Haxan

Issue #13

I found the old man nailed to a hackberry tree five miles out of Haxan, New Mexico. They had hammered railroad spikes through his wrists and ankles. He was stripped so the westering sun could peel the flesh from his bones.

He was alive when I found him.

I got down from my horse and went up to him. His twitching features were covered with swarming bluebottles. I swiped them away and pressed the mouth of my canteen to his parched lips. He took a little water and coughed.

“I can cut you down,” I said. “You might have a chance if a doctor—”

He raised his head. His face was the color of burned leather kicked out of a prairie fire. His eyelids were cut away, his eyes seared blind by the sun.

“Won’t do any good, mister. Been two days. The croaker in Haxan is a knife-happy bastard roped on laudanum half the time. And the tooth-puller ain’t much better.” He spoke slow, measuring his remaining strength. He had a thick Swedish accent. “It was the people of Haxan who did this.”

I tried to give him more water but he shook it off. He was dying and didn’t want to prolong it. “Why?”

“They’re scared. Like children.”

“Of what?”

“Me, and what I know about this place. The voices frozen in the rocks and grass.” His head drooped onto his naked chest. He was losing strength fast. “What’s your name, mister?” he whispered.

“John Marwood.” I had other names, but he wouldn’t be able to pronounce them. Sometimes even I couldn’t remember them all.

“I waited for you, son. I called...but you didn’t get here fast enough. This moment...in time....”

I felt as if I were showered with ice.

“Maybe you can help her instead, Marwood, if you’ve a mind. My daughter, I mean.”

“Let me help you.”

“Thank you for the water. At least you tried.” His head fell back. “Did I tell you it snowed the day she was born?” He gave a long, trembling sigh as if he remembered that day. With a sudden jerk his body slumped forward.

He was dead.

I cut him down and buried him in the shade of the hackberry tree. The sky was purpling in the east when I placed the last stone on top of his grave. An hour of daylight remained. The stirrup leather creaked when I mounted up. It was the only sound in the desert and it carried like a scream.

Through an endless sea of time and dust, in places that might never be, or can’t become until something is set right, there are people destined to travel. Forever.

I am one.

We go where we’re needed. We have names and we stand against that which must be faced.

I had been called here by the dead man. I would serve his wish until I was successful or I died. There was no distinction. For me, and others like me, the two were often the same.

I rode into Haxan, remembering the old man. He was at rest now, but it took a lot of hate to do something like that to another human being.

I knew what that was like, carrying that much hate around until it blew you apart with dry, quiet winds.

Haxan wasn’t much of a town. There was a railhead spur, a long front street bordered by weathered saloons and hotels, and several painted store-fronts. The livery stable was across the wide-open plaza where a central stone well had been dug, surrounded by mesquite benches.

There weren’t many people around. It was still too hot. I found the mayor’s office and went inside. It was cooler here, but only by a couple of degrees.

A blue-eyed man with balding red hair looked up from his paperwork. His hands were split by hard work and fishhooks and his face wasn’t much kinder. “Can I help you, stranger?”

“I’m John Marwood. The War Department sent me.”

He came from around his desk and we shook. “Glad to meet you, John. Or should I say, U.S. Marshall? My name is Frank Polgar. I half-expected you to come in on the eleven o’clock stage this morning.”

“I bought a horse in Las Cruces yesterday and rode in. Wanted to get a feel for the countryside.”

“Good idea. How do you like the territory so far?”

“Not much. I found a dead man five miles south of here, nailed to a tree.”

Polgar’s eyebrows came together. “Who was he?”

“He didn’t give his name.”

Polgar watched me with studied care. “The Navajo are on reservation and peaceful. Apaches, maybe. They get stirred up by the Army once in a blue moon.”

“I don’t think so.” I fished one of the iron spikes out of my grey duster and tossed it down on Polgar’s desk. “Not unless the Apache have taken to pounding railroad spikes into people. It’s been my experience they’re more civilized than that.”

Polgar picked it up and rolled it thoughtfully between his brown fingers. “What are you trying to say, Marshall?”

“Just this. I’ve been in Haxan ten minutes and I already have one murder to solve.”

Polgar showed me the Marshall’s office down the street. Inside was a desk covered with outdated circulars, a bench under the window, an iron stove in one corner with a rusted coffee pot, and a yellowed map of the county nailed to the wall. The rifle rack was empty, but the cells in back were well-oiled and the keys fit the locks.

“I know it’s not much,” Polgar apologized, “but as long as you keep your appointment with the War Department you’ll have room and board at the Haxan Hotel. Are you hungry? Hew Clay and his wife own the place. Hew serves a good beefsteak.”

