Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Story With No Name - Update

The decision has been made to work towards an ending for The Story With No Name. There will be around another ten sections although a definite number will be provided soon. For now here is the complete magnum opus of 16 parts in one place.

Part 1 - I.J. Parnham

"Come and see this," Merrill Wyman said. "Some fool is standing on the tracks."

Jerome Meeker stopped shovelling wood to join Merrill in peering over the side of the engine. Impossible as it had sounded, Merrill was right. A man was standing on the tracks, around 300 yards ahead. From such a distance and with the evening light fading fast Jerome couldn't be sure what he was doing but he appeared to be just standing there looking down at the ground.

Jerome dragged on the brake lever, tearing a desperate screech from the wheels. The reek of tortured metal overpowered the engine smell. It was a futile gesture as the train would require a quarter-mile to stop, but at least using the brakes would give the fool more time to move.

"Get off the tracks!" Jerome yelled although it was unlikely the man would be able to hear him while Merrill clanged the bell.

The sound would be loud enough to be heard in Matlock, four miles further on, but this didn't alert the man who remained hunched and staring downwards.

They were now 200 yards away and the man had around twenty seconds in which to move or die. Still he didn't react although the brake shoe was locking the wheels and the bell was tolling its insistent plea.

Now Jerome could see that the man was grey-haired and so stooped with age. There was also something familiar about him... But it was almost too late.

Then he looked up, but the train was only seconds away from hitting him. His gaze alighted on the engine looming over him. If its appearance shocked him, he didn't show it. Instead, he raised his arm and clutched in his outstretched hand was a six-shooter. He fired at the approaching train, his mouth opening wide. Blazing hatred contorted his face as he shouted something that Jerome couldn't hear.

Merrill and Jerome both jerked backwards. Lead cannoned off the engine. A stray bullet tore through the small window and ricocheted around before departing.

Then the gunfire stopped.

Merrill and Jerome looked at each other, sighing as they both wondered if the man had got his wits about him at the last moment and saved himself.

Jerome glanced over the right-hand side then backwards while Merrill took the other side. To his dismay Jerome saw a hunched shape lying beside the tracks. The cowcatcher would have tossed him aside but even so the pained look each man gave the other said they didn't think he could have survived the impact.

The train had now slowed sufficiently for one of them to jump down, yet both men stood frozen in place, reluctant to go back and find out what state the man was in.

"You check on him," Merrill said finally. "I'll see if there's a doctor amongst the passengers who can help him."

"I don't think he'd want that help," Jerome said. "He just let the train hit him."

Merrill provided a sorry shake of the head. "He sure did, but why would a man do that?"

Jerome shrugged. Then, with a heavy heart, he jumped down from the train.

Part 2 - Jack Giles

“What’s the hold up?” this curt question came from the portly conductor, Henry Cox, as he eased himself down the steps from the front of the first carriage. This as heads began to appear through the carriage windows behind him. He paused long enough to slip a fob from the pocket of a vest that was stretched, tightly, across his paunch and examined the watch face before glancing in Jerome’s direction.

“Better be good,” Henry snapped, shoving the watch back,as he turned to glare at Merrill who had halted with one foot on the footplate while gripping on to the brass handrail to maintain his balance. “We have a schedule to keep.”

Henry pounded towards them with a hiss of serge upon serge as his thick thighs collided with each other but neither man paid him much attention for they were watching the old man rise from the ground.

“Well, I guess, that’s my fault,” the old man told the trio of gaping men as he approached them brushing dust from his clothes with his hands. “Sorry if I’ve disrupted your schedule but you see I – yes, I needed to stop the train.” As he spoke his eyes wandered along the line of carriages until he spotted a red and white one at the end. Suddenly, he swung up an arm to point downline. “Hey, isn’t that Silas Bartlett’s private carriage?”

“It certainly is,” the conductor responded, pompously, finding it easier to answer the question rather than follow the oldster’s rambling drawl.

“Thought it was,” the old man nodded. “Good. I wasn’t sure if I’d stopped the right train.”

“And what if we hadn’t’ve stopped?” Merrill bellowed dropping to the ground. “God, by rights you should be dead.”

“But, don’t you see, you did stop,” the old man said, sagely.

“But if we hadn’t?” Merrill persisted.

All three stood there mesmerised as the old man reached inside his jacket and pulled out a stick of dynamite. As a man they took a few quick paces backwards.

“I’d’ve had to use this,” the old man mentioned. “Last resort – but the train would’ve stopped.”

“Just who the hell are you?” the conductor demanded, his eyes watchful as the old man slid the dynamite, carefully, back into his pocket.

“Didn’t I say?” the old man looked confused. “Walt Arnside.”

“You can’t be,” the Jerome gasped. “I knew Arnside and he’s dead.”

“Heard that rumour myself,” Walt nodded. “All the time I was in Yuma I had people telling me I was dead. But as you can see I’m very much alive.”

“Whoa! Whoa!” the conductor called out. “All this may be interesting but I don’t hear you saying why you stopped the train.”

“I didn’t, did I,” Walt nodded, scratching at the hairs at the side of his neck and glancing downline before facing the conductor. “Well, I’d’ve thought that was a mite obvious. I mean why would anyone try to stop a train, huh?” he glanced at each man expecting an answer and when none came stated the obvious. “To get on board.”

Part 3 - Chuck Tyrell

As Walt Arnside walked toward Silas Bartlett’s private car, his back seemed to straighten and his shoulders grow broader. His iron gray hair and close-cropped beard no longer marked him as a weak old man. Instead, his strides were firm and steady. A slight smile appeared on his face.

“Wait. Wait,” Cox cried. “You can’t just barge into Mr. Bartlett’s private car.”

Arnside never broke stride. “I can,” he said. “And I will. Get your crew back on that iron horse. In two minutes this train’d better be making up lost time, or if I know Silas Bartlett, you all will be looking for new jobs down the line.”

Merrell and Jerome jogged for the engine, and Henry Cox struggled across the sandy ground toward the passenger cars. Walt Arnside stepped up into the vestibule of the red-and-white Bartlett car. Less than a minute later, the steam whistle blew and the four-foot driver wheels of the locomotive began to turn.

