By Jay Goldammer
Mort Corey, a properly dressed elderly gentleman wearing glasses, stood blinking in the brilliant Denver sunlight. He had just exited the Denver Theater after their final performance of ‘Our American Cousin.’ The old gent loved the theater, had helped found it in Denver, and was pleased to occasionally play the odd bit part. Many men, soon after retiring, waste away and die in whisky sodden apathy. Not Mort Corey retired frontiersman, miner, and lawman he had no time for apathy. There was far too much to do, see, and enjoy before the reaper took him for his own (kicking, biting, and gouging every inch of the way).
The Misses Scarlet Kinney and April Dowd passed him so he tipped his hat while bowing slightly, raising his bushy eyebrows, and smiling devilishly. The lovely young actresses giggled (they always did when he flirted with them) and gave him courtesies as they passed. He flirted with all of the young and lovely theatrical ladies. In his definitions “young” being “aged 50 or less” while lovely was “still breathing;” sadly recent years had seen his interest become more gallant than practical.
Eyes fully adjusted, the genial gent continued on the day’s errands. He swaggered spryly on, despite his age and cane, down muddy and horse apple strewn Larimer Street. Mort was a good sized man, being a shade over 6 feet tall though he was a trifle on the light side of average build, and he sported a full head of hair and a magnificent white handle bar mustache. Age had never stooped him and good cheer bubbled from him as he greeted all whom he passed. His popularity was obvious. Men and woman went out of their way to wish him well. A stranger might assume that he was a wealthy man, but that was not the case. Mort lived comfortably enough, being a minor investor in many enterprises, but he possessed no great wealth.
The Post Office was his first stop. “Good morning marshal,” loudly called out old man Baughman, 10 years his junior but nigh deaf, as they passed in the doorway. “Good morning Ernst,” he replied equally loudly, “It’s a beautiful day today. It’s nice that the rain has passed.”
Ernst Baughman nodded and smiled, “Yep. I’m sure glad that my rheumatiz has passed. It’ll be back though. Aint it nice the sun’s out?” he added hobbling away.
Mort shook his head and gave quiet thanks for the continued blessing of his hearing. Ernst had heard ‘pain’ not ‘rain.’
“Got some mail for you marshal,” post master Crandall called out. “A letter from your son in Laramie, I think.”
“If it’s from Laramie then it’s from him. Nobody else writes me from there. Eb, you know I haven’t been marshal since the Colorado war.” He remarked as he walked over to the window and handed the postmaster a letter and collected the one waiting for him. Indeed, it was from his boy. He laughed at himself. Junior was hardly a boy now, as he was nearer 50 than 40, and had become a respected lawman in his own right. Mort decided he’d read Junior’s letter in privacy. Reaction to bad news started annoying rumors, and sharing good news was to be savored as one of life’s simple joys.
“Writing Captain Nicholas again I see. How is he?” inquired the garrulous postmaster who had no idea who Nicholas was. All he knew was the name, and Galveston address, on the front of the letters that Mort had sent three or four times a year for as long as he had been post master.
“From his last letter, Old Nick is fine,” politely replied Mort to the nosey man. “Isn’t it funny how, over the years, you can go from exchanging bullets to exchanging letters?” He added with a smile while pocketing his letter. The postmaster nodded knowingly although it was obvious the man didn’t have the slightest notion about what the retired marshal was talking about.
Returning outside, Mort continued to his next stop; a visit to Juanita and the Boys. He’d pick Juanita a few flowers as she loved flowers. There wouldn’t be much to choose from at this time of year, but Juanita wouldn’t care. That he had made the effort would be all that mattered to her.
The old man walked on, gathering his flowers, and advised two rough looking cowpokes to hike over to the Marshal’s office and store their irons – and on which saloon had the best whiskey. Eventually, he passed the entrance gates and walked up the hill. “Ladies first,” he thought placing the flowers upon Juanita Delgadillo Corey’s grave. She had passed, along with the still born babe she had brought into this world, five years previously. He said a quick prayer for his fifth wife, and briefly told her the news of the day. He then visited the Boys, the three deputies who had died during his stint as Denver’s marshal.
Mort had not intended to be a lawman in Denver, coming in as a 59er, but the War Between the States had sparked the Indian uprising known as the ‘Colorado War.’ Between them, the two conflicts had stretched decent Colorado manpower almighty thin. Elderly, but still able, the then 70 year old Corey had strapped his guns back on and kept the peace (more or less) for five hectic years. The locals had not realized just how old he was (most thought him in his 50’s when he took the job) until the day he retired on his 76th birthday. The appearance of that badge shaped cake, aflame with all of those candles, had been a revelation to the community. The memory of the ensuing consternation always made Mort smile. His services were still remembered (age and exploits greatly expanded in the retellings) and appreciated (which is why people still called him ‘Marshal’, much to current Marshal Buchanan’s annoyance). Why just last month, Denver’s slimy toad of a mayor, had surprised Mort by calling him up at a town meeting and pinning his old badge back on him. All while giving an intensely boring speech of appreciation. The impromptu presentation had been done at the behest of the current Denver deputies, men who had just received their newly designed badges and who had insisted that he be given his old one back. Tough old bird that Mort was, he had always been easily moved to tears. It had been all he could do not to cry in his surprise and pride. He wore the old badge, every day, under his coat and meant to be buried with it. That the presentation had almost given Marshal Buchanan a stroke was simply an added bonus.
“Good morning Leo,” he said stopping at the grave of Leo Gordon, the biggest and scariest deputy he had ever known. Leo had been cut down by bushwhackers back in ’63. Mort hadn’t much liked the man and only stayed a moment. He strode over to the next grave. “Howdy Bob. Patty and the boy are fine though I think he is headed for trouble with a bad girl,” he said stopping at the grave of Robert Wilke who had been killed by a thrown knife in ’61. He moved on, topping the hill, and was pleased to see, alive amongst the graves, another ex-deputy of his; L.Q. Jones.
“Morning L.Q.” he offered with a congenial smile.
“Morning Mort,” grimly returned the man. “Out visitin’ Juanita and the Boys, I see.”
“Every day when the weather is reasonable. You?”
“Just saying goodbye to Neta. I’m heading back to Texas ‘cause I’m done with Colorado winters,” replied the man.
“Well, they can be a might brisk. “
“That they can. Anyway, my mine had been playing out when, last week, I hit a hot new seam. Instead of shouting ‘whoopee’ I started cussing. I knew then that I had just had enough and sold out. For a whopping big sum, I might add,” he said with a wink.
The old man offered his hand and the elegantly thin, white haired ex-deputy took it. “Good luck. You’re a good man and having you around has always been interesting,” Mort said with a broad smile.
L. Q.’s faced broke into a large smile. When L. Q. smiled, rather than just using his customary smirk, he did it in a big way. “That’s a fair statement Mort. ‘Fore becomin’ your deputy in ’62, I spent more time in the jail than you did. Just on the wrong side of the bars.”
Mort laughed as well, “Yup. Well good bye and good luck.”
“Good bye Mort. ‘bon chance’ as Frenchie used to say,” and turning on his heel the younger white haired man departed through the west exit.
Mort walked to the grave of the last of the Boys, “Howdy Ray,” he said to Ray Teal’s tombstone. Ray had taken a bullet during a shoot out with bank robbers in ’65. It had been Mort’s last gunfight as the Marshal. “I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m not joining you up here pretty soon. I’m beginning to slow down a might, although I haven’t told anyone else.” He paused and added, “Sorry I missed that shot.” It was something he said every time he visited. Then he returned to the top of the hill, where there was a bench overlooking Denver, and opened young Mort’s letter.
“Dear Pa,” it started and went on to talk about the day to day inconsequential, but professionally interesting, things that make up the life of a frontier lawman. Six pages later (young Mort only wrote three or four times a year but they were very long letters) came the real news, Junior was re-marrying! The letter went on to talk about the girl arriving in town as maid to Junior’s visiting Cousin Richard. It detailed how, during their courting, they shot up a couple of robbers together and announced that they were getting married. He was invited to the wedding and that they were expecting him directly. Mort laughed happily and thought, “Wild horses couldn’t stop me from going.”
Their courtship sounded a bit like his first marriage to Agapita Nicholas, except Junior hadn’t started the union by wounding his future Mississippi River pirate brother-in-law. In the end, Mort Senior had wound up with a better relationship with the pirate than with the girl. Thank goodness she had run off with that smooth talking gambler from New Orleans, the woman was an absolute shrew. “Marry in haste repent at leisure!” He hadn’t seen her since 1816 and it was good riddance. Some years later, he heard that the gambler had shot himself and he had always figured she was the cause.
Hopefully Junior’s second marriage would be better than his and Agapita’s. His first marriage certainly had been. What did the boy have to say about the girl? Ah, she’s a tall and well shaped brunette, 30 years old, a hunter, good cook, highly practical, even tempered, cool headed, brave in a fight, and strong. Well, all that was positive. Ah, finally her name. Iwona Vassa. The most esteemed and dignified senior Corey almost dirtied his pants.
Not long after Agapita left him, Mort Sr. had taken up with Marochka Vassa (aka Pookie). She had been a strapping; large nosed brunette who ran him ragged, fought like the devil, and nearly drove him mad. He never knew another person who was so prone to trouble in all his life. They never quite made it to the altar (once being stopped by lightning setting the church ablaze) although they eventually became ‘common law’ spouses. He always told her that they wouldn’t be married until she took his name and she told him that, “he was ridiculous and she would always remain Vassa…now come to bed.” It didn’t matter what time of day it was, or what they were doing, she always tacked on, “come to bed.” Describing the relationship as lively would be like describing a hurricane as breezy.
Mort Sr. had always had a weakness for two kinds of women: the completely helpless and the utterly competent. Pookie was an extreme example of the latter and he loved her dearly…. when he didn’t feel like strangling her, and sometimes even then. “Vassa is not a common name,” Mort thought. In his long life this was only the second time he had come across it. Had pregnant Pookie escaped that awful massacre? Ramirez said he saw her cut down and later showed him a grave with her named crudely cut into the stone. Mort was now thinking that report was suspect. Could Junior’s Iwona be Pookie and his granddaughter? That would not make Junior happy!
The old man hustled down the hill, out of the Denver cemetery, and over to the telegraph office. He no longer bubbled with good cheer; rather he projected an aura of determined urgency that had much younger and larger men standing aside from his path. Entering the office, he wordlessly grabbed a message form, hastily addressed it and wrote out, “Coming directly STOP By no means marry until I am there STOP Leaving next stage STOP Stay out of her bed STOP Is she related to Marochka Vassa? STOP Pa STOP.”
“Hi Marshal. Got a message to send?” asked Vince Davenport , the telegrapher, putting out his hand.
“Yes, here Vince. How much?”
Vince gave him a pained look. “Marshal, your money is no good here. It hasn’t been since ’62, by Official Company decree, after you rescued the chairman’s wife. You know that as well as I do,” he said, a little irked at having to repeat it yet again.
Jess Harper let out a whoop as he closed the corral gate. Home! He had brought the 14 horses up from the Crossed Lances Ranch. Though only 40 miles away, he had been gone almost two weeks as Slim’s Aunt, Ella Kilpatrick, needed some assistance in dealing with horse thieves before he brought the horses home. He had done a considerable amount of eating his own cooking, which was never a pleasure. Worse, he had then forgotten the coffee on the return trip and had to go without. But that was behind him now. Miss Daisy would cook dinner and he could smell both her apple pie baking and the coffee brewing.
Slim Sherman, owner of the Sherman ranch, and Jess Harper’s partner and best friend, strode out of the house. “Welcome back Jess! Clean up, hustle in, and eat. If you hurry you can head into town with me for tonight’s dance!”
Jess bolted for the house. Dances weren’t exactly rare but Jess, a great dancer who loved his time with the ladies, never missed one if he could help it. At 5’ 11”, with a medium/muscular build, dark classically handsome features and a frolicsome personality, he never lacked for a partner.
Miss Daisy, the elderly woman who cooked and cared for the men of the ranch clucked over Jess as he shoveled in his dinner, ate his pie and drank his coffee. If he hadn’t drunk his coffee everybody would have thought him an imposter. “Land sakes Jess Harper!” Miss Daisy called after him as he raced from the table to the door and out to the shower. “A body would think your pants are on fire!”
Once safely outside, and away from Daisy’s eyes, he stripped as he ran. The journey to the shower was notably acrobatic and by the time he reached it he was down to wearing pants, one boot and a sock. He showered madly, shaved, and exited the shower fully duded up. He was confronted by his laughing, and equally duded up, partner who had a pair of fresh horses ready to go.
“When does the dance start?” Jess asked as they rode out at a comfortable pace.
“6:00 pm,” answered the tall blonde rancher.
Jess started, “Hey what’s the rush? We have plenty of time. I thought we had to race to get there.”
“I’m taking Lily Spencer and want to pick her up. I also wanted to buy you a drink at the saloon and tell you what has been going on while you’ve been gone.”
“Lily huh? “ he said nodding his approval. “She’s fun and pretty … also much pursued.” Including by me, Jess didn’t add. Lily was the best lady dancer (excluding the dance hall girls) in Laramie and Jess danced with her more than most. Her only drawback was that she was caring for her elderly, bad tempered and loudmouthed father who would have regularly won Laramie’s ‘Village Idiot Award’ if the town had one.
“This is the second dance since you left. I took Lily to the other one too,” Slim said smugly.
Jess was appalled. “I missed one? Con sarn it!” Then he paused, “‘Course I made it to one in Virginia Dale so it wasn’t all bad. Colorado has some mighty fine looking ladies.” Jess didn’t mention that the young lady he had singled out had turned out to be married. She failed to mention that little fact until after they had spent considerable time in a nearby hayloft. Between her, and the horse thieves, the trip had turned out being much more eventful than it should have been. At least nobody had died, though bedding the undertaker’s wife creeped Jess out no end. Ending the persistently amorous woman’s pursuit had been a sore trial. He had decided that what had happened in Virginia Dale would stay in Virginia Dale. Unfortunately, there was no long term guarantee of that happening given the amount of giggling that Ella had done over the affair.
The pair rode on. It wasn’t long before they were cooling their heels, with drinks, at a table in the saloon. They happily discussed ranch and stage news with frequent interruptions from in-town friends welcoming Jess back and/or just saying hello. “I have to go get Lily, partner,” Slim eventually said excusing himself. “See you at the dance.” Jess just smiled and raised his glass. It was a new whiskey, called ‘Old Ratified,’ brought in from Boulder, and it had a very fine taste.
As Slim strode out, a hulking brute of a man excused himself from the poker game in the back of the saloon and walked towards the bar. Halfway there, his small pig like eyes locked on the back of Jess’ head. With a bellow of recognition,“Hahpah!” he charged forward, overturning three chairs, two tables and a snoring drunk while catching Jess from behind in a crushing bear hug and hauling him a foot off of the ground.
Jess’s arms were pinned to his sides, the breath crushed out of him, and he could neither see nor reach his assailant. Fortunately, he was dropped back into his chair as the brute released him, shouted for a bottle of whiskey, and happily bounced into the chair across the table.
