In response to one reader’s thoughtful advice, the story originally titled, “The loathsome Sheriff of Arapahoe Junction” has been renamed, “The lesser of all evils”. Thank you my dear friend for your valued suggestion. This story is dedicated to you.
For some reason the good Lord puts people on this celestial ball that by all rights and means shoulda’ never been placed here. Sheriff Maurice Du Bois was one of these.
Poking the evening cook fire with a stick and stirring the embers until flames gave new life to the campfire coals, John, the trail cook settled the blackened coffee pot back onto the rekindled flames. Sitting there tilting, it boiled up a fresh pot of coffee. He continued his tale to the group of cowhands and told them of the territory they were now passing through.
“A couple decades ago, These parts had folks livin’ around here. Hooking his thumb over his right shoulder he told them, “ Beyond that rise out there, was a small mining town called Arapahoe Junction. There’s nothin’ left there now but a few snake infested dilapidated buildings and the bones of mostly innocent folk.” Stopping to pause, The cook’s eyes took on a tired sadness as the memories came flooding back to him.
“ I rode through there a few years back. I needed to see what remained. Other than some leaning building frames and sun bleached planks lying about, there’s nothing that would ever say it was my home or anybody else’s. As towns went, it wasn’t a bustling one but it weren’t no tent town either. We had a dry goods store, livery, saloons, a couple of bordello’s book ending the town. It coulda’ grow’d into a real nice town ‘cepting for the Sheriff. Yes Sir, that was one evil man. He needed killin’ something real bad. I ain’t ashamed to say that my brother, me and a few others took to doing it. It’s kinda’ ironic actually. In trying to save the town, we ended up killing it!”
Known to be a gambler, a womanizer and a low down skunk, Maurice Du Bois took pride in being all three. Born in France, he and his parents had relocated to New Orleans after being accused of counterfeiting French bank notes. The Gypsy telegraph (word of mouth between thieves) warned the family of an impending arrest and they made their escape by ship to America that night.
Stepping down from the freight hauler where he had hitched a free ride, Du Bois grabbed his carpet bag from the wagon’s bed and stood there taking in the sight before him.
Six months earlier, the New Orleans Bee had run a front page story about the gold strike at Pikes Peak out in Colorado. Knowing the easy gold was in a miners pouch and not in the earth, he immediately made plans to acquire as much gold from the hard working men as he could.
The freight wagon’s muleteer had lost badly at Du Bois crooked card game back in New Orleans.
Feigning sympathy for the unfortunate driver, Maurice Du Bois offered to trade the debt owed by the Muleteer in exchange for his free passage out west. Having been thoroughly schooled by his Gypsy parents in the art of sleight of hand, Maurice Du Bois packed his marked cards, loaded dice and said Au voir to his crooked parents. Curses and insults were thrown after him by the old couple as the freight wagon carrying their golden egg and hoped for source of retirement income, began its slow motion westward to the gold fields without them.
Having traveled for weeks, the freight wagon last stop was only thirty miles south east of Pikes Peak. There at the promising town of Arapahoe Junction, Du Bois ended his journey.
While many of the buildings were still large canvas tents whose wooden fronts imitated real structures, there were enough solidly built structures being built to convince Du Bois that plenty of real money was being dug out from the nearby hills in the form of gold.
Taking in the town as he walked toward what he was told was the least expensive hotel, Du Bois kept his eyes peeled for saloons that would cater to a gambler such as himself. Stopping first into the barber shop he paid for a shave and had his black coat brushed clean by the man’s wife. After his cut and shave and smelling of Bay Rum astringent, he straightened the ruffles on his French cuffed shirt and placed his black flat brimmed hat neatly onto his head with a tilt. Looking at his reflection in the barber shop mirror, He smiled showing his teeth. Satisfied he was the gambler extraordinaire he walked on out.
Reaching the end of the town he spotted a bordello whose twin mirrored itself at the other end of town. Next to this one sat the Nugget saloon.
Entering the Nugget, Du Bois spotted a game of Faro in progress. Instead of heading to the gaming table, Du Bois sidled up to the bar.
“What’ll it be friend?” Asked the middle aged, mustachioed bartender
Placing two bits on the bar, Du Bois responded, “Whiskey, just a glass of it.”
The bar tender filled a glass partway and slid it over to Du Bois and pointed to the quarter dollar piece on the bar. “It’s fifty cents.”
With a silent look of disgust, Du Bois reached into his money pouch and removed a silver fifty cent piece. Laying it down he reclaimed the quarter dollar. “For fifty cents this better not be snake juice.”
“It ain’t the best but I’ve sold worse. It’s a mining town friend, like it or lump it, that’s the way it is.”
