"This is your chance to tell me why I shouldn't kill you on the spot." Bob Skinner lifted a nickeled Smith and Wesson American out of a drawer and laid it on his desk. His big leather-covered chair creaked as he leaned back. Two of his men stood at either end of the desk with guns trained on Doña Ana County deputy sheriff Matt Cutter, who stood across the desk from Skinner.
Skinner's army of border thugs had already killed the county sheriff and another deputy who, along with Cutter, had crossed the Mexican border and followed two of them back to Skinnerville following a bank robbery in Las Cruces. Skinner was going to kill him anyway, and Matt Cutter wasn't about to spend his last few moments on earth groveling to the cutthroat son-of-a-bitch. "Just do what you're gonna do," he said. "And give my regards to your brother, Dick."
Skinner tilted his head and arched one eyebrow. "Well, that will be hard to do, as I don't have a brother named Dick."
After a few seconds, the Mexican at the right end of the desk stepped around, leaned over and whispered something into Skinner's ear, then returned to his position at the end of the desk. Skinner's eyes narrowed, then he nodded and looked at Cutter as he picked up the revolver. "Suarez, here, tells me you're a funny boy. Dick Skinner, as in get your dick skinner off my tortilla. Trouble is, I don't like funny boys."
Skinner cocked the revolver. "But there is something I like even less than funny boys, and that is somebody that thinks I'm stupid, and he has to explain things to me. Pardon me a moment." He pointed his gun at Suarez, whose eyes were in the process of doubling in size when Skinner shot him. Suarez took a step backwards but didn't fall immediately, so Skinner shot him again and watched as he collapsed. The hallway door to Skinner's office flew open and three of his men rushed inside, guns in hand, glancing in bewilderment. Skinner turned the .44 on them and cocked the hammer. "Get out and stay out or you're next!" he bellowed. They hastily left and closed the door behind them.
The gun smoke hung heavy in the still air of the room, and Skinner waved at it with his left hand as he turned back to Cutter. "I'm so sorry. Now, where were we?"
Cutter shook his head. "I heard you were a crazy bastard."
"You heard right." The outlaw at the other end of the desk was the man who spoke, a Norte Americano dressed in Mexican garb. Skinner turned to him in amazement as the outlaw pulled the trigger. The chair creaked as Skinner fell against the back cushion and dropped his gun.
"Vic Carradine. Deputy U.S. Marshal. You just fouled-up six-months-worth of work."
Cutter glanced at the office door. "Don't worry about them," said Carradine. "They know he meant what he said. Let's get you out of here."
Cutter stared at Carradine. "You were in the fight. I saw you shoot one of your own men."
Carradine crossed the room, knelt down, and removed Suarez' gun belt. "One of their men, dumb ass. Three of them, in fact, when nobody was looking. Trying to make it an easier fight when the army comes." He shoved Suarez' pistol into the holster and handed the rig to Cutter. "This might fit."
"The army?" Cutter buckled on the gun belt. It fit. The weight on his hip was comforting. He drew the Colt to make sure it was loaded and took more comfort in the row of cartridges he felt on the belt.
Carradine spoke rapidly as he picked up Suarez' sombrero and motioned for Cutter to come with him to the window. "I've been down here gathering information about raids out of Skinnerville that went north of the border. Our government won't piss off the Mexican government over a few stolen cows, but they'll send the army if they have proof of repeated depredations, as they call it. I've got a list as long as your arm. I was about ready to high tail it back to Santa Fe when you shit birds showed up."
"The sheriff didn't know you were here."
"Nobody did." They were on the second floor of the hacienda. The rest of the buildings in Skinnerville were adobe, and consisted of barracks, store rooms, a handful of private dwellings, and the like. But the hacienda was a wood frame, airy, two-story house. The door behind Skinner's desk led to a balcony that featured a stairway down to the rear courtyard. No one was out and about in the midday heat.
Carradine pointed to three horses tied to a rail near the foot of the stairs. "The bay with the brass-jawed carbine in the scabbard is Suarez'," he said. "It's one of the fastest runners on the place. They're big on horse races around here." He put the sombrero on Cutter's head and opened the door.
"Won't they wonder why I didn't kill you too?"
"I'll think up a story, and they'll believe it." He nodded toward Skinner's body. "I married his sister a few weeks back."
"Well, you're damn sure dedicated. I hope she's not as crazy as he was."
