Western Short Story
Calico Split, out in Wyoming territory, is less than a ghost town now, a few stone foundations of fireplaces or hearths might be found with arduous search, and not much is known of its people, neither the upstanding types that establish and characterize all such places, and others, like those who hung at the edges, dark caretakers of secrets and enmity and the great unknown, but Gentleman George Q. Piersoll hangs on in legend and stories.
Such are the facts that came to me via an old journal that a newspaper editor kept as a personal log. No upstanding man in all of Calico Split, other than those hanging upright at the rail of Mike Murphy’s Last Hope Saloon, even those bent over and often at sodden soliloquy, had any idea of the information that had been preserved, about the banker, mayor and general store owner, George Q. Piersoll. He was a ladies’ man, bon vivant, stupid rich as some said from gold ore so wealthy in content that he could spill a ton of dust and not miss the risen cloud of wealth.
To say the least, what I discovered was not flattering, not to a man who kept his eyes on all of the state and wanted to be its top dog, for he had eyes that stretched that far, this western bon vivant, debonair, clothes model who invariably dressed like no other man in the region.
Piersoll’s initial entrance down the main street into Calico Split, a new town bustling with energy and hope, was a story in itself. Or, rather, it was two stories. One emanated from the physical appearance of his entrance, and the other was the intrigue and secrecy sitting in the background from that very same day, and somehow becoming the real fodder of the newspaperman’s journal, and thus it came to me.
For the first story, Piersoll was not alone on the big red horse he rode, a gallant entry making way, a hero in the offing. As he rode down the main street a ragged boy sat astride the saddle with him, malnourished, dim in the eyes, pain or loss or other caprice of life sharing time with him. Piersoll had discovered him alone in the mountains. The boy’s thin legs hung astride the saddle limp as old vines, and his arms, poking through a skinned hide, were just as poorly fashioned from want, hunger and ugly signs of self defense.
For the second story of that entrance day, becoming the matter of the journal, it was said that Piersoll walked into the bank to deposit a most valuable sum from his saddle bags, and less than two hours later, while the boy was being scrubbed down at the livery and provided clothes from the general store at his order, Piersoll walked out of the bank as the new owner of the Calico Split Bank. He immediately bought a new suit and eastern hat, sold his horse, and rented a room from Angel Tarvish, an extremely good looking, and young, widow. She lived in the nicest house in town, with a comfortable front porch holding four boarders’ chairs and a good barn to the rear.
Some people of Calico Split, noting developments, thought out loud, “The rich get richer while the rest of us sit still.” From that day on, George Piersoll was a constant subject of local talk, rumor and fact in the mix as such characters usually find themselves … or put themselves.
As for the boy’s emergence, his part of the story, Piersoll it was said had heard him crying from the darkness of a small cave obscured by a clump of brush he was riding past on his way through the mountains, and approached the cave cautiously. When he stepped on a rock, it flipped over and made an alarming sound. Another rock flew out of the cave and through the brush. It was later revealed the boy had been fighting off unknown creatures during his nights there; the area near the cave was littered with rocks and stones of all sizes.
He had red hair, freckles, a pinched face, but his chin seemed formed by stubbornness or family character. He looked to be about 11 years old, a bit wild-eyed but alert, and promised to be a decent looking young man someday. For that moment, the clothes he wore were remnants barely holding to form and had been repaired or replaced in part by natural skins of one sort or another; squirrel tail, rabbit fur, deer skin. An elk horn had been brandished as a weapon. But he succumbed immediately to Piersoll’s offer of food, easy takings where Mother Nature had been his demanding provider.
Piersoll, setting his rifle at beside him after securing his horse outside for the night, said, “Eat up, son, then tell me how long you’ve been out here. What’s your name? Where did you come from?” Not expecting any immediate answers from the hungry lad, he sat back with the long night at hand.
The boy, eating heartily, ravenously, ignored Piersoll for the time he chewed and gnawed at meat and bone, at bacon crumbs, at hardtack. All the while the sun was disappearing from the valley, the shadows marking the departure on cliff faces, darkness apparently not far behind in the steep valley. Sleep, most surely, trudged along in its wake. And natural night sounds began to come into play, to carry their tunes; a coyote signaled his presence or his need, a wolf sent out a distinct but distant yowl, and an owl muffled its whereabouts in nearby trees.
