Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Sheriff Thomas Lang sat at a plank-over-stump table playing seven card draw-poker with three men inside the two-day-old Gold Dust Saloon, the second building erected after the jail in the tent city people were already calling South Fork. Building owner, Drew Monson, sang and plunked out Polly Wolly Doodle on a Stoddart upright piano hauled by wagon all the way from St. Louis. Talk around the tent campfires said a wagon load of whores was set to arrive any day. The saloon door banged open. “They’s the blackest damn darky-woman I ever seed in the street asking for you sheriff!”
Irishman Ryan O’Borne was doing a thriving business using six mules to haul logs into town. He’d recruited a gang of unemployed railroad levelers and fillers to split them into rough planks. Rumor said O’Borne already had orders, paid for in advance with gold dust, for a general store, a blacksmith and a hotel … and that he cheated his Cantonese workers, treating them like slaves.
Tom looked at his hand: two pairs - queens and threes. There was more than ten dollars, a week’s wages, in the center of the table. Charles Stone had just raised the pot by another dollar. Drew Monson’s singing voice got louder.
But I like chicken 'cause I'm from the south,
Sing Polly-wolly-doodle all the day.
The Big Sky Cattle Company foreman, a man named Pickens, threw down his cards and cursed. The other player, a dirty miner with a tangled beard and a scar shaped like a pitch-fork on his left cheek scowled, swallowed a glass of Red Eye whiskey, and then stuffed a huge plug of Horseshoe chewing tobacco into his mouth. He angrily tossed a pinch of gold dust on the table. “I don’t recon they be any cheatin’ at a table with a law man playin’,” Jim Coots spit and then picked at his beard as he looked around the room suspiciously.
“Tell the lady,” I’ll be right out.” Lang told O’Borne.
“Lady?” O’Borne bellowed laughter. “Ye bouncin’ pikey! I told you it was a darky bitch-out there!”
“I know you’re an illiterate, dog-whipped Reb from Alabama,” Lang told O’Borne as he tossed in a silver dollar and stood up, “and I know you ain’t got the manners God give to one of your jackasses that pull logs, so I ain’t gonna’ crack your skull this time.” He stuck a finger in O’Borne’s face. “But any woman, as long as I’m wearing a badge, black, white, red or Chinese comes into this town, she’s gonna’ be treated with respect or else me and the poor fool who does the insulting are gonna have us a little Sam Colt rodeo in the street.”
The sheriff threw down his cards “Call,’ he said.
You can stop it in a huury,
Sing Polly-wolly-doodle all the day!
Coots laughed and threw down his hand. “Three eights,” he boasted, and then reached for the money.
Charlie Stone pushed Coots’ dirty hand away and laid down his own cards. “Not so fast … Full house,” he said. Three jacks and two sixes showed on the rough lumber table.
“You’re too God Damn lucky if you ask me!” Coots took off his hat, spit on the floor and slapped the table.
But the woodpecker pays ‘cause it’s on his bill,
Sing Polly-wolly-doodle all the day.
Sheriff Lang strolled outside shaking his head and waving the dust away from his face. Night was coming on and half the town played with the Devil.
O’Borne’s voice rose just above a whisper as soon as the bat-wing doors swung shut. “These Texas lawmen you gots in Montana ain’t worth a damn … deal me in.” he said.
Two terrified sweat-soaked pack-animals were twisting and bucking while tied at a hitching post when Tom stepped into the street. A gold seeker with a ten-winter-beard and a talent for using profanity was dancing around the flying hooves trying to calm them and keep his packs from spilling. Tom jumped to the side and drew his gun. What the devil could make domestic animals act this crazy? The top rail broke away, along with a tent pole and the horses thundered down the street dragging the post and the cursing miner behind them. Breathing hard, gripping his gun tighter, Tom’s gaze swept the street, certain a Grizzly had lumbered into town. The thing that spooked the horses was not a bear … but a ragged woman.
Since the war between states, Thomas Lang had encountered many Negros wandering the dusty trails of Texas, disposed of home and work. But he had never seen anyone as bottom-of-the-well-black as the woman who stood before him now. Her skin glistened with a darkness that seemed to bury all light.
