Excerpt of Heller’s Canal

South Platte River

South Platte River

 

HELLER’S CANAL

 by

Gary S Sloan

Amazon Edition

 Copyright 2013 by Gary S Sloan

Amazon Edition License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. This eBook may not be resold or given away. If you would like to share this book, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or if you purchased it for anything other than your use, please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own. Reference to any real entity is coincidental. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Dedication

 

To a most colorful era in American History.

To the Colorado Territory,

Where a great deal of the color took place.

And to any who enjoy a yarn spun for the sheer fun of it.

 

 Prologue

 

December 4th, 1870 dawned much like any other winter day in the Colorado Territory.

An old mountain man, on the way to Denver to peddle animal skins, hunkered beside his pack mule to take a drink in the clear waters of the South Platte River. He tossed back his deerskin cap, cupped his hands and splashed his black-bearded face. He breathed in the sweet, clean air and he smiled. Tranquil beauty, glorious serenity –– words he didn’t know –– but conceive their meaning he no doubt did.

After satisfying himself and his mule, the mountain man stood and readied himself to resume his journey.

After several strides, he stepped upon a small mound and felt the impression of it on the sole of his soft moccasin. Another step and he felt a sudden quiver in the earth. His dark eyes sharpened and his pulse quickened. His instincts rang true as he understood what followed. He yanked hard on the reins of his mule, dropping the bewildered beast to the frozen grass, and he fell fast onto his stomach beside her.

The earthquake shook the ground beneath the old man’s body. His trusted mule bellowed and quivered in fear. Together, they rode out the shaking and as soon as it began, it ended.

With nonchalance, the old man raised himself to dust the frost off his elk skin cloak and gathered his mule back to her legs. Together, they ambled on as the Pueblo-Fort Reynolds Earthquake entered the geological record as the first event of its kind in the colorful history of the vast and varied region of the Colorado Territory.

 

One

 

It never crossed his mind he would welcome the occasion, but the sight of a new town on the heated plain stirred Sam Claiborne’s imagination and filled his spirit with a strange and powerful yearning.

At first, he saw the buildings as notches on the horizon, angular forms he passed off as heat waves playing with his tired eyes. But as he rode closer, the lusty ripples gave way to definite shapes –– wooden facias and pointed roofs –– obvious constructions of civilization.

Soon, he came upon a road and he followed it with reservation. Sam Claiborne found most towns foreign, places to bypass in the growing dim of evening. Yet once he came to the doorstep of the unwanted place, he considered backtracking, but something caught his attention and his curiosity got the better of him.

Reining in his weary roan horse, Sam lifted his well worn boot out of his stirrup and swung out of the saddle. “Easy, Cactus,” he said in a soothing tone. “Ain’t no call to fuss now.”

Cactus smacked his thick, dry lips as Sam drove a boot heel into the fine dust along the empty road leading into the small town of Littleton, Colorado Territory. The lone road off the eastern hills, it appeared more a wide trail scarred by wagon wheels and horses’ hooves than an actual byway. Real roads, after all, lived east of the Big Muddy –– many of them bricked and most of them leading some place consequential. Out West, rutted trails defined the ordinary, and by Sam Claiborne’s reckoning, rutted trails often ended in a heap of disappointment or downright misery.

With a lift of his narrow chin, Sam exhaled and filled his lungs. The wicked summer heat scraped at the back of his throat. “Cactus, there’s water ahead, so hold on now. You’ll be drinking soon.”

Cactus shook his head and fluttered his nostrils, so Sam ran a gloved hand down his sleek neck to soothe him. A horsefly came out of nowhere to land on Cactus’ cinnamon and sugar coat, setting him to quiver. Unperturbed, the large insect circled a few times on quick legs and flew off with a harsh buzz. Sam watched the large insect loop a few times before it disappeared.

Yawning, Sam took a tired step forward and raised his arms to stretch as much Colorado Flatlands out of his lean frame as possible. Straightening tall, Sam’s bad rib creaked and he set to kneading the pain away.

When the irritation quit, Sam took off his black derby and slapped it against his brown leather chaps. A cloud of trail dust sprang loose to join distant cousins on the roadbed. With a smirk, Sam popped his derby back on his head and gazed at a prairie falcon floating on a blister of July heat in the pale, blue sky. Death, quick and merciless, loomed certain for some unwary rodent out on the yellow, rolling plain.

With a notch of his head, Sam inspected the reason he had dismounted in the first place. Hanging by a single rusty nail on a crooked persimmon post, a crude sign stuck out of the parched dirt along the roadside. Sam studied it for a moment, cleared his throat and read it aloud in a brazen voice, as if uttering the very proclamation himself:

 

“NO FIREARMS ALLOWED IN THE FINE TOWN OF LITTLETON.”

 

Beneath the edict, scrawled in the same flaky red paint, the words “URIAH JERSEY, SHERIFF” lent the notice credence. Two broad strokes of a gnarled paintbrush underlined “SHERIFF”.

Sam smirked. “Two underlines in red. I’d say the fella must be pretty darned important.”

Sam stuck his boot into a stirrup and swung back onto Cactus. The familiar creak of his saddle comforted him during moments of consternation. As much as he hated civilization, sometimes civilization had a nasty way of forcing itself on the most wary. You see, water proved scarce as womenfolk in the central part of Colorado Territory, during good seasons — and this season played out worst than most. So Sam figured he had to visit “The Fine Town of Littleton”. He hoped his stay would prove short. Towns and trail dust mixed bad like cow’s milk and turpentine, so Sam planned to buy provisions, spell Cactus and his dog awhile and set out for the mountains where he felt most comfortable.

