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Published on Friday, May 22, 2015

Lead Belly Markham

By Michael LeCompte

 

Mother seems to have taken a turn for the worse. She's still got the cough and recently she has been gripped by the fever. . .

Clint Markham folded the letter from his father and gazed, deep in thought, out the window of the passenger car of the Southern Pacific Railroad he was riding in. The plains rolled gently by, seemingly endless, wide open, desolate. . .lonely, as he chugged westward.

Eventually the plains would give way to the desert, hot, dry, and dusty, and ultimately to his destination, Silver Streak, Nevada.

It had been three long years since he'd been home. He'd never planned to come back, not until his father's letter had summoned him last week. He considered Maryland, where he'd been studying in the friendly, secluded confines of the seminary, his home now.

The always violent, often depraved nature of the West was abhorrent to him. Something in his father's letter was calling him home, though. It wasn't just his mother's health, it seemed as if there was a quiet desperation in the letter, something that made him feel like his family needed him back home now.

   

Home, he thought, putting the letter into his vest pocket. The Markham farm was humble by any standards, even those of a frontier town, but it was his father's proudest achievement. It might not have been much, but it was theirs and no one could take it from them.

It was just him and Ma and Pa. The Markham's were originally from Tennessee. His father had fought for the Confederacy in the War Between the States and although he was born a year after the war ended, Clint was, in many ways, a child of that great conflict.

When the war ended his father and young wife had packed up what little they had left and headed west like so many others, settling in Nevada, outside what was now Silver Streak.

Life was a constant struggle in the Nevada desert. His Pa had bought a hundred acres of dirt and through years of toil had transformed the barren desert into his family's personal oasis. They farmed and raised a couple hundred head of cattle. The Markham's had been eking an existence out of the sand for over twenty years now, but things were changing quickly.

Silver had been discovered in the nearby mountains and the appropriately named town of Silver Streak sprang up almost overnight. Prosperity came with a price, though, and mining camps with their inherent vice and violence encroached on the Markham's. It was Clint's understanding that large cattle barons were also actively buying up large swaths of land, for their cows or to sell to miners, contributing to his father's unease.

As the train chugged and rocked along Clint's head lolled back against the green corduroy seat and he fell asleep. In a dream he saw his mother and father standing in a corn field when suddenly menacing dark storm clouds rolled in. The clouds opened up with a shrill crack of thunder and his parents were caught in a downpour. They ran for the shelter of their small log home, but as hard as they ran they just couldn't get there. A flash of lightning illuminated his parents' faces and they looked unnaturally old, almost skeletal, and unfamiliar.

Jerking awake with a start he realized he was still in the train. He looked out the window and saw that a storm was indeed raging outside. They'd entered the desert and rain pelted the windows, fueled by a fierce desert wind. He blinked his eyes a few times and traced raindrops as they slid down the glass, suddenly haunted by the ghastly image of his parents he'd dreamed up.

Eventually the train outraced the storm and the sky cleared. Clint re-read the letter from his father once again.

Please come quickly, his father pleaded. Things are not as you remember them. Ma is gravely ill and I fear it won't be long now. . .

Hard work and heartache. That is what he remembered life in the desert being. He loved his father, but thought it foolish to toil his life away, trying to survive off of dirt. He could never quite reconcile himself to the injustice of the West where the laws were made, enforced, and ignored by guns. Where evil and savagery were accepted norms, where men profited on the losses of others, and where good men were often paid for their troubles with lead.

"NEXT STOP, SILVER STREAK," a train conductor called out, his voice echoing through the mostly empty train.

 

*         *        *

 

The smell was the first thing that struck Clint as he stepped off the train. The pungent odor of cattle assaulted his nostrils as he stepped into the dusty street. It was a peculiar combination of grass, beef, sweat, and manure.

