South of Prescott 1886
A Village With No Name
Mervyn B. Elsdon
** 1 **
South of Prescott, Arizona
The large, ginger sun hung above the uneven mountain range and draped the valley in purple so that the late afternoon looked tranquil and hushed.
High above the river, a solitary eagle, on still, outspread wings, circled adroitly through the darkling sky — the 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. Below the steeple, and half-hidden by the cottonwood trees rested a silent bell housed in a round open dome.
Tall, thin, and wiry, his long black hair catching the late afternoon light, Gideon stood watching the sun on its final march across the oval-dome of clear blue sky. The road that led from the small village up the eastern slope to where he rested his lame dun mare, Hoss, crossed the river through a wash of shallow running water. But when he started down the mesa, the quietness of evening broke to the sound of repeated gunfire followed closely by the rapid ringing of the old Mission Bell.
At the sound that carried across the water, Gideon tightened his hold on the reins pulling Hoss to a halt as five men appeared riding hard toward the river, breaking the wash in a fine spray that partly obscured both men and horses as they charged through it.
“Trouble, Hoss!” Gideon grunted with a peeved voice. “They’re up to no good.” He led the large animal limping into the brush between the trees, and when she settled, he stroked her neck affectionately. “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 strides of their mounts. Gideon slipped the leather hammer-strap free and cleared a Colt from its holster.
He stood in the cover of the trees watching their approach, the Colt cocked and set at his hip. His other hand 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 after they passed before slipping the Colt back into its holster, and stepped out from the trees. 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 Gideon. He stood his ground beside Hoss, his hand resting on his hip close to his Colt.
A middle-aged man with a tin badge pinned to his light, gray shirt leaned forward in his saddle. His hair, closely cropped, and small round ears hugged the sides of his head. He was a large man, not in height, but weighing nearly two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, and Gideon was surprised at the way he skillfully mastered his spirited stallion.
“Where’re you headed, Mister?” the sheriff asked, adjusting the reins to the impatient prance of the chestnut stallion. He pointed up at the heavens. “And why the devil are you walking under the sun?”
Gideon studied the six men sitting atop their horses watching him. He wanted to get a measure of them as he had learned over time that most strangers weren’t trustworthy.
“My mare threw a shoe five miles back,” he said finally. Gideon only partly answered the question. Instead, he pointed down to the village. “Is there a blacksmith down there?”
“There’s one at the far side of the village,” the sheriff snorted through a short breath. “But business first, Mister.” He rose in the stirrups looking away from the village along the trail that disappeared down the back of the mesa. “Did five riders pass this way?”
“Make it quick, Mister, there ain’t much light left,” one man barked, and Gideon's gaze drifted over to him.
Not knowing the village or the spirit of its people, Gideon thought it best to gather all the information he could about the area as he might need to leave the village in a hurry. He let another minute pass before he asked, “Is there another way, Sheriff?”
The sheriff motioned with a balled fist toward the river. “A narrow trail follows the river to the north of here,” he said. “From up here, you would have seen them. Which way did they go?”
“They passed through here about five or six minutes ago,” Gideon told him. “What did they do?”
The youngest of the sheriff’s men moved in closer. He held his Smith & Wesson cocked in his left hand. “They shot up the saloon and two of our residents — and Mary Loo,” he added with a swift grunt of concern. He sat high in the saddle with a long stirrup, a sign of a natural-born horseman. He wore a tan — long-tailed — shirt stuffed into dark blue jeans, scuffed brown ankle boots, and a wide-brimmed Stetson hat perched comfortably on top of a well-formed head. Thick oak-colored hair hung from beneath the beige hat brushing his ears and the collar at the back of his neck. “You heard the sheriff,” he snarled through skewed lips. “What brings you to 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.
“How long are you staying?” 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 gem-green eyes. “Put that thing away,” he growled. “You talk too much. You won’t catch up with them wasting time talking. You best get riding.”
