On a hot, sunny July afternoon, a semi truck rumbled down a dusty winding gravel road. It was supposed to be a shortcut that would save the driver, Mark Johns, several hours on the route to his destination. He was already a day late because of mechanical problems but the load was needed in Yuma, Arizona by eight-o-clock in the morning.
He had driven from Denver to Flagstaff to Phoenix when an axle broke. The mechanics couldn't get to it for two days, so he spent the day under the truck's trailer doing the repairs himself.
His job depended on him getting this load through on time. His boss had told him that if he was late again, he'd be fired and no excuse would be accepted. Only intervention by the hand of God would save his job if he were late one more time.
He had a bad habit of exploring the older small towns he came to. He would get lost in time as he marveled at how things must have been in the days of the wild west. On more than one occasion, his exploring the old ruins of a town had cost him a paycheck for missing a delivery time.
So he checks his GPS and it shows this dirt road that would cut at least two hours off his drive time. Not fully trusting the modern convenience, he reaches into the glove box and pulls out a well used Arizona map. But the road is not shown on the map. He calls out on his CB radio and asks if other truckers knew the road, but nobody knows what road he was talking about. It's a gamble he must take, his job depends on it, so he makes the left turn and crosses his fingers.
It seems to be a well maintained road. The surface is smooth and level without any of the potholes that were found on other dirt roads. It's so smooth that he is able to maintain a rather fast speed. He keeps the diesel motor turning at high RPMs as he sails down the road toward Yuma.
It is well past sundown when he checks his watch and GPS. By all calculations, he should be in Yuma well before the deadline. His eyes are beginning to show the strain of the long day and he can barely keep them open.
He decides to pull over and set his alarm for just a couple of hours of restful sleep. But where to pull over? Each side of the road is strewn with boulders and other debris that would surely do harm to the truck. And where there isn't any rocks, soft sand would would surely stop the big rig in its tracks.
He drives a little farther and sees a building come into view. In front of the building is a dirt lot big enough to park for the few hours he needs to nap. He parks on the edge of the lot so as not to block anybody that might come along.
Mark sets the air brakes and lets the engine idle for just a few minutes before he shuts it down. He decides to stretch his legs before setting the alarm and taking his nap.
The moon is shining full and lights up the old building that looks to be a hundred years old. The paint on the sign hanging on the front of the building has flaked off and the porch on the front looks to be about to fall down. It has swinging doors that have fallen off their hinges and the once glass paned double doors behind them are slightly open. The windows that haven't been broken, are so covered with dirt and dust that he can't see through them.
He walks around and peers around the corner of the building. The desert has all but reclaimed the area around the building. Weeds and cactus have grown right up to the outside walls. He walks back to the front door. The small flashlight on his key chain lights his way as he enters the old building.
To his right is a bar that runs the length of the inside wall with a large mirror behind it. The mirror had long since been broken when something flew through it. By the back wall is an old broken down piano and stool. Four wagon wheels hang from the ceiling on rusty chains with six oil lamps perched on each of them. Tables and chairs are strewn about the inside. Only a few of the tables have legs that haven't dry rotted and broken off. A stairway leads up to the second floor balcony that opens up into a hallway with several doors in it.
It dawns on him that this was a saloon back in its heyday. He could imagine cowboys lining the bar, gamblers sitting and dealing beer soaked cards at the tables, and ladies of the night escorting cowboys up the stairs for a quick roll in the hay.
'If only this was in the day time so I could explore it more thoroughly,' he thinks to himself. But then his eyes remind him of why he stopped. He yawns and makes his way back out the door and to the sleeper on the back of his truck's cab.
Again he checks the GPS and his watch. Two and a half hours of sleep and the final short distance drive would put him in Yuma well before the deadline. He sets the alarm and settles in the bed.
He barely gets his eyes shut when a noise from outside the truck catches his attention. As he looks out the windows of the cab, he sees that the old saloon is lit up and a crowd has gathered on the inside. Horses are tied to the hitching posts out front and even a few buggies have been parked beside the building where desert foliage was growing just a few minutes earlier. The old broken down piano in the back is making music and laughter is coming from everywhere.
