Tuesday, October 20, 2009

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 11

Although there was only a slight breeze that morning, the previous days storm had cast several large drifts across the road to the fort. Ian’s horse disliked the deep drifts and instinctively began leaping into them, the plunging almost dislodging him. The extreme cold brought tears to his eyes and he could feel the skin on his face tighten. Once again he found himself knotting his scarf tightly around his high collar. He could feel the warmth and strength of his horse under him, causing him to tighten his legs against the animal. Entering the fort gate, he turned toward the headquarters building.

Concerned about leaving his gelding in the wind, he was agreeably surprised to find the entrance side of the building in the lee, sheltered from the now increasing northern gusts. After wrapping the reins around the tie rack, he stopped momentarily to examine the mercury thermometer mounted outside the door. It confirmed his estimate of the extreme cold, for it indicated -36 degrees. He felt a personal satisfaction, for he had guessed it to be nearly -40 degrees below zero.

Opening the heavy door, he found Kirby conversing with an officer seated at a desk. A corporal, evidently the Charge of Quarters, sat by a heavy sheet-iron stove. He cast a brief glance at Ian, then he turned back to his book. The seated lieutenant arose hastily and greeted him with a smile. “So you’re Mary McLaren’s brother. Kirby tells me you witnessed the hangings yesterday. I’m Shawn Kirkpatrick.” He advanced to shake Ian’s hand.

“He’s her brother, that’s for sure.” Kirby was smiling. “He was an unwilling spectator at the action yesterday, so I wanted Captain Collins to hear his version. It’s my mess. I should have left some of my troopers with that bunch.”

Kirkpatrick sympathized, “I’d probably have done just as you. There was no way you could have anticipated the result.”

“I still blame myself,” Kirby said, and then he turned to Ian. “Might as well get it over with.” Beckoning with his finger, he advanced to the captain’s door. Ian followed. A brief knock brought the response, “Come in!”

Captain Collins was gazing out of a partially frosted window as they entered; he was leaning forward almost to the glass, evidently watching something of interest outside. He finally broke away and faced the two men. As Kirby introduced Ian, the captain began to smile.

“I met your parents and your sister at the Christmas Ball. They seem determined to settle in our country.”

“Yes, my father has filed on a homestead in Minnesota across the river from the fort. I couldn’t file; I’ve another year to go. I’m hoping to buy two quarters from the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad when they put their acreage on the block.”

“I’m told they will begin selling soon, possibly when the road reaches the border. Please take a seat and tell me just what transpired yesterday. I understand you accompanied the men who hung those horse thieves.” He moved to his desk and sat down, indicating to Ian to sit opposite. Kirby was left standing on tenterhooks.

Ian related how he and Pete had met the posse, and then backtracked to show Kirby where they had seen the fugitives. He described the actions of the fort teamsters and the town men. “I don’t want to be the cause of trouble. Back in Ontario a horse thief would face the whipping post or a jail sentence, but not be hung.”

“Yes, but in the past it’s been considered a capital offense, especially in the Southwest. Now, it’s a penitentiary offense if convicted by a court. I’m responsible for bringing law and order to this section of the Dakotas, with the assistance of the sheriff and federal marshals of course. This business of men taking the law into their own hands has to be stopped.” Turning to Kirby, he chided, “At least now you’ve learned not to put too much trust in civilians. Sad, too, for now I’ll have to fire that man, Murphy. He’s only been on the job a few days; still, I’ll not have my officer’s orders disregarded.”

He suddenly arose, facing Kirby, his expression hardening. “Mr! Have Kirkpatrick bring the fort teamsters to my office at eleven o’clock this morning. I want you to see Sheriff Brown at Pembina immediately and give him an account of yesterday. I can do nothing about those town ruffians; I have no authority over them. In fact, I doubt Brown can take any action against them either. There were just too many men involved. However, if any of our teamsters are ever involved in anything as dastardly in the future, I’ll replace them all.” He stepped forward and opened the door of his office, effectively dismissing them.

Kirkpatrick looked up apprehensively as they approached his desk. Kirby shook his head negatively. “Status quo. Guess I’m off the hook. The captain wants you to have the teamsters in his office by eleven this morning. They’ll get a chewing! I’m ordered to go to town and inform the sheriff of the affair.”

“I’ll bet Sheriff Brown has already heard all of the gory details. Exciting news travels fast.” Kirkpatrick seemed positive.

Kirby turned to Ian with a wry smile. “Thanks to you, I’ve gotten off pretty easy. The captain is not always this generous. Want some company on your ride back to town? It’ll just take a few minutes to have my horse brought around.” He motioned to the Charge of Quarters, who reluctantly arose, put on his coat and slipped out the door.

“Sure! I’ve never been to the Brown and Kabernagle store, but I’ve met Charley. He seems a solid sort.”

