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The Setting Of The Sun
"How the hell you gonna’ get him, Marshal Pike? Harry McPherson has ten men
riding with him. They killed the bank manager and a deputy sheriff while robbing
the bank in Lordsburg. He’s leading ex-confederate raiders and murdering
half-breeds. The McPherson gang is made up of renegades: Telly Sumner, Long Sam
Tobias, and Willy Peacock are riding with him. There’s talk even Charley Manx
joined the group. All those guerrillas are sadistic killers," Lieutenant Cory,
of the United States Fifth Cavalry, said to me.
Cory was a thin young man, from Massachusetts I guessed from his speech, with
freshly burnt skin from the Southwest’s persistent sun. He still wore an army
issue kepi rather than the wide-brimmed slouch hats popular with the western
cavalry units. Cory was West Point all the way. No problem: I was used to the
He wiped easy sweat–you didn’t have to work to earn it–from his brow and shook
his head back and forth. "No disrespect meant Marshal Pike, but this bunch are
experienced fighters and they know the ground. I don’t think you have much of a
Sanders’ Station was on the Ox-bow Trail just the other side of Apache Pass from
Fort Bowie near the New Mexico/Arizona border. The whiskey at the station was
raw, unsophisticated. It burned it’s way down my throat and did keep the promise
of numbing the ache in my back and flanks. But even the alcohol could do nothing
against the heat of the Arizona sun after riding for four days to meet the
cavalry troop and this negative-minded lieutenant.
In the summer of 1868 Arizona was contested territory. During 1862 Cochise,
Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo marshaled a force of 700 Apache warriors to
defend Apache Pass from 126 Californians, Union volunteers, trying to come into
New Mexico. The Federals were easily trapped by the Apaches in the narrow canyon
but the expedition had two, twelve-pound mountain howitzers. These cannons fired
canisters that detonated above the heights the Indians occupied and shredded
them with shrapnel. Cochise wisely broke off the attack. Despite this show of
industrial technology the Apache wars were to last another twenty years. Cochise
broke his forces up into raiding parties and sent them far and wide. Mangas
Coloradas, during a moment of weak judgment, surrendered and was murdered by
vengeful whites. And Geronimo: he fought on for another generation, an
exceptional zealot amongst history’s worthiest desert warriors; his passion to
resist Anglo domination of his land being almost biblical.
But during Cochise’s time, 1868, Arizona was also where certain ex-Confederate
guerrillas had a free hand to rob and murder. Or, at least they thought they
had. My boss thought different and he sent me here to see what I could do about
the situation. I’m Jason Pike, a United States Deputy Marshal.
I went to the window and looked out at the soldiers in their faded blues. The
dust covered horses were gathered around the single well of the remote desert
station. My eyes hurt from squinching from the sun off the desert and I was
tired of the sharp outlines of the sudden, and bleak mountain ranges of the
Southwest. I finished the whiskey, put the glass down, and went to talk to
Sergeant Magee. I left the lieutenant’s question for him to ponder. Cory was
mine to command whether he liked it or not.
"Hey, Magee, you fat fart," I shouted to an old friend. He turned and I knocked
his slouch hat off, dancing around him just out of his reach. His men laughed as
the bulky sergeant chased me across the yard. I jumped over the water trough
near the well and Magee almost fell in. When I turned I saw all the men smiling
at our antics.
Then I saw the rider galloping hard, his hat waving in his hand. There was a
cloud behind him growing fast from down the arroyo.
"Apaches," I yelled. "Form a skirmish line."
The lieutenant came outside and saw his scout beating hell and his horse to
reach us. Cory shouted orders.
Magee was already yelling at the men to get their weapons. The horses were moved
behind the building and a skirmish line of Springfield carbines and hard-faced
Federal regulars stood ready before the onslaught of the desert riders.
They came at the station and broke into two groups circling around us. Cory’s
men fired but the Apaches were staying out of effective range. I let the hammer
down slowly on my .45 Army Colt and holstered the heavy pistol on my left hip.
The Indians were showing off. It would be too costly for the Apache war party to
displace a troop of seasoned cavalry from buildings on the desert flats. After a
couple of circuits of the station they rode off.
