18 minute read

My Grandfather's Henry

THE TRADING POST WAS at a wide spot on the wagon road winding down the west side of the mountains separating the Pecos River from the Rio Grande. Surrounded by trees, it was frequented by ranchers, Indians, miners, and travelers passing along that route through southern New Mexico. The owners, a middle-aged couple, had a reputation for being honest, charging fair prices for merchandise, and most importantly treating everyone the same. That reputation made the gruesome sight that greeted Deputy United States Marshal Ben Carter all the worse.

The bodies of a man, woman and two children were grouped about the entrance to the trading post. By dress and appearance, Carter figured they were local, from the Mescalero Apache reservation, and it seemed as though the man had died trying to shield his family. They had all been shot several times. Inside, if possible, it was worse. He encountered a cloud of black flies as he entered. The husband was tied to a post supporting the roof. Undoubtedly, he had been made to watch his wife be repeatedly raped and then murdered. Her naked body was spread over a counter. She had been stabbed multiple times and her throat was slashed. There was blood everywhere. The man had been shot at close range, the black residue of gunpowder evident on his clothing. His throat had also been slashed.

Ben Carter had seen war and a multitude of murders, but nothing like this. He cut the man loose and laid him out on the floor. Grabbing blankets from a shelf, he covered the woman then the man. He felt sick as he made his way out of the trading post and covered the family outside. There was nothing more he could do but pursue the monsters who had done this. They had to pay.

THERE WERE FOUR OF them and they rode as men without a care. He caught up to them late in the afternoon the next day. An unusually cool wind was blowing when he spotted their camp at the entrance to a rocky canyon where the desert met the mountains. Glad to have a heavy leather jacket, he ground tied his bay gelding upwind and made his way toward the camp, moving slowly through a jumble of large boulders. Carter held his trusted Winchester carbine ready for action and could feel the weight of the loaded Colt pistol in its holster at his side. Smoke rose from a fire and he could hear their loud voices. It was clear to him they had been drinking.

Stepping out from behind a boulder, he leveled the carbine at three men who were passing around a bottle of whiskey. Two empty bottles lay on the ground next to the fire. Eyes darting about, he looked for the fourth man. The trio spotted him. One of the men staggered to his feet and immediately drew his pistol. Carter shot him square in the chest, slamming him to the ground. He chambered another round. “Where’s your partner?” he demanded.

“Who the hell are you?” one of the men asked in a surly tone.

“Deputy U.S. Marshal Ben Carter. You’re all under arrest.”

Still seated, the two remaining men just glared at him. Then came a mirthless laugh—from behind. “That include me, Marshal Carter?”

Carter spun around toward the voice. The laughing man fanned his pistol twice in rapid succession. Carter felt himself slammed backward into the dirt by the double punch. Blinking, he looked up into the grinning face of pure evil. The face of Zeke Kingston, a notorious outlaw and killer. Then everything went black.

Slowly he opened his eyes. It was still light. With every bit of strength that he could muster, Carter rolled over and struggled to stand. His chest was on fire and the coppery smell of his own blood engulfed him. Except for the lifeless body of the one he had shot, they were gone, along with his Winchester. He staggered toward the gelding. Thankfully the horse was still there. Moving the animal toward a group of smaller rocks, he used one as a step up and struggled into the saddle.

Quickly, he lifted the horse’s head and dallied the reins around the saddle horn. He was desperately tired as he looped the lariat around his back and tied himself to the saddle. The pain from the gunshot wound was excruciating, but the bleeding had slowed to an ooze. They had to move and find water. He squeezed the horse with his legs and felt the animal move forward as the darkness returned.

SLUMPED OVER THE SADDLEHORN, the rider was motionless except for movement caused by the steady plodding of the bay horse toward an unknown destination. It was hot, but the horse kept moving. It smelled water on the slight breeze blowing toward it and kept the pace from years of experience. Four pairs of eyes scrutinized horse and rider winding through stands of mesquite and islands of acacia in the desert.

“Let’s kill him and take his horse.” The voice belonged to a youth of fourteen seasons. He had watched the rider and muscled horse moving through the desert below with keen interest and growing impatience. His eyes wandered to his grandfather’s Henry rifle that was never far from his reach.

