Nothing like Gunsmoke -Editor
Standefer’s Last Commission
by Steve Lowe
The string of scalps bounced against a buck-skinned thigh. Near the middle of the thin braid of rope, the scalps were small and shriveled, their edges curled in toward the center. Twigs of remaining hair bounced stiffly with the mottled mustang’s hoof steps. Fresher trophies hung on the outer ends of the string, sodden and weighty. Coagulated crimson tendrils waved in the breeze in stringy wisps behind the lone Apache warrior.
Standefer recognized the shock of fiery orange hair sprouting from a glistening patch of skin less than an hour removed from the head of Morris Dupree. “We’ll follow for now,” Standefer told his crew. “He’ll lead us to the rest.”
They slipped back down the rise and remounted their nervous horses. Of the seven animals in the group, one trailed along without a rider, the property of Mr. Dupree. The best cook among this special commission of Apache hunters got up early that morning to collect wood to fire up breakfast, but did not return. The other men in the company were spooked by Dupree’s disappearance, and rightfully so. Many of the stories they had heard along the way were turning out to contain more truth than legend.
As they shuffled along, Oliver Standefer felt the bulk of the official commission papers stuffed in his inner jacket pocket, rhythmically bumping against his chest as his horse plodded along. The papers were always handy, even if he never planned on uttering aloud the words printed therein. The Apache wouldn’t stop to listen anyway. To conclude Standefer’s previous expedition, he had staked the commission papers to an Apache forehead with a railroad spike to drive home the point that the railroad was indeed “continuing westward despite their dissuasive efforts.”
Standefer led the small procession, seven men besides him, toward the mountain pass. They waited and watched as the lone Apache shuffled through the pass and disappeared as if swallowed by the ancient rock. Standefer knew not to follow. An Apache did not travel alone. Where there was one, there were more, waiting and watching.
The men had ridden since before sun up, stopping only to water their mounts. Now, as the last winks of daylight began to disappear behind this southern expanse of the Rockies, man and beast alike were in need of rest. With the mountains stretched out before them across the darkening horizon toward the savage Mexican wilds, there was little sense in continuing to follow their quarry, lest they tromp straight into an ambush. Tomorrow would bring enough violence. Of this, Standefer was certain.
They halted their horses and set about making camp for the night. The men split off into pairs to collect wood for the night’s fire. They did so without prompting from Standefer, clearly not wanting to meet a fate similar to Mr. Dupree’s.
Ponderosa Pines rose in the evening sky around them like looming giants, cutting menacing shapes into the fading blue dusk. The blocky outline of the mountains rolled out away from them, bumps on the horizon like humped over workers bent to the task of hemming the Earth together.
Mr. Twiller poked at the fire with a twig. His cracked lips curled back in a grimace, exposing a mouthful of wooden teeth. “I heared they’s not really even Apache no more,” he said to the fire. “That they’s sperits ridin’ demon mounts, traipsin’ through these here passes to keep the white man from headin’ west.”
Mr. Martin, also gazing into the crackling campfire, expounded on Twiller’s theory with a chilling distance in his voice. “According to the Apache, they are reincarnated warriors who, upon returning to find their homes and families ravaged by Carson’s federal agents, committed mass suicide in order to return as apparitions who could no longer be killed by conventional means. Their lone reason for existing on the Earth is to avenge the brutal deaths of their children and kill as many white men as they find.” He looked up from the hypnotic flames and colored with embarrassment at the five faces turned to him. “Or, so I’m told,” he quickly added.
Twiller shuddered and poked again at the fire, sending angry sparks twirling up into the still night. “S’posin that’d be the reason why ‘ol Kit Carson ain’t up here rootin’ ‘round for ‘em hisself.”
