The Troubled Land
by Kerby Jackson
Ken Payne saw the buzzards wheeling overhead and had heard the low hum of the busy flies before he saw the men.
There were six of them dressed in typical rider's garb still slightly dusted with alkali dirt and they were hanging from the lowest branches of a gnarled oak tree that stood alone at the bottom of a dusty wash. Though it was difficult to judge how long they had been there, the flies had already begun to gather in large numbers to lay their maggot laden eggs in their wide open dead eyes and a slightly ripe stench had already begun to fill the air.
Payne stood slightly in his stirrups to survey his surroundings and then slowly stepped down from his saddle with the ease of an experienced rider. Once on the ground, he withdrew a small bag of makings from his shirt pocket and promptly rolled and lit a cigarette, his half lidded eyes never leaving the men as he did so. He took a drag from the cigarette and then after exhaling a puff of sweet smoke, stepped toward the corpses for a closer look.
The men hung from the lowest branches in three groups of two per bough. The blue tinged tongue of the one nearest to him hung swollen from the gash of his mouth, the men having succumbed to death from slow strangulation. One of them had even slipped his hand in between the rope and his neck in a futile effort to try to stop the inevitable.
Payne had seen lots of death in his time and he had even dealt in more than his fair share of it before packing his gun belt away into his saddlebags, but the sight of this sort of a slow hanging still put a twisting knot in his guts just as it always had since he had seen his first hanging as a small boy.
"Wonder what you boys did to deserve a fate like this?" he asked aloud as if the six men might still be capable of answering him.
Payne surveyed his surroundings again with a pair of sideways glances, but there was nothing else around him but the six men in the tree.
"Well, I reckon I'll cut you boys down and give you a burial," he told them. "It's the only thing I can do for you."
Payne turned on the heel of his scuffed boot to go back to his horse, when a sick sounding, low guttural sound came from behind him. He immediately froze is in his tracks and held his breath. His first instinct was to reach for the .45 that should have been on his right hip in a well worn holster, but he had hung up his gun a year ago and it was not there to grab. He wondered how fast he could make it to the Winchester in the scabbard on his saddle, but he knew it would be a futile attempt.
The sound came again, followed by the distinct, low creak from one of the taut ropes hanging from the tree.
Slowly Payne turned around and faced the six corpses again. They were all still save the one with his fingers intertwined between his neck and the noose, whose body gently revolved in a slow circle. That was when he saw the tips of the man's free fingers articulate weakly. The man's eyes quickly flashed open and he emitted a weak gurgle of mostly garbled words.
"Cut... Please .... cut me down."
Payne could not believe that the man was still alive, but in a flash, he had drawn a knife from the inside of his boot and was at the man's side to help him. With one hand he had a hold of his legs and lifted him up to slacken the rope, while with the other he severed the stiff rope that was around his neck. Immediately the weakened man collapsed in a limp pile upon him, his dead weight bringing both of them to the dusty ground below. The man let out a low moan, but it was at least proof that he was still alive.
Once he collected himself and was certain that the man was breathing easily, Payne stood up, walked to his horse and returned to the man with his canteen. Once at his side again, he knelt down and removed the plug from the canteen. He poured a bit of water into the palm of his hand, lifted the man's head and let the water trickle onto the man's lips until finally the man showed an inclination to drink. He then did so greedily until Payne withdrew the mouth of the canteen.
"Easy there, friend," he told him. "Not too much. You need to drink it slow."
For a long while, Payne knelt there beside him until the man had drifted off into sleep.
While the man slept, Payne built up a small fire, set a pot of coffee and then undertook the grisly job of cutting the other men down.
One by one, he took them down and then drug them a short distance away from the tree and over the small hilltop where he had dug a wide, but shallow grave for them.
Before planting each one of them into the thin, dry soil, he dug through their pockets. Between them all they had little in the way of personal effects, only the sort of things that ranch hands might carry: some coins, a deck of cards between them, a Bannock arrowhead that one of them must have picked up somewhere, a gold pocket watch, a few bags of tobacco with papers, a few cartridges and a crumpled up letter that had probably been read and refolded too many times for its own good. He tossed the playing cards and the tobacco into the grave; no sense in one of the men's grieving wives or mothers knowing about their sinful vices if he could help it. The rest he wrapped up into a handkerchief that one of the men had worn and he placed it into one of his saddle bags. Then one by one he placed them in the grave as gently as he could and pushed the dusty soil over them.
When he was through, he stood back and looked at his completed work. It was a damn sorry excuse for a grave, Payne thought, and he was sure that the next coyote or wolf that came by would dig it up because it was so shallow, but it was the best that he could do with the tin cup that he had used to carve it out. Payne felt like he should say a few words over them, but he did not even know the names of the men he had just buried and he was not a religious man, so the sort of words that he felt should be said just would not come from his lips.
"This is all I can do for you boys," he told them. "I reckon I'll be lucky if someone does the same for me when my time comes. Well, maybe I'll be seein' you. Adios."
Payne tipped his hat to them and walked back to the fire.
The sleeping man instantly stirred as Payne came near and sat up as if in a daze. He gave a hoarse uncontrolled series of coughs, seemed to gather his composure and finally looked up at Payne.
"You the man who cut me down?" he asked in a gravelly voice.
"Well, you saved my life then, Mister. I'm much obliged."
"I just hope I didn't cut you down so that they can hang you again," Payne told him. He figured him for a rustler, but Payne could not very well have left him hanging there.
