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The Missing: A Novelby Thomas Eidson
Brake Baldwin spotted the horseman as he rode clear of the tamarisk trees. He pulled his spectacles down, watching over the newspaper to see that the stranger was actually coming in, then shoved them back and went on reading. It was late evening, storm clouds gathering in a lowering sky. A poor-will was calling from the hills behind the barn. The sound was off — he didn't know why. The thick-trunked cottonwoods near the creek were blackening in the dusk, night closing over the small valley of the New Mexico ranch.
He returned to the newspaper's headline: president declares wild west dead. Amazing. Just like that: it was over. 1886 and gone — a finger snap. Santa Fe was getting ready, the paper said, to celebrate with a parade of modern inventions and a concert in the old Plaza. That should be worth the seeing, he thought.
The bay mare in the pasture whinnied at the stranger's horse, but got no response. Baldwin glanced back up — the rider was moving slowly in the dying light, the wind running hard ahead of the approaching rain. He kept his eyes on him longer this time, noticing something different, but the stormy twilight was too far gone to be good for seeing any distance.
Not liking the tenseness of his shoulders, Baldwin mumbled his grandmother's saying: You weren't born in the woods to be scared by an owl. The man and the horse were coming through the orchard now, the trees singing in the building storm. The animal's head was down and it looked ready to collapse. Behind him, he heard the barn open. Mannito had seen the rider, as well. The old Mexican was near-
ing seventy-five, but he had the delicate senses of one grown old dodging Mescaleros and Chiricahuas and their Apache brethren. Fortunately, those days were nothing but mean memories. Maybe the newspaper had it right, maybe the Wild West was dead.
He heard another door, and the sound of shutters closing, and knew Maggie was back caring for the woman and her children. She had been going round the clock with these three for days. She wasn't a regular doctor but she had nursed over twenty years, and was better at it than most, running a little infirmary of sorts. Mostly her patients were poor Mexicans like the woman and her kids.
The rider emerged slowly from the shadows and Baldwin focused on him, wanting to smile, but the battered Sharps rifle lying across the saddle kept him somber. Patterns had been tattooed into the stock of the old weapon with brass tacks, Indian style. He tucked the newspaper under his arm, dropping his hand slowly, the reflex surprising him since he hadn't worn a gun in years.
"Malo," Mannito whispered. "Bad." The little Mexican, hat in hand against the wind, was squinting through the darkening night at the stranger; then he turned and slipped away into the shadows, most likely gone to get his shotgun, Baldwin figured.
The rancher stood straighter. The rider had stopped his horse a few yards away, and sat staring at him. "Evening," Baldwin said.
The man nodded. Baldwin's eyes moved slowly over him. He was old, maybe seventies, and big, close to 6'6", deathly lean, but paunching some. Whether white or mixed breed, it was impossible to tell. At one time he must have been built like a range bull — now he was all bones, ridges and valleys. His rough face was burned to umber and looked slapped together with pieces of wet clay that didn't fit just right; the heavy nose had been broken, maybe more than once, and he appeared tired or drunk, or both. His getup was odd: frontier, Indian and Mexican. People had stopped dressing like this forty years ago. Baldwin's eyes went back to the brutal features of the man's face.
A little black-and-white terrier, the size of a good bootjack, was perched on the horse's rump, its fur up against the storm, looking like a circus dog Baldwin had once seen. Without warning, it took a flying leap off the horse, tumbled over the ground and then trotted nervously around the rancher's legs — just out of kicking distance — growling like it weighed a hundred pounds instead of ten.
"He bite?" Baldwin hollered against the increasing roar of the tempest.
The old man nodded again, appearing to Baldwin for a moment like a demon riding in this dark wind. He was wearing a Pawnee medicine shirt made from an eerie blue-colored buckskin and covered with bright golden stars of silk that had been sewn on, and trimmed at the sleeves with a black fringe. A beauty. Gauntlet gloves covered his massive hands and a long black kerchief was clasped tight against his thin neck with a silver ornament; strangest of all, he was bare-legged, wearing a long Apache breechcloth. His body was painfully gaunt. Baldwin chewed on the inside of his lip for a second, wondering who the hell this old bastard was. He looked like he belonged in a Wild West show; everything about him seemed old, as if he and his animals had ridden out of some ancient canyon lost to time.