Silver Streak itself hadn't existed when he'd left three years ago and there wasn't much to it now. It was a one street boom town. He counted three saloons. The name WAGNER graced the general store, hotel, Cattlemen's Association, and one of the saloons.

It was after dark when he saw the familiar outline of his childhood home. A light was on in the kitchen and smoke poured from the chimney. They heard him approaching and a form he knew to be his father appeared at the door, rifle in hand.

"Who goes there?" his father yelled.

"It's just me, Pa. . .don't shoot."

"Clint?" his father called, squinting into the dark.

He dismounted and hopped onto the porch, pushing his father's rifle to the side as he hugged him. The embrace was as warm as ever. Clint felt his father's beard against his cheek and it felt good to be home.

"Hee-hee, I thought it was you," his father chuckled. "Come inside where I can get a look at ya."

His father led him inside, locking the door behind them and leaning the rifle next to the door. "Martha, its Clint. . .he's come home," he called into the darkened bedroom. "I guess the East ain't changed ya too much," his father chuckled, "except maybe yer a little softer than when ya left I reckon."

"How is she?" Clint asked as he really saw his father for the first time and noticed how aged, even worn he looked.

"Not too good I'm afraid."

"Clint. . ." a frail voice called from the bedroom.

His father picked up the lantern and Clint followed him into the dark bedroom. He was shocked by the semblance of his mother before him as she struggled to sit up and greet him. She'd always been a strong, independent woman, frontier life suited her, but now Clint barely recognized the frail, gaunt figure before him.

"Clint," she whispered, a smile spreading across her wrinkled, sunken looking face. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

"Clint," she whispered again as she wrapped her arms around his head. Just saying his name seemed to be a struggle for her. She said nothing more, but the thin smile didn't leave her lips until she was overcome by a fit of coughing.

He stood up from her bed as her body was wracked by the violent, wet coughs that seemed to come from deep inside her, probably from the lungs. She grabbed a handkerchief from the bedside table and held it in front of her mouth, daintily hiding it under her covers when the coughing subsided, although Clint couldn't help but notice the streaks of bright red on the white cloth.

The next morning Clint dressed in some old clothes he'd found in a trunk in his bedroom. He put on some brown pants, a blue button up shirt, a brown vest, dark brown boots, and his old, floppy, sweat stained farming hat. The old duds seemed more appropriate than the black suit he'd worn to town. He felt odd in his old clothes, like putting them on again meant that this place, Silver Streak and all it entailed, were somehow still a part of him no matter how far away he went, like he would never be able to leave completely.

After breakfast Clint and his father readied to head out to the fields.

"Here, better put this on," his father said, handing him a gun belt before buckling one on himself.

Clint looked at the gun belt incredulously. He'd never had much use for a gun. He never wore one growing up out West and he was even less inclined to wear one now. Guns meant violence.

"No thanks," he said, placing the gun on the table.

"It's for your own protection," his father pleaded. "Things ain't how they used to be."

As they rode around the farm Clint began to understand what his father meant. No crops were visible and there wasn't a cow in sight.

"How far out's the herd?" he asked.

"Ain't much of a herd left," his father said. "Only about twenty-five head left and they're scattered hither and yon."

"Twenty-five head?" Clint exclaimed, genuinely shocked. His father had always been a small-time rancher, but he'd never known him to have less than a hundred head of cattle.

"Well, it would be more," his father began, staring off into the distance as the two men rode, "but most all of 'em been run off or rustled by now."

"Rustled?" Clint remembered local ranchers working together, watching out for the herds as he was growing up. "By who?"

"Oh, I s'pose it don't much matter," his father sighed. "That beef's gone and it ain't comin' back."

They rode on in silence until they finally came to the crops, or what was left of them anyway. The ground was charred black and crunched under their horses. Acres upon acres had been scorched. Bits of corn could be seen amidst the charcoal, small glimpses of green and yellow against the blackness. The aroma of burnt corn hung in the air.