The woman was barefoot and had a huge pack on her back that looked to be made from a threadbare blanket and tied with willow-bark rope. Her dress was two old Dixie Lily flour sacks sewn together with cotton bale twine and buttoned up with rabbit bones. “You be da sheriff?” She looked at Lang with eyes that appeared like white splodges, almost circular except that her tired drooping eyelids turned them into U’s. Tom’s first thought was this woman has seen so much bad … she just don’t care no more.
“Yes mam. What can I do for you?”
The woman hung her head shyly. “I ain’t no mam,” she said. “I just a crop-sharin’ free darky from Georgia an I got dis here paper say one hundred sixty acres belong to my Jim … if’n we all stays put, proves up an don’t run out.”
Sheriff Lang took the paper. “What you got here is a territorial homestead claim Mrs. Brown,” he said, “and you’re right about staying put. You live on the land for five years and build a cabin, that’s what the law in these parts calls proved-up, and the land belongs to you.”
The black woman smiled for the first time. Her teeth were long, white and straight as new nails. The sheriff had never given anyone so poor bad news. He hated to tell her the rest. “There is a ten dollar charge for filing the deed,’ he said. The woman slumped like cowboy forced to shoot his best horse. “I ain’t got no more dan two dollars,” her voice broke.
“The money don’t have to be paid right away,” the sheriff told her. “I can hold onto this paper until you can find work.” He looked up and down the street. “Where is your husband?”
The black woman shook her head. Thomas Lang had never seen such misery on one person’s face. “Ma husban Jim and my babees … dey be all ded,” she said. “Injans done burn our wagon, kilt our mules and ran off our one cow.”
Sheriff Lang was aware of a renegade band of Crow currently off the reservation in a rampage. Bear Who Laughs and his murderous band had been looting and burning farms and ranches throughout the territory. It was unusual for them to leave any victims alive. “How did you manage to keep your hair?” he asked her.
“I was back from the wagon a ways. When I show up I thinks dey was scart a me,” she said. “Dey kept jabben An … kwa …gha an tryin ta hide whenebers I looks at one of dem.”
“Un-kah-gah means Demon in the Crow language,” the sheriff told her. “Their medicine chiefs believe the darker a person’s skin, the more powerful the evil spirit dwelling inside is.”
A tear rolled down the woman’s cheek at her scratched and dirty arms. “I could a been in heaben wit Jim and my young-ins … if it not be fo this color curse.”
“I believe things in this world always happen for a reason,” the sheriff told her. “One way or another … you were meant to come to this town.”
“I ain’t got no food and no place to live,” the woman said. “I don’t expect nobody gonna pay no free Georgia darky ten dollars fo any kind of work … even fo a hoe year.”
Sheriff Lang was staring up and down the sagebrush covered street trying to think where the woman might find a job. He saw Elisabeth Walker driving a fancy carriage into town accompanied by a buckboard and six of her more than forty ranch-hands. Her golden hair glistened in the April sunlight. She was the wishing star of every cowboy’s dreams. Tom had been ready to ask Elisabeth to marry him before a stray shot from their Sunday afternoon target practice uncovered the richest gold vein in the territory … on her land.
The Blue Bonnet Mine was now producing almost sixty pounds of refined bullion a month. At twenty dollars an ounce, the woman with her gold and the largest herd of cattle north of Cheyenne Wyoming, was on her way to becoming a millionaire. Tom gritted his teeth; he made thirty-five dollars a month as sheriff … when he could collect it.
Elisabeth saw him, smiled and walked over, holding up the skirts of a brown silk moiré and velvet gown purchased in Boston that made her the envy of every woman west of the Mississippi. She smelled of imported Penhaligon perfume: coriander, pepper and cinnamon. “You haven’t been by for a social call in over two weeks,” she scolded. “If my coffee is that bad, just say so!”
“I’ve had range-coffee strained through a dead man’s sock with bug-water from a horse trough and enjoyed it,” Tom exaggerated his Texas drawl. “Your hospitality tastes just fine.”
She smiled and her chipped front tooth showed for just an instant before she unconsciously covered it with the tip of her tongue. Tom knew the dental defect embarrassed her but he loved the slight imperfection. The chipped tooth somehow made her a real person and not some breathtaking angel from a cowboy’s dream.
