Godwin Merritt held a deeply oiled, brown leather satchel filled with cash and silver totaling five thousand dollars at the doorstep of his neighbor’s little house waiting for the old man to answer the door that evening. Echo Cliff, the granite wall with its craggy face, loomed above the tree line high up the pass where Godwin rode down from, his own ranch sprawling a hundred feet higher up than his penniless neighbor’s parcel. Godwin looked up at the smoke wafting out the chimney, ascending the still air that late summer evening. He rolled up his shirtsleeves and sweat peeked out beneath the dark hair on his forearms. The old man better sell. He heaved a breath. The door swung open and the stooped curmudgeon waved him in. “Evening, Merritt,” Danforth Smith said.
“Lieutenant Smith, good to speak to you again. Fine summer evening.” Godwin stretched a borrowed grin.
The old man nodded. “I appreciate you sending your boy down Monday to call on me and set up a chat. And the pie your Frieda sent down with him didn’t sit long uneaten.”
“I’ll pass the word along to her. I think it’s good we stay in touch. Many things going on around the mountains we’d be wise to discuss to keep things as neighborly as they’ve been, Lieutenant Smith.”
“Yes. I see. Come in and sit with me. I don’t stand too long these days.” Danforth led his neighbor inside. “I suppose the day won’t be too long off that standing up will be just a memory, like being a young soldier fighting the big war.”
By god, the war’s been over twenty-some years, Johnny Reb. Godwin gritted his teeth and nearly bit his tongue at the mention of the big war. There wasn’t a conversation the two of them had that didn’t include his mention of fighting in the Civil War. And, one of those conversations just happened to occur when some of Smith’s kin were up visiting. A great-nephew pulled Godwin aside on that occasion and informed him that the extent of his dear, great uncle’s war time soldiering had been spent guarding some western Missouri outpost that saw not a single bullet fly in engagement with the Union forces. The only shot, his great nephew confirmed, was fired by a forty-three year old conscripted drunkard who tried to shoot the cock off a weathervane during one of the poor sot’s more exuberant outings with the bottle. And yes, Godwin did wish his neighbor to be in good health. He just wished that he would kindly do it elsewhere. “I hope it isn’t so. I hope you get to be up and around years to come,” he said.
“I suppose we have some more serious matters to tend than just the chitter chatter of pleasant folk as my blessed mother used to say it. So, come. Tell me what’s itching the birds in your tree,” Danforth said.
“You’re a smart man. I won’t try to bullshit you. Neither of us are built for that. I’d like to purchase your property and combine it with my own. I’m ready to give you a fair price for the value of your wonderful land.” Godwin patted the bulky satchel beside him and said, “As a matter of fact, I’m prepared to give you payment here and now if that’s what it takes.”
“My lord, what do you have in your carrying bag, son?” Twinkles struck Danforth’s eyes like sunlight on a pile of silver dollars. “That is a sharp looking son of a gun.”
“You know Red Eagle?”
“Sure, Red Eagle Raw Hides up McCormick from Dr. Spuss.”
“Well, he made this here for me. Hell of a process really. You familiar?”
“I think I am. He doesn’t do it the regular way.”
“That’s right. He doesn’t.”
“I forget what he called it though, the process.”
“Right. Morose feller, ain’t he?”
“I think it’s his spiritual side. He said it keeps the act sacred, allowing the mind and body of the animal to stay interlocked.” Godwin made a motion with his fingers overlaying themselves.
“Suppose I can see that,” Danforth said.
“He said something else that’s stuck with me ever since he made this particular satchel years ago. He was kind enough to let me sit in while he made it. Watched the whole process from kill to finish. Just about the time he handled the wolf’s brain, mashed it in a bowl, and worked it over with a smooth stone, he commented, ‘Every animal has enough brain to tan its own hide.’”
Danforth chewed on that for a long moment. “Some truth to that.”
“There is, I believe. Yet, it’s one of those things so philosophical that I actually have a hard time pinning down just precisely what it means.”
“I understand you, Merritt, it’s got a depth that isn’t visible. Like fog on a pond.”
“Anyway, I like to share that. I guess maybe if I say it aloud enough times the true depth of it might be revealed some day.”
