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Two days after his shooting of Lighe Rinker, Bobby Budd still looked hard over his shoulder for the posse's pursuit. Near noon that same day, he crossed out of Colorado into the New Mexico Territory. His pounding heart ached from the urgent panic and his empty stomach roiled like a nest of snakes from the cold fear of the hangman's noose. Somewhere near Fort Union, he traded the lame buckskin to a Jacarillo Apache for a scrubby pinto. In the months that followed, word drifted back to the Springfield, Colorado, authorities that the young killer was swamping out bars in Santa Fe. They sent warrants for his arrest, but the local officials either ignored them, or they never found him.
Several monthes later, information filtered back to Colorado officials that Bobby Budd was working for the army. They sent a deputy down to Fort Wingate, but the lawman returned empty-handed. More time passed and Bobby Budd vanished like a dust devil that floated over the horizon. The wanted posters became tattered and faded; the law lost interest in his capture. His crime became history and in turn joined a portion of the outlaw legend of the frontier. Murderer Bobby Budd, like so many other felons, had managed to evade justice's grasp.
Two years later, on a hot July afternoon, seventeen-year-old Bobby Budd rode up to the Bosque Grande's main house to see the most powerful person in the New Mexico Territory, John Chisum. He'd ridden down there to ask the big man for a job. Not for an ordinary ranch-hand position, but one as an avenger.
When Chisum's black houseman came out on the porch to greet him, Bobby tried to look past him. Where wasChisum? He had expected to impress the big rancher with his appearance when he rode up. Instead, he felt degraded having to talk to a black domestic servant.
"What you want, boy?" the man asked in a deep voice, a frown of disapproval written on his dark face.
"Chisum hiring today?"
"Hiring what?" the man snorted and looked at him in dismay.
"Avengers," Bobby said and squinted his left eye hard at the man.
"Why, you ain't old enough to be no avenger." The man shook his wooly head in disbelief.
"Let me talk to the man. You ain't doing the hiring, nohow." Bobby rose in the stirrups and tried to see past him.
He heard someone of authority clear his throat, then a man came out the front door of the two-story house. Very tall, he wore a sparkling white shirt, vest, and a tie. His full mustache was trimmed and so was the goatee; his eyes were dark as coal and had a hard look.
"So you came looking for work?" John Chisum asked, as he looked Budd up and down, appraising him.
"I sure did, Mr. Chisum."
"Rhemus," Chisum said to his man. "Go get five dinner plates for this man to shoot at with that hog leg in his belt. Every one that he hits is worth a hundred dollars to him and the ones he misses cost him two hundred."
"Yes, sah, Mr. John, I'll go get them, but I's says he can't hit no bull in the butt."
"Rhemus, that's no way to talk to a top gun. By the way, what is your name?"
"Bobby Budd. Up in Colorado, they call me the Coyote Kid."
"Coyote Kid, huh?"
"Yeah, in Colorado."
"Why, you must know Bill Bonney, the Kid. He has a big reputation in these parts."
"Never met him. Hope folks don't get us mixed up."
"They won't," Chisum said, as if he knew they wouldn't. Standing on the porch with his arms folded on his chest, the cattle king looked much bigger than Bobby had expected him to be.
"How old are you? Not that it would matter." Chisum straightened up and moved aside for Rhemus to come by with an armful of white china plates.
"Eighteen," Bobby lied. Still trying hard to impress the man, he stepped off his pinto in a swaggering manner and drew the ancient Army model Colt out of his waistband. This better be good. Here was his chance to get a real job and never again have to mop up puke or empty another stinking old spittoon. The thought of such work made a bitter sourness rise behind his tongue.
"I want it to be perfectly clear," Chisum began. "You know that each plate you miss costs you two hundred dollars and you'll have that held out of your wages working for me?" The big man paused and looked hard at Bobby for his reply.
"And I only get a hundred bucks for them I hit, huh?"
"Not fair, is it?"
"See, Bobby, I don't need another avenger, but from the looks of you, you really need a job."
Bobby nodded. The old sumbitch drove a damn hard bargain. Still, anything beat his last job swamping in a stinking saloon. His stomach churned and he felt weak below the knees over the prospect that he might fail to meet Chisum's standards. Somehow he had to hit those plates. They looked big enough.
"Rhemus," Chisum directed. "Throw up the first plate."
Bobby cocked the hammer, aimed, and followed the plate with his eye in the arch up and then downward, until it shattered on the hard-packed ground. He silently chided himself for not shooting. He didn't know why he hadn't shot. Was he spellbound?
"That's two hundred dollars you owe me," Chisum said coolly, while streams of sweat raced down Bobby's face.His armpits felt like rivers and he quickly switched hands with the Colt to dry his palm on the front of his pants.
It was an effort for Bobby to even swallow. The knot in his throat hurt each time he tried. He carefully studied both men and strained to imagine the next trick they had up their sleeves. His hopes for getting the job were fast evaporating in the hot sun.
"He wasn't ready, Rhemus," Chisum said to his servant as if Bobby weren't even there. "This time before you toss it, you give him a shout like, now!"
"I am now." Bobby mopped his wet face on his sleeve and blinked his sweat-stinging eyes at the dazzling sunlight from under his floppy-brimmed hat. He drew a deep breath.
"Now!" Rhemus shouted.
The plate sailed high, wobbled, and Bobby shot. The cloud of blue smoke smarted his eyes, but he heard the undamaged dish hit intact on the ground and smash to pieces.
"That's four hundred you owe me. Way over a year's work as a stableboy. Want to quit?"
"You're getting expensive, you know? You've already missed two of my good china plates. Should we quit?"
