A Tucson Kid Western #2
The Tucson Kid is sentenced to death when he's accused of murder after killing a man in a gunfight. He's bought out of his sentence by a woman who has a job for him. A bandit is holding something over her father, and she asks Tucson to infiltrate his gang to discover what it is. Tucson is pitted alone against the outlaws and must face the bandit chief in a battle to the death.
It was approaching midnight in the small, north Mexican town of Santa Clara. The town slept peacefully beneath a cloudless sky and the stars twinkled benevolently down upon a stray dog as it wandered down the main street, searching in trash heaps for a meal. Its nose twitching curiously, it stopped to examine the men standing in an alley, urinating against the adobe wall of the El Norte Cantina. Drawn by the light, laughter, and music, the dog approached the bat-wing doors of the cantina and peered inside. The air was rank with cigar smoke and the odors of sweating, unwashed bodies, spilled alcohol and vomit. Guttering candles set in two wagon wheels suspended from the low plank ceiling provided the only illumination in the long, narrow room. The light glittered on the roweled spurs and silver conchos of Mexican vaqueros and the ivory gun-butts of dangerous looking Anglos, putting in time in Santa Clara until it was safe to return to the States. Talking and laughing, they crowded shoulder to shoulder at the long plank bar, swilling pulque, brown beer and tequila.
On a high stool in a corner close to the door, an ancient guitarist plucked at his instrument and wailed a romantic cancion in a high cracked voice, as flashing eyed, black-haired Señoritas danced a wild fandango in the middle of the wooden floor. Mexican and Anglo men swirled around the women, kicking up their heels and waving their sombreros and Stetsons in the air, eyeing the women’s heaving, sweating bosoms with fierce intent. In the shadows along the wall, round wooden tables were filled with local men and colorfully dressed women, drinking and laughing. To the rear of the room, men gathered around the gambling tables, placing wagers on chuck-a-luck, three card monte and faro.
Although concentrated on the cards in his hand, Tucson was immediately aware of the dog sniffing at the door, as he was aware of everything else going on in the cantina. He did this naturally, more as an inflexible habit of awareness than from actual interest. As the dog lost interest and moved on, Tucson focused his attention on the young man sitting across the table from him. Thin of body and narrow of chest, with close-set, shifting black eyes, a thin nose and a stringy mustache drooping around the corners of a weak mouth, the young man had just met Tucson’s bet of fifty pesos and had raised him another hundred. The other three players had dropped out, and it was up to Tucson to decide whether or not to meet the raise. As he paused to consider, his gaze ran contemptuously over the young man’s clothes. They were rich, even gaudy, with a purple silk shirt and a filigreed vaquero jacket whose lapels were lined with conchos. The Colt .45 in the silver inlaid holster at his hip was nickel plated with ivory grips.
One of the other players, a short fat man dressed like a banker, shook his head at the bet. “Caramba, Esteban!” he exclaimed. “You must feel lucky tonight.”
Dropping his cards face down on the table, Tucson tilted his chair back against the wall and felt the warmth of the adobe bricks against his shoulders. Still studying Esteban, he reached inside his leather jacket, took out his cigar case and selected a cheroot. Clamping it between strong white teeth, he snapped a match into flame and touched it to the tip of the cigar, his cold grey eyes narrowing against the smoke. He had been playing poker since late afternoon. Esteban Ruiz had joined the game about seven and had been steadily losing his money ever since. Not a good loser, he had been drowning his anger and frustration in the bottle of tequila at his elbow; full when he started but now almost empty. At the same time Esteban had been losing, Tucson had been winning, and the tall stacks of gold coins in front of him represented most of the money left on the table.
Now, the question was, did Esteban really have the cards?
Blowing a stream of smoke towards the ceiling, Tucson came forward, rested his elbows on the table, and stared hard into the young man’s glassy black eyes. Esteban met his gaze defiantly, but his eyes widened in an effort not to blink.
Deciding that the boy was bluffing, Tucson pointed with his chin to the small stack of coins lying in front of him. “How much money do you have there?” he asked, speaking Spanish in a deep, resonant voice.
As much as he tried, Esteban couldn’t keep his face from falling with disappointment that his bluff hadn’t worked. His fingers trembled as he riffled through the coins. “Three hundred pesos, Señor,” he whispered in a thin voice.
Tucson nodded and counted out the coins in front of him. “Then I’ll see your hundred, and I’ll raise you another three hundred.” The gold pesos clinked solidly as he dropped them in the center of the table.
There was a sharp intake of breath around the table from the other players. The banker avoided Esteban’s gaze by staring fixedly at his fingernails. Tucson sat calmly smoking the cheroot he held in the fingers of his left hand. Going rigid in his chair, Esteban’s stricken eyes flicked from Tucson’s face to the cards still lying face down on the table in front of him. Tucson watched rage, fueled by tequila, surge up the boy’s body, gather strength as it shot through his neck then explode into his face, turning it red and swollen.
Spittle sprayed over the table as Esteban screamed, “You cheating gringo!”
Shoving the table hard into Tucson’s belly with his left hand, he went for his .45 with his right as he lurched to his feet.
