Of Smoke & Lilies
August 12, 1892:
“Must be about noon Marcie” Mick said looking up gauging the time of day by the angles of the shadows cast by the sun high above.
Dust swirled on the ground where his horse stamped her feet as the sun beat down on him through the heavy trousers and wool shirt he wore. Mick had ridden since dawn trying to reach Slanton before mid-day, which he now realized was not likely to happen. It was that dusty bullet riddled town to which the trail would eventually lead him. A town that John Morris had told him was home, as of late, to number Twelve.
Prodding his black and white appaloosa horse forward with his boot spurs they trotted down the trail that wound through the mountains of northwest New Mexico. A well-traveled smugglers trail that was easy enough for Mick to follow once he located it just south of the Colorado state line. He had stayed a short time in Durango waiting for a package from Dallas to arrive. Mick kept the horse’s pace steady knowing that it would be a few hours ride into Slanton if the trail stayed clear. Seeing no need to wear the horse down by riding hard for the town, he let her move at a steady pace that ensured she would be ready for the evening’s event. He needed the horse fresh and ready to ride after he dealt with Twelve.
“God Damn sun, gonna be the death of me.” Mick muttered before coughing hard. The condition plagued him more frequently as of late, sounding like a dry rattle in his chest that left him short of breath at times.
The sun had been particularly hot the last few days he had rode. Mirages flickered and swam in the distance as shadows in the rocky wasteland belied a hidden wealth of silver among the foothills of the mountains through which Mick found himself riding. Every “honest” man had found his way to the west, running from their past, the law or even their life back East. But if that were true then either the East was a breeding ground for crooks and murderers or the papers Marcie read were filled with lies. The west was harsh. It took harsh men and made them harsher. Claim jumping and mine raiding were a common occurrence, murder and reports of missing homesteaders plagued the only law office in Logan county eighty miles to the east of Slanton. The word in Durango was that two lawmen came to tame the area a few years earlier. They built a structure and shipped in iron bars and built a small jail. They even put up a sign that read “Marshal” just to show they were serious. It didn’t take long before they were extorting money and strong arming people they were sworn to protect. Turns out they were just as corrupt as the bank they were now protecting.
Honest folk didn’t come this far west, not past the Native lands. It was uncivilized and untamed, a place that bred short lives and shorter tempers. To survive you had to be tough, cautious and mistrusting, even of those who called you friend. Mick knew this all too well, the memory played over in his mind every night. The rope around his neck and the pain of being drug behind Willy’s horse, the horse he had sold the man just a month earlier. That is when Mick learned Words were cheap, but in Slanton words could get a man killed. The rumor was that they held a funeral every other hour every day except on Sunday when the preacher had to take time for the living.
Mick coughed hard again, as the wind kicked up the dust that now coated him from hat to boot. Pulling a bit of cloth out from a pocket he covered his mouth and continued coughing. After a few moments the cough subsided leaving his throat raw and his rag dotted with blood.
“Shit’s getting worse Marcie. You said the dry air would be good for me. Doesn’t seem to be doing me a damn bit O’ good. Yeah laugh it up, you aren’t the one coughing a lung out are ya?” Mick said.
Mick maneuvered the horse around boulders and through a narrow path down into a ravine where the path widened into a valley of green grass and wild flowers growing next to a small steady stream of clear water. Pulling up on the reins as they neared the stream Mick coaxed his horse to a stop, climbed down out of the saddle and stretched his weary back and shoulders. The horse bent and began to drink from the stream lapping at the cool mountain run off. Snow still capped the highest peaks just west of Durango, a sight Mick had marveled at in the August heat. Kneeling down Mick dipped his hand into the stream and tasted the water. He didn’t taste any metals or sulfur from any nearby mining run off in that small sip which was good news. Mick unfastened his water skin and filled it before drinking deeply. Mick filled the water skin again and corked it licking the little bit of water that had spilled out onto his hand, then moved to his saddle and pulled out three more skins filling each before returning them to the saddle bags. Mick patted the spotted horse on her flank before adjusting a strap that had started to rub on her.
