Fistful of reefer, p.18
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.18
 

           David Mark Brown
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SEVENTEEN

  Planes, Trains and Blood

  Chancho cut the second gourd open with the crystal knife. Muddy rolled the putty from the first gourd into a long snake in his hands before sticking it to the chain link fence. He connected the first snake with the second and buried a fuse in the end. Nena and Jesse exchanged gunfire with the ranger at a hundred yards. With little cover and Nena firing Muddy’s Spencer with deadly accuracy, their pursuers had been forced to dismount and hit the dirt with only their pistols at long range. But even in the dim pre-dawn light they were getting close.

  “Hurry. It’s only a matter of time.” Nena grunted in an effort to heft the butt of the rifle higher on her shoulder. She stood, creating a shield for the others.

  Chancho tossed Jesse’s lighter to Muddy, who flicked it to life and lit the fuse.

  “Get down, you crazy woman.” Jesse pushed Nena to the ground as Muddy and Chancho grabbed the horses’ reins. Nothing happened. Then a short series of pops, a fissuring crackle, peeled the fence back like a knife through flesh.

  “Leave the horses.” Jesse barked. “You can’t take them where you’re going. Go. Go!”

  Chancho unloosed his saddle bags, hefting them over his shoulder. Jesse tossed Muddy’s bags to him, depositing something swiftly into them before he did so. Nena fetched her own.

  “Nena, leave me the Spencer.” Jesse already held the Blakeslee Cartridge Box. For the first time, Nena noticed the blood soaking through his shirt.

  “You’re injured.”

  “Damn hardheaded woman. I’ll cover you!”

  “I’ll help.”

  “Good God darnit! You made me swear, and now we both got troubles.” He nodded toward the airstrip. “You get ‘em to the plane. I’ll be right behind you.”

  Nena looked over her shoulder. A small number of soldiers emerged from a barracks no further from the hanger than they were themselves. The old man would not change his mind, and the ranger, already back on his horse, advanced on them.

  Without a word she threw him the Spencer and darted with deer-like grace toward the others. Wasting no time he loaded it with the Blakeslee and threw himself to the ground, resting the barrel on a rock. His first bullet cut the sheriff’s horse out from under him, sending the law man smashing into a prickly pear. The two remaining riders split up, forcing him to choose. Without hesitation he chose the ranger. But as he swung the rifle into position the ranger leapt from his horse in mid-gallop, changing the tables on him again.

  “Polecat!” Jesse swung the rifle toward the deputy who pulled his horse up, uncertain of how to proceed. The Spencer bucked as Jesse encouraged the deputy with a hot slug to the leg. With his horse raring, he bailed out of the saddle backwards and crunched down on his head.

  Quickly, Jesse tried to find the ranger in his sights, but rock chips showered him as a ricochet grazed his shoulder. “This ain’t good.” Chucking the Spencer he leapt onto Tripalo’s back, two more bullets barely missing their mark. “We got one more ride, old friend. Hyaw!”

  With the ranger on foot he and Tripalo took the upper hand. High in the saddle Jesse crossed his arms over his head, pulling his dual mare’s legs from their criss-crossed holsters strapped to his back. In a single downward movement he spun the two pistols, working the levers to load them as Tripalo bore down on the ranger, hungry for blood. Jesse burned the air with lead and smoke, spinning the cutdown Winchesters to reload them.

  The damned ranger, insistent on survival, whistled for his horse as he zigged a crooked path toward it. Jesse kept the 44-40s blazing until both were empty, amazed the ranger still lived. With Tripalo only twenty yards away and galloping at full speed, the ranger finally mounted his horse.

  Nothing for it now. Old enough to know what he was about to do was the stupidest thing he could think of, Jesse left all earthly anchor. He leapt from the saddle and crashed full-mast into the shocked Texas Ranger. Entangled, the two men flew from horse to ground over the span of a full 10 yards, the ranger absorbing the blow as they hit. Jesse bounced, the ranger’s ribs compacting below him, and rolled a summersault in midair before crashing down to earth.