Next to the old saloon is another building that wasn't there earlier. A livery stable full of horses. And on past it are two more buildings, but he can't tell what they are.
He rubs his eyes thinking they are playing games with him but when he looks again, nothing has changed. He sees that he can now read the sign on the front of the building. 'Dusty Dog Saloon' in bright white letters reach his eyes.
“What is going on here?” he says openly. He climbs down from the cab of the truck and turns around to see that he is face to face with what appears to be an old man.
The old man's Stetson is torn and ragged, his clothes are covered with dust, his face covered with at least three weeks of beard stubble, and his eyes appear to be clouded with age.
“Mighty fancy lookin' wagon you got there, mister,” the old man says. “I reckon I ain't never seen one as big and fancy as that before.”
“What are you talking about, old man. That's just a plain old.....” Mark turns around and sees not his truck, but a freight wagon. He rubs his eyes again, still no truck comes into view. Just a freight wagon and four strong mules hitched to it.. “Where's my truck?” he asks the old man. “It was just here. I was asleep in it. Where's my truck, old man?”
“Don't rightly know what you're talkin' about, mister. Only truck I ever seen was a little hand cart down at the Yuma train depot. And it wasn't hardly big enough to sleep in.”
Mark looks past the wagon towards the road. What was once a smooth road is now a rutted wagon trail. “What's going on here?” he turns and screams at the old man.
“Just people gatherin' for a little spirits and beer and a little female companionship iffin' you got enough in your poke.”
“No, no, no. I mean, where's my truck? And that road, just a few minutes ago it was a smooth level road. Now, I wouldn't drive a truck down it if my life depended on it.”
“That road's always been the same. It used to be an old Apache tradin' path. Then they opened the territorial prison in Yuma and started transferin' prisoners down it. It ain't much like the roads near them big cities, but it'll do.”
“Look, old man. I've got to find my truck. I am supposed to be in Yuma by eight-o-clock in the morning or I'll get fired.”
“Then I reckon you're out of a job. Yuma is two days' travel from here. Ain't no way that you can get that wagon there by then.”
“But I've been on the road for....” Mark looked at his wrist expecting to see his digital watch. But instead he sees that his wrist is bare and his clothes are dust covered and he is wearing boots. He had never worn boots in his life. When he was younger, he insisted that his mother buy him PF-Flyers and later jogging shoes, but never boots. Plus there is a gun belt with a pistol in it hanging on his hip. 'Where did that come from?' he thinks to himself. 'I don't even own a gun.'
Mark is now visibly shaken. “Am I dreaming? Is this some sort of nightmare?”
“You look like you could use a drink, mister,” the old man says. “You just come on in here and I'll get Sandy to set you up with something that'll settle your nerves. By the way, young fella, what's your name?”
“Mark,” he answers in a voice just barely above a whisper. “Mark Johns.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Mark Johns. Folks around here call me Sagebrush Evans. Sage for short.”
Mark stopped walking and watched the old man. 'Could it be?' he thought to himself.
Sage turned around and looked at Mark. “What you stop for? Sandy's got some of the best beer and whiskey in these parts.”
Mark dug into the memories in his mind's vault. Something rang familiar about the name Sagebrush Evans but he couldn't quite get a grip on it. It was a name he had heard his grandfather use long ago before he died when Mark was only a toddler. But what was the story with it? Who was Sagebrush Evans?
Sage stops short of the porch of the saloon and removes his hat and starts slapping the dust from his clothes. “Sandy named the place The Dusty Dog. But the only dust she wants in the place is the dust on her dog. It's one of those rat sized Mexican dogs.”
Mark took the hint and started slapping at his clothes with his hands.
Sage looked at Mark. “That head cover you got there will do a better job.”
