Lot half-jogged and half-limped toward the town center to see about the commotion. A runaway wagon was always exciting. He hadn’t seen one of those in months and the last time they’d found out that it had been because a rattler bit the horse while the driver had been squatting behind a rock. Poor feller had run all the way back to Providence to catch his horses. Lot laughed aloud at the recollection of the event, and then picked up pace as best he could with his gimp leg.
Halfway there, he spied his stepfather limping in his direction. What had happened to Jim? He slowed up a little as his stepfather came into talking range.
“You alright?” Lot asked.
Jim squinted at his stepson. “What are you doing with that rifle?” He responded sharply.
Lot contemplate the Henry still in his hands. After telling his mom about the wagon, he’d left too quickly to put the rifle away. He hadn’t even been aware that he’d taken it along until just now.
“I was practicin’,” he replied.
Jim shook his head. “Go put it up,” he barked. “And tell your ma to get some bandages.”
Without hesitation, Lot turned and started back to the house. Best not to get Jim worked up when he had whiskey on his breath. Besides, he’d find out soon enough what the matter was.
Jim’s leg lay exposed in the lamplight while Lot looked on in morbid fascination. A perfect set of teethmarks had perforated Jim’s calf, punching right through the skin and into the muscle. The entire area was red and swollen. Lot couldn’t help but smile.
Jim passed him a lick over the top of his head, mussing up his hair and knocking the grin off his face. He hated it when Jim drank. He was so mean to him and his mom when he drank.
“Hurry up, V.” Jim said, abbreviating Veronica’s name as he was apt to do when extremely irritated, or in a very loving mood. The two sides of his personality heralded by the same initial.
Veronica Morse Milner dabbed the wound with a bit of cloth soaked in whiskey. Jim seized the bottle and took another gulp.
“We won’t have enough to treat your leg at that rate,” she said.
“Just tend to it,” he said harshly, scowling at her. He flinched as she applied more whiskey to the bloody wound.
“We should get you checked out by Ethan,” she said. “It’s already festering.”
“Ain’t payin’ no money to that dog doctor,” Jim snapped.
“He knows more about infection than I do,” Veronica offered.
Jim shook his head. “I ain’t payin’ no money for an injun bite.”
“Looks worse than a rattlesnake,” Veronica offered.
“What?” Jim shouted, but his wife made no reply. “Just patch it up.”
Lot watched as his mom pressed the cloth over the bite mark and held if firm. She wrapped a few strips around Jim’s calf and tied them in place, completing the bandage. The bite did look rather worse than it should have. It was swollen and red with puss oozing out of it. It kind of looked neat, but he was careful not to smile again.
Once the bandage was finished, Lot and his mom helped Jim to his feet. Whether it was the injury which restricted his gait or the whiskey, neither of them was certain, but he staggered to the bedroom and pushed through the door.
“Jim,” Lot’s mom began. “You’re sweating.”
“It’s hot outside,” he mumbled.
“You weren’t sweating when you came in,” she replied. To this he made no response.
Lot helped his mom clean up the mess, then, after much deliberation to the contrary, he consented to clean up and dress for bed. There was still the mystery of the runaway wagon to investigate, but his mom wouldn’t hear of it. Though it was still early, he was under strict orders to say his prayers and get to sleep.
In the corner of the front room, opposite the door to the front porch, was his bed. From it, he could peek through the window and see the fields where he protected the farm from coyotes, and if he leaned over a bit he could even see the old church.
It was a strange request for sure, but Smitty had filled stranger orders since moving shop to Providence. At the intersection of the southwestern railroad and the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, he’d forged a hook to replace Old Man Walter’s hand which he lost working the mines, a triple-thickness shoe for a horse with one short let, and even a set of teeth that was later attached to a finely-carved wooden insert for Dobson’s mouth. That last one rusted in short order, but it was a fine sight to see a bartender with a set of metal teeth.
So in all, folding a few timber saws in half, pounding them to shape, and then cutting off the teeth to make a half dozen or so shovels wasn’t so odd. Denny Marvel would have to raise the price of those shovels to make up for the work, but Smitty didn’t feel that Marvel was in any way opposed to raising prices. Hell, he’d probably sell his next set of shovels at the inflated price as well, claiming “I had to forge these fine spades from the world’s finest saw blades just to satisfy the demands of the miners.” And it would be a load of shit just like everything else that fell from his fuzzy lip.
The light was fading and soon Smitty would call it a day, but not yet. Clairvius was watching and he seemed thoroughly fascinated, as usual, with the whole process. And if the little negro boy was in his shop, keeping him company while he worked the steel, then he wouldn’t be tormented by that fat bastard.
