Breaking Story

Emmet Grant winced, stretching his back. He patted the chestnut horse he was riding. “Go west. Go west young man, Mr. Greely said at the Savannah Club in New Orleans.” It had been the sage advice given to a reporter seeking to break into print with one of the big newspapers in the east. Grant felt sure finding a big story out west would get him a position on ‘The Raleigh Register’ or ‘North Carolina Gazette’. Hell, maybe even ‘The New York Tribune’.

     So far, all his travels had gotten him were blisters and a collection of a few dozen interesting stories of his travels. He stopped at the creek he was crossing to let the horse drink. Climbing down, it relieved him to rub circulation back into his butt. Long past the blisters that accompanied horseback travel, he marveled at how similar the country he rode though seemed. Endless hills, rivers, trees, and scrub brush. Suddenly, he felt something crash against his skull, and the world went dark.

     His head pounding, he tried to sit up, discovering he couldn’t. Hands and feet tied securely behind him, he watched as a stranger rifled through his saddlebags. The man even wore the new Remington revolver he’d paid twenty dollars for. He watched in consternation as the man threw down his paper, pencils, and various other sundries. “What are you doing?”

     The man turned, eyeing him. “Are you slow, boy? I’m robbing you.”

     Grant’s heart beat faster, his voice rising. ‘You can’t leave me like this?”

     “Shssh.” The man breathed. “If you plan to keep your hair, you’d best keep it down. There’s Apache nearby. They found me before the posse did and stole my horse at sunrise. I would have been in a real fix if I hadn’t stumbled on you.” He rubbed his stubbled cheek. “Too bad I don’t have time to shave, but Texas and my gal are a waitin’.”

     Grant’s eyes widened. “What about me?”

     “Never let it be said that Blackjack Ketchum ever left a man to die alone. The ropes are loose enough you’ll free yourself in a couple hours, if you work at it.” The man pumped his hands, palms down, “But keep it quiet.”

     “But where am I?”

     “Some would call it the doorsteps of Hell, boy. Most folk hereabout call it the Arizona Territory. You walk most of the day with the sun at your back and you’ll come to a place they call Goose Flats.”

     Grant twisted in the dust to get free. “Go West,” he mumbled, spying one of his dime novels with Billy the Kid on the cover. “Outlaws don’t seem so glorious when you meet them in person.” He’d just finished tying his belongings into a backpack made from his rain slicker when the posse found him.

     Deciding they couldn’t catch the bandit now that he had a fresh horse, they let Grant accompany them back to Goose Flats and civilization. Upon arriving, it relieved him to see they had a newspaper, ‘The Gosling’, and went directly there. An affable looking older man greeted him at the counter. “I’m Emmet Grant, a crack reporter from back east. And today is your lucky day. I’ve come here looking for work.”

     The man smiled. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Abel Cook, publisher, reporter, cook, and bottle washer for the ‘Gosling’, boy. We print once a month, if there’s any news to print. At the moment, I’m saving news of Matt Horn’s sow ‘Maisy’ giving birth to nine piglets this week.”

     Grant’s heart sank. “But I’ve got to do something to earn a living.”

     “Fact is, times are changing.” Cook said, spitting tobacco into the cup he was holding. “What with the new silver mines opening south of town and the rowdier element starting to move in, I’m expecting things to get lively around here.” He smiled. “Why we even had us a killing over at the new Oriental Saloon last night.”

Grant looked down the windswept street as a covey of quail ran by past the public corral. Yes sir, he could envision wild times coming to Goose Flats.

     Cook scratched his head. “Last I heard, they’s still looking for a swamper over at Grove’s Saloon, and old Ed Snell needs someone down at the stables after hurting his back.”

     Grant spent the next six months breaking his back as a cracker-jack swamper, and stable boy, working any odd jobs he could, until he saved enough to buy a horse and gear to escape the town.

