The killer looked down the sights of his Winchester Model 1873 rifle and chuckled to himself. Two wranglers on their cow horses, their lariats coiled neatly within reach, bobbed along a rocky path at the bottom of a ravine. It had been dry for a month, and the day was clear. The wranglers would never know what hit them. Well, the first one wouldn't know. The second one would be watching the first one die, and be wondering what had happened, and would hear the report of the rifle. And just as he figured out what had happened, then the killer would shoot him, as well. But before the second wrangler died, he might know that he had been killed by a sniper.
* * *
But he wouldn't know why he had been killed by sniper. To the killer's sensibilities, that was exciting, because he was sure that everyone would assume that the motive was robbery. Certainly, he would rob the victims, once they were dead. There was no sense in wasting the opportunity. The killer would be wanted for murder whether he robbed the wranglers or not, so he might as well rob them. After all, the killer enjoyed the occasional bottle of whiskey, and he needed to buy ammunition for his Winchester and bolts for his crossbow, so he could keep on killing. And he had other expenses. You could eat only so many jackrabbits and so many rattlesnakes before you started wanting some real beef, maybe with some gravy and rice and some beans, and maybe cooked by somebody who knew what they were doing. So it was good to have some money and to go into town, especially now before there was a witness, before he had made some mistake to give his identity away, and he would rob the wranglers, if they had anything of value, that was for sure.
But that was not the reason that the killer killed. The reason that the killer killed is that he liked it. It gave him a sense of power, an intoxicating sense of superiority, to bushwhack strangers and take their life from them. Just for the hell of it.
With that thought, the killer squeezed the trigger, and the first wrangler fell out of the saddle, dead before he hit the ground. The killer moved his sights to the second wrangler, who turned out to be smarter than the killer had bargained for, because he was already sliding out of the saddle and yanking his rifle from its saddle scabbard, and trying to sidle away off the path, which told the killer that the second wrangler had already figured out what was happening, much faster than the killer had imagined. But it didn't do the second wrangler any good, because the killer was a good shot, and he had a quick hand, a quick finger and—most important—a quick mind.
With both cowboys lying dead on the path below, the killer packaged his Winchester and led his horse down into the barren ravine. He scuffled over rocks and slid down the gravelly slope, urging his horse to follow. The mournful cawing of a chicken hawk echoed off the boulders. The killer poked each dead man with his boot to see if there was any life, but with two shots he had taken two lives, and that's the way the killer liked it.
He rifled through the pockets of the dead men, and then through their saddle bags. He found their money. They had probably been paid in Dodge City; they were probably going back to Texas. They probably had big plans to buy their own ranch and build their own cattle empire, but the killer had ended all of that for them.
The killer stripped their horses and checked the brands. Both horses sported a C with a distinctive tail mark. It would be child's play to add another C and eventually re-sell the horses, as well, but the killer didn't want to fool with it. Nothing attracted the attention of the authorities like horse thievery. The killer knew that the authorities would take an interest in him for his murders and his robberies, but being a good horse thief required more time and patience than the killer wanted to put into it. He released the cow horses. Maybe they would find a herd of wild horses to join. Then they would be free to roam as they pleased. The killer smiled. Not everything he did was bad. It was good to free the horses, to let them live the life they were designed to lead.
The killer mounted his own horse. He left the dead men where they lay and headed north for Dodge City.
Saber Shadowblood poured his friend Ajax "Jack" Brane another drink of whiskey, but didn't top his own off. Saber didn't have the head for whiskey that Jack had. He had to pace himself, where Jack could rip through a whole bottle in an evening all by himself.
* * *
"Where's Hinkle?" Jack was asking. "We come all this way, now where is he? Where's their horses? Where's their gear?"
Saber had no answers. He understood his friend's impatience. When they heard that Andrew and Martin Campbell had been killed and robbed south of Dodge City, they had veered off their return path to the JA Ranch. So far, all they had seen were the fresh mounds in the cemetery where their friends were buried.
They drank in silence for a while, enjoying the freedom to do so now that they were not under Charlie Goodnight's thumb; or, rather Jack drank in silence while Saber took only a sip or two. Few other customers lingered in the Long Branch Saloon. When at last a tall, lanky figure with a star pinned prominently on his vest strode in, the two friends rose from their table and went over to greet him.
"You two boys friends of the deceased?" asked George T. Hinkle, sheriff of Dodge City. His steady gaze sized the two cowboys up. He didn't wait for an answer. "If you boys can draw the brand on those horses, I'll release them to you, and the saddles and other gear that we recovered, under the condition that you take them to the Campbell family down there on the Llano. You understand?"
