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Authors: R. W. Stone

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BOOK: Trail Hand
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I was more grateful than ever for all the tricks Sprout had taught me, and hoped that Chavez and his men were good trackers. Good, that is, but not too good.

So, I started a game of cat and mouse. At times my trail would seem to disappear, while at others conveniently reappear just as suddenly. My tracks led into blind cañons, backtracked along rivers, and sometimes seemed to head off in several different directions at once. Ultimately, however, my trail led west. West toward Gila City.

Funny how the mind works when you’re tired. I’d been riding for several days straight without stopping, with little water and even less food. I was being hunted by what could turn out to be a Mexican lynch mob. It was a toss up as to who was dustier, the horse or me, and to top it off, when I finally reached Gila City, there was a manure smell in the air so strong the odor reached me even before the town came into view. Normally the stench would have been damned disagreeable if not downright intolerable, but for some strange reason it just made me smile. It was a funny reaction, but I guess it reminded me of the time ten of us from the old L Bar got into an argument over different kinds of critter smells.

We’d been driving cattle toward Kansas for over a month and had stopped for the night. After the usual evening pleasantries we were bedding down when Frank Kendall bent over to move his saddle. Frank’s rump was practically sticking right in Pinto Ward’s face when he broke wind. Damned if Pinto didn’t fall over backward trying to get out of the way. He was so mad Pinto would have shot Frank right on the spot were it not for the rest of us laughing ourselves half to death.

That, of course, started the boys off on a night-long debate on the virtues of different animal leavings. As expected, most of the cowboys were convinced that cow patties smelled the sweetest, whereas those of us who worked as wranglers sang the virtues of the noble steed’s road apples. The buffalo chip was discussed, but for argument’s sake, and since there wasn’t an Indian among us at the time, the buffalo was left in the same group as cattle.

There were a couple of boys from Tennessee who actually claimed they preferred the smell of pig droppings to all others, and it took half the night for them to convince us they were really serious.

We finally stopped arguing when Chester Martin shouted: “Sheep! Sheep stinks the worst, and ain’t no one convincin’ me otherwise!”

The fact we had spent the better part of three hours trying to decide which manure smelled the best, not the worst, seemed to have eluded him. But then again, it seemed an honorable way for us all to agree on something, even those who had never even seen a sheep. Besides, nobody on that drive wanted to be the one to disagree with Chester Martin. It was hard enough getting along with Ches when he was in a good mood, without risking getting him into a bad one, so we all unanimously agreed—sheep stinks the worst!

I remember that bunch as always arguing about something stupid, but we did have good times together. Now, with all there was to worry about, I found myself daydreaming about something that silly. Funny how the mind works sometimes.

As I rode into the southeast edge of town, the
livery was the first building that appeared. It was about as dirty as everything else there. Piled all around the stable were several twelve-foot-high stacks full of old urine-soaked hay and horse droppings, not to mention several thousand stable flies.

There was a circular corral out in front made of split logs nailed to a dozen or so vertical poles, but there wasn’t a single straight post in the whole ring. Out in back was a long rectangular lean-to shack with about thirty standing stalls and a half dozen box stalls.

I rode up to a trough made from an old barrel that had been cut lengthwise and turned on its side, and watered the horse. An old bearded groom was brushing out a chestnut gelding hitched to one of the corral posts. I noticed the man wore an old black stovepipe hat that had a rather sizable chunk torn out of it.

I dismounted, loosened the cinch, and pulled the saddle.

The old man caught me glancing at his hat, spit, and grinned back at me. “A swaybacked hammer-headed old jack took a bite out of it about a year back.”

I nodded, wondering why he hadn’t bothered to buy another hat. But then again, he didn’t bother to swat away the flies that were constantly landing on him, either.

“You the owner here?”

“Am now. Previous one got shot after selling a blind grulla to the wrong feller. Ah told him he ought to give the money back.” He shook his head. “Guess he learned the hard way…the customer’s always right.’ Specially when he’s
holdin’ a double-barreled sawed-off. The name’s Lijah. Just toss your tack on that pole over there. You need anything special?”