Smitty wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the sheet of metal from the forge.
“See how it glows orange?” He asked, and Clairvius nodded. “Means it’s ready to take the hammer.” He’d folded the blade back and forth until it snapped, yielding a piece of stock twice the length he desired. Now that it was heated, it folded easily as he gripped one end with the tongs and tapped the middle with the hammer. A moment later, he laid it flat on the anvil and began working the metal. He had to press the two layers together until they fused into one. And to do that, he had to keep the metal hot.
Back into the fire, the back to the anvil. The metal was too thick to make a proper shovel, but as he worked it, it spread and thinned out. Over and over again, he heated and worked, shaping the rectangle into a shovel head. All that seemed out of place were the saw teeth that ran down one side. Those would come off soon enough.
He tapered down one end and then rolled it, creating a slot for the wooden handle. Using a metal punch, he knocked two holes through which nails could be driven to secure it. Next, he used a wedge head to trim off the corners of the blade, transforming the rectangle into a pointed spade. The saw teeth came off the same way, and right before Clairvius’ eyes, a tool for cutting down trees had become one for digging up dirt and loose rock.
It hissed as Smitty slid it into the bucket of black water, steaming and bubbling until cooled. With the metal tongs, he pulled it free and dropped it on the bench.
Curious as ever, the boy approached the bench, wide-eyed and mouth agape.
“May I, sir?” He asked.
Smitty nodded and watched in delight as the boy quickly tapped it with a finger to check it for heat. Then, finding it cool, he lifted it and turned it slowly.
“It’s the finest shovel I’ve ever seen,” he said in wonder.
“I don’t know about that,” Smitty said. “But it’ll do a lot more digging now than it could have yesterday. Go show Denny and tell him I’ll get to the rest tomorrow. And tell him I’ll get those handles made soon enough.” He wanted to give the boy a few other words to tell Mr. Marvel, but thought better of it. It would only get the boy into trouble. Besides, he’d much rather tell it to the portly prick himself. Best to see the look on his face.
The old church was a clapboard, rectangular affair, grayed from years in the bleaching sun and dried from the blowing sand and dust. A thousand cracks decorated each plank of wood, lending to it a texture more akin to tiny layers of slate than to lumber. The shutters were all closed and the front door sagged on rusty hinges.
Tommy looked at the single step, at the accumulated dust there, and the weeds growing from said dust, and knew that the church hadn’t been used in ages. Leaning his sawed-off rifle against the wall, he tugged at the door. Old wood groaned and dry hinges shrieked. The church cried out, it’s protest growing louder as the vertical mouth was pulled wider, until Tommy stood in the open doorway staring into the darkness. Hot, stale air wafted out against his cheeks.
Inside, two rows of pews split by a central aisle led up to the altar. Just like the church in Dirtdraugh, he thought to himself. Did all these West Texas churches look the same? For an instant he saw Father McMannis on the floor, bleeding and gasping for breath.
“Been closed a fair piece,” a slurred voice broke the silence, startling Tommy.
The boy jumped, but quickly regained his composure. He turned to face the man who stood outside the doorway. He looked like a panner, wearing suspenders, jeans with holes in the knees, a tan shirt and a brown hat. He had some dried mud on his cheek and needed a shave. Tommy eyed the mole on the left side of the man’s crooked nose.
“Why’s it closed?” The boy asked.
“Preacher took sick,” he answered. “Consumption, I thinks. Left on the rail and never return’t.” He concluded the statement by spitting tobacco juice into the dust.
“There a rect’ry?” Tommy asked.
The old panner nodded. “Round back,” he motioned with his head. “You lookin’ to sleep thar?”
“Thar’s room for us both I reckon,” the panner said. He motioned with his head for Tommy to follow.
They walked around to the rear of the church to a small flat protruding from the south wall behind the altar.
“Inside door don’t open no more,” the panner said. “You has to come round back to get in.” He stepped forward and pulled open the door. The air inside the rectory was a bit fresher than that of the church. A single window stood open, letting the evening breeze cool the interior. There was a shelf of books to the left and a cot to the right. Against the far wall, beside the church door, was a desk and chair. A collection of bottles and pans cluttered the desk and the panner’s clothes were scattered about the room, draped over the chair, the cot and the bookshelf. The panner lifted a clay jug and sniffed at it, then tipped it to his lips.
“Sip o’ whiskey?” He offered.
Tommy shook his head.
“You don’t says much, do ya?”
Tommy shook his head again.
“Suits me fine,” he grinned. “A shut trap won’t keep me up at night.”
