The Burden of Absolutes, Part 3 of 3
by Robert McKee
Because Earl Anderson, the Converse County Prosecuting Attorney, wasn't much over five feet tall, he looked like a gnome sitting behind his enormous oak desk.
Jeb, who arrived at Anderson's office first thing the next morning, had just read Joleen's statement word-for-word.
"The ranting of a lunatic," Anderson said once Jeb finished. "Everyone in the county knows she's insane."
"Are you saying you don't believe what I've just read you?" Jeb asked. Jeb never liked this prosecutor. It was difficult to articulate the reason why. When asked, the closest he could come was, "The man wears a monocle on a gold chain around his neck, for God's sake."
"That's exactly what I'm saying, Jebediah. I don't believe a word of it. I have a good, solid confession from Bobby Joe Thomas. And I'll guarantee that killer will hang before Christmas."
Earl Anderson was, if nothing else, a cautious man. Next year was an election year, and there was always the chance that some eager lawyer might move to town who wanted to run for county attorney. A conviction and execution for first-degree murder would enhance his political record.
"You mean that you're just going to ignore this? You're not even going to discuss it with the sheriff or give it any more consideration at all?"
"Shouldn't you at least confront Bobby Joe with it?"
"Why should I? It's not going to change my opinion. The girl's sick. She's lived out there on that ranch like a hermit her entire life."
Jeb had always had a temper. It caused him problems as a boy, but it was something he prided himself on having learned to control. Until now. He stood and loomed over Anderson's desk.
"Earl, if you can't see this woman's telling the truth—" He held his pad up and jabbed an index finger into the center of it. "—then you're even blinder than I've always suspected. Maybe you need to shove another one of those ridiculous monocles in your other eye."
Jeb thrust his pad into his hip pocket, spun on his boot heel, and started for the door.
"I am simply making a prosecutorial decision as to what is pertinent and what is not. It has always been my understanding that court stenographers swear an oath to be dispassionate in all matters that come before the bar." He stood and seemed to stretch himself, apparently in an effort to raise himself to something greater than his full height. "Frankly, Mr. Blake, I can't help but wonder what Judge Walker would think of his employee involving himself in matters that are beyond his station."
"Well, I'm not sure, Mr. Anderson," Jeb said, resisting the urge to lift this little man up and fling him through the window. "I expect if he knew about it he would think it was improper."
"I should think so," Anderson said. He removed his handkerchief and began polishing his monocle. "Yes, I should think so indeed. Although I see no need, at least for the present, to bring it to his attention."
"But I do," Jeb said. "And I expect we'll both find out which he feels is more improper—my becoming involved, or your withholding evidence in a capital case."
With that he threw open the door and stormed into the hallway. In his anger he was not watching where he was going and crashed headlong into Dessie Thomas, almost knocking her down.
"I'm sorry, Dessie," he apologized. The jolt caused her hat to fly off and Jeb bent to retrieve it. "What are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here? Why, I'm here to pick up my boy, of course." Jeb suspected Dessie was accustomed to being jostled by steers; running into a court reporter didn't seem to faze her. "Did you show the prosecutor Joleen's statement?" she asked.
"I read him every word."
"So when does Bobby Joe get out of jail?"
A look of bewilderment fell across the old woman's face. "He doesn't? How come?"
"Anderson says he doesn't believe Joleen's confession. He refuses to dismiss the charges against Bobby Joe. He won't even consider it."
A bench ran along one side of the hallway, and Dessie plopped down. "That don't make sense, does it?"
"It makes sense to Anderson," Jeb said. "He has a much better chance of getting a murder conviction and the death sentence against Bobby Joe than he ever would Joleen. With Joleen, who knows? She might even have a defense. It's possible Anderson couldn't convict her of anything."
"So Bobby Joe dies to make Earl Anderson look good?"
"That hasn't happened yet," Jeb said.
"Isn't there anybody around who can tell this prosecutor that he can't do that? How 'bout the judge?"
"Not really. The county attorney's an elected official. He has the final say on who is and who isn't prosecuted."
Dessie pushed herself up from the bench. Suddenly she looked very tired. "What he's doin' ain't right, Jebediah."
"No," Jeb agreed, "it's not."
She turned and headed toward the front door of the courthouse. Jeb didn't like the way she looked, and he started to follow her. "Dessie," he said, "are you all right? Where are you going?"
But she left the building with no response.
"Be seated," said Judge Walker. He slid into the chair behind his bench. "Are you ready to go on the record, Mr. Blake?"
Without looking up, Jebediah answered, "Yes, sir," as he scratched onto his pad the judge's question and his own response.
"I'm not sure where we are procedurally," the judge began, "but, Mr. Thomas, I asked Sheriff Collins to bring you up to court this morning because I feel that there are some things that need to be discussed."
Bobby Joe spread his hands as far as the cuffs and waist chain would allow. "I ain't got nothing more to say, Judge."
"That's fine, Mr. Thomas, but we have an interesting dilemma here. The Fifth Amendment to this nation's constitution provides you the right not to be forced to incriminate yourself. The law doesn't say squat about whether you have the constitutional right to incriminate yourself even if you did not commit the crime. I suppose the drafters of the constitution, despite their wisdom, never allowed for such a possibility.
"Now, I've heard some things this morning, and I'm doing some things right now that're going to require me to recuse myself should this case ever go to trial. That's fine. It won't be a problem to find another judge. Ever since statehood, we seem to have judges crawling out of the woodwork.
"What is a problem is determining how far my responsibilities go. Mr. Blake here, my court reporter, spent a portion of last evening taking down the statement of Mrs. Joleen Lukather. Mrs. Lukather does not confirm your version of events, Mr. Thomas. In fact, to the contrary. She says that you did not kill her husband, that it was she who did so."
Bobby Joe sprung from his seat. "That ain't true, Judge. I was the one who done it." He slammed his fist into his chest. "Me."
Sheriff Collins was on his feet, headed for the defendant, when Judge Walker said calmly, "Sit down, Mr. Thomas." Bobby Joe, in mid-tirade, stopped and dropped into his chair as though whacked with an ax handle.
Earl Anderson rose and said, "Your Honor, may I say something?"
Judge Walker, who had not even noted Anderson's appearance for the record, said, "If you make it brief, Mr. Anderson."
"Sir, with all due respect, I do not see the necessity for this morning's hearing. We have a confession from Bobby Joe Thomas that he gave to Sheriff Collins the afternoon he brought Mr. Lukather's body into town. We have Mr. Blake's record from yesterday's arraignment where the man even tried to plead guilty. We have this record today where, yet again, Mr. Thomas claims to have killed Lenny Lukather. I do not understand why we are here."
"We are here, Mr. Anderson, because you have not done your job. You, sir, are an officer of this court. Your duty goes beyond merely seeking convictions. It is likewise your duty to seek justice. Now sit down.
"I want Mr. Blake to read Mrs. Lukather's statement. And I want you, Mr. Thomas, to listen to this closely." He turned and cast a stony glare at Anderson. "I realize that you have already heard it, Mr. Anderson, but I shouldn't think it would harm you to listen again."
Judge Walker looked down at Jeb, nodded, and said, "Go ahead."
Jeb opened his pad to Joleen's statement and read it all in a slow, clear voice. When he finished, he returned to his notes of the current hearing and took up his pencil.
Bobby Joe sat forward and said, "It don't matter to me what that fella has wrote down there, Judge. If you let me go and arrest Joleen, and you all put her on trial, then I'll jus' come in here in front of the jury and I'll tell 'em that it wasn't Joleen who done it, it was me. Who do you think they'll believe is a killer, me or that little woman?"
"I expect that it's possible they could believe a woman was capable of killing a man like Mr. Lukather. But I also expect that because of the state's burden of having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt that a jury would be hard put to convict any defendant when another individual takes the stand and admits to committing the crime."
"And that's just the way I'd testify, too," said Bobby Joe with a smile, "that I was the one who done it. So, please, Judge, you all should just leave Joleen be. I'll take whatever's comin'. Ain't nothin' to be gained by hurtin' her no more."
"But he's not the one who deserves what's coming," said a soft voice from the back. "I am. And if it's Bobby Joe who goes to trial, then I'll be the one taking the stand to admit to doing the killing."
Jeb turned in his seat and saw Joleen Lukather standing in the courtroom door.
Jeb, Earl Anderson, and the judge sat around a conference table in the judge's chambers. Bobby Joe had been taken back to jail. Joleen and Dessie waited in the hallway.
"It's not fair, Judge," said Anderson. "It's just not fair."
"No," agreed Judge Walker, "it's not."
"One of these two people killed Lenny Lukather."
"No doubt about it."
Anderson paused for a moment. The monocle magnified his eye into a pale blue marble. "They can't be allowed to get away with this, Judge. I mean anytime there's a murder, two people could come forward and say they did it, and what could we do?"
"Well," the judge said, folding his hands together, "as a practical matter, I doubt that you're going to have a lot of people willing to admit to committing murder. And, too, most generally when there's a homicide you'll also have witnesses and other evidence that would point to the actual killer. I'd say the situation we have here is unique."
"Maybe I could charge them both," said Anderson sitting up straighter.
"Do you have any proof of a conspiracy?" asked the judge.
"No. In fact, they both deny the other was involved."
"Is there any evidence from some other source that they committed the crime together?"
Anderson shook his head, and the muscles beneath his pink cheek tightened. "But someone is lying," he said, slamming his tiny fist to the table. It made a delicate, ineffectual thump.
"Yes, you're absolutely right, but who? Do you have any idea which one of them it is?"
Again the prosecutor shook his head.
"Unfortunately, Earl," Judge Walker pointed out, "that's the stuff of reasonable doubt."
Anderson let out a sigh and stood. As he left the chambers he said, "This is not right. It's just not right." Now even the eye without the monocle appeared glassy.
Once he was gone, Jeb said, "In another case, I might agree with him. But this time I'm convinced it is right."
"Right?" The judge's eyebrows rose a quarter of an inch. "I don't know about that, Jebediah. This isn't theology or mathematics we're dealing with here. There's no good or bad or right or wrong in the law. Those concepts don't exist. The law divides the universe into two simple categories: the things that can be proven, and the things that cannot." The judge leaned back in his chair, placed his feet on the table, and slipped his hands behind his head. "But I personally believe that's the beauty of it," he added. "The law is liberating. It frees us from the onerous burden of all those moral absolutes."
Earlier that morning Jeb wired Julia letting her know he would be late. He would have to ride hard, but he'd still be home by dark. He hated that he was missing so much of their day together, but despite that, he felt good.
Joleen was waiting for him outside the courthouse by the hitching post where his motorcycle was parked. He saw her before she saw him, and he stopped and watched as she stood beside Center Street taking everything in.
He tried to imagine what it must be like for her at thirty-one to be experiencing the bustle and activity of town for the first time. Until he moved to Wyoming, he had lived his entire life in Chicago, where there truly was bustle and activity, so try as he might, he couldn't conceive of what she must be feeling.
"It was brave of you to come," he said as he walked up beside her.
She turned and smiled. There was a flush to her complexion that made her glow. "No, it wasn't bravery," she contradicted. "It's just that it would have been cowardly not to come. I suppose that I've been a coward all my life, but I couldn't let Bobby Joe do what he was doing."
"Is Dessie at the jail getting him?" Jeb asked.
"Yes, Mr. Anderson dismissed the charges and said he was free to go. He said he would not be filing any charges against me either. I don't understand what all happened. I never meant to get out of my punishment."
"I know, but all you can do is admit what happened. If Earl Anderson elects not to prosecute, that's his decision."
"I'm supposed to meet Dessie and Bobby Joe at the jail, but I wanted to see you first."
