Hell for Leather

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Chapter 2: Smythe

Even before anyone had heard him say a word, it was evident that George Smythe did not belong in the territories. He was impeccably dressed and seemed to be able to walk through the dusty streets without getting his shoes dirty. When he did speak, all suspicions the citizens of this little town might have had about him were confirmed: he was English

“Good day, Madam.” He said, addressing the proprietress of what he was told was the finest boarding house in town, “I should like to rent one of your rooms for an indeterminate amount of time.” Betty looked up from her bookkeeping and saw dollar signs as she examined him from toe to top. He was older, in his forties she would guess. Clean. Well-dressed. Just the sort of clientele she was hoping for.

“Well you’ve come to the right place.” she smiled broadly, “We have the best rooms this side of the Mississippi.”

“Excellent.” replied Smythe, returning the smile and removing his purse from his vest, “Will one week be a sufficient amount? I may stay longer.” Betty’s eyes grew wide.

“Certainly.” she answered, “I’ll have your things brought to our finest suite.” She opened the door behind her counter and yelled, “Thomas, and get your lazy butt in here!” smiling at Smythe she added, “We have a guest.” Presently, a young Negro, presumably Thomas, entered and fetched Smythe’s bags, silently carrying them upstairs to the master’s suite. “Let me give you the tour.” said Betty, taking Smythe by the arm, “This is the billiard room. Feel free to play any time you like. The dining room is through this door and the parlor is in the back. We also have a selection of fine whiskeys and cigars, if you like.”

“Thank you, Madam. Perhaps later.”

“Very well.” Betty shifted her feet, “Will you be wanting any, um…..entertainment?” Smythe blinked, unsure of her meaning. He stared at Betty, waiting for clarification. Betty raised an eyebrow and turned her head slightly. Smythe simply furrowed his brow. “In the bedroom.” whispered Betty, feigning mortification.

“Ah,” Smythe finally understood, “No, madam. I am here on very urgent business.”

“I see. Well if there’s anything I can do for you, just ask.”

“I’m looking for a man. Someone skilled at tracking.”

“Well there are a couple of good bounty hunters around here. You could try Cooper’s bar.”

“Much obliged.” said Smythe, trying out his American vernacular and doffing his bowler hat.

Cooper’s place was at the edge of town and was as far as some of the rougher travelers ventured. It was widely known that the Sheriff tolerated certain elements so long as they stayed out of the town center and didn’t make trouble for the citizens. It was just the sort of place Smythe was looking for. The bar’s scruffy assortment eyed him suspiciously, but noting the absence of a star on his jacket, commenced to ignoring him. If he wasn’t a Marshal or Sheriff, they didn’t care what he was doing.

He approached the barkeep who seemed none too eager to speak to him.

“Good afternoon.” Smythe offered a smile.

“Yeah.” was all he got in response.

“I wonder if you might help me.”

“That depends.”

“I’m looking for someone.”

“No kidding.” The barkeep was not impressed.

“His name is Ezekiel McAllister.” At a nearby table, a rough looking man sat, his face obscured by the book he was reading. Near him, on the floor, lay a man face down in a small pool of blood. The reader’s head turned slightly at the mention of Zeke’s name.

“Never heard of him.” answered the barkeep. Smythe removed his coin purse and opened it. Slowly, he put a dollar coin on the bar. As he spoke, he slowly added coins, one after the other.

“Of course,” he said, “I would expect to pay for the information.” Another coin. “I assure you, I mean to help him.” The barman exchanged glances with the rough patron who was now paying his undivided attention to the strange Englishman.

“Who are you?” asked the bartender, “Marshals?”

“Do I sound anything like an American authority figure to you? No, I am not a marshal. I work for a very wealthy family and I am here on a very urgent personal matter.” The bartender seemed to consider this. The rough man said nothing.

“Okay,” said the bartender eventually, “he’s right there.” With that he picked up his coins and stepped away. Zeke was still giving the Brit all his attention as he slowly put his book on the table and moved his hand to the grip of his pistol.

“Ah,” said Smythe, “Jolly good. I’ve come to the right place.” Zeke’s right hand rested on his revolver. Smythe approached him extending his hand. “Mr. McAllister,” he said, “my name is Smythe. George Smythe.” Zeke’s hand didn’t move.

“I don’t shake hands with strangers.” he growled.

