Western Short Story
It was a black and bitter cold night in the little mountain town of Peace Creek, the streets were still and lifeless. The wind drove small flicks of icy snow that would cut right into your face and sting like little cactus needles. They sparkled like thousands of tiny diamonds as they danced and reflected the light coming out of the windows of the only saloon in town. The lettering on the false front sign on top of the building could just barely be made out from all the snow build up―
♠ ‘HIGH SPADE SALOON - Heck’s Place’ ♠
It was just past midnight and Friday night poker could last into the early hours of morning and sometimes longer if any card-sharps were in town.
The wind and the muffled clip-clop of hooves on the frozen snow covered street were the only sounds before a shadowy figure on horseback appeared in the small glint of light coming out of the windows of the saloon. A tall sturdy man sat in the saddle and when he came into the light his solemn carved features revealed a man of hard experience and profession. He swung off his big paint and tied him loosely to the rail. The man stepped in front of his horse and stroked his head as he assured, “Warm bedding’s a comin’ later, Duce.” The big paint nodded and snorted as if he understood.
He stepped up onto the boardwalk, the wood boards popped and creaked due to the cold as the man walked across to the door and peered with squinted eyes through a small clear spot he rubbed into the frozen window glass of the door with his gloved hand before entering. He slipped in closing the door gently behind and started removing his gloves; his eyes almost hurt as they adjusted to the light. He stuffed the gloves in his coat pocket as he looked around and evaluated the place. Though he was a big man, only a few of the twenty or so patrons bothered to give more than a passing glance to the new arrival. Most were focused on playing poker, others were at the bar engaged in conversation while drinking mugs of beer or throwing down whiskey and taking long draws off of tightly wrapped cigars. No one he was looking for was there. At six feet, tall or more, a week’s growth of beard added ruggedness to his weathered, aged and deliberate expression. His dark blue eyes narrowed as he moved through the smoke-filled room to the bar. A husky full bearded bartender pushed a rag back and forth. “Whisky…leave the bottle.”
The bartender sat a bottle and a glass on the bar, “That’ll be four bits.”
The stranger lifted off his hat exposing a full head of graying, black hair and laid the hat on the bar. Then he opened his coat to reach into his pants pocket for a silver dollar and tossed it on the bar. “Thank ya barkeep. Keep it.”
“Thanks mister. Ya new to these parts are ya?”
“First time I’ve been here, yeah.”
Pointing with his head to a sign on the wall as he wiped the bar off with a rag, the barkeeper said, “We-l-l, we got a, no guns allowed law, in town. Just so you’ll know. I ain’t tellin’ ya what to do or nothin’. Just thought ya otta know.”
“Thanks. I’m for stayin’ within the law.” The stranger threw down a shot of whisky he had poured for himself.
As he poured another shot a young, clean-shaven, neatly dressed man with a Deputy Star pinned proudly to his vest, quickly walked over from a table where he had been watching a poker game and stood eye to eye with him. The young man was tall and slimly built with grey eyes and a thin light brown mustache. The young Deputy had noticed the stranger’s bone handled, nickel plated, .44 Remington when he had opened his heavy corduroy coat. “I’ll take that six-shooter from you right now, Mister.”
A stiff grin formed on the corner of the stranger’s mouth. “What’d you say, sonny?”
The young Deputy responded boldly, “I said, hand over that shootin’ ir’n, before I have to take it from you.”
The grin on the stranger’s face now turned into a full smile as he spoke. “Ya know, as much as I would like to see you try that, I’ve got to let you know, we’re on the same side.” With that the man peeled back his coat to expose a United States Marshal badge pinned to his wool vest lapel.
The barkeeps face lit up, “Yeah―yeah, I know you. Yer Noah Dunavan, ain’t ya?”
The stranger kept eye contact with the young Deputy, “Yeah, that’s right. How do you know me?”
“I was tendin’ bar back in Abilene the night you took on the Chandler gang.” The big-eyed bartender excitedly addressed everybody in the room, “Shot all three of’m dead, before they hardly cleared leather.”
The young Deputy did not lessen his stance. “That right mister, you Noah Dunavan the famous lawman?”
Again, a smile formed on Noah’s weathered face. “Well, I’m sure enough Noah Dunavan. And, I’ve been a lawman for near thirty years. Famous? More likely, ill-famed, if you ask around.”
“We got all the law we need around here, with me and Marshal Witter in charge…”
Noah’s eyes focused curiously on the Deputy, he interrupted, “Marshal Witter? You ain’t takin’ about Hank Witter from out of Texas, are you sonny?”
“I ain’t no damned sonny. And yeah, I’m talkin’ about Marshal Henry Witter. He’s been town Marshal here for over six years.”
Noah’s cock his head and raised his brow as if he was recalling past times. “Is, that a fact. Why don’t you go get him and tell’m you got some big fella that won’t surrender his gun down here?”
The Deputy shook his head. “Are you kiddin’ mister? He’s home in bed with his wife, I’d reckon. If you want somethin’ told him, you do the tellin’ yourself in the mornin’, when he gets to his office.”
“Well, guess that might be better. I’ll do that. Just don’t let him know I am here.”
“I’ll prob’ly be sleepin’ by then anyhow. I take it you know Marshal Witter from the past?”
“Yeah―way back. Hank’s married, settled down to being a local lawman. Who’d marry that ol’ buzzard?”
“He was married when he came here, his wife’s name is Chelsie.”
“Chelsie? Chelsie Lancaster from Abilene?”
Annoyed, the Deputy wrinkled his face, “All I know mister, her name is Chelsie Witter.”
