The Devil's Justice

       Chad Cull / History & Fiction / Western
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Grass, sky and sunlight whipped past Carlin in blinding, confused, chaotic shards of blue, green, and bright light. He twisted sharply in the confines of the taught rope, trying to regain some modicum of control over his body and pull his head erect enough and steady enough to focus his vision and to see more than mere flashes of color and light. His range hat, which had been tied beneath his chin, slipped off and the string stretched tight across his throat. The hat flopped about his shoulders and back and whipped at his face, pelting his eyes.
The grass and hard pack beneath him scraped at his body, pulling his shirt loose from beneath his belt until his skin was exposed. The rough terrain then dug deeper into his hide and blood appeared from the many scratches and his body bruised as it slid over rocks and stones.
It seemed as if he had been dragged for miles, with the pounding of horse’s hoofs in front of him. Desperately, he fought at the rope. The struggle just made the pain and abrasions worse, but he twisted violently left and right until he managed to pull himself flat on his stomach, reaching up with both hands from under the loop to grasp the rope ahead of him. The skin on his underside burned fiercely as he pulled his upper body up, lifting his shoulders off the ground enough to look along the rope and see the horse and rider ahead of him. Off to the side, out of the corner of his eye, he could see another rider coming along side of him, whipping a coiled rope at him. He twisted away just as the rider swung the hard coil and barely missed his head as he moved. But, as the rider ahead loosed the rope, allowing Carlin to slide to an abrupt stop, Carlin rolled back just enough for the next arc of the coiled rope to whack him hard in the back of the head, beating his face into the grass.
Carlin’s body went limp and he lay there stunned, breathing hard, almost unconscious, yet just enough awake to be aware of the two men dismounting and rushing to his side. He felt big hands on his shoulders and then felt himself being pulled erect on his feet. His legs were of rubber and he would have slumped back to the ground if he hadn’t been held in place. Carlin’s head raised just enough to see a big burly man with a flaming red beard before him. The man’s huge fist grew enormous as it came straight into his face. His head felt as if it had exploded with a flash of lightning and intermittent darkness. The man behind him held him steady as the blow plowed into Carlin’s left jaw. His head jerked to the side and blood oozed from the corner of his mouth.
In one smooth motion, the man holding him, spun him around in place and Carlin fell into the arms of red beard. His eyes opened just enough to see a rangy black stubbled face before him. His fist loomed just as huge as red beard’s and slammed into his face. Carlin’s head, once again, whipped to the side. This time total darkness washed over him and he felt him self slumping freely to the ground, before succumbing to total unconsciousness.

The hot afternoon sun paled into a round yellow ball against the light blue sky, spreading its warmth over the lone, still figure, lying flat on his back, in the grassland below.
Jace Carlin had not stirred for at least an hour. Images flashed through his muddled brain. The marauders attacking his cabin, his brother shot down without mercy, next to him, the screams of his family as they perished in flames. Faces of men before him and the deafening roar of his avenging guns as they took the lives of those who had deprived him of everything dear to him. The scream of a woman in a lonely street. The cry of an enraged child. “Someday, I’ll kill you! I hate you! I hate you!” The words drifted to silence and only the boy’s tear filled face and moving lips remained fading away into the blackness of Carlin’s unconsciousness.
Gradually, the blackness began to fade into gray; then light began to filter through under his eyelids. He felt a cooling sensation on his forehead and face. Water! It was spreading across his cheeks and he felt the taste of it on his swollen lips. It seemed to take tremendous effort to open his eyes, and as he willed them open to narrow slits, the brilliant light from the sun above, drove daggers of pain into his brain. He pulled the lids shut, waited a few moments, then forced them open again. This time, wider. The light was just as brilliant, but somehow, with the expectation of it, it didn’t hurt so much. His lids fluttered open and shut several times, becoming reacclimated to the light. At first it was blinding and that was all he saw. Gradually, shadows began to form before him, blocking out some of the light. His eyes began to focus and he saw the shadow of a man with large hulking shoulders.
He felt giant hands beneath his own shoulders and felt his head being raised slightly off the ground. The shape of a canteen loomed into his face. He felt the coolness of water drip onto his lips and he tasted it on his tongue. With eagerness, he swallowed the liquid and thirsted for more, but it came with restraint. “Not too much at once, son,”a deep resonant voice said with calm reassurance. The canteen pulled away.
Carlin’s eyes began to focus on the big man’s face. He saw a broad furrowed brow beneath a tattered broad brimmed hat, round glass lenses reflecting the sun’s brilliant light, encircling the man’s aged dark eyes, and a flowing white walrus mustache drooping off the sides of a powerful chin.
“Just take it easy boy,” the voice said as the man lowered Jace’s shoulders gently back onto the grass.
Carlin drifted off to unconsciousness once again. Only this time. it was a more peaceful sleep. The deep voice of his benefactor resonated in his brain. It felt soothing and somewhat familiar in a strange way. The kindly face ebbed in and out of his dreams with the same reassuring familiarity.
Then in his slumber, he found himself standing in the meadow next to the remnants of his burnt out cabin. The sky above was dark blue, filled with large, puffy, white clouds, tinged with darkness at their edges. He felt cold and empty as he stood before the three wooden crosses, staring at the final resting place of his family. He absentmindedly fingered the edge of his hat brim, that he held loosely in his hands. A cold wind tugged at his shaggy head of hair. Tears trickled down his face in icy rivulets. “I knew you would want them buried here, Jace,” a voice said from beside him. He turned to face his long time friend, Zeke Austin. “Thanks Zeke,” Carlin said, old friend,” Carlin put a hand on the old man’s big shoulder. Zeke Austin gave him a reassuring smile beneath his flowing white walrus mustache.