Standefer stood and removed the dusty bowler from his head and looked each man in the eyes. The glare of the flames and floating embers danced in his spectacles. “Enough of this nonsense. What they truly are is an outlaw band of savages attacking innocent civilians. They kill wantonly and without mercy and we have been conscripted to destroy them in an equally merciless manner. These are sub-human wild men who have no concept of proper civilized society, and no regard for human life whatsoever. But they damn well understand how to shoot a rifle and wield a blade, so you damn well better be ready for a fight. These ain’t no ghosts nor demons, these are men, and it would do you well to remember that come time to face them.”
He sat back down on his rolled out bedding and added, “I suspect that will be happening sooner than you wish for it to.”
The group fell silent. Twiller pulled out his jackknife and began to carve swirling patterns in the hunk of cottonwood on his lap. The light of the campfire did not penetrate far into the swallowing black of the moonless night that enveloped them. The mountains and pines were invisible in the darkness, but their presence remained as constricting masses that pressed against them, resisting their very presence.
Standefer lay awake for a long time watching Twiller jump at every alien sound that probed the light at the edge of their camp. Bats and other creatures swooped over them or edged around their perimeter, watching from the void just beyond the reach of their firelight. Sleep did not come easily.
Upon waking, it was soon discovered that their number had again been reduced by one. The bedding of Joseph Willoughby, a tanner and stable hand from El Paso before he signed on with Standefer’s outfit, lay in a heap, with no sign of its owner to be found.
“Mount up, gentlemen,” Standefer said with a cold edge in his voice.
“What?” Twiller held Willoughby’s bedroll in one hand and wore a look of shocked astonishment. “What d’ya mean to do here? Up and leave ‘ol Willoughby out there, at the hands ‘a them savages?”
“Mr. Twiller, if you choose to roam across this wasteland looking for Mr. Willoughby, I’ll not stop you.” Standefer took to his horse and turned the muscular mare to face the remaining men in his charge. “But know that none will come back looking for you.”
Standefer pointed to Padraig Byrne, an Irish immigrant known to them simply as Irish. “Mr. Irish, let loose those extra mounts. They’ll be nothing but a burden when we reach the pass. You other men take what you want from their belongings. They’ll not be needing them now.”
Irish removed the saddles from the horses belonging to Willoughby and Dupree and thumped them on the rump with a “Scat!” while the other men set to rifling the pouches. Twiller hesitated for a moment before joining them. The pistols and ammunition were the first to go.
Standefer looked past them at the slowly brightening eastern horizon. He squinted against the red rim of the rising sun at the outline of a lone rider. Standefer removed a brass spyglass from his jacket and brought into view the man advancing on them. He appeared to ride at an even pace, directly in line with the growing sun, making it difficult to see much more than a black shadow bobbing along in the distance.
Martin followed the direction of Standefer’s spyglass to the shimmering form in the east. “Well, now who the devil is this coming up?”
“Whoever it is, it ain’t Mr. Willoughby.” Standefer retracted the spyglass and returned it to his pocket. “And I don’t mean to linger here and make his acquaintance. Our business is there.”
He pointed toward the mountain pass, veiled in an early morning fog that rolled down from the snowcaps like sinking smoke.
“I’d like prefer to take my chances with this here new feller,” Twiller muttered.
Martin watched the distant man, little more than a bobbing shadow towing the new day’s heat behind him. “Careful what you wish for,” he told Twiller. “You might yet get that chance.”
The unit of killers, each experienced in the destruction of savages and no stranger to the dangers of the Apache on the open range, slowly advanced toward the mountain pass. Along the way, they recovered items belonging to Willoughby: a belt buckle, a stirrup, a boot, which still contained the foot of its owner.
Near the entrance to the pass, they discovered what remained of Willoughby. Tacked across a gap just wide enough for them to ride through single file, Mr. Willoughby blocked their way. His empty skin flapped with the breeze, hands and feet fastened to rock on each side. Twiller fell from his horse and wretched while Standefer cut Willoughby down.
“We move on,” he said as he remounted.
“Are you plum out of yer gourd?” Twiller swiped at the mess on his chin with a soiled sleeve. “I ain’t goin’ in there fer nothin’ or nobody! Don’t you see what this is?”
