The following unpublished short story by New Mexico freelance writer Regis McCafferty is scheduled for publication in 2006. Permission is granted by the author to Mr. William Roser to post it on his website. It cannot be copied or reproduced without specific permission by the author.
JUST PLAIN CLIFF SMITH
His real name was Ezekiel Patrick O’Reilly. His father had been an itinerant Irish tinsmith and his mother a bible thumper, and he could never remember a time as a child or young adult that he didn’t hate his name. When he was seventeen, his parents died in a flood of the Susquehanna River at Williamsport Pennsylvania and within a month, he’d headed west and changed his name to Cliff Smith…. just plain Cliff Smith.
Now, at thirty-four, sitting astride a gray appaloosa on a rise overlooking the community of Lee Valley in eastern Arizona Territory, not many miles from the White Mountain Apache Reservation, he reflected on what he did for a living. He was vaguely aware that some folks had added a suffix to Cliff Smith. Sometimes it was shootist, sometimes gunfighter, sometimes tracker, sometimes gun for hire… it didn’t really matter to him. It’s what he was and what he did and he picked his jobs with great care. He didn’t look for trouble or look for work. People sought him out, and though he never kept track, he probably turned down nine out of ten jobs. But he was well paid for those he took and it provided for a small spread in the Jemez Mountains in central New Mexico Territory.
He kept a young Mescalero Apache woman that he’d met several years before while on a job in Las Cruces. Her name was Juanita Looking and she certainly was good looking; slender, brown eyes, and raven black hair. What she was looking for, he never knew, but she must have found it because she’d been with him more than two years.
Three months earlier, a man named Aaron Booker, known also as Bronk Booker, kidnapped, repeatedly raped, and then murdered the fourteen year old daughter of a rancher outside Belen, New Mexico. The rancher’s name was John Grimes; the daughter’s name was Sarah. Booker had worked for Grimes as a wrangler but had been fired several days before the kidnapping for being drunk on the job one time too many.
There wasn’t any doubt about Booker. He’d been seen by two ranch hands early morning of the day after the girl had been kidnapped, Booker leading her on a horse on a road west of town. Her hands were on the pommel and may have been tied but they didn’t get close enough to tell. At the time, they didn’t know who she was or that she’d been kidnapped. It was only two days later when they’d gone into town for a few drinks and a card game that they heard about the kidnapping and told the sheriff what they’d seen. The girl’s naked body, or what was left after coyotes and other critters had finished with it, had been found in an arroyo five days later. Booker had disappeared.
Four weeks after the funeral, Grimes showed up at Cliff Smith’s spread with one thousand dollars, a promise to cover expenses, and another thousand if Smith brought Booker back to stand trial.
“I don’t bring men back, Mr. Grimes.”
Grimes thought for a moment. “Proof, then.”
They shook hands and Smith started out two days later. Booker had been spotted in Socorro and that’s where Smith picked up the most damning information. While drunk, Booker bragged to a couple of whores how he’d paid the bastard back who’d fired him by making sure the man’s daughter was no longer a virgin. She had fought him, raked the side of his face, but he beat her senseless and took her. He claimed he had her for three days and then left her. Didn’t say how or where.
Smith followed his trail south to Las Cruces, west to Tucson, south again to Tombstone, and eventually north toward Flagstaff. It was as if Booker knew someone was dogging him, and probably did. Smith asked a lot of questions in a lot of towns; Lee Valley was just one more. He nudged his horse to a walk and moved slowly to the town.
There were less than two dozen houses, a general store where he assumed there was also a saloon, and what looked like a blacksmith’s shop in front of a small barn. He didn’t see a church. “My kind of town,” he mumbled. He reined in at the blacksmith’s, dismounted and looped the reins around the hitching post as the smithy looked up from a bar of white-hot metal he was working around the horn of his anvil.
Cliff nodded toward his horse. “Some grain and brush him down?”
The Smithy thrust the metal bar into a bucket of cold water. “Four bits.”
“Inside the general store.”
Cliff untied the scabbard that held his shotgun and tucked it under his arm. “Any recent strangers to town?”
“One… yesterday. Came in on that bay in the stall.”
Cliff walked forward and looked past the door to the first stall. The bay had three white stockings, similar to the horse that Booker was supposed to be riding. “The fellow tall, dark hair, bearded and a bit slope shouldered?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Sure you ain’t the law?”
