by Jason Polliard
Fearing imminent death in the upcoming Confederate New Mexican Campaign, a motley crew of Texan soldiers take on a fateful contract, and try to live with the consequences.
Life’s just one big, rabid bitch.
At least, those’re the sentiments of one Galo Philip del Olmo McCabe, a thirty-something year-old first lieutenant in Texas’ mounted infantry, yet the prospect of death seems far worse to Phil, especially now that the prospect has haunted his nightmares of late, carrying the weight of imminent inevitability – as though fate were now nipping at his heels – in the face of the coming fiasco in Union-held New Mexico. It’s why he’s here, sitting astride the saddle aback Charger, his trusty palomino and only longtime friend, at the end of an unseasonably cold and blustery mid-winter day in the middle of the quiet Confederate Arizonan desert, roughly halfway between the territorial capital of Mesilla along the western bank of the Rio Grande, and the mining camp of Organ at the northern end of the rugged mountains for which it is named.
Phil’s brown eyes blankly stare out from his scarfed, dusty face and off into the distance, lost in thought as he mulls over a fateful choice born from the union of his desperation and greed – an offspring he both rejoices and fears: On the one hand, his choice offers a chance to kill two birds with one stone – wealth beyond his imagining and avoidance of the pending campaign – while on the other, it will probably cost Phil what remains of his soul, which, in the grand scheme of things, has never meant much to him, anyway – Catholic upbringing or no. He has no time for all that superstition, being far too cynical to accept such beliefs anyway, especially when experience has taught him different things. All the same, Phil does take some measure of comfort in the fact that eight others have made the same choice as him, making their marks with his. Call it the comfort of affirmation:
“Birds of a feather” and such …
Charger snorts and shakes his head side-to-side in protest at having to stand in the cold north-wind, blowing gusty as it has all day, carrying the reminders of polar chill with each grain of dusty, stinging sand. The commotion pulls Phil out of his thoughts, and he gives a quick shake of his head, tightening his slouch hat’s chinstrap before adjusting his scarf and turning up the collar of his caped greatcoat against yet another gust. The overcast broke earlier that afternoon, clearing the dusty skies overhead and to the west, promising a chilling night, and Phil’s eyes are drawn to the east, to the hazy Organs glowing an angry shade of ochre in the ruddy, late-day sun, their granite peaks shrouded by windswept clouds in an illusion of smoke and flame, like some raging, infernal pyre exhaling the beauty of damnation across the eastern sky.
Eyes glinting coldly from the fiery display, Phil focuses on the sorry structures to the southeast, a quarter-mile away – a long-abandoned way station (sometimes hideout) as far as Phil knows – lonely sentinels on the stark and arid plain where the albino said to meet. Last time, they’d met in a quiet cantina in Las Cruces, where the brightly dressed albino had drawn no attention at all – not even a curious sideways glance – from el tabernero or any of the few locals who’d been nursing their drinks. Now, the sonofabitch wants to meet in the middle of goddamned nowhere. Phil has to admit, it’s a wonderful place to birth a secret … and to bury one as well: Phil doesn’t trust the albino, not one bit, but that grinning freak has held up his end of things so far. Despite that, Phil just wants to conclude their business and be gone all the quicker, because the albino’s presence makes his skin crawl, because so many things about the man are just not right. So, unsurprisingly, Phil will not abide the albino’s “request” to come unarmed, and he double-checks that his knife is accessible under his coat. It never hurts to be prepared.
With a little more zeal, Charger snorts again, with another, more vigorous shake of his head and a scratch of his hoof in the dirt for good measure. C’mon, dammit!
Phil nods, then sighs. It’s time.
“Let’s go, boy,” he says to his steed, spurring the palomino forward towards the dilapidated buildings – a rickety, wooden stables with no right to still be standing, flanked by a crumbling adobe roughly the size of a house, patches of withered lime plaster shine like inflamed cankers against the simmering orange mud-brick of its worn, western face. Standing between the two, a prairie windmill furiously spins in the air atop its timeworn, wooden frame, but Phil already knows, from the locals and experience, that its broken pump will never draw water from the long-dry well.
