An annoying drip from the ceiling onto the tarp stretched over their bed awoke him. The roof leaked. A silver flash in the bedroom window, then somewhere off toward Mount Lemon, thunder grumbled in the distance. Soon a trickle ran off the shield and began to plunk-plunk into the tinned pots. The drum of the storm grew heavier outside, until finally the roar swept down the Santa Cruz River Valley.
Burt Green threw his legs off the bed, and his bare soles touched the cool tile floor. The outline of her shapely form, asleep on her side, was barely visible in the bedroom's darkness, then lightning illuminated the white sheet over her. Sleep, my love.
Quietly, he walked barefooted on the tile through the house's main portion and out the front door. As rain drilled the palm-frond porch roof, he hurried to the edge to empty his bladder. Though he preferred not to get wet, the cold drips from above felt like ice on his bare skin.
This cloudburst might postpone his leaving for the Mexican border as he had planned for in the morning. More illuminated strikes flashed back on the mountains to the east, then to the north; thunder rumbled across the desert valley like loose cannon balls in a wagon. Finally, a spidery display of white fireworks showered down on Tucson in the south.
"You'll catch a death of cold standing out here without your clothes on, Burton," she said from the doorway in a sleep-husky voice.
He turned to look toward her and nodded. "Rains so damned seldom in this country, I wanted to savor a little of it."
She finished wrapping the gown around her willowy figure and tied the belt. He hugged her and drew a deep breath of the creosote-flavored air, mixed with the smell of wet dirt and her own flowery aroma. Gently, he rocked her, blowing in her ear and savoring their closeness. Her firm body against him, he could recall their making love only hours earlier.
"Angela, Angela, you're the rain in my desert," he said, feeling a little heady over his good fortune in their marriage.
"You still plan to leave at daybreak?" she asked dreamily.
"Maybe a little later -- "
His bride of six weeks pressed herself against him, and her mouth sought his. Distracted by a new sound, he turned away to listen. The hoofbeat of charging horses stole away their moment of tenderness. Upset and uncertain about the purpose of the oncoming animals, all he could think was The raiders were coming back. Could they be the same ones who murdered her husband, Frederick Van Dorn, the previous fall? Burt's mind, filled with the dangers they might impose, hustled her inside and reached for the Winchester.
"My gawd, Burton. You can't fight intruders naked. I'll get you some britches, anyway -- " She rushed across the room for his clothes while he levered a cartridge into the chamber.
"Get their horses!" the lead rider shouted in Spanish, and sent two bullets at the house. They thudded into the plaster. Burt drew back for an instant, then quickly looked for them in the inky darkness from the safety of the doorway. A resolve filled his brain: he must stop these marauders at any price.
Ready for the next flash of lightning, Burt used the adze-hewed facing to steady the long gun barrel against it. When a raider swept into his line of sight, he took aim at a silhouette. The report of the .44/40 vibrated inside the house and made his ears ring. His marksmanship took the rider out of the saddle.
Filled with resolve to make them pay dearly for their intrusion, he rushed outside onto the porch, looking for more outlines to shoot at. His next bullet brought down a horse. Its pained scream cut the night. Burt could hear the stricken animal thrashing in the mud. He wanted their blood -- not their mounts'. How dare these bastards raid her -- their -- ranch? The loud curses of the confused outlaws carried in the driving rain. His shooting had trapped them in the area of the corrals -- their only way to escape would be to charge past his gun muzzle. From their shouts, he knew they wanted to ride out quickly, even without any stolen animals, but they feared his accuracy.
He stood in the yard gate and tried to find another target in the inky night among the milling raiders. Two more quick shots at outlines from his Winchester. A man cried out in broken Spanish that he was hit and needed help.
Someone shouted, "Vamoose!"
The raiders opened up with pistol fire at him. Their aim proved wild as their upset horses broke out and swept past him. On his knees, Burton levered cartridge upon cartridge through the repeater after them until the hammer clicked on empty.
