Side Trail Story
heading to the barn, I made another run through town and then by the
newspaper office. The lights were on, and I could see Clayton
sitting at his desk.
Clayton came to the door and let me in. “I’m glad you came by. I have a few questions for you if you’ve got time.”
“Sure. I’m just driving around to be seen and make sure nothing’s going on.
“I phoned the Uvalde newspaper and talked to George Young. He said to tell you hello. I called to talk to him about the bank robbery, but he told me a much more interesting story about your first shootout when you were 12 years old. Can you tell me more about that?”
“I can tell you the story, but I’d rather you not write about it. What I did then doesn’t have anything to do with Bowden.”
“I understand, but I’d like to hear the story.”
“OK. Technically, I was 12 years old, but it happened the day before I turned 13. My dad didn’t usually have a deputy, so it was pretty common for me to go with him. Mostly it was just to keep him company and to help out with anything he needed me to do. He never took me along if he thought there was going to be trouble, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been with him that day if he had any idea things were going to go to turn out like they did.
“An old rancher had come in complaining about Mexican rustlers stealing some of his steers so Dad told him we’d check on it. Dad didn’t own any horses. He’d spent a lot of his early years sitting in a saddle, and he had the aches and pains to show for it. Whenever we needed to go on horseback, we’d get them from the livery stable. We mostly always got the same two nags, and they weren’t close to being high-quality mounts, but they were pretty tame and usually wouldn’t throw you into the middle of a cactus patch.
“So, early the next morning, we saddled up and headed out to where Dad thought we might pick up a trail. The weather was pretty nice when we left Uvalde, but by noon it had turned chilly, and by about 2:00 that afternoon, it had become damn unpleasant. I could hear Dad grumbling, and I was hoping he was thinking about turning back and giving up the chase. About then, I heard the crack of a bullet going past me and the thump as it struck Dad. About a second later, I heard the sound of the rifle shot.
“I jumped off the right side of my horse, to keep it between the shooter and me. Dad had managed to hold on to his mount’s reins, and I was able to keep both animals between us and the bushwhackers until I could get Dad behind a big boulder. I got the horses behind some other rocks, then grabbed our rifles and saddlebags and ran back to Dad. I could see he was badly wounded, so I wadded up my bandana and put it over the bullet hole.
“While all of this was going on, the ambushers kept firing at us. We could tell at least two different guns were shooting. Dad said, ‘Frank, I don’t think I can shoot my rifle. You’re going to have to try to kill those bastards or they’re going to come down here and finish us off.’
“While he was telling me that, I had let my right leg slide out past the rock, and suddenly I felt a bullet hit my foot. It scared the hell out of me, but when I looked, the shot had only knocked the heel off my boot.
“My rifle was a 30-30 Winchester, and I knew it wasn’t enough gun to do much at the distance they were shooting from. Dad’s rifle was an 1886 Winchester lever-action shooting a 45-70 Government round. I'd fired it before but didn't like the heavy recoil and the loud noise it made.
“I had a pretty good idea where the ambushers were hiding and saw a place where I thought I could shoot from. I picked up Dad’s rifle and got a box of shells out of his saddlebag and took off running to the spot. I had forgotten about the missing heel on my boot and damn near fell on my ass, but made it without getting shot.
“For some reason that I’ve never been able to figure out, the bandits didn’t seem to have seen me running to the new spot. One of the bushwhackers was leaning out over a big rock shooting at us with a long, bolt-action rifle. He was leaving a lot of his body exposed, and I knew I needed to make my first shot count. I adjusted the elevation on the rear sight to what I thought was about right and sighted him in. When I fired, I thought I’d missed because I was pretty sure I saw the bullet hit the rock he was leaning on, but he dropped the rifle in front of the boulder and fell behind it. I saw his leg sticking out from the side of the boulder, so I decided my bullet had probably hit the rock and then ricocheted into him. With a 45-70 round that was more than likely enough.
