Moon stopped at White Tanks on the way home “to put in an appearance,” he told Kate, say hello to the reservation Apaches he hadn't seen in weeks and sort through his mail-any directives, bulletins or other bullshit he might have received from Washington.
Kate said she was glad she didn't have to read it. She would go home and light the fire. He watched her take off across the pasture toward the brushy slope and start up the switchback trail that climbed through the field of saguaro, watching her until she was a tiny speck, his little wife up there on the mountain, and said to himself, “You know how lucky you are?” He was anxious to get home to her. Maybe he'd look at the mail but check on the reservation people tomorrow.
He sat down at his desk though, to read the letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Interior Department, Washington, D.C. It took him about a quarter of an hour to find out all the two and a half pages of official language actually said was, he was fired…would be relieved of his duties for disregarding such and such, as of a date three months from now. Fired because he hadn't brought his Indians down off the mountain, failing to comply with directive number…some long number. The fools. They could have said it in two words.
He'd go home and tell Kate and watch her eyes open-Kate poised there, not knowing whether to show relief or rail at the imbeciles in the bureau, pausing and then asking, “Well, how do you feel about it?”
How did he feel?
Relief, yes, able to wade out of the official muck, walk off. Or would he be walking out, leaving the reservation people when they needed him? Well, they may need somebody, but he wasn't doing them a hell of a lot of good, was he? And what difference did it make now, since he didn't have a choice but to leave? Thinking about all that at once, blaming himself for not having thought of an answer sooner…and hearing the bootsteps on the porch, the ching-ing sound, without first hearing a horse approach-
The Mexican stood in the open doorway. The one from Sonora. The one from Duro's yard with the white flag. Hesitant. Raising his hands from his sides.
“You didn't walk here,” Moon said.
“I didn't want to startle you. Maybe you come out shooting you hear me,” Ruben Vega said. “Listen to me and believe it, all right? I don't work for Sundeen no more, but he's up on the mountain.”
“Where?” Moon came out of his swivel chair.
“Going to your house.”
“When was this?”
“Last night, very late.”
Moon came around his desk and Ruben Vega had to get out of his way. He followed Moon out to the porch.
“Wait. I want to tell you something. I didn't see him up there, I heard it, where he's going.”
Moon, at his horse gathering the reins, looked up at the Mexican. “Tell it quick.”
“See, I quit him. I went to Benson. I was going to go home, but I decide after all the years, after all the bad things I done-”
Moon stepped up into his saddle.
“I came back here to do some good, be on the good side for a change-whether you believe me or not.” He saw Moon's look. “Listen to me, all right? I came back, I stop by this place where I believe his men have been waiting, the J-L-Bar, an old, wornout place. Yes, there they are. They say, where you been? Listen-”
Moon was reining, moving out.
“They say to me Sundeen comes tonight and we go up the mountain to get the man name Moon. You hear me?” Shouting it.
Ruben Vega ran to his horse ground-tied in the pasture. Maybe he would catch up to Moon already racing for the brush slope, maybe he wouldn't.
She'd say to him, “Come on to bed.” He'd say, “It's daytime.” She'd say, “I mean to sleep,” after riding most the night-God, she had been glad to see him coming out the road with the lights of Sweetmary behind him. She wanted at least to hug and kiss him awhile, touch him, make sure he was here.
Kate built a fire in the stove and put on a pot of coffee before going outside again to tend Goldie. She led the palomino around the house to the corral that was made of upright mesquite poles wired together. This pen was attached to a timber and thatched-roof structure open at both ends that served as a horse barn. Kate heard the sound-a horse hoof on gravel…a soft whinny…then silence-as she was leading Goldie across the corral.
She looked through the barn to the back of the property where open graze reached to a brush thicket and a tumble of boulders. There the ground began to climb again. An Apache could be passing by. Even when Moon said they were close she rarely saw one, unless they were coming out and wanted to be seen. They kept to themselves. Red, the little bow-legged chief, was the only one she had ever spoken to; the women just grinned when she tried talking to them in Spanish learned from Moon. Yes, it could be an Apache going by. Her gaze raised to the escarpment of seamed rock standing against the sky. Or they might be up there watching over her.
But she had the feeling someone else was much closer. She turned to Goldie, patting her as she moved back to the saddlebags, raised the leather flap close to her face and drew the .38 double-action revolver Moon had given her that time in Sonora and had given to her again in the past month.
Someone was watching her. Not Apaches, someone else.
Kate led Goldie back to the mesquite-pole gate, dragged it open enough to let them through. As she prepared to mount-looking over the saddle and through the open-ended barn again, she saw the four riders coming out of the brush thicket, walking their horses, looking right at her. Kate stepped into the saddle kicking, turned the corner to the front of the house and reined in, not knowing what to do, Goldie sidestepping, nervous, feeling Kate's heels and the reins and, between the two, Kate's indecision.
Sundeen sat his mount with two riders near. A bunch more were by the adobe wall and coming through the gate on foot, all of them holding rifles.
