Authors: Orlando Rigoni
Paul Scott urged his mount up the slant of West Dip, his warped hat tilted against the raw light of the high Utah country. The sun was a torment to be endured, just like the dust, the distance, and the chill, lonely nights.
At the top of the long climb, he pulled his horse to a stop, and his eyes embraced the bowl of the green valley below. A grunt of approval passed his lips. There were vivid green fields near the foot of the pass, and the raw scars of mines stabbing into the mountains that towered over them. Far to the east, he saw the dust and the confusion of a construction crew laying steel rails across the floor of the valley. He saw a trading post and what appeared to be a hotel about half a mile apart, and south of the fields was the stockade of an army post.
Scott dismounted, stretched his long legs and let his weary horse nibble at the scraggy bunch-grass. He took off his warped hat and mopped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. In the narrow, wingless chaps, his legs looked like stovepipes.
"Mormons," he grunted. "If only Finch is there." His face was grim, and the shame he had suffered rose to the surface, raw and ragged. He pulled a sack of makings from his corduroy vest and, fashioning a smoke, clamped it in his lean jaw. He was a tall man, big-boned, with the meat slabbed on sparingly.
He thought back to the source of his bitterness. Alonzo Finch was the core of it. Scott couldn't absolve his twin brothers from all blame, for they had fallen easy prey to Finch's sly manner. Now Pete, one of the twins, was dead and Larry, the other, had sneaked away in shame, leaving that shame to be borne by the family. Where was Larry, he wondered; rotting dead and forsaken in some hidden gulch?
After a moment of reflection he mounted, riding down the slant that twisted and turned between sprawling hills. His eyes puckered. If these were Mormons, their confidence would be hard to gain. However, it was doubtful they would protect and harbor a man like Finch.
Paul's horse, scenting the lush alfalfa and the promise of water, trotted impatiently, his hooves spurting dust as they spurned the road. Suddenly the horse's head arched high, his ears at the alert. Rounding a sharp turn, Paul jerked his horse to a stop under the brow of a cutbank and stared at the scene ahead.
Two troopers, evidently drunk, had waylaid an old man and were badgering him unmercifully. The troopers had dismounted, and one of them grabbed the old man's beard, pulling him from the saddle of his rearing horse. The old man clawed and cussed but he was no match for the troopers. He fell to his knees and got an arm twisted around one of the trooper's legs.
The tall trooper with a lantern jaw snarled, "Frisk him, Miles. The mountain rat is bound to have gold on him!"
"Git him off my leg," Miles panted, kicking to free himself from the oldster's arms.
Lantern Jaw took two steps and gave the old man a vicious kick in the ribs that broke his hold and rolled him to the side of the trail. The oldster groaned and clutched his side.
"Darn it, Stebbins," the short, stocky man yelled, "don't kill him."
"Why not?" Stebbins grinned evilly. "He's gold mining, ain't he? He's got gold on him, or hid out some place. If he'll tell us, we'll split with him. If he won't—"
"You'd take it all an' kill me to boot," the old man panted.
Stebbins reached for a rock and hurled it at the old man's horse, driving it away.
"Leastways, he'll have a long walk into Camp Boyd."
"Look out, Steb!" Milies warned.
The old man had fished a gun from somewhere inside his baggy coat and was rising to his knees. Stebbins whirled; the short whip in his gloved hand coiled and snapped around the oldster's wrist. A twisting pull, and the gun fell. A red bracelet of blood circled the old man's wrist and dripped like rubies across his knuckles.
Paul Scott, in the shadow of the bank, felt hate bitter in his mouth. He dug the spurs deep, and his horse cleared the intervening space in two bounds. Stebbins was reaching down for the gun when Paul landed on his back. Stebbins looked back, startled, and Paul smelled the reek of whiskey.
"Get off me!" Stebbins snarled, twisting to free himself. His surprise at finding a stranger attacking him was evident.
