Murder On The Old Santa Fe Trail

By Mark Nassutti

A sheriff and an undertaker only work together when there’s a violent death involved: Somebody plugs someone, the sheriff gets the shooter hung, and the undertaker plants ‘em both. Add a widow bent on revenge and you’ve got trouble of a different sort. Luckily, with respect to said collaboration, my role was neither dead man nor killer. What I’m here to tell you is how, but for said sheriff, said undertaker, and said widow, I might have wasted what little life I have left chasin’ somethin’ – and someone — I could never catch until I just stopped tryin’.

OldSanteFeSaloonOne afternoon in August, 1894, I stood at the swingin’ door of a saloon in a no-name town a few dry days’ ride northeast of Santa Fe, as close to Texas as I’d ever want to be again. I’d learned to pause at the door before walkin’ into any saloon. To the left, since I shoot best with my right. Even in towns where the sheriff wants you to check your guns before you even get a chance to dust off. I’d been tailin’ TJ so long it was just possible he could double back on me. For the same reason that I always pause at the door to a saloon, I always check my back trail. And I’ve made it a habit to look over each shoulder in turn. I might get a stiff neck, just lookin’ one way. I even check my back trail at the door to a saloon. You just never know.

Through the door of this particular saloon on this particular day, I heard someone playin’ a piano. It was the finest piano playin’ I’d heard since I saw Doc Holliday in Tombstone showin’ off to a fresh whore on a flashy grand some damn fool had brought all the way from New York City. Aside from the good music, I noticed nothin’ else that might worry me in that saloon. Just as I was about to push my way through the door, I took my look back, over my left shoulder that time, and there she was.

It was her walk that got my attention. Most town women, they take fake little steps. Drives me nuts. And while this woman dressed like a townie, she walked like a horsewoman: Long strides, a clear destination in mind, eyes scannin’ like she might to make sure nothin’ would spook her mount. I stepped away from the saloon door. Resting my back against the wall, I watched her come down the boardwalk.

She scanned me, sizing me up, not me as a man, just me as a fixture of the scenery, and I could tell there was a question in her mind.

Of course there would be a question. I dressed and spoke as if I could be from anywhere, or nowhere. It was better that way.

When she came to within a few steps of me, I saw somethin’ in her eyes that made me straighten up. Suddenly, after years of not wantin’ to be noticed by anyone, animal, vegetable or human, I had this strange feelin’: I wanted her to notice me. I wanted someone to know. To know where I’m from. To know where I’m goin’. To know who I am. And now, since she had to pass right by me on that boardwalk, she looked at me again, and when our eyes met, I tipped my hat, and said, “Fine mornin’, isn’t it?”

What an idiot. It was almost sundown. A hot blush ran from behind my ears all the way down my back.

She looked at me with a slight smirk.

“Sorry,” I said, holdin’ my hat down low and runnin’ a hand through my – thankfully – freshly washed hair. “I meant evenin’. I just got here this mornin’. It was a fine mornin’, wasn’t it?”

She nodded. Through my blush, I noticed her arms. Bare from the elbow down, and muscled. This woman might live in town but she knew how to work.

“You the man just rode in from Santa Fe?”

Her voice was smooth and steady, but her question worried me. Who would be talkin’ about me? The stable boy where I’d put up a horse I barely knew and a mule that was smarter than most men? Maybe the fella at the bathhouse where I’d spent the day soakin’ in a big tub of hot water while his woman washed my clothes.

And why would she be askin’? I decided to be polite. “I been ridin’ the Old Santa Fe Trail for some time,” I said. “And who, may I ask, is askin’?”

“I can tell you’re not partial to talking much about yourself,” she said, juttin’ her handsome chin out just a bit. “Neither am I. It’s just that I have a question or two about Santa Fe, if you happen to have passed through there.”

In a try to get her to smile, I said, “If you want a recommendation, I enjoyed a fine meal of carne adovada, pork tamales and posole at a little place just off the plaza. Called The Shed. Best red chile I’ve ever eaten.”

