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Authors: Gary D. Svee

Showdown at Buffalo Jump

BOOK: Showdown at Buffalo Jump
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Showdown at Buffalo Jump

Gary D. Svee

1

Max Bass stood on the boardwalk, stiff as the starched shirt he wore. His shirt was scratchy, hot, and too tight around the collar, not that a man could breathe in this abominable heat, anyway. But worse, the shirt was a lie, part of a costume Max was wearing to make a lie more believable—to make himself a more believable liar.

Damn shirt!

Max felt like a forgotten soldier on a drill field standing at attention, waiting for someone to tell him “at ease.” But no one did, so he stood uneasy, shoulders squared and a wilted bouquet of prairie flowers held across his chest in a liar's salute.

Only his eyes moved, mostly to the southeast, watching for the puff of dust that would indicate the stage was coming from Ingomar. She would be coming that way: train from Boston to Montana and then stagecoach from Ingomar to Prairie Rose.

Max ran a finger between the stiff collar and his neck. If he were a sweating man, he'd be drenched now, but Montana summers had dried the sweat out of him long ago.

Damn heat!

A little breeze would give a man some relief, but there was none, not even a flicker among the leaves of the cottonwoods that lined the creek on the edge of town. Still Max knew it wasn't the heat that was preying on his mind: It was waiting for his bride-to-be, a woman he had not yet met.

Damn shirt!

He should have worn his usual gear, a rough pair of pants and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. This stiff collar was a lie, just like the lie he had put in the Boston newspaper:

Montana rancher and coal mine owner seeking younger woman with matrimony object of intentions. Interested parties may write Max Bass, General Delivery, Prairie Rose, Montana
.

Max wasn't accustomed to lying. But he had lied to Catherine O'Dowd because she wouldn't have come if he had told her the truth. Likely no woman would have, no woman Max would want anyway.

The lie ran on long after Miss O'Dowd and a dozen other women had answered his advertisement. Max studied each of the letters for hours, seeking clues to the writer's character.

His neighbor, Edna Lenington, had told him not to take too much stock in the pictures. Photographs are only as honest as the light and the photographer allow them to be. Still, Max had huddled for hours in the light of a kerosene lantern studying them.

No question that Catherine was pretty bone deep, not like some of the others. Max could tell the difference between a well-boned horse and a kid's pony all decked out with tassels and silver rigging. He would recognize her all right when she stepped off the stage.

Max ran a finger around his collar again. This thing would probably choke him before the stage arrived. Miss Catherine O'Dowd would pull into town looking for her husband and find him dead and flyblown on the boardwalk. Most likely, none of his friends would recognize him dressed as he was. They'd just let him lie there in the sun while the flies crawled across his eyes.

Max's mind skipped like a dust mote in the sun, settling for a moment on a glass of beer. Sure would hit the spot. Cold it would be from ice cut and stored last winter, and foamy, too. Max's mouth would have watered if there had been any juice left in him, but there wasn't, so he just stood there, a little more parched than before.

A yellow jacket buzzed up through the ovenlike air and settled on the drooping flowers. Max shook the bouquet, and the few remaining petals fell off and spun their way to his feet. Couldn't count on anything lasting in this country. Max offered the bouquet to his horse, but she turned up her nose and edged away.

Damn horse!

Probably was time for that beer. Even if the stage had edged over the horizon, there would still be plenty of time for a beer before it reached town, and there wasn't any sign of it, at all.

Max sighed, dropped the spent bouquet into the dust of the September street, and walked across to Millard's Saloon. It was cold inside compared to the heat outside, and dark. He paused a moment inside the front door, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

Wasn't much of a crowd. Few people could afford to spend an afternoon in the saloon. Doc Halvorson was there and Jimmy Pierce, a farmer from out on the Lone Pine. Swamper Smitty was sitting at
his
table, but he was there all the time, his absence more likely to be noticed than his presence.

Max sat down at the bar beside Jimmy, who nodded before returning his attention to the town's new weekly newspaper.

Jake Thomsen—bartender, bouncer, owner, and if he got in his cups, tenor—loomed in front of Max. Jake reminded Max of nothing so much as a bucket stuck on a whiskey keg. His head swelled into a neck that would never know a buttoned collar and continued down massive shoulders to a truly monumental stomach. A pair of bandy legs moved that mass around with amazing grace. Thomsen had bought Millard's from the original owner, Millard Smith, a haberdasher from Pennsylvania who came west with the homesteaders to make his fortune. Millard quickly saw that saloons were the only sure-fire business in Montana, and he built this one. But the less than robust Pennsylvanian had not reckoned with the rowdiness of the cowboys and homesteaders who frequented the place. It wasn't long before Millard was owner in name only. The bar opened when the first cowhand decided it should, and closed when the last drunk passed out. When the cowboys ran out of money, they demanded drinks on the house. Millard sold the establishment to Thomsen for a song and fled the prairie for another haberdashery in San Francisco.