“Shut up and get on your horse.”
Twiller looked at Martin and Irish, but they stared at the back of their horses’ necks. He glanced at Mason, the Negro that joined their crew in Santa Fe without so much as a mention of what was expected of him, satisfied only with the knowledge that he would leave Santa Fe behind for good. Mason returned Twiller’s pleading look with only an icy glare.
“These ain’t Apache! These’r monsters! Demons from the other side. We cain’t kill them! You cain’t kill what’s already done died!”
“Have it your way, Mr. Twiller. You know the way back down.”
Twiller turned to look at the trail they had just spent the entire morning ascending. Near the foot of the mountain, he saw the black form of the man that had appeared in the distance at sun up. He appeared as he did from across the flat land, as a shadow cloaked in darkness despite the midday sun above. He seemed not to move any faster than at a trot, but somehow had covered twice the land as they in the same time.
A breeze rushed down the mountain, bringing with it cold air from the snowcapped peak that chilled the men through. Standefer turned his horse and strolled through the narrow pass and each man fell in behind. Twiller gave one more look to the man below before scrambling back on his horse and following the rest.
They rode along through the silent pass, each man straining to hear something, some sign of life amid the crushing silence.
“This place is unholy,” Twiller muttered.
Martin looked at the high walls and slopes rising around them. They rounded a bend in the path and the walls suddenly swept away on each side as the men rode into a clearing. A shadow followed over them, filtering the light of the sun high up in the sky. Each man looked at his hands before his face and at the bright sun over top. Their horses bucked and whined and stamped their hooves. Standefer searched the rims for scouts.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death…” Twiller did not finish his prayer.
“There,” Standefer said and pointed to the northern rim where a lone man stood at the edge. He wore the large headdress of a shaman and spread his cupped hands out before him. The shadow darkened, as though he filled the valley with his black magic. Standefer slid his Springfield rifle from its saddle holster and squeezed off a shot at the ridge. When he pulled the rifle down from his shoulder, the man was gone, evaporated from sight.
“Where’d he go?” Twiller shielded his eyes with his hand despite the shade that enveloped them. His high voice crackled with fear. “Sumbitch, did ya miss?”
Mason was the first to break. “The hell with this,” he said and turned his horse around. As he whipped the animal to a gallop, Standefer swiveled in his saddle and fired another shot that struck Mason in the base of his skull, sending a red spray into the air.
“I don’t miss,” Standefer said. He turned his horse to face the men and set his rifle across his lap. “Anyone else yellow? Huh? Anyone else wanna turn and run for their mommas?”
Martin edged his horse forward and sat it astride Standefer’s. “Mr. Standefer, this is a losing proposition at this point.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Well, we’re down to just the four of us men here and for all we know, we’re walking up on a war party of a thousand Apache.”
“Mr. Martin, you are free to relieve yourself of this commission at any time, just as Mr. Mason was.”
Martin glanced back at Mason’s headless corpse, then down at his shaking hands.
“This is suicide and you’re a goddamn murderer.” Twiller held his Colt in his right hand, the hammer pulled back. “You cain’t shoot down ever one of us here, you crazy sumbitch.”
“No, Twiller. I can’t. But I guarantee I’ll shoot you. I’ll blow a hole clean through your skull and out the backside as my last act on Earth before your fellas here drop me.”
Irish covered Standefer with his Baker, both barrels primed. “Mr. Standefer, this has gone too far. We will be taking our leave of ya now, or I’ll be openin’ ya wide for the carrion to feast.”
Martin pulled his own Colt from its holster and leveled it at Standefer’s head. “This commission is yours alone now. We will no longer have a part in this madness. Good bye, Mr. Standefer.”
They backed away slowly while Standefer leaned against his Springfield. “There’s nowhere to run, gentlemen. Nowhere for you to hide where I won’t find you. And I guarantee, I will find you.”
