Dry Well Reunion
A man’s only son suddenly disappears. A band of outlaws are suspected. Now the hunt is on for the men who took him.
Frank Canby sat upon his horse at what was called The Crossroads. The horse nickered and scuffed at the dirt. The animal had better sense than Frank as it tried to shy away from the trail to the west. It wanted to head in the opposite direction, toward the safe and friendly town of Prairie View. But the horse wasn’t making the decisions and that was not the way Frank intended to go.
It was the trail heading west he needed to travel.
It was called the “D.C.” trail for the simple reason that it followed the rim of the treacherous Devils Canyon; a narrow slit in the ground that split the high plateau it ran through, like a jagged, open wound cutting deep into the barren landscape, it ran on for miles until it ended at the plateau’s abrupt edge, opening itself up to what was known as Striker Valley.
The D.C. trail was a dangerous and seldom used shortcut between the top of the plateau and the valley below. It was only taken by the most adventurous or foolhearty traveler. Just before the trail reached Striker Valley, it dropped over the canyon rim. In one long, steep, rock covered dust choking run it made it’s way down to the bottom and out the far end.
It was an unpleasant journey at best which ended on a rather unfriendly road heading toward a dying little mining town called Dry Well.
The town was built on the fortunes of an old silver mine that had given up its last ounce of the precious metal several years earlier. It was once called Deep Well, and boasted a population of nearly two thousand. The Dewey mine was the largest employer in the area. Once the silver ran out, the mine went bust. Most of the townsfolk moved on and the town quickly lost its identity.
Those who remained began calling the town, Dry Well in reference to it’s dried up fortunes. Frank had never been to Dry Well. Never really had a reason to, before now. It wasn’t something he was looking forward to, but today, he had no choice in the matter. This was something he had to do.
Someone had taken his most prized possession and he was about to get it back.
Frank was a widower who dearly loved his only son. Five years earlier he had promised his wife, as she lay on her deathbed that he would raise Jessie to be a decent and upright young man. He thought he had been doing a good job of it, but two months ago Jessie suddenly disappeared. Frank was always of the mind that something was not right. It wasn’t like Jessie to just up and leave without a word. He had been following every lead he could come up with ever since.
As he pulled on the reins, Frank and his horse reluctantly headed west along the D.C. trail.
Frank was a respected businessman and owner of the town’s gunsmith shop. He took in all manner of pistols and rifles in need of repair. His current reputation as a man who could handle the most difficult repair of any gun, premised the fact that his past reputation had required him to handle the guns he now repaired for others with even more precision.
It was a fact that Frank was not proud of and one he tended to keep to himself.
He spent a lot of time with his son, Jessie, teaching him the finer points of gun repair and how to defend himself by drawing fast and shooting straight. Jessie had a natural talent for it and was always eager to show off what he could do.
The trouble started the day a man named Joe Mason and his two boys rode into Cactus Bow. They had a growing reputation that most respectable people frowned upon.
Jessie was a typically inquisitive fifteen-year old who at times let his curiosity get the best of his judgment. The Mason boys had been in town for several days and Jessie, being eager to show off his skill with a handgun, managed to introduce himself to a couple of the boys who weren’t much older than him.
After a short conversation and a little bit of bragging by all, Jessie challenged one of them to a friendly shooting match. The Mason boy didn’t see the harm and figured he would put this kid in his place. To this surprise, Jessie easily out shot him. That didn’t set well with the kid. He and his brother talked about how they would get even with Jessie before they left town, but until then, they continued to keep up friendly appearances.
During the course of their so called “Friendship” it became known that Jessie could read and write, which none of the Mason’s were able to do. This made their disdain for Jessie all the more prevalent.
On the day the Mason gang left town, Jessie disappeared.
