"Sure you wouldn't like some coffee, Marshal Mercer?"
* * *
Jeb Owens was finishing off his third cup and aiming to have one or two more if he could. The look Marshal Jack Mercer answered his question with told him he was to be disappointed. He sighed, stood with all the weight of his sixty two years, and poured a bucket of water over the fire.
"You know that girl ain't goin' nowhere, Marshal. Never does unless she's going into Terlingua for groceries."
Mercer was already unhitching his horse from the remnants of an old wood fence and preparing to mount it. Owens shook his head and spit before gathering up the rest of his belongings. They had camped there the night before, just a mile from the girl's house so as not to come upon her in the night and spook her. She lived alone out here and if talk was to be believed she was more likely to shoot you than offer you a greeting at night. So they made camp, though it was clear Mercer wasn't happy about it.
Owens doubted the marshal got any sleep last night due to worrying himself about getting out to see that girl. Such impatience made no to sense to Owens who had always believed to take life slowly. In all his sixty plus years of living under God's grace he had never deviated from this philosophy, and he was too old to even think of changing.
"Impatient old cuss, ain't ya, Marshal?"
"Mount up and let's go talk to this girl."
By the time Owens mounted his horse, the marshal was already on his way back toward the trail.
Marshal Jack Mercer was young and showed it in his demeanor. He was handsome, with a black mustache that, while not impressive, fit him well. His eyes were calm and blue. Some said there was a hint of coldness in them, but calculating was probably a more accurate description. He seemed eager to prove himself, bound by the duty of his office as only one so young could be. He did his job and did it well, never deviating from whatever course he set himself upon until he saw it through to completion. He operated only in full measures.
Owens had been hired to show the marshal out to an old homestead house a few miles out of Terlingua. A young girl by the name of Ellie Carver lived there alone. Ms. Carver was the sister of The Carver Brothers, three boys who had been robbing stages up along the Rio Grande for the past two months. The Carvers were a mining family who came to Terilingua some years ago. The mother had died on the journey, the father killed in a raid by Mexican bandits a few years after they had settled. After the death of the father the boys took up to thieving and had earned quite a reputation of being good at it.
"What you want to talk to that girl about anyway?"
"That doesn't concern you, Mr. Owens."
"Hell. I bet it's about them brothers of hers."
Owens was long retired, having lived his life as a miner. Nowadays he was more often than not posted up at the local saloon. These days his business usually tended to be gossip.
Again Marshal Mercer would disappoint him.
When they arrived at the homestead the girl was standing out on the porch holding a rifle. The marshal showed no concern but that didn't make Owens feel any better. He was worried that the brothers were holed up in there and that the whole damn family was ready to shoot it out to keep them from hanging. He watched the marshal as he calmly climbed down from his horse, tied it to a hitch, and slowly made his way across the yard to the porch of the girl.
Owens decided it would be better to let the marshal conduct his business and thus intended to stay on his horse.
Mercer stopped at the porch and tipped his hat to the Carver girl. She was small but looked strong. The heavy rifle she had no trouble bearing confirmed that she was tougher than she looked. She wore defiance as natural as a church hat on Sunday, but he saw no fear or concern on her face. That meant her brother's weren't likely here. He turned his back to her and leaned up against one of the porch posts, hoping to relax her a bit. He still kept a sly eye on her, though.
She lowered her gun, "What do you want?"
"I just have a few questions about your brothers."
Her grip tightened on the gun but she did not raise it again, "I haven't seen them in years."
"Lying isn't a good way for us to start off knowing each other, Ms. Carver."
"I ain't lyin'. That's about all I got to say to you."
She sat the rifle down by the door, picked up a weave basket filled with dirty laundry and stepped down off the porch toward the washtub. As she passed Mercer his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. He twisted it, no so much to hurt her, but to knock the basket of clothes out of her hand. They spilled across the dirt.
"What in the hell did you do that for?"
