Published on Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Call Chronicles:
By Kathi Sprayberry
Two weeks herding cattle into Denver and dealing with slick brokers, and now returning home had left twins Jason and Matt Call ready for a long, hot bath instead of the wake up splash from a freezing creek. The brothers rode tall in the saddles of their preferred horses; Jason on a Mustang with fire in its heart and Matt on a chestnut colored Morgan. Behind them, panting from the unaccustomed time in a saddle, another man clad in a brown checked suit, white shirt, red bow tie and wearing a bowler hat atop his balding head did his best to keep up with the twins. This man attached himself to the Call brothers once he heard who they were and where they were going. After a hurried explanation that left more questions than it answered, Harley Fistless admitted-very reluctantly-to working for the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He then bragged that he'd never traveled past the Mississippi River prior to boarding a train a week earlier. All the Pinkerton's man would reveal as to why he had to ride with them was that he had to visit their pa for some unspecified but vitally important reason. Jason and Matt reluctantly agreed to put up with the pudgy stranger but vowed to discover Fistless' reasons for going to the Triple C Ranch before they arrived. The brothers had good reason to agree to a quasi-lawman along. Both carried enough cash in their saddlebags to keep their ranch going for another year.
"Hold up, you two," the Pinkerton's man called. "I'm not used to--"
"Riding," Jason interrupted.
"Being out in fresh air all day," Matt continued. "We figured that out about two minutes outside Denver, Pinkerton's man."
"Ain't long now," Jason took up the rest of the dialogue from his twin, a habit they'd done as long as they'd lived, almost 20 years. "Mayhaps another couple of hours. Mayhaps less." Fistless grumbled under his breath but made no other comments. The time he'd spent with these two had led him to the conclusion that all cowboys were reluctant to speak in ordinary sentences and hated using civilized transportation.
"Think he'll last all the way to the ranch?" Matt muttered to Jason.
"Might." Jason checked over his shoulder and grinned when Fistless squirmed in his saddle.
"We ought to have left him in Denver until the stage ran but then we'd have had to listen to Pa about not doing our duty."
The twins looked the Pinkerton's man up and down before returning their gazes to the familiar trail. Both had similarities but were also different enough for most folks to disbelieve they were twins. They were the same height, six-foot, one-inch, and had broad shoulders and lean hips but that's where the likeness ended. Jason had thick, wavy blonde hair; the blonde with brown streaks that made women look him over three or four times before sighing in satisfaction. His blue eyes were either soft with laughter or hard enough to strike sparks off rocks with anger. He preferred the newfangled denim pants but soft enough for a baby to lie upon, a bright red double-breasted shirt with one side left open, boots made from the skins of several large rattlers he'd killed himself, a tan cowboy duster, and tan Stetson with a narrow snakeskin band from the same group of critters he'd dispatched. A single Enfield Revolver, the .47 caliber variety, rested on his left hip with a greener in a boot across his saddle.
Matt, on the other hand, dressed all in black from head to toe except for his pristine white dress shirt. Some likened him to a preacher when they spotted him, especially with the flat brimmed hat he preferred to the taller Stetson. His thick black hair fell below his shoulders and he kept it out of his face with use of a leather thong. Startling green eyes had captured more than one female heart but he held back his affections as he'd yet to see a woman tough enough to withstand the rigors of the frontier. The twin Colts on his hips rested in leather holsters in gun belts that criss-crossed his pants.
"Wanna take some target practice?" Jason said after another mile or two. "There are a few trees around here we haven't hit yet."
Both brothers were crack shots but unlike cowboys depicted in the serialized stories in magazines their pa enjoyed after supper, were reluctant to use deadly force unless pushed. Their target practice sessions had spooked many a hardcase out of hiding and gave the twins the reputation of having made a fortune picking up bounties.
"Nah." Matt grinned at his twin. "Might scare Fistless enough to knock him off that nag he bought."
