From the author: When vicious bounty hunters decide to claim the reward for outlaw Charlie Day, they find collecting their blood money isn't as easy as they thought.
My Name is Charlie Day
C. L. Werner
It was a hot day in Wickenburg, a day little different from any other in the little town. Five men were sitting at a table in the shadowy confines of Tom Robbins’s saloon. There was a weather-beaten, wooden sign hanging outside, its painted letters faded by the desert sun which claimed the place had a different name, but to every one in the one-dog town, it was Tom Robbins’s saloon and people went to the watering hole as much to see the jovial Pennsylvanian as for the whiskey and cards. On this day, however, Tom had business in Prescott and the establishment was left in the care of his hired man and only those who came for the whiskey were in attendance today.
The whiskey… and the cards.
“How about this?” inquired the youngest of five men gathered about a scarred poker table. He was a hard-looking youth with his skin baked brown by the harsh sun and several days’ growth of stubble on his face. The boy’s clothes told his comrades at the table his manner of livelihood – chaparrejas strapped over his pants, mule ears with Texas spurs (already removed and resting in the center of the table), a checkered shirt, worn canvas pants, and a battered planter’s hat. He was a cowboy and could ill afford the fifty dollars he had already lost, much less what was in the present pot.
“Let me see that,” requested the man sitting across from the cowboy. He was much darker than even the tanned cowpoke, a shade born not of sun but heritage. His features told the story – the lean, knife-nosed face of the breed, half-Navajo and half-Texan. Mixed blood had not kept William Foster from prospering in the small community. Indeed, he was highly respected by his fellow citizens and known for his kindness and generosity. He set his watch and its cigar cutter fob charm, which he had been absently toying with throughout the last two hands, back into the pocket of the rich scarlet vest he wore above his ruffled cotton shirt. Foster brushed his long black hair under his own John B. Stetson, its silver hat band winking at the cowboy in a stray beam of sunlight that slithered down through the cracks in the saloon’s ceiling. Foster smiled slowly.
“How much did you figure?”
“Just enough to keep me in the game,” answered the youth, struggling to keep the enthusiasm out of his voice. “That coin’s real gold. Came from California when my Pa went there in ’50. I figure it’s worth maybe a hundred dollars.”
Foster rubbed his eyes and stretched his neck, looking up at the ceiling as he did so. The old Rochester brass hanging lamp was swaying slightly. Foster listened to the faint traces of noise overhead. A cat racing about the saloon’s roof chasing a lizard, he decided. His smile lessened a bit and he looked back at the young cowboy. Foster nodded and began to hand the coin back to the youth when a pale hand closed upon his own. Patrick O’Dell, Wickenburg’s undertaker and barber held the fat coin up to his face.
“Says here, right on the damn coin ‘Fifty Dollars’,” snorted the long face beneath O’Dell’s black bowler.
“But that was in ’50! Gold’s worth more now!” protested the cowboy.
“It says fifty dollars, fifty dollars it is.”
“It won’t hurt anything to give the boy a hundred for it,” interrupted Foster, staring at the undertaker to his right.
“Fifty dollars it says, fifty dollars it is. If this damn wool hat can’t afford to stay in the game otherwise, that’s his business,” declared the black-garbed vulture, his pale hand inching closer to the revolver resting beside his cards as he glared at the cowpoke.
Foster wasn’t watching the undertaker, however, for his eyes were focused upon the man who had just appeared in the saloon’s doorway.
The figure was framed in the harsh light of the afternoon sun, the day clung to him like an angelic aura, but Foster doubted that this man hailed from any holy place. As the tall man strode into the room, his jingle-bob spurs ringing with each step, Foster saw the man’s hard features. The man was dressed in black, a black faded by endless days under the desert sun. His boots were nearly knee-high cavalry issue, his pants tucked down into them. A tatty frock coat draped about the stranger’s torso, as faded as the rest of his garb. The one hint of color was the powdery blue vest and its tarnished brass buttons.
