Western Short Story
A Strange Pair
Jim Bryson

Western Short Story

The two people who entered the restaurant of the Randolph Arms hotel in Lindsay, New Mexico, were unlike any that the town had seen before. The town of Lindsay, nestled in southeast New Mexico, was not particularly a destination for new people, and because of that such novelty stood out even more.

The man was tall, clean-shaven, wearing a tailored grey suit, vest and tie in place, fine dark, low-heeled riding shoes, not typical cowboy boots, and a black flat-brimmed hat. The eastern garb was offset by the gun he wore, the walnut handled colt sitting snugly in a black leather holster, the holster tied down and cut low, the sign of the gunfighter. Unseen by onlookers, he also had a smaller pistol in a shoulder holster and knives in a scabbard on his belt.

If the man drew attention from the townsfolk, then the young woman who was travelling with him drew even more curiosity. She was tall, taller than most women in town, and slender. She wore an ankle-length grey skirt, dark vest and light blue shirt. She sported a dark navy bowler hat on her head and had a single long braid hanging down from the back of her head to the middle of her back. And she was clearly Asian, with the look and supple movements.

They seated themselves to one side in the restaurant, choosing a table away from other diners. The man was careful to sit with his back to the wall where he had a clear view of everyone else in the room and of the entrance doorway. If no one else noticed the carefully selected position, then Marshal Dave Turner did. It was his business to notice such things and he had been doing this a long time, entering his fourteenth year as town marshal. He understood why the man would have chosen the seat that he had. Turner usually did the same.

Dinner was a quiet affair at the Randolph Hotel and Dave Turner ate there most nights. In fact, he ate most of his meals there. Since the sudden death of his wife two years earlier he had sold his house at the edge of town and rented a suite of rooms at the hotel, now calling that his home. Given the nature of his job and the unusual hours it often demanded of him, it was a good arrangement. He could come and go easily and was always in town when needed.

He was as interested in the furtive glances that others took toward the two newcomers as the two of them. He sensed that this somehow meant trouble for him and the town but for the life of him he did not know why he felt that way. Perhaps you just become more suspicious with age he told himself.

Trouble did come, but not at the restaurant. It came a couple of hours later in the town's general store where the couple was picking up supplies for the next stage in their journey.

Three young cowboys, fresh off long dusty days on the range, came into the store, coming from a stop at one of the town's four saloons. They spied the man and woman at the counter talking with Dan Coulter, the owner. One sauntered over, the other two following closely to watch the action.

"Lookee here, boys. We got us some high-class visitors in from the east. Not often we see such folks out here."

The man turned slowly toward them, a slight smile on his face but a warning in his eyes that they did not fully appreciate. "You're mistaken. We're not from the east. We're from northern Utah territory, Pierce County to be exact, and that's pretty far west, even from here."

"Well the two of you sure dress like you're just out from the east, mister. You coulda fooled me. And that girl with you, she's definitely from the east and from the Far East I guess. She your wife?"

The man shook his head. "That's none of your business, but as a matter of fact she's not my wife, she's my employee."

"She works for you, huh? What does she do?"

"She protects me," the man said simply, the smile fading. "From people like you." It was a subtle warning that was also not understood.

"Bet she does a lot more for you than that," one of the others said from behind, smirking. "Bet she works for you alright but I bet she does some of her best work at night and somewhere down between the sheets." The three of them laughed aloud, grinning at each other foolishly.

The young woman stepped aside as the man turned to face them, his expression now dark and serious. He pulled back his jacket to reveal his gun. He saw Dave Turner standing just inside the door of the general store and noted the marshal's badge on his vest, but focused on the cowboys.

"You grew up in the west and so you know you just said the wrong thing to the wrong person," the man said quietly to the three cowboys. "You've grievously insulted this young woman's honour. Now you have a choice. You can either say you were mistaken and apologize, and do so loud enough for everyone in this store to hear, including the marshal who's standing behind you, and then leave town, or you can go for your guns. One or all of you. I don't really care."

The silence hung in the air, the tension evident.

