The horseman appeared at the east end of Aguas Bravas sitting atop a chestnut so skinny it wouldn’t have looked out of place lying in the prairie dust with all four legs stiff in the air.
“Sitting” rather than “riding,” because the horse seemed to make its way without human guidance: each loose-boned movement of the skeletal mount threatened to pitch the man holding its reins off onto the brick-red dust of Main Street.
U.S. Marshal John Henry Tyler, tilted against the wall in front of his office in a ladder-back chair with his feet propped on the hitching rail, watched the malnourished nag slowly make its way, stumbling occasionally as it went, its hollow sides heaving with each breath it took; its rider didn’t look much livelier: his hat and duster were crusted with road grime and he slumped over his saddle’s pommel, unable to hold himself erect.
Tyler felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck as the horseman halted in front of him and pushed his hat back, revealing the boniest face the marshal had ever seen on a living person: his gaunt, sunken cheeks resembled a death’s-head, an illusion accentuated by the dark hollows around his watery gray eyes. The sere and withered skin around his lips was drawn back sharply from his teeth, turning his mouth into a rictus.
The edge of his jaw, sharp as a straight razor, stood out above a neck so scrawny that his Adam’s apple seemed like a small animal trapped inside his throat. A line of little bumps on each side of his mouth showed where his teeth pressed against his taut, leathery skin cheeks. From the right angle, it didn’t look like there was any flesh on his face at all.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the stranger asked, his words a low rasp like a bucksaw blade being dragged through a withered tree limb. “Are you the law around here?”
Although he spoke in a whisper, the courtly aristocratic lilt of his Southern accent contrasted sharply with his tattered, trail-worn appearance.
Tyler inclined his head. “I am that, friend,” he said, touching the brim of his own hat. “Welcome to our little settlement of Aguas Bravas, though you’ll look long and hard to find any waters in these parts, wild or otherwise. What can I do for you?”
The rider leaned forward, his forearms on the pommel of his saddle the only things holding him upright. He stretched his mouth into a caricature of a smile but there was little to suggest amusement in it.
“Is there a jail inside that building?” he asked, nodding toward Tyler’s office.
“There is,” the lawman replied. “Stone walls and steel bars. They may not a prison make, according to that English poet, but they serve adequately well around these parts. Why do you ask?”
“My name is Tom Claymore,” the horseman rasped. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
Tyler, now alert, rested his hand on the butt of his Navy model Colt revolver.
“The name seems familiar, but I can’t recall why,” he said. “Maybe you can refresh my memory.”
In fact, that was a bald lie; there was a handbill tacked to the wall inside Tyler’s office that said Wells Fargo & Co. would pay a $500 reward to the man who brought Thomas Caleb Claymore in, dead or alive. The tintype above the name didn’t look like this fellow, though; the man in the photo was rather good looking, nearly twenty years younger and forty pounds heavier. What’s more, the fugitive Claymore didn’t have a face that looked like a skull.
The horseman leaned back in the saddle, still wearing his cadaverous grin. “I robbed the banks in Fortnight, Emery and Twin City,” he said. “My gang did, anyway, and I played my own part in the mischief. We also robbed the mail train east of Riverton in February, just before the big snowstorm. We stuck up the stagecoach outside Wellington four weeks ago. I personally killed a Wells Fargo agent during that raid.”
Tyler tightened his grip on his six-gun. “You’ve been a busy man, Mr. Claymore,” he said mildly. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because,” the outlaw said, nodding curtly at the building behind Tyler’s chair, “I want you to arrest me and lock me up inside that jail of yours.”
With that, he closed his eyes and toppled off his mount, falling to the ground almost as lightly as a gunny sack full of bones.
Deputy Bob Weaver was cataloging Claymore’s belongings when Tyler got back from the Western Union office.
“So, what did you find out?” he asked the Marshal.
Tyler eased into the rollaway chair behind his desk and propped his boots up on it, hands folded across his stomach.
“Oh, he’s wanted all right,” Tyler said. “I had to wait a half hour for the cable back from Wellington. There’s a Deputy Marshal there named Bradbury who’s coming for him, along with a Pinkerton man who works for Wells Fargo named Timothy A. Pickett.”
He grinned and added, “Bradbury’s wire was specific about that initial ‘A,’ like the territory was just crawling with Pinks and they were afraid we might get the Wellington fellow mixed up with one of the other Picketts. They’re going to take him to Bowdoin, so the next time the territorial judge comes through they can try him for killing the agent in that stage robbery.”
The deputy pushed back his hat. “I’ve heard of this Pickett,” he said. “He’s one of the fellows Wells Fargo hired to clean out the bandits in the Northern Territory. I hear he used to be an Army scout and served with Sherman during the war. He’s supposed to be pretty damn good.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Tyler said. “All I can tell you is that they are keen to get Mr. Claymore back so they can hang him, though it seems to me the fellow is far enough gone that if they waited a couple days, he’d shuffle off this mortal coil without the assistance of the gallows. He’s wanted in a lot of other places, but Wells Fargo has the money so I reckon they get their pound of flesh first. What was Claymore carrying?”
“There was a Schofield revolver in his gun belt with three shots gone and a Henry rifle in the scabbard on that crow bait he was riding,” Weaver said. “He had this in his saddlebags,” he added, tossing a canvas bag stenciled with the stage company’s name on Tyler’s desk.
