Lincoln County Crucible

Chapter 1


When Jethro Spring's eyes fluttered open, the Indian was sitting cross-legged by the long-dead campfire, apparently dozing. From the distance of fifty feet, Jethro could make out the raised welts of long-ago knife and bullet scars peeking from beneath folded arms and resting chin. Even the jagged white line on one cheek caught the early morning sun. The Indian was, Jethro thought, the meanest-looking human on earth.

He had known he could not remain long among these high mountains without being discovered by the Mescaleros. So the gray-eyed man made a game of it, moving by night, carefully wiping out tracks, using seldom-traveled trails, building a fire only when necessary. Each time he'd set up his meager camp in a defensible place, then retreat to sleep in a commanding niche where he could survey the camp and its approaches. This time, he'd even taken time to place tiny warning devices upon those approaches--trip ropes, a bent sapling, a balanced rock or pebble. Apparently none had worked.

Jethro glanced at his two peacefully grazing horses, content on their picket ropes. He slowly swung his head to gaze up at the cloudless sky and saw it would be another scorcher of a day, even in these forested mountains. Sunlight kissed the highest Sacramentos to the west. It also kissed his perch and the slumbering Apache.

As if on cue, the Indian also raised his head and gazed at the sunlit peaks. Then he swung to stare at the sprawled figure on the ledge above.

"Welcome, Malvado," Jethro called. "Welcome to my camp."

The Indian said nothing, continuing to sit with arms folded and legs crossed, transfixing the visitor to the Mescalero reservation with unblinking black eyes. He was growing long in the tooth, this Indian; his once raven hair was salt-and-pepper flecked and stagged unevenly to hang tangled to his cheekbones. The Apache wore nothing but a breechclout, a sash, leggings, and moccasins. A butcherknife and a revolver were thrust into the sash, and a glistening, newly oiled Winchester lay across his knees.

The gray-eyed man sat up, stretched, then scrambled down from his perch to take a seat by his visitor. "What can I do for you, Malvado?"

"I have once again come to talk to the man called the season of the hunger moon."

Jethro smiled. "The man called Winter would look upon it as an honor if Malvado would eat with him."

"Malvado waits."

Later, with both men sated via venison steaks, bannack bread, and innumerable cups of coffee, Jethro leaned back against his saddle to wait for Malvado to speak. But the Apache patted his stomach and merely grunted unintelligibly in his native language, then curled into a ball and fell asleep. There was nothing for Jethro Spring to do except wait.

Malvado awoke at mid-morning and he was again hungry. After washing down more steaks with another pot of coffee, the Indian said, "The young one who shoots as a striking snake would speak with you."

Billy? Jethro wondered. "Do you mean Billy the Kid?"

Malvado stared without replying.

"Does he have blue eyes?"

Malvado said, "And they are as cold as the snow that lays through the seasons."

"Did he say why he would speak with me, Malvado?"

"Because he and the-man-called-the-season-of-the-hunger moon are old friends."

"That is true, Malvado," Jethro said. "But that is no reason for him to wish to speak with me."

"It is enough for Malvado to leave his wickiup and search for you," he held up eight fingers, "for this many days. It is enough that I asked other warriors to search for the-man-called-the-season-of-the-hunger moon for he moves like a shadow through our land."

Jethro dipped his head at Malvado's compliment. But he said, "Tell Billy the Kid that Winter has nothing left to say to him. Whatever friendship we had is now gone. Tell him Winter is no longer in Lincoln County, or the Rio Ruidoso, or the Sacramento Mountains. Tell him I have no interest in either the people of this territory, or what is in it. Tell him to find other friends who care about him and the things he does."

When he finished, the Apache said, "It will be done." Then he was gone.

They found Jethro's camp at Elk Springs, on a headwater fork of the Rio Penasco. The youth, Billy Bonney, rode into the firelight accompanied by Ruidoso farmer Doc Scurlock and Malvado, the Apache. The men reined their horses to a halt and Billy, blinking against the campfire's flickering light, called to the man they knew as Jack Winter: " All right, Jack, we rode in fair and square. You know who we are and you know we're showing our hands. You got us covered, but you know well enough you needn't bother."

