fillo by Jim Garrison
Dan Craw shivered involuntarily despite the heavy army coat he wore. The wind drove cold darts through his clothing. People in this area would call it a blue norther. He guessed the temperature was down to about twenty below zero.
A light hoarfrost covered the mesquite bushes and the trail in thin ribbons. The stars shown down upon the surroundings like brilliant ice crystals.
When he heard the agonized cry from the brush, he reined his black cow pony to a quick halt. He patted her between the ears.
“Sounds like trouble?” he commented. “We’d better check it out, Blacky!” His steed was a good one and he considered her to be his best friend. A man wouldn’t go all the places he did if he was on foot.
He didn’t want to stop. Wasn’t he a hard one who had killed two men? He had finished one in a gun duel and the other with his fists. Despite his misgivings he dismounted and began to search. He couldn’t find anyone among the mesquite bushes. The moan came again, breaking through the icy wind like a knife.
He turned to his left and searched farther among the scraggy bushes.
“Help!” a voice cried out. He stooped down and found a short, stocky man in the darkness.
My horse stepped in a gopher hole,” the man said, grimacing in pain. Dan could see him now in the moon light. “I think my left leg is broken from the fall. Can’t move! My horse limped off and left me to die.”
“Take it easy, old timer,” Dan replied. “I might be able to help you.” He was surprised at the tenderness in his own voice. He felt along the man’s leg, satisfied that he didn’t feel any breaks. He was not a doctor by any stretch of imagination, but had examined horses and cattle and could tell if any bones were broken. But the leg had been twisted in the fall and was badly swollen around the knee.
“Know where we can find some shelter?” he asked.
“No houses around—not for miles!” the injured man said. “But there’s a cave down along the edge of the cap rock. It’s about a hundred yards from here.” He moaned and clutched at his leg.
“You had a bad fall,” Dan admitted. “I don’t think I could load you safely on my horse. Guess I’ll have to carry you.”
He was still wondering what had come over him. After all, he was a hunted man; an hombre with a reward hanging over his head who had no business helping strangers even when they were hurt. He knew something about men; how they’d turn one over to the law to make a few quick dollars even when they were supposed to be a friend. He knew such a man, Rodney Pate, who might be out to capture him at this very moment and join the ranks of other bounty hunters.
He could see the outline of the cap rock in the dim moonlight. It stretched for miles like a winding snake, its ragged edge appearing to be the dividing point of the world. He carefully loaded the man on his shoulders, and then carried him. They reached the cave entrance that was shrouded in darkness. After that he carried the stranger inside and laid him in a corner. He went back to lead his horse into the shelter.
He went outside and gathered some brush and wood around the cave entrance, then carried it in. A few moments later he had a fire going, crackling merrily as it threw a yellow light of flickering brilliance against the cave walls. For the first time he had a good look at the man he had helped. It sent cold chills through his body.
The fat little man had a sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest. He also had the countenance of a bulldog. He looked like the kind of man who would never give up hunting a person until he had him kicking from a hangman’s rope. His shoulders were stooped and his hair was turning grey at the temples. A fellow like this might kill himself before he would give up hunting a wanted person. At the moment, the fellow was clutching his leg in pain as the heat from the fire seeped into it.
”Let me look at it,” Dan said. He stooped down and felt along the knee cap and the ankle. ”Swelled bad, but not broken,” he commented. “You will be good as ever in a few days; don’t try to use it now, though.”
“That’s good!” the sheriff answered. “I might ought to introduce myself. They call me Pop Ball here in the eastern New Mexico territory. Been the county sheriff nigh on to five years.”
Dan didn’t want to introduce himself. He’d be a fool telling the sheriff who he was. “I’m Tex Clanton,” he said, using his fake name “Glad to meet you, Pop!” he said, a grin breaking on his leathery face.
