Authors: William W. Johnstone
One of the novels Mickey Pauleen had been allowed to read as a boy, because of Mr. Herman Melville's sound spiritual values, was
It was understandable therefore that the man lying in bed reminded Pauleen of a great white whale beached on a slimy shore, smelling rank.
“Damn, boss, you ever think of opening a window?” he said.
“No,” Abe Hacker said. “Fresh air is bad for the heart. It carries too many ill humors.”
Nora sat in a chair by the bed, polishing her fingernails. She spread out her hand and took a critical glance. The nails looked like scarlet talons.
“Nearly a week has passed, and I've heard nothing from the three riders you sent out,” Hacker said. “I don't know what's happening with Sancho Perez.”
“And what's happening here in Last Chance?” Pauleen said.
Hacker scowled. “I don't understand what you're talking about, Mickey.”
“Meetings. The rubes are holding citizen meetings.”
“I wasn't invited, but I'm willing to bet they plan to run you out of town.”
“You shouldn't have threatened the storekeeper, Mickey.”
“Threatened? I would have blown his damned fool head off if you hadn't butted in.”
“Another killing would've been bad for business, Mickey, bad for business. We need to keep the rubes in their place until Independence Day.”
“Then they'll get their comeuppance, huh?”
“Indeed they will.”
“Tell me why, boss?”
Hacker looked puzzled and said nothing.
“I mean, why do you want this dunghill so badly?”
Hacker's smile was smug, unpleasant. “You know why. All right, the gold thing didn't pan out, but there's still money to be made here. All I'm doing is adding another link to my watch chain and keeping it for someone who will soon be very dear to me.”
Pauleen opened his mouth to speak, but Hacker silenced him with a raised hand.
“Mickey, when I see something I want, I take it. One of the ranches I own is in Montana, the Claymore it's called. I saw that range, wanted it, took it and laid out a score of lively lads dead on the ground in the process.”
Hacker selected a cigar from the cedar humidor beside him.
“Do you know why I wanted the Claymore so badly, and now this place and so many others just like it?”
Pauleen gave a slight shake of his head.
Hacker spoke behind a blue veil of smoke. “For my son!”
Mickey Pauleen was surprised, but Nora's face registered shock and disbelief.
“I didn't know you had a son, Abe,” she said.
Hacker smiled. “I don't, not yet. But I intend to sire one very soon.”
Nora stood and stepped to the bed, her face pale.
“Abe... honey... I don't think I canâ”
“Not you!” Hacker snapped. “My son's mother will be a well-bred young lady of good family. Not a painted trollop.”
Speechless, Nora returned to her chair, an agonized look on her face after Hacker's words had stabbed her heart like a knife. She'd knocked over the red bottle of nail oil as she sat, but ignored it as it stained the floor like blood.
Hacker, a sadist with deep contempt for humanity in general and women in particular, glared at Nora. “Why did you think for one moment that I'd let you bear my son?” he said.
The woman said nothing.
“Answer me!” Hacker yelled.
Pauleen had enough Southern breeding in him to say, “Boss, leave her alone.”
“You stay out of it, Mickey,” Hacker said, still staring hard at Nora. “Answer me,” he said again.
In a small, defeated voice, Nora said, “Abe, I just thought...”
“You thought! You're too damn stupid to think.” Hacker's cigar glowed in the dim light of the hotel room. “Before I left Washington, I made arrangements to wed into the Harbridge family,” he said. “Senator Harbridge pledged me his daughter Molly in holy matrimony. She's just a slip of a lass of fifteen, but she'll provide me with a fine son.”
Nora reached deep and found her backbone. She sat straight and stiff in the chair.
“I see,” she said.
“Yes, a slip of a lass,” Hacker said. “Not a dried-up old whore like you.”
Nora rose to her feet, her face like stone.
Like a ragged cloak, she pulled what was left of her dignity around her and with considerable poise left the room.
After the woman left, Hacker dismissed her from his mind and said, “Get back across the river, Mickey. Find out what's happening with Sancho Perez. Take Hugh Gray with you and tell Sancho time is running short.”