"Throw the damn plate." Bobby motioned the gun barrel at Rhemus to go ahead. He'd plugged that damn Rinker in the heart both times with this Colt. Maybe his aim was off. No telling about the old pistol. He bought it for two bucks from a Mexican back in Colorado.
"Toss it up slower this time," Chisum said to his man. "At this rate the poor boy will work the rest of his life for me for free."
"Now!" Rhemus shouted.
Bobby laid his gun butt on his left forearm, took aim, and fired. This time the stiff wind swept the smoke away from his face and he watched the plate shatter in midair.
Chisum stood applauding on the porch. The clap of his hands echoed from the adobe stables beyond. "Very good."
"That makes three hundred I owe you now," Bobby said, readying himself for the next one. "Throw it."
"Now!" Rhemus said, and instead of throwing it up, he tossed the dish flat ways away from him.
Bobby wanted to scream. They were cheating on him. He took a wing shot and fragmented the plate. Rhemus looked up at his boss, then he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I tried to trick him."
"Not your fault, Rhemus. That boy can shoot. One more," Chisum said. "Toss this one high."
The plate soared toward the tops of the rustling cottonwoods. Bobby knelt, rested it again on his forearm, and fired. His bullet disintegrated the white circle into a thousand pieces. He stood up, blew the smoke away from the muzzle, then jammed the Colt back in his waistband.
"Not bad," Chisum said, sounding moderately impressed. "You owe me three months' wages. Put that crow-bait of yours in the corral with the other ranch horses. He is a gelding?"
"Thank heavens, I won't want a colt out of him."
"What do I do first?" Bobby asked anxiously.
"You report to Dave McClure. He's the cow boss. If and when I ever need an avenger, I'll call for you."
"Yes, sir." He forced himself to conceal his excitement. He was hired to work for the biggest man in New Mexico. And Jesus, what lucky shooting.
"Oh yes, Bobby, the first three months you'll work for your keep and to repay me."
"I can count," he said, pissed that Chisum thought he was stupid or something. He led the pinto off to the corral. Pay or no pay, he was working for the big man and some .how opportunities would avail themselves. He jerked his rigging off the pony and turned him inside the pen. His kack piled on the top rail, he went off whistling to himself to find McClure.
Without money to gamble, buy drinks, or pay whores, Bobby still rode into town on Saturday night with the boys. Hanging around in the streets of Roswell, he soon met Rosa, a pretty Mexican girl close to his own age. They danced for a few hours to the tunes of a small band in a park, then she snuck him into her bedroom. There she showed him the charms of her womanhood.
Sunday morning, when the hungover ranch hands came staggering out of Maria O'Brien's whorehouse, they frowned in disbelief at the beaming face of Bobby. He held the reins with their horses all saddled and ready for the sore-headed punchers to ride back to the ranch.
"Hell, he's sober and looks fresh bred," Cooly said as he coughed and spit in the dust.
"Yeah, the only smart one in the bunch." Phillips staggered off to the corner of the adobe house to retch up his guts with the wall of stucco for support.
"You riding or walking?" Bobby asked, bringing him his horse.
"Shit, riding, man. I couldn't walk to the edge of town." Phillips managed to get aboard by groaning, moaning and more coughing.
For Bobby's good deeds, such as saddling the hands' ponies and other chores done for them, he managed to borrow powder, balls, and caps for his pistol. Any idle time he had he spent target-practicing on brown bottles set up in a dry wash back of the corrals. Soon accurate shooting became as automatic to him as walking. It was point, shoot, and bust a bottle.
The more he practiced, the better he became. He went to smaller targets, like the base of the bottle tossed in the air with his left hand. The Colt in his right blasted it to smithereens.
"Not bad, kid," Phillips said from behind his back, breaking his concentration.
Bobby turned and nodded to the older man who had slipped up unnoticed by him. Phillips was old to be a puncher; men his age usually were foreman or the boss.
"Next time you go up against the old man, load your gun with birdshot and you won't ever miss."
"Good idea, Phillips. I'll remember it." Bobby shook his head in dismay. Why hadn't he thought of that before?
Late that night, he appropriated some shotgun shells McClure used on hawks that got too curious about the ranch's loose chickens. He knew where the foreman kept the spare brass cartridges in a desk drawer. It was ammunition that fit the late-model pump twelve-gauge on the wall in the adobe hovel he called his office. All Bobby wanted was the shot out of a few shells for his own reserve, in case he ever got another chance to shoot at plates in Chisum's front yard.
Saturday night, according to their usual ritual, the hands saddled up to head for Roswell. There was to be a fandango, so Bobby had washed his clothes and wore his suit coat. The sleeves were too long, but he didn't care, and Rosa wasn't that fussy how he dressed. Using a ranch horse for his transportation, he rode out the gate with the hooraying cowboys and his own designs for a night of frolicking with his Rosa.
At the edge of town, he parted from the crew with a foolish grin that spilled his secret plans to the others. His face felt heated for a moment as he realized they knew exactly what his scheme for the evening with her would be.
He rode off down to the water course. There, under some gnarled, rustling cottonwoods, he unsaddled and turned the horse loose to graze. He had plenty of time before she came to join him. With his back to the twisted tree trunk, hat brim pulled down, he planned to take a siesta. Wind stirred the treetops and birds chirped nosily. Somewhere, a jackass brayed mournfully.
A stray dog came by, sniffed at Bobby's boots, dodged his kick and hurried off. He soon drifted into slumber. She would come for him at sundown with food and some wine. His Rosa. He visualized her smooth body, her firm breasts, and imagined making love to her.