The Sheriff, as well as some of the townsfolk figured the Mason’s had convinced Jessie to run off and join their gang. Frank knew his son better than anyone in town. He knew Jessie wouldn’t have run off like that. He figured the Mason gang had something to do with it alright and if Jessie was with them, it was against his will. That fact came to light in a note Jessie was able to slip to the teller of a bank the Mason’s had robbed not long after Jessie had disappeared. The note explained his predicament as well as where his father could be found. The note made its way to the Sheriff in Cactus Bow who passed it on to Frank.
The sheriff took the slip of paper over to Franks shop. “Looks like I may have been wrong about your boy” he remarked as he handed Frank the note.
Frank read it over several times holding back a full range of emotions as they began to overtake him. He lifted his head from the paper. “That’s Jessie’s writing alright, I’d know it anywhere. I’ll be headin’ to Dry Well first thing in the morning to get my boy.”
“If you like, I’ll round up a couple of my men and we’ll head out with you.” Offered the Sheriff.
Frank cut him off before he could say another word.
“I appreciate the offer Sheriff but to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want your help. I did my best to convince you and the people of this town that Jessie wouldn’t have ran off like that. No one believed me, and no one offered to lift a finger to help me find him. I’ve been searching for the Mason gang on my own since the day he disappeared. You didn’t offer your help then and I certainly don’t want it now. I’ll do this on my own.”
The Sheriff knew the truth of it and didn’t take offense. “You certainly have a right to be upset Frank, but don’t let your anger make you out to be a fool. You can’t take on the Mason gang on your own.”
“I won’t be on my own,” replied Frank. “Jessie will give me a hand. Now if you don’t mind, I need to get myself ready for an early start.”
He showed the sheriff the door and locked it behind him.
Before sunup the next morning Frank had packed his saddlebags, strapped on his best guns and slipped his favorite rifle snugly into its scabbard. He mounted up and headed toward Devils Canyon, and beyond that, the town of Dry Well.
The trail along the canyon rim was misleading at best.
It looked inviting as it started out, wide and flat with plenty of tall grass and very little dust. It was deceiving. Once Frank was getting comfortable with the lay of the land, things began to change. The flat and easy traveling ground gave way to a more perilous landscape of rocks, ruts and plenty of dust.
It soon slipped over the rim and dropped down along the canyon wall as it headed for the bottom. It was steep and rocky, barely wide enough for two horses to pass. It wasn't a trail for anything on wheels. A few wagons had tried over the years but it was a dangerous way to travel. Several had lost their footing and slipped off the edge.
The local buzzards kept a close eye on anything that moved along the trail within the canyon. They were always eager to feast on horse meat whenever some unfortunate beast didn’t make the grade.
As Frank carefully negotiated the trail he was grateful he was riding a horse and praying he wouldn’t meet up with some fool with a wagon heading in the opposite direction.
The trail along the canyon wall was shaded and a bit cooler than up on the rim, and even though it was steep and treacherous, it was a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Frank used the slow pace of the cool trail to think through his plan on how he would handle the situation once he rode into Dry Well. It would be tricky but there was no way he was leaving without his son.
The days heat gave way to the cool of the night. Frank had made it to the bottom of the canyon and followed a small creek to within several miles of the town of Dry Well.
He didn’t want to ride into town at night, so decided to make camp along the creek. A decent nights rest would do him good, as he needed to be at his very best the following day. An early start would put him in Dry Well by late morning.
As Frank entered town he kept alert. He needed things to go smoothly with no surprises. Main Street was not impressive. Several dozen assorted buildings lined each side. A few were empty and many looked as if they had seen better days. Several people were going about their business, but there was a noticeable lack of vitality in the air except for a dozen or so dogs that were roaming about.
One of these dogs began to nip at the heels of his horse as he rode down the street. He was seriously thinking about putting a bullet in it, hoping it would give the others something to gnaw on other than his horse. Just as the thought had entered his mind, an older gent stepped into the street and did the deed for him. It scattered the pack for a few minutes but the smell of blood brought them back to the fresh kill. The man walked up to Frank with his gun still drawn.
