by Pat Nolan
“Is that who killed them?”
“No, no,” the old man snorted his scorn, “That was the boy’s name, his son.”
He had spoken the name after what had seemed like an interminable time glaring at the tip of his cigar. He returned his attention to the ash encircled end and continued his meditation another moment.
“Though you may be more right than you know. The boy could have been partly responsible for what occurred.”
“I mean, that could have been the Colonel’s fatal error, bringing his boy along when he went to file those rustling charges against O’Lee. He might have thought that the boy being with him would deter any attempts on his life, as any decent man, no matter how crooked, wouldn’t harm a child. He hadn’t fully accounted for the ruthlessness of those Texas assassins. Had he been on horseback rather than being slowed down by that buck-board, he could have had an even chance of avoiding an ambush. Jennings was no stranger to gunplay, I can tell you that, and he’d held his own in some mighty close scrapes. As it was, they both perished.”
He had always felt a certain affinity with Jennings.
There was also a slight physical resemblance that Ash had seized on, claiming that they had probably come from the same egg, only that one of them had got more than his fair share of the yolk. At a distance, they could have been mistaken for each other. They both sported the same type of moustache, full, with the ends unwaxed and hanging over the corners of equally grim-set mouths. Jennings, though not quite so tall, bore himself with a similar aloof dignity. He too was the type who would not back down once the ruckus had started.
“Now here’s something I’ll wager you didn’t know about the Lincoln County War, as you call it.” He paused as the young man now faced him, attentive. “Albert Jennings was William Bonney’s lawyer at his murder trial.”
“Billy, the Kid?”
“The same. In fact, that’s where I first met the Colonel. Even then, he had a reputation that made Bonney look like a pipsqueak by comparison. Al Jennings was a hardheaded, no-holds-barred politician. There’s a story about him that while he as a member of the Texas legislature he fought a pistol duel with a political rival. He got the worst of it and was wounded in the shoulder but he managed to get to his horse and ride off.
“Now here is an example of someone not to be taken lightly. As the story goes, later that night he came back, shot and killed the man. Then he had to make himself scarce so he moved up here to the Rio Grande valley.
“He’s the one who created a law and order militia in Dona Ana County that flushed out the Texas desperados and petty rustlers who were operating out of Mexico. But you see, the way he went about convincing the criminal element to find healthier climates rubbed some people the wrong way. Some of the outlaws he rounded up were on the receiving end of a little sagebrush justice and, well, were shot trying to escape.
“He was a vigilante, then. How’s he any better than the criminals he executed?”
The old man nodded. “I won’t apologize for the Colonel. He knew what he was doing was a shade over the line, but he did what was necessary to make the Rio Grande valley more law abiding. And he was respected by most folks, honest ranchers and farmers, for clearing out the nests of thieves and badmen. My hat’s off to him in that regard.”
He did not bother to mention that, on the other hand, Jennings had been despised as a spic lover. His posses were made up almost entirely of native New Mexicans, mostly small ranchers, homesteaders, and sheepherders. Few Anglos participated, mainly because of Jennings’ conviction that the Texans were a big part of the problem. It was from among these people that he had drawn his power base. Jennings knew better than most that politics made strange bedfellows, having found himself in unconventional accommodations more than once, but he’d remained loyal to his following and pursued their interests whenever he could.
The Colonel and he also shared the fact that they both had married into the native population. His own wife was a Guiterrez whose people had lived and worked the land of the Southwest long before the Anglo arrived with his blond looks and blue-eyed arrogance.
There was a special hatred for Mexicans among Texans, and O’Lee as well as the two other men implicated in Jennings’ murder, Jim Mcann and Gil Leland, were prime examples.
They regarded the men who had gone native with contempt, as nothing more than lowlife half-breeds and squawmen. Ash’s pronouncement of long ago echoed in his ears. “A Texan is someone who’s had half his family killed off by Comanche and the other half in blood feuds; hard as nails and twice as sharp; brought up to hate anyone who’s a shade darker or different than them; an odd lot, weaned on the barrel of a Colt, and loyal to a fault to their own kind, but brutal in their vengeance against those they feel has crossed them.”
