Western Short Story
It was my sixteenth birthday and I just knew that this particular day was gonna be a change for the better. My first couple of weeks as a fearsome raider on the Outlaw Trail hadn’t panned out just exactly like them dime novels out of Fort Worth had led me to expect. We hadn’t robbed nobody, nor captured no women, nor even stole no cows.
Hadn’t run up on but one herd, and them cowboys come at us like crazed Comanches and run us off in no time flat. You ain’t ever seen people so durn possessive, and I doubt them cows was even theirs.
See, there weren’t none of us truly experienced badmen. Tater Doyle was the boss of our gang, and him and Little Billy Clinton had rounded up a batch of us bored youngsters from around Dallas, Fort Worth, and Weatherford, mostly, and told us how good this life was gonna be. Said to just bring our horses and guns, just like the Rangers, only we wasn’t gonna work for no pissant wages like them. No Sirree Bob. Free and easy, he said, like picking money off bushes. He left out the part about near starving and getting shot at.
Tater Doyle wasn’t so much older nor me and the others, but he had done some time. It was only in the county jail, over to Fort Worth, but it made him a clear choice to be our leader. I knew him back in Weatherford and he was just plain Johnny Doyle. Well, sometimes he was Little Chief, cause his Granma was a full-blowed Tonkaway squaw, and you could see it in his cheekbones and nose. That was until that day in the mercantile when he was maybe thirteen. After that, Tater was as good as his name was ever gonna be.
See, he stole a spud from the bin and tried to slip it in the back pocket of his overalls but it was too big, so he dropped it down the back of his pants instead. He tried to ease on out, holding it betwixt his legs and walking funny. Made it to the porch, but then it fell out smack in front of Mister and Miz Red Willis. She ‘bout fainted and ol’ Red ‘bout died laughing. Red named him “Big Chief Shits Potaters.” Others called him Tater Shit, but by the time he went to jail he was just Tater.
Anyways, that day I turned sixteen, things was looking up. We finally had a target. Tater called me and Little Billy Clinton up to where he was on a small ridge, and told the others to stay low. He was ‘glassing’ this little place on the other side of the South Canadian River, up in the Territory. He had a wobbly old brass telescope he had stole off a drunk injin, and Tater liked to say he was ‘glassing’ when he used it, even though we all knowed for a fact you couldn’t make out doodley-squat through it. ‘Cept fog, maybe.
“Y’all see that?” he said.
Since I weren’t using his telescope, I could plainly see that it was a sod building atop the north bank. It was in front of a small hill with a dugout cut into it, and there was a corral partly behind it.
“I do, Tater,” I said. “ See it just fine.” Little Billy just frowned and nodded. He frowned a lot, but ‘specially when Tater told him to do something.
“That there is old Choteau’s Trading Post,” Tater allowed. “I want you two to cross over and see will he give up. Without no fight, I mean.”
That took me aback. Choteau was a old French Canadian trapper turned trader, and him and his kin had run trading posts all over the Territory, even doing business with the Comanches and Kiowa back some years. By all accounts he was a tough old nut.
Little Billy said, “Give up what exactly?” I would of asked that too, given time.
“Ever’thing,” Tater said. “We need food, and we ain’t taken many valuables yet in twenny days to show for this here raid. And I hear he has squaws in there. For the boys.”
“Hell, Tater, we ain’t taken no valuables. I say let’s just roll right over him. We got twenty-three hungry men,” Little Billy said.
“I can’t tell how many horses is in that corral back there. Maybe he ain’t alone,” Tater huffed. “Dammit, Little Billy, y’all said I was the boss. Just do what I ast. He might have two or three other traders in there. Might even be armed.”
Without nary another word, Little Billy snorted and wheeled his pony and headed down to the river. My first inclination was to stay and argue with Tater, but Little Billy crossing over alone would surely make me look bad. So I followed him.
It being August the river weren’t much more’n a creek. We angled across towards a cut in the far bank, some to the left of dead center on the soddy.
Midstream, Little Billy said, “I bet you and me can take this place alone, Booger.”
In hindsight, it did seem like kind of a lark about then. There was clouds and a breeze, making it sort of a nice day, bird’s a-chirping away, and we was young and bulletproof. Seemed like, anyways.
