Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples.
This week, I'm putting up a little bit of action for the menfolk. This excerpt is from Ride to Raton again, and features James Owen, in a bad situation. I hope you enjoy the sample.
The sun climbed overhead into a cloudless, burnished bowl of a sky. By mid-morning, a tiny hammer pounded against a miniature anvil in James’s skull. As he rode through the broken hills and undulating plains toward the first big town on the trail—Pueblo City—the size of the anvil and the hammer increased until he felt sure the thud was ringing clear to Kansas.
When James at last noticed outbuildings around him, he had to force his eyes open from the squint they’d taken on to shut out the sun’s glare radiating upward from the parched earth. He rode into the welcomed darkness of the runway of a livery barn, rubbed his burning eyes, and dismounted.
“How much to put up my horse and mule?” he asked a tow headed youth lounging on a bale of hay beside the door, just out of the sun’s reach.
“Two bits,” said the boy, poking at his broken front teeth with a sliver of wood. “That includes grain.”
James put his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out his money. “Humph,” he said, rubbing the two quarters in his hand. He gave one to the boy, then stared at the remaining coin before he slid it down into his pocket again. “Can I get a meal cheap around here?”
“The saloon down the street puts out a free lunch...for customers.”
“That’ll have to do. Where can I throw my saddles?”
The boy raised his chin toward the rear of the barn. “Tack room’s got an empty corner. I won’t charge if you haul the gear yourself.”
“I’m obliged,” James muttered. “See to it the animals get the grain.” He turned to lead them away.
“Wait a minute, mister,” called out the boy.
James looked back, raising one eyebrow.
“If you could use some work, ask the bartender for Len Strummond. I hear he’s got a job open.”
“Thanks.” James began to ask what sort of work it was, then clamped his mouth shut. What did it matter, so long as it was hard work, good and hard, and didn’t give him time to think?
He tugged on the reins, and the horse and mule shuffled forward and entered a pair of stalls. When James had stripped the saddles and packs from the animals, and carried the gear into the tack room, he picked up his war bag—the ancient brown catchall with the leather crazed like old china from the neglect the urgency of war had imposed—and walked down the runway toward the sunshine. He took four or five steps along the street in the powdery dust, then heard the youth calling him.
“Mister, wait. I forgot that saloon’s full of Yankees. You can’t go in there.”
James turned half around, anger narrowing his eyes. “That squabble’s done with,” he said, his voice gravelly. Then he spun around and continued down the street.
“It isn’t over in this town,” the boy yelled. James didn’t stop. The boy shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the barn to do his work. “Oh well, what can they do, shoot you?”
James kept walking, watching for the saloon. It loomed ahead in the middle of the block, a free-standing, unpainted lumber building, narrow in width, but standing two stories tall. Noise from the dinnertime crowd poured through two small windows in the front wall.
James shut his eyes for a moment in an attempt to ease the pain throbbing in his head. Then he pushed through the batwing doors and eased to one side of the opening, pausing to look down the long room. After a while his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the saloon, lit only by the windows and a trio of lamps hanging behind the bar.
Seven tables filled the open space of the room. Around them, diners sat in barrel and ladder backed chairs; not a seat was empty. Three or four sturdy men stood along the mahogany bar, drinking their dinner and tucking up their tails, for the crowded tables seemed to push the men against the wooden barrier. Laughter came from a door at the right of the room behind the bar, accompanied by the clink of dishware and the clatter of cutlery dropped to the floor.
The aroma of fresh baked bread teased James’s nose, and he moved into the room and threaded himself between the bar and the tables, brushing the leg of one of the drinkers with his war bag as he passed.
“Yeow!” the man yelled, gripping a half empty whiskey bottle. “That’s me sore leg.”
“I’m almighty sorry, friend. I beg your pardon,” James drawled, trying to squeeze past the man and his neighbor at the bar, who stepped into James’s path. James half-turned and backed a step into the room, facing the bar.
The first man swore, turning from the bar with a lurch. He looked at James, his eyes traveling from his hat to his boots. He spat on the floor. “Ye’re one of them ‘Suth-ren’ butternut rebels come to stink up tha place. This be a Union bar, Johnny Reb. Ye don’t come in here.”
Something cold as a chunk of river ice congealed in James’s belly as he listened to the Irish brogue that was neither pleasant nor lilting coming from the older man. As he turned to face the man’s outraged face, a chill seeped from that icy lump into every empty space in his gut, spread into his chest, then bubbled up into his shoulders and ran down inside his arms to tingle his fingertips. “The war’s over, friend.” There was a hard edge to his voice.
The man’s partner grabbed James’s shoulder. “‘Twon’t never be for Danny O’Brien,” he said, his voice whining. “He’s got a crook leg from that war, and it pains him night and day, Rebel.”
“That’s not my doing.” Irritated, James shook himself loose from the man’s grasp and backed as far as he could into the room, sensing that danger came chiefly from the man called Danny.
“Liar! Ye’re the man thet just now set it off agin,” Danny shouted, bending over to rub his injured thigh. He started to pour himself a drink with his free hand, but it shook so badly that he raised the bottle to his lips, instead, and took a deep swig of the liquor.
The tingling and the sense of danger left James, and he shrugged his shoulders. “It was an unhappy accident. I already begged pardon. Now I’ll be about my business.” He turned toward the man’s friend. “Let me pass,” he said in a curt tone of voice.
The second man backed up a step, then his eyes widened as he looked over James’s shoulder.
“No, Danny! You canna do that!”
