Sunday, January 13, 2013

Down on Range

The following is my account of an incident that I experienced as an Auto-Track Radar Repairman in the USAF. Names were either modified or omitted for the usual reasons.

I was a Sr. Airman assigned to the maintenance shift at Detachment 1, 1CEVG La Junta, Colorado. Det 1 was one of many sites across the states that aided in the training of pilots for the purpose of improving bombing skills and threat evasion. We accomplished this by acquiring and tracking military aircraft as they’d attempt simulated bomb runs over a virtual war zone consisting of rancher’s silos and farm houses.

The TSQ-96 was a Vietnam era radar system but still up for the task in this, the early 1980’s. In charge of the 96 and my immediate supervisor was a rather portly Staff Sergeant that reminded me of a Jersey wise guy in fatigues, maddeningly abrasive though decidedly intelligent.

Sgt. Deniro stood beside the scoring easel stirring his coffee as I rifled through the night’s work orders. With a signature tap, tap, tap of the spoon against the rim of his cup, a call came over the operations radio.

It was between two and three AM and the range had been closed for several hours but this pilot, probably now oblivious to earthbound activities, had hoped for one last bit of bomb scoring credit before returning to base.

Deniro gave him the bad news and with a grumble, the pilot announced that he’d be conducting a camera attack only…T/A, meaning Terrain Avoidance. It wasn’t until sometime later that I’d realize the tragic irony of his innocent declaration. The Sergeant bid him well and we continued about the business of radar maintenance.

The hours passed as I busied myself, per Jersey mandate, with the tedium of randomly replacing tubes in control panels in the hopes of magically resolving the reported problem. That’s right…I said tubes! Our shift normally ended at eight when we’d be greeted by the first operational shift and the admin staff but today would prove to be unlike any other.

Uncharacteristically two hours early, base Commander Lt. Colonel Hoffmayer appeared in the dayroom quickly followed by our Captain and XO. We soon learned that the entire staff of 100+ was called in to assemble at the remote facility for an emergency dispatch.

It seemed that Denver ATC had reported that we likely had a “BUFF down on range”! A BUFF is an acronym we used to describe the massive profile of a B-52 bomber, Big Ugly Fat…uh…Fellow.

We were to discreetly head to the crash site in our personal vehicles and set up a perimeter around the likely carnage keeping an eye out for classified materials and repelling any curious onlookers until security forces arrived from nearby Petersen AFB. I immediately teamed up with my best bud Dan Delgado and another friend as we piled into the cab of his 1970’s Ford F-150.

Flanked by the dry and desolate plains beyond the Arkansas Valley we drove at 57 MPH smoking an LA style spliff provided by the ever ready Airman Delgado. As the weed took effect, I began pondering the ominous significance and probable certainty that I may have been one of the last people to hear the pilot’s voice before he died.

Suddenly, my maudlin musings were interrupted by the whine of Buck Sergeant Allan Dobbins’ ultra-compact whizzing by us at 75 MPH, emergency lights flashing. Dan shook his head, “What part of discreet don’t you understand Dobbins?”

Dobbins had a way of going against the interpersonal grain like that, alienating others with his assertions of self-importance. In the months to come he would take on the role of Detachment Judas but for now he was simply edifying his less than stellar reputation.

We pulled in to the makeshift roadside parking lot and joined our NCOs as they gave us individual sectors to maintain. From this vantage point, the only indication of something amiss was the tell-tale column of smoke beyond the rise just ahead.

As I crested the plateau, the full force of the scene struck me in all its surrealistic horror. The enormous airborne warrior had slashed a path a quarter mile long through the midst of the rocky landscape flinging tons of shrapnel, earth and sagebrush in its wake. The smoke arose from various places along the debris field no doubt fed by literally hundreds of gallons of impact-cast jet fuel setting a tone reminiscent of Milton or Dante.

I wandered over to my temporary assignment wide eyed and openly awed by the twisted grandeur before me. The field itself was unremarkable in appearance, a gently sloping plain unbroken by natural obstructions save one large mound of stone near the center. I shook my head as I wondered how in the world this could have happened when my gaze fell on that lone mound.

Upon inspection I saw what appeared to be a massive chunk taken out just below the summit, a smooth semi-circle of rock inexplicably absent. It was as if a ravenous Titan descended upon the desolate scene only to sink his teeth into the indifferent monolith for reasons known only to him. This was the likely point of initial impact and the resultant field of nightmares beyond was the horrific legacy that brought eight lives to their end. I’d been told that the standard crew of a combat B-52 was six which led many to speculate on the presence of the other two. Were they on official assignment or just along for the ride? I never came to know that answer but I suppose it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. They were soldiers just like us and their families grieved regardless of the particulars.

Preoccupied with the drama before me, I hadn’t thought to look down at my own patch of responsibility. To my surprise, I had been standing mere feet from a colossal sheet of camouflaged metal thrust into the desert terrain by the momentum of the aircraft’s death throes. Apparently I had been oblivious to the fact that I had been keeping company with one of the Buff’s tail fins. Since it was neither remains nor classified, there was no reason to report it at that time so I returned to witnessing the epic event but with renewed solemnity.

