellied up to the bar.
“What’ll it be sheriff?” the short barkeep asked. “Beer or whiskey?”
Pearson shook his head, “Neither. I’m lookin’ for Jonathan Fox; know where I can find him?”
The barkeep stared blankly at the Tawny Creek sheriff. Without a word he turned and walked away to a spot further down the bar where he started to clean glasses with a stained rag.
Finally, Pearson’s frustration boiled over. He turned to face the bar-room.
“I’m lookin’ for Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene,” he shouted. “They robbed a stage and killed two men. Do any of you know where I can find them?”
Every person in the room ignored him. It was as if Pearson wasn’t there.
“Hell!” he cursed and stormed out.
The next place of call was the Fox and Son office but it was locked up and the blinds pulled. More frustration.
For the rest of the day Pearson tried various other establishments, under the watchful eye of townsfolk too afraid to talk, for the same result. Finally he gave up in disgust after his belly told him it was time to eat. He would go to Fox’s office the following morning and see what he had to say.
It was just on dark when Pearson found himself a small eatery on a side street that was run by a widow woman and her daughter.
Inside there was enough room for ten tables, no more. Each table was covered with a white table cloth and had two chairs. Clean cutlery sat on the table tops, along with starched napkins.
Although the place was small, Pearson thought that somebody took great pains to look after their patrons.
The room was filled with mouth-watering aromas and by the time Pearson sat down at the only available table, his stomach was kicking up a storm.
He ordered a plate of stew and potatoes, followed by homemade dumplings. Without a doubt, it was certainly the best home cooked meal he’d had in a long while.
Pearson was halfway through his second cup of coffee when the widow woman’s daughter sat in the chair opposite him.
She was thin, plain looking but not unattractive, her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. It quickly struck him that she was not the young girl he’d thought she was. She was in every way a young woman.
Pearson’s mug stopped halfway to his lips as he waited on an explanation for the intrusion. The young lady had a look of uncertainty on her face and the Tawny Creek sheriff thought that she might have changed her mind and stand up before she spoke a word.
In a soft voice she asked, “Are you planning on taking Jon and Abilene back with you mister?”
“That’s the idea,” he replied.
“Are you going to take them back alive or are you going to shoot them?”
Pearson was puzzled. “Why is it you want to know ma’am?”
“My name is Peggy,” she informed him. “But if you’re planning on taking them back alive that means old man Fox will try to stop you. And you might have to kill him. That would please me no end.”
Pearson’s face, although taken aback at the harshness that Peggy’s voice held, remained passive.
“I’m sorry,” she hurriedly apologised. “But you can’t blame me for hoping. After all, that man is responsible for the death of my father, and now you show up. A real man who might be the only hope of breaking the choke hold that man has on this town.”
“I’m sorry about your Pa,” Pearson said quietly. “But my job here is to bring in the ones responsible for the stage robbery and deaths of two men. If Fox comes between me and my duty then I’ll deal with him. But if he leaves me be, then that’s all I’ll do. I’m not somebody’s avenging angel. Besides, hate is a heavy burden to be carryin’ around.”
Peggy remained silent for a while then she stood up, the chair scraped on the floorboards as it moved back. She brushed at the front of her floral apron and moved around the table to where she could reach the empty bowl the dumplings had been in.
“You might try the company cabin up on Deep Creek,” she whispered. “It’s four miles north of here.”
When she turned and walked back to the kitchen, Peggy could feel his eyes on her, and that made her smile.
Pearson remembered seeing a hotel on his way around town and walked toward it along the dusty boardwalk, dim lantern light cast a dull orange glow across his path.
He pulled the collar on his jacket higher as the chilled night air bit sharply into his exposed skin. As his boots clunked along on the boards, Peggy’s words played over and over in his head. He would take a look at the cabin in the morning. If the pair were there, they wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.
Pearson stepped down into the street to cross it when thunder filled the night air and the muzzle flash from a rifle lit an alley across the way.
A burning pain lanced across his left side as a bullet scored a deep furrow over his ribs. The force of it spun him around and Pearson collapsed to his knees.
Instinct took over and he drew his Colt, turned stiffly, raised his gun and fired at the darkened alley.
The bushwhacker fired again and dirt kicked up to Pearson’s left. Pearson fired at the muzzle flash, two shots and was rewarded with a cry of alarm.
Ignoring the pain in his side Pearson leapt to his feet and ran across the street. He took cover up against the front wall of the mercantile and then edged his way along to the mouth of the alley.
No more gunfire sounded so Pearson cautiously entered the dark alley and found the bushwhacker laying in the shadows. Pearson knelt down beside the body and felt for a pulse. There was none. Whoever this man was, he was dead.
People started to gather around the mouth of the alley and it wasn’t long before the sheriff arrived on the scene blowing hard from his exertions.
“What the blazes is goin’ on?” he gasped out. “Well Pearson?”
Pearson pointed at the dark shadow of the dead man on the ground. “It would seem that this here feller wanted to blow a few holes in me.”