The marshal opened the sack and poured out a pile of gold $20 gold pieces. “Did you count it?” he asked as he started arranging the money into little stacks of ten coins.
“Yeah,” Weaver said. “Looks like there’s the best part of $10,000 there.”
Tyler ended up with 49 ten-coin stacks and a few spares. “I get the same,” he said. “That looks like the cash the Carmody gang stole in that Wellington stage job. I reckon Henry Wells will be glad to get the money back, though it damn sure won’t resurrect the murdered agent.”
The marshal stood up handed the bag to his deputy. “Lock it up in the strongbox along with Claymore’s weapons,” he said. “We’ll see that Mr. Pickett gives us a receipt and takes it with him when he and the deputy come to pick him up. Gives me the jim-jams having blood money in the office. Is Claymore awake?”
Weaver shrugged. “His eyes are open, but he’s just lying there on the cot,” he said. “Doesn’t look like he has the energy for anything else. Carmody’s crew’s been wondering the Northern Territory now for about three years I know of, so Claymore’s not a greenhorn. I wonder what could have happened to him out there on the prairie to put him in such a sorry state?”
Tyler hung his gunbelt on peg on the wall and took the jail keys off the hook next to it. “Me, too,” he said. “Whatever it was, it was bad enough to convince him he was better off turning himself in and taking his chances with the hangman than staying on the run. I’m going to have a little talk with our tenant; maybe he’ll enlighten me.”
As Weaver had said, Claymore was stretched out on the cot like a dead man, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. It didn’t look to Tyler like he had the strength to close them. The marshal dragged a chair alongside the outlaw’s cell.
“I wired Wellington and they’re sending a couple of fellows to take you to the circuit court in Bowdoin tomorrow,” the marshal said. “The deputy told me your .45’s been fired recently. What were you shooting at?”
“Nothing,” Claymore said after a long pause. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t hit it, anyway. Or if I did, I didn’t hurt it.”
“What happened to the rest of your crew?” Tyler asked. “You were riding with Jack Carmody’s bunch when you did that Wellington stage job. Where’s Carmody and the Lightfoot boys?”
“I’m all that’s left,” Claymore said with a cough that made a hollow sound inside his sunken chest. “Carmody and Will and Andy Lightfoot are dead -- or worse. She said I’d be the last and she was right.”
“Who said you’d be last?”
Carmody turned his head toward the marshal with some effort. He coughed again, harder this time. “The Obeah. She told me the others would die before I did. She looked me square in the eye when she said so. Well, they’re all dead, and that’s for sure.”
Tyler frowned. “Obeah?” he asked, not certain he’d heard correctly. “That’s a medicine man or something, isn’t it?”
“More like a witch,” Claymore said. “This one was damned sure a witch, anyway. She didn’t do any healing that I know of; just the opposite.”
Tyler scratched his head. He’d spent a couple of weeks in New Orleans when he first mustered out of the Army and a New York newspaper writer staying in his hotel had entertained him each night with tales about Vodoun, Santeria and other types of black magic that some Southern negroes practiced. Tyler was from Chicago and didn’t believe in ghosts or witches, but he had to admit that the way the newspaper fellow told the stories made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
Claymore was the first white man he’d ever heard talk about black magic who sounded like he actually believed in it.
“I thought Obeah was something you found in the Deep South,” the marshal said. “Louisiana, maybe, or down in the Caribbean islands – like Haiti or Cuba. We’re hundreds of miles from the Mississippi. Where’d you run into a witch doctor in these parts?”
Claymore looked back up at the ceiling. “It was about 80 miles northeast of here,” he said.
Tyler frowned. “I never heard of any witches up there,” he said. “I thought that area was deserted.”
Claymore laughed and that made him cough some more. “Hell, marshal,” he said, “There’s nothing up there but scorpions and snakes. I’d be surprised if you had.”
“After we robbed the Wellington stage coach, we were looking for a place to hide out a spell. Wells Fargo’d hired some damn tracker to run down gangs like ours and we’d already run across a posse a half day west of the river.”
“That would probably be a gentleman from Alan Pinkerton’s agency named Pickett,” Tyler said. “Pickett was the fellow who found Mickey Bledsoe and his gang last year. When they were crossing the Lovelace River near Delahanty, he made a nest on a little ledge overlooking the river and used his Henry rifle to shoot all six of them.”
“Yeah,” Claymore said in a disgusted voice that let Tyler know he didn’t consider it sporting to gun a man down from ambush – particularly not from a hiding place at least a hundred yards outside the range of the victim’s weapons. “We heard about Mickey and his boys and were worried about ending up the same way. We rode like sons-of-bitches to get clear and didn’t stop until we reached the ferry crossing another day and a half west.”
“There was a general store there and we were low on supplies so we bought beans, bacon and a supply of whisky,” he said, taking a sip of water from the tin cup Weaver had left him. “Our horses were played out and needed to rest. Carmody asked the shopkeeper if anybody lived out in the prairie further west. He figured if there was nobody there, it would be a good place to hide. The shop man told him the only soul for two hundred miles was this crazy nigger woman with a herd of goats and a handful of chickens living in a can about a half day’s ride further.”
