Published on Thursday, October 23, 2014
Justice in Deaf Smith
By Michael Collins
Ten miles west of Waxahachie Creek, he found old Arbor Clayton scalped to the bone, choice pickings for carrion fowl and coyotes. Texas Marshall James Skelton stared toward the horizon. The desert landscape was barren: a wash of pale sand, scrub brush, and the occasional pile of bones bleached white under the August sun.
His coach shotgun is missing. Comanche raiders, I'd stake my right hand on it. Well-armed with long rifles and looking for another scalp.
He unraveled a blackened scrap of parchment. It was a wanted poster for Jim 'Two-Guns' Gavin and Maynard McCoy, charged with robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach loaded to the gills with gold bullion. James read slowly, mouthing each word as he went. He'd read the poster a hundred times over. When James was satisfied the words hadn't changed any, he folded the paper along well-worn seams, and slipped it into his saddlebag.
The wheel ruts in the sand were fresh. A greenhorn could have followed the tracks, plain as day, which led further west into the desert. Any day now, Skelton would see the old Wells Fargo stagecoach lumbering toward the horizon, driven by two blood-thirsty outlaws. Arbor Clayton had lost a scalp over that stagecoach.
A few days more, and I'll be feeding the crows, too, Skelton thought, saddling up, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the brim of his Stetson.
"Come on, Buddy," James said, spurring his Saddlebred into a slow trot.
Skelton was tall even for a ranger, broad in the shoulders with big, meat-hook hands. Just under his hairline, a jagged scar ran horizontally across his forehead. He'd picked up the memento from a Comanche scalping knife in the Battle of Adobe Walls back in seventy four. He'd never seen such a barbaric sight: hundreds of blood-thirsty warriors, beaded with sweat and face-paint, waving tomahawks and firing arrows from quivers that never seemed to run dry. Scalps dangled from their saddles, and bright feathers fluttered from their headdresses.
In the months following The Battle of Adobe Walls, Skelton was apt to find himself at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, stumbling out of some tart's bed, witless and alone. Then he'd met Molly, an honest Christian, who had taught him what it meant to be a god-fearing man. James remembered the way she had held her head up high, walking the dusty streets like some long lost queen of antiquity. When Maggie was alive, James had sworn off the coffin varnish whiskey.
But Maggie is six feet under and most of my heart with her.
He often thought about Maggie on his rangings, the only woman he had ever loved with every ounce of his soul. Even in death, she was never far away, an angel with silver wings tormenting him with visions of better days that were lost forever in a tide of memory.
Skelton was dozing in the saddle when the snap-crack of a rifle made his horse buck. One hand gripping the reins, James reached for his Winchester. He felt the impact of the second shot as Buddy shuddered beneath him. When the horse started to pitch to the right, James leapt free. He hit the ground rolling. Buddy went down on his side, breathing heavily, his hooves twitching in the dirt. A third shot struck him square in the chest, putting the old Saddlebred down for good. A fourth shot whistled overhead.
Close. Too damn close.
Two more rounds struck the animal, sending a shiver through cold, dead flesh. In that instant, Skelton rose to one knee, shouldered the heavy wooden stock, and aimed down his iron sights, using his saddle as a makeshift shooter's platform. He saw a glint of steel behind a creosote bush. James pulled the trigger, racked another round, and fired again. There was a lull in the shooting, and James took a chug of whiskey to steady his hand.
"You kilt Jim!"
Jim. Jim "Two Guns" Gavin. He must've been the rifleman.
"Come on out, Maynard," Skelton said in a voice that carried clear across the plains.
There was a pause.
"You a law-man?"
The response was about what James had expected: more gunshots, wild and wide. At twenty five yards, it would have taken a heck of a lot better hand than Maynard McCoy to dead-eye a man laid-up behind a thousand pounds of horse flesh. James waited for the shooting to stop before he peeked up over the rim of his saddle. There was a large cholla cactus big enough to hide a man about thirty yards to the west. James had plenty of time to aim, breathe, and shoot. He pulled the trigger twice, sat back, and waited.
"Toss your weapon."
A rusty old Walker Colt revolver spun through the air, landing in the dirt.
"Now come on out."
James took another swig of coffin varnish and stood up slowly. He walked out into the open, holding his rifle at waist-level, finger indexed against the trigger-well.
"How bad you hit, Maynard?"
"Bad. Dyin' mebbe."
James moved forward, cautiously. Jim "Two Guns" Gavin was dead behind the creosote bush, shot clean through the top of the skull. The other outlaw started to wail in agony.
Skelton rested the barrel of his rifle in the crook of his arm.
"You ain't gut-shot. You're just dead-drunk, and you pissed yourself. Get up, Maynard. You've got a date with the gallows in Deaf Smith."
Two of the horses were still alive: an Appaloosa and a ragged old Paint. The others were dead in their traces. The Wells Fargo stage coach was partially submerged in a sand drift, the front left wheel sheared in half. The gold was still there, too. But with no way to mend a broken wheel, the plunder was like to stay put awhile longer. It was a shame they couldn't take it with them. All that gold. Skelton saddled-up atop the Paint and started back the way he had come.
"Only a fool would ride a hundred miles through the west Texas desert in a stolen stage coach."
Maynard rode ten feet ahead, his dun-colored nag as tired as he was.
"We was headed for Raton Pass," the outlaw said, his face streaming sweat.
"A hundred miles down the Devil's Backbone. Well, I reckon you would've found him sooner or later."
"Found who?" Maynard asked.
"Jim found him, that's plain. At the end of your long rifle."
"I reckon we'll find him, too, before we ever reach Deaf Smith. If these horses give out, we're through."
