On the high west Texas plateau the sun draws moisture from all.
* * *
What is left is parched, leathered, crisped and jerked.
What is left is the search for water, the control of water, the ownership of water, and the battle for water's possession.
What is left are base human instincts sieved of gracious values, empathies and compassions.
Rene Harronwod navigates such terrain as a matter of course and fate. He having been born on the land is of the land being informed by the nature and character of the land.
* * *
Rene enters Saloon Number Seven, saunters to the bar without acknowledgement either by him to others or from others to him.
* * *
He approaches the spread, begins to build a plate of frijoles, boiled chicken, rice, and tortillas, proclaiming in sufficient voice for the barman to notice, "I'll have a schooner," without interfering in anyway with his construction of a substantial midday meal.
Balancing the plate in his left and the mug in his right he moves smartly to a chair situated against a wall, alight therein he will face the door.
He takes his seat, sips his beer and addresses the platter.
While so engaged, he in concealment draws his pistol, sliding the piece between seat and thigh.
As Rene gobbles at his food, and swigs of the suds, his survey of the room is ceaseless. Without acute demonstration, his eyes constantly scan, through their hazel light, taking all in, measuring spaces and distances.
Identifying persons and locating in his mind each individual while marking their movement or potential to move.
There is but little of Rene's body open to observation.
His long fingered, rather thin hands protrude from the frayed sleeve cuffs of his sun bleached shirt.
A garment, it may be said, long in need of water and soap.
His gangly neck supports a weathered face which disappears in the half-shadow of his wide brimmed Texas hat.
Above his lip there grows a brush. His need of a shave is several days past.
The nose is long and thin, high bridged, with small nostrils.
The cheek bones protrude high-up compounding a squint.
From, hands, face and neck one can discern there is little meat upon the bone past skin and sinew.
Seen through the hat shade, his eyebrows are substantial, tinted a full black as is the hair upon the back of the neck.
There is a suggestion of native blood although no one dare put the question.
Rene sports an abused leather vest, layered over his faded shirt, his jeans are worn to ruin, his boots crushed to mush.
In stark contrast his holster sheens of oil.
The weapon within of blued metal dressed with wooden handles is unremarkable, past it being a very serviceable model, well chosen.
The gun is a workman's tool, the option of the mechanic not the showman.
That said, to the practiced eye, the oil on the holster tells all.
The unsophisticated observer would remain unaware of any tension in the room, while the more experienced would detect a slow, but constant migration from the general area about Rene.
* * *
Over time even the uninitiated would discern all patrons other than Rene were now clustered about the space at some distance from Rene and none were located to his rear or sides.
His glass empty he raises it in invitation to the barman to bring his pitcher to replenish it. The barman promptly complies.
The uninitiated might think he, the barman, is but providing attentive service.
The seasoned might clearly see he wants in the worst way to limit his exposure to Rene's general vicinity.
To the left of the swinging doors hangs a substantial pendulum wall clock, advertising via an etching on its crystal the Sonora and Colorado Railroad and Transit Company.
The pendulum is capped by a round brass plate something on the order of eight inches. Apparently the weight is the genesis of the brilliant clock tock which with constancy fills the theatre.
The clock now reveals it is a chimed clock as it plays a replica of London's Big Ben tune, followed by the noon-day strike.
While the gong ticks the hours, the swinging doors each open. Through the space strides a man of singular height and substance.
His head carries what in these parts is known as a planter's hat, black. His shirt is bright, white except at the neck line where the dust of the trail has melded with body sweat creating a brown stain around the throat.
He sports a frock coat, vest, and high boots.
Initial observation does not reveal a weapon although he may be carrying a pocket piece or belly gun.
He strides to the table at which Rene sits, "Mr. Harronwod forgive me for being blunt. Sometime in the past few days, I know not exactly when, the dam I constructed on Paulee Wash was dynamited. I ask you straight sir, do you have any knowledge?"
Rene puts down his fork, lifts the beer to wash down his gob, looks up to the man and says, "Mr. Gooslinger, I have cordially explained to you the realities of water rights in this country. Others, I understand, have also tried to apprise you of how we must share the water one and all for everyone's benefit. You have for whatever reason insisted on a concept of possession and control being the overwhelming considerations. I see no reason for us to continue this fruitless banter. I give you fair warning, you rebuild that dam I'll hunt you as I would a wolf," with that he raises his fork and resumes his repast.
