Published on Thursday, April 24, 2014
Dead Men Riding
By Nicole Maddalo Dixon
At Chisum's we crossed paths with the Regulators. With them were two prisoners whom I recognized immediately: Frank Baker and Buck Morton. The hatred that existed there between Billy and Buck did not seem apparent as the prisoners were put away in separate bunkhouse rooms of their own which served as a makeshift jail cells and kept them out of sight and guarded.
Nonetheless, I discerned tension behind the easy demeanor of the deputized Regulators, knowing as I did all that had been done. There seemed only one way for this to play out—the end to result in the payment of blood by both Morton and Baker, the toll for the anger which resounding among all of John's devotees. Buck was the suspected triggerman in John's execution and I placed my bets that he had more than this to pay for. Buck emasculated Billy and made life miserable for him not all that long ago—the two simply hated one other. By now, I knew Billy only too well, and this led me to the conviction that, though Billy was outwardly self-possessed, he hid a murderous intent just beneath the surface. The others, I knew, shared in his keen temperament, which, to be sure, only served to resound the hate all around even more so as their raw emotions played off of one another.
I did not think Buck Morton and Frank Baker had very long to live, and my suspicions were justified when Sallie and I were commissioned to bring provisions to these men as they sat solemn faced in their respective prisons.
Morton asked Sallie to help him in writing some letters, one of which was addressed to his sweetheart, Buck making Sallie promise that the horse bridal he had braided himself would found its way to her after his death. For all the anger I unleashed on Brady and my own abhorrence of these men, I felt haunted by the prospect of their impending demise.
Guarded by Fred, Frank Baker asked if I would sit and spend time with him as he sat lonely in his room. Billy objected to this, not wanting me in the presence of these base men, and even more so in cruel measure, he meant to deprive of Baker any privileges of comfort, especially the luxury of sharing company with a woman and having him shown the sort of kindnesses the fairer sex could offer.
Vile though I found these men, I could not find it within myself to deny a doomed man a last request as I was all but certain that is what this was. I implored Billy to relent and allow me to sit with him, but was met with his adamant reply of no and a reprimanding, his pointing out how Baker and Morton murdered, in cold blood, my intended. It is only a small thing, I countered, allowing this man my company and, after all, could any be sure that Frank had intended to commit John's death? I explained to him that the Christian thing to do would be to deprive not these men of solace (though I confess I would not dare bother myself with Buck Morton as my loyalty to Billy would keep me from him), and finally, at this, Billy yielded, but he insisted that, though I could sit and speak with Frank, he would come with me, not wanting me alone with the prisoner. I conceded that this was fair and I borrowed a bible from the Chisums' so I could read its passages to the prisoner.
Frank was dismayed by his predicament. He said that he did not expect to live very long. Despite his reprehensible crime this saddened me, and I was surprised by this, amazed that I could feel something for him, though I suspected it was only my humanity that allowed me to look upon him with mercy.
We discussed religion, and he asked did I believe in God? I assured him I did, and when he asked what I believed happened after we die, I recited to him the very beliefs I was raised upon, that we would achieve life everlasting and be reacquainted with lost loved ones. To Billy's credit, he remained quiet and respectful of our conversation.
Frank told me how he had always admired me and, wouldn't it have been nice if he could have known me as a friend? I agreed it may have been pleasant, indeed. He then apologized to me and offered his condolences on my loss of John. Upon this latter statement I could have slapped him, and I turned to look at Billy and saw him raise his eyes to Frank menacingly.
Frank asked me to help him pen a letter to his family which I agreed to do. I wrote down his words, helping him select his prose carefully, ensuring that his last words would be both fine and brave. In an effort to console him, I pointed out that he would be taken back to Lincoln tomorrow, unharmed. Again, I shifted my gaze to Billy at saying this, but was met only by the sight of him with his head bowed towards the floor. He betrayed nothing and remained silent. Frank thanked me for my kindness but assured me that making it back to Lincoln alive was a small chance. I could not tell him I understood this to be true as well. The men here who would escort them under the law would abuse their opportunity, of this I was sure.
