"Mierta! It's hotter than a jalapeña today! If they can invent a train that moves without horses, you think they could come up with something to cool a room," Cruz exclaimed as he wiped his forehead with a wet bandana. Iragene Jones, the sheriff, looked at her mild mannered deputy and smiled. His rare outburst of slang or swearwords was more humorous than offensive.
* * *
Both the sheriff and her deputy were sitting on a bench under a large oak, trying to catch a mild breeze rather than sit in their stifling office. The usual summer build-up of clouds wasn't visible in the cobalt sky, and it looked like another hot, dry day minus the relief of the New Mexico summer rains. They were eating their midday meal and going through their mail.
"Shit!" Iragene said under her breath and looked around guiltily to see that no one but her deputy had heard. "Nick Roberts, that nice stranger who killed that wife-beating coward, Jeb Pulski, is wanted in two other counties for vigilante murders. Apparently he goes around the territory killing bad guys or at least people he thinks are bad guys. The real problem is he shot the wrong man in Silver City. He shot the brother of a rustler and not the rustler. Though the victim was no saint, Sheriff Spike claims, he didn't deserve to die. Roberts is wanted for murder."
Cruz looked disappointed. "I saw Roberts leaving the hotel this morning. Nice guy. I wanted to give him an award for calling out Pulski and shooting him. When I told Pulski's wife and daughter that he was dead, Mrs. Pulski started crying—would you believe tears of joy? The whole family was in rags while that cabron drank away her inheritance. I say good riddance."
"I wish it were that easy," Iragene said dejectedly, "but Roberts is as guilty as some of the men he killed. Who knows how many innocent lives he took by mistake? That's one of the problems of vigilantes acting on their own. That's why we have courts."
"Which may or may not always provide equal justice under the law."
"Unfortunately, that's true, but no system is infallible." She paused and looked at Cruz, "When did you say he left town?"
"This morning about six. I saw him saddling up and riding east out of town."
"Well, it looks like our picnic is over, let's get the horses ready. I'll pack up some vittles and change into a riding skirt." She stopped and looked up, "I just wish a good gully washer would cool us down."
"No, Sheriff, we don't want rain until we track our man."
"You're right, and what better time to teach me how to track." She looked over at her deputy who not only had the uncanny gift of tracking, even on a rocky mesa but had the ability to pick up languages the way a dog picked up fleas. A family at Cochiti Pueblo had given Cruz a home when he lost his family, and he ended up adding Keres to his knowledge of Navajo, Spanish, and English. To Iragene Jones, Cruz was indispensible—in fact if he hadn't volunteered to become her deputy, she wouldn't have taken the job of sheriff. She never knew Cruz had promised her fiancée before his murder to look after her, but what had started as a duty became something else. For the first time in his life, he felt he now belonged.
They met outside the stable an hour later. Both riders saddled up and headed east. For a while the dirt road leading out of town was too busy to teach a novice tracker, but Robert's horse was a Morgan, an unusual horse for New Mexico, and the heavy prints began to stand out as the traffic decreased and only a few tracks were visible.
"Here's a good place to start our lesson."
They both dismounted, and the two of them crouched down to examine the big horse's telltale prints. To Iragene, all of the prints looked similar, but Cruz began to explain the subtle differences between weight, size, gait, and wear of the different horses' prints.
"Roberts's horseshoes are all fairly new and put on at the same time. Notice how they don't show the usual wear that older shoes show," comparing one horse's prints to another's. "He certainly takes good care of that horse. I saw him brushing and feeding him myself," he continued. "His tack and gear are relatively used but made of quality leather. He seems to come from money."
"Then why," she wondered aloud, "would he spend his time riding throughout the Southwest playing vigilante?" Cruz just shook his head and they continued to compare different horseshoe patterns. A few minutes later they set off again.
They rode for several hours, and the clouds and wind began to build up. "Oh no, beware of what you wish . . . we're getting that rain that we asked for this morning," Iragene said as she sighted the billowing clouds form overhead.