“Has somebody got a light?” Sheriff James asked.
A tall, slim man stepped out of the crowd holding a lantern at shoulder height. He held it above the dead bushwhacker so his face was visible.
“It’s Shorty Wells,” murmured a man in the crowd.
The lucky shot from Pearson’s Colt had hit the man high in the chest, killing him.
“Who’s Shorty Wells?” Pearson asked James.
“He’s um … he’s nobody,” James said hesitantly. “He’s just a bum.”
Pearson had been lied to all day and now he’d been ambushed. He’d had enough. With a fluid motion his Colt appeared in his hand. He raised it so the barrel poked up under the lawman’s double chin.
“Who’s Shorty Wells?”
There was a murmur from the crowd.
“He’s … he’s a man who works for Mr Fox,” stammered James.
Pearson holstered his six-gun. “See, now wasn’t that easy?”
The Tawny Creek sheriff shouldered his way through the crowd and once he was clear, stopped to examine his bloody side. When he looked up Peggy stood before him. She took him by the arm. “Come with me and I’ll fix that for you.”
“What are you doin’ here?”
“I heard the shooting,” she explained. “I knew it was you.”
“Yeah well, you shouldn’t have come.”
“Whatever,” she shrugged. “Come with me.”
Pearson allowed himself to be led away by Peggy. She was beginning to interest him very much.
“There you go, all done.”
Peggy stood back and admired her work.
Pearson sat on a kitchen chair in the home of his nurse. With no shirt on, even with the small wood stove burning, he was beginning to feel the cold.
It was a small room, but in all it looked functional.
“You can stop staring at me now, I’m finished. Put your shirt back on.”
Pearson turned red with embarrassment as he realised he had indeed been staring at Peggy.
“I’m sorry,” he apologised. “I didn’t know I was doin’ it.”
Peggy smiled warmly. “I don’t mind. It’s not often that a man like you happens by and looks at me like you have been. It’s quite flattering.”
Pearson turned even redder but said nothing while he put his bloody shirt back on.
“I wish you’d let me clean your shirt for you,” Peggy said dismayed at the sight of it.
“It’s fine, really. I’ve another in my saddlebags,” he reassured her.
Peggy had cleaned his wound, put some salve on it and then bandaged it tight to help stop the bleeding.
“Well, I guess I’ll be goin’. Thanks for the doctorin’.”
Peggy put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Wait here a minute.” And then she disappeared.
A few minutes later she returned with blankets and a pillow.
“What’s all this?” Pearson asked hesitantly.
She dumped it all in Pearson’s arms and said, “We have a spare room out the back. You’ll be sleeping there.”
Pearson opened his mouth to protest but Peggy cut him off.
“It’s fine. It was ma’s idea. She couldn’t see a problem with it, you being a sheriff and all. So breakfast is at seven. Don’t be late.”
Peggy turned and left the room, leaving Pearson sitting there stunned.
The following morning sheriff James was in the office of Edward Fox, and the latter was not happy.
“That bastard was lucky last night,” Fox fumed. “I’ve never known Shorty to miss.”
“That’s just it,” said James, “he did and now he’s dead because of it.”
Fox sat in his big leather chair and remained silent, deep in thought. He looked up at James.
“Sheriff, you’re looking a little pale,” he observed. “I suggest a short trip out of town is in order. Before the first snow sets in.”
James was slow to realise that what he was being told was not an option.
“I feel fine Mr Fox. Never felt better.”
Fox sighed heavily at the lawman’s inability to comprehend what he was hearing. “Do I have to spell it out for you? Pearson is fast becoming a problem and I can only see one way of getting rid of him. And that is by going at him hard. I don’t think you want to be around for that.”
It finally dawned on James what Fox was alluding to. “Oh.”
“So, have you seen him this morning or not?” Fox asked the sheriff.
James shook his head, “Nope. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since last night.”
Fox frowned. “I wonder where he is.”
Pearson had risen before dawn that chilled morning and foregone breakfast to get an early start up to Deep Creek. His side was stiff and a little sore but he knew that would be fine.
Orville was up and about, curious as to what Pearson was doing about so early.
“We are rough men and used to rough ways” – Bob Younger, famed outlaw of the Wild West
It was still dark outside when he woke up. He grunted and ran a hand over his eyes to wipe the sleep from them. Sitting up in bed, he stretched to try and pull his body loose. His wife turned in bed, still sound asleep. Sheriff McShea scratched at the stubble growing from his chin before he pulled himself to his feet. He had to stifle a groan as his knees popped. He stretched again, trying to loosen his back before he began to do an awkward early-morning limp from the bedroom to the kitchen downstairs.
He began to make a pot of coffee; his eyes stared out of the small kitchen window into the darkness. He blinked several times while waiting for the pot to brew. The kitchen around him was as dark as outside, which allowed his eyes to fully adjust. Roughly a hundred yards from the door that leads into his kitchen, a family of deer was stopped to graze. The Sheriff cracked a small smile as he watched them. The pot finished brewing and in the darkness, the Sheriff poured himself a cup of coffee and brought it to his lips for a slow drink. His eyes stayed focused on the deer. The buck of the group was in the front, his head bent low so that his antlers brushed the ground beneath him. He was an impressive looking buck, thick with antlers that have been growing for years as he managed to avoid being the target of hunters, coyotes, and wolves.
