Western Short Story
In the high-country mining camps of the 1860’s, death could come in a heartbeat. Delivered by a flash of temper from a stranger over a perceived wrong, or from a cold, calculating claim jumper. A mini ball fired into a miner’s back could kill a man, dropping him face down into the stream, or drowning him in the freezing water. In an angry outburst, your best friend could murder you over a long built up series of disagreements. I guess in the long run; it doesn’t matter much, at least, not after you’re dead.
and Nolan’s Creek sat on the side of the mountain, less than 200
yards apart. The gritty mining camps worked hard, played harder, but
sometimes that play wasn’t pleasant. The twin towns sprang up
overnight when miners panned for gold in the creek that meandered
down the mountain. The lower community, Fulford, was larger, rowdier,
and more decadent than the upper.
Nolan’s Creek contained a smaller set of buildings, was less refined, but also a tad less violent. Its saloons didn’t have fine décor. There were fewer strumpets and gambling houses, and things moved to the beat of a slower drummer. The lone church that served the twin communities stood in Nolan’s Creek. A tent building that for an hour each Sunday packed in the sinners from both camps. Harlot, miner, saloon owners, and respectable business owners stood and sat shoulder to shoulder. Listening as the preacher rained down fire and brimstone with a zeal that John the Baptist would have been proud to deliver. The congregation of misbegotten prayed, sang praises to the lord, and swore to be better people. Repentance was rare but sincere, at times, the same inhabitant week after week promised his Lord, but continued to fall short.
The worst of the cold of winter had passed, bringing the first signs of Spring. But this was the Rocky Mountains where it took a long time for the snow to clear. Working in the cold makes for short hours of digging or panning, and long hours cramped in tight cabins or in the saloons, gambling dens, and establishments of ill-repute of the twin towns.
Thick blankets of snow clung to the sides of the mountains. One could barely make out the small cabin, covered as it was with a bank of snow either side of the log establishment. Thick smoked curled from the stove pipe protruding from the snow covered timber roof. A short distance from the cabin door, the creek wound through the steep terrain. Nearer the cabin, a little higher than the humble cabin, a dark opening blemished the mountain. This patch of mountain real estate was the Elder/Decker claim.
The mine yielded little, yet demanded much in return. Bent backs, sore muscles, hours freezing in the cold water of the brook, or hard work digging deeper into the mountain. In return, she gave them enough crystal encrusted rock with golden veins, nuggets, and black sand to bank half what they could have made tending cattle down on the plains. Yet despite the mine’s reluctance to uncover her hidden prosperity, the two men dreamed of wealth untold.
The two rough and tough young miners, Casey Elder and Roger Decker, were best friends. The kind of friends nothing could divide. Nonetheless, the close confinement took a toll, and the two men had grumbled at each other for days. Angry words exchanged when they took their meals. Belligerent arguments and glances traded in the saloons. The two men quarreled for the first time in their partnership.
After two-and-a-half years of wearing the same Yankee blue uniforms, fighting side by side, a friendship grew. When they mustered out, the boys headed for Colorado Territory in search of a new life, partners for better or worse. They ate together; they lived in the same one-room cabin, worked in the same frigid creek water, or dug inside the same mine shaft. They even drank and gambled together in the same saloon. Often, they took turns with the same soiled doves.
The winter of 1865-’66 proved a harsh and unforgiving season, resulting in Casey and Roger being snowbound in the cabin for weeks at a time. Only venturing out between blizzards to head to the towns for a drink, a woman, some gambling, and much needed supplies. The tight confines of the one-room cabin consisted of their beds neatly tucked against the back wall, a potbelly stove between them, a small table in the middle of the room, a cook stove against one sidewall and an oversized fireplace on the other. The 15 by 18-foot room could get…claustrophobic. It was inevitable that conflicts would arise in such tight quarters when every waking moment was spent with another person.
One morning something happened. A small insignificant thing. Roger Decker burnt a flapjack that made it into the middle of Elder’s stack. Casey Elder was always a picky eater. Elder would find something wrong with Roger’s cooking on an all too common basis. This time, however, he took it as a personal attack.
“What the hell is this?” he yelled at his partner.
“It’s burnt,” Casey said, “the pancake in the middle is cooked to a crisp.”
“You’re crazy,” Roger Decker said. Looking at the blackened cake, he frowned, “Didn’t notice that.”