“Well, it's been a long time,” Kate said, resigned.
“What?” Sundeen studied her, not knowing what she meant.
“You don't remember, do you?”
Sundeen, squinting now, shook his head.
“One time, I was twelve years old playing by the river,” Kate said. “You come along, tried to pull my britches down and I smacked you with a rock.”
“Jesus Christ,” Sundeen said, “down Lanoria.”
“You were grown then, too, you dirty pervert.”
“Yeah, I believe I recall that-hit me with a big goddamn rock.” He looked at one of his riders who was wearing a vest and derby hat. “Thing musta weighed five pounds. Hit me square on the forehead with it.” Sundeen nudged his horse forward. “So you're the one, huh? You should've give in that time and seen the elephant at an early age.” Still coming toward her. “Or I could give you another chance while we're waiting around.” He pulled in then. “Hey now-but you better throw that gun down first.”
Kate raised the .38 from her lap. “Or I could put a hole in the other side of your face, match the one you already got.”
“Sweetheart,” Sundeen said, “before you could aim that parlor gun I'd have sent you off to the angels. Now let it fall.”
Of course, the man was thinking of his wife. Ruben Vega realized this. He should have realized also-knowing something about Moon-the man would control his emotion and not ride blindly up the ravine to be shot from his saddle. So Ruben Vega was able to catch up with the man once they were in the high rocks, somewhere north of the ravine, perhaps on an approach to the side or back of the house; Ruben Vega wasn't exactly sure where they were when he reached Moon. Or when the Apache appeared ahead of them, waiting in the trail. One moment the steep terrain ahead empty, the next moment the dark little half-naked man standing there with a carbine and a cartridge belt around his skirt. A headband of dark wool, as dark as his dark-leather face; he could be an old man, or any age.
The Apache, Red, motioned and went off through the towering outcropping of rocks, through a seam that became a trail when they dismounted and followed, winding, climbing through the rock and brush until the trail opened and the entire sky seemed to be close above them, a very clear soft blue. A beautiful day to feel good and be alive, the Mexican was thinking. Except for the situation, the man's wife-Moon and the Apache, and now three more Apaches who had appeared from nowhere, were looking down the wall of rock…as though from the top of a church steeple, the Mexican thought, seeing the stone side of the house below, the thatched roof of a barn, a corral, riders in the front yard…the glint of the woman's blonde hair in the sunlight close to Sundeen…Yes, it was Sundeen and two others…four more coming from the corral side of the house…the rest of them out by the adobe wall, watching the approach from the ravine.
A good day, the Mexican thought, feeling alive and yet calm inside. A day he would mark in his mind, whatever the date was. He would find it out later.
He said to Moon, “Is there a way down from here?”
Moon looked at him. The man could skip all the questions in his mind and trust him or not.
Moon said, “You go down…then what?”
The man was open. He had nothing to lose by listening.
“You stay behind me, out of sight,” Ruben Vega said. “Come in close as you can when I talk to him.”
“Tell him what?”
“I don't know. What comes in my mind. He'll be curious a few minutes-where have you been, partner? All that. Then you have to be close. I can talk to him some more, but it comes out the same in the end, uh? He isn't going to say to your wife, go on, stay out of the way. So-” the Mexican shrugged.
“Thirteen of them,” Moon said.
“More than that last night at the J-L-Bar. He hired some more maybe he send someplace else, I don't know.” Moon was staring at him again and Ruben Vega said, “I never done this before, but it's a good day to begin. Now, how do you get down from here?”
There were ten at the adobe wall now, dismounted. One with a derby hat sat his horse in the middle of the yard, a Winchester across his lap, squinting up at the high rocks. One on the porch was holding a coffee pot. Sundeen, still mounted, was gazing about, looking up at the rocks trying to see something, nervous or not sure with that high ground above him. Moon's wife was still on the palomino: as though Sundeen hadn't made up his mind yet, keep her here or take her somewhere, or trying to think of a way to use her.
Good, Ruben Vega thought, approaching the yard from the corral side of the house, almost to the yard before they saw him. Very good.
“I think you need me,” the Mexican said, “for eyes. Man, I ride up, you don't even see me.”
Sundeen gave him a patient look, shaking his head. “Where the hell you been?”
“I went to Benson to go to church,” Ruben Vega said.
“Yeah, I know, piss all your money away and come back for some more, haven't you? Well, make yourself useful, partner. Ride on down a ways and see if he's coming.”
“I already did,” Ruben Vega said. “He's coming up pretty soon, over there,” pointing to the wall where the shooters were waiting with their rifles, not wearing their suitcoats now, several of them with straw hats pulled down low.
The one in the derby hat rode over that way and Sundeen sat for some moments twisted around in his saddle, looking toward the wall.
Now, the Mexican thought, right hand on his thigh, inches from his revolver.
But he couldn't do it and the next moment it was too late. Sundeen was turning back to him.
