Nevada Stage Ride
by Larry Garascia
An icy cold wind blew across the land. The wind brought with it the promise of snow to north-eastern Nevada, but winter snow was nothing new to the region. As it was, the Eastern Nevada Stage Company was getting ready to depart its daily coach from East Nugget to Mountain Ridge.
The coach was not a normal coach but four feet longer and pulled by a team of six horses. The coach was longer because it contained a wood burning stove in the center of the coach and featured glass windows on its sides. The stove assured the seven passengers making the journey that they would be warm and cozy while the stage made its way up a portion of the eastern hills.
Up on the drivers bench Will Renter, the shotgun rider, sat bundled up ready for the twenty mile journey. He was well dressed against the cold weather and wore a boot length great coat, a scarf wrapped about his neck and over his ears and a stout woolen hat. His hands were properly gloved and he wore two pair of socks. His pants were tucked into his boots and tied off with leather laces. In every way he was prepared for the long, cold trip. Next to him, coach driver Fred Lathe was similarly dressed. Even the six horses wore short blankets.
Will was forty years old. He was tall with good arms and legs and a narrow waist and a lean face marked with wrinkles and crow feet under his eyes from long days in the Nevada sun. He had been a sheriff in the northern California town of Preston for several years but was mostly bored with the job and started riding shotgun for the gold caravans coming down from the many mines scattered about Nevada. It was a well paying job and took him over the state which he loved. The majestic beauty of Nevada never failed him. It was always there in all its glory to behold, and the reason he never again wanted to leave.
Then, five years ago, Will began as a shotgun rider for the stage company as it often carried large mine payrolls and sometimes even gold dust. Every day, six days a week, he rode up on the driver's seat. Three times in the past five years he had beaten off robbery attempts, his good aim with a rifle and pistol earning him handsome cash rewards.
The stage, which was carrying a payroll of two hundred thousand dollars, was set to depart in just a few minutes; the station agent, a portly man wearing a blue uniform jacket, checked over the harnesses and made sure the stove was burning properly and an adequate supply of wood was aboard. When he was satisfied all was well he took out an elaborate pocket watch, noted the time as eight o'clock straight up and down and with a dramatic wave of his right arm, sent the coach on its way.
The coach went down the street about a quarter of a mile and made a gradual right turn out onto the road. The wind continued to blow cold and eagerly as the station agent watched it until it was out of sight.
"Feels like snow", Fred called out as he guided the horses into a right turn. He was thirty years old, short but well built and had been driving stages for ten years. A well regarded driver he was also handy with a rifle and his six gun and had helped Will fend off robbery attempts.
"Won't surprise me", Will said, pointing up at the leaden sky. "We're overdue for a good snow", he said, taking his cigarette kit out from his jacket pocket. Quickly and expertly he rolled a cigarette, lit up and handed it to Fred. Then he rolled another smoke, lit up and sat back in satisfaction as he smoked at watched out at the tall hills and low mountains off the left side of the road.
"We'll be going higher in a few minutes", Fred replied. "That's when we'll run into the snow."
And true enough, in several minutes, as the coach road higher up into the hills the first sputtering of snow began. It came in quick, little bursts, driven on the wind, fitfully, unsure of itself; and then the snow went away only to come back in a few more minutes, this time more eagerly, blowing down from the dark skies in long streamers of fine white powder. The wind was stronger now and colder and the two men sat facing the cold wind, scarves about faces, only eyes exposed. Fred bent down to the floor of the wide bench and retrieved a pair of goggles and slipped them on. The snow was thicker now, coming in great, puffy white sheets.
"Getting harder to see!", Fred called out above the wind. "Road sure is tricky here", he yelled as he swept the stage into a gradual left turn, hugging the edge of a granite wall.
The stage came out of the turn and the road narrowed and the snow came straight at the stage and the wind blew stronger. The horses were going into the snow with heads down and they were unsettled by the snow and the cold wind and Fred had to keep tugging constantly on the reigns. The road bent into a right turn and the snow was heavier as they came out of the turn. Then the road ran straight and true and on the left was the granite wall of the mountains and on the right a rocky ledge and below the ledge the distant valley. Fred eased the reigns and the horses settled down. "Looks like its letting up some", Fred called out.
For the next two hours the stage made its way higher and higher up the slope of the mountain. The air grew colder and the snow was fitful. It looked as though they would make the crest and start down the other side without any trouble. But then the weather turned ugly again and snow started flying; it was difficult to see and the horses were unsure again.
"Think we better pull up at the relief station and wait 'er out", Fred yelled over to Will. And Will was in agreement, for the weather had truly turned against them.
Less than half an hour later they pulled into the yard of the relief station which sat on a flat ledge on top of a bluff. There was a large wood cabin and a stable. The station was never staffed but it contained provisions and two large stoves and in the front yard a well and water pump.
Will climbed down and opened the coach door and instructed the passengers to go into the cabin and light the two stoves. Then he helped Fred un- do the team and led the animals into the barn. Meanwhile the storm had turned savage. Snow blew so hard that Will and Fred had trouble finding their way back to the cabin, even though it was only three hundred feet away! Once inside they secured the heavy wooden door and took stock. The passengers huddled around the two stoves, warming themselves. There were three women and four men and they seemed normal in every way.
"We gotta wait out the storm", Will told the passengers. "Make yourself comfortable. We'll get some coffee on", he said. The passengers sat down at a long wooden table. The room began to grow warm. Will took down a large coffeepot from a peg on the wall and went outside and filled the pot with fresh water. When he returned he took down a can of Arbuckle's coffee from a shelf, poured the coffee into the pot and set the pot on the largest of the stoves to cook.
The coffee cooked and Will went down the table, filling metal cups; and so it was the passengers passed a safe and uneventful three hours while the storm blew itself out.
Meanwhile, just outside Mountain Ridge, two men rode horses up into the hills. The men were dressed against the weather, for they could see storm clouds on the distant horizon and knew the mountains well. They were desperate men out to rob the stage with its load of gold dust bound for the bank at Mountain ridge. The lead rider wore a long brown coat with the collar turned up. He was of medium build with a round face and mean gray eyes and a scar under his left cheek. His name was Eliot Neal and he was thirty years old. He had been in jail for the last six years for robbing a general store in Carson City. Behind him rode Jud Boyd, twenty-nine years old. He didn't look like very much. He was thin and fragile looking with a narrow face and bad teeth and thin brown hair. Jud had killed a man eight years ago and had been in prison where he met Eliot when the two of them shared a cell. Together they plotted to rob the stage. It was a simple plan, one that called for killing any passengers, the driver and shotgun rider. They would escape by riding into northern California and taking a train down into Mexico.
When the storm abated, Will and Fred readied the coach, loaded the passengers and set off. There was snow on the road, but the sky was clear and the wind dead and the stage was able to make steady progress as it wound its way along the road at the top of the pass and then began making its way down. As the stage wound down the pass the road narrowed, in places to no more than six feet wide. Fred had to slow the stage to a bare crawl to negotiate these difficult passages and Will was on constant alert, worried about an ambush.
Below them, making steady progress, rode the two outlaws. "What if the storm held the stage up?", Jud asked, pulling up alongside Eliot.
"Don't matter none", Eliot replied as he rolled a cigarette. "Just means our plans are set back some."
"I don't know", Jud replied, shaking his head. "Being late an all, it don't help none."
"Quit stewin", Eliot said. "We'll run into the stage soon enough. So stay ready!"
And then they did run into the stage, but not as planned. The road made a sharp right turn and narrowed to only five feet and suddenly the stage was coming through the turn, the six horses leading the way and they came upon the two riders out on the road and Will saw one of the riders bringing up a rifle and he shot the man through the center of his chest with a single round. The other rider had his six gun out and was aiming it at the driver's seat when Will sent another round from his powerful rifle smashing into the rider's upper chest. The man flew backwards off his horse. The stage hauled up to a stop as Will jumped down from his seat and ran over to the two men he had shot. They were out on the road. The first rider was on his side, hands clutching his chest. Will rolled him onto his back with a hard push from his right boot, and it was plain to see the man was dead. Then he went over to the other man who lay face up, arms flayed out, sprawled on the road. He was dead, too, and Will shook his head. Then he walked back to the coach and opened the door and called out several of the men and together Will, Fred and the men put the bodies of the two dead men up on the roof of the stage.
"When we get to town, we'll see if the sheriff knows 'em", Will said.
Then the passengers climbed back into the coach, Will closed the door and climbed up onto the seat next to Fred. "Country's full of bandits and highwaymen", Fred said, taking up the reigns, urging the horses into motion.
When the stage pulled into Mountain Ridge the passengers hurried out into the cold and walked across the street to the hotel. Will walked down the street to the sheriff's office and brought the sheriff back to look at the two dead men. The sheriff was about sixty, short and heavy set with gray beard stubble adorning his face. His gray coat was open and his yellow shirt was frayed and spattered with coffee spills. He wore a gun belt low across his ample belly and walked slowly. "Say you shot these men?", the sheriff asked.
"Shot em' dead", Will replied, curtly. "They were trying to rob the stage."
The sheriff walked up to the stage and grunting loudly he pulled himself up to the driver's seat and turned toward the rear of the stage and looked at the two dead men who lay face up. "Say, these two are the Darcy brothers!", he said, turning, climbing awkwardly down into the street. "Pretty bad pair", the sheriff told Will, taking a short stubby cigar from his jacket pocket. He held the cigar in his left hand, waving it towards the jail: "Had em' locked up last night for drunk and disorderly. Gave me and my deputies a hard time, too. Well", he exclaimed, clamping the cigar in his mouth, "I'll have the undertaker come down and fetch em'" he told Will. He walked a few paces, then turned and faced Will: "They got brothers", he said, pointing up towards the roof of the stage. "Better watch out!" Then he turned and ambled down the street.
Later that night, after dinner, Will was in the New Way saloon. He was at the bar, his left foot on the rail, drinking a beer. It was dim and smoky like all saloons, and it smelled of spilled beer, unwashed bodies and mildew. But it was a smell he was used to. Will stood up and rolled a smoke and lit it. Through the windows he could see a cold rain falling. He finished his beer and turned to leave when he saw two men push in through the according doors and right away he knew they were the brothers of the dead men.
The two men spotted him at the bar and they moved in fast and drew pistols. But Will was faster. Much faster. He had his .44 out and aimed before the men had cleared holster. He shot each man with a single shot in the center of the chest. The men took a few stutter steps and looked at Will in surprise, with wide open eyes, not believing how fast he was and then they fell face down dead onto the sawdust covered floor. It was over in just a few seconds and two more bad men were dead.
Lawrence Garascia is a retired sales professional who lives in Cincinnati. He has traveled the West extensively,
including Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, and has always been interested in western themed fiction. His work
has only been published in Frontier Tales and he plans to send more stories for publication consideration.
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Death Wears a White Shroud
by Jesse J Elliot
"Are you still with me, Father Agustin?" Iragene turned her head and yelled, hoping to be heard above
the shrill screams of the wind and the blowing snow. At the end of the lead rope, an invisible voice
shouted back, "Yes, Sheriff, I am fine. I just wish we could see beyond our noses."
* * *
Iragene Jones, sheriff of El Brazo County, smiled briefly then resumed her onslaught against the swirling
snow that continued to block her vision. She looked around, glad that her friend, Father Agustin didn't
see the fear on her face, though he too knew that they were totally lost, and the lead rope was only there
to make sure they wouldn't get separated in the blizzard.
