Words and images by Robert Beck
That was Messing’s Horse at the water trough. Elijah recognized the blue pack roll on the back like the agent had described. Finally, he thought. The man moves fast for someone with nowhere to go.
Elijah Dawes had been in the saddle for five hours. He took off his hat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and steered his horse to the boy standing near the pump. “Lookin’ for the man who owns that horse,” Elijah said. “Missing an eyebrow.”
The boy pointed his head towards the other side of the dirt street. “Brock’s, sir.”
Elijah swung his leg over his saddle, lowered himself to the ground, and handed the reins to the boy. Taking the handle in one hand, Elijah pumped water into the other and splashed it on his face and neck. He took a glance at the dozen or so buildings that made up the town while letting the blood redistribute in his legs. Nobody was on the street, at least nobody he could see. He spotted Brock’s right away. It was one of two buildings in town with a sign, and a nicer one than it deserved. Elijah remembered that sign from when it used to hang on the hardware store in Culver. The owner of this Brock’s, a saloon, had clerked in that Brock’s, a hardware store, and took the sign in lieu of wages when old man Brock died of an acute disagreement.
Elijah untied a leather bag from behind his saddle, then slid the rifle from its holster and cradled it in his right arm. “Won’t be long,” he said.
He walked over to Brock’s and stood in front of the open door until his eyes adjusted. The saloon was one room with a low ceiling. It had a primitive bar along the back, a table with two benches, and a crude door leading into the storage shed attached to one side. Elijah could see sunlight between the boards in a few places along the walls. The window covers were pulled in and hooked to the ceiling, and afternoon light spilled dimly into the colorless, dirty interior. There was one person in the place, hunched on a stool at the far-left end of the bar. Elijah walked over and stood along the rail, not too close, but not so far as he’d have to get loud.
Jack Messing sat with his fingertips surrounding the rim of his empty shot glass, staring at the shelf of bottles in front of him. He was a wide man. Long matted hair fell out of his battered, flat-brimmed Stetson, trailing part-way down the back of a vest made from a Crow blanket. A similar thatch of hair surrounded a nose and two dark eyes. He had a pistol on one hip and a bone-handle knife strapped to his chest.
“I’m looking for Doug Mason,” Elijah said. “The agent in Dry Neck said you might know where I’ll find him.”
Messing continued to stare at the wall.
“I got something belongs to him,” said Elijah.
Messing lifted his gaze to the piece of broken mirror leaning behind the bottles, where he could watch Elijah’s reflection.
“Who the fuck are you,” he said.
“Elijah Dawes. Doug and I were at Triple Ridge.” Messing gave a glance in Elijah’s direction without moving his head.
Elijah put his bag and rifle across the bar and flopped his hat on top, causing a small cloud to rise and mingle with the dust he brought from outside.
Messing continued to look at him in the mirror for a minute, then lowered his eyes to his glass. “Mason’s dead,” he said.
Elijah’s face went slack. “He’s dead? Mason?” He looked up at the ceiling, ran his fingers back through his hair, and gave up a deep exhale. “Shit.” He turned towards the front door and looked out into the parched light. Elijah wasn’t ready for Doug being dead and wasn’t sure what his next step was. “What happened?” he said, his voice nearly a whisper.
The door to the side shed opened, and a man came in carrying a box. He looked at Elijah and the rifle and stopped short. Elijah met his gaze and showed him two fingers.
“Triple Ridge,” Messing said, shaking his head. “He talked a lot about that. Fuckin’ bastards.” He went back to staring at his glass. Elijah pulled a stool under himself and waited.
The bartender put a new glass in front of Elijah and filled both. Messing drained his. He waited for the liquor to settle, glanced toward the other drink, then halfway toward Elijah. “We met up at Fort Packer last fall,” he said. “Doug heard tell of silver up near Spearfish.”
Elijah snorted. “Everyone says they know where there’s silver—you mean up near the Langer claim?”
Messing pursed his lips and went quiet. Elijah tapped his glass on the bar. “Fort Packer,” he said. “Rough territory, Jack.”