He heard loud voices and his eyes fluttered slowly open. With great surprise, he panicked at the sight of several angry men standing above him with clubs. It was sundown, and in the canted red light he could see they were armed and angry. They had come there to do him harm. But why? What did they want? He went for his gun. Before he could draw, they threw a blanket over him and pinned him to the ground. Angry voices cried out in Spanish, harsh words that he shed like small hailstones. Then they began beating him with sticks and clubs.
Were they mad? Crazy?
Past midnight, battered and still dazed from his beating, Bobby managed to crawl to the river. Every muscle and bone in his body ached. A front tooth was broken off. He could feel the empty space with his tongue. His right eye was swollen shut and his left only allowed a narrow slit for partial vision. On the sandbar, he fainted.
He awoke shortly, spit out the grit in his mouth, and forced himself to sit up. Too groggy to clear his head, he wondered about the reason for the attack. He was a friend, an amigo, to many Mexicans. Plenty of them worked on the Chisum ranch. He always got along with them and knew enough Spanish to communicate with them.
He tried to open his aching eyes. He could only see the shimmering moonlit water of the Pecos from his left one. Had they harmed Rosa? No matter how bad he felt, he must see at once that she was safe.
After several tries, he managed to get up and stagger to his horse. Forced to use his left hand to throw the saddle on the horse's back, his right arm felt so bruised he could barely flex his gun fingers. The condition of that arm bothered him. Would he ever be able to use it again?
With all his teeth clenching effort, he managed to mount and ride into town, where he found the other Chisum horses in front of Flanagan's Saloon. He half fell out of the saddle, staggered across the porch, and lurched through the swinging doors.
"Kid, what in the hell happened to you?" Phillipsshouted and jumped to his feet, upsetting a whore from his lap. He rushed over and helped settle Bobby into a chair. One of the girls brought a pan of water and a cloth to clean his cuts. Someone else shoved a glass of whiskey in his hand.
The rye burned like hell going down his throat. He drank some more and someone with a bottle refilled his glass while the puta very carefully cleansed the cuts on his face.
Word quickly went out to the others and the Chisum outfit soon filled the saloon around him. Like warriors anxious for revenge, they hung on their teammate's every word. Bobby told them the entire story, still confused about the reason for the. beating. He tried to flex his right arm, but even the whiskey that eased his hurting had not helped to limber it.
Phillips took charge when he finished.
"Tootle, you and Cooly ride down there in messikin town and get a couple of them. Bring them back here and we'll get to the bottom of this mess."
The pair agreed and pulled down their hats. They waded out the batwing doors in their bullhide chaps and everyone else nodded in approval at the plan. They would soon know the truth. Bobby drank some more whiskey and tried to focus his good eye on the mirror beyond the bar. Whew, he sure looked beat up. Some good-looking young puta kept pestering him--didn't bother her how he looked.
In a short while, Tootle and Cooly returned with two sullen Mexican prisoners. They roughly shoved them inside the saloon.
"Here they are," Tootle announced. He parted the others standing around and went to the bar for a drink. The rest of the cowboys soon surrounded the prisoners.
Phillips rose from his chair, inspecting the two as he used his thumb to tip back his Stetson. "Why the hell did you beat up our pard here?" He pointed at Bobby.
The two Mexicans huddled together, obviously awed by Chisum's men. They shrugged as if they knew nothing.
"Get a lariat," Phillips said. "Maybe if we stretch their damn necks they'll remember something."
Yeah, Bobby agreed in his whiskey haze. Why in the hell did they beat him up anyway? He needed to know. One of the cowboys busted in the swinging doors, waving a coiled reata in his hand.
Then the shorter of the two men fell upon his knees, his hands clasped over his head as if in prayer and began babbling in Spanish a mile a minute.
"What's he saying?" someone shouted.
Cooly pushed his way in closer, then made a scowl. "He's saying something about Rosa being pregnant?"
"Rosa!" Bobby roared, bolted out of his chair and rushed to kick the man to death. How dare that bastard say anything about her. But the other cowboys restrained him.
"Bobby! Bobby!" Phillips shouted in his face to break through his blind rage. "It's no use. He says that she's gone to Las Cruces and has already been married to an old man."
Rosa married? How could he believe this liar? But it must be the truth or she would have checked on him by this time. Bobby's knees threatened to buckle. Blood left his face. Cold chills raced through his jaw muscles. The cowboys holding him helped him into a chair. For a long time he sat there in shock, absently drinking more whiskey and barely hearing the consoling voices of the other ranch hands and the whores around him.
A while later, dead drunk, he went outside, protesting that he wanted to be alone. He mounted his horse under the stars and rode down to the barrio where all the Roswell Mexicans lived side by side in adobe hovels.
Under the starlight, he cursed them at the top of his lungs for what they had done to him and, worse yet, for what they had done to her. Swaying in the saddle, he used his good hand and emptied his pistol at the dark buildings. Finally, he passed out and fell off his horse.
He awoke in a cell that smelled of old piss pots and realized then about his own captivity. Two days later, John Chisum rode into town and paid his fine. Like the fatherBobby never knew, Chisum stood outside the bars looking aloof, while the deputy unlocked the iron door.
"Budd, you owe me four more months' work," Chisum said.
Bobby grabbed his hat and rushed out of the cell. "I can count."
"Good," the big man said, trailing after him to the front office. The other deputy returned Bobby's knife as well as his gun and holster. In his rush to get outside, Bobby strapped on the holster and strode through the door into the sunshine. Once on the boardwalk, he drew a deep, grateful breath of freedom. He never wanted to be in another jail as long as he lived.
Chisum stood beside him, looked up and down the empty street, and started off. "Let's go have breakfast at the Majesty Hotel."
"I already owe you four more months' pay."
"Quit feeling sorry for yourself."