Arnside stopped a moment outside the door to Bartlett’s car. The train moved out and each car clunked against its couplings in protest. He drew his .45 Peacemaker, turned the gilded knob, and pushed the door open as he stepped to the left, behind the door frame.

“That you, Straight? Come on in. Just me and the ghosts in here.”

A little smile showed on Arnside’s lips again. He shoved the Colt back into the well-worn holster that rode his right hip, and entered the well-lit Pullman.

“Put ‘er there,” Barlett said, his hand held out.

Arnside reached across the mahogany desk and firmly grasped his friend’s hand. “Long time no see, Scoot,” he said.

“Much too long, Straight. You still packing a star?”

“Nah. Too old for hard work. Never was as quick as you, Scoot.”

“Drink?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Arnside knew Bartlett would get around to telling him the reason for this strange visit when he was good and ready, and not before. Besides, he had no owlhoots to run down, no rustlers to catch, no wife to tie him down . . . no nothing. Waiting weighed easy on a man with nothing.

Bartlett poured four fingers of Jim Beam’s good whiskey into two of his fine glasses, all sparkles and facets. He handed one to Arnside, took one himself. He lifted the glass. “To memories past,” he said, “and adventures to come.”

“Hear, Hear,” said Arnside, one eyebrow raised. He clicked glasses with Bartlett and sipped the whiskey. It was real. The aroma filled his head and the heat of 80 proof Kaintuck lightning worked its way down his throat and into his guts. Fine stuff.

For a while, the two old friends tippled Jim Beam and communicated with the ghosts of times past. “Whatcha got up your sleeve, Scoot?” Arnside asked at last.

Bartlett leaned forward as if he wanted no one else to hear. “I know where there’s a Spanish treasure ship,” he said. “On dry land.”

Part 4 - Evan Lewis

Walt Arnside downed the last of his whiskey and placed the glass on the japanned table next to his chair. Bartlett’s remark buzzed about in his head, finding no place to light.

“Ever wonder how I made my fortune, Straight?” Bartlett hooked thumbs in the pockets of his silk waistcoat. A gold coin fixed to his watch chain caught the light and shone like a small sun.

Arnside dodged the question. “Ain’t a thing a man asks.”

“Or tells, unless he’s a damned fool. But I need your help. And your trust.”

Arnside’s eyes wandered about the private railcar. The plush carpet, velvet drapes and canopied bed looked like something out of The Arabian Nights. Bartlett had done well for himself, no mistake.

“I was raised by my grandfather," Bartlett said. "He was a queer old cuss, and more than half-mad. Claimed he’d once sailed with Jean Lafitte, but everyone knew that was hogwash.”

Arnside’s gaze settled on a painting hung between two windows. The subject was a high-prowed galleon, belled sails straining as she plowed a heavy sea. The ship’s side bristled with guns, and atop her mast flew the red and yellow flag of Spain. A treasure ship. Arnside’s pulse quickened.

Bartlett grinned. “The old fellow would sit for hours in his rocker, swilling rum and staring at that very painting. ‘A treasure ship,’ he’d mutter, ‘on dry land!’ Then he’d slap his knee and cackle, enjoying a private joke. After he died, I found an iron box under the floorboards. A box half-full of these.” Bartlett fingered the gold coin on his watch chain. “I kept one for luck, and I kept that painting, hoping to learn its secret.”

Arnside felt deflated. “But you said you knew…”

Bartlett rose and strode to the painting. “A month ago, the train hit rough track and the frame jumped from the wall, cracking free of the canvas. And what do you think I found?” He gave Arnside an owlish look.

A window exploded inward, showering Bartlett with glass. Bullets smashed into the opposite wall. More windows burst. The air was alive with singing lead, flying shards and acrid engine smoke. Bartlett gasped, clutched his shoulder and crumpled to the floor.

Arnside sprang from his chair, flattened next to a broken window. Five masked horsemen raced alongside the car, sixguns spitting fire. In one fluid motion, he drew his .45 and sent the nearest rider spinning from the saddle.

Bartlett lay on his side, his breathing ragged. A crimson stain spread over his fancy waistcoat.

Arnside’s gun crashed again, and a second rider pitched into the dirt. “Is there something you forgot to tell me?”

“I hate to say it, Straight, but you’re not the first man I asked for help.”

“Who was?” Arnside winced as a slug tore a chunk from his arm.

“You’re not going to like it.”

Arnside drew a bead on a third man, but the car lurched, spoiling his aim. Steel screeched on steel as the train began to slow.

“Damn it, Scoot! Who?”

A gas lamp shattered, raining hot oil over Bartlett’s bed. The comforter whooshed into flame. In moments the car would be an inferno.

Bartlett grimaced. “Zack Roden.”

A bullet scorched Arnside’s cheek, but he barely noticed. He felt like he’d swallowed a rattlesnake.

“If we survive this,” he said, “I’ll shoot you myself.”

Part 5 - Jack Martin

Arnside, back against the wall, looked out of the smashed window, hoping to spot Zack Rodin among the riders but a slug tore into the window frame, splintering wood and sending him once again ducking for cover.

‘We’re sitting ducks.’ Arnside yelled and turned to look at Bartlett but his old friend had succumbed to the gut wound. He lay there, a curious, contented look upon his face. Arnside crawled across the floor and made his way to the rear of the private car.

He groaned as he stood upright and opened the door. The train was still chugging alone, a few miles per hour at the most, the engine yet to build up pressure and get the wheels turning. He jumped down onto the ground and hugging the wall of the private car he made his way behind the train. He suddenly felt his age. He was in the autumn of his life and as he cautiously made his way to the rear of the train he felt November with each step.

The train started to pick up speed and Arnside cursed. The damn thing was providing his only cover and he fell to the ground, laying flat, trying to make himself invisible.

Luck was with him and he grinned as he saw the riders chasing after the train, which was now picking up considerable speed and easily outdistancing them. He lay there until both train and riders had vanished into the distance and then and only then did he get to his feet. He scanned the desert landscape, knowing that he had gotten at least one of the riders. At first he didn’t see anything but then perhaps three hundred yards away he spotted the crumpled figure of what could only be a man.