"You should know sir; I will order my hands to fire upon you on sight should you venture onto my range," with this pronouncement Mr. Gooslinger spins on his heel.
His posse follows him through the swinging doors.
The barman appears at the table, pours from the pitcher filling the bowl, while questioning, "What you gon'a do now?"
"I'll have to kill the bastard, seems like, dumb bastard," keen listening might reveal a despondent note in Rene's voice.
Rene rises, throws two dimes on the table and strides towards the door. This time his advance is accompanied by friendly grunts and head nods, to which he makes no reply.
Once at his rancho, he packs a mule.
* * *
He puts on the cross tree. Then loads the bags with tent, pans, salt, pepper flakes, frijoles, plates, cups, spoons, fly rod, fire grate and other truck, a jug of Who Bit John, hangs the bags on the tree, and diamond hitches the pack up tight.
With the available mule deer meat, prairie chickens, trout, wild onions, berries, pine nuts, cattail root and rattlesnake, he's good for a month, maybe a bit more.
He leaves his doors unlocked, leaves wood in the bin and a note on the table asking whoever passes through to wash up what they use.
Then he's off to the mountains.
If he's in for a fight, he wants to sleep where no one can find him. Deep in the mountains is ideal for that purpose.
His horse and mule are walking, not to overheat in the midday sun. Rene drifts in half slumber.
The azure sky scuds with white clouds, birds sing in the grass tips while the smell of mesquite and sage sweetens the air.
Eventually, he dismounts, loosens the belly belt of the horse, hobbles it and the mule, and then stretches out with his head on the water bag for a pillow to smoke a cigarito.
His heavenly survey reveals circling buzzards arise on the wind, waiting for whatever dies beneath to expire.
Rene thinks possibly an old cow or bull, possibly a young calf, maybe just the afterbirth or the remains of a deer after a puma or wolf has had a feed.
His mind plays about with the possibilities as he lingers over his smoke and absorbs the day's pleasures.
Once more in the saddle, the trail leads beneath the gliding birds. He is slightly aroused at the thought of the minor amusement in discovering the correctness of his musing as to the cause of the birds' congregation.
First, to appear is a dog cart, squat in the grass, appearing for all the world deserted. Upon closer inspection there is revealed a faded calico dress, at initial glance appearing to be empty but then there is exposed a body within. The head sheltered by a prairie sun bonnet.
Rene leaps from his pony. He addresses the form, feeling at the neck for a pulse, raising an eyelid, then feels for warmth in the cheek.
The young woman is alive.
Rene secures his water bag in a trice, washes the girl's face, wets her bodice then dribbles a small amount of the liquid on her lips.
He removes his kerchief, rinses it several times then places the wet cloth on her lower face.
He pulls the cart forward situating it over the girl then places a blanket across the trace handles to create a patch of shade.
He splashes additional water on the cloth across her mouth, being rewarded with a moan accompanied by a movement of the girl's head.
"Now, ma'am we're in good shape now, I've plenty of water, we're not that far from cover and we can have a meal right smart, no worries now, we're in good shape, ma'am," coos Rene while he awaits her further revival.
He takes notice that her face is blistering.
He uses his knife to scrap the inside of a wheel hub for grease as well as the chest of his horse for sweat with these he mixes a slimy concoction which he slathers on the girl's damaged skin.
Her apparent delicacy is not lost on him. His prurient thoughts a shameful embarrassment to a man of honor and are quickly suppressed.
The girl tries to sit-up, "You might want to stay down for a while," encourages Rene.
"I must get my baby," says the girl the shrillness in her voice betrays an anxiety verging on panic.
Rene is shocked at this revelation, frantically he searches the area for a sign of an infant, "I see no baby, Miss, you sure you ain't dreaming?"
Now the girl rolls to her knees and pushes herself up on the cart handles. With hands on the cart for support she makes her way back to the cart box uncovering a swaddled babe, "Here she is," says the girl triumphantly. She cuddles the wee one.
Then decorously turns for the sake of decorum sake to undo her dress in preparation to suckle the child.
Rene turns back to while over his shoulder he questions, "Do you have everything you need, ma'am?"
"Yes, we're fine thanks," says the girl her attention riveted on the mite.
After some while Rene is able to organize a caravan, wherein he pulls the dog cart, while the horse reins are attached thereto, the girl occupies the cart with the babe in arms and the mule's halter is tied to the horse's tail.