“How’d he know about her?” Tyler asked.
Claymore shrugged, slumped back onto the cot and stared at the ceiling again.
“I dunno, but he said she’d been up there about five years,” he said. “She was originally from down around Shreveport, but had to high-tail it. Seems she got into a disputation with a cattleman down there; hexed his herd or something and they all got hoof and mouth. The cowman thought she was responsible so he run her off.”
Claymore paused and seemed to lose the thread. Tyler urged him on.
“So, this negress,” the marshal said, “I take it you found her?”
Claymore kept staring at the ceiling, but he gave Tyler that cadaverous smile to let him know he’d heard the question.
“Oh, yes,” he said, almost in a whisper. “We surely did find her.”
Claymore and his comrades had come upon the witch’s house – a sod hut, really – in a box cañon late the next afternoon. The Obeah woman was waiting outside when Claymore, Carmody and the Lightfoot boys rode up.
“It was like she knew we were coming,” Claymore said. “She was smoking a little clay pipe and just leaning against the inside of the doorway, watching us as cool as you please.”
“I was expecting a granny. The only witches I ever heard about when I was growing up were old ladies who’d been around forever. This one wasn’t a toothless hag, though. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so, slender, but all rounded in the right places, with real smooth skin the color of dark coffee.”
He shook his head, still having trouble believing it.
“For a nigger gal, she was a looker. She was young, but her hair was as white as smoke, long and real curly, but soft-looking. As soon as I saw her, I knew she was trouble.”
He rubbed his eyes as if trying to erase the memory.
“You see, Carmody was pretty smart about robbing and killing, but when he wasn’t planning a job or pulling one off, he tended to think with his dick,” he continued. “He liked nothing better than putting that thing of his inside a gal, and I knew right away he was going to want to put it inside this witch woman. We should have been figuring out how we were going to get shut of the tracker behind us, but it was clear that Jack was planning to take his pleasure beforehand.”
He fixed Tyler with his gaze, as if he was planning to share some particular bit of wisdom he’d picked up during his career as a bad man and bloodletter. “Dallying with a woman is a questionable thing to do at the best of times, but it’s a damn poor idea when you should be running from the law,” he said. “I know of no good that can come of it. None did this time.”
“Carmody rode right on up to the witch woman, tipped his hat and said: ‘My boys here are looking for a place to put up for a few days and you've been elected, Miss. . . uh. . .’
“’My name is Heloise LaTresor,’ she said, taking the pipe out of her mouth long enough to spit on the ground alongside Carmody’s mount. ‘You can’t stay here. I don’t know how you all found me, but I’m not looking for any company. Not now, not ever.’”
“She had some kind of accent, I guess,” Claymore said. “It could have been Frenchified, I suppose, or one of them bastard versions of French you run into down in the bayou country.”
“Well, Jack gets down off his horse and stands right in front of her, close enough to reach out and kiss her. ‘Damn!’ he says with this half-assed smile on his face, like he thought she was flirting with him when any dumbass could see she was telling him to move on. ‘It’s surely a shame you feel that way, ma’am.’ I’ve set my mind on sticking around a spell. I don’t change it easily.”
“Well, she didn’t say a damn thing. She gave him a look that would have frozen a glass of rye whisky sitting in the flames of hell,” Claymore said. “She probably didn’t think she needed to say anything more. She’d made her point already.”
“But I mentioned that Carmody let his dick do all his thinking when it came to women,” he said. “The minute he saw this one he decided we were staying. He apparently thought he’d made it clear that was his intention. When she didn’t answer him back right away, he thought she was folding her hand.”
“’All right,’ he said. ‘That’s settled. Boys – dismount. No need to make up no special bedding for us. My boys here will stay outside with their bedrolls and I’ll sleep with you, Mizz LaTresor.’”
“That’s about when I figured any self-respecting witch would have just put a hex on him that left him lying on the ground, coughing blood,” he said. “It’s what I expected. But she didn’t do anything, just glared at him. That’s when I began to think maybe she wasn’t really a witch after all – just a good-looking African woman who kept men at a distance by pretending she was a conjure gal.”
“That,” he said ominously, “was a mistake.”
Claymore stopped to sip more water and eased himself back before continuing.
“She went into her little house, as if she thought that ignoring the four of us outside would make us go away. Carmody told us to pitch a camp there amongst the chickens and goats.”
“The Obeah gal didn’t have a well, so Jack sent one of the Lightfoots down the hill to the little creek to top up our canteens and fill the witch’s bucket with water. He set the other brother to gather up sticks and loose wood for a fire.”
“While the brothers did the chores, he tucked into some of the whisky we brung, knocking it back at a pretty fair clip,” Claymore said. “Before too long he had a heat on. I could tell he was going to want some of that Obeah pussy pretty soon and I could see just as easily that she wasn’t about to let him have any of it without a fight.”
“Night fell. The witch had a pot of some kind of vegetables stewing inside, but she didn’t offer us any hospitality, so Jack had Will Lightfoot put some beans on our campfire to boil.”
“Without so much as a word, he grabbed one of her little goats by the nape of the neck, pulled out the Arkansas toothpick he carried on his belt and cut the animal’s throat, just like you’d slice the heel off a loaf of bread. He held the kid out at arm’s length and it must have twitched three or four times before all its blood spurted out onto the ground in a steaming pool.”
