Chapter 2: Sloth
Hollander lived a few miles northwest of Bisbee, and it took was late afternoon by the time he and Mason reached the Double Bar-H ranch. The ranch consisted of three major structures: the main house, the bunkhouse, and the barn. A smaller building near the bunkhouse had a smoking chimney coming out the top and likely served as the cook shack. The buildings were situated about a quarter mile away from the San Pedro River, and as a result the landscape surrounding the area was surprisingly lush with trees and grasses.
The landowner’s house was large, unsurprisingly, given the man’s wealth. The two story structure was whitewashed, and had lots of windows. Square brick and stone pillars set about six feet apart helped support the heavy wooden framework, and also elevated the house about two feet off the ground, allowing air to circulate under the building and keep it cooler in the scorching Arizona heat. A large shaded porch extended around the front and sides of the ranch house, and there were a few chairs there for relaxing in after the day’s work was done.
In contrast to the sturdy house, the bunkhouse looked like it had been built quickly, and by using materials of far lower quality. Roughly hewn lumber had been masoned together using adobe. It had a few windows, but a couple of the panes had been busted out and never replaced. It likely had been built soon after Hollander claimed the land as his own, and the landowner would have resided there while waiting for the larger ranch house to be built.
The barn was large, yet simple. Most barns had the same basic structure, regardless of where they were built. Stalls, the tack room and grain bin were on the first floor, and the second floor was where hay was kept. A large corral bordered the barn and few horses dozed there in the shade provided by a large tree whose branches had grown over the fence.
A tall rangy man emerged from the barn and ambled toward Glen and Joshua as they steered their horses into the yard.
"Most of my boys are out on the range," Hollander explained to Mason as the two men dismounted, rather unnecessarily. Most cowboys were only at the ranch house around mealtimes and at night. The rest of the time they were out checking on the herds, and directing them toward where the most food would be found.
Hollander led his horse over to the large water trough near the barn, jerking his chin in the direction of the man walking up, "This here’s my foreman and wrangler, Tom Atkins. Atkins, this is Joshua Mason." Glen pushed his horse’s reins into the rangy man’s hands and ordered, "After he’s finished watering his horse, get him set up in the bunkhouse. He starts workin’ with you and the boys tomorrow."
Atkins’ face was pock-marked and weather-beaten, making his age difficult to guess. He was probably somewhere between forty and fifty, and had a natural squint that made him appear like he was glaring all the time. Then again, judging from the down-turn of the edges of his lips, he was not a man who smiled much, if at all.
"Thank ya kindly, Mr. Hollander," Mason politely said over his shoulder while closely monitoring the rate at which his horse was drinking the water. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if the animal came down with colic from drinking too much too fast after such a long ride. A good horse like Dawson was hard to find, and even harder to replace.
The two men finished watering the horses and as Atkins led the way into the barn, he commented, "Didn’t know the Boss was gonna be bringin’ any new cowhands home with him."
Joshua pursed his lips, lifting one shoulder in a shrug, "I suspect he didn’t he didn’t know he’d be hirin’ anyone else on either. I had a note from Bill Gardner. Worked for him this past year, but he’s not doin’ so well with his herds and had to let a few of us go. Said we might have better luck findin’ work here."
Atkins spat at the ground in disgust, "Gardner. Heard’a him. I hear tell he runs a good outfit, if’n you can get past his Injun lovin’ ways."
Concentrating on removing the tack from Dawson, Joshua made a noncommittal sound in response. Following Atkins lead to the tack box, he brushed out his black gelding, then released the animal into the corral with the other horses.
"You can put yer saddle in the tack room, or you can take it into the bunkhouse with ya, if that’s what you prefer," Atkins stated as he carried Hollander’s gear to the tack room.
Joshua waited for the bow-legged man to return, his saddle resting against his hip and saddlebags tossed over his shoulder. A few minutes later, Atkins led him into the smaller building adjacent to the barn. Unsurprisingly, the bunkhouse was cluttered with unused gear and men’s clothing. A cowboy might take hours cleaning his saddle and bridle after a hard day’s work but that didn’t mean he was any good at basic housekeeping.