The panner, Travis Lunt, cleared off a corner of the floor and gave Tommy a blanket to use as a cushion and one of his long coats for a blanket.
Tommy prepared his sleeping surface and then removed his shoes. From his pocket he removed a dusty biscuit. The biscuit, hardtack actually, was his last bit of food, a bit of trail rations that Meda had given him before entering town. They hadn’t taken much due to the trail’s meager length, and though Tommy had eaten little, it had cut into their stores considerably. Meda and Scully had apparently packed the exact amount they would need and the hardtack had been left over from a previous journey, or perhaps several.
The bread was dense, tough, and resilient and fully lived up to its name. He, like most other boys, had heard stories of Confederate soldiers escaping death when a bullet was stopped by a piece of hardtack in their pockets. He took another bite and chewed determinedly. No, it wouldn’t stop a bullet. But a bayonet…
Outside the shadows were long and the air cooling rapidly. The temperature would drop faster once the sun passed the horizon and he’d be snuggled in a thick coat. Tomorrow, he could inquire around town for work. There was always work to be done and it wouldn’t take much to earn enough to feed his small appetite.
Orange afternoon rays filtered through the parted shutters, offering the only illumination in the dusty jailhouse. Sheriff Paul McCoy grumbled to life, wiping the last vestiges of drool from his stubbly chin where it had dripped to darken his tan shirt. Squinting through sleep encrusted eyes, he locked his focus on the clay pitcher that rested on the nearby table. Leaning forward in his creaky, wooden chair he hefted the pitcher and raised it to his lips. The warm, watered down whiskey splashed over his parched tongue and dampened his throat.
Now that the heat of the day had passed, it was safe for the good sheriff to make his rounds and since most of the action took place between his office and the saloon, he could restrict his patrol to that route. No sense in wasting energies on such out of the way places like Marvel’s store, the smitty, or any other part of town. Besides, how many drinks were served out at the Morse farm?
Hitching up his sagging breeches, Sheriff McCoy groaned a bit, then shuffled over to the cell. Inside, a sickly, wild-eyed injun was stirring up quite a racket. The crazed man with split knuckles and a busted lip reached for Paul as he staggered by, but the gnarled claw came up short.
“Shut yer fookin mouth,” the sheriff shouted. “Yer givin’ me a headache.”
Behind the desk the sheriff found his piss pot. Setting it in the chair, he braced himself and opened his fly. The caged man snarled and lunged again, straining his arm through the bars and flaying the flesh from his shoulder. Blood ran black down his bare chest.
Paul slung the brass piss pot at the cell, splashing the acrid fluid over the floor at the injun’s feet.
“You don’t shut yer trap right quick,” Paul threatened, but the captive snarled in response.
His temper flaring, Paul seized one of his pistil by the barrel and started for the cell. If this damn injun wouldn’t shut up, he’d be put down.
“I warned you good,” the sheriff said, grabbing the extended arm of his captive. Pulling the man into the iron bars, Paul swung the pistol, cracking the injun in the forehead. Rather than stunning his victim, he’d angered him. The wild man thrashed and flailed about, jerking in Paul’s grasp. The sheriff swung a second time, splitting the injun’s eye, then a third. It was his fourth strike that caused the trouble. As his hand came down, the injun reached out with his free arm and snagged the sheriff’s wrist. Yanking hard, the captive pulled McCoy’s arm through the bars and to his mouth.
He jerked against the wild man, but McCoy couldn’t free his hand from that iron grip before the teeth sunk into his leathery flesh. Fire shot up his arm as those sharp teeth punched through the skin and met with the bone of his thumb. The sheriff cried out, but it was too late. His knuckle cracked and when his hand came free, half his thumb was gone. The injun wasted no time and quickly devoured the digit.
Cursing and screaming, Paul McCoy stamped from the jail, leaving his pistol where it had fallen… inside the jail cell. He fled to the streets and staggered off the boardwalk. Sharp, stabbing pain surged through his hand, accompanied by a deep, dull throb that pulsated up his forearm and terminated at the elbow.
He clutched his mangled fist to his chest and charged to the doctor’s house. He’d better be home. If Doc Leonard wasn’t home, he was likely to go back there and shoot that injun. Hell, he was going to do that anyway. Ethan better be able to fix his finger. Make it grow back like a horn toad tail or sumpin’. He was sure to have something in his bag to help with a bit off finger.
“Fookin’ vet better fix me up good,” Sheriff Paul McCoy muttered to himself as the pain flared up again. Ethan Leonard’s home was just up ahead. It was times like these that he wished Providence had an actual doctor, not some cow stitcher who had ended up at the end of the rail with the rest of them. Who ever heard of such a thing? If the cow took ill, you shot it and ate it.