“Ballou,” Sam said to his Anatolian shepherd. “Let them prairie dogs be and let’s get.”

Ballou took a final snap at a prairie dog hole, barked twice, and sauntered back to where Sam stood near the road sign. Had he his druthers, Ballou preferred flushing the dryness in his gullet with warm blood rather than hot, gritty water. But his master held other notions, so prance back he did, like the obedient servant he most times was.

At the pace of a funeral procession, the weary trio entered the new town of Littleton. Sam had never crossed trails with this farming community before, because Richard Little founded it that very year – 1872.

Sam heard tell of it from a plainsman he chanced upon down the South Platte River a piece, who like Sam, searched the riverbed for water to no avail, but unlike Sam, refused entering Littleton or any other town of its sort, claiming that farm towns choke off the land like milk cows.

Now Sam rode his pride as hard as the next drifter, but he could no more stop the settlements and the farms and the fences anymore than the next saddle tramp. That’s why he preferred the mountains. Snow, bitter cold and steep, rugged trails keep flatlanders at bay and Sam’s disposition a good deal more amiable.

With trepidation, Sam seized the moment to scrutinize the new town. Clap-boarded walls with lean-to roofs stood feeble, as if Richard Little had hastened to build the town on a hot summer afternoon to escape the angry sun.

Extending namesakes, the dry goods store served as the town hall and the saloon as the hotel. The jailhouse remained the one building in sight that received more than a lick and a promise, and its cell keeper, Uriah Jersey — that’sSHERIFF URIAH JERSEY” with two broad underlines in red — might well prove a mud stick, judging by the stoutness of his brown–bricked hoosegow.

So, knowing the routine well, Sam nosed Cactus to the hitching post and swung into the drab, dusty street. Slapping Cactus on his broad rump, he said, “Be right back, boy. Water’s on the way.”

With Ballou at his boot heels, Sam stepped onto the wooden porch and opened the jailhouse’s heavy, gray door.

A thick man, about 35 — rough as a cottonwood knob with a shock of ruddy whiskers — sat behind an old, black-painted desk. A steel-blue hogleg rested close. His green eyes glanced at it for emphasis. “Help you, stranger?” he said with a half–sneer.

“Come to check my Colt. Name’s Sam Claiborne. In town to wet my whistle and resupply. Won’t be but a few hours.” Sam gave the man the rundown to win him over, because experience long since taught him that enemies in high places can prove a tad sticky.

“That your dog?” the man said under a dark brow.

Sam nodded.

“Well keep him outside. This ain’t a barn.”

Deep down, Sam’s ire rumbled like a thunderclap. But he hid it well, preferring a weak hand rather than a long shot played for meager stakes. “Hey, Ballou, you heard the man. Get on outside. Now.”

Ballou raised his ears, turned his long snout and pranced through the open door to sit haunches on the porch. Sam clicked his tongue and shut the door before loosening the lash over his Colt and placing it on the desk.

The man closed one eye and said, “Gun belt, too. Like to keep things tidy.”

Sam bounced his chin and unbuckled his holster. “You the sheriff?” he said without concern. Sam made purpose of ignoring the shiny brass badge on the man’s soiled, tan shirt.

“Why? You got some dealings with the sheriff?”

Sam’s patience evaporated. “No … I was trying to be accommodating. Don’t rightly give a damn.” Sam sharpened his gaze and stared hard into the sheriff’s blunt eyes.

The sheriff measured Sam’s point and found it stout enough. “My name’s Uriah Jersey and best remember it. I’m the sheriff of Littleton and I’ll have you know this is the newest and shiniest town in all of the Colorado Territory.”

Sheriff Jersey narrowed his eyes and cracked a grin. “Well, you look genuine enough, Sam Claiborne. Sorry if I came off a hair testy. Don’t want no trouble in my town, that’s all.”

Sam stiffened his brow. “Don’t expect trouble from me. Like I said, I’m passing through.”

“Fair enough. Fresh water’s at the livery stable down the street. Got to pay though, because it’s dry as a sand hill around here nowadays. If you change your mind and want to stay a spell, the New Capital Hydraulic Company is hiring good men. They’re out dredging the High Line Canal west of town right now. You look sturdy enough to toss a shovel for a full day’s pay.”

Sam smiled. “No thanks. I prefer an ax.”

Sheriff Jersey raised his bushy eyebrows. “Like the high country, do you? Suit yourself, Sam Claiborne. Offer stands if you change your mind.”

Sam tapped the brim of his derby, turned and strode from the jailhouse. At the edge of the porch, he glanced up the street and spotted the livery stable this side of the railroad station. It stood the third to last building in town. The railroad station stood second and the church house stood last. White as a dead man’s face, the deacons’ house appeared more a funeral parlor than a place of worship. The good brethren had whitewashed the shingles too.

With a wry grin, Sam grabbed Cactus’ reins and led him along the street.

Further along, a man and his wife stepped out of the hardware store. Sam smiled and tipped his derby. The couple smiled back and nodded as they passed. Amused, Sam looked at Ballou and said, “Either this town is welcoming or there goes the mayor and his bride.”

Ballou plodded along raising small puffs of dust with his large paws.

At the livery stable, Sam made arrangements for Cactus.

“Half oats and half alfalfa,” Sam said to the stable boy. “Don’t want my horse coming down with colic. And hey, my rifle better stay put or Sheriff Jersey will pay a visit.”