“Well, so what’s in the beautiful bag old Red Eagle crafted for you, Mr. Merritt?”
“I have enough silver certificates bearing the image of one Stephen Decatur and a few solid silver coins to account for every pine needle and river pebble on your property should you choose to part ways and relocate.”
Danforth Smith sat with a blank stare while he chewed a phantom lemon behind his considerable white moustache. Godwin checked the calluses on his own palms. He gently pressed the top of his leather vest as if to smooth out a crease. He would have politely done that for an hour if it took the old dog that long to respond to his proposition.
Finally, Danforth spoke. “Would you like a drink? I have some tepid coffee. It wouldn’t take long to heat beside the fire. I also have a bottle of whisky you might enjoy.”
The thought of getting drunk crossed his mind but he failed to find the virtue in being roped into an hours long palaver full of secondhand war stories. “Coffee is fine, Lieutenant Smith.”
The old man made a motion to get up.
“No. Let me. You rest a minute,” Godwin said. He pointed to the metal pitcher on the big table, “This the coffee, here?” Godwin stood at the big table for only a couple of seconds and noticed an aged letter creased in two folds obviously intended to be delivered once upon a time. It appeared to be just two pages and on the first, he saw it addressed in a clearly personal manner to some man named Farragut. The last page had writing halfway down and was signed “Danforth Smith.” Godwin was surprised it did not include Smith’s rank, proud as he was of his service in the Confederacy. “I’ll just set the coffee near the fire a moment.” Godwin’s shirt was already stuck to his back from the heat in the old man’s shack. “Actually, I don’t mind my coffee lukewarm or even cool. Sometimes that can be just as refreshing.”
“I prefer mine piping, Mr. Merritt. If you would, please?” Danforth pointed to the fire.
With his back turned, Godwin slowly closed his eyes and wished the old man ill. He silently mouthed, “Sorry, Frieda,” knowing she would disapprove of such thinking and had on more than one occasion admonished him for harboring contempt in his soul. She worried immensely that his brute manner and quick judgments of others would eat him inside out.
“Godwin, you’re no spring chicken yourself, now. If you don’t mind my stating quite the obvious,” Danforth said. Godwin, sitting across from him now, just flashed a quick grin. “What would you want with all that land, yours and now mine?”
“I would like to leave my children with enough land to split and live near each other when the time comes for me and my wife. Many years from now, god willing. I know your plat runs quite a ways out from the banks of our stream so with my ranch and acreage up and down the other side…”
“That’s fine and well. But, what about your business hauling silver out of the mountains? Don’t suppose I’m sitting up here sippin’ cheap coffee and eating wrinkled potatoes on top of a silver throne?”
“I don’t think that’s the case, unfortunately. All the veins we’re pursuing down in the mines are running south, southwest. We got one branch jumping off northwest but it appears to be drying up, in a manner, Lieutenant Smith.”
“That is unfortunate, for me.” Danforth glanced over to the coffee, Godwin took the hint and poured him a piping cup. The front of Godwin’s shirt stuck to his stomach now and the thought of hot coffee nearly made him ill as he sat back down across from his neighbor.
“Is the coffee hot now?”
Danforth nodded. “What say I call down on the Sheriff in Butte and have him rustle up the assayer to get the numbers coming out from your mine? Would he be inclined to tell me the same? That all your excavating is running away and not toward any property this lonely old soldier holds?”
“I can’t speak for the good Sheriff down in Butte, but if he looked at the deeds and permits I would be surprised if he came to any conclusion contrary to what I’ve told you. I can wait if that’s something you want to do.” Godwin said.
“Tell you what. It’s getting on in the evening and I need to retire soon. Could you get my whisky and plunk a few gulps of it into my coffee?”
“I would but I don’t see where you have it stored.”
“It’s just in the other room beside the wash basin where the pots are drying.”
Godwin went to the other room. The bottle stood on the countertop like a big, bright knife in the back. No mistaking the label on the thing. Did the old man in the other room really not understand its significance? Godwin put his palms on the countertop and screamed silently with his jaw flexed open. He could have ripped the whole countertop off the wall.