“Well, the Obeah gal didn’t care for that much. When she heard the kid bleating, she came to the door of her hutch and gave Jack a hard look but didn’t say nothing. Carmody looked at her, put the animal down and drove his knife into it just behind the shoulder. He told the other Lightfoot boy to butcher it and roast it alongside the bean-pot.”
Claymore grimaced as the memories flooded back.
“Jack looked her square in the eye and told her ‘Personally, I don’t much care for goat, but them chickens you got runnin’ around out here are too fucking small for the four of us to make a meal out of, so I guess we’ll eat goat meat like a bunch of ragged-assed Mexicans.”
Claymore passed a hand over his eyes, as if he could still see the scene in front of him. “She spat on the ground. ‘I hope you choke to death,’ she told him, then she turned around and went back into her hutch.”
“I reckon that was when Jack decided to get his piece of tail,” Claymore said.
“He got up and walked right into the hut behind her, taking off his gunbelt and dropping it on the ground next to Will Lightfoot. ‘Take care of my pistol, son,’ he said. ‘Call me when the meat and beans are ready.’”
Claymore coughed twice, deep down in his chest. He leaned over and spat a stream of brown scum that looked just like thin mud into the cuspidor next to the stool. Tyler frowned. Deputy Weaver hadn’t said anything about the outlaw having a plug. The marshal wondered where the chaw came from.
Claymore settled back. “I don’t think he was in there more than two minutes when we heard him smack her one with his fist. He came back out with his hand on his jaw and blood dripping off his face.”
“Jack seemed surprised,” Claymore said. “‘That cunt just clawed the shit out of me,’ he said. ‘If I hadn’t pulled away, she would have taken my eye with them nails!’”
“Most men might have packed it in at that point,” Claymore said weakly, coughing again. “Not Carmody. He undid his belt and wrapped it around his fist until he had the buckle and about a foot and a half of leather hanging loose.”
The distant look in Claymore’s eyes showed the scene was playing out again inside his head.
“‘Will, Andy, I’ll require your assistance,’ Carmody said. ‘You’re going to hold that she-devil down whilst I take my pleasure with her. Afterwards, each of you gets a piece for yourselves.’”
Claymore’s face showed disgust. “The Lightfoot boys damn near ran over each other getting into that hutch,” he said. “I could hear them inside cussing at that witch and wrestling with her, taking her down. Carmody looked at me before he went back inside.”
“‘You going to join us, Tom?’ he asked.
“‘No, thank you, Captain,’ I replied. ‘If I’m going to be with a woman, I want her to kiss me before I poke her, even if she don’t mean it. I don’t think that one in there is in much of a kissing mood right now.’”
“He just grinned. ‘That suits me fine,’ he said. ‘More for the three of us.’”
“Then he went inside,” Claymore said, spitting another thick brown stream into the cuspidor. “Next thing I heard was her screaming.”
He looked at Tyler with his face blank, as if it no longer was capable of showing any emotion, then he shuddered.
“She went on screaming damn near all night long.”
Claymore was lost in thought for so long that Tyler thought he might have passed out. Then he resumed his tale.
“They worked her over for hours, breaking off to take turns banging her ass,” he said finally. “By the time the Lightfoot boys came out, the beans were burned into the bottom of the pot and the blood from the dead goat’s throat was all clumped up and black. It didn’t matter, I guess. They didn’t seem to feel much like eating, anyway. God knows I had no stomach for it.”
“Jack was the last to emerge. There was a stack of garden tools leaning up against the side of the Obeah gal’s hutch and Jack handed me a shovel. I could see his left eye was sort of squinched up and the blood had hardened and scabbed over on his scratches, leaving four dark brown tracks that ran from just in front of his temple down across the side of his face.”
“Tom, we’ll be needing a hole dug here pretty quick,” he said, pulling his knife out of the lamb he’d killed. “Make it just deep enough to cover a body. We’ll put stones on top to keep out the critters.”
“He wiped the blade on his pants and walked back into the witch’s hutch.”
“I followed him,” Claymore said. “She was still alive in there but she didn’t have a stitch on and she looked like she’d been drug a couple miles behind a horse at the gallop. There wasn’t a part of her that wasn’t so bruised or bloody that it was a miracle she was still breathing. But when we walked in, she started singing a song that went something like this:”
I call on you, Papa Legua,
Ruler of the sacred crossroads,
One who opens up the way;
Messenger, O great Eleggua,
Tell my tale to Orishania,
Master of the light of whiteness,
Mistress of the wind and flesh,
Mistress of the darkling skies,
Master of the earth below;
Take my words to Oya, lightning,
To Yemaya, queen of waters,
Tell them of my tale of woe.
I seek the justice of King Chango,
Earth and wind and sky and water.
Seek of them the grace to judge men
For defiling their true daughter.
I call upon thee, gods, for justice,
Through the earth, wind, sky and water.
Tell them this, oh great Eleggua,
I beseech you, I your daughter.
“’King Chango will give me my vengeance,’ she said, spitting blood on the ground. She pointed her finger at Jack and told him, ‘You will die by fire from the sky. The brother with the blue eyes will die by water and his kinsman’s death will come from the air.’”
