Posted 01- 21-18
Chapter 4, Part 1
December 16, 1871, Continued
Paul gave Myra time to saddle her riding horse. He still wasn't sure what to make of her. Bandits couldn't be trusted, of course, but the judge had put her under orders, so he didn't think she could cause him much trouble during their short outing.
As they rode side by side, Myra stayed silent, giving only short answers to whatever question the lawman put to her. The latter knew enough about potion girls to sympathize, but despite rough starts, those at the saloon had managed well enough.
Almost before the deputy realized it, he and Myra were climbing the steepening grade into Stagecoach Gap. This happened to be the first local robbery of the kind that had occurred since he had accepted the badge, but it was a common enough occurrence. One newspaper had said that there were more stage robberies around western Arizona than in any other part of the West. The abundance of gold and silver was mainly responsible. Eerie's prospectors did well enough, but so far no great fortunes had been discovered on the southern side of the Superstitions. The thing that kept the gold-seekers going was the legend of the Peralta mine.
The earlier residents thereabouts had passed on to the Yankees a lost treasure story that had come out of Mexico, but there were several versions. Some said that a rich strike had become lost when miners hid the shaft and fled to escape an Apache uprising. Not many made it home to tell the tale. After Mexico resettled the region, the lore these new people brought up from their southern home drew in many hopeful Americans.
Once the stars and stripes had been run up the flag pole, the local Spanish-speaking village was quickly transformed by a wave of arriving treasure-hunters. But Peralta had hidden his mine too well; there was no trace left. The cynics began calling it a myth, but most folks thought that there had to be some truth to the legend. Jane Steinmetz, one of the potion girls at the saloon, never denied that she had found a mule skeleton and a bag full of nuggets while poking around the foothills. Such reports kept the hopes of the current crop of prospectors alive.
Suddenly, the deputy's thoughts snapped back into the present. They were riding between low cliffs. “Where's this Secret Canyon?” Grant asked his glum companion.
Unsmiling, Myra pointed. “In there.”
Paul could now pick out a rock-wall cleft several feet wide. He wondered if he had ever noticed it before; he had ridden though the Gap often enough, but without paying much attention. “We'll leave the horses here,” the deputy said. He swung down to the ground and the girl also dismounted, though without much enthusiasm. With their mounts tied to a couple of scrawny mesquites, Paul started made for the arroyo, saying, “We'd better start searching. The light won't last for long.”
Myra followed him the deep ravine that she knew so well. “You know this place,” Grant remarked. “Where would you hide a strongbox?”
The girl had decided try to feign cooperation, while keeping an eye out for opportunities. She thought it would be fairly safe to tell the lawman only those things that he could already see for himself.
“The box might not even be in the canyon.” She made a sweeping gesture toward the skyline of the steep cliffs. “ If I were them, I'd have taken it up over the rim.”
Paul now surveyed the escarpments and the talus slopes. “I doubt it. They'd have a hard enough time climbing that high, even without that heavy chest.” His glance lowered to the canyon floor. “And they'd have know that they didn’t have much time before the stage would be sending back word about the robbery. So, the gang would have buried the loot quick-like and gotten the hell away, just as soon as they could.”
Myra shook her head. “The ground is rubble and rock. And they didn't even have a shovel.”
The man scratched his chin. “I figure that they could only have hidden a strongbox in a place like this is by piling rocks on top of it.”
“If you say so,” the auburn lass replied sullenly.
Grant stepped away from her his guide started checking around for any suspicious-looking rock mounds. Myra sat down on a flat stone, not wanting to help him locate what she saw as rightly hers.
This could not turn out well, she realized. If Paul Grant failed to find the loot immediately, he would simply fetch back additional men and expand the search. In that case, it probably wouldn't take very long for them to turn the thing up. When that happened, all her plans for living a good life would be in ashes. She would be left where she was, with nothing to fill her days except chores and boredom.
“I think I've got it!” Grant yelled.
Myra felt a jolt. She hadn't supposed that the smartest man alive could have hit upon the hiding place so quickly. She saw him moving rocks at exactly the right spot and knew it was over. She had suddenly become even poorer than she had been as a roaming outlaw. What had it all been for? As Myron, she would have manged better punching cows for a miserable twenty-five dollars per month. As she was, what could her life ever be?
The potion girl got up, drifting toward Grant until she stood behind him. On impulse, Myra picked up with two hands a stone that looked heavy enough to kill with. She lifted it as high as her face, but found herself unable to strike; it was like she was suddenly paralyzed. The stone fell out of her trembling grasp, and Paul, looking over his shoulder, sent the girl a quizzical expression. Myra looked away. It was sinking into her mind that she wasn't able to hurt anyone, not even to save that huge haul of gold for herself.
