Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The name he received at birth was Sojiro. The name he earned in the dark mountains of Hida was Kage, the shadow. The name he used when he came to El Paso was Kay, because it meant respect. And out of respect for his dead father, he meant to put Jason Peligross to death.
I met Kay at the King’s Palace, one of El Paso’s better saloons. I say met, but he came looking for me.
Our game of five-card draw was no more than three hours old when Kay pushed his way through the batwings. He was an odd-looking little man to our eyes, dressed in clothes the color of desert sand. Blousey trousers like the Turks wear with wrappings around the shins and the strangest moccasins I ever saw. They reached a hand span above his ankles and they were split so the big toe stood apart from the rest. The sash at his waist went around twice and the knot was at the small of his back. A knife about the size of a Bowie, but with what looked to be a straight blade, fit behind the sash on the left side, like it was ready for a cross draw.
His shirt looked a bit like one an Apache would wear, but its sleeves were long and floppy and came down halfway on his hands. It didn’t have any buttons either. One side was crossed over the other and held in place by the sash. His hair was short, very short, like he’d shaved his head a couple of weeks ago and a stubble had grown out. He also wore a headband of cotton cloth the same desert color as his clothes. A few supplies, I found out later, hung in netting cattycorner across his back, and he carried a monster of a sword slung to his back, with its long handle sticking up above his head.
To say he was a strange sight would be entirely an understatement.
His dark face was expressionless as a rock. He walked to the bar, but he slid his feet instead of heel-and-toeing like most people, and his knees were slightly bent.
“Hey Chinaman. Getchor ass outta here.”
Kay could have been deaf for all the reaction the rowdy’s shout got from him.
“Hey, Chinaman. You got ears?”
The man doing the shouting pushed himself away from the bar and turned to face Kay. “I’m saying no one in this here saloon wants to drink with no Chinaman.”
Kay came to a stop at the bar. He put both hands on the edge.
Charlie the bartender ambled over, his face none too welcoming.
Kay gave Charlie a short nod, a kind of a bowing of his head. “Sir,” he said. “Looking for a man, I am.”
Before Charlie could open his mouth, the rowdy who’d shouted at Kay strode over and put a hand on Kay’s shoulder as if to turn him. “We—“
He started to give Kay what for, but that little man—he stood no more than about five six—that little man took the rowdy’s hand and twisted it somehow and the rowdy went to his knees, howling in pain. “Quiet,” Kay said, applying some pressure for emphasis.
The rowdy shut up. I guess he figured out that if he didn’t move, it didn’t hurt, because he was real careful.
Kay faced Charlie again. “Sir, looking for a man, I am. Is he here?”
“Who?” Charlie asked.
“Kensington St. George,” Kay said, but it sounded like Ken Jing Tone San Joji.
“Who?” Charlie said.
Kay held the rowdy with one hand and fished a piece of paper from inside his shirt. He handed the paper over.
Charlie took a look at the paper and handed it back. He turned and pointed at our table. “Kensington St. George is right over there,” he said. I scraped my chair back and stood.
Kay gave the rowdy’s hand a tweak and he yowled. “Stay,” Kay said. He let go of the hand and walked that smooth sliding stride toward our table. He came around until he was about six feet from me.
As he came, I turned to face him.
“Ken Jing Tone sama?” he said. The rise at the end made it sound like a question.
“Yes,” I said. “My name is Kensington St. George.”
Kay slapped his hands to his sides and gave me a stiff bow, bending at the waist but keeping his back and neck straight as the proverbial ramrod. “Pleasure,” he said. “Buy you, I want. We talk?”
“Go ahead,” I said.
Kay turned and started for the batwings. Two steps and he realized I hadn’t moved. He stopped and faced me again. “Go ahead? You say, go ahead. I do. Not enough?”
The two steps separated Kay from the card players at the table. Far enough, the rowdy figured, I guess. “Goldam Chinaman,” he hollered, scrambling to his feet.
Kay watched the rowdy, his eyes almost shut. I could only see about half of the irises. He seemed not to be breathing and stood as motionless as I’ve ever seen a man stand.
The rowdy scrabbled for his six-gun. “You’re dead meat,” he screamed.
Kay made a quick flicking motion with his right hand, and the rowdy howled. Something like a 4-pointed spur rowel stuck out of the rowdy’s wrist, one of the points buried deep into the joint. He dropped to his knees again, his off hand supporting the wrist with the rowel sticking out of it. The fingers of his hand were splayed and he couldn’t seem to close them. Kay walked over in the slip-slide stride and pulled the 4-point rowel out. At the same time, he snaked the rowdy’s six-gun from its holster. I could tell Kay was no stranger to guns.
“King,” I said to King Fisher. He sat in on card games of a time, even though he owned King’s Palace.
“Lend me your office for a few minutes? I’m curious as to what this stranger thinks he can buy from me.”
Kay dumped the bullets from the rowdy’s Colt SAA onto the bar and handed the gun to Charlie.
The rowdy sat cross-legged, holding his wounded wrist to his chest.
“Stay,” Kay said to him, and looked at me.
