Authors: Jane Toombs
The five men passed by, none even glancing at the gate, and approached the courthouse. They stopped to talk to the men waiting there. In a few moments the jurors dispersed.
“Ain’t going to be holding a court session,” Billy muttered. “Figured as much. They want blood, not law. Get ready, boys.”
The five lawmen started back the way they’d come. Brady paused for a moment to call a greeting to a woman near the courthouse, then hurried to catch up to his deputies.
Six men leveled their rifles. Ezra tried to get his into position, but his hands were shaking so badly he could hardly hold the Winchester, much less aim.
Six rifles cracked.
Brady fell in his tracks. Didn’t move.
Hindman staggered back toward the courthouse. Fell. Began to crawl. “Water!” he cried.
Long stumbled, recovered and ran with Mathews and Peppin to take cover.
A man rushed from the saloon next to the courthouse and knelt beside Hindman. A moment later he raced back to the saloon. Hindman lay motionless, a tin cup beside him.
Brady’s and Hindman’s Winchesters lay in the road.
“Damn, that looks like the one he took from me,” Billy said.
Before Ezra realized what was happening, Billy pushed the gate open and dashed into the road, stooping to pick up one of the rifles. Bullets from the deputies hidden across the street kicked up dirt around Billy. Ezra held his breath.
Billy lurched to one side, dropping the rifle. He stumbled back inside the gate, blood
oozing from a bullet hole in his left thigh. Ezra hurried to help him.
“Not into the store,” Billy said. ‘That’s the first place they’ll look.”
With Ezra supporting him, Billy limped through the west gate of the corral and across the field to the opening in the tall picket fence on the side of the McSween house. They came into the east wing by a back door and Ezra left Billy to find Dr. Ealy who was staying in the house.
“It’s only a flesh wound,” the doctor assured Billy minutes later, wiping away the blood on Billy’s left thigh.
Taking a white silk handkerchief and a metal probe, the doctor pushed the handkerchief into the bullet hole, Ezra swallowed hard as he watched him push until the handkerchief, covered with blood, emerged from the bullet’s exit hole. He pulled the cloth all the way out, then bound up the wound.
“Clean through,” Dr. Ealy said. “Ought to heal nicely. Though I don’t think you’re going to do much riding for a few days.”
“I can’t stay here,” Billy said.
A McSween man, Sam Corbett, who’d watched the doctor treat Billy, spoke up. “I got me an idea. You come on with me.”
Ezra helped Billy along a corridor and into a bedroom, following Corbett who’d stopped to pick up a pry iron. In the room, he shoved the bed aside and pried at the floorboards, easing three of the wide planks up. He tossed Ezra a blanket.
“Put it underneath there.” he said.
Ezra lay on his stomach and pushed the blanket into the hole. He smoothed it out onto the dirt not more than two feet below.
“There’s your hidey-hole.” Corbett told Billy.
Billy grinned at Ezra. “Guess I’m bound to fit into a hole today, one way or the other. At least Brady ain’t shoving me in this one.” He eased down and stretched out on the blanket.
Corbett reached for the boards and began to fit them back across the opening. Ezra peered at Billy and saw he held his Colt in his hand.
“Anybody finds me, they’re going to be sorry,” Billy said, his words muffled as Corbett laid the last board in place.
Peppin and Mathews searched the McSween house but overlooked Billy’s hiding place. Two days later he rode south to join his friends in the hills near San Patricio. Ezra, asking permission from no one, went with him.
Dick Brewer was there to greet them.
“Ain’t nothing I can do now about you killing Brady and Hindman,” he told Billy. “They’re dancing with the devil, I guess, and that’s all right, but I don’t want to see it happen again. We’re going to serve these warrants I got and we’re going to bring the rest of the bastards back alive. To hang.”
Billy shrugged. “Suits me.”
“I thought you were running things,” Ezra whispered to him.
“Brewer’s the constable, not me,” Billy muttered.
