Trouble BrewingWith nothing much for entertainment in Skunk Corners, everyone came to the spelling bee. They couldn’t all jam into the schoolroom, so we all trooped over to Tess’s, where the barroom had more space. Johnny agreed not to serve anything stronger than sarsaparilla while the kids were there, and we got down to some serious spelling. Eunice Reeves was up, trying to spell “procrastination,” when I slipped out the door for some air and a trip to the privy. Tom and Tess between them were running the spelling bee, and doing a fine job of it.
I finished what I went out to do, and blew out the candle I’d used to light my way. I lingered a moment under the trees behind the Tavern and the bank, enjoying the cool night air and letting my eyes adjust to the dark.
That was when I heard the soft plunk of hooves, extra soft like maybe they’d been wrapped in cloth to keep quiet.
My eyes might have still been dazzled from the lights, but there was nothing wrong with my ears. Those horses were coming down the Endoline trail. I was glad I’d blown out my candle before I left the privy. As long as I didn’t move, I’d be invisible.
Someone was sneaking into our town, and on the night when pretty much everyone was watching our children prove they could spell. Was that just chance? Six horses grew visible in the darkness. I couldn’t see any details, but it was definitely six horses, and six riders who didn’t belong around here.
Honest men came to Skunk Corners by daylight, and most of them came off the train, or up the trails from down the mountain. People in Endoline didn’t have horses. People in Endoline didn’t have much of anything. It was in the name: Endoline. End of the line. Where you ended up when you'd run out of options. All the wealth had been sucked out of that place long since, before we’d contrived to send Mort Black packing. That man had thought he owned the place, and every person in it. Once, he’d thought he owned me, too. That was how I came to move to Skunk Corners: to make myself some options and prove I was no one’s property. Our town wasn’t much, but it was a long sight better than Endoline, even before the Ninja Librarian came and straightened things up.
So I figured that anyone riding down the Endoline Trail quiet-like in the night was probably up to no good, and I snuck up a bit closer so’s I could hear them talking.
“That’s it right there. Just a quick job.”
“What’re we doing, anyway? Stick-up? Blow the safe?”
“Don’t need to blow it. Boss says he wants some papers, and not just the money.” The man’s voice reflected his puzzlement over this command. I was confused, too. Papers? What for? And why wouldn’t they have to force the safe?
His companions shared his feelings, and mine. “What in heck would we do that for? It’s a bank. You get money from banks, not paper.”
“Mebbe some papers is more valuable than money.” The hoarse voice came from the smallest rider. A couple of the others started to laugh, but stifled it when someone hissed, “Shut up!”
“So what’re we waiting for?” That was the guy who wondered what the job was. For someone who didn’t know much, he was mighty impatient.
“Boss says wait for him. He’s comin’ up from the hide-out in the Badlands.”
I wondered who the boss might be, and didn’t like the ideas that came to me. I tried not to think about it.
“Too bad.” That was the little guy again. He sounded like someone who liked hurting people. “Looks like everyone’s in the Tavern just now. Some kinda party. We could take care of that bank right now and no one the wiser.”
I felt a chill. I didn’t like Mr. Tolliver, the banker, but he was part of our town. I had to stop this.
How? If I went and raised the alarm, the men might ride off, but they might hurt some folks first. There were too many small fry in Tess’s place to risk involving them. But I couldn’t handle six fellows alone.
I turned and tiptoed back around to the kitchen side of Tess’s. There was no light there, so I could slip in without being noticed. I ran quickly across and opened the barroom door just enough to get Johnny’s attention. He saw me, because he noticed most everything around his bar, and paused only to grab his shotgun. I smiled. Johnny’s pretty quick.
Eunice had survived “procrastination,” and was watching while Lije misspelled “precaution.” I wondered if Tom had sensed something and chosen that word as a message to me. I’d take it as one, anyway.
Johnny eased the door shut behind him, and we stood in the dark kitchen while I whispered an explanation.
“I don’t want to get nobody hurt,” I finished. “And I’m afraid if we try to get the men-folk out of there,” I jerked a thumb at the other room, though he couldn’t see it in the dark, “we’ll have a panic. The rider are waiting for their boss, whoever that might be.”
“I ain’t seen Hank and Yance tonight. They might be over in their workshop.”
That was a thought. My two former students were apprenticed to Mr. Holstead and his carpentry business. They slept over the workshop, which was about the only place they wanted to be anyhow.
“Run get them,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on this lot.”
Johnny didn’t waste time arguing. He was out the back door before I could gather my thoughts and follow, moving like a shadow off towards the Holstead’s.
The bank robbers were still clustered in the woods, so it looked like they were waiting on their mysterious boss. And it looked like he was due any time.
My biggest worry was guns. I didn’t want any kind of shoot-out, because someone would get hurt for sure. I didn’t care if these fellows got themselves killed, but there were women and children in that tavern a few yards away. We had to handle this delicately.