He bent over to help her gather the clothes up. As he did he went through them without shame.
"You're a brazen man, you know that?"
Mercer picked up a pair of pants, "You often wear men's pants that are too big for you?"
Carver snatched the pants from his hands and threw it back into the bundle. Her face was flushed and the look in her eyes told Mercer that she was deciding between shooting him and cussing him. She settled on neither and just marched out toward the washtub.
Mercer watched her go and then followed her. He knew she wouldn't give them up, he had expected as much. He just needed to know how often she saw them and when she saw them last. If she was washing some of their clothes that told him they came here often enough. Maybe every couple of months, if not more.
"Ms. Carver, do you have any idea where your brothers might be holed up? I'm trying to help them."
"You're trying to hang them."
"It might come to that, yes. But there will be a trial first."
"Don't give me none of that. They'll hang and you know it. Besides, I already told you I don't know where they are."
"I know you did. And I said you were lying."
"I don't give a damn what you say or think. I think you should go."
Mercer grabbed her again and threw her to the ground. When she tried to get up and put his boot down onto her hand. He watched her for a few moments, saw the anger in her eyes, the wish to see his blood spilled across the desert. To see the birds peck the flesh from his bones as they bleached in the sun. He knew she'd never give them up and would die to save them. She would see him dead before she saw any harm come to them.
"You know they'll kill a man soon. When they do it will be too late."
She said nothing, but looked away. He pulled her up and turned back toward his horse.
"Thank you, ma'm."
"You son of a bitch!"
When Mercer climbed up on his horse he noticed Owens looked quite perplexed. That was fine. Let the old fool think on things for a bit, maybe that would shut him up. He had learned all he could from the girl. She had just seen them, the hot anger she felt when he had gotten violent told him the story better than her words ever would. She was worried about them, she knew they would die, her emotions were mixed up more than a virgin's with his first hooker. They were raw because she had just seen them, they had likely just told her they planned to keep on robbing stages.
Good, he thought. Let them keep robbing. I'll find them and I'll see them brought to justice.
Mercer met his partner Bill Foster at a hotel in Alpine, Texas, about 80 or so miles north of Terlingua. They were having breakfast at the hotel when the news came. A telegraphed message had come for the marshal and was to be delivered immediately. Mercer was dragging a dry biscuit through bacon grease when a small, ink stained boy came running in with it.
The marshal read it slowly, Foster following his eyes as they moved methodically over the page. With each word Mercer's face seemed to grow more solemn. When he finished he crumpled the letter up, waved its bearer away, and went outside. Foster tipped a coin to the boy and then followed.
"The hell happened, boss?"
Mercer rounded on him, "The sons of bitches killed someone."
"Round up a posse. We're going out for them."
Early the next morning Mercer, Foster, and six other men rode out of Alpine down toward Presidio on the Rio Grande. The boys had robbed a stage that had set out from there toward Fort Davis. At first it was believed to be Mexican bandits who had jumped the border, but one of the survivors had disputed the story and said it was two young white boys with a third holding back with the horses. When shown a drawing of the Carver boys the survivor had reckoned it was the boys.
A few days later they arrived in Presidio. Mercer dismounted first and set off toward the sheriff's office. The boys in the posse looked toward the saloon, the never-ending dryness of a long desert ride having made them thirsty for booze and other things. McDade, a big barrel-chested man with a beard to match, had boldly begun to hitch his horse on one of the posts when Mercer, his keen senses kicking in, noticed.
"I don't want any drinking while those boys breathe."
That was all he needed to say. McDade and some of the others muttered curses under their breath, but settled for drinking water near the stables.
The Presidio sheriff was old but still wily. He lived in a hard land, with bandits from both sides and revolutionaries from the South causing him no end of problems. He was tall and dark and a bit portly, but his movements were deliberate and hinted at a man who got things done, though maybe a bit slower than he used to.
