With many thanks to my lovely wife Pat for patience and skill in editing this story for me.

Galaraga’s Gold

Chapter I – Sunday in Laramie

 

Spring sunshine drenched the buildings of Laramie as birdsong sailed gently upon the breeze.  Abruptly, the peaceful calm was shattered by choruses of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise God!” exploding from the open windows of the First Raptured Baptist Church. Inside, the quietly deistic Doctor McFarland attended to the fourth churchgoer to suffer the vapors. “Thank God guest preachers are few and far between. Especially ones like this Jones; eloquent, persuasive, and animated men who spit fire and fart brimstone,” he thought grumpily.  “Reverend Linkous’ sermons are never this troublesome.”

Eventually the closing hymn was sung and the congregation filed out…some more hastily than others. Slim Sherman and Jess Harper meandered out in the middle of the pack.

“Jess, I’ll see you back at the ranch. Marcy wants some help at the store,” the big blonde said to his dark haired partner.

Jess eyed his partner with amusement then replied, “She said something about closing for inventory today.”

The big man nodded with guilty discomfort as time with Marcy meant less time getting things done at home, “Yeah, I said I would pitch in and help.”

The smaller Texan flashed back a sly grin. “Well, just ‘keep today’s sermon in mind’ is all I have to say,” Jess teased, “Mike and I will take care of things.” Slim blushed, nodded his thanks, and hastily made for the store. Laughing quietly, Jess figured it unlikely that either Marcy or Slim would be pondering the visiting pastor’s sermonizing.

“Mr. Harper!” an unpleasantly familiar voice shrilled from the steps of the church. “I wish to speak with you.” Arena Linkous, Laramie’s self appointed matron of morality, deaconess of decency, arch champion of temperance, and all around general annoyance bustled down to Jess.

Stifling a grimace, Jess kept his face pleasant and turned to face another onslaught concerning his moral short comings. “Mrs. Linkous,” he nodded, “what can I do for you ma’am?”

The hatchet faced harridan stepped forward, predatorily smiled, and took Jess’ hand. “Let me introduce you to the Reverend Jones. He wishes to have a word with you.” Caught by surprise, Jess let her get hold of him and lead him back into the nearly empty church.

“L.Q.! I caught him before he rode back out,” she victoriously called as they  re-entered the building. In a moment they approached the white haired and elegantly thin form of the visiting sermonizer. Jess gave him a quick once over as he walked up. The man was a bit over 6 feet and sported a white mustache. His casually lined face had seen much life, and Jess placed him between 40 and 60 years old. The good reverend seemed less imposing now than during his broadly gesticulated sermon when he seemed to be the size of a bear, possessed a voice of thunder, and had eyes that blazed with a palpable and infectious fervency. At the height of the sermon, Jess had randomly wondered if the man had been a snake oil salesman prior to becoming Holy.

 “Jess Harper, this is the Reverend L.Q. Jones. L.Q., this is Jess Harper. Guide and gunfighter,” Arena intoned formally, sunny acceptance showering the reverend while distinct disapproval was Jess’ share.

The visiting minister offered him his hand intoning, “Pleased to meet you Mr. Harper.”

Shaking hands Jess replied, “Likewise reverend, though I’m an ex-gunfighter. Mostly I ranch now.”Arena contributed an unladylike snort.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Harper. I have need of a guide, and you come highly recommended. Let us talk.” The man gestured towards the front pew and the two men sat down. Mrs. Linkous departed saying, “I’ll leave you two alone in here and tend to Cora.”

“Cora?”Jess asked, knowing that there was no Cora in the Linkous household.

The reverend grimaced, “Cora Jones is my niece and she accompanies me on this venture. Let me explain, though first I need your word that you will keep my words in confidence.”

“Certainly Reverend, but how do you know that can you trust me to keep your secrets? You don’t know me at all,” Jess asked.

The reverend shrugged, ‘No I don’t. But I’ve heard good things about you… though you also appear to be a bit of a sinner. Yet what man is perfect?” Surprised, Jess nodded. In his experience Arena Linkous never had anything good to say about any male that lived like a man. That woman lived to harp on other folk’s short comings. Or at least what she considered short comings, Jess mentally amended.

The reverend spoke on in great detail, never using one word when twenty were available. He was a man that gloried in the sound of his own voice and was forever giving God his due.  Jess summarized his words as follows. He was originally a Colorado ‘59er by way of Texas. He had mined, law dogged in Denver, and been part of the militia during the Colorado war. A highlight of the last was being clubbed down, by an officer of his own side, while trying to avert the Sand Creek Massacre. More recently, he had retired and become a preacher who tended to congregations in Texas and the Nations.

About a year previously, a Spanish map to a lost mine came into his possession. He had come to Laramie preparatory to heading into northern Colorado where the mine was shown to be. The reverend meant to find it and use the resulting wealth to found a holy and virtuous community.

“L.Q.,” by now Jess and the reverend were on a first name basis, “there are a lot of fake treasure maps out there. I’ve seen half a dozen, myself.”

The reverend shrugged, “It’s very old, in Spanish, and is purported to have been drawn up by a man named Francisco Galaraga. I checked with a Catholic friend in Mexico City. It turns out that Galaraga was an especially unpleasant Spanish explorer who disappeared back in the 1600s. Besides, I knew the woman who gave it to me. She believed in it.” With that the minister pulled out a map case and extracted a map.

Jess looked at it, “This isn’t your treasure map,” he said.

“Nope,” the lanky minister responded. “Just a modern map with stuff transcribed onto it. That old map is frail and falling to pieces. I don’t like to take it out.”

Jess smiled and snorted a laugh, “Besides which, this only shows part of the route to the mine and not its location. L.Q., I do believe you are being more careful than I originally thought.”

L.Q. Jones smiled, relieved that Jess had taken the precaution so mildly. “I’m a minister Jess, not a fool. Glad you’re not angry.”

Jess shook his head with a shrug, “Doesn’t bother me any.” He re-extended his hand and they re-shook, “Sure I’ll guide you and Cora. I hope you have good cold weather gear, though. This isn’t Texas.”

Reverend Jones shrugged, “I was a‘59er. Though I left Colorado to get away from the cold, I know how to deal with it.”

“Tell me about Cora,” Jess began. “You know that Colorado is rough, and the men are rougher. It might be best to leave her here in Laramie. You could send for her later. I’m sure Arena would put her up.”

L.Q. Jones’ eyes took on a look of sadness and pain, “No, she’ll be coming. On her deathbed, I promised my sister-in-law that I would look after her until she decided upon her path in life.”

“Morning Pard,” Jess greeted Slim as the latter came in from milking the cows. “Didn’t hear you come in last night,” he added archly after noting that Slim was still in his Sunday clothes.

The big blonde shook his head, tiredly thudding into a chair. “After you told us that you were heading out for at least two weeks, Marcy insisted that we spend the day together.” Slim abruptly laughed, “To my gal, a day includes walking and looking at the stars all night. By the time I got home I didn’t bother coming in.”

Jess smiled as he stretched, got up and moved over to the coffee pot on the stove, “I’m glad she is feeling better. The flu really takes it out of people.”

Slim nodded, “It does but at least this outbreak was mild. Nobody died, and most folks have been quick to get well. Oh, and we’ll be getting the telegraph back up soon. Ed is on the mend.”

“That’s good. You never know you miss something until you don’t have it for a couple of weeks.”

Jess poured them both some coffee, “I’m not leaving until tomorrow. Reverend Jones wants to hang around and help the equally Reverend Linkous today. Then we will head out. Why don’t you get some sleep and join me in chores later?”

Slim shook his head, “I’m fine, Jess. Have you met Cora yet?”

The dark haired man nodded and sipped his coffee, “Yeah, she’s right pretty. Straight black hair, dark eyed, early to mid twenties, some Indian or Asian in her parentage. She was polite enough, but reserved when her uncle was in sight.”

“When he was in sight?”Slim asked cocking his head with a knowing smile.

 Jess snorted a laugh, “Yup. When he ran out to the outhouse she became much more sociable. Shoot, she started sparking me. That ended as soon as he was back…and he surely didn’t waste any time doing his business.”

The big blonde grimaced, “That spells trouble,” to which the Texan simply nodded. Slim continued, “So where are you going? You wouldn’t tell us yesterday.”

Jess shook his head, “Sorry Pard, I promised not to tell anybody. This much I’ll say. I bet it’s a fools’ errand.”

“Then why go?” the taller man asked curiously.

“Because the fool is taking a pretty young girl, and I can already smell plenty of trouble waiting along the way.” He paused before adding, “Besides, I like them.”

Chapter 2 – Keeping up with the Joneses

The first two days of travel were marked by good spring weather. Jess was mounted while the other two rode the mule drawn wagon. Throughout their journey, the reverend waxed eloquent about his planned holy community and how it would serve as a shining beacon to guide others to the Promised Land. The laws there would be based upon Christian tenets with land and goods held in common, and everyone working towards the common good. “It will be heaven, “he sighed rapturously, “So we’ll call it Zion.” Jess held his piece figuring that it would more closely resemble the infamous land in the opposite direction.

            Cora said little as they travelled, but was extremely friendly during their stops; especially when the reverend was not present. The evening of the second night saw the exhausted preacher go to sleep immediately after dinner. As the man’s snoring filled the camp, Jess was less than surprised when Cora crept near and sat down so close that their arms brushed.

            Speaking in low voices, so as not to disturb their sleeping companion, they discussed the trip and the things they had seen. Throughout their chat, Jess was keenly aware that the young woman was slowly leaning in closer and closer. “Dad gum breeze,” he finally said, “the smoke from the fire is about to come this way,” and with that he moved 90 degrees around the fire and sat back down. Inwardly amused, he resumed talking about a fox they had seen that morning. Hiding her vexation, Cora followed him and sat back down. Her leaning recommenced immediately.

            “Cora, how did you come to travel with your uncle?”Jess asked amid the rest of the small talk.

            “Why Jess, whatever are you talking about?” she answered while gazing up at him soulfully, “I’m L.Q.’s concubine,” she answered disinterestly.

            “His what?”Jess answered, startled. “Does concubine mean what I think it means? I mean I’ve heard it from the bible and all.”

            “Yes, it does. I was sold to him,” she said simply. “He takes care of me…and I ….serve him. In Zion, all men will be allowed concubines. They’re in the bible so the Reverend says it’s alright.”

            Momentarily flustered by the turn of the conversation, Jess went silent. Finally he spoke, “He can’t own you. That’s not right. Besides, it’s against the law.”

            “Sure he does, he bought me and that’s that. I could run off, but what then? Become a prostitute? That’s worse than being a concubine. At least the reverend only beats me when I’m bad.” Then her voice dropped to a sultry whisper, “I should say, only when he CATCHES me being bad,” whereupon a startled Jess found Cora in his lap kissing him.

            Instinctively tightening his arms around the girl, Jess kissed her back. Then realizing what was happening, he gently picked her up, set her aside, and shook his head, “Not a good idea girl, you’ll get into a passel of trouble if we keep that up.”

            Cora hugged her arms to herself, looking up at the Texan with hurt in her wide eyes. “I don’t mind trouble. Without risking trouble I would have nothing. I just wanted you to know that I like you. You’re really nice and all…” and with that she let out a sob and left the campfire, “Good night,” she choked out as she went to the wagon for the evening.

            Watching her go, Jess was awhirl with emotions. Charges and accusations echoed and re-echoed inside the courtroom of his skull. What a great man he was! A sweet young girl… well maybe not a sweet girl, he corrected. A beautiful young woman throws herself at him and what does he do? Turns her down, tramples her feelings and generally makes her feel bad. Well done Harper. The poor thing is trapped, lonely, and miserable. What could he do to help? Danged if he knew.

Though not liking to admit it, the Texan wasn’t exactly sure what a concubine was. However, given the begats that generally followed their sermonized names, he knew that they did more than cook, and that when bible men “knew” them that it went well beyond a neighborly “hello.” He moved over to his own bedroll and made ready for sleep while mulling over the situation. Before he slept he decided that he and L.Q. would be having some words on the morrow.

            The following morning, an antsy Jess waited until Cora was in the wagon to brace the wayward preacher. “L.Q., you know it’s illegal for you to own a concubine. You have to set Cora free.”

            “Harper have you been drinking?” L.Q. replied, leaning in to sniff the Texan’s breath. “I guess not,” he vexedly snorted.

            Jess was taken aback at the response and leaned away from the perturbed Pastor.

            L.Q. continued, “What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”

            “Uh, Cora told me that she was your concubine, bought and paid for,” the Texan stammered out.

            L.Q. shook his head, “Bought and paid for, yes. It was that or to shoot it out with the brothel that held both her and her mother. Those odds were way too long against me. Concubine?  Good Lord Harper! Aint nobody has concubines any more. I reckon that this is just the latest of her fancies. She’s awfully prone to them.” The Pastor shook his head as he walked over to the wagon.”Concubine!” he repeated in exasperated wonder. “Cora Jones!” he called out.

“What Uncle? I’m decent so you can come into the wagon,” she answered sweetly.

The man stopped abruptly at the wagon, “Oh no, not that again. I know you’re decent, but do you have clothing on?” he called to her, then turning to Jess, “About three days before we hit Laramie, she said that ‘she was decent,’ and when I walked in she added, ‘I’m also naked.’ I about had a stroke.”

A high giggle came from the wagon, “Yes uncle, I have clothes on. That was funny once. Actually, it was very very funny once.”

The reverend let out another vexed snort. “No it wasn’t. Now what in tarnation is this concubine nonsense?” he asked as he entered.

******************************************************************************

The following days saw them off the main road and onto a western trail. The going was steady, but rough, and their progress slowed. There were very few other travelers, and the trio passed the time without incident.

By good fortune, Jess shot a small pronghorn allowing for a dinner far tastier than the normal ration of pork and beans. Afterward, while Cora was away washing the dishes, the Reverend Jones said, “Mr. Harper, I suggest you steer clear of Cora.” The statement’s tone made it stronger than advice but fell short of making it an order.

Jess shook his head, “Kinda hard to do when there are only three of us, and I’m body guarding y’all.”

            The reverend nodded but kept staring at the fire, “I am aware of that. I was forced to fire our previous guide because of her. I caught her and Mr. Pratt in an indelicate position.” The Texan could hear the blush in the man’s voice.

            “Eustis Pratt?” Jess exclaimed, startled. Could the girl have been romantic with Eustis? Jess only knew Eustis Pratt in passing. The walleyed man was as strong as an ox, and a competent guide, but had the reputation for being a bad piece of work. “How’d you get tied in with him?”

            “Lance DiMarco recommended him. Mr. DiMarco…..”L.Q. began.

            Jess interrupted, “Is an Indian agent. In any other job he would be known as an embezzler and a thief,” Jess grimaced and spat, “and Pratt is his man. Did you tell your business to DiMarco?”

            The minister nodded, “Why yes, I sought his advice, and he recommended Mr. Pratt. I didn’t explain it to Mr. Pratt. I just hired him to guide us to Valley Grande. From there I was going to give him more instructions.”

