Tag Archives: The White Sands Mystery

On The Road To Las Cruces ~Seven~

by Pat Nolan

new badge hd 24Fourteen years had passed since the old buzzard died. Lately his memories of Ash had been frequent.

That he had considered writing another book would have been reason enough to conjure the raucous spirit of his old friend and drinking companion. The hours they had spent, sometimes into early morning, drinking, talking, and thigh slapping he remembered with a wry fondness. Ash had always done most of the talking. And all of the writing. He had watched his friend hunched over the roll top desk by the light of a coal lamp scratching steel nibs across sheaves of paper to inscribe the words they had spoken only moments before. Ash had claimed that if they kept up the way they were going, they would have to buy their ink by the pound. He had provided much of the enthusiasm and conviviality that was needed to see their book to its completion. He missed those bright patches in an other-wise grim and hard scrabble existence, and the friend who, bedraggled and weary after their all night marathons of drinking and telling lies, sometimes looked like a hedgehog who’d just smoked an exploding cigar.

“The grand jury met on April first and returned indictments on O’Lee, Leland, and Mcann. I figured that they would expect me to move on them as soon as a decision was reached. However, the joke was on them. I went to serve the warrants the following day. Falk had already sent word to O’Lee’s ranch so he knew of the grand jury’s action and I did not expect to find him there. O’Lee’s foreman told me that his boss and Leland had gone out to round up strays but I knew better. I had them on the run. My strategy was to pick them off one by one, leaving the leader until last. If I had all three in jail, I knew that O’Lee’s influence would prevail. I was anxious to get to Leland. O’Lee had that figured which is probably why he kept him close to his side. I had to settle for Jim Mcann.

“I knew right where to find him too. At McNeil’s boarding house. The morning after the indictments I had sent word over to Alice McNeil to serve Mcann a particularly hefty breakfast. I knew that Mcann presented with the choice of a hearty spread or ramming hooks for the hills would let his stomach make the decision. I was right. I served him a warrant to go along with the flapjacks and sausage. Then I told him to wipe the syrup off his beard and accompany me over to the lock up.

Falk was as surprised as I was when the judge remanded Mcann over to jail.

“I figured if I kept him isolated in the cooler long enough that he’d come around and start letting on to what he knew. I suppose that’s what Abe Falk figured too. He went about getting the preliminary hearing scheduled within the week. Part of his strategy was to get me to divulge the extent of the evidence I had against his clients.

“My main witness was a ranch hand by the name of Welkin. He had been at O’Lee’s ranch the night of Jennings’ disappearance and testified that all three men had ridden in on frothing horses late that night. He had heard them discussing in low voices something that was obviously of great concern to them. He had heard O’Lee say something to the effect that they weren’t going to be bothered on that account any longer. He also testified that O’Lee had burned a sheaf of papers, what could have been legal documents, in the fireplace.

falk“Well, Abe Falk didn’t get to be one of the most powerful men in the Southwest by being a pussycat. He tore into Welkin like an auger into rotten wood. By the time Falk was done with him, he was lucky if he knew who he was. It even looked to me that he had made him into a witness for the defense!

“It was pretty much all downhill from there. I had physical evidence, of course, but lacking the actual murdered bodies of Jennings and his son, it was not all that weighty. Falk dismissed most of the other testimony as hearsay or merely opinion. I had a woman who was riding the Alamogordo stage that same day. She claimed that she had seen the three men race by, hell bent for leather. Falk tried to discredit her by accusing her of having an affair with the stage driver. He even accused me of promising Welkin two thousand dollars of the reward money if his testimony led to their conviction. I had done no such thing, of course.

“Welkin had approached me for a loan to buy some property and I had told him that when and if the men were convicted I would then be in a position to make him a loan. At any rate, my case was not in the best of light right then. Falk was as surprised as I was when the judge remanded Mcann over to jail.

“He was a guest of the county for over a year and he never did talk. That’s because he was too busy eating. He had a tab set up at the boarding house that was paid by O’Lee through his lawyer. Can’t say that O’Lee didn’t know the price of silence. Mcann had loaded on near two hundred pounds by the time I had to let him go. I was worried that I was going to have to widen the doorway to the jail to get him out. Finally I had to roll him out of there like a beer barrel.”

new badge hd 25“I supposed you eventually apprehended O’Lee and Leland. They did stand trial, if I recollect.”

“They did that, but I never nabbed O’Lee or Leland.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve heard of moving heaven and earth. Well, Abe Falk came close to doing that for O’Lee. He maneuvered the Territorial legislature into apportioning a new county simply to remove those boys from my jurisdiction. The next thing I knew, the crime was no longer in Dona Anna County but in a new one that Falk had materialized out of thin air. Otero County, named after the newly appointed Governor.

