Western Short Story - Cow Creek
I was on my way out of town with the few store-bought things Ma and Pa were needing when I first saw the riders. There were three of them, two big ones with beards and one smaller, clean-shaven, and mean looking man. It was the clean-shaven one that caught my eye because by the red marks on his face, he looked like he’d been in a fight with a catamount. Curious, I looked back over my shoulder and I saw that he had also turned in his saddle to watch me. What he saw was a tall thin boy of fifteen in worn-out high water pants, riding a long eared mule. My ears burned with the knowing of it but I remembered pa’s words, “A man is respected for his honor and his deeds, not his appearance.” I faced back in my saddle and rode on, but with a nagging feeling that I had seen them somewhere before.
Ma and Pa had come to Oklahoma after the initial big rush had seen all the good land grabbed up, so our farm was hard scrabble and mean but they were still determined to make a go of it. Now, almost ten years later, with a good house and barn and several years of bumper crops, life was finally beginning to ease up a bit. Just last week, we had all gone to a barn dance and hoe-down and I had seen ma dancing for the first time in my life. I guess I had never thought of her as a young woman, but after all, she was only in her thirties. Pa played the fiddle and watched her dance with smiling, loving eyes. It was also the first time I realized that Ma was a beautiful woman.
Ma’s family had never much approved of Pa and when he had asked her father for her hand in marriage, he had been refused. But Ma wouldn’t hear of losing her man so they eloped. Several months later, her two brothers showed up to fetch her home and Pa soundly whipped them both. After that, Ma’s family refused to acknowledge her or Pa and when I was born, they never replied to Ma’s letter about me. When Ma told me all this several years ago, I could see the sad longing in her eyes for her lost family, but she was Pa’s woman and my mother and that was what she lived for.
The dusty road was hot and dry and I was just thinking about a cool drink of water from our well when I first saw the smoke. My heart quickened because I knew what a prairie fire meant out here on the plains. It could burn for days and for miles, wiping out all the farms and towns in its path. Luckily, there was no wind so I kicked the mule in the ribs. He sensed my urgency and for once, he actually broke into a run.
As we topped the last rise, I could see that the source of the smoke was my own home. The barn was gone and only the fireplace of the house was still standing.
I saw Pa first. He had made it as far as the well before he had been shot down. He hadn’t even had time to fetch his rifle from the barn. I could see that he was fairly riddled with bullets and someone had shot into him several times after he had fallen.
It took me quite some time to find Ma. She’d run off to the small orchard Pa had put in for her so she could bake her beloved apple and peach pies for pa and me. She had put up a hard fight, that much was evident. Her hands were knife cut and her fingernails had someone’s blood and skin beneath them. She had died anyway, but not before someone had their ugly way with her, and maybe more than one. I averted my eyes and tended to her the best I could, covering her up, washing her face, and brushing her hair the way she would have wanted. Just last week, she had been dancing and smiling and now she was gone.
And that’s when I remembered where I had seen those men before.
The clean-shaven stranger had asked ma to dance, and I was surprised to see her hesitate. She had willingly danced with all our neighbors and of course with pa when he took a break from his fiddle playing, but this man gave her pause, at least for a moment. Finally she nodded and took his hand, and I noticed pa watching them carefully. Once the man pulled her in a little too close but she pushed him back. Pa started to put down his bow but ma shook her head at him and then the dance was over. Soon after, the clean-shaven one and the other two left and I forgot all about them.
I buried ma and pa side by side as I knew they would have wanted and I made markers from unburned boards I salvaged from the barn. “Here lies Jacob and Becky Anderson, murdered June 20, 1887.“
I spoke over them with words Ma had taught me, and a few others I remembered from somewhere. But now that I had taken care of that which had to be done and the hard truth of it set in, my eyes began to burn and my chest heaved in my terrible grief. Much later, I set about the rest of the work that lay before me.
