"How the hell you gonna' get him, Marshal Pike? Harry McPherson has ten men riding with him. They killed the bank manager and a deputy sheriff while robbing the bank in Lordsburg. He's leading ex-Confederate raiders and murdering half-breeds. The McPherson Bunch is made up of renegades: Telly Sumner, Long Sam Tobias, and Willy Peacock are riding with him. There's talk even Charlie Manx joined the group. All those guerrillas are sadistic killers," Lieutenant Cory, of the United States Fifth Cavalry, said to Jason.
Cory was a thin, young man from New England, Jason guessed from his accent, with freshly burnt skin from the Southwest's persistent, intense sun. He still wore an army-issue Kepi rather than the wide-brimmed slouch hats popular with the western cavalry units. Cory was West Point all the way; not a problem for Jason, who was used to the breed.
Cory wiped easy sweat—you didn't have to work hard to earn it—from his brow and shook his head back and forth. "No disrespect meant Marshal Pike, but this bunch is experienced fighters, and they know the ground. I don't think you have much of a chance of taking them alive or dead."
Sanders' station was on the trail just the other side of Apache Pass from Fort Bowie near the New Mexico/Arizona border. The whiskey at the station was raw and unsophisticated. It burned its way down Jason's throat and did keep the promise of numbing the ache in his back and flanks. But even the alcohol could do nothing against the heat of the Arizona sun after riding for four days to meet the cavalry troop and this negatively minded lieutenant.
During the summer of 1868, Arizona has contested territory. In 1862 Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo marshaled a force of 700 Apache warriors to defend Apache Pass from a Column of 126 California Unionists trying to enter New Mexico to confront Secessionists. The Union men were easily trapped by the Apaches in the narrow canyon, but the expedition had two, twelve-pound mountain howitzers. These cannons fired canisters that detonated above the heights the Indians occupied and shredded them with shrapnel. Cochise broke off the attack. Despite this show of industrial technology, the Apache wars were to last another twenty years.
Cochise broke his forces up into raiding parties and sent them far and wide to menace white settlers wherever they could. Mangas Coloradas, during a moment of weak judgment, surrendered and was murdered by vengeful whites. And Geronimo, he fought on for another generation, an exceptional zealot, amongst history's worthiest desert warriors; his passion to resist Anglo domination of his land is almost biblical.
But during Cochise's time, 1868, the Southwest was also where certain ex-Confederate guerrillas had a free hand to rob and murder. Or, at least they thought they had. A U.S. Marshal based in Denver was ordered to deal with the situation. He sent a deputy, Jason Pike, to deal with the outlaws, and with a letter to the military urging their cooperation.
Jason went to the window and looked out at the soldiers lounging in the sparse shade they could find outside the station. His eyes hurt from squinting from the sun off the desert and he was tired of the sharp, and bleak outlines of the Southwest's mountain ranges. Jason finished the whiskey, put the glass down, and went to talk to Sergeant Magee. Jason left the lieutenant's question for him to ponder. Cory had been ordered to do as Jason commanded whether he liked it or not.
"Hey Magee," Jason said to an old friend. He turned, and Jason knocked his hat off, dancing around him just out of his reach. His men laughed as the bulky sergeant chased Jason across the yard. Jason jumped over the water trough near the well, and Magee almost fell in. The troopers all smiled at their antics.
Then Jason saw a rider galloping hard to reach the station, his hat waving in his hand; he was one of Cory's pickets. There was a cloud of dust behind him growing fast from down the arroyo.
"Apaches," Jason shouted. "Form a skirmish line."
The lieutenant came outside and saw his scout approaching; he called out orders. Magee was already telling his men to get their weapons. The horses were moved behind the buildings, and a skirmish line of Springfield carbines and hard-faced Federal regulars stood ready before the onslaught of the desert riders. Jason had his Henry repeater and knelt by the water trough.
The Apaches came at the station and broke into two groups circling them. Cory's men fired, but the Apaches were staying out of effective range of the army carbines. The Indians were showing off. It would have been too costly for the Apache war party to engage a troop of seasoned cavalry holding buildings on the desert flats. But Jason's Henry rifle had a 24-inch barrel, and he was an excellent marksman, so he killed one Indian, and they rode off.
There had been about fifty of them, almost naked in the summer heat, with rifles and bows, in age from fifteen to fifty. They were the last generation of warriors of a proud people. The Apaches were short, dark-skinned men as tough as the desert, as splendid as the mountains they lived in, and the stars they lived under.
