Another tale of the turbulent times during and following the Civil War.
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"He was a hell of a man in his day," Marshal John Tillman motioned toward Elwood T. Sloan who was slowly walking down the opposite side of the main street in Prescott Arizona. As the early morning heat was building, friends, Marshal John Tillman and Lawrence Edwards, sat in heavy wooden chairs tilted back against the shaded wall of the Marshal's office. The men were drinking coffee and basically waiting for the business day to start; it was a morning ritual between the friends.
"Don't look like much," Edwards replied watching the sad looking figure.
Sloan had been tall in his younger days, topping 6' 2: but time, age, and a hard life now caused him to limp and stoop as he walked; Elwood was in his late 60's. As the saying goes, he'd been rode hard and put away wet; his body showed the effects of the years of hard work, hard riding, and truth be known hard drinking. The deep blue eyes had faded a little but still held your gaze when he faced you. He wore his almost entirely gray hair long, down to his shoulders.
"Don't let looks put you off; he was a real curly wolf at one time. Even now, there's others I'd rather face than him. He's had a real hard life, Elwood has," Marshal Tillman said. "He was one of the most feared pistolero's in the west in his day. Some say he was faster than Hickok or John Wesley Hardin. Story goes he faced down gun slinger Clay Allison over to Elizabeth, New Mexico. That was four years back in '69 when Elwood was 64. Even at his age, Sloan is a man to reckon with.
"He's still carrying a gun at his age," Edwards remarked in surprise.
"They'll get his gun when they kill him," Tillman said. The tone of his voice carried his admiration for the aging gun fighter.
Turning to his friend Edwards said, "You sound like you respect him John."
"I do respect him, maybe not his line of work, but he never shot a man in the back or from ambush. He always faced the men he was after. And he always kept his word; not all can make that claim."
Elwood Sloan's hearing was still very good, in spite of his age and he'd heard the Marshal talking about him. John's right, he thought. I stood eye to eye with each man I went after. Some didn't deserve it, but I called them out and gave them a chance. Coming to where his horse was hitched, he slowly mounted and rode out of town. He wasn't going anywhere in particular but it was a fine spring day and he wanted to see the wild flowers that had blossomed after yesterday's early morning shower.
He was about five or six miles outside of Prescott, riding at a canter along an old logging trail, surrounded by tall Ponderosa pines, when his horse stepped in a gopher hole and threw him over the animal's head. Elwood was thrown about six feet and landed on a short thick branch in a deadfall left behind by the loggers.
The branch pieced his midsection; it was like one of the Indian lances he'd face in his day. After several minutes, Elwood recovered and with a great deal of pain, slowly pulled himself off the branch. He collapsed next to it, exhausted by the effort. Elwood tried to move and found his legs wouldn't work; guess I broke my back too, he thought.
Elwood could see his horse on the ground, screaming and thrashing in pain. He slowly pulled his Remington .44; the effort almost made him black out. Gathering himself he took aim and put a bullet into the head of the injured animal; the shot ended the horse's agony. Elwood fell back, still holding his pistol. Might have to do the same thing for myself, he thought.
Elwood didn't know how long he'd been there; he kept fading in and out of consciousness. During one of his aware periods, a stranger knelt down beside him. "Take it easy old timer; I'm gonna help you," the man said to Elwood. He held a canteen to Elwood's lips and after taking a few cautious sips of water, Elwood passed out again.
The next time Elwood awoke, the stranger sat staring at the old man. He had stripped the gear from Elwood's dead animal and used the saddle as a pillow for Elwood's head. "You're Elwood Sloan," the man said. "The famous gun fighter."
"Yep I'm Elwood Sloan, though I don't know about the famous part," Elwood replied. "And I've been called a gun fighter, shootist, and a hired gun. Some called me a bastard; not many of those lived to tell about it though. Who'd you be?"
"I'm Luke Donaldson from over to Chino Valley. Was on my way into Prescott when I saw a couple of buzzards circling overhead. The higher the sun rose and the warmer it got, more vultures joined the first two. I rode over to see what had died and found you." Luke held the canteen to Elwood's lips again. "I'll tend you the best I know how old timer, then I'll go to Prescott and get help."