“Not now.” I put my Sharps rifle in the gun rack. It looked lonely there.

“John, the only person who fits your description of a Swede is old Shiner Larsen. Hard to believe he’s dead. He had a mesquite shack on the edge of town. Kept mostly to himself...while he was alive.”

“Larsen have any family? He mentioned a daughter, but he was out of his head.”

Polgar rapped a hard knuckle against the map rather than answer my question. “Sangre County. Wild and dangerous, all four thousand square miles.” He paused with significance. “You know what Sangre means, don’t you?”

“I do.” Sometimes the very name of a place was strong enough to draw us in.

“John, this county is aptly named. This is a bloody place to live. In Texas, because of the war, cattle are four dollars a head. They can be sold north for twenty. That brings money to Haxan, but it also brings gamblers, drifters and our share of soiled doves.”

“You avoided my question about Larsen’s family, Frank.”

He made a pacifying gesture. “There’s some unhappy history here, and people know that history. It frightens them.”

“Why don’t they leave?”

“Too much money to be had. Twenty years ago Haxan was nothing more than a sun-baked shack in the middle of nowhere.”

“Shiner Larsen’s place.”

“That’s right. Then the railroad built a spur to handle the big cattle drives from El Paso. We get people drifting south from the Santa Fe trail and others going north. A lot of traffic comes through Haxan and it brings money. It keeps us going.”

“What’s the unhappy history?”

“Shiner Larsen came over from Sweden twenty years ago today. When he settled here he named the place Haxan. Haxan is a Swedish name for witches.”

The long purple shadows inched down the street outside my window. Someone lighted a cooking fire in one of the buildings across the way. I could see black shadows moving around inside, but not much else.

“Was Larsen a witch?”

“People thought so, like our town dentist. Others believed he was just crazy.”

“How so?”

“Larsen held there were places on earth where the spirits were tied in knots and couldn’t move apart. He claimed Haxan was one of the places.”

“If it was so bad why did he settle here?”

“I asked him. He said life was like flipping pages in a book. It was a blur until you stuck your finger out and read what was there. Larsen believed he could read what was in the rocks and water and air. I heard him say it was probable Sangre County didn’t exist in some men’s thoughts, but that it was here now because it had to be. And when Haxan needed it the right spirits would come to protect what was worth protecting. Well, he was always talking nonsense. Like I said, people ignored him.”

“But this time someone didn’t.”

“People are superstitious, John. They’ll do anything that makes ‘em feel better. Even murder.” He sighed. “I want you to be aware of the toes you might step on, that’s all. But I want his killer caught, too. Doesn’t look good if something like this goes unpunished.”

“Larsen’s family?”

“He married a Navajo woman when he came to the territory. They had a daughter. His wife died three years later. Last I heard, the girl was grown and living on the reservation.”

“She have a name?”

“Shiner called her Snowberry. Magra Snowberry.”

Shiner Larsen’s home wasn’t much more than a broken down hovel with a dirt roof. It was on a small rise where the creek turned through a field of tumbled boulders. There were a few rows of planted maize for the shoat penned behind the house, but not much else in the way of prosperity.

I let my horse stand and walked up on the house. The sun was down and the sky pocked with stars. There were so many of them it made me feel small.

When I stepped on the porch the front door swung open a crack and the twin barrels of a shotgun centered onto my stomach.

“What do you want?”

“My name is John Marwood. I’m a U.S. Marshall. I’m here about your father.”

“My father is dead.”

“Yes, I know. I’m the one who found him.”

“Step back so I can look at you.” She was standing in the half-dark, but there was enough starlight bouncing off the desert floor to make her out. She had long raven hair tied back with a bit of packing string. She wore a heavy Union coat and buckskin skirt that fell below her knees. She was pretty, but only in that hard way the New Mexico desert makes people.

“You must be Magra Snowberry.”

The twin bores of the shotgun never wavered. “And you must be that new lawman they said was coming. Marwood. I heard people talking about you. Said you worked a lot of bad towns up north in the Montana Territory. Killed men, a lot of men.”

“Only when they needed killing.”

“I recognized you right away. Papa said you would be wearing a grey duster and carrying a Colt Dragoon with a yellow-bone handle, holstered crossways.”

This took me aback. “Your father—”

“Papa had visions,” she explained. “I don’t expect you to understand his ways.”

The eastern horizon sparked yellow fire. The moon was rising fast, owning the desert. There was enough light to see she had been crying.

“Maybe I do understand, Magra. More than you think.”

“I doubt that.” She raised the shotgun and parked the heavy stock on her hip. “What are you doing here?”

“I want to find the men who killed your father.”

“What is his life to you?”

“Law says they have to be punished.”

