My name is John Wesley Cullpepper
By J. W Edwards
Lurching forward and backward to the rhythm of the mule’s steps, the lone hatless rider should have expired and fallen from the saddle miles back. To prevent his falling and imminent death, the rider, while still conscious, had lashed his own gnarled and misshaped hands to the saddle horn using a rawhide lariat. Being tied like that would keep him sitting upright even after death. A dark stain of coppery blood and a few Jumping Cholla cacti clung to his sheepskin chaps. His life sustaining liquid was leaching out from a gut wound. Having worked its way under his wooly chaps and down into his worn boots, it found a hole in his right sole. Once again exposing itself to the open air, it continued down the backside of his boot heel landing in the frying pan sand below.
It was already over one hundred degrees and not even high noon yet. The mortally wounded rider was well beyond thirst. His only awareness was that only he must not die yet, but ride on.
Yesterday at dawn, stopping at a small arroyo he had made his camp. The old timer began roasting a handful of coffee beans for his coffee. The smell of the roasting beans waft past his grizzled beard making his nose scrunch up in pleasure. Only after having watered, rubbed down and fed his mule, did he concentrate on making the small fire under the mesquite tree. The sparse but gnarled branches above helped to diffuse any smoke while the beans roasted. It was at that moment the bullet found and made a home in his belly. He never heard the shot, just the feeling of being kicked violently backwards. Anger overcame him as he lay there on his back gasping from pain in the small arroyo. He had figured he was being tailed so he took extra precautions by checking his back trail often, traveling only at night and riding trails that left few prints. Still, a mule is not a horse. The one thing that could have saved him from his pursuers was denied, the ability to out run them. He wasn’t a man without hope though. Years of prospecting in Arizona’s Sonora desert, gave him the advantage of being able to hide where only a scorpion could make a home. Making his trail sign as difficult to read as possible, he knew he could not shake those following, but could slow them down a bit to his advantage.
Somewhere deep inside of him, a misshaped hunk of lead lay at the end of its devastating path. It had been an impossible shot, pure luck…for those on his trail. They only knew he was somewhere ahead of them on the trail but had little idea as to how far. The shot taken was not from any skill. It was the desire to lash out from pure frustration. The shooter had raised his rifle high and towards the small clump of mesquite growing aside the wash almost a quarter mile away. It was dumb thing to do but it made him feel better. The shooter wasn’t even aware the lone rider was hit let alone was actually camped that close and inside the brush until the next day. That was when they came upon the spot where he bled into the sand.
Reading the signs, they determined the rider had been about to make his dinner before getting a few daylight hours sleep using the tiny mesquite tree as shade. A black frying pan of burnt coffee beans still sat in a bed of cold ashes. Except for the saddlebags and saddle, the rider’s gear lay untouched in a neat pile. Prints told the story. After being hit, the rider had somehow been able to saddle his mule and continue on but in doing so required leaving most of his gear behind. To the pursuers, this meant the rider had received a life threatening wound. No one would leave a canteen of water, bacon and coffee pot behind in the desert, not if he figured on living a bit longer.
Riding with eyes to the ground, the pursuers came upon a lone biscuit laying aside the trail. The rider must have had the sense to put one or more in his pocket when he saddled up. The stale biscuit also meant the rider was not able lower himself down to retrieve it, no matter how hungry he was. The small group of no goods followed the signs and feeling much more encouraged now.
Barely aware of his pain, the rider yet gasped involuntarily as if suffocating. Breathing was getting more difficult and he lacked any feeling in his gut and legs. His driving force in staying alive was to reach the ranch that lay in a well watered valley some 10 miles ahead alongside the Verde River.
Once there he knew he would die for he was sore hit. Death rode beside him but he was determined not give up his ghost until he could pass on the secret to those who waited patiently for him up ahead.