Jethro materialized out of the darkness. " Where's Bowdre?" he asked.

"We left him behind. We know you and him rub each other."

"Being as you're here, you may as well step down and sit. I'll see if I can rustle up something to eat. Not for you two, of course. But I know Malvado is hungry."

The trio dismounted while Jethro Spring busied himself with venison chops and coffee. After their saddles were stripped and their mounts staked out to graze, Bonney, Scurlock, and Malvado returned to the fire. Jethro shook hands with Scurlock and Bonney, then handed a half-cooked steak and a cup of sugar- sweetened coffee to the Apache.

"Miz Susan asked about you, Jack," Bonney said as he took a plate and stabbed a steak with his belt knife. "We heard you was up here some place and I promised her I'd look you up."

Jethro busied himself with the cooking, pointedly turning his back.

"Kinney and Andy Boyle both threatened her life, Jack. She says, by God, she's not leaving until she brings her husband's murderers to justice."

Jethro handed a plate to Scurlock, then held the coffee pot, pouring for the farmer and Bonney.

"She's got grit, Jack," Bonney continued. "She's ever' bit as game now as she was when they burned her house in Lincoln. But she can't fight the bastards without help. French and Bowdre was in town a week ago to look in on her. Doc and me came from there just a couple of nights ago. She's been asking about you right reg'lar."

Jethro forked up another steak for Malvado, then smiled at the ruddy-faced farmer he knew was fearless and capable. "Doc," he said, "seems like every time something is going on, you're in on it. How do you ever get any farming done?"

Scurlock grinned--his two front teeth were missing--and pointed at his mouth with his knife point. Then he swallowed, swallowed again, and said, "Don't get near enough farmin' time, that's for shore. But whenever I jumped in this thing to whup Dolan's outfit, I planned to stay 'til the job's done."

Scurlock's words brought a blush to Jethro Spring's dark face, but the farmer was too busy with his knife and steak to notice. Scurlock continued, "It's like the Englishman allus said: `In for a penny, in for a pound.' But hell, you remember that, Jack; you and Billy both worked for him."

Jethro's mouth pinched at mention of Tunstall. "So you two are here to talk me into getting back into the fight?"

"Could be," Bonney said.

"It's over, Billy."

"Who said it's over?"

"McSween is dead. So is Tunstall. Chisum won't help. The army and the law both belong to Dolan's outfit. He's got the judges in his hind pocket and the governor making new laws for him. Don't tell me it's not over."

Bonney spread his hands, plate in one, knife in the other. "What do we have to lose from here on out? The old bunch is still pretty much together. We've got some good fighting men. And Dolan is cutting his outfit down now that he thinks he don't need 'em no more."

"For one thing," Jethro replied, "a whole bunch of good men can still lose their lives. So far, besides Tunstall and McSween, we've lost Brewer, McNab, Morris, Romera, Zamora, and Salazar. How many more will it be before enough is enough?"

"Salazar ain't dead," Bonney said. "They got him when he came out of the house with McSween, but he didn't die."

Jethro blinked. "Eugenio's all right?"

Scurlock nodded, "He crawled away while the bastards celebrated getting McSween. It's the truth that he's on the mend."

Jethro spat into the fire. "What the hell does that change? It won't bring John Tunstall or Dick Brewer back. And both of them were among the world's finest."

"McSween, too," Bonney muttered.

Jethro shook his head, "McSween wasn't half the man either Tunstall or Brewer was."

"Tunstall wasn't no fighting man either," Billy said, mistaking Jethro's meaning.

Another steak went to Malvado, then Bonney said, "We need you, pard."

Jethro sighed and sprawled upon the ground, leaning his head against his saddle. "I'm happy the way I am. I eat when I want, sleep when I want, ride when I want, where I want. I don't sleep with one eye open and a gun in my hand. Why should I go back?"

"We need you, pard," Bonney repeated.

Jethro tucked his hands behind his head and stared into the night sky. "You know, people's been saying that ever since I came to this country a year ago. Chisum, McSween, Dolan, Riley, Salazar. They all said I was needed. Now you say it. Dick Brewer and John Tunstall were the only two who didn't say they just had to have me on their side. And they didn't drool for want of my gun." He stopped as suddenly as he'd begun; the fire popped in the stillness. At last, he continued, "And you know what? They were the only two I really wanted to side with."