Bobby jerked around and blinked at the man. "I ain't!"
"I need an avenger, not a crybaby."
Taken aback by the big man's word's, Bobby considered his good fortune. His headache fled and his ears were tuned to hear every word of the man's offer.
"First ..." Chisum paused for a rig to go by and tipped his hat to the handsome women seated beside the driver. "Can I trust you to never implicate me?"
"I ain't stupid."
"If you ever get in trouble with the law while working for me," Chisum said through his teeth, "I'll hire the best lawyer that money can buy. Of course, he won't know who hired him."
Chisum silenced him with a frown as they climbed the hotel's front stairs. "We'll have a good breakfast now," he said to settle the matter and guided him through the lobby.
Bobby drew the rich smells of the cooking up his nose. Yes, he would have a great meal in this fancy place withthe big man and he was also about to become an avenger at last. Avengers made the big money.
The waiter was familiar with Chisum for he called the man by name, then showed them to a table and seated them. To demonstrate that he knew what to do, Bobby unfurled the napkin and spread it over his lap. Chisum nodded his approval, giving the waiter their orders for breakfast.
At length, Chisum leaned forward and spoke under his breath. "The first man I want eliminated is Arthur McKey. He's a rustler, small-time, but he's an example of the worthless ones eating and selling my beef to others." When he finished, Chisum fished out his gold watch and acted busy with it. Finally he raised up his flinty gaze to look hard at Bobby for his reply.
"I'll find him and he will be no more," Bobby promised.
"That is what I expect. Of course, this is our last public meeting. Your money and instructions from now on will be in the Tank line shack. Check the northeast corner under the roof, reach up and feel for a snuff jar. They will be in it."
Bobby simply nodded to indicate he heard and busied himself cutting up his fried eggs. Saliva filled his mouth. After two days of jail slop, he could hardly contain himself to gobble up the real food on his plate. Instead, he attempted to relish each bite and listen carefully to what else Chisum had to say.
"Stay clear of the main ranch."
"You learn of any rustlers--" Chisum made a point with his fork. "I want them eliminated."
"I understand," Bobby said, carefully savoring his first taste of the fresh eggs.
"Get a new Colt, that old cap and ball might misfire. I'll give you money for one. Buy you a good horse, not some damn old pinto like you rode in on. And for Christ's sake, you don't need a flashy horse that folks will notice."
"Find you a place to stay, out of sight and mind. If youdon't mess with Sheriff Garrett, he won't mess with you."
Bobby nodded as he bit down on the biscuit. The brown crust melted in his mouth with a swirl of fresh sweet butter flavor on his tongue as he chewed. It was hard to conceal the excitement coursing through his veins.
"You're your own man from here on. You get drunk and land in jail, you figure out how to get out."
Chisum grew taller in the chair. His eyes became dark pits, then he spoke. "You're smarter than most. But don't fall into a damn bottle again. I don't hire drunks nor do I keep them on my payroll. You got it?"
Bobby nodded that he understood.
After breakfast, flush with the roll of bills Chisum paid him, Bobby bought a stout bay horse and a good used saddle at the livery. Then he rode the new mount up the street to the Salinas Brothers' Mercantile, hitched him to the rack, and went inside.
He purchased a bedroll with a tarp, some coffee, bacon, dried beans, cheese, canned tomatoes and peaches, crackers, salt, and a canteen. Then he selected a new .45 center-fire Colt from the glass case, spun the pistol on his finger, hefted the balance and took an imaginary aim at a lamp.
"Give me four boxes of ammo," he said to the anxious clerk.
"Yes, sir," the boy about his age said.
"Oh, and a holster too." Bobby intended to wrap up his old cap and ball in its own holster and put it for safekeeping in his saddlebags.
Bobby's glance fell on the split-tailed canvas coats hanging on the rack. They would shed water and wind and looked a lot more stylish than his old suit coat. He strode over and tried on the first one. The coat was way too large, but he kept trying them on with the clerk's help until he found one with sleeves short enough.
"Certainly looks dressy," the clerk said.
Bobby studied his image in the tall mirror. He reset theweather-beaten hat on his head once or twice, then nodded. He finally looked and even felt the part of a real avenger.
A week later, after much scouting and planning, wearing a cotton sack mask with holes for his eyes and mouth, Bobby stealthily crossed the McKeys' porch in the late night darkness. Two days earlier, he had poisoned the rancher's dogs, so he knew there would be no barking to give his presence away. With care, he eased himself through the open bedroom window, the oily-smelling new Colt ready in his fist. A floorboard creaked under his boot sole and he paused to listen carefully for the couple's steady breathing. Satisfied, he continued. In the starlight, he could make out a man's form on his side of the bed. Beside McKey, his wife in a white nightgown slept in a fetal position.
Bobby cocked the hammer back and aimed it. A foot away from the man's face, he blasted the .45. Exactly like when he shot Rinker, the same coldness coursed his veins. Rid of another no-account, was all he could think. The ear-shattering explosion in the bedroom caused the woman beside McKey to jolt awake and she immediately began screaming at the top of her lungs. To be certain the rustler was dead, Bobby shot once more at point-blank range in the man's face, then he slipped out the window.
The gunsmoke was choking him. Outside the house and fleeing the porch, he stripped off the mask to escape some of the fumes still in his nose and throat as he hurried for the barn. In a long lope, he crossed the open yard, coughing on the gunpowder fumes. Anxiously, he stopped, caught his breath, and glanced back to check for pursuit. The house buzzed with the sounds of the hysterical family members. Satisfied McKey was dead, he quickly mounted the bay and rode away.
One less rustler, Chisum.