The stranger’s face was hard and angular, his nose sharp like a hawk’s. Cruel gray eyes blinked at the card players from beneath the shadow cast by the brim of his slouch hat. His wrinkled face cracked into a grin as his eyes met those of Foster. The half-breed had already noted the black-gloved hand resting upon the pearl butt of the Colt .45 in the holster resting across the man’s belly.
“You’re just in time, mister,” laughed O’Dell. “We’re about to have an opening for the next hand.”
“You’re about to have two,” corrected the stranger, in a voice as cold as the graves dug by O’Dell. His eyes never left Foster.
“What’s this about?” Foster asked, licking his lips nervously. He was careful to keep his hands away from the gun sitting on the table.
“I think you know,” hissed the stranger, digging into the inside pocket of his coat with his left hand. It reappeared seconds later with a tattered sheet of paper which he threw contemptuously onto the table. Eli Mortense, the fat merchant sitting on Foster’s right picked up the paper and unfolded it, revealing the crude drawing of a man’s face.
“You’ve got the wrong man, mister,” said Mortense, handing the wanted poster back to the bounty hunter. “This here isn’t Charlie Day, the feller yer lookin’ for. This here is Bill Foster, owns the bath house just down the street. He ain’t no renegade.”
“That’s right,” put in the undertaker. “I’ve known William Foster for nigh ten years now and I can say that he’s as honest and straight a man as God ever saw fit to put on this earth. Why, the very idea he could be responsible for what Charlie Day’s done is preposterous.”
“I got people down in Tombstone that will identify this man as Charlie Day,” said the bounty hunter in a voice as chill as an Arctic wind. “Now, you can either sit in a saddle or be draped over one, but you’re riding with me to Tombstone. It’s your call, breed.” The gloved fingers tensed about the pearl grips as Foster’s eyes narrowed.
“I can’t convince you that you are in error?” Foster asked. The bounty hunter remained as still as a statue. Foster slowly rose from the card table, motioning for Eli Mortense to replace his gun to its holster while he kept his own arms raised in the air to either side.
“I hope you have enough to pay for a burying, mister,” gloated O’Dell. “Might be nice to have a name for the grave, come to think of it. Bill Foster here might not look it, and he certainly don’t like to brag about the matter none, but he’s one of the fastest guns in the whole Arizona Territory!”
Foster began to walk toward the door of the saloon. “Watch my hand kid. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Make sure that old vulture doesn’t look at my cards while I’m gone.”
Foster pushed open the bat-wing doors, stepping out into the street, the bounty hunter prowling after him. The black-garbed killer crossed the street in front of his prey, stopping only when he had positioned himself in such a way that William Foster stood between him and the saloon.
“Might be nice to know who I’m about to kill,” stated Foster, pulling the brim of his hat a bit lower. “That is, unless you’ve reconsidered.”
“Name’s Welsh, Harv Welsh, and I haven’t,” the bounty hunter pointed at the onlooking figures behind Foster. “You, in the bowler, count it.”
O’Dell began the slow countdown from ten. The two combatants stared at each other, a look of resignation upon Foster’s face, a snarl of defiance and contempt curling Welsh’s lip, revealing the yellow teeth beneath. As the count continued, Welsh took his eyes from those of Foster, looking instead above and beyond the breed.
“Three… two… one!”
Almost as one, three shots rang out through the dusty streets of Wickenburg. The first tore through the black back of a scarlet vest, tearing through flesh, bone and lung, exploding in a reddish black mist as it left the body and buried itself in the street between the two combatants.
Foster’s gun arm jerked upwards as the bullet struck him in the back, ruining the aim which would have put a piece of lead in his opponent’s heart. The round passed along the bounty hunter’s left forearm, grazing him.
The final shot was that of Welsh’s pistol, speeding from a revolver that had been drawn a tenth of a second slower than Foster’s own. The bullet slammed into Foster’s body, ripping through his vitals as it passed out his side and buried itself in the front facing of the cobbler’s shop next to the saloon. Bubbly, bloody froth dribbled down Foster’s chin as he fell face-first into the dusty street.
