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Chapter 1


 

Anytime the old memories come back to me, Swaney and McDukes are alive again, beating leather west of the ninety-eighth meridian. I’m a youngster again. My thinning white hair an unruly red. No liver freckles or veins marring my pale white skin. Muscles tight. Belly hard and flat. Eyesight sharp as cactus needles. A passion for hard liquor, soft women, and oversized Havanas.

In those memories, the magic sunshine of electricity hasn’t yet made it past the Rockies. The territories are still lit by oil lamps and dreams of a better, richer life that preempt the reality of day-to-day survival. It’s a time when what happened is worse than what did not. It’s a place where people killed to live and lived to kill.

I could list the names here.

And the inventions.

And the truths.

I won’t, except for some.

Mainly for Swaney and McDukes.

Everything worth telling begins with them.

Everybody knows their legend.

Not everybody knows the truth.

I’m one of the few who does, starting that first day they met inside the tall walls of Desert Prison.

The old converted fort was the only stronghold with a fair chance of containing them.

McDukes arrived with other ideas.

He got in to get Swaney out.

A good thing Swaney wanted out or one of them would have been dead before too many more sunsets lit up the horizon line.

*****

Swaney had three years remaining on his seven-year sentence and was king of the yard by the time McDukes arrived, was processed, and went looking for his old running mate. Two weeks after landing at the prison, Swaney had taken the title away from Bill “The Butcher” Barton in a brief encounter at the seat of power, a courtyard bench by some kind of fruit tree that never bore fruit. In two weeks he’d learned how the system worked, who among the inmates he could win to his side, and what guards were corrupt and could be bought off with sex and smoking tobacco.

The Butcher had ruled longer than any inmate before him, going back more than a dozen years to his first day behind bars, when he tracked the reigning boss, George Drummond, to his cell and without so much as a “good morning” choked the life from him, yanked Drummond’s ears from his head, flung them into the toilet bowl, and flushed them away.

It was the Butcher’s way of announcing: I’m the new king around here. Listen to me and obey me or you’ll be breathing your last before you know it.

The Butcher had a good twenty years and thirty pounds on Swaney, as well as a dozen loyal prisoners surrounding him and a carving knife hidden up his sleeve. Word was out and, when Swaney arrived at the fruit tree, the yard was jam-packed with vigorous betting going on, the Butcher a 10-1 favorite.

Swaney saw the danger signs that even a blind man would notice, but was undismayed as he approached the Butcher. Swaney nodded and smiled. The Butcher acknowledged the nod with one of his own, but didn’t smile.

“Name’s Swaney,” Swaney said, his voice mellow as a lullaby. “Lowell Swaney.”

The Butcher said nothing.

“I hear this ornery fruit tree used to be yours.”

The Butcher, never one for word games, said, “Mean to keep it that way.”

“Can’t be two kings, can there now, Mr. Barton?”

“Owney one and it ain’t ever gonna be you know who,” the Butcher said. Grim-faced, he pulled out his carving knife.

It was too late to do him any good.

Swaney moved his arm up and down. The Derringer pistol hidden up his sleeve slipped into his hand. He squeezed the trigger. His shot caught the Butcher in the chest. The Butcher fell to the ground, lifeless eyes staring at the overcast sky.

“Anyone want to dispute the outcome, now’s the time,” Swaney said.

No challengers emerged before a cadre of guards arrived, some to cart the Butcher’s body away, the others to take Swaney into custody and lead him out of the courtyard.

Laws being what they are behind prison bars, the killing cost Swaney a month in solitary on a diet of bread, water, and stale cheese.

His first day out, Swaney headed straight for the courtyard, settled onto the bench by the fruit tree, and stretched his legs, all the declaration he needed to remind everyone he was the new king.

No one came forward to dispute the claim.

Swaney had always been a loner, never went out of his way to make friends and rarely encouraged company.

McDukes’s appearance was uninvited and caught him by surprise.

“I come to pay my respects,” McDukes said, approaching the bench.

The two men could have been brothers from all appearances, except McDukes was blonder and had burning cobalt-blue eyes that checked out every direction at once. Swaney had immobile coal-black eyes to go with his coal-black shag of hair, and wore a full beard where McDukes was always clean-shaven.

Both stood shy of six-feet, tall for the time, strong-bodied, and handsome in a way that had special appeal for the ladies, McDukes at thirty-one or thirty-two years of age, Swaney about the same age, but seeming a good ten years older because of his darker demeanor.

Swaney studied McDukes, first with one eye and then the other, squinting in the bright sunlight. “Come to kill me, is that what really has you here, McDukes?”

“Nothing much respectful about that, Lowell,” McDukes said, rebuking the idea with a smile and a wink. “Only came around to congratulate you on your tree.”

Swaney held on to his squint.

By now the courtyard was filling with convicts brought over by the grapevine, sensing a showdown was brewing, odds opening at even money in the betting pool hastily organized by the prison guards.

“I’ve had better trees,” Swaney said.

“Me, also, which may be why this one holds no special interest for yours truly.”

“Shame, McDukes. I was fixing to offer you the comfort of this here creaky old wooden bench and what little shade my tree has to offer. Next time, maybe?”

“Sounds good to me,” McDukes said, and turned to leave.

“See you, McDukes,” Swaney called after him,

“Expect so, Lowell,” McDukes answered over his shoulder.

And that was that.

At least, for the time being.

The inmates dispersed, grumbling disappointment.