The next day on his way back to his hideout, he paused at a cantina and bought two bottles of good rye. Earlier, he'd found an old shack in the hills. After driving out thepackrats and scorpions, he set up housekeeping in the hovel. There was plenty of cured grass around it for the bay and water, too, in some potholes down the dry wash. Nearby, a small live spring filled a large ollah to overflowing each day with his drinking-water needs.
The hideout was set back in the junipers, off the main path. He considered the shack a good enough place to cool his heels. General work around the place such as gathering cooking wood kept him busy. It was the nights that began to get to him.
All his life, Bobby had never missed a chance to sleep soundly, either at siesta or at night. But more and more, he saw Rinker in his dreams, not when he killed him, but when the blacksmith brutally raped him. The man's hard callused hand clamped over his mouth, smothering his breath to silence his screams of protest at the excruciating pain. After the dreams, Bobby woke up in a clammy sweat, his body quaking.
Then new dreams began to awaken him. A woman's piercing screams filled his mind. He dreamt the dead rustler got up out of bed unscathed. Time and again, Bobby would bolt up and hug his goose-bump-covered arms to his body in the chill of the night. He peered hard in the shack's darkness to be certain he was alone.
A few good swallows of whiskey sometimes chased away the images as he struggled to slip back to sleep. The next day, Bobby would dread the coming night and the possibility that the nightmare would return. He visualized McKey's last reflexes again as the lead smashed into his brain. His body's spasmatic jerks in death's throes. McKey was dead. Why did his dreams keep bringing him back--alive?
To try and escape the matter, he rode the next day to the Tank line shack and reached far back in the corner under the eave for the snuff jar. The glass clutched in his hand, he grinned at the sight of the thick roll of bills and carefully read his new orders:
One down, many more rustlers to go. Verl Butler has a slaughterhouse at his ranch near Black Pine. Old man and both boys are rustlers.
Verl Butler and sons would be next.
Bobby's interest quickly turned to all the cash in the roll. He felt the crispness of the twenties in his fingers. Recalling what Chisum had said to do with those written orders, he held a lit match to the note and soon it was consumed. He dropped the flaming piece of paper short of burning his fingertips and with his boot sole ground the black ashes in the dust of the floor.
Riding back to his shack, Bobby speculated on how he would need a long-range weapon for this job. He stopped off in White Oak at a store and bought a new .44/.40 rifle and two boxes of cartridges. The smart-mouthed boy who waited on him asked if he was going to start a war with all that ammunition.
"Naw, just potshot nosy clerks that ask a lot of damn questions," he said, and took his purchase with him.
"No offense, mister," the clerk called after him. "I didn't mean--"
Bobby never even looked back. Filled with boiling rage, he pushed his way out the front door, ringing the bell as he left. At the hitch rail, undoing the reins, he glared back at the storefront, his heart pounding under his rib cage. Why, that stupid--
The next day, Bobby rode over to the small community of Black Pine. A crossroads with two cantinas, two stores, a livery, and some hovels where some Mexican families lived. Several small ranchers frequented the place and Bobby wore his worst clothes when he went there "looking" for work. Before he rode into town, he hid the rifle securely wrapped in a blanket under a thick downed juniper. Later he stowed away the new .45 and strapped on his old cap and ball to look like another busted cowboy in need of a job.
He dismounted in front of the cantina, with a four-daystubble on his face, and wiped the back of his hand on the whiskers. He wished he had a stiffer beard.
He pushed through the batwing doors into the dark cantina. His eyes were slow to adjust as he walked to the bar and ordered a beer. The man nodded and brought him one.
"You're new here?" the barkeep asked.
"Yeah, need me a job. Anyone hiring?"
"You build fence?"
Bobby made a sick face at the man, then lifted his beer and savored the first foamy taste. Bitter as hell, but it was cool and he was thirsty. The man must know that no self-respecting cowboy ever wanted to build fence. Get a damn Mexican to do that.
"Maybe Johnny Davis could use you for a month on his place."
"Where's his place?'
"Ride west a few miles and take the road with the D Bar D brand on the board nailed to a post. You can't miss it. That lane leads right to his headquarters."
"Good, I'll go see him. Someone mentioned the Butlers might need a rider."
"Who said that?" The bartender curled the corner of his thin mustache up in disdain.
"Some guy I met on the road."
"Naw, I don't think so. They got three of them and not very many cows. You talk to Jug Brown about that?" Bobby shrugged as if he didn't know the man, and concentrated on his beer. "Never caught his name." He drank another beer then he thanked the man and headed for the D Bar D.
When Bobby rode up to the low-roofed ranch house, Johnny Davis, who looked half Indian, came out on the porch. A short potbellied man in his fifties, he spoke in Spanish first, then seeing Bobby wasn't fluent in the lingo, he switched to English.
"I could use you for four weeks to help me gather some long yearlings. I pay thirty and found." He waited forBobby's reply as if that was all he paid and made no negotiations.
"Suits me." Bobby dropped heavily from the saddle. Why, he'd work for the old sumbitch for free to get the lay of the country and not draw a lot of attention. Chisum would be proud of him doing it like this. Killing three men wasn't like poisoning a few old yard dogs with strychnine, then riding up and shooting the cow thief in his bed. This operation would require much more planning.
Bobby quickly fit in as a cowboy for the old man. Davis's Mexican wife cooked them spicy-hot, rich food and Bobby wondered at his first supper if the beef they were eating wasn't some of Chisum's. The next day they shod four horses apiece to use on roundup, and Bobby's back wanted to give out. He could press with both hands all he wanted on his narrow hips when he tried to straighten, but the tightness remained. During the shoeing, Davis filled him in with gossip about the other ranchers in the area.
