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The Deputy - A short story
(Note: This is an older story that few have read, so I’m republishing. I hope you like it!)
Chen Barlow was an outlaw by choice. It appealed to him because he enjoyed the planning, execution and get-away of each robbery and he especially enjoyed outwitting any law that sought to give chase. Even now, well hidden high above the trail and behind some mesquite trees, he chuckled as he watched the posse disappear beyond a bend far below. They were following a trail that he had carefully laid out the day before and in ten miles it would merge with a well-traveled road and be lost to his pursuers.
After robbing the Bagtown bank that morning, he had turned off the trail on the same, flat, rocky ledge where he had entered the trail yesterday. He hoped the posse would be riding fast and hard after him and would miss the subtle difference in the day old trail. They did indeed miss it and now he was probably beyond capture.
He rode to an old mining shack where he had left two other riding horses and quickly re-shoed his present horse with worn but usable shoes. Tossing the old shoes and their distinctive characteristics down the abandoned mineshaft, he gathered his other two horses from the corral and set out for New Mexico knowing that the posse would immediately disregard his new tracks should they happen upon them.
As a boy, Barlow had a part time job sweeping up the local sheriff’s office and oddly enough, that was the inspiration for his criminal career. Sheriff Jay Knight had been a Texas Ranger, a Pinkerton agent and marshal of several rowdy cow towns and was a fine lawman. He also liked to talk, so young Chen became well educated in the ways of outlaws and the mistakes they made that allowed the law to catch up to them. He learned that an outlaw who kept his mouth shut, had no partner, stayed out of saloons, stayed sober and didn’t suddenly spend lots of cash was usually beyond suspicion.
“If I was to take up outlawing’,” said the sheriff, “I would keep my job, stay put where I was known and trusted, and stash my loot until I had all I could use. Then I would say my goodbye’s and head far enough away that nobody knew me, buy a good set of clothes and pass myself off as a wealthy man looking for a cattle ranch to buy. After that, I would open up a bank account and nobody would think much about it. Trouble is, most outlaws are just too blame dumb to plan beyond tomorrow.”
Barlow’s first job set a pattern although only Barlow knew what that pattern was. One of the big ranchers up near Santa Fe had set up his own bank and made loans to other, smaller ranchers and land owners. After that, many of the borrowers had cattle run off, barns mysteriously burn and other calamities that prevented them from repaying the loans. There were suspicions but no direct link to the big rancher, who then foreclosed and took over the land. Barlow decided to rob the rancher and avenge his victims while simultaneously lining his own pockets.
When the rancher entered the bank early one morning, a masked Barlow with a double barrel shotgun was calmly waiting for him. Barlow handed the rancher a note with instructions and a promise that he would not see another day if he failed to carry them out to the letter. It wasn’t until nearly noon that someone finally noticed a note in the bank window with what appeared to be the combination to the vault written on it. After two tries, the door swung open to reveal a thoroughly chagrined rancher, gagged and tied to his desk chair, stark naked.
The pursuit was half-hearted at best and the thoroughly amused posse could only guess at the trail after such a long delay. The banker could give no good description of a masked man that had spoken not a word and, after all, almost all the money belonged to the rancher anyway. Many thought he ought to go chase his own cash and let other folks get on with their business. After a short time, the posse gave it up and returned, the monotony occasionally broken by loud peals of uncontrolled laughter. The unknown robber became a local folk hero and the humiliated rancher sold out and moved on after those who had once feared him openly laughed at him.
After that, Barlow listened to gossip and since nothing was more talked about than perceived wrongdoings, Barlow had plenty of victims to choose from. He chose those who were many miles away, would be least likely to enjoy anything other than mediocre support from a posse, and whose mistreatment of others was well known.
And his job gave him all the cover he needed. Sheriff Jay Knight had long ago hired him on as a deputy.
Barlow had made up his mind. This last job had netted him enough to buy a ranch he knew of in Wyoming. He was not known there and there was small chance of running in to anyone from his past. He was calling it quits.
He broke off the trail and headed west toward SilverCity. Long ago, he had found a cave east of there that was well hidden and seemed to be previously undiscovered except by various animals. He himself had almost missed it and would have had he not stopped to give his horse a breather. He had seated himself on one flat rock and leaned back on another when he had felt a slight cool breeze on his cheek, a coolness that was almost a shock in the heat of a desert summer. Investigating, he found that the vertical rock had all but concealed the entrance to a narrow passage. Thrusting a lit torch of weeds into the hole, he could see that the cave widened abruptly into a fair sized room. Squirming through, he found that he could stand with room to spare and that the cavern was about twenty-five feet long and some twelve feet wide. In one corner, he could make out the long abandoned bed of some small wild creature. There was a near vertical shaft that he could barely get a fist into that disappeared far below and was the source of the deliciously cool air. Overhead, there was another, wider shaft that was dimly lit. Later, he discovered that it emerged in a jumble of rocks far up the slope and also well hidden.
