Authors: Jory Sherman
To the memory of my friend,
Raymond Friday Locke,
who wrote the book on the Navajo
Zak Cody could smell death the way some men canâ¦
Zak's jaw tightened as he looked at the frightened man.
The stench of death clung to the walls of theâ¦
Zak heard the pitiful bleating not long after he enteredâ¦
The lieutenant hesitated, but only for a second or two.
The setting sun gilded the far clouds to a burnishedâ¦
Private Jacobs stumbled back into camp, out of breath.
It is during those post-midnight hours of the nocturnal cycleâ¦
The seam along the eastern horizon parted, and gray lightâ¦
Zak knew that if he didn't act fast, the shooterâ¦
The Navajo brave down in the valley pointed to theâ¦
Randy stood at Zak's feet, nudging the sole of Zak'sâ¦
Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Loomis towered over Captain Jeffrey Vickers. Theâ¦
The transformation of Captain Jeffrey Vickers from soldier to civilianâ¦
Carmody had more questions for his newfound friends. He tippedâ¦
Zak and Jeff left their keys at the front deskâ¦
Before he had finished his whiskey, Zak realized that Leoâ¦
Zak grabbed Jeff's arm and led him between two buildingsâ¦
Clarita ran up to Zak and pulled on his leg.
Zak's hand tightened around the reins. Jorge's horse was stillâ¦
Francisco “Paquito” Mendez wore his short gray hair like aâ¦
Roaming through the dream corridors of his subconscious, Zak wasâ¦
Amid the maze of tracks Zak saw the wheel ruts.
There was another owl call from a different hill. Thisâ¦
When time cracks its whip, a small square of universeâ¦
The stars seemed fixed in place, pinholes in a giantâ¦
The tent walls shivered in the wind. Candlelight threw skulkingâ¦
Zak rose up and struck with the ferocity of aâ¦
Cavalry troops surged into the valley. Rifle fire erupted likeâ¦
ak Cody could smell death the way some men can smell perfume on a woman. He had sniffed both in his life, and sometimes both spelled trouble.
Now he rode through the long shadows of afternoon, a shadow among shadows, following the tracks of unshod ponies, tracks he read like words in a book, like cloud tracings in the sky, like footprints in virgin snow.
Eight ponies, he counted, by their spoor. Eight ponies carrying Navajo warriors who should have been tending corn on a reservation. But that was not the worst of it.
Eight Navajo ponies, yes. But also two shod horses, bringing the rider count to ten strong.
And the mounts wearing iron shoes had not been in the bunch when Zak had started tracking.
Near as he could figure, those two extra horses joined the Navajos sometime during the night before.
And they had come from the east, from the direction of Santa Fe. To Zak, that meant only one thing.
Two white men and eight Navajo savages.
The mix could mean only one thing.
He did not like where the tracks were leading him, nor did he like the numbers of them, the story they toldâof renegade Navajo braves on a mission to some place along the Rio Grandeâ
El Rio Grande del Norte,
the Mexicans called itâa river that rose in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and ran all the way to Texas and Mexico before joining the even bigger waters of the Gulf.
These Navajos knew where they were going, and from the scent in the air that afternoon, they had already gotten to that place.
A place of death.
The hills behind him and the Jemez Mountains, rising up like great ships on a misty sea, basked in lavender shadows, as if resting from a day of molten sun. Along the river the breeze flitted among the cottonwoods, whose leaves shimmied like the spangles on a glitter gal's slinky dress, and doves flew north along the watery highway, their bodies twisting in unison, their delicate gray wings whistling tuneless, disconnected notes in a minor key.
The tracks were hours old. Half a day had gone by since he started reading them out of a swirl surrounding a lone
, where a slaughtered burro lay dead in its traces. The driver was a bloody pile of rags atop the box he had used for a seat, a bullet hole in his chest and his throat slashed to a gaping grin, clear to the spine. One savage swipe, and the blood had gushed out of the man's chest as if someone had emptied a can of barn paint onto his dusty white shirt.
The buzzards had drawn Zak to that place. He had seen them spiraling in the sky on their airy carousels, flapping in from the mountains and the desert. None had yet landed, or the farmer's eyes would have been plucked out like black olives from a jar. The man's flesh had not yet been shredded and there was still warmth on his belly and under his armpits. Dead maybe a half hour, Zak had figured. He should have sighted the Navajos not long after, but his horse had stumbled on a rock and grazed his leg on some cholla. It had taken Zak better than an hour to remove the delicate hairs and rub salve on the tiny holes in the gelding's ankle and hock.
The Navajos had eaten some of the tomatoes and beans the
was taking to market in his cart. They had ransacked the wagon, leaving the uncovered boxes of vegetables to rot in the sun as they rode on to the south. Three hours ago the Navajos had met up with the two men on shod horses, stopped and smoked, pissed, squatted, and set out on a steady course that followed a deep dry creek bed running parallel to the river. Ten men, low and out of sight from anyone passing on the road. He had seen where they all had stopped there, lay their horses down for a time. Turning invisible to any but the most observant. Bedded down and waited, not wanting to be seen.