I waved at the door at the back of the saloon. “In there,” I said. “Come on.” I started for the office door, my boots clomping on the plank floor. I couldn’t hear if Kay was following, so I looked over my shoulder. He could have reached out and touched me. He was that close.
I prided myself on being a man people couldn’t sneak up on, but Kay could have had my bacon anytime. He’d been in King’s Palace for going on a quarter of an hour, and the only sounds I’d heard from him were words, and the slick whistling sound the 4-pointed rowel made as it flew into the rowdy’s wrist.
Grabbing the knob, I opened the door and motioned him in. He hesitated as if he wanted me to go in first. I motioned again. He gave me a little bow and entered the office. I followed him in and turned to shut the door. When I looked at him again, he was on the floor, sitting on his legs. He put his hands on the planking about shoulder-width apart and touched his forehead to the floor between his hands.
“Wha?” I’d never seen anything like it.
“Ken Jing Tone sama. I name Kay. One name only.”
“Kensington St. George,” I said. “Friends call me Ken.”
“Ken.” He tasted the name. “Ken. Good. You Ken sama. I Kay. Buy you, I want. Can?”
“This man say buy Ken sama,” Kay said. He fished a business card from the fold of his shirt and offered it to me. He still sat on his legs.
I took the card. It showed the silhouette of a chess knight and had three words on it. San Francisco and Paladin.
Of themselves, my eyebrows went up. “Paladin said to hire me?”
“Yes. Hire. Yes. Hire. Not buy. Very sorry.” Kay put his forehead to the floor again.
“Okay. Okay. What is it you want to hire me for?”
Kay looked perplexed. He shook his head.
I tried again. “Why me? Why hire me?”
Kay nodded. “Yes. Hire Ken sama.”
I had to sigh. “Why?”
“Oh. Ah-m. Man say you hunt other man,” Kay said.
“He say you hunt man for Kay.” He pointed at his nose.
“Who should I hunt for?” I said.
“No. No. No.” I tried another tack. “I hunt man for Kay. What man?”
“Ah. Hai. Hunt man name Jay Song Pelly Gross.”
I tried the name out. Jay Song Pelly Gross. I tried stringing them all together. Jaysongpellygross. Wait. Two names. Jaysong. No. Jason. Jason Peligross. Shit. “You want me to find Jayson Peligross?”
“Hai. Yes. Please.” Again he pulled something from the folds of his shirt and held it out to me.
I took it. A small package wrapped in some kind of purple paper and tied with a ribbon that looked like silk. I set it on King’s desk and pulled at the tails of the bow in the ribbon. It came undone and the paper opened of its own accord.
“Jayzus.” A stack of strange gold pieces, ten high. I picked one up. An oblong piece of gold about three inches long and one and a half wide. Felt like a couple or three ounces. Say two and a half. The packet was about eight hundred dollars in gold.
“Hunt Jay Song,” Kay said. “I follow. You find. I kill.” His face and his eyes said Jason Peligross was dead.
Anyone who hunted Jason Peligross hunted trouble. I picked up the pile of gold coins, the wrapping paper, and the silk ribbon and held them out to Kay. “Nope,” I said. “No can do.”
He sat there on his legs, his hands on his thighs. Tears welled in his eyes and threatened to spill over his lower lids. Once more placing his hands flat on the floor, he lowered his forehead slowly to touch the planking. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his English suddenly more fluent. “It is very important to find this man Jason Peligross. He killed my father. Here. In El Paso. Almost twelve years ago.”
Kay reached inside his loose shirt and came up with yet another item; a paper, rolled and flattened, with the ends folded over. It had something on it that looked to me like a turkey track. He pointed at the track. “In my language, this reads KATAKI. When word of my father’s death reached us, my lord Asaharu gave me this KATAKI paper. It says I can kill Jay Song Pelly Gross. My right. Our justice says the second son must take the life of the one who robbed life from our father.”
“That piece of paper doesn’t make it legal to kill in Texas,” I said.
Kay shrugged. “I must,” he said. “It is my sadame, my fate. Will you assist? Will you find the man who killed my father?”
I didn’t answer right away, and my indecision must have been written on my face.
Kay nodded. “Ah so,” he said, and shifted so he was sitting cross-legged on the floor. He carefully took the knife from his sash and pulled it from its lacquered sheath. He laid the sheath on the floor pointing away from him, and placed the knife so the sheath held the blade off the floor. And what a blade! Polished to a mirror finish, it had some kind of pattern near the cutting edge. It looked like maybe the edge and the body of the blade were not the same kind of steel. If it could cut as good as it looked, that was one wicked knife.
He put the pile of gold coins off to the side, removed his sword and back packet and put them by the coins, then took a small sheaf of papers from the fold of his shirt, separated one sheet, and used it to wrap the blade, leaving about two inches at the point bare. He gave me a long look. “I see that you are not ready to help me find Jay Song Pelly Gross,” he said. “If I cannot find and kill him, then I have no reason for life myself.”
I had no idea what was going on and just stood there like a dumb ox, as the saying goes.
