Calan McCarthy is a writer of Irish descent who has written three novels, a short story and a collection of poems. His material spans multi genres – Westerns, Spy, Science Fiction and Gothic. His most recent publication Stalemate is a Cold War spy novel penned as John Isaac. His short story Capstone is an excerpt from his violent Western novel in progress.
NOT ONE SINGLE pilgrim inside that place contested the gunfire for they would sooner rest in their niches and assume ignorance than tender defence in some deadly dual. The Mexicans were busy commandeering merchandise and when they returned to their mules it would seem Creed and his retinue had confederated to trek on to Fort Union with them. They mounted up and rode on into the night in silence with mutual autonomous and there above them hung a gibbous moon which soused the riders and desert floor in blue and the moonlight threw terrific and unearthly shapes which stretched out across the stark plain where wolves slank the unclaimed quarters in solitude or in packs.
The partisans were five and they were a queer melee of timadores. There was an American named Hite who had escaped jail in Chihuahua by bribing his way out with stolen gold; Rube a black man who rarely tendered a word good or otherwise; and the two Mexican brothers called Lugo. These men Creed had acquisitioned in El Paso and they were known bounty hunters who killed mindlessly with neither creed, colour nor gender to thwart them. They rode for an hour or so and the boy hung back from the column still shaken from the ordeal and the Lugo brothers were asleep in their saddles muttering incoherently while the other men smoked and spat.
Creed took to wheeling his horse to the rear and came up abreast the boy’s horse to tender something near amenity, albeit unnatural to him. Yer a brave kid, he said. No mistakin. The boy looked at him nettled then cast his eyes elsewhere. I seen that there predilection in Simp fer sometime. But aint never seen him give to actin on it. He spat. Guess it were just a matter a time. Don’t make it right. This here posse are nothin short of a assemblage a wilddog reprobates. Shoot ye soon as look at ye. He fished in his pocket for a cigarillo then gripped it between his teeth. And what that make me ye might give question? Well. He struck a match on his boot and corralled the flame to the cigar. Guess that would have te make me their equal. Caint deny it. Gotta be some mean son of a bitch te curb this here crew. The boy listened. There was a long silence. Yer kinda quiet aintcha boy? Nothin there criminal in that. Reckon yer smart too. I can see them there cogs clickin away behind them eyes a yers. Defended yerself with agency back there. Somethin righteous prosperin gainst such a miscreant.
The boy stared off ahead and they watched the cobalt lightning tendril across the sky from about ten miles away. Ye got a name boy?
El no tiene, said Tavo. Hasn’t spoke a word since we pick him up. Lo llamamos mudo.
Mute ay? I’m guessin that aint no natural disposition fer ye. Probly got good reason fer it. The boy stared on at the sky with its great kerfs of light splitting the angry void and sighting meteoric shapes of distant mountains sketched sable against the vault. Then blackness. You’ve somethin halfbreed bout ye son. Measure a Cherokee I’ll wager. Which a yer folk is the mongrel? The boy ignored him. How’s a kid like you fall foul a this pair a pelados? You a runaway?
Hey, que te jodan! said Campa in a drunken torpor.
Well. Queerest bunch a rejects I seen this side a Mexico that’s fer sure. Creed spat. Bout as regular as seein a flathead catfish in a juniper tree. The men crowed in their saddles and even Rube declared a gnarly smirk. Yep. Aint nothin queer as folk. Say, that cause me some recollectin a yer kin Lugos.
Thems asleep, said Hite.
Caint see as they’d holler if I recollect the tale to the boy. Creed turned in his saddle slightly to face the boy. Now, this here happenstance occur fore you was born and the desperado plumb centre a the story suffer some coalblack reckoning fer his deeds. This Mexican by name a Murieta speculated himself wild te venture in line a prospectin and jus like all them crazy mining folk he sets off te Californy from Mexico with heedless action. His mind was dead set on stakin a claim in them goldfields but when he find himself in that there country there be a foreign miners tax jus bin passed. Now this here tax requisition foreign folk te pay three dollar a month fer the privilege a cripplin their backs in labourin them mines and Murieta aint no law abidin citizen so he makes it his business te turn a deaf ear. This don’t sit right with certain white neighbours a his and since thems none too cordial with the likes a Mexicans they contrive some writ claimin it was illegal fer Mexicans te stake any claim in them parts. Well, that Murieta give it no credence an he jus keep on diggin and them white folk took te fallin in with guns and warnin him off te head south if he don’t fall in with the law. And that here writ sets off some vicious fire in that belly a his so he claims action and rustles up a set a mean Mexican miners who’ve find themselves dispossessed and they take to raidin them goldfields killin white miners and plunderin their gold.