Night and darkness brought slow revelations, the boy, at length, talking in pieces, in short and quick collections of memories, visions, shades of recall, like gunshots at times, at other times like grasping at an unseen image, told Piersoll, the hand that fed him, much of the background of his situation:
“My father’s a prospector. He found a mine in a cave. Not far from here. Gold hanging off the walls. Chunks of it. Hit it with a hammer, it fell off. The Indians knew we were around. They never bothered us. We entered, worked, and left the mine in darkness. Every night. My older brother Jeff and me would take turns working with my father. Always at night. My mother died on the way out here. Someone had to keep the fire going at the night campsite. That was to keep the Indians away. Like we were just existing. Living on their land, but just existing, harming nobody. When we were moving about they didn’t bother us. ‘Don’t bother them, and they won’t bother us,’ my father used to say.”
Once in a while the boy would stop talking and eat again, chomping, chewing, his mouth full of anything he could swallow. He drank ravenously, a whole canteen grabbed from Piersoll’s hand.
“Then,” the boy said, “the Indians started looking at us kind of funny. Even from way off. They rode around in circles, like guards. My father took me to this place here one night and hid me. He said to tell no one about the mine. He’d be back after me. The noise came in the morning. All kinds of yelling and whooping. I heard screaming. I never saw my father or my brother Jeff again.”
“When was that? How long ago?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I put a stone on the back edge of the cave each night.”
Piersoll counted, in the dim light, at least two months of stones. “How did you eat?”
“I ate the insides of what I’m wearing. Besides, my father had hidden some food too. He was always burying things at night. That’s because he knew the Indians were watching us. I only went to get some of the food when I was starving, and at night. I didn’t want the Indians to see me, but I think they left, after a while. Like they might be looking for me some place else. I just stayed in here. They never came close. I found the traps my father left, and some food. Nothing else.”
“Did you trap much? Was it hard?” The admiration, and the curiosity, mounted in Piersoll.
“I set up things in the evening. What I caught I skinned and cooked in here. I guess that’s what I was meant to do.” A dawning came up in his eyes. “Will I have to live this way?”
“No, son,” Piersoll said. “In the morning we’re going into a new town. It’s called Calico Split. It’s a place I heard about and was headed there. Lots of opportunity for a couple of fellows like us, wouldn’t you think?” He patted the boy on the shoulder. “What’s your name, son? Your given name?”
“My father called me RD. That’s for Roger Dragonsweil. I’ll be RD forever, I guess. Not much else.”
Piersoll thought a while. “What if you had a whole new start in Calico Split and people called you plain old BillyBob and said you were my nephew. How’s that? No more RD. No more out here in this valley. No more Indians circling around all the time. Just us and the rest of Calico Split. It’s going to be a big, big town and we have to get ready for it.”
“I won’t have to eat what I catch? I won’t dress like this? I can sleep on a blanket?” His head began to nod an understanding, perhaps seeing a future different than he had envisioned a few hours earlier, the future fate had set up for him.
A day later they made their remarkable entry into Calico Split, from whence came some of the story you know, up to this point.
After that, after Piersoll rebuffed Angel’s advances, made other headways, bought a nice piece of land and had a new house built, worthy of a banker, BillyBob in tow all the time, his wardrobe constantly embellished, his hats becoming extraordinary hats for the region, ordered all the way from Chicago, life moved in a special routine. Every few months, Piersoll and a friend went off for a few weeks into the mountains and came back grubby and dirty and throwing their clothes away, and their saddle bags full.
Stories abounded about a secret cache of gold, a hidden mine, but nothing was ever revealed. Those who tried to get BillyBob to talk about his benefactor found him a most stubborn boy. It went this elitist way for six years. BillyBob grew into a strong but inert young man, rarely moving far from the house or the ranch outside of town, eventually spending practically all his time at the ranch and a new way of life for him. And Piersoll became dandier, more pompous, making his way with many women in the area, those women who found the gentlemen gaudy but attractive, and full of promise.
One day in his 17th year, BillyBob, in town from the ranch where he had spent all of the summer, was standing at the counter in the general store, talking to the clerk about a gun on display. Spinning about in the conversation by a sound that penetrated his deepest senses, he heard a somewhat familiar voice, and then saw a somewhat familiar form in a sombrero standing on the outside walk. The person was talking to another man, and stood mostly on one leg with his whole body bent in a caricatured stance, a familiar stance, resting but attentive.
Triggers of memory were being pulled. Signs and signals crawled into BillyBob’s mind. He saw the angle of the man’s head, the slope of shoulders, the blond hair at the back of his neck, the man’s height, weight, and general size. The building blocks were beginning to build. The tone of voice penetrated his mind for a second and third time, all the way back to the deepest part, the core of memory. Suddenly all that information and discernment barged atop him, those signs and signals, and then exploded into recognition.
It was his brother, his long-gone brother.
