Western Short Story
October 28, 1868
Lincoln and Nick had ridden from Lily
Smoot’s ranch north of Cheyenne to Laramie in the expected day and
a half. Now, after only two hours in town, the two of them were
leaving their third failed set of parlor house negotiations.
“Sorry kid,” Lincoln said. “Lily and I should have known this was no job for a fifteen year old kid. Not even a tough one.”
“I’m okay, Lincoln. It’s fun.”
“I didn’t mean that it wasn’t fun for you. It just might not be good for talking the girls into coming with us.”
“We’ll see. I’m much less intimidating than you, Lincoln. It might well work out. You find the right girl, and let’s see if I can convince her to come back to the ranch with us.”
“It’s just that this is much worse than we thought. We knew that four thousand men have arrived here since the rails got here six months ago. And that seven hundred girls arrived right after them, all working in the saloons and cribs. What we didn’t know is that there’s clearly no law here able to protect anyone. Let alone a working girl in town.”
“There any truth to that woman’s claim that the girls are afraid of their employers, the three half-brothers who run the town at the end of their rifles, and now even you?”
“She seemed sincere enough. Not much point in lying to us as we walked out the door.”
The two stepped out of the mis-named Gilded Lily and came face to face with a man wearing a badge.
“You two looking for anything in particular?” the badge asked.
Lincoln looked him over. The badge said sheriff, but the man’s appearance said deputy. He was small in stature and even smaller in presence.
“Who’s asking?” Lincoln asked.
“I’m the sheriff here in Laramie. People are saying you two boys don’t fit the mold of the usual customers we’ve been getting at the cribs. It raised my curiosity. Some other folks, too.”
“Fair enough, Sheriff,” Lincoln said. Nick, bigger than the sheriff, had moved off to the side, naturally deferring to Lincoln. “The two of us are ranch hands from a ranch being built north of Cheyenne. The ranchers asked us to come to Laramie looking for people to join up with us.”
“Well cow hands mostly. But yes, sir, whores too. My boss is of the opinion that some of the girls take to whoring less than others and don’t view it as a lifetime career.”
The sheriff looked over at Nick, and then back up at Lincoln. “I’ve pretty much discovered the same thing about deputies here in Laramie. What’d you say your name was?”
“Lincoln. Joe Lincoln. I’m the ranch foreman. This here’s Nick O’Reilly.”
“Tell me a little about yourselves.”
“You interview everybody passing through, sheriff?”
Lincoln looked thoughtful as he gazed up the street, then back at the sheriff. “I escaped from a Charleston, South Carolina rice plantation in 1863, couldn’t find the Buffalo Soldiers I was looking for in Texas, met the Smoots in Colorado, and have been Lily’s ranch foreman for the past three years.”
“Three years? There was no Cheyenne back in 1865, Mr. Lincoln.”
“You’re right, and I hear there was no Laramie up until six months ago.”
The sheriff nodded, shrugged. He signaled Lincoln to continue.
“We traveled from Denver to the Oregon Trail and then started a ranch in the Owyhee Valley in Oregon back in sixty-five. We left Oregon last spring, and arrived north of Cheyenne, in the Chugwater Valley, early last month.”
“And you, Nick?”
“My family came over from Ireland in sixty-five. The rest of my family were killed by a Soshone war party on the Oregon Trail. The Smoots took me into their wagon the rest of the way and hired me on as a ranch hand.”
“How old are you, kid?”
The sheriff looked up at Lincoln. “Mr. Lincoln, I’m guessing Nick here has had more experience gathering cows than whores.”
“Me too, if you want to push me on it,” Lincoln said.
The sheriff let that sit in the air, while he appeared to appraise Nick.
“Here’s my problem, Mr. Lincoln,” he said. “I’ve been having what you might call a control problem with some of the local elements in town. Most of my deputies decided it would be a better career, as you call it, working with thieves and murderers who control the saloons and cribs than working with me. Most of the people coming here had hoped to be able to make an honest living providing food and drink to the railroad workers and soldiers. But it’s not working out that way.”
“And you wanted to see whose side we were likely to be on? Two guys who just rode into town?”
“The two of you aren’t what normally rides into Laramie. You called attention to yourselves with the nature of your questions. Your negotiations in the parlor houses were, well, they were unusual.”