Word got around in relative quick time as local pilots began circling the crash site. They were quickly dispatched when the region was declared a civilian no fly zone just in time for military helicopters to arrive on the scene. Making the grandest of entrances was the double-propped Chinook, a personnel/cargo helo. Even from my distant perspective, the landing was imposing in its spectacle. As the rotors powered down I could see the distinctive berets of a flight of MPs disembark, our replacements. Soon they were followed by a smorgasbord of officers of varying ranks and affiliations. They were easily distinguishable by their hat brims’ display of golden reliefs, unofficially referred to as scrambled eggs.

As quickly as it began, our roles in this saga had come to an end. Once the MPs had established their own perimeter our NCOs sent us back to the road to finish our day as we saw fit.

Though the event had passed and our parts had been played, the impact of that day remained long after. I had been spared much of the anguish from my assigned vantage point but others were not so fortunate. Scott Haute, a horn-rimmed friend with a rather cynical wit but good natured disposition had been paired with the Detachment medic. It became his duty to hold the large evidence bags while the medic mournfully placed remnants of crew within for later identification. A self-dismantling bomber shows little mercy to human flesh when driven by high speed force merging with an immovable object. As you can imagine, the process took many bags and many repetitions to complete their work.

Others would report of finding flight boots in the field that were not empty and disembodied hands still clutching their station controls. I cannot testify whether those statements were truth or macabre attempts at titillation over a few beers and blaring music but I can attest to the sincerity of the despondent look in their eyes as they conveyed them.

One man in particular comes to mind though sadly I can’t recall his name. He was a tall strapping fellow that reminded me of a refined Jim Brown. Amiable enough he was soft spoken and respectful though a bit stiff in his social skills. His sector was the final resting place of the tattered remains of what was once the cockpit. The following day his demeanor became tentative, silently performing his tasks brandishing what could only be described as a thousand yard stare! His laugh became forced and unnatural along with his delivery in conversation. It took months before the manic lights finally dimmed in his eyes but to our grateful delight, he emerged a better man than when he first encountered that tumultuous prairie.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Highwaymen 3 - conclusion

McKenna and the young father returned to a grateful family. Sarah had put the children, Rebecca all of seven years and Leah age eight, to work kneading the evening bread. Though rattled by the horrible events of that afternoon, the three had recovered considerably from the trauma as they busied themselves with the tasks of living.

Captain Ferguson’s discouraging report came as a disappointment to Isaiah’s wife. She had no desire for vindictive retribution; to the contrary, she was utterly thankful for their survival due to Joseph’s fortuitous intervention and his gracious hospitality. Now in this haven of safety, her concerns leaned toward those that would follow, unwary travelers accosted by these same men, encouraged by their inadequate punishment.

Determined to persevere, the family settled in to life on the range with Joseph as their amiable host. Though only a temporary arrangement, McKenna took full advantage of Isaiah’s four generations of agricultural experience and gladly received Sarah’s considerably elevated cooking skills.

Ever resilient, the children carried on without a care, comforted by the trustworthiness of their elders and the instilled notion of divine providence, apparent in their good fortune.

Oftentimes they would call on McKenna to join them at play on top of the sandy plateau, though he usually just settled on a low mound, encouraging them with an occasional comment.

This day, the homestead mesa appeared to mirror their playful demeanor, casting harmless dust devils across the field, seemingly for their sheer amusement alone. From Joseph’s vantage point, he could see the tell-tale swirling of grass and sagebrush as the funnel began to develop, excitedly calling the girls to jump into the vortex as it rose from the ground. With squeals of delight the young pair would run about the open field attempting to keep up with its unpredictable path.

Moments like this enveloped the young widower with mixed emotions, a shared joy at their youthful adventure and a somber reminder of his grievous personal loss. His wife was no more and his children would never return to him but life was not for that which was unchanging, but for the days that are and those that would come. Joseph chose to comfort himself that he’d been given the privilege of witnessing their exuberance of life and a family full of promise.


With two strong backs to accomplish the task, Joseph and Isaiah quickly remedied the problem of irrigation, digging the irrigation trench with pick-axe and shovel. Accustomed to heavy hauls, McKenna’s draught horses easily retraced the faded ruts with Isaiah’s metal plow, transforming the abandoned field into a once again viable garden. Gleaning every seed from the paltry yield of the hearty surviving crops, the men started patches in the freshly moistened soil to be enhanced further by trips to the feed store later.

In honor of Joseph’s fallen family, Isaiah bordered the rejuvenated field with a stand of three Red Delicious apple seedlings, carefully transported from their former home in the Carolina mountains. Stewart’s tender generosity galvanized McKenna’s resolve, insuring that these fruitful trees would live and thrive in his family’s stead.