There had been about fifty of them, almost naked in the summer heat, with rifles
or bows, in age from fifteen to fifty. They were the last generation of warriors
of a proud people. The Apaches were short, dark-skinned men as tough as the
desert and as splendid as the mountains they lived in, and the stars they lived
"Damn their black hearts," Magee said. "They almost made me fall in that water
trough." He was staring at me when he said that.
"For the love of God, Magee, the way you hold a scent the damn Indians would
have been doin’ us a favor," I responded and smiled back.
Reseated inside the station, with another drink, I was forced to give my
attention back to Cory when he was done outside. "What the hell about that,
Pike? I don’t know how I’m going to get back to the fort let alone go into those
mountains and grab a dozen renegades. You think those Apaches are gonna’ let us
out . . ."
"Shut up Cory," I said in what I hoped was a calm, deadly voice. "You’ve got
your orders, soldier. You’re at my disposal till I say different. I’ll set up
McPherson’s Bunch for you and then we ride home. If the Apache is intent on
tangling with us then we’ll do our damndest to take as many of them with us as
His face grew pale as I lectured, and he swallowed several times even though he
wasn’t eating or drinking anything. Apparently Cory did not know that army
lieutenants and US deputy marshals were expendable. Cory was a little shaken by
my plain talk but he sat still and I spent an hour explaining to the young
lieutenant what we were going to do. Cory did not like the briefing.
I rode out from the station just before sunset, and while it was hot and humid I
felt the lonely chill of fear; fear–I suppose–of dying alone out here. Yet it
was certainly no more attractive in the middle of a town street. The best of
deaths would be in bed when I am about eighty-four. I chuckled at that; not much
chance, not the way I chose to live my life.
* * * *
I started to find their tracks in the lower passes just after dawn. There were
eight to ten horses and five mules. I held up in a crag off a trail during the
hot part of the day and moved on when the sun dropped below the high western
range. They caught me just at sunset. There was really nothing for me to do. A
mean looking character just popped up from behind a rock and pointed a shotgun
at me. He directed me up the rocky gully to McPherson’s camp.
The men were in dirty and ragged shape. A man about forty-five, medium height
and build, rose and came forward. He had wrinkled, tired eyes, but seemed alert
and curious. The same was true for most of his group. The nucleus was made up of
men over thirty-five that had been with McPherson since 62'. They were men that
had not been able to gear down from the tension and excitement of the war, or
accept the surrender of the South. They were still at war and it did not seem to
matter with whom.
They crowded around me. "My name’s Joe Franks," I said.
"Franks, Yeah! I heard of you," McPherson said sitting down, a little bored.
"Supposed to be a smart crook and a fast gun. Are you smart and fast, Franks?"
Some of them laughed. I waited till they were quiet. "Fast enough. You thinking’
of trying me?" I flipped the leather thong back from the hammer of my Colt Army
"Nope. Just asking. You looking for a place to hide I take it?" McPherson asked.
"And maybe some work," I answered.
"I’z wanna’ kill im’. I’z ain’t killed nobody all week." None of them laughed at
that. They were all quiet.
A big man, at least six and a half feet tall, came out of the shadows. His
clothes, beard, and eyes were all coal black. He was a dirty and dangerous
sight, with two Remington pistols tucked in his belt. He was big boned and
looked to weigh at least two hundred and fifty pounds. When he smiled
sadistically at me I saw broken and green teeth. This was Charley Manx; I’d seen
his likeness before. He was a simple-minded brute and a prolific killer, a
murderer of infamous proportion. The men standing around me backed off. I
stretched my left hand straight down limbering tendons in arm and wrist.
"Charley, Franks is supposed to be a good man. We can use him," McPherson said.
"Shit! I’z don’t like his looks. How’d he find us? I’z gonna’ kill im’," Manx
I wanted to kill Manx. Not because his speech, mixing first and third tense, was
painful, but it would be a positive action for the rest of humanity. But would
Joe Franks want to? I was using the small criminal’s identity. I had killed
Franks last week after he robbed Tombstone’s bank and resisted arrest. I needed
the criminal cover so I’d kept the fact to myself. Even Franks wouldn’t turn
down a challenge from a creep like Manx. I stepped back and looked at all their
faces, wondering if any of them would back his play, wondering if this was my
McPherson stood up. "This is one on one." Then he turned to Manx. "You’re on
your own if you want him that bad."
