Western Short Story
In January 1869, the flat, featureless plains of Texas were known as the Staked Plains, after the early Spanish explorers who had discovered the desolate area drove stakes into the ground as markers to lead them back to safety. A lonely, desolate area of dirt, grassland, and Indians, it would be easy to lose one’s sense of direction if unaccustomed to such terrain. In the distance the dust rose in the wake of a lone rider as he moved across the desolate grassland.
John Henry Bain rode a dark chocolate colored horse, while a black horse ran behind, tethered by a rope. Following them, secured to the black horse by another lariat, a crabby mule brayed his disapproval with each footfall at the quick pace of travel. The rider’s head moved around as if on a swivel, searching for others on the lonely plain. This was Comanche territory, and not a good place for a white man. The one advantage was he’d have plenty of warning with the wide view in all directions if they came his way.
He moved westward, in the general direction of the New Mexico border, following tracks left by the 10 riders he pursued. He had tracked the men for eight days, closing the distance until he now trailed behind them by about two hours. The men he pursued had held up the stage outside the settlement of Washita Bend on the Red River. Having been a member of the posse which had hunted the murderous bandits for several days, he was the last one left, still doggedly on their trail. One by one the other law makers and those sworn into service in haste petered out, returning to the safety and comfort of their homes, leaving only Bain to hunt the brigands. Some would say one man was not enough against ten. Those folks didn’t know John Henry Bain. A former scout for the Seventh Cavalry, now he was a hunter…a hunter of men.
True to his determined nature, he followed them, ready to pursue the bandits to the gates of Hell if need be. They needed to answer for their sins. He required that they pay for the three dead they left in their wake. They had traveled steadily to the west until the day before when they made an abrupt turn due north, until they came to a river and turned back to the east. He followed their tracks next to the small river. Slowing his steed, John Henry stood in the saddle and observed the horizon. He could see the river flowing into the flat terrain, but on either side of the river bed the land dropped away, receding, forming a large cut in the ground. The first signs of a canyon lay ahead of him, dropping below the level of the plain where red, bare rock formed the walls. It was wide, and small, scrubby trees dotted the landscape inside the gorge. He’d heard of this place. Hells Canyon one man told him, filled with Comanche. According to his friend, the walls were red with the blood of those the Comanche had murdered there.
The winter was mild and Bain’s head throbbed in the light of the merciless sun of the Texas panhandle, as if a brass band marched inside his skull. The two-month-old wound had healed, but still, the pain persisted. He cursed the trooper who had cracked him on the back of his head. What a wicked work of butchery that day had held. Old Indian men, squaws, and children had been slaughtered in cold blood. Its author had been his friend, well, now ex-friend, George Armstrong Custer. And he’d done the one thing a commander should never do; he lost control of his men. Shoving the thoughts of the carnage from his mind, Bain took a pinch of white powder into his mouth, washed it down with a swill of water, then placed more of the powder between his cheek and gum. The pulverized bark of the willow tree held his only relief from the constant ache.
He wondered if the outlaws ahead of him knew where they were going. Could they be so dumb to think that the Comanche would welcome them? Did they even know the canyon ahead was full of the Indians? He didn’t know what bounty these thieves had on their heads. He wasn’t hunting them for the money. They had murdered a friend and that was reason enough. Bain hadn’t known the salty stagecoach driver long, but he had befriended Bain. Eckhart’s spilled blood called out to John Henry, screaming for justice. Bain intended to bring them in for that reason, bounty or not.
Continuing, Bain neared the opening as the ground fell away before him. He knew that the Grand Canyon further to the west dwarfed this place, yet that notwithstanding, this site was massive. The chasm twisted and turned through the panhandle landscape, like a deep scar scratched into the ground. The bottom of the canyon fell a thousand feet deep in some areas. He’d have to stay alert or someone, bandit or Indian, would pick him off from overhead. Riding near the river he scanned the walls that began to rise around him as he dropped below the ground level of the plain.