“I was trying to see the other bushwhacker when I heard a loud snorting noise. When I turned to the sound, I saw the shooter trying to mount a big black horse. The man had the reins in one hand and a rifle in the other. He was trying hard to get in the saddle, but that big black beast wasn’t having any of it. The horse kept backing up, pulling the rider further away from the boulder. He was also pawing at the man with his front hoofs. I had my sights on the shooter, and when I finally had a shot, I let that big lead slug go. I’d aimed true, and it hit the man in the middle of the back and knocked him forward five or six feet. Naturally, he dropped the reins, and that horse stood up on his back legs and came down twice on top of the man’s back. If my shot hadn’t killed him, the black horse sure as hell finished him off.
“I ran back to check on Dad. He was about the same, so I exchanged Dad’s big rifle for my 30-30 and started easing up to their position. I was pretty sure both of the bandits were dead, but I was nervous as hell about that big horse. It was a beautiful animal, and I didn’t want to kill it, but I knew for a fact it was dangerous. It didn’t run away but just backed off a little way and watched me.
“I was sure the guy I’d shot in the back and the horse stomped was dead, so I eased around the boulder to look at the other shooter. Whatever my round hit first didn’t matter because that big 45-70 slug had pretty much gutted him. The wounds to both of the bandits were gruesome. When you shoot a skinny Mexican with a bullet designed to kill a buffalo or grizzly bear, the results are gonna be bad. I tried not to look at the damage to his body and took his gun belt and pistol, and then walked over to the guy the horse had stomped. I noticed he was wearing a fancy gun belt with a Colt revolver and a nice-looking Bowie knife. I removed his gun belt and laid it to the side. What he had that really attracted my attention was a nice pair of high-top boots that looked like they would fit me. Since I was down to a boot and a half, I needed his. They came off pretty easy, and when I put them on, they fit like they were custom-made for me.
“While I was gathering up their weapons, I heard another horse and walked back a little way and saw a nice looking bay mare tied to a mesquite bush. I walked up to her, and she didn’t look as mean-spirited as the black stallion. I didn’t untie her but decided I’d try to mount her. She let me get in the saddle without a protest.
“I went back and finished gathering up their guns. I quickly exchanged my old worn gun belt for the fancy one with the Bowie knife. I pretty much had my hands full with all the gear, but I was able to lead the mare down to Dad. I laid the guns down and tied the mare up close to our horses.
“Dad was still hanging on. He asked me if I’d killed the bastards, and I told him I had. I saw a little depression in the rocks that looked like a better place for him. With my help, he was able to hobble over there and lean against the rock face. I could tell he was pretty cold, so I took both of our bedroll blankets off the horses and covered him up as best I could, then I got a small fire going.
“I went to find more firewood. While I was doing that, I saw a prickly pear cactus patch and had an idea. I used my newly acquired Bowie knife to lop off some of the cactus paddles and then used it to shave the spines off. I carried my haul back to Dad and added more wood to the fire. I took one of the cactus pads and put it over Dad's wound. I wrapped it in place as tight as he could stand it. It looked like it was slowing the bleeding some.
“Dad said, ‘You’ve done damn good so far, Frank, but you’re not done yet. You’re going to have to go for help, and you need to be going mighty quick.’
“‘I know. I’m trying to decide which horse to take.’ As I said that I looked up and saw the stallion standing nearby. I had brought an apple with me in my saddlebags, so I cut it into about six pieces and eased over to him. I held out a slice of the apple and moved a little closer. He didn’t back up and didn’t look like he meant to kill me, so I kept walking toward him. When I was finally close enough, I offered him a piece of the apple. He took it and ate it like he was hungry. He finished off the apple, and I eased back and got some of the cactus, and he ate that as well. All the time I was feeding him, I was talking to him, telling him what a good horse he was and that I sure needed his help. I told him if he’d help me, I would see that he got home. I know it sounds foolish, but it seemed to be settling him down. Even after all these years, it still seems crazy to me when I think about it. I walked back and got our canteens, and I left one with Dad and then poured some in my hat for the stallion.