She looked me up and down. “And you’re the law.”

“I am now.”

She thought for a minute before she swung the door open. “All right, come in.”

There wasn’t much room inside. The mesquite walls were more like a cage than a home. She set the shotgun aside and lighted an oil lamp swinging from a rafter hook. The feeble glow cast awkward shadows on our faces and the packed-dirt floor.

“I have coffee.”

“No, thank you. I’d rather talk about your father.”

Her shrug was lost inside the large Union coat with carpetbag patches on the elbows. “Papa was a good man but he had a lot of Old Country superstitions. People didn’t understand what he could see around us, and sometimes when they weren’t laughing, they got scared.” She watched me with her large, dark eyes. “You said you understood. I’m not sure I believe that.”

There was a chair at the rough-hewn table. I pulled it out and sat down. “Magra, it’s hard to explain, but I’ll try.”

She sat on the other side of the table, her hands folded. “I’m listening.”

“Your father was right about some things. This world—and everything you see around you and everything you can’t see—is like a vast sea made up of crests and troughs. Sometimes a wave raises a person high enough and he can see a long way. I think your father was one of those people. Other times, you’re stuck down at the bottom of a wave where the bad things collect. I think that might be Haxan. And through this sea of time and dust, in places that might never be or can’t become until something is finally set right, there are people destined to travel. Forever.”

“Papa talked about wandering Norse spirits. The Navajo, my people, believe in skinwalkers.”

“No, I’m talking about real people. Flesh and blood like you and me. They’re taken from places they call home and sent into this stormy sea to help calm the waters. It never ends because it’s the storm itself, the unending conflict, that makes the world we know a reality. Along with all the other worlds that could be.”

I had to give her credit. I suppose she was used to hearing wild talk from her father. Whether she believed it or not was another question.

“Marshall, how was my father killed?”

“Someone nailed him to a tree with railroad spikes.”

She closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again she looked older. “Why would anyone do that to Papa?”

“If they thought he was a witch, it stands to reason. A witch can be killed with cold iron.”

“Papa wasn’t a witch. He was only different.”

“I know that, but the people who killed him thought otherwise. Did your father have enemies?”

“Not outright. Like I said, people were wary of him, but that’s all.”

“Scared people do bad things, Magra.”

She shook her head. “I can’t think of anyone who would want to kill him.”

“That’s because you were used to his ways.” I stood up. “You can’t stay here. Whoever killed him is likely to come after you next.”

“Why?”

“If they believed Larsen was a witch they’ll think you might have his powers, being his daughter.” Maybe you can help her instead, Marwood, I thought, if you’ve a mind.

“I was going back to the reservation tomorrow.”

“They’re probably looking for you there now. You can stay in the Haxan House until I run these men down.”

She let out a dry laugh. “Marshall, Hew Clay’s wife won’t let a half-breed sleep under her roof. You don’t know Alma Jean. Anyway, I don’t have any money.”

“Then you can stay in my office. You’ll be safe there.”

“That wouldn’t look right, either. People might talk.”

“Look, I’m not here to make people like me. Tomorrow morning I’m going back to that hackberry tree, see if I can’t cut their trail.”

“You’re going to track them down? Alone?”

“Have to.”

“When you find these men...what are you going to do?”

“Law says they have to be tried. If they’re found guilty they’ll be taken to Santa Fe and hanged.”

“Yes, but what are you going to do?” she asked.

“That’s my business. Now take what you need for a couple of days and nothing else.”

“I don’t have a horse.”

“My blue roan can carry us both.” I picked up the break-action shotgun and opened the breech. It was filled with buckshot: killing loads. “You know how to use this?”

“Papa taught me. He never used it for hunting, only protection.”

“Too bad he didn’t have it with him.” I snapped the breech closed and handed it back. “Keep it. You’re likely to need it before this is over.”

While riding in I asked Magra about her name. “I have a foot in two worlds, Marshall,” she said. “One white, the other Navajo. Papa said I should be proud of both, even if neither one wanted me.”

“He was right, you should be proud.”

“When Papa came from Sweden he had a little money saved. When I got old enough he sent me East to a boarding school. They didn’t want me, either, but I learned how to read and write. Now I teach children on the reservation.”

Her words got me to thinking about my past. What there was to remember. “How did you hear about your father’s death? I found him a couple of hours before I met you. No one in town could have told you in time.”

“He came to me in a dream two days ago. He wasn’t one for writing letters. So he night-walked sometimes to let me know how he was doing. He told me he was preparing to die. I raced back home to see if I could help but I was too late. The house was empty.” She fell silent for a bit. “Why don’t you ask me what you want to ask, Marshall?”