The days passed quickly as the highwaymen’s trial date approached. The Stewarts had considered settling nearby instead of continuing their journey south and west to Raton Pass but their decision was on hold until the outcome of the court could be established. Captain Ferguson asserted his determination to maintain the rogue’s banishment even after their sentences were fulfilled but this was a new nation of laws and such may not support his well meaning intentions. Strong as they were, the Stewarts could not bear even the thought of an accidental encounter with the lecherous trio while visiting town for supplies.

Making the best of their situations, the young family plus one enjoyed each other’s company, cherishing what times they had together.

While Isaiah busied himself organizing the barn, Joseph set about the charge of hunting up some substantial meat for the smokehouse. He searched the living space for his hat but to no avail, while Rebecca, the more rambunctious of the young ladies, stomped her feet on the front porch.

“Rebecca Jane Stewart!” her mother shouted. “Stop all that commotion and beHAVE!!”

As Joseph peered behind the curtains and the scanty furnishings madly seeking his frontier headgear, the childlike thunder mercifully ceased, replaced by the soft tittering of Sarah Stewart.

Distracted by the curious behavior, Joseph ceased his search and turned toward the object of her amused attentions, red-haired Rebecca standing defiantly in the doorway, fists planted in her hips. The little waif was wearing her mother’s oversized garden boots and Uncle Joseph’s cavernous “snake hat”, covering her eyes completely with the brim resting firmly on her tiny shoulders.

Without reservation, she loudly declared, “I AM BEING-HAVE!!

The two adults burst out laughing with Rebecca quickly joining them.

Joseph knelt down, giving her a kiss and an energetic bear hug. “Alright Tex, your Uncle Joe’s gonna be needing that …ante up!”

With a gentle swat on her behind, he was off in search of game for the week’s meals.

McKenna descended into the valley to follow the flat beside the Purgatoire. For whatever reason, the deer and antelope appeared to be favoring the other side of the river, forcing Joseph to seek out a relatively quiet place to ford the rushing waters. Wanting to avoid a lot of noisy switchbacks to gain access, he sought an egress from the valley that quickly delivered him to the banks.

Locating an open area only a few short yards above the river, Joseph stopped to survey the terrain. Instantly, he recognized the level acreage as the spot where he first had a taste for life in the Purgatory, his campsite some three weeks before.

He turned his horse toward the river, slowly traversing the flat to begin his brief descent at the edge. The clopping hooves apparently alerted some local wildlife in the bush nearby the banks, causing them to flee from their activities and bolt for high ground.

“Coyotes” Joseph proclaimed. “No wonder all the game’s avoiding this side.”

The momentary delay gave McKenna pause, remembering the same preoccupation the scavengers had with that spot on his previous encounter. Raising his head high, he carefully drew air into his nostrils to catch a whiff of their irresistible meal. Only a whisper of the scent could be detected, as the breeze was fleeting at best, but there was no denying the acrid stench of decaying flesh.

Curious, Joseph dismounted to investigate. As he wove his way through the waist-high sagebrush, the odor became increasingly pronounced, causing him to recoil slightly with each step. He took to breathing through the fabric on his sleeve as he parted the final hedge poised along the rim of a shallow ditch.

The sight that greeted him waylaid McKenna with overwhelming revulsion. The reek of decomposition was moderately bearable to the seasoned veteran but the visual siege wrenched all control from his attempts at restraint. Joseph turned from the scene, retching violently.

Several minutes passed as he attempted to regain his composure from witnessing the horror that lay only scant yards away. Summoning his courage, he returned to the trench undaunted.

Through tear-filled eyes, he assessed the dreadful display, making mental note of all that he could for later recount. 

Once again, McKenna would return from his hunting efforts empty-handed but as before, few would blame him for his lack of success.


Pursued by a cloud of dust, Joseph’s mount ground to a halt before the humble log cabin as he leapt from the saddle and raced inside. Without hesitation, he marched in a straight line to the primitive bookshelf along one of the walls.

Startled by his sudden appearance and determined gait, Sarah ceased her labors and turned to see Joseph rifling through his well-worn family Bible.

“Joseph” she said hesitantly. “Is everything alright?”

Finding the object of his desire, he held up the small, square piece of paper, studying it intently. Without averting his gaze, he responded.

“Sarah …” he paused. “Uh, YES …everything is fine. Can you tell me where I can locate your husband?”

“Why, he should be working around the smokehouse. He wanted to gather some kindling for when you returned.”

“I may need his assistance for a while but I promise that he’ll be back soon.”

The young mother debated whether she should pursue the subject further, weighing her insistent curiosity over Joseph’s blatant anxiety. Respecting his self-imposed reluctance, she refrained.

Carefully placing the sepia card in his breast pocket, Joseph headed out behind the cabin to enlist the aid of his industrious houseguest.

“Isaiah, I’ve found something that you need to see.”

Disturbed by McKenna’s wide-eyed pallor, Stewart dropped the bundle of branches and strode up to meet him.

“Joseph my friend, you look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet! What’s the matter?”

“Words fail me right now; I’m going to have to show you.”

