The water hole

 

The water hole

Prelude

It was the summer of 1863. The fire bright orange ball of sun was just beginning to touch the top of the Diablo Mountain range to the west.  The newest American State of Arizona cradled this small mountain range approximately sixty miles southwest of Tucson.

A lone horse carrying two riders made its way slowly east out of the Diaz pass in the attempt to escape the setting sun and the bushwackers somewhere behind them.  It wasn’t the sun that dogged the two as much as it was the bullets still lodged in them.  The rear rider hunched over his wounded wife trying his best to shade her from the sun and hold her upright in the saddle. The wife, a middle aged Mexican beauty whose flawlessly tanned face was cropped by her long black hair that now hid her pain clenched eyes, lifted her head slightly. She had regained enough consciousness to pat the arms of her loving husband as he held her firmly in place. Almost immediately after her show of affection, she again  passed out.

Chapter 1

The two were on their way back to Tucson after visiting her family still living in Sonoyta, a small sleepy Mexican border village known only for its Jesuit mission.

Their breakfast that morning consisted of hot coffee, corn cakes and jerky, a meager but filling trail meal. Pleasantly stuffed, they mounted and rode east facing the rising sun. By horseback they had a three day ride ahead and already had three days behind them.  It was midday when they again made the decision to stop and water their mounts with extra canteens carried for that purpose. More pieces of Jerky wrapped in corn cakes would be their midday meal.  It was then the riders, Del and his wife Maria, heard the approaching horses.

From the north came four riders. An unpleasant feeling settled in Del’s stomach as he watched the four slow their approached into their camp. Del made his way to over to his horses and removed the Henry rifle from his saddle holster.

The lead rider lifted both hands into the air and exclaimed, “Hey now Mister, no need to pull that long gun on us, we mean no harm to you and your lady. We’re just honest cowpunchers making our way south to the border. It seems people keep mistaking us for a group of bushwackers out of the Wickenburg area. So for our own protection, we needed to clear out of the territory. We been holed up for a week at a water hole about six miles in the direction we just rode in from. It’s got lots of fresh water but no game at all to speak of. We’re hungry”

Pointing to the corn cakes, the man named Theo told them,” We sure could use us some of your grub mister. We ain’t eat nothing but biscuits and dried beef an’ that ran out yesterday.” With a forced laugh and cold, unsmiling eyes, he said, “Shoot ,it ain’t our fault we look just like them desperados.” Then turning to look at the placement of his men he added,” right Jethro?”

Eyeing the Corn cakes Maria had been making, Theo, dismounted and moved nonchalantly towards the fire. Jethro and the two riders Bill and Jess , remained in their saddles but nudged their horses into a side step that widened their separation from each other.

Del was no fool, these men meant them harm. They were most likely the bushwackers they had just kidded about. Marie stood unmoving while Del evaluated each rider then shifted his eyes to her. Marrying Del had afforded her a protected life away from violence. Still, in her gut she knew these desperados meant them harm and she returned the nod ever so slightly that Del had made to her.

Without warning, Del raised the long gun and fired a slug clean through Jethro’s knee which dug into the side of his horse. Jethro’s hand never touched the gun in his holster. Screeching in pain, he fell off his grazed mount and onto the ground. The surprised Theo turned and cleared leather but fired too soon. Missing Del, the wild bullet drilled straight into Maria’s gut. Hearing Maria grunt, Del Cocked his lever action rifle and again fired, this time cleanly blasting off the gun hand of Maria’s shooter. With the force of a mule kick, searing pain punched Del in the back, knocking him face forward into the desert sand.

When Del regained consciousness, the riders had fled, as well as Maria’s mount. Each move drove the breath out of Del as he crawled over to where his lovely Maria lay. She was still breathing but the shallow irregular breaths told the story. Looking around, Del realized they had been robbed. Gone were the four large canteens of water they had carried with them.

With only one horse between them, and shot up as they were, Del knew that reaching Tucson was now out of the question.  They needed water quickly. The loss of blood drove his thirst, and he could only imagine what Maria was going through. Being shot in the back and Maria unable to help, there was no way to clean his wound. As for Maria’s wound, it was beyond cleaning.

With a herculean struggle, Del mounted his dear Maria in front of him on the saddle and wrapping his arms tightly around her, they headed north towards the water hole the bushwackers had told them of.

Chapter 2

As water holes went, it was rather amazing. An underground spring fed the crystal clear pool of cool water. In any other circumstances it would have been a delightful place to camp out at. A ring of Mexican fan palms surrounded the small water hole.

No bigger than two freight wagons pulled side by side, the pools edges were of hard rock. Desert willows and western dayflowers grew between them adding to the pools beauty.  Beyond the palms, Mesquite and Joshua trees completed the landscape.

In the distance, Del saw the tops of the green palms. He angled towards them fearing Maria wouldn’t make it that far.  As the rays of the setting sun reflected off of the idyllic water hole, Del kissed the back of his wife’s head telling her, “It’ll be alright sweet heart, we made it to the water hole. I just need you to help me get you down in one piece. Can you stay up while I dismount?”  Maria, didn’t speak but she nodded her head slightly. Del dismounted then lovingly lowered his wife to the ground.

Once on the ground, Del made his wife as comfortable as he could. He uncinched his saddle, letting it fall to the ground. His horse immediately lowered her head into the inviting pool and began drinking its life giving water.

Del removed his hat and dipped it into the pool. Bringing the dripping hat over to Maria, he pulled his kerchief from around his neck and sunk it into his hat. He then and squeezed the water soaked kerchief between her dry cracked lips.

