Friday, November 18, 2011

Another kind of woman in the west -- Road to Rimrock

In fact, Tom Hall, as requested by Catherine de Merode, found Melanie Powers and escorted her to Bob Brow’s Palace, where there were private rooms for . . . whatever private rooms are used for.

Catherine sat in the restaurant with Alice, who was enjoying her first dish of ice cream since she left San Francisco, and Shotgun Lou Grimes, who looked uncomfortable without his coach gun.

Tom held Melanie Powers by the arm in an iron grip as he steered her into the dining room. “You stay gentle, girl, and it’ll hurt a lot less,” he said. “Just you listen to what Miss de Merode has to say.”

“Good evening, Miss Powers,” Catherine said. “I’ve been wishing to have a word with you. I’ve reserved a private room upstairs. Perhaps you would care to join me?”

Melanie fairly hissed. “I spit in the face of any friend of Matt Stryker. I’ll see him dead, I truly will. He murdered my brother.”

“And your brother would be Clayton Powers, correct?”


“Then, may we repair to the second floor. What I have to say includes your brother.” Catherine shifted her gaze to Tom Hall. “Mr. Hall, would you be kind enough to stay here with April and Mr. Grimes? April would be gratified with your company.”

The brilliance of Catherine de Merode’s smile made Tom Hall do anything she asked. “Be glad to,” he said, and meant every word.

Catherine lead the way. Melanie followed, sure Tom Hall would catch her again if she bolted. A round table sat in the center of the private room with six chairs carefully placed evenly around it, ready for the high-rollers who ordinarily used it. Catherine waved at the chair on the far side. “If you would be so kind,” she said. She took the near chair.

Melanie plonked herself on the seat of the far chair. “What?” Anger flushed her face and she tapped her fingers on the table in frustration. Then she shouted. “WHAT!”

“I understand you wish to see Matthew Stryker killed,” Catherine said.

“He murdered my brother,” Melanie said.


Melanie pouted. “Shot him dead.”

Catherine speared Melanie with a sharp look. She let the silence build. The scent of Melanie’s rose water wafted across the table. At least she keeps a proper toilet.

“I took the privilege of looking into your dead brother’s affairs,” Catherine said. “He was not only a robber and a thief, he also killed without compunction.”

“He. Was. My. Brother.”

“Clayton Powers killed at least eleven fellow human beings. Beginning with a clerk at the National Bank of Denver and going on to include a drummer, two railway guards, a stagecoach shotgun rider, a jailer and a deputy, a working girl, and a U.S. Marshal.”

Catherine fell silent again. Melanie stared at her tapping fingertips. Faint voices came from the next room. Melanie opened her mouth, then closed it.

“His last killings were innocents, not saying the other victims were not innocent, but Clayton Powers became involved in a gunfight in Bisbee, and shot a nine-year-old boy and his mother.”

“The kid was an accident,” Melanie said.

“So you know what kind of man your brother was, then?”

“They expelled him from West Point. Everybody there had it in for him.”

Catherine’s eyebrows rose. “West Point?”

In a small voice, Melanie said, “The oldest son in our family has always gone to West Point. Ever since the beginning.”

“Cashiered, then?”

“Picked on. Harassed. Hazed, I think they call it. Just because Papa fought for the South. He was just paying them back.”

Catherine looked astounded. “My God. You can’t really believe that.”

Melanie jumped to her feet and charged around the table, her fist cocked.

Catherine stood calmly to meet Melanie’s rush. She caught Melanie’s fist in the palm of her right hand and turned her momentum aside. As Melanie passed, Catherine shoved her with both hands and sent her staggering. Melanie crashed into the wall and fell to her knees. Catherine unbuckled her belt and her skirt fell away. She wore dancer’s tights, with soft leather shoes on her feet.

When Melanie rose, she clutched a small knife. “Bitch,” she hissed. “I’ll carve your gizzard into little pieces for that.”

Catherine smiled. “I think not,” she said. Slowly, she backed away from the table and into an open area that gave her more room.

Melanie stalked her, knife held low and to the side.

Catherine stopped and faced Melanie, her arms hanging naturally her fingers slightly curled, her feet shoulder-width apart. She still wore the little smile.