  Tripalo swung an arching loop. For several seconds the falling of hooves and the ringing in his head were the only things Jesse could hear. He pitched over on his stomach and heaved himself up from the ground, taking a few staggering steps toward the ranger’s crumpled body. He felt like he’d been tossed from a moving train while crossing a bridge a hundred feet above a river.

  Suddenly a bullet clipped his left arm. Angrier than a mother porcupine and with more quills, the sheriff walked steadily toward him, his pistol spitting lead. Tripalo’s hoofbeats coming up fast behind him and to his right, Jesse threw his right hand out to catch the saddle horn in his grip. With one bound he bounced his chest off the neck and shoulders of the running horse, his right foot in the stirrup, and let his momentum swing his left leg over the rump of the horse until he was seated backwards in the saddle.

  As he passed by he waved at the sheriff who still had one bullet left in the cylinder, the one Jesse had been waiting his entire life for—seventy years of living up to his Warrior name. When the burning lead tunneled through his chest he thought first of the Warriors who had gone before him. He had served his people just as they had. Next he thought of Muddy and Nena, hoping for his people’s future.

  The early morning gunfire woke some soldiers while catching others in various stages of routine. Stumbling from the barracks in disarray, they took up arms. But with no clear idea of the threat the soldiers’ aim remained tentative. Never suspecting someone would steal a plane, they drove the traspassers in the direction of the airstrip intending to strand them in the open. Muddy and Chancho reached the biplane moments before the soldiers figured out what was going on.

  Not yet in imminent danger, Nena coiled, ready with her crossbow and waiting to strike. Muddy dropped his things to unscrew the gas cap, taking a whiff. “There’s gas. Chancho, load our things in the back.” He moved around the front of the craft. “British S.E. 5 with a second seat. This is nothing like what I’ve flown.”

  “But you can fly it.” Chancho slogged the saddle bags under the seat. “No time for flight school, mi amigo. ¡Viva la revolucion!”

  “Shut up, you crazy Mexican! We’re on a U.S. airstrip,” Nena snapped.

  “Perdóneme. The heat of the moment.” He slapped Muddy on the back.

  In the distance, orders finally came to use all necessary force to prevent the invaders from stealing an aircraft. The follow-up command floated across the fort grounds even more loudly, “But for God’s sake, don’t shoot the plane!” Gunshots followed tentatively, wide or high of their mark, in an effort to encourage the invaders to stand down.

  “Well, mis amigos, I suggest we get in the plane." Chancho started to climb into the front seat.

  “Muddy!” Nena crouched with her crossbow directed toward the breach in the fence. Muddy followed her aim until he saw Tripalo walking toward them across the gravel compound with Jesse slumped in the saddle.

  Muddy gritted his teeth. Past the hulking black horse metal gleamed in the shadows of the hanger as a rifle drew a bead on the old scout. Muddy bolted past Nena, snatching her crossbow and releasing a torrent of darts. Like a starting pistol, the rifle crack released the stored up tension across the entire fort. The soldiers, assuming they had been fired upon, loosed shots with more deadly intent. Taking knees, they fired at every perceived threat.

  Slowly, Lipscomb emerged from the shadow of the hanger, firing the stolen Spencer Repeater. He shifted his target from Jesse to Muddy.

  Unarmed, Chancho clung to the hull of the aircraft. “Nena! Muddy!” He knew Muddy would never make it. A bullet thwacked the wooden frame of the plane causing him to flinch. He scanned for the source. “The rinche!”

  Nena heard him. McCutchen and the sheriff stood in the breach firing from behind their horses, unconcerned about the safety of the plane. Without another thought Nena dashed toward Muddy,
leaping shards of lead and gravel. Muddy moved steadily toward Jesse, exhausting his supply of arrows until he finally struck the deputy, causing him to drop the Spencer. But before he could sprint the last thirty yards to his mentor, friend and father a searing pain chewed into the meat of his thigh.

