Published on Friday, September 24, 2010
By Kenneth Mark Hoover
An early morning sun streamed through the window like bright knives. I washed my face, loaded my gun, and stumbled downstairs in search of breakfast. After wolfing a skillet of peppers and greasy side meat I stepped outside the hotel and found a chair beneath the quiet shade.
The eastern sky was burnt orange, contrasting with the frozen drifts of white gypsum sand down Front Street, and the blue sky overhead. Shadows pooled under the mesquite trees like India ink. Gray mourning doves flew back and forth across the acquecia that brought water to the open fields where men worked.
I had a clear view of the plaza with its saloons and dance halls. Doc Toland edged along the wooden sidewalk from his office. He had a strange way of walking, with one arm crooked before his body like the prow of a ship.
"Morning, Doc," I said.
Doctor Rex Toland removed a black cigar from his long frock coat. His long fingers were spot-stained with chemicals.
"Is this why we pay taxes?" he grumped. "So the country policeman can sit in the shade whilst cutthroats and murderers roam free?"
"Keeping an eye on things is part of the job, Doc." I kicked an empty chair toward him.
Toland struck a flaring sulfur match and puffed his cigar aflame. He settled beside me and snorted with derision.
"I wish I had your life, John Marwood. Yes, I do. I rode to the Polland ranch last night to deliver twins. Mister Polland only paid me for one baby. Said he didn't know there would be two, and liked to blamed me for it."
"Later today you can roll sugar pills and charge a patient five dollars for them."
Toland worked the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. "Yes, sir. I'll give up doctoring and become a U.S. Marshal. Sit in the shade outside a fancy hotel, drowsy with breakfast. Why, you're so bone-idle you don't have a clue what's going on."
"Not true, Doc. Ten minutes ago two women fought over who would draw water first from the plaza well."
"You didn't break it up?"
I looked at him in all seriousness. "Me, step between two fighting women? I value my skin, Doc."
Toland studied the burning end of his cigar. The corners of his mouth were turned down. "Yes, sir, I am going to wire the War Department today. I will be drawing pay as a U.S. Marshal come the week."
"Don't expect to get paid often, Doc," I said. "Anyway, that's not all I've seen. Over yonder, that little boy, Piebald? He threw a corncob at a cat."
Toland made a deprecating noise.
"The general store received a delivery of beans and onions from Las Cruces." I paused. "And those two gunmen passing a bottle under the awning of the Texas Blue Bonnet are waiting to rob the bank when it opens."
Toland jerked upright as if stung by a wasp. "How's what?"
"Don't look," I said. "I don't want to draw attention. We're two friends chatting amiably and no threat whatsoever to them."
Toland couldn't help but sneak a sideways glance. "How do you know?" he asked under his breath.
"Watched five of them ride into town, loaded with iron, and tie their horses outside the Bonnet. Then they scattered, but no man is standing out of sight of the other. They have the plaza covered."
Toland's face went pale as flour. "Five?"
I nodded. "Two others are standing in front of Slattery's sawmill." The sawmill was catty-corner from the bank and afforded a good firing field. "The fifth man is sitting a bay outside my office. He has a double-barreled shotgun parked on his hip with the barrel pointing at the front door to catch me when I come out. Good thing I decided to sit here today, huh?"
"But," Toland sputtered, "how do you know they are planning a robbery?" He made a half-hearted gesture. "They might be riders looking to spend their wages."
I shook my head. "That man in the yellow duster outside the Texas Blue Bonnet says different. I've seen circulars on him."
The man I was talking about was slabbed with lean rawhide, and possessed a wind-blistered face with unruly eyebrows and a broad, whiskered chin.
He was Clay Dance, a killer from El Paso who went to robbing and killing because he wasn't making enough money rustling Mexican cattle. The circulars said he shot a ribbon clerk in Dallas last year, and took a strongbox off a stage out of Fort Smith the year before that. One of the passengers, a state senator, got mouthy and Dance shot him.
"What are you going to do about it, John?" Toland asked.
"That's a damn fine question, Doc." All five were spread apart. I couldn't go after one without the others ganging on my backside. Plus, my deputy, Jake Strop, was out of town, bringing in a prisoner from Taos. He wouldn't be back for another week.
This was a bad fix, all around. Clay Dance was waiting for Mr. Choate to unlock the doors of his bank, in about fifteen minutes. They were hitting it at the right time, too. The cow season had just begun and Texas herds were dusting toward Haxan. Cattle buyers had brought ten thousand in gold on last night's train. It was being held overnight in the bank.