“Well, this has been easier than I expected,” the deputy was saying. “We'll head back and I'll leave you off at the farm. Like the judge said, I'm going to need help transporting this thing.”
“Wait a minute,” Myra said. “You'd just leave it out in the open? Somebody might poke his head into this canyon after we're gone.”
“It'll be dark soon,” said Paul.
“I'm thinking about the bandits.” And she was. If she couldn't have the loot, the stage company might as well get their shipment back. Myra was double-sure that she didn't want Ike and the Freelys to start living high on the hog. The very idea of having to wear gingham and do chores while those three spent themselves silly in fancy hotels, saloons, and cat houses was too much to bear.
“Why do you care so much that the gold gets back to its owners, Missy?” asked Paul.
She gritted her teeth at the term “Missy,” but didn't see any point calling him out on it. It wasn't like she could beat him down and make him apologize. “I don't care at all. But I'll get better treatment if I help out, won't I?”
“Who's treating you badly? You aren't a prisoner.”
“Well, I – I want my aunt to think better of me,” she lied.
“So, what are you suggesting?”
“We hide the chest somewhere else.”
That got Paul to thinking. The two of them couldn't haul the box far. Even if they actually got it out of the canyon, they didn't have tools for burying it. Frowning, he removed more rocks to ascertain how the chest was made. He had seen several transport company strongboxes before. This one was strongly made and reinforced with iron bands. The heavyweight handle on either end was wide enough for a man to grip with two hands. That gave him an idea.
“Help me get this chest unburied,” he said.
They scattered the pile of rock fragments until the box was laid bare. He tested its heft. Hot damn! It must have weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds. At that point, Paul brought up his horse, Ash, and tied the lasso around the two handles, and also around the body of the box. In this way, all the stress wouldn't fall on just the hand grips when the box was dragged. He quickly went to get his horse Ash, and then fixed the rope about the beast's chest, forming a breast collar.
“I'm going to put my back to it,” the deputy told the girl. “You lead Ash along. If he balks, smack him with your hand.”
When the pulling began, progress was made. Every rock along the way snagged the chest by a corner or an edge, but they persevered. It wouldn't be smart to drag the box out of the canyon, Paul had decided. There was sand and soil outside that would have left telltale skid marks. So, he instead chose a burial spot within a few yards of the ravine's mouth, a long depression, probably produced by centuries of rain flow. Into this they pushed their burden and then covered it over with rocks, like the gang had originally done.
Because the light would be failing soon, Paul intended to be back with some helpers at first light. In the meantime, to mark the spot, he placed two white quartz rocks to serve as a sighting line aimed at the point of concealment.
By that juncture, both were panting. “Whew,” the lawman sighed. “That turned into a smidgen of a chore. I hope it was worth doing.”
“Y-Yeah...” replied his breathless companion.
As he got his wind back, Grant sized up this taciturn young female. He knew it must be sticking in her craw to say goodbye to so much gold. He wondered how, exactly, Myra Olcott would get along from that day on. “You had a close shave, from what I hear, gal,” he remarked. “Most high-line riders don't last long, and you were lucky that you didn't get cut short three days ago. If an outlaw's cohorts don't back-shoot 'im, the court'll probably string him up. Even those fellows who don't swing can't hope for much better than a decade or so in some hog sty of a desert prison. The way things turned out, you can probably keep going scot free until you're ninety.”
“I'd rather swing young than be an old woman!” she declared.
The lawman shook his head. “The potion gals back at the saloon used to talk like that, too. They've settled down quite a bit since then.”
“I'm not a gal!” Myra declared. “Even if I look like one, I'm not!”
Paul sighed. This was a sour young lady, for sure. But Jessie had been that way, too, not to mention most of the other gang members. Maybe Myra would be seeing things differently, too, in a few months. He decided to go mum. There was no sense having a yelling match with some hot-headed kid feeling sorry for herself.
Once rested, the pair hid their traces as best they could. After that, in the deepening shadows, they returned to the farm. Deputy Grant left Myra at its gate and pressed on toward town. The frustrated and dejected girl was left staring in the direction of the Gap. The sun would be down very soon. It killed her to think that all the gold up there was somebody else's for the taking. She couldn't do anything about it, being forbidden to stray far from the house after dark. The girl doubted that she would sleep a wink all that night, spitting mad that the gold that she had sacrificed so much for was slipping away.
The Olcott girl was barely aware of the food that she was putting into her mouth a little while later, though her aunt was a fair cook. Supper consisted of cornmeal pudding, hoe cake, cooked cabbage salad, and chicken. In better spirits, she might have appreciated such a meal.
