LIEUTENANT JOHN Tays found himself at a slight tactical disadvantage. He was leading a force of eighteen Texas Rangers, and his orders were to safeguard the journey of three American businessmen. But at the moment, he was standing eyeball to eyeball with close to a thousand Mexican insurgents, and whoever blinked first would very likely wind up cold meat. Somewhat like a man who has a bear by the tail, Lieutenant Tays had developed a sudden liking for far away places.
That morning, as false dawn had given way to first light, the besieged Americans saw that all hope of escape was gone. Under cover of darkness the villagers of San Elizario had encircled with hastily dug rifle pits the adobe hut in which the Americans were trapped, and the sun's brilliant streamers glinted off a solid ring of blued steel. Rangers and civilians alike gazed at the fortifications in dull apathy. After seven days of intermittent fighting, any hope that the army would lift the siege had long since faded. Time had run out, and to a man they knew full well that the Mexicans would exact a grim price for the misery inflicted on them in the last few months.
Waiting for the final attack, Charles Howard could only reflect on the vicious bitch called fate. Earlier that year he had formed a combine with various El Paso businessmen for the sole purpose of cornering the Rio Grande salt trade. East of town, across a hundred miles of barren desert, lay a small chain of salt lakes. Though only recently arrived in Texas, Howard was a man of considerable ambition; anopportunist not above an unsavory deal if enough money were involved. And he was quick to grasp that whoever held a monopoly on the salt lakes could name his own price for that precious commodity.
Though Howard bore a remarkable resemblance to a well-fed hog, he was an affable, persuasive talker. Political skulduggery was a game he understood well, and within a short time, his combine had been allowed to file a claim on the distant lakes. While such grants were normally restricted on public service lands, the burgeoning salt cartel had in effect been given a license to steal. With legal possession of the lakes, they could collect a fee on every fanega of salt hauled away, and there were none to prevent them from raising the price to whatever the traffic would bear.
But Howard and his cronies had miscalculated the temper of the people. Throughout the memory of many generations, natives from both sides of the Rio Grande had driven their oxcarts to the dry lakes, braving a fortnight in the waterless desert so that their families might have salt. Moreover, they also bartered salt in the interior regions of Chihuahua, and the gummy cakes they gouged from the earth represented the primary money crop of every village along the border. The El Paso combine posed a threat not only to the natives' own humble needs, but more significantly to the meager livelihood they had been able to glean from the salt trade itself. Reaction was swift and violent.
Under the leadership of Don Luis Cardis, the insurgents had captured Charles Howard at San Elizario, the village closest to the salt lakes. There they forced him to relinquish all claim to the disputed lands, presumably squelching his salt racket in the bud. Then, in exchange for his life, they extracted his promise never to return and sent him packing down the road. Though Howard was built along the lines of a whale, he was hardly a jovial fat man accustomed to turning the other cheek. Ten days later, he caught Don Luis alone in El Paso and gave him an overdose of buckshot, leaving the Mexicans leaderless, if not wholly defanged.
Public officials immediately set the telegraph wires humming, urging the governor to request assistance fromtroops stationed at nearby Ft. Bliss. Of the fifteen thousand souls along the upper Rio Grande, roughly a thousand were norteamericanos. Should a race war erupt, they would be doomed by the sheer weight of numbers. More distressing still, El Paso was isolated by an arid waste of some five hundred miles from the nearest American settlement. With visions of the entire community being wiped out overnight, local politicians demanded forceful action from the government in Austin.
Characteristically, the governor disdained the use of federal troops and sent instead a company of Texas Rangers, commanded by Lieutenant John Tays. Never wanting for a glib argument, Howard somehow convinced Lieutenant Tays that the Mexicans were in open revolt. After all, fewer than five decades had passed since Texans defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Only a fool would doubt that the greasers remained loyal to Mexico! Accompanied by the Rangers, Howard and his cohorts had returned to San Elizario, determined to recover what was theirs by right of connivance and political clout.
But natives along both sides of the border were also marching on the sleepy village. Chico Barela had emerged as their new leader, and his call to arms drew upwards of a thousand fighting men even as Howard prepared to reclaim the salt lakes. No sooner had the businessmen arrived in San Elizario than they found themselves confronted by an ugly mob. The cry went up for blood, retribution for the murder of Don Luis Cardis, and the Rangers were barely able to hold them off. Retreating to an adobe hut on the south side of the plaza, the hated gringos quickly found themselves under siege by the frenzied Mexicans.
The next week proved a hellish nightmare for the Americans. They ate horse meat, rationed their water, and waited anxiously for federal troops that never came. Instead of attacking directly, the Mexicans pinned them down with sniper fire night and day, certain they couldn't hold out longer than the dwindling water supply in their canteens. Then, as the seventh morning dawned, the natives waited in their newly dug rifle pits, ready for an all-out charge should the gringos prove unreasonable.
Shortly after sunrise Chico Barela called for a parley under a white flag. Lieutenant Tays stepped from the adobe, and the Mexican leader's conditions were heard clearly by everyone in the hut. The Rangers would be allowed to depart in peace, but Howard and his partners, John McBride and John Atkinson, would remain as hostages in the village. The gringos had one hour to consider the offer, and if they refused, then their company would be killed to the last man. With that, the Mexican flashed an arrogant grin and strode back to the rifle pits.
Turning, Tays moved through the door of the hut, only to be greeted by a deadly silence. None of the Rangers could bring themselves to look at the three businessmen. While they were sworn to uphold the law, they had families to think about, not to mention their own skins. And besides, hadn't the greaser promised that the three men would simply be held as hostages? Like as not, they'd be released just as soon as things calmed down. Probably no more'n a day or two at the most.
