Leadville, Colorado, was not what I expected.
Not that I’d really had any idea what to expect, having never been outside of Huerfano County until after high school graduation. But certainly not this.
This jumble of mostly unwashed humanity, fifty thousand crazed miners and prospectors and gamblers and whores and down-and-outers. This snowstorm that dumped white stuff on us all day long on August twentieth. The stink of so many bodies crammed into one boom city. The worse stink of the moneyed few with their fancy buildings and fancy dress and snooty attitudes whether they admitted them or not.
I. Hated. This. Place.
Time to write my honey, let her know I’d not be hanging out here any longer than necessary.
My darling Sadie,
Leadville sucks. It’s jampacked with people, most of whom you’d not invite home to meet your mother, I can tell you that. Thousands upon thousands of miners, most of them okay enough, I guess, just working stiffs trying to make a living. But the others–I tell you, every rounder in the wild wild West must be here, either trying to make a killing or getting killed.
There are a number of small towns outside of Leadville proper (not that I think Leadville is proper in any way). The worst is called Bucktown, just far enough away from the city limits that the marshal never goes there–so anything goes there.
Turned out Crenshaw and I had camped barely outside of Bucktown the night–well, the morning we were attacked. When we trailed through the town, one tall young bounty hunter and an old crosseyed mountain man (can’t describe Stanley as anything else), we garnered an audience and then some.
Can’t blame ’em, really. Back of my pack mare, Bonnie, we had all five of the outlaws draped over their own saddles, belly down, their horses tied off nose to tail in one long pack string. Hadn’t bothered to hide the fact that one of ’em was lacking a head, neither. At least the carcass was bled out by that time.
Word is any tenderfoot setting foot in Bucktown is dead meat, but nobody looked like they were having any thoughts about bracing us on our way through, nuh-uh!
The marshal in Leadville offered me a deputy’s job. Which I most certainly did not take. The place gives me the creeps. Turns out carrying my .45 on my hip is no problem, but I’m damn glad I crossdraw. Keep my holster tugged around front and my left forearm down across it most of the time when the people are thick, and around here they’re always thick.
Actually saw a man get his own pistol jerked from the holster by a total stranger. Got held up with his own damn gun.
No, I didn’t interfere. None of my business.
I’d rather rassle rattlesnakes all day long than live in this town–this city–full time.
Which brings you to wondering why I’m still here if I hate it so much, right? One word: Money. That’s right; I ain’t no better than the rest of these folks; I’m here for the money. Turns out a couple of them wannabe tent-shooters did have a few dollars on their heads after all–and wouldn’t you know, sure enough it was the headless dude who was worth the most.
The marshal identified him from a gnarled ring finger on his left hand, of all things. Other details after that, but that was the starting point. His real name is–was–Jackson Pourio (think I spelled that right–ain’t sure). Not a big name outlaw. Everything he done criminal was kind of petty, but over time it added up. His missing scalp is gonna pay $1,500, which of course splits fifty-fifty between me and Stanley.
One other dead guy, fellow by the name of Titus Beck, adds another hundred to our take. Glad to have it; I’m learning fast that every dollar really does count.
So my half when the money gets here will come out to $800 even. Figure I can wire $600 of that down to you so’s you can add it to our bank account.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my head down in town, watching my back, and of course keeping an eye out for ol’ droopy-eyed Chauncey. Not that running into him here is all that likely; you could lose a man in this mob and never find him for a century or two.
My darling Henry,
So you’ve been taking it “easy” for a change? Well, good for you, honey. Not so sure I can say the same for myself, though. The other day I was helping wash dishes after breakfast. There have always been plenty of those, and even more since you left. Forgot to mention this earlier, but the ranch hired four more hands in June to help with the haying.
You know, just for the summer, mostly to pitch hay. They know nothing about Flywheel other than that, believe me. Even the rotating Ute Box Boys are being passed off as “line riders” and know not to talk carelessly around the temporary guys.
