The rough draft saga continues.
Part 1 Link – Click Me.
Cresting a hill, I slowed Carbine. The town lay exposed in the center of a vast valley below me. It was a beautiful place. Scenic, dotted with small stands of trees, lots of knee-high prairie grass and a gradual incline to the hills that surrounded it.
I always wondered why western towns never seemed to pick the high ground. It’s as though town founders always desired someplace pretty instead of a nice 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, the river fed from melting snows and ice in the distant north and ran over a large waterfall on the edge of the valley that the town got its name from. Train tracks came from the west as well, running on thick log ties and steel rails across the river on a framed bridge to the southern end of town where the train station and corralled stockyards stood.
I hadn’t been here in over a month, and the place had grown.
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 huffed steam and whistled as it prepared to depart with a load full of cattle and wool.
Probably five hundred people lived and worked in the town.
It was far too crowded for me.
Watching the busy town, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this a 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 the rutted wagon trail into town and down main street, 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 church, the Reverend stepped from the shadows of its interior and gave a friendly wave. A tall, thin man, he wore a flat brimmed black hat, white shirt, and a dusty frock coat. As usual, he carried a dog-eared Bible tucked under an arm.
I gave him a wave in return, but kept moving. He was a good man of the cloth. I once found myself in his church one dark night, confessing to him about my past life. He was a good listener who gave even better advice, and was nice enough to not have me arrested. Ever since then, I’d become part of his flock.
As for the Sheriff, I wasn’t overly concerned about him. I tried quitting outlawing once before and tried soldiering instead. It didn’t take, but that’s where I met our local Sheriff before he was a lawman. We’d fought together in the Nez Perce War and the strange twists of fate 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.
Tying Carbine to the hitching post in front of the Sheriff’s Office, I dismounted and pulled a wrapped bundle from the saddlebags. Stepping onto the boardwalk, I noted the Mayor’s Office with curtains pulled across the windows and a padlock on the door. Strange.
Walking past the locked building, I stepped through an open door. Sheriff Dan sat leaned back in his chair, feet propped on the desk, cup of coffee in hand. The polished silver star on his chest glinted from the light pouring through the open windows. A gun belt was strapped around his waist, and a Winchester repeating shotgun rested on hooks above his head. 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 as I removed my Stetson. “Rough night?”
I waved off his concern with the hat and a small smile. “Don’t worry. 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. So far, it’s been a pretty easy day.”
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 sip and grimaced. The coffee was strong enough to float a horseshoe.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“It’s easier to show you,” I tossed him the wrapped bundle.
Dan spilled coffee as he attempted a one-handed catch. “Dammit, Jed!” He held up the oddly shaped bundle. “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 down and sat upright. Setting the cup on the cluttered desk, Dan 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.
I didn’t see anyone I knew, but there were a couple of outlaws that I’d heard of before.
As he removed the canvas wrapping, a set of three large black claws and a short length of forearm lay exposed. The end was hacked off and bone jutted from the stump.
The lawman stared at the severed limb. His mouth twisted tight into 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’d been worried he wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe what attacked my ranch. But the large clawed hand seemed to do the trick for piquing his curiosity.
He nodded, gently touching his finger to one of the black claw points. “I want to see this thing. Today. Where’s the corpse?”
“Back at my place,” I grimaced. “What’s left of it that is.”
“What do you mean, what’s left of it?”
“Well… I used some dynamite to kill it. It’s a long story,” I took another sip of the strong brew.
He shook his head in disbelief. “Alright, fill me in on the way. But give me an hour or two to wrap a couple of things up and for the deputies to get back from their rounds.” He jerked his thumb towards a man snoring softly in one of the twin cells behind him. “I’ve also got a drunk to kick out later. 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.
Dan glared. “Good help is hard to find. I offered you a badge before them, remember? You turned it down.”
I did remember, and my concern was that I might burst into flames the moment I pinned it on. Standing, I downed the last mouthful of coffee and set the cup on his desk. “See you in a bit. I’ve got a couple errands to run.”
“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 sly 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 crossed 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 shot. But after last night, I could use a drink regardless of the time of day. Hopefully, it’d take away some of the dull aches throbbing through my body.
