Spring had finally come to Arizona, filling the still air with rich and invisible perfumes
The River Runs This Way
Mervyn B Elsdon
** 1 **
Spring had finally come to Arizona, filling the still air with rich and invisible perfumes, an unforgiving land swarming with shameless thieves and evil men, but a festive season of youthful romance and enduring love. None more moved by its arrival than Kori Bell standing behind the bar counter eagerly watching the tall, stranger riding into town. There, however, remained a cold edge to the early March air, and the young, attractive girl snuggled a little deeper into her fawn, goat-skinned coat and bravely raised her eyes to look directly into his, knowing he would not be able to see her in the shadows of the dimly lit room through the glass window of the saloon.
A tall, lean man with long, brown hair hanging from beneath a black, wide-brim JB hat, sporting a Van Dyke a little darker than his hair, rode slowly down the main street. He wore a pale, cotton blue shirt beneath a tasseled, long-sleeve buckskin jacket, dark tan jeans, and a matching pair of silver overlaid Texas, straight shank spurs strapped to his scuffed brown ankle boots. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she looked at him as though it was for the first time, like a child wanting to hear the same bedtime story every night.
His horse was a black and white Paint – fifteen-and-a-half-hand – she knew that for her father not only bread cattle but horses also, that he sold to the US Army at Fort Lowell on the outskirts of Tucson. Life had been kind to her family until Stewart Armstrong – a British emigrant – had purchased the adjoining farm. Almost immediately, there was a dispute over water.
Stewart Armstrong now owned the ranch that bordered on both sides of the creek that ran off from the main river. The land that lay to the east of the brook, a thin strip of good feeding land – not used by Stewart Armstrong – boarded on her pa's property. An unwritten agreement had existed between the previous landowner and her Pa to share the creek equally.
However, Stewart Armstrong lived by his own rules. He had planted a fence along the border, denying their animals access to the creek. A much smaller stream ran through her Pa’s land, but in the dry seasons, it often ran dry, causing many of his stock to die over the last year from the lack of water. A disagreement that threatened to turn into a ranch war – a war she knew her pa could not win.
When the stranger returned from the livery and strolled past the saloon window, Kori was serving at a table closer to the street. She was a pretty, young lady standing five-foot-four-inches tall with long auburn hair, high pronounced cheekbones, and her deep blue eyes shone like the distant mountains when the late afternoon sun shone directly on them. With much interest, she watched him closely. Something about him caused her heart to flutter, and she felt as though her blood had turned to fire as it charged through her body. Her gaze was held by his commodious stride that swayed his chest and rocked his broad shoulders, and his hips seemed to snap from side to side with every step he took. She had just turned seventeen years old, last fall, and with no man in town she liked, she thought she might end up as an old maid living alone.
There were many like the two Armstrong brothers in the village who were loud and drunk most nights, but none she would choose as a husband. Grow up, Kori Bell, she mused and heaved a long, slow sigh; he’s only passing through. But she couldn’t control the warm flush of her blood as it rose to her cheeks when the stranger looked up into the window, touched his hat as a friendly gesture, and smiled.
Eli Stopped on a small mound overlooking the river, and the town of Cleland that lay on the west side just beyond its banks. He'd heard mention of the town’s name, but he had never traveled this far south before. A small settlement, but despite its size Eli guessed by the surge of the river, by the lush green vegetation that grew abundantly in the deep valleys, and by the ample growth of tall pine trees that surged like a sea of green up the sweeping hills that it wouldn’t remain this way forever. Soon it would grow into a much larger town that would offer many saloons and hotels with shameless dancing girls relieving their frilly, white undies, rough and rowdy cowhands, and men with cards in their hands waiting to take advantage of any foolish enough to sit at their tables.
The large yellow sun hung high in a blue, cloudless sky when Eli started down the mound, and he guessed the time to be around mid-afternoon. “Nearly there,” he told his horse, ‘Blue’ – due to the color of her eyes – and ran his fingers through her long white mane.
Eli made his way slowly down to the river's edge and stopped beneath a large weeping willow tree. Dark green waterlily leaves formed scattered carpet-beds along the riverbank with long green stems with heads of white, and yellow and red flowers, in full bloom, swaying idly to the gentle surge of the river. Eli nudged Blue among those flowering beds and crossed through to the other side.
