Friday, November 18, 2011

First chapter of A Man Called Breed

I lay at the edge of a ridge overlooking Adam’s Well, watching. I’d come a far way from Ehrenburg on the Colorado River and the well held the only water in twenty miles. Zeeb, my brindle grulla, smelled the water and tossed his head, rustling the leaves of the scrub oak thicket where he stood.

Below, a faded yellow wagon sat by the rock-bound pool. The horses were out of the traces and cropping at the sparse grama grass. I took my time. I had to see what kind of people were at the well before me.

The sound of a hard female voice drifted up. “Get your cracker ass moving.”

A redheaded woman in a tight-waisted low-cut gingham dress strode to a dark-haired one who was washing clothes in a tub at the edge of the pool. She swung a roundhouse at the smaller woman. A moment later the smack reached my ears, accompanied by a squeak. The little one looked like a kid.
I took a long look at the man. Back against a willow tree, spraddle-legged, hat over his eyes, he didn’t move. Either he slept sound or he was ignoring the woman.

“I want clean bloomers, bitch,” the woman said.

“It’ll only take a little while, Miss Polly, just a minute,” the girl pleaded. “The water’s clear and good, and I got a bit of soap. Only a minute more. Honest.”

The whore – I decided Polly was a very soiled dove; nothing else could make a woman so hard – flounced to a wooden chair over by the wagon and sat. “Just you get along with it. That’s all I’ve got to say.” Polly bit at a fingernail, then rubbed her palms along her thighs. She heaved a sigh, scratched one armpit, then the other. Jumping up, she climbed the steps at the rear of the wagon. A moment later, she reappeared with a silk Chinese fan in her hand. “I hate Arizona,” she said. “Hot as Hell. Maybe hotter.”

The girl rinsed indigo bloomers and white cotton chemises, wrung the water from them, and spread them on a nearby manzanita bush to dry. “All done, Miss Polly,” she announced.

Polly rose and stalked over to inspect the laundry. She reached a hand to the girl’s face and gave her left cheek a twisting pinch. “Someday you’ll be decent help,” she said, “if Garfield don’t sell you to the Mexicans first.”

The girl put a hand to her face, but stood still, her head bowed.

No spirit left, I figured. Still, I saw nothing alarming about the trio, but decided to keep an eye on the sleeper. I scuttled back from the lip of the ridge, mounted Zeeb, and worked my way down the front side of the slope toward Adam’s Well.

The trio at the wagon looked like greenhorns. None of them noticed me until Zeeb was at the bottom of the ridge.

“Garfield. Garfield! There’s a guy on a horse coming this way.” The whore’s voice rose an octave, like she’d concluded I might be dangerous.

I ignored the man and his two women, and rode Zeeb to the edge of the well. The girl backed away from the water, her hands at her mouth and her eyes wide.

Polly watched, her legs spread like she was inviting me.

Garfield didn’t move.

Faded letters on the wagon side read “Pleasure Palace.” I should have guessed. A whorehouse on wheels. I turned Zeeb and stepped out of the saddle with him between me and the wagon people.

“Looking for a good time?” Polly the whore simpered.

“Not the kind you’d give,” I said. “Not in a hurry to catch the clap . . . or worse.”

Polly pouted.

“My girls have no diseases.”

“Garfield! Such language.” Then Polly giggled.

“Invite our visitor to dinner, Polly. The sun will soon be down, and there’s no need for him to ride on while food and water and certain entertainments are available here.” Garfield removed his hat, brushed a lion’s mane of tawny hair back over his head, and clamped the bowler down over it.

“Mister?” Polly’s voice was tentative. “You can stay for dinner if you want.”

“I reckon jackrabbit and prickly pears’d be better’n anything you all could cook,” I said. “I’ll be moving on.” I knelt by the pool and scooped some of the clear water into my mouth. It smelled of granite and tasted wet, not muddy like a lot of desert water. Zeeb stood between me and the wagon people like he was on guard. I filled two canteens and hung them by their straps over the saddlehorn.

“Mister?” The girl moved a little closer around the edge of the pool.

I ignored her and urged Zeeb to take another drink, then fitted him with a gunnysack nosebag. The only sounds were Zeeb munching dry oats and the girl’s breathing.


I looked at her.

“I’ll cook real good.” The girl’s voice pleaded and so did her eyes. “Can’t you stay for dinner?”

“You cooking?”

She nodded. “I always do.”

I turned away and stared at the pool for a long moment, then looked up. “I’ll stay if you want, but there are men on my back trail . . . men who’ll shoot first and ask for explanations later.” I didn’t mention the canvas money belt under my union suit, filled with half a hundred gold double eagles earned with hard work and cunning and an ability to train horses well, coins from the sale of forty-nine prime mustangs to the quartermaster at Fort Yuma.

“We got beans and some chilli peppers. I can make fry bread, too.” The girl’s voice got stronger.

I grubbed through my saddlebags and pulled out a fist-sized lump wrapped in a piece of flour-sack cloth. “Half a rabbit,” I said. “Can’t have no chili con carne without it’s got meat in it.” I held out the lump to the girl.

Her eyes went wide. “Meat?” She took a hesitant step toward me. “Can I use it? Really?”

I nodded, still holding the lump out toward her.

“Take the meat, damn it.” Garfield’s voice had a hard edge to it.

The girl shrank back into herself. She kept her eyes on the ground as she came up to me.
I studied her as she approached. Thin. Too thin. Dark complexion, but not Mex. Simple cotton dress. Likely nothing underneath. She barely came to my shoulder.

She took the meat. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “My name is Blessing.” She stood there, waiting to hear my name.

