"Barney, stand still." By pre-dawn lanternlight, Roberto Ortega was squeezed in a barn stall, repairing a loose shoe on his black gelding. As soon as Barney was fit to travel, they'd ride the five miles through the Northeast Texas tall pines and sultry heat into Paris where he'd work until dusk in his blacksmith shop.
Twenty-five years earlier, he'd been kidnapped by a Comanche war party from his family ranch in Parker County, his whole family massacred. Raised among the powerful Comanches in Southern Oklahoma, his demeanor and thoughts were as Comanche as the bravest chief. Although he spoke only the Comanche tongue for many years, he had never forgotten English nor did he lose the grip on his Hispanic name and identity.
At nineteen, he'd ridden out of Comanche territory and eventually drifted into Paris, Texas.
Paris, twelve miles south of the Red River, like Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma was the headquarters of a federal court. The Paris Court was assigned jurisdiction over the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian nations in southern Oklahoma Territory. Valuable for his language of native tongues, Ortega had been a Deputy U.S. Marshall for several years.
Eventually, as a result of the low pay, the constant danger, the endless travel, and difficulty in wrangling his pay from the marshal's service, he resigned and took up blacksmithing.
Already held in low regard as an "injun" by residents of the area, the stoic demeanor he'd retained from his days with the Comanches enabled him to live comfortably within himself, even after his Choctaw wife had died a year earlier. A total loner, Ortega knew nearly everyone for miles around, but he could call few a friend. He was widely and incorrectly known as a product of one of the Nations. Few, if any knew he was actually Hispanic and not Native American, a distinction which did not seem to him worthy of discussion.
"Company comin' Barney." Ears long attuned for survival picked up the slight squeak of his front gate latch, faintly audible over the tapping of his farrier hammer. He dropped the hammer, grabbed his Winchester, and stepped outside. The July 1887 dawn air had retained yesterday's sticky heat making breathing a challenge. Soon, the temperature would crack one hundred degrees as it had daily for the past month.
In the semi dark, the man leading his horse across the yard was barely recognizable. "Lost, Low Card?" Ortega challenged. It was more words that he sometimes uttered in a day. The next few days would prove to be an exception.
The razor thin old man was the town character of sorts who survived in and around Paris by odd jobs, charity, and a bit of light-fingered theft when all else failed. "Uh . . . Mr. Ortega, Councilman Prescott and Sheriff Tyree is a wantin' you to come quick. That no good injun Charlie No Fish has done kidnapped the widder Johnson's daughter, Sara Agnes. He's headin' north toward the Nations." Low Card coughed. "Er, sorry, Mr. Ortega, I was a meanin' to say 'indian'."
Typically, Ortega made no reply. His years with the Comanches had taught that excess talk was unnecessary. He knew the widow Johnson and her daughter lived in a big house just off the town square, but the social structure of the era limited any conversation by a societal outsider like Ortega. Recently, he had pretended not to hear when two cowboys in his blacksmith shop described the daughter, Sara Agnes Johnson as a "pushover." He'd silently wagered however, that the men pursuing young Miss Johnson's favors waited until it was good and dark to avoid any light spilling onto her homely face.
"They's more, Mr. Ortega . . . and it's much worse."
Ortega waited without comment.
"No Fish murdered Deputy Sheriff Titus Cavness. Shot-gunned him deader 'n hell behind your blacksmith shop couple hours ago. All the noise woke Widder Johnson up. That's when she realized her daughter was kidnapped and her gray mare stoled. Mister Flack was a ridin' in to open his grocery store when he passed the pair of them, No Fish trottin' ahead, leadin' Sara Agnes Johnson on a gray mare along the railroad road tracks toward the Red River."