“And just who might you be?” he questioned. “This here ain’t a town that gets many visitors coming in from this direction. Most travelers with any sense avoid the D.C. trail. What’s yer business here?”
Frank ignored the inquiries and kept moving as the stranger walked beside him. “Thanks for getting that dog off my horse mister. My name is Frank, Frank Canby and I’m just passing through. Is there a place in this town where a man can wash the dust out of his throat?”
“That would be the ‘Red Horse’ saloon, last on the right. The clientele is a little rough, I’d watch my step if I were you.”
“Thanks for the warning mister.” Frank continued on to the Red Horse where he hitched up and stepped lightly through the door.
The place was small and dusty. A long bar and several tables nearly filled the room. Tobacco smoke hung heavy in the air. It came from the corner table where several men sat with a bottle of whiskey and a deck of cards. The game and the conversation were put on hold when Frank entered the room. All eyes followed him to the bar.
“Have any cold beer?” inquired Frank.
The bartender gave him a long hard look. “No such thing as ice in these parts. Warm whiskey will have to do. If you’re lookin’ for something cool, we got us a cellar. Ain’t nothin’ in it at the moment but that could change. I’ve been known to toss a stranger or two down the hole if they give me any trouble, or if I should decide I don’t like em’.”
“I appreciate the warning. Let’s just hope I’m a likable sort,” replied Frank.
“Ya, let’s just hope,” replied the bartender as he poured the drink.
Frank took the glass and moved over to an empty table. Sitting down, he started to shuffle a deck of cards he found there. As he began to lay out the cards in front of him, one of the men at the corner table spoke up.
“You a poker player?”
“I’m not a regular at it but I have played a hand or two,” replied Frank.
“Well we got an extra chair here if your interested. It’s not too often we get to play for someone else’s money. We tend to get a little tired of trading our own.
Frank considered the invitation. “I’ll make you a deal. Tell me where a man can get something to eat around here and if you’re still around when I come back, I’ll give you boys a chance to pay for it.”
“You can get some grub right next door,” replied one of the men. “But don’t spend all your money on your belly now; we want our chance to empty your pockets.”
Frank finished laying out the cards. It was a distinctive setup to a game he and Jessie had made up some time ago. He left them spread out on the table as he got up and walked out the door.
Frank stepped into the small diner. The smell of coffee and beans filled the room. It was brighter than the saloon but not any cleaner and from the decor it was easy to see it hadn’t had a woman’s touch in quite some time. Frank pulled up a chair at a table next to the window overlooking the street. The cook, a big man with greasy hair and a very large mustache stepped up to the counter. A quirley hung from his lips. He wiped his dirty hands on his grease-stained shirt, took a long drag from the quirley without touching it. The smoke poured from his mouth and nose as he spoke.
“What’s your pleasure? I got coffee, beans, bacon, steak and eggs.”
“I reckon I’ll have the coffee, steak and eggs, Boil the coffee and burn the steak.”
“Coffee’s already boiling, that’ll be four bits,” replied the cook. “Just passing through?”
“Where did you come from?”
“Where are you headin’?”
“Yer not very talkative, are ya?”
“Oh I can be talkative, as long as it ain’t about my personal business.”
The cook was smart enough to know when to stop prying and since he hadn’t had an out of town customer for some time he was eager to continue the conversation. So he changed the subject. “I’ve been cookin’ here for close to twenty years through fat and lean, and right now, things are mighty lean. Been that way for quite a spell now. We get more than our share of undesirable types coming through these days. I’ve a good eye for em’ and I’d say you’re not the type.”
“You don’t say. And just what does the ‘type’ look like?” inquired Frank.
“Oh, it’s really more about how they act than what they look like, you know, loud-mouth, cocky and looking for trouble; that type,” replied the cook. “As for you, I can tell you’re lookin’ for something alright. Not sure what it is, but I know it ain’t trouble.”
