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Published on Tuesday, Febuary 24, 2015

Fifteen Miles to Rodondo

By Michael Collins

 

Jim Delbridge hooked both thumbs in his Wyoming drop gun belt. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Everything was covered in dust, from his black cowhide boots to the Mexican vaquero saddle his granddaddy had given him before the old man had been scalped and left for dead north of The Devil's Backbone near Raton Pass. A buzzard wheeled high over the desert, a mere speck on the distant horizon. Boom, Texas was a ghost town.

"Sergeant Delbridge?" A tall man wearing ropers stood on a dusty porch. The brim of a dun-colored Stetson hung low over his forehead.

"Yeah, that's me," Jim said.

"Ed Ketchum. Glad you made it in one piece."

"I stopped for a night in San Marcos. Been on the trail ever since."

"You must be wore-out."

"I could do with some good chow, piping hot out of the oven, preferably," Delbridge said with a smile, revealing two crooked front teeth. "But I don't guess you got no kinda' chop house here in Boom."

"Damn Hell if we do," Sheriff Ketchum answered. "Old English used to run a slop counter down the road a ways. But he cleared out for Oklahoma two years back. Him and all his kin."

   

"Well, I reckon that Brazos Bottom jerky in my saddle bag oughta do for supper. How's Mr. Alsup?"

Sheriff Ketchum didn't answer right away. He stared at the Texas Ranger from Company A, sizing the lawman up. Jim Delbridge was tall and lean, his sunburnt skin the color of fired clay. His mutton chop sideburns extended down to his jawbone on either side. He wore a light flannel shirt and a pair of dusty chaps that had seen hard ranging over countless miles of wild terrain. A Wyoming drop belt was cinched tight around his waist, rigged up with a Drover fast draw holster and a forty-four forty Colt revolver.

"Wade Alsup is a real cutthroat," Ed Ketchum finally said. "He's wanted in four states."

"Wade's no choir boy. That's for sure."

"Folks say he burnt down the Baptist church in Killeen two years back along with Reverend Leslie and half the parishioners inside."

"Wade's earned his place in Hell the hard way, sure as Sunday."

"Is Houston stretched that thin?"

"What do you mean?" Delbridge asked. His eyes traced a lone buzzard gliding high over the sands of the west Texas desert.

"I mean, Houston sent a one-man escort for the most dangerous outlaw north of The Pecos."

"How many men you got guarding him, now, Sheriff?"

Ed Ketchum exhaled slowly. His lower lip bulged with a wad of Copenhagen. "Fair enough."

"And yes, Houston is stretched that thin," Delbridge said.

"Ain't we all? Come on. Let's go get your prisoner."

 

*         *        *

 

Wade Alsup sat on the back of a blood-red bay, his hands shackled together, resting lightly on the pommel of his saddle. His clothes hung in tatters: a bourbon boar suede shirt, faded Wranglers, and a pair of skin-tight shotgun chaps. Filthy as a cur on the roadside, the outlaw looked half-dead, his long black hair all matted-down with sweat and prickly pear burs. "Can you loosen the cuffs a bit?"

Delbridge spat a stream of chaw into the wind as Sam, his sorrel roan, clip-clopped along at a leisurely pace.

"Hey, ranger, can you loosen the cuffs a bit?"

"I checked them cuffs back at the jailhouse in Boom."

"They're cuttin' my wrists to the bone."

"You'll survive," Delbridge said.

"I have to take a piss, too."

"You'll have to hold it."

"All the way to Houston?" Alsup asked.

"All the way to Hell, if you like."

Wade didn't answer. He hung his head forward, sweat streaming down the back of his neck. "Damn, it's hot. Given time enough, this west Texas sun could cook a man from the inside out. Don't get much worse'n that."

"I've heard of worse," Delbridge said, tipping his hat at a dead armadillo curled up next to a prickly pear cactus. "I once heard tell of a man who burnt down a Baptist church full of women and children, barring the doors from the outside."

Wade Alsup smiled, his eyes glazed over, as if reliving a cherished memory. "Only a mad dog would do a thing like that."

"Only one way to cure a mad dog: Kill him outright before the infection spreads."

Wade Alsup didn't answer right away. He sat there, staring off into space, jostled every now and again as the iron-shod shoes of his bay pounded through the sand. "When did you decide to become a lawman?

"Why do you care?"

"Just makin' friendly conversation, I guess," Alsup said.

"I don't recall." But that was a lie. Delbridge recalled the moment perfectly. It seemed like a hundred years ago, thinking back on it now. A week after his seventh birthday, he had heard his mother scream from the back bedroom. He knew what he was like to find, even before he found it.