“I got word that Roberts and Kitt are down the Tulerosa by the Mescalero reservation,” Brewer went on. “We’re riding after them.”
Ezra knew both Roberts and Kitt had been in Brady’s posse and he tingled with anticipation. This time he wouldn’t freeze up like some greenhorn with buck fever. He’d killed an Apache, hadn’t he?
The trouble with him back in Lincoln was that Brady and his deputies hadn’t shot first. Hadn’t even pulled their guns. The truth of it was, they’d been ambushed. Of course, ambush was all right in war. Even Tessa called it a war. Anyway, hadn’t the posse done worse to Tunstall?
“Wish you were leading the Regulators,” Ezra told Billy as they saddled up.
“I reckon Brewer’s okay,” Billy assured him.
Fifteen Regulators rode southwest under a warm sun. The grass had begun to shoot up green, transforming the brown hills. The cottonwoods unfolded new leaves and birds called everywhere. It was April sixth.
Words popped into Ezra’s mind:
“Oh, to be in England now that April’s there.
And whoever wakes in England sees some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf ...”
It was from some poem his father used to recite to him and Tess every spring.
“Robert Browning,” he said aloud.
“What?” Billy asked.
“Nothing.” Not for the world would Ezra admit he could remember lines of poetry and even the name of the man who wrote them.
He’d loved Papa, but it didn’t take many brains to see that Texas and the New Mexico Territory were no place for men like Papa. No place for poetry either. Tunstall was an Englishman, too. He probably would’ve known who Browning was, since Tunstall had been a lot like Papa.
Good men. Law-abiding. Trusting in the good of other men. Ezra shook his head. It hadn’t worked for Papa in Texas any more than it had worked for Tunstall in the New Mexico Territory . They were both dead.
Ezra glanced at Billy who’d begun to whistle “Silver Threads Among The Gold.”
Billy sure didn’t have to worry about growing old. Not for a long time. He was eighteen, a little less than three years older than Ezra. He wasn’t a tall man--about five seven, maybe a tad more. He himself was already two inches or so taller than Billy.
Age and height didn’t mean much, though. When they didn’t have Brewer giving orders, The Regulators all looked to Billy to find out what to do next. Billy didn’t sit around musing over lines of poetry, he was always practicing his shooting even though he was the best shot in the Territory. He watched everything that was going on and decided what ought to be done. Then did it. No sitting on the fence debating which way to jump.
Ezra was bound and determined to be like Billy. Not worry about whether he was doing right. Not feel guilty about leaving Tess and Jules behind. Billy was the kind of a man who could call the Territory home. Who knew what a man had to do to live here.
By noon the sun was actually hot. They were in sight of Blazer’s Mill on the Mescalero reservation,
“We’ll get Mrs. Godfroy to fix us dinner,” Brewer said.
She was the Indian Agent’s wife and kept an eating place for travelers. The Regulators left their horses in the corral, carrying their rifles into the building and stacking them against the wall near the dining room before sitting down to eat.
Ezra had just put his spoon into the bean stew when Middleton leaped to his feet, pointing out the window. “By God here comes Buckshot Roberts, big as life!”
“Let’s get him,” Billy cried.”
The Regulators shoved back chairs and dove for their rifles.
“Hold it!” Brewer ordered. “I got a warrant for him and I intend to take him alive,” He glanced around until his gaze lit on Frank Coe.
“Frank,” he said, “You know Roberts as well as any of us, You go on out and explain what we mean to do.”
As Coe strode outside, Ezra stared at the approaching Roberts. The man got the name Buck because he carried so many bullets in his body from fighting--mostly against the Texas Rangers, Ezra’d heard. Buckshot wasn’t a big man and he limped, but he looked as tough as old leather, not the kind who’d give up easily. “You reckon Roberts will surrender to us?” Ezra asked Billy.
Billy grinned and shook his head.
Roberts stopped when he saw Coe and then the two of them walked around the side of the building, talking to each other, and disappearing from sight.