The mule bellowed a complaint and John turned to him, pushed his hat back on his head and smiled. “Don’t like it any better than you, Ornery. Not by one bit,” Bain reset his hat, twisting back to the front. Gritting his teeth, he drew in a deep breath, then urged his mount to move. “Come on, Chocolate, let’s see what there is to see. Midnight, you keep up with us now, ya hear?” The black horse behind him neighed as John Henry nudged his spurs to the ribs of his horse.
In his mind John heard the warning that Eckhart had given him, “Now watch out, John Henry, if’n you ever has’t to go into that Palo Duro Canyon. She’s hells own place. The rocks are red with the blood of the Comanch’ victims.” Remembering Eckhart saddened him, yet stiffened his resolve.
The rock walls rose around him, not all that high at first, as flat-topped mesas lined the valley either side of the tributary. Sheer rock walls rose higher before him, as he followed the stream that meandered through the twisting canyon it had created eons ago. Strange rock formations with brilliant layers of oranges, reds, and yellows increased around him, the deeper he dropped. John Henry supposed that the reds could be mistaken for blood-soaked rocks. The river widened, then narrowed again, as he traversed carefully around a small waterfall that signalled a sharp jump downward in the floor of the canyon.
At the bottom of the waterfall, now much deeper in the canyon, he heard something and pulled his horse to a quick halt to listen. Far in the distance came the unmistakable sound of men screaming. There were other voices, whooping and hollering. His blood ran cold. Those were the sounds of Indian braves. Laughter wafted to him on the gentle breeze, a distinct feminine sound. Those were the squaws. Kicking his horse onward, the screams still came to him on the wind as he moved deeper into the valley. The walls climbed ever higher, the mesas hemmed him in, and now other gorges and arroyos either side of the central passage appeared.
For more than an hour, John Henry Bain moved through the wonderment of a landscape. A slow, plodding pace, Bain’s keen, dark blue eyes scanned the canyon around him. The further he traveled into the ravine the louder the blood-curdling shrieks sounded. Some fell silent as quickly as they had erupted. Something had changed, and that change might not be so good for Bain. His long hair hung over his shoulders, yet still the back of his neck tingled. John Henry pulled his horse to a halt, as the other two beasts stopped behind him. Bain fidgeted with the tuft of hair below his lip, then smoothed his thick mustache.
“Damn,” he said, as he saw a Comanche jump atop a rock in front of him. The brave was dressed only in a loincloth, despite the cold, the narrow leather cloth hanging front and back from a tight waistband, while his hair hung in two long braids. But what caught Bain’s eyes the most was the muzzle-loading rifle the Indian held in his hands. Bain sat quietly on his horse, observing the Indian intently. Out of the corner of his eyes, John could see more of them mounting other rocks. He turned his head and realized he was surrounded by Indians with long braided hair, dressed in buckskins.
The Indian he’d first seen lowered his rifle, then set it against the rock. The Indian faced Bain, fists on his hips, scowling at the white man. John Henry raised his right hand, palm out, then lowered it level to his waist, then moved his hands in a quick succession, telling the Indian he was after ten wicked white men. The Indian nodded, picked up his rifle and jumped down from the rock to approach Bain. The rifle was held loosely in his hand, no threat to Bain in this moment.
“Five now,” the Indian said, speaking in imperfect English. “Why you want my new slaves?”
“They robbed and murdered. I need to take them back to face justice,” Bain told him.
“I punish for you,” he said. “They do women work. When we tire of them, we stake them to ant den.”
“That won’t do,” John told him. “I need to take them back.”
“What are you known by?” the Indian asked, stepping closer to Bain.
“My name is John Henry Bain. Some of the tribes call me Eye of Eagle,” Bain told him.
“I hear of you. You are friend to Indian. But what do I care of the Kiowa, the Cheyenne or the Pawnee?” the chief told him.