Papa's finally gone and done it. He's kilt her at last.

He remembered walking into the dark bedroom, waiting for his eyes to adjust, only to find his father staving his mother's head in with a cattle-branding iron. He could still smell the forty rod rotgut hanging in the air like a sickness.

"You like being a ranger?" Alsup asked.

The evil memory curled up in a dark corner of Jim's mind. "Sergeant Ranger. And, yeah, it pays the bills."

"I bet I make more in a week than you make in a year."

"Knockin' off mail hacks is pretty lucrative, from what I understand, if you don't march your neck straight into a noose when you least expect it. All that money won't do you a lick of good once you're danglin' in the wind from the gallows in front of the county courthouse."

"You're pretty sure we're goin' all the way to Houston, huh?" Alsup asked.

"I'm sure."

"I'll give you ten grand to let me go."

"Well, now, that's a helluva lot of money, Wade. Especially for a cowpoke drifter who holds his britches up with a thirty two inch length of twine."

"The money's real enough, stacks of greenbacks buried chest-deep south of Waxahachie Creek."

Jim Delbridge took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Ed Ketchum was right. Houston was stretched too thin. He had no business escorting a cutthroat outlaw across the open desert alone.

"You got any kids?" Alsup asked, figuring he'd let his offer simmer for a good bit before turning up the heat again.

"You tryin' to soften me up?"

"Just makin' friendly conversation."

Delbridge opened his mouth to lie. On a whim, he decided to tell the truth. "I got a three year old daughter in Houston."

"I got four youngsters back in Questa," Alsup said. "That's where I was headed when that old pig-stickin' sheriff dragged me heels first out of the Gut Shot Saloon. They say I cut up the piano player after he refused to play 'Buckskin Joe' while standin' on his head. But I have no recollection of that event. They threw me in the tank overnight, along with a smelly Mexican vaquero, before Ketchum run acrost my face on a 'wanted' poster."

"Questa's clear the other side of Wheeler Peak. You're a good ways off your track."

"I was headed through Albuquerque first to visit my uncle."

"You wasn't headed to Questa," Delbridge said, "or Albuquerque, neither."

Wade Alsup sat quietly in the saddle for a bit, working out his next move. "I'll give you fifteen grand to let me go."

"I thought your offer was ten."

"Now, it's fifteen. Here's the deal—"

"You got it all figgered out, don't ya'?"

"Ain't nothin' to figger out. You let me go, you ride away the richest ranger which ever lived."

"I don't want your money, Wade."

Riding side-by-side, their eyes met briefly.

Snake eyes, Delbridge thought. Like a coiled-up diamond back rattler waitin' to strike when my back is turned.

Then Alsup turned away, whistling "Turkey in the Straw" as if he hadn't a care in the world. Jim was tightening his grip on the reins when something caught his attention way out across the pale sands. Something sparkled on the horizon like a mirror held up to reflect the sun. Jim leaned forward in his saddle, hooding his eyes with his hand.

There it is again.

This time Jim could see the reflections plainly: three blinding flashes of light, one after another.

What do they mean?

Jim noticed a distant speck on the horizon. As they got closer, the speck grew more distinct. It was a woman. A pretty young señorita stood next to an old mule bitch trussed up with a serape Saltillo Mexican blanket. When he caught sight of the woman, Wade Alsup hissed. There was no other word for it. Jim Delbridge couldn't blame him. It wasn't everyday a feller saw an olive-skinned beauty done up in a red twill bustle skirt and a white Wichita blouse, standing alone with a gimp mule in the wilds of the west Texas desert.

"Feast your eyes on that flower of sin, ranger. What the Hell is she doing in the middle of the desert hundreds of miles from the nearest henhouse?"

The same thought ran its course through Jim Delbridge's mind. Something was out of place, though he couldn't put his finger on it. As they approached, the señorita smiled and waved them down.

"A healthy chicken like you ought not wander the desert alone, little sister," Wade Alsup said, smiling wide and showing his teeth. The ones that weren't missing were blackened with corruption. "They's coyotes about. And buzzards, besides."

"Will you help me? This mule is lame," the señorita said, as if she had rehearsed the lines a good many times before the words ever passed her lips.

"Where do you aim to go?" Delbridge asked.

"My brother's waiting for me in Dimmitt. Show me the rest of the way, and I'll pay you in gold."

Something stirred in Jim's gut. A shot of adrenaline raced up his spine. Dimmitt made Boom, Texas look like a thriving metropolis the likes of San Antone and San Francisco and half a dozen dandified Yankee watering holes north of the Mississippi.