Atkins paused just inside the doorway, squinting as he peered around the large, open room. "There’s a couple o’empty bunks left," he gruffly stated, pointing out two beds on opposite sides of the room. "I’ll let you get yerself settled in and have a look around the ranch. Chow’s served around six o’clock sharp in the cook shack. If you miss out on dinner, you’ll have to git yer own elsewhere." With that, the older man turned on his boot heel and made his way back toward the barn as a bemused Joshua looked on.
After getting his gear stowed, Joshua spent some time learning his way around the ranch before circling back around to the corral. There, he rested his boot on the lowest railing of the fence, lightly clicking his tongue at the small herd of horses there.
Like most wealthy western landowners, Glen Hollander had made the most of the Homesteader Act of 1862 and created his homestead on the largest and most persistent body of water in the area. All homesteaders who moved into this area would be beholden to him to let the creeks and streams continue to flow into their land so that their fields and herds would flourish.
In exchange for those water rights, Hollander made those smaller and invariably poorer homesteads sign contracts that were in effect a rental agreement, but with an important hitch: people who were unable to keep up with their ‘water rental’ payments forfeited their land. Therefore, every homesteader that gave up on the harsh conditions of ranching in Arizona Territory increased the amount of land Hollander owned.
The most greedy of the men who controlled the water rights immediately dammed up all the creeks and streams bordering their own lands so that no other homesteaders would survive, then allowed their cattle to free range graze on the empty land, in effect claiming it as their own.
Hollander himself had used that tactic in the past when he attempted to force Dan Evans and his family off their small ranch. The railroad man Grayson Butterfield had vowed to Dan that he’d make sure the landowner would keep the water flowing to the Evans’ land, but Southern Pacific Railroad had sent their representative to Chicago.
With Butterfield’s absence, Hollander was apparently trying to renege on his promise.
Grayson Butterfield might no longer be around to make sure that Hollander kept his word, but Joshua Mason was going to add to his short list of ‘good deeds done’ by making sure that he did.
"That’s why I don’t mess around with doing anything good, Dan. You do one good deed for somebody, I imagine it’s habit forming. Something decent, you see that grateful look in their eyes, I imagine it makes you feel like Christ hisself."
Ben Wade had spoken those words once, never imagining how true they could turn out to be. The man known as Joshua Mason had pondered them many times since they’d been spoken. While Mason would never claim to have become a man of good deeds, certainly he’d given up on doing most of the bad deeds that the outlaw Ben Wade had been so famous for.
Truth be told, he’d already been growing bored with the robberies. After successfully robbing the Southern Pacific Railroad twenty-two times, with each take totaling around 20,000 dollars or more, it wasn’t like he’d been doing it for the money. Hell, he still had more than 100,000 of that stashed away in a crevice, deep in Apache country. No, the only reason he’d stuck with it for so long had been for the challenge of it, just to see if he could outsmart the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Pinkertons one more time.
After jumping from the train to his horse before it had even reaching Yuma Territorial Prison, he’d gone to Sonora, Mexico, just like he originally intended to do after getting away with the Bisbee stagecoach robbery. He’d tried to settle into his new life, living without worry of pursuit by lawmen or Pinkertons. However, he’d been unable to avoid young gunfighters eager to prove their mettle against the quick draw of the infamous Ben Wade. After the third such encounter during which he’d been drawn on by a boy who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, judging from the patchy fuzz on his upper lip, he’d had enough.
Gunfights were rarely fair. He knew that back east, people imagined gunfights going happening like the duels from back in the days when the United States had still been nothing more than a colony of England, where one man called out another, an honorable battle taking place with both men a distance of ten paces from each other. The reality in the West was men would take whatever advantage they could get in a gunfight, even if it meant shooting another man in the back. Wade had felt that itchy tickle between his shoulder blades, instinct warning him that somewhere, someone was drawing a bead on him from the other end of a barrel. It’d saved his life on more than one occasion, and this time was no different.