Charles Howard was many things, but above all else he was a man who believed in hedging his bet. Even if the Rangers agreed to fight, which seemed highly unlikely, he would surely be killed. That was a foregone conclusion. No, the wiser move was to surrender. Although he wouldn't trust a greaser's word any further than he could spit, it made sense to get the Rangers clear and hope they could return in time with a cavalry troop. Briskly confident, he outlined the plan to Lieutenant Tays and saw the strain wash out of the Rangers' faces. McBride and Atkinson weren't too happy with his decision, but then they didn't have a hell of a lot of a choice. Come to think of it, none of them did.
Thirty minutes later Tays and his Rangers pounded out of the village, spurring their horses for El Paso. Behind they left Howard and his partners the featured attraction amidst a howling mob. Some years would pass before even the strongest of them could erase the scene from his memory.
Chico Barela was no less pragmatic than Charles Howard. He remained a leader only so long as he served thewill of his people, and right now, his ragtag army was calling for blood. Gringo blood! With the Rangers hardly out of sight, the hostages' arms were bound behind them, and they were marched across the plaza to an adobe wall beside the ancient mission. While McBride and Atkinson seemed numb with shock, Charles Howard allowed his captors nothing more than a tight smile. He had gambled and lost. And where he was headed, he had best enjoy the fresh air while he could.
Without benefit of prayer or even a blindfold, the prisoners were shoved against the wall as a firing squad was hurriedly formed. Lacking a sword, Barela borrowed a machete and raised it overhead. When it fell, the roar of gunfire thundered across the plaza, instantly followed by the maddened shout of the onlookers. Atkinson and McBride dropped lifelessly in the dust, but Howard had been gut-shot, and he staggered forward, knees buckling.
"¡Más arriba, cabrones!" he moaned through clenched teeth. "Higher, you stinking goats!"
"¡Acábenlos!" roared the delighted mob. "Finish him!"
Chico Barela marched solemnly to the wounded man. Deliberating a moment, he gauged the blow, then swung the machete. Charles Howard's head toppled to the ground, ending his brief moment as salt baron of the Rio Grande. Spurting bright fountains of blood, his body simply collapsed, and the crowd went mad with a spasm of sheer joy.
"¡Hecho!" cried Chico Barela. "It is done! Don Cardis is avenged. The salt lakes belong again to the people!"
SHORTLY AFTER suppertime, the men began drifting into the compound. Spread along the banks of the Rio Grande just west of town, Hart's Mill was an imposing structure. The river had been channeled and damned so that it flowed through a high stone arch erected on one side of the millhouse. Locally, it was said that the sluggish river was a mile wide and a foot deep; too thin to plow and toothick to drink. But as it tumbled from the towering arch, sufficient force was generated to turn a huge creaking waterwheel. Seth Hart had copied it directly from those he remembered as a boy in New England, and along the upper Rio Grande, his was the only gristmill. Somewhat like its owner, the mill seemed formidable, unrelenting as it ground inexorably on; one of a kind in a land where industry and determination often fell victim to the drowsy pace of the natives.
Near the mill stood Seth Hart's home. Overlooking the river, it was built of foot-thick adobe and surrounded by tall shade trees. And it was here that various El Paso businessmen who shared Hart's political persuasion met once a week for a bruising, heads-up poker game. The house rules were table stakes, check and raise, and a good stiff jolt of rotgut for those left sucking hind tit. As in his business and political endeavors, Seth Hart played poker to win.
After being greeted by their host, the men took their usual seats and settled down for a long, spirited night. They were old friends, each having come to El Paso when it was still a stopover to somewhere else, and there were few secrets among them. They loved whiskey and cards, shared a long standing dream to make El Paso the hub of power in west Texas, and considered themselves ethical businessmen as well as adept politicians. They saw no contradiction in this latter belief, for they readily agreed that a man of substance must play many roles. While there were no saints among them, neither were there any scoundrels, and on this bedrock, their friendship had taken root and grown.
With drinks served and small talk out of the way, the men sat back to await the first deal. But Seth Hart absently riffled the cards, as if pursuing some elusive thought that resisted words. His thatch of white hair spilled over his head like an unkept mane, and the soft, cider glow of the lamp gave his face the flat sheen of weathered rawhide. Were these men his sons, or had this been a land of clans, he would have ruled as patriarch, the venerable elder to whom all others looked for guidance. Although neither condition existed, Hart was still a man of considerable influence,and his four friends seldom made a move without seeking the miller's counsel. Curiosity whetted, they waited in deepening silence as he sifted the chaff from what it was he had to say.
Hart cleared his throat and spat a wad of phlegm at a cuspidor beside the chair. When he spoke his voice was gravelly, as if he had spent too many years swallowing the dust from his own gristmill. "Boys, before we get sidetracked on poker, I'd like to get your ideas on this hornet's nest Charlie Howard stirred up. We're looking down a long, hard road, and if somebody doesn't calm the Mexicans pretty quick it's liable to be a bloody one." He paused, mulling the thought further. "One thing's for certain. Just as sure as we're sitting here, Ed Banning and his bunch aren't going to do a damn thing except keep right on lining their pockets."
"Maybe the greasers'll ventilate Banning the same way they did ol' Charlie." Doc Cummings, owner of the local mercantile emporium, chuckled softly at his own wit. "After all, Charlie was a spoon-fed piker compared to the Banning boys."
Horace Adair reared back in his chair. Noted for his hair-trigger temper, the Irishman was general manager of a mine north of town. "Jesus Christ, Doc! You made your point and missed it, all in the same breath. Granted Ed Banning would skin a flea for its hide and tallow, but he only steals from poor folks indirectly. Political corruption and cattle rustling rarely matter one way or the other to peones. Come to think of it, they might even admire him."