“Ken sama, I am very happy to know you,” Kay said. “Sayonara.”
He slipped his shirt from his shoulders and pulled his arms from the sleeves so it fell away and left him bare to the waist. Whoever thought him a little man had another think coming. His stomach looked like knotted ropes, and muscles swam beneath the skin of his arms. His shoulders bulged, and if he’d not been a man, I would have wondered at the size of his chest.
“Stand to my left, please,” he said.
Not knowing what else to do, I took the position he indicated.
Kay picked up the knife by the blade. The paper he’d wrapped around it kept the edge from cutting his hand. He put the fingers of his left hand at a point just under his ribs, and placed the point of the knife at the tip of his fingers. “I go now to comfort the spirit of my father,” he said, and pushed the point of the knife into his belly.
The instant I saw the blood, I jerked my 6-inch Colt Lightning from my own sash and lambasted Kay in the head hard enough to lay him out.
He came to at Doc Reynold’s place, but he couldn’t move because I’d tied him to the bed, wrists and ankles. The doc had placed an adhesive plaster over folded square of gauze on the puncture wound in Kay’s belly. “Not serious,” the doctor said.
When I saw Kay looking at me, I cocked my Lightning and let the muzzle wander in his direction.
“Ease off,” I said. “Jason Peligross may be easy enough to find. He’s high on the Ranger’s wanted list, and he’s got a hideout in Chihuahua, across the border into Mexico.”
Kay relaxed. “Take the ropes off, Ken sama.”
“I don’t want you trying to cut yourself open again,” I said. “Or me either, for that matter.”
“That I will not do,” he said. “Now I know somewhere I can find Jay Song Pelly Gross.” He paused. “Can you show me where he is?”
“Will you?” Kay’s face was no longer the slab of granite it had been in the office of the King’s Palace. He had a relaxed maybe even pleasant expression. I untied him.
He bounded from the bed. “Can we go now? “He slipped into his loose-fitting shirt and tied it in place with the sash. He checked his carrying net, put it on over his shoulder, then slung his big sword. Kay stood in front of me, legs spread slightly apart, a deceptively small man with death in his eyes. “I am ready,” he said.
I had to smile. “Not so fast. Let me talk to the Rangers. Maybe I can pinpoint Jason Peligross’s hideout.”
Find out exactly where he is.”
“Then we go?”
“When we’re ready.” Somehow it seemed that I’d agreed to go with Kay to find the killer of his father. So be it.
Doc Reynolds rapped on the doorframe. “Sounds like the patient can be released,” he said.
“What do we owe you?” I said.
“A dollar would cover it,” he said.
I paid him. “Come on, Kay.”
“Do you have a place to stay?” I asked when we got outside.
“Go get some rest, then,” I said. “Come to the Regis Hotel tomorrow morning. Then we’ll talk about going after Jason Peligross.”
Jason Peligross made a name for himself in ’68 when he and his gang held up an entourage of Japanese dignitaries headed for the west coast. Most stood by as Peligross’s men ransacked the wagons. They left the paraphernalia and took only the gold. One of the Japanese objected when Peligross opened a lacquered box and found only a scroll, which he dumped on the ground.
The young man screamed at Peligross and charged him with a long knife.
Peligross shot him through the body but he kept coming. A second shot smashed the young man’s left shoulder. He staggered, then straightened and took three more long steps toward Peligross, the knife outstretched and seeking blood. The tip barely reached Peligross’s gunhand, which held a Colt Army 1861. Just the tip, but it was enough to sever his little finger between the first and second joints, and slash the ring finger above it.
The young man died.
The entourage, in flowing kimonos and hair bound in topknots, let the young man be buried in El Paso, though it was their custom to cremate the dead. They cut the topknot from his head and put it in a plain wooden box. This part of the young man thus returned to Japan.
Now Kay came to El Paso to claim a life for the one that was taken, as was his custom. And he hired me to find Jason Peligross. After he disappeared toward whatever lodgings he had, I went to Rosa’s, which sits on the south bank of the Rio Grande, the river the Mexicans call Rio Bravo del Norte. The Rio is unruly at times and not always content to follow its usual course. Rosa’s has been washed away twice that I know of, and owner Pedro Aguilar always builds another adobe structure in the same place. I never asked him why it’s called Rosa’s Cantina.
Funny, the town north of the river is just plain old El Paso, but the one south of it is El Paso del Norte. Don’t ask me why.
I could hear the music from Rosa’s as I rode across the bridge on Stanton Street. Hitching my roan Pete out front, I pushed my way through the men who stood with drinks in their hands, watching of a young Mexican girl twirl to the music of a mariachi band. When she spun, her skirts flew out and up and the men shouted and whistled at the sight of her shapely legs.
Shapely legs had not drawn me to Rosa’s, though I appreciate the female form as much as the next man. Vicente, the man behind the bar, came over when I beckoned. He put a hand behind one ear and leaned close to hear what I said.
“¿El Señor Pedro está aquí?” I asked.
“¿Puedo hablar con él?”
“Momento.” Vicente disappeared through a door at the back of the room.