 Jess relaxed a bit, “Well, I’m right proud that you’ve trusted me more than Pratt. I bet that DiMarco told him though.”

 The reverend smiled a bit, “Well, unlike Pratt, you came highly recommended by a trust worthy, and discerning, person. Pratt is now gone so what does it matter?”

Jess shrugged, still finding the idea of Arena Linkous recommending him for anything mind boggling. “So you found the pair, uhhhhhh, sinning?” he pressed.

“Enthusiastically,” the reverend grumped and scowled. “So don’t feel overly honored by her attentions. Jess, that girl is more a child of the serpent than a daughter of Eve. Don’t you be letting her drag you into sinning.”

“What?”Jess answered, startled. He had thought their flirting had been discreet.

“What?” Reverend L.Q. Jones mocked back sourly. “You know what! I’m a reverend not a village idiot. That girl is playing you like an Alabama banjo. ‘Course if you decide to marry her that would suit me fine…though I can’t recommend it.”

Jess raised his arms defensively, “Whoa there reverend! I’m neither courting, nor marryin’ Cora.”

“Ok Jess, if you say so. Stay virtuous and you’ll be fine,” L.Q. ended.

Stay virtuous? Jess thought. Shoot, I’ve never been described like that before. Then he answered with a simple, “Sure reverend.”

************************************************************************************

Covertly cold camping a scant half mile off, Eustis Pratt watched the trio’s camp. The buffalo hunter/guide/purveyor of fire water and other items illegal to sell to Indians had trailed them from Laramie. He quietly ate jerky as he watched, and waited for the Princess to leave the other two in camp. When she did he quietly worked around and met her at the creek. Dinner dish washing was substantially delayed.

The journey continued. The next two days, the mules doggedly hauled the wagon through hilly, then mountainous, terrain over a trail that was very rough but not truly difficult. Jess easily located water along the way, and they had no problems with strangers. The reverend continued pontificating about Zion and finally showed Jess the original treasure map.

Cora was pointedly excluded from these discussions as the reverend didn’t entirely trust her. “Reverend, don’t you think that is kind of silly? She already knows you’re going after a gold mine using an old map, and who is she going to tell anything to out here?” Jess asked, shaking his head.

“You think so Jess? I’m not so sure. She knows about the mine but not where it is. I intend to keep it that way,” L.Q. responded regretfully.

As evening fell, L.Q.’s relentless and tuneless whistling inspired Cora to plead, “Uncle, I implore you. Please switch to a different song! You have been whistling ‘Old Susannah’ for over an hour.” The musically impaired reverend’s tuneless repetition was outstandingly annoying.

“Oh, certainly. The other day Mr. Harper and I were discussing banjos and it put that old tune to mind,” he answered pleasantly. Then he switched to ‘Old Dan Tucker;’ equally banjo based.

Jess found the change unhelpful- both reminded him of what the reverend had said earlier about being a banjo. The Texan poured himself some more coffee, “Two more days L.Q.?”he asked.

“That’s what I figure,” the preacher answered cheerily.

“Well, for sure there’s gold in that area. Some was found there back before the war,” he sipped some Java and then continued, “That’s encouraging. What are we going do if we find that old mine?”

The reverend stretched tiredly as he answered, “When, not if. We’ll have a look in it. Take some samples,” then he laughed, “Pick up any bags of gold conveniently packed, and waiting for us.” Jess joined him in the laughter. “Mostly just inspect it. I am an experienced miner and I expect that I can assay its value with the tools in the wagon. We’ll see. I’m off to bed now, though.” Then he turned to Cora, saying sternly, “You behave.” Setting up his bedroll, under the wagon, he resumed his off key rendition of old Susannah. The tune ended when he started to snore.

Cora and Jess sat quietly for a while; Jess thinking about the country ahead and Cora giving L.Q. time to get deeply into sleep. For his part, L.Q. watched the pair through slitted eyes, only pretending to sleep, until he actually DID fall asleep. The girl noted his change in breathing, waited 15 minutes, and then sidled over to Jess.

Jess saw her coming and was of two minds. Her attentions were pleasant and fun, but once they started he wouldn’t get anything plotted out for the next day. He manfully resolved to put her off as gently as possible. So when she sat next to him, leg artfully brushing his, he turned to tell her….and found tender lips upon his own. This immediately grasped his attention, and he forgot that he was going to say something, much less what he was going to say. So things progressed, with the handsome Texan and the pretty girl thoroughly engrossed in each other. Sadly, it ended quite abruptly.

******************************************************************************

“Morning Jess,” L.Q. Jones said as he started making coffee. “You must have dozed off here by the fire.

Jess opened up an eye and sat up much too quickly; in response the world gyrated wildly and lightning bolts flew from ear to ear inside his skull. “What the devil?” he said quietly as he touched the back of his head, endured another searing pain, and found a lump the size of a goose egg. He’d been clobbered as he kissed Cora!

Quickly he looked around and saw that Cora was sluggishly exiting from the wagon. Rubbing his head Jess said, “Reverend, I didn’t fall asleep, somebody coshed me.”

The reverend looked at Jess, then at Cora. His eyes narrowed, “Young lady, why did you strike Mr. Harper?” He knew he hadn’t done it, and Jess certainly hadn’t done it, so she was the only reasonable option.

“I did no such thing! Mr. Harper must have bumped his head in his sleep or something. I certainly didn’t hit him.”

A Holy Hurricane immediately enveloped the young woman as demands for truth erupted from the reverend. Jess interrupted, “It wasn’t her reverend. We were …talking. She was right in front of me, and I was hit from behind.”

The reverend turned his baleful gaze upon Jess; attention immediately drawn by the pause where Jess had inserted ‘talking’ for ‘kissing.’ “I’ve warned you Jess, her attentions are dangerous.”

“L.Q., you didn’t say anything about getting clobbered from behind. She didn’t do it.” The world having once again achieved stability, Jess stood up and figured that he was again a going concern. Taking a quick look around the campsite, he stopped and nodded to himself. “Yup, see these tracks? A big footed man with a cross shaped pattern of nails in his left boot heel, to keep off bad luck, was here,” Jess added pointing.

The other two came over and shook their heads, “If you say so Jess.” L.Q. said dubiously, “I see disturbed ground but nothing else.”

Jess turned to Cora again, “Who was it Cora? You went off with him there,” Jess added pointing.

She icily responded, “Mr. Harper, I have no idea what you are talking about. There was no man and I didn’t go off with him!” And that was all they could get from her for the rest of the morning.

Chapter 3 – Pratfall

The wagon rolled on. The reverend spent the bulk of the morning splitting his attention between driving and grumbling at his errant niece. Around 10 a.m. he pulled up the wagon, hopped off, and trotted into the bushes. Cora hopped off the other side, stretched, and quickly waved Jess over.

“What Cora?” he asked grumpily. She brushed her hair aside, and then he asked, “What’s that red mark on your forehead?”

“What do you think it is? It’s a bruise that matches yours. When Eustis hit you we bumped heads,” she quietly explained.

The ready admission startled him since she had been so adamant in denying everything earlier.  “I thought you said nobody came into the camp?”

Testily she answered, “Eustis has been following us. It turns out that he’s in love with me, and he didn’t much like what you and I were doing. You had best not go off scouting alone today. Eustis won’t bother you around me, did I ever give him a piece of my mind, but he might be worrisome if I’m not around.”

“He might be more worrisome if you ARE with me,” Jess returned while touching a sore spot on his forehead. The back of his head hurt so much he hadn’t noticed the frontal tender spot. “So why tell me now, and not earlier?”

Cora’s eyes grew large in surprise. “Jess, are you really that thick? The reverend fired Eustis for holding my hand. He’d probably shoot you for our kissing. I’ll never admit that to him,” she finished.

Moments later came the sounds of L.Q. returning through the brush, “Ugh, I know better than to eat prunes. They make a man’s business overly urgent.” He clambered back on board the wagon.

Cora gave Jess a wink then turned back towards the wagon exclaiming, “What’s that under the wagon?” Crawling underneath, she waited a few seconds, turned around, and rapped on the vehicle loudly with her hand while exclaiming “Ow!” Then she reappeared gently holding where she and Jess had bumped foreheads.

Despite himself, Jess hid a smile. He had to admit, whatever else she was, Cora was sneaky clever. Reverend Jones simply shook his head at her reappearance. “Girl, mind your head. You’ve given yourself a fine bruise. What was worth the cost of a bump?”

“This, I think it’s an arrowhead like the one I found last week,” she said pulling a stone out of her pocket.

The man took the stone from her, turned it over and disinterestedly handed it back. “Yes it is. So?” he shrugged. “Not long ago this was all Indian country. Isn’t that so Jess?” The Texan nodded. She re-pocketed the weapon and boarded the wagon. In moments they were off.

Jess rode along thinking, “I have to settle with Pratt. Leaving Cora and the reverend behind just might bring him out.” Eventually he announced, “L.Q., I’m going to ride ahead, and check the trail. I’ll see you at or before the turn off to Happy Camp.” Happy Camp was a ghost town abandoned after the gold rush of ‘59 ended. The minister nodded and the Texan departed.

Cora scowled at him as he left, thinking, “Jess Harper, why do you make keeping you alive so difficult?”

Under cover, Eustis Pratt watched the wagon and horseman from a discrete distance. Getting up had been difficult as his evening with Princess had run delightfully late. He had been startled to find out that his woman was the sort of girl that got excited by men being violent over her. He snorted, deciding that he could live with that.

“Harper is another matter,” he thought scowling. That the galoot was handsome and a decent brawler weren’t worries. He was sure that he could take out his rival in any fight as he knew himself to have no scruples at all. Unfortunately, Harper was a first rate gun hand; that was more than a mite scary.

“The sensible thing would be to dry gulch him,” he muttered to himself, “but Cora would be mad as the devil if she heard the shot.” His woman had been tediously adamant about him not taking out the Texan so killing him would be ten times worse. With wordless jealously, Eustis grumbled to himself not seeing any good reason for keeping the man around. Cora’s “He’s part of my plan.” was very unsatisfying.

“Part of her plan…”he thought. From what she had told him, she figured to let her uncle find the mine (he was the only one present who could read Spanish) and assay its’ worth. Then they would eliminate both Harper and Jones and spin a story of Harper killing Jones and trying to rape her with himself saving her. They would then marry and live happily ever after. He sighed, like her tale of being a princess; this was further evidence of her reading too much and liking bad theater.

He smiled grimly to himself. “Not such an awful plan,” he grudgingly admitted. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t know that Lance DiMarco was but a day behind them and paying him a handsome sum to leave him a trail to follow. Lance firmly believed that the mine existed and he intended to swoop in and make it his own. Until then, Eustis decided that he would keep using the girl (in every way possible, he chuckled). Heck, he might even keep her as she was quite the accomplished mattress dancer.

Spotting Jess moving off to scout, Eustis smiled and nodded to himself. If Harper met with an accident, or just disappeared, how could he be blamed? He spurred his horse and rode wide around the wagon. He had a date with Harper.

******************************************************************************

“Hi Marcy, Jess isn’t around is he?” Ed Bradford asked as he entered Laramie’s General Store.

Marcy Benson looked up from her needlework. “Hi Ed. Glad to see that you’re finally up and around. Is Mattie doing better? “

“Yes, thanks she’s over at the church now: she surely doesn’t take kindly to being sick.”

“Now, why on Earth did you think Jess would be here?” she asked, dropping a stitch.

 “Because, recently, if Slim is in town he’s over here,” he answered puckishly, “and where you find one of them you frequently find them both.” He didn’t add that the pair were so inseparable, and shared so much, that some low born souls said that they probably shared Marcy. It is to be noted that no such suggestion was ever made within earshot of either rancher as that would have resulted in severe, perhaps prolonged, discomfort for the suggester.

She shrugged as she answered, “Slim is on the spread and Jess is away, traveling with that preacher that came through.”

The middle aged telegrapher shrugged, lightly chagrined, “Shoot, Jess has a telegram from Denver. Mind giving it to Slim to give to him? I expect you’ll be the next one to see him.”

Marcy nodded, taking the sealed envelope and blushing sweetly. “I’ll hang on to that until Jess gets back,” she said. “If I give it to Slim he’ll probably lose it since Jess isn’t expected back for at least another week.”

“Thanks, I have days of backed up messages to deliver. The boys, up and down the line, have kept my receiver singing all morning.”

The odd trio of horsemen made time through the Colorado countryside. Sunlight glittered off the star shining from the vest of the large black man in the lead. The second man was an elderly white haired man riding upon a saddle pillow. The last was a middle aged Arapaho warrior.

The black man pulled up at a fork in the trail and asked in a round baritone voice, “Mort, left heads down to Happy Camp doesn’t it?” Hollis DuBois had come to Colorado long after Happy Camp had been abandoned.

The elderly white haired man pulled up, “Yes Hollis, it does. Though I wonder how much is left of the old place. I’m glad we’re on the last leg.”

“We had best hurry,” the Hinonoeino warrior gruffly said. “It would be best if we get there before them. We can always rest if we are early.”

Mort Corey, Sr. grinned, “Well that’s about twice as much as you’ve said all trip. You’re turning positively chatty, Jimuta. Just let me stretch a minute.” He stiffly dismounted, walked a minute, and then remounted. “Sorry, but these old legs get cranky,” he apologized.

Jimuta half smiled and nodded. The Indian was not a greatly demonstrative sort, but he had liked Mort for as long as he could remember. Mort’s fourth wife had been his cousin. “Uncle, you should have stayed home and left this to us,” he chided. The ‘uncle’ title was honorary as opposed to actual.

Mort shook his old head, “I’m a retired lawman, not a dead one. No, my telegraphed message to Harper went undelivered. If I’m not there he won’t have anybody he trusts to tell him what is going on. I’ve been with Jess through two fights. You don’t want to take him on if you don’t have to.”

The black man chimed in, “I’ve heard of him and once considered going after him. He was wanted in Texas but the warrant was cancelled before I set out.”

Mort nodded to the deputy U.S. marshal, “That’s right Hollis, and he is every bit as dangerous as that warrant made him out to be. Let’s get moving boys.”

Jess rode down the trail for a considerable piece, finding a good water source and noting problem points along the way. Eventually he found a good lookout point where he could watch his back trail from cover as he waited for Pratt to show up.

Taking Traveler to a shady concealed spot away from his vantage point, he set the animal to graze. Snagging a corn dodger and his canteen he returned to his lookout. There the Texan waited and considered his trip. “What the devil am I doing here? I’ve no business being here with a blood and thunder preacher who’s looking for a lost mine, so that he can found a holy land that I would ride for miles to avoid. On the other hand there is the girl. Yup, a right snuggly pretty girl who, when not sparking with me, is sparking a sidewinder who is trailing us. Something is definitely sideways. Ah good, here comes the sidewinder now.”

Eustis Pratt covered ground at an easy trot as the rider wanted catch up with Jess. Since he wasn’t going to shoot Harper, he really wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he caught him. Distracted, the wall-eyed tracker nearly had a stroke when Jess’ voice came unexpectedly from a scant fifteen feet to his right.

