Railroad (Robledo Mountain #4)
Copyright© 2020 by Kraken
“All right, Paul, it’s been two hours since we said goodbye to Frank and Lee and watched them ride southeast towards the Estancia. My curiosity is killing me, now tell me about Cisco and Frank like you said you would.”
I had to smile. It had been almost twenty-four hours since I’d told Tom I’d tell him how I knew about Cisco and Frank. I knew his curiosity was about to burst.
We’d left Tucson less than twenty minutes later, riding hard with Frank and Lee. With a full moon, we’d hadn’t stopped until two hours after dark. We were up early this morning and riding hard until just before noon when we stopped for a quick bite to eat. I’d told Frank and Lee how to find the Estancia, to ask for Anna, and let her know we’d sent them as two new Deputies. Lunch over, we mounted and went our separate way, Tom and I stopping on a nearby rise for fifteen minutes to watch Frank and Lee ride east.
“Okay, okay, Tom,” I replied laughingly. “There really isn’t all that much to tell. I know about Francisco Baca from reading about him. He’s not really famous in his own right, so you won’t find him in the encyclopedia. Look up his son though, and you’ll find his name as the father. His son, Elfego, is a folk hero, although he’s little remembered outside New Mexico in my time. You remember the Walt Disney movies we watched?”
“Sure, those were some movies, especially for kids. That Disney fellow was a genius!”
“I agree, he was something special. In his later years, he decided to create a weekly one-hour television show. The first episode of that weekly show was called ‘The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca’ and was all about Elfego’s shootout with over eighty cowboys. During that shootout, he killed somewhere between four and eight of the cowboys. The cowboys fired four thousand rounds at the flimsy building he was firing from.” I heard a gasp of surprise from Tom. “Two days later, the Sheriff from Socorro shows up, Elfego surrenders and comes out of the shack without a scratch. He’s tried, twice, and found innocent both times. He later goes on to become Sheriff of Socorro, a lawyer, and a minor politician. Don’t think that he’s a saint though because he’s not. Far from it. One of my favorite stories about him is that he received a telegraph in Socorro from a client in El Paso. The telegraph read, ‘Need you at once. Have just been charged with murder’. Elfego sends in reply, ‘Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses’.
“Wow,” Tom exclaimed. “And, we’ll have a chance to watch him grow up?” I nodded that we would. “I can see why you were interested in his son, but what about Cisco? Why did you decide he’d make a good Deputy?”
“Simple. He’s a future Town Marshall of Belen. I figure that if he has what it takes to become a Town Marshal and raise a son like Elfego, then I couldn’t go wrong trying him out as a US Deputy Marshal.”
“I can see that,” Tom said, nodding his head. “Okay, what about Frank?”
“You know that organization I had the old ones set up for the kids on the Estancia?” I asked Tom.
“Sure. That’s done a lot of good. The kids really like it, the old ones have been kept busy with something useful, and the testing they’ve come up with to make that last rank is really tough. Any of the young men who pass that test deserve to be called a warrior.”
“That last test is really something, isn’t it? But the whole program is based on an organization in my time, called the Boy Scouts of America. It was adopted from a program set up in England by Lord Baden-Powell called Scouting for Boys. The man who will teach Lord Baden-Powell about desert craft, or woodcraft as the army will call it, or scoutcraft as Baden-Powell will end up calling it, is none other than Francis Russell Burnham.”
“I’ve said this more in the last few minutes than I have in my life, but ... Wow!” Tom said.
“Yeah, wow, is right. Frank will eventually move to Africa, be hired as a British scout, and become close friends with Lord Baden-Powell, who will be a junior officer in the British Army at the time. They will spend over two years together, fighting an enemy that is just as capable as the Apache. Anyway, Lord Baden-Powell will be the founder of an international scouting movement. Frank Burnham will be called the father of that movement. That is both how I knew about him and how I know he will make a good US Deputy Marshal.”
