I always hated walking, but for hating it I sure have been doing a lot of it lately, especially since Moonstone died. Quitting my job at the general store, hitting the trail and going wandering again seemed like a darn good idea at the time. Since I had a little silver in my pocket, and not owing anyone anything, and, if you were wondering, there was nothing missing from the till when I left, either; I just decided it was time to go. My horse pointed itself Southwest, so I went with her, maybe eighty miles to the next town, a few days ride, should be no difficulty.
Well, now there was a difficulty. Moonstone had been my only transportation for years, and she passed away in the night from what I do not know, they say horses will do that sometimes. With the journey not half over, and me not wanting to go back thataway at all, I started walking. A lone flower was growing beside my old horse's head where she fell, and I watered it. Sometimes, the smallest things a person does can have the bigger effects later on. Sometimes the biggest deeds don't amount to anything much. Maybe, like that flower, deeds need watering once in a while to keep them fresh. Not being able to carry much compared to a horse, I took a quick inventory: a canteen of water, some dried meat not readily identifiable, dried apples, and some coffee rounded out the consumables. The load, such as it was, being made heavier by my Sharp's .50-90 carbine carried on its strap over my shoulder, and inside my coat was a cross-draw holster of my own design, in which rode a short-barreled .41 Colt's revolver with the bird's head grips. The hammer had been carefully filed down for quick actuation, and ammunition for both added to the weight. The shorter hammer had another advantage of not easily catching on clothes. That Colt was the pick of a litter of twelve the store had got in, and had some careful attention paid to the mainspring and action. At least I had decent walking boots made by the Hyer Brothers of Kansas, as the rest of my outfit was certainly nothing to brag about.
After spending all day under the relentless glare of the harsh New Mexico sun, thirst was beginning to get to me, making this rocky part of the canyon a more difficult climb than it should have been. This land seems enchanted, another few inches of rain and it would be paradise.
Things got more difficult when a yearling black bear wandered out on the trail. Not thinking clearly, I simply stood staring at it until I realized that the much larger mama bear was in the locust bushes right near me, making a loud huffing sound. I grabbed up a handful of pebbles and flung them towards the cub, and it not being familiar with stones raining down from the sky, well, that set it off running. That event caused its gigantic parent to burst forth from the bushes, and with a dour glance at me, it set off after its only heir. The bear was so large it seemed to leave a hollow place in the air as it moved away from me.
After that bit of excitement, I started off walking again—have I mentioned that I hate walking? Soon, growing tired under a dying sun, and watching a changing New Mexico sunset shot through with a spray of oranges and yellows and fingers of purple clouds, I made a meager fireless camp and drank a little water. Listening to the sounds of a mountain lion's call, I quickly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
I ran out of water on the third day. Earlier this morning, I saw a scraggly line of Gambel oaks across the trail up ahead. I had heard back in town that there was water on this trail, and that had to be a river. Reaching the thin tree line, the river revealed itself to me. It was bone dry, a river of sand. That thing was seasonal, water only flowing there during the "monsoon" or the short rainy season out here, and that was still a month away. More than another day is too long, I thought. Remember that part where I was saying that the smallest actions sometimes have the larger effect? Well, watering Moonstone's flower seems like not such a good idea now, 'cause I used a good part of the canteen in doing it. It seemed like the right thing to do for some reason. I couldn't refill it then because the fancy waterskin I got back east, they said it was what the Indians used, well it held water, just not for very long. Must have been the hot sun and dry air acted together on it or something, and if I had enough water with me I would never have stopped at that camp later on. Nearing the end of that third day I was beyond thirst, so I concentrated on putting one boot in front of the other and staying upright. It was twilight, and that's when I saw the campfire ahead.
Thirst drove me forward and made me bold; I walked right up to their camp, didn't care. The two men around the fire pretended not to be surprised at my sudden presence, and the larger one said, "Come on in, ya look like you could use a drink," and proffered me a whiskey bottle, maybe two thirds full I thought. That much between two emboldens a certain type, makes others sluggish.
"Water, just some water, please," I croaked. Never was one for the ardent spirits anyway; Ma used to call whiskey coffin varnish.
