The rough draft saga continues.
It took a few hours to reach the town of Granite Falls.
I was edgy the entire way, watching for anything that might want to eat me. It was an uncomfortable ride. The pain from constantly shifting in the saddle coupled with my high level of alertness was exhausting.
Cresting a hill, I stopped Carbine. The town lay exposed in the center of a vast valley below me. It was a beautiful place for a town. Scenic, dotted with small stands of trees, lots of knee-high prairie grass and a gradual incline to the hills that surrounded it.
Personally, I always wondered why western towns never seemed to pick the high ground. It’s like town founders always wanted someplace pretty, instead of on top of a nice tall hill with an elevation advantage in case of an Indian attack.
Regardless of the lack of a tactical advantage, the location was beautiful.
The town was laid out with the main street running north to south. A half mile to the west a wide river flowed, cold and fresh, fed from melting snows and ice in the distant north. Train tracks came into the valley from that direction as well, running their thick log ties and steel rails across the river on a wood framed bridge and to the southern far end of town where the train station and corralled stockyards stood.
I hadn’t been here in over a month, and the place was growing.
In addition to the church finally getting its steeple and bell installed, two more buildings had gone up since my last visit. All nice and neat beside each other in the center of town, with a few more outlying buildings in varying stages of construction.
The single, wide street between the buildings ran over a quarter mile past them, through rows of mismatched tents used for temporary housing and small businesses, and ending at the train station where a locomotive was preparing to leave.
Probably five hundred people lived and worked in the town.
It was far too crowded for me. I didn’t particularly care for strangers and I preferred to keep a low profile.
Watching the busy town below me, I couldn’t shake the strange feeling that this was the calm before the storm, and something terrible was headed this way. Pushing the dark thoughts away, I touched my heels to Carbine’s flanks to urge him forward.
As I rode into the northern entrance to town, I noticed peoples questioning looks when they saw my battered face. I pulled my Stetson lower over my blackened eyes to avoid the attention.
Passing the newly steepled church, Reverend William stepped out from the shadows of its interior and gave me a friendly wave. A tall, thin man, he wore a flat brimmed black hat, white shirt with suspenders, and a black frock coat. As usual, he carried a dog-eared Bible tucked under one arm.
I gave him a wave in return, but kept my horse moving. He was a good Reverend. I got drunk once and found myself in his church one dark night, confessing to him about my previous sins. He was a good listener and nice enough to not have me arrested.
As for the Sheriff, I wasn’t overly concerned about him. We’d fought in the Nez Perce War together and the strange twists and turns of fate had brought us to the same town years later. But just because we trusted each other with our lives, didn’t mean I trusted him with my past. The less he knew, the better.
After tying Carbine to the hitch outside the Sheriff’s Office, I pulled a wrapped bundle from the saddlebags. Along with the bank, it was the most secure building in town with wrought iron bars over the windows and heavy shutters on the inside with firing ports. The Sheriff didn’t take any chances with security.
Stepping onto the boardwalk, I noted the Mayor’s Office in the building next to the Sheriff’s had curtains pulled across the windows and a padlock on the door.
When I entered the fortified building, Sheriff Dan was leaned back in his chair, feet propped on the desk, a cup of coffee in hand. The polished silver star on his chest shone from the early afternoon light that poured through the open windows. Old and stern, with a gray beard and bald head, he was the sort of man who would help a fellow out, or fill him full of lead.
He was a great Sheriff like that.
“Afternoon, Jed.” Squinting, he took in my black eyes and tender movements. “Rough night?”
Removing my hat, I waved off his concern. “Don’t worry, Dan. It was a fight against overwhelming odds, but I won.”
He shrugged and gestured towards the coffee pot. “As long as I don’t have to arrest you or anyone else.”
Taking the battered tin cup beside the pot, I glanced inside. It looked clean, mostly. Ignoring the small dark spot in the bottom, I poured. “Actually… we may have something of a rather large problem,” I took a small sip and grimaced. The coffee was strong enough to float a horseshoe.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“Be easier to show you,” I tossed the wrapped bundle at him.