Seth Romero took one last sip of whiskey before calling it quits for the night. The drinking, not the gambling. He had plenty more gambling to do before he retired and wouldn’t slow down just yet. With his back against the wall, mostly out of paranoia, he counted his winnings mentally. He’d started off with a handful of coins but in the past two hours he’d tripled his worth. It’s not that he was that good, it’s just that those around him were taking their losses poorly. Each time a man lost a hand, he’d drink a little more, further clouding his judgement and hindering his game. Seth, on the other hand, drank just enough to satisfy his craving, but not enough to get buzzed. As the table played worse, he placed larger bets, letting his boldness rub off on those around him.
The only decent player, a lean man with a crooked nose and deep tan, sat directly to Seth’s left. This man, who’d won more hands than Seth himself, was likewise paranoid. He too sat facing the bar, keeping an eye on the crowd as well as the other players. But in an attempt to protect his back and keep his hand from the prying eyes of the next player in line, he turned a bit too far to his left. Concealing his cards from one player granted Seth a clear view. All the outlaw had to do was peek through the side of the eye patch and he could tell who had the better hand. If only the poor bastard knew that Seth had two working eyes…
Seth raised, the lean man saw, and the rest of the table folded. A moment later, Seth pocketed a third of the winnings, removing the cash from circulation, and continued to gamble with the rest.
Another couple of good rounds and it wouldn’t matter how much that slick-headed bastard wanted to charge for a pair of pistols, Seth would have them. No. He wouldn’t buy from Marvel, no matter the cost or how much he had. It was a matter of pride. He’d never spend a nickel in that store. But if he had enough cash, he could buy a pistol off one of the town folk. Someone always had an extra gun they were willing to sell. And since he had a head start from selling off the Henry.
“I’m out,” the slim, crooked-nosed man said as he rose from his seat. Having lost three in a row to Seth, he was folding for the last time. Damn. Seth had already fleeced the others, and the last ten bucks lay in the pocket of the only other sober player. Sure, he could play a couple more hands and pick up a dollar or two, but he also stood the chance of losing more than that. And if the men wound up empty handed, they might turn violent. Such was always a possibility in these podunk towns, away from the eyes of authority.
“The hour is rather late,” Seth replied, glancing around the saloon. “I might follow your lead.”
“Like hell you will,” one of the other players grunted. He was a fat bastard, stretching out a gray shirt and supporting a brown hat. His chins sprouted sparse stubble and his nose was bunched up into a round button between cherry cheeks and beady eyes. “You’ll sit there whilst I win back my money.”
Damn. He was caught. Unarmed and facing a larger man with a hand resting on a rusty old revolver, Seth was finally in trouble. Had to happen sooner or later. At least he could get it out of the way now, on his first day in town.
“And if I end up winning the rest of your money?” Seth asked.
The man squinted. He nudged the pistol tucked in his belt. “I don’t believe that will happen,” he replied.
Seth considered his options, contemplated his strategy, and wondered if the two men sitting beside the portly bastard would join in on the fray if it came to blows. Did they also desire to see their money returned? Would they risk their lives to see the matter resolved? Seth decided not to take the chance. Instead, he took a drink. One huge mouthful of raw whiskey.
His hand shot forward, snapping the fat bastard’s head back as he connected with his nose and lips. His other hand snatched up the rusty revolver. Just as he thought, the other two were a threat. He swung right and turned his head left. The wooden grip cracked across one man’s head, delivering a stunning blow to his temple while the other got a face full of whiskey. His eyes stung and his sight useless.
In a second, all three felt more blows from the butt of the pistol as Seth went about beating them with ernest.
“Mercy!” The fat bastard cried out, tipping backwards from his chair.
Seth paused in his attack, taking stock of the men’s injuries and intent.
“Do you yield?” Seth asked, noticing for the first time that he had two pistols in hand rather than one. To his right, an injured man was reaching for an empty holster.
“Yield,” the pudgy man mumbled.
Seth looked the three over. They weren’t in any condition to put up a fight. He’d given each several good licks with the handles of the two guns he’d seized.
“I’m giving your guns to the bartender,” he began. “And if any of you three so much as look at me in the coming days, I’ll apply boot to ass till you can’t see straight. Now get the piss out of here.” Seth glared at them as they collected what little money still lay on the table before heading for the door. Once gone, the saloon returned to life and the patrons returned to their drinking.
