Desperado

There is no saint without a past; no sinner without a future. ~ (St. Augustine of Hippo)

Well, he'd done it. He'd finally stepped over the line. He, Jess Harper, had been many things in his short life and now he could add owlhoot to the list.

Since the war there had been some moments when he walked close to the edge, a few episodes he didn't care to remember, but this time he had come down foursquare on the wrong side of the law and there was no going back. Not with sixty-three dollars and fifteen cents wadded up in the bottom of his saddlebag, money taken from that storekeeper, money that would buy food for him and fodder for his horse for several weeks if he was careful.

If he hadn't been so hungry, he argued with himself, he wouldn't have tried such a tomfool trick. But he couldn't remember when he'd last filled his belly, and he ran out of notches to tighten up his belt long ago.

When he stepped into the store in Bordenville that evening, he only thought to see if his last two bits would stretch to a can of peaches or some crackers for himself after he paid for a bait of oats for his horse. But the old man was alone, counting his money for the day and before he could stop to think he'd drawn on the storekeeper and was tying him up. The man had time to warn him before the gag was shoved in his mouth.

"You better think twice, young fella," he rasped. "This here's Sheriff Dan Considine's county. Nobody gets away from Dan Considine. Nobody!"

Jess shrugged. He was a stranger passing through, and the name meant nothing to him. But the storekeeper, scared and angry, had seemed so certain that this sheriff would run him down that it gave him a twinge between his shoulder blades when he left town.

He spread his slicker out over his saddlebags and rode away as the rain started. The storm was welcome. From the looks of the sky it was going to be a gully-washer, something to wipe out his trail, and he was going to ride in it as long as he could. It pelted him steadily, pouring in rivulets off his slicker, washing away all trace of hoof prints. And this was rough country, a place where a man on the run could travel for days with little fear of being seen. Maybe, just maybe, his luck had changed.

His stomach started to rumble and he wished he'd stolen some food as well. He was on the high lope until he got clear of this neck of the woods, and that meant jackrabbit if he was skillful and rattlesnake if he wasn't. He didn't let himself think about coffee and his dwindling supply of cartridges.

He leaned forward and patted his horse's wet, sleek neck. "I'm sorry, ol' boy," he said softly. "Should've gotten you somethin', at least."

The strawberry roan was a good animal with plenty of heart, but hard riding took more than range grass. He had to put as many miles as he could between himself and the local law, and he figured two or three long days' travel would do it. But only a fool counted on a horse to keep up that kind of pace without grain.

He flicked rain off his chin with his thumb and tried to remember what he'd heard about the country up ahead. He was pretty sure the Minneosa lay between him and New Mexico territory. It would probably be a raging torrent by the time he got there, full of sinkholes and quicksand bottoms to trap the unwary. There was a ferry, he thought. Some people named…Leary, that was it. They had a small ranch there and operated a ferry during the winter months when the Minneosa ran high. If anyone knew of a safe place to ford in this downpour, it would be the Learys. They might not have heard about the robbery but in any case he'd have to chance it. He turned to the southwest.

The rising sun was breaking through the clouds when he reached the east bank of the Minneosa. It twisted back and forth in a crooked course between the undercut banks, nowhere less than a half a mile wide. Small ridges of sand still rose here and there above the flood, many of them holding a handful of trapped, terrified animals, fox, deer and little wild pigs, waiting for the river to swallow them up. He stood in the stirrups to take a look up and downstream.

Half a mile northwards he saw a woman and a small girl carrying what looked like a stack of quilts up the hill behind a low log and 'dobe house that was being lapped at by the rising water. One wall suddenly crumbled, falling into the river. The woman dropped the quilts and ran screaming back down the hill.

He dug his heels into his weary horse's flanks and raced to stop her, but the sodden bank collapsed under her feet and pitched her into the water just before he got there. He swung down, shaking the rain from his lariat. One end he tied around a stump, hoping the roots would hold, and ran towards the place where she'd gone in. Then he saw what made her come back.

Caught in an eddy downstream were three heads instead of one. He looped the rope around his waist, shucked slicker and gun belt, and waded out into the flood.

The current sucked at his legs, almost pulling him off his feet as he fought his way forward. She was only about thirty feet away, with one arm hooked around a fallen tree and the other hand gripping a man's collar, barely keeping his head above water. There was an ugly gash in his forehead and his eyes were closed. Jess dragged him out and hoisted him onto the bank by his belt before going back for the woman.

"Patrick!" she screamed and pointed. A boy, no older than twelve, was clinging desperately to another tree. He nodded, not wasting his breath on words, and boosted her to safety before edging back into the muddy stream.

The boy was gone.

Jess pulled himself out, hand over hand against the merciless drag of the river, and knelt down next to the unconscious man. Between them, he and the woman got him up the slope to a flat little bench. He started to pump water from the man's lungs but she pushed him away.

"Find Patrick! Please!"

He obeyed her even though he was sure it was no use, stumbling back to where he'd left his horse. He headed downstream, searching the roiling surface of the river for any trace of the boy. There were bodies in plenty, badgers, coyotes, even a bear. But no Patrick.

