by Pat Nolan
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.”
One-eyed Tom, the proprietor of the Coney Island Saloon in El Paso and the old man’s longtime friend and gambling associate, read from the page Apollinara had prepared from a text by the agnostic, Ingersoll.
The day had begun with a gully washer and had made a pond of the rectangular hole carved in the red dirt in a neglected corner of the Las Cruces Odd Fellows Cemetery. As the funeral procession had wound its way to the burying ground later that day, large threatening dark clouds raced across the severe blue like itinerant mourners threatening to drop more misery on the assembling dignitaries, friends and family.
“We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.”
The old man’s children, four boys and three girls, stood at graveside, their heads bowed. Paulita, the youngest of the girls, held the three-year old boy on one hip. Apollinara stared solemnly, stoically at the long plain coffin holding her husband’s body. In her black-gloved hand, she clutched the telegram of condolence from the President, Theodore Roosevelt. At her side, a grim Governor Kerry stared intently at the red muck that encased his new boots. The old man’s brothers, long estranged, had made the trip from Louisiana, tall and gangly like their departed sibling. A young reporter from the El Paso Herald stood off to one side, unobtrusively, jotting in a narrow notebook.
“From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead,” One-eyed Tom quavered, “there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustling of a wing.”
A cloudburst greeted his words. With the sound of spreading wings, almost in unison, and as if in salute, the black umbrellas of the prepared rose over the heads of the dark clad mourners. Rivulets appeared in the rutted red earth, wending their way between mud spattered shoes, over the piles of crimson dirt at grave’s edge, and around the large gray mass of granite headstone upon which was carved the name, Garrett. The accumulating wet gathered in depressions made by the carriage wheels and boot heels like murky pools of blood before dribbling down the desolate hill.
The old man wet his whistle and continued. “I had a plan, and if it was going to work, I had to play it out slow so as to hang all three with the same noose.
If this had been an open and shut case of some desperados on a tear, it would have been over and done with long ago, and without any help from me. As I said before, politics was involved and so I had to proceed cautiously. Too cautiously, some have said. I had to weigh the political implications for everyone I investigated. Politicians, if they ain’t long on ethics, are certainly long on memory, and I didn’t want to step on any toes that would come back years later to kick me in the rear when I wasn’t expecting it. I was caught up in the power game between the Democrats and the Republicans. The murder of Jennings was almost inconsequential, a minor irritant, and so I had to get in the swim just to stay afloat.
“I played a waiting game figuring that someone involved in the murders would either brag or break. Gil Leland was the one I would have given odds as most likely to talk. There was one of the goosiest fellows I ever came across. At times he was just one big twitch, arms, face, legs going every which a way with some kind of affliction. Don’t think they ever figured that one out. He’s one of them northern types with white blond hair that he always keeps jailbird short. Has the kind of blue eyes that are so light they’re almost colorless. The locals call him El hombre sin oyos, the man with no eyes.”
“Are you saying he’s still alive, I mean, living around here?’
“He is at that, and crazier than a loon, I hear. He’s finally cracked. And he’s talking about it now, letting on little details that only the killers would know. I also hear that when he’s had a little too much firewater that’s the only thing he’ll talk about. I’d say his conscience is getting the best of him.”
“Has he said anything that could be used to implicate him in the murders?”
“Oh, he’s always said plenty. You see, the killing of Colonel Jennings was thought to be a feather in their cap by some, including themselves. Leland was just a boy himself when the murders were committed, and he was cocky, boastful and impulsive as most boys are. And not too bright.
“He’s the one I was most anxious to arrest in particular. He had the potential of being the prime witness. O’Lee and Falk knew this too so they kept him away from the wrong kind of people, people who might be willing to talk to me about what he was saying.”
“What was he saying?”
“Some of what I was told, and it’s been a while now, was that Rudy Jennings was nothing but a little half-breed and to kill him was nothing more than killing a dog. He said of Jennings that the old bastard got what he deserved. But it’s what he’s saying now that has O’Lee worried.”
“Well, it seems that Leland is saying that he’s ready to confess and that he wants to confess to me. I do not know why. It won’t do a whole hell of a lot of good. I’m not a lawman any more. Nevertheless, he’s saying he knows where the bodies are buried, and he’s saying that he’s the one who killed young Jennings. The way it was told to me, he grabbed the boy by the hair, pulled his head back and slit his throat with no more compunction than if he was a crippled calf.”
“Did he say how the Colonel died?”
“The way I heard it, they overtook the buckboard and just started shooting. No one knows whose bullet actually killed him. There’s even talk that the Colonel hopped between the riggings to get away but was dead before he hit the ground.”
The young man nodded his head. “I’ll bet if he could, he would tell some tales.”
