Dead Man’s Trail – First Two Chapters
The desert dogs made a shambles of their meal. A lamb, plump with wool, lay toppled on its back, four hooves saluting the heavens. A wide splash of blood painted its grimy coat; its chewed-up entrails scribbled across the sandy soil. Those guts continued to squirm beneath the Arizona sun, not knowing they were dead. Locked in an eternal stare, the lamb’s eyes knew death. Free of gloss, the eyes possessed the brimstone-yellow of a mist-veiled moon. Blowflies hopped around a dribble of its snot.
In his prime, Smith—a fierce border collie—would have never allowed the coyotes near the flock. Now, half-deaf, he had taken up arguing with night owls, a hobby that left him with little sleep and no energy for the day watch. Stiff and oblivious, he stood guard atop a rise that overlooked the flock, awaiting a command from his master.
Asa Powell lined up one of the predators in his rifle’s sights, but his horse, Tristan, stammered with his feet. The barrel wandered and the bullet drilled the ground in the middle of the pack, spitting dirt over their paws. The pack swiveled their heads in unison toward the direction of the rifle blast. Then in no apparent hurry they pranced away, abandoning their feast as though killing had been their only goal.
Asa and Tristan headed down to the fallen lamb with Smith taking up the rear. Nearing sixty, working this rough land had kept Asa fit. At the same time, working this miserable land was killing him. He dropped down from his mount, cricked his spine, and tipped back his hat. As he stooped, his legs buckled and gravelly pebbles stabbed his knees. He could use the lamb’s carcass to stitch a coat for use as barter at the trading post; its meat would make winter’s jerky for the shed. There’ve been too many attacks, he thought, too much tanning and curing.
Smith snuffled up and sniffed the bowels. He looked to his master.
Asa unsheathed his skinning knife. Sinking his hand into the belly’s gash, he seized hold of one end of the viscera and snipped it clean. He repeated this for the other end, pulling out, piling the intestines in a heap. The guts gave off a sweet, sick smell.
Asa stood, wiped the blood on his chaps, and headed to his saddlebag. He took a shaker out and peppered the entrails with strychnine, then heaved the gutted creature onto Tristan’s back.
Three riders appeared atop the ridge. The middle one waved a rifle over his head. “Aces!” he called out.
Tristan shuddered and stamped. Asa gave them a passing glance and returned his concentration to securing the sheep to horseback. “Hey, Tom. I’m hearing ya.”
“We’re needing a tracker,” Sheriff Nickols yelled.
Asa considered turning his back, hopping on top of Tristan and taking off at a quick trot. “Don’t suppose you can see I’m busy?”
The three horses with their mounts began scrambling down the slope. They pulled to a stop near Asa. Thack, Tom, and Nickols posted in three points around him.
“We need you,” the sheriff said. “Nobody knows the hills like you.” He was as old as Asa, but chubby and bald.
“There could be a pretty coin,” Tom added. He had a child’s face, its youth accented by his inability to grow a beard. His hat was one size too large and sat squeezed down to his jutting ears. He leaned back in his saddle as though tipping in a chair.
Gummy sheep’s blood still clung to Asa’s hands. He rubbed in some dirt. “I’m worn down, used up, and don’t care.”
“It’s Coffin Jack,” the sheriff said.
That got Asa’s attention. “Coffin Jack? You may well say it’s a ghost.”
“He killed the Barkers,” Nickols said. “Butchered them in their home. Thack seen’m.”
Thack clutched his breath, the color draining from his ruddy face. “Yeah, I seen ‘m. He rode out from the Barkers’ place atop a chestnut horse, big and tall. He wore a parson’s hat, flat-brimmed and wide, dressed up all in black like a circuit preacher.”
“Was he Apache?” Asa asked, for that had been the rumor.
“Never got a look at his face.”
“If you saw his face, he’d a seen you,” the sheriff said, “and if he’d a seen you, you’d be dead.”