“I have respect for the Comanche, also. You are the great warriors of the plains,” Bain told him. “What do they call you?”
“Pahayoko is my name,” the Indian replied. Straightening, he stiffened his stance, pumped his chest out, “In English mean, Amorous Man. I like you, John Henry Bain. We trade for men.”
“I travel light, but let us see what trade we can make.”
“How many repeaters?” Pahayoko asked, pointing at the rifles on Bain’s three animals.
Bain’s head dropped as he sucked in air hard. He looked at the Indian and shook his head. “I need rifles for hunting.”
“We trade men for guns,” the Indian insisted, folding his arms at chest. “Henry rifles, I need Henrys.”
“I’ll trade you two guns and 50 rounds, for the five men,” Bain relented.
“How many guns you have?”
The Indian nodded. Bain held up three fingers then repeated his terms.
“Okay, I give you five men. But no horses. No wampum. You give 50 round of bullet, two guns,” the Comanche told him.
Bain relaxed a moment, weighing his options. The man didn’t have to give him anything, but he needed those horses to transport the men back. Bain could put up a fight and take many of the braves with him, but if they decided to take what they wanted, John Henry knew how it would end. He’d be dead. “I need to return the money they stole. You have no need of it,” Bain countered.
“I only get two guns. I keep money,” the Indian told him.
“Okay, how about I give you 100 rounds, three repeaters, and you throw in the money, and their horses. You can keep their hardware and ammunition,” Bain said, putting up a bold front.
“Okay, what your Sharps rifles?” the Indian asked, trying to expand his advantage.
“No, I need them for hunting big game. Besides, they are single shots. You don’t want them.”
The young warrior nodded, the deal made. Turning, he yelled in his own language toward a group of young braves. As Bain watched, five of the men he’d been trailing were led around the rocks. Their hands were bound behind their backs as they were pushed ahead with rough shoves by the young Indians. Their horses were lead into view, then the braves boosted the men onto their horses.
“You hang these men?” Pahayoko asked.
“The law might…not me. I just bring them in,” John told him.
“All go back alive?”
“I hope,” Bain said.
“Lose no sleep if not,” the Indian said. “Get much wampum for them?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Not doing it for that reason.”
“Strange bounty man.”
Getting off his horse, Bain fished out the agreed upon ammunition and rifles, then set them on a flat rock near the Indian. The nod between the two, white man and Indian was respectful. Bain understood Indians and how to deal with them, whereas the men he’d been tracking had obviously done wrong by the tribe. Mounting his horse, Bain rode up to the men, two of whom had been scalped and blood covered their faces.
Bain looked at the bloodied men, then turned back to Pahayoko. “Why’d you lift their top knots?”
“They, and others, killed some of my people,” Pahayoko told him. A scream rang out from deeper inside the valley. “Perhaps, one, two or even three not yet dead.”
“I want all the men who are still living, not just these five,” Bain told him.
“No,” Pahayoko said. “You have these. You want more, then more guns and bullets.” Another scream echoed through the canyon. Bain had nothing left he could afford to trade. He shook his head, ducking his eyes as another scream sent a shiver up his spine. “Go back the way you came and make way home. Careful, John Henry Bain, bounty man. Some of my brothers are not kind as me.”
Bain ground his teeth for a moment. Pahayoko picked up a large leather pouch and brought it to Bain, who leaned down from atop his horse. Handing the pouch to Bain, Pahayoko then stretched out his right hand. Bain took hold of the man’s forearm, returning the gesture.
“Go in peace,” Pahayoko told him, adding a warning. “Never return.”
Giving his word, Bain tied the sack of money to his saddle. With a final nod to the Indian chief, John Henry then slapped the backside of one of the bandit’s horses to get them moving. The men spurred their beasts and the long line headed back up the canyon, away from the tribe. Bain wanted to wait until they were clear of the Canyon before securing all the horses together. As they left, the distant screaming began again, laughter accompanying the hollers of the men. The women…it seemed…loved to watch whites suffer.