Messing turned his head and looked straight at Elijah for five or six seconds. The missing eyebrow and coarse dark scar beside his eye set his face in a permanent provocation. Elijah looked right back. “Dawes,” Messing said with a slight nod. “Mason talked about you too.”
“What happened?” Elijah said again.
Messing rolled his glass in his fingers. “We figured to head north of the Fork and was outfittin’ at the depot. Wanted to be set up by spring.” He put the glass down. “The morning before we was supposed to move out, Mason was down at the river and got an arrow aside his ear. Opened it up. Ought’n been there by himself.” Messing looked far away. His nose started to drip, and he wiped it with his hat.
Elijah took a sip. It burned. Whatever it was, it was particularly awful. He waited until he was sure he could talk. “Opened his ear?” he said with a rasp.
“The whole side of his head.” Messing closed his eyes and continued. “Next day, it was blowed up like a melon. Don’t know what was on that arrow, but he got brain fever. We had to hold him down to keep him from flailin’ around breakin’ shit. Head was the size of two. Kept getting’ worse. Never did stop bleeding. Blood on the blanket, blood all over. Fuckin’ mess. Didn’t make a week.”
Elijah took his hat off the bar and used it to brush some dirt off his leg. He looked up again. “You leave him at Packer?”
Messing lifted a thumb from the glass. “Sent him to his sister Jessica in King City, on the other side of Kiowa. We cut some of his head so he fit in the box regular. Smelled like hell.”
They sat quiet for a while. Elijah looked at the barkeep and nodded for another pour — he didn’t want any more, especially that stuff, but it wouldn’t go to waste. Then he reached in his leather bag and pulled out a small deerskin pouch. “So he’s got no use for this,” he said, and laid it on the bar. Messing looked at the pouch, then at Elijah. Elijah shook it by the bottom, and out slid a necklace made of silver: three chains with two coral bears under a turquoise moon. “He left it for me at the Express Station in Bainville. Didn’t say why.”
The barkeep leaned over and made a grunting sound. Messing and Elijah gave him looks, and he went back to his own business.
“Know anything about it?” Elijah asked.
Messing turned back to the mirror. “Maybe his sister can help you,” he said, his voice cold, face gone to stone. Elijah waited, but Messing was done.
Elijah put the necklace back in the pouch, tossed it lightly in his hand, and dropped it back in his bag. “Maybe so,” he said, stepping back from his stool. Elijah set his hat on his head and picked up his bag and rifle. He put money on the bar and moved his drink over to Jack.
The sun glared in Elijah’s eyes as he stepped through the open door onto the planks out front. His horse was tied at the post. The boy was sitting on the bench, carving on an old wheel spoke. He looked up, holding his knife hand to his forehead for shade. “Help you with something, mister?”
“Take my horse. I’ll be at the hotel,” Elijah said and did a visual sweep of the town. It was close to a week since he’d had a bath or shave.
“I wouldn’t, sir,” the boy said, lowering his voice. He went back to his carving; Elijah saw it was the figure of a woman in a Prairie dress. “Better-off at one of the ranches along the trail,” the boy said, not looking at Dawes. “Peterson’s. About four miles out toward King. They know Miss Jessica. She visits.”
Elijah looked at the saloon window behind the bench, then over at the hotel, which didn’t look any more hospitable than the livery barn attached to it, and reasoned it was good advice. At this point, everyone knew more than he did.
Elijah took a coin from his pack and handed it to him. “What’s your name, son?”
“Thank you, Michael.”
Elijah Dawes pulled up onto his horse, touched the brim of his hat, and slipped between the buildings out the back way to the trail. Jack Messing, the bartender, and two other men in town watched him disappear into the brush toward King City, his progress marked by a thin plume of dust rising in front of Kiowa Mountain, shimmering in the late afternoon Wyoming sun.
Robert Beck is a painter, teacher, curator, lecturer and writer who divides his time between Bucks County, PA and New York City. See more of his work at Robertbeck.net, on Instagram @illhavecoffeethanks, and on Facebook .
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