We rode on for a bit. “All right, I will. What did your father say about me?”

“That one day you would come to Haxan because it was a center of things. Because a man like you had to be here, in one way or another.”

We didn’t talk after that. After a while she rested her chin on my shoulder while we rode back to town.

After getting Magra settled I played a hunch and rode over to the livery stable. The night man told me he had rented out a two-seat buckboard with team three days ago.

“Fellow by the name of Connie Rand picked up the wagon. Had a couple of men with him. I didn’t recognize them, though.”

“You know this man?”

“Yes, sir. Conrad Rand. Tall man with white blond hair. People call him Connie, though he doesn’t like that name much. He done something wrong, Marshall?”

“What does he do, this Rand?”

“Not much. Hires out during the week on the big ranches and drinks his wages on the weekend.”

“And the two men with Rand. Can you describe them?”

“Not so good, Marshall. They kept down the street a ways with the sun behind them. But I can describe their horses. I’ve got an eye for horses, even when the sun’s against me. One rode a bay with three black points. The other was mounted on a sorrel mare.”

I made arrangements to keep my horse for the night and rounded the plaza on foot. It was Tuesday so there wasn’t much doing in the saloons. A little bit of music trickled out of one and played around in the night air with a woman’s laugh before they both died out. I checked the horses out front but didn’t see a bay or a sorrel.

I went to the Haxan House and had supper. Magra was right, Alma Jean Clay had a mean, pinched face. Her husband was a little nicer. He said Magra could sleep in the stock room, behind the kitchen.

“Girl can’t help being what she’s born, Marshall. She can stay long as she pays full price. That’ll keep Alma quiet.”

“Fair enough. Bill my office and I’ll see you get paid.”

After eating I brought back food and water for Magra. I found her asleep on the cot in back. She had turned her Union coat backward and was using it as a blanket. I locked the office tight and walked back to the Haxan House at the end of the road. It had been a long day. I was tired.

“Marshall!”

I turned. A boy, eight or nine, was running up the wooden sidewalk. “Mayor Polgar told me to find you. There’s a fire out at the edge of town. Two men are dead. Says you better get out there fast.”

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Davie Peake. My friends call me Piebald seeing as how I got this marking on my—”

“I want you to run to the livery stable and get my horse. Bring him back to my office.”

“You mean Old Sheriff Cawley’s place? The one by the feed store?”

“That’s right.”

“Won’t take me long, Marshall. I can run a hole in the wind when I have to.”

“Then let’s see you do it.”

“Yes, sir!” He disappeared in the night.

I opened up my office and got Magra up. “A man by the name of Connie Rand killed your father. He’s been at your place tonight. Burned your house to the ground and killed his two accomplices.”

“But, what for?”

“Covering his tracks. A dead witness can’t talk. Here’s your shotgun. I want you awake until I get back.”

“Where are you going?”

“Out to your place. You stay here. I’m giving you the keys so you can lock yourself inside. I’ll be back soon as I can.”

I met Piebald outside with my horse. I mounted up and kicked for Shiner Larsen’s place. When I rounded the bend I saw three men watching the night breeze scatter the remaining embers and sparks through the night. Polgar met me as I drew up, his face creased with worry.

“I heard you brought the girl back to town. Good idea. Whoever did this was looking for her.”

“Where are the dead men?”

“Over in that ravine. Shot through the heart, and their throats cut.”

“You recognize them, Frank?”

Polgar shook his head. “People always drift through Haxan. Sometimes they don’t leave.”

“Who found them?”

An older man and his teenage son stepped forward. “Marshall, we were rounding up a stray calf in Gila Canyon when we saw the fire. We found the two dead men and rode in.”

Polgar studied the smoldering embers. “They trampled the corn and shot Larsen’s pig. Why would a person do a thing like that, John?”

I got off my horse and scraped my boot heel across the parallel lines in the dirt. “Buckboard.” I scrambled down the bank of the ravine. I turned the men over to examine their faces.

“Frank, these men were dead long before they were shot. No blood on their shirts even though their throats are cut. Can the doctor in Haxan do an autopsy?”

“Doc Toland? Have to sober him up first.”

“Then sober him up,” I snapped. “I want to know what killed them.” I was standing over the bodies. There was an unusual yet familiar smell coming from them, but I couldn’t place it because the air was filled with dust and swirling wood smoke that stung my eyes. I frowned.

“What’s wrong, John?”

“These men aren’t hired killers.”

Frank drew up beside me. “How do you mean?”

I pointed to them. “They don’t look like someone who would nail a man to a tree.” My stomach filled with ice. “These men were killed to throw us off the scent, Frank. They were probably in the wrong place at the wrong time and nothing more.”