Curiously, Horace Adair was closer to the truth than he realized. There were many in El Paso who openly admired the Banning brothers, and their ranks weren't limited to saloonkeepers, madams, and cardsharps. Ed and Sam Banning had hit town in the spring of '79, shortly after word leaked out that three railroads were laying track toward the border. At the time, El Paso was little more than a crossroads. The trail from Santa Fe to Mexico City ran directly through the center of town, while the stage route connecting San Antonio with the Pacific Coast meandered off in the opposite direction. And El Paso's chief claim to famelay in the fact that the Butterworth stage stopped there twice a day.
But with the arrival of Southern Pacific's first train only last month, the little border town had undergone some startling changes. Trains were daily disgorging a horde of mercenaries who smelled loose money on the freshening wind. For those with a strong stomach, there were fortunes to be made, and whores, tinhorn gamblers, thimbleriggers, and gunslicks had descended on El Paso like swarming locusts. Hardly to anyone's surprise, the Banning brothers were running strong at the head of the pack, welcoming outlaw and harlot alike with open arms. With liberal doses of bribery, intimidation, and outright murder, they had taken over city hall and virtually dominated the city council. Although it saddened early settlers like Seth Hart and his friends, there was no denying that in only two short years Ed Banning had become the power to be reckoned with in El Paso.
"Horace, as usual, your logic is devastating." Doc Cummings cast a mischievous smile around the table, amused by the Irishman's pugnacious manner. "But I'll tell you one thing. Ed Banning's day is coming. He's got his finger in everything else, and he'll probably get around to trying to steal the salt lakes just like Charlie Howard did. Maybe if we wait long enough, the greasers'll settle his hash for us."
Before Adair could frame a reply, Seth Hart broke in sharply. "Doc, you and Horace are both missing the point. Howard trying to grab the salt lakes only aggravated a sore that's been festering for years. And mark my words, the Bannings' rustling operation across the river will one day force the patrones to lead their people against us. So far they've sat back and watched, but if their ranches keep getting raided, they'll organize those peones, and God help us then."
The men silently glanced at one another, weighing Hart's words. Nate Hobart, proprietor of the Alhambra Hotel, sucked nervously at his drink and tried to think of something profound to add. But his natural reticence won out, and he merely waited for the shaggy-haired miller to resume.
When the stillness thickened without anyone venturing a solution, Hart tossed out another firecracker. "Boys, what I've been leading up to is simply stated. El Paso is just facing too goddamned many problems all at one time. Ed Banning is stealing the town blind, and when you get right down to cases, his political shenanigans are one of the big causes of our Mexican problems. Appears to me that, if we solve one, we'll have gone a long way toward solving the other. What I'm suggesting is that we put Banning to the skids and send him packing."
"Well, we could always have George Campbell run him out of town," Cummings observed dryly. The comment was greeted with grunts and snorts by the other men, for it was common knowledge that City Marshal Campbell was one of Banning's political flunkeys.
"Shit fire," Adair remarked acidly. "George Campbell couldn't catch his ass if he was tied hand and foot in a tow sack."
"By God, what we need is a town tamer!" John Simmons, owner of the livery stable and feed store, suddenly came alive. His eyes glittered with comprehension, as if the answer had been revealed to him alone. "Someone like Wild Bill Hickok, or Bear River Tom Smith. A real headcracker!"
"There's only one problem with that, Johnny. They're both dead." Horace Adair's sardonic comment brought chuckles from the other men, and a withering look from Simmons.
Doc Cummings abruptly came up on the edge of his chair. "Maybe so. But by Jesus Christ, I know one that's not dead! He's a deputy sheriff up in Colorado County, and, gents, he's the meanest sonovabitch that ever got up and walked on his hind legs. Name's Dallas Stoudenmire, and lemme tell you, he eats knotheads like Ed Banning for breakfast."
"Is that a fact?" Adair inquired innocently, glancing about the table. "And how is it you know so much about a Dutchy gunslinger?"
"Horace, he just happens to be German. Or at least hisfolks were. And for your information, he's gonna marry my sister later this month."
"Doc, we're not playing for chalkies, you know." Seth Hart gave him a searching look. "This is serious business. You sure you want to get your brother-in-law hooked up in a deal like this?"
"Hell, Seth, I can't see how it'd hurt to ask," Cummings replied. "He's full grown, and I reckon he knows how to say no. Besides, he's been a lawman of one kind or another since the end of the war, and even if he don't want the job, he could sure as hell give us some powerful advice. Offhand, I'd say it's as good a place to start as any."
Hart pondered this for a moment, then nodded. "All right, send him a wire. But don't let the cat out of the bag. Just say you'd like to see him on a matter of some importance."
"And what will we accomplish, even if he's as tough as Doc says?" Adair's bulldog jowls set in an obstinate scowl. "You don't seriously think the city council will fire Campbell and hire a new marshal?"
Hart smiled patiently. "Horace, let's take 'em as we come to 'em. Don't forget that Doc and me both have a vote on that same council. And if we want to play dirty pool, we might just figure a way to ram it through."
The miller ran callused hands through his white mane, then picked up the deck of cards. The discussion had ended. "Boys, let's get down to some serious poker playin'. The name of the game is stud. Ante five dollars and take your licks like real white men."