The two riders struggled on through the sea of snow for another few minutes. Suddenly, she and her horse
smelled it at the same time—smoke. Mixed in with the blowing snow, it was impossible to separate
the snow from the smoke as visibility remained pure whiteness, but abruptly, her horse stopped. Iragene
turned around to her riding companion. "I think we found a structure. Can't tell if it's a house or what."
"It's a morada, a Penitente church. I know where we are. We must have gotten turned around—going east instead of west to Santa Fe," he shouted to her with relief in his voice. "It's not the best place to stay, but it will at least save our lives tonight."
They both got off their horses and walked around the structure, feeling their way around the building. Next to what appeared to be a chimney was a fair sized indentation where one horse was already picketed. They took their saddles off their horses. Rubbed them down with some straw that someone had conveniently left, fed them, and then covered them again in their saddle blankets and saddles to keep the heat in.
"Are you sure it's all right to go in, Father? I heard the Penitentes are prickly about strangers using their churches, even deadly," she spoke loudly to her companion.
"In this weather, no one should censure us for taking succor in a house of God," and he put his saddle bags over his shoulder and took Iragene's free arm. They held onto the walls and each other as they walked around, looking for the entrance. Finally the adobe gave way to heavy wood, the door.
They pushed the door in and were surprised to see two youngsters huddled in front of the fireplace. The teenage boy and girl both jumped up as the two wayfarers entered the church. Their eyes were wide open and their mouths agape.
"Relax, my children, we are just two travelers who lost our way. I am Father Agustin, and this is Iragene Jones who was kind enough to accompany me to Santa Fe as she had business of her own to deal with. We are here to escape the storm and for no other reason. Now, may we join you and warm ourselves by the fire that you so generously fixed?"
The young girl spoke first. She stepped forward awkwardly, looking contrite. "We're so sorry we didn't invite you in, Father. We were just surprised. We weren't expecting anyone to be out in the storm," she responded, wringing her hands and looking back over her shoulder at her companion. "We haven't done anything wrong!" she added.
"Children, I am sure you have done nothing wrong, please don't fret."
Iragene, still half frozen decided to forego the girl's confession and try to thaw out, "Father, let's get some coffee going so we can warm up a bit. Then we'll get the cheese out and heat up the tortillas. Are you two hungry?" she asked the youngsters. "We have enough for four if you're interested."
"We sure are," the boy almost shouted out. "I'm afraid we didn't plan very well. Thank you. Can we help, Father?"
"There's probably more wood and some cooking utensils in the storage room. Why don't you light the two lamps over there in the corner and see what you can find?"
Both kids walked over to the lamps and the boy lit them with a burning twig from the fire. They then disappeared through the door of the storage area on the far side of the room, leaving one of the lamps in the main room.
"So what do you think about our young Romeo and Juliette?" Iragene asked as she angled her head toward the storage door.
"Well, he's Anglo and she's Mexicana. I suspect that the difference in their family backgrounds may be the cause of their running away. I have a feeling that we'll know their story before the night is over," he looked at her with a twinkle in his ebon eyes. "She's obviously used to confessing to priests."
The well-built fireplace was slowly warming the front part of the room where everyone was camped. Iragene had just taken off her coat when the boy and girl re-entered the room. Once again both of them looked at the woman and stared, remaining silent. She wore a brown riding skirt that barely covered her boots. Her heavy woolen sweater stopped just above her holster and guns. Instead of being pinned up, her hair hung low, falling in waves down her back. She was like no one either youngster had seen. She was feminine but not in any sense did she appear vulnerable. The girl said nothing, but the boy's gulp was quite audible. No woman in 19th Century New Mexico dressed like that or wore guns in a holster.
* * *
Iragene caught their glances, and decided to diffuse their discomfort. "Ah, I see you found more wood and a flat pan to heat up the tortillas. Wonderful. In the meantime, let's just relax and get to know each other better," and she smiled and looked at her companion.
"Let me begin again. I am Father Agustin, and I am on my way to visit my sister who lives in Santa Fe. When I found out the sheriff had to make a trip to the capital as well as pick up a prisoner, I thought having some good company with me on the long ride would be more pleasant and safe," and he turned to Iragene.
"My name is Iragene Jones, and I'm the sheriff of Los Brazos, as Father Agustin already mentioned," and she nodded to the clergyman with a smile, while placing four small tortillas on the hot pan. "Now, who are you?" she added kindly.
Neither made a sound, but then the boy looked up and spoke, "I'm Aiden Wilson." He placed his hand on the girl's and then continued, "This is Paola Salort Jimenez. We're running away to be married."
Father Agustin looked kindly at each of them. "Do your parents know where you children are right now?" he asked knowingly.
"No," Aiden said angrily, "we're not allowed to see each other even though we grew up on ranchos right next to each other."
"Ah, I see," and he turned to Paola. "And how old are you, my child?"
"Father, I am no child, I am almost fifteen, old enough for a Quincinera and old enough to know I love Aiden," and she grabbed the boy's other hand to affirm her words.
"I assume your parents don't know where you are. What do you imagine they're thinking right now with both of you gone in the middle of a blizzard? Aren't you afraid they're worried?"
Iragene continued to work on the tortillas, adding cheese and some chili verde to the meal. She tried keeping busy to hide the smile that came to her face as she listened to the youngsters justify their behavior. With the metal plates the youngsters found, she dished out food to everyone. "Father, let's eat. I don't know about you, but I'm famished," and she gave a knowing wink to her friend the priest.
They sat before the fireplace, silently eating their food. Finally talk turned to the duration of the storm and the question of how long they might be there. "Luckily these storms blow out as suddenly as they come, but in my entire life, I don't think I've seen one this bad," Aiden informed them. Both the sheriff and the priest tried not to smile.
"And how old are you, young man?" Father Agustin asked innocently.
"Seventeen, Father—a man," he said quickly, waiting for any challenges that might come.
Iragene looked up from her food and decided to go back to the safe discussion of the weather. "My brother and I once got caught in a white-out like this in Texas. We were afoot, and the only thing that saved us was crawling into a haystack with our dog. We were there for a whole day and a night. That hay and our dog saved us!"
"How did the dog and hay save you?" Paola finally spoke, her eyes wide with wonder at this seemingly amazing woman, wearing a gun and sitting casually beside her.
"Well, I don't understand this myself, but two things kept us warm, the dog and the actual straw itself."
"Huh, I don't understand. I know the dog makes a lot of heat. My old Sam could heat up my bed so much I had to make him sleep outside in the summer, but hay? How does that heat up?"
"Apparently, the hay does generate its own heat. One very hot, dry summer when I was a boy," the priest added, "my sister and I were out riding on the rancho, and three of our haystacks caught fire—before our very eyes! We rode home as quickly as we could to tell our father so he could catch the arsonist. My father and his foreman were not even surprised though they were unhappy. 'There is no arsonist, mijos, only the summer heat.' That night, the first of the summer monsoons began, and that was the end of the mysterious fires in the haystacks."
They continued to eat in comfortable silence for a brief while. Then Paola looked at Agustin. "Father, we have lived near the Penitentes all our lives, but nobody seems willing to talk about them. They seem like Catholics, but they have some strange traditions that no one will explain."
Iragene looked up into Father Agustin's face, "Father, that's a good question. Coming just recently from Texas, I have little knowledge of the Penitentes. I'd like to know how they got started. They're so close to all the Catholic churches, why did they start their own?"
Aiden put a log on the fire, then looked up, "All I've heard is to stay away from any of their buildings, especially at Christmas or during Holy Week or you'll be flogged—or worse. We were mighty desperate to take shelter here, and we weren't too happy to do so," and he screwed up his face as he pointed around him.
"Probably a good idea to remember in the future," the handsome priest smiled. "Well, if you're all so interested, I'll give you the history of the Penitentes.
"After Mexico proclaimed its independence from Spain, she withdrew all of her priests from New Mexico. In their place, they left some lay clerics to carry out baptisms and weddings, but these lay clerics for the most part were too few and too far from the communities. Many of them were corrupt and charged so much for these ceremonies, that the people turned to a group of dedicated men who had their roots in the old time Catholicism where flagellation and former traditions still existed. These were the Penitentes, and they allowed the church to survive as well as continue to forge a closeness to old Spain and some of its traditions. It wasn't until Father Lamy came to New Mexico, just a few years back, that modern Catholicism was re-introduced to the Southwest. But, as you see," and he pointed around to the morada, "old customs die hard. Here we are nearing the end of the 19th Century, and still this morada is in current use."
"Gracias, Padre, that clarifies a lot," Paola smiled shyly.
"De nada," he returned. "Religion plays a large part in our lives, mija. It is something that you and Aiden will have to discuss at length."
Aiden looked over at the two of them. "We will, Father. We'll go back after the storm and talk with our parents. I want to be married more than ever, this isn't the way to start. I want our parents at the wedding," and he looked at the young girl, "and I'm sure Paola wants the same."
"I do, I do," she said and leaned over and kissed Aiden on the cheek. "Oh," she looked at the priest, embarrassment coloring her cheeks, "I'm so sorry, Padre."
"Mija, there is no need for an apology. A chaste kiss is nothing to be ashamed of," and he smiled.
They all pitched in to clean the dishes. Several trips were made outside to gather enough snow. The two youngsters were obviously tiring. They did have two blankets, but where to put them, they were too embarrassed to ask.
Iragene yawned but then saw their discomfort. "How about you and I sleeping over to the right of the fireplace, Paola, and Aiden and Father Agustin taking the left side? I'll put away the dishes if you men will check the horses. Paola, can you bring some more wood in so we can make it through the night and not freeze?" she asked smiling. Everyone nodded and went about their business of preparing for the night.
Iragene picked up the now clean dishes and pots. Looking about, it struck her that there was little furniture in the large room. There were different wood-carved crosses on each wall. The crosses were large enough for a man to be crucified on. She looked around and shuddered, knowing that the Penitentes did crucify a man every Easter. Were these crosses a decoration or the actual means in which a symbolic Christ was crucified?
Her thoughts were interrupted when Paola came back and quietly asked her, "How did you become a sheriff, and where's your star?"
"How I became a sheriff is a long story, and I don't always wear the star since sometimes I don't want people to know I'm a sheriff. Sometimes people talk to me more when I'm just Iragene Jones."
"Are you ever afraid?" the girl asked, sounding like the child that she was. Iragene looked at her and smiled. She put the clean dishes and things down and attempted to answer the question as honestly as she could.
"Oh, yes, a lot of the time. That's what keeps me alert. Being a little afraid is a good thing, being very afraid is not a good thing—fear can often paralyze you, not allowing you to think clearly on how to react." She turned her head and looked at the door. "Hmmm, don't you think it's taking those men a long time to check on the horses?"
Iragene had taken off her holster before settling down to eat, but out of habit, she placed the holster next to her sleeping area and covered it with her sleeping blanket. Within seconds, the door banged open, and a gust of frigid, blowing snow entered the room. Suddenly two men fell into the church, both bleeding about their faces and both with their hands tied behind their backs. Aiden and Father Agustin painfully looked up at the two men who followed. Each carried a gun and had it pointed at a man.
"Well, well, what have we got here, Little Brother, two women, so each of us will have our own blanket warmer. Oh, yeah, finding this building again was the luckiest thing next to my breaking you out of prison," he laughed cruelly as his eyes looked up and down at the two woman, a lascivious grin on his face. "Found me some little virgins to keep us warm. Yeah, we've been, how shall I say it? Blessed, yeah, blessed by this building," and an ugly laugh followed. Abruptly he kicked both men. "You, Padre, get next to the left wall! And you, sonny, get over to the right wall, away from the ladies!"
