The fiery New Mexico sun finally surrendered and not a minute too soon for Deputy Marshal Mason Barker. The heat had sucked every drop of moisture from his throat on his ride north from El Paso. He peeled his duster away from his body after the desert had turned it into a sweat lodge, but he preferred to suffer the heat than the trail dust. Barker tried to spit but nothing came.
He lifted his canteen from where it dangled at his knee and pulled the cork. He let the last drops trickle into his mouth where they turned to mud. It was almost worse than being thirsty. Almost. Not for the first time he wondered why he couldn't find himself a nice, small town that needed a marshal who did nothing more taxing than hike his boots up onto a desk. The way Las Cruces was growing north of his hometown of Mesilla told him that it might need some law. The swampy region that separated the two towns along the Rio Grande made them distinct towns, each needing its own stores and churches and law.
He stuffed the dry cork back into the canteen as he studied the small bowl holding the modest adobe ranch house. It wasn't what he expected to find. Most ranchers getting themselves evicted had let their spread fall into disrepair. Barker pulled the duster away from his sticky body again and drew out the sheaf of papers Judge Donawell had given him to serve. Fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars to evict a man from his ranch for failure to pay his mortgage. It was a damned shame. Life was hard out in the desert. A few dozen cattle would spread over several sections to graze because there wasn't enough grama or buffalo grass to support more. With the drought choking the countryside the way it had for going on two years, it was a miracle anyone had clung to the land.
Un milagro, he thought. A miracle.
But he had his job to do, even if this was harder in its way than bringing in a desperado. Everyone had his own story of woe, but that meant nothing to the bankers owning their loans. Bankers had lawyers and lawyers had the ear of the judges. Judge Donawell was a decent enough sort, but he followed the law down to the last period, and if that meant sending a family packing from their homestead, so be it.
He put his heels to his tired pony and urged it down the slope toward the ranch. It was turning cool now that the sun was quickly vanishing behind the distant horizon. The quicker he served the papers and gave the court's order to vacate within a week, the sooner he could be on the trail for home.
He touched his vest pocket where the money rested. Judge Donawell was one of the best judges around and paid in advance, knowing Barker would not fail him. The other two judges always insisted on their papers being served before payment left their sticky fingers. Barker had faced down one judge who had gambled away the money owed him and caused quite a furor that had finally brought his boss, Federal Marshal Armijo, into the fray. He had gotten his money and built a small mountain of ill will. Armijo hadn't liked that since he had more than one bandido ready for trial, but Barker appreciated how the marshal backed up his deputies.
Barker stopped in front of the house and looked around. He heard the chickens out behind the barn and saw a bony horse moving about listlessly in a corral. But nowhere did he see sign of human beings.
His call went unanswered. Barker slid the leather thong off the hammer of his Colt before dismounting. He had never killed a man, but he had shot a few. If it came down to ventilating an outraged rancher, he would pull the trigger. With regret, but he was more inclined to think about leaving his wife Ruth a widow than leaving another woman without her man.
He rapped on the door. The hollow echo was quickly followed by the screech of unoiled hinges as he opened the door with his left hand, his right resting on his six-shooter. Dim, cool, the interior was inviting. The furnishings weren't expensive. In fact, they looked used to the point of wearing out, but the place was neat as a pin and had the comfortable feel of being someone's home.
"Rafe?" He stepped into the house, hand still on the butt of his pistol. "Rafe Sundstrom?" Only quiet greeted him. Barker's back might scream out in pain, his hand might shake a tad at times, but his hearing was a keen as any long-eared rabbit listening warily for a stalking coyote. He heard nothing to warn of inhabitants.
Barker poked around a little, thinking the Sundstrom family might have cleared out knowing he was on the way. The shame of being evicted was worse than abandoning a lifetime's work for some folks. After a quick examination of the four-room house, he saw nothing to indicate the family had packed and left.
It was as if they had just . . . left.