It was hard not to get fidgety at the grim prospect ahead. Fact was, I couldn't take these men by myself. I needed at least one more man. Someone I could trust with my life.
I needed a killer. A man like myself.
The soft accent, full of Georgia peach and Southern magnolia, drifted from the open doorway of the hotel.
"I'm your huckleberry, Marshal," it said.
I glanced over my shoulder. A thin, skeletal man stood in the entranceway of the Haxan Hotel, smoking a cigarillo. His ash-blond hair fell over his right eyebrow. His young face was pale and anemic with hollow cheeks and a neatly clipped mustache.
His eyes, though, were the color of cold lake water.
He wore a light gray tailored suit and a pastel shirt. Black leather boots with Spanish heels completed the expensive wardrobe. A pair of egg-shaped glasses with purple lenses rode the tip of an aquiline nose.
The glasses were a giveaway. Gamblers used them to read cards they had marked, or marked cards being used against them. Despite his peaked manner, he had the look of someone who had just skinned several hundred dollars off the country bumpkins and well-heeled ranchers in the all-night saloons.
"I know you, mister?" I asked.
He smiled. It was a deliberate smile soaked with honey and mesquite thorns.
"Let's make it John Henry, Marshal. A nom de guerre for the morning festivities that lay ahead." He jerked his chin over his shoulder. "I was passing through the lobby when I heard you talking. Those men out there mean business or I am very much mistaken."
His lifted his arms, elbows resting with casual aplomb on the door jamb. He stood far enough inside the doorway so Dance and his men could not see him.
"I figure you will need a backup man if you aim to take Clay Dance before he hits that bank."
Standing that way, with his black silk coat drawn open, revealed the yellow-ivory butt of a Colt Peacemaker on his hip. A smaller Colt Lightening, .41-caliber with a fancy birdshead butt, bulged from a fancy shoulder rig under his left arm.
"Stay here, Doc, and keep an eye on our friends. I'm going to try and slip around from behind."
"Good luck, John," Toland said.
I got up from my chair. The stranger and I moved into the hotel away from the windows. We stood amid the potted plants, brass spitton and Oriental rug. He was several inches shorter than I was.
"Where are you from, mister?"
He removed the cigarillo from his finely drawn mouth before answering. "Make it Dodge."
"Earp post you out of town?" He had an air of trouble.
John Henry flicked ash toward one of the tall, potted plants. He dug into his vest pocket and handed me a deputy's badge. "In point of fact, I helped Wyatt out of a scrape. He pressed that bit of tin on me as a keepsake. He thought it was a high joke, given my ... past endeavors."
"What are you doing in Haxan?"
"Passing through." He took his glasses off, and folded them in his vest pocket. "I'm waiting for the noon stage to Pueblo so I can catch a big-nosed whore who skipped out with seven hundred dollars of my money. I aim to get it, and the whore, back."
Before I could say anything else he hooked a thumb at the walnut clock behind the reception desk. "We can stand here trading our life stories, or get Clay Dance. It's your town, Marshal. Your life. I have no problem going up to my room and watching those five men gun you down while I sip whiskey."
"Like hearing yourself talk, don't you?" I asked.
His smile widened because he knew I had accepted his offer of help, despite my irritation with him. But any man who carried a deputy's badge from Wyatt Earp was dependable in my book, no matter what the circumstances.
He unleathered his side gun, flipped the cylinder open and checked the loads. "Shall we kill them all?" he asked.
Time was against us, but we needed to gun ourselves up if we wanted to take down Dance and his men.
We followed a narrow alley choked with snake weed until we came to the back of the jailhouse. I unlocked a side door and we slipped inside.
The shutters were closed tight. It was dark and hot and I had to wait for my eyes to adjust from the outside glare. I pointed to the fifth man's shadow which was visible through open chinks in the window. John Henry nodded that he saw it, too.
As quietly as possible I lifted a Winchester off the rack and a box of shells. I even took an old office gun, a Navy Colt chambered for cartridges instead of cap and ball. As I was headed out one of the floorboards creaked and I froze. The shadow outside the shuttered window didn't move. John Henry grabbed a ten-gauge Stevens coachgun and filled his coat pocket with loose shells.
We ducked outside and stood knee deep in weeds. The sun beat down on us with iron tongs and we had to squint as we saw to our guns.
"What's the plan?" John Henry asked. He loaded the double-barreled Stevens and snapped the breech shut.