Curly O’Lee was a Texas range rat, a mongrel breed all his own. Cocky, brass, and ruthless, he’d had the ambition to be a cattle baron, and the determination to attempt it. He was built close to the ground and he walked with the unsteady gait of a man used to letting his horse do it for him. Wiry, with long gangling arms stretched, no doubt, from a lifetime of roping cows, he looked like a saddle bum down from the line shack after six months. A pale moon face topped the slightly stooped shoulders. The crooked toothy smile and pale blue eyes masked a sadistic killer. His big sandy moustache seemed to float under a red puff of nose. He had what the natives called a “Yankee face”. Red, white and blue. Whenever without the big white Stetson on his head, he combed the thinning wisps of hair from one temple to the other to cover the obviously barren terrain. This was the picture of O’Lee he remembered.
A few years after crossing over into the Territory from Texas, O’Lee had accumulated quite a sizable herd and had claimed large sections of rangeland at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains. Many of his neighbors suspected O’Lee of stealing their cattle but were afraid to go up against him or his Texas guns. As his empire spread, he began to threaten the bigger ranchers in the Pecos Valley, in particular the Santa Fe syndicate. It was partly at their urging that Jennings had investigated O’Lee’s operation and had begun proceedings against him. O’Lee had outflanked that move by wisely, months earlier, joining ranks with the underdog Democrats chaired by Abe Falk and generously contributing to the party coffers. In Falk, O’Lee had a brilliant lawyer, as ruthless as himself, for an ally. From that point on, politics would determine the extent of justice.
“Now you’d think that a man who was implicated in the disappearance and murder of a prominent citizen and his son would not be your likely candidate for a seat in the Santa Fe Legislature, would you?
Fact of the matter, that is exactly what the Democrats are attempting in Messila. They want to elect a man that most of the population in this part of the Territory believes is guilty of ordering the disappearance of Colonel Jennings if not outright participating in it. The crazy thing about it is that they will most likely do it! And then they ask themselves why it is that New Mexico won’t be admitted into the Union as a State. I can tell you that the people in Washington D.C. think that the Southwest is populated by people right out of the pages of the Police Gazette!”
Ash had originally expressed that opinion. It was one of those topics that was bound to make him apoplectic, the hogwash from the East about the West. He was in favor of New Mexico being admitted to the Union but swore that the Eastern establishment was creating the image of a lawless no-man’s land to forestall the additional votes that would add to an ostensible Western establishment. It was one of the reasons why they had agreed to write the book together.
“The world at large must know our version of the truth,” his old friend had spoken blithely.
There was no need to mention that his own notoriety in a killing, the subject of the book, had led to a sudden rise in his own political viability, and that he too, at one time, had been considered for a seat in the Legislature.
The young man was attentive as the horse easily followed the rutted road between Organ and Las Cruces. Along the side, at regular intervals, the poles that would eventually carry the telephone line to the feed store in Organ were propped against the berms and hillocks of beige dirt.
“Back up here a bit,” he said finally. “What you’re saying is that the O’Lee that’s the Democrat candidate in Messila is the same O’Lee that was accused of murdering Jennings, is that right?”
“One in the same. In this day and age, the reward for murder is prosperity. After he was acquitted up in Hillsboro, he went right back to rustling cattle and scaring the small ranchers off the range. With Jennings gone, there was not one who had the backbone to go after O’Lee. Once the jury handed down the verdict, as the Sheriff, I had to respect the law even though I knew he was guilty.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of making Mr. O’Lee’s acquaintance and found him to be a gentleman. He seemed very congenial and not at all like a murderer.”
The old man had to laugh. “What the hell does a murderer look like, anyway? Anyone, you, me, could be a murderer if the circumstances were right. No one is too good to be a killer. You just have to convince yourself that your survival is more important than that of the person you kill. Most of us can abide folks without the homicidal urge. Often though it’s only the convention of civilized behavior that’s saved the life of some poor fool!
“No, O’Lee doesn’t dress the way you might imagine a killer to dress and he does not talk like a murderer, but I am convinced that O’Lee not only planned the murder but was one of the executioners as well. Jennings had proof that O’Lee was rustling cattle and he was killed for it. And when it came to trying him for the murder, he bought off the witnesses he could and the ones he couldn’t had a sudden hankering to leave for a more congenial climate.”
“Well, if the jury acquitted all three of the murder. That, to me, would settle it.”