With great relief Jess inhaled and immediately regretted it. The reek of the man struck him like a charging moose and set him to coughing. It was a minute before, breathing shallowly, he could speak. The newcomer spent the time pouring drinks for them both and rumbling on about how he thought Jess was dead, killed at Chattanooga.
“Jabo Willis. You ox! When did you get into Laramie? What are you doing here?” Jess finally managed. He’d have hugged the huge man but was afraid of suffocating from the stench. Jabo had always been weak on hygiene.
“I’m the ramrod on a drive to Cheyenne. We’re moving about 400 head. I won this trip from my boss in a poker game,” he bragged. “I just came into town for a few supplies, a bath and a night in a real bed.”
“You haven’t gotten to the bath yet have you?” Jess pointed out. Tent mates for two years during the war, Jess had ridden Jabo hard about bathing the entire time.
The huge man laughed knocking back a shot. “Nope, I plum forgot, but seeing you reminded me of it. The boss made me promise to take a bath before coming back, claiming that some of the cattle were starting to spook whenever I was upwind of them.” They both laughed and then they fell to some serious catching up. It was two hours, and several drinks, before Jabo wandered off to bathe and sleep. Only then did Jess remember the dance, which was in full swing when he arrived.
Jess entered the church (the Baptists were hosting this dance as part of their never ending quest for new members) and was cordially greeted by Sheriff Corey, who put out his hand. Jess handed him his gun without comment. “No gun at dances” was the rule and Mort enforced it strictly. “Evening Jess,” Mort said looking around curiously and sniffing. “Welcome back. Slim said you’d be here. Katie Phillpott has been asking after you,” Mort added with a grin.
Jess grimaced. Katie Phillpott was a pest. A plain, vapid, man crazy 20 year old, Jess couldn’t remember a local man she hadn’t been after at one time or another. It appeared to be his turn, again. If she was asking after him she meant to latch on to him as soon as she spotted him. “Thanks Mort. What’re you looking for?”
“Do you smell anything rank Jess?” the sheriff asked continuing his sniffing and looking around.
“No, but,” he stopped distracted at the sight of Slim waving him over, “I’ll talk to you later Mort.” He ended as he walked over to his sweating partner who handed him a glass of punch.
“Where’s Lily, Slim?” Jess asked taking the punch.
Slim gestured at the crowded dance floor “Dancing with the Reverend Linkous. I’m taking a break. You know how Lily is. She won’t leave the floor until her feet fall off.” He sipped his punch, noted that his partner was a little tipsy, and then continued, “Better partner up partner. Katie Philpott is prowling after you.”
“Mort warned me. Why isn’t she after you, too?”
“She was. Lily ran her off. Have you met the tallish brunette over there?” Slim asked, nodding towards the other side of the room. “She arrived while you were gone. Her name is Iwona Vassa. She’s a very nice gal and dances well. I danced with her when Lily was in the necessary.” He laughed, “Lily was none too pleased when she got back.”
“Over where?” Jess asked looking around he immediately spotted the stranger. She was sitting at the donation table, laughing gaily, and drinking punch with Mattie Bradford. “She’s got the biggest honker I’ve ever seen!” he said without thinking. Indeed, she did have a nose that would make a hawk jealous. “Wow!” Dragging his attention away from her nose he looked at the rest of the lady. Jess saw that she was a fit, slim waisted, and abundantly busty 30ish woman dressed in a scoop necked formal dress. He heartily approved of busty women in scoop necked dresses. “You say she dances well?” he finally asked.
“Oh yes. Lily is jealous of her,” Slim added slyly. “That should grab Jess’s attention,” he thought.
He was correct. “That good?” Jess responded assessing her anew. “I think..,” he started but was interrupted by his partner.
“Quick Jess, go grab a partner! Katie has spotted you and is moving this way!” Slim said urgently nodding towards the crowd to their left.
Jess, a half drunk man of instant decision (a dangerous combination), didn’t hesitate but strode towards the donation table without so much as looking in the direction of the announced threat. If he had looked, he would have noticed that Katie Phillpott was nowhere to be seen. Slim stifled a laugh, thinking, “This is going to be hilarious.” He then made his way over to the musicians to request a couple’s type dance.
“Evening Louis! Mind if I request a piece of music?” he asked.
“Sure Slim! But it will have to wait. Miss Spencer requested a Tango. It’s been terribly popular since we introduced it last year and we haven’t done one tonight.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, “Reverend Linkous’ wife doesn’t approve of them so we’ll only play one or two.”
“That’s fine Louis! A Tango would be perfect,” Slim responded while thinking, “Yes, absolutely perfect.” He turned to watch the fun while hurriedly getting away from the musicians. “No sense in letting Jess find out he was being set up’” Slim was thinking when Lily pounced upon him and drug him out onto the dance floor. She wasn’t going to miss her Tango.
Jess arrived at the donation table. “Evening Mattie. Hello miss. My name is Jess Harper, would you care to dance?” He asked Iwona quickly.
The big nosed brunette glanced towards the church entrance and then turned to Jess saying, “I am Iwona Vassa, Jess Harper. Much have I heard about you. I would be most pleased to dance with you now.” She replied in a deep contralto of accented English. She took Jess’s proffered hand and stood up. He gave a gentle tug, meaning to flirtatiously pull her, slightly, into his space. He was surprised when she didn’t budge. He was even more surprised when she stood up and just kept standing up. Boy howdy she was tall! Significantly taller than he was! He found himself treated to a close up view of her magnificently well rounded and canyon like cleavage.
The musicians started playing and Jess vaguely noted it was a Tango. Iwona let out a happy contralto, “A Tango! Wspanialy! Learn Tango last dance. You know Tango, Mr. Harper?”
Jess’s visual world had narrowed greatly but his ears worked fine. “Yes Miss Iwona,” he replied directly to the great fleshy orbs before him. “Shall we?”
They stepped to the dance floor and Jess put his arms up. “Heavens this is one big and well endowed woman!” Jess thought. Eyes once more locked upon her forward most parts, Jess placed one arm around her, expecting to feel a soft and supple lady’s back. He found instead, an athletically muscular back aquiver with energy and excitement. She put her arm around him, took his hand, and they were off.
“Good Lord she has long legs under that dress!” he thought as they took a few steps to fully synchronize. Then it was all music. Even half drunk, and visually distracted, Jess was a fine dancer. He was pleased to discover that he had partnered another one. They ventured gracefully around the room when Iwona startled Jess by half spinning him and pulling him in tight, leaving him facing away from her. “I am up here, Mr. Harper,” she whispered quickly, quietly, and a bit fiercely into his ear. Then she un-reversed him back into the normal face-to-face position. The move drew scattered applause from on-lookers.
Jess went scarlet. He hadn’t realized that he had been gawking at her femininity like a 15 year old at a peep show. He immediately looked up and was further embarrassed by her raised eyebrow and pursed lip look. In his embarrassment, and without thinking, he looked down, inadvertently returning to the view that had gotten him into trouble; his color immediately deepened from scarlet to crimson. Thinking quickly, Jess half spun her (reversing her facing as she had his) held her close in and gave himself a moment to gather himself. Then he returned her to standard position and they continued with him rigidly holding his head facing upwards towards her face. He was deeply relieved to see that Iwona was far more amused than angry.
“I’m sorry Miss Iwona. I didn’t mean to. I was….” he stammered.
She cut him off with a rueful smile, “You are not first short man to do so, Mr. Harper. But not again, please.” She paused sniffing. “Do you smell something….what is word? Rank?”
“No..,” he started then paused. He DID smell something foul. It was a scent that was a cross between whiskey, stale tobacco, utterly rancid sweat, and a distant run in with a skunk. Horrified, he realized it was the smell of Jabo Willis. Part of it had rubbed off on him in the saloon (though, praise God, not at full potency). Jess wanted to disappear through the floor boards. Mercifully, the Tango finished and he was free to guide Iwona back to her chair. He did so and then retreated, taking refuge at the front door next to Mort. Jess considered what to do next: weighing his hating to miss the dance, against the grim prospect of revolting the ladies present.
The unhappy man turned to Mort and was surprised to see that his sheriff friend was eyeing him with mixed annoyance and amusement. “What?” Jess asked.
“She does have a nice pair, doesn’t she Jess.” Mort observed tersely.
Jess’s heart thudded into his boots. Apparently, it was obvious to the world, he had just made of fool of himself. If Mort was inclined to razz him then Slim’s mockery was going to be positively unbearable. “Uh, yes she does. They kinda jumped out at me. I mean took me by surprise. When she stood up, there they were,” he put the palm of his hand about half an inch from his nose and looked at it cross eyed, “right in my face and I kinda forgot myself.” He sounded as miserably embarrassed as he felt.
Mort handed him a glass of punch from a nearby table, and laughed quietly while shaking his head. “Under the circumstances, a little too much whiskey, some bad sense and the presence of a beautiful woman; it’s pretty easy for a man to make a fool of himself.” He paused a moment, then went on, “but, in the future, I would appreciate your not drooling on my bride-to-be’s breasts.”
Jess coughed out a strangled, “Your what? Mort, I didn’t drool on her. Er, I don’t think I drooled on her. When did you ask her? I mean when is the wedding? Ah, blazes.” Jess finished lamely.
Annoyance gone, Mort looked at his miserable and smelly sometime deputy. Obviously he hadn’t known that Iwona was engaged and felt badly about his boorish behavior. “Go home Jess. Take a bath. Use a bristle brush. Burn your clothes. Sleep it off. Slim is gonna give you a serious razing about this. Of course, that probably won’t compare with what Miss Daisy will have to say.”
“Would this horror never end?” Jess thought, looking around frantically. “Miss Daisy? She came to the dance?” Jess finally managed in a half strangled voice. Yup, there she was with one eye on their fosterling, Mike, and the other balefully locked upon him. Yes, Miss Daisy, who acted like his adopted mother, was here and had witnessed it all. He knew she would be discussing it at him later -repeatedly and in detail. She would definitely be worse than Slim. “That sounds like good advice Mort,” he replied ashen faced and nodding. Then he turned and fled into the night.
Two weeks later, Mort Corey rode out to the Sherman ranch. He found Jess mending some wire along the road. “Afternoon Jess,” he called out as he rode up.
Jess snipped the wire then looked up with a quick smile. “Hi Mort. How have you been?”
“Doing fine Jess, just fine. Nothing unusual with work and the wedding looks to be coming together nicely.” (Jess knew that translated to Mort letting Iwona handle everything while nodding at appropriate times). Truth to tell, Iwona worked with boundless energy and triumphal glee. The bride also had considerable assistance from Ed and Mattie Bradford with whom she was staying when she wasn’t at Mort’s house redecorating. “Everything alright out here?” the sheriff inquired politely.
“Yup, it’s been pretty quiet. We’re caught up on everything and you know how rare that is this time of year.
“Glad to hear it because I rode out here looking for a little help from you. I have to take some prisoners over to Cheyenne and will be gone nearly a week. I’d like you to cover for me.”
“A week? It doesn’t take a week to go to Cheyenne and back, not even with the prison wagon.” Jess stated flatly and curiously.
Mort nodded with a smile. “It does if you’re secretly buying things for your new bride and don’t want her to know.” Both men laughed. “Along with some other stuff, I’m getting Grandma Corey’s ring resized. You may have noticed that Iwona is somewhat bigger than Sarah was,” Mort added mischievously.
Jess flushed, looked down and laughed embarrassedly. “Yeah, I remember something of the sort. Sure Mort, I’ll cover for you. When are you leaving?”
Mort Senior’s telegram arrived while Mort Junior was in Cheyenne. Ed Bradford wasn’t sure what to do about it. Official company policy was to deliver it to the designated recipient or his representative. So he did what he always did; when in doubt, he asked Mattie.
Mattie Bradford was a practical woman, who firmly understood that women had to run things because most men had less sense than a grapefruit. Her beloved Ed was a prime example, so she gave him the obvious solution, “Give it to Iwona. They’re getting married, and she is rearranging the man’s house.”
“That would be against company policy.”
“Then ride to Cheyenne and give it to him,” she knew that wasn’t going to happen.
Eventually Ed agreed to give Iwona the message. Then he departed to let her read it. Iwona blushed at the admonition for Mort to stay out of her bed, and then she let out a surprised and happy exclamation at the mention of her Great Aunt Marochka’s name.
Her Great Aunt had been the civilizing influence while she grew up. The woman had come to live with her, and her semi-reclusive Grandfather, when Iwona was a 10 year old near savage. Marochka was a free thinking professional revolutionary dedicated to liberating oppressed masses via force; a rather unsuccessful one. She came to live with them after being badly wounded in Vienna. It was Marochka who had taught Iwona manners, dance, art, music and social skills doing so to the best of her considerable ability.
She also gave Iwona a greatly cherished Hawken rifle. The rifle, a superbly accurate .53 caliber muzzle loader, had belonged to the great love of Marochka’s life, lost long before in the Mexican revolution. Aunt Marochka had never told Iwona the man’s name saying that, “even naming him was far too much for her to bear” though she was quite willing to tell tales of their adventures. This led Iwona to doubt that the marriage had ever been formalized and/or multiple men were involved in her tales. Especially as it was nigh beyond comprehension how one man could get into so much trouble, survive it, and then land into still more. By her tales, Marochka was forever getting him out of outlandish and life threatening scrapes.
The iron rifle butt, a quirk of Hawken rifles, was inscribed with ‘M.C. 1820’. Iwona hadn’t given it much thought until she received Mort’s father’s telegram. He could be her great uncle! Iwona loved family and was deeply excited that she could be meeting a long lost relative; especially one that her beloved Aunt had treasured so deeply. Her thoughts returned to the admonition for Mort to stay out of her bed and she suddenly remembered Marochka’s tale of miscarrying when she was informed of her true love’s murder by Spanish soldiers. Iwona laughed heartily at the thought; the man was afraid she was his granddaughter! That would have complicated things. Iwona immediately hustled over to the telegraph office and sent a reassuring reply to her newly discovered Great Uncle. Sadly, her return telegram went unanswered.
“Whoa!” shouted Charlie Planter, pulling up the stage at the station. “One hour stop folks and welcome to Denver. ‘Pings’ is good if you like Chinee cookin’. I’m going over to Sadie’s and eat me some buffalo tongue,” he said rubbing his empty belly. The driver set the brake and hopped down to help out his passengers. The two rough looking men were getting off here as was the itty bitty lady. He off loaded their gear from the boot and handed it over to them. The itty bitty lady was met by a skinny horse faced woman with three brats who immediately swarmed her exclaiming ‘grandma!’ That only left the dude, the gambler and the blonde. A small load, unless they filled up here in Denver.
“Howdy Charlie, are you continuing on to Cheyenne?” A familiar voice asked him from behind.
Without looking up, the grumpy driver answered. “Hi Mort. Yeah, I have the run. Why? Got an hour, have some grub with me?”
“Not if you insist on tongue. How ‘bout I treat you at Pings?”
“Suits me, I was only going to Sadie’s ‘cause she’ll let me run a tab. Gotta gambler passenger that cleaned me out four stops back. You’d think drawing into an inside straight would be enough to beat his two pair. But no, he had to draw into a full house at the same time.”
“Life’s just not fair Charlie,” Mort replied.
