Today was originally meant to be left open as a coda to that separates the departed 2021 with this brave new year. But as nature abhors a vacuum we here at Literally Stories dislike protracted silence. But instead of the usual Re-run feature (which will return next week at this time) we honor the work of a writer who will reach the mind boggling 150 story mark to lead off the year tomorrow, no one other than our friend Tom Sheehan.
Tom has had a decades long career as a writer, and one of the genres he specializes in is the American Old West. Although we shy away from over publishing any specific genre, today we present six tales select by the master himself that tell of that mythic time in American history. Before I clear out of the way, I’d like to share an email that Tom sent us when the project was presented to him:
“The dime my parents gave to me on Saturday morning when I was 7 years- old, went two ways: 7 cents for the theater ticket and 3 cents for chews. There was a western movie every Saturday, glowing with heroes. It balanced the pile of coverless books that my grandmother gave us every week, the rejects from her eventual 60 plus years as a bookbinder, which my sister Pat and I devoured as kids, reading Shakespeare or whoever, it didn’t matter but we have a note here from Miss Finn, the first grade teacher at the Kent School in Charlestown (Saying, Please don’t move until I’ve taught all the Sheehans) where we lived in the first house on Bunker Hill Avenue across the street from the Navy Yard where Old Ironsides was berthed and my father, a U.S. Marine, was often charge of quarters, and where my mother would roll me/Pat in a carriage to him to baby-sit while she went shopping.”
We leave you to Tom. And we hope you enjoy each of the following six pieces. At the end there are links to some of the sites that Tom’s work in theis genre has appeared.
Before the Morning Star
The old man, beggar of drinks, spittoon cleaner, dung shoveler, was shot and killed behind the livery. Taylor Maxon rushed from his card game. He was kneeling over the town drunk when the others came from the card game. “He’s dead,” Maxon said, “and he said he felt a whole lot of curses coming right up from his belly and then he said Shearwell did it. In his last breath he said Shearwell did it. Called him a liar and then shot him.” He looked up from where he still knelt over the dead man. “I heard a galloper heading out of town. Round up a posse!”
That little burp of light in the morning’s pre-dawn sky could always twinkle Luke Shearwell awake from the deepest sleep, out on the prairie, at a branding campsite, on a line fence by himself. All that after a full day in the saddle and a late plate of beans and steak on the run. He and the star had a history of sorts. And on this day of flight it would rouse him once again from sleep on the small ledge where he was hidden from the posse.
It didn’t matter that Luke Shearwell had not done anything wrong except run from the posse’s wild bunch headed, of course, by Taylor Maxon, who’d been in love with Laura Mordant long before Luke had come along. Maxon had practically demanded the deputy’s badge from the sheriff of the growing town of Canyon. “You need all the help you can get, sheriff, ‘cause there’s something going on around us. I can feel it and I know you can. Too much trouble when it should be quiet. Little guys getting squeezed by big guys. Rustlers. Mysterious ranch house fires in the night. You need another good gun at your side.” He nodded his head in that cocky way he had as he added, “and a decision-maker wearing the badge. You’d get that in me and everybody’s for it. I fit in this town. I always have.” And then he capped his stance off with what could be called a marquee statement of the times in The Panhandle: “There are too many ‘big Interest’ outfits looking at all the assets in The Panhandle, including all of Palo Duro Canyon.”
Maxon, for all his bluster, sat well on a horse, could shoot the spokes off a wheel at 60 feet, no mean feat for anybody in the saddle, and had captured one bushwhacker in the middle of his act. Some of the townsfolk said, with enough time under his belt, Maxon would have the stuff to become the governor of the state… his name floating always in good tidings. He never personally affirmed that such aims were in his saddlebags, and only smiled at the rumors.
What Taylor Maxon really wanted, besides Laura Mordant, and the huge spread out there in the Palo Duro Canyon that Colley Mordant was building, was getting newcomer Luke Shearwell out of the way. Too many times in the too few days he’d been in town had Laura’s eyes drifted from conversation with Maxon to find the newcomer Shearwell never far away. That was enough to get under Maxon’s skin early on.
And Mordant’s ranch, being almost half the size of the whole Palo Duro Canyon, was a sign of the times. Big spreads had taken bites out of every little spread in the territory. Some of the takings did indeed smell from afar with more than wood smoke. As it happens, rumor and distrust went hand in hand.
Shearwell was looked upon by many citizens as just another saddle tramp who swung his leg off the saddle for a quick drink at the first saloon he came to and had got himself stuck in the little town of Canyon.
Canyon, new and growing, having a sheriff and no deputies, was also in The Panhandle, not far from the Palo Duro Canyon. Its stretch marks were not noticed by its own citizens, some of whom had slept right through its birth.
With comfort easing out of his body as night moved across the flat plains and the slight hills where he bivouacked, Shearwell shifted his head again on the edge of his saddle and crossed his ankles. His blanket felt warm and the position change offered temporary suspension of aches that had not really gone away after his hectic ride. At the site his boots were as close to him as his rifle, and just as necessary. The posse, he supposed, was still camped out there, resting for the night, getting ready for morning’s resumption of the hunt, Maxon cracking the whip over their heads. If he could drive Shearwell into a lopsided gunfight, things would be a lot easier when it came to Laura. At the least, he could bring Shearwell into the jail, and there was no telling what could happen from then on, with him holding the keys.
Yet Luke Shearwell had been a step ahead of Maxon. And he had a good idea of what was happening, not only in the whole of the Panhandle, but what Maxon was up to from the beginning.
Luke Shearwell, in the darkness, studied the stars. As usual, they came with connections of all kinds… stories, directions, an opponent’s plans at the end of deep thought, lighting the way home from a dark or perilous journey. He trusted them as he trusted his horse; those above him, imperial in a way, that under him, provincial in a way. He calculated his position. He planned his moves.
On the edge of the little shelf of rock he had selected to rest upon, his horse snickered and kicked at the hard surface, but it was the view that satisfied Luke’s look out for horse traffic. During long stretches earlier in the night he had looked for flames flickering from a camp fire, and saw nothing. Nor had he smelled any coffee aroma riding the cool air of a September night. But intuition of a restless order kept working on him, and the sly and solitary messages that seemed to slip into his consciousness from that intuition kept saying, “Before the morning star.” Like a toothache while in the saddle, or the sore rump at the other end of his small world, the words kept coming back to him. They were not new, those words. Hardly new.
For much of his life he had heard them handed to him as if on a family platter.
“Before the morning star.”
He wanted to close his eyes for a while more, find a decent rest for mere minutes. It would do him the greatest good later on. But he kept hearing the same words. It made him move without closing his eyes. He rolled his blanket, saddled Plunger, slipped off the rim before daylight could circle his frame, strike his silhouette. The breeze was like a drink of water, cool, from deep in a well of sorts. He swore he could taste it in his throat.
Overhead he looked again, saw the star where it belonged since forever, and said, “Before the morning star.” A pause was followed by, “Yes, sir, I’m moving before the morning star moves.” He was speaking to an old man in his past, his grandfather. A vague image came to mind. But he heard the voice again, fresh, urgent: “Before the morning star.”
There was so much more that Shearwell knew. When he looked into Plunger’s eyes, he was looking at hundreds of years into the past when Plungers’ forebears had come up out of Mexico with the Spanish explorer Coronado. The Indians, from down where Coronado had come, called the star the “Dawn Star.” And the Comanche and Kiowa and other Plains Indians, who got the “gift of horses” from Coronado, knew all along that many stories had come along with Coronado’s horses. They knew some of the stories that were being carried in horses’ eyes, as well as some of the magic and some of the kinship between horse and rider. It was enough confirmation for Shearwell that the star could be seen in Plunger’s eyes.
He slipped off the rim, thought of a providential route out of his troubles, and again brought all of Canyon to mind. Laura Mordant was right in the middle of it.
What had bothered the town fathers, so to speak, was Shearwell’s knowledge of the territory, the whole Panhandle and what made it tick, and it frightened them for a drifter to be so well-informed. The banker and a couple of big spread owners were more than upset, calling him a malingering upstart and rumor monger. Sodholme the banker thought him to be highly suspicious. A few of Shearwell’s words hung on him and caused him deep unrest; “That ranch out there in the Palo Duro Canyon that Mordant’s building is big as hell and is a sign of the times.”
Some of his other observations, spoken out loud in Canyon saloons, made certain high-deal customers uneasy, like the night he carried on in the Dead Wagon Saloon:
“Way, way back, the Spaniard Coronado brought horses with him on his long walks and those ponies ended up a couple a hundred years later bred to Plains beauties by the Comanche and the Apache and the Kiowa. When the Indians were sent to reservations, the sheep and cattle war started and this little spot called Canyon grew and big ranches came along.”
He could carry on for hours:
“When the Indians got to the reservations and the buffalo were practically wiped off the Plains, we saw sheep come into the region from south of us, just the way that Coronado came. Everything and everybody came this way. The railroad is coming too. Why? What’s here beside tough weather and flat land and a couple of rivers running loose? I saw it all east a ways and it’s headed here in a dozen or so years, that’ll get some gents scratching for open land. That big ranch out there is bringing new times with it. Mark my words. Cattle life, as we know it, is going to change. Good old politics is going to crowd us, for damn sure. And any little guy that gets in the way.”
Shearwell was too much to take, having come down right off a dirty, old saddle after a long dirty ride. He was marked as if a branding iron had been heated just for him.
Maxon’s deep-seated interests took over and the town, in its own sleepy way, kept its eyes closed. That’s much of the reason why the posse was so fast in getting after Luke Shearwell, when they should have waited until morning to study trail sign.