“Chelsie married Hank Witter,” Noah clucked his tongue, “Well, that’s good, I reckon.”
“Alright Deputy, I’ll come in the morning. Hope he’s in early. I got serious business to talk over with him. Do you fellas know where I can catch a couple hours of shut eye for now?”
The bartender still beaming, “I can give you a room with a bed upstairs for a dollar. And, I’ll even throw in a lady for another two dollars. It usually three, but for Noah Dunavan, two bucks.”
“Thanks, but no thanks on the lady. Put a cork in that bottle and I’ll be back as soon as I bed down my horse for the night.” Noah, left the Deputy standing there and headed for the door.
Seven o’clock in the morning, Dunavan was at the Town Marshal’s Office, he walked right in. Marshal Henry Witter was sitting at his desk with his head behind a newspaper. Without looking up, “Well, what’d ya forget, Deputy?”
“You the Law around here?”
Marshal Witter put the newspaper down a bit and looked over the top, “Yeah, who wants to know?” The Marshal’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the man walking toward his desk.
“Dunavan’s the name, Marshal.”
“Well―I’ll be damned. Noah Dunavan, you ol’ coot. I never thought I’d see yer sorry face again.”
The two men reached across the desk and shook hands firmly. “I heard you went back to Missoura after that mess was cleaned up in Abilene? My gosh how long has it been, seven...eight years, I reckon, huh?”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that, Hank.”
“Hank? Nobody’s called me that, except Chelsie, in a long time. I married her ya know?”
“Yeah, I heard. Your Deputy told me.”
“You’ve met Brit, then?”
“Yeah, if that’s your Deputy’s name. Cocky young fella. Thought, I was gonna have to shoot’m last night when he tried to take my gun.”
“That’s his job. Well, what brings ya here, Noah? I’m sure it’s not just to criticize my Deputy.”
“No, yer right. I came to warn this town and the local law that the Crawley gang is headed this way to rob your bank.”
Hank raised a brow, “Why would that bunch wanna rob our little bank? I’d hardly think it would be worth their while. Hell, the High Spade Saloon’s probably got more money than the bank.”
“Usually that’d probably be so, but the train is gonna drop off a large mine payroll shipment. It will be held over here for a week before it is picked up by a special transport to take it on to Denver.”
Hank sat back down in his chair, “Why didn’t someone just send a telegram? I could have just hired a couple extra Deputies. We would’ve been able to handle those four. They didn’t have to send you here just to tell us that.”
“I got assigned to Wyoming, two years ago. Maybe, you ain’t heard, Pearce Jackman and his boys joined up with the Crawley’s. They’ve been robbin’ trains and banks for the last year or so all over the northwest. There was ten of’m up till last month. I come across Texas Black Jack Graham, caught him in a brothel in Laramie. He tried to shoot his way out of the place, so, I had to kill’m. Now, countin’ Ed Crawley’s woman Paula Simons, there’s still nine of’m to deal with. She’ll usually come in town to look around and then report back to the gang. That bunch certainly don’t mind killing anybody that gets in the way of what they want, they’ve killed three so far.”
“Seems to me, it would be easier to just rob the special transport on its way to Denver.”
“You’d be right, but the transport is gonna be guarded by six ex-military men and a wagon with a Gatling-Gun mounted in it. The mine leased it from the Army and hired these guys to escort the shipment to Denver.”
“Ain’t that a little extreme?”
“Maybe, but there’s $65,000 cash and maybe another 10 to $15,000 in open bank drafts in the shipment.”
“Why didn’t they send some people up here to watch over the bank while the money was here?”
“Good question, Hank. Can’t answer that, I guess that’s why they sent me.”
“Sounds pretty dog-gone strange to me. And, why are they leaving the money here for a week and not sending it directly to Denver?”
Noah shook his head, “Awe…got something to do with a bank back east messing up the date on delivery. The mine has got to figure payroll before it arrives and that has to wait for the end of the month.”
“Still, don’t sound quite right or make sense to me.”
“Yeah, I know, when do bankers ever make any sense.”
“Well, I can find maybe, two fellas I can deputize and trust to be skilled enough with a gun to depend on. But, other than that, this town ain’t big on sticking up for itself and volunteering to engage in gun play. That’s why they insisted on passin’ a no guns in town ordinance.
“How’d they find out about this payroll shipment anyway? Seems to me, they’d want to keep that information pretty much to only those who had to know.”
“I don’t really know. I’d guess maybe, some loose lipped employee or telegraph operator. Fortunately, a good Samaritan cowboy heard some of the gang members talkin’ in a saloon over in Casper and reported it the local County Sheriff who informed the US Marshal Office and that’s why I ended up here.”
“You’re all there is for a gang that size?”
“Well, I’m the only US Marshal up this way right now.”
Hank frowned, “I don’t like the odds.”
“Sorry Hank, it is what it is, am afraid.”
“Yeah, I’d suppose so. You got a place to stay?”
“I’ve got a room over at the saloon. It’s not bad. At least I’m sleeping in a warm bed.”
“Why don’t you come join Chelsie and me for supper tonight? I married her after you left.”
“Yeah, how is she anyway?”
“She’s good, darn good. She’ll be happy to see you after all these years. Hell, we figgered you were probably dead by now.”
Noah smiled, “Yeah...well, if ain’t putting you out none, I’d like to join you fer supper.”
“Okay⸻ You know, Noah. I owe you a debt of thanks.”
“Yeah, how’s that?”