Three days he had ridden through the lower mountains of Colorado into the northern territory of New Mexico. It was a wild place still teeming with Natives that raided and butchered anyone they felt had taken their land. The natives were justified as far as Mick was concerned. If someone had walked onto his property and told him it was theirs and to fuck off, he would not have hesitated in using force to protect it. Mick climbed back into the saddle and pulled on the reins pointing his horse back onto the trail and towards Slanton.
It was late in the afternoon when Mick road into Slanton passing the Blacksmith shoeing a horse. The man paid no attention to Mick atop his horse or anyone else passing by in the afternoon haze. Towns that had a reputation like Slanton carried an unwritten rule. “Don’t look a man in the eye unless you had business with him.” Mick had no business with a smithy, but appreciated the man all the same. The only business he had lay with a bottle of something strong. If John Morris had been telling Mick the truth, number Twelve would eventually show his ugly face and other business would ensue.
Mick road past the bank with gold stenciled lettering declaring it “The Slanton Bank and Savings”. A shitty name if Mick ever saw one. Further in, he passed two saloons before stopping at the only hotel in town, The Commons. Riding up to the post Mick pulled his horse to a stop, stepped down from the saddle and tied the reins to the post before walking in the front door. Mick looked about the small lobby before approaching the vacant front desk. With no proprietor there to greet him, Mick picked up the small brass bell, giving one more look about the lobby before he gave it a couple firm shakes. Letting the sound of the bell reverberate around the room, Mick waited a brief moment before setting it back down to silence the small bell.
“Coming, one moment” came a clear accented voice from behind a door down the hall that ran past the front desk. From the gloom of the darkness in the hall appeared a thin man with thinning hair and thin round spectacles resting atop a thin angular nose. Squinting eyes blinked through the lenses as the man adjusted to the late afternoon light flooding in through the windows and open door as he approached the front desk.
“Yes, Yes, how can I help you sir?” asked the aged man.
“Need a room and a bath.” Mick said as he pulled out a silver dollar and placed it on the counter in front of the thin man.
“Of course sir, what name would you like to register under?” The thin man said pulling a ledger in front of him before dipping a quill in a vial of ink.
“Thomas, Elisha Thomas.” Mick said without a second thought.
“Very good Mr. Thomas, if you would follow me I believe we have a room for you on the second floor and I’ll have a bath drawn up for you. It is located just down this hall, last door on the right. Fresh linens will be on the bench next to the basin for you in the bath room. My name is Eric Hanz and if there is any way I can be of service just let me know.” Eric said as he walked towards the staircase to the right of the front desk.
Eric escorted Mick to the second floor. The second door on the right was a plain dark wood door, marked in white wash, the room number “22”. Hanz unlocked the door with a swift practiced motion and waved Mick inside the room before offering to have his clothes washed and hot ironed for a small fee. Mick declined the offer but asked the man instead to have his horse tended to. Eric agreed with a nod of his head then handed the large key to Mick, leaving the room with no mention of a fee. Mick sat on the small bed feeling the mattress give under his weight. It had been a long time since he sat on a bed, much less slept in one. Laying back onto the bed Mick felt the weariness of the road coax his eyes closed as sweet slumber found him all too quickly.
A crash woke Mick. Instinctively he reached for his Colt on his hip, but found it was not in the holster. Quickly he surveyed the room expecting to find the gun in the hand of one of the Thirteen. Instead Mick found his gun lying on the wood slatted floor under the window. Bullets were set up in a triangle around the gun which pointed east. Each bullet stood erect towards the ceiling. Mick took a deep breath and exhaled with a bit of a rattle in his chest. The scent of lilies hung heavy in the air about the room as he continued to look about for any sign of intruders until he was satisfied that he was alone.
“God damn it Marcie! You scared the shit out of me. Stop playing around with my gun, I need that.” Mick said as he sat up from the bed and stood.