"Ain't nothin' but sand left in Dimmitt."

"But that is where I wish to go, ranger," the señorita said, her eyes fixed on the five-point star hammered out of an old Mexican peso, hanging from Jim's shirt-front.

"We're headed to Houston, by way of Rodondo."

"But I need to go to Dimmitt. My brother is waiting for me."

There was desperation in her voice now, which made her tone mighty pleasing to the ear, and that's exactly why Jim Delbridge didn't trust her further than he could hock a stream of chaw into the wind.

"Can't do it, ma'am. Sorry."

"Please. I'll do anything," she said.

"Anything?" Wade Alsup asked, looking like a coyote on the prowl.

Somehow the top button of the girl's shirt had come undone, providing a mighty fine sight for lonely eyes. Jim knew something was wrong. He hadn't been a lawman for seven years to spook without thunder. The girl was too young, too pretty, and far too eager to please. Women like her didn't wander alone a hundred miles south of The Devil's Backbone.

"I'll take you as far as Rodondo," Delbridge said. "Your brother can fetch you at the hotel by the Clearwater Saloon."

"Please. I need to get to Dimmitt. I'll make it worth your while," the señorita said, a smile playing on her full, red lips.

"Good day to you, Miss. And good luck. Let's go, Wade." Delbridge tipped his Stetson, spurring the roan forward at a slow trot.

"You ain't gonna help that lady?" Wade asked, his blood-red bay keeping pace with the ranger's mount. "What kinda' lawdog are you?"

"The kind who likes to stay alive." Even as Jim spoke, he glanced over his shoulder. The señorita had fished a compact mirror out of her handbag and was flashing the reflective surface at the sky.

 

*         *        *

 

By sunset they weren't too far out from Rodondo. Perhaps fifteen miles, maybe less. Every few minutes Jim would glance over his shoulder at the empty stretch of sand behind him. There was a knot in his stomach that hadn't been there before. Something wasn't right. He could feel it like a plunge through icy water. In his early days as a deputy sheriff in Throckmorton County, he had learned one fundamental rule of law enforcement: When in doubt, trust your gut. His gut told him something was wrong. The señorita had played him false.

But to what end?/p>

Wade Alsup saw it first: a cloud of dust on the horizon. "What's that, ranger?"

Jim Delbridge turned his sorrel roan in mid-stride. He took a swig of forty rod rotgut from the demijohn attached to his saddle and squinted his eyes at the horizon while packing a fresh chaw. "Riders. Two of 'em."

"Ridin' hard, by the looks of it."

"Pushed the way they are, them mounts is like to blow their stack well short of Rodondo." Jim eased his roan closer to the blood-red bay, so close that their saddles touched, and Wade could smell the coffin varnish whiskey bleeding out through the pores of the ranger's flesh. "That señorita ten miles back flashed her compact at the sun. It's an old Comanche trick. A smoke signal of sorts, I believe. Who was she, Wade?"

"Hell if I know, ranger."

Delbridge drew his forty-four forty Colt and struck Wade across the forehead with the butt of the revolver, knocking him from the saddle. When Wade tried to stand up, Jim kicked him full in the face. Winded, the outlaw sprawled on his back, his chest heaving up and down. Jim dismounted, sliding his Remington coach gun from its scabbard.

"You knocked my tooth out, ya' damn carpet-bagger."

"Lie to me again, and I'll knock the rest of 'em out, too. Who is she?"

"Hell if I know."

Delbridge slammed the butt of the shotgun down like a sledgehammer. Wade screamed as blood shot from both nostrils.

"See if you can breathe through a busted nose. Who is she?"

"Her name's Maria," Wade said, between sobs, covering his battered face.

"What's her last name?"

"Maria don't have a last name, far as I know."

Jim looked up. He could see the riders more clearly now. One of them wore two bandoliers strapped across his chest. The other wore a sombrero and a Mexican-style poncho with two Navy Colt revolvers hanging from the riggings of his saddle.

"Who are them boys on our tail?"

"Hell if I know."

With the toe of his boot, Jim pinned Wade's left wrist to the ground. He cocked the shotgun's hammer with his thumb. "You lie to me again, you lose your hand. Who are they?"

"Wait and find out, ya' damn carpet-bagger!" Wade Alsup hissed, spitting blood.

Jim pulled the trigger. The shotgun blast rolled across the desert like thunder. Wade screamed almost loud enough to reach the ears of God. "Who are they?" Jim asked again, ejecting the spent casing and sliding a fresh shell into the receiver.

"The Carnallas brothers. Jorge and Edgar." The words came out in a tumble, now.