Afterwards, Ben had looked down and watched the life fade from the boy’s pale blue eyes and found himself reminded of Dan Evans and his son, William. He’d been careful to avoid dwelling on the events of that day, despite the lowered whispers and wary fear in the eyes of the people after he had introduced himself as Ben Wade. In fact, he didn’t mind being feared, as it made people stay out of his business.
But seeing the blood drain from that boy’s lifeless body, the way it’d faded from Dan Evans when he’d been shot, he couldn’t help but remember how William Evans had seemed to respect and admire Wade while being so disappointed in his own father’s life and decisions. Ben had even tried to use that admiration to his own advantage a couple of times, tried to get the boy to disobey his own father and let him go free.
"Will’s started on the path of decency," Dan had said, correctly so as it turned out. The boy Wade just shot in the back alley behind that Sonora saloon had not been so lucky, and it suddenly made him wonder, would William’s life be ending the same way if he’d mirrored his life after an outlaw like Ben Wade’s? Would he end up like poor, dumb, and utterly loyal Charlie Prince, gunned down by his own boss and the man he considered a friend? Charlie had loved Ben Wade, loved him with an intensity that went beyond admiration and on towards a degree that men didn’t talk about out loud. While Ben had never had an interest in Charlie for anything other than his skill with that pair of Scofield pistols, he also had not been above using Charlie’s devotion toward him to his own advantage as he saw fit.
Charlie Prince and the rest of Wade’s gang had deserved a better life and death than what he’d given them. So did the dead boy in the Mexico back alley, and so had Dan Evans, though that last death had not been by his hand.
Suddenly disgusted with himself, he had drawn the Hand of God from its holster for the last time, exchanging the ebony handled pistol for the standard Colt Army pistol still loosely gripped by the boy he had just killed. Ben Wade left town that night, but it was Joshua Mason that crossed the Rio Grande into Texas a few weeks later.
The restless life of a cowhand appealed to Joshua Mason far more than a sedentary life living and working in a town or city, where more contact with people would increase the likelihood he’d be recognized. He’d done a bit of ranch hand work in his youth before moving on to more illegal activities, but spent a month brushing up on his skills working cattle with the help of an old vaquero in El Paso, Texas.
From there, he drifted from one job to another as cowboys did, before settling for a few months at Bill Gardner’s outfit in New Mexico. He hadn’t been there a week before he found out about Gardner’s ‘hobby’, of turning Indian girls as young as ten years old into sex slaves. He knew he wasn’t the only cowboy in the bunkhouse who had been sickened and incensed as he listened to the girl’s screams coming from the main house that night.
Joshua had been filled with something that he could only describe as righteous indignation, an emotion he’d only felt one other time in his life and that’d been when Charlie Prince shot Dan Evans in the back. But where Ben Wade might have said ‘The hell with it’ and killed Bill Gardner right then and there, and anyone else who got in his way, Joshua Mason was more controlled. More patient.
Ben Wade never hid his face from the crimes he committed, but Joshua Mason used a bandanna and some stealth to turn himself into a nameless vigilante. He tracked down the three men who’d been supplying the girls and killed them before ambushing Gardner when the old man was on his way to town one night. Instead of killing Gardner outright, he’d wanted the pain and fear of death to linger, so had just shot him in the gut, arms, legs, and of course in the balls, then left him to bleed out on the side of the road. Joshua’s only regret had been that he couldn’t use the Hand of God to deliver Gardner’s punishment. That would have been ironically appropriate, for the man whose name meant ‘God delivers’ using the Hand of God to exact some biblical justice.
Joshua hadn’t really expected for Gardner to live after how many times he’d shot him, but somehow the old man survived. Gardner would never use his legs or his pecker again, but Ol’ Bill had enough use of one hand to write a letter of merit for the man who’d shot him up in the first place. If that there didn’t show God had a sense of humor, Joshua didn’t know what would.