Sam noticed the kid staring down his prized Sharps .50-90 with covetous eyes. Heck, nothing around here to shoot but plow mules, anyway, he thought.

In the street again, Sam and Ballou soon came upon a yellow-fronted eating-house named “Emma’s Kitchen”.

At the door, Sam glanced at Ballou and said, “Wait here, boy. I’ll be right back with a cut of beef and a bowl of fresh water.”

Entering, Sam sat at the first table to the left so he could watch Ballou through a blurry window.

At the counter, an old man with a full head of shiny skin slurped his coffee from a saddle-brown mug. Sam waved hello and the old man lifted his hazel eyes. A photograph of James Buchanan — the one American President to remain a bachelor during office — hung by its lonesome on the rough sawn back wall.

Soon a woman exited the kitchen with a fire-blackened coffee pot in one hand and a cleaning towel in the other. “More coffee, Levi?” she said of the old man as she stopped at the end of the counter.

“No, had enough for today, Emma.” Levi gave a weak toss of an age–spotted hand, tipped his cup to his weathered lips and finished his last gulp.

“Tomorrow then, Levi,” Emma said in a reassuring tone and she turned. Noticing Sam, she set the coffeepot down, wiped her attractive hands on her cleaning towel and smiled as she approached.

Such beauty brought a sparkle to Sam’s eyes. Early-twenties and fresh as a spring blossom, Emma filled out her rose-printed dress to perfection. Her spotless white apron hung to her thin ankles and her lustrous black hair gathered at the base of her dainty neck. To Sam’s eye, she appeared the part of some doting father’s privilege, and she looked as fine as her kitchen smelled.

“Howdy, stranger,” she said as she stopped to Sam’s front.

“Ma’am,” Sam said, dropping his derby onto the planked floor.

“What’ll it be? Something for you first … or your dog?”

Sam chuckled. “Got to take care of who takes care of me. Give Ballou some raw beef and plenty of water. Pour salt on that beef, too. I’ll take a steak, cooked half through with some greens, black coffee and bread.”

“Want water? You look pretty dry.”

“You bet.”

“Here to work on the High Line Canal?” Emma’s question bristled with hope, anticipation shining in her soft brown eyes. “Company foreman’s hiring, you know.”

“That’d be the New Capital Hydraulic Company?” Sam said.

“Yeah, it’s the big project around these parts. The original canal was excavated before Father and I moved here about ten years ago. Over time, the canal’s grown shallow so some local financiers decided to dredge it. You know, no water … no crops … no crops … no money … no money…”

“No town,” Sam said.

Emma smiled, showing straight gleaming teeth. “You got it.”

For Sam, the logic was simple. Colorado Territory often dealt in absolutes, yielding little cushion between success and failure. “Sorry, dredging canals ain’t in my blood. I’m passing through.”

Emma tilted her pretty face. “Heading for the tall country?” The question came out with a lighthearted lilt more than a hard-nosed invasion.

Sam widened his eyes. “It’s where my derby hangs best.”

“Well, it’s dry all the way to the Continental Divide. Been the worst spring for rain in memory. Bad winter, too. Might have some problems getting where you’re going.”

Sam studied Emma’s stunning eyes. “Your man the company foreman?”

Emma blushed and ducked her chin. “No, it’s true. Shoot, ride on out to the South Platte and check. Best days it’s a trickle. Right now, it’s dry. Don’t mind saying, the town’s getting mighty worried.”

“Where’s Littleton finding the water to survive … prairie ponds?”

“Yeah, but there aren’t many and all of them are pretty puny except for Harland Heller’s. He’s the big rancher around here. Some say he’s got a couple thousand head of Hereford … some buffalo, too. He’s got big ponds on his range, though they’re drying up pretty fast as the Chinooks blow over them. So dredging was part his idea, I’m told.”

“Where’s his spread?”

“Triple-H is about ten miles south. Harland Heller’s been hauling water to town by freight wagon for months now. Costing the town a pretty penny, but it’s better than moving east and leaving Littleton to the rattlers. We got high hopes for this town … might rival Denver one day.”

“Why not use the railroad? It’d cost less and be quicker. But I’m no businessman.”

“Because most of the ponds, above all the bigger ones are in the Latigo Bolson. The railroad spur there isn’t finished.”

“Then the Triple-H brand stands for Harland H. Heller? Sam asked the question to carry on conversation. Talking to Ballou and Cactus was a sight easier than conversing with a pretty young woman.

Emma shifted her fine mouth. “No, Middle ‘H’ stands for his son, Hank. Blood runs thicker than water.”

Sam frowned. “Runs more plentiful too, I’d say.”

Emma cocked her head. “Bet you’re starving. I’ll quit jawing now and fix your food. But feed Ballou first, right?” She gave Sam a playful wink and smiled.

Sam returned the smile as Emma sashayed away as only a woman can.

When Sam left Emma’s Kitchen, Ballou laid in a tight ball of snores, sleeping off his meal in the spotty shade of the single-layered porch roof. Sam clicked his tongue and Ballou lifted his heavy eyelids. Sam clicked again to raise him off the porch. Late afternoon, hot as fire, the two-click kind of day continued.

Walking east, Sam headed for the dry goods store.

Inside, he inspected the layout. Shelves hung the walls like a schoolhouse, but empty filled most of the space.

Sighing, Sam approached the counter and paused, wondering if the store stood open for business.

Soon, a short man stepped out of the storeroom wearing blue overalls and a gray clerk’s hat. He lifted his brow at the sight of a stranger. “Sorry, mister … busy moving all my crates of nothing back there.” Sleep hung heavy in his weary, dark eyes.