Without hesitation, Stewart accompanied the sure-footed McKenna to the barn to prepare his horse. As Isaiah hoisted his saddle, Joseph retrieved the rolled canvas wagon cover stored in the barn’s rafters.

With the initial frenzy of discovery abated, Joseph calmly led the way, remaining silent until arriving at their destination.

“I’ve said nothing to Sarah of what you’re about to see. I leave that to you and your discretion.”

“Fair enough Joseph, do you want to give me some kind of inkling?”

McKenna bowed his head.

“Yes … brace yourself!”
Joseph laid the tarp across his shoulders as the pair continued on foot. The sense of impending dread began to build in Stewart’s mind as he caught the first malodorous hint in the air. Before cresting the slight rise at the edge of the fateful ditch, McKenna cleared the path of brush so that he could prepare the site for the inevitable investigation.

Isaiah gasped deeply then let out a tortured groan. His legs buckled, falling to his knees as the heinous sight before him accosted every facet of his sensibilities. Unceremoniously cast into the shallow ravine were the tattered remains of what appeared to be a small family of three settlers, a man, a woman and a young girl.

Unable to rise to his feet, Stewart alternated between brief glimpses of the grievous carnage and uncontrolled broken sobbing. Joseph gave him a comforting squeeze on the shoulder but doubted that it would accomplish the desired effect.

Not only had the bodies suffered the ravages of the merciless high-plains elements but also the fervent enthusiasm of the many predators, great and small, that prowled the region.

Several of the unfortunate party’s limbs were found scattered about the floor of the narrow wash, probably torn free for easy consumption. The horrible spectacle was a mass of desiccated flesh, gnawed bone and shredded clothing, compounded by the presence of such a young innocent among them.

Unable to endure the imagery for more than a brief glimpse, it took some time before Isaiah realized the most ghastly aspect of the appalling event, the undeniable hand of man that brought this family to such a grizzly end.

Each corpse, including that of the precious child, bore the distinctive mark of a bullet to the brain; this ill-fated family had been murdered!

Driven to his feet in outrage, Stewart could now see the final insult to their short-lived dreams; all three had been viciously scalped, a jagged incision circling their heads at the temple. He turned away in despair.

McKenna had methodically cleared away the brush from around the edges of the ravine, gathering rocks to anchor the tarp that would cover the site until authorities could be summoned.

“Joseph …” Stewart choked back his anguish. “I understand why you brought me here.”

McKenna halted his task to listen.

“I’ve been struggling with my anger over our great misfortune at having to endure those wretched creatures near two weeks past. But I see now that our fate could have been considerably worse had we run into the savages that performed this atrocity!”

Joseph sighed; he knew what Stewart was thinking. “‘Tweren’t Indians that did this, they might have taken the horses but they wouldn’t have use for the wagon. So where is it?”

Stewart began scanning the surrounding area, not a single article common to white settlers was even remotely conspicuous.

“Well … then who!?”

McKenna took a deep breath. “Isaiah, have a look at the mother’s dress.”

In the melee of flesh and bone, Stewart hadn’t noticed the cleanly sliced line running dead center of the woman’s floral print house dress.

In an instant, he was back on his knees, devastated by the revelation delivered by this one alarming fragment of familiarity. The scene took on a completely new horror for the broken settler as the nameless faces momentarily assumed the identities of his beloved family.

Joseph rolled out the cover, draping it over the bodies with reverence. Isaiah recovered sufficiently enough to assist, placing stones along the edges. Once secured, they tied marker flags to the brush to make it stand out for easy location.

Having readied the site, they returned to their horses, mounting up for their respective rides. Isaiah would rejoin his family to console them while Joseph set off to alert the Captain in La Junta.

Before leaving, McKenna offered one parting question.

“Do you think they’ll see justice now?”


Joseph’s account drew great interest from Captain Ferguson and the men of the small town garrison. Tucker’s consistently smug countenance faded quickly as the soldiers’ demeanors turned decidedly hostile, soured by the evidence mounting against their unseemly captives.

Comparison of McKenna’s salvaged photo to the impounded wagon in the livery provided a direct connection between the casualties at Purgatory and the men held in custody. Their slipshod attempt to conceal its identity with a haphazard coat of diluted gray pigment could not mask the custom cut notch of its original owner, a practical addition to help steady his Hawken rifle, both clearly evident in the photograph.

With picture in hand, the Captain went about town interviewing likely contacts, the staff of the Draper, local merchants and several townsfolk. Joseph’s informative waitress remembered the little girl, having complimented her on her lovely bonnet some two months back.

The Draper’s proprietor provided names for the tragic faces; Daniel and Eunice Chandler, parents to six year old Tabitha. They had hailed from far away Baltimore, having made the trip in stages, much like McKenna and his family, as seasons permitted.

Within a few short hours, they had what they needed for just cause, but delayed levying additional charges until the crime scene could be examined first hand.

With Joseph’s guidance, the troop arrived at the site with full intention of spending the night, giving all due respect to the careful disposition of the Chandler’s remains. Many of Ferguson’s men remained haunted by the tragedy for some months to come while others returned with a heightened sense of outrage.