DALLAS STOUDENMIRE wasn't what folks would call a handsome man, but he looked like he had been built to last. Rangy and lean, he was hewed somewhat on the order of an oak door, standing six feet four and weighing in at a gristled two hundred twenty. Few men knew his full strength, and those who had tested it rarely came back forseconds. His very presence was enough to halt most troublemakers in their tracks, and his fearsome impact wasn't lessened by the craggy features, the jut of a heavy brow, and a shock of hair like burnished wheat. His face looked as though it had been hurriedly chiseled from a hunk of granite, and above the hollow cheeks his eyes touched lightly on all about him. As if it concealed some shallowly buried danger, his gaze seemed pale and depthless in its constant movement, like mountain water beneath freshly frozen ice. All in all, he was a solitary sort, a man best left to himself. And most people took him just as they found him. At a distance, in short doses.
When Stoudenmire stepped from the train at the Southern Pacific depot, he felt the stares of those crowding the platform. While he was used to it, the gaping looks never ceased to nettle him, like farmers gawking at some oddity in a tent show. He knew he was different from most men, colder, quicker to strike, drained of remorse once it was done. But it didn't bother him; he accepted it for what it was, wasting little thought on the compassion and gentleness that preachers rated so highly. Time lays scars on a man, bloody welts tracing a path from where he stands back to where he started. In the overall scheme of things, there were some men who needed killing, and it stood to reason that there had to be a few who were hardened to wield the instrument of destruction. Why he had been tapped for the job, or how it had come about, seemed unimportant, lost in the haze of long-ago, far-away things. Somehow it had started, leading him step by step from a wild young hellion to a man with a star on his chest. He was good at it, perhaps the best. And for now, being best at what he did was all that mattered.
Ignoring the stares, Stoudenmire turned his broad back on the train station and strode off down Main Street. Though he knew little of El Paso, he had heard that it was nestled in the Tularosa Basin and was thus unprepared for the pervasive sense of being encircled by mountains. The Conquistadores had named it El Paso del Norte, for it formed a natural pass to the north over the mountains that now joined Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. The bare,craggy slopes of the Franklin Mountains dropped off from a high rim to the north, and the town itself lay in the shadow of Comanche Peak. To the east lay the arid plains he had crossed by train, broken only by the flat desert mesas, jutting unevenly from the parched earth. Beyond the tablelands, he could see the Hueco Mountains, with the sheer cliffs of El Capitán thrusting skyward as if to escape the desolation and heat.
Turning, he studied the land to the southwest, across the river. In the distance, he saw the Sierra Madre range, forming a backdrop for El Paso's twin sister on the opposite border, Paso del Norte. Even though the towns appeared similar in every respect, he had heard on the train that Paso del Norte was strictly for Mexicans, a place where a gringo wandered at his own risk. The thought brought his mind back to the reason for being here, and he crossed the plaza in search of Doc Cummings. The cryptic telegram in his coat pocket said little, and perhaps that was what made him curious enough to travel six hundred miles. Most times the things men left unsaid were what counted in a pinch, and knowing Doc, he had no doubt there was considerable yet to tell.
Later that night, Stoudenmire and Cummings met with Seth Hart and his poker cronies. Although the five businessmen were the only ones who knew the purpose behind the lawman's visit, Stoudenmire's presence in El Paso was hardly a secret. Earlier in the evening, Cummings had taken him on a tour of the town's gamier dives, and there was considerable talk in the red-light district about the solemn-faced jasper with the frosty eyes. But the brief walk through the southside had served its purpose. Within an hour's time the lawman had counted close to thirty saloons, an equal number of dancehalls, and a rash of whorehouses unlike anything he had ever seen. Moreover, he had observed two saloon brawls, a knifing, and a somewhat amateurish gunfight, all within the space of two blocks. Yet not once had he seen a man wearing a badge. Any lingering doubt in Stoudenmire's mind had fast been dispelled. El Paso was in desperate need of a responsible peace officer.
Once introductions were out of the way and the men seated in Hart's study, the miller briefed Stoudenmire on the extent of the problem they faced. Without need of exaggeration, he detailed events leading to the salt war, the general hostility that existed between whites and Mexicans, and the stranglehold the Bannings had secured on the political apparatus of the town. While he spoke, Seth Hart had been sizing Stoudenmire up, and he liked what he saw. But there was more to a man than what met the eye, and that's what they had to find out before the evening was finished.
"Frankly, Mr. Stoudenmire," Hart concluded, "if I were in your boots, I wouldn't touch this job with a tenfoot pole. Course, you're a lawman, and I'm not, so I suppose you know what you're gettin' into." Then he paused, letting the silence mount as he appraised the other man. "Well, no sense beatin' around the bush. What about it? Do you think you're man enough to cut the mustard?"
Stoudenmire's eyes narrowed at the outright challenge, and the room went still as the men waited to see how he would answer. "Mr. Hart, it sort of looks to me like you've got the saddle on backwards. I didn't come here begging a job. You sent for me, near as I recollect. Whether or not I can pull your bacon out of the fire is something you'll have to decide for yourself. My record as a peace officer isn't hard to track down, and if I'm any judge, you've already put out feelers in the right direction."
Doc Cummings couldn't restrain himself from butting in. "Dallas, don't be so infernal high and mighty. He's only tryin' to get your opinion of our predicament. Christ, I've already told them how you fought for the Confederacy and served as a Ranger before you took the deputy job. They know you can clean up El Paso. They're just tryin' to get you to say it."
The lawman just nodded, smiling tightly. "Well, I'll tell you, Doc. I'm not right sure I want the job. Leastways not until we come to an understanding about a few things."
"If you want my two cents worth," Horace Adair snorted, "I'm not convinced he can handle it. Running the Bannings out of town is gonna be like tryin' to pour hotbutter in a wildcat's ear. All this bullshit about him being a gunslinger might impress the folks back home, but goddamnit, this is the border. If he starts playing the big, tough hombre on the southside, those boys are just liable to whittle him down to size."
