THE PRICE OF AN OUTLAW

By Lynn Kilmore


Each spring when the snow melted, Will Bearman knew that three kinds of trouble would return to plague the New Mexico Territory: wildfires, floods, and outlaws.

The gold rush mining town of Juniper Springs now suffered from the third kind of trouble.

The town marshal's tiny office stank of tobacco juice, the iron stove leaked piñon smoke and gave off too much heat for a warm afternoon in late May, and Will reckoned from the sour yeasty smell coming from Frank Evanston's breath and stained three-piece suit that Juniper Springs' town marshal whiled away most of his daily hours in the saloons.

Will watched Evanston's yellowed teeth grind down on the chaw of tobacco in his mouth, as if Lee Hatchfield's gang were in there to be chewed to death.

"They're robbing the freight wagons, hauuuuck"– Evanston spat, but hit the side of the brass spittoon, so that the brown liquid oozed down its slick side. Crusted brown splatters coated not only the pine floorboards around the spittoon, but the pine wallboards behind it as well –"and now there's those holdups, hauuuuck" – again missing the spittoon – "of the passenger stages, and that last holdup, hauuuURGHH" – Evanston coughed, long and hard, and nearly swallowed his chew. Once Evanston got his breath back, Will watched, concerned, as the marshal staggered over to the spittoon to spit his chewed up wad of tobacco down into it.

There was a wheezing to Evanston's breaths and a sallowness to his skin that Will didn't like the looks of. He'd seen folks come out here to settle, only to find that the thin air, harsh sunlight, and bone dryness of the land were unforgiving to their bodies. The marshal couldn't be much older than himself, but the dry mountain air combined with hard living was aging him quickly.

Evanston wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Lord Almighty, I think I caught another chill from the night air." He dug out from his vest pocket a stained linen handkerchief, held it to his nose, honked into it, then tucked it away. "Now, where was I? Thassright. That last holdup of a passenger stage, a fortnight ago. Both the stagecoach guard and driver were shot after being disarmed."

"Hatchfield's the one who shot them?"

"Yessirrie, that whoreson did it. Killed the guard. God's own miracle the driver survived the bullet wound." Evanston wandered over to a rickety desk to rummage through the papers and envelopes stuffed in the pigeonholes. "I've got an arrest warrant for you for Lee Hatchfield and his gang." His searching hands paused and he glanced over at Will. "You can read, can't you, boy?"

Boy. He was a grown man of thirty-sixrancher, husband of Annie, father of five children  wearing an itchy three-piece suit because he'd agreed to come to the town marshal's office on official business, and still he got called "boy."

He'd been called much worse.

Will said smoothly, "I can read. I read there's a two hundred dollar reward being offered for the delivery of Lee Hatchfield to the Sheriff of Bernalillo County."

Evanston snorted. "Chicken feed. We passed the hat around here, and we're going to combine our cash with what they come up with in Kelly and Socorro. If I have anything to say about it, the Sheriff of Socorro County'll have a reward of five hundred to offer for Hatchfield's misbegotten head, dead or alive." He went back to rummaging.

"How many men robbed that last stagecoach?"

"Other than Hatchfield, seven. Hah! Found it." Evanston pulled out a folded piece of paper, and then fumbled into a top drawer from which he pulled out a metal badge. "I'll say this for you, Bearman, you got guts. Those are a mean bunch of sons-of-bitches we're after." He eyed the Colts' holsters that Will had slung low and tied down. "Trillo says you're a crack shot... served in the Colored Troops during the War."

"Yes, sir." Even fourteen years later, the words gave him an urge to salute.

"Well," Evanston gnawed at his stained lower lip, "that's mighty fine, because we better be quick and sharp. Hatchfield's gang is going from bad to worse." Evanston pinned the badge, which had DEPUTY TOWN MARSHAL on it, to Will's vest. "You guard this town with your life while I'm gone." Evanston held out the warrant, and it crackled as Will unfolded it to read silently to himself.

All right as rain. This piece of paper would open up doors to him during the search that would otherwise remain tightly shut. Will carefully folded up the warrant and tucked it into an inner pocket of his suit.

"As soon as I return from Socorro," Evanston said, "you'll head out into the Magdalena and San Pedro Mountains to scout around for any sign of that bunch. I want to catch Hatchfield before they skedaddle out of our reach again." He huffed to himself. "You get seventy-five dollars a month. The mayor and councilmen squawked like fussy old hens about your pay, but I've always believed that bad pay only gets you bad shots. I want a good sharpshooter at my back that I can trust."