"How?" Clint muttered desperately as he looked around. His father's corn crop, while never huge, had always brought a profit for the family, but no more.

"Well, we're not exactly sure," his father began. "Real late one night we heard riders so we come outside and see this big glow out here. . .by the time we rode out there wasn't nothin' we could do."

"But who would do such a thing?" Clint asked. "Take another man's livelihood, it's just not right."

"Like I said, things are different now," his father sighed resignedly.

"Well, did you go to the Sheriff?"

"Sure, sure," his father explained, "but there wasn't nothin' could be done."

They continued their ride until they found some of their cows. They roped them and led them in.

"Those big ranchers still trying to buy you out, Pa?"

"Sure," his father replied. "Only now it's not just the ranchers, it's the miners too, it'd be easier to get to the silver in those mountains if they could cut straight across our place."

Things certainly were different. Clint's mind was racing as they drove their cattle towards home. The West was still young compared to the rest of the country, but the situation he found his parents in was already a familiar one. Back East the narrative was well known, the railroad had blown open the West and now it was rapidly being closed by cattle barons and mining corporations buying up all available land and forcing settlers from desired areas. It was 1888 and already it was feared that the end of the West was in sight. He'd followed the cases of such land grabs in the papers back East.

As they got what few cattle they'd been able to round up back into a pen it was pretty obvious to Clint what was happening. His parents were under attack. The rustled cattle, the burnt crops, it was all an effort to make the Markham's sell their land or leave it. He thought of who could be behind the treachery, the name Wagner that he'd seen on several buildings in town yesterday seemed a likely suspect.

At supper his father's silence when pressed on whether Wagner was behind the attacks on their farm told Clint everything he needed to know.

"I guess I'll stick around," he said. "Help you get things going again, pa."

"Thanks, glad to have ya," his father said with a smile.

"Maybe the two of us can stand up against ol' Vance Wagner," Clint offered.

A knowing smile crept across his father's bearded face. "You always were a quick one. . .probably why ya done so well in your schoolin' back East," his father said, acknowledging that his son knew who was trying to force them off their land.

Clint took a plate of stew to his mother. She was pale and sweating profusely from the fever. He set the plate on the bedside table. She smiled up at him, even talking was a struggle now, but she reached up, clasped his hand, squeezed it and smiled at him.

Over the next several weeks Clint and his father dug up their corn field, plowing out all of the charred earth and turning over the soil. Although it was too late in the season to be very productive, they replanted the corn. They bought fifty head of cattle at auction, enough for a modest herd and set about building fences to keep them on their property.

As they slowly brought the farm back to life outside a sense of dread hung over the inside of the Markham home. His mother was slowly dying. She could no longer eat and hadn't spoken in days. It seemed as if it was only a matter of time now.

On a dark, moonless night Clint awoke with a start, certain that he'd heard the whinny and bray of horses. He sat up in bed and immediately smelled smoke.

"I'M WARNIN' YA, GET OFF MY LAND," he heard his father yell from outside.

As Clint jumped out of bed his eyes immediately began to burn and he found it hard to breathe as he realized the house was full of smoke. The house was on fire.

He ran out the front door and joined his father who stood holding a shotgun before three riders with torches. The mysterious riders tossed their torches onto the roof as his father levelled the shotgun and opened up with both barrels.

Two shots THUNDERED in the still night air and one of the riders was lifted out of his saddle, his chest ripped open as he was thrown off the back of his horse, dead before he hit the ground.

The other two riders opened up with a deafening volley of leaden evil with their six-guns at Clint's father.

"NO!" he yelled as he ran to his father. He caught the old man in his arms and lowered him to the ground. Splotches of deep red were quickly seeping through his night shirt. He'd been hit several times and it was obvious he would die.

"Pa," Clint whimpered as the horsemen galloped off, disappearing into the night, hoof beats giving way to the whooshing sound of the fire that now consumed their home. "Pa. . .oh no, Pa," he cried.

