Conspiracy in Goldpan


Chapter One

The sun beat down on the gunslinger as he stood in the middle of the street. The three-piece suit the short, pudgy young man wore caused him to sweat profusely in the noonday heat.

His new hat offered him little protection. On the sidewalk, an observant little boy said to his mother, “Why is that man standing in the middle of the street in the hot noonday sun?”

“Little Alpheus,” his mother gently scolded, “how many times must I tell you:

gunslingers always have to stand in the middle of the street when they are gonna start a gunfight.

If you would only finish reading the western story you were assigned for homework, you would have discovered that. Now come along!” Grabbing her son by the arm and lifting him so only his toes touched the board walk, she hurried him down the street and into the nearest store front.

Late that afternoon, while the weary wilted gunslinger’s suit jacket and vest lay in a crumpled heap at his feet with the setting sun in his face, he squinted as the sheriff stepped off the wooden sidewalk and walked slowly into the middle of the street.

“Now listen, Bert,” said the lawman, “yore not gonna accomplish nothin’ tryin’ to shoot my nose off. Why don’t ya listen to reason and put yore irons away?”

“You-all just hush yore mouth, Ernie Bushwiggins! Ever since you got that badge from the Mayor you’ve been actin’ like some kinda bigshot. Now I aim to make myself a reputation as a gen-u-ine gunslinger an’ I’m gonna do it by shootin’ more’n yore nose off. I’m gonna do you in with this here Colts Navy .36 caliber re-volver. She’s a real beauty, ain’t she?” Bert pulled the fancy firearm from its engraved holster with his fingertips and held it out cradled in both hands. “Looky here, real deer stag grips and see this engraving I had done on the barrel? My Mama paid for it with the money she got from the bank over in Phelps.” Bert holstered his weapon and coughed with his hand over his mouth to cover up that last comment. He didn’t want to have to explain to Mama how the sheriff found out she had done a bank job in Phelps and gotten away with it—so far.

As Ernie shook his head and pulled back his coat, he pulled off the leather strap that held his revolver in its holster. Just then, a group of horsemen came galloping down Main Street. Bert spun around at the sound, only to be knocked aside by one of the rider’s horses. That same horse trampled Bert’s suit jacket and vest—the ones his Mama had bought for him at Martha’s Emporium. His Mama always seemed to have enough money for their basic necessities.

While the Sheriff watched, Sad Jack Slade and his boys stopped in front of the Empty Bottle Saloon, stepped down from their saddles and loosely tied their mounts to the hitching rail.

While all four men turned to walk up the sidewalk, their horses pulled free of their tethers and trotted off down the street to graze on the newly mown grass in Haughton Montague’s front yard. Sad Jack removed his hat and whopped his oldest boy, Agag The Elder, over the head with it.

“Ate,” Sad Jack called his oldest that for short, “how many times I gotta tell ya, we ain’t here to wet our whistle. We’re gonna see about that ore sample and then high tail it back to the mine.”

“But, Pa,” whined Agag.

“Now, just you never mind. Put away yore pout an’ go get that assayer. Tell him Sad Jack Slade has some questions about that ore sample we brought in last week, and he better have some right pert answers.”

The Indian sitting on the porch in front of the Empty Bottle Saloon wrapped his Navajo blanket tightly about his shoulders as he watched Slade and his boys and listened with interest to their conversation.

Sheriff Bushwiggins walked over to where Bert lay sulking in the dirt. With a grin, Bushwiggins helped the would-be gunslinger up and handed him his suit coat and vest.

“Now, Bert, go on home and stop this foolishness or I’ll have to run you in for disturbin’ the peace. I got more important business to attend to,” Bushwiggins said.

Bert scowled as he started over to the sidewalk. How was he ever gonna become a gunslinger if nobody took him seriously, he grumbled to himself. At least that no-account sheriff would give him a fightin’ chance and someday, he vowed, Bushwiggins would be pullin’ a lead plug out of his bellybutton for his sassin’ Bert like he done.

A small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk to watch as the sheriff sent Bert packin’.

Ernie motioned to the crowd to break it up and move along. Then he turned his attention to Sad Jack and Slade’s boys. He wondered if Sad Jack had hit the mother lode or just struck a promising vein. I’d like to strike a promising vein in Sad Jack’s head, thought Ernie. There was never any love lost between the sheriff and Sad Jack Slade. The sheriff had arrested Sad Jack and his boys some time back. While the Slades sat out their time in the calaboose, they managed to ruin all the mattresses in the cells, paint graffiti with their food on the cell walls makin’ fun of Bushwiggins’ name and, worst of all, beatin’ Ernie ten times out of ten at checkers. That was more than the sheriff could stand.

With a sigh, Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins started over to the Assayer’s Office. There never seemed to be a lack of excitement in Goldpan. Bushwiggins didn’t look forward to a set-to with the Slade Boys, but he’d be danged if he was gonna let them roust about Little Red Rockhardy, the Territorial Assayer. Ernie hitched his gunbelt up a notch and stepped in the door of the Assayer’s Office.

Behind the counter, Little Red stood with his back up against his counter full of assaying equipment holding an expensive bumbershoot above his head in a threatening manner as he yelled at Belteshazzar Slade. “Put down that inkwell!” Rockhardy shouted, his voice a panicky shriek.