     The day he was leaving, Abel Cook stopped him. “A fellow came through here last week, raving about someplace called Gunsight. Due north and a little east of here. Claimed it was the worst place he ever saw. Seems constant storms have plagued the town for the past seven years. He swears the place carries a curse because of all the killings and evil goings on. Claimed it’s so bad only the devil would live there. Might be the kind of story you’re after to make your name.”

     Grant moved to his horse tied at the town corral. Staring at two young cowboys sitting on the fence, he patted his horse’s neck, mumbling, “Well, boy, sounds like we’re headed to a cursed place called Gunsight.”

     The two cowboys sitting on the corral fence glanced at him. “Talking to your horse, mister?”

Grant smirked at them. “Might as well. At least he has horse sense enough to leave with me instead of sitting on a pole outside the OK Corral.” Both cowboys laughed as he rode out.

     He rode northwest. As night closed in, the skies darkened, the wind picking up. The hot breeze out of the south grew stronger. It assaulted him with sand, threatening to peel his hide. Dry lightning flashed on the horizon, and he quickly decided to seek shelter. Descending into a nearby canyon, he came across a rock outcropping next to what appeared to be the ruins of an old mission to camp under. A cold camp, he ate hardtack and biscuits, sharing some of his horse’s oats. The wind now howling, he slept sparingly.

     Tossing, unable to sleep, he rose early, setting out as the moon rose. Thunder boomed and sheets of rain lashed at him. Several times, a gust of wind almost unseated him. Two hours later, the wind suddenly stopped, clouds parting to reveal a starry sky. The breeze, once hot from the south, had shifted to come from the east, bringing a spring freshness to the last of the night.

     The sun rising behind him, Grant rode up to a group of young men who had erected a set of new poles and a large wooden crossbar. They were busy whitewashing them as he reined his horse to a stop. “Looks like you men are up and working early?”

     The tallest man stepped forward. “Brother Abraham claims those early to work seldom have time for the devil to tempt them.”

     Grant nodded. “Brother, they be words to live by.” He looked at the bullet riddled sign lying on the ground beside the man. It read Gunsight one mile.

     “What do you plan on calling this place?”

The man’s eyes sparkled as he raised his arm to point at the immense lake stretched out beyond the town. “We’ve only been here a week. But at the town meeting a couple of days ago, it was decided to name the town in honor of the great lake. Our leader has declared we will know it as Clearwater.”

     Grant tipped his hat and rode on. He patted the horse’s neck. “We’ve seen a few locals. So, where are these biblical storms and cursed plagues?”

     He passed through what looked to be an emigrant wagon train camped on the town’s edge. New buildings appeared under construction everywhere. For a Sunday, there appeared to be an awful lot of activity. The city was built along two streets running perpendicular to each other, forming an X on the landscape. The four squares around the streets contained mostly hastily built structures of wood and tarps. Homes and small businesses appeared tucked along narrow dark streets, some half-filled with sand and garbage.

      A church bell rang somewhere in the distance, and he could hear hymns floating on the morning air. Where the two major streets crossed, he passed a gaping crater filled with molten metal and ash at the bottom. Whiskey bottles and piles of trash lined the walkways as papers blew across the street. At the far end of town, a large crowd appeared to disband.

     He rode through the dispersing group, noticing they all appeared to wear mourning clothes. Most of the men had clean shaven faces with trimmed beards extending below their chins. Few in the crowd gave him a second glance until he reached the last of them.

     One man wearing a white shawl and large plantation style hat stared hard at him through red burning eyes. But it was the men on either side of him that drew Grant’s attention. Both men wore two tied down guns and walked with one hand on a gun-butt. They eyed him even harder in passing. Grant’s hands remained glued to his saddle pommel.

A grizzled old man wearing a faded and worn black frock coat and dirty frilled white shirt stopped raking up trash along the cemetery enclosure as grant stepped down to tie his horse. His face pocked, he sported a large mole on his left cheek, and a scraggy, untrimmed, pointy chin beard. Grant let his horse drink at the trough in front of the fence, letting the man approach him. “With all the people about, it would appear there were some big doins’.”

