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Episode 49

Empty Wagons at Dusk

Joe Wiley slept past noon the following day. The smell of warm bread and sizzling steak awoke him. He ate breakfast brought over from the Grand Prairie with the Dugans. He took a walk along the boards to stretch his bones and clear the sleep from his head.

A work crew of Chinese was filling the ruts left by last night’s storm from a barrow of sand. A crew was raising new tents in place of the ones that burned in the wake of the stampede. The fall of hammers rang out from carpenters nailing the face back on the front of the Dollar Store. The proprietor was out front removing goods from a wagon hitched in the street. He was balancing himself on duck boards under an armload of white fabric he could barely see over.

Joe watched the man, a German named Stroud or Strauss, walk with ginger steps along the planks laid atop the clinging mud of the street. The tubby little man was almost balletic in his attempts to keep his shoes out of the muck. Joe’s eyes moved to his burden, a heap of dresses all in white cloth. His eyes turned to slits. He stepped off the boardwalk to intercept the merchant.

The German started at the sudden, painful, grip on his arm. The marshal lifted him to his toes and almost dragged him up onto the boardwalk between two carpenter’s ladders. He was shoved against the door jamb of his own store, the pile of dresses hugged to his chest.

Joe took a sleeve of one of the dresses to inspect it. The collar was decorated with embroidery that mimicked the vines of a rose tree. The front was lined with delicate frogs that hooked over cloth covered buttons. Along the sleeve and over one breast was a pink stain. The cloth showed signs of being scrubbed with lye soap in a vain attempt to wash away the stain. He tore the dress from the German’s grasp. He riffled the fabric between his fingers. The feel of it was familiar to his touch. He remembered the living warmth of the body that it once sheathed.

“Where’d you get these?” Joe said. His voice was low, the words meant only for the merchant. The menace was clear on his face like a roiling thunderhead lit from within by anvil lightning.

The German’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. His eyes darted.

“Don’t even think of trying to lie to me, heinie,” Joe said.

“A drummer! A man come through this morning!” the man gasped. “Sold me the wagon. Alles! The wagon and all inside it!”

Joe shoved the merchant to the boards. The dresses tumbled to the boardwalk and into the marshy street where they sank into a puddle.

Without a word to anyone Joe Wiley fetched his horse from the livery, saddled it himself, and rode away north along the rutted road that led to the hills beyond.

* * *

He came upon the wagons at dusk.

They lay skylined against orange clouds, the ribs stripped of canvas. Buzzards, wings spread aloft from the heat still rising off the scrublands, wheeled clockwise, high above in a column. The tongues of the wagons lay angled to the ground. The traces cut. The mule teams run off or led away.

Joe walked to the wagons firing round after round from his Henry as he went, creating eddies and flurries in the buzzards massed on the ground. They flustered into the air on his approach revealing the pale forms lying still in the creosote brush.

It was meant to look like a Comanche attack. But the attempt was a feeble one. The sign in the soft ground all around showed the impressions of steel shod horses. There were boot soles as well. He’d follow those tracks when his work was done here. He knew in his bones what direction they’d turn.

The women, the sisters, lay as they were left. Their naked skin was black with bruises that stood out against their bloodless flesh. Most had been dispatched with a single round to the skull. One or two were painted deep crimson with spills of blood from slit throats.

He found Adeline Tibbets away from the others. She lay on her belly, legs apart. Her long silken hair, matted with dried blood, hid her face from his sight. Rings of dark bruises about her wrists and ankles. Her fingernails were broken and torn, gummy with dried blood. She’d fought as long as she could. In the end it was of no use other than to mark her attackers as Cain was marked.

He lit the wagon alight and worked by the glow of the blaze. He toiled into the night to wrap each of the bodies in a shroud of canvas cut from the wagon bonnets. He buried each in their own grave and made an outline of stones to mark them.

Adeline’s grave was deepest and last. He marked it with a wagon tongue set deep in the soil at her head. He secured a cross brace in place to create a rugged cross. Dawn light set the eastern sky afire by the time the last shovel load was in place. The first rays of the sun struck light off the small silver crucifix that was hung from the marker by a chain.

Joe Wiley stood over the humble heap of soil speaking words that he read from the bullet-shot book held in his filthy hands. He dropped to his knees then and remained there as the shadows grew shorter around him. The smoke from the burning wagon rose to smear the yellow sky.

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The Sidewinders series cover
Empty Wagons at Dusk episode cover
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The Sidewinders

The Legend Chuck Dixon explores the Wild West, with epic tales of gunfighters, frontier justice, savage Indian tribes, and even more savage outlaws.
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