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The Secret Arroyo

by D. J. Herda

One

Wade Hawkins cradled the reigns of his chestnut gelding in one hand as he approached the abandoned shack on foot.  Slowly, cautiously, he inched forward, as if on the trail of a wounded animal that might turn and spring on him at any moment.

This was the shack he’d been hunting for.  The trail he’d followed for the past two days had been dry and windblown, but it led him here.  To the cabin.  To the very hooves of the horse grazing on the brown stubble some 10 feet from the building.  Not even the fading day of light or the cool arroyo breeze could disguise the flickering glow squirming from beneath the door or mask the unmistakably pungent scent of kerosene on the air.  The man he wanted was inside, no doubt about it.

Hawk tied off the gelding and slipped across the decaying wooden porch, a single soft squeak giving up the only notice of his presence.  He clasped the wooden latch, paused a second, and flung the door open suddenly.  An old man, bathed in lamplight, looked up at him.  The man was wearing washboard-gray long johns and squatting on a high-backed wooden chair, digging beneath a thick, curled toenail with a knife.

Hawk’s eyes instinctively swept the room, a habit they had acquired during years spent scouting for the U.S. Army, where overlooking a single strand of hair could mark the difference between life and death.

He spied a .32-caliber carbine lying on the hearth across from the old man.  His eyes detected a sliver of movement off to one side, his ears picking up the nearly imperceptible change in the man’s breathing.  Hawk’s skin sensed a small rise in the man’s body heat as the old man, too, looked across the room toward the gun.

Suddenly Hawk leaped across the threshold, flinging himself toward the man, who had already dropped to his knees, a skittering scorpion racing for the weapon.  But Hawk arrived first, the unyielding heel of his boot coming down hard on the gun’s muzzle, pinning it against the floor as the man’s hands tugged furtively at the stock.

Hawk slipped an Army-issue Colt .45 with glimmering custom grips out of a battle-scarred sheathe and touched the tip of the muzzle to the old man’s ear. 

“Where is she?” he asked.

The man released the gunstock and settled back on his haunches like a prairie dog.  “Well, now,” he said, an awkward grin creasing his thick, stubbled jaw.  “You’re a quick one, ain’t ya?”  He cautiously pushed the pistol barrel to one side, and Hawk just as cautiously brought it back again.  “Don’t reckon I seen you around this neck o’ the woods before.  Just passin’ through?”

Hawk grabbed the few strands of oily gray hair still clinging to the man’s head and yanked back on them.

Oww!  Goddam it, that hurts,” the old man cried.  “Let up, will you?”

Hawk eased the tension slightly, and the man’s eyes slipped back into their sockets.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway, bustin’ in on an old man and yankin’ his hair like that?”

“I asked you a question.  I didn’t hear an answer.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

“I’m talking about the Choctaw Indian woman you dragged out of a cabin just south of Taos two days ago.”

The old man broke into a toothy grin, the gaping holes in his mouth leering up like the eyes of a cobra.  “An Injun?  You’re looking for an Injun woman?  Well, why the hell didn’t you say so?  I kin git you all the Injun women you want.  No need for rough stuff.  Just say the word.”

“The word is Tantien.  And I want her, not anyone else.  Understand?”

“I don’t know no Tawn-tee-en,” he drawled.  “All I know is breeds.  Full breeds, half-breeds.  Nice and full-breasted, you know?  With big, firm asses.  The kind a man kin’ sink his hands into, he gits a notion.  So, you just ease on back with that shootin’ iron o’ yours, cowboy, and I’ll find you someone you kin have a real nice time with.”

Hawk pulled the hammer back until it clicked into place just a hair’s breath from exploding, just a split second from sending a hardened steel shell whistling through the man’s skull.  The old man swallowed.  Sweat ran down his brow.

“Maybe this gun in your ear is blocking your hearing,” Hawk told the drifter.  “I said I want Tantien.”

“Look, mister.  I don’t know nothin’ about no Injun named nothin’.  I swear to God I don’t.  Half them goddam savages ain’t got no names at all.  The other half ain’t even pernounceable.”

The scout broke into a slow, evil grin.  He leaned forward until he could hear the old man’s heart.  The old man let out a tremble.  “If you have any brains left in that hat rack you call a head,” he said in a low, deliberate voice, “kiss them goodbye, because they’re going to be squirting out the back of your skull in five seconds flat.”

“Wait!  Don’t shoot.  I’ll tell you.  I’ll tell you everything I know.  A couple o’ old sodbusters south of town and me, we wuz hired to round up a bunch o’ breed women and deliver ‘em to some mangy old coot name of Skeeter.  We hauled ‘em out to this run-down mining shack on the edge of Red River, down where the crick dumps in, you know?  We handed over ‘bout a dozen of ‘em, I reckon.  Then this Skeeter fellow paid us two dollars a head for ‘em.  Gold.  Maybe a might more for the good ‘uns, a might less for the bad.  That’s all I know.  I swear to God.  That’s all I know.”