“Afternoon Pratt, fancy running into you here,” Jess said, empty handedly stepping from cover (but with his pistol checked and loose in its holster).

Pratts’ paint lived up to the old saying, “horses only shy at two things; things that move and things that don’t. She reared and bolted leaving the startled man on his back in the dirt. “Blast it Harper, don’t sneak up on a man like that,” the downed stalker said as he got up. Then he swore as he grumpily watched his horse rapidly retreat down the trail.

“A man needs to pay attention when he’s riding. It keeps accidents like that from happening,” Jess opined unhelpfully.

Eustis snorted in non-amusement, “Yeah, I guess. Mind giving me a hand getting my horse back?”

Jess’ short unpleasantly amused laugh didn’t please Eustis, “Why would I do that? You pistol whipped me last night. I’m not really feeling over friendly towards you right now. Course, I might change my mind if you tell me why you’re following us.”

 Pratt crossed his arms and stuck his chin out, “Cause Princess is mine and I don’t trust you around her.”

Jess’ eyes narrowed, “Princess? Whatever! Pratt, you’re about as sentimental as a rattlesnake. Try again.”

Eustis glared back belligerently, “Well she says she’s a Princess. Anyway she’s mine and that’s it. You leave her be, or it will go hard with you.”

Jess shook his head. Could Pratt be trailing them for Cora? Jess doubted it. “Princesss? She told me that she’s a concubine. That misses being a princess by a long sight. I think you’re doing it for your boss. That’s it, isn’t it? DiMarco believes Jones’ story and he saw to it that you became their guide. Then you messed that up by fooling with the preachers’ niece. DiMarco will have your hide for that. And here’s some news to you: Cora doesn’t belong to anyone but herself.”

Quickly shaking his head in overly strong denial, Eustis answered, “Wrong guess cowboy. I’m only here for myself and for the girl.” Pratt looked shook, and while his words denied DiMarco’s involvement his body language confirmed Jess’ hunch.

Jess shook his head, “Well, you didn’t kill me last night so I guess I can’t just shoot you now. Stay well clear of us or I will; I’m protecting those two. I don’t much like you anyway so shooting you would be a pleasure. Heck, yours and DiMarcos’ treatment of the Indians would justify shooting either of you most any time.”

Eustis glared back at Jess defiantly, then spat at his feet, knowing that he was safe from Jess’ gun so long as he left his own alone. “Nits breed lice.” With that he turned upon his heel and stalked off after his horse.

“Nits breed lice!” Jess ground through his teeth at the retreating figure. The words of Colonel John Chivington, used to justify the Sand Creek massacre, were enough to set Jess’ blood to boiling. Sand Creek; where drunken Coloradan militia men slaughtered hundreds of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children. Then they went on to dismember the corpses for souvenirs. Jess’ hands clenched at the thought.

After watching the scum disappear down the trail, the Texan reclaimed Traveler and rode after Pratt’s errant mare. After he caught up with her, he filed down the firing pin on the man’s rifle. Then he looped the horse’s reigns on a branch and rode on. This gave Pratt the option to ride off while making it considerably harder for the man to dry gulch him. He didn’t think that Pratt would leave but felt that he should give him the out. Mission accomplished he turned back towards the wagon.

Jess returned feeling almighty pleased with himself. “We have good trail and water up ahead,” he called out upon his return.

L.Q. looked upon the chuffed Texan with an amused smirk, “Did you find anything interesting out there?”

Cora was looking at him darkly so he smilingly turned to her, “Howdy Princess, are you doing alright?”

A startled look flashed across the woman’s comely features, and then she was all innocence, “Princess, Mr. Harper? I’m hardly a princess.”

L.Q. nodded, “You’ve been talking to Pratt. He took to calling Cora that. So, was it Eustis that struck you?” When Jess nodded, L.Q. darkly turned upon his niece, “I thought as much; wicked girl you led these men on and see what it has led to? Now we are being pursued by a man full of sinful intent!” Jess interrupted the ensuing tirade when the man stopped for a breath.

“Stop it reverend,” Jess said mildly. “Sinful intent, yep. But not for fornicatin.’ Not mostly anyway. He’s tracking you for DiMarco. They’re after your mine.”

To Jess’ surprise Cora broke into a hard broad smile while the Reverend grabbed his hat and tossed it into the air while shouting “Whoopee!”

Jess’ jaw dropped, “You two are plain loco. They intend to kill the pair of you.”

L.Q. reclaimed both his hat and his dignity, “They surely do. That is why we hired you. I think it’s time to tell you what is going on. I take it that Mort Corey didn’t get word to you?”

“Mort? No, Mort didn’t say a thing. What the devil does the Laramie sheriff have to do with this?”

L.Q. laughed again, “Not your Mort, my Mort; Mort Corey, Senior. I was his deputy for years and we’re laying it on the line one last time. Lance DiMarco must pay. ”

 “Start talking, “Jess growled tight lipped

L.Q. started talking and from the beginning Jess was enthralled. He spoke of the Indian agent’s graft and corruption and of how he killed though diseased gifts, mostly given through innocent intermediaries, and profited from acquiring Indian lands. Lastly he spoke of the man’s continued connection to John Chivington and their goal of having that butcher made Colorado’s first senator when the territory became a state (which would be just about any minute). As L.Q. spun his tale, he fell more and more into his preaching style. Passion infused all that he said and it was clear to Jess that bringing Lance DiMarco to justice was nigh a holy crusade for the man. By her face alternatively flaming and paling, Jess could see that Cora was equally dedicated.

Cora was L.Q.’s niece; the daughter of his brother Lucas and his half Arapaho wife Nittawowsew. Early in the war, Lucas and L.Q. had a set to after which they lost touch. Then last year, after retiring and becoming a minister in North Texas, L.Q. got word that Cora and her mother were in dire straits; circumstances had forced them to support themselves through sin. He determined that he was going to show them a better life.

 

“It took with mom. Not so much with me,” Cora interrupted, face flaming.

L.Q. put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze, “Shush my wayward girl. Let me tell the tale.” She glanced up at him with a deep affection and then quickly turned away.

“My brother was never a good man. In fact he loved only two things; money and whiskey. Now, I’m partial to both of those myself. Most men are. But a man has to draw a line somewhere and Lucas never did. He was a poor husband and a worse father. One day he just rode away. I have no idea what became of him.”

After a grim pause where he silently condemned his brother yet once again, L.Q. continued, “Anyway, after Lucas left, Nittawowsew returned, with Cora, to her people. Things went reasonably well. Then came sickness; small pox. Nittawowsews’ tribe was small to begin with and, after the pox struck, almost nobody was left. Eventually the pair sank into the lifestyle that I found them in.”

Cora opened her mouth to say something but then closed it leaving her words unspoken. Instead she dismounted from the wagon and walked away. The men watched her distance herself from them. “Talking about Lucas always goes hard with her,” the preacher quietly observed.

Jess nodded, small pox was a grim fact of life but it was particularly hard upon the natives. Then he had a flash of insight, “The pox hit not long after they got presents from the government, didn’t it?”

L.Q. nodded, “Yup, blankets and food courtesy of Lance DiMarco. And these weren’t reservation Indians Jess. They had worked out an agreement with the army, due to services rendered, and had their own land. Not much mind, but it was legally theirs. DiMarco ended up with that land, and he made quite a lot of amount of money from it.”

“Murder for money,” the Texan said with disgust.

L.Q. simply nodded his head, “Yep, too bad it wasn’t provable as illegal, since Indians can’t testify against whites. I expect the good Lord has reserved him a special spot by the fire for it.”

“So why are you two so consarned happy DiMarco is coming after you?”Jess asked.

L.Q.’s grin was as predatory as a wily old wolf’s, “Well, a couple of reasons. First, there IS an old warrant for DiMarco. Mort heard rumor of it, made sure it actually existed, and got a copy of it. You see, DiMarco is wanted in Oregon for illegal fur trading.”

“Fur trading?” the Texan asked startled.

“I told you it was an old warrant,” L.Q. answered then continued. “Anyway, DiMarco has friends in Wyoming. The territory wouldn’t even sniff at that warrant. Colorado is different; he’s not overly popular here so we are luring him in.”

Jess let L.Q.’s explanation sink in, then he exploded, “That is, without a doubt, the stupidest plan I have ever heard. First you had to get his attention, and then get him interested in your mine and that bogus map…”

“Map aint bogus Jess. It came to me just as I said. That’s one reason I think that it is Gods’ will that we do this. Then Mort set things up so that rumor of the mine trickled to DiMarco before we showed up.”

Jess looked at the man narrowly, “And how did that old fox do that?”

“Family. Did you know Mort once had a squaw-wife? Inayat was a sweet little thing. Her kin have to deal with DiMarco and they don’t much like him. Mort got their help.”

Jess continued on, “Then you have to decoy him here and capture him. After that Oregon has to decide he is worth bothering with and send for him.”

“Nope, we enlisted a friendly U.S. marshal. He’s gonna haul him to Oregon for us. No need to bother the territorial governor at all,” L.Q. answered with a smirk.

“And Oregon? What will they care about a creaky old fur trading charge? How much is the bounty on that warrant for?

The reverend pontificated, “Have faith in the Lord, Jess Harper. He’ll see to Oregon and his justice will prevail!”

Jess pressed, “How much is it L.Q.?”

L.Q.’s rotund baritone quieted, “Cora needs this Jess. Her hate is killing her. The man killed her friends and much of her family…and condemned her and her ma to prostitution. Shoot, disease from that is what killed her ma in the end.”

Relentless, Jess pressed again, “How much L.Q.? Just how interested was Oregon when this started?”

“Six pounds,” the man answered quietly.

“Six pounds of what?” Jess asked, surprised.

“That’s British money Jess. The old Hudson Bay Company was British. Still, it is a valid warrant. Going to stick with us?”

Jess, startled by the question, answered crossly, “’Course I am. I’m guiding you to the mine and protecting you as you go. I’m glad you told me what all is up…danged if I don’t think you’re a fool though.” The Texan paused for a moment, “The warrant is an excuse to justify the marshal being present, isn’t it? What you’re really after is to get the man for claim jumping and/or attempted murder.”

The preacher nodded and then called out to Cora. They returned to their journey after she rejoined them.

******************************************************************************

Eustis eventually found his horse, smiling when he saw her reins tangled on a limb. “There’s a bit of luck!” he thought and moments later he was remounted. He headed back down trail and kept a careful eye out for the wagon. Once he re-sighted it, he circled around and commenced trailing it again.

While trailing the wagon, and leaving sign for his boss, Eustis brooded over the day. One thing was certain. Before this trip was over, Harper was going to die. No matter what Princess had planned, Harper needed to eat lead. If that made her cry then he would just have to comfort her. The thought of how he would comfort her made him smile in anticipation.

 

 

Chapter 4 – Happy Camp

Jess and company finished the trip to Happy Camp without further event. They made camp in an empty dry goods store next to an abandoned livery that suited the equines. Though it had been a mild spring trip, all three were pleased at the prospect of a night fully sheltered from the elements. The Reverend watered the mules in the livery while Jess and Cora tidied up the store.

“All the comforts of home!” Cora announced as she tended an old decrepit wood stove.

Jess chuckled, “I reckon it is pretty nice compared to camping out. This store still has glass in the windows. Do you have enough kindling?” he asked.

“Oh yes, mama taught me how to make do with little. We Hinonoeino are good that way,” she said with a smile. “Oh I know I look white, but mama was mixed. I look one way and but really am the other. Grandpa was a chief you know; that sorta makes me a princess. The princess Cocheta.”

“Princess?” he thought, “not really to my mind.” Instead he said, “Oh, I don’t know about Cocheta. I kinda like Cora myself.”

A cloud passed over the young woman’s expression, “No you wouldn’t, not if you really knew her. Cora is not nearly as nice as Cocheta.”

Before considering what she said he asked, “What was it all about when you said you were a concubine?”

To his surprise, she giggled. “Oh that! Uncle paid off our debts so that he could take mama and I out of where we were without gunplay. So, you see, he bought us. But since he didn’t marry me, I sorta became his concubine. Though the only never used concubine in history.” Jess shook his head while looking away from the woman and out of the store front, thinking, “Princess, concubine, prostitute.. you are one messed up gal.” His musing was interrupted when he heard Cora coming towards him. He turned just in time for her to wrap both arms around his broad frame and hug him close.

“Hey, what’s this?” he asked in surprise while automatically putting both arms around her.

“Jess, I was so afraid when you went out to get Eustis…he is a dangerous man who doesn’t play fair,” it was only then that he realized she was trembling slightly. His solidity seemed to reassure her and the trembling soon subsided.

“Cora, what is it with you and Pratt?” the Texan asked softly.

She let go of him like he was a hot iron, a sullen look settling over her soft features. “There is nothing between Eustis and I,” she proclaimed with fire. “That was strictly business.”

Jess looked at her warily, and shook his head, “Eustis doesn’t think so. Or was that the point of the ‘business.’”

The blushing brunette threw her head back angrily, “Certainly. I played at being the wanton to keep his attention. The reverend and I played at not getting along so that Eustis would try to use me against him- and we could feed him what we wanted him, and his boss, to know. Unfortunately, Eustis took it too far one evening. Uncle had to intervene and throw him out of camp.”

“So you then tried the same thing with me? Why?” he asked with muted anger.

“Not getting along? In case Old Mort was wrong about you. But you didn’t bite. The flirting?” She gave him a quick smile and then primly suppressed it, but it wasn’t to be denied and it immediately burst forth anew. “No, that was because you are an awfully attractive man,” she smilingly sighed,” You surely didn’t bite then, either. All lip work and very good lip work at that!”

She started giggling and now it was Jess’ turn to blush. To cover his embarrassment he blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “Something you know all about.”

The girl paled. “Why yes, I guess I do,” she said quietly.

There was a long pause that was only filled by the sound of wind playing amidst the ruins of the wild abandoned town. Jess immediately regretted what he had said, but continued on with the thought anyway, “You surely went to Eustis quickly enough when he came into camp.”

“Jess Harper, you are the consarnded, handsomest, fool I have ever met! I kept Eustis in line with dopey glances, passing touches, and the extremely rare sorta-virginal- kiss until the night he clobbered you. Darn you! Don’t you understand that I had to use strong medicine to reassure him that I was his? That you meant nothing to me? Otherwise he was going to kill you where you lay! So yes, I went with him. And no I wasn’t a nice girl. And I did it again and again though the doing of it made me want to throw up. Uncle told you my past, so it was just another day out on the range!” With that she stomped out of the building and went into the old livery.

The reverend was back in the store in under a minute. “Holy Hannah Harper! What happened here?” the older man asked breathlessly. “Cora ordered me out saying she was going to take care of the mules, and to leave her alone. I swear that she was about to cry, and that girl never cries. I mean really cries. She fakes it sometimes, but this was real.”

Feeling about three feet tall, Jess mumbled something inarticulate and wandered out the door.