Walking over to where the gun lay he stretched his back and arms yawning as he worked the tension out of his bones. Looking down he saw the gun in the center of the triangle of bullets and picked up the revolver spinning the cylinder taking note that each of the six chambers were now empty. Mick then picked up each of the fifteen bullets sliding the first six into the chambers of his Colt then the remaining nine back into the bandolier built into the belt of the holster.
“Fifteen, I know it was fifteen. Thirteen did the taking and two did the paying.”
Mick finished replacing the bullets and walked over to the small table with a basin. The large jar next to the basin was full of water, and Mick picked the vessel up and poured a fair amount into the large bowl. Splashing water on his face letting the water work its way into his beard, he then began wiping away the dirt and sweat from days of riding until the basin was brown with dirt and sweat. Mick looked out the small window and could see the sun was still up though it was starting to recede into the west.
Better get to it. Mick thought as he finished washing his hands then wiped them dry on the towel next to the Jar and began to cough. Breath escaped him as he gasped attempting to breathe until he found himself holding onto the dresser with both hands, attempting to remain standing as he endured the coughing fit. Darkness engulfed his vision as he clung to the table hoping the fit would pass. He coughed until his lungs felt like torn bed sheets and that at any moment they would be ripped from his chest. After a span of time that seemed to fill eternity the coughing subsided leaving him weak and shaking. Mick steadied himself, picked up the towel again wiping away the spittle that hung from his mouth, then spat out the iron taste of blood then wiped his mouth again. Blood speckled crimson the towel, just as it had for months now any cloth he used to cover his fits. Mick ran his hand through his thinning hair, picked up his hat from the bed and placed it atop his brow. Checking his gun and ammunition on his belt one last time Mick adjusted it to sit a little lower on his hips.
“Steady ol boy.” Mick said to himself as he walked towards the door feeling the slight sense of vertigo that sometimes came after a bout of coughing. The doctor back in Texas had given him a year at best to live. It had been thirteen months since the docs gave him the death sentence. He had unfinished business to attend before he could sit at the table with the Reaper. Unfinished business had taken him through Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado, and now it led him to Slanton and a man who had a number on his head. Twelve.
Mick entered the hallway remembering he had asked for a bath to be dawn for him. It had been a couple hours since he fell asleep he guessed. The water would be cold by now. “Damn” he muttered then walked down the short hall to the narrow staircase leading back to the first floor and the room that Hanz had pointed out earlier.
Inside, the room was simple, sanded wood floors stained dark contrasted the metal tub sitting in the middle of the room. A fire was still burning in the fireplace along the wall with four buckets sitting near the fire. Mick checked the buckets and found they were still very hot. Mick picked up the towel that lay near one of the buckets. Wrapping the towel around a handle of one of the buckets he carried it over to the bath and dumped the steaming water into the tepid water that currently occupied half the tub. Mick repeated the process three more times before undressing then hanging his gun belt just over the side of the tub within reach. Picking up the small bar of soap Mick settled into the hot bath and began to scrub.
The Slanted Saloon
The sun had all but set when Mick stepped out onto Main Street from the Commons Hotel. Oil lanterns were being lit at the entrances to a few buildings by some Asian who like so many could have ended up anywhere after the railroad work dried up, but somehow ended up in places like Slanton. Nearby someone played a piano out of tune, which made it sound more like a dying animal than any melody Mick had heard before. Though the tune was off, it was jovial and fit for a saloon full of patrons soaking their worries and weariness away with the libations on offer. The sounds of piano keys ringing, mugs clinking and men talking over one another emanated from the saloon two buildings down from the Common’s. A man stumbled out of the open doorway, stopping to let his blurry and glassy eyes adjust to the darkness that crept over the small town before the stumbling past Mick.
As Mick walked the short distance the sound of his booted steps were quickly drowned out by the noise of men, booze and whores. Stopping a brief moment before crossing the threshold he took a raspy breath while looking over the crowded room hoping to see a man fitting the description John Morris gave before expiring.
