Sidewinder - 3. Chapter 3 Gunny Sack
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
Coy had passed Boone a while ago, and Daisy picked up a trot as they neared the camp, anxious for a good roll in the dirt most likely. The day had become a sticky one, and her neck was soaked with sweat.
“Hey, what happened to the horses… and Blue? Don’t see ’em anywhere,” Coy called out to Boone, who rode up quick.
“Dan’s buckskin is in town, remember… payment for his burying. Maybe the other ones made it up over the ridge.”
“In hobbles?” Coy asked, sounding doubtful.
“That mule sure can travel with them on, doing that rabbit hop of his, but I reckon he’s too lazy to put in the effort it would take. Unlikely, though, any of them would go far since there’s enough grass in sight after the big rain, and the river’s right here for water. None up that way.”
“Must have been stole.”
“Could be,” Boone agreed as he looked across the river, seeing no sign of them there either. “We’ve been gone since yesterday, and they were ripe for the picking. Maybe one of the miners farther upriver or on the mountain claimed them, knowing they’re not owned by anyone anymore. That mule would come in handy for some. Did you want one of them?”
“Never considered it till now. Will’s horse, saddle, and gun went to the undertaker and the preacher for his burial, so we coulda used one to pack supplies, I reckon… but as long as they’re getting looked after, it don’t matter to me none. Wes loved that old paint, though.”
“He sure did. Whoever it was didn’t help themselves to the chickens, but the smokehouse door is open, so someone had a look in there. Want some breakfast?” Boone asked as he began unsaddling Daisy.
Coy was doing the same with Mouse. “Won’t say no to some food… or coffee. We going to pan later?”
“No, no panning for me. Bacon, eggs and hardtack biscuits coming up… I’ll let the chickens out first.” Boone, without looking, could almost hear the questions his friend wanted to ask.
“Ah… you go ahead and I'll hobble the horses after they have a good roll. I’ll get to clearing out Will’s belongings too, so it’s done.”
Boone, on his way to the chicken pen, glanced back to see Coy standing with his head down, and a sad set to his wide shoulders. Was he praying? It appeared he was when his head turned and Boone saw his lips moving. He suspected it was to do with Will, but couldn't help wondering if it was about him as well. A bad conversation was coming, and he sure wasn’t keen on starting it. Could he actually do it? Walk away from the man he had such love for?
Coy spent a long enough time inside his brother’s tent Boone was tempted to check on him. He would have in the past, but things were changing, so he kept to cooking. The only sounds Boone heard was one stifled sob and a punch on the canvas. Eventually, to Boone’s relief, the man came out; he was empty-handed, and his face was calm. “Nothing in there worth keeping, and the tent’s seen better days. I reckon it’ll be fitting to burn it where it stands.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll probably do the same with Wes and Lee’s. Don’t much feel like going through their things at all. Come eat. Coffee’s hot and strong, and I put extra sugar in it.”
Coy straddled the old, broken tree they’d drug across the river when they first arrived. It had been their seat and table for two years, and the stump end, with most of its roots intact, was a convenient place to hang everything from cooking tools to clothes. Boone handed him a steaming cup of syrupy black liquid, knowing without a doubt the man needed it. After a couple of sips and a grimace, he uttered, “Thanks.” Reaching for the tin plate heaped with bacon, eggs, and grease-soaked hardtack, he dug in.
They ate in silence, with Boone taking a seat on the large, wooden box they kept some of their supplies in. No matter what lay between them, getting a full belly came first. You never wanted to be weak or sick in this kind of life, and food was the best medicine available. It didn’t stop Boone from thinking, though, and the more he considered it, the more he realized he had to go now. The worry for finding a place to put down roots before winter came, that was one thing, but another reason was the powerful hold Coy had on him. He was already having second thoughts—which meant they had to go their separate ways before he changed his mind.
“I want to see Will’s hiding spot.”
Coy’s sudden words didn’t surprise Boone, but he felt eased at hearing them. The conversation was coming, but maybe they could be moving while it happened. His one leg was already jumping nervously. “Okay, I’ll wash up and we’ll go.”