As they approach at a quick trot, Phil spots a burro looking out from the shadows within the stables, taking its chances simply by being there, to be sure, but at least it has enough brains to stay out of the wind. Phil doubts, however, that the albino would ever stoop to needing such an animal – his narcissism won’t allow it – so mayhap the ghoul had slung a little gold to rustle up some tequila or whiskey. The baskets slung over the beast’s back provide some reason to hope, but Phil’s willing to bet on it anyway: The albino already knows that Phil had a bit of a thirst. All the more reason for Phil to keep a clear head.
Rider and steed trot past the rusty glow of the adobe’s western wall, and Phil takes note of the three small, evenly-spaced windows as they go: Through the cracked and broken glass, he can tell the sun-dappled interior is just as decrepit as out here, but the structure seems to be empty – no apparent sign of the burro’s owner, nor of the albino with his love of color. Phil halts Charger when they reach the south side of the adobe, out of the wind at last. The sun-kissed bricks here are barren of any lime plaster, and in the dirt, there’s no sign of any other horse. Phil dismounts, and takes a step towards the entrance, in which a soiled, heavy cloth flutters, then he stops with his eyes locked on the water trough at the base of the windmill, as water flows into it from the previously bone-dry spigot, fed by a like-new pump. Phil pulls the scarf down from his stubbled face, and Charger, braving the wind between the buildings, moseys over to the trough for a drink.
“Well, fuck a duck,” Phil says to himself, bemusement tinging his otherwise cold, rustic tone, then he pauses a moment before looking to the doorway again. He’ll ponder things later, for now he just wants to get this done. He lowers his coat’s collar before stepping into the entrance, blinking as he crosses the threshold, and …
“There you are, lieutenant!” a cheery, tenor voice calls out, greeting the newcomer with a hint of English charm. “Welcome!”
Phil looks in the direction of the voice, wary as his eyes adjust to the dark interior, though he needn’t have worried, because the albino’s dressed even more garishly than before: Sky-blue frock coat and pants, lemon yellow scarf and gloves, and a spotless white gambler upon that already pale head, all seeming over-bright to Phil’s eyes in the gloom where the brawny figure sits, away in the far corner at a small square table, facing away from Phil at a slight angle, at the shadowy edges of the dusky light from a single lantern sitting at the end of the small sawhorse and plank-wood bar erected in front of the opposite wall. Closest to the light sits an open, dark glass bottle of god-knows-what accompanied by a large shot-glass, while across from the albino sits a gloomy seat tucked against the far corner’s walls. However, a chill runs down Phil’s spine as he begins to sense that things are not right, and his new reality begins to dawn on him as his eyes adjust to the virtual twilight:
Around the room, even in the lantern’s dim glow, the pristine walls are eerily resplendent with their new coat of lime, while the scent of pine draws Phil’s attention to the nearly fresh lumber of the bar and floor, where nary a lick of dust can be seen, save for where he stands at the door. His impulse is to walk back out, but Phil fears what could (or could not) be outside, because the wind has become quiet, and he no longer hears the well – indeed, Phil hears no sound at all. Even the windows are shuttered, completing what has to be a lie, because Phil’s senses told him a different truth just seconds before. He steps towards the bottle (much like a moth to a flame), his mind awash with new doubts and fears. Phil isn’t quite sure what to think.
“By all means, Phil, feel free to pour yourself a drink,” the albino says with creepy joviality, with that fucking grin obvious in his tone. “I reckon you’re downright parched.”
Keeping an eye on the chuckling albino, Phil lifts the bottle to his nose and immediately recoils from the noxious vapors, his eyes misting from the stinging odor, and his mind briefly swims in a bitter rush of euphoria.