Old timers say once bitten by gold fever you never recover. In the old man’s case, his pick axe days of mining had ended when a cave in left his hands crushed and useless. Even then, the fever never left him. If he couldn’t mine his own claim, he’d hunt the long lost and hidden gold caches said to be still left hidden in the desert. He sold his claim and threw in with a man he had befriended years earlier and together they built the ranch and raised mules. They figured the real gold was in selling mules to the miners and not in the mining itself. Owning less than one sixth of the ranch, His share of the ranch’s profits still allowed him to prospect most of the year at his own convenience. True, Apache’s, bandits and the elements all took their toll but even then, the ranch continued to prosper.
The trip back to the desert outside of Vulture City was going to be the climax of all his years of searching. Having narrowed it down, he knew now exactly where the cache lay hidden.
A decade before, gold had been secretly taken out of the Vulture mine ounce by ounce and cached in the desert by two of the mine’s supervisors. This act was called high grading and the thieves were called high graders and high graders were quickly hung. Their plan was to steal enough gold little by little so the two could head to San Francisco and live high on the hog. As their luck would have it though, on the way to their cache about six miles into the desert, they were found out. It was meant to be their last trip…it was.
Most High graders caught were returned and hung back on the mine property to discourage others from high grading. As those who had tried and gone before them, the two supervisors dangled their last dance from the hanging tree not fifty feet from the whore house they were so familiar with. Between the two, they had less than four ounces of the precious metal on them.
Four ounces was a might small amount for a hanging but most everyone suspected the two of high grading for quite some time before they were caught. Not being very well liked and being supervisors and all, no one had a qualm in hanging them right off.
Besides, entertainment (other than the mines saloons and whore house) was hard to come by in the middle of nowhere, so a good hanging was always looked forward to. The gold the two hid was never recovered. Up to now.
When the old man finally reached where the high graders had hidden the gold, he discovered the cache to weigh over one hundred and sixty pounds. After loading the pack mule, he should have left straight away for the ranch, avoiding any settlements but didn’t. It was a long journey back and he was excited. Leading his mule, The now wealthy prospector headed to town. When he reached Wickenburg he headed first to the stable. There he paid the young Mexican stable boy a generous sum to lock up his belongings in an empty feed room and care for his mule. Figuring his belongings were in good hands and being dressed like he was, no one would figure he was worth robbing. Passing through the doors to the Miss Lilly Saloon in Wickenburg, he did what he had always dreamed of being able to do. He stood at the bar and ordered a bottle of the most expensive whiskey the saloon carried.
Nestled in the mix of Ash and Cottonwood trees growing along the River banks, was the small adobe ranch house the old man was heading to. There, a man in his forties and his young teenage son headed back indoors and out of the sun from the small corral. They had spent the morning separating fourteen of their best mules from the thirty eight they owned. The plan was to sell the mules in a few days to a buyer who would resell them to the miners working their claims at Stanton City.
It had been thirty hours now since he had been shot. Drifting in and out of consciousness, the man rode just ahead of his pursuers. Stopping without awareness, the mule cropped what it could find to eat along the way. It knew its way home. The old man was unaware of finally passing the sun bleached boards of the corral nor of his being laid gently onto a bunk now stripped of its single blanket. No awareness came to him of his laying naked to expose the festering and mortal just above his belt line. He never woke, never told his secret, never got to enjoy another cup of hot coffee. Sadly, he never even woke to warn the others he was being tailed by killers.
Even though his carcass was lifeless, luck had not completely abandoned him. In stripping his clothes off to view the wound, the crumpled up hand drawn map of the hidden cache was discovered sewn hastily in a seam of the shirt. The boy found it.
As the father of the boy palmed the old mans eyes closed for the last time. The boy glanced at the paper he had found. Trying to make sense of the crude drawing, it made little sense so he put it in his own pocket until later. Angry and upset from the death of their friend, the boy and his Pap none the less continued to ready the old man for his burial. Knowing only that he had been shot some time earlier they assumed wrongly that he had made good his escape from a bush wacker. Getting him into the ground without delay was a priority. In the Arizona heat a body quickly gets ripe. They proceeded to clean up the old man the best they could.
Focused on their morbid chore, they were unaware of the three approaching riders so close to the ranch. Suddenly, both man and boy looked up as they heard horses being pulled up hard out front.