“I know the place,” she said, unsmiling. “My favorites are the chile rellenos with calabacitas.” Then she smiled, just a little. “That and flan.” That smile revealed strong teeth and tiny lines at the corners of her eyes that answered one of my questions. This was a healthy woman in the prime of life.

“I had flan and natillas both,” I said, returnin’ her smile. “After Italian food, I’d say that Santa Fe’s is the best in the world.” I said it “eye-TAL-yun,” though I knew better, only because everyone out West says it that way.

“Italian?” She said it correctly.

“I come from back East, so I got a taste of Italian” – said correctly this time – “as a kid. And passin’ through the Colorado mining country a while back, I come across a whole town of Italians and stayed for a month the food was so good.” I’d actually been so sick I couldn’t move, and without all that minestrone I would have died.

“We have our own variations on Santa Fe style,” she said.

“I look forward to samplin’ some. Could you recommend one of your dinin’ establishments?”

“Definitely not that one,” she said, indicatin’ the saloon, where the piano music had moved from smooth classical to up-tempo waltz. “All you can get there is bad whiskey, worse tequila and, if you’re lucky, a plate of dry tortillas and watery beans.” She shook her head. “If you’re unlucky, you might catch a bullet.”

“Well you just might have saved my life comin’ along here like you did,” I said.

She gave me another smirk. “How long were you in Santa Fe?”

“Long enough to hear a few things.”

“Well.” She looked around, sort of thinkin’ things over. “Listen. I run a private boarding and dining establishment for gentlemen. It so happens that one of my regulars is away, so I have an open seat at my table. If you’d be so kind, would you join us as my guest?”

“Ma’am, I’d be very happy to do that. But if you don’t mind my askin’, what might be the name of this establishment’s proprietor?”

She looked at me, then her serious face relaxed with a small smile. “Yes, of course. Calloway. Mrs. Anna Calloway.”

I admit that, at that word ‘missus,’ I felt a twinge of disappointment. “Well Mrs. Calloway, I’m mighty grateful for your invitation. Where and when should I appear?”

“The dark blue house up there on the right,” she said, pointin’ past me. “In about an hour.” She started to turn away. “And you are?”

“De Philips. Tom De Philips.”

“What kind of name is that?” She sounded concerned.

“It’s a variation on the Italian ‘Tommaso de Filippis.’ I told you I was from back East.”

She smiled, warm this time. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. de Filippis,” she said, givin’ it a good go at the Italian pronunciation, and extended her hand.

I found her grip firm, her hand strong and callused. “And if you don’t mind my askin’ another question, Mrs. Calloway, just so I can be prepared, is there a particular topic you’d like to discuss havin’ to do with Santa Fe?”

Her face fell dead serious. “Yes. The murder of my husband.”

“I’m very sorry to hear you’ve been troubled so, Mrs. Calloway.” I felt terrible for her. I felt guilty about admirin’ her. And I racked my brain tryin’ to remember anythin’ I might have heard.

“And if you don’t mind my asking you another question, Mr. de Filippis,” she said, mimicking me in a friendly way, “what might your business be in these parts?”

I shuffled my feet and stood up straight. “Just passin’ through, Mrs. Calloway. Just passin’ through.”

She turned her head a little, as if considerin’ what I’d said. “I’ll see you in a little while?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, and gave her a small bow. “Thank you kindly.”

“And if you haven’t bedded down yet, I can put you up in a nice room. On the house.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Calloway.”

Turned out the other gentlemen at this dinner were the sheriff, the undertaker, and a rancher. The sheriff looked like a man in the job purely out of a sense of duty, so old and tired I worried he wouldn’t be quick enough to cover anyone helpin’ him if things went wrong. The undertaker was a young man with thick shiny hair, eager to please, new to town. He talked of a circuit of other no-name towns he worked in order to keep his business alive. The way he talked made me smile a bit – keepin’ oneself alive by tendin’ the dead. The rancher was tall and skinny, a man so used up by a hard life he could barely speak.

