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Arizona-1876 Due east of the Colorado River.
The sun hung above the uneven mountain range and draped the valley in purple; so that the evening hung tranquil and hushed.
High above the river, a solitary eagle, on still, outspread wings, circled adroitly through the darkling sky – it’s sharp shrill, high-pitched and twittering.
From where Gideon McCraw stood on the crest of the mesa, he looked out over the river and the small complex of houses nestled along its western bank. The buildings were white with flat roofs, and the trees that grew among them were thick and tall. Only an old Spanish Mission steeple with an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic budded cross rose above the tree line. Beneath it and half hidden by the aspen and willow trees, rested a silent bell housed in an open round dome.
Tall, thin and wiry, his long black hair catching the last of the setting sun, Gideon stood watching the sun as it pressed silently against the distant mountain range. The road that led from the small village up the eastern slope to where he rested beside his lame dun mare, Patch, crossed the river through a wash of shallow running water. When he started down the mesa towards the wash, the quietness of evening broke to the sound of repeated gunfire, followed closely by the rapid ringing of the old Mission Bell.
Gideon tightened his grip on the reins, pulling Patch to a halt as a group of horsemen appeared riding hard towards the river, breaking the wash in a fine spray that partly obscured both men and horses as they charged through it.
“Trouble, hoss!” he said in a peeved voice. “They’re up to no good.” He led the large animal limping into the brush between the cottonwood trees. “Still, big girl, we want none of their troubles.”
Gideon heard the thunder of hooves against the hard, dry earth before the five riders came into sight over the ridge, hunched forward over their saddles in full rhythm to the stride of their mounts. He slipped the leather trigger-strap free and cleared the Colt from its holster.
He stood in the cover of the trees watching their approach with the Colt held at his side. With the other hand, he pulled on the reins, holding the head of the mare against his chest to prevent her from spooking as the riders galloped past. Gideon waited a full minute before slipping the Colt back into its holster and stepping out from his cover. However, as he moved on again, another group of riders broke the wash and started up the slope toward him.
Six riders reined their horses to a halt a short distance from him. Gideon stood his ground beside Patch, his hand resting on his hip not far from his Colt. With the other, he tipped his Stetson at them and smiled. “Howdy boys.”
An overweight, middle-aged man with a tin badge pinned to his shirt leaned forward in his saddle. “What are you doing around here, Mister?" he asked. "And why the hell are you walking?”
“My mare threw a shoe five miles back.” Gideon only partly answered his question. Instead, he pointed to the village. “Is there a blacksmith down there?”
“Yeah,” the sheriff snorted through a short breath. “We got one, but business first, Mister.” He rose in his stirrups, looking away from the village along the trail that disappeared over a hogback. “Did five riders come through this way?”
Gideon studied the six men sitting atop their horses watching them. He wanted to get a feel for them, as he had learned over time that most strangers weren’t trustworthy.
“Make it quick, Mister,” said one man. “There ain’t much light left.”
Gideon ignored him.
He let another minute pass before he said, “About five or six minutes ago, sheriff. They were going as if the devil were chasing them. What did they do?”
The youngest of the sheriff’s men now moved in closer. He held his pistol cocked in his left hand. “They shot up the saloon and a few of our residents – and Mary-Loo,” he added with a swift grunt of concern. He rode high in the saddle with a long stirrup, a sigh of a natural-born horseman. He wore a pinstriped suit, highly polished brown ankle boots and a wide-brimmed Stetson perched comfortably on a well-formed head. Thick oak-colored hair hung from beneath the hat brushing his ears and the collar at the back of his neck. “You heard the sheriff. What are you doing in these parts?”
Gideon thought he recognized the young face, but no name came to him. No matter, he thought, it’ll come later. “I’m just passing through,” he said.
“Where’re you headed, stranger?” The young man’s voice carried the tone of arrogance. He rolled his wrist, and the pistol swayed from side to side through the air as he spoke. “We’ve had enough of your sort around here.”
“My sort!” Gideon looked straight into the young man’s eyes and frowned. “Put that thing away,” he growled. “You talk too much. You won’t catch up with them wasting time talking. You best be riding.”
The sheriff nodded his large round head in agreement. He pushed back his hat and wiped the salted moisture from his brow with the back of his hand. “He’s right, Scott,” he said and puffed out a long warm breath. Then to Gideon: “Jackson’s at the livery stable, he will fix that shoe for you, Mister. Tell him it was Sheriff Watkins who sent you.”
A village with no name.
Gideon walked his mare through the wash in the river and up the shallow gradient to the far bank. There he nudged Patch on the shoulder, leading her limping to the north and into the village.
The main street stunk of dry earth and dust, as did the trail he had ridden for the last ten days. The last rain he had felt on his face was the night he left the Green River area in Wyoming. If left to his own decision, he would have waited for the rain to stop before he left. But his past life had an unforgiving way of catching up with him.