The old man, who intently studied the landscape as well as the horse and its passenger, spoke without looking at the boy. “Tell me Nyol, are you threatened by him? Does his presence make you afraid?”

“No—never! I am strong and brave.” He looked at the old man and spoke with the bravado of the young. “He would be easy to attack.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Are you going to eat him?”

The youngster recoiled in disgust. “Of course not. He is a man.”

“Since the death of your father, who was a good, brave man, it has been my responsibility to guide you in the ways of life. I want to help you learn its many lessons, but I do not want you to have to make the mistakes or experience the sorrows that I have.” He turned to the boy and their eyes locked. “So, you would kill that man, if he is not already dead, but you do not fear him. You would not be defending yourself. And,” he paused making sure he had the boy’s full attention, “you are not going to eat him?”

There was confusion in the young man’s eyes. He considered the elder’s words for several moments before speaking. “I don’t understand. He is a white man. They have been our enemy. Victorio is dead, and Geronimo still resists the soldiers.”

“You assume that he is white. He could be Mexican or a black man, you can’t know from this distance. It is possible, that he might also be a friend. Until you see that person’s face and can look into his eyes, you do not know much about him at all.”

Nyol weighed the possibilities. “You are right, Grandfather. Your words are wise.”

“Then we ride down and find out what the truth is. It does not matter if we like it or not. Our world is changing, and we must change as well if we are to survive. I am told there are many of our people to the east who are friends with white men. They are neighbors and help each other. You must learn to judge others by actions, not by what they look like.”

Without another word, the old man urged his horse down the hillside on a course that would intercept the lone rider. His grandson, Nyol followed in silence, pondering his grandfather’s view of the world.

In a jumble of rocks higher up the hillside, two pair of grey-brown eyes scrutinized the activities below. Patience was their strong point, but they never killed. Others did that for them. Nonetheless, the powerful aroma of blood on the air from below held their attention. They could wait a bit longer.

The shoulders and mane of the bay were covered with blood. Its rider had tied himself to the saddle horn to keep from falling off. The stranger was unconscious and made no movement as the old man and boy quietly approached. The horse was a gelding, which was good. A stallion might be a problem and do something unexpected. It turned its head toward them for a moment but showed no sign of fear. The old man spoke softly to calm him as he reached for the nearest rein and brought him to a stop while quickly assessing the situation. Both horse and rider were almost done in.

Briefly looking around, the old man noted their location. There was a spring with good water in a canyon a short ride away. At this point, nothing could be done except to keep going toward water. He explained to the boy the location of the spring and what they must do. The gelding would follow. It was the way of horses.

From rocks on the ridge above, two shapes lifted into the air, powerful wings pushed them into warm currents of air. Circling high above the desert below, they felt no disappointment at having lost a potential meal. Hunger was always a powerful motivation. The small cluster of humans and horses below forced them to keep searching. That was the way of the turkey vulture.

LONG SHADOWS STRETCHED ACROSS the landscape as the sun neared the western horizon. The canyon was completely in shadow when they untied the man and lowered him to the ground. A pool of spring-fed water beckoned the thirsty horses, but they remained still.

Nyol removed saddles from the horses. The stranger’s saddle was nice, made with a lot of leather compared to theirs, which were lean and lightweight. Saddles off, he led them to the water and unbridled them as his grandfather tended to the injured man. After caring for the horses, he quickly returned to his grandfather’s side.

The unconscious man’s heavy leather jacket had two bullet holes in the chest area. The old man pulled it back and reacted in surprise. A round silver badge with a five-pointed star at its center was affixed to a blood-soaked shirt. One of the bullets had struck the badge’s star and dented it. The other hole had done more damage. The stranger was taking shallow breaths and the bleeding had mostly stopped. Together, they rolled him onto his side while peeling back the jacket. The old man studied the man’s back. As he had hoped, there was a wound where the bullet had exited. It was a good sign that the bullet had passed through his body and he was still alive. “Get the small bag from my saddle, and the bedroll from his,” he instructed the boy, who responded immediately and was back in seconds.

“Start making a fire and get some larger rocks to direct heat toward him. We must keep him warm if he is to live.” Pointing at the badge, he spoke again. “He is a lawman. Bad men did this. Remember what I said about appearances?”

“Yes, Grandfather. I will make a fire. We must find out what happened.”