Pedro came out, both hands extended. “Kensington, amigo. ¿Cómo está?” Pedro Aguilar had the face of a choirboy, complete with cherub smile and dimpled cheek. He was probably the toughest, most dangerous man south of the Pecos.
After clasping my hands, he pulled me toward his office. “Come, come. We’ll have some Cuervo together.”
The mariachi music stopped. Men drifted to tables, and a young cowboy reached for the dancer’s hand, probably asking her to sit and drink with him.
“Keep your filthy hands off my girl, cowboy!”
A way opened between the blocky red-faced man who’d called out and the cowboy. “Mister, I don’t know who you are,” the cowboy said, “but any girl working at Rosa’s can drink with a customer. So back off.”
People cleared out from behind the young man.
“You lay a hand on her and I’ll kill you, cowboy.”
“Move aside, Felina,” the cowboy said. He touched the girl with his left hand, but never took his eyes off the man. “You’re welcome to try, mister, but I’d rather buy you a drink than see you dead.”
The man’s face got even redder. “I said, don’t touch her!”
The cowboy stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and his hands hanging naturally at his sides.
“How often men die over our tarts,” Pedro said. “Such a shame.”
The blocky man fumbled for his gun, which was shoved into his waistband.
The cowboy waited patiently until the barrel of the old Colt cleared the man’s belt. Then, in a smooth, lightning-quick motion, his right hand snaked a Remington Army from its holster, the web of his thumb raking the hammer back as he drew. The six-gun pointed at the man’s belly, cocked and ready to fire, before his gun even came level.
“That’s it,” the cowboy said. “It’s over and you lost. Leave and you won’t have to die.”
Someone started to laugh. Then the whole room was laughing. The cowboy put his gun away and turned toward the girl he’d called Felina.
The man howled like a wounded beast. His trigger finger tightened and his gun belched smoke and flame, the explosion cutting the laughter off as neatly as snuffing out a candle. The bullet plowed into the floor. The man dropped to his knees, sobbing. The cowboy didn’t even bother to turn around.
Pedro signalled two men to take the sobbing would-be gunman out. “Come. Good tequila awaits,” he said.
“Who’s the cowboy?” I asked.
“I hear he is called Havelock. Johannes Havelock.”
“Havelock. I’ve heard that name. Seems I remember a lawman in Arizona by that name. Half Cherokee. Garet. That’s it. Garet Havelock.”
“Sí. Johnny Havelock is Garet Havelock’s younger brother.”
I took another look at the young cowboy. He sat with Felina, his face animated as he regaled her with tall stories such as men tell, or so I supposed.
Pedro led me into his little cubbyhole of an office. Well, not an office in the Anglo meaning of the word, but the jefe’s room. “So, amigo. What brings you to El Paso del Norte?”
I told Pedro of Kay and why he’d come to El Paso. Then I said, “He’s determined to find Jason Peligross. He hired me to point him in the right direction, but I’m no good in Mexico. Who do you suggest I get to help?”
Pedro chuckled. “Amigo, there is none better than the young cowboy you just saw refrain from killing another man. Johnny Havelock. Yo no sé, amigo, but the Yaquis of Sonora call him El Invisible, he who cannot be seen.
“Johnny Havelock.” I chewed on the idea for a while. “Do you think he’d agree?”
“¿Quién sabe? You can ask. He sits in Rosa’s with beautiful Felina. And he sips, he only sips at a little tequila, with many many limes. Madre de Dios, he will cost me mucho dinero for the limes. Afortunadamente, Felina consumes a great quantity of tea, which is also called whiskey, but does not get her stumbling drunk.” Pedro smiled at his own humor.
“Could I talk to Johnny Havelock here in your room, amigo?”
“If he will come, es posible,” Pedro said.
He went to the door, opened it, and signalled to the man who stood nearby. He spoke quietly and quickly to him in Spanish too fast and too low for me to hear and understand.
“Sí, jefe,” the guard said.
In moments, a light knock at the door.
“Adelante,” Pedro said.
The door opened. The young cowboy came in, relaxed with a small smile on his dark face. “¿Desea hablar conmigo, jefe?” he said.
He stood relaxed, but he stood ready.
I got up.
“Johnny, this is my friend,” Pedro said. “He wished to speak about some business with you.”
Havelock gave me a sharp glance, no more. “Does your friend have a name?” He spoke to Pedro, who waved a hand at me.
“Havelock turned slightly so both Pedro and I were in his field of vision.
“I’m Kensington St. George,” I said. “I need your help. Or, should I say, the man who hired me needs your help.”
“Kensington St. George, eh? Stomp Hale had good things to say about you.”
“You know Stomp?”
“Worked as his deputy for a year in Grant’s Crossing.”
“Heard you ride the Outlaw Trail.”
“Do. But I’m no outlaw. Don’t like carpetbagger law, though. Lawyers and such change it every day, just to suit them.”
“I could spin you a tale, Havelock, but you might not believe a word I say. But let me tell you this. The man who hired me’s got good reason to go after Jason Peligross. Can you take us to him?”