Sam chuckled. “Waiting for the Denver Great Plains Railroad to build a line straight to your front door?”

The man’s face brightened with the play. “More like waiting for this town to blow away so I can strap my mule and get on back to Kansas City. Weren’t it for the financial panic of 1857 … danged speculators cost me everything and sent me and my daughter out here … we’d still be living high on the hog in Missouri.”

“Guess you’re not part of the town council, are you?” Sam said as he recalled the “Town Hall” sign hanging off the roof out front.

The man set a wry grin. “Guess so … I’m Littleton’s mayor.”

Sam slapped a hand on the counter and heehawed. Above all, the trail served men humility. A town, on the other hand, served men arrogance, making them think they stood at the pinnacle of existence. It did Sam good to see a paragon of such misconception facing reality. “Got anything for sale?”

“No, but I’ll trade my store for your boots.”

Sam chuckled again. His boots hung nine parts worn out and appeared no better than the back-end of the good mayor’s strap mule.

“What’ll it be, mister? If I got it, I’m selling it.”

Sam wiped a hand across his grin. “Say one thing, Mr. Mayor … bet you keep the town council in stitches at your meetings.”

The mayor chuckled back. “Funniest part is, people seldom show up.”

Sam searched the mayor’s face. Rugged furrows traveled his brow like washed-out gulches. In his later years, his gray hair stood his head, thin and frazzled, and his tired face showed signs of hefty loads of broken expectations. Like his eyes, his chin drooped and his acorn-skull teetered forward and threatened to topple off his slackened shoulders. Yet, he cast an air of inner strength that made Sam want to know him better. “Claiborne’s my name … Sam. How ’bout you, Mr. Mayor?”

The man accepted Sam’s outstretched hand. “Eli Garrison … Mayor Garrison to all the townsfolk who have lost interest.”

“I take it Littleton’s having a tough time?”

“Takes more than a few planks of pine and a fist of five penny nails to make a town. This is my first run as mayor. Most say I would have done better counting profits than leading a town. Darned little profit to count anyway. Drought has all but choked Littleton to nothing.”

Sam studied the shade of Eli Garrison’s face. “Well, all’s not lost, Mr. Mayor. Your daughter cooks a real tasty beef steak.”

Mayor Garrison’s eyes flashed. “Ah, you know Emma . She sure does at that. Like her ma in that regard, but more independent than Lorraine ever was.” Eli Garrison gazed away as if Lorraine’s memory cast a long shadow.

When he faced back, Sam said, “I’d say a sweet daughter is a sight better than some watered down profits. But who am I but a drifter?”

“Yeah, Emma is something special. I’m a lucky man when it comes to that. And heck, you got the watered down part right, too. Whoever heard of building a farming town on the banks of a fickle river like the South Platte? Haven’t seen any water in near a month.”

Sam scratched the back of his head. “Won’t dredging the canal help?”

Eli Garrison shrugged. “Nothing but a ditch if there aren’t any headwaters.”

“Understood. Where can I get a room? And please don’t say the saloon, because such places get way too randy for a man to sleep.”

Eli Garrison snickered. “You might be a drifter, Sam Claiborne, but you’re ace-high as they come. Littleton hasn’t earned a genuine hotel, but we have a nice church and the Rough and Ready Flour Mill. For two bits a night you can sleep in my storeroom. Bunk’s not great, but it’s rested my body on many a lazy day.”

Sam grinned and pulled a dollar from his coin pocket. “Give me four nights worth, Mr. Mayor. Think I’m staying a spell.”

Eli Garrison took the dollar and dropped it in his money drawer. “If you get hungry, beans and peas are on the shelf. Leave some money in an empty can. Outhouse is where you’d expect. Watch out for spiders.”

Sam lifted his chin. “Tell you what, Mr. Mayor … sell me that box of .50-90 shells up there. As for food? Everything is over at Emma’s.”

Eli Garrison smiled at the rangy drifter who stood before him. Good stock comes in strange packages and Sam Claiborne came self-delivered.

 

Two

 

The morning dawned warm and dry, cloudless and feckless of rain.

At the livery stable, Sam gave his saddle cinch one last yank under Cactus’ big belly. Cactus snorted, because his stomach near busted with good things — grain, plenty of water for proper digestion, and a handful of sugar Sam brought from Eli Garrison’s store.

For Ballou, Emma had served a nice chunk of beef jerky and a deep bowl of cool milk.

For Sam, she prepared everything to his liking — ham, fried to a crisp edge, and eggs staring-back-at-you with sourdough bread and mulberry jam.

Once in the saddle, Sam clicked Cactus into a slow trot and headed out of town toward the western foothills. Feeling a pinch naked without his Colt on his hip, soon as the town fell to his back, Sam took out his Sharps and held it ready across his weather-beaten chaps. He intended no harm to the day, but knew the day had yet to play a full hand.

When he came upon the South Platte, he turned Cactus up its serpentine path toward the place where Emma had directed him. The morning laid before him a serene and glorious expanse. The cottonwoods, with their tight, pale-green canopies, rustled in the fresh breeze that stirred off the rolling hills. As the sun rose, rays of light scattered gold leaf over the leaves like a French Impressionist, giving Sam the mood to whistle a melody his ma had played for him at the old pianoforte. Soon the sweet serenity collapsed beneath the harsh clatter of machinery and the scattered calls of laboring men.