“You laughing at me, bitch?” Melanie’s voice dripped venom. “We’ll see how much you laugh with your belly slit and your guts dragging on the ground.” But Melanie made no move to rush Catherine. Instead, she moved in a circle around the woman, staying some distance away at first, and then slowly narrowing the gap.

As Melanie circled, Catherine turned. The little smile never left her face, but it came nowhere near her eyes. She kept her gaze fastened on Melanie, the knife always in her field of view.

Melanie telegraphed her rush by dropping her eyes and lifting the knife. She took a big breath and lunged, but Catherine was not there. She’d spun aside and now stood a good ten feet away, smiling. “Surely you can do better than that,” she said, sounding as if she were having a chat with an old friend.

Melanie’s face contorted. She growled like a wild beast. Her face flushed. Spittle formed little patches of cotton in the corners of her mouth. She crouched, knife held low with its cutting edge up. Again she lunged at Catherine, this time leading with her left shoulder. The blade of the knife was horizontal to the floor, waist high, and ready to slash across Catherine’s abdomen.

Catherine whirled in time with Melanie’s rush, lifting her left leg as she spun and smashing her foot into the side of Melanie’s face in a classic savate kick. Melanie went down on all fours, dazed. The little knife skittered across the floor to fetch up against the floorboard. Catherine scooped the knife up, then delivered a kick to Melanie’s ribcage that knocked her breathless and lifted her up, over, and onto her back. Catherine dropped onto the prone woman, her knees pinning Melanie’s arms to the floor. Melanie mewled in fear.

Carefully, Catherine placed the tip of the little knife at the corner of Melanie’s left eye. Her voice kept its conversational tone. “Miss Powers, I hear you have a vendetta against Matthew Stryker. Let me warn you. If he is injured or killed by anyone even remotely connected to you, no matter how nebulous that connection, I will personally hunt you down and cut your eyes out. Do I make myself clear?”

The whites of Melanie’s eyes showed like a frightened calf’s. She gulped and opened her mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out. Tears escaped the corner of her eyes and trickled into her ears.

Catherine pricked at the skin next to Melanie’s eye. “Do I make myself clear?”

Melanie couldn’t move without pushing the point of the knife into her own eye. Again she opened her mouth. She panted. She swallowed. Catherine raised an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Melanie managed to say.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I couldn’t quite hear you,” Catherine said.

“Yes,” Melanie said, louder.

“Yes what?”

“Yes you will cut my eyes out.”

“Why would I do a thing like that?”

“If Stryker is harmed.”

“By whom?”

“By anyone connected with me.”

“Good.” Catherine stood and offered Melanie a hand up.

Melanie sobbed and ignored Catherine’s hand. She rolled over onto her stomach and struggled to all fours. Then, clutching a chair, she pulled herself upright.

“You’ll want to take this. It’s yours, after all.” Catherine held the little knife out, handle first.

Melanie’s hand went to her mouth. She stifled a cry, then fled the room, leaving the knife in Catherine’s hand.

First major scene from Hell Fire in Paradise

Jimmy Baker complained. “But Ma, it’s hardly dark. I’m five now. I don’t need to go to bed so early.”

“I know, son. But tomorrow will come before you know it, and I want you in bed right now. Jason’s in the loft and asleep already, and you should be, too.”

“Ah, Ma. How come I have to go to bed so early all the time?”

Laurel Baker chuckled at her sturdy son’s resistance. “Unless you get enough sleep, you won’t grow big and strong like Pa. And if you don’t grow big and strong, how are you going to help on the ranch?”

“Okay. I’m going. But I’ll stay up when I get bigger, I surely will.” Grumbling, the youngster climbed the ladder into the boys’ private bedroom in the loft under the eaves.

Laurel put the youngsters to bed right after supper for good reason. Jack Baker took the wagon into Ponderosa for supplies that morning, and he’d not returned. A knot settled into the pit of Laurel’s stomach. Jack didn’t run late. He didn’t go to Bogtown to drink and he wasn’t one to waste time jawing. He might need assistance, but the road from Ponderosa to Paradise was little travelled. If Jack needed help, Laurel had to provide it. She waited until the boys were asleep, changed into a cutdown pair of Jack’s old jeans, and stomped her feet into her riding boots. Laurel saddled her steeldust gelding Angel, and rode toward Ponderosa with a Yellow Boy Winchester in her hands.