Finally he gave up and rode back. The man was lying where he left him, but he had been covered with quilts and the woman and the little girl were crouched alongside.

"How's he doin'?"

"Some ribs broke and a concussion, I'm thinkin'. But he's alive. Patrick? Did you - "

He shook his head. "There's always a chance he made it to shore further down, ma'am," he added hastily.

She bit her lip.

"Is there anyone else here?" he asked.

"Me son Frank's over yonder. He went for the cows and couldn't get back."

They looked across to where a fairly large island held out against the flood. He saw three cows and then a little boy huddled against them. The woman waved her arms over her head and the boy waved back.

"I reckon he'll be fine if he stays put," Jess told her, hoping he was right. Trying to reach that island now would be suicide.

She was a sturdy, dark-eyed little woman, with graying hair that had once been chestnut. In her mid-thirties, he guessed - but women aged fast on the frontier. Her daughter was her in miniature, clinging shyly to her damp skirts. "Howdy, sis," he said coaxingly. "My name's Jess Harper. What's yours?"

She buried her face in her mother's apron and he caught a muffled, "Margaret Mary."

"Pleased t'meet you, Margaret Mary."

"I'm Maggie Leary," the woman told him. "That's me man, Joe. We're terrible glad you happened by, mister." Her voice had a faint lilt to it.

"I…I'm sorry about Patrick, ma'am. I'll look for him again when the water goes down a mite."

She blinked back tears and nodded. "I thank you kindly. Margaret Mary, we've much to do. Step around, now."

He helped her carry her husband to higher ground and fix a pallet and then went to tend his horse. As he pulled the heavy saddle off, his saddlebags banged against his hip and he cursed under his breath. He hoped Missus Leary wasn't the kind of woman who would go through a stranger's belongings, but even if she was, he didn't have much choice. He slung his gear over a low-hanging branch, up out of the mud, and left it.

The three of them worked steadily through the drizzling morning. Jess hauled pieces from the corral up to the bench and built a makeshift pen for a forlorn-looking sow and her piglets while Margaret Mary coaxed a dozen wet and cranky hens out of the trees. The woman called them at noon to come eat.

It was only cornbread, bacon and coffee, but he wolfed it down. When he looked up she was eyeing his lean frame thoughtfully.

"You look like you've missed a few meals," she said.

"Could be. You're a real fine cook, ma'am."

"There's more, if you're wantin' it."

He shook his head but she insisted. "Don't worry 'bout there not bein' enough. I fetched out some of the kitchen stores out before the house went. We won't go hungry."

He accepted another helping, gratefully, and she watched him pack it away with a knowing smile on her face.

The rain stopped. He spent the last few hours of daylight moving everything he could rescue away from the water's reach. In what was left of the barn he found a wagon canvas, not too wet, and cut and trimmed poles to put up a makeshift tent to shelter the injured man. There were also some dry oats to feed the roan, along with an armful of hay. When darkness finally brought him to a halt he was almost too tired to put one foot in front of the other.

Missus Leary had kept her daughter busy gathering wood, and there was a good fire going. He squatted down beside it and took a swig from the steaming cup of coffee she placed in his hands.

"River's likely to crest tonight," he said wearily. "I'll go after Frank tomorrow, first thing."

"It'll be chancy."

Neither of them put into words the fear that each hour the floodwaters were washing away a bit more of the boy's sanctuary. The woman pressed her thumb to her forehead and then her breast and each shoulder in turn, and the little girl copied her. She noticed his surprised look.

"You've not seen the sign of the Cross before?"

"Sure I have, Mexicans pray like that all the time. I just never knowed a white woman to do it."

Missus Leary chuckled. "You'd be a Protestant, then."

Margaret Mary sat down next to him. "Don't you pray, mister?" she asked.

His tongue felt suddenly thick as he fumbled for an answer. What could he tell this child, that his faith in prayer was lost four years ago in a bloody meadow in Tennessee? He lied.

"Sure I pray, sweetheart. Ever'body prays."

She nodded, satisfied, and clasped her fingers together. "In nomini Patri et fili et Spiritu Sancti," she began. The woman joined her and they chanted the soft, strange sentences in unison. "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem."

He folded his hands over Margaret Mary's and chimed in with an awkward amen when they were done. She smiled up at him and crossed herself again.

After supper he sat with the little girl in the crook of his arm for a while, pulling up from somewhere a song his mother used to sing and teaching her the words. He didn't remember falling asleep on the cold ground but when he woke just before daybreak a quilt had been carefully tucked around him.

Over more hot coffee and cornbread he questioned Joe Leary, now conscious but in considerable pain from his busted ribs. "The river - is there a ford?"

"There's a place upstream but it's tricky if you don't know it," said Leary. "I can't ask you to risk it, lad. Frank will be safe where he is."

Jess shook his head. "That island he's on is getting' smaller by the minute. Just ask your wife. You tell me how to find the ford - I'll make it. It's closer from t'other side an' I'm pretty sure I can get him. Us two may just have to stay over there for another day, is all."