Jack started to say something, but Saber, who was less drunk, put a firm hand on his friend's shoulder and stepped forward. Without a word, Saber adroitly traced the C with the distinctive tail into the dust that liberally coated the surface of the table on which their bottle of Cutter's whiskey sat. Hinkle nodded and said curtly, "Come with me."
Charlie Goodnight rode with his itinerant preacher brother, Richard, through the Palo Duro Canyon. Muted greens and browns combined with spectacular views of cliffs and rock formations across an expansive, mountainous landscape. The abundant water at the canyon's bottom was lined with mesquite and juniper trees, the leaves and branches of which tossed about in a dance with a cooling breeze. But neither man was interested in the beauty of the canyon. Charlie was explaining to his brother how John Adair had funded his efforts to establish the first outpost of civilization in the wilderness of the Texas panhandle. And that's how the ranch got its name: JA.
* * *
It was a rare delight for Charlie to see his brother, who roamed from place to place spreading the Word of God. Charlie was so proud of his brother, and so proud of the JA Ranch. It wasn't the opportunity of just anyone to come out into a God-forsaken wilderness and found a ranch. That took something that only somebody like Charlie Goodnight had. Now Charlie was the boss of hundreds of men, most of whom, he well knew, were drunken louts, though there was the occasional decent human among them. Charlie Goodnight did not permit strong drink on the JA Ranch, which is one of the reasons that he would succeed.
Even though the ranch had just completed its first cattle drive north and east, there was still plenty to do on the JA. Fences needed mending, the breeding stock needed tending. With the proceeds from the first drive, Goodnight was building barns and dormitories for the cowboys. The echoes of hammers pounding on planks echoed across the wide canyon floor. But of course Goodnight's pride, and his first priority, was the church.
As the brothers rode up to the nearly completed edifice, Charlie broached the subject of needing a preacher. "You know, a roughened wrangler needs a strong hand to guide him through the temptations of this wicked world, brother. Having a church to worship in is just the beginning. I need someone who can speak God's word to these cowboys on Sundays and Wednesdays, and probably other days of the week, too."
"Well, brother," said Richard. "Let me tell you, there is evil on the land."
"Meaning it is my calling to be out there amid the evil on the land, and not pent up in a church."
"Is that your final word? There's many a traveling preacher would give his arm to settle onto the JA and preach in its brand new chapel."
"The Lord has called me into the wilderness, Charlie. He calls me there, still. The heathen beckon. They are needy for the word of God, and it is my calling to speak it to them."
"Well, amen to that, Richard," replied Charlie. "And it's so good to know that you're out there trying to spread the good word among the savages and the cowboys."
Richard Goodnight was amused by that thought, and clutched his Bible tighter to his chest. He wondered how long his stupid brother would continue to believe he was really a preacher.
The killer was having a prolific day. At dawn he had sighted a puff of dust far from any settlement and far from any prying eyes. Careful not to raise any dust himself, he had tracked towards the telltale evidence and before lunch had located its source. A family of three in an open wagon, going west. All by themselves. Like idiots. And, like idiots, the killer quickly surmised, they were being followed not just by himself, but by two Red Indians on ponies.
* * *
The killer wanted to kill both the Red Indians and the settlers. After all, he had decided to be a killer; killing was now his thing. He wanted to kill any human beings who crossed his path in his wanderings, as long as there were no witnesses.
For situations like this, the killer carried an unusual weapon: a crossbow, with which he had practiced and practiced until he was quite proficient, both at shooting the weapon and at reloading it quickly. Thus it was that two members of the Kiowa nation silently met their end on the Llano Estacado near the Canadian River. The settlers, plodding along up ahead, probably thinking erroneously that they were on the Chisholm Trail, had no idea that behind them two murders had occurred. If killing Red Indians could actually be considered murder, a fact about which the killer had his doubts. But if it wasn't murder, at least it was killing, which is what a killer was supposed to be doing.
So the killer was satisfied in his own mind, at least.
The killer riffed through the belongings of the dead Kiowa men, finding only a few coins in their pockets. The Indian ponies had no brands, so the killer roped them and would use them as pack animals until he could find a buyer. Or if hard times came, he could eat them.
He pulled the bolts out of the corpses, wiped them clean, and replaced them along with the crossbow in his saddle quiver. Good killing, the killer reflected, requires one to be organized, methodical, and thoughtful.