It wasn’t the first time he had moved to a place unknown to him, hoping that the townsfolk had not heard of his name. But it never took long for a stranger with a quick hand or a bounty hunter with the thirst for blood money to ride into town. Then on he would ride again, drifting aimlessly, searching for a town that didn’t know the name Gideon McCraw. A town he could call home.
The main street buzzed with people, some ran aimlessly, others knowing where they were going. But to Gideon, nothing looked organized – or if it was about to happen soon. An elderly gentleman sat on the sidewalk swaying back and forth on an old wooden rocking chair, sucking deeply at the end of his homemade corn-pipe.
Gideon stopped at the base of the steps, and for a time he stood looking at the old timer. It was hard for Gideon to guess his age for his weather-beaten hat sat low on his brow, but the chin was exposed; square and bony and deeply cleft, bumping up and down with every draw on his pipe.
“Evening, old-timer.” Gideon greeted him and touched his hat. “I’m looking for the livery stables?”
The old man drew the pipe-stem from his mouth and pointed it down the main street. Slowly he lifted his head on a slender, wrinkled neck and his dark sunken eyes squinted as he coughed out a plume of tobacco smoke, cleared his throat, and then spat on the wooden floor. “Down the road a bit.” He rasped air into his lungs and patted his chest with the hand that held the pipe. “On the right … gaucho. You can’t miss it.”
Gideon touched his hat again and dipped his head. The further he walked down the street the hustle and bustle of people lessened, and he took advantage of the quietness in the livery foyer to have a closer look at the mare’s hoof.
The smell of clean dried hay and the sweet whiff of black treacle-molasses, mixed with the odor of finely groomed horses, filled his nostrils. And it brought back the memories of his small-holding and his wife, Glenda. By now the cattle roamed free, and his first crop dead and dried beneath the harsh Arizona sun.
He remembered the small, petite woman. Her hair was the color of fire and shone like the sun, pale blue eyes, and her skin glowed like that of freshly fallen snow in winter with cheeks the color of a blushing rose, void of all freckles except for a few small blemishes on the bridge of her nose. A woman he had loved and cherished for only six months. Sorrow burnt deep within his chest, and it felt as though his heart might burst every time he thought of her.
Two years earlier, they had met up north in Nebraska Territory. It had been a short courtship lasting only a few months before they married and purchased a small rundown holding outside the little town of Coltonville, near the Kansas border.
Gideon had worked hard at clearing the overgrown brush, and at times thought his back might break, but the feelings he had for his new bride drove him on until late in the evenings. When he had finished, he set about plowing and planting the cleared field. With his small savings he had put aside while riding for the BQ Ranch up in the northern plains, he purchased twenty head of cattle, poles, and nails, and once he had settled the cattle, he went about the task of repairing the small, dilapidated barn. It took him all of three days to plant the new poles of the corral, to replace the ones that lay scattered over the ground, crooked and snapped from dry-rot.
He remembered well the morning he had reined in his mare on the high ground overlooking the small homestead. The house was a two-roomed building with a thatched roof. The main room was the bigger of the two and used as a kitchen and living area. The other room Glenda had decorated into a fine looking bedroom, with floral curtains hanging across the windows. Little pictures of red and white roses, and yellow trumpet-shaped daffodils, on long stems, were mounted on the walls - pictures she had saved from chocolate boxes - and framed with thin strips from the dry-rot poles she had taken from the corral. Perfectly patterned doilies that she had so carefully knitted in the evenings, while she waited for Gideon to return from the fields, were neatly placed on top of each bed-stand that stood on either side of their bed.
For a time Gideon had watched the twenty head of cattle grazing to the west of the house, near to the old windmill that reached silently for the sky; its silver wings a blur as they turned slowly in the morning breeze. Glenda was standing outside the house that morning, surrounded by clucking chickens waiting for their feed from the leather pouch she had secured around her middle. She had looked up and waved. Gideon smiled and waved back, and felt the warmth of achievement fill his body as he turned the buckboard and headed in the direction of Coltonville to collect the supplies that Glenda so desperately needed.
The sun had already sunk to the horizon, and the light was beginning to thin by the time Gideon returned. As he approached the farm, he noticed there was a stillness about the house, and he sensed that something wasn’t right, for each time he returned Glenda would be sitting on the front porch patiently waiting his return.
He flicked the reins quickening the pace of the mare. The leather chicken-feed-pouch lay on the ground where Glenda had stood earlier that morning. A few paces from the front door their two gruff-goats had been slaughtered – their legs hurriedly removed from their hips and shoulders, and left to lie in their blood, running free to sink away into the ground, turning the sand a rusty-brown. Gideon leaped from the buckboard screaming her name, racing at full stride for the door, not stopping to open it, but taking the wooden mass off its hinges with one heavy thrust of his boot.