The twins were also good judges of horseflesh and had tried to convince the Pinkerton's man to purchase an animal more suited to the trail. The failure to accomplish that deed bothered neither Jason nor Matt as they figured a man had the right to make his own mistakes, so long as those mistakes didn't endanger any of the large Call clan.
A growling stomach took Jason's thoughts off the stranger's lack of sense. He was more than ready for a decent meal.
Wonder what Ma's got on the stove?" Jason speculated. "Fried chicken and all the fixings would taste right good after eating what you call grub these last two weeks."
Matt shot Jason an impatient look. They shared cooking responsibilities and did their best with the beans, bacon, and trail dodgers, but the unvarying diet grew old after the first few days.
"Probably doing up a roast," Matt guessed. "Pa was going to kill a couple of cows right after we left. There'll be a whole lot of meat in the cave but you know Ma. One of her roasts would be right tasty."
"Sure do." Jason jerked his head in a short nod. "She'll do up roasts, stew, and the like until we're out of fresh meat." He smacked his lips. "A roast with mashed potatoes, green beans, and gravy sounds downright good, now that you mention it."
"Will you two stop talking about food?" Fistless whined. "Anything but food."
The Pinkerton's man suffered from what could only be described as mal de mer. Not long after starting up the Front Range, he'd moaned and groaned about his tender stomach. More than once, he'd leaned to the side and spewed whatever meal they'd just consumed.
"Can't think of much else," Jason tossed over a shoulder. "Ma always puts on a right good spread whenever one of us comes home."
"Bet she'll do up dried apple pies," Matt said with a wicked grin on his face. "Boy, I can just taste those juicy pies right now." He smacked his lips. "Maybe we can convince Ma to slap a slab of her fresh made cheddar on top."
"Peach," Jason asserted. "She did dried apple the last time we rode into Denver."
"You have a point." Matt's grin widened when Fistless groaned. "But I'm a hankering for dried apple."
As one, their eyes lifted toward the deep blue sky and they checked the position of the sun. It was well past noon, near about three in the afternoon. They'd be on Triple C Ranch long before supper.
"We could have a race," Jason suggested.
"Not with the tenderfoot along," Matt said. "He'd likely fall out of his saddle and break a bone. That would hold us up a day or two."
"You have a point." Jason settled back in his saddle and let his thoughts roam.
The oldest son currently on the ranch, he'd taken to the responsibilities his older brothers left to work other jobs. Not that Jason shirked any of his responsibilities, but it sure was hard being the second in command, their father being the first. There were four other Call children in their family. Adrian was twenty-eight and took off years back to be a soldier in the Civil War. He'd stayed in the service after that war ended and now commanded a fort near the four corners of Utah, Arizona Territory, New Mexico, and Colorado. Controlling the Indians kept Adrian so busy that his last visit was almost a year back. Brian sought of adventure as the shotgun rider on stagecoaches crossing the Wild West on his twenty-fourth birthday. He showed up at least once a month full of stories about narrow escapes from Indians or outlaws. Hank, twenty-two, got it into his head to be a trapper after his fiancée succumbed to an unexplained fever a month before their wedding. The trade kept him on the move and made Hank difficult to locate. Of all the Call men, he looked the least like the others with thick, wavy black hair hanging well past his shoulders and a bushy beard and mustache that nearly hid his face. To their ma's horror, Hank preferred clothing made from the skins of the animals he caught.
That left Elizabeth, the only girl child born to David and Martha Call. A few months shy of her fifteenth birthday, Elizabeth had their mother's coal black hair and their father's deep blue eyes. With a creamy complexion, she attracted all kinds of attention whenever the Call's took it in their heads to go to a barn dance or church picnic. Quite a few times, Jason and Matt had to redirect a young man's attention from their baby sister. In the twins' opinion, Elizabeth, usually called Eliza, wouldn't be ready for a husband until she was gray-haired and in a rocking chair.
They rode on to the sound of Fistless' complaints until the sun showed it was near dinner time. Jason and Matt perked up and began urging their horses to a faster gait, in order to be the first at the dinner table and maybe the first to grab food.