"Despite what you said, I don't wish to kill them all," I answered low. "There are too many people in the plaza for that kind of reckless play."
"If they have any sense they will run once the first cap is busted," he argued.
"That's too much risk. A gang is like a snake. You got to get the head. Remember that."
A breeze ruffled John Henry's blond hair across his white brow. "I understand you, Marshal. We kill the head ... if it comes to it."
"Don't do anything on your own," I warned. "You follow my lead."
"Of course, Marshal. This is your game and you're dealing me in."
I drew a deep breath. "Okay, let's go."
We worked our way back around the hotel and onto Markin Street. I pulled my watch. We had wasted too much time. It was five minutes past nine. Dance and his men were already inside the bank.
We turned south on Avenida de Haxan, staying close to the false-fronted buildings.
I motioned for John Henry to stop behind me. I knelt and edged an eye around the corner. The fifth man continued to sit his bay outside my office. I lifted the rifle and put the iron sights on him. John Henry placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, as if he approved of the tactical decision I had made.
I didn't have much choice. When we took Dance and his men inside the bank, this man would remain at our back door.
I had no intention of getting back-shot. Least of all by someone waiting outside my office like a wolf spider to ambush me.
John Henry stepped aside and took up position behind a wooden sidewalk post, facing the bank. His skeletal fingers wrapped the ivory butt of his .45. He stood relaxed, his back straight, and his senses coiled for action.
The fifth man's bay was getting fiddle footed. I wondered if he might get bored and head back down Front Street since I hadn't made an appearance in the jail house.
I didn't bother watching the bank entrance. John Henry had that covered, and I couldn't watch something in front and behind me at the same time, anyway.
Several people saw me crouched on the street corner with guns ready. Without giving away our position they ducked inside a building or moved hurriedly down the street, clearing the field of fire.
I couldn't blame them. They didn't know what was about to happen, but they were betting it wasn't good.
I felt the same way myself.
I wondered how long it would take Dance to get ten thousand in gold from the vault when John Henry whispered, "Here they come."
I fired the Winchester. The fifth man wheeled off the saddle with his shotgun. His bay reared and bolted as he hit the ground, breaking his neck.
I spun like I had wheels on my heels and jacked another shell into the breech. I put the sights on four men emerging from the darkened doorway of the bank. Two faced me, the other two were backing out, guns drawn and facing the interior of the bank.
Dance was in the lead, headed for the horses. He had saddle bags draped over his shoulder stuffed with, presumably, gold dust. His knees were buckled under the weight. He jerked at the sound of my rifle shot and froze, his pistol pointed halfway at the ground.
"Twitch one hair on your ass," I said, "and my partner cuts you in half with his greener."
"You want we should throw our guns down?" one of Dance's men asked in a belligerent, sneering, way. He looked a young kid off the farm, eager as hell to prove himself. Tall and willowy, he had fuzz on his upper lip and chin.
I shook my head. "No, don't drop your guns." Despite what you read in the yellowbacks by Ned Buntline, a thrown gun has a tendency to go off. "Lay them on the ground at your feet. Do it one at a time, slow, so we can watch you."
"I ain't a'feared, but I don't want to die, either, Marshal," Dance said. The whiskers on his broad chin caught the morning light.
"Neither do I, Clay. We do this right and belike both of us will live to see the sun set."
He thought it over. "I reckon that is worth living for." He turned his head a fraction and addressed the men standing behind him. "Do as the Marshal says." His knees started to break as he prepared to lay his gun down and comply.
At that time a teller, a rivulet of blood running alongside his face, rushed out of the dark entranceway of the bank, waving an ancient Confederate cavalry pistol that probably belonged to his grandfather.
"Kill them, Marshal," he cried, "they held up the bank!"
"We're boxed in," one of Dance's men cried, and he shot the teller point blank in the mouth. Then all of Dance's men started firing in every which direction. You couldn't near think or see for the noise and smoke they made along the narrow street.
Dance was stuck out in front. He fanned three shots in my direction. I rolled aside while hot slugs chewed wood chips beside my face, half blinding me.
John Henry's greener roared. A man across the street was flung against the hitching rail, most of his chest and stomach shredded. The rest of the buckshot pattern took out a bank window and a street lamp, showering Dance with broken glass.
The young kid snapped two shots from over the top of his saddle. He was too scared, or too inexperienced, to aim straight. The lead whanged off a metal sign above my head.
I kept rolling, trying to beat the lead of Dance's gun. I most felt like a dove winging across an empty corn field as he popped shots my way, but that was six and he was empty.