“I’m counting on it. I may not be able to arrest O’Lee for what he did back in ‘96 but I can expose his villainy and finally clear up the mystery of White Sands.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’m going to write a book about it.”
Any book would be a lie. Without Ash, it was only a threat, a bluff. He was willing to expose O’Lee for the criminal that he was, and he had noised it about that that was what he intended to do.
On the other hand, he was less eager to reveal his own ineptness. How could he admit to the embarrassment of Wildy Well? He had blundered and had let O’Lee get the best of him in that instance. This was when he needed Ash to help him. Ash could temper a tornado down to a dust devil. He had controlled the spin on the one book they did write together though the results were not what they had anticipated.
“You eventually captured the men indicted by the grand jury, didn’t you?” Adams was getting downright fidgety. He had loosened his cravat, and the pigskin gloves had been stuffed into a pocket of the raw canvas duster.
The old man nipped at the bottle a couple of times before answering. He didn’t like to lie mainly because he wasn’t good at it. That was Ash’s bailiwick. “I was never one for riding all over creation looking for desperate men and exposing myself to an ambush. Patience is as important as dry powder on the hunt, especially a manhunt. So I waited. I knew O’Lee and Leland were hiding out in the mountains. I had reports that they’d grown beards in an effort to disguise themselves. Of course, I would have known them even if they were hairless. I was anxious to get my hands on Leland. If I could get him to divulge where the bodies were buried, I was positive O’Lee and his assassins would have an appointment with the hangman.”
“You must have gone after them.”
The old man wet his lips and stared ahead at the rutted road, the sage and stunted greasewood that grew up along the embankment, the shimmering crests of the sawtooth Jarilla Mountains in the distance.
“Once I tried to take them at Wildy Well, and almost had them.”
“I assume you weren’t successful as ‘almost’ only counts in horseshoes, don’t it?”
“Well, I was successful in impressing O’Lee that I was serious about bringing him to justice. But I’d also have to admit that I might have acted a bit too hastily in this case.”
“It was this way. I had a deputy by the name of Jorge. He was an honest-to-god Mexican pistolero, what you might call a flashy fellow. He dressed like a vaquero at a fiesta every day of the week. You comprende? The wide embroidered sombrero, the dragoon jacket, conchos up the pant leg, spurs with huge rowels, a brace of Colts in embossed scabbards, quirt. . .in short, the whole shooting match. Hell, when the sun hit him with all his silver on, he lit up like a big piece of jewelry.” He could almost feel Ash prompting him. “We could only travel at night because you could see him coming for miles in the daylight. He was sure a pretty shadow, but he was also a reliable man, a dead shot, and I trusted him.
“One afternoon he came by my office and informed me that he’d discovered where O’Lee and Leland were staying that night. When he told me that it was in the adobe shack at Wildy Well, the thought crossed my mind that O’Lee was getting awfully reckless by placing himself so close to my reach. Maybe, I thought, he is trying to test my resolve in capturing him or maybe he is daring me to come after him. I was inclined to let him try a little harder because if I did not act then, that might make him bolder and more careless, and I would have him. As it happened, two other deputies, Woody Eastwood and Lefty Cartwright, as well as a young school teacher by the name of Matt Hughes who often volunteered when I need an extra man were in the office when Jorge stormed in with this information. Now Jorge was of the opinion that we should ride right out there and arrest them. And Woody and Lefty, who felt that they had been chaffing at the bit long enough anyway, chimed in that they thought that it was a good idea, too. I mulled it over knowing the potshots I’d be taking from the press and citizenry if word ever got out that O’Lee had been within my grasp and I failed to act so, against my better judgment, I agreed to undertake the expedition.
“If we were going to take them, I knew that it had best be by surprise so I waited till after midnight before starting out. La madruga, as Jorge called it. We rode to within a mile of Wildy Well before dismounting. As I re-call, it wasn’t a particularly dark night, the moon was still up, and as it was mid-July, the air was notably balmy. We arrived at the line shack just before dawn. It was an adobe and wood shanty with a lean-to propped against one side. We kept watch on it for a while just to make sure no one was up and stirring so as not to spoil our surprise. Finally, we decided to make our move. Jorge was so intent on stealth that he even took his boots off and proceeded in his stocking feet. I always figured that it was the Indian in him that made him do that. We got up to the door of the adobe without being discovered and then, since it wasn’t latched, we invited ourselves in.”
Adams was plainly interested again. “What happened then?”
The old man took another swig. The answer to that question led to the unraveling of the entire unfortunate adventure. They had not surprised O’Lee and Leland under the blankets. Instead they had rousted the Madisons, a family O’Lee had hired as caretakers. Old lady Madison had sat up stiff as a plank and started screaming when she woke to see a pistol barrel stuck in her face, and that in turn had awakened her husband and the two children. There had been another adult sleeping in the room too, but he was no one they could identify. He had ordered them to light a candle, and after a quick search of the single room and the sleeping loft where the children had been, he had found no one else.