As they lost sight of the Indians behind them, John Henry spoke to his charges. “You boys need to behave yourself,” Bain told them. “I don’t want to kill any of you, but we’re all going back. One way or the other, you’re all going back to face justice.”
The lead rider twisted his upper body and looked over his shoulder at John Henry. He nodded his head, “We’ll be milk toast mild.” The man then yelled out to the others, “Y’all hear me on this? We owe this man our lives. Ya’ll seen what they did to the others.”
“What did they do?” Bain asked as they made their way through the red terrain of the canyon floor.
“Them thar Comanch’ got themselves a turrible fury. I had no idea how wrathful they’s capable of being. They burnt Jack Lohan’s nose off his face,” the outlaw leader told Bain. A thick stream of blood ran from his scalp and spilled down his face. “I swear to God, one of the squaws put a torch right ta his nose, and she held’t thar until the flesh burnt right down to the bone. Three of the women tore Sam Wallace’s tongue out and beat him senseless, then a brave cut his hands and feet off him, along with other, more tender parts. He bled to death while the women prodded him with sticks. They’s a skinning Dan Buckner alive, then stopped when ya come into view. After a bit, the braves come and got us, scalped me and the other one afore they brought us ta you. That was Dan you heard a screaming as we rode out of thar. Don’t know what they’s a doing then. Don’t want to know. Timothy and his brother Robert is left. Don’t know the rest of thar name. From the time they took us till they give us ta you...well, God’s honest truth, it’s the longest two hours, err so, of my life.” The man finished his tale, having said it all in one long spiel as if to rid it from his memory.
“The Comanche are renowned for their…methods. But you have to understand, as much as I just saved you from them, I’m still taking you boys in to face justice,” Bain said. His look changed, and grew cold and hard, “Now, who killed the stage driver?”
“Me,” the leader said, the fight knocked out of him. “I murdered him and t’other two.”
“He was a friend of mine,” Bain said, the words absent of emotion. The leader turned his face to John. Bain’s eyes told the man all he needed to know.
“I thought I was a pitiless man when I murdered them. Didn’t consider punishment or what bad might come from the act. I wish I regretted killing him, but the God’s truth of it is, my regret, what thar is of it, was riding into that canyon to try and lose ya. I’ll take the time, the rope or whatever, and know you saved me from worse. I can’t vouch for the others, but I won’t give no trouble.”
Bain didn’t believe the man. No man went willingly to the rope. They travelled for another hour, up the incline as the canyon fell behind them, and finally out onto the flat plain again. He kept the group moving until they had circled well south of the canyon, before he stopped the group and tended to the wounds of the two scalped men. John Henry removed the leather straps from one man’s hands, allowed him to eat some jerky and drink some water then rebound the man, and moved to the next outlaw. He made life a tad easier for the men by tying their hands in front of them. On the move again, the group travelled across the flat prairie until just before sunset.
Once they stopped for the night, the five men helped set up the camp. The shock of the cruelty their group had befallen was still fresh, preying on their minds. With their hands still tied, the men gathered wood, buffalo chips, and dry grass to build a fire. War seasoned, hard men moved about like sheep. For the moment, their resolve broken, their minds couldn’t think about running from this bounty hunter.
The leader, Clay Weller, had been a Confederate officer and these men had served under him. Having been in many battles during the war, and done their share of atrocious acts after the war, one would think they would have remained unfazed by the treatment they saw. One would be wrong.
Philip Redstone, a younger member of the group, couldn’t push the image of a woman holding that torch to his friend’s face. He was unable to wrap his mind around how much the woman enjoyed what she did.
Andrew Kemper, one could consider him the second in command, had been Captain Weller’s Lieutenant during the war. A man of iron will, his head ached where he’d been scalped, and his unyielding resolution crumbled. He moved about the camp with a lost look upon his face. The exposed raw flesh of his slashed head still oozed. Some of the blood ran down into his eyes from time to time. For Kemper, the worst thing of all was those women, beating the men, poking them with sticks as they jeered and jabbered at them. Women weren’t supposed to be like that, like cats playing with some battered mouse.