“Could you find it, Merritt?” he hollered over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir.” Godwin picked up the bottle and juggled it with one hand while he considered its label. Stamped lettering with “BRR” in bold black ink stung him and a headache ripped apart his mind. Black Rock Runners. It wasn’t whisky. It was Mantabawa River hooch cooked from notorious Mattocks family stills. A sound he hadn’t heard in decades burst forth, the memory rose vividly in his mind—the steam saw he operated as a sawyer’s apprentice back home, spinning wild with Mattocks’ blood. He heard the whap-whapping of long belts that circuited the pins and gears. He winced at the sound of the blade screeching to a stop as it jammed into a log it didn’t have enough power to cut. He tore just short of a march into the room where his neighbor sat.
“Ahh, good. This whisky is just what we need to cap off our discussion,” Danforth said and twisted the cork from its neck.
“I really think I must get back. I’ve said what I came to speak of and Frieda will be getting anxious if I don’t return soon,” Godwin said. “You’ll excuse me, won’t you?”
“When a lady’s concern is front and center a gentleman cannot refuse.”
“A gentleman and a good soldier.”
“Indeed. Thank you, Mr. Merritt. It’s been a pleasure having you here. If you don’t mind, I will take you up on that offer and inquire into the mine with the sheriff down in Butte.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less than a thorough investigation into the matter. Good evening, Lieutenant Smith. Thank you for your hospitality,” Godwin said and made his way to the door.
“A handshake? For the continuation of prosperous dealings between neighbors?” Danforth said.
“My manners. I apologize. Once my wife gets into my mind I find it hard to focus sometimes,” Godwin returned with his hand stuck out like an oar.
“The confounded nature of a beautiful woman in a man’s life. No need to apologize, neighbor.”
Godwin couldn’t help thinking the word neighbor had come out as an assurance that they would always be so and that his angling for Danforth’s property would be nothing less than futile. “Just one other thing,” Godwin said. “The whisky. Where did you get it? I didn’t drink any but I took a sniff when I retrieved it. It had an intoxicating aroma.”
“Well, I suppose no harm telling you now. A couple of weeks ago some gentleman and his bride came to call. They were looking to do precisely what you’re asking to do?”
“They want to purchase your land?” Godwin bit his tongue but kept himself from cursing aloud. He could taste the blood that leaked from the puncture his tooth made.
“Indeed,” Danforth said and finally grasped Godwin’s outstretched hand. He shook it with the slow, firm movement of a man who wished to convey more than good tidings. “Now, I have to ask myself and it will be something I turn over many times tonight as I sip from the whisky they left me as a gift, ‘what is so special about the land I’ve been living on for nineteen, twenty years that all of a sudden has become the object of desire for multiple parties?’ Any thoughts, at all, Merritt?”
Their hands stopped shaking yet remained locked together; Godwin’s slick with perspiration and Danforth’s clammy with a shadow of the grave. Godwin imagined the old sot, all twisted up in his Confederate grays, three sheets stinking of gin, stumbling around his post trying to shoot the cock off a weathervane in western Missouri. He’d give him one thing though, he still had enough wits to know there was something valuable about the chunk of property he landed on after the Union victory scattered the threads of the ‘stars and bars’ in the wind.
* * *
That evening, when the boys had fallen asleep and Godwin had a chance to finally rest his mind a moment from the worry of how things were going to shake out with his neighbor, Frieda sat down beside him at the long table in the kitchen. The wood stove was cooling finally and the blonde Labrador sat at the open door letting the breeze soothe him to sleep.
“How was Danforth?” she asked.
Godwin fought to keep his eyes open as he studied a spot on the table. She put a hand on his forearm and waited for a response. “He’s got suspicions,” he said.
“Some folk came to call on him and see about buying his property.”
“Out of nowhere they stumble on his land and think that’s the spot they want to make a home?”
“He didn’t say where they were from. Sounded like flatlanders looking for adventure, I suppose.”
“Something’s not right. People don’t just stumble onto Echo Cliff out of nowhere.”
Not out of nowhere. “We have any ale?” he asked.
Frieda went to the pantry off the back of the kitchen and poured him a stein from their barrel. It trickled to a stop, only filling the stein a little over half way. She was able to rock the barrel in its stand. Empty.
“That’s it for the barrel.” She set the stein in front of him. “The others will be brewed up soon enough.”