Reseated inside the station, with another drink Jason was forced to give his attention back to Cory. "What the hell about that, Pike. I don't know how I'm going to get back to the fort let alone go into those mountains and grab a dozen renegades. "You think those Apaches are gonna' let us out—
"Be quiet, lieutenant," Jason said in a calm, deadly voice. "You've got your orders, soldier. I'll set up McPherson's Bunch for you. If that Apache raiding party wants a piece of us, well, we'll give as good as we get."
Cory's tanned face went pale as Jason lectured. He swallowed several times even though he wasn't eating or drinking anything. Cory needed to be reminded army lieutenants, and US deputy marshals were expendable. Jason's plain talk shook Cory, he noticed, but Cory sat still as Jason explained his plan.
Jason rode out from the station just after the sunset, when the air started to cool and Jason felt a lonely chill of fear. Which was strange for him; he guessed it was fear of dying out here alone. Death encountered in the middle of a town street was no more attractive. "I suppose in bed when I'm eighty-four would be best," he muttered. Then he chuckled, not much chance of that, the way he chose to live his life, he surmised.
Jason started to find their tracks in the lower passes just after dawn. There were ten horses and five mules he guessed. Jason held up in a crag off a trail during the hot part of the day and moved on when the sun dropped below the western mountain range. They caught Jason an hour later. There was nothing for Jason to do. A mean looking character just popped up from behind a rock and pointed a shotgun at Jason. He directed Jason up the rocky gully to McPherson's camp.
The men were in dirty and ragged shape. A man about forty-five, medium height and build, rose and came forward. He had wrinkled, tired eyes, but seemed alert and curious. The same was true for most of his bunch. The nucleus of the group was made up of men over thirty-five that had been with McPherson since 62'. They were men who had not been able to gear down from the tension and excitement of the war or accept the surrender of the South. They were still at war, and it did not seem to matter with whom.
McPherson's men crowded around Jason. "My name is Joe Franks," Jason said.
"Franks, yeah, I heard of you," McPherson said, sitting down, a little bored. "supposed to be a smart crook and a good gun-hand. Are you smart and handy with a gun, Franks?" McPherson asked.
Some of them laughed. Jason waited till they were quiet. "I'm good enough with a gun. You thinking of trying me?" He flipped the leather thong back from the hammer of his Colt Army revolver.
"Nope, just asking. You looking for a place to hide I take it?" McPherson asked.
"And maybe some work," Jason answered.
"I'z' a wanna' kill im.' I'z ain't killed nobody all week." None of them chuckled at that. A big man, at least six and a half feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, came out of the shadows. His clothes, beard, and eyes were all coal black. He was a dirty and dangerous sight, with two Remington pistols tucked into his belt. When he smiled sadistically, Jason saw broken and green teeth. This was Charlie Manx; a simple-minded brute and prolific killer, a murderer of infamous proportion.
The men standing around Jason backed off away from him. Jason stretched his left arm straight down flexing tendons in arm and wrist. "Charlie, Franks is supposed to be a good man; we can use him," McPherson said.
"Shit! I'z don't like his looks. How'd he find us? I'z a gonna' kill im,'" Manx said.
Jason wanted to kill Manx. Not because his speech, mixing first and third tense was painful, but it would be a positive action for the rest of humanity. But would Joe Franks want to? Jason had captured Franks last week after he tried to rob a bank in Tombstone and left him with the sheriff with the request Franks be kept incommunicado and his arrest not processed for two weeks. That way Jason could use the criminal's identity as a cover. Jason knew even Franks wouldn't turn down a challenge from a creep like Manx. Jason stepped back and looked at all their faces, wondering if any of them would back his play, wondering if this was to be his last mistake.
McPherson stood up. "This is one on one. Charlie, you're on your own if you want him that bad."
Manx was upset, but for only a fraction of a second. Then he couldn't catch his breath because of the four holes Jason's pistol stitched across his chest. The big man took a step back, and they all heard death rattling its way out his throat. Then he pitched forward to the ground.
"Manx's old man used to beat him every day when he was a kid. Charlie never had a chance to turn out any different," McPherson explained.
In the early morning, McPherson walked off alone. Jason followed, then had to wait for McPherson to finish personal business. Jason told him about the gold shipment on the Carrollton stage this week. "Stay here; I'll have to get the others. Willy, Sam, and the Colonel need to hear this."