“The hell you didn’t,” Elder insisted.
“Trade plates,” Decker offered.
“You’ve eaten half of yours already,” Casey said. Standing up, he marched to the stove and poured coffee. “You done that on purpose.”
“You can have mine,” Roger said. Standing also, he grabbed his coat then exited the cabin, slamming the door behind him. Making his way to the stream he began his daily tasks, working the rivulet in their elusive search for golden flecks in the sluice. After working alone in silence for a time, Elder joined him.
After twenty minutes, Casey Elder looked at his friend and could see he still steamed in anger. He put his black sand in the bag hanging on his side and looked back at Decker. He wanted to apologize, but sorry wasn’t something Casey found easy to say. Wading out of the water, he moved back to the cabin in silence, to change clothes and warm up by the fireplace.
Not long afterward, Roger realized his partner had left. Typical, lazy SOB, he thought. “Always trying to get out of work,” Roger said, informing the trees, snow banks, cold stream, and critters in earshot, of his partner’s shortcomings. He followed the declaration with a long stream of profanities.
The boys had outside worries that gnawed at them, and the close confinement exaggerated every concern, both insignificant or justified. Elder and Decker had watched claim after claim fall victim to the greed of claim jumpers, primarily one man. Even though their mine did not produce a lot, there was value in not taking too much to a bank at one time. Catching the eye of a claim jumper intent on a fast solution to line their own pockets, could prove to be a deadly mistake. Gold causes greed, and greed begets violence and death.
The boys were sitting on most of their gold. Under the floorboards of their cabin, the lion’s share of the dust sat in coffee cans, leather sacks, wooden crates, glass jars, and some pottery they purchased in an unsuccessful attempt to beautify their abode. Torn between banking just enough to not bring attention to themselves and their mine, while living with the fear that someone would rob them of all that gold under their cabin, preyed on their minds.
Perhaps all those different concerns added to the two men becoming quarrelsome. The spring wore on as the snow refused to melt and surrender its grip on the land. The men grew more irritable with each other with each passing day. Trudging down the mountain, they made their way to the smaller town of Nolan’s Creek, and their favorite bar.
A roughhewn building, the bar consisted of knotty pine board covered walls, inside and out, while broad planks of fir, with gaps between them, served as the floor. Three giant sized, empty beer barrels served as the foundation of the bar. And the bar itself, nothing more than a coarse piece of wood scavenged from a wagon, wobbled atop the casks. Behind the bar, shelves attached to the walls held bottles of some of the worst rye, bourbon, and scotch one could imagine. Were they not watered down, the foul liquids would blister the inside of a man’s mouth. And men paid good money for the “pleasure” of drinking this rotgut.
The beer was the main attraction. Freighted up from Denver City, it was a brew of dubious quality and age. Still, it didn’t strip the enamel off your teeth. Behind the main room lay the specialty room. A maze of hanging curtains concealed small areas where one could have privacy. The Saloon girls here weren’t near as good-looking as those down in Fulford. But then they didn’t cost as much either.
That fateful day, the boys sat in the saloon, near the big window at the front, bickering over beers. The quarrel grew louder and angrier over the hours as they brought up past petty grievances and their sobriety slipped away. Nonetheless, no one worried too much; the boys were as close as brothers.
One old timer miner, who worked in the California rush years before, said he could feel death when he heard the boys arguing that day. Sitting behind the two, he listened as the disagreement escalated. Once the hairs on the back of his neck rose, he did likewise and left the bar, posthaste.
“And another thing,” Decker snapped, “you’re lazier than an old yeller dog. I do most of the damn cooking, the cleaning, the repairs, while you sit on your ass playing solitaire. I take in more sand, nugget, and flake than you by twice.”
“Ah, that ain’t true. I pull my share,” Casey answered. The married patrons of the dive couldn’t help but see the similarity of this argument to those with their spouses.
“Your share of the drinking and eating,” Roger Decker spat back at him.
“You listen to me, you ungrateful…saddle bum! Why, any time you want to end this partnership, just say so,” Casey told him, his voice rising with each exchange.
“Ungrateful saddle bum?” Decker’s anger flashed. “Saddle bum, you says? Who you calling a saddle bum?”
“Your cooking is dreadful too,” Casey Elder said, standing and swilling the last of his beer, resting one hand on his hip. Elder turned wagging a finger of the other hand indicating his desire of another beer.
