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Western Short Story
Giant Powder
Michael McLean

Western Short Story

The world exploded . . . with him in it.

Good air had been at his back indicating there was another entrance or the miners had followed the vein to grass roots and daylight. But, a hundred feet back, the tunnel branched. The hastily drawn map urged him to turn right into calm, dead air. Cautiously approaching the mining face, his heart pounded with anticipation. Too late, he smelled the burning fuse. He’d been set up. Spinning around, he ran, but not fast enough. The uncontrolled pressure wave slammed him forward. Successive explosions smashed him to the ground as small fragments of rock peppered his back like a shotgun blast. He didn’t know a lot about mining, but he knew that behind the force of the detonation there would be poisonous gas that could kill as certainly as the flying rock and the blast itself.

Winston Standish pushed up and forced himself to move forward in total darkness, his lantern smashed by the blast. In his pocket was a container of matches for the lantern or to light a smoke, but there was no time for that. He had to get back to the moving air. Arms spread, he awkwardly felt his way along the narrow passageway, choking on drifting powder smoke. Finally, there was air movement. He turned into it. A few dozen steps and he felt wooden planks beneath his feet. He knew where he was now. On the way in he’d paid little attention to them. He took another awkward step in the black of hell and a plank turned. He grabbed at the darkness, falling . . . and then nothing.

The copper smell of blood came to him as consciousness returned. Breathing deeply, he evaluated the situation without opening his eyes. As he thought his way through his body he felt pain in his hip. Blood mixed with the dirt that coated his face and hands. He wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes. As he shifted to a more comfortable position his thoughts were divided between his predicament and the events of the past several weeks. Everything made perfect sense now.

Six weeks earlier, Tyler Garrett, his wife Louise and their seventeen-year-old son Luke had been savagely murdered. A travelling bible peddler found their bodies when he ventured to the meager hand-built cabin. The cabin stood on patented mining claims that butted up to the west end of the Standish ranch. The local sheriff poked around and investigated the murder as best he could, but there were no clues so he moved on to other more pressing matters. The West was, after all, still wild.

Two weeks after discovery of the grisly murders, a lawyer introducing himself as Seth Beaumont, showed up at the door of the Circle S ranch house. He produced a bill of sale that indicated Garret had sold his claims to a mining company that he represented. The unfortunate turn of events was truly tragic, but business was business, and the mining company had big plans. The only fly in the ointment was that the mining company needed better access to the claims for equipment and bigger development. That access could only be across a corner of the Standish ranch, the same corner of the ranch through which Badger Creek ran. The creek was the primary source of water for his cattle operation.

Standish spoke to the company’s man about allowing access and said in typical non-committal fashion, “I’ll have ta think ‘bout that.”

At that point, Beaumont made his mistake. He spoke to Standish in a voice just a little too firm, “Well, don’t take too long. It would be a shame to cause more trouble over such a simple thing.”

The darkness of a mine is total. Taking a deep breath, Standish sat up carefully and retrieved the container of matches from his pocket. Opening the lid, he counted eleven wooden sticks with their strike anywhere heads. Taking one from the container, he carefully closed the lid and struck the match. The blinding flare lasted only a moment. Holding the match flat, Standish looked around. The opening was about five-foot square and a little over seven feet deep. Two planks leaned against the walls. Above, he could see one of the twelve-pound rails over which ore cars were pushed. Light from the match faded and died. Luck of a sort had been with him. The rocks on the floor were relatively small and the shaft shallow. From memory, he groped in darkness for one plank, then the other, carefully leaning the tops against the wall below the rail and placing the bottoms where the wall opposite met the floor. Hopefully, they would give him a proverbial leg up and he could grab the rail and pull himself to track level. Standish risked another match and made sure everything was in position, his feet included.

Jumping up, his right hand connected with the rail, then slipped. He fell back hard against rock and cursed aloud. Standish forfeited another match to study the situation again, the rocks and planks in particular. Not wanting to use another match, he methodically groped for rocks and placed them on top of the planks where the bottoms met the wall. Slowly he filled the triangular space, essentially raising the level of the floor. Climbing carefully on top of the rocks he braced against the cold rock. Launching up and forward, he found the rail and grasped it firmly with both hands. Pulling and walking up the planks he threw himself between the rails and lay panting.

