Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cold Trail

            The chair scratched softly on the dry wood of the boardwalk as the old man pushed back away from the encroaching sun. Beside him, a younger man grunted in amusement.

            “Every day you set your chair out there, Sam. And everyday you gotta creep backwards inch by inch like the last defense of Atlanta. Why don’t you just set your chair back against the wall with me, and don’t worry ‘bout the sun till you gotta?”

            Sam Mayhew, sheriff of Camino D’oro, grunted back at his deputy. “Back there you can’t see but half the street, Joe, and it’s no good civil servant stands for only seeing half his job.”

            “Average civil servant, more like,” Joseph McBride joked back.

            Mayhew smiled and shook his head at the deputy’s cynicism. “Don’t matter much either way, when you get down to it. The sun’s gonna catch up with both of us in an hour or so.”

            “This time of year, Sam, damned sun catches up with everybody sooner or later.”

            The men sat in the shade, looking up and down the street from time to time. The heat was oppressive, the sun beating down on the overhang above. The buildings on the street, most one or two story, raw wood structures with little architectural difference to set them apart, were quiet and dark. Most folks were either inside trying to stay cool, or up in the hills to the north. Those were the ones with the endless hope of finding their ticket back to civilization in the shallow creeks that bled out into the desert all.

            “So,” Mayhew’s voice was deadpan. “The Dolan Gang.” He leaned over the arm of his chair to spit into the dirt street.

            “Way I figure it, Sam, one less thing for us to worry about.” McBride got up. “One damned big thing,” and he disappeared into the darkness of the sheriff’s office behind them.

            “Well, as a fine example of an upstandin’ civil servant, I won’t complain about someone doin’ my job for me.” Mayhew smiled as he watched a small shoal of dust push its way down the empty street. “But don’t you find the whole thing a bit . . . off-puttin’?”

            McBride came back out onto the boardwalk with a massive knife and long section of branch, a shape vaguely emerging from the raw, carved center at one end.

            “Hmm. Off-puttin’. Someone takes out the worst pack of outlaw back-shooters we’ve had to deal with in a decade, and you find that off-puttin’?”

            “Well, come on, Joe. Ten armed men, some of the most dangerous creatures to darken the territories in a decade, and then without warnin’ or fanfare their bodies show up in the hills outside Placidio, and no one’s takin’ the credit? Someone new is drawin’ some serious firepower, and they’re out there somewhere, and we don’t know anythin’ about ‘em.” The sheriff squinted out into the sunlight. “I’d say that’s off-puttin’, yeah.”

            “Wasn’t firepower did it.” McBride began to apply the large knife to the emerging sculpture.

            “Hmmm?”

            “I heard from ole Clem, down from Placidio, that there weren’t no bullet wounds on any o’ the bodies. He said it was like some wild animal did in every one of ’em.” He took a couple strips of wood off the stick. “Or maybe really sharp blades, like those swords the cavalry officers carried in the war. Remember those?”

            Mayhew’s squint grew deeper. “Yeah, I remember those. I remember how useful they were against armed soldiers, too. You tryin’ to tell me a bunch of sword-toting animals did for the Dolan Gang?”

            “Nope.” Another curl of wood fell to the boardwalk. “Just that it wasn’t firepower.”

            McBride took a moment to absorb that information, and then rested back into his chair again, eyeing the line of the sun as it crept ever-closer. “How’s she comin’?” The sheriff didn’t look back.

            “Oh, slow but sure.” Another curl of wood fell. “You can bet, though, when I’m done, I won’t get half the lip from her that –“

            Joseph McBride was interrupted by the sound of a team of horses approaching down the street. He looked up as the sheriff got to his feet, leaning against the post to get a better look.

            “Good sized wagon. Team of four.” McBride put down the whittling to stand beside his sheriff. The wagon was one of the biggest he’d ever seen. Four massive work horses pulled the thing down the center of the street.

            It looked like a cross between a coach and buckboard, with a passenger compartment up front and a flat cargo space behind. The craftsmanship was excellent; the entire thing shiny black with gold flourishes.

            All of the curtains in the passenger section had been pulled tightly shut; only the driver visible, the shotgun’s seat beside him empty. The driver was a tall man, although sitting on the massive wagon it was hard to tell. He was dressed perhaps a bit more formally than you’d expect of a wagon drover, with black pants and matching coat that must have been blazing hot beneath the punishing sun.

