Bandy Wilson sat back on his heels and pondered the situation. The bones were at the bottom of a deep shaft formed by granite rocks, ancient cracks, and untold centuries of erosion. They looked undisturbed and unmolested by scavengers, because no coyote or buzzard would have attempted the narrow and sheer confines. For that matter, he too was hesitant. If a man was down there without a rope, he was trapped. The walls were worn smooth, without a handhold or a place to put a foot. The bones were immediately adjacent to the only section wide enough for a man to fit.
The area was known as Franklin Springs, but it was actually a deep tank weathered in a large granite ledge that usually held water from infrequent rains and runoff. Formerly known only to Indians, it was now a stop for the never ending wagon train migration, although not for water since they carried their own supply in barrels. It was favored for the tall cottonwoods that offered shade and a relative coolness. It was an oasis in the parched desert.
Bandy Wilson had prospected the area for years, and he knew almost as much about the desert as the Indians. Of course, no one knew him by that name. Most folks just called him Prospector. That was fine with Bandy. Some folks might still be looking for someone named Bandy Wilson.
The bones were human, and they were that of a child, most likely a young girl by what he could see of the clothing. It looked like a small dress. He puffed on his pipe and made up his mind.
He dug in his pack for a rope, and on second thought, he got out another one, just in case. He tied one off to a mesquite and one to a large boulder and dropped both into the narrow shaft. Overhead, summer monsoon clouds were building, providing cool shade but adding yet another threat to what he was about to do. A cloudburst on the mountain above him could channel a flash flood directly into the narrow ravine below. He tossed a burlap sack into the depths and grabbed one of the ropes.
The small skeleton was in a shaft less than a foot wide, but well within reach. He could now see little feminine shoes, and the clothing was indeed a dress. From the size of the small figure, he guessed she was right at five years old, about the same as Carrie. He could also see a bad fracture on the side of the small skull. It was easily enough to have caused death and perhaps resulted from falling into this awful place. But perhaps not. After all, why was she still here?
He studied the small figure for a few more minutes, committing the details to memory. Then, gently and carefully, he began to gather her up, placing her in the burlap bag. When he was sure he had everything, he tied the bag to his waist and went to his rope. As he began his climb, he felt the first cool drops of rain on his upturned face.
Twenty miles to the west, and just off the main trail, some forgotten soul had noticed a green area near an outcropping of rocks. Since such greenery only occurred in the presence of water, the unknown had pulled out a shovel and dug a well. He hit water at a mere fifteen feet, and was quickly rewarded for his effort by being scalped.
Several years later, a wagon full of whiskey and sin broke a wheel rim near the well and the owner decided to set up shop right on the spot. For the next few years, he served drinks to thirsty traveling men over a bar consisting of a board removed from his wagon and laid across two whiskey barrels. Other merchants also saw promise in the location and a small community began to form. Finally, local ranchers began buying supplies there and the town of Vinegarroon was born.
The westward bound wagon trains usually stopped in the fields south of town to rest their stock and to lay in new supplies from the town. Some weary travelers found the area to their liking and decided their journey was over. Others moved on, bound for the lands still far to the west. The shallow water table provided new wells and the town slowly grew. Inside of two years, the town boasted four saloons, two churches, and a schoolhouse.
Bandy Wilson’s first stop in Vinegarroon was at the carpenter’s shop. He watched for a few minutes with approval as the owner lovingly planed down a hand rail. After running his hand down the wood feeling for imperfection, he turned and smiled at Bandy.
“Good morning sir. How can I be of service?”
Bandy scratched his jaw and pointed at a box sitting on the counter.
“Wonder if you could make me up a coffin about the size of that box yonder?”
“Well, first, let me express my condolences for your loss, sir, and yes, I’d be honored.”
“How much will you need for that?”
“It shouldn’t take but an hour or so.” He glanced at Bandy’s rough clothing. “”You just pay me whatever you can afford.”
“Will this here cover it?” He placed an object the size of a fingernail in the man’s palm. It was a thick flake of placer gold.
