Fistful of reefer, p.17
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.17
 

           David Mark Brown
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SIXTEEN

  McCutchen’s Play

  McCutchen cupped his hand over the phone’s receiver and swore. Ranger headquarters in Austin refused to send help. He was already making things up as he went. Now instead of helping they threatened to recall him. “Dammit, sir. I’m not tending to a pet project or wasting the department’s resources. This ain’t just about marihuana.” He decided to play his last card, knowing it could come back to bite him in the ass if he was wrong. “I have evidence of German interference and sabotage.”

  A voice prattled on for quite some time from the other end of the receiver. McCutchen waited tensely. He had gone this far. “Yes, evidence. German weapons and written propaganda.” An accusatory question echoed from the other end. “Yes. In Texas. That’s what I’ve been saying.” McCutchen rubbed his forehead. “Three of the growers are meeting with someone else in the chain in Brackettville overnight. I need you to order the local law enforcement to at least help me contain them until morning.”

  The irritation continued pouring from the earpiece until McCutchen interrupted. “Sir, it does make sense. Why wouldn’t the Germans want to disrupt the border? With America bearing down on them in Europe this could be their last chance to win the war. If our safety at home is threatened who the hell is gonna care about the damned Allies?”

  It seemed the tide was shifting in his favor. “Yes, marihuana is that dangerous. I’ve seen it up close. It can wreck a man twice as fast as alcohol and turn him three times as evil. And I’m telling you, these men are bringing it to our homes whether we like it or not.” There was a silence on the other end. McCutchen looked around the Sheriff’s Office from his position against the far wall. It was the second to last place he wanted to have this conversation, but the only other phone in town was at the last place, the fort.

  Finally concessions came from Austin. The captain agreed to send two men to Fredericksburg that night with orders to call the Brackettville Sheriff’s Office in the morning for current information. He also agreed to redirect two rangers assigned to Laredo who could be there in 24 hours. Most importantly he released the official order to apprehend the three fugitives using whatever local assistance deemed necessary. Eager to get off the phone, McCutchen thanked him and hung up.

  The men coming from Laredo meant nothing. They would be too late to help. But the men heading to Fredericksburg, McCutchen could order them to continue on to Rocksprings and round up Bronco and his crew. He would make sure the crotchety old bastard got his comeuppance.

  As he wondered where the attending deputy had gone off to another officer, whom McCutchen hadn’t heard enter the room, startled him. “Pardon me, ranger, uh…”

  “McCutchen. J.T. McCutchen.” He strode forward to shake his hand. “And you are?”

  “Deputy Lipscomb. Sorry, I couldn’t help overhear some of your conversation. What were you saying about the Germans? If you don’t mind me asking.”

  McCutchen very much minded and didn’t want to waste any more time. But more importantly, he needed local cooperation. He stared at the man.

  “I only ask because I’ve run across a couple of Huns on my own. Been working on a pet theory to answer some questions been nagging me.” He shrugged. “I thought maybe a ranger with experience along the border might be able to help.”

  McCutchen nodded. “Tell you what, deputy. You help me find the sheriff and I’ll fill you in.”

  McCutchen pulled off his boots, dropping them beside the bed. It had taken him another hour, but he’d finally forced the sheriff’s hand. With no shortage of grumbling, a dozen men took up watch for any sign of his fugitives, Lipscomb the only eager one of the bunch. Not to mention that by staking his reputation on a theory, McCutchen had gone all or nothing with ranger headquarters.

  After everything else, he’d roused an equally grumpy doctor to tend his missing finger. Finally the pounding in both his head and hand subsided as the aspirin kicked in. Exhausted and in desperate need of sleep to untangle his thoughts, he removed his tattered Stetson and lay back on the bed.

  The hat was an unwelcome reminder of the tarnished glory of the rangers, the glory that his grandfather had once embodied. He wanted more than anything to return that glory, but he doubted the modern Texas citizen would understand the importance of what he was doing. His job had become a thankless one, making it all the more noble and necessary.