Silence held the street as the echoes of gunfire drifted away. A brass-plated Yellowboy rifle fell into the street in front of the saloon, followed moments later by a man who lowered himself from the saloon’s awning. He dropped the last few feet to land beside his discarded rifle. The shooter was dressed identically to the bounty hunter who called himself Harvey Welsh. The two black-garbed men smiled at one another.
“That’s money in the bank,” snorted the rifleman, kicking Foster’s lifeless legs. Welsh laughed in response as he rolled up his shirt sleeve to inspect the scratch Foster’s wild shot had caused.
“You back-shot him! You damn dirty bushwackers!” a voice accused from the boardwalk. Welsh drew his gun and levelled it at the protesting O’Dell. The other bounty hunter coolly levered another round into the Yellowboy’s chamber.
“That ain’t so, not at all. Bob here, he was just up there to make sure things were fair. To keep old Charlie Day from drawin’ just a tad bit early, as he’s got a reputation for doing. ‘sides, if Charlie had fought fair, he’d still be dead.” Welsh daubed at his wounded forearm with a handkerchief as he spoke, passing his gun into his left hand.
“If Bill Foster hadn’t been playing square, it would be your body lying there in the dirt, your’n and this back-shooting partner too!” O’Dell walked toward the bounty hunters. The killer Welsh had called Bob advanced to meet the undertaker, his face a cold, expressionless mask. When he closed with the irate man, the bounty hunter drew his rifle back and savagely buried the butt in the mortician’s gut. O’Dell let out a loud gasp and fell to his knees.
“You better mind your mouth!” snarled Bob, slapping the undertaker’s hat into the street and spitting on the exposed head of stringy gray hair through his tobacco-stained teeth.
“He’s right, digger,” chimed Welsh, returning his .45 to its holster. “You should be a might more polite. After all, if we have to shoot you, who will there be in this one-horse town to bury your carcass?”
A Yellowboy rifle kept the onlookers fixed on the boardwalk as Harvey Welsh brought a brown and white draft horse to where Foster’s body lay. With a slow searching gaze, Welsh took in his surroundings before setting to the task at hand. Perhaps he searched for the humiliated undertaker, who had crawled away to the sanctuary of his funeral parlor/barber shop. Or, perhaps, he merely wished to assure himself that everyone in the street was sufficiently menaced by the threat of his partner’s rifle.
With a heave and a groan, Welsh lifted Foster’s body and draped it over the back of the draft horse. This done, the bounty hunter removed a length of rope from his own steed’s saddlebags and proceeded to lash the dead man’s wrists to his boots beneath the animal’s belly to ensure the corpse did not slip from the beast’s back. When he had finished securing the body, Welsh mounted his own tan Morgan. His partner pulled away from the boardwalk, placing his rifle in the saddle scabbard of a gray and speckled mustang. Bob then slid into the fork seat saddle upon his horse’s back and the two bounty killers, their gory quarry in tow, slowly rode out of the dusty town of Wickenburg.
Two men huddled beneath the rocky shelf, attempting to shield themselves and the small fire set before them from the howling sandstorm which had overtaken them shortly after dusk. Fully exposed to the biting, sand-laden gale, their three horses neighed and snorted in discomfort. The gory thing whose limbs hung about one of the horse’s sides remained uncomplaining.
“Damn, I wish this crap would knock off. Like God hisself was stirrin’ up the sand,” complained the sandy-haired Robert Grimsley, reaching for the iron coffee pot boiling over at the edge of the small fire.
A black-gloved hand toyed nervously with the metal cigar cutter fob charm which hung from a gold pocket watch. Welsh sighed, replacing the item in his pocket. “That light we saw just before the storm set in must’ve been Tucson. We should be able to reach town before sun-up. Be a few more days before payday, allowing the marshal in Tombstone has the money ready. Not every day somebody brings in a valuable carcass like that of Charlie Day. Can’t expect him to have five thousand just lying around all the time.”
Welsh was more talkative tonight than he had been on the rest of the long, hot journey south from Wickenburg to the yet distant Tombstone. The bounty hunter had a reason for violating his normal taciturnity, he was nervous. The sound of his own voice, the diversion of conversation, even with so thick a companion as the ignorant Grimsley, these were preferable to waiting out the sandstorm and then riding on through the night, listening for the bone-chilling sound which he half fancied that he heard a quarter of an hour past.