Then the first cowboy, embarrassed, fearful and swallowing deeply, turned toward the young woman. "It was our mistake, ma'am. He didn't mean nothing by it. He was wrong and stupid and it's just the drink talking. I'm sure you're a fine and honorable woman and I want to genuinely apologize for me and my friends saying anything that would insult you. It was our mistake, and the whiskey, and I hope you'll forgive it." He said it, hat in hand, and said it loud and clear.

She nodded at him without saying a word and the man turned back to the counter allowing his jacket to swing back over the gun. The woman did not turn and did not take her eyes off the three cowboys until they left the store, closing the door behind them. Dave Turner followed them outside.

"What were you idiots thinking?" he asked.

"We made fools of ourselves, Marshal, and we had to own up and apologize to them for it," said the one who had done the apologizing on behalf of the others, shrugging his shoulders and looking profoundly embarrassed. "We'd been drinking, Marshal, and you know how we are. We was just funnin' but that gent in there, he didn't find it funny and made us back up right sudden."

"Don't think we did nothing wrong," one of the others said grumpily. "You just kinda kowtowed to him, Blair, for nothing."

Dave Turner smiled. "It wasn't nothing. You were wrong. That man would have killed the three of you boys and none of you would have gotten a gun out of your holsters. Believe me when I tell you that you had no chance at all and you're incredibly lucky to be alive and able to ride out of here. I don't know why he was so patient with you when you didn't deserve it, but you can be thankful you're not dead. Now you boys get on your horses and get the hell out of here before I find some reason to arrest you. As congenital stupidity isn't a crime I'd have to find some other reason to throw you in jail. And I would."

He watched them ride out of town, not once looking back, and then, still shaking his head over their youth and stupidity he went back into the store. The couple had completed their purchases and were turning away from the counter to leave when he stepped in front of them.

"Evening," he said, tipping his hat to the young woman and then turning to the man. "Saw what happened and wanted to say I'm sorry about it. I was getting ready to step in but you handled them just fine."

The man smiled. "They're pretty young, Marshal, and they didn't understand what they were doing," he said. "I helped them appreciate the danger in their words. Perhaps they learned something, but only time will tell."

"Then you turned your back on them," Turner said. "Not too wise to do that. They might have pushed it a bit more."

"They were no threat to me," the man said, nodding at the young woman. "She was watching them, so I didn't need to."

Turner was confused. "She ain't carrying a weapon," he said. "She wouldn't have been much help to you without one."

The man smiled at the marshal's confusion. "She doesn't need a weapon, Marshal. Now if you'll excuse us, we really have to get unpacked and settle into our rooms. It's late and we've an early start in the morning."

"You're not staying in town?"

The man shook his head but said no more.

Turner stepped aside. They left the store and crossed the street to the Randolph to settle into their rooms for the night. Two rooms, he had determined earlier, so they were not a couple. Or were they? And what had the man meant when he said she did not need a weapon?

He realized at that moment that he had not even asked their names. He would do that first thing tomorrow morning before they left town. It was important for him to know who was in his town at any given time and he liked to know who was passing through. And why. Especially these two, he thought. That nagging feeling that this was trouble would not leave.

So Dave Turner was sitting patiently in the restaurant of the Randolph Arms at six o'clock in the morning when Faye Randolph opened it for breakfast. He ate his usual meal and read the paper through twice while he polished off three large cups of her personal blend of rich, dark coffee.

It was seven o'clock when the couple came down the stairs and walked into the restaurant for their breakfast. They sat once again at a table at the other end of the room from Dave Turner and ordered. Turner picked up his mug of coffee and walked over to the table.

"Mind if I join you?"

The man gestured at a chair. "Not at all," he said.

"I admit to some genuine curiosity where the two of you are concerned," Turner began, noting the young woman's smile.

"We're not new to such curiosity from people," the man said. "And while there are some things we cannot share with you, Marshal, we'll try our best to satisfy your curiosity to the extent we can. You are, I'm given to understand, a man who's to be trusted, so please ask your questions."

Dave Turner wanted to ask more about how the man came to that conclusion but chose not to. He had his own questions.

"I'm wondering where you're heading and if it has to do with anyone here in town," he said. "I like to know when things are about to happen in my town so that, if necessary, I can make preparations to deal with what happens."

