by Pat Nolan
Apollinara woke Paulita after midnight. When her husband had not returned by nightfall, her full fear had come to the fore. She could not just sit and do nothing. She set about hitching Old Jupiter to the buckboard. Then, leaving the younger children in the care of their Navajo cook, she and Paulita, wrapped in blankets against the blistering cold of the predawn mesa, set off down into the pitch-black canyon.
It took them hours to finally arrive at Swanson’s in Organ, old Jupe familiarly picking out the trail but slowly against Apollinara’s tight rein. Her eyes had searched the dark for any sign of her husband although she was certain that she would not find him there. She murmured prayers all the while.
Helpy was hitching a brace of mules to the feed wagon. She called out to him asking if he had seen her husband. Said he hadn’t.
“Boss and the Missus might a did. Heard he’d been through on his way to Las Cruces. That’s where I’m headed myself. Anything wrong?”
Apollinara sent Paulita to knock on Swanson’s door. A voice demanded to know who was there and Swanson stuck his head out of the second storey window.
“I’m looking for my husband, Mr. Swanson, have you seen him?”
“Who is it?” a woman’s voice behind Swanson called out.
“It’s Polly and little Paulita,” he called back. “Hello, Polly, looking for the old man again?”
“Yes. Have you seen him?”
“Well. . .yesterday, early on, I saw him. He was with that young fellow. . .what was his name?”
“Yes, that was it. Adams. Seemed like a right bright youngster. They stopped here to water and gab a spell.”
“Did you sell him a bottle?”
The front door opened and Swanson’s wife, Lou, came out onto the porch. “What is it, Polly? I thought he was off the firewater. Don’t tell me he’s on another one of his jags. I don’t envy you, dear. Come on inside, I’m just about to start breakfast.” She helped Apollinara down from the buckboard. “Don’t worry, one of his chums has probably got him over to the boarding house to let him sleep it off.” She put her arm around Apollinara and led her inside.
Swanson came downstairs, dressing. “I sold him a bottle, yes. But I never say no to your husband. He scares me, to tell the truth. The youngster said they were going to work something out with Billy Brazil, is that right?”
“Yes, that is why he came for my husband. They were going to work out a deal between the three of them.”
Swanson stroked the stubble on his jowls. “Well, I did see Billy pass through just before noon. Adams and your old man come through not too long after that. Had Billy stopped over some, they could have all saved themselves a trip to Las Cruces.”
Apollinara felt a little tremor shake her body. She knew her husband’s stubbornness. He would never come to an agreement with Billy Brazil.
They sat down to breakfast, Lou Swanson fussing and keeping up the small talk to allay Apollinara’s anxiety. But the tidy, gay neatness of the Swanson kitchen only served to remind her of how far she had come from the comfortable wellbeing she had been accustomed to years ago. At one time, she would have considered the Swanson house poor. The houses in Roswell, Santa Rosa, San Elizaro, El Paso had all been mansions compared to this place. After El Paso, though, she and her husband had been fighting off bad luck at every turn. Her husband’s bitterness and resentment were hardest to bear. He drank too much, became belligerent, and had alienated most of their friends with his refusal to stop harping on the injustices he had had to endure.
Swanson went outside to begin his daily tasks. Paulita and Apollinara helped clear the table and wash up. Then Swanson came back to inform her that Old Jupe had thrown a shoe. He was just firing up the forge but it would be a while before they could be on their way again.
Apollinara settled down on the bench on the front porch and waited. Morning was beginning to heat up. Paulita headed over to the stable to watch the shoeing. Then, no telling how much longer, but Swanson was just about done with the job, a plume of beige dust told them of someone’s approach from behind the rise down the road.
“Somebody’s in a hurry,” Swanson said to Paulita, “Probably your pa worrying like the devil that he’s got your ma riled up.”
The wagon hove into view. It was Helpy. “What’s Helpy doing back so soon?” Swanson wondered aloud. “He should have been to Las Cruces by now. . . .”
