by Pat Nolan
Apollinara did not want to hear another story of how her husband had been assassinated.
Her oldest son, Dudley, who was known to all as Pepe, had brought the young reporter to their doorstep. She did not show her anger or distress. They were decent folk. They would be polite.
He introduced himself as John Scanly and explained that he had once worked for the El Paso Herald. He claimed that he had been fired for showing too much interest in her husband’s murder.
“I believe there’s a conspiracy of silence surrounding the circumstances of your husband’s death. My original curiosity was piqued when I encountered resistance to anything but a cursory examination of the evidence. Now I’m determined to uncover just who might be behind this plot and expose their motives.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “The results of which I plan to publish as part of a larger book dealing with the life and exploits of the most remarkable lawman of the Southwest.”
They were seated on the verandah of a house on the outskirts of Las Cruces, less than fifty yards from the road to Organ. Abe Falk owned the house they were now living in, generously rented to her at a cut rate. It was his way of demonstrating to the public his benevolence. Apollinara was in no position to be ungracious or even ungrateful. The family had had to move down from the mesa after Cott had foreclosed on the mortgage, an action taken a few days following her husband’s funeral.
The bright early July afternoon was beginning to heat up. Paulita had set a pitcher of lemonade on the little table between her mother and the reporter, stirring the contents with a long wood spoon while her baby brother clung to her pinafore. Pepe, her older brother, was seated on the steps to the verandah, his long legs stretched down to the path that meandered out to the white picket fence where Scanly’s horse and buggy were hitched.
“Isn’t it out of the ordinary that he would be unprepared for trouble or even not on his guard? His shotgun was loaded with birdshot. Clearly, he did not expect to use the weapon offensively or defensively. In my interview with Doctor Fields, he stated that a man as wise in such matters as your husband would not have been in the position he had probably been in, wouldn’t have turned his back had he thought he was in any physical danger.”
Apollinara nodded, lips set in a grim line. She knew her husband’s caution. He had made many enemies over the years as a lawman. But she knew he could be careless, too, especially if he’d had too much to drink. It was then that his normally vigilant self became confused with its own deathless reputation.
“Doctor Fields also informed me that he had taken a thorough survey of the crime scene and found that it appeared there had been another party lying in wait along the trailside. There was evidence of fresh manure and the ground was trampled by boot prints.”
These were things that had been whispered to her countless times. They made her fearful, despondent.
“Also, on the day of your husband’s funeral, the Attorney General and Captain Short with the Territorial Mounted Police were sent down from Santa Fe by Governor Kerry. They confirmed the coroner’s suspicion that there had been a third party. What’s more, they found something he had over-looked, shell casings from a Winchester rifle.”
These details meant nothing now, would change nothing. He had died in a way she always feared that he would. She could not come to grips with the pervasive air of injustice that rumor stirred up. Self-righteousness had been his trait. For all his faults, though, she had never ceased her affection for him, even in the most trying of times, the most recent probably being the worst. She missed his familiar long, gangly, slightly stooped presence in the low ceilinged adobe. His predictability had made her life secure no matter the circumstances.
“I spoke with Captain Short a few days after he had interviewed Brazil. He expressed surprise at the boy’s docile demeanor. This evidently strengthened the suspicion that another party was involved. Clearly, Brazil is not the killer type. My conversations with folks who know him have confirmed that impression. He was never considered a dangerous man. As I was present at the preliminary hearing, I can testify that my sense of Brazil is similar to the prevailing opinion. He is a follower not a leader, and he is beholding to Mr. Cott who plainly holds the leash.
“Among other information that would point to collusion, I have come across the fact that Adams never had cattle to bring up from Mexico and graze on the disputed property. There was never any herd nor was there ever a ranch in Oklahoma, their purported final destination. Nor did Adams ever have any intention of buying Brazil’s goats! Why then would Adams and Brazil concoct such a fiction if not for some dark purpose?” Scanly paused to judge Apollinara’s comprehension of what he had been telling her. He took her grim silence as permission to continue. “I would also question whether either of them had the cunning or intelligence to devise such a scheme.”
Paulita could not help but continue to stir the lemonade, as she eavesdropped on the adults, the ice making a musical sound striking the side of the pewter pitcher.
“Now I don’t know if the name Joe Miller is familiar to you, Mrs. Garrett, but it belongs to a notorious assassin who is believed to be part of this conspiracy and may even be the actual triggerman.”