When Jace Carlin awoke again, he felt the softness of a mattress beneath him and the feather pillow beneath his head. His eyes opened and he saw the blanket tucked beneath his chin. Sunlight streamed through the window to his left. Dust particles danced in the beams.
“How’re you feelin’, boy?” Zeke Austin said rising from his chair and shuffled across the room toward the bed where Carlin lie. He pulled a straight chair away from the wall, dropping his heavy bulk onto the seat. His ample middle spilled over his belt and his suspenders framed the drooping belly on each side.
“I wasn’t dreaming, then,” Jace said . “It was you, that helped me.”
“If I’d’ve been in your dreams, son, that must have been one wing ding of a nightmare.” Zeke joked. “But, by the looks of things,” he continued. “Your nightmare happened in daytime before I came along. What happened, out there, anyhow,son?”
“Two men,” Jace started, his voice was raspy and it was a bit of an effort to speak. “Jumped me. Hardly saw them. They dragged me, then beat me. Did you see them?”
“No,” Zeke sighed. “Not a sign of anyone out there. Just you. Not even a horse around. What were you doing on Diamond 8 land, anyhow?”
“Diamond 8?” Jace pulled himself up to a sitting position. His body ached with the movement. He glanced around the room recognizing Zeke’s room as he remembered it. It was a small room that had been added to the back of Ben Crenshaw’s ranch house. Zeke had been Ben’s Segundo for many years. “But I heard, Ben Crenshaw sold out. You…you mean, you still work here for the new owners? I heard some bad things about them.”
“Yeah, I know what you probably heard and you’re wonderin’ if it’s true and why I’d be a part of it.”
Carlin nodded.
“I’m an old man son. Ain’t easy for a man like me to get work. Besides, this ranch has been my home for a long time. When Stacy Merritt asked me to stay on, I did. Can’t say I agree with everything that goes on around here though.”
“Guess everyone has their price, Zeke,” Jace said with more than a hint of disappointment. “Still I can’t see you putting up with hired guns, killing, and running people off their land.”
“I don’t suppose, there’s much I can say about that.” There was sorrow in his eyes and his voice. “But don’t believe everything you hear, nuther.”
“I suppose it was your men who jumped me, then,” Jace said flatly. So, why did you help me?”
“You’re my friend, Jace. I hope you can still believe that. But just to set the record straight, it wasn’t Diamond 8 riders what done this to you. Least wise, not that I know of. Merritt doesn’t admit to it. But I wouldn’t put it past that hired gun, Slate.”
“Morgan Slate?” Carlin said with surprise. “You know him?”
“Heard of him. Seen him a time or two. But I wouldn’t say I know him. He’s mean as they come.”
“That’s him, alright,” Austin agreed. ‘
“Take my advice, son. Let it go. This ain’t no place for you no more. Best you ride on and forget about all this. I’ll ask the boss to loan you a horse and saddle.”
“Seems to me, somebody owes me a horse. But, that doesn’t mean I’m leaving.” “Well, let’s not tell the boss that though.” Zeke agreed. “Now how about we see to you getting’ some breakfast.”
“Breakfast? You mean I…?”
“Yeah. You slept through the rest of yestidday and all night.” The old man chuckled and started for the door. “I’ll be right back with some coffee and bisquits. We can jaw some more when I get back.”

