This week’s blog post features one of my short story efforts that dabbles in Western Fiction. The tale is a two-parter staged in the late 1800s Arizona mining region. A portion of my inner being has always been a cowboy, so I had fun writing the story.
Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.
Spurs clinked in time with a horse’s hooves as it plodded down Main Street, its muzzle nearly plowing a groove in the dusty thoroughfare. A rider slumped forward in the saddle. His parched lips bore the hint of a wry smile as he passed through the town once known as Chaos. A survivor of the silver mine decline, the change from Chaos to Wildflower helped remove the image of the town’s past but failed to rid it of corruption.
Charlie de Diné leaned back in his favorite chair against the front of Bartlett’s Glass Slipper Saloon. A Navajo shaman, Charlie was the only “Injun” allowed in the upstart community. The Indian had earned his privilege after predicting Mayor Farley Derkens’ against-the-odds election. But Charlie understood who really held the reins. He rocked forward when the horse and rider caught his eye. “He found it!”
From behind the saloon doors, John Bartlett squinted at the Indian. “What’s that you say?”
Charlie turned. “I say con-found it! Splinter in thumb—from chair. Need cut out. Do that now.”
Bartlett spotted the weather-beaten cowboy. “Jeez, where’d that hunk a crust come from? Horse looks damned-near dead.”
“I find out. Maybe help man with journey to Great Spirit.”
“Have at it. You an’ that deadbeat would be a good match.”
Like all his barbs, the saloon owner’s insult didn’t faze the elderly Navajo. If Charlie’s notion about the cowboy was correct, John Bartlett’s Day of Atonement would soon arrive.
The Indian stood, glanced at Bartlett, then soft-footed after the stranger, whose steed continued to plod toward Wildflower’s cemetery.
At the graveyard, the cowboy remained astride his sagging mount and stared at a small headstone. His skewed grin had sagged to a frown. A pistol lay across the saddle horn, its barrel pointed Charlie’s direction. Although the Navajo didn’t masquerade his approach, the rider never flinched. As Charlie inched closer, the six-gun’s hammer clicked back. An unspent round rotated into firing position.
“Not make trouble, mister.”
The cowboy’s squint-eyed expression slowly rose. “Then leave me be.”
“You find mine?”
The stranger’s creased face tightened. “Whatta you know ’bout that?”
“Know who buried up there. I bury. But wooden cross not say who in grave.”
“Then who’s six feet under?”
“Man sent to kill father.”
“I see killer at mine. Killer not see me.”
“An’ won’t kill no more, that it?”
“Eye for eye. Jacob good friend.”
The surly rider re-focused on the simple marker. The name and life span etched into the stone read: Jacob Thornby, Mar. 1825 — Jan.1888. The cowboy sighed. He was three months too late. “So what makes you think this Thornby fella’s my pa?”
“Father say you come. Say you wear big-noise, silver spur.”
“Lots a cowhands have jingle-bob spurs.”
“Not same. Father make yours. I help.”
“If that’s true, where’s—”
“This?” Charlie pulled a hand-tooled, silver triangle from his pouch. “You have one that match. You Jacob’s son, Samuel. He say you come, fix things.”
Sam Thornby reached inside his soiled shirt and removed a sweat-tarnished trinket tethered to a leather string. He eyed the two pieces, then asked. “So where’s the third piece?”
“What we find out. First you eat, drink. Wash, too.”
Charlie reached for the horse’s reins. Sam jerked them back. “You lead, we’ll follow.”
The two men glared at one another. Unless he was dead, no cowboy allowed another man to lead his horse. When others refused their generosity, Navajos took offense. Both men realized they’d violated unwritten codes, but neither apologized. Their standoff lasted only a moment before the Indian waved his arm. “Come.”
Sam and his weary steed followed Charlie to a hogan set amid a live oak oasis bordering Chaos Creek, a spring-fed stream that flowed from the Mazatzal Mountains. Once Sam’s horse sniffed water, it wouldn’t pull up until it splashed into the stream and began quenching its powerful thirst.
Sam swung a leg over his slurping mount, slipped on a rock, and flopped onto his backside in a shallow pool. Ordinarily he’d have cursed his plight. But as his horse continued lapping, Sam loosened his gun belt and slung it toward the bank. As he lay into the cool water, a swirl of dust and sand encircled his filthy clothes like a halo and gradually merged into the gentle current.
Charlie stood beside the creek, a woolen blanket draped over his arm. “Horse drink too much. Get sick. Tie up. He drink again later.”
Sam raised his head. “S’pose you’re right, but he earned it. ’Sides this sure feels good.”
“Horse no good dead. Tend horse. Then you wash. Hang clothes on tree. Cover with blanket. Then we eat.”
