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Published on Sunday, March 14, 2010

Strength in Numbers

By K.G. McAbee

 

Luke Zane holstered his still smoking revolver.

That scalawag had sure had it coming to him, sticking his long nose into Luke's claim. Luke had heard the rumors from the other folks working claims round about; thanks to them, he'd known to be on his guard. But this here little visit was still kind of a surprise.

   

Some men just asked to be taught a lesson. And Luke had decided that he was the one who was going to do the teaching.

He slid his battered Stetson up and eyed the man slumped over the pommel as the roan filly headed away across the flatlands. One of the scoundrel's arms hung useless and Luke could see the dark patch of blood against the man's pale shirtsleeve.

"Serves him right," Luke said out loud, though there was no one near who could hear him except for his sturdy little stock pony, Jessie. "We won't be seein' him again any time soon, will we, girl? At least, we better not-- for his own sake."

Zane turned and strode towards his bedroll near the deep, rushing stream where he and Jessie had been panning. A fire crackled and sent out whiffs of sagebrush and pine, mingled with the smell of the pot of beans. Luke grabbed a pot and headed towards the stream.

That stream, tumbling over rocks and boulders, had been awful good to him so far.

Sweet water.

Fish to fry.

And a double handful of nuggets, yellow as an Arizona sunrise.

He came back to his cook fire and hung the pot over it to boil.

"After I have me a bite," he told Jessie, "I'm thinking we'd best pay us a visit to the neighbors."

Jessie cropped another mouthful of grass.

 

*         *        *

 

Clifford Bones cursed as he headed his horse towards town. He had to direct the stubborn filly with his knees. His left arm hung useless; blood poured around his fingers.

Bones cast a quick glance over his shoulder.

Zane wasn't following. But the dusty ground behind was darkened by splotches of his own blood.

Bones kicked his horse.

He had to reach the saloon and report to Mr. McCoy what he'd found out. Zane, the most recently arrived of all them pesky gold panners, had made him a strike the likes of which Bones had never seen. And not only did the fool refuse to agree to the usual split, like the rest, but he'd laughed at Bones.

And then shot him.

Gold. Even in the short time he'd been there-- between the 'howdy' and the bullet that entered his left arm somewhere up near the shoulder-- Bones could tell the section of stream where Zane was panning had to be thick with nuggets, sparkling in the deep water, and strewn out on the

shore like bright shiny buttons. Heck, he had picked up one his own self; it sat securely in his vest pocket right now.

Mr. McCoy needed to know. Because Mr. McCoy had not become the richest man in Dry Gulch by running the saloon. He made his money by taking a percentage from all the gold panners in the hills, in return for protection.

And Luke Zane had not only refused to pay his share, but he'd taken a pot shot at Clifford Bones, enforcer to Mr. Bartholomew J. McCoy.

Bones raised his head. Funny how it kept falling down on him, and every time he raised it back up, it got harder and harder to do. And that darned horse of his! Useless varmint. She kept on slowing down to grab a mouthful of grass, and kicking her with his spurs was just getting too much goldarned trouble...

The sun was high overhead, burning the back of his neck. Must have lost his hat somewhere...

But if the sun was so high, why was it getting dark? A gray mist surrounded him, thick, dark, and hard to see through.

Bones' head fell forward again.

The thirsty roan filly, her belly growling, her sides slashed and bleeding, slowed down, reached out for a mouthful of grass. She felt her rider topple sideways.

One boot, caught by its ugly spiked spur, hung fast in a stirrup. But the other boot's spur fell against the roan's already torn flesh.

With a whiny of pain, she forgot her grass and began to gallop towards town and her home at the livery stable.

Clifford Bones, no longer able to hold his broken, bleeding arm, his dirty shirt drenched in bright red blood, was finally going to make it back to town.

At least, what was left of him after being dragged over three miles of rocky, dusty plain.

 

*         *        *

 

"Mr. McCoy!"

A scrawny man in a battered bowler hat pushed through the door into the Golden Eagle saloon. Aside from a table full of poker players in one corner, muttering and slapping cards down, the dusty room was empty.

The barkeep eyed the intruder. Eyed, since the barkeep only had one; the other was hidden behind a black patch. The patch covered the missing eye, but it didn't do a good job of hiding the scar that started high on the huge man's bald head, disappeared behind the patch, then exited and sliced across a round cheek the color of raw meat.

"Mister McCoy is busy," growled the barkeep in a voice so deep it made the bottles behind him shimmer. "And I don't believes you want to go bothering him none when he's busy, do you, Tiny Wilkins?"

The scrawny man took a step back; his Adam's apple peeked out of the top of his ragged shirt then headed for a safer location. "No, sir, I purely do not. But Clifford Bones just got dragged into the livery stable and he's deader'n anybody I done seen this week. I thought as how maybe Mister McCoy might want to know about it, is all. Why don't you go tell him your own self, then, Jasper Pike? I got me a livery service to run."

