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The Last Way Station
By Kent Conwell
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Kent Conwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Last Way Station
"Dammit to hell, Jake, you best listen to me. I don't like this job. I swear we're both loco, you for dumping your last two-bits in a crazy pipe dream that ain't got no chance of ever seein' daylight, an' me for leaving Arizona to tag after you."
Three-Fingers Bent popped a pebble from under his bay's front left shoe and looked up at his young sidekick. He shifted his chaw of tobacco from one cheek to the other and nodded to the lush valley below. "Them folks down there in that Mormon town scare me worse'n a starvin' grizzly." The old man dropped the horse's hoof. "From what I hear, Mormons would as soon string a feller up as pray for him, 'specially uninvited cowpokes like us." He loosed an arc of tobacco to punctuate his words as he climbed back in the saddle.
Jake Slade shifted around in his double-cinched Texas saddle and hooked a leg around the saddle horn. He rested his gnarled hand on the walnut grip of the .44 on his hip and gazed across the broad valley, his sun-browned skin stretching taut across his broad cheekbones.
A wide, shining river, the Canadian, meandered through the middle of the broad basin, bisecting luxuriantfields of new winter wheat and late season sorghum. Afternoon shadows gathered about a neat village in the horseshoe bend of the river.
Slade didn't like the job either. He, too, had heard the stories about the Mormons, about the massacre at Mountain Meadows, but he'd never run across any jasper who had firsthand knowledge of the deed. He wasn't certain if they were just stories, rumors, or the truth. Regardless, he was going to watch his step.
Slade removed his slouch hat and ran his fingers through short-cropped hair. The Nez Perce in his gray eyes narrowed with suspicion, but the white man in his heart hoped Bent was wrong.
By hitching up with his boss, Bill Harnden, in this venture, the young half-breed had invested every last penny of his savings and dreams in a stage run from Fort Atkinson, Arkansas to El Paso, Texas, hoping to cash in on the new business and buy a ranch on the Mogollon Plateau in Arizona Territory.
And now, here in a small settlement in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, Slade was ready to tie both ends of the stage run together. Within hours, either his dream would come true or five years' dreaming, sacrifice, and work would vanish like a rolling tumbleweed.
Bent snorted. "You hear what I said?
The younger man turned his gray eyes on Bent. "We haven't even met these folks yet. Don't you reckon you just might be jumping to conclusions?"
The old man shook his head emphatically. "It don't take no conclusion for me to remember it was them Mormons what massacred all them settlers up in Utah country ten-twelve years back-a hundred and forty of them poor folks slaughtered like hogs-men, women, and children." He snorted again and shook his head at the sprawling community below. "You know Mormons don't cotton to outsiders. They want to be by theirselves. What guarantee you got that them down there won't do the same to us as them others?"
With a faint grin on his weather-browned face, Slade studied his old friend. Over their years together on Bill Harnden's stage line, the young half-reed had come to realize that Bent was one to ride the river with. Though the old man was cantankerous and sometimes hotheaded, Slade had never taken his partner's fears lightly. He shook his head. "Nothing's guaranteed, Bent." He hooked a thumb across the valley. "That's why Nana's with us."
Bent looked in the direction Slade indicated. On the far rim, a dark figure sat motionless on a small pony. The figure was Nana, Slade's Apache brother.
Although Bent had fought Apaches ever since he was a button, over the past few years he had reached an understanding with Nana. He admired the young warrior's courage as much as his devotion to Slade, "Busca," as the Apaches called him; but of course, the old man would never admit having any such human feelings as admiration for an Apache. He groused. "One set of extra eyes ain't much of a comfort."
Slade pulled his hat down on his forehead. He squinted over his shoulder into the setting sun. That drifter back on the Staked Plains still nagged at him. "Maybe not, but if I had my choice of any pair of eyes, it would be Nana's."
"All I can say," Bent added, scratching his grizzled jaw. "Is that old Bill shoulda sent a couple gunnies with us. I sure as shooting wouldn't have complained about that at all."
Slade's smile broadened into a grin, splitting his dark face like a new moon. "Now, Bent. You not complain? I reckon that's kinda hard for me to picture. Why, you know yourself you got a natural, God-given talent for finding something to fuss over," he said. "And if you can't find a reason, you usually make one up."
Bent stared at Slade, trying to maintain the frown on his craggy face, but the infectious smile on the young half-breed's face broke through his resolution. He snorted and jerked his bay around. "Go to hell," he said gruffly, kicking his heels into his dun's flanks and sending the animal skittering down the slope into the darkening valley.
Slade laughed and followed.
Across the valley, Nana disappeared into a grove of cottonwoods.
As they approached the small village, Bent muttered. "Women being what they is, how do you reckon these old boys put up with more than one wife?"
Chapter TwoIn the blacksmith shop, Joseph Ware paused to squint into the setting sun at the two figures approaching on horseback. He laid his three-pound cross peen hammer on the anvil and brushed the layer of coal dust off his muscular forearms. Travelers were uncommon to New Gideon since the village lay far off the western trails. He glanced over his shoulder at his wife who had come to stand in the doorway of the neat frame house next to his shop. "We will have guests tonight, Rebecca."
