I\’ve always wanted to write some kind of western novel and so I\’m always starting and stopping them. Here\’s an excerpt from something old.
“I’m busy, Steven.”
“Just…hey, listen. Why’s the Boss so spooked? I mean, we done jobs like this ten fold over, yeah? So why’s he over there goin’ over every little thing with the rest of the boys?”
John Templeton stopped whetting his knife and paused, staring off into the black of night beyond their small camp. He spit into what was left of the fire and wiped his mustache; he was a patient man and one needed patience enough for discourse with Steven Hollister.
“Steven, I do believe you talk just to hear yourself talk. You know damn well what’s going on out there. All these mining towns have sprung up out here, seemingly out of the ground, but there’re only a handful left what can be knocked over by the likes of us without much trouble. And you also know damn well just what’s got the Boss riled up.”
Steven’s head lolled from side to side, considering. Finally he said, “Well yes I do, by God. McRoberts’ out there as well but who’s he? No damned mick can take on Nails and his gang.”
“If you’re so sure why’d you ask anyway, Steven?”
“Well I ain’t so sure, am I?”
Templeton sighed and mastered his growing frustration before continuing, “If you don’t know, Nails and McRoberts have got some history.”
“You mean to say that the Boss was a federal marshal? I don’t believe that for a damn minute.”
They were riding now, slowly across the rocky plain that would bring them to their target next day.
“By God, Steven, but you are a peckerwood. How else do you think I met Howell Nails?”
“But you was on the chain gang for…” realization slowly struck him, like water coming from a glacier. He laughed for his own ignorance and was quiet. Templeton was thankful for it.
“Say, Boss?” Steven was speaking again.
They were camped five miles south of Grange, the mining town they were poised to rob the next day. Howell Nails had chosen thirty of the most foolish and dog-loyal killers and thieves in the plains to assist him in job that was not meant to yield a lot of cash. Rumours had been running wild among the gang, that the Boss was going to be digging into his own coffers to pay the promised amount to each surviving man but no one was sure why. He had only himself, John Templeton, his closest confidant and friend (his “Lieutenant”, he called him), and several bottles of whiskey to keep his men in check.
“Say, Boss, me and Johnny here have been having the most enlightenin’ conversation today.”
“Spell ‘enlightening’ for me, Hollister,” said Nails with a smile. Templeton could not stifle his laugh. Steven forced a chuckle.
“Alright, you got me. But you know a fancy education out aways east in some big city ain’t amount to much out here.”
“Alright yourself, Steven. You know I’m only having a joke with you.”
“Alright, alright. But like I said, we were having the most interesting talk about you and McRoberts and Grange, about federal marshals and Louisiana.”
Nails stopped prodding the fire and tossed the stick down. He gave Steven a long stare. The three men sat around a very small fire, the largest they thought they could make without giving their position away. The fire was set a small ways apart from the main camp of men, now sipping what they thought was genuine Kentucky bourbon in hushed whispers against the gloaming light. Most were too anxious to sleep; Nails would not sleep at all that night.
“Mister Templeton told you all of that, did he?” Steven nodded, Nails spat on the ground. He looked at John Templeton, “And why would Mister Templeton do all of that?”
“Seemed only right for…Mister Hollister to know what he was getting into,” Templeton curled his moustache anxiously.
“And what happens when Mister Hollister tells the rest of the boys what’s coming tomorrow?”
Templeton gave Steven one last look, making one final consideration before affirming his judgement. “Because Steven isn’t going to say a word. Right?”
Fear grew on Steven immediately. No longer were these two men bandits, rebels with only a vague modicum of cause like Jesse James or Hoodoo Brown, but they had quickly become something more dangerous. Steven felt they would have shot him down if he had batted his eyelash the wrong way in that moment and he would have been right. These two men had not found their current position in life by being careless or letting any unneeded word slip.
“No…shit, no, Johnny. I ain’t gonna tell nobody. Hell, I don’t think half these boys would care anyway, crazy and stupid as they are. They just need a target, is all. No matter what it is, you see, just something to fight.”
Templeton laughed. “See, Howell? This is what I mean. Steven here’s more perceptive than he lets on; thought he might make a good fit as part leader of this here…expedition. Anyway you slice it, we need a prettier face up front.”
Nails laughed again and shook his head. He didn’t like the idea, but Templeton was better with people than he was, especially these country folk who wanted more than anything to escape their shovelling lives and become outlaws, or something like that. Steven joined in the laughter and was followed by Templeton and, for a moment at least, it was a pleasant scene of friends, the smiling curves of their faces lit up by homely camfire.
“And Steven,” Templeton said with subsiding laughter, “My wife called me Johnny so you don’t get to.”
The laughter stopped.
Next morning the gang treated itself to a breakfast of boiled oats and bacon. “Oats for the stomach, bacon for the arms,” claimed Nails. After a brief rest, and more than a few droughts of water to wash away the previous night’s exploits, the men began to saddle up. Howell Nails found himself next to Steven Hollister again.
“Boss, one thing I can’t figure. Most reckon this can’t be the most…profitable job, what with the town in question and the state of things as they is with that Grant in office. Fact, nothing’s been much good since the War…” he trailed for a moment before coming back to the point, “Why is it we need so many boys? There some kind of serious law in this town? Lots o’ deputies and whatnot?”
Nails sniffed and looked around, “No, Steven, there ain’t much law in Grange. In fact from all I’ve heard there ain’t no law in Grange. I’ve no wish to hear any more of your questions so I’ll just make right for it: we’re not going to Grange to rob a bank. You say nothing’s been good since the War ended. Well, I’m sorry for you Steven because we’re going to make our own.”
He mounted up and spurred his horse to a trot before Steven could put the pieces together.