He remembered, clearly, the picture of his wife lying on the kitchen floor. She had put up a good fight. Kitchen utensils lay everywhere, and the chairs from the kitchen table were overturned and scattered around the room. Gideon dropped to her side, whispering her name, hopefully. Carefully he raised her head from the floor, holding her in a cup of his elbow. The front of her apron was awash with her blood. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him that she had been beaten, abused, and then shot in the belly.
Suddenly she half opened her eyes as a sibilant sound passed through her split and swollen lips. Gideon drew back sharply, as he thought her to be dead. “… they came after you left.”
“Who?” His whisper lumped his throat, and he drew a quick short breath and swallowed hard. “Who came?”
Many times he had seen men die and knew there was nothing he could do for her, except to hold her and give her the strength and courage for when her time came. She had been on the floor for most of the day, and nearly all bled out. Her skin had turned cold, and the light in her pale blue eyes was fading fast.
“Two … white men.” She choked on the blood that filled her mouth, then there was a gurgling sound, and the red liquid mixed with yellow and greenish bile popped from between her lips, running over her chin and down the side of her neck.
“Shhh,” he hushed her. He had not cried since he was a boy, but his tears flowed that day and his chest, as it heaved, rocked his body as waters gush over loose rapids after a violent storm.
“Jet Stone —” she started in a whisper, but her eyes rolled slowly upward as her eyelids closed over them for the last time, her head falling limp against his chest.
He had buried Glenda on the ridge overlooking the farm, and when he had packed all he needed he set the farmhouse ablaze and rode off, for he wanted no other to share what they had started together.
“You want your horse bedded for the night, Mister?” A voice startled Gideon, and he turned to face a young African standing between two rows of immaculately-kept boxed horses. A three-pin-fork pierced through the crisp hay that covered the earth at his feet, and his fingers were clamped to the wooden handle leaning back against his naked shoulder. He wore a faded gray overall folded down to the waist, and his thin feet, widespread at the toes, were stuffed into open leather sandals. Gideon judged him no older than fifteen with wide stooped shoulders as if he had carried heavy loads from an early age. His chest glowed a golden brown with perspiration, and tight muscles rippled down on either side of his navel.
“I don’t have an option,” Gideon told him. “My horse needs a shoe.”
“Jackson will fix it for you first thing in the morning. He’s strong and big, Mister.” The young boy rose onto his tiptoes and thrust one hand at full stretch above his head. “He’s as tall as a stork of wheat. And he’s black like me,” he added proudly.
Gideon chuckled at the boy’s enthusing. A young man, he thought, but clearly still a young, spirited child. “How old are you?” Gideon asked.
“Thirteen, Mister. I do a man’s job to help my mother.”
“Then you should be proud of yourself.” Gideon walked over to him and cuffed him playfully. “What does she do?”
“She works as a parlor maid at the Lazy Horse Saloon.” He stopped a moment and took on a serious look. “A bad thing happened there about twenty minutes ago,” he went on quickly. “There was a shooting, but they got away before the sheriff arrived. I’m glad my mother wasn’t hurt.”
“I heard.” Gideon pointed across the river. “The sheriff passed me up here on the mesa.”
“I don’t know who the two men were, but I heard Miss Mary-Loo got shot in the chest. You be careful in there, Mister. I don’t think they’ll take kindly to another stranger. Not today anyways.”
“I’ll be careful,” Gideon assured the young man. “You just look after my horse.” Gideon flipped him a gold coin. “Make sure you give her the best of everything and a good rub down. Understand?”
The young African nodded his head and smiled, his snow-white teeth emphasized by his parted, dark-pink lips. “I’ve got sweet corn and freshly dried hay, Mister.”
After ten days out in the semi-desert, with his horse as his only companion, this young chatterbox was just what Gideon needed to lighten his spirit, so he pushed him further. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Michael, Mister. My mother named me after my father. I never did meet him. He died when I was only a small boy.”
“I’m sure he was a fine man.”
“He was. My mother told me.”
Gideon smiled again and asked. “Tell me, Michael … where is this Lazy Horse Saloon?”
“Back along the way you came. But there is another saloon, Mister. That’s if you don’t mind drinking with chines and black folks?”
“I don’t mind,” Gideon said, “as long as the beers cold.”
Michael beamed that childish, know-it-all, smile, and said, “My grandma serves a fine homemade peach whiskey,” then added quickly with a little twinkle in his dark brown eyes. “So I’m told … Mister, and her beer, it's as cold as the morning frost. Grandma always keeps a barrel in the backyard under a willow tree, covered with wet earth for her best customers.”
Grandma’s saloon was an old gray army tent attached to the front of a small pole, stone, and mud building. The scuffed iron roof of the small home leaned away from the tent at a steady slope, allowing for the runoff of the heavy downpours that come with the seasonal rains from early August until late September. Outside the opening to the tent stood two large wagon water-drums, and four scuffed and weather-beaten chairs that looked as though had once been a part of a fine dining-set, from a good home or some important establishment.
