The sheriff was not a writer of letters, but this was a letter that had to be written. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair at his desk in the little office that fronted the jail, flattened the paper in front him, dipped his pen in ink, cleared his voice, and began:
* * *
It is with considerable and heartfelt regret that I write to inform you that your dear sister and my darling wife, Alexandria, has succumbed to the temptations of a laudanum addiction. I am hoping to enlist your support in a plan to ease her of this affliction because an opportunity to do so has presented itself that I feel we must not fail to take advantage of.
To explain: Recently two ranch hands, employees of the redoubtable Mr. Charles Goodnight, were murdered by party or parties as yet unknown, and two of their friends have taken it upon themselves to locate and apprehend the heinous scoundrel or scoundrels who perpetrated this frightful crime, as well as other even more wicked offenses. One of these two vigilantes, in carrying out his search for the murderer (or murderers), encountered a severely injured orphan, who was brought to our town for treatment by the Dodge City physician, Dr. Heath Jones, the same physician who provides Alexandria with laudanum. I will not bore you with too many details, other than to say that the vigilante had a falling out with Dr. Jones over matters relating to the treatment of the injured orphan. This cowboy, one Saber Shadowblood by name, took it upon himself to render unto Dr. Jones a life lesson, and in doing so, actually and physically kidnapped the said doctor and dragged him unwilling into the southern wilderness. Now, if I had known that such a crime as kidnapping were about to be perpetrated, it would have behooved me, as sheriff, to prevent the crime. But I had no such foreknowledge, and in fact by the time that I learned of the crime, Mr. Shadowblood and his captive, Dr. Jones, were well beyond the jurisdiction wherein it is my duty to enforce the law.
In short, dear Troy, with her source of laudanum no longer available, the opportunity to break my wife (and your sister) of her addiction has presented itself. I am writing to request that you come to Dodge City forthwith to assist me in caring for her during this period of enforced absence of her dependency. And, in case Dr. Jones should return to Dodge during this time, I further request that you travel with our darling Alexandria back to Ohio and stay with her there until such time as her dependency has been alleviated. Should you agree to my proposal, I will of course provide such remuneration as may be required in order to execute this plan.
Very sincerely yours,
George T. Hinkle
Sheriff, Dodge City, and your humble brother-in-law
The sheriff of Dodge City allowed the ink on the paper to dry, then carefully folded the letter, slid it into an envelope, and scrawled Troy Williamson's Ohio address onto it. If he hurried, he could get to the stage office in time for the noontime eastbound express.
Pecos Pete was surprised that the white man named Jack Brane had buried the dead Kiowas. Pecos Pete wasn't sure that he himself would have bothered to bury them. His own people, the Tigua nation, considered the Kiowa to be among the "wild people" who neither built towns nor grew crops, but rather who were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They were uncivilized brutes, to a man.
* * *
But now, living as he did among the white people, Pecos Pete had developed some sympathy for the wild tribes. He had learned that most whites considered both the Pueblo and the wild people to be sub-human. Whites had a tendency to lump them all together as "Red Indians." Over time, that attitude had changed Pete's identity enough so that it was possible for him to identify more with the wild people like the Kiowa.
Back in Dodge, Pete had wondered about the strangeness of white man medicine. Among his own people, a shaman would have performed daily rituals and smokes above the injured child in order to drive away the evil that was the root cause of the illness. The white medicine man's ritual had lasted only a few seconds, and the giving of money to the white shaman seemed more important than anything else in getting the child well. Pecos Pete had picked up on this right away, even quicker than Shadowblood did (which was very strange). The whole scene in the white medicine man's lodge had befuddled Pete. Why was Shadowblood so angry at the shaman?
Later, Pete sat outside the Long Branch while Shadowblood went inside to drink Cutter's whiskey (Red Indians were not allowed inside). Shadowblood had brought his bottle of whiskey outside and shared a little with Pecos Pete.
Pecos Pete shied away from whiskey as a general rule, because he felt it contained evil that made people go loco and get sick. But once in a great while he would allow himself a swallow or two because he felt it was best to go ahead and invite the evil into his body occasionally, to get his body used to the evil, so that if ever a large evil came along, at least his body would know what evil felt like, and therefore might be able to fend against it better than if no evil had ever entered.