When Luke Shearwell finished off reading the stars, especially the morning star, and decided what course of actions he would take, there was one location that offered the best options. He rode fast for Lookout Mound and tethered Plunger in a thick copse of cottonwoods. He put down his bed with a small log as a head rest, lit a small fire and let it smoke a bit, and sought a place to watch the trail he had left.
It was Maxon, ahead of the posse of course, who came up on the trail, looped his horse’s reins about a rock, and walked to within rifle shot of the campsite. The sleeping form was easily seen alongside the fire. From his position, Maxon leveled his rifle at the form, looked back over his shoulder, saw a few shadows of the posse coming along the trail. When he hit the target dead center with two quick shots, he screamed at the lead men in the posse. “I got him. He went for his rifle and I got him. I got the killer as he was going for his rifle right beside him.” He was exultant.
They rode in on the campfire, still smoldering. Two riders dropped down off their mounts and approached the form on the ground, their side arms in hand.
One of them yelled out, “Hey, Taylor, there’s no one here. Just a blanket and a saddle bag rolled up. There’s no rifle here. Thought you said he was goin’ for his gun. There’s only a stick here. You gotta be seein’ things. You shoot a couple of holes in a blanket and give the man no chance? You want Shearwell that bad, you go get him yourself. I’m goin’ back to town. I don’t want none of this.”
The two men mounted their horses, rode back to the balance of the posse coming up on them, and the whole posse, after a few minutes of talk, headed back to town.
Maxon was alone… until Luke Shearwell stepped out of the darkness, his rifle leveled at the new deputy.
“When you get all your explaining done, Maxon, I got a few surprises for you. The whole state of Texas has a surprise for you. I come right from the governor, and you can explain to him about some of the stuff that’s going on out here. He’ll be glad to hear it. And I guess someone in town will be able to make a decision right soon.”
He looked off as the morning star vanished with grace into blue skies coming alive.
A Loner’s Last Call
He had never belonged anyplace, and that realization was slowly dawning on him. Of all the places he had been in this whole land, East Coast to West Coast, border to border, foothills or river’s edge, none came charging up in his memory rugged with warmth, none touched longingly at him; no village, no harbor, no vast plain running off to the far horizon, no collection of people near such places.
This time out of the barn he had been moving for close to two months, hitching rides generally north, new stars and the wash of pine trees in April’s breath calling him on. The contradiction came at him again as harsh as a fist: of all the places he had been, he had been no place. His mind kept telling him the same thing the way a canyon echo sounds, distant, muted, out of a deep solace, hollow, near metallic. It was, he was ready to say, as if he had never stopped long enough to listen.
Now, near the foot of this day, the tidal flats wide and enormous, the sun at odds with itself on Earth’s edge, he could hear something. It was universal. It bore intelligence. It caught his attention.
As usual he was alone and swore he was the only one attentive to that thing and seeing all this around him, the late sun splattering gold on every surface, moving or still, for as far as his eyes could see. Though he was not unkempt, he was not headed for the boardroom either. A worn but decent dark blue jacket hung on his slight frame, over a red plaid lumberjack shirt buttoned at the collar. The pants were brown corduroy and shiny at the knees and at the thighs. Brown ankle-high boots dipped up under his pant legs. A roadman he obviously was, a hitchhiker, but one apparently who spent his nights abed under cover, his clothes not covered with strange bed residue. This day a shave had been accomplished at some place back down the line. Under his arm he carried his baggy Matilda of sorts, and a vast marshy area spread before him, just a few miles up-river from the ocean. The sea salt and reed grass of the brackish land were stiff as knuckles at his nostrils.
Where he had paused, at the side of Route 107, along the mile-wide marshes, a sign stood its ground as heavy metal. Cast iron most likely, he was thinking as the last of the sun flung itself in reflection. It had a gray field and black letters about two inches high that simply said, “Saugus,” and some part of its beating called upon him. An Indian name, he was convinced in his own reflections, thinking some names have importance, some do not. His name, for that matter, was Chug and he was a loner, acknowledged, as he often said, as the loneliest feeling a man could have. For him there were no roots, no wispy grasp at footholds, no family beachheads he could remember. A loner. It might have been that he had not been long enough in one place, or had never let his past catch up to him. No such determination as yet had fully surfaced on that account.
But now, in the late afternoon, the name Saugus drew him on. It stuck in his mouth. What else was there? Where else? What place could he belong? A trucker‘s horn suddenly startled him. “How far you going, pal?” The rig was a Diamond-T, a monstrous breed of new redness and shiny chrome sitting beside him on the marsh road, and a hum under that giant hood as deep as a cement mixer. The driver, leaning at him from behind the wheel,
half filling the cab, presented red hair and big eyes with shaggy brows and a smile as wide as the window. Chug looked again at the cast iron sign. “Saugus,” he said, quixotically, and then with serious conviction added, “To the middle of Saugus, wherever that is.”
“What’s your tag?” the trucker said, re-adjusting the sun visor, shifting gears from the dead start, clutching, gassing, leaning back in his seat. Artistic, thought Chug. “Mine’s O’Malley Fighorn, and ain’t that some moniker,” he laughed. “My mother sure as hell wasn’t letting go her last bit of Irish. My brother’s name is Sullivan, Sullivan Fighorn, Mal and Sully, that’s us.” Deep from his chest rose a laugh as though he was remembering something special, someplace special.
Chug said, “Chug,” like it was a simple flake of rock falling off a cliff face. “Chug it’s been forever. Plain Chug.”
“What’s your real tag?” Mal Fighorn bowed his head and looked at Chug as if something else special was waiting on him. Crows’ feet almost crinkled with sound at his eyes. A bump sat prominently on his nose, proud badge of badges. Looking ahead at the stoplight now green in the distance, he downshifted the rig, then looked again at his rider. He had shared his name and expected, it seemed, his rider to do the same thing for him.
“Tylen,” Chug said, caught by that charge, the depth in the driver’s eyes, the fan of crinkles friendly in its marking. Then he added, his breath coming out of his chest like it had been saved up for a long time, “Tylen Chacone.”
The two grown men looked into each other’s eyes and began to laugh. They laughed all the way up to the red light with an arrow saying “Saugus” beside it. The arrow pointed north. The tears rolled south on Mal Fighorn’s cheeks, and on the cheeks of Chug Chacone.
“Ain’t we the friggin’ pair!” Mal Fighorn said, as he swung the rig into the northbound road, a huge hand pawing the shift lever with adroitness, his feet tap dancing on clutch pedal and gas pedal. “Tylen Chug Chacone, you and me, pal, are having dinner with my dad. Lives here in Saugus, loves his company. And get this,” he added uproariously, shifting again, tap dancing again, his brows heavy over bright eyes, “his name is Montcalm Fighorn. He’s friendly, he likes his beer and wears twenty years of beard.” They laughed all the way into the Fighorn driveway on the far edge of town, near the Lynnfield line. Laughter had taken them right through Saugus Center, past a veterans’ monument at a green rotary, past a stately old Town Hall bearing late traffic, past a handful of quiet churches.
Tylen Chug Chacone, loner, felt again that unknown sweep of energy come across his chest or across his mind. He could not be sure which avenue, but it swept at him and by him in the long driveway, making him think he was in a kind of wind tunnel. Once, long ago, someplace in his travels, that sweeping might have been known. He could not remember where. Out back of the house was a barn and another truck, looking like its last mile had been run, sat beside the barn. Painted sign letters on the body of the truck had faded to an unreadable point, pale as old scars. Its tires were flat. Chug thought about old elephants going off alone to die. His mind, he thought, could never compute how many miles of service the truck must have delivered. Now it did not seem so important; it was just rusting away as much as the barn was decaying, though not seen the same way.
A bit later a delicate spring evening hovered around them as they sat on the porch, long and screened-in with at least a dozen chairs scattered its length. He’d bet that some evenings every chair was occupied, it was that kind of house and that kind of porch. In the distance clusters of fireflies dominated the dark landscape. Across the road and up a steep hill, in the growing darkness, an owl called out. Chug thought it to be a place called home.
“So, you got a name thing, too,” Montcalm Fighorn said, pouring beer from a quart bottle into three frosted mugs still wearing shadowy clouds. “They’ve been calling me Monty since I can remember. Never by my real name. Hell, I never called this boy by his real name. Enda, my good Enda, never called him anything but O’Malley. And Sully had it the same way.” Toward a bit of darkness off the side of the porch, adroitly, in modest ceremony, he tipped his drink, and the tipping was understood by those who saw it done.
Chug drank slowly and deliberately, and the bearded Monty Fighorn watched his guest drink with dainty sips after the healthy meal. “Don’t be bashful, Chug. End of the day’s the time for a good swallow. Have at it.” He raised his mug and drained off the contents. “Best damn part of the day,” he vouched with certainty, poured another full round, and then raised his eyebrows at his son who went to the small icebox at the end of the porch and brought back another imperial quart. “I’m not the real curious type, Chug, but wonder where you’ve been, what you’ve seen. Mal says you spend the winter in Florida. That so?”
“Two or three places down there. Sometimes they put up with me and sometimes they don’t. I have a special delivery box and they hold all my mail. Usually it’s just a few retirement checks from Uncle I use to try to get through the winter.”
“You in the service, Chug?” Even as he asked the question, Monty knew the answer. The signs were there. Besides the bracelet Chug wore, it was written on the man. His clothes might have been second-line, but he was shaved that very day, and his hairline cut half moons high over the ears. The boots, beat up as they were by the road, were not long from a spit shine. He’d bet there was a pair of dry socks in his small bag if not pinned to the inside of his jacket.