I pushed through the batwing doors and paused, blinking rapidly 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 no gunshots, I could see well enough to make my way to the bar.
Being midday, there wasn’t much going on. A trio of rough-looking characters at the end of the bar sized me up. One said something, and his friends laughed in response. They looked like miners blowing off some steam and probably wasting whatever gold they’d scraped out of a claim. At least one had a pistol tucked into his waistband that I could see. A sawed-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, showing me a wide gap between her front teeth.
Giving her a grin, I tipped my hat in return. I didn’t partake in working girls, but I didn’t disrespect them either. My southern, aristocrat 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 the top half of his face. An empty bottle and several glasses lay scattered on the table before him from a game long finished.
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 rag and walked over as I gingerly leaned against the polished bar. 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. Not until I made the long ride to the loot I’d cached. 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. The bottle was lifted questioningly.
I knew I couldn’t drink the entire thing and make the ride back home without falling out of the saddle. But I could always cork the bottle 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 gestured at my face. “That’s 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 jokester who owned the bar. A veteran of the War Between the States, his name came from his missing right arm. 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.
“He went to Rock Springs. Family troubles,” he nodded at the bottle. “Let me know if you need another.”
“Thanks, but I won’t.”
The far end of the room was getting noisy. A miner looked down the bar before turning back and thumbing over his shoulder towards me with a laugh. They looked like trouble, and weren’t even trying to be subtle about it.
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.
Dropping my hat on the table, I settled into a rickety chair that wobbled on uneven legs.
The gambler in the corner rose from his seat and walked over. “Mind some company?”
He wore a dark suit with silver vest and had a fair complexion and bright blue eyes. For such a well-dressed, casual-looking fellow, there was something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. But 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 just a gambler. He was a gunman.
Waving a 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 new drinking 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 the stack 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, still trying.
“Oh, I’ve had enough practice losing to know when I should stop trying.”
He chuckled. “No offense intended, but that’s a touch funny coming from a man with two black eyes and a busted scalp.”
“The only game I’ve won at so far is staying alive.” 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. A big man with chubby red cheeks, he crossed his arms over a belly hanging over his belt. He looked like the sort of bully who’d always been big and became accustomed to getting their way out of fear and intimidation based on size alone.
I immediately disliked him.
He smirked. The other miners remained hunched over the bar, backs convulsing with laughter and occasionally glancing at our table.
My drinking companion watched them before meeting my eyes with his. “I think they’re making fun of you.”
“I believe 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 all busted up. Women like scars. This might be a good chance for some more.”
I laughed, a bit too loudly. If only he knew the scars I carried. There was such a thing as too many of them. “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. “Jedidiah Smith…” he said the name slowly, as though suspecting it was fake. “I’m Wesley Clemmons.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Wesley.” I doubted that was his real name, but a lot of men change their names when they come west. Paired with the double guns, the man could very well be the sort to use a new name for every new town.
“Hey, YOU!” the yell came from one of 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.”
Ignoring him, I 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 stopped in front of us, rocking back on his heels slightly as he swayed. He laughed harshly. Spit flecked out of his mouth and landed on the table. Wesley raised an eyebrow at him in disdain.
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 making him angry might work out to my advantage, I figured I may as well go all in. “Was she blind or dumb?”
“Blind… what?” He looked baffled at my unexpected response and squinted, trying to focus on me then he swayed and staggered back a step, 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 at the confrontation not going the way he thought it would. “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 at his temples 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 fast as I could. The uppercut connected beneath his chin with a meaty thud that sent a bolt of pain shooting down my wrist as my knuckles connected.
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 several paces, rubbed the stubble on his chin, and looked a whole lot angrier and soberer.
Wesley chuckled and refilled his glass.
The miner lunged forward, his shoulder driving into my waist and pushing me backward as we fell together. Our combined weight shattered my rickety chair, 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 metallic taste of blood filled my mouth.
Anger burned through me. Giving up on striking him, I grabbed the sides of his head with both hands 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 on the floor.
He swayed drunkenly, rubbing his eyes and squinting through the tears.
Behind him, his friends straightened at the bar. One grabbed the shotgun off the bar. They didn’t look happy.
I didn’t care. I was too angry now to stop.