“What are you saying?”

“I think Connie Rand has Magra.”

When I got to Haxan I knew the worst had happened. The street was filled with people outside my office. I rode in among them. They watched me with stoic faces.

“What happened?” I asked them.

A man in the crowd answered back. “They took that little boy, Piebald, and held a Barlow to his throat. Said if she didn’t come out they would kill him. She laid down her gun and they took her away.”

“Why didn’t you stop them?” I spun on the crowd. Their bland faces stared back.

“Why should we take a bullet for a half-breed,” someone remarked. “She ain’t kin to any of us.”

I got off my horse and walked up on the man. The crowd pulled away to give us elbow room. He was doing his level best to hold my stare.

“I’m not armed, Marshall.” He swallowed audibly.

“My God,” someone whispered, “look at his eyes.”

I turned my back in disgust. “Which way did they ride?”

“North east, Marshall,” the first man replied, “toward Cottonwood Butte.”

“What’s your name, mister?” He was wearing striped pants and green suspenders.

“Jake Strop.”

“They have a buckboard, Mr. Strop? With two men riding a three-point bay and a sorrel mare?”

“Yes, sir. And well armed, all of them.”

The saddle leather creaked as I mounted up. “Strop, you’ve just been deputized. You pick three men and meet Mayor Polgar. He’s riding in from Shiner Larsen’s place with two dead men. I want Doc Toland to autopsy them. I want it done before I get back.” I leaned forward in the saddle and glared at the rest of the crowd. “Don’t let me down again. Ever.”

Several men and most of the women dropped their eyes. A couple of hard-noses mumbled under their breath, but no one bucked me outright.

“We’ll do as you say, Marshall,” Strop promised.

I knew I wouldn’t make much time at night, but neither would Rand. I rode out into the country and made a cold camp. By early morning I was riding hard and cut their tracks twenty miles south of Cottonwood Butte. The tracks swung north and I followed them, keeping an eye out for ambush. At the base of the butte the tracks split. The wagon and one set of horse tracks kept going northeast while a single track broke west toward White Sands.

I followed the single track. If I could pick up his horse I would be better mounted to catch the slower buckboard.

By midday I hit White Sands.

It was easy following his tracks through the gypsum drifts. He wasn’t riding hard. He wanted me closing up because he thought he could take me.

The pristine, snow-white landscape was shattered here and there by a clump of yucca or tuft of long grass. But he kept heading deeper into the interior, and before long there was nothing but the serried waves of frozen white sand marching off to eternity.

I topped a dune. It was a bad position because I was silhouetted against the sky. The first shot creased my left shoulder. I spun off the saddle, falling in an awkward way with my gun hand caught beneath me. Before I could turn over he was on top of me and crashed his pistol across the back of my head.

A splash of water in my face brought me back.

He stood with the sun behind him, holding a Barlow knife. His sorrel was standing quietly a good piece away alongside my horse.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I drew the short straw,” he explained. “We knew you would try for the single man first. Didn’t think it would be this easy to take you, though. Maybe you’re not as good as some say.”

I was hogtied, lying on my side. The white gypsum sand was eerily cool, and I was grateful for how it felt against the side of my face.

He grinned at me. “I woke you up because I wanted you to feel this. Ain’t much sport skinning an unconscious man. Especially when you can’t hear him squeal and beg for you to stop the hurt.” He grinned again. “Except, I don’t ever stop cutting once I start.”

He had done a professional job rendering me helpless. My hands were near the tops of my boots and I was immobile.

“Can I have some water?” I asked.

“I don’t waste water on a dead man,” he answered. The blade reflected silver as he started for me.

I rolled over quick, kicking up a flurry of sand and looking over my shoulder for the target. The little derringer from my boot barked twice. Both slugs hit him in the stomach. He dropped his knife and crawled off somewhere to die.

I rolled over and over toward the dropped knife. He might be made of sterner stuff and remember his pistol. He was dying, but he wasn’t dead. Not yet. I worked the blade on the knots best I could, flaying skin. When I had my hands free I loosened the rope around my ankles and got to my feet.

He had made a big mess in the sand, crawling around a dune to hide himself and die in peace. I found my Colt Dragoon on his horse and walked around the opposite side of the dune. He was hunched up, trying to hold his guts in.

“I ain’t armed, mister,” he gasped. “You shoot a dying man who’s unarmed?”

I went back to my horse and dug through the saddle bag for my hand axe. When I went back to the dune he had crawled farther away, leaving a nasty blood trail. Crimson on snow.

My shadow drew up on him.

When I finished I left it for carrion and put what I wanted in an old flour sack. I caught his horse and mine and started out of White Sands. His bullet had cut me, but the blood was staunched and I didn’t have to be sewn up.