“I finally summoned up enough courage to try to get on his back. I was just about to try it when I noticed that the boots I’d taken off the bandit had on spurs with some big rowels that the Mexican vaqueros like. I looked at the horse’s flanks and could see where the man had spurred him. I moved over and leaned on the rock and took the spurs off. The stallion watched me the whole time. I still wasn't real comfortable depending on him to get me home, so I gave the mare some water and some of the cactus. Once she was settled, I put a rope around her neck and led her over toward the black horse.
“I added more wood to the fire and made sure Dad knew where the canteen was and told him I was leaving.
“Dad said, ‘Don’t stop along the way to talk to any blond-haired girls, Frank.’
“I said, ‘I promise I won’t unless they’re really pretty. I love you, Dad. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
“Now most people would say that what I did in the war to win my medal was bravery, and by the way things are usually measured, I guess I’d agree with that. But I’ll tell you, Clayton, looking back on my life. I think the bravest thing I’ve ever done was when I stepped up in the stirrup and swung my leg over the top of that black horse. If Dad hadn’t been lying there about to die, or if I’d had any other option, I never would’ve done it. I’d already seen him stomp the Mexican to death, and I had no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same thing to me. I knew for a fact that I wasn’t a good enough horseman to stay on his back if he started to buck. I think the stallion knew the same thing, and for whatever reason, decided to let me ride him. I think having the mare behind him helped settle him down some.
“It wasn’t quite dark yet, and I was able to backtrack on our trail toward home. Before I began my ride, I’d been too busy with Dad and the bushwhackers to notice the cold, but once I started riding back home, I damn sure became aware of it. I felt behind me and found a heavy wool serape tied on the back of the saddle. It smelled terrible, but it helped cut the chill. We had made pretty good progress before it got full dark, and fortunately, the sky was clear enough for me to navigate by the stars.
“I was in a hurry, but I didn’t want the horses to come up lame, so I let the black horse set his own pace. I kept talking to him to keep him calm and also to keep my courage up. It wouldn’t have taken much adversity to cause me to give up right then and there, but fortunately, nothing bad happened, and we made it to town about midnight.
“I tied the horses to the hitching post in front of the livery stable, and I stumbled out into the middle of the street and fired off three shots with my newly acquired Colt pistol. I reloaded the gun and fired off three more shots. Pretty soon, people came out to see what the hell was going on.”
“Joe, the guy that owned the livery, came out and said he’d take the horses into a stall and feed and water them. I told him to take the mare, but he’d better let me take the stallion. I got the saddles off and took the saddlebags with me. I didn’t trust Joe for shit, and I knew he’d steal anything he could get his hands on.
“Three local ranch hands came out of the saloon to check on the excitement. All three had been drinking hard and were tighter than ticks on a dog’s ass. The soberest one of the three said he’d ride to the ranch and bring back help first thing in the morning. I started to argue but I knew it would be best to wait until first light.
“Ruby Pratt, the lady that owned the café, came and led me over there. She was sweet on Dad and was always really nice to me. She was upset and crying, but she cooked me up some scrambled eggs and bacon. A bunch of men came to the cafe to plan the rescue. The doctor came in and said he had just finished delivering a baby and had to get some sleep. He promised to be ready in the morning. He asked me some questions about Dad and left. Now that I had eaten and warmed up some, I could hardly stay awake. Ruby made me a pallet in the kitchen by the wood cookstove, and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
“I woke up before dawn and folded up my pallet. I added some wood to the cookstove and stoked the fire back to life then I took a look at the saddlebags. I was damn proud of myself for not leaving them at the livery stable. I took the bags over to the jail and locked them in Dad’s desk. When I got back to the café, Ruby was hustling around, and Doctor Jenkins was drinking a cup of coffee and asked me to sit down. He put his hand on my shoulder and said there was a pretty high likelihood that Dad would be dead when we got there. I told him I knew that, but Dad had done enough for Uvalde that he deserved the effort to try, and I was going if I had to go alone. Doc Jenkins said he was going with me, but he just wanted to make sure I understood the chances of saving Dad were pretty slim.
“A bunch of men came to the café, including the town know-it-all. He started trying to take charge and organize things. He said if there were Mexican bandits out there that we should telegraph the Ranger Headquarters and get them to go with us. I listened until I finished my coffee and stood up and told him I was in charge of the rescue party even if it was only a party of one. I knew Doc Jenkins had been an Army surgeon in Cuba and wasn’t a coward. I asked him if he was ready, and he said he was. I told the men I was leaving and that I would appreciate anyone’s participation, but I was in charge.
