Tom Sanderson found Doc Mysterioso’s wagon tipped over at the bottom of Toosville Canyon. Tom had a wager going with his neighbor Wes Rackers as to who could shoot the most squirrels in a week’s time. Seeing as it was Friday, and seeing as Sunday was the deadline, and Tom was six varmints behind (according to his sister Frieda who spent regular time with Wes), Tom was dang near desperate to find new huntin’ grounds. He’d been following a cow trail on the ridge above, straining his eyeballs for any sign of skittering, leaping, squirrel movement when he saw a slash of red far below at the bottom of the valley.
Rather than risk a broken leg or turned hoof on his hoss, Tom left the roan gelding on the path and made his way down the steep embankment, the spicy smell of juniper and jack pine tickling his nose.
Halfway down, Tom lost sight of the red slash, and he stopped to get his bearings. Tree frogs and trilling cicadas taunted him with noisy glee. With the autumn sun not much past noon they seemed to be out early.
But the trees below were tall enough to make plenty of shadow.
The brome grass he stood on was a yellow green, and clipped short by grazing cattle. He uncorked his canteen, washed his mouth out with water and spit. A black and yellow winged grasshopper rose into the clear sky, leading Tom’s eyes to the horizon where he saw the bunch of black angus cows.
A string of yellow orange smudges shimmering in the distance were the buildings of the Sleep Crick settlement.
Not a lot of fences around. Hard to know whose property he was on.
The cows probably belonged to Brad Morrison.
Up here, close to the Niobrara, close to God, his old man always said, you could see for miles in any direction. You could see the pale white moon, paper thin in the blue heaven above.
You could look down into the dark cedar groves and the burnweed.
Was that a bare, curved tree branch?
Or a wagon wheel?
He capped his canteen and fought gravity to wind his way down, spurred boots firm on the sod incline. Circling east with his decent, it wasn’t long before he again saw the red stripe in the brush, recognizing the wreckage.
The scarlet and brass colored wagon was cracked open like an egg. Resting nearly upside down in a leafy waist-high nest of weeds on the valley floor, its four oak wood wheels high in the air, the wagon was a bloated dead critter waiting to rot away.
Tom could read part of the legend on the broken hull: Doc Mysterioso. Travel. Medicine. Something else covered in broken vines of creeping jenny.
A nearby trench of upturned earth looked fairly new. And no new growth was visible around the accident. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen or heard about Doc Mysterioso.
It had been a few weeks.
“Hellooo the wagon,” Tom called out, pushing through a troublesome stand of Russian Thistles. Tom popped off one of the weeds’ purple flowers and balled it up between a leather gloved thumb and forefinger.
He tossed the flower wad at the wreck and it bounced off a broken axel.
A chattering sound came from within and an angry squirrel jumped out and away from the wagon, latched onto a nearby hackberry and climbed out of sight.
Tom kicked himself for leaving his rifle with the horse.
“Hello? Anybody here?”
That’s when Tom realized the cicadas had stopped their trilling.
A feeling, like ants skittering up his neck, made him turn around though he hadn’t heard a sound.
Along the flat of the valley, a tall man with a long black duster rode toward him on an open buckboard wagon pulled by two nervous black stallions. The eyes of the horses rolled up and back and Tom could almost count their gnashing teeth. Three additional men rode in the back of the wagon, and the closer they got, the more Tom didn’t like their looks.
Two of the men wore only canvas trousers and boots, their naked torsos a darker bronze than any Indian. The third man wore jeans and a paper sack shirt with a brown derby.
All of them were dirty with yellow teeth.
The driver put up his hand in greeting and Tom stayed his ground.
“You want to buy a milk cow?”
Which was what the greeting sounded like. But it seemed unlikely.
“How-do,” said Tom.
The driver reined in and climbed down from the wagon. He was well over six feet tall and his black duster, pants and tall riding boots made Tom, in his cotton shirt, denim jacket and jeans, feel underdressed.
Hot as it was, the stranger’s clean-shaven skin was dry.
Everything about the man was dry. Voice. Manner. Even his eyes were shrunken and gray.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“What’s that?” said Tom, trying hard to keep his smile friendly.
“You want to buy a cow?”
Tom ran his hand across the stubble on his chin to show polite consideration.
Finally, he shook his head. “Can’t say I’m in the market for it.”
“Damn shame,” said the stranger with more than a hint of frustration. He walked along the side of his gaudy wagon and looked at the three passengers there. “Ain’t that a damn shame, boys?”
All three nodded and agreed it was a damn shame.
“You selling cows are you?” said Tom.
“Got me an old milk cow I’d like to lose.” The stranger paused, looked at the red wagon wreck as if seeing it for the first time, then he closed one eye and looked at Tom.
“Who the hell are you?”
Tom had a brother like that. All bluster and loud talk.
Rather than answer right away, Tom chewed his lip.
“I s’pect I might ask you the same.”
“Oh you do? That what you s’pect?”
The stranger didn’t seem to be armed. But who knew what he carried under that long, heavy duster.
And anyway, it was four to one.
“No offense,” said Tom, just being careful.
“My name’s Elias. You got business with my wagon?” Elias didn’t bother to introduce his friends.
“You’re not Doc Mysterioso.”