"Then you can rest assured that it doesn't concern you, your town or anyone in it in any way," the man said. "We're merely passing through on our way south. This was somewhere to stay last night and a place where we could pick up some last-minute supplies and have a decent meal."

"South?" Turner said, "But there's nothing much south of here but desert and the Mexican border." Then he paused.

"Mexico?" he asked.

The man sipped at his tea and nodded.

"That's something of a risky place for folks to travel right now," Turner said. "There's a man named Hector Alvarez who's been terrorizing the area south of here, slipping into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to rustle, steal and kill. You sure you want to be heading that way, especially with a woman. My understanding is that the Rurales are getting ready to mount a campaign to get rid of the bastard." He turned toward the young woman.

"I apologize for my language, ma'am," he said.

"It is nothing, Marshal," she replied in a soft voice, the accent very slight. "I have heard much worse language than that in my time. But I thank you for your consideration." She returned to her meal.

"What takes the two of you into such dangerous land?" Turner asked. "That is, if you don't mind me asking."

"Not at all, Marshal, but I have to tell you that it's confidential and therefore I'd expect you to treat it as such," the man said. "We've been hired to bring Hector Alvarez back to Utah to stand trial for murder," he said, noting with amusement Dave Turner's shocked expression.

"You what!" Turner said, aghast at the thought.

"Alvarez and his men attacked a cattle herd in Arizona a little more than a month ago," the man said. "He killed several of the cowboys who were minding that herd and two of them were the sons of our current employer. He recognizes that there are several probably insurmountable jurisdictional issues to proceeding with charges through typical international channels. And he also knows that he has no particular influence south of the border. But he is a Mormon patriarch and he wants justice, and three of those men who returned from New Mexico, two of them Mexicans themselves, have identified Alvarez and his men as the killers. We've been hired to go into Mexico and bring him back to stand trial."

"But that's crazy!" Dave Turner said. "It can't be done! Alvarez has too good a place to hide and he has more than twenty men with him at any time. It'd be suicide to try to arrest him even if you had official jurisdiction!"

The man smiled. "I agree it will be a difficult task," the man replied. "But it can be done if it is carried out by the right people with the right plan and the right resources, and we intend to do it. And we are not suicidal."

"But how . . .!"

"That information is perhaps better kept to ourselves. I'll just say that we have a plan and the resources and leave it at that for now."

"Can I ask your name?" Turner said, realizing only then that he still did not know who the man was and that he should. But he had an idea.

"I'm Tray Sloane," he said. "And this woman is my associate, Mai Lin," he said, nodding toward the young woman who smiled and nodded at Turner, her broad smile warming up the entire room, at least in his view.

Then Turner took a deep breath. He had guessed right. "Well, I'm certainly shocked at what you told me you're planning, to say the least," he said finally, "but I'm dead serious when I say I don't think it can be done and certainly not by the two of you. I know your reputation, Sloane, but still . . ."

Tray Sloane smiled. "You're assuming it'll only be the two of us, Marshal. You shouldn't make such assumptions. I can tell you that we'll not be alone when we enter Mexico. We'll have all the help we need."

Turner nodded. "I hope so," he said. "Well, I can promise you I'll not say a word about this to anyone. That would endanger both of you. I'll simply wish you good luck with your plan and hope that you pass back through here on your way back to Utah, if you're successful, and let me know how it went. I don't give you much of a chance but if you do I'd appreciate knowing."

Sloane nodded. "If we can, we will. If we can't come back this way, I'll write to you with an update. You have my word. But if I were you, and you seem to know a little about me, I'd give us more than a slim chance for success."

Dave Turner nodded, rose from his seat and tipped his hat to Mai Lin. "You don't say much, miss," he said. "But you do light up a room."

Tray Sloane laughed. "I tell her that all the time."

Mai Lin merely smiled and nodded.

Dave Turner turned and left. He had a lot to think about.