They pulled off their boots and socks and carried them across the wide, shallow river, their feet used to walking on the smooth rocks covering the river bottom in most places for miles. Putting them back on when they reached the shore, Boone led the way.
It took about twenty minutes to reach the ridge, and then Boone had to hang precariously in order to get his hand under the big exposed tree root. One day, the big old cottonwood might topple from its heights, but for now it didn’t look worried, every branch filled with leaves. Will had picked a good hiding spot, and it had only been chance and a full moon, a few months back, that Boone had spied him in the act of putting something in it.
First, he pulled out three fist-sized rocks and let them drop. Searching farther in, he retrieved a gunny sack and hauled it out, handing it to Coy as he inched his way back from the overhang. “Go ahead… open it and see for yourself.”
Coy stared at the sack a few seconds before slowly untying the leather strip keeping it closed. Reaching in, he brought a gun into view, and right after, a roll of bills his brother couldn’t possibly have earned. “Did you see these?”
Boone, now leaning his back against the tree’s trunk, nodded and waited.
“I wonder where this gun came from. That’s a pretty fancy grip.”
“Suspect it’s the spoils of another killing, one he couldn’t show in public.”
It was Coy’s turn to nod, and he didn’t try to hide how distressed he was. He reached back into the sack and emptied it. Will’s nugget was still there, stored in an old brown medicine bottle behind a cloth plug. They’d seen it enough to know it was the same one… the only one he’d managed to coax from the river that they knew of. It was likely worth twenty-five dollars.
“Dear God in heaven,” Coy said as he held their old friends’ tin in his hand. There, plain as day, were the initials of the two men. He pried open the tight fitting lid and peered in. “Damn. A lot of years’ work in here. It’s just like you said.”
“Sorry, Coy… I really wish it wasn’t so.”
Coy gave him a thoughtful look before he lowered his sorrow-filled eyes. “Not your fault. I needed the truth, and there ain’t no doubt for what he did.”
“But you did doubt it?”
“Already told you no. I wanted to. You don’t understand, Boone. You never had brothers, and you never lost any.”
“I reckon I can’t argue with that.”
“I believed you, though. I knew you wouldn’t lie.”
“I thought about it… keeping it from you, but those two old men deserve some justice, even if Will… and Dan… are already dead.”
Coy eyed him again. “I’m sorry for Dan.”
“He was just a friend, like Wes and Lee.”
“No, he was more than that… I could tell.”
He was about to object once more, but sighed instead. “Coulda been… some other time, maybe… but that time’s never gonna be.” Boone saw a look of shame cross his friend’s face. “What’s done is done.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Coy said before looking away. “So… what do we do now?”
“What do you want to do? He’s your brother… you could take this and move on.”
Coy’s head snapped back and his eyes widened. “No… wouldn’t feel right, would it?”
“Suspect not,” he answered, waiting for Coy to make the right decision.
“No… I can’t keep this… do you want to keep it?”
“Then what do we do?”
“There’s only one thing to do.”
“We turn it in to Sheriff Willard?”
“Yep, and we do it today.”
“Today? Why today?”
“Because the sheriff will have a lot of questions, and the longer we wait, the more he might figure we was involved.”
“Tarnation, Boone… you think he could try to pin it on us?”
“From what I’ve seen, he’s a good man. He’ll see his way to the truth.”
“I sure as hell hope so.” Sighing, he stood up. “No time like the present, I guess. Won’t be able to think of anything else till it’s done.”
The day had gotten even hotter, and the horses kicked up dust with every footfall as they walked towards town. Boone still hadn’t brought up the for sure touchy subject of leaving, and his decision to do it in the next day or two, but there were other matters to wrangle first. He wasn’t lying when he said he thought the sheriff was a good man, but had to admit Coy’s distrust of lawmen wasn’t without good reason.
Some were just plain bad, and he’d been around enough to know to avoid those ones best he could… but Sheriff Willard had always been fair in the two years he’d been in his jurisdiction, and Wes and Lee had spoke highly of him. As much as he’d hated Will, he’d take no joy in turning in the evidence, but that was because of what it was doing to his friend.