Seven matches later, Winston Standish rounded a bend in the tunnel and was rewarded with the glow of light from the mine entrance in the distance. He was free. Clearing the timbered opening he was relieved to see his sorrel gelding tied where he had left him. After a big gulp of water from his canteen, he tightened the cinch. Untying the horse, he gathered up the reins, swung easily into the saddle and paused. He knew what had to be done. His friends had been murdered and the same people had tried to kill him.

Standish was a fighter when the need arose. He had ridden with Colonel Grierson and the Tenth Cavalry pursuing Chief Victorio and his Warm Springs Apaches. Standish damn well knew how to fight. It was time for payback.

Seth Beaumont had taken up residence in the Sunset Saloon where he presided over his business. Flanked by two lowlife thugs, he looked more the gambler than the lawyer. When Standish pushed through the saloon door, Beaumont looked up from a small stack of letters and his eyes grew wide with surprise. “Why Mr. Standish, how nice to see you,” he greeted with Southern flavor in his voice.

He was good, Standish admitted, a poker face with only a hint of shock at seeing him alive. His two henchmen bristled but remained seated.

Wish I could say the same for you, Beaumont. You lied to me.”

Lied? That’s a very strong accusation, Mr. Standish. Just how did I do that?”

You told me there was a good gold vein in the mine. The map you gave me to check it out was wrong. There was only a worthless vein of quartz and pyrite in that cut.”

I sincerely apologize. I rely on my experts and passed on their information. I am a man of the law, not geology or mining.”

Standish scowled and chose his practiced words. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but, if I was you, I’d be lookin’ for new experts since I did find gold in the mine. A lot of gold. Garrett and his kid must have mined into it before they were murdered.”

Beaumont’s expression changed as he mulled over the next move in his mind. “That would change a lot of things. Like my proposal to you. We could get rich together.”

I would be real interested in that,” he lied, remembering the raped and mutilated body of Louise Garrett.

My associates and I would have to see the gold, of course.”

Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Trust but verify is my motto.”

Exactly. When could you show us?”

Standish chewed his lip. “Got cattle and a new bull comin’ tomorrow or day after. How about three days from now? Maybe you can draw up some sort of legal agreement.”

Excellent. We should celebrate. Edward, bring the good stuff,” Beaumont shouted at the bartender as a golden siren sang to him alone.

~ ~ ~

Standish watched two men on horseback warily approach, as if expecting trouble. “Where’s your other man?” he called out.

Flint’s sick, Beaumont replied. “Too much whisky last night. He’s puking his guts out. Billy here can witness what you have to show us.”

Yeah, right, Thought Standish. He wasn’t fooled. Flint would be coming through the mine’s other entrance to ambush him as soon as the gold was revealed to Beaumont. Of course, there wasn’t really any gold, but the lawyer’s greed was all he needed to make his plan work.

Standish had a lantern for each of them and led the way into the mine ducking timbers along the way and avoiding the shallow shaft. He had replaced the planks, but made sure they would collapse if stepped on. Staying in the fresh air, they passed the side opening where Beaumont and his men had tried to kill him.

Three hundred feet further on, another cut split to the left out of the air flow. Here the ground was unstable and heavily timbered. A faint light illuminated the end of the cut where he had hung a lantern earlier. It was placed to illuminate small nuggets of gold purchased the day before from a prospector who had panned them in a mountain stream to the north. With hammer and chisel, Standish had carefully beaten them into cracks in the rock face making them appear to be part of the barren quartz vein that ran vertically down it.

Stepping aside, Standish let Beaumont and Billy approach the vein. “There you go fellas. Enough gold to knock your eyes out,” he cajoled while reaching above his head for the shotgun he had secreted there.