He rushed from the store with the pistol in his hand. “Jeffrey,” he screamed, “Jeffrey, It’s me, it’s RD.” His real name burst also with that recognition. “It’s really me, RD. Is that you? Where did you come from? Where have you been? Where’s father? What happened back there in the mountains?” The gun was still in his hand, waving wildly.
Jeff Dragonsweil almost drew his revolver, fearing he was about to be shot, as though he did not hear the words, only saw the gun-wielding youngster coming at him. But the voice, too, was the voice of his long-lost younger brother that eventually kept him from firing.
Surprise and lost love beamed on his face.
They hugged in the middle of the walk, two once-lost brothers, crying, screaming, hugging each other, dancing in the street like wild Indians, each thinking the other dead for those six long years. It was such a happy and joyous demonstration that the news ran rampant through the town, in and out of the livery, the barbershop, the general store, and every other building in town, including the bank.
Jeff, in a moment of calm, said, “The news is all bad, RD. Dad was killed when the Indians came in on top of him early in the morning. They killed him quick, with arrows, and took all they could find, and I was working in the mine that night, after he hid you. He told me to go to the mine and stay there until he came for me. He never came back. I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it. There were as many as 50 of them running around, grabbing stuff like it was a free-for-all. Dad said to stay hidden if anything happened. So you and I know he knew something was coming that night, like he could read them before they knew it themselves, and hiding you and me away for the night.”
“What happened then?”
“I hid for days, eating what I had. Then I took some gold in a few pouches and began to walk out. Two days later three gents in a wagon picked me up. They got real suspicious of my story, one I made up, and finally grabbed my gold after a couple of days on the trail. To get rid of me, like I never existed I guess, they trussed me up and then tied me on a raft going down a big river. I just rode along for two or three whole days and all the time I thought you were dead also.”
“How’d you get off the raft, away from the river?”
“It was some other Indians who found me on the water and cut the ropes. One of them, said his name was Bright Moon Alone, thought I was brought back from the dead, saying to his pals that I was ‘from across the big river’ was the way he put it.”
It was also noted by the newspaperman in his journal that when Piersoll heard the news about the boys’ reunion, he left the bank by the back door, mounted a horse at the livery, and rode out of town. He was never seen again. When customers demanded to see their money, the sheriff forced his way into the bank. The vault was empty except for a little bundle of daily operating money. The books, they found out, proved to be fixed, and Calico Split, that very day, started its descent into dust, started to die.
The journal of the newspaperman carried certain other results of the situation, because a check on George Piersoll’s past revealed that he had left Independence, Missouri with a dream in his kit bag but little else to sustain him in the far west. Many people over the years had headed west also ill-prepared for what they would come up against; but dreams and wide opportunity managed to carry some of them for great distances.
Piersoll, to those who had known him along the line, had exhibited no great talents, held a variety of jobs, none of which he was special at. His one great problem, many of them agreed, was that he liked to be grander than he was, all the time, and women found him extremely likable, also all the time. When likability came to reality, something fell flat on its face. One of those acquaintances said, “Old GP used to dress in dreams. If he’d a had tails out there on the trail or at a campsite, he’d a put them on and damned all tarnation ‘bout the remarks comin’ his way. Yessiree, life shore was grander for him, way he saw it.”
Another town drinking pardner somewhere along the line (his town’s gone now, too … Myrtle’s Bend, the one and only reference I have found for it was in the newsman’s journal), had this to say about Piersoll: “Nothin’ was too far in reachin’ for, even sittin’ still doin’ it, ‘ccordin’ to old George.”
The journal, in a kind of character accounting by the newsman, and a personal study, went on to develop more of George Piersoll’s make-up and his possibilities in the world, which apparently had been met, after a fashion and after a time.
There was one good trait, or discovery if you will, that came up in the charade on life by the gentleman from Calico Split … he left a note with a teller saying he had sold his ranch to BillyBob for the price of one dollar.
The ranch outside Calico Split, changed hands for a phantom dollar, not the only one ever handled by the banker.
Jeff and RD, or BillyBob as most people called him from the earliest, took over the ranch, but the bank, as a once-stable appearing institution, was gone to smithereens. The general store followed soon after many people left town. When Mike Murphy pulled stakes and left the saloon bone-dry, and the livery went empty of feed, there was little hope for Calico Split.
Now and then, even as the once sprightly town withered on the vine before their eyes, the two brothers would go off in search of the lost mine. They never found it.
But they had been provided for by the absent and gaudy gentleman banker from the dying and then dead town of Calico Split. The newspaperman called it a Robin Hood reversal of fortunes.
I bet he was dreaming of a headline for a coming edition.
Iron pyrite, fool’s gold.