It had been curiosity that made him accept the letter for Hollander in the first place. Going back to Bisbee, Arizona would be risky. When he’d been there before, he’d only encountered a few people during his capture and hastily arranged departure from the small town, and most of those people were dead now. Unfortunately, Hollander was one of those remaining alive, although he hadn’t been in the landowner’s presence for more than a few minutes. Sure, Joshua had changed his name and his dapper dressing style, lost some weight, and his closely trimmed hair made him seem younger, but the face and the eyes were still the same and there was a chance he’d be recognized.
He decided to chance returning to Bisbee anyway, not really intending to hire out with Hollander, but to satisfy his curiosity about what had happened with the Evans family after Dan had died. Had they used that 1000 dollars Butterfield had given them to stay on their small ranch, or used it to pay off debts and start over elsewhere? Their options would be limited though, with the youngest boy having tuberculosis. And if they had chosen to stay, was Butterfield still holding Hollander to his promise, to keep water flowing to the Evans land.
There was a certain audacity about going to Bisbee, though, a challenge to risking being seen and recognized that made him want to go even more, just to see if he could get away with it. Joshua Mason loved challenges just as much as Ben Wade had.
He had the devil’s own luck to ride into town just as William Evans himself paused to let him pass before leading a chestnut horse across the road headed in the direction of the blacksmith. Joshua carefully tilted his head, allowing the shadow from the brim of his hat to block his features from being seen clearly by the Evans boy, but fortunately the boy was more focused on the task of getting the horse to the smithy than he was in perusing the faces of passersby.
A few minutes later, he found himself outside the Bisbee Trading Post, listening as a clearly lying Hollander attempted to reassure Alice Evans that he’d check into the problem with the stream blockage. It wasn’t until he heard Hollander’s words as the Evans’ wagon was heading down the road that he made the decision to approach the landowner about the job. While the older man’s blue eyes carefully studied Joshua’s face, there was no recognition in his eyes or on his face. If there had been…. Well, luckily the Mexican border was only a few miles away.
At the sound of horses approaching in the distance, Joshua gave Dawson one last pat on the neck before ambling around the corral fence toward the barn Atkins was just emerging from. The other cowboys had started to return from the range in time for dinner.
Hollander had a steady crew of nine cowhands working for him at the ranch, not including Joshua or Atkins. During the spring roundup of course, he’d had probably a couple dozen more, but those men were now helping drive the cattle west to market in California before the summer heat of late June really set in. None of them were familiar to Joshua, but that was unsurprising given the growing number of ranch workers in the west. The men varied widely in age, because in general as long as a man was healthy enough to do the work required, his age made no difference.
It only took a couple of days to learn the routine at the Double Bar-H ranch. Mornings, the hands went to the cook shack for breakfast, and then were paired off by Atkins to check on the cattle. They came home occasionally for lunch and always were at the cook shack in time dinner. Four men were assigned to go back out and follow the herd through the night to ward away rustlers. They’d stay out with the cattle all night, sleeping in bedrolls or in the saddle. The night-crew swapped every other day.
Because Joshua was new to the outfit, he was paired off with a different man every day, who would take him around to other areas of Hollander’s land to familiarize him with the landscape around the ranch. Contact with Glen Hollander was fairly limited, and he was fine with that. Less face to face contact between the two men would decrease the chances of his being recognized as Ben Wade by that much more. The landowner usually was in his office in town during the day and in his ranch house at night. He largely ignored the cowhands working for him, with the exception of Atkins.
Joshua had been at the Double Bar-H for about a week before Atkins paired him off with a younger cowboy by the name of Lester Holmes. He’d already had to do a couple of night shifts with Holmes, and spending an entire day alone with him was not anything a sane man would look forward to. Holmes was crude, loud, and lazy, and those were his better qualities. He was also so stupid that Joshua seriously doubted the man was bright enough to pour piss out of a boot with directions on the heel. Then again, it was unlikely Holmes could read anyway.
