“Got a gun?” he asked. When I said I did not, he pulled out a heavy Colt single-action and offered it to me, but I told him I hoped I wouldn't need it.
“You oughta carry a good gun,” he said, but shrugged and slipped the weapon out of sight again under his coat.
That ended it and he allowed his horse to drift back away from me, but I could hear him talking in Choctaw to his companions, probably telling them everything he'd learned about me.
It was turning dark and there was the smell of rain in the air when the two Osage scouts rode back through the trees to hold a conference with Oscar Schiller and George Moon. The rest of the party sat well back, watching. After a few moments, the scouts reined their horses away and rode off in different directions at a gallop. Schiller waved us up alongside and said we were coming to the Hatchet HillâMcAlester road again and that there was a farm just ahead. He told us the trail of the men we had been following apparently led to this farmstead. Choctaw policemen all around me began pulling Winchesters from saddle boots and checking the loads in Colt revolvers, spinning the cylinders. None that I could see showed any expression, but my own heart was pounding. We moved for perhaps three hundred yards, seeing ahead the thinning trees. Schiller stopped us again, well back in the trees, and the Choctaws fanned out, forming a long line. I moved my horse close in behind Schiller and waited with the rest, the soreness in my legs forgotten.
Blue Foot came up to us suddenly from the trees on one flank, and he was breathing hard as he pulled in beside Schiller and Moon.
“They been there, maybe,” he said. “But nobody now. No horses around, at the house or in the barn lot. There's a man tied to the well curbing.”
“Let's get to business,” Schiller shouted and dug his heels into his horse's flanks. It was what I imagined a cavalry charge to be. We swept from the line of trees at a run. Leaving the woods, we could see a long cleared space down the slope before us, and the buildings of the farmstead. The house was a long single-story building with porches on both sides running the entire length and a breezeway or dogtrot through the middle, separating the rooms at either end. Beyond that was a barn and other outbuildings, then the road marked by a rail fence. It ran off in either direction from the ridge on which the house stood, disappearing into heavily wooded valleys. The yard around the house was flat and broom-swept, and scattered across it were a number of dead chickens, lying like puffed feather pillows.
Choctaw policemen were already going into the house, weapons ready, when Schiller and Moon pulled up in a cloud of dust and dismounted at the well in one corner of the yard. Joe Mountain came riding up from the outbuildings. Tied to the high stone well curbing was a man, leaning crazily to one side, his head cut horribly and his beard crusted with blood. He was barefooted and nothing covered his body but long flannel underwear.
“That's Thomas Thrasher,” George Moon said. “He owns this place.”
“Well, he's dead,” Schiller said. They cut the rope holding the body to the curbing and it collapsed onto the ground, sliding down sideways in a sitting position, gone partly stiff. There were deep cuts through the underwear under the arms, into the rib cage, and the collarbone thrust up through a vicious wound in the shoulder like a celery stalk snapped in half.
“There's your murder weapon,” Schiller said, pointing to a single-bitted ax that lay a few feet away covered from haft to blade with blood. “Let's get him on the porch.”
It had started to rain. The air in the yard was still, like a vacuum, the large drops falling straight to the ground like lead pellets in a shot silo. High above, the wind was roaring.
One of the Choctaw policemen came from the barn with a wagon canvas. We laid Thrasher's body at one end of the porch and covered it. Somehow, looking at it had not been so bad as seeing the woman in the early morning, although the mutilation was much worse.
We were on the porch, under cover from the rain, when Blue Foot came up from the outbuildings, waving his Winchester.
“Cap'n! Another dead man in the pigsty. Them pigs been at his face.”
A number of men ran to the pigpen, shouting and waving back the hogs bunched along one fencerow. From the sty they lifted a form, limp and completely naked. When they carried it to the house, I moved away to the far end of the porch. They put it beside the other body and some of them bent over what was left of the face.
“One of the hired help, I'd guess,” George Moon said. “But I can't tell which one, the way he's been chewed. Mr. Thrasher had two Choctaws working for him here.”