The guards kept the betting pool open, reckoning Swaney was bound to face another challenge soon, now that McDukes had opened Desert Prison to that possibility. If not him, someone else with a hankering to possess the courtyard bench by the old fruit tree.

McDukes stayed the leading candidate, but only for another six weeks, until the killer Grief Bonner joined the convict population.

*****

Shortly after settling into prison routine, Bonner, built like a buffalo, came running like one at Swaney. He hadn’t announced his intentions to capture the tree, but the convict wireless had been buzzing for days about such inevitability. After all, this was the feared Grief Bonner, who had brought pain and suffering, misery and death, to countless Plains families over the years.

Swaney was ready for him.

He sidestepped out of Bonner’s path, answering the charge with a hard blow to the neck as Bonner passed him.

Bonner skidded to a stop, hands comforting his throat, and wheeled around, intending to mount a second charge.

Swaney hurriedly moved on him, getting close enough to direct a fist straight into Bonner’s beefy midsection. Bonner’s hands dropped to his belly. Swaney kicked him in the groin. Bonner howled and moved his hands there protectively as he doubled over in pain. Swaney chopped at Bonner’s spine and sent him to the ground. He kicked Bonner in the temple. Then, again. Then, a third time. Bonner’s shrieks turned to screams before he grew silent. His body stopped jerking, twitching a bit before it quit moving altogether. He had breathed his last.

Swaney crossed back to his bench, casually, as if returning from a summer stroll.

His convict audience disbanded, those few who had bet on Swaney all smiles, ignoring the grumbling among those who had figured Bonner to win. The guards who showed up to cart Bonner away ignored Swaney, acting as if Bonner had suffered a fatal heart attack. Or something like that.

McDukes waited until they were gone to wander over to Swaney for his first visit since he had arrived at Desert Prison and made his presence known. He had been keeping his distance until the time for them to escape drew closer.

“You surely haven’t lost your touch, Lowell,” he said.

“Seems so, McDukes.”

“You ever consider leaving the tree and moving on?”

“Maybe when I’m ready and feel the urge strong enough.”

”Maybe that’ll be soon, then.”

“You telling me something I should know? Come sit a spell and we’ll talk some.”

McDukes swung his head left and right. “Time and place for everything, Lowell. Now’s neither,” he said, and retreated, joining a cluster of convicts across the yard who were discussing female anatomy and similar luxuries of freedom.

McDukes enjoyed the company of other prisoners. They liked him, too, for the sparks of charm and good cheer he threw off, so unlike the brooding and ever melancholy Swaney. Several times he’d been approached about taking on the king of the yard. He treated the suggestion like a joke, explaining he was a man of peace, so long as peace was returned in kind.

Frank Maelstrom, hearing this for the first time, figured McDukes’s words for a coward’s excuse and told him so. “I’m saying to your face, McDukes, the only notches on your gun belt were ones put there in Beadle dime weeklies, where I first come across your name and your so-called reputation for heroic exploits.”

“Suits me fine, Frank.”

“That all you got to say for yourself?”

The answer just slipped out: “Maybe also that I’m surprised to hear you can read.”

Maelstrom gave him an ugly stare. “You gonna regret saying that,” he said, and tramped off.

The prisoners waited for him to leave the courtyard before cautioning McDukes to watch himself around Maelstrom, explaining the barber might look like a meek little fellow, but had a firecracker temper that got him arrested for murdering his wife and some traveling salesman he mistakenly took to be her lover.

McDukes waved off the concern.

He shouldn’t have, it turns out.

Maelstrom got a gun from one of the guards in trade for a year’s worth of haircuts and showed up at McDukes’s cell that night. Whether by accident or arrangement, the door wasn’t locked. Maelstrom entered, whispered McDukes’s name, and fired. The gunshot noise carried throughout the cellblock like a bank of angry thunder.

The bullet caught McDukes below his right shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he leaped from the bunk, tackled Maelstrom, and wrenched the gun from his grip. In the same motion, without hesitation, he turned the weapon on Maelstrom and fired. The bullet cracked teeth sailing into Maelstrom’s mouth and out his neck. He was dead before any guards arrived to check out the ruckus.

McDukes was rushed to the prison hospital, and kept for three days of observation against the possibility of infection. His wound was cited in the warden’s report as evidence Maelstrom fired first, and he was let off with a reprimand for inspiring a disturbance.

The story that spread among the prisoners grew well out of proportion to the truth, with the best one describing how McDukes, unarmed, had dodged a hail of gunfire before using a toothbrush to bring Maelstrom down. He was treated as a hero his first day back in the courtyard, making his entrance to cheers, handshakes, and backslaps.

This time Swaney approached McDukes. “You ever consider leaving the cell and moving on?” he said, reprising their earlier conversation.

McDukes cracked an oversized grin. “When I’m ready, Lowell.”

“When you’re ready, me, too,” Swaney said.

With that, they moved to the privacy of the fruit tree bench and discussed a mutual future away from Desert Prison.

Swaney relaxed once McDukes detailed what he had in mind. It was to his liking. They shook hands on the plan and turned their talk from the future to the past days of glory they had shared.

The memories provoked laughter from Swaney, only the barest of smiles from McDukes.

After all, it wasn’t as if McDukes intended to let Swaney live much longer.

Swaney had killed his wife.

Swaney had to die.

But not here, not now.

It needed to happen under conditions that served as a fitting tribute to the one and only woman McDukes had never stopped loving.

 


 
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