Stoudenmire's flinty gaze swung around, and he looked at Adair as if he were something hairy that had just crawled out of the gravy. "Mister, I never had much use for little men with loud mouths. Now if you pop off once more, I'll be forced to forget you're Doc's friend. Savvy?"
"Hold it!" Hart's gruff command came just as the Irishman's jowls swelled with rage. "Horace, sometimes I'd swear you don't have sense enough to carry guts to a bear. Granted Mr. Stoudenmire might be young in years, but it seems you aren't able to see beyond that. There are other ways of measuring time, you know. Offhand, I'd say that anyone who has killed six men upholding the law doesn't need a wet nurse, even on the border." The startled looks from his friends brought a benign smile to the miller's face. "Why the surprise? You boys know I don't bet without peeking at the hole card. Like Mr. Stoudenmire surmised, I've already gone to the trouble of having him checked out."
Horace Adair glued a sheepish smile on his face and got busy sipping his whiskey. The big sonovabitch was for real after all! Silently, he wondered what went on inside a man's head who killed so easily, and for pay at that. The cold-eyed bastard probably pissed ice water and slept on nails.
"Well goddamn," Cummings crowed. "Are we gonna sit around on our thumbs or do we offer the man a job? How about it, Dallas? Want to try cutting El Paso down to size?"
"Trying won't get it. Not by half," Hart interjected. "He'll have to bet the limit and back every play to the hilt. Otherwise, he'll be cold meat inside of a week. But before we go too far with that, I'd like to hear more about those conditions Mr. Stoudenmire wants us to meet."
The lawman glanced around the room, studying each man in turn before responding. "Gentlemen, with the exceptionof Doc, I don't know any more about you than I do Adam's goat. You say you want your town cleaned up, and until you prove different, I'll take you at your word. But if I'm going to kick over a shithouse, it'll have to be done my way. That means no interference, no deals, and no special treatment for friends. Whoever gets in the way gets hurt. If you can't swallow that, then let's just shake hands, and I'll see about catching the next train out."
The men stared at Stoudenmire as if hypnotized, certain he meant every word he said. Whoever got in his way wouldn't just get hurt. They would get killed. And in his own way, the lawman was warning them that it could happen. Still, they didn't have a hell of a lot of choice. It was either suffer along under the Bannings or take a chance on a killer who just happened to wear a star. The one bled you dry with political corruption, and the other might just chase the whole damn town up a tree. But you paid your money and you took your chances. The odds came out the same no matter how the nut was cracked.
"Boys, it looks like we've got ourselves a new marshal." Seth Hart's tone left no doubt that the decision had been made. "Now we'd better get down to figuring strategy. I've got an idea. the city council is gonna wet down their legs when we spring Dallas on them."
Stoudenmire leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar. As the men began talking, he sipped at his drink for the first time. Good whiskey. Damned good, in fact. And he had to admit that he was impressed with the company, too. Still, he'd seen sure-fire winners turn to busted flushes more than once. Better to bank on himself and forget about handouts. Storekeepers were generally soft in the guts anyway. Besides, when the shooting started, a man did well to forget he had friends.
EL PASO's city hall fronted Oregon Street on the west side of the plaza. Once a month, Mayor Isaac Porter convened the city council in an upstairs meeting hall. There they metto consider the bagful of problems generated by the town's mushrooming growth.
Since the mayor, as well as two of the councilmen, Simeon Ogleby and Pud Brown, danced to whatever tune the Banning brothers happened to favor, the monthly meetings were generally cut-and-dried affairs. Occasionally, the irascible Doc Cummings would liven up what he called "The puppet show," but more often than not, the meetings made for a dull, frequently wasted, evening. The sole ambition of Mayor Porter and his two henchmen centered on milking the town dry with corrupt schemes, and even Seth Hart in his tenacious, probing way had been unable to get the goods on them to date.
The June council meeting promised to be little different from those in the past. After reviewing progress on current projects, which included a public waterworks contract awarded to Pud Brown's brother, the mayor opened the floor to new business. Hart and Cummings sat back to watch the show. While the council's shenanigans sometimes curdled their stomachs, there was a perverse fascination about the rogues' devious methods; as if a primer in civic malfeasance was being acted out right before their very eyes. Still, tonight might prove more interesting than anyone suspected, for Seth Hart planned to drop a bomb right in the mayor's lap. Just as soon as the four-flushers finished ramming through their latest swindle.
Isaac Porter was a beefy little man, whose spongy face was deeply pocked from a childhood bout with smallpox. Careful grooming did little to improve his chunky figure, and he had the disconcerting habit of peering at a man like some wise, inquisitive bird. The role of charlatan suited him perfectly, and as he faced the council, none doubted that he had few peers in the art of slick manipulation.
"Gentlemen, before the night's over I have every intention of breaking the faro bank at the Monte Carlo, so what do you say we get down to brass tacks? The floor's open, first come, first served."
Simeon Ogleby's hand shot skyward, and the mayor recognized him with a benevolent nod. "Mr. Mayor, I'd like to propose that the council entertain a motion to builda bridge over the Rio Grande. It's a public disgrace for a town of this size not to have a fine, substantial bridge joinin' us with our neighbors across the river. Besides that, now that the railroad has reached us, we should provide some civilized way of importing and exporting goods with Mexico. Trade is the backbone of commerce, and if this town's gonna grow, we've got to start thinkin' progress."
Hart and Cummings exchanged glances, never ceasing to be amazed by the sheer audacity of these rascals. Though he knew it was futile, Doc couldn't resist a bit of heckling. "Simeon, what the hell are you gonna do with a bridge? You could wade that goddamn mudhole without gettin' your toes wet."
"Commerce, Doc. Commerce. The backbone of trade." Ogleby floundered, trying to remember if he had his terms in the right order. "And vice versa, of course."
