Friday, November 25, 2016

Desperate Desperados

It was an unusually hot day in late September 1892 when Possum Paul arrived in Buster. It was so hot that the vultures refused to fly, preferring to hop about until they found a carcass. The tumbleweed barely budged for lack of wind. It was the kind of day you just sit around drinking something cool and waiting for the evening. This felt like the middle of summer instead the the beginning of fall.

Paul came from the mountain range, which lay just east of Buster. Few people knew him. He only came to town once, sometimes twice a year if he had some unforseen business to attend to. He was one of those men who seemed to have been born old, for one could not picture him as ever having been young. His face had more furrows than a newly plowed field, he was missing half his teeth and what remained of his hair was grayer than a stormy sky. He came with a mule laden with two sacks full of gold nuggets. He had every kind of gold pieces from small placers, to nuggets the size of turkey eggs. He headed straight for the assayer’s office, where the gold was weighed. The value was assessed at a little over eleven thousand dollars.
With his newfound wealth, Opossum Paul made his way to one of the town’s less crowded saloons. There he settled in for a spell, ordering a bottle of whiskey and some food. When asked, he refused to join a game of poker, for he was not a gambling man. To be honest, he wasn’t much on comradery. The old man seemed to be content to sit, taking in the atmosphere, and listening to an out-of-tune piano being played by a man with only 8 fingers.

Every community has its undesirable, and Buster was no exception. A couple of no goods named Turkey Jim and Dan Clinton were about as low as they come. The former was a half-breed apache; long, lanky, and not the sharpest spine on the cactus. The latter was on the stocky side and so shifty that no two raindrops ever hit him on the same spot. Neither one had ever done an honest day’s work, nor even knew the meaning of the words. They observed Opossum Paul enter the assayer’s office with those bulging sacks and emerge with them empty, with a bulge tucked in his jeans pocket.

“Looks like that ol’ timer has made himself a killin’,” Jim said.

“Could be, could be,” Clinton replied, rubbing his scraggly chin.

“Think we should find out?” Jim asked.

“I’m right behind ya,” Dan answered as they followed Paul into the saloon.

They took a table near Paul’s and ordered a couple of beers. The two watched greedily as the prospector ate a steak and potatoes dinner very slowly, savoring every mouthful. The pair tried not to be obvious, but when Paul pulled out his wad of cash to pay for his fare, their eyes grew as big as melons. They looked at each other, failing to notice that the old man was watching them out of the corner of his eye. Opossum Paul grinned slightly as he got up to leave.

From the saloon the ol prospector crossed the street to a hotel, where he rented a room and had a nice, warm bath. The next morning he went to the barbershop for a shave and a haircut. While he was there, Turkey Jim spotted him and ran to get Clinton.

Finding him outside the post office, Jim grabbed his arm and pointed towards the barber’s. “Thet ol’ man’s gittin’ a shave. I think he may be fixin’ to go back to his digs soon,” Jim said.

Clinton’s beady eyes, which continually darted about, settled on his partner for a moment.

“We’ll need horses if we’re going to follow him. Do you have any money?” replied Clinton.

“Not a plug nickel”Jim replied.

“Alright then, we’ll steal us a couple. But first let’s see in which direction he heads fer”, said Clinton.

As they approached the barbershop, Opossum Paul emerged, feeling his clean-shaven jaw. He went into the general store next, where he asked if the owner got his list he sent over this morning.

“Got everything gathered, and ready ta go. Anything else, mister?” asked the proprietor.

“Nope…wait a minute – almost fergot – lemme have six onions” Paul replied.

The storekeeper picked half a dozen onions from a barrel.

“Thankee, thet should do it. What do I owe ya?” Paul asked.
Paying for his purchase, the prospector then went to the livery stable. He packed his supplies on his mule, and he bought a fine bay mare and some tack. He walked the animals out into the street, looked about, and eased himself atop his new mount. The day was considerably cooler than the previous one. Paul set his horse at a trot and headed east.

Noting the latter fact, Dan and Jim searched for horses that could be easily stolen. They found two at the end of a hitching post outside one of the saloons. Biding their time, they waited until possum Paul was just a speck on the horizon. Then the pair quickly unhitched the horses, leapt onto the saddles and set off in pursuit of the old timer.

It was about a six-hour ride to Paul’s shack at the foot of Boulder Peak. The prospector maintained his horse’s pace, enjoying the view as he softly whistled. Through hardwood stands, and down prairie draws Possum Paul rode. Then a steady climb up into the mountains. Before long, he reached his destination, dismounted, and led his animals to the water trough. He undid his saddlebags and tack, looked about, took a deep breath, and entered his shack.