"No need Luke. I'm done in. That damn tree branch stickin me is as bad as being gut shot. I'd never make it until you got back; lost too much blood. Sides that, my back is broke and my insides feel like mush." Elwood sighed. "I've had a good run though." Luke and Elwood talked for a bit; Elwood to keep his mind off his pain and Luke because he was interested in the old man.
After several minutes Luke said, "Heard you faced down Clay Allison down in Texas. He had quite a reputation too; almost as famous as you."
"Not a word of truth to that story boy," Elwood replied. "Allison came into the saloon and thought I was one of the Kennedy clan; they were a mite upset at Allison for killing Charley Kennedy. I told him I wasn't a Kennedy but if he wanted trouble that I'd oblige him. I cleared my slicker away from my gun to free it and stood waiting. The bartender vouched for me and Allison pulled in his horns. He apologized and bought me a drink. And that's the way it went."
The old man coughed and grimaced in pain. "Don't want to do that again," he said. Turning to Luke he said, "You know all that hogwash about gun fights?"
"What about gun fights?"
"All those stories the dime novel writers put out about men facin each other in the street at dawn or high noon is just plain bull crap. Most time men got shot from off a distance or were ambushed. There are two exceptions; Bill Hickok and John Wesley Hardin. They'd face down any man, given the chance."
There was three," Luke said.
"Three what?" Elwood asked.
"Three that faced men from the front. Hickok, Hardin, and you. I've heard the stories from men that were there and saw you do it."
"How about you Luke? You said Chino Valley but I hear a bit of the south in your talk."
"Born and bred in Virginia." Luke was quiet and had a faraway look in his eyes. "Couldn't abide what was happenin after the war so I left."
"You serve with the South?"
"Yes sir; First Virginia Cavalry, Valley Rangers, under J.E.B. Stuart. We rode and fought for four years." Luke got quiet for a couple of minutes, thinking back over those horrible, violent years of his life. He shook himself and looked back at Elwood. "Anything more I can do for you Mr. Sloan?"
Elwood shook his head and studied Luke; he liked what he saw in the boy. Luke looked to be about 30. He was tall and straight and carried himself with a quiet confidence, moving like a big mountain lion. Elwood sort of smiled and thought I used to move like that fore I got old. "Need a favor of you Luke." Donaldson nodded and Elwood said, "Got a wife and son down in Wickenburg; I've got something I want you to take to them for me." Elwood chuckled. "Don't look like I'm gonna be able to do it myself."
"That's three days hard ride, maybe four," Luke replied.
"Yep, sure is. What kind of work do you do Luke?"
"I'm a cowhand and wrangler when I can find work. That's why I was comin to Prescott; to see if any of the spreads around there are hiring."
"What's a hand get paid these days?"
"Usually $30 a month and found."
Elwood carefully reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a rawhide, drawstring bag. "I'll give you better than 3 months wages to make the trip to Wickenburg. Hell, that's a lot of money for a week's work." Elwood counted out five $20 Double Eagle gold coins and handed them to Luke.
"I could take your money and run Mr. Sloan," Luke said.
"You could but you won't," Elwood replied. "You don't have that look about you." He nudged the bag toward Luke. "In the bag is another $800. I'm askin you to take the money to my wife. Last I knowed she was livin close by Grant's Stage Station. Tell her I rode my last trail and won't be botherin her again."
"How long since you saw your family Mr. Sloan?"
"Close to five years now. Caleb, that's my son, was near 17 last time I saw him."
"Why so long, if you don't mind my askin?"
"Have to tell about my history to make you understand and that's a long story; but I guess I'm not going nowhere." Sloan motioned toward the canteen and Luke held it up to his lips.
"I'm not going nowhere either Mr. Sloan. I'll stay with you and see you get a proper burial, when the time comes."
Elwood nodded his thanks. "I was born in Georgia back in '05; let's see that makes me 68, I reckon. Anyway my Ma died givin birth to me and my Pa was a drunk. He didn't have much truck with a youngster that had taken his wife from him, so I sorta grew up on my own. I was about 15 when I started running with a bad crowd. Went to a work farm for two years after me and some others were caught stealing pigs."
Elwood seemed to notice for the first time that his head was propped up by his saddle. "You get my saddlebags when you stripped the gear off my horse?" Luke nodded. "I got a flask of good sippin whiskey in one of those bags. A little taste wouldn't hurt either of us." In a low voice he added, "It'd help with the pain a bit too."