“Oh yes sir! In fact, that is far too much. I’ll make change.”
Bandy waved his hand. “No, if that’ll cover the cost, you just go ahead and put some fancy fixings on it. Maybe some flower carvings or what not. It’s for a little girl, so make it pretty like.’
The carpenter offered his hand and Bandy took it.
“I’m John Heller. I came here from Ohio about two years ago. If you like, I can speak to my pastor about a funeral for your daughter.”
He was medium height with square shoulders and a strong jaw. He was a likable man. Bandy looked at him for a moment and slowly nodded his head.
“Most folks just call me Prospector.”
He spat over his shoulder, then looked the younger man in the eye.
“Truth is, she ain’t my daughter John. I found her back yonder near Franklin Springs. Nothing left but bones, shoes, and a little dress, but she needs a decent burial, so that’s what I aim to do for her.”
John Heller turned and stared at Bandy.
“You say you found her? Where is she now?’
“ I folded her up in a spare blanket and put her in a saddle bag.” He nodded at his horse. “She’s right there.”
“May I see her dress Prospector? It’s important.’
The two men gently placed the blanket on the counter top and unfolded it. Heller carefully picked up the weathered and fragile dress and examined it. It was a faded blue with a barely visible white daisy print. He nodded slowly.
“I think we finally found little Julie Mason. But how on Earth did she get all the way out to Franklin Springs?”
He glanced at Bandy.
“She’s been missing for a year and a half. Her mother is the school teacher, and the last time she was seen, she was walking home from a friend’s house. It was the day before her sixth birthday. We looked everywhere. We even moved outhouses and probed the muck. We never found a trace.”
“Never suspected nobody?’
“No. Well, not really. There was a brief suspicion, but there was no evidence.”
John Heller studied Bandy for a moment, making up his mind. Then he started carefully folding Bandy’s blanket. When he was done, he turned to Bandy.
“Let’s go see Angie Mason. She’ll be wanting to know what happened to her daughter.”
Angie Mason put the coffee pot on the stove and paused, her back to the two men sitting at her small table. After a moment she turned, and faced Bandy.
‘I’m indebted to you sir. That dress is the one Julie was wearing the day she disappeared, and those were her shoes. A mother never forgets such things.” Her eyes dropped to the floor and her voice became a whisper. ”A mother simply cannot forget such things. Not ever.”
She raised her eyes to his.
“Tell me sir…Prospector…do you have any idea how she happened to be all the way out there at Franklin Springs? It must be all of ten miles?”
“More like twenty ma’am, and no, I have no notion how a child that age could have walked twenty miles across the desert without water.”
Both Angie and Heller were staring at him. He had made his point.
“You don’t believe Julie wandered out there by herself do you?”
“No ma’am, I don’t. I don’t think so at all. A full grown man would be hard pressed to walk twenty miles in the desert without water. A child alone would be lucky to make five miles. No ma’am, she was taken out there. I’ll stake my wager on that.”
Angie turned back to the stove and poured coffee. She brought the men each a cup and then seated herself facing them. She looked from one to the other. Finally, she turned to John Heller.
“What about Rance?”
Rance Howard had come west with the same wagon train as Angie Mason, her daughter Julie, and her husband, Hank. Hank and Rance had words after Rance made unwelcome advances toward Angie, and Hank had beaten the bigger man to the ground. Several weeks later, in a brief skirmish with Indians, Hank was shot in the back and killed. There were suspicions of foul play, but no evidence.
Angie took the reins and drove her wagon after burying Hank, with Julie at her side. Rance Howard wisely kept his distance rather than risk the wrath of the other men on the train. Many were suspicious of Hank’s death, and there was no shortage of ropes.
When the wagons reached Vinegarroon and the town folk learned that Angie was a teacher, she was quickly offered a job. Weary of the trail and her dreams of making a home with Hank shattered, she accepted. To her relief, Rance Howard left with the rest of the train and she thought she was rid of him. But two weeks later, he returned, although in the beginning, he kept his distance.