“I’m just passing through, Blessing,” I said. “My name don’t matter. Leave it be.”

Blessing reached out to pat Zeeb. “Your horse sure looks funny, mister,” she said.

Zeeb snuffled at her dress and decided he didn’t mind the young woman.

“Zeeb’s taken a liking to you, Blessing. You must be something special.” I smiled.

Blessing blushed. “Thank you for the meat, mister. I’ll surely make chili con carne y frijoles. The beans is already done.” She returned to the wagon, put the meat away, picked up a hand axe, and went out in the brush. Probably looking for firewood. A jay chattered in the alders back of the pool. The other two could have been hunks of stone for all they moved.

I took the saddle off Zeeb and turned him loose to graze. The brindle grulla was as good as a watchdog, and he’d come whenever I whistled.

Blessing came back through the brush with an armload of sticks.

“You build the fire,” I said. “I’ll get more wood.”

“You don’t have to do that. You being a guest and all.”

I smiled again. “My mother always said I should do my share. Wouldn’t want to disappoint her.” I took her hand axe and walked out into the desert.

Adam’s Well lies in the foothills on the western slope of the Kofa Mountains, overlooking the basin that stretches across more than forty miles of desert to the Trigo range. On the other side of the Trigoes, Ehrenburg squats on the eastern bank of the Colorado River, scraping out a living from the steamboats that paddle north and south from the Sea of Cortez to the point where the shallows start at La Paz.

A week ago, Zeeb and I took a river steamer north from Arizona City and landed in Ehrenburg. The trip gave Zeeb some time to rest and I got in a bit of gambling with a would-be shark. His teeth weren’t long enough, and my dark poker face let me bluff him out of nigh onto four hundred dollars. A decent grub stake that meant I could leave the gold in my money belt – double eagles to buy land and good horses to graze the long grass along Cherry Creek in the Tonto Basin.

If I’d just stayed out of the Black Diamond, I could have ridden straight for Cherry Creek instead of looping through the desert. But that’s not how things work for the likes of me.
The Black Diamond didn’t even have batwings. Just a plain white door that opened to a long skinny room with a bar down the left-hand wall and a row of five tables to the right.

I’m not one to wear a sixgun. I prefer a Bowie up close and a one-in-a-thousand Winchester ’73 when there’s room. Folks talk about fast guns, but no gunman can get his iron out faster than I can shuck a Bowie. Up close, cold steel’s best.

When I opened the door, three of the five men in the saloon turned to size me up. I knew what they saw. A man too dark to be all white. A man who wore knee-high Apache moccasins and had a 14-inch Bowie aslant his left hip with its grip close to hand. A man in faded Levi’s and canvas shirt with longish black hair curling out from under a battered Stetson. A man with a Winchester ‘73. I wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Turley’s Mill?” I said to the barkeep. I leaned the rifle against the bar, muzzle up.

He shook his head. “Old Potrero out of San Francisco’s the best I’ve got.”


“Dollar a shot. I see the dollar, I pour the whiskey.”

I put a cartwheel on the bar. “Trusting soul, eh?”

The ‘keep gave me a curl of the lip that may have been a smile. He took the silver dollar and poured a finger of amber into a cloudy glass. He pushed the drink across the bar in my direction. “Was I you, I’d make that my last drink,” he said.

I gave him a broad smile. “I’m just getting started.” I tossed the whiskey and thumped the empty glass on the bar. “Nother,” I said, and dug in my pocket for a second silver dollar.

The door swung open to let a big chunky man walk in. Although young, his gait was ponderous. He planted each foot like his legs were stone columns. His face, thrust forward, was covered with three-day stubble and an unfriendly scowl. He stopped two steps away and shucked his gun.

“You.” The voice sounded like a rumble deep in some distant cave.

“Me?” I shifted to face the man.

“Yeah. You. Git.”

I smiled and kept my body loose. “I just put a dollar on the bar,” I said, my tone as reasonable as I could make it.

“Your kind don’t belong with regular folks. Git.”

“Reckon my cash is the same color as yours,” I said with my best poker face. “I’ve got another dollar. Buy you a drink. This Old Potrero ain’t bad booze.” I waved at the bar. “How ‘bout it?” I didn’t really want to tangle with the big man, but I wouldn’t back down either, not on account of my skin color, anyway.

He spit on the floor and moved closer. “Git. Or they’ll carry you out.”

I turned my back to him. Slowly. Deliberately. “Pour that whiskey, bar man,” I said. “Now.” I pushed the silver dollar at him.

He stood stock still, eyes darting from me to the big man behind me.

A click came as the big man thumbed back the hammer of his .45. I whirled to my right, snaking out my Bowie and slashing through his bicep with its 14-inch blade as I turned. My left fist smashed into his square jaw as my momentum carried me past. The .45 clattered to the floor.

The big guy fell to his knees, clutching his half-severed arm with his big left hand. “You miserable sumbitch.” He mumbled the words. “Sumbitch. You. Cut. Me!” Blood pumped down his arm to drip off his splayed fingers.

“Feel lucky I didn’t cut your miserable throat,” I said. “Get that bound up,” I said to the ‘keep, “or he’ll bleed out.” I picked up the bar towel and wiped the Bowie’s blade clean. “Keep the extra dollar. I was just leaving.” The Winchester came natural to my hand, and I jacked a cartridge into its chamber.

It seemed an awful long way to the door, but I forced myself to walk normal, not too fast, not too slow, the rifle under my arm.

As I neared the door, the barkeep called out. “Reed Fowley’s got family,” he said. “They’ll be wanting to know who done this to their brother and son. What should they call you?”

I stopped with a hand on the door. “Same as everyone else,” I said. “They can call me Breed.”

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