I had left my conversation with Frank feeling upset. Rather than calm my sadness, Billy only mocked me, telling me to "Quit that bleeding heart!" He took me back to the house and, as we walked, I furtively looked at him and noted how he only stared straight ahead, the stern set of his jaw and the determination of his walk. I knew that Frank's nerve in offering his condolences to me had served to heighten Billy's anger.
When night had come I lay in bed thinking about Frank Baker and death. I was haunted by the thought of how delicate the balance of life and death could be. I placed myself in Frank's doomed shoes and contemplating my own mortality, imagining what it must feel like to no longer view life as an endless supply of days for the foreseeable future, but to know the expiration of my life as it failed to exceed my grasp; to know beyond a doubt that, though I may wake tomorrow, I would not see the day after. To that end, I wondered what it was that Frank Baker was thinking of if I, safe from his fate, could lay here and think of nothing else.
There was a soft knock at my door, and I wondered if I had imagined it when it sounded again. I rose from my bed and walked my bare feet across the chilly floor to answer it. I opened the door only slightly, dressed as I was in my nightgown, finding Billy standing there. He lifted his finger to his lips and pressed through the entrance into my room, forcing me to step back.
He seemed distressed, and when I asked what the matter was, he told me Frank Baker had confided in him that I was to be murdered on sight on orders from Brady. I did not know how to respond to this allegation, and in the wake of the thoughts I had been entertaining regarding my mortality, I could not help but appreciated the irony as it would seem that I was indeed in Frank's doomed shoes after all.
"Can you be sure he speaks the truth?" I wondered.
"No, but I can be sure it won't be risked. They know where you are and which direction you will take. It would only be a matter of time before they caught up with you. Where are your things?"
"Most of my things are being held in the stables with the vehicles. Why should Brady want me..." Good God, I could not manage to give voice to the last word—dead.
"Baker says you threatened him. He says he could not in good conscious keep secret what he knows after your kindness, and he says he could not abide the death of a woman; he wanted to repay your compassion with a good turn.. His affection for you and the interest of saving his soul won't allow him to go to his grave without the confession. I told him it was no matter, that he was going to hell either way."
"Billy! You didn't say such a thing!"
He only stood and stared at me plainly. "Never mind what I said to that ringster shuck! Why couldn't you have kept your big mouth shut? What made you do something so stupid?"
Threatened Brady? I did, yes. Such a low man indeed! Would I have minded myself that day on the street if I had considered he might not value my life as an innocent, and an innocent woman, no less? Could I truly be surprised that he viewed me as I viewed him, as no more than a crushable insect?
"I was so angry, Billy. Do you think you have cornered the market on anger? He had locked you away—away from me! I hated him!"
Billy recanted the harsh words he had spoken, accepting that it was because I loved him and could not help it.
"Okay, Lu. I get it. Still—"
"If he were plotting my death, why not have it over with already? He's had the opportunity to do so easily if he wished me dead."
"No, Lucy... not in Lincoln. The death of a white woman, and a woman such as yourself no less, on the heels your fiancé, would have put Brady in a very poor position. With John, he had the excuse of defending himself. What excuse could he make with you?"
"Fine, but I am no longer in Lincoln... he could have taken his opportunity at any time after my departure and had his hands washed of it, making it appear as a misfortune of events."
"And he will, but you are still too close to Lincoln, and currently you're put up here at Chisums'; you're protected well enough here. Brady may be foolish, but he's not altogether stupid. Baker says he gave orders to make it look like your party was attacked by savages and far from Lincoln at that."
"What am I meant to do then, Billy?"
"You come with us."
"Come with you? I'd love nothing more, but I know that this is impossible!"
"No, it isn't, Lucy. If we let you leave here they'll track you easy enough. If Baker is telling the truth, and I believe he is, you're safer with us."