“I’m so sorry Maria, we never should have traveled alone. Your family gave us warning, but I was too bull headed to listen. “

Maria opened her eyes and tried to smile. The words she spoke came only as a whisper. “Delbert my love, how many times have we traveled over this trail to visit my family? Have we ever been in danger? No my love, you could not foresee these brutal men this time.”  Maria coughed which nearly drove her back into unconsciousness. After a bit, she again spoke but notably quieter now. “I know am dying my love. Hold me until I leave.” Finding his hand she held onto it tightly and continued speaking, ”When I go, place me in the ground within sight of this beautiful pool.” Without turning her head, she slid her eyes over to the water hole. “ Never have I seen such beauty with all its flowers and trees.” Then looking back into Del’s eyes, she whispered, ” I will watch over you my love, look for me after I am gone.” With those last words on her lips, Maria stopped breathing.

Darkness settled over the desert landscape. If there were light, it would have illuminated a mortally back shot man weeping over the beautiful woman he held in his arms.

 

Chapter 3   

Daylight found Del feverish. He knew the bullet was lodged next to his left shoulder blade. It had missed his lung but now he felt a growing infection starting. Time was of the essence if he were to survive. He had to make it to a doctor.

Lifting Maria’s head from his lap, he gently placed her fully on the ground. His tears had left trails of wet desert dust down his cheeks. Making his way to the clear pool, he drank for the first time since arriving. It was then he noticed his horse was missing. During the night it had run off.

Wildly looking about, he painfully rose to his feet. Hoping the horse had just wandered off looking for nearby  graze, he made his way to a small rise in order to scan the landscape around him. Reaching the mounds top, he rotated his body searching the desert for any sign of his horse. There was no sign. Disappointed, he made his way back to the pool where Maria lay. He decided to bury her in the spot where she had drawn her last breath.

Grabbing a flat stone, Del dug the grave throughout the day until he was satisfied she would rest undisturbed.  Afterward, he placed the same stone on top of the mound and with his knife, carved her full name on its surface. Then he wept.

The turning of the earth once more brought about the evening sun to silhouette the small Diablo Mountain tops.

With little in the way of food and with a rising fever, Del drank of the cool waters again. For the hundredth time, he pondered Maria’s last words. “Why did she say to look for her,” he wondered. “What a strange thing to say as her last words!  What did she mean by them?”

Deciding she may have been delirious, he finally gave up and tried concentrating on his own survival. Besides, he thought to himself, he was becoming so feverish that he might soon be in the same delirious state himself.

Gathering small sticks and branches as best he could, he soon  had a small fire going. Inside his saddle bag, he found a few pieces of jerky and an uneaten corn cake Maria had rolled up in a sheet of parchment paper. Hunger avoided him but he knew he had to eat to survive. As darkness settled over the desert, he let the fire dwindle into a pile of glowing embers.

It was then Del heard his name quietly spoken. He hadn’t hear it in his feverish head but instead it came from across the pond from where he sat. Searching into the night he gasped. On the other side of the pond stood his beautiful Maria.  With feverish eyes Del gazed at the apparition before him. “Maria?” His voice cracked. “My beautiful Maria? Oh how I wish it were really you. My fever’s deceiving me.”

Without moving, his beautiful  Maria spoke. “You are not deceived my love, I told you I would watch over you. Did I not tell you that you should look for me?”

“This is a cruel dream!” He shouted angrily. Attempting to stand, he fell onto his knees. “You’ve been taken from me! You’re gone. No one comes back! “

“Yes, I was. But I am waiting here until you join me. As I lay dying, the beautiful Gabriel took pity on me. In my sorrow I begged him to let me stay behind until you too would cross over the pool to join me.
I was granted that act of kindness. He is waiting on the trail up ahead. When you join me, he will take us home.”

It was too much for Del’s feverish mind to accept. He resorted again to anger to remove the apparition from before his feverish eyes. “You are not real! As much as I would hope it were true, it ain’t!”

His angry outburst nearly made him faint. In pain and now on all fours, he lifted his head and looked across the pool to see his wife still standing on the other side. She continued to smile patiently at him.

“When I stir the pools water, drink from it and your fever will lower enough to know I am really here. Please Del, you are dying as I was but it will be a little bit longer before we are together again. I do not want you to suffer during that time.” Pointing to the water hole she spoke, “ Drink sweetheart, now.”

Del Crawled to the pools edge. Suddenely ripples formed as she dipped her hand into the pool, Del lowered himself into the water and drank.

The next morning found Del ‘s fever significantly diminished. Having eaten the last of his food the day before, he knew he was going to be in for a rough time. The funny thing was, Del thought, “I’m not feeling hungry in the least.”

Then remembering the previous night, he looked to the pools opposite side as if still expecting Maria to be standing there. “Sure seemed real at the time though,” He said quietly to himself. “Maybe she was a dream, maybe not. Whatever she was, she’s right though, my fever did go down.”

Attempting to stand, his legs found themselves too weak to comply. “Oh Jesus, I’m worse off than I thought! I’m a goner for sure.”

By noon the sun was at its blast furnace best. Del’s skin had begun to blister where it was exposed and his lips were cracked open in numerous places. With only the water to drink and trying to save what little strength he had left, Del decided to lay within inches of the pools edge. Still, his fever and the gnawing hunger that should be plaguing him were not evident. He rested, then again fell asleep.

Chapter 4

He awoke to Maria’s voice. “My love, wake up, let us talk again. I know you will soon be joining me but I want to talk of our love.”

Del opened his eyes. Unable to stand or even sit up now, Del noticed a faint light on the pools opposite side. There stood Maria, as beautiful and alive looking as the day he met her.

“Why? You know I love you. Is there something wrong?

“No, I just miss you terribly. Time is not the same for me anymore. Sometimes I feel years pass waiting for you to awake from your sleep. You will understand soon. It is unimportant, I am just anxious to touch you again. How do you feel today?”