"When Dessie came out to the place this morning and told me that even though you read them my confession they were still going to make Bobby Joe go to trial and probably hang him, I knew it was time to face down this sickness of mine."
"Was it very hard?"
Despite the warm July morning and the long sleeves that covered her scars, Joleen held her arms close, her elbows in her palms, as though she were cold. "It sounds silly to talk about. We came in on my buckboard, and as soon as we passed through the gate, I couldn't draw a breath. I tried. My chest heaved. I gasped, but no air would come. I thought I was dying. But then a calm came over me, and I decided I was going to do this. Maybe it would kill me, but either it would win or I would. Once I told myself that, the breathing was easier. Not a lot easier, but some."
She looked around her. "It's still scary, though," she said as she watched the traffic move down Center toward the North Platte River. She put her hands to her ears. "What's the scariest, I think, is all the noise."
Jeb laughed. "Noise? This is nothing," he said. "You should hear the racket where I come from on Michigan Avenue, especially on a Saturday night."
"I wanted to see you before you left so I could thank you. I hope all this didn't get you in trouble with the judge."
He took her hand and squeezed it. "No," he said, "everything's fine. Just fine. Now you go find your friends. I expect Bobby Joe's eager to see you."
Jeb climbed onto his Silent Gray Fellow. "It's time I was headed home," he said.
"Of course," Joleen agreed, "your wife'll be waiting." She ran an index finger along the cycle's handlebar, then dropped her hand and stepped back. "You have a safe trip," she said. "That machine is beautiful, but I expect a fella could get hurt on one." She gave a halting wave, then started for the rear of the courthouse toward the jail.
He watched as she walked away. Her steps were cautious, but her head was high.
Jeb had great respect for Judge Walker. He understood the judge's feelings about the beauty of the law's ability to simplify things. But Jeb reckoned that sometimes human beings needed a little more than that.
He called out, "Hey, Joleen, before you head back to the ranch, you have them take you around town so you can see the sights."
Joleen turned and said with a laugh, "Yes, sir, I intend to do exactly that."
There were times when you just knew when something was right.
Robert McKee resides in Colorado. He has had a number of jobs, including four years in the military. He has also been employed as a radio announcer, disc jockey, copy writer, court reporter, and municipal court judge.
After school in Texas, Bob settled in Wyoming, where he has lived for thirty years.
His short fiction has appeared in more than twenty commercial and literary publications around the country. He is also a recipient of the Wyoming Art Council's Literary Fellowship Award, as well as a three-time first-place winner of Wyoming Writers, Incorporated's adult fiction contest, and a two-time first-place winner of the National Writers Association's short fiction contest.
One of his stories was selected to appear in the prestigious annual publication Best American Mystery Stories, edited that year by Senior Editor Otto Penzler and Visiting Editor Michael Connelly.
His first novel, Dakota Trails, is available at Pen-L Publishing.
When not at his computer writing, Bob can be found rummaging through antique stores in search of vintage fountain pens or roaming the back roads of Wyoming and Colorado with his wife and two children
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Arizona Ranger Meets Texas John Slaughter
by C. Lamar Owens
As Lord Harold would later tell it, that day, that particular day, changed the lives of a lot of people forever. Not in Topeka I mean, but out on the plains, eighty miles southwest of town.
* * *
Harold wasn't a real Lord, of course. His father had been a poor yeoman father who'd died a slow death trying to raise potatoes on five acres of rocky soil in the south of York. But on Harold's long voyage to America, back in the spring of 1829, Harold had heard his companions in steerage say something over and over again - In America, even the poorest man can become a King.
Upon his arrival, not wanting to endure the pressure of such a high position, Harold had pronounced himself a mere Lord. And why not? It was not against the law here to call oneself a Lord, and he rather liked it. Indeed, the name stuck from the very first time he had used it.
But that was a long time ago.
Today, he awoke to a beautiful blue sky. Though Autumn was well upon the prairie, the day was unusually warm. A brisk but pleasant breeze rustled across the village from the west. Tepee doors and smoke vents were quickly flung wide to air the dank quarters within.
To the woman Gray Dove, the warm air and thawed ground presented an opportunity, plainly the last of the year, to dig herbs for her medicine bag. Strapping a large basket to her back, she headed out of camp unnoticed.
Women, children and even warriors gathered in small groups to exchange stories in the warm sunshine. A festive atmosphere prevailed. A few began to chant and beat drums.
Amid the celebration, a young boy who'd left camp at dawn to retrieve a stray horse, came riding in hard, shouting as loudly as he could and waving his arms frantically. When he hit the center of the village he dismounted in a single bound, so excited he could barely speak. His friends laughed, pounding him on his back and pushing him to and fro. "What is it?" they teased. "A bird? A ghost? Speak up little boy. Speak up!"
When he was finally able to suck a lungful of air, he pointed due west and uttered a single word.
Impossible! they thought. Buffalo have never been here this time of year. And never so near the camp. Was this a joke? Should they take a stick to him?
And then a cry went up from a single brave, soon to be taken up by other tribesmen. For out on the horizon, not two miles distant, they could see the brown blur of thousands of shaggy beasts. What's more, they could smell them.
Everyone in the village leapt to frantic activity now. Braves ran for the pony herd to catch their favorite mounts, boys scurried to tepees to fetch their fathers' guns and bows, women and girls yanked open leather bags to find their knives and scrapers.
The ground, previously frozen and covered with a light snow, was now a mixture of melt-water and mud. Sliding and lurching in the brown ooze, many slipped and fell flat on their backs, only to arise laughing at themselves. More than a few moccasins remained stuck in the ground. Even the most stoic of warriors frolicked like children, shoving others off balance and tossing balls of mud at their friends.
Amid this revelry, Lord Harold stood outside of his tepee, smoking his pipe and enjoying the bombastic sight. His hunting pony being lame, he had no intention of going out to the herd. But his young wife, Blue Flower, suddenly appeared at his side, thrusting his Hawken rifle and powder horn into his hands.
"You go too," she commanded. "It is important that you go too, if only to help."
He realized she was right, and paused only to gather his belt knife and hunting bag. Maybe in the confusion of the chase, he could take a wayward calf.
In the midst of this jostling, few people noticed the thin black cloud stretching low across the western horizon, from the direction in which the herd had come. Dark banks of dust were a routine sight near buffalo herds, being churned up by the thousands of brawny hooves. No one stopped to contemplate, however, that in mid-Autumn . . . there is no dust on the plains.
As Harold sprinted through the village to join the hunt, he too was caught up in the merriment. A teenage girl named Cold Spring (who loved to flirt despite the fact that she was already pledged to a young brave) thrust a wooden pole under his feet as he passed, tripping him face down in the muck.
"By God girl," he yelled in mock anger, scraping mud from his face. "In a few years that brave of yers will be full grown and teach you good! You'll see!" She giggled coquettishly and ran away.
One of the last men to leave the village, Harold was followed in turn by a throng of young boys, all of whom had been sternly ordered to stay behind. Despite this insubordination, the women watched with glee, many beaming with pride at the intrepidness of their little sons. Had the women been white, though, they may have been reminded of the tale of the Pied Piper.
With a last glance over his shoulder, Harold thought it curious that one ancient warrior, He Who Stalks, was as far from jubilant as an Arapaho could be. Barely noticed by the others, he sat outside his tepee on his best blanket, chanting, his face painted white with fat and crushed chalk.
The braves, on horseback now, closed the distance from camp to the herd in minutes. Indeed, the distance had grown ever shorter as the herd had drifted eastward.
The herd itself was massive, tens of thousands of buffalo in a single throng. They seemed confused, though, oddly disorganized, leaderless. Some stood totally still, staring back at the western horizon. Some galloped wildly in random directions, occasionally slamming into their companions. And others bobbed their heads violently, bellowing prehistoric calls.
To the hunters, a disorderly mass themselves, this odd behavior was tantalizing. Confused animals meant easy prey, and the thought of fresh fatty meat after weeks of dried jerky pushed the men to the brink of frenzy.
One by one, they peeled right or left of the great herd, riding at full gallop with weapons held high. One by one they selected easy, drifting targets who seemed oblivious to their presence. And one by they slew the great animals, sinking arrows into their brown sides up to the fletchings or firing large bore guns into their chests at point blank range.
Unseen in this tumult, during a space of perhaps ten minutes, the dark hue from the west came upon them without a sound, capping the clear blue sky with a low ceiling of roiling black slate. Heavy winds followed, swirling like warm ocean currents.
Huffing and puffing from his long run, Harold arrived at the edge of this odd circus. There, he stood transfixed for a full minute, taking in the entire scene as one great image. It reminded him instantly of the paintings he'd once viewed in London, huge renaissance depictions of mythical battles among gods, men, nature and beasts.
Though he glanced up at the strange black sky, he was incapable of assessing it. For as with the other men, he was caught up in the wonderful blood frenzy of the moment - the immediacy of it . . . the purity of it. The children who'd followed were caught up as well, screeching little war cries and scampering in all directions.
Harold, eager now to kill, planted himself in a sitting position on a small mound of grass. He wished he'd remembered to bring his shooting stick to help steady the heavy iron barrel, but the range would be short and he knew he could manage.
No sooner had he settled than a yearling calf came trotting out of the ragged edge of the herd. Straight towards him she came, and his heart skipped a beat waiting for her to stop. At the last possible instant she did, lurching sideways as if to escape to the south.
Amid the bellows and grunts of the massive herd, and the whoops and shouts of the warriors, Harold's gun fired with an ear-splitting crash. Down came the huge calf, rolling sideways, her legs churning the air as if still in flight.
Harold cheered, shaking his fist in triumph. He rose instantly to ram fresh powder and ball down the muzzle of his gun.
And in that brief instant . . . the world seemed to tip over.
Just to the west of the herd, at its rearward edge, the churning black ceiling tilted to one side, pouring a little stream of inky clouds to the ground as if from a pitcher. The stream did not splash though. Rather, it seemed to float there for a moment, suspended in mid-air. Ever so gently then, it kissed the earth and formed a misshapen column. Within seconds it became a lop-sided funnel, twisting violently from top to bottom.
"My God," were the only words to escape his lips before a wave of icy wind crashed into him, knocking him to the ground.
And then it was upon them. It was upon them all.
The huge tornado plunged eastward, plowing straight into the herd. With the indifference of a madman, it murdered them by the thousands, crushing some to pulp, hurling some for miles, and lifting others to great heights before dropping them to their deaths.
Harold rolled forward onto his knees, knowing that he had to move. Deafening sounds pounded his ear drums . . . the chug-chug-chug of the twisting storm, the bellows and cries of the tortured bovines, and now the shouts and screams of the People.
He tried to take in great gulps of air before running, but the huge vacuum of the twister seemed to suck the very breath out of him. Scores of the great animals thundered past, and fearing death beneath their hooves, he could wait no longer.
Reaching blindly for his rifle, he lurched to his feet and ran, head down, knees pumping, as fast as he could, in the straightest line he could muster. And though he didn't know it, his course was south, the same direction in which the calf had attempted to flee and, as it turned out, the only path to safety.
On and on he ran, staring down at the brown prairie as it passed beneath him, his fifty year old lungs heaving and burning. Twice he was knocked to the ground by the heads or shoulders of panicked buffalo, and yet each time he rolled with the impact and returned to his feet. With them and along side of them he ran, flowing among their tons of flesh as they gently turned southwest.
And then, he was free. Free from the band of terrified beasts. Free from the killing path of the storm. Dodging heavily to his left he headed into what looked like open field and ran the last hundred yards that remained in his battered legs. There he collapsed, rolling onto his back and coughing wet phlegm. The ground rumbled heavily beneath him as more animals pounded past. But he was out of their stream, out of their panic-stricken route.
