by Pat Nolan
Billy Brazil had the well-scrubbed look of a youngster. He had ridden abreast of the buggy on Adams’ side. His getup, in the old man’s eyes, appeared ludicrous, all the more reason to despise the young man.
“Gents,” Brazil spoke touching a hand to the brim of his flat brimmed John B. He appeared amiable enough, pale eyes, a blond moss on his upper cheeks, a ruddy complexion, and a mouth full of white teeth in a smile.
Perhaps it was the black and white cowhide vest trimmed with red piping that seemed so outlandish. The Montana peak of the Stetson’s crown was all the latest rage among the younger range hands and it did not surprise him that Brazil sported his in the same manner. The red flannel shirt was a little hard on the eyes and the stiff Levi’s pants looked brand new blue stuffed into the tops of his boots, a pointy toed, riding heel variety. And the big blood bay was enough horse for any man. Troubling too might have been the revolver the young man had strapped to his waist, but that also appeared part of a preposterous affectation. In his slightly inebriated state, the old man had the feeling that he was watching the final hand of a card game, but from a distance, a fuzzy distance.
“Mr. Brazil,” Adams returned the greeting, fingering the reins nervously. “This is certainly a surprise. I understood we were to meet up with you in Las Cruces.”
“That was the plan,” Brazil replied with the smile still painted on, “but I had to stop by Bill Cott’s spread to clear up a matter before the negotiations begin. I hope this won’t inconvenience you any, Mr. Adams.”
The mocking in Brazil eyes was not lost on the old man. It appeared that his presence was going to be ignored for the time being, and that was fine with him. Just the sight of the arrogant pup was enough to make his gorge rise. That he had been meeting with Cott, O’Lee’s brother-in-law and the man who held the mortgage on his land was unsettling. He did not want to be played the fool.
“Not at all, Mr. Brazil. It would be a welcome relief to hear the sound of someone else’s voice. . .I mean, it would be pleasant to have a conversation. . . .” The sweat running in rivulets from under the green bowler, Adams was clearly uncomfortable. He switched the reins from one hand to other as he retrieved his arms from the sleeves of his canvas duster, which once free of the young man’s body, resembled an empty white shell before collapsing back onto the buggy’s seat. Adams wet his lips and attempted to continue. “. . .that would encompass the point of view of. . . .”
“That’s an odd cut for an overcoat,” the old man interrupted to bring himself into the parley. He was not going to be ignored.
Adams answered almost with a sigh of relief. “This is my motoring duster. I wear it when I go automobile riding. . . .”
“You own a. . .motor carriage?”
“Not exactly. I have an acquaintance in El Paso who does and he allows me to operate the tiller on occasion.”
“Yes, I read about the two that were shipped over from New Orleans in that special railcar.”
“Oh, well, there’s more than that now.”
“I suppose there would be.”
“A dozen, at least. Just in El Paso itself.”
“They’re a novelty, certainly.”
“You’ve been following the great New York to Paris Auto Race in the newspapers I suppose.”
The old man shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not as current as you are.”
“The race started in New York City a couple of weeks ago, February twelfth nineteen ought eight, to be exact. Seventeen days have elapsed so I figure they should be in Montana about now.”
“I don’t care for them. They’re just a passing fancy. They will never catch on. The rich folk will use them to parade around. You can’t go any distance in the damn things without them breaking down or getting stuck and needing a horse or mule to haul them out or needing to feed on that stink water!”
“If you say so.”
“I’ve also heard it called gasoline.”
“Like I said, without it you can’t go nowhere and you can’t carry enough of it to get anywhere!”
“Well, I figure just the opposite. There’ll be pipes running alongside the road everywhere there’s a road just like telephone wires and you’ll be able to sidle up to one of these poles in your automobile and turn a spigot to fill your bucket with gasoline.”
“That’s the most laughable thing I’ve ever heard!”
Young Billy did not hide the fact that he was laughing. The buggy, crossing a section of road furrowed by erosion, bucked and lunged.
The old man was attempting to light the stub of cigar in his mouth, but trying to set fire to the charred end was like threading a needle on the back of a bronc. That the old man was a little rocky from the snakebite medicine did not help. The radical sway of the buggy jogged his arm, sloshed his gurgling gut and jostled the near empty bottle in his pocket. They were encountering rough seas and his bladder was beginning to protest. Storm clouds gathered at his brow as he steadied his arm and achieved his aim. He puffed the cigar back to life, smoke pouring angrily from the corner of his mouth. He did not care to be laughed at.
Billy continued with his derision. “Mr. Adams, I’ll bet you didn’t know you were riding with a baby killer.”
The old man exploded. “You’re talking crazy! I never killed a child in my life!” He knew to what Brazil was referring. He had heard the accusation before, and he knew he was not responsible, but the words stung all the same.
“You must be getting feeble in the head, old man, if you can’t remember what you done to my Aunt Shirley.” Brazil’s grin was wicked.