He turned his attention to the settlers, who, pathetically, had made only modest westward progress while he had been attending to the Red Indians. He made quick work of circling far around the two plodding plow horses that were hauling the rickety wagon that contained Papa, Mama, and Waif, and all their earthly belongings.
The northern escarpment of the Llano Estacado was no place for a family of solitary travelers, thought the killer. The canyon dug by the Canadian River was rocky and precipitous. Here and there were weather-carven slopes where you might be able to get the horses down to the water, but they were few and far between. The Kiowa and the Comanche knew of small springs on the Llano, but few white people knew where they were. Occasional large pools of dark brown muddy water dotted the Llano and drew water fowl, the so-called playa lakes. But no significant spring water was available until you got to Monument Spring, which was still three days ride to the west. In the case of the plodding settlers, it was five days away. The killer became more and more amazed at the very existence of this family in such a place at such a time, and he decided that they deserved to die for their ignorance and their impudence and that he was just the man to do it, and so he would do it, but after all he really needed no reason to kill them, because he had decided he was a killer and that killing is what he did. So he would kill them, just as he killed the two cowboys and the two Red Indians. And after he killed the family of settlers, he would kill anyone else he came across out here in the wilderness. That was his ambition.
The killer chose a likely ambush spot near the canyon and waited for the settlers' wagon to haul into view. He sighted down Papa first, fired, and watched the man drop the reins and tumble off the wagon. Mama grabbed Waif and stuck him under a tarp on the bed of the wagon just as the killer fired again. He hit Mama in the shoulder and spun her around, so he had to fire again to kill her. She slumped but did not fall from her perch on the wagon. The two plow horses slowed down and stopped. They stood stupidly waiting for somebody to tell them what to do.
The killer thought about just firing on the lump in the tarp where Waif was, but decided that it would be more fun to go see what the kid was like. He left his horse where it was hobbled, and strode with his Winchester in hand towards the wagon. He yanked the tarp aside. The Waif was burbling and snot was running from his nose, but he had a large handgun and he had it pointed right at the killer's face, and he was trying to pull the trigger. The killer snatched the gun from the kid's hands.
"This is a Smith and Wesson 32 Double Action handgun," the killer explained. "The safety is right here." The killer showed the Waif where the safety was and showed him how to slide the safety to off. "Now the gun will work," the killer said, and fired it into the air.
The kid cooed and burped and hiccupped and coughed. The killer grabbed the kid by his hair and flung him from the wagon. The child landed roughly and stopped moving. The killer kicked the Waif in the head and left him for dead.
He took the traces off the plow horses and shooed them away. He leisurely went through the pathetic belongings of the settlers, but found nothing of value. He went through Papa's pockets and found a few dollars, which he stuffed into his own pockets. All the while he kept an eye on the Waif, and there was no sign of life.
With a feeling of satisfaction at a good day's work done, the killer went back to his horse, released the hobble, mounted, gathered the Indian ponies, and rode slowly away.
Pecos Pete watched the two white men from hooded eyes. They were examining the site where the two Kiowa had been killed and murmuring to one another. Occasionally the sandy-haired one, the one named Shadowblood, would look at Pecos Pete and then look back at the crime scene. The smaller, dark-haired white man, the one named Brane, didn't even get down off his horse.
* * *
The white men had two horses each, and yet Pecos Pete could make better time on foot than they could with their four horses. This was a fact that the white man named Brane found amazing and which he could not refrain from remarking on. Pecos Pete, if asked, would explain that he left early and marched late, which is why he could make better time on foot than a white man could on horseback, but no one ever asked him. He could also say that instead of stopping for lunch, he just ate a handful of jerky as he walked, and that's how he made such good time. But they never actually asked him; instead they asked each other questions like this, late last night, after Pecos Pete joined them at their campfire:
"How's he do it?" Jack asked.
"How's he do what?" Saber said.
"How's he keep up with us when he don't even have a horse?"
"I don't know. Takes short cuts, I reckon."
"Short cuts? How can you take short cuts across the Llano Estacado? Look around you! It's flat as fry bread. How do you take a short cut across a plain?"
The white men couldn't stop without making a fire. They had to have their coffee in the morning and they had to have their firewater in the evening. These things slowed them down, but they couldn't figure out how Pecos Pete could keep up with them.
Now, Pecos Pete wondered if the white men would be finished looking at the dead Kiowa, because the dead white people were just ahead, and the little boy that needed help. Finally, he signaled to Shadowblood. Shadowblood understood and mounted his sorrel and followed slowly after Pecos Pete. Brane lagged behind.
