Another Man's Gold
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Another Man's Gold
Virgil Malone looked up from his heavy labor, his shirt front, and the pits of his under-arms stained to a muddy brown where the dust had mingled with the sweat of his body. The crutch of his gray flannels hung heavy with the salted liquid giving the appearance he had peed his pants. His leather boots, fastened over the tongues with knotted and scuffed bits of string, had split at the toes, and the soles had worn thin from the sharp-edged stones. Virgil bit his breath, his head cocked, listening for the sound he had heard above the scraping of his shovel in the dirt. He guessed it had come from the direction of the rocky gorge below, through which a small creek flowed.
The sound came again, but this time he recognized it as the clopping of horse hooves against the hard rock, followed closely by the dry rattle of lose stones as they rolled to the pull of the slope. Virgil straightened his powerful back and rested the head of the shovel at his feet. Three heads popped up from behind the decline, distorted against the late afternoon sun. Troubled, he shot a nervous glance at his rifle leaning against a bed of flat rock some thirty foot away on his right side. He edged slowly towards it.
"Don't go reaching for your rifle, Spike," one man called out. "Don't you recognize us?"
Virgil hadn't heard that name for over a year, and it drove a cold shiver up his spine even though he stood beneath the blazing sun without a hint of shade to his east or west. It was when they drew closer did he recognize the man who rode in the center as Sean O'Brien. To his right, and still as tall and thin as a blade of dried buffalo grass, rode Noah Ford. The man on the left Virgil did not know, and what he saw of the man he did not like. The rider chewed on a chunk of stick tobacco, and the ginger juice that came from it, mixed with his saliva, accumulated at the sides of his mouth, blemishing the hairs of his over-grown brown mustache to a copper-gold. A beige Stetson hat with a broad, white and black sorrel horsehair band sat squarely at the top of his head, the wide brim on either side of the crown tilting upward. Strapped to his right hip, and tired down, rested a Remington single-action '75 army issue, cleaned and well oiled. The grip of Remington as smooth as a sheet of glass. Virgil guessed that he was the quick-gun of the gang, as he knew both Sean and Noah were slow when it came to slapping leather. Their specialty was a shot in the back and as far away from their targets as possible.
The three men pull their horses to a stop a few feet from where Virgil Malone stood.
"How long has it being, Spike?" Sean O'Brien grinned as he spoke. "Must be going on for at least a year and a bit?"
"That's how long it's taken us to find you," Noah said harshly and spat on the ground near to Virgil’s boots. He wiped his mouth on the back of his shirt sleeve, and for a short instance, he glared down at Virgil, his eyes squinched and narrowed. "This country's not big enough for you to hide from us forever, Spike."
Sean's grin broke to a gurgling chuckle. "You remember, Noah, don't you?" And Virgil nodded. "For sure, you won't remember Isaiah Kirkland. He only joined us after you ran out."
"I did no such thing," Virgil argued and tugged at the tight coils of his wild and bushy beard. "I told you at the time, Sean, that it was going to be my last ride with you and Noah. I was tired of running from the law. I wanted to settle down before my face got stuck to a wanted poster like yours and Noah. I wanted to get a place of my own and grow old peacefully."
“Yeah,” Noah scoffed with a crooked grin of his own. He leaned forward, resting his forearm on the saddle horn. “We heard you bought a smallholding not far from here with the money you stole from us. That was foolish, Spike.”
“Don’t call me that!” Virgil snapped, squinting up at the sun that sat perch in the sky behind the three men’s heads like a large ginger ball of fire. “I don't go by that name anymore. Now I’m known as Virgil Malone. My past is behind me."
"We don't care what you call yourself," said Noah. "We’ve come to collect what's rightfully ours. The farm and what’s left of the money. We're going to need a place to hold up once we've hit the El Paso Southwestern Railroad.”
“That was a year ago,” Virgil told him. “The bank would have claimed the farm back by now and resold it. How did you know where to find me?”
“We didn’t until we stopped by a smallholding just outside Ebony Gove.” He spoke in a low disdainful voice. “It might interest you to know, Spike, that your wife never left the farm. With the farm being so close to town, she makes a tidy living from her little ‘Girly House’ as she now calls it. We spent two nights there with her and her young lady friends. I guess we don’t have to tell you that your wife’s a real little grasshopper in the sack. In a state of merriment, she said her husband had headed for the mountains looking for gold. From her description of him, we knew we were on the right track at last.”
Soon after Virgil had left Sean’s gang, he had put down a small deposit on a smallholding, a good piece of land that spread along the banks of Beaver Creek, situated to the south of a small town called Ebony Cove, in southern-Arizona-territory. There he had met a young woman working at the saloon and married her a month later. Life was good for a time until the drought came. The creek dried up, and the sun-scorched the crops before they had even ripened. Their misfortune had caused his wife to complain often. “I made more money in the saloon than you have ever given me,” she had told him. “And the boys did a far better job at pleasuring me than you ever have.” One morning she packed her bags and left. Discouraged, Virgil set the animals free, closed the door to the cabin, and road away.
