The Long Arm of the Law
By D.K. Latta
A Weird Western Tale
About the author
By D.K. Latta
This story was first published in 1998 in the e-mail magazine SpaceWays Weekly where it was voted one of the best stories of the year and was subsequently included in SpaceWays Weekly's "Best of" anthology (still available on-line).
The hotel room door splintered like kindling as he landed panther-like, a silver Colt clenched in the black glove of his left hand.
One of the suite's two occupants whirled about, silhouetted in blazing fire by the late afternoon light streaming through the window. "What the Hell?" he started, then froze as the gun swung toward him. He was barefoot, dressed in black dress slacks and a half-buttoned white silk shirt.
The pretty, raven-haired woman on the bed was dressed only in her knickers. Scarcely more than a girl, she screamed as her hands went to her breasts.
"Walter Caswell, I presume?" muttered the intruder levelly.
Caswell glared, his face reddening with fear, or rage, or both. "Who the Devil are you?"
Dust swirled up from the stranger's Spanish-style short cape and his broad-brimmed hat, a mute indication that he had been riding hard and long. His features were weathered, but not unhandsome, his jaw outlined by a stubble, and his pale-blue eyes burned beneath his brows as though branded there. The cape fell across his left side like a bat's wing, concealing most of his gun arm. He held this arm oddly, as though it might have been broken once, long ago, and set improperly.
"I don't suppose my name'd mean anymore to you than yours does to me," he said. "But I've come for you, nonetheless."
"What 'n Hell for? I'm an honest businessman. I've done nothing."
Indecision momentarily creased the stranger's tanned brow, deepening the lines the road had carved there already. "'Little' Farley Hayes was a cold-blooded killer. Carl Grubber had his fingers in half the rackets in Salt Lake City."
"Hayes? Grubber?" Caswell narrowed his eyes. "I'd heard they were killed...by some nameless gunman; someone who was dubbed 'The Canadian'. Is that you, fellah? Just where're you from?"
The stranger smiled humourlessly. "Saskatchewan."
Caswell stared at him coldly. "Even if Hayes and Grubber were what you say, what does all this have to do with me?"
The Canadian glanced from Caswell to the terrified girl, and back again. What did that have to do with Walter Caswell? he found himself wondering. He squinted his eyes as a line of sweat ran down the side of his face.
"It doesn't matter," said Caswell abruptly. "Hearing about their deaths, I took some precautions-"
Three men slipped through the doorway as quiet as phantoms, guns drawn. The Canadian hesitated as he weighed the odds. Then he casually tipped his hat at the newcomers and slipped his Colt into the holster low on his left thigh. Two of the men stayed by the entrance, also holstering their guns, while the third, a man with a big gut but a limber, easy way of holding himself, moved over toward Caswell. "Sorry, Mr. Caswell. We were down in the saloon playing poker. Didn't see this here-"
"Save your excuses, idiot," snapped Caswell.
He did so, glancing at the stranger even as he returned his own pistol to its holster. The room was thick with the promise of bloodshed, but all four men seemed content, for the moment, to let the other be the first to swing wide the floodgates of destruction. "What should we do with him?" asked the fatter man.
"You should turn around and walk away," said the Canadian quietly. "This doesn't concern you."
"Is that a fact? I got a hundred dollars of Mr. Caswell's money in my pocket that says it does. Tell me, mister, why in Hell shouldn't I just kill you now? I bet I'd get a bonus."
The girl scrunched back deeper against the scarlet, sham-covered pillows.
"You shouldn't try to kill me," he said, "because you want to be an old man someday."
"Heh," said the fatter man. "Funny." His expression didn't change, his broad body barely shifted as his right hand flicked out his gun.
The stranger's Colt was a lethal streak of mercury as it cleared his holster, spitting fire. Angry thunder rattled the window panes as the fat man spun around on one stiff leg, coughing crimson, and sprawled heavily over the dressing table behind him. The girl barely had time to blink before the stranger's arm swung around and, seeming without taking the time even to aim, his gun roared its Devil-scream again and again, and the two men by the door slammed against each other, and rebounded, their guns clearing their holsters too late.
As they hit the floor, the Canadian swung back toward Caswell.
"You can't blame a man for trying to defend himself," said Caswell quickly, holding his hands out at his side.
