Published on Thursday, February 9, 2011
Trouble in Santa Rosa Canyon
By Hal Kempka
Burt Dobie's Roan sauntered slowly into boulder-strewn, Hangman's Gulch. His bulky frame shifted in the saddle while he peered through the darkness. The damp freshness of creosote and wild mustard cut through the crisp, night air.
The Dobie boys' gang split up after robbing the Butterfield Stage in Santa Rosa Canyon, and had been on the run for several weeks. He designated the rendezvous point as the Gulch, though he, as it leader, should have been there two weeks earlier.
Burt slapped his hand on the loot-filled saddlebags, sending a cloud of trail dust exploded off the leather. Up ahead, the yellow aura of a campfire faintly illuminated a set of large boulders. He reined in the Roan and cocked his head, listening for any indication it might be his men.
Hearing the familiar click of a cocking Winchester, Burt called out, "Hello the camp! It's Burt Dobie coming in."
"Well hot damn Burt, it's about time," a familiar and distinctive twang shouted back from the darkness.
"Howdy Willy, "Burt said.
Willy Dugan joined the gang when they passed through Wichita a year earlier. He liked the greenhorn kid, remembering how he initially could not hit an outhouse at ten paces. Under Burt's tutelage however, Willy proved to be a quick study, and Burt knew one day Willy would make a name for himself.
Burt rode into the camp, casting a wary glance into the shadows on each flank. After reining his horse to a scrub Oak, he shouldered the saddlebags and strode toward the campfire.
"Hey brother," Burt said, nodding to Jared, his brother.
Jared sat on a small boulder, meticulous cleaning the Army-issued Colt revolver he received serving as a Union Soldier. While support for the Confederacy ran deep in the family veins, Burt was the only kin that did not disown Jared when he joined the Union.
"Howdy Burt," Itchy-fingered, Ned Ledbetter rasped.
He raised his coffee cup from where he stretched out on his bedroll near the fire. The other hand rested on his holstered .45. Months earlier during a Kansas Bank robbery, Ned accidentally gunned down Burt's nephew who was caught in a crossfire. While he gave the boy's mother half his share of the loot to avoid the gang leader's retribution, he worried Burt would eventually put a bullet in his forehead.
Slim Two Crows leaned against his saddle. He peered up at Burt from beneath the Crow-feathered Stetson pulled over his eyes, revealing his dark eyes ever-present, sinister glint. The half-breed Apache once tracked for General Custer, but went AWOL the day before the Seventh Cavalry rode into the Little Big Horn.
Willie strode up to the fire. "Where the blazes you been, Burt. I was beginning to think you'd run out on us, and kept the loot for yourself."
Burt poured a cup of coffee, and stared hard into the young gun's eyes.
"You ought to know me better than that, Willy. I'm not that kind of man. Besides, do you think I'd leave my brother high and dry?"
"To tell you the truth Burt," Jared said, joining in, "I was beginning to wonder myself."
"Now don't that beat all? My own damn brother doesn't even trust me."
"It's not that, Burt," Jared replied. "It's just that we've been holed up here for weeks waiting on you and we didn't hear from you."
Burt patted his brother's shoulder. "A posse chased me all over New Mexico after I took a bullet in the leg outside Prescott. I lost them in the badlands, and then spent two weeks being tended to by an old heifer of a senorita living alone in a rundown desert pueblo. She wouldn't keep her hands off me until I finally threatened to shoot her."
After a long sip of coffee he continued, "So, what about you all?"
Ned sat up from his bedroll, and rolled a cigarette. "We rode off in different directions, like you instructed, and the damned posse did the same. We finally lost 'em we met up after crossing the Cimarron River into Kansas."
"You know Burt," Slim said, a slid freshly rolled cigarette dangling between his parched lips, "Willy says there's going to be a wagon train traveling the Spanish Trail through Santa Rosa Canyon next week, carrying a huge load of gold."
"That's right Burt," Willy added. "I overheard a couple of Fort Union soldiers at a saloon in Elizabethtown, jawing about a wagon train of settlers going west. One of the wagons will be secretly carrying a load of gold from that new mine outside the town. The only guards will be a few Pinkerton men disguised as farmers. Even the settlers won't know what's in the wagon."
"Is that a fact?" Burt said, scratching his whiskers. He stared into the darkness for a moment, and continued, "Then, I guess we better turn in for the night. We'll can saddle up at first light and go after it."
"Aw, c'mon Burt," Ned said, "the bundle we grabbed off the stage coach job should last us a few years. Besides, you know the Pinkertons will track us like a hound dogs until they arrest or kill us."
Burt eyed each one of his men and frowned. "Well now, don't that beat all. I thought you men had guts. I guess I was wrong."
"We got the guts Burt," Slim said, "but, there is a big difference between tangling with stagecoach guards or soldier, and the Pinkertons."
"Well, if we was a democracy and voted, I would stand by it. But since we're not, there is no discussion."
Burt poured the remainder of his coffee into the fire. "Get some sleep. We ride out in the morning."
"You're the boss," Ned said, shrugging.
Burt awakened to what sounded like a horse whinnying in the distance. The early morning horizon had not even lit up yet. He sat up and listened. Hearing nothing, he took a head count making sure no one had decided to run off. All were present.