“Doc Jenkins and I walked out the door. He had his buggy with his saddle horse tied behind. I went to the livery and saddled the bay mare, and the black stallion. I’d brought several apples from Ruby’s and gave one to each horse. I kept talking to the black stallion, and I guess it worked because he let me ride him again. Joe had a wagon hitched up with two mules, and someone had thought to put a stretcher and some blankets in the back of the wagon.
“Not everybody from the café participated in the rescue mission, but all of the ranch hands did, and they all came pretty well-armed. I understand that after I left, Ruby lit into all the men and gave them a good cussing. Some came along, but some didn’t. Mr. Know It All went home.
“We left Uvalde just before first light with me in the lead. I took it pretty easy until the sun came up, and we could see better then I picked up the pace. I looked back pretty often to make sure Doc and Joe and the wagon were keeping up. It took about four hours for us to reach the spot where we had to leave Joe with the wagon and buggy. One of the ranch hands took the stretcher on his horse.
“It took another hour to reach the ambush spot. Dad was alive, but just barely. Doc Jenkins looked him over and told me if I hadn’t put the cactus over the wound, he would’ve bled to death.
“Doc Jenkins pulled me off to the side and said, ‘Frank, he’s lost a lot of blood. I don’t think he can survive unless I give him a transfusion. I don’t know what type of blood either one of you has, so it may not work but if we don’t try, he’s going to die for sure.’ I told him to do whatever he thought was best.
“There was a little rock outcropping above Dad that was big enough for me to lie on. Doc Jenkins had me lay there so the gravity would speed the flow of blood to Dad. While I was giving blood, men started talking about how gross the wounds to the Mexicans were, and how the coyotes and vultures had been eating on the bodies. Doc Jenkins said, ‘Jesus Christ, would you guys shut the hell up or at least go out of earshot, you’re about to make me puke.’ I knew he was doing it for me, and I appreciated it.
“I think he took about two pints of my blood, and I was starting to feel kind of weak, but he said Dad’s vital signs were a little bit better. Doc told me Dad was probably too weak to move, but he thought spending another night outside might be worse for him, so we decided to try to load him in the wagon and hope for the best. Four ranch hands took turns, two at a time, carrying Dad in the stretcher back to the wagon. Doc Jenkins rode with Dad and told me I should ride there too, but I wasn’t sure how the black horse would take to being tied to the wagon, so I rode him back to Uvalde.
“Dad was still alive when we finally made it to town. We took him to the jail and laid him in one of the cells. There were two cots there, so I took the other one. While Doc Jenkins checked Dad out, I took the horses over to the livery to feed and stable them.
“When I got back to the jail, Doc was just leaving and said he was hopeful, but Dad had a long way to go. Ruby was there with some chicken noodle soup, and Dad was eating a little. When he saw me, he kind of perked up and wagged his finger at me. Ruby sent me to our house to get some clean clothes and a nightgown for Dad. When I came back, she had Dad undressed and was giving him a sponge bath. I guess I had a strange look on my face because Ruby said, ‘Don’t look like that, Frank, I’ve seen your Dad naked before.’ I just said ‘Yes Ma’am’ and handed her the clothes and walked out to the desk and poured myself a bowl of soup.
“Pretty soon Ruby came out and said she was going home for a while and that Dad wanted to see me. I walked back to his cot and sat down in a chair somebody had put beside his bed. He held out his hand, and he gave mine a gentle squeeze. I thought he was going to say something, but he went to sleep. I held his hand for a long time and then finally stretched out on the other cot and passed out.
“When I woke up the next morning, the sun was already up, and Ruby and Doc Jenkins were looking at Dad and talking to him. I walked over, and he held out his hand again and gave mine a little firmer squeeze.
“Doc Jenkins said, ‘I need to get that bullet out today. He’s too weak to try it, but it can’t stay there. Frank, I’m going to need some more of your blood, so I’ve told Ruby she needs to feed you a big breakfast to rebuild your blood supply.’ Ruby told me to get dressed and come to the café.
