Western Short Story
“I don’t know what the hell this is
about, but make it fast,” barked Sheriff Martin. I got the judge
waitin’ on me.”
“Name’s Billy. I’ve got Will Cates, I need to turn him in for the bounty,” I replied.
“Will Cates! How did you catch that no good bushwhacker?” he asked.
“I couldn’t catch him a’ horseback, so I did the next best thing. I caught him with a 45-70 slug at about 250 yards. He’s wanted dead or alive, on a federal warrant out of Fort Laramie,” I said, handing him the wanted poster.
“Or at least he was,” the Sheriff grinned as he looked up from the tattered paper. You chased his ass a long ways, mister.”
“That I did, but I was kinda hopin’ to get my money and be on my way?”
“The Federal Marshall’s not due to come through ‘til next week, but take this over to the bank,” he said, scribbling a note. Mr. Allard will give you your $200.00.”
“Take the body down there to the blacksmith shop,” he said, pointing toward the end of the main street. His name’s Enrique. Big Basque fella. He’s also the undertaker and tell him I want the usual.”
“Any place I can get a bath and wash down some trail dust?” I asked. I didn’t see a saloon when I rode in.”
“Don’t have one in town. You’ll have to go to the Roadhouse, it’s about a half mile towards Lost Cabin. Folks got tired of the noise and other carryin’ on. The place is a saloon and boarding house. They’ll put you up for the night and scrub your back for ya. If you know what I mean? Now I gotta get goin,” he bellowed.
“Sure thing,” I said, following him out.
He passed Cates who was tied over the saddle and with a brief look of identification, spat in his face and said: “You got him alright! See ya.”
John Allard was the typical round-faced bespectacled little man one finds behind the teller’s window at most banks.
“Re-ward money, eh? Guess you’re a bounty hunter then?” he asked.
“You guessed right, I said. My name’s Billy.”
“Billy what? Don’t you have a last name?”
“Nope,” I quipped. “Most of the time it’s better that way.”
A few minutes later, I had my cash and was standing nearly dwarfed in front of the blacksmith. Enrique really was a huge man. He effortlessly grabbed Cates’ body like the sack of shit he was and carried him to the back room.
“Sheriff said to just give him the usual,” I said.
The big Basque acknowledged with a nod as I left him to the gruesome work.
The ride to the Roadhouse was hot and sultry, it was late summer but fall was not far away. I stopped at a spring fed pond to water Gary Owen and pressed on for what seemed like a lot further than a half mile.
Once there, I gave Gary Owen and Cates’ horse to the livery boy with a nickel tip for some oats and stomped the dust off my cavalry boots as I came through the front door of the saloon.
“Damn, it's a hot one today!” I said loudly to no one in particular as I bent to remove my spurs; carefully glancing around taking in the place, which was unusually quiet.
Looking at the piano, I saw the piano player passed out with his head on the keys. The rest of the clientèle looked like a typical bar room scene. A buxom Madam and a couple of much younger working girls; the barkeep; a dandy gambler playing cards with a few drinking cowpokes and a full time drunk curled up with a bottle in the corner.
“Care to join us for a friendly game?” the dandy asked, motioning me over.
“Maybe later, I said. Right now I’m looking to get a hot bath, a drink or two and a room for the night.”
“Sally will fix you up with a room and bath, said the Madam, gesturing to one of the girls, who headed up the stairs. She’ll call you when they’re ready.”
“Larry, pour this man a drink, he looks parched,” she ordered.
Walking toward the bar, she took me by the arm and said: “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Lola, and this here’s my place. I call it the Shepherd's Rest, on account of my late husband, God rest his soul, was a Mormon sheepherder in these parts. Those two girls and the livery boy are our children and when the Lord took him home, well, we had to make a livin’ somehow, ya know. I sold them damn sheep and built this place, seein’ as how the good townspeople of Timber Springs didn’t want no saloon within sight or earshot.”
“I see,” I muttered, sipping some rotgut. Can a man get somethin' to eat around her?”
“I didn’t sell every single one of them sheep,” she smiled. Me and the girls, just made a big pot of mutton and beans and Gina’s bakin’ some biscuits. It’ll be two bits a plate if anybody wants some.”
“Sounds fine to me, ma’am,” I said, downing the rest of my drink. Larry began filling the glass as soon as I set it back on the bar. Deciding this wasn’t sipping whiskey, I downed it as quickly as the first.
“What’s your name, mister,” asked Lola.
“Billy,” I said. “Just Billy. I’m a bounty hunter.”
“Well as far as I know, none of these poor broke sumbitches is wanted men,” she said laughing. You must have been chasin’ somebody to get here.”
“Yeah, I did. Will Cates. I got him a few miles outside Timber Springs. Does he have any kinfolk hereabouts?” I asked.
“He has me,” came a voice from my left. “He’s my baby brother.”
“You mean he was your brother,” I said, turning slowly to face the man, pushing back my coat tails to reveal a 44 Remington Army. “That big ol’ Basco’s got him now.”
As the last words left my lips, I saw him go for his gun. I drew faster though and dropping to one knee, fanned the hammer, putting two slugs through the left chest pocket of his black leather vest. His gun fired into the floor as he fell forward in front of the bar.
Lola had rolled out of the way and ducked around the end of the bar behind me. Everything happened so fast, that everybody else just stood or sat where they were. Except for the piano player, who awoke with a start and fell underneath his swivel stool.
Hearing the three shots, Sally came running down the stairs. Surveying the scene, she exclaimed, “Aw, shit, don’t tell me. I missed another one.” Then she looked at me and said: “Well, anyway your bath’s ready.”
“Who was he?” I asked Lola.
“He’s Sam Cates, Billy. Will was probably comin’ to find him; been hangin’ around here for several days. I tried to warn you when you told me about Will, but it was too late.”
Looking toward the cowboys at the poker table, she offered: “There’s a silver dollar and a free round for any of you that cleans up this mess and takes Sam to the blacksmith in Timber Springs.”