The stein was nearly cold in Godwin’s hands and he held it without drinking for a while. The dog farted and the breeze carried it up to their noses. “Must have got a hold of a shithouse rat outside today,” he said. “Or did he sneak into the garden and eat all our lettuce again?”
“He’s been sluggish lately. Hopefully he’s over whatever it is soon. I need an aspirin. You?”
He waved it off. “I don’t know what to make of the other offer on Danforth’s property. I’ll have to get down to Butte in the morning and talk with the lawyer.”
“God, do you trust him? Do you trust Mr. Jefferson?”
“I would say I do. He’s done right by me and Cut Creek Pass.”
“The mine brings a lot of money. I mean to say, bad guys don’t always wear masks when they set out to rob.”
“No. That’s true. But, why wait so long to try to swindle me? He’d had plenty of opportunity over the years if that’s the predicament you think I’m in.”
“Who’s to say? He’s the one that came to you with the information about the mine and the entrance at the pass not being square on Merritt land. My question is, how did he find that out? From whom?” Frieda said.
“Are you staying up?” Godwin asked.
“I have to lie down. This headache is killing me.”
“Is that the aspirin Dr. Spuss give you?”
“It is. I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s working anymore. I’d hate to take more than he said but it seems that when I do the headaches dull again.”
Godwin motioned her to come to him. Their embrace was true and warm. She kissed him on his clean-shaven cheek. “Goodnight, God.”
“I love you, Frieda.”
He chewed on the notions the day brought him. The ale was gone in a gulp. Mattocks in town again. A lawyer who might be looking for a big payday. A neighbor just sober enough to ask questions. The issues stung his brain and when his clenched teeth shifted and ground across themselves he sought his wife’s aspirin. The bottle Dr. Spuss gave her on a regular visit to the ranch had a plain brown label with red ink that read, “Albany Drug: Cocaine.” Beneath the large type was a billowed banner, “For the afflicted brain.” He took one pill and went to the porch to smoke from his pipe. Every time he closed his eyes to inhale the smoke, he saw the blood on the big saw blade and smelled the sawdust piled in heaps around the old steam saw in the mill beside Sawyerskill. The sky was clear and he counted stars to distract himself.
The old man better sell.
Two days’ ride by coach from his jurisdiction, the Lake County Sheriff sat on the cushioned bench with his boot up on his knee. A folded copy of The Rocky was in his hand and a scrawl of ink on its top margin read, “Helmut Mattocks, 8:40 to Fort Collins.” Sheriff Smith sat still and rested his forearm so as not to disturb the laceration he received in a knife fight inside the Copperhead Saloon in Butte two nights before. His head ached from the blows he took in the fracas and maybe a little more from having to shoot a man in the belly who tried to help him break up the fight between two miners down from Cut Creek Pass, the silver mine Godwin Merritt owned just up the trail from the little town which had gone bust when the gold ran out but boomed once more when Merritt came to town and happened upon a silver vein so long and true the locals nearly made him a king when he got to work setting up a fully operational mine. The locomotive chugged to a crawl with its wheels squealing to a stop. The whistle blew wide open and filled Poudre Canyon.
Helmut leaned forward to duck the roof of the train car. He towered over the rest of the riders walking the platform to the depot and Sheriff Smith watched as he ducked through the doorway into the dim depot. Helmut looked for the face he hadn’t seen in years. As Sheriff Smith approached, he recognized him and his curious moustache straight away.
“What’s the news on that son of a bitch, Merritt?” Helmut said. His knuckles were white around the handle of his suitcase, an old beat up thing that smelled of old smoke and cinnamon from where the sheriff stood.
“Helmut, how was the ride?”
“Rough. Thought the new railway here would have some updated equipment. Seems to me they’re using rails and wheels they found at the bottom of a gorge beneath a busted wreck of trestle work.”
“Things are building up faster than you can imagine out here, Helmut. Soon, we’ll have all the conveniences you have back east. What’s new on the Mantabawa River? Anyone take to the great beyond I should know about?”
“Been a quiet season. The Bog Bay Devils are keeping to themselves and the Merritt’s on Sawyerskill are quiet as a possum that accidently walked in front of a feral hog. Shall we find a better place to talk?”
“There’s a good hotel with big steaks where we can sit however long we need. I’ve got a horse for you.”