Apollinara had stepped down from the porch in anticipation. Lou Swanson stood in the doorway, drying her hands on her apron. Paulita followed in Swanson’s shadow as they seemed to drift up to the wagon stopped out by the corral.
“I found him,” said Helpy.
The old man found the matches inside his hatband. His hand had fished out a fresh cigar from the inside pocket of his coat. The match head flared with the flick of his thumbnail and was quickly brought up to the tube of tobacco. Soon puffs of smoke drifted out from under the brim of his dark sombrero.
An early afternoon heat had replaced the gusting winds of morning. The cork stuck into the neck of the dark green bottle in his coat pocket bobbed to the sway of the buggy. The warmth of the air and the stopover at Swanson’s had improved his disposition. The pulque helped. It burned like something molten down to his stomach. But then there was always that explosion and release, as if oil was being spread on troubled waters and an inner turmoil calmed with the lubrication. The kid had declined a pull, saying that he’d never drink anything made from a cactus. It made no difference to him. He still regarded the boy with suspicion but now he was more inclined to speak his thoughts.
“I don’t suppose you know anything about the White Sands murders.” The old man was going back a dozen years or so. “That might be a little before your time.”
“White Sands? You mean the desert hereabouts? Come to think of it, I do.”
“You don’t say?”
“That’s right. When I was growing up in St. Louis, an uncle of mine from El Paso visited and told us all about it. He even saved the newspaper clippings and sent them to my ma in a letter.”
“I was just a youngster, of course. Now wasn’t that when a local judge rode out into the White Sands desert and was never heard of again?”
“He wasn’t a judge, exactly, more of a judge maker. He ran the Republican Party in these parts. Colonel Alfred Jennings. He had a hand in just about every important political decision made in the Territory. He was murdered. Him and his boy. Of course, Jennings was a shit disturber of the first order. He had made so many enemies that what happened to him was bound to come.”
The old man reflected in a cloud of smoke. He had watched the whole affair develop in the pages of the El Paso newspaper, too. He had been living in Uvalde then. Apparently Jennings was in possession of evidence that Curly O’Lea, the Sacramento Mountain rancher, and his Dog Canyon bunch were stealing cattle, and had filed charges against him. But it was all politics. O’Lea had aligned himself with a Democrat, Abe Falk, and by going after O’Lea, Jennings was hoping to embarrass Falk and his Messila Democrats. Ash and he had spent many an hour discussing the moves the politicians were making in their bid for power in the Southwest. Ash had foreseen Jennings’ disappearance. “He who lives by the ballot dies by the bullet,” he had cynicized. One way or the other, they had both agreed, Jennings was up against two formidable opponents. Falk was a brilliant lawyer, and O’Lea, a ruthless cattleman.
“Politics, backstabbing politics is killing this Territory and the whole White Sands affair is certain proof. Politics overruled the law, and when that happens, you have trouble. Then right or wrong don’t matter. It’s who has the best lawyer and the most money. Who stands to make out the best in those circumstances? Not the honest man, that’s for sure!”
He had been an honest man all his life. He had lived by the laws he enforced. That was something he understood and which was understood about him. Given the job, he would execute it with efficiency and integrity.
He had been accused of throwing a wide loop when he had done some cattle ranching in the Pecos Valley as a young man, but the ones who had accused him were the very ones he had arrested for rustling. He had been accused of being a hired gun, a back shooter, and a cold-blooded murderer hiding behind a badge. He could account for every man he had killed as an officer of the law and not one had been shot in the back or unarmed, and all had been shot in response to the threat to his own life. In such situations, he did not hesitate.
“White Sands was still an unsolved mystery when I took on the case.”
Adams narrowed his eyes. “Are you telling me that you used to be a lawman?”
“That’s right. I was the Sheriff of Dona Ana County some years ago.”
The young man shook his head in disbelief. “You don’t say.” He did not want to get roped into another tall tale.
The old man shrugged. He accepted the skepticism, but it was ironic that now that he was ready to tell a true story, the boy had his hackles up.
“That’s so. I’ve been a lawman a good part of my life. Didn’t anyone over in Las Cruces mention that to you?”