Good lord,” Beaumont exclaimed as he pushed Billy out of the way to get a closer look. “I figured you might be lying, but you were telling the truth. This is fantastic. We’re rich!” Turning away from the gold, Beaumont froze, staring at a ten-gauge, double-barreled shotgun leveled at him. “What the hell are you doing?”

Making sure that justice is served."

Billy turned at the exchange, his hand dropping to the big Colt forty-five on his hip.

First barrel is for you Billy.”

Billy’s hand stopped and he raised both hands. “Don’t shoot.”

Beaumont remained motionless, waiting for Flint to finish what he was being paid to do.

Both of you take off those holsters and throw them over here, real slow like.”

You’re being a damn fool, Standish. We could be partners.”

Like Tyler Garrett?”

He was an unreasonable man. I don’t deal with unreasonable people.”

Holding the shotgun in his right hand, Standish reached behind the closest timber, retrieved some lengths of rope and tossed them at Billy’s feet. “On the floor Beaumont!” he ordered. “Billy, tie his hands behind him and then his feet. Real tight.”

Billy glared at him but followed the instructions, then stood . . . and lunged.

The blast from the left barrel of the shotgun was deafening in the closed space. Billy fell forward, his right leg shredded from the knee down. Screaming, he writhed in pain in the dirt, finally scuttling toward Beaumont for security.

Standish heard a scraping sound in the darkness behind him and turned just as the heavy slug from Flint’s pistol caught him in the side as he spun, the force pushing him backwards into a timber. Loose rock and dirt fell from above. Remaining on his feet, he loosed the shotgun’s right barrel at the partially illuminated figure, but missed. Flint fired twice in rapid succession, but both rounds went wide, ricocheting wildly off the rock walls as everyone ducked and cowered.

Tossing the empty shotgun aside, Standish slammed into the bigger man before he could fire again. Grabbing Flint’s gun arm, he slammed it into the rock as Flint pulled the trigger again. Backing up slightly, Standish pulled Flint off balance then hit him with a hard right uppercut. Flint’s head snapped back with a loud crack against the rock wall and he dropped the pistol. Still on his feet and now roaring mad, the man swung a wild roundhouse that Standish dodged, but the punch hit his shoulder causing an intense burst of pain in the side that had taken the bullet. Standish bent forward but tried hard to ignore the pain. While he was bent over, he drove his head into Flint’s gut with all the strength he could muster. The force shoved the man into the rock, the back of his head once again hitting wall hard. Flint crumpled to the ground.

Gasping, Standish picked up Flint’s pistol and threw it out of reach. He rolled the man over and tied his hands behind him then secured his feet. Satisfied, he struggled to drag the unconscious man next to the others.

Beaumont continued to glower at him in silence. Looking at Billy, he saw that the man’s body was heaving up and down. Blood spread across his shirt front, his belly pierced by one of Flint’s wild shots.

What now?” Beaumont sneered.

We wait for Flint to rejoin the party.”

Minutes passed during which Standish retrieved the shotgun and reloaded it. Then he emptied the other’s pistols and placed the weapons next to him.

You’ll pay for this, Standish!” Beaumont bellowed. “I’ll see you dead!”

Doubt it,” Standish replied. The spread of dark wetness on his own shirt was slowing, but he could feel himself weakening. Resolve kept him going. A groan from Flint announced his return. It was time.

The bound men watched with curiosity as Standish stepped back into the heavily timbered area and hung a lantern on a timber, its light bright. Carefully, he removed boards from behind timbers on both sides of the opening exposing eight cases of dynamite, fifty pounds apiece, stacked on each side. Two fuse-type blasting caps had been placed into sticks of powder in the middle of each wooden box labeled Giant Powder. Fuses strung behind the timbers were all carefully joined together into one central fuse that Standish gingerly placed on top of a rock.

Cradling the shotgun with his left hand he studied the three killers. “You know boys it’s the way of the West. Ya leave things as you find them and fix things that need fixin’. There’s a kind of personal satisfaction and closure that comes from doin’ the right thing.”

The three watched in horror as he scraped the head of a match across his pants and touched the flame to the exposed gunpowder of the main fuse. Standish started to walk away then turned back one last time. “Enjoy Hell.”