“You boys seem to be born of the devil,” the aging man ruminated as he handed a sack of hard earned gold
to one of the bandits.
“You boys seem to be born of the devil,” the aging man ruminated as he handed a sack of hard earned gold to one of the bandits.
“Let’s just say we are his emissaries”, the black clad leader replied.
Jerking the old man to his feet the bandit slapped him across the face with his quirt. The bandit leader’s face wore a snarling smile that explained how his teaching was being put into action. His smile revealed a full set of teeth, two of which were gold.
“You got any guns around here?” demanded the bandit leader.
“Look around, if there’s any you’ll find them,” the man replied.
“If there’s any here we’ll surely find them, another bandit chimed in as he began ransacking the cabin. We know gold and we know guns.”
Not finding any guns, the bandit leader hit the old man a resounding blow atop his head and left him for dead.
King Clifton was a man not more than sixty. He had keen blue eyes revealing Scotch/Irish stock with just enough Cherokee thrown in to give him endurance on the trail. He stood about six feet in his socks and was not too bent over for a man who had endured an arduous life in the open. He had turned prematurely gray when he was about thirty giving some folks reason to believe he was an older man. He sometimes felt he had a lot more miles on him than was apparent, especially when he had to get up in the morning.
King had taken note of each of the five men who had penetrated his little stronghold in the lower Sierra Mountains of California. King had at one time been a Texas Ranger but had grown a little too old for the arduous job of chasing bandits around the Mexican border.
The bandit leader, ’Jose’ Jenkins, was darkly handsome and had a scar that led from just below his left ear to just short of his jugular vein. Vaguely, this scar reminded King of another outlaw he had encountered in Laredo a few years ago.
The remaining men were dressed in the garb of most border ruffians, flannel shirts, dirty jeans and well made boots crafted for men who spend a lot of time in the saddle, probably stolen. King did notice that one of the bandits had a buckle designed by a craftsman possessing a great knowledge of silver. The eagle in relief was a one-of-a-kind creation. King would not soon forget this buckle.
King regained consciousness nursing a big lump on his head. It was as though a thousand demons played snare drums in his brain. He eased over to the water bucket and dipped his bandana into the cool water placing it on the growing lump.
“How did those bandits find this cabin? I have only been out to civilization once in the past six months! I don’t remember encountering any strangers in the little town of Jackrabbit.” King recollected as the cool, soothing water took effect.
He finally concluded that somehow one of the bandits had followed him home and taken his claim location back to the other bandits.
King had a hasty lunch of jerky and hardtack, washing this down with clear Sierra water taken from the perpetual gushing spring back of the cabin. The spring was the reason King had chosen this spot in the first place. The little ‘lode’ that he had discovered later was a bonus.
King was a saver and he had put aside a portion of his wages as a ranger so that he could pursue his other love, prospecting. The sack of gold taken by the bandits represented many days of toil in the little cave he had dug with his own hands. It was located in a secluded canyon a quarter of a mile from the cabin.
“If those bandits had not been in such a rush, they would have noticed the removable mesquite bush that hid the entrance to the trail leading to the cave”, King reasoned through a foggy atmosphere.
Having eaten, King got down to the business of securing his two Colt’s 45 nickel plated, engraved revolvers. He kept them hidden between two of the logs used as a foundation for the cabin. The gunsmith in San Antonio had really known his business. These were a work of art in any man’s book!
King had fashioned a removable floorboard difficult to be seen by casual observance but easily pried open with a pocket knife.
He oiled and wiped the guns, the pride of his existence as a ranger. He placed them in two well-worn holsters designed for the purpose of a quick draw. King was equally adept at drawing and firing with either hand.
“I’m shore glad you two fellows were well hidden from those bandits!” King said to the two revolvers as though they were old friends.
He knew what he must do, not only for himself but for any other family that lay in the path of this heartless gang of thugs. He knew that any man, woman or child would be unsafe from this marauding evil element. He must pursue them until the last bandit was either secured or dispatched back to the place of his beginnings.
King had never liked the idea of killing anyone but had done so on occasion when there was no other way. This didn’t discount the fact that he practiced at least three times a week to hone his sometimes dwindling skills as a gunman. Liquor bottles at fifty paces were an easy feat for King.
The five bandits rode north in unfamiliar territory to any of them. They rode on knowing that to go back would be to face the crimes already committed along the way. Surely, by this time, someone had reported their debauchery to the authorities on the border.
The bandit leader had grown up along the Mexican border and had chosen a life of crime as a matter of course. This was an area where if one was required to live he did whatever it took. He chose the easy way, gun slinging, just as his father, Jack Jenkins, had done.