Dan spilled his coffee as he attempted a one-handed catch. “Dammit, man!” He looked at the long awkwardly shaped bundle that landed in his lap. “What’s this?”
“A small part of a big problem. Go ahead and look. You wouldn’t believe me otherwise,” I dropped into the chair opposite him and tossed my hat on his desk.
He kicked his feet off the desk and sat upright. Setting his cup on the cluttered desk, he began to unwrap the bundle. My eyes flicked to the board on the wall beside the cells with the Wanted Posters tacked haphazardly over each other. It was an old habit. I never knew if I might see myself or some old buddies on there or not.
As he removed the canvas wrapping, a set of three large black claws and a short length of forearm was exposed. The end was hacked off and white bone jutted from the stump.
He stared at it, mouth tight in a grim frown. “What in the hell is this from?”
“I don’t know. But I need you to come out and look at the rest of it,” I looked him in the eye. “If there are more of these… things that those claws came from, and I suspect there are, folks are going to die.”
I was worried he wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe what attacked my ranch. But the severed clawed hand seemed to do the trick for piquing his curiosity.
He nodded quickly, gently touching his finger to one of the claw points. “I want to see this thing. Today. Where’s the body?”
“It’s back at my place,” I grimaced. “What’s left of it that is.”
“What do you mean, what’s left of it?”
“I used some dynamite. Long story.”
He shook his head. “Alright, fill me in on the way. But give me an hour to wrap a couple of things up and for the deputies to get back.” He jerked his thumb towards a man snoring softly in one of the cells behind him. “I’ve also got a drunk with a busted head to kick out. You weren’t the only one who had an eventful night.”
I snorted. The deputies were his nephews. “You still using those two buffoons?” I couldn’t stand them. The feeling was mutual.
He glared at me. “Good help is hard to find. I offered you a badge, remember? You turned it down.” I did remember, and I was concerned it might burst into flames the moment I pinned it on my chest. Standing, I downed the last mouthful of coffee and sent my cup on his desk.
“And Jed? Try not to blow anything up while you’re in town.”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Dan,” I gave him a wink.
With a disapproving grunt, he wrapped the canvas back around the severed limb and tossed it to me.
Since I had time to kill, I put the severed claw back in the saddlebags and went across the street to the Bucket O’ Blood. The name was misleading. It wasn’t that violent of a place, but the owner was something of a joker who figured the name would spur interest.
Personally, I thought people tended to stay away from establishments where they might get killed. But I could use a drink, time of the day be damned. Hopefully, it would take away some of the dull aches throbbing through my body.
I pushed through the batwing doors and paused to allow my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. I hated this moment. It always seemed like a good time for a man with a grudge to plug you with a bullet.
After a few seconds and zero gunshots, I could see well enough to make my way to the bar.
Being midday, there wasn’t much going on. A few rough-looking characters at the end of the bar stared at me. One said something, and his friends laughed in response. With their filthy, torn and stained clothes they looked like miners blowing off some steam and probably pissing away whatever gold they’d scraped out of a claim. At least one had a pistol tucked into his waistband that I could see. A sawn-off shotgun rested on the bar amongst their bottles.
A couple of working girls lounged by the piano, talking in low tones and most likely, nursing hangovers. One raven haired beauty smiled at me, showing a wide gap between her front teeth.
Giving her a big grin, I tipped my hat in return. I didn’t partake in working girls, but I didn’t disrespect them either. My mother raised me right like that.
In the far corner, a man sat with his back to the wall, idly shuffling cards. His tan flat-brimmed hat was tipped low, obscuring half his face. An empty bottle and several glasses were scattered on the table before him from a game long finished. He had gambler written all over him.
Other than that, it was dead in here.
For a moment, I considered telling them I’d been attacked by a giant beast. But I didn’t want the reputation of being the local crazy who went around shouting about monsters in the darkness.
I’d let the Sheriff do that.
The bartender put down the glass he was cleaning with a filthy rag and walked over as I gingerly lowered myself onto a stool. He took in my face.
“You look like you could use some whiskey.”