Just then four horsemen came riding down the street. They pulled up right next to the diner in front of the Red Horse saloon. Three surly looking men and a young boy dismounted. It was Jessie! Frank almost jumped out of his seat but he knew he needed to stay calm and play this hand the way he had laid it out in his mind. He knew it would be to his advantage to stay calm and he needed every bit of advantage he could get. So he sat back and took notice of the three men as they walked into the saloon with Jessie.
“Now there,” remarked the cook. “That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Those Mason boys are nothing but trouble. Been here for a couple months now stirring things up.
It’s a genuine shame the way they treat that kid. No better than a dog I tell you.”
The comment only increased Frank’s determination to put an end to this nightmare here and now. He excused himself, handed the cook a dollar and headed for the door.
As the Mason boys stepped into the Red Horse, they walked passed the table where Frank had laid out the cards. As Jessie approached the table he stopped dead in his tracks. He stared at the cards in disbelief. He knew that layout, and it gave him a sense of renewed hope to know his father may be close by, but where was he? Had he missed him? Was he here and gone already? Or were the cards laid out as a signal to him to be ready.
“Get moving their boy,” growled the gruff old man behind Jessie as he reached out and gave him a hard shove, causing him to stumble up to the bar.
He barked his orders to the bartender. “Give me a whiskey and the boy here his usual.”
The bartender set the drinks down in front of the old man. “One whiskey and one water.”
The old man replied. “Can’t git the boy to drink a man’s drink, all he ever wants is plain water. Maybe we should give it to him in a bowl and let him lap it up. If the little whelp didn’t know how to read and write, I’d have put him down by now, but since none of us boys ever learned how, he comes in handy every now and again. I guess we’ll keep hold of him for a time, but I might just want to hobble him if he don’t quit tryin’ to run off.” The old man gave Jessie a hard slap on the back of the head for emphasis. “Ain’t that right boy,” he declared with a laugh.
“Now is that any way to treat the boy?” came the voice from behind the old man.
All eyes went to the door. The old man and Jessie both turned and before a word could be spoken in reply, Jessie whipped the gun out of the old mans left holster and fired off two shots at the two Mason boys sitting at the table. The kid was fast and accurate. The men barely had time to clear leather when bullets slammed into their chests.
The three poker players at the corner table dove for cover. The bartender pulled a sawed off shotgun out from under the bar but Frank removed any thought from his mind about using it, with a bullet between his eyes. This gave the old man time to draw his other pistol. He grabbed Jessie around the neck and stepped behind him. He held the gun to Jessie’s head and made his demand.
“You and the boy drop your guns or I’ll put a bullet in his head right now…and get away from that door, I’m headin’ out.”
Jessie dropped his gun but Frank had come too far and searched too long to let this hombre get away. Their was no way he was going to let Jessie out of his sight.
The old man threatened Frank once again. “I’m tellin’ you one last time, drop the gun or the boy gets a bullet.”
Frank had never expected the old man to take the cowards way out and he didn’t want to take a chance on Jessie getting hurt so he reluctantly set his gun down, gave Jessie a wink of reassurance and moved away from the door.
The old man backed out of the saloon keeping Jessie between him and Frank. As they stepped out onto the boardwalk, he and Jessie both turned to see something just out of Franks field of view. The old man removed the gun from Jessie’s head as if to defend himself. When he did, Jessie broke free and dove back into the saloon, a single loud blast was heard and the old man was thrown from his feet, landing in a heap just off the walkway.
Jessie got up off the floor. Even though he was almost as tall as his father, he ran and jumped into his arms. They were both grateful to be alive.
“I knew you’d come for me, I knew you would,” cried Jessie.
“I would have searched heaven and hell for you son. I would have searched ‘till the day I died, and then some.”
They both walked outside to see who had fired the fatal shot at the old man.
There in the doorway of the diner stood the cook with a smile on his face and a shotgun cradled in his arms.
“I knew you were looking for something mister, I just didn’t know what it was, ‘till now.”