Jack had been killed in a raid in El Paso when Jose was just a wee lad leaving Jose and his mother, Rosa, to fend for themselves.
Jose’s gun slinging abilities had been honed to the point of perfection and not many men dared challenge his right as a ‘top gun’. He went for whatever he desired and usually did not allow any obstacle to stand in his way, man or woman!
The other bandits had been chosen for their particular talents in the world of crime. The bandit, Tomas, of the eagle buckle, had been chosen for his knife throwing ability. He was almost as fast with a knife as Jose was with a gun. This left Jose with a wary feeling each time he had to ride in front of Tomas.
Ramon, the youngest of the group, was still untried as he had never yet had to kill a man. Sal and Alfredo were hardened criminals of cruel breed.
“When are we goin’ to split the gold?” Tomas queried, rounding a bend in the trail. We should be in another town before long and I need some new clothes and a good stiff drink. Pickings have been pretty slim since we left the old man and we don’t know when we’ll come across another ranch or cabin in these mountains.”
Snow had started drifting in since daybreak. It was just a smattering, but to the keen eye, those dark clouds to the west promised a pretty good dusting in the near future.
“We’ll split the gold when we find a decent place to spend a few days,” replied Jose. “We need to get out of this weather and hole up for a awhile to let things cool down a little. No sheriff’s liable to come huntin’ us in the wake of this storm comin’ up”.
They didn’t know King Clifton. He had the reputation of a tenacious bulldog. When he started a task, that task was not done until every T had been crossed and every I dotted. He had left on their trail soon as he could round up his half wild sorrel that knew enough to hide from the bandits as they rode away from the cabin. Old “Dusty”, a quarterhorse, named for his habit of rolling in the dust each time he was unsaddled, was a trustworthy steed, never having failed to carry King anywhere he chose to go. It did not matter how rough the terrain or how tough the job. To King, Dusty was a prized friend who could always be counted on to deliver.
“We’ll jest give them bandit fellers a little surprise one of these evenings,” King told the prancing pony. He talked to the horse as though he were human. In some ways he was. He could open gates, some doors, and was very hard to corral, unless he was in familiar company.
Dusty seemed to understand as he was anxious to hit the trail. He had not been ridden in a few days and he had a hankering to stretch his legs. His winter coat was in need of currying, he sagged somewhat in the back, and his legs looked a little too slender for what might be asked of him in the near future. What he lacked in beauty, he made up in intelligence. He would stand when told to stand, and remain quiet when commanded by King.
This feels like old times, King thought to himself as they labored up out of the canyon.
The party of five approached the little log cabin at angles difficult to be seen from the cabin windows. They rode warily as become men outside the law.
The inhabitant, Chris Hudson, recently come from Sacramento to seek his fortune in the Sierras, was busy getting his gear ready for some serious prospecting. As he spotted the five men, he automatically reached for his ever ready carbine. This habit had been formed from a life lived in the open herding cattle in the upper reaches of the Sacramento River.
“What can I do for you fellers?” asked Chris, knowing from their looks that they were up to no good.
“We’re just wantin’ some coffee and grub so we can be on our way.” replied Jose. “We’ve been lost for a few days and our grub’s runnin’ short,” Jose lied as, he dismounted.
Dismounting in a stranger’s diggings was not a healthy thing to do without an invitation. Chris, having been alone for quite a spell, overlooked this breach of etiquette and invited the other four to “light and make yourselves at home.”
He was outnumbered and the best he could do was to keep a wary eye on this rugged and ragtag crew.
“Help yourselves to the coffee, and I’ll have some beans and bacon ready in no time,” said the hospitable prospector.
The bandits waited for a chance to do Chris in and moved themselves into position for the kill. They ate in silence after the meal was prepared. Although being bandits, they knew that this was no ordinary cook. The biscuits Chris prepared were extra flakey that day making Jose think twice about having to kill this man.
Suddenly, without warning, Tomas unleashed his throwing dagger, hoping to deal Chris a fatal blow. Instead, the knife lodged in Chris’ shoulder and Chris was able to grab his rifle. He shot the bandit Alfredo just as he drew his gun ejecting the spent cartridge and installing a new one. He wounded Sal as he felt the life ebbing out of his body brought on by several gunshots from the other bandits.
“Well, we only have to split four ways now, Jose remarked sarcastically. Get a shovel and bury Alfredo, this directed to Tomas, and you, Ramon, see what you can do for Sal’s wound.”