“And, as I said, you wanted to see which side we were on?”
“Likely to be on is more like it.”
“We’re not likely to be here long enough to take sides, Sheriff.”
“As luck would have it, you have to decide now.”
Lincoln smiled, cocked his head inquisitively down at the sheriff. “And why is that, sheriff?”
“Because a group of vigilantes have had enough. They’ve decided to take matters into their own hands tonight. This was a bad day for you to just wander in, Mr. Lincoln.”
“You suggesting we just ride on back to Cheyenne before we’ve had a chance to finish our business?” Nick asked.
Lincoln and the sheriff looked over at him.
The sheriff ignored him and turned back to Lincoln. “I’m guessing you have a pretty good feel for fairness and justice, right Lincoln?”
“We both do, sheriff,” Nick said before Lincoln could respond. “What’s your point?”
Now both men looked at Nick, amused at the boy’s impatience.
“My point is, Mr. O’Reilly, that on any other day, anybody could just ride into Laramie and buy or rent anything they darn well pleased. Most likely they could finish their business and keep on riding. But even on normal days, a few aren’t so lucky. They wind up staying against their will, buried outside of town.”
“And today?” Lincoln asked.
“Today, everybody’s either hiding or taking one of three sides. And each of the three are going to see you two as a possible threat or a possible help. I’ve already had four people coming running to me about you.”
“This is some town, sheriff,” Lincoln said. “We’ve been here all of two hours and have already had four people recommending us for jobs to the sheriff.”
“Three.” He looked back and forth between the two men. “One nominated you for target practice.”
Two hours later, as the sun began to set into the purple mountains looming over the small town, the three were sitting in the sheriff’s office.
“Only thing I don’t understand sheriff,” Nick said. “Is why you just don’t approach the vigilantes yourself? Enlist them as deputies?”
“I can answer that for him, Nick,” Lincoln said. “Because then his deputies have to arrest them and hold them in that jail back there until a trial. The problem is back again when they break out or are freed by a judge or a jury.”
“Or freed by their friends,” the sheriff said.
“I thought you pegged us as caring about justice?” Lincoln said. “If you’re right, we wouldn’t be the vigilante kind.”
“I did. And I still do. I just have more confidence that justice’ll be best served if the two of you are here with the vigilantes tonight than if you were riding back to Cheyenne.”
“Or buried outside of town,” Lincoln said.
That night, by prearrangement, Nick and Lincoln were at a side table in the Bucket of Blood Saloon, each sipping their second whiskey. One of the half-brothers had been tending bar when they arrived. There were eleven other men drinking at the other tables.
Now, the other two brothers walked in with three girls. Lincoln recognized two of the girls from the Gilded Lily, both staring at Nick. The third girl said something to the taller of the two brothers, looking at Lincoln. All five looked over. Lincoln tipped his cap to the girl.
The two brothers walked over.
“You looking for girls?” the taller one asked.
“No,” Lincoln said. “I was. But it was a bad idea. Didn’t work out.”
“Who sent you?” It was the other brother. The bartender was leaning on the bar, watching them. As was practically everyone in the bar.
“The rancher I work for. Over near Cheyenne.”
“What do you need girls for?” the second one again. “Not enough in Cheyenne?”
“I said it was a bad idea. We need girls and we need cowboys to work the ranch.”
“Cows too, I’d bet,” said the taller one.
“No. Plenty of cows to buy in Cheyenne. More coming up from Texas through Colorado. Why do you ask? You three looking for work?”
They both ignored the question. “Who’s this young fellow with you?” the taller one asked, either trying to be the meaner of the two, or actually maybe he was. “He the ranch foreman? Does he talk?”
“Nick? He usually answers direct questions. You got something to ask him, I’m sure he’ll answer you.”
“Hey, Nick. When are you and your boy, here, planning on leaving Laramie?”
The saloon had become quiet.
Nick looked at his drink. Looked over at the bartending brother.
“Well,” he said. “As Mr. Lincoln has explained to you, our plan failed. Our boss will want to hear soon as we get back. We were pretty much thinking of riding back in the morning. But now I think after our next drink will be a good time to leave instead. Unless your brother doesn’t want to sell us any more whiskey.”
The bartender held up an empty whiskey bottle. “I think my brothers are suggesting that the time for you two to move on has arrived.”