Luckily, while locating the eastern part of Hollander’s herd, the two men had to range their horses far enough apart that Joshua was saved from having to listen to Holmes natter on. Once the longhorns were located slowly making their way toward a copse of trees surrounding a creek, his luck ran out.
"Kinda old to be driving cattle still, aintcha Mason?" Holmes commented as he leaned forward and rested his elbow on the saddle horn as the horses slowly followed the cattle. He made a pig-like snorking sound before hawking a gob of spit at the ground.
Shrugging, Joshua mildly pointed out, "Ike Scott is at least ten years older than I am."
Scott was one of the other men employed by Hollander, a short gnarled man who looked as though he’d been born and bred in the saddle.
Holmes brayed out a laugh that startled the cattle nearby into a trot. "Shee-yit, Scott’s older’n dirt, ain’t that the truth."
Joshua tensed briefly as the cattle picked up their pace from the sound, knowing lesser things could cause a stampede, but fortunately the longhorns were more interested in reaching water than they were in stampeding. They slowed when they reached the grove of trees and meandered around, jostling each other as they waded into the water and drank deeply.
"You come down from New Mexico, right? Ain’t that what you told Atkins last night?" Holmes squinted at him and guided his horse toward the water as well, though a slight distance off from the cattle.
"Yep," Joshua responded briefly, but his attention was on the ground around them. The entire area around the creek was under a couple of inches of water… well mud now, as the cattle had churned the soil around the trees with their hooves. Either way, it looked as though this section of the creek had flooded out. He knew that it hadn’t rained in the past few days, so there was no good reason for the water to have spilled over the bank.
Holmes smirked as he loosened his horse’s reins to allow the animal to drink the muddied water. "A reg’lar flood we got us goin’ on here, don’t we? Ain’t that a shame," he said insincerely and jerked his head toward the east, where there was a rocky outcropping just past the trees the creek wound through. Large rocks, sticks and mud were packed from one side of the little stream to the other. Water pooled behind the makeshift dam, creating a large flat pool that covered the area in a hundred foot radius.
"Don’t see no signs of beavers," Joshua observed, examining the trees nearby for signs that the large rodents were the culprits behind the dam as he allowed Dawson at the water. There’d been a few trees recently felled in the area, but instead of being ringed to points the way beaver teeth would chew, they’d been clearly cut from a single side the way a man using an axe would chop.
Flashing a broad grin that revealed coffee and tobacco stained yellow teeth, Holmes guffawed at that. "Beavers? Oh yeah, beavers dun’ that. Beavers usin’ axes, that is. Hollander set Atkins and I to dammin’ ‘er up a coupl’a weeks past." He peered at the dam, "Looks like we didn’t get it high ‘nuff, some o’the water’s still tricklin’ through."
Joshua pursed his lips thoughtfully and clicked at his black horse, directing him toward the dam for a closer look. Water was indeed leaking through the poorly constructed dam, but it was still early June. By the time July rolled around, the water levels would likely dry up so much that not even a trickle would make it through to the land on the other side. He glanced sidelong at Holmes, who had ridden up beside him. "Hollander tryin’ to dry out the homesteaders over yonder ‘n force them out?"
"Pshaw," Holmes shook his head, "No, ain’t but one homesteader ranch that way, and that’s the Evans widow ‘n her two boys. Naw, th’ Boss’s got hisself somethin’ else in mind for her."
"Oh? Like what?" Joshua inquired with genuine curiosity.
Holmes sniggered, "He’s dun decided to up and marry the woman, can ya believe that? I heard him tell Atkins that she’d been grievin’ for that dead bootlickin’ husband o’hers long enough and he was gonna show her what bein’ married to a real man was like. Doan get me wrong, Alice Evans is as purty a woman as you’ll see out here… green eyes and purty blond hair… hell pack a bit more meat on her and she’d outshine all the girls up at Brody’s place, ‘ceptin’ Connie, o’course." Connie was his favorite ride at Brody’s whorehouse in Bisbee. "Connie’s got the purtiest smile in all of Arizona Territory, I tell ya."