There was no sign of the riders returning even though they must have given up their pursuit of the train by now and Arnside withdrew his .45 and he made his way towards the fallen man, all the while his eyes scanned the horizon for the return on the riders.

He reached the man and after a final look around, spotting the the fallen man’s horse in the far distance, he knelt and examined the dead man. It had been a good shot that had brought him down – without aim, slung in his general direction, the slug had struck home right between the eyes and exited from the rear his of head, taking a sizeable chunk of skull with. A sponge of gore clung to a nearby rock.

Won’t take long for the flies to get at him, Arnside thought and wiped his brow. He removed the man’s rig and slung it one side and then went into each of the man’s pockets. There was nothing to identify the man but he did find three bucks and a tobacco pouch.

Arnside sat back with the makings and quickly put together a quirly. He sucked it to life and allowed the smoke to escape between his teeth while he regained some breath.

God he felt old.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Arnside asked the dead man and then raised a hand as if fending off any reply.

He thought about Bartlett. What was it the man had wanted to tell him? What was it he had discovered behind the painting he spoke of? He had mentioned a treasure ship so Arnside figured a map would come into it somewhere. Was that what the armed riders had been after? A map? A map leading to a ship filled with treasure?

He got to his feet and looked across the desert to the dead man’s horse. There was nothing for it; he would have to trail the riders if he was to find out what all this was about. Suddenly he didn’t feel so old and he started out across the desert to the waiting horse….

Part 6 - Jim Griffin

Luck was with Walt. The horse didn’t shy from him, but snuffed Walt curiously. He reassured the black and white tobiano with a pat.

“Easy,” he said. “We’ve got some hard ridin’ ahead.”

Walt’s good fortune continued. A Winchester rode in the saddle boot. The saddlebags contained spare cartridges, along with some beef jerky. A half-full canteen hung from the saddlehorn. Walt shoved a strip of jerky in his mouth, checked the cinches, and swung into the saddle. He put the pinto into a long-reaching lope. The powerful horse responded eagerly.

Dark had fallen, but the bushwhackers’ trail was visible under the light of a waxing gibbous moon. Walt expected them to veer off, but they kept alongside the tracks.

“We’ll be comin’ upon Bannon before long,” Walt murmured to the pinto. “Seems kinda odd those renegades’d ride straight into town.”

He slowed the horse to a walk. A mile later, the outlaws’ trail turned into the brush.

“That makes more sense. They’ll be sneakin’ through the back alleys.”

Walt avoided the railroad depot when he rode into Bannon. The train had already pulled out. Bartlett’s burnt-out car had been shunted onto a siding. Walt used an alleyway to reach the livery stable. He unsaddled the pinto and turned him into a corral. Walt took the rifle and extra ammunition. He headed for the nearest saloon, certain that was where he’d find Bartlett’s killers.
Just as Walt reached the street, two men emerged from the saloon.

“Arnside!” one shouted. He clawed for his gun. Walt put a bullet in his chest. The second man fired, his slug smashing the Winchester from Walt’s grip. Walt ducked behind a trough and pulled his sixgun.

More men were boiling out of the saloon.

“It’s Walt Arnside!” the second man called. Walt shot him through the gut. The gunman screamed in pain.

“I’m hit in the belly, Zack! Help me!”

“I’ll take care of you, Billy!” Roden shouted. He leveled his Colt at his partner’s back and fired twice. Billy pitched to the road.

“That way you can’t talk,” Roden muttered.

The gunmen concentrated their fire on Walt. He ran for the cover of an open doorway. He had almost made it when a horrific pain ripped through his middle. Walt clamped a hand to his right side and sat down, hard. He hunched over, unconscious.

“Let’s get outta here,” Roden ordered. His men gathered their horses and galloped out of town.

Several bystanders carried the gravely wounded Arnside to the physician’s office.

“He’s in rough shape,” the doctor muttered. “Dunno what I can do.”

***

Walt awoke to find the doctor and marshal staring at him.

“Must’ve died and gone to Hell,” he said.

“Not yet, but you still might,” the doctor observed. “You could be one of the few men who survive bein’ gut-shot. I believe that bullet missed your intestines. It did nick your liver. You’ll be laid up for quite a spell.”

“Then you’ll be tried for killin’ two men,” the marshal added.

“They were doin’ their best to kill me,” Walt protested.

“Not the way the townsfolk saw it,” the lawman answered. He was interrupted by a feminine voice.

“Marshal, I’d like to see your prisoner, if I might.”

“Lola!” The name escaped Walt’s lips. He’d last seen Lola Metivier years ago, in New Orleans… and she’d left him with far more pain than the slug which had just been dug out of his gut.

Part 7 - Joseph A. West

“It’s been a long time, Lola,” Walt said. He reopened the old wound. “Since you ran out on me in New Orleans.”

The woman smiled, white teeth in a pink mouth. “A gambler and a whore ain’t exactly a match made in heaven, Walt.”

“What did you want from me?”

“More.”

Lola read the question on Walt’s face. She didn’t answer it. Not directly.

“I’m getting older, Walt. My tits and ass are sagging and I discover a new line in my face every morning. More than ever, I need what I tried to find with you, a man to stand by me, steady like, and give me his support.”

She shrugged. “Either that or I end up a dollar-a-bang slut on a hog ranch.”

“You’ve found that man, Lola?” Walt asked.

A rising wind off the Mohawk Mountains to the east rattled the wood shingles on the jail roof and somewhere a screen door slammed open and shut.

Defiance in her eyes, Lola said, “Yes I have. His name is Zack Roden.”

Walt felt like he’d been slapped.

“Roden is nothing but a two-bit killer-for-hire. He murdered Silas Bartlett, Lola. Hell, you recollect ol’ Silas.”

The woman nodded. “He wasn’t much.”

“And he tried to kill me,” Walt said, as though he hadn’t heard.

You! Shut your goddamned trap!”

Town marshal Heck Stryker, a big-bellied man with purple cheeks and pig eyes, crossed the cell floor and thudded a kick into Walt’s cot.