It was a long ride out of that white, featureless desert. The pain in my shoulder came in waves, like the dunes of white sand the horses kicked through. Black clouds gathered above my head, then they were behind me, towering.

It was late afternoon when I emerged from the soundless desolation of White Sands. Looking behind me I saw the sky was black with vultures whirling over the feast I had laid out.

I rode his horse into the ground, then got on my blue roan and kicked hard for the horizon. I slowed around sunset to let him blow and walk off his lather. When he had cooled I drove him forward again.

I discovered their camp fire as the moon was making its appearance like an orange lamp. It hung so close to the ground you felt you could touch the face of it.

I let my horse stand, pulled my Sharps from its boot and marched off across the scrub waste. I was way out of Sangre County, that much I knew. It didn’t look like the hard pan and scrag around here could ever amount to anything.

I circled their camp, coming from the east. I found a knoll two hundred yards away and set up the rifle. It was difficult to make out faces from this distance in that light. There were three figures sitting around the fire. I thought one of them might be Magra, but I couldn’t tell.

Time was on my side. They weren’t going anywhere. My .50 caliber Sharps would see to that. I settled down and waited out the night. Before sunrise I made a breakfast of water and hard biscuit.

When a band of red and orange colored the sky behind me I checked the Sharps and raised the sights. The day came on fast. I watched them hitch the wagon while Magra saddled the bay. I recognized her blue coat, but something was wrong. She was taller than before.

I settled down to work. The Sharps roared and the bay dropped. I loaded the single shot action and it roared again. The outside horse on the team collapsed. Another cartridge and the last horse went down, tangled in the traces.

I didn’t like killing the horses this way because it might mean we had to walk out. But I wanted to shock Magra’s captors beyond the ability to think. To let them know they were under the sights of a killing gun, with a merciless hunter on the other end.

The little figures didn’t stand around when this slaughter began. The man wearing Magra’s coat grabbed her and jumped behind a raised hummock of turf. The other man tried to use the buckboard as a screen.

I started pouring rounds through the wagon. It was no match for a .50 caliber buffalo gun at two hundred yards. Given enough time and ammunition, I could chop it into kindling.

It takes a lot of nerve to stick under that kind of fire. My victim didn’t have that much sand. He broke cover and started running across the prairie, firing his six gun wildly in my direction. I cut him down. He was still thrashing on the ground. I put another slug into him. He stopped moving.

There was a stand of silence. The reverberation of my big gun had stilled the land. I could put Rand under the same withering fire but I didn’t want to risk hitting Magra.

I grabbed my flour sack and walked toward their camp, right up in the range of his six. I could see his slitted eyes under the broken brim of his hat and Magra’s cowed head under his left hand.

“You take one more step and I put a bullet in this witch’s face,” he warned. “What happened to Tanner?”

“Was that his name?” I flung the flour sack in Rand’s direction. When the mouth of the sack opened up, Tanner’s head rolled out and came to a stop on the incline of the hummock, staring at the blue sky.

“What kind of man are you?” Rand asked. There was a waver in his voice. “You shot Silas when he was down. You murdered him.”

“That’s right. I did.”

“I don’t want to cross guns with you, Marwood. Let me walk out of here with the girl. I’ll leave her unharmed by that dry wash three miles south.”

“No deal.”

“We were paid one hundred dollars in gold to kidnap her. We could keep or kill her, our choice. The d–,” he stopped, “the man who bought our guns in Haxan said that was the bargain. I’ll give you all the gold double eagles I have. Just let me walk out of here with a whole skin.”

“No.”

He cocked his revolver. “I’ll kill this girl, Marwood. I’ve never killed a woman before, but I’ll do it. Her death will be on your conscience.”

I put my rifle aside. “Stand up, Rand.”

“Marwood, listen to me, I–”

“I said stand.”

He rose to his feet, the gun held to Magra’s head. Her face was bruised and her doeskin dress torn. She had been given an old pair of pants to wear. They hadn’t been gentle with her while they kept her. I didn’t expect they would. These kind of men never were.

“I was doing what I was told, Marwood.” The wind blew through his white blond white hair.

“So am I.”

“I don’t want to pull on you.”

I didn’t say anything.

He watched me for a long time. His face changed in a subtle manner. He was cornered. The only way he would live was if he shot his way out. He already had his gun free while my Colt Dragoon was holstered. All the odds lay on his side.

He was good. His expression never flickered and his eyes remained steady. He flung Magra aside and started to draw a bead on me. My first shot hit him in the head, and the second center-cut his heart.

Magra was standing alone, trembling. Her hands were pressed over her face. I walked up to her and said soft, “It’s over, Magra.”

