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Authors: Larry D. Sweazy

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BOOK: The Coyote Tracker
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“She disappeared?”

“Yes. Again. I didn't kill that blond girl, I swear to you, Wolfe. I swear on my parents' graves and my sister's soul. That cowboy did, I'm sure of it, but nobody believes my story.”

“I'm sorry, Scrap. I really am.”

“Can you help me, Wolfe?”

“I'll do everything I can,” Josiah said. “I owe you that, and more.”


The crowd was starting to break up as Josiah left
the jail. There was no sign of the posse, Sheriff Farnsworth, or any of his men, outside of the two deputies standing guard at the new entryway created by the blast.

The Black Hole of Calcutta nickname was now a literal reference to the jail's structure. Josiah was surprised that there wasn't any more apparent damage to the building. It was obviously a fortress, durable with its brick and stone facade, but the interior of the building must have been stronger than normal to have survived the explosion, too.

In its entirety, the jailbreak had taken less than five minutes. It was a masterful undertaking, and from the look of the exterior, the crew behind it obviously had experience with detonations, which meant one of two things to Josiah: They were miners, or they had been in the military. Considering the note in his pocket and the cipher it had been written in, he suspected the latter. No matter the circumstance, everything always seemed to lead back to the war. Though the use of dynamite as a regular explosive was a more recent development, Josiah was betting the men who orchestrated the break were army men, through and through. He would have just about bet his life on it.

It was amazing how quickly life got back to normal on the streets of Austin after such a dramatic event.

A Butterfield stagecoach passed by. The boardwalks were full of people walking to and fro, chatting, laughing, not paying any attention to the world around them. The giddiness of a fine day was intoxicating, a tonic to wash away the worst events and darkest memories. If only it lasted.

A smell from a nearby restaurant greeted Josiah's nose. Simmering beans and a waft of fresh cooked beef made him realize that he had not eaten since breakfast.

Regardless of Scrap's dire circumstance, life for everyone else, including Josiah, was moving on.

With a mind full of questions, and an empty belly, Josiah headed toward home, sure that he needed to think things through before doing anything else. Searching out Captain McNelly would have to wait until tomorrow.

* * *

“Wolfe, wait!” a man yelled out, pushing out of the
door of a barbershop, about a block and a half from Josiah's house.

Josiah recognized the man immediately, and had had more than one run-in with Paul Hoagland, a reporter for the
Austin Statesman
since he had moved to the city.

Hoagland was a short bit of a man with a long, pointed rodent nose, bushy eyebrows, and a skittishness that was not immediately apparent but was always there nonetheless, whether in the tapping of his impatient foot or the darting of his eyes. It was like Hoagland was always on the lookout for a predator that was about to swoop down from the sky and eat him.

The reporter wore a tattered bowler, wire-frame glasses, and usually had an unlit, thin cigar dangling from his pale lips. His skin was the color of the white, salty ground in and around the San Saba River, and he smelled like he was slowly rotting from the inside out, like a piece of meat left out in the sun too long to dry. Josiah was surprised there weren't any maggots crawling all over the man. He was repulsed by him.

Josiah acted like he didn't hear the man, or see him for that matter, and kept on walking, picking up his pace just a bit, but knowing that unless he broke into a full run, the exercise of trying to escape the reporter was futile.

Hoagland was as persistent as a hungry rat, and, as expected, he chased after Josiah, with shaving cream globbed to the right side of his face and a white barber sheet still fastened to his neck, flying behind him like a gentleman's evening cape.

“Wolfe, stop. I've got a couple of questions for you.”

Now people were staring at Josiah, perhaps recognizing him from his own recent troubles. His face reddened, and he clinched his fists as he came to a stop and turned to face the reporter.

Of course, most people knew Paul Hoagland, too. He had plenty of his own legendary tales, which he promoted continually around town to boost his image, and his access to anyone he might need a story from.

“What do you want, Hoagland?” Josiah asked.

Paul Hoagland stopped a few feet from Josiah, ripped off the sheet, and wiped away the shaving cream from his face as best he could.