“Well, if you hadn’t left Abilene. I probably wouldn’t have her. We have a good marriage, she loves me Noah, and I love her. Nothing’s ever gonna get between us. Our little girl, Becky, is six. Apple of my eye, that girl.”
Noah gave a half smile, “No worry, my friend. I would never even consider causing your family any grief in that respect.”
“Good- good, we’ll be expecting you about six then. My house is down at the end of this street. White house, with a picket fence, right before the livery.”
“White picket fence, imagine that. Now that’s the good life.”
Hank smiled, “Yes, it is.”
Noah had cleaned up, trimmed his mustache and shaved, even had a new shirt on as he pulled his watch out of his pocket standing in front of the door at the Witter’s house on the porch. It was 10 minutes to the hour, he removed his hat and dusted the snow off his coat with it before he knocked at the door. The door opened shortly, and there stood Chelsie, little Becky hanging on to her mother’s leg. He gazed briefly into Chelsie’s gentle light brown eyes and admired her long golden brown hair. His mind questioned, why did I ever leave her behind in Abilene? He knew the answer; it was his duty to go and do his job as a Peace Officer. “Why Chelsie, it’s good to see you.” He went down on one knee. “And you, you must be Becky?”
“Ye-s. How did you know my name?” the little girl asked sweetly.
“Oh, I’ve heard about you, and I’ve found out that your mommy and daddy love you very much.”
“I know that to-o,” she said cheerfully. “What is your name?”
“Well, why don’t you call me, Uncle Noah.” He stood up and looked into Chelsie eyes again. “If that’s alright with your mommy? ―Hank invited me for supper.”
“Yes, of course, I know. I guess that would be alright. It’s good to see you are alive and well. Don’t stand there with your hat in your hand, come in.”
“Oh, sure…sure. Thanks,” he stepped inside.
“You can put your hat and coat on the hooks behind the door. Hank’s out back chopping some wood, he’ll be in in a minute or so. Make yourself at home. I am just finishing up in the kitchen. You can help Becky set the table if you like…Uncle Noah.”
“Sure, I’d be happy to.”
Becky showed him where the table settings were in the sideboard. She was very instructive about where everything went and how it was to be placed. As they were finishing up, Chelsie came in and started placing dishes of delightful smelling food on the table, a roast, potatoes and such.
“So, Chelsie, how’s life been for you since Abilene?”
“Simply wonderful, Noah. Did you honestly expect me to wait on you forever? No letters, no word of any kind. After six months, I gave up. Hank was very kind and understanding and he is a good man. I love him, he and Becky are my whole life and I have no regrets. If anything, ever were to happen to either one of them, I really don’t know what I would do. I’m not sure I could go on. It’s been a good life here.”
“But, you married a lawman? What sense does that make. You always hated my job.”
“Yes, but Hank didn’t become a lawman until we moved here. Besides that, he doesn’t go traipsing all over the county to do his job. He’s home every night for the most part, and he has only had to kill one man since we have been here.”
“Well Chelsie, I’m glad you found your happiness and what you wanted out of life. Just like I told Hank, I want you to know, I would never do anything to disturb that. Me, I do have regrets. But, I’m just a rambler, can’t stay put. The job has its dangers, and I suppose, I’m just akin to it.”
At that moment, Hank kicked open the back door and came in with a huge arm load of wood, the wind was up again and blew a cloud of white cold powder in with him. Chelsie rushed over and closed the door. Hank, stood briefly and glared at Noah, then he smiled, nodded, and dumped the wood into a box by the stove. “Gettin’ darn cold out there again,” he said.
As Hank stripped off his gloves, coat and hat, Becky came over to him, “Daddy, Uncle Noah’s here and he helped me set the table.”
“Uncle Noah, huh? Well, ain’t that interesting. How nice of him to help.”
“Are we ready to eat?” asked Chelsie.
“Yeah, let’s sit down,” replied Hank.
Noah had not had such a wonderful home cooked meal since he left Chelsie in Abilene. He was expecting to dig right into the good things in front of him, but he noticed everyone else had their heads lowered waiting for Hank to say thanks. “Oh,” he said embarrassed. Embarrassing Noah Dunavan wasn’t something easy to do but, when Becky gave him a curious look, he lowered his head too.
The meal was full of small talk about past days and people in Abilene and what had happened since then. Hank had owned a freighting business with three wagons, he also ran a mercantile there. Noah, mostly talked about desperadoes he had brought to justice throughout the Mid and Northwest.
After supper and the table was cleared, Hank sat two small glasses on the table and a bottle of aged Canadian whiskey. He pulled the stopper and poured Noah’s glass a quarter full and then his own. Chelsie and Becky were doing dishes a few feet away at the sink that had an inside pump.
Hank downed his drink in one swift tilt back of his head, Noah did the same. Hank poured the Canadian again and repeated the action. Noah lifted his glass and admired its dark brown contents. “Boy, it’s been awhile since I’ve had any of this.”
“Ye-ah, I keep it on hand for special occasions. Now Noah, I want to ask you about this money shipment and some of the details that don’t quite fit together for me.”
“Shore Hank, but do you think we ot’ta talk in front of the ladies?”
“Well, it’s about Becky’s bed time, and, Chelsie is quite aware of what goes on in this town. There’s little I keep from her.”
After drying her hands, she came over and put her arm around Hank’s shoulders, “I knew you weren’t just passing through, Noah Dunavan,” Chelsie said. “Just what’s going on here?”
“Well, Noah’s been telling me that a very large shipment of cash and bank drafts is coming to our little town and we are going to keep it in our bank for a while.”