“Well, I’d like him brushed down, and when you feed him, mix some corn in with the hay.”

“Cost you extra.”

“Figured as much,” I said, tossing him a coin. “I may be leaving soon, so how about making sure he’s saddled back up again after he’s cooled off and fed.”

Elijah spat a stream of tobacco juice from his chaw and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Looks like he’s been rode hard.” He dried his hand on the front of his shirt. Judging by his shirt it must have been a regular habit.

“Maybe so, but it don’t mean I want him put up wet.” My reply was meant to insure things got done right. “By the way, is there a saloon around here called The Golden Goose?” I asked.

“Sure is, if you feel like blowing all your loot.” He used his hat to point with. “Go on down about four buildings and turn left. You cain’t miss it.” I must have looked worse than I thought because he added: “Some folks clean up and shave at the Chinaman’s place. Up the street over there, second building.” Obviously he wasn’t one of them.

Right then a wash would have felt swell, but with Chavez and his men hot on my trail I couldn’t spare the time. At least for now I’d have to stay just as I was.

Elijah began untying the chestnut. When I started to leave, he turned the horse back toward the stable. The EH brand on the gelding’s rump caught my eye as he swung around.

“Say, how about that,” I said. “I have a friend
that rides a gelding just like that one. Swear they could be twins. Even has the same three socks.”

“That so,” Elijah said. “Small world, ain’t it?”

“Well it probably isn’t my friend’s. Short fat friendly chap with wide sideburns?”

“Nah,’ way off.” He shrugged. “This one’s a tall thin sort with a full beard. Carries a big bone-handled knife in a chest rig. You know…the kind they call an Arkansas toothpick. Rode in with two others. Kind of a hardcase iffen you ask me.” Apparently rethinking what he’d just said to me, a total stranger, he quickly added: “But then again ain’t none o’ my business.” He quickly disappeared with the gelding back into the barn.

It wasn’t far to the saloon, but the street was so miserably dusty I reconsidered stopping for that bath. I ended up deciding against it, though. For me to earn the confidence of rustlers and bushwhackers I’d have to give the impression of someone on the run.
Well, at least that much was true
, I thought to myself grimly.

I paused at the front of the saloon and peered through the double doors before entering. The Golden Goose was anything but golden, the same being true of the rest of Gila City.

At one point the town had boomed, the mines attracting fortune-seekers from all over. But that was years ago. The glory days had long passed, and those that hadn’t already left town were probably now too far down on their luck to get out. Either that or they stayed on in order to prey on the misfortunes of others, like vultures cleaning a carcass.

Whoever owned this saloon was obviously more interested in stripping the remainder of his
customers of their money than in building new business. That was made clear enough from listening to the number of complaints and curses coming from the gaming tables I passed on the way to the bar.

The place was in total disarray, and the stench of stale beer was thick enough to cut with a Bowie. In its day the saloon may have been high tone, but no longer. The carpeting was faded and torn, the mirror over the bar cracked, and most of the stairs leading up to the second floor were warped. The piano player at the far corner was doing a fair job of “Steamboat to Natchez”, especially considering his piano had two keys missing.

At the other end of the bar, alongside the wall, was a large barrel of water with a gourd ladle, and next to it a side of beef on a spit. A loaf of hard-baked bread and a knife lay on a small table right under a sign that read: Sandwiches. Eat at your own risk! I drank some water from the barrel, rather than ordering a hard drink from the bar. For what I had in mind I would need what little money I kept stashed in the neck bag I always carried under my shirt.

I was so hungry I cared more about quantity than quality, and cut myself a large, hopefully clean hunk of beef from the spit, and slapped it on the bread. They were right about the risk, both the bread and the beef turned out to be about as tough as the room I was surveying.