“Another Ranger is in trouble for murder, care to comment?”

“There hasn't been a trial yet, Hoagland. Ranger Elliot is accused of murder, not guilty of committing a murder. I would hope that you would keep your facts straight before you go prematurely condemning a man and unnecessarily damaging his reputation.”

Hoagland smiled, exposing a chipped front tooth. “Are you lecturing me on how to do my job, Wolfe?”

“I'm asking you to be a professional, sir, and not parade a man's guilt in front of the public until it has been determined. I've been a victim of your pen. I know its sting.” Josiah swept his hand out, motioning to the people passing by. “These fine folks think I, myself, have no respect for the law, that I am nothing more than a renegade Ranger—thanks to you.”

“It's just business, Wolfe. Nothing personal.”

“Says you.”

Hoagland scrunched his shoulders, signaling an end to the argument. “So you have no comment to make about the most recent string of murders of, how should we say this delicately, soiled doves?”

“What would you say just between two men?” Josiah asked.

“I doubt the topic would come up. The murders are of no consequence to most of the fine citizens in this town. One dead whore is one less scourge on society.”

Josiah drew back a bit, having not expected Hoagland to reveal anything about himself, or how he felt about society as a whole.

“I'm only aware of the murder Ranger Elliot is accused of, and that only recently. There've been more?”

“Four in the last month, to be exact.”

“Ranger Elliot has been riding with the Rangers in South Texas. He was nowhere near Austin, so he can't be linked to the other three. Is that what you're up to? Making this an issue because a Ranger's involved and now people will pay attention to what's happening in the back rooms of the saloons they wish didn't exist in the first place?”

“I'm just doing my job,” Hoagland said. “Murder is murder no matter the state of the victim's social standing.”

“Well, at least we can agree on that.”

Hoagland didn't miss a beat, didn't seem interested in building a camaraderie with Josiah, and that was just fine by Josiah.

“How do you know Elliot was where he said he was?” Hoagland asked.

“I was riding with him, that's how. We spent a good deal of time together in Corpus and beyond, on a mission issued by Captain McNelly.”

“You were with Ranger Elliot the whole time you were away from Austin?”

Josiah hesitated but had to answer truthfully, even if he was just talking to a newspaper reporter. “No.”

“Then the question still remains open.”

“What question?”

“Whether this Ranger killed one whore, or four.”

People pushed by Josiah and Hoagland, paying them little mind now. Josiah felt like he had been trapped, outwitted by a much smarter man. No matter what he said, he was just making things worse for Scrap.

“We're done here, Hoagland,” Josiah said. “Why don't you just leave me and my friends alone?”

The reporter smiled again, only this time it was just a feigned flash of cruddy teeth, a twisted sneer that was not hospitable or humorous. “I will leave you alone when you quit giving me so much to write about, Wolfe. And not until. Or, perhaps, you should learn to pick your friends better. Maybe I'll stop writing about you then.”

* * *

The smell of a simmering stew greeted Josiah's
nose as he walked into his house. He was so angry at Hoagland that he had forgotten he was hungry. It was a moment of comfort, a greeting that he longed for every minute of the day when he was away, whether it be on a trip into town, or on the trail with his company of Rangers. Scrap was right to be envious of his home, as far as Josiah was concerned. It was the one constant in his life: a safe place, where all pretenses and threats were left at the door. Or so he hoped.

Ofelia was standing in the kitchen, her back to Josiah. Lyle was sitting at the table, waiting patiently, an empty bowl in front of him, a freshly baked loaf of uncut bread sitting on a platter just out of his reach.

The boy grinned when he saw Josiah walk in the door, but he did not jump down or run to him like normal. Instead, Lyle looked away and dropped his head.

There was no question that there was trouble in the air. Something was wrong.

Josiah hung his hat on the hook on the wall, then unbuckled his gun belt and hung it next to his hat—it was high enough that Lyle couldn't reach it.

“I was waiting on you, señor,” Ofelia said, stirring a pot, still not turning around.