Which would give that sheriff one more day to find him, he reflected.

Leary described the landmarks by which he'd know the crossing, even drawing a rough map in the dirt. "It won't be easy. If I could only go with you - "

"You can't even stand up, friend. If that ford's there, I'll find it."

The woman followed him to where the roan was tethered and watched him saddle up. He thought about taking the saddlebags but decided against the extra weight. Every ounce was going to count when he and the roan rode into the Minneosa.

"Let me come," she urged. "I can help."

"You'd just slow me down, ma'am. Besides, you need to stay here an' take care of your family." He wasn't about to risk her neck along with his, he thought grimly.

"Give it another hour or so, then! Let the river drop some more."

"You know we can't wait that long, Missus Leary." He tightened the cinch and stepped into the saddle.

"I also know you can't swim, Mister Harper," she challenged him. "I watched you, yesterday."

"Mebbe I can't but my horse can. We'll be all right."

"God be with you."

"I got me a good horse an' a good rope," he shot back over his shoulder, after checking to see that Margaret Mary wasn't listening. "God's got nothin' to do with it."

"Who d'you think sent you?" she called after him.

He had no answer to that.

It took him half an hour of wading in the creek, probing with a pole, before he located a narrow strip of river bottom solid enough to take his horse. He mounted and rode in, and for a few minutes it looked like they were going to get across. Then the roan lost his footing and the current began to pull them under. He kicked free of the stirrups and tried to paddle alongside, holding onto the pommel for dear life.

As they floundered in the mud and debris, two mounted men appeared on the east bank. One of them shouted and tossed out a rope.

"Tie it off, son!" he heard over the Minneosa's roar. "We'll haul you in, sure!"

He lunged for the rope, caught it, and gave it a few turns around the horn, and his rescuers dragged him and the roan up out of the river.

"Well, now!" the rider with the rope said. "You all right?"

Jess wiped the mud from his eyes. He saw a stout little middle-aged man with a sandy-red moustache and store clothes, who sat his big horse like a sack of feed. Only the hardware he carried marked him, a well-worn Colt in a plain holster. Nothing fancy, no shiny buckles or carved leather, just a business-like rig worn by a capable man who'd had to use it too often.

He knew who it was as soon as he spotted the metal star pinned to the stranger's coat. That storekeeper was right - he hadn't been able to shake Sheriff Dan Considine.

Well, he had other things to worry about.

"Listen," he said urgently. "There's a crossin' here somewheres, the Learys told me about it. Their boy's stuck on a island downstream a ways - "

"We just come from the Leary place," the lawman cut him off. "Let's go, Bert."

Considine headed into the stream and the other two fell in behind. Clearly he knew the ford and in short order he led the little party safely across. With the help of one lariat and with the sheriff and Bert as an anchor, Jess waded out to the crumbling island and carried a frightened and hungry Frank Leary to shore. Two of the cows managed to follow him.

On the east bank he saw a flicker of movement. Missus Leary and Margaret Mary were there. The woman was waving her apron wildly and Margaret Mary was jumping up and down. Jess lifted the boy up so he could wave back.

Sheriff Considine watched, hands folded on the saddle horn.

"Headed west?" he drawled. "Friend of mine's got a place up near the Four Corners country, couple day's ride from here. Tom Traherne, owns the Rafter T. You can say I sent you. He's always lookin' for a good hand."

"I got to go back," Jess told him.

"Forget somethin'?"

For a minute the heart seemed to stop in his chest. He thought briefly of making a grab for his holster but for sixty-three dollars and fifteen cents it wasn't worth it. Ah, hell. At least in jail he'd get fed regular. He drew a deep breath and shook his head.

"That woman lost her other boy in the river. I promised her I'd look for the body."

"We found him this mornin' on the way here, poor kid." The sheriff reached behind him and loosened the ties holding a familiar-looking set of saddlebags. He tossed them over.

"There was a drifter robbed the mercantile in town Tuesday evenin'," he remarked. "A smart cuss would be long gone by now, but if'n you was to run into him, you could let him know the money is goin' to be returned and no charges filed."

"I…I'll do that."

Something like a twinkle gleamed in the man's eyes. "I had me a talk with Missus Leary - or mebbe I should say she had a talk with me. I'd like to shake your hand, son." Jess held his out and blinked at the other's grip, hard as iron.

"Bert? You ride with this young 'un a piece, make sure he's on the right road." Considine grinned at him. "Now I think you better travel, boy. We don't want to see you 'round these parts again - no offense meant."

"None taken." Jess patted Frank's shoulder. "Frankie, you say goodbye to your folks for me. Tell your ma - " he hesitated. "Just tell her goodbye."

He swung into the saddle and turned his horse's head west. Bert trotted alongside as he put the river behind him.

"I hear your sheriff's got hisself quite a reputation for bringin' in outlaws," he ventured.

"Sure 'nough," agreed Bert. "One way or t'other - nobody gets away from Dan Considine."