  Slipping off around midnight, he slept until 5:00am when he awoke with a fresh clarity of mind. “Buffalo soldiers. Of course.” He bolted out of bed and reached for his boots, knocking them over with his bandaged hand. With more intentional efforts he pulled his boots on before stepping outside. Completely dark and quiet, the town square boasted several proud stone buildings guarding an ornate courthouse.

  McCutchen knew there should be men stationed throughout the town watching for movement. He needed to find the closest one to ask where the retired Negro scouts had settled in town. After pulling his duster back to expose his sidearms, he waved his hands in the air. Less than a minute later a man emerged from behind a shop across the street and waited on the sidewalk.

  The man lit a cigarette as McCutchen walked over to greet him. “I suppose it won’t matter now if I have myself a smoke. Seeing how anyone watching up and down the street would know who and where I was.” He took a puff and continued, “You must be the ranger.”

  McCutchen sized the man up with a glance and decided to allow him a degree of irritation after being on watch most of the night. “Ranger McCutchen.”

  “Swisher.” They shook hands. “What can I do ya for, ranger?”

  McCutchen hesitated. “Look, I don’t mean to offend, but I’m about to roust a henhouse in the hopes of catching a rooster in the act. More than likely, it ain’t gonna be pretty. I need someone I can depend on to watch my back.”

  Swisher blew smoke through his nose. “So you plan on ruffling some more feathers.” He shrugged. “These roosters. They the kind that like to fight?”

  “Yes.”

  “Good.” Swisher tucked his jacket behind his holster. “What do you need?”

  McCutchen nodded. “Where do the old Negro scouts live?”

  The two men ducked down a dark alley bisecting back yards, a constant buzz of crickets masking their movements. Picket fences entangled with vines flanked them on both sides. The homes grew smaller and closer together until finally Swisher stopped next to a large date palm.

  “The next three blocks are mostly retired Buffalo and their families. How do we tell which one?”

  “Horses. The fugitives were riding three horses, one of ‘em probably the biggest damn horse you’ve ever seen.” McCutchen pointed across the alley and Swisher started to obey.

  “Wait.”

  McCutchen turned. “What?”

  “I got a better idea.” Swisher squatted down forcing McCutchen to do the same. “You say you’re looking for a Negro scout who’d be helping your fugitives navigate the border?”

  “It’s possible. Look, we’re—”

  “I know a feller. Troublemaker. We’ve been watching him for a while.”

  “I don’t have time—”

  “Dammit, this’ll save you time. He lives on the next block, and there’s a good chance he’s your man.”

  McCutchen didn’t like surrendering control of his own raid, but this was the local help he’d asked for. “Lead the way. The less time we’re exposed out here the better.”

  Taking opposite sides of the street they sidestepped a block before working the next alley over. McCutchen kept his eyes open for signs of the three horses. Predawn lingered in the air, and he hoped Swisher wasn’t wasting his precious time.

  “Pssstt.” Swisher waved him over. From behind a dilapidated shed three rumps twitched their tails visibly in the grey light.

  “Good job. These are the ones. Now tell me about this troublemaker.”

  Swisher shook his head. “No time for the whole story, but he’s a smuggler.”

  “What kind of smuggl
er?” McCutchen inched closer to Swisher’s face.

  “A smuggler. Booze, livestock, people.” Swisher shrugged.

  “Guns?”

  “Yeah, probably.”

  “Look. I need to know what sort of firepower I’m gonna run into in there—”

  “Hold on a second,” Swisher stopped him. “If there’s at least four armed men in there, wouldn’t it be better just to surround the house and wait for ‘em to come out? There’s another watch just a few blocks—”

  “I’m not asking you to go inside. I’m asking you to watch the back yard and make sure no one gets out, or gets the drop on me.” McCutchen rubbed his neck. “It’s a small house. One bedroom?”

  “Yeah, and one room for everything else.”

  “Good.”

  “And you’re just gonna go in the front door?”

  “Yes.”

  “Damn, you rangers are crazy. Suit yourself.” He shook his head. “I’ll burn anybody that comes out the back, no problem.”

  McCutchen turned to go.

  “Wait, he’ll be well armed. If I see anything you should know about, I’ll give you a whistle.”

