Excerpt of Legend of Yankee Boy Basin

Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado
Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado

Legend of Yankee Boy Basin

 

by

Gary S. Sloan

Copyright 2012 by Gary S Sloan

Kindle Edition, License Notes

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* * * * *

To Ryan, a kindred spirit,

And a wonderful son.

* * * * *

“Sky – sparkling, angry, cast in gray.

Wind – whispering, toppling, rife to moan.

Mountains – soaring, purple, faraway.

Land – giving, receiving, flesh to bone.

Life laughs.

Life cries.

Life dies.”

Tusami – The Great Spirit of the People

Nephretari Tribe

1532 B.C.

* * * * *

CHAPTER ONE

Cultures live. Cultures die. So winds the path of disobedience.

In the Valley of Byn-Nyok near a stand of naked aspens, a huge bonfire burned on a clear, winter’s night. Nearby, four Indian elders knelt in preparation for an essential ceremony. In the light off the rolling flames, the elders’ hairless chests shone orange through the openings of their heavy moose–skin robes. Around each elder’s neck hung an ornament of bear claws. Attached to each necklace hung a shaker filled with quartz crystals.

A heavy snow had covered Byn-Nyok during daylight, turning the night frigid and relentless. In this new snow, the elders now knelt, each with a pained expression, each with eyes distant and somber. Somewhere in the forest, a gray wolf howled, sending a lonesome cry over the ancestral home of the Nephretari Tribe. Indeed, the ceremonial bonfire burned alive; the ceremonial bonfire must never go wasted; and a full, gray moon presided from an amazing starlit sky.

Soon, the chief elder among the four raised his face to the heavens. “Tusami sleeps in murmured anger. We must hasten our appeasement before the Great Spirit awakens and disfavors us all.”

The elder who knelt nearest sighed. “Yes, Eagles of the Clouds, hasten we must for our judgment draws nigh. Perhaps the Great Spirit awakens and sees our misery. Perhaps Tusami pities us and spares us our lives.”

Eagles of the Clouds stared into the inferno. “Three moons ago we numbered many hundreds. Now we number fewer than the beavers in Byn-Nyok. Under a cloud of sickness, our brothers and sisters have perished. I fear the Nephretari have trespassed fortunes forbidden. I fear the Great Spirit of the People has judged us unworthy. Yes, for certain, we have transgressed. And yes, for certain, we must heed Tusami’s bidding.”

From the forest, the gray wolf howled again and Eagles of the Clouds stared into the younger elder’s still, dark eyes. In heavy silence, the younger elder looked down at the melting snow creeping away from the perimeter of the raging bonfire.

“Have you brought the tablet of stone?” Eagles of the Clouds asked.

Nodding, the younger elder reached back and dragged the deerskin pouch containing the stone tablet to the front of his chief elder.

Eagles of the Clouds blinked and grunted. “Tusami never intended it … and our choice has always battled our sacred will. We should never have entered the high mountain. Tusami forbade our entrance, and like children with honey sweet in their noses, we ignored Tusami’s warnings and went where we should not have gone.”

“But the mountain … it gave us gold,” the younger elder said. “It adorned our huts and fashioned our sacred symbols. It is pure and glimmering and shines with the passion of Tusami’s bright, burning eyes. Gold brought the Nephretari much pride and privilege … made us great among the mountain-dwelling people.”

“Folly,” Eagles of the Clouds said. “Gold brought us vanity and self-importance … righteousness above matters important. Has gold fed our families? Has it covered our nakedness or protected our stone huts against howling storms? Sheer foolishness. Our people went astray and the Great Spirit must judge us. We must make amends … and make them as soon as we can.”

Eagles of the Clouds stood and walked into the darkness toward his stone hut. “Prepare the Ceremony of Redemption,” he called over the roar of the bonfire. “And pray grace still lives in Tusami’s generous and forgiving heart.”

Minutes later, Eagles of the Clouds returned dragging a travois made from fresh aspen branches. The young elder, along with two others near his age, hurried forward and began to unwrap the skins hiding the travois’ cargo. With slumped shoulders, Eagles of the Clouds moved to the center of the clearing as near the inferno as he dared, to slide out of his heavy robe, to ignore its topple onto the cold, wet ground.

Naked save for his necklace and his shaker, Eagles of the Clouds turned toward the three younger elders. “We must begin,” he said, and he took a long step to lower his body, while rattling his shaker high in the smoky air. Inside the shaker’s gourd, the hard quartz crystals collided, raising a loud, grinding sound. The younger elders winced, yet faltered not, and dragged the crude travois toward their superior.

Eagles of the Clouds stood tall and pointed to a spot in front of his feet. “Place the awful statue there … and may Tusami forgive our waywardness.”

The younger elders lifted the statue, placed it and formed a straight line at Eagles of the Clouds’ side. On a signal, they bared their bodies also, took up their shakers and rattled them high above their heads. The firelight spilled over the elders’ naked bodies; and soon they began to dance.

“Sho-pah-nah-naa. Sho-pah-nah-naa,” they chanted in low voices. With the stomping of their feet, cold water splattered upon their nakedness, glistening orange, rippling down to soothe their heated bodies. Droplets flew into the raging bonfire to sizzle away, while the elders circled the fire pit, engaged by a powerful trance. The ancient Ceremony of Redemption had begun; with the Nephretari’s destiny looming ever closer.

Soon, Eagles of the Clouds stepped over to the statue and stopped. “Enough of our heedless wandering. Quick, we must surround this disgraceful beast that misled us.”

Moments passed in heavy pants as the elders took their positions.

“Praise we the path of the faithful,” Eagles of the Clouds said, low and rueful.

“Mourn we the path of the forlorn,” the others said in unison.

Then the elders furrowed their brows and began to rattle their shakers in front of their chests.

Soon they bent at their waists to chant more strident and desperate: “Shem-shu-sha-nee. Shem-shu-sha-nee.”