"Them Butlers are a little too handy with a long rope," the old man said, looking off at the mountains. Bobby knew Davis meant they stole cattle. The old man went on. "Best advice I can give you is stay clear of them. They pack sidearms and can use them. They've been in some bad scraps before back in Texas. That's why they're here, I guess." Davis bent over and went back to shoeing.
"I hear you." Bobby had learned plenty from his employer about the country and the Butlers. If they were tough rannies, it was a good thing he took the job. Near dark, they finished shoeing the last horses, went to the back porch and washed up.
"Oh, hungry hombres, your supper is ready," Davis's wife, Aleta, said from the lighted doorway and welcomed them into her sweet-smelling house.
"Hungry and sore hombres," Davis grumbled and she laughed.
Bobby envied the man for a moment, with his small ranch and good woman. The thought of her reminded himof Rosa and the recollection of his loss nauseated his empty stomach.
The middle of the first week, he, Davis, two other ranchers, Gill Checkers and Hoyt, were driving steers out of the canyons to bunch and sort on the flats when two riders joined them.
"Watch yourself," Davis said under his breath, riding past Bobby. "That's the Butlers."
Bobby nodded that he heard the man's warning and booted his horse off to keep the bunch of steers moving downhill. One freckle-faced two-year-old ox wanted to cut back, and he had his hands full. There would be plenty of time to meet the Butlers, but he felt better that before dark he would know his next victims.
The last steer finally in the herd, Bobby dismounted to loosen his cinch and let the lathered cow pony breathe.
"This here is Bobby Bleau," Davis said, using the name that Bobby gave him. "He's working for me through roundup."
The elder Butler nodded curtly, indicating that he'd heard the man, and acted like he didn't bother to talk to mere hands. Butler was a broad-shouldered man with a full black beard and wore a small felt hat with the brim turned down all the way around. Despite the heat of the day, he wore a suit, floured in dust. The senior Butler and Davis rode on to go through the bunch to see whether any animals in the herd wore Butler's brand.
"That old sumbitch Davis could have hired me to help him, 'stead of you," the pock-faced Butler boy of about eighteen said, grasping his saddle horn and rocking back and forth, watching the two men ease their way into the herd.
"The job's only for a month," Bobby said.
"Old sumbitch," the boy swore under his breath and stared daggers after Davis.
"My name's Bleau," Bobby offered.
Bobby decided the pimple-faced kid wasn't sociable becausehe'd taken the job that the boy wanted, but he figured Davis would never have hired that boy based on their conversation of the day before. What had he said? "Those Butlers were long on rope."
The fact that Zackeriahah wore two guns on his waist and his old man wore the same did not go unnoticed by Bobby. They were tough sons of bitches and he would treat them so. One more of the family to meet, then he'd start laying his plans for how to eliminate the three of them.
Davis and the old man found five head wearing Butler's brand in the herd. Butler promised to send Zackeriahah back for the rest of the week to help them. Davis agreed quietly to that, but Bobby could see he wasn't charmed by the fact.
When the Butlers rode off, Davis came over and dismounted. He hitched up his batwing chaps, cast a look down the trail where they had disappeared into the junipers, and then spit.
"I'd rather have a sheep-killing dog than that worthless Butler boy with us."
"Aw, easy, Davis. That boy may get kicked in the head and not show up in the morning," Hoyt said, laughing as he joined them.
"We ain't that damn lucky, boys." Davis went off sharking his head in disapproval.
Bobby grinned to himself and considered how that might be a good way for Zack to go. An accident would be better than them Butlers all being found toes up with bullets in them. Maybe he would work on that when the boy got there.
The next morning, Zackeriahah showed up at daybreak. Davis sent him with Bobby to scour some more canyons in the mountains.
They rode single file up the steep trail, Butler in the lead, bragging over his shoulder about how his old man killed four guys in Texas. Bobby looked back to be certain they were alone. Plenty of high bluffs; a man would never survive a fall from any one of them. A golden eagle floatedabout on the canyon's air currents looking for a meal and screaming at the intruders in his land. Bobby and Butler finally topped out in the pass and halted.
A fresh wind swept Bobby's wet face and refreshed him. He rose in the stirrups; it looked like a big draw above them to the left that they needed to ride up and check, despite Butler's complaining there was not any cow sign up there on the mountain.
"Davis said to check all these canyons." Bobby stepped off to tighten his cinch. He was busy with it when he noticed Butler pushing his horse closer to him.
"I say there ain't no cattle up there and we're going back," Butler said with a snarl.
Bobby turned from his task and looked up at Butler's flushed face. What was he so upset about? Must be a good reason why he didn't want them to go up there. Were there stolen cattle or incriminating evidence like hides with Chisum's or others' brands on them in that canyon or was he just too lazy to want to work?
"You don't hear very gawdamn good do you, Bleau?" Butler demanded, reining in his horse in Bobby's face.
Bobby felt himself being forced backward by Butler's crowding his horse into him. A quick check over his shoulder showed it was a long ways down and he stood only a few feet from the brink. He reached for his jackknife, easing it out of his pants pocket and letting Butler think the whole time he was winning this push-and-shove match.
The fractured layers of rock hung under Bobby's boot heel. He caught his balance, knowing the next step back would be life or death for him. The knife blade open at last, his sweaty fingers closed on the bone handle.
A golden eagle screamed close by and made a pass on the updraft. It was enough of a distraction for Butler to look away. Bobby moved like a cat, reached out as he sidestepped the animal and drove his jackknife to the hilt into the horse's tender flank. The gelding screamed with pain and, before Butler could check him, the horse leaped pastBobby and plunged out into the open sky where the eagle soared.