James whirled to face the Irishman, who held the bottle in his left hand, and a revolver in his right. The blued barrel wavered, describing circles in the air between the two men.
“Ye’re going to be a’payin’ me back for my pain, Reb,” Danny growled.
James put out his hand, palm in front of him. “Friend, you picked the wrong man to rob. I’ve only two bits to my name.”
“I’ve no need a’ yer money. It’s yer blood I want, and that spilled!”
Danny twisted to his right to set the bottle on the bar. It teetered on the turned edge for a moment, then fell to the floor, the sound shattering the bustle in the room as effectively as the wood planks shattered the glass.
Silence spread in the room like ripples on the still surface of a pond, widening in circles that soon lapped against the farthest reaches of the room. Then the silence fled as men scattered, scrambling from the chairs nearest the bar to huddle against the walls.
“I’m unarmed,” James said, lifting his war bag slightly in his left hand and trying to raise saliva in his mouth. The cold and the tingle were back. He silently belabored himself for not buckling his Army model Colt around his hips when he left the cabin. Icy fingers throbbed to feel the weight of the .44 caliber weapon, which was buckled away out of reach in the carryall.
“Ye canna shoot him down like a dog, Danny,” said a cracking voice behind James. “He has no gun, man.”
“I can and I will, Liam. He’s a dog of a Rebel, and deserves no better.”
“Quiet, Liam.” Danny laughed. “He’s got his stinking Rebel pride. That’s weapon enough,” he hissed.
James considered if the man was drunk enough that he would miss his shot. He’s holding pretty steady, he thought. A draining sensation sucked at his belly. This fellow wants to plow a furrow through my chest. The cold gathered in from James’s arms and shrank into a frozen lump that lodged just under his ribs. Ma, this is not the way I want to die.
Danny’s laughter was a raw sound as he drew back the hammer of the pistol. James heard the click of the action, and the snick of the cylinder moving into place.
“That’s right, Reb,” Danny whispered. “Ye’re going to pay for this leg, and all the nights I lay crying out in pain, and all the shame it brung me.” His voice rose with his fury. “And then ye’re going to pay for the wife that left me for a whole man.”
“You’re crazy,” muttered James, and his belly twisted in agony because of a girl who had left him for a broken man. Ellen. No! I can’t think of her now. He wrenched his thoughts away from the girl with the laughing green eyes. The gun stopped moving, pointed at his chest, and James whispered, “Don’t do anything foolish, Danny.” Then the muscles of his upper arms bunched as his mind rehearsed the motion of releasing the catch to the war bag.
Danny replied with a yell. He squeezed the trigger and a bullet whined over James’s left shoulder and struck the back wall of the saloon. James heard a wild cry of “No, Danny, no!” As he ducked, crouching over the war bag, tearing at the buckle, the man to his left dropped to the floor and huddled against the bar, whimpering, “Don’t do it, Danny boy.”
“He’s a damnable Rebel, Liam. This is war!” the man howled, re-cocking the pistol.
Still crouched forward, James managed to open the buckle to the bag as Danny got off another shot, yelling all the while. The lead ball caught the flesh of James’s left arm and slammed him to the floor as he yanked his pistol free.
James raised his arm, gritted his teeth, pulled back the hammer, and aimed toward the man as Danny’s third bullet struck him in the right side. He jerked the trigger. The clap of the shot smote his ears.
Danny fell against the bar, screaming, and dropped his gun as a cherry colored stain spread across his left shoulder. The man slid inch by inch down the bar to plop onto the floor as blue powder smoke swirled in the open space. James raised and cocked his gun again as several men stepped forward, muttering. Danny’s friend scuttled across the floor and bent over his fallen comrade.
“You didn’t have to shoot him, mister,” he complained. “Danny was a good man, up until Rosie left him.” He pulled out a grimy handkerchief and pressed it to the Irishman’s wound.
“He didn’t give me a choice.” Breath was coming hard against a shattered rib, and James fought to keep his wavering gun trained on the unfriendly group as he tried to sit up.
“What’s going on here?” A brawny man wearing a pistol in a belt holster and a tin star on a leather vest came through the crowd. “Drop your weapon, boy,” he said, not even bothering to draw his own gun. “I’m the law in this town.”
“The kid shot Danny,” shouted the friend.
“Is he dead?”
“No, but he’s pretty bad off.”
“I don’t think he’s dying, Connolly. I’d say the boy just clipped his shoulder. Get him down to Doc’s place.”
The marshal watched as the man’s friends carried him away, then stooped and plucked the gun from James’s hand. Blood gushed from James’s wounded side, and the man plugged his own handkerchief into the hole. “There,” he said, “That should hold you. Got a name, boy?”
“I’m James Owen,” he said, struggling against a darkness that flitted across his mind like a thousand bats’ wings brushing against his face.
“Well, James Owen, you’d best come with me,” the marshal said. “Watch it now! Looks like you’re fainting. A couple of you fellows hoist him to his feet and bring him along. Chancy, get the doc when he’s through with Danny. Tell him to meet me over to the office.”
Two men dragged James to his feet as he strained to keep his eyes open. “Where’re you takin’ me?” he muttered.
“Guess he’s still alive, boys. Haul him up a bit there. He’s unsteady on his feet.” The marshal yawned, then glanced at James. “We’ve got a nice jail to keep you snug until we find out if you’re a wanted man or just a gun brawler, boy.”
The man took a step toward the door, then turned back to look at James.
“Doc’ll be along by and by to patch you up. He don’t mind calling on his patients in a jail cell, as long as they pay him.” Then the marshal turned his back and banged his way through the doors of the saloon.
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