The snow began to fall.
The train window was cold to the touch. Little ice crystals formed along the bottom of the glass, giving the passing trees a glazed look. Jonah wrapped the buckskin around him tighter and rubbed his fingers, offering the numbness in them a touch of warmth. The train was ascending; he could tell by the slight incline in his posture. They were heading up the Rockies.
Jonah checked the loud ticking watch he kept in his buckskin pocket; it said it was nearing six. The gold watch, which his father had given him, seemed to be broken. It ticked just a hair too loud. Sometimes the monotonous tick-tock of the timepiece was annoying, but Jonah couldn’t bring himself to fix it properly. It had a sentimental tone to it, and he felt it best to let a sleeping dog lie. He rubbed his thumb over the embossed eagle.
Jonah surveyed the small coach box he was in, expecting to see something different. Besides the temperature, nothing had changed. The wooden seats were pressed up against his back, making it a challenge to fall asleep. Jonah yawned and he looked over at his resting companion. Shaking his head in disbelief, he wondered how Bill could sleep in these harsh conditions. The loud rumble of the train battled with Bill’s snore; Jonah thought Bill had the train beat.
Bill was a natural sleeper, a champion of the pillow. When tired enough even the dirt ground would do, and an uncomfortable bench on a train was a resting heaven for Bill. His legs shot out to rest on the passenger bench across from him. His boots were stacked on one another while his broad frame was hunched over, his arms crossed and lifting up with each heaving breath.
Jonah almost envied this feat of slumber, wishing he could know the secret of how to close his eyes and fall asleep against a hard wooden slat. He was awake now, and the moving scenery outside the train gave him something to watch as they trudged off into the snowy mountains. Jonah pulled out the small yellowed pad of paper he always kept on him and a whittled lead pencil and began sketching the outside landscape; paying special attention to the shading in the pine trees. Jonah fancied himself a bit of a writer. Bill encouraged him, saying that in time he would write a ‘hell of a novel’ about the numerous adventures he and Bill went on; from buffalo hunts in the spring to rickety stagecoach rides through the high Sierras.
The train came to a halt with the simultaneous yell of the conductor.
“We’re stopping in Little Gulch folks! Get off and stretch your legs. We should be off and running in no time!”
A yawn and a stretch later Bill was awake. Bill decided it would be a good idea to get off and let Jonah get out some of his youthful energy that had been held hostage for the past six hours.
“Come on Hic”, said Bill, while giving Jonah a gentle tap on the knee. “Let’s go meet the town of Little Gulch”.
As they entered the shuffle to get off the train, a passenger who had been staring long enough to make Bill feel uncomfortable asked,
“Hey, aren’t you…”
Bill raised his hand, knowing where the following conversation was going, and said politely, “No sir, I am not.”, and they exited the train.
They were greeted by the tapping of the depot’s wire machine, singing its mechanical song without rhythm or timing. Bill strolled onto the main street, which was frozen hard considering the falling snow. Jonah was behind him, weighed down with the buckskin luggage (which Bill had told him to bring, even if they were only staying in town shortly) and trying to keep pace with Bill’s long stride.
The train had pulled into the stop just as the overcast day was coming to an end; the gray clouds became darker with each passing minute. Jonah missed the dying sunlight of a Kansas afternoon. They gave the horizon a red glow which Bill had called “magic time.” The Rockies, he heard, held their own such beauty; but on a dreary day like this, the magic was nowhere in sight.
Bill eyed the two sides of the street, looking at the store fronts and hitching posts. Jonah knew what Bill was looking for. He always kept an eye out for a saloon at each short stop, knowing full well that a card game lurked inside. Jonah was relieved, for he knew the train would be up and running soon, giving Bill no time to get engulfed in a game of stud which sometimes led to markers and IOU’s.
Bill suddenly stopped in his tracks, making Jonah skid to a halt behind him. He nearly bumped into Bill’s back and dropped the bags. Jonah looked to where Bill’s eyes were focused. An ornamental sign hung above two swinging doors, welcoming the train passengers into its enchanting grip.
THE BLUE BELLE SALOON
Bill didn’t hesitate. With an accelerated pace, Bill stepped up onto the buckboards and entered through the swinging doors. Jonah followed right behind, bemoaning the fact that he would have to sit aside in the saloon and watch from the corner Bill’s next bar adventure.
The long dark oak bar sat on the left of the doors, extended down the wall and ending next to an upright piano. The stumpy bartender, dirty glass in hand, was busy cleaning out the mug, eyeing any grease spots. Jonah found a small alcove in the corner where he knew he would sit until the train whistle blew. He stacked the bags down by his feet. With a nod from Bill, he sat on top of the pile and looked around the place.
It was a bigger bar than he thought, with support pillars reaching up to the second story every ten feet or so. The head of a large buffalo hung above the pot-bellied stove at the far end of the room. Tables were sparsely placed around the floor with no particular arrangement, seating a good collection of the town’s colorful characters. The snowy evening outside begged the town’s occupants to come in out of the cold and belly up to the bar for a refreshing drink; Bill was one of these characters. The bartender looked up from his mug cleaning and walked over to the new customer, ready to take any order from the thirsty patron.
