Sangre de Cristo Mountains
“They’re out near the Santa Fe Trail. Shots fired.”
Patrol Officer Enrico Zamora pressed down hard on the gas pedal, the Dodge Charger’s V6 engine growling as the patrol cruiser accelerated along the scorched tarmac of Interstate 25 winding into the shimmering desert heat ahead. Broad plains of desiccated thorn scrub swept toward the Pecos Wilderness on both sides of the highway, while ahead, the jagged peaks of the mountains loomed against the vast blue dome of the sky. The late season was turning the thick ranks of aspens that coated the mountain’s flanks a vivid yellow, the forests glowing in the afternoon sunlight as the cruiser plunged between the steep hillsides of the pass.
“Any fatalities?” Zamora asked as he glanced at his partner, his eyes veiled by mirror-lensed sunglasses.
“Not yet.” Sergeant Barker shook his head, one hand resting on the Smith & Wesson .357 pistol in its holster at his side. “One man is down and another’s injured. Park ranger says that they came under attack.”
“Chrissakes,” Zamora muttered, wondering what the hell had happened out there in the lonely mountains.
The call had gone out ten minutes previously for emergency response teams to converge on Glorieta Pass. Eight tourists, tenderfoots down from the Big Apple on what Zamora suspected was
some kind of bullshit team-building exercise, had been caught in the cross fire of a gunfight. One of the park rangers had led them out on a horse riding expedition, in itself a liability Zamora thought. Most city types didn’t know what a horse looked like, let alone how to ride one. He had seen every injury under the sun suffered by thirty-year-old investment bankers who earned more in a day than he earned in a year, yet couldn’t lift a saddle onto a horse’s back without pulling a muscle.
But this was different. He had heard it in the dispatcher’s voice, her tones edgy. Shots were being fired. People were being hit.
“Just up here,” Barker said as they turned off the interstate and roared up a narrow, dusty track that plunged between the walls of a deep gully. Zamora saw his partner still fiddling with his pistol as he ran the other hand over the bald dome of his head.
“Will you quit it with the weapon?” Zamora said as he followed the track. “I don’t want to see another wild bullet let loose, okay?”
Barker put his hands in his lap but his face remained taut like canvas stretched across a frame. Zamora slowed as, ahead among the trees, he saw a group of horses tethered to tree trunks. Crouching among them were several men, each staring wide-eyed at the approaching cruiser.
Zamora killed the engine and got out, drawing his pistol and hurrying across with Barker in a low run to where a park ranger was waving urgently at him. The ranger looked at Zamora. He was young, and his skin was flushed with a volatile mixture of excitement and fear.
“You guys bring backup?” he asked.
“Four more cars and an ambulance are on their way,” Zamora replied calmly, glancing at the ranger’s pistol. A faint wisp of blue smoke drifting from the barrel told him to expect the worst. “What’s the situation?”
The ranger shook his head in disbelief.
“I ain’t got a clue, man,” he said. “We were makin’ our way back down here when all hell broke loose. Some old guy’s having himself a shouting match with a tenderfoot up on the pass, then he pulls out some kind of old musket and shoots the tenderfoot at point-blank range.” The ranger gestured over his shoulder to the city slickers behind him. “Damned if he didn’t take a shot at us too. One of the guys here panicked and tried to ride past an’ then everything went to hell and the horses bolted. The greenhorn’s still lyin’ up there bleedin’ out.” The ranger looked apologetic. “I didn’t want to go back up without support.”
Zamora took a deep breath and gestured to the ranger’s pistol. “Did you shoot the old guy?”
The young man glanced at his weapon as though he’d forgotten he even had it.
“Yeah,” he whispered.
“You did the right thing. How far away is he?”
“A hundred yards, give or take.”
“Stay here,” Zamora cautioned him. “Keep an eye on the tourists. Don’t let them move.”
The ranger nodded as Zamora checked his weapon again and moved forward, hugging the rocky side of the trail that climbed up between the tree-studded hills either side of the gully. The sun flared off the rocky terrain. Zamora could hear no birdsong as he climbed, no crickets chirping in the scorched undergrowth. Gunshots could do that, scatter or silence wildlife.
“You smell that?”
Barker’s voice was a husky whisper, and a moment later Zamora caught the scent of wood smoke drifting invisibly through the trees. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead as he edged around a bend in the narrow track, hemmed in by thick ranks of trees glowing in the sunlight.
There, lying facedown in the center of the track, was a black man dressed in a checkered shirt and gray slacks, not the kind of attire one would wear when hiking in the hills. Zamora could see
a thick pool of blood congealing in the dust around the man’s body. A pair of spectacles lay alongside the body where they had fallen.
“He a dead’un?” Barker asked in a whisper.
Zamora squinted, lowering the rim of his hat to shield his eyes, and detected the man’s back gently rising and falling.
“He’s breathing,” he said, “but he’s also leakin’. We need to get him out of there fast.”
Barker nodded, holding his Smith & Wesson with both hands.
“You want me to do it?”
Zamora looked up at the steep cliff to their side. The faint smell of wood smoke was stronger now, closer.
“Looks like whoever did the shooting spent the night here,” he whispered. “Maybe the tourists spooked them or something.”
A soft whinnying caught their attention. Zamora turned to see a horse tethered to a nearby tree, its head hung low. Across its back lay a blanket, and Zamora felt a twinge of concern as he saw the blanket was thick with dried blood.
“The horse?” Barker said.
Zamora shook his head, swallowing thickly.
“That’s not the horse’s blood,” he said, realizing what he was looking at. “The ranger got ’im all right. Go up that gully there,” Zamora said, pointing up to his right. “Get to the high ground in case this lunatic comes back.”