When Eli entered the town, he headed straight for the livery stables. A thin, wiry, old-man stepped out into the main street as Eli approached the two wide-reaching, swinging, wooden doors. He wore a faded gray overall, a well-weathered straw hat perched at the back of a bald head, and his long, narrow feet were stuffed loosely into old army boots. He smiled a wide toothless grin up at Eli.
“Nice lookin’ horse, you got there, stranger.” His voice was gruff but softened a little by his breath that hissed through his missing teeth. “Don’t go loosin’ her in a card game.”
Eli laughed and patted Blue on the neck, “No chance of that old-timer," he said. "I’ve never played a game of cards in my life, and I have no mind to start now.”
The old-timer grinned his toothless smile, then said, “Good on you, mister.” He coughed and gasped, then went on almost out of breath. “You want me to keep her for the night?"
“Maybe two,” Eli replied. “Is there a place where I can get a bed and a bath?”
“There's a hotel further up the street. James Night owns it, and his prices are fair. He has a bathhouse at the back of the hotel with all the hot water you’ll need.”
Eli stepped down from Blue, removed his Winchester rifle '73 and his saddlebag. “Will the rest of my things be safe if I leave them here?”
“It’s only me here, mister, and I won’t be goin’ through your stuff.”
Eli tossed him a silver dollar. “If I owe you more than that when I leave, I pay you the difference then. Is that alright with you?”
The old-timer removed his hat, scratched his head, and then reset it again. “I trust you, stranger. A man who rides a horse like this can’t be bad.”
“Don’t forget the oats and a good rub down,” Eli told him as he turned and walked away.
Eli decided to get a room and then a long hot bath before stopping for a beer. When he passed the saloon, he looked up into the window. A young woman stood at a table behind the glass window holding a tray of dirty dishes watching him. Eli touched his hat and smiled.
** 2 **
The hotel was halfway up the main street, separated from the saloon by a narrow lane. The hotel was a small two-story building made of pine plank and corrugated sheeting. Fastened to the false front above the main entrance, Eli read the words ‘River Side Hotel and Saloon’.
The dimly lit foyer was empty except for a middle-aged man standing behind the counter desk. Light-colored wooden panels were attached to the walls to help spread the sunlight that filtered in through the two small windows on either side of the entrance. A few paintings of mountain sceneries hung at intervals around the room, and above the key-rack, behind the counter desk, hung an oversized, bone-faced school clock.
“Good afternoon,” said the middle-aged man looking up as Eli approached. “Are you staying for the night or longer, sir?” he asked. “We have a discount if you stay for more than two nights.”
“I can’t say, mister.”
“James Knight,” the man informed Eli politely. "I'm the owner of this fine establishment. Call me, James, everyone does."
"My name’s Eli Brown," Eli replied. "I can’t say right now, James. It depends on what I feel like in the morning.”
“No matter, you can tell me later. The room comes with three meals a day. Bath and laundry are extra.”
Eli nodded at the thought. “I’ll take a bath now,” he said, twisting his neck to sniff at his shoulder. “I haven't had a hot bath in a while.
James squinched his nose and smiled when he handed Eli a key attached to a piece of wood by a short length of cord, with the number three painted on it. “Up the stairs, the last door on the right,” he said. “There’s a window overlooking the balcony, open it if the room smells stuffy. I’ll have your bath ready outback within fifteen minutes."
"I'll be there," said Eli.
“Oh, by the way,” James Knight added when Eli turned and started for the stairwell. “Will you be attending the dance tonight?
“Dance?” repeated, Eli. “I wondered what was going on out front in the street.”
"I turned forty-six today, so I'm giving the town a party like I do every year. After tonight you might want to spend an extra few days here in town.”
Eli touched his hat. "Happy birthday," he said. “I might do that. I guess I won’t be getting much sleep with a party going on outside my window.”
The room was small but well-furnished. Eli laid out his clean clothes on the bed, and then hid his money and the few valuables he owned under the two-door clothe cupboard standing against the wall opposite the window. He sat at the end of the bed patiently, but his thought of the hot water finally overtook him and drove him down to the bathhouse early. He spent over a half-hour soaking in the warm soapy water.
When Eli returned to his room, he changed into his clean clothes, and once he had taken a few dollars from its hiding place, he went downstairs and handed in his key to James, who was still behind the counter, sifting through a pile of papers. Eli also gave him a bundle of his dirty washing. “Do you want cash for this, or will you put it on my bill?”