Pa had shown me their secret hidey-hole when I turned twelve years old and I went to it now. There was a loose stone in the fireplace that he had kept caulked up with a combination of wood ashes and clay and I reckon it was good enough to fool the marauders who had killed Ma and Pa. I dug out a tin box that contained more than a few gold and silver coins, the deed to the farm, and some letters that Ma and Pa thought were important. I could read the deed but the letters were a mystery because they were in a language I didn’t know. Tucking the letters in my shirt and pocketing the coins, I went out to the barn to salvage what I could but there was nothing much left. Finally, I made up a crude pallet of straw and hay and bedded down. A long time later, exhaustion overcame my grief and I slept a fitful sleep.
By the time I rode into town the next day I had worked out a plan. The first thing I needed was to buy some clothes, a good rifle, and a sidearm, having lost everything in the fire. Looking around for the strangers and thinking about what to buy, I failed to notice that the street was unusually quiet and deserted for being so close to the noon hour.
Mister Johansson looked up from behind the counter of the general store and nodded. “Morning Will. Your pa’s planting seed came in yesterday right after you left”, he said, “I’ll head out back and fetch it up”. I was surprised to see him dressed in his Sunday finest
“I don’t reckon he’ll be needing that seed sir”, I replied, “I buried Ma and Pa yesterday”.
Mister Johansson spun around and stared at me.
“Buried? Your ma and pa? You mean they’re dead? ”
“Yes sir. Murdered while I was in town yesterday. Burned down the house and barn to boot. And before they killed ma, they, uh, ....”, again, I felt the hot tears stinging my eyes but I choked them back, “I’ll be needing a few things Mister Johansson”, I said.
I bought clothes, food, a new Winchester rifle, a pair of Smith and Wesson Russian .44’s and several cartons of ammunition. I paid for them with two of Pa’s gold coins and I asked if Pa had owed anything more.
“No Will ”, said Mr. Johansson, “ Jacob Anderson always paid his bills right on time”. He walked to the door and peered down the street. “There’s something more you should know son”.
He turned away from the door and looked me in the eye. “Sheriff Potter from over Enid way was gunned down last night when he tried to serve warrants on a pair of brothers by the name of Jackson and some other fellow that rode with them. They almost cut him in half with both barrels of a scattergun and then they slit his throat for good measure. The whole town has gone to the funeral and I was on my way to join them when you walked in.”
“What did those men look like?”
“The Jackson brothers are big men with full black beards and hair down to their shoulders. The other was a clean-shaven, light haired man about average height. Don’t know his name, but he was the one that opened up with that Greener shotgun and he was also the one that used the knife. The Jacksons are bad men for sure, but that other fellow is just plain poison mean.”
He studied me for a moment. “Will, when you told me about your folks, I thought of those men right off. There’s been loose talk in the saloons that your pa didn’t keep his money in the bank. Maybe that was it, maybe not, but there it is. What are you planning to do now?”
“I thank you for being a good friend to my folks all these years and I thank you for what you just told me. I saw those men yesterday on my way back to the farm. It was them, sure enough. I can’t wait for a new sheriff to hunt them as they’d be long gone. I’ve got it to do and I’d better get to doing it.”
I made an agreement with Mister Johansson to go halves on the farm crops until I got back, and then I left my old mule at the livery, traded for a big gray who looked like he had staying power and also seemed interested in seeing the world. I paid a hefty price but I was in a hurry and a good saddle was part of the bargain.
Someone had said that the Jacksons and their partner had ridden west out of town after the murder and had earlier talked in the saloons of staking gold claims near Crown King on the Bradshaw Mountains of Arizona. I set out after them.
Although my sorrow and anger were my driving forces, I still felt the excitement of a young man venturing forth into the unknown. The long trail lay before me and the great unknown beckoned seductively. I had my good horse, my arms, and my gear, so I set out with all the determination and confidence borne of youthful ignorance.
The first night I camped early to let the gray get used to the long ride ahead of us. I selected a site where my campfire would be hidden and where I could see without being seen as pa had taught me. I spent some time cleaning and examining my new firearms, before reloading them. One revolver was in the leather holster rig I’d bought and I practiced getting it out in a hurry. I decided to practice every night, until it came easy to hand. The second 44. I tucked in my waistband under my shirt as a hideout gun. The rifle was a thing of beauty, and with only a few shots, I was able to adjust the sights to dead on at a hundred yards.
