The sun was centered in the pale desert sky when the rider pulled up in front of a squat, adobe building and dismounted. A sign on the door announced U.S. Marshal, Santa Fe County. The man was tall and slender and the unseating maneuver was slow and methodical.
Once on the ground he scratched the horse's nose and ears. He then removed his hat and used it to dust his shirt and trousers. While he attended to his personal grooming the door to the little building opened and a man walked out. He wore a silver shield on the lapel of his coat. He looked at the man and grimaced. "You know you're just getting your hat dirty. If you want to see your skin again you might want to get into a tub of water."
The man standing in the self-inflicted dust cloud smiled broadly. His teeth were like white pickets fronting a shabby house. It had been a few days since he had shaved. There was a silver star pinned to his rumpled shirt. "Too damn cold for a bath, Bill! I could drink a beer, though. Wash off the insides, don't you reckon?" The men both smiled.
"Take your horse on down to the livery, Henry. I'll meet you in the Amapola."
The marshal took two beers to a corner table, nodding to several townsmen. The tall, skinny deputy marshal entered the Amapola Emporia a few minutes later. He was greeted by the stout Mexican bartender and they spoke in Spanish while the man filled a plate from the offerings on the counter.
The marshal sipped from his glass, giving the other man time to relish the beans and boiled eggs and cheese. When he had finished and was rolling a cigarette, the marshal spoke.
"Any trouble in Las Cruces? The prisoner behave himself?"
"He didn't give me no problems. I just told him I'd shoot him if he tried to escape and if he stole my horse he'd really make me mad. He wasn't no trouble. I like to froze comin' back, though; built me a fire every night. Left in sunshine and come back with winter chasin' me. It's goin' to snow before you know it, Bill!"
The deputy handed the cigarette across the table and began rolling another. The marshal struck a match and smoked thoughtfully for a moment.
"Henry, I've been thinking. There aren't any trials coming up and there aren't any warrants to serve, and you're back from Las Cruces. There's some old business I'd like to take care of." The tall man exhaled a cloud of smoke and nodded his head.
"You don't have to tell me what you're thinkin', Bill. I know you mean that Indian, the Navajo. Ol' Barton's Navajo slave."
The marshal took a long drink and finished the beer. "I can't wait any longer, Henry. I've got to make Barton turn him loose."
"Well," said Henry, "be good to have a couple fellers with us. That old man ain't about to give up easy. I remember seein' Barton's woman in town, when they come in for supplies. She just lookin' straight ahead, eyes all red and a big swoll-up lip. He's a mean one!" The deputy drained his glass and held up a hand.
"One more, Bill! I'm buyin'!"
Henry unwound himself from the chair and shuffled off with the glasses and empty plate. The marshal knew from experience that his deputy needed time and space for movement and for thought. He extended the boundaries for his deputy, who was honest and loyal. There was not a long line of men waiting for the job of Deputy Marshal. The pay was not good, and there had been times of danger.
Henry finally returned with the beer. "You know, Bill, I been thinkin', an' for a long while, too. If that's the way he treats his wife, you know, ol' Barton, smackin' her around and all well that Navajo must be in rough shape. You know, he won't kill him, 'cause he needs him to work the mine an' all, but that's not right! Like he was a dog; hell, I'd whip a man who done his dog like that!"
The marshal waited until his deputy had started on his second beer and was rolling another cigarette.
"What I want to say, Henry, is that I can't wait any longer for Congress to keep its promise. Mr. Lincoln put his name on the Proclamation. He put his name on a paper that made me a Marshal in New Mexico. He told Congress to send money so the Indians could have transportation home. And I waited all this time for a bunch of politicians to keep their word? I'm ashamed, deputy!" The man leaned back in his chair and studied the ceiling.
"I know what you mean, Bill. I kinda wondered about that. You know they can't be that many slaves left, can there? Lots of 'em run off when they found out they was free. They didn't wait for no money!" The marshal leaned forward in his chair and looked closely at his deputy.
"I'll tell you something, Henry. While you were gone I sent telegrams all over the Territory, Arizona too. I got answers to every one of 'em, and nobody knows of any Indians being held in slavery, anywhere! They've all been turned loose, or ran off. But I know where there is one, and so do you!"
Henry closed his eyes and blew out a breath. "Oh, lord! Ol' Barton. The skinflint ol' bastard!"
The marshal pushed back his chair and stood. "I've just been waiting for you to get back. The two of us will have to do it. There aren't many men around here willing to be shot at to help an Indian. That Navajo is a free man. He might even know it by now and can't get away. We've got to get out there. We'll be snowed out if we wait any longer. You take off the rest of the day and rest-up, get some sleep. We'll leave at first light."
