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THE HANGING AT LEADVILLE (Chapter 1)
He traveled in milling crowds, between rows of board-and-batten buildings, through relentless stenches and din. Above stretched a starry Colorado sky close enough to touch, below spread boot-sucking mud, and behind crept a one-armed man who had been Alex M. Gunnison's shadow for the last fifteen minutes.
Quickening his step, the young man pulled his sodden feet out of the mud and stepped onto the boardwalk where he cut around a pair of stumbling drunks and into the closest alley. He crossed a clay-slick miner passed out with his hand around his bottle, meandered through a maze of alleys, backlots, and sheds, then entered the middle of State Street, coming out beside a saloon band parked at the front door of its sponsoring establishment.
The band was drunk; it sometimes seemed half the people in this town were drunk, and proud of it. The four musicians were putting an old marching-band tune through a musical Inquisition, dismembering it in their brass torture chambers before spitting its remains into the night. Gunnison glanced behind him. His follower was gone.
Relieved, Gunnison began walking rapidly down the State Street boardwalk. But he had forgotten the haphazard design of this town's walks and tripped when the low one he was on abruptly butted up against one a foot higher. It sent him sprawling. Immediately a man rushed to him, gave soothing words and a hand, and then was gone, taking with him Gunnison's wallet. Not that it mattered much. Gunnison had been wise enough to empty the cash from it last night in the dungeon of a hotel he had slept in, and now his fold of bills was stashed in his sock.
All this is Brady Kenton's fault, Gunnison thought bitterly as he brushed himself off. It was Kenton who had insisted on coming to Leadville for reasons unclarified; he who had walked happily down its dismal saloon-lined streets, exulting in the very smells and clamor that seemed so repelling to Gunnison; he who had vanished within two hours of their arrival yesterday afternoon, leaving his partner stranded like an abandoned orphan.
It wasn't the first time Kenton had done this to his companion. In Dodge City the previous summer, he had vanished for three days--difficult to do in a town that size, but Kenton had pulled it off. The prior spring in San Antonio he had given Gunnison the slip for a day. At least there had been plenty to enjoy in Dodge and San Antonio while searching him out. Gunnison's abandonments there had been mere temporary assignments to limbo. This one, though, was beginning to feel more like damnation to hell's outskirts.
Clumping glumly down the boardwalk, Gunnison had to scold himself for his overblown feelings. He knew he was not being fair to either Kenton or Leadville. Kenton didn't vanish simply to torment him. He did it because it was his way, and those ways, Gunnison was convinced, were largely beyond even Kenton's control. His modes of thinking and acting were written into his inimitable nature, as inerasable as an inscription on a gravestone, and there was nothing for Gunnison to do but live with them.
Kenton, who always preferred being addressed simply by his surname, was perhaps the most unusual man Alex Gunnison had ever known. Thoroughly Texan, sometimes brawlish, and uncomfortable without a Colt on his hip or beneath his coat, Kenton looked far more like a cattleman than like the journalistic chronicler he was. The look wasn't completely deceptive. Kenton had done some ranching in his day--that and a little of almost everything else. The man was an ongoing surprise to his younger friend and professional partner. Almost weekly, Gunnison discovered more about him and his wide-ranging experiences, and with every discovery held the man in a little more awe.
It was as a journalist that Gunnison knew Kenton best and admired him most. Wherever the chronicling team's travels took them, Kenton always managed to sniff his way, like a keen-nosed hound, into the heart of every place and time he chose to preserve in words and woodcuts. Too often, unfortunately, he sniffed his way into trouble as well, which was one of the reasons Gunnison's publisher father--Kenton's superior, if he could be said to have one--had assigned his son to travel and work with the unpredictable journalist.
Gunnison stopped and looked around. Where could Kenton be? Probably somewhere digesting the essence of this brawling Rocky Mountain silver camp ten thousand feet above the level of the distant ocean. Eventually, Gunnison knew, he would find Kenton, most likely with his pad filled with notes and sketch outlines that in finished form would enhance the pages of Gunnison's Illustrated American and prove once more that Brady Pleasant Kenton was the best of America's traveling artist-reporters.
Kenton was the idol of his counterparts at Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Harper's Weekly, and the like. Gunnison realized that many of them would gladly have traded places with him and become the one privileged to be Kenton's assistant and student--the second and more official capacity in which Gunnison traveled with him.
Winding through the crowd, Gunnison looked for Kenton's familiar form in the mix. Someone bumped him from the side; an artificial flowery smell rose into his nostrils, riding parasitically on the shoulders of a fleshy organic stench. An expanse of paint and powder slid sidewise across his line of vision; a yellow-toothed smile beamed.
"Well, ain't you the pretty one!" the powdered face said, exuding liquored breath. "Want to have a fine evening with Moll, my fine young dandy?"
"No, ma'am, no thank you." Gunnison backed away. Her perfume was overpowering, its putrid sweetness like rotting vegetables.
"Come with sweet Moll. You'll never forget it if you do."
"I'm sure I wouldn't, but no thank you all the same," Gunnison said. He tried to sidestep her, and her smile vanished. She stuck out her foot to make him stumble, but he dodged her. She swore at him, then swished on down the boardwalk trailing her smell like a wake. Within five seconds, she was accosting a new potential customer, this one inebriated enough to respond.
There, on down the street...Gunnison was sure he had seen Kenton. A tall, broad figure in the door of a gambling hall, there for a second and then gone....
Pushing through the crowd on the boardwalk proved frustratingly slow, so Gunnison descended to the muddy street again and there slogged a sticky path toward the gambling hall. He went to the door and looked around its packed interior. A haze of smoke he could have swum through dimmed the atmosphere, but a dozen hanging lamps pierced it sufficiently to show that Kenton was not there. The man Gunnison had seen was just one more of the thousands of miners and would-be miners who populated this town of unending flux.