As the men skirted Mason’s body and edged toward the curve in the pass where they had come, a shrill cry broke the stillness, the voice of a lone Apache.
“Uh-oh, too late boys,” Standefer said, a smile on his face. “Here they come. Better run.”
The men turned and broke into a gallop, rounding the bend as Standefer peppered the mountain with rifle shots in their wake. Then he whipped his mare around and continued ahead.
There was no turning back for him. This was his commission.
Just as he crossed the valley and entered another narrow pass, an arrow whistled past his head and clanged against the ground. He whipped his horse and sped along the narrowing path, the mountain walls rushing up to meet him on each side. Dozens of cries filled the air, from ahead and behind and above, along with ricocheting Winchester rounds.
He pounded forward, driving his horse with a fury, but a round clipped the mare in the rear. The animal stumbled and slammed into the rock wall, sending Standefer flying forward over its head. Another round from above struck the horse in the temple, ending its pained struggle.
Sheer walls of granite hemmed Standefer in. At the end of the bottleneck, a horde of wailing, mounted Apache streamed toward him. He shouldered his Springfield and fired rounds into their midst with seemingly no effect. He took aim on the lead Indian and fired a shot through his face, but the bullet found no purchase, just disappeared as though swallowed whole.
From behind, the rest of the war party emerged up the trail. There was no sign of his men, but Standefer knew they were gone. He pulled a stick of dynamite from his pouch, lit the fuse and flung it toward them. A hail of dust and rock rose from among the riders, but did nothing to halt their advance. The Apache thundered through the blast as though immune to its effects.
“C’mon you bastards!” Standefer knelt down next to his dead horse and drew his side arms, firing ineffective rounds in both directions. The warriors formed a circle around him and he stood and flung his empty weapons to the ground.
“So, this is it.” He turned in a slow circle, looking at each whooping Apache. From a distance, they had appeared as any other savage he had experienced, but up close, he saw their translucent skin and old wounds. Dried out bullet holes in foreheads and opened cuts beneath chins, gaping like extra mouths as they shouted their war cries at him. Their spectral steeds reared and foamed and shook their decrepit manes, while the warriors fired their Winchesters into the air and at the ground near his feet.
Then in an instant, they fell silent and watched him. “Go on. Do it you heathens. Finish me!”
But they did not move toward him. From the trail behind, the blockade of Apaches parted and between them strode the man. Standefer’s chest constricted at the sight and the air within the high walls seemed to suck up and out of the crevasse.
The man rode a black stallion, adorned in the battered, cracked black leather of a warhorse. The man himself was dressed out in black as well, his hat pulled low over his eyes. The stub of a cigarillo jutted from his lips and issued smoke that curled about his face, obscuring his features. He sat his horse a few yards from Standefer and watched for a moment.
Standefer wanted to speak, to utter another defiant last word, a memorable epitaph, but his voice caught in his dry throat. He managed little more than a pained croak.
The man glanced side to side at the company surrounding him. Though Standefer never saw his lips move, the man spoke in clear Apache, “Go now. Your time here is finished.”
Without a sound, they turned from their prisoner and shuffled toward the mountain walls. Their Mustangs did not hesitate as they walked into the stone, just passed through, and melted away. The walls seemed to thicken with them, each face forming a new seam in the rock as they became one with the mountain. Soon they were gone, leaving only the man before him. Standefer fell to his knees.
“I have been looking for you.”
Standefer’s voice failed him. He mustered only a weak nod of his head. Tears rolled down his quivering cheeks.
“You knew I was coming for you.”
“Y-yes. I knew it.”
“I have always been coming for you.”
“Yes. I know.”
The tip of the man’s cigarillo flared and tendrils of smoke swirled and clung to his head like appendages. Smoke also began to rise from the stony ground beneath Standefer. He felt heat issue up from the dusty Earth.
“Please,” Standefer said.
The man smiled. “I like you, Standefer. Remind me of myself. As such, you of all people should understand that I don't let anything stand in the way of fulfilling a commission.”