“Yup, he soldiered for years, finally resigning from the Army two years ago to run for the office of sheriff. He enlisted in the war at the age of sixteen.” Reflectively he added, “It was quite common for youngsters to enlist in those days; there was so much poverty. Then, too, of course, youngsters joined for the excitement.”

The main street of Pembina seemed bleak when they reached the west riverbank. Two teams with bobsleighs were parked just ahead, on the right, and two saddle horses stood at the rack in front of the saloon.

Kirby joked, “Cripes, you could shoot a cannon down Cavalier Street and hardly hit a thing.”

Ian agreed, “It’s mighty cold for a Tuesday – guess everyone is staying where it’s warm.”

Just inside the door two men were playing billiards. Ian recognized one of the men as Turner, the land agent from St. Vincent. His pool opponent was a stranger. Further back, at another table, Brown was casually practicing pool by himself. Ian immediately became aware of the strong odor of tobacco smoke and sour beer in the room.

Seeing Kirby and Ian, Charley laid his cue on the table. Turning to his partner behind the bar, he remarked, “Mighty easy life in the Army these days, John. Looks like Kirby sets his own hours.”

Kirby smiled resignedly at Ian. “He’s just jealous of West-Pointers. He thinks we have it too easy.”

“’Spose you’ve come to tell me all about your exciting chase of yesterday.” Charley sprawled into a worn chair, indicating to the others to take a seat. “So those bastards from town pulled a sandy on you. I’ve heard most of the story. It’s a sorry mess, but not a total loss. It’s saved me a cold trip to Detroit with two prisoners.” A lazy smile appeared on his face.

Kirby spoke up. “Ian and his man were along with the bunch but didn’t participate. He can give you the details.”

“Don’t really need any,” Charley said morosely. “It was those two damn troublemakers, Murphy and Brogan. Hell, I guessed that when I heard the news. Murphy is an unknown. He has been around for months and was just hired at the fort lately, or so I’ve been told. Brogan, on the other hand has a depraved streak in him. He’s a congenital liar and a thief, the type to put the boots to a man when he’s down. Someone will kill him someday and I’ll have to make an arrest.” He laughed aloud and shook his head. “I’d hate to have to do that!”

“Speak of the devil!” Turner exclaimed, as he glanced out the large front window. “Here he comes now -- and with some of his bully boys.” He casually turned back to the table and took up his stance to shoot, pretending to be unaware of the men approaching the door.

A sudden cold draft rolled into the room as the door opened long seconds to admit several men, led by Brogan. It was evident from their loose swagger that all had been carousing elsewhere in the town. The devil-may-care looks on their faces indicated they were trouble.

“Set up whiskey, Kabernagle! I’m buying!” The loud, harsh voice was Brogan’s.

Kabernagle cast a warning glance at Brown as the men bellied up to the bar. Placing a glass in front of each, he began pouring generous measures. The unruly, unbridled remarks made by the men as they picked up their drinks confirmed Ian’s belief that their entry into the bar was planned.

Brogan finally turned his back to the bar and studied Kirby. “What are you doing here, soldier boy? Crying to the sheriff about your failure yesterday?” He smirked. “I see you’ve got that gutless McLaren with you, too.”

Ian tensed at the words and he could see Kirby’s sudden anger. Both Kirby and he jumped to their feet at the challenge.

Charley knew that Kirby, as an Army officer, could not be embroiled in fisticuffs with a civilian. He spoke up sarcastically from his chair, “Brogan, why don’t you take your friends to some other saloon? You know damn well you’re not welcome here.”

Brogan snorted, “It’s a public place and we’ll drink wherever we please.”

“True, But keep your mouth off of my customers or get out!”

“You’re just a civilian in here. If you’ll take off the badge, I’ll show you who’s the best man!”

“That ties it!” Charley glanced toward Ian and Kirby.

He stood slowly, removing his vest; then, unhooking the badge from his shirt pocket, tossed it to Kabernagle.

“John,” he addressed his partner without taking his eyes off Brogan, “See that we’re not disturbed.” Walking around the pool table, he faced Brogan squarely.

Kabernagle leaned down behind the bar and came up with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. The two large side hammers made ominous clicks as he thumbed them back. He smiled grimly as he said, “You won’t be, Charley!”

Before Brogan could react to the bartender’s surprise move, Charley slapped his face resoundingly, twice, forehand and backhand. They were hard, slamming slaps, making Ian almost wince.