"Perhaps I should stay then, until this passes over. I'll be safe here!"
"This isn't just going to pass over, Lucy! You'll be a prisoner here, and if he wants you dead he'll get his way one way or another. There will be a war here, and Chisum's men are not necessarily guaranteed to hold the line. You've gotten yourself into quite a mess. You should have known better; Brady is a powerful man and a killer over the most trivial of things. What makes you think murdering a woman would mean anything to him?
We're going to head back to Lincoln with the prisoners by way of the El Capitan trail; we suspect Brady's men are perched along the direct route waiting for us all to ride in so they can ambush us, and we'd be bound to run into the posse he sent after you."
"You mean to take a detour? Why head back to Lincoln anyway if it's so dangerous? You expect to give these prisoners over to Brady but suspect he's planning to ambush you? What is the point? He'll kill you all on sight and set those two free. You may as well just take the direct route and get it all over with!"
"Taking a direct route to Lincoln is suicide if they are waiting there for us. Yes, they'll take the prisoners then overtake us. Getting the prisoners into Lincoln past Brady's posse will sabotage their plans to waylay us and accuse us of starting war when we ride in with no trouble. We'll ride in and deliver the prisoners, legal. Whatever they do with them after they'll be unable to cause us anymore trouble and come after us as wanted men."
"Suddenly you don't care if those who murdered John will more than most likely be set free?"
He didn't answer me, but then I caught something in his expression. He was speaking in terms of legalities, but his thoughts were of a sinister nature.
"They are dead men, aren't they?"
Ignoring my question he told me, "Tomorrow you will get your things—only what's necessary. After we leave Lincoln, you'll go directly to Sumner where you'll be safe until it's passable to continue on south."
I tried a different approach. "But none of you are actually intending on going to Lincoln, are you?"
Again, my question went ignored.
"What about Colleen?" I asked, "And the others? Will they not be in danger?"
"It's you they want. I don't know what you said, Lucy, but Brady's breathing down your neck."
"Why me? Why would it make a difference to Brady to get me?"
"Because he's petty, Lucy! And to make an example. That's what all of this is about; they're the Ring! It wasn't a very smart thing to do, shooting your mouth off! What the hell did you say?"
"I attacked his pride. But I spoke the truth!"
"Let me see if I can get this straight—you attacked his pride with your own. Is that about the size of it?"
I ignored this.
"What will I do with all of you?" I asked. "I can't go out there, Billy! Not like this. I cannot cross the dessert with the lot of you and your prisoners as part of some... posse. I wouldn't even begin to know how to manage! And it's dangerous! I won't go!"
"Maybe... maybe there is danger, but it's an avoidable possibility at present. There is certain danger here, I'm sure of that."
He placed his hand upon my arm. "You will so, go. I'm staying here with you tonight, and in the morning we'll rise early and ride out."
"What about Colleen? I cannot leave without speaking to her! Without saying goodbye!"
"She'll know soon enough. Right now you are my concern and we need to get you, and us, out of here."
Billy allowed me to pen a quick letter to Colleen after waking and ask her not to fear for me. I was not to say where I was to be taken. John Chisum understood the case and would provide further explanation regarding my bewildering departure in addition to supplying the caravan with extra men to help ensure Colleen's safety through the treacherous desert and in the event the party would meet with the nefarious gang of Brady's.
Billy left me so he could gather the clothing and riggings that I would need from my stored effects. I had a special corset used for riding that I must wear which he had failed to procure, prompting him to go back and search it out. While I waited I brushed and braided my hair and dressed as fast as I could. When he arrived, I found that my riding corset was a bit loose and I needed his help in lacing it.