Thornton–mostly called Thorny–and Ben have worked out just fine. They’re really top hands, salt of the Earth cowboys not afraid to get their hands dirty digging post holes or whatever.
Wick and Ned…not so much. It’s those two I have to tell you about. Wick has a patch over one eye like Scrap Hannigan, but he ain’t no Scrap Hannigan.
I finished with the last pot, moving it to the pan of rinse water for Mom to take the rest of the way, and dried my hands before starting in on the boiled eggs. There were dozens of them to peel, stock for a big batch of Susie’s egg salad specialty.
Something was bothering me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The men, including your brother Reggie, were all out in the hayfields already, having had the teams harnessed and ready to go before the morning meal. Dawson, Cougar, and Tam were on the mowers as usual, with the Ute hands on the rakes and everybody else wielding pitchforks.
Despite the one rain delay, it’s shaping up to be a strong year for hay. There’s still (most likely) one full cutting to go and enough to pull through a normal winter already in the stacks.
Wick and Ned had been notified on Monday morning that they were “on probation” this week. Those two are not related, but they could be brothers to look at them: Five-seven (or so), around 160 pounds each, burly enough for their height, in their prime at maybe 35 years of age…but lazy as the day is long.
How lazy, you ask? Let’s put it this way: For every load of hay they bring in from the fields, Ben and Thorny bring in three.
Anyway, they were told in no uncertain terms: Crank up the production each and every day or hit the road. And they’d been doing some better for a couple of days, it now being Wednesday morning. Still not quite matching the other guys, but better.
So, I was sitting there at the big table, peeling eggs and fretting and wondering, what was my problem…when it it me.
Where was Phyllis?
Your sis had gone out with a basket to hunt up more eggs. It wasn’t unusual for her to be gone a while, of course, with the hens running free range. Tam and Wolf seem to have worked out a deal with Medicine Coyote so that he and his pack get to eat any chicken dumb enough to wander up near the spring, but he leaves them alone if they stay down in or near the yard.
Which still leaves a whole big lot of places for a mama chicken to stash an egg or three. Plus, my best friend aka your knocked-up sibling (who’s showing pretty good now, by the way) has been known to goof off now and again.
“Outhouse time,” I told the others. I was suddenly scared Phyllis was in trouble, but saying so to all these Women Warriors seemed like a really bad idea. Not because they’d doubt my gut, but what if they all strapped on their six-shooters, went searching for Phyl, and it turned out she was napping out in the bushes or something?
Didn’t want to risk getting my bud in trouble if she wasn’t already, doncha know.
I grabbed the single shot .22 on the way out the door. Going to my room to get the .38 would have been suspicious, but it’s snake season, so most of us pack something when nature calls. Which would make a shotgun more sensible, but I’ve gotten a couple of rabbits this summer, too–and a .22 makes less of a rabbit mess as you know.
Phyllis hardly ever packs; that girl still hates guns. Sometimes I think she belongs in a city. Not Leadville, of course. An eastern city.
My search did start by the outhouse–had to be seen going that way, anyway, and the hens do sometimes drop eggs several places around back. But no luck there. I kept moving, trying to cast my senses out the way we’ve been taught, trying most of all to get inside Phyl’s head, figure out her movements.
Didn’t dare holler for her.
Not until I’d looped past the bunkhouse and round corral did I hear the sound. Couldn’t make it out quite, but it raised the hairs on my neck. Sounded like it came from behind the barn, maybe.
I was halfway down the south side before noticing I had my thumb on the .22’s hammer, ready to cock and fire. Left it that way, too. About that time, I heard the sound again…and was suddenly ninety-eight percent sure I knew what it was. Which got me to slip up to the corner logs real cautious-like and super-careful peek around the corner.
At which point caution weren’t in it. Two quick steps into the open, hammer back.
“Git yer filthy hands away from her!”