“Mrs. Brown lost her husband and children to an Indian attack on their way here to file on a homestead claim,” Tom said. “She’s a little short on money … and just about everything else. I’m trying to think about where she might find a job.”
“And you never think about me do you?” Elisabeth pushed past him in mock belligerence and studied the woman’s dress. “You from the deep south ain’t ya?”
“Yes mm,” Mrs. Brown said. “A little speck o a town east of Cuthbert … call it Smithville.”
“Can you cook?’ Elisabeth asked.
“I recon I’ve done most ever kind of house chores and field pickin’ since I was five,” the woman said.
“I’ve unfortunately got an army of cowboys and miners riding circles around my ranch,” Elisabeth told her. “Not a one knows when to rub down a horse, eat, or go to bed without being told. I could also use a little help boxing the ears of a snobbish French chef who thinks he must be treated like royalty and paid the same robber wages he made on a fancy New Orleans riverboat.” Elisabeth looked at the woman as if thinking for a minute. “I could pay you thirty dollars a month plus room and board … until we get you fixed onto your own land.”
“Mam!” the woman gasped. ‘No darky I knows of … makes dat kind o money even in a half year. I don’t know if’s I cans works dat hard!”
“It gets lonely on my ranch and I need someone not too busy sheriffin’ to keep me company.” Elisabeth flashed angry eyes at Tom. “You’ll do just fine. Let’s go on over to that white man’s teepee they call a general store and see if we can find you a dress or two … and some shoes.”
“I ain’t neber had no shoes … I don’t believe none would fit.” the black woman said, “but a dress or two might be right fine! She turned to Tom just before she left with Elisabeth. “Thank your Mr. Sheriff.”
Tom took off his hat. “My friends call me Tom or Thomas,” he said. Elisabeth muttered something under her breath it sounded like …but not darling.
“And most folks calls me Rose,” Mrs. Brown said. “… Black Rose.”
Tom stared after the two walking up the street just before he went back in the saloon. Black Rose’s voice sounded clear in the evening air. “I done followed a wagon walking all the way from Georgia,” she told Elisabeth. “Another five miles walking to that ranch of yours won’t hurt none. Most animals don’t take to me right off.”
Tom scratched his chin. Even with the woman’s exceptionally dark skin, the renegade Crow war party should not have left her alive. The Un-kah-gah that Bear Who Laughs’ murderous band had sensed in the black woman must have been powerful indeed.
Two weeks later, it was raining and Sheriff Thomas Lang had just left the jail walking to the tent that functioned as a restaurant when gunfire erupted from the direction of the saloon. Ryan O’Borne staggered in the street, a gun in his right hand. He was obviously drunk. “The bastard called me a cheat,” he yelled. The crumpled form of Jim Coots lay sprawled in the mud. Sheriff Walker walked to where the miner lay half in a puddle of water and rolled him over with his boot … there was no gun.
“You killed an unarmed man?” Lang looked at the scowling lumberman.
“I warned the wanker I wasn’t about to take his piss.” O’Borne pointed at the body with his gun. “If the bastard didn’t listen, it was his own damn fun.” He turned and walked toward the saloon.
“Drop the gun, O’Borne. I’m gonna have to hold you until we can sort this out.” Sheriff Lang’s right hand moved an inch from the top of his gun butt.
“I was kicked and booted by the bogger … and I ain’t letting no pikey say different … so beat it up yer hole!”
“I mean it, O’Borne. Drop that gun and come along peacefully!”
“Fack if I will!” O’Borne whirled around. The gun in his hand was almost in line with Lang when the sheriff fired twice. Several onlookers described it as two lightning bolts coming from the barrel of his Colt Peacemaker. O’Borne pulled his trigger an instant later and the bullet grazed the side of the sheriff’s cheek. The displaced immigrant from Alabama staggered back, dropped his gun and with two holes in his chest as big as silver dollars, tumbled and twitched in the dirt like a bedroll filled with snakes.
The rain stopped and a Dakota breeze swept down the western Montana street softly whistling through the tents and the few board buildings. It was an Irish banshee claiming the souls of the dead.