Slowly, the train makes its way to the shelter of the tree line at the base of the foothills guarding the approach to the mountains.
Rene follows along a game trail, which guides the group up the hills onto the mountain side, then higher into the rocks, crevices and caves.
In this area Rene believes shelter is to be found.
His diligence is rewarded with an overhang, deep enough to shelter the three while a meadow adjacent will serve the animals. Within an outcrop a small though adequate spring weeps. The smoke of their fire will rise against the stone to be torn by the eddying breeze. Their presence should not be exposed.
In front of the overhang, are arranged several large boulders which will shield them as well as provide a vantage point for observation of the approach.
In short order, Rene has unloaded the packs, hobbled the animals in the lea, arranged ground cloths, blankets, begun a fire and is ready to sally forth in search of a mule deer.
Short an hour later finds the two with coffee, a roast on the spit and the baby now wailing in good health.
Rene has strung the deer skin on a stretcher. He has begun to scrape the hide persuading Pauline ('twas the young ladies name) to reveal her history.
"John, that's my husband, he was my husband, and I came out from Ohio. We had been told the grasslands contained riches to be uncovered and through hard work we could make our fortune. We scraped and saved, borrowed from family and put together the wherewithal for a wagon, provisions and the necessary animals."
"We came across under the direction of a professional guide Captain Barings who brought a passel of us pioneers to this country of bounty to become homesteaders on the free land."
"We chose our claim, built our cairns, raised a Soddy and John broke the prairie."
"Soon after, Indians spirited away our livestock and there was nothing for it but John must pursue them."
"We were without friends, neighbors, anyone to lend assistance."
"When next I saw John, all that remained were his bones and the clothes he wore."
"I found him when I ventured out, having born Mercy, the baby, run out of food and was desperate in the face of starvation."
"Within a few miles of our claim, I came upon John's body. I had not the strength to dig a proper grave. There were no stones about to pile over his remains, and so I left him there, to my shame, exposed to the elements without the benefit of a Christian burial."
"I traveled but little further and succumbed to hunger as well as the sun's glare, as you found me."
"That is my story. I can only say how very grateful Mercy and me are to you for saving our lives."
"You have my sympathy for the loss of your husband. Texas is a harsh land. There are heavy demands on those who would reside thereon," says Rene hoping to sound a sympathetic note.
"Yes, I am aware," whispers Pauline seemingly involved in preoccupying thoughts of other matters.
"A penny for your thoughts, if I not be prying," allows Rene in a most genteel manner.
"No, it's not prying, it's as obvious as the nose on your face, I've nothing, the claim has no worth, and nothing of value remains there. We had no china, crystal, fancy clock, mirror or other trinket of substance. I am a pauper and must find a way in this world for myself and my child," her declaration could easily have been that of a flimflam although it was laid in such transparency and innocence, Rene preferred to think not.
Rene studied the young woman a moment then having evaluated her attributes said, "In the morning we'll make for the town, Locerton, there you will be able to discuss your circumstances with the Parson. I'm confident some solution will become apparent," Rene believes he delivered a solicitous and calmative message.
"Thank you Mr. Harronwod, you are most kind," says the young mother, her babe nesting at her breast.
A comfortable arrangement of ground cloth and blankets is developed close on to the fire, snug indeed.
Thereon mother and daughter will pass the night in comfort.
Daybreak finds Rene sparking the fire, slicing venison, and brewing up some coffee.
Pauline sleeps on having awakened several times during the night to perform the necessaries for the infant.
Now as the sun breaks into the cut away, Pauline rouses, "Good morning Mr. Harronwod," she gives out with a gay air.
"You sound much revived," observes Rene joyously.
"I am. I feel quite grand," proclaims the young mother as she fusses with her charge.
Modestly, she turns away from the man's eyes, allowing for privacy as the infant feeds.
At this moment of calm and bliss a shot rings out, the pellet ricochets on the rock face.
Rene grabs for his long gun then clambers up on the outcrop.
He shields his eyes from the sun's glare with his hands cupped about his eyes while he surveys the area in search of the shooter.
"I have you Mr. Harronwod, you've reached the end of the trail I'm afraid. We can prolong this or you may step out bringing the matter to a close. Which will it be long or short?" The voice of Mr. Gooslinger is easily recognized by Rene's ear.
"Mr. Gooslinger, we've a complication here. I am traveling with a young mother and her child. We must arrange to remove the two from danger," shouts Rene down to the crowd of gunmen below.