"I'd rather he didn't bite me."
"Chaco," the stranger said firmly, trapping a cough in his throat.
Lightning flashed in the hills behind them, illuminating the old giant's harsh face for an instant, then thunder rolled slowly across the valley. The little dog had stopped growling when the stranger called his name, and he lifted his leg now where he stood and peed a yellow stream that Baldwin swore was directed at him; then he bolted forward, took one high bound, hit the man's stirrup, twisted, touched momentarily on his thigh, then — with the man leaning out of the way slightly — hopped nimbly back into place on the rump of the horse. It had happened so fast that Baldwin wasn't certain how he had done it.
The old man didn't respond.
Someone lit the lantern in the kitchen of the ranch house and the light from the window made the stranger's holster and cartridge belt sparkle in the night, every inch decorated with rough silver hammered from Mexican coins. He looked seedy and old, but hard, his eyes small and dark, and he was carrying enough hardware to dust half the Mexican army. Baldwin wondered if he was just show. The old man was staring at the kitchen window.
"Join us for supper?" Baldwin called against the wind.
The little gray, her eyes half-closed, jumped at the sound of his voice in the squall. She was old and bony like the man who rode her — an Indian Chickasaw pony, lots of Spanish and not a little wild blood in her veins. She was being followed by a young, claybank-colored mule that nibbled playfully at the old man's stirrup. "Alice," he said, waving the jenny away. Reluctantly, she obeyed. Neat trick, getting a mule to do anything, Baldwin thought.
"Baldwin place?" The old man's words were slurred, but made sense, the voice deep and shaded Indian.
The rancher just watched him, pulling his hat down hard on his head.
"Man on the road told me," the old giant offered, stifling another hard cough that made him wince behind his eyes, and taking a pull on a whiskey bottle.
"Your name?" Baldwin called.
Baldwin studied him a moment longer, then said, "Brake Baldwin. Those animals could use a feed."
Baldwin turned and started to the barn, knowing Mannito had him covered from inside, and figuring the stranger probably knew it, too. He didn't look like any pilgrim. Not hardly. Baldwin stopped and glanced back at him. He was still staring at the kitchen window, as if hypnotized by the light, his hair and clothes whipping wildly in the gusts.
"Fresh horse tracks in those hills," the old man called, without taking his eyes off the house.
"Probably drifters," Baldwin yelled over the growing gale.
"Eight. None shod." The stranger paused, continuing to stare at the window. "One outrider. Not drifters."
Baldwin felt the tenseness in his shoulders again, shrugging it off, figuring the old man was playing for attention. They had been bothered by Mexican bandits a few years back, and Indians before that. But all had been calm and friendly as of late. He turned and started once more for the barn. The stranger glanced a final time at the window, then clucked the gray forward and followed. It was quieter inside, and somewhere in the dark interior Baldwin could hear Mannito trying to stifle a laugh.
"Is that a Mexican?" the old man asked.
Baldwin watched him for a moment, then said, "The answer is he works for me."
"Then tell him not to laugh at me." The stranger was coughing hard, as though trying to expel something from his lungs; then he began breathing in little gulps like a turkey that had been run in the sun.
"I said he works for me. There'll be no trouble. If that's tough to understand, you can move on."
Mannito stepped from the shadows, carrying his shotgun. Chaco darted for his boots. "Alto!" the Mexican boomed. "Halt!" The tiny terrier sat, raising his front paws like he was pleading for his life.
The stranger seemed surprised the dog had quit and he stared at Mannito for a moment, the little man grinning back at him; then he took another long drink from the whiskey bottle he was carrying and walked to the barn window, looking once more at the house. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the gaunt and exaggerated features of the rugged face — the man, Baldwin thought, looking like a candidate for a lynching. Then the southeaster hit, rain slashing hard against the roof and walls.
Baldwin uncinched the Mexican saddle from the belly of the gray, watching the old giant over the horse's back. The saddle was big, with a heavy silver-plated horn and long, hooded, tapaderos stirrups.
"Something interest you?" the rancher asked.
"It's just a house."
The old man didn't say anything.