Two Chinese men seated at one of the drums looked up as Gideon approached. The one with a broken leg offered a nervous smile that pulled his already slanted eyes a little further. “He … lol,” he said in broken English, then turning back to his friend, whose head was neatly bound in a length of white linen cloth, said something in his native language that ended with a sharp nod from both their heads.
Guessing they were out of work due to their injuries, Gideon dropped a few coins on the barrel in front of them. Instantly four hands rose to the sky, and their heads dropped at an angle to their shoulders, but still looking up at Gideon.
The small cluster of tents, and makeshift houses of the less fortunate – including a few white families who Gideon had seen when approaching the saloon – sat on the ridge among the cottonwood trees overlooking the small village nestled beside the river.
From where Gideon stood he watched as the last of the large ginger sun slip quietly behind those distant peaks, its fading light woven like little threads through the small white cotton-clouds burnishing them a yellow-gold and rosy-pink. The rising smoke from the stone chimney-stacks drifted into the still Arizona sky and hung low over the village like a haze of bronze-gild.
Gideon adjusted his hat as he ducked through the opening of the tent, and beneath a roughly painted sign, that read – ‘No Whites or Mex’ Allowed’ – Gideon ignored it and headed for the bar. The makeshift saloon looked well kept. Sawdust covered the hard, dry, earth-floor. A few of the same wagon water-barrels were scattered evenly around the floor, also used as tables, with two wooden benches set neatly at each of them. The bar was of pine-plank and supported by six tea chests – three in a row and one on top of the other. Behind the counter, and perched on what Gideon guessed to be a table covered with a bright patterned cloth; a beer barrel stood on its end with a tap stuffed tightly into the oak at its lowest point. To the right of it, and standing against the outside wall, stood an old doorless cupboard with cheap glass goblets and tin mugs lined neatly in rows along each shelf.
The place was empty except for another two Chinese men leaning against the pine-bar. Gideon placed his Winchester on the counter and then removed his hat and placed it beside the rifle. His saddlebag, he folded at the center strap, then set it down carefully on top of both.
There was no one behind the bar to attend to him, so Gideon looked across at the two Chinese men and lifted his hand to his mouth, “Drink–?” he mouthed softly.
One of the men stuck the pine-plank with the base of his tin mug and called out in his native language. An elderly African woman, who, through time must have mastered a few words of his language, for she suddenly appeared from behind a curtain that hung from the roof of the tent at the far end of the bar. For a moment she looked surprised then her expression changed to one of a warm smile. Her face carried the deep lines of old age, but the large round eyes, set close together in a small thin face, seemed to glow with wisdom from a long life. The cheekbones, high and pronounced, curved smoothly round to a small but stubby nose that flared at the nostrils, and when she smiled her teeth shone with good health.
“Didn’t you see the sign, Mister?” she asked wiping her hands on a cloth, and then tossing it across her right shoulder, she approached Gideon. “Sheriff Watkins’s won’t be happy to see you in here.”
“I’m not a customer,” Gideon answered with a wide grin. “I’m a guest. Michael invited me over.”
She clicked her tongue, and a little coughed-giggle passed through her throat. “And what might your name be, Mister?”
“Gideon McCraw,” he told her, then added swiftly in the same breath. “And you must be Grandma?”
“Well … welcome then, Mr. McCraw.” she smiled cheerfully again, and asked: “What would you like to drink, whiskey or beer?”
“Call me Gideon, please,” he instructed her kindly. “Michael tells me you keep a barrel of cold beer under a willow tree for your special guests?”
“He surely must have taken a liking to you, Gid– ” She started, but checked herself harshly with a forceful stub to her big toe against the tea-chest at her feet, at the slip of her tongue. And at the same instant, she cowered away slightly and quickly placed one hand over her mouth.
Gideon noticed her discomfort and reached out placing a hard calloused palm on top of her small wrinkled hand, and pushed down on it softly. “A good upbringing, heh?” He smiled.
She nodded that thin graying head and the two cheap earrings, made from yellow stained glass and rimmed around the rough edges with thin strips of hammered tin, that hung from her small ears, bumped gently against her long slender neck.
“I grew up in Texas,” she replied in a moderate voice. She wasn’t one to talk openly about her life, especially to a white stranger. But this white stranger standing on the opposite side of the bar seemed different, and she couldn’t hold back the words that bubble from her mouth like a little, spirited brook.
“Tough … but yes,” she agreed. “For the times, I think my mother did the best she could. I’ve seen men and women whipped for less than calling a white person by their first name.”
“Times are changing,” Gideon answered. He removed his palm from her hand, but his smile remained. “Even down in Texas, Grandma.”
“Maybe so. But not around here.” She turned from Gideon to the old doorless cupboard behind her. “Beer or whiskey?” she asked again.
“Cold beer, please.”
