Friday, September 12, 2008

The Leaning T

"Bear tracks," Eustace explained when you met up in Globe. "Big bear tracks I saw, and we need a couple of hard folk to go an' gun the thing down. Simple as that. I'm no hunter, and Tall's only got the one leg. I tried to scare up some Cibecue trackers, but they ain't interested. The reservation policies got 'em suspicious of pale folk ag'in." Shit: when your stomach's growling and you can count your worth in bullets what's a bear? So you agreed, and on the ride back you got the life stories of Eustace and Tall.

They - "Tall" Alban Brandt and Eustace Tillman - might be good men. If so, they shouldn't be here.

Tall is a German immigrant and a skilled tradesman. He served in the Army and fought at the Battle of Pichaco Pass in '62, where he lost his leg in service to his new country. Broken and broke, he arrived in the southeastern quarter of the territory in '63 and found employment as a blacksmith at the Leaning T Ranch, outside Globe in lands held by the Western Apache. With the Civil War raging on in the East, neither the Union nor the Confederacy could keep the pressure on the Apache, and it was only through the good will and careful diplomacy of Tillman's eldest son, Eustace, that the ranch persisted while other settlers found themselves at the mercy of native raids. Tall was impressed by Eustace's intelligence and restrained demeanor, and the two became close friends.

Tillman died of pneumonia in '67. When his will was read, the family – not to mention Tall himself – were surprised to learn that the Leaning T had been passed on to Brandt. Incensed at their father's slight, the two younger sons, Bartholomew and Roy, moved west to seek their fortunes prospecting the Colorado. Only Eustace stayed on to aid his friend and to help nourish his father's dream. Since then, Tall and Eustace have barely managed to hold the ranch together. They employ a constantly shifting menagerie of cowboys and ranch hands to do most of the work. Though the Leaning T never supported the expansive herds common on larger ranches and the open range, its current holdings are distinctly pitiful. At the beginning of the year, there were twenty-four scrawny head – only three months have passed and that number has been reduced by a third.

"So, I reckon it's feeding cubs." Eustace snorts. "No matter. It's them or us right now. Can't talk with a bear, invite it in for a howdy-do." He spits. "Plain as day, we gotta shoot it."


Mercurio said...

A man taps the ash of his hand-rolled cigarette onto the ground before covering it up with dirt. He leans on his rifle from his crouched position, examining the ground before him. He furrows his brow before returning his rifle to it's holster on his back. Still crouching, he talks over his shoulder.

"You can put away your gun, Eustace. The beast is quite off. As are any other that have passed here. Despite the crops, we are quite fortunate for the dry spell, as the tracks are nearly as fresh as when they were first laid. And draggin' a half-ton stock can leave quite a trail. I reckon we'll have few encounters with her as she takes her time to dissect the prey, dependin' on the amount of cubs she has. We should have plenty of time to form a posse, though the beasts seem to be unpredictable as of late."

One of those behind him, presumably Eustace, speaks, "You reckon you c'n track it if th' weather hol' up?"

The man smothers and buries his cigarette with his boot as he rises. He turns to face those that accompany him. He shrugs. "I can't predict the weather, but I can assure you, one don't need a feathered headdress to be able to trail a beast." He pauses as he looks at the land around him, "And of them, there don't appear to be any trails of any of the Native Men in this area, but I had only a cursory glance, I would need to further investigate to be sure."

Eustace spits a line of tobacco juice before him. "Shit, we can't handle no injuns. We still tryin to muster up enough men for this bear."

The man nods. "We will be fine with the Native Men. I speak their tongue and hunting those that threaten livestock is not a concept foreign to them. If we make no threatening actions and let me do the talking, we will have no trouble... probably. As of now our biggest concerns are the bear, the strength of what men we have, and the weather."

Eustace spits then smiles. "Yeah, good. Thank ye' Mister Black. Let's head back."

The man nods again, "Certainly. And call me Caleb."

da solomon said...