“Yeah, the cheap stuff,” I didn’t think I’d be able to afford anything nice for a while. Stupid monster.
Reaching under the bar, he pulled out a brown unmarked bottle and shot glass. He poured a slug and started to put the bottle away, before looking at my face again and appearing to think better of it. He lifted the bottle questioningly.
There wasn’t a chance in hell I could drink an entire bottle and make the ride back home without falling off the saddle. But I could always cork it and take it home for later. I gave him a nod, and he pushed them both towards me.
I dug a couple coins out and slid them over.
Scooping them up, he pointed a finger at my face. “That looks pretty fresh. How does the other guy look?”
I decided to be vague instead of crazy. “A little rougher than me.”
The bartender must have decided he didn’t care to dig any deeper, and simply nodded. If I’d broken the law, my money was good up until the moment I was arrested. Why hurry things along with a paying customer?
“Where’s Left Arm?” I asked.
Left Arm O’Malley was the Irish jokester who owned the bar. A veteran of the War Between the States, he was missing his right arm. Hence, the name. Rumor was a cannon ball took it off at the Siege of Vicksburg, but the man himself always came up with new amusing stories as to how it happened. Last one I heard involved him being shanghaied onto a ship and a mermaid gnawing it off after a copulation of sorts. He was kind of an odd fellow like that.
“Took the train to Rock Springs. Family troubles,” he nodded at the bottle. “Let me know if you need another.”
“Thanks.” I wouldn’t. One bottle was more than enough for me.
The far end of the room was getting noisy. One of the miners looked down the bar before turning back and thumbing over his shoulder towards me. They weren’t even trying to be subtle.
I picked up the bottle and glass and moved to a table where I could keep an eye on the door and the miners, but also look out the window at the scenery. Right now, that consisted of Carbine across the street, lifting his tail and dropping a pile of manure.
I dropped my hat on the table and settled into a rickety chair that wobbled from uneven legs.
The gambler in the corner walked over. “Mind some company?”
The stranger wore a dark suit with a silver vest and had a fair complexion and blue eyes. For such a well-dressed, casual-looking fellow, there was something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. He gave off the impression that he wasn’t someone who shouldn’t be trifled with.
Even though drinking in silence appealed to me, I figured I might get some local gossip out of him. With a short nod, I pointed towards the chair beside him. “Suit yourself.”
He dropped the deck of cards on the table and shifted the seat slightly, moving to keep the door in view. As he sat, his coat flared open for a moment, revealing twin pistol butts sticking out of his vest.
Apparently, my impression was correct. He wasn’t a gambler, he was a gunman.
Waving his hand, he caught the bartender’s attention and gestured at my bottle and glass and then himself. The bartender brought another pair over and wordlessly set them on the table. My unnamed companion peeled a bill off a tightly folded wad of cash, handed it to him, and accepted his change in return.
Looking at me, he smiled. Bright white, straight teeth flashed as he poured a shot, then downed it in a single swallow. He slapped the glass onto the table and picked up the deck. Idly shuffling the cards between his hands, he squinted at me from under the brim of his hat. “Care for some poker?”
“No thanks. I never was any good at cards.”
He re-shuffled and pushed them to the side of the table, before straightening them into a neat stack with his fingers. “Me neither, but it passes the time.”
I doubted that, I knew a hustle when I heard one.
“Maybe we both just need more practice,” he offered.
“Oh, I’ve had enough practice losing to know when I should stop.”
He chuckled. “No offense intended, but that’s a little funny coming from a man with two black eyes and a busted scalp.”
“The only game I’ve broke even in is the one of life or death.” I took a sip of the rotgut whiskey. It was awful. I fought to keep my face from pinching up at the taste. “But eventually, the house always wins.”
“I’ll certainly drink to that.”
“Please do.” We both topped off our glasses.
Loud, raucous laughter drifted over from the miners. One of them leaned back against the bar and stared in our direction. He was a big man with chubby red cheeks and crossed arms over a belly hanging over his belt. He looked like the sort of bully who had always been big and became accustomed to getting their way out of fear and intimidation with size alone.