At the next rise, Sam stopped and peered down on the worksite that stretched along a natural depression. A huge steam shovel rode a steel tressel, devouring the ground in slow, ravenous gulps. Spinning on its broad base, the mechanical behemoth disgorged its sharp-fanged shovel into steam-driven earthmovers that clacked away to spread the dirt beyond the horizon.

Sam had never seen so much heavy machinery before, but found it unsurprising since the steam locomotive had long since captured the Western landscape. After all, no more than a week past Sam saw a Baldwin 4-4-0 chugging along the tracks from Cheyenne to Denver with ten dinkys of slack coal in tow.

“You know, boy,” Sam said as he groomed Cactus’ mane, “someday they will replace you with nothing but iron, coal and water.”

Cactus stood three-legged unmoved by the prospect.

“And when they do, they might as well replace me, too.”

Wistful, Sam sucked his teeth several times, rebooted his Sharps and eased Cactus down the slope toward the commotion.

Ballou followed as sure as morning follows night.

After tying his animals to the rope corral, Sam set to searching for the man he came to see. He soon found him beyond the corral, a jaw full of orders beneath a brown Stetson hat. Men labored to his commands down in the ditch, shaping the bottom with shovels, picks and wide wooden trowels. When Sam approached, the man lifted the brim of his hat and gave Sam the onceover like appraising a prized stallion.

“Which suits you best, mister, a pickax or a shovel? I’d be needing either.” Irish as hard whiskey, the man saw Sam through impatient blue eyes. His concern for the job left little time for idleness.

“Pick’s good,” Sam said.

“Smashing. Get one over at the tool wagon. Water jug there too, so drink up. Going to get hot as a sidewinder’s belly before the day’s done. No use you keeling over and making us lift you out. Plenty to do without carting pickers out of the ditch.”

Sharp-edged and quick to the point, Sam took an instant liking to the foreman. Emma had mentioned that Shane O’Reilly was a steamroller, and when he and his crew weren’t throwing down meat and potatoes at her eating house, they were over at the Boss of the Plains Saloon tossing back whiskey and arranging their evening recreations. Sam appreciated simplicity in its highest form, and in the pale-skinned, blond-headed Shane O’Reilly, Sam figured a cipher as elementary as one plus two.

Soon, with pick in hand, Sam jumped into the ditch and staked out some big clods and began to bust them so the spreaders and smoothers had something to do.

Noon brought a 30 minute lunch break as the men lay under the wagons with their bread rolls and cured jerky. One fella had a big turkey leg. The one married man of the lot of fifteen, he caught his fair share of grief over it. The workers called him Yellow Chick, a name Sam found amusing. Yet, the title could be worse for the poor fella. A sight better than being hitched with Plow Boy.

Around three in the afternoon a big man with a thick black mustache rode up to the site. To Sam, the man’s horse appeared as fine a bay as he had ever seen. Under a spanking new hat, the man wore fancy chaps, shined boots and a red vest of brushed cowhide. He sat his horse with great style and spoke from it like a politician on the stump. Shane O’Reilly shut his trap and listened.

The picker next to Sam stopped work to wipe his brow. “High and mighty bastard,” he said under his breath. “Ride on back to the Triple-H. Don’t need you here sticking those fine boots out for our bosses to lick.”

Sam continued busting dirt.

Once the man rode away, Shane O’Reilly turned and hustled toward the supply wagon. Sam took the moment to speak. “Who’s that green stick?”

The picker chortled. “Only green you see in that fella is in his front pocket. That there’s Hank Heller and he cowboys with the best of them. He’s dressed to the nines because he’s headed to town to eat at Emma’s. Does it about four times a week. Figure he’s got an eye fixed on the future and Emma’s part of it.”

“And Emma … she see it that way?” Sam said as he worked his pick out of the dirt.

“Might not be aiming on it, but she’s sure clearing the dust in front of her pretty brown eyes.”

“That’d be a soft saddle to sit … and for a young woman it’s something to consider.”

The picker spread his blue and white bandana and wiped his brow again. “Yeah, but them that know Hank say he can be downright mean. Born under a smooth sky and fed by a fat calf, he’s too spoiled to handle anything upsetting. Not sure he’d be best for a fine woman like Emma.”

“Well, I suppose Emma decides,” Sam said, raising his pick to the sky. “For me, it’s making a little money until the dry spell breaks, and it’s off to the high country.”

The picker spit into the dirt. “Best buy some new gloves, mister. All signs point to a long haul till spring.”

Sam lifted his sandy eyebrows. “Ditch goes on a ways, so I can wait.”

The picker spit again, lifted his pick and muttered beneath his breath.

Ignoring him, Sam grinned as he considered the power of a woman, above all a fine pedigree like Emma Garrison. Tightening his grip, he raised his pick and smashed a thick clod the steam shovel had loosened. One plus two is three, he ciphered. He lifted his pick again, smashed another large clod and quit ciphering. “Not so sure, though,” he said. “For some crazy reason matters don’t add up around here.”

They worked until sunset, until the sky turned gray at the top of the hills. Sam climbed out of the ditch after nine hours of hard labor with his body a smear of aches, his mind as clear as crystal.

At the supply wagon, Shane O’Reilly gathered his workers for a short meeting to plan for tomorrow.

“Good effort today, crew,” he said. “We did near a mile. Everyone plan on working tomorrow? If not, speak up and fetch your pay. Else you keep on working until payday at the end of the week.”

The crew said nothing, depending more on the job than the job depended on them.