“No it aint, and that’s a fact.” Charlie turned seeing Mort for the first time and stopped. “Are you coming along this trip?” he asked seeing Mort’s baggage.
“No, I’m walking around Denver with two bags of gear, my Sharps and my double barrel because I need the exercise. Here put it aboard.”
“More than 25 pounds Mort. You know the rules. Only 25 pounds of gear are allowed each passenger.”
“My foot weighs more’n 25 lbs and you’ll be wearing it in your backside if you don’t get a move on and put that gear in.” Mort returned. “I paid the extra weight already. So hurry up, I’m hungry.”
“Dang your big feet, you always have been testy when you’re hungry,” Charlie snickered as he loaded the baggage.
“How’s your pa doing Charlie?”
Charlie turned, having finished showing Mort’s gear save the shotgun. He put that up on the driver’s box. Riding next to the driver, if the weather wasn’t bad, was the best seat on the coach. When nobody paid the extra fare to ride there, it was Charlie’s privilege to assign it. “Pa’s gotten old Mort. Ma passed last winter and since then, well, he’s just shriveled up.” The indifferent matter-of-factness in the driver’s voice was belied by the sadness about his mouth and eyes.
“Sorry Charlie,” Mort said, “it happens to us all.”
“Not you Mort. You’re 10 years older than pa and don’t show it ‘cept for the hair color and a few wrinkles.” He stopped and shook his head. “Come on, let’s go eat at Pings,” he said closing the subject.
The stage rolled through the countryside making excellent time. Mort had ridden this road many times over the years, usually on horseback. Unfortunately, his horse was getting on in years and he hadn’t gotten around to getting a younger animal for long trips. Junior had mentioned that his friend Slim had access to some particularly fine wild horse/Morgan crosses and was selling them at reasonable prices. He would look them over and, if one tickled his fancy, he would pick it up. He would get a local to break it for him as he had given up breaking horses when he turned 60.
It was a fine day, a touch warm maybe, but the rolling stage created its own breeze. “Whoa! Virginia Dale, folks,” Charlie suddenly called out as he pulled up to the stop. “Home station! We’ll be changing horses and driver. You’ll be laying over here for half an hour so get some food.”
“You made nice time Charlie, only seven hours to Virginia Dale,” Mort observed.
Charlie shrugged. “Easy to do. Clear and sunny weather shining on a good road that is almost straight, plus we have a light load. Speaking of a light load, when did you switch over to the lady’s gun?”
Mort had been waiting for this. Most professional gun users held the smaller 12 gauge in disdain, with the ten gauge being the modern shotgun of choice. “This is a long barreled and rifled 12 gauge Charlie. It’s a whole lot more accurate, with slugs, than most other shotguns. How big a hunk of lead does it take to drop a man? It still packs enough punch to tear a man’s head off. That’s enough for me.”
“That’s what a rifle is for Mort,” countered Charlie.
“Sometimes you don’t have time to change over in a fight.”
“Not to mention an old fart like you doesn’t feel like lugging around a 10 gauge anymore.” Charlie put in with a snicker.
“As you said, no need to mention that.” Mort admitted, while playing with his mustache (a habit which Juanita had deplored. She had broken him of chewing on its ends, by putting habanero juice in his mustache wax, but hadn’t been able to make him leave it alone entirely). “I think I’ll ride inside on the next leg.”
“Suit yourself, enjoy your nap. I’m going to enjoy mine.”
“You wound me. I just want to get to know the other passengers.”
“I bet you’re asleep within 15 minutes of getting back on the road.” Charlie had grown up knowing Mort. The old man could sleep anywhere.
“No bet. “
Mort watched the other three passengers as they piled out of the stage. Like many lawmen, he has a confirmed people watcher. These three were looking the worse for wear; not surprising since stage travel was no picnic. All three looked grateful for the travel break.
The first out was a red haired man in his 20’s, dressed in a vested suit and wearing a Tucson hat. He didn’t appear to be armed. Mort pegged him as the gambler, who had walked off with Charlie’s money. The man looked up and down the street once and then hustled off towards the telegraph office.
The second off was the blonde. She was breath taking despite being dressed in a simple, plain, overly worn and ill-fitting dress that didn’t match the expensive shoes on her feet. She was young, Mort reckoned her early 20’s, with beautiful, nearly white, blonde hair that had been unevenly hacked shorter. She gracefully dismounted the stage, put her right hand inside her oversized handbag, and checked the street. Seeing that all was clear, she headed off for food. Mort had seen it before and clucked to himself, “Woman on the run, probably a dance hall girl, and if there isn’t a hog leg, derringer or pepperbox in that bag I’m the queen of May.”
The last off was a dude and the sight of him made Mort reconsider riding on top of the stage. The young man was wearing fancy new boots, a new boss of the plains white hat, a two gun rig (also new and worn too high), a red plaid shirt, britches and chaps. It was all topped off with a ‘tough guy’ look on a terribly young face. Mort made himself another bet that he had at least four “penny dreadfuls” in his baggage. He appeared torn between following the young lady into the restaurant (and doubtlessly ruining her meal with prattle) or being a faux cowboy and visiting a Virginia Dale saloon (and like as not becoming a permanent boot hill resident). He turned towards the saloon. “Bad choice boy,” Mort thought.
“Young man, “he said cutting off the Dude, “Virginia Dale has a ‘no gun’ law. Hand over your irons,” he said.
The startled dude turned sulky, “Sheriff, a man needs his guns,” then he stopped, “Wait a minute, you’re the old guy that’s been riding on top of the stage. You aint the sheriff here.”
“Even a traveling man eventually gets home,” Mort said giving the dude a brief flash of his ‘Denver City marshal’ badge. The flash was brief enough to make reading it impossible. “You don’t need those here and especially not in that saloon. Hand’em over. I’ll give’em to the station master so you can pick’em up as you leave town.”
“Why should I, old man? You aint even packing,” the dude said trying to save face.
Mort sighed. “Son, what makes you think I’m not? Just because they aren’t in the open doesn’t mean they’re not there. Remember that,
as a very important safety tip. Besides, I can always go get my shotgun and we can start all over. Only then you’ll miss your stage because you will wind up either in jail or at the undertakers. Now hand over your guns. I’m hungry and I want my dinner.”
Mort’s change, from affable old man to hard eyed lawman, unnerved the dude enough that he sheepishly handed over his rig. The young dude changed directions and headed for the restaurant. Mort deposited the guns with the black station master (who laughed hard at the story). ”Maisy,” the station master called to the back of the station, “do we have enough to feed ‘Sheriff Mort’ some dinner? The man’s worked up an appetite cleaning up the town!”
“You don’t give a girl much warning Hollis!” Maisy called back, “We have plenty.”
“How about joining us ‘Sheriff’ Mort? Pork, beans, corn bread and fresh blackberry pie! All hot from the kitchen of the Amazing Maisy Mae DuBois.”
“It would be a pleasure. I can smell the pork and the pie. I’m not sure which smells best.”
Hollis DuBois laughed his deep rich and rolling laugh. “Neither, Maisy makes the best cornbread in Colorado. That will be ‘best.’” His boast was proved correct.
Dinner with the DuBois’s was a lively affair. Maisy and Hollis were a young couple with two little girls in pig tails and a third child on the way. The meal was tasty, filled with laughter, and all too brief. It reminded Mort was of hundreds of similar meals, shared with virtual strangers who would become good friends, over the long course of his life. He was truly blessed.
After his meal, Mort joined the gambler in the stage coach, silently waiting for the others to return. Before long, they heard the dude complaining to the young woman as he gallantly assisted the young woman inside the coach, where she eyed Mort curiously.
They then heard Hollis theatrically prevailing upon the dude to ride shotgun on the ‘dangerous leg of the trip’. It seemed the great Kimchee war chief, Walks Like a Duck, was on the prod and when the Kimchee strike they serve it up hot and come rolling in like cabbages. The gambler and the girl looked at each other with raised eyebrows, while Mort put his hand over his mouth to hide his soundless laughter. Hollis was delaying the young man’s discovering that Mort was in the stage. Likely, by the time they reached Cheyenne, the dude would be far too weary to do anything rash.
“Why Rastus, I’d be pleased to help out.” The dude self importantly answered as he buckled on his guns. Mort made a face at the unnecessary slur and didn’t hear Hollis respond.
“I’m Willy Thomas, come up top now, partner,” an unfamiliar voice said. Then, “Everyone aboard?” the new driver called and which Hollis affirmed. “We’re off! Son, keep a sharp eye out for Walks Like a Duck’s savages. They’re likely to come screaming out of the darkness at any moment and I’d like to keep what little hair I have. Yah!”
“You can depend upon me Willy,” the dude replied tensely.
“I am boy. I am.”
Mort stretched his legs out. This much leg room, in a stage coach, was an unusual luxury and was due to there being only three riders where they generally crowded nine. He turned to his companions. “Howdy, I’m Mort Corey.”
“They call me Red,” the gambler returned gruffly. He was tired and unsociable.
“I’m Candice McCain, and please don’t say it,” the young woman said holding up her hand with a pained expression.
“Why Miss Candice, I have no idea what you mean.” Mort said angelically. He looked closely at the woman. Even in the dim light, she was lovely although a touch of hardness, or perhaps fear, around her eyes and mouth detracted from her beauty. She certainly was tense.
“Where are you bound, Miss Candice?” Mort politely asked.
“Stockton, that’s in California.”
Mort smiled, “Friends of mine settled out that way some years back. I haven’t seen Tom and Victoria for years. Do you have family waiting for you there?”
“No, but it sounds like a fine place. And you Mort, I was told that you were the Sheriff of Virginia Dale,” she smiled. Red showed his first, uneasy, interest in Mort.
Mort smiled, “No. The dude must have gotten the wrong impression when I warned him of the perils of carrying a firearm into a saloon. I’m headed for Laramie. My boy is getting married there. I’ll be leaving you at the Willow Springs station and catching another stage.” Mort noted that Red relaxed a little when he heard of his proposed early departure from the coach.
The woman smiled and asked, “If you’re not the sheriff then why did you take the dude’s guns?”
Mort Corey Sr. shrugged, “He’s a young and brash green horn. I expect someone will blow his head off if he doesn’t wise up, but it wouldn’t happen tonight if I took his guns.” The old man paused to scratch an itch then continued, “In the end, it probably won’t matter, but you never know. Given some time he might grow a few smarts.”
Red snorted, “Waste of time. Fools like him die like flies out here.” Mort shrugged at Red’s observation.
Red’s comment earned him a look of distaste from Candice. “Maybe so, but Mr. Corey took a little trouble and gave that boy some time to learn. Maybe it will work out, and maybe it won’t, but either way it was kind of you. Though, when he finds you in the coach, I don’t think he’ll be grateful.” Mort smiled and nodded his appreciation. The woman then turned to the gambler, “You’re just sore because he skinned you in poker.”
Red colored and muttered something about Lady Luck being fickle.
The conversation went on for another half hour or so and then tapered off. The miles rolled by with only the sounds of the coach, horses and the night. Mort considered his companions. The girl wasn’t hard. She was scared and on the run. Red was unhappy at the thought of a lawman being aboard and relieved to discover Mort wasn’t one. Something was far off key and Willow Springs was fast approaching. If he was going to find out what was going on he would have to act fast. “Let’s take a wild guess and see what happens,” he thought cheerfully, “The worst thing that can happen is that these two will think I am off my nut.”
He shifted, placed his right hand on his cane and turned to the sleep feigning gambler, saying in a low fierce voice, “So why are you chasing this woman, and to whom did you send the telegram?”
The gambler’s hand snapped to his jacket pocket, but Mort’s cane was even faster catching the man across the knuckles. Red let out a yelp while his half drawn pistol flew through the coach window and out into the dark Wyoming countryside. Candice jumped as far away from them as the coach allowed while frantically digging through her oversized hand bag.
Before Red had time to leap at him, or draw another weapon, Mort drew back pulling and cocking his colt. “In the words of my dear departed Juanita, Es ‘splainin time.” He eyed Candice and gently said, “Anything to add or ask missy? I expect this varmint is just going to call me a crazy old coot.”
Candice finally got her pistol out, gripping the single action colt like it was a poisonous snake bent upon turning around and biting her, then pointed the uncocked weapon at Red. She was deathly pale and more than a trifle rattled by the sudden turn of events.
“I really don’t….” she started.
“Sure you do, hon,” Mort said gently, “Or you wouldn’t have butchered your lovely hair, be wearing ill-fitting and unflattering clothes, look like a spooked deer and be backing my play. Of course you don’t have to tell me. It’s none of my business. I’m just a nosey old man who, unless you give me cause not to, is leaving you at Willow Springs. Consider though, this galoot has told whoever is after you where you are and where you’re going. He’s been bird dogging you since you crossed his path and sending out telegrams in each town. You might just find my help useful since I WAS able to uncover him for you.” Mort went silent and let his words sink in.
The woman sighed. “Thank you, Mr. Corey. I’m fleeing my husband. He’s a very bad man, so one night I took his horse and fled. I’m off to California and a new start.”
Red gave a snort but held his peace. Mort felt like snorting too, instead he just asked, “And?”
“He won’t let me go; I’m his. He said if I ever tried to leave he would kill me.” She stopped then and blurted out, “I’m married to Joshua McKay.”
“Good heavens Hon! You have Josh McKay and his gang after you? They’re a mean, greedy bunch.” Mort said without taking his eyes off of Red who was sucking on his busted and bleeding knuckle. “They’ve been terrorizing southern Colorado for over a year, and Arizona before that.”
“I was working in Fairplay when I met him. I guess he liked the look of me and courted me. He can be awfully nice, gallant even, when he wants to be. I had no idea who, or what, he was until after I went off with him. Only then did I really come to know him. It got to be too much for me so I ran off with his horse. The horse went lame outside of Boulder so I started traveling by stage.”
“When did you pick up Red?” Mort asked nodding at the gambler.
“Boulder.” She said quietly. Red tensed and Mort spoke quickly.
“Bad idea Red, just relax. You try to jump me and you won’t..” Red sprang, Mort fired and it was over. Red ending up sprawled across the center bench of the stage. Candice shut her eyes and pulled her pistol’s trigger too, but since it wasn’t cocked the single action revolver did nothing.
“Jehosephat!” exclaimed Willy the driver. The dude fired off both barrels of the stage 10 gauge while shouting, “Injuns!”
“No it aint Indians, Wild Bill. That shot was from inside the coach.” Willy said sourly, then cried, “Whoa!” bringing the stage to a halt. He set the brake, hopped down and looked in the stage window. “What in the ding dang blazes is goin’ on in there? Dang, looks like I lost me a passenger.”
“Sorry son,” Mort said. “We had us an issue, and that youngster tried to jump me.” Candy emphatically nodded her agreement while stowing her unfired pistol.
“The marshal up in Cheyenne is gonna want to talk to you about this. Let’s roll him up in a tarp and put him on the roof. I don’t think the lady will want to ride with a corpse. Most gals are kinda sensitive that way,” the driver said shaking his head unfazed by the violent turn of events.
