Author Topic: Deadhorse Springs  (Read 3390 times)

Offline Queasy Dillo

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Deadhorse Springs
« on: April 30, 2009, 10:31:12 pm »
A Killer of Men
Utah Territory - 1868

In the span of perhaps a minute he became a wanted man.  He knew that much.  Not much else, maybe, but standing on an empty sidewalk with the crack of gunfire ringing in his ears and the lingering burnt powder stinging his eyes he knew beyond doubt that the five shapes in the street would be enough.  Their blood was the ink on his warrant, unassailable and unimpeachable evidence of his sins.  They would kill him even as their own bodies sank into dust and corruption in the cold darkness of the grave.  Before this – before the smoke and reports and the still-warm Winchester repeater in his shaking hands – there might have been questions.  Inquiries.  That time was past.  When men came to find him now there would be none. 
Now the faces were reappearing as he swung into the saddle of a waiting horse.  Stirring behind curtains and peering through rippled glass.  Moving south along the wide street, he knew there would come no crack of a rifle.  No sting in his side and no tumble from the saddle.  More faces in doors and windows.  Friends and neighbors once, now far away and foreign.  But for his crime he was safe; there were no murderers or assassins to be found here.  No killers of men. 
None like him. 
"Get it together?  Lady, last time my people got it together we needed most of Robert Lee's backyard to bury the evidence."

Offline Queasy Dillo

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Re: Deadhorse Springs
« Reply #1 on: April 30, 2009, 10:33:15 pm »
Nebraska Territory
Earlier that same year

The pistol was a cold hard lump against his belly, drawn close under the belt, uncomfortable and somehow unnatural to his hand when he moved to adjust its heft. But it was dry and four of the five cylinders – save that directly under the hammer – were loaded and waiting, and that was the important thing. Nothing else among his meager possessions carried so strongly the promise and possibility of his survival, and fate and luck and his own inept and clumsy movements had made clear that little else here could save him. He learned through the sleepless cold nights listening to the howl of the prairie wolves and the twisting agony of his empty stomach following afternoons in fruitless pursuit of squirrel or wild hare.

Like himself it was poorly chosen for the great wide wilderness. The barrel was short and missing the pointed bead of a front sight. The cylinder wiggled when it should have locked and sometimes locked when it should have spun. A regular inspection was in order, as the screws were frequently found to have worked partway out from their recesses. The finish was almost altogether gone, worn down to powder gray steel, the grips were chipped scratched and without a hint of former shine, and those rearmost metal parts were long since tarnished from bright gold into the lusterless dullness of old brass. The lead shot it fired were too small and the powder charges too weak. It was a Colt, though, and moreover it was all the gun he had, and by simple reasoning it became the best gun for the task at hand.

And so he waited, lying flat and low beneath the leaves of the knee-high grass, his secondhand cap and haversack on the ground beside him and the pistol sheltered underneath him against the fat raindrops that spotted the back of his coat and pants. He kept his ear to the dirt, listening with the other for the low warbling of his quarry or the beating of wings. Ahead in the grass, perched on the silvering stump of a tree long gone, he had left a decaying ear of corn. The best bait he could allow for now, but if it lured him a wild chicken or a fat duck the sacrifice would be worthwhile. Or a small deer, maybe. This pistol didn't hit hard enough to put one down, but if he could get in a lucky shot he might draw blood and follow the trail to where it finally dropped. He hadn't eaten venison in a long time.

He'd never successfully killed anything bigger than a small fox, either, and as much as his mouth watered at the thought of getting a deer the ache in the pit of his guts told him he'd do well to keep his hopes down. He'd better keep his eyes open and his fingers ready, too – it wouldn't pass well to be daydreaming when his dinner made off with the last of his corn while he lay not a stone's throw away with a loaded pistol in his grasp and his mind out wandering. So he didn't hope for a deer. A bird would be just fine. Quarter it up and make a little fire, and if he rationed well he could eat for a couple of days. See him along far enough to put some more food in the pouch, keep his mind from drifting so bad when ought to be worrying about more important things.

It was a long time he laid there in wait. Maybe hours. The wind pushed against the grass and leaded sky passed slowly, muttering thunder and brightening now and again with distant lightning. The lump of the pistol and the pain in his gut seemed to melt into a singular discomfort and his hands and neck itched from staying down in the dirt. More than once he was tempted to sleep and jerked suddenly awake, his mind a blank battlefield of confusion, exhaustion, and hunger. The threatening rain never made good. Strange apparitions drifted through his thoughts and out onto the prairie. His thoughts found voice and body in the whispering grass.

He saw the panhandle. The wide, endless expanse of flat through the square frame of the barn door. The smell of sweating mules and horses, axle grease and oiled tack and newly stirred dirt. The beaten-down give of an old striped mattress rolled out over a wooden bed. Greasy heat from the potbellied stove and the char stink of the kerosene lamps that threw the bunkhouse into weak relief of dusty orange light. Watery gray dawn through the windows, the big house and the stables drawn in stark blackness against the infinite line of the horizon. Morning's seeping chill. Cold water from the well. Greasy bacon laced with yellow fat and trimmed in char and flaking biscuits.