“How’ve you done it?” James whispered to the deer while taking another drink from his coffee cup. His free hand scratched at the back of his neck. James couldn’t pull his eyes from the buck, whose head had raised now and turned to face the dark house. Their eyes locked, at least in James’ mind they locked, across the hundred yards of darkness. The gaze was held for several moments. “What are you looking for?” James muttered to himself as the large buck finally broke the gaze to look at the deer behind him. One deer was a fully grown female; the other three were juvenile deer, one of them was just starting to grow its own antlers.
Just a few moments later, the deer bound away from the house and James was left standing there staring out at an empty space. He took another drink of coffee. The first hints of sunrise were beginning to form on the Eastern horizon. There was a knock on his kitchen door and James was suddenly pulled out of whatever trance he was in by the figure at the door. It belongs to Thomas Parker, one of his long time deputies – one of his trusted friends. The Sheriff pulled the door open and cocked his head. “What are you doing here, Tommy?”
Parker stepped into the dark kitchen. “Sorry to be here so early. But there was a robbery in Green Bluff last night.”
The Sheriff moved to light some candles to cast a flickering light in the kitchen. “You want a cup of joe?” He asked Thomas, who shrugged.
“Sure,” Thomas replied. “Did you hear me? There was a robbery in Green Bluff last night.”
The Sheriff nodded his head as he poured Parker a cup of coffee. He handed the cup to him and replied, “I heard you. But this isn’t Green Bluff. We don’t keep the law over there.”
Parker took a drink from the cup, “I know. But their Sheriff sent us a wire and asked us to be on the lookout for the men who were responsible. He was pretty sure it was The Gonzales Gang.”
The name of the gang caught James off guard, “The Gonzales Gang? Is he sure?”
Parker took another drink from the coffee cup, “He wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but he’s entirely confident that Joaquin Gonzales was there, and wherever he is, Diego, Alejandro, and Santino can be found.”
The names hovered there in the air – heavy. They carried a lot of weight with them. James McShea leaned against the sink basin with his eyes turned towards the floor. His mouth moved silently and Thomas Parker could only watch him. He wasn’t sure what to say and James just shook his head. “I never thought I’d hear those names again.”
“Me neither.” Thomas replied. His mouth was dry. He didn’t want to be the one who had to bring this news to his boss. The Gonzales Gang had been a touchy subject for almost a decade now with the Sheriff.
“It’s been what…Ten years since they killed Robert? Ten years since those bastards put my baby brother in a pine box. To be honest, I thought they all died in Mexico and we just didn’t hear about it.” The Sheriff said in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
Thomas finished his cup of coffee and set it down on the counter. “I didn’t think they’d ever come back into this area again that’s for sure. But Sheriff Caster is pretty darn sure it was them that knocked over the bank in Green Bluff last night. Means I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t stop in here sometime in the next day or so.”
McShea scratched at his chin. “Let the Gonzales Gang stop in here. I’m going to put them down.”
Thomas inhaled sharply. This was what he feared. The Sheriff’s own desire for revenge. “Sheriff, Green Bluff would rather we brought ‘em in alive.”
James spun around and looked at Thomas with a fire in his eyes. “I don’t give a God damn. Ten years ago, the Gonzales Gang put nine people from this town into an early grave including my brother Robert. If they are stupid enough to stop into my town again then —.” He trailed off for a moment before continuing, “You can either go make sure Pickett is on the lookout as well, or you can put your badge on my desk at the jail. Either way, I’ve got a bullet for each one of them.”
Joaquin Gonzales was a giant of a man. He looked different than all of his family. They all were short with dark hair, but he was tall with red hair and a thick red hair. If it wasn’t for the color of his skin, people might confuse him for being Scottish. Behind his bulky body, the first rays of the sun were starting to peek through. The bluff is quiet around him and his three brothers. His right hand clutched the bottle of whiskey. He looked down at his brother Diego. “Keep quiet. This is going to burn.”
Diego, the youngest of the Gonzales brothers, turned his head and bit down on the collar of his shirt. Santino dug his fingers into the lower left leg of his younger brother as Joaquin bent forward and poured some of the whiskey into the wound on Diego’s left thigh. Diego growled in pain as the whiskey burned him. Alejandro patted his little brother. “That’s it boy. Let it burn. It’s going to keep it from festerin’.”
“Hand me the needle and thread.” Joaquin said to Alejandro who nodded and immediately handed the eldest of the Gonzales clan a needle and spool of thread. Joaquin didn’t say anything in response as he turned to the small fire behind. Carefully, he pushed the needle into the fire to sterilize it. Pulling the needle back, he looked at Diego and tried to smile. “This should be quick,” he said as he threaded the needle and began to stitch the leg wound closed.