While Willy was fetching the tarp, Mort searched the body by the light of a coach lantern. He found a pair of telegrams to Mathew Redmond. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that ‘Mathew Redmond’ was ‘Red.’ The first message was from J. M. in Potters Bluff to Mathew Redmond in Denver. It read “Accompany shipment until we pick up STOP Send word via Cheyenne telegraph office to me if route change needed or you get to Virginia Dale STOP Is cash accounted for? STOP J. M. STOP.
The second was from J. M. in Cheyenne to in Mathew Redmond in Virginia Dale. It read, “Will leave Cheyenne when we receive your message. STOP. Commission 10 Percent cash carried as promised STOP Will bring you horse and gear STOP J. M. STOP
Mort looked up from the telegrams and announced, as Willy finished wrapping up Red, “Folks, we have a problem.
Willy handed the body up to the dude, who tied it in place, then he turned to Mort. “What problem’s that? Looks like it was simple self defense to me,” he said, mistakenly referring to the shooting.
“Read these Willy. I took them from the body,” Mort said handing the telegrams to the driver.
Willy just shook his head, replying “I can’t read. What do they say?”
Candice took them, read them aloud, and exclaimed, “Oh, God. Josh is sometimes called JM. He’s got the boys and they are riding down on us from Cheyenne.”
“Is that a problem?” asked the driver. “For me I mean.”
“Is Josh McKay a problem, Willy?” Mort said, cheerfully smiling at the driver in the darkness.
“Holy Cats! Are you saying the McKay gang is looking for my stage tonight?”
“That about sums it up. Willy, let me introduce to you Mrs. Candice McCain Mckay. She is currently hiding from her husband Josh, in your stage,” Mort informed the unhappy driver, in the same manner that another man might have told him an unexpected windfall was arriving. Mort turned back to Candice McKay and asked, “Miss, how many gun hands can your husband call up?”
“Seven, sir. Two of his men are away north.”
“Where up north, missy?”
“Up by… oh. You better make that nine,” the woman amended.
“That tears it! Everybody back aboard. We’re heading back to Virginia Dale,” Willy announced bolting for his seat.
“Fresh horses are waiting in Willow Springs Willy. How long would it take us to get there?” Mort called out.
Willy stopped, “Good idea, maybe 20 minutes.”
Mort nodded and added, “Willy, when McKay comes all the way down from Cheyenne, and doesn’t find a stage, where will he wind up?”
“Which is where we will be,” Mort finished.
“Better to run into him there, than here, or up the road,” Willy sighed and said with feeling. “We’ll have some help.”
“Better to not run into him at all. Let’s go to Laramie. The cut off is just past Willow Springs. “
Willy stopped and thought about that and nodded slowly, “Maybe. I’ll think about it as we head into Willow Springs.”
Candice McCain walked over to the driver, took his arm, and put something in his hand. Then she quietly said, “Willy, that’s a hundred dollars. Let’s go to Laramie.”
Willy put the money in his britches, “You know, I think we should go to Laramie.”
J. M., aka Josh Mckay, took the message from the telegraph operator in Cheyenne, and thanked the man. Candy was in Virginia Dale and would be leaving shortly. He walked over to the motel, roused the boys, and they set off down the road to Virginia Dale. They set an easy pace, intending to ambush the coach along the way.
“J.M,” Ben Carpenter said as they rode, “did Red say if she still has the money?”
“Yeah Carp. He got a glimpse of it in her bag. He said he thought most of the $15,000 was still there,” the gang leader answered. “It’s a good thing Candy doesn’t know who our spotters are. Red seeing her, and following her since Boulder, has made this a lot easier.”
“Good.” Carp answered. “What will we do with Candy?”
“Like I said earlier, we will all do any and everything any of us want to. Then we will kill her. Weren’t you listening?” the annoyed leader replied.
Carp was a hard man, but not a foolish one. He backed off the question immediately. Carp had ridden with Josh for a long time and wanted to make sure he hadn’t changed his mind without telling anybody. If he had, then anybody who touched Candy would meet an abrupt end. “Yeah Josh, I heard you. But you’re a pretty good sort and you’re not as mad at her as you were earlier. She is your wife, not to mention gorgeous, and you’ve always said ‘a good shag’. I just thought it best to double check, ‘cause dead is kinda hard to reverse.”
“Willow Springs Station! Change of horses and then on to Grier’s ranch,” Willy called out as he pulled into the station. “Evening Sal!” he shouted at a figure carrying a lantern and heading towards the barn. He was greeted with a burst of profanity that included his name. Willy Thomas smiled in the darkness. Sal was always a grouch and most especially at night.
“He’s not overly friendly, Willy.” the dude observed as the figure disappeared into the barn.
“No son, he aint. The only thing he hates worse than a night stage is a night stage in bad weather or having to find and fix a downed wire.”
“Yeah, the telegraph line between Laramie and Denver follows the stage coach road and Sal gets paid to help maintain it.”
“So there’s a telegraph here?” the dude asked hopefully.
Willy shook his head. “No, just a gadget that shows a pair of lights when the wire is unbroken. Besides, I doubt that Sal can read. There’s no station between here and Laramie, or we would send a message to the Laramie sheriff asking for help. Even if there was a telegraph here, I doubt anybody would be receiving in Laramie until morning. The same goes for most places where the telegraph office isn’t part of a railroad depot.”
Mort Corey came up and joined the men, “Willy, why don’t we check Red’s luggage while we wait? We probably won’t find anything interesting but we aren’t doing anything else.”
The driver shrugged. “I don’t care. Which bag is his?”
“I don’t know, but we can figure out which ones aren’t easily enough.”
So Red’s bag was pulled out and all three of them looked through his possessions. The only surprises were $750 in gold, a small hand saw, a $2000 wanted poster for Josh McKay and $500 wanted posters for Sam Pickering and Ben Carpenter; men Candy immediately confirmed were members of the McKay gang.
“Looks like Red was prepared for a little selling out,” Willy commented. “Why in tarnation was he packing a saw?”
Nobody had an answer for that.
“Horses switched. Now get out of here,” Sal the station master growled at them.
“Why Sally, you make a body feel unwelcome,” Willy answered.
“It’s ‘Salvadore’ not ‘Sally’, you jackass,” returned the anti-social man.
“All aboard folks, Sally needs her beauty sleep.” Willy called as the grouchy man stomped back to his house and slammed the door. They all boarded and were off. The dude having claimed his bag from the luggage, joined Candice and Mort in the stage, saying “I want to clean my guns.”
“It’s kinda dark in here for that son. You drop anything,” Mort said as the stage bounced along “and you won’t find it until morning- if ever.”
“True enough sheriff. I guess it can wait,” he paused. “Sheriff, when did you catch on to Red being up to no good? It must have been a while ago, since you continued with us after Virginia Dale.”
“Son, I could say ‘I just have a keen instinct,’ but truth to tell I’m from Denver not Virginia Dale, and was traveling on anyway. I was just helping out in the last town.” What Mort left out was that it was the dude he was helping, figuring that the young man wouldn’t see it that way. The dude just nodded.
“Son, I’m Mort Corey.” Mort said offering his hand.
“Most people call me Kid,” the dude said taking it eagerly, and about shaking it off.
“It figures,” Mort thought but said, “I doubt your mama named you that son.”
The dude laughed, “Well, old timer, there you’re wrong. Elliot Kidd is my given name. If you were named Elliot wouldn’t you’d prefer ‘Kid’ too.”
Mort joined in the laughter. “Probably so. I had to deal with ‘Mortimer’ and that isn’t a whole lot better. No offence, Miss Candice, but sometimes women folk get strange ideas when naming their children. My third wife, Mandy Mae, gave birth while I was away and named the boy after me. I about had a conniption when I got home, but by then it was too late.” The Dude relaxed and Mort thought, “Why would the dude be relieved by that story?” Most people wouldn’t have noticed the young man’s tell but Mort wasn’t most people. He was a lawman of many years experience, as well as a part time actor, well used to reading people. He could read people like an experienced tracker could read deer sign ….. as Red had so recently found out to his sorrow. It also made him death at a poker table; not a saloon in Denver would refuse him a drink or allow him to play.
The passengers inside of the coach lapsed into a companionable silence. Soon Mort and Miss McCain were sleeping, she fitfully and he rumbling like a locomotive moving slowly about the yard. Elliot Kidd looked at his companions in the dim light. The girl was undoubtedly the prettiest bait he had ever dangled in his life. It was a pity he had to act like an idiot in front of her, and he really liked the old man. It was a relief that the oldster wasn’t a con man, or a nut, posing as a lawman. Those had been distinct possibilities when he claimed “Mort Corey” as his name. Elliot had met Laramie’s sheriff, Mort Corey, some months back and that man was middle aged, rather than old, so this man was the right age to be that sheriff’s father. It all fit together. That old Mort had shot the man he was tailing would have been inconvenient, if it hadn’t led to the knowledge of why Red was on the stage. Until then he had only paid unprofessional, though admiring, attention to the lady. “That will have to change now,” Deputy United States Marshal Elliot Kidd thought. He would still maintain his dude cover in case McKay didn’t show up to collect his strayed wife. “It is amusing what odd things dude’s can say and/or ask about without people paying the slightest attention. Yet it was how much folks love to brag around them that made being a dude his favorite cover.” The deputy marshal continued to muse silently, “And boy howdy had Willy jumped when he fired off the 10 gauge.”
“Curse that Hollis DuBois!” Elliot thought. “Why did he have to make up that ridiculous Walks-Like-a-Duck/Kimchee Indian tale? Anything to get Willy to have him on top of the stage, and away from that interfering old man, would have done, but Hollis loved the absurd. Especially, since he knew that I would have to play along with it and look like a complete knot head. So much for courting the girl on the sly,” he thought grumpily.
The Marshall’s Service had sent him and Hollis out here to put an end to the McKay gang. Hollis and the telegrapher (whom they had deputized in order to insure secrecy) were his permanent contact points. It was up to him to ferret out information on the gang, report back and trigger a Federal Posse to come thundering down upon them like a lightning bolt. Elliot had followed up several McKay gang hold ups, just drifting into areas as a dude, and had finally struck pay dirt with Mathew ‘Red’ Redmond; a two bit Boulder gambler. There was every indication that ‘Red’ was one of McKay’s spotters, sending the bandit information concerning stage gold and payroll shipments by using the telegraph system. Elliot had taken to inconspicuously following him around. When Redmond suddenly bought a stage ticket, and then raced home to pack, the deputy Marshal simply bought himself a ticket and followed him.
Elliot stretched out his legs, and peeled off his chaps. Enough was enough. If the Kimchee story didn’t convince these people he was a clueless idiot then chaps on a stage wouldn’t help, and they were hot as blazes. He snuggled down and went to sleep.
“Carter’s Hollow!” Willy called out as they rolled into the way station. Unlike the previous stop, where Willy had to wake up the rancher for a change of horses, the Carter’s Hollow horses were ready to go.
“What the devil?” called out the station master, “Willy! We were expecting you from the other direction,” he said nodding towards Laramie.
“Expect a stage from that direction too, Jonas.” Willy said not elaborating and letting Jonas Carter assume that he was making an unscheduled run. “Then again,” Willy thought, “I guess I am.”
“Ok Willy, it’s not a problem. Our herd’s in good shape. Are any of you folks hungry? Twila will rustle you up some eggs, bacon and biscuits and hot coffee too, only a dollar a person.”
“I’m in Jonas. I love Twila’s biscuits,” Willy said happily.
“You surely do Willy, we should charge you double given how many you always eat.” Jonas Carter laughed as Willy went into the house.
Nobody else was hungry though Elliot was up and out of the stage with his bag. The sun was rising and he moved rapidly towards the necessary.
Candice McCain had awakened at the stop but immediately went back to sleep. Mort woke up as well and was just settling back to doze off again when he heard Elliot exit the stage. “Now why would the boy want his bag?” he thought randomly. Knowing that his curiosity would keep him up anyway, the old gent stealthily followed the young man. His curiosity intensified when Elliot continued past the privy and stopped at a telegraph pole that was obscured from the station by trees. The stiff old lawman crept up to the cover of a bush. He watched the young man open the satchel, pull out two wires that were connected to something inside the satchel, put on some gloves and climbing spikes, and commence climbing up the pole with the wires!
Mort pulled his pistol and silently stalked up to the pole. The dude quit climbing when he heard the gun cock. “Good morning Kidd. Why are you climbing up that there telegraph pole?” he congenially asked while training his gun upon the sitting duck of a climber.
Elliot Kidd stopped climbing and swore under his breath. Then he replied, “Morning Mort. I’m guessing you’re curious why I’m up this pole.”
“Yes son, you might say that. Care to enlighten me?”
“Not really. How about we just forget you saw me up here?” the young man asked without much hope.
With a sigh Elliot Kidd started climbing down.
“Son, if you don’t stop right there, I’m gonna drill you. Let’s have this conversation like we are. I figure you won’t be tempted to try to outdraw me that way,” Mort said affably.
Elliot stopped with a martyred sigh while thinking, “Exactly what I would do if I was the one on the ground holding the gun. Sacrificing unfair advantages was a foolishness best left to penny dreadfuls,” but instead he said, “Mort, let’s be reasonable about this.”
“Why son, I am being reasonable. An unreasonable man would have plugged you for trying to send a message to McKay to draw him our way,” the ancient responded pleasantly.
“That’s not what I’m doing.”
“That’s nice son. What are you doing?”
“Sending for help,” Elliot Kidd grouchily said after a really long pause.
“I’ve no doubt about that. But I’m kinda wondering what kind of help that would be. Help for or against the recapture of our lovely companion.” Mort opened the bag with one hand and looked at the portable Morse key and battery. “You know, I bet that toy of yours is right expensive. Not every dude carries one around the countryside. Who are you working for son? Pinkerton’s?”
Elliot slipped down an inch and let out a most uncouth swear word. “Mort, you gotta let me down. This pole is rotten and my spikes aren’t holding.”
“Nope. Pinkerton’s?” the old man amiably repeated.
“Mort, if I fall and break my neck it’ll be your fault.”
“Son, I have great confidence in you. If I’m wrong I’ll apologize and see that you get a decent burial. Pinkerton’s?” Mort repeated, cheerfully remorseless.
“No not the Pinkerton’s. They can’t afford gear like that.”
“No, I’d guess they probably can’t. You know, if you convince me you’re a good guy I’ll probably be willing to keep your secret. If not, the longer we are at this, the more likely Willy, or someone else, will find us like this. If they do your secrecy will suffer,” Mort pleasantly observed.
Elliot’s left spike chose that moment to tear through the punky pole causing the man to drop both of the wires and to frantically grab hold of the pole with both hands. He reset his left spike into the pole. “United States Marshal’s Service, confound you. I’m working undercover, and I was calling for help from Laramie.”
“No Federal Marshals in Laramie son. That’s my son’s jurisdiction.”
“I know, but he knows about my mission. I was calling him for help in case we’re attacked. You, me, and Willy against the McKays is not my first choice for a gun competition. Especially, when trying to help the young lady.”
“Recite the Marshal’s oath of office, Elliot.” Mort suddenly snapped out.
“What?” Elliot Kidd said with a dropped jaw.
“I said for you to recite the United State’s Marshal Service’s oath of office.”