And Pete had noticed that Shadowblood, unlike Jack Brane, usually drank only a few sips of whiskey, but on this occasion, shortly after lunch, he was guzzling.
"Pete," said Shadowblood, "Get ready to travel back to camp. I'll be leaving in a minute."
Pete was caught by surprise, since he didn't think they would be leaving till morning, so he didn't rush off to keep pace with the horses like he usually did. Instead, he watched as Shadowblood, somewhat unsteadily, paid the stable mate and saddled his horse. He brought his saddle horse and his spare horse around to the front of the saloon and then waited, continuing to sip his whiskey. He ignored Pecos Pete completely.
After a while, the white medicine man, Heath Jones they called him, stepped out of the Long Branch. Shadowblood brained the shaman with his half-full bottle of whiskey. Heath collapsed, and Shadowblood roped him to his pack horse and set off southwards. Shadowblood rode all the rest of that day, all through the night, and all of the next day with the captive shaman roped on the pack horse. Pecos Pete had shuffled along as fast as could behind them, and just managed to keep up. By evening, they had re-joined Jack Brane.
Now an exhausted Pecos Pete went over to the white man camp, where the three white men were sitting in the twilight. Heath was cursing.
"Take these damned bonds off me," he snarled as Pecos Pete took a seat across the campfire.
"Tell the good doctor I shall do no such thing," said Shadowblood to Jack Brane.
Jack took a drink of whiskey and leaned back on his saddle, which he was using as a backrest. "Now, I've got to hand it to you, Saber. We can always use a physician on a manhunt. Why, this is probably the wisest action I've ever known you to take."
"I have no use for your sarcasm, Jack. I'm dog tired. I need Dr. Heath to shut up so I can catch up on my rest."
"Then you had better stuff a sock in his mouth," said Jack.
Dr. Heath cried, "You'll not be putting anything in my mouth. Why, when I wrest myself free of you two scoundrels, I'll have my revenge on you. You wait and see. You should never make an enemy of a doctor, I can assure you of that."
"The way I see it," continued Jack as if the doctor had said nothing, "he's probably even more wore out than you are. He's been jogging along on the back of that sorry sorrel of yours. That horse's gait is uneven on level ground. The man is plumb exhausted, you can see it on his face."
"Good then," answered Shadowblood. "I shall get some rest as soon as he shuts up."
"Where is the law when it's needed, that's what I'd like to know," said Dr. Heath. He glared at Pecos Pete. "Pecos Pete, get over here and now and release me. Take your knife and cut these ropes."
Pecos looked at Shadowblood, who appeared to have dozed off. Jack Brane was taking another deep draw from his whiskey bottle. He handed the bottle to Pete. "Take a swig, Pete, and then take the bottle over to our physician. Maybe if he gets all liquored up, he'll shut up."
Pete only pretended to take a sip of the evil that was in the bottle; he was much too tired to fend off spirits at this time. Then he rose painfully and limped over to Dr. Heath, who snatched the bottle with his two hands that were tied together. He worked the cork on the bottle and took a deep swig.
"Yes, indeed," proclaimed Jack Brane. "Just genius. Just what we needed, a sawbones, and another mouth to drink our whiskey."
With that, the fire ebbed low, Pete collapsed on his blanket, and everyone fell asleep.
The killer was scoping out what appeared to be a sod house on the Llano. The house was located about a mile from the rim of the canyon of the Canadian River. For miles around the house, sheep were grazing.
* * *
"Sheep!" the killer spat. His sympathies were with the cattle ranchers, not the sheep herders. The killer considered it a very bad sign that sheep herders were settling on the Llano. Where were the murdering Comanche when you needed them? Had the Texas Rangers been so successful in their campaign against the Comanche that the Llano was now safe for the likes of sheep herders?
The more the killer thought about the fact that sheep were now penetrating the wilderness, the hotter his blood ran and the more he wanted to butcher the herders and their flock. He considered it to be a downright impertinent infringement.