In the back of his mind, Del continued to think that this all may be a fever dream or maybe this is what happens as one is dying. “I actually don’t know if I have a fever anymore or not.” He said, “I feel all weak and shaky but my head feels OK. Do you really have the ability to take my fever away with the pond water?”

“I’m glad you feel better, but no, it was not me who removed the effects of your fever. I do not have that power, it was given for me to use, that was all.. Touch your head, is it not still burning?”

Del brought his hand up and the laid palm of his hand over his forehead. The fever was still burning. “Yeah, I feel the fever on my hand but not inside my head. I don’t feel hungry either, of course that just might be from bein’ sick, No?”

“No, not really. I asked that you not suffer while I wait for you. Do you remember Padre Feliciano at the mission in Sonoyta? When I was young he taught us about how God loves us and will answer our prayers. Remember your and my long talks together about Heaven and being granted miracles in your time of need?”

“Yes, of course. I still believe all that. I just figured it was for really saintly folk, not a guy like me.  I’m not used to asking for help… as you know what a stubborn fool I can be. So you pray and he really answers?”

“It is more than just what we used to call prayer. I can sit with him and talk with him as a child. It is wonderful here, I can’t wait for you to be with me. It will not be much longer. You are very sick. I was told that if you wish, you may cross over the pond at any time you decide.”

Del wiped the sweat pouring into his eyes. The day was not yet hot enough to cause him to sweat this bad so he figured his fever must be raging. Moving on his stomach, he again lowered his mouth to the pools surface and gulped at the cool water. Lifting his head, he told her,“Maria, I’d do anything to be with you right now, you know that. You know me though, I don’t give up till the end. I still want to somehow try and make it to Tucson, get healed up, return here and take you back there for a proper burial.”

“I understand my love, but there is no need to think of doing all that. I am at peace where you buried me. I asked that you bury me here besides this beautiful pool among the green plants. I am happy that you did, it made your heart happier knowing I rest in this beautiful place. Where in Tucson is it as beautiful as here?”

“You have me there!” Del answered. “I wouldn’t mind finding myself being buried here next to you.” Suddenly Del began to chuckle, “Thing is my dear, there’s no one around to do the honors!”

“Trust me my love, it will be.” And with that, Maria once again faded into the darkness.

“Maria? Maria! Don’t leave me, I’m scared to die by myself. I need you to be with me when I go!”

Del fell into a fever wrought sleep. By noon he was unable to crawl the few inches to the pond to quench his thirst. He could tell by the smell that the infection in his back was septic.

Still, he felt little pain and no fever. By now his body was being horribly wracked by the sun as well as the fever. If he could see himself, he would not recognize the face that was once a handsome man. Being born and raised in west Texas had given Del a ruggedness one could only describe as manly. He now appeared to be a shell of what he used to be. He was now so dehydrated that even the skin on his hands became as thin as parchment paper.

lying on his stomach and unable to move about , Del looked over where Maria had been appearing and in a voice that sounded more dead than alive he tried shouting for her,” Maria!” His face collapsed onto the flat rocks edging the pool.

“ Yes my love? “

Barely lifting his head he asked, “Where did you go? You left me! I’m scared sweetheart, I never died before! Will it hurt?”

“No Del, it will not hurt. You only have to walk across the water to hold me once again. Please, trust me Del, have in all our years together given you any reason or cause to doubt me?”

“No, you have been my trusted soul mate since we met. I’m a goner here sweetheart, my heart is racing and I can’t breath well no more. How do I find the strength to get up and walk over to you”

Maria smiled broadly at her loving husband and told him. “ Stand up my sweet, it is time for you to hold me once again.”

Del shakily started to rise, then suddenly found a strength that was not within him before. Rising to his full height, he stretched and looked about startled at what he saw. The pond water shimmered with the luminescence like that of a sea shells inner pearl essence.  The blue and purple flowers now radiated in hundreds if not thousands of colors he had never seen before. Amazed at what he saw, his eyes finally sought out and found those of Maria’s. “Oh my gosh.” He exclaimed, “You’re so beautiful!”

“As you are my love!”

Del looked down and saw his hands were strong and youthful, his voice once again strong his legs felt powerful. He walked over the ponds surface and threw his arms around his dear wife. “I love you so much! Am I really dead now?”

‘Turn around and see for yourself.”

Del, still holding Maria turned enough to view across the pond. There his body lay sprawled on the ground. “I guess I am dead, this ain’t so scary after all. It was nothing crossing over the pond,” He said to her smiling. “Do we leave the pond now to go home?” He asked her.

“We will leave after this is played out,” She told him, “there is something that must be finished first.

When she was through speaking, Del heard the sounds of horses arriving at the pond. At first he thought it was ironic that just as he dies help arrives. Then he saw who the riders were. The four bushwackers.

 

Chapter 5

The four rode in still bandaged and bleeding. Their leader Theo, had his stump wrapped in an old shirt and Jethro sagged in his saddle feverish from the knee wound. The two unhurt riders dismounted easily and strode over to Dels corpse. A kick to the ribs lifted him a few inches clear of the ground and nearly dumped him into the pool. Del and Maria stood on the opposite bank watching not 20 feet away but invisible to those alive. “Dangest bad luck I’ve ever seen!” Said Theo, “help me down Fred. My stump is killin’ me.”

Once on the ground Fred helped Jethro dismount. Jethro lay moaning where he was placed. The four horses made their way to the pond and drank deeply. The other unhurt bushwacker Bill, asked Theo what to do with Dels body. “We cain’t be leavin’ it layin’ about.” He told Theo, “ It’ll draw critters and coyotes from miles around. Then they’ll  sense your blood an’ you bess believe while you sleep, they be on you in a minute! Besides, he’s startin’ to stink”

Even in his pain Theo knew Bill was speaking the truth. “Yeah, you and Jess bury him over there by that other grave. It must be his woman. The diggin’ will be easier over there anyway seeing  as it’s been already dug up once before.”

