Chapters 3 - 4
Dead Men Can’t Talk
… 3 …
Virgil opened his eyes to the early morning light. The blue, cloudless sky that patiently waited to add to their discomfort stretched to the far horizon, broken only by an occasional circling buzzard. His horse and mule stirred restlessly in the cup of the rocky embankment watching him as he rose awkwardly to his feet. After their long walk the day before and, a cold restless night, Virgil guessed they wanted grass and water. When they had filled their bellies, he made them ready.
Cloaked against the rocky outcrops stood a lonely coyote watching them, waiting its turn to lap at the clean, sweet water. And the lively chirps of the Curve-bill thrasher birds fell away as their 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 Arizona sun, carried no lose weight to hinder his step. With a steady hand, 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 breath, climbed onto the back of the dun, 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. “Have you 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. “That's why I'm in town. I need money.” 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 settled my animals. 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. “Have you room for them?”
“Leave them with me,” said Benjamin, then he went on to assure Virgil. “They’ll be here waiting for you 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.
A Wells Fargo stagecoach kicked up a cloud of dust as it entered the main street. Virgil watched the six horses take the full weight of the rigging, against their backs, as the driver reined them in forcefully outside the sheriffs’ office. Virgil walked over to it.
“Are you headed for Ebony Grove in the morning?” he inquired of 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, this is my last stop. Tomorrow I’m headin’ back east through El Paso.”
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 acknowledged him with a raised hand as he leaned out over the side of the stagecoach, and said aloud, “Don’t forget your bags 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 fancy-dressed stranger.
In a flash, it all came back to Virgil, the hat, the clothes, and the notched boned handgrip of the Colt Cavalry Peacemaker, as fine as any tooled in Colonel Sam’s Hartford factory. Virgil turned away swiftly, but the firm clasp that took hold of his shoulder made him freeze.
“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 now saw that very pistol hanging from his left hip. The man squinted, thinning his dark, green eyes, studying Virgil as if looking for something he might recognize.
Virgil wouldn’t admit it openly, but suddenly he was afraid. He cleared his throat. “I … I don’t think so,” he lied.
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 clung 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, Sheriff Farley,” 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. 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. “They came out of nowhere they did; took my gold and shot up my camp. I’m back for food, and to replace the rifle and pistol they stole from me. But what am I to do? I need money. Benjamin Adams told me the bank got robbed. I can’t stay out there without food and nothing to protect myself with.” He removed his hat again 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. “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 thoughtfully. “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 whatever you might need. You’ve been coming 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 into 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. A hundred 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 being 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 fifty 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. I’ll take it back when you bring in another bag of gold.”
Virgil thanked him kindly 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 fifty dollars Smithy had given him and then started back up the street to 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 Winchesters on the right is mine,” he said. “Take it.” 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, “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 town 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 desktop. He grinned openly as he started for the office door. “You have my word on that, sheriff, “he said.
“Before you go, Virgil,” the sheriff called after him. “There is one thing you can do for me.” 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 men 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’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. You know as well as me, sheriff, there’s nothing like gold to increase a town's population and trouble.”
“Just look through these,” the sheriff said again, waving the papers he held. “Slate will be grateful for the help.”
Virgil checked his mulish tone. “Who is this 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 took the posters and began to finger through the pile. The first two posters were Sean and Noah, and he guessed that sheriff Farley had placed them there when showing them to Slate. 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 and handed them back to the sheriff. He shook his head. “Sorry, sheriff, they’re not in there,” he fibbed 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 outlaws, 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 — and further.
He was still deep in thought when sheriff Farley asked, “Are you going straight out to your dig when you leave in the morning?”
“I thought I might head back to my old ranch,” Virgil replied. “You know, just to see what’s going on. I don’t want any trouble with the bank.”
“If your wife wasn’t paying the monthly dues, they would have thrown her off by now.”
“Maybe,” Virgil stated dryly. “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 …