“The surgery went well, and Dad started improving every day. By about the fourth day, he could walk a little bit. People were coming in all the time to check on him. He told me over and over how proud he was of me and how I’d saved his life.
“One of the cowboys on the rescue had recognized the brand on the horses. He told me the name and location of the ranch. When I was pretty sure Dad was going to live, I went to the telegraph office and sent two telegrams to the Suarez Ranch. I sent one to the Brownsville office and one to the Matamoros, Mexico office telling whoever it concerned that two horses with the ranch brand were in Uvalde. Two days later, we had a telegram delivered saying someone would be coming to pick up the horses.
“While Dad was recovering, I’d pretty much stopped going to classes, but the teacher would bring my lessons to the jail. One day I was sitting at a small desk doing my school work when two well-dressed Mexican men walked in. Dad was sitting at his desk with his arm in a sling. The two men walked up and introduced themselves to him and asked about the horses. My dad pointed at me and told them I was the man they needed to talk to. They asked me how I got the horses, and I told them the story. They looked at each other several times but didn’t say much. The older man finally asked to see the horses. I stopped along the way and picked up two apples from Ruby’s and walked with them over to the livery stable. Joe had let both horses out into a small corral so he could keep them separate from his animals. The men stepped up on the corral fence to get a better look. They were talking low in Spanish, and I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying. When the horses saw me, they both trotted over to the fence, and I gave them pieces of apple to eat. Both horses let me rub their noses and ears. The Mexican men just looked at one another.
“We walked back to the jail, and the older man who introduced himself as Juan Suarez told us how his youngest son and his friend had been on a trip to the neighboring King Ranch when they had been ambushed and murdered. I opened up a closet and took out the fancy gun belt, the Winchester rifle in a nice saddle scabbard, and the saddlebags and put them on Dad’s desk. I also showed them the boots I was wearing and told them how I came by them.
“Senor Suarez looked in the saddlebags and seemed surprised that there was that much silver currency in the bags. He said the black stallion had been a problem horse and no one but his son could control him. He told me he wanted me to keep the gun belt and Winchester and that if I would help them take the horses back to the ranch, I could keep the money in the saddlebags as payment. I looked at Dad, and he said, ‘You’re the man, Frank, it’s your call.’ I gratefully accepted Senor Suarez’s offer, and we shook hands on the deal.
“It was pretty clear that Senor Suarez was wealthy because he had come to Uvalde on a specially chartered train, and that’s the way we went back. Senor Suarez had brought two vaqueros to handle the horses, but he told them to let me do it. We put the mare in first, and then I led the stallion up into the stall. The vaqueros loaded the saddles, and the three of us stayed with the horses in the stable car on the trip home. The men talked back and forth in Spanish about me, but none of it was bad, and after a little while, I started talking back to them to let them know I knew what they said. They were kind of embarrassed, but we all had a good laugh, and by the time we reached the ranch, we were acting like old friends.
“When the train stopped, we got the horses out of the stable car, and I led the stallion over to the corral gate. Before I opened the gate, I stroked his neck and talked to him again, and thanked him for letting me ride him. When he walked through the gate, I dropped the lead rope in the dirt and turned away; I was crying like a baby and didn’t even try one bit to hide it. Senor Suarez came over and put his arm around my shoulders and walked me to the big house. He asked if I’d stay for a few days as his guest and I agreed.
“When I came to the supper table that night, a young woman was sitting there along with a little boy who looked to be about five or six years old. The woman was dressed all in black and seemed very somber. The boy also looked sad and never said a word during the meal. After the lady and the boy had left the table, Senor Suarez told me the lady was the widow of his murdered son, and the little boy was his grandson. He painfully stated the obvious when he told me his son’s death had been very hard on his family. After we talked for a little while, Senor Suarez said goodnight and went to his room.
“I wasn’t feeling sleepy, so I walked through the kitchen and picked up a couple of apples, and headed out to the corral. As soon as I stepped up on the corral fence, the bay mare and black stallion trotted over to me. While I was feeding apple slices to the black horse, I was talking to him and trying to make another deal with him.