“No, can’t say that it ever came up.”
“Brazil never told you who I am?” the old man queried suspiciously.
“Well, he told me who you were, but he never said nothing about you ever being a lawman.”
“Oh, he knows.” The old man thought it odd but continued. “Everyone hereabouts knows. If you were from these parts, you’d know too.” He sucked on the stogie. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m proud of the fact that Poker Tom, the governor of the New Mexico Territory, asked me to investigate the disappearance of Colonel Jennings and his son.
“You see, the County Sheriff at the time was a Democrat. And Abe Falk, who ran the Messila Democrat machine in those days, had him safely in his pocket which is why he wasn’t taking any steps to look into the stories about the Dog Canyon bunch, which was Curly O’Lea and his Texas ruffians, and which is why Jennings took matters into his own hands and filed the complaint in another jurisdiction. Over in Lincoln County where . . . .”
“Lincoln County? Now I know about Lincoln County!”
“Do you now?” The old man’s eyes narrowed behind the haze of cigar smoke. The boy was either a liar or stupid. Or both.
“Certainly. I read all about the desperate goings-on that took place there. Cattle rustling, counterfeiting, gunplay, murders, The Lincoln County War, Billy, the Kid.”
“Well, New Mexico Territory’s always been congenial to desperados and wanted men, and outlawry’s their stock and trade. It should not give anyone cause to wonder why New Mexico hasn’t been admitted into the Union. Nevertheless, this took place quite a while after all that dust had settled.
“It seems that O’Lea had made the mistake of raiding herds belonging to the Santa Fe syndicate, all good Republicans, and since most of their spreads were in Lincoln County whose sheriff was a Republican like themselves, it looked like that Texas cowboy was going to have to answer before the circuit judge, also a Republican. The Democrat goose was about to be cooked. As cozy as Falk was with O’Lea, he couldn’t help but get spattered by his crony’s dirty reputation.”
The young man had doffed his derby and was wiping his brow with the cuff of his coat. He gazed off at the stretch of open land to their left, either annoyed or pre-occupied. Finally, indifferent, he asked, “So, what really happened at White Sands?”
“Now everyone agrees that Jennings and his son were seen entering the White Sands desert and that they never came back out. Right away, foul play was suspected. After all, the Colonel had just come from the courthouse where he had filed the papers on O’Lea. And O’Lea had made no secret of the fact that any man who crossed him would pay dearly.
“Jennings had stopped one of the local mail carriers just short of his starting through the desert. He told him that he was positive that he was being followed by three riders. Well, when he didn’t show for supper that night, his friends mounted a search party. It wasn’t till the next day that the buckboard was located. There was not a trace of its passengers.
“At this point, the accusations began to fly fast and furious. The Republicans were accusing the Democrats, O’Lea in particular, of being behind the Colonel’s disappearance. And the Democrats, in their own newspaper, in Messila, had the gall to say that Jennings had run off with another woman and was seen living it up in Santa Fe or Chicago!”
The old man uncorked the demon and took another swig. He looked at the bottle thoughtfully for a moment before taking another quick nip and replacing the cork. He recalled the circus atmosphere in the press when each day brought a new accusation, a new scandal, a new development in the fight over who controlled the coffers of that part of the New Mexico Territory. His name had been mentioned as someone impartial, someone who could come in without taking sides. However, Dona Ana County already had a sheriff and they were not about to hand it over to him. Not just yet. He was not part of the machine. He was not part of any machine.
“So the Governor called a big pow-wow in El Paso with a select few of his New Mexico backers, and he invited me over from Uvalde to see if I’d be willing to take on the case. I was, but I had a couple of conditions. One was that I had to have complete control of the investigation. And two, I had to be appointed Sheriff of Dona Ana County. Well, they didn’t call him Poker Tom for nothing, and as it ended up, I went to Las Cruces as a special investigator for the Governor with his promise that I’d have the Sheriff’s job within the year.”
“Did you ever catch whoever did it? I can’t seem to remember.”
“There was never any doubt as to who killed the Colonel and his kid.”