When I was fully dressed and the sky had lightened, he took me down through the house and I saw that the men were ready to head out. Viola had been saddled and prepared for the long journey we would make through the desert. Again, I grew anxious at this. Knots were forming within my belly—I was terrified as to what all could happen to me out there in that wasteland. My head was filled with horrors. White women, especially golden haired women like me, I had heard, were considered a valuable prize amongst the Indians of the land. I was all but certain I'd be horribly scalped, my hair taken as a trophy. I did not relate my fears to Billy, knowing I should stand brave with the Regulators and not add to what I imagined was the certainty of their apprehensive aversion to a woman tagging alongside them. I would not whine, though I imagined the journey would be absolutely insufferable though I took comfort in the fact that I knew how to use my guns and, because of Billy, I was quite adept for a woman so young who should never know anything of using such horrifying instruments. I did not want to justify whatever it was the boys must have believed of my being present and a party to this; I would not make my presence miserable for them; I should make them forget I existed. And though I had an aversion to the journey I was about to make, not the least of which was, ironically, my being the only woman among men in such a horrifying situation, I forced the belief in myself that this was preferable to the suffocating life waiting for me back in New York.
Still, despite it being their idea that I accompany them, I felt as if I was an unwelcome party in all of this, and of course, how could it not be so? These men would need to worry over me in addition to keeping control of precarious situations and the otherwise handling of such dangerous drudgery. I knew I would be in the way no matter how small I tried to make myself, and so I decided I would steel myself, stiffen my back, square my shoulders and set my jaw firm, readying myself to prove that I could be an asset. I was determined to be of no hindrance and resolved to pray to God for our safety.
We set out northwest toward Roswell to mail the letters Morton and Baker had written, the postmaster eyeing us avidly. We then moved north towards the Captain Mountain trail. We rode in silence and I was ordered to keep my position in the middle of the posse, with Josiah to my right and Frank McNab flanking my left. Frank was an employee of John's and was there when he was shot and killed. Billy placed himself in front of me to my left, keeping this position so he could watch me and keep his eyes on the prisoners, while at the same time scanning the land's layout as we rode on.
A man I had known of in Lincoln, Frank McCloskey, had joined the Regulator's sometime before they had reached Chisum's ranch. I recognized him as an occasional employee of John's as he took all available work and odd jobs when needed. John was always happy to help out a man who was willing to pull labor, paying no mind to the dangerousness of such trust; Frank's drifting meant that he had worked under J.J. Dolan as well, and he wasn't well liked by the boys who were loyal to John, and I could not suss out the reasons except to say that McCloskey seemed to be a neutral party, therefore he innocently but hazardously befriended the enemy and, as a result, he did not have a particularly vested interest in bringing these men to justice for John's death. Naturally, this did not sit well with The Regulators.
On our way back to Lincoln McCloskey insisted on riding next to Morton, the two speaking to one another as if old friends, sometimes whispering. The others viewed this behavior as untrustworthy and treasonous. Even I knew that this conduct was treacherous under such perilous conditions. The others were incensed as the general consensus of social order here was not to engage the murderers in pleasant conversation; they were being brought in for their unlawful, unjust behavior in the violent death of a beloved friend and for breaking the law, yet McCloskey gabbed on, exchanging pleasantries with the captives and ignoring the ominous stares which surrounded him. This made McCloskey the enemy and the air grew palpably copious with tension when he was overheard comforting Morton; McCloskey telling him he would not let anything happen to him, and that the Regulators would have to go through him first. These words were fiercely unappreciated, and McNab and Billy shot McCloskey a look of fury. The comment had been made in a brazen effort to display arrogance and self-importance among the men of McSween's faction, but McCloskey's foolish mistake had ended him. My eyes grew wide at this empty-headed fool's statement and the attention it brought him. I felt certain that I would witness men die today.
My anxiety grew to an alarming upsurge as I was already terrified of beholding the fate of Morton and Baker, and now I had to consider McCloskey's. I knew that McCloskey's statement to Morton had sealed his own fate. Whatever chance there was of these men making it to Lincoln alive had now been lost as Frank McCloskey's overconfidence had inflamed the still raw wounds of those who held the lives of these men within the palms of their hands.
