Published on Sunday, March 14, 2010
Last Day at Red Horizon
By Richard Prosch
Red Horizon was a blackened ruin. Not a clapboard building stood untouched, not a hitching post unmoved. If John Coburn was losing his mind, then the buckskin he rode was loco too as it shied from the field of rubble. How could so much have changed in only eight years?
The confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara rivers was an ideal place for the booming settlement of determined farmers and merchants, but while Coburn had been working cattle in Wyoming, his home town had gone away like powder smoke, leaving in its place a wasteland of burnt prairie and splintered wood skeletons.
Coburn rubbed his eyes. The false front of Mill's general store listed earthward; the smith's shop had only two walls. The rest of the buildings were the same-- broken, like a boy's set of blocks kicked over and partly buried in the yellow fescue and sod.
It was late October, and the afternoon sky was a deep blue glaze. "Go," he said and the horse moved ahead. Coburn held his fleece lined coat tight to his neck, and the long hem pulled at the weight of his gun belt. Flint gray eyes studied the chaos, searching for an explanation. What the hell had gone on?
A cold wind blew spinning cottonwood leaves around the valley, kicking up dust on faint grid lines, abandoned roads almost completely reclaimed by nature. Coburn saw a jackrabbit skitter sideways to the west, then duck backward to vanish behind a roll of earth. This land could trick a man, seeming flat while hiding countless hills and hollows.
Coburn steered the horse around the abandoned town along the bank of Dirk's Crick, crossed over on a dry bed of mud and leaves, then pushed uphill through 100 yards of brome. He rode past the one-room schoolhouse, still intact, into a belt of tangled cedars behind the livery stable, or where the livery should have been. On the other side of the trees, Coburn sat tall and peered across three miles of dry yellow grassland, the crick line gray and blurring in the distance where it eventually fed the Niobrara.
Just as he caught sight of the congregational church steeple to his right, someone said, "Get down nice and slow, stranger. Or I'll kill you dead as a rock."
Coburn took his hands from the horse's dark mane and whispering calm words in its ear, remained still. He turned his head a fraction and the voice came again.
"I swear to God, mister."
Coburn spat into the dust, but kept his hands in view. "I'm not in the habit of taking orders," he said. For all he knew, the old coyote was armed with a busted cedar bough.
When the man didn't answer, Coburn counted his options. Make a quick break? Gallop away? Turn fast and fight? The buckskin was up to it, and Coburn pulled his Colt faster than most. Still, if the man had a scattergun, he could lose the horse easy enough, if not his own life. Plus there was the mystery of the town to study on. Something had happened to the people, his people, and Coburn wagered his assailant had some answers. He swung down gracefully and touched ground.
A fat devil with a wooden tooth, brown shirt, and long dark vest emerged from the woods with a Stevens 12-guage leveled at Coburn's chest. High up, almost on his shoulder, he wore a dirty silver star. "That's fine," said the man. "Now toss down your gun."
"I don't have a gun," Coburn lied, his coat fell just short of his knees, heavy and covering his belt.
"Pretend you do," said the man. "Toss it down."
Coburn weighed his next move and curiosity, more than anything else, forced the decision. His arm was molasses rolling under the coat, separating iron from leather, taking all day to do it. Finally the gun fell to earth. Keeping the shotgun at waist level, the fat man scooped up the six-shooter and waved it triumphantly.
"My name's Silas Brahm," he said. "Tell me yours and we'll have a drink."
"Name's John Coburn."
Brahm smiled and shifted the wooden tooth in its socket. "Glory be," he said mockingly, "if it ain't him what's called The Peregrine."
With freshly whitewashed walls and a foundation of dark wooden beams, the congregational church was in fairly good repair, though part of the floor was gone. Most of the pews were missing too, but the original carved walnut altar rested at the far wall. Wooden crates covered with blankets were stacked against the west wall, and Coburn recognized furniture from the Red Horizon hotel and tables from the saloon.
"Where is everyone?" asked Coburn.
"Gone," Brahm motioned for Coburn to follow him. "Gone to meet their maker." Coburn's eyes blazed. "Some of them," said Brahm.
"They're gone too. Here and there." Brahm waved the Stevens high and to the west. "Now sit down."
"I'd like some answers, mister--"
"Sheriff," said Brahm, indicating a pair of chairs on either side of a table.
"Sheriff," said Coburn. "I grew up here, had friends and kin."
