by Kenneth Mark Hoover
We rode all day with scheduled stops so the horses could blow. The iron-hot wind sheared off the hard pan and blasted our faces. We had gloves, bandanas and hats pulled down, but the skin around our eyes and wrists were cut from whipping sand and flake rock.
"Damn all motherless lawmen," Cal growled from his saddle. "Hang a man even in this weather."
I was leading his horse, the extended reins dallied around my pommel, through rough country. I didn't want to tie him fast in this weather. If I fell off a cutbank or into an arroyo I didn't care if Buford came with me. But if he went down first I wanted to be able to slip the knot fast so I wouldn't be pulled in after him.
You think about things like that when lawing on the frontera. Any lawman who doesn't tends to live a short life.
Even all, Buford wasn't as wind-chewed and rock-bit as I was. He sat one of our tough little chestnut mustangs we used to ride prisoners to gallows. His brown hands, horned yellow with callouses and missing two fingers on his left hand from an old hatchet fight, were lashed tight to the cantle. A separate rope dangled from his unshaven neck to the saddle horn. He rode with his big head bowed, letting the wind-driven sand beat against his down-turned Stetson.
"I never know'd a man so fired anxious to watch another hang," he continued. "You come by this dedication when they gave you that fancy Marshal's badge?"
"I don't like the dust and wind any more than you, Buford."
He didn't speak again for the remainder of the day. Maybe he didn't have the breath. I know I didn't. That dry, hot wind sucked the life out until you were nothing but empty husk with eyes.
Not that I blamed him for grousing. Like as not he could already feel the hemp noose cinching around his neck, and wondered how it was to die with blood boiling behind his strangling face, his body kicking like a fish on a jerk-line.
Not that I felt in any way sorry for Cal Buford, either. He had shot a man in the back of the head right in front of the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe. He had been arrested, sentenced, and would be killed in turn. Ordinarily, we didn't do a hanging in Haxan. But Judge Creighton, in one of his more sober moods, figured we spent enough money running Buford to ground through Colorado, Kansas, and finally down to the bed of a consumptive whore in an El Paso cantina.
"We might as well save the taxpayers any further expense," Judge Creighton had said over cigars and Kentucky bourbon, "and stretch him in Haxan."
It wasn't my place to argue. I know some people don't like hearing this, but I never feel much sorrow for them I ride to gallows. Which is why the War Department ordered me to the New Mexican Territory in the first place. Judge Creighton wanted someone as hard as the spoilers who killed and raped their way across the New Mexican desert. Simply put, he wanted another murdering bastard who would meet these killers on their own terms, and take them down.
That's how I got the badge, if it matters.
The hazy sun dipped near the horizon, a great orange ball of dying flame. With all the sand and dust in the air, nighttime fell fast. I hobbled the horses in a draw and found shelter in a limestone cave whose opening was ringed with cat's claw and tall ocotillo. It was nestled in the lee of a slanting hogback which gave us further protection from the weather.
There wasn't enough room to stand but we could sit comfortably. There were signs other men had used this shelter before us. The ceiling was blackened with soot and there were scattered animal bones on the floor along with rotten rags and a stone fire ring. I struck a small fire and Cal huddled over it, his long arms draped across his knees like broken willow branches.
We had little to eat except leathery charqui and a tin of biscuits old enough to have been saved from the Mexican war. Despite their good intentions, Washington wasn't long on making sure its federal lawmen were well-paid or living in anything resembling comfort. Ordinary citizens were no better. Like most people they wanted law and order right enough, but they didn't want to actually pay for it in anything resembling money.
I guess it was better than being a Texas Ranger, however. At least I didn't have to buy my own horse.
Still, it felt good to chew something other than sand. After I washed down the crude meal with a mouthful of stale water I started feeling most human again. I packed the bowl of my briar pipe with Virginia Kinnikinnick and fired the tobacco with a burning branch from the fire.
Cal worked the knots and kinks out of his back, grunting with relief. The Pittsburgh iron around his wrists and ankles clinked whenever he moved. I wasn't worried about him escaping. Trussed like that he wasn't going anywhere. And if he tried, he knew I'd put a ball in his back.
"I needed that stretch," he admitted. "That's a hard saddle you gave me." He watched me across the fire with eyes the color of dark syrup. Dust hissed off the top of the hogback and fell in a fine rain beyond the opening. Long blades of light from the dying sun lay outside our cave, mixing with the purple shadows from the cactus and a lone mesquite tree.
Buford tore at the charqui with white teeth on the right side of his jaw. All the teeth on the left side were missing.
"Guess I'll get all the stretching I want when we reach Haxan, ain't that right, Marshal?" He chewed and swallowed, waiting for me to say something.
I shrugged. "Guess so."
Now that night was coming full upon us the wind died down. The storm was abated. In a last blaze of glory the shards of light outside the cave shortened and were swallowed by encroaching shadows of India Ink that dripped from the rocks.
The light of our fire flickered on the low ceiling and rough walls. "Best stop thinking about it, Buford. It will happen soon enough, never mind."
"Mebbe." He studied the piece of buffalo jerky in his fist. "I hate to have to hang, Marshal. Eating is one of the few pleasures all men share. Gonna miss that."
They always want to talk the closer they get to the gallows. I let them. A condemned man should have that much of a right, even if he's nothing but a black murderer like Cal Buford.
During the day I had picked up a mesquite thorn in the back of my hand. I worked it out with the tip of a skinning knife before the poison could take hold.
"No one told you to shoot that Chinaman, Buford," I said.
"The yellow bastard poisoned my best leopard hound, Marshal. I raised that dog since he was a pup. Ain't you never had a dog you liked?"