“Good. Now … plan is we do the same tomorrow as we did today. Should be smooth going since we’re in sandy loam. I’ll see everyone bright and early. And by the way, the new fella here is Sam Claiborne. He’s a little green yet, but made a good showing for his first day. Okay, let’s get to town and mix some fun with our work.”

The men let out different versions of felicity, some downright yelping, while others clapped their hands or slapped their legs. As they dispersed and headed toward the rope corral one of them said, “How ’bout you, Yellow Chick? You headed home for another turkey leg or are you coming to town with us to kick up a leg or two?”

Yellow Chick continued toward his mule. “I got to get home to the little missus. Chances are you’d hate riding your fine horses into town next to a worn–out mule, anyhow.”

The worker beside Sam said, “Out here if it stands four legs, can trot, lope and gallop and doesn’t have a danged plow strapped to its arse, it’s good enough for us, right fellas?”

All the men whooped in agreement.

Yellow Chick grinned, as good-natured as they come. No wonder some gal cut him out of the herd and lassoed him. Frontier women can spot breeders like a June mare in season. Sam smiled as Yellow Chick shook his head, waved a hand in the twilight and kept walking.

At the horses, Shane O’Reilly found Sam and patted him on the shoulder. “Swung your pick right good today, Claiborne. Coming to the saloon for a whiskey tonight? I’ll spot your first round.”

Sam’s throat felt like sandpaper and his tongue a chock of hardwood. “You bet. Not one to turn down charity.”

“Ain’t charity. You strike me as a good worker and I want you to know the company appreciates it.” Shane O’Reilly stopped short of his horse.

In the failing light, Sam could see the rich, copper hue of its coat. “Beautiful animal,” Sam said, as Shane O’Reilly prepared him for the trail.

“Thanks. Know where the saloon is?” Shane O’Reilly said as he stuck a boot into his stirrup.

“Two blocks east of the flour mill?”

“That’d be it,” and Shane O’Reilly steered his big horse out of the rope corral and heeled him into a trot.

Down the line a ways, Sam came upon Ballou and Cactus. My, how good it felt to arrive home. Stooping, he cupped Ballou’s tan face and roughed his thick fur. “Let’s go to town, boy. Today’s pretty much over.”

 

Three

 

When Sam entered the Boss of the Plains Saloon the silver moon had entered the night sky.

At the swinging doors, Sam fought the urge to ignore Shane O’Reilly’s offer and instead go out back and talk the day over with the stars. But he had promised, and like the moon rising, he intended to honor it.

Standing inside, Sam glanced around. Tobacco smoke filled the dim establishment. Along the walls, kerosene lamps burned their unctuous yellow light, adding their unique smell to the mingled odors of the crowded place. Odd sticks of every sort — trail hands, farmhands, townsfolk and an Indian or two — roamed the sawdust floor, yakking to each other without concern for topic or good sense. Their voices stirred with the clinking of glasses and the tinny refrains of the old pianoforte off in the corner, making a righteous din of it all.

Soon, Sam spotted Shane O’Reilly at the far-end of the bar. His brown Stetson sat the crown of his head and his elbows pinned down the varnished bar top. His attentions favored a pretty young saloon girl who swooned on his every word, no doubt swooning Shane out of as much hard-earned cash as she could.

Sam saw several other company men enjoying themselves, two venturing a poker game and another straddling a spine-backed gambler’s chair at the back wall beneath a buffalo head. The man held a mug of beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. His eyes were fixed upon the voluptuous curves of one of the younger ladies of the night. Sam swore he could have gone over and taken the fella’s beer and smoke without stirring his gaze.

“Over here, Sam,” Shane O’Reilly said.

Sam looked back toward the bar and saw his foreman waving. The young saloon girl had her slender, white arms around Shane O’Reilly’s waist, certain to keep his attentions close to her ample bosom. She stared none too nice at Sam as he plodded across the dirty floor.

“Sam, this here is Rachel,” Shane said.

“Ma’am,” Sam said, tipping his black derby.

“You a drummer?” Rachel said. Her voice measured tiny as her dainty waist.

“No, ma’am.”

“Why do you wear that drummer derby?”

Sam slackened his mouth. “To keep the sun off my head.”

Shane laughed. “Rachel, you’re quite the beauty. Now, go get my friend here a drink. Whiskey sound good, Sam?”

Sam ordered with a grin.

Once Rachel scurried off, Shane turned and said, “Yep, Rachel’s a beauty … but she’s dumber than a barnyard jenny.”

Sam smiled. “But her tail is a sight prettier than any lady burro’s I’ve ever stared down.”

“Ah, were it not for the simpler things,” Shane mused, gazing to the ceiling.

Sam’s thoughts drifted to the stars out behind the saloon.

When Rachel returned with Sam’s whiskey, Shane handed it to him, raised his glass and said, “I want to propose a toast. A toast to a hard day and a fun night,” and he lifted his glass and knocked back every last drop.

Sam saluted with his piercing blue eyes and emptied his glass too. “Whew, now that’s some hearty stuff.”

“Fire!” somebody said. “Something’s burning down the street.”

A hush fell over the saloon –– a moment of stark assessment. Then pandemonium broke loose.

Panicked, the crowd rushed the front doors, upending everything. Harsh waves of orange light poured through the windows.

“The flour mill’s on fire,” somebody said from the street.

Scrambling, the crowd clogged the front of the saloon. Behind, Sam grabbed Shane and Rachel and pulled them toward a small door at the back wall.

In a run, the bartender hit the door first and stumbled.

Sam, Shane and Rachel rushed outside, stepping over the bartender, who lay on the ground, wild–eyed. Sam pulled him to his feet. “Where can we get water?”