“You know Paul if there are any more folks in the Territory you think would be of help, now is a good time to get them involved.”
“There may be a few others, Tom, and I’ve been wracking my brain, but I haven’t remembered them yet. We’ll just have to wait for now. The men I do remember right now are on the wrong side of the law. Much of what we’ll be doing over the next three years should counter their negative influence.”
“All I can say to that is, let’s ride,” Tom said grinning. “We’ve got a ways to go before we catch up with the wagons.”
Kicking our horses into a ground eating canter we rode the rest of the day without catching the wagons. We did catch up with them midmorning the next day. We actually heard them fifteen minutes before we saw them. To be more accurate we heard the sound of rifle fire.
We left the road, circling to the north cautiously working our way toward the sound of gunfire. We eventually found a small hill between us and the sounds of a gunfight which had grown louder. Dismounting, we climbed the hill, crawling the last few feet to the crest. Peering over the crest, we saw our wagons drawn up in two parallel lines abut one hundred and fifty yards away. Mr. Mendoza, George, Kit, and Martin were hunkered down in the driver’s well, firing outward, at what looked to be ten or so Navajo warriors. The Navajo were on both sides of the wagons, moving through the scrub, and periodically feigning an attack or actually attacking singly or in small groups of two or three.
Gathering a small pile of sand into a mound in front of me, I placed the barrel of my rifle in the middle of it and settled the stock into my left shoulder. Tom followed suit fifteen feet off to my right side with the exception he was firing right-handed.
“You take the ones nearest to us and I’ll take the far side,” I said softly.
Tom simply nodded and began tracking targets through his sights.
I did the same, immediately settling on a target. Crossing my fingers mentally, I slowly squeezed the trigger. My first round was on its way before I knew it. My worry about damaging my right shoulder from the rifle’s kick was unfounded. I’d felt a small twinge but that was it. I’d probably never fire a sniper rifle again, true, but I was no longer worried about using my personal rifle.
In moments, five of the ten Navajo we knew about were down. I rolled over, looking around me, worried that there were more Navajos around that we hadn’t seen. Seeing nothing behind us to worry about, I rolled back over and peered over the crest. The dead Navajos lay were they’d fallen, but the other Navajo had disappeared.
“Where’d they go, Tom?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. They just kind of melted away. One moment I was firing at my last target and the next moment I couldn’t find any of them.”
We lay there, unmoving for the next ten minutes. Tom was searching forward for the Navajos and I was searching behind us. Finally, we both stood up, yelled towards the wagons, and Mr. Mendoza waved us in.
“I was wondering when you were going to show up,” Mr. Mendoza said as Tom and I rode up.
“How did you know we were close by?” Tom asked.
“I didn’t know, but Paul always seems to be nearby when I get attacked,” he replied smiling.
The four of them, along with Tom, quickly rearranged the wagons to five tandem teams, and in less than thirty minutes we were back on our way west.
Twelve long days later, we were pulling off the road with Tom in the lead. While the others drove their wagons behind Tom, I dismounted, tied my horse behind Kit’s wagon, and started doing my best to wipe out any indication we’d turned off the road and then erasing the wagon tracks leading to the arroyo system the goldfield was in. We’d only passed two men going the other direction since we left the area near Arizona City, but as I’d told George, better safe than sorry.
By the time I got to the goldfield, all the wagons were up the ramp, the mules unhitched and hobbled in the tall grassy area, and the men were unloading all the empty boxes from the wagons. The wagons had been set up in two parallel lines with enough room between the two lines for us to make our camp. Using long poles brought expressly for this purpose, we set up the canvas that had been covering the wagon loads, to give most of the camp cooling shade, protecting us from the brutally hot sun. This arrangement left a three-foot gap between the tops of the wagons and the shade canvas so any breeze could flow through cooling us further.
When we were done setting up camp, everyone but George and I were looking around. It was clear they were trying to figure out where the gold was. Although it was late in the day, it was clear they needed to know the secret of the goldfield before they’d settle down and relax.
