The two bounty hunters lit a fire and prepared food. They sat apart, their backs against a fallen tree and watched as the sun sank deeper, turning the sky a deep blood orange. Shoots Plenty stood and threw more wood on the blaze, sparks flew up in firefly showers and flames roared, streaming in the wind like a torn red and yellow flag.
“Are you ready to hear the story told to me by my grandfather on how the catfish got flat heads?
“I don’t care how catfish got flat heads. I have more important things to worry about, like Liam McCloskey. He is another one with a $500.00 reward on his head, as there should be. He and his boys chopped off the head of the sheriff of Alamogordo, New Mexico. The sheriff’s name was Clay Tiswell. Captain Smith said they put his head on a post in front of the Sheriff’s Office to warn everyone that the McCloskey’s were not to be messed with. He will be the next one we get. His boys as well.”
“We will find this Liam, but first, you should listen to this Wasichus, how the catfish got flat heads is about the Lakota history. It is important history.
You remember the Lakota lived as underwater people before we became people who walk on land. Long ago, when the fish and the animals could talk the chief of the catfish said to all, “Listen, my brothers, I am very tired of eating things from the mud at the bottom of the lake. I think we should have meat as do the wolves. Let us watch for the moose when he wades into the lake to eat the lily pads and let us spear him and kill him for meat. He comes when the sun is at the edge of the sky, so we will hide among the lilies and grasses and that is when we can spear him.”
One day when the sun was at the edge of the sky the moose came to the lake. When he entered the lake the chief of the catfish called council and said, “Now, he is in! I will spear him as soon as he gets further from the shore where the water is deeper.”
They waited until the moose was in deep water and then the catfish chief speared him as hard as he could.
The big moose bellowed with pain and jumped around in the water. He was hurt and frightened at the same time.
“Ho,” he said, “What is this? Who has speared me in my leg? I will find out who has done this.”
He then stuck his head right down into the water until he could see beneath the surface. There in the grasses, he saw the catfish tribe getting ready to spear him again.
They were going to kill him for his meat. This made him very angry.
“I can understand why” Esben replied.
“His eyes turned red and his heart was bad toward the catfish tribe. He bellowed his war cry and said, “Ho. Listen to me. Catfish has speared me in my leg. I will make war on them. I will trample this tribe into the mud. Hear me! I will go to war!”
He began to jump up and down all over the edge of the lake and trample all the catfish he could find. He crushed them with his big hooves and trampled them deep into the mud. He did not stop until all the catfish were trampled into the muddy bottom of the lake. Then he left satisfied he had avenged the wrong done to him.
After the moose left, some of the catfish managed to wriggle out of the mud and get away. Now there are catfish in all lakes and rivers but everyone has a flat head because of the war from the big moose that flattened the heads of their grandfathers.
In old times there were very large catfish but now they are small. They still carry spears. To this day, they are black and are flat headed and they are so afraid that they stay hidden in the daytime and only swim at night, which serves them right for trying to kill the big moose long ago, right?”
“So you say. You Lakota seem to have an answer to everything, don’t you? It may not be the right answer, but at least you have one.”
“People want answers, Wasichus. People need answers.”
Esben shook his head, “I’m turning in.”
The cold wind picked up, kicking out his poncho behind him as he reined in his one-eyed mule.
“That’s Alamogordo down there,” Esben said. “Are you ready to earn some money?”
“I am ready to kill some white eyes.”
“Sheriff Tiswell had a Navajo wife, you know. McCloskey killed her as well. They slit her throat.”
“I did not know. Let us go find this McCloskey,” Shoots Plenty said, spinning the chamber on one of his Colt .45’s forcefully slamming it back in its holster. “If we find his boys, it will be a bonus, is that not so, Wasichus?”
A creaking sign, waving in the persistent wind, told them they were in Alamogordo.
They rode side by side down the main street. Single-level wood framed weathered buildings lined both sides of the street, a Wells Fargo Office, a doctor’s office, and a general store. The sky was gray and moody. Even in the middle of the day, there was an eerie quiet, a lack of human activity in the town. The only consistent sound was their animals hooves striking the hard dirt packed street and the whine of the wind.