Somebody said, “This one's shot through the back. See that lump on his chest? See that? That there's the bullet, Cap'n.”
“I want that slug,” Oscar Schiller said. “Gimme your knife, George.”
Inside the house, Choctaw policemen were going through the rooms. I would have joined them except for my apprehension over what I might see then, so I stood on the porch, away from everyone, looking down across the yard where the rain was beginning to slant before a growing wind. The dead chickens had become sodden lumps of feathers, as though they had just been scalded and waited to be plucked. When Oscar Schiller touched my arm, I jumped. He was holding a flattened bullet in the palm of one hand.
“You see that, Mr. Pay?” he asked. “That's what a slug looks like that's gone through a man. But the base is intact. It's a .45.” He put it in a pocket and wiped his hand on his duster. He acted as though he enjoyed all of this.
He was starting to say something else when there was a shout from the rear of the house. We ran to the backyard through the rain. There was a long line of hollyhocks bordering a path from the back porch to an unpainted privy. Blossoms had already begun on the tall stalks, but now the rain was beating them off, leaving petals strewn across the wet ground like red and white quilt pieces. At the privy there were half a dozen Choctaws, holding the door open.
It was a two-holer and sitting on one hole was a young Indian man, his pants and drawers around his ankles. He sat slouched against one wall, his eyes staring out into the rain. His front was covered with congealed blood and the toilet seat was slick with it. I saw then the riddled door, each bullet hole with fresh, raw splinters showing harshly against the weathered wood. Schiller and Moon bent over the man, looking closely at his face.
“You know this one, George?”
“Yes, it's Oshutubee. He was a carpenter apprentice to Mr. Thrasher. They did contract work for The Nations in Tuskahoma. That means the one we found in the pigpen was Price. A farmhand. Both of them were Choctaws.”
“Get him with the others,” Schiller said. “At least this one hasn't got a mess in his pants.”
As the policemen carried the body around to the front porch, I walked toward the house with Schiller and Moon, drenched to the skin, and resolved that as soon as I got back to Fort Smith I would buy a slicker to go with the high-heeled boots.
“Contract work, you said?”
“Yes,” George Moon said. “Mr. Thrasher was a carpenter. He came to The Nations and married one of our women about twelve years ago.”
“So he's part of the Choctaw Nation.”
“Yes, but still a white man. When he came here he had a child with him. From some marriage before, over in Arkansas, I guess. A little girl about six years old. She's about eighteen now, I guess.”
They stopped and looked at each other, the rain running off their hat brims.
“And Mrs. Thrasher? Is she still alive?”
They stood there in the rain for a long moment, looking at each other.
“She was, the last I heard,” George Moon said. “But right now I wouldn't bet on anything.”
“Then we've got two women somewhere in this.”
“Afraid so. Somewhere.”
We had moved to the back porch when Joe Mountain rode up, his face wet with the rain, his teeth shining.
“Bunch of horses, Cap'n. Maybe ten. Went off down the field behind the barn to the McAlester road. It looks like they split up there and some went both ways. But I can't tell for certain. This rain has raised hell with tracks.”
“All right. Get under cover. Pass the word along. I think we're in for a twister blow.”
To emphasize his words, a sudden gust of wind drove the rain across the porch and we moved quickly into the breezeway. Choctaw policemen were already there and George Moon started talking with them in words I couldn't understand. Schiller motioned me into the house.
The kitchen had been badly used. Part of a ham was in a roasting pan on the cold stove, and there were dirty dishes on the table, along with a platter of baked sweet potatoes, some partly eaten. The coffeepot was empty and Schiller filled it from a bucket on a small stand near the door. As he moved around to get the fire started again, his feet kicked through debris on the floor. There were three empty whiskey bottles, some broken plates, and bits of food. Lying brightly among the litter were several empty cartridge cases. When he had the stove going, the damper wide-open and the grate door as well, Schiller picked them up and looked at them.
“Here's .45 cases,” he said. He looked through the rear window at the privy, almost hidden now in the driving gray rain. “Well, Mr. Pay. We might as well bed in for the night.”