“Twenty-six years in the Army.”
“I got me one of those,” Monty said, pointing at the bracelet on Chug’s wrist. “Where’d you get yours?” The wreathed Combat Infantryman’s Badge, its blue field long since faded, curved loosely on Chug’s wrist. A small chain kept it in place. A circular stain was on his wrist.
“Couple of places were good enough. But first with the 31st in Viet Nam. Then in the desert in the Eighties. You?”
“Nam, too. Four oh first. Caught a bit of hell and was rolled out of there in a hurry. Think I was pinned down for two months then on my way home, on evac. Had one friend, talking about nicknames, who was transferred to first battalion of your outfit. We called him Grunt before we had grunts.”
Perhaps from the dark hill or out of a field now gone into the night, the sweeping energy came on Chug again. Almost electricity, it ran right over the porch as if the fireflies had let everything go. Chug knew a rustling at the screening, a possession of sorts, at the very spot Monty had tipped his mug. “Talking about names, his wasn’t Billy Pigg, was it?” He could not bring back a face, but a piece of it, a nose.
The energy, the sweeping, told him the answer even before Monty Fighorn came up out of his chair. “Damn it, guy, don’t tell me you knew Billy Pigg! Hot damn! Thought about him a thousand times. Old Kentucky Billy Pigg. Great boy he was. Marksman of all marksmen, I tell you. Often wondered about him. Often.” The plea was in his voice and he nodded again at his son sitting there, the son’s mouth agape, his eyes wide in the darkness, wondering what the hell had made him stop and pick up a hitchhiker off the marsh road, the end of the world itself. From the corner of the porch Mal brought back two more imperial quarts of beer and poured the round himself.
“Hate to tell you, Monty,” Chug said, setting down his mug, as if his right to drink had been suddenly halted, perhaps his welcome stopped in place. “Died in my arms, not quick, not slow, but long enough to ask me to bless him with water. I did, from a canteen, and him leaking badly, one of them old sucking chest wounds that’ll never let go. Said his daddy picked him up one day, about to walk into the river with him and do it up proper, when his daddy keeled over from a heart attack and never got him wet. All that time, it seems, it was all he could remember, being on the grass and not wet. But I got it done for him. Boy had a nose been smashed all to hell before he even got in the army. That your Billy Pigg, Monty? That the one you knew as Grunt, nose broke up all to hell?”
Chug was aware again of the spot Monty had tipped his mug to. The unknown sweeping was coming through the same place, the rustling, the net of screen separating sounds and energies, paying them due respects. And he and Monty Fighorn, old soldiers at the pair, had a sharing of lasting memories coming at them in pieces.
Chug said, “Tell me about that old truck out back. Looks like an old soldier in the Old Soldiers’ Home, just waiting to go the last mile. Serve you that good, did it, not letting it go?”
“You’re right on that account, Tylen Chacone,” Monty said, and laughed loudly, his laugh ranging the porch and out into the night. “Was a hell of a rig in its day. Brought us a little freedom, worked so long and good. It ain’t going no place before me, and that’s a given.” Turning to Mal, he said, “Tell him that’s so, son.”
“It’ll turn to rust in that spot long as I’m around. Bet on it.” He tipped his mug, but it was not at the dark space just off the porch. It was more at an idea.
All of it, Chug thought, was measurable.
Monty swung around in his dark red Adirondack chair. Chug heard it creak. “I got an idea I want to run by you, Chug,” Monty said. “No strings attached, as they say. Got lots of room here, most of it going to waste. Boys here got business I don’t want to get into. They do their thing and I do mine. I’m willing to let you have a room for the summer, go and come as you please, go off as you like when you like, doing your road thing if you have to, and head back down to see your friends come fall or late summer. It’s no charity farm nor the Old Soldiers’ Home. You cut some grass, you do some dishes, make your own bed and do your own laundry, and you got a place to drop your head come of a night. And you don’t plan to drink all my beer. Can’t lose anything from where I sit.” The chair creaked again as he stood up and said, “Want to show you something.” He went into the house and toward the back of the house.
Mal said, “He’s going to show you his,” pointing to Chug’s bracelet. “We had it mounted on a piece of cherry wood a lot of years ago. Sets some store by it, he does. Makes me think you should think real serious about his offer. Doesn’t do something like that very often.”
“I’m just a guy barely out of the tank, Mal. Doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall. Why make me out so special?”
“He knows you a lot better than you think, Chug. You and him, you’re like blood brothers maybe. I’m sure you share something I might never know, though it might be like Sully and me. He’s a good man and he finds stock in you. Hell, man, there must be some of that in me, too. I picked you off the side of the road, could have gone right by. Usually do, these days. I have no idea why I stopped. Something in the air, I guess. Would you believe it?”
Only Chug Chacone heard the rustle at the screen, the promise of sound in a small shrub, with a host of fireflies coming closer to the porch.
And so, it was, practically for the first time in his life off a post or station, for more than four months of belonging, Tylen Chug Chacone sat on the porch at night with Monty Fighorn. They listened to the fireflies almost, to the owls on the hill, to the old truck turning to honored rust, and every now and then, from a distance, like down a one-way street, to the limitless, endless charge of energy finding its way to a couple of old souls.
In the dread heat of late August, the heavens at rampage, electricity beating about the skies like a thousand cannons at battle, one bolt of lightning followed another bolt through two aged hearts.
Mal told Sully over the phone, “Damned won’t believe it, Sull. Neither one of them spilled a drop of their beer. It just sat there beside them, waiting to get sipped up like it was last call.”
One Town Too Many
A town boy burst up to Sheriff Wilkins’ office yelling out, “He’s dead, Sheriff. He’s dead. Mr. Purley‘s dead in his store. I peeked in the window and he’s on the floor and blood all over him!” The sun had barely warmed up Carver Grove and small bunches of the story came back to the sheriff in flashes, as if they had been announcements in the first place.
The odd pieces came to him, gathered into a clutch, and became a story, as seen here.
A few weeks before the boy’s terrified cries, Sheriff Jerry Wilkins, sitting outside his jail and office in Carver Grove, finding the early sun a source of pleasant feelings as he did on special mornings, had seen the well-dressed stranger eyeing Asa Purley’s General Store with a studied manner. He watched the man walk off a measurement twice, and then make an entry on a small pad of paper. Then the scribbler went down the alley beside Purley’s place, at which the sheriff sauntered from his comfortable perch, and watched him duplicate the measuring action. Looking up to the second floor of the store, the stranger apparently had all the measurements he needed.
For whatever reason.
Wilkins had gone over to the Charnley Hotel to check the owner about the well-dressed stranger and ask if he knew where he came from and why he was in Carver Grove. The owner, from past observations by the sheriff, stood out as a tight-lipped cuss to begin with.
Owner Jeb Charnley said, “He registered as Harry Whitcomb. Said he traveled up from Plague City and is here on business. Nothing else, and I didn’t ask for that information, he offered it.” Charnley, Wilkins realized, paraphrased he was still a man who tended to mind his own business.
After lunch with a special woman friend at the edge of town, the widow Paula Fortunato, smooth, silky, literate, Wilkins went to the Double Yoke Saloon to have his noon nip with another old friend, Adam Barkley, the saloon’s lone bartender. Barkley had been hurt on a posse run a few years earlier and found himself confined to a new kind of work.
“Yuh, I know him,” Barkley said. “Came from Plague City in the territory, and before that hung around in Dawson’s Village. Seems as slick as all-get-out to me. Bought several rounds in the last couple of days, like he’s trying to make friends. Got a poke on him that’d choke a bear.” He showed a thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. “A real bankroll, a strike somewhere along the line that might excite some of the boys for cards or something else.” He raised one eyebrow acknowledging the duties of a sheriff.
“What’s he after, Adam? You have any idea?”
Barkley said, as he went off to serve the other end of the bar, “Nothing I got stitched in my head yet, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for you. Might ask some of our other pals. Maybe Twigs or Caleb. They’re still riding out there with the tin on their shirts.”
Wilkins sent off telegraph queries to a few old compadres, and the result came just as Barkley suggested; Twigs St. Martin came back with his reply: “Gent of ? advance buyer big eastco. don’t take no for seller answers. hires local gs, pays gc. Some jobs not solved, open. I’m rid here. I owe. Tree part will be stranger.”
Of course, it made Wilkins smile, seeing the image of his old buddy, tall and skinny Twigs St. Martin, composing the message, explaining the past and present of Harry Whitcomb, eastern rep with a big bucks company, hired killer guns who killed for gold coin, that St. Martin himself owed some of them for something but Twigs (tree part) owed Wilkins good and would leave his job shortly and come to Carver Grove as a complete stranger to the sheriff and Barkley, “and bound to help.”
It was store owner Asa Purley who came to see the sheriff after dark the following week, slipping into the office when he came out of an alley between the jail and another store. Nervous and skittish, he kept looking out the window into darkness as he spoke to the sheriff. “Jerry, it’s that Whitcomb gent, too damned pushy but scary at the same time. Said if I don’t sell my place to him, he’ll get me out of Carver Grove if I’m still alive by hook or by crook.”
“Did he use those exact words, Asa?”
“Not exactly. He said that accidents always happen to public figures, like me, because people see them all the time and they’re bound to attract bad customers along with the good ones. He puffs that fancy cigar and drops ashes when he taps it with a finger, like at the end of a sentence loaded with double meanings, or more like pulling a damned trigger. He’s scary. I’m just a store owner, Jerry. Just a store owner.”