He didn't cowboy like the rest of them – his left arm was no good for throwing a rope or reining a horse. Not much good for anything, when he got down to it, but he could do middling well for himself with a string of mules or a team and wagon, and life among wranglers for a little lesser pay bothered him not in the least. Big Bill Lewis, then, he was another matter. He bit back a yawn and pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. Bacon and biscuits. He'd have sold a small piece of his soul for pan scrapings now.

He shifted to ease the discomfort of the pistol against his gut. Mean son of a bitch, Big Bill. Strong, too, and backed by Hollis enough so he knew nobody would long stand against him, and arrogant as all get out to boot. There was a bad end in that man's future just as soon as somebody young and dumb put together the gun and bad judgment and short temper to put an end to it. Oh, he'd thought on the matter. More than once if the truth be told.

Imagined himself bringing that little short barreled Colt up and putting one clean through the big man's heart. Or better yet, skulking down to the end of the bunkhouse while the others slept. A quick shove to wake him up and bang – give him long enough to realize what was happening and get that helpless feeling, maybe, and then jerk the trigger and punch his ticket for good. And he would have done it too if things had worked out a little different.

But there was more to the question than that. Lying in the grass and waiting like he'd done before, he had time to ponder. About Lewis and Hollis and how the two of them had done wrong by Jake Daggett.

He heard rustling nearby. The beating of wings, then a squawk. Firmly in the present, he rose up slow, enough so he could see over the grass and fervently hoping his trap had drawn something edible. His shaking fingers slipped the pistol from the constraint of his belt and his thumb settled on the curve of the hammer. Almost in spitting distance, a fat prairie chicken had lit on the stump. He waited to see if maybe a second would appear. Then hunger won.

He extended his arm, Colt in his shaking fingers. The movement was clumsy and the click of the hammer locking back seemed as loud as a rifle report. The sightless barrel came up and centered mostly on the chicken and then fowl and stump disappeared in smoke. He fired again in panic and got to his feet as quick as his cramping legs would allow. Hobbling now, he approached the stump, growing despair in the pit of his stomach.

He spotted the black and white spotted feathers in the grass and bent to collect his prize. The neck was an open red discoloration, and he realized the luck of his one good shot. He took out his knife and cut away the ruined neck and head, and then claiming his hat strode off through the grass. A hair left or right and he wouldn't be eating tonight. But through fortune or fate or divine providence there would be provisions in the haversack, and that was what mattered for right now.

Moving slow on protesting legs and feet aching of disuse he pressed on west. The sky was not yet gone to dusk and he was without shelter for the present, and while the rain had not come in earnest he hoped to avoid spending another night under the fearsome wrath of a Nebraska thunderstorm. As he walked he held the chicken with one hand and plucked with the other, the spotted feathers a ragged trail alongside his footprints. A dry place for the night and a fire and a cooked chicken. God, but he could smell it already and just the thought alone made his stomach dance and his mouth turn watery like dog's.

How many days since there was food? He couldn't recall exactly. Not more than a week, though it felt like longer. Some nameless little prairie town in the midst of this ocean of grass where nobody'd have given him the time of day if he'd asked but the storekeeper was plenty happy to take the last of his money in trade for some cheese and bread and jerky and a paper sack of hardtack. He'd been short-witted, too, and not had the sense to keep his stocks rationed and in no time he was left with just the square of hardtack, and the only way to make it at all edible was to knock off little pieces with the butt of the Colt and carry them in his mouth all day, and even then he didn't have enough spit to make the pieces any softer than his dwindling supply of lead pistol shot.

He hadn't planned well at all. To his name he had nothing but the clothes he wore and the meager contents of his haversack – a rolled thinworn poncho to keep the worst of the rain away when he could do no better, the pistol and a near-empty flask of powder and a few loose pieces of shot, a dull knife, a canteen, half a box of sulfur matches, and of course the last of the hardtack rattling like gravel against everything else. He finished plucking the bird and added that in with his other things. He had no money of which he could speak. The last of his pay from Hollis had seen him a ways up the Mississippi to St. Louis and on to parts north. What he'd made there held out until that last nameless town.

But he decided he didn't want to go back. Not to that town. Not to any town, anywhere. He'd gone year with the respectable folk watching him like a thief and as of that last little cluster of rough timber houses and stores and halls he figured that was enough. Just yet he wasn't sure where he planned to go, only that it wouldn't be a town and nobody'd look at him sidewise when he got there.

Along towards dusk he spotted the house. He couldn't say for certain how far it might be – or even if it might be, as being tired and hungry seemed likely enough to cause him seeing things – but he staked a guess and adjusted his course somewhat, hoping that he might be there before sundown and that the inhabitants might be so generous as not to shoot him at first sighting. In the interest of staying prepared to the contrary he stopped and fished in his haversack and dug out the bag of pistol balls and the mostly empty powder flask and reloaded the two cylinders he'd shot earlier. When he'd seen to those he stuck the Colt under his belt and went on.