"Mother," his father gurgled as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth and he struggled to turn and look at his burning home, at the life he'd built, at his dreams going up in flames.

"MA!" Clint yelled as he gently laid his father's head on the ground and ran into the house.

Red, white, and orange flames crackled, hissed, and spat as he struggled to his mother's room. "MA. . .MA. . .MA" he called out making his way by memory more than sight as the thick smoke blurred his vision.

He felt his way into the bedroom and scooped his frail mother up. She was light and he hurried back through the house as pieces of the roof began to cave in. He couldn't see where he was going, but he could feel the cool desert air coming through where the door must be so he moved in that direction.

Finally outside his eyes cleared and he realized that his mother wasn't moving. He set her down near his father. His father looked at his wife and son, nodded, then closed his eyes, expiring.

He felt for a pulse on his mother's neck, but couldn't find any. She was dead. The smoke had choked away what little breathing ability she had left. Clint stood between his dead parents, sobbing uncontrollably as he watched their home burn. The fire quickly tore its way through the small wooden dwelling and it collapsed. He couldn't look away, though, and stood staring at the burning pile of rubble deep into the night.

The next day Clint buried his parents. He put up two small crosses made from scraps of burnt wood from their still smoldering home. The black crosses would suffice until he got some permanent stone markers made.

He buried the dead rider his father had toppled with his shotgun the night before on the very edge of their property, as far away from his parents as possible. He debated within himself whether he should bury the man at all, but realized it was the Christian thing to do.

The man had $142 in his pocket, quite a sum, and Clint put it in his own pocket. After reluctantly taking the man's gun he rolled him into the shallow, unmarked grave and filled it in. Even that's better than you deserve, he thought.

 

*         *        *

 

In Silver Streak Clint bought a thick, sturdy miner's tent and pitched it on his farm. It would suffice for shelter while he rebuilt his home. He was determined to stay now, the murder of his parents had decided the issue for him. He wouldn't let his parent's lives be in vain. Their dream would not be snuffed out like their lives by a man such as Vance Wagner. He would stay. He would run the family farm. He would stand and fight against the evil Wagner wrought in the name of progress.

Over the next several weeks Clint remembered just how hard farm life was. Toiling daily under the desert sun he was surprised at how easily he slipped back into the old routine, though. The last thing he'd ever wanted to be was a farmer, but now he found himself rising effortlessly before dawn each day and putting in a full day's work with no reward except for the sweat on his brow, the knowledge of an honest job well done. In a way it was as if he'd never left and he wasn't sure if that scared him or comforted him.

As he slowly rebuilt his home and worked the fields Clint was aware of two mysterious riders on the horizon constantly watching him. From a distance he couldn't tell who they were and whenever he tried to ride out to meet them they rode off.

Wagner's men, he figured. They probably thought they scared me off and now they're keeping an eye on me. Well, let 'em.

One day, lost in his work as he struggled to dig a fence post in the rocky soil, Clint was surprised to suddenly see the two riders before him. They wore masks cut from brown flour sacks on their faces. He felt a sick, sinking feeling as he dropped his shovel.

"Afternoon, gentlemen," he offered, trying to remain calm. "What can I do for you?"

The riders just stood, motionless, cold dark eyes staring at him through holes cut in the sacks.

"We tried to warn you," one rider said.

"Now this is my land and I won't. . ." Clint protested.

The masked rider to his left quickly drew his six-gun and fired.

Clint saw the flash from the muzzle before he heard the BOOM of the gun. Suddenly he felt a tight feeling in his stomach then things went silent. The two mysterious riders reigned their horses and galloped off, but he didn't hear them ride as he sank to his knees.

Instinctively grabbing his stomach it occurred to Clint that he'd been shot. His hands were red when he pulled them away from his chest. Gut- shot, he thought as he lost consciousness, collapsing into the dirt in agony.

