by Kenneth Mark Hoover
The train whistle sounded more cold and distant than all the lonesome stars.
Jake Strop consulted his watch. A yellow buffalo tooth swung from the timepiece. "The night train is on time, Marshal," he said.
"This is one night I'd rather it run late," I told him.
He hefted a double-barreled shotgun. The stubby barrels gleamed with gun oil. "I reckon thirty-two lead pellets will take care of any man under forty yards," he said.
"I don't want any shooting if we can help it, Jake."
"Yes, sir." He leaned and spat off the platform. "I'm a peaceful man at heart, Mr. Marwood. I read my Bible every morning and I'm always in bed by sundown."
I grinned. "Sure."
A bright headlight swept through the bend, lighting corrals and empty cattle pens.
I wasn't looking forward to this. I didn't like mixing personal business with the job. And this meeting with Clatterbuck was going to be personal as hell.
The timbers of the station depot popped and groaned when the locomotive pulled to a stop. A cloud of steam that smelled of rusted iron enveloped us. Men unloaded mail bags and freight while the boiler took on water.
A lean, older man in an immaculate pearl-gray suit clambered off the train.
I didn't see a gun, but that didn't mean Clatterbuck didn't have one hidden under his coat, and it didn't mean he wasn't dangerous in a lot of other ways.
His stark, bony face was rimmed with a beard, more frost than pepper. His eyebrows were coal-black, and his eyes bluer than Arctic ice.
Despite his age, Clatterbuck didn't move like a man ready for the rocking chair. He hooked the grab-iron and swung onto the station platform with a shiny black portmanteau in one hand. By comparison, I remembered how I was stove up last week after three days' ride through the Chihuahuan Desert.
"I'll find out what he wants, Jake," I said low.
Jake rolled the hammers back on the shotgun and moved aside so I wouldn't be caught in the shot pattern.
I walked toward Clatterbuck, my gray duster flapping around my legs. He watched me with a faint grin of expectancy.
"Evening, John." He didn't offer his hand. "I wondered if you would meet my train."
I nodded in turn. "Wes. Good to see you again." It wasn't true, but we were going to kill each other anyway so there was no sense being impolite.
"Where's Magra?" Clatterbuck asked. His eyes wandered the station.
"She doesn't know anything about this."
Clatterbuck cracked a thin smile my way. "I will have to correct that oversight. You know how it is, John."
We watched one another. Two old, scarred bulls squaring off over a patch of green nopal.
Clatterbuck drew a deep breath, let it out slow. "Well, John, how do you want to handle this here problem? We can do it the easy way, or the hard." He shrugged. "I'll let you call it since this is your town." He took a gold double eagle from his waistcoat. "Heads or tails?"
"Wes, I won't let you take Magra Snowberry from Haxan."
"You mean you won't let me take her away from you. Call."
"Whatever Magra decides will be the way it is, and I will live by it. But, have it your way if you're that eager to die. Heads."
He flipped the coin and it turned up heads. His smile was hard, wintry. I thought about pulling on him and shooting him in cold blood right there.
I should have done it.
"John," he said presently, "you never change. That's always been your weakness." He tucked the coin away. "That was the only chance I will allow. Next time, you'll lie dead at my feet."
The train pulled out. We watched it leave together. The platform was empty and the night was quiet.
"Anyway, I'm not taking her anywhere," Clatterbuck said. "You're the one who's leaving." He tapped his coat pocket. "It's what her father wanted, and signed his name to, before you ever showed up."
"You let him go?" Magra asked in disbelief.
I waited until she put the cup of black coffee in front of me. When she was het up like this she could like as not throw it in my face. I couldn't blame her.
"Magra, Wes was unarmed. He tried to goad me. There are rules in a thing like this, even if you don't understand them."
"You're damned right I don't," she flared. Her manner softened, and her voice became like water over stone. "Damn Haxan and the people in it. This town killed my father and it will kill everything we've worked for. God damn them. God damn you all."
She found a seat opposite mine and folded her long brown hands on the rough boards. Her nails were square cut and unpolished. She was dressed in white doeskin and bright blue beads. Her black hair hung in two greased braids tied at the ends with red packing string. It shone under a flickering coal oil lamp hanging from the rafter.
"Magra," I said, "tell me about your father and Clatterbuck. I knew Wes from the war and Glorieta Pass. We never got along. But what hold does he have on you?"
Magra Snowberry continued to fume. She had been raised by Shiner Larson to keep her own mind about things. She was half-Navajo and all desert wild. She could track better than any man, weave dark and bitter magic, and skin an antelope without getting her dress soaked with blood.
I loved her more than my life. I guess she felt the same. We didn't talk about it much.