She took a tin jug that stood beside the beer barrel, wiped it clean with the cloth that hung from her shoulder, then walked away and disappeared behind the hanging curtain.
When Gideon turned from the bar, he noticed that the tent was beginning to fill quickly now. As the men entered, most glanced nervously at him then swiftly looked away, not wanting to look him directly into his eyes. It wasn’t the smell of dirty men that filled Gideon’s nostrils, but the smell of good honest men returning from a hard days work.
“Haven’t you seen a white man before?” Grandma growled at them when she returned with a jug of cold beer. She set it before Gideon and then took a glass mug from one of the shelves and slid it over to him. “Don’t mind them. It’s just that most whites who come in here are looking for trouble.” She smiled and pushed his glass goblet a little closer to him. “It’s not often we get a white gentleman in here.” Then suddenly she changed her mind and picked both the glass and the jug.
Gideon watched as she filled the goblet with beer from the jug. She had done it many times before, for she held the goblet at just the right angle so that the cream-white head built slowly on the dark bronze liquid, coming to rest just beneath the brim with little air bubbles bursting through the settling foam.
Realizing the trouble he might cause her, Gideon said, “Best I finish this and get going.” He swallowed a large amount of the beer and breathed in deeply as the cold liquid settled in his stomach. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“There’s no reason to hurry,” she said. “No one will come up here tonight after the shooting in town. I doubt if the sheriff is back yet.”
As Gideon reached into his pocket, she put out her hand to stop him. “No guest in my home as ever paid for his liquor. "Now, Gideon,” His name flowed freely this time, and a wide grin appeared on her face, pulling the many little wrinkles from her thin dark lips, and tightened her philtrum that furrowed deeply up to her nose, “I have a pot filled with pig and potatoes. Are you hungry?”
Damn you, Mister Scott!
A noise from behind the curtain made Gideon look up from his dinner. Two over-eager young cowhands burst into the saloon, almost ripping the curtain from its hanging place. One of the men forced Grandma before him at arm’s length, the fingers of his left hand fastened tightly at the back of her neck. She cowered forward with scrunched shoulders, as she stumbled afore him on lose and unsteady legs. The force of his grip showing clearly on the old woman's face.
Gideon was about to call out, to tell the man to release her, when a large African rose from his wooden bench. Gideon estimated him to be at least six-foot-six-inches tall, if not taller, with a thick solid neck that broadened down to wide and powerful shoulders, bulging from beneath the cloth of his overall like the rounded curves of many valley mesas – of solid brawn and muscles. In anger, he thrust out his jaw and started for the bar at a full pace.
“That’s far enough, Jackson!”
Gideon spun instantly to the sound of the voice. Scott, the arrogant young man he had met when entering the village, now stood beneath the tent-flat with a Spencer held at his side, his feet wide set, and his brown leather ankles boots still dusted with the earth of the trail.
“This has nothing to do with you, Jackson. It’s best you sit down and stay out of this.”
Jackson came to an abrupt stop on heavy flat feet and turned to face Scott. Slowly he raised his right arm bearing a tightly clenched fist; the muscles of his upper arm blowing as his arm bent at the elbow. Deliberately he uncoiled his index finger and shook it sternly.
“Damn you, Mister Scott! You get that man to release my Grandma, or I swear –”
“Or what?” scoffed Scott with a deep throat.
“Or I’ll –” Jackson started again, but this time Gideon cut him short.
“Or we’ll make him,” said Gideon. He rose from his bench at the water-barrel and pushed back his unbuttoned duster coat so that both sides slipped behind the handles of his two Peacemakers. “And I can assure you it won’t be a pretty sight.”
Scott raised the Spencer and shoved the barrel forcefully across his shoulder in the direction of the sign hanging outside the tent. “Didn’t you see the sign?” He didn’t wait for Gideon’s answer but went on. “If you didn’t,” he stopped again and tossed an arrogant glance at Grandma, “… then she should have told you. She knows the consequences.”
“I don’t,” said Gideon, “so why don’t you take the time to tell me.”
As Jackson turned his head to look at Gideon, Scott took the advantage and moved swiftly forward. He raised the Spencer above his head and then swung it at Jackson’s face. Though the Africans skin glowed like dried polished-leather, it split instantly. The barrel-sight of the Spencer caught his cheek, digging deep into the flesh, ripping it wide open. Blood gushed down his face dropping from his chin, forming little circular stains of reddish-brown as it soaked away into the dry sawdust.
Jackson instantly reached for the wound in his cheek, but he never swayed from the vicious blow. He stood fast, his focus set on the thin deep ridge that separated Scott’s leering dusty-brown eyes. Gideon could tell by the expression on the large man’s face that it took all he had to prevent himself from lashing out with those enormous arms. However, the Spencer pushed into his belly might have swayed him to think twice.
“That’s how we do it around here, Mister.” Scott stepped back with a smirked grin and then reached out wiping the blood from the barrel against Jackson’s gray overall.