  “Muddy!” Nena dove, rolled and sprang to his side as he double clutched, stumbling forward onto his knees. She nimbly caught his crushing weight, saving him from sprawling face first.

  “Jesse!” He continued to strain his muscles, dragging the couple forward on their hands and knees until his leg folded under the weight.

  “You stupid kids.” Blood dripping down his leg and from the stirrup, Jesse regained consciousness. Ashen faced and dry, he swallowed hard before he could talk. “Git, or I’ll shoot you myself. This is my funeral, not yours.” His fingers twitched, eventually managing a yank of the reins. Obediently Tripalo turned, heading back toward the breach in order to block the ranger’s line of fire.

  Muddy clutched a fistful of gravel and peppered the side of the hanger in a burst of rage. “I’ll see all of you in hell!”

  “Muddy.” Nena buried her head and shoulder in his armpit and lurched upward, wrenching his arm. “Time to go.” Heaving upward with his good leg, the two of them loped awkwardly toward the plane. Shots pocked the runway and tore through the fabric of the aircraft. Having awoken to violence, a frenzy unleashed on the fort and everyone in it.

  Chancho jumped down from the cockpit and helped Muddy climb into the rear seat as he and Nena took the front. Within seconds the engine sputtered and came to life, the prop a spinning blur pulling them forward. Unarmed, vulnerable and cramped onto Chancho’s lap, Nena turned in a fit of frustration, slapping him across the face. “You have done this to us!”

  Silenced by the sting and the anger in her voice, Chancho closed his eyes in grief and in prayer. Did the people around him always come to harm? Bouncing down the runway, they distanced themselves from the dying gunfire. The three gritted their teeth and clutched the aircraft with white-knuckles as the wind whipped past them faster.

  Muddy focused everything on his memories of flying scout planes for the 14th, the tug and pull of the controls in his hands, the pitch of the wings, the torque of the engine. But everything had changed in the years since. Completely ignorant of their center of gravity, the power that tugged them down the runway felt unfamiliar.

  With a grunt he pulled harder on the controls. Their stomachs rose and fell as the plane bounced, pitching dangerously from side to side. The cost Jessie had paid for their freedom played in his mind along with his dying wish that they would survive him. With a steely anger Muddy jerked the controls, lifting them into the air.

  The soldiers continued firing on Lipscomb, McCutchen and the sheriff until the latter convinced all three of them to drop their weapons and lie down. “Dammit, we’re on your side!”

  “Cease fire!” The officer in command marched forward with a small detachment. “What in the name of all things holy! You boys better have a good explanation for all this, or God help me, the coyotes are going to feed tonight!”

  McCutchen was the first to stand, hands still raised head high. “Here’s your explanation,” he narrowed his eyes at the approaching officer, “Sergeant—”

  “Sergeant Major.”

  “You just let three known fugitives aided by a seventy-year-old man break onto your airstrip and steal a plane, all the while preventing local law enforcement and the Texas Rangers from doing their job.” He flashed them his star.

  “Well, la-di-da. Boys, we got ourselves a Texas Ranger, shooting at American troops, trespassing and vandalizing government property, all the while preventing us from cleaning up their mess before it cost the government a $30,000 airplane! Shit. You fellas are about as useful as a tit on a billy goat.”

  “Your incompetence cost you—”

  “Incompetence! You piss—”

  “Gentlemen!” The sheriff interrupted. “We’ve had casualties, for God’s sake.”

  For the first time the sergeant major took a broader scope of the situation. Lipscomb stood on one leg, blood soaking through his pants and an arrow through his hand. McCutchen looked like death eating a cracker: a bandaged left hand, broken arrow in his arm, crusted blood and dirt covering his cheek, neck and chest.

  “Like I said before, we’re on the same side here.” The sheriff plucked cactus needles from his face.