The big one smiled and declared, "Ya don't hafta drink with us if ya don't want; Skinny, give the man over your canteen." The aptly named skinny one did so, and nothing had ever tasted so good, not warm beer, not cool milk, not anything. I must admit to swilling the better part of that container of water before I stopped and got a good look at my hosts for the night. The water had brought some sense back into me, and I surveyed my situation. I thanked them for the water to see how they reacted. The big one kinda worried me, as he had this permanent smile on his face, like he was forever amused no matter how bad things were, and from the looks of their dirty and ragged camp things must be trending down for them. I never trusted a man that showed so many teeth all the time.
The little man was just plain odd, seemed a bit addled or something, no particular expression showed, he just made this strange high-pitched humming sound on and off, tuneless, sort of like keening or some such, he being clearly not the brains of the two. Neither told me their names, nor asked mine, and that, too, made me vaguely uneasy.
I caught the thin one staring at my boots. I started to say the maker's name and town, but Smiley suddenly interrupted, "Why ya on foot, sumbody steal yer horse?" As I was still a bit foggy from the thirst, that question did not bother me none, although it should have, as if stealing was forever foremost on his mind.
I told him, "No, my horse died on me a ways back," and, illogically, I suddenly offered to make us all coffee. I really like coffee, can hardly do without it.
Smiley kept his grin nailed on and said, with a nod to his partner, "Well, tha'd be real neighborly of ya, mebbe make up for turnin' down our whiskey, huh?", I caught the wink he gave him, and I was feeling more like myself by the minute as I slowly recovered from the dehydration I had suffered. After a while, once again, Smiley took the lead in this one-sided conversation, and asked me, "Kin I see that rifle of yours?" and reaching for it anyways.
"Sure," I said, not wanting to be rude to my new-found acquaintances. He admired the gun, looked it over, sighted along it, and then, in a fit of coughing, he seemed to fumble with the action a bit and set the rifle back down. My mind now felt sharply focused, so I reached over to the fire, grabbed the coffee pot and filled my cup to the brim, and motioned to them with the pot. It turned out they did not even want any. They drank another slug of whiskey, the bottle half-gone now. I had one of those new-fangled tin cups with a rolled-over rim so the liquid won't burn you. It burned me anyway.
In the most regular manner, one that belied my growing uneasiness, I asked, "Friend, why did you take the bullet out of my carbine?" His coughing fit hadn't fooled me in the least.
Just for a second, a spark of pure rage blazed in him, and his eyes looked like a furnace door had been suddenly opened and then slammed shut. "I didn't think you'd be hunting at night around here," he calmly said, "and it's safer that way with it leaned up the way it is and all, ya know. Right, Skinny?" once more appealing to his partner for a sign of agreement.
Again, that high keening sound.
"Besides," Smiley went on after a minute, "I didn't think you'd ever need to shoot it again," all his teeth showing now. As I stared into the fire there was that one long beat of silence, a total stillness, forever compressed into the barest slice of a minute. In this slowed down interval, I understood in a flash all what my eyes had taken in earlier. Skinny had ragged boots, but a brand-new gun rig, and not just any rig, but a Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Schofield .44 with some fancy carving on the leather. The smiling one had a new-looking .45 Colt Peacemaker with its long barrel showing at the bottom of his holster. Both had good riding horses, but Smiley's had a vaquero saddle with some fine conchos on it and he, with big silver rowels on his spurs, was sporting a hatband with hammered Mexican reales coins all around. It was dry around these parts, and him with muddy boots; that wasn't dried mud as I had thought earlier, it was dried blood—and these two weren't just robbers, they were stone killers. Like a fool, I had just walked up to them. In that final part of the long beat where time and the world held its breath, a twig in the fire popped loud. In a flash Smiley grabbed for his revolver, and in that same instant I flung the boiling hot cup of coffee right into his face. He yelled and jerked backwards. Quicker than you would smack a mosquito, I reached under my coat to my cross-draw holster and the Colt .41 was in my hand; two shots sounded nearly as one as I slip-hammered it, and both slugs caught Skinny in the chest not a thumb's width apart, spun him around, and he collapsed as if he were a marionette whose strings had been cut. In a split-second Smiley had stood up, pawed at his eyes, and lord, but he was fast and recovered quick. He had got his gun out now, barrel nearly level and pointing in my direction. I shot him in the throat.
The coffee is what had saved me. That's what I mean about the little things, offering them coffee and all. I took a long drink out of their whiskey bottle to calm me some. Then I said the only prayer I knew over them; they would need stronger medicine than that though.