“What’ll it be?”
Bill had made up his mind even before he set foot inside the saloon.
The bartender set down the mug and reached beneath the oak top and produced a small clear shot glass and a half-empty bottle with a peeling label which simply said, “Rotgut.” It was then that the bartender noticed the two ivory handles that jetted out of Bill’s sash.
Bill had always carried two cap-and-ball Colt Navy revolvers. Stuck into his red sash, they adorned his buckskins, giving the look of a tired buffalo hunter. When in the cities, Bill wore regular town clothes and instead had his pistols stuck into a belt rather than his red sash. The bartender eyed these pistols and leaned in closer to Bill.
“My name’s Bart,” he said, his tone turning serious, “I hope you don’t aim to cause ruckus. You see that man over yonder,” he motioned with a jerk of his head into the far corner of the building, “that there is Jim Westin.”
Bart then proceeded to tell the story of Jim Westin, an ex-Texas ranger who found himself on the wrong side of the law more than once. Bart informed Bill of Jim’s dead-eye shot, his ruthlessness when it came to killing, as if Bart had written his speech down and retold it many times to interested parties. Jonah could see Bill distinctly smirk as Bart said Jim was a fast-draw, a killer of killers, a man not to be trifled with. Jim was the son of one George Westin, famous judge in the town of Whip Wash Arkansas, and all of Jim’s brothers were lawyers or lawmen.
After the War Between the States where Jim and his brothers all served proudly in the 118th Arkansas Infantry, Jim decided to head for Texas where he spent a few years as an Indian fighter; this was probably due to his reading of dime novels which quenched his thirst for western adventure. Soon after tiring from fighting Comanche’s and the consistent guarding of one’s scalp and other parts, Jim decided to try his hand at the famous Texas Rangers.
The only notoriety Jim found in the rangers came from the apprehension of the famous Horrell Brothers, led by the villainous Ben Horrell. He was a part of the pursuing posse, and after the surrender of Ben he found himself bored and drunk on his off-days. After a row in a Dallas saloon which saw the mortal wounding of a Union officer, Jim fled the Texas countryside and rode north-west, trying his hand at rustling, mercenary work, and then the un-honorable profession of gambling.
Bill was indifferent about Jim’s history, except for the last part- he wanted to see how good at cards he was. Bill downed his whiskey, thanked the barkeep, (assuring him there would be no such ruckus) and walked over to Jim’s table, where Mr. Westin had a three-card game of brag going with two sinister-looking men which Jonah could guess were part of Jim’s so-called “gang.”
Jonah felt uneasy that Bill had left him in the corner, (Bill always figured Jonah could take care of himself) but the uneasiness went away after Jonah saw a young girl in the middle of the room, bent over on all fours and scrubbing away at what looked like a bloodstain on the wooden floor. The thing that caught Jonah’s attention was that this young girl was smiling as she was washing away the blood, and he could only imagine the sand it took to work in a gritty bar, cleaning up the aftermath of a fist-fight with a smile across your face.
She was young, maybe fifteen, but she looked as if she had seen all the west had to offer- long nights in the saloon, cooking for drunks, cleaning up the squalid living quarters of the girls, and keeping a positive attitude. Jonah was immediately drawn to this girl.
He was about to get up from his pile of bags and walk up to the girl when a dark-looking character stepped through the swinging doors. The man had a coach-gun slung under his arm. Bart saw this man and his faced changed suddenly, as if the stranger coming into the bar was a lit stick of dynamite. Jonah became interested in this person, following his movements as he walked to the far end of the bar, sitting next to a scruffy-looking older fella who was feeding a mangy dog by his side scraps of raw chicken. The dog, who took one look at the approaching man, let out a strange yelp and scurried away suddenly, as if seeing a ghost.
“Hello Pawnee,” said the scruffy looking man. Pawnee, who had a long tuft of matted black hair that hid his face, sat down by the old timer and leaned his coach gun against the bar. He tipped his black slouch hat upwards and peered down to the bartender. Bart immediately grabbed a bottle and glass and set it down by Pawnee’s hand then stepped away. The old timer and Pawnee then began a conversation that Jonah couldn’t hear. Jonah strained to understand what the conversation was about, being that these two men where almost opposite in look and character, and it was most interesting to Jonah what these two could possibly be whispering to each other. He began to stare when suddenly a gentle hand rested on his shoulder, startling him. Jonah broke from his stare and saw, to his astonishment, that it was the hand of the young girl.
“It ain’t polite to stare, you know,” she began, still giving that beautiful smile, “especially at the Pawnee Kid.”