Manx was upset, but for only a fraction of a second. I drew and fired. Then he
couldn’t catch his breath because of the three holes I’d stitched across his
chest. He took a step back and we heard death rattling her way out the holes in
his lungs, and from his throat. Blood came up, gushed from his mouth, and he
fell forward, very dead.
I holstered my Colt and looked at McPherson.
"Manx’s old man used to beat him all the time when he was a kid. Charley Manx
never had a chance to turn out any different," he explained.
* * * * *
Then McPherson walked away from the camp and I followed, waited for him to
finish personal business, then told him about the gold shipment on the Carolton
stage this week. "Stay here. I’ll get Willy, Sam, and the Colonel to hear this,"
When the group gathered Willy Peacock asked, "How do you know about the gold?"
He was a slight, blond-haired man just under forty. His hollow cheeks and the
palest blue eyes showed the suffering, hate, and frustration of losing the war
with the North, and what had quickly turned him to a life of crime.
"It’s Chisum’s gold. He’s sending it east to buy some fancy English bulls for
breeding. I heard his foreman talking about it at a bar in Carolton. If we catch
the stage at Sanders’ Station
we can get supplies, water, horses, and the gold," I explained.
"What did you say Chisum’s foreman’s name was?" Sam Tobias asked. This tall,
lanky Texan had rode off to the war with John Bell Hood’s Brigade. He carried
four revolvers, on hips and in shoulder holsters, and fought from horseback.
Tobias lost an eye and picked up a lengthy, ragged scar across his face, from a
Yankee saber during the siege of Atlanta. After the war, when carpetbaggers
stole his cattle ranch on the Rio Grande, Tobias took up with McPherson’s Bunch.
"I didn’t say," I said. "His men called him Captain Larsen."
"That’s right. Larsen ran a Kentucky regiment of cavalry for John Hunt Morgan;
now he runs cattle for Chisum." Tobias spat in the sand.
"I just wish I knew more about you, Franks," the Colonel said. He was Colonel
Tellman Asbury Sumner, of Sumner County Georgia. And Telly Sumner was a
melancholy, and unhappy man. His regiment, the 10th Georgia Cavalry, had been
mauled in the Wilderness Campaign by Custer’s Michigan Cavalry; he was badly
wounded and sent home to recover or die. Then his plantation was scorched by
Sherman’s merciless march to the sea. Sumner’s wife and children were murdered
by scavengers as they crouched amongst the ruins of the house his
great-grandfather had built before he went off to fight in the revolution
against the British. Now Sumner rode with Captain McPherson, deferring command,
just wishing to follow his destructive destiny out to the end, and be done with
the unhappy life history had handed him.
"I’m just the same as the rest of you," I lied. "There’s nothing noble left to
live for. So, let’s get that gold and have a good time," I said cheerfully.
McPherson stared right at me; he seemed impressed. "You’ve got some brains
Franks. How come you didn’t stay on the other side of the law?"
"I tried. I really tried. How bout’ you?" I asked.
"Shit! That’s Yankee law."
McPherson easily sold my scheme to his bunch. We rode out the next morning and
got to Sander’s Station by dawn of the next day, and held up behind a bluff of
sand and tumbleweed near the station. The stage was due that afternoon and
hopefully Cory’s troop of cavalry would be watching and trap McPherson’s Bunch.
That was my plan.
The stage rolled in at noon. They were moving quickly and shots were being fired
at the cloud of screaming naked horsemen that was coming up fast. The coach
hastily pulled up at the station and seven or eight people ran into the adobe
building. vThe station keeper came out with a long shotgun and covered them.
There were women and children in the group.
"Well, that’s the end of that," McPherson said and started down the slope toward
the horses. "Let’s get out of here. The Apaches will kill all of them, and take
the gold." McPherson’s men slid down the embankment and mounted up. I turned and
sat there watching them.
Where the hell was the cavalry? Without Cory there was just us to save those
civilians. "Hey! Listen to me," I shouted at McPherson’s Bunch. "There’s women
and kids down there. Yaw’l know what Apaches do to women," I said. "C’mon! I’m a
white man and a soldier first, and a thief second. What about you, Captain
McPherson?" I asked.
