Published on Saturday, March 23, 2013
By Kenneth Mark Hoover
Hogtail Jack took the deputy's gun and hit him with the barrel.
"You got more coming," he said. Hogtail's broad shoulders blocked the light from the single lamp inside the abandoned house. "Get up."
Jake Strop tried to regain his senses.
"Now I give out more," the big Métis rumbled in broken English. He slammed a boot heel into Jake's side. Jake rolled with the pain. Hogtail prepared to hit Jake again when a voice, soft with menace, stopped him.
Jake touched the back of his skull. His fingers were covered with blood and bits of hair.
He drew a deep breath and let his thoughts clear. He knew everyone in the abandoned house on Markin Street would be killed if Rado and his companions did not get what they came for.
And they were not going to get what they came for.
Rado and Hogtail Jack, with guns drawn, stood between Jake and the half dozen or so prisoners on wooden benches against the wall. The dust storm outside rattled the eaves of the house.
"Next time I will let Hogtail to drop a hammer on you," Rado said. "Go sit down. Ain't nobody leaving this house lessen I say it."
Magra Snowberry and Doctor Rex Toland guided Jake back to their end of a bench. The empty house on Markin Street was a storage facility for the citizens of Haxan. Inside were broken wooden crates, frozen wolf hides, a tumbled stack of rip-sawed lumber, and two mesquite benches rescued from a dance hall fire. Wooden stairs led to an empty upper landing and long black rooms filled with dust and stale air.
Jake collapsed on the crude bench, head buried in his hands. Doc Toland and Magra sat on either side.
"Sorry, Doc," Jake mumbled under his breath.
Doc Toland tied a handkerchief around Jake's head. "That's all right, boy," Doc said. "I don't think you have concussion. But you had to try."
Jake's head felt clove in two. He tried to imagine what Marshal John T. Marwood would do in this situation. More likely, Jake knew, Mr. Marwood would not have let himself be bushwhacked in the first place.
Jake looked at the pale faces around him. Everyone was here: Hew and Alma Jean Clay from the Haxan Hotel, Patch Wallet from the livery stable, a few others who had been picked up, and Saphronia Pickering. They were forced into this house under gunpoint after Rado rode into Haxan.
An old Union Army man, Jake appreciated bold tactics. Rado struck at the end of the cattle season when most townspeople had moved to greener pastures.
For his own part, Jake was taken while escorting Saphronia Pickering to the Haxan Hotel for a late supper. He had argued Rado should let Saphronia go free. Rado wasn't having it.
Offhand, Jake wasn't sure how many gunmen Rado had at his disposal. He gathered there were two, perhaps three more, guarding the streets outside this window-dark house on Markin Street.
Either way, there were too many to handle without his Schofield. Or better yet, a double-barreled greener loaded with buck, or nail heads. Not to mention this room of innocent civilians who were likely to get in the way if guns did start firing off.
Jake felt small and helpless. He tried to rack his brains for a plan, and came up empty.
Rado paced the floor. The wooden boards creaked under his narrow boots. He was a spare man with long limbs and triangular, yellow-gray eyes in a mahogany-brown face. He had long, pale lashes, and he moved with the studied grace and power of a scarred mountain cat.
"I want Marshal John T. Marwood." Rado's voice was thin and reedy. "If'n you don't give him to me I'm gonna kill you one at a time afore you change your minds."
No one spoke. Jake watched the killer, trying to remember all he knew about the man standing before him.
It was said Rado had Kiowa blood in his veins. Or, maybe it was Sioux. With Rado's coloring Jake thought it could have been Mandan.
Nevertheless, Rado grew up a half-breed who wasn't accepted by either race. This hardened both his soul and general outlook.
At the age of fourteen Rado killed his first man, a whiskey drummer in Ponca City. After that christening, he killed whoever stepped in his way. White or red, in his eyes, everyone was a victim.