“How odd.” replied Smythe with a somewhat forced joviality, “Then how do you make friends?”

“I don’t.” answered Zeke matter-of-factly. Smythe glanced briefly at the man on the floor.

“Was he a friend of yours?” Zeke thought for a moment.

“No.” he replied, “We were involved in a spirited literary debate.” This seemed to both surprise and delight Smythe.”

“Indeed?” his face brightened, “And what was the nature of the debate?” Zeke leaned back in his chair.

“Well I took the position that although Shakespeare’s sonnets do deserve the lion’s share of the credit they receive, Donne’s work deserves more attention due to its philosophical nature. And he maintained that reading was for sissies.” Smythe’s face fell slightly.

“Very well.” He grimaced, “I need help with a very dangerous matter and I believe you are the man best suited to the task.”

“Why is that?”

“Is there somewhere more private we could talk? The information I must impart to you is of a somewhat personal nature.” Zeke took a long sip of his beer and wiped the bristles on his chin.

“I got some business outside of town. You can ride with me if you want.”

“Splendid. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t have a horse.” Zeke snickered and shook his head.

“Harold,” he said to the bartender, “can I borrow Mable for a little while?”

The sun had moved into the western half of the sky when Zeke and Smythe finally made it out of the town’s limit. As the buildings slowly disappeared behind them, Smythe gazed in wonder at the vista before them. To him, it seemed the sky was much larger than in his native England, and the sun was almost certainly brighter. He glanced over at Zeke whose eyes were nearly closed as he squinted against the sun, the brim of his black Boss of the Plains hat casting a sinister looking shadow across his weathered face. Zeke noticed him staring and turned his ice-cold glare on Smythe, who promptly went back to admiring the landscape.

In the distance, he could see mountains rising against the horizon, how high, he could not say. The ground was dotted with small brush and seemed relatively devoid of grass. This seemed strange to him as his native land was one of the most verdant places on God’s green Earth. Smythe enjoyed this change of scenery a great deal. He had spent the majority of his time confined to cities like London, Boston and New York. This kind of wide-open space still gave him pause despite the fact that he had just spent several days crossing it by train.

Before very long, the two of them had entered a small pass between the foothills. Here, the brush became sparser and the grass all but disappeared. The sides of the pass rose up on both sides leaving a relatively small trail between the walls. Smythe grew wary. This was the sort of badlands one heard awful stories about. Unsavory men springing from crevices to bushwhack unsuspecting travelers. Indians attacking from the numerous hiding spots to claim scalps. He hoped Zeke knew what he was doing.

He seemed to, thought Smythe who had taken to surreptitiously examining him out of the corner of his eye lest Zeke turn that stare on him again. Zeke’s dress was that of a man accustomed to acting only out of necessity. There was nothing ornamental about him or his persona. If he spoke, it was only to convey needed information. This caused Smythe some ill ease, truth be told. He wanted to converse. He enjoyed it, but Zeke seemed to have a severe disdain for words, no matter whose they were. His clothing had seen better days, but that wasn’t unusual out here. Smythe had noticed that there were other things to worry about than one’s appearance in this wild country. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something about it gnawed at his intellect.

Zeke’s dark brown topcoat stopped at knee length, which was not what Smythe had come to expect. Many of the cowboys he had seen wore longer coats, he presumed because they were warmer. Why wouldn’t Zeke want that? After some pondering, he realized that a longer coat might be more prone to getting in the way when mounting a horse or hunting. He was pleased with himself for having contrived this explanation and he found it in keeping with Zeke’s idiom that he would favor practicality over fashion, or what passed for fashion here. Having solved that riddle, he then took note of Zeke’s holsters, which were what he had come to learn were called “cross draw”, meaning that a right-handed man would wear a gun on his left hip with the hilt facing forward. In order to draw it, the shooter would have to reach across his body rather than straight down to his hip. This also puzzled Smythe and he thought about asking Zeke why, but that idea frightened him a little. He would rather figure it out on his own anyway, he told himself.

Smythe tried to remember all the different types of holsters he had seen since arriving in America. The most common one, he figured, was to have it on your strong side, strapped to the hip or thigh. He tried to imagine the mechanics of drawing a weapon from such a holster and in so doing, he unwittingly began miming the action. Zeke noticed and looked at him with a furrowed brow. Smythe smiled slightly, trying to hide his embarrassment and went back to doing the calculations in his mind.

