On the Old Yellowstone Trail:
by William C. Edwards
This novel will appear in a series of consecutive issues in the “Park County Community Journal.”
Chapter 1: Redeye Saloon, Aldridge, Montana 31, December, 1899
With the tip of his boot, Pete, the bartender, pushed over the body slumped on the floor.
He whispered “Oh, my God! He’s been shot.”
Eyes half-closed, moustache glistening from his last beer, Shorty had a dark red hole just off center in his forehead.
“Mother of Mary,” Shaun asked. “Is he dead?”
Pete leaned down. Straightened up and sighed. “Deader than a fence post.”
Customers began stumbling back into the saloon. One woman said, “What a way to usher in the new century. Lots of people shoot in the air but never in a saloon. I tripped gettin’ out the door and one of you guys left his boot prints on my back.”
Curly chimed in, “Good thing you weren’t sober or you might have been hurt.” Laughter crackled through the crowd.
“Shorty’s been shot,” Pete shouted.
All the talking stopped.
“What?” they cried.
“Right through the head, he’s dead.”
“I’ll be dammed,” Curly muttered. “Where’s the good for nothin’ SOB that shot him? Let’s string ‘im up.”
There was a scraping of chairs as the men got up, grabbed their coats, and rushed out the door.
Outside, cold mountain air frosted their breaths. A full moon, reflected off the snowy landscape, nearly turned night into day.
Someone shouted, “Which way d’ he go?”
Curly ordered, “Sam, you take a couple of guys down to the lake. The rest of us will scatter out and go up towards Happy Hollow. If you catch ‘em, bring’em back to the Redeye.”
Pete stood in the doorway staring out as they headed into the night. Turning around he collected glasses off the tables and headed back to the bar.
Several women, whose men had joined the lynching party, were talking around a table as a tall dark stranger pushed open the swinging doors.
“What was that fracas all about?” he asked.
“Seems like we’ve had a killin,” Pete replied.
“Go on,” said the stranger.
“Well, we was just gettin’ goin’ on celebratin’ a new year when one of the boys, who was stinko, started botherin’ people; so I told him to leave. When he didn’t, I got some help an’ we ushered him out. I thought we was through with ’im, but he came staggering back into the saloon blazen away with his pistol. I hit the floor. The crowd emptied out faster ‘an a jack rabbit chased by a coyote. In fact they ‘as in such a hurry they broke down the side door.”
“I hid under a table,” one woman added.
“Well, everybody disappeared but Shorty. Half-asleep an’ half-drunk he didn’t move. When the smoke cleared and the varmint had skedaddled, I come out of hiding and found Shorty slumped on the bar. Thinkin’ he’d passed out I shook ‘em an’ he fell off his stool.
Headed for the other world I guess. Poor Shorty! Least he didn’t suffer none. Some of the crowd hightailed it out of here to catch the varmint what done the deed.”
“That’s quite a story,” said the stranger. “Are things always so exciting around here?”
The stranger glanced down at Shorty.
“Are you just going to leave him there?”
“Well, give me a hand and we’ll put him in the back room.” The stranger put on a pair of black gloves and they each grabbed an arm. Shorty wasn’t very big. They easily dragged him through the door.
“Did he have a family?” The stranger asked.
“Not that I knowed of,” Pete answered. “He wandered into town from Gardiner last year. Said he was from the East. Might have a family there.”
Back at the bar Pete offered the stranger a drink.
“On the house,” he said.
“Much obliged. Whiskey will taste pretty good after that ride over the mountain. Must be below zero out there.”
“What brings you to these parts?” Pete asked.
“I’m looking for a fellow who goes by the name of Welch Evans or at least he did in Billings.”
Pete scratched his head. “No one here by that name. We have the Evans boys but one’s George and the others Azor, ‘an they been here a while. Nope, no Welch Evans here. Why are you lookin’ for him?”
The stranger paused for a moment, downed the whiskey, and went on. “His father died back in Minnesota and left him a lot of money. I’ve been hired to find him.”
There was some hollering outside. Two of the lynching mob staggered in. “Dam cold out there,” one stammered, blowing on his hands.
“Any sign of the varmint?” Pete asked.
“Hell no. I thought we would find him easy in the snow. I’m a good tracker but with that bunch of drunks runnin’ in every direction it’s lucky one of us didn’t break a leg.”
“He won’t get far tonight,” said Pete. “He had quite a load on hisself. I still don’t know how he managed to fire his pistol so many times. I counted at least five shots.”
“Well, sir,” said Curly, “I wasn’t countin’, I was runnin’.”
By now the rest of the group had gathered outside and voices could be heard cussing and hollering.
Sam led the group back into the Redeye. “Too cold to look more tonight, he said. “We’ll get ‘im in the morning.”
“I don’t reckon he knew he hit anybody so he shouldn’t be too hard to catch,” Pete said. “You boys better turn in. We’ll get ’im tomorrow for sure.”
The stranger turned to Pete. “Is there a hotel in town?”
Pete scratched his head. “Daisy was in here earlier and said the Oracle was full tonight. Of course there’s always Rosie’s. But you might not like her ladies. They snore somethin’ awful. I got an extra bunk at my place if you want it. It’s only worth two bits but it’s yours if you say so.”
“Sold,” said the stranger. “By the way how can I get a letter mailed around here?”
“Well, today is your lucky day I just happen to be the Aldridge postmaster when I ain’t tendin’ bar. Just give me your letter and I’ll send her out tomorrow.”
“Great, I just have to add a P.S. and I can send it.”
THE END OF CHAPTER 1