Belteshazzar Slade happened to be the only Slade with an eighth grade education and, at times like this, he used it to the fullest extent. “No, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t,” he yelled, “you slimy chubby piece of muddy coal! You changed that there assay of ore we brung in, to show we hadn’t hit color. You know full good and well we found a strong vein and yore just tryin’ to shut us out and jump our claim, you no-account polecat!”

Sheriff Bushwiggins stepped into the office from where he stood in the entryway “Now, just hold on right there, Belly,” said the Sheriff of Goldpan. Belly was a favorite nick of Sad Jack Slade for his youngest son and everyone used it even though Belteshazzar hated it. “You got no call to accuse Little Red of such nonsense.

“I happen to know for a fact, Little Red Rockhardy ain’t related to nary a Polecat, leastwise, none in these parts. Now, Little Red, you just put down that there fancy umbrelly and simmer down. Sad Jack, you get yore boys outta here. I ain’t gonna allow no gunplay in my town, ‘less I’m the one doin’ it. Now git!” As the Slade boys slunk out of the office, Ernie turned to Little Red.

“Are you okay?” he asked with some degree of concern.

“Yeah,” Rockhardy said, “Thanks a lot, Ernie. Those fool Slades. They come in here threatenin’ to break up my office and my bones, as well. I’ll have them know, I didn’t change a word of that ore assay. I gave it to them just as it assayed out. It’s not my fault if it didn’t assay out like they wanted it to.”

“Well, don’t worry about it none, Little Red. They’re gone now and I’ll see to it they don’t come back. At least not until I can figure out what kinda burr is under their saddle. Just set tight and I’ll be in touch.”

The sheriff nodded and headed for the door. Rockhardy sat back in the ornate, leather- covered office chair that was barely big enough to hold his seventh of a ton. He took a long swig of his imported sarsaparilla and smiled to himself. It wouldn’t be long now, he thought. Yessir, everything was going swimmingly.

The Indian moved away from the door of the Assayer’s office and returned to the chair he occupied on the porch in front of the Empty Bottle Saloon. He picked up his Navajo blanket,

wrapped it tightly around his shoulders, and pondered.

Chapter Two

Bert waved goodbye to his Mama as he mounted Fluffy, his jack mule. Mama Mortimer had been packing biscuits, hard tack and a large quantity of .44 caliber cartridges in her saddle bags when she stopped long enough to wave back to her one and only little boy. Bert was sure his Mama was gonna be gone on one of, what she called, her foragin’ expeditions. That was fine with him. He really hated it when Mama spent much time around the ranch while Bert was there.

She always made him do the dustin’, and if there’s one thing Bert hated doin’, it was dustin’. That was a lousy thing to have to engage in for an up an comin’ gunfighter with a reputation of sorts. Putting all thoughts of Mama and dusting out of his mind, Bert reined Fluffy around and headed for the range of hills ten miles to the west of the Mortimer ranch. He usually went up there to practice his gunplay.

#####

Sad Jack Slade and his boys entered the broken down cabin they had thrown up with great care at their diggin’s.

“Ate, go out and rustle up some firewood and be quick about it. Belly, you go put the horses up and come back in and git some grub started. I’m gonna check the mine; make sure no one’s been sneakin’ around. ‘Specially not that irritatin’ polecat, Rockhardy.” Sad Jack started in the mine with a lantern in one hand, and the other hovering near his holstered revolver.

#####

Bert started Fluffy down a canyon that crept out across the flats from the blue- tinted mountain peaks above him. The sun was setting; in fact, it was already down behind those blue- tinted peaks and Bert was getting cold. He knew he would be staying that night beside the creek that raced madly through the bottom of the peaceful canyon. Fluffy stopped at a pool of stagnant water beside the creek without the slightest kind of signal from Bert who was lost in a reverie of his own. He came to and climbed down from the saddle as Fluffy lowered his head to drink.

#####

That night in Goldpan, Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins made plans to go out to the Slade’s digs in the morning and see for himself whether or not they had found any color in that otherwise useless hole in the ground. While Ernie made a mental list, a very short list, of the supplies he needed to take, he figured he would see if Miss Elvira Montague was done takin’ inventory of the upcomin’ foreclosures at the bank. If she was, he allowed as how he would just see if she cared to tie on the feedbag with him over at the Golden Griddle. It was an awful greasy spoon, but the best one—the only one—in Goldpan.

#####

Miss Elvira Montague was not the only eligible female in Goldpan. She just looked like the only eligible female in Goldpan, and most important, she knew it, too. She carried herself with that haughty and self-important air so prominent among the wealthy. Of course, it was a well-known fact in town that she was haughty because she lived in Goldpan with her daddy, the wealthy banker Haughton Montague. She felt self-important because there was no one else in her life, besides her daddy, that might be obliged to consider her so; although she did have a modicum of hope for Ernie Bushwiggins, the worm. She had considered, at times, smacking Bushwiggins with a matrimonial-like proposal, but Mr. Montague had, each time the subject came up, ordered Miss Elvira to “hold her water” and wait for that no-account Bushwiggins to broach the sensitive subject himself.

#####

Bert was just starting to unsaddle Fluffy when he heard the ominous rattle that always signals the presence—the too-close presence—of that denizen of the wilderness: a stranger! Bert looked up quickly at the corpulent interloper as the sound of the stranger’s .50 caliber Sharps rifle spoke and a large timber rattler that had been lying quietly at Fluffy’s feet, bounced into the air and exploded in a shower of poisonous plasma.

“Thanks, Stranger,” said Bert, “I guess I was lost in a reverie of my own and didn’t see that varmint.”