There was a slight spicy smell to the stew, but it would be a pleasure on Josiah's tongue. He had grown comfortable with Ofelia's flavor of cooking.

“I'm sorry I was longer than I planned. Is everything all right?”

Yo era malo
,” Lyle said.

Josiah frowned at the boy. “What?”

“I was bad.”

“What'd you do?”

“He ran off, Señor Josiah. Right out into the street. Vamoose. I look up, and he was gone,” Ofelia said, turning around, a long wooden cooking spoon gripped tightly in her hand.

A long scratch ran down the side of her face, a red streak surrounded by a bruise the size of an apple that was not fully ripe. “I fall down trying to catch him.”

It had been a long day, and the last thing Josiah had expected to encounter when he came home was this kind of trouble. He instantly felt a white-hot wave of anger dart up his neck and travel quickly to his hand. Without his realizing it, his hand immediately clinched into a hard fist.

Josiah took four quick, giant steps and was suddenly standing over Lyle, his arm raised, ready to strike the boy. “You hurt Ofelia.”

Rage had taken hold of Josiah. The wounds on Ofelia's face struck a nerve deep within him. For a moment, Josiah didn't even know where he was.

“Stop!” Ofelia screamed. She had quickly inserted herself between Josiah and Lyle. One second she was across the room, and the next she was in between Lyle and Josiah, protecting the boy.

Lyle drew back, his blue eyes open wide, showing an ocean of fear and uncertainty.

Ofelia's movement and reaction startled Josiah. “He can't keep running off like that, damn it.”

“Please do not swear, Señor Josiah, I know you are angry.”

“I will swear, damn it, it's my house. The last time he ran off, he almost got sucked under a train and killed. He hurt you. He's going to hurt himself.” Josiah looked into Ofelia's soft brown eyes. They were brimming with tears, pleading. He dropped his hand but did nothing to push away his anger.

Instead of hitting Lyle, Josiah yanked him out of his chair. The boy slumped to the floor, trying to keep his butt out of range. “Stand up,” Josiah demanded, as he pulled Lyle to his feet.

Por favor, no
,” Ofelia whispered. A tear fell to the floor. “It is my fault, I should have paid closer attention.”

“He's not a baby anymore, Ofelia. He needs to understand that there are consequences for acting bad, for hurting other people.”

The look on Ofelia's face was a mixture of grief, fear, and pain.

Josiah had to look away or she was going to find a way into his better nature. “I'm sorry, Ofelia, he has to learn.”

Before Ofelia could object, Josiah swatted Lyle on the behind.

As far as Josiah was concerned, it was not a hard hit, just hard enough to let Lyle know he meant business.

Lyle screamed like he had been hit upside the head by a rock.

Ofelia quickly kneeled down to comfort the boy, but it was Josiah's turn to intervene. “No,” he said. “Lyle. Tell Ofelia you're sorry, and then you go on and take yourself to bed.”

With red eyes, and tears rolling off his puffy cheeks, Lyle stood still, staring at Josiah like he didn't hear a word.

“To bed, now!” Josiah yelled.

Lyle took a deep breath. Bubbles popped out of his nose, and he wiped them away with the sleeve of his shirt. A look of resignation fell over his face. “Sorry, Ofelia. I din't mean to hurt you.”

Està bien.
It is all right.”

“To bed. Now,” Josiah said, pointing to the bedroom.

Lyle nodded and trudged slowly to the door, looking back only once.

Josiah had not moved, was pointing like he was a statue. Rage still flowed through his veins, but the first hint of questioning and doubt was starting to rise from the back of his mind, wondering if he was creating fear, love, or respect in his son. But all he had to do was look at the marks on Ofelia's face, and that doubt was quickly erased from his mind.

There were consequences for not taking other people into consideration, for causing harm. There had to be. It was the way the world worked, even for a little boy.