Brushed aside by the charge, Bobby fell to the ground and hurt his hand on the sharp rocks. But he knew from the screams that Zackeriahah Butler had gone to see his maker. Despite the aching in his palm, Bobby managed to crawl to the edge in time to see horse and rider hit the boulders below with a dull thud.
The two were sprawled lifelessly on the rocks. Bobby quickly considered how to get to them. It would take him a good half hour to work his way down there. He rose slowly and rubbed the grit from his palms. He wondered if his jackknife was still sticking in the animal's flank. If he could find it, he certainly needed to remove it, so no one would ever know. He remounted, gave a last quick look over the edge, but could not see Butler's body for he was not close enough to the brink to view them.
Whistling a dry tune, he booted the horse downhill. Had the others heard Butler's scream? Hard to tell. He glanced back up at the side canyon. What was up there hiding? Maybe nothing. The boy might have been plain lazy and didn't want to ride uphill anymore. Who knew? It had come close to costing him his own life. Feeling weak-kneed, he took a swig from the pint in his saddlebags to settle his nerves, corked it and put it back. Too gawdamn close. He shook his head and ducked a low-hanging juniper bough.
I guess a bee stung Butler's old horse in the flank and he just leaped out into space. That would be his story and no one to question it.
"What in the hell happened?" Davis asked when he and the others met at the base of the mountain.
Bobby gave them his "bee story."
Davis nodded at the end and said, "Someone needs to ride over and tell Butler. Ain't much chance the boy's alive."
"I can go," Hoyt said and turned his horse.
"We'll go see what we can do," Davis said with a lookof hopelessness. "Man falls that far--ain't much chance he's still breathing."
"He's in a tough place to get to," Checkers said.
"Yeah, we'll have to climb in there on foot for part of the way." Davis grabbed for his hat, pulled it down, and sent his horse through the dense junipers.
It took over a half hour for them to reach the area where the body lay. Out of wind and on foot for the last of the steep climb, Davis halted in the lead and mopped his brow on his sleeve.
"Whew, going to be hell to get his body out of here," Davis said absently and set out again.
Bobby came behind Checkers, who grumbled about climbing over every rock. The main thing Bobby wondered about was his jackknife. Was it still buried in the horse's flank? He wanted to be the first one there, in case. No way to do that with Davis leading the way. He drew in a deep breath and scrambled up the jumbled formation after the man. Something would have to work out when he got there.
At last, he could see the horse's legs and hooves stuck out overhead from the top of a building size boulder. They soon would know Butler's fate. The next thirty feet was straight up. Bobby could reach out and touch the talus rock to help himself scramble up it.
Davis bent over, picked up something and without looking pocketed it. Bobby's heart stopped. Had the old man found the pocketknife? Damn. He scurried past Davis and went around the boulder, finding a way to reach the top.
Pulling himself up so he could sit on the edge of the flat surface, he could smell the horse. Obviously, the impact had forced out the contents of his bowels. The odor was strong and had already begun to gather flies. Bobby rose up on his knees to where he could see Butler's twisted body. The boy's head was smashed and bloody from the fall. Butler's blue eyes stared at the azure sky.
He was dead.
"Not much we can do for him," Davis said, huffing hard from the climb.
"No, I'll try to get his saddle off. I imagine his old man will want that?"
"Sure, guess we can wrap him in his own slicker and let him down the steepest part with a rope," Davis said as if thinking out loud.
"My lands, he took a helluva fall," Checkers said, at last standing on the top of the boulder. "Horse just leaped off up there?" He took off his hat, scratched his thin thatch on top, and gazed skyward in awe.
"Yeah," Bobby said, then he bent over undid the latigos on the cinch. They couldn't prove anything different.
"Here's his knife," Davis said. "He won't need it. Found it down the hill. Just cut the girth on the other side, be easier to get the saddle off."
Bobby nodded to indicate he had heard the instructions and took the familiar Barlow from him. A cool wave of relief settled over him. His plan was complete. It was a horse wreck killed the poor boy. Smile, damn you, John Chisum.
Bobby waited in the cedar brush until Reginald Butler left the whorehouse in Beecher's Canyon. The place was run by a German woman, Greta Stalz, who kept some Mexican working girls for the pleasure of the miners and cowboys in the area. Reginald was a few years older than his brother. Bobby met him at the funeral and despite the cold suspicious edge the Butler clan showed toward him over Zack's death, Bobby acted as if nothing was wrong.
His roundup work for Davis over, he drifted around like a typical unemployed cowboy. He spent a good portion of his pay from Davis at Greta's, drank "a little too much" at the cantina, complained about the cheap ranchers not hiring him. All the time, he was learning the Butlers' patterns, where they went alone and together.
It was mid-morning sun time when he spotted his quarry leaving Greta's. Reginald looked about done inwhen he stumbled out of the whorehouse and made three tries to get on his horse. He rode away from there like a sack of beans in the saddle and once almost fell off. Bobby observed him from a good distance, and became convinced he could ride up undetected and whack him over the head. Then a wonderful idea came to him. Reginald was about to have a terrible wreck. Dragged to death by his own horse.
Bobby rose in the stirrups, looked out across the country. Nothing, no one in sight, only scattered junipers. He spurred the bay on.
"Hold up!" he shouted and saw Reginald look back with his half-opened eyes. He soon joined him.
"Hmm," Butler sniffed and turned away. "It's you."
"Hey, I felt real bad about your brother dying that way."
"Yeah, I bet he'd be alive today if it weren't for you."