Jefferson Jeffers sat on a rock, blankly staring off into the distance. The color had drained from his face. His skin was ashen, and he yanked strands of hair from his head as he mumbled something, low and gravely. Bain, hearing him, moved closer and listened to the man. “Took his manhood from him,” Jeffers said. “Cut it all right off him. The women made him…oh, dear God, what they made him do with…eat his-self…eat that part of his-self. Oh, dear God, the women.”
The fifth man worried Bain the most, a man named Jim Skimmer. He alone seemed to be in full control of his faculties. He didn’t mumble. He didn’t have a lost look about him. His face looked…angry. But if the anger was with the Comanche or directed at John Henry, he didn’t know.
Bain killed, cleaned, and cooked six rabbits, which were in abundance on the plains. Several cans of beans accompanied the meal along with some weak coffee. He had to try and make the supplies last. Bain realized he hadn’t planned well. If he’d had all 10 of them, he’d have been hard pressed to hunt enough wild game for all of them on the trail. At best, it would have been a three-man job, and he would have needed three times the supplies. But there was no way he’d give a rifle to one of his prisoners to let them hunt rabbits or deer. When the others in the posse had turned back, he should probably have done the same. But he hadn’t, and now he had five prisoners to feed and get back alive. In the two months he’d been a bounty hunter, he’d brought in five men, but each of those had been one at a time, and manageable.
Skimmer ate the last of his rabbit and tossed the empty carcass into the fire. He fumbled with the plate trying to hold it still while he piled beans on his spork. Giving up, Jim took his hands and grabbed the beans, then stuffed them in his mouth. An odd smile crossed his features, as some of the food and juice from the beans tumbled out and down his whiskered chin. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his tan range coat.
“We been running eight days,” Skimmer said, his smirk growing larger. “Take us that long or longer to get back. A lot can happen in eight days.” Picking up the coffee with both his hands he drank the full cup in one gulp, unbothered by its heat. The fellow’s wolf grin held a certain malevolence, “How much sleep you going to be able to get over the next seven nights, worrying about me?”
“Jim,” Weller called to him, “I told him we wasn’t going ta give him no trouble.”
“You ain’t no captain anymore, and I ain’t no private,” Jim Skimmer told him. “You speak for a minority of one nowadays.”
“You give trouble, I’ll gut ya myself,” Weller told him.
Skimmer laughed and slid back against his saddle. He pulled his hat low over his eyes and settled in, making himself as comfortable as he could. Bain said nothing during the exchange, but listened plenty. He just ate his food and thought about things.
Jeffers and Kemper gathered the metal plates, brushed a few leftover bones into the fire, and walked to the nearby stream with the plates and utensils to wash. Jeffers looked at the last spork and began to laugh so hard tears ran from his face. Holding the half fork, half spoon high in the air, he shouted, “Behold, the white man’s superiority! The greatest invention of the Civil War—the spork.”
Kemper jabbed the man in the ribs, “Na, the greatest invention was your ma and pa givin’ you the name of Jefferson Jeffers,” he laughed, and the look on Jeffers face told him he’d heard it all before, but still, he grinned.
Jeffers and Kemper laughed together, then fell silent. Finishing their chore, they put all the utensils back in the sacks of the mule’s packsaddle. Holding their hands out to Bain they waited as he tied them again. Jefferson’s lightened mood didn’t last long though, and soon he returned to mumbling to himself.
Bain retrieved long, thin leather straps from the packsaddle. He tied each man’s feet together and then tied their feet to straps holding their hands. After having secured them all, John Henry made the men lay back on their saddles. Tying the rope around each man’s neck he fastened the other end to the saddle horn. He saved Skimmer until last.