A minute passed before he rose to a sitting position, and he was surprised to find that he still clutched the rifle in his left hand. Frigid wind blew hard against him, stinging him with freezing rain.
And though the sky was still dark with clouds, he could yet see the destructive funnel to the east, see it at a mile's distance.
And what he saw there rendered him senseless.
The great bulk of the brown herd was still stampeding eastward, over a rise and towards the village beyond. Twisting and twirling among it was the black tornado, lifting everything before it in a massive churning arc.
And in that sickening moment, Harold could see, could actually see, the great bodies of the buffalo and horses floating high above the ground, their legs swingy wildly, their heads twisting back at odd angles. And interspersed among them, the tan-clad bodies of the hunters and boys, their limbs outstretched and flapping, their colorful blankets twirling like leaves.
He tried to look away, but found could not, for he knew what was next to come.
To the thumping roar and screams amidst the storm were now added the rending and flapping of half a hundred tepees being ripped from their frames and sucked high into the funnel. A forest of lodge poles shot skyward as if launched from great machines, clattering and snapping among the detritus.
And with them, the frail human figures of women and children . . . more and more of them.
Harold thrust his head downward and covered his eyes with his hands. He'd seen enough. He could look no more.
Sitting alone in the driving rain, he wept.
Several hours passed before Harold stirred again. The rain had stopped but the entire sky remained a foggy gray. He could have risen earlier, started the walk back sooner, and yet he could find neither the strength nor courage to do it.
Finally, coaxed solely by that most vexing human instinct "to know," he was on his feet again.
In a dreamlike state, he trudged slowly back towards the site of the cataclysm. At first he saw nothing but the brown grass and the gentle roll of the plains. He deluded himself into believing that maybe, just maybe, his fears had been exaggerated. Many had been injured, of course, a few killed, well certainly, but even now his family and friends were awaiting him at the village with hot food and dry blankets. A cheer would go up as he and others returned.
Onward he walked.
At the top of the next rise, he paused. This is where it had all begun.
The path of the tornado was easy to find and easier to follow. A hundred yards wide and almost a foot deep, it meandered eastward like a muddy river for miles, from the point where it had touched down, through the trampled ground of the herd, and out to the village beyond.
As mind-numbing as the path was, the path was not what would cause him to falter and collapse on shaking knees. It was what he saw next.
For when he topped the next rise and looked eastward . . . the dead littered the prairie for as far as the eye could see.
Buffalo by the thousands, mixed with scores of spotted ponies and deerskin-clad figures, lay twisted in hideous poses, forming irregular patterns and mounds on each side of the great path. Plainly the vast bulk of the animals and people had tried to escape in the same direction, running due east towards the village rather than north or south. But it had caught them . . . and it had savaged them, unto death.
Returning to his feet, tears streaming down his face, Harold staggered forward, afraid to stop, but afraid to look, for fear of being stricken by insanity. And as he walked, a few hundred stray buffalo stood dazed on the horizons, bellowing high sad calls, with hopes of finding their mates and calves. Occasionally, miraculously, one would answer with a forlorn moan or bleat and stagger to rejoin them.
Of live ponies, there were none. More sensitive than buffalo and more sensible than humans, those who had foreseen the onslaught had simply run in any direction possible, and were probably running still.
A hundred yards short of the village, Harold suddenly realized . . . that there was no village. Not anymore. The path of death ran right through the middle of it.
Every tepee and lodge was gone, the ground trampled deeply by thousands of hooves. Here and there, sheets of hide flapped wildly in the wind, held in place by stray ropes or broken poles. Cookware, beadwork and a hundred other trappings of camp life were scattered everywhere. Slabs of smoked meat and jerky, meant to last the winter, lay soggy and stinking in the mud.
Large circles of dark bare ground, some surrounded by short wooden stakes or remnants of trampled floor hides, formed the only reminder of the village that once stood. Navigating among these, Harold found the site where his own tepee had been.
Remarkably, Blue Flower lay there on her back, untrampled, resting, and smiling at him. Her face was profoundly beautiful. A tent stake jutted skyward through the center of her chest.
Harold collapsed next to his young wife, hugging her for an hour or more, though he knew she was gone.
And as the sun dropped lower in the west, Harold decided that he was content to die here, beside his young wife. He reached over to clutch a dirty buffalo robe, pulled it over them like a great death shroud, and fell into a deep deep sleep.
Not more than an hour had passed before he was yanked from the depths of sweet darkness by the sound of a crying child. A little girl stood there, sobbing and shaking.
Rain Sky. That was here name. Daughter of Running Wolf and Green Tree, neither to be seen, ever again.
Harold lay still for a time, hoping she would go away. He had an appointment with death, after all, and he was fully at peace with it.
But there she remained, crying and shaking. A crumpled doll dangled from one hand, and at times she would clutch it to her breast and sing.
He was fully awake now and found he couldn't just ignore her. "Goddammit child," he snapped, "can't you let a man just lie down and die?"
She didn't answer, but shuffled over to the robe, plopped down, and grasped his hand. So cold was her skin, that he marveled she was still alive.
"Okay, Rain Sky . . . okay," he murmured in Arapaho. "We'll go on for awhile longer."
Peeling off his hunting jacket, he draped it around her shoulders. It hung to the ground like a great tawny dress. Kneeling before her, he pulled the front ties together and fastened them taut. She stopped crying instantly and stared blankly into his eyes.
"Fire," she said, and began to suck her thumb.
Harold shook his head. The girl was thinking clearer than he. Without fire, they wouldn't live through the night.
He tried to get her to stay put on the robe, but she wouldn't have it. She toddled along behind him wherever he went.
Good lodge poles were of great value on the plains, and only a fool would burn one. But in looking from left to right, and from right to left, he quickly surmised that there were hundreds of poles about, and no lodges still standing. Who could complain?
In the midst of the wreckage, he found two large poles and grabbed each by its end. Dragging them back to his campsite, he stopped now and again to rest. Without need for instruction, Rain Sky followed, towing a long stick with one hand and gripping her doll in the other.
Now back at his tepee site, Harold paused. Blue Flower was still there beneath the curly brown robe and he felt the spirit of her and the others about him. "Not here," he said to himself. "Not among the dead."
With that, he turned and plodded south, out of the village. Rain Sky followed close behind. At a quarter mile's distance, he found a small dip in the ground with a low hill on its westward side, shielding it from the wind. Here they dropped their wood and walked back to the village for more.
An hour later they sat on wool blankets before a roaring fire, wrapped in a piece of tent hide. Eight poles, arranged like spokes in a wheel, met in the center over the makeshift fire-pit. As the ends of the poles burned throughout the night, he could push the lengths inward to feed the flames. Sparks climbed high in the air with the column of smoke, a sure sign of fuel being wasted . . . the kind of fire only a greenhorn would make. He didn't care. He liked the sight of it. He relished its heat.
Long strips of meat, cut straight from a calf and dangling on spits, sizzled and popped over the fire. When these were done, he cut small steaming pieces and shared them with the girl. He was amazed at the quantity she ate. After a time, she fell asleep on his knee.
He was thirsty, but there would be nothing to drink until daylight when he could draw fresh water from a nearby creek. They couldn't risk drinking filthy water in the dark.
The sun was fully down now, and Harold and Rain Sky slumbered together under the hide, the fire crackling warmly before them.
Sometime after midnight, Harold Atherton, Lord of the Plains, dreamt of voices, voices in the Arapaho tongue. Low, murmuring and comforting, he could not make out the words. Drifting slowly towards consciousness, he saw blanket-wrapped figures huddled on the opposite side of the fire. Someone, Gray Dove perhaps, knelt beside him and draped a heavy robe across his shoulders, much warmer than the tent hide that had covered him before.
And then he realized, understood, that he and Rain Sky were not alone. At least some of the others had escaped and were returning even now in ones and twos. His large fire, a beacon visible for miles across the dark landscape, was calling the survivors home. He started to speak, but exhaustion took him again, and he returned to his sleep until dawn.
P.D. Amos is a retired businessman living in the historic Civil War town of New Market, Virginia. He
is fascinated by the tales of day to day life on the Western frontier during the post-War years.
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by Sharon Frame Gay
For as far as Polly could see, there was nothing but endless prairie, stretching to the horizon, following the arc of the earth. Waves of undulating wild wheat and grasses, brown in the late September sun, surrounded the trail, leaving just enough room for the covered wagons in single file, a few feet on each side for walkers, drovers, or horses. The trail was rutted and dusty, billowing clouds of silt reaching up from the ground, threatening to strangle her with unrelenting and merciless punishment.
The mules pulling the wagon were headstrong . They snorted through sullen nostrils, as their hooves took slow, laborious steps , leaving a trail of feces and flies. Polly sat on the buckboard, holding the reins from dawn to dusk. Although progress was slow and tedious, if she let up on the pressure for even a moment, the mules stopped altogether, or veered off into the grasses, helping themselves. She knew it would take at least 4 men, and whips, to get them back on the trail again, and she wanted to avoid that at all cost. Last week, she had cut her petticoats into strips, winding them around her calloused, bleeding hands. By the end of the day, they seemed frozen in position, taking all night to stop aching and loosen up, only to be tortured again by first light.
Her bonnet was pulled as far forward over her eyes as possible, a scarf looped over nose and mouth, but still the smell and the dust permeated every fiber of her being, sticky sweat trickling under her dress in rivulets.
She was one of the lucky ones. When her husband Sam died one month back, the trail master put her wagon up front, behind his, for safe keeping, as she was the only widow on the journey, so far, and the dust in the front of the caravan wasn't as bad as behind her.
When she and Sam left Independence, Missouri, heading west , it was with reluctance. Sam, the third son of a grocery merchant in Carthage, had no fortune, nor opportunities presenting themselves. Polly was a clerk in his father's store, working long hours to support herself, after her parents had died of the flu. She decided to marry Sam after he pursued her for months, although it wasn't what she had dreamed. Casting her future with him, their wagon left Missouri with a caravan, swaying across the miles like a ship at sea. The mules' hooves rang out on the rutted trail, their haunches rising and falling with the hills.
Sam had been a business man, growing up in a house in town. He had little experience outdoors, and certainly not the wilderness. He lasted a month and a half on the trail before succumbing to a wagon accident, pinned beneath a rutted wheel as the mules lurched forward, leaving him broken, and in agony for three days, before he finally passed. He was buried off the trace on a little knoll that disappeared entirely into the landscape before the wagon had even lurched a mile down the trail.
Polly was then faced with a decision. She could pull out of the caravan at the nearest town, try to sell the wagon, and hope to purchase fare back to Carthage, traveling alone, or continue on, through the Great Plains and on up into Montana territory on the Bozeman trail, in hopes of starting a new life.
How deeply she regretted, now, the choice to move on.
There were over 30 wagons, a large caravan, pulled by oxen and a few mules, gypsies traversing the miles of grassland and prairies on their way to higher elevation. It was slow going once they left civilization and hit the prairie, as nobody was allowed to stay behind to fix a broken axle, or heal a sick ox, then catch up later down the trail. If one member had a problem, the entire company stopped and waited until it was fixed. There was safety in numbers, now, because they were deep in Indian territory.
