Summary: Cody Burgess, continues to investigate the disappearance of the missing cattle, but seems to find more questions than answers.
Author’s Note: This began as my 2006 Nanowrimo Novel.
On the slim chance that Prentice might just be right and Princess Cloudfeather had been pulling their legs, Cody figured on stopping in at Prowess Copse and shaking Deadeye Brody until Cody was good and sure he and his weren’t a party to the missing cattle. The numbers the irate ranchers had given were likely bloated up a bit- they always did get to blowing hard at each other when they got together, bragging about headcounts, but even figuring that in, it were too many for Cody to leave it be.
Deadeye Brody, much as you might expect, couldn’t shoot worth a darn, which had been a complication when it came to his former trade- that of being Cody’s deputy. His situation hadn’t been helped by his general laziness and greed. Cody himself wasn’t one to quarrel with a man who enjoyed life at slow pace, having made pursuing the snail’s particular brand of existence one of his own ambitions, but he just couldn’t brook a lawman with no regard for law, or at the very least fair-mindedness. So, when it came down to choosing, Dillon Brody chose cheating and Cody choose to cut him loose. Cody was expecting to have to put Brody down when next they crossed each other. Be an interesting time of it with Jitters along, if he had to do it today.
Prowess Copse wasn’t much of one- just a few scraggly bunches of scrub brush out near the edge of town with some falling down buildings that once were a homestead and some craggy caves that marked the entrance of the goldmine. Whatever Blackhats were lingering round Burgess Gulch could be found there.
Cody rode up to the copse with Prentice lagging behind and complaining loudly about his horse’s gait.
While they were still a few hundred feet off from the buildings, Deadeye’s voice called out, “‘Less you got a writ, I’d just turn your ass back round, Sheriff.”
“Now, Dilly, you know I can’t get this nag to heed if she ain’t got a mind to,” Cody drawled back lazily. It didn’t put a body in a better position to rile Deadeye. It was true that he couldn’t shoot to save his life, but his little hired gun Gater was a crack shot, and he’d gladly take a poke at anyone Deadeye looked sideways at.
“No further, Sheriff, or my replacement gets it between the peepers,” Deadeye warned.
“Uh- Sheriff, what does he mean- his replacement?” Prentice muttered from behind Cody.
“Just want to have a little sit-down, Dilly,” Cody said. “How about you come on out and we talk man to man?” They were sitting out in the open, mostly on account of Cody’s desire not to kill Deadeye today. The man wasn’t really worth the lead.
Took a moment of silent waiting, but eventually Deadeye stepped out from behind an outhouse that was missing most of its door. “Leave Jr. there,” Dilly demanded, indicating Prentice by waving his gun at him.
“Fair enough,” Cody agreed, got down off the horse he never called Clara and paced up to Deadeye.
“That the best Litchfield could rustle up? He’s pretty scrawny.” Dilly cast Prentice a scornful look.
“He’ll do for now,” was all Cody could find to say about Jitters. He didn’t have much confidence in the man himself, but that wasn’t new. Cody had pegged Dilly for what he was in a day or so, as well. At least Cody had some hope Prentice would stay true- it was his surviving Burgess Gulch that was doubtful. “I’ll come to my purpose straight out. Redfield’s got the ranchers worked up over a few head going missing. Blackdeer’s boys ain’t the ones responsible. I’ll ask you once. If you find some truth to give me, I’d look kindly on it and we might figure a way to an accord.”
Deadeye moved his rifle to his left hand and stepped closer to slip his right hand into the inside crook of Cody’s elbow as he talked to him- a gesture he used to use when they’d been on the same side of the law (if only in appearance). “It ain’t us Cody, God’s honest. We been spending all our all in the mine for Miss Lucy,” he confided.
Now, Cody, being sheriff, makes it his business to know all them that settle in Burgess Gulch and vicinity, meets the stage most times so as to know the face of every man he’s likely to have to hunt down at some point, possibly in the none too distant future. And, far as he knew, there weren’t any woman by the name of Miss Lucy residing in those parts just then. “Miss Lucy- she here just now?” he asked, covering his lack of knowledge as best he could.
“Nah, not now, she ain’t. Only ever comes when there’s a new task or it’s pay time. Never made so darn much for doing so darn little,” Deadeye leered avariciously. “Makes honest work seem worth finding, if it’s that easy.”
It was powerful strange to hear Deadeye speaking of work with such energy, and easy work in the mine? There wasn’t a lick of gold in that hole in the ground, never had been. That was so much the case that those who had been in Burgess Gulch for a spell tended to call those that worked the mine neverminers instead. The only reason anyone tried to work that mine was Tiberius J. Frenic’s Wild West Tales, the darned dime westerns some fool kept setting in Burgess Gulch. More than half the poor souls that come in on the stage come hoping to strike it rich in the mine that Frenic writ was so rich the U.S. government wanted to keep it secret so as not to lower the price of bullion.