It would remain unspoken by Evanston, but Will knew at least a few of the men must've also fussed at him because Will wasn't white.

Red-rimmed blue eyes blinked up at Will. "I can see why Trillo likes you so much. I'm glad you decided to come to Juniper Springs, Deputy Bearman." He held out his hand.

They shook hands. Evanston's palm was as rough as his own, but damp. The handshake ended, and Evanston clapped him on the arm. "Lemme show you around this fine mountain town of ours." He wiped the back of his hand across his lips. "You thirsty? Let's duck into Grady's Saloon right across the street before we start."

 

 
*  *  *

 

The sound of booted feet running upon a wooden sidewalk, coming closer, woke Will in the dark. For one breath, disoriented, he tried to figure out why Annie wasn't in the bed beside him, and why he was under a musty wool blanket instead the bedroom quilt she'd sewn.

This wasn't the ranch. This was a room in a boarding house. Juniper Springs.

Swiftly he rolled out of bed and dressed in the dark (that had not changed since the War, he'd learned to carefully lay out everything the same way each night, including his guns, so that he could dress and arm himself without a light), as his mind struggled to keep up. He'd been dreaming of baking day on the ranch; on those days Annie and the girls would bake so much sourdough bread, rolls, biscuits, dried cherry pies, dried apple pies, and raisin tarts that everybody swore they couldn't see the wood of the kitchen tables underneath.

By the time the runner (messenger?) pounded his way up the creaky wooden steps outside the boarding house that led straight from the street to the rooms on the second floor, Will was dressed, armed, and ready.

Lantern-light wormed its way through the cracks between the doorframe and the door as someone approached his room.

A soft rap on his door. "Deputy Bearman?"

Even though Big Jim had done his best to whisper, the man had such a deep voice that it echoed along the boarding house's hallway like a cannon's boom.

"I'm awake," Will said. He opened the door, and as soon as he saw the worry and sorrow on Big Jim's pale face, he knew what had happened, and it felt like someone had just kicked his stomach down a deep well.

He dug his pocket watch out. Nearly five o'clock. Dawn would come soon. Might as well stay awake. There would be much to plan and do this day.

But he'd better let Big Jim tell him the bad news first.

"Come in," Will said, stepped aside, and opened the door as wide as it would go so that Big Jim could squeeze through.

In the wide open scrublands of piñon and juniper that surrounded Juniper Springs, with the San Pedro Mountains looming over him in the background, Big Jim looked as small as anyone else. It was only in town, standing near other folks... or next to the false-front wooden stores... or by the tents that most of the miners still lived in, that he looked like Paul Bunyan brought to life.

Big Jim waited until Will had shut the door to speak. "There's word from Socorro. Marshal Evanston and his men never made it there. The sheriff sent search parties out to find them, and the bodies were found stacked in a gulley. All four shot dead."

Marshal Evanston should've waited to take the reward money to Socorro until after the gang got caught, Will thought. Just too tempting for Hatchfield to take down a town marshal who's been a burr in his side and make a handy profit.

Will reckoned that Hatchfield would ride for Mexico soon. The hunt was going to get too hot for him with the murder of a town marshal on his back.

So if Will wanted to catch Evanston's killer, he'd have to act fast.

*  *  *

 
The five men seated with him at the round oak table in the windowless back room stared nervously at Will. He'd had Big Jim roust the mayor and councilmen out of bed with the bad news about Marshal Evanston, and a message to meet Deputy Bearman at seven o'clock in the morning in a private back room of Grady's Saloon. The high-backed chairs creaked whenever someone shifted even a quarter-of-an-inch, and the scratched table itself had a strong scent of beer and whiskey.

Grady'd lit the kerosene lamps on the tables as well as the sconces along the walls. Since the saloon owner was also one of Juniper Springs' councilmen, Will felt they weren't imposing too heavily upon him by using his saloon to meet in... and it'd given Will the chance to talk to Grady before the others arrived.

The private room's door was not only shut and locked, but Big Jim stood guard outside to keep away anyone tempted to eavesdrop.

Seated here were five men whom Will barely knew – even though Evanston had introduced him to all of them – and they barely knew him. There'd been no time yet to earn their trust. Getting done what needed to be done to capture Hatchfield would be made more difficult by their unfamiliarity with each other.