The albino waves his yellow hand dismissively. “Jorge, back there, swears that it’s good stuff. Puts hair on your chest, and all that noise.”
Phil notices the small, shadowy figure crouching behind the other end of the short bar, presumably Jorge, trembling and rocking to-and-fro, eyes pleading that he’s no threat. After considering the man for a moment, Phil is satisfied of that, and puts the figure out of his mind. He thinks about braving a shot just to calm his nerves, but instead Phil sets the bottle aside before temptation begins gnawing, while he still has some good sense: He wants to deal with his new reality with a clear mind, without showing the freak any sign of doubt or fear.
Besides, that god-knows-what in the bottle smells like it would kill a horse. Speaking of which …
“How’d you get here, Carlton?” Phil asks, accusation clear in his voice, yet he’s unsure it’s the proper question to pose. Albeit, as Phil saw for himself, the tracks outside had only accounted for Jorge and his ass. So, to ease his nerves a little and poke at some self-infatuated pride, Phil adds:
“Where’s your horse?”
The albino, Carlton, lets out a booming laugh, startling Phil, and the sound simply ceases after a second or two, when Phil has the sinking feeling that something more is amiss.
“Come now, Phil,” Carlton begins, waxing indignant, “I have no need of filthy, stinking animals! It’s bad enough I have to deal with your kind. Look around in case you missed it, lieutenant.
“Miss Liddy always provides.”
Unable to shake his feeling, Phil furtively checks for the blade under his coat, and finds only renewed fear when he feels only his scabbard – his knife is now gone. Still facing away, Carlton’s head cocks slightly with interest, then with a shrewd, knowing tone, he says:
“Then again, earn her disfavor, and Miss Liddy will deprive.”
The albino then chuckles, and continues on with his previous, creepy cheer, “For now, however, she awaits our discussion, so please, Phil, come and sit. Bring a drink if you’d like.”
Snickering, Carlton motions to the empty seat across from him, “Let’s chat.”
Miss Liddy was a topic that Phil wanted to press, because the woman seemed to be a ghost, nothing except the name of Carlton’s boss – yet it’s plain to see that she’s much more. Carlton, for his part, would only say that Miss Liddy is “nothing more than a sincere collector and avid entrepreneur”, and, for his part, Phil thinks Carlton is full of shit. Phil knows only one man to ever have dealings with her, and that man refused to speak about it – a mean hombre, who’d laughed in death’s face more than once, was too afraid to talk about Miss Liddy, even said that Phil should walk away. Thinking about it now, maybe Phil should’ve paid heed …
“I trust that we have an agreement, lieutenant,” Carlton declares with a question implicit in his tone. “It would be unfortunate if all this were for naught.
“Are there questions about the terms?”
“No!” Phil barks without hesitation, starting towards the albino’s table, undoing two buttons below his cape as he goes, not noticing that his riding boots make no sound on the wooden floor, though his spurs ring with each step. Beige desert dust falls like mist from his large, ranch-built frame as he moves, swirling and dancing with his wake in the lantern’s glow. Phil’s heart sinks with each inch he moves, because as the albino becomes clearer to his eyes, Phil can plainly see the pale scar-tissue starting at the ill-healed stump on this side of Carlton’s bald head, where his ear once had been, then spreading around to cover the back of his head and neck, before disappearing under the spotless white gambler and bright yellow scarf. The sight makes Phil shiver a little, and he looks to the empty seat.
Phil reaches a gloved hand under his coat as he sits (feeling naked without his blade) and extracts a folded, aged parchment stowed within – a signed contract awaiting delivery, and Phil’s chance to keep ahead of fate. Phil looks at the document for a moment, with questions aplenty in his mind, but none of them about the terms; because to him, the contract is simple, for sure: Deliver the cargo as outlined, and be paid a king’s ransom – one-third upfront, the remainder upon completion. No muss, no fuss.