Thomsen made it through his first day on the job without any trouble. His imposing size did wonders to quench the fighting spirits of the town rowdies. But that night, Big George Miller came in and ordered a beer on the house. Max had been sitting on the same stool and had seen the whole thing. Thomsen told Big George, nice and quiet like, that if he wanted a free drink, he should go to a wake, not a bar. George growled once and swung. He was a rib-breaking body puncher, and he hit Thomsen about five times with big roundhouse swings, but Thomsen didn't move. George eased up then until the punches were little more than slaps. Then he stopped and looked into Thomsen's eyes for the first time. Thomsen was grinning, and George knew he had made a big mistake. Max would never forget that moment. Big George started to cry, bawling like a baby. “Aw gawd, Jake, I'm sorry,” he said. “I didn't mean nothing.” Some of George's friends led him off, not a mark on anything but his pride.

From that night on, everyone knew Jake Thomsen was in charge at Millard's. Occasionally, somebody needed a refresher course, but never more than one.

The back bar was big, hand-carved mahogany, sporting a mirror. On more than one night Max had wished the mirror was elsewhere so he wouldn't have to watch his own foolishness. Now he could see nothing but Thomsen's white apron sprawled across his chest and belly like a Persian rug on a living room floor.

“Max,” Thomsen said, extending a hand that seemed almost ladylike in comparison with the rest of him. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks, Jake. She'll be in on the eleven fifteen.”

Thomsen pulled an ornate hunting-cover watch from the expanse beneath his apron. “One thirty-seven. The eleven fifteen is right on time.”

Both men chuckled.

“Beer?” Thomsen asked.

“Yeah.”

Thomsen drew the beer from a keg beneath the bar, putting a one-inch head on it as he always did. “Nervous?”

“Why should I be nervous? When the stage comes in, I'm going to march down to the Patchuck house and marry a woman I've never met. Nervous? No, I'm not nervous.”

Thomsen chuckled again.

“I'd be there if I could, you know.”

“I know.”

Max shifted his weight on the bar stool, easing the hitch he sometimes felt where he had broken his leg on the Big Dry. Then as though preparing himself for a religious mystery, Max tentatively took the handle of the beer mug. Cool it was, and smooth and wet. He raised the mug to his forehead and held it there until his head began to ache.

Max moved the mug to his lips. No! It wouldn't do to meet his wife with the smell of beer on his breath. No sense starting off on the wrong foot.

He slid the beer down to Pierce. The farmer looked up, nodded at Max, and then went back to the paper.

“How about a glass of water?”

“Sure,” Max said with a grin.

“You want a shot of whiskey for a chaser?”

Max chuckled. “No, believe I'll take it straight.” Then dropping a nickel on the bar, “Give Swamper a drink for me.”

“I'll do that, but your money is no good here today. Bring the missus over after the wedding. I'll step out so she doesn't have to come in here, but I've got something for the two of you.”

“I'll do that.”

Max flipped the nickel several times, seeing how many times in a row he could make it come up heads. Then he fidgeted on the stool until Jake wandered back.

“Maybe you better go out and check on the stage.”

“Yeah, maybe I better.”

Max climbed down and stepped toward the door, a little more hastily than was his habit.

Outside, the sun hit him like a hammer. He took a short breath, holding it as he dived into the heat. As he walked across the street, a puff of dust rose into the still air each time his boots hit the ground.

The mare lifted her head to nicker as Max drew near but apparently thought better of it, and her head sagged again in the heat.

Max leaned against the hitching rack, assuming his watch over the southeastern horizon. Maybe the stage wouldn't come in today; maybe it broke a wheel or a horse went lame or the driver was too drunk to make the trip. Max would have had a hard time explaining why these thoughts gave him so much relief, but they did.

His eyes went to the horizon again. It would be tough to pick a moving stage out of the heat waves shimmering there.

And just as he was thinking that, the stage did appear, larger than life, writhing through the heat waves like a snake. There was no sound, no curses from the driver, no drumming of the horses' hooves, no creak of leather.

Maybe it was a mirage. The prairie wasn't above playing games with a man's mind.

But it was the stage all right. As it neared, he could hear Charlie Daniels cussing the horse's, a steady stream of verbal abuse that would make any man or beast run for cover.

“Max?” Edna Lenington said. She was standing next to Max on the boardwalk staring up at him. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't heard her come up. “Max, you've got to be going now. You can't be here when she comes in.”

He looked at Edna in amazement. Now that his fiancée was here, he couldn't even meet her?

“Max, she'll be dusty and dirty and tired from the trip. You go over to Millard's. I'll meet the girl and take her up to the Patchucks'. Zeb's there with the kids. I'll send him down. He wants to buy you a beer before the wedding, anyway.”

She started to shoo Max off and then hesitated. “Just one beer. Don't you two get silly, now. Git! The stage is almost here.”

Max scuttled across the street, feeling great relief that the meeting had been postponed and great anticipation of how that first beer would taste.

No sense waiting for Zeb. He could catch up when he got there.

2

Anger had been building in Catherine O'Dowd since the stage left Ingomar.

The driver, a foul-smelling lout whose gray beard was streaked brown at the corners by a constant dribble of tobacco juice, had managed to hit every bone-jolting bump and rut in the road. That was no mean accomplishment. There was more rut than road, and both were hidden in a blanket of dust thick as a feather comforter.

The driver drove as though he were pursued by the hounds of hell, laying the whip and an unending lexicon of foul language on the horses' rumps, the stage careening crazily across the track.

And behind the stage, a plume of dust spun into the air like smoke from a burning earth, inflamed by steel-rimmed wheels and horses' hooves. Dust filtered through the curtained windows of the stage, hanging almost motionless.

BOOK: Showdown at Buffalo Jump
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