Turning to me, she ordered: “You best get upstairs before your bath water gets cold. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of things here.”
The bath was plenty hot and so was Sally. She did a fine job of scrubbing my back, as well as a few other parts that really needed it.
“You have a lot of scars,” she said, running her fingers down a long crooked knife wound on my chest. “How’d ya get that?”
“From a Cheyenne, while I was in the Army. His name was Dull Knife.”
“Looks like it was pretty sharp to me,” she giggled, moving her hand lower.
“Not as sharp as his tongue. I shot him while he was tellin’ me how bad he was gonna cut me up.”
With that, I slid out of the tub and straight into Sally, falling back onto the bed as she let go of my saddle horn.
Afterward I dropped into a sound sleep, awakening about an hour later, when Lola announced through the door that supper was ready.
I left Sally sleeping and returned downstairs. Sam was gone and the floor was freshly scrubbed. The bullet hole had been patched with a cork from a whiskey bottle.
Larry poured me a shot as I moved toward a table where Lola had set me a plate.
“Just to show there’s no hard feelings for shootin’ up the place, it’s on the house,” she said grinning.
“Thanks, I try not to do that, but this time things just moved too fast.”
“You ain’t the first to pull a gun in here, but you are one of the fastest,” she chuckled.
“Unfortunately, that’s how I make a livin’,” I smiled.
After eating some beans and biscuits, I took a place at the poker table and proceeded to lose about $10.00 to the dandy, whom I suspected of dealing off the bottom of the deck. Having shot two men in two days, I decided not to tempt fate and let it slide, folding the last hand and retiring to my room. Sally wasn’t there, but soon burst in with a couple of glasses, a bottle and a fervent desire to pick up where we left off earlier.
Feeling an urgent call of nature, I begged her leave and grabbing my hat, headed down the back stairs to the outhouse. The night was calm, so after doing my business, I went to the livery stable to check on Gary Owen.
The two horses were content to be inside the barn, greeting me with gratuitous whinnies as I entered the door. The livery boy had done an excellent job of grooming them and stowing the saddles and tack. Although he was probably sound asleep at this hour, I decided to tip him again before leaving.
Suddenly, Gary Owen began stomping and gave out his customary alarm. I turned just in time to see Enrique the Basque blacksmith swinging his fist.
“How did that big bastard sneak up on me?” I thought, just as everything went black.
I awoke from my concussion induced slumber with a pounding head, a sore jaw and my hands tied securely behind my back. In the dank darkness I realized that I was sitting in the corner of a dugout root cellar. There were nearby bins of root vegetables and free standing shelves along the walls containing a variety of preserved foods in glass jars. The walls and floor were packed dirt, with a flat log ceiling and short stairway that led to a lift-up door. It was made from heavy lumber and there was a minimum amount of early morning light coming through narrow cracks between the boards. I rose unsteadily to my feet, climbed the stairs and put a shoulder against it. Pushing upward confirmed it was secured by a crossbar from outside.
Looking waist high along the shelves, I spotted a jar of peaches, which I blindly began coaxing toward the edge with my fingers until it fell. Naturally, it did not break on the dirt floor, but I stomped it on the side until it did. Selecting the piece I wanted, I kicked it away from the rest of the mess. It was a heavy curved shard from the neck area of the jar and would serve nicely to loose my bonds. Sitting down, I scooted over to the piece and using the stickiness of the sugary peach syrup, was able to grip it tightly and very carefully cut the rope, freeing my hands.
There was nothing left to do now but wait for Enrique to return. While cleaning up the broken glass and peaches, so as not to arouse his suspicion, I began going over my options for escape. Obviously, I couldn’t just jump him and slit his throat with the shard, for I needed to find out why he knocked me out, tied me up and put me in here. He was also much too large a man to simply overpower, so I decided to use that cumbersome size against him when the time came.
It wasn’t long until I heard the rattle of the crossbar being removed. I quickly squatted down against the wall putting my hands behind my back. Slumping forward to rest my chin on my knees, I wanted to give the appearance of still being asleep. Using the element of surprise, when Enrique was standing directly in front of me, I sprang forward and knocked his right leg out from under him. He toppled into the adjacent shelves, tipping them over and scattering the contents all around. I literally jumped up the steps in a single bound and slammed the heavy door, barely getting the crossbar in place before Enrique lunged against it.
“Let me out! I am your friend, not your enemy!” he bellowed in a thick Basque accent.
“Well, I’m thinkin’ most friends, don’t usually knock each other out without warning!” I retorted.
“I had to do it! You were unarmed and in grave danger!” he exclaimed.
“What danger!” I demanded.
“Sheriff Martin sent me to find you. Cates gang came to town. There were four of them. They brought the Sheriff to my shop at gunpoint, wanting to look at bodies of two brothers. I show them and they leave in direction of the Roadhouse. Sheriff went to gather posse and sent me to follow them. They were inside looking for you, when I saw you go into livery stable. You know the rest.” he said.
“Where are we, and why did you keep me tied up in the cellar?”
“We are at my place, just outside of town. Sheriff told me to hide you here last night. Cellar was place I thought they would not look. Sheriff said to keep you tied up, so you wouldn’t be getting yourself into more trouble. He is coming to see you this morning. If you let me out, my wife has good breakfast prepared for you.”
“Very well then. Let’s go see your wife,” I said, lifting up the door. “She probably won’t be too happy about how we left this place, though.”
“Please, don’t say anything?” he asked. “I will tell her some other time.”
Enrique’s wife was a tall Native American woman wearing a blue tunic and a large silver crucifix necklace. Judging from the ornate bead work on the moccasins protruding from beneath her floor length skirt, she was Northern Cheyenne.
“My wife, Waynoka,” he said. “It means...”
“Sweet water,” I interjected, cutting him off.
“You speak Cheyenne?” she asked.