“And Tantien?  The Choctaw woman?”

“She mighta been among ‘em,” he shrugged.  “I just don’t know.  All I know is I didn’t take no one from no cabin south of Taos.  One of the others, maybe.”

“Were any of the women hurt?”

“Hell, no.  What do you think we are, savages?  They was all fit as a fiddle when we turned ‘em in.”

“Why would anyone rustle a bunch of Indian women?  What does he want with them?”

The old man shrugged.  Hawk tightened his grip.  “Oww!  Hey, that hurts.  Only thing I kin figure is a breed starts looking awful good to a man ain’t had a real woman in six or eight months.”

“A dozen at a time?”

“Some guys is horny old bastards.”

Hawk motioned to the floor with the barrel of his gun.  “Down on your hands and knees.”

“What?”

Kneel on ‘em!” he barked.

The old man promptly slid his hands beneath his knees and grimaced.   Hawk unlocked the hammer and slipped the pistol back into its holster.  He picked up the rifle, jacking a handful of shells from the chamber onto the floor.

“Some day, your head’s going to run into one of these.”

He picked up the cartridges and slipped them into his vest pocket before grabbing a box of .32-caliber shells from the mantle.

“This Skeeter—he lives in an old mining shack down by the river?”

The old man nodded.  “Far as I know, that’s where you’ll find him.  About three miles south of here.  You can’t miss it.”

Hawk grabbed the latch of the door and paused in the threshold.  “I don’t want you to move, I don’t want you to even think about moving for half an hour, you understand?  I don’t want you riding out to tip him off that I’m coming.”

The old man shook his head.  “I swear to God I won’t, mister,” he said.  “You can count on me.”

I’ll bet, Hawk thought.  He scanned the room one last time.

“Hey, mister,” the old man said, leering up at him.  “I can’t promise you no breed in particular, but the offer still stands.”

“What offer?”

“Just say the word and I’ll get you a woman.  When a man’s by hisself for months at a time, any goddam breed feels mighty good between the legs.”  He chuckled out loud.

“Keep her for yourself.  I’m only interested in one.”

The old man scratched his neck and squinted.  “What the hell’s so all-fired special about one?”

Hawk stared hard at the old man.  “Remember,” he said.  “Thirty minutes.”

He closed the door and paused.  The image of Tantien in that old man’s hands made his stomach crawl.  But he knew killing the bastard wouldn’t get him anywhere.  A man blinded by fury sees nothing, and Hawk knew he’d need every advantage available to him if he hoped to see Tantien alive again.  He had to keep his wits about him if he was to find the man who was holding her prisoner.

He unhitched his horse, turned its head toward the scrub, and slapped it on the rump.  The animal broke into a run, its hammer-like hooves pounding the desert ground, as it quickly disappeared among the brush.  Hawk slipped silently back around the corner of the cabin and vanished into the early evening shade of a rotting woodpile.

The old man had lied about the mining shack down by the river.  Hawk knew that.  There wasn’t a building within 15 miles of where he’d said it was.  Unless he missed his guess, the sodbuster would lead him right to where he wanted to go.

Within minutes, Hawk heard the cabin door open.  He watched the old man emerge from the lantern’s glow.  First his head appeared—a scrawny sand hill crane, searching for crawdads in the mud—and then his torso.  Finally, he stepped out into the dusk and looked around.  He whistled for his horse, still grazing beside the shack.

“Come here, you mangy, flea-bitten son-of-a-bitch.”

The man had slipped into a pair of ragged jeans and strapped a holster to his hip.  The horse ambled up slowly, and he grabbed hold of the reigns dangling from its neck as he stepped around to mount him.  From the corner of his eyes he caught a glint of light dancing off the braid on Hawk’s hat.  The man’s eyes narrowed, his breath coming in short uneven spurts.  He pretended to fiddle with the horse’s cinch before pulling his pistol and leaping back.

Blam! the old man’s gun cried, sending splinters flying over Hawk’s head as the young scout drew his own gun and leaped out from the darkness.

Belaw!  Belaw!  Belaw!

The retorts from Hawk’s .45 echoed across the barren landscape as the old man spun around and fell against the horse before slumping slowly to the ground.  The horse whinnied and bolted before galloping away,  leaving its master sprawled out in a thick pool of blood.

Hawk slipped his pistol back into its holster and walked up to the man.  “Some guys are just born stupid,” he said softly.  He rolled the man’s head to one side with the toe of his boot and bent down to pull the gun from his hand.  He flung it into the brush beside the cabin before setting off on foot after his own horse.  It would be harder, now that the old tramp was dead, to find his woman.  He realized that.  But he was determined that nothing—nothing in the world—would stop him.
 

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