Mrs. Calloway called us to table and brought out the meal: Goat adovada with a tomatillo sauce, cheese tamales with a red sauce that rivaled what I’d had in Santa Fe, and somethin’ I hadn’t seen in ages: Steamed broccoli, drenched in butter. The undertaker acted all gallant, pullin’ out Mrs. Calloway’s chair. He complimented her cookin’ before he’d even tasted it. She acted polite, but granted the young feller no quarter. I figured if any man ought to be sensitive to a widow, it would be an undertaker. But havin’ seen what I’d already seen in Mrs. Calloway, I couldn’t fault him for tryin’.

The conversation began easily enough, about the weather, a couple of questions to me about back East, and horses. The rancher ate without a word. Just as I felt Mrs. Calloway was goin’ to ask me about Santa Fe, I turned to the sheriff. “Mrs. Calloway mentioned to me that your saloon might not be hospitable, for more reasons than an ugly menu.”

The sheriff finished chewin’ his mouthful, then spoke slowly. “The proprietor has a bad temper. He drinks too much. His attitude seems to rub off on his more immature clients. I haven’t been able to convince the town to keep their guns at home and make visitors check theirs at my office. So about once a month some fool gets too much rotgut in him. Gets to arguin’ over what song to play next on the piano. Or accuses some bystander of cheatin’ him. And someone goes to his gun to settle it.”

“Why just last week,” the undertaker said, “we run a fella outta town after he shot out all the windows, yahoo’in and hollerin’ somethin’ about the Devil be damned.”

“The other thing you need to know about our saloon keeper,” the sheriff said, “is his whiskey, is, how should I put it?”

“Blended,” Mrs. Calloway said with a wry smile. “Even he won’t drink his own concoction.”

“He can sure hire a good piano player,” I said.

“A drunkard from St. Louis,” Mrs. Calloway said with a wave, “only good for three songs and out.”

“The aforementioned gentleman,” the undertaker said, “after damning the Devil, was tryin’ to reload his gun when he fell flat on the piano.”

“When they couldn’t wake him up, the piano player and the barkeep carried him to the jail,” the sheriff said. “He didn’t wake up until noon. He looked far from well. I thought he might need water. A man needs water after a night like that, but he refused.”

“Even that whiskey wouldn’t have made a man so ill,” Mrs. Calloway said.

“Sheriff told him he had to leave,” the undertaker said, “The man says, ‘Yes, I do believe it is time to go.’ He staggered over to the livery and got his horse, tipped the stable boy, and rode straight out onto the prairie.”

“I don’t think he got far,” the sheriff said.

“What makes you think so?” I asked.

The sheriff ticked off his points with a finger on the edge of the table, soft, not hard like a jerk. “The heat. Nothin’ but prairie out there. No town for 200 miles. No trees. He took no canteen. No coat or hat. No bedroll, no food. Only the ammo in his gun, since he didn’t take his saddlebags.”

“If he ever managed to reload it,” the undertaker said. “And somethin’ you don’t see too often: That gun of his? He wore it on the right side, with the butt facin’ forward.”

TJ.  The realization hit me like a horse’s head-butt to the gut. The timin’ was right. I’d figured he was two weeks ahead of me, from what I heard down in Santa Fe. I’d been gainin’ on him steadily, after losin’ a month to that fever that laid me up in Colorado. I hoped no one noticed my reaction. I needed time to think. So seein’ as how the story of this stranger seemed to have concluded, and that everyone had finished eatin’, I broached the subject I’d been avoidin’. “Mrs. Calloway, you said you had some questions for me.”

Her mouth gave the slightest quiver. “Yes.” She dabbed her lips with her napkin. The rancher looked up from his plate for the first time.

“Mr. Calloway was murdered,” the sheriff said. “Near as we can tell, a bit more than two weeks ago now. On the trail from Santa Fe.”

“He’d gone to town with some of our cattle,” Mrs. Calloway said, her voice strained. “Took one of our hands with him who wanted to go to California. Sold the cattle, paid the man off. At first we thought the hand did it, to take the money and have a better stake. But he blew everything he had on drink and women and wound up in jail for fighting. He was still there the day Mr. Calloway was shot.”