Sloane and Mai Lin rode out after breakfast, dressed in trail garb. Dave Turner watched them go, still processing the purpose of their trip south. He was skeptical to be sure. He knew something of Hector Alvarez, as did most law enforcement officers in territories that bordered Mexico. Alvarez was a ruthless and powerful figure south of the border. It was said he had at least forty men in his crew at most times and that the Mexican Rurales left them alone as long as they stayed in the northern part of the country and did most of their raiding north of the border into the states. Dave Turner was also aware, but for some reason did not tell Tray Sloane, that a special team of the Texas Rangers had made at least three failed attempts to chase Alvarez into Mexico but his information network and hiding places were too much for them. After wasting their time wandering around northern Mexico in vain they returned to Texas empty-handed. So, he thought, if the Rangers with all of their men and resources could not manage to find and capture Alvarez, what hope did Tray Sloane have?

Tray Sloane was something of a legend in the central and southwest territories. Even for someone in his early forties, he had gained a widespread reputation as a lawman and as someone you simply did not mess with unless you wanted trouble. Solid and dependable, lightning speed with his gun and known for never giving in and never giving up in his hunt for outlaws as a bounty hunter or as a lawman. Dave Turner supposed that if anyone could bring Hector Alvarez back from Mexico it would be someone like Sloane, with the right help and a lot of luck. Just maybe, he thought.

Sloane and Mai Lin travelled directly south for three days, following little travelled routes and finding their way toward their intended destination, a small green valley just a short ride north of the eastern edge of the Mexican border. Along the way they consulted a detailed map that led them to hidden water holes not known even by those who thought they knew the area. They had planned well and Back Sharpe, an Indian scout and big game hunter who knew these lands better than most, had provided the map for them.

"Stick with the map I done give you and stay off the most used trails so you won't be seen," he had said to them, "I promise you'll have yourselves fresh water every day and no one'll be the wiser." He had indicated the best meeting place, identifying a small rocky valley that would be well out of the way and out of sight. From there he also plotted the best route into Mexico.

They reached that valley in the late morning of the third day and rode down into it after checking it out from the summit. There were five horses picketed in a grassy area at the bottom of the hill and a smokeless fire was burning in a small secluded campsite. Two men sat on thick logs laid flat on either side of the fire, sipping coffee from large metal mugs. They watched Sloane and Mai Lin ride down the slope, getting to their feet as the two rode up to the fire and stepped down from their saddles. Mai Lin nodded to the taller man, the one that she knew, and then led their horses and the pack horse to where the others were picketed. She would unsaddle them, brush them down, water and feed them and picket them along with the others.

The three men shook hands. The two who had been sitting by the fire were quite similar in appearance and were brothers. Porter and Sink Cullen were from Texas, though they travelled in different areas of life. Sink was a cowboy, Porter a gunman. But for this they had come together. Two of the men Alvarez's gang had killed were cousins, men they had been raised with and had worked with. When Sloane wired them the information about Alvarez being the person responsible, they agreed to ride along. He had sent a copy of the map to them by messenger indicating the place and time that they would be meeting.

The Cullen brothers had arrived at the spot a day earlier. Porter was the taller of the two by at least four inches, a lean wolf-like man with an even temperament, ready smile and a fast gun. He had a reputation as a hard man to come up against and it was known that he would do anything for a friend in need. Sink was shorter and stockier, a cowboy with a ready smile and equally ready gun. He was no gunfighter such as his brother but a good man in a tough situation. He seemed to have no fear of anything. And he worshipped his brother.

"Cal Fisher wanted to come to the party," Porter said, "But we managed to talk him out of it. He and Tori are still living in that place they built along the Snake. They've a nice place shaping up and they're getting along well with their neighbours these days after a bit of a struggle at first. It was a tough start but it's all good now. Besides, as I told Cal, too many out and about down here would only make this harder. Better a small group that can stay out of sight."

"And Mason?" Tray asked.

Porter grinned. "The old boy finally opened that restaurant he's been talking about for years, just as we all been telling him to do. It's in Stafford, and he's doing really well at it. I was up that way six months ago for a visit with him and Cal and never saw Mason look so happy. The place was full and the food was exceptional. I don't think you'll see him back on the trail after this."

Tray Sloane looked around. "Where's Tony?"

"Taking a look around the southern slope to make sure no one followed him up here," Sink replied. "He's a real cool customer, Tray, but a man most careful. I don't think he trusts even us completely."

"Why did he agree to help?" Porter asked.