“Very little. My name’s Billy. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“You were a pony soldier,” she declared, looking at my belt buckle and boots.
“I rode in General Crook’s column with the 5th Cavalry under Colonel McKenzie, about four years ago.”
“Were you with the blue coats who attacked us on the Red Fork of the Powder River? They shot and ran off the ponies, burned our village and forced us to walk back to the reservation,” she said with disdain. “Many of my people died.”
“Yes, I was wounded there. I’m not proud of what we did to Dull Knife’s band. Even though we had to follow orders, I didn’t think it was right. That’s one of the reasons I got out after my wounds healed. Nowadays, it’s all just a dark part of the past. Though I wish I could, I can’t change any of it.”
“The past is a dark river of tears and blood,” she said. “It has moved on, and Jesus tells us that so should we. Please, sit down. Enrique will say grace.”
Half starved, I began working my way through a breakfast of crisp side pork, fried eggs and pancakes with butter and chokecherry syrup.
“Where did you learn to cook like this?” I asked Waynoka.
“At the soldier fort. I worked for the post chaplain’s wife. She taught me how to speak your tongue and many other things. It’s where I met my husband,” smiling at Enrique, “when he came to shoe the ponies.”
Hearing the approaching rider, Enrique rose from his chair and announced: “Sheriff Martin is here.”
Enrique took the Sheriff's horse to the barn and he came on into the kitchen.
“Mornin’ Waynoka somethin’ sure smells good in here.”
As he spoke, she was pouring hot coffee into a cup near his plate.
“I hope this bounty hunter didn’t eat everything,” he grinned, gesturing with a thumb toward me.
“As you can see, I have plenty,” she laughed. “Please, sit down, Walt.”
Looking at me as he began eating, he asked, “So how was yer night?”
“I’ve had better. Didn’t much like bein' knocked out.”
“Yeah, Enrique can be a little heavy handed at times,” he said, grinning at Waynoka. “But he gets the job done. You’re all right aren’t ya?”
“No real harm done,” I said. “A headache is always better than a bullet. What happened at the Roadhouse?”
“When me and the posse finally got there, those four hard-cases were gone. According to Lola, they weren’t there to take revenge on you after all; although I’m sure they’d have shot you, if the opportunity presented itself. All they wanted was Will and Sam’s belongings. I think they were lookin’ for something important, but don’t know exactly what. Did you find anything unusual on Will’s person or in his saddlebags?” he asked.
“There was one thing,” I said. “He had some paper money on him and some of it was $5.00 National Bank Notes on the Territorial Bank of Deadwood. They’re in an inside pouch of my saddlebags. By all accounts he was never up that way. As far as the rest of his things, he was traveling light, which is not unusual for a man on the run.”
“Enrique brought you here last night tied across your horse, but they took Will’s horse and everything else that was his. I asked the pokes at the Roadhouse about Sam’s possessions and they had to give them up to the gang too. Lola’s holding all your things out there for safe keeping.”
“I’ll be glad to show you the bills, Sheriff. If you want to ride out there with me.”
“Just bring them into town later. I’ll be in my office. The Federal Marshall’s bringin’ a prisoner through sometime today.”
Just then, Enrique came back in and said, ”I saddled your horse, Billy.”
Thanks, pardner,” I said, standing up and reaching out to shake his hand, where I deposited a
$10.00 gold piece. “I appreciate you and Sheriff Martin lookin’ out for me last night; and I really wanna thank you, Waynoka, for your gracious hospitality and a very delicious breakfast.”
“You are always welcome at my table, Billy,” she smiled.
“Maybe not, after Enrique shows you the root cellar,” I thought. “Hope the gold eagle covers it.”
“Well I’d best be hittin’ the trail,” I said. “I’ve got to go settle up my account with Lola. See ya in town later, Sheriff.”
“Call me Walt,” he ordered, as I went out the door.
Gary Owen was glad to see me conscious and upright again and was eager to get into a lope as we set out for the Roadhouse. Leaving behind that big man who had punched me, didn’t bother him in the least.
On our way through town, there was early morning activity as shopkeepers opened their businesses and townspeople began moving about on various errands or chores.
Though it was much too early for Mr. Allard to open the bank, he was out front sweeping off the wooden sidewalk and gave a friendly wave as I passed by.
“I’ll bet he would know something about those bills,” I thought, making a mental note to tell that to Walt later.
Back at the Roadhouse, I learned that the livery boy's name was Joseph, but he went by Joe.
“Just hold him for me, Joe,” I said, “I won't be long,” handing him another nickel tip.
As I entered the door of the saloon, Sally let out a shrill squeal and running to me, jumped in my lap wrapping her legs around my waist.
“I thought I'd never see you again, Billy!” she exclaimed, planting a long wet whiskey flavored kiss on my lips.
“Silly girl! I told her you'd be back. Nobody leaves for good without his guns and saddlebags,” chimed Lola, placing them on the bar.
“Thanks for takin' care of 'em for me. I didn't plan on leavin' that way, but Enrique never gave me much choice,” I said, strapping on my gun belt.
“Well they went through your saddlebags, but far as I know, never took anything. Like I told the Sheriff, they were lookin' for somethin', but I don't think they found it.”
“Larry, pour Billy a drink. It's on the house, you could probably use one.”
“I sure could. Thanks, Lola. I need to settle up with you too,” I said, opening my saddlebag.
Reaching inside the hidden pouch, I pulled out one of the $5.00 paper bills and offered it to her.
“Will this cover it?” I asked. “It's a National Bank Note, they're good as gold.”
“Sure, as long as it's good as gold, but that's too much for just one night,” she said smiling. “Especially when you didn't even get to finish it out.”
“Well, I appreciate the way you all took care of me and my horses and everything. It was worth it to me,” I said, gesturing with the shot glass as I downed it.
“Alright then, but plan on stayin' here again tonight just to make up for your troubles.”