The only thing I saw that McPherson had that reminded him of his soldiering days
was a belt buckle with `CSA’ on it. Our eyes met and he wasn’t happy about me
using his old rank and reminding him of the past. I suppose thinking about the
noble cause he fought for in the past made the present all the more unpalatable.
"There’s fifty Apaches down there Franks. You must be nuts!" McPherson said.
"If we can make it to the station they’ll run off rather than storm the
building," I ventured as an argument.
"You’re not thinking straight, Joe," Long Sam said. "Half of us will be dead
after a running fight to the station."
"Yeah, why should we die for nothing?" One of the young ones said.
The old timers were quiet. I looked at Telly Sumner trying to read his mind. He
just stared at McPherson, trying to ignore me.
I got up and walked down to the edge of the slope until I was at eye level with
the rest of them sitting ahorse. I addressed the veterans. "For nothing! Did you
count your pay at Shiloh or Gettysburg? Or did you fight for a higher ideal?"
Then I looked directly at McPherson. "We’re a bunch of thieves and murderers!
God damn, to die well would seem an admirable goal at this point."
McPherson looked at me hard after I said that. He leaned forward in his saddle.
"What’s with you Franks? Are you some fuckin’ hero?"
I stretched, and started to here rifle fire over the ridge from the station.
Damn! Where was Cory? I walked down amongst them and mounted up. "There’s gold
coin down there and innocent lives to save. I’m riding in. I guess I won’t be
ridin’ with yaw’l if you think too much of your hides not to do what any decent
fighting man would do." I rode up to the top of the ridge, and got my Henry
repeater out from the scabbard.
"Damn you trash. Women and kids slaughtered by Apaches. I can’t stand that on my
conscience. What kind of future do you have doin’ as you are. You’ll get
betrayed by a whore and shot in the back by a cowardly bounty hunter. If lucky,
maybe a trial and a hangman who knows his business. All you have to look forward
to is a worthless, a horse thief’s death. All the noble causes have gone to
hell, except this one. The one happening down there, right now!" I pointed with
My audience was listening. In the background we could here the shots and noises
of the fight at the station. "I’m sorry, I know I might sound like a preacher at
a river crossing revival meetin’ but truth is truth and there is no denying
we’ve got a chance to do something right for a change. If we ride over this
bluff and engage those murdering bastards the least that awaits us is a
meaningful and chivalrous death. And, at best we ride away with Chisum’s gold
and a last chance to be Southern Soldiers."
The bunch glanced at each other’s faces. Slowly, one drew a rusting saber from
it’s scabbard. Another checked the action of his old hog-leg Walker Colt 45.
McPherson spun his horse around and looked at them all. He settled his calm
glance on Telly Sumner and the grizzled old man nodded just barely. Then
McPherson looked at Willy Peacock and he nodded too. Long Sam from Texas also
agreed. He had his big 1858 Remington Army out and was checking the loads.
"Is that the way you want it? Are we of one mind?" He asked; he was looking
again at Telly Sumner.
The colonel looked at the rest of the men and smiled just the slightest bit. "I
can’t see as any of us have anything better to do than to ride down there and
save some poor pilgrims’ lives and liberate some wealthy rancher’s gold." With
the colonel’s approval the veterans nodded and readied their weapons. The call
to battle was infectious and the younger bandits were drawn in.
Willy Peacock drew a saber from under his leg and turned around. "Darryl,
Virgil, you’re with me. Follow, and do as I do." The Crowder brothers nodded
eagerly, and before my eyes a nasty mounted squad of three was created.
The tall Texan, Sam Tobias, looked over his shoulder at two others and they
nodded. "What flank you want us on, captain?" Long Sam asked..
The others gathered around Colonel Sumner. I shook my head in amazement. A
rabble of bandits had instantly metamorphosed to a military unit intent on a
battle with Apache raiders. Peacock was on the right, Sumner in the middle, and
the Texan, Tobias, would handle the left flank.
McPherson leaned over next to me. "You started this, so you and me are up front.
Got any bright ideas, Franks?"