"Borderline, but you ought to see her. Run that horse until it drops. With luck, you'll be close to the border, maybe even across. I think I can keep them off your tail."
Cutter started for the door, then stopped and turned a hard scowl on Carradine. "What if he hadn't shot that mex, and was getting ready to shoot me?"
Carradine gave back as hard a look as he got. "Just count your blessings and go. But before you do, take that pistol and give me a good lick."
"Well, I guess I don't mind if I do." Cutter wasn't fond of the notion that a federal lawman might have let Skinner kill him to protect his mission. He drew the Colt and delivered a satisfying backhanded blow across Carradine's forehead with the 7 - 1/2 inch barrel; it staggered the marshal but didn't draw blood.
"Again." This time Cutter dealt him a lick that opened a gash and sent him reeling against the back of Bob Skinner's leather chair. "God DAMN it, that will do! Get the hell out of here!"
The big bay was not only fast but game. Cutter ran him for a solid hour before slowing to a lope. Three hours later the horse was white with lather and wheezing loudly when they reached the water hole Cutter had hoped he'd be able to find. He drank his fill and filled Suarez' water bottle, and when he figured the horse had had enough to drink, he led him away from the spring and swung back into the saddle. The bay took only three or four steps before stumbling, and Cutter jumped off just in time to keep from being pinned beneath it.
Cutter knelt beside the dying horse in the gathering dusk. He patted the animal on the neck and scratched the white blaze above his nostrils. "I'm sure you've got a proper Mexican name, but I'll just call you Red, if that's OK. Red, you might not have saved my life just yet." He looked over his shoulder toward Chihuahua. "But you damn sure died trying." He unsheathed Suarez' belt knife and placed the tip of the blade against the horse's throat. "This is a hell of a way to say thanks, ain't it? But you and I both know you're not gonna make it, and I can't risk a gunshot. Vaya con Dios, Red."
He rinsed off the blood as best he could, and after tousling Red's mane one last time, he retrieved the Winchester and set out for Las Cruces, still a good forty miles distant across the desert.
Return to Santa Fe
Samantha Carradine sat at her late brother's desk and counted out 1,000 U.S. Dollars in ten-dollar gold coins, bagged it in two canvas bags, and handed it to her husband. "It looks like you were right about the law not coming back."
Carradine held up one of the bags. "And this is why. They know we've got the rurales in our pocket. Nobody up there wants a war." He put the money in a saddlebag that lay on the desk. "The three that came down here didn't know what they were getting into, and the one that got away isn't about to try his luck again." He rubbed at the scar on his forehead. "At least, he'd better not."
"Does that still hurt?"
"Nah, it just itches sometimes."
Samantha lit a thin cheroot and inhaled deeply. She was beautiful by any standard, with fair skin, light brown hair, and blue eyes. Her dress curved in the right direction in all the right places. And at the age of twenty, she was in charge of the largest criminal enterprise in Chihuahua. "Well," she sighed, exhaling the cigar smoke, "the sooner we get our 'taxes' to el Comandante at Ciudad Chihuahua the better I'll feel. I'll tell Jorge to be ready at first light."
"Yes, of course. The rurales know me, Victor, and they know him. They don't know you." Jorge De la Cruz was Samantha's personal bodyguard and companion, a position assigned to him ten years earlier by Bob Skinner, when Jorge was eighteen. Although Carradine was a relative newcomer to Skinnerville, Skinner had given him his blessing to court Samantha because he didn't want her to take up with a Mexican. Jorge wasn't a rival, but he and Carradine tolerated each other at best.
"I understand why you want to go, but it would be better if just the two of us went." Carradine wanted to level with Samantha, but not at Skinnerville, because he didn't know how she would react. She was a Skinner to the bone, and he had seen those pretty eyes burst into flames. Even so, he had hoped that once he got her away from Skinnerville he'd be able to convince her to go to the states with him. Jorge's presence would complicate matters.
"I can't think of a single reason why Jorge shouldn't make the trip. Give me one."
"Okay, first light it is."
The next night, thirty miles south of Skinnerville next to a smoldering camp fire, Jorge De la Cruz awoke with a start to see Vic Carradine sitting cross-legged next to his blanket. Jorge glanced furtively in the direction of Samantha's bedroll. "What the hell, amigo," he whispered. "You got a hermosa like that, and you're turnin' afeminado?"