Later, I made coffee and ate a sandwich Mister Johansson had put together for me. It was then that I realized for the first time that I was all alone, and not just for the night, but forever more as far as my family was concerned. Somewhere to the south, a lone coyote yipped his own sorrows and I pulled my blankets tight around me. After a long time, I slept and dreamed of my lost home.
The plains and long grasses of Oklahoma gradually surrendered to the foothills and prickly pear of west Texas and finally to the grand, craggy mountains of New Mexico. I set my sights on the western sky each day and with a handy stick pointing at the great star of the north each night when the stars were out. I was headed west, always west
I tasted my first Mexican food and washed it down with my first beer in a small cantina near Santa Fe. The owner studied me some from behind the bar and when the only other customer left, he came over pulled up a chair. When he learned where I was headed and why, he cautioned me, “Si, senor, they were here two days ago. Be very careful mi amigo, for these are known to be muy bad hombres. The brothers will kill when necessary, but the smaller man likes to kill. He is the one to watch. He is el lobo.”
I dropped south, following the Rio Grande across the high desert to Socorro. There I bought another horse for the long ride through the mountains of the Mogollon Rim country of the Arizona territory. I had the smitty put fresh shoes on both horses and as I watched him, four riders came into town and dismounted across the street. One eyed me for some time and then said something to the others before heading my way.
“You looking’ for a job?” Now that he was near, I could see that he was scarcely older than I was and he too was well armed.
“No, just passing through. On my way to Arizona territory. I’ll be leaving before daylight.”
He shrugged and then nodded, pointing at the cantina across the street. “We’ll be eating and then heading for the ranch in the morning. You’re welcome to join us.”
Over dinner, I learned that they were hands hired out to a Mister John Tunstall who owned a ranch over in Lincoln County. None of them looked over nineteen but all carried firearms and knives. When I told the one who had tried to hire me what had happened, he renewed his offer of a job.
“Mister Tunstall is a good man and he pays well. All I have to do is say the word and he’ll take you on.” He glanced at me and slowly smiled, ruefully shaking his head, “But you’ll have none of that will you? I reckon I wouldn’t either if I was in your boots. Best of luck to you, and if you change your mind, just ask for me. Name’s Bonney, William Bonney, though most folks just call me the Kid.” He laughed, “Guess I’ll just have to outgrow that one, should I live long enough!”
In five days, I was in the tall pines of Show Low, via Springerville, in the Arizona territory. I spoke to a town marshal who told me that the men I sought sounded like the ones who had robbed a general store three days prior while he had been out of town.. The posse that pursued them had come back with two dead and one badly wounded. He advised me to go back home to Oklahoma.
My horses proved to be good mountain stock, calmly following the steep trail off the rim down to Payson and from there to the hot desert floor. On the advice of a barkeep in Payson, I joined up with a group of prospectors headed to the diggings on Big Bug creek, fed by runoff down the north flank of the Bradshaws. Our party numbered twenty four men, armed and ready and not likely to be attacked by Apaches.
The Sonoran desert was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Giant saguaros with great swooping arms silently guarded the trail as we passed. Cholla cactus with needle sharp hooked barbs waited to hitch a ride from an unwary passerby and a knowing man carried a fork to dislodge them. To the casual eye, the desert seems deserted and dead, but it actually teems with all sorts of critters, both strange and familiar and both prey and hunter.
As hot as the desert was during the day, it was remarkable cool soon after the sun set and downright chilly as the night drew on. The older hands taught me to shake out my boots of a morning lest a scorpion or a rattler had taken up warm residence during the night.
I parted company with the prospectors near the small town of Phoenix and two days later, I rode into a stage stop on Cow Creek. It was situated in a narrow valley at the intersection of the trail to the Columbia mines and the Senator Highway, which meandered off northwest to the Bradshaw’s south flank and then up and over to the territorial capitol at Prescott. About a mile down the canyon carved out by Cow Creek loomed the sheer flat wall of Sawed Off Mountain.