“You better stow yore reverie, Boy, an’ pay attention to what’s goin’ on around ya if ya expect to spend any length of time atall breathin’.” The stranger stuck out a huge, grimy paw, smiled a broad, toothless grin, and said, “Howdy, my handle is Ample Sample Miller. That’s a mighty funny-lookin’ animal ya got there, Son. What do you call him?”

“He’s a mighty fine animal, Mister Miller, and if you must know, his name is Fluffy.”

Ample Sample smothered a snort and asked, “How, in Sam Hill, did you manage to name that ugly old mule Fluffy?”

“Well,” Bert began lamely with a hurt look, “when I was younger I wanted a bunny rabbit real bad. So bad, in fact, that I picked out the name, Fluffy, for him before I ever got him. My Mama saw things entire different, however, and got me this here mule. She figured a rabbit wouldn’t be quite as useful at pullin’ a plow as a mule. I was bound and determined to have a rabbit, so when Mama brought this here mule home, I give him the name Fluffy.”

By now Ample Sample was holding his sides and laughing so hard, tobacco juice was running out the corner of his mouth and down into his beard. Bert had been trying to light a fire while they talked. Now he straightened up, unbuttoned his suit jacket and, with his right hand near his revolver, growled at Ample Sample,

“Ever since you shot that rattler, you been laughin’ an’ makin’ fun of me. I’ll have you know I’m a up an’ comin’ gunslinger and I’m a-bracin’ you right now. Whenever yore ready just go ahead an’…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Miller, with reflexes amazingly fast for a man so large, stepped over to Bert and, with his left hand, pulled Bert’s handgun from its holster and threw it in the stagnant, although poignantly peaceful, pond. With his right hand, he jammed Bert’s hat down on his head and pushed him backward, where Bert fell into a pile of Fluffy’s…well, you know…freshly picked clover.

“Hey,” Bert yelled, “Whaddaya think yore doin’? That was a Colt Navy .36 caliber re-volver with engravin’ on the barrel which my Mama paid for with the money she got from the…”

Whoa! Bert thought. He wasn’t gonna fall into that trap again. Bert jumped up and began to scrape the…well,…freshly picked clover, from his three-piece suit. He walked over to the pond and, kneeling down, began to feel around in the muddy water for his revolver.

“You know,” Bert continued, “you don’t have such a great shakes of a nome de plume yore own self. How’d you come by that silly moniker you wear?”

“Well,” Miller said, “my surname’s from the Quakers, my Christian name’s from gracious genealogy, my nickname’s from gratuitous gluttony. That suit ya okay, Mister Stinky Pants?”

Bert grimaced as he pulled his muddy revolver from the pond. He had to admit he smelled something awful.

#####

High up on a rocky bluff above Peaceful Canyon, a lone Indian watched the two men setting up camp by the creek below. He shrugged as he pulled his Navajo blanket tighter about his shoulders and returned to his small, smokeless fire.

Chapter Three

Two men stepped back into the shadows as Little Red Rockhardy walked slowly back to the Assayer’s office, grinning as he jammed a delicate little cigar between his teeth and lit it with a match. He’d show those aggravating Slades, he promised himself. Once that mine was in his hands…. He couldn’t believe that ore assay. It was the richest one he had ever seen cross his desk.

#####

Sheriff Bushwiggins arose while it was still dark, splashed some cold water on his face, gathered up his saddle bags and went out to ‘rouse his mount. He figured he would get a distance out of town before he stopped and made some coffee. No sense alarmin’ the early risers in town by startin’ a fire where they could see it. Why, there hadn’t been any rain in Goldpan so far this year at all and spring was nearly turned into summer. Ernie approached his horse with great care.

He knew better than to wake his mare too abruptly early in the morning. Fact of the matter was, he hated the thoughts of mounting Ol’ Lazy Susan at any time of the day or night. Seems they always had to settle the issue of who was boss and who was hoss right off and Bushwiggins was gettin’ to be the age where he was willin’ to concede rather than to suffer the bone-jarrin’ consequences.

Well, no sense duckin’ it, he thought as he ran his hand gently across Ol’ Lazy Susan’s rump. “C’mon, Girl, we got miles to go an’ I can’t wait to soak my gizzard in some hot coffee.”

Ernie saddled his mare who, by this time, was wide awake and suspicious. Setting his jaw he mounted up. Sure enough, just as the sheriff knew would happen, Lazy Susan humped her back and started sunfishing all over the corral. Unlike the cowboys Ernie had seen ridin’ out a storm like this, he hung on for dear life with everything he had at his disposal: reins were jammed tightly in his teeth, both hands gripped the saddle horn in white-knuckled fashion, legs kicked free of the stirrups and were wrapped tightly around Lazy Susan’s barrel. And prayers uttered for mercy were interspersed with unmentionable expletives. Alas, Lazy Susan’s expertise at dumping her master had improved since the last time they had met in mortal combat. Unmentionable expletives increased; prayers went unheeded; Legs came unwrapped; hands came ungripped; reins fell free and, with his horse’s final glorious, victorious bound, Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins—his store-bought teeth still gripping the reins—reluctantly parted company with Ol’ Lazy Susan.

Having gotten that out of the way, Ernie gingerly stood, dusted himself off, looked around for his store-bought teeth and, with a malevolent glare at his horse, remounted, pried his teeth loose from the reins, shoved them back in his mouth, and rode off.

