Chapters 1 - 5
'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 crutch 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 foot 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 over 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 handgun 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 and as far away from their targets as possible.
The three men pull 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 hold up 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 it 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 the money I told you I wanted no part of it. 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 scratched at his stubbled chin. “He’s not goin’ to talk, Sean,” he groaned impatiently, and took a forceful pace forward; raising his right leg, he slammed his boot heel viciously into 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 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. His pots and pans lay scattered about the sight. Virgil staggered with much difficulty over to where he had made a makeshift corral to retain his horse and mule. Part of the brush and dried branches he had gathered together 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 account 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 in 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 near to, two-hundred yards 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, lively 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 meters, 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 drunk deeply. When the water settled, he stared at his reflection in the pool, 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.
For a short time, Virgil 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 causing little water welts to form beneath the skin. 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. But there were no rivers that he would cross, except for one small spring, but that was a full days ride.
Slowly he began to gather into a neat pile that 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, eased his hunger and made him smile.
** 3 **
At dawn, Virgil woke early. His horse and mule moved restlessly in the cup of the rocky embankment. They watched him with intent as he rose to his feet. He guessed they wanted water. When they had filled their bellies, he made them ready. A lonely coyote stood a short way off watching them, waiting its turn to lap up the clean sweet water. The blue, cloudless sky that patiently waited to add to their discomfort stretched to the horizon broken only by an occasional, circling buzzard.
The lively chirps from the birds fell away as his distance grew from the spring. Virgil walked beside the dun with a steady stride. His lean, hard body, burned to a deep golden brown by the harsh American sun, carried no lose weight to hinder his step. With care, he tilted his hat to shade the wound in his head and marched on.
Late in the afternoon, the ridge he traveled suddenly fell away. The little town of Rotville lay nestled in the basin below. A lonely, dry-looking town and miles from any other neighboring settlement. Most of the day, Virgil had walked, leading the horse and mule, saving their strength. It was a welcome sight, and now, he blew a deep sigh of relief, climbed up onto the saddle, and started down the slope to the town.
When Virgil reached the livery stable, a hulking building made of pinewood and roofed with corrugated sheeting, a large middle-aged man stood over an anvil, beating a hot, red-glowing, metal rod.
Virgil reined in his horse at the drinking trough. “Benjamin Adams,” he called. “You got room for two more?”
The man turned, his solid, shirtless shoulders, almost as broad as he was tall. “Virgil Malone?” his words flowed with surprise, “I didn’t expect to see you for at least another month or two.” He smiled, wiped his sweaty hands on his gray, canvas apron, and then walked over to Virgil with an outstretched hand.
Virgil took the man’s hand and shook it eagerly.
“If you’re bringing in another bag of gold," Benjamin went on, "I suggest you hang on to it for a while. The O’Brien gang was here a week ago. Smithy, the bank tiller, recognized them from the posters hanging on the sheriff's wall. They cleaned out the bank — every last bit.”
“Dang!” Virgil protested. “I need money. That's why I'm in town.” Not wanting to be associated in any way with Sean and his boys, Virgil stretched the truth. “Two days ago, I got robbed by three men.” He removed his hat. “They left me this to remember them by.”
Benjamin scrunched his face. “Ouch!” he muttered with unease. “By the looks of that, you lucky to be alive. You need to get that looked at, Virgil.”
“I will,” he replied. “As soon as I’ve watered and settled my horse and mule. They need rest. We’ve been out in the wastelands for two days without water and food.”
“What did they get?”
“My gold.” Virgil grouched. “You got room for them?”
“Leave them with me,” said Benjamin, then he went on to assure Virgil. “They’ll be here when you need them.”Virgil started down the main street, dusting the loose grit and dirt from his faded flannels. Fifty yards on, he stopped outside the barbershop and fumbled through his pockets, gathering the last of his money. Virgil thought it better to bath and shave before visiting the doctor’s rooms. One hour later, he stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk feeling like a new man, despite the unpleasant whiff that came from his dirty clothes. A few people looked at him, sniffed the air, then passed on without a word.