Claymore shivered, even though the room was warm. “When she turned to me, her voice was so low I almost couldn’t hear it,” he said. “She pointed at me. ‘You, too, will bear witness to King Chango’s justice,’ she said. ‘Your death will be the last, once you have testified to what happened here. You will die by the earth, by direction of Mistress Orishania, Goddess of the fifth day, she who created everything from Olorun’s clay.’”
“The witch shook her finger in my face and smiled a terrible smile,” he said. “’Remember what you have seen and bear witness well,’ she told me.”
“With that, Jack Carmody drove his knife into her breast,” he said. “She died with a shriek that could have raised up a dead man.”
As he finished his story, Claymore was convulsed by a series of severe chest spasms that resembled normal coughing about as much as a housecat does a cougar. His eyes rolled up under fluttering lids he couldn’t control and the rhythmic hacking jerked him so violently it almost threw him off the cot.
Concerned that his prisoner might die of a seizure before he could be delivered to the hangman, Tyler rose and had almost unlocked the cell door when Claymore managed to suppress his croup. The outlaw leaned out of the cot trembling, and spewed a torrent of brown muck into the bucket, half filling it.
Tyler realized that what Claymore was spitting wasn’t chewing tobacco juice: it actually was mud, just like the silty brown sediment at the edge of the Bon Claire River twenty miles south of town.
When he managed to stop vomiting, Claymore sank back on the cot, looking more dead than before, if that was possible. Tyler said nothing for a few minutes, letting the outlaw recover, then he cleared his throat to remind Claymore he was still in the room.
“You buried her, then?” he asked quietly.
Claymore gave a start. From the expression on his face, it was clear his mind had been back in that mud shack on the prairie.
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “I planted her myself. We covered the burial mound with stones from her little garden. It was full of the damned things, like she was raising boulders, not vegetables, and the plants kept getting in the rocks’ way. It wasn’t what you’d call a proper Christian burial, I reckon. I didn’t know what to say over the body of a dead witch, and I figured that talking about God and Jesus probably wouldn’t make much sense under the circumstances.”
He paused for a moment to catch his breath. “We tore her place apart to see whether she had anything worth taking with us, but she didn’t have a pot to piss in, so we saddled up later that day and hit the trail,” he said. “I was still worried about that Pinkerton fellow catching up to us, so we headed out at the gallop in mid-morning. About twenty miles out, we came to another little river and decided to make camp for the night.”
He took a little water and licked his lips.
“That very night, the Obeah started to take her revenge.”
Carmody sent Will Lightfoot down to the river to fetch water for horses and dinner, he said.
“Will had been working on a bottle of whisky most of the afternoon, sharing off with his brother,” Claymore said. “He was pretty well greased by nightfall and it probably wasn’t a very good idea to set him to a task that required any real thought. He was weaving when he walked out of camp with the bucket, and we clean lost track of him soon’s he get out of the light from the campfire.”
“Carmody was busy scratching the scabs on his cheek from the witch woman’s nails and Andy was half drunk himself and just barely awake. I don’t know how long Will was out there stumping around in the dark before he got to the water’s edge, but all of a sudden we heard him shriek.
“Carmody and I looked at each other, like we weren’t sure what we’d heard: his yelp sounded more like a woman than a man,” he said. “The noise woke Andy up straightaway, completely sober. I have to tell you it scared hell out of me. I never heard a man make a sound like that before and I hope I never do again.”
He shifted his position, half turning toward Tyler, and propped his head up on his left hand.
“We each grabbed a flambeau out of the fire and lit off toward the river, but we couldn’t find Will in the dark. We must have looked for more than an hour, but Carmody finally told us to pack it in. We went back and got in our bedrolls, but I don’t think any of us slept the entire night.”
When the sun rose the following morning, they resumed the search but had no luck in finding their missing partner. They found footprints leading down to the water’s edge, but the closest they came to learning Will Lightfoot’s fate was when they happened onto a spot at the river’s edge where the silty bank had been torn up by somebody wearing boots.
“We looked all over that area, but couldn’t find another trace of Will,” Claymore explained. “We couldn’t figure out what had happened to him; the river was only about four feet deep in the deepest spot, way too shallow to drown in, and the current was sluggish as hell – a man could walk along the bank and keep pace with a stick floating in it without half trying.
“We finally decided Will must’ve fallen in the river, hit his head or something, and the current had carried him downstream,” Claymore said. “I don’t think any of us believed that was what became of him, but to be honest, nothing else made any sense.”
Claymore told the marshal that he and his companions had coffee, pilot bread and bacon for breakfast, then saddled up. Pulling Will’s horse along behind them on a lead, they worked their way down the river, following the current for a mile or two.
That’s where they finally found Will Lightfoot – or what was left of him.
“The current sure enough had carried him downstream, and he finally hung up in some brambles that overhung the water,” Claymore said. “The straps from the canteens were still gripped in his hand, and we had to break his fingers to pull them loose.
“At first we thought he had drowned, but when we pulled him out of the river, we could see he had these little pinholes side-by-side all over his damned body,” Claymore continued. “As near as we could figure it, the poor son-of-a-bitch stumbled onto a cottonmouth nest in the dark while he was trying to fill the canteens with water and the snakes must have bit him to death where he stood. Even his face was tattooed with fang holes.”