Barker went back out into the twilight. The cool evening breeze turned the sweat still clinging to his body into stabbing icicles. He took a deep breath and appreciated the change in temperature, but it would be downright freezing in another couple hours and he still hadn't served the papers.
He spun at a sound, his hand going to his six-gun. When he recognized the sound as a woman sobbing quietly, he walked to the corner of the house. Twenty yards away a cottonwood swayed gracefully in the breeze. The sound of the woman's anguish caught on the wind and came to his ears. He made out three dim shapes, standing close, not moving.
Barker walked slowly to the tree. A few yards away he saw the mound of dirt nestled between the gnarly roots poking up from the ground. A grave.
The taller of the figures did not turn when he approached, but the other two did. He caught their tear-stained faces in the last rays of the sun. Two girls, one maybe fourteen and the other a few years older. And their mother. He didn't have to ask who lay in the fresh grave. Barker touched the eviction papers in his pocket, knowing Rafe Sundstrom wasn't going to be served.
"Ma'am," Barker said, taking off his hat. "Is there anything I can do?" For some reason he thought it was politic to pull his duster around to hide the deputy's badge pinned on his chest.
"He died," the woman said, fighting to keep from bawling.
"He done starved to death so we wouldn't," the older of the girls said. She was thin, but her face was still pretty. She had scrubbed off the dirt for the funeral, but her hands were filthy. Barker didn't have to ask who had dug the grave.
"My name's Mason Barker," he said.
"That's Rafael Sundstrom," the woman said, pointing to the grave.
"I'm Mara and this is my little sister, Hope," the older girl said.
"Mrs. Sundstrom, what you plannin' on doing now?"
"Doing?" She turned a stricken face to him. The light caught the tears and turned them silver against the shadowy face. "Grieve. Me and my daughters will grieve."
Barker touched the papers in the duster's pocket again, then let them be. This wasn't the time. His problem was not knowing when the time might be to tell three women in mourning they had to leave their home.
He sucked in a deep breath. It might be a boon for them, though. Shock at a man's death froze the mind, destroyed reason. Ordering them off the property would define their future since they could never make a living off this ranch by themselves, not if they hadn't been able to with Rafe Sundstrom still alive to do the heavy chores.
"I'm sorry you had to come at this moment, Mr. Barker," she said. "Did you know Rafe?"
"Can't say that I did. I was just passing by."
"Excuse my rudeness in not offering some food, but there's precious little. Only a chicken or two left and . . . and fixing a meal is . . . is"
"Mama!" Mara Sundstrom held her mother, but the older woman wasn't going to be comforted. She pushed her daughter away. "We can offer you some water, for you and your horse. Not much else."
"Mama, there's hardly any water," Mara protested.
"I can fetch that for you," Barker said. "It's the least I can do, considering your loss."
Mrs. Sundstrom nodded dully.
"I'll show you," the younger girl said.
"Hope, no!" Mara grabbed for her, but the girl pulled away and glared silently. "You don't know him. No offense, sir, but you just rode up and"
"I understand. Just point me in the right direction."
"I'll show you," Hope said defiantly. Barker looked to her mother, who nodded. For a minute he thought Hope was going to stick out her tongue at her older sister. He was glad he had only boys. That thought caused a lump to form in his throat. He'd had two sons. Patrick was dead.
Barker walked away a few paces, just to keep some peace in the family. He was aware of Mara watching his every move as if he had killed her pa.
"Your pa just die?" he asked Hope.
"This afternoon. He'd been real sick for a week or more, but he wouldn't stay out of the sun. Always working, though you can't hardly tell from the condition everything's in." Hope's voice rose shrilly as her emotions took hold.
"You got people you can rely on?"
"Naw, only family's back East. Pa never talked about them, and Mama's family is all dead." Hope stopped and pointed. "There's the well. The sucker seal's dry, so you might have to work some to get the water flowing. I always do."