"We're used to slick horns in these parts, not Mexican," Baldwin said, running his hands over the finely crafted silver and staring at the Spanish surname etched in the metal.
The stranger turned and watched him for a moment. "The man who owned that gear tried to kill me."
Baldwin looked at him and couldn't tell whether he was bulling, but he knew the old man wasn't Spanish, not even half.
"What happened to him?"
"I was riding with the Chihenne," the stranger said, ignoring the question.
Warm Spring Apaches. That was a new twist — most of the old trail tramps in these parts claimed to have ridden with the outlaws. He let it drop, figuring the old coot wasn't going to tell him if he'd robbed or killed the man anyhow. "Mannito will rub your animals down."
"No. He keeps his hands off them."
Baldwin looked into the man's leathery face, at the small, deeply sunken eyes that appeared in some way like they had seen too much of life. He finished sizing him up slowly, figuring that at one time he could have been real trouble, then said, "Mister, don't start it."
The old giant walked up to the gray and began rubbing her thin back with a fistful of clean straw, the bottle clutched in his other hand. He towered over the little horse.
"No trouble. But I don't want him touching my animals. I don't trust Mexicans."
Baldwin could see his jaw muscles knotting as he worked.
"Mucho mierda," Mannito said, turning on his heel and walking off.
"What does that mean?" asked Jones, in a voice that still had the ability to make a person nervous.
"Forget it," Baldwin said.
Baldwin watched her in the yellow light of the Rochester lanterns, remembering the newspaper story about the things of the future, the trimmings and fixings of civilizations, and wishing Maggie had them now. She had returned from the infirmary and was at the kitchen stove. From the backside, her slim frame showed fetchingly through the cotton dress, her thick brown hair, shining in the lantern light, was swept to the side and caught in a simple ponytail. A lot of men bragged how beautiful their wives were. Baldwin never had. Maggie possessed such an abundance of God-given attributes that bragging seemed to just carry the point to excess. She was the kind of woman who looked her best in bright sun.
Their two eldest children were looking at him. He finished strapping on his pistol, then held a finger playfully to his lips. The home was soft shadows, mixes of browns and reds, and smelled of burning wood and baking. Maggie and he had hand-hewn it themselves. There was style and comfort to its heavy lines.
Downstairs was one room, big and open two stories — giving the feeling of soaring space. Constructed of unpeeled logs, the heavy walls were caulked with white adobe and decorated with deer heads and Indian blankets. Harp-lanterns hung on heavy chains from the ceiling, their glow creating pleasant yellow pools throughout.
Lily, their seventeen-year-old, had returned a few days earlier from the Salutaire Boarding School for Girls in Denver and was reading in front of the massive stone fireplace, where a pleasant fire burned. He had noticed changes in her. For one, she was fully a woman now. He had seen a package among her things marked the "Peerless Bust Developer"; she dressed fancier and called him "Father" instead of "Dad." And, like all near-grown youngsters, she thought she knew more than she did. But then she had always felt that somehow she'd had a hand in the Creation. He watched her a moment longer. Her mother's great beauty had passed in full measure and that was fortunate because, unlike Maggie, appearances were important to Lily.
James sat at the kitchen table, fidgeting with a model train. He had just come in from riding fence and was still wearing his hat and chaps, his rope coiled on the floor. He was wide-shouldered for fifteen. Baldwin winked at him and tiptoed up behind Maggie, slipping his arms around her waist, his shirt damp from the rain.
She tensed, then smiled. "I knew you were there. Go wash up-supper's ready."
"Geronimo's older brother is joining us."
"A crazy pretend-Indian. Meanest-looking face I've ever seen. And a strange caravan of animals."
She turned back in his arms and smiled up at him. "Not teasing?" After all the summers and winters, her skin was only beginning to show soft lines at the edges of her mouth and under her eyes. Still a great beauty.
"No. Brutal-looking. White. Dressed half-buck. Boasts he once rode with the Chihenne. Looks sick and drinks too much-I suspect he's come for doctoring."
Lily had joined them and stood scrunching up her handsome face, her skin soft and white. It took a tremendous effort to keep it covered from the sun in this country. "White man riding with Apaches-another old liar."Copyright© 2003 by Thomas Eidson
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