As he watched, a woman emerged from the sod house. She had an infant strapped in a bundle on her bosom. The woman had a sharp, angled face and wispy blondish hair. She was thin. She looked tough and worn. The killer took an immediate dislike to her, unslung his Winchester Rifle, and shot the woman right through the bundle on her chest. He rode down to make sure of her. He found her crawling in front of the door of the sod house, vainly trying to creep back inside. She left a slimy trail of blood behind her as she groped.
The killer used the crossbow to finish the woman off. He dragged her lifeless carcass inside the house, where he found a mutton stew boiling on the hearth. There was also some flatbread on a skillet. He helped himself to the victuals, and then found coffee makings and made himself some coffee. He was enjoying his third cup when he heard the sheep outside grow restive, a sign that the sheep man was coming home.
He rose from the table and went to the corpse of the dead wife. He pushed the crossbow bolt through her heart, and then pulled it on through from her back. He loaded the bloody bolt into his crossbow, and took a seat in a rocking chair facing the door to the cabin. Shortly, the door opened, and the sheepherder came in, blinking and staring.
He was a small, wiry man with dark hair and dark beard. He wore a Mexican sarape and a sombrero.
"Veo sangre fuera de la puerta," said the sheep herder.
The killer shot him through the heart with the same bolt that had killed his skinny wife.
Pecos Pete had been trying to communicate with the white men for some time that the killer was near. But they didn't appear to be paying any attention. They were too busy bickering as they rode along. Pete dimly understood that Jack Brane didn't like having the medicine doctor along on the hunt for the killer, though exactly what his objection was, Pete wasn't sure. In the meantime, Pete wasn't clear on why Shadowblood had kidnapped the medicine doctor to begin with. Among his own people, the Tigua, coercing a medicine doctor for any reason whatsoever was unthinkable. If they got angry with you for any reason, they could unleash evil into you, or at the least if you ever got any evil in you, they might refuse to drive it out.
* * *
Pete understood that Shadowblood was angry with the medicine doctor because the medicine doctor had demanded payment for treating the orphan child back in Dodge. But to Pete, that was the medicine man's prerogative. If the medicine priest required money in order to drive away the evil that was in someone, then the medicine priest probably understood that the money was a necessity for driving away the evil. To Pete, it was that simple. But there were subtleties to white culture that were opaque to Pete. Apparently, even a non-medicine priest like Shadowblood could challenge decisions of the spirit made by a specialist like Jones.
Finally, there was the fact that the medicine doctor, Jones, was himself very unhappy about having been kidnapped. But, really, thinking about white man culture often made Pete's head hurt, so he just concentrated on keeping his eye on the killer's track.
The scene at the sheepherder's camp had been truly barbaric. Even though they had taken an entire day off from the chase to bury the sheepherding family (a man, a woman, and their infant), they were still gaining on the killer, which gave Pete pause. It almost seemed as if the killer was dawdling along, as if he knew he was being followed, and wanted to make sure his followers caught up with him.
In fact, in studying the tale-tell signs left by the killer, Pete became more and more convinced that something dire was about to happen. He felt that the killer was laying a trap for the tracking party. But when Pete went back to the three white men, and gestured, and signed, and cleared his throat, and gestured some more, all he got was more bickering:
Brane: "We had a nice, organized, efficient little killer tracking party going on, but you had to up and ruin it by dragging this loud-mouthed, uncouth, uncivilized madman of a doctor into it."
Jones: "Who are you calling uncivilized, you barbaric savage? Why, if you were to sever these bonds, I'd—"
Shadowblood: "I've already explained it to you, Jack. The good doctor here misbehaved himself in Dodge. He refused to treat the orphan child until such time as his fee was rendered. Meanwhile, the health of the child was endangered by his delay and procrastination. It is my considered opinion that a doctor of medicine should treat the injured first and worry about his compensation second."
Brane: "Since when is it your job to concern yourself with the compensation received by Dodge City physicians, Saber?"
Jones: "You're both of you swine."
Pete: "Hmmph! Hmmph!"
Then Pecos Pete collapsed.
The killer first became aware of the tracking party shortly after the murder of the sheep herding family. He dragged the bodies outside and spent the night in the sod hut, finishing off the stew and coffee the next morning. Then he spent the day killing sheep, and by nightfall, the idea of another night in the luxury of the sheepherder's bed was quite attractive to him.