She removed her grimed fingers from her face. “They said someone in town paid to kill Papa and kidnap me.”

“I know.”

“They never said a name.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I already knew who’d hired them.

“They.... I–-” She swallowed hard. “I’m glad you came, John.”

“Can you walk? I’m camped over that next rise.”

“Don’t you want their money? Connie kept it under the seat of that wagon.”

I gave her a sidelong glance. “Why would I want their gold? Unless you want it.”

She had a sick, angry look. “I don’t want anything from them, ever again.”

I took her hand. “Then let’s go home.”

Two days later we were back in Haxan. We rode in slow because I thought Magra needed the time. At one point she said, “I knew you were coming for me.” The firelight from our campfire looked pretty on her broad face. “Papa came to me last night and said you were nearby, hiding in the dark.”

“Must have been good to have that kind of comfort.”

“It was.” She hugged her knees and rocked back and forth. “I think that’s the last time he’s going to visit me, John. I got the impression he felt, well, it was because you were here that he didn’t need to watch over me anymore.”

“I hope that’s right, Magra.” She gave me her first smile and pulled a blanket over her shoulders. The night closed down around us.

She turned in her blanket. “John...where are you from?”

I smoothed back her hair. “It’s a place you’ll never have to visit, Magra.”

“That sea of time and dust you spoke of?”

“Mostly.”

“He called you here, didn’t he? Papa.”

I looked into the fire. “I never know that, Magra. Sometimes I think I can call myself and that’s why I go where I’m needed. I just don’t know.”

“But you’re here now. And maybe not just for me, but for a lot of other reasons you don’t know.”

I tucked the blanket around her shoulders. “Time to go to sleep. Let yourself heal.”

When we finally arrived I dropped her at the Haxan Hotel and went to meet Doc Toland for the first time.

Frank Polgar was there, waiting. Word had spread fast I had returned with Magra, and he probably figured I would want him around.

“How’s the girl?” Polgar asked.

“It’s going to be a long time before she’s ever right again,” I told him. “They hurt her bad.”

He shook his head with sadness. “I’m sorry to hear that. They had no cause to treat her that way. She never hurt nobody. John, this is Dr. Rex Toland. Doc, this here is our new Marshall, John Marwood.”

Toland was a spindly, narrow-faced man with grey mutton chops and rheumy brown eyes behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. He wore a dust-laden black frock coat. “Glad to meet you, Marshall. I guess I’ll have to remit my autopsy fees through your office?”

“That’s right. What did you find?”

“Those men died in a bad way. Poisoned until their kidneys shut down and failed. Their stomachs were full of–”

“Oil of cloves.” That was what I had smelled on their bodies that night. They must have been held down and forced to swallow, but some had spilled on their clothes.

“That’s right, Marshall.” I had impressed him with my deduction. “Nasty way to die. The stuff also has a medical name. Eugenol, it’s called.”

Polgar looked my way. “John, there’s only one man in town who uses that stuff in any kind of quantity.”

“I’ll go pick him up, mayor.”

“You want some help?”

“No, I’ll take care of it. It’s my job.”

I walked outside on the street. The morning sun was hot and there was dust in my throat. A few women and children lounged around the water well in the plaza. I hadn’t been back long, but word had gotten around fast. I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet him running out the door when I went through it.

I slammed the door behind me. The little wooden plate, with the words “Josiah Hartleby: Dentist” burned into it, rattled against the glass pane with alarm.

I had caught him packing. He had a threadbare carpet bag stuffed half full of odds and ends, along with a few shirts that needed laundering and a pair of striped suspenders.

“Sir, I’m closed for the day. You’ll have to come back another–-” He saw me and his face paled.

“You have to answer for Shiner Larsen, tooth-puller.”

He had sense enough not to try and talk his way out of it. He was a smallish man with a long chin and pale, freckled hands.

He drew himself up to his full measure, what there was of it. “And why not? Why shouldn’t I have that crazy old Swede killed? Being a dentist is a hard enough trade. People don’t like dentists much and his slander wasn’t helping me eat. Besides, I was willing to marry that Navajo daughter of his but he wouldn’t have it. Said I was no good, that she didn’t need the likes of me because one day he would call a man out of the dust of time to protect her. He wouldn’t even broach the subject with her. He was crazy, so I made arrangements to have him pushed out of the way. Told the men to teach her a lesson, too, since I couldn’t have her to myself. The way I see it, I did this town a righteous favor in the name of God. If you know anything about the history of Haxan you know that much.”

“Law says you have to pay, Hartleby. You’ll get a trial. Then you’ll be hanged.”

“I was losing money and respect!”

