THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR PILLS… Short Story
Long before Old John Halloran opened up his Saloon and Pool Hall in Dogbite with the added attraction of the ladies upstairs, Halloran had been a fair country doctor who quit his practice to go hunting gold in California. He was years too late and he did not find any gold worth a damn but he did find that his knowledge as a practitioner of medicine stood him in high demand in a vast country where doctors were still few and far between and those that were in practice were usually horse doctors who tended humans on the side which was ok if you had bloat or saddle sores. John Halloran’s reputation was greatly admired and folk with any kind of an ailment travelled far and wide to be treated by the good doctor and his services were paid for with the goods of their particular trade if paper money or silver coin were not available. Cattle were common, sheep, horses and produce of all kinds and when none of the former was available well, then there was gold dust. And with the gold dust tucked away in a San Fernando bank Halloran upped stakes and moved to Dogbite in Wyoming telling his Californian friends, with a smile, that he had found ‘gold in them thar pills’ and he was taking his share back to the state of his birth.
Halloran opened up his saloon and bought out the local livery stable, general store and opened his own bank. He was a kindly, fair man, popular with the locals but he never let on that he was a sawbones by profession and was happy with his lot, happy that is until one spring morning he became, possibly, the last person ever to remove a Cheyenne war arrow from a white man’s backside.
Henry Lee found the cave at about four in the early spring afternoon of a Friday, the last Friday before he and his partner Dan Crow were due to close down the cabin and head back to the Rocking W’s headquarters. The pair were in the last week of their winter stint at the Rocking W’s northern line shack. It had been a pleasant enough winter; the fences had held the drifts and very few steers were lost to the cold days and nights of bitter weather inevitable in the shadow of the mountains that were such a magnificent part of the Wyoming landscape. There had been very little friction between the two men, the tobacco had lasted, the food had been good with plenty of fresh meat from shot game and the winnings, in their seemingly endless matchstick poker games, had evened out nicely to Crow owing Lee a mere four dollars. They were happy with their cowboying lot, happy that is until Lee found the cave.
Lee stumbled upon the cave by accident whilst following the bloody tracks of a beef that had possibly, according to the sign, been mauled by a big cat. Although not common in Wyoming, cougars were seen from time to time and given a short trial by ranchers and cowhands alike. He had found the dead animal and more cougar sign but not much to tell him where the cat had gone. By the spore left behind though, it looked like a big animal and Lee felt duty bound to track it down and, reluctantly, kill it. He pulled his Marlin lever action from the saddle boot and dismounted, tied off his pony and circled the clearing for sign. A trace here, a trace there and he was moving north towards the rimrock not too far to the west of where Butch and Sundance had ridden forth at the head their Hole in the Wall Gang of assorted outlaws if the stories were to be believed.
Dan Crow awoke about midday on the Friday that Henry Lee went looking for the big cat and found the rimrock cave. Crow had been out most of the night and Lee had spelled him just before dawn and taken over the last check of the fence agreeing that Crow should get some shuteye and then square away the cabin so they could quit the place the following morning which was Saturday and head back to the main ranch, get there in time for supper and then head out for Dogbite, a bath, maybe a haircut, certainly a drink and again, possibly, a visit to a couple of Halloran’s girls. All ablutions and delights were dependent upon the ranch foreman being able to give them some kind of advance on the three months’ pay due to them for spending the winter in back of nowhere. The only problem with their plan, as far as Crow could see, was why the hell hadn’t Lee got back from the fence seeing as it was getting late into the afternoon. Still, he wasn’t too concerned and was happy with the way the day had gone, happy that is until he decided to look for Lee and hurry him along.
The cave had stumbled upon was dank, the entrance almost hidden by brush and a small rock fall. Lee paused at the entrance wondering if the cat had gone inside or was somewhere close by watching him. He worked the lever of the Marlin chambering a round and lowered the hammer to half cock. He thought he could smell snake but no cat or bear. He cleared the entrance and found the cave to be larger than he had expected, he did not even have to stoop to enter. The sun was behind him and the interior shadowed but clearly visible. A large candle sat atop a flat rock in the centre of the cleared floor, its sides ridged with dribbled grey wax from a long-ago flame. Lee fished a blue top from his vest pocket, fired it and lit the blackened wick. He cast a quick look around but saw no sign of the cat or any other wildlife. Relaxing he set the carbine against the altar-like rock, picked up the candle and surveyed the room. His shadow bent up the wall and across the ceiling as he moved from one side of the cave to the other. Indian, possibly Lakota Sioux but, most likely, Arapaho, part of the crowd that whipped Custer on the Greasy Grass River back in the day. Earthenware jars, tin plates, a US Cavalry canteen, some deer hides, a dusty blanket, a rusted hunting knife, mostly domestic implements you could expect to find in an old rock dwelling place. The fire pit was close by the entrance, a circle of blackened round rocks and fifty-year old, cold grey ash. The candle flickered and something in the furthest corner caught Lee’s roaming eye, a bundle of some kind. He moved closer and found it to be a neatly rolled deerskin, tied tightly with rawhide thongs. Curious, he set the candle down and examined the roll. It was near airtight. A medicine bundle, the rawhide knots were rigid. He took out his folding knife and cut them through before carefully laying out the skin on the dusty floor and unrolling it. ‘Jesus,’ Lee muttered in awe, ‘you are one lucky cowboy. A hundred bucks from anywhere. A real goddamned Native American artefact and all yours.’