Ortega instantly knew the sheriff and the councilman wanted help in tracking a fugitive into the Nations, which should have been the job of the local Deputy U.S. Marshals. He stepped back into the barn and began saddling Barney and a pack mule. Ortega didn't want the assignment, but knew No Fish was a dead man if he didn't ride into Choctaw territory and intercede. No matter if the kidnapping was real or voluntary, No Fish had fled to avoid being lynched.
Low card, still out of breath from a hard ride, wheezed after him, "Sheriff Tyree says that that No Fish has been sleepin' 'round back of your place . . . right at the spot where they found the deputy sheriff."
Ortega studied Low Card's black gelding and wondered if the old drifter had stolen the animal.
* * *
By the time Ortega tied Barney and his pack mule to the hitch rail beside his blacksmith shop across from the Lamar County Courthouse, the slanting early sun confirmed another day of blazing heat. The square was abuzz with people.
Town Council President Mortimer J. Prescott, a fleshy man with a wispy goatee and a politician's bluster, leaned close to Ortega. Sheriff Horace Tyree stood nearby. "The Deputy U.S. Marshals are over in Red River County chasing an escapee. The District Attorney is at some convention down in Dallas."
Sheriff Tyree said angrily, "I got no jurisdiction in Oklahoma. I'm gonna have to hire you to run this murderin' savage down, Ortega. You hadn't let him sleep on your back porch, my deputy would be alive."
Ortega, had long earlier learned to show no reaction to remarks like the "murdern' savage." He had always hidden his dislike for the sharp-tongued politician in his quiet way, and saw no need to change. He knew No Fish had drifted down from the Choctaw Nation a month or so earlier. Ortega had paid him to rake up scrap and muck some stalls. Part of the deal was he'd told No Fish he could sleep on the blacksmith's covered back stoop.
Ortega's cold eyes caused Prescott to retreat a step or two. Prescott's family had operated the local funeral parlor since before Ortega moved into the territory. Tyree held his sheriff's commission as a result of Prescott family influence.
Ortega asked softly, "Shotgun . . . middle of the night?"
Low Card stepped closer. "Stole it from me. Won it in a poker game last week."
Ortega held the old man's gaze. A ranch hand said from the crowd, "I passed No Fish up north on the railroad trail at just breakin' daylight this morning . . . on foot leadin' a horse with a woman in the saddle. Still dark, but I could see he was packin' a double-barreled shotgun."
"He say anything?" Prescott asked.
"I wouldn't be askin' no Injun carryin' no shotgun no questions. He just trotted on past, headin' north, leadin' a gray horse with Sara Agnes Johnson in the saddle." Ortega noted the hand was one of the two he'd overheard discussing Sara Agnes Johnson's morals in his blacksmith shop.
He was also well aware the Choctaw could run further than most horses, although the afternoon heat might be a factor.
Prescott spat, "Twenty dollars plus a cent a mile, Ortega. Bring him back alive and we'll hang him straight away."
"We need to see about what happened before we start any hanging." Ortega mounted Barney and headed north.
* * *
The railroad trail paralleled the Paris and Great Northern Railroad the twelve miles through the tall pine trees and red soil to the Red River bridge into the Choctaw Nation.
No Fish had told him he lived with his people in the Potato Hills, north of the Kiamichi River. If No Fish stayed on the railroad trestle trying to lead a horse, Ortega would be hard pressed to find any sign, but fleeing would be slowed. The railroad trail followed the rail line all the way to Tuskahoma Junction, an almost totally Choctaw populated town about forty miles north of the Red River.
Before the sun was high, Ortega reached the bridge. The grizzled watchman in a railroader's cap said, "Injun carryin' a shotgun and leading a gray mare with a woman ridin' forded the river in a hell of a big hurry an hour or so after dawn. Didn't say nothin' and disappeared into the trees on the Oklahoma side."
Ortega forded the river, angling against the current in water shallow enough that Barney and the mule could mostly walk across. By midafternoon, he forded the Kiamichi twenty miles north of the Red River. Several times, he dismounted, tied his animals to a tall pine tree and inspected the railroad right of way. By tie-stepping, No Fish had left almost no trail nor had he left any sign of leaving the right of way. The ties were largely buried in cinder, allowing the horse No Fish was leading to walk without falling.