"We all lost folks, Mr. Peregrine," said Brahm. "It's when you lose your soul there's trouble." He opened his arms. "Look familiar to you?"
"I wasn't much of a church goer," said Coburn.
"But you know the Lord?"
"I left here with the Ponca in '77. Somewhere on that trail, the Lord and me parted company."
"I heard you was an Injun lover." Brahm looked around. "Let's have that drink."
"Yeah, let's do that."
Brahm leaned his gun against the wall before unloading Coburn's Colt, absently dropping the lead into his shirt pocket.
"I'm sorry about the gun," said Brahm. "But, I'm still the law here." He grabbed a bottle from a shelf. "Whiskey?"
Brahm brought two glasses to the table and planted a bottle between them. "I still ain't sure you're not hiding more weapons from me?" He poured a measure for each of them and slid one forward while swallowing the other. "A knife, maybe?" he coughed.
In Wyoming, Coburn made a name for himself with the six-inch throwing dagger he kept in his boot-- a gift from Standing Bear's son and his most cherished possession. Either Red Horizon heard a few stories about its prodigal or Brahm was a good guesser-- maybe both.
"Doesn't matter," said Brahm. "You keep it."
Coburn sipped his whiskey in silence while the fat man cleared his throat.
"I heard of you," Brahm said. "How men call you The Peregrine because you wander far and wide." He flapped his hands like wings. "Flying off here or there. Heard you was in Cheyenne a while back."
His smile waned. "I should tell you about your family." He poured another drink. "Didn't know your mother."
"She died in childbirth," said Coburn. "I never knew her myself."
"I came here in '79 from Chicago, two years before that damnable winter."
Coburn nodded, a damnable winter it had been. In the first months of 1881, ill-prepared homesteaders and pioneers on the high plains were hit with wind and snow that seemed almost supernatural in origin. No one could imagine anything worse than the endless days of gray skies and ice, until spring came with a fresh and more relentless pair of hells.
"When the flood came, nobody did more than your Pa." Brahm swallowed his drink and said, "He was a good man. But then the sickness came too. By August he had the fever, a week later, he was gone." Coburn held Brahma's watery gaze. "Your sister died too. Lots more folks."
Coburn stood and walked to the door, a tightness growing in his chest. He and his father had never been close, but his feelings for Rachel, his younger sister, ran deep. Even now there were gifts for her in his saddlebag, gifts she'd never see. Or so he was being told.
"It's only been a few years. Surely 300 people weren't all lost to fever and flood?" said Coburn.
"A handful were left. The last ones headed for higher ground this past spring."
"Then why are the buildings torn to hell? The damage here looks more like the result of dynamite than flood." Coburn glanced again at the pile of wooden crates.
Brahm stood and rounded the table. "Plenty of time to show you." He clapped Coburn on the back. "Have another drink."
"You say you knew my family," said Coburn. "I'd like my gun back."
"Maybe," said Brahm. "After I ask you a couple more questions."
Coburn turned his back, and leaned on the doorframe. "I'm the one should be asking questions."
"What do you know about the hold up of a stage coach here in '80?" said Brahm.
"Nothing," said Coburn.
"Came out of Yankton, carrying mail. Turns out it also had a thousand dollars in gold coins and jewelry."
"Why ask me about it?"
Brahm sucked at his wooden tooth and spit on the floor. "Three men, masked, took the money at gunpoint. And knife point. Shotgun rider on the stage took a throwing dagger to the chest."
"And the driver?"
"Dead too, shot through the neck."
"You got something to say, say it."
"Thing is, the hold-up men just up and vanished. No one saw them leave town."
"Are you saying they stayed here," said Coburn. "Hid out in plain sight?"
"Before long there were stories about how they split the take and each man hid his share here, then rode out later." Brahm lowered his voice. "Was you one of them three men, Peregrine?"
Coburn turned. "I'd like my gun back, Sheriff."
"Maybe you could show me where you hid your share?"
Coburn shook his head. "Point me in the direction of those last town folk so I can head after them."
"No sir," said Brahm. "You better think about what I said. Then, when you're ready to confess," he held his hands out an chuckled, "then we'll make us a deal."
Coburn took a step toward Brahm, felt the back of his skull cave in, and for a long time saw only darkness.
A heavy ball of pain rolling inside Coburn's head forced him to open his eyes to daylight streaming through a window with three iron bars. Everything about the previous day was a kaleidoscope of mixed images. He tried to stand but met immediate resistance, and he fell back against a rusty iron framework. His wrists were bound at floor level with what felt like a leather bridle strap.