A few weeks later, two men tried to holdup the saloon, but Rance, who was playing poker at a table in the rear, shot it out with them, killing both. After that, he was both admired and feared, so no one challenged him when he began to hang around Angie Mason.
Then one afternoon, Rance followed Angie home from the school despite her protests, and finally, she spun around and slapped him in front of witnesses. In defense of her mother, little Julie promptly kicked him in the shinbone and Howard backhanded her, knocking her into the dust of the street.
The townspeople gasped, and Howard realized his mistake, but it was too late. Angie Mason gathered up her crying daughter and turned to face Rance Howard.
“The men in this town may be frightened of you Rance Howard, but I am not. From now on, I shall be carrying my husband’s pistol, and if you ever come near me or my daughter again, I shall shoot you down like the dog you are.”
Two months later, Julie Mason disappeared, and although there were suspicions that Rance Howard may have had a hand in it, there was no evidence.
In any case, he had since been elected sheriff of Vinegarroon.
Two days later, the town turned out for the funeral of little Julie Mason. John Heller had made the tiny casket a labor of love, and Bandy Wilson had come to realize that Heller and Angie had become more than just friends. He also noted that Rance Howard was not among the mourners.
Bandy said his goodbyes to Angie and Heller, and walked down the street to the general store to lay in supplies. He selected several pairs of canvas pants and three new shirts which he placed with the rest of his order on the counter. He was just reaching in his pocket when a cold voice spoke from behind him.
“You buy your goods and then you get out of Vinergarroon. I don’t like drifters and beggars hanging around.”
Bandy slowly turned around, and found himself looking at the business end of a drawn revolver.
“Ain’t no call for that. I ain’t armed and I’m a peaceable man. I’m guessing you’re Sheriff Howard.”
Rance Howard lowered his revolver a little and tilted his head toward the counter.
“Just pay up and be on your way.”
Bandy nodded and pulled a small leather pouch out of his pocket. He shook out two small gold nuggets and looked at the storekeeper. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the sudden interest in the face of Rance Howard.
“Will that cover it?”
“Oh certainly sir! More than enough.”
“Then apply the overage to Angie Mason’s bill.”
He picked up his purchases and loaded his pack horses, aware of the watchful eye of Rance Howard. Mounting up, he nodded at Howard and rode down the street. After he turned the corner, he pulled up in front of John Heller’s shop and dismounted. He stepped into the dark coolness and Heller put down his work to face him.
“I seen the way you and Angie Mason favor each other. She needs a good man and you fit the bill, so you go on down there and tell her she’s to be your wife. You ain’t scared of Rance Howard are you?”
John Heller smiled.
“You come right out with what’s on your mind don’t you? No, I’m not afraid of him, but Angie is worried that he might try to shoot me from ambush or the like. She might be right, but I’m going to take your advice, Prospector. I’m going to marry her within the week. You’ll be invited.”
Bandy waved his hand.
“I’m leaving town right now. My business here is done. You just take good care of that sweet lady. She has some happiness coming to her.”
Bandy moved the coffee pot closer to the coals. He was camped under a mesquite and on a small rise where his campfire was readily visible for miles. He’d seen no unshod tracks for weeks, so he wasn’t all that worried about Indians. For the last fifteen minutes, he’d been hearing small sounds coming from the underbrush that surrounded his camp. Finally, he spoke up.
“You might as well come to the fire and sit. I’ve known you were out there for some time.”
The figure that materialized out of the gloom was Sheriff Rance Howard. He stood at the edge of the firelight and looked slowly around. Satisfied, he stepped closer and sat on a dead log Bandy had dragged in for firewood.
“I’m curious about where you got that gold old-timer. I’m thinking you might have stolen it.”
“No sir, I got that from my digging’s. It’s honest money, sure enough.”
“Well then, where are your diggings? I’ll need to see them to make sure it’s honest money.”
Bandy pointed over his left shoulder. “Right over there in that dry wash. I’ll show her to you come morning.”
Bandy saw the small, fleeting smile cross the sheriff’s face.
“Hook, line and sinker,” he thought. “Hook, line, and sinker.”
Bandy pointed at the line stretched between trees.