Luke found the metal flask and held it up to Elwood's mouth. The old man didn't sip this time; he took two deep drinks and sighed. He motioned for Luke to help himself and continued with his story.
"I got shook of that farm when I was 18 and took off for places west. I'd had enough of Georgia and Georgia lawmen. Was two years or better I was on the trail before I lit in Texas. I rustled a few cattle or horses, and just generally did what was necessary to get by. Guess it was just in my nature, but when I got to Texas, I ran into another bunch of fellars that weren't the most law abiding citizens."
Elwood laughed and then moaned. "Damn hurts to laugh," he said.
"What's funny?" Luke asked.
Sloan took another long drink for the whiskey flask that Luke had handed back to him. "Some folks would say I should'a worked a mite more on the lawful side. I did try workin as a hand at a couple of ranches but it weren't for me. Long days and nights in the saddle bein a nursemaid to a bunch of stinkin beasts didn't set well."
Elwood closed his eyes was quiet for better than a minute. Luke thought the old man had passed out again, but Elwood roused himself. "Sorry, pain got a mite fierce there. Anyway I lit in Texas at San Felipe de Austin; was '25 or '26 as I recall. Sam Austin and others founded the town after makin a deal for settlement with the Mexican government. That was where I killed my first man."
Sloan was quiet and thoughtful for a spell. "Man insulted me and me being young and full of piss and vinegar couldn't let it go. I yelled something back at him and he went for his gun; I was faster and a better shot. Austin ran me out of San Felipe, he did. Said I was a 'blight on the community'; told me if I ever came back he'd hang me. I took the dead man's horse and property as...spoils I guess you'd call it, and lit out. Worse thing about that fight was that it gave me a taste for usin my gun. Figured I could hire out as a gun hand and not have to work too hard.
"I did try to work on the right side of the law for a spell. Got jobs ridin shotgun on stage coaches, payroll guard; even worked in a big saloon once keepin the cowboys in line. I was ridin shotgun out of San Antonio and four men tried to rob the stage. I kilt three of them and got scratched a mite myself but I stopped the robbery. After that I decided I wasn't gonna get kilt protecting other people's money and lit out again."
It was getting late in the day and with the sun going down, a coolness descended on the pine forest. Luke built a campfire close to when the injured man lay. He noticed that Elwood had emptied the flask, so Luke got a bottle from his own saddlebags.
"This ain't as good a whiskey as what was in your flask, but it'll do. Was savin this to celebrate gettin a job," Luke said and handed Elwood the bottle. "Reckon the ride to Wickenburg can be considered a job."
"That stage robbery started my career as a hired gun," Elwood continued. "I'd work for anyone that would pay the freight. Some who hired me didn't want it knowed I was working for them; some wanted me to kill someone on the quiet side like. One thing I wouldn't do was shoot a man from ambush or in the back. Lost more than one job because I wanted to face the men I shot. I don't have much to be proud of in my life, but I'm proud of that by God."
The old man grunted and used his hands to pull himself up higher against his saddle. He waved off Luke's offer of assistance.
"I got a reputation as a fast gun; every so often somebody would just have to test me to see who was faster; never met a man than was better than me. Some were faster but weren't as accurate; before they could try a second shot I'd kilt them. That was my life for a lot of years; hire out my gun and defend my reputation. I probably would have done that until I finally met someone faster but I met my wife."
Luke stood and put another log on the fire; Elwood stopped until he finished stoking the fire.
"My Gillian worked in a bordello as a maid in San Antonio. She is a fine figure of a woman but she'd had smallpox when she was a youngster; left her face scarred real bad and she used to wear a veil to hide the pox marks. I was a regular customer at the fancy house and saw her once in a while, sorta in the background. Then one day outside the general store a man cornered her and started ranting about how ugly she was. Don't know what made him attack her like that, but I stepped up behind the man and tried to bend the barrel of my pistol over his head.
"Gillian hung her head, said thank you, and ran back to the house. The next evening I saw her and stopped to talk with her. At first she was shy and didn't want to talk to me, but shortly she opened up a mite. It wasn't many nights before I decided that I wanted a steady woman instead of visitin that fancy house. I tolt her I wanted her for my woman."