“I took that oath, like, six years ago. We don’t recite it nightly, like it’s the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Well, puzzle it out then.”
“Old man, this is getting really tiresome.”
“You aint coming down son, without holes, until you recite that oath for me,” Mort said and there was no humor in his voice at all. Elliot noted the change and began his recitation.
“I, Elliot Kidd, do solemnly swear….” The recitation went on with fits, starts and corrections, but eventually he got through it.
“It’s changed a bit since 1810, but not all that much,” Mort chuckled, “Alright son, I won’t plug you. Come on down, reclaim your wires and send your message.” Cursing vigorously, Elliot climbed down, got his wires, climbed back up, made the necessary attachments and climbed back down. He then keyed his message, climbed back up, disconnected, climbed back down and stored his gear.
Mort looked up from his note pad and nodded. “That was quick. The telegrapher was at his post when you sent,” he commented.
“Yes. We were lucky,” Elliot Kidd sulked. “1810? You took that oath in 1810?”
“One much like it. The government isn’t quick to change,” Mort smiled. “Me, they had chasing Mississippi River pirates. What have they got you doing?”
“Chasing McKay’s bunch and others like them. I was following ‘Red’ when you plugged him. I use the telegraph rig to report in using a cipher. You can’t possibly still be active?” he half asked and half stated.
“Heaven forefend boy. I retired, after 20 years of service, back in ‘33.”
“That would be 23 years service.”
“Nope. Lost a few years fighting in the war and the time I was in Old Mexico.”
“Oh. I forgot about that one. Mort, swear you won’t tell anybody about this. Not only would it blow my cover but I’ll never be able to live the circumstances down.”
Mort chuckled knowing that lawmen were the absolute worst for not letting any chance to razz/ride a peer pass. “Son, your secret is safe enough,” he said with a smile.
Josh McKay and his band reached Willow Springs Station about two hours before dawn. It was the last station before Virginia Dale and they should have encountered the stage coach long before this. Carp went up to the station’s door and hammered upon it with his fist.
“Who’s out there? The station master shouted stirring around.
Posse!” the bandit shouted back. Did the
stage from Virginia Dale pass through last night?”
“Yes, about midnight heading towards Cheyenne. Now go away.”
Josh McKay took a quick look around the station. There was no stage present but there were fresh stage tracks. “I think they came through boys. There is a fork heading off to Laramie. I wonder if Candy and Red teamed up and decided to keep the money,” he said quietly.
Iwona Vassa was happily making pronghorn perogies for breakfast. She had gone out hunting early, and the animal appeared bare minutes after she had started her hunt. Clearly silhouetted in the moonlight, it had presented an easy 300 yard shot with her adored, ancient, and recently scoped, .53 Hawken rifle. She had wasted no time in dropping, field dressing the animal and bringing it home to Mort’s house.
Iwona was a very good shot with rifle and shotgun, much less so with pistol despite practicing with the fine heavy caliber revolver she had inherited from a friend. Her firearms expertise was the result of being raised by her grandfather, the sole game keeper and armorer for the Von Tarlenheims (a family of minor Ruritanian nobility). Lacking any surviving male heirs, the semi-reclusive old man had taught her about nature, hunting, firearms, Catholicism, horses and little else. Years later, as a half wild ten year old, she came under the civilizing influence of her great aunt Marochka.
Iwona possessed a deeply affectionate nature. While deeply treasuring friends, and most especially family, she also tended to adopt two legged and four legged strays. These adoptions would have been even more generalized if Grandpa Frederic had not drawn the line at only living with mammals. Before coming to the American frontier (due to her nose, height, hobbies, pets, and lack of social connections) Iwona had become a nearly 30 year old spinster who was well on the path to becoming what some would, uncharitably, describe as a ‘crazy cat lady.’ This changed when she arrived in the west where women, especially shapely women, were in exceptionally high demand. Shortly after her Laramie arrival, she and Mort Corey wooed each other and set their wedding date.
Jess Harper was the latest example of Iwona ‘adopting strays’. Her initial opinion of Jess, formed at the dance, had been highly unfavorable. In point of fact, she had described him to Mort as, “a short, agile, handsome, smelly, lecherous, half-witted, drunk,” while politely questioning the sanity of his being left to safeguard the town. Mort laughed uproariously at the description (silently promising himself to relay it to Slim Sherman as soon as possible) and assured her that Jess was only about half of those things. Furthermore, she had seen him at his absolute worst and should reconsider him with an open mind. Doubtfully she agreed to try and, upon Mort’s departure, observed him while making sure he was well tended. She felt obligated to tend Jess, since Jess was now ‘Mort’s man’ at least until Mort came back; a relationship of great obligation to a woman who grew up in a near feudal kingdom.
Jess was quite surprised when the first meal, dinner, arrived at the jail and terribly embarrassed by the presence of his former tango partner. The encounter was repeated at supper where she stiffly informed him that breakfast depended upon his being at Mort’s house to eat it. By the third day the pair had discovered that they liked each other. Each found the other to be forgiving, playful, intelligent and cheerfully stubborn. She soon started calling Jess ‘braciszek,’(Polish for little brother), without explanation, while ruffling his hair. He was soon wishing that Iwona would quit ruffling his hair, wasn’t two inches taller, and not engaged.
Soon the perogies were ready, as was the rest of the hearty breakfast. Most of the meals that Iwona prepared for Jess were based around Perogies. Not because that was all she could cook, but because she was using him as a test subject, to discover which local game animals worked well in them, prior to her groom’s return. Jess wasn’t complaining having discovered that he had a great fondness for Perogies. He was happily to pronounce judgments upon the individual meat pastries, while Iwona lied to him about what was in them. For instance, Jess pronounced a great fondness for ‘chicken’ Perogies (actually rattlesnake) but had a tremendous dislike for ‘ham hock’ perogies (actually marmot). Today’s pronghorn perogies actually were pronghorn though she neglected to inform him that they were pronghorn liver. She had a special touch with wild ungulate livers but they had to be served extremely fresh.
Jess arrived just before the perogies hit the table, and tore into them with gusto the moment they came within reach. He pronounced them excellent. “Now get me my coffee woman!” he thundered with a smile.
“Where do you want it, in your cup or on your head?” she sassed him back as Jess got up and helped himself to more coffee. It was typical of how their breakfasts had laughingly passed. The meal was interrupted by a knock upon the door.
“Come in, please!” Iwona called.
“Morning Iwona. An urgent telegram for Jess. I figured you were still over here eating.” Ed Bradford handed the telegram over.
Jess read it quickly. “Thanks Ed,” he said then looked up, “kinda of early to be receiving isn’t it?”
“Yup. I have an auditor coming in next week and started early to double check my accounts. It was a lucky coincidence. I’m right curious how they sent this as there’s no apparatus at Carter’s Hollow. Also I didn’t recognize the hand, though whoever keyed it knew his business. He’s a lot faster than I am, and I am no sluggard,” Ed explained.
“You’ll have to ask them that when they roll in.”
“What is going on Jess?” Iwona asked.
“The stage from Virginia Dale to Cheyenne is detouring to Laramie to avoid pursuers. Here, go ahead and read the telegram.” He handed Iwona the telegram which read:
“To: Sheriff Mort Corey STOP Cheyenne stage carrying Mrs. Josh McKay detoured to Laramie at Willow Springs Station STOP McKay presumed in pursuit STOP Currently at Carter Ranch Station leaving momentarily STOP Your pa and I are the only other passengers on board STOP Escort highly desired STOP Elliot Kidd USMS STOP”
“Is this Josh McKay dangerous?” Iwona asked.
“His gang has been rampaging through Arizona and Colorado for a couple of years,” Ed supplied. “I don’t know what USMS means.”
With a growl Jess answered him, “United States Marshal Service. Elliot Kidd is a deputy United
States Marshal and is one of my jack-ass Kidd cousins from Texas.”
“Then we must go Jess, immediately,” the big brunette announced.
Jess’ jaw dropped and he shook his head emphatically, “No ‘we’ about it. You’re not coming. Mort would kill me.”
“Yes I go braciszek. Mort’s papa, my great uncle, is in danger. He is family. I go with or without you.” She turned to Ed. “Ed, I shot a pronghorn this morning. If we are gone a few days it will go bad. Why don’t you and Mattie enjoy it?”
“Sure Iwona. We’d love to.” Ed’s near sightedness kept him from hunting, so fresh venison was always a treat.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Jess interrupted. “Iwona, you tend to your pronghorn, I will tend to the stage!” he said rising, turning and fleeing out the door.
“Take the pronghorn Ed, though I would like some of the steaks.”
“Whatever you like Iwona.”
“Uh, and how about some directions to Carter’s Hollow via the stage route.”
Jess quick-timed it back to the jail and gathered up his gear. Then he headed over to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to Mort, in Cheyenne, telling him what was going on. Message off; he dashed to the livery stable for a horse. Since Traveler was being re-shod, today he borrowed an unfamiliar gray.
Iwona had beaten Jess out of town, having only to grab grub, guns and a dress. She took the dress, stuffing it into a saddle bag, since she WAS going to meet her great uncle and he might find her hunting jerkin and pants inappropriate. She made excellent time. Ed was correct, the route was pretty obvious until the road forked at an old abandoned trading post and the telegraph lines followed the less used portion. Her instincts said to follow the more heavily used route but Ed said to follow the telegraph wire. So she followed the wire. Half an hour later she found herself at the top of the waterfall at Fall’s Lake where she had a glorious view of the telegraph wire going down some 100 feet of sheer cliff, rejoining the stage coach road and heading south again. She made herself two mental notes: (1) bring Mort up here for a romantic picnic and (2) have words with Ed about his directions.
“Willy, we gotta move faster! They’re catching up right quick!” Elliot Kidd shouted at the driver.
“Boy, if I run these horses we’ll snap those spokes sure as blazes. You just hold’em off as long as you can. We’re almost to ‘Diderot’s Trading Post’ or at least what is left of it. We’ll fort up there.” Willy said with conviction while thinking, “Or at least we’ll try, but then what?” Using the coach as a fort or taking on their pursuers in the open was a sure ticket to the afterlife and Willy hadn’t lived purely enough to be sure what his just deserts were. Naturally pessimistic, he didn’t expect cake.
They had discovered why Red had a saw in his bag. He had used it to cut, partway, through several spokes on both rear wheels. Hitting a big pothole or running fast would cause the wheels to break and the coach would come to a quick stop. Elliot had found the damage when they had all had to get out and push the coach up a muddy grade. He had slipped in the mud, nearly landing under one of the damaged wheels. That was when he discovered the sabotage. Willy had two spare spokes, but Red had cut six. Willy quickly replaced the two most damaged ones. The best they could do was to travel on and hope. While Willy replaced the spokes, Mort and Elliot took Red out of the tarp and tied him sitting atop the coach, facing rearward and pointing one of the damaged spokes like a rifle. They vaguely hoped that, if it came to a running fight, their pursuers might waste a bullet or two on Red. He certainly deserved it, and wasn’t likely to complain.
It was at this point that Elliot decided to give up pretending he was a dude, figuring that if it came to a fight everybody would be better off if they knew he wasn’t a moron. He quickly told everyone the tale of who he was and why he was there. To his surprise, this made the girl more skittish in his presence. Mort had approved of Elliot’s decision and watched Candy’s response to it. When Elliot puzzled over it he simply said, “Remember the telegram mentioning Red’s pay?” and shrugged. Not wishing to look the fool, Elliot had nodded knowingly though he had no idea what Mort was talking about.
“The old trading post is, maybe 400 yards away around that bend, and…” Willy said then paused to look back at their pursuers. There were more of them, and a lot closer, than he had thought. “Dag nab it! Yah horses Yah! We make it or we don’t,” he finished urging the team to a run. The horses, well rested after the slow pace of the day, leaped forward and the stage bounced along. Everybody on board braced for the expected crash. The pursuing McKay gang went from a quick trot to a flat out gallop, pulled their guns, and the race was on.
Like Iwona, Jess had made good time on the road. The day was clear, warm, and there were few distractions along the way. He arrived at the old trading post. There wasn’t much left of it just two barn walls, part of the corral fence, a stone sided well, a stone water trough, and the four sided trading post itself (no roof, a hole where door should be, and two loopholes in each wall instead of windows).
Jess looked up at the sound of gunfire and shouting and saw the stage come heeling around the curve on two wheels. Two of the topside riders were hanging on for dear life while the third, losing both his hat and rifle, catapulted off the top of the stage. The human projectile was brought up short by ropes and silently hung while swinging wildly from side to side behind the careening coach. With a thump the stage righted, but the right rear wheel shattered. The coach fell violently upon its side and came to a sliding stop some 50 yards from the building. The driver was thrown clear, shouting something about devil’s food cake, and thudded to the ground some 20 feet beyond the stage. There he lay unmoving. The stage guard was more fortunate, jumping clear of the wreck and flattening a bush. He wound up with about a hundred bumps and scratches, but was otherwise unhurt. A moment later the man was up, out of the bush, and firing his Winchester at the horsemen now coming around the bend. The foremost rider went down and the others quickly dismounted, went to cover, then resumed firing. When the rider dropped, the guard stopped firing, glancing at his rifle a moment in surprise, shrugged, and then re-engaged.
Stage horses screamed in pain as Jess charged forward on the gray mare. The skyward facing stage door opened, and a truly lovely blonde climbed out. Two long arms followed her and then an elderly, blood splattered, and disheveled man followed. “To the building everybody! Take cover! Move NOW!” Mort Corey senior shouted shoving the slowly moving and half dazed woman off of the stage, grabbed a satchel and two long guns, and leaped off the stage; an ancient Achilles but still Achilles. He trotted heavily towards the shelter of the building heavily burdened by the gear. The woman, getting up and shaking off her daze, sprinted ahead of him while fumbling inside her handbag, panic distorting her beautiful features.
Jess hopped off his mount by the downed driver, seeing that he was unconscious but still breathing. He hoisted the portly man over his shoulder and turned to the final topside passenger, still dangling behind the wreck. A glance left no doubt as to his condition. Jess turned away carting the rotund driver and leading his horse towards the ruined building. Bullets sang around him, as he lumbered under the heavy driver’s weight, and shots pocked the building front. A rifle poked out of a loophole in the building and fired a single shot as Jess entered. He was the last one in.
Jess let his horse loose and the gray nibbled unconcernedly at some stunted weeds inside the ruined building. “Nice to see you again Jess,” called the disheveled Mort Corey senior. The old man was busy working a breech loading Sharps at a front wall loop hole. “Where’s my youngin’?”
“Howdy Mr. Corey. Mort’s in Cheyenne and left me in charge. I got Idiot’s telegram and came a running.” Turning towards Elliot Kidd, he said sourly, “Hello Idiot.” Then he gently lowered the now dead stage driver to the ground. Willy had suffered the misfortune of stopping two bullets while Jess was carrying him.
Elliot Kidd didn’t even look up from the other front loop hole, “Howdy Cousin. I didn’t know you were in Laramie, and quit calling me ‘Idiot.’ I never much liked it growing up and I like it less now. Use Elliot, or Marshal, or Hey You.”