"Whoa there, friend. Take it easy, now." The elderly voice came from across the room. Coburn made out the shadow of a fellow prisoner, his arms also bound from behind. "We ain't going anywhere."
"Who are you?" said Coburn through dry, broken lips.
"Name's William Carson. Call me Bill."
"Why are we here? Well, that's easy." Carson tried unsuccessfully to shrug and Coburn saw the other man was tied to the iron frame of a cushionless cot. "We both came in on the middle of some underhanded shenanigans."
"Don't understand." The throbbing pain in his head made it hard to focus.
"Silas Brahm ain't who he claims to be," said Carson.
"Just the opposite, son. He's Jacob Finch. He robbed the Yankton stage with Eli Faraday."
Whiskey and talk of his sister's death had distracted him. Coburn cursed himself for being caught off guard.
"Finch said my sister died, that the valley flooded."
"Red Horizon flooded alright. There was stories as far south as Omaha about the sickness and ague."
"You from Omaha?"
"Deputy federal marshal," said Carson. "I been looking for these boys a long time."
"I knew it wasn't just flood water that ripped apart the buildings."
"He's got a dozen crates of dynamite. Surely been doing some damage." Carson paused. "He got the drop on me when I rode through those cedars behind the church."
"That's where he got me," said Coburn.
"He had another man with him," said Carson. "He's got a new partner."
"Faraday died in Wyoming. On his deathbed, he gave up Finch and admitted to hiding the loot in Red Horizon."
Coburn closed his eyes and thought about the dynamite, the broken buildings.
"Naturally," Carson said, "Faraday didn't say exactly where he'd hidden his share."
"And Finch doesn't know where it is."
"That's right. He's going crazy trying to find it, and not being too careful about the hunt, I might add."
"There's something else he's not too careful about," said Coburn, leaning back into the jail cell door, prying at his right boot with his left toe until the leather slipped.
"He knows me, knows I carry a knife." Coburn shucked his foot from the boot, and the blade slid to the floor within reach of his leg.
"He wants us to escape," said Carson.
Bending his knee, Coburn pulled the knife as close as he could, then used the weight of his body to drag it along the floor under him and back toward his hands. The pain in his head had ballooned, but he got the hilt within reach of his fingertips.
"He knows I've been out west. Maybe thinks I crossed paths with Faraday and came home to pick up his share."
"He's hoping you'll lead him to it," said Carson.
Coburn had the knife between two of his fingers and struggled to slice the tight bonds. In less than five minutes, the job was done. He stood, pulled on his boot and moved toward Carson. With a quick tug, the older man's bonds were cut, and together they moved to the jail cell door.
"Look at this." Carson slid back a single bolt and swung the door wide. "It wasn't even locked."
Coburn's eyes scanned the interior of the wood frame building. The front door faced open prairie toward the crick and a roundabout leading up the cedar trail.
"He'll be watching," said Carson. "Don't forget his partner."
"Doesn't matter," said Coburn, "Wherever we go, Finch is sure to follow."
The fresh autumn air cleared Coburn's head, and he set his sights on the town's one room school house, climbing the trail with Carson on his heels.
"Do you have a plan, John?" said Carson.
"Yep," said Coburn. "I'm going to lead him to Faraday's gold."
Growing up in Red Horizon, Coburn hadn't been much for church. Formal education either, though he recalled more about the inside of the schoolhouse than he cared to admit.
"What's our move here, John?"
Carson stood in the doorway while Coburn moved through the long rows of seats. A blackboard stood in the corner, and the teacher's desk was tipped over backwards, its emptied drawers scattered all around.
Finch had been here, tossing the obvious hiding places, ignoring those he wasn't aware of.
"I came here from the time I was seven until I was twelve," Coburn said. "Teacher's name was Dorothy Kotraba, a sweet old Czech lady."
Carson stepped into the room. "Finch'll be here soon," he said.
"You're right," said Coburn. He looked around the room before closing his eyes and breathing deep. "I can still smell the chalk dust, still hear the girls in the seats behind me giggling. They were twins from a German family."
"Who cares? I'd like to know what you're going to do when Finch gets here."
"You know what made Red Horizon special, Marshal? All the families that settled here from all the different countries. It was a melting pot all by itself." Coburn smiled. "Close your eyes, Carson. You can smell the history." The old man reluctantly complied.