"So you're the one who fetches the water?" Barker chuckled. Such chores always fell on the youngest.
"It's nice of you to offer to do some chores, but we can't pay you. Not money and sure not with food."
"That's all right," Barker said. He hung a bucket on a wire hook under the pump and began working. His back twinged, but he kept working. Hope had been right about the dry seal. It might be torn, letting air down and preventing a good flow. About the time he thought he'd have to tear apart the pump to repair it, he felt resistance and then the rush of water.
"Thank you. I'll carry it to the house." Hope grabbed the rope handle on the bucket and rushed away, sloshing water as she went.
Barker moved a trough over and kept pumping. The water flowed toward the corral for the scrawny horse. When he finished watering the horse, he went into the barn. It sorely needed a month's work. He heard a chicken squawking up in the hayloft. How it had gotten there, he couldn't tell. He tested a rung nailed to the wall and started up. When his head cleared the upper level, he turned to grab hold and pull himself up. His back did more than twinge then. A powerful spasm caught him in a vise grip. He yelped, turned, lost his balance and crashed to the floor.
That was the last he knew until sunlight warmed his face.
Barker sneezed and immediately regretted it for what it did to his back. The pain did more to bring him awake than anything could, short of water dashed in his face. He rolled over, tried to ignore the pain and managed to sit up. He braced his back against the barn wall and recovered his senses. Looking up he saw he had fallen close to fifteen feet.
"Why'n the hell didn't one of them women find me?" His hand went to his six-shooter. It was still securely in its holster. The thought had come to him that they might have robbed him. But even an inexperienced thief would know not to leave a man with his iron. More than that, they could sell the six-shooter for two or three dollars.
His hand went to his vest pocket and traced out the money he had been given to serve process on Rafe Sundstrom. It still rode high.
"So they ignored me rather than robbin' me." Barker used the wall to lever himself to a standing position. Stretching carefully, he worked out the kinks in his back. What he needed more than anything was a shot of whiskey to ease the pain, but he didn't even have water.
He made his way outside and was greeted by an aggrieved neigh from the bony horse in the corral. After shoving his head into the water not drunk by the horse, he felt a little better.
But something wasn't right. He had been a lawman for more than six years and felt it when things weren't right. His six-shooter came to his hand as he went to the back of the house, listening hard. He heard Mrs. Sundstrom crying. Another woman was crying. That was to be expected, considering they had buried Rafe the day before, but the uneasy knot in his gut grew. Barker edged around the house.
The first thing that struck him was . . . nothing. He looked out over the dusty road that edged up to the crest of the hill and saw nothing. His horse was gone.
Barker edged open the door with the toe of his boot. He put his thumb on the hammer of his Colt when he saw Mrs. Sundstrom tied up in a chair. Her hair was in wild disarray and her dress had been ripped off so she was bare to the waist. Slipping around on cat's feet, he saw Mara Sundstrom on the floor a few feet away. If her ma's clothing had been torn, hers was ripped off. Only tatters remained to hide her nakedness.
Mara's eyes blinked open, and she stopped her convulsive sobs. She kicked hard and tried to move away. Barker put his finger to his lips, cautioning her. He silently mouthed, "Are they still here?"
"Th-they raped us," Mara cried out.
"Are they gone?" With the girl speaking so loud, there was no point in him trying to be all stealthy.
"Long time ago. Way before sunup. Th-they had their way with ma and then m-me." Mara started bawling again.
Barker freed the girl. She shied away from him, curling into a tight, quaking ball. He freed her mother, but Mrs. Sundstrom was listless, not moving unless he poked her. During the Navajo War he had seen men like this after a particularly bloody, vicious skirmish.
"You got to tend your ma," he said harshly. "She needs you, Mara. Now!"
His sharp tone got the girl moving.
"SheI don't know."