"Yeah, it was them boys alright, as I said in my telegraph. But I don't know where they have gotten off to. I reckoned they were holed up in an old cave a few miles out of town. Damn place is always used by their sort. But by the time me and the boys rode out, they weren't there."
Mercer said nothing. He was scanning the horizon east. The cave was west, but he couldn't help but think the boys were heading back to their sister.
"Any signs that they may have traveled east?"
The sheriff looked perplexed, "East? Hell, I don't think so. Could be though."
Mercer nodded, "Can one of your men show me out to the cave?"
"Why I'd be happy t—"
"One of your men would suffice."
The sheriff shrugged, "Fine."
The cave was shallow and set into some rocks facing south toward Mexico. It was littered with the remains of many campfires and men. The sheriff's boy told Mercer they had killed many a bandit here. The American's they took up to the cemetery, the Mexican's they left for the vultures. The men Mercer was after were still living, he had no interest in bones.
"They haven't been here in at least two or three days." He turned and mounted his horse, "They are long gone."
Foster leaned forward in his saddle, "You sure, boss?"
"Yeah. They are going back to their sister."
"How do you know?"
"They just killed a man. They are scared. And they damn sure should be."
Billy Carver was shaking as he took a drink of whiskey from a dusty bottle. His older brother Tom stood by the window and their younger brother Jess slept in their sister's bed, tears still staining his dirty face. Ellie was fussing with food, though Billy didn't think he could eat a lick of it. Not since he had killed that man. Even though that man had skinned on him first, he hadn't slept hardly a wink and had barely managed to keep down any food. He started when his brother spoke.
"We can't stay here much longer."
Ellie didn't turn from the stove, "You'll stay here as long as you need to."
"That marshal is likely to come back."
"He don't know you're here yet. Anyway, you said yourself he'd likely ride toward Presidio first and that means he's at least a week from coming."
"Hell, who knows how a lawman's brain works, Ellie? He could be riding up right now."
Billy's eyes jerked toward the window full of fear.
Tom was watching him, "We should go out to the old Jesup place. It has served us well in the past. Like when that bastard Marshal first rode out."
Ellie turned with a pan full of eggs and bacon, "Do what you will, but I want you to eat first. Or at least Jess. I don't like you dragging him along."
Tom scowled at her, "Keep out of our business, woman."
Ellie rounded on him, "Maybe you shouldn't go about killing people, then."
Tom was stricken, Billy got up and rushed out the door, and Jess woke up and started crying again.
Billy stood by a tree throwing up food that wasn't there. He wondered what you threw up when you had nothing on your stomach. The thought made him heave again. He couldn't take it. He didn't mind the robbing at first, it was great fun when they started. No lawman or the laws they went on about had ever done them any good. They made their own way, like Pa did, or so Tom had told him. No one ever got hurt and Tom promised no one ever would. Sure, it could happen, if someone skinned on you, you had to shoot them. It was a matter of survival. But it would probably never happen
Except it did.
Someone touched Billy's back and almost jumped out of his skin. It was just Tom. The touch turned into a grip.
"I messed up." Tom said softly.
"We both did."
Mercer arrived a few days later with Foster, McDade, and the five other men. The Carver Brothers were gone and Ellie Carver stood waiting on the porch again, gun in hand. She looked paler than before. The defiance was gone and she looked scared. All eight men climbed down from the horses and approached the house.
* * *
"I don't reckon you can shoot all of us." McDade chuckled.
She lowered the gun and put it back by the door.
"I reckon you oughta come in."
He nodded and told his men to hang back. Foster didn't like it, but he had long since learned not question Jack's ways. It didn't do any good to.
The house was small. Just one room with a kitchen, table, and a bed. Four clay bowls were stacked on the stove and four chairs pulled up around the table. It didn't necessarily mean the boys had been here, but he was sure they had.
He allowed her to sit first and then followed, never taking in eyes from hers. She tried to give him back in kind, but hers faulted and found the floor.
"I know they have been here."
"They have killed a man now. Just like I said they would."