“Boss, the only gun you'll leave to guard you here will be Dupoix,” Pauleen said.
“He can handle it,” Hacker said.
“He's a gambler,” Pauleen said.
“So what if he is?”
“He's still to show his hand.”
“Dupoix draws wages from me, Mickey. He'll do what I tell him and play the cards I deal him.”
“I hope you're right.”
“I know I'm right. Now round up Shotgun Hugh, then hightail it across the river.” Hacker waved his cigar, smearing smoke across the fetid air of the bedroom. “You'll be my eyes and my mouth, Mickey. Do what you have to do, say what you have to say, but make sure the locusts cross the Rio Grande on Independence Day.”
Pauleen hesitated, turning the brim of his hat in his fingers. “Boss, that talk of getting hitched, was you joshing me?”
“Hell no. I told you, I want a son, an heir to my fortune.”
Pauleen grinned. “And she's fifteen, huh?”
“Yeah, a sweet little thing.”
“Can I claim Nora when I get back?”
Hacker thought about that, then said, “Sure, why not? Take her, Mickey. She's yours. Nora is starting to bore the hell out of me.”
Ranger Hank Cannan swung his legs off the bed and sat for a few moments, mustering the strength and will to stand.
Finally he rose to his feet, then clutched the brass headboard as the room cartwheeled around him.
When the world steadied itself he turned and put his left foot in front of the other. Then the right. He stopped and bit his lip to stop from crying out. His half-healed wounds protested, bombarded him with pain, and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.
Cannan was as game as they come, but this was impossible.
God, he was weak... feeble as a day-old kittlin. He took a tottering step. Then another. Like a ninety-year-old man walking across seaweed-covered rocks, Cannan made it to the room's far wall. For a full minute he laid his cheek against the flowered wallpaper, saliva dripping from his gasping mouth.
He turned and stared hopelessly at the wall opposite.
God help me, it's a hundred miles away
Cannan took a step. He managed a second, unsteady as a drunk.
Pain took its toll of him and so did muscles atrophied from weeks in bed, but, drawing deep, he fought back and kept on going.
His long nightgown flapping around his bare ankles, Cannan reached the wall.
He rested, let the blading pains subside, and turned, his long, sad face set and grim.
Now he had it to do all over again.
Cannan had completed twenty trips across the floor and was embarking on his twenty-first when the door swung open and Roxie entered, carrying a basket covered with a blue-checkered cloth.
“Lunchâ” she said. “Time...” then, “Ranger Cannan, what are you doing out of bed?”
Cannan stopped, glad of the rest. “Learning to walk again,” he said.
Roxie, tall, beautiful, but as stern as a matron in a lunatic asylum, laid down the basket and said, “Get into bed and eat your lunch. And do it now!”
“No!” Cannan said, aware that he sounded like a defiant little boy. “I'm on my feet and, by God, I'm going to stay on my feet.”
“All right, let me see you walk,” Roxie said.
Cannan did his best impression of the wobbly ninety-year-old.
“Are you dead set on doing this?” the woman said.
“Hell, yeah,” Cannan said.
“Then hold on to me. We'll do it together.”
“But I need to walk by myself,” Cannan said.
“Your legs will walk by themselves. All I'll do is help keep your balance.”
Thus began an ordeal that Cannan would always remember as the greatest trial of his life.
Midway through, as pain and exhaustion racked him, the Ranger faltered, but Roxie encouraged him.
“One step at a time, Ranger,” she said. “Think only of your next step.”
Roxie smiled at him and tried a distraction strategy.
“Were you always a Texas Ranger?” she said.
Cannan shook his head.
“Well,” Roxie said, “what did you do before you got religion?”
Pain showing in his eyes and the slickness of his sweat-stained face, Cannan made the effort to talk. But he was breathing hard.
“I worked as a store clerk in my younger years... then got a job as a shotgun guard for the Butterfield stage...”
“Keep walking and talking, Ranger, you're doing real good,” Roxie said.