“No, I’m not.” Elias’s eyes flicked back and forth from Tom to the men on the buckboard and back. “You know the doc?”
Only a month or so since Doc Mysterioso pulled into Sleep Crick on a pleasant afternoon not unlike this one. Tom and Frieda had been coming out of the mercantile building when the old gent rolled his gaudily painted wagon to a stop in cloud of dust, his voice already booming for attention, his long mane of silver hair shining in the sun.
“You either know him or you don’t,” said Elias.
“I spent time with him.” Tom remembered the jovial voice, the glint in his eyes, the turquoise Indian beads he wore around his neck.
Tom remembered handing over more money that he should’ve for various tonics, toys and sugar confectionaries.
“He was a fine salesman.”
With a dour face, Elias answered. “He was a magician.”
Tom remembered Frieda’s glee when Doc pulled an egg from behind Wes’s ear.
“Yes he was.”
“That wreckage there,” said Elias. “That’s Satan’s work.”
“Who else?” said Elias with a sneer. “Who else would have the power?”
“Plenty of ways to crash a wagon.”
Growing up on the high plains, Tom had seen his share of thunderstorms, wind and rain. And to be fair to mother nature, he recalled more than a hint of hooch on Doc’s breath.
“You said this was your wagon, friend?”
“This here’s my property.” Elias shrugged. “My land. My wagon.”
Tom knew it was a lie, but let it slide. No use picking a lop-sided fight. But still he was curious.
“You know what happened to Doc? How long’s this wagon been here?”
“You say you spent time with the doc? Say you know he was a magician?” Elias moved close to Tom and put his hand inside the duster. “I got something for you.”
Fear shot through Tom like an electric current, but he didn’t have time to react.
Dumbfounded, he stood stock still while Elias pulled a shiny object from an inside pocket and held it out in his palm.
“You take this. It’s something I found in that wagon.”
“What is it?”
“This here is the marvelous brass penny. Only one like it in the world.”
Tom picked up the coin and held it between his thumb and forefinger. It was exactly like any other penny he’d ever seen. On one side, and Indian chief in full feathered headdress. On the other, a buffalo and the legend, “One American Cent.”
But the difference was that this penny glowed yellow gold in the sunlight.
Not like copper, but like polished brass.
“That’s for you,” said Elias.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s magic. It’s got powers. It protects you from bad luck.”
“I appreciate it.” As he spoke, a movement in the wagon caught Tom’s eye. One of the bare chested man now held a rifle. Tom watched as his twin picked up a second gun from the wagon’s floor.
“You keep that penny close to you,” said Elias. “Bad things been known to happen to folks around here.”
Tom wrapped his fingers around the strange coin, held it tight inside a sweaty fist.
“But I wouldn’t count on it every time. If you know the Doc, you know how fickle that magic can be.”
“I ought to be going now,” said Tom. “Got a full afternoon ahead of me.”
Elias nodded. “Thanks to that marvelous brass penny, you got a full life ahead of you.”
Then he reached up and opened his duster.
Underneath, he wore a collection of turquoise Indian beads around his neck, and at his waist, a leather belt with three long-haired scalps on display.
One of the scalps sported a shiny silver mane.
• • • • •
From a spot less than half a mile back and on the other side of the canyon, Tom sat on his roan with a pair of field glasses and watched Elias and his men pull a heavy steamer trunk from inside Doc Mysterioso’s wagon. It took all four men to get the thing up and out of the wrecked hulk.
Before they lifted it into the wagon, Elias shouted something unintelligible and the two shirtless men sat down in the grass beside the trunk. The third man crawled into the wagon and tossed out a hammer. One of the shirtless man started pounding away at the trunk’s latch.
When it opened, Tom watched the men paw through the contents.
Clothes. Paper sales bills. Two heavy sacks.
Elias jerked loose the rope tie on one of the sacks and the man with the brown derby reached in to retrieve a handful of gold coins.
Tom grinned to himself.
“Not brass there,” he said. “Painted or otherwise.”
“What’s that, Tom?”
Tom handed the field glasses to Brad Morrison. From the back of his buckskin he took in the view below.
“Looks like they got what they came for,” said Brad. “Glad my cows are on the other side of the canyon.” He handed the glasses back to Tom who wrapped them back up in an oilcloth and put them back into the saddle pack behind him.
“I’m just glad you came around when you did,” said Tom. “Hope you don’t mind playing deputy.”
Carefully, he opened his jacket. Elias wasn’t the only one that kept things hidden.
Tom unpinned his marshal’s star from his shirt and repositioned it on to the outside of his jacket.
Beside him, Brad checked his rifle. “You ready to go get ‘em?”
“Just about,” said Tom. From his jacket pocket he pulled the marvelous brass penny.
“What’s that?” said Brad.
“Painted brass penny,” said Tom. “Doc Mysterioso used to give ‘em away for good luck.”
“Does it work?”
Tom gazed down on Elias and his boys.
They were completely oblivious to what was coming.
Laughing and shouting at the treasure they’d come back to retrieve, they had no idea how short lived their victory would be.
“Them letting me go. You showing up here when you did.”
Tom shoved the penny into his pants pocket.
“I’d say it works just fine.”