Mick walked into the Saloon past the dice and cards being played and sat down at the bar. Setting his hat down on the bar next to him he motioned for the Barkeep who stood cleaning a mug before setting it down and acknowledging him.
“Welcome to the Slanted Saloon stranger, what can I do ya for?” The man behind the bar dressed in a white shirt and dark pants with the cleaning rag still in hand asked.
“Whisky, a double.” Mick replied pulling out a Morgan dollar.
The barman poured the drink and took the coin making a mental note of the man with a thin face behind a graying beard and weary eyes sitting drinking the double whisky.
Mick watched the reflections in the mirror behind the bottles of booze lining the bar in front of him. Watching for the man John Morris had told him of just before he bled to death from a cleaver imbedded into his enormous gut. A cleaver placed there by Mick when John A.K.A “Tiny” had chosen to be uncooperative. John had been number Eleven, Luther Cottingham was number Twelve. “A short stocky fellow wearing a purple cloth about his neck, likely swinging his prized pocket watch” was the description Mr. Morris had given before rudely expiring and shitting himself. The memory of the man who had stood near seven feet tall and wider than most doors laying near the rear exit of the butcher shop in a trash filled alley of the small town of Dunthorn Kansas brought a familiar rush of anger and satisfaction to Mick.
His glass now empty he swirled the base of the glass on the polished wood bar before tapping the glass with his finger and pushing it away from him.
“Another?” The barkeep asked loudly over the roar of the crowd as he walked back towards Mick.
“Yeah, keep them coming if you would.” Mick said as he continued to watch the entrance to the saloon in the mirror.
Mick adjusted himself in the saddle atop his horse then loosened a fifty foot length of rope and tied a Honda knot. Once satisfied with his knot Mick stretched enough slack in the rope to lasso the man fitting the description of Luther Cottingham that had entered the Saloon an hour earlier while Mick sat at the bar. Mick had waited long enough to overhear someone sitting at the table with the man wearing a purple kerchief and a dangling chain to a pocket watch say the name Luther. The name rang clear, like a bullet fired in a quiet church service piercing through the noise in the saloon. Mick tied one end of the rope to his saddle securing it. Standing up in the stirrups, he slid the rope under his leg so the rope wouldn’t lie over his leg while he rode out of town. The moon was out bright and nearly full. The night air was clean and crisp. It was nights like this Marcie would sit with him on the porch, and talk into the wee hours before dawn. Now she silently waited for Mick to deal with number Twelve. Mick shook his head to clear it of the thoughts and memories of her. He needed to be sharp and focused. This would likely be his only chance to have a conversation in an advantageous manner with Mr. Luther.
As Mick sat watching patrons come and go, time drug on for what seemed an eternity. Finally, after more time than he was comfortable waiting, a short man stumbled out of the saloon swinging a pocket watch on a chain, a flash of purple shone in the light escaping from inside the saloon around the man’s neck. Mick wasted no time, kicking his spurs hard into the horse’s flank and with practiced precision lassoed the man about his arms and chest, the rope pulled tight as Mick spurred the horse on.
“Hya!” Mick yelled at his horse which quickly gained speed and reached a dead run by the end of the second storefront. A jolt under his leg announced the weight of Luther being pull to the ground and being dragged along the dirt road out of town, all the while cursing.
It happened too fast for anyone to get a good look at who it was that was being drug or who was dragging the man down the road. It was dark and only the silhouettes of a horse and rider along with their prize could be seen by those standing inside the saloon.
Mick rode hard pushing the appaloosa’s strength to the limit. She had proven she was capable before while they were in Nebraska, and he hoped that she was fresh enough to do the same tonight. They road into the barren land outside Slanton dragging Luther behind until the town’s lights started to fade. Mick pulled up on the reins and slowed the beast to a halt and climbed down. As his boots hit the ground he pulled his Colt 1873 out and pointed it at the dust covered man who now bled from multiple wounds about his face and chest.
“Luther Cottingham.” Mick said sternly.
“Fuck you pig, you don’t know who I am.” The man said spitting blood onto the ground then looking up at Mick. One eye had begun to swell shut while the other stared, filled with hatred and defiance.