The old man went about pulling small pouches from the bag Nyol retrieved. With care, he measured and mixed contents of the pouches on a patch of supple deerskin creating a sticky poultice. After washing and drying the wound in the lawman’s back, he applied half of the poultice and covered it with a scrap of clean cloth. With flames from the boy’s fire providing light, they rolled the man onto his back. The elder repeated the procedure on the chest wound, then covered him with the leather jacket and bedroll blanket. Looking upward to a multitude of bright stars overhead, he spoke a few words aloud to Usen, god of the Apache. The stranger’s fate was now in the hands of a higher power.

THE SMALL FIRE FLICKERED while an unseen sun rose in the east turning the sky slowly to a pale blue. Shadows blanketed the canyon as tendrils of piñon smoke wafted through the makeshift camp. Nyol surveyed everything from a position high up on the canyon wall. The horses were quiet and grazing on grass surrounding the life-giving spring. His grandfather sat close to the stranger, observing in silence as the man held onto life.

Suddenly, the wounded man coughed as a light breeze pushed smoke across his body. He gradually opened his eyes and moved his head slightly. He remained motionless as the weather-beaten face of an old Indian loomed above. Dehydrated from loss of blood, he tried to speak, but his mouth and tongue refused to work. The old man disappeared and returned in a moment, pressing wet fingers to his lips.

A few minutes later he was finally able to take a sip of water and speak. “Where am I? Who are you?”

“I am called Cuchillo Coloradas, Red Knife in your language. My grandson Nyol is on the hillside above. We found you and brought you here to water. We are Apache.”

“My horse?” The man’s eyes opened wide as he tried to look around.

“Do not worry. He is grazing with the others. I see your badge, you are lawman, and you have been shot. What is your name?”

“Ben Carter. I’m a Deputy U.S. Marshal.” He coughed and clutched his chest.

Red Knife moved to the fire and returned with a battered tin cup. “Drink this. It will help give you strength.”

Carter took a sip of the warm liquid. It was bitter and tasted terrible. He forced himself not to spit it out. He slowly emptied the cup and handed it back to the old man. The sound of someone approaching from behind made him tense. A young man came into view. He held up two dead rabbits by their hind legs. Red Knife looked at him and nodded his approval.

Red Knife turned back to the marshal as the boy started to prepare the rabbits to eat. “Who did this to you? Tell us your story.”

“Four men attacked and robbed a stagecoach out of Santa Fe. They killed the driver and two passengers. I was ordered to go after them, no posse, just me. I found their trail and followed them for five days. That’s when I found the trading post they visited. Murdered the owner and his wife, after they had raped her, and killed an Apache family—including two little kids.

“I caught up with them a day later and got the jump on them. I figured they were all drunk, and they were, but I made a big mistake. Their leader, Zeke Kingston, surprised me from behind. And, here I am. I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t found me. I’m very grateful.”

The aroma of rabbit roasting on the fire was good. The boy sat on the ground, his attention split between the rabbits and the men. “This is Nyol, my grandson,” Red Knife said. “One day he will be a leader of the Apache. Now, he is learning about life. Our people must live together in peace, as brothers. Bad men who do evil are enemies of all. If you can ride, we want you to come to our village to rest and heal. It is a day’s ride from here. You will be safe there.”

EIGHT DAYS PASSED QUICKLY. Whatever Red Knife and the village women did to him worked wonders. Carter turned in his saddle and waved at the group as he rode out of the village. He hoped to return one day and repay their kindness and generosity in some way. Nyol had spent time talking with him each day as he healed. Carter thought he knew a lot about life, but both had learned much.

Nyol sat with his grandfather, sharpening his knife. “He is a good man and may need help. I want to go after him.”

Red Knife sat and listened to the young man’s words—and how he spoke them. Nyol had grown in spirit and wisdom. Although young, he was no longer a boy. “It would be very dangerous. There are three very bad men, maybe more.”

“I know. But Marshal Carter is only one. I am a good tracker and hunter.”

“If I forbid it, would you go anyway?"

Nyol looked at the ground. His expression reflected turmoil within. Finally, he spoke. “No Grandfather. I would respect your decision.”

Red Knife rose and walked away a few steps. When he turned around, he held out his prized Henry rifle to Nyol. “You answered as I hoped you would. This is yours now. Go help Marshal Carter.”