Chelsie eyes were serious and her lips tightened, “There’s more to it than just that, isn’t there? Otherwise, Mister Noah Dunavan wouldn’t be here with his badge shinning bright in our faces.”
Hank shifted uncomfortably in his chair, “Now Chels, you’re right. But calm down and don’t be judgmental.”
With puckered lips and mad eyes, she asked, “Well―What?”
Hank sensed what was coming, “Pearce Jackman and the Crawley bunch are coming to rob the bank.”
“There is, of course, going to be more than just you two and Brit protecting the bank, right?”
“Well, if I can deputize, Fred Poulson and Willy Johnston, the odds will be better.”
“What? The odds will be better? Just how many are in this bunch?”
“Maybe, you’d better go on and put Becky to bed, Chels. And, then we’ll all sit and talk about this.”
“All right, Hank.” Chelsie told Becky to say good-night to everyone; she was sitting and playing with a doll on a rug on the floor.
Becky, followed her mother’s instructions without any question, she went to her father and gave him a tight huge and peck on the cheek, “Good-night, Daddy. I love you very much.”
“Love you too sweetie. Good-night.”
To Noah’s surprise, Becky came over to him and said good-night and gave him a big huge too. “Well, good night little lady. Shore was nice meetin’ such a pretty girl as you.” Becky smiled. Chelsie took Becky’s hand and they went off to the bedroom.
Noah was noticeably uncomfortable about how the conversation was going. Hank had poured them another shot, Hank once again threw his down in one tip of the glass, Noah was sipping his when Chelsie returned to the room.
“I want to know this whole story,” Chelsie demanded as she sat down at the table beside Hank and glared at Noah.
Hank, told Chelsie all the details that Noah had spoken to him about. When he was done, Chelsie glared at Noah and spoke venomously, “How dare you bring this down on us and put my husband in such danger. You’re an unfeeling, uncaring, son-of-a-bitch, Noah Dunavan.”
Noah looked into Chelsie’s eyes and pointed a finger as he replied, “NOW, just wait a damn minute here. I had absolutely no idea, who the law was around here, before I came. I didn’t bring nothing down on you intentionally. That’s just the way it happened to turn out. I’m just doing my duty as an officer of the law.” Though Noah would never admit to it openly, it hurt him deeply to have Chelsie so upset with him.
“He’s right Chels, he had no way of knowing. Noah’s just doin’ his job, that’s all.”
With her light brown dagger piercing eyes cutting a hole in Noah’s soul she said, “It’s always the damn job with him. If anything happens to my husband, I…I will never forgive you. In fact,” she threatened, “I might just get me a gun, and kill you myself.”
Hank took her arm and said, “Chelsie, that’s enough. Just let it be.”
“O-h-h, you men. You just…” Chelsie’s eyes filled with tears, she stood and stomped to the bedroom. Noah hated how this had turned out, in his toughened heart he still cared for her as much as he ever did. He didn’t want to do anything that would hurt her or her family.
“Sorry Noah, this ain’t easy for her.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“This still don’t seem to wash? You’re not tellin’ me everything, are you?”
Noah looked down at the table briefly and then went eye to eye with Hank. “Well, no, I’m not. I reckon you got a right to know it all. You see, this whole thing is a set-up. There’s not really any cash shipment. Oh…there’s gonna be a strong box delivered sure enough, but there’s no real money in it. It’s just bait to get the gang in town, so we can get’m.”
“I thought so. But, why the hell did you pick my town? And, what keeps that bunch from robbin’ the train before it gets here?”
“There’s 30 troopers and their officers traveling on that train and Jackman knows it. Not to mention that Gatling Gun I was talking about. The plan was to draw the gang here with the rumor of the bait money. We figured the Town Marshal here would be able to gather most of the town after learning the gang’s intentions. Are you sure you can’t get more than two men in town to help handle this situation? The U.S. Marshal service is pretty slim on help up this way. That’s why I’m alone.”
“I take it, there’s no wagon with hired men comin’ neither?”
“Well, no need if there’s really no money.”
“Now hell, why don’t that surprise me none? I’ll do what I can to find more help. All I can do is try, just ain’t too many fellas in this town that can handle a gun, or wants to for that matter. Oh, I’m not sayin’ they’re cowards, they’re just simple town folks, with little experience in such matters. We’ve never had any reason for a call to arms.”
“I guess it’s time for me to leave. I’m sure I’ve worn out my welcome. Sorry about upsetting Chelsie so; I never meant to come into your home and cause a ruckus.”
“Oh, I can’t say I’m crazy about the situation, but we’re lawmen, we gotta do what we gotta do. Besides, Chelsie’s high-strung, you know that, she’ll be settled down tomorrow.”
“Well then, I’ll see you at your office in the mornin’ and we’ll see if we can’t set up a plan. Thank you for yer hospitality, and be shore and let Chelsie know how much I enjoyed the meal, it was wonderful. Becky’s a great little kid, you got cause to be proud.”
“Thanks Noah.” Hank got up and as he handed Noah his coat and hat from behind the door, he said, “Well, see ya.”
It was a cold, bitter, nights walk back to the room at the saloon, in more than one matter of speaking. Noah, just couldn’t get Chelsie out of his mind. No doubt about it, he still cared for her and her happiness was a major concern of his. Sadly, he had to admit to himself that Hank was a better husband for her than he ever would have been; heck, he probably would have never even asked her to marry him. Just the same though, her being so upset pained him greatly. There really was nothing he could do about it, except, to make sure that nothing happened to Hank. As bushed as he was, he slept uneasy that night.