Reaching quickly for his rifle, the man told his son to stay put and out of the way. Seconds before the older man could prime the pan and cock the hammer on the old muzzle loader, the leather hinged door of the cabin burst open.
The three men piled inside with pistols drawn. Squinting to see in the darkened room, the first man through the door without a word raised his pistol and fired directly into the chest of the man holding the ancient rifle. The heart shot man fell forward on top of his dead friend, causing the bed to collapse.
Screaming in blind anger, the boy charged into the gunman. Seeing the boy was unarmed, the gunman powerfully backhanded the boy with his pistol. Falling into a crumpled heap on the floor, the boy’s bladder involuntarily emptied, wetting his pants.
Pointing to the two men on the collapsed bed, it was the last of the three men through the door who spoke through a crazed giggle. Short and fat with a pimply baby face, the third man pointed his finger and giggled as he exclaimed, “Dang, Hee hee! If that ain’t the funniest thing I ever saw, looks like them two’s a married to each other!”
Turning away from the unconscious boy, the man who did the shooting angrily shoved the laughing man against the wall yelling at him, “PJ, you make me sick! Damn you’re rotted brain!”
“Hey, what’s wrong with you Donny? “ It was the second man through the door who in a whiney voice spoke. ” PJ’s just sayin’ what he sees as funny, he meant no harm. We all know PJ’s a bit teched in the head an’ he got that stupid look about him but he don’t mean no harm. He jes’ see’s things different from us right headed people, thas’ all. Don’t take no bother of what he says.”
Still holding his fired pistol, the gunman Donny stood a good six feet and was tipping the scales at two hundred and eighty pounds. Clean shaven, clear eyes and a well trimmed horseshoe mustache rounded out his facial features. His face was pleasant enough to fool most that he was in fact a good man and not a cold blooded gunslinger. Reluctantly slipping the pistol back into it’s holster he turned to his companion. “I cain’t stand PJ’s stupid laughin’ no more. It grinds on my nerves Lester an’ besides killin’s a serious thing. Whatever Law there is out here ain’t gonna concern it’s self with an old man bein’ robbed. ‘Happens all the time. But murder is a hangin’ offense, an no Law, no matter how far away is gonna turn it’s back on that!”
Pointing to the old prospector lying underneath his friend he continued, “He shore was a slippery snake that one. Took most the sand outa ’me trackin’ him this last month. We ain’t had no good night sleep, an’ that desert was a roastin’ me alive. Plus I ain’t had a real meal since we overheard heard him at the Saloon in Wickenburg. Fortunate for us we was sitting where we could over hear him braggin’ to that lady friend. I cain’t believe he’d be so stupid as to tell her he went and found the where abouts of some high graded gold from the Vulture.”
The second man, a dirty and foul looking greasy haired wire thin man in his late forties named Lester replied, “ Yep, that old timer shoulda’ kept his trap shut. Got to drinkin’ an ’tryin’ to impress the lady. Now look what it got him. Dead is what it got ‘em”
Spitting onto the two dead men laying atop each other, he holstered a well oiled colt revolver, he impatiently continued,” Donny, we come for what’s in the old man’s saddle bags, so let’s shoot the boy too and git on outa here.”
Donny went over to where the prospector’s saddle bags were hung on a thick wooden peg. Picking them up, he immediately knew no gold, high graded or not, was within them. Dumping the contents onto the floor his voice rose an octave, “Dang, cain’t be no gold in here!” It don’t weigh but a few pounds.”
The three men had wrongfully assumed the high graded gold was still in the old prospector’s saddle bags. It was, at the start of his journey, but the old prospector had rightfully figured out he was being trailed. Sobered up and acting out of instinct, along the trail back one night, he hid the high graded gold among a outcropping of boulders above a wash.
After burying the gold, he drew a small, crude map showing its location at the outcropping. Knowing the lay of the land and trails leading to it, he didn’t need to draw up the actual location of the outcropping of boulders, just where he hid the gold among them.
All three men now realized when they killed the old man and his partner, they also may have forever lost the secret of where the gold lay buried.