The sheriff nodded his large, round head in agreement. He pushed back his floppy 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 Sheriff Watkins sent you."
** 2 **
Gideon walked his mare through the wash and up the shallow gradient to the far bank. There he nudged Hoss on the shoulder, leading her limping to the north and into the village. His thoughts on a long, hot bath and a cold beer after he had settled Hoss.
A wide dusty street ran the full length of the village. Gideon twitched his nose at the stink of hot, dry earth and dust that rose into the air, as did the trail he had ridden for the last ten days. The last time he had felt the rain 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 the repercussions of his recent past bit close to his heels.
It wasn’t the first time he was forced to move to a place unknown to him, hoping that the townsfolk had not heard of his name. Some towns he entered he had liked, and some he disliked, but in most the stagecoach had beaten him for on the outside walls of the sheriff’s offices, among others, hung a wanted poster of him. Though he had allowed his hair to grow long, and a thick, curly beard to cover his chin, 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 small settlement he could call home.
The church bell had quietened now, but the main street still buzzed with troubled villages; some ran aimlessly, others knowing where they were going, but to Gideon, nothing looked organized — or if it was about to happen soon. An old-timer sat on the sidewalk swaying back and forth on an old wooden rocking chair, sucking deeply at the end of his homemade corn-pipe. It was hard for Gideon to guess his age for his weather-beaten hat sat low on his brow, but the chin hung exposed; square, and bony and deeply cleft, and bumped 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 stable?”
Pulling the pipe-stem from his mouth, the old-timer pointed it down the 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 street aways.” He gasped air into his lungs and patted his chest with the hand that held the pipe. “On the right, gaucho. You can’t miss it.”
The further Gideon walked down the street, the noise of the frightened villages fell behind, and he took advantage of the quietness in the livery breeze-room to have a closer look at Hoss’ shoe.
The smell of clean, dried hay and the sweet, whiff of black molasses mixed with the odor of finely groomed horses filled his nostrils, and it brought back the memories of his smallholding and his wife, Glenda. By now, the cattle roamed free, and his first crop long dead and dried beneath the harsh heat of the 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 freshly fallen snow 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 cherished for only six months. Sorrow burned 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. 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 Cottonville, near the Kansas border.
Gideon had worked hard at clearing the overgrown brush. At times he thought his back might break, but the feelings he had for his new bride drove him on late into 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 JB Ranch up in the northern plains, he purchased twenty head of livestock, nails, pine planks, and poles, and once he had settled the cattle Gideon set about repairing the corral; it took all of three days to replace the poles that lay scattered over the ground, crooked, and snapped from dry rot.
He remembered well the morning he had reined in his horse on the high ground overlooking the small homestead. The house was a two-roomed building with a straw and earth 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 draped across the window. Evenly spaced on the walls hung little pictures of red and white roses and yellow trumpet-shaped daffodils on long stems — pictures Glenda had cut and saved from chocolate box lids — framed with thin strips of kindle she had sliced from the dry rot poles of the corral.
The sun had sunk to the horizon, and the light was darkening by the time Gideon returned. As he approached the farm, he felt an uneasy stillness about the house for each time he returned Glenda would be at the front door patiently waiting for him.
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 lay their two gruff-goats, their legs hurriedly removed from the hips and shoulders. The remains left to bleed into the earth, turning the ground a rusty brown. Screaming her name Gideon leaped from the saddle. He raced at a full stride for the front door, not stopping to open it, but taking the wooden mass off its hinges with one massive thrust of his boot.
The image of his wife lying on the floor filled the deepest chambers of his mind. She had fought hard to save her life, the kitchen utensils lay everywhere, and the chairs from the kitchen table lay overturned and scattered around the room. Gideon dropped to her side, whispering her name hopefully. He knelt on the floor, holding her body in the cup of his elbow, his right-hand cradling her head gently against his chest. The front of her apron was awash with her blood. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him she had taken a severe beaten, abused, and then shot in the belly.