Carradine shook his head. "No. I just . . . " He lowered his head for a moment, then looked back into Jorge's eyes. " . . . I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Jorge raised up on his elbows, then he saw the gun. "C'mon, amigo. Bob trusted me, and you can, too. I swear I never touched her."
"He never even tried." Samantha approached the two men with a Remington over-under in her hand. The hammer was back. "What are you doing, Victor?"
Captain Hiram Jackson crossed the border at the head of Troop D, 10th U.S. Cavalry. He and young Lieutenant Tompkins were the only white men on the expedition, save for the two "scouts" the Department had insisted he bring along, a deputy sheriff from Las Cruces and a deputy U.S. marshal out of Santa Fe. The 10th was a colored regiment; the forty-three non-coms and enlisted men in his command were negroes, seasoned Indian fighters all. Jackson was confident his troopers could handle the thirty or so banditos reputed to be at the outlaw stronghold. Based on what the deputy marshal had told him, it was the rurales he was worried about. He had his orders in his pocket to show he'd been sent to Mexico by the United States government, but he knew that piece of paper wouldn't impress a Mexican policeman with Skinnerville gold in his pocket.
The next evening, still a half-day's march from Skinnerville, a dozen small fires dotted the bivouac as the men of Troop D sat on the ground for their evening meal. Suddenly a gunshot rang out, the bullet tearing through the canvas fabric of Jackson's tent, narrowly missing Lt. Tompkins. That shot was followed in rapid succession by eight or ten more, seemingly sprayed randomly around the camp as men scrambled for their weapons and sergeants barked orders. Carradine kicked out their fire and flattened out next to Cutter on the sandy soil as a bullet hissed inches from his left ear.
Several troopers had seen muzzle flashes, and they returned a volley of carbine fire that produced a pained yelp from out there in the gathering darkness. The bullet that almost got Tompkins entered from the back of the tent, and Jackson and Tompkins were now out in front of the tent, both on one knee. "I need status," Jackson said. "And bring Sgt. Saunders back with you."
"Yes, sir!" Tompkins disappeared into the darkness, crouching low, and returned in three minutes with Sgt. Saunders. The two men knelt beside Jackson, and in a few seconds the lieutenant spoke. "Larson's got a minor wound, O'Hara's got a bad one. Barton's dead."
"Damn it!" Jackson stared briefly at the ground, then turned to Saunders. "Well," he said, "we don't know how many are out there, but we know at least one is hit. I don't want to wait for daylight. Pick some men and flank them. And send me Carradine and Cutter."
Sgt. Saunders disappeared, and shortly the two scouts came scampering to the front of the tent. "You two are the alleged experts," Jackson said. "You told me they would hunker down behind their adobe redoubt and defend the roost. What the hell just happened?"
"Lookouts, I guess," Carradine said. "Probably two of them. One to get word back to Skinnerville, and one to sacrifice."
"To hold us off as long as he could, make sure the messenger got away. They were loyal to Skinner, and rightfully scared of him. I know some still feel the same way about his sister."
"Your wife, you mean, whom you had in your sights and allowed to live?"
"That'd be the one. But in fairness, she passed on shooting me, too."
Jackson sighed. "Any insights, Cutter?"
"Well, I expect most of these forajidos had empty bellies when they signed on with Skinner. Now they have more wine, women, and food than they know what to do with. They'll fight hard to keep it."
"Cap'n, we bringin' one in." It had been barely ten minutes since Sgt. Saunders left the camp. He held a coal oil lantern aloft as he approached the officers' tent, and four of the six troopers he'd taken with him carried a wounded bandito by the arms and legs. They dropped him roughly to the ground at Jackson's feet as the outlaw cried out in pain. "I reckon that trap door bullet stings a mite, Cap'n."
Carradine took the lantern and illuminated the man's face. "Hello, Jorge," he said. "I thought it might be you."
Jorge looked up at the man standing over him. "Mr. Vic. I thought it might be you." He tried to laugh but only coughed up a mouthful of blood.
Carradine went to one knee. "Is she still there?"
"Sure she's there. Where's she gonna go? You worried about her all of a sudden? I'm the one that loves her, just in my way, is all."
Carradine moved the lantern closer to Jorge's belly. "You're killed, Jorge."
"'nuffa this shit." Sgt. Saunders stepped into the light. "I don't care how buddy-buddy y'all are. He kilt one of ours, might's well say two." He already had his revolver in hand, and without another word shot Jorge once in the chest and again in the forehead, snapped open the loading gate, and pushed out the spent cases. "The res' of the sum-bitches gonna git the same dose mighty soon."