Wearily, I climbed down and left my mount with three other horses tied at the hitching rail. It was July and it was very hot.
The interior was dark and cool and other than the three men playing cards at a table in the rear and the barkeep, the place was deserted.
“What’ll it be son?” asked the bartender.
“I’ll have whatever there is to eat and hot black coffee”
“We have beef and beans and all the coffee you can drink”
“That’ll be fine”
I took my meal at an empty table and idly listened to the card talk of the gamblers. Suddenly, my attention was riveted.
“Damn you! That’s the fifth hand in a row! That don’t seem like just plain luck to me!”
The dealer, a medium height man with slim sloping shoulders, a flowing moustache, and the coldest eyes I had ever seen, looked up and asked mildly in a soft southern drawl, “Come now Mister Jackson, are you having a bad run of cards? I remind you sir, that you and your brother dealt most of those hands yourselves. Exactly what is it that you’re saying sir?” There was a implicit warning in those easy words that cut the air like a knife. After a tense moment, the other players shrugged and refilled their glasses.
Jackson ? The Jackson brothers?
The men looked up as I approached and I got my first good look at their faces. The dealer I had never seen before but the other two were the bearded men I had seen on the road home that awful day. My Winchester was easy in my hands and the muzzle was casually pointed in their direction.
“You want to sit in son?” The dealer glanced at me with an odd expression as if he knew or sensed something he had no real way of knowing. His eyes went to the Jacksons and back to me. “Or is there something else on your mind?” I kept my own eyes on the Jackons.
The brothers looked at me blankly.
“I said get up.”
“Who are you?” said the younger looking one, “What the hell do you want with us?” He looked anxiously to his brother.
“Five weeks ago you went to my farm and murdered my ma and pa. Now get up. I’m taking you back to Oklahoma”
“Well now”, drawled the older man, leaning far back in his chair and grinning, “What if we don’t choose to go with no wet-behind-the-ears youngster! Now what do you think of that?” He glanced at his brother and winked.
“I think,” I said, jacking a shell into the chamber of the Winchester, “there’s plenty of bury room right here”.
Startled, he lost his balance and the chair flipped backwards. I waited for him to get off the floor.
“Now you just hold on!” he said, scrambling to his feet and grabbing for his gun. I raised the rifle a touch and shot him through the throat. I worked the lever again and shot the second brother as he rose from his chair, frantically clawing at his own gun. He went straight down and didn’t move again.
For a moment I stood there in shock and stared at them. Visions of Ma and Pa layin’ there dead and empty of life ran through my mind. The Jacksons had it coming sure enough, but I still felt sick and empty. Taking a man’s life is no small thing, no matter how just and right it may be, and I had just taken the lives of two men.
“It was a fair enough shooting”, remarked the gambler, casually scooping up his winnings, “they both went for their guns first. But you had them dead to rights.” He eyed me. “Where did you learn to shoot like that son?”
“I’ve been shooting all my life sir. I’ve been putting meat on the table since I was eight years old. I hesitated, uncertain. “But I never shot a man before today.”
“Are you just as handy with that sidearm?”
“No sir. This is the first one I ever owned”. I didn’t tell him I had another tucked inside my shirt. I didn’t know him for one thing and there’s no sense giving away your hole card.
The gambler said his name was John and we rode together up the Bradshaw Mountain to Crown King. He told me that the clean-shaven man had parted ways with the Jackson brothers at Fort McDowell. His name was Rand Kimble, and he was wanted in both Texas and Missouri but there were no papers on him here in Arizona. I figured by now he was also wanted in Oklahoma.
For the next three weeks I loafed around town, talking little but listening all the while. There was some talk about Kimble here and there but nothing definite. When John was not at the tables he taught me a thing or two about handling a sidearm but more importantly, he taught me about facing another man and staying alive.
“You’re fast enough getting that gun into action Will, but it’s coolness under fire that makes the difference. Most men can slide a gun out and get a shot off quick enough, but it’s the man who will take the extra time to make that first shot count that will walk away alive more often than not. I’ve seen fast men easily get off the first shot but die at the hands of a slower but more deliberate shooter.”