“You think so, Little Billy?” I said.
Little Billy give me that grin of his and said, “I think so. And I think maybe we won’t be Tater’s Raiders no more, after this. Might be Billy’s Bad Bunch or Billy’s Bastards. And we’ll get the first jump on them squaws. Hot Damn, Booger, think about THAT. And don’t call me Little Billy no more.” He spurred his pony up through the cut.
I could see he’d give it some thought already. I sat there a minute, lost in wonder about what to call him and what it would be like to poke a squaw, or any durn woman for that matter, afore I noticed I was alone in the middle of the river. I kicked that pinto and caught up to Little Billy as he pulled up in front of the soddy door. There was smoke coming from the soddy chimney, so we knowed there was somebody up inside. I noticed smoke coming from the dugout too, off to our left.
Little Billy pulled his hat down low on his eyes for a mean look and drew his revolver.
“Inside the soddy!” he yelled, “Come on out and face up!” He had an old Remington cap and ball Navy, even though it was 1874. Weren’t none of us rich, and we was lucky to even have old guns. I mean, we was all dog-ass poor afore we left home, and now we was hungry and filthy. We had even forgot soap.
Little Billy made a show of spinning the cylinder to check on his caps. The door was yanked inward, kind of startling me. Little Billy jumped some, but then was as cool as you please.
An old geezer, maybe forty or so, stepped into view. He held a twin-barrel shotgun pointed sort of toward us. A ten gauge, at least, and from where we sat it looked like a cannon.
“Face up to what, perzactly?” he said. He was scrawny and freckled and had red stringy hair around the edges of his head. He sure didn’t run no serious risk of being scalped, not by no self-respecting warrior. They didn’t care none for bald men, less’n they had a beard.
“There’s thirty of us, well-armed and hungry, outta Texas. We mean to clean you out and we don’t mean to pay, neither. Lay down that scattergun and give over and we won’t kill you.” Little Billy sounded tough.
“It’s only twenty-three of us,” I whispered.
“Shut the hell up, Booger Mixon,” Little Billy hissed at me, then swung back to the old man. “Do what I say, Choteau, or pay the price.” He cocked the Remington, but held it pointed upwards.
“Choteau’s been dead for years, you little pissant. This here’s my propitty now. And I got a dozen buffler hunters laid over in here, half of ‘em still mean drunk. I don’t choose to give over to no dumb-asssed, tit-sucking child bandits from Texas.” He spat to show he meant it.
“He done spit on the ground, Little Billy,” I kind of whispered. “I think he means it.” “Booger, I done told you to just watch and learn, and don’t call me that no more. Now lemme run this!”
“Well, awright, Little Billy, but I’m just saying…”
“Tater!” Little Billy yelled over his shoulder. “Let this old fool see some of our boys!”
I looked over my shoulder, and Tater trotted out about ten of our boys on that ridge maybe eighty yards away. They was a sorry looking lot, more likely to call up pity than fear. If anybody was a-getting scared, it was me.
“That ain’t nearly all,” I said, trying to put the scare over on the old man, but as I turned back I seen that dugout door was cracked open as well as a couple of heavy wood shutters on the soddy. This didn’t seem so much of a lark no more. I got chill bumps down my entire backbone.
The first shot boomed out of the window left of the soddy door. It flew right by my head and knocked Corky Taylor clean off his horse across the river. I seen the rifle barrel just afore it fired. Looked to be a long Remington .50-70.
“Haul ass, Little Billy,” I cried out. I jerked my reins so hard my pinto near sat down.
“Dammit, Booger!”he yelled, and he fired at the old geezer. His horse was dancing, though, and his shot hit the door frame. I don’t think he felt like ‘Little Billy’ was a perfect name for a outlaw gang leader, and being upset about that might of affected his aim, too.
I jerked my horse around, gonna jump the bank and take cover there, but that old geezer put a load of buck in my right leg and my horse’s side. We went down right there, like a durn cut tree.
I was pinned there, seemed like an hour, but it was probably less than a minute. I seen Billy point his pistol at the old man for a second shot, same time the old man swung over toward him. They fired almost together.