In the orange light, the triboluminescence of the quartz crystals inside the shakers glowed in bright blue sparkles. Stomping and chanting, the tribal elders aimed the sparkles at the golden statue of the bobcat – the icon cursing the Nephretari to near extinction.

“Shem-shu-sha-nee. Shem-shu-sha-nee,” they chanted again.

At the height of the sacred ceremony, the surviving Nephretari filed out of their stone huts to join their spiritual leaders. The decisive moment had arrived.

Fear filled each villager’s heart. Shall I live? Shall I perish? Tusami must soon decide.

At once, the future of a great Indian culture hung in the balance. Dispirited, 156 souls attended the sacred ceremony – soon to have their fate sealed in fire and in night.

In solemn reverence, the people formed a semi-circle around the bonfire, with their tribal elders standing before them; and when Eagles of the Clouds gauged the moment prime, he signaled the people to lie naked on their chests in front of the flames.

“Speak, O Great Tusami,” Eagles of the Clouds said. “Speak and spread virtue upon your chosen … your chosen gone astray.”

A hush fell over the Nephretari, as they lay supplicating. Above the roaring blaze, the full moon hung in perfect stillness, burnished with bright orange embers. In silent terror, yet still hopeful, the Nephretari deferred to Tusami’s ultimate will.

Upon this morbid scene, the Nephretari watched and they listened. Soon, some began to quake, while others began to weep.

Then Eagles of the Clouds pointed to the moon as an eerie darkness spread along the sphere’s lower-left edge. As the moonlight left Byn-Nyok, an appalling moan rose from the Nephretari.

When darkness had crept over half the moon, Eagles of the Clouds turned to his frightened people and lifted his long, muscular arms. “All is right … all is good, my brothers and my sisters,” and he motioned the younger elders to raise the golden bobcat off the soppy ground.

The elders raised it and carried it forward, toward the ceremonial fire.

To the last, the people followed in a ponderous procession, to march behind their elders into the inferno, to die under Tusami’s absolute judgment.

Even before the lunar eclipse reached maximum, the Nephretari had risen into the cold night in a rolling cloud of black smoke. Tusami had spoken and His followers had obeyed. All that remained of a thriving Indian society – a proud culture that for centuries inhabited the region later known as the Rocky Mountains – were huts of flat stone, a scorched golden icon and a granite tablet bearing directions to a magnificent gold mine.

Indeed, Tusami had brought judgment; and his people had obeyed without hesitation; and only the future – a time determined by providence and circumstance – remained to complete the Nephretari’s sacred Ceremony of Redemption.

Life laughs.

Life cries.

Life dies.

Thus, Tusami decreed.

Thus, the Nephretari responded.

* * * * *

CHAPTER TWO

In June,1879, across the mountain from where the Nephretari had perished, another Indian tribe fought their own battle with destiny. Located in southwestern Colorado inside the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, fate came in the dead of night, when even the village dogs lay fast asleep.

Beside a bark-covered wickiup at the center of the village, a spirit being appeared out of nowhere, to transform into a man draped in a thick moose–skin robe. The man raised his face to the moon, closed his eyes and extended his arms to the stars in paused exultation. Then he slid through the opening in the wickiup and went to his knees to admire the young woman who slept before him.

Outside, a dog came awake to bark at the strange scent in its nostrils.

“Who’s there?” the Ute maiden asked in the darkness.

“A man come calling.”

“Do you mean me harm?”

“I mean you nothing but goodness.”

Covering her nakedness with smooth deerskin, the Ute maiden came upright. “Are you a man from my village?”

Eagles of the Clouds shook his head. “I am a past relative come to visit.”

“Are you a brother to my father or my mother?”

“I am a brother to all your Ute people, Skywinmoulan.”

Skywinmoulan leaned back, frightened. “You know my name yet you talk nonsense. A brother to all my Ute people? How can such a thing be true?”

“How can this night relate to nights past? Relationships exist beyond one’s knowing, I assure you.”

“I can scream for help, you must know.”

“Scream if you like,” Eagles of the Clouds said as he opened Skywinmoulan’s wickiup to allow in the moonlight. “Do you fear me now?”

Skywinmoulan looked at the Indian man who knelt before her. His face appeared handsome and his eyes looked soft and nonthreatening. “I fear you less. Yet you enter a young woman’s wickiup alone in the night. A Ute brother should know better of our traditions.”

“I see strength and duty in your young face, Skywinmoulan.”

“Yet you defy tradition in your actions.”

Eagles of the Clouds touched Skywinmoulan’s cheek. “Do my actions offend you now?”

Skywinmoulan pressed the deerskin hard against the throb of her heart. “Have you come to take me as your woman?”

“I come to make you Keeper of All Truths.”

Skywinmoulan grabbed a breath as Eagles of the Clouds dropped his robe. “You are rude and insistent. I think you have come to take me without permission.”

Eagles of the Clouds moved closer, leaving his robe behind him. “I come to fulfill your destiny, Skywinmoulan. I take not, but offer only your future.”

Skywinmoulan frowned. “Would you take me without permission? I know not even your name.”

“My name is not important. My presence is what matters. You should think better of rejecting my offer.”

“Your words take what they should not. Do you think words make bad intentions proper?”

“You would deny yourself your destiny?” Eagles of the Clouds asked, touching Skywinmoulan’s hand. “Do you not feel this sacred moment in your bosom?”

Skywinmoulan blinked her soft eyes and released the deerskin at her breasts. “I feel things primitive, like a woman fearing isolation and rejection.”

“I come to carry you beyond your fears.”

Skywinmoulan slid from beneath the deerskin, to kneel naked in the moonlight. “You would make me Keeper of All Truths without confessing your dedication?”

“I confess you are young and beautiful … and have yearned for this moment for a long time.”

Skywinmoulan lowered her head and brought her legs forward. “You will not leave me shamed and corrupted?”

“I remain faithful until the end of time.”

“Yet still I know not your name as I yearn to know you in the moonlight. What do you mean by Keeper of All Truths?”