The sulfurous stench of spent gunpowder filled his nose. His ears still rang from the gun's percussion. Cold rain ran down his bare back, causing goose bumps to form on the backs of his arms. On tender bare soles, he hurried to the porch for more ammo. Angela rushed out the door with clothes for him to wear. Sobbing, she clung to his left arm. Filled with a seething anger at the boldness of the intruders, he glared into the dark void that swallowed them.
"Here's your pants and shirt," she managed, shaken. She took the rifle from him, and he quickly pulled them on.
"Get a light," he said to her, taking back the rifle and starting inside. "I'll need my boots. Damn goat heads, sand burrs, and cactus needles all over out there," he complained, taking gingerly steps on the cool tile.
"What if they're only wounded?"
"Good. I'll squeeze out of them who they are."
"Oh, Burton. Please be careful."
He nodded as he jammed more rounds into the rifle's chamber. She brought his boots, and he sat on a chair. Brushing off his sole, he put on the right sock and boot. Repeating the process, he pulled on the left one. His mind was on fire with plans for revenge against these bold raiders. They needed a lesson they would never forget. He stood up and stomped his heels to fit his feet into them.
"Should I light the lamp?" she asked.
With trembling fingers, she struck a torpedo-headed parlor match, and it flared. Then she touched it to the wick. A flame responded, and she capped it with the glass chimney. The heavy scent of burning coal oil filled the air in the rain-cooled room.
"I'll take it," he said, trying to think of a way to reassure her that things would be all right. With the rifle in his hands, he wondered what he'd find out in the darkness.
"I -- I want to go, too."
"Stay right behind me, then," he said, feeling apprehensive about her safety. With the lamp in one hand, the rifle in the other, he went out onto the porch. A gust of wind blew a spray of moisture at his face and shirt, but the rain had stopped, and the storm moved off to the west. He crossed the yard, and outside the gate, he discovered the first still body on the ground.
At his back, she made a suppressed moan. "Is he alive?"
"Don't think so."
His boot toe nudged the facedown form, but it did not respond. Satisfied the outlaw was dead, he kicked a pistol away from the man's outstretched hand -- in case.
"He's dead?" she asked in a small voice as they started for the corrals.
Burt nodded. That one wouldn't raid anyone else's ranch ever again.
He stopped at the moaning horse lying on the ground. She took the lamp from him; he cocked the rifle. A swift bullet to the animal's forehead silenced its suffering. What else? Taking the light back, he held it higher. As he approached the corral area, he could see someone huddled on the ground with his arms clutching his guts.
"Who're you?" Burt demanded in Spanish.
"Miguel -- " the wounded man said in a pained voice.
"Where're you from?"
The man didn't answer. He handed her the lamp, then savagely kicked the outlaw in the chest and sent him sprawling on his back. Angela gasped behind him. Burt jammed the muzzle of the Winchester in the man's bearded face and cocked the hammer back.
"You ready to die, hombre?"
The man's eyes widened. "No."
"Then speak quickly. Where're you from?"
"Fronteras -- Sonora -- "
"Who led you here?" He used the gun's muzzle to jab him for a reply.
"Torres, Afredo Torres."
Thunder rumbled off in the distance. Burt turned the outlaw leader's name over in his mind. Alfredo Torres. At last, he had a name for the leader of these ruthless bandits from south of the border. Good. That meant one thing: he was one step closer to eliminating them.
"You know this Torres?" she whispered.
"No, but I will."
Movement beyond the corral of horses forced Burt to jerk upright to see what made it. Someone was coming around the pens. Then he recognized them. It was only the gentle farm help who worked for them -- Juan Ramirez, his wife, Estrella, and their two small children.
"We heard the shots, Señor," Juan said, holding the straw hat to his chest and looking uneasy at the groaning outlaw on the ground. His family warily circled away from the prisoner. Angela stepped over and hugged Juan's wife to comfort the obviously shaken young woman under the shawl.
"The bandits are gone," she said to reassure the trembling Estrella, who was hardly more than a teen.
"What did they want, Señor?" Juan asked Burt.
"They came to rustle the ranch's horses."
Burt grasped the wounded man's collar and jerked him to his feet. From the outlaw's belt, he removed a large knife and tossed it aside. It clunked when it hit the ground. He shoved his prisoner toward the corral.