"I saved his life once, actually twice, though he probably doesn't know about the second time," Sloane replied. "He doesn't like the way Alvarez terrorizes the locals, though I suppose he'd not care too much about the thieving they do north of the border. But some of his relatives have been terrorized by the Alvarez gang, two of them killed and Tony just wants it to stop."

At that moment a man came around a pile of rocks to their right. He was a stocky man of dark complexion with a drooping, heavy black moustache and bright eyes that sparkled like the white teeth of his smile. He was short, stocky and muscular, the result of many years of hard physical work on his small farm and in the gold mines in Mexico.

He grinned immediately at seeing Tray Sloane and gave him a big bear hug, almost lifting the taller man off his feet.

"So good to see you, Jefe," he said with genuine emotion. "Life for me has been much too dull since we last rode together. Now the adventure begins again for us, no? Now I think we can rid the northern country of this animal."

"That's the plan, Tony," Sloane replied. "And only possible because of you. If we succeed it'll be because of you. And we're grateful you'd take the risk."

They sat around the fire to detail their plan. Mai Lin joined them, listening, and after one glance at her, knowing of her but not having seen her before, Tony focused on the conversation.

"Alvarez is at his camp high in the northern Sierra Madres right now," Cruz began, "The talk of the villages is that he will stay there for at least the next two weeks before he and his men go again north of the border. It's is not good to wait for him to come to us, because he will be with at least twenty men and the risk would be high. In his camp there are no more than a half-dozen men, often less. Most go back to their homes and families and return only when it's time for them to leave on the next raid."

"Who else will be in the camp?" Porter Cullen asked.

"Two or three of their women, perhaps, some of them wives of the outlaws, some of them kept around for nothing more than nighttime pleasure. No children, I think. Not more than a dozen or so people at most."

Mai Lin listened far more than she spoke and listened well, and when she spoke, Tray Sloane paid attention. Quietness was her way. Tray Sloane put a map on the ground. "This is the map Tony sent to me," he said to the others. "It's a map of Alvarez's camp. He situated it to be easily defended against an attack by a large party but that means it has lots of cover around it that we can use to get close to him. And that's the plan. We're going to go in at night and take Alvarez out without anyone knowing we've been there until we're long gone. Hopefully, by the time his absence is noticed, we'll be far away."

"I've been on the mountain above the village and studied their patterns,” Tony added. “As long as we're not seen while getting to the village this can be done with little risk to us. There will be guards posted out at night," he said, "Usually two or three, no more. Sometimes none."

"They'll be no problem," Sloane said. "Mai will take care of them while I go in on my own and bring out Alvarez."

Cruz' eyes widened. "The girl?"

Sloane nodded and Porter Cullen spoke. "This is one lady you never want to have angry with you, my friend. Trust me, there's nothing she can't do."

Cruz looked at her. "She carries no weapon, Jefe."

"She is a weapon," Sloane said simply.

"Ah," said Cruz, finally understanding. He placed another map on the ground beside the first one. "We will cross the river here," he said, pointing. "There should be no one around to see us come and go. There is no village nearby, no farms, no homes, no herds. It is the best crossing."

"And if someone does see us?" Sink Cullen asked.

"Then they must be kept under guard until we've finished," Sloane said. "We don't want to kill anyone unless they try to kill us."

"Fair enough," Sink said, smiling. "Wondered why we was along."

"It was for our professional style and engaging personalities," Porter Cullen said, laughing. "And of course, for our guns."

They headed out at dusk, intending to ride through the night. They tool two spare horses with them. Tony Cruz had scouted the entire route on his way north to meet them and he led them at a good pace under helpful moonlight. They were not worried about leaving tracks as they were crossing open areas where few would travel, well away from the usual trails. And the wind and the rain they felt in the air would wipe out any tracks they left within hours.

They found a secluded spot well before daylight, picketed the horses near grass and water and made a sheltered camp. Then everyone but Sink Cullen retired to sleep. He stood guard, two hours later waking Tray Sloane to take over and taking to his own blankets. Porter Cullen relieved Sloane mid-morning, Mai Lin took over at noon and Tony Cruz at mid-afternoon. They had a hot dinner that Sink prepared and once darkness fell they took to their horses, again under an almost full moon. Sometime during the night they reached the Rio Grande and crossed, the horses swimming most of the way across the deep water, the current mild this time of year. They came up from the river and rode south and southeast for three hours and then again made camp in another secluded area before daylight. The daytime routine was the same as before, one standing guard at all times, in two-hour stretches, while the others rested.