“Mr. Roden told us what happened. Him and his men saw it all. Bartlett told you where to find the big treasure boat, then you killed him to keep his mouth shut. During your getaway, you killed one of Mr. Roden’s men, then you tried to murder Mr. Roden himself in town tonight.”

“Why did Roden run, Stryker?’

“Because you scared him. You’re as guilty as hell, Arnside, and I aim to hang you.”

“Walt, it doesn’t have to happen this way, Lola said. “Zack is well-respected in this town, Walt. He can save you.”

“What does he want in return, Lola?”

“Tell him where he can find the big boat.”

“Go to hell,” Walt said.

“Want me to beat it out of him, Miss Lola?” Stryker asked.

The woman shook her head. “No, not now.” She glanced at the big lawman. “Maybe later.”

*****

The cell smelled of piss and stale vomit and the pain in Walt’s belly was a living thing that clawed at him.

He stared at the cobwebbed ceiling, his mind working.

There was no big boat. A Spanish galleon hadn’t been left high and dry by Noah’s flood, and nobody had dragged it…wherever they’d dragged it.

Unless…

Suppose it was an itty-bitty boat?

Maybe a golden galleon the old Spanish men had made for their king. Apaches could have stolen it and stashed it somewhere.

A boat like that could be worth a fortune, and the clue to its whereabouts could still be in Bartlett’s private rail car.

Despite his pain, Walt sat up. He would need help to find out.

“Stryker!”

“What the hell do you want?”

“I want to make you rich,” Walt yelled.

He had baited his hook. Now, could he catch a purple-jowled pig?

Part 8 - Bob Napier

Marshal Heck Stryker grunted.

“I’ll get rich charging folks four bits a head to watch you hang.”

“Chicken feed,” Walt said. “I’m talking about millions in Spanish gold. You’ll live like the Duke of Prussia.”

“Who?”

Arnside sighed. “No matter. What matters is I can find that treasure ship. Throw in with me and you share the bounty.”

Stryker screwed his face into a contemplative mask, which made him look dumber than usual.

“If you’re worried about Zack Roden,” Walt said, “we can sneak away tonight. By the time he learns we’re gone he’ll be picking breakfast from his teeth. Besides, he won’t know where we’re headed.”

Stryker smiled like a bullfrog who’d speared a fly. “It’s a deal, but heed me. I’ll tote your gun. If you even think about crossing me I’ll sink you with your own lead.”

“Done. Now, loose me from this stink hole.”

Stryker led Walt to the rear of Choo How’s Mortuary, cutting through back alleys in order not to be seen. They entered the unlocked rear entrance. Choo was in the room where he built caskets, laughing .

“Evening, Choo,” the burly marshal said.

Choo jumped up. The laughter ceased. An expression of wide-eyed shock replaced his normally inscrutable countenance. Choo quickly pasted on a smile and kowtowed to the occidentals.

“Ah, marshal, you scare Choo.”

Walt stepped forward. “Where’s the body of Silas Bartlett. He was killed in the attack on the train, burned up pretty bad.”

Choo’s smile widened. “Poor man. Back side all black. Front not so bad.”

“Where’s is he?” Stryker demanded.

Choo indicated a plank coffin, nothing like the opulence Bartlett enjoyed in life. Stryker and Arnside pried the lid off. Bartlett was sunk deeply into rough batting obviously arranged to hide charred flesh. He wore a broadcloth suit, white shirt with celluloid collar, and red vest. Shined boots covered his feet.

Stryker rifled Bartlett’s pockets. Nothing.

“Where’s his goods, Choo?”

Choo fetched a small wooden box.

Walt went through this. Empty wallet, turnip watch, insignificant papers.

“Something wrong?” Stryker asked.

“There’s no map.”

Stryker turned on Choo. “Well, Chinaman?”

“Choo no see.”

Stryker grabbed Choo’s left hand and bent the pinkie finger back. A sharp snap brought an agonized scream from the smaller man.

“The map?”

Give Choo credit, he didn’t surrender the map easily. Stryker broke three of Choo’s fingers and a thumb first.

Outside, Stryker and Arnside made their way to the livery stable. The dead drunk hostler was deaf to the sounds of the men saddling their horses.

“We’ll tie the horses behind the jail. I got supplies in there I keep handy,” Stryker said.

Ten minutes later, with a sack of provisions tied to Walt’s saddle, Stryker turned to his new partner and smiled his ugly smile. “No use waiting,” he said. “Time to dissolve the partnership.”

Walt looked at the .44 aimed at his gut. “Knew you’d show your colors, just didn’t expect it so soon. Go ahead and shoot. Wake Roden.”

Stryker held the revolver steady as he slid a Green River knife from a sheath on his belt.

“Reckon this’ll take you out quieter.”

He took a step towards Walt. The leering lawman’s advance stopped when he heard a wet splat. Then he felt what caused it. His knees buckled and a moment later he was face down in the dust.

Walt looked at the marshal’s recumbent form, then beyond it. There stood Lola, a length of lumber in her hands dripping goo.

“Okay, cowboy, let’s ride.”

Walt gathered Stryker’s weapons and mounted up. Lola climbed aboard Stryker’s horse.

“Like you said, lady, let’s ride.”

Part 9 - Richard Prosch

They put some distance then between themselves and Zack Roden’s town, Arnside’s pinto kicking dust across the ashen landscape, Lola on Stryker’s steeldust close behind. Neither spoke until the low lights of Bannon disappeared around a bend and they skirted the sage covered troughs and sharp granite ridges of the Mohawk foothills. Though the night was fair, Arnside was shivering with cold one minute, burning up the next, the bullet wound in his gut ripe and festering. He slowed his horse and Lola reined in close.

“We’ll head for Matlock,” he said, hoping not to show sick, “I have friends there.” Walt turned his ride in the direction of the barren water hole he’d left just before all this began. From Matlock he’d gone to meet the train…

How long ago it now seemed, sharing a drink with Silas Bartlett, a friend from his gambling days in New Orleans, and meeting up with Lola, the girl they both loved then. Weren’t they all dandies, twenty years past: the gambler, the businessman, and the whore. And the lawman Zack Roden, who also loved Lola from afar. And then Walt, always roaming far from home, always after a new game, took up as Marshall in Yuma, and it was Sheriff Zack Roden himself that shook his hand and pinned the star to his shirt, the same Zack Roden who joined the Vigilantes and became nothing more than a hired killer.