Calmly, letting his pulse slow, Seth walked to the bar and carried out his promise. He handed over the two pistols, letting the bartender worry about their return. He would have kept them, but they weren’t worths shit and he didn’t like the idea of depending on guns that were as likely to fail as to fire.
So much for keeping his head down. While passing through this town, he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself. Then the wanted posters showed up. Now, three men with bruised egos and faces were walking from the saloon and he’d been the one to bestow the beating. If anyone was looking for him, he didn’t think that moving an eye patch around was going to prevent being identified. He’d have to acquire a new weapon soon and make his way out of Providence. He couldn’t go back to Dirtdraugh, after the argument with the sheriff… but perhaps he could ride north up the Goodnight-Loving trail. He could ride with the next herd that came through and make Fort Sumner before it got much hotter.
Meda watched the action unfold, studying “Todd Grimmell” as he dealt with the three poker players. If he really was the man from the wanted posters and really had done what those posters claimed, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he had shot all three men with their own guns. She was, however, surprised when he sent them mostly unharmed out of the saloon with their money and handed their guns over to the bartender.
Smart move. If he had kept their pistols, they’d likely waylay him in the streets when he least expected it. Giving them a good walloping and then dismissing the event made it less personal. No real harm done, thus less chance of retribution once they sobered up. And since he hadn’t done anything illegal, he wouldn’t incur the wrath of the sheriff. Very smart.
She thought again about the prospect of catching the man off his guard, subduing him, and taking him some forty-plus miles to the real law to collect the reward. The price on his head was decent, but for the trouble and risk, it seemed rather paltry. Especially considering the recent events. No. She would not go after this one. If he took to beating children or shooting tellers, she’d draw a gun against him, but barring that he was just another drinker in the saloon in her eyes.
He glanced up at her, catching her stare. Damn blazes. She cursed herself. Now he knew that she knew, or at least suspected. And that meant that he might take her for a threat. Meda sighed and rose to her feet. Best let the smoke out of the house before it becomes choking.
She marched casually in his direction, careful to keep her hands clear of her weapons, and took a seat beside him.
“Ms. Jacobs,” he said, tipping his hat whilst eyeing her suspiciously.
“Mr.,” she paused a second. “Romero,” she said with a smile.
He squinted his uncovered eye.
“The bounty isn’t worth the trouble,” she stated plainly. “The distance to the nearest sober law is too great and it would cost me another well-paying job. Besides, bounty-hunting is a line of work I only dabbled with for a time. Too much fuss and the law or the banks or the railroad never want to pay the full amount.”
Seth considered her words a moment.
“I’ll believe you for now,” he said softly. “But if I see you with a pose, you’d do well to duck behind them and pray I run short on shells.”
“I leave in a few days,” she said. “I’m riding with an outfit up to Fort Sumner with quite a few head of cattle. And you’d do wise to stay clear of them longhorns, because I have plenty of shells.”
He smiled slightly. “I’m inclined to buy you a drink.”
“Not much of a taste for it,” she replied. “But a beer would would do nicely.”
Seth motioned to one of the barmaids and had two beers brought over and for the next couple hours, while waiting for the night air to cool, they sipped their drinks, talked of past adventures, and showed off the few scars that were appropriate for mixed company.
About the time she was finishing up for the night, Scully passed by and patted her on the shoulder.
“Headin’ upstairs for some shut-eye,” he said, nodding briefly to Seth.
“You already secured a room for us?” She asked.
He nodded again. “Number four,” he replied.
She smiled up at him, then glanced at his hand. “What happened?” She asked, motioning to the bloody bandage.
“Damn enraged injun came into town on a wagon. Awfully angry, he was. Bit a man that was helping me with the wagon, then bit me when we shoved him into the cell.”
She wrinkled her nose at the redness of his hand. “Pour some whiskey on it,” she said as he was turning to leave.
He waved away her concern and ascended the stairs, limping on every second step.
After a moment’s consideration, Meda rose from her seat. Seth tipped his hat to her and she nodded in recognition, then left. Upstairs, in the fourth room, there was a nice floor awaiting her. She’d slept on the trail so often, that she could hardly stand a bed. And after spending so many nights sleeping beside men, either in the dirt or in a covered wagon, that considering it improper to do such in a room was utterly ridiculous. Scully was, at heart, a gentleman. And Meda was, at heart, far from a lady. He wasn’t likely to interrupt her sleep, save for his random fits of snoring, and she didn’t care much about the opinions of anyone who might see her entering the same room into which the old cripple had so recently limped.
With the smell of beer still on her breath and the feel of the coach seat still on her butt, she climbed the stairs and thought of how good that floor was going to feel.