"Now just wait a doggone minute," Fistless protested. "Can't we take a break? Maybe brew up some decent coffee before you take off running so fast?"
"Nah, we--" Jason broke off his snappy retort and directed his attention toward the ranch, hidden behind a stand of oak and elm trees. "Matt, what do you think?"
"I smell it," Matt answered in a terse voice. "That's too much smoke for Ma's stove."
The heavy odor of wood smoke grew until it seemed the forest around them would burst into flames. Jason leaned over his mustang's neck and tightened his grip on the reins.
"Home, Barney," Jason hollered.
"To the barn, Wind," Matt yelled at his Morgan.
The brothers soon left Fistless behind in a flurry of clattering hooves. They were still a mile or two from the Triple C but both their mounts were well up to the effort of racing through the forest. As to how Fistless fared, that was his problem.
"Slow down!" Fistless' voice faded on the wind whistling past. "Wait. There's something I have to tell you before we get there."
Jason almost pulled up on his reins but a sense of urgency filled him. Many dangers haunted those who chose to live on the frontier in 1870, but the worst was fire. Neighbors might arrive in time to form a bucket brigade between the fire and well but then again, they might only show up in time to save whatever possessions they could before flames consumed a home. Since his older brothers took off, Jason worried whenever he and Matt left Triple C. Most of the other ranchers concentrated on rustlers or Indians but all of Jason's nightmares centered around fire.
He had a very good reason for that concern. The night Eliza came into the world, the wind caught sparks from the Call's chimney and set the barn ablaze. Although four at the time, Jason still remembered clearly standing on the front porch with a wet towel to beat out any errant sparks trying to burn their home while his pa and older brothers raced in and out of the flaming barn. Matt had the duty to protect the rear of their house that night. Pa and their brothers saved the horses and cows but several chickens and a hog perished.
They'd been lucky then but with only Eliza and Ma to help, Pa might not be as lucky this time.
"Move, you useless lump of horseflesh!" Jason urged more speed from his mount.
A frightened howl startled Jason but then he had to bite back laughter when Fistless dashed past atop his horse.
"Thought that sorry beast would keel over if it had to move faster than a walk," Matt said and then gasped. "Dear Lord!"
Jason dug his heels against Barney's ribs. For the first time in his life, Jason regretted spurning the use of spurs. He'd always thought the jangling metal as barbaric and a crutch for tenderfeet. Today, he would have done whatever he could to find out the reason for two pillars of flames flickering through the trees.
"It's the house!" Matt exclaimed.
Side by side, the twins burst into the clearing around the ranch buildings, seconds after Fistless gained control of his animal.
"And the barn," Jason hollered back.
A tall, lanky man spun around from where he stood beside a corral filled with horses, cows, and pigs. Chickens darted underfoot, squawking their outrage. A tin star on the man's scorched and ripped shirt reflected the waning fire.
"Hold up!" Sheriff Earl Watkins loosed an authoritative bellow. "There's nothing more we can save."
Jason and Matt dismounted their horses in one smooth move. Barney and Wind trotted over to the corral and stood without moving, as any well-trained cutting horse should do once the rider got off. Fistless fell more than dismounted and limped over to the sheriff.
"What happened, Sheriff?" Jason hurried over to the lawman. "Where is everyone?"
To dive into the fully consumed buildings was suicide although Jason wanted to do just that in a desperate move to find his family. Any number of reasons existed for the absence of his parents and sister, like an unexpected trip into the local town or the need to seek out Doc Zachary for some type of injury or illness, until his eyes lit on two motionless bodies with blood staining their clothes halfway between the house and the barn.
That's David and Martha," Sheriff Watkins spat out. "I heard shots when I got close but was too late." He brushed a hand across his eyes. "Too late. I'll flail the hide off my deputy for ridin' halfway across the county to bring me that Pinkerton man's telegram. He should have read the darned thing himself and come out here to warn your pa. By the time I knew about the danger, the Griswold Gang had already done their worst."