Henry finished what was in his glass and slowly got to his feet. "I'm for sure goin' to oil my Spenser and bring plenty of shells! I remember the last time out there, when the ol' buzzard shot at you!"
The riders stopped on the crest of a little ridge and dismounted. It was a rest for the horses and a last talk of strategy for the lawmen. The roof of the house across the little arroyo was visible under the midmorning sun. The front was obscured by the yellowing leaves of the sheltering cottonwoods. Behind the house stood a barn and several outbuildings, beyond that the slope of the mountain and the heavy wooden frame of the mine entrance. The deputy sniffed at a passing breeze and nodded at the house.
"Smoke comin' from the chimney. Reckon he's in the house?"
"No way to know," said the marshal. "We've got to hope he's in the mine. If we can trap him in there and smoke him out well, that's the best way." The marshal mounted his horse and glanced at his deputy." Well, Henry, get that old Spenser in your hands. We've got to send that Navajo back to his tribe!" They walked their mounts slowly down the ridge and passed the screen of cottonwoods. When they were in full view of the porch they reined in their horses.
A man sat in a rocking-chair drinking coffee. His skin was the color of fresh adobe. He wore new denim trousers with sulfur-yellow suspenders hung slack at his sides. His boots were shiny, and his large chest and broad shoulders were covered by a bright red union-suit. He looked completely at ease, comfortable, like any other man at home in the morning drinking coffee.
A woman stepped out of the house onto the porch. She had a hair-brush in her hands. She smiled at the men, but was not in the least upset by their arrival. She walked out onto the porch and stood beside the man in the chair. She put her hand on his shoulder, and placed the hair-brush in his lap.
Curtis Longbow raised his cup and nodded. "Marshal," he drawled. "How 'bout some coffee?" He smiled pleasantly, his oval face serene and untroubled. "Long ride out here. They need coffee, Eliza." The man moved his eyes up to look at the woman. She blushed and ran a hand over her hair.
"I'll bring out some chairs," she said, and glided away into the house.
The men un-cocked their rifles, slipped them into scabbards and dismounted. They removed their hats and helped the woman arrange chairs on the porch. She brought out cups and a steaming pot and the men sat. The woman smoothed her apron again, then walked around behind the man in the rocking chair and picked up the brush. She smiled at the guests and began working the brush through the man's long black hair. It appeared to be a ritual.
The marshal and his deputy looked bewildered. This was not the situation they had predicted; there was no conflict, no violent conclusion to a long-standing and thorny situation. The marshal and his deputy sipped their coffee. It was an unexpected development. Finally the marshal cleared his throat.
"Uh, Mrs. Barton, we came out here to talk to well, Mr. Barton. Is he is he at home?" The woman's eyes went to her hands, then to Curtis Longbow, and returned finally to the marshal.
"He died," she said. "Just about a week after you were last here, Marshal. You tell about it, Curtis." She was still working on the man's hair and began fashioning it into a bun. She worked slowly, considering every move of the creation. The man's good-natured face smiled just enough to move his lips.
"Well, Marshal," he began, "ol' Barton had me diggin' a well, out yonder." He motioned over his shoulder by moving his eyes and mouth. "When I wasn't in the tunnel I was down the well. He'd come out, now an' then, checkin' on how deep I was. I'd climb out and he'd look in the hole. Then he'd start cussin' me and smackin' me with a strap. Always had his pistol handy, too.
"That last day, he was hittin' the jug kinda early, feelin' rowdy. I climbed out and he swung at me with the strap. I stepped to the side and he tripped over his feet. Over he went, head first, down in the hole. Just kinda stumbled. It was near ten foot deep. I looked in and he wasn't makin' no noise. He just sort of grunted when he hit bottom. I went on down and looked him over; his neck was broke. Me and Eliza talked it over. He was dead as last year's corn, so I just filled in the hole."
The marshal and his deputy looked at each other and blinked. Henry's mouth was slightly open. It was a while before anyone spoke. The deputy finally closed his mouth and began rolling a cigarette.
Curtis Longbow spoke again after refilling the coffee cups. "I'm startin' a new well over by the cottonwoods. Better place, anyhow."
Marshal Early cleared his throat and lit the cigarette his deputy handed him.
"When I was out here before," he said, "I told Barton that all slaves had to be let go. I told him there was no more slavery. Indians, too - all slaves, everywhere. Did you know you were free?"
"Eliza told me, soon's she got the chance."
"Didn't you try to run off?"