Yeah, he would be. So would you. Filled with rage, Bobby drew his Colt, gripped it by the barrel, drove his horse in close and busted Butler in the back of the head with the butt. Butler pitched face first onto the ground. Barely having time to catch the man's spooked horse by the reins, Bobby glanced over his shoulder to be certain Butler had not regained consciousness. He hurriedly led the man's horse back and dismounted.
He grasped Butler's right leg and with some effort forced his boot through the stirrup. Out of breath, he glanced down at Butler who was regaining some awareness.
"What the hell you doing?" Reginald asked, blinking his bleary eyes.
"Sending you to hell with Zack," Bobby said and lashed Butler's horse on the butt.
The animal made a bound, but when he discovered the dangling object at his heels, he kicked up and began to race away. Like a flapping rag doll, Butler was propelled along with his foot stuck in the stirrup. Bobby quickly mounted. He loped his horse down the dusty road after them to becertain the spooked animal did not stop too soon or that Butler's foot came disengaged.
No way anyone could survive the beating and stomping Butler was receiving. Bobby finally reined up. Butler's horse acted like he would run forever to escape the trailing object at his heels. Number two down, one left.
A small cluster of Black Pine's settlers attended Reginald's funeral. Greta and some of her girls dressed up respectable, arrived in a two-seat buckboard, and the putas crossed themselves several times during the services. A bald-headed Baptist preacher with a squeaky voice spoke the sermon above the hard south wind. Old man Butler gave Bobby a hard look when it was over, climbed on his horse and rode off.
The next day, Bobby waited in the brush until the old man left the ranch on horseback, then he went in. Prowling in a shed, he found three hides with Chisum's Lightning brand on them. Proof enough for him that Butler had been killing Chisum's beef. He stood back in the shade of the shed and considered his options. This would be no accident; he needed to show folks the reason why. No one had learned a single thing from those boys' horse wrecks. The old man's death had to show that rustling Chisum stock didn't pay.
Stealthily, Bobby crossed the yard in the midday sun. Looking all about, he tried the front door of the house and found it unlocked. Carefully, he slipped inside. He found no evidence of a woman inside the house--it reeked of stale cigarette smoke, sweaty socks, and horse. The dry sink was piled with dirty dishes and the beds unmade. Filthy blankets were wadded up on the bare mattresses. Bobby found a great leather chair with oak arms and situated it so he could cover the front door and settled into it to wait the owner's return.
It was past sundown when Butler stalked into the dark house, lit a lamp, and then turned as if he realized he was not alone.
"Don't make another move," Bobby said, cocking the Colt in his fist with a loud snap.
"You killed my boys."
"They killed themselves."
"You--" Butler raged.
"You stole the wrong man's cattle."
"Don't try to lie to me, I found the Lightning brands on those hides in your shed. Chisum, he really hates rustlers."
Bobby's first bullet doubled Butler over, the second one spun him around in the haze of bitter gunsmoke and ear-shattering explosions. Then standing over him, Bobby emptied the rest of the ammunition into his body.
Coughing and choking, Bobby fled outside on the porch and used the front of the house to lean on while he regained his breath. When he recovered he went for the hides in the shed, and brought them back. He dragged Butler's limp body outside into the starlight on the porch. Then he rolled his stiffening corpse in the hides, and bound him in his shroud with a lariat rope.
Bobby took Butler's horse from the corral, saddled him, and tied the body over it. Two hours later, he hung Butler's corpse by the neck in his funeral suit of mixed hides from a large oak limb near the crossroads.
With a last look at Butler's twisting form in the silver starlight, Bobby felt satisfied with a job well done and headed for his hideout. Word of this would get to Chisum in a few days and he planned to ride over to the Tanks, collect his money, and find out his next mission.
Three days later, hungover from his private drinking binge at the hideout, Bobby rode to the Tanks. He circled around on the hillside, making certain no one was there, then satisfied it was not occupied, he rode in, dismounted, and pushed open the door. He blinked in disbeliefat his discovery. Seated on a crate was John Chisum, himself.
"Expected me to be here." Chisum closed his eyes as if pained. "You went too far, Bobby. Wrapping him in them hides with my brand on them!" Chisum shook his head in disapproval. "You've got the law all stirred up."
"Hell, I'll keep low for three or four weeks," Bobby protested.
"No. You're too dangerous for me to use."
"They'll settle down."
"No they won't."
"Hell, they can't prove--"
"Those were my hides that you wrapped the son of a bitch up in. It points at me!" Chisum looked at him in disbelief. "Why did you use them? I wanted him killed not a testimony that I was responsible."
"You didn't figure shit. There is only one thing to do. You need to ride out of the territory and do it quick."
Bobby could not believe the man's words. Hell, he had murdered those two brothers, done it all so smoothly they could never point a finger at anyone. And he had used that damn old man's corpse to show the others that they shouldn't rustle his stock. Taken aback by Chisum's disapproval, he shook his head to try and clear it. His stomach balled into a knot. This couldn't be happening.
"Here's five hundred dollars. I want you to shake the dust of New Mexico tonight and not come back."
"Sure, sure," Bobby said, still in shock, jamming the roll of money in his pants. "You won't get a better avenger."
"Maybe I'll hire a smarter one. Now ride out of here before Sheriff Garrett finds you on my place."
"Fuck Garrett." Bobby turned on his heel and went outside. The same to you, Chisum. Folks always said that you turned your back on Billy the Kid the very same wayafter things got hot for him when he was working for you.
Bobby climbed into the saddle. For one last time, he considered with contempt and burning hatred the big man standing in the crude doorway. Without a word he turned away. He never wanted to see that rich bastard again. And after all he'd done for him. Seething wtih rage, he booted the bay horse eastward.
Copyright © 2000 by Dusty Richards.
Posted July 29, 2010
No text was provided for this review.