Billy was first, but his pistol misfired. I seen the cap spark and heard it, clear as a cowbell, but it didn’t fire. Those old Remingtons will do that. Mine was a modern conversion Remington in .44 Henry caliber and it ain’t ever failed me, though I do have to take out the cylinder to load it. An old Mex gunsmith down to Fort Worth fixed it up for me. But I’m getting away from my story.
The old man’s loads must have been buck and ball ‘cause I seen a hole the size of a silver concho blow out of Billy’s back, and he was knocked clean out of his saddle. A ten gauge buck and ball load is bad business, with six or seven buckshot on top of a seventy-five caliber ball. I should of already knowed what he had in that shotgun, since my horse had gone down like he was pole-axed, but I wasn’t thinking too clear. I was still trying to squeeze my left foot out of the boot to get my leg out from under that durn pinto.
Now there was all kinds of hell pouring out of both the soddy and the dugout. It was pure smoky, but I seen a man in a gray jacket step in the doorway and put a fifty caliber slug from a Sharp’s rifle into Billy’s pony.
You know horses ain’t near as big as bufflers, and them hunters knocked down hundreds of them hairy monsters most days. Mostly one shot kills too, so I heard. They’d set up on some little hill looking down on a herd of thousands of bufflers, and just shoot all day. Mostly used Sharps and Remingtons and Trapdoors, fifty calibers or bigger, throwing five hundred grain slugs when a forty-four pistol ball was only one hundred forty grains. Sometimes they carried two rifles to a stand, so as one could cool after a bunch of shots through it. Billy’s pony didn’t have a chance.
It was already wounded and kind of like down on its knees, but that big old bullet knocked it right over on Billy. There was an awful crunch. Made my balls tingle, but I don’t think it mattered none. Billy had done gone to his reward. You had to see that hole in Billy’s back as he come down, and his chest was covered in blood from the buckshot afore his pony ever landed on him. He was right beside me, almost.
‘Bout that time I got loose. I got as small as I could behind my mount and found I’d only took one buckshot in my calf, and weren’t neither leg broke, best I could tell. Weren’t no way to recover my missing boot, and it weren’t the time to rejoice, but I felt purty durn good that seventy-five caliber lead pill from that shotgun had hit my poor horse, ‘stead of me. I’d be missing a leg, ‘stead of just limping.
None of them hunters was shooting at me just then, but it weren’t like I was exactly safe. Those boys I was riding with couldn’t hit a durn privy from ten steps, and were as apt to hit me as the walls of that soddy. My horse was still struggling, but about then she took three hits from Tater and the boys, back across the river. Thunk. Thunk. Crunch. I think that last one hit her in the backbone. She ceased wiggling. I ain’t got the words to explain how I felt right then, under fire from both sides and half barefooted.
Bullets was buzzing by and spanging off the hardpan, and thumping into that sod wall, and them buffler guns was going ka-boom, ka-boom, right steady-like, and right over me. One of the shots from our own side hit Billy in the head, ker-smack! Busted it open, but it didn’t matter none to Billy, as I already said. He was past caring.
I needed to get to a better place, that much was sure. I pulled my pistol and I was close enough to put one round into each of them four openings them hunters was shooting out of. I went right down the line: window, door, window, dugout door. There was some cussing from inside, and the buffler guns let off for a second.
My old Henry was in the scabbard on my poor horse’s upside, lucky for me. Unlucky for me it was ‘bout shot to pieces. I could see the busted buttstock right off. I needed the cartridges in it even if it wouldn’t shoot, so I grabbed it, fired another pistol ball through the soddy door, and lit out for that high riverbank behind me.
It was maybe twenty yards. I remembered an old saying, something like, “the fastest way betwixt two places is just plain straight,” so I tried that.
You try it sometime. Try running straight with one boot on a shot-up leg and no boot on the other foot, on hardpan and sandburrs and rocks. Onliest way I might of gone straight was if I’d tried to zig-zag. As it was, I hopped and wobbled so bad nobody hit me, and me screaming “Don’t shoot!” the whole durn time. I wish now I’d thunk of something bold to shout, but that’s what come out. No point in me trying to put a better light on it now, as they was plenty witnesses.