The younger brother had said little during all this. His hair, like his brother's, was stringy and greasy, and he easily stood six feet tall. Unfortunately, he was also the man on the wanted poster who Iragene was supposed to collect from the jail in Santa Fe. He had raped and murdered a young woman in her county before she had became sheriff. He was captured a few weeks ago when a deputy in Santa Fe recognized him by the wanted poster and the description of his slow speech and mannerisms. Though mentally slow, the law still held him accountable for his crimes, and he was to return to Los Brazos for a trial.
"I'm Big John and this here is Little Joe. Me 'n Little Joe could use some warming up. Got some coffee in that pot?" the older brother demanded. Unabashed and not really caring to hear a response, he took out a filthy kerchief from his pocket and grabbed the handle. He poured some coffee in a cup from the pile of clean dishes and sipped it, looking at Iragene and then to Paola with a cruel grin that exposed a mouth full of brown and rotten teeth.
"Hey Big John, dis is the same place where I did that other girl I was telling you about. But I did her too hard," and he laughed, sounding like a cackle.
Iragene tried not to respond at all, but her expression displayed the revulsion she felt. She tried quickly to hide her reaction, but the older brother had seen it. "So you don't like what you see or hear, huh, girly? Well, I'll show you, and I'll bet you'll like me then," and he grabbed her by the sweater and pulled her near him. Little Joe just watched, and Paola whimpered.
Iragene looked at Paola, attempting to convey a shushing sound but to the stranger she showed no resistance but shivered. The big man ripped off her sweater.
"I'm cold, and I don't want to do this here. Can we take the blanket and go in the other room, please?" She waited, and since he didn't say no, she slowly moved toward her blanket, watching his expression, and tucked it in her arms. Paola whimpered again, while Father Agustin and Aiden lay quietly semi-conscious on the floor.
"Ha, you want me as much as I want you, huh, girly? Little Joe, keep your eyes on these three. It's your turn next," he sniggered then abruptly yanked Iragene's hair. "Just so you know who's boss, Girly."
Iragene tried to remain calm for the sake of the girl and the priest who was coming around, but he obviously had a concussion as he vomited where he lay. She was working out a plan in her head while being half shoved and half carried into the storage room. She knew the man's vulnerable spots and aimed to use them to her advantage.
They made it to the storage room. Both lamps had been removed to the main room, so there was no light. The smell of the man in the close quarters almost made Iragene sick. He was beginning to remove his clothes. So sure of himself, she could hear him take off his holster and lay it on the table. He then moved so his back was to the door to block the chances of her running out.
He felt around and found her face. He slapped it. "Okay, bitch, get down on your knees and listen to what I want you to do!" He smiled as he looked off into the darkness, never suspecting that the contact his privates were anticipating would be met with a hard knee. "GOD DAMMIT!" he screamed. "What the. . ." While he held his privates, Iragene hauled off and kicked him solidly in the shin. While he held onto his crotch with one hand, he reached out to grab his assailant by the hair or neck but found nothing. Iragene had crammed herself into a corner and pulled out her gun from the holster in the blanket. He reached out and found her gun, but he was too late, he could only botch her aim. Instead of his chest, she shot him right in the foot. The close range tore his boot apart and shattered his foot, turning his bones to splinters.
Little Joe was at the door, pounding and shouting to his brother, but his brother's shattered body was against the door, blocking the entrance. "Big John, Big John, are ya all right?"
Iragene checked her gun and was about to move the big man when she heard a thud on the other side of the door. Had someone taken Little Joe out because the man was no longer trying to get in? She heard her immediate attacker moaning, but all she wanted to do was get out of the small room. She tried opening the door but his heavy body became dead weight.
"Iragene, Iragene, are you . . . are you alive?" Paola cried through the door.
"Yes, can you push while I pull? I wish I had some light." They both tugged at the door, one pushing, the other pulling. Finally light came through the crack, and then it got bigger. Just as Iragene felt the door about to open, a rough hand grabbed the ankle of her boot. "I got you, you bitch, and I'm going to kill you now."
Iragene looked down quickly, her gun still in her hand. Luckily, Big John was so sure of himself he forgot that Iragene had a gun. Quickly she aimed and shot. He screamed in pain just as Paola pushed as hard as she could and the big man fell over, allowing Iragene to escape her hellhole.
When she finally got out into the main room, she bent over, held onto her knees, and took some deep breaths. First to get the man's stench out of her system, and second, to stop her own shaking—it had been too close a call. After what seemed to be forever but was only thirty seconds or so, she stood up and looked around. The men were slowly coming out of their stupors, and lying between her and the fire was the comatose body of Little Joe. On his head was the beginning of a huge welt.
Iragene looked questioningly at Paola. "How?" was all she asked.
"He was so busy trying to open the door that he forgot about me. I grabbed the pan and hit him on the head. Good reason not to put pots and pans away. Luckily, he fell away from the door or we would have had two brothers to move." She giggled in an octave higher than was probably normal. Iragene sensed that the girl was close to hysterics. She walked up to Paola and took her in her arms and soothed her. The girl started crying, and Iragene stood there holding her until she stopped, sobbed a bit, choked a bit, and then relaxed. Paola finally lifted her head and smiled. Finally looking around, she realized that Aiden and Father Agustin were still tied.
Iragene wasted no time. She walked quickly over to her saddlebags and withdrew handcuffs. She put them on the two huge unconscious men. She took the rope that Paola took off of Aiden and Father Agustin and tied the feet of the younger brother. Both men were groaning, and even though Big John would probably never walk again, she tied him up as well.
Paola then went to Aiden and the priest and gave them water and put cold cloths on their heads. Each were now conscious and able, though fearful, to ask what had happened. Iragene and Paola briefly explained what had happened, editing the details. The story ended with each women taking out a brother.
Father Agustin attempted to smile, but it hurt too much, while Aiden was on the verge of tears, knowing that their little escapade could have ended in rape and murder, he just looked away.
"Iragene, are you going to check on Big John's wounds?" asked the girl.
"No, I have no bandages or medicines. He may die from infection or loss of blood, but I can't help him. We'll have to fetch a doctor when the storm lets up. In the meantime, I need to get some sleep. I think we'll be all right until tomorrow. Both men are tied and cuffed. Let's clean up what we can and get some rest," she said after cleaning up the vomit, helping the men move closer to the fire, and taking back her blanket from the storeroom. Both brothers were now silent. She spread her sleeping pack, covered herself with her blanket and fell asleep.
The restful sleep was broken quite early with the sounds of shouts. "Help me!!! Dammit, give me something for the pain! When I get through with you, there won't be any pieces left to recognize you. I'll tear you limb from limb!!!!! Little Joe, where are you? Where's my brother?" The shouts were loud but slurred. Iragene clenched her fist tightly. She knew she had destroyed this man and put him in excruciating pain, but the alternative would have been worse.
* * *
She looked at Little Joe. He was lying where they had left him. He heard the shouts of his brother, but he couldn't move. He lay there quietly after having spent a good part of the night before trying to remove his restraints.
Iragene and Paola went outside for their morning ablutions, bringing back snow for coffee. Father Agustin felt well enough to get the fire going. He started the coffee and began heating the tortillas. The four ate in silence, trying to ignore the yelling from the next room.
Once again they cleaned up, but left the clean dishes in a neat stack outside the storeroom. Iragene moved cautiously toward Little Joe. "I know you can both hear me. John, I'm riding to Santa Fe to find a doctor. I'm sorry I can't do more but I'll back as soon as I can."
Big John and his brother, Little Joe, cursed Iragene every way they could. Anxious to leave the filthy language and smell of the brothers, Iragene and Paola helped Father Agustin and Aiden to the horses. They looked around in awe. The fresh snow looked like a sea of diamonds as the bright New Mexico sun shined down on it. The lapis sky, the snow covered pines, and the dazzling whiteness reminded every one how beautiful the world still was in spite of the ugliness that they had lived through the previous night.
Aiden looked at the tired priest. "We promise we'll make this right, Father. We're going to the Jimenez place and talk to her parents. Then I'll go home and talk to mine. Hopefully our parents will understand."
"I know you will, my children. Now go with God, and have a safe journey back. You're sure you're both feeling well enough for the ride?"
"Yes, Father," Paola replied, the cold causing her cheeks to turn dark pink in lovely contrast with her large brown eyes and black hair. "But I will make sure that Aiden is all right. I'll have my Tia check him. She's a curandera. She'll make sure that Aiden is well enough to ride home alone."
Leading his horse, she turned a final time, "Good-bye, Father. Good-bye, Iragene. Thank you for everything," and they headed east while Iragene and Father Agustin turned west.
By noon, much of the snow was gone. The temperature hovered in the 40s, and their ride to Santa Fe was pleasant and uneventful. The priest listened with relief knowing she and Paola had subdued the two brothers before . . . anything could happen. He looked at Iragene, trying to think of something to say.
"You know that there was nothing you could have done differently," she said softly to him.
"I know, but somehow, I feel that I let you down. When I think of what those men could have done . . . " he choked a bit.
"It's over, Father," and she smiled sympathetically.
Iragene looked at the priest turn and ride on to the church, thanking God this kind and special man was her friend. She continued to look at him fondly, and then sighed and headed for the sheriff's office.
The next day, the Santa Fe sheriff, the doctor, and Sheriff Iragene Jones set off with a wagon to the isolated morada. Though the sun shined brightly, dark clouds were building up. Bundled up, the three took extra blankets and food for the men who had now been alone for two days.
They arrived and stopped the wagon in front of the morada. There were boot and horse prints all over the snow. "Maybe someone has already brought a doctor for these men. I hope they realize how dangerous they are," said the sheriff, scratching his chin. Slowly they got out of the wagon, carrying in the supplies.
Nobody was there! They looked around the room and then in the storage room. No prisoners, no blood.
"Well then, I guess I'm not needed . . . " but the doctor stopped short when he saw Iragene's expression. "What is it!?" She continued to stare at the walls in horror, her hand over her mouth—two crosses were missing. She knew she would be riding back without her prisoner—he and his brother were no longer in need of a doctor.
By the time they started back home, it was snowing.
An eclectic reader at an early age, Jesse J Elliot grew up to be an educator, working in elementary schools, universities, and community colleges. She received her MA and Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, and many of her descriptions of people and places derive from her actual experiences.
Her free time is spent traveling, dancing, and visiting family. She married her husband because he reminded her of Owen Wister's the Virginian. She is a big fan of westerns, science fiction, and the classics. Her goal was to publish a strong, feminist western series. Her dream is coming true as her first novel, Death in Gran Quivera, is about to be published by Torrid Press, a subsidiary of Whiskey Creek Press.
Four of her short stories have been published in Frontier Tales Magazine, and one has appeared in A Christmas Mail-order Bride called "Timeless."
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Why Tom Waltz and Me Settled in Great Benefice
by John Gronbeck-Tedesco
To: Professor John Gronbeck-Tedesco
* * *
From: Zola Neu Morrow
Date: 24 Jamuary 2016
I was pleased to make your acquaintance during your visit to our Great Benefice Historical Society last July. Your remarks about the preservation of written materials in the humid climate of a Kansas summer have been very helpful.
Attached please find a brief note of introduction and an historical account both written in 1920 by one of the earliest settlers to our town. The items are related, and I believe they do not need additional explanation. Use them as you think best.