Early next morning, Noah and Hank were in the office talking. “Well Noah, the train will be here this afternoon. When do you suppose, they’ll try and take the bank?”
“I’m figgerin’ Paula might already be in town, if not, she will be soon. If she comes in today, they’ll probably hit the bank early Monday or the next day. Might just be a good idea to check the hotel and see if any single women or couples have registered recently. When we know how many men we have, we’ll make plans on how to deal with this bunch.”
“Yeah,” responded Hank. “I’ll check the hotel, and then I’ll see how many gun hands I can round up.”
“That’d be good. Make shore of these men, cause, if they ain’t got some experience, they shore might end up dead. I know you don’t want that on you. Right now, I’m afraid I ain’t gonna be much help to you until the action starts; Paula knows me and I don’t want anything to tip them off. So, I’d better lay low and keep outa sight. Maybe, I should stay here in the jail until then.”
“Just leave me all the work, huh?”
“Don’t worry about it, I was just funnin’ ya,” laughed Hank. Then he got up from his desk, put on his coat and hat, before he buttoned his coat he pulled his Colt and checked the load. “I’ll be back in a while.”
“Yeah. Hey, how ‘bout ya bring me back some breakfast. I’m hungry enough to eat the butt end of a skunk and use his tale for a tooth-pick.”
“I think Chels might have some biscuits and gravy left over from our breakfast. I’ll bring ya some.”
“Thanks, my friend, much appreciated.”
About three miles out of Peace Creek in an old trapper’s cabin, Millie, Pierce Jackman’s common law wife, who had joined them after their last job, and Paula had just finished serving a breakfast of fat-back and black beans.
Jessup Crawley, Ed’s cousin, complained, “Al’m shore the hell tard of eatin’ stinkin’ beans.”
“Quit your damned complaining. In a few days, we’ll be eaten three-dollar steaks in Kansas,” said Jackman.
“Mebee so, I’m still sick of beans.”
“Shore would feel better about doin’ this here job if’n those Cooper boys hadn’t lit out on us like they did,” said Bean, who had got the nick-name because he was a string-bean of a fellow, the latest member to join the gang and who was somewhat of a worrier. “Both’m boys were handy with shootin’ ir’ns.”
“Ya fret too damned much, Bean,” said Ed Crawley. Ed wasn’t the hardest man of the bunch; however, he was the undisputed leader of the gang. He had been a Union Infantry Lieutenant and knew how to take charge and lead men.
“Hell,” said Pearce Jackman, a man who had grown tired of being a trail-boss leading cattle drives before turning to a life of lawlessness, “we got Slick Wilson with us, he’s worth double them boys when it comes to handling a gun in a head-to-head fight.”
“Hey, them boys didn’t just light out on us,” said Ed. “Their maw’s sick and dyin’. I don’t blame’m, I’da done the same in their boots.”
“Well yeah,” replied Bean, “I reckon so. But, al’m thinkin’ ol’ Noah Dunavan, might be around. Hells far, he kilt, Texas Black Jack Graham, whilst he was on top a whore.”
“Black Jack, was a damned fool,” said Slick Wilson. “Hangin’ round whores all the time, just ain’t healthy.” Slick Wilson was a hard-hearted killer. On the gangs, last train robbery, a woman had refused to give up her wedding rings and other jewelry. She degradingly scolded her husband for being too frightened to say anything. Slick threatened to cut off her fingers to get them if she didn’t hand it all over. She could see in his eyes he would do it, so she took off all her jewelry and handed it to him. He turned and started to walk away, the woman just couldn’t leave it be though, she stood up and started screaming profanities at him and calling her husband a ‘useless spineless wimp’, for letting it happen. Very coolly, Slick pulled his .45, aimed it, and said, “Ah, shut the hell up.” Then he turned and shot the woman in the face, just as coolly, he holstered his pistol and walked away.
Slick had once faced Noah Dunavan in Abilene; he had just shot a young cowboy for interrupting a conversation he was having with the bartender. Noah met him in the street on his way down to investigate the shooting at the saloon. Noah had been informed that Slick was the one who had been the shooter. They stopped about eight feet apart facing one another, each aware of the other’s reputation. Noah instructed Slick to ‘hand over his six-gun’. Slick thought about drawing down on the lawman, he was no dummy though, he realized being as drunk as he was, not having his full faculties, was no way to face a man of Dunavan caliber. So, he handed him his pistol. Slick spent the night in jail and the next morning the day court ruled it, self-defense and turned him loose, which pretty much irritated Noah to no end.
“Hey Slick,” asked Jackman, “what do you think of the possibility of Dunavan bein’ here abouts?”
“He bleeds, just like any other man,” replied Slick coolly.
“Well hell,” laughed Jackman, “there ya go. Dunavan ain’t no issue. Ya know, I wouldn’t have taken on those Cooper boys had I known they were such momma’s boys.”
“No difference, one way or the other,” said Ed. “We’re gonna take that bank Monday morning. Paula, when you two get done cleanin’ up, I want you and Millie to take the buck board into town and check in at the hotel. Look things over and see if there’s any sign of Noah Dunavan. Okay?”
“Sure Ed, me and Millie well do our part.”
“I’ll send Sarge in tomorrow night and you can fill him in on what you find.
“Bean, speakin’ of Sarge, go on out and relieve him so he can come in and get somethin’ to eat. He’s been out there goin’ on four hours.” Donny Bennett had been a Sargent under Ed’s command and stuck with him after the war, he was loyal as a man could be to another, willing to lay down his life for Ed. They had fought some hard fights side by side and saved each other’s lives more than once. There was very little they wouldn’t do for each other, if anything.