Closing in, I grabbed the big drunk by his collar and belt buckle. With a sharp pivot, I felt stitches tear as I hurled the heavier man over a hip onto the table. Wesley jerked his glass out of the way and the table shattered, scattering bottles and playing cards across the floor.
The drunk grunted on impact, gasping for breath, eyes wide with the sudden shock and pain.
My face and chest hurt something fierce. Dropping to a knee, I grabbed him by the front of his dirty shirt and jerked up as I slammed my fist down. His head snapped backwards as blood splattered from busted 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 sloshed out cheap booze and took a healthy swig. The whiskey burned like a red-hot poker.
“Get offa him!”
His friends had reached us.
The two other miners stopped a handful 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, and had a wild, drunken look in his eyes. The other one appeared a little more sober and eyed me warily while shifting a hand onto 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 was adamant about stopping things just like this from going too far in his establishment. But his bartender wasn’t in sight.
That was just peachy.
The ladies had disappeared as well. Fist fights were considered good, wholesome entertainment. Gunfights, not so much, and no one wanted to take a stray round from a shootout that didn’t involve them.
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!” Small beady eyes glared from underneath his ridiculous hat. “You’ll pay for that.”
My hands trembled from excitement, and my knuckles were skinned raw. Drawing would be difficult. But I couldn’t help myself and shoved the semi-unconscious man with the toe of my boot. He moaned faintly. “Pay for this, huh? What’s the 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. Big enough to put holes in a man you could put a fist through. 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, if messy, death.
“Easy gents. It’s over. No need to for this to get any uglier,” Wesley’s voice was calm and even. He hadn’t moved from his chair. He gave an easy smile, before knocking back his drink without taking his eyes off the two men. Almost gently, he rested the empty shot glass on his thigh.
The shotgun hammer cocked loudly, as the hot-headed miner swung the barrels towards Wesley. “Try and stop me, you pretty boy dandy-”
The first shot caught the miner in the throat, a split-second before 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, towards the last man standing.
The dead man’s partner stood frozen in shock. Droplets of gore splattered his face and shirt. A wet patch spread from his thigh, running down a pant leg and into his boot. He slowly raised his hands, eyes large and frightened as he stammered, “No! No! No trouble.”
“Keep your hands away from that pistol, and there won’t be any,” Wesley said, his voice suddenly hard and the easy-going attitude gone.
The miner jerked his hand away from the gun. “Just… Just let me get Timmy, and I’ll go,” his voice trembled and quavered.
“Go ahead. Then git.” Wesley twitched his pistol barrel slightly towards the door in emphasis.
With my hands on my hips, I tried to breathe around the blood clogging my nose. Suddenly, I felt very tired and out of breath.
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-conscious friend and half carrying him out the bat wing doors.
Wesley kept his pistol pointed at the double doors until they stopped swinging, then twirled the gun before smoothly sliding it into a holster hidden under his vest.
“It appears we 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 stitches had torn through the skin, sending small droplets of blood trickling 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 carefully shifted his boots to avoid the growing pool of blood while rifling through the dead man’s pocket. 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 anyways.
The saloon girls cautiously peeked down the stairs to see the results of the shooting as I shook the gunman’s hand.
“Really, Jed?” Wesley held his hand up to show that I’d smeared blood on it.
I laughed and rebuttoned my shirt.
Since Wesley wasn’t 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 and the stock shortened and carved into a rounded grip. A handy size, with a helluva kick and the ability to make big holes. And it was mine now. To the victors go the spoils.
I stepped into the sunlight just in time for the bartender to reach the boardwalk with the Sheriff a step behind him.
Dan took in my freshly bloodied face and grunted angrily as he shifted from one foot to the other. “Jed, what did I tell you?”
“I didn’t blow anything up,” I growled. “The other guys started it. We were minding our own business, sipping whiskey, and one of them started a brawl. After I knocked him out, 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 in self-defense.” I didn’t mention that I started the brawl 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.
Dan pointed at the shotgun. “You know that’s evidence, right?”
I tried to look as innocently as I could manage.
“Fine, I know where you live anyways,” he squinted at me. “Do I need to get one of my deputies 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 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, walked past me into the saloon with the unhappy looking bartender in tow.
I went to find the local Doc.