If one were to draw from the hip while mounted, he thought, the coat would get in the way. The vest might bunch up and snag it. One would have to bend the elbow to a steep angle to reach it. He thought that any one of these reasons would make it more difficult. He realized that with it on the opposite side, unless one’s coat were buttoned, it would be quite easy to draw and fire with some speed. Two mysteries solved, he told himself. The last distinguishing element of Zeke’s dress was fairly easy to dissect. He wore the rough leather gloves that everyone here seemed to own, however, his were modified slightly. On his right glove, the thumb and first two fingers were cut off at the knuckle. Clearly this would allow for greater sensitivity to a trigger as well as for loading rounds into one’s weapons. Zeke was very clearly a gunslinger. Everything about him made that clear, even the way he moved. He had the easy gait of an apex predator and that aura even seemed to extend to his horse who walked more like a lion than others of his same breed.

Smythe seemed uneasy in his mount while Zeke appeared nearly asleep. The temperature, which had been rising all morning, began to show a little mercy, which was good as the sky above was void of clouds and would offer no respite from the sun.

“How hot does it usually get out here?” asked Smythe by way of breaking the silence.

“Pretty hot.”

“That’s a vague answer.”

“Did you come all the way out here to talk about the weather?”

“No.” admitted Smythe, “You’re right.”

“So what’s on your mind?”

“I need to find someone.”

“What did he do?”

”It’s a she, and she didn’t do anything. She’s missing.”

“Then go see the marshals about it.”

“I don’t believe a missing girl would trouble their thoughts any great deal. A life doesn’t seem worth very much out here.”

“Depends on the life, I reckon.” said Zeke. “Mine is plenty valuable to me.”

“Of course. Well this girl’s life is considerably valuable to my employer. She’s his daughter.”

“She run away from home?”

“I’m afraid not. She was on her way to San Francisco to meet her husband. He was to oversee her father’s vast financial interests in California.”

“So what happened?”

“Her train was attacked by Comanche Indians.”

“How do you know it was Comanche?”

“Several witnesses reported seeing a small band of Comanche Indians stop the train, board it and take several young women with them.”

“Kidnapping ain’t what the Comanche do. If they took her, then I hate to tell you this, but she’s already dead.” Smythe was silent for a few moments.

“Do you have children, Mr. McAllister?”

“Not that I know about.”

“For a parent, not knowing the fate of your child is the worst possible Hell imaginable. If she has in fact fallen victim to this marauding band, I would like you to confirm this so that I might give my employer some small measure of peace.” Zeke said nothing but simply rode on, staring silently at the horizon. Smythe examined his face looking for anything that might give him a clue as to what Zeke was thinking, but Zeke’s eyes gave nothing away.

“Well?” said Smythe finally.

“Hush.” replied Zeke, his eyes focused on something in the distance.

“What is it?”

“I said hush.” Zeke turned his steely green eyes on Smythe to drive the point home. A glare like that coming from a man like Zeke would have been enough to keep Smythe silent til rapture, but Zeke continued, “For the next few minutes, you don’t talk unless I tell you to. Go along with whatever I say and keep close. If guns start blazing, you turn Mable around and run her hell-bent for leather all the way back to town. Understand?”

“Not entirely.” Zeke sighed, exasperated.

“Just do what I say.” he told him.

As they rode slowly toward what Smythe finally saw was a small encampment, Zeke kept looking up at the sky. Smythe assumed he was praying.

At length, they made it to the camp. A fire was smoldering at the center of five bedrolls whose owners had only now noticed they had visitors. Zeke and Smythe approached slowly and stopped. The four men stood still, waiting for the two of them to make a move. Smythe’s heart was pounding, but the sight of Zeke, calm and cool, soothed his nerves. Smythe noticed that Zeke had locked eyes with one particular member of this small group.

“Afternoon, Eli.” Zeke finally said to the man Smythe assumed was the reason they were there.

“Is it afternoon already?” replied the cowboy, acting like a circus clown. Smythe took this as a display of bravado and relaxed slightly. It meant he was afraid.

“I reckon you know why I’m here.”

“Whores missing me already and sent you to fetch me?” More foolishness, thought Smythe. He wanted to know how Zeke would handle this. It would tell him a great deal about this stranger.

