Oregon
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Vol. 4, No. 1

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Evan Lewis
CROCKETTS NEVER QUIT
Genre Fiction


 

 

We came across the arrow-festooned bodies half a day shy of Panther Gap. I saw them first, riding scout as I was, and if there’d been time to lead the wagon train aside without anyone else spotting them, I surely would. Nothing drowns the enthusiasm of prairie pilgrims quicker than the prospect of sudden and grisly death.

 

Next to the bodies lay the remains of a Conestoga wagon. The canopy was reduced to ashes and the wheels charred down to the iron. Steamer trunks had been upended, and gaily-colored dresses decorated the sagebrush.

 

Glory be, Davy said, I believe things are about to get interestin’.

 

I grimaced. Davy’s never satisfied when things are peaceful. He craves adventure, romance and public acclaim. Maybe I would, too, if I’d been fifty years dead and reduced to a voice in some hapless descendant’s head. Davy, you see, is my grandpappy, a man I never knew in the flesh. To most folk, he’s a hero who died defending the Alamo way back in 1836, twenty years afore I was born. But to me, he’s just a voice that never shuts up. I was a happy-go-lucky lad of thirteen when he took a mind to start haunting me, and he’s been on the job ever since.

 

And lucky for you, or you’d still be swillin’ moonshine in some Tennessee canebrake.

 

I sat my paint and stared gloomily down at the wagon, recalling those pleasant days of my youth. There was nothing to do now but wait for the rest of the train to catch up. They’d all have to stop and gawk, wasting a good hour of daylight.

 

The wagon box still gave off heat, and wisps of smoke trailed into the gentle prairie wind. The faces of the dead man and woman still had some color.

 

Two hours ago, Davy said. Maybe less. And their attackers rode west.

 

Davy’s handy at times, I must admit. When it comes to such matters as tracking and reading Indian sign, he has no peer. More frequently, of course, he’s about as helpful as a case of poison ivy.

 

The wagons pulled up one at time behind me, each batch of travelers hopping down to wail and cuss and cry. Several dropped to their knees and emptied themselves of breakfast.

 

“Riders comin’,” someone shouted, “and bustin’ leather!”

 

Sure enough, two horsemen came galloping full tilt across the plain from the west. They thundered in on a cloud of dust, faces white with fear. “Apaches!” one barked. He tore a battered derby from his head and slapped it against his leg. “They’re massing in Panther Gap, just a-waitin’ for you!”

 

“Must be a hundred of the devils,” the other wheezed. “Painted for war and bristling with weapons.” He placed his grey rebel cap over his heart and nodded at the bodies before us. “Them poor souls didn’t stand a chance.”

 

The wagonmaster, a stocky German with a bristling black beard propped his hands on his hips and squinted up at me. “What do you think, Mr. Scout?”

 

I considered. We had twenty-three wagons, many infested with women and children. There might be thirty men who could shoulder a rifle, but they were farmers and shopkeepers, not fighters. I’d bet half of them had never fired a weapon at a human. “The next nearest route around these mountains is Gila Gorge, a day and a half to the north. I hate to lose the time, but don’t see much choice.”

 

Shameful, Davy said. A Crockett shyin’ away from a few hundred Injuns.

 

The wagonmaster’s daughter, a rosy-cheeked little blonde named Annamarie, had joined him, and now gazed at me with frank disappointment.

 

I took this as a good sign. She’d been flashing her pretty eyes at me since we left Omaha, and had lately begun posing such questions as did I prefer apple pie or strawberry, and did I most admire her hair in braids or bun.

 

Davy’d been trying for years to marry me off and start me on the road to respectability, and this was just the sort of gal he favored. I, quite naturally, was equally determined to avoid such entanglements, and had every intention of dying a bachelor.

 

A wide-shouldered man in a battered old cavalry hat now strode forward and engaged the wagonmaster in quiet conversation. This fellow was one of the few non-immigrants with the train. He claimed to be a reporter from back East, making his first trek west in search of colorful newspaper copy. He seemed agreeable enough, but I’d steered clear of him, being allergic to seeing my name in print. Fame was another curse Davy craved to foist upon me, while I, being of a shy and retiring nature, preferred to toil in obscurity.

 

The newspaperman stepped forward and addressed the crowd. “Most of you folk know me by now. My name is Robert Napier, and I’m a correspondent for the New York Evening Post. I’ve made this trip because I’ve great respect for the human character. The hardy and determined settlers of the West have proven they are capable of extraordinary acts of courage. I’m certain every last one of you is equally capable.”