"I rode a horse in the war. Order a charge when we reach the flats. If the
Apaches come at us then we stop, fire a volley from a skirmish line, remount,
and meet em’ in the saddle with sabers and pistols."
McPherson nodded. "I agree, damn it." And he turned his horse about to face his
"Line abreast, form up," he said. "The Tenth Georgia Cavalry is gonna charge one
last time," McPherson said and swung his horse around, climbing the sandy slope
to the to the top of the bluff.
We watched as the Indians were riding all around the station. They were making a
big show of it, having their fun, like a cat does with a crippled mouse.
At a walk first, then a trot, a cantor; a squad of horse soldiers descended from
the ridge onto the desert flats, riding abreast–in a battle line, and on toward
the besieged Sanders’ Station. When the Apaches saw us a group broke away from
the main party surrounding the station to intercept us. McPherson’s arm shot up
and we all pulled our horses to a stiff, dust-raising halt. I jumped down
pulling my Henry rifle with one hand and handing my horse’s reins to McPherson.
The others in the band with repeating rifles joined me, kneeling in a line, as
we started to lever rifle rounds into the charging Apaches.
We shot their first echelon’s horses; nasty but effective against light cavalry
close, and coming on quickly. We remounted and spurred our horses to a gallop.
The men were screaming the old rebel yell and waving rifles and pistols. Some
were ready with sabers to fence with the Apaches’ war lances.
We came together amidst billows of dust, and howls of pain. Swords and spears
lunged and clattered as dealing death was the only order of business. With my
Winchester I fenced with several spears and unhorsed two braves with point blank
shots in the close range of the battle.
Then I saw five Apaches converge on Sam Tobias and he kept shooting but the
Indians kept coming till two impaled him on their war lances and forced him off
his mount. He fell on his back still shooting up as the warriors jabbed their
spears down, into his middle. As he died I charged the braves and shot them both
with my pistol.
After a minute of harsh fighting McPherson broke out of the melee, and with a
roar, "Follow me!" and a crimson blade held high, galloped for the station.
Eight of us were left to ride behind the captain.
We reached the station, running through and over the Apache around the building.
McPherson jumped from his horse to the porch of the adobe building and motioned
for his men to rally around him.
I had just dismounted and was working the lever of the Winchester when I heard
the hoofs behind. I spun around just as the spear came down and sliced my shirt,
skidding along my ribs. I had the repeater up and pointed at his stomach as we
came to bear. With teeth gritted, and holding the spear so the brave couldn’t
jab at me again, I fired my rifle and blew the savage off his horse.
We stood in front of the building as a group around McPherson, killing the
Apache raiders as they brashly came at us. Sanders, the old man himself, came
out to urge us inside. McPherson shrugged him off. We couldn’t have delivered a
fraction of the damage to the raider band that we finally did if we had
scampered inside right then. But we were flesh too. My ribs were red and sticky
from the war lance that had creased my side. We died one by one as they came at
us and we killed the Apaches.
When a brave lunged with his spear at Willy Peacock, he jumped from the porch,
grabbed the Apache and pulled him down, off his horse. The two circled each
other with knives drawn, and swiping at each other. Finally Peacock put the
brave on the ground and stabbed him in the throat with his Bowie knife. As
Peacock got up two Apaches shot him in the chest with arrows. He grunted and
stood, grabbing each arrow, and trying to pull them out. So another Indian shot
him in the back with a third shaft. Peacock tried to reach in vain for the arrow
in his back but coughed up blood, screamed harshly in his final agonies, quickly
weakened, and collapsed in the dust.
There were five of us left when the Captain stopped an arrow and I dragged him
inside the adobe cabin. The others followed leaving a small mound of our dead
outside. I pulled McPherson to a corner and laid him down, the arrow rising from
his chest. There were people all around. The air was thick with the smell of
battle: blood and gunsmoke.
"Load those rifles and pistols," I shouted at the civilians that collected in
another corner. Then I felt a weak hand pull at my arm. McPherson’s face was
chalky and pained. I put a saddle bag under his head and the
soldier-turned-thief could see out at the dark busy room, and the shaft rising
from his chest, pulling the life out of him.