The cave became his cache of stolen riches, all in gold. He had cashed in all the banknotes, a few at a time, for gold coins and some gold bullion. If he cashed in a large amount, some sharp-eyed banker or lawman might remember the banks the notes were drawn on and also remember robbery stories, putting two and two together. US minted gold coins, on the other hand, were anonymous.
The only drawback to the cave was that the shaft that supplied air had a low, constant moaning sound and sometimes it sounded like the murmur of anguished voices, trapped and lost forever, far below. He knew it was only his imagination, but it sometimes sent a cold chill up his back, just the same.
After long miles of the stark desolation of southern New Mexico, Chen Barlow was grateful for the slow ascent toward the SilverCity area. The arid desert slowly gave way to scrub cedar and then the fragrant pines of the higher elevations. Barlow had made a policy of always approaching his cache from a different direction and then pausing on a convenient promontory to study his back trail and glass the area. That’s what he was doing when he spotted the wagon.
Far below, a bit of white flapping in the afternoon breezes caught the corner of his eye and he put the glass on the area. After a moment he could make out the remains of a wagon far down an embankment with the top torn and slowly fluttering in the slight winds. He had almost dismissed it as abandoned when he spotted a lone figure lying motionless and partially under the wagon bed. After a long moment, he concluded that whoever was down there was beyond anyone’s help.
He studied the situation for another half-hour, slowly scanning the side of the far mountain but saw nothing but a lone coyote digging at something under a mesquite. He was about to move on when he saw the coyote’s head suddenly jerk up and intently watch something on the far slope, just below his own position. Barlow crept back under the cover of brush and waited, pistol in hand.
For a long time nothing moved. Then a dove that was landing on a nearby bush suddenly darted away. A bonnet appeared, followed by long black hair and a determined looking young woman. Then two young girls crawled over the top and joined her. They crouched not five feet from him and peered back over the rim. Then the youngest girl turned and her eyes widened as she saw Barlow. Barlow held his finger to his lips and the girl tapped the woman on the back. The woman turned and suddenly Barlow was looking into the twin black holes of a sawed-off shotgun.
Barlow studied the canyon below. Nothing moved except an occasional bird or jackrabbit. While he watched, he also altered his plans.
The young woman’s name was Hattie Johnson. The dead man under the wagon was her father and the two younger girls were her kid sisters. They had been on the way to SilverCity when they had been attacked by three Apaches. Their father had lost control on a bend in the trail and had been crushed under the wagon. Hattie and the girls were thrown clear but had been quickly captured and tied to the wagon wheels while the Apaches looted the wagon and discovered a jug of whisky. Within an hour, all three were dead drunk, so Hattie had quietly worked her way out of her bonds and had taken the opportunity to escape with her sisters. Hattie was seventeen.
The Apaches were nowhere in sight but Barlow was under no illusion that they were gone. If they were not yet out of their stupor, they soon would be and would quickly trail Hattie and the girls. They would not know of Barlow’s presence. They might lose some of their natural caution and charge into a trap. At least that’s what Barlow hoped.
Barlow eased back from the canyon rim and signaled to Hattie. “They’ll trail you and the girls soon enough,” he said, “and they’ll likely appear right where you came over the top so we’ll set up an ambush right here.”
“Can’t we just ride on out?” Hattie asked.
“No. As soon as they spot my tracks they’ll know I’m with you and act accordingly An Apache on foot can run down a horse, but right now, we have a little advantage because we have the high ground and they don’t know I’m with you. Do they know you have that scattergun?”
“No. I kept it hidden in my skirts like pa taught me. They missed it.”
“Good. They’ll think they’re chasing three unarmed girls and they might get foolish. I want you and the girls to get behind that outcropping. Wait until all three are well within shotgun range and then take your two shots. Shoot them in the chest or in the back, one at a time and make it count.
“In the back?”
“Whatever shot you get, you take it. This is no time to be squeamish. They’ll mean to kill us so we must kill them first.”
“Where will you be?”
“I’ll be off to your left. When they come over the top, I’ll stand up and attract their attention. That’s when you must fire. Are we clear?”
“But you may get shot exposing yourself like that!”
“It’s a chance but we have no choice. We must either win or die.”
For almost two hours nothing happened. Occasionally, Barlow could see Hattie peering at him questioningly over the rocks and he simply put his finger to his lips and pointed at the canyon rim. Nothing moved.
Then Barlow heard a muffled laugh coming from below. The Apaches were amused that the girls were attempting to escape and were undoubtedly chiding each other for allowing them to get away. They had no doubt that they would soon catch them and were making light of it.
Rifle in hand, Barlow tensed. The first brave climbed over the top and after a quick glance around, looked back down the slope at his companions. He grinned as the other two struggled to their feet and said something to them. All three laughed and Barlow stood up.
Startled, the first Apache swung his rifle, firing instantly and Barlow felt the bullet slam into his side. At the same instant, Hattie’s shotgun roared once and then again and the other two Apaches were dead and dying. The first Apache spun back toward Hattie and Barlow shot him, took two steps forward and shot him twice more. Then all was silent.
Motioning for Hattie to stay undercover and reload, Barlow stepped to the rim and peered over. He saw no one. He returned to the Apaches and confirmed that they were all dead. They had been lucky. The Apaches had been foolish and had paid with their lives.