Ortega camped beside the rail tracks that night. He had learned from passersby that No Fish was still trotting north on the tracks leading a woman on a gray horse. By stopping, he knew No fish could gain distance, but his mule was exhausted, and he felt he had no choice. A man on foot would tire eventually, even a Choctaw.
By noon of the second day, he figured from witnesses along the way he was less than an hour behind. No Fish, already having walked and run approximately 40 miles, had to stop and rest overnight. Ortega calculated that if he stayed on the tracks to Tuskahoma Junction, twenty-five miles further north, the Choctaw population might assist the fugitive.
At sundown he tethered both animals and slept beneath the tall pines near the tracks. As dawn approached the next morning, Barney's snicker bolted him awake. Was a bobcat nosing about? Winchester in hand, he walked carefully to the tethered animals. A slender figure was running north along the trail. He had overtaken the fugitive who had just tried to steal his horse.
"No Fish, stand and surrender. I'm takin' you back to Paris. I guarantee no harm will come to you."
No Fish turned knelt on one knee, the shotgun pointed at Ortega from two hundred feet. "I ain't done nothin' Mr. Ortega. They gonna hang me. Sara come with me on her own. Come closer and I'll shoot." At that he left fly with one barrel. Several pellets kicked up red Oklahoma dust at Ortega's feet. No Fish raised the shotgun again.
Aiming low, Ortega snapped a round from his Winchester. The shot was a reflex which he instantly regretted. The shotgun blast had fallen short; the Winchester had not. No Fish went down in the dust, clawing at his left thigh. In stoic Choctaw fashion, he made no sound. Ortega approached the wounded man and kicked the shotgun away.
"Shoulda got closer, son." Ortega knelt. The wound was painful, but the only damage was a crease across the thigh.
"Shot was accident, Mr. Ortega."
Ortega found a spare bandanna and a pint of whiskey in his gear. He tied the bandana around the bleeding thigh and when he poured a stiff shot of liquor over the bandaged wound, No fish grimaced, but again made no sound. He offered the wounded man the bottle, but No fish shook his head.
Ortega stood and looked intently around.
"Sara is behind that live oak a hundred yards ahead there, Mr. Ortega. You can just barely see her mother's mare in the brush." He gestured.
"Charlie No Fish, if I don't take you back, the U.S. Marshals will come lookin' and you'll end up at the end of a noose. I won't let them lynch you. Back in Paris, they're sayin' you murdered Deputy Sheriff Cavnes."
No Fish sat upright. "No sir, but I saw who did and I know why."
"Call the girl down here and make sure she brings the horse."
From his mule, Ortega dug out a skillet, makings for a few biscuits, a slab of bacon, and a coffee pot. When he slid No Fish's shotgun into his saddle scabbard, he felt he seen it before. He was surprised only one barrel had been loaded. "We eat breakfast, son, and then we'll see if you can ride a mule fifty miles or so. Sara's mare looks like she can make the trip back . . . long as we only walk."
"I can cook, Mr. Ortega," Sara said.
Ortega thought she looked remarkably calm for a kidnap victim.
* * *
Ortega leading, they forded the Kiamichi by nightfall and kept riding, snacking on cold biscuit as they rode. The well-worn railroad trail was visible in the dark. In pre-dawn twilight the following morning, they crossed the Red River into Texas. On the long ride, No Fish told Ortega an interesting story.
Dawn was breaking when Ortega led the strange, bedraggled procession through Paris to the Lamar County Courthouse. Ortega ordered No Fish and Sara to wait by a hitchrack north of the town square and rode on down to the Lamar County Courthouse. A crowd began to gather, several calling out to lynch No Fish.