“Funny how I got hurt,” the sheriff explained. “Rumors were flying in town that a fellow named Dan Craw was in these parts. They say he came here from Texas, and had killed two men. Her never was caught and brought to trial. I had a posse with me but sent them back to town when we didn’t find any trace of the fellow and it appeared like a wild goose chase. Anyway my horse threw me when he stepped in a gopher hole.”
Dan silently cursed his luck. ‘You get to feeling sorry for somebody and it leads to this,’ he stormed inwardly. If the sheriff ever found out who he was, things could get mighty rough. Dan didn’t want any more killings hanging over his head.
“I’m turning in, Pop,” he said quickly. “Wake me up if the fire dies down and it gets too cold.” He arose long enough to bring his cow pony into the cave, take off the saddle, feed her a few oats, and use his canteen to give her some water. He used the horse blanket to cover himself.
“Couldn’t go to sleep without giving Blacky something,” he explained.
He lay down again. Later, he heard the sheriff groaning, and tossed his blanket over to him to ward off the cold.
Dan half expected to find Pop Ball’s six shooter in his face when he awoke the next morning. But the older gentleman was snoring peacefully. Dan built up the fire and warmed his hands over the blaze. It was still cold but the southwestern sun wouldn’t take long to warm things up again. He thought about slipping away. It might save some embarrassing moments considering that Pop might soon figure out who he was. But looking at the older fellow caused him to change his mind. He couldn’t stand the idea haunting him that he didn’t know what would happen after he left Pop. He felt thoroughly disgusted at his own softness. But Pop seemed a little like his own dad and he didn’t think he would change his mind.
He loaded his six gun and went tramping through the brush and juniper trees under the towering cap rock He was soon rewarded and brought down a cotton tail rabbit with one shot, and whistled softly while returning to the cave. After that, he boiled some coffee in a pan, then skinned the rabbit and cooked some meat.
Shaking Pop awake, he smiled and said, “Time to eat breakfast even if it ain’t much.” He cut the meat up into several pieces.
“You’re handy to have around,” Pop answered cheerfully. He groaned a little until Dan helped him to get up. He wobbled and clutched at the cave wall but remained standing. They ate in silence, still shivering from the cold.
“I’ve seen you somewhere,” Pop finally said. “You ever been in New Mexico territory before?”
“Never!” Dan admitted. “Darn near as cold as Amarillo country, though.”
“Yeah, it would be,” Pop said with a note of suspicion. “What did you say your name was?”
“Tex Clanton,” Dan snapped back irritably. “I’m what you call a drifter; a broken down cowpoke who can’t stay put anywhere over six months.”
“Lots of fellows like that,” Pop agreed as if he had settled some point of contradiction in his mind. “No reflection on a fellow though!! This is new country. People aren’t too settled yet. Hasn’t been long since soldiers were riding out of old Fort Bascom hunting Injuns. I notice you are wearing a rebel coat. I was a Northern soldier during the war.”
“The war has been over for a good spell,” Dan said. “I was a fifteen year old drummer boy. Lied about my age! Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to do some more hunting. May be I can take you out of here before long when your leg gets better.”
“It’s improving, thanks to you,” Pop answered. “I appreciate your help. I’m still wondering about your name, though.” He shook his head in thought.
Dan threw his saddle on Blacky and cinched it down. Afterwards he waved at Pop and rode out of the cave. He had the eerie feeling that Pop would figure out who he was, and it might not be a good thing for him. But he felt compelled to stick around. He managed to bag a couple of rabbits before he headed back to the cave.
Three days later the sun was clutching at the western horizon when he saw a rider outside the cave. Pop couldn’t have seen the rider yet. Dan rode cautiously across the land breaks. The rider was below him. He cursed. It was Rodney Pate. They had once been friends, but the other man was obviously seeking the reward on Dan. He went out to jump on his horse and rode across the intervening space. He drove a fist into Rodney’s face, and then grabbed his antagonist by the throat. They both rolled to the ground.
He choked hard, leaving white marks on Pate’s skin , then eased the pressure.
“It’s you!” Pate said, choking. He shook visibly under Dan’s body.