For a short second Brogan stood in shock. Then, with a wild roar of rage, the huge man charged Charley. Ian was amazed to see the sheriff step nimbly aside, and then land a punishing blow to Brogan’s kidneys. The blow had sufficient force to swing his opponent off balance. He spun sideways into the wall, facing toward Ian and Kirby. Recovering his balance, he turned to charge Charley again, his huge arms and ball-like fists swinging wildly. It was then Ian gained an insight into Brown’s boxing ability, as he administered further punishment to Brogan with ease. What blows the sheriff received seemed to roll off his shoulders. Although he was a powerful man, Brogan seemed clumsy and uncoordinated. Seeing his awkwardness, Ian felt that even he might hold his own with Brogan.

Slowly Charley backed his opponent around the billiard table, forcing Turner and his friend who were standing between the window and the pool table, to give ground. Finally Brogan’s back was to the low-cased front window, the sill only knee high. When Brogan felt the sill against the back of his left leg he momentarily glanced down. It was then the sledge hammer blow caught him square on the chin, the driving force throwing him off balance and back through the wide front window. The cross frame supporting the four large glass panes bulged outward, then collapsed, the glass shattering into large shards, most falling outside.

Dropping his arms to his sides, Charley stared out the window at the unconscious Brogan lying in the snow. Two of the horses outside had pulled back on tied reins and were acting up.
The men at the bar stood in shock at Brogan’s total collapse. One man, his leg cocked on the brass rail, had unconsciously tilted his glass of whiskey and the liquid was dribbling onto the floor.

Turner walked questioningly to the glassless opening to observe the unconscious Brogan. Then he turned to the men at the bar. “Begad! You’d better get your friend over to the hotel. He’s bleeding badly. He’ll need some patching up.”

Brogan’s friends silently filed out of the bar to gather around him. With sullen glances toward Brown, who watched from the broken window, they lifted the unconscious man and carried him past the corner, headed north.

Charley turned to Kabernagel, who had already disposed of the shotgun. “Your turn to fix the window, John. I fixed the last one.”

Kabernagle looked at him accusingly. “Like hell you did. You hired Sam to do it and I had to pay half the bill.” He filled a shot glass with whiskey. Reaching out, he offered it to his partner. “Here! You’ve earned it! That’s the quickest I’ve ever seen you put a man away.”

Both Ian and Kirby had remained speechless during the brief altercation. Finally Ian volunteered, “I’ll pay for the window; that show was worth it.”

“No, you won’t!” Kabernagle was smiling. “Charley broke it fair and square. We’ll foot the bill.” He turned to his partner. “Cripes, Charley! Get the tarp from the back room, and don’t forget the hammer and nails. Judas, we’ll freeze before we get that damn hole plugged.”

Ian and Kirby held the tarp over the opening while Charley nailed it into place. Even so, the room had cooled almost to the outside temperature. After the last nail had been driven, Kirby remarked, “You haven’t lot your touch, Charley.” He pondered aloud, “It’s funny that Brogan hasn’t heard about your boxing prowess from the old timers at the fort.” Turning to Ian, he added, “I’ve had men out there tell me that Charley was hell on wheels with his fists. Why, he held the bare knuckles championship of the regiment back when he was a sergeant.”

Charley looked at Kirby soberly. “Flattery won’t get you a free drink in here, Kirby.”

The lieutenant smiled as he reached for his coat. “Can’t drink anyway. I’m still on duty.” He turned to Ian. “I’ve got to get back to the fort; I’m Officer of the Day until midnight.”

Ian approached the bar as Kirby left. Holding out his hand to Kabernagel, he said, “Charley didn’t introduce us properly. I’m Ian McLaren from Emerson —- soon to be from St. Vincent, I hope.”

Kabernagle switched the bar rag to his left hand to shake. He smiled. “Just call me John.” He nodded toward the tarp. “Don’t think this happens every day. Why, it’s been nearly a year since Charley threw the last bum out.”

“Were you really prepared to use that shotgun?” Ian was curious.

“Hell! It hasn’t been loaded for years. Good convincer, though.” Kabernagle winked, “Don’t tell on me.”

Charley grimaced. “He lies a little bit, too. That gun is loaded for bear.” He began racking the pool balls on a table. “Come on, Ian. I’ll play you a game of rotation, we’d better light some lamps though.”

“I’ve watched, but I’ve never played pool. You’ll have to show me how.”

Charley looked at him suspiciously, then he finally shrugged. “Your education is sadly lacking; but nothing’s for free. It’s going to cost you five cents for every game you lose. He pinned on his badge and shrugged into his vest, pausing momentarily to check his watch. “We’ll play until noon. By that time John should have the bar set up for lunch.” Slyly he looked toward his partner. “Hopefully, that is.”

Kabernagel shook his head dourly at the remark.

Late that evening a dejected Eck Murphy walked into the bar of Smith’s Hotel in St. Vincent. The stale, beer-charged atmosphere did nothing to reduce the pain behind his eyes. A loud voice came from the back of the room. “What in hell are you doing over here, Murphy?”