“The next morning, I told Senor Suarez what I was thinking, and I asked his permission before I acted on my plan. He agreed my idea was worth trying and said he hoped it worked.
“As we were all finishing breakfast, I asked, ‘Roberto, would you help me feed the horses?’ It was the first time I’d seen any expression of interest in the boy’s face. He looked at his mother, and I saw her look at Senor Suarez. Some silent agreement passed between them, and she whispered something in the boy’s ear. The little boy smiled and started fidgeting around. I reached into a bowl in the middle of the table and took out two apples. I rolled one across the table to Roberto and then stood up and started walking to the corral.
“The little boy ran ahead and got to the corral before me but didn’t step up on the fence until I did. I reached down and helped him climb up. As I was slicing the apples, I glanced behind me and saw Senor Suarez and Roberto’s mother edging up to the corral.
“The black and the bay came trotting over to the fence. I explained to Roberto what to do, and he did it without fear or hesitation. The black horse was on his best behavior and let the boy feed and stroke him without protest. The more he petted the black horse, the bigger his grin became. We finally ran out of apples, and the two horses trotted off across the corral.
“I turned around, and I could see Roberto’s mother was crying, but she was also smiling. Senor Suarez was mostly smiling, but I think he was crying a little bit too. I stepped off the fence to make room for them beside Roberto. I walked over and stood in the shade of a pecan tree and watched the family enjoying the moment.
“When the family finally stepped down off the corral fence, I saw Roberto's mother talking to the boy. In a minute, he ran up to me and threw his arms around my waist and squeezed me tight, and then turned and ran to the house. Senor Suarez and his daughter-in-law walked up next and emotionally thanked me. They said that was the first time they had seen Roberto smile since his daddy had died. Roberto’s mother was still pretty emotional and excused herself and walked to the house.
“Senor Suarez and I walked up to the veranda and sat at a table. He was delighted, and he thanked me over and over for bringing the black horse back home and for making his grandson smile.
“We repeated the feeding ritual after supper, and it went well. Later that night, while Senor Suarez and I were talking, I suggested something that he said he would consider.
“The next morning at breakfast, Roberto’s mother was wearing riding britches and high-top English riding boots. After eating, we all walked to the corral. The bay mare was saddled with an English riding saddle. The saddle that was on the black when I found him was hanging on the top rung of the fence. I walked into the corral and edged up to the stallion. I was able to get the saddle and bridle on him without a problem and handed the reins to Roberto’s mother, who was sitting on the back of the mare. She started walking the horses slowly around the corral, and she was looking pretty happy. After a couple of turns, she stopped in front of her son.
“I told the little boy to take his boots off, which he did without a question. I stood by the side of the black stallion, talking to him softly while I helped Roberto slide onto his back. The boy looked a little nervous but happy as his mother started leading the stallion around the corral. When I turned around to climb onto the corral fence, I saw Senor Suarez and every one of his vaqueros and housekeepers watching the little boy and his mother riding those horses. I can tell you, Clayton, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd, including mine.
“I was treated like royalty while I was there. Senor Suarez had his bootmaker make me two new pairs of boots and took me to Brownsville and bought me new clothes. We talked late into the evening every night I was there, and I felt like I was sort of a replacement son for the boy he’d lost. When I left, it was a sad day for me, and I knew Senor Suarez, his daughter-in-law, and his grandson were sorry to see me go, but I was anxious to see Dad again. He was waiting at the train station with a big smile on his face, and I was glad to see he looked better than when I left.
“So, Clayton, that’s the story of the two men I killed when I was 12 years old.”
“That was quite a story. Did you ever see the Suarez family again?”
“Yes, I’ve visited them several times, and Senor Suarez and his ranch manager came to Dad’s funeral. He’s getting older, and I’m probably overdue for another visit.”
“You’ve lived an exciting life, Frank.”
“I’ve only told you the interesting parts. Most of my life has been as dull as a mud fence.”
Clayton let me out, and I made another drive through town and then headed to my barn to get some sleep.