*****************************************************************************

Jess walked the not-very-many streets of what was left of Happy Camp, kicking pebbles and generally feeling at sea. Outside of an old saloon, he sat upon the hitching post to think. The brittle old wood immediately gave way and he thudded down upon his rear. He made no attempt to get up but just stayed sitting in the street with his chin in his hand.

“That last conversation with Cora was really something,” he thought. “It’s awfully hard to make heads or tails of that girl. She likes me, or wants to use me, or both. The same as for Eustis,” he grumped. “Slim has it so much easier. Marcy is so much more straight forward. Then again, Slim is much easier about there being a proper thing, place or method for doing everything.”

Jess remained sitting where he was, pondering women in general and Cora in particular, when the source of his perplexity came up. “Supper is ready Jess,” she announced somberly.

He looked up at her, noted the red eyes, and shook his head, “Not over hungry. How about pulling up a chair?” he asked waving vaguely at the old porch fronting the decrepit saloon.

“I’m not either,” she answered listlessly while sitting down. “There’s no changing the past, nor getting away from it, is there?”

“Changing it, no. Getting away from it? I’m not so sure about that. Some, maybe. I surely have worked on getting away from mine.” Jess answered while turning to face her. He was pleased, though surprised, at how the conversation was starting.

The woman frowned prettily back at the Texan. To her, Jess looked much like a naughty little boy about to make mud pies and his words weren’t even close to the response that she had expected. She had assumed he would give a dull grunt, that being how men talked about important things. Except for Uncle L.Q, of course. He made such conversations all about Jesus.

“You can’t ever like and trust me cause Cora was a prostitute,” she announced bluntly. “Could you like Princess Cocheta?” she timidly inquired, “I can be her if you like.”

Jess looked at the girl thoughtfully, thinking “This is gonna get weird,” while saying, “You’re Cora not some Indian princess. No getting around that….”

“No, no getting around that….” she echoed, deflatedly drooping her head.

“But hang it all, you are also everything your ma taught you too. And you’re not today what you were yesterday. Look at me, I’m not either,” he continued.

“What do you mean? What are you then?” she asked half disinterestedly.

“I killed men as a profession, before making a break from it with the help of Slim Sherman.”

“Jess, you’re still doing that. That’s why you came with us; to protect us with your gun.”

Jess shook his head, “Not the same thing. I still do some gun work, but it isn’t who I am and I don’t hire out the gun for pay. I have changed. Mostly I ranch now, and I’m part of a family.”

“But not completely, you still work with your gun,” she observed.

“Some. It is a useful skill and trouble still follows me everywhere I go. I don’t know why that is but I guess that may always be,” he answered wry faced. “But I’m still Jess Harper and always will be. Just as you will always be Cora.”

“He killed my people, Jess,” the girl said quietly, “or I could be Cocheta. Without them I can’t be her. I have to be Cora.” Then the girl went shrill, “Jess, I don’t want to be Cora anymore. Cora is bad and does bad things. Papa said so and he always punished her and her mom for being bad.….” and without further adieu, the girl was up and gone.

Jess stayed seated and watched the girl dash away into the gloaming. Finally, he said to himself, “I think that girl has a problem or two, and seeing that DiMarco gets his isn’t going to solve them.” He paused considering, “Course, it won’t make things any worse either.”

******************************************************************************

“We’re making good time, Mr. DiMarco,” Ralph Rizzo opined as they rode.

Lance DiMarco nodded with a wry sneer. “Rizzo, we can’t ever make good enough time. I’ve already spent too much of my life in the wilderness. I’m a city guy now.”

Ralph Rizzo just nodded at the tubby middle aged man. The guy looked like a bearded dumpling bouncing around on the back of his horse. “Well, we’ll hit Happy Camp a bit after dark.”

DiMarco nodded, “Yeah, I think so too. Haven’t been there in years but I still remember it. We’ll probably base out of there. Eustis said the girl told him the mine was near there. I figured it was.”

“Boss, you knew we was comin’ here afore we left Cheyenne?” another rider asked.

“Knew for sure? Nope. But I thought that we might. Reverend Jones had a sleazy drunkard brother who took a squaw whore and got gold from some taboo Arapaho place around Happy Camp. He and I were about to cut a deal when he up and disappeared. When the reverend showed up, with a story about a Spanish map, I figured it was probably the same place that his brother found,” DiMarco explained.

“Whath our plan, bahth?” a third rider lisped.

“We’ll meet up with Eustis in the old saloon, if we don’t run into him on the trail, and get a full report from him. If he knows where the mine is we’ll eliminate the reverend’s party before they get there as I have no desire to dig a bunch of desperate people out of a hole. If not, we’ll trail them there.”

“Ok bahth. But what if there ithn’t any gold?” asked the lisper.

DiMarco shook his head, “There’s gold alright. Years ago, Lucas Jones spent plenty of it before he disappeared. More recently, some of the Arapaho have paid debts with it,” he paused and smiled. “I want that gold, and I want the Indians to starve. As John Chivington says, “Nits make lice!” His five picked men grinned coldly in response and they continued on.

*****************************************************************************

 When Jess re-entered the old dry goods store, he found both of his companions eating dinner. L.Q. had the old map out and was studying it with an intensity he did not share with the pork and beans that he ate left handed. Cora, with equal culinary apathy, used a spoon to shuffle hers around on her plate while looking in any direction where Jess wasn’t.

Jess served himself up some dinner and poured some coffee. “Well L.Q., will we see the mine tomorrow?” he asked as he ate.

“Yes Jess, if I can sort out where it is exactly. Truth to tell, my Spanish isn’t stellar, and that blasted Galaraga fancied himself a poet. Anyways, it’s close by.”

 Without looking up, Cora spoke quietly, “Uncle, put away your map. I’ll take you there. I know the way.” That riveted both men’s attention.

“You know how to get there? You’ve known all along?” the Reverend stuttered out, flummoxed. The girl nodded without looking at him, “Yes, Papa took mama and I there.”

“Hells bells, girl! You and your mama knew where a gold mine was and chose to survive by debasing yourselves?”

“Yes uncle. The mine is taboo because nothing good ever comes from it.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jess interrupted, ‘Gold seems pretty good to me.”

The girl cast Jess a strange look. Her dark eyes looked very deep and held a wildness that he had only seen hinted at before, “It is not the gold. It is what comes with the gold that is the problem.”

L.Q. dropped his map, moved to the girl and sat by her, “That’s not what your mama told me. She said that the gold would make my dreams of Zion come true. That Christ’s goodness would overcome ‘any darkness along the way.’” He paused, “I really don’t know what she meant by that.”

 “Mama believed that, but she was wrong. Your Christ will not get you that gold. Galaraga would tell you that. There is only badness there. Badness and death. But I will take you there.”

L.Q. shivered, “Why child?”

She answered simply, “DiMarco follows us and once we are there the badness can have him. My people guarded the secret of that mine to protect all peoples. But, he murdered my people; so the darkness is welcome to him.”

Jess let out a soundless whistle while thinking “Hello Cocheta,. I don’t think Cora lives here anymore.”

******************************************************************************

“Howdy boss!” Eustis Pratt called out from cover to the six men as they approached Happy Camp. “Glad to see you made it ok.”

The six pulled up facing the invisible voice, “Evenin’ Eustis, ” Rizzo called to the shadows as he moved his hand away from the pistol that he had instinctively reached for.

Lance DiMarco smiled, waving his scout in. “So what is the word, Eustis? Are they in Happy Camp?”

“Yes sir. They’re holed up in the old Dry Goods store. I reckon they’ll head out to the mine tomorrow. Want me to track them, then to report back?”

DiMarco thought a moment then nodded. “Yes, but take Yves with you to guard your back. You said they picked up a gunman.”

Eustis grinned wickedly. Having a pure shooter, that he’d worked with before, would be a pleasure and a relief. He nodded and turned to Yves, “You still move like a cougar?”

The other man wrinkled his lips and gave a light snort, “What do you think?”

The Walleyed man’s smile broadened, “Yeah, you’ll do.” Then turning back to DiMarco, “Ok boss let’s get you settled, outside of town, so I’ll know where to report back to you. Then Yves and I will head back into town.”

 

A scant hundred feet off of the trail, a well concealed Jimuta smiled. He had found and followed Pratt in hopes of gathering information. Now he had their plans. He waited for them to move off then, quiet as the shadows he used for cover, the Hinonoeino scout made his way back to his companions who were in the old church.

Hollis DuBois had the watch when he got back. Jimuta let the black man see him, at a safe distance, then came in. “Coffee and stew are waiting for you Jimuta,” Hollis greeted the returning man.

As was his custom, the Hinonoeino only nodded and continued in. Acquiring his meal, he sat by Mort and spoke to the elderly man in Arapaho. “They have arrived Uncle. There are six plus Pratt. Pratt and another plan to follow the others to locate the mine, then they will gather together again and kill them upon their return to town.”

Mort nodded. “It is what we thought they would try. I had better warn them,” he replied making to stand.

The middle aged warrior caught his shoulder, “No ‘Doesn’t like men.’ You should not.”

Mort sat back down, eye brows raised in surprise. ‘Doesn’t like men’ had been his first Arapaho name; bestowed upon him after the row that ensued after the tribe had attempted to honor him with the attentions of a Two-Spirit. His fourth (not yet then his) wife, Inayat, had been behind that prank. After learning to speak the language, he had changed his name to the more traditional name of “Niteesh” (One well versed in law). Jimuta was ever amused by his original name, and never let him forget it for long.“Why not?” Mort asked.

“I don’t know your friend Harper, but neither the minister, nor the girl is to be trusted. They could have their own games in play.”

Mort pursed his lips and sternly stated, “Jess is trustworthy, and L.Q. has been my friend for many years. The girl is his niece.”

Undaunted, the warrior continued, “L.Q. was a miner and such men are prone to the gold fever. I have seen that many times amongst your people and those sickened by it cannot be trusted near it. The girl I knew only slightly when her mother brought her amongst the people. Other girls complained that she acted superior and there was considerable trouble between them. She too could be after gold, seeking neither revenge nor justice.”

Mort nodded slowly, “I hear you Jimuta. You fear Cora could be leagued with Pratt? I can’t see L.Q. being in any such league.”

“Yes, but it makes some sense for the girl.”

Mort sighed, “Yes it does, but we can’t just leave Jess out there unwarned and unprotected.”

Jimuta smiled, “Of course not. Let us warn Harper and protect them all without their knowing.”

Mort frowned, “Tricky, that.”

The Hinonoeino shook his head, “Nothing simpler since we know DiMarco’s plans.”

It was still dark when L.Q. roused his companions. Cora had half spent a restless night walking about and staring out the front window at the moon and stars. Contrarily, Jess had slept well, waking with a desire to get on with things. He went over to the livery and checked on their equines. Their four legged companions, unconcerned with gold and trailing killers, had passed a quiet night and he tended to their modest needs. The startled Texan pulled up sharply when he found a note braided into Traveler’s mane. “What is this about?” he thought, loosened his gun in its holster, and unfolded the note. Much to the Texan’s relief, it was printed neatly thus saving him the trouble of puzzling out cursive. It read:

Jess my boy- First, I’m sorry my telegraph messages did not get through to you. Apparently something was amiss in the office in Laramie….” and from there it went on to sum up what was going on. “L.Q. is a retired deputy of mine and Cora is his niece. They have a treasure map to an old Indian/Spanish mine which is reputedly cursed if you believe in that sort of thing. L.Q. wants to locate and open the mine. Along the way, they are also attempting to lure Lance DiMarco into Colorado where he can be arrested for an outstanding warrant. If he tries to seize the mine, things are even better because that warrant isn’t a very fresh daisy. Towards these ends, things have progressed very well… well enough that DiMarco and six killers are currently just outside of Happy Camp.”

Jess glanced away, swearing under his breath. Then he returned to the note. “Just thought you might like to know that their plan is to have Henry Yves and Eustis Pratt tail you to the mine. Then, the lot of them intend to descend upon you after you return to town. Yves and Pratt are currently (as of 11pm) keeping a watch on you from the house across the street from the dry goods store.

It is our intention (myself plus two others) to watch over you three and aid you at need. I have resorted to letter writing, instead of just telling you, as I have little confidence in young Cora’s dependability- she could be playing a double game. Our scout, Jimuta, feels similarly about L.Q. but I believe him to be wrong. L.Q. has a long standing grudge against DiMarco and, his crony, Chivington. Sorry for not talking to you before this all came about. I leave it to your discretion as to whether or not to warn L.Q” Signed Mort Corey, Sr.

Jess whistled silently while pocketing the note. “Jeshosephat Mort! This is some mess you have gotten me into. Now what do I make of Cora? As for Chivington, well it’s a durned shame he isn’t amongst the gunmen. The Crimson Parson of the Sand Creek massacre; I wouldn’t shed a tear for him catching a bullet.”

His reverie was interrupted by Cora coming into the building carrying a shawl, “Corn dodgers for breakfast Jess, then we are off.”

Jess nodded, then “Ok Cora, we best leave out the back. Eustis has a friend with him across the street.”

The girl nodded, “Yes, I talked to them last night, and they insist that I kill you.” With that she brought a cocked pistol up from under the shawl and fired it.”

Eustis Pratt’s head jerked up at the sound of the gunshot. He stood up and turned to his companion, “Ok Henry, she’s about to head out.”

Henry Yves blearily got up, and stretched, “We best be moving then.”

“Yup, we’ll go tell DiMarco then head out and pick them up at Falls Lake.”

Henry stopped, “That’s some gal you’ve got there Eustis. She’s as cold blooded as any rattler I’ve come across.”

Eustis laughed quietly, “I reckon so, but her bottom is soft, bouncy, and warm. Let’s get moving.”

 

L.Q. tore into the livery, shotgun at the ready. There he found an irate Jess holding Cora by the shoulders and shaking her while she used her hands to stifle the sound of her laughter. Tears of mirth rolled down her face. “What in Christ’s Holy Name is going on in here?”

“That was NOT funny!”Jess growled in a voice that had often struck fear into the hearts of tough and sensible men.

“Oh yes it WAS, Jess. You should have seen your face! Oh, I’m sorry. Really I am,” she choked out around the laughter which managed to make her sound not sorry at all. “But I didn’t shoot anywhere near you.”

“Yeah, I know. You shot up. Cora, what are you up to?” Jess’ voice was hard, demanding, and well beyond mere irritation.

“That IS a good question,” L.Q. added, putting up the shotgun and inwardly thankful that nobody was dead.

“Uncle, Eustis and another man are watching the store. I went out and talked to him last night….”

“God almighty girl! That was stupidly dangerous….” the white haired man began.

She returned his hard look, “Not at all. It was Eustis. I was safe enough. They’re going to pick our trail up at Falls Lake and then tail us up to the mine. The shot was to make them think I’d killed Jess. Now he is free to follow them and cover us if things go bad.”

L.Q. inquired sourly, “And why would they assume that you shot Jess?”

The innocent sounding voice was at odds with her response, “Cause Eustis ordered me to, and this way they won’t be surprised when Jess isn’t with us.”

“Girl, you are a child of deceit,” the reverend announced darkly.