“I’ll sleep just fine,” he told Jim Skimmer, as he cinched the strap tight to his saddle. “Don’t go and break your neck in the night.”
“Still, best sleep with one eye open,” Skimmer told him, studying the bounty hunter. John Henry Bain looked like a walking armory, A Remington hung on his right side, while another sat in a cross draw on the belt’s left side. A Colt Navy hung in a holster that was sewn into his right knee-high boot, and another Navy hung in a shoulder holster. The other boot held a large Bowie knife. He dressed like a preacher and Skimmer had heard his name. He remembered him as Federal Agent working as the Railroad Police for Atchison and Topeka.
Skimmer didn’t doubt that Bain had sand. A single man tracking ten had to have sand—or a death wish. If he felt gratitude for being saved from the Comanche, he wouldn’t show it. His only concern was freedom, but it would be best to get loose after they were off the Comanche lands. Nevertheless, he decided to take his freedom when the opportunity presented itself. He would feel some remorse if he had to kill Bain, but going to prison wasn’t an option. Neither was a necktie party back in Washita Bend. To some jury’s it didn’t matter who did the killing, they hung all the bandits.
Bain packed a pipe, aware that Skimmer watched him as he lit it. Big bellows of blue smoke rose from the pipe as held a stick from the fire near it. The pipe was a sizeable bent steam affair with a silver cover that he clamped shut after he had her going. He reclined against his own saddle, pulled a book from a pocket in his frock coat, and began writing in it with a stubby pencil. After a time, he stopped writing and returned the pencil and book to their place in his coat. He settled into his blankets, hearing the snores of the men around him, including Skimmer.
The next three days were filled with hard riding. The going was rough for the prisoners, with their hands tied and little space between their horses. They refrained from grabbing the saddle horns. Experienced riders don’t like to appear to be hanging on for dear life. Bain stopped them every few hours, letting them stretch their legs. All the while, he kept his eyes watching them and the horizon.
Doing the best he could, John Henry treated the wounds on the two men’s scalps. He worried about infection setting into the open wounds. Their bare, skinless tops would always be ugly reminders of their encounter with the Comanche. As the men didn’t offer him any trouble, Bain treated them all well. Even Skimmer.
Stopping at noon on the fifth day, on the bank of some nameless creek, Bain portioned out the last of his jerky. Only enough beans remained for that night and the salted pork and bacon were all gone. The rabbits had decreased in number the further from the plain they rode. Yet still he would have to kill game for their meals the final three or four days of the trip.
Bain knew that they would be coming back to the Red River the next day. He hadn’t followed it, for it meandered too much and would have added days to the journey. Now, he needed to follow it, as the cottonwoods provided a home for squirrels, rabbits, deer, and other game. Standing on top of a small rise, he scanned the eastern horizon looking for the line of cottonwoods.
Standing, Skimmer moved with soft, quiet steps, closing the distance between him and Bain. After each step he froze a moment, catlike, watched, then took another step. Once he closed the gap to 10 feet, he rushed at Bain head first, throwing himself the last few feet as he dove at John Henry’s back.
The two men tumbled from the prow of the hill, rolling down the far side of the embankment. The other prisoners leaped to their feet, bounded up the hill, and watched as the battle raged. With his hands still tied, Skimmer grappled with John Henry, trying to pull the gun in the cross draw from the holster. Bain pushed him away, but Skimmer held the gun in his hand. In a blur of motion, Bain pulled his other gun from the holster, raised to the right and thrust it hard to the left. The barrel landed on Skimmer’s jaw, and he crumpled into the sandy soil, out cold. Furious, more at himself than the outlaw, Bain ran for the ropes and hog tied the unconscious man.
In the darkness, Skimmer heard a shot. That’s it, he thought, he killed me. He heard a voice. He could make out some of what they were saying, but not much. Did you see that shot? One voice said. That was 400 yards if it was 10 feet, another one exclaimed. More talk about the distance, then the other men fell silent. Skimmer felt a hand jostling his shoulder.