“Don’t you mean Jim Miller?” Pepe stirred from his perch on the steps, stood up, and stretched his long legs.
“Jim Miller. Did I say Joe? I meant to say Jim. I was informed by a Texas Ranger, a friend of your pa’s, that he had interviewed the undertaker from El Paso who happened to be in Las Cruces that very day and had seen Miller in what can only be described as a conspiratorial conversation with none other than Mr. O’Lee! Also. . . .”
Apollinara excused herself. “It is a beautiful day, Señor, but perhaps a little too warm for me. My dark clothing is too welcoming of the light.”
Scanly rose to his feet. “Ma’am?”
“But please, stay seated, be our guest, enjoy the day.” She stood, stoic, dignified. The man lowered his eyes. If he had been homelier, he could have passed for a young Ashton Upson. There was the same love of the sound of his own voice. There was the same self-pride, but then all men had some of that. Full of himself, his insinuation could never be wrong. “Paulita, serve Mr. Scanly more lemonade, por favor.” Then she disappeared behind the summer door into the dark, cooler house.
Scanly turned to Pepe who had moved to sit in his mother’s rocker. “As I was saying, while in El Paso, I met with an informant who would most certainly be privy to these types of details. What he told me indicates a much wider conspiracy. A prominent rancher is involved, and who that might be is fairly obvious. As well, so is a well-known attorney who, in my estimation, is the only one with the intelligence to craft such a devious plan.”
Scanly got no argument from Pepe. “From what I’ve been able to learn, a meeting was held at the Regent Hotel that included Miller and the other two in which Miller agreed to do the killing. Coincidentally, that meeting took place in the very same hotel in which years earlier your pa met with the Governor of the Territory and agreed to take on the investigation of Jennings and his boy. And it included at least one of the same participants!”
Wide-eyed, Pepe shook his head. “Now don’t that beat all.”
“The twist to the plot,” Scanly continued, confident that he had his listener hooked, “and which I do believe the lawyer provided, was that someone would be furnished to admit to the shooting and someone else would testify that it was self-defense. That would be Adams and Brazil.”
“That copperhead! That snake!”
“Adams claims that your pa threatened Brazil. Now, from what I’ve heard about Mr. Garrett, he was not one to make idle threats. The consensus is that had he made the threat, he could have shot Brazil from where he sat in the buggy rather than after stepping down.”
Pepe’s mouth spread sideways in a smirk. “Now ain’t that the truth. If he’d figured for a scrape, he’d a taken his sixer with him. But he didn’t reckon that he needed to get rough with Brazil because he had a lawyer up in Santa Fe who swore we could get him off the land legally. Besides, he wasn’t any more scared of Brazil than he was of a jackrabbit!”
“My suspicions are all but confirmed at this point. There was more at stake than that hunk of overgrazed rangeland. There was indeed a plot to murder your father.”
An explosion sounded in the direction of Las Cruces, like a shot, but less distinct, hollow. Then another. A beige cloud advanced up the road toward them accompanied by shrieks, shouts, laughter and the barks of dogs. The horse tied to the fence post shied.
“It’s a motor carriage!” Paulita ran to the gate, her baby brother waddling behind her. The machine swayed and jogged from side to side, navigating the ruts in the wagon road, chased by outraged dogs and the town’s children. Scanly’s horse reared, shaking and tipping the buggy trying to free itself as the dust and noise rattled past. Seated high on the bench of the contraption were what appeared to be a man and a woman, he with a black hat held on his head with a chinstrap and she with a wide brimmed chapeau held in place with a yard of chiffon scarf. Both wore goggles. The woman waved at Paulita and her brother gaping through the pickets.
“They must be going up to Cott’s spread for the big barbeque.” Pepe said after the machine had gone from sight and he had settled back in the rocker.
“That’s right! O’Lee has been elected to the Territorial Legislature. I sincerely hope that that is the only thing they are celebrating.”
Pepe grunted and then noticed his mother had returned and stood to give her his seat. Apollinara made no indication that she wanted to sit. She had been drawn to view the noise and novelty as well.
Scanly addressed her. “There is a mystery about this tragedy, Mrs. Garrett, and it is my aim to try and bring it to light. If you will allow me.”