Still trying to muffle his annoying giggle, PJ said,” Maybe he said sumpin’ to the boy before he died?”
All three looked to the boy lying on his backside. His bladder now fully released, soaked his pants…and the map that was quickly stuffed into his front pocket.
No older than 14, the blond haired boy looked like any other boy his age. Though on closer look, he did sport a larger than normal set of hands and his chest and shoulders seemed mighty fit, but then he was desert raised.
Standing over the boy, Donny told Lester, “Wake that dung heap up. See if the boy or that other dead man removed the gold from the saddle bags. An if not, maybe the old man had time to tell of it’s where abouts an’ the boy knows it.”
Poking the boy in his ribs with his boot, Lester yelled at him, “ Boy! You there! Wake up ya little bed wetter!”
Slowly the boy felt awareness coming back. Someone was yelling at him and now a boot shoved his head sideways.
“Hey pee pants! Wake up!”
Suddenly the boy was wide awake and trying to sit up. Desperately he tried to gather his thoughts up. He remembered his Paps telling him to stay put as he went for his rifle. Then he remembered the shot and his Pap falling like a rag doll. Looking at the collapsed bed holding the two men atop it, the boy figured the best thing to do was keep his mouth shut, gather what information he could glean and grieve later. He loved his Pap but revenge would be better left for later. Right now, living was a more important priority.
Keeping the wet pants away from him as best he could, Lester reached down pulling the boy to his feet by his shirt front. “Listen boy and listen with all yo’ might. We been followin’ that ol’ man there for weeks. We know he got gold but hid it somewhere’s.” Squinting through blood shot eyes, he brought the boys face uncomfortably close to his own. Lester’s stinking breath poured forth from his yellow and black teeth as he spoke. “We figur’ he told you where he hid it! Now you tell us what he said or maybe you want to make it a threesome layin’ there?”
PJ started to giggle uncontrollably again. “Look at the boys pants! He sure done wet ‘em good! I think he needs his diaper changed! C’mere Boy, You got a diaper on? Let’s see if yo’s even wearin’ a diaper!”
Donny had reached his limit of patience with PJ’s sick line of thought. Over the months of riding with him, Donny realized PJ was a very disturbed young man. Those kind can be a sack of trouble and a danger to his partners. Out stretching his left arm to block PJ’s advance, He turned to Lester and spoke through his teeth. At the same time slowly pulling his pistol back out of it’s holster and thumbing the hammer back. “Lester, get your idiot brother in law away from that boy right now! If I hear one more of his crazy laughs or sick minded intentions, I’ll fill his and your gut with so full of lead you’ll both need extra men to carry your coffins!”
Staring at the cocked pistol pointed at him, Lester knew PJ’s and his own life stood at a balance point. Giving in to the inevitable, rather than defend PJ any more, Lester guided him outside.
Out of earshot from Donny, Lester spoke. ”PJ, Seein’ as a child you was brain wacked an’ all, your sister made me promise on her death bed that I’d watch over you after she was gone. But as time goes on, I find it harder an’ harder to do so. As much as I promised, her I cain’t do this no more. She was a fine woman and I grieved proper at her funeral, but I’m sorry for this PJ, I really am. But you been a rope around my neck for too long.” Without showing any further feelings, Lester pulled his revolver from it’s holster and shot PJ between the eyes.
Staring down at PJ’s near headless corpse, he began reloading the empty chamber. Behind him, Lester heard the door of the cabin open.
Donny had drug the boy out with him and tossed him down beside PJ’s near crumpled form. “I was wondering how long it’d be before you finally did that. Leavin’ it up to me, I’d a shut him up permanent like long ago”.
Lester turned and walked away Saying nothing.
My name is John Wesley Culpepper
The boy had not spent the last few minutes in fear. True, his pants were soaked and that shamed him as much as anything could, but he dismissed the act as something he had no control of. Never before had he backed down from a challenge and once while captured for a time by Apache’s, they had even named him Strong Oak. Now as he sat there in the sun and dust, he wondered if he might be in the last minutes of his life.
