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Authors: Phil Dunlap

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Chapter 12

C
otton was cleaning a rifle at his desk when Jack stormed in and slammed his hat on the floor. He dropped into a straight-back chair and crossed his arms. He looked like he'd either bitten into a persimmon or was ready to go out and kill someone. Cotton didn't look up when he noted Jack's foul mood.

“Melody stomp on your foot, Jack? Maybe she dropped somethin' foul in your porridge. Which is it?” Cotton said nonchalantly.

“It's not funny, Cotton. She's gone completely out of her mind.”

“You say it as if I didn't already know that.”

“I doubt you knew about this latest dumb move.”

“Try me.”

“She woke me up to tell me she's goin' to buy Pick Wheeler's silver mine. There, now tell me you knew she'd do something
that
stupid.”

Cotton frowned and worked his mouth.

“She tell you why she decided to do such a thing?”

“Said we'll be rich, by damn. Rich! Do you believe it?”

“Pick has been pullin' little bits of silver out of there for quite a spell, maybe he's just tired and wants to quit.”

“Uh-huh, and he's found himself a willin' sucker to make his getaway complete.”

“What'd you say when she told you?”

“What could I say? I told her she was crazy, but it
is
her money and I don't have any say in how she spends it.”

“You askin' me to do somethin'?”

“No. I know you can't do anything unless it was illegal or he held her at gunpoint.”

“When's the deal goin' down?”

“Aww, hell, she's over at the bank as we speak signin' the papers. I just hope she doesn't plan on
me
diggin' in the ground for her. That isn't about to happen.”

“The assayer probably would be willin' to go out and take a look if she asked him real purty-like. Better yet, why don't
you
ask him?”

“She says Pick took her out and showed her through the mine hisself. Held the lantern up so she could see all the sparkly pieces of pay dirt just drippin' off the walls.”

“That's interestin'.”

“Why do you say that, Cotton?”

“That isn't the way silver shows itself. Might not hurt for you to go out and take a peek in that mine yourself.”

“Any chance you'd be interested in ridin' out with me?”

“On the possibility that Melody has gotten in over her head, once again? Not a chance.”

“I know you got no love for Melody, but you'd be doin' a friend a favor. Look at it that way. I mean if Melody loses everything she's built here, she'll be forced to go back to Gonzales. Then I'd have to make a choice whether to go with her or stay on as your deputy.”

“Sounds like your decision might come from below your waist.”

“It's not funny, Cotton. At least think on it. I need help here.”

Cotton rubbed his chin. “All right, I'll think on it. But right now, I got to find someone to finish up workin' on some of the guns that Burnside left. Since we don't know how to locate the nephew, the store is kinda up for grabs. And folks need their guns.”

“Well, don't cogitate on it too long. I'd like to make sure the deal is honest before Pick folds up his tent and heads for parts unknown.”

“Right now, I'm goin' to Burnside's store and try to take some sort of inventory. Then I'll have to notify folks with guns in there bein' worked on. They can either pick them up or wait till we get another gunsmith. Why don't you come along? It'd make my job go a tad bit faster with two of us on it.”

Jack nodded and followed Cotton out the door.

* * *

As Cotton and Jack were passing by the bank, Melody, Pick Wheeler, and bank manager Darnell Givins were just stepping out. They stopped to chat among themselves on the boardwalk in front of the double glass doors. On a bench under the bank's large front window sat a man in a long black duster smoking a long, thin cigar, hat pulled low. The three paid him no mind. Melody was so excited about what she'd done, she kept reminding Pick that with all that money she'd just paid him, she hoped he wouldn't go out and squander it foolishly. He assured her he wouldn't, as he patted a large bulge in his pocket.

“Mighty nice doin' business with you, Miss Melody,” Pick said with a wide grin.

He tipped his hat to the others and started off down the street. Melody and Darnell continued their conversation, although a little less enthusiastically.

“I hope you know what you're doing, Melody. Pick makes a
very small amount
of money from the mine, and he sure hasn't gotten filthy rich off it.”

“Likely because he's such a lazy oaf. Why, I saw that silver for myself, sparkling in the light, coming from everywhere. Instead of being a tightwad, wanting to keep it all for himself, he could have hired some men to help him. If he'd been more industrious, he most certainly would have made it big. And that's exactly what I'm intending to do.” She turned on her heel and strutted down the boardwalk back to the saloon. She held her head high just to make sure all the ladies in town noticed her.

When Darnell went back inside the bank, the man on the bench got up and strolled off, crossing the street and heading for where the sheriff and his deputy had gone in—the gunsmith shop. The man waited for a few minutes, then pushed inside. Cotton looked up at the sound of the bell over the door.

“Sorry, mister, but the gunsmith shop is closed. The owner died and we're takin' inventory to determine what to do with all guns in here,” Cotton said.

“I heard about the unfortunate accident. When I asked about where to buy ammunition, the bartender at the saloon told me all about how the poor man fell and hit his head. It's a rotten shame; it surely is.”

“Yeah, well come back after we've straightened this out. Uh, I didn't catch the name, mister.”