Cannan's sweat-soaked nightgown clung to him like a second skin.
“I... later... I was a town sheriff... then... then...” He groaned, his head spinning, the pain in his legs like biting terriers. “I... was a clerk again... in a mercantile. After a year of that, I joined the Rangers.”
Roxie smiled at him but said nothing.
“All that was more interesting than it sounds,” Cannan said.
“I'm sure it was,” Roxie said.
They reached the wall behind the bed and she said, “Had enough now?”
“No, not yet,” Cannan said.
They turned and began to walk again.
The Ranger managed a tight smile. “Tried to rob me a train one time in my younger days,” he said.
“Well, that sounds exciting,” Roxie said.
“I... me... I tried to stop the locomotive, but it rings its bell and blows past me. I heard the engineer laugh.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” Roxie said. “That wasn't a good start.”
“Trouble was...” Cannan swayed a little and the woman steadied him. “Trouble was, the train was carrying a hunting party of Russians. Grand Duke somebody or other, and his entire entourage...”
“I've never met a Russian,” Roxie said.
“Until then neither had I,” Cannan said. “But next thing I know... God this hurts... next thing I know it seems like everybody in Russia is hanging out car windows taking pots at me with hunting rifles.”
“That wasn't very nice,” Roxie said, frowning.
“Well, them Russian fellers figured me for a gen-u-ine Wild West desperado... wanted my head to hang on the Duke's trophy wall, I guess.”
“Poor Ranger Cannan. Were you hurt?” Roxie said.
“No, not hurt. But I lost a fifty-dollar hoss and the stock of a brand-new Winchester.”
“That settles it,” Roxie said, frowning again. “If a Russian gentleman ever calls on me to entertain him, I'll send him packing with a flea in his ear.”
“After that experience, I never tried to rob a train again,” Cannan said.
“And no wonder. Some people are just so inconsiderate,” Roxie said. “Especially foreign royalty.”
“I think we'd better stop for today, Roxie,” Cannan said, breathing hard. “I'm all used up.”
“Then stand right there,” the woman said. Roxie took a fresh nightgown from the dresser and a pair of white towels from the brass rail beside the washbasin. “Hands up, then bend forward.”
“Why?” Cannan said.
“You're not going to bed in that sweaty nightgown.”
“But I'll be naked.”
“And I haven't seen a naked man before? Now be a good boy and do as you're told.”
Cannan was too worn out to argue.
Roxie pulled off the nightgown over Cannan's head, dropped it on the floor, then used a wet towel to wash his sweaty body and dried him with the other.
After the woman helped him into bed, Cannan said, “How long did we walk?”
Roxie thought for a while, calculating, then said, “Oh, at least twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes!” Cannan said. “I thought it was an hour, or maybe two.”
Roxie smiled. “It felt that way to you, Ranger, huh?”
“Yes it did, and I've got to do it all over again tomorrow.” He looked into Roxie's face and saw no impending comment there. “I'll be on my feet and out on the street by Independence Day,” Cannan said.
He'd expected the woman to smile and shrug off his promise as wishful thinking. But Roxie surprised him.
Her face troubled, she said, “You know, maybe it's because of my Irish mother that I see and feel things... events that haven't happened yet, but will happen, as surely as rain follows thunderclouds.”
“What kind of events?” Cannan said.
“I don't see as clearly as my mother did, but I believe it's the plague.”
“A plague on the land, you mean,” Cannan said.
“Yes, and many will die from it,” Roxie said.
Shotgun Hugh Gray was a morose man, a former prizefighter whose grotesquely battered face showed the scar of every bare-knuckled punch he'd ever taken.
Gray quit the ring in 1885, after he took a terrible beating from the great Jack Kilrain, fighting under brutal London bare-knuckle rules before they were banned in the United States.
Too many blows to the head had left Gray mentally unbalanced.
He was not a revolver fighter like Mickey Pauleen, but a sadistic killer for hire who murdered with neither mercy nor remorse.