“Hell, Jerry, I can’t arrest him for dropping ashes or saying what can be true in any town about bankers, grocers and sheriffs. But I’ll keep my eye on him.” Noticing that Purley still acted unsettled, he took him by the elbow and said, “C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your place. It’ll be okay.” From the touch, Wilkins knew Purley shook in his boots.
The lanky stranger was already in the saloon by noon the next day, a gawky looking fellow with long arms and legs and looking like he needed a horse 19 hands high to ride on. Perhaps a few patrons conjured up a picture of him throwing his right leg over the back of a horse with his left foot still on the ground. His face ran narrow and thin and a bad under-bite exaggerated the length of his features. A small rumble of remarks had started because of his appearance, among which came a series of nicknames for skinny men who could drink like he could. On his 5th or 6th drink at a corner table, often leaning forward as though he’d fall asleep in a minute, the stranger wasn’t sleeping and he wasn’t drunk.
Some of the names were clearly audible to him and every now and then a speaker, using a new nickname, would double-check the stranger’s demeanor or reaction. All was quiet in the room until one customer with a loud voice said, “That beanpole can sure put ‘em away down that skinny trunk like he ain’t got no bottom to it. Must have leaky boots at the far end. Wore the toes right off ‘em, I’ll bet.” His laugh pried sharp as a knife under the skin of the stranger.
Before he knew it, the speaker’s butt banged on the floor of the saloon as his chair was whipped out from under him. With a grunt and a thud he had fallen, along with a bunch of embarrassment mixed with awe and fear as he looked up at the mountain-tall man standing over him, saying in a voice so deep it might not properly belong to a skinny man, “When you’re atalkin’ to me or about me, best look at me for an okay, or else it’s somethin’ else comin’ down on ya, down and deep.”
In truth, the gawky but fearless stranger had earlier noticed the sharply dressed man across the room working a rich-looking cigar at his mouth, and had decided to cater to his curiosity. The man Sheriff Wilkins and Barkley the bartender knew as Twigs St. Martin responded to Whitcomb who had shortly approached him at the bar after the escapade.
Whitcomb put out his hand with a wide smile on his face and dealt his humor card. “That was some piece of wrangling, Mister. Sure took care of that big mouth. I’m Harry Whitcomb up from Plague City and a few other places along the trail. What do you call yourself?” The humor was clear in his words, on his smiling face.
“Hell,” the lanky gent said, “I call myself what my Pa called me all the way back to Tennessee near like a 100 years ago. Called me, ‘Sticks,’ he did, the second ‘Sticks’ in the family. Had an uncle came home with a leg missing from the first day of the Big War. The very first day, by practic’ly the first shot fired. My Pa cut him a chunk of branch from an ash tree growin’ right in the front yard and made this rig for him fit right up under his armpit, right up here.” He jammed one fist up into his armpit. “Snug as a porker in a hollow log.” He took his turn at a loud laugh.
Whitcomb said, “Well, I really like a fellow that brings a sense of humor with him.” Looking at the gun belt on the tall Sticks, he said, “I see you’re carrying two side arms. You any good with them?”
“One of them’s in your belly right now, Whitville or Whitfield or whatever else you been called.” It was as though Sticks had not even moved. But Whitcomb felt the gun in his belly, too low to be nice.
It didn’t seem to faze Whitcomb and he asked, “Are you looking for work, Sticks? Do you mind how you use those side arms if the pay is good?”
“Sticks don’t hate money at all, and you can bet my last dollar on that. These small cannons can be used to knock down a desperado or the fella chasin’ him with the little tin okay on his shirt. Makes no difference to me.” He put the gun back in its holster, almost as quickly as it had come out. “It gets a rest whenever it gets tired, like as all I can promise.”
Wilkins and Barkley stood together when Asa Purley was buried at the edge of Carver Grove. Mrs. Purley did not shed a tear or blink an eye at the short services, but when she looked at the sheriff she subtilely nodded her head back toward town, which he understood to mean she wanted to talk to him … and alone.
An hour later he met her in the small apartment above the store. “I can’t prove anything, Sheriff,” she offered, “but that Whitcomb fellow is behind this. Told Asa he had to sell to him or he’d burn us out, me included, but he wanted the only store in town to be his. He offered a ridiculously low figure to buy this whole place. When Asa didn’t bite at it, he wagged his cigar and then waved a small pistol at him he carries in a jacket pocket. Right in his face he waved it. I don’t suppose that little gun did all the work that killed Asa, but that gun wagger’s behind it, mark my words.”
She paused and said, “And I’m not selling either.”
“Did you hear anything in the night?”
“I went down to Paula Fortunato’s place earlier, stayed late helping her on some decorations she wants to do (she offered a coy smile to the sheriff), stayed late and came home to see the lights in the store. The lights meant Asa was busy and I was exhausted, so I went right up the back steps and into bed. Didn’t hear a thing, but I want to show you something.”
She went to the back of the store and brought back a stuffed leather pillow that was a mess. “I found this in a trash box out back. I think this was held by the killer because it’s got some holes in it probably made by bullets and stinks of burnt gunpowder. Look for yourself.” She handed the leather pillow to Wilkins. Her “Smell it,” sounded like a marshal’s order.
“That’s really helpful, Ma’am,” Wilkins said. “Anything else?”
“I’m guessing that whoever did it likes apples. Two of them, chewed to the core, were tossed in a corner.” She held the cores out to the sheriff. “See, down to the last bite. Asa would never leave them around and neither would I.”
The sheriff picked two apples out of a barrel’ “How much?” he said.
She managed a smile. “We’re having an Asa Purley Special Give-away today. They’re on the house …. and do good with them.”
They nodded their understanding to each other.
The sheriff motioned Barkley to the end of the bar. He took the two apples out of his shirt and spoke of his needs; “Keep them in back of you, under the mirror. Tell me who asks for them, and then eats them down to nothing if it happens. And announce so all can hear, but from a conversation, that I’m off to Seth Crawford’s spread to check out some robbery in his house. Make sure our old pal hears where I’m going. I’ll meet him out on the trail somewhere.”
Twigs St. Martin found him on the trail. He hailed Twigs as Sticks, at which both men laughed. “You meet with Whitcomb yet?”
“Was supposed to two days ago, but he had a tight meeting with one of his boys, name of Turkey Coalwell.”
“Know anything about him?”
St. Martin replied, “Only that he’s never been caught at what he does best, and that’s killing for a price. But they got a whole gaff of stores they bought behind them, all the way back to Independence and some in Illinois and Ohio. Noise and trouble with each one changing hands, but nobody settled behind the bars. Not yet. This Coalwell’s been hanging on his pockets for a few years.”
They went back to Carver Grove by different trails, at different hours. Wilkins came in after dark and went directly to the Double Yoke. The room, on a Saturday evening, was filled; the tables were full up and a stream of men lined the bar. The noise was raucous, loose, weekend spirits on the fly.
Barkley poured him a beer and said, “Whitcomb’s in the corner and the ugly gent in the funny hat, name of Turkey Coalwell, ate both apples in an hour. Like there wasn’t a nip left to either of ‘em.” He added a guarded qualifier, “Then he tossed the cores into the corner like he wants me to clean up after him, of whom I ain’t so burdened. Not ever.”
Whitcomb said, “Can we help you with something, Sheriff?”
“Yes, you can,” Wilkins said with a clear voice. “I’m here to arrest Turkey Coalwell for the murder of Asa Purley, store owner.” He held a gun on Coalwell.
“You’re crazy on that account, Sheriff. I don’t know a thing about any of it.“ Coalwell sat back, smiling, looking sideways at Whitcomb.
“He sold you out, Turkey,” Wilkins said, and nodded at Whitcomb. “He told us about the leather pillow you used and where you threw it away and how we’d most likely find some apples bit down to the core on the floor of the store.” He looked into the corner and added, “Just like them two down there, right to the last bite.”
Wilkins didn’t know it, but Coalwell had pulled his pistol under the table when the sheriff started walking towards them. Now, the tables turned on him, he turned on Whitcomb and killed him with one shot under the table. Before he got off a shot at the sheriff, Wilkins knocked him out of his seat with a single round.
There’d be no trial on the pair, but the expansion of the big eastern stores combine came to a halt, in tiny Carver Grove.
Later, the sheriff told his old pal Twigs St. Martin about the apple clues.
“Looks to me,” St. Martin said, “like a case of apple pans doubty.”
The two lawmen were loose enough to laugh at anything.
And they did.
Black Possum Down
Former sergeant in the 1st Michigan Cavalry, twice decorated, often honored while serving the Union cause, Hector Threadlove slipped his right leg up over the horse, slipped the left leg out of the stirrup and slid to the ground as easy as a trick rider, landing lightly on his feet. Nothing was jarred in the dismount, not the weapon at his chest, or his beat-up and ugly sombrero, or the casual nature of the man. It was ease at its perfection … and drew a sense of disdain from some of the onlookers who had not seen a black man in Mournful in a few years, and that one time not for a long stretch.
He was a stranger coming into Mournful, Nevada, wearing worn leg-striped Union-blue pants and a faded blue shirt showing the imprint of detached sergeant stripes earned at Gettysburg. On his head he wore the odd sombrero that would look better on most other men, for it gave the appearance that it too had been through a long war. A Colt revolver sat in a shoulder holster, with a certain comfort over his heart and also affirming he was right-handed. A rifle butt showed in his saddle scabbard and on the pommel of the saddle hung an old army issue canteen.
Yet the War Between the States had been over for almost two years.
All his gear said he was a stranger, he was a Union veteran (unless he had stolen the old uniform, as a few of the noisy and disturbed townsmen alleged on the spot); he appeared somewhat brazen in a subtle but powerful way, that being essentially displayed by the way he sat the saddle first and then dismounted, as though he had earned all he held onto; and his horse knew who the boss was at every command.