“Remember too that it’s the man who knows he may die but is still willing to face the other man that is the most dangerous. He’ll keep coming at you even after getting hit. It’s the same willingness I saw in your face when you faced the Jackson brothers.”
“Some will insult and anger their opponent so much that he blindly forgets everything and reacts without thinking. And if he does that, he’ll not live another day.”
One morning after breakfast I was lazing around in front of the mercantile listening to idle gossip when John quietly sat down beside me.
“Will, I’m going to pull up stakes and drift on down to Tucson. There’s a high stakes game going on down there and then I’m off to Tombstone. I hear there are a few miners that want to be relieved of all that heavy silver,” he smiled.
“I guess I’ll hang around here for a spell,” I said, “See if I can get some information.”
“Whatever you think best,” he said casually, “Oh, by the way, the word is out that Rand Kimble has been seen in Tucson.”
“I’ll get my gear.”
A sleepy town situated at the foot of towering Mt. Lemon, Tucson was a collection of cantinas, houses, red light districts and businesses catering to the ranch trade, miners, and the railroad. On the west was the Santa Cruz River running north out of Mexico into the United States, the only river to do so.
John found his game and I went back to loitering around seeking information. There was much talk but nothing about Rand Kimble.
When I wasn’t seeking information, I rode out of town and practiced with sidearm and rifle. I found that I could get my sidearm out, aim, and shoot in one swift movement and still hit my target three times out of four. But I wanted to make it four out of four so I kept at it.
My hard days on the trail and my search had aged me somewhat and I had filled out. I was just shy of two hundred pounds and some six feet two inches tall, or maybe a bit more. I had just turned sixteen but I was a man full grown in mind and body and other men accepted me as an equal. The story of the shooting of the Jackson brothers at the Cow Creek station was talked around but neither John nor I had mentioned it so I was not linked to it. I was after Ma and Pa’s killers, not a reputation.
It was after one of those practice days that I rode into town just as the sun was sinking behind the Tucson Mountains to the west. Since it was close to suppertime, I stepped into the saloon where I knew I would find John. As I walked past one of the tables I noticed a local hard case glance quickly at me and jerk his head in my direction at the man sitting across from him. The man turned and I was looking directly into the eyes of Rand Kimble, his face still scarred from Ma’s fingernails
“Well, well, well, if it ain’t farm boy!” He grinned, “I was wonderin’ who was snoopin’ ‘round asking after me! I never forget a face. Where’s your mule farm boy?”
“You murdered my pa,” I said, aware of the sudden attention from the others in the saloon, “even worse, you raped and killed my ma, but not before she put those marks on your face. You’re a woman killer and western men don’t tolerate anyone who would bother a woman.”
He licked his lips and glanced around, suddenly not so sure of himself.
“Now see here boy, don’t you be sayin’ anything agin’ me like that! You got no proof of what you’re sayin‘.”
“Yes I do. The Jackson brothers named you,” I lied, “they said it was you and you alone.”
He grinned triumphantly. “Well now, I know that can‘t be. They’re both dead, killed at a stage stop!” He glanced around the saloon for approval.
“I know they‘re dead. I’m the one who killed them”.
He lurched to his feet and faced me.
“That’s a damn lie!”
“No sir, that’s the damn truth. I was there and saw it all,” John said quietly looking down at the cards he was shuffling. He glanced up from across the room and smiled at Kimble, “He killed them both in a fair fight Rand, and neither one so much as got off a shot.”
I had made the mistake of glancing at John as he spoke and out of the corner of my eye I saw Rand grabbing for his gun. I whirled to face him and far too late, drew my own weapon. I felt a wicked blow in my gut and then somehow my own gun was out and leveling. I saw Rand’s eyes widen and I shot him in the lower lip and then once again in the chest as John had told me. He coughed and grabbed at his face, but most of his lower jaw was no longer there. Staring at his bloody hands, he fell to his knees and looked up at me in disbelief. Then his eyes glazed over and his head sank to the floor in death. He would never bother another woman..