#####

The Ace of Slades Mine was just a black hole cut into the side of Mary’s Lace Mountain. Food debris—the trash of bachelor living—was scattered around the entrance to the mine. The tailings from the mine were just dumped around the entrance so a person had to climb up over the piles of tailings and rubbish to get into the mine. The Slade’s cabin was located to the east of the mine entrance about one hundred feet away. That always was a source of irritation to the Slade boys who were very lazy, just like their Pa, who would expend effort only for disproportionate profit. They just hated having to walk that hundred feet to the entrance carrying their pickaxes and shovels and took advantage of every opportunity to let Sad Jack know it.

That morning as they walked to the mine to begin their day’s digging, Sad Jack looked up to see a rider making his way up the slope toward the cabin.

“Grab yore guns, boys, we got some company.” Then, as the rider got closer, “Wait! Hold yore fire. That there’s yore brother, Achan.”

Sad Jack called his middle son Ache for short. That used to really rattle Achan, but try as he might, there was no changing Pa’s bad habits. As Achan dismounted, his Pa told Ate to put Ache’s horse away with the rest.

“Pa,” said Achan, “rumor in town has it, Little Red Rockhardy is sendin’ some claim jumpers up here to run us off. What we gonna do, Pa, what we gonna do?”

Ache always did have panicky leanin’s; got it from his Ma’s side of the family, Sad Jack reckoned.

“Pipe down, Ache, yore just petered out from the ride up here. Come on back to the cabin and we’ll hash us out a strategy,”  Slade said.

As the four men walked in the cabin door, Sad Jack said, “Belly, Ache ain’t had anything to eat since he left town. Git some grub started for his breakfast, will ya?”

“Shore, Pa,” Belly muttered, glowering.

#####

That same morning, Bert Mortimer and Ample Sample Miller had risen early and built a fire. Bert was cutting up some bacon while the coffee water boiled. He had awakened feeling grumpy and out of sorts. He still smelled bad and, worse yet, his Colt Navy .36 caliber revolver was full of mud. He was gonna be half the day cleaning that gun of his. Boy, if his Mama ever found out, she would be really upset. While he was mulling these things over, Ample Sample Miller walked over to the fire.

“How long you gonna be with that chow, Boy? My insides are beginnin’ to think my outsides died.”

As the boys were finishing their breakfast, Sheriff Bushwiggins was entering Peaceful Canyon. It had been a long ride on Ol’ Lazy Susan, but she had grown weary of fussin’ and the last few miles had been simply tolerable. Bushwiggins had to admit his curiosity about the quality of the ore Slade and his boys were pulling out of the Ace of Slades mine was mounting’ with each mile that slid under Susie’s hooves. Now that the soreness was starting to slack off,

Ernie was gettin’ positively solicitous towards his disinclined ride. The sheriff was letting Ol’ Lazy Susan pick her way down the canyon when he heard the sound of a gunshot. It sounded like a small caliber handgun to him. With a sigh, Bushwiggins, figuring he had a duty to respond, stopped Ol’ Lazy Susan dead in her tracks with a sharp tug on the reins. He climbed down from the saddle, rubbed his sore backside with one hand while with the other he loosened his .45 caliber Smith and Wesson Lawman Special in his holster. He didn’t want it hangin’ up on him if he needed it in a hurry.

He began to walk slowly toward the area he thought the gunshot had come from, picking his way among the rocks and brush. He thought it best to try to surprise whoever was firing. It might just be someone huntin’, he thought. Still, best to check it out.

At that very moment, Ample Sample Miller was showing Bert the proper way to load his revolver, with the hammer down on an empty chamber. Sample had cleaned the revolver for Bert, after he figured he would get no peace or breakfast, either, unless he did.

Bert watched carefully, hoping that Miller wouldn’t notice the leather patch over the toe of Bert’s right boot. Too late.

Sample said, “Boy, didn’t anybody ever tell ya not to carry a gun with the hammer down on a loaded chamber? That notch in yore right foot healed up yet?”

Bert replied, “Mostly. It don’t throb near as much as it used to.” Bert was really embarrassed to have Miller find out just how inexperienced he was at this gunslingin’ business. Maybe Mama was right when she suggested he take a job, a quiet job, in town.

When Sample had the revolver reloaded, he thumbed back the hammer, took quick aim from the waist, and fired a round at a knot, that was now a knothole, on a tree just outside their camp.

“When ya fire this hardware, Boy, take slow aim, control yore breathin’ so ya don’t throw yore aim off and squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it. Prob’ly most important, don’t unholster that sidearm unless you intend to clean it or shoot it and don’t shoot it unless you intend to kill with it.

Ever kill a man, Son?”

Bert shook his head no. “But I smashed a frog with a piece of firewood once,” he offered.

Ample Sample Miller just looked kind of sad at Bert and said, “Ya can’t take it back, Kid, ya can’t take it back. Firearms are tools, not toys. If ya want a reputation, build it with hard work, not a heavy heart.”

Bert watched Miller talk as he holstered his weapon. No one had ever talked to him in such a patient fashion since his daddy had died. He couldn’t wait to tell his Mama about this amazing man.

Sheriff Bushwiggins stood at the edge of the little clearing obscured by the brush, but he could see and hear good enough to see who was talking. He stepped out of the brush as he said,

“Well, as I live and breathe, if it ain’t Ol’ Ample Sample Miller. Howdy, Sam. I never expected to see you in these parts. How in the world ya been? And what on earth are ya doin’ here with this apprentice gunslinger?”