The men start to ride back towards the ranch house. "Caleb," Eustace says, trying the word out in his mouth. "It ain' everyday I get on first-name terms with a first-class badass." He pauses, and all of the riders can see he's wondering what Caleb Black thinks of his comment.

"Caleb," he says it again, and it still doesn't sound right coming out of his mouth. It comes out slow-like, cautiously. He's like a child who's been brought up right, trying out a curse word for the first time and wondering if God'll strike him down for saying 'asshole.' Everyone can see Eustace is afraid of the first-class badass. "I c'n put ye'up in th' ranch house. There's room in th' stable for your horse. If you want, Fred here knows where there's 'nother carcass. The bear didn't drag this one off – er, not all of it anyhow. Fred'll show you what – but it ain' much. Reckon th' buzzards had their way with it by now." He spits the rest of his chew and swallows a mouthful of tainted saliva.

"An' – look – do what needs to be done. Tall an' me gotta keep this ranch up. Get whoever. I got eight dollars a day plus yer expenses. If you get 'nother tough guy like yerself I've got another eight dollars a day for them too. Three dollars a day each for three more men - or you c'n bring out Fred and some of th' boys. It's good money –" he looks to Caleb "– for honest work."

The riders approach the ranch house. "Dinner's after sundown. That's enough time for ye ta get to Globe and back. Tall an' me will be 'spectin ye." He tips his hat and leads the little group of ranch hands to the stable.

Mercurio said...

“Eight dollars!” he says almost spitting. He strokes his beard as he frowns. “Eight dollars?!” He takes a drink from his bourbon and slams the bottle on the table. “I been reduced ta this?”

“Well,” the man across the table says with a smile and a nod, “not like yer army's gonna be recruiting again anytime soon, Colonel.”

The Colonel sneers as he draws his sabre, hopping out of his seat, staggering. “I should gut ya right now, Caleb!”

Caleb smiles, “Yeah, but then ya have ta leave yer favorite drinkin' hole. Don't think they like gory messes about their floors, favored patron or no.”

The Colonel's sabre wavers, then lowers, then raises again.

The Colonel and Caleb stare eye to eye. The Colonel snarls, Caleb grins and shrugs.

The Colonel bursts out laughing, sheathing his blade. He flops down onto his seat again, taking another swig of his bottle. “Goddamn you Caleb,” he says with a smile, “And Goddamn that serpent tongue of yers!” He spits over his shoulder. “Eight dollars. Eight dollars. Eight dollars for a fucking bear! Haw!”

Caleb keeps smiling. “Eight dollars a day, Colonel. Eight dollars a day for the good men, men that know what they're doing, not jus-”

“I know what I'm doing you wicked snot!”

Caleb stifles his laughter. “Yeah, that's why I'm asking you. I think that-”

The Colonel takes another drink, interrupting Caleb again, “So what you thinkin? You ain't just ask me to go huntin no bear. You got one of your crazy ideas in your head again? You been in them dope-pits again, son? I tol' you they rattle yer brain up what good.”

Caleb frowns. “Well, yes, I do have an idea. This... um... this bear might have some cubs, and thus rather ferocious. I don't know how many cubs, so I don't know how ferocious, and I doubt I'll...” he looks around, leans in and lowers his voice, “I doubt I'll find good help in this piss-hole 'sept for you.” He leans back and smiles. “Come on, Colonel, you know me. You know I'm serious. If I wasn't I wouldn't ask for help from some washed-up racist soldier from the losing side.”

The Colonel laughs, taking another drink and slamming the bottle on the table once again. “If yer mammy and pappy were alive, Caleb, I'd gut em ear-to-ear fer them words you jus' said.”

“Well, you can't really gut someone from one ear to the next, but-”

“Shut up! You want me in or not?”

Caleb laughs, “All right, all right. I want you in. Can ya help me find some other men? They only get three a day unless you think they can take you, of course.”