Sara's mother appeared and demanded custody of Sara Agnes. Ortega ordered her to stand down and be quiet. She was one of the most vocal in calling for the immediate execution of No Fish. Ortega knew why but held his tongue. Turning to face the crowd, he warned bystanders to leave the pair unmolested. Councilman Prescott, eyes heavy with sleep barged up, dressed but with his shirttail hanging out. Low Card appeared at edge of the crowd behind Prescott.
"Low Card, come here," Ortega ordered.
The old drunk shuffled closer.
"Won that shotgun in a poker game, you say? Where'd you get the stake to play?"
"Uh, saved up, Mr. Ortega." He was studying his scruffy boots again. Ortega had hit pay dirt. Low Card couldn't save time, let alone money to play poker.
"As I recall, you'd been sleepin' in the little enclosed porch behind the Prescott family's funeralizin' parlor." He gestured behind him at No Fish. "Johnny No fish tells me he was asleep on the stoop behind my blacksmith shop. He heard Deputy Sheriff Cavness arresting you for breaking into the city hall office two doors down from my place. Says he saw you take advantage of the night darkness to gun down the deputy. You dug in Cavness' pockets and was re-loading whey Johnny No Fish took the gun away from you. That's why No fish only had one round in the shotgun."
"No, no, hell no, Mr. Ortega. Won that gun from a drifter last week. Been keepin' it with my stuff in the back of Prescott's funeral place. You'd take that savage's word over mine?"
Ortega eyes narrowed. "Yep. And funny thing, I recall that shotgun hanging in Prescott's office long before you showed up in these parts. What did Prescott pay you to murder the deputy?"
Prescott snorted, "Now just a damned minute, Ortega. I ain't havin' to take no ruffduff from some damned injun . . . coverin' up for another savage. You ain't the law no more and I don't have to stand here and–"
"Prescott, Deputy Cavness 'n me shared a jug of shine last week in my shop. He got drunk and told me himself he was investigatin' you and Sheriff Tyree for theft of city funds. I reckon he figured that since I'm not inclined to run my mouth, his activities would remain secret with me. "Y'all hadn't a murdered him, he woulda been correct. Then, you sent ol' Low Card to steal papers and other evidence from city hall, hopin' the theft would hide records of your involvement. By chance, Cavness was makin' rounds at the same time and caught the old man. Low Card panicked and murdered him . . . an unexpected bonus for you."
Prescott, perspiring in the early morning swealter, spat, "That's a lie, Ortega. You can't prove–"
Ortega leveled his Winchester at Low Card. "Empty your pockets." The old man wilted and nearly collapsed. Prominent in the meager contents of his pockets was a gold ring with the Masonic symbol imbedded in red stone shining on the worn boardwalk.
Low Card stammered, "Uh . . . Mr. Ortega, I tuck it off the deputy's hand after that other Injun, No Fish, murdered him and run off. He was already dead 'n all."
Ortega said softly, "Suddenly, I realize that yesterday morning, I saw an unfired shotgun shell laying in the alley near the deputy's body. You gave Cavness both barrels. Like I just said, No Fish got the shotgun away from you as you tried to reload and murder him too. Cavness always carried a little Derringer in his belt." He pushed Low Card down on the boardwalk. "Is that little gun hid in your boot?"
Ortega manhandled the old man's boots off. The Derringer was not there. The old man looked backwards at Prescott, who avoided eye contact.
Sheriff Tyree tried to gradually melt into the crowd. Ortega pointed a finger at him motioning him forward. Tyree stepped forward like a bass on the hook.
"Tyree . . . Prescott, I heard another interesting tale on the back down Oklahoma." In the crowd, he spotted the cowhand who'd made the comment about Sara Agnes Johnson's loose habits, and who had also said forty-eight hours earlier he'd seen No Fish leading Sara Agnes on a horse.