And he was, as could be seen immediately, the comfortable black man in an uncomfortable situation, his bearing making the announcement. But the other announcements came too, part of the situation as some might call it. From the edge of the boardwalk and from a few doorways came words he had heard limitless times before: “Prob’ly stole the uniform off’n a dead man.” “See where he goes. See what he does.” “Betcha dozen prairie eggs he don’t go into Scanlon’s Place. If he does, it won’t be for long.”
There was a hoot and a holler following that quickly went away with a slight movement of the stranger standing on the road, as though he carried I-dare-you on his back.
The stranger looked ahead of him and saw the hand-drawn letters in black paint saying in an ungainly manner, as if done intentionally, “Scanlon’s Place.” It was Mournful’s only saloon, and on the rail out front were tethered half a dozen horses, all the horses in the mix were paints looking like a wall of maps.
A smile crossed his face as he heard again a mean-edged voice say for the second time, “If he does, it won’t be for long.”
A second voice said, “Let’s sit and wait and see how long it takes.”
Threadlove said to himself, “Remind me of that later tonight and I’ll write a song with it.” He laughed without smiling.
Light on his feet, Threadlove spun about and instantly identified the noisy speakers out of the half dozen on-lookers in one tight spot on the boardwalk in front of the general store. Not a word left his mouth but a promise as much as a threat hung in the air between him and the others. He saw them draw back, which was satisfaction enough for him, no stomachs there backing up their big mouths. He turned away with disdain and looked again at Scanlon’s Place sitting like a hovel beside a nice looking hotel, two floors high, with an artistic sign bearing the name, “Grandview Hotel.” The name was painted against a background of soft white clouds and made one think of soft pillows, a softer bed, and all the other softness that men longed for on the trail and found at last.
Swinging the saloon doors inward, Threadlove came into Scanlon’s Place and put everything in the room in an instant place of memory, each man, each table, each end of the room, the sunlight playing on amber bottles behind the big bartender standing against a collage of bottles and tankards of various colors and inscriptions. In a higher background loomed a single mirror and a painting of a nude woman at rest, a pink and orange fan across part of her breast, a purple slipper missing from one foot, and dark eyes bearing everything possible, including the eternal message.
The bartender, a big burly man with his arms folded across his chest like a guard at one end of a bridge, hastened to look about the room. He rested his look on the face of one cowpoke at a far table, and nodded slightly in some act or designation of recognition. He was not nodding at the cowpoke, but sending his silent message to the black man standing at full alert in the doorway. The bartender’s smile, subtle as his nod could be under the circumstances, held its place about his lips, saying no words, but sending a message.
His name was Dudley Dermott Scanlon, III, once of Newfoundland, Montreal, Montpelier, Vermont, and 1st Michigan Cavalry and the hard rides at Gettysburg and other places heading toward peace across the land … for some men, but not for the man in the doorway. Not yet, at least. Here was another altercation to be settled hopefully before it got underway. Scanlon had seen Threadlove in worse situations.
Like a sergeant of the cavalry, proud, in the lead, Threadlove proceeded across the room toward the directed cowpoke, while saying loudly to the bartender, “Dudley, I been near two year comin’ to get that toast with liquor we promise that time in Gettysburg, ‘n’, man, you better start pourin’ that little halleluiah for me ‘cause I’m dead thirsty after a longish ride.”
His hands hung gracefully at his sides, fingers open, and ease in their readiness. His dark eyes said different.
He came directly opposite the cowpoke still sitting at the table and said, “Mister, I can tell you don’t like me in here, so not likin’ to get shot in the back while I’m toastin’ away with my old comrade, you better try killin’ me now or keep that sidearm in place while I drink, less I kill you easier said than done. How’s that set with you?” The fire was in Threadlove’s eyes.
The cowpoke, noisy and belligerent on most any other similar occasion in the memories of every man in the saloon, including Scanlon’s seeing it too many times to forget, was embarrassed down into his boots, and ended up nodding as barely as Scanlon had in sending a warning to an old comrade.
Threadlove smiled a wide and toothy grin, spun about and rushed at Scanlon. The two of them, the big, burly bartender and the black man wearing yet his old uniform, grappled in a hug and loud yells like a cavalry brigade on the ready-ride.
Scanlon poured the drinks, looked Threadlove in the eyes and said, “You’re him, ain’t ya? The Trooper Marshall I been hearin’ about? Figured from the first it was you, Hector. Tell me I’m right again. I ain’t ever made a mistake on you.”
“Right again, Dudley.”
“Who you after?”
“A sorry-ass killer of women and wagon scouts ‘n’ peaceful Indians sitting with peace pipes in their laps. Name’s Henry Chew Thornton ‘n’ I been trailin’ him for more’n two months ‘n’ know he’s comin’ this way from somethin’ I found out back down the trail just a few days ago. If he ain’t here yet, he’s acomin’.”
“Hector, I know you’ll get him, but I see you’re still wearin’ your uniform. I ‘member the day the stripes went on it.”
“I wear it like my badge,” Threadlove said, “’cause it’s part of me now and I’ll die wearin’ both somewhere along the line, ‘n’ long as they last.”
Scanlon said, “When you’re an old man, Hector, and no time before,” and he poured another drink.
Hector Threadlove and Dudley Dermott Scanlon locked heads for much of the night after the saloon closed down. The two spent their time talking over the old days that were not such good days, except they both had come through them with minor scratches. And they began a plan, which Scanlon called a plot and Threadlove called a maneuver, to catch up to the pursued killer, Henry Chew Thornton, “as bad as a man gits,” according to Threadlove, “’n’ who I want bad as hell ain’t wanted in the end.”
But the word came around just a few days later, after Threadlove had said so long to his old pal and rode out of Mournful at high noon, the sun beating down on him, light flashing on his badge, on his pistol, on the butt of his rifle where a plate carried his name. Some folks breathed easier, not sure of what they had been frightened of in the first place.
It was again at noon time. One old miner came into Scanlon’s Place saying he had seen a “mad as hell cowpoke” knock a man off his horse with a single shot as they faced each other. “The gent who went down, off his horse like a tree limb falls in a storm, was dressed like he was still in the army. I stayed hid in my place and saw winner of the fight bury the other man and his saddle and gear and shoo his horse off into the hills.”
He paused in his story, crossed himself, took a last sip of his drink, and finished his tale as Scanlon poured another beer for him. “Somethin’ about the winner there, I got to say. When he was done doin’ his buryin’ he even said words over the grave, and then at the end, like he was a trooper hisself he saluted the dead man at the end of his words. It sure choked me up, ‘cause that fight was as fair as they get, and that cowpoke, who was challenged by the dead man before he was dead, was in this saloon drinkin’ up a storm last month when I came in for supplies and a wettin’.”
Looking around the room, he summed up his delivery, saying, “But I don’t see him in here now.”
The talk in the saloon, as secret as could be but too loud to be fully hidden, assumed that the man was the angry cowpoke the black marshal had shut down in his seat in a hurry only a few days earlier … and he was not at that moment in the Scanlon’s Place.
That buzz moved around to all the tables in the saloon, and to all the patrons, including those few who either rushed to get out and tell others what the miner had said, or slid out like mice to do the same thing. Either way, the end of Hector Threadlove, veteran, marshal, black man, was common knowledge in Mournful in a matter of hours.
The next morning the extra bartender opened up for the day, saying that Scanlon wasn’t feeling too good and was going to sleep in for a while, or for the day, until he was feeling better.
“He looked plain awful to me,” the bartender said, “since he heard his army pal, that black marshal, was killed. Like something awful caught up to him that was long overdue. Know what I mean about them army boys, the lot of them, and the way they think the hand of death, which they just missed catching so many times you can’t do the counting, finally catches up to them and puts them to sleep forever.”
It all wound up the next evening, in Scanlon’s Place, the sun long gone down, the rail out front full and the bar rail just as heavy with customers. An old timer was playing on the piano, plunking out a slow number while an attractive girl was singing like a prairie bird in a corner, and Scanlon had finally come out of his room in the rear of the saloon. He did look like a wreck of a man caught in the middle of a losing battle, the whole war going down with the loss. He poured himself a drink, which was odd to those who knew him, for it had been bible with him not to drink until the sun went behind one of the peaks of the Rockies.
The girl continued to sing, the piano player finding old numbers for her, the din in the room carried a hum of voices, bragging, yelling, card dealer’s calls on one table in the corner, one man pleading for a loan at the table, a drunk pleading for one more drink at the bar, shadows already folding over on their own contours, when everything stopped happening. It was like a judge had banged down his gavel in a noisy courtroom; there was immediate silence and order.
At the door, on the inside, stood a man taller than anybody in the saloon, in a gray shirt and black pants and matched pistols on his belt. From prior descriptions and stories flying about, all the saloon cortege knew it was Henry Chew Thornton, now without his enemy in pursuit, and the big question was who he’d pick on next, just for the hell of it. The story of why Threadlove had been chasing him were loose in the town, and all the stories gaining added crimes and more evil in nature in the telling … but Thornton was not wanted in Mournful or in all the territory for that matter, which is why Mournful’s quiet sheriff sat still as he had for months on end.
Thornton approached the bar, ordered a drink from Scanlon, and asked, “Where’s this cowpoke I heard about who killed that damned black marshal wearin’ the silly uniform of the Lincoln blue? Served him right, for the war ain’t over by a long shot. I want to buy that fella a drink. Where is he?” He looked all around the saloon, staring into faces, seeing men duck so as not to catch his eye and be recognized again somewhere down the trail.