Isaac Porter gave him a devastating look and jumped into the breach. "Gentlemen, I personally find great merit in this proposal. Why, just think of it! El Paso would be the only town on the border with a bridge connecting it to Mexico. The possibilities for international trade are enormous. I might even say, unlimited. As a matter of fact, the idea has such merit that I suggest we broaden the discussion to consideration of selecting a contractor to build this fine bridge."
"Hell, why not give it to Pud's brother?" Doc cackled. "He knows all about working in water."
Pud Brown shot a nervous glance at the mayor and smiled apologetically, like he expected someone to kick him in the ass. Porter studiously ignored Doc's wisecrack and went right on with the meeting. To no one's surprise, a building outfit resting in Ed Banning's hip pocket was selected, and an allocation of twenty-five thousand dollars earmarked for construction. The motion was quickly brought to vote and passed three to two. Hart and Cummings voting nay had somewhat the same effect as spitting into the wind.
As the mayor and his two cronies were congratulating themselves on their slippery footwork, Seth Hart decided it was time to rock the boat. But it would have to be doneskillfully, in a roundabout manner. For if the Bannings ever tumbled to his real purpose, then no amount of pressure, deftly applied or otherwise, could force them to oust George Campbell.
"Mr. Mayor, I would like to bring a matter of some importance to the council's attention. Just now you made the point that our town is growing by leaps and bounds. And I agree wholeheartedly. Our first bank has just opened, we've got two newspapers, and before the summer's out, another railroad will reach us. All in all, I'd say we're about to become the biggest thing that ever hit West Texas. But if we're ever going to equal the likes of Austin or San Antonio, we've got to bring about some changes. To use your term, Isaac, we've got to get down to the brass tacks of civilizing a town that thinks it's still a frontier outpost."
Hart had their attention, though it was obvious they were waiting for the ax to fall. Looking around the table, he let the suspense build for only a moment, then pushed on. "We're faced with two problems that aren't about to solve themselves. First, there's the Mexicans. The army proved they're unwilling to take a hand in civilian matters when they let Charlie Howard get sliced to ribbons. And Austin isn't gonna keep sending a detachment of Rangers everytime we yell wolf. Which means we must solve it ourselves. As long as there's a threat of violence, El Paso won't be anything more than a jerkwater whistle-stop.
"Now the second problem is just as bad, from a standpoint of the town growing and attracting more business enterprises. Any night of the week you wanna go down to the southside, you can see at least one gunfight and probably stumble across two or three cadavers without even trying. And every last one of you knows it's true. Brawls, shootings, knife fights. The kind of violence people expect from a cowtown, but certainly not a progressive community. And to my way of thinking, gentlemen, the blame falls on our shoulders, not on the townspeople. Calling a spade a spade, I'm talking about the man we appointed to protect the citizens of El Paso. George Campbell is worthless as tits on a boar hog. He not only isn't man enough for the job, he doesn't even try. I can guarantee you he'ssacked up in some whorehouse swilling whiskey at this very moment. And with my own eyes, I've seen him make a beeline in the opposite direction whenever trouble starts."
Mayor Porter chuckled softly, then broke in before Hart could catch his breath. "Now, Seth, it's not all that bad. George isn't the best peace officer, I grant you. But he's certainly not the worst. Good Lord, this town's still got growing pains, and you can't expect any man to civilize it overnight."
"Well, by God, somebody better," Cummings snorted. "Otherwise, we're gonna have greasers crawlin' over us like flies on a manure pile. That is, if the rowdies don't kill everybody in town first."
The mayor and his cohorts suddenly began squirming in their chairs. Huddled together at the end of the table, they peered blankly at Hart and Cummings, like a trio of owls caught in a chicken coop. Apparently, the businessmen were in dead earnest, and the Banning underlings had no desire to create a row over such an insignificant post as city marshal. Their crooked little empire was running under full sail, and anyone who made waves would have to answer to Ed Banning personally.
Porter blinked first, unwilling to start a fight without Banning's approval. Then in his oily, politician's voice, he began probing for a weak spot. "Now Doc, don't get yourself in a swivet. We're all reasonable men here. And I'm sure Seth will agree that we can come up with some way to get George Campbell back on the straight and narrow. Think about it calmly for a moment and then tell me where you think the marshal has gone astray."
Cummings regarded him with a brash, amused insolence. "Isaac, you're slick. Real slick. Remind me of a tomcat I heard about once. Seems like he got the hots for a little skunk pussy and started humpin' a female polecat. Well, sir, after a couple of whacks, he had to call it quits. Hadn't had all he wanted, you understand, just all he could stomach. What I'm gettin' around to saying, Isaac, is that unless you put a damper on the southside and the greasers,the voters of this town might start figuring they've had all of you they can stand."
"Doc's right, Mayor." Seth Hart grabbed the lead before Porter could gather his wits. "The marshal was appointed because you supported him, and everyone knows it, and as any fool can see, George Campbell wilted when the going got rough. He's your responsibility, Isaac, and if you don't do something about it, the decent people of El Paso are going to start having second thoughts about their mayor."
Porter glared at him across the table, trying desperately to muster some reasonable argument. But Hart's words had the ring of truth, and everyone in the room knew it. Ogleby and Brown simply held their breath, like something rancid had been smeared on their upper lips. Yet the silence deepened, and their faces went taut as they waited on the mayor. to offer a snappy rebuttal.
Watching them, Doc Cummings couldn't resist the temptation. "Blessed are those who have nothing to say and cannot be persuaded to say it."
The sarcasm brought Porter out of his funk. He shot Cummings a stinging glance, then looked back at Hart. "Exactly what is it you're suggesting, Seth?"