That night the four drank what whisky they had left and enjoyed a meal from the last of  Marie’s stores.

Del Turned to Maria saying angrily. “Did you see what they did? That bushwacker kicked me even though I was dead! He said I stink too! I’ll teach them to go kicken on me!”

Pulling his pistol from it’s holster, Del fired all six well aimed shots at the men. There was no explosion, just clicks. “What’s going on? I know I reloaded, they should be shot to heck!”

“Guns do not work here my love.’

Throwing his gun down, Del ran around the pond and up to the four bushwackers. There he swung his fist to and fro, up and down…all with no more effect that punching a puff of smoke. ‘”I can’t even punch them Maria! This just ain’t fair! They need to be punished, they shot you, they shot me they stole your horse!”

“Come back to me my love and I’ll explain.”

Del rounded the pond to stand next to his wife again.” I guess I acted the fool, didn’t I?”

“You were upset and you wanted vengeance. Remember, here there is only one who says, ‘vengeance is mine’. It is not ours to seek vengeance, not here.  Do you remember the night your horse ran away from the pond? Yes? OK, I must tell you it did not just wander off as you thought. I frightened it off!”

‘”Why did you do that? And how come these bushwackers don’t see me but you said you were able to scare off my horse?”

“Men cannot see a spirit, for that’s what we are now my love, but an animal can.”

“Why did you do it, scare off my horse I mean?”

“I did it because you were dying and I didn’t want you dying somewhere out in the desert where your body would become a meal for scavengers. I was selfish, I wanted you to lie in your grave next to me.”

Del looked sheepish. “Oh, then I guess that’s OK then. So what about these no goods here? Do we just have to let them ride out of here free to do what they please?”

“No, watch this.”

Maria stepped in front of the horses and screamed at the top of her lungs while waving her arms frantically. As one, the horses bolted in panic, never to return.

“What the hell did that?” Theo shouted. “what spooked ‘em to hell like that? In the condition we’re in, there ain’t no way we can track ‘em down. Look way out yonder to the east, they’ll be twenty miles off by morning the way they’s runnin’! Were goners without them horses.” Looking around he yelled, “Dammit, they had our packs on ‘em too!”

Del sat on the ground laughing as he realized what Maria had just done. “You stranded them here the same way I was!”

“I told you it would all work out didn’t I”

“Oh my gosh, did you think that up yourself?”

“No,” She said looking up the trail, “I had some advice.”

Chapter 6

On the morning of  the fifth day, Jethro had passed on. By noon Theo had followed. Without food, Bill and Jess were so weak, neither could stand. The seventh day found them both expired in the furnace known as the Sonora desert.

The four sat looking forlorn and lost at the edge of the pond next to their corpses. Not having crossed over to the opposite shore yet, they were unable to see Del or Maria yet.

After a time, within a shimmer of golden light, the beautiful Gabriel came to the pond. He strode over to Del and Maria and greeted them warmly. Del would have cried at the beauty of Gabriel but there were no tears to shed on this side. Squeezing both their hands he let go and walking to the ponds edge Gabriel called the four men in a voice that was as powerful as dynamite yet as loving as a child with a kitten. “Come here. Cross over the water and follow me!”

As if suddenly awake, the four gathered themselves up and one by one crossed over the pond to stand in front of Gabriel. It was then they noticed Del and Maria.

Ignoring the beautiful Gabriel, Theo yelled out, “Why you two scoundrels got us kilt out here!” The four drew their pistols and began firing away at Del and Maria… all with no effect. After realizing their guns only made clicking sounds, Theo threw his gun at Del’s head…which went clean through with no harm to Del. “What?” Exclaimed Theo, It was then he realized his hand had been returned to him. Turning in amazement he shouted, “Look fella’s, my hand! It’s back on me!”

Theo stood there smiling while the other three gathered around him wide eyed.

At that moment, Gabriel once again commanded and pointed to the south, “Go, follow that trail, there you will forever reside at its end!”

As the four headed down the trail heading south, they began laughing and telling crude jokes and  wondering if there were any loose women to be had. Del stood up, took Maria’s hand in his and together they began to follow the four down the Southern trail.

“Delbert, Maria, stop!” Gabriel’s hand reached out to them and halted their steps.  “That trail is not for you two, it is for them. It heads South where the dark reigns forever.

Stepping between them, Gabriel gently spread his arms over their shoulders as a bird protecting her young.  After turning them in the opposite direction, the three began walking. Smiling broadly, Gabriel then told them. “Delbert? Maria? Come, your trail is with me, to the north, into the light.”

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The ghost of Dead Horse by JW Edwards

The ghost of Dead Horse

Chapter 1

On the day the town of Dead Horse’s founder and visionary bank owner died, it rained.

Rain wouldn’t have been unusual in Dead Horse if it was in July or August during the height of the rainy season, but it was unheard of in January. While rain is usually appreciated for its life giving moisture in the prairie, this was a dry, dusty, rock strewn desert town in Eastern Arizona. Rain in Dead Horse was more of a pain in the ass than it was a Godsend. In a desert town, dry washes become raging death traps, roads become knee deep mud pits that bog down man and beast alike and roofs leak through their dried and cracked tar paper coverings. Rain in January was an omen for the town of Dead Horse, a very bad omen.

Since the day Everett Burke gave up his ghost, the thriving spirit that he had injected into the town using his congenial generosity and ‘can do’ attitude began to diminish. With each heat searing sunrise the town’s future looked more and more unlikely to survive. No one had stepped up to fill Burke’s shoes. The town council seemed apathetic and divisive, caring more for their personal financial outlook than that of the towns.