The tiny flame in the hurricane lamp fluttered,
casting a slow, dancing shadow on the wall. Night had fallen slowly, settling in like a dark prison outside the house. Inside, it was as quiet as a tomb. There was no ticking of a clock, or scratching of a mouse along on the floor; nothing, it seemed, wanted entrance into the house after Josiah's earlier outburst.

To kill time, since it was too early for him to go to sleep, Josiah sat at the table staring at the note left behind by Abram Randalls at the jail. If that were really the case. There was no sure way for Milt the deputy to know positively that Randalls had left the note there at all. It could have been left behind by the previous occupant of the cell for all Josiah knew, or the ten before him. It was hard to say. Milt seemed pretty sure the note had come from Randalls, but he never said how or why he was so certain.

Regardless, the cipher intrigued Josiah; his attention was drawn to the puzzle like a drunkard is drawn to beer or whiskey.

It had been a long time since he had engaged his mind in the matter of un-jumbling letters so they made sense, and it was a distraction that could not have come to him at any better time.

Not only the incident with Lyle was weighing heavily on his mind, but so was Scrap's situation, and of course, so, too, was his own relationship with Pearl Fikes. And then there was his ultimate status with the Rangers; his future was at stake in more ways than one, in more ways than just matters of the heart.

If he did not ride with Captain McNelly's company, then honestly, Josiah was not sure that he would continue to live in Austin. City life was like a new, odd-fitting suit that still did not feel comfortable on him. The only way to shed the suit was to leave it, if it came to that. And at the moment, leaving the city certainly was a consideration, but not one he wanted to dwell on.

The cipher would have to do as a distraction.
The future could wait
, he thought. But no matter how long or how deeply Josiah looked at the piece of paper, he could not focus on it, could not corral his thoughts on what the jumble of letters meant. His mind kept wandering to the recent past—he knew he was questioning himself, his actions, not only with his son, but with everybody he came into contact with. For some reason, he could not help himself; discipline was lost to him.

Lyle had not been allowed to whimper or beg for any undue attention after he was sent to bed without dinner. His punishment had been swift and certain, and Josiah knew no other way to be a father to the boy than to show him the error of his ways. Enforcement of the sentence, to bed without dinner, had to be strict and without waver. It was one of the ways Josiah had been taught right from wrong.

Ofelia had finished up her duties, remaining quiet throughout. When she left the house just before dark, she barely spoke a word to Josiah and avoided looking directly into his eyes. She scurried off without her normal promise of returning the next day, and the air and attitude she left behind in her wake was cold with disappointment and judgment.

Whether he'd handled the situation with Lyle correctly or not was yet to be seen.

The only thing that Josiah knew for certain was that it was not the last time he would have to confront his own rage and restrain himself from whipping the boy directly, and harshly. He had been shown that kind of correction, too, as a boy, and he wondered now if any kind of physical punishment was right and just, if the beatings he'd taken at the hand of his own father had had an effect on him that made it easier to pull the trigger when he was in danger, instead of looking for another outcome.

Still, discipline had to be enforced. Lyle could not be allowed to hurt anyone. And Ofelia, regardless of Josiah's need and respect for her, did not have the final say in how Lyle was raised.

There was no question that he needed Ofelia, that she was a big part of his life, and an even bigger part of Lyle's. His dependence on Ofelia was one of the reasons why he was courting Pearl. And the reasons were many, beyond his physical attraction to her and his need to have a normal life for himself and Lyle—but even that relationship looked precarious. He could not see a time in the immediate future when he would consider taking Pearl as his wife. Neither of them was ready for that. Maybe in a year . . . or longer.

Josiah stared at the paper again, thought about Randalls's lack of enthusiasm for the jailbreak, then stared upward at the ceiling.

No amount of focus could keep his mind occupied.

There was no apparent reward in deciphering the message left at the jail, other than gaining favor with Rory Farnsworth, and that in itself bore little currency. There would only be need to curry favor with the sheriff if it could help Scrap. And at the moment, the jailbreak and the murders didn't seem to be related.

Now, as the darkness of the night deepened, and silence surrounded him even more fully, Josiah had nothing left to absorb his attention except the cipher.