“Oh, why don’t we just shoot him, said Tomas, they shoot wounded horses, don’t they?”
Sal’s having saved Jose’s life one time was all that prevented him from being finished at this particular time.
The bandit’s haste prevented them from covering their trail very well. King was able to keep a fairly good pace meanwhile looking for telltale signs of horses having come this way recently. Sometimes the trail disappeared in rocky terrain, but King having trailed many men knew to look for scrapes on the rocks, pieces of string from tattered clothing, anything that would keep him in a forward motion.
“Gold sure makes a fellow careless,” mused King.
The bandit’s lust for the gold they had taken caused mistakes that would eventually lead to their undoing. Their only goal was to find a place to hole up and divide the spoils. King used this to his advantage. He found campsites used by the bandits on two separate occasions. The trash from their respites was left lying where it was eaten. Even the campfires were still smoldering and had it not been snowing, would have probably been spread by wind causing a forest fire.
“Those trash don’t deserve to live on God’s green earth” King told Dusty as they rode away from the second campsite. They’re the lowest form of vermin to mess up the countryside this way”.
King was a conservationist at heart. Being a law-abiding citizen all his life he couldn’t understand how anyone could do others wrong or hurt the land that had been given for the sustenance of mankind as well as animals.
“Maybe we can put them away where they won’t be hurtin’ things anymore,” King said hopefully.
Dusty softly neighed his approval just as they came in sight of the prospector’s cabin.
Meanwhile, Jose and the other three holed up in Chris’s cabin, hoped to wait out the oncoming storm. Sal’s wound needed attention by a trained medical person, a skill held by none of the bandits. They just stuffed some dirty rags in the wound and wrapped another rag around Sal’s ribs to keep all in place. He had been running a fever since they had placed him on a blanket on the floor of the cabin. His severe loss of blood and infection would soon prevent having to shoot him.
“Gimme some water, Sal begged. I’m not gonna make it, am I?” Sal asked Jose as he held the canteen to his lips.
“Sure, you’re gonna make it”, Jose snarled in a doubtful voice. He left it up to the other two bandits to interpret what he meant by “You’re gonna make it.”
“Go get some more wood for the fire,” Jose ordered.
Tomas got up to comply and as he walked out the door a voice was heard,
“Throw up your hands”.
As Tomas drew his pistol a shot rang out and he stumbled back into the cabin, crumpling into a heap on the dirty floor. Even with the falling snow King had recognized the eagle buckle.
“How’n blazes did they find us, Jose inquired of Sal and Ramon. That old man we hit over the head was dead as a doornail when we left”.
“Maybe he wasn’t, Ramon said thoughtfully, Some of them old geezers are pretty tough when it comes to livin.”
“See what you can do for Tomas, Jose ordered as he maneuvered to the window to get a better handle on things outside.
“He won’t be throwing any more knives,” Ramon said with a sickening smile, unless Diablo has a need for knife throwin’.
A silence, like death, permeated the lonely cabin. The men inside all began thinking of how they could have better spent their lives. They didn’t realize that there was only one old man between them and freedom. A man’s mortality seems to creep up to haunt him when he is in a dire situation.
“When a man lays beneath the clay, there is no further requirement to seek salvation. When a man flirts with hell every day, what can he expect but to get burnt?” Jose thought.
Jose ruminated on many things as he thought of the eventual end to all his ramblings. He thought of Conchita, his mother whom he had to leave when he was fourteen because he had killed a man in a poker game. He thought of the bank teller in Eagle Pass who had begged, “Don’t shoot me, I have a wife and two children to raise!” He thought of all the women he had ravished without mercy, some calling on God, as he did his pleasure with them.
“Well, I’ve shore had a great time, and if I had to do it over again, I’d do the same.” He bragged!
What hope is there of a degenerate who has such thoughts?
Ramon on the other hand thought of all the things he had done wrong and he felt remorse. He had come from a family of ten siblings. He was spawned by a shiftless father. His mother had to sometimes steal vegetables and fruits from local markets to survive. He had joined Jose’s gang, to hopefully, accumulate enough money to start a little ranch somewhere in Mexico. He had not counted on the killing that went with banditry. His fear of Jose had prevented him from quitting the gang to pursue his own interests. He now thought of his younger brothers and sisters who had counted on him to help them out of their poverty. He hoped that none of them had turned to a life of crime in his absence.
Sal, in a semi state of unconsciousness, could only babble incoherently. His only thought was living.
King waited what seemed an eternity to see if he could detect movement in the cabin after shooting Tomas. He didn’t know if the shot proved fatal. Nothing moved.