* * *
But when he headed back to the sod hut, he was alarmed to find the party of three white men and Pecos Pete. They had just finished burying the dead as night was falling, but the killer knew what the presence of Pecos Pete meant. It meant they were on his trail, because Pecos Pete was known throughout the wilderness as one of the finest trackers that lived.
So, the killer laid a plain trail that would lead the vigilantes to an ambush of his choosing. And the plan worked perfectly.
The killer sighted down the barrel of his Winchester. He wanted to take Pecos Pete out first. Without Pete, the party would be deaf and blind, and even if he didn't kill all of them in this surprise attack, they would be without Pete's services, and he should be able to lose them on the Llano.
One thing that didn't make sense is why one of the cowboys, the one dressed all in black, was trussed up. Had they already made one arrest?
The killer put the anomaly out of his mind, aimed for Pete's heart, and pulled the trigger.
Pete collapsed first and they heard the crack of the rifle's report second. Shadowblood and Brane were men of the prairie, and their response was rapid and confident. They slipped off their ponies, grabbed the fallen Indian, and scuttled for cover behind a boulder, letting Dr. Jones fend for himself. Jones deliberately fell from his horse and lay still, hoping the sniper would assume he had been knocked out by the fall.
* * *
Bullets peppered the bald scalp of the boulder behind which Shadowblood and Brane crouched.
"Now I hope you see the foolhardiness of bringing that damned physician out here," spat Brane. "He's laying out there playing possum."
"If he gets plugged, then by God he deserves it. But here, give me some covering fire, and I will see if I can get him to safety."
Brane popped up and fired shots at the hillock ahead, where he assumed the sniper was embedded. Shadowblood sprinted for Dr. Jones, hauled him to his feet, and together they ran in a crouch as the sniper's bullets spawned tiny dust storms at their boots. A bullet entered Shadowblood's left thigh, ripping through the quadriceps femoris muscle and lodging in the biceps femoris. Despite the injury, Shadowblood limped to the relative safety of the boulder. He took a knife from its scabbard on his belt and cut the ropes from Dr. Jones. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a Seated Liberty, which he slapped in Jones's palm. "See to Pete," he said between clinched teeth. He used the rope he had cut from the doctor as a tourniquet on his own thigh.
"Did you see him?" Shadowblood asked Brane.
"No, but I saw the smoke from his rifle. He's up there," answered Brane, gesturing towards the hillock.
For once, Heath Jones was silent. He looked for a few moments at the coin in his hand, the coin which Shadowblood had smacked there with contempt. Jones let the coin fall into the dust and turned to look at the Indian.
What he found wasn't good. The bullet had entered the Indian's shoulder from the rear, and impacted with the scapula and the clavicle as it attempted to exit. The pain must have been excruciating. Fortunately, Pete was unconscious. Still, Jones would need his physician's bag, which was tied to the saddle of the horse on which he had been riding.
Brane said, "You and Pete are out of it, and the doc here is useless. Guess that leaves it up to me."
Heath Jones wanted to protest that he was far from useless in the situation, but again he kept quiet.
"What do you have in mind?" asked Shadowblood.
"Your turn to provide covering fire. I'll try to get mounted and make a run at him."
"So . . . what exactly is it that you have in mind?" asked Shadowblood.
Brane outlined his plan.
As Shadowblood stood and fired successive blasts at the sniper's location on the hill, Brane bolted for his horse. Simultaneously, Jones bolted for his.
Jones used his pocket knife to free his physician's bag from the saddle of his horse and scampered back behind the boulder, while Brane threw himself on his pony and kicked the mount into action. The horse, quick as lightning, zigged left and zagged right. At the base of the hill, Brane turned left. He and his pony vanished from sight.
The killer's plan to ambush the vigilantes began to go awry when not one, but two of the party bolted from their cover to their horses. The killer hesitated. Which to fire on? He noticed that the man in black had been freed. Now, why would they do that? The killer had even entertained fantasies that he might spare the man who had been captured by his hunters. Of course, he was a killer, and eventually he would kill everyone who crossed his path in the wilderness, but it might have been fun to have a companion for a while.