There were about twenty round gaming tables in the place. At the center table four men were playing poker, and, from what I could see from behind, the cowboy in the middle fit the description Elijah
had given me of the one riding the EH-branded gelding.

My plan was simple enough. After joining their game, I would try to make them believe I was broke and out of luck. Maybe I could get in the position of playing them for a job. If they were convinced that I was on the run and let me join up, there was a chance they might lead me to the herd. Or, if the horses had already been sold, then maybe I could use them to track the money.

There was nothing to lose. My name had to be cleared or I’d never have a chance with Rosa, and I still had the
vaqueros
to deal with. I knew Chavez wasn’t the kind to quit, and I had no desire to repeat a showdown with men like Miguel, Armando, and Francisco.

As soon as one of the players busted out of the game, I walked over to their table.

“Closed game or can anyone sit in?” I asked.

The tall thin man in the middle wore a broad flat sombrero and wide leather wrist straps. The bone-handled knife slung across his chest was at least fourteen inches long and double-bladed. The two flat sides of the blade had been built up, with high supporting ridges that seemed sharp enough to cut with. The whole affair tapered wickedly to a thick point.

When that cowpoke looked up at me, my blood froze. Hanging around his neck was a Kiowa talisman on a rawhide thong, a hand-sewn beaded affair representing an eagle. Such a necklace was supposed to ward off evil, and protect one from harm. Each design was unique and especially designed by a certain medicine woman. I knew all
this because the talisman that cowboy was wearing had once belonged to Sprout.

Staying calm after seeing that eagle was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I wanted to fly right across that table and rip his liver out with my bare hands, but, since I had to find out where the herd was, for now it would have to wait.

I avoided staring at him by quickly switching my gaze over to the second cowboy seated immediately to his left. This one was wearing stovepipe chaps, a horsehair vest, and carried a large pocket watch on a gold chain. Pulling out a chair, I tossed my pouch on the table and addressed myself to him.

“Not much there, but maybe it’ll build some.”

“Welcome to try, but don’t get your hopes up,” he replied.

“The name’s Pete, Pete Evans. That’s Ed Jenkins,” he said, indicating the third man, “and this here’s Comanche Reynolds.” His talkativeness was surprising, but helpful. Out here most men usually kept things to themselves, offering up only what was absolutely necessary.

Turning back to the one called Reynolds, I asked quietly: “You called that for some special reason?”

He looked up at me through narrowed eyes and fingered the necklace. It was unusual to have questions posed by strangers, but after a short pause he answered anyway.

“Took this off a Comanche brave during a wagon train attack in ’Fifty-Nine. Got him just as he was about to let fly an arrow at me. Been called that ever since.”

That’s when I knew for sure he was a damned liar.

I nodded as if duly impressed and began to check my cards. Poker was one skill I was proficient at, and before long it was obvious to me that these three weren’t anywhere near as good as they thought they were.

It didn’t take long to catch on to the system they were using to cheat whoever joined the game. The three were much too sure of themselves, and made the mistake of judging me solely by appearance. Most cowboys pride themselves on their card savvy, and these men were no exception. Truth is, even though cowboys brag a lot about cards, when it comes to poker, miners have got them beat hands down. And I for one was no stranger to pick and shovel.

The stakes tend to be higher around miners. When a claim is good, the chips fly, and, when the mine’s played out, they bet for future shares of the next lode. Sure, cowboys gamble along the trail, often for wages received at the end of the drive, but that’s usually not very much. Riders are always busy doing something with the herd and that distracts from the game, so cards are really just a diversion on the trail. Some bosses won’t even allow their men a friendly game during a drive.

Miners on the other hand are frequently stranded at their claims for weeks on end, and up north it can be all winter. Red dog, five-card, and seven-card draw can become a part of their lives, a way to keep from going crazy.

For about seven straight months five of us had worked a gold claim near Bannack City, Idaho. We lived in three patched tents and a makeshift cabin thrown together with leftover boards. From sunup to sundown we dug and sifted to exhaustion, and, when we dragged ourselves back at night, it was usually to a simple dinner of sourdough and old salt pork, or beans and dried apples.