These words hit her hard, but not hard enough. She knew. Whether she heard it from town or the boys first, he knew she had seen them.
"Where are they?"
"I haven't seen them in weeks."
He slammed his fist so hard down onto the table that it seemed as if it'd split in two, "Don't lie to me, dammit! I know they were here and you're gonna tell me where they are."
She suddenly turned defiant again, "And what if I don't?"
"Woman, I'm a US Marshal. I'm hunting three fugitives on a federal judge's orders. They are now also responsible for killing a man. I will have them. I know you know where they are, and you are going to tell me."
"Words. Just more words."
Mercer regarded her coolly for a few moments, before saying quietly, "Is that how it's going to be?"
"Yes, marshal, that is how it's going to be.
He stood and walked out the front door. Ellie felt a heavy weight upon her chest, she sunk down in her chair and threatened to cry. It was all too much. The boys, this marshal. Why couldn't things go back to how they used to be? The boys playing, hunting, and laughing. Papa cleaning rabbits while mama did the laundry. Everything seemed so small then and she didn't know that it was her whole world and was to be cherished until it was all gone.
Jack Mercer reappeared as fast as he had left her, flanked by McDade and another man. He instructed them to take Ellie. She fought and screamed but it did her no good. They drug her out of the house and toward a dead tree on the edge of the property. Another man was tying a noose to one of the limbs. Foster stood nearby, his face downcast. Mercer lead his own horse just below the noose.
"Ellie Carver, by the power invested in me by the United States government I sentence you to hang. The crime of which you are accused is the aid of known murderers."
She was stunned. He couldn't do this. She was just trying to protect her brothers. Just trying to cling to the last pieces of her shattered world.
"Marshal . . . "
He stepped close, was there a hint of remorse in those blue eyes?
"Will you tell me where they are?"
He gripped her arm, "They killed a man. Does that mean nothing to you, woman? That man was a father, a husband. He had people who depended on him. And they shot him down and left him bleeding in the dirt. Does that mean nothing to you?"
"It . . . I don't . . . "
The grip tightened, pleading, "Tell me where they are."
Mercer released his grip and stepped away from her, their eyes locked for a moment before he spoke.
The big man picked her up with ease and sat her on the horse. He then placed the noose around her neck. She looked out on the desert. Not toward the Jesup Farm so as to betray her brothers, but out toward the road that lead her family to this place. She was going to die. However horrible that thought seemed at least she would leave this world knowing that they were still in it. She hoped they would escape, hoped that they would run as far away as they could and escape this bastard of a man. She wanted them to start anew, to be happy again like they once all had been.
As the rope tightened she knew this would never be.
Tom Carver learned of his sister's fate while buying food and collecting water from a roadside saloon near Jesup Farm. When he first learned the news his blood ran cold and he felt sick. As is normal for any man who drinks, and often those who do not, when bad news is learned, a bottle is found. The first few shots made him angry, the rest gave him a purpose. He was going to ride out and kill every single man that had any part in his sister's death. To tear them apart with his bare hands, dig into their skin, splinter their bones, and rip the very souls from their vessels.
* * *
But first he needed one more shot.
He was drunk enough to believe he could kill eight men alone when Billy found him. Billy begged him to return to the farm. There was no sense in getting killed on a fool's errand. They needed to all talk things over as brothers. Tom had no need for talk, but in the end he relented.
After sleeping off the drink Tom groggily climbed from bed and buried his head in his hands.
"I still mean to kill the son of a bitch."
Billy was sitting by the empty window staring out across the desert. The heat rising from the sands was palpable. He could feel it rising up into him., engulfing him.
"I think we should turn ourselves in."
"What!? Are you plumb out of sense?"
"No. We need to turn ourselves in for Jess."
"You stupid son of a bitch, they want to hang Jess, too!"