What am I gonna do with two corpses? Sheriff Thomas Lang shook his head and slowly put his gun back in his holster. He walked to the end of Main Street where Parley Descombey had his medical practice set up at his mother’s camp. Parley’s younger sister, who worked as his nurse met him by the back of the gypsy wagon. “No human being on Earth is as fast with a gun as you are sheriff,” Melania said wiping the blood from his cheek with a wet rag. “But if it’s meant to be and mama is never wrong … that bullet will still find you.”
Tom remembered having Melania’s mother Jesska read his fortune two years earlier in payment for him pulling her wagon out of some mud. When Tom was seated inside the wagon, the old woman had said “You live by the gun, so that’s where your fortune lies.”
Tom had emptied the cartridges from his gun onto a red cloth, four bullets tumbled down. Jesska had studied the way they lay across the table. She had picked up the first shell and said “This bullet will save your life.” Then she had put it back in the chamber. She held up the next. “This bullet will bring you love.” She also put it back in the gun. She showed him the third bullet “This one will bring you great riches,” She also slid it back in the chamber.
When she picked up the last bullet, her eyes grew big. A single tear rolled down her cheek, as she put the shell back in the gun. “This bullet will cause your death.” She had hung her head.
“I am sorry, you have been kind and I repay you with sorrow.”
Jesska had spun the cylinder, and given the gun back to Tom.
“I can only tell only the truth.” she had told him. “If I could have lied to you, I would have.”
Even though Jesska had spun the cylinder, Tom knew which was the fatal bullet … there were only four in the six-shooter and it was the last one rotating left. Tom rolled the powder-drained cartridge hanging by a chain around his neck and wondered. All the predictions the woman had told him had come true except the last. The first bullet had ricocheted off from a rock killing an Indian waiting in ambush. The second had saved a mail-order bride (Elisabeth) from a murderous money-seeking opportunist. The third was the stray-bullet fired when Elisabeth accidentally discovered her gold mine. He wasn’t rich now, but if he married Elisabeth he would be. The thought left a sour taste in Tom’s mouth. In Texas men who lived off from women were lower than coyotes feeding on wolf kill. Tom figured the only way to keep track of the deadly last cartridge, other than making sure it contained no powder and could never fire, was to wear it as a necklace.
Sheriff Lang was drinking his second glass of whiskey in the saloon when Elisabeth Walker found him. He didn’t look up but continued to stare at his hands. “I heard about the killing,” she said. “You did what you had to do. If you ever need a posse or men to back you up. I’ve got forty men that I pay around the clock.”
“Haters like O’Borne have lived through so many battles during the War Between the States that they begin to think they are invincible, but they destroy everything and everyone around them.” Lang swallowed his drink and tried to smile. “And no candle burns forever.”
“Cheer up! Mister Gloomy,” Elisabeth laughed. “Morning always comes after darkness when you sleep in a proper bed,” She punched his shoulder, “and it’s worth waiting for.”
The sheriff decided to change the subject. “How is Black Rose working out for you?”
“That woman is a fury with housework,” Elisabeth laughed. “I take my life in my hands every time I forget to wipe my boots when I go in the house. She and Bédoier fight like cowboys and Indians, but even the Riverboat King of Cuisine admits the darky can cook!” Elisabeth sighed. “She ain’t worth a darn around the animals though. She starts a stampede just looking at a cow and the dogs both run under the porch every time she goes to the henhouse for eggs.”
“How’s her homestead coming?”
“I sent a passel of my men to her place with lumber left over from a new barn and they got a good start on a house, but believe it or not, that black woman has high-society aspirations.”
“How’s that?” The sheriff almost poured another drink but didn’t. He was beginning to feel better.
“We lined out the dimensions for a house on a level piece of ground not far from the river, but she enlarged it. When that freed slave gets her house built, it will be a mansion … more like an institution than a home.”
“Has she planted anything yet?”
“Only her family,” Elisabeth sighed. “I sent some wranglers and a wagon to bring back their bodies. She has a regular graveyard next to her house and is already talking about having a wrought-iron fence shipped from New Orleans.”