Grimsley slowly sipped his cup of coffee, looking at the draft horse and the burden on its back. The flying particles of sand made the scene appear as though he were looking through a screen of gauze. Grimsley smiled and chuckled in contentment.
“That Charlie Day weren’t shit! Did you see me burn a bullet through that varmint’s heart? Hah, damn mongrel breed didn’t know what hit him!”
“If he had, you’d be dead!” snapped Welsh. “As it was, if you’d been any slower they’d be plantin’ me in that two-bit town.”
“Ain’t no reason to get riled, Harv. I’m just sayin’ that we done a good job and that ol’ Charlie Day weren’t half so good as we been hearin’ tell of.”
Bob Grimsley continued to apologize to his partner, but the elder bounty killer was no longer listening. This time Welsh was certain that he’d heard a sound above the wailing sandstorm, and his ears were wholly devoted to ferreting out the noise when it was raised again from the wind’s cacophony.
“Hey, Harv, that was a question,” cursed Grimsley, placing a hand on Welsh’s shoulder. “I said what are you going to do with your half of the money? Ain’t you listenin’?”
“Be quiet,” ordered Welsh, raising his hand and dropping it quickly for emphasis. Presently, above the wail of the sandstorm and from the impenetrable blackness beyond the firelight came a series of three short yap-barks. Sweat broke out on Welsh’s brow and the bounty hunter rose and retrieved his rifle from its scabbard.
“That? That’s what’s got you spooked? That’s some coyote, that’s all. Probably lookin’ for some coyote bitch to liven up his night!” snorted Grimsley, smiling at Welsh and thinking how foolish the older man was to react with such fear to the yell of a prairie wolf. The smile soon died.
“That ain’t no coyote, you jackass! Think! Ain’t no coyote would go out in this!” Welsh stabbed the barrel of his rifle at the swirling sands. “Only people are so poor sensed as to travel in this kind of weather.”
Grimsley’s eyes opened wide in horror as the meaning of his partner’s words dawned within his skull. “Apaches,” he exhaled in a horrified whisper, stumbling to his feet and scrambling to his horse. He turned his head rapidly from side to side, staring fearfully into the darkness all around him, expecting an arrow to pierce his breast at any moment. He clumsily removed his Yellowboy from its scabbard and raced back to join Welsh.
“I was just a yonker when Cochise was on the warpath, but I can remember it just like it was yesterday. Saw my pa’s body when it was light again. He’d gone to let the fort know that we was trapped in the mine by Apaches. They only wanted horses, that’s why they didn’t come into the mine for us. But my pa, he must’a stumbled onto them.” Welsh shuddered before continuing, his eyes glazing over with the misty haze of haunted nostalgia.
“They cut off his eyelids, an’ then they cut a hole in his belly an’ pulled out his guts. Tied him down an’ let the coyotes gnaw on his vitals. He didn’t scream none. He couldn’t. They cut his tongue off too.”
Grimsley’s body trembled uncontrollably as he listened to the gory recollections of his companion. He began to imagine a host of painted savages just beyond the firelight calling to one another with the voices of coyotes, fingering gleaming knives and nocking stone-tipped arrows to bows of wood and gut. Any moment, they would scream their war cries and attack. They wouldn’t kill them either. No, the Apaches would not kill them for a long time.
Any moment, they would scream…
“Hello to camp!” came a voice from the darkness, a harsh raspy voice, but the voice of a white man just the same. “I been caught in the storm, can I share your fire?”
“Git the hell in here! They’s Apaches out there an’ we need all the guns we can git!” shrieked Grimsley hysterically. Welsh levelled his rifle at the approaching voice, sweat trickling down his cheeks.
A man soon entered the firelight, leading a black Friesian by the reins, its magnificent mane combed to drape over its neck like the fringe of a lavish tapestry. An old artillery-man’s saddle rested on the stallion’s back, a gray bedroll behind it and a multitude of sacks, canteens and other odds-and-ends hanging from the saddle itself, rendering the horse’s steps a rattling din of metal and leather slapping the sides of the saddle.