Joshua doubted that any whore would ever be able to hold a candle to the delicate beauty of Alice Evans. He suddenly realized with disappointment that he’d never seen her smile. "She sounds like a keeper," was all he said to Holmes, keeping his expression bland as he turned Dawson back toward the herd. The longhorns had drunk their fill and were now moving further upstream to where the ground was drier, content to mill around grazing. Some laid down in the shade, chewing their cud lazily.
"Whelp, looks like they ain’t goin’ anywheres for a while," Holmes stated, dismounting and digging in his saddlebag for some jerky to eat.
Climbing off Dawson, Joshua took the opportunity to eat some jerky and biscuits leftover from breakfast as well. Enduring Holmes rambling about his apparently legendary bedroom exploits with Connie killed most of his appetite though. He fended off direct conversation with the younger man by inserting vague responses like "Uh-hunh" and "That right?" now and again to indicate he was listening.
After about thirty minutes, Holmes finally shut up, but only because he couldn’t sleep and talk at the same time – as far as Joshua knew anyway. The sandy-haired cowboy settled up against some rocks under the shade of a tree and was snoring almost before his eyes were closed, head tilted back and mouth gaping open like a fish dying on dry land.
Thankful for the silence, Joshua took the opportunity to clean up after himself and stowed his uneaten food back in the saddlebags. He then relieved himself and afterwards, washed his hands in the cool water of the stream.
The cattle were beginning to rouse themselves, slowly clambering to their feet and ready to move on to grazing area.
Holmes was still slumbering away and Joshua spoke the man’s name quietly. "Holmes. Cattle’re movin’ on."
A grumble was the other man’s only response.
"Holmes," Mason said again, louder this time as he picked up Dawson’s reins. "Time to git a move on and wake up."
Holmes finally stirred enough to open his eyes and glare back at him. "I heard you the first time. Now shut the hell up and let me sleep, them damn beeves ain’t goin’ far anyway." He shifted position, pulling his hat lower down over his brow and rolled slightly to his side to go back to sleep.
Joshua allowed the briefest thought of using a fork on Holmes the way he’d used one on Hollander’s previous man Tucker to flicker through his mind, but shook his head. While it’d make him feel a hell of a lot better, it wouldn’t really do him much good in the long run. He sighed, cocking his head slightly as he regarded the dozing Holmes again and debated just leaving him behind.
One of the verses from Proverbs suddenly came to mind, and he softly quoted, "How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man."
The barest flicker of movement edging from the rocks Holmes was resting against caught Joshua’s eye. A shiny black head no bigger than his pinkie finger emerged from a crack in the rocks behind the sleeping cowhand. The red, yellow and black striped body followed a moment later. The coral snake’s black tongue flickered nervously, tasting the air as it began to slither along the folds of Holmes’ shirt and up toward his shoulder.
Temperament wise, Joshua knew that coral snakes were some of the most docile snakes a man have the misfortune to run across, however they also happened to be one of the most poisonous as well. "Holmes…" he began to say, but was interrupted almost immediately.
"Goddammit, Mason, I said shut up and let me sleep!" Holmes growled out without opening his eyes.
The snake paused briefly, disturbed by the vibrations caused by the man speaking, continued up toward his bandanna-wrapped neck.
Joshua watched it with interest. It was a beautiful creature, small and incredibly deadly. He debated getting out paper and charcoal to sketch it, but decided against it as he had no desire to put any part of Lester Holmes, even just his shirt sleeve, on paper.
The coral snake reached the shoulder, and as it glided silently across the fabric of his bandanna, the movement must have tickled or itched because with an irritated sound, Holmes grumbled and brushed at the snake on his shoulder. Quick as lightning, the snake sank its teeth into the back of his hand, hanging on for a brief second before releasing. It then darted into a larger crevice behind the young man’s back.