 

Napier’s steely blue eyes threw off sparks as he spoke. The folks of the train absorbed his words with rapt attention, all except Miss Annamarie, who gazed at him with doe-eyed admiration.

 

“Our esteemed wagonmaster has just revealed a secret which you may find heartening.” He gave a dramatic wave in my direction. “This quiet giant who serves as our trail guide, known to us only as Scout, is actually Mr. Dave Crockett, true-blooded grandson of the greatest Indian fighter this country has ever known. This, ladies and gentleman, is a man who grins at danger. Old Davy Crockett had no quit in him, and our brave scout doesn’t either. I say we give Mr. Crockett a vote of confidence and follow him straight through Panther Gap!”

 

After a moment of silence, someone in the rear shouted, “Go get ‘em, Davy! Give them redskins hell!”

 

Others clapped and cheered, and for a moment the air rung with bloodthirsty approval. When the racket finally dimmed, the wagonmaster threw up his hands and declared, “I am a farmer, not a fighter. I bow to the wisdom of Mr. Crockett.”

 

All eyes now swung to me, and the crowd’s fervor pressed against me like a living thing.

 

Go ahead, Davy said. ‘Bout time you claimed your place as an American hero.

 

I gazed down at Annamarie, who looked at me with such adoration she seemed about to swoon.

 

“Nah,” I said. “We’re takin’ the safe route through Gila Gorge.”

 

#

 

We camped that night beside a small stream. Within the ring of wagons, the usual campfire blazed, and the center of attention was reporter Robert Napier. I stood in the shadow of a wagon, craving a jug of Tennessee corn liquor.

 

“I can still hardly credit it,” Napier told the pilgrims. “The actual flesh and blood of Davy Crockett turning tail from an Indian fight. We can only assume he has good reason.”

 

A charitable sentiment, Davy said. But wrong.

 

I’m saving all their hides, I replied. How can that be wrong?

 

Close at Napier’s side sat Miss Annamarie. The way she clung to him was irksome until I considered she was no longer doing that to me. I was well rid of her, I reasoned, and planned to stay that way.

 

“When I rode with Custer at Gettysburg,” Napier continued, “he led us straight at the enemy, sweeping them all before us.”

 

Yeah, I thought, that strategy worked miracles at the Little Bighorn.

 

One of the immigrants, a big scar-faced bruiser named Helmut, threw his tin cup into the fire. “Perhaps we follow the wrong man, Herr Napier. Perhaps you should lead us.”

 

Another big German stood, one I’d heard called Gregor. “I agree. This Crockett has shown the yellow streak and is no longer of consequence.”

 

Napier waved them off. “I now do my fighting with my pen. Besides, it’s premature to be calling Mr. Crockett yellow. He may yet redeem himself.”

 

Helmut smacked a fist into his palm. “Redeem himself, hell! He’s a craven coward, and I will tell him to his face.”

 

I stepped into the firelight. “Now’s your chance. My face is right here.”

 

Some folks gasped. Some swore. All looked to me, then back to Helmut. The big German puffed up his chest, stepped back from the fire and stomped in my direction. Ten feet off he stopped, sizing me up. “Gregor,” he said over his shoulder, “you have much to say as well, yes?”

 

Gregor looked uncertain. Then, evidently feeling everyone’s eyes upon him, said, “That is correct,” and advanced from the opposite direction.

 

This is what comes of bein’ timid, Davy said. You always have to prove yourself.

 

I liked you better when you were dead.

 

The two Germans stopped, one on each side, just out of reach. Both looked bigger up close. Almost as big as me.

 

Davy said, Now’s your chance to impress that gal.

 

I grimaced. “Look, gents. No need to spill blood over this. I’ll accept your humble apologies.”

 

Helmut and Gregor exchanged glances. “Yellow,” Helmut said. “Yellow as a buttercup.”

 

Davy said, Ouch.

 

Gregor’s lips moved as he counted, “Ein, schwei, drei…” Then both men charged at once.

 

Helmut’s roundhouse right sailed straight for my jaw. Gregor swung a left from his knees on course to bust my brisket. Spreading my arms, I stepped slightly back, slightly to the side and grasped the shoulders of their woolen jackets. I yanked. Helmut’s fist smacked into Gregor’s cheek just as Gregor buried his knuckles in Helmut’s kidneys.