Doc Scurlock seemed mesmerized by the fire. He said, "Jack, you wonderin' why we need you?"

"Nope. I really don't give a good goddamn. You see, whether I'm needed or not makes no difference to whether I'll go or won't."

"Don't forget Sue McSween," Bonney said. "I don't see how a body could walk away and leave her holding the sack."

Jethro's grim smile never reached his gray eyes. He pushed to his feet. "I'm going to bed, boys. We'll finish this in the morning, while reason shines on it."

Jethro Spring was first up. It was shortly after daylight when he carried a bucket of water from where water bubbled from the ground. The Apache lay near the still-smoldering fire, but Doc Scurlock and Billy the Kid had, with Jethro's same wary cunning, slept away from the camp. Bonney and Scurlock came in a few moments later and all three visitors watched Jethro as he worked to prepare breakfast.

At last, Scurlock said, "Billy, you reckon we'd ought to shift the picket pins?"

Jethro straightened from his pots and watched them head for the horses. He glanced at the Indian, who also watched the others move horses. "Why are you in this, Malvado? What do you hope to gain by bringing Billy and Doc to me?"

"What can a Mescalero do these days?" the Apache asked. "There are always men who steal from other men. These, my people can still fight. But we cannot fight the big store who cheats us of our allotments; who steals from us with the help of our agent and of the army. Should not Malvado help any who fight the big store?"

Jethro returned to his chore.

Malvado continued speaking as if the listener still faced him: "The man called the season of the hunger moon is but half Indian and if he wishes, he can leave to go to the setting sun, or to the land of the big water. But that is a thing the Mescalero cannot do. We are told we must stay on our reservation where our old people sicken and die because they give their food to hungry children. There are not enough of us to fight the soldiers who are so many they are like stars in the sky. Our young men even now steal away to join Victorio, or the Chiricahua called Geronimo who, it is said, fights the Mejicanos. But they leave our women and children and our weak. Those of us left must decide. Will we fight and die? Will we stay and watch our people hunger and become begging dogs? Or will we try to do as I do, by helping any who may in turn help the Mescalero?"

Jethro thought of the Apache's scarred torso, cruel face, and clenched fists. "You are a strong and brave man, Malvado," he said. "You have more courage than those who steal away to fight because you stay to help your people."

Bonney and Scurlock returned from the meadow. After breakfast the men sprawled against their saddles. Bonney asked, "Have you give it any more thought, Jack, about coming back with us?"

"No. You don't need me and neither does Susan McSween."

"The way I see it, we do," Scurlock said. "Billy and me, we talked on it some after you bedded down. You been thinking right most-near all along. Trouble is, the folks who made the final choices wasn't listenin'. Hell, we know you didn't think we shoulda come back to Lincoln to fight it out, and you was right. We know you was the one who figured the army would step in and back Dolan."

"Don't forget the fight at South Springs, too," Bonney chimed in. "You got us out of that one when Chisum would've throwed us to the wolves."

"You're the best leader we got, boy," Scurlock said, then grinned and added, "Truth tell, we ain't got nobody else."

Bonney said, "Damn it, Jack, you're respected by most everybody. And the Mexicans--they'll answer your call."

"They did," Jethro said. "That's when I led them into that trap at Lincoln, where Zamora, Romero, and Salazar got..."

"Salazar's alive."

The men fell silent, each lost in his own thoughts. Jethro broke the silence. "Besides, Dolan-Riley's sheriff probably has warrants out for my arrest."

Bonney hooted. "Hell, Peppin's got warrants for everybody's arrest. Yeah, including yours. But he ain't got guts enough to serve none of 'em. Your warrants are minor, Jack, and they'll be dismissed as soon as the court gets out a grand jury again. What you got? Assault against two sergeants at Fort Stanton when you got away from them for trying to arrest you without no charge; the other is resisting arrest from that Seven Rivers mob at Chisum's. Hell, you're as clear as a man could be and still be on Dolan's shit list."

