by Stephen Bly
CHAPTER ONENo one knew how Avery John Creede got the scar on his face.
No one except Avery and the one who did it.
He never talked about it. Most who knew him figured the other person dead. Not the type of scar that makes you wince and turn your head, and never covered by a beard, it hung high on his cheek bone like a badge of honor.
But a person had to stand up to Creede and look him in the eye to see the scar. For the past six weeks on the trail north from Shiprock, no one had been that close.
July hot and August dry, the September heat that reflected off the brick wall left Avery with a stale feel, like a sweat drenched cotton shirt, long dried. He studied the wide river from the tiny, two-step balcony of his second-story room at the Grand Hotel. Although he could not see it now, he knew he was positioned under the arched 1881 stone façade high at the building’s peak.
Like a pontiff overlooking an empty plaza, he surveyed the near deserted street below.
A lady with a famine-thin waist and a bleached yellow dress spun a parasol over her shoulder as she sauntered past the cottonwoods toward the riverbank. Like bait skimming across a still mountain lake, Avery figured she trolled for some man to set the hook.
His heavy boot heels nailed the polished oak flooring as he re-entered the cramped room past the brass bed posts to a white porcelain basin on a stand and a worn wooden side chair. He splashed tepid water on his shaved face, then glanced up at the mirror. The leather-tough forced smile and near empty brown eyes looked more like a Venetian mask than a retired cavalry veteran way past forty.
His black, beaver-felt cowboy hat, still damp with sweat from the long ride, wafted the aroma of a wet goat. He shoved it down to his ears. With oft repeated precision, he strapped on his holster. He yanked out the Colt revolver, reset the cylinder on the empty chamber and shoved it back down.
As if giving a lecture on gentlemanly attire, he rolled the sleeves on his dusty white shirt down, one direful fold at a time, then buttoned them. He never took his gaze off the dark brown eyes that stared back at him from the mirror. Shirt now fastened at the neck, he tugged the black silk tie around his collar. Rough calloused fingers completed the four-in-hand knot that he memorized as a child.
Oppressive Montana air crowded the room, like a mountain cabin after six weeks of snow in January. Avery closed the door behind him as he entered the hall, but didn’t bother locking it. He wasn’t sure if that was out of foolishness or apathy. Yet, years of conflict led him down the empty stairs at a cautious pace, one hand on the slick oak rail, the other on the hard walnut grip of his .44 revolver.
Wednesday died about 1 p.m. in Fort Benton, Montana Territory. Rsurrection wasn’t expected for another two hours. The clock above the lifeless stove in the lobby ticked out of habit, but the pendulum winced as if the effort wasn’t worth it’s full effort.
Propped open with river rocks the size of cannonballs, the double front doors of the hotel invited a breeze that hadn’t arrived yet. A wide nosed man with an uneven black beard studied the solitaire spread on the clerk’s counter. He waved a seven of clubs at Avery.
“You sure you ain’t never been to Purgatory?”
“I think I’d remember if I had.” Avery didn’t look at the man as he ambled toward the door.
“That’s in Colorado, you know.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard.” Avery parked in the doorway and surveyed the wide street.
“Maybe it was Butte . . . you ever been to Butte?”
“I bet it was Butte. You shot that crooked Faro dealer at the Copper Slipper, right?”
“He deserved killin’, if you ask me.”
The late afternoon sun beaconed off the big window of the Chouteau County Bank as he stepped out into the empty street. The sound of the bank’s heavy door slam precipitated a chorus of barking dogs.
Avery hesitated as if waiting for phantom traffic. He thought he saw shadows flicker in the narrow alley next to the bank.
“Where you goin’?” the man shouted from the hotel.
“Sailing,” Avery grumbled.
Like a bit player in a melodrama, the man appeared in the doorway. “Sailin’? There ain’t enough water in the old Missouri this time of the year for a big canoe, much less a . . .”
Avery’s glare chopped the tail off the man’s sentence.
“Eh . . . I was jist askin’ cause you said three men would show up lookin’ for you and I wanted to know where to tell them to look.”
“Tell ‘em to wait here.”
“But if you don’t come back, where shall I tell them you went?”
On the trail,
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Creede of Old Montana (hardback, Center Point/Thorndike) available October 2009 through your local bookstore, favorite online bookstore, public library, or www.BlyBooks.com