“Quiet and know only the moment. Time will soon teach you all you need.”

Skywinmoulan admired the man’s strong body in the soft light; and her yearning pulled her far past her reserve. “You are a wicked man,” she said as she went to her back.

“I am your destiny, fair maiden. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Yes, my destiny,” Skywinmoulan said as she closed her beautiful eyes.

Skywinmoulan felt the touch of a man for the first time.

When finished, the man left Skywinmoulan alone in her wickiup and she cared not, realizing the beauty and sacredness of their encounter. Henceforth, Skywinmoulan’s devotion to her people urged her toward her crucial destiny.

“Sho-pah-nah-naa. Shem-shu-sha-nee,” Eagles of the Clouds had pleaded so many centuries in the past. “Redeem us from our many travails. Forgive us our imprudent actions.”

But the Nephretari’s redemption remained unfulfilled – as well as their supreme forgiveness.

 

* * *

 

Early the next morning, a hunter sniffed the air and studied the ground as he rode along the narrows of a fast running creek. When a bumblebee landed on his bearskin cap and inched onto his forehead, Bartholomew Wilcox stared at it with crossed eyes, extended his lower lip and blew upward.

“Danged nuisance bug,” he said. “Leave me be.”

Bartholomew Wilcox rode on keeping his horse slow and easy. He had just left the forest at the flank of TeakettleMountain, where he shot a big brown bear. Wilcox wanted the meat and the skin, but most of all wanted a place to bury his kill, so he could crawl into his buffalo-skin bedroll and get some sleep. Wilcox had trailed the bear for two days before shooting it through the skull with his Sharps long rifle.

“Need some cool ground … mushy, not muddy,” he said, closing one eye to watch his horse’s hooves sink into the soil. “Yep, this is just the place I’m looking for.”

Wilcox reined in and swung down to the ground. He glanced over at the creek some 20 feet away. He sniffed the air again for no reason other than habit: A good hunter smells his way through life as much as he sees it. He nodded and ran a big hand under his nose, to drag snot off his scruffy moustache. Then he wagged the goo loose, sucked the rest into his mouth, and spit into the grass to leave his scent.

“Confounded wolves best not come round. I’ll shoot them deader than whiskey barrels, if they go digging at my bear.”

Wilcox pulled a pickax from his horse’s supply pack and stuck his boot heel into the ground to test the give. He bit his lower lip, took up his pickax, swung it down hard, yanked upward and repeated the moves.

Forty minutes later, Wilcox had dug himself a nice bear-sized hole.

“There,” he said, as he took one last swing to breakup a clump in the bottom of the pit. The pickax broke through the dirt and glanced off something firm. Wilcox spit again, this time out of disgust. “Danged, if my pickax didn’t strike something,” he said, as he yanked at the handle and flared his eyes.

“What the…?” and he let go of the ax and jumped into the hole. “Dangnation, but I think I’ve done struck gold.”

Wilcox sank to his knees and wiped dirt off his discovery, to laugh like a drunkard as more golden color came to his eyes. Soon, he had uncovered a sizeable metal object. Grunting, he muscled the heavy thing out of the hole and lumbered over to the creek, where he dropped it into the clear water with a big splash. Plopping down, Wilcox dragged his find closer and began to wash it as fast as he could.

“Pure as new snow,” he said. “But it looks like fire scorched it some. Sure enough, it looks like a statue of a bobcat to me.”

Wilcox lugged the golden bobcat out of the creek, grabbed a cloth from his supply pack and began to wipe it dry. “Danged if I don’t have me over a hundred pounds of pure gold. Danged if I’m not richer than a big–city banker.”

Wilcox looked at the bear carcass tied behind his horse. He sneered, took out his big knife and cut the dragline. After stuffing his knife away, he went to the dead bear, uncovered himself and urinated on it.

“Nope, don’t need you no more, bear. But danged if I’ll let the wolves get you. Yep, you just sit in the sun and feed the grass. Bartholomew Wilcox don’t track and kill just to fatten his enemies. “Then Wilcox shook himself and stuffed himself away beneath his buffalo leggings.

Wilcox didn’t sleep that afternoon or that night – but just rode on toward the small mining town of Ouray, Colorado.

I’ll get my gold assayed and bought there … and head back to Presidio, Texas and start myself a horse ranch. Yep, get me a pretty senorita and settle down before my bones go dry.

Bartholomew Wilcox would never see Presidio or any pretty senoritas, because he had uncovered a destiny draped in tragedy.

Now the hunter no longer hunted.

Now the hunter became the prey.

 

* * *

 

Later that same morning, on a naked bluff above some barren red sandstone, two men met in secrecy. The first man sat an old freight wagon hitched to four broken down horses, while the other man sat a brown pony, with eyes dark as ebony.

“Here, take a look. Tell me this ain’t what you’re wanting,” the driver of the wagon said.

The Ute Indian sat his pony with his handsome, tawny face held high. He looked at the wooden crates inside the bed of the wagon. He spoke no English. Nodding, he blinked his piercing eyes in agreement.

“You bring what I’m after?” the wagon driver asked in a rude tone.

The Ute understood the wagon driver’s movements – and pursed his thin lips in reply.

“Show it now or I drive off, leaving you nothing,” the wagon driver said.

The Ute struck a defiant face and slapped the deerskin pouch in his lap.

The wagon driver jumped to the rocky ground and went to unload his cargo – 20 wooden crates, each with a Winchester Model 1866 rifle, each with a box of .44 rimfire ammo.

The Ute toppled the deerskin pouch into a small sagebrush at his horse’s left flank.

“Whoopee,” the wagon driver said as he tipped his tan sombrero and hurried to grab the pouch.

Wasting no time, he lugged the heavy pouch into the floorboard of his freight wagon. Then he withdrew a big knife, sliced through the deerskin and slid his large hand down the stone tablet with an admiring smile.

The bare-chested Ute touched the cougar-bone shank in his black hair and nodded in finality. In his mind, the trade had been consummated, with each party in easy agreement. The Ute took possession of 20 spanking new Yellow Boys with plenty of fresh ammo to kill and to maim; while the wagon driver took possession of the incredible.