“Since I didn't get much sleep last night anyhow, I'll take you up on it, but I've got to go into town and see the Sheriff first. See ya later,” I said, grabbing my rifle and scabbard.
“You might not get much sleep tonight either, Billy,” grinned Sally, as I brushed past her on my way out. “I'm really glad you came back.”
“Me too,” I smiled.
“This here's the Federal Marshall, Jim Hadsell,” said Walt. “Meet Billy....... What is your last name anyhow?”
“Pleased to meet you, Jim. I usually don't use my last name, just to make it harder for dissatisfied customers to find me, but since you fellas are the law, it's Browning.”
“Isn't that the last name of that Mormon who makes guns over in Morgan, Utah?” asked Jim.
“Yeah, John Moses Browning. He's my brother; though you might say, I'm kind of the black sheep of the family. They don't make as many guns there anymore. The patents are still his, but Winchester will be making the guns now. I have one of their new pilot 45-70 lever guns.”
“That a fact? I'd like to see it. Didn't know you could put that big a cartridge in a repeater,” said Walt.
“The one I have is what engineers call a working model, for test purposes. They probably won't be officially available for several more years. I'll go get it.”
Returning with the lever-action rifle, I gave it to Walt and pulled out one of the $5.00 notes. Handing it to Jim, I said, ”Will Cates was carrying some of these bills. I've never seen any of them before. Since he never was up around Deadwood that I know of, I thought it was strange he would have them. I chased him for a couple of weeks and he never did give me the slip long enough to go that far. I'm assuming he's had them for a while.”
“Well I'll be!” he exclaimed. “These are the first one's I've come across too. In the fall of '78, six men held up the Homestake Mine's Deadwood stage at Canyon Springs. It was carrying gold dust, gold bars and uncirculated National Bank Notes on the Territorial Bank of Deadwood. I'd have to check the serial numbers to be sure, but judging by the dates, I'll bet you've got yourself some stolen currency here, Billy.”
“Oh, hell. I gave one of them to Lola this morning when I settled up. I'll have to get it back.”
“Naw, don't worry about it. There are a few of them floating around the Territory. I just haven't seen any myself. I'll have to confiscate any remaining bills you have though.”
“Sure, here's the last two. He only had four on him. Does that mean Cates and his gang robbed the stage?” I asked, handing them over.
“Well that's kinda complicated. Because they had to use a wagon to haul the gold, the stage robbers actually got robbed themselves. Whoever did it, made it look like the work of vigilantes and hung two of them. The other four were caught and killed by the posse in a shootout. Most of the loot was recovered, but about $15,000.00 worth of gold dust and all of the bank notes are still missing.”
“Any suspects?” I asked.
“Though there was no real proof, they suspected that Big Nose George Parrot was behind the secondary robbery. When he got arrested last summer for robbing a train, they found some of those bank notes on him, but before he could talk, vigilantes hung him from a telegraph pole in Rawlins. Of course, he couldn't have done it alone, so it's very possible Cates and his gang were involved, especially if he was carrying some of the stolen currency too.”
“They were after something else besides those few notes. I wonder if there could be a map to the lost loot?” I asked.
“If there is, I don't think they found it,” said Walt. “That means they'll probably be back lookin' for you again.”
“I didn't find any map either, Walt,” I snapped.
“Yeah, but they don't know that yet, do they?” he grinned.
As I left to ride back to the Roadhouse contemplating my predicament, it occurred to me that if there was such a map, it had to have been hidden pretty well on one of the Cates brothers or an unconventional place in their kit. Getting an idea, I decided to stop by the blacksmith shop. Enrique was hammering out a horseshoe when I arrived.
“Hello, Billy. What brings you to my shop?”
“I'd like to look at the bodies again, have you buried them yet?” I asked.
“Just finished digging graves this morning. With excitement the last two days, I didn't have time to dig. Bodies are still in cold room. I was going to bury them after I finished shoe job.”
“Where are their boots?” I asked, picking up a small hammer from the bench and moving toward the back room.
“They are wearing all clothes now,” he replied, following me back. “Boots are here,” pointing to shelves along the wall of neatly placed pairs of boots. “I do not bury them with boots. Too hard to put back on stiff foot. I sell old boots to cowboys.”
“Which pair is Will's?” I asked.
Looking them over, it was apparent the left one had been resoled and the old heel had been reinstalled, while the right one had both a new sole and heel. I swung the hammer down against the front of the old heel knocking it to the floor. It was obviously hollowed out and there inside was a very thin piece of rolled up leather wrapped around a key.
Written on the leather was a note that read: ”Timber Springs Bank – Private Box Number 78.”
“What does it mean?” asked Enrique.
“Not sure, but I'm gonna find out. If my hunch is right, this is what they were lookin' for last night.”
“How did you know?” he asked puzzled.
“I didn't, but there was a trooper in my company who hid his buryin' money in a hollow boot heel. He wrapped the gold eagle with leather so it wouldn't rattle. That's what gave me the idea to check their boots. See, Will's heel here, wasn't new like the other one. Just a new cap on it. You ought to look through the rest of these boots for a similar heel. There could be another one or two,” I said, handing him the hammer.
“Are you going to show that to Walt?” he asked and began methodically knocking heels off his boot collection.
“Yeah, I'm heading back over there now. The Federal Marshall's here today. I think he'll be interested in this too.”
As I left I couldn't help thinking, “Damn, that just ain't right, buryin' a man without his boots on.”
Walt and Jim were swapping tall tales over a glass of sipping whiskey from the desk drawer.
“What are you doin' back so soon?” asked Walt.
“Well, for my own good, I got to thinkin' about where that map could be, so I went to Enrique's shop to have another look. I found this in Will's hollowed out boot heel,” handing him the leather note and key. “Ya s'pose we ought to have a look?”
“By all means!” he said, downing his drink as he showed Jim.