"I'm afraid that is not possible. Obviously, the woman released to tell the tale of events here would not be to my advantage. I see no profit in her being allowed to escape. I believe I will have to account of her as an accomplice in the matter," retorts the pursuer.
Rene lays upon his back upon the rock, in disbelief that this man means to harm innocents in his prosecution of his perceived rights. "I can't believe your crowd will participate in the murder of an innocent woman and her infant."
"Well, we can take a tally if you like, but I'm rather sure the consensus is they would like to be paid and to be paid they must pursue my interests, so there you have it. That's enough palaver, what will it be fast or slow? If you have a young woman with you I should think prolonging the inevitable would only heighten the discomfort. Why not step forward and bring the matter to a hasty end?"
A shot grazes the rock close by Rene. A gunman must have worked his way up on the rock face above the cut-out positioning himself to be able to fire down upon Rene.
Rene keenly appeals once more to Gooslinger's humanity, "Mr. Gooslinger, please don't do this. Let the woman and her child go. They are not part of any of this."
"I've given you your choice. You don't want to make a decision so I'll make it for you."
Rene scurries back into the overhang, Pauline huddles with the baby, in a haze, distracted from clear thinking, "Pauline, listen to me," Rene gently shakes her by the shoulders. Her look is vacuous, "I believe despite what he says, he just wants me. I believe if he is pursuing me he will leave you be."
Rene sees in Pauline's face unmitigated fear, raw, ragged terror, probably not so much for herself as for her child. "Look, you've plenty of water, there is cooked meat. You've enough to get you to town. You've the cart. There is just a matter of putting one foot in front of another until you reach safety," he hopes by putting it so simply it will encourage her, fortuitously he sees that she appears to buck up.
He sees a determination return to her, a determination to overcome, to succeed, a determination to bring her darling daughter through to safety.
They fill the water bag, wrap up the cooked meat, then the young mother and the child locate in a hidden recess in the back of the overhang with the provisions.
They are not completely hidden however; it may be enough if Gooslinger's men only make a courser search.
Rene considers rigorously the option of leaving the pistol with Pauline. In the end he believes there is a greater opportunity for him to do damage to the assailants rather than her. Further, without a weapon there is a slight chance she might be addressed with pity and compassion something not as likely if she has killed one or more of their number.
Rene checks the loads in his long gun and his pistol.
His objective is crystal clear to him, that is, to kill Gooslinger.
The gunmen have no opportunity to profit from this enterprise once Gooslinger is dead.
There is a better than even chance they will depart, leaving Rene, Pauline and the child to make their escape.
Rather, than present himself frontally to the aggressors, Rene moves to the outside edge of the overhang, drops to his belly, with his long gun tucked through his belt on his back. He endeavors to crawl out into the rock field.
He angles towards the rock face eventually finding a chimney. Bracing his feet and back against its sides he will be able to jack his body up and out where he will then be located on the ledge rock above the overhang.
Danger lay in being spotted by the gunmen. If they observe him he will be an easy target to dispatch with several firing at the same time concentrating the deadly volley.
The long gun is a problem. His solution is to slip the long gun through his belt at his front; it will be cumbersome but should serve.
Rene begins his ascent, pushing against the inner plane of the chimney with feet and back, shoving with his hands.
Soon the shirt on his back is shredded and his hands bleed from the abrasive nature of the rock face.
He gains the ledge.
Immediately he is presented a new dilemma. The child is bawling. Within the overhang the sound is amplified out over the belligerents.
Fading within mesquite shadow, he crouches, "Shut her up, oh God shut her up," a mournful plea, unable to be heard by the young mother, but the only refrain possible for Rene in his desperate predicament.
The climb has taxed him, the time in the chimney, under the full assault of the sun, exaggerates his thirst.
His hands are shredded and his back abraded.
At the worst possible moment, Rene's mind is befuddled.
He experiences a light headedness.
A tendency to want to keel over which he cannot resolve with a vigorous shake of his head.
He crawls in amongst the mesquite, scrapes a cavity and places his face against the cool earth. Within a space of several minutes, relief is his.
There persists a sharp pain within the top of his head.
He rubs his hands with dust to coat the scuffs thereby mitigating his exposure to pain to some degree.
Thus fortified he pursues his quarry.
In his reckoning he knows at least one gunman is on the ledge rock with him however, logic suggests more than one made the climb.