The sheriff himself would not look into Thornton’s eyes, wondering what other duty might call him out of the saloon before he’d get caught up in anything emotional. He was not ready for Thornton; might never be ready, and Scanlon knew it before the sheriff did.
“C’mon,” Thornton yelled, “which one of you’s him? I hope he’s not duckin’ from me. I want to buy him a drink, maybe partner up with him.”
It was a threat of threats, that idea of partnering with a known killer regardless if he was not wanted in this territory.
No answer from the crowded saloon.
Thornton turned his back on them, and faced Scanlon directly. “You know anything about him, barkeep? You holdin’ anythin’ back on me that’ll come an issue later on? Don’t tell me no lies ‘cause I ain’t in any mood to get told lies.” He slammed his fist down on the bar and the room itself jumped with full reaction … except for Scanlon behind the bar and the new patron standing inside the door, who had entered so quietly and unnoticed in the midst of Thornton’s tirade.
Scanlon, long time combat veteran, survivor of dozens of major engagements, near death many times over, only said, “I ain’t knowing where he ain’t, but only where he is.”
That brought a sudden silence in Scanlon’s Place and pulled surprise across Thornton’s face as rapidly as surprise comes on anyone.
He stared at the bartender’s eyes, but those eyes were not looking at him but past him, way past him, over his shoulder, at something behind him.
The stare was an announcement of the first order.
The stare coupled with the sudden silence, brought to Thornton a brief and clear sense of awareness he had never previously experienced, the way a lamp can light up a dark tunnel. It ran through Thornton from his feet right up to the back of his head and on its way made his hands itch, his arms shake, the ball in his gut take a quick and weighty plunge.
And even as Thornton, now alert, began to spin around, he mouthed a profound exclamation of self-judgment. “Been took by a possum,” came just above a whisper as he fully spun, drew his weapon in haste, and felt a bullet plunge deep into his upper chest.
There, just inside the door, in all righteousness, stood the “dead” black marshal, the man in Union Blue, with a trace of gun smoke swirling upward from his hand.
The sombrero on Threadlove’s head was as ugly as ever, but not a soul said a word about it, including Scanlon standing behind the bar and in front of the bar the once-wanted Henry Chew Thornton folding down into an ignoble death.
The Cimarron Split
In the wild west of our recent history, some days went without the great dangers and escapades we continually read about. Thoughtful decisions at specific times often cemented the future and deeded the past. Such is this story about a man of vision in the westward plunge, in America’s splurge into open spaces and unclaimed land. The pot at boil that was America continued its mixture, becoming what it would be by individual desire and hunger for a better life, and every now and then was reinforced by a collective decision that changed a trail, chose a road, set a marker.
Actions, it all said, are not always noisy, combative, or destructive. It was also said, and is said yet about that time of our history, that the gun was the law; but law was not the gun, it was a collective drive of people of adventure, daring and hope.
Gari Yanchun, “A mix of breeds,” he said, “from the world over,” came back to the wagon train from his lengthy outride as the wagons curled into a night circle. He was, in addition to the wagon trains’ lead scout, the second man in command. But in his lonely work at times, the stars haunted him, the moon touched him, the west wind told him stories, and the land he rode on, wide as the heavens above, had already spread its arms for him. Yanchun believed the welcome was fortuitous all the way.
Proof had been in his hands.
Yanchun’s bloodline had been collected in Europe and Asia in centuries of mix. The horsemen of Central Europe, who had run ahead of the Tartars and Mongols and other wild horse battalions, and maybe a phalanx or two on the way, had fled across the two adjoining continents and some of them ended up in the green fields of Ireland. Now, as a further moving descendant of those Central Plains horsemen, he was here in another adventure, America’s west open to any and all dreams and energy as far as the mind could visualize.
Yanchun’s long scouting ride had revealed much of the landscape and topography of the area. He had cupped both hands around earth in many places, squishing, squeezing, and reaching for qualities demanded by his certain intentions. He told no one that a sense had overcome him as he came back to the campsite, telling him they, the people of the wagon train, were at home in this place. “Here,” it said, “here.” Then the voice kept talking to him, saying, “We have come as far as we need to go. This is home for us.” It was an overpowering sensation as he dismounted and headed to the night fire and a hot tin of coffee. About him, as if messages continued, the air was delicious and warm as summer set its issues out upon the earth. The grass, tall and green, seemed to wave back at him from many miles, to where the mountains interjected. In this place, this corner in the vast space of the earth underfoot, home beckoned to a descendant of the horsemen of the Central Plains of a different continent.
The other sense also told him that he was alone in this revelation and he would have to force the
issue on many of those in the wagon train. Indeed, most of them thought they were headed for a grand valley in the Californias, a valley loaded with natural riches, in the tract of east-bound breezes off the Pacific Ocean where life could not be better. That’s what they had paid for, the west of riches and plenty in the land they would settle on. The arguments were steep.
At the campfire, Harry Langford, one of the riders having a break from riding guard, said, “What the hell, Gari, what’s on your hands? Looks like you been digging in mud or an old doused campfire. Been doing something special, like always? You’ve always got something else going on in that mind of yours, stuff that we can’t touch no how, like you mount from the other side of the horse than us.” The rider paused as Yanchun smiled at his suspecting grin, and then said, “What you got kicking around upstairs, Gari? I know that look of yours. Been watching it for a few weeks now.”
Yanchun had trouble holding back what was a positive response. He thought about it, gauged Langford as one who did not rant and rave on fact or fiction, so he said, “If I had the whole say in this matter, Harry, I’d say we were where we want to be. This can be home for us.”
“Here, in the middle of this?” His hand was thrown with a far and wide gesture.
“Come dawn, Harry, take another look around. For miles and miles the grass has been rich. We have passed by or over three decent rivers, and one lies directly ahead of us. The mountains off there,” and he nodded northward with a toss of his head, “have enough growth for what we need. This is cattle country, every last mile of it. The range is superb. Life, if you can believe it, sits here in a saucer for us.” He cupped his hands to reflect containment and plenty.
Langford came right back. “There are some who’ll fight you on that, Gari. I know others are tired of moving every day and want to grab a piece of earth with any promise in it. But you’ll have a fight on your hands. Hopkins, that loudmouth, will lead the way. Much as the others want a piece of California, he wants a huge chunk of it. Sees himself as some magic land grower. Man has dreams too, and they’re as big as they come. Cattle big if you want to look at it your way. He dreams about gardens ten miles long, whole valleys with crops running like the grass under our feet. He’ll fight any change in our plans.”
His pause was an alert of sorts. “Far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he cares how he gets it done.”
“Well,” said Yanchun, “I’ll ask those who want to settle down soon, those who’re tired of this long run, to do it right here. We’ve seen some cow places already. We know what they demand of ranchers. This is open country and we have to grab it now. It’s 1866, the war’s over now. We know there’s going to be brigands and roustabouts and bands of malcontents all along the way. War gives birth to such stuff, those who feel cheated, have lost something or someone, who are tired of being the underdog and want to be top dog, no matter what it takes or who it hurts. The farther we go, the more we get thinned out. There’s Indians to look for, too.”
The confrontation came in the morning, nerves brittle from little sleep and constant guard. The wagon had been surprised a few times, but they had decent reactions and good resources with weapons. Yanchun had a big hand in all of it, riding into the face of dangers, tipping the edge in their favor by sudden moves, outrageous courage that proved itself in a daring hurry. The horse flying under him in the tight situations called upon an element in his blood, and found acceptance in involuntary actions; he belonged on a horse, the tight pair of them was one.
Roger Hopkins started it off by asking Yanchun a few pointed questions in front of a dozen pioneers ready to start the new day on old sleep.
“What’s this I’ve heard you want to drop the anchor right here in the middle of this wilderness, Yanchun? Out here smack in the middle of nothing? Is that what you have in mind for yourself, you all by your lonesome? That you want to break off in the middle of nowhere? Seems poor planning or tired bones to me. It’d take a man of guts to make a stab for land out here. We know you have the guts, but is it good thinking?”
“Well, Roger,” Yanchun said, “you’ve seen the grass we’ve been riding through for miles and miles. This is great grazing country, cattle country. We’ve seen the longhorns loose all over. We’ve fed on enough of them. They get fat on this land. I think it’s a very decent place to pitch in.”
“What will you live in? There’s not enough wood in site to build a half dozen houses. You’d be in the open before you know it and winter coming off the hills or up your backside.”
“Have you looked close at the land around us, Roger? We have all the materials we need to build cover for ourselves,” and he added a quick solicitation, enlisting or enticing those he could, “for anybody who wants to put in here on this great grass country. Before you know it, the cattle will be breeding all over this land. It’ll become cattle country, lock stock and barrel.”
He had put the “why” ahead of the “how.”
“You’re kidding me and all these other folks if you’re telling them they can build here. I don’t see a tree within a mile of us right now.”
“That’s right, Hopkins. All you see is cow grass, miles after mile of it. This is a rich place for those who can dig in and hold on.”
A voice in the crowd said, “You lead a good fight, Gari. I’d follow you into Hell if I had to, but I don’t like sleeping in the open any longer than I have to. Last winter in Illinois was almost enough for me. Sounds like you got a pretty good idea of what you’d do but haven’t told us yet. “
Another voice said, “Amen to that, Bobby Joe. Amen. Except the Hell part. My britches was warm enough last winter.” He added a braggadocio laugh.
A horseman still astride, at the back of the gathering, said, “Well, Dirk, what was her name?”
Everybody enjoyed the levity for a moment, and then Hopkins said, “You ain’t said what you’d do to get through the winter, Yanchun.”