When Gideon started toward Scott, the man with his fingers still wrapped around Grandma’s neck, shouted: “Don’t move, stranger.” He pulled her closer, and at the same time released her neck from his savage hold. He then lent over her, forcing her against the counter, her tummy arching to the plane of the pine-plank. Forcefully he took hold of her right hand and held it palm down on the bar. His gun hand raised high above his head. “Just one more step, Mister and I’ll break her knuckles.”
Behind the tears that filled the old woman’s eyes, Gideon saw the terror that reached deep within her and gripped her soul. But not an imploring word for mercy slip through her lips.
Gideon didn’t hesitate but pulled both Colts from their holsters. Instantly one roared with a flash of red and orange rope of gunfire, followed closely by the rush of steam, mixed with the blue-gray smoke of the after-fire. The man spun away violently as the bullet took him in the wrist of his raised arm. The second shot left a clean hole in his friends chest. The man choked only once before he slumped to the floor dead.
Gideon’s second Colt remained silent, leveled at Scott’s head.
“No, Mister! Don’t do it! They’ll kill my family!”
A Woman’s voice, sharp but pleading, cut across the makeshift saloon. Some of the men still only halfway out of their seats, who were clearing a path between Jackson and the bar, froze in mid-step.
Sheriff Watkins had appeared at the opening of the tent. At his side stood a fine looking middle-aged African woman dressed in a cream and white tunic, with a pale blue house cleaners cap pulled down to her ears. Michael stood at her side holding her hand.
“Please, Mister,” her voice soft and gentle now, but it still carried the tone of pleading. She pushed out her arm toward Gideon, her long thin fingers widespread and crooked protruding from an upturned hand. “Go away, Mister, please. We look after our own around here.”
Watkins left the young woman standing at the opening of the tent, and stepped into the saloon. “Are you alright, Butch?” he called to the man holding his wrist, and Butch looked up and nodded.
“He shot Archie in the chest, Sheriff,” he mumbled through a skewed mouth, that clearly showed the extreme pain that rocked through his wrist.
With a stern face, Watkins then turned to where Scott stood in the middle of the saloon. “What the hell is going on up here, Scott? Maggi told me that on her way home she saw you headed up this way with Butch and Archie. When Michael told her that there might be a white man up here, she returned to town and came straight to my office.”
“Rules are rules, Ben,” Scott responded without shifting his eyes from the tall, dark giant. “My father hung the sign out there for a reason. So that’s where it stays.”
Ben Watkins ignored him and walked over to Gideon. “Put that thing away, Mister. No one will give you any more trouble.” He stretched out his hand and placed it on Gideon’s upper arm. “Please, come with me. I would like a private word with you in my office.”
“What about them?” Gideon pointed at Jackson and then at Grandma who still stood at the bar taking support from the pine-planks. The fine looking young African woman and Michael had moved over to the bar and were now at her side trying to comfort her.
Watkins leaned in toward Gideon and said in a low voice. “Please, Mister McCraw, come down with me to my office.”
Startled, Gideon took a quick step back. “You know my name?”
“The moment I saw you up there on the mesa.”
“Then I have nothing to lose, have I?”
“Quite the opposite,” Watkins assured him. “You have everything to gain.”
“Maybe so,” said Gideon, “but I’m not leaving until you get a doctor up here.”
“Believe me,” Watkins replied, “ their doctors and herbal medicines are far better than what we have in the village. Our Doc’s a drunk. Good men have died on his table because of his drinking problem.
Watkins shuffled through the many wanted posters lying on his desk, selected one from the pile and handed it to Gideon. “I placed it near the bottom when I returned earlier this evening.” And when Gideon remained silent, he decided to explain. "I didn’t want anyone finding it. That’s you, isn’t it?”
Gideon took it from him, turned it the right way up and then nodded. He pointed across the sheriff’s office to the eight-by-ten foot cell. “Why am I standing out here, and not locked up in there?”
Watkins blew a short, snorted cough and smiled, yet his pale, blue-eyes remained uncertain. “I don’t think there’s a need for that,” he said. “I’m hoping you’ll be more helpful to us out here." Sheriff Watkins was a large man, not in height, weighing over two-hundred-fifty pounds. Gideon was amazed just how quick the man was on his feet.
Gideon frowned restlessly and waved the poster at Watkins. “Are you going to hold this over my head? Force me to do your dirty work?” He dropped the poster on the desk. “I don’t enjoy killing, sheriff. Anyway, I’m not going to be around long enough. Now that you know my name, it’ll be safer for me if I kept on moving.”
“Like you’ve done for the last year or so? Listen to what I have to say first, and then decide.”
Gideon removed his hat and carefully placed it alongside his wanted poster. “I’m listening,” he said looking up into Watkins tanned, and deeply-etched face caused from any years of riding beneath the harsh sun.