“Him and me’ve crossed paths a time or two. I don’t run with him.”
“My man wants to hit Peligross in Mexico, and I reckon he can handle it.”
Havelock turned to look at me straight on, an incredulous expression on his face. “This man wants to face Jason Peligross alone?”
“He says it’s got to be done one on one.”
“Could I ask you to come over to El Paso to meet him? You can take the job on after that, if you’ve a mind to.”
Havelock stared at me for a long time, his mind elsewhere, it seemed. I could see the wheels turning behind those dark eyes. Finally he gave me a short nod. “Alright. I’ll come along. Take a looksee.”
“Regis Hotel, then. Tomorrow. Come about noon and I’ll buy you dinner.”
Havelock almost smiled. “I could use a man-size steak,” he said. “I’ll be there.” He stepped to the door. “Con permiso, jefe,” he said.
“Por nada,” Pedro replied. “Hasta la vista.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Havelock said to me, and he was gone. Nor was he among the carousers in Rosa’s Cantina when I left.
Kay arrived at the Regis sometime before I even got up, not that I’m an early riser. He stood in front, straw basket on his head. He stood motionless. His eyes closed and his hands steepled before his chest. I could hear him mumbling some kind of prayer. He faced the sun, so maybe that had something to do with it.
“Good morning, Kay,” I said.
He turned and bowed. “Ohayo gozaimasu, Ken sama. When do we go find Jay Song Pelly Gross?”
“A man named Havelock will come to speak with you about it.”
“At noon. We will eat together.”
He nodded. “I understand. I will return then.”
“Where are you going?”
Kay gave me his deadpan look. “Chinamen are okay only with Chinamen, even when they are from Japan.” He walked slowly up San Francisco Street, hands steepled, once more mumbling his prayer.
Everybody on San Francisco Street, walking, riding, or driving, craned their necks to watch Kay. Not often do you see a man with a straw basket on his head walking heel and toe down the street, ignoring traffic and mumbling to himself. More than one shook his head as if he thought Kay was crazy.
I stepped into Tully’s, just to the side of the Regis, for breakfast.
Just as I got my second cup of coffee and was about to dig into scrambled eggs and bacon backed up with fried potatoes and onions, Buffalo Carter walked in. He took a quick look around and made straight for my table.
“Kensington,” he said, leaning over so his voice didn’t carry to the other three people breakfasting at Tully’s. “Word’s out that you’re going into Mexico.”
I raised my eyebrows and played ignorant. “Really? Wherever did you get that idea?”
Buffalo looked left and right, then leaned even closer. An inch and he’d have been whispering in my ear like a lover. I shifted away slightly.
“Someone seen you at Rosa’s last night,” he said. “That someone saw Johnny Havelock go into Pedro Aguilar’s back room while you and Pedro was in there. And when Havelock come back, he wasn’t in no mood to play with Felina. She asked him why. He looked at her kinda funny and told her he might be taking a little paseo into Mexico. Anyone could figure out the rest.” Buffalo took a deep breath. “You’ll need guns, Ken. I’d like to go along. Watch your back, kinda.”
He stood back, an expectant look on his face.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Shee-it. Don’t know what I’m talking about my ass. Kensington kiss-my-ass St. George. Do I look dumb to you? Do you think I ain’t seen that Chinaman? Do you think I don’t know what kinda man Johnny Havelock is? Shee-it. You’re headed into Mexico. No lie. What you need is an army, but that ain’t gonna happen. So if you can’t get an army, you’d better have some good guns. I’m good. Not as good as Johnny, but good. Maybe better’n you.”
I had no reply.
Buffalo gave me a long look, then shrugged. He said nothing more, just turned his back on me and left, his displeasure plain in the set of his shoulders. Two men of the ilk of Buffalo Carter were the equivalent of a dozen horse soldiers. I wanted to call him back, but could do nothing until Kay and Havelock met. Instead of brooding about the situation, I ordered three eggs, scrambled, sowbelly bacon, fried potatoes, and sourdough biscuits. A man can’t think properly when his stomach’s empty.
Strictly speaking, I’d made no commitment to take Kay into the wilds of Chihuahua. Strictly speaking, I’d not taken even one of his oblong gold pieces, so I’d made no promise. But we’d need to cross the Rio Grande and get lost in the rough and tumble country south of the border before the rumors reached the ears of Jason Peligross.
By noon, I’d found no answers except to go, by God and by golly. I sat on the porch of the Regis, chair tipped back on two legs, contemplating the problem when Johnny Havelock came around the corner of Chiricahua and San Francisco Streets, and Kay mumbled his way east on San Francisco, retracing the course he’d taken away earlier. They reached the Regis at almost the same time. Johnny Havelock climbed the steps to the porch. Kay stayed in the street, watching.
“I’m here, Kensington St. George,” Havelock said. “What’s to talk about?”
I waved a hand at Kay. “It’s his baile. I’ll let him talk to you.”
Havelock took a second look at Kay. “Him? A Chinaman?”
Kay slowly mounted the steps, his upper face hidden by the straw basket on his head.