Paul spun him around and smashed his fist into the lantern jaw. Paul had strength, arms longer than average, but he was unschooled in the dog-eat-dog kind of fighting. Stebbins fell backward, and Paul, unbalanced by his impetuous attack, dropped to his knees. Stebbins doubled up his legs and kicked at Paul's chest, spurs, boots and all. Paul felt the air knocked from his lungs, felt the hot scorch of steel across his ribs. He rolled away, gasping, and staggered erect just as Miles circled to enter the fight.
It was too late to think of odds. Scott had cut himself into the fight, and he had to beat his way out or take a beating himself. He circled warily.
"Let's take him!" Stebbins barked, his long-jawed face as cunning as a wolf's.
The two men rushed from opposite sides. Scott twisted around and struck backward with his Mexican-roweled spurs. Miles, behind him, let out a yowl of pain. Scott swung all the way from his knee, and his fist exploded on Stebbin's lantern jaw.
"I'll take care o' this buzzard!" the old prospector said in a wheezy voice, straddling Stebbins' chest.
Paul had no time to answer. A blow on the back of his head sent him reeling. He kept his feet, turned and caught Miles coming at him. He crowded the shorter man, slamming punches at his head until Miles wilted. Scott beat him to his knees. While Miles whimpered, trying to protect his bloody face, Scott yanked him to his feet and struck him again. Miles fell, dazed.
Scott brushed his hair back and sucked the blood off his lip. He turned to see Stebbins roll over and pin the old man down. Stebbins jerked the old man's head up by his beard and was about to smash it against the hard trail.
"Turn him loose!" Paul cried.
Stebbins crouched to his feet, sobered. His floundering attack became careful, circling. He talked out of the corner of his mouth.
"Get up, Miles. Let's fix this boy!"
Scott, sucking air, followed Stebbins, who was feinting, biding his time. He was waiting for Miles to get up.
"Okay, Steb, okay," Miles panted. He stumbled forward.
Scott lunged and hit Stebbins in the stomach, slashed a blow across his face. Stebbins went down. Miles was pounding ineffectually on Scott's back. Scott turned and struck. Miles folded up and lay still. Stebbins stirred, mumbled something but did not rise.
"Danged lucky it's not you down there. They'd boot you in the head an' gouge your eyes out," the old man said, his teeth set against the pain in his side.
"Can you ride?" Scott asked, breathing hard. He watched the oldster's face with concern.
"Reckon I can, pardner."
"I'll get your horse," Scott said. He felt empty, beat up. Why did he have to get mixed up in trouble even before he reached the settlement?
"Be you goin' to leave 'em here like this?" the old man asked.
"Why not? It might teach them a lesson." Scott smiled crookedly. Then he had another thought. He rode over to the troopers' mounts and, hooking the reins over the saddles, started them toward the post.
"They won't like that," the old man said.
"Give them a dose of their own medicine. They were putting you afoot," Scott said, and rode over to catch the straying horse.
Together they rode down the slant toward Camp Boyd. The picture came into sharper focus as they neared the settlement. Men could be seen milling about the army post. Stragglers came to and went from the hotel. It was curious how in all that vast land, people had chosen that spot in which to live. It was cut off from the world. But the lure of gold, the miracle of water had attracted them and cemented them together.
Scott looked at the old man and saw his face set and twisted with pain he would not acknowledge. He saw Scott's glance and forced a grin.
"Aaron Sodek—that's me—" he said, "is mighty grateful, son. He won't forget what you done."
"Paul Scott here," he replied. He pulled his ear. "I'm a mite curious."
"Yeah? 'Bout what?"
"Do you have any gold?"
Sodek grimaced. "Cain't rightly say. Mebbe I do, an' mebbe I don't."
"All right; keep it to yourself. I'm not looking for gold."
"Uriah Young," Aaron said, "has been grubstakin' me fer years. He owns the trading post yonder. He's sort of bishop of the church around here for what Mormons there are."