The girl inhaled sharply, dark eyes flaring. With his cape flung back, the stranger's left arm was momentarily revealed. It was marginally thicker than his right, as though strangely overdeveloped. And the elbow seemed... slightly out of place. Then the cape settled over it again and she could not be sure of just what it was that she had glimpsed.
"You still haven't told me what this is all about."
"About?" the Canadian frowned, crows-feet spreading out from his eyes as he squinted in concentration. Then he shrugged. "I...I just know that I've come for you, that's all. In my bones."
The Canadian stared. It was not the first time such a thought had crossed his mind. Also both Hayes and Grubber had drawn first; he had killed them in a fair fight, like the men now at his feet. What, then, to do with Caswell? he wondered. Do I drag him to the local Sheriff, demanding he be arrested for crimes I don't know, to face accusers I can't procure?
The girl choked back a fearful sob. His eyes shifted in her direction instinctively. He didn't see Caswell throw the heavy ashtray, but he felt it as it impacted above his right eye, sending hot blood racing down his cheek. Caswell was on him in an instant, moving with a strength, a speed, he had never seen. A heavy fist put blood in his mouth, slamming him against the crisp, flower-patterned wallpaper as powerful fingers wrenched his gun from his hand.
"You have no idea what you've gotten yourself involved in, do you?" sneered Caswell. "Who sent you? Quickly. I'm not a patient man."
The Canadian stared into the impersonal one-eyed gaze of his own gun. He shook his head. "No one sent me."
"Grubber was in Utah. Hayes down in Arizona. You've been travelling from state to state, hunting down men you've never met, for reasons you don't know?"
He stared into Caswell's cold eyes and shrugged. "Yup."
"Idiot." The gun bucked once, twice, roaring its contempt. The girl screamed in the distance. The Canadian dodged with rattler-quick reflexes; one slug tore into the wall behind him, another went through his right shoulder and sent a fire of pain raging through his arm and chest. He screamed. Caswell made to finish the job when suddenly the Canadian's left arm snapped out like a whip, seizing the businessman about his throat. He couldn't recall willing the move, anymore than he could recall thinking to draw earlier. It just happened. With his weakening right hand he slapped the gun from Caswell's grip as his left fingers dug into the man's throat, literally lifting him from his feet. Caswell's eyes bulged against his lids and his cheeks ballooned out; he clawed at the arm crushing the life from him, tearing away the fabric of the shirt. Exposing the flesh beneath.
His eyes bulged, if possible, even more. "Czio!" he gasped, then an ugly, wood-snap sounded the end of his life.
The Canadian released him and Caswell slumped to the ground. Then he fell back against the wall and, slowly, painfully, looked up. The girl was staring at him, a hand covering her mouth.
"Madre de Dios," she whispered.
Exposed beneath his torn sleeve was an arm coloured the purple hue of a sunset and spotted with mustard yellow. The skin was the texture of a salamander's. Then he collapsed.
Unconscious he dreamed, and dreaming, he remembered.
The pain in his left arm had been excruciating, almost unendurable. Now it was just numb. He didn't think that was a good sign. The log across his upper arm was big enough to make a canoe out of and heavy enough to have killed a man if he had been caught directly under the deadfall. Lucky me, he thought bitterly -- lucky it only got his arm, pinning him. Blood soaked out from under the log, staining almost invisibly the red serge of his Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform. He spat bile and felt the shakes creep up on him.
He had been hot on the trail of whiskey traders with a cart load of booze they intended selling to local Indians for furs. Bad whiskey. Whiskey that had already killed a white man in town. It had been impounded, prior to dumping, but no one had bothered to put it under lock and key because, after all, who would want to steal a batch of killer rotgut? Someone who realized they could make a profit from it. Someone who did not care who it hurt, or killed.
He looked around dizzily. Where was his horse? he wondered. Then he remembered. Looking for spoor indicating their direction, he had dismounted, spying obvious signs of disturbance in the leaves carpeting the ground between some trees. Too obvious. It had been a trap. When the log came down, his horse bolted.
Then a chuckling voice had slithered through the crisp air, chilling him further. A familiar voice. "Why, Corporal, you seem to be a tad stuck."
He looked up into the mustachioed face of Sgt. Hendricks, Hendricks' bright red uniform a rosy contrast to the cold, dead glint in his brown eyes. Behind his commanding officer were a half-dozen of the scruffiest men he had ever seen.
"Suh-Sarge?" he asked, bewildered.