“How could he do something like that?”

“Falk is a powerful man and he ain’t shy about flexing his political muscle. He has got his sights set on Washington. He controls much of what passes for politics here in the Southwest. He had George Kerry appointed the Sheriff of Otero County, and George, never one to overlook a chance at advancement, was in his pocket.

“O’Lee would have to face the charges against him eventually. Falk knew this, and he figured that if his boys surrendered to an authority friendly to his cause the interrogations, if any, would be less than thorough. Leland was his wild card and he wanted to keep him close to his vest. Finally, he arranged for O’Lee and Leland to surrender to his man. I was out of the picture by that time except for the fact that they were still under indictment.

 “So you never captured O’Lee and Leland?”

“That’s right, they evaded my clutches and never had to spend a day in jail. The new County did not even have a jailhouse yet so they spent the entire time awaiting their trial at the hotel in Alamogordo with pretty much free rein of the town. On equal terms, I would have eventually brought those boys in myself, but Falk plays with a marked deck. You’ve heard the expression that some men will rob you at the point of a gun and others at the point of a pen. Well, Falk is one of those who wields a lethal pen. He was double dealing the whole time.”  That memory called for another nip. “I did put a hell of a scare into those boys at one point, though.”

“How so?”

John_Reynolds_Hughes“I knew that an arrangement had been made for O’Lee and Leland to surrender themselves to George Kerry in Las Cruces but no date had been determined. I was up in Santa Fe collecting a prisoner for extradition to Texas when an acquaintance who worked in the Governor’s office informed me that O’Lee and Leland would be boarding the train somewhere along the line between Santa Fe and Las Cruces in the custody of Kerry’s deputy. As luck would have it that was the very train I would be taking to El Paso with my prisoner. Accompanying me was John Hume, a Texas Ranger.

“If you must know, I was sore at having been outfoxed by Falk, and I relished this opportunity to confront O’Lee. I considered goading him and making him do something stupid that would play into my hands. I did not want him to think that he could evade me so easily. On the other hand, that O’Lee and Leland would stand trial was good enough for me. I had the evidence to convict them, and they would hang just as dead whether they were in Kerry’s custody or mine. I was not, however, going to let them think that their subterfuge had succeeded. I was willing to cash in on any foolish move they might make.

“At every stop the train made, I was on the platform surveying the boarding passengers. We were just about to pull out of Sorroco when I happened to glance at the window of the smoking car. There was a bearded fellow seated there that I had not remembered boarding at the previous stops. That made me suspicious so once the train got rolling I asked the conductor if he remembered any one boarding from the backside of the tracks. He confirmed that three men had jumped on board as we were leaving the stop just before Sorroco and that they had taken seats in the smoking car. Right then and there I would have bet everything I owned that they were the boys I was after.

“I had a decision to make. I was tempted to arrest them myself but since the crime was no longer in my jurisdiction, I had no authority to do so especially if they were in the custody of a duly appointed peace officer. I realized that the most I could do was give those boys a bad case of the willies.

sf train2“I explained my plan to Captain Hume. We chained our prisoner to his seat and then we walked back to the smoking car. Those boys must have seen us coming as it was mighty quiet when we stepped into that car. Right away, I recognized the men I had been chasing. Both had full beards. Leland wore dark glasses and pretended to be asleep. The deputy had his face buried in some French blue book. The man I wanted, O’Lee, was hiding under a railroad cap. We had worked it out beforehand that Hume would cover Leland and the deputy, and I would have a go at O’Lee. I went over to where O’Lee was sitting, stiff as a raw hide in a snowdrift. I planted my foot on the armrest of the seat next to his and made like I was looking for some reading material in the newspapers and magazines stacked there. Then I leaned against the back of his seat and looked out the window, casual-like, as if I was enjoying the scenery. I was close enough to see the sweat rolling down the back of his neck. Those boys didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.” The old man chuckled, replacing the cork. “I’d say that’s a memory I’ll always savor.”

“What’d O’Lee do?

“Nothing. I figure I had him shaking in his boots. If he or Leland had been foolish enough to start gunplay, they would have got the worst of it. As it was, I got the satisfaction of seeing them sweat. After a time, I sauntered back to my seat in the passenger car. Those boys probably had to go off somewheres and change their britches.”

new badge hd 26“Falk had the venue of the trial changed because he claimed that his clients would not receive a fair trial in either Dona Ana County or Ortega Country.

That was a crock served on a silver platter. They would have got what they deserved. Justice, nothing more, nothing less. Those boys had done the deed, that was a fact. Falk figured if he could have the proceedings moved out of the vicinity of the crime, he would be able to control the way the events played in the newspapers. They moved the trial to Hillsboro, a mining camp up in the Black Range. You couldn’t find a more secluded backwater in the whole territory.”