"What's in Deaf Smith?"
They didn't talk much after that. Skelton's mind wandered as each bump and jolt of the saddle brought him one step closer to a hot bath, a warm meal, and a gallon of coffin varnish whiskey. He'd left Maynard's hands free to work the reins. Hauling a man through the open desert, trussed up like a hog, would have been suicide. Unarmed as he was, Maynard didn't pose much of a threat. A sorry, two-bit bandit like him didn't cut much salt armed to the gills, anyway. Part of him hoped Maynard would make a break for it. A snap-crack shot between the shoulder blades would do for Maynard, as well as many another rustler Skelton had tracked over the past decade.
"I gotta take a piss!" Maynard called over his shoulder.
"You'll have to hold it."
"All the way to Deaf Smith?"
"All the way to Hell, if you like."
"Ain't that the – "
An arrow whistled through the air, nearly notching Maynard's crooked Stetson. When the arrows started flying thick and fast, Skelton hoisted his long rifle from the scabbard and aimed down his iron sights. One second the desert was a panorama of emptiness as far as the eye could see, and the next second a handful of Indians had emerged like specters from the sand.
Comanche desperadoes from way down south, south of Woman Hollering Creek.
James got two shots off in the space of a heart-beat. His first shot went wide. The second took a warrior in the chest, flinging back through the air. James wheeled his horse, firing as he turned. Ducking low in his saddle, he spurred his Paint into a sprint, as the arrows rained past him. If the warriors had been mounted, Skelton wouldn't have stood a chance. But they were all afoot, mean and hungry, thin as jackals, all flesh and bone.
Maynard McCoy was already a speck on the distant horizon, a plume of sand fanning out in his wake. Skelton rode the Paint hard, harder than he should have. The poor brute was already half-starved and played-out. But what choice did he have? He could turn back to Deaf Smith with his tail between his legs. Then he might as well hang up his gun belt and badge and drown himself in a bucket of coffin varnish whiskey.
James felt a pain, a bone-deep throb. A tuft of red feathers poked out of his leg, the arrow buried in the fleshy part of his thigh. His head started to spin, and he darn near fell out of his saddle, sideways. Somehow, he kept a firm grip on the reins, spurring his broken-down Paint into one final burst of speed. By the time James caught up, the Appaloosa had developed a pronounced limp and was struggling forward at a slow trot. When the horse finally refused to budge, Maynard started to cuss and lash at the animal's flank.
"Git on, nag! Git!"
"You hit that horse again, mister, I'll serve up your justice right now," Skelton said, shoving the cold, hard barrel of his Winchester against McCoy's skull.
"I thought you was dead. I thought one of them Comancheros scalped you clean."
"Mebbe I am dead and just don't know it."
Maynard glanced at the red-feathered shaft sticking out of Skelton's thigh.
"We're four days out from Deaf Smith. You'll never make it, ranger."
"Then we'll keep each other company in Hell. Move out."
James had fallen asleep in the saddle again, and when he opened his eyes, he knew that the town on the edge of the horizon was a mirage, a desert dream cooked up by his festering leg wound. It was a good thing McCoy was almost as tired as he was. Skelton couldn't remember how many days had gone by since he'd saddled up in front of the county courthouse, stuffing the wanted poster in his saddlebag, spurring Buddy down a bustling Main Street.
A week ago. Maybe more.
His leg looked bad. He had tried to push the arrow all the way through, but with the pain so sudden and sharp, he couldn't budge the shaft an inch. He had never known agony like that. But the chills were even worse. They'd started maybe six hours ago, and it was all James could do to keep a hand on the reins.
"You ain't gonna make Deaf Smith, ranger," Maynard said, turning in his saddle.
The outlaw was right. Skelton would never make Deaf Smith. They were still a good two days ride from the county line. Maybe more. Several times in the last hour, he had caught himself falling from the saddle in his delirium.
"I'll last long enough to hand you over to the magistrate. You'll face justice in Deaf Smith."
"What kinder justice, I wonder?"
"Justice at the end of a rope."
"That ain't no kinder justice."
"You shot old man Stallworth."
"He ain't dead. Leastaways, I don't reckon he is. Hit him in the shoulder. I ain't no kinda killer."
"Ropes is good for dogs, killers, and thieves, alike," Skelton said, taking a swig of coffin varnish.
The sun glared down from a cloudless sky, making Skelton's head spin. Hour after hour, they rode through the desolate wasteland. At times James could hear someone talking like a bird of prey perched on his shoulder whispering in his ear. Then he realized the words were coming out of his own mouth, a torrent of unintelligible babble. Soon there came a time when James didn't know whether they were travelling east or west. When they passed a grove of mesquite trees on their left hand side, Skelton reined in his horse.
"That's far enough."
Maynard took a swig of water and spat it out in the sand.
"You look winded, ranger."
"Ask me nice, and I'll shoot you down like a dog, right here. Put you outta your mis'ry."
Skelton didn't answer. He just mopped his brow with the brim of his Stetson.
"Guess I won't be havin' none of your magistrate's justice, after all," Maynard said with a smile.
Skelton removed a coil of rope from his saddlebag and started to work the twine into a rough hangman's noose.
"What the hell you doin', ranger?"
Skelton didn't answer as he turned his horse toward a large mesquite tree.
"I said, what the hell you doin'?"
"Servin' up your justice," Skelton said, looping the noose over a low-hanging branch.
Michael Collins is a sergeant with The Houston Police Department. He holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University. His short stories have appeared in anthologies published by Dark Moon Books, Angelic Knight Press, Sunbury Press, Parsec Ink, Sky Warrior Books, and Crossroad Press.