Claymore took another sip of water. “I guess it was all those slimy snakes chewing on him that made him scream like a baby,” he said. “Will was half-assed scared of snakes, anyway. I’ll never forget the look on his face when we got him up on the bank and turned him over: he might have been covered with snakebites, but it looked like he had died of fright.”
Claymore drew a hand across his brow as if he was wiping off sweat, even though he was far too dried out to perspire. “So Will was the first one to go, and he died from water, just the way the Obeah said,” he told Tyler. “He may have been bit to death by water snakes instead of drowning, but there’s no question that water played a big part in it, all the same.”
Tyler wasn’t so sure; the west was full of hazards that could snatch a man’s life away without warning.
But Claymore wasn’t finished yet. He hacked more mud into the cuspidor, took as deep a breath as would fit inside his sunken chest and resumed his story.
“Andy was the next to go,” he said, wearily, recalling his days on the trail before he reached Aguas Bravas. “This time it was in broad daylight and both Jack and I saw it happen, so there wasn’t any guesswork about what took him off.
“We buried Will in a little pit up out of reach of the water and decided to follow the river about another ten miles until it winds its way through the mountain range that cuts the prairie to the west. Will’s horse was acting spooky and we had some trouble keeping him under control so our passage slowed down considerably once we reached the cañon cut by the water.”
The wind had started to come up about a half hour before they found Will’s body and it was driving sand straight into their eyes as they made their way under the cliffs that lined the water. Sand-choked gusts occasionally made visibility nearly impossible, and all three men pulled their hats low to protect their eyes and tied bandanas over their noses and mouths to filter the grit.
“Andy was riding point,” Claymore said. “Carmody was behind him and I brought up the rear, pulling Will’s horse. The wind was really howling and Andy pulled up and held up his hand to get our attention as we neared a sharp bend in the river toward the south.”
“As he did, there was a crack and a rumble and the next thing we knew, we were in the middle of a big landslide. Rocks the size of a horse and wagon were crashing down around us and rolling into the river. The sides of the cañon were studded with scrub pine and mesquite and a shower of brush fell between us and Andy.”
Claymore said that he could barely see his two companions through the dust and falling rubble, but as he struggled to control his own mount and the one he was leading, the aggregate holding back a boulder the size of a Wells Fargo coach gave way and the huge stone began to roll down the steep side of the cañon, gaining speed as it came.
Claymore tried to yell a warning at Lightfoot, but his voice was smothered by the noise of the slide. As he watched helplessly, the massive rock gave a final bound through the air and landed directly on Andy and his horse, crushing both of them flat against the stony riverbank.
“What was weird was that the gale seemed to die down immediately after that boulder landed,” he said, staring at the ceiling of his cell as if watching the scene unfold in his mind. “Within seconds, there was no howling wind, no rattle of rocks. It was as silent as a graveyard. The only sound you could hear was the gurgle of the river pushing through all that fresh scree. Otherwise, there wasn’t so much as a bird singing anywhere in the cañon.”
Tyler was still not convinced the Lightborn brothers’ deaths were the result of anything other than bad luck, although it did seem to him two “accidents” in a row pushed the boundaries of coincidence. He also thought it more than a fluke that both brothers were killed in ways predicted by the Obeah, with one dying by water and the other by death from the air.
“Your story is interesting, Mr. Claymore,” he said, “but you still seem to be among the living, despite what this witch woman predicted. And I can’t easily understand how you could be killed by the earth unless it were to crack open and swallow you up.”
Claymore’s responding chuckle was ghastly. “There’s more than one way the earth can kill a man, Marshal,” he said, coughing uncontrollably and spitting another stream of mud into the cuspidor.
“You might just as easily conclude that Andy Lightfoot’s death was caused by the earth as that it came from the sky. But the witch was specific: she said Will would die by water, not that water would kill him. He was snake bit on the river bank – in other words, while he was standing by water – and the serpents that killed him were water snakes, as well.”
“As for Andy, she didn’t say he would be killed by the sky,” he added. “What she said was, his death would come from the sky. And that big boulder was sure as hell airborne when it smashed him and his horse like a pair of cockroaches.”
Tyler had to admit Claymore’s interpretation of the witch’s curse seemed to parallel the two deaths he had described so far. “So what about Carmody’s death being caused by ‘fire from the sky?’” he asked. “That sounds like something out of the Old Testament to me. What happened to Jack Carmody – how does he fit in?”
Claymore’s smile disappeared. “I’m afraid the way Jack died wasn’t as interesting as the Lightborns,” he said. “It was a lot more straightforward.”
Tyler couldn’t help but smile. He’d had a feeling the witch’s predictions wouldn’t hold up.
“So, what happened to Carmody?” he asked.
Claymore coughed again, but more shallowly, as if he was running out of the energy necessary to clear his lungs.
“When we got out of the cañon, clouds had moved in from the west and the wind was starting to kick up,” he said when he once again could speak.
“It started to rain, slowly at first, then in a downpour so’s you couldn’t see twenty feet ahead of you. In a second we were both soaked all the way to the bone, and the horses were slipping and sliding in the mud. Even though the deaths of the Lightfoot boys had cost us a passel of time, we decided to make a camp for the night, Wells Fargo agent or no.”
