Ranger Sergeant Kelsey spoke loudly, to be heard over the desert wind that blew down from the Guadalupe Mountains across the salt flats. “How about a little shooting match?” He glanced at Private Thompson. “Jim Stroud was a damn good man with a gun back in Company C, before he quit the Rangers for soft living in Ysleta.” Kelsey was relaxing outside his tent, with Thompson, Deputy Marshal Kunze, and Marshal Stroud of Ysleta.
Thompson grinned, eager for the challenge. He had joined the Texas Rangers in Austin only three months earlier. He was promptly ordered to proceed to the encampment of Company C outside Ysleta del Norte. Company C’s duties were to pursue hostile Apaches and to keep the peace. Since then Thompson had seen much hard riding, but few Apaches or desperadoes. Dreams of stirring victories had a way of vanishing into dust and alkali haze.
Marshal Jim Stroud sipped his whiskey and said nothing. Stroud’s deep-set eyes and thick mustache formed a mask, guarding his inward thoughts. He was still shy of forty, but the lines on his face suggested a life crowded beyond his years.
Deputy Kunze looked up from his drink. “Things won’t be so soft in Ysleta long.” Kunze’s accent was a mix of West Texas and Westphalian. “Bill Stewart is madder’n a scalded cat that Jim got the marshal’s job away from him. That gott-dammed swine has thrown in with Johnny Hall’s gang of rustlers.”
“Didn’t you arrest Hall for murdering a couple of Mexican vaqueros on the Border?” Kelsey asked.
“Not that anything came of it. Stewart and Hall’s friends on the grand jury no-billed him. Too many of ‘em are buying beef cheap from Hall. Even so, Hall’s been swearing bloody vengeance ever since. I guess we’ll have to break Hall’s gang since you Rangers can’t.” Kunze downed his whiskey.
“That’s enough.” The slurring in Stroud’s words indicated the whiskey was taking effect. “Let’s shoot.”
A row of tin cans and bottles had been set up on a low mound of sand. The men took their places, ten paces from the targets. Both Stroud and Thompson carried the ubiquitous .45 caliber Colt Single-Action revolver. Thompson took his turn first. Six shots rang out in swift succession. Three bottles exploded and two cans leapt away. A third can made a half turn but stayed upright. “Dern,” Thompson muttered.
Stroud raised his pistol. The shots came slowly, sending gouts of dust flying. A passing bird swooped as a .45 slug whistled past. As the dust settled Stroud peered at the targets. They remained untouched. “Not my day,” he said at last. “I got to see a man about a horse. Marco should have my nag shod by now.” Stroud and Kunze turned to leave. Kelsey and Thompson followed, as they needed to pick up supplies in town.
Ysleta’s main street was a mix of old adobes and wooden storefronts. Schultz’s General Store was in the middle, next to Marco Jiminez’s stable and smithy. A Catholic church adorned one end of the street while a combination gambling den and bordello occupied the other, accepting an uneasy proximity forced by the circumstances of life on a desert the Apache claimed as their own.
Marco was not at the stable, so Kunze offered to wait. Stroud went next door to Schultz’s General Store. Kelsey and Thompson paused on the sidewalk to smoke and talk. “I know Stroud is a pal of yours,” Thompson began. “But he doesn’t seem like such an all-fired boss Ranger, let alone a man-eating lawman.”
Kelsey’s eyes narrowed. “Circumstances change. So do men. Ranger service is one thing, riding herd on a nest of scorpions like Ysleta is another. Our remit is state law and Indian fighting, but I’ll back Jim Stroud’s play anytime.” Behind him Stewart and Hall emerged from the gambling house and started for the far end of the street. Kelsey failed to notice.
Inside the store Schultz hurriedly warned Stroud. “Hall’s in town breathing fire, and drunk as a legislator. Stewart’s with him, you know he took it as a declaration of war when you replaced him as marshal.”
Stroud glanced at the clock on Schultz’s wall. It lacked a few seconds of noon. “The storm’s coming then.” Stroud no longer seemed enveloped in whiskey fumes. He was alert, body suddenly taut. The mask was still there, awaiting only the moment when the revelers reveal their true faces.
Marco emerged from the church and went up the street towards his stable and blacksmith shop. Kunze emerged from the stable only to find Stewart and Hall glaring at him. “You oughta be shot,” Hall slurred. “Figures a god-damned Dutchman would take sides with Mexicans against white men.” He reeked of whiskey, but his hands were steady and close to his gun.
Stewart made no move for his pistol, but stood arms folded. “Stroud ain’t fit to be this town’s dog-pelter, let alone marshal. And you’re nothing but his ass-kisser.”
“Schwein!” Kunze dropped into a fighting crouch.
“I got you covered!” Hall roared. He reached for his gun.
The clock struck noon.
Hall’s pistol came up and he fired, striking Kunze in the chest. The deputy reeled back against the stable wall. Stewart froze, realizing that Kunze and Hall were on opposite sides of him, and he was in the middle of the shooting. Stroud heard the shot. Instantly, the mask of indifference dropped from his face only to reveal another, that of a beast, aware that he is both hunter and prey.
One second had passed.
Drawing his gun, Stroud lunged out the door of Schultz’s. Stewart was shouting, “I don’t want a fight!” But his hand dropped to his gun. Marco froze, seeing the men firing guns in front of his stable. Kelsey and Thompson looked up, unsure of what had just passed, and waited for understanding to come.
Two seconds had passed.
Kunze drew his gun and fired, the bullet struck Stewart in the foot. Stewart grunted in pain, but cleared his gun from his holster. Hall fired again, but Stewart was in his way and the ball hit the stable harmlessly. Stroud was advancing, swiftly taking in the scene in the street.
Three seconds past noon.
The deputy let out a groan of pure pain and fired again, this time his shot hit Stewart in the arm. Stewart’s gun fell to the ground. Marco’s mind was working. He saw guns and shooting and made his move towards a door for cover. Stroud fired at Hall. But Hall was moving, trying to get a clear shot at Kunze. Stroud’s shot caught Marco just below the heart. Marco collapsed in the doorway.
Four seconds past noon.
Hall wheeled, just in time to see Stroud adjust his aim and fire. The .45 slug hit Hall between the eyes. Stewart reached for his gun. Kunze shook his head as if to waken himself from a dream, he held his gun loosely.
Five seconds past noon.
Stewart scooped up his gun. Kunze moaned as he slid to the ground, leaving a trail of blood on the stable wall. Stroud held his fire, eyes moving from Hall to Stewart. “We’ve got to do something,” Kelsey said to Thompson. But neither stirred, for they did not know what to do.
“I don’t want to fight!” Stewart gasped. He held his gun in front of him. Stroud had already tightened his finger on the trigger. The slug tore into Stewart’s belly.
Stewart staggered back. “You murdered me!” Stroud held his fire. Stewart still had his gun.
Stewart looked up, eyes and gun moving together toward Stroud. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Too late.” Stroud fired into Stewart.
Wisps of smoke drifted in the air. Kelsey and Thompson broke from their place and hastened to Stroud’s side. Thompson stared at the dead men and the swiftly growing pools of blood. “My God, my God,” he muttered to himself.
“I’ll back your play, Jim,” Kelsey announced.
“Thanks, Kelsey,” Stroud said. “But who’ll back yours?” And there was no answer to that.
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