            As the wagon pulled even, McBride and the sheriff got a better view of the cargo deck. There were all sorts of crates and boxes, several bags and tightly rolled items that must have been carpets of some sort, and several covered items that looked like furniture. Sheriff Mayhew’s head tilted to the side as he tried to puzzle out the shapes when he realized that the wagon had come to a stop in front of him.

            “Gentlemen,” The driver tipped his hat to the sheriff and the deputy. “Might you direct us to the best hotel your city’s finest hotel?” His voice had a strange flatness to it, maybe from back east. But it also sounded tired, and Mayhew wondered how long he’d been driving. It was only mid-morning, but the horses seemed fairly blown.

            The sheriff stepped out into the sunshine, looking up from beneath a shielding hand to look at the driver. Mayhew indicated the direction the wagon was already traveling. “Keep going this way ‘till you see Walcott’s Drygoods on your left, turn after that and you’ll see The Gem right in front of you. Best Camino D’oro has to offer.”

            “’Course, you got any ladies with delicate sensibilities in that coach, you might want to keep on going’down two more doors, give ole’ widow Mayfair’s a look see.” Deputy McBride peered shamelessly into the curtained darkness of the coach.

            The driver tipped his hat again. ‘Much obliged, but it’s just us men of the world on this trip” he took in the stars on the men’s vests. “Sheriff, deputy.” He took up his whip and made to crack it over his team when Mayhew stopped him with a raised hand.

            “Where you all from, stranger?” The sheriff’s voice was open and friendly, and his hand never strayed close to the butt of his Colt. McBride, however, eased back against a support post and rested his hand easily on his own gunbelt.

            The driver smiled. “We’ve just come from Placidio, sheriff. Been riding most of the night, though, to avoid unwanted attention from the tribes. We’re all pretty tired. In fact, I think I’m the only one awake, or my principal would be joining in the discussion.” He indicated the passenger section of the wagon with a friendly smile.

            Mayhew frowned a little. “Placidio. Ya’ll heard anything about the Dolan Gang?”

            The pleasant smile never wavered from the driver’s face. “Dolan Gang. Sorry, sheriff, can’t say that I do. We just passed through, didn’t pay much attention to the local goings on.”

            Mayhew nodded to himself and then gave a quick wave of thanks up to the driver. “Well, thanks anyway, Mr . . . . “

            “Reinhart.” He tipped his hat again before settling it firmly over his long dark hair. “Karl Reinhart.”

            “It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Reinhart. You go and get settled in at the Gem. I’m sure you’ll find it has everything you need.”

            Reinhart nodded again and snapped his whip, setting the team to straining at their braces. The massive wagon began to move away down the street, it’s black finish gleaming in the hard sunlight.

            As the wagon turned the corner at Walcott’s the sheriff and the deputy resumed their seats, Mayhew moving his back another couple inches closer to the wall. For a moment they didn’t say anything, just looking out into the bright sun of the street.

            “Principal.” McBride said it with no tone at all as he resumed taking thin strips off the large stick.

            “Fancy. Means employer.” The sheriff continued to stare into the sunlight.

            “Know what it means, Sam. ‘S a funny term out here, though, don’t you think?”

            Mayhew shrugged. “Not as funny as them comin’ through Placidio and not knowin’ anythin’ about the Dolan Gang.”

            “Had the same thought myself.”

            “’Course, all that lacquer and gold leaf, Mr. Principal probably ain’t lackin’ for money, and people in that situation often travel around with their heads in the sand, as often as not. So maybe it’s not quite as strange as all that.”

            McBride stripped another curl of wood away and then held it out at arm’s reach for a new perspective on his work. “What you think they’re doin’ here?”

            The sheriff shrugged. “Who knows. Tourin’ the badlands, showing how brave they are, maybe? Sellin’ some snake oil could be. Did you notice all the fancy trappin’s in the wagon?”

            “Looked like almost enough to set up house.” McBride’s voice was flat.

            “Sure did.” Sam Mayhew nodded to himself. “Now, what you expect a rich-lookin’ guy like that is doin’, movin’ around the territories with a load of furniture?”

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