“Water tower down at the rail yard.”

Sam whistled and turned to Shane. “We need buckets.”

Everybody stared.

“Wait,” the bartender said and burst back into the saloon, with Rachel chasing. The bartender hurried behind the bar while Rachel scrambled upstairs.

Next door, Sam spotted a wooden bucket back of the barbershop. He ran over, grabbed it and whistled again.

The echo lingered while Ballou rounded the corner. The stench of burning wood filled the air, stirring him to a frenzy.

Beyond the rooftops, a huge dark cloud billowed into the sky.

When the bartender ran through the door with two buckets in hand, Sam grabbed one, handed it to Shane O’Reilly and said, “Let’s go.”

As they turned, Rachel ran out, hugging a metal bucket. Shane O’Reilly helped her as everyone hurried toward the street.

A fire brigade had formed from people pouring out of buildings along the length of town. A freight wagon rumbled through pulled by one horse. Men jumped aboard as it rattled past.

Sam stared at the blaze and sighed. Engulfed in flames, the fire consumed the mill.

One–hundred-feet distant, a wall of heat blocked much of the street. People funneled onto the boardwalk opposite the blaze.

Sam and the others joined the brigade as it strung out in a long line toward the rail yard. The first firefighters from the far end of town tossed their buckets toward the blaze. Shunned by the heat, their attempts fell short.

Hopeless, Sam thought. No saving the mill. Without pump wagons and hoses, the fire wielded a superior hand. Only water that would find its mark anytime soon would douse the smoldering ashes of a building that once stood Littleton proud.

Littleton fought the blaze with admirable courage, but lost to a greater force. Within an hour, the flour mill spread before the town’s anguished gaze, a complete loss to its economy, and a heartless blow to its beleaguered spirit.

Hell visited “The Fine Town of Littleton” that night. And Littleton could do nothing but spit on hell’s charcoal-gray boots.

 

Four

 

The next morning, Sam rode up to the remains of the Rough and Ready Flour Mill.

Slumped in his saddle, he covered his nose with his black bandana, but the stench of burn lifted off the gray rubble so strong that Cactus squirmed.

Pushed by the rising sun, a soft breeze blew across the site, lifting ashes into the sky. With a thumb, Sam raised the brim of his derby and shook his head. He thought about condemning philosophies other than his, the selfishness of disregarding other people’s dreams. But the emptiness he now felt for Littleton’s loss surpassed the cold, ash-heap that spread with such sullenness before him. It dug deeper into his soul to a place that revealed a purity and honesty Sam found unfamiliar. With a deep sigh, he rubbed the sting from his eyes and coughed.

“Looks like somebody forgot to check their firearm with Sheriff Jersey last night.” With a grunt, Sam turned his head and spit into the smoldering ruins. “And I’m sure enough the fella to find out who.”

Bowing his head, Sam spoke some words of homage to the lost hopes, lifted his head again and steered Cactus toward the canal beyond the hills to the northwest. “Best let the dead bury the dead,” and he spurred Cactus into a gallop.

When Sam arrived, Shane O’Reilly stood by the rope corral, none too happy. “Hell of a burn last night, wasn’t it? Lucky it didn’t take the whole town.”

Sam tightened his jaw and gave a stern nod. “Guess Littleton wasn’t as rough and ready as it should’ve been.”

Shane O’Reilly turned pensive, and along with Sam, paused to settle calamitous thoughts.

“Listen, Sam,” Shane O’Reilly broke the silence. “I need you to drive to Harland Heller’s place and fill up a water wagon. We’re down to two and we’ll use them before the day’s out.”

“You’re the boss,” Sam said.

“Yellow Chick’s driving one, too. Go on over … he’ll break you in.”

Sam tapped his derby and walked to the back of the corral where he found Yellow Chick harnessing his mule team. Eight strong, the team would need all the strength available to pull the heavy, iron tank back from Harland Heller’s ranch seven miles distant.

“Morning, Sam,” Yellow Chick said. His straw hat sported a ragged tear through its pale, yellow brim. Yet, a fella’s hat partners his head like his saddle partners his backside. As such, Yellow Chick’s mule led his wagon like the tear in his straw hat led his big green eyes. Out West, good teams stand their ground, avoiding separation. “Already harnessed your wagon, Sam. I’ll be aboard in a minute or two. I’ll take the lead.”

Soon, with his Sharps .50-90 riding shotgun, Sam sat in the driver’s seat of his water wagon and slapped his mule team into motion. The wagon lurched as the tongue took the weight of the pull. The ride to Harland Heller’s Triple-H ranch tortured more tailbone than it did mind and muscle. Along the way, Sam saw a pack of gray wolves takedown a pronghorn antelope along a shallow draw of sagebrush. The wolves cut out an older female — marked by two white stripes along her tan throat — and baited the poor beast until she collapsed from fatigue. Though agile and fast, the pronghorn faced heavy odds against a well organized attack. Sort of reminded Sam of the battle the Rough and Ready Flour Mill fought against the insidious flames –– a battle lost with far less dignity.

In a large, flat valley along the South Platte, Harland Heller’s Triple-H Ranch occupied gentle, prime grazing pastures. When Sam drove his water wagon over the rise and saw Harland Heller’s spread for the first time, the sight raised fond memories of the immense southern herd of bison he had seen so often while hunting the Colorado Flatlands. The yellow-brown hills spread to the horizon splotched with hundreds of dark spots. A well fed Hereford stood each spot, each a linchpin in Harland Heller’s vast, economic domain.