The man who had planted in him the hot slug of death. Arnside’s head spun and he started to weave.

“Walt?” Lola’s voice from far away. “Walt? What is it?” A query from the bottom of a canyon; a cry from the deep, black abyss.

When Arsnide woke, he wasn’t in Matlock. “Where? Where are we?” he managed.

“My place,” said Lola.

“Your place? Not Matlock…?” His vision cleared and he saw Lola tying the horses to a hitch. The shack behind was surrounded by moonlit rock and sand.

“You’re sick Walt. You need rest.”

Then black.

When he opened his eyes, they were inside and he was covered in buffalo skins, a nearby lamp burning low and warm. He shook with the fever, determined not to nod off again.

Lola had Bartlet’s map in her hand, or rather, a booklet of folded paper. “It’s part of a journal by Bartlett’s grandfather. It’s about the big boat and the Secret Society that guards it.”

He shook his head, “No big boat…”

“According to this, there is. It’s in the Colorado desert, a dozen miles out of Dos Palmas.”

“A Spanish captain looking for a northwest passage to California,” said a familiar voice from behind. “Lost in temperamental flood waters, he thought he was still in the gulf.”

Arnside saw the gold coin and watch chain first as they caught the light. Silas Bartlett stepped from the dark.

“Scoot, thank God…”

Then he saw Bartlett’s pistol pointed at him, the same little Derringer he’d always carried in New Orleans.

Walt rolled in his blanket, clutched at his holster, found empty air.

“You said it yourself back on the train,” said Bartlett, pulling the trigger. “You never were quick as me.”

Part 10 - Paul Dellinger

The little pistol spat flame. But the bullet, instead of smacking into Walt, drilled a neat little hole into the roof of the shack.

“No!” Lola screamed, as she pushed Bartlett’s arm upward.

Before Bartlett could bring it back down to fire the second barrel, Walt sat up and flung one of the heavy buffalo skins at him. Bartlett staggered back and Walt, ignoring the burning in his stomach, was on him.

With a grunt which reflected both effort and pain, Walt wrested the weapon from his old friend’s hand and promptly sat, or staggered, back down into a sitting position. But he kept the Derringer steady on the gold coin which hung around Bartlett’s middle.

“Saving my bacon is getting to be a habit with you, Lola,” Walt said through gritted teeth to the woman who now stood watching the two of them. “Scoot, you want to tell me why you want me dead, all of a sudden? As a matter of fact, why aren’t you dead yourself?”

Bartlett pushed the odorous hide away distastefully, but his cockiness was gone and seemed to have left him deflated.

“I told you,” he replied sullenly. “Back on the train. You weren’t the first man I asked for help.” He hesitated. “You were insurance.”

“Against Zack Roden double-crossing you? Hell, you should’ve figured that as a given.”

“Yeah, I should have. But I never expected him and his gang to hit that train. I thought they’d wait until it stopped in Bannon, at least. But I had some friends there, and figured I could lose him.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“A slug in the shoulder, as you might remember.”

“I remember. I thought you were dead. That smirk on your face when you were lying there making like a corpse should’ve told me different.”

A trace of that contented look had returned to Bartlett’s face. “I’m a good actor, Straight. You should’ve remembered that.”

“But I saw your burned body in that mortuary back in Bannon...”

“Yeah, burned body. There were some other casualties aboard that train, and at least one body burned beyond recognition. Poor old Henry. He was a good conductor. And what was left of him fit into one of my extra suits of clothing just fine. Choo How, the undertaker, is one of those friends of mine I mentioned. Although he never bargained for three broken fingers and a thumb from your friend, the late marshal.”

“Stryker was no friend of mine,” Walt said.

“Don’t try to fool me, Straight. You and Stryker cost me a good deal more than I paid Choo How originally. I had to pay his doctor bills, too, after what you’d put him through. Loyalty has its limits.”

“That was Stryker, not me. He had the guns. In fact, after he got those papers of yours, he figured he didn’t need me anymore. If it weren’t for Lola here, I’d be lying back in Bannon with a knife in my gizzard.”

“Lola is Zack Roden’s girl!” Bartlett almost shouted. “Don’t you think I can see that you and Roden have joined together in the double-cross?”

Walt’s mouth dropped open, and then he laughed. “So that’s it. You figured I’d partnered up with Roden.”

“You mean you haven’t?” Bartlett said, staring at him.

In reply, Walt turned the Derringer over in his hand and tossed it back to Bartlett. “No, Scoot, I haven’t. But I can see how you might have thought so.”

Bartlett shook his head, hefted the Derringer, and pocketed it. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“You may well be,” Lola spoke up. Both men turned to where she was standing, holding Walt’s pistol covering them both.

Part 11 - Peter Averillo

Silas Bartlett stood there stunned with his mouth gaping wide open.

“What the hell?” he managed to squeeze out, the words strangling in his throat.

The gun in Lola’s hand swung in his direction. A coldness seemed to seep into her honey brown eyes.

“Sit down, Silas,” Lola nodded towards the rickety chair close by his side.

She waited for him to obey before speaking again.

“I don’t trust you, Silas,” she continued. “Never did. But you got one thing right – this is about Walt and me.”

“Don’t include me in,” Walt groaned laying back on the bed.

Lola just smiled: “Like I said this is about you and me.”

“There is no me and you,” Walt spat out. “You made that plain some time back.”

“So I made a mistake,” Lola shrugged. “And you’ve never made any?”

“Plenty,” Walt mumbled.

“Well so did I,” Lola insisted. “The biggest was believing that Zack was the solution to all my problems. He keeps me safe and secure just like I wanted but that’s as far as it goes. We’re just partners in a business. He can’t give me what I really want.”

“And the gold solves all your problems,” Silas snapped as he attempted to rise but sat down again as Lola glared at him.