“Whoever did it,” the undertaker said, “shot him while he was ridin’. Mr. Calloway fell outta the saddle with a foot caught. To get the saddlebags, the killer had to shoot the horse. A coupl’a fellers headed this way, they found Mr. Calloway and the horse right on the trail. The preacher and the judge, ridin’ their monthly circuit.”

“We got word three days later,” Mrs. Calloway said, a tear in her eye.

“I’m so very sorry, Mrs. Calloway,” I said. “If you’d rather not…”

“No,” she said. “We need to find this killer.” The table was silent, all of us starin’ at the white tablecloth, the grandfather clock in the parlor makin’ the only sound. “Which is where you come in, Mr. de Filippis,” Mrs. Calloway said.

“I’d heard of this killin’ in Santa Fe,” I said, “and that wild hand of yours. But no details. You say he was shot off his horse?”

“Shot in the head,” the undertaker said. “Right here.” He pointed at his right temple. “Powder burns on his skin.”

Right then I knew. I hadn’t thought TJ would kill a man. Swindle a man, yes, I knew that all too well. But after bein’ tailed for three years, well, he might have been as close to broke as I was. And if he was sick, as Mrs. Calloway suggested, he might have felt desperate enough. Anyone not deaf would have heard about Mr. Calloway’s cattle sale. TJ would have arranged to ride out of town with him. Ridin’ to the man’s right, talkin’ his ear off. Reached around to his right hip, pulled that gun out without Calloway seein’ it, and had the barrel at his temple before Calloway knew what hit’im.

“You look like a man who can track and travel,” the sheriff said, “and maybe find some answers.” He looked down, a bit sheepish. “My trackin’ days are over. And I haven’t got a deputy. The sheriff in Santa Fe, he says he asked around but found no clues.”

“He’s a drunk,” Mrs. Calloway said. “Completely useless.”

“I did notice things in Santa Fe seemed kinda loose,” I said.  But I had no itch to go back to Santa Fe or try to solve this murder. I wanted TJ for my own reasons. And if he had wandered out onto the prairie, well, I wanted to find him. To make sure. So I brought the conversation back to him. “Now this man you mentioned earlier, the one who rode out on the prairie? That was when, a week ago?”

“Exactly eight days,” the sheriff said. “Why, what’s your interest in him?”

“From what you’ve told me,” I said, “that’s a man who has somethin’ of mine, and I want it back.” I spoke flatly, intendin’ to offer no details.

The sheriff raised an eyebrow and cleared his throat. “Well, whatever it was, he didn’t take it with him unless he could stuff it in his boot. That wouldn’t be much. He left his pack mule here. Some worn out trail gear. A filthy bedroll. He had some ammo and very old hard tack in his saddlebags. No letters that would give us his name. He paid cash for the whiskey. He signed for the horse with an X.”

That was TJ’s pattern. “Well then, he hid it somewhere,” I said, “and I intend to find it.”

“That may be, son, but, like I said, he wasn’t in any shape to go anywhere except out onto that prairie to die.”

I looked in his eyes as I thought about his words. “How do you know he was goin’ out there to die? And even if he did, well, I want to find him. I’d feel a whole lot better if I knew he was dead.”

“It’s possible he didn’t intend to die,” Mrs. Calloway said. “But like the sheriff said, no one in his right mind would ride on out there with no food or water.”

The rancher finally spoke, without lookin’ up: “The man’s dead,” he said with authority.

“Thirst would have got him first,” the undertaker said. “In this heat, maybe three days, four at best. That would put him dead four days.” He shook his head. “What with coyotes, fire ants and turkey vultures, there wouldn’t be much left to bury besides sun-dried bones.”

“I believe that to be true,” Mrs. Calloway said, lookin’ at me with those dark eyes of hers. “So what’s the point of going out there looking for him?”

I spread my fingers out on the table, figurin’ I’d just keep quiet for a minute.

“I agree with our friend here,” the sheriff said. “Your man’s dead. So we’d be much obliged if you’d go back to Santa Fe and see what you can find.”