Mark looked at Sage. Then he felt that he was wearing a hat. He never wore a hat. He reached up and removed the hat and looked at it. It was a gray felt broad brimmed cowboy hat and had seen better days. It was almost as tattered as Sage's hat. But he found that Sage was right, it did do a better job of removing the dust from his clothes than his hands did.
The two men walked into the saloon. What was just a few minutes earlier a dust covered abandoned building, was now a thriving saloon. A clean place with cowboys bellied up to the bar. The bar was clean and shiny and covered with mugs of beer and shot glasses full of whiskey. The broken mirror was now shiny and in one piece. Shelves behind the bar, that had previously been empty, were now filled with bottles of liquor. A bartender served the drinks and wiped at the bar with a towel that he kept hanging over his shoulder.
The broken down piano looked like it had just arrived on a freight wagon from someplace back east. The man playing it wore a white long sleeve shirt with red garters at the elbows, suspenders over his shoulders, and a derby hat sat on his head.
The tables and chairs were all sitting upright and several card games were in progress. Only a few of the chairs were vacant. Even the oil lamps sitting on the wagon wheels hanging from the ceiling were as shiny as new and every one of them cast a bubble of yellow light.
A ladies laugh filled the room and Mark looked up the stairs as a woman dressed in a frilly dress led a drunken cowhand into one of the rooms on the balcony. Another door on the balcony opened up and a woman stepped out followed by a cowboy that was still buckling his gun belt around his waist.
In the light of the saloon's oil lamps, Mark takes a closer look at Sage. Mark could tell that Sage is younger than he first appeared. The desert sun had prematurely aged and dried out his skin giving him the appearance of a man twenty years older.
Mark followed Sage to the end of the bar and leaned against it. His mind was still trying to figure out what was going on. “This has to be a dream,” he thought to himself.
“What's a dream?” he heard someone behind him say.
Mark and Sage turned around and saw a woman standing there. She is dressed in a blue frilly dress with lots of lace around the sleeves and neck line. She has long auburn hair and her complexion is ivory white. She is by far the most beautiful woman that Mark has ever seen. And in her arms is a small tan rat sized dog.
“Hello, Sandy,” Sage says and tips his hat.
“Hello, Sagebrush. Who's your friend?”
“Sandy, this here is Mark Johns. He just pulled up in that freight wagon out front.”
“Mister Johns, glad to make you acquaintance.” She reaches out a dainty little hand and waits for Mark to shake it.
Mark just stared at the beauty before him until he felt something poke at his ribs and heard Sage make a sound like he was clearing his throat.
“Oh...uh...yes, Ma'am. Nice to meet you too.” Mark reached out and gently shook her hand. He had never had any trouble with women before, but this one took his breath away. He found himself mesmerized by her beauty.
“What'll you have, Mark?” Sandy had stepped around the end of the bar and placed the little dog in a small bed on top of it.
Mark felt another poke in his ribs and Sage again cleared his throat. “Oh...uh...I'll have a beer.”
“Make mine some of that wildcat whiskey you got back there.” Sage reached to pet the little dog but quickly drew his hand back when it growled and snapped at him. “Damned little mutt never has liked me.”
Mark reached over to pet the dog but wasn't as fast as Sage and received a few fang marks from the little dog's sharp teeth on his little finger.
“Chico doesn't like very many people,” Sandy said. She sat the drinks in front of the two men and started petting the little dog. “He only likes me and the girls.”
“Don't forget Luke and Sam,” Sage said as he pointed first at the bartender and then the piano player.
“Oh, he only tolerates them because they work for me,” Sandy said as she petted the little dog.
Mark sipped at the cool beer as he marveled at what was going on around him. “This has to be a dream,” he said again. But the beer was cool and tasted good. The sights and sounds were clear and not fuzzy like a dream. The smells of sweaty cowboys and roll your own cigarettes filled his nostrils.
Mark looked up at the old regulator clock that hung above the piano. If it was right, his own alarm would be going off in the next ten minutes and wake him up. He sipped at the beer, gazed at Sandy, and watched the minutes tick by on the clock. The time for his alarm lapsed by. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. Still no alarm woke him up.
