Posted June 21, 2017
Revised July 21, 2017
By Christopher Leeson and Ellie Dauber
Thus far, the saga of Eerie, Arizona has been posted in four novels, two short stories, and two novelettes. That's a lot of action, but it adds up to only a small portion of the whole story centering on that remarkable Western town. Though much about the citizens of Eerie has been revealed, much remains to be told, even regarding ground already covered.
This new story concerns one of those untold stories. It carries us back to December, 1871, a month that we have already visited in the second novel, Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Autumn. Something else happened shortly before that Christmas, something that will be the subject of this novelette.
Our plan is to post one chapter of Treasure each month until it is finished. (Meanwhile we are working simultaneously on Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Summer). So here begins our novelette, featuring some old characters, some new characters, and a lot of action that has not been presented before. It's about outlaws, and robbery, and lost treasure, and a new pretty girl, and...oh, wait and see!
Chapter 1 -- "Prolog: September 1871"
December 13, 1871
As the stage slowed for a tangle of branches and rocks obstructing the road, a bullet ricocheted off the canyon wall. The derby-hatted company guard ducked, and his repeating rifle fell down between his feet. The driver cringed and covered his head.
Before the echoing had fully died away, someone shouted. “Throw down that smoke pole, codger, or you won't like what happens.”
The guard looked wildly about, didn't like what he saw, and reached for his dropped weapon. “Throw it down,” the highwayman repeated. “I won't ask three times.” The rifleman, looking disgusted, tossed the Henry rifle away, aiming for a roadside bush, to keep it from breaking on the rocky grade.
“That's better,” the bandit said as he stepped into the open. Three additional men emerged from their hiding places. Though they were masked, even at first glance they seemed to be young men. “Driver, toss away your hog leg, too, and if any of you passengers are toting, dump what y'got out the windows.”
“Don't try anything fancy, folks,” another of the desperadoes grumbled. He was wearing a red bandanna for a mask and his voice sounded even younger than the other outlaw's. That voice, though it wasn't loud, packed an implicit threat. “Hand over the strongbox and the key.”
“The key!” scoffed the guard. “Sonny, that key'll be waiting fer this shipment at the bank in Phoenix. Company policy.”
The holdup man with the bandanna reacted by cocking what looked like a Remington. “Don't call me Sonny!” he warned. Just then, the wind swept his hat back, so that it hung by its stampede strap behind his head. His hair was fair and looked like it needed a good washing.
“All right, 'old man,'” the guard answered back. “Don't get yourself in a lather. We've been authorized to hand over any payload if a highwayman asks fer it politely. I'll loosen the box and toss it down.”
“You do that,” the bandit with the grumbling tone responded.
“Wait a minute,” said a woman through the coach window. “You sound just like Thorn Caldwell. You even got his hair. That's your farm a couple miles down the hill, boy. What would your aunt think?”
The stickup man glared at her, his pistol raised, but not aimed. “Damn you!”
At that moment, the strongbox tumbled off the coach roof, making a metallic clang against the stony ground.
The two quiet robbers went to gather in the loot. When they tried to lift the chest, one of them exclaimed, “Shoot! The damned thing must weigh three hundred pounds!”
“Anybody bring a crowbar?” the first bandit yelled.
There was a breath of silence. Finally, the smaller quiet bandit said, “Hell, no.” The remaining outlaws just stood where they were, looking out of sorts.
“Let me have a crack at it,” said Myron Thornton “Thorn” Caldwell. The highwaymen in his way backed aside, and he squared off in front of the box, cocking his shooting iron.
“Easy there, lads,” the guard said. “It ain't a cinch to blow off a strongbox lock. That case is solid iron. Bullets bounce.”
“Don't call us lads, either!” shouted the apparent leader.
Caldwell put his barrel down close to the padlock, and, before anyone could yell, “No!” he pulled the trigger. The blast sound rocked the canyon.
“Hey!” yelled the bigger and brawnier of the two quiet bandits as the shell whistled past his ear.
“You're an idiot!” growled the leader, pacing forward. “Stand back and let me try.”
The shooter bridled, but grudgingly gave back a step.
The bandit chief took a careful bead, and the cliffs for a third time echoed as his shooting iron reported.
“Yahhh!” Thorn Caldwell howled.