Word quickly spread throughout the citizenry, inspiring many to talk of taking matters into their own hands. As an added precaution, Captain Ferguson ordered the relocation of the prisoners to the nearby adobe ruins of Bent’s Fort for their protection until attorneys could be secured for their defense.

As people began to talk, new questions were raised regarding rumors of other travelers reported missing through the valley and surrounding areas. Moved by what he’d seen below McKenna’s mesa, Ferguson ordered search parties to scour the Purgatory Valley and the Old Santa Fe for likely sites of ambush.

Blue coated men became frequent visitors to the remote ranch, stopping for a hot cup of coffee and fresh biscuits, made by enthusiastic hands. On one such occasion, Master Sergeant Opus Winslow discreetly reported to McKenna that the Captain’s intuitive action had already yielded results further south of their location.

Another five bodies had been discovered entangled among the rocks down river, apparently swept up by seasonal flooding. Little had been preserved apart from the distinctive scoring of their skulls and obvious bullet wounds to the head but a definite pattern had emerged.

“What kind of madness did I stumble upon Sergeant!? Please tell me that it ends there!”

“I’m sorry Mr. McKenna, but I can’t say for sure. We’ve had another detachment trolling the Santa Fe and they seem to have found some random bones, nothing conclusive but they’re definitely human.”

Joseph shook his head. “Let’s try to keep this to ourselves for now Opus; I don’t want the ladies to catch wind of it, agreed?”

The sympathetic soldier nodded, rejoining his men to continue the grim assignment in the valley below.

As tensions mounted, the Governor of the territory became actively involved, bolstering military presence and demanding frequent updates of the Captain’s progress. The investigation soon became national news as reporters from as far away as Boston, New York and San Francisco set up press tents to cover the event.

When the trial finally commenced, the La Junta Telegraph line became abuzz with activity as newspapermen, government officials and curious spectators jammed the wire round the clock.

Emotive orators from both sides of the courtroom commandeered the attentions of an eager gallery with titillating tales of troubled pasts and considerably more disturbing presents. McKenna and the Stewarts made themselves available for the proceedings but had little desire to keep appraised of anything more than the effects of their own testimonies.

The prosecutor made great fanfare of the evidence obtained, parading Sarah’s parted garment in one hand then dramatically seizing the faded, bloody remnant of Eunice Chandler’s in the other. Utilizing the same technique, Joseph’s photo was held high before the jury then, after a strategic pause, compared to a recent version taken of the impounded wagon, replicating the precise angle and distance as the first.

With eight demonstrated victims and another four suspected, it took little time for the jurors to return with a verdict of guilty on all counts!


Joseph and Isaiah remained in town for the inevitable sentencing decree then mounted up discreetly for the long ride home. Sarah elected to stay with the children through the final phase, preferring the quiet solitude of McKenna’s ranch to the cacophony of voices now common in the streets of La Junta.

As the silent pair approached the humble ranch house, Sarah came through the door to greet them, drying her hands of the day’s wash. She’d made a point of sending the girls out back with the chore of shucking corn so that the men could deliver the news.

“Well …?” she asked.

The men removed their hats. “Guilty” was Isaiah’s response.

Sarah nodded sadly, “And the sentence …?”

Joseph shook his head, gazing at his hatband. “They’re already building the gallows.”

“I see” she said with a somber sigh. “Come inside, the both of you. Supper’s just about ready.”


The wheels of justice took on a feverish momentum in the weeks that followed. Fueled by the heinous nature of their crimes and the public outcry for swift justice, the trio of brigands scarcely had seen the advent of the next moon before they would stand upon the rough-hewn scaffold.

Stewart and McKenna had no interest in witnessing the public spectacle, rather spending their time constructing a new cabin to house the Stewart family at the other end of the plateau. They would become partners in a new venture, ultimately establishing the largest apple orchard in the territory.

As for Tucker’s band and their stifled entrepreneurial aspirations, their unclaimed goods were auctioned off to the highest bidder, commanding a hefty price given their colossal notoriety.

In a bitter irony, their repulsive efforts would serve to line the pockets of every one of their competitors in the small desert town. The publicity of their trial had brought national attention to the depot centered community, drawing hundreds from far and wide to bear witness to the first triple hanging in Colorado history.

Merchants joined forces and inventories in an effort to capitalize on the monumental event, accommodating the festive visitors with all manner of consumable delights and curiosities.

The tumultuous festivities waned just as rapidly as the three men’s bodies cooled in the nearby Potter’s Field, leaving many with profits unseen in their lifetimes.

None would dare praise the despicable acts of their former colleagues, but few could resist raising a glass in toast of their passing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Highwaymen 2

Joseph settled into the drafty log structure after a thorough going over with broom and shovel. The sand and debris had accumulated three inches thick in the corners and edges due to its open state of neglect. Furnishings were few; a couple of reed-seated side chairs and a frontier bench, but only one item remaining was a necessity, the broad topped cast iron stove, centrally located in the living space.