Back in town the weather had cleared, the sun was shining and some of the snow was starting to melt on the streets.
Hank returned to his office troubled and angry. Noah was sitting behind the desk with his feet propped up on it. Hank entered in such a mood that Noah swung his feet off the desk and let them slam to the flood. “What’s wrong, Hank?”
Hank walked over to the desk and gave Noah a scorching look and tossed a half dozen wanted posters on the desk. “And, just when was ya gonna tell me about Slick Wilson bein’ part of that outfit?”
As Noah looked over the posters he started to explain, “I told you that the Jackman outfit had joined up with Cra...HA... HA, HA…”
“What in hell are ya cackling’ about?”
“Look,” Noah said as he spun a poster around with his hand and put his finger on a spot on the it. “That,” he laughed hardly able to speak.
Hank looked down at what Noah was pointing at and broke into a pretty strong belly laugh of his own. This is what they saw―
-WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE-
Peaches Wilson-(Alias)-Slick Wilson
When the humor faded somewhat, Noah still chuckling a bit said, “I knew he shot his first man at age 14 fer making fun of his name and now I see why.”
“Yeah…Peaches. I ca…can’t get over that- Ha, ha, ha.” It started again.
Finally, they got themselves under control and Hank said, “Dam-it Noah, I can’t ask the citizens of this town to go up against men like…Peaches-muph...hee-hee.” It was hard for Hank to talk again thinking about that name for one of the most desperate men he had ever heard of. “Sorry,” he said getting himself under control, “I won’t ask inexperienced men to get themselves killed for this.”
“Ya want you and me to go up against this bunch by ourselves then?”
“Well, we have my Deputy, Brit. He knows what it was he was signing up for when he took the job. And, he don’t rattle easy.”
Noah wasn’t afraid of the odds, he had been in dire situations before, his concerned was about keeping Chelsie’s husband alive. “Well, it’s your town and your call. But, are you shore you couldn’t get just one good gun hand stationed on a roof top with a rifle?”
“May-be...,” answered Hank, “It wouldn’t be as dangerous as facing them in the street. I can certainly see where that would give us a lot more of an edge. And, I know just the man for the job, he’s an old Indian fighter and a crack shot with a rifle, Willy Johnston. I think he’d be pretty eager to get in a good scrape again. Okay Noah, if he’s willing, we’ll do that.”
Noah felt a lot better now that Hank had agreed to do that, it still was a challenge, but a man on a higher level with a rifle would definitely give them a fair advantage.
“No sign of Paula yet. But, I’ll check again later. Hope there ain’t no more surprises out of this situation.”
“No, you know all I know. Hey Hank, some breakfast?”
“Oh, yeah sure, I’ll head down home and fetch you some biscuits and gravy now.”
Paula and Millie checked into the hotel about eleven o’clock, registered as saloon entertainers and went straight to their room. After freshening up some they headed to the High Spade to look around and make a pretense of seeking employment. No more than twenty minutes after they left the hotel, Marshal Witter came in and checked with the clerk. Suspecting that these ladies, might be part of the Crawley outfit, he put the clerk under an oath not to tell anyone he was asking about them.
Hank went directly to the High Spade Saloon to confirm their presents; sure enough, the two women were auditioning for Heck Porter, the owner of the High Spade, and they weren’t bad entertainers. The girls undeniably had some experience. The High Spade hadn’t had any dancers since a mature, busty, red head, named Sweet Betsy Pearlman had drank herself to death about a year before. Easily recognizing Paula from Noah’s description, Hank didn’t want to hang around and maybe tip them off, so he left after having a beer.
He was curious as to who the second woman might be, ‘another damned surprise’ he thought. He went back to his office and informed Noah of what was going on. Noah figured the second woman could be Jackman’s common-law wife, Millie.
“I expect they’ll be ridin’ in Monday mornin’ around eight or nine o’clock when the bank opens,” said Noah. “I figger we ot’ta hit’m face on. If I know Ed Crawley, he’ll be as intimidating as he can by showing their strength. They’ll ride down the street abreast. Ed, Jackman, Slick, and maybe Donny Bennett in front, the rest behind side by side. You and me can stand back in the alley beside the saloon up from the bank. We’ll give yer Deputy that coach gun hangin’ on the wall there, that’ll carry some respect for him in front of those hard asses. He can come out on the other side of the street. We’ll all step out and hopefully get the drop on’m.”
“Thanks for plannin’ this all out for us Noah,” said Hank a bit brashly.
“Well hell, if you got a better way of dealin’ with this bunch, just speak right up ol’ Pard.”
“So far you’re doin’ alright. I might have something to add somewhere along the way though. Go on ahead there.”
“I think if you put your man on the roof of the saloon behind the false front sign, that’ll be a good position to watch the street and the bank; he can pick’m off from behind. What do you think Hank?”
“Thanks for askin’…Noah. Okay, I can go along with that. I’m thinking we all should have a specific target if they decide..., or should I say when they engage in gun play.”
“Darn good idea Hank. I’ll take Slick, if I know him he’ll be the one who’ll make the first move.”
“Alright, and I’ll take on Jackman, and Brit can blast Ed and Donny with the scatter gun or whoever’s in the front row. Willy can handle those in back from the roof with his rifle. Hopefully any left will call it in and give up, if not we’ll just have to keep shootin’ ‘til they do.” Hank looked up at the clock on the wall. “The train will be here in about an hour, I better be there to meet it.”