The next afternoon Vic Carradine rode slowly into Skinnerville under a white flag. Capt. Jackson was happy to let him be the courier. Carradine was expendable; his troopers were not. Jackson half expected Carradine to be shot on the way in, but he entered the courtyard unmolested through a gauntlet of heavily armed banditos and dismounted at the foot of the stairs. Two men grabbed him, searched him for weapons, and roughly shoved him up the stairs and into the office.
Samantha was seated at the desk, the back of the big chair concealing everything but the top of her head. "Eso será todo. Gracias, muchacos."
The outlaws released Carradine and left, closing the balcony door behind them. Carradine walked around the desk and slumped into a chair across from his wife. "I can still get you out of this. You can go home to Waco. I'll testify that you had no part in any of this, and you'll walk out Scot-free." After a brief pause, he added, "And you can stay with me if you want to. That's what I'd like."
"This is home, Victor. There's nothing for me in Waco." She leaned back in the creaking chair and struck an eerily familiar pose. "You were my first, you know. My one and only. You still are, so far. But you killed my brother, and Jorge, too, I suppose. So why would I stay with you?"
"Just let me help you. Then you can go your own way." He took out his watch and snapped it open. "If I don't call it off, those soldiers are going to open up in about eight minutes."
"They'll wish they hadn't." She leaned forward, took a cheroot from a jar on the desk, and lit it. "I won't surrender to a bunch of darkies, and I won't ask anyone else to. I told them they could leave. They all stayed but one."
Carradine looked down and shook his head. "Remember the Alamo."
Samantha offered a wry smile. "Something like that."
Lt. Tompkins had the Hotchkiss revolving one-inch cannon loaded and positioned on a low rise about a quarter-mile north of Skinnerville. A gun crew and limber of ammunition was standing by. He lined up the sight as he spoke to Sgt. Saunders. "Carradine says the Gatling gun is in that thatch-roofed hut. It's carriage-mounted and they can shoot from any window they choose."
"Well," said Saunders, "let 'em do they wors' with that ol' cap 'n ball cranker. They 'bout to learn what crankin' all 'bout."
At 2:00 PM the destruction of Skinnerville commenced. Tompkins had ordered the Hotchkiss crew to empty the first ten-round magazine into the hut, which they did. The third round ignited the gunpowder stored inside. The final seven rounds served to completely destroy the hut.
The rest of the troopers were spread along the ridge and formed into skirmish lines, with every fourth man holding four horses on the back side of the rise. The rest knelt and poured a steady stream of heavy .45 caliber bullets into the compound as the Hotchkiss gun continued its gruesome work. A lone survivor stumbled out of the Gatling nest, badly wounded and disoriented. He was cut down in a hail of carbine bullets.
Spared for the time being, by design, was the hacienda. There were banditos firing from windows on both floors, but they were momentarily safe from both the Hotchkiss and the Springfield carbines. As the shooting and exploding cannon shells gradually tapered off to nothing, Carradine looked Samantha in the eye. "The only men you have left are in this building. If they'll put down their guns I think I can—"
"I told you, no."
"Jackson said I could have five minutes from the last shot, then they were coming in."
"Well, you didn't need it all. Jackson is in charge?"
"Yes. Captain Jackson."
In four minutes the end began. Tompkins emptied a full magazine into the first floor of the hacienda, and Carradine feared the building would collapse, but it held together, and the Hotchkiss cannon was finished for the day. But the troopers weren't. While half remained on the rise and rained carbine fire on the hacienda, Sgt. Saunders led 20 men down the slope in a cavalry charge. Each man controlled the reins with his weak hand. Half brandished a revolver in the strong hand, the others wielded a saber. Sgt. Saunders gave his horse its head. He had a revolver in his left hand and a saber in his right.
Samantha didn't flinch as bullets splintered wood and broke glass on both sides of her. The troopers were well disciplined, and no bullets pierced the wall or windows of the office at the head of the stairs, but adjoining upstairs rooms were riddled.
Paco Valenzuela appeared in the front doorway. He was as good a friend as Carradine had at Skinnerville. Each man held a cocked revolver trained on the other. "No, Paco," Samantha said, "por favor." Valenzuela nodded, lowered his gun, and walked away to meet his fate.
A panicked bandito ran across the courtyard in front of Saunders, apparently hoping to reach the stable and acquire a mount. He didn't make it. Saunders rode alongside him and slashed his shoulder with his saber. He stumbled and fell, crying out in pain, as Saunders finished him with his revolver.
