Hard to Chew
Lewellyn P. Greentree forced the Wednesday afternoon Butterfield stage to stop just where the road began skirting the swampy mud at the north end of Lake Louise southwest of Baker's Field. Convenient tumble weeds, piled higher than a man's head on horse back, shielded his position until the last second. Lou was mounted on the best horse money could buy. The chestnut's long, powerful legs and its deep chest showed it capable of outrunning most animals it was apt to run against out here in the west. Lou'd spent a good penny for the animal, but in his line of business, it paid to own good stock.
Kicking his steed into a fast dash to the center of the road, "Ho now!" he called through the red and white plaid kerchief pulled up to cover his lower face. His horse reared, pawing the air before dropping to all fours. "Stand and deliver."
Lou always worked at keeping a straight face when he said that. He'd heard it was used by some long dead, highwayman, Gentleman Bart, or some such. Lou got a kick every time he used it. He liked pretending to be more of a hard case than he actually was. Gave him status. And if the impersonation put any doubt of his seriousness into the minds of the driver and shotgun guard, he held his rifle ready.
The driver, a lean tall man with salt and pepper hair sticking out from under his Stetson, hauled back hard on his lines and slammed down on the foot brake. Lou could see the leather straps of the team's reins dig into the flesh of the driver's hands as he leaned back and pulled as hard as he could. With some difficulty he brought the six horse team to a prancing stop. That man acted cool, gave a little twist to his mouth, like maybe he didn't take Lou's rifle as seriously as Lou figured he would. Well, maybe it was time to find another opener.
Except for the smirk on the driver's face, so far everything was going just as Lou planned. All he had to do was relieve these men of the strong box under their seat and they'd see the tail end of his chestnut and a trail of dust. He wouldn't be wasting time on what little the passengers might be carrying.
In a blur of movement, the shotgun in the boot was suddenly coming up into the hands of the guard. A head shorter than the driver, the messenger made up in girth what he gave up in height. Didn't seem to slow him down none, though. Damn, didn't the geezer realize bringing his shotgun out was more foolhardy than cautious? Lou could shoot and he wasn't about to let that jasper bring the business end of that shotgun into line with him.
At the blast of Lou's Spencer Repeating Rifle, his horse side stepped right into the wall of tumble weeds he'd just jumped out of, its head jerking up as it shied from the abrupt blast of noise. His bullet caught the guard dead center. Where the third button from the top of his brown flannel shirt had been, a bloody half inch hole appeared. A half ounce of lead brought the man clean up out of his seat, driving his shoulders against the top of the stage. His back arched for a moment, then slowly settled back onto the bench and slumped its way down into the boot. His arms dangled lifelessly over the edge. For some fool reason the damn driver decided to grab for the pistol in his holster. His lackadaisical grin was gone, replaced by a bitter, steel eyed bead lining up on Lou.
Levering his rifle as quickly as he could, Lou brought his own barrel in line. Hell, what was wrong with the man? He should have gotten the message that he was gonna get shot if he pulled his iron. Lou had the man dead to rights already. Was he just plain dumb? Or did Lou's horse acting up a bit from the noise of the first shot give the man some kind of crazy confidence. Not that it mattered in the end. Lou's second shot hit the driver just to the left of his nose, cutting a gaping hole in his cheek and taking off the back side of his head.
Lou's attention moved to the passengers. This whole idea of robbing the Butterfield had gone bad. The way his luck was running, he wouldn't be surprised at some retired ranger waiting inside for Lou to walk up unsuspecting, just itching to throw down on him from inside that coach. Lou nudged his chestnut towards the coach, rifle at the ready. The stage, however, was empty of passengers. Lou took a long, shuddering breath of relief.
Why the old boys up on that boot hadn't simply given him the strong box was a mystery. They sure took stage robbing too seriously for their own good. The way Lou looked at it, there shouldn't have been any need to shoot anyone. Never was his idea to shoot a man. These two just hadn't given him a choice.
Pulling the reins snug and twitching a wrist, Lou signaled his horse to back up. The chestnut was well trained. It obeyed without question. Lou was just about to dismount and grab the strong box from the driver's boot when his ears caught the sound of several horses bearing down on him at a run. Damn again. They'd put a posse out behind the coach. Either the box held a payroll, or Butterfield was tired of putting up with stagecoach robberies. And he'd been the next somebody dumb enough to try and rob it. No wonder that driver was wearing a smirk.