“Name's Carp Varner, Sheriff, and I may be able to lend a hand.”

“Well, Mr. Varner, I'm not certain how you can help, but I
do
appreciate the offer.”

“The way is simple. Let the town allow me to work the business until other arrangements can be made, and it can rake off a percentage of the profits. You see, I
am
a gunsmith.”

“Hey, Cotton, that sounds like a solution, doesn't it?” Jack said, looking pleased at an outcome that would prevent him sitting on a stool writing down all the guns and pieces of guns in column after column.

Cotton seemed to be thinking it over when Carp spoke up again. “Tell you what. Let me fix a couple of the firearms that need it the most, and you can judge my work. I wouldn't expect a man to take me on my word alone.”

“All right, Mr. Varner. I'm pretty sure Mr. Burnside was working on that Sharps rifle he had laid out on the counter there, and the Colt lyin' next to it. See what you can do with them. Then we'll talk.”

“You have a deal, Sheriff. I'll bring 'em down to you when I'm finished.”

“Fair enough. I'll be at the jail.” Cotton gave Jack a jerk of the head, and the two of them left the shop.

“That was a stroke of luck, wouldn't you say, Cotton?”

Cotton didn't say anything, as he was obviously too lost in thought at that moment.

Chapter 13

J
ohnny Monk had found the sharpening stone in the lean-to. One leg of the three-legged stand was broken, and he had to jury-rig it by balancing part of the base on a rock. The grinding pedal seemed free enough, and it moved with ease. He had the grinding wheel sitting up near a pile of wood he'd gathered from deadfall in a thinly wooded area nearby. He was raking the ax back and forth across the wheel as he pushed the pedal to put an edge on it. He was almost finished when Rachael came out looking like someone altogether different.

He took in a breath at the transformation. She was no longer an ashen-faced child with dark circles under her eyes and frizzy, matted hair. She'd put on a different gingham dress, washed her face, and put some rouge on her cheeks. She'd also washed and brushed her hair, and tied it up with a yellow ribbon. And the result made Johnny blink several times to assure himself he was looking at the same girl he'd found lying on the floor in a dirty dress and barefoot.

He stopped the grinding wheel to stare at her. She blushed and looked at the ground, clearly embarrassed by the surprise on his face. She began making circles in the dirt with her foot.

“Rachael, you . . . are . . . beautiful,” he said. He couldn't stop looking at her.

“And . . . and you are the hardest worker I've ever seen.”

Johnny stopped for a moment, looked down at the pile of chopped wood, and chuckled.

“Uh, maybe I have gotten a little carried away. Come to think on it, I'm not quite certain why I'm doin' it. We can't stay here much longer. Pretty soon the rabbits will get the idea I'm after 'em and they'll skedaddle. Then what'll we eat?”

Rachael's pretty smile turned to sadness. She sighed and looked longingly over her shoulder at the cabin, as simple as it was.

“I reckon I've known all along I couldn't stay here, what with my pa gone and all.”

“Yeah, and we need to figure a plan for our travels, too. First off, you can't walk in bare feet for long. You'll cut yourself to pieces. We'll have to find something for you to wear.”

“We still got one rabbit, the one you got this mornin'. I'll get to lookin' around for travel duds if you'll get the rabbit ready for the skillet. Fair enough?”

“You bet, Rachael. I'll get right to it. You go ahead.”

He watched her go back inside the dark one-room cabin. He thought to himself as she disappeared inside,
I could sure get used to spendin' all my time with her. We got along like the best of friends from practically the moment I laid eyes on her. And she's darned purty, too
.
I am one lucky fellow.

* * *

After they'd eaten every last morsel of rabbit, Rachael began dragging out the various items she thought might be helpful for their inevitable trip to find help, or a more permanent place to stay. She piled what few clothing items she could find in one pile, along with things like leather straps that might suffice as belts and a couple of old bonnets her mother had brought when they started out for the frontier. She'd also found several more bullets for the Springfield rifle, which she handed to Johnny, items he was mighty happy to see. She'd dragged out a pair of old shoes that she'd used mainly for working in the garden. They were pretty badly worn, but she proudly tossed them on the pile, too.

“Gosh, Rachael, looks like you've found enough stuff to get us on our way in style.”

She gave him a sad smile. He could see it in her eyes: she really didn't want to leave her home, the only one she'd known for quite some time. Probably not all her memories were good ones, but they were
her
memories. Johnny was wise enough to see her struggling with abandoning the crude cabin. His history on the frontier wasn't much different. In fact, he'd still be in Whiskey Crossing if that damnable Carp Varner hadn't burned the place to the ground. He, too, had some sadness about leaving wherever you call home, but in his case, catching up to Varner was more than an impulse, it was a mission. And he planned to track down the hateful snake and blow him into the next century if it was the last thing he ever did.