The Sheriff became a drunk and hid inside his office, rarely out walking the streets to keep the peace and impression of a town securely protected. Instead, he preferred to wait until night fell to walk the creaky wooden walkways along the towns store fronts and only then to find his way to the Lost Dollar Saloon for drinks.

Dead Horse started out with many of the advantages few towns could boast of. Plunked down between Santa Fe and Flagstaff on the Old Beale wagon trail, it put its roots into the ground on the eastern edge of the Arizona territory desert.  This envious placement between the two larger towns permitted its merchants to cheaply resupply frontier bound wagon trains along with the hungry hoards of miners heading into gold country.

In 1881, the long awaited decision by the Santa Fe Railroad to lay rail alongside the wagon trail had been made. Unfortunately for Dead Horse, the Santa Fe’s finger of prosperous fate pointed its finger at the nearby town of Cholla. Just twenty five miles west of the border Cholla got the nod for the location of the Santa Fe’s new station, water tower and mile long siding. Besides political and sweetheart deals promised to secure the rail depot favoring Cholla, there was one legitimate reason for Dead Horse’s coming in second. Water.

Both towns were like many of those that sprung up from mining. Both had a few saloons, whorehouses, liveries, a dry goods store and a blacksmith.

What the Santa Fe railroad discovered during its survey was that Cholla had a single centralized deep well that supplied the town with plenty of water. On the other hand, Dead Horse’s populace drew its water from a spring that erupted out of the ground behind the town hall. Arizona springs were notorious for drying up or becoming seasonal. The Santa Fe survey determined that the Cholla deep well could supply a growing city with rail support forever.

It hadn’t taken long for mercantile and saloon owners alike to pack up and relocate to the boom town of Cholla and beyond. Day by day the mood of Dead Horse and its populace grew darker as they watched their town shrink business by business. The once busy main street could now be safely crossed by a blind man.

The town’s founder and principal deed holder stood helpless as his banks deposits dwindled. Holding worthless deeds it couldn’t sell, the bank’s books slid from black to red.

 

Chapter 2

When all the banks tellers had left for the day, Everett Burke  told the banks manager to pull all the blinds and lock the door behind him when he left. When the banks manager asked him about the blinds, Everett told him, “Sid, the banks done for. We haven’t even got enough cash in the vault to cover all the deposits. I got enough cash on hand set aside for employee wages for the last week and that’s about it. I’ve been using my own money to bolster the bank for over six months. I’m dead broke Sid, I can’t do it no more. When the folks here find out their hard earned savings are gone, I’ll be hanging from a tree out back for sure. It’s all my fault Sid, I should have done like the Mayor of Cholla did and kiss the butt of that surveyor fellow, but I truly thought we had it sewn up tight, I really did.”

Sid locked the door and was making his way down the street when he heard a single gunshot fired from inside the bank.

Within the confines of his smoke filled office, Everett Burke’s body sat sagging in his leather chair nearly headless. A short barreled greener shotgun normally kept in the office in case of robbery, lay on the floor next to him. The gory mess clinging to the back wall was all that remained of the once smiling face of the man who had made the town.

Hearing the blast within the bank, towns folk started gathering out front trying without success to see behind the pulled window shades. Deciding against rushing back into the bank, the frightened manager ran instead to the Sheriff’s office down the street.

Taking the bank key’s from Sid, Sheriff Hensley unlocked front door he stepped into the bank. All looked peaceful but the smell of burnt gunpowder said it wasn’t. Making his way behindthe teller stations, the Sheriff strode cauciously over to Everett’s private office.  With trepidation, he opened the door fully. A window with its shade pulled partially down let enough feeble light in for the Sheriffs eyes to absorb the scene before him. Stepping back outside the office, Sheriff Hensley doubled over and puked.

Having seen a few men shot dead was nothing like nothing this. Only Everett’s lower jaw and teeth still sat balanced upon his shoulders. A horrible mix of bone, brains and blood dripped its way down the wall to the floor.

Still gagging, he stumbled out of the bank and onto the street. “Somebody get the damn undertaker here.” He shouted. “And go fetch a sheet or something, he blowed his head clean off something horrible.”

It was while waiting for the undertaker to arrive that the strange January rain started. The townsfolk soon skedaddled off to dryer regions while the Sheriff, quite ill and green looking, guarded the bank door.

Just as soon as Everett’s body was wrapped and hauled off, Sheriff Hensley headed off to the relative dryness of his own jailhouse.

That evening as the pounding rain found each and every hole in the jailhouse roof, Sheriff Hensley, known for his abstinence, sat at his desk drenched from the leaky deluge and finished his first ever bottle of whisky.

Chapter 3

On a hot July day and seven months after Everett blew his head off, Jeddah Tate crossed over the single set of railroad tracks less than a mile from the outskirts of Dead Horse. Jed reined up the chestnut mare he’d cinched his saddle to for the last six years .

Rolling a smoke between his fingers, he stared at the dusty town down the road. Striking a Lucifer match with his thumb nail, he lit his smoke and inhaled deeply. The parcel of Virginia grown tobacco was almost gone now. Jed stretched out what was left by limiting himself to only one or two smokes a day. With white puffs of smoke looking like Apache smoke signals, he nudged the mare on towards town.

Dead Horse had all the makings of a town that had seen its zenith. While not looking completely abandoned, there were enough empty store fronts to say it was seeing hard times.  Jed knew of many towns in the west  that had suffered the same fate as Dead Horse. The railroad was a double edged sword. Where a station was placed, prosperity raised its head. When bypassed, a town bled out like a gut shot cattle rustler.