The violent rainstorm quickly raised the river’s level above its banks, and the water surged some fifty feet, lapping at the hooves of their mounts.
“We were worried about getting caught in the river bottom by a flash flood, so we climbed a little rise that overlooked the stream,” Claymore said. “Jack got off his horse and led him up to a cottonwood tree so he could tie him up while we put a campsite together.”
He gave Tyler a bleak look.
“As he reached up to loop his lead around a branch, there was a flash and the tree exploded into flames,” Claymore said.
“So did Jack. That tree’d been hit dead center by a lightning bolt. Jack Carmody was killed on the spot – by fire from the sky.”
For a minute, Tyler could think of nothing to say. He didn’t consider himself superstitious, but he had to admit that the outlaw’s story gave him chills.
“Well, Mr. Claymore, I can guarantee you one thing,” he said finally. “While you are a tenant in my little jail, at least, you won’t be buried by rockslides or have the earth swallow you up. You are reasonably safe here, at least until the deputy from Wellington arrives. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll escape the hangman when you reach the territorial seat, but you won’t die before then, at least not from some witch’s curse.”
Claymore gave Tyler his skeletal grin. “I’ll hold you to that, Marshal,” he croaked. “That’s why I came here and turned myself in. I don’t fear the hangman: I figured I’d meet my end on the gallows ever since I started fighting the law a dozen years ago. But wondering exactly what that witch woman has in store for me chills me to the bone. I’d rather do a jig at the end of a rope than let her and her heathen gods have their way with me.”
“Now if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to get a little shut-eye. This is the first time in four days I have felt safe enough to try sleeping.”
Deputy Weaver was married and lived in a little house at the far end of Main Street with his wife and six-year-old son. Tyler, a bachelor, had a room in the Hotel Barry a half block from the jail. Because the citizens of Aguas Brava numbered only 103, the jail was usually empty and the lawmen left it unattended at night.
Tyler felt a twinge of concern about locking the place up with Claymore unsupervised inside, but he decided the outlaw was too weak to break out and the jail’s sturdy back and front doors, secured by padlocked gates with iron bars, would surely keep out any unwanted visitors.
So the Marshal locked up a bit before six, had some supper and a glass of whisky in the hotel’s dining room, and then climbed the stairs to his room to rack out.
As night fell, the wind from the west came up, chasing clouds of red dirt down Main Street. It was strong enough to howl by midnight and the sign that swung on chains over the front entry began to bang against the uprights on the veranda an hour or so later.
Even so, the racket didn’t rouse Tyler from his sleep until half past two, when the wind snatched the sign down onto the veranda boardwalk with a crash. The Marshal sat up in bed blinking at the darkness and thumbing back the hammer on his old revolver. In his disoriented state, it took a couple of minutes for him to light the kerosene lantern by his bed with a Lucifer. He was surprised at the time when he looked at his pocket watch on the nightstand.
Outside, the gale was in full voice, sending shudders through the hotel every time it gusted. He looked out the window onto Main but couldn’t see anything, the air was so clogged with dust and blowing debris.
He was climbing into his trousers and pulling on his boots when there was a knock at the door. Putting on his jacket, he picked up his hat and found find Deputy Weaver waiting outside with a grim face, his clothes layered with red dust as completely as if he had spent the last week on horseback.
“Marshal, the Summers family’s lost most of its roof because of this damned windstorm that blew up out of nowhere and their little girl is trapped somewhere in the wreckage,” he said. “They need our help. I wouldn’t bother to bring that Stetson if I was you: it’s going to get blown off your head and end up in New Jersey or some damned place. Just get a muffler or scarf and wrap it around your face so’s you can breathe. I swear there must be a couple ton of dust swirling around out there tonight.”
Kathy, the six-year-old Summers girl, turned out to be unharmed, though it took most of an hour of digging through the wreckage of her home to find her. Luckily, Charlie Summers had built a storage shed on the porch where the roof had collapsed, and the wooden structure kept the overhead from falling all the way to the deck. If it had, the timbers would have maimed the child or killed her outright.
After they finished helping the Summers family find temporary shelter with neighbors, Weaver and Tyler each took a side of Main Street and walked east, looking for damage and reassuring citizens that they were on duty and ready to assist them. By a quarter to six, the wind was beginning to die down and the dust had cleared enough so they felt they could eat before the deputy from Wellington arrived with the Pinkerton detective in tow.
“Bob, why don’t you go over to the jail and check our prisoner while I get cleaned up,” Tyler said. “Meet me back at the hotel dining room and we’ll grab coffee and some breakfast before these two fellows collect him.”
Weaver nodded and headed toward the lock-up while Tyler went upstairs, took off his coat and filled his basin with wash water from the ewer on the dresser. He was just toweling off when Weaver entered his room with a peculiar expression on his face.
“Marshal, I think you better come see this,” he said, an incredulous tone to his voice.
“See what, Bob?” Tyler asked as he hung up his towel.
Weaver shook his head. “I can’t exactly put it into words,” he said, his voice showing strain. “Best you see for yourself.”
With a sigh, Tyler followed his deputy.
“The jail was locked up when I got here,” Weaver said, pointing toward the gate that covered the front door. “The padlock was in place and hadn’t been tampered with. I took a look round back and the rear was secure, too.”