They took the chance on a small cooking fire for their dinner, building it under a scented pine tree. Its thick and widespread branches would filter the smoke and mask its smell well enough, and the wind was blowing to the north. They were only a few hours away from Alvarez' camp in the low mountains and they would have no more campfires after this night. It would be too risky and their entire plan was designed to minimize risk.

"So far so good," Sink Cullen said. "No one's seen us yet and no one's heard us either. Now comes the fun part."

Tony Cruz' smile was sardonic. "You have a strange idea of fun, my friend. This will not be fun. These men are not fools. They are not careless, not kind and forgiving. They have lived hard lives and have the instincts of the fox."

"Then we'll have to be smarter than a fox," Mai Lin said, strolling up to the fire. "I've scouted the area and there's no one about."

"So," Tray Sloane began, "let's go over it one last time just to make certain there's no confusion. It's a simple plan but worth reviewing."

And they did.

They left their horses at the bottom of the mesa in the late afternoon, well off any trail coming down from the hills and in a secluded area of rock and trees. Even if someone rode close by they would not likely be seen. Sink Cullen remained with the horses and stood guard. It was unlikely anyone would be in the area but his orders were clear and unequivocal. Anyone who stumbled upon him was to be tied and gagged. Killing was to be the last resort and if needed was to be done as quietly as possible.

The others climbed into the hills, each wearing soft shoes and dark clothing to blend in with the rocks and sand. Their faces were blackened with the charcoal of the last evening's fire, except for Tony Cruz, whose dark features were inborn and needed no further camouflage. It was a long gradual climb that crept into darkness and it took them almost two hours with proper rests and adequate water. They left Porter Cullen less than a half-hour below the top of the mesa. His job was to cover their retreat, should it be necessary. He was an excellent rifle shot, one of the best Tray Sloane had ever known, and while they hoped that stealth would enable them to complete their mission without being detected, it was still nice to have Porter waiting down there as a backup.

A half-hour later the three of them lay on the top of a flat stone looking down at the small village in the shallow depression. They could see a dozen or so cabins of various sizes and condition, no movement within the circle formed by the buildings, no smoke or fires burning. They were downwind of the village by design and thankfully no dogs were seen that might have smelled them.

They watched the village for another half-hour, each minute valuable but patience being paramount, until they were certain there were only three guards. One of them was sitting against a rock at the center of the village and two others were standing, their rifles resting on their shoulders, one of them stationed at each end of the small village.

"Foolish," Mai Lin said.

"What do you mean?" Cruz asked in a quiet whisper.

"No one guard can see the others," Sloane replied.

Mai Lin slipped away and was immediately out of sight. At the same time, Sloane moved to the left, heading for the cabin Tony Cruz pointed out as the one where Alvarez lived. Cruz stayed on the rocks above the village, rifle ready, watching things unfold below.

He looked for the guard sitting against the rock. The man still sat there but he seemed somehow different and Tony Cruz realized the man was unconscious or dead, his head tilted oddly to the side. He looked to the far end of the village where the second guard had been patrolling. The man was gone.

Then he saw slight movement behind the third guard and the man was suddenly pulled off his feet back into the darkness. A shadow moved away but there was no sound. Cruz let out a breath. She was indeed a weapon.

Tray Sloane stepped over the sill of the open window in Alvarez' cabin and took three steps to the bed. There was a woman lying in the bed with Alvarez. She was naked and her body was turned away from Alvarez. As Sloane stepped to the side of the bed her eyes suddenly opened and she tried to sit up!

He hit her without hesitation, then lifted her unconscious form from the bed and set her on the floor, tying her hands and gagging her, watching Alvarez out of the corner of his eye. The man had not moved and when Sloane stood again he noticed the sleeping man held an empty alcohol bottle tightly in one fist. Sloane shook his head in disbelief. Drunk and sound asleep.

He rolled Alvarez onto his stomach and tied his hands behind his back then lifted him to a sitting position. The man smelled of stale body odour and alcohol. He began to stir as he was pulled up and as his eyes snapped open Sloane hit him on the chin. Alvarez slumped over.