“You’re bleeding,” said Hattie. “Let me look at it.”
The bullet had hit just above the hipbone and had not exited. It may have lodged in his kidney. He felt sick and weak. Hattie bandaged it with some strips of cloth and the bleeding seemed to ease up a little. Barlow sat down and revised his plans once again.
“ I want you and the girls to take my horses and ride to SilverCity for help.” He silenced her protests with a wave of his hand. “I’m shot up badly and cannot ride that far so I’ll wait here. Can you find your way and then back again?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Just follow this trail to the road down yonder and then look back and get your bearings before riding on. Remember your landmarks well enough and you can lead them right to me.”
Barlow removed the packs from the horses and placed the smaller girls on their backs.
“They’ll have to ride bareback”
“They’re used to it,” said Hattie. “We’re western girls”
She smiled at Barlow for the first time and he realized that she was quite beautiful.
“I don’t even know your name!”
“It’s Barlow, Chen Barlow. I’m a deputy sheriff,” he blurted, instantly wondering why he had mentioned that.
“I’ll see you soon Mister Deputy Sheriff Chen Barlow. It‘ll be my turn to rescue you!” Her face suddenly hot, she mounted and rode away.
Barlow watched them ride off and reappear sometime later on the road far below. He saw Hattie turn around and study the terrain as he had told her. He took off his hat and waved it but he couldn’t tell whether she had seen him. Then they rode on.
He picked up the packs and slowly made his way up to his cave, pausing frequently to catch his breath and to watch for movement. He took care to step only on rocks and outcroppings as he always did when approaching his cache. Finally he reached the flat stone and with great effort slid it back. The wound had weakened him more than he had originally thought.
Stashing the gold and covering it all with pieces of slate rock took the better part of an hour. He had just finished when he was startled to hear voices. Crawling to the cave entrance he could just make out two of the bodies lying far below. The third was hidden from his view. But now there were at least a dozen other Apaches. The first three must have been an advance party and the main group had found them.
Quietly, Barlow pulled the flat stone back in place from inside the cave until only a tiny sliver of light remained. He could still see the Apaches with one eye glued to the crack. Satisfied that he had done all he could, he crawled back and seated himself on the mound made up of his cache and the rocks that covered it.
Let the Apaches look for him. Unless they were very lucky, they would never find him in here. The girls were halfway to SilverCity by now and probably safe. Getting out his badge he pinned it on, just for luck. Satisfied, he smiled to himself and closed his eyes. He would get a little sleep now. He was tired. He was very tired.
For a long time Barlow sat and gazed at the figure seated across from him. The cave was cool and dark, lit only by the sunlight reflected in from the entrance. Over his left shoulder, he could see his red Jeep parked on the shoulder of the forest service road some five hundred feet below. The service road followed the canyon rim and the flat area was known as the site of the long-ago battle with the three Apaches. In the bottom of the canyon but out of sight was the old wagon trail to SilverCity, still used by off road enthusiasts and an occasional hardy hiker. Hattie Johnson had her father’s body brought back for burial and had the wagon repaired and returned to the ranch, but Ben had found part of a rusty wheel hub and a bit of broken trace chain where it had overturned.
In his hand was a photocopy of the letter and map written by Hattie Johnson and sent to the Barlow family in Arizona after their son Chen disappeared. Hattie had led a posse back to Chen Barlow but he had disappeared without a trace and so had the Apaches‘ bodies. If the posse’s tracker had not discovered hard evidence that men had died where Hattie said the battle had taken place, they might not have believed her at all. Later, Sheriff Jay Knight had ridden in and taken up the search but he too finally gave up after weeks of finding nothing at all.
Benjamin Barlow had made finding his long lost great-great-Uncle Chen his life’s quest. He had spent every spare weekend for the last four years scouring this area looking for some sign; some small clue. Until today, he had found nothing.
He had stopped to rest on a flat rock and had leaned back when he felt a strange cool breeze on his cheek. Now he was looking at the long dead body of his missing uncle. He was sure of that because on the remains of a tattered shirt he could make out the glint and outline of a badge. That it was the badge of a deputy sheriff, he had no doubt.
At last he rose and facing the figure, he gave him a final, small salute. “Goodbye Uncle Chen. I’ll let the family know what became of you and I’ll contact Hattie’s family too. She never gave up you know. You were her hero and she never got over not being able to find you. Maybe now she’ll rest in peace. You can continue to rest in peace too, because I’ll never tell anyone just where this place is. This has been your undisturbed grave all these years and now it will stay that way.”
As he turned to go, the constant low moaning of the airshaft changed pitch slightly and just for a moment he thought he could hear the murmuring cry of faraway voices from deep in the Earth. A cold chill ran down his spine. He stepped back out into the sun and slid the flat stone over the entrance to his uncle’s tomb.
A long time later, a lone packrat scurried into the cave and stopped to stare at the still, silent figure. His natural fear of humans, even one long dead, was still intact. After a long moment, he crawled under the slate rocks the figure was seated on and retrieved another shiny gold coin to adorn his nest.