Dutifully, the plump little woman nodded and disappeared inside.
Open and friendly, Joseph held up his hand in greeting as Slade and Bent drew up at the water trough in front of the shop. "Welcome, strangers. My name's Joseph Ware. It'll be night soon. If you're not in a hurry, we'd be right pleased for you to take supper with us."
Slade stood in the stirrups and grinned to himself. The town blacksmith. Maybe luck was on their side. They had stumbled across the very man they had hoped to find. "That's right hospitable, Mr. Ware. This here is my partner, Three-Fingers Bent, and I'm Jake Slade."
The blacksmith studied the two riders a moment. Both wore cowpoke duds, heavy denims, and loose-fitting homespun shirts. But a frown creased his forehead when he saw that the younger one wore a deerskin vest and what looked like Indian-made moccasins. And riding on the young man's left hip was an Indian war club. Beneath one fender of the saddle was an elmwood bow in a deerskin case with two-dozen iron-pointed arrows. Under the other fender was a matching deerskin case sheathing a battered Winchester. The only weapon Ware did not see was the coiled slingshot in Slade's vest pocket. He nodded over his shoulder. "Stable's out back."
Joseph Ware watched the two men dismount. The younger one moved with the grace of a mountain lion. He was slender, but Ware had the feeling that the young man was tough as the iron he tempered in his shop and twice as durable.
Later, Joseph Ware leaned back from the table and patted his stomach. "Fine meal, Rebecca. I hope our guests enjoyed it," he said, looking at Bent who was still putting himself around a thick slab of dried apple pie after inhaling succulent roasted beef, boiled corn, pungent steamed cabbage, and mouth-watering home-baked bread.
"Best I've had in months, Mrs. Ware," Slade said, turning his gray eyes back to the blacksmith, awaiting his host's answer to Slade's proposition.
He had quickly recognized that Ware was a fair man, and as such, his decision could prove invaluable. If Ware refused to go along with their plan to set up the final relay station here in New Gideon, then Slade was without a spokesman.
That meant he would be forced to approach the village on his own, which, he told himself, could prove to be as slippery a job as sprinkling salt on the five-inch stump of a bobcat. If Joseph Ware could see the value in Slade's idea, then at least the young half-breed had one vote on his side.
Bent ignored Slade and Ware, determined to wreak as much damage to the substantial meal before him as he could, although he warily eyed the glass of milk by his plate. He hadn't tasted milk in forty years, but that was the only drink on the table, and Western manners dictated that guests never refuse freely-offered grub.
Still wondering about Ware's other wives, Bent flashed a gap-toothed grin at Mrs. Ware who sat across the table. She was a plain woman dressed in calico, but she gave the impression of being right sturdy, the kind of pioneer woman who could rustle up solid grub from next to nothing; could whip out a Sunday-go-to-meeting dress from a couple flour sacks; and could make a soddy look like a castle. "Mighty filling grub, ma'am," he said. "Reckon I can't remember when I had tastier dried apple pie."
Mrs. Ware ducked her head, uncomfortable with praise. "I'm grateful it pleasures you so much, Mr. Bent. We have plenty." She shoved the tin pie plate across the table, pleased to see any man or boy pack himself from her table.
"It's better with a big swallow of milk, Mr. Bent," said Joseph.
Reluctantly, Bent sipped the milk. The liquid was passable, but nothing could take the place of hot coffee, black as midnight and strong as an unbathed cowboy.
The burly blacksmith chuckled when he spotted the grimace on Bent's face when the old man sipped the milk. "Reckon our ways are some different than yours, Mr. Bent. Hot drinks are forbidden us, as are alcohol and tobacco."
Grateful he had the foresight to spit out his chaw of tobacco before entering the house, Bent reached for the pie. "Well, folks is different. Me, I reckon I can get by without the coffee as long as I got this pie," he said, cutting a slab twice as wide as the first.
Mrs. Ware beamed. "More cream, Mr. Bent?"
He held his plate for her. With a long-handled wooden spoon, she skimmed a thick layer of rich, yellow cream from a jar of milk and plopped it on top of the steaming slab of pie.
Joseph Ware cleared his throat. "Well, Mr. Slade. Concerning your proposition, I figure you're heading for more trouble than if you'd brought in a plague of locusts at harvest time. Folks here don't much cotton to new faces but what they be of our faith. And the fact that we've been having trouble with rustlers the last five or six years don't help none."
"I understand, Mr. Ware. We don't want to change anything around here, but we are interested in changing things out west. You see, in Utah last year, at a place called Promontory Point, the railroads from the east and west connected. This country of ours is building itself a big spiderweb of trails so people can spread over this land and take advantage of all it has to offer."
"That's my point, Mr. Slade. We don't want newcomers here."