Rado stopped pacing and examined his huddled, frightened captives. His white linen duster brushed his shins. His hair curled to his shoulders like waves of black oil. Compared to the fish-eyed, knock-kneed Hogtail Jack, Rado was a handsome, if albeit cruel, man.
"That murdering Marshal and two federal lawdogs drew down on us last month," he said. "I lost two men before we got away to the Nations. Now I've come back for an accounting. I want my pound of flesh, and I will get it."
Rado's long face caught the light from a single coal oil lamp sitting on the bare floor. "I'm gonna get it if I have to hang every one of you bastards from these rafters with barbed wire."
He paused, softening his tone. "I'm telling you this because you should know why I'm goin' to kill you. So this ain't on me. It's your choice."
Jake's head continued to throb. "Mister," he said, "I done told you Mr. Marwood went to deliver a prisoner to Mesilla. He won't be back 'til tomorrow."
It was a thin lie. Marwood had gone east to Fort Providence to deliver government papers. But if Rado thought Marwood was riding back from Mesilla his attention would be focused south.
It wasn't much in the way of hope, but Jake couldn't think of anything else to do. Rado possessed the instincts of a man who watched every shadow with suspicion.
"Since the Marshal won't be back until tomorrow, Rado, you need to let these people go."
The giant Métis shambled forward. He turned his swollen fish-eyes upon the helpless prisoners and slapped a hand against a wooden newel. "This post be good to snub one of them to, I guess." His loud roar of a laugh shook the room.
Rado remained cold and detached. "Hog, we're going to show these people we mean black business until they come around to our way of thinking."
Jake filled his voice with all the venom he could muster. "Rado, you do this cruel thing and you will fry in hell."
Rado earred the hammer of his .45 back. "I done warned you about your mouth, deputy."
"Jake," Magra whispered. She grabbed his arm and kept him beside her with gentle, but insistent, force. "We must wait."
"But, Miss Magra-"
Her dark eyes pleaded with him. "We must wait for John to return from Mesilla, Jake."
Like a bolt of lightening Jake realized she knew Marwood went to Fort Providence and not Mesilla. In his anger and fear, Jake had almost ruined everything.
Jake fell silent. But, he thought, what if Marshal Marwood decided to spend the night in Fort Providence? Even worse, what if he walked straight into Rado's ambush?
Jake clenched his rough hands between his knees. He was as helpless as a frog in the bottom of a drainpipe. Without conscious thought he touched the tin badge pinned to his suspender. He had taken an oath to protect the people of Haxan. He had failed in everything he ever got paid for.
"What's your name, gal?" Hogtail's voice rumbled like the echos of a Comanche drum.
A young woman with long black hair, straight eyebrows, and a dimpled chin, answered in a trembling voice. "Saphronia Pickering."
Hogtail's black teeth shone like crooked tombstones in his black beard. "That's a mouthful of pins for a name. How do folks call you for short?"
"Sophy." Her lips were bloodless, her eyes glassy.
Hogtail's hand enveloped half her face in a clumsy caress. Saphronia tried to turn away. He gripped her chin so hard he left red marks.
"You come with Hogtail and he treat you fine. But first I mark you up, so you remember you belong to him."
Saphronia screamed and Alma Jean Clay also cried out. Jake flew off the bench with clenched fists.
"You leave her alone or I will kill you," he said.
Rado pointed his gun at Jake. He might have shot, except the door to the Markin house banged open with a gust of wind.
"What's going on, Rado?" a wiry man in the doorway asked. He was an elderly runt with a beaked nose, mustache, and ears that lay flat against his skull.
Rado's smoldering eyes remained on Jake. "I was about to burn powder on this deputy who has more guts than sense." His eyes shifted to the other man. "Speener, I done told you to stay outside."
"I heard shouting." Speener moped. "I figured you might need my help."
Rado barked a laugh that sounded like an axe biting into wood. "Old man, I'll never live to see the day I need help from someone like you. Did Terwilliger leave his post?"