Slowly she opened her swollen eyes as a sibilant sound passed over her torn and inflamed lips. Gideon drew back sharply as he thought her to be dead.
Little spittle's of blood popped from her mouth as she strove to speak. ‘They … came from the north.”
“Who came —?” His words lumped in his throat, and he drew a quick short breath and swallowed hard.
Many times, he had seen men die: and knew there was nothing he could do except to hold her and give her the strength and courage for when her time came. 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, and then there was a gurgling sound as the red liquid mixed with the yellow and greenish bile popped from her mouth, running over her chin and down the side of her neck.
“Shh —” 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 large, loose rocks after a violent thunderstorm.
“Jet Stone —” she started, but her eyes rolled slowly upward as her eyelids closed over them for the last time, her head falling limp against his chest.
He buried Glenda on the ridge overlooking the farm that day, and when he had set the animals free and packed all he needed, he set the farmhouse ablaze and rode away. He wanted no one to have what they had shared.
“You want your horse bedded for the night, Mister?” The voice startled Gideon, and he turned to face a young, black boy standing between two rows of immaculately kept boxed horses. A three-pin-fork pierced the crisp, dry hay that covered the earth at his feet, and his hand's clamped the wooden shaft resting against his naked shoulder. He wore a faded gray overall folded down to the waist, secured about his middle by a thin, braided cord of prairie grass, and his skin shone a deep, golden brown from perspiration. Gideon judged him no older than fifteen or sixteen.
“Just one night,” said Gideon. “I’ll let you know in the morning if I’m staying longer. Is your name, Jackson?” Gideon removed his hat and stroked his head. Though his hair was damp with sweat, it was still thick and sprung beneath his fingers but dusted more with an earth-color from the trail than black.
The young boy laughed. “No, Mister!” he said with finality. “He’s my cousin.”
“Where is he?” Gideon probed, with a swift glance around the livery. “My horse needs shoeing.”
“Jackson will be back in the morning. He’s big and strong, Mister, he'll have it fixed in no time.” 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 enthusiasm. A young man, he thought, but still a young, spirited child. “How old are you?” Gideon asked.
“I’m thirteen, Mister,” he boasted and bumped his chest with a clasped fist. “I do a man’s job to help my ma.”
“You should be proud of yourself.” Gideon crossed the breeze room floor to where the young boy stood grinning and cuffed him playfully on the shoulder. “Does she work in the village?"
“She works as a parlor maid at the Lazy Horse Saloon.” He stopped and took on a solemn face. “A bad thing happened there about twenty minutes ago,” then went on quickly to explain. “There was a shooting, but they got away before the sheriff arrived. I’m glad my, ma wasn’t hurt.”
“I heard about the shooting.” Gideon pointed toward 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 boy and handed him the reins to Hoss. “You take care of my horse.” Gideon flipped him a silver dollar coin. “Make sure you give her the best of everything and a good rubdown. Understand?”
The young boy nodded his head and smiled; his snow-white teeth emphasized by his parted, dark-pink lips. “I’ve got sweet corn and fresh, dried hay, Mister.”
Ten days out in the semi-desert with only his horse as a companion, this young chatterbox was just what Gideon needed to lighten his spirit, so he pushed him further. “What is your name, boy?”
“Michael, Mister,” the young boy reported. “My ma named me after my pa, but I never did meet him. He died when I was only a small boy.”
“I’m sure he was a fine man.”
“He sure was,” Michael answered. “My ma told me.”
Gideon smiled again and asked. “Tell me, Michael, where is this Lazy Horse Saloon? There are no signs on any of the buildings.”
“Back along the way you came, but there is another saloon, Mister. That’s if you don’t mind drinking with Chinese and black folks?”
“I don’t mind,” Gideon said, “as long as the beer is 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 is as cold as the morning frost. Grandma always keeps a barrel in the backyard among the bushes covered with wet earth for her best customers.”
** 3 **