Looking up, Phil pauses as he catches his own dim reflection in the round, mirrored lenses of the unusual sunglasses sitting astride Carlton’s sharply hooked nose, which hovers over the disturbingly large and fierce grin otherwise dominating the albino’s ghostly face. Even in the shadows, those yellowed teeth and stained gums give an eerie contrast to the pale skin of Carlton’s stretched lips and cheeks, completing the vision of ecstatic agony. A foulness then reaches Phil’s nostrils and turns his stomach, a dark odor comingling the beauty of life and dankness of death, evoking thoughts of both love and loss: Carlton emanates the sickly-sweet aroma of roses and rot.
Phil fights the urge to look down at the table, forcing himself to keep eye-contact with his reflections, and he slides the parchment towards the middle of the tabletop, but does not remove his hand.
“Day before last, we secured the first third of the payment, as promised,” Phil begins in his cold, rustic drawl. “Seeing how we want no fucking part of the coming campaign, we will deliver Miss Liddy’s cargo to Colorado – ‘alive and unbroken’, just as the damned contract says.” Phil then retracts his hand from the parchment.
“Excellent!” Carlton exclaims as he immediately takes hold of the contract with a brightly gloved hand. “Miss Liddy will be most pleased. In fact, plans are already afoot – so confident was she of your agreement.”
The albino chuckles through his grin. “As was I, for that matter.”
Pausing a moment, Carlton raises a finger to his chin, mocking puzzlement over a neglected point:
“Of course, Miss Liddy also has other expectations and desires: I trust that you have not forgotten about the maps, correct?”
Not for the first time, a warning begins to hum in Phil’s mind at mention of the maps. Obtaining them will require the crew to step into a Union hornet’s nest, or possibly a Confederate one, depending on the progress of the Texan campaign. More than that, Phil has a bad feeling about the maps’ current owner – more specifically, the lack of information about him. Phil wants to forget the maps, while Carlton is unimpressed by such qualms.
“Certainly, the devil’s always in the details,” the albino prattles on, “in this case, section two, subheading three, paragraph one, if I remember correctly.”
Carlton snickers, then adds, “And I usually do. I believe it’s one-third forfeiture without them.”
And there’s the kicker: Visions of lunging across the table and breaking Carlton’s neck play out in Phil’s mind – with no knife to do the job right – but only because Phil knows the smug sonofabitch is correct, and hates him for it. Moreover, Phil already knows that one-third is more coin than he’ll otherwise ever hope to see in his life, and he has no doubts that his greed will drag him through hell to claim that prize. And that’s why the shapeless warning hums in the back of his mind, if only Phil could admit it to himself. Sadly, he lacks the requisite self-control:
In the end, money has power, and greed is king.
“I haven’t forgotten,” Phil replies with an almost insulted tone. “We’ll make a goddamned stop in Santa Fe for your maps.”
“Of course, you will,” Carlton agrees as he brings the contract to his substantial nose, inhaling. Then, his sickly purplish tongue licks a corner of the folded parchment, inspiring a mild wave of revulsion within Phil at the sight, validating his loathing of the man. Carlton’s grin widens and he chuckles.
“Yes,” he says, “nine marks in total, just as we agreed.” The albino stows the parchment under his coat as Phil shifts uneasily in his seat. “The Confederacy will just have to suffer your esteemed crew’s absence from all of that gallivanting about New Mexico. You’ll have your own to do.” Carlton laughs softly. “In two weeks, you and your crew will be ordered out for a reconnaissance of some restless Mescalero a day’s ride to the northeast. The next day, a prisoner transfer will leave Mesilla under light guard, headed for El Paso with three poor souls who managed to get themselves caught.”
Carlton suddenly leans in closer, and Phil instinctively leans back until his shoulders and slouch hat’s brim press against the corner’s walls.
“Your cargo will be the tall and gangly one,” the albino nearly hisses in a mock whisper, “a true gem of a man, and precious to Miss Liddy.”