     The man removed his battered red top hat, brushing at the dirt. “Yes, sir.” He leaned on his rake. “Just had us a double burial. We did. That man in the white shawl just spoke fine words over the dearly departed.”

     “Were they someone special?”

     “Say, you must be new here.”

     “Just rode in.” Grant said, spreading his arms. “A man told me this town faced numerous killings, violence, and was plagued with storms of biblical proportion. But I ride in this morning to find sunshine and singing in the church.”

The caretaker sighed. “Believe me, stranger, it wasn’t always like this.” He leaned his rake against the fence. “I’m Bezzle Bob, some folk call me the town drunk, others… well” he smacked his lips, “Why don’t you come to breakfast with me and we’ll palaver a spell.” He led Grant down the street to one of the few wooden structures, the aroma of bacon and coffee inviting you into Millie’s Place.

      An attractive young blonde girl served them, bringing coffee and taking their order. The old geezer tipped back his hat, eyes sparkling, as he wiped dripping snot on his sleeve. “Now, suppose you just tell me what is you want to know?”

Grant pulled out his writing pad. “Just when did this so-called curse begin. The man brushed at a fly and Grant noticed what he’d taken for a mole was now missing from Bob’s face.

     Bob pushed back his hat, eyes staring up. “Let’s see. I came here in 39… no 40. A fellow named Bob Cole rode in that January, and promptly shot Eli Harris, owner of the trading post dead. Cole had lots of gold and built ‘The Continental Hotel’ where the post used to stand.

     “Didn’t anyone try to stop him?”

     Bob slurped up another bite of runny egg. “Hell no. as I recollect, weren’t any man as good with a gun as him. Besides, lots of folks felt old Eli rested both his hands on the scales weighing out flour and such.”

Anxious, Grant prodded. “So, this Cole took over the town?” Grant blinked, unsure, but thought Bob had undergone another transformation.

     Bob used his napkin to brush toast crumbs from his now neatly trimmed and waxed beard. “In a manner of speaking. They discovered gold north of here. Maybe you heard of it. They call it ‘The Midas Mine’, richest strike ever.”

     “This Cole owned the mine?”

     Bob smirked. “No. Something better. He built two wings onto the Continental, one for his regular guests, and the other for the sporting women he imported from New Orleans.”

     Grant smiled wryly, writing faster. “He opened a brothel of whores?”

     Bob scratched his ear. “Not exactly, Cole referred to them as escorts.” He winked. “Course, from where I stand, they all earned their keep horizontal, if you know what I mean. Only difference was the ones in the hotel cost more than the women in the ‘Pig’ pens out back.”

     Grant’s eyes sparkled, “Where can I find this fellow, Cole?”

     “Back there where you met me.” Bob gestured, pointing back to the cemetery. “Last row on the left.”

     Grant’s pencil dropped. “The graveyard?”

     “Don’t look like that, son.” Bob said, preening his red top hat. Somehow the hat and black satin band on it now shined and the dents previously present had vanished. “The town really changed when the brothers arrived in June of ‘41.”

     Grant picked up his pencil, licking the tip. “The brothers?” He stared at Bob admiring the newly acquired shine on his zucchetto. “Who were these brothers?”

     “Belkan, and his younger brother Daniel,” Bob said, slurping his coffee, he picked at his pointy canine tooth with a sharp index fingernail. “Belkan was the tall, dark-haired one with the black eyes and surly disposition. I liked him the moment I laid eyes on him.”

     “Where did he come from?”

     “No one knew for sure. Most folks here, drifted in from somewhere back east.”

     “What about the younger brother?”

     Bob pursed his lips. “Daniel, he was like sunshine to Belkan’s night. Wavy blond hair, blue eyes, always smiling,” he leaned forward. “Never felt you could trust a smilin’ man. It’s always like they know something you don’t.”

     Grant’s pencil froze. “When they arrived, the curse started?”

     Bob’s brow furrowed. “Suppose so, anyway that’s when I first arrived and the demon rum took hold of me.”

     “Was this Belkan any worse than Cole?”