One of the men made to pull his gun, but Hendricks stopped him. "Why waste a bullet? He's not going anywhere, and with all that blood on the ground, and the chill in the air, he won't last out the night." Saluting mockingly, Hendricks turned and faded with his cohorts back into the trees.
He shook himself with a start. That was hours ago. He was still trapped, still dying, and Hendricks was that much closer to pouring his poisoned witches' brew down unsuspecting throats.
He looked unsteadily at his crushed arm, almost delirious. He had a job to do, he reminded himself, lives to protect. No matter what the obstacles, a lawman had an obligation to the law that transcended all others. Nothing could stop him from honouring that obligation. Hendricks may have defiled the uniform, but he was not about to. Slowly, fumbling, he drew his knife and dug it into his shoulder...
He careened into trees as he staggered through the woods. He had not anticipated how lopsided he would feel, what with only one arm. And the blood drenching his uniform was making his clothes cling uncomfortably to his body. He was also cold, but that was O.K. That was to be expected this time of year, he assured himself. He could not entirely remember where he was headed, or why, but that was O.K. too. He knew he had to get there, wherever 'there' was. Yes, indeedy. It was important.
His foot touched nothing and he pitched over, tumbling head over heels to sprawl at the base of a gully. His head wobbled as he looked about him.
Streaks of black soot dug little trenches in the walls of the gully, from what he could not even begin to imagine. A scattering of jagged pebbles, fanning out in a crescent, looked almost as though a rock had exploded.
Flies, braving the chill in the early evening air, buzzed around lumps of something.
Dragging himself to his feet, he lurched unsteadily toward the first lump, peering at it in the weakening daylight. It was as if some animal had been literally torn to pieces, though the texture of the flesh, the purple and yellow colouring, was like nothing he had ever seen. To top it off, some of the bits looked almost -- not human exactly, but human-like. A three-toed foot; a bit of ear; an arm.
And then, finally, and through no fault of his own, his strength just gave out.
His last thought as he fell was: "Maintain the right..."
The next thing he was aware of, he was standing in the middle of a clearing, seven bodies scattered about him, one in a red and black uniform. The acrid smell of gunsmoke burned thick in his nostrils, as did the more subtle, almost unconscious stink of death. A gun smoldered angrily in each hand. The pistol in his left hand was lighter, as if he had emptied all the bullets from it, while the one in his right seemed only to have been fired once or twice. He stared. He was not good enough with a pistol to take on seven men and emerge unscratched, particularly not if his left hand did most of the work; he was right-handed after all.
Then he stopped. Left hand? He did not have a left hand anymore. Or a left arm.
He stared down and thought, numbly, I do now.
And somewhere in his brain, something, not really a voice, but an idea, told him he had to find some men...
The Canadian came to with a start. He was still in Caswell's hotel suite, sitting propped against the wall. The man himself was stretched out on the carpet but a few paces in front of him, bathed in red from the waning light through the open window. Tentatively he touched his shoulder, winced, but realized someone had tied strips of cloth about his wound. His head was likewise bound. Slowly, he focused on the raven-haired girl, now dressed in what was probably a hand-me-down dress. She sat at the foot of the bed, knees pressed tightly together, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth.
"Thank you," he croaked.
She jumped on hearing him speak, then shook a lock of jet-black hair from her eyes, feigning nonchalance. "Un hombre -- uh, a man downstairs, thee bartender I think, I hear him run to get thee Sheriff."
Using the wall for support, he dragged himself to his feet. "Why help me?" he asked at last.
She glanced at Caswell and her dark eyes flashed like a thunder cloud. "He was a pig. I am glad you killed him. I live with my mother an' brothers in a house that Caswell owns. We are very poor, so he-" She stopped and a shudder ran up her spine.
He nodded quietly, knowing there was nothing to say. He rolled the corpse over and began rifling through the dead man's pockets.
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know. Hopefully I'll recognize it when I find it. I seem to know that Caswell could've led me to...well, to the others."
He did not know what others, or who. He just knew there were others. He shook his head, refusing for the hundredth time, the thousandth, to ask himself why he was doing this. According to the girl's story, Caswell was as sleazy as Hayes and Grubber. So far this driving instinct of his had been right on the money.
And Caswell had even implied he knew something, when he thought he had had the upper hand.
"I was hoping for a map. A name. Something that could answer many questions for me."
"There is a place -- an estate -- a few miles west of town," she said quietly, looking at her feet. "Where Caswell lived. He never let people from town go there, not even men who worked for him," she gestured at the bodies growing cold on the floor. "He did not live there alone, though, but with other men. They do not come to town much."