At that moment, four men walked into the saloon. They nodded to the brothers, then the girls, and walked over to the bar.
The two brothers left Lincoln and Nick’s table and approached the four men.
“What do you want Jim?” the taller brother asked. “You know you’re not welcome here at the Bucket of Blood. All four of you get out. Now.”
The two brothers drew their Remington revolvers on the four men.
“You going to shoot us down in cold blood right here in your saloon? That can’t be good for business. Word’ll get back all through the Territory.”
At that moment, three more men walked in the swinging door, each carrying a shotgun. The girls retreated behind the bar. The bartender pulled out a shotgun and placed it on the bar. It was pointed at Lincoln.
“I’m giving you fair warning,” the taller brother said to the man he had called Jim, ignoring the three newcomers. “You get out of here now and take your six friends with you. We’ll forget this ever happened the minute the doors slap your butt.”
“It’s you three who are leaving” Jim said. “Put your guns down there. On that table.”
“You don’t leave right now,” the taller brother said, “I’ll shoot you right where you stand. Self-defense. Creating a public disturbance. Threatening us. I assumed you were armed like your friends.” He shrugged. Said, “Your choice.”
“Actually,” Lincoln said, “the choice is yours, friend.”
The bartender reached for the shotgun. Nick waved him a warning gesture with his left palm as he aimed his gun at the bartender’s chest.
The other two brothers looked over their shoulders at Lincoln. Saw he was pointing his pistol at their backs.
“You going to shoot both of us, boy?”
“Like I said, and I just hate to have to repeat myself, it’s your choice. If one of the three of you pulls a trigger or even turns around, then the next three shots will kill you all. I know you’re armed, I don’t have to assume.”
The bartender stepped away from the bar. The other two brothers holstered their pistols. The man with the shotgun nearest the door motioned the girls and the other eleven patrons out of the bar. The two girls looked expectantly at Nick as they backed out the door.
“What now?” the taller brother asked after everyone had left.
Under the cover of the three shotguns, the four men who had entered first disarmed the three brothers and handcuffed them behind their backs.
“Now we’re going to kill you.”
Lincoln and Nick had accompanied the men with the three captives to a cabin less than a block away. The cabin was unoccupied and hadn’t been completely built. There were six other vigilantes there, with three other handcuffed men.
“Where’s Scotty?” one of the shotguns asked.
“He ran, so we shot him down. Left him lying on Front Street.”
“Yes. No point in dragging him over here.”
“And the three deputies?”
“They were out cold. Drunk in their cabin. We just shot them and left them there.”
“You are dead men.” It was the bartender brother. “All of you. We’ll be back.”
“We’re not sending you anywhere you can come back from. Only chance this town has is with you ten gone. Permanently gone.”
“Where’s the sheriff?” the taller brother asked.
“Sleeping the sleep of the innocent in his bed at the hotel. I don’t think he’ll be asking after you.”
One by one, they gagged the six men, and then lynched them from the cross beam. When they were all dead, they dragged the six bodies out and left them on the street.
The one the brothers had called Jim turned to Lincoln and Nick.
“We never got your names,” he said.
“That was the way we agreed. We never want yours either. We’re headed out of town. No need for names now.”
“You’re both welcome to stay in Laramie.”
“Thanks, but there’s nothing for us here. We found that out our first two hours here.”
“If you change your mind, I think I could arrange to make you half owners of a saloon down the block. It’s looking for new management.”
As Lincoln and Nick rode east by the Bucket of Blood on their way out of town, two horses emerged from the alley on the other side of the street.
Both men drew their pistols. Saw four hands up in the air and four terrified wide eyes.
“Can we please go with you?”
It was the two girls who had eyed Nick.
“We arrived in town five days ago,” the one on the left said. “The three brothers killed our brother and forced us to work at their crib, the Gilded Lily. Just before you left, the woman who runs it threatened to carve us up if we talked to you again.”
“We’d be happy to give your ranch a try,” the second girl said. “If you’ll still have us. I’m Lizzie. She’s Mary. You can always drop us off in Cheyenne if you change your mind.”
The two men holstered their pistols, rode over to the two terrified girls.
“No, you can come with us to meet our boss,” Lincoln said. “Then you can decide on your own what you want to do.”
“You’ll like our boss,” Nick said. “Her name’s Lily, but she’s not gilded.”