“Yeah shore, sorry I can’t go with ya. And Hank, when the shootin’ starts, we should just keep goin’ until it’s over. That bunch are all man killers and they won’t give up ‘til the last man’s down.”
“Well, let’s hope it don’t go that far,” Hank replied as he opened the door. He paused, looked back at Noah, “Little chance, huh? We’ll all be fighting for our lives.”
Noah just gave him a sobering nod.
The two women took a tour of the town after the audition; everything was fine as far as they could tell. When Sarge, came in that night to pay them a visit, they reported that ‘everything looked good to them’.
The train was right on time. An Army Captain stepped off the train to meet Hank on the depot platform. After a formal introduction, the Captain sent armed soldiers, a Sargent, a Corporal and a Private to escort the large strong-box to the bank. Hank felt pretty sure that the Army Officer was way too serious about it to be in on the ruse.
Saturday and Sunday, Peace Creek lived up to its name, things were pretty quiet in town. There was lots of beautiful sunshine and above freezing temperatures, copious amounts of water ran off buildings as ice and snow melted and made the streets a muddy mess. Noah was getting antsy staying at the jail all the time, but he dared not show his face and maybe tip off the gang’s women that he was there in town.
Noah had cleaned his .44 several times and all the guns in the jail he could find. He had run across a Colt .45 and a box of cartridges for it in a drawer, and after cleaning it he decided he would put it in his belt as a back-up.
Hank and Noah decided to have everyone go to their positions, keeping out of sight as much as possible, early Monday morning before seven. A one or two-hour wait would be worth it if they could catch the gang off guard and maybe get the drop on them.
The young Deputy Brit, had been in and out of the office a number of times over the last few days; him and Noah showed a lot more respect for each other since that first night in the saloon. The Deputy was more matured than Noah had given him credit for. The young Deputy was smart enough to realized that this was going to take cooperation on all their parts to pull this off successfully. Hopefully, with none of them getting killed. Noah’s main focus was especially on Hank, he intended to do everything he could to keep Hank safe for Chelsie and Becky.
Finally, the time had come to take their positions. Before they left the Marshal’s Office, Noah reminded everyone, “Don’t get excited, take yer time and make every shot count.”
Hank added, “We can do this, fellas, if we just keep our heads.”
Hank and Noah took their position in the alley next to the saloon in thick, soupy mud, almost ankle deep. Noah gave Hank a very troubled look and said, “Hank, there’s somethin’ else I want to tell you about.”
“What the hell is it now? You forgot there’s a half-dozen more of’m, or what?”
“No. Nothin’ like that. What I do know for sure, is that within a year, the rail-road is gonna put in a new spur and bypass this town. I’m figgerin’, that will pretty well turn this place into a ghost town, in a short period of time. Me bein’ a United States Marshal makes me ineligible to collect any reward money, not, that I care much anyway. Not countin’, Pe…hee-each’s⸻ the rest of the gang together, there must be seven…eight, maybe even nine thousand dollars, total, reward money on that outfit. You and those other boys ought to collect that reward money. If you wanna keep Chelsie happy Hank, you need to get outa the law business, take that money and get into somethin’ else. Maybe buy some more freight wagons, you were successful at that. You don’t need to be a lawman, yer better’n that, and Chelsie deserves better’n that.”
“You’re sure about that spur?”
“Yeah, I was in a government office when the railroad people filed right-of-way papers.”
“Well hell, you’re right about this town, without the rail-road this town will go down pretty quick.
“About the reward money though, we got to first survive the day. And, I’m a lawman too; besides, I like being a lawman.”
“Bein’ a local town Marshal doesn’t keep you from collecting the reward money. As far as bein’ a lawman is concerned, there is gonna come a time bein’ married to Chelsie, that yer gonna have to make a decision and I think it best be made now. I mean, with this little town goin’ down yer goin’ have to find work as a lawman somewhere else. That means things are gonna be a lot different. Chelsie and you love each other and you got a great little kid there, so don’t take a chance on spoilin’ it by bein’ stubborn like I was my friend.”
“Well, thanks for the advice, Noah,” said Hank. “But, I think I know Chelsie too. Besides, I want to pay attention to the matter at hand for now.”
“Well,” said Noah, “I don’t know what the outcome of today’s gonna be, so, I wanted to tell you now, and not put it off. You know what’s comin’ and it’s your decision to make.”
“Yep, I understand. Let’s just hope this goes without too much of a fight ol’ friend. Oh, and Noah.” Noah look into Hank’s eyes. “I appreciate your concern.”
“Yeah,” Noah replied uneasily.
After waiting in place for quite some time, and several peeks around the corner of the building, Hank pulled his watch out and checked the time. It was three minutes of nine; the bank would open at nine. “Hmmm?” Hank sighed as he slipped his watch back into his pocket. Then he looked around the corner once again, but this time he ducked back quickly. “How many did you say there’s supposed to be?”
“Paula’s accounted for, so there should be eight,” replied Noah.
Hank gave a quick, but cautious look around the corner again. “Nope, there’s only six,” he said.
“Let me take a look,” said Noah as he stepped around Hank and glanced around the corner. Sure, enough there was only six riders. “The Cooper boys are missing. Well hell, wonder if they ain’t hidin’ around some place? That ain’t the way Ed Crawley does things; he comes in full force. Somethin’ musta happened to those boys. We ain’t got time to change the game now, and they’re lined up just like I thought they’d be.”
There were four men in front and two in the back coming down the street. From Hank and Noah’s side of the street on the right, in front was Slick Wilson, Peirce Jackman, Ed Crawley and Sarge (Donny Bennett), the other two Jessup Crawley and Bean were in the back.