“Nice work, Billy! Let's go before the bank closes!”, Jim exclaimed, slamming his empty glass down.
As I pounded on the door, I could see Mr. Allard was still there, though he had just closed a few minutes earlier. Seeing the Sheriff and Marshall with me, he had no problem opening up.
“What can I do for ya, Walt?” he asked rather puzzled.
“We need to pull out a private box, John. I think it may have belonged to Will Cates.”
“Will Cates? No, I would have known it was him. He was all over the man wanted posters,” he insisted. “Which box is it?”
“According to this key it's number 78.”
“I'll fetch it,” he said, returning a few minutes later with the 1 ft. x 2 ft. box.
“I remember now that I've seen this box, it's jogged my memory. It was three years ago in '78, but it wasn't Will Cates who rented it though. He was a short Italian looking gent with the biggest nose I've ever seen. He insisted on getting box 78, because it corresponded with the year. Paid up for five years rent and never came back.”
“That sounds like Big Nose George to me,” said Jim. “Let's have a look inside.”
We all watched with anticipation as John turned the key and opened the lid. The box contained, as I suspected, a lot more of the stolen currency. It was stuffed full and, there on top, was the elusive map to the rest of the loot from the Canyon Springs holdup.
“Looks like it's buried in the Owl Creek Mountains,” said Walt, passing the map to Jim. “Up near the head of Red Canyon.”
“That's some rough country,” Jim remarked, looking over the map. “I'd best be gettin' on my way first thing in the mornin'. I'll have to leave my prisoner here with you, Walt. If you don't mind him having a longer stay?”
“Not at all, as long as you're payin' his keep,” chuckled Walt.
“You can't go alone, Jim. Let me come along with you.” I pleaded.
“What if we run into the Cates gang?” he asked. “I'll have to deputize you, are you ready for all that if there's no reward money in it?”
“If I don't get this settled once and for all, they'll never leave me alone anyhow,” I said.
“What should I do with all these stolen bills?” asked John.
“Just hold them in the box for now, in case somebody else figures it out,” said Jim. “Was that the only key you gave to George?”
“There are only two keys per box. One goes to the customer and I retain the other key at all times in the event they do not return or happen to lose theirs. No two people have access to the same box, preventing any dispute over the contents.”
“And you can rent more boxes that way,” I said with a grin.
“Believe as you wish, but privacy and security are of paramount concern in my bank,” he snapped.
“Hold onto the box and don't breathe a word of this to anybody,” ordered Walt. If someone comes in askin' about box 78, you come find me. Understood?”
Joe took Gary Owen for the night as the sounds of the piano player hammering out a rollicking tune emanated from the Roadhouse saloon. However, the place went deathly silent when I stepped through the door. Looking at the bar, I could see why. There were a couple of old acquaintances bellied up at the far end; Big Jake Styles and Laredo Bob McClary. Neither acknowledging nor ignoring the men, I just grinned and strode toward the opposite end where Lola was talking to Sally.
“Them two's been in here askin' about you ever since you left,” said Lola in a hushed voice. “Who are they?”
“They're living proof that I do bring some of my quarry in alive. Though in their case, I am beginning to have some regrets.”
“Oh boy! Here we go again!” giggled Sally, as the two bad asses murmured something to one another.
“Ain't you even gonna say hello, Billy? Seein' as how you're the one put me in jail for three years,” said Jake slurring his words.
“Let bygones be bygones, Jake. You've served your time honorably.”
“If ya wanna call breakin' rocks honorable, so's I could eat hardtack and beans like we did in the army.”
“Are you sayin' you didn't deserve what you got?” I asked. “You forgettin' that you beat and raped her and then cut up a pretty girl's face? Not so lucky for her, but lucky for you she lived, otherwise you'd have stretched a rope.”
“She was a whore! An Injun whore to boot! They're all thieves and vermin! Nothin' worth goin' to jail over!” he yelled drunkenly.
“Well the judge didn't see it that way, especially after you jumped bail and ran.”
“You're forgettin' a few things yerself ain't ya? Time was, we seen eye to eye on how Injuns ought to be handled. It all woulda blowed over, if you'da kept yer nose out of it!”
“The court sent me to bring you in, Jake and I'm still makin' a livin' that way nowadays. We're not in the army anymore and to tell you the truth I'm glad of it.”
“Well I ain't! As far as I'm concerned, we never got to finish the job we started!” he roared.
“I'm sorry you feel that way, Jake, but like I said, let bygones be bygones. I'll buy ya both a drink.“
True to form, I expected Jake to draw on me at any moment, but you should always expect the unexpected, for without any warning, I saw Laredo slap leather. Pushing Sally around the end of the bar where Lola had already rolled, I drew and dived to the floor gunning down Laredo before reaching a fully horizontal position. Jake staggered to the side as Bob fell dead across his feet.
“Drop your gun, Jake!” I ordered, standing back up. “Or you're next.” His Colt Peacemaker fell to the floor with a thud.
“Now get outa here and take yer friend with ya, before I send for the Sheriff!” ordered Lola. “Boys, give him a hand.”
Several cowpokes carried Bob out the door behind Jake, as Larry delivered their two pistols to Lola.
“Jake won't be pullin' anything else tonight, Billy. If he wants these, he can come back and get 'em when he's sobered up,” she said.
“Come on, Billy. All this excitment's got me stirred up!” begged Sally, as she pulled me up the stairs. She was right about that and definitely meant what she said earlier in the day. I didn't get much sleep that night either.
Morning broke brassy and exceptionally clear as Gary Owen and I set out on a trot for town. I was really wishing I had been able to keep Cates' horse.
'A pack animal would come in pretty handy the next few days,” I thought.
Suddenly what felt like a red hot iron poker tore through my right calf, and a split second later I heard the shot. Gary Owen tumbled underneath me, and we both went sprawling into the dusty trail.
“Damn you, Jake. If you've killed my horse you sonofabitch....”