Passing a still working blacksmiths shop, he noticed it had a livery stable behind it. He dismounted and pounded on the heavy door of the livery. A giant man as black as coal itself pushed the big cross bucked door open with a powerful shove in response to Jed’s knock.

“I’d like to stable my horse for a day or two if there’s still an empty stall inside.”

“Got a bunch of ‘em open Suh.  Ain’t like it used to be, that is fo’ sure. Bring dat big chestnut on over here Suh, I treat her like my own.”

The black man reached out and clipped on a halter rope then led the animal into a stall. “Her cost is twenty five cents hay’s included. Along with a rub down and a good peek at his shoes, I’ll grain her for a dime.”

Unclipping the lead rope he continued as if talking to himself, “More folks forget about checkin’ dem shoes until they throw one, then they come back bellyaching that my shoes don’t last.” Grabbing a cut up blanket, the black started in on the rub down. “ I tells people all duh time Suh, but they don’t seem to take no notice.”

Finished with the rub down, he laid in some fresh hay and filled the trough with water. Running his hands down her shoulders and flanks he said, “She’s a bit on the thin side Suh, It’ll be OK to sack up some grain for her?”

“Yeah, that’d be fine. She’s been eating desert scrub for the last few days after she ate through all the grain I had for her. With all the other things packed in the saddle bags, I could only carry so much for her.”

While still in the stall with the mare, the big black man inspected the shoes one by one. “Hmmm, seems they be alright for a bit yet. But don’t let ‘em get too worn down. I’d put a new set on an’ give her hoofs a good trimmin’ if I was a travelin’ man but it’s yo’ horse Suh, not mine. “

“Well, maybe some other time,huh?

“If you change yo’ mind, it’s only two dollars Suh.”

Satisfied that he had left his horse in good hands he asked him where the nearest saloon was.

Leaving the livery, he made his way up the alley until he reached the covered wooden plank walkway of the store fronts.

The sound of his Mexican spurs on the wooden walkway made a pleasant jingling sound as he made his way to the saloon to escape the searing heat. Approaching the saloons set of bat winged doors, he dusted himself off with his hat and ran his hand through his hair.

Jed entered the lamp lit saloon expecting the usual cluster cowboys , whores and gamblers gathered for a time of revelry of socializing and drinking. What he saw instead could only be described as a funeral parlor.

No tables had card games going, no girls were to be seen, no piano player was plinking tunes and only one half sleeping drunk sat at the bar. The only sound was that of the bartender dusting off the bottles lined up in front of the mirror.

After taking three or four steps into the saloon, he stopped and with both hands raised slightly in question, Jed looked at the bored looking bar tender and asked, “ Where the heck is everybody?”

With a snort of disgust he replied, “You’re looking at ‘em mister.  You want a drink, I got that. You want company for the night or a game of cards, go on over to Cholla. Ain’t nothing here no more except what I got in stock.  An’ in truth, when that’s used up, I’m gone too!”

Stepping up to the bar and pointing at the lined up whisky bottles , he said, “Give me one of those, will ya?”

The bartender handed him a clean glass and a bottle of whisky. Jed paid for it and half filled his glass. “I take it Cholla’s a nearby town but what’s the reason this place ain’t doing so good?”

Placing an unopened bottle of whisky in front of Jed, the bar tender pointed his thumb behind him. “If you rode in from the north, you also rode right over the reason this town ain’t doin’ good’. The railroad is what happened. The Santa Fe went an’ built its station in Cholla bypassing us here. Twice a day now that damn train rubs it into our faces by blowin’ its damn whistle as she passes by.”

Jed rubbed his stubble covered chin and shook his head slowly from side to side in sympathy as he recalled taking a smoke break near the tracks outside of town.  “Yup, with the railroad comes prosperity… sometimes anyway. I met a man and his family on the trail. He that told me some ranchers joined together and set up a big canned meat packing operation and he was going to work for ‘em.  I take it then that the big draw in Cholla is jobs?”

“Sure is,” the bartender said, “It’s a fair sized operation they got goin’ there.  There’s  big cattle pens built next to the plant to hold a whole damn herd till they’s butchered.  ‘Course any cattle town makes for a foul stink but the way I hear it, them cows they got penned up there to be butchered are a sickly lot to begin with an’ they smell to high heaven. I also heard some politician who’s in charge of overseeing army food supplies to the western outpost,  got his fingers in the pie over there in Cholla. It seems friends of his is makin’ a killlin’ sending the plant diseased and half dead cattle to get canned then sold to the Calvary. The only blessing I can see from Dead Horse not getting the railroad is we ain’t got to smell them damn cattle!”

“I don’t cotton to butcherin’ no sick cattle. No good comes of it.

“I agree with you on that point mister, Still, I’m closin’ this place and headin’ over there too, stink or no stink. There’s good money to be made movin’ my business there. I already got a carpenter crew lined up, all I’m waitin’ on is the railroad to deliver my building materials.”

Finishing his drink, Jed poured himself another.  Noticing  that the half asleep drunk had lifted his head from atop his folded arms on the bar and was looking at him, Jed lifted his glass and asked, “Wann’a drink fella?  I ain’t gonna finish the whole thing an’ it’s already bought an’ paid for. Seems a shame to waist it.”

As the drunk made his way over, Jed saw the star on his chest. “You’re the Sheriff here, huh?”

Ignoring Jed, the Sheriff lifted the bottle to his yellow toothed pie hole and chugged the whiskey as if it were water. Jed looked wide eyed over at the bartender who just looked downward shaking his head. A heavy look of distain on his face.  When the Sheriff set the bottle back down if front of Jed, a thick gob of slobber ran down its neck.

Pushing the bottle back towards the Sheriff, Jed told him. “Keep the bottle Sheriff, I just lost my appetite for a drink.”