“I received that poster almost six months ago," Watkins said. "We don’t get much mail out here. Even the telegraph lines haven’t reached us yet. And as for the railroad, well, it’s still many miles away.”
“It’s nearly a year old,” Gideon spoke softly, but with a firm controlled voice.
“Exactly,” responded Watkins. “Things happen slowly around here.” He spread the other wanted posters loosely over his desk. “If any of these …” he checked himself abruptly, remembering who he was talking to, “… gentlemen ride in, I’m supposed to tell, Mister Kane. If he thinks he can control them, he hires him. If not, he gets his boys to chase them out of the village. With your attitude and run-in with his son, Scott, I have a feeling he’s going to ask you to leave.” He paused again looking out through the window to the other side of the street, where a solitary kerosene lamp hung from a wooden pole outside the doctor's rooms. He scratched at the one-day-old stubble on his chin, thoughtfully, as he turned back to Gideon. “When we met this afternoon, I told myself you weren’t like the others. There was something about you, and I’m still thinking the same now.”
“The five riders you were chasing, who were they? Mister Kane’s boys?" Gideon then added quickly. "I take it you didn’t catch any of them?”
“No, and no,” Watkins replied. “Scott was in the saloon when it happened. If they were his father’s men, he would have said something. By the time, I got to the saloon they had already left.” He looked out the window again. “It’s a real shame about Scott’s sister.”
“Yes,” Watkins nodded in agreement. “She’s across the street in the doctor's rooms. A nice, quiet young lady; keeps account of her father’s business from an office above the saloon. She’s nothing like her father and brother. Scott works out at the ranch, but comes to the village to help her with the bar, especially on weekends.”
“How is she, Sheriff?”
“She needs rest, but she’ll be fine if the doctor stays sober.”
“I thought Scott would’ve been more concerned about his sister than to worry about me?”
“He was with her earlier, before he went up to Grandma’s saloon,” Watkins grunted then cleared his chubby throat. “He’s a bit of a hot head, that one, and enjoys throwing his weight around.”
Gideon went quiet, looking down at the poster. “What do you want from me, sheriff?” he said eventually. “As I said, I’m just passing through.”
As if thinking aloud, Watkins responded: “Where to start?” He pointed to the chair at the front of his deck. “Sit, this might take a while.” He walked over to the potbelly stove standing in the corner of the office, lifted the coffee pot from the metal plate and directed it at Gideon. “I was making coffee when Maggie came in. You want some?”
Gideon bobbed his head, still looking down at the poster. He remembered that day when he had shot and killed Clay Potter. Two weeks before the standoff, while still up in the north country, Gideon had met an old-timer who had told him of two men he had shared a campfire with. After a few drinks, they began bragging about raping and killing a young woman who had lived to the east of a little town called Coltonville, near the Kansas border. They told their story in such detail that the old-timer, despite the months that had passed could still remember clearly, the description of the young woman; her dress and bonnet, the color of her eyes and hair, and the little pear-shaped birthmark on her right shoulder. Gideon shook his head violently, and stretched out his arm to quieten the old-timer. Gideon had is own memories and needed no one to add to them.
“Did they say where they were headed?”
“You know her, Mister?”
“She was my wife.”
The man pulled his hat from his head and placed it over his heart. “Sorry … If I had known–”
“I’m glad you told me, old-timer.” Gideon felt a warm, tingle of revenge growing in his chest. “I’ve been after them for many months without a definite lead.”
“That’s a long time riding, Mister. I wish you success.”
“Did they say where they were going?” Gideon had asked again.
"I didn’t want to know, Mister. I was praying for the sun to come up. I just wanted to get away from them – but they told me anyway.”
“Where?” Gideon pushed him impatiently.
“They split ways that morning,” said the old-timer. “The one called, Clay Potter went south. Said he had a job waiting for him in Prescott. The other man,” he hesitated a moment then spat out the words. “… Jet Stone, that’s his name, he was going west to California.”
When Gideon arrived in Prescott, he headed straight for the first saloon he spotted. Being a weekend, he guessed that Clay would be drinking in at least one of the establishments. Once inside he had made a few discreet inquiries, but it was only in the third saloon he visited, that the barman pointed him out.
“Over here, Clay,” the barman had shouted above the noise. “Someone’s looking for you.”
Clay rose from the table where he was playing cards with three other men. He slid back his chair, filled his glass from the bottle that stood on the table, and then started for the bar where Gidon stood waiting for him.
“Do I know you, stranger?”
“No,” Gideon growled, “but you met my wife.”
“I did …?” Clay smiled and lifted the whiskey glass to his mouth.
Gideon bit down hard on his lips, and at the same time he lashed out with his right hand, catching the bass of the goblet with the butt of his palm just as the rim of the glass touched Clay’s lips. The glass was too thick to break, but Gideon heard the cracking sound of teeth as the impact from the blow forced them inward.