The words buzzed inside the old man’s head like enraged hornets. He wanted to swipe at them, but he would be playing into the young man’s hand. Ash’s voice urged him to ignore the needling. “A man prodded into action don’t know his own mind,” words he himself had spoken, the specter of his old friend reminded him. He felt for the bottle in his pocket. A last draught would empty it. He pulled on the cork, gazing beyond it at the heat wrinkles rising off the barren rocky landscape.
It was on a day much like this one that he had taken this very same road out to Bill Cott’s ranch. He was still Sheriff of Dona Ana County at the time. He had ridden out accompanied by his deputy, Jorge, and an Oklahoma lawman to interrogate a young ranch hand with a price on his head.
With the acquittals of O’Lee and his bunch, he had had to forfeit his claim to the reward money. The job of Sheriff paid very little. He had become accustomed to extravagance and it irked him that he had to pinch pennies just to get by.
Besides, Apollinara and he had also started on their second batch of children and so there were more mouths to feed. To augment his meager salary, he had taken an appointment as a Deputy United States Marshal. This gave him the authority to pursue illegal Chinese immigrants who were crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico. However, it was demeaning work, rounding up human cattle at fifty cents a head. As Sheriff, he was also paid five dollars a day for court appearances. Then again, court sessions were infrequent and could never be counted on as a steady source of income. He could also pay himself an informant’s fee. If he came upon illegal gambling, he would claim that he reported the activity to the proper authority, which in this case was himself, and collect fifty percent of everything. Regrettably, most of the gamblers were his cronies, and more often than not, he was a participant. That left the daily drunk round up. He would send his deputy to collect the local drunks after supper, keep them in jail overnight, feed them breakfast in the morning, and then turn them loose. Technically, this was considered two days in jail, and he could collect fifty cents a day per prisoner while only spending about fifteen cents for each man’s breakfast. “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” Ash had often intoned, “but it’s a hell of a job any way you do it.”
He would not have recognized the portly gent who strolled into his office that day as a lawman. His attire was more suited to that of a banker or a lawyer. The man introduced himself as Sheriff Black from Green County, Oklahoma. He explained that he had tracked a man wanted for murder in Green County to Bill Cott’s San Augustine Ranch, and asked for help in apprehending the fugitive.
The Sheriff was not so much interested in the reward money as he was in repairing his tarnished reputation when the murderer escaped his custody. He offered to split the reward fifty-fifty.
The fugitive was going by the name of Billy Reed. He was accused of murdering his farming partner and dumping his body into a pond. He had been arrested and put in jail, but had escaped. The local citizenry had collected the two thousand dollars for the reward. In the Sheriff’s opinion, if approached, the young man would probably not go quietly, and he would be greatly appreciative of any assistance.
“I was discharging my lawful duty as a peace officer. I was completely within my rights. . . .”
“My aunt Shirley lost her child because of. . . .”
“Boy, you are just flapping your gums! You have no idea of what transpired!”
He and Black had gone out to the Cott Ranch in Black’s buckboard. Jorge had followed on horseback. Not far from the ranch house, he had left the buckboard and horse with Black and he and Jorge had gone on foot down around the bluff, following the path to the rear of the garden. They had quietly tripped the latch to the gate and quickly crossed the red tile patio to the open kitchen door. Billy Reed, a tall, burly young man with a crop of dirty blonde hair, had his back to them. He had been helping Shirley Cott in the kitchen. He had leveled his Colt at the large young man, asking, “Are you Billy Reed?” The young man had turned slowly and nodded yes. Informed of the warrant for his arrest, he had nodded his assent and extended his wrists giving the indication that he would go quietly.
“Reed was a murderer, a hunted killer. . . .”
“The hell you say, I heard tell that he was a kind and gentle kid who. . . .”
“You have been fed a load of bull with a shovel! The truth is that I probably saved Shirley Cott’s life! No telling when the homicidal urge would have possessed him and he would have killed again!”
Just as he had holstered his pistol and was reaching for the manacles, Reed had hit him squarely on the jaw, knocking him down. Jorge had lunged at the fugitive, getting his arms around the boy’s thick neck. He himself, though stunned, had had the presence of mind to wrap his arms around Reed’s legs to trip him up. It had taken the two of them to wrestle him down, arms flailing, legs kicking, and screeching in an odd high, almost feminine pitch. Shirley Cott had also screamed, hysterically.
“She still has nightmares about what you did to her that day!”
“I’m sorry for that, but it could not be helped. He resisted arrest.”
He had yelled at Jorge, “Hold ‘im down! Hold ‘im down!” Jorge, spitting his Indian curses, had had his hands full with Reed who was almost twice his size. They had almost got one manacle clapped around the young man’s wrist when the Cott’s English bulldog scrambled into the melee. The dog had clamped his jaws on the back of his thigh and he had felt the pain shoot through every inch of his body. He had jumped bolt upright, releasing his hold on Reed. Reed had struggled to his feet with Jorge hanging on to his waist, tearing and dragging the young man’s pants down around his knees. With Jorge slowing him down, he had managed to hit him on the back of the head with the iron manacle. The blow had floored Reed. But Cott’s bulldog had turned his attention to Jorge and taken a chunk out of his deputy’s forearm. He had bitten all of them, even Reed, ripping clothes and flesh in his mad frenzy, his barks and growls adding to the din of grunts, screams and curses. Jorge had torn Reed’s shirtsleeve off at the shoulder trying to twist the boy’s arm around his back. Reed, bleeding from the gash on the back of his head, had thrown himself around like a wild bull at a rodeo. As the boy struggled to his feet, dragging the both of them with him, they had all fallen into the china cabinet by the kitchen door. It had overturned, spilling the glazed contents onto the red tile floor. Reed had lost his footing, slipping on the broken dishes. He had managed to get a knee in the middle of the boy’s back. Jorge, a foot on the fugitive’s neck, had twisted his arm around behind him so that it could be manacled.