“Okay everyone, grab a burlap bag and a shovel and follow me,” I said, receiving grins all around.
I lead them back down into the arroyo, stopping in the center. “Tom and I aren’t exactly sure of the extent of the goldfield, but you were driving on it for at least the last five hundred yards. If you would all stand next to me.” I waited for the others to join me then waved to Tom. “If you’ll do the honors?”
Smiling, Tom strode out twenty feet down the arroyo, looked around a few moments, bent over, and dug out a shovel full of sand, dirt, and gold. He went through the familiar sifting motion, showing us all the glittering gold dust falling from the shovel, with the sand and dirt in the process. As expected, Mr. Mendoza, Martin, Kit, and George stood entranced by the show. When he was done, Tom walked back over to us and showed them all the nuggets that remained on the shovel.
“Tom made it look easy, but you’ll soon learn it’s a lot more work than it looks like,” I explained. “There’s no need to dig deeper than one shovel full of dirt. There’s more gold here than we can mine on this trip. We may have to dig a little deeper on future trips, but for now, let’s stick to one shovel deep and then moving on to the next row.
“It’s almost time for dinner, so we’re not going to get much done today. To satisfy your curiosity though, go ahead and dig while I fix our meal. I’ll call you when it’s ready. I’d recommend two of you join Tom where he got that first shovel load of nuggets and the other two go one hundred yards to the east and start digging there.”
Mr. Mendoza stopped me as I turned to leave. “Paul, you’re not planning on making coffee, are you?”
“Et tu, Jose?” I asked mournfully, to the laughter echoing off the walls of the arroyo. “No, Tom is going to make it before he starts digging. Come on Tom.”
“So, what are you going to be doing while we’re digging?” Tom asked as he was filling the coffee pot.
“I’m going to spend my days processing the nuggets. I’ll also do some hunting, so we have fresh meat every few days, and while I’m at it, I’ll scout the surrounding area to make sure no one else is around.”
As it turned out, I only held to that schedule the first week we were there. The second week I switched to hunting and scouting every afternoon, just to get away from the stale sweltering air underneath the canvas.
It was during that second week that George came back to camp carrying two full bags of nuggets. After the first week, the guys decided to take turns emptying partially full bags of nuggets from everyone every hour and carrying full bags up to the camp where I was working on melting them down into bars. This was George’s day and the first time he’d seen me melt and scrape the gold.
“What is that?” he asked, watching over my shoulder as I ran the butane bottle over the molds.
“It’s a steel bottle of gas I picked up back east,” I replied absentmindedly. “The gas burns hot enough to melt the gold without having to build a furnace. It works well, is easy to carry, and means we don’t have to constantly stop digging to gather more fuel.”
“Where did you get it?” he asked curiously.
Damn. Another one of those Oops moments. I never thought about having to explain the butane bottles.
“I picked them up back east,” I answered, consoling myself that it wasn’t an outright lie. I’d bought them at a hardware store in Las Cruces which was in fact east of us. Of course, that was in 2016, not the 1850s.
George absorbed my answer and was silent for a few moments. “What’s gas?”
I finished melting the nuggets, turned off the gas, scraping off the impurities floating at the top of each puddle of gold, and set the mold down to cool before turning to George.
“You’ve never done any mining or been around mines have you, George?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“No, I think we studied mining for a few days at the Point, but I didn’t really have much interest in the subject.”
I was happy to take a break, so we spent the next fifteen minutes talking about what a ‘gas’ is. I gave him the scientific explanation of the different states of matter. I think he left being more confused than when he asked the question, but his curiosity had been satisfied.
That was also the week we were almost discovered. I was leaning back against one of the mesquite and creosote covered hills that ringed the camp, waiting for the last batch of gold bars to cool in their molds. I was enjoying the peace and quiet of a late spring day in the desert. Everyone else was down in the arroyo digging gold and even their quiet voices didn’t make it to where I was sitting.