  “Ah hell. Lysander.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Get the medic. We’ll meet him in the hanger.” The soldier trotted off. “Tooley, Smith. Round up those horses, and for God’s sake clean up that dead Negro over there.” He turned back to the sheriff, who had become the de-facto liaison. “Speaking of, should we be concerned with that one? I’m assuming he ain’t with you, seeing how I’m pretty sure you guys are the ones who lit ‘em up.”

  The sheriff gave Lipscomb a look. “He was a local smuggler mixed up with our fugitives. Good riddance.”

  McCutchen broke back into the conversation. “Sergeant Major, I’d be grateful for your medical services, but I’m still tracking three fugitives.”

  “Through the air? Not likely.”

  “I’m sure you’re interested—”

  “In getting my plane back? You’re damn straight. I’ll get my plane back, Lord willing those nut bags don’t crash it.”

  McCutchen’s teeth ground audibly.

  “About your fugitives, the sheriff’s right. Like it or not, we’re on the same side now. The order went out before they left the ground. Jesus, Mary and Joseph if it don’t make us look like a bunch of tumbleweed humpers, but there you have it. We got all eyes watching for a stolen plane bumping its butt across the hills. If they got the sense to not crap and call it food they’ll head west before they decorate a cliff with the fanciest tinsel this side of the Atlantic—”

  “Major! This man ain’t dead.”

  The whole entourage turned on their heels toward a private inspecting the black body still slumped in the saddle. Everyone but Deputy Lipscomb, who used the opportunity to bend down for the discarded Spencer rifle. “Gun!” In a single motion he cocked and fired.

  The private stumbled backwards while McCutchen drew his Colt, pointing it at Lipscomb.

  “Good God almighty!” The major bellowed as he unsheathed his sword. For a pregnant few seconds the party stood each other down before the shocked private broke the stalemate.

  “He’s dead now.”

  Jesse’s body shifted inch by inch until it sloughed from the saddle completely, thudding to the ground where his mare’s legs spilled from their holsters. Just as gradually, all eyes shifted to Lipscomb. He held the rifle loosely in one hand, the other turned outward in surrender, blood running down his arm. “I saw a gun, and took the shot.” He bent down and deposited the Spencer back on the ground.

  McCutchen slowly holstered his Colt as the group took a collective breath. For the second time that morning he suspected the local lawman of more than he let on.

  “Tooley, get these men to the hanger. The medic’ll be there soon. Then show ‘em the barracks where they can get cleaned up.” The major turned to go, still muttering, “I got a damn plane to find and a trigger-happy bunch a looney tunes.” He called over his shoulder, “I’ll come and find you when I got any news on your fugitives,” before trailing off into a string of colorful expletives.

  McCutchen waited patiently for the medic to finish removing the shot from his chest and staunch the bleeding. Taking deep breaths, he reminded himself that sooner or later the fugitives would have to land. When they did, he’d pick up the trail again. After the medic moved on to Lipscomb, who was turning pale from loss of blood, he quietly dismissed himself and found the livery. The cavalry at Fort Clark kept a good number of horses on hand, still the most reliable means of pursuit in the rugged borderlands.

  Fraternizing with a fiery appaloosa, Chester acknowledged McCutchen with a snort. After some grooming and another guz
zle of water the ranger saddled his four-legged companion and rode out the way they’d come in, bound for Brackettville.

  Having expanded the manhunt to a much larger investigation, McCutchen determined to proceed on his own terms. He suspected both the military and the local law of being involved in the larger conspiracy. While he didn’t doubt the military would help him find the plane, he knew he couldn’t rely on them for getting to the bottom of anything, except the barrel. Profits dangled like low hanging fruit along the border. A profit big enough could tempt almost anyone with gumption enough to go and get it.

  On arriving in Brackettville he directed the rangers waiting in Fredericksburg on to Rocksprings with orders to wrap up loose ends with Bronco O’Brien. That brought a much needed smile to his morning. After chasing sausage, gravy and biscuits with a carafe of coffee he purchased a ticket on the first train departing for San Angelo, where he’d have quick access to most of central and western Texas.

