Authors: James D. Best
Tags: #Western stories, #Nevada, #Westerns, #Historical fiction, #Fiction
James D. Best
A Steve Dancy Tale
Also by James D. Best
The Shut Mouth Society
The Digital Organization
Copyright © 2007 James D. Best. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Cover photograph by L. A. Huffman, Montana Territory, circa 1880
Cover design by Wayne Best
Paperback published by Wheatmark
610 East Delano Street, Suite 104
Tucson, Arizona 85705 U.S.A.
International Standard Book Number: 978-1-58736-922-3
Library of Congress Control Number: 2007932841
Richard scratched his stubbly chin with ink-stained fingers. “Pass.”
I turned to my partner. He passed but not before giving me a sour look.
Everyone stared at Dr. Dooley. He took his time, but we all knew. After forcing us to watch his little drama, he finally said, “Pass,” and I immediately responded with, “Hearts.”
I caught an uneasy glance from Jeremiah, but I gave my partner a wink and led with the ace of spades. Richard’s three of hearts was in midflight when a distant gunshot froze everything but the floating card. When I started to speak, Jeremiah halted me with an upraised palm and perked ears.
After a few moments, my companions’ rigid expressions suddenly regained life. “Damn,” Dooley said.
“Looks like ya might have some work, Doc,” Jeremiah said.
“A series of gunshots means a drunk got rowdy, but one or two means somebody probably got himself shot,” Richard said.
The explanation was for me, the newly arrived city dweller. The year was 1879, and I had come to the western frontier to explore and find adventure. I had arrived in this Nevada mining settlement only four days before and had soon made friends with the only literate men in this stove-top town.
“Stay here.” Dr. Dooley scratched his chair away from the table. “I’ll have a look.”
“Doc, just hang in and finish the hand,” Richard said. “They’ll come and get ya if they need ya.”
On hot nights, Richard propped the front door ajar with a heavy can of ink. Dooley glanced through the opening to see if any hysterical men were running in our direction.
“They know where ya are,” Richard added.
Dooley scooted his chair back up to the table. “All right, let’s play.”
When I arrived in town, I had gone over to the newspaper office to buy current and back issues of the town paper, a habit I had picked up in my travels. A quick read of four or five issues gave a person a fair grasp of the town and its grand denizens. Pickhandle Gulch seemed to have a penchant for rowdiness, but the newspaper stories concentrated on the silver mines and their monthly production. As best I could tell, people with good claims were growing richer than the paper miners I was familiar with on Wall Street.
When I had entered his print shop four days ago, Richard—reporter, editor, and printer—looked pleased to sell some old copies, but he was absolutely delighted when I answered a casual query in the affirmative: Yes, I knew how to play whist. Reverend Cunningham, their fourth, had died a few weeks prior, and the three men had been in a funk ever since.
Thus started our nightly ritual of after-dinner whist. Funny how the little pleasures make life worth living, and life in Pickhandle Gulch needed some diversion beyond the predictable fare at Ruby’s whorehouse. I had visited many western towns, but Pickhandle Gulch seemed especially bleak. The discovery of silver had attracted rough-hewn men from all over the continent, and now the settlement had grown to be the largest in southwest Nevada.
“Richard, it’s your lead, for God’s sake.” Jeremiah used an oath I presumed the Reverend Cunningham would have objected to.
Everybody returned their attention to the cards, Richard with a smidgen of glee, and my partner with elevating levels of disgust every time Richard pulled another heart from his hand. Despite my best efforts, the hand played out badly for us, and we went set.
I guessed that my three companions were close to my age, and I had just celebrated my thirty-first birthday. Richard showed the fastidiousness of a printer and was afflicted with a strain of grumpiness that could become endearing once you got to know him. And he was a good whist player—short spades during the last hand.
My partner, Jeremiah, ran the general store and had a good head for numbers and an even better head for cards.
Dr. Dooley wore the crumpled look and grouchy manner of a seasoned physician. I presume he thought this would boost patients’ confidence, but I preferred my doctors young and recently educated rather than old and world-weary.
These were three smart men trapped in a dusty, hot town that pined for a wisp of breeze or a cleansing shower. Since I had arrived, neither blessing had interrupted the kilnlike days that invariably melded into flat, windless nights.
As I dealt the next hand, little Jemmy stuck his head in the open door and yelled, “Hey, Doc! Brian Cutler shot Dave Masters!”
“Hurt bad?” Dooley asked.
“Then it’s the undertaker’s problem, not mine.”
“Don’t you want to look at the body?”
“Seen dead bodies before. Run along, Jemmy. We got a serious game here.”
A serious game was two bits a point, but the size of the bet meant nothing. With the last hand, ol’ Doc and Richard led eleven to six, and evidently, no ordinary killing was going to cut short their grab for glory.
I stopped shuffling and asked, “Richard, don’t you need to go get the story?”
“Not news. Deal.”
“The Cutlers are a vile bunch,” Richard explained. “Two brothers … each as mean as a diamondback. They come to town every couple of weeks to get drunk, visit Ruby’s, shoot some poor son of a bitch, and get a bath. Pretty much in that order.”
I ignored Richard’s wave that prompted me to deal the cards. “What about the law?” I asked.