"I guess I did once't."
"Then you know how I felt."
"Buford, the man was putting out bait to poison coyotes what killed his laying chickens. He didn't know better than to kill your leopard dog."
I folded the skinning knife and put it back in my pocket. "Anyhow, the judge and jury saw it some different than you."
Buford sucked his teeth. "Hell of a thing when a white man can't shoot a Chinaman nowheres he wants. I guess that's what they call civilization now."
"No, Buford, that's what they call simple plain murder."
He watched the dancing tongues of flame and tore another bite of dried jerk with his teeth.
"All you lawdogs are whelped from the same mother," he said around a final mouthful of meat. "You only see the black and white printed words in law books. You forget there are shades of gray in every man's life."
When he finished the charqui he wiped his fingers on his shirt. I handed him the canteen. "Thanks," he said.
"I'll say this for you, Buford. You are more eloquent and philosophical than other men I bring in." I motioned to the canteen. "Two swallows. Water's got to last us until tomorrow."
"What time you figure we'll be in Haxan, Marshal?"
"Toward noon. I know this country pretty well from here on. We'll hit Larsen Valley round midmorning if the weather holds."
He drank his ration and capped the canteen. "And I got to hang three days after that?"
"That's what the execution order says."
We listened to the crackle of the fire and watched the shadows dance like teasing women across the ceiling.
"How many men you done killed, Marshal?"
"My share, I suppose. Why?"
"It never bother you some?"
My pipe had burned out. I knocked the dottle into the fire. "Not much."
I was surprised to see a sort of respectful light take hold of his eyes. "That's a hard thing to say even on a raw night like this, Marshal. Not many lawmen would admit to something like that."
I put my pipe away in my shirt pocket and leaned back against my saddle. "I've been doing this bad job for a long time," I explained. "Someday I will die of it. The men who kill and murder will one day kill and murder me. You must accept that when you pin on the badge. It's all a game of odds, Buford. You can't buck the tiger forever. Eventually, the house wins. That's all."
Buford kicked one of the spindly mesquite branches toward the fire so it would catch. He laughed a bit, but there was more irony in the tone than humor.
"You telling me you are also condemned, Marshal?"
I watched him hard. "Any lawman out here who thinks different is naught but fooling himself. Thing is, I'm not fatalistic about it. I will fight and claw to live, and when my time comes I will die hard and take a hell of a lot of you with me. But I will die, Buford. Like all men. And it's this badge," I tapped the tin, "that will kill me."
Buford opened his mouth to say something, stopped. He waited a good ten minutes before he spoke again.
"When we was kids," he said, "we lived next to an apple orchard. Every morning I sneaked out of bed and stole an apple for breakfast. That's about when I found my pup dog, too. He was a stray with a broken leg and I nursed him good 'til he could run. Anyway, this one morning we had a thick hoar frost on the ground and fence rails. It looked like silver shavings and the air was still like the earth was holding its breath or something. I walked into the middle of the orchard, my pup sniffing my heels. Marshal, I barely put my hand under this here one red apple and like that," he snapped his fingers, "it fell ripe and perfect into my palm."
He held out his hand between us, calloused palm facing the ceiling. "I never ate no other apple as cold and sweet and perfect as that one. I felt a deep shiver run through me like a douse of water. It woke me up, I guess you could say. That's when I knew this world was a fine thing and it was good to be a living part of it. Hell, I never stole no other apple, or anything else, my whole life. I knew nothing I ever did would be as fine and perfect as that one apple, ready to fall at my touch."
His voice dropped low. "All my days I remembered that morning, and how good I felt. Except the night I put the sights of my gun on the back of that Chinaman's head. That's the one time I forgot what it was to stand in that orchard on a cold and frosty morning with the earth holding its breath." He paused. "That's all I have to say, I guess."
Buford lay on the ground, his head resting against his saddle and his hat tipped over his face. I watched the dark sky through the opening of our cave. A patch of night with stars sprinkled like sugar gleamed through a sudden break in the clouds.
The storm had moved on, leaving everything around us quiet except for the snap of the camp fire and our breathing.
The next morning was clear and bright. We rode with the yellow sun on our backs. Our shadows stretched before us like black rails. As we topped a rise we saw Larsen Valley spread out like a rich quilt of water and grass and hard-scrabble farms, with a deep blue sky covering it all.
In the distance I could make out a dark green patch of some kind of regular wood standing firm on the shallow banks of Broken Bow River. Beyond it were the ramshackle buildings of Haxan set hard against the roots of the San Andreas Mountains. You could almost smell the town's rip-sawed lumber, wood smoke and frying tortillas from cooking fires, and choking street dust.
Buford sat his horse beside mine. The sun was behind him, too. His face lay in shadow, but I noted his watchful eyes below the low brim of his hat.
I removed my watch from my vest pocket and flipped the cover. "Going on toward mid-morning," I said. "We'll noon in Haxan for sure."
Buford turned to me. "You called it right on the button, Marshal." He continued to watch me. He was too close to dying to ask for favors.
I put my watch away. "I'm guessing we can stop and rest once more before we ride into town," I told him. I made a forward gesture. "There's an orchard or something down that way. Be a cool rest in the shade of those trees for a minute or two."
Buford didn't grin. He was too close to the gallows to do anything like that. But he was grateful enough to say, "Thanks, Marshal."
I shrugged. "Maybe someday a man will do as much for me when I'm about to die, Buford. Let's go."
I took the reins of his horse while kicking mine forward. We took the slope together, two condemned men, and rode into the waiting orchard with its cool shadows, and deeper secrets.