The members of our Historical Society have been hoping that someone like you might turn up one day with the desire to bring some of our materials to a larger audience. All of us are the progeny of the forebears who authored the materials in our collection and through which they continue to speak to us from the past. History creates the present for better and for worse. Unfortunately, very few of our fellow citizens are concerned about history, and so they continually fail to outlive it—something we discussed during your visit.
On a more personal note: yes, I did manage to finagle the renewal of my pilot's license and still fly regularly as I have since my fifteenth birthday in 1950. I hope to die in the cockpit of my trusty Piper on a day so clear that I can see from on high the exact juncture of the Chikaskia and the Blue Vermillion. Upon my death I hope my plane will crash directly into one of our local cows, creatures I have grown to despise for their sheer abundance and because of the dumb expressions that remind me so much of our mayor who, as you may remember, is my former husband.
Best regards. Hope to see you again.
6 January 1920
Jenner Jinx Jennison III
Great Benefice, Kansas
Regards to Mrs. Jocelyn Seeworth Floury
* * *
The Church of God Almighty
Corner of Grand and High Streets
Great Benefice, Kansas
Greetings Mrs. Floury:
I'm respondin' to your request found in our Church bulletin last Sunday for recollections of the early years of Great Benefice. You said the church's Friends of the Past were wantin' to know jes' why people came here. What were we thinkin'? Were we thinkin' at all?
After repeatin' your request out loud at the breakfast table two or three times like I couldn't read or hear, my wife Emma Leigh and daughter Emily started in to get me to do this writin'. Emma, in partic'lar, kept remindin' me that I started livin' here in 1875 jes' 3 years after the town was put on the county map, and that what with me turnin'80 I'm close to the destination that age takes all of us. And, Emily jes' wouldn't stop sayin' how much she and her brother and sister used to love the stories about the old days and promised she' d be fixin' up my writin' good enough so people could understand it but without changin' the way I have of talkin'. But the thing that finally cinched me into diggin' through the perdition of the past with nothin' but a pen in my hand was the death of my life-long friend Tom Waltz jes' six months ago. Since it was Tom who first thought up the idea of the two of us settlin' here, I'm thinkin' I owe him somethin' for all those years we were pard'ners and for the life that came to both of us by stickin' together through all the travails of findin' our place in this world, puttin' down roots, raisin' up families and hitchin' ourselves to the ranchin' business. So, this is his story as much as mine, and I'm dedicatin' it to him.
I am respectfully yours,
Jenner Jennison III (My friends call me Jinx. You can too.)
Why Tom Waltz and Me Settled in Great Benefice
Jenner "Jinx Jennison III
The war ended for Tom 'n' me near Savannah where we were part of a busted up piece of Southern cavalry left there for no good reason—'least not one we had the power to understand. What with the poison of martial law that eventually got named Reconstruction comin' to the Georgia coast, we did what lots of played out Confederates did, we burned the breeze straight for a part of Texas which had more Longhorns than people and where Reconstruction had no reason to go. The simple fact is that Tom 'n' me became cowboys. Just how we went about it is another story, and one that I know I can't live long enough to write, especially since doin' this one pret' near has killed me already.
By 1872, when we trailed our first herd to Great Benefice, Tom 'n' me had been yippin' Texas beeves for pret' near 6 years. We'd seen what the trails could do to good men who survived the war only to be killed off by floods, spoilt water, skittish horses, rot gut toddies, or by jes' plain break-bone work. One day a man would be pullin' his weight and then some; the next he couldn't get out of his bedroll, and no one could figure why. When that happened, we said our goodbyes and moved on while two men stayed behind with a shovel to do the buryin' when the time came. Those that did the diggin' and the puttin' would bring back his pistol, rifle and boots. His other 'fects were scattered around the cross that marked his remains so long as nature allowed it; so the human vermin could get what they wanted without diggin' into the grave. Sometimes a drover jes' died in the saddle without a sound, 'ceptin' maybe what his body made when it hit the ground.
More troublin' to Tom and me were those what took a dull look in their faces and seemed always to be starin' at somethin' nobody else could see. Pretty soon they stopped answerin' them that was talkin' to 'em and started in conversin' with folks that weren't there. Thing was that when a man's brains went quits on 'im, he still could be a pretty steady hand, at least for a while. Lots of 'em rode easy in the stirrups and seemed to see trouble before those of us callin' ourselves normal caught on. It was like cowboyin' got inside of 'em in a way that couldn't happen while a man still knew the front of his pony from the back. That's why Tom used to say it was a good sign if a man could get distracted occasionally and miss spottin' a yearlin' bull givin' a calf grief or a mamma cow snortin' at a rattlesnake to protect her young. An empty hat, which is what we called those lost souls, could concentrate for a longer spell than most. Lots of times they didn't even know when their ridin' stretch was over. Someone had to go out and lead 'em back to camp, sit 'em in front of the fire and put a cup of coffee and a dish of food in their hands. Once they was settled they seemed to know what to do all right. It was jes' that they had to be walked to and from every chore, whatever it might be. But after you started 'em in the right direction, they did jes' fine. Of course, sooner or later they stoved up: drowned at a crossin' or got busted up in a stampede. Some jes' disappeared—generally at night and most times as naked as the moon. Trackin' 'em was easy enough but findin' 'em was as awful as anythin' Tom or me ever saw on a battlefield. Vultures, coyotes and other prairie critters did all the work of a Yankee trench mortar and then some. Tom always said that bein' a cowboy were a good reason to be somethin' else.
From our very first days as drovers—back in '66—Tom 'n' me agreed that someday we'd be goin' back to Beaufort and work in our fathers' dry goods store jes' like we did before the war. Tom even rustled up a new sign in his head that would tell everyone we was home—Waltz, Jennerson and Sons—us bein' the sons. So, I was more 'n' surprised when he started off talkin' 'bout gettin' a small spread in Kansas, somewhere near Great Benefice, and keepin' our own herd. First off I figured Tom was jes' impatient—it bein' 1874 and Reconstruction still goin' strong back home, even though it was pret' near over most ever' place else in South Carolina. Problem was the Yankee carpetbaggers likedBeaufort with the cool ocean breezes in the summer and the warm gusts in the winter. So, a lot of 'em stole what land they wanted and stayed. Which, is why they were for keepin'Federal martial law—it bein' the only thing that would allow their thievin' from the reg'lar citizens who might set on takin' back their homes and property if the Yankee army would jes' do the proper thing and leave. But no matter how much land grabbin' the swindlers was doin', they hadn't got 'round to robbin' our families yet. Tom figured it was on account our parents bein' jes' plain folks, the sort what set an example at Church by stayin' awake through most of the sermons. On top of which, they weren't important enough to be of parti'clar use to them that was for addin' public weight under their suspenders. One thing sure was that our kith sure weren't rich enough to come to the eyes of the ones willin' to sell federal power to the wicked and wily traitors who promised to help the Yankees keep hold of Beufort. Heck, even if our people could afford payin' for influence, they sure wouldn't be promisin' to get along with Yankees; so it's a good thing no one asked 'em. Then there was the fact that our fathers never served with the Confederacy, mainly because they were too busted up. Tom's pa had a knee went pret' near flat under the wheels of a wagon full of sand 'cuzz the mule got spooked when a seagull tried to land on its head. Ever since, he'd been walkin' on will power and a cane. My own pa had cholera as a boy that left him with the habit of passin' out cold whenever he was totin' and liftin' more'n he should. Heck, for whatever reason, the carpetbaggers hadn't got 'round to robbin' our folks. So, Tom 'n' me figured the people that loved us would be better off with us keepin' ourselves far away, 'specially 'cuzz we'd served in Wade Hampton's half of the South Carolina 2nd Cavalry, which meant we were bound to get the wrong kind of attention from Yankees if we came home. See, General Wade Hampton thought his purpose on earth was to make difficult circumstances even worse. After Lincoln freed all the slaves, ol' Hamp sent him a personal tele-graph with a bill for somewhere on the blue-sky side of $100,000.00 which is what he figured his slaves were worth. Lincoln personally assigned a unit of snipers to kill him, but they ended up missin' him and shootin' both his sons at Petersburg. One died. The other lost the sight in one eye. And, when the war ended, the general upped and refused to sign the terms of surrender like all the other Southern generals were supposed to do and did. So, the Yankees threw his officers in Rock Island Prisonwhere they had to stay until the general signed. Which he never did. So it came to pass that those good men were kept for almost a year after the war, until the North stopped worryin' bout Hampton. 'Course, in the blind eyes of some, his not surrenderin' made him a hero. And pretty soon didn't he go and get himself elected as a U. S. Senator from South Carolina? Against fools even the angels cannot pre-vail.
Anyways, the more I rubbed it 'round in my hat, the better Tom's idea sounded, at least for the time bein'. When it came to trailin' beeves, we sure 'nuff knowd what we was doin'. At first, we got ourselves hired up by this or that Texas rancher drivin' jes' his own herd. But after a while, we preferred to get on with cattlemen. See, a cattleman bought lots of herds from spreads along the Texas belt, from near Seguin, Matagorda County, Blanco, Austin, Uvalde, or Laredo. Then, he'd get up an outfit to drive 'em all north where they'd be sold for a profit at the railheads in Kansas or to ranchers from the northern ranges lookin' to start up their own herds. Because cattlemen were drivin' and sellin' so many beeves, they could pay better than ranchers. Me'n Tom rode for big-time augers the likes of Charlie Goodnight, John Clay, Charles Coffee, Bill Montgomery, Jim Macaulay and Jem Verndon. I ain't sayin' we knowd these fellas 'nough to give 'em a big-faced howdy like t'an old friend. But we learned their ways of drovin' cattle which is what made 'em rich and kept us alive. Tom and me chewed our share of grit on drag; then swung our lariats on flank before movin' on up to ride swing. Now we were gettin' reg'lar turns on point. Compared to all the grief of drovin', us keepin' a small herd so close to rail head in Great Benefice would be easier than ropin' a calf stuck straight up in the mud and bawlin' for the loop.
Now, Tom allowed there could be a fang in the toe of this here new dream what had to be avoided. That was getting' too ambitious too fast. Some cowboys—when they see'd a chance—reached too far and ended up with more debt than Adam and Eve. So, Tom was thinkin' to start small—'bout 800 acres of Kansas would do for 25-35 head, dependin' on the grass and the water. I said I was afraid the land around Great Benefice was filed on and proved up so the owners who, if they were for sellin', would be wantin' more than what they paid when people were scarce. But Tom had thought of that and said there could be some stretches left that were no good for farmin' but might be all right for cattle.
Most times Tom 'n' me wouldn't even agree on the time of day, so all he could do is blink and scratch the side of his face when I told 'im it seemed real nat'ral to think about a spread near Great Benefice, since in 1874 we was visitin' with our third herd in as many years and never found anything about the place that went down sideways. The town was still small and sat real pretty some ways east of Dodge, which had anything Great Benefice didn't,and not far from the Holy Faith Trail, which ran all the way up to Kansas City and on down to Santa Fe. On top of it all, the good people of Great Benefice weren't stretched taut when the cowboys came to town. This bein' 'cuzz there were fewer of our kind since lots of outfits preferred the bigger cow towns with all their strange fixin's that made cowboys spend money for the privilege of gettin' into trouble. Heck, in Great Benefice drovers could go to the same churches and eat in the same places as the re'glar citizens. Folks even said hullo on the street and made their children do the same. Compared to Abilene, Wichita, or Ellsworth, Great Benefice was downright civil and restful too.