“Now don’t play dumb, Eli, though you are quite convincing in the role.” Smythe smiled to himself. How easily Zeke seemed to control the situation. “Do you know what would happen if word was to get out that Harold had let his upstanding saloon become a den of thieves and card cheats?” Eli became visibly irritated by this.

“You mind who you call a cheat.” he said, placing his hand on his holstered six gun.

“And you mind where you put that hand.” answered Zeke coolly, “You lost, fair and square. Pay old man Hendricks what you owe him.”

“Or what? There’s four of us and there ain’t but two of you.”

“Eli,” said Zeke as though he were bored of the whole thing, “only three of you are wearing iron. Do you really think I wouldn’t have time to bury you three before I got around to putting bullets in the last one? Hell, I wouldn’t be nervous even if I was alone. As it happens, I brought my good friend along for the company. This here is English George, the Butcher of Barberry. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure.” Eli squinted up at Smythe, looking him over.

“Well yeah, I’ve heard of him.” he lied, convincing no one. Smythe kept quiet and felt very near to fainting as he stared down this undoubtedly ruthless outlaw. He focused his will on not blinking and Zeke was impressed by his manner and bearing. Eli was backed into a corner. Zeke could tell he was nervous. Good. “He don’t look English to me,” said Eli nervously, “and he ain’t even wearing any guns.”

“I am most certainly English.” said Smythe, swallowing the lump in his throat, “As for my guns, I assure you they are well within reach.” Zeke could see fear blooming on Eli’s face. He was scared now and scared men do stupid things. Zeke had won, now he had to find a way of getting out of the situation while letting Eli save some dignity in front of his men.

“Tell you what,” said Zeke, “what say we make another wager, only this time if you lose, no bellyaching and no dawdling, you pay Hendricks and on top of that, you give Harold a dollar for sullying his bar’s reputation.” Eli took his eyes off Smythe for the first time.

“What if I win?” he asked.

“Then I’ll pay Hendricks the balance of your wager myself.” Eli relaxed slightly as he considered this. “You see that buzzard in that tree over yonder?” Eli took a moment before taking his eyes off Zeke. The buzzard in question was perched on a mesquite tree quite a ways off from where they were standing.

“You think you can hit that from here?” exclaimed Eli, genuinely amused, “Hell, Zeke, you’re on!” Zeke smiled.

“Why don’t you take a few steps back.” he said.

“Sure thing.” said Eli, now completely at ease, “Let’s give Ezekiel some room, boys. I don’t want to hear him complaining when he loses that we distracted him.” Eli and his gang gave Zeke a wide berth as he dismounted. Smythe strained his eyes in the direction of the bird. It seemed impossible to him. As Zeke stood between their horses unpacking his Sharps rifle, Smythe leaned down and kept his voice low.

“Are you sure this is a good idea? That bird has to be four hundred yards away.” without turning around, Zeke replied.

“Actually, it’s about four hundred and fifty.” Zeke loaded his rifle and slowly walked over to a small tree with low branches. Carefully he selected one that was at just the right height. He rested his weapon on the branch and settled into his firing stance. For what seemed like an eternity to Smythe, nothing happened.

“While we’re young, Zeke.” said Eli to the amusement of his crew. Zeke sighed.

“Eli, every time you open your big mouth, I have to start over.”

“Start what over? You ain’t done nothing.”

“Just be quiet.” admonished Zeke and went back to his sights.

As Smythe observed the scene, it appeared to him as though Zeke was frozen in his stance. Everything around him was moving, if only slightly. The horses shifted their weight or swished their tails. Even Eli and his posse, which stood nearly inert in rapt attention, could be seen blinking and breathing, but Zeke was perfectly still. Smythe shifted his focus from Zeke to his target. From Smythe’s vantage point, the bird was merely a dot, nearly indistinguishable from the tree upon which it was perched. He tried to imagine what it would look like through Zeke’s gun sights. It would be like shooting at a speck. Smythe had hunted as a younger man, but this was something else entirely. He studied Zeke’s eyes. His shooter’s stare was intense, but relaxed. Slowly, Zeke’s finger began moving backwards on the trigger.

BLAM!

The shock of the rifle’s report caused Smythe to jump and he turned his eyes to the bird just in time to see it explode in a burst of feathers and fall to the ground.