I rolled off the sidewalk and landed in the street. The Winchester got hung up crossways between my arm and leg. I tossed it aside. I had blood in my eyes, and it gave everything a red film. I sat up, pulled my yellow-bone handle Colt Dragoon and sent a ball through the cantle of the saddle the boy was hiding behind. His head snapped back, eyes flung open in stark surprise. He crumpled, arms and legs beneath his body like he was hugging himself to sleep.
John Henry hadn't remained motionless while this gunfight was going on. After emptying the shotgun he pulled his .45, eared the hammer back and sent a round after Dance. The bullet pinked the man's right leg. Dance stumbled offside and turned to run down an empty street. Another slug chewed the saddle bags across Dance's shoulder.
John Henry stepped off the sidedwalk into the street, and would have shot Dance in the back, but the last man, a narrow-shouldered six-foot bit of gristle with a full-beard, started sending rounds our way. He used the bank door for cover as he fired. Now it was our turn to scramble because this man was a professional. He didn't waste shots like the kid I had killed. He waited until he had you cold before he dropped the hammer.
I felt a slug pull my collar. Another tore the heel off my boot with so much force it near broke my ankle. I thought to myself, This is what it is like when you're about to die. John Henry swivelled in a dueling profile and emptied his .45 toward the man who was too busy trying to kill me to notice he was getting killed in turn.
John Henry was empty. He holstered the .45 and yanked the Colt Lightening from its shoulder holster. He followed Dance into an alleyway. I bolted to my feet, blotting blood from my eyes on my shirt sleeve.
"Dance!" John Henry called.
Clay Dance came up against a waist-high adobe wall. He was about to vault over it when he whirled at John Henry's challenge. Dance threw his gun up but John Henry fired into his chest with the double action revolver. He pumped all six into Dance, shattering bone and tearing the man apart, piece by piece.
When it was over John Henry stood astride the dead man. Acrid gun smoke drifted through the street. The air was thick and hard to breathe. John Henry brought out a white silk handkerchief and hacked into it. He followed me into the open air, coughing violently.
"You okay?" I asked. Maybe he had been hit and I hadn't seen it.
His eyes watched me over the crumpled ball of silk as he continued to cough. His entire body went into spasms. Finally, the fit ended. When he brought the handkerchief away from his mouth it was flecked with blood.
"Got a pair of bad lungs," he said. "All that smoke made 'em twitch. A draft of whiskey will cut the dust."
I was no doctor, but I knew a man didn't cough like that from a dusty throat.
He made a dismissive motion. "We all start dying the day we are born, Marshal."
I watched him fold his handkerchief and put it away in his vest pocket.
"We must always play the hand we are dealt," he said. "You can't cheat life, no matter how hard you try."
After we cleaned up John Henry retrieved his bags from the hotel and waited outside for the stage. I waited with him. I hadn't liked how he put all six into Dance. It wasn't as if he was enjoying it. More like he was trying to reach something inside himself through deaths of others.
He had another cigarillo going. "This town has a lot of promise. Once I find my Kate I may return."
I met his gaze. "We don't need another gunman in Haxan."
He stared off into the distance. "I had another profession once. Dentist up in Dallas."
"I shot the last dentist we had."
John Henry laughed and gave me his hand. "It's your town." The stage pulled up outside the station in a choking cloud of dust.
"Thank you for your help. Don't come back."
He climbed into the stage after his luggage was stowed. He leaned his face out the window. "Marshal, I feel I owe you an explanation."
"I already know." I suppose I hadn't wanted to believe it at first. I mean, that a man like him would come to Haxan. But Haxan is like that. It brings in all sorts of people from the outside. Sometimes, like me, they never leave.
He lifted a long, pallid hand and gave a languid salute. "Goodbye, Marshal Marwood."
"So long, Doc."
The stage took Potato Road out of town. I watched until it was a feather of dust rising into the hard blue sky.
Doc Toland walked up and stood beside me, thumbs hooked through his vest. "Looks like the undertaker will be busy today." When I didn't respond he asked, "Who was that gunman?"
I turned for my office. "A man like the rest of us, Doc. He's just marking time until he finds his own tombstone."
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional writer who has sold over fifty short stories and articles. His novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005. His last sales have been to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies Destination: Future and Zero Gravity. He is a member of SFWA and HWA. Mr. Hoover lives and writes in Dallas.
You can find more about the mythological town of Haxan and its citizens on his webpage kennethmarkhoover.com/haxan.