  Certain his fugitives weren’t heading for Mexico and that they were only the tip of a seditious network, he determined to inject his brand of poison into the heart of the operation and track it to the furthest reach of every artery. He’d panic the most visible members of the conspiracy into revealing their connections. Then he’d track them to their bitter ends.

  After handing Chester off to stable boys with firm orders to load him on the train last for quick departure, he took a minute to relieve himself. Flipping the seat down on the crapper, he fumbled with a cigarette. Everything was a nuisance with only one hand. Finally he inhaled several long drags and began to relax. He’d remained jittery even after filling his stomach at breakfast. His body couldn’t hold up forever under the current level of abuse.

  Filling the basin, he splashed water in his face. He ran fingers across coarse stubble and stared back at the man he saw in the mirror. Almost 40 years old and weathered well beyond that, his skin was creased with exhaustion. Scars, fresh and old, dotted every visible surface, as well as the rest of his body. Those who chose to break the law, to flee justice, to rob him of the dignity of a clean shave—

  He slammed his fist down on the counter, closed his eyes, rolled his neck loosely on his shoulders. This was what the work had brought him to. He didn’t even recognize himself anymore. What have I become? He flashed back to Matamoros and the lifeless face of the Mexican girl as it listed into the moonlight, the image of Swisher slumped against the fence in the alley. He held his bandaged club of a hand in front of his face. The words “El Chupacabra” ran across his thoughts. El Chupacabra, the demon, the monster.

  He rubbed the scar along the side of his head before putting his grandfather’s Stetson back on and taking one last look at his face in the mirror. He noticed the medic had shaved two tiny bald spots while removing lead pellets. “I’ll give you your monster.”

  He walked to the edge of the platform as the train pulled into the station. He’d already taken this case to the edge, and he didn’t mind pushing it over. America still needed heroes whether she believed in them or not. His form of justice might never make him a hero, but a lover’s infidelity was no excuse for a great man to ingratiate himself with whores.

  “Muddy! Stay with me!” Nena wrenched herself backward, yelling into the wind. In the rear cockpit of the biplane Muddy shook his head, clearing the tears from his eyes and focusing on the sound of Nena’s voice. Without time to tend to his wound, too much blood had drained out. The higher altitude made his heart beat faster and his head spin.

  “I’ll make it!” But he wasn’t sure. “We’ll run out of gas before I run out of blood.” He grimaced. “The flight time can’t be more than a few hours!”

  Chancho chimed in. “We’ve been flying for over three hours already!” They each looked over the edge. A thousand feet below, the ground rushed by at over 100 mph, hills dotted with clumps of trees and brush. In the distance a skeletal city of black oil derricks scarred the horizon like jagged stitches on the seam between sky and earth. Chancho pointed, “Boomtown!”

  Nena shifted in Chancho’s lap. “We have to land!”

  “You’re telling me.” Chancho tried to rub feeling back into his legs and fend off the chill wind.

  Muddy knew from the time they took off that crashing would be more likely than landing. Watching the countryside pass beneath him, he momentarily regretted not setting a course for Mexico, but his choice had been final, even before Jesse. When he wasn’t focused on landing the plane without killing them, he seethed over the dishonor and ingratitude extended toward his mentor. He had to correct it.

  Three hours had passed as he flew aimlessly, running scenarios through his mind. They needed a flat surface away from notice while maintaining access to ground transportation. No use in landing the plane just to be stranded in the wilderness without even a horse among them. He'd figured out the best option thirty minutes ago, but hesitated to commit to it.

  Watching the ground blur past, he spotted the place and finally forced his mind to assent. He banked the plane sharply. Through the support struts of the biplane they watched dark smoke from a distant derrick transition toward the nose of the plane and across to the other side until it passed out of sight toward the back. Turning 270 degrees they came around for what, one way or the other, would be their final pass.

  Muddy dipped the nose of the plane into a low wisp of cloud, all three of them shivering from the cold and damp as well as the unnerving feeling of whistling blindly through the air at 100 miles an hour. Moments later they emerged from the cloud into much warmer air within a few hundred feet of the ground. Beneath them a railroad, like a chalk line snapped across the surface of the earth, continued seamlessly over a small hill on the horizon.