For a few seconds, everyone stared. The boy was curled up on the ground, groaning.
“Keeee-rist!” an outlaw exclaimed. “You done hit him!”
Caldwell was clutching a wound, blood flowing between his fingers. Everyone, outlaws, company men, and passengers, looked on mutely. Most knew that belly wounds soon turned poisonous. Most must have also known that, during the War, gut-shot soldiers had been left to die behind the surgeons' tent while the doctors worked to save men with less fatal wounds.
“Ike!” one of the gang shouted. “We have to...”
“Shad-up!” Ike Bartram, the leader, snapped. He pointed at the ground with his weapon. “Pick up those guns.” Turning, he bared his teeth at the coach. “You men get out and clear away the barricade. When the road is open, you can all get on your way. Move it! We don't have all day.”
Everyone, except the lady, exited the stage. Watched by three outlaws, they shuffled toward the pile of wood and stone that was blocking the narrow road. In about fifteen minutes, they had made the way to Phoenix passable.
“Now jump back into your seats and get the hell out of here!” Ike ordered. Five minutes later, the stagecoach was bouncing down on the roadbed, in a hurry to reach the plain.
The young bandit, Ike, didn't seem sure what to do next. Then, holstering his revolver, he told the two fit men, “Carry the box up into that gorge. We'll hide it and come back when the excitement's died down. Next time, we'll bring proper tools.”
“What about Thorn?” one asked.
Ike scowled. “Leave him to me.”
The two bandits took up the daunting load, one at each handle, and staggered it between themselves toward the offshoot canyon. The chief bandit brought the gang's four horses out of hiding and tied them to a scrawny mesquite tree growing out of a crack in the canyon wall. Then Ike regarded the wounded boy, thinking hard.
“Damn you, Thorn, you've turned into a problem that we didn't need. We can't take you with us and head out at any kind of speed. If a posse takes you, you'll get talkative. You owe it to your friends to die quick-like and be done with it.”
“Go to blazes,” the wounded robber groaned.
Ike rested his hand on his gun-grip, frowning. “That's a selfish attitude. If you're still alive by the time we come back, you'll be a problem that needs fixing.”
That said, he followed after the other two.
Thorn cringed, toughing out the tortures of Hell. By the time he could no longer hear the scuffing of the robber's boots, he had made a decision. It was dead certain that as soon as Ike came back, he was going to put him down, like a nag with a broken leg. Seething mad, the young outlaw struggled, despite the searing pain, to get up.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Thorn could walk some. He shuffled toward his tethered horse and managed to clamber up into the saddle. The youth was under no illusion that his new “friends” gave a hot damn whether he lived or died, and they were money ahead if it were the latter. Thorn couldn't let his plans and dreams end like this, all because of a stupid mistake. If this were any place else other than a canyon that was only a couple miles from his own home, he wouldn't have stood a chance. If he could reach the farm, he could get some help. Luckily, the youth didn't feel half so close to dying as Ike was hoping.
Riding down out of the hills, each bump inflicted shots of pain; he felt like this was some awful dream. If he hadn't been half-unconscious, the agony would have been unbearable.
The first darkness was closing in on Riley Canyon Road by the time he reached level ground. He rode along the trace, barely lucid. Somehow his bay was carrying him in the way that he wanted to go. He didn't try urging it to speed, since he doubted he could hold on if the ride became a rough one. At last, he spied the uneven shingles of the rooftop of his family's farmhouse. Thorn was suddenly feeling younger than his actual years. He didn't want to face his aunt, and he wanted even less to have a one-on-one with the sheriff in town. Dan Talbot would remember the horse that he'd stolen from his neighbor, Tally Singer. That was a sure hanging offense, even if stage robbery was not.
By this point, though, he would have gladly taken a jail-house bunk if it meant getting off his horse's back. The mid-December wind was chilling him to the bone; Thorn, shuddering with the cold, had to grip his horse's neck to keep from being shaken off. His teeth chattered; his gasping came in shivery snatches. By the time the rider heard a shout from the farmhouse, he didn't have breath enough for an answering hail. Pain was draining away his strength like water from a leaky canteen. Was someone running his way? He couldn't focus.
The hard ground slammed into his shoulder. The wounded youth never felt it.
To be continued in Chapter 1, Part 1