Matt and Fistless moved closer as Jason stared at the bodies of his parents. Jason had never heard of the Griswold Gang. Most rustlers traveled alone or with a single partner to lower the chances of being caught. But the cows were still here and Jason laid a bet with himself that if he rode out to the far pasture, he'd find the rest of their herd without a problem. More and more questions bombarded his brain, mostly about the whereabouts of his baby sister.
"Where are Eliza and Aunt Priss?" Matt demanded, his hand reaching out to touch Jason. Until that second, Jason had forgotten all about Pa's sister, Priscilla. She'd shown up as Jason and Matt rode out two weeks ago. There hadn't been time for greetings or much of anything beyond a wave of their hats as the twins took control of the unruly cattle.
"No idea," Sheriff Watkins admitted. "I hollered for Eliza while I saved the animals but didn't know Priss was here."
Sheriff Watkins was probably the reason for Priscilla's visit although Jason wasn't sure. She'd long set her cap for the lawman, and what with her being an old maid abandoned at the altar when her no-good fiancée took off with a widow woman forty years back, she'd given up on finding a decent man. Until she visited from Denver five years back and caught a glimpse of the lanky man. Her exclamation of that long drink of water had startled all the Call's, together to celebrate Christmas, and gave them more than enough opportunity to tease the dickens out of a usually serious aunt.
"Harley Fistless." Fistless held out a hand and shoved past the brothers to get the sheriff's attention. "I'd hoped you received my telegram in time to warn David Call that Pinkerton's caught word of Merrick Griswold's intentions."
"Why'd you want to warn Pa?" Jason demanded. "Why didn't you tell Matt and me when you wanted to ride with us?"
The fires guttered out but hot spots still flared when the wind gusted.
"Didn't know if I could trust you." Fistless puffed out his chest and hooked his thumbs through a pair of red suspenders. "Pinkerton's men don't trust anyone until they prove their worth."
"Pinkerton's men don't seem to--" Jason swallowed the rest of his insult.
Movement out of corner of his eye brought thoughts of the miscreants returning. Jason dropped his weight onto his left leg, bent his right knee, and yanked out his Enfield. Matt pulled his Colts a heartbeat before the sheriff drew his six-shooter. Fistless fumbled a two-shot Derringer from his coat pocket.
"Show yourself!" Jason barked.
From the trees behind and to one side of the house, Eliza's sooty, tear-streaked face appeared. Aunt Priss darted in front of Eliza and held out her arms.
"I won't let you harm this child," Aunt Priss shouted. "Do what you may to me but you won't touch my niece."
The fear for his sister evaporated and Jason re-holstered his Enfield. Matt chuckled and dropped his Colts back into leather as did the sheriff with his six-shooter. Only Fistless held a weapon on the women.
"You don't know if those women weren't sent out to take you off guard," Fistless protested. "Draw your weapons."
"Holster yours or I'll beat you to a pulp," Matt said with a lazy drawl. "That's our sister and aunt. They'd never cooperate with outlaws to hurt us."
Sheriff Watkins reached over and ripped the Derringer from Fistless' hand. The Pinkerton's man yelped and rubbed his fingers with a hurt expression on his face.
"You're barbarians," Fistless squalled. "I'm never coming west of the Mississippi again. No one around here knows how to behave."
Jason ran across the barren ground between him and the women. Eliza met him halfway, her thin arms slinging around his neck. He lifted her from the ground and held his sister tight.
"Are you hurt?" Jason asked.
"They rode up and shouted for Pa. Ma said he was in the barn and they shot her," Eliza sobbed. "We didn't do anything and they shot Ma. Pa came out of the barn and those awful men shot him, too. It was... it was. Oh! Jason! Where were you?"
No matter how long he lived, Jason knew he'd never forget the terror in his baby sister's voice at this moment. He held her tight and turned to face the others. Matt held Aunt Priss in a protective hug. Fistless stared at them with his mouth hanging open while the sheriff turned his back and slapped his Stetson against his pants leg.
"What took you so long, Jason?" Aunt Priss said with a hitch in her voice. "We expected you last night."