Four men, Jake thought, and heavily armed. And me with no gun or weapon in sight. Bad odds, either way.
"Terwilliger's watching the south road like you said," Speener replied. "Not that we can see much with this dust blownin' and it being dark and all."
"Speener, you're a damn fool," Rado snapped. "Your mother should have strangled you at birth. Get out there and keep your eyes on the livery stable. This man," he pointed to Patch Wallet, "says the Marshal always stables his horse there. I want to know when that lawman returns to Haxan."
The smaller man's shoulders hunched as if he had been lashed with a quirt. "Okay, Rado. You ain't got to get mad."
"Ignorant bastard." Rado's yellow-brown eyes nailed Speener. "Like as not that Marshal will skin you out and leave the meat to dry. The man we are after is a stone killer. Stay awake."
"Okay, Rado, I heard you." Speener shut the door. His boot heels rapped the boardwalk and faded away.
Rado addressed Jake. "You're a lucky man, deputy. But you ain't going to stop us tonight." His gaze took in the other prisoners. "All right, Hog. Show these people we mean business."
Hogtail's smile widened like wet liver. "Come on, Miss Sophy." He loomed over her. "You act special to Hogtail and he no' cut your face with jagged glass. That way, you stay pretty for the next man."
Saphronia fought and twisted as Hogtail dragged her across the wooden floor. The screams were the most awful things Jake ever heard. Saphronia sobbed. Jake wanted to leap from the bench and accept whatever fate held in store. But Magra kept a firm hand on his arm.
"Not now, Jake," she said low.
Jake could barely choke out the words. "But, Miss Magra-"
She closed her eyes as if she were trying to search outside the house with her mind. "John is not here yet," she said under her breath. "We have to wait."
Saphronia shrieked again. Hogtail, tired of her antics, cuffed her hard. She rocked back on her heels, stunned. Hogtail tore her hair down until it hung in forlorn ropes across her narrow face.
"You stop dat fuss," he warned, "or I get rough. You understand?"
Saphronia nodded with dumb fright. Jake remembered hunting Texas jackrabbits at night as a boy. He would use a bull's-eye lantern to spot a rabbit. It would freeze until Jake put his rifle sights on it and fired.
Saphronia resembled those same frozen rabbits. Cold terror that made you sick to watch.
Hogtail wrenched Saphronia's wrists high, almost pulling her shoulders out of their sockets. After producing a length of rawhide from a beaver-hide parfleche he tied her hands together. Then he lifted her heavy skirt and tore the undergarments away.
Hogtail threw the material aside. "She ready, Rado. Dat Miss Sophy, she a plumb sweet catch."
Rado looked at his prisoners.
"You can stop this," he said in his soft, carefully measured voice. "Tell me where I can find Marshal Marwood and this girl will not be harmed."
Jake took a deep breath, and let it out in careful stages. "Rado, I already told you Mr. Marwood won't be back 'til tomorrow. You're wasting your time and hurting these people for no reason."
Rado's face resembled stone. "Deputy, I'm going to show you what hurt looks like. All right, Hog."
The Métis ripped the remaining material away. In the dim light he resembled a large malandered bear clawing bark off a tree. Saphronia's legs were long and pale in the flickering lantern light. Alma Jean Clay, sitting behind Jake, started to weep at the horror played out before them.
Outside the house, the wind howled through the wide streets of Haxan. Tree limbs scratched the house eaves in dry desperation. Jake could barely hear it above the thundering of his own heart.
Hogtail placed his hand around Saphronia's throat and squeezed. She kicked until her eyes rolled up in her head. The rawhide cut her wrists. Blood trickled down her arms.
Magra's fingers pressed Jake's arm in warning. "Now," she whispered. "Jake. He's here."
Jake rose to his feet. His head throbbed and he could barely keep upright. There was a thick veil across his vision. His eyes were black. All the world was black.