While Thack and the sheriff appeared shaken, Tom smacked on his chaw, excited, eager. “We’re thinking he dresses like a preacher to get folks’ trust, trick them for an invitation into their homes.”
Asa reflexively opened and closed his hands, exercising his fingers, tickling a memory. “Or else,” he said, “there was this gunslinger in Texas who wore a black preacher’s hat, its brim cocked down, his head dipped so nobody could see his face. But all-the-while that devil was watching his rival, feet to holsters. He slowly lifted his hand, as though to tip back his hat, and this got his victim’s attention, who was tracking that hand and thinking he was about to meet the devil’s eyes. All-the-while he should have been paying proper attention to the other hand, which was doing the shooting.”
“Maybe that gunman is Coffin Jack,” Nickols said.
“Can’t be,” Asa replied. “I killed him.”
Smith nosed up against his master. Asa sunk a hand down to scratch his scruff. “Nobody’s seen Coffin Jack—nobody alive. How can you know it was him?”
“Same as always,” the sheriff said. “He killed the family for no good reason. He did his close work with a hatchet. He left an IOU.”
Asa grunted. It had to be Jack. With resignation he asked, “What did it say?”
“I, O, U, one hed.”
“Dan Barker’s head was gone!” Tom said, barely containing his excitement. “Neck whacked through at the stump!”
“Aces, why is it no one catches Coffin Jack?” the sheriff asked. Then, not waiting for an answer, he said “‘Cause they ain’t seen him ‘for a description. By the time they commence hunting, the trail’s gone cold. This time we eyeballed him heading east. Only way he could go is to take the gulch…we know where he’s headed, what clothes he’s wearing and we seen his horse.”
“Chestnut—big and tall,” Thack repeated, “with a patch of white on its rump…and a saddle blanket, no saddle.”
Nickols nodded. “If he makes it to the hills, we’ll need you to flush him out, and if we cross paths with a party of natives, we need you to speak their tongue.”
“We got hand irons to secure him for jail,” Thack said. Left unspoken was the account of how Coffin Jack had worked himself free of his ropes and slaughtered the last lawman unlucky enough to catch him.
“Or else we’ll string him up right where we find him,” Tom said. The long golden coils of a virgin lariat were hitched to his saddle. “The bounty is all the same, dead or alive.”
All were quiet now, looking to Asa, waiting on his answer. His pulse no longer felt his own, now beating with a communal vengeance. “I’ll need to pen my flock,” he said at last. “I’ll set them straw and water for a couple of days, but that’s the most I can promise.”
“Sure thing, Aces.” The sheriff broke into a smile. “With you as our tracker, Jack ain’t got a chance. You’re half Injun.”
Asa cocked a scornful eye at Nickols.
“Now, I’m just saying you got Injun sense.”
Asa grinned, surprised that his friend flustered so easily. “You offended me because you think I’m only half.”
The sheriff laughed. “All-righty. Two days you’ll give us. Two days is aplenty.”
Thack nodded along with the sheriff, saying, “That’s all I’m in for. I’m stopping by my place to collect my Henry Repeater and pass word to Sharon, so she don’t go launching a second posse to hunt me down. We’re joining up next to the spring at the mouth of Liar’s Gulch in a couple of hours.”
“If Jack makes it into the hills, we got a demanding task ahead,” the sheriff said. “We got to nab him afore then, quick.”
“But don’t tell no one,” Thack said. “If’n they hear Coffin Jack’s out there, we’ll have packs of bounty grubbers in the crossfire, all itching for the reward. On top of that…a squad of soldiers will swarm down from Fort Henry, shoving us aside and making a ruckus. They’ll spook Jack so that he’ll never get found.”
“Two days,” Asa repeated.
Asa hoped that with Smith penned up with the sheep, the dog would concentrate on his duties and not spend the better share of his day lost to shut-eye. He knew the owls would keep Smith vigilant at night. He had no time to skin or cure the fallen lamb. Since he could hardly leave the temptation of rotting meat close by his pen, he packed the carcass to take with him, until he could drop it somewhere distant.