“It looked like we had a case of mistaken identity,” he finally admitted. “The people in the adobe were just some harmless folks, the Madisons, a husband and wife who were employed by O’Lee to keep his stock watered. I questioned them but they denied having seen O’Lee or Leland. By then everyone was up and milling about so we stepped back outside to reconsider our strategy. I had Woody go over to the corral and size up the horses. O’Lee or Leland would not be riding just any nags. Jorge swore up and down that O’Lee should have been there but I was inclined to dismiss it simply as bad information. Then something occurred that made me suspicious. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught one of the Madisons trying to signal to someone on the roof.”
“They were on the roof!”
“That was my suspicion though I couldn’t be positive right then. There was a ladder over by the shed on the side of the adobe but it wasn’t tall enough to reach, and besides I was not anxious to stick my head up there just to get it blown off. Now Matt Hughes had more guts than brains and he set about moving the ladder onto the roof of the shed and that way getting a look over the wall.”
“Couldn’t you just step back a ways to get a view of the roof top?”
“Not without leaving myself open to taking a bullet and not on an adobe I couldn’t. Think about it. Most adobes are built with about two feet of wall above the roof line. Anybody up there is in a superior position because it acts as a natural fort. They had command of the entire compound, us included. Well, before I could get off a word of caution, Matt was up on the ladder pointing his Winchester over the lip of the wall. The next thing I know there’s shooting and Matt is tumbling off the ladder and crashing through the top of the shed! I did not know it then, but he was mortally wounded, gut shot by those cowards.
“I was in a mighty bad position right about then, out in the open with not a lick of cover. I managed to get myself behind the shitshed, their rounds kicking up dust at my heels. Woody had a clear shot at them from over by the corral but they managed to keep him pinned down. Lefty was over by the water tower behind a pile of gravel but he could not move one way or the other without exposing himself. A couple rounds had punctured the tank so he got himself a cold shower he had not been counting on. And Jorge was caught back at the adobe, bare footed and without a stitch of cover. I remember he clung to the side of that adobe as if it were a sheer cliff, unable to get out to a firing position, and him the most fearsome pistolero of our bunch.” The old man offered a sardonic chuckle with this memory. It had not been humorous at the time. Matt Hughes had probably fired first though he had testified at the inquest that the men on the roof had been the first to get shots off. He was a youngster and trigger happy, and he had paid with his life. He still blamed himself for the man’s death, and the fact that O’Lee had got the upper hand rankled him yet. The humiliation that they had endured a rout at the hands of those bastards burned him now as freshly as it had ten years past.
“You were in a fix, I’d say. What did you do then?”
“I did the only thing I could do. I called for O’Lee to surrender.”
“That was rather bold of you.”
“True, I was in what you might call a close place. However, I was still the law and I had the right to demand that they put down their weapons and come out with their hands up. O’Lee was of a different opinion. He claimed that I would kill him if he gave himself up and, though that was not my intention, I knew it to be a possibility as I had heard that he had bragged that he would never be taken alive. Unfortunately for me, I was in no position to bargain.”
The exasperation even after all those years dulled him to silence. Moreover, the drink he had been spilling down his gullet made him feel a certain thickness that was at the same time a fuzzy constraint. A grim bitterness tightened the corners of his mouth and his lower lip protruded in sour contemplation. Anyone familiar with the wounded, glowering look that passed over his shaded brow would have known that it was time to politely seek other company or face the brunt of his explosive rancor. The injustices he felt he’d suffered, real or imagined, at the hands of manipulating politicians smoldered within him and were invariably fueled to flame with drink.
Adams prattled, unaware. “Seems to me you could have planned that undertaking a little more carefully. How did those men on the roof know they weren’t being set upon by robbers or Indians?”
“I called for them to surrender but they answered with their guns. I had a woman and two children in danger of being struck by stray gunfire if I decided to fight. I knew that I would get my chance at O’Lee again. I told him that we would pull back if he held his fire, and he agreed. And that’s pretty much all there is to that story.”
The discomfort and anger he felt was making him sullen. He pictured their retreat. They had been forced to abandon Matt Hughes’ body. They’d had to retreat, Leland spitting jeers and insults at their backs, hands over their heads until they dropped behind the rise. They had made a pitiful, almost comical, sight: Woody and himself glowering in silence, humiliation steaming off them; Lefty soaked to the bone, growling and mumbling; and Jorge hopping from one foot to the other at the bite of some sharp rock or mesquite thorn and uttering elaborate Spanish Indian curses and blasphemies. Empty handed as a sodbuster at a tax auction, as Ash would say.