 

Both men staggered. I rapped their heads together, put Helmut down with a right cross and lifted Gregor off his feet with a left uppercut. He came down hard on Helmut and stayed there.

 

“Someone see these men to bed,” I said, careful not to breathe hard. “We hit the trail at sunup.”

 

That proof enough for you? I asked Davy.

 

Ain’t me you have to prove yourself to.

 

The hell it isn’t.

 

#

 

We covered the distance to Gila Gorge without incident. The immigrants were subdued, but offered no further complaints. Napier, too, was quiet, perhaps regretting the comments that had sparked the previous night’s trouble. Even Davy had nothing to say.

 

But as I topped a rise, spotting the gorge in the shallow valley half a mile away, Davy came alive.

 

Leave the train here. Somethin’ fishy down there.

 

Apaches?

 

Could be. What’s the harm in checking?

 

I was suspicious, but had no answer. I shrugged.

 

And take that newspaper rascal with you.

 

Napier? Why?

 

Judging by his hat, he was a cavalry officer. He’ll at least know which end of a rifle the bullets come from.

 

The wagonmaster didn’t like it, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t blame them. It felt like one of Davy’s schemes. But if there really were redskins down there, it was better to know now than when we were halfway through the gorge.

 

“Why me?” Napier wanted to know.

 

“Your Custer stories. If we meet a hundred Injuns, you can tell them about his exploits at Gettysburg. They’ll die laughing.”

 

Napier grinned. “I guess I deserve that.”

 

“Last night wasn’t your fault,” I said. “Those Germans have been itchin’ to test me since we left Nebraska.”

 

Annamarie sashayed up as we were gathering our weapons. “Why do you have to take Robert? Is it because you’re jealous?”

 

Robert? I spoke without looking at her. “I’m just being careful. I want the whole lot of you safe in California and out of my hair.”

 

Annamarie stomped a foot. “Does that include me? Can you honestly say you’d rather never see me again?”

 

I paused, an answer on my tongue.

 

Don’t lie, boy. You’ll regret it.

 

I looked into her bright green eyes. “Honesty’s overrated.” I turned to Napier. “You ready, Cap’n?”

 

He looked at me queerly. “How’d you know I was a captain?”

 

“My inner demon told me.”

 

Annamarie grasped either side of Napier’s collar, pulled herself up and kissed him full on the lips. I turned to cinch my saddle.

 

That kiss could have been yours.

 

Not hardly. Nothing is ever really mine.

 

#

 

Gila Gorge sat in a shallow valley, with cliffs of red siltstone overlooking a thin, slow-moving stream. It was a serviceable pass for wagons, but also one of nature’s most perfect spots for an ambush. At Davy’s urging, I led Napier back half a mile to where we could climb atop the plateau and approach from the south. If there were Apaches lying in wait, they’d never expect us from that direction.

 

“So which do you prefer,” I asked as we climbed, “apple or strawberry?”

 

“What?”

 

“Braids or bun?”

 

“Sometimes you seem wise as Solomon,” Napier said, “and sometimes you’re mad as a March hare. Are you really Davy Crockett’s grandson?”

 

“Hard to believe?” I found the notion flattering.

 

“Not really. You do resemble his portraits. But most men would be flaunting that kinship, not hiding it.”

 

“A certain relative’s been filling my head with Davy stories all my life,” I said. “I can’t bear to hear them from strangers. Besides, once folks hear my name, they expect me to play the hero.”

 

Napier winced. “I get your drift. Sorry.”

 

Once on top of the cliff, I half expected to find a warrior acting as lookout, but the sole sign of life was one of those dried-up critters that gave the gorge its name. I began to wonder if Davy was losing his touch.

 

We moved carefully along the plateau, careful to avoid loose rocks. Nearing the gorge, we went to hands and knees, then slithered on our bellies until we could peer over the edge. Ninety feet below, the small stream snaked peacefully through the narrow gap. But hiding amidst escarpments on both sides of the gorge were rough-looking men with rifles.

 

“Those aren’t Apaches,” Napier hissed. “They’re outlaws.”

 

What are you playing at? I asked Davy. You said they were redskins.

 

I said no such thing. I sensed trouble, not what flavor.

 

Napier grimaced. “I count at least twenty. And the way they’re entrenched, we’ll never get at them.”

 

He was right. These prairie pirates had good cover, and were high enough that we couldn’t attack from the ground. We might pick off a couple from up here, but once we’d tipped our hand they’d shift to new cover.