Mai Lin stepped into the cabin and closed the door. Sloane lifted Alvarez onto his shoulder. They left by the door and worked their way back around and up the slope to where Tony Cruz was waiting. Mai Lin used a branch to sweep out the few tracks they were leaving, not being too concerned, as the ground in that area was hard packed and rocky. They rejoined Cruz and the three of them, Sloane still carrying Alvarez, moved down the slope away from the village. Thus far there was no indication they had been noticed.

“The guards?” Tony asked in a whisper.

“Tied and gagged,” Mail Lin said quietly. “They will not be discovered before morning when the others stir.”

Sloane and Tony Cruz took turns carrying Alvarez until they reached Porter Cullen who was happy to see them safe. They gagged Alvarez, put metal handcuffs on him, his hands in front so he could walk, and splashed water on his face until he revived. He stared at them dumbly, then in open disbelief, and looked around, desperation in his eyes. He tried to speak but the gag in his mouth was far too tight. He cursed them, but that too was muffled.

Sloane squatted down in front of him. "I'll say this to you once only. You'll get up and walk where we say or we'll tie a rope around your ankles and drag you the rest of the way to the bottom of the slope. What'll it be?"

The muffled curses were not difficult to appreciate and Sloane slapped Alvarez across the cheek. Alvarez reluctantly got to his feet, muttering under his breath, but not as loudly. Porter led the way, Cruz and Sloane on either side of Alvarez. Mai Lin trailed behind, turning often to watch their back trail.

It was another hour to the base of the mountain, going down being quicker than the climb to the top. They found Sink Cullen waiting patiently among the trees with their horses.

"Pleased to see you," he said. "No one came near this place. Matter of fact, no one around at all. We ready to go?"

Sloane shook his head. "It's only an hour or two to daylight," he said. "We're going to wait here until dark just as before."

"Isn't that a bit dangerous?" Sink asked, puzzled. "If we get away now we'll have quite a start on them."

"They don't know who we are, where we came from or where we've gone," Sloane said. "And as long as we don't move, I don't think we'll be discovered. We didn't leave a trail. They may ride close by but I doubt even that. They'll fan out in more likely areas, trying to cover the distance between us and the river. But they'll be far west of here where we'd be expected to cross."

They removed Alvarez's gag so he could drink. He glared at them sullenly then turned his eyes to Mai Lin. "She is but a woman," he hissed.

Her hand moved quickly, the extended middle finger punching a spot high on his chest and below his left shoulder, a key pressure point. He dropped to the ground, his entire body shaking from head to toe with the intense pain, writhing and moaning until it stopped a few minutes later.

Porter Cullen bent over him. "Anything else you want to say about her?"

Alvarez glared at her, but said nothing. She simply smiled.

They tied Alvarez to a tree and Sink made a meal, Sloane taking the first watch while the others retreated to their blankets. They relieved each other just as before. Dinner was cold as they waited for darkness. Twice during the day riders had been seen, but they were far off. None came near.

Hector Alvarez was furious. He was being ignored. No one had even looked at him or spoken to him, not even to threaten him. He did not know who these people were or what was going to happen and any attempt to speak or curse them was met with being gagged. He quickly learned to be quiet.

Once darkness fell they saddled the horses and mounted, putting Alvarez on one of the spare horses, his hands cuffed in front and tied to the pommel, his legs tied underneath and the horse on a lead tied to Porter Cullen's.

Before putting Alvarez on his horse, Sloane stood before him, towering over the shorter man. "We'd prefer to keep you alive," he said, "but we don't have to. This lady," he said, pointing to Mai Lin, "will be behind you. Watch."

He signaled to Mai Lin and her hand suddenly moved three times. Alvarez stared dumbfounded at the tree twenty feet from them where three knives now quivered, none more than two inches from the others. They had been thrown too fast to follow and too accurately to question her ability to kill him silently.

While she recovered her knives, the others started out.

As before, Tony Cruz led, the others following. Instead of turning west as Alvarez might have hoped, where his men might have suspected them to be, they rode northeast until after midnight, only then turning back to the river.