"There are some rocky cliffs we can use for a shelter just ahead. We can let the rain pass," Cruz said, pointing to some reddish tinged sandstone rocks jutting out.
"Actually, we're not far from the Pulski place, and the Morgan seems to be heading in that direction as well. Let's go the distance and see if we can find both shelter and our man."
They picked up their gait and arrived just as the rain began to fall. Cruz's sharp eyes didn't fail to miss the large black Morgan feeding contentedly in the shadows of the rumble down shack Pulski had used as a barn. Silently he pointed to the horse. Not knowing what type of reception they would receive, they tied up their horses in the barn and proceeded to the house. "We shouldn't encounter a problem—he doesn't know we're following him."
Iragene knocked on the door, and a bedraggled young woman, looking older than her early twenties, opened the door and softly spoke, "Sheriff, Deputy, what a . . . surprise. Please come in—out of the rain."
"Thank you, Mrs. Pulski, we're sorry to impose on you, we had some business to attend to but got caught in the rain." She looked around the hovel this gentle woman lived in and saw that it was neat and as clean as any one could hope to make it. She looked around for Roberts and then heard his voice behind a shabby blanket that separated the sleeping quarters from the rest of the house.
Mrs. Pulski smiled and explained that Nick Roberts had shown up to her home with food and gifts for her child. "It took almost an hour for him to coax Clara into even talking to him, she's so afraid of men . . . " and she looked around nervously, feeling she had said too much.
"Mrs. Pulski . . . " Iragene was interrupted by a sudden, firmer voice.
"No, call me Annie, and my family name is Miller. We were never legally married. Jeb got a crooked judge drunk in Dodge, and he signed a phony marriage certificate." Without the fear of retribution, Annie Miller was re-emerging from the beaten-down woman who had opened the door. Surprised, Iragene looked at this courageous young woman who had been through so much, and then she noticed the bruises on her face and arms. Annie saw Iragene look away, almost embarrassed.
"Annie, I am so sorry about not being here for you. If you'd only let us know about Pulski, we could have pressed charges and helped you."
"Help me?" she spewed out, "Sheriff, you and I know that horses are better protected than wives. A man can do whatever he wants to his wife—beat her, rape her, and he did all that," she suddenly realized that Cruz was there, and she blushed. Then suddenly quieter, she spoke again, "What sheriff would take a man to court for wife beating? What judge would rule for the wife? I know, because I asked Sheriff Barnes for help, and he dismissed me. Chuckling he said if I were a better wife, my husband would probably treat me better. I should go home and practice my cooking and womanly duties a bit."
Iragene couldn't contradict her on that common belief. Her outspoken suffragette aunt from South Carolina had recently sent her newspaper clippings about two judges finding two whip yielding, wife beating husbands innocent: State v. Rhodes, where a husband was found innocent because, the judge said, "the defendant had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb," and another case as recent as 1874, State v. Oliver, where the judge cited the "that a husband had a right to whip his wife, provided he used a switch no longer than his thumb." The archaic treatment of women by their husbands obviously hadn't changed—even in modern America.
Roberts quietly entered the room. "She's asleep, Annie," he said softly. He then looked at Iragene and Cruz. Almost smiling, he addressed them both. "Sheriff, Deputy, nice to see you both out of that rain."
"Nick," Iragene asked him, "I have to ask you, did you know Annie before you shot her so-called husband?"
"No," he returned emphatically, "but I did know him in Kansas." He paused and then attempted to continue, angry and provoked, "He and his four brothers raped and murdered my wife and daughter, leaving them both naked and bloody for me to find." His hands clenched as he remembered, and pain shot across his face.
His voice sounded miles away as he continued. "I buried them, and when I could finally see straight, I rode to town. I told the Sheriff. At first he didn't even want to do anything since my wife was a Kiowa, an Indian. Then, since the traveling judge was in town as well as the five brothers, the sheriff reluctantly put them on trial.
"The trial was a circus. The brothers claimed they had a little fun that got out of hand, but you know how them injun girls are, always wanting more—a three year old baby wanting more!" he cried out and then somehow found control. "The jury sided with the men, and they found them not guilty of murder and rape but of damaging my property. They were fined ten dollars and released.