“Good doing business with you,” the wagon driver said with a wide smile.

The Ute grunted, and with a brisk toss of his head told the white man to leave.

The wagon driver firmed his lips, boarded his wagon and yanked the reins to snapping. The horses snorted and lumbered forward, pulling the creaky, old wagon over the rocks behind them.

The Ute swung off his horse and hobbled over to the crates. He kicked the nearest with his right foot, since a birth defect cheated his left of its four smallest toes. A dark thud returned to the Indian’s ears. Only then did Four Toes Less smile.

Leaning down, Four Toes Less grabbed a large stone, broke open the crate and caught his breath at the spanking new rifle. He stood and gave a coarse grunt. At once, a band of Ute braves rushed from behind the red sandstone. Four Toes Less remounted and watched as his renegades emptied the wooden crates, piled them high and set them ablaze.

Above the red sandstone, a golden eagle coursed the heavens, to land on the face of Mount Sneffels inside the Colorado Rockies. Under a bright, blue sky, with a soft wind whispering, both men had struck their deal with complete satisfaction.

The spirit of the Lost Tribe of the Nephretari had once again awakened – to roam the sacred Valley of Byn-Nyok, now known as YankeeBoyBasin.

Life laughs.

And somewhere in the distant ether, Tusami laughed, too.

* * * * *

CHAPTER THREE

In the town of Ouray, 50 men lined the front of AJAX Mining’s office, with only 20 projected to find work.

Jobs were scarce in July 1880 – causing a man to take a bite out of anything. Tough work by any standards, breaking rock still paid enough to liquor up on – and maybe enough to open a small banking account.

Doubtless the first man in line hoped AJAX would choose him. Yet he deemed himself likely to walk away empty, because riding the Old Spanish Trail had taught him everything he knew.

“Age?” the old miner asked, glancing up from his field desk.

“Not sure,” the man said in an even tone.

The old miner looked up, scratched his gray beard, and spit tobacco juice into the dirt. “Are you stupid or something?”

The man closed one eye and cracked his knuckles. The popping made the old miner grimace. “You hiring miners or schoolmarms?” the man asked.

The old miner glared, showing thick, gray hairs from his nostrils. Then he spit again, just missing the man’s scuffed boots. “Tussle me more and I’ll kick you to the back of the line. See how much granite gets cracked back there.”

“I’m 32,” the man guessed, kicking dirt over the nastiness next to him.

The old miner yanked at his denims and screwed up his face. “Is it too much to ask your name, smart aleck?”

The man touched the butt of his Colt .45. “Micah William Atwater. Folks just call me Cage.”

The old miner grinned, showing red gums and few teeth. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Okay, Cage Atwater … got any mining experience worth a hoot?”

Atwater straightened his tall frame and sucked the stink of mule dung from the street into his chest. “Shoveled sluices in California back in 1860. Just a pup then. Foreman never let me inside the mineshaft. Said a kid shouldn’t cotton to such danger.”

The old miner nodded and a fly buzzed off his greasy scalp. “Well you ain’t a kid no more. Think you can still pack a shovel 10 hours a day?” The old miner admired the lean strength of the tall man to his front.

Atwater ran a powerful hand down his narrow face to wipe off some dust. “Rode from FortGarland in under three days just to get here. Guess I can handle a shovel or a pickax a few hours a day.”

The crusty miner touched a stubby pencil to his tongue, dropped his big hand and scribbled something onto a small piece of paper. “Good enough, Cage Atwater. Take this inside to the supply clerk. He’ll see you get outfitted for Marston Number Two.”

Atwater touched his black flat-brimmed hat and smiled. “Marston Number Two won’t regret this,” he said, accepting the paper.

The old miner smiled, too – a rather revolting affair. “Good thing Marston Number Two don’t need more than schoolmarms. Else you’d be busting leather again for your wages.” With a snarl, he spit into the dust again, licked ooze off his mustache and said, “Next.”

Atwater gave a great sigh, glad to have the wait done, glad to have a place he could call work.

At the boardwalk, he paused to hitch up his tan cotton pants and adjust his rumpled blue shirt. A mangy brown hound lay in a heap beside a chair beneath AJAX Mining’s front window. A small black spider crawled onto one of the hound’s front paws. Opening an eye, the hound twitched and the spider scurried onto the wooden porch and disappeared down a crack. Atwater clicked his tongue and the hound blinked, blew air across his jowls and nodded off again.

Inside, Atwater went to the front counter and placed his hire-on notice down next to a brass hand bell. Along the sidewall hung some stock certificates of the mining interests managed by AJAX. Atwater read some of the particulars, noticing names like “Lady Pearl Eyes,” “Snow Creek Stakes” and “CampBird’s Forever Shaft”. For some reason – a fact Atwater deemed curious – Marston Holding Company, and its proprietor at large, Adair G. Marston, owned many of the stock certificates.

Shrugging, Atwater rang the brass bell with a quick shake.

“Why you here?” came a deep voice off to one side.

Atwater turned to see a clerk, a scrawny man with a large voice, staring up behind thick spectacles. Atwater stifled a laugh and brought forth his shiniest smile. “Here to break some rock,” he said, a mite more than chirpy.

“Dang, you don’t look like a miner.”

“I’m not.”

“Why are you here?”

“Because boss man outside said I should see you.”

The clerk walked to the counter and gave Atwater the once-over through his heavy glasses. “You’re a saddle tramp, ain’t you? Just off some horse drive across the Sierras to New MexicoTerritory.”

Atwater shrugged. “So?”

“Got word at FortGarland we’re hiring a new crew, huh?”

“Yeah.” Atwater thought of Montague Bessler, the Army scout he had met at FortGarland after leaving the Old Spanish Trail for fresh scenery. Dover Monty – Bessler’s nickname because of his gaggle of white teeth – had talked Atwater into trying his luck at breaking some rock. Dover Monty had ridden less than a day before his horse came down with colic. Atwater thanked the better graces that his kiln-fired paint, Nickel, waited inside a dry stall down at the Ouray Stables.