Turning back to the bartender Jed asked, “Since your soiled doves up and left here, would you have an empty room?  I’ll pay the goin’ hotel rate for one during my stay here if you do.

“Mister, for the price of that bottle you just bought, you can have any room you want, and it’s on the house.”

“Sounds good to me then.” Leaving the coin change from his whisky purchase on the bar top, Jed smiled and half kiddingly asked, “ Can I still find a meal, bath and shave here in town, or do I need to head off to Cholla for that too?”

“Naw, the towns not that dead yet. Bang on the barber shop door, Fred’ll be glad for the chance to earn a buck, no matter what the time. He also has hot baths in the back. If you want me to, I can put your personals up in a room here while you go off an’ take care of things. Upstairs it’ll be the first door on the left”

After a hot meal of beef stew, a scrubbed clean and freshly shaved Jed headed back to the saloon and his room.

Giving a thankful nod to the bartender, he traipsed up stairs and pushed open the first door on the left. Light from the hall lamps lit the room enough to show that the bartender was still keeping the place up as best as he could. A whores neatly made up bed with fancy sheets and pillows sat in the far corner under a lace curtained window. A small wooden night stand with a half filled oil lamp on it stood next to the bed. Against the wall to the right stood a white painted vanity with its porcelain water pitcher and bowl still in place. A decoratively painted wooden commode with its pot inside sat alongside the vanity.  Lighting the lamp, he let out a slow quiet whistle. “Dang,” he thought, “I should be so lucky as to end each day in a towns that’s goin’ belly up!  I guess one towns bad luck is another man’s good luck”

 

Chapter 4

The morning sun greeted the lace curtain and diffusely lit the room. Jed’s eyelids fluttered then opened fully.  Performing his morning toilet, he ended it by combing his freshly cut hair and plopping his hat back on his head. On his way downstairs he greeted the bartender again who this time was busy packing up straw filled wooden crates with glassware.

“Mornin”, Jed said tipping his hat, ”I see you’re serious about packing up and heading out, you gonna close down before the new place is built?”

“Nope, just preparing, that’s all. With so little business, I gotta do something with my hands, I’m ‘bout bored to death. You stayin’ the night again?”

“As long as you don’t lock me in and close down while I’m sleeping, I will. I’m gonna head over to the Smithy and see about him puttin’ some new shoes on my horse.

“I see you left your belongings upstairs, but don’t fret that the whores rooms ain’t got locks on ‘em, they’ll be safe.”

After meeting with and paying the Smithy, Jed headed over to the last operating Café in Dead Horse for a long awaited real breakfast, all to be washed down with plenty of strong hot coffee.  Removing his hat, Jed stepped inside and hung it on an empty hook by the door. Settling down to his meal after his order arrived, he and the other patrons were taken by surprise when the front door was thrown open to slam against the wall with a loud bang.

A small balding man wearing a black wool vest, clean white shirt closed at the neck with a black short tie stood excitedly inside the doorway and yelled. “Hey ya’ll, did ‘cha hear ‘bout Cholla?  They got the Cholera goin’ on somethin’ fierce there!”

Immediately the place was in an uproar with chairs tipping backwards and more than one coffee cup finding its way to the floor.

Almost as one, ball fifteen patrons voices started shouting questions at the small man. “Hold on, hold on folks, this here telegram’s all I know.”

Waving the yellow slip of paper, the little man who as it turned out to be, was the telegrapher for the stage depot. Taking a pair of spectacles from his top vest pocket, he held the paper up to read it. The crowd quieted down.

“Dead Horse”, it read. “Cholla quarantined STOP Cholera STOP Do not enter STOP Governor notified. STOP No rail service STOP Stay out STOP Folks got rice water. STOP Horrible deaths stay away.”

A chorus of “Holly molly’s and other exclamations followed the reading. Outside voices were also shouting the bad news.

Stepping out of the Café, Jed headed into the street and headed over to the Sheriff’s office.  Jed had seen the nightmare of Cholera before in an Indian village. Rarely passed from person to person it still had the effect of a plague. He knew that the culprit had to be the water supply as Cholera was normally transmitted by water. He figured Cholla’s single large well must have been somehow contaminated. What worried him as much Cholla’s well was the statement in the telegram of folks having rice water. It defined Cholera from many other misdiagnosed ailments. Cholera’s first symptoms were stomach cramps followed by explosive diarrhea. After a bit, ones insides held no more solids within them. The body continued to expel translucent white bodily fluids by the quarts. In hours, the expelled fluid took on the powerful odor of stinking fish. An unquenchable thirst resulted from the vast loss of fluids. It was a double death blow. The chance of surviving the original ingestion was low. Now with an unquenchable thirst, it drove the dehydrated populace to re ingest even more of the death as they consumed even more of the tainted water.

 Chapter 5

Reaching the Sheriff’s office, the doors  the brass bell jingled when he opened it. Stepping inside, Jed found the bleary red eyed Sheriff bent over and rummaging through the cabinets.

Pulling papers and other items from a lower cabinet onto the floor, the Sheriff mumbled angrily to himself.  “Where the hell did that bottle go, I know I had it the other day.”  Unaware of Jeds arrival or the jingling of the bell, the Sheriff finally gave up and in frustration plopped himself down in his chair. Only then did he notice Jed standing over him. “And what the hell do you want boy?” He directed his anger at Jed, “State your business or go on an’ get the hell out’a here!”

Getting red under the collar, Jed deliberately pronounced each word of his question slowly through clenched teeth. “You’re a hell of an excuse for a Sheriff. Are you aware of what’s goin’ on over Cholla way?”

“Sure I’m aware! They got themselves the plague. And what the hell’s it to you what I know or don’t know? I’m the Sheriff here ain’t I?  ”

Jed saw the hands shaking almost uncontrollably as the Sheriffs need for whisky became greater.