To L.Q.’s immense annoyance, Cora smiled, curtsied, and replied, “Why uncle, it runs in the family. Deceit’s last name is Jones.”

Chapter 5 – Slot Canyoning

L.Q and Jess left through the back, walking towards Falls Lake. They were shortly rejoined by Cora, leading Beulah the Mule “For packing back rock samples,” Cora had said

 “Or wounded,” Jess grimly returned.

“You know, there’s a Falls Lake up near Laramie,” Jess added.

L.Q. nodded indifferently, “Yeah, it’s a common name. You’ve no idea how many ‘Falls Lakes’ I’ve come across over the years. They pretty much look alike too. I guess, if you’ve seen one waterfall you’ve seen ‘em all.”

“Cora, tell me when we get about quarter mile from the lake,” Jess requested as they walked. “I only want two sets of tracks showing as we go in.”

“Why not just ride the mule until we get there?” she answered with a smile.

Jess gave her a startled look, shook his head and mounted the mule. They finished the trek to the lake in silence. There was no sign of anyone else.

“The lake is pretty,” Cora eventually said, and indeed it was. The spring runoff made a full cascade into the azure water which was offset by the vertical mountain side which it lay against. “Come summer the falls won’t be nearly so full.” She turned to the Reverend, “Uncle, have you ever been up there?”

The elderly man shook his head, “No, but near as I can make out from Galaraga’s map, that’s where we’re heading.” He pointed to a narrow crack in the mountain side and continued, “Up the slot canyon, there. I’m not sure but I also think it says that it is impassable to horses.”
            Cora replied with a nod, “Yes, we will have a few scrambles in there. We had best leave Beaulah here by the water.”

Jess frowned as he dismounted, “I hate not staying with you ‘cause I may have to stay well back of Eustis, if there isn’t much cover in the canyon. It would mean that there are times that I won’t be able to cover you. Maybe I should just stay with you after all.”

L.Q. nodded, “I understand, Jess. I think we should risk it. You follow them following us. I think that will work best.”

The Texan nodded grimly and then turned back to the girl, “Cora, can you give me a good idea of where we are headed? It’ll make following them a lot easier.”

The girl hesitated, “Jess, I remember going there when I was little. I can find the place again but I’m no good at estimating distances.” She paused, “It’s pretty straight forward. Follow the slot canyon, and don’t go left. Wait! Once you reach the ponds, follow those up the canyon!”

Jess nodded, “Ok, never go left and follow the water. About how far are we going?”

“Jess, I said I’m no good with distances.”

The Texan shrugged, “We’re not surveying, what’s your best guess?”

She finally sighed, “Papa said it was about 4 miles from town. So, 2 miles in the canyon?”

Jess’ eyebrow shot up and he said, “You’re right, you aren’t good with distances. I reckon it’s closer to three.”

Jimuta shadowed Pratt and his companion as they left town knowing that Hollis and Mort would be moving into the old Dry Goods Store to await his return. The shadowing was very easy as it never occurred to the gunnies that anyone else might be around. Silently, the Indian moved from cover to cover all the way to Falls Lake.

The warrior was a scant hundred yards behind them when the pair found L.Q.’s mule. The two men quickly rifled through the animal’s pack and pulled out a piece of paper. Pratt read it, put it in his pocket and pointed at the slot canyon. The two ruffians then set briskly off towards the canyon as thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.

The Indian quickly scanned the skies. No storm here, yet, but that didn’t make travel through the canyon safe. Especially in the spring when water levels were already high and the ground was flush with the liquid. Unhappily, he prepared to follow the duo when movement to his left caught his eye. Another dark haired man came out of the brush, stalking the same prey. “Ah, Harper!” he thought. “It looks like `Doesn’t like men’s’ friend decided to get an edge on their tail.” He watched the Texan work and approved of his technique; he was a skilled stalker… for a white man.

Coming to an immediate decision, Jimuta set off and quickly closed in on Jess. “I’ll take the man aside and we will confer,” he thought. “Two of us working separately might get in each other’s way while working together could make this much easier; especially since he doesn’t sound like a herd of stampeding bison when he stalks.”

The Hinonoeino warrior got about 20 feet from Jess, when the Texan silently whirled and pulled; freezing when he saw that the man he faced had no gun drawn and a new Winchester peacefully slung across his back. Jimuta was no fool; he was well aware that quietly moving up on a man of Jess’ skills, gun in hand, could have ended this endeavor both quickly and badly.

“Nice draw,” the Arapaho said in a low and approving voice. “Mort sent me.”

Jess smiled, nodded, and holstered the Colt. “Thanks, name’s Jess, Jess Harper,” he quietly said as he extended a hand.

“Jimuta” the middle aged Arapaho replied gravely while politely shaking the hand. “Are your friends up ahead of those two?”

Jess nodded and moved into better cover. “Yeah, I’m not too happy following those two into that canyon. It doesn’t look too good for cover.”

“It isn’t. Nothing grows in there. Water washes it out many times a year, before flowing over the falls. Hear the thunder? It is dangerous to go in there now.”

Jess nodded looking grim, “Gotta go anyway.”

The Indian was equally grim, “Yes we do. But, in a mile there is a place cut into the rock where a lightly laden man can climb and follow from above. From there we can cover your friends much better than if we were below. And not drown.”

“We can also warn them after we catch up,” Jess added.

The Hinonoeino shrugged, “If we get the chance. Perhaps there will be no flood this thunderstorm. Frequently there isn’t.” Then they were off. The pair made time, spurred by signs of older flood waters passing through the canyon. Many of those signs were well above their heads.

“Mighty pretty in here Cora,” L.Q. said as they walked up the winding red rocked canyon. The walls were from 20 to 50 feet high while the width, where they walked, varied from 4 to 15 feet. The opening to the sky was even narrower- usually less than 5 feet across and closing up completely in some places. The heavily polished and striated rock was festooned with orange/red/pink bands and large areas that were totally white.  Soon they reached the small shallow ponds Cora had spoken of and they followed them up the canyon. The going was easy save where there was rubble to scramble over in a few five to ten foot high climbs. Eventually they were greeted by a small stream, happily burbling towards them from up the canyon. There were no plants or animals present though there were a few rodent corpses. The latter had probably been dropped by birds of prey.

“Move quickly Uncle. I heard some thunder and a whole lot of water can come through here if there is a storm.”

The older man smiled, “Look up girl. Those aren’t storm clouds.”

“No they aren’t, but if it raining up canyon that water could get here awfully quick. Let’s move fast.”

The old man shrugged, unconvinced, but willing to go along with her if it made her happy. They picked up the pace and soon reached where the canyon ended in a broad bow with boulders scattered about and a great pile of them off to one side. The bright Colorado sky was rapidly being obscured by murderous looking clouds. “Glad you hustled us out of there Cora. Those clouds don’t look good at all. I hope Jess takes care,” the pastor said as he looked back into the narrow canyon.

 

DiMarco’s group was horsed when they pulled out of their camp to head up to Falls Lake. They had planned to loll around all day, so his men were surprised when he had called for them to saddle up. All that the boss would say was that he had changed his mind. Nothing of note occurred and they left their horses with L.Q.’s mule. It wasn’t long before they entered the slot canyon on foot.

“Bahth, we got three pairth of trackth. Not two,” the Lisper pointed out some hundred feet into the canyon. “And none look like they are contherned about being followed.”

DiMarco nodded with a frown, “Ok guys, looks like Jones has his scout stalking Eustis,…and he also picked up a second gun. We need to take them out or they’ll make locating and acquiring the mine more difficult.”

With that the marauders picked up the pace. It wasn’t long before the Lisper spoke again, “Bahth, the last pair of trackth are going off thata way,” he announced pointing over the stream to an opening to their right.

As one, the group leveled their guns at that opening, “Ralph, you and Cully check it out,” he paused, “Oh hell, let’s all check it out.” With that five men followed the tracks across the stream and into the opening.

It turned out to be a side branch of the slot canyon. A scarce three feet across, it wound about for a few hundred yards before the tracks simply stopped at a wall while the branch continued. Above where the tracks ended, two lines of, offset, six inch wide holes ascended the rock face. Each successive hole was about 18 inches above the previous one. The lisping tracker announced,“Bahth, thith ith a ladder. Dad gum if they didn’t go up it!”

DiMarco stared up stupidly at the ladder ascending the 4 story high canyon wall. Ralph Rizzo was the first to speak, “What now boss? Do we all go up? Might be kinda hard to find Eustis from up there, though we could just keep following these last tracks and hope they know where they are going.”

DiMarco sulkily stuck out his lower lip and glowered up the cliff. There was no way he was going to be able to haul his rotund body up that! “Ralph, take Phil and go up there. Keep whoever is following Eustis from bothering him; quietly if you can, noisily if you can’t.”

Ralph Rizzo nodded; it was the order he was expecting. Handsome Phil looked on expressionlessly.

“You start up Phil. I need to talk to Lance a minute and I will follow you once you are up,” Rizzo said quietly. Phil nodded and started his climb. Rizzo shook his head and decided that Phil’s last girl friend was right; the man was dumb enough to drool on his own feet.

“What Ralph?” DiMarco asked, when Phil was half way up and Rizzo still showed no sign of speaking.

“Huh? Oh nothing boss. I just wanted Phil to be the first one up if anybody was up there waiting to take a climber’s head off,” Rizzo said matter-of-factly. DiMarco just nodded, returning his attention to Phil’s climb. Hearing the exchange, Cully the Lisper aimed a rifle at the cliff top above Phil.

About six feet from the top of the cliff, Phil passed a sizable hole in the wall. It was about 3 feet wide and a bit taller. He paid it no mind and continued. Reaching the top, he pulled himself up without event, and looked around. “Nobody up here,” he called down. “No tracks neither,” he added.

“No tracks?” Rizzo called back.

“Nope.”

Ralph made short work of climbing up. Sure enough there were no tracks. Climbing back down to the hole proved to be much scarier work than climbing up. Not being able to see the next foot hold down was nerve wracking. Looking into the tunnel, he saw that it went back out of sight but that there were tracks at the mouth heading in, “They went in here,” he called out. Conveniently, three torches were wedged in the rock wall just inside of the cave, though there wasn’t any sign of torch light ahead.

“Back down here Phil, they went this way.”

“Ok,” the other man answered and he was down momentarily.

Jimuta was moving at a brisk trot when the light rain began. Looking to the horizon, the skies promised that it would turn nasty very soon. Cutting over a rise, he saw Harper following the meandering slot canyon rim.

The Arapaho warrior nodded at Jess when the Texan spotted him and waived him forward. Moments later the two rejoined. “Took longer than you thought it would,” Jess commented quietly.

“As I finished removing our tracks, I heard voices in the canyon. DiMarco changed his mind so he and his men have followed us.”

Jess nodded, reached into his pocket, and handed the Indian a silver dollar, “Ok, you win. Still, if they were following us they’re gonna find the ladder and come up here. Then they’ll follow the canyon. I don’t see where covering our tracks bought us much.”

Jimuta pocketed the coin with a small nod, “Care to bet on that?”

“No dadgum it! You’ve already won three dollars from me, and we aint even caught up with Eustis yet,” Jess quietly laughed. “What were you up to back there?”

The Arapaho smiled briefly; a flash of white that was there and gone so quickly it could have almost been imagined. This man was a quick learner. “I climbed down and laid a false trail into the cave by the ladder. I went in as far as the earth was soft. I also made sure there were torches there for them to find.”

“That was mighty kind of you,” Jess said with amusement. “Now they’ll have plenty of light for exploring their cave. Is it very big?”

“Big enough for them to explore for the rest of their lives,” the Indian said darkly.

The tone caused a chill to run down Jess’ back. He placed a hand on his companion’s shoulder. “What do you mean?” he asked with quiet intensity.

“That cave connects with the cave your friends are traveling to. In heavy rains your friend’s cave fills with water and drains into the smaller one that they are exploring. That cave becomes a waterfall.” The Arapaho turned his face up into the intensifying precipitation, then back to Jess. “If this rain comes harder- and Great Spirit willing I think it will – then we need not fear any men following tracks into that cave.”

Jess’ stomach knotted. Those men meant to kill L.Q., Cora, and himself. This stopped them neatly. But dadgum, it was an awfully cold blooded way to go about it. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done because his first duty was to protect his companions. “You know a lot about this lost mine.”

“It was never lost,” the warrior answered indifferently, “Only hidden because it is taboo.”

“Why is it sacred?”Jess asked absently, mind still fully on the expected fate of their pursuers.

Jimuta made a disparaging noise, “Who said anything about it being sacred? It is taboo because rains make it dangerous. There is no good reason to go there and young men, wishing to prove themselves, make dumb decisions. Then the Spanish came and now a bunch of angry spirits are there. Sacred! Hrmmph.”

The derisive response distracted Jess from worrying about their spelunking tails. “What do you mean?” he asked pursing his lips and inclining his black haired head.

“Let us head to the mouth of the canyon. I’ll tell you as we go.” The pair moved off, paying the intensifying rain no mind.

“My people have always known of the caves here. The main entrance lies in the bowl at the end of the canyon. Most of the time the bowl is dry. But, during storms, or after heavy rains, the waters pond up and flood the cave system. Over the years, many foolish youths have entered these caves and never returned. Sometimes their bodies are found in the slot canyon, or in the lake you whites call ‘Falls Lake.’ That is why it is taboo.”

Jess looked at the worn warrior, “Have you been in those caves?”

The man snorted, “Of course. I was young and dumb once myself. I know them fairly well. Anyway, that is how things were, forever. Then came strangers from the south. A Spanish band with Comanche scouts. Their leader was named Gallaraga.” Abruptly the man spat disdainfully.

Jess looked at him in quizzical surprise, “Not a nice guy?”

“It is said that even the Spanish called him a brute. He was looking for gold and he found it here. He moved his men into the bowl and raided around to enslave workers. His Comanche allies warned him of the dangers of camping there, but he was too arrogant to listen. It had been a dry year and he saw no sign of water. In the end, the Comanche heard that he was going to enslave them also, so one night they faded away, taking the Spaniard’s horses with them.”

Jimuta stopped his narrative as the pair negotiated a short, but steep, downhill slope. Jess prodded the storyteller at the bottom of the slope, “I take it Gallaraga was displeased.”

Again the Arapaho flashed a brief smile, gone as quickly as it appeared, “Oh yes, it is said that he raged so hard that he made himself ill. The dry weather had let him mine for months and now he had no animals to carry either the gold, or their supplies.”

“Then the rain came and they drowned like rats in a hole,” Jess put in.

The warrior shook his head, “The rain only came after more mining and his trying to get our people to carry gear for them. We strongly declined having seen how he treated everyone else.” He wiped the rain from his eyes, “Then the rain did come, and it came fiercely and stayed long. The bowl ponded up and the canyon flowed as a deep river. When it finally stopped raining, the bowl was still flooded and remained that way; freezing over when the snows came. It is said that the waters didn’t depart until well into the next spring when Gallaraga came to us for help.”

Jess started, “He was still alive?”