ALTHOUGH SEVERAL DAYS HAD passed, he was able to pick up their trail without difficulty. The outlaws left grief as markers. A Mexican man and woman had been senselessly killed at La Luz. A bit further south at Mesilla, a store and saloon had been robbed, the store’s owner shot repeatedly. Strangely, they had only beaten the saloon’s bartender. Carter figured they were out of control and headed to El Paso, or maybe even Juarez, Mexico. He also had the odd sensation that he was being watched as he rode further south.

It was twilight when he found their camp next to the Rio Grande. The Franklin Mountains rose out of the desert to the east. The area was desolate and off the well-traveled El Camino Real between El Paso and Santa Fe. Cautiously, he scouted their camp. There were only three horses and by their loud voices, the men were drinking again. Making his way back to the gelding, he made a plan. He would wait until dawn. When the sun rose above the Franklin Mountains and first touched their camp, he would move in. There was no mercy in his heart, it was personal now.

Sitting on a rock in a flat area just east of their camp illuminated by moonlight, he watched the flicker of their campfire in the distance. Carefully, he wiped down and loaded the new rifle he’d purchased in Mesilla. It was Oliver Winchester’s New Model 1873, chambered for a .44-40 caliber round. It was powerful and deadly. The mistakes of the last encounter would not be repeated. He froze. The same odd feeling of being watched swept over him and then was gone.

Dawn arrived. The sky was lavender as he moved toward the camp. Once again, he ground tied the bay and walked toward their camp. This time he kept to the foliage that lined the river, while keeping the sunlight at his back. All three men were awake and huddled around a pot of coffee.

“Howdy, boys. Time to pay up.”

The three men sprang to their feet, immediately grasping for their pistols. Carter fired, cocked the Winchester, and fired again. Two men went down. He was cocking again and swinging the rifle toward the ringleader when the bullet hit below his right shoulder, spinning him to the ground. Zeke Kingston was on him in a heartbeat, slamming him with meaty fists as he struggled to stay upright. His good arm useless, he swung with his left as Kingston backed up and then stepped in again, slamming Carter’s chest where he knew he had shot the marshal in their first meeting.

Carter went down but struggled up once more, swinging with a left jab that caught Kingston in the crotch. The killer bellowed in pain but remained upright. He charged again, throwing a wicked punch at the marshal. Carter ducked and tried to get up, but Kingston kicked him in the chest, opening the gunshot wound. The marshal fell back in agony. He was done.

Zeke Kingston looked down at the helpless man with a combination of arrogance and malice. “So, here we are again. Good fight but you seem to be a slow learner, Marshal. You should have died last time. You was real lucky then, but your luck has run out. Now, you die for good.” The outlaw smirked as he cocked his pistol and pointed it at Carter.

A deafening boom sounded from behind. A large caliber bullet caught the killer in the throat, nearly tearing his head off. Dead as he fell, his pistol dropped harmlessly to the ground. Carter pushed himself up onto his knees with his left arm and looked at the dead man. The sound of approaching footsteps made him turn. The young man cradled his grandfather’s .44 caliber Henry rifle in his arms. Nyol looked at the dead man then to the marshal. He walked forward and extended a hand, helping Carter to his feet.

The two faced each other with eyes locked, then Nyol spoke. “Grandfather is very wise. From him I have learned to trust a man by his actions. I believe you are my friend— I hope you will be my brother.”

Michael McLean

Anative of western Colorado's high country, Michael McLean has packed on horseback in Montana's high country wilderness, mined gold and silver thousands of feet below the earth's surface, fly-fished Yellowstone Park's blueribbon waters, and explored the deserts of the West. Through personal and professional experiences he has collected a wealth of information to develop story settings, plots, and characters. His work has been published in New Mexico Magazine, Rope and Wire, and The Penmen Review. His story “Backroads” was the winner of the 2012 Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Contest.
McLean believes the less travelled and often lonely back roads of the West offer intimate access to the land, its people, and their stories. A mining engineer by profession, McLean also has technical publications to his credit. He now works in New Mexico's oil and potash-rich Permian Basin and lives in Carlsbad, New Mexico, with his wife, Sandie. “Grandfather’s Henry” is his fourth short story to appear in Saddlebag Dispatches.