Virgil started down the main street, dusting the loose grit and dirt from his faded flannels. Fifty yards on, he stopped outside the barbershop and fumbled through his pockets, gathering the last of his money. Virgil thought it better to bath and shave before visiting the doctor’s rooms. One hour later, he stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk feeling like a new man, despite the unpleasant whiff that came from his dirty clothes. A few people looked at him, sniffed the air, then passed on without a word.
A Wells Fargo stagecoach kicked up a cloud of dust as it came to a stop outside the sheriff’s office. Virgil walked over to it.
“Are you headed for Ebony Grove in the morning?” he asked the driver. “If you are, I’d like a ride.”
The driver set the brakes, then looped the reins to the wooden shaft. “Sorry, mister, but this is my last stop. Tomorrow I’m headin’ back east.”
As the driver spoke, the stagecoach door swung open, and a tall, well-dressed man stepped out. He wore a full length, black duster coat, unbuttoned at the front, revealing a single Colt hanging from his hip — bedded in a well-crafted holster — a black Stetson hat, and a board white trouser belt with a large, silver buckle clamped at his waist. His hair long, blond, and straight.
The driver leaned out over the side of the stagecoach and said aloud, “Don’t forget your bag and saddle, Mister Slate. Once I get started in the mornin’, I ain’t turnin’ back.”
Slate looked up at the man riding shotgun, who now stood on the roof of the stagecoach. He lifted a light, hand-crafted, black leather saddle and lowered it to the stranger.
Instantly the saddle jolted Virgil’s memory. It all came back to him in a flash, the hat, the clothes, and the gun. He turned away swiftly, but the firm grip that took hold of his shoulder made him stop.
“Don’t I know you?” came a steady commanding voice.
When Virgil turned, he was looking into dark, shallow eyes that did not blink. When riding with Sean and Noah, they had held up a stagecoach in a canyon to the east of Yuma. The same man that now stood before him was riding on that stagecoach. When Sean had noticed the fancy pistol hanging from the man’s right hip, he guessed the worst of the man and made him raise his hands. Sean shot a hole through the palm of his right hand. Virgil saw that very pistol now hung from his left hip. The man squinted, thinning his eyes, studying Virgil as if looking for something he might recognize. Virgil wouldn’t admit it openly, but suddenly he was afraid.
Virgil cleared his throat. “I … I don’t think so unless you’ve got a dig close to mine.”
Slate was about to say something when a raised voice came from the sidewalk; “Slate! You’re late!” A man of average height, past his mid-years, with short-cropped, thinning brown hair, stepped down into the street. He wore his tin star pinned to a gray vest that hugged tightly to his bowed chest, his boots dusted brown, from the dirt, like the legs of his pants.
Slate watched the man’s approach from across Virgil’s shoulder.
“I was expecting you last week,” the sheriff continued when he stopped at Slate’s side. “Those damn bastards are long gone by now.”
Slate smiled. “I’ll pick up their trail,” he said, then looking back to Virgil, who had now stepped in among the gawking townsfolk, said. “Not so fast, mister, I’ve got questions for you. What’s your name?”
“Virgil Malone,” Virgil answered.
“He’s our gold prospector,” the sheriff informed Slate. “He stops by here when he’s got enough gold to deposit with the bank.” Surprised at seeing Virgil in town, he bumped back his hat and scratched at his forehead. “Why are you back so quick, Virgil?”
“Three men robbed me, sheriff,” Virgil started. “I’d never seen them before, ” he lied. “They just came out of nowhere they did. They took my gold and shot up my camp. I’m back for food, and to replace the rifle and pistol they stole from me. What am I to do, sheriff. I need money. I can’t stay out there without food and nothing to protect myself with.” He removed his hat and pointed to his wound. “They shot a hole in my head — See?”