“I do not like this place, Alamogordo,” Shoots Plenty said.
“It’s not so bad,” Esben replied, pulling out a revolver. “You might want to keep a pistol in your hand, just in case.”
As they turned a corner, they noticed a crowd speaking in soft tones, hovering outside the sheriff’s office. The crowd parted as they passed. Sheriff Clay Tiswell’s head was still planted on the post in front of his office.
As they passed, they searched the crowd, trying to find a face, a face belonging to Liam McCloskey or one of his boys. They saw only fear and judgment in the eyes of those they passed. Fear has a metallic taste and the air in this town was filled with it.
They dismounted and stood in the street facing the crowd of fearful strangers. As they approached the crowd parted and a man stepped forward wearing a black suit and a white shirt. He had a prominent nose and flushed cheeks and light eyes. He identified himself as Wesley Bell, the Wells Fargo agent.
“Who are you?” he asked, glancing at Shoots Plenty and then at Esben.
“It doesn’t matter. Where is Liam McCloskey?”
Wesley Bell stared at Shoots Plenty for a moment before nodding his head in the other direction, further down the street. “Down there, at the blacksmith’s, getting their horses shod.”
Esben nodded and turned before feeling a hand grasp his arm. He jerked it away and turned around with his pistol belly high. It was Wesley Bell.
“You don’t want to go there, mister. There are four of them. Liam and his three boys and they are all armed.”
“They are why we are here. Do you have a telegraph in town?”
“Yes, in my office,” Bell replied.
“That’s good. We’ll be needing to use it,” Esben said as he mounted his mule and along with Shoots Plenty, they continued on their way.
“I think I should ride around to the back of the blacksmith’s shop, Wasichus. They will be surprised.”
Okay, stay out of sight until you hear me speak.”
Shoots Plenty peeled away.
As Esben approached the front of the shop he noticed a man bent over an anvil hammering a red-hot shoe. A horse stood next to him and the four men Esben was looking for were in the back leaning up against a railing. Three of them looked no better than ragged saddle tramps in greasy hats, shirts missing buttons and jeans with enough holes in them to embarrass a scarecrow. These clothes and their bandannas hung off pocked skin that was blackened from dust and dirt. The fourth wore a leather patch over his right eye. It matched the hole that was cut out of his vest. He was taking a drink from a bottle. All wore their pistols low on their hip.
“I’m looking for Liam McCloskey,” Esben said, sitting his mule. “Know where I can find him?”
The blacksmith dropped his hammer and stepped back while the three men holding their horses stepped forward on broken-down boots that wobbled on their ankles.
“Why are you looking for him, stranger?” The man with the leather eyepatch sneered, dropping his bottle, his hand dropping to the butt of his revolver.
“I’m going to kill him that’s why.”
All four men reached down for their guns. Before Esben could crack the hammer on his .45 he heard a blood-curdling Sioux war-cry from inside the barn.
McCloskey and the others turned only to be met by a barrage of lead from Shoots Plenty’s gun. One of his boys spun around as a bullet from Esben’s gun drilled into his body. Flame bloomed out of Shoots Plenty’s Colt as he triggered wildly, punching slugs into the other two bodies. By the time the smoke cleared all four men were dead in a pile and the blacksmith was cowering in the corner of the stables.
Esben turned and motioned toward the horses. “Do these belong to the McCloskey’s?”
“Yes, yes they do. Take ‘em, mister they’re yours.”
“I think you are right. Let’s go, Shoots Plenty. We’ll wire their pictures to the captain and then get something to eat.”
As they rode with the bodies back to the Wells Fargo office, Esben looked up as lightning glared across the sky.
“Think the good folks of Alamogordo will object to an Indian spending the night in their hotel?”
“Shoots Plenty is not comfortable sleeping in the white man’s boxes. I will sleep up there,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the Sierra Blanca and the Capitan Mountains to the northwest of the town.
“Yeah, it does look mighty nice, doesn’t it,” Esben replied.