Chapters 1 - 2
Dead Men Can’t Talk
… 1 …
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 crotch of his gray flannels hung heavy with the salted liquid, giving the impression he had peed his pants. His leather boots, fastened across 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 spade in the dirt. He guessed it had come from the rocky gorge below, where a little creek bubbled up through the hot, dry earth.
The sound came again, but this time he recognized it as the clopping of horse hooves against the hard rock, followed by the dry rattle of loose stones as they rolled to the pull of the slope. Virgil straightened his powerful back and rested the blade of the spade 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 feet away on his right side. He edged towards it.
“Don’t go reaching for your rifle, Spike,” one man called. “Don’t ya recognize us?”
Virgil hadn’t heard that name for more than a year, and it drove an icy shiver up his spine. Even though he stood beneath the blazing sun without a hint of shade to his east or west, he felt the chill of it creeping across his shoulders. Only 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, but what he saw of the man he did not like. The rider gnawed on a chunk of stick tobacco, and the auburn colored 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 at the center of his head, the wide brim on either side of the finger-pinched crown winged upward. Strapped to his right hip, and tied down, rested a Remington single-action ’75 army issue, cleaned and well oiled. The grip of the Remington was 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 at slapping leather. Their specialty was a shot in the back, as far away from their targets as possible.
The three men pulled their horses to a stop a respectable distance from where Virgil Malone stood.
“How lon’ has it bein’, Spike?” Sean O’Brien grinned as he spoke. “Must be goin’ on for at least a year and a bit?”
That day when Virgil had ridden into Tombstone, the day he had first met Sean and Noah drinking at the Crystal Palace Saloon, he cursed with antagonism. His long ride from Wyoming had left him with only a few coins in his pocket, and when he ordered a glass of water from the bartender, Sean had stepped up to the long-bar and offered to buy him a whiskey. With a dry throat, Virgil had accepted eagerly. After many drinks, and with the promise of easy money, Sean had talked him into joining their gang.
“That’s how lon’ it’s taken us to find ya,” Noah said and spat on the ground near to Virgil’s boots. “This country’s not big enough for ya to hide from us forever, Spike.”
Sean’s grin broke to a gurgling chuckle. “Ya remember, Noah, don’t ya?” And Virgil nodded. “For sure, ya won’t remember Isaiah Kirkland; he only joined us after ya ran out.”
“That’s not true,” Virgil argued. He tugged at the tight coils of his bushy beard. “I told you, Sean, that it would be my last ride with you and Noah. I was tired of running from the law. All I wanted was to settle down before my face got stuck to a wanted poster. I wanted to get a place of my own, somewhere to grow old peacefully.”
Noah fixed him with a cold stare. “We heard ya bought a smallholdin’ with the money ya stole from us. That was foolish, Spike.”
“Don’t call me that!” Virgil snapped, squinting up at the sun perched in the sky behind the three men’s heads like a festering, yellow 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 ya call yourself,” said Sean. “We’re here to collect what’s ours, the farm, and what’s left of the money. We’ll need a place to hide for a while after we’ve hit the El Paso Southwestern Railroad.”
“The bank would have claimed the farm back by now and resold it,” Virgil told him. “How did you know where to find me?”
“We didn’t until we stopped at a small spread just outside Ebony Grove,” Sean spoke in a low disdainful voice. “It might interest ya, Spike, that your wife never left the farm. With the farm bein’ so close to town, she makes a tidy livin’ 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 ya 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 lookin’ for gold. From her description of him, we knew we’d find ya out here.”
Soon after Virgil had left Sean’s gang, he had put down a small deposit on a smallholding, a fertile piece of land that spread along the banks of Beaver Creek, situated to the south of a little town called Ebony Cove in Southern-Arizona-Territory. There he had met a young, spirited woman working at the saloon and married her a month later. They shared a good life for a time until the drought came. The creek dried up, and the sun-scorched their first 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 bickered constantly. “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 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 tells me.” Sean moved in his saddle to look across at Noah, then back at Virgil, the grin tightening over his thin lips. “You lyin’, Spike. Noah saw ya leave the bank with the money.”
“That’s true,” said Virgil. “But when I got to the horses, Lewis was already in the saddle and starting to ride off. Bullets were coming from every direction. To save time stringing the money 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 ya sayin’,” he said, petting the barrel with the fingers of his left hand.
Virgil read the expression on Sean’s face. “I did what I said I would, Sean,” Virgil stated boldly, but he felt the pinch of dread spreading through his upper body. He bumped his chest with a tightly folded hand. “I helped with the bank robbery, but I told you I wanted no part of the money. A few days later, when I was in a neighboring town, I heard that Lewis had got himself shot, and the townsfolk had got their money back.”