Jimuta nodded, “He and three other Spaniards came into our camp, starved, bedraggled and desperate. He and his people had retreated into the caves before the flooding waters. You see, there are rooms there that never flood. But they had lost most of their supplies and it wasn’t long before they only had rum and gold. So there they dwelt, starving in the darkness. The tales they told do not bear my repeating. Let me just say that cannibalism figured in greatly.”

Jess shuddered as his mind envisioned the fate of the Conquistadores. “Whatever your people did to those three was nothing compared to what they went through in that mine.”

Jimuta shook his head grimly, “My people did nothing to them. The Hinonoeino are a kind and good people. We fed them and the two soldiers joined us. Gallaraga was mad, arrogant, and stupid enough to try to violate one of our women. In the end, one of his own men knifed him. That is how we wound up with his map, through Nittawowsew , Cora’s mother.”

“And she gave it to L.Q.’s brother,” Jess opined, “and later to L.Q.”

“Yes.”

“What became of Gallaraga’s gold?”

 Jimuta looked grim, “My people put his body with his gold. He keeps it. It is his spirit, and those of the other men who died in the dark, that dwells in that place. Anyone who takes that gold will also get their spirits; very angry spirits.”

Jess looked at him wide eyed, “You’re telling me that there are piles of gold lying loose in there?”

L.Q. and Cora stood together by the rock wall of the bowl. A three foot high opening lay at and below ground level, largely concealed by boulders jumbled in front of it, “This is it Uncle,” Cora quietly said in a strained voice. “This is the entrance to Papa’s mine.” L.Q. looked about, and he didn’t like what he saw. The rain was coming down and a pond appeared to be forming along the Bowl’s wall, “Gallaraga mentions a water danger, on his stupid map, and that pond looks like its growing fast. I think it might flood.”

Cora nodded, “Oh it will.” She sounded very odd, “But Papa said that there’s a room with gold that never floods. Mommy and I were to help him carry the rocks in and the gold out.” Then she burst into tears, “But Mommy was bad, and I was bad, and now Papa is dead! Papa is dead!” With that she burst into tears and fell to the ground howling.

L.Q. simply stood there, looking on stupidly as the rain splattered him and his sobbing niece, “Oh Devil take it,” he finally thought. “I bet I now know where Lucas got to. Carry the rocks in?” With a grimace, he let out a sigh. The only reason to tote rocks into a mine was to salt it, and then to con a potential buyer. Apparently Lucas had found the mine to be played out.

            As the rain intensified, Eustis and Yves (the pair’s trailing L.Q. and Cora) were finding travel up canyon to get increasingly difficult. “Eustis, we gotta get outta here! The current is picking up and the water is getting deeper!” Henry Yves shouted. He needed to shout to be heard over the roar of the water that now filled the canyon from side to side and was ankle deep.

            “Run for it Henry! Maybe we’re close to the end. The way this flood is building I don’t think we’ll make it out by going back,” Pratt shouted back.

Running in ankle deep water is inconvenient. Running in it, in boots, when it is flowing rapidly against you is far worse. Mostly the ground was hard, washed clean by previous floods. Still, there were soft spots where a foot would sink and each man went down a dozen times in their desperate run. At no time did one stop to help the other; it was purely “The Devil Take the Hinder Most.” When they finally reached the upslope that marked the climb to the end of the canyon, the water was fast running and up to their knees. That last climb was arduous. Cold, soaked, chests heaving, leg muscles flaming in pain, and desperate to be out of the watery death trap, they slogged up the slope as quickly as they could. An eternity later, they exited the slot canyon and reached safety. Looking back, they saw that the water level behind them was now thigh high, and still getting deeper.

Henry celebrated their survival by throwing up. Eustis, much less showy, merely stood bent over and trembling. A few minutes, the latter spoke, “Come on Henry.  Let’s shelter at those boulders. I bet we’ll find a dry place there.” Henry raised his pale face, straightened up, and joined him.

They walked over to the boulders, stopping when they reached them, “Henry, do you hear crying?”

Yves nodded, “Gotta be loud to hear it over the flowin’ water. It’s on the other side of the boulders, I think.” The two men carefully rounded the boulders, rifles up; discovering L.Q. and Cora.

“Howdy Reverend!” Eustis called out cheerfully as he rounded the boulder first. Yves cursed, stumbling after him, his right foot slipping on loose gravel.
            Without thinking, the old deputy whirled and nearly pulled his gun. Fortunately, wits overcame instinct as fast pistol draw versus readied rifle is a traditional form of western suicide. Scowling he answered, “Morning Eustis.”

Smiling, the walleyed Pratt ordered, “Just pull that iron out left handed and toss it into the pond. That’s a good man,” he finished as the Remington splashed into the water. “Princess, are you alright?”

“Yes dearest,” came the surprisingly cheerful reply, “but don’t kill him.”

Both the cheery tone and what she said startled him,“Why not?”

“Because he can help us haul out the gold. We’ll want to clear it out of the mine before your boss gets here,” she added.

Eustis shook his head, “He won’t be here anytime soon. We barely made it. Anybody still in that canyon is surely dead.” He was startled to see the look of horror that flashed across her comely features, and shook his head with a harsh laugh, “Woman, drowning is no worse than any other way of dying.”

The girl quickly nodded while avoiding L.Q.’s look of surprise, confusion, and anger. She remarked, “We had best get busy.”

Pratt addressed his companion, “Henry, you want to keep all the gold that you can carry? Or are you going to tell DiMarco we found gold laying around?”

Henry’s reply didn’t come as a surprise, “Hey Eustis, I’m just here to back you up. Reporting gold mine stuff is your business,” he said with a grin.

The walleyed man answered with a nod and a crooked half smile. Then he turned his gun upon Cora, “Princess, give me your pistol,” he ordered.

“Eustis, what do you mean?”

“Give me your gun Princess, or so help me, I will shoot you. I’m not giving it back to you until we are safely elsewhere, and I am sure that we are on the same side.”

The hard look in his eyes convinced the girl not to argue, and she turned her gun over to him with hurt pouty eyes, but no fanfare. Her only reply was a shrug and “Well, if we want to reach gold, and not drown, we’d best hurry. So she took L.Q.’s hooded lantern, stooped low and entered Galaraga’s mine. The rest followed and it was only a minute before they reached areas where they could walk normally.

******************************************************************************

On the rim above, Jimuta and Jess arrived just in time to witness Pratt’s disappearance into the mine. “Dad gum it! If we follow them we’ll be sitting ducks,” Jess exclaimed.

 “We can wait down there, and catch them coming out. Your friends will be fine as Pratt will want to use them as pack animals to carry out as much gold as he can.”

Jess listened dubiously, and then he nodded. “Alright, let’s climb down there and wait for them.”

Back in the side canyon, DiMarco and his remaining men started heading back towards the main passage of the slot canyon. The Lisper stopped when he saw a trickle of water coming their way.

“Bahth, I think thihth ith getting dangerouth,” the Lisper said. “We need to climb out of here. Leth go back to the hole ladder, and climb out.”

DiMarco stopped and paled. He couldn’t possibly climb out. As if he could read his boss’ mind, the Lisper shook his head and pulled a rope from out of his ruck sack. “Never go climbing, or canyoning, without a rope Bahth. We’ll haul you up, but we gotta hurry.”

DiMarco nodded in relief, “I owe you Cully,” He said quietly. The henchmen smiled and nodded. The men hurried back to the ladder as the water turned from a trickle to a flood. They were going downhill, which helped with running but, as the water rose around them; it increased their chances of slipping and drowning. By the time they got back to the climbing point, they were standing knee deep in cold fast flowing liquid.

Cully the Lisper shot up the wall and started readying his rope. The second gunny, likewise, flew up the stone. The third started his climb and was halfway up when water started pouring out of the cave that Rizzo and Phil had entered. The climbing man uttered a cry as he slipped and fell into the water below. A minute later he was up again but on one leg. The other stuck out awkwardly at the knee.

 Cully tossed the rope down. At the end was a loop to stand on and knots were in it for the men above to grip. The water was now thigh high and a current pulled urgently at the men below. Stepping onto the foot loop, DiMarco shrilled, “I’m next,” while his injured minion whimpered. The two men at the top hauled mightily as the fat bureaucrat clung to the rope for dear life. Coughing and choking, DiMarco was bodily drug through the waterfall and arrived at the top.  

Cully went to drop the rope to the injured man but he had been swept away. “Dang, the devil duth take the hindermothed,” he observed dispassionately.

.\

Inside the cave, their torch light illuminated the narrow passage around the soggy spelunkers. “Ralph, are you sure they came this way?” Phil gasped out, chest still heaving from the vertical climb they had just finished. He and Ralph had found crawling in the cave unpleasant; then very wet and unpleasant when water started flowing past them. It progressed to cold, miserable, and unpleasant; a condition that soon turned to dangerous. If they hadn’t come across a dry vertical passage, the cold rushing water would have exhausted them. Then it would have violently forced them back the way they had come.

“Phil, I have no idea. But we can’t go back, or do you fancy climbing down under a waterfall?”

“I didn’t see no waterfall in here,” Phil answered in surprise.

Rizzo shook his head as he answered, “You chowder head, where do you think all this water goes to? It pours out the hole we came in. As long as it is running we can’t go back that way. I don’t know about you, but I’m also tired of fighting my way up stream; I’m not a salmon and you aint my type.”

“You sure ‘bout the waterfall?” the gunny had asked dumbly.

“Yeah, so on we go,” Rizzo said with finality.

So they squelched down the passage. After walking for a few minutes, the torch light showed something white on the ground. Ralph stooped and picked it up.

“Looks like an old broken bone,” Phil said indifferently.

“Yup,” then Ralph pointed down the passage and to the right. “There’s the rest of the bones.”

“Them bones is sorely tore up. Think maybe a bear did that?” Phil asked, trying to look up and down the passage at the same time.

“Nah, it wasn’t a bear. It was a cook.  Looks like someone used an axe to get the marrow out. Ma used to do that, sometimes, when we slaughtered live stock,” Ralph Rizzo said as he indifferently dropped the bone.

Phil looked thoughtful for a moment, “Who would bring stock in here and slaughter it?”

Ralph shook his head, “Wasn’t stock. Stock doesn’t wear clothes and the rags there are that guy’s clothing. Oh, and there’s his skull.”

Phil grimly looked at the bones, “That’s creepy.” Ralph shrugged indifferently and the pair continued on, slowly going uphill until they entered a broader chamber.”

 

 

Chapter Six - Galaraga’s Gold

The four mine explorers walked in single file. Cora lead followed by Henry, L.Q. and lastly Eustis. The gunmen’s pistols covered the Pastor and the girl and L.Q. knew that Eustis would shoot at the slightest provocation. Cora spent her time keeping track of those behind her while following the path ahead. L.Q. knew that, try as she might to fain indifference, things were not going to the girl’s liking. “Whatever she had in mind,” he thought, “losing Jess was not a part of it.” He frowned, and then he spoke with seeming indifference, “Eustis, having Cora kill Harper surely made this easier for you.”

The trailing man snorted, “Can’t take credit for that. It was her idea.” Cora heard the exchange and cast a mortified glance at her uncle, then seeing his raised eyebrow; she gave him the slightest of nods.

L.Q. considered while they covered the dark uneven terrain. Cora wanted Eustis to think that Harper was dead and then have Jess tail them. But why encourage Eustis to pursue them if she then would have had Jess eliminate him from behind? Obviously, she wanted Eustis to do something before Jess acted. The woman’s words came back to him, “Because he can help us haul out the gold.” Tardily, he realized that his niece was in this for Galaraga’s gold, but was too afraid of whatever ‘comes with the gold’ to touch it herself. She wanted others to carry it out first, and then to have Jess act. To do that, she needed to make sure they were inside of the mine before Jess came up to protect them. The Texan was smart so she could count on him to track them to the mine and then, rightly, decide that trailing them inside was suicidal.  Pretty simple, really. Jess waits for them to come out, gets the drop on their captors, and forces them to carry the gold back to town.

The only problem was that she hadn’t planned on Jess drowning in the canyon. The nasty part was that she probably didn’t intend to share the gold in the end except with a man handling it along the way. L.Q. shivered, that plan meant that either he or Harper would have wound up a dead man. He wasn’t sure which thought left him colder- the thought of his niece murdering himself, or of her seducing and then murdering an accomplice. Then the reverend pursed his lips and glanced back at Eustis. Make that murdering a pair of accomplices.

Eustis caught the glance; “Got a problem, Reverend?” he smirked.

Underneath the trappings of a blood and thunder preacher, the soul of a merry, low born, scoundrel still dwelt. “Just sizing you up for your coffin, Eustis, and picking out your hymns. We preachers have to plan out such things so that funeral services go smoothly,” the chipper response was out without a second thought. “Which do you prefer, ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God?’ I’m thinking Grace because you’ll need all the help you can get.”

“Mighty optimistic there, aren’t you preacher man? I figure I’ll long out live you,” the walleyed man sneered.

L.Q. smirked while thinking, “If I can’t put the fear of Jesus, into these two, maybe I can give them the fear of something else. I sure have nothing to lose by stirring the pot.” Cora’s fear of spirits brought old ghost tales of his Louisiana swamp dwelling Cajun mother to mind. He forced amusement into his voice, “Oh, I don’t know. You surely don’t know what you are getting into. The Lord Jesus will protect me while unrepentant low life scum, like yourself, your friend, and Cora, are totally on your own in here. You see, I know the history of the Galaraga mine, and the evils here date to well before his coming.”

Henry snorted while Cora gave him a hurt and confused look. “Do tell,” Eustis mocked.

The Reverend nodded, “Since everyone should have a last chance, to save their soul, I will.” With a theatrically deep breathe, and offering a brief silent prayer asking for forgiveness in reverting to the ways of the snake oil salesman he had been when he first arrived in Denver, he began. “When Galaraga came here seeking gold, he found….”

And so L.Q. began his tale. He spokes of spirits who cried, spoke, and sometimes became flesh. He spoke quietly, then more passionately. He punctuated with his hands, periodically letting the tale fall silent. Then he would continue on.

Cora watched her uncle’s performance pull the two greedy gunnies into the stories against their wills. Indeed, the tales made the caves shadows press in. They also sharpened her senses with fear, despite her knowing full well that L.Q. was making up everything as he went. “Why is he doing this?” she thought. “He’s making them jumpier, and even more dangerous.” With the loss of Jess, her plan for having the men carry out Galaraga’s gold and then her taking it, with the Texan’s help (some seduction would have been required there but she had been both confident  and eager for that part) was in tatters. In fact, just keeping L.Q. alive had been an achievement. Then she noticed that her captors were spending more time glancing around at the shadows than at either her or L.Q. And when they did look at their prisoners, they were watching him far more closely than her. L.Q. was buying her an opportunity to act! God she loved this clever old coyote man!