Two nights ago, Mr. Parker, the trail boss, stopped by her wagon. His weathered face was weary, old scars raised along his cheek like a map to a hard life, his wiry body slumped as he leaned against her wheel and spoke solemnly. "Polly, you're alone here on this trail, now, a widow woman. We all try to watch out for ya, but you have to understand that if we're under attack, most folks here will be protectin' their own families first. The Indians have been tracking us for days now. I've seen scoutin' parties among the hills sometimes at sunset." His eyes softened a bit as he placed his hand on her small shoulder. "Look, Polly, there's no easy way to say this. The Indians, if they come—they ain't looking for your oxen or the weeviled flour in the barrels. They want our horses, our mules, and our rifles. And sometimes ..." now his eyes slid to the ground, as he whispered "the women. We best all turn in at night with our clothes on, at the ready, and no leaving the wagon after dark, ever. Sleep with your rifle by your side. But Polly, it may not be enough. Do you have a pistol, too?" She shook her head. Slowly he pulled an old Colt revolver from his waistband and handed it to her along with some ammunition. "Save these bullets in case they find you. Do you understand what I mean?" Polly did. She felt the autumn breeze along her collar bone like dark fingers, rustling her skirts, lifting them, swirling them about against her will . Far off in the distance, the hills were rent with an unearthly howling sound, like a wolf finding its prey.
A week later, the caravan hadn't gone more than 50 miles. Off in the distance, barely peeking above the horizon, stood the blue beginnings of the Great Rockies. When Polly stepped out of the wagon that morning, there was heavy frost on the ground, black clouds billowing down from the mountains like an angry God. Her heart sank. They had been going so slow that now they risked being on the trail when the early snows came, the oxen and mules already belligerent and unwilling to walk, turning their backs to the great North wind, heads low and eyes closed. Grave danger whistled through the prairie grasses and slapped at her cheek with cold spitting drops of rain.
That evening, there was a meeting. Mr. Parker was grim. "We've gone too long gettin' out of this prairie. And winter's startin' early. I don't need to tell you what the risks are if we keep goin' towards them mountains. We may make it, we may not. Now, about 5 hours from here there's a trail that crosses this one. It drops down towards Texas, but there's another cross trail in a couple of weeks' time, that can take you back to Dodge City, where you might be able to winter over." He sighed. "But the most hostile Indians are down that way, and the trail ain't near as good as this one." Parker dropped his chin and stared down at the ground. "Look, I was hired to take this caravan all the way West, so that's the way I'm gonna go. You can follow me, or turn off the trail tomorrow and head back, without a wagon master. Either way, it's dangerous. I won't lie to ya." His gaze met the weary travelers. "I'll need to know what you all are wantin' to do. Raise your hands if you're turning back."
Several people raised their hands. At least 12 families were going to take their chances on the trail back to Dodge City. Many decided to continue on to Montana, and several didn't know what to do.
"I'll need all your answers tomorrow mornin' when we break camp," Parker said, his thin hands folded in front of him like a corpse. "Either way, it ain't pretty. God bless ya."
That night, Polly found a page from an old, tattered book inside a worn chest. She carefully tore it in two. There was no ink, so she cut open a blister on the tender part of her hand, then squeezed out a drop or two of blood on one piece. "Home," she whispered, as the blood spread across the paper. The other scrap was stark white, like a mountain snowstorm. "Montana," she sighed. Closing her eyes, she put one piece of paper in each pocket of her filthy dress, then lay on the palette behind the flour barrel, checked the rifle and pistol, and waited for dawn. Through the small opening in the back of the wagon, she watched the stars, listening to the sounds of indecision carried on the wind that fluttered through the groaning boards.
The next morning, the sun streamed in through the canvas, a deceptive warmth flowing through the wagon, birds singing on the rush of the breeze, the world indifferent to the caravan, becalmed in a sea of regret.
Polly stepped down from the wagon, looked up to heaven, then slowly reached her hand into a pocket.
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work can be found in
several anthologies, as well as BioStories, Mid American Fiction and Photography, Gravel Magazine, Fiction
on the Web, Halcyon Days, Literally stories, among others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
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Arizona Ranger Meets Texas John Slaughter
by C. Lamar Owens
The line-back dun topped a hill and its rider pulled up to look at his destination in the distance. Tombstone was one of the toughest towns in the Arizona Territory. He knew what to expect when he arrived and he didn't look forward to it. He had a habit of talking to his horse as did most long distance riders who traveled alone.
"Well, Buck, we've got it to do. Those tracks we've been trailin' are fairly fresh and they lead into Tombstone. You can bet those hombres have been checkin' their back-trail and they know we're acomin'. We'll both get at least some decent grub and maybe an indoor nights sleep."
The gelding shook his head and snorted as if he understood, so the tall, dusty rider in the flat-crowned black hat nudged him with his spurs and let the horse set his own speed for the last few miles into Tombstone.
The sun was headed for the horizon as the dun walked past the saloons and shops along the hard-crusted, rutted main street to the livery stable. Many people were out to catch the early evening breeze before sundown and most took note of the well armed stranger.
The women noticed how he sat straight in the saddle and the strong jaw line of his handsome face. His muscular upper body indicated that this was a man who knew how to take care of himself.
Those that took the time saw that he had two saddle holsters one with a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun and the other with a Winchester rifle. He also wore two Army Colt 44 six-shooters tied down and an "Arkansas Toothpick" Bowie knife strapped in a scabbard on his right boot.
The hostler noticed all of this, as well as the silver tipped Mexican boots, but what caught most of his attention was the almost black eyes and an "all business" expression on the young man's face.
"Looks like you've come a piece," the hostler greeted. "A dollar a night for a stall cleaned daily including oats and hay. Payment in advance. How many nights you stayin'?"
"Don't rightly know yet. Mind if I have a look at the horses you've already put up? That might help me decide if I'm stayin' or goin'."
"Lookin' for somebody are yah?" the stable owner asked. "You the law?"
"Ranger," came the response.
"You're a might far to be a Texas Ranger, so my guess is you're one of them thar new Arizona Rangers old Mossman organized to settle down this territory. Didn't catch the name with all them words you were wastin'," said the older man.
"You seem to be right good at guessin', so I thought you already guessed my name as bein' Brian Owenby."
"Heard of yah. Ain't you the one who chased that killer Apache Mangus Coloradas and brought him back in chains?"
"Didn't use no chains," snapped the Ranger. "Mangus came along peaceful like after we had us a disagreement. He gave his word not to run no more and he kept it. The army put him in chains against my objections."
"Well, help yourself. Look around. I'll just get your hoss a feed bag and rub him down some while you meander. Name's Whiskey, but I ain't touched a drop in over ten years, since my Victoria died."
"Glad to know you, Whiskey, but you better let me rub that crank horse down. He's mountain bred and just generally has a bad temper. He takes to kickin' just about anybody who touches him, 'cept me. He might not bight yah if you're feedin' him, but he'll kick your leg off when you're not lookin'."
The hostler put a feed bag on the dun and carefully avoided getting behind him as he walked away.
Ranger Owenby took his time to look at all of the other horses in the livery. He checked their hooves and matched up a piece of white hair he had found on the trail and decided it came off the hindquarter of an Appaloosa in one of the stalls. Then he went back and took the feed bag off his gelding so he could drink and began rubbing him down with hands full of hay.
"Well, it looks like we found 'em, Buck. You were right to follow that creek when we lost their trail. You rest easy fella. I've got a piece of work to do and then we can just lay around a day or two before we hit the trail back home."
Whisky had heard the ranger talk to his horse and watched him take the rawhide thongs off his Colts as he walked up Allen Street. He noticed the man pull up on his guns to see that they were free. He also noticed that the young man checked to make certain his shotgun in the open-ended saddle holster was fully loaded.
All of this added up to something Whiskey knew well. One or more people were about to die, and if Brian Owenby matched the reputation he had built in his short 23 years, the old man bet that Owenby would be among the living tomorrow.
Owenby didn't slow his walk as he entered the Oriental Saloon. His experienced glance told him the four men he sought were split. Two were standing to his left at the bar and the other two were seated at a table to his right. He walked directly to the bar and laid his shotgun on top pointing to his left.
All eyes looked up when he walked in. The bar gals liked the ruggedly handsome face they saw, and the men quickly went back to their business at hand.
The only pairs of eyes which stayed on him were those of the hunted outlaws. They sensed danger.
The young man with three days stubble of beard looked directly in the mirror when he started talking. "I'm Brian Owenby, an Arizona Ranger who has trailed four thievin' killers that murdered a rancher up on the Salt River and raped his daughter, as well as his wife, before killin' all of them and a five year old boy."
Every ear heard the double click of the hammers on the shotgun and most of the crowd dove for the floor just as he fired both barrels, still in the open-ended holster, from about ten feet into the two outlaws at the bar.
Owenby then fell backward to the floor as he drew both Colts. A bullet grazed his leg as he steadied his guns and fired into the other two trying to get up from the table. He killed both men instantly and rolled to his left to finish off the killer he had wounded with the buckshot. While the gunman tried to aim, Owenby shot him in the head from about eight feet. The other man had taken most of the buckshot and pieces of him were scattered on the bar and the crowd. Some of the lookers-on who hadn't been quick enough to dive had minor wounds from the shotgun. One whore was holding her left breast where some blood appeared from a slight wound and two cowboys were arguing over who was going to help get the shot out.
The ranger ordered a cold beer while he searched the four bodies for evidence and identification. He found a small sack of gold, two wedding bands, some paper cash and a self portrait wanted poster carried by one of the outlaws. He gave the poster to the wounded whore and told her she could claim the "dead or alive" reward to compensate for his bad aim.
As he took a drink of his beer he told the crowd, "I buried the rancher and his family. I ain't gonna bury these coyotes. Here's their stolen money to cover expenses and drinks for the house."
As the crowd rushed to the bar, Owenby turned to feel the barrel of a gun shoved up against his belly. When he looked down at the little sheriff, he knew he was looking into the hard eyes of Texas John Slaughter who had just taken over as Cochise County Sheriff.
"I'll see some identification, son," the five feet five inch sheriff said. "You claim to be ridin' for Burt Mossman, but all I know is you shot up one of the best bars in town, upset my poker game and scattered bodies and blood all over this here establishment."
Owenby slowly took his identification from his vest pocket and handed it to the little sheriff. He knew Slaughter's reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. He was not fooled by the size of the man. There was no fear in the sheriff and he had never backed down from any fight. This was a man with the bark still on. He had been down the trail and lived to tell about it.
After studying the credentials, Slaughter handed them back and welcomed the ranger to Tombstone. "I'll have some of that there whiskey you're offerin', son, and I have a message for you from your boss."
Sheriff Slaughter and Brian Owenby understood each other, since both were independent types who expected things done their way and at their own pace. There was something about Slaughter that didn't sit just right with Owenby. Maybe it was the little Napoleon attitude that Slaughter projected.
Maybe it was a heritage thing. Owenby was of Welsh decent and Slaughter's grandparents came from England. For generations the Welsh had a natural hatred of the English. Most likely it was Owenby's natural resentment of being told what to do.
"Your boss told me that one of his best rangers was likely to be on his way to Tombstone tracking some killers. From the way he talked I expected a much older man."
When Owenby didn't take the bait, Slaughter continued, "Mossman told me to have you accompany me and some of my men over to Galeyville to stop Curley Bill Broscious from robbin' everything that moves and shootin' up the place on a regular basis. Since you didn't take no prisoners here, you got time on your hands, but are you up for the job?"
Owenby looked at the little sheriff for a minute and answered, "Let's get some things straight right from the get go. I heard stories about Texas John Slaughter since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I even followed many of the same cattle trails you and Chisum blazed in Texas, Kansas and New Mexico."
"I been ridin' for the brand and takin' care of myself since I was twelve years old. If my boss says to go with you, I'll go, but I won't take no orders from you and I won't do no dirty work against Curley Bill. I've knowed him over six years and there ain't nothin' wrong with him 'cept being wild and full of himself. Kinda like I heard you used to be."