The ranch looked pretty much the same as Jace Carlin had remembered it, though it did look less prosperous than it had before. Zeke and Jace strolled, leisurely, from Zeke’s quarters and around the front of building, following a dirt roadway toward the barn and corrals. A man and woman were in conversation at the rails with their backs to Zeke and Jace.
“Boss!” The old man called, as they approached the corral.
The woman and the tall man next to her both turned to face the oncoming pair. The woman was tall and looked like she could handle the ruggedness of ranch life. She was dressed in a man’s red plaid shirt and jeans, rolled up atop her calfskin half boots. A gun belt encircled her lean hips and a pearl handled .38 Smith & Wesson revolver rested snugly in the holster on her right thigh and a bit to the front. Her brown range hat was tied tightly beneath a delicate chin. The crown covered the back of her head, but her curly blond hair fell free in front over her forehead and around her ears.
The tall man was dark and swarthy, with a faded dark blue shirt and jeans tucked into high top black boots. His broad face was shaved clean, but a shadow of what would have been a heavy black beard, still remained. He wore a fancy black Stetson with silver conchoes on the hat band. He had mocking black eyes that sparkled with arrogance and reflected the confidence of a dangerous man. He wore a shiny black leather Buscadero pistol rig with two holsters. Well worn black pistol grips protruded from each one. The man’s fingers lightly brushed them as he moved with a catlike stealth.
They both eyed Carlin closely, sizing him up suspiciously.
“Miss Merritt, this is the young man I told you about.” Zeke said when they came close. Then to Carlin, “Jace, this is Stacy Merritt.”
Jace was jolted. From all he had heard about the Diamond 8’s boss’s ruthlessness, he had not expected that Stacy Merritt was a woman. Her face was stern and cold, but something about her blue eyes belied the fact.
“And this is…….,” he started, indicating the tall man.
“Morgan Slate,” Carlin filled in the rest flatly and coolly.
“And you are Jace Carlin,” Slate countered. His thumbs hooked in his gunbelt and he rocked back and forth on his heels.
“I take it, you two know each other,” Stacy acknowledged. There was a hardness to her voice and her face remained impassive.
“More like, we know of each other,” Carlin said icily, not letting his eyes stray from Slate’s face.
“Yeah,” Slate drawled. “We’ve never met, but we know about each other. Sort of belong to the same club, so to speak. Birds of a feather, you know.” He grinned slyly.
“But we don’t keep to the same flock,” Carlin added.
“Pretend what you want, Carlin. But we both know we’re the same kind of bird.”
Jace’s face reddened and his jaw tightened. Anger flashed in his eyes.
“That’s enough preening your feathers for now, boys,” Stacy put in harshly. “Both of you, back off before I cool your tail feathers, myself.”
“Now, I just might enjoy that,” Morgan chuckled. He cut it short when he recognized the fire growing in Stacy Merritt’s glare. He backed off.
“I’ve heard about you too, Mister Carlin,” Stacy said, addressing her attention to Carlin, “From what I’ve heard, Morgan is right, but Zeke told me I shouldn’t believe everything I hear.”
“That’s funny,” Jace answered. “That’s what Zeke told me about you.” He stared coldly into her eyes for a moment, letting the meaning set in.
Breaking the tension, Zeke put in, “I told Jace, he could borrow a horse. Is that all right, Miss Merritt?”
“Sure,” she answered. “He can keep the horse. That way he’s got no reason to come back.”
Zeke was taken back. “Well boss, that’s no way to….”
“You may think he’s your friend, Zeke. And that’s the only reason I wouldn’t have Slate shoot him right now.”
Slate smirked, victoriously.
Then to Carlin, Stacy warned, “Take what ever horse you want and a saddle. Then get off the Diamond 8 and don’t come back.”
She turned and walked away, crooking a finger in the air for slate. “Morgan,” she summoned without slowing her step. The gunman grinned, tipped his hat brim mockingly to Carlin and followed after her.