Deep furrowed folds appeared on the sheriff’s brow as he frowned. “The O'Brien gang?” he asked.
“I don’t know, “Virgil lied again. “As I said, sheriff, I’ve never seen them before.”
Sheriff Farley took a silver, Hunter, pocket watch from his pocket and flipped opened the engraved cover. He studied the face thoroughly. “You best get over to the bank before it closes, Virgil. I’m sure the bank will help you with a small loan to buy what you need. You’ve been coming around here long enough to be trusted. If not, come to my office, I have a rifle and a pistol that I’m not using. You’re welcome to them.”
Slate lifted the black, lightweight saddle to his shoulder, and with a jerk of his torso, he spread the weight. “Have you ever been to Yuma?” he asked. The question was ordinary, but Virgil could sense the depths and meaning of it in those dark, unblinking eyes.
“I’ve passed through there many times on my way down to Mexico. Why?”
Slate ignored him; instead, he spoke directly to the sheriff. “Can we get down to our business, sheriff? A minute wasted could add days to my search.”
** 4 **
Virgil watched the two men cross the street to the sheriff’s office before he started for the bank. He knew he had to leave town as soon as possible for Slate was showing him more attention than he liked. That day when they had held up the stagecoach, he had worn his neck scarf covering his face, and his hair had been long and shaggy. There were no scars on his face or hands to give away his identity, but Virgil's fear of the man was growing.
The bank was one block down the street from the sheriff’s office. A single-story building with two windows; painted with the words First Bank, on either side of the main door looking out over the street. Virgil dusted his soiled shirt as he stepped through the doorway and into the bank. A tall, lanky old-time sat behind a desk on the far side of the counter. He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt without a collar, the cuffs of his sleeves pulled up to his elbows and held in place by a silver arm brace. He raised his head at the sound of the doorbell, removed the wire-rimmed glasses from his nose, and rose from his chair. “Virgil,” he said. “What a pleasant surprise.
“Hello, Smithy,” Virgil greeted him. “Do you have anything left in here for me to make a small withdraw? I heard about your run-in with the O’Brian gang.”
“Depends,” said Smithy. “How much do you want?”
Virgil explained his miss fortune then went on to say, “Enough for a rifle and a pistol, and of course a bit extra for food. A man can get hungry out there. Fifty dollars if you got it.”
Smithy stopped at the counter and lent forward, resting his forearms on the countertop. “They came in here as if they owned the place,” he said eagerly, wanting to tell his story. “I thought I was going to die when he pushed the barrel of his gun into my mouth. Said he would shoot me if I didn’t open the safe. I was scared, Virgil. My knees were knocking like two loose roof timbers in a windstorm. But I guess you know the feeling; you been robbed as well.”
Virgil didn’t answer but acknowledged with a frown and a nod of his head.
Smithy went on. “After the robbery, it’s being quiet in here,” he confessed. “Most people are scared to leave their money with us, but in a while, they’ll get over it and start coming back.” He went back to his desk and took out a small metal box from the draw, unlocked it, and counted out twenty dollars. Locking it again, he stuffed it back into the draw. “I hope this will help you, Virgil.” He scribbled on a piece of paper when he returned to the counter and slipped it over to Virgil. “Sign here, please.”
Virgil thanked him and left the bank.
Across the street, doc Witherspoon’s sign hung above his door. Virgil was light-headed when he left the rooms. The pain when cleaning his wounds had been unbearable, that doc Witherspoon had fed him whiskey freely. Virgil paid him from the twenty dollars Smithy had given him and then started up the street for the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Farley was sitting behind his desk, stacking a pile of wanted posters when Virgil entered his office. Looking up, he pushed them to the edge of the desktop and leaned back in his chair, his thumb and forefinger, twisting his wedding ring on the finger of his left hand. “You’ve got yourself patched up, I see?” He smiled, studying the clean white strips of linen, bound around Virgil’s head. “What can I do for you, Virgil?”
“I’ve come about your offer, sheriff. I didn’t get as much as I wanted from the bank.”
