There are times you have to use a shotgun. I don't like them. It is not a weapon of accuracy. But when all you want is to murder someone in a confined space it's the best gun you can put to hand.
I knew all three men were holed up inside a line shack on Gila Creek. I waited until the sun came up through the cottonwood trees and the sky grayed out. Then I loaded the Remington .10-gauge with buckshot, and moved in.
I wasn't here to arrest them. I didn't have a warrant, and there was no bounty.
They had killed a Virginia family of seven moving through the territory, headed for California. They raped and killed a ten-year-old girl. Men like that, you don't need words on paper to put your foot on the right path.
I carry the badge. I took it up some years back because a man had done a favor on me. Saved me from myself, you might say.
But I am only one kind of man. I don't believe in forgiveness. Forgiveness only perpetuates evil. People who turn the other cheek have that luxury because men like myself are out here on the frontera.
I am under no illusions. One day I'm going to die under the gun, or the knife. But I'm not going to change the way I think about the world.
I am never going to change.
The horses were hobbled out behind the line shack. Two bays and a chestnut mare. If these men had any sense they would have brought their animals inside to provide cover. Smarter men would have done it.
They hadn't even locked the door. I pulled both hammers back on the coach gun and went inside. As soon as I stepped through I cut loose one barrel on a man pissing into a morning slop bucket. Caught him in the back square with a full load. It opened him up clean. The other two were under woolen blankets on the dirt floor. I stood over them and fired the remaining barrel while one struggled to sit up and reach for his gun on a table, and the other screamed at me not to kill him. The pattern caught them both. Nothing moved in the line shack after that.
I cracked open the coach gun and blew down both barrels. Smoke stung my eyes. I figured they had gold on them what they had stolen from the family. I didn't search for it. I have never cared about that blood metal.
And that, as they say, was that.
I went outside, let their horses go, and caught up my own and rode him back to the graves. A fifty mile ride.
I had buried the family in a mesquite grove. Seven people, seven graves. They didn't have anything for markers but stones I had pulled out of the ground. It was the best I could do.
I unsaddled my horse, wiped him down, and built a fire. Night was coming on hard, and it was cold. It clouded up, and you couldn't see your hand for your face. I boiled some coffee, drank that. And then I waited.
It was around midnight when the three dead men showed up. They'll do that sometimes on me. Come back like that. I could see them walking through the trees, their clothes bloody and torn all this way, and that. One had his hat on. Another held his pants up with one hand because he had forgotten his belt. The third had long greasy hair, white hands limp at his sides.
They came abreast and stood on the opposite side of the fire. Their eyes were dark. The first man give me a nod before he spoke.
"Marshal. We've come to speak before we head to the other side." It was the man I shot in the back, holding his pants with one hand.
"I've been waiting on you boys to show."
"My name is Jim Overton."
I watched him.
"This here is my cousin, Dove. We grew up in Tennessee together. This other man is Treat. Bill Treat. We met him down in Navasota and he threw his gun in with us."
I didn't say anything.
"You never give us a chance to surrender," the little one, Dove, had the beginnings of a blond beard. He might have amounted to something if he had someone around to kick his ass everyday of his life.
"Like how you killed that girl?" I asked. "And the rest of her family?"
Treat was a tall man. Maybe not educated, but there was animal cunning in his eyes. "What you did ain't considered the law." His voice was deep, and challenging.
"That's right, Treat. It's not in any law book."
He forked his hat back with his thumb. "You carry a badge, Marshal. You are supposed to stand up for the people who support the law it represents. But you set yourself higher than them. You set yourself up against yourself. And that's vanity."
"Treat. You're absolutely right." I tossed the dregs of my coffee into the fire and set the tin cup aside. "I do carry a badge. But I don't represent the law of this land. Not even this world."
"There ain't no other kind of law," Overton said with a certainty.
"Yes, there is," I told him. I looked at all three of them. "There is a different kind of law, and a different kind of badge."
I stood up. I took off my hat and threw it down on my bedroll. I stripped off my shirt, then I kicked off my boots, shucked my pants, pulled off my stockings. I stood bare naked in front of them by the red light of the fire. They could see the Okipa scars covering my body.
"There is another law," I told them. "One older than the mountains, and the grass, and all the rivers. It came into this world like a cold wind, and it waited. It waited a long time for man to appear. But when he did, it raised its head, and it opened its eyes. And on that day the stars fell from the sky. We were thrown out of paradise. But some of us made a deal, and we came back. Picked for other work, you might say."
While I talked my Okipa scars started to bleed. I could feel the blood trickling down my naked limbs, my chest. It dripped off my fingers. You could hear the night wind whispering in the tops of the mesquite trees.
"Murder?" Dove asked. He turned his head and spat. "That the devil's work you got picked for, mister?"
"Not murder, Dove. Not even justice. Memory. A remembrance of what the world is. What it has always been, always will be. You opened the door to violence when you killed that family. And now you're squawking because a bigger violence came and met yours. That's the world, son. That's life. I carry the blood of my enemies, as you can well see. I don't forget them."
"So why do you—" Treat began.
"I don't do it for you," I said, "or the victims. I do it because the world demands it. I do it because that is the world, and you boys should have known that before you massacred those people."
They looked at the fire for a space. Then they turned around one by one and walked back into the dark trees.
I cleaned myself up and got dressed. I sat and watched the fire burn down to a bed of glowing coals. It was late, but I wasn't sleepy. After a while the sky in the east lightened.
She came walking across the open prairie. Her torn, white calico dress blew around her legs. Her hair was long and blonde. She came up to the dying fire and looked at me.
"We're leaving now," she said.
"I want to thank you."
"I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything at all to be proud of."
"I know," she said, "but you went ahead and did it anyway. Most men would not have taken on that burden. We want to thank you for that." She looked toward the rising sun. "We can rest now."
"I'm glad I could help."
She stared at me. "You don't like this, do you?"
Now it was my turn to stare at the coals. I shrugged. "Not much. But it's all I am. All I have left."
"It's not all you have," she said.
I looked up, curious.
"She's waiting. She's in Haxan, and she's waiting for you to come back. Your work here is done for the day, Marshal. You need to go home, and be human again. With her. At least for a little while."
She didn't say anything more after that. She walked away, and I watched her top the grassy rise and disappear down the other side and after a while the sun came up full in my face.
I broke camp and saddled my horse. I swung into the saddle, leather creaking. I sat a moment staring at the seven graves and the unmarked stones I had placed there for markers. It was the best I could do.
I remembered the girl's words to me. Well. Maybe this time I had done more. Maybe this time I found a little bit of something I once thought was lost.
I reined my horse around and kicked for Haxan.