His best firearm was a Winchester carbine, a short-barreled rifle good for close fights and medium range sniping. It took the same bullets as the handgun he packed. He grabbed a pair of army canteens and strung a set of hollow gourds across his horse’s backside. If Asa wasn’t careful, the full bore of the sun’s heat kicking off the lava rock would fry his brain surely as lazing his head on a breakfast skillet. In the wrong places there was no shade for miles and no water for a day.
He didn’t pack food. He could live for two days without sustenance. If he was to get caught up in the chase, his hunger would kick him as a reminder to head home. I should have said no, he thought. The blood-fury, this hunting humans, is for the young.
Even those creatures that thrive on scorched land hated days like these. The sun grew fiercer as it tilted to the west, so that by three o’clock the desert rat preferred to plunge the depths of a snake hole, over baking in the miserly shade of a creosote. By the time it turned four, Tristan and Asa were perched on a bluff overlooking Nix’s Hollow. Down below—amid a stretch of barren red clay—Liar’s Gulch bloomed with a burst of green, a copse of spiky trees and cottonwoods. Beyond that was a puzzle of sharply cut sandstone hills, dappled with flows of black lava rock and sprinkled with volcanic ash. Farther so were the desolate Gila Mountains.
Four hours of daylight remained; the night would be moonless. Coffin Jack preferred attacking on the days of new moons, then hurrying off to blend in with the nightfall. A distant storm cloud crawled in front of the sun, dragging with it a shadow as large as the valley below. Asa took a swig from his canteen, swishing water over the dust in his mouth, washing up a viscous sludge and swallowing hard.
He shucked the lamb’s carcass from the back of his horse. Maybe he could retrieve it on his way back (if he returned before the bird and insect scavengers took occasion to feast). Tristan and Asa ambled down the slope.
After a funeral in Tucson, the townsfolk began asking what had become of the local coffin-maker—a friend of the deceased and someone who surely would have attended the service. The first indication that something horrid had occurred came when the body of the man who was supposed to have been buried was found on the outskirts of town, propped against a tree stub with a note pinned to his chest:
I,O,U, one ded boddy.
A group of anxious citizens dug up the recently interred pine box. There they found the coffin-maker, bound and gagged, suffocated after being buried alive. Arguments ensued over who could have done such a thing. The Apaches were suspected (regularly blamed for every calamity from cattle raids to drought); others declared the crime was nothing like those of the Indians. The Apaches would never taunt by writing an IOU. They sometimes mocked the living, but always respected the dead.
Over the following months, five more killings took place, including one among the Chiricahua tribe. Some settlers disputed that incident by claiming the Indians were misdirecting the white folk, trying to garner sympathy and dodge blame for their own foul deeds. Over the course of his killings, Jack had outmaneuvered all of his pursuers: posses, cavalry, and Apache. The demand for his capture became the one uniting force among the local warring factions.
During much of the year, the spring at Liar’s Gulch gurgled with health. It leaked out from a horizontal crack in the cliff’s side and dribbled down to form a mushy tract of sand and a small pond in which cattails sprouted. In this season of thirst, all that remained was a moist slick of rock, the water collecting in a mucky puddle. Throughout the year, a grove drank from its deeper wells; along with a pair of tall cottonwoods grew smaller chinaberries, sycamores, and ashes.
A slender trail cut through the juniper scrub, leading to the amphitheater of trees. Along that path, Tom’s horse trotted up to block Tristan and Asa’s progress. Its saddle sat lopsided, its saddle buckle cut. Tristan nosed up to the horse, backing the creature away until it stood in a clearing.
In a patch of shade, three bodies hung from the branch of a skeletal sycamore. Sheriff Nickols dangled neck-in-noose, the rope looped over the branch and tied to a buckle in the tree’s root, his arms drooping loosely at his sides. Tom’s hands were tied behind his back—his boyish face a plump and ghastly purple. In between the two other victims, Thack was strung up by his wrists, the chain of his manacles looped over the branch. His lips had been sewn shut and a torn strip of cloth was pinned to his chest with his deputy’s badge:
Asa moved in closer.