A rifle rack hung on the wall opposite the sheriff’s desk. He pointed to it. “The last two Winchesters on the right are mine, “he said. “A ’78 and a ’73. Take anyone you want.” He rose from his desk and crossed the room to where an old wooden cupboard, with doors hanging skew from their hinges, stood against the wall beside the window. Carefully he opened one door and took a Colt .45, bedded in a holster, from a shelf. He handed it to Virgil when he returned to his chair. “I keep them clean and well-oiled,” he stated proudly. “Return them when you’re next in town.”
Virgil slipped the Colt from the leather holster and fondled the grip of the stock in the palm of his right hand. “Thank you, sheriff,” he responded with gratitude. “But do you mind if I pick them up in the morning when I leave? I don’t need them now. I'm heading across to Widow Bridges' boarding house. She’s not keen on weapons under her roof.”
“She’s not keen on any kind of weapon in town,” the sheriff jested, and the two men laughed out loud. When he collected himself, he became serious again. “Whatever suits you, Virgil, but all I ask is that you look after them.”
Virgil pushed the Colt back into its holster and placed it on the desk. He smiled openly as he started for the office door. “You have my word on that, sheriff, “he said.
“There is one thing you can do for me before you go, Virgil,” the sheriff called after him. He leaned forward in his chair and picked up the stack of posters from his desk. He directed them at Virgil with an outstretched arm. “Look through these. I’m hoping you got a good look at the three men that robbed you. If they were the O'Brien gang, it would give Slate a place to pick up their trail.”
Virgil drew in a sharp breath and turned back to the sheriff. “I’m not taking him out to my dig,” he huffed. “Only I know where it is, and it’s going to stay that way, sheriff.”
“What about the three that robbed you?”
“They left me for dead, they won’t be coming back. Besides, mining is hard work. That type is not cut out to put their backs to anything. People get the wrong idea about gold, sheriff. Finding gold is only part of it, you still got dig it out. Then you got to bring it back to the bank. It’s always best if you’ve got someone at home waiting to help you spend it. Most of all, you’ve got to have someone you can trust. But that’s the problem, you can’t trust anybody. Take my wife, she up and left me, but when she found out I’d felt the farm she returned with her friends. Now it a brothel, a girly house she calls it.”
“I guess you were born with gold on your brain.”
“I’ve been digging and searching all over those hills looking for gold. I know its been only a year, a lot less time than others, but I found it, and I aim to keep it. There’s nothing like gold to increase a town's population and trouble.”
The sheriff waved the papers he held. “Look through these,” he said again. “Slate will be grateful for the help.”
“Who is Slate?”
“He’s from the Pinkerton agency. I asked them to send one of their agents to help us. The O’Brien gang has been active in this area for some time now.”
“I don’t like those people, sheriff. They’re cruel and nasty. I’ve heard of their ways.”
“Slate has a good reputation,” the sheriff assured him. “He comes highly recommended. The whereabouts of your gold-dig will be safe with him. He’s here to keep the law, not to break it.” He stopped and leaned back in his chair, his eyes carrying a curious stare. “I heard him asking if you had met before. Do you know him?”
“Not that I remember, Virgil lied” He took the posters and began to finger through the pile. The first two posters were Sean and Noah. Virgil passed over them, but when he came to Isaiah Kirkland, he hesitated a moment to read the heading — ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD. WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE — At the bottom of the page typed in smaller lettering, Virgil read: FARM MURDERS, RUSTLING, AND BANK ROBBERIES. Virgil folded the posters together and handed them back to Sheriff Farley. He shook his head. “Sorry, sheriff, they’re not in there,” he lied again.
“That’s a pity, Virgil. I was hoping you’d pick out two of them. No one has a description or the name of the third gang member. He’s been lucky til’ now. But no matter, when Slate catches the other two, they’ll give up his name.”