“You think she might be willing to bury a few strangers on her place,” The sheriff asked. “Folks around here are mighty superstitious. They don’t want no ghosts crowding a mining claim and I got four bodies packed in ice in the basement of the jail.”
“She wouldn’t do it for free,” Elisabeth said. “Surprisingly, Black Rose has a sharp mind for money and she can dicker a dirty cowhand into paying for washing … or a hungry one to pay for extra gravy on his biscuits.”
“Tell Black Rose the territory of Montana will pay twenty dollars for each wooden box and a dug-hole to put the deceased in. The graves will have to be marked … but stone ain’t required.”
Elisabeth took the sheriff’s bottle and poured herself a drink. “I’ve never seen so much killing in any town this side of Kansas,” she said. “At twenty dollars a corpse, that woman is bound to make a fortune.”
It was mid-summer hot and dry. The range fights were mostly over water. A group of miners had diverted part of the Cottonmouth River for a giant gold sluicing operation. Several of the larger ranchers were furious. By the end of July, a dozen men were dead. Black Rose took all the bodies.
Elisabeth Walker hired the Chinese workers left unemployed by Ryan O’Borne’s death, and fulfilled all his lumber contracts. She also hired three crews of Dutch woodcutters to begin a logging operation on the edge of Motha Forest.
Sheriff Lang had enjoyed several early morning social calls at her ranch and was looking forward to more when loose talk in the town came back to him. Several townspeople noted that Elisabeth was now running the business of the man the sheriff had gunned down in the street. Tom stayed away for appearance sake but he also wanted to spend time on his own piece of ground that bordered Elisabeth’s. Tom’s ranch was one-hundred forty acres of sagebrush and jackrabbits. There was no house and he had just three years to build one. Elisabeth had threatened to throw up a cabin on a spot of her choosing. Everything he owned except the cattle and the land could be carried on the back of the mare he had caught and tamed in Texas. A dozen longhorn cows wandered his place and he had heard rumors that Elisabeth fed them extra hay last winter. He was saddling up Comanche one evening after the town quieted down figuring to check on his herd when a stranger approached.
“Pardon me sheriff,” the man in a bowler hat, obviously an easterner, stammered. “I’m looking for a miner named Jim Coots … I was wondering if he was in town.”
“The man you’re looking for is dead,” the sheriff said, “shot down in the street two months ago.”
“That’s impossible,” The man said. “I spoke to him just last week on my way into this little city. I found out later he has a claim he ain’t working and I wondered if he might sell.”
“You got the name wrong then,” Tom said. “Jim Coots was as ugly as a bearded sack of spuds and had a scar that looks like a pitchfork on his left cheek.”
“That’s him,” the man said. “There can’t be two dirty bearded men with that same mark!”
“Where did you see this ghost?” Tom didn’t bother to hide his disbelief from the smart arsed Easterner.
“At a homestead two miles north of here, where it appears that someone is starting a cemetery,” the man said. “I stopped by on my way to South Fork to water my horse. It was late … after midnight. Coots was driving nails in a bunch of half-built coffins along with three other men. None of them were talkers. They was in a big barn lit up by lanterns. Looked like they had a regular workshop-of-death going on.”
“Can you describe the other men?” Tom asked him.
The stranger had a memory for detail. After the man left, Tom climbed into the saddle. He let Comanche plod down the street, he was in no hurry. The ball floating in the sky was big and orange what the Indians called a Blood Moon. It was high time he paid the woman called Black Rose and her homestead a visit. He had always sent her money along with the bodies, but to date had never seen her place.
Tom shivered as he passed by the Gold Dust Saloon even though it was a warm night. Laughter and the sound of the piano man pounding out Rose of Killarney came from inside. The sweet but eerie voice of one of the prostitutes who had been in town for over a month flowed into the street.
“Sometimes I see dear
A devil in your eye
Don't ever leave me
Mavourneen, I would die”
The music failed to soothe Tom. He checked to make sure his Peacemaker was loaded, although he didn’t think it would be much use. Dirty wild haired miners with scarred cheeks were common sights. However, one of the phantom men the stranger had described, working nights putting together death beds at Black Rose Cemetery, could only be … Ryan O’Borne.
To be continued …