"It was before you came to Haxan," she said. "I was twelve years old. Papa rode coach gun for Polgar's freight line. They were hit by Mescaleros one day. Everyone was killed except Papa and Mr. Clatterbuck. Papa took a ball in his leg. Wes saved his life that day. Carried him and a strongbox full of government payroll thirty miles to Sante Fe. They were best friends after that. Papa promised Wes my hand in marriage and they signed their names to it. Over the intervening years Wes would visit us. One day at a picnic I slipped in a big chuck hole and hit my head pretty hard. Wes carried me out and laid me under a shade tree. When I awoke he smiled and said, 'Talitha koum.'"
She looked off to the side, a slight smile on her face as she remembered the past. "I will never forget him bending over me, and Papa, him upset in the background and all but helpless. Wes was always a proper gentlemen. I knew what Papa promised, but I never thought Wes to collect on me. I didn't think he would be interested in a half-breed when I came of age. I never took the promise seriously, John."
"Well, it looks like he does," I said. "I don't know if a document like that can hold up in court. I can ask Judge Creighton next time he rides circuit."
"That won't be for two weeks," she said. "I doubt Wes is willing to wait that long."
My coffee was cold. I looked at her. "Magra, I have to ask you something."
"John, I have no interest in marrying Wes Clatterbuck."
"Will you marry me?"
The wind creaked the dry timbers of her house. "Why not?"
"Because you want to marry me to stop Wes in his tracks, and that's not good enough reason for me."
"That's not the only reason."
"I can't be sure of that." She washed out the unused coffee cups and put them away in the cupboard. When she turned around she touched my hand.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I am not going to marry Wes Clatterbuck, and I won't marry you. Whatever way you fix this problem, you will have to do it without using me as your foil."
I was back in the office by late afternoon. Jake had the door and windows locked open. It didn't do
anything to cut the heat. The sun whipsawed off the wooden boardwalks and stone fences of Haxan.
"This here is a predicament, Mr. Marwood." Jake swept out the cells in back. "You can't arrest Clatterbuck, and you can't kill him if he's not carrying a gun."
"Thanks, Jake. Maybe you'd like to front me the money for a stage ticket out of Haxan."
Jake propped the broom beside him. "Oh, no, sir, I couldn't do that. Once you were gone Clatterbuck would come after me."
I couldn't tell if Jake was joking or not. With his deadpan face it wasn't easy to read.
"Mr. Marwood," he said, going back to his sweeping, "you're going to have to put Clatterbuck on the prod. There ain't no other way out. Miss Magra is right about one thing, if what you said is true. Clatterbuck wants to face you down, and that's that."
"He's not carrying a gun, Jake."
Jake peered over the top of his broom. "You don't know that, sir. After you do for him I can lay a gun in his hand. I have an old Navy six around somewheres."
I watched Jake sweep out the rest of the office. When he finished he sat on an old mesquite bench and propped his dusty boots on the cold stove. He started to hone his knife.
"I can't do that, Jake."
"I know that, Mr. Marwood." He worked the whetstone. "I was just talking."
A half-dozen flies snarled in the air above my desk.
"Jake, I ever tell you what I did before I started lawing?"
"I heard you rode with desperadoes down to Texas some." He passed his blade back and forth across the whetstone. "You did a lot of bad things before Judge Creighton broke you in. But them things is past, sir."
"Jake, listen to me. Nothing a man does is past. Me and twelve other men rode up and down the border. We burned estancias and we killed a lot of people. We hanged them, and we scalped them. At first we were operating under a lawful contract, but that didn't last because when you let a thing like that out of its cage you can't never put it back inside without it turn to bite you."
"I can understand that, sir."
"There comes a time when you meet a line you cannot cross. I can't kill Clatterbuck like you said. No matter what he does, I can't do that."
I got up and put on my hat. "I'm riding back out to Magra's place tonight for supper. I'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll lock up."
I saddled my horse and rode out of town. When I reached Magra's place the western sky was heavy with blood-red clouds. I saw a shadow pass in cameo along a rock ridge to the north. It was Clatterbuck riding a tall claybank.
He was on his way to Magra's house, carrying, of all things, a bouquet of sage.
I slipped out of the saddle and left my horse ground tied. I had the Sharps with me, and it was loaded. I moved along the ridge, using rock and scrub to break up my outline. I got into position behind a stand of scrag and put the sights on him and waited.
I had him dead.
He kept riding while I followed him with the sight. When he passed down behind a hill I lost sight of him and I lowered the gun.
I sat there a long time, not thinking of much at all. The sun went down and the land let out its breath. I could smell all that sage around me. The stars were racked like sugar frost in the night sky.
I walked back to my horse, put the rifle away, and rode back to Haxan.
A week later I saw Clatterbuck come out of the hotel.
"John." He lighted a cigar and flipped the match into the street ruts. "Nice morning."
Gray doves flew between the mesquite trees lining the acequias.