The clerk glared and looked down at Atwater’s hire-on notice. “Think a piece of paper makes you a miner?” he asked, pointing.

“Nope, just doing what I’m told.”

The disagreeable clerk lifted his spectacles and let them drop back. The weight of them slid the centerpiece down to rest on the tip of his broad nose. Talk about the look of a schoolmarm. Atwater couldn’t help laughing, and went so far as to extend an index finger.

Angered, the clerk grabbed Atwater’s hire-on notice and tossed it onto the slatted floor. “First thing a novice learns is who to fear. Don’t see no hire-on notice for you, mister. Guess you got no reason for being. Now get out right now and quit bothering me.”

Overall, Atwater was a man of patience. But the clerk’s nasty humor changed Atwater’s disposition; and as the clerk turned, Atwater noticed something crawl up the scrawny man’s left trouser leg. Under different circumstances, Atwater would have obliged and gone off to stew in his juices. But the clerk had riled him more than a mite.

Snapping up his Colt, Atwater fired a shot without squeezing an eyelid. The bullet tore a clean hole through the bottom of the clerk’s trouser leg and slammed through the wooden floor.

The clerk scrambled under a nearby desk, toppling his spectacles, to cower behind trembling hands as pale, blue smoke settled around him.

The front door burst open and two men bolted in, one with a drawn gun, the other with a look meant to scare. Atwater had already holstered his Colt and ambled over closer to the clerk.

“He done shot me, Packer,” the clerk said. “Shoot him before he finishes me off.”

The man nearest Atwater stuck a pistol into Atwater’s ribs. He wore a green beanie and denims with large patches at the knees.

“Whoa up,” Atwater said, raising his hands to soften trouble.

“Kill him, Packer,” the clerk said from all fours. His spectacles lay not a good spit away, but the clerk couldn’t have spotted them if they had rushed him like a wild bear.

“What’s going on?” Packer asked, pressing his gun harder into Atwater’s ribs. The second man knelt on the floor, intent on helping the terrified clerk regain his vision.

On the instant, Atwater swung his right hand across his chest, knocking Packer’s hand away. Packer’s gun exploded, blasting a neat hole through the sidewall. At once, Atwater grabbed Packer’s forearm and pinched a nerve, flinching his hand open. Packer yelped and grabbed at the pain as his gun went flying. Atwater drew his Colt and crouched to traverse the room with a steady hand. “Everybody relax. Nobody gets hurt,” he said.

Packer stumbled back with pain yanking at his face. The clerk came upon his spectacles, and fumbling still, managed them onto his face. The third man just stared up at Atwater with surprise.

Atwater cleared his throat and set to talking real fast. “Kill you, huh? Look at the black spot on the floor next to that knot hole, clerk man.” At a high boil, Atwater glared at the little man who had double-crossed him.

The clerk crawled over, adjusted his spectacles and inspected the black smear on the floor. “Well, I’ll be sheep-dipped,” he said. “It’s a gall-darned black widder … or what’s left of it. I can see the red marking plain as day.” The clerk sighed and fell back on bent knees and stared up at Atwater in despair.

“What you’re seeing is a western black widow … and a female, at that,” Atwater said. “There’s enough poison in that spider to stop a horse for a day or two. Heaven knows she might’ve killed you, if she’d crawled up to your privates.”

Packer sucked on his right wrist like a teat pup, dropped his hand and stared at Atwater. “You mean you shot that darned spider to keep it from biting?”

Atwater gave a stern nod. “Little choice. Either shoot fast or wait for clerk man to start hollering. Could’ve let him suffer. Guess I should’ve thought better of saving him.”

Packer looked down at his supply clerk – a German named Dieter Ackerman – who stared back shaking like a shorn puppy. Packer noticed the clean hole in Ackerman’s trousers. “Plum snapped the black death off Dieter without a scrape. Whew, that’s some mighty serious shooting, mister.”

Atwater shrugged. “Nothing special. Didn’t want clerk man dying before he fetched me my gear.”

With guilt on his face, Dieter Ackerman looked away, pulled himself up at the corner of the desk and said, “Yeah … I intended fetching your duffel when that nightmare spider crawled up my leg. Thanks, mister. Guess I owe you a big one.”

Atwater shook his head. “Nope, just need my gear. By the way, in all the ruckus my paperwork fell on the floor over there.”

Packer rubbed his wrist as the third man walked over to stand next to Atwater.

“Name’s Big Jim Krieger,” he said, offering a handshake. “I’m the foreman out at Marston Number Two.”

“Good to meet you, Big Jim,” Atwater said, able now to appreciate the immense size of the man. Thick as a redwood, blond-headed and blue-eyed, Big Jim stood 6-foot-6, and sported a genuine smile and a grip as strong as his body.

“Name’s Cage Atwater.”

“Well, Cage Atwater, this here’s my boss, Packer Larsen. He’s the mine director out at Marston Number Two … the man who answers only to the top boss.”

Packer Larsen wiggled his hand to relieve the tingle, stuck it out and winced as Atwater reached to take it. Atwater hurt no man without cause and shook Packer Larsen’s hand just firm enough, while smiling easy.

“Sorry about drawing down on you,” Packer Larsen said. “But it kind of looked like…”

“I know. Just one of those things.”

Then Dieter Ackerman scurried back into the room. “Now, don’t you fret none, Mr. Atwater. I’ve done put your duffel on the freight wagon and will see it gets to the mine day after tomorrow.”

“No hard feelings?” Atwater asked, nodding.

“Not one bit. And thanks for saving my bacon.”

Atwater grinned and raised his eyebrows just enough. “I’m sure looking forward to working with you fellas. Expect we’re fixing to find us a lot of bright, shiny gold real soon, right?”