“You got a name boy?”
“I got more than one, which do you want?”
Donny turned away shaking his head. “Boy, you realize just how close to death you are? See that dead man layin’ there makin’ farting sounds? You think for a minute you’s better protected than him ? You think I give a damn for those two laying atop each other inside? Boy, you’re a dead body walkin’, you gotta understand I ain’t to be played with.”
I wasn’t bein’ smart mouthed. I got two names, one white, one Apache. One from my Paps who you just kilt and one from a Apache I kilt”.
“You kilt him? How? You drown him with your piss?”
“No sir, I slit his throat with his own blade. He and his raiding party attacked our place and took me four winters back . After a while he raised me as his own son, he named me Strong Oak. I don’t bend and I sure don’t break. No wind in this life will uproot me an’ no man will knock me down and no axe will ever be sharp enough to topple me. I waited for the third winter to end and I called him out. It was then I kilt him fair like.
“How does a boy kill a grown Indian ‘fair like’?”
“ I said I called him out. I challenged him to a gunless fight to the death. At first he refused saying he don’t beat on children but when I asked him about all the tiny scalps hanging on his coup stick, he had no choice but to agree. He pulled his knife and nodding his head came at me.”
“Bein much smaller than him, I slipped underneath him right quick and stabbed upward into his belly. Dropping his blade, he fell to his knees. That’s when I used his own knife to slit his throat. The tribe approved, saying I had strong medicine while his had become weak.”
“Dang boy, you sure got some sand, that’s for sure. It might be the death o’ you but I admire it . You kilt your own Indian Paw in cold blood!”
“Yes sir, I had to. But it weren’t really in cold blood. He kilt my maw in that raid an’ for that he was to die. I learned much from him as his son an’ I sure admired him and his ways, but he always knew I’d be the one to claim his life because I reminded him so at each anniversary of my Maws death.”
“He was alright with that?”
“It’s the Apache way. Everyone dies sometime and his death was honorable. He died as a warrior at the hands of a warrior in a fair fight.”
“A warrior? A ten or eleven years old callin’ his self a warrior?
“Not me sir, I called myself ,Strong Oak, my given name . It’s the Tribe that called me a warrior, that’s why they let me go. I still have a home with them if I want. They are also my people.
“ So what name did your Pap here give ya?”
Standing as tall as possible and yet fully aware his pants were soaked, the boy squared his shoulders and spoke. My Paps and Ma named me John Wesley Culpepper. My Paps name was John Theodore Culpepper. My Mam’s name was Elizabeth Anne an’ she’s at rest by the creek. If you so much as degrade her even to the thickness of a cactus needle, I’ll knock you down and tear out your heart with my bare hands while you yet breath. You kilt my Paps, for that I’m gonn’a kill you.”
“Well, John Wesley Culpepper, you sure could make good on your promise. I don’t doubt a word you say but you ain’t gonn’a be able to do that, bein’ dead an all. Now before I commence to send you to your Pap, you’re gonn’a tell me everything that fool ‘ol man said before he passed.”
“ The old man you just called a fool was Chester an’ He was a good honest man, one to ride the river with. He said nothing when he got here. He was dead on arrival! My Paps went seein’ to patch him up but he’d already bled out. I know what you is after. Chester found it and if it ain’t in his saddle bags he reburied it along the way so it’s now lost again. Serves you right it does. You ain’t got no choice now but to scour the desert lookin’ forever since you done kilt him dead. Now who is the real fool here Mister Donny?”
Dealing a new hand
The boy knew earlier that the slip of paper he had recovered from Chester’s shirt seam had a drawing on it and figured it to be a map of some sort. It sat there crumpled up, soaked with pee in his pants pocket. No way was he going to mention it though to Donny and Lester. By fate, wetting his pants had just about guaranteed they’d not go searching through his pockets.
Lester returned a short time later saying, ” I checked the stable an cabin again an’ found nothin’. No gold anywhere. I also moved PJ’s body inside. Seems the old man for sure hid the gold along the way. That cache of gold got to be some where’s hidden between where we plugged him at that arroyo an the trail headin’ north to Las Vegas outside Wickenburg town.”