“Only damn contribution you make to this partnership is…drinking. Yeah, you can drink! Yes-sir-ree, you can drink anyone, anywhere, anytime right under the table. That ain’t such a fine triumph neither, Mr. High and Mighty Elder,” Decker stood, having misunderstood why Casey rose, putting his hand on his gun. “You’re not gonna catch me unawares.”
The people behind each of the men moved quickly. Some of the crowd exited the establishment in record time while the others moved toward the bar or hurried to the back room. They had all seen this before; someone was about to die.
“What?” Casey Elder exclaimed, turning toward his comrade.
Men dove over the bar, while others dropped flat on the floor. Everyone covered their ears, and the bartender’s anger flared as he eyed the two scalawags. Turning, the barkeep pulled a shotgun from its place and pulled the hammer’s back, ready to stop the foolishness in one blast.
Seeing Decker touching the grips of his gun, Elder followed suit. What is there in a look or a stare that makes sane men do insane things? In a flash, the two men drew and fired, one round after another, emptying their weapons in the general direction of the other.
The smoke hung thick in the room. As the blue haze cleared, the two men were still standing, and stared at each other, dreading what they had done. Each of them hurriedly assessed themselves, astounded to find no gaping bullet holes.
“Oh, shit…you okay Casey?”
“You nicked my arm,” Elder said, the hurt clear in his voice. Then he laughed, “I missed you altogether. But that liquor poster on the wall, sure as hell, it’s dead.”
They gazed around the room, afraid that they may have hit someone else, as they sure as hell hadn’t hit each other, apart from the nick on Elder’s arm. The bartender returned his gun to its rightful place, let out a disgusted huff as he glared at the men, and shook his head. He couldn’t figure out how two men three feet apart had missed each other, both having emptied all five rounds.
“You kilt Mr. Lincoln, Roger. Well, kilt him again,” Casey Elder said, pointing to a portrait of the late president on the wall behind him. The president’s portrait hung in tattered shreds on the wall.
“Why we been fussing?” Decker asked.
“I don’t know, can’t remember,” Casey answered, shoving his empty gun into its holster.
“Y’all get the hell out of here,” the bartender said. “Don’t you rascals come back till you can behave like humans.”
“No one got hurt,” Casey Elder answered in their defense.
“Scat,” the bartender said, smacking his fist on the bar. “Get gone, or I’ll get the marshal after ya!”
“We best get you to the doctor,” Roger told his friend.
“Naw, just a scratch,” Casey said.
“Still, better take care of it. It could get infected,” Decker said. “I once saw that in an old timer. Nastiest sight I ever saw, all that red and yeller and rotting skin.” He picked up a bottle from another table. “Thanks,” he told the man who owned the drink. Roger then poured a generous amount over Casey’s wound.
Elder let out a whoop and a holler then thanked the man for the use of his alcohol. Roger Decker placed the bottle on the table, took out a nickel and dropped it next to the jug in payment. The two men retrieved their coats, heading out into the spring air.
“I think it’s warming up right nice,” Roger Decker said, as a shaft of sunlight shone through the clouds.
“Yeah,” Casey said, stopping. “Would ya think me an acorn-calf if I wanted you to take me to the Doc after all? I’m feeling a mite…woozy.”
“I don’t mind. No-sir-ree, you ain’t no weakling, not by a mile. Tell ya gospel, I’m powerful glad we’re right terrible shots.” The two men laughed out loud, linked arms – Casey’s good arm – and strolled off together to find the doctor.
They never got around to killing each other, nor did they get rich mining for gold. Soon after their…gunfight…if it could even be called that, the pair retrieved the gold from underneath the cabin’s floorboards. The partners sold the claim, moved to Denver City, and opened the Decker and Elder Mercantile.
The pair married fine women who bore them many children. They saw statehood for Colorado, watched them build the city courthouse, saw the construction of the Colorado State Capitol Building, and observed the city grow and prosper. Both were upset when “City” was dropped from Denver’s name. They spent their old age telling their great grandchildren about the day they almost killed their best friend, and other less outrageous adventures in their long lives.
Sometimes death doesn’t come in a flash of anger from your best friend. Sometimes you both miss the mark. In the words of the preacher that Sunday, “Hallelujah, glory be to God, sometimes, boys, missing the mark ain’t a sin.”