The white men left traces of cigarette paper and burnt tobacco along their path. Papers clinging to prickly-pear spines and crushed under overturned pebbles, buried under boot heels, stubbed down by toes pressing on hard narrow soles, left tattered and dirty with sand and grit as if in testimony to their
passing. The cigarettes were store-bought, filled with prime Virginia latakia, cured to a sunburnt gold. Moneyed men, he figured, and wondered what he was up against on a mission delegated to him by none other than his friend General George C. Crook.
Zak had the letter in his pocket, folded neatly and encased in oilcloth. The order directed him to proceed to Taos and investigate suspicious predations along the Rio Grande. As usual, his orders were secret and not to be revealed to any person unless absolutely necessary. It was addressed to him by his military title, Colonel Zak Cody. Zak was a civilian, but he was also still in the military, answerable only to Crook and President U.S. Grant.
Zak felt the heat of the blazing sun through the cloth of his black shirt and black trousers. Even his hat was black. His horse, too. His horse was named Nox, the Latin word for “night,” and it was a fitting name for the gelding, whose sleek hide glistened in the sun, like polished ebony or black teak.
There was a cottony sea of sheep grazing on the other side of the river, the herders, with crooked staffs, walking slowly along its edge. Little black-and-white dogs kept the herd together, running back and forth, then sprawling flat with their front paws outstretched like matching andirons, their heads still, but their eyes watching every move of the sheep in their charge.
Then he ran into more sheep on his side of the river, and saw the adobe huts and the gardens with the knee-high corn and bean stakes and red
peppers dangling among the green like miniature piÃ±atas.
And no dogs and no sheepherders that he could see.
Zak loosened the Winchester '73 in its boot and lifted the Colt from its holster so that it was not seated so tight. His eyes glittered as they narrowed and he watched Nox's ears twist into hard cones and stiffen as they tipped forward to catch any alien sound. The Colt was new, a Peacemaker, in .45 caliber, much lighter than the converted Walker he used to carry.
Flies flew at Nox, whose switching tail swept them aside, and those that escaped darted at Zak's head and pestered Nox's ears. Their buzzing made the adobe buildings seem even more silent as he passed near them, heading toward a larger one sitting on a small green hill covered with an irrigated grass carpet. Flowers bordered the house and stood in pots on window ledges, red and purple and yellow, the petals in full bloom.
Zak's gut tightened as he approached the house and saw the dead dog lying on the path that led to the front door. The door gaped open. He saw something flutter just inside, a scrap of cloth, pale blue with a strip of red and yellow symbols running through it.
“Hello, the house,” Zak called, and his voice sounded hollow to him.
There was no answer.
“Hola, la casa
,” he called in Spanish as he reined in Nox at a hitchrail some yards from the dwelling.
He sat there for a moment, listening. Nox's ears
twisted in a half arc, back and forth. His rubbery nostrils quivered as he tossed his head, trying to pick up some intelligible scent.
“Settle down, Nox,” Zak said, his voice soft and low so that only he and his horse could hear the words. Nox responded, and the muscles in his shoulder stopped quivering.
He called out to the house again, and this time, he heard a low moan coming from inside. His temple pulsed with the increase of his heart rate, and he swung out of the saddle, his lean and supple body graceful as a dancer's in its precise and flowing movement.
He wrapped the reins around the weathered hitchrail, turning his head back and forth, his senses alert to any danger from around the adobe dwelling.
Zak drew his pistol and he stepped inside the house, crouching catlike to offer less of a target to anyone waiting in ambush.
“Hello,” he crooned in his bass-timbred voice.
“Â¡Ay de mÃ! Ayudarme
He stood there, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. He looked down, saw the woman's dress just to the right of his boots. She had not been the one to call out. She lay stiff and still, like a broken doll, and he thought she was dead.
Feeble light splayed through the windows, the beams caught in rods. Dust motes flickered in the shafts like ghostly fireflies, and he saw a sandaled foot in one of the parallelograms on the floor. He stepped toward it and saw the figure of a man sprawled on his back, a bullet hole in his sunken chest, his eyes wide open in a death stare, his mouth open in a silent scream.
Zak walked past him, satisfied that he, too, was dead, and then heard a stirring from behind a rustic couch off to his left. He walked over to it and looked behind it.
“Can you stand up?” he asked in Spanish. “I will not hurt you.”
He heard a groan and then saw two hands come up, grip the back of the couch. A second later an old man stood up. His arms shook as he released his grip on the couch. His white shirt was mottled with blood spatter. A red bandanna encircled his neck, and his eyes bulged from their sockets like a pair of billiard balls.
“Who are you?” Zak asked, in Spanish.
“Soy un hombre muerto
,” the man husked. I am a dead man.