  “Good.” McCutchen started down the alley in order to circle around to the front when a subtle click registered on a nearly subconscious level—the click of a double-action rifle hammer being cocked. He dove at the same time the rotting boards of the picket fence exploded—the quiet ripped in two with gunfire.

  He sprawled face first in the dirt as Swisher returned fire. Another blast peppered the fence. He scrambled to his feet, ducking behind the trunk of a palm tree as a bullet clipped it. “What can you see?”

  Swisher groaned. “Both windows.”

  “You hit?”

  “Nah, it’s nothing.”

  McCutchen knew Swisher had caught some pellets. Not enough powder for a shotgun, he figured they were using rifle rounds loaded with shot. He stepped back from the palm for a broader view. “Just keep an eye on the horses.”

  “Jesse! You old bastard.” Swisher called. “There’s too many of us. We just want your guests.”

  McCutchen lowered his voice in the hopes it wouldn’t carry inside the house. “You think the others heard the shots?”

  “At least a few of ‘em did.”

  “Well it looks like we’ll try it your way after all.”

  Swisher started to laugh, but was cut short.

  “Swisher?” McCutchen heard something like a taut cord being struck, a whisper. “Swisher?” The deputy leaned against the fence. He heard it again. Swisher’s body jolted before rolling forward revealing two arrows jutting from his rib cage.

  A voice came from the backdoor. “Well you can’t have ‘em, you damn Hun!”

  McCutchen’s eyes widened as he spotted a silent figure in the alley thirty yards past Swisher. He kicked the tree, propelling himself into the alley as a third arrow whizzed past his ear. He squeezed off two rounds before he hit the ground rolling.

  Gunpowder flashed in the corner of his eye as a continuous blasting ate away the picket fence. The moment he regained his balance an arrow struck him in the left forearm, stopping half mast. His bandaged hand spasmed with pain while he steadied his Colt to search the alley, but the figure had gone. Further down the alley he saw another lawman gesturing toward someone out of view.

  With the fence nearly gone, a few exhausted shot peppered him at the same time another bullet clicked into the chamber. He spun out of the way, heading for cover, as the rifle roared again. Two men burst from the back door heading for the horses. McCutchen fired once, but a third man emerged from the yawning doorway spinning two sawed-off, lever-action rifles and firing them faster than the smoke could clear. This time the shot struck the ranger in the chest like a nest of hornets. He clutched in pain, pulling his aim high and wide.

  He retrained his Colt on the man with the mare’s legs, black as night, the whites of his eyes gone wild. They exchanged fire over the top of the chewed up fence. Two pellets struck McCutchen in the face, dropping him to the ground in a daze. He tried to shake off the shock, dragging himself toward the fence with his bandaged hand and elbow, even as the arrow tore at his flesh.

  Horses’ hooves echoed in the dark as the animals were yanked free from their post. Boots pounded the crusted dirt of the alley behind him until more gunfire split the morning wide open. McCutchen raised himself on an elbow to see through the gaps of the picket fence. The horses were already out of sight, the rear guard with the mare’s legs slipping around the corner. He got off one more shot that splintered the paneling of the house before striking flesh and bone. Rolling onto his back, he saw three deputies standing over him.

  "They’re getting away! One of you get some horses. The other two get after ‘em!” He wrenched himself to his feet and slammed into the picket fence with his shoulder. The rotten boards buckled as he pushed his way through. Reaching the back of the house, he paused at the corner. Jerking his head out and back he barely missed kissing the feathers of an arrow as it whisked in front of his face and struck the wall of the shed with a thwack.

  He took two steps back and then dove low with his Colt drawn. Instantly another arrow buzzed past his shoulder as he responded with hot lead. He missed, but the bullet startled the horse causing the next arrow to stray wildly. McCutchen hit the ground before he could squeeze off another round. He gave chase into the street, but the fugitives were gone before he got there.

  The two deputies came running up seconds later, breathing heavy. “You alright?”

  “I need my horse.” McCutchen ran toward the town square.

  “But you’ve got an arrow in your arm!”

  McCutchen shouted over his shoulder, “You better look after Swisher. He’s got two in his chest.” With every step his pulse throbbed along his left arm and hand. The awkward arrow finally caused him to stop long enough to snap the longer end off against a tree. Shortly after that he ran into the sheriff, Lipscomb and another deputy on horseback, leading Chester behind them.