Pike dropped his rag and moved quicker than a man that size had a right to. He was around the bar and had a heavy hand on a scrawny shoulder before the small man had turned completely around.

"Well, why didn't you say so?" he asked, his growl even deeper. "Mr. McCoy is back in his office. You come along with me."

Tiny Wilkins knew better than to argue as he was dragged to a door behind the bar.

Inside, a tidy roll-top desk took up nearly one whole wall. Beside it was a rickety table that held scales and a pile of cloth bags, where a man with a green eyeshade sat weighing gold and putting it into small cloth bags. At the far end of the long, narrow room, behind a sturdy table, sat a man who seemed out of place in these surroundings.

Bartholomew James McCoy looked to be a tall man, even sitting down. His eyes were pale green and they bulged from his lean face, giving him the appearance of a lizard sitting in the sun. He was dressed in a black suit and vest, with a snowy shirt and a string tie that had about a pound of silver and turquoise holding it tight around his neck.

Tiny Wilkins pulled off his hat. "Mister McCoy, I done come to bring you some bad news."

"Bad news, Tiny?" asked McCoy. His voice didn't sound at all like the hiss of a lizard. It was slow and dreamy, almost as if he were drugged.

"Yessir. Clifford Bones just a little while ago come back to town."

"As he was told to do, once he'd got that new tramp signed up."

"Yessir. But Ol' Cliff ain't too perky, as you might say."

Bartholomew McCoy rose to his feet, slowly. "Spit it out, Tiny."

Tiny Wilkins knew that when McCoy spoke softly, it was time to high tail it to somewheres safe. He began to babble. "Yessir, he's dead. Shot through the left arm. Appears the shot broke the bone and nicked that big vein so's he bled out. He's white as snow, and his shirt is awful bloody, Mr. McCoy, and he ain't smellin' too sweet neither. And he's done messed up one a my best fillies real bad. Are you gonna pay me for her, sir?"

McCoy smiled. "Don't you always get what's coming to you, Tiny?"

  

"Yessir." Tiny nodded so hard his bowler dislodged and fell to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, jammed it tightly on his head to prevent it from escaping again, and turned to go, since he had done everything he had come to do, and wanted nothing so much as to be back in the stables. Horses were a sight better company than McCoy and his boys.

Jasper Pike reached for Tiny's shoulder, but the small man scuttled past the huge barkeep and was gone.

"Let him go, Jasper. Smitty, where was Bones going this morning?" asked McCoy.

The man in the eyeshade glanced at a sheet of paper tacked to the wall in front of his table. "That new hombre out near Devil's Fork. Luke Zane. He's only been panning that section of his claim a week or so. Bones is-- was going to tell him what was what, give him the rules and sign him up."

"Jasper. Tell a couple of the boys to saddle up. Looks like I need to pay a personal visit to Mr. Zane."

 

*         *        *

 

Luke Zane had eaten his dinner, paid his visits, washed his dishes and was sitting by his campfire rolling a cigarette. He'd already spread his bedroll out, and Jessie was grazing near a pile of boulders. There were other boulders across the stream, as if some great flood had brought them.

That much McCoy could see from the top of the low hill where he and four of his men sat their horses.

"It appears Mr. Zane is planning to have himself an early night," McCoy said.

One of his men laughed. "Probably his last, huh, boss?"

Two other men laughed as well. The laughs were not pleasant. Neither were the men.

"Oh, I'm sure Mr. Zane will see reason," McCoy said. "After all, getting to keep half of his gold is better than having none, right? Yes, why shouldn't he be happy with that? All the others are."

"I just bet he will be pleased as all get out, sir," said Jasper Pike, whose horse was panting after carrying so much weight, even only the short distance from town.

Bartholomew McCoy did not reply. Instead, he kicked his horse.

The others followed him towards Zane's claim.

 

*         *        *

 

Luke Zane didn't even get up off of his bedroll when the four men on horses rode up. Instead, he lolled backwards, resting on his saddle and grinned at his visitors.

"Mr. Zane?" asked a tall drink of water dressed in black, riding a black horse.

"That's my name," Luke allowed.

"I understand you had a visitor today?"

"Did I now?" He took a drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out.

"Yes sir, I believe you did. An employee of mine, name of Clifford Bones."

"There was a man come out here earlier today, now that I recall. I sent him about his business. And I'll thank you and your boys to be about your own." Luke pushed his Stetson up a bit with one long finger.

"I'm Bartholomew J. McCoy," the man said. "I run the town of Dry Gulch, and I own most of the land hereabouts."

"Well now, Mr. McCoy," Luke said. "My name is Luke Zane. And I'll tell you, it's mighty nice of you to come calling to welcome me, but it weren't necessary."