Slaughter's eyes narrowed as he reconsidered the man in front of him. Then his whole face lit up in a smile. "You don't waste no time layin' it on the line do you? There was a time I would've shot a man for talking' to me that way, but after I seen what you did here today, I'm glad my age has brought better wisdom with it so I can die with my boots off."
"I'm mighty glad, too," smiled Brian. "I don't need the reputation of bein' the gun hand that put Texas John Slaughter six feet under".
The smile left Slaughter's face, but he forced himself to take a drink and he continued, "Let's start all over, ranger. I'll stop actin' like a boss and you start by tellin' me some about yourself."
Owenby and Slaughter talked for the better part of two hours. The ranger related how his clan had come over from Wales in the late sixteen hundreds. They had been excellent whiskey makers for generations in the mountains just north of Cardiff until old Caleb Owenby killed an English tax collector and fled to the new world with part of the family.
The Owenby clan settled in Virginia and then moved on out into the wilderness of Kentucky to settle Owensboro. Brian's grandpa and two brothers were killed in the war between the states. His father was wounded and spent over a year in prison at Andersonville which took his health. When his uncle decided to come west to Texas during the war, his mother and father gathered up the two remaining kids and their few possessions to come along.
They made it as far as Northeast Texas where his folks settled in while his uncle pressed on for San Antonio. Brian was born in the spring of 1865 and his daddy died the next year.
His two sisters and his mother held on to the homestead for another four years before the Cherokee killed them and burned the cabin to the ground. Brian survived only because they hid him in the corn crib and he was too scared to cry.
Some neighbors found him the next day and sent him off with a wagon train of settlers headed through San Antonio who promised to help him find his uncle. They did, and he lived for the next seven years with his aunt and uncle on a small ranch north of the town in rolling hill country.
His uncle, Marcus Owenby, believed that a boy became a man by earning his way through hard work. From the day he arrived Brian was assigned daily chores and as he became stronger and more efficient his chores were increased.
By the time he was ten, the boy was doing a man's work most of the day. He was big for his age and rode herd on the cattle, learned to rope plus brand the cows and calves after the hired hands pulled them down. The cowboys working the ranch became like second fathers to him. They taught him the trade and how to protect himself with a gun as well as his fists. One of the wranglers, and Irishman named Tom O'Brady, had done some professional bare-knuckle fighting and some Cornish style wrestling in bar rooms back east. He liked young Brian's grit and took it upon himself to teach him how to fight to win.
At age eleven Brian went on his first trail drive. His uncle took a herd of Texas Longhorns and assorted other breeds on the trail to Dodge City, Kansas. The cowboys talked some about gunfighters, but most of the stories they told were of their own kind. John Slaughter, John Chisum, Charles Goodnight and the other ranchers, along with the cowboys who fought Indians, outlaws and nature itself were the legends talked about around the campfires.
"So you see, Mr. Slaughter, I grew up thinkin' of you as bigger than life, but that don't mean I'm gonna kiss your boots."
Slaughter laughed, "Well it must have come as a real shock to you when you noticed how short I am, compared to life that is."
"What I learned on the trail, and since," Brian said, "Is that the outside don't make the man. It's what's inside that counts. Tell you the truth, I don't know many men who would walk up and shove a gun in the ribs of a man who just killed four others, Mr. Slaughter."
"I say, I say," Slaughter repeated, as was his habit, "You make a man feel right ancient with all your misterin'. You call me John and I'll call you Brian. Now tell me some more about yor growin' up. I heard about it when your uncle got killed back in '75. Is that what pushed you out west?"
"That and the law", answered Brian. "We just got back from one of the trail drives and Aunt Emma told us that she had heard from our kin back in Kentucky. Seems they were passin' through our way and planned to stay a spell with us on their way out west. Uncle Marc, he asked me to stay home and help make ready for them while he and some of the hands went into San Antone for supplies and some bankin'."
"Well, a couple of days later, here come three wagons full of Owenbys. They were all cousins, first and second, and all of the men were named after towns in Wales, which was a tradition carried on by the clan back in Kentucky. Lucky I was born in Texas, or you might be callin' me Pembroke, or some such."
"Anyways, there was Aberswyth Owenby, Llando Owenby and Mallwyd Owenby plus their wives and about ten kids. Ab and Mal are brothers and Llando is a first cousin to them. They were whiskey makin' Owenbys from the hills of Kentucky and you could tell in just a few minutes that these boys were the kind you step around politely."
"After Uncle Marc didn't come back on the third day, my cousins suggested we ride toward town and see what had become of him and the hands. Ab, he was the oldest at 26, wanted to go along, but finally agreed to stay behind and protect the women."
"We rode into San Antonio about nightfall and I was all puffed up with myself 'cause my kin were treatin' me like a full grown man instead of a boy. Well, we asked around for Uncle Marc and found out that he had some trouble with a bunch of no good Mexicans who called themselves the Robles Gang. The gang picked a fight in a cantina with my uncle and shot him and his two cowboys dead without warning. They robbed him and the locals were so afraid of the gang that nobody would tell anyone what happened."
"I heard about that gang of thieves," interjected Slaughter, "And what I heard is that every damned one of them oughta stretch a rope."
"Well they won't be needin' any rope," continued Brian. "Mal and Llando didn't say much, but they got directions to the cantina. We each had a shotgun and handguns. I had a single shot 12-gauge and my daddy's old Colt revolver which was stuck in my waistband. Mal found out that there were eight Mexicans in the gang and come up with a plan for us. He went to have a look around and spotted the men we wanted. Then he drew a map in the dirt by the light shining through a window and each of us took our share of men to shoot. Since Marc was my uncle, they thought it was fair that I get to kill Robles with the first shot, and they told me to use the shotgun without hesitation."
"That's the best way," smiled Slaughter, "If you're gonna point it, use it or at least cock the hammer and keep your thumb down so it fires in case you get hit."
"You got it right," said Brian, "That's the way I was taught. When we walked in, armed to the teeth, part of the crowd knew somethin' was about to happen and started to scatter. The Mexican banditos just sat there and watched while I walked right up to Robles. He was a big, smiling man just like Mal had said, and he was still smilin' as I cocked the shotgun and blew his face off his head."
"Well, all hell broke loose about then. I hauled out the old Colt and put a point blank range bullet into the face of another Mexican who was tryin' to get his gun up. I heard somebody yellin' at me to drop the gun, so I turned and emptied my gun at the man standin' by the door pointin' his weapon at me."
"It turned out that the man was Deputy Marshall George Newton who came in to break up the fracas. I hit him three out of four shots and he was right dead. Mal and Llando had killed the other Robles Gang members who hadn't run off. There were six dead men on the floor countin' the marshal."
"Llando said I wasted two slugs on the marshal, since I shot his heart out with the first one. I don't remember anything except pointin' and pullin' the trigger until the gun clicked on empty. I always kept the hammer on an empty chamber like I was taught, or I would have shot another round at the marshal."
"Mal said that we best leave town, since the law wouldn't take kindly to havin' a deputy shot up. So we left for New Mexico before sunup, and just kept on goin'."
Slaughter had listened to the story with keen interest. "So you're the kid who killed George Newton. The way I heard it was that you were so fast he never even got off a shot even though he had his gun aimed right at you. Let me tell you, I knew George. He was as mean as a cottonmouth snake and twice as deadly. You're lucky he didn't just go to shootin' instead of yellin' a warning at you. That's what he did most of the time. Did you ever wonder why a posse didn't chase you down for killin' him?"
"Yeah, John, we pondered on that for some time. We would have been easy to overtake with all those kids and women in the wagons. Mal told me not to worry, because the women, and some of the kids, could shoot the eye out of a rabbit at 50 yards."
"Llando told me that if a posse came all he was worried about was havin' to bury so many of them in the Texas hard ground. But I kept lookin' behind me for a Texas Ranger years after the shootin'. Do you know why they never came?"
"Damned straight I do," chuckled Slaughter, "I was there when the sheriff and local politicians discussed it. Seems old George was walkin' both sides of the street. He took money from that Robles Gang. In fact, he was hangin' out with them the night you Owenbys lit into 'em. So the sheriff and local powers decided you probably done them a favor by wipin' out not only Robles, but a crooked Marshall as well."
"I'll be double-damned," mused Owenby, "And I lived in fear of hangin' for years after I done the town of San Antone a good deed."
"As you have discovered since then, Brian, there's often a fine line between outlaw and lawman. Not many years ago, in New Mexico, the U.S. Army named the top twenty wanted men in the territory. I was number one and Billy the Kid was number 14. Now he's dead, and I'm a lawman. Tell me, whatever happened to your cousins?"
"Llando, he wandered up to Wyoming and Ab went with Mal to California. I've seen all of them a time or two over the past few years. More of our kinfolk have come out from Kentucky and settled in Texas, New Mexico and most of the other western states. We stay in touch and help take care of each other. If you take on one Owenby, you take on the whole bloodline."
"I'll remember that," said Slaughter. "Now why don't you tell me about Curley Bill and why you don't want to go with me to stop him from raisin' hell over to Galeyville?"
"I first met Curley Bill when I was sixteen years old," Owenby told Slaughter. "We had just run a herd up to Kansas City and all the boys had money in their pockets. I guess I had been treated like a man on the trail so much that I just naturally started to think of myself as such."
"Well, we went into a saloon and everyone ordered whiskey or beer but me. I just never developed a taste for it by that time. There were a bunch of punchers from other ranches in town and they all were way ahead of us in the drinkin' and raisin' hell department. I just wanted a drink of water, but one of the cowboys from another spread called me Mama's boy and insisted that I drink whiskey with the others."
"I tried ignorin' him, but he just kept after me to the point where I told him to shut up or back up his words. He went for his gun and I shot him in the shoulder. His friends jumped up and so did mine. We would have had us a heap of killin' if Curley Bill hadn't of been standin' at the bar. He cocked his shotgun and stepped between the two bunches. He told them all that if any of them even moved his hand towards a gun he would cut them in half with buckshot."
"Everyone calmed down, 'cause they knew who he was and that he meant what he said. Later, Curley Bill told me that he'd never seen a draw that fast in a while. I told him that it weren't no fast draw and that I was just shuckin' my gun outa my holster."
"He asked me if I generally hit what I was pointin' at after pullin' my gun that way and I told him I hadn't shot enough to know. I did shoot a few snakes on the trail, but I thought he was talkin' about men."
"Well, the next day Curley Bill rode out to our line camp near the town and asked me to do a little shootin' with him. He used a cross draw holster and drew from his left side with his right hand. He was fast enough gettin' his gun out, but he missed the first shot most every time. After he took the time to aim he hit his target right often. Me, I was just a bit slower, but hit the targets most of the time with my first shot."
"When we rode back into camp Curley Bill told all of the men that I was a natural shootist and that they better watch out for me. He also told them that he was my friend and any man who messed with me messed with him. Then he rode away and I didn't see him again for about a year when we met in El Paso."
Slaughter interrupted the story with, "So far you ain't told me any reason why you wouldn't go up against him to stop him from shootin' up the town and botherin' folks."
"I'm comin' to that, John. Anyway, while we were in El Paso Curley decided that it was time I had me a woman. He had talked to the men and determined that I was still a virgin so he set out to change that. The next thing I know a bunch of us rode down to Juarez and were drinkin' in a cantina. Curley Bill picks out a girl for me, pays her and sends me off to the room to have sex with her."
"She seemed old to me. Probably all of twenty-five, but I was still only sixteen. She did the deed to me and it happened so fast I hardly knew anything, 'cept it felt real good and I wanted some more. Well she started goin' through my pockets to get some more money and this upset me so I told her to quit it. She laughed at me and called me a boy so I just up and lost my temper and pushed her out the door. Well, it weren't no door. It was more like a curtain. Anyway, she bounced off the wall and rolled down some stairs screamin' her fool head off."