“Kay is from Japan,” I said. “Jason Peligross killed his father in ’68. He’s got a license from Japan to kill Peligross.”
“Easy to say, hard to do,” Havelock said.
“You’d be surprised.”
“Who is this man?” Kay said. He tipped the straw basket back, only now I could see it was made of thin strips of wood.
“His name is Johnny Havelock. He knows the way to Jayson Peligross’s hideout.”
Havelock stood still while Kay examined him. I watched Kay’s eyes flick from the light brown Stetson on Havelock’s head to the off-white linen shirt to the faded canvas trousers stuffed into knee-high Apache moccasins.
Kay nodded. “He knows,” he said. “I follow you, Johnny Havelock. Then kill Jason Peligross. We go.” He looked at me. “When?”
“Wait up, now,” Havelock said. “Why should I take you all into Mexico?”
“Jay Song Pelly Gross robbed my people. He threw our sacred scroll on the ground and killed my father who tried to keep the scroll from touching earth.”
Havelock stood silent.
Kay’s words were full of passion but his face was placid as if he were reciting his schoolwork. “My lord sent me to Hida to become, what do you say? Ninja. I trained for one cycle of years – one cycle is twelve. My father died twelve years ago. Pelly Gross must die now.”
He spoke to Havelock directly. “You show me. I will kill. Me.” Kay looked at me, then back at Havelock. “How much?” he said.
Havelock just stood there, his hard eyes on Kay.
Kay dropped to his knees like he had in King Fisher’s office. He put the basket off to the side, placed both hands on the porch, and touched his forehead to the planking. “Please, Havelock sama. Please help me find Pelly Gross, who killed my father. If I cannot kill him, I must kill me.”
“He will, too,” I said. “He almost put that long knife of his into his own gut a couple of nights ago. He’s dead serious about this.”
“Okay,” Havelock said. “Two horses each. Two canteens. One day down, one day back, one day leeway. I’ll get jerky. You get coffee, though fires may be a problem. Be a good idea to haul along some biscuits. We’ll get whatever else we need on the trail.”
“How much?” Kay asked.
Havelock didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Mr. Kay,” he said, “when and if we get back, we’ll see how much the trip was worth to you.”
To me he said, “Mr. St. George, you’ll want to dress right. Red sashes are out and moccasins are always better than boots. Desert colors if you have them.”
“I’m not a complete tenderfoot,” I said.
“You’re not used to the desert, sir, or you would not be asking me. No offense meant.”
I shut up.
“We’ll leave an hour before dawn,” Havelock said. “Have your horses and supplies ready. I’ll bring my own.” He stepped down into the street. “Gentlemen, good day.” He strode down the street, turned onto Chiricahua and disappeared. He didn’t even eat that steak he’d wanted.
Kay nodded. “Very good,” he said. “I will return tomorrow morning at the hour of the tiger. He went back the way he came, basket on his head, mumbling as he walked heel to toe, ignoring horses, riders, buggies, and pedestrians alike.
Havelock rode a buckskin and led a lineback dun. I had Pete, my regular strawberry roan, and a grulla I’d rented at the livery. Kai showed up afoot.
“Horses?” Havelock said.
“No,” Kay said.
“You’ll never make it without horses.”
“I do not ride. We go.”
Kay had changed his head basket for a wide band of off-white cotton. The rest of his garb was exactly like when I’d first seen him. The big sword’s handle stuck up over his shoulder, its hilt and hand guard covered with a brocaded silk sack.
Havelock shrugged. “We’ll take Stanton to the bridge. On the Mexican side, we’ll cut west into the mountains. Let’s go.”
He reined the buckskin around and started off, leading the dun. I followed. Kay walked, staying even with my stirrup, matching his stride to that of my buckskin. “It’ll be a long walk,” I said. He stared straight ahead like he was in a trance.
Havelock never looked back. Just past Rosa’s Cantina, he took a narrow way that wound between adobe walls that protected the wealthier citizens in their compounds and jacals of sticks daubed with mud and topped with brush thatches where peons lived. Mangy dogs lay panting in the shadows of the walls and children in cotton shifts without pants or shoes stopped their games to watch the gringos ride by. What they thought, I have no idea. Strange to me, the scents rising from the poor section of the El Paso del Norte didn’t have the pungent sewer smell of the poorer neighborhoods in Anglo areas of El Paso.
Beyond the city, Havelock took an eyebrow of a trail into the mountains. Almost like a runoff, but with occasional hoof prints of goats, or maybe mule deer. The horses humped upward, carrying our weight as they were trained to do, but labouring. Even the extra mounts we led breathed heavily as we topped out. Kay looked like he’d been on a stroll around some quiet park.
We pulled up at a wide place in the trail that gave us a view across a high plain at least twenty miles across. Octotillo and candelilla and paloverde dotted the flats while oaks and piñons and junipers climbed the hillsides beside us.
“A day down and a day back?” I said.
“We don’t have to cross the flat,” Havelock said. “Peligross’s place is about 10 miles south long the foothills.”