“As long as the Cutlers pay for damages, the sheriff turns a blind eye.” He made another hand motion. “Damn it, quit stalling and deal them cards. It’s time you took the licking you deserve.”
I passed the deck to my right, but Dooley declined to cut. When I continued to hesitate, Richard made another
gesture. I knew the command to deal must hide a larger story, but their faces told me this was all I was going to get, at least tonight. A man killed, but the town newspaperman and the sole doctor barely blink. This was the West, and Pickhandle Gulch was remote and isolated, but my new friends’ reaction seemed surprisingly subdued.
I glanced at the other men one more time. No one volunteered to enlighten me, so I shrugged and dealt the cards.
Other meals I eat for fuel, but I dawdle over breakfast—and Mary cooks a hell of a breakfast. Mary ran the restaurant across the street from my ragtag hotel. It was not a restaurant in a New York sense, but nonetheless it was the best place to eat in Pickhandle Gulch. Her small building, plank floors, and long tables were all made from unfinished lumber, but a few touches like lace curtains had softened the rough appearance. Breakfast for miners usually consisted of biscuits eaten standing up in some stale-smelling saloon. Not fancy, but quick. They needed to get to work. Mary catered to the mine owners, town merchants, and people like myself, who had the time and money to eat a slow, hearty breakfast.
As I entered her tidy café, the aroma pulled the trigger on my appetite. I took my usual seat at a table by the window, and Mary sauntered over with a cup of black coffee that suspended its own little cloud of steam above the rim.
“What’ll ya have today, Mr. Dancy?”
“Everything it is—over easy, crispy, and soaked in grease.”
“You got it,” I said.
As Mary left to prepare my feast, I took a sip of coffee and opened the book I had brought from my room. I prized breakfast, because my lifelong habit was to eat this meal alone. Well, not alone. I always have a good book to keep me company, and I had Captain Ahab as my guest today. Joining the raggedy whist club included membership in an informal lending library. We all owned a few books, and together we had a decent library. I was in a hurry to finish this reading of
, so I could exchange it with Jeremiah for
The Adventures of
a new book by Mark Twain. I was anxious to get to it, because a few years back, Twain, now a famous writer, had been a newspaper reporter in Virginia City, Nevada.
I was on my second cup of coffee and page 97, when Mary brought over two plates that could feed a family of four. It took me a few minutes to arrange the food the way I like and return to page 97.
“So, you must be the fancy stranger.”
“What?” I looked up to see two ugly men. No amount of grooming could make these ruffians presentable, even to a spinster’s desperate father. Two identical sets of bulbous noses, prominent chins, and deep-set black eyes hovered over me. The men were not big—scrawny and slump-shouldered, in fact—but they nevertheless spewed menace like a skunk with an uplifted tail.
“Ain’t you the one that rented the front room at the Grand Hotel?” This came from the smaller man, but his tone said he was the leader.
“Yep,” said the second one, “and I hear ya got a rich man’s rig down at Smith’s Livery.”
“Guilty, but I think the hotel is misnamed.” I held out my hand and kept my voice light. “Steve Dancy … and you gentlemen?”
“That room costs four bucks a day.”
They ignored my proffered hand, so I tried to be nonchalant as I made a dismissive wave. “I got a better deal.”
“Where’d ya git yer money?” I had figured out that these were the infamous Cutler brothers. I wanted to tell the skinny character that where I got my money was none of his business, but the Cutler reputation and mean look prompted caution.
“I’m a shopkeeper.”
“A shopkeeper? You musta been a slyboots.”
“I ran an honest shop.” I tried to look casual as I took another sip of coffee. “But I sold it for a good price.”
“New York City.”
“New York?” The skinny Cutler spat out the name of my hometown with the kind of disdain sniffy wives reserved for ladies of ill repute. “How’d ya git out here?”
“Train, and then a horse from Denver.”
“I meant why. Why’d ya leave New York? Y’ain’t thinkin’ about musclin’
yer way into minin’, are ya?”
“No. Sorry, gentlemen, but I know nothing about mining. I just came to see a little of the Wild West.”
For some reason, this made the duo laugh. I searched for a way to get back to Captain Ahab, but I came up empty. No use aggravating this dangerous pair. Just be polite and hope they get bored and go away.
The skinny one gave a hail-fellow shove to the one on his right. “This greenhorn wants to see the Wild West, does he? Maybe we should show him a little.”
The skinny Cutler interrupted me. “Listen, we don’t take kindly to strangers tryin’ to horn their way into one of these-here mines. Take yer money and git. Got it?”
I couldn’t figure out why these two were so concerned about mining rights. Surely they didn’t own a claim. I had seen laborers go into the tunnels, and I had seen several overseers, and these two didn’t look like either. Later, I would ask Richard about the Cutler brothers, but right now I just wanted to ease their minds.
“Gentlemen, let me assure you that I have no interest in mines or mining. I’m just a tourist in town for a short stay.”
“Just out here to see the Wild West, huh? Well, in Nevada, men wear six-shooters. Where’s yers?”
I strove to keep my voice light. “Guns can get you in trouble.”
“Not wearin’ a gun might git ya in more trouble.” The smaller Cutler leaned in against me. “Ya better git one, ’cuz ya sure as hell are gonna need it if we catch ya nosin’ around our business.”