“Ya right about Lewis, Spike. He did get shot, but we heard nothing about the money. We think ya shot Lewis there in the middle of the street and then rode off with our money.” Sean went quiet, brushing the brim of his hat with his fingertips. “What must I do, Spike?” he continued finally. “It’s easy to shoot a man ya don’t know, but we’re friends, remember? It would bother me to see ya lying here in the dirt. Now, where is it?”
Virgil sucked in his bottom lip and bit down nervously, knowing that Sean was fast reaching the end of his patience. “Why would I do that?” he asked. Virgil knew that Sean was not a man of his word. He had proven himself to be ruthless, and found amusement in the pain he executed upon the weak and trusting. “We rode together for five months, Sean. 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.”
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 Remington on the forefinger of his right hand, then bringing his left palm swiftly over, he closed it 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 spade 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.” He was enjoying Virgil’s pain. “All we want is our money. But while we’re here, we may as well take the gold ya dug out of these hills.”
Noah stepped down from his horse and strolled over to where Virgil sat on the ground, resting against his outstretched right arm. Noah dipped forward swiftly and struck Virgil a heavy blow across the cheek.
Virgil lost his balance and rolled onto his back.
With a broad smile, Noah straightened. He rubbed his fist in the palm of his other hand, and turned to Sean, looking for approval of his action. “Ya want me to rough him up more?” he asked.
“Just a little.” With a jocular grunt, Sean swung his leg over the pommel and dropped to the ground as Noah placed the toe of his boot deep into Virgil’s side. Virgil took the blow without a sound coming from his mouth, but the force from it caused him to curl his knees into his chest, biting down on the pain that came up through his leg and chest.
Sean stood over him with the stance of a longhorn, his Colt held in his right hand. He pushed his hat to the back of his head. “Don’t put yourself through all this, Spike,” he said. “Tell me where ya hid the money and gold, and I’ll make it quick. I’ll even get Noah and Isaiah to dig a hole to bury ya in. If not, we’ll leave ya lying out here 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!” he boomed. “My clothes, my boots — does it look as though I have any money? You make me laugh, Sean. In all the time I’ve known you, never have I seen you bury a man. Why would I think you’d do that for me?”
“Cause we’re old pals.” Sean laughed. “The thought of those birds picking at your flesh makes my stomach turn.”
Noah sauntered closer, scratching at his stubbled chin. “He’s not goin’ to talk, Sean,” he mumbled impatiently, and took a forceful pace forward. Raising his right leg, he slammed his boot heel viciously into the side of Virgil’s face.
Blood ran from the split in Virgil’s mouth. When his mind cleared, he wiped at the wound. “Is that the best you’ve got?” he barked up at Noah.
Noah stepped forward again, but Sean put out his arm to stop him.
“The money has to be around here somewhere,” Sean exclaimed. “He would have carried it with him when he left the farm.” Sean leaned forward and pulled Virgil roughly to his feet. “For the last time, Spike, show us where ya hid the money.”
“Your ass!” Virgil growled. “If I had it, I wouldn’t tell you.” 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 Sean’s 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.
“You fool!” Sean roared with the fury of a wounded grizzly. “We needed him alive!”
… 2 ...
The sun was sinking behind the mountains when Virgil Malone opened his eyes. The endless thumping in his head dulled his brain and blurred his sight. He groaned heavily at the pain. The bullet had left a deep gouge in his head just above his left ear. The blood at the side of his face and neck had dried to a thick crusty scab, and he dabbed at it gently. Then there was darkness again as his body succumbed to the excruciating pain that came from his touch.
When he finally awoke again, the stars filled the night sky, and the moon shone with its fullest brilliance. The pain in his head remained, but his sight had returned. He lay still beneath the stars for a long time before climbing to his feet and stumbled down the shallow, rocky slope to his campsite. His tent had been torn from its pegs and lay half-submerged in the little earth creek. Pots and pans lay scattered about the sight. With much difficulty, Virgil staggered over to where he had made a makeshift corral for his horse and mule. Part of the brush and dried branches he had gathered to form a wall had been ripped apart and thrown to the ground. The animals had strayed off into the night. He knew Sean had not taken them as he would not risk the chance of being recognized when riding into a town to sell them. Tired and disheartened, Virgil found his bedding, spread it beneath the stars, and drifted off into a troubled sleep.