There wasn’t anything else to do, and nowhere to go to blow off steam, so we constantly played cards. Jebediah Edwards, Sam Prescott, Philly Nash, and I played as much as we could, and as well as anyone else around, but it was Riverboat Chantal who usually won the pot. We played almost every night for a solid month and nightly I lost about half of everything I had dug up to him.

Chantal supposedly grew up on the river. Or so they said. Jebediah once told me that Riverboat had dealt up and down the Mississippi for years, and I had good reason to believe him. That is until one evening when, after finishing almost a fifth of sour mash, Riverboat confessed the truth to me about his past.

“Mah father was a sailor and mah mother a French-Creole. They died during the pox outbreak when Ah was real young, and that left me in N’ Orl’ans. Ah growed up workin’ odd jobs in a social club in the red district what belonged to a friend o’ mah father. You know the type,” he said, looking somewhat distracted.

I nodded at him.

“Those gurls shore was purty.”

“I can imagine,” I said. “Go on.”

“Well there was this small casino next door that Ah hung around regular. That’s where Ah
got to know Pierre One-Ear, the greatest card sharp ever was.”

“And he taught you?” I asked.

“Eventually, but not right off. He knew Ah used to trade things around town, so Pierre decided to swap me his card tricks, one at a time, in exchange for pokes with some of the girls Ah worked with. Yessir, old One-Ear really liked the ladies, but after he got his ear bit off in a fight, the decent ones shied away from him. So ya see he sorely needed mah help. Ah remember, there was this one gal who worked the club by the name of Candice. She liked fancy perfumes so Ah always traded her that for Pierre. It worked like this. From time to time Ah lifted jewelry from some of the house patrons to trade for perfume which Ah gave to her. She then lent her favor to Pierre and he’d teach me another trick, an’ so on.’ Ventually Ah got Pierre to teach me a good bit, but he went and got shot before Ah could get real knowledgeable. The rest Ah sort of picked up as Ah went along.”

He paused to watch Philly Nash pick out his fingernails across the room. It was a constant habit that always drove Riverboat crazy, especially since Philly had fingernails that were twice as long as any man we’d ever seen.

“No wonder they call him Filly,” Chantal growled. “Sure as hell wouldn’t call him Stallion…not with them girly nails of his. Beats me how he gets any work done wearin’ ’em long like that,” he added.

“Don’t think he spells it with an F, Riverboat,” I observed. “I think he’s called Philly ’cause his family hails from Philadelphia.”

“Well, whatever. But, if you ask me, for a miner
he spends more time diggin’ ’round in those nails o’ his than he does in the ground.”

I could only nod in agreement. Admittedly it was kind of hard to explain.

Chantal took another swig and continued on. “Truth is Ah hate boats. Hell, Ah get sick just lookin’ at a glass of water. You couldn’t get me on a paddle boat, raft, or canoe now iffen you was to threaten me with a buffalo gun. The only time Ah ever rode one, Ah throwed up so much Ah begged the captain to put me out of mah mis’ry. It was so disgustin’ the crew finally tossed me overboard. To top it off, Ah cain’t swim and almost drowned. Iffen it warn’t fur a log floatin’ by what drug me ashore, you’d be the only one here doin’ the winnin’ from those two.”

“Then why in the world do they call you Riverboat?” I asked, puzzled.

Chantal had finished his jug so I passed him the rest of the one I was drinking from. He gulped down another slug and continued on.

“Simple. One time, over in Tucson, Ah was playing with this whiskey vendor who knew Ah hailed from N’ Orl’ans. Kind of an unlucky feller when it came to cards, but he wouldn’t never admit it to himself. Just naturally assumed Ah had to be a Mississippi boat gambler. It was he what tagged me with the name Riverboat. Soon everybody started calling me that, and afterwards it just seemed easier to go along with folks.”