“I’m building my house out of adobe. Clay, sand, mud, straw, water, whatever works and we find,
mix ‘em up, form them in bricks with wooden molds, and let ‘em dry. They get rock hard in about two weeks’ time. There’s a great deal of mud and clay and sand around. I’ve seen it all, all along the river ahead and behind. We could build an adobe city here if we had to. People are doing it other places. They’ve done it in Asia and Europe for a long time. I’m convinced it’s what will go out here. Do the trick for us.”
The rider, still astride, said, “I’m all for that, Gari. I’d rather ride herd on cows than poke for weeds in the gardens of some California valley. Sounds like this is a place for me, right here.”
There was one good drover in the mix.
“I’m a farmer, Gari,” a small man in front said. The slope of long years was apparent in his shoulders, in the span of his large hands that wore toil as well as age. “All I can do is farm. I’m good at it. I don’t know cows and don’t hanker to know. It’d take me too long to learn something new. I ain’t taking a thing away from you. I sure am glad you were around plenty of times and I’m hoping we won’t miss you down the trail, but I want California for me and the family.” He looked about for nods and got some.
Yanchun said, “I’m staying. I’m not asking anybody to stay with me, but if you want to get in on the start of a good thing, you can do it right here and now. Cow beef back east, from Chicago all the way back to Boston and New York, will be in demand. We got the grass to fatten them up, the whole plains are full of it, and the breed will get stronger the more we mix the good ones. The Spanish left a tough breed that has survived here a couple of centuries I guess. We’ll raise a new strain of cow the whole world will hear about, all the way back to where my folks come from.” He nodded his head in serious salute, and added, “Yes, a long way back, and going right through the dinner tables of New York, London and Paris, if I have anything to say about it.”
Another on-looker, stocky and rugged as the landscape, said, “Gari, you say things that seem impossible to happen, from where I’m standing. That’s a long way to move cow meat. How can that happen? Is that painting a rosy picture for these sad eyes?” He swayed his head in an iffy gesture, the mark of a decision maker sitting on the fence.
Yanchun was right on it. “Look at the railroad that’s chasing us even as we move now. What’s it going to be 10 or 20 years from now? What else will it bring? Isn’t that a picture that fits us as we sit here posing ourselves for the future? Can you see the railroad cutting right across the land, around mountains, over rivers, heading all the way to one ocean from another ocean? I’m talking big and bigger, better than better, and we can be part of it.”
From off to one side, a broad-faced man, with thick features that spoke of strength and fortitude, offered his stance. “You always dream big, Gari, and I don’t fight that at all. I didn’t come all the way out here, me and Zelda, to be servants or slaves to someone who beat us to the punch. I want the chance to be more than that, so if you’re looking for comrades at work or in arms, I’m with you. Of all the men in this wagon train, you have been capable in all you try, from riding that damned horse of yours, to waging the good battle when necessary. Me and Zelda will stay.”
So the discussion carried on, as history moved on desire and collective agreement, as issues were separated, as sides developed, and part of the wagon train continued toward California’s gardens, and part of the wagon train stayed put where a city eventually found itself growing upward from a mix of straw, clay, sand and water caught up in the form of adobe bricks.
Tom Vespers from Waco
Silence sat around Tom Vespers in the foothills of Arkansas as he descended to a wide stretch of grass along the Texas border. The night sky boasted with its display of stars, the moon kept to its sleep elsewhere, and his own sleep was continuously interrupted by thoughts of home, and maybe never getting there, which made him mount his horse earlier than usual.
The day before had been a revelation of many sorts.
The war was over, the roads cluttered with veterans on the way home, horses were scarce, as was food, and so was liquor and women. None of it seemed to bother Tom Vespers as he came over a long ridge trail in Arkansas, bound for the family spread outside Waco. The war was over for him and all the others on the roads, and he had let some of its emotional weight go its way, into the past. The itch to get home had been in him since the hour of his release and the departure from his cavalry unit and from best friend and comrade, Roscoe Tarnes.
But some memories, he realized, would never go away … death, the sight of death or incurring death might meld with dark and unbidden memories, but camaraderie was put in place to hang forever clearer than all other parts of battle.
The glorious night sky, the imminent dawn flash, the sounds of arousal about in the world made him think of Roscoe Tarnes.
He’d miss Roscoe Tarnes for sure, the one who had led a stolen Union horse into a tight little canyon to help him avoid certain capture by a Bluecoat patrol searching all the evasion spots in the mountain range. And then to treat his wounds.
“Ease off with all the nice words, Tommy,” Tarnes had said. “We got other things on our minds, so don’t make any noise when I attempt to get that awful looking piece of junk out of you. Looks damned horrid to me.”
Tarnes completed the rough, crude procedure and helped Vespers onto the saddle and led him back to a friendly encampment where real medical attention was administered. That route was fraught with close encounters of Bluecoat patrols. Several shots were also fired by Tarnes at enemy soldiers who appeared to be separated from their units and roaming the range.
After one such encounter where the Yankee soldier faked his death and fell down very dramatically, Tarnes had yelled at Waco and said, “Watch out, Tommy. He’s faking.” And fired a second and deadly shot at the enemy soldier subtly taking aim at him with a pistol.
Tarnes explained his awareness by adding, “I swear some of these loose guns are nothing more than bounty hunters, Tommy, sent out by their generals to do the same jobs they had before the war, chase ‘em down and bring ‘em in being on their minds more than a good woman or a good stiff drink when you need it the most, or a damned good game of poker at a full table.”
When he smacked his lips, Vespers was not sure which one his pal relished the most … his appetite was voracious on several points … wine, women and song deep in the count with him.
Weeks later, separated from the army at the cessation of hostilities, and moving southwest from the Arkansas-Texas border, Vespers was clad in second-hand duds he’d obtained from a friendly woman in Arkansas foothills who had lost her husband and only son in the Great War. She was pleased that someone could use their old clothes, and an old gun belt she wanted nothing more to do with, a loaded pistol in the holster. She had treated him to a meal and a bag of travel food and said that she was going to move to her sister’s home in Chicago, “It’s my old homestead,” she’d explained, “and I’m anxious to get there again.” The look in her eyes was both sad and expectant, or at least hopeful, he thought.
As he rode along and getting closer to the Texas border, Vespers thought the woman had understood his wants and needs and offered her feelings on the matter as another kind of gift. In turn, he hoped her life would find some calmness in it, and a decent future, for she was just getting to her forties. As they parted he was sure each of them knew what war had done to the other.
In the pre-dawn glaze of gray light, not too far off the trail, he spotted the glow of a fire lifted into trees hanging overhead. On other days he had become aware of groups of mounted men, many of which wore remnants of Union Blue uniforms, either pants or shirts and sometimes both. In a gang, he realized, there was always a leader who had twisted or could twist the group to his way of thinking, his way of doing things. That included carrying the war with them for personal gain, revenge or plain cruelty to others who had things needed by the gang. He had made up his mind to be careful of encounters with such groups or gangs. There was no telling how they’d greet a former Confederate soldier.
With concern coming on him about who lit the fire and was being warmed by it, he decided to tether his horse in a thick cluster of trees and get near enough on foot to check out the site. He stepped past a clump of rock and suddenly felt the cold touch of a rifle barrel on the nape of his neck.
“Oh, now, what do we have here?” a voice said. The rifle was jammed tightly against him. “Wait’ll the boys see what kind of sneak we got here, trying to slip up on us, and us just a bunch of Yankee fighters having a little nap. Where are you going, boy? What have you got in mind, huh?”
The rifle was jammed again. “The Captain’ll be pleased to see a new face. We haven’t had any new faces around for a few days. He’ll like to light up himself if you’re a Reb. Too bad if you are.”
Vespers knew he was in deep trouble if such a meeting took place. He had to disarm the guard if he could.
“I’m only going to the bank at Brooksville with my boss’s monthly deposit for the bank. He’s trying to buy a new place just north of here, and the price is too high right now for him. He’s saving for it on a promise.”
The guard’s interest was fully aroused. “How much you carrying, boy? Where is it?” He looked over his shoulder, back toward the campsite he was guarding.
“Oh, only $200 this time,” Vespers said. “Last time it was $350. He makes me keep it in the saddle bag.” He made off as if he was a simple soul who would do nothing but what he was told. “The boss says you can’t ever tell what’s going on in some people’s minds. I guess you’re the sentinel for the campfire group over there. Us Bluecoats have to hang tight down here in this kind of country. That’s for sure with all the Johnny Rebs walking back home from the war.”
The gun barrel was moved from the back of his neck, and in that split second, the guard obviously thinking about what he could do with $200, how far and how quick he could get away with it if he chose to do so, Vespers swung his fist and knocked him cold. The guard went down in a clump without uttering a single word. Vespers tied his arms behind his back with his own belt, tied his feet with a piece of rope he found on the man’s horse tied off in a clump of trees, and stuffed his mouth with his own bandana. He placed the man’s hat under his head and laid his rifle across his body after he had emptied the rifle and pistol and gun belt of all ammunition and put it in his saddlebag.
With daylight not fully in place, he slipped off to get his horse and rode off slowly and cautiously until he was well out of earshot of the campfire. Once the dawn’s glow showed the way ahead of him, he spurred the horse into a good run. A number of times he went off the regular trail to throw any trackers into a slow chase if the Bluecoat gang did choose to trail him.
He suspected they would. Nobody likes to lose anything, especially their dignity.
As he was approaching Tylertown in Texas, his thirst called him for a drink and he headed for the saloon. Alone at the bar, few customers in the saloon, he enjoyed a beer and was about to order a second one when a group of men entered. At first he could not tell if they were ranch hands or drovers off a drive or one of the post-war groups where men tended to gather in the company of other lonely men without self-purpose. On several of them he noticed Union army issue of holsters and figured them to be Union veterans, at least sympathizers, or, thieves of military property. He was not sure.