It was almost noon when Jace Carlin pulled rein in front of the Sheriff’s office in Contention Springs. He dismounted the rangy grulla, he had taken from the Diamond 8, and tied up at the hitch rail.
Will Parmalee was sitting at a wooden desk, when Jace came through the doorway. He looked up and his eyes roamed over Jace’s bruised face, torn shirt and dirty jeans. “What happened to you?” He asked dryly without feigning a hint of surprise nor concern.
“Two men jumped me out at my place. There’s Diamond 8 cattle there, grazing on my grass.”
“And?”
“And I want to know what you’re going to do about it.”
Parmalee sighed, rose from his chair and moved to the front of his desk and sat on a corner. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “You were trespassing.”
“Trespassing?” Carlin charged at him, his face flushed and anger in his eyes. “I was on my own property!”
Parmalee shook his head from side to side. “No, you weren’t. That land doesn’t belong to you any more.”
“Doesn’t belong to me? What are you talking about? We built that spread up out of a wilderness. My brother and I. We put our lives into it. Our sweat and blood.”
“I know. I know, Jace,” the Sheriff said quietly, trying to calm him down. “But you’ve been gone for four years. The taxes weren’t being paid and for all intents and purposes, that land was regarded as abandoned. The county had no choice but to sell it for back taxes.”
“Then I’ll pay the damn taxes. I want my home back.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, Jace. Just way too late. I told you it would’ve been best for you to just ride on. Start fresh somewhere else.”
“I don’t want somewhere else. My family is buried there,” His eyes bulged with anger. “That’s another thing,” he ranted. “They’ve taken away the grave markers and let the grass grow up. I can’t even find where my family lies and cattle are tramping over them; grazing.”
“I’m sorry, Jace. There’s nothing I can do. What did you expect?”
“Justice!” Carlin growled.
“This is justice, Jace. The property no longer belongs to you. It’s the law.”
“The law?” Jace hissed. “The law did nothing when my family was taken from me and now it’s doing nothing when my land is being taken.”
“You gave your land up, Jace. To go on a vengeance quest, searching for the justice you thought was owed you. But did you get justice? No. Only vengeance. Only the law can collect justice.”
“That’s why I came here, Will,” Jace’s tact began to soften. “I thought I’d give the law another chance to do it right, but I see I was wrong.” He turned on his heel and left.
Will Parmalee watched him go. The furrows of his brow deepened and he felt a chill along his spine.

Carlin was still angry an hour later when he emerged from the hotel. After leaving the sheriff’s office, Jace had returned to his room and washed up again, changed into clean clothes and rested on the bed for a while, just thinking and remembering.. His home was gone and the law was not going to help. Did he have to take matters into his own hands again? “No!” he told himself. He had sought vengeance before and found it empty. He hoped he had learned something, but to return to a vengeance trail, would mean that he had learned nothing. Perhaps, he should take everyone’s advice and move on. No! He couldn’t do that either. He couldn’t let his own land be taken from him. He could not allow his family to lie in unmarked, forgotten graves, with cattle tramping over them.
He jumped up from the bed and grasped his saddle bags from the back of a straight chair. He hefted it, feeling the weight of its contents. He jerked open the flap and pulled the coiled pistol belt and Colt.45 from it. With practiced ease, he slid the weapon from the well oiled holster. He held it firmly in his hand, feeling the smooth handle and savoring how it felt in his palm, as he hefted it’s balance. He worked the hammer and mechanism and checked the loads. A familiar rush waved over him.
Then he held himself in check, for a moment. What was he doing? Was he still a slave to this awesome power in his hand?
No!
He slammed the Colt back into its sheath and tossed the gun belt onto the bed, donned his range hat, opened the door and went out, leaving the gun behind.