Packer Larsen laughed. “We’d better. Else Marston Number Two shuts down quicker than Marston Number One ever thought on it.” Packer Larsen grimaced and shot a quick glance at his big foreman.

Big Jim raised a hopeful expression, but Atwater sensed the gloom, and the time seemed wrong for more questions. “Sure enough, the ore won’t jump out of the mountain and dance into our pockets,” Atwater said.

“Not unless you’re some kind of a magician, Mr. Atwater,” Packer Larsen said.

Atwater turned up both palms. “Nope, no sleight of hand here.”

“I’ll say,” Dieter Ackerman said. “When your hands move, what you see is what you get … and quicker than a rip of lightning.” Dieter Ackerman looked over at the squashed black widow and sighed just as a loud scratching came at the front door. “Excuse me, fellas,” he said, rounding the counter. “Old Dynamite … he wants in out of the heat.”

The three men watched as the small German clerk with the big voice opened the door to let his mangy brown hound into the front office. If speed were enthusiasm, Old Dynamite packed the wallop of a soggy firework. Like a sloth, he meandered over to a crusty food bowl off in the far corner, sniffed at his beef jerky, looked up with sad eyes and woofed without much gusto. Then he cuddled the wall and sank into his ample skin, to fall back asleep in the coolness of AJAX’s front office.

“Feisty, ain’t he,” Dieter Ackerman said, meaning it.

Packer Larsen looked at Big Jim; Big Jim looked at Cage Atwater; and the three miners lifted their eyebrows at Old Dynamite’s complete lack of concern. Day after tomorrow, rock would break, and there would be no lounging in any corner. Hard work waited on the steep side of TeakettleMountain, and sleep would come catch-as-catch-can once the dynamite started blasting.

“See you at the mine site, Cage Atwater,” Packer Larsen said with a warm smile.

Atwater cracked a knuckle and blasted a great, big grin. Nice to have work, he thought, and he turned to take his leave.

From behind, Dieter Ackerman called out, “Ain’t no cause for shooting irons up in the high country.”

Atwater came to a stop and looked over at Old Dynamite. “Just cause for the big stuff like dynamite, I guess.”

Big Jim Krieger grinned wide and said, “Dynamite with more punch than poop, I’m hoping.”

Dieter Ackerman looked askance, while Packer Larsen just chuckled.

As for Old Dynamite, well, he just up and belched, nary twitching an eye.

As for Cage Atwater, well, he just shrugged and walked out into the July heat, an agreeable man with a spanking new job.

* * * * *

CHAPTER FOUR

Skywinmoulan sat on a stub of wood outside her tribal chief’s wickiup. She held her five-month-old son in her arms and rocked him. She looked into the boy’s bright eyes and smiled. “You are more beautiful than the ShiningMountains,” she said with a burst of pride.

A pebble hit the ground by Skywinmoulan’s moccasins. She looked up to see two older women glaring at her. The oldest woman picked up another pebble and threw it. The pebble bounded off Skywinmoulan’s shoulder. Skywinmoulan frowned and turned her back. The women spoke to themselves; and Skywinmoulan knew the course of their words.

“Never mind those hateful old women,” she said to her son. “Their hearts are hard as their tongues … their minds small as their hearts. Your father remains faithful to us, unseen and unheard. I feel his presence in your every glance and smile, my precious son.”

“Skywinmoulan, come forward,” came a voice.

Skywinmoulan rose and turned to the chief of her tribe, the Uncompahgre Ute, who now stood outside his bark-covered wickiup. She shivered at the sternness in her tribal chief’s dark eyes. She held her son tighter to her bosom, fearing his illegitimate birth now meant trouble.

“Come inside and sit. There are matters we must address.”

“Yes, Chief Ouray,” Skywinmoulan said as she followed.

Inside, she sat opposite Chief Ouray. She had never seen the inside of his wickiup before. She always imagined it adorned with finery – beads, furs and important items like the sacred horse pouch containing the tribal ceremonial pipe. Yet she noticed only the basics – skins on the ground and a small rock-lined pit for fire.

Skywinmoulan smiled at Chief Ouray as he adjusted his deerskin leggings. She relaxed some when she noticed him as simple inside as out.

“Tusami looks well,” Chief Ouray said with a soft nod.

“Yes, good chief, he grows stronger and heartier everyday. He is a fine son. I am so blessed to have him.”

Chief Ouray looked beyond the opening in his wickiup. He watched some of his people scurry about with the tasks of the new day. He placed his hands on his lap and cleared his throat. “Do you know about our White River brethren’s attack on the White River Indian Agency?”

Skywinmoulan sighed. “I only know the damage our White River brethren dealt the Indian agent, good chief.”

“Yes, so much damage. The renegades killed Nathan Meeker and some of his workers … and captured his wife and daughter, along with another woman and her two small children.”

Skywinmoulan frowned and dropped her head. “Our White River brethren show rage toward the white man’s lies less nobly than the Uncompahgre. Your leadership has protected us well, good chief. Much is owed to your wisdom.”

“You are a fine woman, Skywinmoulan. Understand I know much about your abuse from the older women. They protect their ways like the white man protects his, with foul tongues and mean spirits.”

Skywinmoulan raised her face and smiled. “You are such a good man. Our people could not have done better making you our leader. I feared everybody hated me equally for the absence of Tusami’s father.”

“Wickedness dies a long, lonely death, Skywinmoulan.”

“Yes, I know.”

A short pause followed as Chief Ouray chose his words with care. “The elders and I have met and decided the Uncompahgre must make a sacrifice to the Great Spirit to mend the brutality of our White River brethren. We came to our decision after much conversation.”

Skywinmoulan felt Tusami wiggle in her arms. She loosened her hold on him and stared into Chief Ouray’s steady gaze.

“We have decided,” Chief Ouray went on, “to sacrifice some of our own, to suffer, too, the misdeeds of our brothers.”

Tusami wiggled more and began to babble.

Skywinmoulan shushed him with a finger to his lips. “I see. And somehow the decision affects Tusami and me?” Skywinmoulan steadied her eyes. She felt the moment flood with significance; and she knew before being told what would come next.