"I know, goddammit! But he had no part in the murders or the robberies. He always stayed back with the horses. If we could convince the marshal . . . "
"The marshal who hung our sister!? He killed an innocent girl to find us, what makes you think he has any sort of mercy on his mind?"
"Then we'll convince someone else! He ain't the only lawman who walks the earth."
Tom swore and reached for the bottle. It was empty and he knew Billy had poured it all out. He smashed the bottle against the wall and headed outside into the heat.
Marshal Jack Mercer was sitting at a table in the Terlingua saloon drinking a small whiskey. He had never considered himself a drinking man, but he felt drawn to it today. The heat down in this part of Texas was near unbearable. He didn't see how a man could live in it. So he rationalized that it must be the drink that allowed them to. And so he drank.
The note came in the night and was waiting for him at the bar the next day. He gave the proprietor a long look for not waking him with the news, but said nothing. He left to find Foster.
"You think its a trap?"
"I don't know. Don't care much. This is our chance."
"You just gonna up and kill them?"
Mercer regarded him coolly, "No, I'm going to arrest them."
Foster spit in the dirt and let his eyes wander from Mercer's, "Well, hell, I don't know, boss. I don't like it. They say they are coming armed."
"Let them. A bullet will get them in the bone yard a lot quicker than hanging."
"What do you reckon they want to discuss?"
"I don't care."
Foster nodded to show his lack of surprise.
Mercer handed him two pieces of paper, "Wire for the nearest judge and tell him we are in need of him. Tell him time is an issue. Then take the other note out into the desert and put it under a rock near the hanging tree."
He walked off without another word.
Tom and Billy Carver rode into town just before noon three days later. They were heeled as promised, but didn't pull even when Mercer stepped out from the saloon to greet them. They both felt anger boil up inside them. Though they had never met Mercer they knew him to be the man who had hung their sister. The calm eyes that watched their every move, calculating them before they even knew they'd make them. The arrogance of keeping his hand away from the gun half-hidden beneath his black coat. The pure hatred that emanated from his very presence.
* * *
Another man met them and invited them into the saloon, they were wary at first.
"We aren't going to shoot you, boys. You wanted to talk, we talk in there."
Tom nodded and they followed them through the swinging doors.
Mercer sat first then invited the boys to sit across from him, Foster hovered behind Mercer looking uneasy.
"Mr. Mercer, is it?" Billy asked.
Mercer said nothing.
Tom's face grew dark, but Billy put a hand on his arm.
"Me and my brother, we are willing to turn ourselves in. Just let our younger brother go, he didn't have no part in any of this."
"You killed a man. In your last robbery."
"He gave us no choice. He tried to kill us."
"So it was you or him?"
"Funny how that is. But it always comes to that. When you walk down that path, it always comes to that."
"Listen, if you just let our little brother go . . . "
"I'm not going to do that. The order from the judge is to bring all three of you in. And I intend to do that. And if found guilty all three of you will hang."
"You son of a bitch!"
Tom went for his gun. He was quick, but not quick enough. Mercer stood and kicked the table at the both of them. Tom fell out of his chair, while Billy was jammed between another table. Mercer took aim and shot at Billy, who managed to get free, but not before a bullet pierced his shoulder. He cried out and fell to the ground. Tom picked up his pistol and shot at Mercer, who jumped behind another table. A bullet splintered the wood near his face, Tom cursed and jumped up, pulling Billy out of the bar with him as bullets flew and men began to come from the upstairs of the saloon.
Tom helped Billy onto his horse and then mounted his own. They rode around the back side of the saloon. A side door kicked open and Foster came out, pistol skinned and aimed at Billy's head. Tom fired first, shooting Foster at close range, he fell back against the door and then to the ground.
Tom and Billy took off into the desert.
Mercer stood regarding Foster's body as men came to carry it away. He turned and walked out of the alley and to the post office across the street. There he posted up in a chair to wait for the stage. He tipped his hat over his eyes and began to hum an old campfire song.