The albino then calmly leans back with a hearty laugh, which simply ceases after a second or two, unnerving Phil a bit, like before. Carlton continues with his normal, creepy cheer:
“You will disregard your orders, and make ready to take possession of the cargo before they catch sight of El Paso. Do what you will with the others. The desert’s a big and desolate place, and they matter not to this endeavor.
“The arrangements are yours, Phil.”
Carlton pauses, as if studying the other man for a moment from behind those mirrored lenses, then he continues, “Miss Liddy eagerly expects to see you in Golden City within seven weeks thereafter. By all accounts, you should be on the move about a week ahead of the coming festivities. Naturally, secrecy and discretion are expected. So, please plan accordingly.”
The albino snickers, then goes quiet, grin unwavering.
“Seven weeks, aye,” Phil replies, hoping his stoic face and cold eyes do not betray his hatred and doubt. “We’ll be there. Is there anything else?”
“No, we are quite finished here,” Carlton cheerily answers. The albino chuckles as he tips the brim of his gambler, saying:
“May you have a warm and comfortable night, Phil.”
The words ring hollow …
Phil turns around from the empty corner and its crumbling walls, and starts across the dirt floor towards the entrance, with his mind and eyes still lost in another place: Phil doesn’t hear the wind, which has blown constant this whole time, nor does he feel the occasional gust pulsing through the broken windows. He’s unaware of the gray, splintering remains of the small sawhorse and plank-wood bar, because to him, the wood is new. He’s ignorant of the replenished waterskin sitting upon the rotten boards, because he sees the enigmatic, dark glass bottle of god-knows-what. Last but not least, Phil’s completely oblivious to Jorge, who lies on the dirt floor behind the bar, obscured by the tumbleweeds trapped beneath the boards:
Thanks to the windborne dust and a spooked burro, Jorge was separated from his travelling companions earlier that morning, and he had travelled alone all day along the old carriage trail, planning to meet his brother in Organ on the morrow after sheltering here for the night. That is, until he espied the palomino and large rider approaching from the northwest, less than a quarter-mile away – a lone cavalryman by the looks. Unfortunately, Jorge’s ignorant of his brother’s failed obligations to one Miss Liddy, else he may have taken more care in his panicked attempt to conceal his presence. (Remember the waterskin? Jorge didn’t.) Only too late would Jorge learn of the details about Miss Liddy and his brother, from a menacing, darkly clad stranger somewhere between here and eternity, because, alas, poor Jorge’s now dead. Before blinking back to the familiar upon exiting the adobe, there’s one other detail that Phil never noticed, lost in another place as he was: The familiar hilt of his missing blade jutting from the left eye of Jorge’s corpse – yet another tragedy born from a basic truth …
The World may work in mysterious ways, but it always takes Its cut.
Nineteen days hence, the bodies of two prisoners and their transfer detail will be discovered by chance in the desert, about thirteen miles southwest of Mesilla, almost a day’s ride west of the missing detail’s original route; all of them killed while kneeling in a line abreast, each executed by a single gunshot to the back of his head. One prisoner will be missing, as will the prison wagon’s and escort’s horses, leaving the derelict vehicle to be the sole, silent witness to the act; and the confusion of tracks from at least eight horses and up to ten men will ultimately lead away to the north, only to be lost after a couple of miles. However, reports of a missing Confederate patrol will furnish a tidy list of potential suspects.
It’ll be assumed that the murderous gang crossed the Rio Grande somewhere north of Camp Robledo to embark upon the Jornada del Muerto, heading toward Socorro. But that’ll be just a guess, because no patrol from the Confederate outpost will report any such group passing nearby, nor will anyone in Socorro ever lay eyes on them. Verily, other trails exist in those barren lands, and the desert will hide the killers well, as it always does for those willing to take the risk.
Indeed, no one will see hide-or-hair of the asesinos until two-and-a-half weeks after the grisly discovery, when the crew draws some attention around Santa Fe …