I began to sway so I reached behind me and grabbed the bar rail to steady myself. Spotting my weakness, the hard case saw his own opportunity and grabbed for his gun but a rolling volley of shots caught him and he went down across the table, knocking it over and crashing to the floor. Suddenly the room was silent and no one moved.
Staggering, bleeding, and hurt, I looked over in John’s direction. He was on his feet, looking around and calmly reloading his revolver, his hard eyes inviting anyone else who might be thinking about drawing cards in this game. There were no takers. Then everything went black and I knew no more.
When I came back to my senses, the first thing I saw was John writing at the small desk in our hotel room. He sensed something and looked my way.
“Well now, welcome back to the living,” he grinned, “You’ve been loafing for the better part of a week!
“What happened,” I whispered, startled at the weakness in my voice, “I know I was shot but how bad is it?”
“You’re lucky. Kimble’s shot hit that hideout gun you carry.”
I flushed at that, embarrassed at my deception.
John smiled. “I knew it was there from the first Will. A man in my business has to know. In any case, Kimble’s bullet hit it and then it split and ricocheted up your chest and side tearing both up pretty well. You’ve suffered no permanent damage but you lost so much blood that you almost cashed in anyway. In fact, I thought you were going to die so I took it upon myself to locate your next of kin. We found your packet of family papers when we took off your shirt so I looked them over. I assumed you wouldn‘t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind. I never could read those letters anyway,” I admitted, “I don’t know the language.”
“Much as I hate to admit it Will, I am an educated man. They’re written in German and they’re from your mother’s father, your maternal grandfather that is. From what I can gather, your mother and her kin had a falling out after she married your father.” He glanced at me for confirmation and I nodded.
“Then your grandmother died, your uncles were killed in the war, and your mother was all your grandfather had left, so he had a change of heart and wrote her. She must have replied because in his second letter he mentioned you several times and seemed to be very pleased to know he had a grandson.”
“I’ll write him a letter,” I said, “He’s all I have left myself.”
John’s shoulders sagged a little and he rose and walked to the window.
“I’m afraid that all you have left Will, is yourself,” he said looking down at the street, “Your grandfather passed away a few days after your mother and father were killed. I sent off some telegrams.”
I lay there awhile and thought about it
“Well, I guess I’m right back where I was then except that ma and pa’s killers won’t bother folks anymore. Now I’ll be needing to find work because most of Ma and Pa‘s hide-away money was spent looking for their killers.”
John turned from the window and smiled at me. “Not exactly back where you were Will. Not exactly at all.”
“What do you mean? What has happened?”
“It seems that your grandfather was a very wealthy man but your father was not. That was most of the reason that he did not want your mother to marry your father. But it also seems that your grandfather made a will leaving everything to you. You have some money, Will.” John crossed the room and gazed down at me. “In fact my boy, you’re a very rich man.”
Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t hear the knocking at the door until John turned to answer it. The gent who entered was the most imposing man I had ever seen. With his piercing eyes, his handsome handlebar moustaches, his black broadcloth suit, and the silver badge pinned to his chest, he was obviously someone to be reckoned with.
“You must be Will Anderson,” he boomed, “The young man that killed Rand Kimble and the Jackson brothers up by Columbia”
“They killed my ma and pa,” I said simply, “and I had it to do. Are you here to arrest me? They were fair fights.”
“Arrest you?” He smiled. “No, I have no authority here and no warrant, nor the inclination either. I’m only here because this no-account gambler told me about it.” He jerked his head in John’s direction.
“Now see here, John’s a good man and my friend, so don’t be calling him .......”
“John is it?” he chucked smiling at the gambler, “Well I guess that right enough. After all, his name is John.......John Henry Holliday.” He glanced back at me. “And he’s my friend too, son, after a fashion, but most of us just call him Doc.”
Doc slowly shook his head and smiled at me, “Will Anderson, I’d like you to meet Wyatt Earp, Tombstone’s sorry excuse for a deputy town marshal.