"Billy's right, Jack," Scurlock said. "Dolan's bunch is pretty well broke up now that they're back on top. Peppin hasn't got enough backing to arrest anybody that don't want arrested. If Billy and me can come and go with murder warrants over our heads, you sure as hell won't have no trouble in Lincoln town."

"Especially as scared as them bastards are of you," Bonney added.

The group fell silent again. Jethro wondered if a more disparate and desperate group could gather. Malvado means evil or wicked in Spanish, he thought. I don't know much about his early days, but I'd bet a lot of money he's one tough, mean, sonofabitch if he's backed into a corner. He might be along toward the tail of his prime, but that only means he can use his head now, too.

And Billy. He looks as innocent as a new babe, but he may well be the deadliest one here. He's got his whole life ahead of him, but he's off to a bad start. He kills too easy. This Lincoln County thing was a poor place for a young man to begin. John Tunstall was an unlucky place for Billy to work, and to get to like and trust the owner.

Me, too, for that matter. Hell, I didn't want into this, but when they killed John, one of the finest, most honest men I ever knew, I ...

"Word is out Frank Wheeler has got some of the stock belonging to Tunstall's estate, down at San Nicholas Spring," Billy said. "Me'n the boys are gathering to go after 'em. We'd be obliged if you'd join up."

"We'd like to have you head us up, Jack," Doc Scurlock corrected.

Scurlock's an earnest man, Jethro thought. Tough as whang leather and mostly honest, with a wife and kids back on his ranch. He's fighting for his home and family. What do I have in this fight, anyway? How do I tell him he's got more in it than me? Do I tell him I'm a half-breed drifter with a federal murder warrant hanging over my head? Do I tell him I killed an army major up in Dakota Territory? Never mind that the sonofabitch killed my ma and pa. What's it been--seven years? But it's still a damned good reason for me to drift away from here before somebody adds my numbers.

"We just don't think the bastards ought to get away with stealing John's life and then stealing his ranch blind before the estate's settled," Scurlock said.

If they hadn't shot Tunstall down like a dirty cur, I'd be gone by now. He was a good man, John Tunstall. A friend. I stuck around because of that. And I got in deeper and deeper with people I couldn't believe in. Yeah, John, it was because of you. And because of another man's wife. Damn you to hell, Susan McSween!

"Miz Susan is trying real hard to hold both her husband's and Tunstall's estate together 'til settle-up time. We can't run out on her, Jack. Not when she needs all the help she can get."

You stupid bastards! Jethro thought. How can I get across to you that I believe Susan McSween drove her husband's wild plan to overthrow Dolan-Riley in an all-out gun battle? How can I tell you, Billy, that I think she led us all into that trap in Lincoln in a crazy gamble that she planned right from the beginning? How can I tell ...

"What about Sue, Jack?" Billy asked. "I mean, me'n the boys ain't so blind that we don't know you two looked at each other with calf-eyes."

Jethro's head flipped around and he glared at Billy.

The Kid held out a hand. "Now hold on, Jack. Don't get riled. I know damn well there wasn't nothin' to it and so did her husband. All's I'm saying, though, is that you do think an awful lot of her as a woman. And no wonder, the spunk she's got. But now she's alone and in trouble. If I was you, I wouldn't be squatting on some way-off mountain peak talkin' to gophers or rock chucks. Hell no, I'd be cozyin' up, offering to help any way I could."

Billy, Billy. How can I love a woman I suspect deliberately led her husband to his death, knowing if he failed, I was there waiting in the wings? She sent me away on a wild goose chase before that last battle, don't you see? She knew it was a senseless ride because she knew Chisum would never help. She sent me away to keep me safe for her future plans. Yet she was perfectly willing to throw your life and others' away.

"She told us you might be peeved because you missed out on the Lincoln fight," Scurlock said. "She figured you thought everybody made you out as a coward because of it."

Jethro swung his head to glare at the farmer.

"Well, it ain't so. Them as counts knows you was riding for help. Besides, the rest of us left the boys in McSween's house a-hangin' when the army showed and set their cannon lookin' down our throats. We ran off, sure enough. And nobody holds us at fault because of it."

Jethro leaped to his feet. "No," he said. "No, no, no! I'm not going and that's final!"

Roland Cheek Country


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