Virgil knew there was no loyalty between bandits, and it troubled him gravely, for it would be only a matter of time after Sean and Noah were caught that his identity would be known throughout the entire Arizona territory.
He was still deep in thought when sheriff Farley asked, “Are you going straight back out to your dig when you leave in the morning?”
“I thought I might head back to my old ranch,” he replied. “You know … just to see what is going on. I don’t want any trouble with the bank.”
“If she wasn’t paying the bank, they would have thrown her off by now.”
“Maybe,” Virgil … “But it’s my land, not hers. I have a right to know what’s going on. Once I’ve thrown her off, I might spend some time there.”
“How long have you’ve known about it?”
“For some time now, sheriff. Even gossip makes it way out into the desert.” Virgil’s lies were mounting. He moved back to the door. “I best be getting along,” he said. “If I don’t get over to Widow Bridges’ boarding house, I won’t be getting any supper.”
** 5 **
There were only flickering points of lantern lights drifting through the windows and doors of the saloon, and the houses at the end of the street. The street was deserted, and even when Virgil passed the livery, there were no lights, and the stillness was unnatural and disturbing.
The town’s buildings crowded the empty street like living and menacing souls. On his left, against the last faint glimmer of the day, Virgil could make out the skeletal shape of Widow Bridges’ boarding house, and he welcomed the thought of a warm meal and a soft bed.
Just beyond the saloon, not more than a hundred feet, a figure moved in the darkling shadows, just a mixture of merging shades at first, then becoming bolder as it stepped out into the street. Virgil glanced to his left, lifting his eyes from the gravel.
Instantly his hand dropped to his hip, but a nakedness swept over him as his fingers searched for the missing pistol.
“Have you a reason to be nervous, Virgil?” came a voice through the dim light.
For a moment, Virgil stared into the shadows, his eyes collecting the image before him.
“Slate,” he said finally. “What do you want?”
“I thought you might like to join me for a whiskey before you turned in.”
Virgil shook his head. “No, ”he answered instantly, troubled by the thought of spending time with this arrogant and dangerous man. “Why would you want to buy me a drink? I don’t know you.”
“I thought it would be nice to get to know each other before we start out in the morning. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”
“Your mine’s a good place to start.”
“There’s no reason for me to take you out there. I told sheriff Farley it wasn’t the O’Brien gang who robbed me. He showed me their posters.”
“Maybe you lost some of your memory through that hole in the side of your head.”
Virgil touched the linen cloth bound about his head. “My memory is just fine,” he said, “beside a headache, I know what I remember. It wasn’t them.”
Slate didn’t answer, instead be turned and disappeared silently into the now dark night.
Widow Bridges open the door on his third knock. A woman of medium height, auburn colored hair held together at the top of her head, in a bun, with a wide-tooth comb. An attractive woman, thin-faced with wide brown eyes that suddenly lit up at the sight of him. She loosened the scarf that wrapped her slender shoulders, revealing a deep cleavage that parted her well-formed breasts that swelled above her dress line. “I’ve been waiting for you, Virgil,” she said. “I heard you were back in town.”
Virgil removed his hat and held it to his chest. “Betty,” he greeted her. “I’ve got troubles —”
Don’t worry about them, Virgil.” She cut him short and reached for his wound. “Your mishap is all over town. Inside with you now, I have your supper waiting for you in the warming oven.”
Betty Bridgers kept a clean and well-fitted kitchen. She pointed to the kitchen table. “Take your normal place, Virgil. My other boarders have eaten already.”
While Virgil ate a hearty meal of beef and potatoes stew, sided with freshly baked homemade bread, she moved about the kitchen fussing over the smallest things while she waited for the water to boil. “I heard about your robbery,” she said across her shoulder as she reached for the kettle standing on a black, cast iron coal stove. When she returned to the kitchen table, she set a coffee mug down in front of him and then sat on the bench beside him—her hand resting gently on his upper leg. “It’s good to have you home again, Virgil.”