He knelt down on his haunches and poured two cups of coffee. He handed one to the other man who immediately breathed in its hot vapors.
"Never thought I'd smell coffee again," he told him with a smile. "It's one of about a hundred things I thought about while I was hanging there."
He seemed to drift off as if in a dreamy state for a moment and for the first time, Payne noted how young he was. He could not have been more than 16 or 17 years old.
"What about the others?" he suddenly asked.
"I buried them up the hill here," Payne told him.
The boy's complexion suddenly grew pale.
"All of them?"
"Five men," Payne told him.
The boy nodded and took a drink of his coffee.
"It's hard to believe," he said suddenly. "It all happened so fast. One minute things was like they always were. We were ridin'. And then, well, it's just too real. There were riders all over us."
"What's it all about?"
Payne figured that the kid and his friends had probably been caught up in rustling cattle. Ranchers had been forming stock associations all over Oregon and their vigilantes had been riding down rustlers and horse thieves by the dozens throughout the region. They had been so fierce that even the McCartys had been keeping a low profile while it blew over.
"I really don't know," the boy started to tell him. "I ride for the Running V ..."
"Never heard of it," Payne interrupted.
"We're just a little outfit, but the boss, Mr. Voorhies, he ain't so interested in bein' a great big outfit like the P Ranch or anyone like that. We only got about twelve hundred head, but they're all good ones of the boss' own breeding. He says he wants quality over quantity and I reckon he knows what he's doing. But, we've been havin' lots of trouble the last few months. And we ain't the only ones. A couple of other outfits have been havin' problems too."
"What sort of trouble?"
"People keep seein' a group of riders comin' into their range some nights. They don't barely make a sound because they have the hooves of their horses muffled and all the men wear masks. They've been rimrockin' groups of cattle belonging to every outfit, shootin' riders who make the mistake of workin' alone and we reckon they've killed a couple of men who've disappeared over the last month."
"And that's who strung you up?"
"Yep. The boys and I were riding on our east range looking for about fifty head of missing yearlings. We found them all busted up in a canyon and they'd been rim rocked by someone and were too far gone to salvage anything. So we headed home to tell the boss, and well, the next thing we know, we saw those riders a comin' at us. There were fifteen or twenty of them all with hoods over their heads and before we knew it, they were swarmin' all over us like like a bunch of angry bees. We took cover in the rocks and we got at least one or two of them with our Winchesters, but there were just too many of them to fend off for long and they knew it too. We had our backs against an outcrop of rock, so the only way out of there was to go through them or to come out feet first. After about an hour they told us to surrender and since we ain't gettin' paid fighting wages, we decided to do it. It might have been a cowardly thing, but we didn't have much else in the way of choices and for that matter, we still didn't know what they wanted. We should have stayed back and fought it out with them, because you know what happened next. They marched us all off to the tree and strung us up one by one."
Payne sat there sipping his coffee in silence and trying to contemplate the story the boy had just told him. He had never heard a story like it before and he didn't think the boy would have made it up. Riders in hoods riding muffled horses, rim rocking cattle and viscously killing range riders. Having once hired his gun hand out to anyone willing to pay a good wage, Payne had dealt with more than his fair share of cattle rustlers. As viscous and uncaring as some of them could be, he had never run across any that would destroy fine stock once they obtained it, let alone any that would intentionally seek out and kill riders.
"Where's this Running V at?" he finally asked.
"About half a day to the south west. Maybe further. I don't rightly know how far they brought us before they hung us and I don't know this side of the country so well. We're well off our own range."
"Well, I reckon I'll take you back to your ranch when you feel up to it," Payne told him. "We can ride double, I suppose."
"I'm much obliged to you Mister," the boy told him. "My name is Billy Howard and I reckon I owe you my life. I'd like to know the name of the man who saved."
"My name is Smith and it's nothin'," Payne lied. "Any man would have done the same. I just happened by."
"Nah, it ain't so. Most fellas wouldn't have seen it as bein' any of their business to stop to bury a group of men hangin'. Anyone else would have just rode on after havin' a look. But you cut me down and I'm much obliged for it, Smith. I'd like to call you my friend. I thought I was goin' to die up there on that tree. I dunno if you've ever looked death in the face like that, but I'll tell you what, I did lots of thinkin' while I was up there hangin' from that branch..."
Billy's voice trailed off and he looked down into the camp fire in deep thought.
"You ever felt that, before?"
Payne thought back on the many times that he had faced death looking over the barrel of his .45. He had killed a few dozen men in his day, looking them in the eye as each one had screamed out in agony when his own lead had hit them and shattered their bones and had ruptured their hearts. Not all of them had deserved death, but he had dealt it to them anyway, cutting them down in the prime of their lives like a newly sharpened scythe takes the head off of a stalk of ripe wheat. And each time he had stood over them with the smoking gun in his hand, he was always reminded that had they been a little faster or had a little more sand than him, that it may have been him lying on the ground instead of them. Every night those men would come back to him to invade his dreams with their pale white, agonized faces, their putrid flesh starting to hang off their bones. Though he had hung up his gun, the men still came to him each night in his sleep, bent over and whispering death into his ear with their rotten breath and reminding him that he would eventually join them.
Billy looked up from the camp fire in time to see the hollow look of torment in Payne's eyes and pushed the discussion no further.
Finally Payne looked up at him as if he was going to answer the question.
"Let's ride," Billy told him.
Without another word between them, they kicked out the fire and saddled up double and headed off to the south west.
Copyright 2008 by Kerby Jackson
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