Frustrated, Donny yelled, “That would mean up to another 4 weeks of ridin! I don’t think so! This boy has got to know more than he’s tellin’ us!”
Donny turned to the boy pointing the drawn pistol at his forehead. ”Now boy, if you want to live, tell me what you know. If you know nothing? Then I’m wastin’ my time with you” To emphasize his point, he drew back the hammer and aimed the huge barrel of the 45 lower between the boys eyes.
The boy called John Wesley Culpepper, knew his life was at forfeit. He’d played the hand dealt him. Time to call.
“Mister Donny?” The boy said, “You got this hand won. I’ll be interested in dealing you another hand. I’ll tell you what I know, lead you to the place it’s probably buried at and then you’re going to let me go so’s I can later hunt you down and kill you both.”
Lester looked in shock, “What the hell kind a talk is that? Kill us?” Lester had not heard the conversation the boy had with Donny earlier. He was unaware of the boys sand and grit.
Donny lowered the pistol and grinning said, “So you do know more than you’s said? I thought so. Tell you what I’ll do J W Culpepper. You show me that place an’ I’ll give you a five minute head start…no I’ll even give you a 30 minute runnin’ head start, how’s that?”
John Wesley Culpepper stuck out his hand saying solemnly, “It’s a deal Mister Donny. Mind you, don’t think a breakin it ‘cause the consequences is this. You go back on our deal, you die slow an’ painful. If you stay straight with me, you die quick like an’ as painless as possible. ”
Donny stood there looking at the boy knowing he’d do just that. He grunted saying, “Let’s ride then. Boy, you take PJ’s horse, it’s still saddled, he won’t be needin’ it or his gear anymore. Not where he’s at anyhow”
“Mister Donny, I’ll take the horse, gear and saddle, but we ain’t leavin here till I release those mules stabled and those held in the corral. No man should take his misfortune out on any animal. When I’m done doin’ that, I’m burying my Paps and Chester proper like.”
The game had played out to a draw. Donny walked away too tired to argue any further. Stopping briefly he looked back at Lester.
“Get a shovel then boy, an Lester, give the boy a hand. I’ll go an’ release the mules. We’re burnin’ daylight here! ”
10 years later
The young but well weathered sombrero wearing cowboy asked, “So what happened after you all rode off from the ranch? Did you find the gold an’ kill ‘em like you said you’d do?”
The twenty four year old cowboy known as Culp, glanced up from telling his tale to the recently fed circle of cowboys sitting around the dying camp fire. The herd of mixed cattle, short and long horn, numbering about four thousand five hundred now, grazed quietly in the evening’s cool air west of Soda Springs. Flank and drag riders keeping guard on the herd sang songs with the setting sun to keep the cattle calm. Culpepper knew that having finally made their way into Idaho territory meant they stood a real good chance of making it to Oregon before winter closed any mountain passes.
Traditionally, this valley was a stopping point for any cattle drives heading west. It was a good spot to give the riders a well deserved rest and let the herd fatten up after the rough drive through Wyoming. Wagon trains heading west stopped here too. Many cattle drives headed from Texas and Oklahoma east towards Kansas and Illinois. Those trails were pretty established with known water and grasslands. Not so the trails heading further west. Like the one they were on.
The Calvary, along with the Hudson Bay Company provided some protection for homesteaders by building forts in strategic locations. Many of the Calvary forts were make shift affairs that violated treaties with the Indians. Many thought that was the main reason for their existence. For instance, to Texans, the Calvary was there to punish them in retribution for their role in the War Between the States. Treating the Texan’s like criminals, the Northern forces put a financial strangle hold on that and any State that sympathized with the Southern Confederacy. Northern politicians took their pound of flesh and lined their pockets at the same time. On the other side of the coin, the Hudson Bay Company built their forts for profit. Being more mercantile oriented than the Calvary’s forts, they prospered without any government help . Even Indians understood the concept of making a profit.