A little ways out he climbed between the rails of a coarse wooden fence. He paused on the other side, listening for dogs and watching for any sign of people. But no dog bayed and no man came out. Now he could see some better. He'd not spied the house from afar, rather a barn. As he drew closer through the grass he saw in truth that there was no house to be found. Where there might have been a house once was a flat place littered with mounds and patches of gray and black and littered with with rusting trash and broken fire black skeletons of furniture. By the state of things he assumed it had been gone a while. There was an apple tree close by, too, but no fruit.

He supposed then that there would be nobody to pay him any mind if he felt like staying the night. For a few minutes he poked around the remains of the house, turning over pieces of trash with his boot, searching for anything of use. He found nothing and gave up soon enough, reserving a modicum of expectation for the barn, which a cursory inspection revealed to be closed and upon trying the doors front and back, locked tight. He made another circuit in search of loose boards or gaps at the foot, and returning to the front eyed the doors. Too solid still to yield to his shoulder and too heavy to take off the hinges. He might have hacked his way inside if he'd been possessed of a decent ax – but he wasn't and so remained stuck outside. Through the crack between doors he could faintly see how there was a bar laid across. Resolving that he couldn't fix that, he went around again to the back. Much smaller, this door, and though the light was weaker here he slipped the blade of his knife in between door and frame and felt that it was likewise secured. He backed off and considered.

If he was to get in it would be here. He knew that much, but he figured he ought to eat in the meantime and while he considered he went and broke off enough limbs from the trees so he could start a fire, and once he had a good flame going he took the chicken and cut it into pieces, cooking them one at a time on the point of his knife and grinding the charred bits in his teeth while he stared at the barn. Towards dark he decided he needed to save the rest. He wrapped those parts that were left in some of the paper and tucked them into the sack.

Fed and nourished anew he resolved to defeat the door. He lay the haversack on the ground behind him and played with the still warm knife. For a little while he pried at the nails. A few came loose yet the rest remained firmly stuck. Then he tried the hinges. Those too remained firmly set, and a few times in desperation he slammed himself against the unmoving bulk. Moving away then, rubbing his aching arm, it occurred to him that the problem might call for guile over strength.

Recalling the bar on the big doors, he presumed this might be blocked in a similar fashion, and being a smaller door would likely have a smaller bar. Maybe small enough so he could lift it. Fumbling in the growing dark, he fit the blade of his knife into the narrow gap and drew upward. Halfway the steel caught and he put both hands on the grip and pulled up. Something groaned and gave on the other side and he found himself on his back. He got up and tried again, and this time the blade encountered no resistance. He grabbed the iron handle of the door and pulled and stood back as it swung open on creaking hinges.

In his strong hand he took the pistol and with the other he struck a match off the wall and went in under the flickering glow. He raised the weak flame and moved it back and forth over his head. Brittle straw covered the floor and tools hung in disarray on the walls and along one side stood a line of stalls long empty. Nearer stood the rungs of a ladder leading up into the gloom of the loft. From a nail in the beam he took a brass lamp and shook it so he heard the slosh of coal oil inside. The match was burned down then so he tinkered with the glass and the wick until he got it figured. He struck another one and touched the flame to the wick and the light spread out in a circle across the floor.

He took a good look at the ladder and found it was sound enough to hold him, the bottom few rungs anyway, and made his way up. He set the lamp aside at the top and peered into the dusty emptiness. He could sleep here tonight he figured, so he left the lamp and went back down to bar the door.

But he didn't sleep well. What dreams he got where fitful and fleeting things filled with strange voices and the faces of people he used to know and the sound of rat scratchings. The wind woke him at a few points and he reached morning hearing the rain thud against the roof. He stayed for a while under the poncho before he went to the ladder and climbed down. His back hurt and his head was sore, and in throwing open the doors he decided he'd not be staying long. First he'd see what he could find though, which in the end turned out to be nothing but the lamp and a hatchet and a spade with the handle cut down. He wasn't sure exactly what all why he might need those things, but they were light enough to carry easy and he expected he'd come up with some use sooner or later.

He waited until the rain let up and struck out across the yard with the mud pulling at his boots and the sky still thundering off in the distance. On the way he passed by the old tree and further on hidden in the grass a half collapsed picket fence with hour graves inside with crooked wood crosses for markers. There were no names or dates and for a bit he felt maybe a little guilty for taking from the dead, though as the day went on he got accustomed to it and decided there was nothing back there they could have used anyway. He'd have said some Scriptures if he knew any.

Otherwise he made good time, all things considered, with his fattened haversack slung over his shoulder and the shovel for a walking stick. Around noon he stopped to eat and in the later afternoon he crossed a wide field and climbed a railroad embankment on the far side. He rested by the tracks and watched the clouds breaking after the rain and when he'd been still long enough he stood up and looked west. The rails ran all the way out of sight. To the end of the world, maybe.

It seemed like as good a route as any.
"Get it together?  Lady, last time my people got it together we needed most of Robert Lee's backyard to bury the evidence."


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