That was simple enough to understand. A lot of men out West had changed their names for one reason or another. “Guess it’s easier to handle losin’ all your money if you think you were taken in by a sharp,” I added.

“Well you ought to know, kid.” He smiled as he pulled in the pot we’d been playing for. “Look, Ah’m gonna educate you proper like. After all, there’s not much else to do around here at night and you sorely need the help.”

“Yeah, you must get pretty bored winning all my money like that,” I replied.

Over the next few months I learned that there are more ways to cheat at cards than there are cattle in Texas. Chantal taught me about marking cards and reflective rings, bent cards, stacking a deck, palming, and about shills. Getting the other fellow to cut the cards to your advantage and bottom dealing were just basics for him. When I finally decided to leave the good life and ride out, I had won back almost all that I had originally lost. In spite of that Riverboat seemed truly sad to see me go.

“Heard say the mark of a good teacher is to be outdone by the pupil. You sure make me proud now, boy, but why don’t you stick around and try to win back the rest?” he asked.

“Nope. You taught me enough to know there’s bound to be a few tricks you’ve held out on me,” I said. He just smiled back. “Besides, Sam and Philly need to hang onto a little something for their old age,” I joked. “With both of us staying on, you know it wouldn’t be fair. As it is now practically all Jeb has left is an old photo of that half-naked actress, Ada Menken.”

Riverboat helped me tie down my bedroll.

“Saw her once in person, ya know,” he said. “Fine-lookin’ lady, but she warn’t really naked. Just wears a skin-colored outfit. But it don’t matter much. First chance these boys git, they’ll
prob’ly spend whatever’s left on easy women and hard licur.”

“Likely I’ll do the same,” I said. “You take care now.”

He patted my horse and bid me a safe journey. It was the last I ever saw of him.

A few years later I learned from Shiloh Marks, an old friend of Jebediah’s, that a cave-in had taken Sam, Philly, and Riverboat. Jeb had escaped with a crushed hip, but luckily could still get around on a cane. In fact, he was one of the men who later proved the local sheriff, a man named Henry Amos Plummer, was actually the ringleader of a gang of claim-jumpers.

The cave-in had been no accident, and Jebediah knew it. There had been several robberies in the area and for quite a while he’d suspected the sheriff. As long as Jeb lived, he represented a threat to the gang, so Plummer finally sent two of his deputies to kill Jeb. When they failed in their subsequent attempt, they were caught and brought to trial. Faced with the prospect of life imprisonment, they confessed to being in Plummer’s outlaw gang.

Even with a bad hip, Jebediah later led the posse that captured the crooked sheriff. His friend, Shiloh Marks, told me they decided to hang Plummer on the very same gallows he’d originally helped to build. That he died like a coward was no surprise.

Marks also told me that Jeb eventually moved back to Illinois where he married some widow who owned a feed and grain supply. Shiloh said she had Jeb so buffaloed he’d given him the picture of Ada to hold onto, lest his wife catch him with it.

What those men taught me during their card games back in Idaho had served me well over the years. The trick with these three cowboys here, in Gila City, would not be to win all their money at once, but rather to keep playing. To stay in the game. I needed time to convince them I was on the wrong side of the law and desperately in need of a job. They had to be made to believe I could somehow be of use to them. I wanted my game play to seem inept in order to keep drawing the game on, but without busting out.

Their strategy might have fooled most men, but Evans was overly confident. The three were so intent on cheating others, they didn’t expect it to be done to them and it was no chore at all to keep ahead of Reynolds and his pals. I’d simply fold early on the set-ups to avoid big losses, win a few small hands, building my holdings a little at a time.

Whenever they tried to give me too good a hand, I’d make a bonehead play, like drawing unsuccessfully to a straight instead of sticking with two pair. If I got too far ahead, I intentionally lost and made a big fuss about it. I kept some money to play with, enough to keep them interested, but not enough to be suspicious.

