Bloody Merchants War

Chapter 1


They came from the Capitans, a gaunt, sweat-streaked sorrel mare and her grimy rider. Topping a low ridge, the man gave the mare her head.

Without pausing, the horse plunged down the rock-strewn foreslope, squatting on her haunches like a dog sitting on a porch stoop, sliding amid a cloud of pea gravel and dust until she leveled out above a sandstone bluff. The rider checked her there and sat staring at a sluggish stream and the scattering of buildings shimmering through heat waves beyond.

The mare was so fine-lined that few owners would've ridden her into such an unforgiving land as the desert at their backs. The man straddled a hand-tooled Visalia saddle that, from its weathered appearance, had seen misuse.

The man's clothing was also badly worn: a faded blue-cotton shirt ripped at an elbow, patched canvas trousers, a high-crowned hat so battered and dusty its original shape and color were hardly decipherable. Worn, moccasin-style boots completed the ensemble.

Like the once expensive California-style saddle and the well-bred mare, a lined face beneath the hat's floppy brim hardly squared with the raven hair of youth. Nor did the eyes: startling gray, set deep in a face shaded darker than the well-oiled leather holster hanging midway down his thigh. The rider unconsciously slapped dust from that holster, then wiped the darkened walnut buttplates of a polished and oiled Colt revolver until the worn grip reflected a late afternoon sun.

A bead of sweat trickled from the hatband and coursed down his grimy face as the man slid a scarred Winchester carbine from its scabbard and checked the action and magazine with a twist of his wrist. Satisfied, he slapped the lever shut, then thrust the rifle back beneath his leg, clucking to the mare, reining her to a break in the bluff and down to the water flowing between hill and hamlet.

A chicken squawked and a dog barked from farther upriver as the mare quenched her thirst. When she lifted her head, the man clucked and pointed her up the far bank to the row of adobe houses beyond.

Two vaqueros leaned against a building on the left, staring vacantly at the newcomer. A hand-lettered sign over their heads read:


Above a door on the building's far end was another hand-lettered sign:


No music or laughter drifted from within.

Back from Montano's store stood a larger one-story stone building. Above its double doors hung a better-crafted sign:


A new building with a fresh-painted sign proclaiming J.H. Tunstall & Co. stood on the right. A large corral half-circled the building at its rear. Both store and corral were constructed of adobe. A white-haired gnome of a man, his skin wrinkled and dark as a shriveled prune, tilted a rickety chair against the store's porch wall. The rider acknowledged the old man's fluttering wave by inclining his head.

Beyond Tunstall's store was a sprawling whitewashed home, encircled by a picket fence. A scattering of smaller adobes squatted beyond, blending with the beaten earth of the road.

The man reined in at the last building, dismounted and using his shapeless hat, slapped dust from his trousers. Inside, the newcomer paused until his eyes adjusted to the cave-like gloom of a one-story hotel, then poked a tiny desktop bell. A calendar advertising barbed wire hung from a wall. Each day was crossed off until this one: Sunday, August 6, 1877.

"Yeah?" Only a fringe of white tufted over the ears of a ferret-faced little man who shuffled into the lobby, wiping his hands on a flour-sack apron.

"I need hay for my horse. And oats, too, if you got any."

"This ain't no stable. It's a hotel. Only horses we put up are ones belonging to people what stays here. You try Murphy's store, 'cross the street. They put up drifters' horses provided they got money."

"I want a room, too."

Ferret face frowned. "You got any money?"

The newcomer nodded.

"Well, let's see it. Four bits for the room, two bits for the horse, a nickel for oats. I ain't movin' nowhere 'til I see you got that much."

A silver dollar flipped through the air and a toothless smile fractured the vertical lines of the old man's face. "Put your hoss in the stable, boy. I'll make change."

"Poured you coffee there on the table," ferret face said as his newest boarder returned through the rear door. "Case I didn't tell you, meals is extra. Two bits apiece and you got to be here on time to get 'em."

"And when's that?"

"Comes at seven, mornin' and evenin'."

"Seven would be near sundown this time of year, wouldn't it?"

The old man paused from rolling bread dough. "You may be trainable, after all."