"Franks, are you enjoying the glory?" he asked, his desperate eyes traveled
around the room taking in the woman huddled with their small children. Their
heads were buried in the folds of her dress. Also, he saw the last of his men
fighting at the windows and the doorway.
"We did alright Captain," I said. "The Apache force is cut in half. The frontier
will be a little safer now thanks to you and yours." He looked up at me
perplexed. The wrong thing to say to a dying brigand, I decided. "I’m Jason
Pike, a Federal Marshal. I’m sorry I deceived you, Captain," I confessed quietly
right at his ear.
"Yeah, that’s great!" Then he coughed, and blood came up. "You’re a damned
bastard, Pike. I’ll be waitin’ for you in hell." Then he died.
The bugle sounded outside but the door was forced in. One of McPherson’s men
rushed to the door but his pistol mis-fired. He tried to pistol whip the Apache
that barged in but died from a spear thrust through his chest that pushed him
back and to the floor. I jumped up and pushed the table over on it’s side. I
drew my fresh Colt to confront the Apache in the doorway. I shot him and the one
that came after. The man at one of the two front windows died from a bullet
through his throat. I looked around for another loaded pistol. Two more shots
and my gun would be empty. Then I heard a bugle. Did I hear it before? There
were more horses and commotion outside.
"Federals," the man at the other window yelled. I jumped around the table and
toward the door. I was almost through the doorway when my path was blocked by a
strong, squat Apache. I swung at him with my pistol. But I was holding my side
and was off-balance. He blocked my arm and brought a large knife at me. I dived
for his legs and felt the knife slice through my shoulder. They were legs like
columns of stone; I hit them and he came down on top of me. Where was that
knife? We turned about and kicked each other in that doorway. The knife came up
and I couldn’t see it clearly enough to grab his wrist. Too much blood and sweat
in my eyes. I brought my arm up to block where I thought he would go with it, my
throat. Then a pistol boomed just above and his body jumped. The Apache twisted
over off me. His gore and bone fragments covered both of us.
"Hey Pike. You look a little worn." It was fat Sergeant Magee, and a smoking
When the sun was low enough in the western sky for there to be a decent enough
shadow on the east side of the building I went out there with a bottle, a glass,
and a chair. I put my butt in the chair, my feet up on a crate, and a glass of
raw whiskey in my hand. My side and shoulder were both bandaged. I was tired and
sick from the day’s work. Cory’s men were burying the dead; it took them a
couple hours. I drank while I watched them work. It would be cooler, later when
the sun set.
Telly Sumner walked over with the trooper Cory set to watching him. He was the
only one of McPherson’s men left alive, unless of course you considered me one
"They say you’re a Federal, and I’m your prisoner."
"No. You’ve just been mustered out. Go home and start over. You can build a new
family, Sumner. You can still grow old, and tell your kids how McPherson’s
Bunch, his cavalry destroyed this Apache raiding party as a favor for the US
Army." I offered him the bottle, and Sumner took it.
Then Sumner shook his head. "Thanks for the whiskey and my freedom, Marshal. I
suppose that gives me the choice not to drink with you. You’re a warrior," he
said slowly, "but you’re not a gentleman." Sumner walked away, with my bottle
When the sun was low in the western sky I was relaxed and appreciated the cool
wind off the clean, clear desert. I felt better than I had all day. There was a
horizontal layer of puffy clouds far off, just over the horizon. The orangy-red
sun dipped behind the cloud bank too quickly. And I thought nature had robbed me
of a spectacular and leisurely sunset. But the wind moved the clouds and a
bright spot of the sun came to bear on Sanders’ Station, casting a beam of
brilliance, a fleeting memorial, on the site of a grim battle.
I had talked a ragged band of rebels into a noble sacrifice and now they were
with their warrior gods, but I was still here, and feeling guilty for it. Then,
after the sun went lower, the ridge of a line of mountains was outlined in a
bright amber rim of light; like an aura: a horizon bordering between my personal
heaven and hell.
Soon, even this desolate, hot waste–Arizona–would have farmers attempting to
pull life from the dry sand. Others would raise cattle or sheep. And there will
also be the town builders. Then there would be no more Apache raiders or white
renegades. I wondered what I would do when the sun finally set on my violent
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