Silent, grim, his head like a block of rough-hewn granite, Gray was not a convivial traveling companion, and he and Pauleen had not uttered a word to each other since they'd left Last Chance.
After several hours, Pauleen drew rein at the top of a shallow ridge that looked like a petrified sand dune chiseled out of the desert floor. Below him, raked by the relentless sun, stretched a flat expanse of thorn scrub and cactus, cut through by a wide trail made by the passage of many feet. Without a word, Pauleen swung out of the saddle and inspected the tracks, including deep ruts made by heavy wagons and the hoofprints of outriders.
He returned to the ridge, took a swig from his canteen, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Tracks are headed east,” he said.
Gray only grunted in reply.
Pauleen sat in silence for a few moments, thinking.
“Perez is herding the Mexicans in the direction of his hacienda,” he said finally.
Gray looked at him with eyes the color of a storm cloud. “He needs to water his stock,” he said.
Pauleen considered that, remembering the well-irrigated grounds that surrounded the bandit chief's lair. He nodded. “I reckon you're right. He'd lose too many head in the dry canyons.”
“He must have a water source close by,” Gray said.
“Hugh, you're smarter than you look,” Pauleen said, urging his horse into motion.
Gray said nothing. His damaged brain ground slowly, like a millstone within a millstone, and he was thinking of seÃ±oras and seÃ±oritas.
Pleasant enough thoughts... that would soon thrust him into a living hell.
After thirty minutes the tracks swung south, away from the hacienda, and Pauleen followed them.
He fancied the Children of Israel must have left a similar tramped road when they crossed the desert in search of the Promised Land.
But the land the peons needed to enter was to the north, across the Rio Grande.
The thought made Pauleen frown. They were headed in the wrong direction.
A single rider trotted out of the hacienda gate and Pauleen and Gray drew rein and let the man get closer.
“Buenos dÃas, seÃ±ores
,” the bandit said.
“Buenos dÃas,” Pauleen said. “Where is Sancho?”
“Ah, he is at the spring to the south,
,” the bandit said. “Just follow the tracks.”
“How many people?” Pauleen said.
“A great many, seÃ±or.” The bandit waved a hand. “As many as the stars in the sky, I think.”
“You see anything of three young white men riding together?” Pauleen thought for a moment, then said, “Pistoleros?”
The Mexican shook his head. His skin was very dark and pocked. “No. I have not seen such men.”
Pauleen touched his hat brim. “Obliged,” he said.
He kneed his horse forward, but Gray lingered. “Women at the spring?” he said to the bandit.
, many women, seÃ±or.”
The Mexican shrugged. “Some pretty. Some not.”
Gray nodded and followed Pauleen.
Behind him the bandit gazed at Gray as he left and nodded to himself.
That one will bear watching.
The area around the limestone bluff was crowded with people, like an encampment of nomads who'd wandered into the desert and lost their way. Pauleen estimated they were a thousand in number and maybe more, and farther to the south a dust cloud lifted, signaling more arrivals.
A dozen of Perez's men used their rifle butts to push back the frantic crush of humanity crowding close to the natural water tank.
But the aquifer that fed the spring lay deep underground, and the flow was weak.
As Sancho Perez knew, it took an entire day to fill a water wagon, and the level in the limestone tank was half what it was when the peons first arrived. He ran around like an obese, cursing Moses in a sunbonnet, attempting to shove people into some semblance of a line while his men doled out water one small clay cup at a time.
But most did not even get that much as pushing from behind jostled the cups from the avid mouths of drinkers, and half the precious water spilled onto the sand.
Maddened by thirst, hundreds of people rushed for the tank, and Perez had to flee to avoid the wild stampede. The noise from the crowd rose to a harsh, whining growl... a primitive cry of fear and despair.
The riflemen guarding the water were swept aside and frenzied men jumped into the tank, more and more of them, until the displaced liquid cascaded wastefully over the side.
Ignoring the distraught pleas of their wives and children, men drank deep, fighting one another for space, cursing and punching, and now glittered the honed iron of drawn blades.
Mickey Pauleen had seen enough.