Curtis Longbow's round face beamed in a gentle smile. "Barton had a pair of handcuffs. And he had a pistol. It's in the house. He'd start on the jug, here come the cuffs. He'd put me in the barn, cuff me to the wall, whip on me some. Then he'd go back to the house and he'd start on Eliza. I heard her cryin', lots of times. I could have got away, prob'ly. I guess I had a feelin' that someday he'd get bit by a snake, or the tunnel might cave in, or he'd fall down a hole."
The deputy nodded his head slowly. "An' he fell down a hole."
Curtis nodded. "I couldn't leave Eliza with that varmint. Sure enough, one day he got drunk and over he went. I tossed the cuffs and strap down there with 'im - buried 'em with the sumbitch! Kept the pistol, though."
The marshal blew out smoke and looked at the woman who was admiring the man in the gaudy clothing. "Curtis," he said, "you speak better English than a lot of white men."
"Thanks, Marshal. Worked for a trader when I was a kid. Traveled between St. Louis and the Zuni's for a couple years; helped with the tradin', too. Old Man Siegel talked all the time, an' he expected me to do the same." The man paused to finish his coffee. He sniffed as a breeze passed along the porch, scattering yellow cottonwood leaves.
"Smells like snow comin', pretty soon. Anyhow, ol' Siegel talked a lot and he got me to talkin'. And he got me to read newspapers, and Eliza's been teachin' me. We get books from the mail-order that we pick up in Albuquerque. That's where I got the duds." He smiled as he pulled the sulfur-yellow suspenders up over his broad shoulders. "Ol' Barton near worked me to death in the mine, for nothin'. Now, Eliza and me, both workin', we make a livin'. And we keep the money!"
The marshal smiled and nodded. "Kind of sounds like you're partners, you and Mrs. Barton?"
"I reckon so," said Curtis, smiling up at the woman.
"We're partners," she said. "And I'm not Mrs. Barton any more."
"No ma'am." The lawmen stood and shook hands with their hosts. When they reached the horses, the marshal turned to the couple on the porch. "You know, we came out here to make Barton give you a horse and twenty dollars and set you free. I guess you won't be going back to Arizona Territory, now?"
The couple stood on the edge of the porch, smiling contentedly. "I'm takin' Eliza in the spring. See my kinfolks. Share some of what we've got. That's the way with my people, share with the ones that don't have much. Talk to the shaman. Then we'll come back here. This is home now."
The woman linked her arm with Curtis Longbow's. "We've got a business to run, Marshal. Can't leave it too long."
The men had ridden for an hour without speaking. Finally the marshal motioned for a stop. They dismounted and looked at the lowering sky. "Let's have a smoke, Henry."
"Yessir, Marshal." The deputy reached for the sack in his pocket and looked across the distance at the mesas and buttes that were being curtained more and more in purple haze. "I think ol' Curtis is right about the snow." The marshal looked about him at the coming season and nodded.
"Tell me, Henry, what does a man see a shaman about? You know about some of that, don't you?"
"Oh, some. Grew up around Navajo kids. Curtis'll prob'ly get the holy man to sing over him and the woman. Friends and kinfolks'll dance and pray and all. There's different kinds of ceremonies for the different things that might ail you. Curtis and Eliza was treated mighty bad by an evil ol' devil, an' then the devil died somehow." He handed over the cigarette and started another.
"To a Navajo that's a heap of evil," the deputy continued, "an' Curtis prob'ly feels some of it rubbed off on them. The singin' and his friends and family bein' close makes 'em clean again. Somethin' like that; might take up to a week."
The marshal nodded his head slowly. "Does the holy man do weddings, too?"
Henry nodded his reply, licking at the cigarette paper. He grinned as he struck a match. "When they get back they'll be Mr. and Mrs. Longbow." The men both grinned. The deputy took off his hat and hung it on the pommel, rumpling his sandy hair. "I been thinkin', Bill." Marshal Early stared soberly while listening to his deputy. "You reckon it happened like ol' Curtis said? You know, Barton just accidentally fallin' in the hole an' all?"
The marshal examined his cigarette. "I'll tell you something. I thought about it, too. I wondered why they didn't come into town and tell me when it happened. But it's a long ride, and Barton was dead and in the ground. I don't know what difference it would have made."
Henry nodded. "Yeah. Still, I kinda wonder if the cuffs went in after Barton fell, or if maybe he was wearin' 'em when he went in the hole. An' was his neck broke before he fell in or after? Little things like that. That's what I was wonderin'. But like you said, Bill, ain't no difference, now. I reckon they'll be just as happy, be it by accident or on purpose. Don't you?"
The men mounted their horses and the marshal glanced around him at the changing land, at the gray and bulging clouds. "I reckon, Henry," he said. They kicked up into a trot and the hooves made flinty sounds when they crossed a dry stream bed.
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This work is copyrighted by the author, Al Carty. All rights reserved