Leading the Marshal in, he said, “I opened up and passed through the outer office here into the cell block. That’s when I found this.”
He stepped out of Tyler’s way so he could walk through the passageway outside the two cells.
Tyler stared, open-mouthed.
The unoccupied cell looked like it did when the Marshal left Claymore the previous afternoon, except the floor was coated with a layer of finely divided red dust about a quarter inch deep. The dust was undisturbed: there were no tracks in it or signs of how it had got into the cell, although the previous night’s hard wind could have blown it in through the iron louvers that covered the single window above the cot.
It was the other little cell, the one in which Claymore was housed, that stunned the Marshal: it, too, had a window cut into the stone of the cell wall and a louvered steel plate bolted to the building’s exterior.
But unlike the empty cell, Claymore’s was filled with a pile of dust at least five feet deep – so deep that the cot Claymore had been lying on during Tyler’s interview was covered completely with a mound of red that spilled out through the bars and covered the passageway floor outside.
It looked like nearly a ton of red dirt was heaped on one side of the cell.
“Jesus, Bob,” Tyler said excitedly. “Our prisoner’s someplace under all that damned dirt. Help me dig him out, man!”
The two frantically pawed through the dust. Nearly thirty minutes passed before Weaver reached Claymore, and he found the outlaw’s right hand already stiffening in a claw-like gesture from rigor mortis, as if he had suffocated while trying to dig himself out of the dirt, alone and in terror.
A few minutes later they managed to free the rest of Claymore’s body, lifting it between them and carrying it out into the outer office.
Tyler looked down at his own hands. They were covered with brick red dust. He slapped them together but the grit, fine as flour, stuck to them despite the effort. He finally removed it by rubbing his hands on the legs of his trousers.
Even a cursory examination made it clear Claymore had been dead for several hours: his entire corpse was as stiff as his hand, and his posture suggested he had died struggling to keep his head above the red dust. Clearly his weakened condition had made that struggle fruitless.
Tyler stuck a crooked finger into the dead man’s open mouth and scooped out a pile of red dirt. He suspected the dust packed Claymore’s throat all the way down into his lungs.
“Damn, what a horrible way to die,” Weaver said, shaking his head in shock.
Tyler studied the corpse. “He knew what was happening, too,” he said. Gently using the tips of his fingers, he pushed the dirt off the dead man’s face. “See here, Bob: he had his eyes wide open when he died.”
It was true: despite the crust of dirt that covered them, Claymore’s sightless eyes stared fixedly into the middle distance. His mouth, gaping from his desperate effort to breathe, made his face a mask of terror.
Tyler sighed wearily. He had hoped to turn Claymore over to the lawman from Wellington and wash his hands of the entire matter, but he could see that was no longer an option. Claymore’s death under such peculiar circumstances meant there would have to be an inquest.
The marshal’s heart sank at the thought. A coroner’s jury might take days to complete even if Claymore had died normally. Explaining the outlaw’s bizarre demise, however, could drag things out for weeks. Tyler had little doubt that the eventual verdict would be death by asphyxiation – no other conclusion was even remotely possible. But the question remained: how had Claymore suffocated in dust while he was locked in a jail cell?
It was almost as if Weaver was reading his mind.
“I don’t understand where all this dirt came from,” the deputy said, puzzlement in his voice. “I know it was windy as hell last night and the air was so full of dust you couldn’t breathe without a filter, but these windows are ten feet above ground. For that much dirt to sift in through the shutters, the whole back of the jail would have to be buried. And why is there so much dirt in one cell and almost none in the other? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Tyler thought about the mud Claymore had vomited into the cuspidor and realized the outlaw’s lungs had been filling with dust long before he reached Aguas Bravas. From the way he had been coughing, Claymore would have almost certainly have suffocated in a couple more days on the trail, anyway.
What was that curse the Obeah had sworn on Claymore? “You will die by the earth, by direction of Mistress Orishania, Goddess of the fifth day, she who created everything from Olorun’s clay,” she’d said.
Well, Tyler had no idea who Orishania or Olorun were, but the earth had damn sure took Claymore, just as she said it would. In fact, each member of the gang had died the way the witch had predicted: Carmody had been incinerated by a lightning bolt, Will Lightfoot, bit to death by water snakes and his brother, Andy, crushed by a giant rock that fell from the sky.
The deputy hunkered down next to the dead man and surveyed the pile of soil that had covered his body. “It’s almost as if somebody came in here and shoveled all that dirt on top of him,” he said.
Tyler shuddered even though he didn’t feel particularly cold.
“I suppose that might have been what happened, Bob, but I think we should keep that theory to ourselves,” he said. “I don’t want people coming to the conclusion that the two of us are madmen, lest we both wind up in a cell like this ourselves.”
“Let’s get all this dirt out of the jail and clean our tenant up as well as we can before those fellows from Wellington arrive. It seems to me our best bet is to just say that Mr. Claymore here was in a bad way when he first arrived in town and he quietly passed on during the night.”
He gave Weaver a weary look. “That’ll be a hell of a lot easier to explain than that he choked to death in a cell full of dirt that mysteriously crept into the jail when nobody else was around.”
(Copyright William E. Wallace; Smashwords, 2013)