Also, he'd noticed how Councilman Richards (mine owner) and Councilman Schuhmacher (grocer) hadn't been able to bring themselves to shake his hand when Evanston had introduced him.

Mayor Kelloch stroked his neatly trimmed white beard, then cleared his throat. "Now that we've brought this meeting to order, as the most important matter of business, I think that with the Hatchfield gang so dangerously near this town, we should offer Deputy Bearman the job of town marshal."

"Provisionally," Grady snapped.

The men gaped at Grady, surprised at his outburst... though Will noticed that Richards and Schuhmacher then made nods of agreement.

Kelloch sputtered and his cheeks flushed a little. "Look here, that's–"

"We need proof that he can do the job," Grady added.

Richards and Schuhmacher glanced at each other.

"Set Bearman the task of capturing Hatchfield," Grady continued with. "If he succeeds, he becomes town marshal permanently... if he fails, he's out."

Will watched as Mayor Kelloch looked at each of his councilmen in turn for a sign of approval or disapproval at Grady's proposal: Schuhmacher (Yes), Richards (Yes), Campbell (a shrug).

"Ahem, very well then," Kelloch said. "Deputy Bearman, we offer you the job of town marshal – with pay of a hundred dollars a month – but only with the understanding that you will first prove your abilities to us. You are set the task of capturing Hatchfield."

Closed up like this, the back room was quickly getting too stifling and warm for comfort. He could actually taste stale sweat and kerosene in the air.

Quietly, he said, "I accept."

He sat there, pretending to think things over, then sat up extra straight with faked excitement. "I think I know what to do. Councilman Campbell," he looked at the newspaperman (who was scraggily as a prospector, but his spectacles and ink-stained sleeves gave away his actual profession), "I need a wanted poster printed that will be sent out from here to every town and posted along every major road within thirty miles. If I can borrow a pencil, I'll write down what it must say."

Campbell dug out a pencil and a scrap of paper, and Will carefully wrote everything down. When he was done, he pushed the pencil and paper back across the table, and watched as Campbell's eyes widened at the message written there.

"What?" Kelloch said. "What'd he write?"

Campbell made a noise that was half-gulp, half-guffaw.

"Read it to us," Grady said.

"$30 REWARD," Campbell read aloud in an amused voice. "Paid for the capture, dead or alive, of Lee Hatchfield. WANTED for murder and robbery. The above reward will be paid for his capture or positive proof of his death by Will Bearman, Town Marshal. Juniper Springs, New Mexico Territory."

The five men drew away from Will as if Death now stood behind his chair, leering with its skeleton face at them.

"You're calling him out!" Kelloch said. "You're insulting him in front of everyone in a manner that will be impossible for him to ignore, because you're a dar–" Kelloch didn't finish the sentence, but the word "darky" was there all the same.

"Yes, sir."

"Dear Lord." Kelloch wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. "Dear Lord. You play a very dangerous game, Marshal Bearman."

Steadily Will looked from man to man. He'd get his way on this, he could see it in their eyes.

"If you truly wish to do this..." Kelloch added weakly.

"Yes, sir."

"Then have the posters made," Kelloch said to Campbell, "and God have mercy on your soul, Marshal."

Will reckoned he'd led these men as far as they'd go in one morning. The rest of the plan could wait, a little, before being put in place. And he could see from the way that Grady kept giving him angry looks from beneath his bushy eyebrows that he'd figured out he'd been maneuvered as neatly as a stubborn steer into the corral Will wanted him to go into. They'd worked out together the words Grady would say to keep Schuhmacher and Richards from adamantly refusing to approve Bearman's appointment as town marshal... but Grady hadn't known about Will's plan to call Hatchfield out.

So Will was grateful that Grady waited until the other men had left the saloon, before slamming the back room door again to privately rip into him. "What the hell are you up to, Bearman? You've got a wife who's going to be a widow and kids that are going to be orphans because of your damn fool ways!"

Will kept to his seat and kept his calm by running his fingertips along the knots in the table's wood as Grady vented his spleen. Once Grady'd run dry on his flood of angry words, Will said, "My wife has her two younger brothers on the ranch with her to help, as well as our three boys. Thomas is thirteen now." We're land rich, cash poor, he thought, but would never say aloud to these men... and he knew Annie would be furious when she found out how he'd risked his life like this.

But he also knew, that even if there hadn't been any cash involved, he would've still saddled up to ride for Juniper Springs after Trillo told him about Marshal Evanston's difficulties with Hatchfield's gang.