"Those troopers must have had some hunch you had gold. They were laying for you."
"Pure chance, son. I been out in the hills. There is gold there; it's been proven. Them boys was likkered up. They put two and two together and figured to badger me. If they was sober, they would never have tried to rob me, not with Major Hornaby commanding the post."
"What's the post doing here?" Paul asked. "A marshal could enforce what law there is."
The older man frowned. "The post is a hangover from when the federal troops came out to break up polygamy. There are some Indians here, and they need watching. Then the gold strike is bringing in a rough element."
Sodek's horse stumbled, and the old man clutched his side while his face winced with pain. Scott felt his anger against the troopers rise.
"It couldn't be any rougher than the troopers."
"It's a rough country. What are you doin' here, Scott? Driftin'? Come to stay?"
"I'm looking for a man."
"Name him," Sodek said shortly.
"Finch—Alonzo Finch. Heard of him?"
"Cain't say. Been gone for a spell. You might ask Uriah—he runs the trading post. Most honest men stop there."
"And the dishonest men?"
"Ask Addie or Lieth Severs at the Lone Chance about 'em. Your man might be there now; he might come. You got livin' money?"
"Some. I had a long chase."
"Uriah might put you up. He could use a hand. Better come with me an' see him. Fact is, I do have some gold, but it ain't rightly mine. It's Uriah's."
"You mean you find gold for Uriah? Why not stake it for yourself?"
"Uriah pays the tithes out of it, an' the rest—well, it ain't a story to tell strangers," Sodek finished in a husky voice.
When Paul met Uriah Young in the gloom of the trading post, he felt an instant liking for the man. His reddish whiskers were trimmed to match those of Brigham Young himself, and Paul wondered if there was any relationship between Uriah and the Mormon leader. Uriah's thick arms and beefy shoulders made light work of moving the sacks of grain. At first he was on the defensive.
"Hello. Brother Aaron. Have you found another fool trying to wheedle your claim from you?"
"Hold on there, Uriah. This is Paul Scott. Mind if I set a spell? I don't feel right good," Aaron said, holding his side and sitting down slowly on a sack of grain.
Uriah turned and gave Paul's cut and blood-smeared face a searching look. "Why didn't you send him to Addie's?"
"He did me a favor, Brother Uriah. I was ambushed on the trail by a couple of troopers. They was mean. I got my side caved in to prove it. Scott beat them off me, as you can see by his face. Thought you might put him up."
"Trail tramps won't work. They don't stay long enough to get used to the water."
Paul extended his hand. "Right proud to know you, sir," he said, ignoring Uriah's words.
Taking Paul's hand, Uriah said, "Where you from?"
"Oklahoma. My folks have a store and ranch there, something like this. We run some cattle."
"I could use a hand," Uriah conceded.
"I'm not a Mormon."
"Have I asked that? I need somebody who ain't too proud to haul hay. I can get riders, or freight haulers, but pitching hay is beneath them. Lazy, Mormon or gentile. I've got a contract to haul a load of hay a day to the army post. I could use the hay myself, but if I don't sell it to them, they'll take it anyway. If you could just haul me that one load of hay and maybe help unload the freight when it comes in—"
"Reckon I won't be here long enough for that, sir."
"What's the matter with this place? It's the best valley between here and Saint George. You should have been here twelve years ago when they moved everybody down from Salt Lake the time the federal troops come out. We had a camp then. Took care of thirty thousand, mostly plural wives and their kids. Still got marks of them here, an junk they left behind. You could pick a worse place to settle, son."
"I'm looking for a man—Alonzo Fitch. Know him?"
Uriah's sharp eyes puckered, and he brushed his thinning hair across his head with his clawed fingers.
"Can't say I know him, but that don't mean he ain't here. I don't cotton none to the deadfall up the road. It's a sinful place, but I leave the devil to look after his own. Addie keeps her men and girls in line. Finch could be there."