"All right, Rado," he croaked. His own voice sounded distant and removed. "You win. I'll tell you what you want to know."
"First, you cut that girl down."
"Hog, you heard the man." The powerful Métis scooped a Bowie knife from his belt. The oiled blade caught the weak light. He slashed the thongs. Saphronia collapsed like an accordion, her face streaked red.
Jake walked across the floor. He took one of the green wolf pelts and covered Saphronia. The coal oil lamp cast their entwined shadows on the walls.
"All right, deputy," Rado said, "you've done your good deed for the lady. Now, where is that murdering Marshal?"
"Call your men, Rado." Jake was surprised how steady his voice sounded. "You're going to need them."
Rado hesitated. He crossed the room in two quick strides and wrenched the door open. Cold gusts of wind fingered everyone in the room, ruffling hair and clothes.
"Speener," Rado shouted. "Get in here."
There was no answer. The wind keened, and the bare branches of the trees clawed the roof of the house.
"Speener," Rado called once more. "Where are you?"
Rado waited for a reply. None came.
Like a knife the wind stopped and a preternatural silence filled the countryside. White gypsum powder sifted from the night sky like snow. It blew through the quiet house on dying eddies and piled around Rado's boots.
Rado's face reddened with anger. "Speener," he called.
His flat voice boomed up and down Markin Street with cold, deep echoes.
"They're dead, Rado." Jake's quiet voice filled the room. "Both of them are already dead."
Disbelief filled Rado's face. "How do you mean?"
"Just what I said. Your men are dead," Jake repeated. He adjusted the wolf hide around Saphronia's shoulders. She looked up at him. Her eyes were black holes in her face. There was very little light left in the main room. The wick on the oil lamp was low, almost gone.
The faces of the other prisoners lining the mesquite benches were pale blobs in the half-dark.
"What are you talking about?" Rado demanded.
"Your men." Jake pointed at the open door. "However many men you had watching the roads. They are all dead."
"This is Haxan," Jake said, as if that explained everything. Without permission he turned the wick on the lamp and the light bloomed. The reservoir was half full.
"Marshal Marwood is out there now," Jake said, "and he's waiting for you. I lied to you, Rado. He was never in Mesilla. He was in Fort Providence, and now he's back. Haxan is his town. You came here and you hurt people. Your men are dead, Rado. Believe it. Now it'll be your turn."
Hogtail's thick French accent grumbled with doubt. "I think his head is busted, Rado, from when you hit him."
Rado glanced at the open doorway but did not move. It was as if he didn't want to approach or show himself to whatever awaited in that cold, raw darkness.
A thin muscle in his jaw jumped like a wire. "Hogtail, go see what happened to Speener and Terwilliger.""Not on your life, Rado." Shadows lay thick around the room like discarded rugs.
"Do like I say, Hog. Speener and Terwilliger need help." Hogtail shook his massive head. He put his big paw on his gun. "Rado, I ain't taking no bullet meant for you."
"He's just one man," Rado's voice snapped.
"Then deal with him," Hogtail said slow. "Lessen you're feared."
Rado checked the loads in his gun. "I'm afraid of no man. That Marshal may be good, but he ain't smart. He might have killed Speener and Terwilliger, but he left us with hostages."
Rado jerked his chin in Magra's direction. "That Navajo squaw is his woman. She's our ticket. No matter how mean that Marshal is, he'll stand down once't we kill a hostage or three and show we mean black business."
"You want me to do one of them, Rado?"
Rado watched the door, his hand gripping the checkered butt of his gun, knuckles white. "Yeah."
Hogtail drew Jake's Schofield pistol and drew a bead on Saphronia's bowed head. "She ain't no use any more," he said by way of explanation.
Hogtail thumbed the hammer back. Jake grabbed the wire handle of the oil lantern and swept it off the floor. It spun through the air and hit a dark beam above Hogtail Jack's towering frame. The burning oil showered in a river of fire over the French Canadian man and he screamed.