“Your bill will be fine." James nodded.
“Eli looked across the room to the dining hall that led off from the foyer to his right. “What time’s dinner?” he asked. “I haven't had a decent meal in days.”
“There will be no food from the kitchen tonight. Those spits out front have been turning all day. The kitchen staff will be out front serving the crowd, but I can have them bring your dinner inside if you want.”
“Not to worry,” Eli told him. “I’ll eat with the rest of them.”
The kitchen staff worked tirelessly at getting ready for the party. Wooden trestle tables and chairs were spread out evenly over the street outside the hotel. The dance area was a section roped off in front of the saloon, and cover with a thick layer of sawdust.
When Eli reached the swinging doors of the saloon, he stopped to look inside. Two men sat at a table in the far corner playing cards. A few others sat at the tables scattered about the room. At the bar, slouched four men drinking whiskey. None turned to look at him when he entered, but Eli did notice the four men at the bar look up into the mirror fixed to the wall behind the bar.
“What can I get you, mister?” the barkeeper asked when Eli reached the bar.
“I saw your sign outside advertising cool beer,” Eli said.
The barkeeper acknowledged Eli with an upraised finger and a nod of his head. “Coming up,” he replied, “but I can’t promise you one when the party gets started. This town drinks a lot of beer.”
Eli took his beer and moved over to a table near the window where he had seen the young girl standing. A canvas gazebo of blue and white now shaded the dance area with water barrels placed at each end. One of the kitchen staff was securing the legs of the gazebo to the barrels.
“Can I get you something to eat?” A young woman's voice brought him back to reality. Her smile friendly, her accent Texas, but softened by the short puffs of her breath that took their lead from her quickening heart. Eli looked up, and she felt her dimples deepen as her smile widened.
“No, thank you,” he said politely. “I’ll wait for my dinner.”
“How long will you be staying in town, mister?” She held her breath as she spoke, trying to control her words that tumbled awkwardly from her mouth, and her hand trembled slightly as she wiped the table clean in front of him.
“I haven’t decided yet.” Eli returned her smile. “I haven’t seen anything around here yet that piques my interest.”
It wasn’t the answer that she was hoping for, but she took in a large amount of air, held her breath, then asked, “Have you come a long way?”
“I was on the trail for more than two weeks,” he said. "But I must say I wasn’t in any real hurry. I just arrived in town this afternoon.
“I know.” She wrung her hands to steady her nerves, “I saw you ride in. I like your paint,” she added with a short burst of air she still held in her lungs.
“Was it you standing in the window when I walked by earlier?" he asked.
"It's my job to look after the customer seated at these tables by the window," she lied. “I was looking for your horse.”
“You know something about horses?”
“My Pa breeds them, and cattle. We have a ranch to the east of here, but it’s not doing so well.” She paused a moment and spread her arms. “That’s why I’m working here.”
“What sort of problems?”
“Water,” she said and looked back towards the four men seated at the bar, then went on in a lowered voice. ”Our new neighbor put up a fence blocking our herds from drinking from the creek. My Pa’s lost a lot of cattle and horses over the last year. Most of his staff have left. Some because they were frightened off by Mister Armstrong. Others now work for him.” She looked down at Eli; hopefully, her large blue eyes pleading. “My Pa can’t afford to pay much, but he's hiring if you’re looking for work.”
“Have you told the sheriff?” Eli asked.
“There’s nothing he can do. He told my Pa that the creek is on Mister Armstrong’s land, and if he doesn’t want to share it, it’s his right.”
“That doesn’t sound fair.” Eli turned in his chair to look directly up at her. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Kori,” she blurted out. The eagerness to offer up her name made her blush. “I’m working tonight, but I should be finished around nine this evening. Once dinner is over, I’ll be free to join the party. Are you going to the dance tonight?”
“I’ll be there,” Eli assured her. “But I’m not one for dancing.”
“It’s easy.” Her smile returned and she wiggled her hips. “I’ll teach you if you like?” And Eli smiled and reached for his beer.
She felt the heat in her cheeks rising again when Eli lifted his beer glass to his mouth. Her thoughts of those long, slender fingers gently caressing her body were overwhelming, and those pouting lips as they reached for the beer, pressed firmly against hers, made her heart leap with excitement.