The left leg tried to twitch and the other two brothers did their best to hold him down so that Joaquin could work with as much stillness as possible. Joaquin’s fingers worked deftly; expertly pushing the needle through one side of the wound and out the other, before looping back. His eyes were narrowed and focused.
Diego spit out his shirt collar and groaned into the still air around the four brothers. “Next time. Don’t let yourself get shot.” Joaquin said in a soft voice that made the other two unwounded brothers chuckle. Stepping back, Joaquin nodded. “Finished.”
Diego’s breathing was uneven. “That whiskey burns like hell.”
Joaquin laughed and took a drink from the bottle. “Yes it does. But it kills off infection. Burns it right out of you.”
Diego inhaled deeply as Santino handed him a wrap. “Wrap that around your leg.”
Nodding, Diego did as he was told. Santino crosses to Joaquin and lets his voice lower. “You think Diego is going to be okay to ride?”
Joaquin looked over at the youngest of the bunch and nodded. “Yeah. He’ll be fine. He’s a tough one. Like Pablo.”
Santino‘s voice stayed low so that only Joaquin could hear him. “Pablo died though.”
Joaquin nodded again and took another drink from the whiskey before he screwed the cap back onto it. “But not because he wasn’t tough. Because he was as dumb as an ox. Diego ain’t that dumb. I mean, hell,” Joaquin let his voice rise so all of the brothers could hear him, “We’ve all been shot. We’ve all had to dig bullets out of us. Diego’s just one of the club now.”
Diego looked up at Joaquin and scowled. “I’d rather not be a member of this particular club. It hurt something fierce.”
The three older brothers laughed as Alejandro extended a hand to Diego to pull him to his feet. Diego grunted as he put weight on the wounded leg and Alejandro patted him on the back. “Be thankful it caught you in the thigh. The first time I got shot it caught me in the arm. I thought I’d never be able to use my arm again. A thigh wound ain’t bad.”
Diego lightly shoved his brother in response. “Gettin’ shot is gettin’ shot.”
Alejandro grinned as he stumbled back a few steps. “That it is, little brother.”
Joaquin stepped forward. “Enough horsing around. We gotta get back across the border as quickly as we can. Those boys from Green Bluff are bound to try and track us and I’d rather not get in a gunfight while we’re carryin’ a bunch of gold.”
Santino nodded and put out the fire. “I’ll pack us up.”
Santino began the process of breaking down and packing up their camp. Alejandro started to help him as Joaquin turned his back on his brothers to look down the bluff at the ground beneath them. “They won’t find us. I mean, I doubt they’ll find us. But I want to be safe. And I hate this land, this country, With their flawed sense of justice. They think if you give a man a star to pin on his chest that means he is above everyone else.” He spat down from the bluff and turned to look at his brothers. “That is why we come here and we take from them. Do not let any of you forget. We take from them because they do not appreciate what they have. They took this land from our families. Drove us out. Told us we weren’t welcome here anymore and then they abuse it.” He stopped to reach down and pick up a handful of dirt. Returning to a standing position, he opened his hand to let the dirt fall back to the ground. “They took our land. So we take their gold and we go back to the land they can’t take from us – and we spread that gold out. We give back what should be ours in the first place.”
The other three brothers listened, but they didn’t stop working. They are used to Joaquin rambling on about his dislike of America, his dislike of the towns and the people. His dislike of their law. Joaquin’s fingers tugged at his beard. Santino turned to look at his brother. “We’re ready.”
McShea saw dust clouds rising in the distance and his eyes squinted. There were four horses galloping towards town. His jaw tightened almost instantly and he moved away from the Saloon to the side of the bank across the street so that he was out of view. The horses entered town and made a beeline for the watering hole. None of the men on horseback paid any mind to the people they were passing, it was as if they were hoping that ignoring the other people would mean that they were going to be ignored as well. McShea studied the four men as they rode by. It was them. He was sure of it.
Time had aged the three he recognized, but Sheriff McShea knew it was them. He could feel it in his gut. The giant man with the red hair – the one who had fired the kill shot. The two brothers who did his bidding. The new one. The Sheriff wanted to scream at them. He wanted to fire his gun there in the street, but that was not the way of the law. Law men didn’t shoot men down in the middle of the street. Not like how they shot Robert. Not like that violence. Sheriff McShea moved a hand to the butt of one of the revolvers along his waist. He gripped it tightly as his jaw clenched.
The four men moved into the Number 9 and McShea stepped out from the shadows. He stopped a boy walking past. “Go get Deputy Picket and Deputy Parker. Tell them to meet me here as soon as they possibly can.”
The boy nodded his head and took off running down the street. McShea did not move to cross the street. He did not move from in front of the bank. His eyes were trained on the front door of the Number 9. “Y’all made a big mistake coming back here… A big mistake.”
Alejandro helped Diego onto a stool at the bar. The bartender, an older man named Tom approaches them. “What can I do for you fellas?”
