Rattlesnake Gulch

The cowpoke rode into town on a broken down horse, wearing a shabby Stetson and a greasy, ragged duster coat. Except for the tarnished silver spurs over his nondescript boots, no one would have paid him any heed.

He hitched the horse, grabbed his bedroll and saddle-bags, and walked into the hotel.

“Got a room?”

“A dollar.”

He slapped the coins on the counter and signed the register. Missouri Smith.

“Number three, upstairs to your right.”

“Much obliged.”

All eyes were on him as he walked through the saloon to the stairs. A riverboat gambler type at the last table asked, “What brings you to town, stranger?”

“Passin’ through.”

“If you want a game,” he said, staring at the spurs, “I’ll be here all evening.”

Missouri nodded while peering closely at the gambler. “I’ll consider it.”

He continued up to his room, which he examined thoroughly, finishing by examining the window, which looked over the roof of the livery next door. Reassured that the window was secure, he took a portrait of a young lady from one of the saddle bags and placed it tenderly on the small chest of drawers. He removed the spurs, put them in the saddle bag, and pulled out a small notebook.

After he wrote for a few minutes, he pulled on his duster. Slinging his saddle-bags over his shoulder, he went downstairs. While waiting for the hotel-keeper, he gazed around the saloon as if looking for someone, paying particular attention to the kitchen door. Intermittently but covertly, he studied the river-boat gambler type in the corner. He gave the keeper two-bits for a bath and went upstairs. Locking himself in the bathroom, at the opposite end of the hall from his room, he ran his allotment of water into the bathtub, stripped and climbed in, his body quickly accepting the cold water. He soaped himself, rinsed off as well as he could in the now dirty water, and climbed out, drying himself with the common towel hanging on the hook. Then he threw his pants, shirt, underwear and socks into the tub and scrubbed them with the bar of soap. He squeezed them out and rolled them into a bundle, pulled his duster over his otherwise naked body, slipped into his boots, grabbed his saddle-bags and headed to his room.

A young woman was coming from the other direction, her arms full of bed linens, her face lighted by the window behind him. Noting the bare legs between the duster and the boots, she averted her eyes. Missouri stepped into her path.

“Please, sir,” she said.

“Rebecca,” he said.

She gasped and stared into his face. “Josiah!”

“How’d you find me? Why’d you come?”

“Had to. You know why.”

“No. This is forbidden. Impossible. You shouldn’t’ve come.”

“I had to. How we got separated. We never said ‘good-bye.’ I still love you.”

“Too late. I’m to get married — ”

“No!”

“It’s not my choice. My father insists. The man is strong, good, and well-off — the gambler you talked to.”

An angry scowl distorted Missouri’s face. “That man!”

“He’s not really a gambler. He has a ranch — raises horses. He’s called Jimmie Brooklyn.”

His fingers grappled harshly at the roll of wet clothes.

“I know him, Rebecca.” He struggled to keep his voice soft and calm.

She gasped.

“His real name is Luke Phillips. The first day I was in prison, I saw him murder a man in the prison yard. The next day he escaped — “

She slapped his face and pushed past him. “Don’t you lie to me, Josiah Smith.”

“It’s no lie. You know I wouldn’t lie to you,” he said to her retreating figure.

He spread out his clothes on the floor of his room. They would dry quickly in the desert heat. Sitting naked on his bed, wearing just his boots, he wrote more in his journal, then moved to the chair and, slumping forward, closed his eyes. An hour later the evening sun shone through the window to wake him.

He dressed and went down to the saloon. Rebecca was at the table with Jimmie, who was engaged in a heated argument with a man at the next table. She gave Missouri an angry look as he passed to a table in the far corner. She went to him.

“Dinner?”

“Please. And a double whisky.”

When she came out of the kitchen, he was waiting in the hall behind the stairway.

“Well?”

“Well, nothing. Why should I believe your story?”

“If I’d’a known he’d be here, I’d’a brought a poster. Dead or alive.”

“I don’t believe you. I know him. It can’t be true.”

The next morning Missouri rode the fifteen miles to Scorpion Junction and sent a telegram from the train station/telegraph office.

“I’ll be gettin’ some mail in a few days,” he said to the telegraph operator, a shriveled old man with spectacles, whose only functioning parts seemed to be his finger on the telegraph key and the eyes reading the message. “I need someone to bring it to Rattlesnake Gulch soon as it arrives.”

“Sonny Blackstone’ll do it. My grandson. Spends all day hangin’ around the livery stable when he’s not in school. Just make sure you pay him right.”

He found Sonny, but wondered if the scrawny kid could handle the thirty-mile ride.

“Sure I can. Ask Jake,” Sonny said, pointing out front to the livery owner.

Assured by Jake that Sonny could ride a hundred miles in a day, Missouri gave him the commission.

“Two bits now; six more when you bring the mail. No messin’ now. Any mail comes for me, you’re the Pony Express.”

“Right.”

When he got back to his room, the portrait on the dresser was turned face down.

Three days passed. Rebecca was struggling. Jimmie, who spent more time at the saloon than at his ranch, sensed this.

“What’s the matter, woman? Something wrong with my face? Last three days you’re actin’ like you seein’ a ghost.”

“Nothin’, Jimmie. Maybe it’s just . . .”

“Time of the month, huh? Once we’re married you won’t be having many more of those.”

She forced a playful smile. Sitting a few tables over, Missouri’s eyes darkened. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if the mail didn’t come. Rebecca had been treating him with cold disdain. Seeing her interact with Jimmie, it was all he could do to keep from shooting the man.

Late the next afternoon, the kid from Scorpion Junction came with the mail. Missouri paid him a dollar. Once he opened the mail and studied the picture on the poster, he put the silver spurs back on his boots and went down to the saloon. When Rebecca came to get his order, he made her sit down, ignoring Jimmie’s angry stare from across the room.

Looking Rebecca in the eye, he said, “I’m going to expose him now,” handing her the “wanted” poster. “I want you our of sight and safe. I don’t know how this will go.”

A look of total terror filled her face. “No, Josiah. Please.”

“It must be. Now go.”

She got up and gave his hand a squeeze, not hiding the gesture from Jimmie.

Once she was safely in the hall behind the stairway, Missouri stood up.

Jimmie stood up too. “What you doin’, messin’ with my fian-see?”

“She ain’t your fiancée any more, Luke Phillips.”

When he heard this, Jimmie froze. “What’d you say, you bastard?” His face got red and he wiggled his hip, moving his coat out of the way of his holster.

“Luke Phillips, you’re a murderer.”

Luke’s hand went for his gun, Missouri’s went for his. Multiple shots. Missouri fell with a bullet through his thigh; Luke fell with a bullet in his heart.

Racing out, Rebecca fell on Missouri and kissed his lips, impervious to the scraggly, scratchy beard. Then a quick study of his wound. She started to remove his boots. She gasped.

“Josiah! The silver spurs!” She gave him another quick kiss.

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Published in Misplaced Identity is a place for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

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