 

In one of the niches across the stream I spotted a fellow in a grey rebel cap jawing with one in a battered derby. The two who’d warned us away from Panther Gap. I’d been hornswoggled. My cheeks burned with embarrassment.

 

Napier said, “What are they after?”

 

“The life savings and worldly possessions of every last pilgrim on that train.”

 

“So how do we stop them?”

 

Good question. If I had the wisdom of Solomon, I’d have an answer.

 

I’ll take that as a request. Get back to the train and I’ll fill you in on the way.

 

#

 

No one liked the plan, including me. I considered it one of the goofiest schemes Davy had ever uncorked, but I’d be danged if I’d turn tail and drag these pilgrims back to Panther Gap. I’d get ‘em through here or die trying.

 

Those immigrants threw such a tizzy I knew I’d have a mutiny unless I took drastic measures. So I did the thing I’d most hoped to avoid. I played the Crockett card.

 

“You may not like me,” I told all and sundry, “and I can’t blame you much. But you’ve all heard of Davy Crockett, and know he was a man to be trusted. Well, the blood of Davy Crockett flows strong in my veins, and sometimes I even imagine he’s offering me advice. ‘Be sure you’re right,’ he tells me, ‘then go ahead.’ This here is one of those times. I’m sure I’m right, and old Davy wants you to go ahead and follow me. What do you say?”

 

I plastered on a confident grin and prayed I wouldn’t be struck by lightning. The Germans exchanged skeptical looks until Robert Napier jumped out front and raised a fist in the air. “For Davy Crockett!” he shouted. “Let’s do it for Davy!”

 

“He’s right!” Annamarie yelled. “For Davy!”

 

Others chimed in. Soon the whole mob was roaring so loud I feared the outlaws would hear. Some enthusiastic jasper even bellowed, “Remember the Alamo!”

 

With everyone fired up, it didn’t take more than a couple hours to get things set. When all was ready I climbed aboard my paint and threw them a salute. “Remember, just play your parts and don’t come no closer than the ridge of the valley. Once through this gorge the route should be free and clear all the way to California.”

 

They gave a ragged cheer, I put spurs to my paint, and the show was on.

 

#

 

The first thing those outlaws seen was me bustin’ over the ridge, ridin’ hell-for-leather toward the gorge. When they poked their heads up to gawk I pretended to see them for the first time and begun waving my Stetson. “Apaches!” I roared. “Hot on my tail!”

 

Most of the outlaws had rifles fixed on me, but were so surprised they didn’t think to shoot. I raced between the walls of the gorge and leapt from my horse just as a fierce and terrible racket issued from the ridge behind me. It sounded as if an army of demons had been loosed upon the earth.

 

While the outlaws stared slack-jawed up at the ridgeline, I clambered up into the rocks and collapsed among a large group of them. Among these were Rebel Cap and Derby. “They caught the wagons a mile back,” I gasped. “Butchered every last soul in the train!”

 

I snatched a glance back up the valley. The sight was all I’d hoped and more. At least thirty naked savages sat their horses on the ridge, waving their rifles and screeching like wildcats. From a distance, red dust passed for skin color, axle grease hid their blonde hair, and rouge and iodine served as warpaint. I just hoped the outlaws wouldn’t hear them shouting Remember the Alamo!

 

“Appears they almost butchered you, too,” Derby said. He bent and plucked the .45 from my holster, but neglected the Winchester pressed beneath my body.

 

I coughed, clutching my chest to make the most of the calf’s blood soaking my shirt. “That’s a fact,” I said, “I’m done for.” And as punctuation, I slumped over, playing dead.

 

“Let’s hightail it!” barked a voice of authority.

 

I watched slit-eyed as the outlaws jumped from their perches into the streambed and rushed toward the rear of the gorge. When the last had gone I rose to a crouch and peered down at them, now out in the open. Someone in the distance shouted, “The horses! Those devils must have run ‘em off!”

 

“We’re doomed!”

 

“Back into the rocks! It’s our only chance!”

 

I levered a shell into my rifle and aimed it at the outlaws. “Not so fast, gents. It happens those red devils yonder are friends of mine. Kindly drop your weapons into the stream and I’ll persuade them to spare you.”

 

Rebel Cap glowered at me. “He’s only one man. He can’t stop us all.” He leaped for a break in the rocks and was halfway up when a rifle barked from across the gorge. Rebel Cap toppled back into the stream and lay twitching.