Rail ways were making their inroads from the Midwest connecting dusty cattle trails to their iron rails. This helped to establish settlements other than mining towns. Along with the iron rails came growth and with growth came stability. With stability came women and children, theaters and schools.
Those that drove their cattle west on the Oregon trail, sold them for good money but sometimes paid a higher price in herd loss. Idaho had good passes and friendlier Indians than Wyoming did but winters could come earlier. The result was could mean a stranded herd and a fortune lost.
It right now it was mid August. Thick waist high grass covered the Portneuf Valley near the small Mormon community of Chesterfield where the herd had stopped to rest. Crops now patched the more remote parts of the valley. Mormon families had been encouraged by their Church leaders to leave Bountiful Utah and settle this valley. For the most part, Cattle driving cowboys and Mormons kept apart from each other. Sometimes they did business, sometimes they pulled iron on each other.
John Wesley Culpepper strode over to the woodpile that had been gathered during the daylight. Picking up a few choice pieces, he laid them carefully in the glowing coals. When he was satisfied they’d catch, he found his setting spot again and hunkered down to continue his tale. Seeing the chance to brew up a fresh pot of coffee, Biscuit, the trail cook, hung the large coffee pot back over the blossoming fire. With the smell of fresh coffee brewing for those riding night hawk, Culpepper watched as the last of the sunlight twinkled out over the western Rockies. This was the land and life he loved.
“Well,” continued Culpepper, “We rode for a few days north and met up with the trail heading into Los Vegas town. I had no Idea where the map said the outcropping was. All the dang thing showed was the formation of the boulders and a small “X” and a short note saying “Move the slab.” I wasn’t even sure what part of the desert Chester had rode from. Paps and I only knew he had headed up to Vulture City. That don’t help much, as you all know, it’s a big desert out there.”
Biscuit came through filling everyone’s porcelain tin cup with hot coffee. Culpepper held his out for a refill. Sipping the hot brew he continued, “I needed myself a plan and I knew these varmints would kill me just as soon as I told them all I knew. Now I had read once in a dime novel where a wife had killed her no good husband with a few whiskers from a panther. Chopping them up real small, she added them to his stew one night. Supposedly, it caused him to get stomach tumors and cyst so bad he couldn’t keep nothing down an’ he starved himself to death. She even called the Doc in to tend him. With the Docs diagnosis saying’ he was dying from worms, the widow was never thought unkindly of. That dime Novel got me to thinking. Not having any real whiskers an’ not knowing if it was really a true story, I figured I’d play poker again and bluff ‘em.”
“All along the way, they made me do all the camp chores including the cooking. So one night after dinner maybe a day’s ride or two before they’d realize I was a telling a tale about knowing where the gold was, I spoke up. I had chopped some real fine cactus needles I knew to be somewhat irritable to the skin almost to a powder an’ dumped them into the stew I was making. I wasn’t worried about me eatin’ any since they never let me eat nothin’ but left over’s anyway. I made sure the stew was a tasty one to boot. True to my hoping, they gobbled up the entire pot leaving me nothing.”
“I was making their coffee when I told them they may want to hold off in drinking anything for a while. Well I tell you, that got their attention right quick!”
“What you mean not drink anything?” Lester asked. “Why say that?”
“So I told ‘em I overheard them talking and knew they was going to up an’ kill me just as soon as I told where the gold was and that they’d hide my carcass in the desert. I then reminded them of my promise of making them die slow like if they went back on their word.
Lester jumped up pretending to be all mad, “That’s a damn lie boy! We wasn’t gonna kill you! Why we was even thinkin’ of makin’ you a pard, wasn’t we Donny?”
Putting his plate down, Donny made a terrible evil face that dismissed Lester.
“ What did you do boy? You poison the food?”
“No sir, I didn’t poison it, most poisons ain’t got antidotes for ‘em and this one does. I explained about the panther whiskers an’ said it was an old Apache form of torture. I painted a most agonizing and horrible picture of what happens to a man dying by Panther whiskers. Both of ‘em began licking their swelling lips and tongues, knowing I wasn’t fibbing. Both men were now sweating like they was in the sun. The small hairs of the cactus needles were making their lips and mouth plenty numb, and they believed it was the panther whiskers they ate.”