Paradise Creek tumbled through a malapai gorge at least a hundred feet deep and the mail road to Alpine travelled the gorge’s edge for a good five miles after crossing the plateau from Ponderosa. The wagon track to Paradise branched off the mail road just beyond Sheepshead promontory. Laurel cantered Angel up the wagon track and onto the mail road. She guided the gelding along the road at a trot as deep wagon-wheel ruts made the footing precarious for a running horse. Clouds backed up against Mt. Baldy and Mt. Ord, covering the sky for miles north of Paradise. The dark night made tracking impossible so Laurel could only hope that if Jack needed help, he was out in the open where she could find him. In the dark night, she felt uneasy, and jacked a shell into the chamber of the Yellow Boy.

Laurel rode more than halfway to Ponderosa but found no trace of Jack. Despondent, she turned Angel around and trotted him back along the mail road toward the Rafter P ranch in Paradise. Jack could take care of himself. He never wore a gun in Ponderosa and didn’t drink, so the chance of a random gunfight was next to none. Yet she worried. Jack wouldn’t stay away from the ranch all night without good reason. A crippled horse. A broken wagon tongue. A rim separated from a wheel. Something. She turned off to follow the wagon track back to the ranch. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes. No. She could depend on Jack. In their six years together, he’d never let her down. Jack would be home. Laurel raised her head and took a deep breath. He would be home. He would.

Jack and Laurel built their house above Paradise Creek on a small rise that looked out across the valley, which also bore the name of Paradise. From their knoll, the Bakers could see three miles or more downstream when the weather was clear. Laurel peered toward the house, not that she could see it on such a dark night. An orange-red flicker caught her attention. Had she left a lamp on? Fire? A new fear blossomed in her heart. Fire! Jimmy and Jason were in the loft. No one to wake them. No one to carry them from danger. Laurel shoved the Winchester into its scabbard and raked her spurs across Angel’s ribs. The startled horse hit a dead run in three strides. Laurel leaned over his neck, urging him on, her eyes on the orange-red glare that gradually got brighter as the gelding plunged on.

By the time they reached the burning house, Angel was streaked with lather and Laurel’s cheeks were streaked with tears.

“Jimmy! Jason!” She screamed her children’s names, but only the roar of the fire replied. Smoke poured from the chimney and seeped out between the cedar shingles. Through the windows, Laurel saw only rolling flames. She dashed to the tack room for a horsehair-filled cover and threw it over her head and shoulders for protection. She wrenched open the front door. Flames billowed from the house, fed by the rush of fresh air. The roar increased.

“Jimmy! Jimmy! Jason! Can you hear me? Are you in there?

Only the roar of the infernal flame.

“Oh God! Save my children. Save my boys. Dear God. My God!” Even wrapped in the horse cover, Laurel could not fight her way into the burning house. She choked on the smoke. Flames licked at her hands. The roar of the fire got louder. Sparks flew as the rafters collapsed into the maelstrom. Laurel howled at the fire. She screamed at God. She sank slowly to her knees, not trying to escape the sparks that burned pinholes in the horse cover and singed her hair and face. Tears welled in her eyes and coursed down her cheeks. Their home was on the Paradise; now it was Laurel’s Hell.

She curled into a foetal ball and screamed and screamed until her throat was cracked and bleeding. Jimmy, poor Jimmy. Five and so grownup. Helpful. Thoughtful. Poor Jimmy. Gone to God. Laurel could only pray that he’d died before the hideous flames made a cinder of his small body. Jason. First born at Paradise. At three, his baby warblings were finally turning into coherent speech. He loved big brother Jimmy. Followed him everywhere. Wanted to do all that Jimmy could do. Gone. Burned in a blaze of pine-fed fire.

