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THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE
Randy D. Smith
Sergio Quintero placed a heavy clay pot beside his well and paused to catch his breath. Only twenty more jugs and his corn would be watered for the day. He gazed with pride at a hundred small circles of corn nestled in neat rows down the valley flood plain. Each circle received one three-gallon jug of well water, a ritual that he performed each day while the weather was dry; and it was always dry. Still, the old Mexican was a good farmer and his corn always did well. The little ones would eat well in the winter. With his goats, the jalapenos and his corn field there was always enough for his family and a little extra for the market.
He frowned when he saw the rider approaching along the river. It took only a few moments for him to realize what the rider was. Quintero decided to lower his well bucket and act as though he didn't see him. Perhaps he would ride on.
The rider approached slowly as Quintero carefully poured well water into the jug. "Buenos dias," he said quietly as he stopped his horse within a few feet. "Que pasa?"
Quintero looked up at the rider and smiled broadly. It was best to smile at such men and act as though he was welcome. To show any sign of hostility could mean death.
"Do you speak English?" the rider asked. He was a thin, dirty, unusually tall and lanky Anglo with a broad brimmed, low-crowned sombrero, crude leather shirt and unbleached cotton pants. He wore leather knee-length chaparejos of the Mexican style over Anglo leather boots. His beard and hair were long, dark and unkempt. His eyes, under the shade of his hat, were hunger hollow and tired. His gelding was emaciated and trail weary. Most importantly he was unusually heavily armed with a pair of massive percussion single shot pistols nestled in holsters on either side of his saddle horn, two Colt Patterson revolvers in holsters on his hips, a large Bowie knife in a scabbard across the small of his back, and a large caliber muzzle loading carbine resting across his lap.
"Yes, I speak a little," Quintero smiled. "You are a Ranger?"
"Yes. Do you know a man named Tomaso?"
Quintero thought quickly. To lie to a Ranger and be found out would mean his death. He owed Tomaso, a bandito and everyone in the valley knew it, nothing. He owed the Anglo even less, however. He would try to be clever and hope the Ranger would ride on. "There are many Tomasos," he smiled.
"I am looking for a man of average height and heavy build. He has a long scar across his neck under his left ear."
Quintero could not lie. The description was too good and the Ranger would know later if he found the bandit. "Si, I know this man. He lives with his woman in the canyon to the west."
"Que tan lejos?"
"Only a little ways. The canyon reaches high into the hills. It is the only one. His house is at the back above the spring against a high wall of the canyon."
"Only him and the woman."
"He only took the woman a few weeks ago. There has been no time for children."
The Ranger seemed to relax. He smiled and nodded. "Your corn and your peppers look good. You've got a nice place. Lots of shade and water. I hope all is well for you."
Quintero smiled and nodded, thinking it odd that a Ranger would even care to talk to or compliment a Mexican. "Muchas gracias. Would you care for some food or drink?"
"Thank you, no. I must go on."
Quintero thought for a moment as the rider started away. He decided that this Ranger might be different. Perhaps he was worth helping. "Be careful, senor. Tomaso es un hombre muy malo."
The Ranger held up his mount and turned in his saddle. "Thank you, sir. I know how dangerous he is, but I appreciate the warning.
Sergio Quintero nodded. He thought of the early days just after the revolution when the Rangers came in the night, hung or shot whoever was accused without trial, then moved on. He remembered the beating he took when he tried to help a fellow Mexican being pistol-whipped by an angry Ranger. He remembered how his family had lost its estate after the war with Mexico and how it was Rangers who threw them off the land. He remembered the Gonzales brothers; three of them left hanging by their necks because an Anglo had simply accused them of stealing cattle. He wished he had not warned the Ranger.
* * * *
Tomaso rolled over on his side and felt the bare ass of his woman. She was sleeping on her stomach and there were beads of perspiration on the small of her back. It was hot even in the cool of the night within the walls of his adobe. It was too hot for lovemaking and she would not be agreeable. He rolled on his back and listened to the night sounds.
A form in the corner of the room made a slight movement. Tomaso was startled and spoke swiftly. "Que este?"
A candle was held to the fire's embers and the light revealed the stranger sitting in a chair backwards leaning forward against the back, the candle in one hand, a Colt Patterson revolver in the other. "Don't make any moves, or you're dead."
"Who are you?" Tomaso asked as he sat up and slid his back against the wall.
"Jack Ransom. Mean anything to you?"
Tomaso nodded. "So, Black Jack Ransom, El Tejano Diablo, has come to murder me in the night."
He nodded and a faint smile crossed his face. "Yeah."
The woman stirred as she awakened from her sound sleep.
"Better cover her ass and get your pants on," Ransom said pointing with the barrel of his Colt.
"What for? If I am to die, what better place than here beside a beautiful woman?"
"Where is Rafael?"
"Quien sabe? If I knew, the last man in Texas that I would tell would be you."
The Colt fired and bits of Tomaso's left elbow shattered against the wall behind him. The woman screamed and crawled from the bed to the floor and into the corner. She huddled there screaming in terror.
Tomaso cried out in pain and held his arm.
"Where is Rafael?"
"Pincha caron, perro!" he answered angrily.
The Colt fired and blood exploded from Tomaso's right shoulder. She screamed again and tried to crawl deeper into the corner.
"One piece at a time until I hear what I want," Ransom said calmly. "Where is Rafael?"
"Quit your screaming, woman. You cry like a child," Tomaso yelled.
The Colt fired and Tomaso's left knee splintered into gray bone and bloody flesh.
"Hurts don't it? I wonder how she felt when you raped her and skinned her alive. How do you think she felt when you bashed her baby's brains against the wall of the cabin?"
Tomaso's eyes grew wide. "Was she your woman?"
"Where is Rafael?"
Tomaso nodded. "I see. That is the reason. She was your woman."
The Colt fired and Tomaso's right elbow exploded.
The woman was now quiet, listening, trembling.
Tomaso gasped to catch his breath. The pain was not so bad as shock set in. "For what it is worth, I did not agree with it. He was drunk, and I, and the others. We should have stopped but." He paused. "But I had never seen such a thing done and." He smiled wickedly to take what revenge he could before dying. "She was so beautiful."
The Colt fired and Tomaso's right knee came apart.
"Where is Rafael?" Ransom asked drawing his second revolver.
"You have wasted your bullets, Diablo. I have not seen him in three years."
The Colt fired and Tomaso's head rocked forward, then his body fell from the bed to the floor.
"Didn't waste my bullets. I really didn't think you would know. Even if you did, I knew you wouldn't talk." He sat quietly, staring at the body, replaying the images of Elisabeth and the baby when he found them. After a while he rose from his chair, walked toward the body and spoke to the woman without looking at her. "You need to get out of here. This will be nothing you want to see."
"Did he really do those things?" she asked in broken English.
"I won't hurt you. Get something on and get out."
She slipped on her skirt then her blouse as he stood over the body, waiting for her to leave. "I did not know," she said very quietly.
"I figured as much. You ain't much more than a child yourself."
"I have no place to go."
"You have every place to go. You're just too young to know it."
She quietly slipped out of the door and into the night.
Ransom drew his Bowie and went to work.
END OF SAMPLE
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