Miller, surprised at seeing his partner from years back step out of the brush, held up a tin coffee cup and said, “Step up to the fire and grab a cup of axle grease. This young’un brewed it just this mornin’. I didn’t think I’d ever lay my bloodshot ol’ peepers on yore sorry mug again, Ernie.”

Ample Sample cracked a smile like a board fence with most of the boards missing, and held out a gnarled, hairy hand that was all too familiar to the Sheriff. Ernie Bushwiggins took it and shook it heartily. Ample continued, “Me and the boy here stumbled across each other’s paths last night and he was kind enough to share his campfire with an old wore out rocksplitter.”

The Sheriff looked at Bert, tasted his coffee, and with a wry look said sarcastically, “When you gonna open the restaurant, Bert? I knew you was an apprentice gunslinger, but I didn’t know you was an aspiring cook to boot. What are ya doin’ out here, anyways? Does yore Mama know yore away out here?”

Bert grimaced at the sheriff and said, “Mister Ample here was just showin’ me some shootin’ tips.” He figured the less said, the better. He had been humiliated enough for one day. Besides, he figured he was old enough and bold enough to go where he wanted and do what he wanted without bein’ held to account for every minute. ‘Course his Mama held with a little different view. When she got back from her “foragin'” she would demand a full account of every day spent loungin’ and every dime spent lollygaggin’. And if the accounts didn’t balance, it was off to the woodshed with Master Bert Mortimer.

As the boys began to break camp, on a bluff across a gulch from the Ace of Slades Mine a lone Indian made his way among the half-buried rocks and boulders littering the top to a vantage point near the face of the bluff, but not too near, where he could enjoy the scenery, and watch.

Chapter Four

Sad Jack Slade and his three boys had laid plans to thwart Little Red Rockhardy and his thugs. Sad Jack also had plans of his own, to make, what he hoped would be, a small fortune off this dead hole he had filed a claim on. But first he had to make Rockhardy think this mine was a regular Lost Dutchman. The boys didn’t know that Sad Jack had salted that sample they had taken in to be assayed. He had hoped that fool assayer wasn’t sharp enough to detect a fake sample of gold ore and, sure enough, he had missed it.

Slade sent his three boys to stand guard at the entrance to the Ace of Slades Mine after Achan brought word that Rockhardy was on his way to jump their claim. After that was done, Sad Jack had gone on a little ride back to town. He had always been a little keen on a certain banker’s daughter and he figured on makin’ her an offer he was sure she couldn’t refuse.

.

#####

As Slade rode back to Mary’s Lace Mountain, he felt the red welt on the side of his jaw. It still hadn’t receded. He wondered at the reasons a woman could have for refusing to be betrothed to a soon-to-be wealthy man. Sad Jack made his way up the, by now very familiar, trail to the mine and went straight to the mine entrance to check on his boys. He approached the entrance with great care, not wanting to get his head blown off. As he slowly raised his head above the pile of tailings, he saw his three boys sitting with their backs against the tailings watching the mine entrance intently.

Almost speechless with anger, Slade pulled his gun and fired a round at the feet of his oldest boy, Ate. All three boys leapt up, drew their guns and, fumbling them, simultaneously dropped them into the dirt. When they saw the source of the gunfire, Ate yelled,  “Pa! Why in tarnation are ya shootin’ at us?”

“Why, dangnation young’un! What do ya think would of happened if I’d a been that fool Rockhardy or one of his lot? What are you rockheads starin’ at the mine entrance for? You expectin’ Blackbeard’s ghost or somethin’? Now, swap ends, strap yore sixguns back on, and this time pay ‘ttention an’ stay awake.”

Shaking he head, Sad Jack started back up toward the shack, muttering something about “young’uns bein’ the death of him yet”.

#####

The sun was high in the Western sky, the desert mesquite was in full bloom, the quaking aspen were…well, uh, quaking, the barrel cacti were covering the desert like crops on a stump farm. The two men were riding across the hot, blooming, quaking, cactus-covered desert toward Mary’s Lace Mountain in the middle of the day. The oppressive heat caused them to seek cool relief in the entrance to a canyon that made its way down from the skirts of Mary’s Lace Mountain to the flats stretching out in the vast wastelands toward the mining metropolis of Goldpan.

As Rockhardy’s servile lackeys made their way into the mouth of Peaceful Canyon, Ample Sample Miller, Bert Mortimer, and Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins urged their mounts up a rugged slope at the other end of the canyon. The sheriff had explained he was on his way up to the Ace of Slades Mine, but he refrained from telling them the reasons why. Bert and Miller had readily agreed to accompany him, Miller for professional curiosity, and Bert because he felt a rather strange attraction to that Rotund Rowdy of the Range.

Miller had taken Bert in hand and dealt with him with the patient firmness a cowhand had with a recalcitrant calf. As the riders topped out on a ridge, Sample pulled his mount alongside Ol’ Lazy Susan.  “Yore kinda quiet, Ernie. As I remember, you had quite the gift of gab. We ain’t ridin’ for trouble, are we?”

“No, Sam. You know I’d a told you by now if that was the case.”

Lowering his voice so Bert wouldn’t overhear, the sheriff told Miller, in brief, what was happening with Little Red Rockhardy, the Slades and the Ace of Slades Mine. Ample Sample allowed as how it would be fun to explore another hardluck miner’s digs. He hadn’t so much as swung a pick since he walked away from the luckless Maggie’s Drawers Mine tight beside Buckle, Nevada. He hadn’t taken so much as a penny’s worth of gold out of that aggravatin’ hole in the ground. Bushwiggins said, “You platted out the town site for Buckle, didn’t ya, Ample?”