Suddenly, the mules and horses looked up where they’d been grazing. A few moments later I heard the sound of horses coming from beyond the ring of hills. Listening carefully for a few more moments I heard multiple voices.
Scrambling, I went over to the arroyo and got Tom’s attention by waving my arms. Once I had his attention, I gave him a series of hand signals letting him know multiple men were near the camp. He nodded and started to tell each of the others what was going on in a low voice.
Moving as quietly as I could, I went back over to the camp, scooped up my rifle, and went back to where I’d been sitting. The stamp of horse’s hooves, their impatient snorts, the jangle of their tack, and creaking as men shifted their weight in the saddle, quickly gave away the fact that the men were stopped just on the other side of the hill I was standing behind.
I heard the sound of someone spitting followed by a moment of silence. “Damnit, Pete, are you sure they’re out here? We been riding this area for days and found nothing,” came a tired and irritated voice.
“I’m positive they’re out here somewhere,” came another voice, sounding just as tired and irritated as the first. “We passed them wagons less than five miles from Arizona City and they were the only people we saw the whole trip. You said they never came past you and the rest of the gang or you would have stopped them then.
“We know they didn’t turn around for some reason and head back to Arizona City, or we’d have seen them. We know they couldn’t have forded or floated the wagons across the river, it’s too high and fast for either of those. So, somewhere between where we passed them and where you had the ambush set up, they turned east.
“What I can’t figure out is what happened to the wagon tracks. Them freight wagons are heavy even when they’re empty and these weren’t empty. No, they’re here somewhere we just have to find them. Once we do, they’ll be easy pickings. After all, if the six of us can’t handle five freight drivers we don’t deserve to get rich by being bandits.”
“What you say makes sense, Pete, but after today I’m not going to spend any more time looking for these phantom wagons. Who knows how much we’re losing being out here instead of in our ambush spot.”
“All right, all right, don’t get testy,” came Pete’s voice in response, sounding put off by the apparent leader’s decision. “Let’s get moving then. Maybe we’ll find them just beyond these little hills.”
The horses started moving and I followed them on my side of the hills. Reaching a point directly opposite of where they’d stopped to talk, they kept moving east. Peeking over the crest of the nearest hill, I watched their backs disappear to the east before turning and running back over to the arroyo. Tom and the others were standing next to the bottom of the earthen ramp, rifles in their hands, waiting for me to come back.
“There’s six of them. Bandits from the way they were talking. Two of the men were the ones we passed coming out of Arizona City. They know we’re out here somewhere and want to take our freight. They’ve moved their search east of us.
“You all go ahead and keep digging. I’m going to follow them on foot and make sure they don’t find us accidentally.” Tom stopped me before I could even turn to go.
“You’re not going alone, Paul,” he said running up the ramp to stand in front of me. “Remember your promise to Anna. I’ll go with you.”
I couldn’t do anything but nod my head. I could get away with hunting and scouting by myself as long as I wasn’t more than a couple of hours from camp but going after well-armed men who were hunting me was something entirely different. I’d learned my lesson about promises with Laura. I wasn’t going to break this one, especially as long as I had Tom around to keep reminding me. The others went back to their digging and Tom and I went back to the camp, picked up a full water pack, and headed after the gang of bandits.
Chewing jerky we had in our pockets, we followed the gang for the next five hours. Often times we were within twenty or thirty yards of them and still, they never saw us. Not long after we started following them, I noticed that they had started drifting north of their original search line. In the late afternoon, they finally gave up, turned the horse and rode northwest at a canter. Tom and I followed them another hour to make sure they didn’t turn back. We finally stopped to take a rest and watched all six riders fade into the distance.
It was well past dark by the time we approached the camp. Neither one of us had run like this in the desert for any length of time in a very long time. I was almost exhausted, and it was Tom who let the others know we were coming in.