Now, whenever Tom got to thinkin' serious on turnin' a new knot in life, he'd start complainin' 'bout God, startin' with how unreliable God was and endin' with the notion that there was no such thing anyways. So, when Tom started in, I knew sure as Longhorns have ticks he was cinched into tryin' to plant us on a spread. But listenin' to Tom goin' on 'bout the divine was quite a price to pay for a change in plans. Ol' Tom knew he could turn into a saddle sore when it came to God, but he couldn't he'p himself. He'd been strugglin' with God pretty much since the war, mostly 'cuzz he couldn't figure how anybody named God would allow so many bad things to happen to the South and in partic'lar to us.
Now, I think I remember his first try at raisin' the divine on this occasion came a month out of trailhead whiles we was takin' our turn ridin' swing on the east side of the herd in the middle of the Comanche Strip.
Hopin' it might quiet him down I said,"Why don't ya jes' think of God as some sort of higher power." Tom asks me to 'splain the difference.
I said, "My higher power ain't a "He" but jes' an "it," and "it" doesn't have to carry on with all those sad and improper people you read 'bout in the Bible or meet on the trail. All my higher power has to do is make sure the world keeps on workin' so the human race can keep on multiplyin' and bein' fruitful."
"Well since there's bad in the world," Tom says, "that means things ain't workin' the way they should, now don't it?"
I say, "All the more reason somethin's got to be holdin' the whole shootin' match together. But that somethin' don't necessarily need to be God."
Tom says, "So, good and bad and people don't matter? And that's becuzz there's some power what ain't God keepin' the chuck from spoilin' no matter what."
"No dummy," I say. "The more we all cooperate with the way things is s'posed to work, the better it will be for everybody, 'cuzz then the higher power can concentrate on keepin' ev'rything straight without gettin' all distracted."
Tom goes quiet for a bit, then says: "Tell me, jes' how much power does this higher whatchamacallit of yours have if it can't gallop through the human cactus along the trail without gettin' distracted?"
"It ain't a case of gallopin'," I say. "See, we're all supposed to help out. Like it's the trail boss with us bein' the hands."
Tom says, "If this here power needs our puny help, then it can't be all that much higher than us, now can it?"
I ask Tom, "You think it's a long ways better havin' somethin' called God that's obliged to take care of ev'ry little thing you don't like?"
"At least God don't need 'scuses when He goes slack on his chores like He does most times," Tom says.
Well, I figure the hell with keepin' Tom peaceful. So, I say, "Maybe, but my higher power don't get all the blame for some things goin' bust, becuzz it ain't always responsible in the first place."
"Sounds like it's easier bein' a higher power than bein' God," Tom says.
"It is when God's gotta be listenin' to the likes of you," I tell him.
Right away Tom says, "I ain't spoke to God since Shilo."
"That's becuzz you don't believe in him." I was hopin that sayin' so might bring an end to the conversation. But it didn't.
Tom asks me, "So why we havin' this argument?"
"You're the one brought up God," I tell him.
But Tom won't have it. "Me?" He says. "You're the one had to drag out your higher power."
Needin' to get out of the conversation jes' to keep my stomach reg'lar, I reminded Tom of somethin' Charlie Goodnight once said,
"No man who lived close to nature and looked into the stars night after night could ever doubt the existence of something that was keepin' the universe on the right map. What a man called that something was his own business."
But Tom can't let go. He says, "Anybody who's ever saw a human being tore up by grape shot and still believed in God is spendin' too much time starin' at the stars and not enough studyin' his fellow man."
Jes' then a yearling kicked out of the herd in our direction, bringin' our words to a merciful end. As we were leanin' our horses into the chase I heard Tom say,
"Thank you, God!"
I answered, "Amen!"
Next day, Tom said our days of bein' drovers had to end, 'cuzz we were both jes' a half-hitch away from bein' crazy. I had no trouble agreein'. So, in 1875, we came back to Great Benefice and found us some good grazin' land jes' three miles outta town. I'll be stayin' on 'til death do us part, jes' like ol' Tom did.
John Gronbeck-Tedesco is former Professor of Theatre from the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
He is the author of plays, poems, translations and short stories. His most recent work has appeared
in Outsider Poetry, San Francesco: la rivistadellachiesa di San Francesco d' Assisi, Business Casual
Productions (New York City) and the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in the Kansas City Fringe.
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The Yampa River Incident
by E. P. Fierro
The sun rose over the canyon wall in a radiant glory of light. The air was cold— crisp, and biting with fresh snow covering the ground. A harsh, unforgiving winter had caused snow to pile higher along the flatlands than it had for the previous 12 years. Most folks in this part of Colorado were newcomers so they hadn't seen the bad winter of 1865, but the Yampatika Utes remembered that winter and the biting cold that had killed two of their old people and one child. The blizzards and mind-numbing cold had proven too much for them and they had been too weak to survive the frigid conditions. In their lodges, they told the story of the Frozen Waterfall season. Ten miles upstream from where they lodged, the 30-foot waterfall had completely frozen and one could only hear the angry gurgling of the river trying to escape from behind the sheet of ice that covered it. The year had been hard on the animals that lived in the surrounding area as well.
But for Eduardo Brown, late of Tucumcari, New Mexico and on his way to Wyoming, the cold morning was just another start to another day. Atop the bluff where he camped, Eduardo could see where the Little Snake River joined the Yampa River. He had left Steamboat Springs three days earlier after a gunfight with Ben Marchland. Eduardo had killed him and left him lying in a pool of blood. The local tough, Ben thought that he could bully Eduardo the same as he did others in the small mining camp. Eduardo, though, proved to be more than Ben could handle. Eduardo was a tough and experienced gunman who had been shot at before and knew how to defend himself. He didn't look for trouble or a fight, but when one is a stranger in a small town trouble just naturally follows.
In his 27 years of living, Eduardo had ridden through plenty of small towns and could recognize problems before they approached him. Usually he was able to steer clear of any altercations, but he didn't run when faced with one. He had just ridden into Steamboat Springs and was tying his horse in front of the first saloon in town when Ben Marchland barreled out of the building, leaving the batwing doors flapping behind him as if trying to fly away from the impending fight. He was in another ornery mood and ready for anything. Ben had never seen Eduardo before but he thought that he had found an easy mark. He was wrong.
Ben called out a challenge to Eduardo, who turned to face the big man walking towards him in the middle of the street. Ben stopped and looked at the stranger, a smirk of confidence on Ben's face. Suddenly, he pulled his gun, fired once and missed. Eduardo fired back and shot Ben in the chest. The constable had seen the fight and knew that Eduardo had merely been defending himself against a drunken bully. However, Ben's three brothers, George, Redmond and Sturgiss, were known for the fierce blood loyalty that existed between the four Marchland boys. When Eduardo had killed Ben, his brothers set out to avenge their older brother regardless of why the shooting had occurred.
The town constable warned Eduardo to get of town fast as his safety could not be guaranteed. The Marchland boys were feared because their father—Timothy Marchland—was a rich, powerful, and harsh man. Unsmiling, angry, and arrogant, he ruled his ranch with an iron fist, offered no sympathy to anyone who was down on their luck, and disciplined his boys cruelly. Though the Marchland boys were scared of him the same as the townspeople were, they knew that they could do anything they wanted in town and without fear of the constable for two reasons. First, the constable answered to the mayor and the Circuit Judge. Second, Timothy Marchland filled both positions. The constable hastily informed Eduardo of these facts.
Having kept a cold camp the prior evening, Eduardo made a fire against the rock behind him and heated some coffee. He knew that the Marchland boys were camped by the river because he had seen the far-off glow of their campfire the night before. With the sun in their eyes, he didn't think they could see his small campfire. Any smoke would be diffused by the tangle of branches and weeds on the rock ledge behind him. This time, he was wrong.
"Well, old hoss," he said to his dappled gray, "looks like we're in for a hard ride. Them boys are closer today than they were yesterday. One of 'em down there knows how to read trail."
The horse grumbled and looked in the direction of the river. Anxiously, he stomped his foot and waited for Eduardo to saddle him. He wanted to be on the trail, going nowhere in particular but just following his nose to the next camp.
"Don't get so anxious. We'll be going any minute now." Taking one last look at the distant camp, he bent to get some coffee.
The bullet struck the rock above his head and he felt some shards of rock fall on his back. Continuing his forward motion, he fell to the ground and scrambled behind the small stand of pinyon pines and junipers before him. He drew his gun and looked in the direction the shot had been fired, but saw nothing.
"Almost had you, stranger!" The voice floated down from a grove of aspens on the other side of the clearing. "I won't miss next time. Now that I've got you pinned, I'll just wait 'til George and Red join me. Then we'll see if you're as good with that gun as everyone says. Me, I know you kilt Ben when he was unawares."
Eduardo looked cautiously from behind the trunk of a pine and was rewarded with a bullet striking the dirt at his chin, which sprayed dust and pebbles on his face. He ducked behind the tangle of thick red manzanita branches, spitting out dust and wiping at his eyes. He looked around for a means of escape but found he had inadvertently boxed himself in. His only weapons were his holstered gun and a pocketknife. The Winchester was on the blanket next to his saddle ten feet away. The hidden gunman would surely shoot him if he tried for the rifle. Knowing that he had no means of escape, he sat back and waited for the other two Marchland boys to arrive. A short while later he heard the steady drumming of hooves coming up the hillside. He checked the load in his gun and prepared himself for whatever happened next.
"Sturgiss, where is he?" Eduardo heard a low, rumbling voice ask.
"Back behind that stand of bushes, George," answered Sturgiss, who sounded excited and eager for more shooting. "I coulda kilt him anytime, but I wanted for you and Red to be here. Ben woulda like that."
"I was lucky to find him, George," Sturgiss said laughingly. "I had a feeling he'd be up in these rocks and I almost rode past him. The smell of coffee gave him away."
"Good for you, little brother." George Marchland adjusted his gun belt and stepped towards the pinyon. "Ben woulda been proud of you. You done good, kid."
"Come on out, mister." George raised his voice and looked in the direction of the pines and junipers. "You ain't going nowhere. My brothers and me, we got you covered. Either you come out and fight like a man, or we kill you like a lousy coyote."
Eduardo stood and stepped from behind the tree. The Marchlands were fanned in front of him and George was closest. Sturgiss, directly behind George and to his left, had the rifle cradled in his arms with the barrel pointed up. By the time he swung it back into play, the young man would be dead. To George's right and at the edge of the clearing stood Redmond, who carried his guns like he knew how to use them. Eduardo could see notches on the grips of both guns. He was the most dangerous of the three, but he was also the furthest. Eduardo hoped the distance would be an advantage for him.
"Yeah, what do you want?" he asked casually. He moved slowly so that the sun could be behind him.
"You know what we want, mister," answered George. "You killed brother Ben, now I'm gonna kill you."
Eduardo kept his hand close to his gun and continued to move slowly. "Your brother picked a fight. I wasn't looking for trouble, but my Pa always told me that when trouble came it was best to face it. That's what I did."
"I say you're a dirty liar. My brother was the toughest man in town, and nobody ever got the best of him."
"Well. I feel real bad for you, but I don't lie," said Eduardo.
From behind George, Sturgiss yelled, "Ben was fast with a gun, mister. He was the best. I say you're a cold-blooded killer."
Eduardo looked at Sturgiss, then at Redmond. The latter—tall, thin, and lean under the brown shirt he wore—flexed his hands as they hovered close to his guns. Eduardo kept moving slowly, trying to get the sun at his back.
"Stop right there, mister," said Redmond. "You're getting too close to where you want."