The morbid truth soon became obvious. A bright crimson flow issued from beneath the stirrup leathers and cinch in Gary Owen's side and he was fighting to breathe. Taking cover behind him, I managed to slip my rifle out of the scabbard and began scanning in the direction I believed the shot had come.
“Jake, you yella bellied horse shootin' snake! I never took you for a bushwhacker! Come out and fight me face to face!”
Another shot tore into Gary Owen's belly with a thud, but this time I saw the puff of smoke from a rifle on the nearby hillside. Taking quick careful aim and giving him little time to move after the shot, I let fly a round from the big 45-70. There was a loud solid thump and the rifle he was holding discharged as Jake came rolling off the hill. I jumped up, drew my pistol and hobbling to him, angrily pumped 5 slugs into his carcass, though I was sure he was dead before the fall.
“That's for Gary Owen, you bastard!” I yelled. “I hope you can hear me in hell!”
Returning to Gary Owen, I stroked his nose and patted his neck. “Damnit, this isn't the way I wanted the end of the trail for us ol' friend. I'm sorry, but the last one's for you.”
An eerie calm came over us both, as if he knew and accepted the inevitable moment. A rare tear trickled down my cheek, as I placed the barrel behind his ear and squeezed the trigger.
I could feel my boot filling up with warm blood, a sobering reminder that I had a gunshot wound. Sitting on Gary Owen's hind quarters, I pulled it off and examined the damage. The bullet had raked across the back of my calf, cutting a shallow path the width of a finger, which explained why it penetrated so deeply in Gary Owen's side. Jake was obviously not trying to kill me, but had specifically targeted my horse. He wanted something besides revenge. Then it dawned on me.
“Somehow, he knew the details of that stage robbery,” I thought. “But he couldn't have been there, so he must have learned something in prison. He could have heard about the map and knew Cates had it and was trying to track him down, until he found out that I had collected his reward. Like the rest of Cates' gang, he assumed I'd found the map.”
I dressed my wound as best I could and began searching the area for Jake's horse. Hearing nickering up a nearby draw, I found not one but two mounts tethered. I'd forgotten about Laredo's horse, which answered my need for a pack animal. He was a bit skittish though as I worked him pulling Gary Owen off the trail.
After salvaging his boots, rifle, saddlebags and what little money he was carrying, I left Jake there as well. I was hoping the smell of a not too dead man would keep the scavengers off Gary Owen for a while. Then packing Laredo's horse with the extra saddles and gear, I mounted Jake's horse and set out again for town.
Stopping by Enrique's shop, I traded him the boots, saddles and extras for a pack saddle and panniers, which we rigged up on Laredo's horse.
“You are ready for your journey, Billy. Is there anything else I can do for you?” he asked.
“You find any more money?” I asked, grinning at a nearby pile of boots without heels.
“Nothing! Now I have many boots to fix!” he scowled.
After explaining to Walt what had happened with Jake and Gary Owen, I had the local doc dress my leg wound. He said it should heal up fine and after applying some iodine, gave me a bottle to apply daily to ward off blood poisoning. I do believe it burned worse than the bullet.
I then bought a few supplies and set out with Jim for the Owl Creek Mountains.
“We're gonna have to cross the Rez in a couple of days, so I want to lay out some ground rules,” said Jim. “If we see anybody, we tell ‘em we’re just passing through. No need to ask or answer any questions or let ‘em know where we’re headed.”
“Alright by me,” I said. “That’s usually the way I work anyhow.”
As it turned out, nobody asked any questions and the initial journey was quiet and uneventful. It began raining heavily the morning of day two, so we laid over in Shoshone and then moved up the Wind River, crossing over into the mountains our fourth day out.
To reach Red Canyon, we had to skirt along the southernmost breaks and swing northeast through some rugged badlands which afforded no easy travel. The draws were brushy, rocky and very steep sided, often forcing us to move downhill to find a more shallow crossing. By the time we got through the area, this process of drifting lower and lower, had taken us some distance off course.
As dusk approached, we came into a sandy clearing along a dry creek bed and decided to make camp. I began to scrounge for firewood, bringing in mostly dried sage and servis brush from the barren landscape.
“This brush won’t last long, so I’ll have to build a smaller fire,” I said, talking to myself as much as to Jim, who was nearby picketing the horses.
“That’s alright”, he said. “I’m gonna leave these horses saddled in case we need to high tail it outta here. I’ve got a feeling we’re being shadowed and a pretty good idea who it is.”
“The Cates gang?” I asked, adding more brush to the fire.
“More than likely, but I don’t think they’ll try anything until they’re sure we have what they want,” said Jim, as he laid out his bedroll.
“When do you think they’ll show themselves?”
“If it was me, I’d wait right up until we find the gold, but I don’t think they have the patience for it. They could hit us at any time.”
“I’ll take first watch then. We’d best keep one from here on in,” I said, grabbing my rifle.
“I’ll spell ya in a few hours,” he said, crawling under a blanket.
I no sooner found a lookout position near the horses, when they began to nicker, stomping restlessly as if disturbed. I crouched in some tall sagebrush and peered into the void making out a faint noise of footsteps in the rocks above me. Pulling back the hammer, I aimed in the direction of the sound and waited. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see two shadowy figures about 50 yards away, moving carefully into the creek bed with guns drawn. One gestured with his gun barrel toward Jim who lay sleeping near the dim fire. The other began walking toward the horses apparently looking for me.
Never taking the rifle off the second man, I waited for the first one to make his move on Jim. I figured they weren’t out to kill us right away, not until they got what they needed anyhow, so I waited until he kicked him with the toe of his boot. At that moment Jim pulled his six gun up, and shot him dead where he stood. Taking that as my cue, I dropped the hammer on the 45-70 and the second man collapsed directly in front of the horses.
“You all right, Jim?” I yelled.
“Not a scratch, how about you?”
“I’m fine, but I know there were four of these hombres back in Timber Springs. That leaves two more somewhere.”