All the prisoners broke and ran, their shouts and cries intermingled with the high-pitched shrieks of the burning outlaw. In the chaos Jake grabbed Saphronia's frozen hand and pulled her stumbling from the house. They ran across the street. The remaining prisoners broke in several different directions. Jake heard popping gunfire inside the house. He pushed Saphronia into a narrow alley.
"Stay here," he told her. He hadn't run far, but he was out of breath. Fear clawed his throat. "Don't move. It's too dangerous. I'll come back for you. Okay?"
Saphronia nodded. "I will wait for you, Jake."
Jake tore the shirt off his back and clumsily wrapped it around Saphronia's quaking body. Then he placed the wolf skin on top for added warmth.
"Come back for me," the girl said.
"I will." He pressed her arm and ran back to the house. Red flames flicked through the slate roof. Smoke roiled from the structure and stood like a dark tower against the night sky.
Hogtail lay in the middle of the street, clawing himself in desperate frenzy to pat the flames out. His screams weakened while he burned and died. Jake kicked his Schofield from the outlaw's blackened stump of a hand and picked it up. The hot metal raised blisters on his palm that broke with damp, wet bursts.
Jake whirled. Rado stood in dueling profile thirty feet away. Both men fired. Lead tore through Jake's calf and he went down in a clumsy sprawl. He fired off one elbow, the Schofield kicking twice in his blistered hand. Acrid gun smoke filled the street. Glowing cinders fell in a hellish rain around them. A grotesque shadow approached Jake. Rado was using the smoke as cover. He had seen Jake fall backward and wanted to make sure of his victim. Jake's eyes teared badly from the smoke. He kept firing at the shadow until the hammer fell on an empty chamber. The wavering shadow stopped, performed a clumsy pirouette, and fell in the street.
It did not move.
Jake pushed himself to his feet. Red cinders fell on his bare skin, but he did not feel it. He walked toward Rado. The killer had two holes through his chest.
Jake turned, ready for another fight. At the end of the narrow street was a man wearing a hat pulled low over his face, and a long gray duster like the wings of an angel. He sat a tall, blue roan. The Marshal's lean face was hard and cold and full of black, avenging blood.
"Are you okay, Jake?" Marshal Marwood called.
Jake blinked, and nodded. He lowered his gun. He was exhausted now that the fight was over and he had somehow, miraculously, survived.
"Is everyone okay?" he asked.
Marwood nodded. "Everyone got out without a scratch. Magra took Saphronia to the jailhouse. They're waiting for us there."
The Marshal grinned. It had all the warmth of blue, winter ice. "Your leg got pinked, Jake. Better let Doc have a look at it."
Jake looked at his pant leg in faint surprise. A bloodstain dripped down his boot.
Marwood's blue roan fiddle-footed back and forth. The stallion was trained for war and blood, but it didn't like standing this close to fire. Many townspeople were fighting the conflagration with buckets of water and sand.
Marwood helped Jake onto the back of his horse. "Let's get you inside and sewn up before you bleed out."
He pulled for Doc Toland's office, walking his horse so Jake would not be jostled.
"Sorry I didn't get here sooner, Jake," Marwood said over his shoulder. "Who were those men?"
"Just some men who came to Haxan looking to cause hell, Mr. Marwood," he said.
Jake looked at the wet, broken blisters on his hand, and his burned gun. "I reckon they found what they wanted."
KENNETH MARK HOOVER is a professional writer currently living in Dallas. He has sold over sixty short stories. He is at present working on a dark western series set in the mythical town of Haxan, New Mexico, circa 1874. His newest novel, HAXAN, was accepted by ChiZine Publications and will be released in 2014. You can read more about his work at his website Kennethmarkhoover.com, or follow his blog at Kennethmarkhoover.me.