The chilling story telling continued as they journeyed down the twisting and uneven passageways. Rounding a corner, Cora spotted a flicker of a light ahead! And then it was gone. “Somebody else is in the cave!” she thought. Starting to speak, she stopped. If she told Eustis he would tie up herself and her uncle. That wouldn’t do as they needed to be free, and a healthy dose of confusion, to escape. A better plan came to mind. Now if she could only get L.Q. to act upon it.

“Uncle, “she said quietly, “You had better tell them of the killing spirits in the glittering room.”

Her interruption startled him, “What Cora? The glittering room?”

“What are you talking about Princess?” Eustis asked sharply.

“Yes the glittering room. How men disappeared one by one, taken by the dancing lights, and only their shattered bones were ever found. They had been fed upon by the spirits.”

L.Q., never slow on the uptake, bent his tale that way. “The deadliest peril of all is in, and about, the glittering room. It is said that the spirits come in dancing lights to steal men away one by one. Only their screams and shattered bones –fully stripped of flesh- give evidence of their passing….” The Reverend had no idea where his niece wanted him to go with this, though he guessed there was a cavern ahead with mica or limestone that would glitter in the light.

“That’s just stupid,” Henry interrupted with a tremor. “These are just stories,” he gulped.

Cora turned the shuttered lantern full on her companions, the better to ruin their night vision, and to make prematurely spotting any errant light ahead less likely, “Not so. Come over here and look.” She said as she again turned away. Not half a minute later the party was circled around two shattered skeletons which, unbeknownst to the group, looked much like the skeleton that Rizzo and Phil had found. The bones were utterly shattered to get at the marrow.

L.Q. paused in his tales. In truth he was fresh out and needed time to think up more. Then they all caught a flash of light and the walls ahead glittered. In a flash, the light was gone. Then it was back again, and it was gone. Suddenly the cavern was filled with echoes of yelling and eerie laughter. Eustis gulped audibly.

“We’ll be in the glittering cavern, where the gold is, very soon.”Cora said. Then in sudden distress, “Oh Papa! Papa! I’m sorry I was bad. Really I am,” and she collapsed in tears.

L.Q. knelt by his crying niece. Helping her up, he felt her press a cold metal object into his left hand. It was the unmistakable shape of a Derringer. He palmed it with a smile. “Whatever else happens, we’re not going down alone,” the prevaricating old deputy manfully thought to himself.

“Calm down Phil!” Ralph Rizzo laughed again. The sight of the torchlight glittering off of the gold made him giddy himself. Never mind the skeletal remains lying about the place. The dead were dead; they never bothered anybody.

The grinning Rizzo assessed their haul. It wasn’t a huge pile, but gold is heavy and it was certainly far more than they could pack out. There were several white bags, Collier’s flour boldly printed upon them, filled with dust and tiny nuggets. Plus there were some honest to Pete ingots! “Dang Phil, if you were a dog I think you’d get down and roll around in it.” Then he sobered up as a thought struck him. “Quiet down,” he ordered.

Phil looked up at him curiously because of Rizzo’s change in tone. “Remember, why we’re here? We’re trailing those two galoots and one is probably that killer Harper. You want them to find us? If they do, I bet they’ll try to take our gold.”

The face of the much dimmer Phil took on a very belligerent look, “Over my dead body they will.” Then another truth struck him, “Ralph, the boss is gonna want this gold as well as the mine.”

“Yup. I figure he can have the mine, but we aint giving him our gold.”

“The boys will back him. He’s paying.”

“Yup. We gotta carry the gold out and hide it. Later we’ll ditch the boss and come back. Are you in buddy?”

Phil thought at his snail’s pace, then grinned. “Oh yeah, that’ll work great.”

What both men figured, but didn’t say, was that the other one was going to have a terminal accident somewhere along the line. Such is honor amongst thieves.

The pair settled down and inspected the sacks and ingots. Happily the bags were sound, or hauling them would have been a real pain. Then Phil started, “Hear that buddy?”Rizzo looked at him quizzically, knowing that Phil had particularly good hearing. “Footsteps are coming from thataway.”

“Bet it’s Harper and his friend. Quick Phil, we’ll hide and bushwack’em.” The pair quickly left their haul, moving to a side passage. Reluctantly, they put out their torch and waited. They could hear the sound of footsteps approaching in the heavy darkness.

Jimuta and Jess reached the mouth of the cave in time to hear the sounds gunfire echoing from it. There were so many shots that they exchanged a curious look. “Con sarn it! What is going on in there?” the Texan queried rhetorically.

“Perhaps L.Q. made a break for it and wound up with a pistol,” Jimuta answered indifferently. “If so he seems to be making an extended fight of it.”

Jess gave the Arapaho a hard look, “You don’t care if he or Cora come out of this alive, do you?”

The warrior shrugged, “I will help them if and when I can. I owe that to ‘Doesn’t Like Men.’ From what I have been told the girl is offensive and I know nothing of this L.Q….but if he is like his brother then I won’t lift a finger to help him.”

Jess scowled, “Doesn’t Like Men? Who in tarnation is that, and what is his place in this?”

Jimuta smiled fully, “Mort Corey was named ‘Doesn’t Like Men’ by a cousin of mine whom he later took to wife. It is a long story and very funny. I promise to tell it to you when all this is done.” The warrior paused then he laughed again, “You can be certain that Uncle Mort never will.”

At this point the gunfire recommenced, “Hang it Jimuta, how the devil can we help? If we go in we’ll be either blind as bats or sitting ducks.”

“We sit tight. There is nothing we can do to help them in there without….” The warrior stopped speaking and pointed back to where they had descended the cliff. Three men were coming down; two helping a chubby one using a rope. “

******************************************************************************

The light from the broken lantern had guttered out so the glittering cavern had returned to its natural state. The Reverend L.Q. Jones lay motionless with his arm wrapped around, and his body covering, that of his niece. The unfired Derringer was still ready in his hand.

As he lay there, he considered what had happened. They had entered a large cavern with glittering minerals scattered throughout the walls. The light of Cora’s lantern, dimly reflected by the walls, gave them a vague view of the room. A few skeletons, all badly shattered were near the opening they came through, while another skeleton- unshattered and clothed in denim and Linsey-woolsey lay in the center of the room near a pile of sacks and ingots. Gold! Honest to Pete gold ingots! A skeleton in rusted out armor lay amongst them.

When she saw the clothed skeleton, Cora had dropped her lantern and sobbed “Papa!” flinging herself at it. It was then that shots rang out from two gunmen hidden to their left. Without thinking, he had run forward, knocked Cora down and away from the light of the guttering lantern, and shielded her body with his own. Eustis and his comrade, at least one of whom was hit in the opening fusillade, had returned fire. The four gunmen continued exchanging shots as the light died. In the utter darkness, it was now a lethal game of cat and mouse where occasional noises would draw a shot, and that shot, along with other subsequent shots, would draw return fire. The only one not playing was L.Q. The others had used the trick of throwing stones, to draw fire, so often that now you could throw stones to your heart’s content without getting a response.

L.Q. heard a rustle of movement to his left. He remained both motionless and as silent as the grave. Unfortunately, just laying here wasn’t accomplishing anything. With his left hand he found Cora’s head. He moved up, and as quietly as possible, whispered into her ear, “Can you find your way back to where we entered the cavern?”

He felt her nod, and a wave of relief swept over him. Not only was he utterly turned around, but he figured she had recovered her composure. He whispered to her again, as another set of shots was exchanged. In the glare of the pistols he actually caught a glimpse of where they had entered. Good. Eustis’ partner was only about 10 feet from them. Bad.

He again whispered to Cora, “Stay down until I say go. Then we’ll crawl out of here quiet as church mice.” He felt her nod.

Turning his attention to his dead brother, he thought, “Howdy there Lucas, you old devil. We’re gonna borrow a few things you no longer need.” Silently, and without a trace of grief, he undid Lucas’ Linsey-woolsey shirt, got it free of the bones, and wadded it up. The feel of the dry rotted garment made him smile in grim satisfaction. Next he removed his brother’s belt, thinking “Too bad there’s no gun in the holster.”

A scrabbling noise came from his left, and a man landed full upon him. L.Q rolled from the impact and the clink of metal on stone heralded the use of a knife. The old deputy rolled half to the side, brought the Derringer around, and thrust it at his unseen assailant until it made contact. Then he pulled the trigger. The man spasmed then lay still. In the flare of the shot, L.Q. saw that he had the great good fortune of actually sticking the tiny gun barrel in his attacker’s ear. Gunfire answered the flash of his shot and the Reverend closely hugged the cold stone floor until it stopped.

The old deputy pocketed the empty Derringer and then found his victim’s knife, pistol, and gun belt. He smiled when he felt the spare ammo on the belt thinking, “Single shot weapons are for the birds!” Returning to his brother, L.Q. took up a femur and made a make shift torch out of it, the shirt, and the belt.  

“Ok girl, let’s get out of here,” he barely breathed to Cora, “Quietly now.”  There was no response. “Come on Cora!” he gritted out with ever so quiet ferocity. There was still no response. “Crimenitly!” He thought, and then he picked her up. She was completely limp. So much for crawling; you can’t drag a body quietly. Silently, he prayed a desperate prayer, “Oh Lord, kindly keep this accursed gold. Just let Cora and I escape this mess alive. In Jesus name I beseech thee and pray. Amen.”

The elderly man quietly took off his boots and jammed them into his belt. Then, in his stocking feet, he stood up and picked up the limp girl. Slowly he inched their way across the black cavern. Slide foot. Stop. Slide other foot stop. The slightest sound was like a drum beat to his ears and his heart was even louder. Carrying Cora, he was in no position to use his new pistol or knife. Silence was his only friend.

An eternity of tiny movements later, the Reverend’s toe found a wall. “Oh Praise God!” He thought. “I aimed to the left of the opening so I need to go right until I find it.” Small step. Small movement.  Small step. Small movement…. he travelled a second eternity until he felt a breath of air touch his face, signifying the emptiness of the gate to freedom. Grinning in the darkness, he stepped through and immediately put his foot in a hole. Pain lanced through his ankle and he fell to the floor with a clatter, and loudly swearing in a decidedly unholy manner.

Gunfire immediately erupted, and the wall above him caromed ricochets about. Flashes from the pistols momentarily illuminated all three remaining gunmen, each of whom were shooting in his general direction. The sight inspired the fallen man to hurriedly get his foot out of the hole he had stepped into. He crawled quickly and dragged Cora out of there. Noise didn’t matter a darn. Nobody would hear it over the gunplay.

In the darkness he moved, his shoulder brushing the wall and the other arm dragging the girl. Eventually, he found the expected opening on his right. Ducking around it he stood. The injured ankle screamed in protest, but took his weight. Then he heaved up the girl and continued on until he made another turn. Then he stopped with a sigh. “Enough of this,” he thought. Taking out the femur, he used a match to ignite the knotted up shirt. “It won’t burn long, but maybe long enough to get us out.”

Quickly he looked at Cora. There was a large bump on her head. She must have taken a heavy blow from the guy he had grappled with; perhaps from a boot. By all signs she wasn’t going to come around anytime soon.

So girl on his good side, his brother’s femur held on the other, the battle scarred old preacher limped down the passage. “Glory be to God!” he breathed when he eventually saw the daylight at the end. The sound of distant gunfire, still contesting the ownership of Galaraga’s gold, underscored his prayer of thanks. Moving backwards, he drug Cora through the low exit passage. Upon exiting the mine, he was greeted by a familiar voice, “Howdy Reverend, how’s it going?” Turning, L.Q. grumpily looked into the faces of Lance DiMarco and two strangers.

“I’ve had better days,” he groused.

“It’s your own fault, you should think twice before running around barefoot in a cave,” the grinning Indian agent said with a nod toward the old man’s shredded and bloodied stockings.

******************************************************************************

Jess and Jimuta watched the scene from cover, Jess with a relieved grin and Jimuta with an inscrutable expression. “They are out and we’ve got him! DiMarco’s threatening them with a gun at the mine!” The Texan quietly announced in a fiercely happy low baritone.

Eyes forward, Jess readied his rifle to rescue the Joneses and to take down DiMarco and his gunmen. Just before he stood Jimuta pistol whipped him. The Texan never saw it coming and he went down like a sack of potatoes. The Hinonoeino warrior then disarmed him, and placed him in a dry spot out of the sunshine that had finally replaced the rain. “Sorry my friend, but things are not yet finished and you whites are far too prone to gold fever,” he whispered sadly to the unconscious man. “I will apologize and explain when we are done.” Then he returned to watching further events unfold.

 

Chapter Seven - Resolutions

“That feels good…” Jess muttered as he struggled back into the conscious world. While the side of his head was throbbing, there was something wet and cooling on top of it easing the ache. Then something warm and soft touched his lips; full consciousness returned with the realization that someone was kissing him gently and deeply.

Jess opened his eyes to see Cora gently smiling down upon him. She was seated, and had his head cradled in her lap. “Glad to see it’s you and not L.Q.” he joked. Then his last memories came flooding back and he was up with a start. They were alone in a sheltered part of the bowl near the mine entrance.

Cora smiled sweetly at him, “It’s alright Jess. Jimuta is watching the cave entrance. DiMarco and his devils are down in the mine.” The girl was looking calm, almost serene; a great change from her previous state.

“How’d you get away from DiMarco? Where’s L.Q?” he asked while eying her closely.

She smiled and added, “Uncle took them down. They will probably start carrying Galaraga’s gold up soon.”

Jess felt a shock of fear for the preacher, “Cora, they may kill L.Q. once he shows them where the gold is.”

“Oh no Jess, they will force him to carry some. There is far more gold than they can carry in one trip. Then they will come up wanting me and my guard to go down and help, but that won’t happen.”

“Because Jimuta freed you. Where is the guard?”

The girl shrugged, still smiling. “I don’t know. When I woke up I was with Jimuta. The last thing I remember, before that, was being in the mine. There had been some shooting, and Uncle and I were grappling with someone in the dark. I wouldn’t even know about a guard if Jimuta hadn’t told me. Anyway, the guard is dead.” After a pause she added, “As dead as Cora. Deader, even.”

Jess’ eyebrows flew up and he drawled, “So Cora is dead?” He got a placid nod in reply. Making a quick guess, he asked, “And how are you Cocheta?”

“Aware, feeling so fully alive, and oh so happy!” Then her voice went from joyous to serious, “But still we have much to do.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Jess said carefully, while thinking “This girl is totally off her nut.” Then he rubbed his dented head and fished for information. “Cora was my friend. How did she die?”

The girl clouded up but in an almost distant way. “Aren’t I your friend too?”

Jess reassured her hastily, “Every bit as much as Cora. But a man can have a lot of friends. What happened to Cora?” he pressed.

“Oh Jess, it was so sad. When she found her dead father, she remembered that she had shot and killed him…”

“Jehosephat!”Jess thought.

“…then she cried and cried and her heart broke and she went away. She is dead now and not coming back,” the girl finished with distant sadness. “Cora was a nice person, mostly. But she sometimes did bad things, and she was very unhappy.”

Jess nodded, “And now you can be Cocheta, because Cora is gone.”

The girl shook her head violently, “No Jess. I have always been Cocheta. Just Cora and I shared this body. We were like sisters, only closer. Now she is gone, and I am the happiest I have ever been.”