The canyon rim curved ahead, and around that curve was Death's next surprise, as Pecos Pete thought of it. The two white men had hired him to help find the man or men who had killed their friends. Sheriff Hinkle had told them that Pecos Pete was the best tracker in the west, and the two white men paid Pecos Pete up front and promised more when they caught the killer. So Pecos Pete went to the first murder site and saw the hoof prints that no one else could see, the hoof prints that led back to Dodge, and then the hoof prints that led back out of Dodge, all the way down to the Canadian River, where the hoof prints crossed the river, and then the hoof prints had led Pecos Pete to the two dead Kiowa and the dead settlers, and the little boy that wasn't quite dead, but who would be dead soon if he didn't get some help from the white men's medicine. Pecos Pete, when he found the boy, had given the boy some water to drink, because the little boy needed it. But Pecos Pete knew that the little boy was a white little boy, so he needed white man's medicine, though a red man's water would do for a while.
So Pecos Pete had sprinted, Pecos Pete had jogged, Pecos Pete had shuffled until he caught up with the two white men, who had once again misunderstood his instructions and had wandered further south than he told them to go. Pecos Pete spoke to the white men by moving his arms and making gestures and grunting the occasional white man word, and he thought the one named Shadowblood understood he was to go west and follow the canyon rim, because that's what the killer's horse had done, but instead the white men had strayed northward from the canyon's rim, and last night at the camp fire when Pecos Pete caught up with them, he tried to make them understand that they should march through the night to try to get to the little boy in time, but they had insisted they were too tired and couldn't go on, even though all they had done was sit atop their horses all day long.
Pecos Pete liked horses, but he had never learned to ride a horse, and he never intended to. People all around him were obsessed with horses; they rode horses even when walking would do. In Dodge, he had seen Sheriff Hinkle get up on his horse and ride it across the street and dismount, a thing which Pecos Pete thought was just a wonderful piece of sloth. But Pecos Pete was all right with it, because he liked horses, he maybe even thought that horses were spirit-beings, and Pecos Pete liked looking at horses and liked the way that horses looked at him with their big eyes.
Then the white men had seen the dead Kiowas, and they still didn't understand that the little boy needed attention, and fast. They lollygagged and dithered and wasted time, even though Pecos Pete told them over and over with his body language that he was anxious that they come with him on up to where the little boy was dying. There was a white medicine man in Dodge City, and they needed to get that little boy up there as soon as they could.
When Saber found the little boy and realized he was alive, he understood suddenly why the Indian named Pecos Pete had kept saying "Dodge! Dodge!" He called to Jack, "Look at this, he's left behind a live one."
Jack joined him, took one look at the Waif, and said, "Gotta get this kid to Dodge, pronto. I'll stay here and bury the dead. Saber, you and Pecos take the kid to town. I'll camp here and wait for you to come back."
Now, after all their delay and dallying about, the white men were suddenly very vigorous and energetic and focused. The change was really quite stunning. But white people were always surprising Pecos Pete, the same way Death surprised him at every turn. With the white people around, Pecos Pete was learning that wherever you went in this life, Death was waiting and wanting to surprise you.
Early in the morning, Dr. Heath Jones, dressed as usual in his grave, black suit, gave another bottle of laudanum to Sheriff Hinkle's wife, Alexandria, and escorted her out of the examination room. She continued to prattle on about her weakness and her stuffy nose, but she had got what she wanted—the laudanum—and so she wasn't quite as emphatic as she had been before she had entered the doctor's offices.
At the door, Dr. Jones pointed meaningfully at the plaque hung there, which stated, in bold Gothic style lettering:
Payment is due at the time that services are rendered
Dr. Heath Jones, M.D.
"Oh, of course," cried the embarrassed Mrs. Hinkle. She wasn't altogether an unattractive woman, but she wasn't combing her hair and she wasn't keeping her dresses clean and pressed. And that's about what you would expect from an addict. She lifted her purse up right under her nose and dug about in it until she found a hefty Seated Liberty silver dollar, which she placed in Dr. Jones's expectant, outstretched palm. He kept his hand outstretched and lifted it up and down very subtly. Mrs. Hinkle resumed poking about in her purse and produced two Shield nickels. Dr. Jones nodded and bowed.
Mrs. Hinkle darted out the door, no doubt headed for her boudoir, where she would gulp down half the bottle of laudanum and then pass out. At least she would be out of George's hair for a while.