  With a whistle the horse broke away from the sheriff and sidled up next to McCutchen. He used his right hand to hoist himself into the saddle. “They’re heading east.”

  “Toward the fort?”

  McCutchen finally put the piece in place. “One of them used to be a colored scout with the 14th. The military wouldn’t help them, would it?”

  “Hell no. They disbanded the 14th two years ago.”

  “And they got no friends left there?” McCutchen deeply distrusted the military, for both their incompetence and corruption in the borderlands.

  The sheriff barked the order, “Beefy, you get back to the office and call ahead to the fort. Let ‘em know they got company.”

  McCutchen stared Lipscomb in the eye, growing increasingly suspicious of the lawman. It hadn’t escaped him that the Negro scout called Swisher a Hun. He lashed Chester into a gallop and briefly wondered if Lipscomb was on to something. Entirely too many Germans populated his border.

  Jesse reloaded his mare’s legs with regular rounds as he bounced in the saddle behind Muddy, ignoring the blood oozing from his side. “Sorry about that. I knew that snake Swisher had been staking me out, but I didn’t figure he’d make the connection.”

  “I’m afraid Nena was right, we’ve only brought you trouble.” Muddy and Jesse rode double in the lead, Chancho following them closely, while Nena brought up the rear.

  “Nothing doing. I’ve been in trouble since you left.” Jesse finished loading his weapons and craned his neck to see behind them. “Look, I haven’t been totally honest with you.”

  “I’ve never known you to be anything less than honest.”

  “Well, now you have.” He winced as Tripalo barreled into a dry wash and lunged up the other side. “That shoot out was just as much about me as it was you.”

  “I don’t understand.” They dodged a large prickly pear forcing Jesse to clutch tighter around Muddy’s waist. The horizon ahead of them shone with the oranges and yellows of a
rising sun, but had yet to brush away the shadows of night.

  Jesse shook his head. “There’s something going on along the border involving international players. It’s big.”

  “Mexico’s big.”

  “Nah, bigger than Mexico. Europe. Hell, the whole damn world. I’m sorry, I just haven’t put it together. Apparently there’re folk that don’t want me to.”

  “Why would those folk suspect you?”

  Jesse clutched his side. “Let’s just say I’ve seen some things they didn’t want me to.”

  “Like what?”

  “Just shut-up for a second. Damn, Nena’s usually the one with all the questions. There’s some stuff I need to tell you, and not much time for the telling.” A gunshot rang out behind them. Jesse continued, “Some fellers offered me a job a while back to help them move some guns across the border. I didn’t like the way they smelled, so I told ‘em no. I doubled back and followed them to the biggest stash of weapons I’d ever seen. Crazy stuff too. They turned out to be Germans connected somehow to the Mexican government. Obviously they got spies around here too. I knew Swisher was one, but there’s probably more.”

  Gunshots echoed behind them. Muddy clutched the reins, his prayers for Nena a clot in his heart. Jesse squeezed him around the waist. “Focus, Muddy. Trust me, she’s fine. No army of rangers could bring that battle ax down. Anyway, not everything’s relevant, but there are things that can’t die with me.”

  Muddy cut him off. “You won’t die.”

  “That’s not for you to decide, dammit. The good Lord and I have known it was coming for a long time now. But you need to listen!” Jesse grew more urgent. “There’s an abandoned railroad tunnel and mine south of here, not far from the border. The Huns are using it as a headquarters. I haven’t had the chance to report its whereabouts. If I can, I’ll use a phone at Fort Clark. I still got some friends there, but I got enemies there too. We got enemies there. First priority is to get y’all out safely. Now you know about the hideout, so there’s two chances the knowledge’ll survive.” He lifted his hand from his side, blood still oozing from the wound, “Even if I don’t.”

  “Now that I know, who’ll I tell?” Muddy was still confused.

  “You’ll figure it out. The fort’s just ahead. We gotta figure a way through the fence if we’re gonna reach the airstrip.”

  “I think we’ve got just the thing. Can you reach the saddle bags? I just hope no one knows we’re coming.”

 
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