“No, Silas, this not about the gold,” she snapped.

“If it’s not about the gold - ,” Walt began before choosing to shut his mouth and wait for Lola to say her piece.

“I saved your life, Walt,” Lola reminded him. “I brought you here for a reason. To talk to you. To explain some things to you.”

“Don’t listen to her, Walt,” Silas implored. “She’s in this for herself. Her and Zack Roden, they want my treasure for themselves.”

Lola laughed: “You can believe that if you want to Silas but all the gold I want is lying on that bed.”

“Lola, it’s too late for all that,” Walt groaned, trying to rise up but forced back by the pain in his belly. “’Sides, the way I figure it you’re trying to drive a wedge between me and Silas there. Lull me into thinking that I’d best go with you for the gold.”

“Walt, believe me when I say the gold means nothing to me,” Lola pleaded. “If you don’t believe me all you’ve got to do is burn that damned map.”

The moment that Lola turned her attention to Walt, Silas saw an opportunity to jump her and take the gun away from her. But when she mentioned the idea of burning the map it knocked him back leaving him sitting in stunned silence.

“You serious?” Walt asked, his eyes narrow and watchful.

“Yes,” Lola nodded.

“You can’t,” Silas screamed.

“Certainly not, old chap,” the soft, silky tone of voice had three heads turning towards the open door.

So engrossed in their own problems they had not heard Zack Roden make his entrance nor did they know how long he had been standing there.

“Well, well chaps and chapess,” Zack continued. “It has been a long time since the four of us were last together. Quite the reunion don’t you think?” when no one responded he carried on. “Quite an impressive speach, Lola. Most convincing. Now be a good girl and give Walter the gun. Man looks positively naked without it.” Then, as though it was an afterthought. “Oh, and Walter I don’t think it would be prudent to burn that map. Do you?”

Part 12 - Chuck Tyrell

Walt Arnside sat with his back against the bedstead and his chin on his chest. His eyes half closed, he studied the others in the room.

“Look here,” he said, keeping his voice natural and even. “There’s only four of us, and it ain’t like we don’t know one another. And if Scoot’s old grandpa is right and there’s a treasure galleon somewhere south of the border, then the booty’s not gonna be like holding up some Wells Fargo stage.

Roden watched Arnside closely. If there were anyone in the room to fear, it was Walt Arnside.

Silence filled the room for a long moment.

“Well, what are you getting at, Straight?” Silas Bartlett sounded garrulous.

Maybe he was older than I figured, Arnside thought. Age ain’t always a matter of years.

“I heard a story once,” Arnside said. “An old sailor talking about crossing the Pacific. He said they went ashore on an island called Tano’sasi to fill their water casks. They found gold coins in the coral there. The natives said a large ship struck the reef, ripped its guts out, and sank in deep water outside.”

“So what?” Zack Roden stared out the window.

“If Scoot’s treasure ship is the real thing, there will be more gold and silver there than you could ever hope to count in a lifetime.”

“I’ll say it again, Walter. So what?”

“So there’s more than enough for all of us. Why are we feuding?” Arnside looked from one face to the next. “Shouldn’t we be doing this thing together?” He swiped a hand across his unshaven jaw.

“Look. I was marshal in Yuma for a dozen years,” Arnside said. “I’ve ridden into that corner of hell they call the Yuma Desert, chasing men who thought they could escape Yuma Prison. Some did, but none ever escaped that desert.”

Lola sat with her elbows on the table. She rested her face in her hands, watching Arnside. The years hadn’t been as hard on her as they were on many western women. She still had a spark. A bit of devilment in her eyes. And those eyes held a smile for Walt Arnside.

Silas Bartlett rested on the other cot. His gunshot wound obviously pained him. His breathing was ragged and his face was white.

“You gonna make this, Scoot?” Arnside asked.

“It’s my goldam treasure,” Bartlett rasped. “I’ll goldam see it through.”

Arnside grinned. “Thought you would,” he said.

Roden leaned his chair back against the wall. “Just tell us what you’re driving at,” he said. He waved the cocked Colt Navy in his hand. “If I don’t like what I hear, you’re dead.”

“The map gives a spot in the Yuma Desert,” Arnside said. “It’s a hell of a place. Sand dunes constantly shifting. Wind always blowing. No water. Salt flats that run for miles. Even the lizards climb sticks to keep their feet off the hot sand.”

“So. What?” Roden ground the two words out from between clenched teeth.

“So. I’m the only one who knows the desert. Scoot’s the only one with enough money to outfit us good enough to get through it. You’re holding the ace card; you could kill us all and take your chances. And Lola? Well, Lola’s hanging on.”

Arnside sat up on the bed, ignoring the pain in his gut as best he could. “I say give me and Scoot time enough for our wounds to heal; time enough for Scoot to bankroll us with the right gear; time enough for you, Roden, to go up north to Las Vegas and get us some camels; and time enough for me to plan the ride.”

Part 13 - Jack Giles

“Whoa, there,” Zack Roden frowned. “Who made you boss of this outfit?”

“Why don’t you just do as you’ve been asked?” Lola intervened, moving so that she placed her body between Roden and Walt. “Just take a look at them. Neither Walt nor Silas are in a fit state to run away.”

Roden nodded: “Then I’ll take a little insurance. Just hand over the map Walter and I’ll be on my way.”

Walt shook his head: “What happened to trust, Zack?”

“That was then,” Zack admitted, unable to make eye contact with his old friend. “Time changes things – now I don’t trust anyone.” He lifted his head to look directly at Walt. “This time – I will.” He paused, dramatically. “For old times and the fact that you won’t be going anywhere for a while. But, be warned, you betray my trust – I will hunt you down and kill you.”

...

The days passed into weeks as Walt Arnside healed wounds old and new. When he had become fit enough both he and Lola had sat outside talking over old times to the point that he believed that they had a future together. The more they talked so Walt became convinced that the supposed treasure meant nothing to Lola.

There were times when he could envisage a future where he settled on this tract of land and raised his own herd of cattle. Yet, he knew, that to realise that dream it would take hard cash and that was something that he did not have.