Well, if last night's camp had been uncomfortable, then tonight's was going to be hellish, because I was too worn down to walk anywhere, what with dehydration, a close brush with death, the whiskey and little food to eat. I was beaten down, and would sleep here, fitfully, among the dead. I had never shot anyone before, never wanted to, and it weighed on me. Finally got to sleep but, oh, the dreams, bad ones. Dreamed of smoke. Dreamed that boots walked by themselves, and me walking mostly along a road lined with dead bodies on both sides, an endless road, and as I passed, each body would turn its lifeless head, tracking my movements with hollow, sightless black eyes.
At dawn, I awoke with a jolt staring into the hollow, sightless eyes of a ten-gauge scattergun. On the safe end of that shotgun was a tall, fit-looking man that was whipped-to-rawhide, wearing a no-nonsense expression and a nickel "star-within-a-wheel" on his dusty coat. Needless to say, I did not move nor blink.
After a minute, looking me over, the man said, "Mornin', name's Jesse Lee Hall, former Texas Ranger, presently Sheriff of Calico, that town there over the hill." He carried on, "I see you have a couple of dead friends camping with you."
"They weren't my friends," I protested, "They were bandits, killers I figure; they tried to kill me anyway."
"Is that so? And you stayed here with the bodies all night? Don't know as I coulda done that myself," Hall asked me that outright. So, I told him the short version of how I got here, on foot, running out of water, and leaving out any philosophy, as former Ranger types are usually not ones to philosophize much.
He looked over the scene some more and, still holding the shotgun in my direction, commenced to search the bigger bandit. "Here is the .50 caliber shell you said he took out of your gun; it was in his vest pocket," he exclaimed, "and that under-nourished one over there only got his pistol half-way out of his holster, while the big one had his peacemaker on full cock, but he didn't have time to fire it, you can tell from here, still dust all the way around the mouth of the barrel." He changed subjects. "You said you was a clerk?" the sheriff asked.
"Yep," I answered, always giving the shortest answer possible to the law.
Hall, sort of irritated now, asked as he squinted at me, "Just what the hell kinda clerk was you anyhow, killed these here before they got off even one shot?"
I said I was a general store clerk in charge of the gun counter and sales; I went on to tell him about customers that started bringing their guns in for minor fixes that I got good at. If I couldn't fix 'em, I sold them a new one. Pretty soon I was test-firing them, so I practiced shooting all the guns that came in. Practiced, practiced more, and practiced every day for a long time, for as long as I worked there.
Hall replied with the faintest trace of humor, "Well, looks like you practiced them two into eternity right efficient." I did not respond to that one. "Also, a ways back I found a dead Mexican that probably belonged to the hat the big fella was wearin' there. That Mexican was stripped of valuables, shot, cut up, and then burned. 'Bout as worse as anything I ever saw; these two was a bad pair alright, you was lucky." I certainly did not dispute that fact. Sheriff Jesse Lee Hall looked up at me, "No matter, it looks like it happened about like you said it did; it's your word against them, and they ain't talkin." He lowered the barrel of the scattergun, and seeing that, I allowed myself a sigh of relief. Then he told me, "Not far up the trail is Calico and it has a hotel where you can get a bath, a room for the night, and breakfast thrown in, all for a dollar."
For a minute there I had visions of buying the smoothest riding quarter-horse ever bred, and naming it Ginger, had some thoughts of getting me a sit-down job in a bank or another general store maybe, and never walking anywhere again, ever, walking nowhere further than the nearest saloon anyway, and riding that horse everywhere in comfort. Just then, the sheriff interrupted my reverie, and anticipating my needs with a fact that shook me. "There ain't no horses for sale in town neither, Army came through last week and bought 'em all up."
"Well, what about one of—" I started to ask, motioning towards the dead road agents.
Sheriff Hall cut me off with, "Nope, their property will be held by the sheriff's office for thirty days, then put up for auction. Oh, and one more thing."
I tilted my hat back and asked, "What's that?" Hoping he would not say it, but both knowing and dreading what was coming next.
The old ex-ranger spoke with flint in his voice, "Trouble is unwelcome in my town, I won't have a bit of it—won't tolerate it at all, so once you have that breakfast tomorrow mornin, . . ." he paused a bit to get his point across, "you just keep on walkin'."
At least the coffee was good.