Barker went into the small kitchen and saw the empty water bucket. Hope had dumped the water into a basin, but it had been overturned, probably by the men who had committed the vile crime. He turned to leave, then stopped. The curtain on a low pantry moved just a little. He yanked it back. Hope cried out and hid her eyes.
"There, there," he said softly. "No reason to be afraid. They're gone."
"I hid. I should have tried to keep them from doing what they did, but I was a coward and I hid."
Hope came to him and threw her thin arms around his neck. He held her until she stopped shaking, then pushed her away gently.
"What'd they look like? You saw them. How many were there?"
Hope shook her head as if denying she had seen anything at all but finally settled down.
"Two of 'em. Both looked like . . . like rats." She wiggled her nose, giggled, then looked shocked at what she'd done. "I shouldn't joke."
"They looked like rats," he said, getting her back to the description. "What color was their hair?"
"Dirty, greasy, dark. Maybe black. And one of them had a big bushy beard."
Once he had primed the pump, Barker fell silent and listened as Hope gushed out endless amounts of description. He didn't bother stopping her, but he identified the men early on from descriptions he had heard passed along by the cavalry. Little Texas Leonard and his partner, Wayne Charles, always caused a ruckus every time they passed through this part of New Mexico. They were suspected of a couple murders but mostly their crimes were petty. Stealing chickens and getting drunk before shooting up a town seemed their choice for entertainment.
"You need to take special care of your ma and sister," Barker said when Hope slowed down enough to take in a quick breath.
"I . . . they did awful things to them, didn't they?"
"I want you to kill them."
"Can't do that," he said.
"You have to!" Hope's voice went shrill with emotion. "You have to! Pa's dead and there's no one else."
"I'll promise you this, they won't ever come back here to bedevil you or your family."
Hope nodded and started for the front room. Barker stopped her.
"They stole my horse. Can I take your horse?"
"Old Sidney? He'd fall down under you."
"Better than me walking."
"We don't have a saddle for him."
"I'll make do. Can I borrow him?"
Hope's head bobbed, then she rushed into the other room to see what could be done for her ma and sister. Barker knew there wasn't a whole lot, but if anyone could gentle them, it was Hope and not him.
He slipped out the back way, went to the corral and spent some time getting to know Old Sidney. When he swung up, bones cracked. He wasn't sure if it was him or the horse.
He set off on the trail, hoping that the restless wind wouldn't erase the hoofprints before he caught up with the two owlhoots. Even stumbling and staggering along, Old Sidney caught up with the pair before sunset.
Barker considered what to do. Trying to arrest a pair of men, even if he rode up and got the drop on them by surprise, didn't seem to be a good idea. The men were desperados and not inclined to go along peaceably to jail, especially since they carried rewards on their heads for murder.
For all that, what they had done to the Sundstrom women was bad but horse stealing revealed the real characters of Leonard and Charles. If there had been a tree bigger than a mesquite out here, Barker would have considered stringing up the both of them.
He watched a spell as both men got drunker as they passed a bottle back and forth. He settled down on his haunches, watching and waiting for what he knew would happen eventually.
Wayne Charles stood, tugged at his big, bushy beard and belched loudly.
"Damn, boy, you fix a terrible mess o' beans. I feel like pukin' it all back up."
"Do it in my direction and I'll shoot you where you stand."
The argument bounced back and forth, but Barker doubted it would amount to anything. One of them killing the other was beyond the pale, even if he could hope. He wasn't disappointed when Charles stood and stalked off into the night, grumbling as he went to a creosote bush to take a leak.
Knowing this was his best chance, Barker drew his pistol, stood from behind the bush where he had been spying, walked at a steady pace toward Little Texas Leonard, who took another long pull at the whiskey bottle while his partner was relieving himself. He sighed, wiped his mouth with his arm and only then did he see Barker.
By then it was too late. Mason Barker kept walking, heading straight for the outlaw like a summer storm crashing across the desert. His six-gun swung in a short arc that ended on the side of Leonard's head. The dull crack was hardly audible over the sizzle and hiss of the campfire. They had used green wood.