“John Morris and I had a nice conversation, he was kind enough to tell me where to find you. Told me what you look like. He was even nice enough to enlighten me as to what you did to my Marcie. Do you remember Marcie?” Mick asked pointing the gun at Luther who started to roll on the ground trying to get up.
Mick kicked him hard in the stomach dropping the man back to the dirt. “I didn’t say you could get up”.
“Fuck you, I don’t know no Marcie.” Luther said through a gasp.
“Think real hard. Texas, a woman with dirty blonde hair, you and twelve others took and...” Mick began to violently cough. Trying to stop the cough Mick pushed the words out “raped her” before the pain in his lungs nearly doubled him over leaving him gasping for air.
“You? Ain’t you supposed to be dead?” Recognition had settled on Luther’s face as he realized who the man before him was. The same man they had lassoed and drug nearly to death outside Amarillo Texas after he refused to sell his land to the railroad. “Cancer isn’t it? Heard you died up in Kansas looking for Tiny.”
Luther tried to get up onto his knees and stand but was met with the butt of Mick’s Colt across his face knocking him back to the ground. Mick spit blood and through gasps said “Heard wrong”.
The coughing subsided enough for Mick to roll Luther onto his stomach and tie his hands with the loose length of rope still around his chest. Rolling him over and into a sitting position, Mick pushed the barrel of his gun to the side of Luther’s bloody head.
“Now, tell me who was the leader of your merry band of rapists or God help me I will make you suffer such as no man walking this earth has known.” Mick said feeling very tired and winded.
“I ain’t telling you shit.” Luther spit into Mick’s face.
Wiping the spittle away from his face Mick holstered his gun then reached down to the curved blade in its scabbard on his opposite leg turning it over in his hand twice.
“The doctor in Dallas said it’s tuberculosis, said you catch it by sharing the same air as someone who already has it.”
Mick leaned in close enough to breathe on Luther’s face letting the sound of his lungs rattle as the man tied and bound understood what Mick was doing to him.
“I think you will tell me what I want to know, I think you will tell me where your boss is now and what his real name is. The good doctor said they can cure the tuberculosis if they catch it early enough. You might have a chance. But if you don’t tell me exactly what I want to hear then by all the gods that have come before man, you will beg for death before dawn.”
Fast as lightning Mick whipped the blade down hard onto Luther’s head striking him with the wooden handle atop the crown of his head. Luther fell to his side limp and remained motionless while Mick tried to calm his heart which had been beating nearly out of his chest from his restraint of the coughing fit. Attempting to catch his breath Mick sat down next to the limp form and leaned back looking up at the stars as a stray few clouds drifted lazily through the New Mexico night sky. After a few moments Mick placed the curved blade back into its scabbard and lifted the short man up onto the horse and tied him in the saddle. Taking the reins in hand, Mick fought the weariness threatening to overtake him as his strength waned. Pointing the horse towards the deep rocky terrain far from the town of Slanton Mick let the horse plot its own course and did his best to stay in the saddle as she trotted along carrying the weight of two men. He needed to be further away from Slanton to have a proper discussion with Luther.
August 13, 1892. 3:52AM:
The moon shown down with pale illumination upon the small round pocket watch in Mick’s hand. The steady spinning of the intricate gears nearly inaudible in the night air, Mick took note of the fine craftsmanship of the piece, and the time. 3:52am.
Pulling a small paper packet from a shirt pocket Mick ripped open the top of the packet before waving it in front of Luther’s slumped head, his chin now resting on his chest. Waving it a few times in front of Luther’s nose and mouth, the man responded with a jerk of his head before opening his eyes then closing them again. Squinting from the pain that pounded throughout his skull Luther struggled for a moment before squinting again from the open wound atop his head.
Blood had run down into his one good eye matting it. Mick reached for the purple kerchief hanging from his prisoner’s neck pulling it free, spat on the cloth then preceded to wipe the blood away from Luther’s eye. The man lay on the ground hands tied behind his back and legs and feet tied together with separate lengths of rope.