While Tom gave the others a rundown of what happened, I lay down on my bedroll and promptly fell asleep. The next morning, as I scarfed down my breakfast, I endured the good-natured kidding from the others about being the first one in bed and the last one to get up.
We returned to our normal routine and while the others were digging gold, I was turning gold nuggets into gold bars. The whole time though I was also thinking about the bandits.
I never had been able to come up with a good reason for why there was even a road out here. It wasn’t much of road, true, but it was the usual rutted wagon trail that folks called a road. I’d never seen anything out here and the road dead-ended less than two days ride north of where we were, where the mountains met the river.
Regardless, the ruts in the road seemed to indicate that it was traveled. The gang of bandits seemed to believe that there were enough travelers to make it worth their while to select it as a place to do hold-ups. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that I couldn’t just leave the bandits out there. I had accepted the badge and the responsibility that went with it. I knew what I had to do.
Over dinner that night I explained what I wanted to do and why. Everyone agreed that it needed to be done, but Mr. Mendoza and Martin didn’t agree with them being left behind to continue digging and guarding the camp. They certainly didn’t agree, but they did eventually see the merits of my argument.
Early the next morning Tom, George, Kit and I left camp heading northwest. Kit was on my horse and would do the distant scouting, while the rest of us were on foot. Late that afternoon, we were running over a section of hardpan when we found Kit sitting in the shade of an ironwood tree growing out of a mound of dirt and sand.
“Took you long enough,” he said with a smile. “The bandits are holed up in a camp, on a small bench, overlooking the road, about half a mile from here. They have a good view of the road, both up and down from the camp. They have a fairly large deadfall of rocks set up that will block the road when they trip it. It’s a pretty well thought out plan. The only problem they have is that there are several blind spots behind them.”
Using a finger, he drew a diagram showing the camp, the road, and the rise, pointing out the blind spots and then recommended how we should approach them.
“Sounds like a good plan, Kit,” I said approvingly when he was done. “Tom, you and George take the north side of the rise, Kit and I will take the south side. We’ll travel together on foot from here and split up on the backside of the rise. Thirty minutes after we split up, I’ll introduce myself and ask them to surrender. Please no shooting unless they reach for their guns. I’d like to take some of them alive for the Judge to have.”
They all agreed, and Kit led us silently toward the rise in that funny bow-legged walk all lifelong horsemen seem to have. Circling to the east, Kit quickly found the back of the rise and we split up as planned. A few minutes later, Kit signaled me, and we slowly started climbing the rise. Because we needed to keep silent the climb was a fairly long affair.
We settled into a good spot behind and just to the south of the camp twenty minutes after we’d split up with Tom and George. All six men were seated at a small fire where coffee was apparently kept warm. We’d just settled into position when one of the men got up and checked to see if there was any road traffic before sitting back down.
Besides the six men and six horses we expected to see, we also saw two wagons, two mules, and two additional horses. The eight rock-covered graves behind the camp let us know that the bandits had faced some opposition to their robbery.
I slowly moved twenty feet down from Kit to separate us a bit. We were both prepared to wait another ten minutes before I started anything, but I saw Tom, on the other side of the camp. A quick hand signal that said he and George were in position and ready was all it took to move up our timetable.
I let Kit know the others were in position and then yelled, “US Marshals gentlemen, stay where you are and put your hands up.”
Two of the bandits were pretty fast, smoothly drawing their guns as they stood up, turning towards my voice and firing without seeing me. The other four scrambled for rifles leaning against nearby rocks, before searching both sides for us.
Tom and George took care of the two with pistols, shooting them just a split second after they fired in my direction.
“You’re surrounded,” I yelled. “Lay your weapons down, stand, and put your hands on your head.”
Three muzzleloaders fired in my direction while the fourth, who’d been facing towards Tom and George, swung his rifle in my direction. Four shots rang out from my group in response and the four men died. With all the battles I’d been in, I still found it startling that a battle could be over so quickly.