They should have arrived last night, as she said, but Fistless held them up with his constant complaining and demands for breaks from riding. Jason glared at the Pinkerton's man, but Fistless just shrugged and walked back to his horse.
"My job's done," Fistless announced. "I'm sure I can find a decent place to stay tonight, and then I'll hire a coach to take me back to Denver."
"You'll do no such thing," Sheriff Watson said. "You'll stick around until I finish my investigation, Fistless. I never heard of a Pinkerton's man acting like you have, and I don't believe for one minute that Allan Pinkerton hired you as one of his detectives."
"I'm one of Mr. Pinkerton's most trusted operatives," Fistless protested. "You can send him a telegram and find out if you must." He rolled his eyes. "But you can't force me to spend one more night in this uncivilized country!"
The argument went on until Jason thought his head would burst. He set Eliza down and drew his Enfield, firing one shot into the air.
"Enough," Jason told the men. "We need to get the women into Black Hawk and forget about all this who Fistless really is." He gave the man a scathing look. "I'm betting he really is a Pinkerton's man but thought he'd never have to leave a real city and travel out west."
"You're probably right." Sheriff Watkins jerked his head at the corral. ""Help me with these animals, Fistless. We can't leave them out here."
The sheriff and Fistless gathered the larger animals. Jason came close to laughing when Fistless tried to herd the hog, who took off into the woods grunting and squealing; the chickens gave chase after the hog with indignant squawks peppering the cooling air.
"What will we do with Ma and Pa?" Eliza asked through a fresh bout of tears. "We can't just leave them lying on the ground. That's not right."
Jason cringed at the look on her face, at Eliza's determination to do the right thing no matter what dangers they faced. He'd planned to take Eliza and Aunt Priss into town and then come back to deal with the grisly task. What he didn't need was his mulish sister getting stubborn.
"Matt and I will deal with Ma and Pa," Jason said in what he hoped was a reasonable voice.
"No!" Eliza shrieked and stamped a foot. "I was here, Jason Marcus Call. You won't stuff me somewhere you think is safe and bury our parents without me."
"Eliza," Matt said. "Calm down. Think for--"
"Don't you dare tell me to calm down." She shook a finger in his face. "I won't shirk my duty. I'm a Call as much as you are. Call's always do what's right."
"Those outlaws will probably come back once it's dark," Aunt Priss offered. "You're a very pretty young lady, Eliza. Your brothers have the right of it. We need to go into town where we'll be safe."
As tough as an old boot, but with a quiet demeanor, Aunt Priss had a gentle face and twinkling hazel eyes. She was about as no nonsense a woman as Jason had ever met. Petticoats showed through several deep rips on her brown calico dress but Aunt Priss made no complaint about finding a change of clothing nor did she attempt to re-pin the gray strands of hair escaping her chignon.
"Are you sure?" Eliza asked. "You aren't just saying that to get me to leave. Right, Aunt Priss?"
"Lord, no, child." Aunt Priss smiled. "I'm trying to save your brothers the bother of ventilating those thugs."
Jason left unsaid his long-term plans included doing that very thing once he caught up with the Griswold Gang. A level look from Matt clued Jason in that his twin felt the same way.
"Mount up," the sheriff ordered. "It's nearly dark."
Matt and Jason whistled sharply. Their horses trotted over to where they stood.
"Up on Barney, Eliza," Jason said. "You'll have to ride behind the saddle so don't wiggle."
It was a testament to her fear and terror that Eliza didn't protest when he mounted first and held out a gloved hand. Eliza grasped Jason's wrist and let him swing her up on Barney's broad back. Matt mounted and offered Aunt Priss a hand. Their aunt grinned ruefully and glanced at the sheriff.
"He'll have to keep an eye on Fistless," Matt said in a carrying whisper. "Come on, Aunt Priss. We need to get Eliza someplace warm and find some food for her. She looks about done in."