"Do you actually know where Faraday hid his share of the gold?" he said.
"As a matter of fact," said Coburn. "I do."
Carson opened his eyes, and the Peregrine was gone.
The old man met Finch at the door, the fat man panting from the steep incline to the school.
"Where's Coburn?" he sputtered.
"Not sure," said Carson. "He was here just a minute ago."
"If you're double crossing me--" Finch began.
"I'll find him," said Carson.
Finch handed over Coburn's Colt revolver.
"Don't kill him," he said as Carson slipped down from the stone step and jogged around the side of the school. Still breathing hard, Finch pulled a flask from his vest pocket and took a long, hard pull.
"Bless you, Dorothy," Coburn whispered as, crouching in the school's root cellar, he reached for a short coach gun, covered in dust but no doubt functional. Coburn had feigned nostalgia for Carson's sake; far from sweet, Dorothy Kotraba had been a bigoted witch filled with old country conceit. She played favorites among the students, and Coburn was never teacher's pet.
The old buzzard wasn't afraid of much, but living close to the Ponca tribe gave her conniptions. The citizenry of Red Horizon thought the school's cellar was a storehouse for winter potatoes and shelter from spring tornados, which it was, but it was also Miss Kotraba's last line of defense against the Indians. Being safe from floodwaters so high on the hill, it was well stocked with dry ammunition.
Emerging at the southwest corner of the school house, Bill Carson worked his way through a stand of trees and thistles, six-shooter in hand. Coburn stood twenty feet away next to a wood capped hole in the ground, a cistern overgrown with nightshade and clover. Or maybe not a cistern?
"John," said Carson, lowering his gun. "Thank God I found you. Finch is around front."
"Tell me something... Bill," said Coburn.
"Okay, yeah, sure." Carson glanced to the left and right. "But make it quick."
"How'd you know my name? I never told you."
"Well, uh," Carson floundered, "I guess Finch told me when he brought you into the cell."
Coburn nodded. "I thought maybe you recalled the time we spent together in Cheyenne."
"I don't follow you," said Carson.
"The real Marshal Bill Carson was in Cheyenne, at Tom Faraday's death bed. He knows exactly where the money is." Coburn stepped forward and Dorothy Kotraba's short scattergun came up. "You see, I was standing there with him."
Carson swung his arm up, but Coburn pulled the trigger, slamming buckshot into his chest, sending him backward into the woods.
The Peregrine crouched low and reloaded. At the sound of gunfire would Finch come to investigate or high tail it across the prairie? Greed brought him all the way to Red Horizon with a wagonload of dynamite. Coburn doubted Finch would give up now.
Within minutes he knew he'd guessed right.
"I lied about your sister, Peregrine," said Finch from in front of the school. "She didn't die." Coburn gripped the shotgun and clenched his teeth together.
"She was too busy servicing the local gentry to die," said Finch.
Footsteps. Finch was walking forward, his steps deliberate and sure. "Come on out around here. I'll tell you more about the girl."
"I'll tell you what she smelled like."
"What she said in the heat of passion."
Finch pivoted around the corner and fired off three quick shots.
There was no one there.
A short-barreled shotgun lay on the ground.
The big man spun, felt the impact, and saw the carved handle of Coburn's knife protruding from his chest. Without a fight, he fell to the ground and died.
Coburn let the buckskin drink from the trough outside the church. The scent of autumn was full in the air, but the earlier chill was past and the day was warm and promised clear skies. It should be a good day for riding, and maybe, if he was lucky, a clue to the whereabouts of his family and his friends.
He turned and his shadow crossed the fresh graves of Jacob Finch and his partner. Back in Cheyenne, Faraday had confessed that he, Eli Sanders, and Jacob Finch had held up the stage before parting company to hide their loot. Coburn assumed it was Sanders now lying in the ground next to Finch.
Before Faraday passed, he had told Coburn and Carson, the real Bill Carson, one thing more.
The Peregrine entered the church and walked to the base of the heavy walnut altar. He carefully pried off the top before reaching into the hollow space below for the canvas sack he knew would be there.
Richard Prosch has produced an extensive body of creative nonfiction for trade association Web sites and journals.
Alone and with his wife, Gina, he's written for creative projects with Tribune Media Services, Optimist International, and Las Vegas magician Mac Kings Magic in a Minute.
A long time fan of genre fiction, Richard can be found writing about the west at MeridianBridge.com.