“Yeah,” Miller said, “I was wanderin’ around that part of Nevada lookin’ for a likely spot to sink my pick and strike my fortune. I was lettin’ Little Bucky, here, have his head, and I looks up and sees what I thought was a gold nugget lyin’ next to a rock. Me and Little Bucky pulled up in a hurry and picked up what turned out to be a dadblamed greenhorn’s belt buckle. Well, sir, I was so upset at that, I just figgered I’d quit for the night. So, me and Little Bucky set up camp, ate some beans—Little Bucky always did like my cookin’— and went to bed.

“Next mornin’ we figured to strike out for the Windy Range. I didn’t set Little Bucky in hobbles the night before, and in the mornin’ I had to go fetch him. I found him grazin’ on some buffalo grass and, when I bent down to grab his lead rope, there in front of my nose was a lovely chunk of quartz with, what looked to me to be, streaks of gold runnin’ through it. By Jingo, we both got so excited we unloaded and started a hole right there where we stood.

“I went to the territorial seat and filed a claim on that mine. We still hadn’t struck anything when I homesteaded enough land to plat a town site. Me and Little Bucky decided to name the town Buckle, ’cause of that greenhorn’s buckle we found.”

The eternal optimist, Ernie thought. “Anything ever come of Buckle, Sample?”

Miller laughed heartily, “Ya know, Ernie, this fella come out to my digs one day and says he’d like to buy my homestead. I hadn’t really done any improvements to it at all. Was way too busy lookin’ for the gold in the goose egg I bought into. So, after talkin’ it over with Little Bucky we decided to sell out to this yahoo. He paid us right well. Don’t ya know, we heardlater on that he had discovered coal in that shaft of mine; that’s what’s keepin’ my little town of Buckle a boomtown.

“He’s got more’n a hundred miners haulin’ coal out of that hole. Me and Little Bucky ain’t been back there since, but I heard tell the town’s got bunches of saloons, a church, and even a schoolhouse. Can you beat that?”

Miller laughed again and shook his huge, shaggy head. Ernie looked over at his former partner and thought, “Yep, that’s Sam. Easy come, easy go.”

#####

As the three caballeros urged their mounts over the ridge that was the peak of Mary’s Lace Mountain, a lone Indian turned from his vantage point on the bluff overlooking the Ace of Slades Mine to watch the sheriff and his two friends work their way down the opposite slope. ‘Bout time, he thought; things are about to get interesting.

Chapter Five

Little Red Rockhardy sat in his ornate leather office chair, ordered an iced sarsaparilla from his office assistant, and glanced repeatedly at his pocket watch. He hoped everything was going according to plan. If so, he planned to bring in hardrock miners as soon as the claim was in his name and begin operations. Yep, he thought, those low-life Slades would be out on their collective ears and his already stuffed bank account would begin to sprout exponentially. Then he and Haughton Montague’s bilious, emotionally constipated, egotistically bloated, but otherwise socially desirable daughter would be able to leave this reprehensible little rathole and spend copious amounts of time in more desirable places like…well, it didn’t really matter where. Anywhere was better than here as long as the money kept rolling in from the mine and Miss Elvira Montague-Rockhardy kept the iced sarsaparillas coming for yours truly.

#####

As Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins, Ample Sample Miller, and Bert Mortimer rode their mounts slowly up the slope toward the Ace of Slades Mine, two men were just topping out on the ridge that was the peak of Mary’s Lace Mountain, and the lone Indian on the bluff overlooking the Ace of Slades Mine watched their progress with a little trepidation.

#####

The three Slade boys, still stinging from their Daddy’s correction, had picked up their revolvers and, as they wiped them off and re-holstered them, turned to look off across the slope in the opposite direction from their cabin. Ate was just about to complain about being shot at by his Daddy when all three boys heard the sound of horse’s hooves comin’ up the slope from the canyon below. Agag the Elder, Achan, and Belteshazzar Slade all pulled their weapons as one man, spun in unison, fired in the same motion, and with a gasp as though emanating from one wounded cat, fell to the ground holding their right boots in the air and rocking back and forth hollering’ for help.

The three men coming up the slope heard the gunfire and stopped in their tracks long enough to determine that the shots had missed their intended mark, then increased their pace toward the direction of the shots, the tailings in front of the mine’s entrance.

At the same moment, Sad Jack Slade burst out of the cabin where he had been napping and, trying to buckle his gunbelt, he ran in the direction of the mine entrance. He stopped short as he saw three men, one of whom he recognized, dismounted and standing on top of the tailings laughing.

“What in thunderation is goin’ on here?” Slade roared. “Sheriff, what are you doin’ here and who is that with ya?”

By this time Sad Jack had covered the ground to the mine entrance and, as he climbed the piles of tailings and looked down at his three progeny lying prostrate on the ground, punctured and howlin’ for help, he grew red in the face with embarrassment and anger. Undecided as to what to do now, he pulled his gun and, brandishing it toward the sheriff, shouted, “You shot my boys, you low-life gopher gizzard!”