“Much obliged,” Mrs. Calloway said, emphasizin’ the word much, with a look that made me think she’d do just about anythin’ to find her husband’s killer.

“To make it official,” the undertaker said, “the sheriff could deputize you.”

“And I’d make it worth your while,” Mrs. Calloway said. “My husband banked what he made from selling the cows, but even if he hadn’t, well, I’m not bankrupt.”

So TJ didn’t even get any money out of the deal. Maybe it was finding Calloway’s saddlebags empty that pushed him over. But I made myself stop thinking about TJ being a murderer. “Sheriff, Mrs. Calloway, I’ve been after my man for three years, ever since he swindled me in Dallas. I tailed him all the way to Tombstone and back again. While your news has given me hope…”

Mrs. Calloway interrupted. “Think about it. Sleep on it.” And she reached across the table and put a hand on mine. “Please.”

I felt my resolve weaken just a bit. This was a woman that any man would want to try to please, if only out of kindness.

I gave her a slight nod. “I’ll think about it.”

As the other men headed for their rooms, Mrs. Calloway led me upstairs. She opened the door to a roomy bedroom. I looked around, stunned, at a large bed that wouldn’t make me hang my feet over the edge, a washbasin, a mirror, a chair. Everything looked clean and tidy, downright luxurious compared to how I’d been livin’ since Dallas. “Thank you, Mrs. Calloway.” I set my gear down.

She made no move to leave, so we stood there, lookin’ at each other. “I’m sorry a man swindled you, Mr. de Filippis.”

“That’s nothin’ compared to losin’ your husband.”

“Thank you, Mr. de Filippis.”

“Tom, please.”

“But your hunt is over. Tom. That must be a relief.”

“I didn’t get my money back.”

“You’ve certainly inflicted plenty of punishment on that man. On the run for three years, looking over his shoulder everywhere he went. Sounds like that’d be punishment enough.” She paused, lookin’ at me. “And I can’t help but wonder how you’ve stood it. You’ve put your own life aside to chase him. Haven’t you condemned yourself to the same fate you’ve inflicted on him?”

I couldn’t help but be impressed with her thinkin’, and I appreciated her concern. With that and lookin’ her in the eyes, I started feelin’ uncomfortable, so I turned and took a step away, and started talkin’. “We were partners. He took everything I had. I lost my business and the bank foreclosed. My wife left me and went back to her people in Philadelphia. I sold our furniture and went on the trail. I figured I’d catch him pretty quick. I underestimated him.” I looked back at her. “You ask tough questions, Mrs. Calloway.”

She stepped over to me and put a hand on my arm. “Anna, please.” That touch. Well, it got to me. I hadn’t felt a gentle touch like that since before I found out TJ had tricked me. Once Agnes figured I was goin’ to be broke real quick, she went cold.

“What will you do now?”

“If he’s dead,” I muttered, crossing my arms. “If he’s dead, well, I don’t know. I stopped missin’ Dallas before it disappeared from the horizon.” I shrugged. “I’ve got kin back East, but I don’t think I could go back there. I love it out here in the West.” I walked to the window and looked out at the dark. “I love the mountains, the forests. Even the deserts have their own beauty, especially at first light.” I turned back to face her. “Maybe California.”

I noticed she hadn’t brought up my goin’ to Santa Fe. I figured she was bidin’ her time. And I found myself thinkin’, why don’t I just tell her I think it was TJ? But I worried that if I did, she’d want me to get proof, to give evidence, and I wanted nothin’ to do with any investigation or bein’ a deputy or havin’ to testify. It would be natural for a widow to want to know, to know for certain. Then it occurred to me to suggest to her what she’d suggested to me.

I squared my shoulders to her and said, “Now, about Santa Fe. Your husband’s dead, Anna. And more’n likely, his killer is long gone. With no money from the deal, he’s got nothin’ to brag about. He’ll keep his lips zipped to avoid lookin’ stupid, so he won’t give himself away. And now he’s gone two weeks, he’d be 200 miles off. I understand your desire to know, and to punish. But, as you’ve just made me realize, wouldn’t you be condemnin’ yourself to the same fate of doubt and uncertainty as that man feels, by chasin’ after him, or gettin’ others to do it for you? You’d spend the whole time lookin’ backwards instead of forwards.”