"Get some rope, Juan," he said to the hired man, and drove the bandit to the gate.
"I'm shot," the man said, crumbling to his knees.
"So? If you had killed me or my wife, would you worry about us? No. So I'm tying you up until daylight. Then, if you're still alive, I'll take you to the Pima County sheriff."
"Señor, I will die." The man sprawled himself facedown on the ground and held his stomach, moaning. "I'm dying."
"Not my concern. Where does this Torres stay in Mexico?"
"Thanks," Burt said to Juan for the rope. He bent over to jerk the outlaw by his right arm closer to the gate to which he tied him. Then he did the same to his other arm. Tears ran down the bandit's face as he pleaded. In the predawn light, Burt could see the outlaw's blood-soaked shirt. At the moment, he felt no compassion for the man's plight.
"Tell me where Torres stays in Mexico," he demanded.
"I'm dying -- "
"Good, better you than me. Where does Torres live?"
"Sonora -- "
"Big place, tell me where?"
"On the Rio Verde."
"Good." Burt turned and said to Juan, "Hitch the team to the buckboard."
"SÍ, patrón," Juan said, and started off to obey.
Then Burt went to where Angela stood. "Take her and the children into the house. They don't need to listen to this. And Angela -- fix something for all of us to eat."
"You'll take him to Tucson?" Angela indicated the raider.
"Yes, after we eat. You can dress and go with me."
She nodded that she heard him. "We'll get some food and coffee fixed," she said, and took her wards to the house.
"Were you here last fall with them when they killed her husband?" Burt demanded from his prisoner when he was certain she was out of hearing.
The man shook his head. "No. No. I never been here before."
"No, Señor, I swear on the Virgin Mary. I never been here before."
"Did Torres shoot him?"
"I don't know."
His first thought was to shake the truth from him, but in his heart he knew it would do no good. This man probably knew nothing about Van Dorn's murder. Anyone might have killed Angela's husband. He still felt a strong obligation to bring his killers to justice. Ignoring the bandit's sobbing and pleading, he considered what he must do next.
In the emerging gentle light, he went back to where the dead outlaw lay in the drive. Beside the still body, he knelt and turned him over. Holding the lantern up to see his facial features, he could make out that the dead one was hardly more than a boy. The young age of the deceased disgusted him.
His stare held hard on the boy's face as he rose to his feet. What a waste. The dead one would need to be wrapped in a blanket or wagon sheet. Still filled with biting anger over the raid, he started back for the corrals.
In front of the tack room, Juan hurried about, harnessing the matched buckskin team. Burt put a hand on his thin shoulder to slow the young man from working himself into a greater upset.
"There's no rush, mi amigo. The banditos vamoosed. They won't be back for a while, anyway."
The young man nodded and swallowed hard. "I am not so scared now."
"Good." Burt ducked, entering the tack room that smelled of barley and corn as well as leather and horse. In the candlelight that Juan had lit to see by, Burt shook the straw out of a dirty blanket. This would do for a shroud.
Outside, he tossed it onto the buckboard.
"Come to the house when you get them hitched. We'll eat something."
Without even a glance at the begging outlaw, Burt strode for the lighted kitchen door. After this attack, he hardly dared to leave her and the place unguarded. He needed to arrange for someone tough to move out there and stay with Angela in his absence.
Perhaps he should broach the subject of her moving back into her Tucson home until this whole bandit issue was settled? No, she hated living there. Her bountiful roses and bougainvillea grew profusely in this garden -- she took such pride in all the field crops and the animals. The only way he could ever leave her would be to find some men capable enough to guard her and the ranch in his absence.
A place was set at the table for him when he came into the main room. He noticed the small children playing on the floor. So innocent, he thought to himself, taking his chair as he watched them crawling about.
"I am sorry," Estrella said, picking them both up by the waist to take them away.
"No. No. They're bueno. I'm enjoying them."
"SÍ, patrón," she said and put them down.
"They are very pretty babies," he said, and reassured her with a nod. Embarrassed by his attention, she hurried back into the kitchen.
Angela brought him a steaming cup of coffee.