"I don't know what you would do, but I made it my goal to kill every single one of those bastards. With Jeb dead, I had one more brother to kill, Ivan, the rustler. But then I met Annie and Clara, and I realized I'm tired of killing. I want to live. I'm done with death. I just want to pack Annie and the child up and go anywhere where we can forget and start anew."
There was silence around the room. Iragene's mind was replaying the events that led up to these two stories of innocent people paying the price for the cruel acts of others. She also figured herself into the picture when she realized that she, too, knew that Pulski was a wife beater, and she had done nothing to stop it. She opened up her saddlebag and took out the wanted poster from Silver City. "Was this Theo?" she asked.
Roberts didn't even look further than the words, Silver City. "Yes," he answered and looked at her, "that was Theo."
She felt petty in the midst of all this pain, but reined in her feelings and quietly asked, "Nick, wouldn't you want your name cleared? We could take you in and I would make sure the jury is made up of good, honest men. When you're cleared because of 'justifiable homicide,' you can start life without having to look over your shoulder all the time."
Just then a loud boom like a cannon went off just over the cabin, and the child awoke crying. Annie ran to her and scooped her up into her arms soothing her with a soft lullaby about rain. There was silence in the main room until the next clap of thunder. Iragene looked at Cruz and then said, "Let's see to our horses. I think we'll be here a while—if that's okay with you, Annie?" Annie nodded.
Roberts added, "Sheriff, Cruz, there's some food out there for the horses. Annie asked that I sell Pulski's horse and gear, so I bought some grain and hay for the barn." They acknowledged this and went out.
Cruz and Iragene entered what should have been a watertight barn. Instead it was less protected than what the rock shelter would have been. Their horses were free from the ensuing hail, but not completely dry. The two took off their saddles, brushed their horses down as best as they could and gave them some grain. The storm was at its peak of fury, and neither of them wanted to venture out into the two-inch hail that was now plummeting from the metallic grey sky.
"Sheriff, what are you going to do?" Cruz boldly confronted her. It was rare that Cruz exercised such assertiveness and never with her, but right now he obviously felt he had the right to question the system that had failed those two individuals.
"Dammit, Cruz, I don't know! If I had it my way, we would all be riding back to town, Roberts would have his trial, and . . . "
"Sheriff, the jury would take one look at the two of them, say that they were in cahoots, and hang them both for the murder of Pulski, let alone the devil Roberts killed in Silver City."
They looked at each other, knowing the truth in his words, but their thoughts were interrupted when they heard the sound of a rider brazenly riding through the storm and stopping outside of the shack. Neither of them spoke, but each looked at each other, checked their guns in their holsters, grabbed their rifles, and waited. They could see right through the chinks in the walls now that the hail had subsided and only rain fell.
The man who had ridden up was big, and even in the rain he resembled his brother Jeb. They saw him grab his rifle and head straight for the door. Iragene and Cruz swiftly followed. They saw him kick down the door and begin screaming, "My brother's only been dead a week, and you gave his horse to your fuckin' lover to be sold? Why you bitch! I'm gonna kill this bastard, shoot him in the gut and make him watch as I take you and your little brat over and over. Then I'll sit me down, have a drink and slowly watch the three of you die."
Though Iragene and Cruz couldn't see into the shack, they could hear his words and only imagine the fear the three were experiencing with Ivan Pulski looming in the doorway. Iragene and Cruz split up. As she slowly made her way closer, she raised her rifle, instinctively knowing that this man would respond only one way.
"Drop that gun, Mister! We've got you covered!" she shouted out.
She caught him by surprise, but he regained control immediately. "Who the fuckin' hell are you, lady, and what are you gonna do? Shoot me?!" he guffawed.
She could almost hear the man's thoughts, deciding what would be the best way to get the drop on her. Then, moving faster than a man of his size should be able, he turned toward her with his rifle, only to have her shot hit him fully in his chest. He moved slightly, but almost immediately, Cruz's shot hit him low in the side. He fell flat on his back in the rain and remained still.