"The local law happened to be in the bar and they arrested me for disturbin' the peace and hittin' a whore. I didn't like it one bit and hit one of them in the head with my gun before they could wrestle it off me. This got me charged with more serious crimes and they planned to keep me in that Mexican jail as long as they could."
"Curley Bill, he had other ideas. The next mornin' he blew the side of the jail off with dynamite and had my horse waitin' when he pulled me outside. We rode back across the border hell bent for leather and I ain't been back to Juarez since."
"So you see, I feel an obligation to Bill. He never done me no wrong and he saved my bacon in Mexico. I'll ride with you if the boss tells me to, but I won't do no harm to Curley Bill."
Slaughter studied his young friend for a moment and said, "That's right honorable of you, but you got lots to learn about bein' a lawman. You can't let personal feelings come between you and your job. I've had to arrest many a friend because the law says so. It goes with the territory, son. We ride at sunup."
As they rode over to Galeyville the following day Brian had mixed emotions. He respected Slaughter and he would follow orders from Mossman. But he wouldn't be part of any shoot out with Curly Bill.
He finally decided that he would do what he always did and just let things happen as they would. "One thing for certain," he told his horse, Buck, "meetin' up with Texas John Slaughter will probably give us plenty of tales to tell." Buck snorted and tossed his head.
Little did he know how meeting Texas John Slaughter would change his life. But that's a bunch of adventure to be told later.
C. Lamar Owens grew up in southern Arizona, graduated ASU, served as a USAF officer, owned advertising agencies and was a casino consultant for decades. But his love has always been creative writing.
He just finished his latest novel Chasing Confusion. It is available on Amazon Books along with his other stories:
(Owenby Clan) - To The Mountains, High Lonesome Mountains, Cochise County Justice, Owenby Guns, Owenby Texas Pride
(Ace Murphy novels) - Casino Deception, Casino Salvation, Casino Conspiracy, Casino Occupation
(Mack MacCullen novels) - Chasing Confusion
(Other mystery/general fiction) - Wampum, Corporate Beast, Casino Crazy
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Privy To It All
by B. Craig Grafton
Nag, nag, nag. That's all that woman ever does. No matter what he said, what he did or didn't do she
would cluck her disapproval. Nothing was ever right for her. Her two years of dirty looks, head shaking
and scowls at him all the time finally pushed him over the top that day.
She came out to the barn while he was working at the forge pounding out horseshoes. Some trivial thing
had sent her into a tirade and once she got fixated on something there was no stopping her. Except this
time there was.
He didn't even remember doing it. He just raised his hammer and brought it down on her skull.
She fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes—not another sound from her.
George T. Thompson had purposely unintendedly slain his wife Sarah Johnson Thompson and ended his two
years of living hell.
If she hadn't have gotten pregnant, he would never have married her but her father, old Abe Johnson, put
up the money and shotgun for a wedding and sold them this run down cabin and forty acres of hardscrabble
mountain in eastern Tennessee on contract at an inflated price. There was no way he could eke a living
from this rocky soil. He owed everybody for everything and had no way ever of paying it back.
The baby that was the cause of this was born and died two days later and that was what set the his wife
over the edge. Now it was finally over except for disposal of the body.
It was getting dark. He was tired of digging in these rocks. He wasn't going to dig a grave. The ground was
so rocky he hadn't even dug an outhouse. He just built one over a deep crevice in the rocks and that's where
he'd bury her. He'd throw her down the hole. No one would look there. Anyway, a grave would be too obvious
and taking her the mile and sinking her in the river would take too long and the body would surface eventually.
This was the smartest and only way to do it and the most appropriate place.
He knew where he was going. Where everybody with problems like his went. Having disposed of the body he left
a note on the kitchen table to cover his tracks. It read: "The debts being too much we have departed.
Creditors help yourselves." He signed his initials. G.T.T.
George T. Thompson got as far as some little river town just across the Mississippi in Arkansas before the
ghosts of his evil past caught up with him. In the bar of some backwater dive the sole other barroom patron
sat down next to him and asked, "Say you ain't that stranger in town named Johnson from Tennessee looking to
dispense some justice on a fella named Thompson who tried to kill his daughter?"
George was taken back by what he'd heard. They were here. He had to do act fast. Thinking on his feet he
decided to play this hand he'd just been dealt. "Ya that be me. Hit her with a hammer but didn't kill her,
but thought he did and dumped her down the privy, the bastard!"
"Is it true that one of the creditors came out there and plopped his butt down on the one seater and she let
out a shriek like a banshee? Must have scared the . . . bejesus out of him."
"Know where he's at?"
"Hear tell he's lodging at the hotel across the street."
"My daughter and I are staying there," said George. "I think I'll go check it out now."
"Good luck Mr. Johnson. Hope you catch that lowlife Thompson."
George peeked in the window of the hotel and saw only the clerk on duty. With furtive glances he cautiously
entered. "Say young man, is there a Mr. Johnson here?"
"Yes sir, room 22, but he's outback in the crapper now."
"Thank you." He left and ran to his horse, took off the rope from the saddle and ran to the back of the
hotel to the outhouse. Silently he wrapped the lariat around the outhouse a couple of times so that the
door could not be opened and tied the rope into double and triple knots. It was rope-locked shut. He
bolted back to his horse, jumped on and disappeared into the night.
But it didn't end there. Old Abe Johnson knew he was on the right trail all along. This incident was proof
of it. He knew that George would go to Texas. The note gave him away, G.T.T., gone to Texas.
Father and daughter kept on George's trail so that eventually they were in Texas, now less than a day behind George.
"Mr. Johnson I wouldn't go out there. There's nothing out there but Comanches. Nobody lives out there," said the
owner of the cabin where the Johnsons had stopped. "Well, I take that back. A few months ago a young couple named
Bates went out there. Said they were going to settle there just short of the Llano Estacado. Told them not to do
that 'cause of the Comanches but they wouldn't listen. Haven't seen hide nor hair of them since."
"We've come all this way. We ain't quitting now. You said that yesterday you saw a lone rider headed that way and
hollered at him but he didn't stop. Our man fits your description. We'll get him or die trying."
George was barely ahead of the Johnsons. He knew he had to keep going west, to California if need be. He saw a
shack of a cabin in the distance. He'd stop there, find out where he was and where to go next, maybe rest, get
something to eat.
As he neared the house of mud and boards a woman came running out carrying a rifle. "Hurry mister, hide your horse
in the barn and get in the house. Comanches. They killed my husband and stole all my livestock. We shot two of them
but they'll be back. Hurry!"
George spotted a fresh dug grave close up to the cabin. Oh God, from the frying pan to the fire, he thought.
"They're back!" she screamed pointing eastward. "Hurry!"
George didn't have time to think. He saw the dust cloud. He ran to the barn with his horse and shut the door but
before he could get to the cabin it was too late, he heard the riders come to a stop. He was stuck in the barn.
Wait, he thought, Comanches should be coming from the west , not the east. He put an eye to a knothole and listened.
Two riders dismounted: Abe and Sarah Johnson.
"You Mrs. Bates?"
"Yes. Hurry put your horses in the barn out of sight. Comanches are about."
"There wouldn't be a single fella you seen ride through here?" asked Abe Johnson, his one track mind not be be diverted.
"Some fella is in the barn just arrived not more than ten minutes ago. Hurry and bring him with you. We might have a
chance with four of us now."
"We got him now, daughter," snickered Abe.
Abe heard something. He looked westward. A dozen screaming Comanches, not more than two hundred yards away. The Johnsons
dropped the reins to their horses and all three of them ran into the cover of the cabin.
George froze. The Comanches never saw him nor his horse, but now what to do?
Immediately the warriors surrounded the cabin. Even though the three occupants rained continuous fire, killing two and
wounding two, the Comanches managed to set the home on fire and capture the Johnsons' horses.
Now they retreated and waited for the flames to smoke out the occupants. All firing from inside ceased. The flames moved
fast, gobbling up the dried cracked warped boards. It wouldn't be long now before the roof caved.
No one can survive that inferno thought George when a single shot came from inside. The door burst open and out come the
Johnsons, blasting away their clothes ablaze. Mrs. Bates had shot herself he knew now. And he knew a worse fate awaited
the Johnsons, as the Comanches rode in and clubbed down Abe then threw a blanket over Sarah, extinguishing the flames
while they carried her off. Some buck will have her now. Deserves her right.
Abe they dispatched slowly, clubbing him mercilessly and slicing him up in the process. Then they cut off his privates
and threw them in the fire, gave up trying to scalp his little bit of hair left around his ears, grabbed him by the arms
and legs and flung him alive into the flames. George put his hands over his ears. Even a mean old cob like Abe didn't
deserve that fate.
Now one of the warriors started for the barn. He's going to set it on fire, where to hide, panicked George. There was a
small room in the far corner of the barn, maybe there. George ran there and opened the door. It was a oneholer. This was
the Bates privy. He went in, shut the door, and squeezed himself down the hole feet first. Dropped five feet into two feet
of human excrement up to his knees. The Comanche was in the barn now. He opened the door and peered in but not down the
privy. Then George heard him running around the barn trying to capture his horse, the animal snorting and stomping wildly.
From outside the other Comanches started screaming. The one inside ran out and George heard them all mount up and gallup
out to the west. Silence. Then more horses hooves clopping, coming only now from the east. George held his breath, silently
awaiting his new fate. Hopefully they're white men he thought coming from that direction, but they could be outlaws or
Mexican banditos or even some other Indians.
The horsemen pulled up and dismounted. George heard voices speaking English. Then, "Anyone in this barn can come out now.
It's safe. Comanches are gone. The Texas Rangers are here."
George's muffled yells from the latrine were unintelligible to the rangers so a couple of them went in and found him.
"Looks like you got yourself into deep do-do Mr. Bates," one snidely remarked while holding his nose and pulling George
up and out. "That your wife buried over there?"
George nodded affirmatively.
"Here's your horse. Mount up and let's go. There's nothing for you here anymore Mr. Bates. Just what in the hell happened
'Mr. Bates' a/k/a 'Mr. Johnson', Mr. Thompson knew the answers, he was privy to it all.
Oh what was your name in the states?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife?
And flee for your life?
Oh what was your name in the states?
B. Craig Grafton's stories have previously appeared in Frontier Tales as well as Heater, The Texas Writers Journal, The Fable Online,
Romance Magazine, Fear of Monkeys, The Zodiac Review, Clever Magazine and Flash Fiction Press.
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by William L. Domme
Godwin Merritt held a deeply oiled, brown leather satchel filled with cash and silver totaling five thousand dollars at the doorstep of his neighbor's little house waiting for the old man to answer the door that evening. Echo Cliff, the granite wall with its craggy face, loomed above the tree line high up the pass where Godwin rode down from, his own ranch sprawling a hundred feet higher up than his penniless neighbor's parcel. Godwin looked up at the smoke wafting out the chimney, ascending the still air that late summer evening. He rolled up his shirtsleeves and sweat peeked out beneath the dark hair on his forearms. The old man better sell. He heaved a breath. The door swung open and the stooped curmudgeon waved him in. "Evening, Merritt," Danforth Smith said.
* * *
"Lieutenant Smith, good to speak to you again. Fine summer evening." Godwin stretched a borrowed grin.
The old man nodded. "I appreciate you sending your boy down Monday to call on me and set up a chat. And the pie your Frieda sent down with him didn't sit long uneaten."
"I'll pass the word along to her. I think it's good we stay in touch. Many things going on around the mountains we'd be wise to discuss to keep things as neighborly as they've been, Lieutenant Smith."