“I’m going to hit the outhouse first,” Helmut said.
The marble bar in the front of The Ashley Hotel was long and high. Their boots hit hard on the dark oak floors that gleamed with the reflection of the sunlight off varnish so thick it could probably stop the coffin-handled bowie knife Helmut wore on his hip. The swing door to the kitchen popped open frequently and the sounds of pots and glasses banged and jostled through the cavernous dining room. Along with that came the smell of carrion and fresh bread that turned Helmut’s already hungry belly into a thoroughbred chomping and stamping at the gate. They sat to eat at a table near the window. The dining room was loud with the jocular talk of Ft. Collins’ hustlers and politicians.
“Lively place, huh? Old Collins is being shaken up by new Collins. The future of this city is at stake.” Sheriff Smith drank his coffee, waited to see if Helmut was interested in the wide-open possibility of setting up a franchise out west.
“Butte’s about a day away on horseback, right?”
“A little over.”
“So in two days’ time you should be able to set up the purchase of that land next to Merritt’s and execute the whole deal by the end of the week and telegram the confirmation to Gunther before I even get back home?”
“Then you can do it?”
Sheriff Smith nodded with a mouthful of peanuts from the dish the waiter brought them.
“Good. If the answer was no, I’d have to ride down there and kill the old bastard that sits on that land. I don’t want to do that. Surely, you can convince your older brother it’s in his interest to move on to greener pastures. I’m giving him the opportunity to be on top of those pastures instead of below them.”
“He’s a tough drunk but I know he’s not an idiot. We’ll get you that land and the entrance to Cut Creek.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I’m staying in Fort Collins for the week. I’ll be in contact with Gunther, so if things aren’t on schedule in a week’s time, I’ll be headed down to Echo Cliff. Your brother’s body will be taken up to Merritt’s ranch and he’ll be arrested for murder.”
“You’re the sheriff.”
The lump in the sheriff’s throat made it hard for him to swallow the steak he gnawed. He wanted nothing more than to spit the fatty blob of grey meat across the table and ride to his brother’s house. Sure, Madame V., illustrious proprietor of Wichita’s, that flourishing gentlemen’s house in the center of Butte, would front him the money to convince his old brother the sale of his land was legitimate and honorable, but what would he owe her then as sheriff? Even through the river of whisky that flowed through Lt. Danforth Smith’s body, he’d be able to sniff out the transaction for what it was—a boomtown hustle by a cadre of misfits trying to get in good with outsiders that came to town looking to hang the supposed savior of Butte by his neck for crimes committed decades ago and hundreds of mile away.
* * *
The door was open when Sheriff Smith arrived at his brother’s little house east of Echo Cliff and the shadow of the Merritt Ranch. It was just before eight by his pocket watch—the one he swiped from the miner during the brawl in the Copperhead. The morning air was crisp. Fall settled in and it would be no time before the path to his brother’s would be unnavigable beneath the many feet of snow sure to come. Sheriff Smith went inside with a hand on his pistol and the other carrying a bag of money.
He found his brother curled up on the knotty planks beside the woodstove. The sheriff put the bag down on the chair. He knelt down and shook his brother.
When Danforth opened his eyes, the nausea overtook him and he vomited on the floor.
“What are you doing here? What time is it?”
“I’ve come to wake you up,” Sheriff Smith said and picked up the whisky bottle on the table. This stuff must be stronger than your blithe spirit is used to.”
“You bring a bag of money too? I knew you would. I’ve already shooed off two honeymooners and big Godwin Merritt.”
“Here, drink this.” He handed his brother a cup of coffee.
“I ain’t drinking no cold coffee,” Danforth said. “What time is it?” His voice quivered now with effort.
“I forgot you like it hot. Sorry.” He set the cup on the stove and loaded some wood into the fire. “We need to talk about your future. It ain’t here, not on this mountain no more. I’ve got all the money you could need to get on and settle up somewhere else. Maybe in town or up in Denver if you need something more thrilling. Plenty of drunks up there to keep you company.”
“I don’t see the trouble with an old man living and dying on the land of his choosing. This is the land of the damn free still, isn’t it?”
“It’s not about principles anymore, Danforth. This is about you staying alive.”