“You found me,” Dan answered. “We aren’t friends anymore. We both know why you followed me here.”
“No, for Gawd’s sake!” Rodney Pate pleaded, fear showing in his eyes. “Let me go!”
“I could let you go,” Dan said with an accusing voice. “Then you could slip around, shoot me in the back, and take my body to town to collect the reward.
It’s $250.00 and you could buy a farm with that.”
“One of those men you killed was my favorite uncle. I want to see you hang for that even if it was a gun duel. The reward don’t sound bad either,” Rodney answered angrily.
“You’ve trailed me for weeks so you get the reward,” Dan said savagely.
“You’re a yellow bellied coyote! As for your uncle, it was a fair fight and you know it.”
“I know you only killed those two in self defense,” Pate cried out. “I saw it happen both times. Let me live and I’ll testify in court what really happened.”
Dan laughed scornfully. “Expect me to believe that?” He let loose of his victim. “Don’t cross my path again or you will regret it.” They both got to their feet.
A voice suddenly came from the cave entrance, surprising both men.
“I heard and witnessed the whole thing,” Pop Ball said. He had a six gun pointed their way, and had a small tree limb to lean on and keep his balance.
“I’m taking both of you to town. You will testify, Rodney Pate, and tell the court the same thing you just admitted out here. And you, Dan, will stand trial and might get your name cleared. I’ve been watching you. You could have run away but you didn’t. You helped me instead and when I tell what you did for me, you might stand a chance of having proved yourself innocent. Can’t tell about how a jury will decide though.”
Before anyone could stop him, Rodney Pate suddenly ran to his horse, jumped into the saddle, and rode off into some juniper trees on the side of the cap rock.
Pop managed to fire a couple of shots but missed.
Dan reacted by whistling at Blacky. The horse ran over to him. He crawled into the saddle, hoping to catch up to Rodney. He had one clear advantage. Blacky had been fed and watered. His horse was probably more rested. But he still was taking a long chance. Pop Ball might shoot him down for escaping. Despite this, he rode wildly after Pate. No more shots were fired.
He had to slow down due to the rough ground. He could see Rodney riding up higher into the mesquite and juniper bushes. Gun shots whizzed past his head. He pulled a rifle from a side holster attached to his saddle. He fired back, not hitting the man.
“Get him, Blacky!” he yelled, leaning forward in the saddle. Blacky went faster up the dangerous slope. Dan felt that he was closing the gap between them, but still feared that Rodney would get away.
Then almost before he knew it, their horses were running side by side.
He shoved his rifle into Rodney’s ribs and demanded, “stop your horse and surrender or I’ll fill you full of lead!”
Rodney pulled his horse to a halt while Dan was at his side. “Why are you chasing me?” he cried out. “We can both ride away and the sheriff will never catch us.”
“I think you know why.” Dan answered. “Just ride back to Pop at the cave and don’t make another break for it or I’ll have to shoot you!”
They rode down slowly. Pop Ball still stood at the cave entrance, apparently waiting for them.
“My leg is good enough for me to ride now,” he commented.
“Why didn’t you try to shoot me?” Dan asked.
“Let’s just say I felt I could trust you,” Pop answered. “I know you now, Dan Craw! It took a little time to figure it out. I think you are a victim of circumstances. You helped me when I needed it.”
He paused to stare at Rodney. “You going to testify?” he asked.
“Yes!” Rodney answered. “But one of the men he killed was my uncle.I won’t testify in Dan’s favor!”
“It kind of figures,” Pop said. “That’s why you ran away. You didn’t want to get in trouble for giving false terstimony if a jury decided in favor of Dan.”
He mounted on Blacky behind Dan and said, “Let’s ride to town.”
“Think I got a chance of clearing myself?” Dan inquired as the three men rode away from the cave.
“Is the moon going to come up tomorrow?” Pop answered. “Depends on what a jury will decide and nobody can predict that for certain. But you have a good chance and that’s what is important.”