Kay sat cross-legged on a flat-topped hunk of sandstone, his back held straight and stiff, his eyes closed, and his forearms on his thighs with his thumbs and forefingers forming circles and his other fingers held out straight. I took off my hat and wiped away the sweat. Kay’s skin looked clean and free of any perspiration. He didn’t seem to be breathing.
I took a pull from the four-quart canteen that hung from my saddle horn. “Kay,” I said. “What’s your plan?”
After a moment, he opened his eyes. “I will go to Pelly Gross in the night,” he said. “In the night, even if he has many, I am but a shadow. I will kill him and we will return. Ken sama. Havelock sama. You will wait.”
Simple as that.
We didn’t push the horses and Kay had no trouble matching the pace.
Havelock called a rest stop just short of noon. He pulled some jerky from his saddlebags and offered me a piece. I took it. Kay sat cross-legged on the ground like he had on the sandstone earlier.
“Kay,” Havelock said. “Jerky?”
Kay opened his eyes. “I cannot take food until Pelly Gross is dead,” he said. He closed his eyes.
Havelock shrugged. We chewed the dried beef and swallowed tepid water. Kay remained completely motionless, as if he were some kind of carved statue.
As the sun dipped toward the jumble of mountains in the west, Havelock pulled up in a copse of oak and juniper. He pointed to a cut running into the eastern hills. “Jason Peligross has a hacienda up that draw,” he said. “They’ll be men on watch, and they’ll spot us if we go any closer.”
“How far?” Kay asked. He looked as fresh as the moment we left the Regis Hotel.
“Two miles. Maybe three,” Havelock said.
“I must prepare,” Kay said. “Then go kill Pelly Gross. You,” he said, pointing at Havelock, “and you,” pointing at me, “wait for me here. When the day comes, if I am not returned, go back to El Paso.”
He put a hand into the fold of his shirt and brought out a packet like the one he’d shown me at Rosa’s. He handed it to me. “Pay Havelock sama for me, Ken sama, if I am not returned.”
“Of course,” I said, and accepted the packet of gold coins.
“I must prepare,” he said again.
“No fire?” I said to Havelock.
“Not a good idea.”
Pete took a healthy mouthful of chamise. Desert-bred, he was content to stay where he was. I loosened the cinch but left the saddle on him. I’d only use the extra horse if we had to run.
Kay separated himself from us a few feet and once again assumed the cross-legged position. He steepled his hands and said something that sounded like namuamidabutsu. He repeated it three times, then bowed until his forehead touched the ground.
A long moment later, he repeated the phrase and returned to his upright cross-legged position. He spent the remaining daylight sharpening his weapons. A half dozen of those rowel-like pointy things that he threw with such accuracy. Two little knives plucked from the tops of his split-toed moccasins. The long knife in his sash. Then he worked on the three-foot blade of the sword he’d carried slung to his back.
Finally, he stood. He shoved the long knife and the sword into the sash around his waist. The other weapons went back to their hiding places.
Standing with his feet splayed slightly and his hands clamped to his sides, Kai bowed first to me, then to Havelock. “I thank you, Ken sama, Havelock sama. I now go to kill Pelly Gross.” He moved away toward the draw that led to the Peligross hacienda. He made no sound. Moments later, we could no longer see him.
“The man is somewhat better than good,” Havelock said. I could only agree.
We waited through the night, Havelock and I, taking two-hour watches. The morning came, but Kay didn’t show.
“He’s not coming,” I said.
“You don’t know that,” Havelock said.
So we stayed another night. Kay didn’t show. There was nothing for us to do but return to El Paso.
As soon as we reached El Paso, I gave the packet of gold coins to Havelock.
“Don’t sit right,” he said, “Kay not making it back and all. I shoulda known it was too easy. Coulda been someone waiting for him. Maybe they got news Kay was after Peligross.”
“Not your fault, Havelock. Kay had to do it his way or die trying.”
Havelock rode out a couple of days later. He didn’t say where he was going.
I began to think it was time for me to move on as well. Maybe visit Paladin in San Fran. That afternoon a young Mexican boy showed up at the Regis, looking for me. “Por favor,” he said. “El jefe quiere que usted venga a verlo.”
So I climbed on Pete and followed the boy across Stanton Bridge to El Paso del Norte. Pedro waited in the main room at Rosa’s. “Amigo, amigo. Come. Come. I have something I thought you should hear.” He ushered me into the back room. He waved at the rawhide chairs. “Sit down. Sit down,” he said.
“Tell me, have you tasted coffee from Chiapas? No? We’ll have some.” He sent the boy for coffee.
I waited. Pedro would tell me why he’d asked for me to come when the time was right.
The coffee came. Pedro filled his with goat’s milk and great lumps of raw sugar. I drank mine black – rich, thick, and nutty with flavor.
“Aah. What’s that wonderful English word you use for such as this?” Pedro lifted his pottery coffee mug. “Ambrosia. Yes. That’s it. Ambrosia. Is this coffee not tasty?”
“Delicioso.” I couldn’t resist using a word or two of my border Spanish. Pedro gave me a painful smile.