 

“Behold the power of the press,” said Robert Napier, bracing the outlaws with another rifle. Per Davy’s plan, he’d descended the far side of the plateau to scatter their horses, then crossed the gorge while they were distracted by our immigrant Apaches.

 

The outlaws groused and growled, but seemed about to surrender when something caught their attention on the ridge.

 

I chanced a look. One of the wagon horses came lumbering down the slope, a hapless immigrant clinging fretfully to its mane. As the animal reached the water and began to drink, the painted German promptly fell into the stream. It was my sparring partner Helmut.

 

Back on the ridge, other horses snorted, reared, and followed the first to water. A good half of the imitation Indians tumbled off into the dust.

 

“Them’s no Apaches!” Derby shouted. “They’re wagontrainers!”

 

Fine plan you had, I told Davy.

 

Quit bellyaching and shoot.

 

The outlaws were already on the attack. Bullets zinged past my ears, spanging off the rocks, and one ventilated my Stetson.

 

My view of the streambed was now limited, but I fired fast and furious and was rewarded with yelps of pain. Napier kept up a steady fire too, then his rifle suddenly went silent. I glanced across to see him slumped against the rocks.

 

It was now up to me, and a peek over the side told me they were pressed against the rock wall below, massing for an assault. I patted my pocket and found I was out of shells.

 

Guess this is it, I told Davy. But I’m going down swinging, just like you. Better luck with your next descendant.

 

Vaulting over the rocks, I dropped into the streambed and poured my last rounds into two surprised outlaws. I rushed at the others, flailing my rifle like a club. Three more went down, but I felt bullets plow into my leg and shoulder. Someone ripped the rifle from my hands. My fists hammered flesh, and I heard bones breaking, some of them doubtless my own. A red mist swam before my eyes as I lit into my enemies tooth and nail. I punched and jabbed and kicked and clawed and bit until a great weight pressed against me and the world went black.

 

So this is what it’s like, I thought, to die.

 

#

 

Wake up, Davy said. You got company.

 

I blinked, unable to focus. I had a sensation of floating, but it was a bumpy, noisy ride.

 

Is this heaven, I asked, or hell?

 

“A little of both,” said the voice of Robert Napier. “It’s Nevada.”

 

“The poor dear.” This one sounded like Annamarie. “He’s still delirious.”

 

Soft hands stroked my face, and I got my eyes working. Annamarie bent over me, her face close to mine. “You did it, Dave. You got us through the gorge. You were wonderful.”

 

I took my bearings. I lay on a feather mattress in the back of a wagon, wheels creaking as it rumbled over the prairie. Napier sat on a steamer trunk, a bloodstained cloth wrapped about his head.

 

“I figured I was dead.”

 

Napier said, “So did we. But once we pulled you out from under that pile of outlaws, we were more concerned for your sanity. For the past two days you’ve been raving and cursing at someone named ‘Davy.’ Talking to your grandpap, maybe?”

 

“’Course not,” I lied. “Once had a mule by that name.”

 

“Hm,” Napier said. “In any case, you’ll be pleased to know most of those outlaws had prices on their heads. When my write-up reaches New York you’ll be nigh as famous as your grandfather. I believe I feel a series of dime novels coming on.”

 

Annamarie bent lower, her lips brushing my cheek. I tried to push her off, but found one arm in a sling and the other in a cast of mud-plaster. Dang near every inch of me was bandaged up tight. “You’re going to love California,” Annamarie said sweetly. “I’ll see to that personally.”

 

I’m not sure how you finagled this, I told Davy, but rest assured I’ll get you for it.

 

Not ‘til you recover from your wounds. And by then you’ll likely be hitched.

 

You knew all this would happen.

 

I knew there weren’t no Apaches at Panther Gap. The tracks around that burnt-out wagon were all shod, and the arrows in those pilgrims were Sioux and Shoshone.

 

So you knew Derby and Rebel Cap were steering us into a trap.

 

I suspected.

 

And you put all these immigrants at risk just to make me a hero.

 

Pshaw, they was never in real danger. They had you to protect them. Like it or not, boy, you’re a Crockett through and through, and Crocketts never quit.

 

YOU never quit!

 

I let out a roar that nearly blew Annamarie out of the wagon.

 

“The poor dear!” she exclaimed. “He’s endured such agony for us.”

 

Napier grinned down at me. “There’s something peculiar about you, Crockett, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

 

“I can’t put my finger on it, either,” I said bitterly. “If I could, I’d poke it in the eye.”

 

—END—