“Look, fellers, I really need a job and ain’t particular,” I finally remarked. “So if you three need a fourth, I’m as good as the next feller and ain’t choosy about usin’ my gun, if need be.”

“Say, why don’t you just throw that fancy Colt of yours into the pot and liven things up some?” Evans asked, avoiding the subject.

“Nope, I reckon I’ll stick with it,” I replied. “Too hard to come by in the first place, if you
know what I mean.” I winked, hoping the way it was said would give them the wrong idea.

“Yeah, only one way a drifter gets a fine piece like that, and it ain’t workin’ cows,” Jenkins commented, taking the bait. He was the better-looking of the three, clean-shaven and square-jawed. His shoulder-length brown hair draped down from under a large fedora, and his tanned complexion highlighted blue eyes that must have won over more than a few women. His good looks sure as hell wouldn’t influence my opinion of him, though.

“Won it in a contest,” I said, giving an exaggerated smile to the saloon girl serving beers to the table.

“Sure you did. And I’ll bet the feller you
won
it off of really misses it.”

For some reason Pete Evans felt real comfortable joking with me like that. Strange, considering we’d only just met.

“Don’t suppose so, seein’ as how he’s dead now,” I answered, bending the truth a bit.

“Figured as much,” Jenkins mumbled. “So, ever done any stage work?”

“Some. But I got tired of worrying about getting lead poisoning,” I answered. It wasn’t all a lie since, at one point in my past, I’d ridden shotgun for Henry Wells for almost eight straight months.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Pete, joining in. “Gettin’ a lot rougher these days. We got a sweet deal going now, though.”

“Evans, you talk too much. Just shut up and play.” Comanche Reynolds clearly was the one in charge.

Pete Evans had left the door open a little so to speak, so I jumped in, fearing there might not be another chance. “Look, if something’s up…if you’ve got something good going…maybe you could use an extra hand. Sure could use the work and, like I said, just what kind don’t bother me much.”

“Maybe Davies could…,” Pete started to say, but Reynolds cut him off.

“We work alone,” he said sternly.

There it was. There wasn’t going to be another chance, and, if I tried to push the issue, it would appear too suspicious. I had to come up with another plan and quick.

“Well, can’t blame a feller for tryin’,” I said. “So how about we up the pot a little. Maybe my luck will change. After all, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em so to speak.” I wasn’t joking.

Considering how bad I’d been playing, the three were readily agreeable, anxious to finish me off so they could move on to richer prey. They never knew what hit them. Within two hours they had lost all their money, plus Jenkins’s gold watch. Not in one pot, mind you, but quick enough so they couldn’t figure out how I’d managed it. I had made sure they were completely cleaned out. I wanted them broke, and so mad they’d be sure to come after me.

The last hand of seven-card I dealt was sweet. Evans and Jenkins both had two pair up and a matching down card. Reynolds had two queens showing, and a queen and a pair of kings buried. All I was showing was a five, an eight, and two threes. They bet the pot. But I’d buried two other
fives and dealt myself the last five as my final down card. Four of a kind beat them all.

“Well, you never can figure it,” I gloated. “Guess this was my lucky day after all. So, since there’s nothing keeping me here now, I guess I’ll be seeing you boys.”

Without waiting for a reply, I scooped up the money and left, hurrying over to the stable. I was careful to watch my back on the way out of the saloon. I didn’t want to give them the slightest opportunity to get at me while we were still in town.

The roan was saddled and waiting for me. I was in a rush, and, since I needed more lead time, I drank long and hard right from the horse trough, and then quickly filled my canteen. Before leaving there were two other things I needed.

“Elijah, I’m gonna want that shovel and a set of hobbles if you can spare ’em,” I said. The gold eagle I tossed his way more than helped convince him. “By the way, if anyone asks about me, it ought to cost them both time and money to find out I’m headed west. That way.” I pointed to make sure he knew what I meant. “But especially time, if you get my drift. An hour or two ought to do it.”

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