The man who led the animal was tall, over six feet, but with a wiry build. He wore a blue great coat over his clothing, a cavalry-man’s garment with a capelet which draped over his shoulders to reach very nearly to his wrists, the coat itself hanging down to just past his knees. Knee-high, square-toed boots covered the man’s feet, a black slouch hat topped his head, only steel-gray eyes peering from beneath its brim, the rest of the man’s face protected from the storm by a red kerchief. The man slowly walked toward the rifle-brandishing bounty hunters.
“Apaches you say?” he asked Grimsley.
“Yeah, we been hearin’ ‘em yappin’ an’ hollerin’ all night!” swore the bounty killer emphatically.
“I figure they won’t attack until the storm lets up. But when they do, I figure we’ve had it,” confessed Welsh.
“Maybe they won’t attack at all,” offered the stranger. “Maybe they won’t have to…”
Like lightning unchained, a double-action Starr .44 rose from beneath the blue wool of the great coat. Two bullets flew from the pistol’s barrel as the bounty men turned to face their attacker. The first struck Grimsley in the nose, spattering blood and brain against the rocks behind him. The bounty hunter fell on his back, his body twitching like a headless snake.
The second round burrowed into Welsh’s belly, burying itself in the bounty hunter’s spine. The gunman screamed and threw his rifle from him in a spasm of pain. He collapsed in a heap beside his dead companion. Welsh’s gloved hands clutched at the ruin of his belly; dark, nearly black blood seeping through his fingers.
“I want to thank you for being so damn hospitable. I never dreamed that you’d just go and invite me into your camp and shoot you, like you done. You fellas are damn obliging.” The stranger pulled down his kerchief and helped himself to a cup of coffee, turning his back on the wounded, moaning bounty hunter.
Welsh forced himself to pull his hand from his belly, the blood-soaked extremity slid down the man’s leg to the holster strapped against his thigh. Breathing heavily, Welsh drew the heavy pistol and started to raise it towards the figure framed in the firelight.
A shot rang out. Welsh’s gun flew into the night along with a black-clothed finger. The bounty hunter grasped his mangled hand and shrieked in pain. The man sitting at the fire replaced his own revolver to its holster and walked to the wounded hunter.
“You should have kept moaning. I might not have noticed what you were up to,” the stranger taunted, pausing over the gory wreck of Bob Grimsley to throw the dead man’s rifle and pistol into the darkness. Then he looked at the squirming body of Harvey Welsh. The stranger stooped down and tore the gold pocket watch from the bounty hunter’s vest. Removing the cigar cutter fob charm, he threw the watch back at the dying man.
“I was selling guns to the Chiricahuas up in the Dragoons when I heard about it. Two bounty killers bushwacking Bill Foster in Wickenburg claiming he was the notorious half-breed renegade Charlie Day. That riled me, riled me a lot.” The blue-coated figure took up the reins of the draft horse and led it to where his own Friesian stood.
“You see, Bill Foster was my brother. He was a man more even tempered than me, never hurt nobody. He just did what he could to live his own life decently, same as most people. But you didn’t care about that, did you? You just saw a piece of meat that was worth five thousand dollars. I don’t think you’ll collect that money now. Do you?” The knife-nosed, red-skinned man mounted his steed and took the reins of the draft horse in hand.
“Like I say, I got riled. I lit out at once to try an’ catch up to the back-shootin’ cowards who killed my brother. Took along some Chiricahuas too. They’re always spoilin’ for a fight. Seems some cowboys took one of their women a few weeks ago, so they’re in a real nasty mood. But they won’t be around, like you said, until the storm lets up. If God’s real nice, maybe you’ll be dead before that happens.”
The breed’s horse slowly walked to the edge of the firelight. The man on the steed’s back drew the kerchief back over his face. “You should have been more careful. Everybody told you my brother wasn’t who you were lookin’ for. You see, my name is Charlie Day.”
The words were still echoing in Welsh’s ears even after the man who spoke them was gone and the yapping coyotes came nearer…