Jess grunted non-commitally. The Kidd’s were Jess’ kin from his mother’s side. While Jess didn’t have much use for the extended Harper clan, his feelings towards them were warm and fuzzy compared to those he had for the Kidds. The high and mighty Kidds had been vocally public in their disapproval of one of their girls marrying a lowly Harper, much less producing more of them. Compounding the issue was Elliot’s youthful hobby of winning his peer’s trust and then ratting them out to authority; activities he now continued professionally. That Elliot eventually ran off and became a Union officer only iced the cake of his loathsomeness.
“You still wanted in Texas Jess?” asked Elliot while rejoining the fray with his Winchester.
Jess moved over towards the doorway after retrieving his rifle from the mare. “Nope. Like yourself, I’m not wanted in Texas.” He looked out the doorway and remnants of the ancient sill were immediately splintered by an incoming shot. He jerked back.
The barb struck home, causing Elliot to eyeball him with a very hard look. Elliot Kidd had become persona non grata, at the Kidd house, the moment he joined the Union Army. He was very bitter about this treatment feeling that he had done the South enormously more good, while in the Northern army, than he ever could have in the field. Elliot had worked his way into the northern army’s inspectorate, where he actively prosecuted competent officers, while protecting incompetent ones; manufacturing or disappearing evidence as needed. He felt that this was his most effective means of saving Confederate lives while bleeding the Union forces. Unfortunately, he could never tell anyone of these actions or he would spend the rest of his life in that new facility they were starting to build near Leavenworth Kansas. Since many of the men he had wrongfully prosecuted would also be in that facility he had no doubt that his mortal stay would be brief. Because of this, he would forever be branded a traitor to his people. Life just wasn’t fair. On the bright side, it was his stellar record as an investigator that landed him his special deputy status with the Marshal’s Service.
“Ow! Shouted Mort Senior, jumping back from his loophole while bleeding slightly from his forehead. “Dang bullet splintered and nicked me!” He went back to his firing position. “Boys, can you declare a truce until after this fray is over? Then you two can go after each other with hot knives for all I care.”
“Suits me, old timer,” replied Elliot.
“Fair enough,” Jess responded adding, “Elliot, I think they’re moving to your left.”
“Why cousin, I do believe that you are correct. Time for me to take a left wall loop. You might consider taking watch on the other side. I do hope we don’t need to cover the back too,” an observation with which Jess was in complete, though silent, agreement as he moved to a gun loop in the right wall.
Iwona was in the trees overlooking the old trading post. She was reloading the old muzzle loading Hawken. It was her shot which dropped the lead rider, confusing Elliot. The situation was not good, she counted eight to ten brigands opposing four or five good guys, (she wasn’t sure about counting the man Jess had carried in), and the woman seemed to be non-useful. If the vermin rushed the building Iwona couldn’t stop them; that would be up to the people inside.
On the positive side, nobody had shot at her yet. The chaos of the wreck and gunfire had covered the sound of her shot while the vegetation helped hide the huge tell tale plume of blue gray smoke that the Hawken always belched forth when fired. Once the road agents knew they were being sniped at they would start trying to find her and that would make accurate shooting a lot harder. Depending upon how they went about it, life could get very exciting.
As a teenager, Iwona and her grandfather had once tracked a viscous family of poachers. A deadly two day contest of sniping and counter sniping had resulted; the experience gave her nightmares for weeks. She was alive only because of her marksmanship, stamina, field craft and her grandfather’s wiliness. Since Grandpa Frederic was no more, her own wits would have to suffice.
Grimly she picked out the firing spot she would move to after taking her next shot. Grandpa had taught her to take no more than two shots from any one location. She was at very long range for the bandit’s Winchesters but those rifles could put down a lot more fire than her Hawken. It would be best that they not figure out where she was.
She finished loading and scanned the battle ground for a suitable target. Both sides were still exchanging gunfire though at a slackened pace. That was a pity since it made it more likely for her presence to be discovered. “No help for it,” she thought as she aimed through the telescopic sight.
Three bandits kept firing upon the front of the building while the rest worked their way around the sides. She sighted on a black hatted man leading the men on the left deciding to thin out that group before the building blocked her view of them. “Requiescat in pace,” she murmured absently while squeezing the trigger. The bullet took the man in the chest and he crumpled to the ground.
This time she wasn’t unnoticed. With shouts, two of the bandits pointed out her location, and the whole lot of them opened up on her. Bullets whizzed about her as Iwona hastily withdrew into the cover of the trees, and then raced to the new shooting spot some 50 yards to the right, rifle in hand and the 10 gauge slung upon her back.
Reaction inside the trading post was just as immediate. “Well, lookie there folks! We got us some help!” Elliot Kidd happily announced seeing the bandit drop with a large hole in his chest.
“What happened?” Jess asked from the right wall loop hole as he returned fire to that side.
“A guy in a black hat just bit the dust,” was the reply as every enemy rifle opened fire on someone above and behind the old trading post. “Jess, did you have the good sense to bring some help you didn’t tell us about? Instead of just lighting out here all on your lonesome?”
Jess’s heart sank to his boots. “Not that I knew of,” he sighed quietly adding, “Mort’s gonna kill me.”
The elderly Corey looked up from removing a dud round from his rifle and replacing it with one more eager to fire. “Boy, let me guess. You were followed by a beautiful, big beaked, brunette?”
Jess nodded, embarrassed.
“And you thought you were alone.”
Jess nodded some more.
“Beautiful and big beaked? That’s an unusual combination unless you are a nasophiliac.” Elliot interjected cheerfully. “Don’t know many myself.”
The senior Corey giving a theatrical sigh, ignoring Elliot, fired the round and was rewarded with a distant swearing. “Hmm. I nicked somebody but he isn’t down. Don’t worry boy, I’ll vouch for you. Her kinswoman did the same darned thing to me half a century ago. Vassa women are stubborn …. sneaky too.”
“Kinswoman? Yeah, I guess.” Jess turned back to the loophole, “Iwona said you were her uncle.”
The old man let out a surprised, “Uncle? Praise be to God! I was afraid I was her grandfather! I really wasn’t looking forward to explaining that to my youngster!”
Jess snorted in surprised amusement, “Yeah, I think that would have ruined his day.” He didn’t add, “Might have made mine though.” Instead he said, rather hopefully, “Uncle isn’t great either.”
The old man snickered, catching the hopeful tone, and let off another round. “Oh, uncle is fine. It’s by marriage not by blood. They’re in the clear that way.” Mentally he advised, “Best you go looking for a girl elsewhere.”
Outside, the impeded bandits took cover and plastered Iwonas’ old shooting position with rifle fire. Josh McKay shook his head in annoyance. He wanted to dig out Candy, and her friends, right now but a crack shot with a rifle would cut them to pieces if they tried. That sniper had to go. He turned to his right and called out, “Carp, take Gus, John, Pick and Porky and chase down that rifleman! We’ll keep Candy and company bottled up.” The first four were his steadiest men and Porky was their best tracker.
Ben Carpenter was less than pleased. Running down a sniper was nasty, dangerous work. “Ok, boss,” was all he said. “Hurry it up boys! Gus! John! Circle around. Porky, Pick follow me! We’ll meet over yonder.” He ordered waving at the tree covered hill and then took off at a run. He figured the sniper had a muzzle loader and getting under cover was the best option they had. The men followed him at a run. They used brushy cover to keep themselves from being shot at from the trading post. A minute later the three gasping men were under cover and getting their wind back.
“Boys, we do this in pairs and cover each other as we move. That rifleman is a good shot and we don’t want to give him more than one more shot at any of us. No matter what, he has got to go. Got it?” The men nodded and grumbled as they paired up. Ben was the odd man and went without a partner. This suited him fine as he meant to follow the other four and cover all of them. Not only was he safer, that way, but he was the best rifleman of the bunch. Cautiously, the five men started working their way towards Iwona’s original sniping position. Everyone kept their eyes alert and moving with each man using as much cover as possible. It was hot, tiring, and scary work. Porky McBane was the first to reach Iwona’s old position.
The fat bandit called back, “Right here Carp! There are tracks……” he was interrupted when Iwona’s shot took him in the left arm. “Arrgghhh,” he shrieked dropping his Winchester and diving for cover, “I’m hit! My arm! My arm! He done blowed off my arm!”
“Up by that big rock!” Sam Pickering (aka Pick) shouted, firing three times rapidly and the others joined in.”By gum, it’s a woman!” he cried.
“Keep her pinned Pick!” Carp shouted, “Get her boys before she can reload! She’s only 50 yards off!” Gus, John and he charged across the slope towards Iwona.
Pick fired again and looked at the wounded Porky. “Porky, you jackass! She just nicked you. Get up there and help Carp or I’ll give you something worse.”
Porky cradled his wounded arm. “I’m hit Pick, she done shot me good.”
Sam turned towards him and aimed the Winchester. “You’ve always been a whiner Porky. You just got creased. Now get moving.”
Porky looked at Pick and then at his damaged arm. Indeed, he had just been creased. The bullet had drawn a nice little red line across the back of his wrist. It wasn’t even bleeding now. Porky sheepishly picked up his rifle and ran off after the men charging Iwona’s position. Pick sighed and went back to covering the sniper. Maybe they would get lucky and somebody would shoot Porky for real.
Iwona had the fat bandit sighted in and was squeezing the trigger when she made acquaintance with a nest of irate yellow jackets. Multiple stings and bites caused her to jerk as she fired which was why Porky survived her shot. After shooting, she ducked down behind the boulder she had shot over to avoid the return fire. Swatting at the angry wasps, she quickly crawled away to a position away from the nest and behind a large recently fallen oak. Laying the Hawken on the ground, she unslung the double barreled ten gauge and waited, heart pounding, for the brigands. She had only seen three of the five men pursuing her. Since the fat one was down, she figured that only left two to come charging up here. She would finish them with the buck shot filled ten gauge and then move away and reload.
Unfortunately, reality often intrudes rudely upon the best of plans. In moments, she heard the sound of running feet fast approaching. She knelt behind her log, concealed in the big tree’s shriveling foliage. The three men rounded the boulder stopped, pistols drawn and cocked, looking wildly about for her.
“Three!” She thought. “Not good; two shots against three targets.” She let loose with the first barrel and then the second. Without checking the damage, she ducked down behind the log, grabbed her rifle and raced away in a crouch. Screams and pistol fire erupted from the ambush victims as she put as much distance as she could between herself and them. She half expected her back to feel the bite of an avenging bullet as she blundered through the face flogging foliage of the downed tree. Iwona tripped and sprawled planting her face into the hard ground and losing the empty shotgun. The resilient woman bounced up and was running without stopping to retrieve the weapon.
Gus Henry stood behind a pine tree reloading his pistols with shaking hands when Porky McBane arrived and drug the screaming John into cover. John’s guts had been hamburgered by the second shotgun blast; Porky was kind enough to put him out of his misery with a pistol shot. Carp lay nearly decapitated by the first blast. “This witch is the devil incarnate!” Gus thought frantically. Keeping to cover, Gus waved Pick up and the three men consulted. Nobody wanted to chase this witch through the woods…she was scary mean. But nobody wanted to go back down and tell Josh that, as he was scarier.
“We gotta keep going guys,” Pick finally said, “Porky, can you find her tracks?”
“You gotta be kidding! She done already ripped us twice when we followed her.”
“You have a better idea? I’m open to it.”
There was silence . “Sure as the world she is gonna shoot my butt when I’m bent over trackin’ her. “ Porky lamented.
“Gus, we gotta cover Porky as he tracks. You and I hang back with our rifles and shoot anything we even think moves.”
Gus nodded, happier at the thought that he wouldn’t be out front. Porky looked less than reassured but started to track Iwona. It was pretty easy. She was making speed and was careless about being followed. In moments they found the shotgun. That made all three men much happier. Pick pulled a hatchet from his belt and disabled the gun, tossing it aside. “Let’s get her boys. No more shotgun ambushes,” he cheerfully pointed out.
Meanwhile, outside of the ruined trading post, negotiations were being attempted. “Hail the house!” Josh McKay called while waving a handkerchief.
“What do you want?” Jess called out.
“To make you an offer.”
“We’re listening.” Elliot Kidd returned.
“I’ve got no beef with you men. Send out the girl with the money she took and we’ll go.”
“Money?” Elliot Kidd said quizzically looking over at Candice who was trying to shrink into the side of the building. “I thought you were an abused wife fleeing for her life.”
“Son, no sensible woman flees without taking the means of staying away, and with McKay involved that means money. Remember Red was promised 10 percent of what she was carrying?” Mort said, then turning to the girl, “How much is it miss, and where did it come from?”
Candice just clutched her purse, put her face down upon it, and sobbed. She was a sight to wring pity from soft male hearts.
“Where did the money come from McKay?” Mort Senior shouted back.
“What do you care? It’s mine, just like she is. She’s my wife.”
Jess walked over to Candy and took the purse. Surprisingly, she didn’t resist but simply let him have it. He opened it up and whistled, “Quite a bit here.”
“A little over $14,000,” Candice McCain said. “I was going to use it to start a new life for myself in California. Josh and the boys stole it from a bank in Santa Fe.” Jess surprised her by handing it back.
“It needs to go back Miss.” Mort said quietly.
“But what will I live on? How will I get away? I can’t go back to him! I’m pregnant!” she wailed.
At that point you could have heard a pin drop in the old ruined trading post. Mort senior was nodding. It all went together. He had wondered how this meek creature had gotten the gumption to steal a gun, horse and loot from outlaw McKay. Motherly desperation was the answer. “About two months along?” he inquired.
Candice just nodded, as her tears slackened.
Mckay heard the long quiet and nodded. Time to sow a little dissension. At the least it would unsettle Candy and it might get one or more of the men back shot. “She has $40,000 of my money and I want it back.”
“There never was $40,000,” Candy gasped.
“My information was that the Santa Fe robbery got about $16,000.” Elliott said. “Still a lot of money,” he thought.
“Santa Fe got you $16,000. Where did the other $24,000 come from McKay?” Mort called out.
McKay shrugged and then improvised. “What does it matter? We raided a dozen claims near Oro City. Killed the miners and took their piles.”
Candy was shaking her head. “Why is he lying?” she asked nobody in particular.
“Who says that he is?” thought Elliot. Jess just shrugged.
“Why missy, to get us men folk to shoot each other in the back, I reckon, or at least to make us watch each other to keep that from happening.” Mort Senior said affably, causing Elliot to start. “That’ll make killing us a whole lot easier.”
A bandit on Jess’s side started moving towards the building running from cover to cover under the distraction of the conversation. “I got movement guys,” he said. “You got anything Idiot?”
“Quit calling me Idiot, Harper.”
“Um. Sorry, old habits. You got anything ‘Hey You’?”
“Yeah, a hemorrhoid for a cousin,” he growled. “No movement over here though.”
“McKay, if you want to talk we will, but if your men keep moving up while we do, I’m gonna shoot you where you stand.” Mort said sticking his rifle back through the front loop. Mckay dove back under cover swearing loudly at Don and Patrick, whoever they were.
Jess said quietly, “We have to do something before nightfall. That’s a good many hours away so there’s no hurry. After it gets dark they’ll be able to sneak up on us. If they get next to the loop holes they can fire into the building as well as we fire out.”