Du Bois remembered thinking back in New Orleans that it was going to be easy to skin the miners of their cash by gambling. He decided if that’s all he did here, he’d never get rich. But right now he needed a nest egg to do what needed to be done and some pocket money.
Making his way over to the faro game, he waited until an overweight, balding man dressed in a conservatively cut wool suit stood up and tossed his cards down. “I’m done for Gents, Lady Luck isn’t looking my way today.” Then, leaning over to the man holding the deck of cards and pointing to the pile of cash, he quietly told him. “Wilkins, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get my rent, that’s it there laying in that pile in front of you.”
Wilkins nodded but before he could answer back, Du Bois grabbed the chair by the back, pulled it out and slid into it before the portly man had barely cleared the table. “Games still open Wilkins? Names Maurice, Maurice Du Bois, I’m fresh out of New Orleans.
The gentleman named Wilkins, spoke up as he reached for the cards. “Well? What game is it Mr. Du Bois? Five Card Monte? Faro? You name the game we’ll play it.”
By five in the morning there was only one player left at the table besides Du Bois and he was fighting against the ropes. All the other players had thrown in and went home to upset wives or next door to the soiled doves. Fueled by a night of high stakes adrenalin and whiskey, Wilkins concentration began faltering with each new drink. The once swollen pile of cash in front of him now consisted of just a few coins.
“You’ve got a hell of a lucky streak mister, I’d be fool to call you a cheat but danged if I can see how you did it. You’re good, real good. I know all the tricks, or thought I did until now. If I would’ve caught you even once, I’d have blown you outa’ your chair.” Pulling a sawed off shot gun with its stock cut like a pistol from under the table, he laid it in front of him. “No need to fear Du Bois, like I say, it would’ve all ready happened. But to satisfy my curiosity, play me one more game, this time a hand of Poker, no raising, just a straight hand with a two card draw. I haven’t the cash left, but I do have a deed I’m willing to put up. I’m so convinced you somehow fixed these games that I’m willing to bet this deed that I was right.”
Normally, Du Bois would have feigned offense to the insinuation that he was a cheat but his own curiosity was now peeked.
With a chiding chuckle Du Bois asked, “What’s the deed to? Your ramshackle cabin on a spread of tumble weeds? A played out gold mine? Your Mama’s house?”
Sitting back in his chair, the gambler who had invited Du Bois to the table smugly remarked, “No Mister Du Bois, it’s the deed to over half this town.”
“The town? What the hell do you mean, the town?” “
“Just that Du Bois, you see, I own the majority of the land this town sits on. Sure, I’m in negotiations to sell it to the town committee who wants to legally annex it for the town, but until that time comes, it’s still mine to do as I please”
“I never heard of such a thing, what do I have to put up in exchange?”
With whisky induced confidence, Wilkins replied, “All the cash you cleaned out of those sucker’s pockets tonight. So what do you say Du Bois, are you game?”
Du Bois knew it was make or break time. Cheating was out of the question. The simpler the game was, the harder it was to find ways to cheat. “You deal and I’ll cut”
The game was quick, too quick for Wilkins. In his hand he held three deuces, on the table in front of Du Bois lay three kings. To Du Bois own amazement, he had won fair and square.
Wilkins sat stunned. His anger and bravado ebbed away as he realized what he had just done. Slowly he unfolded the deed to the town in front of him. “Worst luck I’ve ever had. What was I thinking.”
“Do you always carry that deed around with you Wikins?”
“No, I was to meet with the group earlier tonight that wanted to buy my property. Instead, I sat here all night and played card games. Dang, I lost it like a green horn.”
Du Bois reached over and studied the deed and some legal papers attached to it. “These papers say that while you owned the land, the buildings here are individually owned and the owners of those buildings pay you rent for the land that they sit on.”
Flipping the pages back and forth, Du Bois realized on the first day of each month every person in town had to fork over their rent. As best as he could figure, it amounted to almost a thousand dollars a month. He let out a slow whistle.
With a laugh Du Bois told Wilkins, “I was going to head on to Pikes Peak to seek my fortune but I think I just struck gold right here and now!” Kissing the deed, he looked across the table at the very ill looking Wilkins.
“We can get all the legal work done in a few hours when your attorney is open for business, yes? Is he located in town here.”
‘You took his seat over when you came in Du Bois, he’ll be open in a few. Meanwhile I’m tired and need to think on some things. If you wish, I’ll be back here at ten this morning, we’ll go over to see him then.”
