The River Runs This Way
The River Runs This Way
Mervyn B Elsdon
** 3 **
When Eli awoke, the sun was already setting. A long shadow fell against the far wall beside the cupboard. He lay a long time on top of the covers, looking up at the dark smear as it crept slowly across the wall. His thoughts were of Sean and Connor McCaw; two outlaw brothers wanted in New Mexico territory for many banks and stagecoach robberies.
That morning when they held up the stagecoach, just outside the town of Sweetwater, on the border of Arizona, there were six of them, but Sheriff Parker, Eli’s longtime friend, had been quick to respond and had chased them down by late that afternoon.
Eli was sitting in Sheriff Tim Parker’s office when a rider rode into town. Dismounting, he charged up the steps onto the plank-walk, stumbling over the threshold into the office.
Pulling his hat from his head, he puffed out the words. “The stage –!”
“Easy, Ben,” the sheriff cut him short. “Take a breath and start over.”
Ben steadied himself against the desktop, his chest heaving as he sucked in short gasps of air. “It’s the McCaw gang, Sheriff.”
“What about them?” The sheriff urged him further.
“They held up the stagecoach.”
Sheriff Parker lept from his chair, snatching up his hat as he rose. He moved over to the rifle rack hanging on the wall behind his desk and removed a Winchester rifle 76’. “Where, Ben?”
“Five miles out, Sheriff.” He drew another short breath. “I was coming in from my place when I heard the shooting. There were six of them. When I rounded Angels Corner, there they were. They had everyone out the coach and lined up against its side.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
Ben shook his head. “I didn’t stick around to find out, but they saw me. I turned and fled when they started firing my way. I took the old Apache trail along Mule Creek and rode like hell until I got here.”
The sheriff turned to his deputy, John Wiseman, who was seated outside the office when Ben rode in and had followed him inside.
“John,” he said, “head down to the saloon and see how many men you can get together to help us chase them down. If we leave now, it won’t give them much of a start on us.” From the bottom drawer of his desk, he took a box of .50-95 cartridges, emptied a hand full into his palm, and then stuffed them into his pocket. “And when you’ve done, go down to the livery and get the town’s wagon hitched. I’ll tell Doc Jenkins what’s happened, and he can follow us out to the stagecoach just in case someone’s hurt.”
The McCaw gang was no match for the sheriff with his ’76 Winchester .50-95 cartridges, that gave him the extra range and power over the outlaws who usually favored the .44 caliber chambered ’73. One by one, he had picked them off over a fair distance. By nightfall, they had collected the dead bodies and made them ready to transport back to Sweetwater the following morning.
”That should put a stop to the McCaw brothers for a while,” said Sheriff Tim Parker joining Eli on a log beside the fire.
Eli spat the short stick of grass; he was chewing into the fire and watched it flare in the dark. “Pity you didn’t get the brothers,” he replied thoughtfully.
“I’ve heard they’ve been troubling the New Mexico border towns for some time now.”
“For almost a year, Eli,” said Tim, then he laughed. “What, from that distance. I was lucky to get four of them. At least one of the brothers would have been good, but it was hard to tell who was who from that distance. I guess they over the border into Arizona by now. You’re going that way, ain’t you?”
“I was leaving in the morning from Sweetwater, but I think I’ll leave from here when the sun comes up. It’s silly to go back to town only to retrace my steps later.”
“I’m glad we spent some time together, Eli.” Tim Parker placed his hand on Eli’s shoulder and smiled. “Why don’t you go after them? We worked well together when you rode as my deputy. You're quick with your guns and more than capable of matching any in a fistfight. There’s a big reward out on them. If you looking for a piece of land like you said, the reward will come in handy.”
“That was a long time ago,” Eli told his longtime friend. “Now I’m just an unemployed cowhand looking to buy myself a piece of land. I’ll keep an eye open – but I’m not making any promises.”
The following morning the two men said their good-bye and rode off in their different directions.
Eli swung his legs off the bed, dusted the dirt from his boots then stuffed his feet into them. His Colt Peacemaker hung off the bed end above his head. He took it down, strapped it to his waist, and then went downstairs and handed in the key at the reception.
"I see you’re ready for the party," James said taking the keys from Eli. "There's quite a crowd gathered out there already. I‘m told supper should be ready anytime now.”
“I could smell the meat cooking from up in my room.”
"I suggest you eat early before the rest of them arrive. By early evening it will all be gone. It's free, remember. Mister Armstrong was kind enough to donate two sheep, a pig, and a beef hindquarter. He said they were my birthday presents."
Eli shoved his fingertips into his jean pockets, then turned and started for the door.
"Your clean washing is here,” James called after him. "Would you like me to take it upstairs to your room?"
"Not to worry," said Eli over his shoulder, "I'll collect them later."