Shortly after dawn, the gang saddled up. They rode hard for the next several days, stopping only for one or two hours at a time to rest the horses.
Burt learned early on that uneasy men could not be trust. But he committed to the holdup, and if he backed out now he risked losing their confidence in him as their leader.
Riding into the canyon, exhaustion showed on the men's faces. They roasted a coyote Willy shot earlier in the day for dinner. The sinewy meat tasted like leather, but it filled their bellies with something besides beans and hard tack.
Burt sent Slim to scout out the best ambush location, and then find an escape route. He let the others rest. When they sat around the campfire after dinner, they went over their plan of attack on the wagon train.
Around midnight as they slept, a voice called out, "Burt Dobie! You and your boys are surrounded by guards from Pinkerton. Get out from your bedrolls and stand easy by the fire."
The gang jumped from their bedrolls. They bolted and scrambled to the rocks.
Burt glared at each gang member with suspicion-filled eyes, and then yelled back, "Okay, don't shoot! But, how do I know you're Pinkertons?"
"If we weren't," the voice hollered back, "you would be dead by now. Step out where we can see you. Hold your hands high and you won't get hurt. But, if you choose to fight, we'll kill every last one of you."
Burt glanced at his men. "Boys, I got me a problem. It doesn't make sense how the Pinkertons could find us out of the clear blue. I'm thinking one of you tipped 'em off.
Each one denied saying anything to anyone. Burt knew he could do little now, but watch his back until they got out of this mess. Then, he would uncover the culprit and deal with him.
"What are we going to do, Burt?" Willy asked.
"We got a decision to make," he replied, figuring the turncoat would probably opt for surrender. "If we give ourselves up, we'll probably hang. If we decide to hole up and try to fight our way out, we might make it and we might not."
"I say let's take our chances fighting it out," Willie said.
Jared sided with Willy. Slim and Ned however, strongly voiced the opinion they'd rather chance kicking the air under a noose.
"I'm with Willy and Jared, men," Burt said. "So it looks like we stay and fight."
"If you Pinkertons want us," Burt hollered out, "you're going to have to come in and get us."
A few minutes later, a volley of shots rang out from the darkness. Rounds ricocheted off the rocks, and zinged past the gang's ears. They kicked dust clouds up off the ground, and the smoky smell of gunpowder filled the air.
One by one, the heavy volley of gunfire found their mark. Slim ran for the shelter of a large rock and took several rounds in the back. Ned took a bullet in the forehead, where he had worried Burt might one day put one. Jared fired round after round, stopping only to reload. He did not see the shadowy figure move in from his right flank and pump four rounds into his chest.
Burt finally hollered, "Who's still alive?"
"I am, Burt!" Willy called out. "If we can get to our horses, we can hightail it outta here up through the canyon."
"All right," Burt said, "Willy, you go for the horses while I lay down covering fire. When you get to them, you keep firing until I can get to you. Then, we'll slap leather and get out of here."
Burt scattered gunfire in all directions while Willie scurried through the brush toward the horses.
"Okay Burt, come on!" Willie yelled.
Burt zigzagged toward the bushes while the kid laid down heavy covering fire. Just as he spotted Willy by the horses, several rounds slammed in his chest, killing Burt before he hit the ground.
"Hold your fire!" Willie called out as smoke rose from the barrel of his Winchester. "Hold your fire!"
The canyon turned silent, and Willy returned to the campfire. He stoked the coals until the fire blazed. The so-called Pinkerton's emerged from their positions among the rocks, and joined him.
"Did we get 'em all?" Willie's cousin, Luke asked.
"Yep, you boys got Jared, Slim, and Ned, and I finished off Burt. You did a good job. It went off just as we planned."
His cousin, Red leaned against a boulder and lit a cigarette.
"So, what do we do now, Willie? Won't the law come after us for getting killing the Dobie boys?"
"They probably would Red," Willie said, "but the wanted posters all across the territory say dead or alive. You boys deliver the bodies to the Marshall in Abilene and collect the reward. Before you do though, I have another idea for you to consider."
"What's that," Luke asked.
"You boys ever think about doing what the Dobie Boys were doing?"
Luke shot him a quizzical look. "You mean robbing banks and stagecoaches?"
"I mean exactly that."
Red shook his head. "I can't speak for the rest of the family Willie, but I'm not cut out for that kind of life. You do what you want. My kids deserve better, and I'm going to move the family to California.
"Me too," Luke added. "I'm tired of prairie dust and saloon shootouts."
Willie studied their faces for a moment, and then said, "All right then, California it is."
He retrieved the saddlebags tucked beneath Burt's bedroll, doled out the loot. Then, he lay on his bedroll staring up at the stars.
As Red thumbed through the stacks of bills, he whistled, and said, "It looks like we got enough dough to last us a long time."
"Yep," Willie said, pulling his hat over his eyes. "A long time."
Harold 'Hal' Kempka's short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and Ezines including Apollo's Lyre, Shine Journal, Ascent Aspirations, Night to Dawn, Twisted Dreams, and Thrillers Killers and Chillers. His published stories appear in several anthologies, including Post Mortem Press: Shadow Play, Pill Hill Press: Rotting Tales and Blood Bound Books: Seasons in the Abyss. He is a FlashXer flash fiction workshop member, and lives in Southern California.