Elwood turned his head and looked at Luke. "You gotta understand, she was better than 20 years younger than me but I was the first man that showed an interest in her. She quit the bordello and we lived together for about two years."
Elwood looked off into the distance and said, "I'm not sure she really loved me, but she liked me a mite and I treated her right. When she found out she was going to have a baby, we decided to get married. Hell, I even gave up hiring out my gun; got a job as a deputy sheriff. But being a deputy didn't stop men from testin me, or from testin themselves. About every three months or so, some gun hand would call me out."
The old gunfighter laughed and then cursed at the pain it caused. "After every fight, I'd go home and Gillian would pester me to move or change my name or something, anything, so's I'd stop the fighting. Said she could handle me being a deputy but it worried her to death that I might not come home from one of the gunfights and she'd be all alone again. Told her I was rite proud of my name and I'd never been run out of a place that I wanted to stay."
Shaking his head, although he couldn't move it much because of the pain, Elwood continued. "Gillian told me I was about to be run out of our home. Said she didn't want to have to tell our son that his Pa was dead, because he was too proud and stupid to give up the life of a hired gun. Said she'd rather raise the boy alone than have to worry about me not comin home. Now ain't that something?"
"Sorta makes sense, at least from a woman's point of view Mr. Sloan," Luke answered. "I can see that not knowing if you was gonna make it day to day would be worse than living alone."
"Reckon so," Elwood said. "Anyway, I gave her and Caleb about a $1000 I'd saved up, saddled my horse, and rode out. Once or twice a year I tried to make it back to look in on them and I'd send money every couple of months too."
"Must be hard not being with them," Luke said.
"Yep. When Caleb was eight, Gillian told me to stop comin around. Said Caleb was startin to ask questions about the man who came to visit and then rode off again. She said she'd tolt the boy that his Pa was killed fightin Indians and that I was a friend that'd knowed him."
Elwood sighed and was quiet for several minutes. "Didn't stop me from lookin in on them though. I still go, but I'd stay in the background; not let them know I was around. About five years ago, I ran into Caleb at the livery stable and we got to talkin; but I didn't tell who I was. Gillian caught us talkin and later came to my room and asked me not to come back. In a voice so low that Luke almost couldn't hear him, Elwood said, "That's the last time I seen my boy or his mother."
Slowly turning his head toward Luke, Elwood pushed his big pistol toward the younger man. "Sides the wages, I'll give you my Remington. It's a fine gun and you might need it on your trip to Wickenburg; heard tell some young bucks have jumped the reservation and are raising hell down that way."
"I couldn't take your gun Mr. Sloan," Luke protested. "It wouldn't be right."
"Ain't gonna do me much good. I'm not gettin up from here and I hate to think of my Remington laying here with me, rustin away or some Indian usein it. You'd be doin me a favor Luke."
Luke nodded, took the pistol and looked closer at it. The gun showed lots of use but it had been well cared for and was a fine weapon. He pulled his Colt 1860 Army .36 caliber pistol and replaced it in the holster with the Remington .44.
"That there has been a good friend to me. Always worked, never misfired or left me stranded in bad times. Bought it in '58. Course I was past my prime and gettin to be an old man, but I always did like a good weapon. Had it converted to metal cartridges in 69, so it'd a mite easier to use. There's two extra cylinders in my saddlebags and when I'm gone you take my gun belt too. The holster was made special for the Remington."
Elwood motioned for the whiskey bottle and took a drink. "I got a sorta journal in my bags too. Could you bring it to me?" Luke dug out the journal and handed it to the dying man.
"Got one more chore for you," Elwood said as he started writing in the journal. "I'd like you to take this message I'm writing to Marshal John Tillman in Prescott, you can read it first." When he finished writing Elwood added, "I wrote down my thoughts in that journal, wrote every time I had to face a man or when something important happened. Guess you could say it's a history of my life. Give the journal to my wife if you please."
Luke took the journal and the note from the old man. "Reckon I'd like another drink and then I'll rest a bit," Elwood said. "Ain't it funny, I'm not hurtin no more." He took another drink, handed the bottle back to Luke and closed his eyes.
Sometime during the night, Luke heard Elwood say "Gillian". The old man was dead at morning light.
"I'll see that your Mrs. and your boy get the money Mr. Sloan; I give you my word." Luke said as he finished a silent prayer. Then he read the note.