"Hatchfield's gotten a taste for killing," Will said, "and he's going to keep on killing until he's stopped."

"He'll kill you next, Bearman."

"Not if I can help it."

 

*  *  *

 

Within a week's time of the meeting with Mayor Kelloch and the councilmen, Will knew every inch, every corner of Juniper Springs. He knew exactly how many cottonwood trees were in the grove that surrounded the spring (nine) from which the sweet water bubbled up that made life in this mountain town possible. He knew the layout of all the tents and shacks, all the outhouses and filthy ditches, all the stables and barns, all the dance halls and saloons, all the billiard rooms and dry goods stores, on and on and on and on.

He climbed all the stairs, tromped through the manure-and-dirt streets, and found every back door and window that could provide a quick escape or a place from which to do an ambush.

He'd watched Grady set up, in the empty lot next to his saloon, a huge canvas tent with faro, dice, roulette, and other games of chance for the miners to play while enjoying the coolness of the mountain breezes as summer neared.

Will'd deputized Big Jim (upon the man's own insistence), but he knew he could expect very little help otherwise. The townsfolk mostly treated him as if he had an invisible bubble of plague surrounding him. They were afraid to get too close to him, in case Death noticed them, too.

Some were afraid to even be seen in the street with him, and would scamper away at the mere sight of him in the distance.

They all knew, that as sure as the sun rose, Hatchfield would be gunning for him as soon as word reached the killer about the $30 REWARD posters.

However, Will could say that they'd seen to it that he'd been offered every weapon known to man. If he went down, it wouldn't be for lack of revolvers, rifles, shotguns, or bullets. He'd also been able to privately get solemn promises from various men that they'd ride for Kelly and Socorro for help as soon as Hatchfield showed his face in Juniper Springs.

Will'd also made arrangements for others to keep their eyes and ears open on the roads. He would not be caught by surprise when Hatchfield made his move to come to town.

If he went down, it wouldn't be because he'd failed to prepare for the skirmish ahead.

It would only be because bad luck had finally caught up with him.

 

*  *  *

 

On a warm summer morning in mid-June, as Will walked along the wooden sidewalk from the boarding house to his office (brushing away the thick swarms of flies from the street), Will heard the far away beats of a horse headed at full gallop for Juniper Springs, and knew the day of reckoning was at hand.

Lord willing, he'd still be alive at sunset.

He felt the old familiar calmness settle down upon him like a warm quilt; the calmness that came when the waiting was over and the fighting had begun.

There was no more use in worrying.

The colors got brighter, the shapes crisper in outline. He could hear the panicked cries of the rider in the far distance, and make out the words that Hatchfield and his gang were coming. Could smell, mixed in with the manure and other street stinks, the piñon shrubs beyond. Could feel within his ribcage his steady heartbeats and the air going in and out of his lungs.

He knew that Big Jim must've heard the ruckus, and would be on the run for the marshal's office.

He knew other riders would be on the road for help as soon as they knew which direction Hatchfield was coming from.

The pieces were all in place.

 

*  *  *

 

By Will's pocket watch, it took twenty-one minutes until he could hear (and feel) the hooves of the Hatchfield gang's horses as they approached town. The roiling cloud of dust to the west of Juniper Springs let him know that they were riding out of the San Pedro Mountains.

Will stood in the middle of the street between the marshal's office and Grady's Saloon to wait for them. The town's main street ran east to west, and would be the way that Hatchfield would need to ride into town to reach him.

"Eight horses," Big Jim hollered down from the roof of Grady's Saloon. "Eight men."

The town was silent. Everyone who wanted no part of the fight had gone to ground.

Will had watched as Grady, cussing up a storm, had driven out those in the gambling tent as soon as the rider had called out the news that Hatchfield was coming. Now, the tent was empty, for Grady had dragged away even the roulette wheel and dicing table. The canvas roof and three sides of the tent (the tent side facing the street had been rolled up to make it easier for Grady to drag the last stragglers out) flapped when gusts of dry, hot wind shook them.

Hatchfield's horses and men came into sight at the far edge of town, and Will gave the signal for Big Jim to lay down on the roof with his rifle.

Will's Colts were at his sides, a rifle slung across his shoulder, and a double-barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot in his hands... but if he could find a way to take Hatchfield and his men into custody without firing a shot, he would.