I immediately disliked him.
He smirked. The other miners remained hunched over the bar, their backs convulsing with laughter and occasionally taking peeks at our table.
My drinking companion glanced at them before meeting my eyes. “I think they’re making fun of you.”
“I think you’re right.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
I shrugged. “Sure, it does. But I also don’t feel like brawling. My face hurts, along with everything else.”
“The lady by the piano seemed to think you were handsome enough. Women like scars. This might be a good chance for some more.”
I laughed, a bit too loudly. If only he knew the number of scars I had. There was such a thing as too many. “I’m even better-looking without these bruises,” I joked as I reached across the table and introduced myself, “Jedidiah Smith.”
He looked at my hand for a moment before shaking it firmly. “Wesley Clemmons.”
“Hey, YOU!” The yell came from the end of the bar with the miners.
I sighed and turned towards the obnoxious group.
“Yeah, you. With the ugly face,” the big man staggered away from his snickering companions, a malicious grin stretching across his reddened face. He was looking for trouble, and who better to pick on than someone already wounded. The bartender edged away from the miners as the working ladies turned to watch.
Wesley winked at me with a sideways grin. “Trouble seems to follow you.”
I ignored him and took a heavy slug, this time straight from the bottle. If this went badly, I might as well dull the inevitable pain beforehand.
The drunk man stopped in front of us, rocking back on his heels. He laughed harshly. Spit flecked out of his mouth and landed on the table. Wesley raised an eyebrow at him.
The drunk turned to me, his words slurring. “Yeah, you,” he snorted. “With a face like that, you remind me of the last squaw I had.”
Oh lovely, an abuser of Indian women. I sized him up.
He was an ugly, mean looking fellow. A front tooth was missing, others were yellowed and rotten. Black stubble decorated his large jowls. He outweighed me by a good thirty pounds and reeked of booze and stale sweat.
With his friends watching, I knew I wasn’t getting out of this without a fight. And since the smartass in me couldn’t keep quiet, I figured I may as well go all in. “Was she blind or dumb?”
“Blind… wait, what?” He looked baffled at my unexpected response and squinted, trying to focus on me then swayed and staggered, almost losing his balance. He grabbed the top of a chair to steady himself.
Wesley laughed and sipped his drink.
The drunk’s confusion turned to anger. “Listen here, you-”
I cut him off, my temper flaring at the man who was bothering me with the intent of impressing his obnoxious friends. “Because any woman who would willingly have a fat, nasty slug like you must be blind, dumb, or both.”
His face flushed crimson, veins bulged on his broad forehead as he reached for me.
I stood swiftly. A flash of surprise crossed his face as I knocked his arms aside, stepped close, and swung as hard and as fast as I could. The uppercut connected beneath his chin with a meaty thud that sent a bolt of pain shooting down my wrist.
I’ll give him credit. I put everything I had behind that blow, and he didn’t have a glass jaw.
Instead of dropping, he staggered back a couple of paces, rubbed the stubble on his chin, and looked a whole lot angrier and sober.
Wesley chuckled and refilled his glass.
The miner bent and lunged forward, his shoulder driving into my waist and pushing me backward as we fell together. Our combined weight was more than a match for my rickety chair. It shattered, broken boards dug and jabbed into my back as we grappled on the floor.
Gasping from the miner’s heavy weight pressing down on my chest, I punched him in the side repeatedly with no noticeable effect as he drunkenly threw haymakers at my face. I took several glancing blows along the skull before he hit me solidly in the face. My nose bore the brunt of his fist. The pain was excruciating. My eyes watered. The next punch busted my lips, and the taste of blood filled my mouth.
My vision went red as anger and pain burned through me. Reaching between his arms, I grabbed the sides of his head and dug my thumbs into his eyes. I was going to gouge them out of his skull for his transgressions.
He screamed and shoved himself backward, jerking his head out of my grip and rising unsteadily on his feet.
Scrambling to my feet, I spat blood and wiped away the blood dribbling from my nose with the back of my hand.