Snow began falling at a faster pace. There must have been about a foot already and at this rate would be two feet by nightfall. The wind had picked up and was howling through the trees making mournful sounds of pending death. King scanned the area looking for a possible way to lure the remaining bandits out in the open.
He noticed an overhanging bank behind the cabin.
“If I could get atop the cabin and stuff something down the stovepipe, that would smoke them out,” he thought as he moved carefully toward the embankment.
Dropping lightly onto the cabin roof, his footsteps were dulled by the deepening snow. Having secured a bundle of sage as he approached the cabin roof, he stuffed it down the open pipe thereby cutting off the draft of the stove.
As smoke began filling the room, Sal let out an alarming cry, “Am I in hell already? Why is it getting so smoky, Jose? I don’t wanna die, please, do something for me. It’s getting so dark!”
Jose, in a panic, drew Tomas’ knife and finished Sal off by plunging it into his agonizing heart.
Ramon was thunderstruck, and cried, “Why’d you do that”?
“Quiet, or you’ll get the same, snarled Jose, just shut up so I can think!”
Jose was thinking, “now it is only a two way split!”
Ramon eased quietly away from Jose hoping for a way of escape. He knew that the insane Jose could turn on him and take out his fury on the only remaining living object. His only hope was that the men outside would have mercy on him when they finally penetrated the cabin door.
King made his way to the front of the cabin, avoiding being seen from the half obscured windows. Snow had built up on the outsides of the panes and the insides were dimmed by the rapidly spreading smoke. He heard coughs, and being a brave, sometimes foolhardy man, he approached the cabin door, both guns drawn. He never considered his age, that he might possibly not be as accurate as before. His only thought was to regain the stolen poke of gold and possibly capture the remaining bandits.
What happened next was totally unexpected! The door slammed open and Jose with Ramon as a shield came storming out into the growing twilight. Jose aimed straight at King intending to drill him, when suddenly, Ramon turned around shoving Jose’s pistol upward just enough to cause the bullet to careen over King’s head. In doing so, the bullet creased Ramon’s skull and he lay unconscious where he fell.
King fired then, crashing Jose back against the cabin.
Jose screamed as he fell, “You’ve sent me to hell, old man, and I’ll be waitin’ for you to come”.
Jose’s gold teeth became very prominent as his teeth clenched in death.
King leaped aside as Jose’s final shot careened wildly, echoing a goodbye down the canyon. It dawned on him that Jose was the bandit that he had encountered years ago who been wounded by a distraught woman that he was trying to ravish. He had received as he had given.
King dragged Ramon into the cabin, dressing his wound as best he could and commenced to clear the cabin of all the carnage. He knew they would have to spend a few days there while the storm still raged. Using snow he scrubbed the rough floor to his satisfaction.
After King restored the cabin to a livable condition, he began to look around for anything edible. Chris, fortunately, had stocked the cabin with plenty of vittles and it was not long until King had prepared a nurturing meal.
Ramon, upon awakening, was not able to eat solid grub so King boiled some jerky and strained the broth giving Ramon strength. After all, bandit or no, Ramon had saved his life.
In a few days, the storm subsided to King‘s satisfaction. He had put Dusty in the only outside shelter Chris had built, a small lean-to, and the steed was raring to go. He also had rounded up one of the horses that had stampeded when the fireworks began. He helped Ramon upon the mount and they began their journey back to King’s diggings. They took as much of Chris’s bounty as possible on a makeshift sled. He knew they would need to spend at least two or more nights in the open. “What’ll I do with this thieving rascal?” King asked himself.
Ramon’s wound healed rapidly with King’s excellent care. He wondered what King would do with him after they reached the cabin. He told King about his family in Juarez and King had experienced a tender moment when he realized that Ramon was a victim of circumstances. Sometimes the spirit of the law is more important than the law itself. King thought long and hard about this as they rode homeward.
Upon arrival home, King handed Ramon half the poke saying, “Young man, you have a choice, you can leave with half the gold, or you can stay and help work the claim. We’ll share and share alike.”
“I’d like to go to my family and make sure their needs are met. I promise, I’ll return and work the claim with you then. It should only take a month or two.”
“That’s ok by me, replied the softened Ranger. Just be alert that nobody recognizes you as a bandit and wreaks vengeance on you.”
“I’ll be very careful,” Ramon assured King as he wrung the old Ranger’s hand.
Parting was not easy for either, as each owed the other life itself. Sometimes things take a turn that cannot be explained by mortals. They were thankful that neither were ‘one of the boys from down below’!