"Not much, really. Just that Campbell be replaced with a man who can make El Paso a safe place to live."
"And I suppose you've got his replacement all picked out?"
"You might say that. We've been talking to a fellow named Stoudenmire. Got a fine record as a peace officer in East Texas. We think he's got the backbone the job calls for."
"And if I refuse to consider a change?"
"Why, Isaac, I suppose I'd be forced to call in the newspapers and tell 'em the mayor got skittish when we started talking about cleaning up El Paso. You know, elections are only a year or so away, and lots of people are just achin' to stir up a reform movement."
Porter mulled it over for a moment, desperately aware of the need to talk with Ed Banning. "Tell you what. We'lltake it under advisement and come to a decision at next month's meeting."
"Sorry, Mayor, but that won't cut it." Hart's eyes hardened, and his jaw set in a stubborn cast. "I'll agree to twenty-four hours, which means we meet again tomorrow night. Otherwise I sic the newshounds on you."
Isaac Porter merely nodded, his face flushed with indignation and worry. Rising, he stalked from the room, trailed closely by Brown and Ogleby. Breaking the bank at the Monte Carlo was now the furthest thought from his mind. It had been a rough night, and right at the moment, he needed a good, stiff drink.
Observing their hasty departure, Cummings heard the warm, moist chuckle of a fat man laughing and turned to find Seth Hart thoroughly amused by the new order of things.
"Doc, just offhand, I'd say we've got 'em on the run. Goddamn me if they didn't look like three little shoats that just come out of the cuttin' pen."
The two men shook hands heartily and strode from the meeting hall with new zest to their step. Things were looking up, and if the Bannings weren't careful, they might just wind up snookered in their own game.
SOME TWO hours after the council meeting, Isaac Porter wandered into the Coliseum Saloon. His step was slightly unsteady, and his eyes had taken on a glassy sheen, but otherwise, there was no outward sign that he was carrying a load. Since leaving city hall, he had belted down the better part of a quart, and at the moment he was feeling no pain. Still, he was in command of himself, and his confidence had risen sharply as he moved from saloon to saloon along San Antonio Street. Tipping his hat to the bartender, greeting his constituents with an expansive smile, the mayor eased through the boisterous crowd and headed for the Coliseum's back room.
Like most watering holes in town, the Coliseum had along mahogany bar with a smattering of nude paintings and French mirrors hung on the walls. But the similarity ended there, for the Coliseum was owned by the Banning brothers, and it was hardly an accident that their establishment was the showplace of El Paso. On one side of the large hall, there was a row of gaming tables, offering faro, chuck-a-luck, roulette, and other pleasant devices for separating the sucker from his poke. Toward the rear of the room, angled across one entire corner, was a small stage where dancing girls, Irish tenors, and stuttering comedians took turns competing with the roar of the crowd. Taken at a glance, it was quite a place, and for most men, owning the Coliseum would have represented the end of the rainbow. But Ed Banning had never considered himself molded from common clay; what was enough for the average pilgrim was merely a sampler for El Paso's political kingpin.
After threading his way through the packed house, Mayor Porter halted before a door at the rear, adjusted his coat, and knocked lightly. From inside came a muffled command, barely audible over the hubbub from the saloon. Sucking up his paunch, Porter twisted the doorknob and entered Ed Banning's office.
The first thing he saw was Sam Banning. The younger of the Banning brothers had a way of drawing attention, even in a crowd. For a big man, he was uncommonly handsome, and the fact that his nose had been broken on occasion somehow lent character to his broad, rough-hewn features. But after fashioning his face, the gods in their perverse way had played a cruel joke on Sam. His wide, heavily muscled shoulders gave way to long dangling arms, and his hands looked as if they could crush coconuts if the need arose. Still, the crowning touch was that Sam had grown to manhood almost as thick through the head as he was through the shoulders. All in all, the young Mr. Banning seemed only one step removed from walking on his knuckles.
Porter nodded to Sam, then turned to his brother who was seated behind a massive, ornately carved desk. "Ed, how's tricks? Looked like you're making money hand overfist out there." The mayor jerked his head back toward the door, and his hat tilted askew, cocked rakishly over one eyebrow.
Ed Banning regarded the dumpy politician with a speculative gaze. Isaac Porter had achieved minor fame as a boozer in earlier days, and Banning had a sneaking hunch he was on the firewater again. "Mayor, what brings you down to this neck of the woods? Thought you had a council meeting tonight."
"Oh, we did, we did," Porter assured him. "Passed that bridge deal one, two, three, and awarded the contract to our sterling partner in illusion, Ab Roberts."
El Paso's political boss just nodded, observing him closely, certain now that Porter's euphoric mood was about nine parts alcohol. Banning's frowning eyes slanted upward, two cold, ashen sockets in a long, bony face. Unlike Sam, he was a spare man, with a chalky, pallid look, almost as if he had been sickly as a child. Somewhat withdrawn by nature, he was an astringent sort, who usually spoke through clenched teeth, as if his jaws had been broken and wired shut. But the most disturbing thing about him was his eyes, menacing yet somehow lifeless, tinted a strange, dispassionate shade of gray, curiously suggestive of a cold winter cloud in a dead sky.
With the exception of his brother, Ed Banning had little use for other men; cynical of their motives, sharply aware of the imperfections that flawed their character. Remote, purposely holding himself aloof from the crowd, he played on other men's frailties and, with reasoned audacity, brought them to their knees in the crunch. Now, irritated by Porter's weakness for the bottle, he decided to whittle his political front-man down a notch or two.
"Isaac, you're soused. And the only thing lower in my book than a drunk is a reformed drunk. Now, suppose you pull up your pants and tell me what happened at the council meeting to set you off."