Hands held high in the air, Ernie Bushwiggins said, “Calm down, Slade. I didn’t shoot yore boys. By the looks of things, yore boys shot themselves. We were just comin’ up the slope when we heard gunshots. When we got here, we see yore boys rollin’ around on the ground here, holdin’ their boots up in the air and howlin’ like branded calves.”

“Well, git down there then and help my boys up outta there.” While Slade held a gun on the sheriff and the others, Bushwiggins, Mortimer and Miller climbed down off the pile of tailings and began to help the three Slade boys up and back to their cabin.

As the three superficially wounded Slades collapsed on their bunks in the cabin, Bert looked over at Sample with a grin, as Bert said to Belly, who had gone to school with Bert and was about Bert’s own age, “Didn’t anyone ever tell ya not to carry yore gun with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, Belly?”

Still holding his foot, with a groan Belly said, “Hush yore mouth, Bertram Aloysius Mortimer. If yore so smart, tell me how ya got that patch on the toe of yore right boot, hunh?”

“You just hold yore tongue, you wild-eyed wolverine. I’ve told ya before not to never use my middle name. If you must know, I just wore my boot toe out doin’ the housekeep…dagnab it! Just never you mind how I got that patch.”

Ample roared out loud at the boy’s shenanigans. The sheriff told Sad Jack, “C’mon, Slade. What possible reason could we have for pluggin’ these here whelps of

yores? Put yore irons away. I just come here to ask ya a couple questions. You said Little Red had changed yore ore assay to show you hadn’t struck a vein. If you-all have found color, I want to know, want to see proof, an’ I’ll salt Rockhardy away for falsifying legal documents.”

Sad Jack slowly laid his rusty revolver on the roughhewn plank table. He hadn’t anticipated things going in quite this direction. He had to stall for time while he figured how to respond to the sheriff’s demands. He knew full good and well that ore sample was a salted one, but how to keep the sheriff from finding out? That was the question. While these things were going on in the cabin, two men, armed and looking like they sported trouble for a living, crept up to the mine entrance. One went inside while the other stood guard outside the entrance by the piles of tailings. Not finding anyone in the mine, the first one came out and joined his partner. The guard by the mine entrance said, “Looks like their horses are all still in the corral,” and he motioned in that direction with his gun.

The first one said, “Let’s just cut that flimsy cabin to ribbons and that ought to take care of them, permanently.”

Both men pulled their weapons and opened fire at the cabin. As the fusillade broke glass and splintered the rough plank siding, Achan Slade screamed in that high pitched whine of his, “It’s the claim jumpers, Pa! I told ya, I told ya! What we gonna do? What we gonna do?”

“Oh, gee, I don’t know, Ache,” Sad Jack Slade responded with mild sarcasm, “why don’t

we just invite ’em in for some tea and little cookies and we’ll sit down and maybe play some bridge and…pull yore gun, ya dang fool idjit, an’ have at ’em.” Sad Jack thumbed fresh cartridges into his worn out weapon as he crawled over to the broken window.

Bert was sitting on Belly’s cot and, when the gunfire began, he flopped on the floor where he clawed frantically for the Colt Navy .36 caliber revolver he was sitting on. Ample Sample Miller had been sitting quietly watching and studying the Slades. When the firing started, Miller whipped out his hogleg as he crashed through the half open door. He spun around the cabin wall farthest away from the action and, running hunched over, made for some rocks where the cabin backed up against the slope. Sheriff Bushwiggins also dropped to the floor of the cabin, Smith and Wesson Lawman Special in hand, and began to fire out the open door.

#####

High up on the bluff overlooking the mine, the lone Indian pulled an 1883 model Remington Rolling Block rifle from under his Navajo blanket. Levering the action open, he removed a cartridge from a sack between his feet and inserted it into the chamber. As he closed the action, he lay down and placed the buttstock against his shoulder. Taking careful aim at the man in the tailings closest to him, he breathed in and out once slowly, held half a breath, (the range was great, but he had great confidence in his long-time hunting companion), and fired. The great gun roared. Dust flew from his target’s britches and, with a roar of his own, of pain, the claim jumper dropped his weapon. He leaped to his feet yelling, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”, and holding the site of the bullet’s impact, ran awkwardly down the slope to his mount, which would be led all the way back to Goldpan, it looked like. The lone Indian smiled to himself as he worked the action on Ol’ Ticklicker. He reckoned he hadn’t lost his touch.

The sheriff, seeing the one dry gulcher leap up and run for his mount, ran out the door of the cabin and toward the tailings, gun held low and out front. The remaining claim jumper, seeing he was alone, also leaped to his feet and ran down the slope toward his horse. Bushwiggins sent a round after him to hurry him on his way.

Seeing that the claim jumpers had been run off, Miller took advantage of the opportunity to look around while everybody was otherwise occupied. He slipped into the mine entrance while the sheriff and Slade were running down the slope chasing the claim jumpers.

He lit a small lamp he found just inside the entrance for light and followed the mine back in as far as it went. He was surprised how little the Slades had dug into the mountain. As he played the feeble light over the walls and floor of the cave, a smile crept over the unemployed miner’s face.

Chapter Six

On the ride back to Goldpan, the sheriff had time to puzzle all this out. The way he saw it, it was entirely possible that Little Red Rockhardy had sent those claim jumpers to the Ace of Slades Mine. He also had a sneakin’ suspicion the Slades had salted that sample of ore, but he had no proof…at the moment.

Bert and Fluffy were accompanying Bushwiggins back to Goldpan. Miller, meantime, was staying at the mine to help the Slades out while the boys recovered, in case anyone else had a mind to try to take the mine away again.