At first nothing changed but the deeds owner. Then as the months went by, Du Bois began raising rents on business owners he didn’t like or he wanted gone. He continued to dangle the deed in front of the group that had wished to purchase the land. But now the price had doubled and the group found it on the edge of being unaffordable.
For the first time in his life Du Bois was in a position of real wealth and power. A good man would not have let this alter their life, but Du Bois was not a good man. He became even more boastful and began drinking heavily. Where once he respected women enough to be cautious and treat them with respect, he now cursed openly and became lewd around them. When the beating of the whores started, many of soiled doves left for greener pastures.
He found egotistical pleasure at humiliating those who fell behind in their rent. Especially pretty women. When the woman who owned the café could not make full rent, he demanded one half the business as collateral until she could pay the balence. Two days later the woman was found raped and strangled in her bed.
The town folks became scared. The smart ones began moving out, the others hesitantly stayed too scared in forfeiting all they owned.
It was then that the remaining members of the Committee that had attempted to purchase the original deed from Wilkins met in secret.
None of the group was a shootist or even handy with a gun. A lawyer, the Doctor, a saloon owner, two merchants and blacksmith rounded out the group. There wasn’t even a Cowboy among them. None had ownership of a gun and only a few had ever shot one. They were for the most part, city bred folk.
A decision was made that night. They would hire a shootist to remove Du Bois. That would leave the towns land deed open for the courts to decide its fate. Most assumed the courts would grant the town committee the rights to the deed so the annexed land could then be filed with the State. The call went out. A one hundred dollar offer was made.
The weeks passed but no shootist arrived. Meanwhile, Du Bois had run off the towns volunteer sheriff and took over his job. It wasn’t the job he wanted but the prestige and power that went with it. He had plans. His black riverboat gambling attire now sported a bright silver Sheriffs badge on its lapel. He became Judge and Jury, jailing and charging fines to line his pockets. Behind his back, the town folk began calling Arapahoe Junction, “Hells Junction”.
Wilkins and his lawyer, Henry banks, called for a secret meeting of the committee members. Wilkins introduced the brothers, John and James to the committee members. Most everyone knew James as he was the Nuggets bartender. John on the other hand was less known because he spent most his time driving cattle to market as a cowhand.
Wilkins then told them that John had found out that “Sheriff Du Bois” ( as he now called himself), had been stealing explosives by having his men rob the freight wagons headed to Pikes Peak. Du Bois would then resell the explosives to the Pikes Peak miners at an exurbanite rate. Because the mining companies could not operate without the explosives, they grudgingly bought it.
Both the mustachioed bartender James, and his brother John, had fought in the war of the States. John for the Confederate States, James for the Union. Before the war, both had been coal miners living in north western Virginia. Their mining jobs had dealt with explosives, so had both their military careers.
James explained that his brother had seen the cell next to his filled top to bottom with crates of explosives when Du Bois tossed him in jail for being drunk, a minor offense but carrying a hefty fine of ten dollars. “I was just clearin’ the trail dust from my throat, I hadn’t hardly started drinkin’ for real yet but I guess the Sheriff don’t take kindly to bein’ called Ma’am. Can I help it that he dresses in frilly shirts?”
He told them that inside the next cell, a large tarp had covered the crates but his curiosity got the better of him. When Du Bois left for the night, he reached through the bars between the cells and lifted the tarp. Reading the words “Explosives” painted across the crates face, he then lowered the tarp and returned to his bed to think.
“So, this is what I’m thinking” says Wilkins, “Who needs a shootist when we can just blow him all to high heaven in his office with his own explosives!”
With little discussion and no argument, the committee disbanded and awarded John and James the duty to figure out the details of ridding the town of Du Bois..
A week later word went out to the committee members to meet at the livery at midnight. It was then that the brothers John and James divulged to the others of their plan to rid the town of Du Bois. One by one the door slid open a crack and a committee member quietly eased into the darkened livery. A single oil lamps low burning wick gave just enough light for the members to make each other out. John spoke.
“I’ll need some financial backing here because I need to get myself tossed in jail again. I’ll cause a drunkin’ ruckus of some sort, Du Bois hates drunks and he don’t care for me none either after what I called him.”
“ In order for things to go as planned, I need to be bailed out of there by evening. I have no idea what Du Bois is gonna’ set my bail at, but since I was just in an caused him grief, it ain’t gonna’ be cheap. I would figure on getting at least Fifty dollars together for bail, maybe more.” The others nodded saying they could get that amount and more together. It was decided that Henry Banks, the lawyer, would handle the bail proceedings.