Alejandro glanced up at Tom. “I’ll take a whiskey and water. And do you know where we can find the doctor?”
Tom nodded his head and pointed across the room. “In the corner eating.”
Alejandro turned and nodded towards Santino. Santino crossed the room and approached the Doctor. Doctor Wallace, one of two doctors in town – and the most recent addition to the permanent populace of the town. Doctor Wallace glanced up from his meal. “Yes?”
Santino pulled his hat off his head and held it against his chest. “My brothers and I heard that you were a doctor. Our youngest brother looks to be coming down with an infection. We’d really appreciate it if you took a look at him.”
Doctor Wallace nodded his head and took the last bite of his dinner. After setting his fork down, he stood up and crossed the room back to Alejandro and Diego. Diego had grown even paler. Sweat beads had started to form on his forehead. Doctor Wallace looked at him and turned to Alejandro. “What happened to him?”
Alejandro pointed to Diego’s leg. “He was shot. In a hunting accident. A hunter didn’t see that we were on the trail of the same animal. He,” he gestured to Joaquin, who was standing by the entrance, his eyes focused on the window, “stitched him up best he could.”
The Doctor nodded. “We need to get him upstairs so I can look at him properly.”
Alejandro nodded. “Let’s go Diego.” Diego gingerly slid of the stool and Alejandro stood next to him so that the two of them plus the Doctor could move to a room upstairs. Joaquin turned to look at Santino.
“We’ve got trouble.” Joaquin said in a low voice. Santino moved so he is standing next to his brother.
“What sort of trouble?” Santino asked.
Joaquin motioned to the window, “outside… three men… I’m assuming it’s the Sheriff and his two deputies. They know we’re here.”
Santino swallowed hard. “That mean what I think it means?”
Joaquin snorted and looked to his waist. He slowly pulled out his revolver. It wasn’t the same one he used ten years ago. That one was single action. The gun he held in the Number 9 Saloon was a Colt M1877 Double Action revolver. He looked at the gun and snorted again. “It means get ready for a fight.”
Joaquin turned to look at Tom the Bartender. “Clear the bar, now.”
Tom cocked his head, “And why the hell would I do that?”
Joaquin showed him his gun. “Because, a storm is coming.”
Sheriff McShea checked each revolver one last time. People were exiting the Number 9. “They know we’re coming.” He said to Parker and Pickett.
Each man nodded. “I’d reckon they do.” Pickett said as he checked his own revolver. “How do you want to play this boss?”
McShea turned, “What do you mean?’
“Are we going in guns blazing?” Pickett said, “Or are we going to try to talk them into surrendering.”
McShea spat. “That really depends on them, don’t you think? If they shoot, we shoot back and we shoot until all four of those sons of bitches are dead. If they put their hands in the air and come peacefully, then they can stand trial for their crimes and be hung. I don’t really care which one.”
The two deputies nodded. Parker glanced at Pickett. Pickett glanced back. McShea stared at the Number 9. He inhaled deeply and began to cross the street.
Alejandro had rejoined his two brothers down stairs. He checked his revolvers with shaking hands. Joaquin was at the bar. His hand clutched a pen. He was writing. Without looking up, he started speaking. “Do you know what Bill Hickok did when he thought he was going to die? He wrote letters to his wife. It is said that just before he died, he wrote to his wife. He told her that, ‘My dearly beloved if I am to die today and never see the sweet face of you I want you to know that I am no great man and am lucky to have such a woman as you,’ he knew. He knew death was coming. You could not live the life that he led and not know that.”
“What the hell are you going on about, Joaquin?” Alejandro blurted out nervously.
“I’m not afraid to die today, Alejandro. But I want Maria to know I love her. I want her to know that everything I did was for her and our children. In this country, in this place we are banditos, brothers, outlaws, criminals. They will not remember us fondly. I did not want Maria to remember me as they are going to.” Joaquin folded the paper and placed it in an envelope. He closed the envelope and slid it inside his jacket.
The swinging doors to the Number 9 were pushed open and McShea, Pickett and Parker entered. Their weapons were drawn. McShea spoke slowly, “no one move.”
The three Gonzales brothers raised their revolvers at the three lawmen. Joaquin looked at Sheriff McShea. McShea looked back at him. They held each other’s gaze for a long moment. No one spoke. No one moved. They just stood with guns leveled at each other. “I did not mean for your brother to die all those years ago, Sheriff.”
McShea spat at his feet. “You shot my brother. You sent three bullets into him and then you fled like a God-damned coward.”
“I went home,” Joaquin said in response. “I came here to take what had been taken from my family – from my people. This was our town. We were peaceful people. God-fearing people. And then your lot drove us from our homes. Sent us across the border. I didn’t mean for your brother to get shot that night. It was supposed to be simpler, but people got hurt.”
“It doesn’t matter what you intended. It matters what happened. You killed my brother. You killed dozens of other people. Your hands are soaked with the blood of innocent people. You must be brought to justice.”