By morning, only the log walls and the stone chimney stood. Small flickers of flame played along the smoking logs. Laurel couldn’t move. She dared not try to look among the ashes inside the gutted house. She sat with the horse cover around her shoulders. Sat and rocked back and forth and keened her pain to the heavens.

The first wagon arrived at midmorning. Seth Owens, the Bakers’ nearest neighbor, drove the wagon with his wife Priscilla clinging grimly to the seat. She scrambled down almost before the wagon stopped and ran to Laurel.

“Laurel, oh Laurel. What on earth happened. Oh, your lovely home.”

“God damn the house,” Laurel screamed. “God damn it. My boys. My Jimmy. My Jason. . . .” She could say no more, merely point at the ruins in speechless pain.

Priscilla gathered Laurel into her ample arms. “Poor lass. Poor lass,” she crooned. Above Laurel’s head she looked meaningfully at her husband and motioned with her head that he should look into the smoking ruins. “Poor lass,” she crooned.

Laurel made no sound, but tears flooded from her eyes and cascaded down her singed face. She laid her head on Priscilla’s shoulder and sobbed and sobbed.

Seth came back from the house. “They’re both in what’s left of their beds, Laurel,” he said. “I’m sure the smoke smothered them before the fire ever reached the loft. Thank God for that. Still, you’ll not be wanting to look at them, lass. Best to remember them as they were when you last saw them. I’ll make some boxes for their burial.”

Laurel sat with her head on Priscilla’s shoulder for a long time. “It’s all my fault,” she said in a tiny voice.

“That’s crazy. Of course it’s not your fault.”

“It is. I put them to bed and left them alone while I went out to meet Jack on the road back from Ponderosa. I banked the Franklin, but must have left the lamp burning on the table. I don’t know what knocked it off, but that’s what must have happened. I left them alone. If I’d stayed where I belonged, my boys would be alive.”

“Now, now, don’t blame yourself. God works in mysterious ways. Now he’s called your boys home. They feel no pain. And now they’re singing with the angels.” Priscilla did her best to comfort Laurel, but couldn’t reach her.

Laurel felt herself sinking into a deep dark place where she could neither think nor feel. She lost contact. Her awareness weakened. She felt the fires of Hell coming nearer and nearer. In her heart, she screamed and screamed, but made no sound. Only the tears and the pain seemed real. Still, she struggled from Priscilla’s embrace, stood up, and looked at the smoking remains of her Paradise. Inside, she felt numb. Outside, she shivered.

“Let go,” she said to Priscilla. “Let me go.” She shed the horse cover, wincing as her burned hands grasped the rough canvas. She stood on uncertain legs, almost unfeeling from remaining in the same position for so long. She took a step toward the house.

“Honey, don’t,” Priscilla pleaded, reaching out to grasp Laurel’s arm.

Laurel shrugged out of Priscilla’s grasp. She could think only of seeing her sons, of bidding them farewell. She took another step toward the ruins, and another.

“Seth,” Priscilla called. “Seth. She’s going in.”

Laurel was dimly aware of running footsteps, but they seemed far away. She was already through the doorframe, and her thick boot soles crunched on ashes and embers. Her grieving self was a tiny hard ball in the pit of her stomach. Her empty eyes registered only what they saw and the sight failed to reach her heart. The loft had fallen with the rafters, but the fire had not consumed it. The little bodies still lay in their bunks, scraps of burnt bedclothes covering them. The heat had pealed off the skin but mercifully had not burned away their eyelids. In the aftermath of the blaze, they seemed to be still asleep; horribly burned, but sleeping.

“Come away, Laurel. Let them rest in peace. Let me take care of them for you.” Seth Owens touched her arm.

The emptiness deepened. From the depths of her despair, she could hardly hear Seth’s voice. She let him lead her from the death chamber, once again to be enfolded in Priscilla’s arms.

A spark lit the darkness. Jack would soon be home. Jack would know what to do. Jack. Laurel leaned into Priscilla’s embrace and waited for her husband to come home.

Seth Owens built two small boxes with pine boards and tools he found in the barn. He wrapped the two boys in saddle blankets, placed them in the boxes, and sealed the lids with horseshoe nails. He put the little coffins in an open stable until Laurel and Jack decided where their burial ground should be.