He swayed drunkenly, rubbing his eyes and squinting as tears streamed down his face.
Behind him, I saw his friends straighten from where they watched. One grabbed the shotgun off the bar. They didn’t look happy.
I didn’t care. I was too pissed off now to stop.
Closing in, I grabbed the big drunk by his collar and belt buckle. With a sharp pivot, I felt stitches tear across my chest as I hurled the heavy man over my hip onto the top of the table. Wesley jerked his glass out of the way as the table shattered, scattering bottles and playing cards across the floor.
He grunted on impact, gasping for breath, his eyes wide with the sudden shock and pain.
My face and chest hurt something fierce. Dropping to one knee, I grabbed him by the front of his dirty shirt and jerked him up as I slammed my fist down. His head snapped backwards as blood splattered from his smashed lips.
He gurgled something through shattered teeth that didn’t sound like an apology.
I smashed my fist down again. His nose crunched beneath my knuckles, and his eyes rolled back into his skull. I dropped him on the shattered remains of the table and chair. My breath came in ragged gasps, and all my previous injuries hurt anew. But compared to last night’s monster, this guy wasn’t squat.
Reaching across his unconscious body, I grabbed a bottle that lay gurgling as it poured out cheap booze and took a healthy swig through busted lips. The whiskey burned like a red-hot poker on the way down. It felt wonderful.
“Get offa him!”
His friends had reached us.
The two other miners stopped a couple of feet away and they weren’t laughing anymore. One was young and wore a derby hat cocked at a foolish angle, exposing greasy hair underneath. He carried the shotgun, with a wild, drunken look in his eyes. The other one appeared a little soberer and eyed me warily as I noted the revolver stuffed down the front of his trousers.
“Look what that sumbitch did to Timmy!” The man with the shotgun shouted as he pointed the short barrels towards his friend on the floor.
I slowly pushed myself to my feet and looked for the bartender. O’Malley kept a shotgun under the bar for stopping things just like this from going too far in his establishment. But the bartender wasn’t in sight. That was just peachy.
The ladies had disappeared as well. Fist fights were considered good entertainment. Gunfights, not so much, and no one wanted to take a stray round from a shootout.
The sober one looked me up and down before putting a hand on the hothead’s shoulder. “Let it go, it was just a bar fight. He didn’t start it and he took his licks.”
The one with the shotgun shrugged off the hand. “Don’t matter. He almost killed him!” His small beady eyes glared from under his ridiculous hat. “You’ll pay for that.”
I flexed my hands to loosen them up, they trembled from excitement, and my knuckles were skinned raw and bleeding. Drawing was going to be difficult. But I couldn’t help myself and shoved the unconscious miner with the toe of my boot. He moaned pitifully. “Pay for this, huh? What’s this sorry turd worth to you?” I grinned at my own joke painfully.
The wild eyed drunk jerked the shotgun up and shoved it in my face.
I stared down the large double barrels. The shotgun was a ten gauge by the looks of them. Things were about to get very western in here.
“How about I blow you through that window?” he sneered.
None of my options were good, especially with a drunk wild card behind the trigger. The best I could hope for was his inebriated state would slow down his reflexes. I braced myself to slap the barrel away and draw. Maybe I’d get lucky. If I didn’t, it’d be a quick, messy death.
“Easy gents. It’s over. No need to for this to get any uglier,” Wesley spoke up, his voice calm and even. He still sat in his chair, his body turned to face them. He gave an easy smile, before knocking back his drink without taking his eyes off them. He rested the empty shot glass on his leg.
The shotgun hammer cocked loudly, as the hot-headed miner swung the barrels towards Wesley. “Try and stop me, you pretty boy dandy-”
Wesley’s first shot caught the miner in the throat, while the second burst through the bridge of his nose and blew his derby hat along with a spray of blood, brains, and bits of bone a good six feet behind him. The shotgun clattered to the floor as the dead man collapsed in a heap.
If it hadn’t been for the sudden appearance of two holes, I’d have sworn it was one shot. The Colt Lightning that magically appeared in Wesley’s hand turned, unwavering, at the last man. His other hand still held the empty shot glass in place.