"Yes. I see. Come in and sit with me. I don't stand too long these days." Danforth led his neighbor inside. "I suppose the day won't be too long off that standing up will be just a memory, like being a young soldier fighting the big war."
By god, the war's been over twenty-some years, Johnny Reb. Godwin gritted his teeth and nearly bit his tongue at the mention of the big war. There wasn't a conversation the two of them had that didn't include his mention of fighting in the Civil War. And, one of those conversations just happened to occur when some of Smith's kin were up visiting. A great-nephew pulled Godwin aside on that occasion and informed him that the extent of his dear, great uncle's war time soldiering had been spent guarding some western Missouri outpost that saw not a single bullet fly in engagement with the Union forces. The only shot, his great nephew confirmed, was fired by a forty-three year old conscripted drunkard who tried to shoot the cock off a weathervane during one of the poor sot's more exuberant outings with the bottle. And yes, Godwin did wish his neighbor to be in good health. He just wished that he would kindly do it elsewhere. "I hope it isn't so. I hope you get to be up and around years to come," he said.
"I suppose we have some more serious matters to tend than just the chitter chatter of pleasant folk as my blessed mother used to say it. So, come. Tell me what's itching the birds in your tree," Danforth said.
"You're a smart man. I won't try to bullshit you. Neither of us are built for that. I'd like to purchase your property and combine it with my own. I'm ready to give you a fair price for the value of your wonderful land." Godwin patted the bulky satchel beside him and said, "As a matter of fact, I'm prepared to give you payment here and now if that's what it takes."
"My lord, what do you have in your carrying bag, son?" Twinkles struck Danforth's eyes like sunlight on a pile of silver dollars. "That is a sharp looking son of a gun."
"You know Red Eagle?"
"Sure, Red Eagle Raw Hides up McCormick from Dr. Spuss."
"Well, he made this here for me. Hell of a process really. You familiar?"
"I think I am. He doesn't do it the regular way."
"That's right. He doesn't."
"I forget what he called it though, the process."
"Right. Morose feller, ain't he?"
"I think it's his spiritual side. He said it keeps the act sacred, allowing the mind and body of the animal to stay interlocked." Godwin made a motion with his fingers overlaying themselves.
"Suppose I can see that," Danforth said.
"He said something else that's stuck with me ever since he made this particular satchel years ago. He was kind enough to let me sit in while he made it. Watched the whole process from kill to finish. Just about the time he handled the wolf's brain, mashed it in a bowl, and worked it over with a smooth stone, he commented, 'Every animal has enough brain to tan its own hide.'"
Danforth chewed on that for a long moment. "Some truth to that."
"There is, I believe. Yet, it's one of those things so philosophical that I actually have a hard time pinning down just precisely what it means."
"I understand you, Merritt, it's got a depth that isn't visible. Like fog on a pond."
"Anyway, I like to share that. I guess maybe if I say it aloud enough times the true depth of it might be revealed some day."
"Well, so what's in the beautiful bag old Red Eagle crafted for you, Mr. Merritt?"
"I have enough silver certificates bearing the image of one Stephen Decatur and a few solid silver coins to account for every pine needle and river pebble on your property should you choose to part ways and relocate."
Danforth Smith sat with a blank stare while he chewed a phantom lemon behind his considerable white moustache. Godwin checked the calluses on his own palms. He gently pressed the top of his leather vest as if to smooth out a crease. He would have politely done that for an hour if it took the old dog that long to respond to his proposition.
Finally, Danforth spoke. "Would you like a drink? I have some tepid coffee. It wouldn't take long to heat beside the fire. I also have a bottle of whisky you might enjoy."
The thought of getting drunk crossed his mind but he failed to find the virtue in being roped into an hours long palaver full of secondhand war stories. "Coffee is fine, Lieutenant Smith."
The old man made a motion to get up.
"No. Let me. You rest a minute," Godwin said. He pointed to the metal pitcher on the big table, "This the coffee, here?" Godwin stood at the big table for only a couple of seconds and noticed an aged letter creased in two folds obviously intended to be delivered once upon a time. It appeared to be just two pages and on the first, he saw it addressed in a clearly personal manner to some man named Farragut. The last page had writing halfway down and was signed "Danforth Smith." Godwin was surprised it did not include Smith's rank, proud as he was of his service in the Confederacy. "I'll just set the coffee near the fire a moment." Godwin's shirt was already stuck to his back from the heat in the old man's shack. "Actually, I don't mind my coffee lukewarm or even cool. Sometimes that can be just as refreshing."
"I prefer mine piping, Mr. Merritt. If you would, please?" Danforth pointed to the fire.
With his back turned, Godwin slowly closed his eyes and wished the old man ill. He silently mouthed, "Sorry, Frieda," knowing she would disapprove of such thinking and had on more than one occasion admonished him for harboring contempt in his soul. She worried immensely that his brute manner and quick judgments of others would eat him inside out.
"Godwin, you're no spring chicken yourself, now. If you don't mind my stating quite the obvious," Danforth said. Godwin, sitting across from him now, just flashed a quick grin. "What would you want with all that land, yours and now mine?"
"I would like to leave my children with enough land to split and live near each other when the time comes for me and my wife. Many years from now, god willing. I know your plat runs quite a ways out from the banks of our stream so with my ranch and acreage up and down the other side . . . "
"That's fine and well. But, what about your business hauling silver out of the mountains? Don't suppose I'm sitting up here sippin' cheap coffee and eating wrinkled potatoes on top of a silver throne?"
"I don't think that's the case, unfortunately. All the veins we're pursuing down in the mines are running south, southwest. We got one branch jumping off northwest but it appears to be drying up, in a manner, Lieutenant Smith."
"That is unfortunate, for me." Danforth glanced over to the coffee, Godwin took the hint and poured him a piping cup. The front of Godwin's shirt stuck to his stomach now and the thought of hot coffee nearly made him ill as he sat back down across from his neighbor.
"Is the coffee hot now?"
Danforth nodded. "What say I call down on the Sheriff in Butte and have him rustle up the assayer to get the numbers coming out from your mine? Would he be inclined to tell me the same? That all your excavating is running away and not toward any property this lonely old soldier holds?"
"I can't speak for the good Sheriff down in Butte, but if he looked at the deeds and permits I would be surprised if he came to any conclusion contrary to what I've told you. I can wait if that's something you want to do." Godwin said.
"Tell you what. It's getting on in the evening and I need to retire soon. Could you get my whisky and plunk a few gulps of it into my coffee?"
"I would but I don't see where you have it stored."
"It's just in the other room beside the wash basin where the pots are drying."
Godwin went to the other room. The bottle stood on the countertop like a big, bright knife in the back. No mistaking the label on the thing. Did the old man in the other room really not understand its significance? Godwin put his palms on the countertop and screamed silently with his jaw flexed open. He could have ripped the whole countertop off the wall.
"Could you find it, Merritt?" he hollered over his shoulder.
"Yes, sir." Godwin picked up the bottle and juggled it with one hand while he considered its label. Stamped lettering with "BRR" in bold black ink stung him and a headache ripped apart his mind. Black Rock Runners. It wasn't whisky. It was Mantabawa River hooch cooked from notorious Mattocks family stills. A sound he hadn't heard in decades burst forth, the memory rose vividly in his mind-the steam saw he operated as a sawyer's apprentice back home, spinning wild with Mattocks' blood. He heard the whap-whapping of long belts that circuited the pins and gears. He winced at the sound of the blade screeching to a stop as it jammed into a log it didn't have enough power to cut. He tore just short of a march into the room where his neighbor sat.
"Ahh, good. This whisky is just what we need to cap off our discussion," Danforth said and twisted the cork from its neck.
"I really think I must get back. I've said what I came to speak of and Frieda will be getting anxious if I don't return soon," Godwin said. "You'll excuse me, won't you?"
"When a lady's concern is front and center a gentleman cannot refuse."
"A gentleman and a good soldier."
"Indeed. Thank you, Mr. Merritt. It's been a pleasure having you here. If you don't mind, I will take you up on that offer and inquire into the mine with the sheriff down in Butte."
"I wouldn't expect anything less than a thorough investigation into the matter. Good evening, Lieutenant Smith. Thank you for your hospitality," Godwin said and made his way to the door.
"A handshake? For the continuation of prosperous dealings between neighbors?" Danforth said.
"My manners. I apologize. Once my wife gets into my mind I find it hard to focus sometimes," Godwin returned with his hand stuck out like an oar.
"The confounded nature of a beautiful woman in a man's life. No need to apologize, neighbor."
Godwin couldn't help thinking the word neighbor had come out as an assurance that they would always be so and that his angling for Danforth's property would be nothing less than futile. "Just one other thing," Godwin said. "The whisky. Where did you get it? I didn't drink any but I took a sniff when I retrieved it. It had an intoxicating aroma."
"Well, I suppose no harm telling you now. A couple of weeks ago some gentleman and his bride came to call. They were looking to do precisely what you're asking to do?"
"They want to purchase your land?" Godwin bit his tongue but kept himself from cursing aloud. He could taste the blood that leaked from the puncture his tooth made.
"Indeed," Danforth said and finally grasped Godwin's outstretched hand. He shook it with the slow, firm movement of a man who wished to convey more than good tidings. "Now, I have to ask myself and it will be something I turn over many times tonight as I sip from the whisky they left me as a gift, 'what is so special about the land I've been living on for nineteen, twenty years that all of a sudden has become the object of desire for multiple parties?' Any thoughts, at all, Merritt?"
Their hands stopped shaking yet remained locked together; Godwin's slick with perspiration and Danforth's clammy with a shadow of the grave. Godwin imagined the old sot, all twisted up in his Confederate grays, three sheets stinking of gin, stumbling around his post trying to shoot the cock off a weathervane in western Missouri. He'd give him one thing though, he still had enough wits to know there was something valuable about the chunk of property he landed on after the Union victory scattered the threads of the 'stars and bars' in the wind.
That evening, when the boys had fallen asleep and Godwin had a chance to finally rest his mind a moment from the worry of how things were going to shake out with his neighbor, Frieda sat down beside him at the long table in the kitchen. The wood stove was cooling finally and the blonde Labrador sat at the open door letting the breeze soothe him to sleep.
* * *
"How was Danforth?" she asked.
Godwin fought to keep his eyes open as he studied a spot on the table. She put a hand on his forearm and waited for a response. "He's got suspicions," he said.
"Some folk came to call on him and see about buying his property."
"Out of nowhere they stumble on his land and think that's the spot they want to make a home?"
"He didn't say where they were from. Sounded like flatlanders looking for adventure, I suppose."
"Something's not right. People don't just stumble onto Echo Cliff out of nowhere."
Not out of nowhere. "We have any ale?" he asked.
Frieda went to the pantry off the back of the kitchen and poured him a stein from their barrel. It trickled to a stop, only filling the stein a little over half way. She was able to rock the barrel in its stand. Empty.
"That's it for the barrel." She set the stein in front of him. "The others will be brewed up soon enough."
The stein was nearly cold in Godwin's hands and he held it without drinking for a while. The dog farted and the breeze carried it up to their noses. "Must have got a hold of a shithouse rat outside today," he said. "Or did he sneak into the garden and eat all our lettuce again?"
"He's been sluggish lately. Hopefully he's over whatever it is soon. I need an aspirin. You?"
He waved it off. "I don't know what to make of the other offer on Danforth's property. I'll have to get down to Butte in the morning and talk with the lawyer."
"God, do you trust him? Do you trust Mr. Jefferson?"
"I would say I do. He's done right by me and Cut Creek Pass."
"The mine brings a lot of money. I mean to say, bad guys don't always wear masks when they set out to rob."