I,O,U, 2 Is.
Thack’s body heaved with a sudden convulsion, his chest bucking, his lips ripping at their stitches, gasping for air. His eyelids sprung open, revealing empty sockets.
“Thack, it’s me, Aces,” the tracker said.
Thack choked on the pink foam that sputtered between his sutured lips, his words furious and hoarse. “Tell Sharon. Tell Sharon, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I broke my promise.” A fountain of bloody tears flooded and spilled from the hollows of his eyes.
Asa considered how to cut the man down. Since it would take forever to saw through the hand irons, this left the option of either hacking the thick tree limb or cutting Nickols down to drag Thack to the end of the branch. Then, with a deeper horror, Asa asked himself, “How did they get there? How could Jack string up all three?”
Thack had ridden to his home, meaning Nickols and Tom arrived first. Coffin Jack would have seen the two and recognized the need to take out Nickols before the kid. Tom’s saddle belt was severed. Jack must have figured the kid would panic and ride off. A surprise attack took place after the two had dismounted.
Asa tugged on Nickols’s boot, swiveling his body. The back of his head showed the deep cleft of a hatchet wound. The sheriff was attacked from behind, killed before he was hung. Then, Jack got a bead on Tom—tying the boy’s hands at gunpoint—and finished by stringing him up.
The rope leading to the sheriff’s body was frayed near its base, the bands of twine halfway split. When Thack arrived, he tried to cut the sheriff down. That left Thack vulnerable. Yet, why was Thack dying? Asa looked at Thack’s belly, his shirt tugged up with the agony of his distended arms. Peeking out from between the stretch of his buttons was a wide swath of gauze. Through the gauze, through the shirt was a bloom of red, and on the ground by the rope’s anchor, a splotch of blood.
Coffin Jack shot Thack when he tried to cut down the sheriff, then dressed his wound, replaced his shirt, manacled him, gouged his eyes, and sewed his lips shut before stringing him up. Thack was left alive to lure Asa in, his eyes gone and lips sealed so that he couldn’t see Asa approaching, and thus shout a warning. Thack was a worm dangling on a hook. Thack was bait. Asa would be attacked when he tried to take Thack down from the tree. He was being watched.
He didn’t move, his eyes scanning for sniper’s nests or a flash of a man in black. Thack had taken a bullet front side. A low angle meant the oak brush, a high angle, the brink of the cliff. For the latter, it would have taken too long for Jack to scramble down. Thack, only wounded, would have left a trail of blood crawling to a safer spot.
The brush oak stretched out to a crop of boulders. The rocks were thick with shadows, but empty of visible targets. From his current position, Asa would probably get one shot free before being picked off in the open. He needed to retreat. He drew a mental path back to Tristan, one that would be out of the line of fire, and casually followed.
After tying Tristan to some scrub stalks, he retrieved a buck-knife from its saddle-scabbard and collected some extra ammo from his leather pack. He also took a canteen. With a quick pivot he shot Thack in the chest—ending his friend’s misery—and scurried to the cliffside wall, where he crouched behind a boulder near the spring.
There he waited, and could wait for days. He had all of the water necessary to survive. If Jack came out to attack, he would be exposed in the open. Jack might wait until night to try an ambush, but absolute darkness made for a difficult approach and, to draw near, Jack would first need to scratch his way through the oaks, wherein Asa would hear him coming.
Asa laid out the extra bullets, each spaced a finger’s-width for quick retrieval. He took long, luxurious gulps from his canteen, gargling loudly, letting his foe know how thoroughly his thirst had been sated. The skim of water from the spring did not allow for an easy refill. Asa sopped a rag in the seepage and wrung it into the mouth of his canteen, repeating this again and again—filthy tears slowly replacing what he’d drank.
Two hours passed.
A distant, lone coyote whimpered. In Asa’s mind, it was the cry of an infant. He invoked the name of his son.