When McPherson returned with his lieutenants, Willy Peacock asked, "How do you know about this gold?" He was a slight, blond-haired man just under forty. His hollow cheeks and his pale blue eyes showed the suffering, hate, and the frustration of losing the War of Northern Aggression, and the experience had turned him to a life of crime.
"It's Chisum's gold. He's sending it east to a cattle broker to buy 20 Hereford bulls, the English cattle that weigh five to seven hundred pounds more than the Longhorns we breed now. I heard his foreman talking about it at a bar in Carrollton. If we intercept the stage at Sanders' Station, we can get supplies, horses, and the gold."
"What did you say Chisum's foreman's name was?" Sam Tobias asked. This tall, lanky, Texan rode off to the War with John Bell Hood's Brigade. He carried four revolvers, on his waist and in shoulder holsters, and fought from horseback. Tobias lost an eye and picked up a lengthy ragged scar across his face from a Yankee saber during the siege of Atlanta. After the war, when carpetbaggers stole his cattle ranch on the Rio Grande, Tobias took up with McPherson's Bunch.
"I didn't say," Jason said. "His men called him Captain Larsen."
"That's right. Larsen ran a Kentucky regiment of cavalry for John Hunt Morgan; now he runs cattle for Chisum." Tobias spat in the sand.
"I just wish I knew more about you, Franks," the Colonel said. He was Colonel Tellman Asbury Sumner, of Sumner County Georgia. Telly Sumner was a melancholy and unhappy man. His regiment, the 10th Georgia Cavalry, had been mauled in the Wilderness campaign by Custer's Michigan Brigade. Sumner was badly wounded and sent home to recover. Then his plantation was scorched by Sherman's merciless march to the sea. Scavengers murdered Sumner's wife and children as they crouched amongst the ruins of a house his grandfather had built before the American Revolution. Now Sumner rode with Captain McPherson, deferring command, just wishing to follow his destructive destiny out to the end, and be done with the unhappy life fate had handed him.
"I'm just the same as the rest of you," Jason lied and Sumner nodded.
McPherson easily sold Jason's scheme to his bunch, and they all rode the next morning and got to a bluff of sand and tumbleweed overlooking Sanders' Station. The stage was due here at noon, and hopefully, Cory's troop would be following and trap McPherson's Bunch. That was Jason's plan.
The stage rolled in at noon, moving quickly, weapons firing at the cloud of screaming, naked, horseman that was coming up fast. The coach pulled up at the station, and eight people ran into the adobe building. The station keeper came out with a long shotgun and fired at the Apache raiders. Two women, carrying small children, were amongst the group fleeing the stagecoach into the building.
"Well, that's the end of that," McPherson said and started down the slight slope where their horses were. "Let's get out of here. The Apaches will kill all of them, and take the gold." McPherson's men slid down the embankment and mounted up. Jason turned and sat there, on his horse, watching them.
Where was the Cory? Without the cavalry, there was just McPherson's Bunch to save those civilians. "Hey, listen to me!" Jason shouted at McPherson's Bunch. "There's women and little kids down there. Yaw'l know what Apaches do to women, and they'll keep the children," Jason said. "C'mon! I'm a white man and a soldier first, and a thief second. What about you, Captain McPherson?" Jason asked.
The only thing Jason saw that McPherson had that reminded him of his soldiering days was a belt-buckle with 'CSA' on it. Jason's eyes met with McPherson, and he wasn't happy about Jason using his old rank to remind him of the past. Jason supposed thinking about the noble cause he had fought for in the past made the present all the more unpalatable.
"There are fifty Apaches down there, Franks, you must be nuts," McPherson said.
"If we can make it to the station they'll run off rather than storm the building," Jason argued.
"You're not thinking straight, Franks," Long Sam said. "Half of us will be dead after a running fight to the station."
"Yeah, why should we die for nothing?" one of the young ones asked.
The old-timers were quiet. Jason looked at Telly Sumner trying to read his mind. He just stared at McPherson, trying to ignore Jason.
Jason dismounted and walked down the embankment till he was eye level with all them sitting on their horses. Jason addressed the veterans: "For nothing! Did you count your pay at Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville? Or did you fight for a higher ideal?"
Then Jason looked directly at McPherson. "We're a bunch of thieves and murderers. To die well for a noble cause seems an admiral goal at this point."
McPherson leaned forward in his saddle, "What's with you, Franks? Are you some suicidal hero?" Jason heard rifle fire from over the bluff. Damn, where the hell was the cavalry?