“Oh! These pissants ain't gonna take-”

“Hey, hey, hey, soldier, easy. I'm asking for your opin- your expertise with this posse. Find some men, three bucks a day for them, eight for you. And look for good scouts or those quiet on their feet. I gotta feelin' that blazin' guns might be phase two of the plan to get this bear.”

The Colonel furrows his brow, “Phase too? The fuck?”

“Nevermind,” Caleb shrugs, “Find some scouts, or find some men good with rifles. You know where to meet me.”

“Right.” The Colonels eyes glance over at Caleb's untouched shot of bourbon. “Say, if yer leavin', friend, were you planning on-”

“Take it,” Caleb says as he stands, “though be warned, it will... er... rattle your brain up good, as it were.”


The plan was supposed to be simple, but it's not. Caleb twitches as he lights a hand-rolled cigarette. They took too long getting here and already lost more daylight than they should have. He paces around the entrance to the cavern, stopping a few times to stare at the tracks.

Eustace and Tall exchange glances, but only shrug.

The Colonel takes a drink from his bottle before he speaks, “So, yer plan is we wait out here for th' bear to die of ol' age or wot?”

Caleb paces back and forth around the entrance. “No, no it's not. New plan developing. Genius takes ti-” he looks around, “Aw fuck it. Okay, here's the plan.”

The Colonel spits over his shoulder “Bout damn time.” Several in the posse laugh, only to be quieted by Caleb's harsh gaze.

“It's a two-fold plan,” says Caleb looking around at the blank stares of the posse. “Which means two things are gonna happen. First, me, The Colonel, and four of you are gonna come into the cavern and meet the bear. Either she will be easy and cubless, in which we send a messenger for the rest of you to follow us in, or she'll be enraged and we'll lead the bear outward to... to you folk lying in wait, ready to destroy the beast.”

Eustace spits, “Lyin' in what?”

“We ambush the bear,” Tall says to Eustace. He looks over at Caleb, “I can direct that part, the Yanks didn't shoot all the piss an' vinegar outta me.” He looks over at the Colonel and winks.

“God Bless the Confederacy,” the Colonel says in response, taking off his hat. Several members of the posse follow suit.

Caleb rolls his eyes. “Enough talking, lets get to this. Colonel, I want you, and...” he pauses as he looks at the posse, “You, you, you, and... you. Come with, and stay quiet. Follow my lead, you may have to hold back as I investigate.”

The Colonel hops off his horse and snorts, “It's jussa goddamn bear, don't needa be all... well... all secret spy stuff.”

“I'm here to get the job done,” Caleb replies, “Are you with me or are you out?”

The Colonel shrugs “Okay, okay, don't getcher panties all-”

“And leave the bottle behind, we don't need any mistakes and you should be drunk enough as it is.”

The Colonel puts his bottle in a saddlebag. “Damn, kid, when you get all serious?”

Caleb looks at the Colonel and doesn't reply.


The scouting party enters the tunnel. The Bear, lone, stands in their sights, further into the cavern. Caleb signals to hold fire.

“What?” whispers the Colonel.

“Quiet, it... it ain't right,” Caleb responds, “See. It looks right, it seem right, but it don't move right.”

The Colonel opens his mouth but Caleb covers it shut. “You an' yer boys stay here, I'ma get a better look.”

The Colonel nods as Caleb slinks forward. He turns to his boys and shrugs after Caleb leaves. The posse are able to contain their laughter.

The bear is alone in it's den. It scratches against the cavern wall. A wall most unremarkable save for a thin vein of... something running up from the floor.

The bear keeps scratching at the vein.

Caleb lays in silence, staring at the creature.

The bear doesn't turn its ears, doesn't sniff the air about, doesn't even blink as it dives toward Caleb.

Caleb, startled, dives back, firing at the creature with his rifle.

The creature ignores the bullets as it lands next to Caleb.