“You can tie your horse in with mine if you want. You want a cup of coffee?”
While the sheriff fetched his horse, Bandy dug a cup out of his pack and a small paper packet. When the sheriff seated himself, Bandy handed him a cup of steaming brew.
Several hours later, Rance Howard woke up with a terrific headache and a bitter tasting mouth. He was bound tightly, hand and foot lying on the ground. The man he knew as Prospector was regarding him quietly from the other side of the fire. After a moment, he pulled a long piece of mining drill steel from the coals and regarded the glowing tip. He looked again at Howard.
“Did you kill Julie Mason?’
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m the sheriff! Turn me loose! What happened to me?’
“Knockout powders I picked up long ago. Let’s cut this short Sheriff. I know why you followed me. You wanted to steal my claim. Well, my claim ain’t here. I suckered you in.“
Bandy paused to let that sink in.
“Now I want to know. Did you kill Julie Mason? Ain’t no sense in lying because in a few minutes, you’ll tell me anything I want to know. And by the way, my name ain’t Prospector. I’m Bandy Wilson.”
Rance Howard’s face went white in the firelight. Like everyone else, he knew the story of Bandy Wilson.
It had happened in Kansas some twenty years past. While Bandy Wilson had been in town buying supplies, roving war renegades had raided his farm, raping his wife and then beating her and his five year old daughter Carrie to death with clubs. Grief stricken and maddened with rage, Bandy found one of the renegades almost immediately. Within an hour, he had the names of all six men, their descriptions, and where they lived. Then he walked up to the partially skinned and screaming renegade and shot him between the eyes.
Over the next two years, Bandy evaded the law and hunted down five more guilty men and brutally killed them, slowly and one at a time. The last man was so terrified that he turned himself in to a United States Marshal who jailed him. A week later, the marshal entered his office on a Monday morning to find his night deputy gagged, blindfolded, and tied to his chair. He found the bloody body of the last victim in his cell. His head was never recovered.
Bandy lifted the glowing drill steel and peered at Rance Howard over the fire.
“Now I ain’t going to ask you but once more. Did you kill Julie Mason?”
“It was an accident! She caught me looking in a window of their house and I panicked. I told her not to say anything but she spit on me and I hit her with the butt of my revolver. I didn’t mean to kill her. Then I took her body and dumped it in a shaft I knew about.”
“What about Hank Mason? How’d he come to be shot in the back? And don‘t lie to me.”
“I shot him while no one was looking.”
“Look, just let me go and I’ll ride away and never bother anyone. Please.”
Bandy laid the drill steel aside and went to his pack. In a minute, he was holding a cup up to Rance Howard’s mouth.
“Drink this. It’s more knockout powders. I want you out cold before I untie you and get on my way. When you wake up, you mount up and don’t you stop until you hit an ocean. You hear me?”
Rance Howard nodded and drank the coffee.
The pain was enormous and the light was blinding. His right arm and right leg were shot through with pain and he was lying in sand. His head was throbbing and when he tried to move, he was in agony. A face drifted in and out of his vision and he tried to focus. At last, he made out the face of Bandy Wilson.
“What happened? Where am I?”
“Reckon I’m a liar. I never meant to let you go. You’re in your grave. You just ain’t dead yet.”
Bandy’s face floated somewhere. Up. His face was up. Overhead. He was in some sort of shaft, and the walls were smooth and narrow.
“No, please! You have to get me out. I’m all busted up somehow. I’m in bad pain and I can’t move!’
“Reckon you are. I didn’t want to waste a rope lowering you down so I just rolled you over the top and let you fall. Must be a good fifteen foot down. Looks like your leg is busted. Maybe your arm too. But that’s still better than what you done for that little girl when you threw her down there.”
Suddenly Rance Howard knew exactly where he was, and that he was hopelessly trapped. He began mewling like an infant child. Bandy Wilson gathered up his reins, mounted his horse, and slowly rode off. He was a short distance away when he heard the first loud wail of agony and despair. He dug out his pipe and lit it. It was shaping up to be a fine day.