"I saw you headed out to Magra's place again last night," I said.
He had been riding out every night for a week. I hadn't interfered. Whatever Magra decided had to be her decision alone and I would have to live with that.
I just hoped she made the right decision.
Clatterbuck gave me that slow smile of his. "A lot of water under the bridge since I last saw that girl," he said. "She's not keen on marrying me at the moment, but she'll come around. I can afford to wait."
"I expect Judge Creighton will have something to say about this when he gets here on Thursday," I said.
Wes watched me carefully. "Yes, I expect he might. Don't prod me, John. The law's on my side and I'm not afraid of you. The only person I have to worry about is Magra, and she'll thaw out once you're cut out of the picture."
"I don't expect that is going to happen."
His smile deepened. "I don't think a Judge is going to let you say much about it. Her father's bond carries more weight than your word. The sooner you accept it the happier you will be. Same for her. Good day."
He stepped off the boardwalk and crossed the street and disappeared inside a restaurant.
I was halfway down the block when I heard the gunshot.
I ran back. I went through the restaurant door with my gun out. There were two men lying on the floor, and one of them was Clatterbuck.
The other was a boy no more than eleven or twelve. He was sprawled out with a smashed head.
"What happened?" I asked.
Mayor Polgar came up. "This kid walked up on this here stranger and shot him in the back, Johh. Then he started crying and said this man had killed his father in Tascosa."
Mayor Polgar gave me the kid's gun, a .44 Walker. I checked the loads. It had been fired once.
One of the bartenders carried a wooden bung starter with blood on the mallet. "When the kid has his back turned I coldcocked him with this, Marshal. I didn't mean to hit him so hard enough to kill him, though. Just meant to tap him out a little."
I knelt beside Clatterbuck. "Wes."
"Who was it," he asked. His face was turned into the sawdust.
"Marshal, I didn't mean to kill that boy," the bartender said.
"Shut up. Wes. It was some kid out of Tascosa. He said you killed his father. Don't move, we sent for a doctor."
"I'm lung shot. I can feel my chest filling up with blood."
"The doctor is coming," I said.
"John, my feet are cold."
"Don't talk, Wes. The doctor will be here soon."
"I am not going to last for a doctor. There's something I got to say. It's about Magra."
"Bend down. This ain't for other ears."
He talked, and I asked a question or two. When the doctor came we carried him to an empty bed next door, and there he died.
I rode out to Magra's place that afternoon. It was the longest ride I ever made in my life. I didn't
want to do it, but the chore had fallen upon me.
The sun touched the horizon when I met her at the door. We went inside and I told her what I knew and she took it pretty well, considering. I don't know how I would have acted.
"Wes knew your mother before your father met her," I said. "They courted for a time. Wes was never sure, but he suspected you might have been his daughter. He asked your mother about it the night you were born, and she admitted it. Larsen never knew other, and Wes, well, he wasn't set out to be a family man anymore than I am. Whatever the truth was, your mother took this secret to her grave."
Magra watched me across the table. The lamplight flickered on her face. The small cabin was silent.
"But he wanted to marry me," she said.
I shook my head. "No, he didn't. That was never his true intention. He used it as an excuse to stay in your company. He was afraid to tell you the truth, you see. He didn't know how you would react. He was a lonely old man, Magra, and he wanted to be in your life any way he could. That's all there ever was to it."
She stared at her brown hands clasped on the table before her.
"This cannot be true," she said. "I know who my real father is."
"I've knelt over a lot of dying men, Magra. They don't lie when their time comes. Anyway, Wes believed it to his dying breath, and, I guess, so did your mother."
She didn't say anything right away. She watched me with those accusing eyes, wondering why I had brought this unwanted trouble to her life.
"I don't believe a word of it," she said.
I drew the crumpled letter from my coat pocket. "This is what he was carrying around," I said. "It wasn't a promissary note for your hand in marriage. He burned that long ago. This was something he wrote to you the night you were born. Sort of a confession, I guess you might call it. He told me to read it before I gave it to you, so I did."
I laid the folded letter on the table. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry."
"I'm not going to read that." Her pale lips were parted. She breathed fast. "I am not going to touch it. Not ever."
"That's for you to decide. I can't say to that."
She picked up the letter. I watched her face, and when she got to the part I had read she started to cry. She finished the letter, folded it back, and pushed it toward me.
She turned away and she started to cry again and I took her hand and she let me keep it.
She looked off into the distance. "I hate Haxan," she said. "I hate this town, and all the people in it. I always have."
It was gone full dark outside. There wasn't a moon. The yellow flame in the oil lamp died out.
"You were right, Magra. I ain't the marrying kind."
We sat like that in the dark. I kept her hand in mine. I could hear her breathing and we sat that way for a long, long time in those shadows.