“I also need at least forty feet of explosive fuse and one pound of black powder in a canvas sack. I’ll wrap the fuse around my waist under my clothes and stick the sack down my pants. I’ll pour some water on my pants like I pissed ‘em from drinkin’. That’ll pretty much guarantee Du Bois wont go feeling around my drawers for a hidden gun or anything else. Since there are only two jail cells, he has no choice but to put me back into the cell next to the explosives. One thing I know, come dinner time, Dubois ain’t gonna hang around the jail. He’ll head on up to the saloon for dinner and drinks like he did before. When he’s gone, I’ll reach through the bars, lift the tarp and plant the sack of powder within the crates then lower the tarp again after setting the fuse. I’ll trail the fuse out the back window where it can be lit later on.”
A murmur of agreement met the brothers ears.
“ I need someone to hang around out back near the window so you can hear me yell. When you hear me, that’s the signal for Banks here to run up to the saloon and insist that Du Bois take the bail money and let me out. He’ll complain and refuse at first, but play up to him by buying him an expensive bottle of whisky for his troubles, but make sure he takes it with him to the jail when he leaves.
Even though he could afford to buy his own distillery now, he’s so cheap he’ll still jump at the chance for a free bottle!” That brought a quiet laugh of acknowledgement from the group.
“After he lets me out, everyone get out of there. James and I will set the fuse when we’re sure Du Bois is settled in for a spell with his bottle at his desk. He’s too cheap to share it and once he starts on that bottle, he’ll take the time to finish it off.” More murmurs of agreement.
“The explosion should take out most of the building and along with it, Du Bois. It’s been a while since my brother and I used explosives. I hear they’re making a nitroglycerin based explosive called dynamite. It packs a wallop! There’s no way to tell if there’s any dynamite in these cases or not since they’re just marked ‘Explosives’, so just in case nobody hang around the place. The businesses on each side of the jail will be closed that time of day so we don’t have to worry about any innocents bein’ blowed up.”
The lawyer Banks then spoke up nodding in agreement,” If everything goes well and we are all in agreement here, the morning after Du Bois is gone, myself and some of the committee members will travel to the State Capital to file for annexation of the land. Is this to everyone’s approval?”
Again, a quiet murmur of agreement was heard. “Then it’s settled.”
James spoke up now, “Let’s plan on this Friday, the day after tomorrow. That way I have time to purchase the powder and fuse.” He turned and asked the Lawyer, “How long will it take to gather up the money Banks?”
“Not five minutes, I’ll gladly foot the bail. In fact, here’s five dollars. Take it and go ahead and purchase the fuse and powder with it.”
Friday morning’s sun peaked over the mountains to the east. Sun streaked into the curtained window of Maurice Du Bois. If he had consulted a soothsayer, a medium or a fellow gypsy with a crystal ball, Maurice would have never gotten out of bed. Knowing you’re about to die can change a man. It can bring repentance or like Ebenezer Scrooge amends might be made. But Maurice Du Bois had no idea he would be charged in front of his maker before the day was over, so there was no change in him.
Rising from the bed, he stumbled to the wash basin and plashed the stagnant smelling water onto his face. With his head pounding in pain, he selfishly blamed the sleeping whore for amplifying his hangover by supplying him the night before with rot gut whisky. Making his way back to the bed, Maurice glared at her large bare rump jutting from under the blanket, lashing out like a spoiled child, he kicked it.
Descending the whore house stairs in a huff, the whore house owner and visibly upset Madam stepped into his path. “What’s my girl upstairs screaming about Du Bois?”Shoving the big woman aside Du Bois told her, “She woke up on the wrong side of the bed! Now get out of my way bitch” If the weight of sins added go your torment in hell, Maurice Du Bois just tipped the scales.
His day started off badly and got worse as it went on. While in the café eating lunch, a local drunk started a fight and knocked Du Bois food to the floor. In a fit of anger, the Sheriff dragged the poor man down the wooden walkway, stopping to kick him from time to time. By the time they reached the jail down the street, the man was knocked half senseless.
Using his foot to propel the prisoner forward, the drunk was sent crashing into the back wall of the cell. Du Bois locked the cell, slammed the front door on his way out and retreated to the saloon for a drink.
John lifted his black and blue face towards the small barred window in his cell. “You out there yet James?”
A voice answered in the affirmative. “Yup, how you doing, I was almost ready to step in and stop it when he started kicking at you.”
Trying to put on a good face with laughter, John replied, “I’ll live, I sure earned my wages though , didn’t I? Tell you what brother, it’ll be about an hour before I get this set up in here to blow. Come back and check on me then, OK?”
Uncoiling the fuse from his waist then removing the sack of black powder from inside his pants, John went to work. It only took half the time as planned so John laid down on the cot to give his sore body a rest.
“Pssst, John, you ready yet?”