The stranger sipped his coffee. "You Wortley?"

"That's the name o' this hotel, boy. You need to know more?"

The stranger shook his head, then asked, "Where's my change?"

"Out on the desk, by the register. Don't forget to sign in, hear? If you can't write, mark an X and tell me your name."

Even white teeth flashed in the bronzed face, then faded. "A bath--how much?"

Ferret face's nose wrinkled. "You need one, that's sure. Be a dime. And you'll have to wait 'til I heat the water."

"Fair enough. I'll leave the dime by the register. How long will it take to heat the water?"

"Hour, more or less. I'll call you."

The stranger started on, then paused to ask: "Stores don't close on Sundays in this town?"

"Murphy's, across the street, don't. Reckon Tunstall's won't neither if they figger to run Murphy's out of business. Them's the only two that counts. Rest of 'em are Mex. Them two's the only ones white folk ..." The old man's voice trailed off and the pale face reddened. "You're white, ain'tcha? Them eyes look it."

The stranger ignored him. "You said Murphy's, across the street. Sign says J.J. Dolan & Co."

"Was," ferret face said. "Was Murphy's until a couple of months ago. Still is, you ask me. Murphy, him and Dolan, they run this county."

The gray eyes flicked to the open door. "If Murphy and Dolan run things in this county, how is it Tunstall's is going to put 'em out of business?"

Ferret face worked furiously at his bread dough. "Your room's second on the left, down the hall. No key. Remember, you can't write, mark the register with an X."

Jethro Spring picked up his change and a quill pen. After dipping it into the ink jar, he turned the register to face him, then swiftly wrote Jack Winter, Laramie, Wyoming. Seconds after he walked out into the brilliant sunshine to cross Lincoln's single street, the hotel's proprietor spun the register around to read.

"Quien es?"

Wandering slowly along an aisle of garden implements at J.J. Dolan & Co., the newcomer appeared not to hear the clerk's question.

Behind, another deeper voice said, "Follow him, Bill. Them damned Mexes will steal us blind, we don't watch."

"Quien es?"

Still ignoring the clerk, Jethro Spring moved to shelves jammed with pots, pans, kettles, crocks. Idly, he ambled up one aisle, down another, followed by the Dolan & Company clerk.

"Goddamn it, Mex, you buyin' or ain'tcha?"

The newcomer paused at a shelf heaped with denim trousers, pawed through them until he found the right size, jerked out a pair, looked at the price, then replaced them.

"Shit," said the clerk. Then, "You speak English?"

"Sometimes," Jethro replied, shuffling through a pile of blue cotton shirts. "Most of the time, in fact, when I'm addressed civilly."

"I'll be damned. You Injun?" The question hung there. "Well, dammit, you buying, or ain't you?"

"Prices seem a little high." Jethro threw the folded shirt back on its stack. "Fifty cents for a bottle of saleratus, seventy-five for a pound of green coffee, fifty cents a pound for loaf sugar? Makes a fellow want to check out the other stores."

"Okay, mestizo. That does it--out! Get out!"

A tall, ruddy-faced man with a full, sandy-colored moustache stood near the door as Jethro Spring, followed closely by the clerk, ambled to the exit. "Found nothing you wanted?" he asked.

"Your prices are a little high, Mr. Dolan. Leastways they seem that way to me. But that's not why I'm not buying, for I surely do need some new pants and shirt and maybe a hat."

"My name is Riley," the tall man said, smiling affably. "John Riley. And why is it you're not buying here?"

"Normally if a man is going to pay these kinds of prices, he'd prefer not being insulted while doing it."

"Damn you ..."

John Riley knocked away his clerk's hand just before it reached Jethro's shoulder. "If an apology is in order, I'll offer one. I'm sure Mr. Burns meant nothing."

Jethro nodded, then pushed out the door. As he did, John Riley murmured to his angry clerk, "No, Bill, there's no profit in it."

The ancient Mexican, sombrero at his side, still tilted in his chair, just as he had when Jethro rode into town. "Buenos tardes, senor. A wonderful day, no?"

"It sure is, pardner," said the newcomer as he entered J.H. Tunstall & Company's store.