Lester sat up, looking around himself with some confusion and then at his grimy hand. Dirt must have concealed the bite mark, for he did nothing more than shake out his hand before climbing to his feet. "Damnable horseflies. Christ almighty, it’s hard enough tryin’ to catch some shuteye with you starin’ at me even without getting bitten by one of those damn things. Fine, fine, let’s go." Sulking, he grabbed the reins of his bay gelding and mounted up, trotting off toward the herd of longhorns.
Allowing the slightest smile to touch his lips, Joshua tightened the cinch around Dawson’s girth and mounted up. He adjusted his hat and clucked at the black horse. "Time to work."
A few hours later, Holmes was so disoriented he could barely stay upright in his saddle. He lurched from side to side, mumbling to himself about horseflies. When he abruptly leaned over and vomited violently, Joshua decided they would head back to the Bar-H a little earlier than normal. As tempting as it was, he doubted that Atkins and Hollander would take it well if he just left his ‘partner’ Lester out on the range to die. He grabbed the bay horse’s reins and returned them both to the ranch.
Atkins was finishing up working with one of the younger horses in the small pen behind the barn. He looked over and scowled as Joshua and Holmes rode into the yard. They were back from the range a good two hours earlier than normal.
Holmes was listing heavily in the saddle, and as his bay came to a halt beside Dawson, the young man finally just keeled over, landing on the ground with a thud.
He blinked up at Joshua and tried to sit up, his words slurred. "Goddammin’ horshfliesss…"
When Atkins saw that, he leaped over the fence and hurried over to them. "Christ, what happened? He get shot up by rustlers or something?" the wrangler demanded, but there was no obvious blood to be seen anywhere on Holmes’ body.
Dismounting, Joshua merely shrugged, "I got no idea what’s wrong with him. ‘Bout an hour ago, he started yammerin’ bout horseflies and puked on himself. He could barely stay upright in the saddle enough for me to get him back here…"
Atkins dazedly tried to prop himself up on his elbow, mumbling, "’s thoss damnashin horshfliesss… un gotta bit-ta my hand…" and held out his hand. The fleshy edge of his hand was mildly swollen, but that was the only sign he’d been bitten.
"Shee-yit…" Atkins straightened, looking down at Holmes, who barely had enough presence of mind to roll over before retching again. "I’ve seen the like’a this before. He got bit by a damn coral snake. Son of a bitch…" he cursed.
"A coral snake?" Joshua feigned surprise. "You sure? He never once acted like he got bit… wouldn’t he have known if he got bit?"
Holmes writhed on the ground, "Twern’t no snake, ‘as a horshfly… Muh’hand’s cold…" His hand may have felt cold, but both Atkins and Joshua could see that the younger man was soaked in sweat.
Atkins cursed again and ordered, "Help me get him into the bunkhouse… poison’s already dun’gotten into him, so won’t do no good to suck or lance it out." He got on Holmes’ left side and heaved him upwards, as Joshua grabbed the man’s right arm. They worked together to get Lester into the bunkhouse, leaving the horses where their reins fell for now.
They barely got Holmes into his bunk before he started convulsing and gasped, his skin turning slightly blue. There was not much either man watching could do, even if they had wanted to. The snake’s poison was starting to shut down Holmes’ ability to breath. The convulsing stopped shortly after that, however, and he breathed shallowly, his eyes half-lidded and drooping.
"Seen a man get bit by a rattlesnake once… he said it was like hammering a nail through his foot," Joshua quietly said. "Never known someone get bit by a coral snake though. Figure a man’d know if he got bit by a snake that dangerous."
"Pfft, to hear tell, a coral snake bite ain’t no worse’n gettin’ poked with a pin. The thing is, they ain’t mean like yer regular ol’ rattlesnake or moccasin. Ya damn near gotta grab it and beg a coral snake to bite ya," Atkins grumbled, shaking his head.
"There’s no point in callin’ the doc. He’ll either live, or he’ll be dead by morning, the dumb shit." Disgusted, he shook his head and went back outside.
