That’s the way things stood for the next month. Business increased a little, partly due to my promoting myself as The Spicy Lady and partly because the snows had come. The miners could not work and had to sit on their claims throughout the winter or someone would take them over. I heard that last year a few miners had left for the winter and when they came back someone was sitting on their claims. It led to a little gun play with the one that was faster on the draw ending up with the mine. So with the miners not mining, there was nothing for them to do but go to a saloon and warm their insides with whiskey or their outside with one of the whores . . . or both.
I had made no progress with John Stone. He was always polite enough, but that’s as far as it went. It was on a Tuesday night—not that the day of the week matters—that I finally worked up the courage to make a play for John Stone. As usual, he was sitting in his chair watching the room. Over the last few weeks there had been a few minor altercations, but John always kept things peaceful. Sometimes it took a blunt knock to someone’s head with the stock of his shotgun and sometimes it took pointing the ten gauge in someone’s face. Both methods seemed to work equally well.
I walked over to him and just to make conversation said, “If you ever have to discharge that thing, won’t you hurt innocent people?” I was talking about the shotgun.
He didn’t say anything for a minute, then he let fly with a stream of tobacco juice out of the side of his mouth, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t hit the spittoon sitting next to his chair dead center. Without taking his eyes from the room, he answered me. “It’s just for show. If you point a ten gauge at someone, most of the time they’ll do what you say. If they don’t, and I ever have to shoot someone, I’ll use this.” He then touched the Dragoon Colt on his hip.
I had just asked him if I could buy him a drink at the end of his shift when a ruckus broke out over at the faro table. When I turned around to see what all the commotion was about, I saw a man holding a revolver on Chan Harris. “You’ve been cheating me all night. I’ve lost my poke to your double dealin’ ways and now I want it back!”
Chan shrugged and started to count out some gold coins, after all it wasn’t his money, it was mine. He’d give the man his money back and let me worry about it. Smart thinking on his part. But I reckon he wasn’t counting fast enough to suit the man holding the gun. The shot, when it came, made all those within the room jump. All, that is, except John Stone.
Chan started to fall to the floor and the other two men at the table dove for cover, as did everybody else in the room except John and me. Before Chan hit the floor, John had the Colt out of its leather, and from his hip put a bullet into the gunman’s heart. Of course, it entered from the back, but no one was complaining, least of all the dead man, bleeding onto my floor with two twenty-dollar gold pieces clutched in his right hand.
When the smoked cleared, John said, “I reckon I could use a whiskey after work.”
I ran over to where Chan lay and knelt down to see what I could do to help him, but he was already dead.
The place cleared out fast, but some stayed and formed a circle around Chan and me. I was still kneeling next to him and I looked up into the hard faces of the men who stared back at me. And I saw nothing. To them, death on a Tuesday night was just another night out on the town.
I had seen dead men before. There were the two Yankees back at the farm. And Mister Fellows died in my arms. I wore his blood on my shirt until the shirt was taken away from me by Moon Woman. I don’t know why, but Chan’s death affected me more than the others had. Maybe it was because after finding the gold and buying The Spicy Lady, I thought my life would calm down some. Now here I was kneeling over another dead man. A man I didn’t even know that well. But he worked for me and I thought I should have done better by him. He should not have died making money for me.
I stood up and wanted to tell those still present to leave, but the words would not come. I started to shake and I felt like I was about to scream when I felt a strong hard arm around my shoulder and heard a voice, a surprisingly gentle voice seeing as who it came from, say, “You boys best be getting on, we’ll be closing up early tonight.” No one ever argued with John Stone unless they were drunk, and no one was drunk after seeing Chan Harris killed.
John took over. When the place was empty except for those that worked there, he told Dick and Dave to carry Chan into the back room and lay him out. He told me to go to the bar and have Abe pour me a water glass full of rye and then drink it.
I couldn’t stand up much longer, so I took my rye to a table and sat down. John was standing over the man he had killed, thinking. I don’t know what he was thinking, but at that point I didn’t care. I was supposed to be a hard woman, and here I was going to pieces. If we hadn’t been snowed in, I would have gotten on my horse that very minute and headed back to Virginia to be held in my mother’s arms, Hunts Buffalo be damned!
We didn’t have any law in town. There was no marshal or sheriff. We didn’t even have a mayor. When Dick and Dave came back from laying out Chan, John told them to pick up the other man and throw him out onto the street, then go to Chan’s digs and see if there were letters or anything to tell us if he had any next of kin then go home. He told Abe and Gus to leave by the back door and lock up as they usually did. As I’ve said, no one ever argued with John Stone. They all did as they were told.
From the time John took charge is a blur. Somehow he got the place closed up and came over to where I was sitting. He was holding the cash box. “I reckon you’ll want to put this in the safe before you go to bed.”
I looked up at him and started to laugh. I was getting hysterical. John nodded and went into my office. When he returned he said, “I put it on your desk, it’ll be safe enough.” He held out his hand and I took it. He pulled me to my feet and without saying a word, he walked me upstairs.
That night John Stone held me as I cried for Chan Harris . . . and maybe a little for myself.