A mosquito buzzed in my ear, and I batted it away, then turned up my collar. I had learned from Tom to hold still no matter what, but I drew the line at letting the blood-suckers have more of me than I needed to. That went double for two-legged blood-suckers like the ones I was watching. I crept a little closer, then prepared to wait without moving, mosquitoes or not. I was close enough now to know these fellows didn’t bathe much.
The riders were getting restless. “Where the heck is the boss, Smitty?” That was the whiney one again.
“He’s coming. Hold your hosses,” growled the voice that had hushed them earlier. “Shut up.”
“Don’t see why we gotta wait,” another one grumbled.
“I said to shut your yammering! We need him ’cause he knows the signal.”
Well, that was interesting. I wondered what signal that would be. But the men’s restlessness was giving me an idea. Johnny and the boys would move in from the other side if they could, and the boys might steal the horses if they got a chance. Johnny had big ideas about capturing this lot, which worried me some.
I thought maybe I should try to spook them before the boys did something we’d all regret. I slipped out of my shoes and crept a little closer, thinking hard.
“Hey!” One of the men changed the subject. “I smell a skunk!”
I sniffed. Sure enough, I smelled one too, and not far off.
“Sure,” said Smitty. “That’s why they call this place Skunk Corners. I hear it’s lousy with the stinkers.”
Well, we did have skunks aplenty. That worried me some, because they didn’t have cause to love me. I’d have to take my chances this time. I thought maybe I could use that skunk to some good end.
An outlaw on a light-grey horse, visible even in the dark, spoke up. What he said gave me a fright. “What’s Mort want with this place, anyhow? It ain’t much.”
Mort. Mort Black. The thing I’d told myself was just foolish fear, was real. We thought we’d chased that low-down thief off for good, but he was back. I took a deep breath to calm myself while Smitty answered.
“I reckon Endoline’s played out and he wants fresh blood. He’ll take over here and we’ll live like kings, with all them woman at Tess’s Tavern.” The laughter that followed that chilled me even more.
Not if I had anything to say about it they wouldn’t. And then I did have something to say. It was too dark for the men to see each other well, and I was almost underfoot. I was making the horses uneasy, but the men blamed the skunk. I made my voice as much as I could like the little guy they seemed scared of and said the thing I thought would upset them the most.
“Mebbe Mort don’t plan to share.”
“Course he’ll share,” Smitty said. “He always has.”
“Allus a first time. He done set us to do the dirty work, ain’t he?” That was one of the other men. Seemed my question had set loose some doubts. I worked on them some more.
“Anyhow, I smell that skunk, and I don’t like it. I hear them critters are just unnatural round here. Maybe they’s hydrophoby skunks!”
“Stop fussing. Anyhow, we don’t gotta do nothin’. Just wait for Mort.”
“Stupid to wait,” the little guy insisted. “This here’s our chance, while everybody’s busy. There’s something he ain’t telling us. Some secret about this place.”
The creak of saddle leather told me at least some of the men were dismounting. To move in and rob the bank? I moved a little closer under cover of their sounds, thinking that if I had to fight, I’d take out the leader first, and let the boys handle the rest.
“Ground-hitch them hosses so’s we can leave in a hurry,” the bossy one said, and I heard then what I guessed none of the men did: a horse coming, not too far off. If that was Mort Black, we had to move fast. I tried another approach, desperate to take care of them before Black could rally them.
“Boss shoulda been here by now. I tell ya, he’s leavin’ all the work to us. An’ what fer? So’s he can get rich, I reckon. And what do we get?”
That set them to arguing a bit, which hid the sound of Black approaching.
I smelled Stinky pass close by me, and danged if that skunk didn’t walk right in among the men and start rubbing up against them like a cat. The one with the coarse laugh was first to notice.
“Hey, there’s a cat or somethin’ out here getting cozy with my legs!”
I jumped on the opening. “Reckon it’s done tangled with a skunk, then. ’Less that stink is you. When’s the last time you took a bath, anyhow?”
That set them to bickering again, and they all huddled up to do it in angry whispers, with an occasional, “there’s that kitty again,” mixed in with the cussing and arguing. I backed off a bit, thinking it might be time to get out of there. I was just far enough away to miss the worst of it when that skunk cut loose.
Stinky had a good sense of timing. You never heard such cussing and choking in your life. I’d have laughed, if I’d dared. The bandits took off for their horses, stumbling blindly, eyes watering too much to see their way. I guessed by the stamping and neighing that the horses didn’t much like their scent, but they scrambled into the saddles and rode right up the trail and smack into Mort Black. I heard him yelling and cussing, but his men wouldn’t stop, and his voice gradually faded as he gave up and rode after them.
“Thanks, Stinky,” I said quietly, and started back toward the Tavern.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
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