The old man had noticed the rider a while back. They were in the flat stretch about half a dozen miles outside of Las Cruces. He was almost a mile behind and from his pace would soon catch up with them.

“Hell, the case was tried in the newspapers before it even went to the jury! Falk was granting interviews to anyone who could spell his name. He would say anything to put his clients in a good light. Once he even compared O’Lee to Robin Hood and painted me as the wicked sheriff of Nottingham. They made out like O’Lee was some kind of cultivated gent, that he spoke Greek and Latin when he was nothing but a West Texas brush popper. The prosecutor was a hack sent down by the Republicans in Santa Fe to make sure that the Democrats did not win. It had nothing to do with bringing the men who murdered Colonel Jennings and his kid to justice.”

The old man noticed that Adams would occasionally pull back on the reins and that the horse was responding by slowing its pace. He had a good idea of who was following them.

hillsboro“You would have thought it was fiesta week in Hillsboro. Why, Western Union even ran a wire up there just for the trial! They had reporters come from as far away as New York and London. Folks were arriving by the wagonload everyday just to get a seat in the courtroom as if it was some kind of opera or musical concert. The hotel was packed four to a room in no time, mostly with O’Lee partisans. Tent camps were set up all over the hillside on the outskirts of town. The truth is, the jury had to sleep in the hayloft at Hank’s livery!

“Falk and his crowd held forth over at the Silver Maiden Saloon, and the Santa Fe gang used O’Shea’s Miner’s Club and Billiard Emporium as their headquarters. You could sit in Cobb’s barbershop and watch the gaggle of newspaper boys go from one camp to the other to get the opposing versions of how the day’s testimony had gone. The later it got, the harder it got for those shit scribblers to find their way across the street to the opposite camp for that last glass of convincing. Falk you might say had the deepest pockets and thus proved his righteousness by the number of besotted writers that were swept up at the Silver Maiden the following morning.

“I wouldn’t be saying much if I said that the prosecutor was incompetent. Falk demolished just about every witness who took the stand. And with nary an objection from the Territory’s side. I guess they reckoned that given enough rope Falk would hang himself, but they hadn’t figured that he was as clever as Houdini at getting out of a close place.

“He cross-examined me for a whole three days. He did not cow me, though. I gave it to him straight from the chest. I told him what I thought of his back room manipulating of the courts, how it was his kind that was responsible for the corruption in the Territory, that politics was determining the course of justice. And he could not demolish my testimony. My evidence was irrefutable, and he knew it. I would not be shaken. As much as he tried.

  “Falk sunk as low as bringing O’Lee mother to the stand to testify to her son’s character and innocence. Her weeping into her hanky that way, she probably did more to acquit those boys than any of Falk’s underhanded moves. Moreover, it did not help that every testimony in O’Lee’s favor was greeted with cheers and applause from the remuda of Texas jackasses Falk had packed the courtroom with. Or that the Dog Canyon pistoleros had made it plain and clear what would happen to the jury if the verdict was returned guilty.

“The closing arguments lasted all of one day. Falk took the time to denounce each and every witness and piece of evidence against O’Lee, claiming that the accusations were nothing but politics by the Republicans. He name-called the entire Rio Grande Valley establishment, said they were slime, a bunch of broken down hacks, and liars. Claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to hang a yellow dog, let alone the defendants. It was late evening before he was done with his marathon summation. After the prosecutor presented his rebuttal, Falk’s case did not look as strong as it might have. However, Falk had one last card to play. By then it was close to midnight and the jury was just plain tuckered, but Falk insisted that they return their verdict before they bedded down for the night in their fashionable straw palace. That jury certainly knew what was important to them. They took a whole of eight minutes to declare O’Lee and his assassins not guilty.”

The rider was close enough behind that he could no longer be ignored. Adams had glanced over his shoulder in nervous anticipation. The old man smiled as he twisted the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. He had been right.

“If Gil Leland is ready to talk like I heard then I’d say O’Lee should start worrying about his chances of gaining a seat in Santa Fe. Leland’s sister even admitted in the Las Cruces paper not long ago that soon after the disappearance of Jennings, she went to slop the hogs and found them rooting among young Rudy’s remains near the edge of the pen. This was at the Dog Canyon ranch. I’ve heard tell that for the price of a bottle of whiskey that Leland will spill his guts about the whole affair. He’s as much as admitted to being the one who killed the kid.”


Next Time: The End Of The Road

On The Road To Las Cruces ~Six~

by Pat Nolan

new badge hd21

“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.”

cemetaryThe 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.

new badge hd22

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?”

wantedolee“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.”

“How’s that?”

“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.”

“A book?”

new badge hd23

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.”

“What happened?”

“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?”

wildywells1The 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.


Next Time: Pecos Politics