So for the time being the hunt was over. It was something I hadn't expected. But whoever had done these things was hours ahead of us, in which direction we didn't know, and moving on rain-swept roads. Perhaps by now even out of this storm.
We moved into the parlor. Chairs were overturned and some of the upholstered furniture had been ripped open with a knife. I thought of Mrs. John's throat.
“Cap'n,” George Moon said from the door. “There ain't no sign of the women. We looked through the house and the outbuildings There ain't no sign. We found a dead dog under the porch. Shot dead, an old hound dog.”
“All right,” Schiller said. “Get your men under cover.”
After George Moon had gone, Schiller turned to me and shook his head.
“Not much to be done now,” he said. “As far ahead of us as they are, we'd not do much except get wet if we went out thrashing around in this weather.”
“What about those women, Marshal?”
“There's three selections. They may not have been here when that bunch rode in. Off visiting someplace. Or, they may have run off to hide in the woods. Or, they're in some ditch now, beyond our help.”
“They could've been carried off.”
He shook his head, still bouncing the brass cartridges in his hand. “I doubt it. They were traveling fast and likely didn't want extra baggage. I'll admit, Mr. Pay, two of the selections don't set too well with me. I just hope to God they weren't even here. But I feel like George Moon. I wouldn't bet a dime on it. And if they ran off into the woods, why aren't they back? Maybe they're out there now, watching us, afraid to come in, not knowing who we are. And if they were here and caught, why weren't they treated like Mrs. John? Used and slaughtered? The bunch that rode in here had time to get good and horny again after they left Hatchet Hill Road, so why would they have waited and carried the women off someplace else to use them?”
It was the longest speech he had made to me. He turned back to the kitchen, where I could smell the coffee beginning to work. I knew he had no expectation of response to his questions, even if I'd had answers, which I didn't. Someone was telling him the dead chickens in the yard had all been shot. Everything had moved so fast, what had happened to those chickens had never occurred to me. But they'd been shot, like the men. Everything had been shot except the hogs.
Above the sounds of the growing storm, there was shouting from the front of the house that the canvas had blown off the bodies. They lay faceup, the water running off the cheeks that already had begun to look sunken and wasted like old candle wax burned out from the inside. Choctaws ran about the yard, one in pursuit of the canvas, others searching for large stones to anchor it in place. The thought crossed my mind of some kind of hysterical Easter egg hunt under a darkening sky gone berserk.
Hail began to slant against the walls and windows of the house. More water fell with it, and the lightning that we had watched through much of the afternoon was over us now, so close the crash of thunder came immediately with the flashing brilliance. Everything, the whole day, was a swirling kaleidoscope of changing bloodred forms, shapeless and wet, and now the blinding blue-white light. The wind blew the dead chickens across the yard.
“Get under cover,” Oscar Schiller was yelling. “There's a root cellar in the kitchen.”
Some of the Choctaws and Joe Mountain were running through the kitchen. Someone lit a lamp and Schiller was holding open a slanted door at the far end of the room, a door I had not noticed. It revealed wooden steps into the cellar and we stumbled down to find places among the food scattered across the earthen floor, apples and potatoes and flour. The gang had rifled this place, too. It smelled of damp burlap and rotting wood beams and bacon rind.
“Blow out that light,” Schiller said. “It's killing the air.”
We sat there in total darkness, listening to the howl of the storm overhead. The wind and rain and hail beat against the house, and once, I heard glass shattering. Joe Mountain was squatting beside me in the dark and he pressed something into my hand, round and hard.
“Apple,” he said, and I heard him bite into one of his own.
There was a strange detachment from reality sitting there with no light. Like a vacuum in time and space, or an absence of gravity, where a man had to hold his hand to the floor beneath him now and again to keep from rolling over on his side like one of those ball-bottom dolls children play with. When Schiller and Moon began to talk, their voices came out of the void, disembodied, causing my mind to reshape the structure of their faces from the sounds alone. The sandstone rasp of Schiller's voice made him seem larger than I knew he was, and George Moon's slurred speech created the image in my mind of a flat, high-cheeked face, dark and with one milk white eye.