“Pulling out his gun and aiming it at me, Donny speaking through puffed up lips, demanded I give them the antidote or he’d blow my brains out. My answer to him was, Go ahead Mister Donny, blow my brains out an you’ll both be dead in a week. You’ll be wiggling on the ground holding your belly throwing up blood like you was gut shot.”
“Licking his ever swelling lips again, Donny lowered his gun and said to me, ” Where we at now kid. We playin’ poker again? You might be bluffin’ but I ain’t got hold of a good hand. Not one I’d chance my life on anyway” Slipping the gun back in it’s holster Donny said, “I fold my cards boy, you give us the antidote an you can go free as we agreed to before.”
“ We all knew an Apache settlement was near the border of Wyoming, so I said to him, I ain’t got the antidote on me Mister Donny, but I can get some from the Apache’s a couple days ride east of here. You all have to stay put an’ not drink anything. An’ I mean nothing! If you so much as even drink a teaspoon of water without taken the antidote first, the whiskers will swell inside your gut and it’ll be too late for the antidote work then. “
“Lester looks scared, “Ya mean we cain’t drink no water at all? But we’ll die a thirst out here in the desert.”
“I’ll be gone four, five days at the most. Until I get back, you’ll have to lay still and not move around till I get back. You move, you get thirsty and then you’ll want water.”
“Old Mister Donny sure was breaking out in a sweat! He was caught between a rock and a hard place once again. If he called my bluff an’ I wasn’t fibbing, they’d die a most terrible death from the sip of water. If I was fibbing, I’d escape an’ they’d be without the gold”.
“Finally realizing they had no choice, He agreed to let me go for the antidote but begged I ride hard. They figured I’d be gone for four days if everything went ok. I saddled up but before I took off I told them I needed a good gun to protect myself. After all I said, ”If I get killed by a rattler or Puma, you’re going to die too.”
“So wearing Lester’s fine colt revolver tucked in his Mexican hand tooled holster, I rode off leaving them there in the desert to die.”
“When I rode out, I circled around and returned to the ranch. Someone or some bodies had ransacked the place after we’d left. My mules were gone and the place was in a shambles. The stable was burnt to the ground. With nothing to tie me down, I remounted and left the place for good.”
“Three weeks later I returned to where I left Donny and Lester and see what had taken place during my absence. Their horses were gone. They most likely tore away the brush they was tied to and headed for water. All their gear and saddles still lay on the ground where they had been when I last saw ‘em. I spotted a canteen laying on the ground and lifted it to see if thirst had finally overcome them enough to call my bluff. Nope, it was still full. Scuffle like foot prints lay around where the canteen was found so they must have fought at first trying to stop each other from drinking out of the canteen like fools.”
“ I found Donny. He had stuffed himself into a small crack within a rocky outcropping. His pistol was still in his hands. Two chambers stood empty. It looked like he was hiding from Lester. He was all dried up looking but still weighed some when I pulled him out. Buzzards had somehow missed seeing him so I went through his pockets looking for any money I could use to survive on. Up till then, all I had been able to live on was the food stuff I took with me from the camp and whatever I could harvest from the desert”
“Looking around the camp site, at last I found Lester. At first glance I thought it was just his drover coat laying there. The buzzards hadn’t missed finding him. Not much was left of him now so I let him be. Having found a twenty and a five dollar gold piece on Donny, I knew I could survive for a bit . It looked that neither man was brave enough to call my bluff and take a drink of water. They waited for the antidote that would never come. they eventually died of thirst.”
Telling the attentive cowboys who were making ready their bedrolls, John Wesley Culpepper said, “ Donny and Lester’s salvation lay in the canteen just feet from them untouched. Too afraid to die a horrible death by panther whiskers, instead they died a horrible death from thirst. Well, I done told ‘em if they went back on our deal I’d make sure they had al slow an’ painful death. They did, but it wasn’t by my hand, but by their own!”