Joaquin spat on the ground. “What about your hands? The hands of the people who ripped the land from my people? Where is the justice for us?”
Even though it was entirely unnecessary, Sheriff McShea pulled back on the hammer of the double action revolver. “Just put the revolvers down and no one has to get hurt.”
It was Alejandro this time that grunted and spoke. “Until we are hanging from gallows.”
Santino nodded in agreement. “There will be no justice for us with you.”
Joaquin was the last of the three brothers to speak. “I do not plan on hanging by my neck, sitting behind bars in your prisons, or whatever torture you can think of for me and my brothers.”
McShea grinned. This was what he wanted in a way. He didn’t want a peaceful solution. He wanted something violent. He wanted something primal. He was itching for a fight – something he normally tried to avoid at all costs. But today was different. “Well that’s your call.”
From the balcony above them, Diego shuffled out. He was badly limping and clutched a revolver. Doctor Wallace was trying to pull him back into the room. “You won’t take us!” He cried as he wildly fired a shot that did not come anywhere close to hitting a living target, but instead embedded itself in a support beam.
The gunshot; however, was all the lawmen needed. McShea’s gun raised and fired at the boy. The impact of the bullet into the upper thigh caused Diego to lurch forward into the railing and up and over it. The sound his body made when it collided with the floor below was sickening. Joaquin turned to the body. “Diego, Diego, Mi hermano.”
Diego didn’t move. He didn’t twitch. He was lifeless. Joaquin rested the temple of his revolver against his temple with his back to the law men, “you… You killed my baby brother.”
“And you killed mine you son of a bitch.” McShea snarled. Joaquin spun on his heel. In the midst of spinning, he fired a shot off towards the three lawmen. McShea rolled out of the way while Pickett and Parker ducked behind two columns. Joaquin kneeled behind the bar while Alejandro and Santino flipped tables over to use as cover.
Alejandro rose up to fire just as Pickett moved from cover to fire. Both squeezed off shots. Neither shot was able to find the mark; instead the bullets went wild and embedded themselves into walls. Alejandro fired again and Pickett was barely able to move out of the way of the bullet before it shattered the window at the front of the store. Pickett returned fire, but his shot was low and struck the table Alejandro had flipped for cover. The two men fired again and this time Alejandro’s shot was low, catching Pickett in the thigh but Pickett managed to catch Alejandro in the gut. The impact of the bullet into his leg sent Pickett to the floor while Alejandro fell back into another table; his fingers released the gun and went to press against the hole in his stomach that his insides were pouring out of.
Santino turned to see his brother fall and screamed. He pushed his table away and rose up, and fired shots at the beam Parker was hiding behind. Two bullets embedded themselves in the wood but one managed to find its way through the splinters and into the shoulder of Thomas Parker. Parker howled as searing pain shot through his left arm. He turned around the beam and fired a series of shots at Santino. Santino tried to take cover, but he was too late. Each one of the shots landed and Santino was driven into the side of the bar before slumping to the floor with several bullet holes in his chest.
Joaquin called out from behind the bar, “Sheriff. Are those my other two brothers laying there dead?”
McShea responded. “Yes. It is just you left.”
Joaquin dropped his revolver and started to stand up with his hands and the air. “You call this justice? My three brothers killed.”
McShea saw Joaquin emerge unarmed and slowly rose to his feet. His revolver was still trained on Joaquin’s body. “I call it the closest thing to justice this town is going to see. Now put your hands on the bar.”
Joaquin nodded and rests his hands on the top of the bar. “I really am sorry about your brother.”
Sheriff McShea just nodded as he moved to tie Joaquin’s hands together. “This could have been less bloody. It didn’t have to go down like this at all.”
Joaquin snorted, “Sheriff, when all that is left is how it goes down – it matters. We had to fight. We lost. Get your justice.”
Now, Soapy Joe was a liar. If you’ve ever come across him then you know exactly what I mean. If you ain’t never met him, why, then you take my word for it or ask some of the others if I’m wrong. We all knew it but he told a decent story most times and he was right good company.
To hear him talk you’d have thought he won the goddamn Mexican war single-handed and killed more gunmen than all of them Texas Rangers put together. He reckoned he could outshoot, outride and lick most any man in the county. He said all that was years ago, when he was a mite younger and raising hell down south somewhere.
He was maybe 40 now, a small man with dark curly hair. He had a full moustache that he was right proud of and he kept running his finger and thumb down it while he talked. He was a thin feller, but had a pot belly like a knot in a piece of string, on account of him always eating pork plates out of the cafe down by the livery. You know he gobbled his grub so fast we always reckoned he could easily lose a finger.
He usually sat with a plug of Red Mountain, chewing tobacco packed in his jaw. His teeth were black like burnt tree stumps. He could spit like a grasshopper; he’d gather up a mouthful and send it flying. A gob of that foul juice caused many an argument in the bar, let me tell you.