Sam cocked his head. “Yes-sir, General, sir.”
Like he did with John Bartlett, Charlie ignored the retort, dropped the blanket on the ground, and walked toward his home.
Smoke roiled from a pipe in the center of the adobe shelter’s roof. The odors of scorched peppers, fried meat and beans, and strong coffee saturated the air. The combination of smells challenged the emptiness that wrenched at Sam’s innards.
He splashed water over his face and then stood. After coaxing his horse from the creek, Sam hobbled it, then stripped and slung his clothes at the nearest tree limb. Butt-naked, except for hat, boots and spurs, he wrapped in the blanket, grabbed his gun belt, and shuffled and clinked toward aromas that had escaped him for days.
Poised amid a modest room with a plank floor, Charlie stirred a spicy concoction in a heavy skillet atop a cast-iron stove. A pale blue coffee pot gurgled beside the pan, a misty haze clinging to its spout. Two book shelves lined one of the hogan’s walls. A diploma and a crucifix hung above a thick-mattressed bed on the opposite wall. A handcrafted table and chairs stood beside Charlie’s well-volumed library.
“What the hell?”
“What’s the matter, Sam, still shrouded by the misconception that Indians cannot read and write like white men? Even better, perhaps?”
“Supper ready. Sit. We eat. There, does that sound better?”
“Please, sit. We will talk over supper.”
Sam dropped his hat and gun on the floor, re-arranged the woolen drape hiding his nakedness, and obliged his host. While Charlie dished up, Sam scanned the selection of manuscripts. The top two shelves held books on Geology, Mining, and Civil Law. Novels and poetry by Washington Irving, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allen Poe, plus a thick hardbound copy of the Bible, burdened the lower three sections.
Charlie placed two steaming bowls of chili on the table. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
Sam grunted. “S’pose so, but why—”
“My dumb Injun disguise?”
“Din’t mean ta ruffle your feathers.”
Charlie shook his head at the “feathers” allegory then strode to the stove once more. He returned with a small platter of tortillas, two cups and the still-gurgling coffeepot and placed them on the table.
“What took you so long, Samuel? Nearly a year has passed since Jacob sent you those spurs.”
Sam Thornby sighed. “Montana jail dampened my social life. Din’t get the spurs ’til little over three months ago. Wore ’em for two full days before I figgered out they was a telegram.”
“Your father was a clever man.”
“Bit too clever, if ya ask me.”
“He said you would decipher the code. That you and he used to leave one another messages.”
“That Ma wouldn’t understand. Yeah, I remember. But she knew. After she died, Pa an’ me chose separate paths. Been a long time since I dallied with that stuff. So, what’s your story?”
Charlie examined his inquisitive guest. He followed another fiery mouthful with a swallow of bitter coffee then leaned back in his chair. “Only two other people knew me well––your father, and the missionary who raised me after a white raiding party mistook my family for Apaches. The men slaughtered all but my older sister and me. She died trying to keep me alive.”
“Once I was old enough, my guardian told me about what happened. It was then I understood my choices. I could seek vengeance, and most likely die a spiteful young man, or I could study the white man, become his intellectual equal, and live to see my hair turn gray.”
“Like a marked deck in a poker game—never gonna lose. But ya quit your own kind.”
“No. Though it may appear that way to you, I never forgot my heritage. The name I chose, Carlos de Diné—Charlie of The People—represents that connection. But I am a minority seeking justice from a system that ignores me. Then I met your father. Like me, Jacob was intent upon making a difference—for himself and his family. We shared lofty goals, plus a common obstacle––no money.”
“What about Pa’s mine?”
“We thought we’d hit the mother-lode. We were mistaken.”
“Whatta ya mean?”
“The silver petered out. We ran into copper instead, which held little value—until lately. Because Jacob never quit, he discovered a huge copper vein the day before he died.”
“Din’t my old man file a claim?”
“Of course he did.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I do not know the vein’s exact location. The other problem is John Bartlett.”
“Thought you an’ Pa were partners.”
“We were. Yet, Jacob felt it better to keep some details to himself and hid the documents. For laboring with him, I own a third of that claim. The remainder belongs to you. We were to declare our rights once you arrived, send Bartlett packing, and then live the life God intended.”
“Which ain’t gonna happen.”
Charlie smirked. “It can once we find the claim documents.”
“Bartlett know ‘bout this?”
“I am certain he caused your father’s death.”
Sam leaned back. “So where we start?”
Charlie pulled the weathered silver triangle from his pouch once more and tossed it on the table. “Maybe—” Before he could complete the thought, Sam jerked the tether from his neck and slid his trinket next to Charlie’s. After aligning the pieces he examined the inscriptions.
Charlie leaned forward. “What do the pieces tell you?”
“We gotta dig up a corpse.”