The Canadian stared at the dead man's face. Caswell had bitten the inside of his cheek as he died, revealing the same oddity that he had noticed when he faced down both Hayes and Grubber. The glisten of what was presumably blood was a sickly yellowish colour. He stood. "Thank you," he said.
"What is Czio?" she asked suddenly.
He stopped, frowning.
"As he died, when he saw your arm, he said: 'Czio'."
"I...don't know. But it seems familiar. Almost comforting, even though I can't say I've heard it before. Perhaps Caswell isn't an American. Maybe it was another language."
"Perhaps," she whispered. "El Diablo."
The girl looked away. "You have the Devil's arm, Senor. Perhaps that is what he meant."
He started to object, but found that words would not come. This thing had grafted itself onto him, or been grafted, that night, months ago, as he lay unconscious and dying. Who was he to plead that it did not, indeed, have the whiff of sulphur about it?
Any further thoughts along those lines scattered as the sound of heavy footsteps thudding up the stairs jolted his nerves. The girl looked up, wide-eyed. "Thee Sheriff."
He dashed for the window, then stopped. "What's your name?"
"Take care of yourself, Gabriella," he said, then leapt through the open window into the dwindling crimson of the late afternoon sky. A wind had kicked up and dust danced crazily through the street below. He landed on the sloping roof covering the hotel's porch, skidded to the edge, and dropped down onto the dirt road. His horse was tethered to the hitching post out front and, in moments, he was riding toward the west...hellbent or Hell sent, even he could not be sure which.
Moonlight bleached to a skull-white hue the open stretch of property between the still house and the wood fence encircling it. The wind had swelled during the ride out, and now it wailed mournfully; a loose shingle thudded hollowly on the roof. Somewhere in the night a prairie dog started yapping, and was echoed by another. Like a shape more shadow than substance, a figure slinked up onto the porch and peered through the window.
His eyes narrowed to slits. A sliver of illumination sliced unobtrusively through the cauldron-black interior, as if leaking from beneath a closed door. Somewhere, a light was on. And where there was a light there would probably be people. The people he sought.
Whoever the Hell they are, he thought grimly.
He tried the door. It opened soundlessly beneath the wind.
He had left Saskatchewan without a word to anyone. Perhaps he was listed as a deserter, more likely he was believed dead -- certainly if they had found his severed arm in the wilderness. He had headed south, knowing, somehow, that that was where he would find what he wanted, driven by this burning, unnameable obsession. He sought a group of men who had come down out of Canada, eventually tracing them to Helena, where they had partially split up. He learned a name from a train conductor who had overheard them talking. One name: Grubber. He followed the man's trail, almost catching up with him in Boise, but lost him and had wandered off on a wild goose chase into Nevada before turning around and tracking him down in Salt Lake City. From Grubber's papers he had gotten a second name: Farley Hayes. Hayes had led him to Caswell and now Caswell brought him here.
His left hand rested on the butt of his pistol as he crept through the living room, his eyes adjusting grudgingly to the moonlight bleeding in through the window.
He whirled at the voice behind him, the man as startled as he. He swung a right hook. The man took it, barely flinching. Suddenly big hands grabbed his shirt, hefting him off his feet, and he was flung across the room. A teak-wood side table splintered as it broke his fall. He bounced to his feet as his attacker came at him again. This time his left drove itself into the man's gut, doubling him over. Then, again with his left, he struck him across the side of the head, sending him to his knees.
Light flooded into the room as a door flung open, clearly illuminating him standing over one of the men of the house. His dilated pupils burned with the sudden wealth of light, blurring everything.
A man in the door pointed something at him and instantly he heard a weird sound. Only he did not so much hear it as feel it, a throbbing in his gums. His knees went out from under him and the whole room took to spinning about as though caught in a twister. The floor came up to meet him, hard. As he lay there, unable to move, barely able to think or even wonder about what had felled him, he heard voices. Three, maybe four.
"I heard footsteps. Thought it was Caswell."
"Must be a burglar."
Chuckle. "Burglaring us? Now there's a mistake he won't be making twice."
"Hey...look at his arm."
For a moment, silence folded the big room in its embrace, then:
"Bring him downstairs."
Then he passed out.
He awoke with only one arm...
Click for the Conclusion
Table of Contents
The Long Arm of the Law is copyright D.K. Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)