"Thanks," he said. "Are you all right?" With his arm, he reached to encircle her slender waist and gave her a reassuring hug. His main concern was how badly this raider business had upset her.
"I'm fine. I was afraid for a while. It was like the night they -- they killed Frederick. What if you had not been awake?" The lines of a frown furrowed her smooth forehead.
"I'm going to find you some more dogs." Strange how all the curs about the place had disappeared all at once. Perhaps the coyotes ate them. Or was that more than a coincidence?
"Yes, they would bark, at least."
"We'll also need to find some men to stay here as guards when I'm gone on marshal business."
"I've been thinking -- "
He frowned at her. "You wish to move back to your house in town?"
"No." The impatient look she gave him convinced him she had no such plans.
"I understand," he said, and held the steaming cup to his lips. Deliberately glancing at her for a response, he blew across the surface to cool it. "Sorry I interrupted you."
"No, it was nothing. You know I'm very happy here." She bent over and kissed him on the cheek. "I'm even more happy when you can be here with me."
"Yes. So am I." He nodded absently, engrossed in his thoughts about the intruders. The outlaw's name, Torres, kept rolling over and over in his mind. Perhaps his boss, Chief U.S Marshal Denton Downy, knew something more about this outlaw gang.
"The horses are ready," Juan announced.
"Good, come and sit down. They'll soon have food for us."
"I can eat outside." An anxious look swept the young man's face, and he tossed his head toward the doorway as if he didn't belong in there.
"No, sit here." Burt indicated for him to take a place at the table. "We need to talk about plans. Things we need to do here on the farm. Sit," he told the hesitant boy. "You're ready for the irrigation?"
"SÍ, it comes mañana."
"Good. We will need to cut the alfalfa soon."
"Can you sharpen the sickle bar?" Burt decided from the concerned look on the youth's face that he was uncertain about the process but afraid his patrón would be mad if he said so. To save the poor boy any more fears, he spoke up quickly. "I'll do that when I return."
Juan nodded gratefully.
"Relax, you are my segundo here," he said to brace the youth up.
About to laugh at Juan's obvious discomfort with being at the patrón's table, Burt concentrated on his coffee. Angela brought them plates of eggs, frijoles, and flour tortillas. She set them before both men and nodded.
"That was fixed in record time," she said.
Burt agreed, putting red sauce on his scrambled eggs.
"Something wrong?" she asked the hesitant Juan.
"Oh, no, no," he said, and began to fix his food.
She shared a private wink with Burt, then swept up the younger of the babies and headed for the kitchen with a promise to come back for his brother.
"You better eat something, too," Burt said after her.
"I will," she said from the doorway, coming after the other little one, who had crawled under the table.
He knew good and well his new bride would rather mess with little children and baby livestock than eat any time. Still, he was anxious to get the prisoner to town. He wondered what the Tucson high sheriff would say about the matter -- what was he doing about the raids by Mexican bandits on ranches along the Santa Cruz River? There might even be more than one band of outlaws.
Pima County's head lawman would probably say he couldn't spare a deputy. Truth of the matter, all his men were out counting cattle to put them on the property tax rolls. Arizona sheriffs collected ten percent of all the county's property taxes. The tax business paid them much better then chasing scruffy border bandits.
After their meal, he and Juan wrapped the dead outlaw in the old blanket. Then they placed him with the wounded one, Miguel, who sat tied up in the back of the buckboard. Burt took the Winchester along in case of trouble. Once Angela, wearing a new blue dress, was on the spring seat, he handed the long gun to her to hold before he climbed up beside her.
Juan promised to drag off the dead carcass. He also had caught a loose saddle horse that came back to the ranch ones. From the Mexican saddle on the mustang, Burt decided it must have belonged to one of the outlaws. Juan unsaddled and put him in the corral. Burt doubted any nearby rancher would claim it. Still, he planned to hold the horse as some sort of payment for the inconvenience they'd suffered in the raid.
The day's heat rose from the damp dirt as they hurried southward. The towering Catalina Mountains beside them and the pristine desert sparkled from the cleansing rain as the thin iron rims cut a song on the gritty surface. In the usual dry washes, small streams of water meandered across the roadway for them to splash through.
