Hobart Bridgewater, Hobie to most folks, was a freighter who promised delivery of whiskey to several saloons along the Snake River. “I go get it for you and bring it back, and then you pay me. If you don’t pay me, you don’t get the load and I don’t bring you no more. That’s all easy for you gents and tough for me. Some days out there on the trail I have to keep my rifle leveled and ready, that’s why I have the best shot in all the territory riding up there with me. Burke Molton ain’t never missed a target he took aim at, and that includes those three scallywags who tried us on for size on the river road just last week and he knocked two of them right off their mounts with two shots and them riding hard at us all the while and trying to get the best whiskey in the west from us at the point of their guns.”
All those in the Broke Bronc Saloon agreed with Hobie, some of them having heard his spiel before, some knowing what his intention was, some finding a bit of admiration for an older man who’d brave the elements and the dangers of the trail to keep all their throats up-happy and wet.
He raised his glass and said, “To a natural killer, gents, who don’t miss, Burkey Molton.” It was nothing short of him saying, “That’s a promise of death next man tries us on.”
Red in the face, sticking out now like a target, Molton realized that Hobie had used him the way he’d promised right from the beginning; “You’re going to be kind of famous, Burkey boy, right famous, if I do it up the right way, and that’s getting all the edge we can on those we do business with and those who try to do their business on us, if you know what I mean.”
Off in a corner of the saloon, sorely missing two riding pards now gone, one man felt the anger crawling in him like a desert spider. In the past, prior to his last sentence in a Wyoming court and two years in prison before he broke loose of his cell one night and escaped with the warden’s own horse, Nightrider Berwick vouched his own promise, though keeping it in his thoughts: “I’ll drink right from your wagon one of these days, Hobie, and leave you like you and your pard left my pards.”
It took all he had in him to walk out of the saloon and into the deep night, memories and old images cutting their way into his mind. “Damned fool lucky shot,” he said into the dark night.
It was assumed right from the beginning by Hobie Bridgewater that all saloon owners cut the delivery of “decent whiskey” he brought to them with a wide assortment of ingredients, all of which came cheap to hand. Such cutting stuff included chewing tobacco with a decent taste to it, plain old alcohol otherwise known as the man killer, and sundry other mixes where the basic supply was easy to find.
With all that said, cowpokes would oftentimes blame the freighters for delivering plain old rot gut, where the next day their stomachs were damnation’s curses coming alive. But the saloon gents didn’t know that Hobie had a private stop on the way where he did his own cutting, “making the slice of the profits go into some different pockets.”
When he stopped on the road, at Sarah Henderson’s place on the long run of grass running up to the Snake, the small shed beside the barn was his own “private still of sorts.” Even Sarah had no firm idea of what he was up to on the night when she saw the candlelight flickering late in the night, and still going as dawn neared. In her heart she had a soft spot for the old freighter who had befriended her father so long in the past. Cantankerous old men, she would argue, had a right to their own bit of privacy.
But on each visit at Sarah’s place, Hobie would off-load some part of his wagon’s contents and take it inside the shed. She never asked questions, because of the past favors, and he paid up at each stop at her place. It was good money needed to keep her place going, and Hobie stopped in every time he passed by.
Hobie and Burkey Molton, once inside the shed where they took turns sleeping, treated a portion of their load with extra ingredients that included sugar and corn squeezing they got by dickering with farmers and settlers on the routes they traveled, and any liquid supply that added volume to their load.
Sometimes Hobie added turpentine, gun powder (“That’d give the Devil himself a kick, Burkey,” he’d say), ammonia or any native liquid he got his hands on from Indians (“This one’ll be called Bend in the Road or Paw Paw Juice or plain old Stumpleg by the boys on the next day.”)
From this activity he’d maintain a keg or barrel of his “own stuff” eventually peddling it to saloon owners on top of their own orders. The special cut might come up with names the cowboys gave it when they celebrated the end of their cattle drives with a turn in a saloon, names that came easy on them, like Brokefoot, Spider in the Glass, MexTex Lightning or Fools’ Lightning and Bugberry from the Bughouse.
But all that stuff was put aside for the time being, except for Nightrider Berwick’s intentions of getting even with the old freighter and his hired gun. He was positive that Bridgewater had not recognized him during the attempted robbery because he had kept back from his two fellow bandits, him having the only prison record and wanting to keep it from adding to it.
It came to him that he should follow Bridgewater on his whole route and see what might become a special advantage.
So, it was he saw the stop at Sarah Henderson’s place, some part of the load being moved into the small shed, the lamp light burning in the window for most of the night. It was, he figured correctly, a stop to water down a portion of the whiskey.