When he regained consciousness the pain was excruciating. He lay still for a moment, staring into the desert sky, wondering if he was dead yet. He felt himself perspiring and knew he was still alive. For now, he thought. He was gut-shot and knew that he was not long for the world, he was bleeding to death, the bullet working its evil, tearing him apart from the inside. He tried to sit up and passed out again.

It was morning when Clint came to. Well, he thought as he lay on his back, trying to ignore the shooting pain in his stomach. You can lay here and die, in which case Wagner wins. . .or you can get up and finish this. . .choosing the time and place.

After struggling to sit up he slowly rolled onto his knees, then stood up on shaky legs. He looked longingly, sorrowfully, over his farm as he got his legs under him. His eyes settled on the fresh graves of his parents and he grit his teeth, enduring the pain, steeling his resolve.

Reluctantly he belted on the gun he'd taken from the rider he'd buried. The black handled colt felt heavy on his hip, like some kind of evil burden.

He wrapped some bandages tightly over his midsection, knowing that it was in vain, but hoping the gauze would slow the bleeding and give him enough time.

Riding slowly towards Silver Streak Clint knew it was his last ride. If Wagner and his men didn't end him, his wound would shortly. Vengeance filled his mind and he was rather ashamed of it.

 

*         *        *

 

His first stop in Silver Streak was at the Undertaker's. He ordered respectable gravestones for his mother and father, leaving detailed instructions on how to find their graves.

"Will there be anything else for you?" the Undertaker asked with a stupid looking smile as he looked down at Clint's blood stained shirt.

Clint just glared at him as he left the shop.

Next he stopped at Dr. McAlister's office.

"Oh, my, lay down on the table, sir," the Doc gasped as Clint strode in.

He lay down and the Doc examined him then stood staring at the wound with his lips pursed tightly.

"Well, let's have it Doc," Clint asked. "How bad is it, anything you can do?"

"The bullet's still in there," the Doc said, crossing his arms across his chest. "It's near the spine, so I'm afraid surgery is out of the question. . ."

"How long?" Clint demanded.

"Well, I really can't say," the Doc explained. "Each case is of course different, but I'm afraid that gut-shots are usually fatal. Who knows? A day. . .a week. . .not long."

Clint was a dead man and he knew it. He felt surprisingly free and unburdened by the fact as he struggled to sit up.

"How about a fresh bandage, Doc?"

Doc McAlister tightly wrapped fresh gauze around Clint's wound.

"I would recommend a good drink. . .and perhaps a good woman," the Doc offered as Clint prepared to leave.

"Much obliged, Doc," Clint said, tipping his hat as he left the remainder of the money he'd taken off the dead rider on the operating table.

Walking through Silver Streak Clint saw a rough assortment of characters. There were miners, hard men just down from the hills and others, fresh and clean on their way to the mountains with the desperate gleam of greed in their eyes. Music drifted from the Saloon as he passed, mixed with the hearty yells of drunk men and the occasional screams and peals of bawdy laughter from the Saloon girls.

Continuing on to the Wagner Cattlemen's Association office Clint was stopped just outside the glass door by two men, one held a rifle, the other wore a six-gun, ready at the hip. They glared at him menacingly and perhaps knowingly.

It was awful dark the night they killed his family, but there had been three riders, he thought. Pa got one, were these the other two?

The three men stared into each other's eyes. No one blinked.

Two masked riders attacked me and left me gut-shot, Clint thought. Was it these two?

Without taking his eyes off the two men Clint drew his gun and fired.

He hit the man with the rifle square in the chest. Next he sent a slug straight through the heart of the man with the pistol. The man's gun had barely cleared leather when it dropped limply as his body sagged to the ground.

Clint suddenly turned his attention back to the man with the rifle and put another shot into his chest as he struggled to raise the rifle and get off a shot before expiring. Clint's second bullet was true and the man flew backwards, falling into and through the glass door of the Wagner Cattlemen's Association.