We had travelled only a few hours when I was made irritable by the heat and the countless layers I wore despite it being only early March, which most always meant agreeable weather for the layering we women were required to wear. The binding of my riding corset restrained me unbearably. Lost in my own thoughts over this matter, I was looking down, staring absentmindedly at the mane of my horse and silently cursing the discomfort my corset afforded me. I was so distracted that when the first shot was fired I didn't recognize the sound. My horse fretted and bounded sideways, upset, and I saw McCloskey fall from his mount dead, Frank McNab's gun smoking and pointed where McCloskey had sat only a moment before. Morton and Baker took off, fearful for their lives, their horses pitifully slow. The Regulators screamed to one another to catch them; Billy took off like a shot after both men with Josiah close behind. The chaos was so incapacitating that I felt incompetent in the midst of it all, not being able to draw my eyes away from McCloskey's lifeless body and the bloodied, splintering hole in his skull, nor could I manage myself as all of this was happening, and no sooner did I gather my wits in a feeble attempt to make sense of it all when another shot rang out. I lifted my head towards the direction of the report just in time to see Morton fall to the ground, Billy with his smoking gun in hand. I watched as Billy fired again, this time felling Baker. Charlie Bowdre, Sam Smith, and Jim French reached the point where Morton fell and proceeded to take their own shots at his prone body as Billy fired a few more times into Baker's. I was horrified by this sight. My head and gut went numb before my stomach turned, causing me to lean quickly to the side of Viola as it contracted and spilled its contents to the ground in a horrible lurching manner that pained the muscles of my abdomen, neck, and upper back. It was all so disturbing, and I did not know how to react to this slaughter. Murder! My mind repetitiously screamed this abhorrent word, over and over again. Murder! Murder! Murder!
The rest of the men each took turns firing into Morton, the alleged triggerman in John's death—I could only stare, shocked and useless. Pressure had built up in my chest and my throat closed. I clapped my hand to my mouth which hung agape in horror. Somehow, through all of this, I temporarily caught my bearings and begged myself not to scream or sob, but to no avail. A small, stunned whine escaped through my lips and my tears spilled over helplessly. I put my head down and now I covered my eyes—I did not want these men to see this, how weak I was, and despite the awfulness of the scene I was wickedly thankful that the men were preoccupied with manslaughter, eliminating both any chance that their attentions might find me like this and any dismay over having to concern themselves with a hysterical woman.
I could see Buck's lifeless body despite closing my eyes against the horror of his corpse being desecrated with glee, helpless against the attacks. I cried so hard for this, for him, and in this instance it did not matter what sort of man he was when he had lived, only the fact that he lay as a rag-doll, refuse for the men to play with.
Though overwhelmed with hysteria, I was aware of Billy standing by me now, reaching his hand up to help me from my horse as I leaned over the side and was quickly losing my grip. I was shaking uncontrollably as I took his hand and let him help me down. I fell onto him, my motor skills worthless. My body was so unstable that he had used both of his arms to catch me firmly as I tried to dismount. Once on the ground, blocked from the others by Viola, I allowed myself to cry quietly but intensely against Billy's shoulder as he placed his arms around me fiercely. He removed my hat and lovingly stroked my hair, pleading with me to not cry and telling me it was okay.
"What have you done?" I managed to choke out; my words thick and strained from the stress of heavy weeping.
Charlie and Richard rode over and dismounted standing near us. They were joined by Fred, Frank McNab, and Josiah. Jim and Sam remained by the bodies, prodding the dead men with their boots and checking their pockets for anything of value. They were peaking to one another but I could not hear what it was they were saying—it was inaudible; they were much too far away and I was much too upset to make sense out of anything. Richard began to shout at Frank.
"What the hell were you thinking?! These men were to be taken into Lincoln unharmed; we're the law! We're commissioned to return the prisoners!"
Frank remained cool and snidely replied, "You blind, Richard? What the hell do you think would have happened if we took them into Lincoln? You think they would have paid for what they'd done under the "law"? They'd of been turned right back out again and we'd have been dead men."