As they got within a few yards of the alley where Noah and Hank were, Noah pulled his six-gun and cocked it, holding it down beside his leg. Hank did the same. Then they slopped their way out in the mud into the street in front of the riders. Brit came out at the same time from the other side, with the .8-gauge coach gun, raised and ready.
“You boys ot’ta throw up your hands and give it up today,” commanded Hank.
“Hell…I knew it. Dunavan’s here,” called Bean.
Ed answered firmly, “Not today, or any other day for that matter.”
“We don’t need blood here today. But, if that’s how you want to play it, then that’s sure enough what you’ll get,” replied Hank. “You’ll all get a fair trial, if you just give up your guns and come along peaceably.”
Slick had his left hand on his saddle horn and his right hand on a pearl handled, nickel plated Schofield .45. Slick leaned back in the saddle keeping hold on the .45 and said with a grin, “Seems I remember― you, and me got some unfinished business; I ain’t all liquored up today, Dunavan.”
“Well ya know,” replied Noah, “today might just be a good day to take care of unfinished business… Peaches.”
Slick’s grin quickly faded into a scowl and he jerked the Schofield from its holster to fire, but Noah had raised his Colt from his side and placed a slug in Slick’s forehead before he could level the six-gun. Before he rolled back off his horse into the mud in the street, he squeezed the trigger of the Schofield, sending a bullet into the head of Jackman’s buckskin right behind its ear.
Next: everything happened at once, everyone went for their guns, the Deputy let go with both barrels of the .8 gauge opening up Sarge’s mid-section and tearing into Ed’s right forearm as he pulled the trigger on his pistol shooting Hank clean through his left shoulder. Hank shot Jackman full in the chest as his horse fell into the muddy street, right before Ed’s bullet ripped through his shoulder. One of the two men in the back row grazed the Deputy’s upper left arm as he was trying to hurry and reload the shotgun. Before, either one of them could shoot again, Willy shot each one from behind at his position on the roof.
As the tension of the fight started to ease, Paula came charging around the end of the saloon in the buckboard being pulled by two horse. As it slid around the corner into the street the wheels were throwing mud everywhere. Ed struggled to his feet, and as she slowed down, he somehow managed to crawl in the back, and they slopped their way out of town in the buckboard as fast as the horses could plow through the mud.
Nobody noticed Millie who had come out of the saloon when the shooting started. She was standing on the boardwalk watching the whole thing; nor did they pay much attention when she lifted her dress and pulled out a pocket pistol and aimed it at Hank. “You son-of-a-bitch, you killed my Pearce.” Hank, who had his pistol in hand over his wounded shoulder, turned to see who was talking just as she fired the .41 caliber pistol. Noah, who had spotted Millie a split-second before, quickly stepped in front of Hank with his Colt aimed at her and fired at the exact same time she did. He caught the .41 slug in his right upper left thigh. Millie was hit in the liver by Noah’s shot and stumbled into the street where she collapsed into the muddy street and died.
Noah hobbled over to a nearby hitching rail and leaned on it for support, his leg was gushing blood and he was growing weak fast, he slid down the post to the ground. The .41 caliber bullet had apparently severed a main artery, he was bleeding out.
Hank holstered his pistol and rushed over to Noah. He knelt on one knee in the mud beside him and struggled to pull off his jacket. When he finally did manage to get it over his wounded shoulder, he held it tight on Noah’s bleeding thigh. The wound quickly saturated the light jacket and Noah was starting to fade.
Suddenly, Chelsie was there squatting down beside Hank. Noah’s weak eyes stared into hers and he spoke shallowly, “Chelsie: I still love you. Always have.”
“Yes, I know,” she quietly replied.
Then Noah look at Hank and said, “Take good care of her ol’ pard, and, remember what I said.”
Brit came over and join them. “I’ll go see if I can find the Doc,” he said.
“Oh hell,” said Noah, “don’t bother sonny. I won’t be here long.”
“Hold on there, Noah, we’ll get you fixed up,” Hank said encouragingly, knowing full well that wasn’t so. “Go ahead Deputy- GO.”
“Thanks for the effort,” said Noah, “but we both know this is it. Do what I told ya, you won’t be sorry.”
Chelsie gave Hank a curious look, she had no idea what Noah was talking about.
Noah said, “Collect the reward money, Hank,” and faintly continued, “I’m tired. I think I’ll get me some rest now.” With that he let out his last breath.
Hank held his breath and had his bottom lip between his teeth as he shook his head. “Damn-it,” he said. He stood up and went around to see if anyone of the gang was still breathing. He found that Bean, though being shot in the back, had plenty of life left in him. Hank helped him to his feet, “Where’s the Cooper boys?” Bean explained about their mother taken ill and them cutting out. That was good to know; so, the fight was over, it was finished.
Hank and Chelsie made sure that Noah had a nice funeral and burial, with a gravestone that told of him dying as a lawman, upholding the law. Becky was very sad that Uncle Noah was gone. They knew Noah didn’t have any family so they sold his belongings and along with the reward money split it with Brit and Willy.
Sure enough, it wasn’t even a year later that the town started to die out because of the new rail-road spur bypassing the town. The saloon was the last business open when Hank moved Chelsie and Becky to Laredo, Texas. There he took Noah’s advice and started a freight business and was doing quite well until, the rail-road offered him a job as an agent, so once again he was wearing a badge and dealing with desperadoes. He couldn’t help it, it was in his blood now.