Cruz and Iragene got up to check the body. They then started to pull the man away from the door. Roberts joined them and helped drag him away. Just beyond the shack, they saw two little mounds, each adorned with storm scattered dandelions.
She pointed to the two graves, "Nick, were these children Annie's?" she whispered.
"Yes, they're dead because they cried too loud or took up too much of Annie's time. Sheriff, we're dealing with monsters, not men."
Later in the day, the four adults and little girl ate together from the food stores that Roberts had brought as well as the supplies that Iragene and Cruz had carried. They hardly spoke. Annie's daughter, Melanie, a waif of a toddler, wouldn't leave her mother's side and said nothing but would occasionally shake uncontrollably in spite of the lack of chill. The Pulski brothers and their gang had left too many people dead or damaged. Iragene wondered if any of their victims could ever be totally healed again. Just the trauma of the day's events had shaken her, let alone having lost a family or years to these cruel and brutal men.
"Sheriff," Roberts broke the silence, "what are your plans for me?"
"Were all the brothers that you killed at your ranch that day?" she asked him.
He looked at his hands and finally answered. "Yes, before I knew what they had done, I saw the five brothers riding way."
Suddenly, the reality that all five of her tormentors were dead hit her, and Annie began to cry. She turned toward Nick and cried uncontrollably in his arms, her frightened child clinging to her. No one said anything. She had had too many years of torment to wash away in a few minutes of tears.
Iragene and Cruz silently left the room. They stood out in the coolness of the early evening. Cruz looked directly at Iragene. "Sheriff, what are you going to do?"
"Do? We'll do what's right. We'll get a warrant out for the arrest of the five Pulski brothers for assault, murder, kidnapping, and rape against Annie and her children. We'll offer a one hundred dollar reward for each of the five brothers, dead or alive. In our county, the perpetrators, not the victims should pay for the crime." She looked directly at Cruz. "They're not in Kansas anymore."
"I agree, Sheriff. Justice must be served in El Bravo County," he said, and the relief in his voice was palpable.
The next day, Annie, wearing her new dress from Iragene (a spare she kept in her saddle bag), Nick Roberts, and Melanie joined Iragene and Cruz on their trip back to the county seat, La Madera. Iragene took them to The Hotel and got two rooms—one for Annie and her daughter and the other for Nick Roberts. When Iragene offered to pay for the rooms, Roberts refused.
"Iragene, I was a successful lawyer in Philadelphia before leaving my practice to go out west to Kansas for adventure. I still have plenty of money in the bank, though the $400.00 reward money will help me get my new family back to the east coast. As for adventure, I've had enough for a lifetime." He smiled and then paused, trying to say something but unable to articulate his feelings. "Iragene, I know I created an ethical dilemma for you. I hope you didn't compromise your position by dropping my charges."
"After hearing and seeing the crimes they committed against you and Annie, I would have compromised my position by not doing what I did. As I told Cruz, I think the biggest moral mistake I could have made would have been in allowing those monsters the satisfaction of continuing to inflict pain—even from the grave. No, I did what I had to do, and I'll be able to sleep soundly because of it." She smiled at him and then walked out of the hotel back to her office.
Cruz was there, having just finished writing up the wanted posters for the Pulski brothers. He looked up at her, wondering how she could still look so beautiful after a horrific two days, and smiled. She smiled back at him and sat down.
"Isn't this your week-end off, Cruz? Are you going to visit the Rancho Tecolote to pick out a horse for my nephew? I know Alexander is dying to see you."
"No, Señorita Jones, I will have to see him another time. I'm going to Cochiti to visit my Indian family and request a purification ceremony. The brothers may be dead, but I feel their filth and need to be cleansed."
She looked at him a while and then realized that there was much she didn't know or understand about this man who worked with her. She only knew that besides being her friend, her protector, and her deputy, he was also her conscience. He was right, the judicial system is fallible, but the fault lies not in the system but in those individuals who interpret it, and luckily Cruz was there to remind her.