Barker nodded, and they broke cover. Zamora hurried forward, reaching the body and squatting down alongside it. The nearby burgundy spectacles were those of a rich kid, a tenderfoot. He paused for a moment, looking around for any sign of an impending attack, before reaching down and touching the man’s neck. A pulse threaded its way weakly beneath his fingertips. He was about to holster his pistol when the man groaned and rolled over. Zamora judged him to be no more than thirty years old, clean shaven and definitely not a native.
“Don’t move,” Zamora cautioned, looking at the bloodstain soaking the man’s left shoulder. “What’s your name, son?”
“Tyler Willis,” came the dry-throated response. “Don’t shoot him.”
“Don’t shoot who?”
“Conley. Hiram Conley. He’s . . . he’s unwell.”
Zamora squinted up at the heavily forested hills surrounding them.
“You’re goddamned right there, son,” he said quietly. “We need to get you out of here. You know anything about this Conley?”
Tyler Willis swallowed thickly, grimacing with the pain.
“Don’t shoot him,” he insisted again. “He’s extremely old.”
Zamora was about to respond when a voice broke the silence of the pass around them.
“Stay still. Identify yourself!”
Zamora flinched and peered up into the woods. The voice bounced and echoed off the walls of the pass, concealing its location. He could see nothing.
“Officer Enrico Zamora, New Mexico State Police,” he called back. “This man needs a hospital.”
“There ain’t no such thing as a state police, and that man ain’t no part of the Union!”
Zamora frowned in confusion. “This man is injured and he needs treatment. I need to take him back down the pass.”
“He ain’t goin’ nowhere!” the voice yelled. “I got no beef with you, boy. You turn your back to me an’ I’ll let you leave, but I got forty dead men up here if’n you try to cross me!”
Forty dead men? Dispatch had mentioned only one man down. Zamora’s gaze edged upward as he searched for corpses among the trees, and he saw a flicker of movement.
It took him a moment to register what he was looking at through the dappled sunlight shimmering in pools of light beneath the trees. The man was old, perhaps in his sixties, a thick gray beard draped down across his bare chest. A navy-blue jacket clung to his emaciated frame, the sleeves marked with narrow yellow lines running from shoulder to cuffs. Across his chest was a
thick band of dressing stained crimson with blood. The old man was aiming what looked like an antique rifle over the top of a boulder at him. Zamora looked down at Tyler Willis.
“He’s killed forty men?”
“No.” Willis shook his head. “He’s got forty cartridges for his musket. “‘Dead men’ is what they used to call their ammunition, back in the Civil War.”
Zamora frowned at the wounded man beside him.
“Why’s he using a musket? And how do you know him?”
“It’s a long story,” Willis rasped. “A real long story.”
Zamora looked up to the woods and called back. “I can’t leave this man here.”
“We had an accord, he and I!” the old man cackled. “But he did betray me! No secessionist is worth a dime o’ dollar, goddamned Southerners been aggervatin’ us for years! What regiment are you with, boy?”
Zamora blinked sweat from his eyes, and saw Barker’s silhouette creeping through the trees toward the old man.
“I’m not a soldier. You?”
“New Mexico Militia!” the old man shouted. “Born and bred to the Union!”
Zamora realized the old man was either insane or delusional. Maybe from alcohol or exposure to the elements, or blood loss from the bullet wound.
“He’s ill,” Tyler Willis rasped from beside him. “He’s already been injured, lost a lot of blood. He could have shot me in the head, but he didn’t. He just needs help, he needs a hospital.”
“You’re injured!” Zamora shouted up at the old man. “Come down here, we can treat the wound.”
“Only thing I’m gonna be treatin’s your balderdash, boy, now hike out!”
Zamora saw Barker stand up and take aim, and in that instant the old man sensed the threat and whirled the old musket around. Zamora saw Barker rush forward.
“Barker, hold your fire!”
Two gunshots crashed out simultaneously through the canyon and both men vanished in a cloud of oily blue smoke. Barker’s ghostly shape shuddered and dropped into the undergrowth. Zamora leaped to his feet, pistol at the ready as he squinted into the swirling cloud of cordite.
An anguished cry burst out as the old man charged out of the forest, the veil of smoke curling around him. A long-barreled musket cradled in his grip was tipped with a wicked bayonet, which glinted at Zamora in the sunlight as it rushed toward him. But in that terrible moment, it wasn’t the lethal weapon that sent a spasm of terror bolting through Zamora’s stomach.
The old man’s jacket had been torn off at the left sleeve, and as he burst into the bright sunlight Zamora could see the flesh of the old man’s arm, a tangled, sinewy web of exposed muscles and ragged chunks of decaying gray flesh spilling away as he rushed forward. His hands were gnarled and twisted like those of some ancient crone, his knuckles exposed like white bone beneath almost transparent skin. For one terrible instant, Zamora had the impression of being rushed by a man suffering from the terminal stages of leprosy.
“Get back!” Zamora shouted in surprise, raising his pistol.
“You’re gonna be singing on the end of my pig-sticker!” the old man screamed, charging the last few paces. The ragged navy-blue uniform, kepi hat, and torn pants seemed to have leaped from some hellish Civil War battlefield, filling Zamora’s vision with a nightmarish image of decay and rage.
On the ground beside him, Tyler Willis raised a hand.
“Don’t kill him! He’s too old to die!”
The bayonet flashed in the sunlight before Zamora’s eyes as he staggered backward, taking aim and firing a single shot at the emaciated face charging toward him.