One of them swaggered as he walked and he assumed him to be the leader of the pack. He said aloud to a man in the back of the group, “You sure Convey’s taking care of them horses like I said? He ain’t too bright for even little jobs. Proved that a couple of times already, ain’t he?”
“He’ll be okay, Cap,” came the reply. “He went through some hard times on his own.”
“Yep, just like all of us.” He tapped the bar top for service.
Vespers had a funny feeling that raced right through him, and convinced himself that if Convey was the guard he had knocked down and tied up back down the trail, the man had not seen his face long enough to identify him.
But he knew Convey when he entered the saloon, went to the bar but away from the one called Cap. He drank a beer in a hurry as if he’d be ordered to do another simple task. And it was obvious that Convey had not recognized him standing a few feet away at the corner of the bar. He had looked at Vespers, nodded in a friendly manner, and asked for a second beer. He was halfway
through the second beer when Cap said, “Convey, you go down to the store and get the order we left there. Bring it to the livery and wait there for us.”
Cap’s voice was hard and mean, and he looked at Convey only when he said, “Might as well take that gent who’s at your elbow there. Maybe he can help you out.” He laughed as he said it.
Convey looked at Vespers, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Sure, why not,” Vespers said lightly, and the pair left as the rest of the group laughed loudly.
Outside, Convey said, “Why’d you come along with me? Cap’s not your boss.”
“I didn’t like the way he talked to you,” Vespers said. “I met you before but you don’t recognize me.”
“No,” Convey said, “I didn’t assuming there is another pair of pants with the same kind of patch in it that’s in yours.”
“Why didn’t you tell him I was the one who got away from you? And what’s his name?”
“I paid enough for that,” Convey said, “ever since that day. He keeps me at all the stupid stuff and there’s no sense letting him pile it on top of you too. His name is Reginald Corey but nobody ever calls him that. Just Cap. He was a captain in the Pennsylvania Cavalry and he thinks he should have been made a general.”
“Why don’t you get away from him, just ride off someplace?”
“That’s the problem,” Convey said. “Where’s someplace? I don’t know any place where I’d fit in, where they’d take me in. I don’t have anybody in the whole world. Just Norman Convey out and at loose ends in the world.”
“I know one place you’d fit, Norman,” Vespers said. “If you ever get to Waco, try the Triple V spread. That’s where my folks are, the Tom Vespers, waiting on me, waiting for me to get back from the war. I have to walk in on them, surprise them. I’ve been thinking about for two whole years or more. I even told my best pal from my outfit, Roscoe Tarnes, to come done there after the war. I don’t know if he’ll ever get there, but you’re as welcome as he is. You could have given me away back there, in the saloon, but you didn’t. It’s like a widow gave me welcome and gave me these duds I got on and gave me a gun belt and a pistol. I’ve met some nice folks, including you and Roscoe Tarnes, and the widow lady who lost her husband and only son.”
“I’d go now, Tom” Convey offered, “but they’d chase me like we tried to chase you and lost the trail several times and finally gave up when Cap got thirsty. We’ll have to get the supplies and load up the wagon, and then you can light out. They’ll have no reason to trail you now. They don’t know you’re the one we were trying to follow for a couple of days, and Cap kept getting mad as hell every time a track disappeared, then he’d light up when someone found it again. Like he was celebrating.”
“Is he as mean as he sounds?”
“He’s worse than that. I’ve seen him shoot Johnny Rebs just for spitting on his boots. And more than once.”
“Well,” Vespers said as they finished loading the wagon, “I’ll light out now and keep them off you, but don’t forget the Triple V spread near Waco. You’d be welcome.”
Vespers left and headed down trail, out of Tylertown. A few hours later, after an easy ride but with his horse throwing a shoe, he was in the small settlement of Coleman Springs, at the blacksmith/livery to get the shoe replaced. The evening sunset touched him with deep Texas purple in it as he sat outside the shop on a rough bench. Turning at the sound of hoof beats, he saw Cap and his crew pull up in front of the saloon at the other end of town. The horses, as usual were left in the charge of Convey, who led them off to the livery for care and tending while the gang churned over the night with drink.
One or two of them wandered around town and came back into the saloon, and Convey eventually went to the saloon after the horses were set up for the evening.
Only four other men were in the saloon, at a table in one corner, playing poker with small stakes on the table. Each of them looked up when one of the gang came back in and said to Cap Corey, “Guess who I saw out there, Cap. It’s that same fella was at the last place, the one you sent to help Norman boy with the supplies. He didn’t see me, but I saw him. Same gent and I think there’s something fishy goin’ on here. Ask Norman boy about it.”
They all turned to look at Convey standing at the far end of the bar as if he did not belong to the gang.
“Get up here, Convey and tell me who that fella is who may be trailing us and who might have been the gent we were trailing. Did you recognize him as the one who made a fool out of you and left you tied up like a papoose? Left you like the dummy you are? Who is he? What’s his name? Are you sure he’s not the one popped you silly?”
Convey stood in front of Cap Corey, his head hanging down, a slope to his shoulders that could make any man sick at studying him.
“Who is he, Normie boy? What’s his name? Where the hell is he from? And don’t hide behind that dumb look all the time. I’m getting damned sick of it. I don’t even think you were in my war. No sir, not in my war. Just an accident got you there and kept you alive, now tell me all about your friend.” He grabbed Convey by the front of his shirt and pulled him close.
Convey said, “Honest, Cap’n, all I know is his name is Tom and he’s from some ranch with a V brand and it’s between Waco and someplace else.” He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands out as if in supplication.
But an alert had been sounded and one man came to attention at the table of four men. He remained still, showing no reaction, but alert all the same.
Cap Corey said, “Crutch, you and Stabler go fetch that gent and don’t come back without him.” He slammed the bar and said, “Set them up again, Keep. We got some fun coming our way.” And with another thought apparently taking over his mind, he said to the barkeep, “If you got a sheriff in this town, better get word to him to stay put where he is. We’re just going to have us some serious fun tonight.”
Convey, in a subtle move, tried to edge his way to the door and Corey said, “Holiden, you keep that damned mouse here and don’t let him out of here. Somebody’s got some explaining to do. I ain’t satisfied with all that’s been told to me.”
It was at least half an hour later when the door was pushed open and Tom Vespers was shoved into the saloon by Crutch and Stabler who held their guns on him all the while.
Corey lit up like he was a candle. He slapped down on the bar top and said, “Keep, give them two boys of mine two extra tall, damned good looking drinks. Look what they dragged in for our night’s fun.”
He slammed down on the bar top again. “Takes a good leader to make good men. I got some celebrating to do ‘cause I got me some good men.”
Tom Vespers, stripped of his pistol, appearing helpless in front of the Bluecoat terrors, stood in place. Not a sign crossed his face as he looked around the saloon, his eyes checking each face, his heartbeat in high action, his eyes suddenly filled with expectation.
Corey said, in a demanding voice, the voice of a general, “Are you the fella that knocked Convey silly and laid him down on the ground with his empty rifle on his carcass and you laughing at us all the while we trailed you? You him?’
He moved close to Vespers, drawing his side arm, waving it like he was the hangman at a new job.
“I’m him,” Vespers said, pride and derision in his voice. “I’m the one knocked your man down so he couldn’t see me, couldn’t recognize me. I’m the one who ran you and your cutthroats ragged over these trails the last few days, laughing at you all the while.”
Corey, red-faced, humiliated in front of his own troops, lifted his weapon with a steady hand in the most immediate silence of the saloon, an eerie and suspended silence. He was about to squeeze off a tempering shot in the silence riding in the room like a ghost, when he heard the unmistakable and ominous click of a weapon behind him.
Corey spun about to see the four men at one table standing in place, their weapons drawn and aimed at him and his gang.
One man, third from the left, wearing the remnants of a Confederate uniform, had his weapon aimed directly at Corey’s heart. “You touch that boy, mister, and I’ll see you fed to the peccaries after I blow exactly one half dozen holes in you, all of them in close proximity to your heart or your privates, whichever I choose. That’s my best friend you’re playing games with. Don’t you and the rest of your riffraff have something better to do than antagonize me and my pals?”
Roscoe Tarnes stood stiff as a flag pole at his table, and his table companions also stood at alert, which said they would and could fire any second at Corey and his men.
There was a lay-down of weapons, agreements made, and Roscoe Tarnes, Tom Vespers and Norman Convey slipped out of the saloon with Tarnes’s words hanging on the air. “You so much as breathe near us again, Captain Corey, and my promise will be brought to bear on you, for damned sure. That includes the aforementioned targets of my unerring shots at you know where.”
A few days later, a dozen miles outside Waco, Tom Vespers, Senior and his wife Cora saw three riders top the rise almost a mile away from the Triple V Ranch and they watched them slowly approach the ranch.
“Don’t get too excited, Cora,” her husband said, “but it sure looks like we have some more veterans of the war on the way home. They’re waving saying they’re friendly and not some of those trigger-happy scoundrels we’ve been hearing about. We’ll have to treat them to a decent spread like you did for those other fellows passing through on their way home these last weeks. Maybe they’re heading for Killeen or Houston or all the way down to San Antonio. I can imagine they don’t even want to stay the night, so anxious to get home.”
Before he knew it, his wife was in the kitchen, working on her ways and wiles and womanly secrets, fully aware of the way one rider sat his mount, the dip of one shoulder, and the music in her soul telling her the long wait was over.
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