But he made a fatal miscalculation when he thought that the Colt strapped to Tucson’s side was his only weapon. As the other gamblers scrambled for cover and the men lining the bar leaped to the side, Tucson’s right hand shot inside his jacket under his left arm and came out with a Colt .32. Esteban hadn’t even cleared leather when Tucson’s bullet caught him in the forehead and flipped him back over his chair and onto the wooden floor. His huge spurs beat out a ragged tattoo for a moment then he lay still.
The roar of gunfire still rocked the room as Tucson tossed the .32 into his left hand and drew his Colt .45 with his right. His eyes were hard slits of menace as he faced the stunned, gaping crowd through the powder smoke. “Everybody saw that I fired in self-defense,” he called out loudly, his voice tight. “But if anyone here wants to do something about it, step forward.”
The bartender, a huge man with a swirling black mustache, came around the end of the bar and knelt down beside Esteban. After examining the body, his face was grim as he looked up at Tucson. “We saw that it was self-defense, Señor,” he said. “But you killed Esteban Ruiz, and that makes it different.”
“What difference does it make who it was?” Tucson grunted.
The banker standing next to Tucson shrugged his fat shoulders. “Esteban Ruiz was the youngest son of Jorge Ruiz, the Mayor of Santa Clara. Jorge Ruiz is also our Chief Justice; he tries all of our criminal cases.”
Tucson’s heart sank, and his mind raced as he considered various lines of escape. He was eyeing the rear entrance when the bat-wing doors at the front swung open and a squad of uniformed Rurales swarmed inside, their carbines lifted and ready. The officer in charge pushed his way through the milling crowd, surveyed the scene then pointed his revolver at Tucson.
“I am Capitan Sanchez,” he stated with calm authority. “Lower your guns, Señor. Even if you succeed in killing me, my men will cut you down.”
Tucson stared at the rifles centered on his chest, then slowly placed his guns on the table among the cards and coins scattered over the top. “It was self-defense, Capitan,” he said. “This man,” he pointed to the body of Esteban, “pulled on me first.”
Capitan Sanchez was just above middle height with clear dark eyes and a high-bridged nose. A short, clipped mustache rode above a wide, full-lipped mouth. In contrast to the ragged appearance of his men, his uniform was clean and well fitting. He stepped gingerly through the blood and brains oozing over the wooden floor and peered down at the corpse. When he again looked at Tucson, his eyes held only a tired resignation.
“I believe what you claim, Señor, but,” he shrugged his shoulders philosophically, “you had the grave misfortune to kill the son of our mayor. That makes it different.”
“Damn it!” Tucson spat angrily. “You people keep saying that who the young fool was makes a difference. How can self-defense be other than what it is?”
Capitan Sanchez shrugged again, not bothering to answer; then he turned to his men. “Sergeant Ramirez...”
A fat, unshaven man in a slovenly uniform stepped forward. “Si, mi Capitan...!”
Sanchez picked Tucson’s guns up from the table and held them out to the sergeant. “Take the prisoner’s...” he paused and glanced inquisitively at Tucson. “By the way, Señor, what is your name?”
The bartender, standing nearby, gasped in surprise. “You mean you are the Tucson Keed?” he asked, crossing himself with shaking fingers.
Tucson sighed. “I’ve been called that.”
A collective gasp went up from the crowd. Feet shuffled and chairs scraped against the floor as men and women craned their necks to get a better look at him. Capitan Sanchez paled beneath his tan and his men fanned out behind him, their faces fearful as they kept their rifles trained on Tucson.
Sanchez examined Tucson with interest, noting the flat-crowned, wide brimmed black sombrero, the grey eyes and blade of a nose, the wide, thin mouth and craggy chin. His gaze flicked over Tucson’s wide shoulders and deep chest, the black leather jacket cut short at the waist, and the polished black gun-belt cinched around his lean waist. Then he glanced again at the two Colts he held in his hands. The .32 was well oiled and had seen much service. The smooth steel of the .45 was blued, the barrel shortened and the sight removed. Its rosewood grips had been worn smooth from years of use.
When he brought his gaze back to Tucson, his eyes held profound respect. “It is my unhappy duty, Señor Tucson,” he said apologetically, “to inform you that you are under arrest for the killing of Esteban Ruiz. You will be kept in jail until Judge Ruiz can hear your case.”
“How long will that be?” Tucson asked in disgust.
“No more than a couple of days,” Sanchez replied.
Tucson pointed to the gold coins scattered over the tabletop. “Those winnings are mine. Can I take them along?”
Sanchez raised an eyebrow as he looked over the money. “So you are also lucky at cards, Señor Tucson,” he commented. Turning to Sergeant Ramirez, he added, “Collect this caballero’s winnings and bring them along with you to the jail. I am certain that Jorge Ruiz will be interested in them.”
Sergeant Ramirez nodded then reached for Tucson’s guns, still held by Sanchez. “The Colts, mi Capitan,” he said. “Do you want me to take them too?”
Sanchez jerked his hands back possessively. “Certainly not...!” As Ramirez cowered away from him, Sanchez glared at him as if he had committed a sacrilege. “I will take charge of these guns myself.” Then, bowing low to Tucson, he swept his hand in the direction of the front entrance. “If you will be so kind as to follow me, Señor, we will now proceed to the jail.”