Stepping over the dead rifleman and into the office Clint touched his stomach, his wound was bleeding once again.

As Clint looked up from his blood stained fingers a tall, skinny man in a fancy gray suit, complete with a gold pocket watch came out of the back of the office to see what the commotion was. He wore a pair of ornate, silver handguns on his hip. It looked like they were more for show than use. When he saw Clint holding a gun he turned and tried to run into the back of the office.

"WAGNER," Clint screamed.

The man stopped cold and turned to Clint.

"Yes, I'm Vance Wagner," the man said nervously. "What can I do for. . .?"

"I'm Clint Markham."

"Oh, yes," Wagner said, feigning interest. "I thought you'd already left town."

"I'm still here. . .right here," Clint said, his eyes boring into Wagner's.

"I think there must be some misunderstanding, I'm sure we can work something out," Wagner tried to bargain. "We're both reasonable men. . .I understand you're studying to be a preacher. What's that about forgive and forget? Turn the other cheek?" he cackled.

"You killed my parents and burnt my farm," Clint said as calmly as he could. His wound was burning now, the pain thumped in his chest and throbbed in his head, and he was fading quickly. "After that I tried to turn the other cheek, I buried my parents and silently went about rebuilding, but then you struck my other cheek when you sent your men to kill me. . ."

"Wh. . .what are you saying?" Wagner asked, his voice suddenly shaking in fear.

"I'm saying I'm all out of cheeks," Clint replied.

"Now what does that mean," Wagner chuckled nervously.

"It means vengeance shall be mine," Clint said slowly, trying to push the raging pain out of his mind. "An eye for an eye. . .a tooth for a tooth."

"Now look," Wagner stammered. "My men didn't do what I paid them to do, you're still alive so why don't you just ride out of here and we'll forget this whole thing?"

"Oh, your men killed me alright," Clint said as he took his left hand away from his stomach and showed Wagner the gaping, bleeding wound in his gut. "I'm just not dead yet, they gut-shot me."

"Well, if you ain't a lead-belly ," Wagner said with a chuckle as he pushed his suit jacket out of the way of his guns, feeling supremely confident against his mortally wounded enemy.

Suddenly the waves of pain washing over Clint were unbearable. He collapsed to his knees and tried to force himself to remain conscious. Wagner levelled a sinister grin at him and Clint opened fire.

Shooting from his knees the first shot was inaccurate and struck Wagner in the left shoulder.

"For. . .my mother," Clint gasped, pushing the pain aside, taking solace in the look of surprise on Wagner's face.

Wagner reached for his guns and Clint fired again, hitting him square in the chest and pushing him against the wall, his hands no longer reaching for iron.

"For. . .my. . .father," Clint growled, really laboring to stay conscious now, to finish the job. Wagner stood upright against the wall as blood slowly seeped down his fancy suit. The blinking of his eyes and heaving of his chest told Clint he was still alive.

Raising his revolver higher Clint took aim, holding his breath against the pulsing pain for a moment to make sure his shot was true. He squeezed the trigger and watched a small hole open up in the middle of Wagner's forehead, dark red spurting as the would-be land and cattle baron toppled forward, dead.

"F. . .for. . .me," Clint mumbled as he dropped his gun and collapsed. His breathing was heavy, labored and he knew it wouldn't be long now. As he lay in a crumpled, dying heap, drifting to eternity in the office of the man who had slain his family Clint saw his mother and father standing amidst the corn fields, their house in the distance, dark storm clouds hung low overhead.

Closing his eyes, never to open them again, Clint saw his parents on their farm once more. Only now they were young again, the storm clouds were gone, the bright sun beaming down on the desert from a blue sky.

THE END

 

Michael LeCompte is an Cultural Historian and Writer. In addition to the novels First Love's Second Chance, Hero's Burden, and Challenger's Chance he writes theolballgame.com, a sports commentary blog. He lives in Washington State.

 

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