Jim rammed the cold, hard barrel into Wade's throat, just above his Adam's apple. "Why are they tailin' us?"

"I owe 'em some money."

"How much?" Delbridge asked.

"Ten thousand greenbacks, stashed south of Waxahachie Creek."

"The same ten grand you tried to buy me off with east of Boom?"

"That's right. I'm the only one who knows where it's buried."

"So they need you alive?"

Wade nodded his head. The riders were close now, maybe three hundred yards out and closing the distance fast. Jim could hear them yelling back and forth in Spanish over the frantic clip-clopping of their mounts.

"Get up," Delbridge said.

"You shot off my hand, you son of a—"

"Get up, or your pecker goes next." Jim half-dragged him off the ground. "Get on the horse."

Wade threaded his boot through the stirrup. Jim hoisted him the rest of the way up onto the Mexican vaquero saddle his granddaddy had given him when he was just a sprout, barely old enough to shave the whiskers from his chin. Jim climbed up after him, and they sat two to the saddle.

"Them bandidos need you alive, Wade. So don't die on me, hear?" Jim spurred his sorrel roan forward.

Time seemed to move in slow motion. Loose gravel grated under Sam's iron-shod hooves, and a sudden gust of wind whipped sand into Jim's eyes. The big Mexican with the bandoliers strapped across his chest started shooting first, working the lever-action of his Model 1873 Winchester repeating rifle. Bullets nipped the sand in front of the galloping roan.

He's trying to shoot the legs out from under Sam. Wade told it true. They need him alive. Using Wade as a human shield, Jim held his fire, waiting for the right moment to unload his twelve-gauge at close range. The horses were on a collision course. Jorge Carnallas fired his Navy Colts, one in each hand. From ten yards out, Jim fired his Remington, blowing Edgar backwards out of his saddle, nearly cutting the gunman in half. Sam pitched forward on his two front hooves, and Jim knew he was hit. The ranger leapt free as his roan rolled head over hooves. His boot stuck in a stirrup, Wade went down with the horse, flipping over and over again in the sand.

Edgar was stone-cold dead, his open eyes staring up at the sun. Jorge Carnallas turned his paint to make another pass. Facedown on the ground, every bone in Jim's body ached. He closed his eyes and saw his little girl then, sitting on the rough timber porch back in Houston, wrapping her arms around his neck before he set off with Sam down a dusty Main Street to bring the outlaw desperado, Wade Alsup, back to face justice at the end of a rope.

Hell if I'll leave her in this world alone. Not now. Not ever.

When Jim looked up, Jorge Carnallas was bearing down hard, blazing away with his Navy Colts. Somehow, Jim held onto his Remington. He stood up and fired from the waist, blowing the horse's legs out from under him. Jorge Carnallas hit the ground hard and rolled several times. Jim dropped the spent Remington and drew his Colt forty-four forty.

"You killed Edgar," Jorge said, breathing heavily through a busted nose.

"He didn't leave me no choice in the matter."

"Cabró n!" Jorge rolled over, pulling his Navy Colt out of the sand.

Jim fired all six rounds from ten feet away. Jorge flopped backwards, his chest cavity blown wide open, dead before he hit the dirt. Then there was quiet. Wade Alsup was still alive, his left leg pinned under a thousand pounds of horse flesh.

"Get up, Wade."

"This nag's got me pinned," the outlaw whispered, grimacing in pain.

"It's a shame Sam died with the likes of you on his back. He was the best horse I ever owned."

"I'm too busted for travel. You'll have to shoot me."

"I know that, son," Delbridge said, reloading his Colt.

"Wait. I was just joshin', ranger. I reckon I could still ride."

"Well, that good-lookin' bay of yours ain't nowhere to be found. Them other horses is dead. And I got a three year old daughter waitin' on my front porch in Houston. I can't leave you, and I can't carry you. So I reckon I'll have to kill you."

"What about the money? All them greenbacks? You could die a rich man, ranger."

"I'm rich enough, already," Delbridge said, snapping the cylinder closed and cocking the hammer with his thumb.

"Wait!" Alsup screamed.

"I'm done waiting." Delbridge fired once.

The wind kicked up dust devils across the plains, and the sun set over a red horizon. With his Mexican vaquero saddle slung across his back, Jim headed east.

Fifteen miles. Fifteen miles to Rodondo.

THE END

 

Michael Collins is a sergeant with The Houston Police Department. He holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University. The Western Online recently published his short story, "Justice in Deaf Smith". His work has appeared in anthologies published by Dark Moon Books, Angelic Knight Press, Sunbury Press, Parsec Ink, Sky Warrior Books, and Crossroad Press.

 

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