Disappointed, Gunnison turned and started down the boardwalk again, passing an alley. Immediately a rough hand grabbed his collar. He yelled in surprise and was dragged back off the boardwalk into the alley where his head bumped hard against the gambling-house wall and he stared suddenly into eyes as dark and threatening as muzzle holes.
The eyes belonged to the one-armed man Gunnison thought he had evaded. He leaned close, the single hand gripping Gunnison's collar with the strength of two.
"Clean out your pockets! Clean 'em out now!" He punctuated the order with another firm rap of his victim's head against the wall, making sparks jump in his eyes. The man's breath was heavy with gin and the residue of opium smoke.
"I have nothing," Gunnison said.
"You're lying!" Another firm rap, more sparks inside his skull--but also a burst of anger. Gunnison remembered self-defense lessons forced on him in the past, with Kenton the eager teacher and Gunnison the reluctant student. Now he was glad for them. He swung his arm and knocked the grasping hand free, then drove up his knee, the man's groin the target. Gunnison missed, but his knee hit him at the base of his slightly overhanging belly. The fleshy mass absorbed the blow like a pillow.
Still, it hurt enough to make the man fall back. Gunnison dug beneath his vest for the small knife sheathed there. The three-inch blade glittered in the light from the street. Gunnison chuckled to see a flash of fear in the man's face. This one-armed devil would run from him now.
He didn't. Instead, he glared at Gunnison, breathing louder and faster as if he were trying to inflate himself. "Think to scare me off with that, do you?" he growled. Then another blade glittered, this one eight inches long and in the one-armed man's hand, not Gunnison's. It was the attacker's turn to chuckle. Gunnison's knife suddenly felt like a toy.
"Boy, you'd best find you a bucket to tote your bowels in!" The knife sliced toward Gunnison's abdomen and made him draw back. With a shudder of horror, Gunnison realized that the man was seriously trying to disembowel him. The man laughed again, advanced, and Gunnison lunged out blindly with his small blade.
The one-armed man yelped and drew back, his forearm bleeding, blood trickling to his elbow. Swearing, he came at Gunnison once more, his blade rising, then descending, flashing in reflected light as it speared toward Gunnison's midsection like sharp-edged lightning.
Gunnison was fully convinced he was about to die. There was no getting past this man and no avoiding his blade. Stiffening, he awaited the fatal thrust.
It did not come.
Instead there was a sudden flurry of motion and burst of noise. Before Gunnison could realize what had happened, his attacker was pinned against the wall, looking angrily into the face of a tall man with a mustache so thick it made his slender face look front-heavy. Balancing it somewhat was a brush of hair spilling down the back of his neck from beneath the brim of a Jefferson Davis hat that, like the man it was named after, had been beaten into submission long ago. The one-armed man's knife was now in the newcomer's hand.
"Chop-off Johnson, you leave this one alone, hear? I got business with him."
That comment suggested to Gunnison that maybe he was not going to escape robbery after all but simply fall victim to a two-armed bandit instead of a one-armed one.
The one-armed man scowled, then nodded reluctantly. "All right. For you, I'll do it, Currell. But give me back my knife."
The other nimbly flipped the knife and gave it, handle first, to its owner, a move about which Gunnison had very negative feelings.
"You had no call to jump me, Currell," Chop-off Johnson said. "You could have just hollered at me."
"Why, you'd have cut the tenderloins off him by then, Chop-off." Currell laughed and glanced at Gunnison, who didn't find the thought so amusing.
The one-armed man put away the knife and gave Gunnison the look of a hungry wolf deprived of a fresh kill. He turned and vanished into the dark.
Gunnison faced the other man. "Well, should I thank you or get ready to defend myself?"
"Don't fret. I ain't going to do nothing to you. Fact is, I been sent to find you, if you're Alex Gunnison."
Gunnison asked, "Did Brady Kenton send you?"
"Then I am Alex Gunnison."
"I thought so. Kenton said to look for a baby-faced fellow dressed like a swell."
He could have presented Gunnison no more convincing credentials than that last statement to verify that he had in fact been sent by Kenton. Gunnison's partner was a man of basics when it came to clothing. Though Gunnison's clothes were cut rugged and were hardly the fancy dress-coat outfits he had worn back in St. Louis, Kenton always perceived him as a dandified dresser. Gunnison had always put that down as one of Kenton's several blindnesses, but now he wasn't sure, for obviously Currell had perceived him in the same way.
Taking a deep breath, Gunnison let some of the tension of his encounter drain away. His muscles had petrified into a fist-sized knot between his shoulder blades. He nodded in the direction the one-armed man had run. "I appreciate the help. He had me a little worried."
"That was Maynard Johnson, Chop-off, we call him. He's an alleyway robber, what your locals call a footpad. He used to drive an ore wagon, like I do, until it rolled over his arm one day and they had to whack it off with nothing to cut the pain. Been sort of crazy-mad ever since, especially when he's drunk. But he barks more than he bites. Most days he's pretty normal, even works with me from time to time."
Gunnison put away his knife, and Currell thrust out his hand for a shake. "George Currell. Them who call me anything call me just plain Currell."
Currell's eyes were small, maybe brown, but black in this dim light. They flickered quickly up and down, and he smiled. "You're lucky you ain't been jumped before now, son. You got the look of the city about you. That don't slide down the local gullets too smooth, if you know what I mean."
"So I gather. Where is Kenton?"
"I'll take you to him. You got bags and such?"
"Yes, back at the hotel."
"Let's go get them. You've got a new place to sleep tonight, courtesy of Mr. Squire Deverell."
The Hanging at Leadville copyright 1991 by Cameron Judd.