His face empty, he slid the .44-40 Winchester from the boot under his knee. Pauleen threw the rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the biggest man struggling in the tank, and fired.
He didn't wait to see the Mexican go down.
He shifted his aim to another man, fired. Then again... aim, fire!
The blood of the three dead peons slid across the surface like scarlet fingers... then slowly stained the water red.
Appalled, the crowd drew back, cringing in the face of death.
“Sancho!” Pauleen yelled. “Don't just stand there wringing your hands. Order them to sit and then water them one at a time.”
Perez stared at the man on the horse, distant enough that he wavered in the heat haze.
Pauleen held the Winchester upright, the butt on his right thigh. Outlined by dazzling sunlight, he looked like the wrath of God.
“Damn you, do it!” the little gunman roared. Pauleen pushed his horse forward, Hugh Gray, shotgun in hand, riding close behind him.
Perez shook himself and finally responded.
He had no idea how long the peons would remain cowed, but now was not the time to take chances. He ordered his riflemen into the crowd, then yelled to his other bandits to give everyone a full cup of water, half that amount for children.
The bodies were dragged out of the tank and cups filled.
Pauleen rode up and glanced at the red-tinged water.
He grinned. “Look, Sancho, I've turned the water into wine,” he said.
“Ver' good, Mickey,” Perez said. “You make a funny joke.”
The Mexican smiled, but inside he seethed with resentment, and his growing hatred for gringos, how they killed his people like animals, spiked at him. “They may not stay, Mickey,” Perez said.
Pauleen glanced over the peons, sitting or lying on their backs, spread over a couple of acres of ground.
“They'll stay,” he said. “They're thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. If they had any fight in them to begin with, it's long gone.”
, long gone,” Perez said. “Is so sad.”
Pauleen's eyes lifted. “Looks like there's more a-comin', Sancho,” he said.
The bandit's gaze moved to the sun-spangled water where it sprang from the limestone cliff. “I hope the water lasts, Mickey,” he said.
“It's probably been here for a thousand years,” Pauleen said. “It'll last a thousand more.”
Perez turned his head and stared silently at the approaching dust. Then, spreading his hands, “Poor Sancho. How can he handle so many?”
“Kill a few. The rest will fall in line,” Pauleen said. He swung out of the saddle. To Gray he said, “Help Sancho's men keep an eye on the greasers.”
“Sure thing,” Gray said.
Pauleen watched him leave, then took off his hat and ran his fingers through his damp, thin hair. He replaced his hat and said, “Sancho, I sent three guns to help you. Did you talk to them?”
Perez shook his head. His face looked like a round, red apple just beginning to go bad. “I never saw them, Mickey.”
“Not so strange. The desert has a hundred ways to kill young men.”
“How did you know they were young?”
Perez didn't miss a beat. “There are no old pistoleros, Mickey.”
Pauleen let it go. For now. “Looks like a couple hundred coming in,” he said, staring beyond Perez.
“The drought to the south is bad, many dead, peons and animals.”
“Get them watered and bedded down with the rest. Talk to them tomorrow when they're in a mood to listen.”
“What do I tell them?”
“That golden fields of grain, fruiting orchards, and fine homes wait for them over the riverâfat cattle, too. Tell them whatever the hell you want, but get them across the river on July fourth.”
“Not so long a time,” Perez said.
“I know, but get them there, Sancho.”
The bandit watched his mounted men settle the newcomers, a couple of other bandits already carrying cups of water among them.
This lot was in much worse shape than the others. They'd come from farther south and were living skeletons, faces as thin as paper, their clothing in tatters. The Mexicans threw themselves on the sand, too weak to stand or even cry out for water.
A woman among them broke into a piercing scream, then held out a limp baby to the man beside her.
The man wailed and held the baby close. The baby did not move or make a sound.
“Keep them alive, Sancho,” Pauleen said, his eyes cold. “Can you feed them?”
“With what, Mickey? How to cook tortillas for so many, huh?”
“Well, do the best you can. Just keep them alive for another few days.”