The mayor's bonhomie wilted under the biting sarcasm, and his motley features dissolved beneath a mask of outright alarm. "Ed, it wasn't my fault, honest to Christ it wasn't. That bastard Seth Hart has got it in his head thatwe need a new marshal. And he's threatened to blow the lid off unless we appoint some John Law he's scrounged up. I swear to you, Ed, I didn't have a thing to do with it. Absolutely nothing."
"All right, Isaac, keep your dauber up. There's a difference between having your tit in a wringer and losing all the marbles. Now just start at the beginning and tell me exactly what happened."
"Goddamn, Ed, you ain't gonna get nothin' out of him that makes sense." Sam's eyes flashed like coals of black ice as he gestured comtemptuously toward Porter. His normal disposition was something akin to a boar grizzly with its paw in a rusty bear trap, and right now he regarded the stubby little politician with a hungry glare. "Lemme take old swizzle-guts out and dump him in a horse trough. That'll bring him up talkin' a blue streak."
"Sam, try not to be so rash. Isaac's not that bad off. Are you, Isaac?" Ed Banning paused and Porter nodded dumbly, darting a nervous glance in Sam's direction. "See, what did I tell you, Sam? Isaac's got it all sorted out, and he's going to pony up just like he had balls. Now you go right ahead, Mayor, we're all ears."
Fumbling the words, Porter tried to flush the whiskey fumes from his spinning brain. Haltingly at first, he started to relate the gist of what had happened at the council meeting. Warming to his subject, the old warrior then launched into a vitriolic, damning tirade against Seth Hart and Doc Cummings. Gaining confidence as his grasp for the trenchant phrase returned, the mayor swept into the home stretch with a dire warning that all was lost unless the two businessmen were somehow thwarted in their underhanded conspiracy.
When he finished, standing spent and slightly breathless, the brothers simply stared at him with disgust. Ed Banning finally shook his head with a patronizing smile. "Isaac, if anybody ever takes the trouble to kick all the bullshit out of you, they could bury you in a matchbox."
Sam's hoarse grunt cut him off. "Forget him, Ed. We got to worry about them smart-aleck sonsabitches uptown. I say get 'em in a dark alley and split their heads with abungstarter. Teach 'em they can't get away with muckin' up the water. Let everybody in this whole goddamn fleabag know who's callin' the shots in El Paso."
"You know, Sam, sometimes I think our old man's oats must've been thinned out when he get around to you. Killin' Hart and Cummings wouldn't do anything but get the reformers out on the street pounding their drums." When the younger Banning gave him a baleful frown, Ed chuckled lightly. "Now don't get all bent out of shape. Lemme have a minute to think this out."
Unlike his brother, who operated solely on raw instinct, Ed Banning was coldly phlegmatic when crossed; a calculating, passionless instrument even with his back to the wall. Leaning back in the chair, his eyes clouded over and fixed on the ceiling, as if the answer lay hidden in the broad crossbeam. Slowly, piece by piece, he took the puzzle apart and put it back together again, examining each possibility with precise care before discarding it. Then, as he stood back and looked at the situation as a whole, the jumbled parts abruptly fell into place, no longer obscured or muddied but suddenly clear and shiny bright.
With the solution now in hand, his eyes focused again, and he found Sam watching him intently. "Brother, it occurs to me that dogs don't lie down just one way. And I think this is one of those times when we're gonna let Mr. Seth Hart go away figurin' he's bluffed us out."
When Sam's forehead wrinkled in protest, Ed held up his hand. "Let me finish. We're gonna let them have this hayseed as marshal. Stoudenmire, is that his name? Well they can have him, and welcome to him. It's no sweat off our balls. So long as we control the courts and city hall it doesn't make a good goddamn who wears that tin star. Without the mayor or the judges to back him up, Stoudenmire is gonna be flounderin' around like a hamstrung calf. And the dandy part of it is that we have absolutely nothing to lose, whichever way the dice fall. If he does get the greasers calmed down and clamps a lid on the southside, then we'll take credit for appointing the man who cleaned up El Paso. Lookin' at it the other way, if he falls on his ass or gets himself killed, then we'll dump the blame rightback on Hart's doorstep. Like I said, there's no way for us to lose. It's like playing with a stacked deck."
"By God, Ed, you've done it again!" Isaac Porter grinned broadly, nodding his head with a great show of awe. "I'll just walk into that meeting tomorrow night and tell Hart to bring on his horses."
"You do that, Mayor. Only make damn sure Hart and Cummings believe that their threats worked. Otherwise, they might shy off and start kicking over more rocks."
Later, after Porter had wandered back into the saloon, the Bannings broke out a bottle of their own. Downing a shot, Sam smacked his lips, like a dog sniffing horse apples. Then he started, as if the whiskey had jarred his dim wits, and peered quizzically at his brother.
"Say, Ed, I just thought of somethin'. What the hell kind of excuse are we gonna give George Campbell?"
"Don't worry about it, I'll think of something. Course, we could send him on a raid across the river. Maybe somebody' d put a hole through him and let a little of that rotgut leak out." Lazing back in the chair, he sipped the whiskey, savoring its pleasant bite as his eyes drifted off. "Sam, if you're ever gonna amount to anything in this game, you've got to get one thing through your head. Men are the cheapest commodity on God's green earth. You buy 'em like pig's knuckles. By the pound or by the keg. And even then, you've got to figure you've been robbed. No matter what you paid."
Sam Banning's thick brow wrinkled, and he dimly wondered what the hell his brother was talking about. Then he decided it wasn't worth the effort, and went back to the more inviting certainty of the bottle.
Copyright © 1973 by Matt Braun.