“Well that’s good,” Jess commented while looking around and standing up. “I think I’ll join Jimuta.”

“Yes, lets,” the girl said offering Jess her hand so that he could help her up. Without thinking, he assisted her and the next thing he knew was that she was wrapped around him and they were kissing. Then, with a laugh, she bounced away and was skipping towards the Arapaho.

“Holy Cats!” the Texan breathed. This was beginning to remind him of that strange book that Slim’s younger brother Andy had shown him, years ago. What was that thing called? Some girl in Wonderland. Well no time for that now.

In moments he had rejoined Jimuta and Cora/Cocheta/Whoever else she might turn out to be. “You gonna whack me again?” he demanded followed immediately by “What the devil did you hit me for anyway? “

“Because I want them to carry the gold out Jess. It is fouled with evil spirits. Let the spirits have them. I would juggle live rattlesnakes before touching that gold, and I prefer you not to have to touch it either,” the warrior said quietly.

Cocheta nodded wide eyed. “That is how Cora’s father died.”

“Evil spirits killed him? You said you, I mean Cora, killed him,” Jess challenged.

“Yes Jess, Cora killed him. But she killed him to keep him from beating her mother to death for refusing to touch the gold. She wouldn’t, or let Cora, touch it because of the spirits of Galaraga and his men…”

Jess eyed them both, “But its ok for L.Q. to touch it…and L.Q. said that other Arapaho used some to pay debts.”

“Mama said Jesus would protect him,” the girl answered.

Jimuta shrugged indifferently; not his problem and L.Q. was no friend of his, then he spoke, “Doesn’t like Men supplied gold dust from elsewhere to them and asked them to hint that it came from here. Gold is gold, nobody asks where it comes from when you spend it.”

Jess shook his head, absorbing this. “Then we will move on them when they come back out?” Jess asked.

Jimuta nodded, “Yes. They might decide that L.Q. is more trouble than he is worth hauling treasure.”

Jess paused, “How are we going to haul it without touching it?”

“Travois; other’s can handle it for us when we get it to a town.”

Jess frowned, “And where are we going to get a couple of travois? Nothing grows down here.”

Jimuta simply smiled and pointed off to the side. Two very dirty travois sat there as well as a large box, a bow, and a quiver of arrows. “I hauled them here a few weeks ago. Grab a beer from the box if you like.”

“You two have been working together on this from the beginning, haven’t you?” Jess said grimly, not sure what he was going to do about it save that he was definitely going to avail himself of a beer.

The girl shook her head, “Oh no. I’ve never wanted the gold. Cora did, to start a new life in San Francisco. You know she wanted you to go with her there, don’t you? She liked you a whole lot more than she liked Eustis…and I don’t blame her a bit for it.”

Jess just gave her an odd look. Jimuta chuckled, “No Jess, I knew…..Cora…. some years ago. We have not been working together. I don’t want the gold either. Unfortunately, that gold is needed or many good people will die; mostly women, children, and the elderly.”

The trio fell silent as Jess thought about their words. Well about Jimuta’s words. Cocheta’s words just made his head hurt worse. Finally he spoke, “The folks on the reservation. They had a miserable winter last year. Future winters aren’t looking a whole lot more promising. You want the gold to buy supplies.”

“Supplies, livestock, and whatever might make things better,” Jimuta said.

Jess replied simply, “Ok, I’m in.”

 Jimuta was startled though that only showed in the long pause before he responded. Then, in an embarrassed voice, he replied, “Sorry I clobbered you. I thought you would catch gold fever once you knew. Most whites would.” Finally, he turned away, making a huge show of leaving himself defenseless. When Jess made no move against him he turned back around, nodded, and extended his hand. “I am truly sorry. You are a good man Jess Harper, and I am ashamed.”

Jess grinned wryly though vast annoyance still clung about his eyes, “Just quit clocking me. First Eustis and now you. My head hurts like the devil.”

The trio resumed their watch upon the mine entrance. After a half hour, Jimuta again turned to Jess. “You might want these,” he said handing Jess a small blue beaded pouch. It was weighty for its small size.

Jess took the pouch, “What is this? Protective medicine against evil spirits?”

Jimuta gave a slight nod “Quite so. They’re your bullets. Fine protection against evil gold fevered white spirits.”

 

L.Q. was pleased to have his boots back on. Nothing else was going well, but it was good to be wearing his boots again. To buy time, he told DiMarco about the pile of gold down in the mine and about the ongoing gunfight between his men and two others. To his surprise, the bureaucrat snorted annoyance and one of the pistoleros had laughed.

“Not funny Cully,” the fat man grumbled.

“No, ith hilariuth given Ralph and Euthtith,” Cully lisped. “Those two have been thimmering at each other for weekth.”

DiMarco replied sourly, “Yeah, since you hate the pair of them it makes it hilarious.” Grumpily shaking his head he turned back to L.Q. “Come on Reverend. Lead us down so that I can keep my men from killing each other.” Then he turned back to the lisper, “You, laughing boy, stay here and guard the girl. If I take you, you’ll make a joke and the pair of them will turn around and shoot you.”

So, leading the pair of men (and carrying the second of two lanterns) L.Q. led them down, slowly. His feet hurt like mad and his ankle didn’t bear thinking about. The echoes of intermittent gun shots came to them as they went.

As they travelled, L.Q. slowed them down by pointing out old mining seams along with potential points to mine in the future. Not being miners, they didn’t realize that they were bogus suggestions. L.Q. acted as if he thought he might sell the mine to his captors rather than knowing that they intended to kill him. This served the dual purposes of giving the gunnies below more opportunities to eliminate each other while reinforcing the notion that preachers are unworldly innocents. DiMarco listened avidly, filing away the old deputy’s observations for future use. In his greed, he didn’t seem to mind their being slowed down.

A gunshot and flare of firing greeted them as they approached the glittering cavern. DiMarco stood outside of the entrance, “This is DiMarco. Phil, Ralph, Eustis, Henry! All of you stand down and quit shooting at each other.”

The sound of two men swearing was heard, “You’re kidding me. Phil, Ralph is that you two over there?”

“It’s me,” Ralph answered grumpily while thinking, “So much for keeping the gold. Drat you Eustis Pratt.” Then he added, “That you Eustis?”

“Yup.”

With that DiMarco entered. Soon the boss sorted out the situation and it wasn’t long before each man was lugging as much gold as they could carry out of the mine. They were forced to leave almost as much as they took with them, being down to a party of five. Phil was dead from a gunshot wound through his head, and Henry had bled out from a femoral wound.

While waiting outside, Jimuta pursed his lips, “The question is, where do we take them? Not as they exit the mine,” he said firmly.

Jess nodded, “Heck no! I surely don’t want a couple of them to duck back in there and then we have to dig them out. How about as they approach where you rescued Cora? We can shout at them to surrender; giving L.Q. a chance to duck out.”

The warrior nodded with a wry expression, “I hope they fight; I have little faith in white man’s justice. If they do surrender, let us make them haul the gold. It will slow them down if they try to escape.” Jess nodded his response.

Jimuta turned to Cora, “Girl, we need you for bait back where you woke up. When you hear us call to the men, duck out and take cover behind the rocks. Can you do that?”

Cora nodded with a serious expression but her eyes held a wild look, “Of course,” was all that she said.

The trio removed an arrow from the dead Lisper’s back and propped him up into a sitting position. Cora stayed there, and the two men took up a concealed ambush position where they could cover the mine entrance, the position where Cora waited, and the path in between.

It was a long wait, some three hours, before the five men returned. Eustis was the first to crawl out, flour bags of booty slung across his shoulders and a lantern in his hand. He stopped, straightened up, and then got out of the way of the next man, a similarly laden stranger whom Jess did not recognize. Next out was L.Q., followed by another stranger, and lastly came DiMarco, pistol in hand. All of the heavily burdened men moved slowly, and their clothing was soaked with sweat.

DiMarco motioned towards where Cora and the corpse were and the five men staggered their way over. Just before they arrived, Cora ducked down behind a rock and crawled away as fast as she could. “Hey Cully! You blind? Give us a hand!” One of the strangers called out. The Lisper’s corpse didn’t answer.

Jimuta did though. He stood up with his rifle and called out, “Freeze, all of you! I will happily shoot the first one who moves.”

L.Q. dropped and rolled leaving the ingots he carried to glisten in the sun. DiMarco also dropped behind cover. Eustis went for his slung rifle, and the two strangers went for their pistols. Jimuta dropped the walleyed rifleman after he cocked, but before he could fire. Jess planted one of the two strangers. The final gunman was Ralph Rizzo, and he was the only one who got a shot off. Sadly for Ralph, it was a very long pistol shot and it merely buzzed over the Hinonoeino’s head. The outlaw then dove behind a boulder.

“Cover me Jimuta, I’ll work over to their right, and they’ll either have to surrender or die,” Jess growled in his baritone.

The middle aged warrior nodded and then bounced shots off of the tops of the boulders the pair used for cover whenever he saw hair (Rizzo) or a hat (DiMarco) appear. This kept DiMarco down but Rizzo had enough gumption to get some hasty shots off…though with a pistol at that range it didn’t much matter.

Jess easily made his way to the villain’s right. He had good cover the whole way, and a minute later was in position. He looked out and assessed his situation. Though he couldn’t see DiMarco, he had the stranger dead to rights and this guy seemed the more dangerous anyway. “Drop your gun right now. It’s over for you,” the Texan shouted.

Rizzo froze at the shout. Slowly he turned his head, and then he swore. He recognized Harper by reputation and from previously seeing him in Cheyenne. He knew that, if Jess fired, only a misfire would save him. Wisely, the gunman tossed aside his pistol, but he didn’t stand up. He had too much respect for the Indian who had him pinned down.

“No! Don’t be a coward!” DiMarco screeched, appearing from behind a rock that still covered him from Jimuta and took aim at Jess. Then the fat man staggered forward, shouting in pain; half an Arapaho war arrow was sticking in his neck. His gun fell from his limp hand and he fell with a gurgle. Off to the bureaucrat’s side Jess saw Cora, uh Cocheta, oh whoever she was now, lower a bow then hold her string abraded left arm to her side. It was over.

“That was a fine shot, Cocheta,” Jess opined. “Bows are hard to use, and a neck is a small target. Why didn’t you just aim for his body?”

“I did Jess,” she answered, then she looked away embarrassed.

L.Q. snorted and Jimuta laughed outright; all actions causing the girl to blush beat red, and to mumble something the Texan couldn’t make out.

Jess looked at the minister in puzzlement, “What?”

“Jess, you are the luckiest of men. The other half of the arrow is over there,” he laughed pointing at a rock off to the side of the dead man. Sure enough, the back half of an arrow lay there upon the ground. He went on explaining, “My niece missed horribly, but the arrow broke. A fragment conveniently caromed, and killed him.” Then he paused and went on more quietly, “God was looking after you this day my boy.”

Jimuta made a sour face, “Do you really think so old man? I think Galaraga and his companion’s spirits put a curse upon DiMarco. Jess, do not touch that gold! You would be showing them ingratitude and that would be a very bad idea just now.”

L.Q. and Rizzo (the latter unarmed, hobbled, and at gun point) spent the rest of the day ferrying up the balance of the treasure. Cora and Jimuta refused to touch it and Jimuta kicked up such an unholy fuss at the suggestion of Jess touching it that they gave in to him. The group camped for the night, letting Rizzo sleep bound and uncomfortable while they kept watch. By the next day, passage down the slot canyon was safe and two travois trips moved all of the treasure down to where their mule, and DiMarco’s horses, awaited.

To Jess’ tremendous surprise, L.Q. immediately went along with Jimuta’s plan to take the gold. The Pastor simply said, “The Good Lord and I worked out a deal earlier. Cora and I get out of here alive, and I don’t take the gold. We’ll head back to Texas.”

“No I won’t Uncle. I’m either going with Jess, Jimuta, or both if they stay together,” she said turning big eyes upon Jess. “Come on Jess, let’s join the Arapaho.”

“Are you sure girl? You want to be Cocheta, not Cora?” L.Q. asked. She smilingly nodded. He shrugged sadly, then hesitantly continued, “Girl, you know where to find me if things do not go well…”

She looked at the older man with great affection. Though the pair regularly fought and fussed, there was no denying that L.Q. cared for her. In her life she hadn’t had many folks who had. “It will go well Uncle. You’ll see.”

With a doubtful smile he nodded. She had chosen her way, and he was free of his promise to his sister-in-law. Texas beckoned to him.

Jimuta chuckled, “I would welcome you Harper, though many of my kin will not see past your skin. Given white man’s property laws, you would be of help in dealing with your fellow whites that we will have to buy from. Yes come with us, if only for a while. After that, perhaps you would be our agent? It is something to think upon.”

“An Indian agent?” Jess thought. “No those are appointed by the government.” He smiled to himself, “No! He’d be a white man agent appointed by the Indians!” He snorted his amusement, saying, “I figure there’s about 1500 pounds of gold there and that’s a mighty big pile. I’ll escort you until it’s safely cashed in, but I won’t be staying. I have a family in Laramie. Course, with the railroad building into Laramie, that would be as good a place as any for you to get supplies from. Besides, the store owner is a friend of mine who is an honest woman; you could do worse.”

Jimuta nodded back, “We will discuss that as we go.”

Cocheta gave the Texan a dark and wanton look, “We most certainly will,” she added softly and throatily.

As he packed the gold onto the mule and horses, Ralph Rizzo tried for a new start. “I haven’t done anything to you folks. I was just following orders. Cut me loose and I’ll either skedaddle, or help the injun haul his gold wherever he wants. He can use the help since he doesn’t want to touch it.”

Jess looked to the preacher. L.Q. shrugged apathetically, “I don’t much care, either way. I made this trip to put away DiMarco and that is done. As I said, Texas is calling to me now.”

Jess looked at the gunman and didn’t much like what he saw. “What’s your name, anyway?” Nobody had bothered to ask.

Rizzo was just happy that Harper hadn’t pegged seeing him before. “Fortunately livery stable fires are chaotic and manning a fire hose distracting. At least Harper hadn’t put two and two together and remembered who’d cold cocked him. Unfortunately, the good citizens of Cheyenne had eventually figured out that I had dry gulched their deputy and put a bounty upon me,” he thought. Making a quick decision he changed his name. “William Brocius,” he said. But my friends call me Curly Bill.”

“Well, I’m not your friend. After you offload the gold to the horses, take another horse and ride on,” the Texan replied. “If I see you again I won’t be so generous.”

Ralph Rizzo nodded, “Much obliged Harper. I owe you one, and I never forget a debt.” Quickly finishing loading up the gold, he then mounted his own horse. Tipping his hat to the other four, he simply said, “Bye folks, it’s been interesting.” Then he rode on.

The End

 

Note: 1500 pounds of gold, in the 1870s, was worth $360,000. That is approximately $7,419,296.62 in 2012.

Ralph Rizzo was a secondary villain in an earlier tale titled “Prizes.”

 

 



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