He was riding a little behind Coy—Daisy was always happy to follow—and, as always, appreciated the man’s natural grace in a saddle. He rode erect, with no sign of the typical cowboy slouch, but there was a lot of give to his waist as he moved with his mount, like his body was moving for the sheer joy of it. His long legs stayed relaxed when he rode, toes pointing slightly outward, and heels down. A fine picture he was, on his long-necked bay mare. Mouse wasn’t big, but she covered ground well, even at a walk, and she had a head prettier than most… just like her rider.
He watched the man swat a lazy fly away from his sweat-slicked neck, seeing his muscled shoulder bunch, and thought about the power and speed of that arm when he threw his lariat at a fast-moving cow. Once, after a long day of chasing down and roping full grown cattle out of dense brush, Coy had been pulled from the saddle before he could dally his rope, and something had tore in his shoulder. It was a mistake a cowboy only made once.
Boone had been the one to massage horse liniment into his muscles over the next few nights, under the cover of darkness, and the one who took up the slack for him over the next week or so. Their trail boss was an unforgiving man, but never found out Coy had been injured and couldn’t throw a rope… he’d have been sent packing if he did. He could still feel the man’s smooth skin beneath his hands, even all these years later.
They hadn’t known each other long—in fact, that cattle drive was the first time they’d met—but it was when he knew without a doubt he was made different. It wasn’t a shock, but he’d spent a few years ignoring the possibility. Some men preferred men, that was a fact, and he’d seen the hungry looks an occasional cowboy would give him… even ones who would use the services of the dance hall girls. Boone had turned down enough invitations to know he wasn’t the only one trying to survive in this harsh and dangerous way of life, but he’d spent a lot of time wondering if such connections were just a convenience. He stopped questioning after Coy, figuring out pretty fast love was a part of it, at least for him.
“You sure we’re doing the right thing?”
The sudden question corralled Boone’s roaming thoughts. “Nope.”
Coy stopped and turned his mare to face him. “You rethinking how smart this is?”
“Decision’s made for me.”
“It’s a lot of money, and it would mean—”
“It’s not ours.”
“No… but whose is it? Probably ain’t no one alive to claim it.”
“Maybe so, but we don't know that for certain, and it’s proof of a crime... evidence of who killed two good men, and caused the death of another one.”
“So we’re supposed to be saints?”
“I’m not saying such a thing, Coy, but we can prove Dan done right by calling out your brother. Right now, folks don’t know Will killed Wes and Lee. They only know Dan shot a man in the back in a fair fight. It ain’t right. He might be dead, but he don’t deserve the town thinking poorly of him… he grew up around these parts.”
Coy took his time in responding. “I didn’t think of that… about Dan.”
“Yeah, well it might not matter to most folks, but it matters to me.”
“I… I understand.”
“Do you? Cause you’re sounding a lot like Will right now.”
Boone had struck a nerve, and Coy went rigid before he sputtered in anger. “That’s not fair! Not fair at all! I don’t care a damn about the gold, but it ain’t easy to turn in my own brother, dead or not.”
Boone blew out some air, feeling like he was on the edge of a hand-wide cliff riding a lame horse. Dan’s death had been wearing on him, but it was no excuse for hurting Coy, and he regretted pushing his friend so hard. “You’re right. Wasn’t fair of me. I know turning Will in is asking a lot of you… maybe too much… if you want to keep the money and the gold, then keep it and I won’t say a word to no one. We can turn around right now—it’s up to you. I’d advise you to bury that gun somewhere deep, though.”
“You’re serious?” Coy asked as he peered into Boone’s face. “You really mean that?”
“I do. Will was your brother, not mine, and you have to do what you think is right. I for sure know it’s not about the money or gold for you.”
“So, you’re leaving it to me to decide this?”
“That’s what I said,” Boone answered, meeting an intense, blue-as-the-sky gaze.
“Then I reckon we keep going.” Coy turned his horse around and continued on towards Red Bluff.
Boone nudged Daisy to follow, and his frown soon turned into a smile. He’d not had any doubts Coy would do the right thing.
Thanks for reading.
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