Mid-morning, he reined up before the adobe building that housed the county sheriff's office and jail. He tied off the reins and climbed down.
"I'll wait here," Angela said from under her blue parasol.
He entered the building and let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
"Señor?" The young man wearing a star on his shirt sat up at a desk.
"Sheriff Adams here?" Burt searched around and saw no one else as his eyes adjusted to the low light.
"No. May I help you?"
"Burt Green. Bandits raided my ranch up on the Santa Cruz last night. I have one dead outlaw and a wounded one out in my buckboard. Would you remove them?"
"Oh, yes!" The deputy bolted to his feet and shouted for a swamper to come help him.
Burt followed them to the open doorway and shared a nod with Angela on the spring seat. After taking off his hat for her, the deputy helped gather the injured one. He and his helper carried Miguel through the doorway.
"He's wounded, all right," the deputy said as they took him past Burt and into the jail portion. "I better get a doc to come take a look at him." The deputy sent his helper for the physician. He turned back to Burt. "How did all this happen?"
"A gang of outlaws tried to raid Angela's -- our -- ranch last night. I stopped them."
"How many and what gang?"
"Must have been seven or eight. The wounded man said the leader was named Torres. He got away."
"Lots of them bandits." Warily, the deputy shook his head. "I never heard of no Torres before."
"Obviously, this wounded one is one of Torres's men. How many raids have been made on ranches around here lately?"
"Not as many as last year." The young man shrugged. "Last week, they raided a few places up at Oracle, but there aren't as many attacks happening this year."
"What's the sheriff doing about them?"
With obvious affront, the deputy suspiciously cocked an eye at Burt. Then, very deliberately, he said, "All he can do with such limited funds and a short staff."
"Raids like this have to be stopped."
"Yeah, well, mister, you figure them out, and we'll stop 'em. These damn Messikins can ride back to Mexico quicker than a lamb can wag his tail."
"If the law won't do anything, then perhaps civilians will have to."
The young man gave a shrug as if that was all he could do.
"Tell Sheriff Adams," Burt said, "that deputy U.S. Marshal Green will check back with him on the case's progress."
The deputy only gave him a scathing look. "I'll tell him."
"You look upset. What did they say in there?" Angela asked when he climbed on the rig, undid the reins, and clucked to the team.
"They said as much as there was nothing they could do about the bandits. They had no deputies and no funds, and the bandits swooped in and ran back to Mexico before they could do a thing." He looked over his shoulder and, seeing the way was clear, put the buckskins in a trot.
"What do you plan to do?"
"Go and see my boss, Marshal Downy. Maybe he knows someone in Preskitt who can wake this sheriff up."
She looked up at the parasol. "I forget they called Prescott that. What will the governor do?"
He stared straight ahead, fighting for some control over the fiery rage inside himself. "Someone like Governor Baylor needs to make Adams do his job and put an end to such lawlessness."
"Sounds like you have work to do," she said with a broad smile.
Looking over at her, he nodded, pleased to see the attack had not depressed her this time, that this latest episode had not set her back the way the murder of her husband did. He could also see that her efforts were intended to bring him out of his own anger. Grateful for her concerns about him, he gave her a reassuring smile and clucked to the team.
His pair of horses paused for a two-wheel cart blocking the narrow street. He decided he should see Downy first, then go find some capable men to guard his new bride and ranch. The lightninglike raids coming from below the border had to be stopped. If the local law couldn't do anything, he'd have to figure out a way to end their habitual reign of terror.
Copyright © 2004 by Dusty Richards
When the hardened Apache scout called Deuces is court-martialed for cold-blooded murder, he's sentenced to hang. But an appeal saves him from the noose -- and he manages to escape on his way to prison in Texas. Relentless U.S. Marshal Burt Green is charged with finding the killer. Riding with a one-eyed Apache tracker, Burt hunts the elusive fugitive from Texas to the deep Southwest, where Deuces takes control of a band of renegade Apache and launches a reign of terror throughout the territory.
Against an enemy as deadly as he is cunning, outgunned in the middle of a hellish land, Burt Green must face down Deuces in a war between the lawful and the lawless. A war from which only one man can walk away....