The wind whistled through cracks between the logs since virtually all of the chinking had crumbled to dust. The place was going to require some extensive work but the bones were solid and the cedar shake roof was at least passable.

After unhitching the wagon and horses, McKenna took the opportunity to walk the property and familiarize himself further with this new adventure. There was a well house out front with a frayed rope and bucket for retrieval. Joseph hoisted the wooden pail and gave it a whiff to see if the water was potable. Clean, clear and cool, he gladly took a sip then set out to lead the horses down to the creek to slack their thirst.

Running alongside the steady flowing stream, Joseph could see clear indications of attempts at cultivation. Most of the rows had faded with the incessant breeze but patches of wild wheat, corn and melon still remained though parched from lack of irrigation.

McKenna shook his head. He could only imagine how the previous tenant likely approached the task of watering his crops, standing ankle deep in the creek tossing or passing buckets one by one to feed the needy plant life. The method might have been effective in less arid climes, but the high plains had a ceaseless thirst, unquenched by spotty efforts such as that.

Joseph’s mechanically minded eye easily determined the remedy; a sixty-foot trench, controlled by a sluice gate, could have connected the field via the natural contours simply by digging an inlet at the creek’s higher elevation, one hundred yards to the north. One glance toward the family graveyard caused Joseph to grieve for their loss, likely preventable by this one simple act of engineering.

He returned to the cabin, determined to redeem this ranch and bring life and a living back to the dusty plateau.


The days passed quickly as McKenna busied himself with the many tasks necessary in the reclamation of a once treasured symbol of promise. Mixing clay with dried straw, the drafty gaps in the walls were sealed. He replaced the cracked, leather strap-hinges of the front door with factory forged pin swingers, a product of his former venue. Within one week, the old homestead became downright presentable!

The woodstove kept him warm and fed though the fare was sorely lacking in diversity. Snaring rabbit was a near effortless pursuit as their abundance approached the status of infestation. After several meals of the gamey rodent, questionable providence afforded Joseph the opportunity to sample a dime novel delicacy, high plains rattlesnake!

A three-footer had slithered out from under one of the loose floorboards to McKenna’s great trepidation. A quick sprint to retrieve the makeshift snake-snare from the barn rewarded the determined settler with a writhing mass of fresh reptilian cuisine. Split and stripped, he tacked the menacing skin to the timbers of the front porch then roasted the grayish chunks of meat.                                                                                           

McKenna noted the flavor to be that of “lamp-oily fish”, decidedly destined to join the growing ranks of the inedible in this new environment.

Though his supply of mealtime staples was more than adequate, fresh meat would not keep without preparation. Having stabilized the sod mound and shuttered the window openings, Joseph outfitted the former shelter, repurposed to become a big game smokehouse.

With his belly craving more civilized substance, McKenna prepared to saddle up and hunt the local antelope, spotted grazing in profusion throughout the valley. With his rifle in hand and Navy Colt at his hip, he grabbed his hat on his way out to the corral.

Joseph smiled as he glanced at the hat’s recent ornamentation, a belt made from the hide of the ill-fated rattler. Hating to waste the decorative band, he’d pondered what possible use he could employ, then in a moment of inspiration, it came to him. He’d remembered the tale of the Ouroborus, the ancient symbol for perpetuity, depicted by a ravenous snake eating its own tail. With the head as buckle and the fangs as clasps, Joseph declared his determination to carry on in this new land with every tip of his hat.


Saddled and mounted, he turned his robust draught horse toward the trail to begin running the ridge overlooking the valley below.

Two hours into riding the range, Joseph halted the beast to crane his ear and determine the source of a noise uncommon in this empty vastness, human voices. In possession of a good sense of reckoning, McKenna located the area, confirmed by the sight of movement in the distance along the valley trail.

He could make out no words but the tempo of their utterance suggested definite indications of distress. Descending the ridgeline, he wove his way through the brush and spotty evergreens in the hopes of getting a better look before approaching them openly. Many a settler became skittish on the open road, oftentimes shooting long before the asking of questions.

Dismounting discreetly, McKenna tied off his horse and proceeded on foot. Occasionally catching brief phrases, he was close enough to make distinctions between the voices; several males and at least one female … whimpering.

One of the men blurted out pained protests while the others seemed to sound amused, apparently quite pleased with themselves. At this, Joseph took to crawling the rest of the way, inching toward the ridge of the gully where the troubling drama was unfolding.

It was then that he was able to grasp the severity of the situation, three men accosting a family of likely travelers, settlers yet to arrive at their destination. One held sway over the other two with pistol in hand, directing their actions.

A heavy-set oaf draped in a threadbare overcoat was given the task of subduing the father with a boot planted in his lower back, clutching his hair and forcing him to watch. The other appeared to be in his younger twenties, pinning the woman to the ground on her back with an outstretched arm.

Joseph could not yet make out their faces as all three had their backs toward him, but the voice of the leader seemed vaguely familiar. Given the high sign by the man with the pistol, the dirty-blond molester proudly brandished a large hunting knife, gleaming in the midday sun.