A clerk peered over his spectacles. "What can I do for you today, sir?

"Looking for a shirt and pants. These I'm wearing is near tuckered."

"Follow me and I'll show you what we have."

* * *

Jethro Spring slid out a chair at a boarding house table heaped with an assortment of food. A stocky, mustachioed man across the table asked without looking up, "You Winter?"

"News travels fast."

"My business." The stocky man pulled back a shirtpocket flap to expose the star. "I'm sheriff here. Name's Brady. You travelin' through?"

Jethro shrugged and reached for a bowl of boiled potatoes.

"I like a quiet peaceful town," Brady said.

The stranger's gray eyes met those of the sheriff. "Me too."

Two Negro soldiers came in from outside, both still chuckling from some private joke. There was no expression on Jethro Spring's bronze face, but he tensed. The soldiers pulled out chairs on his right.

A fort, he thought. They've got to be stationed around here! He willed himself to relax, then said to the nearest soldier, "I'd like a touch of that gravy if it'd not be

too much trouble."

The ferret-faced man shuffled in from the kitchen. "All right, you what ain't paid, shell out."

Groans met the hotel-keeper's dun, but the bronzed man heard none of it. Is there anyone at that fort who might know me--know I killed an officer? Jethro Spring snapped to the present as one of the soldiers chuckled, "That Mist' Wortley, he sho' don' miss no tricks."

Later, Jethro Spring strode outside to breath deeply of the night air, drinking in its clean sweetness, marveling at the difference between its evening essence and the hot, dusty, daytime air of this high desert country. He stretched hugely, the starched newness of his shirt scratching his neck and shoulders and elbows. Beside him, one of the soldiers said, "Bes' time of the day."

Jethro nodded into the darkness, murmuring, "It is that." Then the sound of laughter and murmur of voices drew him inside.

Sam Wortley drifted down the length of the rough plank bar. "What'll it be, Winter?"

"Your beer as hot as your tank water, old man?"

"Could be. That what you want?"

Jethro shrugged. "Bring it on."

"Cost you a nickel." Wortley drew the beer.

"See you found clothes--I trust at prices better than ours?"

Jethro turned to see John Riley smiling down at him. "They were better."

"I must apologize for my clerk, Mr.--Winter, isn't it?"

"I should have hung the name outside so everybody could take a look."

"It's a small town, Mr. Winter. Besides, one should not be ashamed of one's own name."

Jethro turned back to his beer.

"What brings you to Lincoln, Mr. Winter?"

"People here ask a lot of questions, but nobody answers any. Why's that?"

"I really couldn't say. Do you wish to ask me a question?"

Jethro shook his head, then said, "Yeah, maybe. Sign over your store says Dolan and Company. You said you're Riley. Yet your clerk called you `Boss' and everybody calls your place `Murphy's store'. I don't follow."

Riley grinned. "Easy enough. Major Murphy started the store, retired and sold it to Mr. Dolan and me. I'm the `company' part of Dolan and Company."

Jethro pondered, grimacing as he took a swallow of tepid beer. Riley continued: "Murphy's is far and away the largest trading company between the Texas border and the Rio Grande Valley. Actually, the largest this side of Santa Fe. We're understandably proud of that fact."

Jethro nodded, drained his beer and set the mug down. As he slipped from his stool, Riley asked, "Will you be in Lincoln long, Mr. Winter?"

"A wandering man, Mr. Riley--he seldom knows where he'll be, one day to the next."

Riley pointed at Jethro's low-slung revolver. "Do you know how to use that, young man?"

"Could be. I'm not real sure myself. But I suspect we'll both be better off if neither of us finds out." Jethro turned away, then spun back. "It's not for sale, if that's what you mean."

Amusement glinted in John Riley's eyes, then Jethro Spring was gone.

Later, as Jethro tugged off his moccasin-soled boots and lay fully clothed upon a sagging, squeaking bed, his revolver's handle prodded his side. He saw its discomfort as a grim reminder of the day when he'd not had the Colt close to hand; a day his Chinese laborers were swept up and massacred in a senseless riot along a distant railroad right-of-way.

Roland Cheek Country


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