A team would be safer than a lone man.
Rene keeps to the mesquite cover, crawling through attempting to locate one of the gunmen.
Eventually he realizes his objective. He sees a man sitting on a rock, his pistol in his hands hanging down before him between his legs, appearing rather lethargic.
His patience is rewarded when another man shows himself.
The two palaver, in a heated fashion. Eventually, they reach some agreement and both proceed out over the rock ledge to peer down into the overhang. They both lay on their stomachs, with their heads down over the rock face.
Rene leaps up, runs pell-mell up to the two and when about ten feet away fires a shot with his pistol into the back of one assailant and then the other.
One of the gunmen spins about firing at Rene, catching him in the flesh at his side just above the waist. The round passes through.
Rene fires one more shot into each to assure they are dispatched.
As he stands above the men, firing his pistol a shot rings out from below. The missile catches him in the left shoulder. The bone is not broken but the arm is disabled.
Immediately, he retreats to the mesquite and proceeds in a crouch along a line that will allow him to observe if others are on the ledge rock and to gain the approach the gunmen took to reach the ledge rock.
Rene's thinking is the men below will not anticipate that he will come down the way their compatriots went up.
With the wounds in his side and shoulder, Rene is somewhat clumsy as he struggles to navigate the steep incline.
With each dislodged rock or miniature slide, he is fearful of his discovery, however, his luck prevails.
He is able to slip into the shadows of the Pinon pines without detection.
Navigating about under this cover, Rene is able to discover the deployment of the posse.
He is able in short order to locate Gooslinger as he has about him several men at all times.
Rene considers his best opportunity will be to await Gooslinger's need to relieve himself. When he moves off for privacy Rene might position himself for a shot.
Several hours pass before Gooslinger moves to a tree, unbuttons his pants begins to urinate.
As Gooslinger begins to move, away from the group, Rene anticipates this might be his opportunity and slithers through the underbrush to position himself appropriately.
Now he is located a scant ten yards from Gooslinger, as Gooslinger attends to his needs.
Rene quickly stands in order to obtain clear fire over the Pinon and brush putting a round through Gooslinger's chest.
Gooslinger is dead before he crumples to the ground.
Immediately, a volley of fire is unleashed by the gunmen about, leaving Rene wounded on the ground.
In addition to the previous wounds in his shoulder, and side, he now is punctured in the thigh, stomach and lung.
The men gather about him.
To his good fortune, the men's desire to torture him outweighs their good sense in assuring his dispatch. They resolve to leave him to bleed out in pain rather than to humanely dispatch him.
This last barbarism, caps their abhorrent conduct.
They gather their goods, mount and move off.
Some time passes while Rene lays upon the ground his life's blood spilling out into the dust.
The wounds now festering are excruciatingly painful. He writhes as each damaged location expresses a harrowing throbbing.
The wounds in aggregation put his teeth on edge, cause his muscles to cramp and excite his extremities to twitch.
There is naught he can do to improve his circumstances. The damage to his arm and leg prevent any meaningful locomotion.
In delirium, no longer conscious of the pain, he awaits the inevitable.
Eventually, Pauline appears, pulling the cart.
She has the water and cooked meat, as well as the stalwart heart necessary to execute her intention to gain refuge thereby securing the safety of her child, in the town.
She is greatly buoyed by her discovery of Rene.
"Oh, Mr. Harronwod, I'm so happy to see you're alive. I'll help you into the cart," Pauline is naïve in her enthusiasm for she has not the strength to lift Rene into the cart.
Alternatively, the severely wounded man is unable to assist her sufficiently to achieve his placement in the vehicle.
After several attempts reveal the impossibility of achieving the desired result, Pauline ringing her hands laments, "Mr. Harronwod, what am I to do? I can't move you. I don't have the skills to tend to your wounds. Shall I make a camp here? Place you on the ground cloth and cover you with blankets, possibly I could rig a cover to shield you from sun and rain. Oh, Heavens what shall I do?"
Her dreadful lack of competency plays havoc with her dignity.
Her failure to adequately address the situation manifests as a dishonorable reality.
"Ma'am there is but one thing to do. I can lay here and bleed out or you can mercifully put a bullet in my brain, ending my suffering. I pray you ma'am, please release me from my agony."
In this way, the strong willed mother bent on rescuing the life of her daughter must address a horrific choice.
Pauline, in the face of the barbaric demands of the West Texas plains, relinquishes her innocence.