He gave the strong box under the driver's seat a quick, whistful look. Just wasn't time to go for it. This fool idea was really turning sour. Turning his horse's head hard, he spurred the animal into a spin so tight the chestnut was forced to bring its front feet clear of the ground, lower its haunches, and make the turn on its back legs alone. As soon as he had the horse turned, Lou drove his spurs into the horse's flanks and gave the animal its head. In three long strides, the horse was in a dead run.
Tumbleweeds and mesquite, barren land and nothing much else stretched in front of Lou. He could see and be seen for miles if he stayed on the road. Without cover, he had only one recourse. He needed distance, pure and simple. That posse was too damn close. All Lou wanted now was distance put between himself and the whole damn bungled mess.
Just before the blast of the first shot reached his ears, the bullet came singing past his shoulder, making a whipping noise as it went. Lou knew the air was full of slugs, but the sound of their passing was lost in the blaze of guns going off behind him. Wasn't any doubt they were there, though. Christ! If he didn't do something, he was going to get shot!
He had to take to the brush. Weaving back and forth through the chaparral and rocks would make hitting him a lot harder. Give him a chance, at least. Turning off the road, the horse took about six jumps and put its right front hoof smack into a squirrel hole. The next thing Lou knew, he was heading for dirt with just enough time to turn his face to the side so his teeth weren't knocked out. As soon as he stopped plowing tumble weeds loose from their roots, Lou scrambled to his feet, but it was already too late. Six riders circled him. They might not have been as good a shot as Lewellyn P. Greentree, but they were close enough it didn't matter. Everywhere he looked the muzzle of a gun pointed dead at him. Could have been cannons, from Lou's point of view. They were that close. Without a chance in hell, he put his hands over his head and stood real still.
"Now that's right smart of ya, mister," a graveled voice remarked. "Lot smarter than killin' Jeb and Pete."
"Can I plug him, Slim?" another of the posse asked. From the look of him, he'd prefer shooting over bringing Lou in. Run down boots and worn out duds made it a good bet the man had never worked a day in his life. Not in a while, anyway.
Lou set his eyes on the man with the paunch. A badge marked Slim as the man in charge. The deputy said something Lou couldn't quite catch over the ruckus his chestnut was making. Nobody could hear him the way that horse had set to screaming.
Lou's whole body jumped at the sound of a pistol discharging close behind him. Expecting to feel the bite of a bullet, Lou realized someone had taken his horse out of its misery.
"Thanks, Reb. Gall darn horse screamin' makes my trigger finger itch." Slim hunched forward over his saddle horn, as if to get a closer look at Lou. "Don't want any more killin's, do we?"
"Much obliged, Deputy," Lou smiled.
Three weeks later Lou was almost healed from the pistol whipping the posse gave him. Seemed Jeb and Pete were close drinking partners with several members of the posse. With Lou's six feet two inches and strapping build, most men backed down from a one on one with the blonde outlaw. The twinkle in his blue eyes, clean shaven chin, and smiling mouth might look affable, but Lou was a man to be reckoned with when his back was up. Of course, six to one odds gave the posse plenty of confidence. He still sported a few yellowed bruises on his cheek and neck, but he was plenty healthy to stand in front of the circuit judge.
The trial wasn't much to talk about. They'd pretty well caught him red handed, after all. Slim came and got him up that morning, early. Sun wasn't hardly up. Through the open door on the other side of the bars, the sky still had that cold, purple blue of pre-dawn coloring it. They fed him, but damn little. Couldn't have said what it was. Next thing he knew they'd cuffed him, shackled his ankles together and took him upstairs to the court room. Why they'd bothered to get him out of the hard metal bunk so early was hard to figure. The judge didn't get there until damn near ten o'clock. They kept him all fettered up tight on a hard slab of wood bench the whole time. Lou recognized the man the deputy had called Reb, sitting with his back leaned against one wall of the court. With all those guns pointing at him, Lou hadn't been memorizing faces, but at least two, maybe three others of the posse were sitting in the room as well. Wasn't much of anybody else turned out for the morning's festivities.
When the judge finally showed up wearing a black robe and sporting a long handled mustache, Lou was ready for the whole damn affair to be done with. He'd bungled bad. Killed two men he hadn't meant any harm to, but they were deader than last week's bacon. Didn't matter that he'd only fired after they'd drawn on him first. Whatever they were going to do to him, he wished to hell they'd just get it done. His butt end was getting sore from sitting on hard wood so long.
The judge sat behind a big wooden desk set on a platform so he looked down on the rest of the court. A young, pimply faced clerk handed him a ream of paper. He ignored Lou. Looking over his papers, he shuffled and read, humming noises coming from his throat every once in a while. Finally he set the papers down. Pulling wire rim glasses off their perch at the end of his nose, he gave Lou a once over. That judge peered down from behind his fancy wooden bench without the least bit of sympathy.
"Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?"
"You got the wrong man, Judge. It was my twin brother did the shootin'." Lou raised his cuffed hands with a shrug of innocence. Seemed to Lou the place could use a little lighter manner.
Glaring bullets, the judge slammed his gavel on the bench. "Have you anything I want to hear, before I pass sentence?"
"No your honor. I ain't." Lou tried to swallow the dry taste in his mouth enough to even get that much out. Didn't seem the judge appreciated a good joke. For that matter, everybody in the whole damn county took things more seriously than he'd bargained for. Robbing coaches wasn't like shooting little old ladies on their way to church, for Christ sake.
"In that case, I sentence you to be hung by the neck until dead. You will be transported to the army fort in Tejon and hung as quickly as it can be done.
"Sheriff, get this man out of my court." The judge's gavel smashing down on that desk of his finalized the whole proceeding.
Lou would have been a sight better off staying around Flagstaff and clear away from this neck of the country. If that damn fool shotgun messenger hadn't taken it into his head to save the strong box, things wouldn't be in this sorry state. As it was, the future of Lewellyn P. Greentree didn't look to be real promising.
When they'd dumped him none too gently back in the cell in the basement of the courthouse, Lou was a bit mystified by one fact. "Say friend," Lou asked the cowboy in the next cell. They hadn't gotten much chance to talk before this, as the deputy brought him in only last night late. From the puking the man did most of the night, Lou figured him for celebrating too hard. "Do you have any idea why they didn't just hang me here. Why spend all the money to transport me up to that fort?"
The drunk, his nose so red it looked like a beacon light, his cheeks a mass of red veins and blotches, scratched his dirty brown hair and appeared to ponder Lou's question deeply before answering. "They hung a young boy here few years back 'long with five horse thieves. The rustlers had it comin' alright, but seems the boy were innocent 'a any wrong doin'. He'd came on 'em on the trail. Got an invite to lunch just afore the law caught up with the rascals. The owner of Rancho Tejon were a bit put out about her. Seems the kid were someone he thought well 'a. Since that time they've taken to sendin' their hangin's up to the fort. Where the army can see everythin' is done proper.
"From what I heard Slim tell 'bout yer case I wouldn't be thinkin' there's any promise there, though. Slim and that posse got ya dead ta rights pardner."
Lou couldn't argue that point worth a damn, not even with some half hung over jasper. He lay down on his bunk the rest of the day pondering on the error of his ways. He wished he'd stayed the hell out of this country. And that was a fact.
Not long after breakfast of cold, dry biscuits and a slice of greasy, also cold bacon, the sheriff pushed Lou up into the stagecoach. He was a barrel of a man, his belly so big his gun belt had to be cinched up underneath. By damned, if Lou weren't all chained up that lout would play hell treating him that way. The deputy they called Slim was already lounging on the opposite bench. Lou eye balled the man taking him to the army fort a bit closer than before. He was a slight looking character except where his belt went around him. Lou wondered if liking food was the most important requirement of lawman work in California. The sheriff, and every deputy he'd seen since they'd locked him up, had a gut hanging over his belt. By the size of this deputy's stomach, Lou figured he'd enjoyed a whole lot better breakfast than what they'd given him. One look at his face and Lou knew there wasn't going to be a lot of conversation on this trip. His beady black eyes looked smug as hell. They were narrow on his face, and his long nose seemed to get in the way of his looking. He tilted his head back a bit, kind of looking down the side of that nose at Lou. The expression on his face left nothing to the imagination about how he felt about this particular job. He was sure going to enjoy this ride. It was written all over him. And, he'd do it at Lou's expense. The sheriff leaned inside the coach and gave his shackles a sharp yank. Whether to make sure they were secure or just to get one more jab at him, Lou wasn't certain. "Don't take no sass from this trash, Slim," the sheriff advised the guard.
"Not to worry. If he so much as opens his mouth I'm gonna feed him the business end of this here rifle stock. He'll behave himself."
The sheriff let go of a snicker in response. That told Lou the guard would do exactly what he claimed. Yes sir. Lewellyn P. Greentree knew when to keep his mouth shut. This here was just that sort of time.
The sheriff pushed the coach door to with the heel of his hand. The driver gave out with a yell and brought his lines down against the back of the team. In a cloud of dust, the stage coach lurched into motion and headed out of town. Lou's last ride. It looked as though they were going to do for Lou Greentree this time. Lou stared right into those beady looking eyes of that damn deputy and began whistling, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.