The distracted Myra had been so far ignoring most of Mrs. Fanning's questions. Irene now tried again. “You haven't said what you and the deputy did with the treasure you found.”
“It's still up there.” Her tone was sneering and self-pitying.
“Well, I'm glad that the matter has been laid to rest so quickly. Myra, stolen gold is dead man's gold. No good ever comes out of thievery. If you pray and repent, you can put this whole terrible year behind you.”
“I prayed plenty for Ma and Pa. Prayer doesn't do any good.”
“Maybe the Lord let us save your life so He can put you on the track of a better fortune.”
She sniffed. “I've always thought that my life was so rotten that it couldn't get any worse. But I was wrong. The little that's left of it now is a hundred times worse.”
“At least you're back where I can look out for you.”
“I have to look out for myself; no one else will.”
Irene was incredulous. “That's not how things are.”
“The Good Book.”
Mrs. Fanning sighed. “I do care about you, Myra. That's what family is for. Maybe deep inside, you care about me, too.”
The girl's expression remained bitter. “Did you do what you did to me because you cared so much?”
The woman nodded slowly. “Yes, that's exactly right. Did you want me to let you die instead?”
“It seems to me that I did die.”
Irene shook her head. “I can't help but think that the Lord was doing you a kindness, not letting you get hurt until you were in the one place on Earth where you could be saved. It has to be a sign that your life is worth something. Maybe you only have to watch and listen to find out what the Almighty's plan for you really is. Think how awful it would have been had you gone to judgment without the chance to repent.”
“Nothing good has ever come my way. No reason to think it ever will.”
Irene regarded her niece patiently. “Sometimes new opportunities raise their head when we least expect it. We just have to keep alert and grab at them before they pass us by.”
There suddenly came a knocking on the door, a hard jarring. It put Myra on her guard and startled Irene.
“Who can that be?” the latter said. “Mr. Grant shouldn't be back until morning.”
The farm woman went to the door and drew it open. A strong hand came out of the darkness and shoved her away. She staggered against a chair but managed not to fall.
Myra stared. There, in the flicker of a draft-swept lantern, stood Ike Bartram.
The girl looked around for a weapon; there was nothing within arm's reach.
“Both of you sit down, and you won't get hurt,” the young outlaw said. Ike stood six-one, and was about twenty. His face could coax smiles from saloon women, but Myra remembered times when that same face had turned so cougar-mean that it could set even formidable men back on their heels.
And he wasn't alone. Two saddle tramps had pushed in behind him. The Freely brothers. Jeb, the younger, had a look that gave him a fighting chance to be elected village idiot, but Myra knew that he was actually a little smarter than his larger brother, Horace, and not quite so nasty. Most people called the latter Freely “Horse.”
“What are..?” Myra began. But she clammed up fast. She couldn't let these good-for-nothings realize that she knew them.
“Are you here to rob us?” Irene asked.
Ike shrugged. “We can use those horses you got.”
“Well...that's all we have,” the farm woman protested. “There's hardly any money.”
The Freelys decided to move up closer, now that money had been mentioned.
“Where is Thorn Cadwell?” the gang leader asked, not loudly, but his voice was rough and intimidating.
Irene blinked. “He's...He's not here. He...He hasn't been here since last winter.”
“Why do I think otherwise?” asked the badman. “Maybe it's because we recognize that horse and saddle of his in your corral.”
Myra spoke up; she knew how to lie better than her aunt did. “Somebody came into town and told the sheriff about the robbery. They said that Thorn Cadwell was shot. Nobody's seen him since the robbery. The horse just wandered in.”
Ike snorted. “That polecat was fit enough to give us the slip. It seems to me that he'd go down to see his auntie, with that piece of lead in him, I mean.”
“What do you want with Thorn?” Irene blurted.
“We just need to ask him a few questions. Like, what did he tell the law?” The desperado looked hard into Myra's eyes. “I don't buy it that he didn't come home. You gonna tell us the truth, Sweet Face?”
Myra hardly dared to offer any clumsy lie to such a man. She decided to deal out half-truths. “Okay, you got it right. Thorn rode in three days ago, hurt bad...”
The outlaw cut her off. “Hey! I know you! You're that Yuma saloon gal. Gilana. Thorn was sweet on you. I get it! You came out here to meet him and divvy up the gold.”
Myra's mind raced. This sudden twist wasn't necessarily a bad one. If Ike thought that she was Gilana, let him.
“You're...you're right again,” she responded haltingly. “Thorn said he was going to split off from your gang once he got his share. He asked me to meet him at his aunt's farm, and then we'd head out East. Did you really think that he'd rather hang with you sidewinders instead of me?”