Eduardo stopped and felt the sun blazing on his right shoulder. He took two steps more and stopped. "Kid," he said to Sturgiss, "your brother had too much to drink. He was more drunk than sober when he pulled his gun. He shot once before I fired back. He put a hole in my hat. That was too close. I had to defend myself."
"Yeah, that's what folks in town said," answered George, "but that was my brother, and I gotta revenge him."
"I understand how you feel, but more dead ain't gonna fix anything. It'll just make for more dead," Eduardo responded.
"Do you think you can kill all three of us?" asked Redmond.
"No. But I know I can start with you."
"You'll never beat me," growled Redmond.
"Are you ready to try? I figure I don't have a way out, so I may as well go for broke. How about you, you wanna die?"
"Red, don't do nothing." George raised his hand and motioned for Redmond to stop.
"But we got him, George. We got him right here, right now," said Sturgiss anxiously. Eduardo could hear the eagerness and anticipation in his young voice. "I say we kill him. He killed Ben, and that just ain't right."
"I know, Sturgiss. The thing is there's some truth to what he says. If Red draws on him, he just might kill Red or you, maybe me. I don't wanna lose more kin."
"But, George! How about Ben? You said that he'd—"
"I know what I said, kid. But I also don't think fighting him right now is so smart. We're all too close together.
"Mister," said George, "I guess we're at what you call a Mexican-standoff. If we start shootin', you might not go alone. That's a risk I can't take. But I still need to revenge my brother."
He removed his gun belt and handed it to Redmond. He motioned to Eduardo to do the same and rolled his sleeves, exposing powerful arms. Eduardo draped his belt on his saddle and turned to face George, who slugged Eduardo in the chin and knocked him on his back. Stunned, Eduardo got to his feet quickly. George Marchland was just over six feet tall and full of muscle, but living in town had made him soft. Still powerful and strong, he had lost the stamina that had carried him through many fist-fights. But that was when he was younger, faster, and difficult to beat.
Eduardo, half a head shorter and not as powerfully built, was strong from having worked on a ranch chopping wood, plowing, pitching hay, digging holes for fence posts and all the other tasks that come with working on a ranch. He had done that for two years at Hiram Worley's cattle ranch in Tucumcari, and prior to that he had punched cows, been a muleskinner, mined, worked for a lumber mill, scouted for the Army, worked as a deckhand on a ship from Galveston to Memphis and lived off the land—all of which had served to strengthen and tone his muscles. Also, he had learned some rudimentary boxing from a Swede on the sailing ship and had proven to be an adept student. George Marchland, on the other hand, was used to hitting his opponent a few times before knocking him out. That was unfortunate for George this time. He had never fought against a man with more stamina and better fighting skills.
George approached Eduardo confidently. After all, he had knocked the smaller man down with his first punch. He was sure it wouldn't take long for him to beat the man into a bloody pulp. Wiping the blood from his lip, Eduardo raised his fists and stepped lightly towards George.
George took a huge swipe at Eduardo's chin and almost fell on his face as he missed and spun around in a full circle. Turning, he was met with a one-two punch to his unprotected chin followed by some jabs to his exposed midsection. He doubled over in pain and swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. He saw Eduardo's fist from the corner of his eyes and ducked at the last minute, then dove at Eduardo's knees, knocking him to the ground. George pinned the smaller man's shoulders with his knees and started hitting him on the face. Eduardo used his knees to knock the bigger man off and rolled over to a sitting position. But he was kicked in the side before he could get up—Sturgiss had decided to help his brother. The kid kicked him twice more before George yelled at him to stop.
"Kid! Stop . . . this is gonna be a fair fight between us. Don't get involved. Red—keep an eye on the boy."
George stood up and rushed Eduardo again, who side-stepped and crashed a rock-hard fist against his opponents jaw. George went down on his knees and Eduardo waited for him to stand. He closed in and pounded the bigger man with rights and lefts until George fell and didn't get up. Sweating, Eduardo blew on his bleeding knuckles and cast a wary glance at Redmond and Sturgiss. They were looking at George incredulously because they had never seen him lose a fist-fight before. Redmond slowly drew his gun and pointed it at Eduardo.
"You gonna kill me now?" asked Eduardo. "I thought your brother said this was a fair fight."
Redmond hesitated momentarily and looked at George, who was sitting and waving a hand in Redmond's direction.
"He's right, Red. Don't shoot him. I figure if he can beat me fair and square then there must be something to what he said about Ben. If he was a killer, he could've killed me before we started to fight. He coulda kilt me during the fight, too, but he gave me a chance." George stood up slowly and wiped at the blood running down his cheek. He looked at it on his fingers and wiped them on his shirt.
"Mister, I'm beginning to think I was wrong about you. I think maybe what you said about brother Ben is true."
"So what now? Are we square?" Eduardo stood warily, still unsure of Redmond.
George spat some blood on the ground and winced in pain from the beating. "Yeah. Yeah, I think mebbe so."
"I ain't satisfied yet, George." Redmond growled menacingly. "I don't think he's near as good with that gun as he says he is. Get your gun, mister, you'n me are gonna have at it."
"Red, I said no."
"I don't care what you said, George. You had your chance, now it's my turn. Mister, I said get your gun."
Eduardo looked at George before he moved, flexing his gun hand to get the stiffness out.
"I'm my own man, George," continued Redmond, "and I ain't gonna let him get away with killing Ben."
George shook his head. "Red, I sure wish you'd think this over again. I don't want you dead."
"What makes you think I'm gonna die, George? Ain't you got no faith in your brother?"
"Look here, feller, I don't want to shoot with you," said Eduardo. "I just want to be on my way and out of Colorado."
"You ain't leaving alive, mister. You either get your gun belt on or I shoot you where you stand."
Eduardo picked up his gun belt, put it on and faced Redmond. Sturgiss laughed nervously and looked at George.
The wind blew softly through the small clearing and Eduardo felt the chill on his face. He enjoyed every sound he could hear, knowing that he could be dead in the next few minutes. He faced Redmond and waited for the right time to act; to kill or be killed. His horse stood next to the fire and had not moved since Sturgiss had fired the first shots.
"Red." George spoke firmly and quietly. "Red, let it be. He defended hisself against Ben and now Ben is dead. I don't know as you can take him, Red. I think he's more than you think with that shooter of his."
"Leave me be, George. I done told you, you had your chance and didn't revenge Ben. Now it's my chance to make things right."
"Red, I ain't lookin' to lose more kin. There's just the three of us now. I gotta take care of you." George looked over at the kid, Sturgiss, and pointed at him with a thick finger from his bleeding hand. "Sturgiss, when this is over you stay out of it and leave this man be."
"George, I can do . . . " started Sturgiss.
"You be quiet, Sturgiss, and do as I say." George walked over to Sturgiss and faced him. "I'm your older brother and you do as I say."
"George, I can—oomph!" George had back-handed Sturgiss and knocked him to the ground.
"You do as I say. Understand me?" Sturgiss looked up at George and wiped the blood from his mouth, looking up at George with fear in his eyes.
"George, I ain't the kid," said Redmond.
"I know Red. I just wish you'd think about this a little more."
"I've done all the thinking I'm gonna do, George. Now you stand back and leave me do what I'm gonna do."
Redmond focused his attention on Eduardo and sized him up, confident that he would be faster on the draw.
George looked from one to the other and waited for the shooting to begin. In a flash, Redmond went for his gun and brought it up. He smiled as he pulled the trigger . . . and the smile faded when he realized that George had stepped in front of Eduardo. Slowly, he put the gun back in its holster.
Redmond was on his knees, next to George, and cradled George's head in his arms.
"Red, I told you I didn't want to lose anymore kin." George coughed and spit up blood, the wound in his chest bleeding heavily. "I know you was faster, Red, I know that now . . . "
Grimacing from pain, he reached for his brother's hand.
"It wasn't him who shot me, Red. Your bullet kilt me, brother, not his."
Eduardo looked at the two men and saw Sturgiss scramble towards his brothers.
In a shaky voice, George looked at Eduardo and said, "Mister, mount up and git. This ends here."
Eduardo walked towards his horse, keeping his eyes on Redmond and Sturgiss. He grabbed the reins and turned the horse so that he could get on the saddle with the horse between them.
"Redmond, I am sorry for your brother Ben and for George here. You're pretty fast with that gun and if not for George stepping between us, I'd likely be dead." Redmond looked up at him, concern for his brother showing on his face.
"But you need to ask yourself: With your brother dying there, is it worth it to be that fast? I didn't shoot him."
The last he saw of the Marchland brothers, Redmond and Sturgiss were draping George's body over the saddle and heading towards town. The sun felt good on his face and his horse was itching to hit the trail.
"Let's go, hoss. We got a long ride ahead of us."
E. P. Fierro writes western stories along the style of Louis L'Amour, his favorite author. In other
words, fights with no excessive description of blood-letting or gore, a minimum of foul language,
and a man and woman standing to next to an open bedroom door is about as sexual as it gets. The reader
has an imagination and is welcome to use it however he or she sees fit.
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Downwind of Murder
by Tom Sheehan
As Shasta Corbin, sheriff of Polatta, rode into the canyon in the heat of the day, he saw a pair of vultures high overhead floating on a thermal, which most likely had risen from the heart of the canyon. With that sight also came a putrid odor. In one drawn breath he caught the ripe smell of death. It was a stench he'd never get used to, and recognized instantly.
He hoped it wasn't Coyle Magnan baking away in the stove of the canyon. Hell, it wasn't murder that Magnan was running from, or stealing someone's horse, but he was accused only of stealing a few hundred dollars from Doc Filmore, a thief in his own right, but the cardsharp had sworn out a warrant on Magnan in public display. "You get him, Sheriff, that's what you get paid for. I don't care if it's horse stealing, rustling, murder, or outright theft, it's the law. He broke the law and you got to enforce the law."
Of course, it was like Filmore in his usual way, saying it in front a couple of dozen men in the saloon, all of them nodding in agreement, though not many of them really liking the card man. Witnesses meant strength and order to Filmore, like cards in his hand; neat, of one purpose, to be properly handled. Corbin had to hand it to him, the way he handled the group of men, making each one feel as though it was his money that had been stolen.
And, of course, he said to himself again, Filmore got his nickname from the belief that he could doctor a sick hand of cards back to good health with his quick fingers and a degree in swift shuffling of the odds. Corbin could not remember who said that about Doc, but it was one of the town fathers who had probably been caught too often with an ailing hand and a big pot on the table. The faces of the lawyer Juspin and Overby, the owner of the bank, lurked in a narrow part of his mind. There were times he thought the pair of them could be as devious as any common criminal. He quickly admitted it was only a suspicion kicking around in his mind, but he had survived believing in suspicions that came upon him from nowhere in particular, except that he also believed his experiences built upon themselves a kind of caution not to be ignored.
The vultures, meanwhile, continued their graceful but deadly looking maneuver as the sheriff moved deeper into the canyon. There were a few ways of leaving the canyon, in amongst a huge mass of fallen rock walls, but he did not believe he'd have to seek out those escape routes, not with the smell getting stronger and the big birds staying put overhead. With thermals working for them, they'd outlast him in the long run.
He saw the horse first. It was a big gray that had fallen onto a cluster of rocks, dead forever, and the saddle gone. When he checked the animal, the wound was quickly evident; the gray had been shot at close range, part of its head shattered, but no legs showed broken. Sudden hate for any man that shot a horse ran through Corbin as if he had been shot himself. He'd shoot a man for doing that to a healthy and useful horse. "We'd still be walking west if it wasn't for horses, the lot of us," he muttered in quick judgment.