Kori closed her eye when Eli walked out through the swinging doors, and she sighed deeply. She felt as though she might have made a fool of herself with her none stop idle chatter, but the warmth she still sensed in her chest, that kept her heart racing, seemed to ease her mind. But she cursed herself for not asking his name. Maybe, he would go out to the ranch and speak to her pa. She knew he couldn’t afford to offer much as a wage, especially now that his herds had thinned, but he desperately needed the help.
A cold smile stretched over the face of one of the four large men seated at the bar when Korie started for the kitchen. “Nice of you to give us a bit of your time,” he said. His voice was cold and hard. “Must we die of thirst like your animals while you wiggling your hips for a stranger?”
Kori knew that smile. It took all she had to prevent herself from running, but she held her back straight and did not flinch. “He was only a customer, Gordon.”
Gorden swept a gaze around the saloon, taking in the looks on the men’s faces seated around the room. He knew none of them would challenge him. Gorden pushed himself away from the bar. “Where do you think you’re going?” he snarled.
“You don’t own me, Gordon.” There was no way now to avoid what she knew was coming. “I’m going through to the kitchen,” she told him. “I’m on duty tonight, and Mister Knight said I could take an hour break.” She knew she had to leave before something terrible happened to her. “I’ll come back in a while, then you’ve calmed down.”
“You’ll listen to me now, or –” Gordon stopped and took a small glass ring from his pocket and held it out to her. “I bought you this, Kori. I said I would.”
She looked at it then up into his sun bitten face, deeply lined at the eyes and brow. “I’ve told you no, Gordon, and I’m telling you again. I will never marry you!” She turned and started for the kitchen, hoping he wouldn’t try to stop her.
But Gordon took hold of her shoulder, forcibly turning her. His lips pulled to a hard, unforgiving smile. “You’re going nowhere,” he growled. “You mine, Kori. Surely you know that by now?”
Though she was trembling inside, she kept her head high. “I’m leaving, Gordon. Get out of my way.”
She took another step toward the kitchen, but he pulled her back with such force that she stumbled, stopping up against his chest. “You will be my wife!”
“So you can beat me every day.” She glared up at him. “No, I won’t! You and your family only want my pa’s land.”
With blind rage, he pushed her back against the bar. “Take this ring and put it on,” he snapped harshly. “Then, it’s up stares with you.”
Her fear suddenly turned to anger, and the color showed in her face. She stepped forward and pushed out her small chest. “What, you’ve not had enough of these girls for one day.”
The ladies of the saloon stood a short distance off watching them. One of them stepped nervously forward, but the look on the faces of Gordon’s three friends standing at the bar, warned her off.
Gordon backhanded Kori across the face, splitting her lip, sending a fine spray of her blood through the air. “What I do is none of your business.” He was breathing heavily now, and his eyes drew thin. “I saw the way you were flirting with that stranger.”
With a trembling hand, she wiped the blood from her mouth. “Leave me alone. I want nothing to do with you.”
His temper rose and so was his jealousy. “You’re nothing but a whore – no better than the rest of them.” He stuffed the ring back into his pocket. “I’m going to teach you to do what I say.”
Kori straightened herself and started for the kitchen door again, but Gordon pulled her back. “You’ll leave when I say so.”
Thinking she had nothing to lose but her life, she braced herself and lashed out with her right foot going for the groin, but her kick went wide, glancing off his upper thigh. At the same moment, she swung her right fist, but he caught hold of it and pulled her closer.
He towered above her, standing over six-feet tall, and she cried out in pain as he slapped her again. Like a discarded old doll, she fell to the floor sobbing. When he kicked her, Kori rolled herself into a little ball and flung her arms over her head.
“You bitch!” he roared. “Get up!”Gordon grabbed her by the collar of her goat-skin coat and dragged her back to her feet.
Kori shrieked as he coiled back his fist and punched her; her face exploding in pain as she fell back to the floor. Instantly she put her hand up to protect herself. “Stop it, Gordon! I’ll do whatever you want!”
But Gordon would have none of it. He stood over her like a madman, wide eyes and staring, his jaw set and thrust forward. Reaching down, he took a hand full of her hair and pulled her onto her feet. “You little whore.” He slapped her again then punched her so hard that her head snapped back and thumped against the bar-top.
The last thing she remembered was trying to dodge another blow. Her mind was failing her now. Then she was floating, the room spinning without control as Gordon raised her above his head and threw her across the room. She landed in a lump on top of a table, shattering it instantly.
** 3 **