The girl's admission seemed to make Ike pause and think. “That god-damned fool! He was actually dumb enough to tell a woman about our plans.”
“I'd never betray him,” Myra said. “He showed up Wednesday afternoon, a bullet in his gut. He didn't have any gold with him.”
“I know he didn't leave with the gold! But he must have told somebody in town, and they went after it!” the outlaw shouted. “I'd also like to know how much he told the wrong people about his friends. Is that bastard still alive?”
Myra's mouth tensed grimly. “No. Irene and me put him into the buckboard and went into town for the doc to work on. He died on the operating table.” She tried to look sad.
“So who did he tell about the gold? It was you, wasn't it?”
Irene raised her chin. “He talked to the sheriff, not with us.”
Ike drew his Colt up level with Myra's breast. “Is that right, Gila Monster?”
The maiden frowned. That was the disrespectful name which Ike had starting calling Gilana, once he'd figured out it was Thorn that she liked, not him. “All right,” the potion girl said, “I'll tell you what really happened.”
“It's about time,” rumbled Ike.
With a deep breath, Myra began weaving a story on the fly: “The sheriff came. He was a mean cuss and made Thorn tell where the strongbox was. The sheriff organized a posse to chase you varmints down, but he left the recovery of the chest to his deputy. It was the deputy who went up to get the gold. He had somebody along to help him. They found the strongbox real quick, because it was hardly hidden at all. They took it back to town.”
“Oh, no they didn't,” Ike challenged. “We were watching with field glasses. We saw a girl and some cowpoke come out of the Gap empty-handed. Why would they be there if the gold was already gone? That girl, by the way, was you.”
Hell! Who would ever have suspected that the gang would have been up there spying on them? “Well, you're too late!” she exclaimed. “The deputy should be back out this way any minute with a wagon and a group of men.”
“Not likely,” sneered Ike. “If he's a lawman, he's not paid half enough to make him want to work on a cold night. He'll probably wait for morning. We've got time enough to take the gold out and get on the trail before then. Where did you two stash that strongbox? I'd say it's still in the canyon.”
Ike was damned clever; he always had been. Myra chose her next words carefully. “It was too heavy for us to take far. We moved it just a little closer to the canyon mouth, and hid it under some rocks.”
“So you say. Or maybe you're sending us on a wild goose chase, giving the law time enough to sweep back this way. You'll have to come along with us, Gila Monster. If you're not shooting square, you won't like your comeuppance!”
“Don't take her!” Irene exclaimed. “Take me!”
Ike scowled. “Did you see the gold hidden?”
“Don't listen to her!” Myra yelled. “She never left the farm. I'll go.”
Ike took Myra by the arm and yanked her to her feet. She tried to shake off his grip, but it was like iron.
The outlaw looked back over his shoulder. “We got no time to kill. Jeb, Horse, tie auntie up. She'll keep until the law comes to let her loose.”
“Come on,” Ike told the potion girl, dragging her after him. But when Myra neared the open door, she started fighting back.
“What's the matter with you?” demanded the outlaw.
“I can't go very far from the house after dark. It's a rule.”
Ike laughed incredulously. “How did this potato-digging woman get you so buffaloed? Listen, Pretty Face, you'll go or...” He glanced toward Irene. “I'll cut off the tip of your friend's nose. It would be a shame.”
“A-au...Ma'am?” gasped Myra. “W-Would it be all right if I went out to the Gap with these... gentlemen?”
Irene looked perplexed, but realized what the problem was. “Yes, you can go. But come home as soon as you can do so safely.”
Myra nodded. These words of permission sounded like a gate opening in front of her.
Ten minutes later, the party of four was riding through the late-season darkness of Riley Canyon Road. The gang had stolen both of the farm's horses, and they also had in tow a third animal, a sorry looking critter. Myra guessed that it must have been purchased cheaply; no self-respecting horse thief would have bothered with such a specimen.
Instead of letting her ride any of the designated pack horses, Ike had jerked Myra up into the saddle in front of him. His arms controlled her but were still able to grasp the reins. Occasionally, he would drop his left hand to grope her belly, her breasts, and her thigh. It infuriated the girl, but the outlaws were pressed too hard to allow Ike time enough to do anything worse.
“Horse thieving is a hanging offense,” Myra reminded the man behind her.
“Some things are worth the risk,” he said. “Gold is one of those, for sure. But there are a few other prizes worth the chance of the draw, too.”
Ike pinched her breast again; this time she poked him with her elbow.
He laughed. “You're a feisty little heifer, now ain't you?”
END OF PART 1; CONTINUED IN Chapter 4, Part 2