“What if he takes Frank hostage?” Middleton asked. “Hell, he might even shoot him.”
Brewer, pacing back and forth, didn’t answer. Time passed. Frank Coe and Roberts didn’t reappear.
“Buckshot ain’t gonna make it easy for us,” Billy said.
Brewer nodded. He stopped pacing, pointed at George Coe, Frank’s cousin. “You go out there, George. Take Middleton and Bowdre. Tell Roberts he’s under arrest.”
The three hurried out. Billy touched Ezra’s arm and began to drift toward the door. Ezra followed.
“Bound to be trouble,” Billy muttered. “Should have shot him to begin with.”
Ezra and Billy were at the door when they heard Bowdre call, “Roberts, throw up your hands!”
A man shouted, “No!” A rifle cracked. Somebody yelped in pain.
Ezra ran outside with Billy, Winchester in his hand. More shots.
“Jesus, I’m hit,” Middleton cried, staggering toward Ezra.
Blood welled onto Middleton’s shirt and dripped onto the dirt. There was no sign of Roberts. A bullet zinged past Ezra. Billy grabbed his arm and yanked him behind a wagon. They crouched by the wheels to peer underneath.
“Roberts is holed up in there.” Billy pointed to an open doorway in a house some yards away. Ezra saw that a mattress had been shoved into the opening. When bullets from Roberts’ rifle began spattering against the wagon, Ezra and Billy retreated around the corner of the building where the other Regulators had taken cover.
“Your arms bleeding,” Ezra said to Billy.
“Grazed me, that’s all. He’s one hell of a mean old man.”
George Coe had a blood-soaked bandana wrapped around his right hand and Bowdre was cursing the shot that had cut off his gun belt. Middleton was breathing okay, so Ezra guessed he wasn’t badly wounded.
Brewer turned to Bowdre. “You’re sure you hit Roberts?”
“A gut shot,” Bowdre told him. “Didn’t you hear him howl? Never figured he’d make it to that room. He oughta be dead.”
“Just leave him there” Billy advised. “He ain’t going to live long if he’s gut shot.” Brewer shook his head. I’m going to sneak up on him.” Billy shrugged.
Ezra watched Brewer cross the road and duck behind a small rollway of logs near the sawmill. Brewer crouched behind the logs as he eased along to get into position to see Roberts’ doorway, disappearing from Ezra’s sight.
“Damn, that’s Brewer’s hat sticking up over the logs,” Billy said suddenly, pointing. “He ought to know--”
A sharp crack cut off Billy’s words. Brewer’s hat vanished behind the logs.
Billy took off across the road at a run. Ezra, racing behind him, stopped abruptly when he saw Brewer’s body sprawled on its back, a dark and bloody hole between his eyes.
Billy shook his head. Done for. Old Buckshot always had a good eye. Ain’t no way we’re going to flush him out, he’ll pick us off one by one till he’s dead.” He jerked his head toward the rest of the Regulators, still waiting across the road. “Best thing to do is vamoose.”
As Ezra hurried to the corral with the others, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was wrong to leave Brewer where he’d fallen.
“Blazer’ll bury him,” Billy said. “Him and Buckshot, too, ‘cause he’s a goner.”
Even the Apaches always tried to come back after their dead, Ezra thought. Still, Billy was right about needing to get away in a hurry. Fort Stanton was too close for comfort if Blazer decided to get soldiers down because of the shooting.
No one had argued with Billy--it was plain he’d be the leader of the Regulators now. If Brewer had listened to Billy, Ezra told himself, he’d still be alive instead of lying in the dirt with a bullet in his head.
That’s where trying to go by the letter of the law got you.
Billy had wanted to throw down on Roberts the minute the Regulators spotted him and that’s the way it should’ve been handled.
Billy made the kind of leader a man could trust.
* * *
In the parlor of the McSween house, Tessa turned abruptly away from Calvin Rutledge.
“I didn’t ask for a lecture,” she said, I asked for your help.”