When the wagons pulled in front of the largest of four barns, Yellow Chick waved for Sam to join him as he sauntered toward the corral.

Inside the bare-boarded fence, wranglers earned their keep cutting out calves, dragging each wagging tail over to the near side of the corral where a red-hot branding iron waited. The smell of burnt hide filled the dusty air — and with every sear of the hot iron came more stench and more bellowing from another confounded calf. The Triple-H brand was an arrangement of an H on top and bottom of the cross member that made up the gate portal leading to the ranch complex.

 

Inside the corral, the wranglers performed their work with efficiency, impressing Sam with their ability and thoroughness. Alongside Sam, Yellow Chick pressed a black Montgomery Ward work boot into the bottom slat of the fence, hooting and hollering as he watched the action. Arms over the top slat, Sam wasn’t as vocal, but remained every hoot and holler as amazed.

Soon, one of the ropers rode up on a feisty black horse and reigned-in hard across the fence. “Hank’s not here, Yellow Chick,” he said, yanking to keep the jittery black from breaking under him. The big black snorted, shook his magnificent head and beat his hooves into the dirt like a rock crusher. “He’s out at the Latigo Bolson filling wagons. He told me you should switch out wagons and get on back to the ditch.”

“Thanks, Charley,” Yellow Chick said.

Charley tossed a two–fingered salute and spurred the black into action. The game horse sprang with a snort as Charley grabbed his lasso and headed out for the next calf, his hat dropping to his back as he made a grand show of it.

Yellow chick turned to Sam. “Like usual. Let’s go switch the mules onto the full wagons.”

“Where?” Sam said.

“In the big barn … right where they always are.”

As they returned to their wagons, Sam said, “So we don’t go to the bolson and fill ’em?”

“To Hank Heller, that’s trespassing. Nobody enters the Triple-H unless he’s working the brand. Heck, what you see here is all I’ve ever seen of the spread. Always wondered what the Latigo looks like. Guess lots of water gathers out there. Lots of trees too, I’ve heard … cottonwoods, willows, sycamores. A natural spring … and right pretty … several miles into the eastern range. That’s where Emma Garrison gets her fish. Hank Heller’s got a man fishing for her all day long. Now that’d be a job.”

“For sure,” Sam said.

Inside the barn, they hitched their teams and climbed aboard for the drive back to the ditch. Sam happened to notice a steam-driven pile driver stored in one of the stalls in the back of the barn. He had seen similar equipment used on the railroad. All of a sudden an oddity clicked in his head, providing considerations as they made the trip back.

From the driver’s seat, Sam held the team steady against the heavy load. Slower under the pull, the mules showed good heart and stout constitution. The reduced pace gave Sam time to think on matters.

No question, something about what Sam saw last night rankled his sensibilities, a persistent nagging beneath the surface. Hard times befall all towns at some point along the way. From the Appalachians to the Cascades, the Great Lakes to the Texas Gulf, a young country founded on grit and ingenuity demanded, if not savored, every challenge delivered by Providence. After all, in every great endeavor, destiny played out as much in what confounded efforts as much as what assisted them. Seeing the charred remains of the mill that morning had released a compassion in Sam’s spirit, a need to get behind Littleton and shoulder it along against whatever unseen forces stymied its progress. Foremost in Sam’s displeasure was Littleton’s struggle with drought, beset further by the loss of its most productive business. In this regard, Sam felt his sense of decency and fair play attacked, like the hearts and minds of the good townsfolk.

In the wilderness where Sam roamed, a perfect balance existed. All creatures ate to survive. Degradations that affected one affected all. No water, the grizzly bear thirsted like the mountain man who lived to hunt it. Heavy snows or unbearable heat — no beast avoided the trials. And if Sam thought such propriety controlled Littleton’s fate, he would never interfere in the town’s future. But he sensed something didn’t add up. Something didn’t add up at all.

When they came upon the draw of sagebrush, the gray wolves lay along a grassy swell, sleeping off their meal of pronghorn in the afternoon heat. Sam felt no remorse for the even-handed application of Darwin’s natural selection. However, had Sam taken his Sharps and killed the prime male of the wolf pack to save the pronghorn, Providence would have suffered critical interference, thus destabilizing natural order. To Sam, man’s penchant toward playing God reduced him to the lowest of all species. To Sam, honor served the righteous — another reason he rode the mountains. As such, Sam resolved to intervene in the affairs of Littleton’s fate. Natural order had been violated and to an outdoorsman like Sam, such behavior could not be tolerated.

That evening, upon returning to town, Sam called on Sheriff Jersey. “Here’s your Colt,” Uriah Jersey said, dropping Sam’s gun belt on the old, beat up desk. “Do you need escorted out of town?”

“No, you can trust me. I’m headed out to the prairie tonight. Got to make some peace with the stars.”

Uriah Jersey narrowed his gaze. “Your leaving town have anything to do with that fire last night?”

Sam sneered. “You accusing me of arson?”

“Well, did you?”

“Wouldn’t be here if I did.”

“That’s the way I figure it. Is your belly full of civilization or are you coming back?”

“Law against keeping that to myself?”

“Not that I know. Keep it under your vest if it suits you. Remember you saying the day you rode in you were leaving after a couple hours. Choice is yours. Don’t forget to check your Colt when you return.”

“Along with my matches?” Sam said.

Uriah Jersey brightened his gaze. “Best get out there before the rain clouds stymie your precious stars.”

Sam grinned, fastened his holster and entered the clear, still night, happy as a June bug.

 

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