Just as I spoke, a rifle cracked from the rocks above Jim and he collapsed backward into what was left of the fire, scattering sparks everywhere. I zeroed in on the spot where I’d seen the muzzle flash and touched off another round. The big bore 45-70 connected again, as I heard a thump, a simultaneous groan and then silence.
“That leaves one,” I thought, quickly changing my position to avoid the same fate.
Just as I moved, a bullet ricocheted into the brush behind me, indicating it had come from the ridge above the horses.
“If he thinks he hit me, he might come down,” I thought, so I lay flat about 25 ft. away from my previous position. Though I waited for what seemed like a very long time, nobody showed.
I then moved slowly and quietly over to Jim, seeing immediately that he was shot through the heart and had probably died instantly.
“You need to find that map and get the hell out of here,” I told myself mentally, as I looked through Jim’s coat pockets. Fortunately, I found it folded and dry inside the right side pocket. Had it been in any of the pockets in his chest area, it would have been blood soaked and possibly ruined.
Creeping from there over to the horses, I loosed all four and began quietly leading them down the dark creek bed, disappearing into the moonless night.
Because the rugged terrain made it nearly impossible to travel in the dark, when I thought I had moved far enough not to be found, I unsaddled and unpacked Jim’s horses setting them free to hopefully make some confusing tracks. I then tied off my horses, sat down nearby wrapped in a blanket and slept intermittently until dawn. Unfortunately, I figured my adversary would be doing the same.
Daybreak was cloudy and cool. Since there was just enough sand to leave obvious tracks, I figured it wouldn’t be long before he found me, so I began preparing to move out. Though I was expecting it, he came sooner than I’d anticipated, as I heard the unmistakable click of a six gun hammer behind me. Turning slowly, I saw a tall bearded man step out of the brush on the opposite side of the creek bed.
“I’m lookin' for the map. It wasn't on the other man, so you've got to have it. Now hand it over!” he ordered.
“That other man was a U.S. Marshall and I’m his sworn deputy.”
“Well you sure ain’t in no position to arrest me now are ya? Maybe I’ll just shoot ya first and look for it later.”
“Depends how bad you want to live. I reckon you’ll kill me as soon as you get it, so I’ve got nothin’ to lose. You’re a big fella and kinda far away for ordinary gun play. Maybe I’ll just draw.”
Before he could answer, I fell to one knee, drew and fired, rolling onto the ground to my right as his simultaneous bullet flew past my left ear. Dropping his gun, he staggered forward, fell face down and never moved again.
Though my horses ran off a short distance, it wasn’t hard to retrieve them with their reins dragging. I wasn’t sure where he had left his horse though and a quick scout of the immediate area didn’t turn up anything but man tracks following mine. I decided he was afoot, all their horses having run off into the dark during the gunfight.
“That explains why he didn’t shoot first this morning,” I thought. “I was standing in front of the horses and he needed a ride as well as the map.”
Going through his pockets, I found some ordinary paper money, but he had none of the bank notes from the stage robbery. I left him where he fell and rode back up the creek bed to bury Jim. From there, I set out toward Red Canyon, feeling free at last of the Cates gang and the need to be constantly looking over my shoulder, at least for the time being.
The map led me nearly to the head of Red Canyon at the junction of two creeks, one dry and one barely wet. The resulting peninsular promontory between them, provided a high and dry place to bury the loot. In the right canyon just above it was a well hidden campsite area surrounded by juniper trees near a large rock overhang with a small spring underneath that fed the creek. The perfect remote hiding place where someone could hole up indefinitely. I could see why Cates didn’t want the rest of the gang to know about it.
In short order, some careful pacing and brief digging put me onto the burial location of the loot. A small rock-lined cache about two feet square with a flat rock lid, covered four twenty five pound bags of gold dust underneath an oilskin duster. An unexpected bonus was two more bags containing gold coins. One held eagles and the other double eagles. I estimated about 100 coins in each bag; definitely not from the Canyon Springs robbery.
Although the cache had been there three years, none of the bags had deteriorated in the dry box. I figured this was the safest place to keep them for the time being, so I covered everything back up the way I’d found it, planning to make camp and rest up a day or two before going back.
What is it they say about plans? Making them is easy. It’s making them happen that’s the hard part.
About an hour later after gathering some dried juniper limbs, I built a fire and proceeded to get comfortable with a long overdue cup of fresh coffee, when I heard something on the ridge behind me. Not to alarm the intruder to the fact that I was aware of his presence, I arose with my rifle and began walking toward the cover of a nearby rock outcropping.
“That’s far enough, Billy! Drop your guns!” came the familiar voice, which I recognized as the banker from Timber Springs, John Allard. I turned to see he had a Winchester trained on me from behind one of the big Juniper trees above the overhang.
“Where’s the gold!” he yelled. “I know you’ve found it.”
“It’s safe, but you’ll never find it if you kill me.”
“I waited patiently for three years to get my hands on that money. Another three years and it would have been mine legally, but you had to spoil everything,” he replied angrily.
“How’d you find me?” I asked.
“I traced a copy of the map, just in case someone came back for it. It wasn’t hard to follow you here. Now lay down your weapons!”
“So much for the security and integrity you claimed to have at your bank,” I thought.
I laid the long gun down first, then slowly unbuckled my gun belt and placed it on the ground alongside. When my hand was extended near the rifle, I grabbed it and dived for the nearby rocks. As I suspected and was banking on, the bespectacled Allard was not a very good shot. His bullet missed me cleanly and I made it safely behind the rocks, where I began to return fire.
The 45-70 held 9 rounds, but I had not reloaded it since last night, so after firing twice, I kept the sights focused on the big juniper he was hiding behind, biding my time until he presented a good shot. About 5 minutes passed, but Allard did not show himself again and I could not tell if he was still there, so I decided to try retrieving my gun belt, which contained more cartridges for the rifle.