Meanwhile, the two miscreants kept well behind their prey, since most of the distance was open country.

“D’ya think the ol’ man has more of them nuggets in his shack?” wondered Turkey Jim.

“Don’t rightly know,” Dan replied, “if not, then he’s probably found a rich lode somewhere abouts.”

“Well, what if’n he don’t?”, asked Jim.

“ There’s still the rest of da thet wad and thet new horse a his – should fetch a good price”, replied Clinton.

“Right now I jest hope he’s got some vittles; ah’m hungry” Jim grumbled.
Reaching Paul’s shack just as twilight was settling in, Turkey Jim and Dan Clinton dismounted, slowing approaching the cabin, and disappeared into it.
Back in Buster that evening, the two victims of the horse thieves were informing the sheriff of their loss.

“We got ourselves a witness to the theft, sheriff,” said one of them, as he pulled an old indian man forward by the arm. “Tell the sheriff whatcha seen, Hesay.”

The old man spoke slowly: “I see Turkey Jim and Clinton take two horses and ride east.” He swung his arm in that direction.

Sheriff Bill Tyler knew ol Hesay was as honest as they come. If he said he saw it, it happened. “Alright, Zeke, we’ll get goin’ first thing in the mornin. Make sure we have supplies and our horses are ready at sunup.” Zeke, his deputy, did as ordered.

The day break the lawmen started out from the livery stable and headed east. The trail was easy to follow, for the earth in that area was just soft enough to retain hoof prints. The sun was over its zenith as the posse arrived at Possum Paul’s abode, where they saw the stolen mounts inside the stable area beside the shack.

“You wait here in case they get past me,” Tyler said after he dismounted. He drew his gun and walked slowly up to the door. Looking in the small window, he was Paul sitting by his self.

Talking alittle loud Tyler said “This is the sheriff, I’m coming in.”

Opening the door carefully, the lawman entered the shack and found Possum Paul in a chair leaning against a wall, picking his teeth with a knife.
“Howdy, sheriff! What can I do fer ya?” Paul asked. “Wanna cup of coffee?”

“There are two stolen horses outside. I’m lookin’ for the men who took ’em,” Tyler replied as he holstered his weapon.

“Ya must mean those two fellers I had fer dinner last night.” Paul replied.

“You made dinner for them?”asked the sheriff.

“Didn’t say thet.” chucked Paul.

A puzzled look appeared on Tyler’s face.

“I said I had them fer dinner.” added Paul.

The sheriff’s jaw dropped, and his eyes went wide. “You mean…” stuttered the sheriff.

“Yup. I et ’em.” Paul folded his knife and threw it on the table in front of him and lifted a shotgun level with the other hand.

“You ate those two men?” Tyler asked.

“Well, not entirely. I took a sample a each. The leftovers is out in mah smokehouse. The tall one was kinda stringy, but the other feller was downright tasty; had jest enough fat on him. And I got a real nice broth from their marrow.” Paul said cheerfully.

“How could you eat two human beings?” asked Tyler, in disbelief.

Paul’s face took on an eerily wistful expression as he leaned forward.
“When I was a young ’un, I was in a predicament where I had to eat human flesh or die. After a while I found I kinda liked it. Ever now ’n then I git a hankerin’ fer it. Those two fellers jest happened along at the right time – fer me, thet is.” Paul tilted his head back and let out a small chuckle. When he finished laughing at his own joke, Paul’s demeanor suddenly became that of a hungry wolf. Staring fixedly at Sheriff Tyler, he leaned forward menacingly.

“Jest drop yer piece on the floor there.” Paul said. “I’d hate to make a mess in my parlor”

The sheriff obeyed and wished he’d brought his deputy in with him.
“Now set yerself quiet in thet there corner,” Paul ordered, motioning with his weapon. “my hankerin’s still with me. With winter a-comin’, ah’m a-gonna need a goodly supply a meat.”

He walked slowly over to the window, keeping his shotgun pointed at his prisoner as he said: “Ya mighta herd about mah folks – mah real name’s George and mah pappy’s name was Jacob - Jacob Donner.” With a strong swing, Paul bashed the barrel of the gun into the side of the defenseless sheriff’s head. Tyler slumped into the corner, out cold.

Pushing the curtain aside with his free hand, Paul peered outside. “I see ya brought a friend,” Possum Paul said, licking his lips.

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