Glen Hollander had just ridden in from Bisbee, and his eyebrows were drawn together in a frown at the unusual sight of the two horses left just standing there in front of the barn. "What’s going on?" he demanded, looking from Joshua to Atkins.
"Lester Holmes done gone and got hisself bitten by a coral snake," Atkins informed him. "We got ‘em in the bunkhouse for now."
"A coral snake?" Hollander blinked incredulously. "Hot damn, what’d he do, sing and dance on its head? He gonna make it?"
Joshua shrugged unknowingly, "I didn’t even know he’d got himself bit. He told me he got bit by a horsefly."
Atkins spat at the ground, "Only Lester Holmes would be damned stupid enough to mistake a coral snake bite for a horsefly, that’s the damned truth. If he makes it through the night, he might could live… but he’s already having trouble breathin’, and that don’t speak well for his chance a’makin’ it."
"Shit," Hollander scowled. "Well, guess it’s a good thing you came to the Double Bar-H when you did, Mason. Looks like I’d a been lookin’ for another man anyways."
"Glad to help out as I can, Boss." Joshua flashed a quick smile and ducked his head as though in modesty.
"In fact…" Hollander continued, looking from him to Atkins, "I want both of you ready to ride out of here in a few minutes. I got something I’ve been meaning to get to for a week or two now."
Atkins nodded obediently. He took the reins of Holmes’ bay horse and began leading the animal to the barn.
"Where’re we headin’, Mr. Hollander?" Joshua asked as he collected Dawson’s reins. "Back to town?"
Hollander’s grin was all teeth, wolfish and sly. "No, we’re goin’ over to the Evans ranch. I’m wanting to check up on my future herd, which includes two hear-ford bulls… and one green-eyed heifer." Looking pleased with his clever pun, he pushed his horse’s reins into Mason’s hands and headed toward his large house. "I’ll be back shortly, need to get somethin’ real fast."
Joshua hesitated for the barest moment before he responded quietly, "Yes sir." He led Hollander’s grey stallion and his own horse over to the watering trough for a quick drink and considered his options as he waited for the other two men to return.
Ben Wade may have been successful thus far in hiding behind another man’s name with Hollander, but a shave and a haircut wouldn’t be nearly to conceal his identity from a face to face meeting with the Evans. Still, as the Book of Proverbs said, "By mercy and truth, iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil." That seemed fitting somehow and reassuring all at once. After all, the Lord did work in mysterious ways.
BACK HOME NEXT
Trivia and Chapter notes:
The first Bible quote from Proverbs is from the King James Version of Proverbs 6:9. The second is from Proverbs 16:6.
The Homesteader Act of 1862 was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln with the intent to encourage families to help develop the land out west. It was referenced in the novel and television show "Little House on the Prairie" and in the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman movie "Far and Away." Homesteading came to a legal end in the 1970s (which was way later than I would have imagined! My mom could have taken advantage of it when I was a child!), though the last official homestead claim wasn't processed until the 1980s in Alaska.
Most Arizona cattle were driven west to California. The drives usually were done right after the spring roundup in May, and usually took a couple of months to complete (cattle travel about 10 miles a day on average). I tried to find concrete numbers on how many men would be 'steady hands' at a ranch like Hollander's but was unable to do so. 8-10 men seemed like an arbitrary number to me that was neither too small or too large, so I ran with it.
Curious piece of trivia. May and June are actually two of the driest months of the year in the Bisbee Arizona area. July and August are two of the wettest months. That seems rather backwards to me, but hey, that's what climate reports and records from the National Weather Service website tell me.
The coral snake is one of the most docile snakes in the United States, and ironically also the most deadly. There are reports of children playing with the 'pretty snake' with out being bitten. It's basically a member of the cobra family of snakes, and the poison is a neurotoxin. Unlike a rattlesnake which basically punches venom into you, coral snakes teeth are so small they often leave little more than an abrasion on the surface of the skin, and only areas like fingers and soft flesh are vulnerable to being pierced. A pin-prick would likely hurt worse than the bite of a coral snake.