Once they caught on that the mine was nothing save fantasy, they usually went one of three ways- firstly, if the had the wherewithal and the cash, they went on to California or some such place to try their hand at mining somewhere else, or secondly, they made the best of it, settling down and farming or taking on a trade in town- being good honest folk, or thirdly, they turned Blackhat and spent the rest of their days robbing the good honest folk and the newly arrived greenhorn neverminers before meeting their end, usually violently and more often than not, at the wrong end of Cody’s gun.
“All righty then, when’s the next time you anticipate her coming round?” Cody asked, mighty interested to meet the woman who’d wrought such a change in Dilly.
“Sundown, not before.”
Seeing as they had several hours before this Miss Lucy was due at Prowess Copse, Cody headed up to the high pasture where the injun boy was rumored to have seen some cattle go missing in the most extraordinary of ways. Still a few miles away, Cody caught sight of another rider up ahead of them- a woman in a man’s duster to large for her frame. The wind made the sides of the duster flap open revealing the garish colors of her dress. Cody winced, almost expecting to feel the buzzitchswell in his head again, but it didn’t come. He kicked his heels into the sides of the horse he never called Clara with a hard cuss and tried to overtake her.
“Sheriff,” Jitters called from behind him, losing ground, “What’s the hurry?”
Cody couldn’t spare a moment for Prentice, not if he was to get ahead of the strange woman and find out who and what she was. Chief Blackdeer had called her a protectress, but Cody couldn’t fathom that being so, not when her appearance seemed to come with him being pained or helpless or both.
She disappeared round a twist in the path and Cody, afraid she would vanish before he could round it, too, put spur to the horse harder than before. The horse he never called Clara gave a whinnying complaint, but put on more speed anyhow. When the path ran straight again, Cody sighted the woman, but she was even further ahead than before.
Almost to the high pasture, Cody lost sight of her again when she got into a small wood and this time, when he should have been able to catch a glimpse of her again, she was nowhere to be found. Cody found himself at the pastures edge, thirty odd head of cattle lowing before him in the afternoon heat. Well, at the very least, he was where he had had a mind to go. Cody urged his horse forward though the herd so as to get a look around. There was a stream just to the other side of where the animals were flocking, and the old nag, was eager to reach it after her sprint uphill. Cody got down and let her go.
A little ways away, he saw the turf churned up something awful. Going closer, he saw that the ground had gone into ripples, like it were made of water instead of dirt clods. I was solid enough, but the shape and pattern was most definitely more like sea than land.
Prentice cantered up behind him and before he could speak, Cody turned to him and asked, “You see a woman on the trail ahead of us?”
“A woman? No, Sheriff,” Prentice answered with a puzzled expression on his face. “Is that why you went so fast? You thought you saw someone?”
“Can’t say for certain,” Cody answered before turning back around to inspect the ground some more. The waves seemed to go one direction for a bit then they hit a distinct line where all the grasses stopped for a few inches and the waves took back up again, only they were going the other way- mirroring the first side. If that weren’t a piece of strange.
After another moment spent looking for more detail in the dirt, but not finding any, Cody stood up, found the horse he never called Clara grazing by the stream, mounted up, and headed back to town, Jitters following behind. Prentice was full of questions and procedures and other annoyances on the way back to town, but Cody gave him a good glaring at and soon enough he fell silent.
Cody made straight for Miss Nannette Corbet’s and went on back into the kitchen on his return to town. Nannette was there, peeling apples for saucing- taking the bottom barrel ones and cutting away all the bits of rot infested with worm and bug to find what was still true.
“Howdy there, Sheriff.” She winked, dropping a bruised apple core in the bucket of mash at her feet and waving with the hand that still held the cooking knife.
Cody was overcome with the small mercy that was Nannette- the only person in this town who never asked him for naught but a kind word. He walked over to her, plucked the knife from her hand and put the fruitsticky hand on his shoulder as he enfolded her in his arms. He wasn’t getting overly friendly. He simply needed to have the comfort of another person, one who was of a quality like Nannette, to hold onto for a moment. He buried his face in the sweet sweaty smell that bloomed where shoulder met neck and hoped she didn’t get a mind to put an end to it too soon.
“Sheriff?” she asked quietly as she pressed her cheek to the top of his head. “Cody? What’s this about?” She rubbed her hand over the back of his neck, soothing the muscles and getting the over sweet rotten apple scent into his hair. He didn’t mind that none (later, before he had himself a bath, he was pleased to have the reminder of her comfort to breathe in). He felt the tension in her breathing, her muscles, build as she started worrying over him, and he couldn’t have that, so he raised his head.
“Just pleased to see you, that’s all,” he said smiling and hoping that covered it, though he knew there was no way that it did. He released her regretfully, clapped his hands together and asked, “How about some grub?”
She gave him a doubtful look before reaching over the counter and pulling out a loaf of sourdough and a dish of butter. “The stew’s about ready. You want to eat it in here or out in the dining room?”
“Might not do to have me in the dining room, just now,” he admitted, thinking on the likelihood of meeting up with Mandy or one of the ranchers out there, and he didn’t have anything like to a sensible answer to give them on the subject of the missing cattle. “I’ll just take a place in the corner- be as quiet as a mouse,” he promised as he took the bowl of stew she’d ladled out from her.