“I want you to see my face when we are talking. I want you to know I mean what I say.” Mick said wiping the last of the blood from Luther’s eye before tossing the kerchief on his tied legs.
“Alright, alright you son of a bitch, what do you want to know. Fuck, did you have to hit me so damn hard?” Luther said still squinting from the throbbing he continued to feel.
“I want to know who the leader of your little group was. I want to know where he eats, sleeps, shits, and most importantly, where I can find him. I want you to tell me right now or I will do far worse than that little scrape on your head.” Mick said as he helped the man into a sitting position.
Luther began to laugh. “You’re a dead man, a dead man trying to do right by his Bitch!”
Mick punched him with a left hook that snapped his head to the side like a flag in the wind.
“His name?” Mick asked again.
“She was all used up by the time I got to her. She wasn’t even fighting anymore, just laid there, like a paid whore.” Luther said. Mick hit him again, this time from the right.
“Give me a name” Mick said breathing hard.
“Fuck, she ain’t worth all this trouble. Just a strumpet, get another one, or a dozen and go plough yourself!” Luther said laughing, his mouth filling with blood.
Mick pulled the curved knife back out from its scabbard, reached over with his left hand and pulled hard on Luther’s right ear then sliced it off in one motion. Mick then slapped the severed ear on Luther’s forehead as the man screamed then tossed it out to the side.
“Aah you fucking cunt! Fuck you, fuck you, you god damn son of a Ahhhgg” Luther screamed as Mick stabbed the knife into the man’s right leg about an inch.
Leaning on the knife, it slid deeper in Luther’s leg until it stopped when it hit bone. Mick tapped the handle making it sway ever so slightly to one side in Luther’s leg then said. “You mention my wife again and I will make sure you know what your guts taste like before you die.”
Panic and pain splayed across Luther’s face, as he looked Mick in the eyes and through gritted teeth said “You’d be looking for Cormick. Don’t know his last name, fuck, that might be his last name. I never asked. He was just Cormick, he yelled and we listened.” Luther pushed himself up into a better sitting position. “Logan, he is in Logan with the Sheriff’s men.”
“Thanks”. Mick said through a rasp of blood in his lungs while pulling the blade from Luther’s leg and receiving a satisfying groan through gritted teeth. Mick wiped the blade on Luther’s shirt, wiping away the blood from the blade as best he could.
“So, what now? Gonna let me go right? Told ye’ what ya’ wanted to know”. Luther said through still half gritted teeth looking up at Mick then down to his bleeding leg.
Mick stood up sheathing the blade, coughed a shallow raspy breath then spit red. The wind had picked up a bit carrying the sound of coyotes not far off. A wisp of a smile crossed his lips as the howling grew. He walked to his horse just a few yards away and pulled the reins loose from a strap they had become entangled in, placed one hand on the pommel of the saddle, and pulled himself onto the horse. Weary from the long encounter with Luther his legs felt heavy, like when he was a youngster swimming in the river near his folks’ homestead. A second attempt at moving his legs proved more successful as he found one stirrup, then the other.
Luther watched as Mick mounted his horse looking weary and frail, knowing that belied the rage that must be keeping him alive. The howl of a coyote drew his gaze away from the man in dusty leather and back towards the area in which Mick had tossed his severed ear. Blood was still pouring from the wounds on both his head and leg now.
“No mister! Ya can’t leave a fella like this, it’s just wrong. Ain’t Christian like!” yelled Luther.
Mick looked over at the man still bound by his rope, bleeding, aware of his impending death. A smile crept over his dry lips as Mick pulled his hat down lower over his head and turned east. The sun would be up in a couple of hours and miles needed to be covered.
With a sharp jab of Mick’s spurs the brown and white spotted appaloosa set off towards the east, away from Slanton, leaving behind Luther and the howls of hungry creatures. The west made men harsh, but even the harsh wail as babes when a pack of coyotes finds them tied and bleeding.