“Sure am, go tell Banks to bail me out’a here!”
Fifteen minutes later, an angry Sheriff Du Bois carrying a unopened bottle of Tennessee whisky and the overweight lawyer clomped down the wooden walkway to the jail.
“Come on Du Bois” Banks pleaded, “There isn’t reason in the world to set bail at a hundred and twenty dollars! Why bail for a murder charge is less.”
“You want him out so bad Banks, you can pay what I set bail at.”
An hour later found Du Bois halfway through the bottle when the jail’s front door banged open. In strode Du Bois three amigos in crime. “Boss, we just come from Pikes Peak, they’s chompin’ at the bit for them there explosives. We need to get’em loaded an out’a here pronto! I told ‘em the price went up to twenty a crate, up from ten last time. They grumbled a lot but we got ‘em over a barrel. They’ll pay up.
While this was going on, one of the three had walked back to where the cases were stored. A strange look came over his face and he yelled to those up front. “Hey y’all, I smell something burnin’ back here, I think the place is on fire!”
Before Du Bois could get up out of his chair, three things happened in rapid order. The first was that the cases of explosive had in fact, turn out to be the more powerful dynamite, exploded.
The second was that the cell door in front of the yelling Amigo became a giant egg slicer and cut the shouting man into multiple pieces as it was blown through him.
The third, was what those folks standing outside on the street beheld. Ahead of the intense fireball exploding from the now shattered jail house was a wheeled armchair being blown across the street, with Du Bois, or at least part of him, still sitting in it. If the shock of the concussion had not knocked everyone down, they would have observed Du Bois and the chair were blown completely through the wooden front of the dry goods store across the street. Once inside, the chair and the torso that belonged to Du Bois rested it’s travel against a shelf of womens unmentionables.
Freed from the resistance of any walls, the explosion concussed into the street. The nearby buildings took on a permanent backwards lean as their fronts were violently sucker punched. Standing tent buildings stood no more. No window survived the blast and even the saloons occupied outhouse blew head over heels. The Devil stood in the middle of the chaos tallying up the evil souls he had claim to. Angles administered to those innocents who found that life continued on, in a much more beautiful place than Arapahoe Junction.
Until it was legal and annexation granted, loans to rebuild the town were put on hold. The town stood as if frozen in time. True, some of the wooden planks and debris had been removed from the street, but the repairs needed to reclaim the town’s buildings, even those not owned by Du Bois, were not started.
One month later to the day, the annexation committee members that had traveled to the State capital returned.
The ringing church bell clanged in its damaged steeple, calling all those remaining to gather around.
Wilkins and Banks stood together facing the crowd.
Wilkins spoke first. “Folks, here’s the situation. We applied for annexation on the deceased Du Bois land most of this town sits on. The State Judge determined that if we had a signed purchase agreement, we could continue our application to apply for the annexation. We don’t have one. We thought with Du Bois no longer in the way, we could apply for it as it would be vacated land that had no living owner. The problem rest this way. While we got ourselves rid of Du Bois, and I am not going to feel guilty about that, he left two living relatives to inherit his property. His parents!
A groan was heard.
“That’s right folks. We sent a cable off to the Sheriff over in New Orleans and he verified the two are still alive and causing trouble. I guess it’s true what Du Bois used to say about his parents. ‘If you think I’m a bad one, you should meet my Ma and Pa!’
Banks stepped in front of Wilkins now and spoke. “We have a choice. And none of them will please you. We can notify the parents of their son’s demise, but legally we also have to inform them of the inheritance he left them. Knowing those two, they’d light a shuck out here just as fast as they could. Once here, they’d also find out how there tyrannical son met his maker. Eventually they’d find out and take vengeance on all of us, maybe even call in the law on us.
The crowd didn’t sound pleased.
Someone else called out, “What’s the other option Banks?”
“Folks, we had us a good town started here. We tried the legal route but was derailed by Du Bois. The law won’t back us, no way.”
Tears started down the chubby cheeks of Banks the lawyer.” I already spoke to my wife. We are not willing to live under another Du Bois. We’re calling it quits here, we’re moving to Boulder. It’s far enough away that what happened here won’t follow us”
The stunned crowd stood there blinking in the bright sun.
Slowly without a word the crowd dissipated.
John, the camp cook removed the coffee pot from the fire and poured himself a cup. Looking at the cowhands starring at him he spoke softly. “Some towns die when the gold or silver runs out. Some die when the railroad passes ‘em by. Arapahoe Junction died because we tried to save it!”
Finishing his coffee, he tossed the cups grounds into the fire, He shook his head and said, “Who’d a thunk!”