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