The three of them had been engaging in idle small talk while he watched the clock. Mark finally gave into the dream and thought, 'Well, I'll wake up when the alarm goes off.' He emptied the beer and asked Sandy for another.
The night wore on. Beer after beer was served and drank. Mark looked up as the clock struck midnight. He heard Sandy ring a bell behind the bar and call out. “Alright folks, it's closing time. Drink up what you got.”
Most of the patrons gulped down what was left of their drinks and staggered out the door. Soon everyone was gone but Mark, Sage, Sandy, Luke the bartender, and three men sitting at a table in the back of the saloon below the staircase.
“Come on, fellas. It's closing time,” Sandy called out to the three men.
“We'll just have three more beers if it's all the same to you,” one of the three men said.
Mark took a closer look at the three men. They looked like outlaws from movies that he used to watch as a boy. Each had a gun strapped to his side and each had a week's worth of beard stubble. They looked like men a normal person didn't want to get mixed up with. An aura of evil seemed to fill the air around them.
“Well it's not the same to me,” Sandy said. “You've each got a half a mug of beer sitting in front of you. That's all you're getting. Now, drink that and go.”
Mark saw Luke the bartender reach under the bar for the shotgun that lay there. But before he could reach it, one of the three men drew his gun and shot Luke in the chest. Luke fell back and was dead before he hit the floor.
“Now, about them beers, missy,” the man said as the smoke from his gun drifted away. “If Joe wants another beer, he gets another beer.”
Mark couldn't believe what was going on. He wanted to race out of the saloon doors, jump in his truck, and get the hell out of Dodge, but something was holding him in place, an urgent need to see this through was holding him there.
Sandy had rushed behind the bar and was crying over the dead body of Luke. It was then that Mark's memory vault doors flew wide open and the story that his grandfather had told him came out.
Mark watched as one of the three men stood up, emptied his beer and started for the bar. He then saw Sandy reach for the shotgun. She didn't know the gunman was headed towards the bar. She stood up with the shotgun but was driven off her feet when Mark dove at her.
Mark felt the heat of a bullet as it passed over his and Sandy's heads and shattered some whiskey bottles behind the bar. The bullet surely would have killed Sandy if not for his fast action. The barrel of the shotgun then hits the mirror and breaks it into shards of falling glass. Fortunately, none of the glass lands on them.
Another shot rang out. Sage had gotten in on the action and had shot the gunman that had shot at Sandy. The gunman spun around, blood leaking from his shoulder, and shot at Sage. But Sage had ducked behind the bar and when he emerged again, the shotgun was in his hands. He let go with both of the sawed off barrels and the gunman flew backwards towards his companions.
Mark didn't know how or why, but somehow the gun on his own hip suddenly appeared in his hand as he stood and shot the man that had ordered the extra beers. Both his and the man's guns sang out at the same time. Mark felt a burning in his shoulder but saw that his bullet had hit the man square in the chest.
Sage emerged from behind the bar again. This time with his own pistol in hand, but the third man had ducked behind the staircase and was shooting back. Sage went to the end of the bar and began sending bullet after bullet into the wooden planks of the stairs.
Mark crawled to the other end of the bar and peered around the end. He saw the man's foot sticking out from behind the stairs and shot it.
That brought the man from behind the stairs and he shot wildly at the bar as he limped across the saloon floor trying to get to the back door of the saloon. Mark stayed down behind the bar as bullet after bullet hit the walls and bar around him. At the other end of the bar, Sage was busy reloading his own gun. And then Mark heard a click. Then another click. The gunman was out of bullets. Then he heard the boom of the shotgun again.
Sandy had managed to reload the shotgun and the blast from it sent the third man out the back door as he tried to open it.
The gun battle had lasted less than a minute, but to Mark, it seemed like an eternity. He stood and followed Sage to check each of the gunmen. All three were dead. Mark's wound was only a scratch where the bullet had just grazed him.