I went over that bank headfirst and rolled all the way down to the water. It tasted mighty good, as muddy as it was, though I don’t know why my mouth was so dry. Better yet, that bank on the hostile side of the river was right steep and near twice as high as me. At least them hunters couldn’t see nor shoot me no more. All I had to sweat then was friendly fire, though I can tell you there ain’t no reason to label it as such.
As I caught my breath, it came to me that the gunfire had quit. I hoped everybody on both sides had run out of cartridges, but I found out soon enough that just weren’t so. It was more like both sides was surprised by my little dash, and took time to reload and lick wounds.
When my ears quit ringing a little, I yelled at the soddy. “Hey, you old snot, how come you was to shoot me first, ‘stead of my pardner? He was the one mouthing off.”
The old geezer cackled and shouted back, “I tell you what. We’ll start over, and I’ll shoot him first this time.”
Tater yelled, “Booger. Hey, Booger, is Little Billy hurt bad? He don’t look so good.”
It seemed like Tater was kind of sweet on Billy, so I had to think about what I said next. Could be he just thought of Billy like a little brother, but the feelings sure weren’t returned. Billy made fun of Tater all the time. Poor Tater. Seemed like weren’t nothing going right for him.
“He don’t want to be called Little Billy no more,” I yelled, trying to let him down easy. “I’m sorry to tell you, Tater, but Billy’s done for.”
“You sure? Did you check him before you left him back there?” I let that get to me.
“Look at him! They is a HORSE on top of him!” I shouted. “And he was already deader’n a stone when one of you jerk-wads put a fifty caliber through his brainpan.”
I took a breath, and then went on. “Listen up. They claim they got a dozen buffler hunters behind that sod. I didn’t see but maybe six rifles, but it seemed like a gracious plenty.”
I was thinking that maybe if Tater would give up on overrunning them long range killers in them mud forts, maybe the boys could just keep ‘em penned up there long enough for me to slip away down river and they could pick me up there. I was gonna need to ride with somebody, though. See, we’d already ate our pack mule when he wouldn’t cross the Red River. We didn’t have no supplies left anyways, and we was truly hungry. And he deserved it anyways, ornery devil that he was.
I had another thought. There might already be a spare mount behind the hill. Buffler hunters is known to be good shots, and these didn’t seem no different. I mean, I ‘d seen Corky Taylor go down, but I just didn’t know if his horse outlived him. Look at how my horse and Billy’s had come out.
Soft as I could, and Tater still hear me, I said, ”Is everybody all right back there? I am gonna need a ride.”
Not so loud himself this time, Tater said, “Them boys is pretty good shots. We got spares. You think we hit many of them?”
“I might’a hit one,” I said. “Can’t say as y’all did.”
I guess our voices carried more’n we thought.
One of them hunters yelled, “Yore boy nicked O’Riley and shot off Cullen Jeffery’s ear, but he’s deaf as a board, no how. He already carries two Kioway arrers in him plus a forty-four slug. You think he’s bothered much? We done sewed him up, and give him a drink. Ha!”
I heard Tater yell at somebody back over the ridge, “We can’t just run. They kilt Little Billy, dadgum it.”
I knew then he was working himself up over that. It worried me that he might do something crazy. Of course, it worried me more that they was thinking about leaving.
Tater yelled at the hunters, “I don’t think you got but six fighters in there, and I got a couple dozen. Come dark, we’ll cross over, close up them chimleys and smoke you out. Kill every durn one of you. That is, less’n you choose to slip out now and ride away, and don’t try to take nothing. And my boys want them squaws. Smoke that over.”
I was right proud of him there. Seemed like a solid idea, one a reasonable man would consider. And agree with. My spirits rose like startled quail.
“Here’s what we’ll do, Tex,” the old geezer yelled back. “We’ll fry up some buffler steaks and bacon and biscuits, and have them two fires out and cold, long afore dark. They’s a full barrel of water in both places. Plenty of whiskey and cartridges. Buffler robes to sleep on and squaws to keep us awake. You come on over and stuff up them chimleys tonight, see do we care. But you step in front of one of the shooting holes we got cut in this sod, and we’ll burn yore ass.”
Oh, Hell, I thought. That ain’t good.
Then some durn Irishman in the dugout shouted, “Sure, and maybe you had two dozen head of bandits, but not no more, do ye now? I seen at least two of ‘em go down, clear hits. Could have been two more.”