He knew that the answer lay in a share of that gold. All he had to do was convince Lola of his necessity in continuing with the venture.

The only doubt in his mind was Silas who had recovered from his wound. But it had left him aged and ashen skinned. He spent all day sitting by the open grate with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. It was as though the fight had gone out of him.

“Damn hell, how’d I get caught up in all this?” he demanded of the bucket that he was taking towards the pump.

A distant cough had him dropping the bucket as he spun around; his hand reaching for the butt of his pistol. Only to stop and grin at the sight that met his eyes.

Long legged and ungainly the camels looked but it was a sight to behold. It had been many years since he had laid eyes on the beasts and back a few years to the time that he had joined the US Camel Corps. It was a pity that the troop had been disbanded for he had a great love for the gentle creatures. Sure they had a bad side for they spat or bit out at those who did not treat them decently.

The lead camel knelt down close by the corral and Roden looked as though he was about to fall over the long neck. His body tilted at an angle of 45 degrees but the hook of his leg and hold on the saddle pommel kept his balance. With practised ease he dismounted and ambled towards Walt.

“Absolutely marvellous,” Roden grinned by way of greeting. “An experience to savour,"

“You brought company,” Walt observed as he spotted a turbaned head behind one of the camels.
“Oh, Hassan,” Roden replied. “Well, someone has to teach us how to handle those beasts.
Besides he comes strongly recommended by Hi Jolly.”

“What?” Walt gasped, recalling the troop’s lead camel driver, Hadji Ali.

“Didn’t go to Las Vegas, old chap,” Roden said, seriously. “I heard that old Hi Jolly was over in Tucson and I thought it might be better to hear things from the camel’s mouth – as it were. Which was just as well as it turns out. We have a problem – a big problem. There’s a chap called Vic Sawtell hunting camels.”

“Sawtell?” Walt queried. “You sure? The man’s a killer.”

“Exactly,” Roden agreed. “Seems he was waiting for someone in Bannon.”

“Silas,” Walt deduced.

Part 14 - Evan Lewis

Walt Arnside had died and gone to Hell.

Or so it seemed, as the Yuma Desert pitched and rolled like a stormy sea.

What madness had put him astride a camel? True, he’d served in the U.S. Camel Corps, but that was ancient history. Before the war, before the gambling, before the marshaling. He’d been young then, young and stupid. And even then, he’d ridden the beasts only as a lark. The Corps had used them as pack animals, not mounts.

Walt’s clothing was stiff with sweat, his eyes poached, his throat ravaged from breathing sand. He'd forgotten the camels’ least endearing quality: an odor like curdled milk, piss, decayed flesh and pigshit - all rolled into one.

To make matters worse, Zack Roden was clearly enjoying himself. He perched atop the high saddle like a rooster, regaling Lola with tales of his none-too-savory past.

Lola, too, was remarkably at ease. She sat side-saddle on her camel’s hump, lovely legs curled against the beast’s flank. She glowed like a child on her first pony ride.

Walt’s only consolation was that Silas was at least as miserable as he. Having long since lost his breakfast, Silas sagged forward, bracing hands on the camel’s neck.

The handler Hassan rode rings around them all. Scorning a saddle, he’d straddled his mount behind the hump, leaning back with legs outstretched, and fairly flew across the sands.

Walt cursed himself for joining this mad quest. A ship in the desert. A treasure in Spanish doubloons. A Secret Society of guardians. It was the stuff of an opium dream.

Then there were his allies - two men who had once been friends, a woman he’d once loved. All had betrayed him at one time or another, and one was betraying him now - to a human scorpion called Vic Sawtell. But which? The question clogged his throat with bile.

A jolt nearly toppled him from the saddle. The camel, of its own volition, had begun to gallop. The others were running too. Hassan steered his mount between them, barking orders in his strange tongue, but to no avail.

“They smell water!” He shouted. “And will not be denied!”

All the riders could do was hold tight as the camels charged pell-mell across the desert.

The beasts did not slow until they reached a small stream, where they thrust their heads into the water and slurped noisily.

Roden’s face was a mask of fury. Jumping to the ground, he buried the sharp toe of his boot in his mount’s underbelly. The beast squalled, whipping its head about. Flashing teeth bit deep into Roden’s thigh. Roden howled, jerked the Navy Colt from its holster.

Walt leapt headfirst from his saddle, still flying as his fist crashed against Roden’s jaw. Roden’s head snapped full around before his body struck the earth.

Lola squealed, but for whom?

Roden’s camel arched its neck and spat. Its foul-smelling cud smacked against Roden’s cheek, dribbling ooze between his lips. Roden sputtered, shook his head and groped blindly for his gun.

Walt tensed, ready for whatever came. But a sharp cry from Hassan spun his head around.

“Look!” The handler aimed his riding crop toward the West.

Atop a distant ridge, two dark figures sat their horses. Watching.

Walt strode to his camel, drew the Winchester from its scabbard.

Lola clutched his arm. "Who are they?"

Walt levered a shell into the chamber, spat onto the sand.

"Apaches."

Part 15 - Jim Griffin

Arnside gave up the idea of using that rifle when at least twenty more Apaches topped the dunes, surrounding the erstwhile Camel Corps. In the Indians’ midst rode another figure, dark-eyed, with black hair and beard. A flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, with an enormous feather perched jauntily in the band, topped his head. The man’s appearance was almost exactly the same as an engraving of the pirate Jean Lafitte Walt had seen back in New Orleans.

Surrounded by the Indians, he rode his Andalusian stallion up to the apprehensive group.

“Who are you, and what are you doin’ with these Apaches?” Walt demanded.

“I am Esteban Escobar Bourbon. These Apaches are my bodyguards,” he announced, his eyes glittering. “You seek the ship of my great-grandfather. My family has been bound to guard the ship and its secrets for three generations now, against all interlopers. You also shall not succeed where others have failed.”

One of the Apaches separated himself from the rest, approached Arnside, and clubbed him on the side of his head. Walt crumpled to the sand.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

When Arnside came to, he was alone… alone, stripped naked, and staked out, rawhide thongs biting into his wrists and ankles. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, a rawhide strap ran across his hips, holding them firmly in place. He opened his eyes, blinking against the harsh sun.