Apollinara nodded from the doorway more in resignation than agreement. There were those who sought to benefit from the misfortune of others. This young man was no different. She could almost hear Ash Upson saying so himself. “There are those who kill and get a reputation, and there are those who write about them, for a similar notoriety.” It was the code of men, of the West.
“I am the recipient of an anonymous note from someone who claims to have been a friend of Mr. Garrett. In it, the author advises me to steer clear of probing too deeply into the matter, for, and I quote, ‘I know the Organ Mountain bunch and Pat got himself killed trying to find out who killed Jennings and you will get killed trying to find out who killed Garrett.’
“Ma’am, I have been in contact with more than one person who has told me that your husband was gathering new evidence regarding the White Sands murders, that Gil Leland had told him or was going to tell him everything, and that he was writing a book about it. Would there be notes from these interviews or rough drafts regarding this matter among his effects?”
Apollinara closed her eyes as if to gather strength. Had her husband and Ash not written their book, perhaps things would have been different, that no-account boy would have faded from memory. Instead, that one event overshadowed his entire life. He was remembered only as the man who shot Billy, the Kid.
When she reopened her eyes, she spoke, slowly, firmly, “My husband was a man of few words, Mr. Scanly. There is no book.”
This novel is the culmination of a youthful ambition. It pays homage to the many sagas of the old West I devoured as a young reader, the countless B Westerns I watched on Saturday morning TV, the yards of paperback Westerns I burned through as an adolescent and as a young adult, the prime-time horse operas available to me almost nightly in the late fifties and sixties. I was smitten with Western lore and wanted to contribute to it. It was a subject that always caught my attention as was the case when I came upon Leon Metz’s biography of Patrick F. Garrett known the world over as the man who shot Billy, The Kid. Professor Metz’s thorough account presented Garrett as the quintessential lawman of the old West. One of the gems uncovered in my reading of the biography was that Garrett and his friend, Ashton Upson, had written and self-published a version of that crucial event entitled The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid, with Upson, an ex-newspaper man, providing ‘biographical’ information and Garrett, the uncluttered directness of a police report in his pursuit of Bonney. As a result, some three decades ago, I sat down at my typewriter and set out to write a novel based on the life of a legendary lawman, a life overshadowed by one significant incident, the killing of William Bonney.
Over the years numerous version of my manuscript, mostly typewritten, have languished in a drawer or gathered dust on my desk and to which I was drawn, on occasion, to reread and rethink the presentation of the material. In the process, a novel took shape, one that began as a bare bones cinematic adaptation of a biography and emerged as something more meaningful: the story of the relationship between two men, one garrulous, the other taciturn, the Mutt and Jeff of the old Southwest, and the tradition of storytelling and authoring of ‘true’ accounts. The life of this legendary lawman encompassed more than just that one episode, however. Garrett’s own violent death in the early years of the Twentieth Century seemed to punctuate the passing of an era. There is a resonance to the other particulars of his life as a lawman that belong to the saga of the Southwest.
On The Road To Las Cruces is a work of fiction tethered loosely to historical fact as any Western history buff will be quick to discern. The detail and color of the late Nineteenth Century Southwest presented here is due largely to the intrepid historians, both amateur and professional, whose bailiwick is that particular era. An author can feel comfortable writing about his contemporaries, but to travel to the past takes the expertise of those for whom the diligent tracking of detail is all consuming and, in many cases, a just and only reward. I am fortunate to benefit from such carefully researched knowledge. The quasi-fictional landscape that came into being in my imagination would have been noticeably paler had it not been for the writing of such excellent authors, storytellers, and historians as Mari Sandoz, J. Frank Dobie, Leon Metz, Owen Wister, Charlie Siringo, Jon Tuska, and Colin Rickards, to name but a few. It goes without saying that Garrett and Upson’s collaboration was invaluable.
In this work of fact-based fiction, I have allowed myself license to rename, upend, and fabricate certain details to hurry along the story. The inaccuracies, the anachronisms, the inventions are entirely mine. What is related on the road to Las Cruces is as much a retelling of some history as it is how such a retelling might come about, and is represented in the manner of a tall tale, the deadpan details of a crime story, melodrama, and the makings of a conspiracy to murder. The subtle hyperbole of the Western storyteller is a joy to hear, masking in understatement devilish wit and intelligence. It was my intention to evoke that tradition.
Pat Nolan, Monte Rio, 2011