Jonah had heard about the Kid, either through stranger’s stories or newspaper clippings. The Pawnee Kid was somewhat of a local celebrity in Little Gulch, albeit a mean one who would just as soon stick a knife in your gut for looking at him wrong as he would be to split the cost of a bottle of whiskey with you. He was a half breed, son of an Irish-Scottish mother and a Pawnee warrior for a father. He was hopelessly unaccepted by both the Anglo community and the Pawnee, so he danced to the beat of no mans drum but his own; but the loud thundering drum of the Pawnee would make his blood run far hotter than any cavalry cadence ever could. The Pawnee Kid never did anything for nobody. He was so mean, he’d fight a rattler and give him the first bite. He was crazy enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch. He never smiled- and if he did no one would believe it. He was a scalp hunter and a well known one; he scoured the Southern Plains for Indian scalps during the 1860’s and was occasionally known to have even taken the scalps of Mexican associates just to claim some bounty money. When one warned that it was not polite to stare at the Pawnee Kid, this was advice that was heeded. The citizens of Little Gulch put up with him, possibly because of fear and repercussions; he called the old bottle-house off of Main Street his home- his “reservation.”
“My name’s Julia, by the way.” Jonah shook himself out of the stupor he was in, taking in the fact that this bar housed every sort of western personality known to the nation- from gunslingers to gamblers, from scalpers to shootists. Jonah felt left out.
“I’m Jonah,” he said, shaking Julia’s outstretched hand, “good to meet you.” This dull greeting was the only thing Jonah could conjure up in meeting a beautiful young girl, and inside he chided himself at not coming up with a more appropriate salutation.
“What’s that tickin’ noise? Is that you?” Julia asked. Jonah pretended he did not hear anything, and secretly held his hand over his buckskin pocket, trying desperately hard to smother the bothersome tick-tick-tick of his father’s watch.
“Who’s the old duffer the Pawnee Kid is talking to?” Jonah asked, changing the subject. Julia wiped her hands on her apron, smearing the stitched flower pattern with grime and traces of red blood.
“That’s Goodtime Charlie. He’s the local mountain man and trapper. Been ’round here for awhile. He’s usually happy and full of spark, but today he looks sorta sad.” Julia frowned. Jonah could tell Charlie and Julia had a unique friendship together, as she then bade Jonah a friendly goodbye and walked over to Charlie’s mangy mutt, who had scurried away to hide behind the upright piano. After some coaxing, the dog came out from its cubby hole to Julia’s waiting hands.
Jonah was taking in the whole scene when the doors again swung open and a smallish rotund figure sprang into the bar, grasping a small bit of telegraph paper.
“The pass is out,” the man began, calling out to everyone in the saloon, “the train will be stuck here ’till the snow lets up.” Jonah swiveled his head around to look outside and saw the snow was coming down in massive white sheets. Jonah let out a sigh, knowing that Bill would be happy with this news as he could continue with his cards. He knew he would have to grab a hotel room at the nearby inn, and the thought of trudging through the thick snow with heavy bags was not particularly keen on his person; yet maybe he could finally get a good night’s rest.
Bill came up to Jonah and told him what he already knew he should do-rustle up a room.
“And Hic,” Bill said, walking back to the card game with the great Jim Westin, “try to get two beds.”
Jonah motioned for Julia, who came quickly, and asked where the nearest hotel lay. She happily told him it was a block down on the right, and if he needed any help carrying the bags she would gladly shove off cleaning duties to help the young man. He politely denied her request, thinking it would be horrible to have her drag his baggage in the terrible weather. He wanted to show her he could at least handle obtaining a room by himself. It seemed strange that Jonah was trying to impress a saloon girl, but seeing her rustic beauty made him try to act more of a man than he really was. Bill always said it was in women that men acted out of their element, and Jonah saw that Julia was one of these girls Bill had talked about.
Jonah thanked her and began his cold trek to the hotel.
It was a short walk, thankfully, and he arrived at the doors to the hotel quite fast. After shaking the snow off his buckskins (a warm piece of buffalo hide that Bill had skinned), stamping his feet, and setting down his bags, he peered around the two-story inn for any sign of employees. A cherry-wood desk was placed at his right, and a door which Jonah assumed led to the kitchen stood to his left, giving off the strong odor of a previously cooked venison meal. A marvelous grand staircase lay in front of him, leading upwards to the second story. In a small alcove on the right behind the stairs sat a small parlor couch covered with blue flower patterns. Other than that, the place looked abandoned.
A thin-mustached man with a balding head rose out from under the desk, and after rubbing his hands and shuffling some papers around, he smiled at Jonah.
“Yes sir, what can I help you with? Looking for a room?” He said.
“Yes,” Jonah replied, “I need a room, please.” The man turned around and gazed at a rack of keys, mumbling to himself.
“Well sir, I’m afraid all we have it a one bedroom suite available tonight. Would that do?”
Jonah shrugged at his bad luck-he would have to sleep on the ground tonight. He didn’t mind, really, but his sleeping arrangements were becoming unbearable. Better than the train, he thought.
“We’ll take it.” Jonah said.
“Ah, more than one person? Good, good. Just sign the guest book and pay now, and I’ll get you boarded up in no time. My name is Mr. Garrish if you have any questions. ” The man grabbed a large registration book from under the desk and placed it in front of Jonah and produced a quill pen from his coat.
Jonah took the pen and ran his finger down to where he was to sign, and wrote his name down in a sloppy manner.
“Jonah Williams,” he began. Then, as if the next signature required the skill of a calligraphy master, he wrote, “and James Butler Hickok.”