The young cretin turned his head and smiled. It was then that McKenna got his first glimpse of recognition; it was Josiah Tucker’s loathsome associate! Identifying the other two became a simple matter of deduction.

Joseph anxiously searched for a means to defuse the situation. It became obvious what was next on their horrid agenda, a heinous violation of body and mind for the woman and indelibly tortured memories for those forced to witness the tragedy. McKenna had to act, and do so quickly.

With hoots of encouragement from his enthusiastic companions, the odious rascal positioned himself between the woman’s knees then guided the glinting blade between the house dress and her violently trembling skin, the tip emerging at the bodice. Turning the edge upward, he pulled the knife slowly back toward him as the fabric parted effortlessly to either side. The appearance was that of a man gutting a fish from the inside!

The husband bellowed in weeping anguish while his children sobbed uncontrollably in the back of their wagon, too small to warrant restraint. Joseph grit his teeth, desperate for an opportunity to intervene without acting out of sheer rashness.

Nothing came to him guaranteeing success with surety so McKenna would have to rely on his grim determination and firm standing on moral high ground. He grabbed a nearby stone and hurled it high and long towards the ridge beyond the trio, distracting their attentions until he could get in position. When all had turned, he quietly raced down the embankment, stopping at a place of perfect advantage in the flat behind them.

“Hold your place, the lot of you!!”

The men froze, slowly turning only their heads. McKenna had managed to maintain a clear line of fire for all three, avoiding the endangerment of their captives. Tucker’s pistol arm was in plain view, pointed toward the gully floor, while the large one eyed his shotgun, leaning against a rock behind him, just out of reach.
“Easy feller” Tucker said calmly. “We ain’t got no truck with you or yours, we were just funnin’ these folks.”  

Joseph glanced at the face of each family member, fraught with sheer terror.

Funnin’!?” McKenna struggled to suppress his rage. “I don’t see none of them laughing!! Drop the six-gun to the ground and put your hands on top of your heads!”

Tucker shook his head, smiling in cocky swagger. “And if I don’t …?” Without moving his arm, he discreetly cocked the pistol, ready to fire.

The stalwart settler had had enough; he aimed his repeater just above Josiah’s elbow. Mimicking Tucker’s Kentucky twang, he gave his response.

Suit yer self …”

McKenna exhaled softly then pulled the trigger. The thunderous report resounded off the canyon walls, followed closely by the tortured howl of the wretched leader’s cries of agony. The bullet shattered the bones of his upper arm, exiting the front and taking a sizable chunk in passing. Tucker’s Colt fell to the desert floor with a clatter.

Joseph shifted his attention to the burly associate, too dumbstruck to venture an attempt. He reluctantly raised his hands in compliance.

Bold as brass but duller than a burnt wick, the wall-eyed delinquent took this as his opportunity to retrieve the knife from his belt, now draped around his ankles.

“Boy, I’d just as soon spare a bullet and take out your good eye, now pull the pig sticker out by the fingertips and toss it to the side!”

Defiant but undeniably defeated, he did as instructed.

“And for God’s sake …pull your pants up!!”

McKenna gathered the uninjured highwaymen to either side of their wailing captain, positioning them on their knees prone and vulnerable. Once they were contained, his focus shifted to the victims.

He motioned to one of the girls. “Young lady, fetch me a blanket and bring it to your mama …quickly!”

The two of them leapt from the wagon, running to the troubled woman’s aid, draping her with the woolen cover.

With a watchful eye on the kneeling criminals, Joseph hurried to free the husband. “What’s your name sir?” he asked.

The man kept his attentions fixed on the young blond scoundrel as McKenna undid his bindings. “Name’s Stewart … Isaiah Stewart.” He shook McKenna’s hand despite the deep chafing of his wrists.

“Joseph McKenna, go see to your wife and we’ll talk later.”

With the innocent freed, Joseph set about trussing the three offenders with rawhide strips tied behind their backs, taking no small measure of delight at their discomfort.

Isaiah enveloped his wife with a tearful embrace then carefully checked to see if she’d sustained injury. He consoled his daughters, dropping to one knee and wiping their cheeks with his sleeve. Giving them assurance and comfort, he sent the three of them to rest in the wagon while he and this kind stranger dealt with the vile trio.  

With each step closer to the repulsive band, Stewart’s sorrow abated, replaced by a mounting sense of rage. While Joseph scanned the terrain to locate their horses, Isaiah paced before the three, stomping the dust with each footfall.

“Mr. McKenna …” he said. “Could I trouble you for your revolver?”

Tucker and his subordinates stirred at the request, exchanging anxious glances and muttering amongst themselves.

“I have a right … to justice!” Stewart added sternly.

Joseph sighed as he joined the despairing settler. “True enough Isaiah, I might be considering the same in your place but are you sure you want to go down that road?”

At this the three began to protest, fidgeting desperately in their bonds. Seemingly incapable of self-restraint, the wall-eyed masher blurted out their paltry defense.

“Hey! We didn’t hurt nobody!!”