It took most of that morning to pull the slow slope of a grade stretching across the flat between Baker's Field and the bottom of the mountains. The stage stopped for fresh horses one time out on the flat and then again on reaching the steeper ground where the mountains jutted up at a right smart angle. The driver, guard, and Slim got a bite to eat at the second stop. The hostler brought roast beef sandwiches to the men right there at the coach. Lou could smell the meat. Might just have been sandwiches, but that was a hell of a lot more than Lou got. They didn't even let him down from the stage to relieve himself. Every time one of them looked in at him through the window of the stage, he could see it in the angry set of their eyes. They'd as soon throw a rope out behind the stage and drag him to the fort. Lou figured eating wasn't half worth the beating he'd receive if he asked, so he just kept quiet. He shook his head. And these men thought he was the hard case.
They'd left the last stage stop about an hour back. The stage was pulling a steep grade up the north face of the mountains when it happened. Lou didn't really know for sure what caused the accident. The front wheel of the coach must have hit a rock, or jolted into a rut, or some such. He only knew that suddenly they were all tumbling in a barrel roll down the side of that mountain. He heard the horses screaming, men yelling, and he and the guard were tossed around inside that stagecoach like rocks in a box. When they finally settled, the coach was wheel side up and Slim was sprawled beneath him. The deputy's head was twisted halfway to sideways and cocked backward at one hell of an angle. He wasn't moving. An undeniable smell was coming from the man's pants, too. Lou snorted to clear his nose. Damn, did that always happen when a man was killed?
Lou wasn't one to question good luck. And he sure wasn't one to waste time when opportunity presented itself. Twisting himself around and prying on Slim's dead body, Lou was able to fish the deputy's ring of keys out of his pants pocket. Finding and putting the key into the lock of the chain wrapped around his waist, he gave a word of thanks to the sheriff for giving the key to the guard. Without that particular piece of metal, getting clear of this wreck would have taken a great deal more effort. A moment more and Lou was free of both sets of shackles. In another, Lou had the dead deputy's gun belt around his own waist. Still moving with a deal of caution, so as not to set the stagecoach rolling again, Lou reached above his head and unlatched the coach's door. With the deputy's back under his boots and peering out over the rim of the opening, he found the coach had settled on relatively barren, flat ground some hundred feet below the road. He used old Slim's shoulders for a step up, then hooking his elbows, pulled himself up and out. Another stroke of luck. The accident had killed everyone on the stage but himself. Leastwise, no one else was moving. Two of the horses must have died outright, but the other four were in various states of pain putting out a terrible racket. Lou would have liked to put them out of their misery, but that would be a fool thing to do. Better to let the law wonder what happened, than advertise he'd survived to put the horses down. He didn't like it any better this way, but he put the death cries of the horses out of his mind and set to business.
From the boot, Lou grabbed the driver's canteen. Going to each of the bodies, he first checked for signs of life and then relieved each of the men of his valuables. He now had Slim's pistol and, counting both paper bills and coins he'd gotten out of the dead men's pockets, almost forty dollars. The rifle Slim was carrying got broken at the stock. Lou left that laying in the stage. The weapon was too dangerous to use, so the pistol would have to be good enough. He nearly discarded a small tin box of wooden matches he'd found along with a burlap pouch of loose tobacco and papers on the driver. Thinking better of it, he tucked the tin into a pocket of his denims. Matches were mighty handy to have on the trail.
Not knowing the pass all that well, he made a guess to be about ten or fifteen miles north of the fort at Tejon. A place he definitely did not want to see. Being on foot and with his choice of direction limited to one away from pursuit, Lou started back along the road to Baker's Field. Until he got clear of the mountains he figured the way to be safe enough, long as he kept his eyes and ears open. He'd skirt the stage stop on the bottom of the grade, and head east. Until someone came along and discovered what was left of the coach and his escort and they figured out he wasn't among those killed, he was in the clear. He was going to get out of this blasted state. He reckoned to do it too, as long as he didn't get too close to Baker's Field and this latest turn of luck held.
Lou didn't consider himself a really bad man, not by his way of looking at things. He had held up a stagecoach or two, sure. He'd gambled some, even done some cow punching. The outlawing wasn't out of meanness, it was just a way to make ends meet. And he never liked hurting anyone. The exception being card sharks, and them because they deserved getting skinned. The only killings he'd ever done were self defense and purely accidental, like the guard and driver trying to shoot him over the strong box. Wasn't any need for it. If they had just let him have the money nobody would have gotten hurt. Instead of going for their guns, they should have been thinking of their wives and children, and retirement.