When morning came, so did the deep, throaty coos of the rock pigeons. Virgil rose hurriedly, his thoughts of his gold, and headed directly to where his tent had once stood. The groundsheet lay in a crumpled heap, revealing an empty hole in the ground where he had hidden his gold. In anger, Virgil threw a wild punch into the still air and kicked at the ground. The gold he had mined didn’t amount to much, but his thoughts of someone else spending it drove a deep shiver of anger through his veins.
With a steeped effort, he climbed the rocky slope to his dig and stared out into the distance. A column of thick black smoke hung motionless across the horizon, plumed by a steam-locomotive as it raced through the canyons of the far Mountains. He was looking for dust. The air was too still for dust devils, but not knowing where Sean and his gang had spent the night, he thought that if they were not too far off, he might see the dust rising from their horses.
Carefully he studied the terrain, starting from the far mountains, then moving closer and closer, not missing an outcrop of rock, a bush, a ledge, or even a shaded roost. But the landscape stared back at him, bleak and empty.
In the east, the sun was rising quickly now. Sweat ran from Virgil’s brow, drenching his eyes, and he could feel the run of it, moving down his back and chest beneath his torn and foul-smelling, sweat-stained shirt. Virgil touched the wound on his head and winced. His head still ached and throbbed with the pain, but he bit down hard on his teeth, and took a tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket and rolled a thin cigarette. He lit it and drew in deeply.
Virgil did not move. Patience had saved the lives of many. But those who lacked it died from their foolishness.
The land stretched before him like an artist’s canvas of light beige and gray. Large white clouds dotted the sky, their shadows stretching like dark islands across the desert sand. When his gaze finally reached a ridge some two-hundred yards away from where he stood, a small swirl of dust rose from behind it. Virgil fixed his stare. A few minutes passed before his horse pranced out into a clearing followed closely by the mule. Virgil guessed a rattler, or a coyote had spooked them.
When Virgil returned to his camp, he wandered around aimlessly. In their anger, Sean and his boys had destroyed everything. Besides tossing his pots and pans about the campsite, they had used his tins of beans and peaches for target practice. With disgust, Virgil stubbed his cigarette butt into the ground with the heel of his boot.
Eventually, when he came to the little pool, formed by the earth spring before it trickled off some fifty yards, only to spill over a narrow span of sheetrock to disappear silently again beneath the hot earth, he crouched down beside it. He splashed his face in the cold water and drank deeply. When the water settled, he stared at his reflection in the pool, and then, with an unsteady hand, he began to wipe at the dried blood at the side of his head. But the pain and fresh blood that came from his wound caused him to change his mind.
Virgil’s mind was racing as he rested beside the water, his eyes closed, his head resting in the cups of his hands. He knew he was wasting valuable time for the sun was on its march, bringing with it the scorching heat that dries the exposed flesh. Finally, with unsteady arms, he pushed himself back to his feet and started over to where his saddle and bridle lay in the dirt. Beside them, and slashed with a hunting knife, lay his water bottle. It was only now that he realized that Sean had taken his rifle and pistol.
The nearest town was a two-day ride, but without water, it would be a close shave. Virgil, knew the area well, for he had traveled back and forth many times along the trail to replenish his supplies. There was no known water in the wasteland, except for one small spring, and that was a full days ride.
Slowly he began to gather into a neat pile what he thought he might need, then set off to bring in his horse and mule. They seemed to have had enough of the free life and eagerly came to him at his first call. He saddled his horse and packed the mule, and then started down into the wasteland. He wanted to reach the spring by nightfall. There he could spend the night and make an early start in the morning. He traveled in short stretches, resting the two animals often, but the heat of the day was cruel, draining the moisture from their bodies. At times he thought his old mule might fall from exhaustion, a thought he pushed from his mind. Without a gun to take her life quickly, the idea of slipping his seven-and-a-half-inch hunting knife deep into her neck, just behind her ear, caused a knotted pain to swell in his stomach.
When Virgil rounded a small rocky mound, the sun was sinking low, and long, shadowed fingers crept out from below the hills. He was tired from his long walk, and his feet hurt. The animals could smell the water, and he braced himself with all his strength to stop them from charging down the embankment to where the sweet scent drifted up from the spring. A hurried step on those loose stones would cause them to lose their footing, ending in a broken leg or ankle. Eventually, he managed to secure the mule to a sizeable free-standing rock and then walked his horse down to the water. Once he had set her free to drink her fill and to munch on the short green grass that grew beside the spring, he returned for the mule.
In the fading lite, Virgil lit a small fire. He could hear the rumbling growls that came from his stomach, but the thoughts of his wife’s expression on her face when she saw him standing in the doorway of his ranch house, eased his hunger pains and made him smile.
… 3 …