Richard was beside himself. Richard Brewer, the only truly decent, honest man in the bunch; he wanted to do right and abide by the rules. I wondered what his anger could mean as it seemed to me that the Ring would make the endeavors of the Regulators null and void. Logistically, though I despised it, I could see the death of these men was necessary, and truth be told, preferential to what would have happened had the boys taken them back into Lincoln. Perhaps what placed him so on edge was that killing Morton and Baker was not like killing any other, ordinary men. The Ring would pay restitution—we all knew that. But it seemed, regardless, they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't.
"And you, Bonney... you goddamned lunatic son-of-a-bitch!"
Billy paid no attention.
"What the hell are we supposed do now? And her..." he nodded his head at me, "she was supposed to be taken to Sumner! This was supposed to be an easy undertaking; we were to take these prisoners back to Lincoln and take Lucy directly to Sumner! That was the plan! She could've been killed! You've compromised her safety!"
"I'm fine, Richard." I said, hoping to quell the argument.
He ignored me and went on shouting unremittingly, "You're all ignorant... You, all of you, just caused an all-out war!"
Charlie spoke up, "We can still get her to Sumner, Richard. Since we won't be going into Lincoln we'll have a head start, head that way—"
"She was spotted with us in Roswell, Charlie!" said Richard, "Word will spread; the Ring hasn't any bounds! Sumner's only a stone's throw up the Pecos River for Christ sakes—"
"We don't know it for sure that anyone knows who she is. Who's gonna tell anyway?" Charlie challenged, "Who's gonna know..."
"EVERYBODY! This sort of news travels fast. We hole her up in Sumner we could be asking for trouble. You all broke a mess and drug her down with us!"
"They were told not to run, Dick," Billy answered snidely.
Richard glowered at him. "We're finished, do you understand that? These two—these three deaths are gonna cost us."
"You got it wrong, Brewer; they started this war when they murdered John! The way I see it, Rich, the prisoners fled; we did what we had to. Isn't that what you had hoped for when we found them back along the Peñasco? That you wished they hadn't surrendered so you didn't have to take them alive? I heard you say it! Well they ran, Dick!"
"Don't you condescend to me! My orders were to take these men alive! When we found them you needed to be restrained from killing them flat out, Bonney! I knew you couldn't be trusted! You just couldn't wait until you had your chance! They were dead men as soon as we caught up with them, contesting to kill them there and then—and you would have!"
"You know damn well we'd have been shot on sight had we taken them in to Lincoln honest! We're not any worse off than we would have been had we kept them alive! Either way we'd be done for, except now there are three less bastards to worry about!"
Richard was so angry that it became clear he could no longer find any comprehensible words. Simply, he said, "Fuck you, Bonney!
Richard yanked his reigns instructing his horse to turn and head towards where the bodies lay. He did not look back.
I looked at Billy who was still looking at Richard insolently as he walked off on his horse. I stepped in to him even closer as I received a chill. I tried to reconcile this Billy and the boy I had known before all of this happened. This side of him was spiteful. But I knew he was right when he said those things to Richard. Still, he captivated me as much as he troubled me.
Billy asked if I was able to ride as I stood leaning on him, shivering uncontrollably still, my hands clenched into fists and clinging to his duster. I could not answer him; the words stuck in my throat. Instead I shook my head against him. I did not want to be on my own.
"Alright, Bonita, come on..."
He climbed up on his horse and reached down for me to grab his hand so he could raise me up. Once atop his horse I sat behind him, my arms around his waist holding onto him so very tightly. I allowed myself weakness just this once. I swore, however, solemnly, to maintain my composure the next time.
Richard turned to ask Billy, "Can you trust people in Sumner?"
Billy nodded before spurring the horse on.
Nicole Maddalo Dixon is a published author with Sunstone Press. Her first book, Bandita Bonita: Romancing Billy the Kid, is now available for purchase; information can be found at the her website.