Clay stumbled back along the bar a few paces then caught his footing. “What the hell…!” he mumbled and spat a mixture of blood and broken teeth on the floor. “Damn it, man, you broke my teeth!”
“You-no-good-son-of-bitch!” Gideon bellowed at him, and he felt his eyes moisten as he thought of his Glenda. “You raped my wife, you bastard! Then shot her down in cold blood!”
Clay kicked aside the fallen goblet that lay at his feet and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He though for a moment then said, “I only took one woman who didn’t want …” He stopped still looking at Gideon. Then stretched his blood smeared mouth into a wide open smiled he added brazenly, “That pretty little thing with red hair, and that fancy little mark on her right shoulder? Was she yours–?”
As he spoke, he reached for his pistol that sat in a well-worn, holster tied down to his right thigh. But Gideon was quicker, and in a flash, he held his .45 Colt Peacemaker in his hand and squeezed off two quick shots. Clay was thrown back by the impact of the bullets as they tore into the flesh, shattering the bones of both his shoulders. He fell to the ground heavily, without the support from either of his hands.
Gideon stood over him and half-cocked his Clot. “That was for my wife,” he snapped with disgust, “and this is for the women that might say no to you in the future.” Gideon lowered his aim and again he fired twice, hitting Clay once in the lower belly, and once in his groin. Gideon didn’t look back, but turned and walked out through the batwings, climbed onto the back of Patch and rode away. California was the only thing on his mind.
When Sheriff Watkins returned to Gideon, he placed two mugs of steaming black coffee on his desk. “Daydreaming, Mister McCraw?” he asked. He picked up the wanted poster of Gideon, crumpled it in his hand, then went back over to the potbelly stove, removed the metal plate and dropped the paper in among the kindles and watched as it flared up in a yellow-gorge of flame.
“Why did you do that?”
"I don’t want anyone recognizing you.” Watkins lent back in his chairs adjusting his belt around his rotund midsection. “If Scott’s father should find out I destroyed your poster, he’ll not only shoot me on sight but you as well.”
Gideon sipped at the hot black coffee, his dark-brown eyes, unblinking, skimming the rim of the tin mug watching Watkins. “Why would he do that?” he asked.
“It won’t be the first time he’s threatened me,” Watkins said. “I’m the sheriff of this village for just as long as he says I am."
“Who is this … Kane?”
“He’s the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever known. The sun-of-a-bitch owns most of the land around these parts. He’s arrogant, offensive and thinks only of him himself.” A tall, thin man with dark-hair, streaked with gray and white, stepped through the office door carrying a small brown leather briefcase. “I believe we owe you this.” He dropped it on the desk in front of Gideon, then turning to Watkins he said, “Michael came to my house earlier and told me what had happened. I took the liberty of bringing the money with me, Ben. I guessed you’d be having a quiet word with this gentleman.”
Gideon looked at the briefcase then up at the middle-aged man. “Who are you?” he asked.
“This is Mayor, Theo Evans,” Watkins told him. "Meet Gideon McCraw, Theo."
“Isn’t this village a little small for a mayor?” Gideon questioned them.
“Another title,” Watkins answered, “just like mine. He could lose it at any time.”
Evans acknowledged Gideon with a touch of his hat. “Go on open it. From what Michael told me you’ve earned it.”
Gideon eased back into his chair pushing the briefcase toward Watkins. “I’ve had that one tried on me once before, it had a ratterla’ hidden in it. You open it!”
The two men managed a troubled smile before Evans went on. “The man you shot and killed in the tent-saloon this evening, well, there was a reward out on him for three-thousand-dollars. It’s in the suitcase.”
Watkins had already opened the briefcase and slid it back across his desk to Gideon. “It’s all in there,” he assured Gideon.”
Gideon pulled it closer, looked inside then snapped it shut. “What’s a lot of money,” he said. “What do you want? No one hands out money like this unless they want something.”
“You’re under no obligation, Mister McCraw," said Evans. "If you refuse our request the money will still be yours. We’ll find some way to explain to Mister Kane where the villages three-thousand-dollars went.”
Watkins sighed heavily, and lent forward in his chair. “Before you give us your answer, Gideon. No matter what you’ve done in the past, the badge we’re offering you will give you all the protection you’ll need within the boundaries of the village. I’ve read the report on you. The law knows the man you killed, killed and raped your wife. The way you killed him is the reason your face is on the wanted poster. A stand off is one thing, but to wound a man and then put another three bullets in him, carefully placed so that he dies slowly. That counts as murder.”
“Maybe,” Gideon grunted. “But I have no regrets. The other bastard, Jet Stone, well, I’m not looking for him now. His trail went cold in California about three months ago. Since then I’ve been chased all over the country by bounty hunters and young, foolish men looking to make a name for themselves. Now, all I want to do is settle down and get on with my life. If I do come across, Stone, I’ll deal with him.”
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