Pushing the limp outlaw flat to the ground, Barker turned, hunched over and waited for Charles to return.
"Dang, that felt good. Gotta drain the lizard now and ag'in after all that popskull whiskey of yers," Charles said.
"'Less you got a better use for it," Barker said in a low voice, face turned away.
"Like dippin' my wick in that cute little girl? She surely was"
Charles didn't get any farther. Barker turned, his six-shooter cocked and aimed squarely between the outlaw's eyes. Charles took a second to understand what was happening, then he laughed.
Barker swung his pistol around as hard as he could. The barrel crashed into the man's head so severely the pistol discharged and set fire to a greasy Stetson. Charles fell to the side, knocked out. Barker made no move to extinguish the burning hat. By the time it had turned to a charred lump, half of Charles' face was gone. His beard had caught fire and scorched his chin and neck.
Barker felt nothing as he stared at the felled owlhoot. He sighted down his pistol barrel, then paused. He had never killed a man and wasn't about to start now. He was a lawman, not an outlaw.
"Not a judge and jury," he told himself. He slid his six-gun back into his holster and set to work hogtying the pair. A year or two working a ranch up near Taos after he had got out of the scouting job for the army and had let him acquire cowboy skills, and he wasn't inclined to be too gentle.
By the time he got the two men back to El Paso and deposited in the town marshal's jail, neither Leonard nor Charles could walk because of the lack of circulation in hands and feet for two solid days.
"You came back," Hope Sundstrom said, looking up from her chore of carrying water to the house. A smile split her grimy face. "I told 'em both you'd come back, but Ma and Mara said you'd just steal our horse."
"Old Sidney proved a stalwart mount," he said, handing the girl the reins to the horse. He had seen that Sidney had gotten a share of grain to fatten him up a mite and hadn't bothered riding him after capturing the two outlaws.
Mrs. Sundstrom came from the house, a shotgun pointed in his direction.
"You get on out of here. There's nothing for you here."
"No, ma'am, you're wrong." He held up his hand as she drew back the double hammers on the shotgun. "I'll be goin' soon enough, but I got a bit of business to take care of with you."
"He helped me, Ma. And he brought back our horse." Hope walked over to Old Sidney and ran her hand over him. "He's all groomed and got some meat on his bones. Never seen Old Sidney look better."
"Keep your finger off the triggers, ma'am," Barker said, "while I dig out some papers." He carefully moved his duster back and pulled out a cardboard folder. Hope took them to her ma.
"What's all this?"
"Reckon Rafe never told you how he paid off the mortgage. This here place is yours, free and clear. 'Course, you bein' a woman and all, you can't own real estate."
"Own it? Me? But how?" Mrs. Sundstrom forgot to point the shotgun in his direction as she read through the sheaf of legal papers.
The reward for the two outlaws had satisfied the banker enough to sign the deed over to Rafe Sundstrom. Barker hadn't bothered telling him the man was dead or they'd still be arguing over the legalities. He was leaving a passel of legal wrangling to a grieving widow woman and her two daughters, but that was better than them losing everything.
After all they had been through, they deserved more. Mason Barker was sorry he couldn't do more than he had.
"It's ours? Free and clear?" Mrs. Sundstrom looked around in shock.
"You might see Richard Valenzuela down in El Paso. He's a lawyer, but about as honest as you're likely to find. He can see to selling the spread and giving you the proceeds."
"Where'd we go?" She stared at Barker with eyes wide and vulnerable.
"Anywhere you want, ma'am, anywhere you want." He touched the brim of his hat, wheeled his pony around and rode off slowly as the three women hugged each other and danced around.
Judge Donawell had been understanding about how he had tried to serve the eviction notice and had let him keep the process fee anyway.
Mason Barker touched his vest pocket and traced over the coins he still carried there.
He was back home in Mesilla by noon the next day.