Just then, a volley of shots come from the scouting party, rifles and pistol ablaze, firing at the creature.

The beast, distracted by the gunfire, turns allowing Caleb enough time to get out of arms reach. He darts back toward the posse, dodging and ducking away from bullet fire until he rejoins the group. He joins the Colonel near the front of the barrage, ducks behind a rock and starts reloading his rifle.

“Well,” the Colonel shouts over the gunfire, “Think our boys outside figured we need em in here?”

Caleb, stares at the Colonel, wondering how he could keep his humor, then detects the faint smell of alcohol still on the Colonel's breath.

Caleb turns to fire more rounds into the beast, and is awestruck at the sight.

The beast, in all it's fury, is still fighting the few men brave or foolhardy enough to approach it. What's curious is that it has not a single wound on it's body. Perhaps it's just too fast, perhaps it's hide is too thick. Perhaps it's rabid? No, no foaming lips, what is this thing?

Caleb is snapped from his reverie as the beast turns and lunges toward both him and the Colonel. The Colonel gets a few more shots off as the beast swipes at him. His reflexes leave him only unarmed, instead of dead. He draws his sabre with a wide arc taking a large chunk out of the beast's side. It roars as thick, dark blood sprays from its wound. The Colonel doesn't hesitate and continues his attack, but the beast is faster. In one swipe it slashes the Colonel's face, sending him flying across the den, only to land with a crunch.

Time slows down for Caleb. An idea forms in his head, an idea of desperation, an idea so completely illogical and ridiculous. With a deft hand he draws his knife, charges toward the beast, scooping up the Colonel's sabre with his other hand. He jumps on the beasts back, impaling it's spine with his knife. The beast roars, trying to rid itself of it's new attacker. Caleb holds true, and slashes at the beast wildly with the Colonel's sabre.

It's over so fast.


“And that's it?” asks the reporter.

“Yep, more're less,” says Eustace. “Mister Black came outta the cave lookin' somethin fierce. Dunno how much blood on him was his or the bear's. He done draggin his friend called The Kernal, asked me and Tall to give him a proper Christian burial, sayin that's wut his frienda want. Me and Tall and the rest of us left livin' got the bodies o' those that weren't, figurin' they might got kin. I paid em all somethin' extra, ain't figured it woulda ended like this wot with so many dyin and all.” He spits into a spittoon and stares at it with a mournful look.

“And what about Mister Black? Did he... ride off into the sunset?”

“Naw, it wuz dark by the time we wuz ready to leave. Caleb took soma Kernel's bourbon ana torch. Said he needed ta make sure th' bear dead an all. Tol' us ta head on back an meet us up later.”

“Did you?” the reporter asks, adjusting his glasses.

“Thassa funny part. Never did. After a few days an' getting th' ressa th' folk taken care of, Tall say we should go back to th' cave. Said it ain't right ta leave a man like that. So we did. When we got there, there was Caleb's horse still tied to a tree, half-starved. I mustered up 'nuff courage ta go in thar, ain't seen hide nor hair o' Mister Black. Saw a buncha ashes, guess that wuz th' bear's.”

“Uh-hunh,” says the reporter, flipping through some notes. “Another one of the men I interviewed said something about a vein of... silver, I believe, inside the cave. Do you have anything to say about that?”

Eustace spits, “Haw, I wish. Iffin' there was, ya think I'd be sittin here chattin with you steada stakin' my claim an' getting rich?”

The reporter smiles, “I suppose I can see your point. If you have anything further you wish to add, just send me a wire. I'll send you one to let you know when the story gets published.”

Eustace nods as they both stand up.

The reporter turns before he leaves, “Oh, and one more thing. Are you aware there's a substantial bounty on Mister Black's head? You wouldn't be hiding him to help him escape any bounty hunters, would you?”

Eustace snorts, “Naw, man like that don' need no help keepin' the law away.”

“Quite true, quite true,” says the reporter. “Farewell.”