“Sounds like we only have three of them on us right now. The rest are likely after my niece.” Mort replied. “It might be a good time to make a play. If we kill McKay, I bet we can run the rest off.”
“After you, sir.” Elliot said quietly. “First man through that door will get ventilated, maybe two or three times. That’s the downside of forting up in here.”
Mort grimaced, “That is a problem. No back door. Have you boys seen anybody around back?”
Both men answered no. They had kept an eye out but hadn’t seen anybody go that way. Still, somebody could have circled around.
“Miss Candy, can I get some help from you?” the old man asked.
The young woman paled and nodded without speaking. Fearful of what he was going to ask of her.
“Can I get you to watch out of a back wall loophole? We need to know if we have company back there. Don’t stand directly in front of the loop. Stand to the side. That way an unlucky shot won’t come through and get you.”
With a relieved nod she went over and started her watch. She had expected worse.
“Boys, what do you think of this? We have Candy watch for 10 minutes or so. If she doesn’t see anything then we put Willy’s hat on the end of a rifle and poke it just over the back wall. If it isn’t shot at, we then boost Willy over the wall like he is climbing out. We’ll keep him low enough so that he isn’t visible from the front. If nobody kills him again, you boys go over that wall, go left, take out the man there, and get under cover. Keep the building between you and the man on the right so that he is useless and we roll up these varmints. I’ll keep a ruckus up from here.” The old man blushed shame faced at not going himself. “I’d go myself but I don’t run well anymore, sorry.”
Elliot spoke first, “You’ve done fine until now old timer. But yeah, it took you about a day and a half to get in here from the wreck. You hold the fort. How about having Miss Candy load for you while you’re at it? That way you can use your shotgun and your rifle more quickly. Your single shot Sharps is a good rifle but slow firing.”
“I can do that Mr. Corey. I don’t shoot well, but I can do that. I want to help,” the lovely woman said eagerly while thinking, “If I help maybe they won’t send me out to Josh.” She was deathly afraid they would send her out to save their own skins, and she didn’t have many cards to play to keep them from doing so. Candy figured that her two best bets were helping in the fight and/or using sex. Counting on decency in men hadn’t worked out well for her in the past.
The elderly Mort smiled at the woman and happily replied, “I’m always glad for the help of a good and beautiful woman. Of course you can load for me. I’ll make a rumpus while you boys climb out, and then cut back on my firing until I hear one of your shots.” He then thought without voicing, “Then I shall head out the front and cut left to the stone walled well. That’s only a short run and will be a distraction.” He paused a moment, then continued, “Miss Candy, can you shoot at all?”
She looked at him doubtfully. “Well, I’m best with a pistol,” she said shakily.
Remembering her earlier pistol performance, the old man simply gave her a small twinkling eyed smile and said, “Well, maybe you had best stick to loading for me.”
Candy took comfort from Mort’s manner. “It’s a pity he is old,’ she thought, “as he is the nicest man I’ve ever met. ‘Course maybe it wasn’t a pity at all! Old men aren’t so insistent upon sex.” To Candy, sex was a chore done for a man as a matter of course, not because she enjoyed it. If a woman didn’t need a man to get buy she would have cheerfully done without either men or sex.
At this point Iwona’s shot at Porky rang out and was answered with a storm of fire from the men hunting her. Mort and Jess both turned grim when the bandit’s return fire ended. Seconds later, they both burst into wide grins when the double boom of the shotgun sounded and a much lessoned volume of return fire followed. “I do believe my future daughter-in-law is a dry-gulcher.” Mort said equably with a bobbing nod and a satisfied smile. “Mort’s letter said that she was very practical.” For luck, he plunked another shot in McKay’s direction.
Jess laughed. “Run away and fight another minute, I’d say. We played that game more than once during the war. I was a scout and sharp shooter with the 26th Texas.” He was greatly relieved to hear her fight continue.
“She seems to be a pretty good at it.” Elliot opined. Jess just nodded without answering while reloading and giving Miss Candy her 10 minutes to spot trouble out back.
Outside, McKay wanted to rush the building but currently lacked the manpower. For that he had to wait for Carp and his men to get back. Until then he would just keep Candy and her men bottled up. Anybody who tried to come through that front door was a dead man, there was no back door and gun loops are great for shooting through; not so much as an exodus point. It was time to wait. They would make their move after his men got back or after dark.
In the shade of some trees, Iwona finally stopped for a breather and to reload the Hawken. Gasping for air, while sweating profusely, the woman recovered as she looked around for another advantageous ambush point. “If they want to find me, then they shall find me and, Deo Volente, we will finish this,” she grimly reassured herself. She was vexed with herself for dropping the 10 gauge, though it was probably just as well. The shotgun would have encumbered her flight from the ambush. If they closed again she would have to rely on her two pistols; an enormous five shot .55 single action revolver willed to her by her friend Hugh and a standard single action Remington .44. Thoughts of Hugh Travis, silly/ornery man that he was, still made her sad. He had been killed in a stage holdup less than a month ago and heavens he would have been helpful now! Her best friend’s husband, Hugh had been a fearless professional gunman and bodyguard. It was he who had named, and inscribed, the big pistol “Howie the Howitzer.”
“Not a good spot here,” she thought so she continued on at a more reasonable pace while making sure she left plenty of sign to follow. She couldn’t be sure how good their tracker was.
“She went this way guys.” Porky McBane said to his companions who were discretely following 30 yards behind him. The three men frantically scanned the area ahead and to each side, rifles constantly at the ready. The trio were well beyond spooked and none of them looked forward to cornering their quarry. “Pick, you’re wrong about her being a woman. By his stride, this guy must be six to seven feet tall. Probably a huge Texas ranger come chasing after us.” Texas Rangers were the scariest lawmen Porky had ever heard of.
“Porky, aint no Texas Ranger ever had a rack like hers.” Pick answered with annoyance. He then added, “And why the blazes would a Texas Ranger be after us? We’ve never gone near Texas.”
“Keep going Porky. We got your back.” Gus Henry urged the stressed and portly tracker. Quietly he turned to Pick, “Pick, a buffalo stampede wouldn’t leave a clearer trail. Either she completely has the wind up or she’s leading us into another ambush.” He swallowed hard.
A muscle in Pick’s cheek twitched as he tensely responded in a low voice, “Yeah. I think it’s another ambush too. We have to hope she misses or kills Porky. Josh is all wound up so going back, with her still running around, is even more dangerous than hunting her. I think I’m done with this line of work after we make our split.”
“I don’t know about that, but I’m heading to the nearest town, finding a busty and compliant whore, getting stinking drunk, and using her for a week.” Gus Henry suddenly snapped his Winchester to the left and let fly striking a tree some 80 yards out.
“What?” Pick likewise jerked around.
Gus jacked in another round and replaced the spent one. “Sorry, I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I’m a little jumpity.”
“Yeah, me too. “ Pick replied and then called out loudly. “Porky get up and track!” Their heroic tracker had dove into a bush at the sound of the shot.
Iwona heard the shot and looked back. There they were some 500 yards away. That was a very long shot, but she could make it. There were two of them. No wait, three of them. The fat one was climbing out of a bush in front of the other two. “What was he doing in a bush?” she thought, and was vexed at seeing that her earlier, yellow jacket interrupted, shot had been a clean miss.
She looked around. Some two hundred yards ahead was the top of a rise lush with trees and brush. Splendid! Plenty of cover AND if they charged her they would have to run UP the hill. That would slow them. She made for the spot walking carefully so as to not leave any sign. Hopefully, they would momentarily mill about where her tracks disappeared.
Iwona trudged up the moderately steep slope and picked two spots 30 feet apart, with easy access to each other, behind cover. She would make her stand here. She looked down at the ambush point. The men would get there in a minute or so. She would take out one of the pair in the rear so that, if they charged her, they wouldn’t arrive at the same time. If she missed that shot she would run and try again later. She took her firing position and waited, tense and with a pounding heart.
Porky McBane was even unhappier than his companions. He was out front and that evil Texan was a crack shot! Sweating profusely, from fear and exertion, the fat man tracked on….when the tracks just ended. He looked around frantically and caught the flash of sunlight off of something shiny ahead and upslope. Then he saw the tell tale gout of blue smoke from the ranger’s rifle. He dove behind a tree shrieking “Duck boys!” in a high falsetto, hearing a moment later, a sickening smack and the deep boom of the shot. Behind him one of his companions hit the ground. Porky turned around and felt sick to his stomach. Pick wouldn’t be threatening him anymore, as the top of his head was gone.
All of Porky’s fatigue vanished. He raised his rifle and emptied it in the direction of the shot, then ran back the way he came like the devil herself was after him! Gus Henry had already preceded him. Both bandits were done with witch hunting.
Iwona saw her shot strike home and was out of her shooting spot in a flash. She sprinted towards her second ambush point so the expected return fire didn’t come anywhere near her. After taking cover in the new spot, she looked out and saw the surviving bandits fleeing in the other direction! Iwona sighed and then laughed with relief, sitting down in a surge of weakness as the excitement of the running battle passed from her system. She was grateful that they broke as she wasn’t nearly as confident in her pistol work as she was with either the rifle or a shotgun. She really must work on that more if her life, as a Laramie sheriff’s wife, was going to be filled with these episodic adventures. Besides, pistol practice with Mort inevitably turned quite romantic. She giggled, “Behave yourself wench!” she happily chided herself at the thought.
Regaining her composure, Iwona realized that there was no guarantee that this was the end. She had no interest in catching the last pair of her pursuers. Heavens, like as not they would run all the way back to that old building, grab their horses, and race them to somewhere over the horizon. Unfortunately, that still left whoever was trying to kill Uncle Mort, Jess and the others. She had heard intermittent gunfire, from back at the old trading post, throughout her running battle so fighting was still going on back there. There was another shot now! Wujeck (Polish for uncle) and braciszek were still in danger, Iwona thought as she stood up, took a drink from her canteen, and started back. “Best move carefully, in case those two sprinters try to set an ambush of their own,” she decided. ”I shall also stop at the newest corpse and claim his Winchester and bullets. I’d rather use it than the pistols if it comes to close quarters fighting.” With grim intent, and a determined stride, she set out.
The standoff at the trading post continued. “Candy, have you seen anything back there?” Jess asked while taking yet another plink at the bandit on his side.
“No Jess. Nothing yet.”
“I think it’s time we move then.” Elliot opined. Then he took his hat, put it on the end of his rifle and bobbed it up and down behind the rear wall. No response. “Cousin, give me a hand with Willy. It’s gonna take both of us to make his movement look realistic.”
Jess picked up the dead driver and the pair boosted him up to peer over the back wall. Then they slowly worked him over the wall (until he fell). There was no reaction.
“Boys, before you try, take a few more pot shots out of your loops,” Mort Senior said. He continued, “We want them to go as long as possible before they get curious about why everything suddenly got all quiet on the sides.”
Both men nodded and went back to their loop holes. Jess fired off two quick shots and then a third. He reloaded quickly and headed to the back wall. Elliot fired two single shots and was rewarded with a scream of pain and tremendous cussing. Firing picked up immediately on both sides and at the front.
“Jess, let’s move to your side. I don’t know where I hit my guy but a wounded man is less inclined to move around….or come to a comrade’s aid.” Jess and Mort nodded in agreement. With a grin, Elliot joined Jess who pantomimed putting a bullet in a rifle.
“Oops.” Elliot said and quickly reloaded. By the time he finished, Jess was up, over and down on the outside. Moments later Elliot joined him. The pair ran into the trees behind the building and circled under the cover. As they moved they could hear the old timer picking up his firing tempo, and then they heard him shout in pain. Apparently he had been wounded but the old gent, after a short pause, kept the rate of gunfire up. Spurred on by the shout, the bandits poured heavy fire into the building sending the odd bullet inside through the firing loops.
The two lawmen quickly worked their way through the woods. The old man couldn’t keep up the fire forever – especially since at any moment he might die from that last wound. In a minute they came up behind Jess’s old opponent, reloading his Winchester. Elliot immediately raised his rifle but Jess put out his hand and shook his head. “Cover him and watch. Shoot if he turns,” Jess whispered. Then, rifle in hand, he quietly worked his way towards him.
The bandit straightened up, when Jess was only 20 feet away, and immediately took another shot at the building. Jess continued forward and, as the man sighted again, he slammed his rifle butt into the back of the man’s’ head. Patrick might as well have been pole axed, he went down so hard. Jess flashed his cousin a grin who responded with a look and upturned palms mouthing “Why bother?”
“Danged idiot!” Jess said under his breath waving Elliot over. The marshal came over at a fast trot. “Because, now they don’t know their man isn’t here! You stay here and I’ll circle around and take out McKay. If you get a clean shot at him you take him out. He won’t be taking cover from this direction like he does from the building!”
Elliot grinned and nodded. Jess moved out in McKay’s direction. A few moments later Elliot put a round in the unconscious bandit’s heart. Nobody could tell the shot hadn’t been at the building and now he wouldn’t have to worry about the man waking up….ever. He followed after Jess, keeping a sharp eye out in case McKay cared to give him a clean shot.
Mort’s scream incited action inside the old trading post as well as out.
“Candy, I’m fine. Really! That scream was pure theater! It’s helping to keep those men’s attention and to concentrate their fire on us, making things safer for Jess and Elliot. Really, hon I’m fine.” The old man said trying to calm the beautiful woman who was now tangled about him. He hadn’t given her a thought before spontaneously acting, and if he had, he’d have bet that she would simply curl up in a ball and whimper. Instead, he found her wrapped around himself emoting fear filled, and comforting reassurances. She had to stop this, for while he was highly flattered that she cared for him this much, (she being such an extraordinarily attractive bundle and his copious male ego being vintage rather than defunct), he couldn’t use his shotgun this way. Further complicating matters, she wasn’t listening and her fear had lent her surprising strength. The gent was having the devils own time breaking loose without hurting or offending her (the latter being both unkind and improper). “Distressed damsels can be most adhesive,” Mort thought randomly.
What Mort didn’t realize was that the blood, lightly trickling from where the bullet fragment had nicked his forehead earlier, had mixed with his sweat. The resulting gore was trailing down his face most convincingly. It was great theater and thoroughly undermined his efforts to calm the woman. In frustration, he finally settled things by grabbing her and planting a ferocious kiss upon her lips. Most startled she released him and, laughing nervously, said, “Well, if you have that on your mind you can’t be hurt too badly.” Then she moved away from him and back to the unloaded rifle she had dropped.
Mort couldn’t know that Candy was as surprised he, and more than a little confused, by the strength of her reaction. She thrust thoughts of it aside, focusing upon the task at hand, and got back to loading despite her still shaking hands. Mort would fire the rifle, reload, fire it again then she would hand him the reloaded 12 gauge and she would load the rifle. He would fire the shotgun and she would reload the rifle. He always fired the rifle from the left hand loop and the shotgun from the right hand loop (on the front of the building) doing his best to impersonate two shooters.
Getting back to business, Mort was getting concerned. Elliot and Jess were taking forever to get into action. Then he realized that the firing on the right had stopped completely. That was either very good or very bad. He needed some eyes over there. “Candy, go over to Jess’ loop and keep watch. I’ll have to load. We have to know if the bandit over there is down or is sneaking up on us. “
“I’ll shout if I see him Mort.”