"Cowboy, dunno your name, but I suggest you was one of several town toughs who took advantage of Sara's mother selling her favors . . . with Sheriff Tyree and Councilman ignoring the forced prostitution in return for free turns with the poor girl."
Prescott shirked away. Tyree fingered the Colt on his hip. Ortega leveled his Winchester at Tyree's chest. "You've made enough mistakes for one day, Tyree. Toss that six gun on the boardwalk."
The pistol hit heavily on the wooden walk.
He turned back to the cowhand. "What say, partner?"
The cowhand's voice quivered. "Ortega, I only visited her once. Never had the fifty cents again."
Ortega said, "Cowboy, I recognize you from the Bar X out east. We'll need you as a witness. I let you walk away, and you flee the territory, I'll find you and you ain't gonna like what happens then."
The cowhand looked up into Ortega's cold face. "Goin' no place, Mr. Ortega. Please don't shoot me . . . or stick me in that jail. I ain't be a goin' no place."
Prescott dug under his belt and came out with a small pistol.
"Looks like we found Deputy Cavness's Derringer." Ortega leveled the Winchester at Prescott's stomach. "Wanna try your luck with that little popper, Prescott?"
Prescott hesitated, studying Ortega's angry eyes, then shook his head like a dog working on a blacksnake.
"Then lay it on the boardwalk . . . and don't drop it. It's likely to go off and we wouldn't want you gettin' shot. I'd enjoy it too much."
Prescott snarled, "It ain't no proof, Ortega."
Ortega eyed the quivering undertaker turned political thief at length. "That a fact? That little pistol just hatch in your pocket?"
"Uh, found it on my back porch where this old fool hid it." Still clutching the Derringer, he gestured at Low Card.
"Ain't true!" bootless Low Card wailed. "Ain't by grab gonna hang over no two bucks Prescott paid me to break into the city building and steal some ledgers. Loaned me that double barrel. I was hid out behind your blacksmith shop, waitin' when the deputy walked up on me . . . scared me. I didn't mean to shoot him. You're right, the injun . . . uh . . . No Fish was asleep back a' your place and he took the shotgun away from me afore I could get it full reloaded and kill him, too. But I don't know nuthin' 'bout no forced whorin' by the widder Johnson."
Prescott said, "Lyin' old fool. You still got nothin' Ortega, you sorry redskin."
"Prescott, as bad as I'd like to let the air outta you, that could mean ol' Low card . . . and hopefully this damned sheriff, would hang alone. I'd rather wait to see those city account ledgers in a court of law. Maybe examine the safe in your funeral home to see what kinda wad of stolen city cash you've got rat holed. Lay that Derringer in the dirt. Don't drop it."
Breathing in short gasps, Prescott carefully laid the little gun in the dust of the street. "You still got no proof against a white man, you dumb savage."
Ortega nodded. "In the absence of the U.S. Marshall being present, I'm making a dumb savage citizen's arrest, Prescott and Tyree for stealing city funds and for hirin' this bum Low Card to break into city hall. Low Card, you're under arrest for stealing the dead deputy's ring and suspicion of murder. Y'all know where the jail is. Start walkin'."
All three prisoners, prodded by the Winchester, raised their hands and started across the town square.
Ortega said, "And oh, Mrs. Johnson, you get in line, too. You're under arrest for pimping out your sixteen-year-old daughter."
Mrs. Johnson wailed like a wolf in heat and appeared ready to faint.
Ortega said, "Good grief, Tyree, help the lady to jail. It can be your last good deed as sheriff . . . assuming you ever did anyone a solid to begin with."
The dreary procession marched toward the jail. Ortega turned and waved the Winchester to the north at No Fish, leaning on the hitchrail with Sara Agnes still mounted on the gray mare.
With No Fish leading on foot, they trotted off toward the Red River and the Choctaw Nation. Neither looked back. Ortega watched them move rapidly away. He figured the wiry little man and Sara Agnes were smiling.