Back in Goldpan, Ernie went over to the Assayer’s office. He needed to have another little talk with Rockhardy. As he walked in the door to the office, Little Red was having a confab with two men who were dusty and trail worn. One of them had refused the chair Rockhardy had told him to sit in. In fact, the sheriff noticed as he drew his gun, they bore a remarkable resemblance to the two men they had chased off Mary’s Lace Mountain yesterday.

He spoke quietly as he stood in the doorway, “Get ’em up, boys, an’ keep ’em there. There’s a law against claim jumpin’ in this territory, boys, and yore both under arrest for breakin’ it. I’m a witness to that. Little Red, I wanna see that ore sample the Slades brought in, just to satisfy my own curiosity, you understand. And by the way, how do you know these here lowdown claim jumpin’ skunks?”

Little Red Rockhardy leaped from his ornate leather office chair, bumping into his counter full of assaying instruments and knocking them into the waste basket full of empty sarsaparilla bottles. “Now, look here, Ernie….uh, Sheriff….I don’t know these men. I don’t know why you would want to see that sample. I already told all there is to tell about it.”

The two drygulching malefactors began protesting loudly, “You do so know us, you no-account, egg-suckin’ lyin dog! Sheriff, he hired us to go up there and run them Slades off their mine claim. We’re not gonna take the fall for this alone, Rockhardy.”

Ernie smiled and said, “This was easier than I thought it would be. Yore under arrest, Rockhardy. Aidin’ and abettin’ claim jumpers.”

The sheriff locked his prisoners up in the town jail and sent a wire to a friend of his in Phelps.

#####

Two days later, Bushwiggins was back at the Ace of Slades Mine. He was gonna take great pleasure in this. There was no love lost between him and those Slades. “Sad Jack, I got some news for you,” said Ernie. “I had that ore sample you took to Rockhardy assayed a second time in Phelps. You-all salted that sample, didn’t ya, Slade? Also, I just wanted you to know, I arrested Little Red Rockhardy and his help for claim jumpin’. They’re in jail now.”

Sad Jack was glad those aggravatin’ no-accounts were in jail, but he was heart broke as well as pocket broke. His boys all shot up, his plans all down the shaft. Life couldn’t look much worse right now.

Ample Sample Miller motioned to the sheriff to follow him outside. A short time later, Miller and Bushwiggins had struck a deal with Slade.

Chapter Seven

Quite some time later in Buckle, Nevada, Mama Mortimer was putting biscuits, hardtack, and .44 caliber cartridges in her saddle bags as she looked over at her newlywed husband and said, “Make sure you dust all the shelves and don’t shirk. I’m goin’ on a little foragin’ trip and when I get back, all these chores had better be done. No loungin’ and no lollygaggin’! You hear me, Jackson Slade?”

Sad Jack made a face at her back as she walked out the door. Dang, he thought. This fool coal dust was might near impossible to get rid of. It was bad enough havin’ to fight with it every day at work in the Maggie’s Drawer’s Mine.

The Ace of Slades Mine had new owners and was now the Miller and Bushwiggins Coal Company. Sheriff Ernie Bushwiggins had been talked into a new partnership with Ample Sample Miller when Miller discovered that the ore sample Sad Jack had salted was, in fact, a chunk of anthracite coal, the type of coal in strong demand in the factories back East. Their coal mine was to be one of the richest deposits found in that part of the country. Ernie Bushwiggins turned in his badge to become a very wealthy mine owner.

#####

The Territorial Assayer sat back in his ornate leather office chair, which was big enough for him to swim around in, and thought to himself, “Bert, old man, Mama was right. This sure beats bein’ an up-an’-comin’ gunslinger.” He smiled to himself as a grating voice, that of the prominent socialite of Goldpan and his recent bride Miss Elvira Montague, came bleating into his consciousness.

“Bertram, get your feet down off that desk and get ready for dinner. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times: cultured sophisticates such as we are always dress for dinner, and you know full good and well that every Friday night we always go to…”

Bert was lost in a reverie of his own, dreaming of a mule named Fluffy, campfires beside rushing streams, and friends not far away. Fact is, he thought, maybe it was time to go up to the Miller and Bushwiggins Coal Company Mine and check on the quality of the latest coal shipments.

#####

The lone Indian found the Slade residence in Buckle, Nevada. He walked up to the front door and knocked, hoping the Slade boys would be no trouble. Sad Jack came to the door in his stocking feet, a conspicuous hole in the space in the right stocking that a big toe usually occupied, and a dust mop in his hand.

“Yeah, Whaddaya want? Cain’t ya see I’m busy?” Slade growled.

Taking off his Navajo blanket and folding it carefully, Squatting Calf stepped in the door and, setting his blanket on a stool near the door, said, “This will only take a moment, Mister Slade.” As he opened a small briefcase and took out some documents, he continued, “I’m the tax collector for the territory in which your former mine was located. We are aware, Mister Slade, that you sold that mine for a considerable profit to one Sample Miller and one Ernest Bushwiggins. Any time an asset is sold for profit, a capital gains tax is due, Sir.”

With a flourish, the government agent handed the tax bill to Sad Jack Slade who stared at the number on the bottom line and fainted dead away. Agag the Elder, Achan, and Belteshazzar Slade stared at their passed out daddy and then at one another. In unison they all three said, “Mama Mortimer Slade is not gonna like this at all, no sir, not at all.”

The End

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