From about a mile ahead they could see fires burning and spalls of flickered light in formation and as the periodic lightning harried the citadel was proselytised in the darkness. Creed went on. Among this band a desperados was his proxy Threefingered Jack and he was some treacherous son of a bitch who’d sooner trade his own mother fer a hunk a gold and Murieta led his retinue on some seditious swell a crime that snatch them above hundred thousand dollar in gold, near hundredhead horses and nineteen dead men in all their maraudin. Now these here Lugo brothers had them cousins a theirs join Murieta and his gang and all their lootin and pilferin and eludin pursuit of them lawdogs fer more than two years, but they find themselves in some filthy scrapes and even lynched some three officers in their agency. Yep. They sure knew how te filibuster them lawmen. But their time came when the governor tendered them Californy Rangers into the mix. It were a messy business when them rangers track em down near Panoche Pass San Benito and they got them some frenzied gunfight on their hands which duly slay Murieta an Threefingered Jack. Some a them lawmen account fer some twisted theory a cleavin off Murieta’s head and Jack’s hand and picklin them in jars a brandy proovin they butchered them hateful outlaws then settin them exhibits on display back in town like some sideshow attraction an makin some pertty dollar on the side.
Creed flicked the dogend of his cigar out on to the prairie floor with dispatch and it dispersed the red embers abroad on its descent. He looked the boy square in the eye. Where ye think them jars er settin now? Here he gave pause. In some pesky San Francisco saloon is where. Purchased by the owner fer behind that there bar te draw in them pilgrims. And them Lugo cousins were found strung up by their heels from a thirtyfoot bristlecone with them throats cut an their eyes gouged outta their skulls.
IT WAS MIDNIGHT and it had just started to rain as they came upon that vast adobe cantonment and the campfires and torches burnished the loam walls in all their form and a sentry stood aloft in the mud turret clinching his carbine to his chest. As they entered the gates a deputation of riders jostled past close to twentyhead summoned to some chartless territory with all their trappings and armament inveterate. The bivouac within was broad in its construction and a cartel of sutlers barrelled their merchandise with wagon sheets to shelter peltries, serapes and poblanos among other wares. The civilians were miscellaneous and the presidio accommodated four companies both cavalry and infantry and it was said the quartermaster depot was outfitted to supply all other garrisons in New Mexico.
As they rode singlefile through the main plaza the rain was falling harder and a few men were hauling scantling and laying them for walkboards across the yard while a pair of bony curs viciously contested the lumber as if it were something inimical. They saw a small eatinghouse near a well sheltered livery and they dismounted and tethered their horses there for the night and Hite employed the farrier to see to his horse since it had thrown a shoe a couple miles back. The boy was dead on his legs and they all made for the eatinghouse haggard and spent and the streets were silent and empty save for the wagons and rain.
The premises within was strewn with debris from its patrons and their revelry of the day and a thin old man was sweeping the floor at the farthest corner of the bar and he looked up and propped the floorbrush against it when they entered and gestured they seat themselves with welcome. He beckoned to a large woman standing gaping at him dolorouswise from the kitchen and he held up eight fingers to signal the order.
Some minutes later she brought out a large salver of sofky and tortillas sufficient for twelvehead and the old man placed a pitcher of mescal on the table and left them to it. After they had eaten the old man left a sizeable spittoon abreast their table and the partisans gave him a few pieces to settle the account. They sojourned that place wordless and somnolent and at length they returned to the livery frayed by the rain where they would camp for the night in the swath. Some of the retinue divest themselves of their britches and the boy swaddled the serapes given him by the proprietor and set himself under a chipwagon on his pallet where he lay awake for hours turning over in his head devices that beleaguer and he listened to the snuffling of the men and horses and the volley of rain cracking on the tin roof as it punctured the trussing aloft.