I jumped out, grabbed the gunbelt and lept back just as another bullet ricocheted across my heels.
“Give up, Billy. I have you pinned down,” cried Allard. “I've got water. You don't”.
“It'll be dark in a few hours, then I'll be coming for you and your water,” I answered.
And so began the waiting game. The inescapable limbo that exists between adversaries whose need is not to immediately kill one another, but rather to gain an advantage one over the other, which becomes a means to an end. If the advantage be Allard's, then he will make me give up the loot, at which time my life will be forfeit. If it be mine, then he must give up his life first, so that I may live. There is no compromise of the means. Surely, the end dictates that one of us must die.
As the fire dwindled, so did the light. When darkness settled in, I began to belly crawl across the brushy ground between myself and the spring, skirting the base of the canyon wall toward the overhang. Carrying the rifle made it hard to avoid putting my elbows down in rocks and cactus and the right leg wound was a painful hindrance to pushing myself along. If I could get there without alerting Allard, I could not only get a drink of water, but would be positioned directly below him. He would have no way of shooting at me, without showing himself on either side of the canyon.
I took my time and in spite of the pain and difficulty, eventually made it to the overhang. Though the water was muddy tasting, it slaked my fervent thirst and I settled into a sandy corner behind some rocks to wait again, not for darkness, but for the light.
Sleep deprivation has a consistent and predictable outcome. Not allowing the body to sleep, will eventually result in the body shutting itself down to sleep, irregardless of the situation. In the preceding two days, I had not slept but a few restless hours and it was beginning to take its toll. Despite my best efforts to remain awake, I began to drift off helplessly into that world of dreams, where past and present often merge into a cabaret of the absurd.
There was no mistaking the all too familiar place; the mixed chaos of smells and sounds lit by the flames of a burning village; spent gunpowder; burnt lodge skins; the screams of terrified women, children and ponies; everything moving furiously around me, a swirling hellish vortex of violence. Suddenly Gary Owen rears, his fore-hooves flailing at an invisible monster, his teeth chomping the bit against my tight rein. I feel a burning in my right leg and looking down, see a fountain-stream of blood issue from his side. I try to get control, but to no avail. The vortex has him, has us both, we are lost in the turbulence of time, absorbed in the maelstrom of memory. I'm thrown off as he shrinks away into the void, his eyes glowing like demonic embers. I draw my pistol and begin shooting at nothing, right, left, behind, ahead, right, left, until the gun is empty. My anguish is paramount; my leg pain so severe I pass out of consciousness. The dark spell broken, I awoke in a cold sweat to the intensity of real pain and the frigid stillness of early morning light.
Allard had not stirred yet, nor did I hear anything during the night, making me think he might have slipped away, hoping to set an ambush on my way out of here with the loot. Perhaps he got cold feet thinking about my threat to come after him in the night and decided the gold wasn't worth getting killed over. When it comes to greed and guts, bankers are always long on the former and short on the latter. They never do their own dirty work, always getting the law involved and its “instruments” (judges, lawyers, sheriffs and marshals) to do their bidding. However, under the circumstances, that was hardly an option for John Allard. Anyway, I had to decide, and quickly concluded, he was still out there, awake and drawing a bead on the pile of rocks where he last saw me.
My intuition was correct, for a few minutes later, a bullet ricocheted off the rock pile as the report rang out above me.
“Time to wake up, Billy!”, shouted Allard. “We have unfinished business.”
Seeing movement a few feet to my right, I turned and found myself looking straight at a very large rattlesnake, but he wasn't buzzing. He was too cold, having crawled into the overhang during the heat of the day, he stayed too long after the sun went down, and was now literally “froze up” and could barely move.
“You might come in handy my friend,” I muttered.
Slowly moving away before he could zero in on me, I retrieved a near empty canvas grain sack from my pack, dumped the remaining oats on a flat rock for the horses, then filled the sack with what felt like about 10 pounds of sand. Positioning myself slightly behind the snake and using the curved butt plate of my rifle, I pinned him down just behind the head. Then drawing my sheath knife, I bent down and sliced off his now quietly buzzing rattles, picked him up by the tail and quickly dropped him in the sack, tying it shut with a leather thong.
Hoping that Allard was still back a distance from the edge, I sneaked out, placed the bag in the early morning sun and crept back to my hiding spot behind the rocks in the back of the overhang. I was hoping he would think I was hit and had slipped away on foot during the night leaving one of the sacks of loot behind as a peace offering.
“Now,” I thought. “We'll see if curiosity and greed can overcome fear.”
Allard shot twice more, hurling insults each time, but I held my tongue. After what seemed like an eternal silence, I heard footsteps coming down the trail that led off the top of the canyon. Stealthily, he went first to the rock outcropping where he had last seen me, then turned toward the overhang, looking carefully through his spectacles. It didn't take him long to spot the sack and head straight for it.
Like a child with a holiday gift, he lifted it up feeling its heft, then squatted down and began to untie the thong. When his hands peeled back both sides of the bag, his face grimaced in horror as he instantly beheld the open mouth of an angry striking rattlesnake, who savagely planted his fangs in the side of Allard's neck. He collapsed backward grasping at the big snake, still stuck to him, pumping his poison to the last drop.
I waited a few minutes as the silent rattler released and slid gracefully down the draw and out of sight. Allard lay motionless, the venom had found its way quickly to his heart and brain.
Walking over to the body, I kicked him lightly in the crotch with the toe of my boot, just to confirm what I already knew and shuddered as I saw the swollen purplish wound on his neck.
“Greed wins, hands down,” I said, as if he could hear me. “My money's on greed every time.”
I spent the remainder of the morning finding Allard's horse and tying his body securely across it. I was pretty certain there would be a reward for taking him back to Timber Springs. Then I dug up the loot a second time, loaded all six bags on my pack horse and we headed down the canyon in the warm welcoming calm of a late August afternoon.