A serpentine curve crossed Danforth’s brow.
Sheriff Smith picked up the bottle of BRR. “It’s these folks. Black Rock Runners. They’re after Godwin Merritt and they want your land. They don’t want you.”
“So those honeymooners…”
Sheriff Smith tilted the bottle at him.
“Well, I’m not moving. They can come and try and take it from me.”
“That’s what they’re doing. Just take the money and move on, Lieutenant.”
The serpentine eyebrow appeared again. “Let me see the money.”
Sheriff Smith handed his brother the bag. “It’s $100 coin notes.”
“This is differenter than the money Merritt brought down.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“He looks young.”
“Commander Farragut. Admiral now, I suppose. What time is it?”
“Are you okay, Danforth?”
“I just need to get to Butte today. What time is it?” Danforth looked into the portrait on the coin note again, “Gosh, he looks strong.”
“Did you know him?”
“When I was on the U.S.S. Saratoga he was my commander.” Danforth put his hand on his heart. “He made a name for himself protecting the Liberians and American merchant interests off the west coast of Africa in the 20’s.”
“1820’s? You weren’t serving then.”
“No, I know. I was aboard 1847. We were sent out during the Mexican American war in the Gulf of Mexico. That expedition was doomed from the start. I enjoyed a shitty outbreak of yellow fever while stationed off Tuxpan. That’s Mexico. Gulf Coast. What time is it?”
“15 to 9.”
He examined the coin note again. “Time is a merciless bastard. Admiral Farragut is dead now. I read it in The Rocky years ago and drank myself silly that week recalling the bad boys of Farragut’s sloop of war. And, how the Union Navy stabbed me in the back with a medical discharge in Pensacola, Florida. It was just a slight cold. I could’ve served for years and made Admiral too.”
“Yellow fever isn’t a slight cold, Danforth.”
“It was for me. A couple of sailors died before we arrived in Florida but mine was nothing but some sniffles and a cough.”
“Farragut. He was a tough one.”
“You’re not going to budge one inch, are you?”
Danforth shook his head.
“Well, how about a shot?” Sheriff Smith uncorked the bottle. He tipped the BRR way back and took a hard pull. He handed it over to his brother. Danforth tipped the bottom straight up and sucked down what was left. He was gulping hard on the whisky with his eyes closed tight like in prayer. Sheriff Smith shot him in the chest point blank and the bottle fell to the floor to shatter in pieces. His brother died instantly but his eyes stayed open and Sheriff Smith couldn’t stand to look at him any longer. He took to the porch and pulled the cigar from his coat, a dirty wool jacket with patches on the elbow where the knife had sliced through in the saloon. He leaned on the post and looked up to the high wall of Echo Cliff while he puffed little round smoke signals from his cigar.
Two riders approached out of the woods and rode across the bridge that separated the land Godwin Merritt owned from the land he wanted. One pulled up alongside Sheriff Smith’s horse with his hand raised up. “Dick Mattocks.”
“Christ.” Sheriff Smith jammed his cigar down on the post. He waited for the other rider to say his name.
“Glenn Mattocks. You the sheriff?”
“Yes sir. I was told you men wouldn’t be necessary should this matter resolve itself in due time.”
“Well, Sheriff Smith, the plans have changed. Now, we know this is still fresh and you’re likely a little sensitive to outsiders at the moment but we have a job to do. You don’t need to be here any longer unless you just find yourself to be the helpful sort. Either way, that corpse in there is going up to Merritt’s ranch.”
“Let me gather a couple of things inside and I’ll leave you to it. I’m not interested in helping any more than I have to.”
Dick waved him on. He hollered after him, “He’s fine now. No pain.”
Sheriff Smith rummaged the house for some papers, anything to identify the property. It was no use. His brother had nothing but empty bottles and regrets.
“We need to get a move on, Sheriff.” Dick spit a gob of wet tobacco toward the porch.
“Take it easy. Man’s got a right to say his peace to the dead.”
Dick and Glenn, the brothers Mattocks, spit simultaneously.
Sheriff Smith rode the trail into the woods that led back down to Butte and tried to plan his next move, arresting Godwin Merritt.
© William L. Domme
Originally appeared in Frontier Tales Magazine May 16 Issue #80