"There's gold coin down there and innocent lives to save," Jason said mounting his horse, "I'm riding in. I guess I won't be riding with yaw'l if you think too much of your hides not to do what any decent fighting man knows needs doing."
Jason rode to the top of the bluff and got his Henry repeater out from its scabbard. "Women and kids slaughtered by Apaches 200 yards away, and we do nothing to stop it. I can't live with that on my conscience. Right now all you have to look forward to, as thieves and killers, is a hangman who knows his business.
Jason saw they were starting to listen. "I'm sorry, but truth is truth, and there is no denying that we have a chance to something right for a change. If we ride over this bluff and engage those murderous bastards the least that awaits us is a meaningful and chivalrous death; at best we ride away with Chisum's gold and the last chance to be Southern Soldiers."
That was it; Jason was played out for arguments to convince these renegades to sacrifice themselves. The Bunch glanced at each other. Slowly one drew a rusty saber out. Another checked the action of his old hog-leg, a Walker Colt .44. Long Sam from Texas drew his 1858 Remington Army pistol to check the loads.
McPherson spun his horse around and looked at all of them. He settled his glance on Telly Sumner, and the grizzled old man just barely nodded. Then McPherson glanced at Willy Peacock, who also reluctantly nodded, and drew his rifle.
"Is that the way you all want it? Are we of one mind? He asked.
The Colonel said, "I can't see as any of us have anything better to do than ride down there and save some poor pilgrims' lives and liberate a wealthy rancher's gold." Now the call to battle was infectious, and the younger bandits were drawn in.
Willy Peacock drew a saber and turned to look at two others. "Darryl, Virgil, you're with me. Follow and do as I do." The Crowder brothers nodded eagerly, and before Jason's eyes, a nasty mounted squad of three was created.
The tall Texan, Sam Tobias, looked over his shoulder at two others and they nodded agreement. "What flank you want us on, captain," Long Sam asked?
The others gathered around Sumner. Jason shook his head in amazement. A rabble of bandits had instantly metamorphosed to a military unit intent on a battle with Apache raiders. Peacock was on the right, Sumner in the middle, and the Texan, Tobias would handle the right.
McPherson urged his horse up the bluff, and the rest followed. He leaned over next to Jason. "You started this, so you and I are up front. Got any bright ideas, Franks?"
"Order a slow advance when we reach the flats. When the Apaches see us, they will send half their force to intercept us. The men with repeaters dismount, form a skirmish line, the others hold our horses. After we cut their numbers, we meet them in the saddle with sabers and pistols." "Alright, Franks, I don't have a better plan." McPherson to his men. "Form up, line abreast. The Tenth Georgia Cavalry will be heard from today." He descended the slight slope with his troop following.
They watched as the Indians were riding around the station. They were making a big show of it, as a cat does with a crippled mouse. And that angered the men sitting their horse behind Jason.
At a walk first, then a trot, a canter, a squad of horse-soldiers advanced across the desert flats, riding in a battle-line, and on toward the besieged Sanders' Station. When the Apaches saw them, a group broke away from the main party surrounding the station to intercept McPherson's Bunch.
McPherson's arm shot up, and they all pulled their horses to a stiff, dust-raising halt. Jason jumped down with his rifle and the others armed with repeaters. The other members of the group held the reins of their horses, as the skirmish line started to fire into the Apaches. After they had broken the impetus of the Apache charge, they remounted and spurred their horses to a gallop. The Southerners were shouting the old rebel battle cry and waving pistols in the air; some were ready with sabers.
The Bunch came together with the Apaches amidst billows of dust and howls of pain. Swords and lances lunged and clattered as dealing death was the only order of business. With his Winchester Jason fenced with several spears, then unhorsed two braves with point-blank shots in the close range of battle.
Then Jason saw five Apaches converge on Sam Tobias and he kept shooting, but the Indians kept coming till the last two impaled him on their war lances and forced him off his mount. Tobias fell to lay on his back still shooting up as the warriors jabbed their spears down, into his middle. As Tobias died Jason charged the braves, shooting them both with his pistol.
After a minute of harsh fighting McPherson broke out of the melee, and with a roar, "Follow me!" and a crimson blade held high, galloped for the station. Eight men were left to ride behind the captain.
The Bunch reached the station, running through and over the Apaches around the building. McPherson jumped from his horse to the porch of the adobe structure and motioned for his men to rally around him.