  “The railroad?” Chancho craned his neck, “I love trains, but I don’t want to see one—”

  Nena interrupted. “There should be room beside the tracks to land. The hill will slow us.”

  “But what about trains!”

  “Exactly. Sooner or later a train will come, and we'll get on!”

  “What if it’s sooner?”

  Nena turned until she could look Chancho in the eye. “You had better not die. I am not finished with you yet.” Chancho swallowed and grew quiet. Muddy wondered which Chancho feared more, dying in a gruesome crash or living to face Nena.

  Lifting in his seat, shockwaves of pain spidered through Muddy’s body. He used the adrenaline to focus. Land the plane. He repeated the words as a mantra. He slowed as much as he dared, pulling hard on the controls to keep the nose up. Tears whipped off the sides of his face, the temperature of the air rising steadily as their altitude fell. Green blurs of scrub and live oak swelled in his peripheral vision as the ground rushed toward them. “Hold on!”

  First contact came too hard, but he held the wings level and the nose up. They bounced, the landing gear creaking under the pressure. The torque on the steering slammed Muddy against the side of the fuselage. The smaller steering mechanism in the front cockpit bruised Nena’s ribs. Aware of the strain on Muddy, she did what she could to help hold it steady.

  With both of them focused on maintaining the plane’s wheels, Chancho was first to spot the belching smokestack looming over the hill. “Train! ¡Por el amor de dios! Train!” Seconds later a 125 ton steam engine chugged into view. “It was sooner!”

  The plane crashed down a second time, snapping off the rear wheel, grinding the tail of the plane into the ground and jamming the controls. Steam purged from the sides of the engine as it deployed full brakes. They could have easily stopped by the top of the hill, but with the hundred yards between them and the train shrinking every second they’d never make it. Even if Muddy could steer effectively, the terrain thirty feet from the tracks grew thick with juniper. Still, crashing into trees seemed favorable to a smoldering furnace on wheels.

  A terrible screeching licked his ears as slick steel wheels slid along the polished tracks spewing sparks. He plunged the controls of the plane forward, shifting the flaps en
ough to lift the tail off the ground, dipping the nose instead. Skidding momentarily on one wheel, the plane bounced sideways and for a split-second, flew. Muddy revved the engine full throttle for one brief burst before cutting it entirely.

  As the train closed within twenty yards, the chewed up tail of the plane lashed out over the tracks. In a final gasp, the plain lurched forward and out of the way. Blasted with hot steam as the hundred ton beast slid past them, Muddy overcorrected and finally lost the battle to the jammed controls. The left wing dipped into the ground, catapulting the nose of the plane into the body of the train.

  The full heft of the plane’s 200hp Hispano-Suiza v8 engine struck the gap between the second and third cars, lodging under the coupler. Both vehicles slowed below twenty miles an hour. Still, the tugging momentum of the train ripped the left wing from the fuselage of the plane, splintering the wooden frame in multiple spots.

  Nena dangled from the front cockpit, dragging her feet across the railroad ties as they slid past. Chancho, dizzy from a lashing strike across the face from a snapped support cable, held three of her fingers in a tenuous grip. Each passing railroad tie chewed another piece out of the side of the plane, dropping her closer to the train’s grinding wheels. He lunged toward her. Throwing his weight out of the cockpit he grabbed her wrist and slung her away from the train. Allowing her weight to pull him the rest of the way out of the cockpit, he followed her to the ground. Both of them bounced and rolled clear of the tracks.

  Moments later the remaining section of the fuselage bit into the ground. The mass of the train rolled it before the steel wheels cut it in two, crushing the front half. Completely detached, the rear cockpit, with Muddy still in it, slid to a stop yards from where Nena and Chancho lay crumpled. Sixty long seconds later the train finally shuttered to a stop.

 
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