So as the gang got closer – but before they rode within shooting distance – Will brought up his shotgun and took aim, but did not squeeze the trigger.

At the sight of him ready to shoot, the men yanked their horses to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street, and there was the chaos of churned up dust and whinnies and curses and shouts.

Will patiently waited, as one by one, the men dismounted and brought out their revolvers.

Hatchfield was easy to pick out from his men by how he'd been described by witnesses. Six foot, sandy hair, crooked nose, deerskin jacket... crumpled poster in his fist... enraged expression. Once the killer was certain all his men were ready, he faced Will straight on and took a step towards him. "YOU!" He held up the $30 REWARD poster. "You must be that goddamn nigger called Bearman."

"Surrender now, and no one gets hurt," Will said, loud and slow. "Put down your weapons."

Hatchfield flung the poster aside and it tumbled away in a gust of dirt and sand.

Will stepped backward towards the gambling tent, keeping his aim and eye on the gang as he did so.

Hatchfield grinned. "You afraid of me? You afraid of me, darky?"

It was a sort of dance. Hatchfield would step forward, chuckling, and at the same moment Will would step backward to keep the distance between them so that the gang wouldn't be close enough to easily shoot him.

Stepback, stepback, stepbackstepback, stepbackstepbackstepbackstepbackstepback.

By the time Will had reached the far end of the inside of gambling tent, with nowhere else to go, the gang was laughing and making jokes about how this darky could dance backwards.

"After I kill you," Hatchfield called out to him as he stepped into the tent, his men following, "I'm going to play dice with your balls."

Rippppppppppppp. Grady's knife point tore through the canvas, making a gap for Will to step backward through, Hatchfield and his men shouting as they charged forward to go after him... as at the same time, the tent poles collapsed, bringing the heavy canvas down on the men inside.

Will watched as the canvas billowed up and down, the gang shouting and cursing as they tried to find their way out, easy to pick off like tin cans lined up across a fence.

The first shot with his revolver, Will deliberately missed, merely determined to stop the man closest to an edge of the tent from finding the means of escape.

The eight struggling men froze underneath the canvas.

Silently Will shifted several steps away from where he'd made the shot.

Someone shot through the canvas at where Will'd just been standing, and then cursed and sneezed on the gunpowder fumes held in by the canvas.

The next warning shot came from Big Jim's rifle, and Will knew they'd heard how it came from a different direction... a higher direction.

Then another warning shot, from Grady's shotgun, this time from the direction of the street.

He could see the will to fight slipping out of them as they realized they were surrounded... except for that tallest man-shape. Hatchfield.

This time Will took aim with his revolver, and Hatchfield's scream told him that his aim at the man's thigh had been true.

"On your knees," Will called out, "with your hands on your heads, or I pick you all off."

"NO!" Hatchfield roared.

This time, Will shot him in the other thigh, and this time, Hatchfield kneeled down.

One by one by one, Will watched the seven other canvas-covered men kneel.

 

*  *  *

 

Will did not turn around to look at Grady behind him, but continued to watch the two barred tumbleweed wagons with the Hatchfield gang inside, flanked by its armed guard of twenty men, as it disappeared from sight on the winding road from Juniper Springs to Socorro.

It would be a hot, dusty, thirsty ride for both guards and gang in the June heat.

"You should've just shot them all dead from ambush when they rode into town, Marshal," Grady muttered. "Would've been less risky than capture. They all deserve to die."

"That's for the court to decide," Will said.

"Hatchfield will hang," Grady said. "They'll all hang. Hang 'em high."

Though he could no longer see them, Will could hear the creak of the wagon wheels, the hooves of the horses, the murmurs of the guards... and if he closed his eyes, he knew he'd be able to hear the noises from the battlefields at night, when the wounded trapped between the armies begged for a drink of water or cried out for their mothers as they lay dying.

He already had enough blood on his hands. There was no need to seek out more to shed. He could only pray to God that he'd kill when it was necessary, and not when it was simply convenient.


END

 

This story is dedicated to Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and Town Marshal Willie Kennard, two exemplary lawmen of the Old West.


Lynn Kilmore is the author of the short story collection, TALES FROM THE THRESHOLD, as well as the novels CUBICLES, BLOOD, AND MAGIC and SOUL CAGES. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Albuquerque The Magazine. She has lived in New Mexico, the setting of this story, for over ten years, and during the winter nights she can hear the coyotes yipping in her city's arroyos.


Copyright © 2014 Lynn Kilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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