Jason and the others stood in front of the building as a group around McPherson, killing the Apache raiders as they brashly came at the Bunch. Sanders, the old man himself, came out to urge them inside, but McPherson shrugged him off. The Bunch couldn't have delivered a fraction of the damage to the desert raiders that they finally did if they had scampered inside right then. But McPherson's men were flesh too. Jason's ribs were red and sticky from where a war lance had creased his side. The Bunch died one by one as the Apaches continued their attack.
When a brave lunged with his spear at Willy Peacock, he jumped from the porch, grabbed the Apache and pulled him down, off his horse. The two circled each other with knives drawn and swiped back and forth. Finally, Peacock put the brave on the ground and stabbed him with his Bowie knife. As Peacock rose, two Apaches shot him in the chest with arrows. He grabbed each arrow and tried to pull them out. Another Indian shot him in the back with a third shaft. Peacock tried to reach for the third arrow but bent over coughing blood, fell down, and died.
There were four of them left alive when Captain McPherson stopped an arrow and Jason was closest, so he dragged him into the building. The others followed. Jason pulled McPherson to a corner and laid him down, the arrow still rising out of his chest. In the confined space the air was thick with the smell of battle: blood and gunsmoke.
Jason looked around the room at women tending the wounded and loading weapons for the men at the windows. Then Jason felt a weak hand pull at his arm. McPherson's face was chalky and pained. Jason found a pillow to put under McPherson's head, and the soldier turned thief could see the dark, busy room and the shaft embedded in his chest, pulling the life out of him.
"Franks, are you enjoying the glory? He asked, his desperate eyes taking in a woman huddled with two small children, their heads buried in the folds of her dress. He also saw the last of his men fighting at the windows and doorway.
"We did alright, Captain," Jason said. "The Apache raiding party is cut to a third. The frontier will be a little safer now thanks to you and yours." McPherson looked at Jason perplexed. The wrong thing to say to a dying brigand, Jason decided. "I'm Jason Pike, a Federal Marshal, I'm sorry I deceived you, Captain," Jason confessed quietly, right at his ear.
"Yeah, that's great," McPherson said and started to cough up blood. "You're a damn bastard, Pike. I'll be waiting for you to join me in Hell." Then he died.
A distant bugle sounded outside, but the door was forced open. One of McPherson's men rushed to meet the Apache that stood in the doorway. They fought with knives, and the Indian stabbed the outlaw, who collapsed. But then, before he could take a step, a gunshot exit wound opened in his chest. Someone had shot him in the back, and he also collapsed.
"Federals outside," Telly Sumner, at a window, shouted.
Sergeant Magee was first in the door, saw Jason and said, "Hey Pike, you look a little worn."
When the sun was low enough in the western sky for there to be a decent enough shadow on the east side of the building Jason went out there with a bottle, a glass, and a chair. He sat, put his feet up on a crate, and a glass of raw whiskey in his hand. His side was bandaged, and Jason felt tired and still queasy from the day's harsh work. Jason watched Cory's men burying the dead.
Telly Sumner walked to Jason along with the trooper Cory set to watching him. He was the only one of McPherson's men left alive unless of course, you considered Jason one of them.
"They told me you're a Federal, and I'm your prisoner."
"No, you've just been mustered out. Go home and start over. You can build a new family, Sumner. You can still grow old, and tell your children how McPherson's Bunch, the remnants of your cavalry regiment, destroyed this Apache raiding party as a favor for the US Army." Jason offered him the bottle, "Have a drink," and he took it.
Sumner shook his head. "Thanks for the whiskey and my freedom, Marshal Pike. I suppose that gives me a choice not to drink with you. You're a warrior," he said slowly, "but you're not a gentleman." Sumner walked away, with Jason's bottle too.
When the day was ending, Jason walked around the station to see the sunset. The wind moved the clouds, and a bright spot of the sun came to bear on Sanders' Station, casting a beam of brilliance, a fleeting memorial, on the site of a grim battle. Jason had talked a ragged band of rebels into a noble sacrifice, and they were with their warrior gods, but Jason was still here and feeling guilty for it. The sun traveled lower, and a sharp ridge of mountains was outlined in a bright amber rim of short-lived dying light, an aura on the horizon is bordering between Jason's heaven and hell.
Jason felt a loss, a sense of sorrow even for his enemies. The coming of the whites would mean the end of the American Indian way of life. Jason knew their tribal/communal traditions would not merge well with the private property culture of the invading Europeans. Then there would be no more Apache raiders or white renegades. Jason wondered what he would do when the sun finally set on his turbulent frontier.