Slade rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward, his eyes holding Joseph Ware's. "Call me Jake. And we don't want newcomers here either. We want them out in Arizona Territory-maybe some across the Staked Plains in West Texas or New Mexico Territory."
He paused to clear his throat. "But if it'll make you rest easier, Mr. Ware, I'm on your side. I don't agree with my boss about a station in New Gideon, and I've got two good reasons."
The big blacksmith frowned.
Slade continued. "I got my life savings invested in this stage line, and I don't think any line should run through any town that doesn't want it. If we go where we're not wanted, I figure we'll have trouble sooner or later."
Ware grunted. "Then why did you come to New Gideon in the first place?"
"Fair question. To be honest, it's the shortest way. Drew a straight line from El Paso to Fort Atkinson, Arkansas, and that line cut right through your valley. We can save a day or so of stage travel by that route." Slade paused, then added wryly, "If you ever done much stage riding, Mr. Ware, you know how pleasurable it is to save a couple days."
Ware laughed, a broad, rollicking bellow. "I've ridden enough of them bouncing seats to appreciate what you're saying, Jake. But you said you had two reasons. What's the other, if you don't mind me nosing about?" The blacksmith leaned forward, resting his muscular forearms on the kitchen table.
Slade shrugged. "I just told you. If we go where we're not wanted, sooner or later, we got trouble. This country's wide open. I figure it would go a heap easier for us if we set up a relay station back north. Country's a heap more rugged, which means it would take more time, but we wouldn't have no one to worry over except for the two old boys running the station."
"Then why do it? I mean, come here to New Gideon."
A wry grin tugged at the somber half-breed's lips as he leaned forward. "Bill Harnden's a family man. He figured any community could use the cash business, and it will save a little time, like I said."
Ware leaned back and folded his arms across his broad chest. "Your boss sounds like a good man."
"He is." Slade glanced down at his large hands that were spread out fanlike on the handcrafted cottonwood table. His knuckles were large knobs, scarred from years of fighting with every drunken cowpoke or wet-eared button who figured to stomp him into the ground because he was a half-breed.
He had learned to take care of himself with his fists as well as with his brain. Long before Slade left the Mimbre Apaches to scout for J. E. B. Stuart, the old chief, Mangas Coloradas, took him aside and laid a wrinkled finger on Slade's forehead. "Great warriors fight the battles here first." The young man understood. Two months later, the Blue Coats murdered Magnas Coloradas. Slade would never forget the treachery.
Now, Slade hoped he had fought this first battle wisely. He cleared his throat and said. "Of course, Mr. Ware, we can go around if you folks want us to. But even if we do, we'll still be neighbors. Bill just figured that you'd want first shot at a business that would bring fresh cash into your community."
Ware rocked forward in his chair and frowned.
Slade added. "You give us a right-of-way through your valley, and we'll put in a relay station here for your people to operate. That means we'd be buying extra feed for the stock, grub for the passengers, and hire on three or four of your people as wranglers to handle the stock. New Gideon will pick up a right nice bundle of extra cash. Why, you as the local blacksmith will have a ready-made passel of work at your back door just taking care of the stock. You might even build yourself a larger blacksmith shop."
Ware remained silent, studying Slade. The young man made sense. Keep the relay station in New Gideon among their own people. That way, no outsiders could come in. And there would be no neighbors.
Finally, he said. "Blacksmith, huh? That's why you came straight to me."
Slade shrugged and gave him a sheepish grin. "Be kinda foolish not to, don't you think?"
Ware grinned. "We're simple people here. We don't need much. But I see your point. Every community can use an extra cash business."
Slade shot Bent a satisfied grin before turning back to the blacksmith. "Where do we go from here?"
"Tomorrow," said Ware, rising to his feet. "Tomorrow I'll take you to the Stake High Council."
The wiry young man frowned.
Ware explained. "That's our governing body. All decisions affecting the Stake"-he made a sweeping gesture-"this community, are made there." A regulator clock on the mantel chimed nine o'clock. Ware nodded to his wife who had just finished cleaning the kitchen. She scurried into another room, the bedroom, Slade guessed. Ware hooked his thumb to an adjoining room. "Your beds are ready. You must excuse us. We rise at four."
Slade stopped him. "What do you think the council will do, Mr. Ware?"
"Call me Joseph."
Ware continued, a frown knitting his forehead. "There are many who are against changing the old ways. What will they do, you ask? Who knows? I like your idea, Jake, but don't get your hopes up too high."
Later in the dark, Bent read Slade's mind. "What do you think, Jake? Still worried about that grubliner we run across back on the Staked Plains?"
Slade rolled over on his bunk and stared into the darkness where Bent lay. He was uncomfortable sleeping under a roof. "I don't figure we'll see him again, but I'm still spooky about the way he walked in with the three of us around the fire. It surprised him. Two white men and an Apache. That don't mix."
Bent laughed away his young partner's concern. "At least, it wasn't Jack Barker."
Excerpted from The Last Way Station by Kent Conwell Copyright © 2007 by Kent Conwell. Excerpted by permission.
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