The necessity of making sure his sister stayed on his horse kept Jason from concentrating on the losses he'd suffered this day. Several long hours later, they rode into Black Hawk to the accompaniment of miners bellowing about their finds in saloons and ladies of the evening shouting out about their services. Eliza kept shuddering and pressing her face against Jason's back.
"Is Widow James' house still for rent?" Jason asked the sheriff.
"Sure is," Sheriff Watkins responded. "I'll hunt up Banker Milton and have him give me the key. Fistless." He glanced at the Pinkerton's man. "Take these animals to the livery at the other end of town. Tell the owner they're Call animals and to make sure they're in a corral."
"But--" Fistless gulped and nodded assent when Matt's hand hovered over one of his Colts. "Sure. Be right obliged to do just that sheriff."
Cows mooed, pigs oinked, and horses whinnied when Fistless rode back and forth behind the animals. Once Jason was certain the Pinkerton's man wouldn't start a stampede and wreck the town, he turned his attention to the people gathered on the boardwalks or near the batwings of several saloons. The man Jason sought, Flint-Eyed Tom, was well-known for his ill temper and penchant for using a whip on errant children or barking dogs. Several boys bore scars on their faces when Flint-Eyed Tom took it upon himself to discipline them.
Flint-Eyed Tom was infamous for one other predilection. Wherever trouble loomed in Black Hawk, he was usually close or right in the middle of the fracas.
Light spilled out of oiled paper windows and illuminated the crowd gathered to observe Fistless' efforts to control the small herd. A couple of buildings, the bank and mayor's house, had put out the money to purchase glass that gathered dust and showed signs of fly splotches upon the panes. Matt, Jason, and Sheriff Watkins held their horses still outside the church and stared at the far end of town, where the telegraph office and livery sat across from each other. Just about everyone living in Black Hawk offered encouragement to Fistless, except one man. Flint-Eyed Tom was nowhere in sight.
"Where's Flint-Eyed?" Jason asked.
"That's a discussion for another time." Sheriff Watkins glanced at the women. "Why don't you get Priss and Eliza settled. I'll send Milton on over with the key." He urged his horse forward. "Me and a couple of my deputies will go on back to your place to take care of Martha and David so's you and Matt don't have to leave the women alone. I'll stop on by Widow James' place after we finish, and we'll jaw about Flint-Eyed Tom. That boy's done forgot where his loyalties lie."
"That sounds ominous," Jason said and felt Eliza shudder. "Matt and I will be waiting, Sheriff."
The Call twins waited until Sheriff Watkins returned with the banker. Jason accepted the key to Widow James' house, not that there was any chance of the woman showing up. Her children took her back east, to Boston, a week after her husband died at the hands of a couple of hardcases determined to take his horse a year back. Given how much those children wanted for the house, a whole one hundred dollars, the building had sat empty since then except for the occasional rental to someone in need.
Well, we're surely in need. Jason shoved away thoughts of dropping off Aunt Priss and Eliza and then taking off in search of the Griswold Gang. His duty now lay in caring for his family.
Guess Matt and I'll have to figure out what we need at the General Store. One of us will have to go on over there afore it closes.
The monumental responsibilities he faced fell around Jason like a well-worn coat. He glanced at his twin and nodded.
Matt and Jason rode along Black Hawk's main drag without speaking. The future of Triple C Ranch seemed uncertain, but Jason was sure of one thing.
The Griswold Gang would swing for their crimes.
The second installment of The Call Chronicles: BITTERSWEET REUNION is available now!
Kathi Sprayberry has always had a fascination with the nineteenth century Wild West and the untold stories of survival and living on the frontier. She currently lives in Northwest Georgia with her husband and youngest son. When not writing, Kathi enjoys photography and reading. Her western stories, BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN, DESERT ROSE -- BOUNTY HUNTER, and "JACKIE RYAN -- US MARSHAL" have appeared on the Frontier Tales website. Another story, "THE PREACHER'S DAUGHTER," will debut in November. Both "BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN" and "DESERT ROSE -- BOUNTY HUNTER" won Best Loved in the months they appeared.