The dead man’s partner froze in shock. Droplets of gore splattered his face and shirt. A wet patch spread from his thigh, running down his pant leg and into his boot. He slowly raised his hands, eyes large and frightened. “No! No! No trouble here.”
“Keep your hand off that pistol, and there won’t be any,” Wesley said, his voice suddenly hard and all the easy-going attitude gone.
The miner carefully kept his hand away from the gun as he slowly gestured towards the unconscious man with a shaking hand. “Just… Just let me get Timmy, and we’ll go,” his voice trembled and quavered.
“Go ahead. Then git.” Wesley twitched his pistol barrel slightly towards the door in emphasis.
I put my bloodied hands on my hips and tried to breathe around the blood clogging my nose. I suddenly felt tired.
The man roused his friend enough to pull him to his feet. The drunk managed a couple steps before a leg buckled and they both almost collapsed to the floor. The unwounded miner shot us a glare, before steadying his semi-conscience friend and half carrying him out the door.
Wesley covered them with his pistol until they were out of sight, then twirled the gun in his hand before smoothly sliding it into the holster hidden under his coat.
“It appears we both made some enemies,” I said flatly, probing my teeth with my tongue. None felt loose, thank goodness.
“Anyone worth a hoot has them. You just got to outlive them is all,” he patted his concealed pistols to emphasize his point. “But you were right, Jed. You do seem to win the ones that matter, if only by a slight margin.”
I nodded slowly and unbuttoned the top of my checkered shirt to look at my chest. Several of the stitches had torn through the skin, and small droplets of blood beaded and trickled down my stomach. I was going to have to get myself sewn back up again. “This time, you were that slight margin. It might have gone differently without your help.”
“I’d rather have kept out of it, but I do detest people shooting my drinking partner.”
Leaning forward, he rifled through the dead man’s pockets, and carefully shifted his boots to avoid the growing pool of blood. He pulled out three gold eagles and several folded bank notes. Keeping one coin for himself with the paper money, he handed the other two shiny gold eagles to me with a conspiring wink. “This is for our emotional distress over this sad matter.”
I shrugged and accepted the coins. Looting the dead was nothing new for me, and most likely they’d be snatched up by one of the working girls, or that cowardly bartender before the Sheriff arrived anyways.
We shook hands.
“Really, Jed?” Wesley held his hand up to show that I’d smeared blood on it.
I laughed and rebuttoned my shirt.
Since Wesley didn’t seem interested in the shotgun, I scooped it off the floor on the way out. It was an old Stoeger Coach shotgun with exposed hammers. My guess on the gauge was correct, it was a big ten. The barrels were cut down to a foot long and the stock had been shortened into a rounded grip. A handy size, with a helluva kick and the ability to make big holes in a man. And it was mine now. To the victors go the spoils.
I stepped out into the sunlight just in time for the bartender to step onto the boardwalk with the Sheriff.
Dan took in my freshly bloodied face and he sighed angrily. “Jed, what did I just say?”
“Hey, I didn’t blow anything up! Besides the other guys started it. We were minding our own business, sipping whiskey, and one of them started a brawl. After I beat his ass, another one threw down on us with this scatter gun,” I raised my new shotgun for emphasis before jerking my head towards the bar. “The fellow in there shot him. It was self-defense.” I didn’t mention that I started it by throwing the first punch. But I’m not the sort of man who gives anyone a free swing at me before I fight back. If you can, hit first, and hit the hardest.
Dan pointed at the shotgun. “You know that’s evidence, right?”
I shrugged and tried to look sufficiently innocent.
“Fine. I know where to find you anyways,” he looked at me sideways. “Do I need to get one of my nephews to escort you around town? You seem like you’re having a hard time staying out of trouble.”
The last thing I wanted was one of those deputy clowns following me around, and he knew it. I also knew it wasn’t an idle threat. “I’ll try harder. Promise.”
Dan shook his head in disgust and walked past me into the saloon with unhappy looking bartender in tow.
I went to find Doc.