“First of all Sheriff it’s worse than you know, you better listen to me or I’ll drag you out’a that chair, tie you to a mule and kick your useless ass all the way to Flagstaff and make myself Sheriff!“

About to respond, the Sheriff realized he had just met his match and gave up. Even when he was a younger and sober man he was no match for an angry Jed. Dropping his head in shame and without looking up, he spoke. “I’m in over my head here mister, I’m an old man. Hell, I’ve seen cholera before, my wife an’ kids back in ‘67 saw it real good, too good.” Taking the star off his chest, he slid it in front of Jed. “You think you can handle a cholera outbreak? I know I can’t. You want my job mister? You got it.  I’m out’a here. If you had any brains you’d skedaddle too. This towns dyin’ a financial death for sure but what’s goin’ on over in Cholla just let loose the grim reaper, an’ he’s about to turn his eyeless skull this way!”

Shakily rising from his chair, the Sheriff grabbed his hat and headed for the door. The happy jingle of the doors overhead brass bell sounded out of place in the tense atmosphere as he opened it. Before stepping out into the heat he turned one last time and looked around. “Here”, he said tossing the keys back to Jed. Making his way up the street, Jed heard him say, “Hell of a way to retire, hell of a way!”

Jed stared at the badge lying on the desk top. He reached out and spun it with his finger. Thinking, he pondered the situation he found himself in. “Darn, this is not what I needed to happen. This town has some  major hurt comin’ down on it and these folks here are blind to it. That Sheriff knew what’s happening but ran on out anyway. Bastard! That plague ain’t gonna just sit still in Cholla that’s for sure. I figure the first person who makes his way from there to here’s gonna bring it with ‘em and from there out to all Arizona.”

Picking up the badge, Jed pinned it on his chest as he walked out the door. As horrible as the cholera was, sometimes you had to be just as horrible to stop it. He knew what had to be done.

Back out in the dusty street  most folks were seen preparing to head out of town. Jed walked up the street to see if he could find anyone who officially represented the town. The town hall was dark as well as the lawyer’s office next door. Dead Horse was truly a dead town.  The town was vacating, but thankfully, no longer towards Cholla.

Heading back to the saloon, he was surprised to find a number of people had gathered inside. The din of the crowd dimmed as onlookers saw the badge pinned to Jed’s chest. A young man with missing teeth and long stringy blond  hair stepped up to him “What for you got the Sheriffs badge on Mister?” Others began to question him also.

“Your Sheriff quit. Walked out on ya’. He tossed the job to me, anyone wanna’ contest that?” After a brief silence, Jed continued. “I didn’t think so.”

The ugly kid who spoke up before did again. “What you all gona’ do Sheriff?  Cholla’s less than a half days walk from here. Seems to me an’ others, what they got could make its way here soon enough. Maybe we all outa get on out’a here an’ head up to Flagstaff like everyone else is doin’. They say bein’ high up in the cold air that sickness don’t get there.”

“Well, that may hold some truth, I heard the same. The problem as I see it, is folks from Cholla getting’ past us an spreading what they got elsewhere. That quarantine there ain’t gonna’ hold for crap once folks see what happens to them that got the sickness. They’re gonna’ run for scared for their lives, ‘an in doin’ so, they’s gonna’ spread the illness everywhere they go. No, we gotta stop ‘em, an’that means killin’ ‘em before they can leave.”

The shock on the crowds face was proof that these town folk were pretty ignorant of the effects of Cholera.

“Now listen. Cholera spreads real easy in water. But it ain’t the water that started it, it was folks or animals shittin in the water that started it. I heard Cholla got one well, that’s it. That means everyone in Cholla’s dependent on that one well. Now if that well got tainted, as I believe it did, then there ain’t a soul that drank water within the last couple days that ain’t gonna’ come down with cholera. Sure a couple here or there may make it, but you wanna’ try an’ figure out which ones is they is? I didn’t think so. What we gotta do is unthinkable but needs to be done. We need to torch the town and all within it.”

The bar tender confronted Jed. “Holly crap mister! That’s outright murder! You cain’t just go an kill a whole town ‘cause they’s sick! We sent a telegram to the Governor, let him decide what to do. Besides, I have a business startin’ there. What about me?”

“By the time the Governor gets off his fat and decides what should or shouldn’t be done, Cholla’s gonna’ be a goner. What I’m telling you is, we need to stop anyone from leavin’ there and contain the sickness to just Cholla.

Chapter 6

An hour later, Jed, the bartender and 17 volunteer riders rode out to Cholla with a wagon containing three barrels of lamp oil.

“Don’t no one drink nothin’, touch nothing alive nor let anyone stop you from what you’re doin’. The winds from the west so we need to start at that end of town and work east. Soon as the riders spreading oil are halfway up town, the rest of you to start torchin’ the place. Leave nothing standing and shoot anyone able to walk. It won’t be many.”

Upon reaching Cholla the riders saw the horror of Cholera up close. Many town’s folks had stripped off their fouled clothes and now lay naked in growing pools of their watery stink. Their rears ends were still explosively ejecting the watery body fluid onto the dirt. Too dehydrated to even moan anymore, their mouths quivered in silent pain.

“Oil group, get going! The rest of you with the torches light ‘em up and wait for my signal.”

By morning, the town of Cholla was gone. So were the riders.

The railroad that brought such short lived prosperity also brought plague infected cattle. Within a year, the Santa Fe was rerouted, again bypassing Dead Horse. But by then it didn’t matter.  Dead Horse was just another forgotten ghost town bleaching away in the scorching Arizona sun. The collapsed roof of the old Sheriff’s office lay guarding an old wooden desk underneath it. A Sheriff’s badge forever resting on its top.