Sage began going through the pockets of the dead men looking for some form of identity. In the pocket of the man that Mark had shot was a folded up piece of paper. Mark's bullet had gone through the piece of paper and left a clean round hole in it.
Sage unfolded the paper. He was stunned at what he saw. He handed the paper to Mark. It was a wanted poster. The picture of the man that Mark had killed was on it.
Wanted dead or alive
for murder and robbery
Collect at Yuma Prison
Mark knew now what was going on. The story that his grandfather used to tell him was how a stranger had driven a freight wagon to his great grandmothers saloon and saved her life from a gang of cold blooded killers with the help of her future husband, Sagebrush Evans. Nobody knew who the stranger was or where he came from, only that he had to get to Yuma before eight-o-clock. But when the sun came up, both he and his freight wagon were gone. There was no sign that a freight wagon had even been there. No tracks in the road or anything.
Mark then noticed the resemblance that Sandy bore of his own mother. The same colored hair, the same skin tones, and in his mother's younger days, the same bodily build.
“Well, young man,” Sage said. “I guess you won't be worried about a job once you collect that reward.”
“No, you keep it.” Mark handed the poster back to Sage. “I think I'll be okay, now.”
Mark began to walk towards the saloon doors. He stopped and looked back at Sage and Sandy. “Your real name is Ethan, but I like Sagebrush just fine. And Ma'am, he's a good man. Don't let him slip away with that reward.”
Mark turned and walked out the door. The night was chilly and a slight breeze moved the clouds across a moonlit sky. He stopped and turned around and looked at the saloon. Once again the swinging doors sagged to the sides. The windows were covered with dust and the paint on the sign had all flaked off.
His truck was where he had parked it. “Was that a dream?” he asked himself. Then he felt the pain in his shoulder and saw the dog's teeth marks in his finger. Then the alarm of his digital wrist watch began beeping.
Mark made it to Yuma with time to spare. After his truck was unloaded, he went back to try and find the road but it had vanished.
Mark went back to Denver and quit this job. He bought an off road vehicle and using the GPS, he found the old saloon. The old road was barely visible. The only tracks on it were made by the vehicle he drove now.
Inside the saloon he found the bullet holes in the stairway, the bar, and the walls behind the bar. He continued searching for something that his grandfather had told him would still be there. In a desk drawer in a room in the back of the saloon, he found a folded up piece of paper with a hole in it. He could just barely make out the picture of Joe Gladstone on it. Beside the paper was a small strong box with a note that said, “Property of Mark Johns.” He busted open the rusty lock and found that inside the box was $5,000.00 in twenty dollar gold pieces.
Digging further through the desk, he found a diary. It belonged to Sandy. The last entry was from June 2, 1913. It said; “Ethan Junior and I are moving on. Business has dried up here since the livery stable burned down and the railroad came through twenty miles south of us. Sagebrush hasn't been seen since he went prospecting in the desert three years ago. I imagine his bones are fairly well bleached by the sun by now. My sister says we can stay with them in Denver until I can find work. It's tempting to take the gold reward money with us, but Sage insisted that Mark Johns would someday return to claim it. So I'll leave it here in case he does. It was a nice little community here while it lasted.”
Mark closed the diary and placed it in the box with the coins, and left the old saloon. He sold the gold coins to a coin trader in Flagstaff for over $300,000.00.
Mark found a receipt for $5,000.00 in gold coins in the Yuma Prison records payed to Ethan Evans.
He also found a marriage license issued to Ethan Evans and Sandra Collier dated August, 19, 1893. Just five years before his grandfather was born.
When he returned to Denver, the simple marker on his grandfather's grave was removed and a more elegant one was put in it's place. He located Sandy's grave in a small overgrown cemetery and placed a marker there. With the rest of the money, he bought a small bar and named it “The Dusty Dog II” and moved his mother into an apartment above it.
He also bought her one of those small rat sized Mexican dogs.