“You shot him in the back!”
“Boy, whatever that child would have been, rest its soul, it would have had a jackass for an uncle.”
The old man shook his head. “You can probably blame your Aunt Shirley for that. If she hadn’t interfered, that boy would have gone back to Oklahoma to hang.”
Brazil laughed. “I heard she caught you a good one, too!”
Shirley Cott had waded into the fray with a cast iron frying pan. She struck him just behind the left shoulder and had numbed his whole left side. At the same time, the dog had sunk his teeth into Jorge’s thigh causing him to ease the hold he had on Reed’s arm. The boy’s work boot had flown off, hitting his deputy square on the bridge of the nose. Reed was then able to scramble free and lunged out the door on all fours across the patio toward the icehouse.
“I called to him to halt, but he didn’t. There was only one reason why he would be running for the icehouse instead of the wide-open spaces. I found a six-shooter on the shelf right inside the door afterwards.”
As Reed had reached the door of the icehouse, he had drawn his pistol and Jorge had drawn his brace. Two shots were fired. One caused the icehouse doorframe to erupt in splinters. The other tore into the boy’s back, killing him instantly.
“You shot him in the back. In my book, that marks you as a coward.”
“I hate to disappoint you, son, but I didn’t kill him. My pistol misfired. The cartridge had bloated up in the chamber like a dead steer.”
“You’re a liar! My Aunt. . . .”
The old man had been holding his anger though it bubbled in his throat and burned like acid. He could not abide being called a liar. “Son, you are walking on quick-sand,” he hissed. “Your Aunt is lucky I didn’t charge her with harboring a fugitive and interfering with a peace officer!”
Brazil had lost his composure as well, his face an angry red. “My Aunt lost her unborn baby because of your damned riot! That child would have been my nephew or niece.”
The old man fixed Brazil with a glare. He drew on the cold stub of tobacco clenched between his teeth. “Boy, whatever that child would have been, rest its soul, it would have had a jackass for an uncle.”
“Gents, let’s put this personal animosity aside and talk livestock,” Adams interjected. “Nothing to be gained by dredging up the past.” He turned to Brazil, “What’s the count on your herd of goats?”
Brazil stared angrily at the old man and then shrugged. “Must be about eighteen hundred head give or . . . .”
“Eighteen hundred!” the old man exploded, “that’s six hundred more than we settled on!”
“That is correct,” Adams agreed, “I thought we had fixed on the number. Tell the truth, that’s more goat than I had bargained for. What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happened! This sniveling pup’s trying to rob me!”
Brazil ignored the old man. “I had six hundred does drop kids is what happened.”
Adams shook his head and removed his green bowler, swabbing at his brow with his sleeve. “Gents, the fact is that I didn’t want twelve hundred head of goats in the first place but I’m offering to buy them off the land so I can graze my cattle. Unless that number is pared down, our deal might be off.”
“I know how to trim that number. I have the solution right here.” The old man brandished his shotgun.
“Now, now, I don’t think there is any need for that. Mr. Brazil, can we make a deal here?” Adams reined in the horse and stopped the buggy.
“I’m a reasonable man when I’m dealing with reasonable folks, but to hell with this old bastard, if I don’t sell them all, I ain’t selling any!”
Adams climbed down from the bench, wrapping the reins around the buggy whip. “Let’s not be hasty now. I’m asking you to take the time to reconsider while I say a little wayside prayer.”
The old man glowered at Brazil. “You bamboozled my boy and ruined the range with your damned cloven hoofed locusts, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before you get the better of me!”
Brazil fixed the old man with a grin of defiance. “Well, Mr. Adams, I have given it some thought, and I don’t think I will sell those goats after all. I’m perfectly happy with the arrangement I have now.”
The old man would not show his profound disappointment. He managed a laugh though it was an empty one. “It makes no difference if you do or not.” He stood up, a little unsteadily, and dismounted from the buggy, leaning his shotgun against the bench. “I’ll get you off that land one way or another.” He turned his back to the two men, saying, “Think I’ll water a little mesquite myself,” and walked to the opposite side of the road. He was livid, the very notion that the deal he had counted on to reverse his fortunes had gone sour was almost more than he could stand. His legs felt weak, his gut churned, and it was not just from the aguadiente. His ears were ringing, his breathing labored. Again, Ash’s voice insinuated itself. It was as if he were calling his name, but from a far distance. He let himself go at the side of the road. The stub of cigar in his other hand had gone out. It was not worth firing up again. It was done. He tossed it aside. He was done.