The two men–yeah, Wick and Ned, who else–had Phyllis on her back, right there on the ground behind the barn. Ned was holding her wrists over her head with one hand with the other hand over her mouth. I could see the bristly hairs on the back of his hand and your sister’s eyes so wide and terrified—
The other bastard had her pants down but not quite off yet, so it looked like maybe I’d gotten there in time…except the buggers weren’t exactly impressed with my ultimatum. I’ve been having a growth spurt as well as blossoming this summer, but I guess a slender five-seven, fourteen year old girl with what looks like a toy gun don’t seem all that scary to a loser with his lust up.
Ned jist grinned, didn’t let go of his captive one bit.
Wick spun back, getting his feet under him so’s he could lunge the maybe twenty feet between us….so I shot him.
Henry, I didn’t know right off where I’d hit him, but he went down on the ground right enough. Started screaming, had his hands over his face, so I guessed somewhere ahead of the temple, which was what I was trying for. He was out of it for the moment, though.
Which was a good thing.
There weren’t no grin left on nasty Ned’s face now. Now he let go of Phyllis, all right, sprung to his feet and was on the move jist like that..
No time to reload, barely enough to reverse the rifle, grab it by the barrel, and swing a two-handed low, lateral shot like you taught me. I almost wasn’t fast enough, but he weren’t expecting it, and the stock caught him square upside the left kneecap.
Still almost got hold of me on his way down, but I scrinched free of his grasping fingers, danced off to the side, you know?
Learned a whole passel of new cuss words, honey. I really did; that man called me names you wouldn’t use to shame a mule. But I’d dinged his knee pretty good, and I can back up right quick when I have to. Found out it ain’t that easy to reload a rifle with a busted stock while back-dancing, but I got it done. After a bit, I did.
When he seen the muzzle come to bear between his eyes, he quit cussing altogether. Meek as Mary’s little lamb, he was.
“Phyl! Git your pants up and go tell the others what’s going on!”
No response. Your sis was kind of sniffling and shaking her head, sitting up but with her bare ass in the dirt. The team these two buggers were supposed to have out in the east fields, getting a load of hay, stood off by the willows where they’d stashed the wagon in order to ambush the girl.
How to get through to my second best friend in the world?
“Phyllis Pregnant Walked-Into-It Tamson! Pull yourself together or try explaining this to your Bible thumping mother all by your lonesome, you hear!”
That did it.
See, baby? There really are still more idiots out there dumb enough to try going up against Flywheel Ranch. Although these two were admittedly newcomers in the area; they likely didn’t know Satan himself woulda been an easier opponent.
I mean, really. If you can be taken out by the greenest girl on the place…!
Mom told me, “You’re your mother’s daughter, all right.” Proudest day of my life.
Turned out the bullet hit Wick in the bridge of his nose as he was turning toward me. Plowed on through the cartilage, through his one good (formerly good) right eyeball and shattered the socket bone on the far side.
Yep. He’ll live, but in prison along with Limping Ned, and he’s blind as a bat now.
Dad said that actually worked out better than killing him. He’s pretty proud of me, too.
Me? No, I’m not so proud about it all. That was cutting things way too fine for my taste. Should have figured out what my intuition was telling me long before I did. Shouldn’t have missed the temple shot. Came within a cat’s whisker of getting grabbed by Wick, and he woulda killed us both with his bare hands if that had happened.
All that was bothering me something fierce…until Mom and Dad figured it out. Sent me to talk to Tam. Didn’t know why till he retold me the story of how he got his Blackfoot name, Crazy Rifle. You know, the one about flinching when Believer’s big Hawken went off in his ear so that he bounced his own rifle’s bullet off a rock he hadn’t even been looking at…and the ricochet slammed through a bit of brush and killed the Kootenai war chief he hadn’t even known was hiding there.
Point being, he told me, you don’t have to win pretty–you just have to win. Advised me to get that through my head, let go of the perfectionism.
I’m working on it.
Love and lust (though not the out-of-control kind of lust like Wick and Ned),