Despite the pain in his head, Virgil felt the crotch of his jeans tightening, but he checked himself and removed her hand from his leg and placed it with care on the wooden bench between them. “Not tonight, Betty, I’m not in the mood. My head hurts. All I want to do is sleep.”
When they had first met the year before, the only pleasure he had taken from her was that of friendship and companionship. Her blatant esteem had filled some void in his heart, and he felt protective, almost brotherly towards her. She, on the other hand, wanted more. She had sensed instantly, with some feminine instant, that she wanted to share his life, to be with him through his troubles and needs.
Now her smile on her lips died, and her eyes went grave, and there were shadows in them of dread or apprehension — but she turned to face him, lifting her face to him, seeming to steel herself with a conscious act of courage. “I understand,” she offered sweetly and squeezed his hand.
Later that night, Virgil awoke to a tingling sensation growing in his tummy. Betty lay snuggled against his back, her hand gently caressing the flesh of his lower belly.
The last thing Virgil remembered was entering her.
“Oh, you naughty boy,” she uttered quietly, and she pushed him gently from her. With her head sunk deep into her pillow, she lay still, smiling up into the darkness.
** 6 **
After Virgil had collected the Winchester rifle and Colt from sheriff Farley’s office, he stopped over at Glen Walkers’ grocery store to purchase his essentials; two slabs of salted pork, one bag of cornmeal, coffee, sugar, and salt, and a box of .45 cartridges. Virgil had chosen the Winchester ’78 as it used the .45 caliber cartridges as did the Colt.
Benjamin Adams was already hard at work when Virgil finally arrived at the livery stable. The early sun lit the desert sands to a deep, golden brown, and the morning breeze that drifted off the rocky mounds smelt of dust and dried Joshua trees. A crisp, clinging smell that wove deep into the fibers of men’s clothing, and Virgil felt the warmth of it gathering beneath his riding jacket.
Benjamin looked up as Virgil approached, lowered his forging hammer, and moved out from behind his workbench. “You’re leaving,” he asked, and Virgil nodded. “Give me a minute then, and I’ll fetch your horse and mule.”
“Only my horse, Benjamin,” Virgil instructed him. “I’ll come back for the mule in a couple of days.”
Virgil followed him to the side of the building. Five horses stood in the corral leaned over an eating trough, enjoying a breakfast of dry hay mixed with oats and molasses. The mule stood its distance, looking on waitingly.
Benjamin excused himself and entered the livery through a side door, and when he returned, he was carrying a saddle and bridle. “I rented one out to a Pinkerton agent this morning, “he said. “Said he was heading out after the O'Brien gang.
“Did he say where he was headed?”
Benjamin pointed out into the desert. He had sandy brown hair, and he stood with the posture of a hanging judge, proud of his achievements. “No,” he said. “But a few minutes earlier, Virgil, and you could have ridden out together, seen you both headed in the same direction.”
Virgil cringed as he thought of Sean and Noah. To save themselves a few years of jail time or a hanging, they wouldn’t think twice about offering up his name. He took the leash from Benjamin and fitted the bit to the mouth of his horse, while Benjamin set the blanket and saddle to its back.
“Where do you think they’ll go to spend all that money, Virgil?”
“Across the border, maybe. How much did the bank lose?”
“Ten thousand dollars according to, Smithy. The army’s, and a few of the farmer’s payrolls.”
“That’s quite a load.”
“It sure is. A man could settle down real good with that kind of money.”
“That kind, don’t think of tomorrow, Benjamin. All they want is whiskey and lose women. Nothing more.”
Virgil stepped up into the stirrup and flung his leg over the saddle. “Before I leave, Benjamin, I want you to give this back to the sheriff.” He unbuckled his gun belt, removed the Colt, and handed the belt and holster to Benjamin. The Colt he slipped into his saddlebag. “No need to show the world what you’re carrying.” Tightening his hold on the reins, he turned his horse the desert. “Well, I think I’ll be going now, Benjamin. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
** 7 **
To be continued ......