And now as he stepped off the hotel porch steps, he heard a familiar female voice from down the street. “Jace! Jace Carlin! It really is you.”
As he turned on his heel, he heard the rustle of skirts and out of the corner of his eye, for a fleeting moment, he thought he saw his own beloved Alice, rushing toward him. But that was impossible, she was dead and gone. Never to return to him. As realization set in, he saw it was Alice’s sister Jenna. She and Alice had always looked so much alike. He hardly had time to compose himself, when she was already upon him; dropping her packages and throwing her arms around Jace’s neck and squealing with delight.
“Oh Jace. You’ve come back. It’s so good to see you again.”
At first, Carlin was numb by the surprise and the sudden rush of affection. He stood woodenly as she hugged and kissed him. Then as if a switch had been turned on, he responded. He wrapped his arms around her tightly and buried his face in her hair, his cheek against hers and remembered the familiar perfume, from times gone by when he and Jenna had been an item before Jace had turned his attentions to Alice. He hugged her tightly. Then as her excitedness subsided, they mutually released each other, stood back and smiled to one another. For a brief moment, neither had a word to say. Then they both started at once. They laughed. “You first,” Jace said sheepishly.
“Oh, no, Jace Carlin. I already got in the first words.”
Jace shifted uneasily on his feet. He felt awkward. “‘Good to see you again, Jenna,” he said. “You…you look good.”
“I wish I could say the same for you,” she said, letting her dark eyes roam over Jace Carlin’s bruised face. “What happened to you. You look like you got caught in a buzz saw.”
“Jace forced a chuckle and made light of it. “Just a little accident,” he said noncommittally. “It’s nothing. Really.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing to me.” Then she dropped the matter. “My, my, Jace Carlin,” she repeated as if admiring him. She gazed into his eyes and he glanced nervously away. “Just wait until Duncan sees you. He’ll be so happy. He’s missed you these many years. He always regarded you as his best friend.”
That was true. Duncan and Jace had been the best of friends for years. When Jace married Alice, Duncan Holt had been his best man. Then when Duncan married Jenna, Jace was the best man. Jace had recovered from his gunshot wounds at Duncan’s ranch, but Duncan had not been successful in dissuading Jace from riding the vengeance trail.
“I’m just finishing my shopping, Jace. How about coming out to the ranch with me? Have supper with us.”
“I… really shouldn’t,” he protested meekly.
“Nonsense,” Jenna insisted. “Duncan would be so disappointed. You can’t let him down. Now, can you?”
“It’s just…just that I have some matters to attend to.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“Can’t it wait?” Jenna pleaded.
“Well…”
“I’m not taking no for an answer, Jace Carlin. Whatever you’ve got to do, can just wait. Besides, I’m in town all by myself and I could use a big strong man to drive me back in my buggy. You know I never was much good at handling horses.” She took him by the arm and pulled. “Now are you coming with me or do I have to drag you all the way home?”
Jace grinned. “Looks like I don’t have a choice, do I?”
“No you don’t,” she said emphatically with a giggle.
“I guess we ought to pick up these packages, then. Can’t leave them lying in the street,” Jace said, stooping to gather them up.
They were still laughing as they walked down the street to where the buggy was parked. Jace loaded the packages and helped Jenna into the rig. Then he climbed aboard, took the reins, clucked to the sleek black gelding in the traces, and made a u turn in the street. He stopped briefly across from the hotel to retrieve the grulla and tie him on behind the carriage.
As he tooled the carriage along the street, he was well aware of people staring and watching him. He tried not to turn his head in either direction, to show that he was aware, but out of the corner of his eye he noticed Amy Parker in the open doorway of the Clarion, watching with interest.
As they past by the sheriff’s office, reflected light off the window panes precluded him from seeing Will Parmalee, but the back of his neck bristled and somehow , he knew Parmalee was also watching.
Carlin tried to concentrate on his driving. He slapped the reins at the black and hurried his step as they rode on out of town.

The drive was pleasant and Jace found himself becoming less uncomfortable. Jenna provided most of the conversation, most of it small talk and catching him up on some of the local news and gossip and reminiscing about old times. Conspicuously absent from the conversation was any mention about trouble in the valley and Jace chose not to ask.
Duncan Holt’s ranch was a mere half hour ride from town and as the buggy rolled through the main gate of the Rafter H. Jace noted that the ranch had changed somewhat. The ranch house had been expanded outwards and upwards and was now a two story structure with a fresh coat of white paint. The grounds had been expertly landscaped and exuded an air of elegance. Duncan Holt had prospered substantially while Jace had been away.
A new barn, bunkhouse, and additional outbuildings had been built as well as expanding the main corral and adding two smaller ones. And in one of them, he saw a familiar looking gray mare. His mare.
His eyes were still fixed on the mare, with disbelief as he passed the gates and had swung the buggy onto the curve of the driveway, leading toward the house when he saw two men emerge from the barn and head toward the main corral. He only caught a glimpse of them as they turned away from him, but he recognized them immediately.
Their images had been burnt indelibly into his brain. One had a flaming red beard and the other, a man with a black stubbled beard.


*****


Chapter Four

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