A swirl of dust lifted off the canyon floor, picked up by a breath of air. A bit of debris fluttered in the dusty air, and then Corbin saw a gray Stetson start to roll near a slab of rock, for a bare moment as if on its brim, but it sat down on its crown in a sudden dip. And the stench had gotten viler, heavy with death. He hoped again it was not Magnan smelling up the canyon, dead as his horse. No clear tracks of another horse appeared on the rocky surface. The thought of a bushwhacker came to him, and he dipped in the saddle and looked all around the canyon, watching for any movement, for the sun glinting on a rifle sight, or for a hat barely moving behind a rock. A chill ascended his whole frame, running up the back of his neck. He hoped he had not missed a slight movement, a quick flash of sunny reflection, a bushwhacker in the art of action. A man who'd shoot a horse, like he'd found, would have no hesitation to shoot a sheriff on the move.
"Hellfire," he said. "Keep low in the saddle." He ducked, pulling his head down from the firing line. It would be true irony to feel the shot before he died. There came an immediate flash when he equated a bushwhacker with the vultures still soaring overhead, waiting for the moment of truth, the moment of opportunity.
Even as he ducked he saw the body of Magnan, the face a mess, bloody and torn up, feasted on by some carrion eaters. His revolver lay on the ground beside him. He was 40 or so feet from his dead horse, and Corbin tried to picture his ending at the hands of somebody who'd shoot a horse. It didn't come easy. Nothing like that dastardly act came easy.
Bang! A shot came from nowhere it seemed, a sharp but echoing blast that the canyon made louder, more threatening even in missing him, as the bullet splattered against a rock face directly in front of him.
Corbin leaped from his saddle, whacking his horse on the rump, hoping he'd rush off and not be shot like the other horse. His own big gray, at a gallop, was gone from sight in a matter of a few seconds, behind a rock, onto a hidden curve, the hoof beats echoing off the walls even as the boom of the shot leaped off other surfaces, sharp as blades, then falling away as tough they never had sounded out a threat to life. The shot had corrupted the very air in the canyon, the sound waves bouncing off the high vertical walls like ricochets from a repeating rifle.
His rifle was in one hand as he rolled behind a rock, looking immediately at the higher levels to see if some bushwhacker was about to shoot a fish in a barrel.
Perhaps the vultures would lose their grip on a thermal, he thought, and fall a hundred feet before they'd correct their fall. He looked overhead again for a brief second, and the second shot came, from far off to the left, he figured, from among another cluttered mound of fall-downs, break-offs, debris of a thousand years in the pull of time, and the steep rise of the canyon wall.
In the wall of the canyon he spotted the blackness of a crevice looking like a black stroke of lightning, a jagged, broken darkness running up the wall. There was a heavy sense of darkness, of depression, in one section; that's what he'd best concentrate on immediately.
But it was not from high above him. So he would have some space to move though he might be pinned down to a low level.
"Draw fire," he said in self-direction. "Make him give himself away. Make him use his ammo. Get a shot off in return."
With deliberate ease he pushed a smaller rock off to the side of the boulder he was hiding behind.
There was no answering shot. But there was a voice he did not recognize, as the words came to him: "I'm not a dumb cowboy, Sheriff. I got you where I want you and I have all day and your horse has gone off with your canteen and it's getting hotter than Hell in here. I have water, and you don't have a drop to suck on."
Corbin nudged the small rock further, and then tossed another one beyond it.
A shot rang out again, a sharp boom of a shot, and the bullet hit right beside the tossed rock.
"He's got a good eye," Corbin mused aloud, "but don't answer him. Don't speak. Let him do the talking." And even as he talked to himself other facets of his own intelligence were at work. "Draw him out. Draw him down. Get him exposed."
He felt his imagination making headway, demanding to have space. "Tossed stones won't do it long," he added. "It's got to be glitter, shine, reflection. Something different, eye-catching." The word "glitter" came back again and he leaned back against the protective rock and let loose his imagination. "Don't use the rifle to do it, because you'll need that before this day is over."
Where it came from he had no idea, except that it was some part of him waking up another part, drawing on experience, known circumstances. Down the length of himself he looked and it was his badge that caught his eye. And the connection was immediate, as was the consecration. "I always keep it shined, and polished. I'm damned proud to wear it."
He'd use the badge other than a symbol of his office, of his trust. "Make a tool of it," he said, almost aloud.
He'd have to use what was on him, as there was nothing in sight that he could adapt to the idea that suddenly ran clean through him.
With deliberation he removed the badge from his shirt and the belt from his pants after his gun belt was laid aside. The pants belt, when folded upon itself three times, was about a foot long, and almost as stiff as he needed it to be. Tearing his bandana into strips, he tied each strip around the folded belt, slipped the pin of his badge onto the end of the belt and felt the belt remain stiff in his hand.
"Now," he said, as he looked at the bright sun riding down into the canyon, the heat coming off the face of rocks and walls, and the vultures still glued to their endless arc above the canyon and the remains of the dead man and the dead horse. He held the folded belt in one hand, checked the sun's rays, saw the slim angle of them, and twisted the belt as a wand and held it beyond the protective rock.
The reflections leaped off the face of the badge in several directions, and an answering shot came from the darkness of the crevice. He reassessed his use of the tool, arranged a few rocks in place at the right end of the rock, stuck the belt into the small pile of rocks so that the badge was fully exposed, and he rolled quickly to the other end where he had placed his rifle.
There were two quick shots from the crevice, the bushwhacker, Corbin assumed, thinking the reflections were coming from his rifle.
With quick and sure aim, the sheriff poured four rounds from his Springfield into the crevice, heard the surprised cry of a wounded man . . . and ensuing silence.
He waited almost an hour, hearing a few cries at first, and then nothing.
The vultures continued their wait in the hot sky, the sun baked the canyon, and thirst built up in the sheriff. He flashed the badge a half dozen times and saw no reaction. He fired another round into the same fissure, and there was no response.
He realized he could sit all day if he didn't move, but the thirst would eventually force him to do something he might as well get done as soon as possible. The bushwhacker did have water.
He slipped out from behind the rock, firing three more rounds as he moved.
The echoes died out.
He found the bushwhacker, a complete stranger, at death's door, a bullet in his chest, lots of blood spilled on his clothing. The man was an older man, rough in the face as he continued to breathe, his lips twisted in desperation.
Corbin gave the man a drink from his canteen and then had some himself. The man came conscious and Corbin said, "Why'd you kill Magnan? Were you hired? Who hired you? What's your name?"
"I'm dyin'," the wounded man said. "I'm Johnny Quick from Lima. I got nobody. But don't let them vultures get me. The Doc hired me. Told me right where Magnan'd be, right here."
"Why? For a few dollars?"
"No. He got to Doc's sister, over in Alberville. Messed her up some. Doc was waitin' for an excuse, I guess. But then he found out Magnan had money in the Polatta Bank, 'cause Overby the banker told him, and they was goin' to split it soon as Magnan was dead, but Overby don't want no part of the killin' end, just the bankin' end. Some of the money's from a bank robbery in Alberville. And Doc's sister knew Magnan robbed the bank. He even told her, but didn't know she was Doc's sister."
Two burials were on him now, Corbin conceded, and he'd do them as best he could, under rocks, away from the vultures and what carrion eaters were not rock movers. He'd promised Johnny Quick that much, so he'd do the same for Magnan.
Both of them were messy, but done, and in a few hours he found his horse in the shade of an overhang. With water from his hat from Quick's canteen, his horse was his horse again.
He rode back to Polatta with the news of Magnan and Quick and further duties on his plate as sheriff of the town, featuring Overby the banker and Filmore the card shark.
There'd be a trial. He had one live witness he could lean on; that was Filmore the card man and he'd bring Filmore's sister into it if necessary. He knew who Overby would have as his defense attorney and wondered what approach the defense would take.
His imagination didn't reach all the way to what that approach would be. So he let it rest. That imagination had already completed a neat job for him and the badge he wore.
Sheehan has published 28 books and has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal,
Literally Stories, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western
Online Magazine, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Provo Canyon Review, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary
Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of
the Net nominations (one winner). Recent publications - Swan River Daisy by KY Stories, The
Cowboys by Pocol Press, and Jehrico by Danse Macabre. Back Home in Saugus is being
considered, as is Elements & Accessories, Small Victories for the Soul and Valor's Commission.
He is 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas.
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Jus Sanguinis, Part 3 of 3
by Matthew Caldwell
Joe entered the doctor's office gingerly, not having a good connotation with the place ever since his days back east. The doctor was cleaning his instruments on the counter, and the polished steel made Joe's blood run cold.
"How's the boy?" the doctor asked. He didn't know why, but it made Joe feel slightly better that the man remembered him.
"He's better, thank you."
"It's all about matching the medicine to the illness." The doctor gave Joe a smile. "Do you need more?"
"I better," Joe said. "I don't want to be caught without it if we're snowed in."
The doctor left his instruments on the table and went back to a glass-doored cabinet. He had almost removed the lock when disturbance and darkness crossed his threshold.
"We need you to fix him up," one man said. He and another were carrying a third between him. His skin was wan, his eyes rolled back in his head. He had a dark mustache that couldn't fit the space between his nose and upper lip, and the stubble of someone who hadn't shaved in three days.
The doctor began to carefully remove the instruments from his table when one of the men violently jerked on the towel upon which they were placed, flinging forceps and scalpels to the far corners of the room. They heaved the man on the table. Dark crimson had seeped through to the jacket. Joe subtly felt at the points of his hips, and winced unnoticeably when he realized the guns weren't there.
"Christ," the doctor said, taking a pair of shears and cutting open the man's inner coat and shirt. It was all the color of anger and hate and hellfire. The doctor pulled open the shredded clothing to reveal a hole in the man's chest, near the left nipple. This man had been shot through the heart and was dead, Joe knew, despite all the effort.
"Fix him up!" one of them said. His hat had fallen off when they came through the door. His hair was slicked with grease.
The doctor felt underneath the man on the table, looking for an exit wound. Finding none he grabbed a pair of forceps from the floor near his feet and wiped them on his pants. He didn't care about sanitation, apparently. At least, not with this dead man.
But Joe wondered why the doctor didn't just stop the charade and declare the man. Until the reason presented himself when one of them, not the one with the slick hair, or the dead man, but the one with the little Irish derby hat, nervously spit out some words.
"Uriah told us to take care of it. What'll we do?"
"What?" Good Hair asked. "We brought him here."
"Yeah, but how many people saw us carry him in?"
"No one," Good Hair replied. "Everyone's inside with the snow." He looked at the doctor, and then at Joe. Joe looked back at him, not to intimidate, but to remember the face, and immediately a thought came to mind: he may have to kill this man, and the man's he's with, and then ride out to the Bevington ranch to kill all of them, as well, and if he did it the mountain that separated his home from all else might as well be a dirt clod in the road.
The doctor finally came up, his face ruddy, his eyes bulging. "He's dead. Been dead for an hour, probably."
Derby Hat slapped his hand on the table. "Goddammit!"
Good Hair pulled at the deceased man. "Come on. We'll bury him out at the ranch."
As they each struggled with an arm, Joe moved in to grab the man's feet. Together, they brought him outside and heaved him up, belly-down, onto the back of one of their horses. Derby Hat tied a short rope to the man's hands, threw the rest underneath, and came round the other side to tether it to his feet.
Joe went back inside the doctor's office to get the medicine. The doctor washed his bloodied hands in a small basin as he faced away from the door.