"I don't have the money," Virgil spoke directly up at Sean. "Lewis had it."
"That's not what Noah told me." Sean moved in his saddle to look across at Noah, then back at Virgil, the grin tightening on his thin lips. "You lying, Spike. Noah saw you leave the bank with the money."
"I did," Virgil agreed. "But when I got to the horses, Lewis was already in the saddle and starting to ride off. Bullets were flying everywhere. To save a bit of time of stringing the bag to the horn, I threw it up at Lewis. He caught it and followed you out of town.”
Isaiah, who sat quietly listening to the three men, now released the hammer strap from his Remington and slipped it from its well-used leather nest. "I don't think Sean believes a word you sayin'," he said, petting the barrel with the fingers of his left hand.
"I did what I said I would, Sean," Virgil stated boldly, but he felt the pinch of quandary spreading through his upper body. He bumped his chest with a tightly folded hand. "I helped with the bank robbery, but the money I told you I wanted no part of it. A few days later, when I was in a neighboring town, I heard Lewis had got himself shot, and the townsfolk got their money back.
The jeering grin returned to Sean's face as he shook his head in a disbelieving manner. “That’s not what we heard,” he grunted. “I think you shot Lewis there in the street, and then rode off with the money."
“Why would I do that?” Virgil sucked in his top lip nervously and bit down slowly, knowing that Sean was fast reaching the end of his patience. “We rode together for a long time, Sean,” he said. "Stagecoaches, banks, rustling — we've done it all together. Those are our memories. Why would I want to spoil them?"
“Cause of the money, Spike,” Sean growled down at him. “That’s how it looks to me.”
Realizing that this day might be his last on earth, Virgil made a desperate dash for his rifle, but Isaiah reacted immediately. With a flick of his wrist, he spun the Colt on the forefinger of his right hand, then bringing his left palm swiftly over, he closed down on the cold steel locking the pistol to his grip. He squeezed the trigger.
The bullet dug deep into Virgil's right upper leg before the Remington had jumped back and upward from the recoil. He let out a loud yelp, trying desperately to take support from the shovel handle as he fell. His right hand clutched to his wound.
"Dang, Sean!" he bellowed. "Why did you let him do that?"
"C'mon on, Spike." It was evident by the expression on Sean's face that he was enjoying Virgil's pain. "All we want is our money. But while we're here, we may as well take the gold you've been digging out of these hills."
Noah stepped down from his horse and strolled over to where Virgil sat on the ground, leaned to one side, resting against his outstretched right arm. Noah dipped forward swiftly and struck him a heavy blow across the cheek. Virgil lost his balance and rolled onto his back. Noah straightened with a broad smile, rubbed his fist in the palm of his other hand, then turned back to Sean, looking for approval of his action.
"You want me to rough him up a bit more, Sean?"
"Just a little." With a jocular grunt, Sean swung his leg over the saddle horn and dropped to the ground as Noah placed his boot deep into Virgil's ribs. Virgil took the blow without a sound coming from his mouth, but the force from it caused him to curl his knees up into his chest, biting down on the pain that came from his leg and chest.
Sean stood over him with the bulk of ox, wide-shouldered, and a thick neck. He pushed his hat to the rear of his head and then ran the back of his hand across his brow. “Don’t put yourself through all this, Spike,” He said and leveled his pistol at a more direct angle at Virgil's head. “Tell me where the money and the gold are hidden, and I’ll make it quick. I’ll even get Noah and Isaiah to dig a hole to bury you in. If not, we’ll leave you for the buzzards to pick at your bones.”
Virgil raised himself off the ground, and again he took the weight of his body on his right arm. “Look at me, my clothes, my boots,” he said. “Does it look as though I have money? You make me laugh, Sean. In all the years that I've known you, never have I seen you bury a man. Why should I think that you'd do that for me?”
“Cause we’re old pals,” said Sean. “I don’t want to leave you lying out here in the dirt. The thought of those buzzards makes my stomach turn.”
He’s not going to talk,” Noah stated impatiently, and he took a forceful pace forward. Raising his foot, he slammed it hard into Virgil’s face.
Blood ran from the split in Virgil’s mouth. When his mind cleared, he wiped at the wound with the base of his palm. “Is that the best you’ve got,” he said, looking up at Noah.”
Noah stepped forward again, but Sean put out his hand and stopped him in mid-step.
“The money has to be around here somewhere,” said Sean. "He would have taken it with him when he left the farm.” Sean leaned forward and taking hold of Virgil's shirt collar; pulled him roughly to his feet. “For the last time, Sean, show us where you’ve hidden the money.”
“Your ass,” said Virgil, and he spun swiftly, ignoring the pain in his leg. Sean had relaxed and turned to say something to Isaiah and let his Colt stray from its direction. Virgil wrenched the pistol from his hand, but Isaiah was quicker and raised his unbedded Remington pistol and fired.
Virgil never felt a thing, nor did a single bird chirp in his head as he dropped like a stone in the dirt.
** 2 **
To be continued....