“Not the official kind.”
“Nope. I just know him. Name’s Bronk.”
“That’s what he said. Name’s on his saddle too. Probably in the saloon. Leastwise that’s where he’s been mostly since he rode in.”
Cliff turned toward the general store. “I’ll be back in a half hour for my horse. Going to have a beer and be moving on.”
The saloon was off to one side in the store and not much but some two by tens, two wide, laid out on some barrels and about thirty feet long. There were a half dozen tables with a card game going on at two of them. Booker was at one, sitting sideways to the door and glanced up as Cliff came in. He stared for a few seconds, frowned as though trying to place Cliff and then went back to his game. There was no reason for him to know Cliff Smith. No reason at all, though he might have heard rumors of someone on his trail.
Cliff walked to the makeshift bar, laid his shotgun, still in the scabbard, on the closest two by ten and ordered a beer from a stout fellow in a dirty apron. An oval, fly specked mirror hung on the wall and in it, Cliff could see Booker. He sipped his beer and watched. He didn’t want to take the bastard in the saloon if he could help it and since Booker had shown little interest in him when he walked in, Cliff figured he could eventually confront him when he went outside. Five minutes went by, then ten. He was about to order another beer when Booker pushed back from the table saying to deal him out - he’d be back in a few minutes. He got up, walked to the far end of the bar near the general store section and pushed through a door.
Cliff motioned to the bartender. “Outhouse nearby?”
“Out back. Ya kin follow that fellow what just went out.”
Cliff put some coins on the bar. “Gimme another. I’ll be right back.”
He had no intention of coming back. He picked up his cased shotgun and walked through the door. The outhouse was about thirty feet away with the door closed and Cliff walked to within fifteen feet or so, then stopped next to an old Oak. Without taking the shotgun from the scabbard, he cocked both hammers and waited.
The outhouse door swung open and Booker stepped out, blinking in the bright sunlight. Cliff moved away from the tree, holding the still cased shotgun angled forward with his finger on the forward trigger. Booker saw the movement and stopped, placing his right hand on his belt buckle. He was wearing a cross draw with the butt of his pistol angled forward on his left hip.
Cliff had the sun to his back and was standing in the shade of the Oak. “Bronk Booker?”
Booker went for his gun and Cliff let him clear leather before he leveled the shotgun and pulled the trigger. The first blast caught Booker chest high, spun him left and backwards into the door of the outhouse. The blast from the second barrel caught him in the neck and shoulder as he was sliding down the door toward the ground. Cliff walked forward and looked down at the mess left by the buckshot just as Booker exhaled his last through bloody bubbles. He then turned, walked quickly toward the stable, and was out of sight of the general store in a few seconds.
His appaloosa was brushed and the smithy was just removing the feedbag when Cliff walked up. The smithy put the bag on the ground. “Thought I heard a shot.” He glanced at Cliff’s scabbard with the end blown off. “Sounded like a shotgun maybe…”
“Someone hunting quail, I expect. I just won Bronk’s horse and saddle in a cut of high card. Saddle him up and I’ll be moving on.”
“Well… I dunno…”
Cliff flipped him a twenty dollar gold eagle. “This should take care of any feed and board, now saddle him up!”
Several minutes later he was riding out of town and looked back. The smithy was headed toward the general store and he could see a half dozen men gathered at the outhouse. He doubted the town constable, if there was one, would form a posse. Booker’s drawn gun would raise questions and by the time they sorted out who had done what, he’d be in the hill country. Bronk’s horse and saddle were enough proof to collect his fee from Grimes.
Cliff reined in atop the same hill he’d been on earlier and looked back on Lee Valley. He crooked his leg over the pommel, took an old pipe from his shirt pocket, filled and lit it. As he drew on the pipe, he thought about what had just happened. He had no remorse. That had surprised him early on but not any more. The men he killed deserved it many times over and in any case, most expected it sooner or later.
He pulled the shotgun scabbard loose from the saddle keep, looked at the blown out end and doubted it could be repaired, but he’d stop by a saddle shop in Albuquerque and ask. If not, he’d buy a new one and charge Grimes for it. Maybe buy Juanita a dress as well. Something bright and colorful. She’d like that.
He turned his horse east toward Albuquerque and nudged him to a fast walk. If the weather held, he’d be home in ten days. No more jobs for a while… Then again…
* * * END * * *
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