The words snapped him out of his trance and he grinned foolishly as he advanced toward Brogan and his companions.

Wouldn’t you like to know? Why, hell, I’m a man of leisure now.” His attempt at a light bravado failed; it was obvious he was bitter.

“I take it, then, that you’ve been canned,” Brogan questioned.

“That pious son-of-a-bitch Collins fired me —- told me I had no respect for military discipline.”

“Should have slugged him,” Brogan grunted.

“Yah, and spend a month in the fort guardhouse, probably get the hell beat out of me too. I’m not that much of a fool.”

“Well, now that you’ve got time on your hands, you can buy us all a drink. You can still come back to the Crossing and bunk down with us for the remainder of the winter. That is, if you can grubstake yourself and helps out with the booze supply. ‘Course you’ll have to take your usual turn with an axe, getting firewood.” He turned to smile at his cronies seated at the table.

Murphy’s eyes suddenly seized upon Brogan’s face and neck. “Lordy, what happened to you? Your face looks like hell! Where did’ja get all those bandages on your neck and cheek?”

Brogan looked sheepish and evasive. “Fell through a window in Pembina this morning. Had a run-in with the sheriff."

Murphy, although a powerful man, knew of Brogan’s uncontrollable temper. He deemed it prudent not to ask more. Finally, he said reluctantly, “I’ve enough coin to carry me most of the winter. I should be able to get back on with the C.P.R. in the spring.” He looked toward the bartender. “Give us a bottle of your best whisky. Mind now, none of that rotgut you peddle.”

Smith, the hotel owner, gave Murphy a hard look. “All the booze I sell is good booze. Keep it peaceful and you can continue your drinking until you leave.”

Brogan became hostile. “And what if we aren’t peaceful?”

“If it comes to that, someone is going to get hurt, maybe killed.” Smith seemed unperturbed.

Murphy snorted. “There are six of us.”

The bartender’s right hand lifted from behind the bar; he leveled a long-barreled revolver at Murphy. “Yes, and there are six in this Colt. Even if you are lucky enough to kill me, you’ll end up dancing at the end of a rope, same as those breeds you hung.”

The two men sobered when they realized the barman wouldn’t back down. Looking at the faces of other bar patrons around the room they saw nothing but hostility. Brogan finally turned to Murphy, pointing to an empty chair. “Come on; sit down.” Casting a side glance toward the hotel owner, who was still pointing the gun, he said, “Hell, we was only funnin’. We’re not looking for trouble.”

Smith gave him a disgusted look. “Sure, I knew you were joking.” Under his breath, he said, “Like hell!”

Immediately after the bartender brought the bottle to their table, the group began to exchange talk in a furtive manner. Brogan said threateningly, “I’m going to get even with Brown, McLaren and that damned lieutenant from the fort. We’ve got to find out more about them.” He puzzled, “Wonder where McLaren came from?”

One of the men spoke up. “He’s from some farm just east of Orillia, along the railroad line. I heard him and his pa talking about it last fall when we graded that stretch north of Emerson.” He looked at Brogan, “You ought to know, you were our crew foreman.” He laughed. “You rode that young fellow pretty hard.”

Murphy leaned forward, suddenly interested. “So, he’s from the Orillia area, eh? Just east?” He looked thoughtful; memories were coming back of the bridge and the young black-haired girl he had caught there. Then he had been struck from behind by someone. Sudden confusion came; something exists here that I don’t understand. Then he slipped out of his near trance.

He teased Brogan, “You might need help with that young McLaren, he’ll be tough to handle. Not hard to find him, though. You just have to pick the time and place.”

“I’ll get him,” promised Brogan. “That Ralston fellow from the fort, he’ll be hard to corral. He’s always with others, hardly ever alone.”

Another of the men spoke up. “He’s chasing that good-looking, black-haired sister of McLaren’s. You should be able to come up with something on that. How about the sheriff? He’s damned dangerous.”

At the mention of the black-haired girl, the voice began again, flowing through Murphy’s head. Remember! Remember! Then suddenly he did remember, but it was of the girl he saw in front of the saloon last winter, the one he stopped, the one who looked familiar. Shaking his head, he pushed away the pulsing memory and said to Brogan, “Brown checks the downtown streets of Pembina nearly every night around midnight. Lots of opportunity to knock him off then.”

Brogan looked startled. “Hell, I just want to beat the hell out of him, not kill him. I’m not a cold-blooded murderer.”

“You have to take your chances—never know how it’ll turn out.” Murphy grinned as he exchanged looks with the others sitting at the table. Then, there it was! The pain began to throb behind his eyes again. The torment seemed to be of something missing, a vital link. He rubbed his temples in an effort to assuage the pain.

Brogan spoke up. “Got a headache? Hell, you need another shot, that’s all.”