Dead Bandits Can't Talk
Click on image to enlarge.
by Cindy Davis
Category: Young Adult
Description: A terrible fire in Cattle Creek upsets Jesse--especially when his friend Joe is blamed for the tragedy? Condon's General Store is burning. Too late to save the building and the two people inside: the owner Joe and mean old Frank Howard. Afterward, Jesse learns of the money stolen from the store over the past weeks. Sheriff Benson is sure Joe set the fire to cover the theft. Jesse, Matt and LT set out to prove his innocence. Trouble is, several business owners have shiny new things--a hotel sign, a telegraph machine, a barber chair.
eBook Publisher: L&L Dreamspell/L&L Dreamspell, 2010 Spring, Texas
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [196 KB]
Reading time: 128-179 min.
It was the worst day of my life. I know I was only thirteen, but it was still the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the worst thing to happen to our town in a long time.
We stood soaking wet in the middle of the muddy street--my friend Matt on one side and LT on the other--my toes stiff as icicles. I couldn't feel my fingers; my ears were so cold the shouting all around sounded like I was underwater. "Hurry up with that!" "Come on, pass the next one!" "We need more people!" In the background the whole time was that awful roaring and crackling and popping.
Buckets flew through our hands one after another, full ones going left, empty ones flying the other way. Everything was a blur. Maybe because of the smoke burning my eyes. Maybe because of the bone-weary tiredness. More'n likely it was tears, because one of my best friends in the world was inside that burning building.
I planted my boots on the mucky road, leaned right to take a bucket from LT's ice-cold fingers, leaned left and passed it to Matt, then back to the right to get another one from LT. Over and over...and over. As fast as we could move, we passed pails, big and little, wood and metal. The bucket brigade began with Mr. Everley down at the river and went through the hands of most everyone in Cattle Creek, all the way to Sheriff Benson, the last in line. He threw the water on the blazing mess. It hissed, sputtered and shot sparks into the sky, but did very little to stop the roaring flames.
On that awful January day, the day Joe Condon's General Store burned to the ground--with him in it.
* * * *
Just after breakfast that morning, an ear-bursting explosion had brought us all running, but Joe's store was already a ball of color. Flames danced along the walls of the Town Hall on the left. People stood across the street looking like my horse when I first light the lantern--all dazed and blinking a lot.
"Establish a bucket brigade! I'm going inside!" Mr. Everley shouted. He leaped off the wood sidewalk onto the hard-packed street.
"No!" cried his wife. "Zeb!"
"I'm going with him," Sheriff Benson yelled. He untied the green bandana from around his neck and looped it around his face, like a bandit. Mr. Everley did the same thing. So did Mr. Robinson.
They barreled up the wooden sidewalk steps. Mr. Everley kicked the door. Nothing happened. Mr. Robinson bashed his shoulder against it. Mr. Everley kicked again.
Finally, it caved under their weight and they almost tumbled inside. Flames and that terrible roaring rushed out. I was standing in front of the saloon all the way across the street, and the heat hit me in the face like somebody threw a brick. It pushed me backwards and I banged my head on the window.
It shoved the rescuers back too. Heaved them right off the sidewalk. Mr. Everley, Mr. Robinson and the sheriff landed in the street.
"Zeb!" Mrs. Everley screamed as the men got up and dashed for the store again.
That's when the roof caved in. With a great whoosh it disappeared down between the walls. Then the front wall exploded out. I never heard such a noise or felt so much pressure. It knocked us all backwards again.
A big piece of something hit Mr. Robinson and he dropped in the middle of the street. This time he didn't get up. Blood spurted from a gash in his head and I felt my breakfast wanting to come out.
My father jumped off the sidewalk. He dropped his doctor bag on the ground beside Mr. Robinson and sank to his knees. My mother, standing a few feet beside me, went white all over. I was glad she didn't scream like Mrs. Everley.
Another explosion and things from the store shot through the air: coffee tins, stray pickles and pieces of penny candy that smacked everybody like bullets. My father threw himself over Mr. Robinson and covered both their heads with his arms and shoulders. He looked back at us. His soot-streaked face looked scared. "Help me!"
Before I could move to obey, Sheriff Benson and Mr. Everley appeared. The three men lifted Mr. Robinson and carried him into the saloon. I guess that's all they could do. There was no use trying to get in the store. No use trying to save Joe and his part time helper, Mr. Howard.
I felt sick and so useless.
While we massed into the long bucket brigade line, the place burned hard and steady. There were jugs of kerosene in that store along with lamp oil, bottles of liniment, and plenty of ammunition. It all helped make the fire burn a million shades of orange and red and yellow. Every once in a while exploding bullets sounded above the crackle of the blaze. Every time a bunch of them went off, all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I dearly wanted to drop the buckets and rub the hairs down, but that would be a worse sin than falling asleep in church--something I did now and again. I couldn't break the chain, had to keep tossing water on that fire, and ignoring the hairs at the back of the neck and the deep heavy knot in my gut.