"No. That's true. But, why wait so long to try to swindle me? He'd had plenty of opportunity over the years if that's the predicament you think I'm in."
"Who's to say? He's the one that came to you with the information about the mine and the entrance at the pass not being square on Merritt land. My question is, how did he find that out? From whom?" Frieda said.
"Are you staying up?" Godwin asked.
"I have to lie down. This headache is killing me."
"Is that the aspirin Dr. Spuss give you?"
"It is. I don't know. I just don't think it's working anymore. I'd hate to take more than he said but it seems that when I do the headaches dull again."
Godwin motioned her to come to him. Their embrace was true and warm. She kissed him on his clean-shaven cheek. "Goodnight, God."
"I love you, Frieda."
He chewed on the notions the day brought him. The ale was gone in a gulp. Mattocks in town again. A lawyer who might be looking for a big payday. A neighbor just sober enough to ask questions. The issues stung his brain and when his clenched teeth shifted and ground across themselves he sought his wife's aspirin. The bottle Dr. Spuss gave her on a regular visit to the ranch had a plain brown label with red ink that read, "Albany Drug: Cocaine." Beneath the large type was a billowed banner, "For the afflicted brain." He took one pill and went to the porch to smoke from his pipe. Every time he closed his eyes to inhale the smoke, he saw the blood on the big saw blade and smelled the sawdust piled in heaps around the old steam saw in the mill beside Sawyerskill. The sky was clear and he counted stars to distract himself.
The old man better sell.
Two days' ride by coach from his jurisdiction, the Lake County Sheriff sat on the cushioned bench with his boot up on his knee. A folded copy of The Rocky was in his hand and a scrawl of ink on its top margin read, "Helmut Mattocks, 8:40 to Fort Collins." Sheriff Smith sat still and rested his forearm so as not to disturb the laceration he received in a knife fight inside the Copperhead Saloon in Butte two nights before. His head ached from the blows he took in the fracas and maybe a little more from having to shoot a man in the belly who tried to help him break up the fight between two miners down from Cut Creek Pass, the silver mine Godwin Merritt owned just up the trail from the little town which had gone bust when the gold ran out but boomed once more when Merritt came to town and happened upon a silver vein so long and true the locals nearly made him a king when he got to work setting up a fully operational mine. The locomotive chugged to a crawl with its wheels squealing to a stop. The whistle blew wide open and filled Poudre Canyon.
* * *
Helmut leaned forward to duck the roof of the train car. He towered over the rest of the riders walking the platform to the depot and Sheriff Smith watched as he ducked through the doorway into the dim depot. Helmut looked for the face he hadn't seen in years. As Sheriff Smith approached, he recognized him and his curious moustache straight away.
"What's the news on that son of a bitch, Merritt?" Helmut said. His knuckles were white around the handle of his suitcase, an old beat up thing that smelled of old smoke and cinnamon from where the sheriff stood.
"Helmut, how was the ride?"
"Rough. Thought the new railway here would have some updated equipment. Seems to me they're using rails and wheels they found at the bottom of a gorge beneath a busted wreck of trestle work."
"Things are building up faster than you can imagine out here, Helmut. Soon, we'll have all the conveniences you have back east. What's new on the Mantabawa River? Anyone take to the great beyond I should know about?"
"Been a quiet season. The Bog Bay Devils are keeping to themselves and the Merritt's on Sawyerskill are quiet as a possum that accidently walked in front of a feral hog. Shall we find a better place to talk?"
"There's a good hotel with big steaks where we can sit however long we need. I've got a horse for you."
"I'm going to hit the outhouse first," Helmut said.
The marble bar in the front of The Ashley Hotel was long and high. Their boots hit hard on the dark oak floors that gleamed with the reflection of the sunlight off varnish so thick it could probably stop the coffin-handled bowie knife Helmut wore on his hip. The swing door to the kitchen popped open frequently and the sounds of pots and glasses banged and jostled through the cavernous dining room. Along with that came the smell of carrion and fresh bread that turned Helmut's already hungry belly into a thoroughbred chomping and stamping at the gate. They sat to eat at a table near the window. The dining room was loud with the jocular talk of Ft. Collins' hustlers and politicians.
"Lively place, huh? Old Collins is being shaken up by new Collins. The future of this city is at stake." Sheriff Smith drank his coffee, waited to see if Helmut was interested in the wide-open possibility of setting up a franchise out west.
"Butte's about a day away on horseback, right?"
"A little over."
"So in two days' time you should be able to set up the purchase of that land next to Merritt's and execute the whole deal by the end of the week and telegram the confirmation to Gunther before I even get back home?"
"Then you can do it?"
Sheriff Smith nodded with a mouthful of peanuts from the dish the waiter brought them.
"Good. If the answer was no, I'd have to ride down there and kill the old bastard that sits on that land. I don't want to do that. Surely, you can convince your older brother it's in his interest to move on to greener pastures. I'm giving him the opportunity to be on top of those pastures instead of below them."
"He's a tough drunk but I know he's not an idiot. We'll get you that land and the entrance to Cut Creek."
"Thank you, Sheriff. I'm staying in Fort Collins for the week. I'll be in contact with Gunther, so if things aren't on schedule in a week's time, I'll be headed down to Echo Cliff. Your brother's body will be taken up to Merritt's ranch and he'll be arrested for murder."
"You're the sheriff."
The lump in the sheriff's throat made it hard for him to swallow the steak he gnawed. He wanted nothing more than to spit the fatty blob of grey meat across the table and ride to his brother's house. Sure, Madame V., illustrious proprietor of Wichita's, that flourishing gentlemen's house in the center of Butte, would front him the money to convince his old brother the sale of his land was legitimate and honorable, but what would he owe her then as sheriff? Even through the river of whisky that flowed through Lt. Danforth Smith's body, he'd be able to sniff out the transaction for what it was-a boomtown hustle by a cadre of misfits trying to get in good with outsiders that came to town looking to hang the supposed savior of Butte by his neck for crimes committed decades ago and hundreds of mile away.
The door was open when Sheriff Smith arrived at his brother's little house east of Echo Cliff and the shadow of the Merritt Ranch. It was just before eight by his pocket watch-the one he swiped from the miner during the brawl in the Copperhead. The morning air was crisp. Fall settled in and it would be no time before the path to his brother's would be unnavigable beneath the many feet of snow sure to come. Sheriff Smith went inside with a hand on his pistol and the other carrying a bag of money.
He found his brother curled up on the knotty planks beside the woodstove. The sheriff put the bag down on the chair. He knelt down and shook his brother.
When Danforth opened his eyes, the nausea overtook him and he vomited on the floor.
"What are you doing here? What time is it?"
"I've come to wake you up," Sheriff Smith said and picked up the whisky bottle on the table. This stuff must be stronger than your blithe spirit is used to."
"You bring a bag of money too? I knew you would. I've already shooed off two honeymooners and big Godwin Merritt."
"Here, drink this." He handed his brother a cup of coffee.
"I ain't drinking no cold coffee," Danforth said. "What time is it?" His voice quivered now with effort.
"I forgot you like it hot. Sorry." He set the cup on the stove and loaded some wood into the fire. "We need to talk about your future. It ain't here, not on this mountain no more. I've got all the money you could need to get on and settle up somewhere else. Maybe in town or up in Denver if you need something more thrilling. Plenty of drunks up there to keep you company."
"I don't see the trouble with an old man living and dying on the land of his choosing. This is the land of the damn free still, isn't it?"
"It's not about principles anymore, Danforth. This is about you staying alive."
A serpentine curve crossed Danforth's brow.
Sheriff Smith picked up the bottle of BRR. "It's these folks. Black Rock Runners. They're after Godwin Merritt and they want your land. They don't want you."
"So those honeymooners . . . "
Sheriff Smith tilted the bottle at him.
"Well, I'm not moving. They can come and try and take it from me."
"That's what they're doing. Just take the money and move on, Lieutenant."
The serpentine eyebrow appeared again. "Let me see the money."
Sheriff Smith handed his brother the bag. "It's $100 coin notes."
"This is differenter than the money Merritt brought down."
"You look like you've seen a ghost."
"He looks young."
"Commander Farragut. Admiral now, I suppose. What time is it?"
"Are you okay, Danforth?"
"I just need to get to Butte today. What time is it?" Danforth looked into the portrait on the coin note again, "Gosh, he looks strong."
"Did you know him?"
"When I was on the U.S.S. Saratoga he was my commander." Danforth put his hand on his heart. "He made a name for himself protecting the Liberians and American merchant interests off the west coast of Africa in the 20's."
"1820's? You weren't serving then."
"No, I know. I was aboard 1847. We were sent out during the Mexican American war in the Gulf of Mexico. That expedition was doomed from the start. I enjoyed a shitty outbreak of yellow fever while stationed off Tuxpan. That's Mexico. Gulf Coast. What time is it?"
"15 to 9."
He examined the coin note again. "Time is a merciless bastard. Admiral Farragut is dead now. I read it in The Rocky years ago and drank myself silly that week recalling the bad boys of Farragut's sloop of war. And, how the Union Navy stabbed me in the back with a medical discharge in Pensacola, Florida. It was just a slight cold. I could've served for years and made Admiral too."
"Yellow fever isn't a slight cold, Danforth."
"It was for me. A couple of sailors died before we arrived in Florida but mine was nothing but some sniffles and a cough."
"Farragut. He was a tough one."
"You're not going to budge one inch, are you?"
Danforth shook his head.
"Well, how about a shot?" Sheriff Smith uncorked the bottle. He tipped the BRR way back and took a hard pull. He handed it over to his brother. Danforth tipped the bottom straight up and sucked down what was left. He was gulping hard on the whisky with his eyes closed tight like in prayer. Sheriff Smith shot him in the chest point blank and the bottle fell to the floor to shatter in pieces. His brother died instantly but his eyes stayed open and Sheriff Smith couldn't stand to look at him any longer. He took to the porch and pulled the cigar from his coat, a dirty wool jacket with patches on the elbow where the knife had sliced through in the saloon. He leaned on the post and looked up to the high wall of Echo Cliff while he puffed little round smoke signals from his cigar.
Two riders approached out of the woods and rode across the bridge that separated the land Godwin Merritt owned from the land he wanted. One pulled up alongside Sheriff Smith's horse with his hand raised up. "Dick Mattocks."
"Christ." Sheriff Smith jammed his cigar down on the post. He waited for the other rider to say his name.
"Glenn Mattocks. You the sheriff?"
"Yes sir. I was told you men wouldn't be necessary should this matter resolve itself in due time."
"Well, Sheriff Smith, the plans have changed. Now, we know this is still fresh and you're likely a little sensitive to outsiders at the moment but we have a job to do. You don't need to be here any longer unless you just find yourself to be the helpful sort. Either way, that corpse in there is going up to Merritt's ranch."
"Let me gather a couple of things inside and I'll leave you to it. I'm not interested in helping any more than I have to."
Dick waved him on. He hollered after him, "He's fine now. No pain."
Sheriff Smith rummaged the house for some papers, anything to identify the property. It was no use. His brother had nothing but empty bottles and regrets.
"We need to get a move on, Sheriff." Dick spit a gob of wet tobacco toward the porch.
"Take it easy. Man's got a right to say his peace to the dead."
Dick and Glenn, the brothers Mattocks, spit simultaneously.
Sheriff Smith rode the trail into the woods that led back down to Butte and tried to plan his next move, arresting Godwin Merritt.
William L. Domme writes in Topeka, KS. He is a member of Lit Reactor writing workshop and his work has
appeared in Seveneightfive, Subterranean Quarterly, and was a finalist in Glimmer Train. His other work
can be found at his website atypeofwriter.com
and follow on twitter: @atypeofwriter
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