Did I mention that we used to meet in the Horse at the End of the Street saloon in Muddy Creek, Baker County? Maybe I forgot… Anyways, that’s where nearly all of us found our way most nights. When I say ‘we’, I mean me, of course, as well as Lim, Quincy, Prentice and Fred, and obviously Soapy. I have no idea why folk called him Soapy. It wasn’t because he was clean, that’s for sure.
Well, one night, I think it was a Tuesday… No, maybe it was the Wednesday, because they served the special on Wednesdays… It don’t really matter none. Anyways, Soapy starts in telling about the time he nearly killed Burdette Fogg down in Clarksville, Red River County.
Now it was hard to keep a straight face most times when he sets off on one, but Burdette Fogg was well known even this far north – well known in a bad way, of course. He must have killed more men than Millie Murdock’s lodging house stew.
Soapy said he’d been passing through Clarksville, played cards and won some good money but he was accused of cheating. Lim said that bit would be true and we all laughed, even Soapy.
Anyway, Soapy said he got out right quick. He sneaked off to the livery to collect his horse. He wasn’t looking for trouble, although it usually found him anyways. One of the fellers who said he cheated was a big man built like the log stockade at Fort Astoria. He didn’t want that sort putting a knot in his head, or worse.
So Soapy’s in the livery saddling up when it suddenly got dark, and when he turned this big feller is stood in the double doorway blocking out all of the light, like a big dark statute. Soapy said he had a voice like thunder that rumbled deep in his barrel chest. This feller says he had a notion that Soapy was a card cheat. He wanted his money back and said he was going to stick Soapy’s head up his horse’s backside. Well he didn’t say backside, but I aim to tell this without cussing, so you figure it.
He said he was Burdette Fogg.
Soapy says he damn well wasn’t no cheat and didn’t believe this feller was Burdette Fogg neither. So, to prove it, Fogg picked up a horseshoe and bent it like it was a piece of liquorice. Next he swung a fist like a lump of rock and punched a hole in the livery wall.
Soapy backed away into the shadows and Fogg – he was sure it was him now – turned to put a hand against the livery door and started to push it closed. Soapy reckoned his acorns were well and truly in the fire.
Soapy stumbled over a pile of tools and he picked up a pitchfork and ran at Fogg with it like a spear. He said this was when it really went belly up. He thought to get the prongs either side of Fogg’s arm and pin him to the door, but he mistimed things and one of the prongs went clean through Fogg’s right forearm and stuck it tight against the door casing like it was nailed to the frame.
Course we was all laughing away by this time.
‘What did you do then?’ says Prentice. ‘Kick the hell out of him?’
No, sir,’ says Soapy. ‘I reckoned I was trapped like a gopher in a rattlesnake burrow. I was on my horse and out of the other door, and got to hell and gone down the road at a fair old clip. The scariest thing was that this Fogg never made a sound, even when I’d pinned him to the livery doorpost. As I rode past he pulled the pitchfork out, broke it across his knee and he looked at me like I was a lump of two cent cheese and not worth bothering with. He never cried out, shouted or cussed. I didn’t get a good look at him in all that time but I just knew he hadn’t felt nothing.’ Soapy looked around us. ‘That was all years ago, but I’ve never gone back and don’t reckon I ever will.’
Now, I’d been in the bar upwards of an hour and never taken any notice of who else was about. I heard someone get up in the corner by the piano, and as he loomed out of the shadows and into the yellowy glare of the lamp, I saw the biggest feller I have ever seen in my life. He must have been 6 foot 5 inches of mountain. He wore a red plaid shirt that looked like it was filled with rocks. This feller padded over real slow like a big grizzly. He was confident, you know, like he’d seen it all and there wasn’t no one to touch him. I’m guessing you’ve figured out who it was already; I know I had.
‘I’m Burdette Fogg.’
He laughed. He was the only one who did, and that made it all the more menacing. It sounded like a pile of boulders rolling down a hillside. The lot of us was struck dumb and we sat like hogs in a hog lot waiting to be slaughtered. You could just tell we was all wracking our brains trying to remember if we’d said anything bad about him and hoping to god we hadn’t.
Next we’re all looking around like we’re searching for the quickest way out. Leastways I was, anyway, and if he hadn’t have been stood right next to me I’d have taken my chances getting to the door and out onto the street.
I’ll tell you a damn queer thing: not two minutes ago we was all sat close to Soapy round the table, but by the time Burdette Fogg trundled over… Well, there was a clear space round Soapy like we didn’t know him. But I hadn’t seen anyone move, it just sort of happened.
Old Soapy sat there pale enough to have had his face whitewashed. He looked like the ghost of a chipmunk, what with that plug of tobacco in his cheek. He was so low in his chair it seemed like his spine had been plucked out; he was trying to push himself down through the seat and out of sight under the table.
I was scared but at the same time I felt excited, like a run of bluetick coonhounds relishing the earthy spectacle of a kill, you know? I felt a mite ashamed as well, though, because I didn’t want no harm to come to Soapy. I’ll be honest: all the same I wasn’t getting in Fogg’s way. That wasn’t going to happen, boy, no matter what he had in mind for Soapy.