Dr. Jones went out the door with Mrs. Hinkle, lit a cigar, exhaled its fumes, and then leaned back against the wall to watch the morning traffic in Dodge City. At once he spied trouble, in the form of a cowboy and a Pueblo Indian coming towards his office. The cowboy carried a bundle wrapped in a blanket on the pommel of his horse's saddle, while the Indian jogged along next to the horse. Heath Jones had developed what amounted to a sixth sense for trouble during his years as the sole physician in Dodge City. Perhaps it was the tense look on the cowboy's face, or the rigid way he held his bundle. At any rate, Dr. Jones knew it was trouble.
And it was.
The cowboy dismounted fluidly from the horse, expertly handling his bundle as he did so. The Indian—Jones recognized him now as Pecos Pete, the tracker—took a position next to the open door of the doctor's offices.
"Excuse me, you're Doc Jones, ain't ye?"
Jones removed the cigar from his mouth and exhaled impatiently. "Yes, yes."
"I'm Saber Shadowblood, work for old Charlie Goodnight down on the Llano. Got an injured child here."
Jones extinguished his cigar by dropping it onto the wooden sidewalk and crushing it under the heel of his snakeskin boot. He made it a point to gesture to the sign on the door:
Payment is due at the time that services are rendered
Dr. Heath Jones, M.D.
He arched his eyebrows meaningfully at the wrangler named Saber Shadowblood.
Shadowblood narrowed his eyes to express his irritation at the doctor's gesture. "Look here, doc, you just take care of this child; I'll see you get your fees."
"That's fine, Mr. Shadowblood. You have to understand my requirement, that's all. I can't provide any services unless I'm paid. I have to have that policy here, or I just couldn't stay in business."
Shadowblood was curt in his response. "Bank opens at 10, I reckon. I deposited my wages for a cattle drive from Mr. Goodnight just a week or so ago. So I'm good for it. Far as that goes, when word gets round there's an injured orphan here, there's going to be plenty good folk stepping forward to help out. So I reckon you'll get your fee. Just get to work."
Heath Jones shrugged and led the cowboy into the examination room. Shadowblood gingerly laid his bundle on the table there and backed off.
"Do you know what's wrong with him?" the physician asked, as he unfolded the blanket to take a look.
"Looks to me like he got kicked in the head, but I ain't the doctor." Shadowblood was virtually snarling. He had taken an instant dislike to Dr. Jones the moment the payment policy had been made plain to him. Dr. Jones didn't care. He had seen too many doctors in too many towns cheapen and weaken their economic position by consistently doing pro bono work. In a place like Dodge, you would end up doing pro bono work for drunks, whores, rapists, killers and other assorted ne'er-do-wells if you did any pro bono work at all, so Dr. Jones had no doubts—no doubts at all—that his payment policy was correct. Few others saw it that way, but he didn't care. Did they expect the stable to feed, groom, water, and shelter their horses for free? Did they expect to go into the Long Branch and drink their Cutter's for free? Did they expect to go over to the general store and buy sacks of flower and slabs of bacon for nothing? The answer was, no. So why did no one anticipate or expect that the medical doctor might also want to get paid, just as the farrier was paid for shoeing a horse?
Shadowblood stood by, watching as the sawbones examined the patient. Jones opened the boy's closed eyes, peered into the boy's mouth and ears. He took a small rubber hammer and whacked the boy's knee with it. The doctor sighed and stood back.
"This boy's in a coma. He's going to need pretty much constant attention, or he will die. He may die anyway. The only thing I've got for him is to watch him, try to get sugar water down his throat five times a day, and clean up the messes he's going to make. That's going to cost a dollar a day for who knows how long. You'd better to take him over to the school and see if Miss Downager will take care of him. She don't have nothing else to do right now, bein' as it's summer."
"A dollar a day? Are you out of your mind?"
"My time is valuable, Mr. Shadowblood. Much more valuable than yours. If you want him to stay here, it'll be a dollar day. Otherwise, take him somewhere else."
"Why, you mean, heartless, hateful swine. Can't you see there's a child in need here? And all you can think about is your stinking dollar a day?"
"You can leave now, Mr. Shadowblood. And take the kid with you, unless you plan to leave a dollar for the first day. As it is, you owe me fifty cents for the examination and the instructions about sugar water five times a day."
Shadowblood clenched and unclenched his fists several times. "I already told you. The bank opens at 10. I just came in off the trail. My money's in the bank. I'll be back with your fee directly after 10."
Pecos Pete glided into the examination room on silent moccasins, two coins in his hand. Without a word, he put the coins next to the limp body of the boy on the examination table, picked the boy up, and carried him outside to the busy traffic in Dodge City.
Shadowblood left in a wordless, stiff-shouldered huff. Dr. Jones picked up the two coins and put them in his pocket.