“You had enough money to hire three cold-blooded killers. Think about that. And I’m not sure you had much respect to begin with, seeing how you wanted Magra treated. No, I think you’re a man who let his hate get away with him. It happens.”

His mouth worked a bit before he spit indignation. “I don’t like your tone, Marshall, or your insinuations about my character.”

“I don’t much care. Come on, I’m taking you in.”

His hand stole for the carpet bag.

“Don’t try it, Hartleby.”

“I won’t hang, Marshall.” He was facing the street. If he fired he might hit someone outside. I had to get him first.

“Don’t pull on me, Hartleby. You’ll never live to see your own hanging if you do.”

He wasn’t hearing me. He was listening to the hate that bellowed in his heart. His hand flashed and our guns roared at the same instant in the cramped room. He slumped against the wall and left a smear of red.

I kicked the smoking Walker from his hand and went outside. Polgar and Doc Toland were there to meet me, blinking in the sun.

“Haxan’s going to need a new dentist,” I told them.


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Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over sixty short stories and articles. His fiction has appeared in various print and online magazines such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many others. His interviews with notable science fiction and fantasy writers can be found at Strange Horizons and his new novel Haxan, set in the same worlds as his stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, was published by CZP/HarperCollins in 2014, and the next Haxan novel, Quaternity, was published in 2015. Mr. Hoover currently lives in Dallas, TX but you can reach him, and read more about Haxan and the characters who live there, at kennethmarkhoover.com.

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10 Comments on “Haxan”

10 Responses to “Haxan”

  1. Guest says:

    03-26-2009, 01:04 PM
    Guest

    Great story! The prose was clear and vivid. It was nice to read a Western with such an interesting slant.

  2. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    03-26-2009, 01:34 PM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Thank you very much, I’m glad you liked it. I have some added content, character sketches, on my Haxan webpage you also might like. Here’s the link if you’re interested: http://kennethmarkhoover.com/haxan

    And thank you for your kind words about the story. I’m glad you found it vivid and liked the unusual slant, I was really trying for that. :)

  3. Guest says:

    03-27-2009, 10:22 PM
    Guest

    :) Haxan

    Great story, would like to hear more of these characters in more stories about the town of Haxan. Would really like to hear more about Magra and if she developes any powers of her own. Possibly more adventures of Marwood and more detail on his travels (and how he travels) would be great tales. Also, Marwood seems to have a good connection with his horse as heroes in Westerns should. Very nice character names also, very creative, I especially liked the punny character name, Jake Strop. If Marwood ever picks up a stray dog for a companion a good name for the dog might be Bogie (just a suggestion). Keep up the good work Mark.

  4. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    03-28-2009, 07:53 AM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Haha, thank you, I’m happy you liked the story. I don’t think Marwood will be picking up any stray dogs, though, haha. But you never know. ;P

    I’m glad you liked the character names. And funny you should mention it, but seeing more about Magra and what she’s capable of is actually something I’ve been thinking about.

  5. Guest says:

    03-30-2009, 12:41 PM
    Guest

    Well Done

    Well Done. I enjoyed reading this story. Keep it up.

    -Weston Ochse

  6. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    03-30-2009, 01:05 PM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Thank you very much. I’m flattered you enjoyed the story. :)

  7. DFowler says:

    03-31-2009, 01:32 PM
    DFowler

    First Hangman now Haxan, I’m really enjoying the western themes. This story begs for more. Can we hope for another John Marwood story in the future?

  8. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    03-31-2009, 02:56 PM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    I’m very glad you enjoyed it so much. Thank you for your comment. I hope to write lots more about Marwood and the town of Haxan. :)

  9. MG_Ellington says:

    04-03-2009, 12:32 PM
    MG_Ellington

    Haxan History

    I love your work. Haxan is a terrific story. I love the feeling it creates when I read it. From the onset, I know this will have a western feel to it. Yet, if I didn’t know it, you do a wonderful job of getting me there. I am glad to know you have plans for these characters.

    Can you tell me a bit about what brought you to Haxan?

    I know this story is the foundation of a series. Do you think you will eventually take the characters somewhere besides Haxan?

    MG Ellington

  10. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    04-06-2009, 09:32 AM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    I don’t see this series going anywhere other than in Haxan, really. It’s one thing to have Marwood think about his past, but to tell complete stories about that would dilute the Haxan world itself, imo.

    I wanted to write a Western in which I used dark fantasy to describe what the West was really like. I wanted to show what the West was, with believable characters, other than the cartoonish “Westerns” you see so often on television that get everything so wrong. The real West was not a romantic place. It was brutal and violent. I wanted to show that using a dark fantasy setting with characters I hoped the reader would care about.

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