One thing Lou was sure of. He did not deserve hanging. That was taking this whole affair of law and order just a bit too far.
Fact is, if he were all that bad a man it wouldn't have taken nearly so long to get himself a horse. The first place he came to looked as if the man and woman living there couldn't replace an animal if he took it. The horse in their broken down corral didn't appear able to handle even one day of hard riding. Back sagging something awful, it looked plumb worked out - a real sorry critter. Lou left that farm without disturbing a thing. Instead, he walked another five miles to the next place.
He scouted the second farm from behind a line of scrub brush at the back of the barn. Laying quietly behind a bush, he sized the place up. He wanted to know as much as possible about the owners before taking the fairly good looking bay horse he could see from his place of concealment. He watched an older man step from the house and walk towards, then enter the barn. The man wore no hat and the top of his head showed as much skin as his face. The skin at his cheeks hung down in twin flaps causing creases at both sides of the man's mouth, deep enough they could be seen across the forty feet between him and where Lou lay hidden. The bib overalls he wore marked him as a farmer, not a cowboy. From inside the barn, Lou heard scrapes and bumps, the moos of a cow and the restive whinny of the horse in its stall. He could also see a door in the barn that let out to a freshly whitewashed paddock with a gate in its fence. He did not see a dog. He was in luck there. A dog might give warning of his prowling around the place.
Lou settled in to wait for the right time to move. Right about dusk, Lou eased into the barn and quietly located the tack room. He was a bit surprised. There did not seem to be any saddle. In fact, the only bridle he could find had long reins attached. They would be fine for using a buggy or pulling a plow, but they sure weren't much good for riding. This farmer seemed to only have need for a draft animal. Lou couldn't figure that one. He would never own a horse he couldn't ride. Fortunately, the horse didn't mind being handled by a stranger and stood patiently while he bridled it. He'd ride bare back and be happy, at least until he could get somewhere to change that situation. An old notched butcher knife, left inside the barn after being used for some long forgotten chore, cured the problem of the length of the reins. The knife was dull as three month old news, but he managed to saw through the leather despite that.
Lou led the bay out through the gate in the paddock fence before mounting. As soon as his leg found the other side of the animal he suspected it had never been ridden. There were a few minutes of excitement as the indignant horse learned that Lou was man enough to hang on to even a bare-backed loco bang tail. That horse tried to put him off under every low hanging branch of every tree in the farmer's yard. Wasn't any wonder that all the excitement finally got the attention of the farmer's old dog. Lou figured he hadn't seen it before then because the mutt was so stove up from age. The dog was stiff jointed and about half blind from the looks of him, but once that dog finally did catch notice of the intruder, he made plenty of noise. Even an old hound can howl. Between the barking of the mangy black mutt and the commotion of the horse, the farmer finally caught on to the fact someone was messing with his stock. The man made no beans about his being put out by Lou's confiscation of his animal. He explained his anger very well, cutting loose with both barrels of his shotgun as Lou and horse finally disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Once that horse got to running, instead of all the bucking and scrapping up against everything in sight, it took off due east. That was fine with Lou. Anywhere away from here and that farmer's shotgun would do. Besides, the state line was just what he wanted behind him.
The horse raced across the scrub brush for several miles before the exertion began to tell. With dusk coming on, the horse was giving signs of having just about run itself out. The bay's sides were heaving and he was lathered up good. Way off in front of them Lou could make out the dark purple of the mountains he was making for. He'd crossed the range coming into the valley months ago. Once back across, wasn't but little chance of anyone finding him. Lou pushed the horse on.
When they began to climb, there was no longer any doubt that the horse was plum tuckered out. With that first rush trying to throw Lou off his back, the horse had used a fair amount of what stamina he possessed. Then the run across the brush flat had taken its toll. Lou pulled back on the reins and brought the poor horse to a walk. There were a lot of miles to go before Lou figured on finding town. The outlaw certainly didn't want to find himself walking again.
That evening Lou watched his backtrail from a windswept ridge. With nothing on his back but his workshirt, the wind worked right through him, but he'd sleep cold before lighting a fire. A full moon turned the landscape into shades of silver and gray with deep black shadows. As far as he could see by the light of the moon there was no sign of pursuit. Appeared he had managed to escape once again. Luck doesn't hold on for long, that he knew, and he was sure that his likeness, name and description would be on every local post office and sheriff's wall. Truth be told, there were probably Wanted Posters, with pencil sketches showing the scar along his jaw, papering the walls in a handful of states. He mounted his horse and turned him out of the brush and onto the moonlit trail. It was definitely time to leave this country behind. There were still plenty of places yet to see his face.