The two men standing turned in unison, filled with disgust.  Joseph came alongside the kneeling creature and poked him hard in the side of his temple with the business end of his rifle, drawing blood.

“I think the lady might beg to differ, and what about these two?” He motioned toward their precious daughters. “They’re bearing scars that may never heal! Now shut your yap or I’ll shut it for you!”

See what I mean!?” Stewart roared. “This deviant’s right to live is forfeit and I’ve been tasked to take it!!”

“Have you …? And who has given you this grievous assignment, your wife …your little girls? Or is it God himself!?”

McKenna knew that few would deny the distraught husband’s entitlement to redeem his wife’s honor. He also realized that the alternative was also exclusively in the troubled man’s hands, the act of mercy.

With great reluctance, Joseph drew the Navy Colt from its holster and handed it to the grimly determined man.

Realizing that Stewart’s vengeful attentions were focused solely on their unfortunate associate, Tucker and his portly partner shifted in the gravelly floor, leaning away from their colleague as he began kicking his feet in an attempt to retreat.

Joseph took to binding Tucker’s arm with his folded bandana as Isaiah leveled the weighty pistol with both hands. In a feeble attempt to intervene, Tucker whispered pleas of justification in McKenna’s ear for the boy, claiming mental deficiency and the like. Joseph was oblivious, instead, calmly giving instruction.

“Mr. Stewart …you’ll first need to pull the hammer back.”

Isaiah complied

His hands began to tremble, so much so that Joseph wondered whether he might fire inadvertently.”Mr. Stewart …Isaiah, look at your wife and children. They’ve seen far more than anyone should have to, are you going to add this to their memory?”

McKenna’s words struck the settler’s fractured soul, wondering whether his motivations were driven solely by his own sense of indignation. He wrestled internally with his thoughts, shaking his head as if to cast out the undesirable, alternating his expression from rage to self-loathing despair.  

The quivering youth winced at each facial display, certain that his death would come with the next grimace. In moments, the spectacle dissipated, leaving Isaiah bearing a countenance of ambivalent resignation.

Stewart took in several deep breaths, calming his nerves. With tears in his eyes, he slowly exhaled then gently pulled the trigger … carefully returning the hammer to the position of safety with his thumb.

McKenna heaved a sigh of relief, as did the others, the flinching monster would live another day and this father of two would not have to bear vengeful blood on his hands.


Stewart’s wife Sarah recovered as best as she could, washing her face and retrieving a new dress from the wagon. She wanted to rip the old one into shreds, tossing the tattered remnants into the river as if to cast it out of her recollection but Joseph insisted that she refrain, preferring to preserve it as evidence in the rogues’ trial.

“Isaiah, you’ll have to help me bring these three to town to levy charges, but the women can move on to my cabin until we return.”

Sarah nodded in agreement, cupping her husband’s face in her hands with a tearful kiss. The girls hugged their Papa by the waist then joined their mother at the buckboard and were off.

Having sent the women on their way, the men rejoined the disreputable trio, preparing their horses for the wearisome ride back to La Junta.

Jesse Browning, the blond violator, gave little resistance, apparently still ruminating over his near death experience. Tucker, on the other hand, took a more diplomatic approach, offering gushing apologies absent of discernible sincerity, peppered with promises of copious financial compensation. Farley Chapman, the hefty “jailer”, maintained his silence with wide-eyed obsession, anxiously preoccupied with his newfound circumstance of captivity. 

Joseph strung their horses’ leaders together at the bridles to insure that none of them could break from the train individually, with the head charger tied to Joseph’s saddle horn.  Bound behind their backs, the three were incapable of disengaging the leaders and powerless to resist McKenna’s guidance out of the valley and on to La Junta.


Captain Ferguson gladly received Tucker and his cadre of criminals in the post brig, sequestering them in the lap of gray bar luxury. Their collection of goods stored by the depot were dutifully catalogued and secured in the impound livery behind the barracks for safe keeping while they awaited trial.

“Mr. Stewart” the Captain said. “First, I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies for what you and your family have endured. I promise you that we will do our utmost to bring these men to justice.”

Isaiah nodded.

“But I must tell you that I cannot guarantee that it will be to your satisfaction. The most we can expect, given yours and Mr. McKenna’s testimonies, are charges of assault, possibly malicious detainment. The sentence for such infractions likely will not exceed six months, perhaps eight at most.”

Stewart groaned. He removed his hat, slapping it against his thigh, running his fingers through his hair. “And then they’ll be back at their table, prowling for the next victim!?”

Ferguson sighed, “Not if I can help it sir, but yes … they’ll be free.”

Isaiah and Joseph shared a glance; both wondering at the wisdom of their merciful generosity. Thanking the good captain, the pair mounted up for the long ride “home.”

Isaiah and company would have to remain in the region until the circuit judge arrived at the outpost to litigate Tucker’s men, just under two weeks from that day. Joseph graciously offered his humble homestead to the young family until their roles in this tragic drama were ultimately fulfilled.

To Be Continued…