As it had before, the shooting tapered off to sporadic gunshots, and then to nothing. Samantha and Carradine sat in silence for perhaps ten minutes before the back door opened. Tompkins and a trooper entered the office, followed by Capt. Jackson. Tompkins and the trooper had guns in hand. Jackson walked to the right end of the desk and addressed Carradine. "It's done. You may inform the Marshal's Service that Skinnerville and the depredations that emanated from it are no more. Our casualties are four wounded, none critically."
Carradine nodded as Jackson turned to Samantha. "Mrs. Carradine, I presume. Captain Hiram Jackson, United States Army, at your service. I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
"You have now." Samantha produced Bob Skinner's revolver and cocked the hammer. "God no, Samantha, don't!" Carradine shouted, but she shot Jackson three times before Tompkins and the trooper killed her.
"Be wary of the women and older children," Tompkins shouted. "They will extract revenge given the opportunity." Samantha had sent the families away, but now they were back, gathering what few belongings hadn't been blown to bits, and burying their dead. The gravedigging and anguished mourning had continued non-stop for a full day.
Carradine considered taking Samantha's body to Waco but decided to bury her where she felt at home. He didn't ask for help, but Cutter set to work gathering stones, and now both men were on their knees as they stacked them on her grave. "I see they gave Sheriff Hansen and Deputy Barnes decent burials," Cutter said.
"Samantha ordered it done."
Cutter sighed. "I'm real sorry about this," he said.
Carradine nodded. "You got a woman?"
"Did have. Been in the same boat as you about three years."
"Well," said Carradine, "I'm sorry, too." He extended his hand across Samantha's grave, and when Cutter hesitated, he said, "It doesn't mean we're friends."
"In that case . . . " Cutter and Carradine shook hands, stood up, and saw that Skinnerville was virtually surrounded by mounted rurales. The man next to the one who appeared to be the officer-in-charge waved a lance tipped with a white cloth. They apparently wanted to talk, at least for the time being. Tompkins noticed their predicament about the same time and joined the two men in the graveyard. "Carradine," he said, "they're going to want money. It's time for you to tell me where it is."
"Like I said, Lieutenant, there is no money. I showed you the empty safe. She must have given it to the women to take with them. If so it's out there in those hills somewhere." He looked to the courtyard, where troopers took defensive positions and manned the cannon. "But we do have the Hotchkiss gun."
"Yes, and we might win the fight, but most of us would die doing it. That looks like an entire corps of Rurales."
"I don't mean fight. I mean trade. Offer it to them—cannon, mules, limber, shells, all of it—if they'll let us leave."
"I can't just give away a valuable piece of government property."
"Well, I think it's either that, or your valuable government hide."
Tompkins read Jackson's orders to el comandante do los rurales, pausing after every sentence to allow the comandante's aide to translate. When that was done, the comandante nodded and asked to speak to el Capitan Jackson. "He's dead," said Tompkins. "The woman killed him." The comandante smiled as if he understood but turned to his aide to make sure. "Está muerto," said the young officer. "La mujer lo mató." El comandante threw back his head, bared his mouthful of yellow teeth, and laughed uproariously.
When he had composed himself, he toured the second floor of the hacienda. He knew his way around the office and went right to the empty safe. He kicked at the open door in disgust but seemed satisfied that the gringos weren't holding out on him. In less than an hour's time, Sgt. Saunders and the gun crew were reluctantly tutoring a squad of Mexican policemen in the proper care and feeding of a Hotchkiss one-inch revolving cannon. Tompkins and el comandante observed the process, and when it was done, el comandante turned unceremoniously to Tompkins. "Vete ahora. Y nunca vuelvas." "Go now," said the aide, "and never—"
Tompkins showed him the palm of his hand. "I get it."
Once they were safely across the border, Tompkins threatened to bring Carradine up on charges for not having disarmed Samantha. Nothing ever came of it. Tompkins was promoted to captain, and he and Sgt. Saunders were killed by Apaches at the Battle of the Salt River in 1890.
Matt Cutter was elected Sheriff of Doña Ana County and subsequently killed in the line of duty while collecting taxes.
Victor Carradine went on to be appointed U.S. Marshal for the Territory of New Mexico. Following a long career, he retired and lived out his remaining years in an old hacienda in rural Chihuahua, Mexico.