As the two of them went through the pile of odds and ends, Rachael separated those items she figured she'd need, with Johnny's help in deciding, especially since he likely knew more about the terrain to the west. He didn't dare tell her he hadn't been any farther west than she had. This was his first time, and he was a little uncertain about traveling with a young lady to defend. But he dared not let on to her that he had any doubts whatsoever. He watched her try on one of the bonnets. She was giggling at the very thought of being seen outside in such a ratty thing. But Johnny had convinced her that fashion couldn't come into play when they might be out in the blazing sun for days on end. He had no idea how far they'd have to go to find another ranch or if borrowing a horse was even possible. He also had no idea of whether there'd been any Indian sightings recently, and if so, were they hostile?

After about an hour of picking and choosing what they should take with them, keeping only those things that would prove invaluable to their safety and well-being, Rachael had been able to find a canteen in addition to Johnny's two whiskey bottles. He had his revolver and the Springfield rifle, now with about seven bullets. Rachael had stuffed rags in the shoes so they'd fit better, and she was going to wear a long denim skirt, the only other piece of apparel she owned, to help protect her legs from burrs and smaller cacti.

They stood outside for some time, wondering if they'd forgotten anything. As far as he could conjure, they were about as ready for such a trip as anybody could have been given the circumstances. He tried not to show his anxiousness to get on the road, because he knew Rachael was having a hard time letting go. But if he didn't push her, he was certain she'd soon get it settled in her mind that she had to move on.

That's exactly what she did.

“Okay, Johnny, I'm ready to follow you wherever the path leads.”

His heart jumped at her words. To him, anyway, they seemed to hold an even larger meaning. He reached over and took her hand, and they started down the road side by side like two kids.

* * *

As evening drew near, he began to think about making camp for the night. Just as he was about to suggest the desirability of finding a place to sleep that would bring shelter and a modicum of safety, she spotted a light, maybe a campfire, she couldn't tell. He strained to see what she was pointing out, then it popped into view like a star from behind a cloud.

“You have good eyesight, Rachael. But there it is, either a lamp or a campfire. I can't tell which, but I suggest we head in that direction. We best be as quiet as possible in case whoever made the fire isn't friendly.”

“Okay, Johnny. I understand. You can count on me not to get all giggly and silly like
other
girls.”

Johnny got the point. He was being subtly chastised for not giving her credit for using good common sense. “I apologize. That was rude of me. It's not like you're some schoolgirl.”

“No, I'm not. And I hope you won't forget
that
, either.” She gave him a look he couldn't really decipher, but he knew instinctively that he'd better pay closer attention to whatever she said from now on.

Within about a half hour they were inside of a hundred yards of the light they'd been following. It was an oil lamp hanging from the roof of a porch on a ranch house. The two looked at each other with relief that their fears had been for naught. When they got to the fence gate, Johnny stopped and called out to anyone in the house. The door opened and a man stepped out with a rifle in his hands.

“Who is it and what do you want?” the man asked.

“We're just two weary folks who've been walkin' since early this mornin, hopin' to find a friendly face and a warm place to rest. A little food wouldn't be bad, neither.”

A woman's voice could be heard coming from inside.

“Seth, sound's like young folks. They couldn't mean us harm. Ask them in.”

“Thank you, ma'am,” Johnny said as he stepped inside behind Rachael.

The woman took one look at her and said, “Land sakes, Seth, it's Rachael Winslow from down the road. Mercy, child, whatever are you doin' out here?”

“My pa left some time back, and I'd like to find him. Johnny here is trailin' a man for killin' a passel of folks in Whiskey Crossing. So we'd be beholden to you if you was to let us sleep in your barn for the night, and if it ain't too much trouble, we sure could use a bite to eat.”

“You two come right in here and set yourselves down at the table. I'll cook up some grits and a steak and drop a couple biscuits on the griddle. Got some fresh eggs for your breakfast in the mornin', too. And I'll bet you won't turn down a drink of milk, neither.”

That brought a grin from both of them.

After they'd eaten their fill, the lady's expression turned dour. She was wringing her hands, and Johnny got the feeling he was about to hear some bad news. It came within seconds.

“Rachael, honey, I don't know how to tell you this, so I'll just blurt it out. Seth was goin' to set out for your place to tell you, but he fell off a fence and broke his leg. He's just now gettin' fit to work again. I had to stay here and tend to the animals. But now that you're here, I can't hold off any longer, now's as good a time as any.”

“What is it, ma'am? Is it my pa? Have you seen him?”

“About a month ago, Seth was goin' to the barn to feed the cow when he noticed a horse trottin' up the lane. There weren't no rider. He recognized it as your pa's. He followed the trail left by the horse, and he come upon your pa lyin' in the ditch about two miles south of here. Looked like the poor man had been shot, although it was hard to tell for sure. Shot and robbed is what Seth says. Been there for a spell from what I gather, too. I'm so sorry, honey.”

Johnny could see how hard Rachael was trying to hold back the tears. He wanted to grab her and hold her so tight she couldn't talk. But he wasn't sure how the lady would take to such a display of affection, so he put his hand on her arm and gave it a pat. She didn't shed one tear, though, much to Johnny's amazement. His feelings for her soared at that moment more than ever before. This was no girl-child. This was a woman, full-blown, and a pretty tough one at that.

BOOK: Cotton’s Inferno
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