I was listening to all this while trying to get the last of the cartridges out of my busted Henry. The stock was broke at the wrist and another ball had bent the trigger so it wouldn’t fire. One more had smashed the magazine halfway up. I twisted the loading gate open, pulled up the spring and dumped out five rounds that way and then worked the lever and shook out six more through the breech. Once I’d reloaded my pistol I put the rest in my coat pocket.
Tater all of a sudden said, “You don’t think I’ll let Little Billy be kilt for nothing, do you?” He was arguing with our boys, and I’m not sure he meant them hunters to hear that. But they did. Big mistake. Poor Tater.
They started in on him. The old geezer shouted, “You’re jest breaking my heart here. Boo hoo, hoo. What were he, yore special boy?”
The Irishman yelled, “Is those violins I hear? Faith, I think it’s violins. That’s sweet, now, ain’t it? I’m touched by the sadness of it. I’ll just have a wee drink.”
All them hunters laughed.
That tore it. I knew it would, the second I heard it.
Tater yelled, “You sonsabitches, we’re coming for you. Come on, boys!”
He swung into the saddle and charged down that slope right into the river, firing a pistol the whole way. Nobody followed him. Them boys was mostly dumber than red bricks, but they wasn’t that stupid. A few weeks sooner, we might of all felt like following him right into the mouth of Hell, but go up against them buffler guns in the open? Nossir, I think not. What I think is they just begun to slip away, right about then.
Tater was half way across the water when they shot him. He took three rounds in the body, and he went ass over teakettle right off the back of that horse. He floated downstream past me, face down, and he weren’t even flinching. If a five hundred grain slug will drop a big hairy buffler dead on his ass, think what three of ‘em will do to a man. Made me shudder to watch.
The oldest man among Tater’s Raiders was Jessie Jackson, though he wasn’t the brightest light. He stood straight up back there on the ridge and said, “Good Gawdamighty, that’s some shooting. They didn’t even touch his mare.”
There was another boom and Jessie went down. Good Gawdamighty is right.
Tater’s sorrel bolted and splashed right by me, almost. Fear give me the strength of ten, and I grabbed them reins and pulled her in close to the bank. Soon as I calmed her, we followed Tater downstream over a mile, me hobbling along on her offside and us hugging that bank. I didn’t know how far them hunters could shoot, but I wasn’t gonna find out neither. Everybody had heard about Adobe Walls and some hunter knocking a Comanche off his horse at the best part of a mile with a Sharps Fifty. For all I knew it was true.
When I couldn’t see that soddy no more I tied off the sorrel to a branch and pulled ol’ Tater to shore. I took his boots and kerchief, and he had some rounds in loops on his belt, so I took it too. Lucky for me, he toted a big open-top Colt. It was upstream in the river somewhere but it used the same .44 rimfire cartridges as my pistol. I had already noticed his Yellowboy carbine was still in the scabbard, even more lucky for me. I believe Tater would of wanted me to have them things, as they was of little use to him. He purely hated waste.
Afore I pulled on his oversized boots I used his kerchief to wrap the little hole in my leg, and then I sent him on downstream. Poor Tater. If he wanted to get buried, he should of strapped a shovel on his horse.
As I rode south, I thought about how if I’d of tried to zig-zag back there I’d probably be dead. Trying to go straight likely saved me. That’s when I come up with the idea of just going straight in general.
I kind of grew up with Segundo “Sonny” Martinez near Weatherford, and he was with us that day in what has come to be called The Fight At Choteau’s Crossing. He rode home with me. Unlucky for me, he seen my little run to safety.
We push cows now for the XIT spread, over to the Panhandle. Pretty boring, mostly, but every durn time it gets too quiet around a campfire, or in the bunkhouse, or in some cantina, Sonny just has to show folks what has come to be called The Booger Three Step.
He’ll throw his head back, open his mouth and close his eyes like he’s in some happy trance, then commence to dip and stagger and drag one foot, and twist and lurch every which way and moan like a girl, “Please, please, don’t shoot me.”
Sonny calls it the Hop, Wobble, and Stomp. When he does it, I have seen grown men piss their pants. Ain’t none of ‘em knows it was my first real effort at going straight.