Joe Condon, my good friend, always ready to hear my troubles or give a kick in the pants when I was about to mess up. And Mr. Howard, no one's friend really, but nobody should die that way.
It was January in the Arizona Territory. It was only forty-six degrees, but I was sweating like ice in August. The guys probably were too. Matt, who was usually allergic to any kind of work, and LT, our Navajo friend, both moved like lightning beside me. It was too late to save the store or Joe or Mr. Howard, but we had to keep the fire from spreading to the Town Hall on one side or the blacksmith on the other side. That general store was a place where everybody went to gossip or buy stuff they needed, the only store in a good ten miles. We were all gonna miss it, but not as much as we would miss Joe.
The sheriff finally called a halt to it all. My body ached to stop, but my heart wanted to keep going, to keep throwing water until Joe somehow stood up and walked out of the glowing red mess. I flopped on the street that had turned to mud--ice cold mud. But I hardly noticed. I was soaked through anyway. My leg muscles ached like I'd just run all the way to Flagstaff and back. The roaring still echoed in my head, which I laid on my knees so no one would see me cry. It felt good to let the tears wash away the burning feeling. But as soon as I shut my eyes, there was Joe, sitting on his pickle barrel, wearing his faded red plaid shirt. He pointed a finger at me and put on a shifty smile. "Come on, Jesse. I know that look. What's ol' Willie Talbot done to you this time?" He gave his familiar chicken laugh. It was so real I looked up hoping to see him sitting on that barrel right in the middle of the street.
A breeze pushed most of the smoke away and what I saw made me want to squeeze my eyes shut again. Four tall black beams and a chimneystack reached for the sky, like they were being robbed by bandits. That's all that was left of Condon's General Store. Well, that and a pile of rubble about ten feet deep. A few things weren't completely burnt and the color made a crazy rainbow in the black mess. A bolt of red calico cloth, a blue box of grain scoops. And a half dozen white can labels in red, white and blue: the colors of liberty and freedom, something Miss Carson talked about in school. 'Specially since the War ended and President Lincoln got assassinated. "Things we all should store our faith in," Miss Carson said. That knot in my stomach crawled into my chest. I laid my head back on my knees. This time I didn't care if anyone saw me cry.
My friends and townsfolk all sat there in the mud. Most of them were crying too, even the men. Sheriff Benson's tears made rivers through the black soot on his hound-dog cheeks. Mr. Everley clanked up from the river with about a dozen empty buckets banging against his long legs. His eyes were only looking at the burned up building. He stopped finally and just stood there letting the buckets drop in a heap.
"I can't believe they're dead," Matt whispered.
"The whole thing seems like a nightmare," I said. "I'd give anything to be facing mean old Willie Talbot and his gang instead of all this."
LT wrapped his arms around his bent legs and stared at the mess. LT is short for Little Turtle, which is short for Robert Beavertail of the Running River Clan. His grandmother nicknamed him Little Turtle because he was so slow learning to walk--and everything else. Most people around here didn't like Indians, what with all the struggles for territory. The people of Cattle Creek didn't have any trouble accepting LT though. He proved himself when he helped save Emily from a kidnapper. LT didn't talk much. That's how Navajo kids are taught: don't speak until someone speaks to you. Mostly we'd got him over that. He was fumbling with the beads on his ch'ah binazt'i'i, something he did when he was upset, or thinking hard. His big black eyes looked from me to Matt and back to the ashes a couple of times. Then he set the headband back over his black hair and stood up. "I have to get back to my village."
Matt and I got up too. My legs felt all wobbly, like they didn't want me standing on them. How long had we been passing those buckets? I checked the sky and figured about four hours.
Matt's sister Margaret and my sister Amanda hung around the sheriff's office with a few other girls. They were muddy and covered with soot, too. I didn't see either my father or Uncle Isaiah. Isaiah was probably busy writing the story about the fire. He's a reporter for the Flagstaff News. They have an office right here in town, and my uncle has a room up over the print shop. I bet he was there now, at his desk, looking out over the mess of the General Store, writing down the whole awful thing.
I didn't know where my father had got to. Probably tending Mr. Robinson. I hoped he was all right. It was bad enough that Joe and Mr. Howard were dead.
Dead. The word stuck in my brain and echoed around like a cave. Dead, dead, dead. Joe Condon. My friend. Everybody's friend.
"I gotta go too. There's nothing else we can do." Matt's voice brought me back to the scene.
One last look at the mess said Matt was right. There was nothing left to do.