“Obviously you ain’t the only one. He is made out to be a respected businessman now, but he murdered Jennings and his son. That fact will never change for me. True, the jury acquitted him, Leland, and Macann, but the jury was intimidated by the ruffians and Texas cowboys O’Lee imported up to Hillsboro and billeted in the only hotel in town. Hell, the jury had to sleep in the hayloft at the livery! It was a jamboree up there. People came from all over the Southwest, pitched their tents, and lined up every day hoping to get in to see the trial. The jury got wind of what some of the tougher O’Lee guns were planning if they even considered finding their boss guilty. But he didn’t need them. His lawyer, Abe Falk, destroyed the prosecution’s case. The attorney for the Territory was a political hack from Santa Fe who could have cared less who O’Lee had killed. He had been sent to make sure that Falk, the Democrat, did not win. Everyone knew that. What had been a clear-cut case of kidnap, murder, and conspiracy was made hostage to political maneuvering. What I had believed to be right and the law suddenly shifted in the political wind like it was no more than the smoke off this cigar!”
Ash had admonished him against politics more than once. He had had his ambition to sit in Santa Fe, but Ash had told him, “You’re too upright a fellow to be mingling with those old foxes.
All of them with a hand in the chicken coop. Ethics is a word foreign to their standards, and you are too ethical a man. You’d stand out like a trained bear in a flea circus.”
But what would Ash have made of the Governor of the Territory of New Mexico meeting with him in an El Paso hotel room along with some of the more prominent businessmen of the Territory, Abe Falk included, for the purpose of hiring his services in the investigation of the Jennings disappearance?
Santa Fe was being pressured from both Washing-ton and the local citizenry to resolve the case and bring the criminals to justice. The Sheriff of Dona Ana County at the time was doing nothing because of his fear of O’Lee and the fact that they were both Democrats. Everyone knew or said they knew who the guilty parties were. O’Lee’s confederates tried to blame it on disgruntled Mexicans. That was highly unlikely as Jennings received much of his support from that segment of the population. The most widely accepted version was that O’Lee had done the deed or had hired someone to do it.
He would have loved to have told Ash that he had had old Poker Tom squirming. Ash would have appreciated the wonderful irony of the situation. Poker Tom, the Democrat Governor of the Territory, having to promise the post to a registered Republican like himself.
The terms of their agreement stated that he would return to Las Cruces, set up residence, and act as a private investigator for the Territory of New Mexico until such time as was feasible when he would take over the post of County Sheriff.
The offer had come when he had been casting about for a new way to make a living. With Ash gone and the horse ranch losing money, it seemed at first like a golden opportunity. His wife was tiring of the remoteness of the ranch and longed to be nearer her relatives in New Mexico.
He thought he had left law enforcement behind. Nevertheless, it was something he knew he could do. Looking back, he realized that Ash would have warned him against it. “When you’re dealing with politicians, take inventory to make sure you haven’t been robbed, and check your back for knives.”
He wished now that he had listened to his friend’s advice although it could not have been offered in this particular case. Ash was the old whiskey sage, “the oracle of the long necked bottle” as he liked to call himself. And it was as if, now after all these years, his old friend was talking to him again as he himself took another swig of aguadiente. He would have made quite a windy of the White Sands tale.
Ash had the habit of adding flourishes to the facts. He, on the other hand, felt confident only to tell the facts the way he had experienced them.
He had admired the way Ash could take a simple occurrence and pump it full of portent. But he couldn’t do it, or when he did, it always sounded forced and not a little exaggerated. The art of storytelling, Ash had told him, was exaggeration that appealed to the expectations of the listener. If that meant bending the truth in places, being inaccurate to conform to the lay of the tale, then that is the way it had to be done. The importance of the facts had always tripped him up when it came to spinning a yarn. “Don’t let the facts get in the way of your imagination,” Ash had advised him. Like other advice Ash had offered him at one time or another, he followed it poorly, if at all.
“I made myself available once I got into Las Cruces. It was common knowledge as to why I was there, and I let it be known that I was interested in anything anyone had to say about the disappearance of the Colonel or his son. At first, folks kept their distance, but as time went on and people got used to seeing me and my buggy around, names came my way or someone that knew someone heard that someone else had sighted the Dog Canyon bunch. I was not in a big hurry to go after them just yet. Besides, I did not have the authority to arrest them, and I couldn’t count on help from the Sheriff. I bided my time and collected the facts that would bring the case to trial.
“As it was, much of the evidence had already been collected by the time I took over. What remained was sorting through the reports by witnesses, figuring which ones were reliable, and constructing a train of events.”