Of course I figured Soapy for a liar and cursed him for using Fogg’s name when he could have picked any other but that one.
Fogg towered above us. The smell that rose from his heavy body had the stink of a wet dog. He stood there and rolled the sleeve up on his big, sunburned right arm. It was matted with dark hair, like fur. Just above the wrist he had a puckered pink scar that could easily have been made by the prong of a pitchfork.
‘This was made by the prong of a pitchfork,’ Fogg said.
We all waited and watched in silent fascination while he pushed his sleeve back down. His wrists were thick and ridged with bone.
I risked a look at him from the shadow under the brim of my hat. He had hollowed eyes and big blue jaws that looked as rough as sand. He stared hard at Soapy, one of those searching up and down looks that gets the measure of a man and tears him to shreds. I swear a splinter of lurid light glowed in each of his eyes, like you see in a cougar marking out his prey.
His jaw tightened, his mouth like an ugly black gash. He said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for years. You’re the card cheat who stuck my arm.’ He leaned forward with both hands on the table, his arms like a pair of oak pit props. He stared down at Soapy. You wouldn’t have wanted big, callused hands like that round your throat. Not at any price.
Now, I have to say my guess is that this feller would not be studying to be a doctor or a teacher or anything like that, if you get my drift. I figured him for a natural born halfwit is the truth of it. If his brains were blasting powder, well hell, there wasn’t enough to blow his nose.
I’ll tell you what, though: he whipped a Colt Peacemaker out of his rig with his left hand in the time it takes to blink. He thumbed the hammer back and you could see he was thinking of plugging Soapy – it was there in his eyes and we all saw it. But then he laughed again at something only he knew was funny. He did something fancy with the Colt, you know: it was spinning on his finger, moving through the air and generally flying about, and then it was holstered before your eyes caught up with it. That barrel danced like a magic wand.
Now Soapy was feeling it, all right. He took his hat off and his sodden hair glistened like wet paint. He laid his hat crown down on the table and leaned back in his chair. He normally talked a blue streak but he’d clammed up; nary a word passed his lips. I’ve got to hand it to him here, though: he showed he had some sand, all right. He picked up his drink, drained it and looked over the rim of his glass at Fogg.
‘You know what, mister,’ Fogg says to Soapy, who’s sat with his mouth hanging open, ‘I’m going to do something I should have done years ago.’ I swear we all held our breaths. Then he says ‘I’m going to buy you a drink.’
Boy, I didn’t see that one coming.
Fogg said, ‘You see, you did me a favour all those years ago. I had to learn to handle a gun with my left while my right was messed up. Now I reckon I’m as good with both. Mind you, it took me a year or so to realize that you’d helped me out. Up till then I meant to pull you apart and fry you up in batter.’ He raised his big bushy eyebrows ‘What are you drinking?’
Soapy, he’s got some, all right; he was tougher than I thought. See, he always drinks that local mash that’s cut with burnt sugar and tobacco but he says
‘I’ll have bourbon, please, Burdette. Maybe a Jim Beam, which is what I tend to at this time of day.’
Can you believe that boy? And he went and called him ‘Burdette’, like they spent time in church together.
Fogg brought him the drink over and headed for the door. He stopped suddenly
‘You taught me a lesson I won’t ever forget as well.’
We all waited.
‘Never turn your back on a man with a pitchfork.’ He backed out of the saloon with a stupid grin on his face.
That boy was plumb crazy.
Soapy sat with his chest puffed up like a fighting rooster and a grin on his mug like a jack o’ lantern.
So Soapy told the truth… Well, I’ll be damned. I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
By the way, we heard that the following week Burdette Fogg killed three men in a bar for talking too loud. Soapy always checks who’s in now before he starts on one. Even after all that happened we still don’t believe a goddamn word he says, and I don’t figure he does neither.
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, sheep, horses and 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 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 Dan Crow 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 cold 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 Crow owing Lee a mere four dollars. They were happy with their cowboying lot, happy that is until Lee 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, 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 had stumbled upon 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, Arapaho, part of 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 bundle 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 Native American 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 leather 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 forty 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 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, 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 form 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 to see 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 shell…’ 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…’
A white-faced 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 with your babbling, 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 goddamned word?’
John Halloran was a very 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 an Arapaho arrow…’
‘Ease down there, Crow, how do you know it was an Arapaho 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 more likely Cheyenne or Shoshone in this part of the country, most likely to be Northern Cheyenne though I would guess.’
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,’ Lee 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, Dan Crow. He had done a fine job right enough, a three-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 all the time there were folk like Dan Crow and Henry Lee around there would still be gold in them thar pills.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith April 2018
Chris Adam Smith, aka Harry Jay Thorn, is a lifelong western enthusiast. Ex movie magazine publisher, merchant sailor, military policeman and past member of the Western Writers of America, he has penned 15 novels and many short stories under both names. Now semi-retired, he lives in Sussex and spends most of his time writing westerns and a semi humorous column for the local newspaper under the name of Whispering Smith.
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