* * *
These thoughts caused the killer to hesitate, so that by the time he got off a hurried a shot, he knew he had missed. With uncanny speed, the wrangler was atop his pony and rushing towards his hideout on the hill in a cloud of dust and pebbles. The killer managed only one more shot, which missed. In a panic, he made a run for his own horse.
He didn't make it. Brane was on him with a profound suddenness. The killer didn't even have time to draw his pistol. Brane shot him in the head.
The killer was killed.
By the time Jack Brane rode back to the camp behind the boulder, Heath Jones had gathered a bundle of mesquite branches and had a fire going. He was trying to boil water in a pan.
* * *
"Well, Saber, does this hombre here look familiar to you?" asked Brane as he rode up, towing the body of the killer on a second horse.
"Why, that looks like Charlie Goodnight's preacher brother," exclaimed Shadowblood.
"That's what I thought as well. One damned murderous preacher, if you ask me."
Heath Jones looked up from his preparations. He had never met Charlie Goodnight, much less his brother. But if the brother of the famous rancher was the killer they were after, then Jones was good and glad he was dead.
"I have a minute while this water is boiling," said Dr. Jones to Saber Shadowblood. "Let me look at your leg."
"You'll not lay a hand on me till you've been properly compensated, sir. Jack, do me a favor, lead my horse over here and dig another dollar out of my saddlebag to give to the good doctor here."
"Now—" Dr. Jones protested.
But Shadowblood held up a hand. "I won't hear a word of it. Until you've had your pay, you'll not be allowed to treat me."
Jones exhaled heavily in exasperation, but he had no choice but to take the cowboy's implied criticism. He accepted another silver dollar that Jack Brane handed him from Shadowblood's saddle bag, and even took a moment to find the Seated Liberty he had dropped earlier in the dust. He opened his black physician's bag, took out a vial of laudanum and a small flask of whiskey and handed both of them to Shadowblood.
"Drink both of these. You're going to need it when I start digging that bullet out of your thigh."
Pecos Pete was riding a horse. It was the oddest sensation. It made him feel like the master of the world, to sit so high, swaying back and forth with the gait of the powerful creature below him, watching the dusty landscape between the Llano Estacado and Dodge City roll past him like a dream.
Pete knew that Saber Shadowblood had paid the white medicine man to draw the evil bullet out of his shoulder while he lay fainted and helpless. He had a spent a few days wandering in the spirit world, sometimes coming to at night in front of a small camp fire, and other times trying to keep up with his soul as it traveled out beyond the stars and back.
Finally, he was well enough to travel, and the white men had tied him to a horse, and for the first time in his life, he was riding, not walking, jogging, or running. Pete couldn't get the smile off his face, even though the pain across his collar bone was like a burning coal that wouldn't cool off. They took the killer back to the JA, where Charlie Goodnight shook his head in a saddened wonder that his own brother, whom he had thought was a righteous man, was actually the killer.
And in fact, other than the testimony of the three white men and the Indian who had been ambushed, there was no real evidence that Richard Goodnight had been a murdering fiend. It was enough that he was dead, shot in the head after ambushing people. But why would a man of God, sober and pure, ambush these men? Charlie Goodnight knew Jack Brane and Saber Shadowblood to be among the finest of his corps of cowboys, men unlikely to invent slanders.
Still, he gave his brother what would pass as a Christian burial.
Brane and Shadowblood elected to stay on at the JA while Shadowblood convalesced from his leg wound. But Heath Jones and Pecos Pete left for Dodge shortly after the funeral.
And now Pecos was riding. Riding! Into Dodge City, on a fine palomino.
They rode right up to Heath Jones's professional office and dismounted. Pecos Pete sat outside on the boardwalk, huddled in his blanket.
Jones fingered the plaque on the wall next to the door of his office.
Payment is due at the time that services are rendered
Dr. Heath Jones, M.D.
He carefully lifted the plaque from the hooks that held it. He looked up the alley that ran between the building that housed his office and the next building in Dodge. A pile of rubbish was heaped up near the rear of the alley. He tossed the plaque into the trash.
"Pete, I've got to go check on that orphan child that I left with the school teacher. Then I'll be back. Stay here, because I'll be wanting to re-dress your wound. Understand?"
Pecos Pete nodded, and looked out across the dusty streets of Dodge City.