Ruben Vega looked away. He saw the revolver on the ground next to the palomino. Moon's wife sat still, though her eyes moved and she listened. Of course, she listened. He wished he could tell her something: Be ready. Be watching me.
“What?” the Mexican said.
“Was he alone?”
“Yes. Maybe they can see him now,” the Mexican said and looked toward the wall again.
But Sundeen didn't turn this time and the Mexican had a strange feeling of relief, not having to decide in that moment to pull his gun…not wanting to shoot the man from a blind side, but not wanting to die either. So how was he supposed to do it? Thirty-seven years doing this, carrying a gun since he was fourteen years old, not worrying before about killing a man if he believed the man might kill him first. Why was he thinking about it now? Because he was getting old. Sundeen would say to him, you're getting old; and he would say, yes, because I'm still alive. It was a beautiful day and if it was going to be the one he'd remember he'd better do it now. Without thinking anymore.
But he thought of one more thing.
He said, “I'm taking the woman.”
Alerting her with his words.
But alerting Sundeen also-seeing his expression only for a moment puzzled.
His hand going to his holster, to the hard grip of the .44, the Mexican saw Sundeen's hand moving, and knew he shouldn't have said anything and now was going to lose…But the woman was moving, kicking her palomino around…as Sundeen's revolver cleared and he was firing and firing again…and, Christ, it was like being punched hard, hearing himself grunt with the wind going out of him and the .44 in his hand, trying to put it on Sundeen…ughhh, grunting again in the noise of something hard socking him in the chest…firing as he saw the blue sky and felt himself going back, falling-
Sundeen had several thoughts in the next moments:
That was a good horse, Ruben's, not to have moved under all that commotion, the horse standing there, his old segundo gone crazy and now dead on the ground.
Everybody back there see it? It was time he showed them something.
Three snap shots dead center. Any one would have killed the crazy Mexican.
Three shots. Two left in his Peacemaker-that thought hitting him all at once as he saw the movement, as he saw the Apaches first, Apaches, a bunch of them off in the scrub, and Moon appearing at the corner of the house, Moon yelling his wife's name. Moon blocked out for a moment as the palomino shot past him-the woman's blonde hair in the horse's blonde mane. Sundeen extended his Peacemaker and fired, saw Moon again, there he was, and tried to concentrate his aim on Moon with one load left-and the heavy fire came all at once from the scrub. Sundeen fired at Moon suddenly moving-shit-yanked his reins to get out of there, yelling, “Get'em, goddamn it…get'em!”
Moon wanted him so bad, putting his Colt's gun on the man tight-reining, kicking his horse, at the same time, seeing the ones way over by the wall raising their rifles, opening fire, and thinking, Kate, looking to see where she was-there, past him, still low in her saddle and cutting through the scrub to come around by the corral behind him. In that moment of concern letting Sundeen get the jump he needed, Sundeen beating his mount toward the shooters by the wall. Moon aimed stiff-armed, ignoring the shooters, pulled the trigger five times, holding the sawed-off in his left hand and wishing he had the Sharps for just one, take his time and right then, blow out Sundeen's soul as his horse cleared the wall and there he was for a split moment against the sky. But not today.
Now it was Moon's turn to get out of there.
They withdrew to high ground, Moon, his wife and his Apaches, and took careful shots at the figures crouched on the other side of the wall now. The figures would return fire, shooting at puffs of smoke. Ruben Vega's body lay in the yard, his chestnut horse nuzzling him as though it were grazing.
“Keep 'em away from the house,” Moon said.
Kate remembered the one on the porch with the coffee pot, the fresh coffee she'd made for her husband, and said there was one already in there.
After awhile heavy black smoke began to pour out of the stone chimney.
“He's burning the place,” Kate said. “He's burning our home.”
Moon waited in the high rocks with his Sharps rifle, seeing, from this angle, the side and back of the house, the clay-tile roof and most of the yard, but not the porch, the front of the house. The thick smoke billowed up from the chimney.
When the smoke began to seep out across the yard from the front, Moon judging it was coming out of the door and windows, he raised the Sharps and pressed his cheek to the smooth stock, the big curled hammer eased back in front of his eyes, the barrel pointing into the yard, and waited.
Finally Kate said, “There he is.”
Moon saw the figure appear beyond his front sight, running for the wall. There was a faint sound, the men down there yelling, cheering him on. The figure reached the wall and bounded up to go over it in one motion. Moon paused, seeing the man stop and draw himself up to stand on the wall with hands on his hips and look around at his work…the smoke pouring out of the house.
Another fool, Moon thought. He shot the fool cleanly off the wall, the man dying as the heavy sound boomed out into the distance. It was not much satisfaction. After awhile Sundeen and his shooters pulled out.
Moon and Kate went down to their house, beat at the smoldering pockets of fire with blankets and dragged out the charred furniture that had been piled in the middle of the room. When this was done, Moon put the Mexican over his horse. They took him down to the White Tanks cemetery, buried him and recited a prayer over his grave. If they ever learned his name they would put up a marker.