She looked at me for what felt like a long time. Sizin’ me up again, but as a man this time. Finally, she said, “I wasn’t happy with him.” She spoke the words dryly, then hesitated, bringing a hand to her chest. “That’s probably shocking to hear, isn’t it?” I nodded slowly. “I believe he did his best to make a good life for me,” she said, waving her arms to indicate the house. “He did well. This, a ranch, high pasture.” She crossed her arms. “I feel a sense of duty.”

“I can appreciate that,” I said. “So you can probably appreciate how I’d like to see things through with my man. And how I might not want to start on another chase.”

She turned away. I suddenly felt very, very tired, and felt my body slouch. She noticed.

“I’m sorry, here I’ve kept you standing when you must be exhausted.” She went to the door, and then surprised me: “You’re welcome to stay the week, Tom.” It was as if she had truly heard me and, in a way, given me permission to say no. Then, and maybe it was just a formality, or maybe it had nothin’ to do with findin’ her husband’s killer, she said, “Think things over. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Once I fell into bed, I tried to push thoughts of her away, and there were plenty, by concentratin’ on TJ. I asked myself, “What’s goin’ on here? Why had he ridden out on the prairie? How could he have missed that Calloway banked the cash?” I didn’t get far.

I woke up before dawn, dressed, and tiptoed out with my boots in my hand. Whatever I did next, and I already knew there was a good chance Mrs. Anna Calloway figured in that “next”, there was somethin’ I just had to do first. At the stable, I woke the boy, sent him off for some beans, coffee and jerky while I saddled up. After quizzin’ the boy about which way TJ went, I rode out. That mule of mine was none too eager. He seemed to know somethin’ I didn’t, but I can be stubborn too. A cow track took me through rollin’ ground and it got dryer and dryer and flatter and flatter as I went. Soon there was nothin’ around us but an expanse wide as the ocean. Llano estacado, the Mexicans call it. Horizon to horizon, nothin’ but tall dry grass ripplin’ in a chillin’ breeze under a sky turnin’ pink. I had to push aside more thoughts of Anna Calloway, make myself think about TJ. Had he gone crazy? Or was he dyin’ before he even got here, and decided he was done?

When the sun broke, the light hit me hard and hot, the chill gone from the air in just a few seconds. I reined in. I closed my eyes. I realized I was headin’ straight for Texas, somethin’ I did not want to do. I thought about that sun and what it would do to me. I thought about what it would have done to TJ.

The mule drew up next to me and looked at me, twitchin’ his ears. I ignored him, and nudged my horse forward, but the mule planted his feet square like a quarter horse holdin’ a downed steer. When I got to the end of his lead it almost yanked me out of the saddle. I walked the horse back over to him, more than a little annoyed. “What are you tryin’ to tell me?”

He turned his head to face the mountains. At first, I thought he was remindin’ me to check my back trail, somethin’ I realized I hadn’t done since I left town. So I looked. And in the brightenin’ light I saw the Sangre de Cristo Mountains risin’ from the prairie, undulatin’ layers of darker and lighter greens, forest and high meadows, rough bare rock peaks still tinged with pink. The mule flicked its tail. “You think TJ’s dead, don’t you?” It was a question, but right then I knew.

When my horse shifted his weight, I felt somethin’ fall away from me. My chest relaxed and I took a couple long breaths. I kept lookin’ at those mountains, thinkin’. Talkin’ to the mule, I said, “And you already know I’m not going to Santa Fe.” I took a drink from my canteen. “I’m not goin’ anywhere for at least a week,” I said, almost tryin’ to reassure him. “Maybe longer.” His ears twitched.

I took a squint back into the risin’ sun. “Rest in peace, TJ,” I said, and nudged that horse back toward town, the mule trottin’ alongside.


Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved.  Illustration provided by Planetary Stories/Pulp Spirit.