Tony Cruz dropped back toward Sloane. "There may be men at the Rio Grande, Jefe," he said quietly. "It'd be like them to place men at various crossing places on the river where we might be expected to cross."

Sloane nodded.

They stopped before they were in sight of the river and Mai Lin, a small bag on a strap across her shoulder went ahead on foot to scout the area.

"She's quite something, ain't she," Sink Cullen said to his brother. "Where did they meet up, Porter? And where'd she learn all that stuff?"

"They met on a clipper ship sailing out of China. Would you believe that she was taught her fighting skills in a monastery? I forget the name for it. She was a slave or servant of some rich man Sloane met on the ship and Sloane bought her from the man and set her free. She's been with him ever since."

"She's been gone a while," Sink offered as Sloane approached them.

The tall man merely nodded. "She'll be fine."

Almost an hour later she melted out of the darkness.

"Two," she said simply then swung aboard her horse.

They rode down the slope to the river. At the shore, two horses stood picketed, munching on thick green grass. Their gear and saddles were stacked nearby. Also nearby, two men lay on the ground unconscious, curiously still, their hands and feet bound securely. They were not gagged.

The six riders passed them by and pushed their horses into the river, swimming most of the way across and clambering up the far shore as the faintest light began to show in the east. A line was tied from Alvarez' horse to Porter Cullen's in case the Mexican decided to use the crossing as a means of escape, but he did not. Then they rode hard for another hour before reaching a secluded cluster of rocky hills where they made camp. They did not return to the spot where they camped on the way down in case someone had noticed it and where men might be waiting for them.

"Those two will find my men when they free themselves," Alvarez said haughtily. "They will come for me and they will come for you. You will die, all of you. And your deaths will not be quick. This I promise."

"Want me to gag him again?" Porter asked.

Sloane shook his head. He turned to Alvarez. "It'll be some time before those two men are found. And they're not just unconscious. They've been drugged and it may be as long as two days before they can talk intelligently. Even if they're found, it will be days more until they can tell anyone what happened to them, if they even remember. We'll be long gone. If I were you I'd not expect much."

"Where are you taking me?" Alvarez asked. "You have no authority in Mexico and this is no more than a kidnapping."

Tray Sloane explained. "You and your men killed some cowboys in New Mexico a month or so ago. Two of them were the sons of the man who hired us to bring you back. We’re going to Utah where you'll be put on trial and, I'm sure, hung when you are found guilty. Our employer would prefer we bring you there alive to stand trial, but he would quite understand if you gave us trouble and we had to kill you. Your body would be sufficient proof."

"I cannot be on trial in this country," Alvarez protested.

"You can in Utah and by this man," Sloane replied. "You have, of course, no understanding of a Mormon patriarch. But you will."

They rode out at dark, under better moonlight that enabled them to find routes more difficult for any followers to track. They knew that with six horses there would be a trail to follow but without slowing themselves down they made it as difficult as possible. Sloane was pretty certain they would not be followed. Just the same, when twice they came upon small herds of unattended cattle Sink and Tony drove them over their tracks to make things more difficult for anyone coming behind. All of this Alvarez watched with dark eyes becoming steadily bleaker. He knew now his men would never find them.

In the morning, Tony Cruz took his leave. Before he left he spoke to Alvarez. "You have shamed our country," he said, "You have killed and bullied our people. For this I would have killed you myself but my friends have plans for you. You should give thought to how your life brought you to such an end."

"Tony, we couldn't have done this without you," Tray Sloane said, taking him aside. They had never mentioned Tony's name or voiced any information where Alvarez could hear and he would have no idea who Tony Cruz was.

"We all win this way, Jefe," Tony replied. He shook hands with each of them, including Mai Lin, then rode south. He intended to take a meandering route to his home in south central Mexico that would not bring him near Alvarez's men.

A week later, Marshal Dave Turner watched two cowboys amble their horses down the main street of Lindsay. They pulled up in front of him.

"You Marshal Dave Turner?" Porter Cullen asked.

Turner nodded.

"Tray Sloane said to tell you it wasn't impossible after all."

"Where are they now?" Turner asked.

Sink Cullen smiled. "Those two are on their way back to Utah. And Alvarez, I expect, will soon be on his way to trial and then to hell."