McCoy's pale face blazed red in anger. "Welcome! Mr. Zane, my man Bones is dead. The trail of his blood led me and my boys straight in this direction."

"Are you a lawman, then, Mr. McCoy?" Luke asked lazily. "Cause I ain't seein' no badge."

"There's no law for a hundred miles," McCoy snapped. "We're in the Territories. But his death isn't why I'm here. Bones come out to tell you that I take fifty percent of everything any of you gold panners find hereabouts."

"Yes sir, I believes he did mention something along those lines," Luke nodded. "And I believes I asked him who made you God and president?" McCoy's men all drew their guns. McCoy raised his hand.

"Mr. Zane, let's be reasonable. You're outnumbered and outgunned. If you come into town for supplies without your being signed up as one of mine, nobody will sell you a bean or a bullet. Nobody will buy your gold off of you, either, not unless you ride for hundreds of miles to the next town. So unless you've found a way to live off water and sagebrush, you're out of luck"

Luke elbowed himself off the ground. "Mr. McCoy, I deeply appreciate your concern for my well being, I do indeed," he said, and there was not a trace of laziness left in his voice. "In fact, I might go as far as to say I'm touched. But I will be tarred and feathered before I will split my hard-earned gold with you fifty-fifty or any other way. Now, is that clear enough for you and your friends here to understand? Cause I'm telling you, there ain't one of them that looks like he can understand more than one word in four of what I'm saying. Especially that one there with one eye. What happened to it, son? Did some working girl scratch it out to keep you from squashing her flat?"

Jasper Pike growled and cocked his pistol. McCoy's other men followed suit.

McCoy raised his hand. "Wait just a minute, boys. Zane, I'm a reasonable man. I'll give you one more chance. After all, every other penny ante panner hereabouts is splitting with me. I can't let you be the only one who ain't. How would that make me look?" He smiled a slow smile; it gave his lean face the look of a grinning skull.

"Well now, Mr. McCoy." Luke stood up and looked around. "I'm thinking that maybe-- just maybe-- that ain't going to be a problem for you in the very near future."

A shot rang out from somewhere behind Luke's back.

A small red hole appeared in Jasper Pike's forehead, just to the left of the strap that held his eye patch. A surprised look filled his single eye as he began to topple slowly sideways. His horse shied and bumped the horse of the man next to him. That man's pistol went off wildly, and a spurt of dirt flew up a few feet from Luke.

Luke's gun appeared as he hunkered down behind a convenient boulder, but other shots were coming, from several different directions.

"It's an ambush, boys," one of McCoy's men shouted, just before he took a bullet in the middle of his chest. He toppled off his horse.

More shots, all from out of nowhere. Horses whinnied in fear and danced back from the noise and the stench of two dead men, then turned and raced towards town. The two dead men became four. A man rose from behind a pile of rocks and fired a shotgun into one; the other tried to turn his horse and escape, but it tripped and threw him, hard, to the ground. His head hit a rock and cracked open like a ripe pumpkin.

In the space of a few heartbeats, only McCoy was still alive.

He trained his revolver on Luke Zane. "What do you think you're doing, Zane? Do you think you'll get away with this?"

A gunshot rang out. McCoy's revolver flew from his shattered hand and he hissed in pain.

Luke Zane stood up. "Looks like we're done, folks," he called out.

Several men and one woman came out from various hiding spots behind rocks and boulders. All held pistols except the woman, who looked almost too small to carry the shotgun in her hands. A man stood up from across the stream, a rifle in the crook of his arm.

"Well, now, Mr. McCoy." Luke ambled forward, looking sleepy, but his gun never wavered; it was pointed directly at McCoy. "I don't know if you've ever met any of these here nice folks, but they're some of the ones who've been giving you half of everything they've earned by the sweat of their brow, as it says in the Good Book. Reckon they all got tired of it. So we all decided we had to stick together and do something about it."

McCoy tried to grin, but the result was little more than a grimace of pain. "Now, let's listen to reason, Zane, and all you folks," he said. "Ain't no reason to do anything we'll all regret in the morning. After all, I'll be missed--"

"Oh, now, I'm guessing not," Luke said. "As a matter of fact, I'm right sure that there ain't nobody in town who'll go looking for you. You ain't exactly the most popular citizen of Dry Gulch, now are you?"

"What-- what are you going to do?" McCoy sputtered.

Luke jerked his head towards the stream. "This here is a mighty nice little stream. It's done give me plenty to eat, and plenty to drink, and a right smart amount of gold to boot. Now it's going to get rid of the trash for me and my friends."

A single shot rang out.

THE END

 

K.G. McAbee has had more than a dozen books and nearly seventy short stories published. Her work has won a variety of awards, including the Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence from Reviewers International, first place in the Writers' Journal Fiction Contest, the Independent E-Book Award for Best Reference Book, and the Dream Realm Award for Best YA Fantasy; she is also a Derringer Award finalist in mystery.

 

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