"What'll we do?" he asked Joe.
"Just give me the medicine," Joe replied, watching as the men rode out the near end of town.
"What if they come back?" the doctor said. "We know how that man got shot." He scrubbed his hands like Lady MacBeth.
"I just want the medicine."
The doctor blew out a loud sigh, which turned into a nervous laugh. "Do you not know who the Bevingtons are? What they can do?"
"I know, yes. Don't particularly care."
The doctor opened his cabinet and carefully spooned a few more lumps of powder into a small packet before handing it out to Joe. When Joe reached for it the doctor pulled it back.
"This won't do any good if they decide to come for your family."
Joe stared at the man, annoyed, before snatching the medicine from his hand. He reached into his pocket and left two coins on the table. There were still a few droplets of blood there, and Joe didn't care. The doctor was prodding Joe for help, help Joe wasn't keen to offer. No, this situation was a horse, and Joe didn't want to be tied to it, hands-to-feet, as his body filled with accumulating gases.
"I doubt I'm worth the trouble," Joe said. He touched the brim of his hat and went back outside. As he mounted Bojo yet again he spied the shopowner through his window, who watched him nervously. With one more tap of his hat Joe was gone.
The snow stayed to Joe's back on the way home, with only occasional flakes lighting on Bojo's mane to remind them to keep up the pace. A brisk wind had already covered their tracks into town. To Joe, it was as if someone had erased him from history, a pipe dream if he'd ever heard one.
Because he was cursed not only with his actions from the past, but also the ability to protect his family. Fate, it seemed, would never tire of giving him opportunities to prove that fact.
Charlie is five, and after months of practice he lassoed the corner fencepost from the edge of the porch.
He's twelve, and first Joe gives him a baby chick. When he can raise it to slaughter, Joe will give him a calf. Charlie doesn't have the heart to kill the bird, so Joe does it for him. Joe gives him the calf, anyway.
He's sixteen, sneaking over the mountain to see the daughter of the man who runs the sawmill. Once, in the middle of the night, he comes back home, drenched in sweat after the father chases him off with a shotgun. His mother forbids it further. His smile lasts for days.
He's nineteen. He married her and he wants to go find his own place in the world. Joe tells him he can go anywhere as long as it's west. Never east.
Charlie is two months old, which is why, when Joe reached the beginning of the path that would take him over the mountain and back home, he instead turned left, to a different path, one that skirted the foothills for a couple of miles until it opened up into a wide valley. Pasture land.
Bojo snorted his disapproval. Joe reached under his wild mane to scratch where the ear tubes drained down the neck. It was payment for making this journey together.
"Just one more stop," Joe said calmly.
"I just want to talk to the Bevingtons."
Joe held his arms aloft as he rode Bojo up to the cattle station at Bevington ranch. The main house was visible down the lane, but no one got close without reporting in. Derby Hat held a rifle on Joe as Good Hair checked Joe and his saddlebags for weapons. After thirty seconds of vigorous searching he turned back to Derby Hat to give his assent.
"That way," the Derby Hat said, gesturing with the gun. He mounted a horse and Joe led the way to the house.
The valley created little eddies of wind, which sent the snow in swirling cyclones that formed in front of them and ran off down into the pasture, like jackrabbits startled by a rattlesnake. The wind seemed sharper there, Joe noted, a knife blade held to the cheek, and he realized that the land the Bevington's had stolen from the government hadn't come free after all. Great drifts had already begun to form in the ditches next to the road, threatening to spill over and trap them there forever. The wind pushed them toward the house. Which kept the snow from their faces but signaled to Joe the air of inevitably.
Derby Hat yelled from behind him. "You had to pay a visit today, of all days?"
Joe smiled, but the rifleman couldn't see it. "Some things can't wait."
The man mumbled something aggressive, but quickly the house appeared before them, signaling the end of the conversation.
Quickly, silently, Derby Hat appeared next to Joe and Bojo. "Get down," he said, again punctuating with his gun. "Wait here."
He made his way up the steps and to the door, where he beat on the heavy oak with a gloved fist.
"Uriah!" he yelled. "Fancy man's here to see you."
Joe waited, long enough that he looked for the best direction to ride if he had to light out of there in a hurry, but the door finally swung open. A large man stood in the doorway. Adult, yes, but with a face that still couldn't grow a beard. A sharp nose that just poked out from shaggy blonde bangs.
They shared a few sentences at the door, then Uriah disappeared into the house. Derby Hat waved Joe to the door and he obliged. Anything to get out of the whistling cold.
The inside of the house was thankfully warm, a radiating heat that immediately made Joe want to shed his coat, although he resisted the urge. Never know when one might need to leave in a hurry.
Uriah walked to the sitting room, which sat safely and warmly toward the middle of the house. A large picture window opened up to the rest of the valley, although Joe could only see the all-consuming whiteness of the storm. The walls creaked from the pressure of the wind. In his mind, Joe thought they were sounding a warning, but to who?
His host sat at a large, leather chair in front of the fire, and offered Joe the one across from him. Joe took off his hat and placed it on the table behind him, turning his back on his host and Derby Hat, but it was necessary. He reached under his coat and pulled up his pants by the belt.
"Whoop!" Uriah let out a surprised yelp, looking from Joe to Derby Hat, then back to Joe.
Derby Hat held his hand out to Uriah, to calm him. "It's okay, boss. We checked him."
Joe sat down in the assigned seat, a high-backed chair across from Uriah's. "Little jumpy," he said, opening the conversation.
Uriah swept the bangs from his eyes. "Yeah, well." He lights a cigarette and blows the smoke back at the fire, mocking it.
"I'm not going to waste your time," Joe begins. "I saw your boys bring that dead man to the doctor's office, and I'm not dumb enough to lose out on how he got that way."
Uriah's eyebrows raised, his hair fell back down. "You trying to blackmail me?"
Joe shook his head. "Just the opposite, actually. I'm here to tell you that I don't care. If you're worried that I'm going to say something to all those deputies riding around, you don't need to be."
Uriah gave a small laugh. He somehow sat back in the chair while having his shoulders slumped forward, an old sway-backed horse.
"Why would I need to be worried?" Uriah said. "I didn't have anything to do with it." He didn't have the same frontier drawl to his voice as everyone else. It had surely been smoothed out on a trip out west, some time.
Joe rolled his eyes as he pushed down against the arms of the chair. "I get it. I'll just go."
Uriah pointed angrily. "Sit down." Derby Hat quickly leveled his shotgun at Joe from about 2 o'clock.
Joe let his body fall slack.
"Now, I bet you came out here because you want some guarantee that I won't come after you, after your wife, after your son." He looked for a reaction in Joe but his guest offered none. "But I won't offer that guarantee . . . "
Uriah leaned forward. His hair ran down his face, a dirty blonde waterfall. A boy trying to look like a man.
"Because people are much more trustworthy if you have something on them."
Again, he sat back in his seat. Joe looked away from him, toward the fire, watching as bits of dry wood popped and threw whistling sparks to the corners of the hearth.
Uriah looked away, waving Joe off with a flick of his careless hand. "To you, your father should be as a god; one that compos'd your beauties, yeah, and one to whom you are but as a form in wax by him imprinted, and within his power to leave the figure or disfigure it."
Joe whistled. "Midsummer Night's Dream. No one told me you were cultured, Uriah. Except for the child killing, that is."
That piqued Uriah's interest. He pulled a knife from the sheath at his side and pretended to clean his nails.
"Few sons are like their fathers—many are worse, few better," Joe said.
Uriah raised an eyebrow. "Homer."
Joe sat forward slowly. He didn't want to draw the sharp attention of Derby Hat watching from the corner. "Enough with the classics. Here's a real story for you. One day, when I lived back east, I was told to go kill a man, Andy O'Fallon. Want to know what he did to warrant that?"
Uriah again feigned boredom through manicure.
"Nothing, in reality. My boss thought the man had welched on a bit of money he owed, but really it was the man's twin brother, Aaron. I mean, can you imagine? Getting killed for some accident of your birth? Like being a twin. Or an Indian."
"Hold on, Uriah, it gets better. So I'm waiting for him at his apartment and when he opens the door I plug him, and he falls, and his wife is standing there, behind him. So I plug her, too. Because we can't have any witnesses and all that. And . . . "
Joe looks to the fire, for guidance, for absolution. It offers neither. It never does.
"Their daughter is standing there. She's seven, eight. And you know what, Uriah? I have to kill her, too."
Uriah stops. "Jesus."
Joe sits back, slightly. He needs to.
"Which is why killing you, killing your man in the Derby Hat. Riding to the gate and killing your man with the good hair. It's nothing to me. It's as taking a breath, or drinking new water from a spring."
Finally Uriah's eyebrows raise.
Joe pulls his Stephenson pistol, heretofore hidden beneath his coat, in the holster, which Joe turned around before he sat because he knew he'd need to draw sitting down, guns which stayed hidden in a pocket in Bojovnik's heavy mane as Joe and the saddlebags were checked at the cattle station, guns which Joe took into the general store but didn't sell a second time. Beautiful Stephenson pistols Bill Richter bought back for him because he wanted Joe to be a better man than he was, than he was capable of being. This Stephenson pistol, the fireplace light sliding off its barrel, waiting to fire to an accuracy of a tenth of an inch at twenty yards, although Derby Hat was much closer. The trigger pulled, smooth and unfussy as a sleeping child, and Derby Hat's life was ended, abrupt-like, when the bullet zipped through his right ventricle. Uriah had time to make a noise, something akin to a man burning his hand on a hot skillet, when Joe took an extra second to appreciate the sight past the end of his barrel. Matching the medicine to the illness, the doctor called it. Another squeeze and Uriah sat back fast and hard in his chair, eyes looking up to heaven, his bangs again cascading down over his face like a curtain being pulled at the end of a show. Joe stood up and walked over to him. Charlie is two months old; he falls asleep in his father's arms on a cold winter night. Uriah will disappoint his father, when he comes back from Texas in two months. When he sees what his poisoned blood has wrought yet again. Uriah will be rotten by then, next to a fireplace grown long cold. Charlie fusses for a moment before settling himself back to sleep. Joe leaves the house, mounts Bojo, and they ride out to the cattle station, and when the man with Good Hair comes out in the snow to see him he doesn't realize what's happened because the wind's blown everything the other direction. He also doesn't know he's been dead since he looked Joe in the eye back in town. But some people are like that, dead without knowing it. Walking corpses. Andy O'Fallon and his wife and his child fall like dominoes in their doorway and Joe tries not look down on them as he steps over. He goes home, he packs up what he and May can carry, and he takes her and their unborn child to the prairie to escape all the death but here it follows yet again. Joe rides to get out of the unholy valley, across the mountain where the wind doesn't slice a man down to the bone. May sings while she cooks supper. Charlie hears her and smiles for the first time. A family is more than a group of people, living together, or sharing blood. It's love, and laughter, and suppers cooked and eaten, and first smiles, and fathers who clear the land, clear the table, clear a path through the damned world so they have a place to be.
Matthew Caldwell is a published author who lives in the midwest. His first book, The Zamler's Last Stand, was
self-published and is available on Amazon. His second book, The Lost Tribe, was published by Kindle Scout Press
in 2015, and is also available on Amazon. It was named as one of Shelf-Unbound Magazine's Top 100 Notable Indie
Books of 2015. Readers can connect with the author through his Facebook page
his Twitter account (@MattLCaldwell), or his Amazon Author
Page at www.amazon.com/Matthew-Caldwell/e/B00J4WPFS2.
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