When the judge arrived later that evening he listened to Mercer's account of what had happened. He didn't like the way Mercer let the boys have their say, he saw no sense in a wolf toying with its prey. The boys should have been arrested on sight. Mercer agreed that he had messed up, but still wished to bring the boys to justice.
"You're the only lawman worth a damn near here, so I reckon you'll have to do. But I want no mistakes this time, Mercer. Hang them when you find them. They've killed two now, one a respected lawman."
The judge left Mercer in the growing shadows of Terlingua's main street.
The sun rose early the following morning. The heat was with it and it was the worst it had been all summer. Mercer had slept badly the night before, but was up early anyway. He had a coffee at the small hotel next to the saloon and then waited for his men to wake up. For a moment he included Foster, but then realized that he would never wake up again.
He had sent out three men to track the boys with instructions to only find and watch them. He knew one was gravely injured, so they wouldn't get far. They'd find solace in their hiding place, refusing to believe that they could be discovered so as to find time they didn't have to tend to their brother. He would likely never have a better opportunity to catch them.
When his men were up he didn't allow them breakfast. He wanted them angry, he wanted them going at these boys with everything in them. He didn't think it would take that, but then again he never operated in half measures.
They rode out as the town was beginning its daily routine. A few men shouted encouragement, most watched them gravely. Several children chased them in hero worship. McDade winked at a whore or two.
Jesup Farm looked like a mirage in the heat. There were no sign of the boys, but Mercer knew they were there because of the three horses tied out back. He directed his posse to surround the small homestead at various outcroppings around it and then found his own spot closer to the house.
McDade called out, "Boys! It's the law! Come on out without your guns or we will be forced to come in an' kill ya."
It wasn't eloquent, but it would do. McDade had a booming, savage voice. Hopefully that shook the boys up a bit more. It also allowed Mercer's location to remain secret.
A rifle stuck out of a window and fired a few pot shots. The men returned a few in kind but no one was hit on either side.
Mercer crouched low and moved closer to the house. He could hear them whispering now. Could hear the quiet sobs of the youngest brother, the curses of the oldest, and the raspy prayers of the one he had shot.
The boy was dying, but Mercer would not allow him to just yet. All of them would hang, all of them would face the justice coming to them. They would not find reprieve even in death.
He could hear the other brother loading his rifle and he whistled. Before Tom could finish he leaped through the window as another man burst through the front door. Tom dropped his gun and threw his hands up. Billy was lying on the bed with the stench of death on him. He was pale and drenched in sweat. Jess kneeled beside him holding a muddy rag to his brother's forehead.
Tom begged Mercer to spare his younger brother. All the fight had been beaten out of him just as Mercer knew it eventually would. Boys without the stomach for the work they chose should stay at home and take on more suitable work. Mercer himself had no stomach for the begging words of known killers. He ordered McDade and the rest in and had them escort the boys out. When he found Billy could barely stand he had McDade hold him up.
McDade coughed at the foul stench from the boy's shoulder, "Boss, I don't see no trees around to hang these boys in, but I reckon this porch beam is high enough for'em."
Mercer nodded and so the men set to work.
Tom, Billy, and Jess stood before him with nooses around their necks and rotting chairs beneath their feet. Tom was silent in his defiance, while Billy looked dead already, and Jess cried loudly.
Mercer wore a grim look of satisfaction at another job done.
The men kicked the chairs from underneath them and they all hung.
Mercer was at home, in a small homestead just outside of El Paso. He had a meager supper and drank a cup of coffee out on the porch. He then broke out an old bottle of whiskey Foster had given him as a birthday present years ago. He enjoyed it straight from the bottle while watching the sun set. It felt good watching as the heat faded from the day and cool whiskey enveloped him. When he was cold, numb, and drunk he decided it was time for bed.
After a fashion he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed the sun was before him, illuminating the darkness and warming his face. As long as it was up, guiding his way, his path through the void was sure. However, he knew it would not stay in the sky forever, and already it was starting to set.