“Good girl. Watch from off to the side now, hon,” he reminded her.
Mort turned towards the loop and caught a glimpse of something move outside the nearer left wall loop. He spun and let fly with both barrels of the 12 gauge and was rewarded with the extremely messy demise of the gunman on that side. The man had just put his pistol barrel in the loop when the seven inch buck shot spread pulverized his hand and face. “Another one down!” Mort thought exultantly.
Jess worked his way around to where he could see McKay. The man was covered on three sides, including the back. To get a good shot he would need to either get almost on top of him, or work to his right. Then he saw a gunman, the one they thought Elliot had hit, next to the building putting his pistol into the loophole. Jess raised his rifle for a desperate snap shot when Mort’s twelve gauge did its grisly work.
“Patrick!” he heard McKay shout over in Elliot’s general direction. “Get back here! They got Don.” A pause then, “Patrick?” Elliot fired and pinged a bullet off a rock a scant two inches from McKays’ head. The bandit dove deeper into cover.
Jess moved quickly to his right then, when he looked back at McKay, saw that Mort Senior was outside and taking cover at the well. The old man raced (well, for him it was racing though for Jess it would be loping) to the barn wall. The old gent had timed it well as McKay was in the middle of re-loading.
Fear surged through McKay and he wanted out! He was alone now. Somehow the men in the trading post had snuck out and killed Patrick. Then Don went and got his face blown off. One guy was off to his left shooting at him and he had caught a glimpse of a second man, dressed in blue, behind him and working to his right. Now that old fart was out of the building and working towards him. His best bet would be to move right, kill the one in blue, and make for the horses.
The bandit leader moved towards Jess and was surprised that he wasn’t shot at by the man in red on his left. “Got lucky,” he thought, “he must be reloading.” McKay moved quickly and quietly, but not quietly enough, after Jess. Jess heard the bandit moving around a tree, and snapped off a quick shot forcing the man back into cover. McKay’s return shot likewise missed, then the pair exchanged two more. Mckay tried to back away and put more distance between them. Seeing this, Jess stooped, and moved to his left keeping brush between himself and the outlaw. When Jess rounded the bush he pivoted and fired. He caught McKay in the open, and his shot doubled the man up, dropping him.
Jess stood up reloading his lowered rifle, and grinned fiercely at Elliot as he came up. “Mort got the other one.”
“Did he? Good.” Elliot responded, and then turned his cocked rifle on his very surprised cousin. “Drop the rifle. I don’t like killing kin but I will drop you right now if you don’t lose the gun.”
Jess dropped his Winchester. “What the devil Elliot? Why?”
Elliot snickered, “Why for the money, of course. 40,000 reasons or 14,000 if McKay was lying. Plus the reward on McKay and some of the others.”
“You’ll never get away with it, unless you kill us all,” Jess said with a look of disgust.
“Well, you’re no loss. Now the old man, yeah, I hate that but he’s been a lawman about zillion years. I like the geezer but he won’t go along with it. He’ll have to die in the gunfight…just like you. I might be able to keep the girl. She’s pretty weak spirited and would make a fine…..plaything. We’ll see.”
“I knew you for a traitor and a jerk, Idiot,” Jess scoffed, “but I never figured you for a murderer.”
Elliot surprised Jess by laughing. “Shows just how little you know. I’m no traitor. I fooled everybody and worked for the cause by eliminating competent and protecting incompetent, northern officers. Besides, this isn’t murder. Murder is killing somebody outside of the law.” He laughed, “I am the law!”
As Elliot monologued, Jess frantically sought for a distraction to allow him time to draw his side arm. While drawing down on someone who had the drop on you was usually a one way ticket to Boot Hill, Jess figured that he currently had nothing to lose by trying. He was a bare fraction of a moment from making his play, distraction or no, when the sound of gunfire re-erupted near the old trading post. Porky and Gus had arrived and were exchanging fire with Old Mort who had taken cover behind a barn wall.
Elliot’s eyes barely glanced in the direction of the gunfire, allowing Jess just enough time to get his iron half-way out of the holster. The distraction hadn’t been enough and the corrupt lawman’s hand tightened on the rifle’s trigger. Then Elliot staggered back, collapsing while firing and a red circle appeared on his chest. The shot went wide taking a bit of Jess’ shirt sleeve with it- the part between his chest and arm.
Jess finished his draw, as his cousin fell, thinking, “that old man just made one heck of a timely shot.” He sprung forward and saw that Elliot was down for good. “What happened?” the corrupt and dying marshal asked weakly, a truly ugly sucking sound coming from his bleeding chest.
Jess didn’t answer; he simply holstered his pistol and recovered his dropped rifle. He then turned to repay the old timer with some badly needed help, while leaving the Idiot’s question for the devil to answer. Jess assessed the situation on the fly. Bloodied Mort Senior, with his 12 gauge, was holding off two men armed with Winchesters. Jess thought it was awfully long shooting for the 12 gauge until he saw a huge hunk fly from the fat bandit’s tree. Mort was using slugs in his long barreled shotgun. Still, the brigand’s Winchesters gave them the reach advantage.
Jess rapidly went from cover to cover until he put the building between himself and the bandits. Then he charged in as fast as he could. Gasping, he made it to the corner of the building and looked around. The fat bandit was working over to Mort’s left, while the other kept the wounded old timer pinned. Jess sighted and fired. Gus Henry dropped clutching his shoulder and Porky found himself standing out in the open with Jess’ rifle leveled at him. The fat man dropped his rifle shrieking, “Don’t shoot. I give up.”
“Me too,” called out the wounded Gus, tossing his Winchester aside then clutching his throbbing shoulder.
Mort Corey stood up, a tired and relieved grin upon his blood smeared face. “You alright Jess?” he inquired.
“I’m fine Mr. Corey. Not a scratch. You better sit back down. You look a mess,” answered the Texan. “I can handle these two.”
“With two of us they won’t try anything and I’m fine. What do you mean a mess?” He looked himself over quickly. “Nothing wrong with me a laundry won’t fix. Does Laramie have a decent laundry?” The old asked with concern as clothes were expensive.
“Yes, you gonna have’em put your head in a bucket and run your nose through a wringer? Your face is covered in blood,” Jess answered cheekily.
The old marshal put his hand to his face, and when it came away red he let out a whistle. “No wonder Candy went a little berserk. She must have thought I was killed when I let out that shriek. Finest theatrical shriek I’ve ever managed, and now the audience is mostly dead. What a pity.” Mort put down his shotgun, pulled his pistol and commenced mopping his face with his kerchief while still helping Jess cover their prisoners.
“Let me do that,” a lyrical contralto said from their left.
Mort looked over and gasped, “Pookie!” Then he shook his head. The resemblance was uncanny but Pookie wouldn’t still look like that after over 50 years.
Jess smiled and without taking his eyes off of the prisoners said, “Hi Iwona, followed me out I see. Are you alright?” All the while thinking, “Mort is still gonna kill me.” It was a phrase he was beginning to find repetitive.
“Some scratches, and I now really hate Yellow bees. No, I didn’t follow; I got here first but took wrong turn at building. I wound up at the falls and had to come back,” she answered. She turned smiling, towards Mort, and walked over to him setting down both of the rifles she carried. She pulled out her nearly empty canteen, took his kerchief, dampened it, and started cleaning his face. “Hello Great Uncle! I am your grand niece. Grandfather Frederic said I resembled Aunt Marochka, when she was young, but I am Iwona not ‘Pookie.’” She smiled, “I cannot believe she liked that pet name.”
“You may be right. She certainly didn’t tolerate anyone else using it,” he laughed. “She had a pet name for me but I could never get her to translate it. When I asked what it meant, she would just laugh, kiss me and change the subject.”
Intrigued, Iwona asked, “What was it?”
The old timer told her and she listened wide eyed. Holy Cow! She had never heard her Aunt use such language! “It means roughly the same thing,” she lied. Then she asked, “Do you still love her?” quickly changing the subject with the first thing that came to mind.
The genial gent thought, “It does nothing of the sort, my dear.” He chose not to call her out on the untruth. Instead he replied smiling, “It’s has been a very long time my dear, but in a small way yes. I love all my departed wives. Well except one, and that’s another story. Is Pookie still alive? That would make me a bigamist three times over!” He asked with amusement. “I was told, long ago, that she was dead in a Spanish massacre.”
“An officer named Ramirez said the same of you. It caused her to miscarry, I fear. She was eventually deported back to Ruritania. She passed on about ten years ago. I’m sorry. She was like a mother to me.”
Mort scowled fiercely, “Ramirez is the same man who told me of her death. If I hadn’t seen him killed by cannon fire, I would go back down there and fire him out of one!” Then he sighed, though it now seemed recent, it had all happened half a century ago. The baby’s death didn’t really touch him since he had thought it dead with her so long ago. Later that would change, as he thought upon the matter, but it didn’t currently affect him.
Turning to Jess, Mort asked, “Jess, where is Elliot? I take it he didn’t make it.”
“What do you mean Mort? You shot him or I wouldn’t be here. Good thing you had slugs for that shotgun. Still it was an amazing shot given the range,” he said with tremendous respect.
Shaking his head and getting Iwona to cluck at him to hold still, Mort replied “No I didn’t Jess. I lost track of the two of you when you left. I only see blurs at a distance and so I can’t tell one man from another. That’s why I left the Sharps in the building.”
Iwona finished cleaning up Mort’s face, then commenced cleaning and bandaging his wound. “Did he hold rifle on you, and have a red shirt?” she asked Jess.
“Yes Iwona, over there,” Jess answered waving vaguely towards the dead body.
“I made that shot,” she said with pride. “That is the longest shot I’ve ever taken. On that one I asked Saint Jude for help. Jude is my friend and came through for me.“
Old Mort gave a little laugh, “Pookie always said he was her favorite cousin, and that he looked after his own. I always found that at odds with her claim to being a Free Thinker. When I pointed that out to her she gave me my as-yet-untranslated-pet name.” He continued with a smile while eying the Hawken, “Even so you must have a pretty good rifle.”
Iwona laughed, “Aunt Marochka said her true love made her stay close to Saint Jude. She said she had never known another man so adept at getting into trouble.” Then she walked over and picked up the Hawken and handed it to the old gent, her tone becoming very respectful, “No, Wujeck. You have a good rifle. It has changed a little, but I return it for Aunt Marochka. This is your old rifle.” She showed him the ‘M.C. 1820’ inscription on the gun butt.
“Percussion now and with a fancy scope.” The old man took the gun with a look of shock. Touching the rifle brought home his old loss of Pookie and his continued connection to her through this lovely and strapping woman standing next to him. “Sure enough, this is my old rifle. Pookie loved shooting it and would abscond with it whenever she could. I usually would wind up using my Baker.” Suddenly the old man grabbed Iwona in a fierce double armed hug.
“You’re not Pookie, you’re Iwona my grand niece, who is soon to be my beloved daughter. Girl, welcome to the Corey family.” Both wound up with teary eyes and neither was the slightest bit embarrassed.
They took hours gathering up the bodies, rounding up horses, and getting back to Laramie. A relieved Sheriff Mort Corey, Junior, along with Slim Sherman and four other deputies met them on the road into town. They eventually wound up at the jail; an unlikely place for a celebration of life, but utterly appropriate given the number of lawmen present.
Candy McCain was the only one feeling out of place amongst the family and friends. She wandered outside feeling alone and sat in the rocker the sheriff kept on the porch. Here she was friendless, amongst strangers, pregnant, and broke with naught but the clothes upon her back. The $14,700 was in the bank and would be heading back to Santa Fe. She knew she had no chance of keeping it once the lawmen found out about it. Across the street lay a noisy saloon and she dreaded having to go back and work in one of those. The only good thing was that Josh was gone.
“Mind some company Candy?” Mort Senior inquired.
She started, as lost in self pity she had not heard him walk up, “Sure Mort, but your family will miss you.”
“Well, you were missed. I thought I might fetch you back, but would you mind our talking a minute out here in the cool night air.”
“Sure Mort. Anything you like,” the woman answered listlessly.
“Worried about the future?” he asked.
“Dreading it.” She nodded towards the saloon. “A woman alone, with no money, and nobody? You know where they usually wind up.”
Mort smiled unexpectedly, “And not just serving drinks either. Yup. But not you, hon.” She looked up at the man, startled. “I’ve just finished talking with Iwona and Jess. Like me, Jess won’t take a bounty. That leaves the $2,000 for McKay, the $500 each for Pickering and Carpenter and the $20 for McBane to split between you and Iwona. Also, the bank in Santa Fe offered a $1,500 reward for the $15,000 stolen from it. They’ll probably give you $1,470. I figure that will give you nearly $3,000 cash money.”
Candy sighed. The money was a great relief and would keep her out of saloons. Oddly, she still felt miserable and alone. “Thank you Mort. You and Mr. Harper are very generous.” She reached out a hand to the gentleman, so kind and so violent. It was funny how he looked noble, rather than old, in the starlight.
Mort took the hand and continued. “I also thought you might come to Denver with me. With that cash you could settle for a spell and figure out what you want to do. Denver is a fine city.”
Reading between the lines, Candice McCain felt her heart go flop. Was she really hearing what she thought she was hearing? All of her listlessness disappeared, and the pair stayed outside, holding hands, for far longer than for just a few minutes.
Mort Corey Junior, every bit as honest, genial, and scheming as his sire, listened to their conversation and intercepted his bride-to-be as she went out to collect the missing pair. “Leave them alone dear. Pa is in the midst of negotiating with the future Mrs. Corey number six. Though I’m not sure he realizes that quite yet.”
Iwona snuck a peek out, “Why say you that dearest?” she whispered taking her man’s hand.
Mort Junior chuckled quietly, “Because Pa is a natural born rescuer as well as the biggest flirt in the West. She is beautiful, rather sweet, and looking forlorn and alone. Yup, Pa’s caught the Frisky again.”
Iwona looked up at Mort, confused. “’Caught the Frisky?’ I do not know phrase.”
Mort Junior gave her a devilish look saying, “Then let’s sneak out and go home. I’ll show you there.”
Iwona smiled slowly, stepped in very close and gave him a warm, tender, and lingering kiss, “After the wedding you rogue.” Mort’s suggestion was universal to all languages and had required no translation.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Pat for much beta work and most especially for correcting a serious storyline flaw in the final confrontation between Elliot and Jess.
The original story had 10 foot notes that raised cane with the site. For interested parties:
1. Yes the Tango. The Tango is over 150 years old so in 1874 it has been around over 14 years.
2. Wspanialy is Polish for ‘wonderful.’
3. Sarah was Mort’s deceased first wife.
4. Kimchee is a Korean pickled vegetable dish and is frequently made with cabbage.
5. Rotten. Original term used was Punky.
6. Braciszek is Polish for ‘Little brother.’
7. Requiescat in pace is Latin for ‘Rest in Peace.’
8. Deo Volente is Latin for ‘God Willing’.
9. Wujeck and braciszek are, respectively, Uncle and Little brother in Polish.
10. In 2010 terms, the value of Candice’s share of bounties/rewards would be $56,571.12. Thank you www.westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi for the calculation.