“The elders think you and your child should leave the village, to travel the wilderness alone.”

Tusami smacked his small lips. He sounded sweet and innocent and made Skywinmoulan stifle a sob. “But we know nothing of the wilderness, good chief. Tusami is only five moons old. How will I feed and clothe him?”

“The Great Spirit must provide, Skywinmoulan. You must remain faithful and believe.”

Skywinmoulan blinked the tears from her eyes. She raised a hand and wiped her cheeks. She peered through her veil of shame into Tusami’s sweet face. Her guilt made her wish she could die.

“A good pony awaits and you must leave at once.”

Skywinmoulan brought Tusami up to her breast. “But I must feed my son. He has just awakened and is surely hungry.”

Chief Ouray crossed his arms over his chest. His stern expression spoke an end to their conversation.

Skywinmoulan frowned and rose, to bend over and step toward the outside. “How … how long must we wander?” she asked.

“Until your son tells you you should not,” Chief Ouray said.

“But many moons will pass before Tusami speaks Ute. Surely we must not wander so long.”

“You must wander until Tusami says otherwise. How Tusami expresses his will is unimportant.”

Skywinmoulan raised her chin and steeled her resolve. She stepped out of Chief Ouray’s wickiup without formality.

Outside, the people had scattered. Skywinmoulan saw nothing but lounging dogs and a tether of skins drying in the sun. At her wickiup, she found a tan pony tied to the opening of her home. A papoose lay on the ground at the pony’s front hooves. She knew then she must leave without feeding her son.

After Skywinmoulan fitted the cradle and tied Tusami fast to her back, she mounted the pony and turned his muzzle away from her village. She set herself as tall as she could, neither looking back or side to side, intent on leaving as proud as she could.

A raven crossed the sky as she skirted the beaver pond at the edge of her village. Tusami extended a chubby arm and began to babble.

“We will ride until you demand your feeding, my good son. And we will ride hither as long as you demand we must.”

The raven looped and flew to the front of Skywinmoulan’s pony, to beat wings and fly straight into the forest beyond the beaver pond.

Tusami smacked his lips and continued to babble while his mother led them into the pine trees.

“Should we seek our destiny forever?” Skywinmoulan asked the ShiningMountains, while Tusami chuckled and babbled on more in complete innocence.

 

* * *

 

Cage Atwater stroked Nickel’s neck and peered into his horse’s left eye to gauge his mood. “You look like a fat hog, boy,” he said. “Don’t want you getting sick while I ride you over to YankeeBoyBasin. Too many oats isn’t good, you know … and by the looks of your belly, you’re darned near fixing to explode.”

Nickel paid no attention to his master’s words, but reacted to the stroking along his spotted neck. He blinked his big eyes and rattled his head to show enjoyment.

“Come on, boy. Best get you out of here before you turn to goose down on me.”

Cage grabbed the cantle of his saddle and shook it. “Snug as I dare, considering the size of your belly. Okay, Nickel, easy times are done. Let’s get you out in the sun and sweated a little. We got a long trip to Marston Number Two, so we best get to it.”

Nickel whinnied when Cage quit stroking.

“Shush now,” and Cage took up Nickel’s reins and turned his horse’s big body toward the front doors of the Ouray Stables.

The stable boy busied himself sweeping up horse dung as Cage walked Nickel past. “Here, son,” Cage called as he flipped a dime over to him. “Buy yourself some licorice for your trouble. Hope Nickel wasn’t too cranky.”

At the age of 14, the skinny, stable boy stood almost as tall as Cage. “No sir. He’s mighty sweet. You got yourself a fine horse there. Know you’re proud of him.” The boy smiled and pocketed the dime and tapped his straw hat out of politeness.

“Yep, Nickel’s good as gold and twice as dependable,” Cage said as he waved goodbye.

Nickel squinted his big, dark eyes when Cage led him into the morning sunlight.

“Yep, need to walk you down the street to the barbershop and let you settle before we head out. I want me a haircut and a shave worse than ever.”

After tying Nickel to the hitching post, Cage took off his flat-brimmed black hat and stuck it on his saddle horn. “If somebody goes after my hat, you give them the wherewithal, you hear me?”

Nickel dropped his big head and began drinking from the water trough in front of the barbershop.

Cage raised his chin, scratched at his ragged stubble and shook out his crop of black hair. “See you in a few,” he said as he patted Nickel’s chest. “And no complaining when I come out smelling like a rose blossom. Understand?” Then Cage took the four-stair stoop in two strides and entered the barbershop.

The barber sat in his only barber chair reading an old Bible. Cage lifted his eyebrows out of surprise. Cage had tried to read the Bible more than once and never got past Genesis. The barber had finished more than three-quarters of the Good Book, and when Cage closed the door, the barber stuck a comb between the pages and closed the brown leather cover with reverence.

“Got your seat warmed up and ready, mister. Shave and a haircut?” he asked with a pleasant grin.

Cage settled into the chair and gave a shrug. “And leave some hair to ward off the sun. But shave me close without drawing blood.”

The barber tossed a white cloth over Cage’s front and tied it loose at the neck. He took up his razor, grabbed a bottle of castor oil and poured a touch on the blade. Then he stretched out his sharpening strap and set to honing. “Don’t draw blood, mister. Only draw customers.”

Cage wagged his head and shut his eyes. “You aim to shave me dry?” he asked, knowing better.

“Only if you want to leave with less face than you came in with.”

The barber finished sharpening, grabbed a towel and dunked it in a bucket of water. He wrung the towel out while Cage leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Some fancy smelling soap came next, rubbed on Cage’s face with a light touch, before the barber draped the wet towel over to soak Cage’s beard.

Cage released a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders. The barber whistled some tune Cage had never heard. Cage started to ask the tune’s name when he heard the front door open.

“Take a seat, mister,” the barber said. “Got to spiffy this one first, then I’ll do you the same.”