It was a bow, a beautiful three-foot bow, maybe ash or Hickory Lee could not be certain, and set beside the bow a leather quiver of four eagle feathered dogwood arrows with the markings clear on their shafts. Both bow and arrows looked as fresh as the last time they had seen the light of day maybe forty years before the cougar had killed the Rocking W steer. He strung the bow and tested the pull. Excellent, still supple, a rare discovery. Lee was very happy with his find, happy that is until he heard the cougar spitting at the cave entrance.
Crow pushed his pony up the slope and found the carcass of the dead steer and watched as a pair of wolves slunk back into the brush at his approach. He knew he should have at least tried to shoot them but he had a fondness for the grey animals not widely shared by other cowhands. The tracks of Lee, his pony and a cougar were clearly defined and he did not dismount but skirted the dead animal and followed his partner’s tracks further up the slope toward the rimrock. When he found Lee’s ground-hitched horse he swung down and tied off his own mount watching amused as the two animals appeared to greet each other with soft vaporised snorts through cold expanded nostrils. He released the hammer loop from his sidearm and slowly climbed the hill. Crow was a happy man filled with Saturday night fever, happy that is until the Cheyenne war arrow flashed out of nowhere and impaled itself in his backside.
Henry reached for the Marlin and moved to the entrance. It was a big cat, a very big cat and it showed no fear in its yellow eyes as it stared at the man. Lee was good with a rifle, very fast, in a split second the gun was shouldered the hammer fully cocked, the bead drawn, the trigger squeezed and the gun silent. A misfire. He worked the lever but it only moved an inch or so as the ejector jammed on the faulty round. The cat moved toward him. Lee stepped back into the cave picked up the bow notched an arrow, pulled and released with one motion. The shaft zipped past the head of the cat with a whining hiss, the startled animal leapt over the rocks to its right and vanished. And Lee was happy, happy that is until he heard the horrendous yell form the rocks below.
It took four hours to get back to the Rocking W then, skirting the ranch, and heading straight for Dogbite had taken another half hour. It would have been a painful journey for any man with an arrow in him but for a man with an arrow in his backside trying to ride a horse it was doubly painful. Lee had broken the shaft about an inch from where it had entered Crow’s flesh. ‘I can’t go any closer, Dan, you need to see a doc real bad.’
Crow said nothing. He hadn’t spoken a single word since the scream following the arrow whipping out of the rocks and imbedding itself in his backside as he had turned to look back down the slope in case the cougar was following him instead of him following the cougar. He had heard stories of just such a happening.
‘I am a hell of a sorry, Crow,’ Lee babbled, cougar was there, bow was there and the Marlin jammed on a faulty shell…’ There was a pleading in Lee’s voice. ‘All I could think to do was shoot the critter with the bow and I never shot one before, not ever. Just seen them fired, I’ve never touched one before, but that cat was there and looking meaner than hell, big yellow eyes all over me and I had no idea you were there and even if’n I had known you were down there I would still probably have tried. A chance in a million I would hit you, especially hit you in the ass. Crow, old buddy, I am so sorry. Forget the five bucks you owe me. Damned bow, it was just…’
A white-faced Crow, on the lead horse, turned painfully and stared at his companion, speaking through gritted teeth and very tight lips. ‘Lee, will you please just shut up with your babbling, please, just shut the fuck up and ride on ahead to Dogbite, send someone to Bailey for the doc and let me ride on down there easy in the God given peace and quiet I do so deserve before I die or pass out. Will you just do that me, Henry, and please do not say another goddamned word?’
John Halloran was a very tired man, it had been a long Friday and it would be an even longer
Saturday. But the Friday got even longer when a breathless Henry Lee galloped into town, dismounted his winded horse at a run and burst in through the swing doors of the near empty saloon yelling for someone to ride to Bailey for the doc, fast, as his pony was plumb run out.
Halloran looked up from his half-finished mug of black coffee, startled by the wild-eyed appearance of the usually quiet old cowhand. ‘What’s the trouble, Henry, you look done in, you hurting?’
‘No, Sir,’ Lee gasped, ‘not me, it’s Henry Lee, he’s been shot in the ass with an Arapaho arrow…’
‘Ease down there, Crow, how do you know it was an Arapaho arrow?’ Asked Halloran calmly.
‘What the hell does it matter what kind of arrow it was, Mister Halloran, man needs a sawbones and pronto.’
Halloran continued in his calming voice, ‘Not a great deal I suppose but it was more likely Cheyenne or Shoshone in this part of the country, most likely to be Northern Cheyenne though I would guess.’
Lee said, ‘he’s hurting real bad.’
‘When he gets here, lay him out on the covered pool table and I’ll get my bag and tend to him,’ Halloran said, his voice calm, gentle, then slowly relighting his cigar.
‘No offence, Mister Halloran, but what do you know about doctoring?’
‘Apparently a little more than you do about Indian arrows,’ said Halloran, moving away and calling over his shoulder, ‘How did it happen?’
‘Long story,’ muttered Lee softly, ‘long story.’
‘You done a fine job there, Mister Halloran,’ Lee said, quietly, ‘a real doc couldn’t have done none better.’ Halloran looked down at the stitched up and wound-dressed naked buttocks of the deeply sleeping, laudanum dosed, Dan Crow. He had done a fine job right enough, a three-dollar job at that. Maybe it was time to add a doctor’s shingle to his other Dogbite enterprises, it was a sure and certain fact that all the time there were folk like Dan Crow and Henry Lee around there would still be gold in them thar pills.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith April 2018
Chris Adam Smith, aka Harry Jay Thorn, is a lifelong western enthusiast. Ex movie magazine publisher, merchant sailor, military policeman and past member of the Western Writers of America, he has penned 15 novels and many short stories under both names. Now semi-retired, he lives in Sussex and spends most of his time writing westerns and a semi humorous column for the local newspaper under the name of Whispering Smith.