“Son of a bitch!” exclaimed Eli, throwing his hat to the ground. Zeke ejected the spent brass, ambled over to his horse, slung his leg over and adjusted himself into his saddle all the while keeping his rifle in his hand just in case Eli got some fool idea in his head.

“A bet’s a bet.” he finally said to Eli, adding, “Don’t make me come call on you again.” he could see Eli was unhappy, but neither he nor one of his gang was about to make any sudden movements. Any man who could make a shot like that was most assuredly a mean son of a bitch and not to be tussled with. Zeke turned his horse away.

“Let’s go, George.” he said. Smythe followed suit trying not to burst out laughing. When they were out of sight of the camp, George finally exhaled.

“Good Lord, man!” he exclaimed, “That shot was a miracle!”

“Ain’t nothing miraculous about guns.” Zeke spat on the ground and removed a cigarillo from his vest pocket.

“How did you know you could hit the target?”

“I didn’t. That’s why it’s called a bet.” he struck a match and lit his smoke.

“So what would you have done had you missed?”

“Honored the wager.” Zeke exhaled a pillar of smoke.

“A man of honor?” Smythe grinned, “You are precisely the man I need.”

“To find this girl, huh? Tell me something, how did you find me? And why?”

”Ah yes. I was getting to that. Three years ago, you tried to ambush a Wells Fargo coach, did you not?” Zeke was visibly disturbed.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Mr. McAllister, I am not here to cause you any trouble”

“Then why are you here?”

“I told you. I need to find someone.”

“Horse shit.” snapped Zeke, “If that’s all you needed, there are a hundred men who would gladly take your money to find whatever you want.”

“That’s the problem. Money is a very poor motivator. I need a man with an interest in something other than money.”

“And you think that’s me?”

“Mr. McAllister, let’s not play games. I need your help and time is a factor. I know you were involved in the attempted robbery of the coach. I know you’ve been on the run. I can help you.”

“How?”

“That coach was carrying a substantial amount of gold. Very few people knew that and when we received word that someone had been planning to attack it, my employer became concerned that someone within our company was acting in concert with the would-be thieves.”

“An inside job?”

“As you say, yes. I was sent to investigate. The manager of the station provided me with details of the assailant’s appearance, as well as names. He also mentioned a man named Clayton.”

“So why me? Why now?”

“Did you know the manager feels very indebted to you?”

“Why?”

“According to him, things could have been much worse.” Zeke turned his face away from Smythe as shame flushed his cheeks. “With his testimony,” continued Smythe, “and my help, you could be exonerated. No more running.”

“And it took you this long to find me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I found you shortly after it happened. My employer had simply lost interest by that point.”

”What do you mean lost interest?”

“Well nothing was actually stolen. When no direct evidence of a conspiracy surfaced, I resumed my normal duties.”

“So as long as no money goes missing, nobody cares.”

“Sad but true, isn’t it?” Zeke didn’t know what to make of the situation. Part of him was glad nobody seemed to care that the manager’s wife was dead. He doubted he could ever look that man in the eye, despite his misplaced feelings of gratitude. No matter what anyone said, he felt guilty. He hadn’t killed her, true, but he was responsible. He was one of the bad guys. He could still see her lying there, her blank eyes wide open. She had seemed to be staring directly into his soul. Zeke shut his eyes against the memory.

“How long since she went missing?”

“Four days now.”

“And where was the last place you know that she was?”

“The train when it was attacked. I have a map with its location marked on it.” Smythe removed a railway map from his vest and opened it. “This is where you should start.” Zeke looked at the map.

“That’s deep into Indian territory.”

“I realize that.”

“Then you realize that there is a good chance she’s dead. Even if she escaped, four days without water and she’s either dead or wishing she was. What then?” Smythe lowered his eyes. The thought of her in jeopardy clearly affected him. He had, of course, already considered this possibility, but hearing someone else say it was different.

“In that case,” he said, gathering himself, “she wore a locket. She wore it everywhere. It was a gift from her mother. She would never part with it. On the back was an inscription. If she is dead, bury her with it and tell me what it says and I will still help you. I give you my word.” Zeke folded the map and turned his gaze westward.

“Not much time. I have to leave now.”

“What? Right this minute?”

“If she’s not dead and I don’t find her soon, she will be.”

“Don’t you need to prepare?”

“I’m always prepared.” Zeke looked out over the landscape, “What’s her name?” he asked.

“Alaine.”

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