A long silence followed.

After a time, Cage wondered what clogged the works, but before he could ask, he heard gurgling and felt wetness cover his scalp and some hands go to rubbing.

“Whatever you’re using smells something awful,” Cage said, annoyed.

More goo followed, with more rubbing until the smell became too much. Cage knocked the towel off his face and reeled from surprise. “Dover Monty, what’re you doing?” he asked, straightening up and reaching for his hair.

Dover Monty stepped back, grabbed his belly and roared with laughter. “I done doused you with castor oil, Atwater.”

“What? Where’s the barber?” Cage asked, raising his oily hands to his nose. “Eww, what a stink. Downright dirty, Dover Monty. Downright dirty.”

Dover Monty broke out laughing again and he pointed.

Pointing proved the storm that flooded the creek.

Cage came up out of the barber chair, rushed Dover Monty and swung his big, right fist hard into Dover Monty’s upturned chin. Dover Monty reeled backwards, blinked once, and dropped, out to the world.

Cage stomped forward and bent over him. “I’d hit you again, but I don’t play near as dirty.”

Dover Monty heard nothing, so he said nothing.

Then the front door swung open and the barber rushed forward. “What the heck’s going on?” he asked.

Before Cage could explain, the barber wheeled around and took off outside.

Cage guessed what would come next, so he reached down, dragged Dover Monty to the wall, and raised him into a sitting position. Then Cage grabbed the barber’s bucket and splashed Dover Monty’s face. On the instant, Dover Monty shook his head, blinked his eyes, looked up, saw Cage’s shock of oily hair and started laughing again. Outraged, Cage reared back and doubled his fist, when the click of metal stopped him dead still.

“Hit him again and I’ll shoot you sure as I’m aiming at you.”

Cage knew not the voice, but he knew the consequences. “Look at my hair, Sheriff,” he said as he turned to face the short thick man with the shiny brass badge and the Colt aimed straight at his belt buckle.

“So?”

“He done doused me with castor oil once the barber left.”

Sheriff Finley shrugged and nodded to Dover Monty to get off the floor. “Taking both of you to jail for the night to cool off.”

“Can’t, Sheriff,” Cage said. “I got to break rock at a new mine over in YankeeBoyBasin.”

Dover Monty stood and wiped his face clear of water and started wiggling his lower jaw. “Aw, I only meant good enough fun, Sheriff,” he said with a grating whine.

“Not fun if somebody gets hurt. Now the both of you earned yourselves a sleepover in Ouray’s finest. Keep pestering and I’ll make it a week. Makes no mind to me.”

Cage glared at Dover Monty – who shrank some – then Cage turned his anger to the barber. “Why’d you let him pull such a stunt?”

The barber glared back. “He took me outside and gave me a silver dollar to go buy some special lotion down at A. W. Begole’s store. Said a doctor told him he had to have moose salve to protect his face from a razor.”

“Moose salve? No wonder you came back empty-handed. Don’t you know when you’ve been bamboozled?”

Despite his Bible-reading, the barber showed no forgiveness. “Gimme a dollar for dumping water on my floor, mister.”

“So I pay you because you’re a fool?”

Dover Monty wagged a forefinger and sucked on his gaggle of white teeth. “No name-calling, just fork over the money, Cage. I’ll spot you soon as we get out of the hoosegow.”

The Sheriff smiled at Dover Monty’s notion. “Okay, pay up and let’s get you two into separate cells for the night. Biscuits and gravy at seven o’clock sharp and a hot cup of coffee to wash them down … all compliments of the mayor and the peaceful town folk of Ouray.”

Cage wrenched his face into a knot, dug into his pocket and came up with a five-dollar California gold piece.

“Hand it over, mister,” the barber said. “I’ll give you due change.”

“Due change? This is my lucky charm. This is the first five dollars I earned tending sluice as a pup in the California gold fields. Sorry, can’t do it, mister.”

The Sheriff sucked air into his chest. “Time’s wasting. Pay the man or earn yourself a week for bullheadedness.”

Cage growled and stared bullets into Dover Monty. “Moose salve,” he said as he shook his oily head out of disgust.

Dover Monty raised a hand and massaged his jaw, grinning bundles while doing it.

Cage handed over his good luck charm and bit his lower lip.

“Anyway, seems your lucky charm failed you,” the barber said, reaching into his pocket and fishing out four shiny silver dollars.

“You sell it back to me soon as I return to town?” Cage asked with pleading eyes.

“It’ll be long since spent by the time you return from YankeeBoyBasin. Best say your goodbyes now and make it quick, because Sheriff Finley … he’s a real busy man.”

Cage glanced at Finley’s sagging belly, wanting to comment about all his busy work behind the jailhouse desk.

Dover Monty stepped toward the door. “Honest to goodness hot biscuits and cream gravy?” he asked as he walked past the Sheriff.

Sheriff Finley just nodded with the barrel of his Colt.

“Sorry about tricking you, barber man,” Dover Monty said as he exited the shop.

“Moose salve,” Cage said as he followed Dover Monty, with Sheriff Finley clomping behind in his hard-heeled boots.

“Think I’ll bust you another,” Cage said to Dover Monty’s back as they paraded down the boardwalk.

“You’ll have to catch me first. Heck fire, I can smell you a mile off,” and he started laughing again.

Cage gritted his teeth to hold his tongue. At the hitching post, he saw Dover Monty’s spotted mare tied up next to Nickel. “What about our horses?” he asked with an edge.

“Cool your kettle,” Sheriff Finley said. “I’ll have a deputy walk them down to Ouray Stables as soon as I lock you up.”

Cage wanted to argue, but clicked his tongue at Nickel, instead. To Cage’s annoyance, Nickel had the gall to snort at his master’s stench as Cage walked past doused in complete gloom.

Sure enough, a full night’s stay compliments of the mayor and the good town folk of Ouray – and the only thing Cage Atwater managed to get cut was a heap of his pride, and not a lick of his shaggy black hair or his thick stubby beard.

 

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