It didn't matter if it belonged to Randalls or not. What mattered was finding a solution, a trail of wandering thoughts focused on a fixed point, notching off incorrect assumptions, one thing leading to another, until the emotion of the night was far behind him.

The joy of success would be minimal, a silent victory, if Josiah was able to determine what the note said. There would be no celebration of the promise of Scrap's freedom. The only glory would be the knowledge that an age-old skill had been revived and not forgotten. The haunting of the war came in many different forms.

Josiah picked up the pencil next to the note and fixed it securely between his fingers.

Mass production of lead pencils was a recent occurrence, beginning after the War Between the States had ended, with the convenience finding its way quickly into everyday life. Josiah now couldn't remember a time when pencils weren't close by even when pencils were rare. Reading and writing were a gift of his mother's patience and insistence that had seen him through the better part of his life—an offset to his father's stern and demanding nature.

Josiah was able to naturally understand the rhythm of words, the correct location of letters when paired with each other, without much effort at all. Reading and writing were a matter of survival to him and not a matter of education or being stuffy about such things, like he found Rory Farnsworth to be.

He stared at the letters with as much focus as he could muster, trying to make sense of them, trying to see some kind of pattern, trying to understand the foundation of the cipher:




Several different style codes had been used during the War Between the States, and since Josiah's reading and writing skills were apparent to everyone who encountered him, he had been quickly set upon by the leading officers of the First Texas Brigade to learn the art of writing and decoding ciphers.

The cipher before him looked similar to the codes used by all of the Confederacy to communicate between officers and camps about troop movement, supply routes, and attack plans. This one looked like a Vigenere cipher, which was a pretty simple structure, for the most part; one letter stood in place for another. An A was really a B, etc. But in reality, the simplicity of the cipher was also what made it so difficult to understand. Figuring out what letter stood in another's place was far more difficult than it seemed.

The first part of the pattern that jumped out at Josiah was the pair of double Ps.

There was no separation for words, so it was hard to say where the double letters sat in the sentence. If he knew that, it would be a great help. But whoever wrote the cipher was not intent on making it an easy one to read.

The double Ps could have been any letter. Ts or Es or Ms. Vowels or consonants. At this point, there was no way to tell. He didn't think the double letters were the beginning of a word. So, maybe they were at the end of a word. He wrote down the letters and separated them:




Interestingly, as usually happened, a word appeared. Or he assumed it was one, though he could have been wrong. Double letters in the position they were placed in a single four-letter word would have been rare. There was no dictionary to refer to.

Now Josiah noticed something else. An M was in the same place in comparison to the Ps in both instances. More of a pattern showing itself. The Ps weren't a vowel, so the M probably was.

All he needed was one more letter to help show him the way, a light at the end of the tunnel of ignorant darkness to shine on the solution.

As he fully focused now, the house around Josiah and the silence of it fell completely away, taking with it the confrontations, disappointments, and explosions of the day.

Josiah decided to mark the PPs as two Ls because it made sense to him that two words could possibly end that way. From there, he settled on an A to be the vowel. Words like “ball” and “call” came immediately to mind. Maybe they fit, maybe not—but nothing more jumped out at him. So he settled on the idea that the code was truly a Vigenere cipher and refocused on the LLs. If he moved the PPs back one letter, they would be OOs. Back two letters and they would be NNs. Three and they would be MMs, and finally, a break, four letters moved back would be LL.

Josiah could feel his heart racing. He knew he was close to solving the cipher. Now if his theory worked on the rest of the letters, he would have the answer in no time. So he worked the formula on the one word that he was fairly certain of, OMPP, and came up with KILL.

He sat back and breathed a sigh of relief, twirling the pencil among his fingers. That light at the end of the tunnel came rushing at him. Success for the sake of success was at hand.

It took Josiah less than a minute to work out the rest of the cipher, now that he knew with greater certainty that the formula was true. The note Milt the deputy claimed to have found in Abram Randalls's cell said:



BOOK: The Coyote Tracker
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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