When the boy came to collect the coffee mugs, Pedro said, “Traigo aquí al manco.”
I didn’t ask Pedro why. He’d called me for a reason. Perhaps the one-handed man was it.
Pedro did not explain. We waited, the silence hanging between us.
A tap came at the door.
“Adelante,” Pedro said.
The man wore a sling to support his right arm, which ended some three inches above where the wrist should be. The stump was properly bandaged and it seemed there was no putrification. Still, the wound was recent. Very recent. I looked at Pedro, the question plain on my face.
“Kensington, you must listen to this man,” Pedro said. “What he has to say should interest you, I think.”
“Siéntese,” he said. “Cuente su historia.”
The man with one hand sat on the remaining chair in Pedro’s office, and began to speak:
The hacienda of Jason Peligross is a fortress. It stands on the hill above el arroyo de Santiago. Ten men guard the approaches. Five more watch from inside the hacienda walls. One walks the hallways to the south, one to the west, one to the north. Thus Jason Pelligross is safe. Thus no one holding evil intent can even come near el jefe de los ladrones. In the Hacienda de la Paloma, el jefe relaxes and drinks fine tequila and good wine. In the Hacienda de la Paloma, women and children laugh, and no harm ever befalls them. In the Hacienda de la Paloma, el jefe Pelligross is safe. Yet he always keeps a loaded pistol on his desk. The pistol that killed his first man. An ancient pistol made in Bélgica and used by men in New Orleans to settle quarrels in duels. But el jefe is safe . . . was safe.
Then he came. “I am the shadow,” he said.
Ten men guarded the approaches. He found them all. They never saw him. They told me of a sudden pain in the neck, as if iron tongs had grasped them. Then blackness. They were still unconscious when I found them.
“I come to avenge my father,” he said.
Four of the men guarding inside the hacienda fell to the shadow. He trussed them with strings of woven silk, tied their thumbs together and laced them to their ankles behind their backs. He tied sticks into their mouths so they could make no sound. He left them at their posts, and he came for el jefe.
“My name is Sojiro,” he said. “The ninja call me Kage, the shadow. But for this task I take the name of Kay, which means respect in my language.”
El jefe said nothing. I stood behind the draperies that cover the walls of el jefe’s room. He shot a glance at me. The shadow did nothing. But I think he knew I was there.
“Prepare to die, Jay Song Pelly Gross,” he said. “Twelve years ago, you shot and killed my father as he tried to protect a sacred scroll. Now you forfeit your life for taking the life of my father.”
I watched as he withdrew a roll of paper from his loose-fitting shirt. He shook the paper and it unrolled, showing lines of dark black writing of a peculiar type. He bowed to el jefe.
“This is the writing of my Lord Asaharu from Japan. This writing says I have the right to kill him who killed my father. That man is you, Jay Song Pelly Gross. This night you will die.”
He took a cover from the handle of a long sword he carried thrust in his sash. He stood ready, one foot forward, knee bent; one leg back, knee bent. He placed his right hand on the handle of the sword and his left upon its scabbard. El jefe laughed, and I lunged from behind the tapestry, my pistol in my hand, cocked and ready to fire.
“You are foolish,” the shadow said, and cut off my arm. I did not even have time to pull the trigger. My arm and my pistol fell to the floor. The shadow shook my blood from his sword blade and returned it to its scabbard. I sank to the floor and bled.
El jefe no longer laughed. I tried to stop the bleeding by clutching my arm tightly. The bleeding slowed. El jefe snatched up the old pistol and cocked it. He stepped around the desk so there was nothing between him and the shadow, who shifted his stance slightly to confront el jefe directly. He stood like before, one hand on the hilt of his sword, one hand on the scabbard. The shadow and el jefe stood ten or twelve paces apart.
“I’m not gonna die!” El jefe snarled. “You are.” He lifted the pistol, aimed, and fired.
You will not believe what I have to say. I’m sure you will not believe it. But the shadow pulled his sword so fast that he was able to slice the leaden ball from pistol in half. El jefe stood with his mouth open and eyes wide with shock. The shadow leaped high in the air with a fearsome scream, like a beast closing for the kill. He brought the blade of his sword precisely down on the top of el jefe’s head. It split as the leaden ball had split. El jefe dropped, his head hanging in two pieces from his neck. The shadow wiped the blade of his sword clean of blood with the paper that he said gave him the right to el jefe’s life. He returned the sword to its scabbard.
“It is finished,” he said. Then he took his headband off and bound my arm. He cut a piece from a chair to make the binding into a tourniquet to stop my bleeding. “The women can help you,” he said. He picked one half of a leaden ball from the floor and put it in my remaining hand. “Take this,” he said. “Go to Rosa’s Cantina and tell a man named Kensington St. George what has happened.” Then he was gone.
In his left hand, the one-handed man held out half a neatly sliced .50 caliber musket ball. His story was true.
“Telegram for you, Mr. St. George,” the front desk clerk said when I walked into the Regis. “From San Francisco, it says.”
“Thank you.” I took the yellow form.
KATAKI DONE KAY