** 4 **
The light was fading fast by the time Eli stepped down from the sidewalk. Kerosene lamps hung from the buildings on both sides of the street. The fires glowed a bright, red, and orange in the firepits, and little flames hissed and spat as the fat run freely from the carcasses. A band of three men had just started to play - two guitars and a banjo. They played a slow tune, and the youngsters hurriedly took to the dance floor, arms wrapped at the shoulders and waists, their smiling faces beaming beneath the light from the lanterns, and their feet shuffled eagerly around the dance floor to the rhythm of the entrancing tune.
Eli tapped his fingers against his thighs to the rhythm as he made his way through the growing crowd to the saloon. He was hoping to meet up with the young girl he had met earlier in the afternoon. If he recalled correctly, she was going to be on duty tonight.
He stopped at the swinging doors to look inside before he entered. He wanted to be sure he wasn't walking into something that he might regret. The saloon was packed now with men of all ages, with lively women buzzing around the room serving tables.
“Beer?” The barman asked when Eli reached the bar.
“Thanks,” he said, placing his hat on the scoffed, pine bar top. “How long will this noise go on? My room overlooks the main street.”
“All night, I guess,” he replied. “Judging by last year’s dance, the last one left when the sun came up.”
“Looks like it’s going to be a long night.” Eli took a large mouthful of beer and wiped the foam from his mouth. “I guess I'm gonna be up all night.”
“And most of the next day,” replied the barman with a chuckled laugh. “It'll take them until lunchtime to clean up the mess.”
“Then, I might just need a few extra glasses of beer to help me sleep,” replied Eli with a broad grin. “Or maybe I’ll leave tonight and build myself a small camp just outside of town. But I must say I'll miss the comfort of a soft bed. I haven't slept in one for a long time.”
Eli lifted his beer, and as he took another sip, he looked around the saloon, then asked, “I don’t see Kori. She said she was working tonight.”
“You haven’t heard?” he asked. “One of the Armstrong brothers gave her a terrible beating soon after you left the saloon. The younger brother, Gordon, asked her to marry him. When she said no, he beat her. A couple of our regulars took her over to Doc Bailey's rooms. Shortly after, I saw some of the townsfolk taking her home. I did expect to see her pa here by now, but maybe he went straight out to the Armstrong ranch.”
“Why didn’t anyone stop him?”
“No one would dare stand up to the two brothers and their friends. That’s if they want to stay in one piece. Their pa is a wealthy English immigrant who bought the land a year ago. There’s a lot of trouble going on out there over the water rights.”
“Kori did mention it to me,” said Eli.
“I don’t know if you saw the two brothers? They were standing here at the bar with two of their friends when you arrived. Four big, dirty, rowdy fella’s.”
Eli nodded. “I remember them,” he said. “I can’t blame the locals for not wanting to get into a fight with them." They were big men with arms that resembled the branches of an aged baobab tree. A fight Eli would rather avoid unless it involved his peacemakers. Usually, a man with such a build was slow at slapping leather, his large mussels tight and slow-moving. “Did someone call the sheriff?”
“I sent one the young girls to call him, but by the time he arrived, the two brothers and their friends had left. The sheriff said he would go out to the Armstrong ranch in the morning. He didn’t want to start any trouble that might lead to a fight at the party.”
“How bad was she beaten?” Eli asked.
“Real … real bad!” The barman’s knuckles turned white as he tightened his grip on the side edge of the bar counter. “In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like it. He knocked her out and then threw her onto one of the tables. It broke from the force of his throw.”
“Is the ranch far from here?”
“Roughly five miles to the south of here,” he answered. He stroked his chin. “You’re not thinking of riding out there alone, are you?”
“Maybe,” said Eli. “Let's wait and see who turns up for the dance. If her pa arrives looking for the two brothers, he might need a bit of help.”
“A lot more than a bit, I’m thinking,” The barman said. “You don't know the man, and yet you prepared to stand with him against the Armstrong family? You're a brave man, mister. There's no other man in town that would do that for her and her pa.”
“Are there no young men in town that like her enough to stand up and protect her?”
“There are plenty that like her, but they won’t get involved when it concerns the Armstrong brothers. The best they do is to wish her a good day when they pass her in the street.”
Eli sipped at his beer, then said, “The sheriff should have ridden out to the Armstrong ranch and told him to keep his sons away from town for the night. Their presence here can only cause trouble.”
“I’m told their pa supplied all the meat. How can the sheriff stop them from coming?”
“Who pay’s his salary, Armstrong?”
“No,” the barman mumbled dryly. “We hold an election every year. No one else wants his job, so he’s elected every year. But Armstrong does sort of," he paused a moment searching for words, "... makes the rules around here.”
** 5 **