“At least they didn’t slice off my eyelids,” he murmured. “Reckon they couldn’t find an anthill, neither. Not that it’s much comfort.”

As his vision cleared, Walt realized, to his horror, he wasn’t exactly alone. Silas Bartlett was also there. He’d been skewered through his belly by an Apache’s lance, which held him pinned to a giant cactus, ten yards beyond Arnside’s feet. Bartlett hung there like some macabre scarecrow, his eyes bulging with terror. Arnside’s old partner wouldn’t be coming back to life a second time. Walt’s guts roiled when a zopilote buzzard landed on the lance’s shaft, to pull a chunk of flesh from Bartlett’s face. Others joined it, tearing at the corpse. Bile rose in Arnside’s throat at the scavengers’ ghastly banquet. He forced his eyes shut and lay unmoving. One of the bolder buzzards dropped next to Walt and tore at his ribs. When Walt screamed, the ugly bird flapped away, squawking in protest.

Shortly, the zopilotes had reduced Bartlett’s body to the bones. They remained perched in the cactus, beady eyes watching Arnside with infinite patience.

The sun rose higher, baking Arnside’s flesh. An intense burning between his legs forced him to once again open his eyes. For the first time, he spotted the mirror angled into the cactus just above Bartlett’s skull, a lady’s mirror with an elaborately carved handle and frame. Walt recognized that mirror as belonging to Lola. Rays of sunlight reflected off the mirror, down to a magnifying glass stuck in a mound of sand. The magnifying glass concentrated the beams directly onto Arnside’s groin.

“No Apaches rigged up that contraption,” Arnside moaned. “Hadda be Bourbon’s doin’.”

He writhed in agony. Those rays were frying his balls like Rocky Mountain oysters. When he attempted to shift his groin, he couldn’t move it one inch. Now he understood the reason for the strap over his hips.

With a scream, Arnside tried to pull himself upright, knowing the effort was futile. A sharp pain stabbed into his left breast.

Preoccupied with the buzzards feasting on Silas, and the sun roasting him alive, Arnside hadn’t noticed the thing causing this pain, until now… A Texas Ranger’s badge, its pin driven deep into his skin.

Part 16 - Jack Giles

Walt closed his eyes and lay back. There was a deep throbbing along the right side of his skull. Apache war drums that signalled his demise.

What was the point of trying to escape, anyway? His mind dwelt on the lack of a future. Even if he was free the heat of the desert would still kill him and if that didn't - even if he survived that long - then the deep chill of the desert night would finish the job.

He laughed. A patchy, croak from his parched throat that edged towards insanity.

Just thoughts that invited the vision of a naked man without food and water wandering around in ever decreasing circles until the inevitable end.

Too engrossed in his own problems Walt failed to hear the faint jingle of harness.

When he did open his eyes he found himself looking up into the face of an angel.

"I've died and gone to heaven," Walt sighed.

"You wish," the angel's voice was soft and husky. "Believe me, this is Purgatory."

Pale blue eyes that were almost white held Walt's for a moment. Fine blond hair framed a face that was almost feminine except for the fine bristles that curved over the upper lip and peppered the chin.

The eyes flicked away to glance at the corpse hanging from the cactus. The angel raised a quizzical eyebrow.

"Silas," Walt groaned. "Silas Bartlett."

The angel nodded: "Thought it might be."

He strolled over to inspect the corpse. In doing so he dislodged the mirror but Walt could not be sure if was by accident or design. Whatever, he was grateful for the relief.

Having finished his inspection the angel hunkered down close to Walt's outstretched right arm.

"Where's Roden?" the sharp question made Walt look over the angel's head to where a bunch of riders waited impatiently.

The man who had asked the question looked like the one who had put the lead into Walt's belly.

"I would have thought that was obvious," the angel spoke softly as he pointed in a south westerly direction. "Just follow those tracks, Deuce."

Deuce Harmon, Roden's segundo, stared at the direction indicated before turning his gaze to Walt's prone body.

"He's done for," Deuce stated. "Let's get going."

"You go, Deuce," the angel suggested. "This is as far as I'm going."

"The hell with you, Sawtell," Harmon shouted. "You signed on for the whole shebang."

"Deuce, you just happened to be going in the same direction as me," Sawtell did not move; he just sat there staring down at Walt. "The man who was going to pay me is dead. So no incentive to go any further."

"Leave it, Deuce," one of the other riders suggested.

"Leave it, hell," Deuce sneered.

Walt could only lie and watch and even then could not believe what he had witnessed.

It was like watching a rattlesnake uncurl and strike. That was the speed with which Sawtell moved. A fluid action that saw man and gun as one, the single shot crashing out to leave Deuce Harmon dead in the sand.

Harmon had no chance to draw his gun when his life was plucked away. Nor were any of the others prepared to exact vengeance as, to a man, they rode out into the desert to follow the tracks that would lead them into the arid wastes of the salt flats.

And Sawtell just sat there as though he had not moved.

"Well," Sawtell smiled. "I suppose I had better go."

"Not interested in the gold?" Walt blurted out, fearing that Sawtell would leave him to die.

"Fool's gold," Sawtell shrugged. "The deserts are full of myths and legends. Spanish galleons and fabulous cities. Fool's gold, friend."

"Silas had a map," Walt insisted.

"Of course, he did," Sawtell laughed. "And how many lives has the desert claimed of idiots that had maps that promise nothing?" as he spoke he drew a long bladed knife from a boot sheath. "If I were you I would give up and go home."

"I don't think that's possible, right now," Walt growled.

"This is true," Sawtell laughed, leaning forward to cut Walt's right hand free.

"Now you have an option."

Sawtell straightened and began to walk away.

"Hey, what about the rest?" Walt shouted at the retreating back.

Sawtell paused only to glance over his shoulder: "Gave you a fighting chance, friend. You have a free hand."

2 comments:

Laurie Powers said...

Thank you SO much for putting this all together Ian. Although it's fun to visit different blogs, for me who is never caught up, having it all in one place is very convenient.

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