“Shall we clean up around, Laurel?” Seth asked.

Laurel heard the question from the bottom of the dark pit in her mind. She shook her head. “Wait,” she said. “Wait for Jack.”

Seth nodded.

Laurel took a deep breath. She couldn’t just sit here. Things waited to be done. She staggered toward the granary with Priscilla a step behind.

“Laurel, honey, what are you doing?”

“Chickens need fed.” Laurel scooped a measure of oats from the bin with the usual bucket.

“Chick chick chick chick,” she called and broadcast the oats for the chickens to eat. No use milking the cows. The milk bucket probably burned with the house. She turned the calves in with the milk cows. They’d get an extra portion today. She sighed. When would Jack get home?

The second wagon came shortly after noon, and it came at a run. Frank Wills shouted at the team and slapped at their rumps with the ends of the reins, trying to urge them into yet greater speed. They came to a stop in a cloud of dust that drifted over the remains of the Paradise ranch house.

“Jeez,” he said to Seth. “What happened here?

“Dunno yet. Laurel thinks it may have been a wayward lantern.”

Frank tested the air with a high thin nose. “Does smell a bit like coal oil.”

Seth looked up, then tested the air himself. “Does at that.”

“That’s not why I’m here. We found Jack Baker’s wagon at the bottom of Paradise Gorge. Where’s Missus Baker?”

Seth motioned toward the granary. Laurel hurried across the yard. “Frank Wills,” she called. “Have you seen Jack?”

“I know this is hard, Missus Baker, your house burned down and all, but Jack’s wagon is at the bottom of Paradise Gorge. Looks like something spooked the team and they went right off the edge, wagon and all. Nothing moving. Both horses dead. Some fellers climbing down there right now to see about Jack.”

The thunder of hooves came before Laurel could speak. Two men Laurel knew only by sight reined their lathered mounts in beside Wills’s wagon. “We found Jack Baker,” one said. “Neck broke. They’re hauling him out of the gorge now.”

Laurel sank to her knees. The black pit threatened to consume her. First Jimmy and Jason. Now Jack. Cut, her mind said. Bleed. Get out of this place where you can’t think or even feel. She fumbled in her trouser pocket for the clasp knife she always carried when riding. Opening the blade, she slashed first her left arm, then her right. Pain. Blood. Then she cut her face from the hairline by her ear down to the point of her jaw. I’m alive, she thought. Maybe the pain will take away the emptiness. Bleeding profusely, she hacked away her long brown hair, sawing off each handful with the knife.

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.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Something I agree with

This came from a friend and I agree with its sentiments. Didn't know how to send it in a more effective way than to post it on my blog. Here goes:

Please, e-mail a copy of this column to twenty friends, ten legislators, CNN/MSNBC/FOX NEWS. You America, can, "Be the difference."

"Congressional Reform Act of 2011"
Whereas elected officials will recognize a new national standardized ethical working practice (NSEWP) for procedure as an government employee.
Be it known to all members of Congress that there will be: No Tenure / No Pensions.
Whereby, a congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office.
Whereby, Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social
Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the
Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into
the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the
American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.
Whereas congressmen/women can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
Whereby Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise and
congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
Whereas congressional legislators and senators lose their current health care system and participate in the same health care system as the American people.
Whereby Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
Whereas all contracts with past and present congressmen/women are void effective 1/1/12.
Hear, hear! I don't recall the American people agreeing to the separation of benefits with our elected officials. Shouldn't congressmen/women who made all these contracts for themselves have their pensions taxed and reduced? Just as they have done to mine? Shouldn't they get the same retirement plan as me or visa-versa? I have as many degrees and professional certifications as most of them, plus 14 years of service to my community, teaching in a public high school. I'm ashamed to tell you the pittance my pension amounts to, and I will have to work into my 70's if there is hope for me to raise enough income to rent a one room studio in a housing project. It is a bleak outlook.
To work in Congress is an honor, a responsibility to help, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned a constantly changing constituency. Elected officials would serve their term(s), then go home and back to work. Not, to stay in Washington, living off the bones (there is no more fat) of the land.
Change changes change. End the greed! Occupy the net!