     Bob sipped his coffee, “If you’re asking if he killed or maimed more… no. He just did more of everything. Gunsight became a wide-open town. Everything and anything became allowed, all day, every day.”

     “So, when did this curse start?”

     Bob sighed. “The first storm hit when Belkan and Daniel faced off in the street. It was terrible. Belkan raged on about their father seeking vengeance for their abandoning their faith, and settling in this God forsaken stretch of desert. Daniel waved his fist, yelling their father had been right all along, and he was going to contact their father.” Bob gulped some coffee. “That’s when the biggest lightning bolt I’ve ever seen struck our town cannon, and blew that crater open where the major streets cross. The thunder cracked so loud it shattered every window along Main Street. The brothers stood facing each other like stone pillars. The blast knocked people flat for two blocks in every direction. Even I had to admit, it scared the hell out of me.”

     Grant’s brow furrowed. “Come on, where are the plagues, the storms?”

     “The storms?” Bob shook his head. “We live in a desert. Didn’t you see the enormous lake on the edge of town when you rode in? Seven years of God’s rage created it.” Bob said, stroking his pearly white frilled shirt. “The plagues of locusts and constant dust have stripped and buried the fertile land hereabouts. Farmers have harvested only grief these past seven years.”

     Grant led the way from the diner, pointing at a man dragging a harrow to level the dirt along the street. Two young men dragged a cart of lumber, cutting and replacing broken slats in the boardwalk. “If this place is so bad, how do you explain what I’m seeing.”

     Two young boys approached them waving pamphlets at them. Bob shied away as one of the leaflets ignited brushing his hand. He yelled. “Begone brat and take your vile words with you.”

     The other boy pressed a flyer telling of a community church meeting into Grant’s hand. Had Bob’s diction suddenly grown more concise, betraying education and position.  “Surely you’re not bothered by mere words?”

     Bob stepped forward, piercing eyes flaring. His black frock coat shining under a silken black cape and vest both appearing magically on Bob. “You forget, Sir. Wars always start with words.” He brushed dust from the dark trousers tucked tightly into his highly polished knee-high black riding boots.

     Grant’s mouth opened, stunned at the transformation of the old caretaker,

     Bob struck the end of his gold-tipped cane that appeared in his hand on the restaurant porch. He stroked his waxed and curled mustache gazing at the sun parting the clouds. “How different things would be if those fool brothers hadn’t contacted their father about this place.” He raised his cane skyward, “Or foolishly dueled to the death last night. Just once, you’d think evil would deserve a break.”

     Bob crossed the street to the front gate of the cemetery, Grant trailing. The man with the plantation hat approached with both of his heavily armed men. Bob held out his hand. “Mr. Grant, may I introduce the American Moses or Great Organizer, Brigham Young. I’m afraid you missed his oration over his fallen sons, Belkan and Daniel.”

     Grant’s mouth dropped open, unable to speak.

     Brigham Young stepped forward and addressed Bob. “I’m told a judge sentenced you to watch over this churchyard for life or until peace came to Gunsight.”

     Bob laughed. “I have stood judgment many times, in many places. Leaving only when the winds of change, or will of the righteous decree it.”

     Young’s eyes blazed. “I also recognize your name from my teachings.”

     A crooked smile crossed Beezlebob’s face, flashing his perfect white teeth. “When your children first came here, I was sure you would eventually follow. I presume you are here to relieve me of my sentenced duty, Brother Young.” He raised his fist skyward, fingers spread. Lightning flashed from his bony tips, striking the great lake’s surface beside the town. “In your honor, I leave you with the parting gift of turning this lake to salt.”

     Grant stood frozen with the crowd that had gathered, speechless, as Bob strode into the lake, his image immersing, sinking until he vanished.

     Young turned to the crowd, raising his hat. “Quickly, send someone to the men erecting our town sign. We will, brethren, hereafter, call this place Salt Lake City.”

     Grant tore up his notes, tossing them to the ground, sure few would ever believe his breaking story.