But it was Sarah Henderson who spotted a man watching her place that same night as she and her foreman came back from a visit to a nearby ranch, saw the glimmer of a fire in a small copse, and snuck in to check it out. They saw a man step away from the fire with a small telescope, climb to the top of a rise and study her ranch through the glass. His silhouette was easily seen by them. They watched him for more than an hour before they slipped away in the night and went home.
But Sarah, for the first time ever, knocked on the door of the shed where the lamplight still showed in the one window.
Hobie Bridgewater, somewhat surprised, stepped out and Sarah said, “My foreman and I saw a man off in those woods yonder watching what we think was you here in the shed tonight with a spyglass. You have any idea who he might be?”
Hobie said, “I do, Sarah, and I want to thank you for warning me. Me and Burkey will set up something special for him, that’s for plumb sure. “
Sarah, not asking any more questions, left the pair of freighters to their own means, and went off to bed.
Before dawn came, the plan was devised and set into operation.
In the mix of shadow and faint light, the freighter’s wagon left Sarah Henderson’s ranch, with two figures sitting up on the front seat of the wagon, the load still sitting low on the wagon behind them. One of the figures was Hobie Bridgewater, talking his fool head off, giving continuous orders and condemnations to the other figure, a still figure made of some planking and dressed with Burkey Molton’s hat and coat, and Bridgewater’s old shotgun propped at a 45-degree angle. As if ready to fire.
Fifteen minutes after the wagon went down the road, and after a figure on horseback slipped out of the woods and followed the wagon at a good distance, Molton gently led his horse out to the main trail and mounted his horse after the furtive rider had gone out of sight ahead of him, a half mile down the trail.
In a matter of an hour down trail, and out of Henderson ranch hearing distance, Bridgewater stopped the wagon, climbed down, and yelled loudly at the figure still seated up on the wagon, the shotgun still in hand, “You stay up there, Burkey, and keep your eye out for any bandits while I fix this damned broken piece here.”
He waved his hands around and yelled out in the early morning air, his voice rising with morning clarity, his anger as evident as the clear air, “Why’n’cha fix that damned thing last night like I told ya. Damned disgrace is what you are. Gotta do this myself while you sit on your useless rear end.”
He stomped around, yelled loudly, “Keep your eyes open and don’t fall asleep again.” His voice was strident, acidic, an old war horse at his sourest bit.
There was some banging and more cursing and a general mix of commotion in different degrees of delivery. But it wasn’t musical.
Nightrider Berwick, out of the saddle, smug with the upper hand on a sworn foe, placed his rifle down on a stump, listened to the commotion, and twisted his face into a relishing grin at the sight and the sounds.
His right eye settled down on the rifle barrel to where the sight was squarely on the figure sitting up on the wagon with the weapon of undetermined type in his hands, the gray Stetson and the short gray coat assuring identification of the killer of his pards.
Berwick heard more noise, felt a wild sense of joy surge through his frame, but was still able to lock tightly on the still figure. With added glee accompanying his mind set, he squeezed off a dead-on shot right where excruciating pain would set in like a grenade exploding.
He harrumphed his triumph.
The gray Stetson jumped off the figure sitting up on the wagon. Hobie Bridgewater, down on the ground, dove down under the wagon. The team of horses, securely hobbled, only made noise on top of the other noises: the echo of the rifle shot, the sound of the plank being ripped by the bullet, Bridgewater’s curses rising in the air, a second shot slamming into the main plank that had held the Stetson and still supporting the gray coat, now horribly rent by lead.
Berwick, leaning on the stump, was dumbfounded; the figure of Burkey Molton had not moved. He was positive he had hit him dead-on. The man’s hat had jumped off with the hit. It had fluttered to the ground where Bridgewater still yelled out his anger.
He fired again, his eye dead-on again, on the headless figure! Had he decapitated him? Was it now all even? All squared away? His pals paid off in spades?
Nothing was happening … except the pain now in his leg, in his back, riding up his whole body from an unknown cause, an unknown source. When he managed to spin around, the rifle gone from his hands, fallen useless now to the ground, and his sudden inability to reach for a side arm, Burkey Molton, true dead shot of dead shots, was advancing on him still in the saddle, his rifle aimed at the heart of the failed bushwhacker, smoke coming from the barrel of his rifle.
Under the wagon, his voice still rising in the morning air, an image of Sarah Henderson accepting a gallon of 100 per cent uncut whiskey showing in the back of his head, the old freighter knew the true glee that never came to the bushwhacker on his last breath … and he was still in the still business, him and his pard, Burkey Molton, sure shot for sure.