“Wake up,” Jeffers said. “You been out all afternoon.”
Opening his eyes, Skimmer blinked and saw the sky ablaze with fiery yellows and reds. Rising, his jaw exploded in pain. Putting a hand on it, he rubbed the lump. Hoisting himself up to a sitting position, he continued to blink and take in the scene. They were on the bank of the river, and below them, Bain strained while hauling an antelope up by its back legs, hanging it from a tree with a rope.
“Any of you yahoos any good at skinning and dressing a deer?” Bain asked.
“I am,” Weller said. Bain motioned to him. Clay ambled over to him, waiting as Bain untied him and handed him a gutting knife.
“Don’t get any ideas,” John Henry told him, as the two of them turned their attention to dressing the antelope.
“You been out cold, tied to your horse all afternoon,” Jeffers told Skimmer. “We’re at the Red. Made better time than I thought we was.”
“Damn,” Skimmer said. “How many days left till…” he struggled a moment to remember the name of the community, “…Washita Bend?”
“Two, maybe three,” Jeffers said. He moved away and tended the fire. Glancing at the antelope, he turned back to Skimmer. “He shot that critter at four or five hundred yards.”
“How do you feel?” Bain asked, bending down to Skimmer, taking the outlaw’s jaw in his hand. “Don’t look like I broke anything, other than the tooth.”
“A tooth fell on the ground when I hauled you up on your saddle.”
“Oh, that came from my pocket. It dropped out on its own a few weeks ago,” Skimmer said. “It hurts right good, but I don’t think I’m worse for the wear. I heard that shot you fired to kill the antelope. I thought you killed me with it.”
“I told you I wanted to bring you all in alive,” John Henry told him. “Not my job to be judge, jury and executioner.”
Putting his hands to his head Jim Skimmer felt his hair, then looked at Bain, “Where’s my hat?”
“Put it in the pack saddle.” Bain moved to the mule, retrieved the man’s hat, and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” Skimmer said, as he adjusted it. “I wasn’t gonna kill ya.”
“Well, maybe,” Bain said, “but if you had got that hammer back, I’d have killed you.”
“Yeah, maybe I’d have killed you,” Skimmer added. A sly smile crossed his face and faded. “None of them warned you I was gonna take ya. Guess you ain’t as popular with them as you thought.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Bain said. “Don’t test me again, Skimmer.” Bain sat near him, pulling the pipe out of the inside pocket of his frock. He struck a match and lit the pipe. Once it was going he relaxed, just a little, enjoying his smoke.
“What you write in that book at night?” Skimmer rubbed his jaw while watching Bain, trying to figure out this man. Trying to understand why the bounty hunter hadn’t killed him.
“I write what happened during the day. It’s called a journal,” Bain said, pulling the book out and showing it to the man. “When I get back to my wife, I give it to her. When I’m away, she can read it to my boys. Of course, I don’t put every detail and play down some of them.”
“Where’s she at?”
“Benham, Colorado Territory,” Bain told him. “Going to head back that way in the spring.”
“Why’d you give up your railroad star?” Skimmer asked.
“You know about that?”
“Yeah,” Skimmer said. “I heard about you. We all have. That’s one reason they haven’t done anything. Them boys is afraid of you.”
“But not you.”
“Hell, yes, me,” he said ducking his head. “I’m not stupid.”
“Well, you damn near got yourself killed today,” Bain told him, rose and turned his back on the man. “I got to fix us some dinner.”
“Why what?” Bain asked.
“Why’d you give up the badge?”
“I rode as a scout in the Civil War for Custer. We were friends. He asked me to be a civilian scout for him in ‘67. I said yes. Then the Washita massacre happened. I don’t hold with senseless killing of old men and children, so, I said goodbye. Now I’m here taking you fellers in,” he said, then added, “And I got to do the cooking now.”
Before long, the men had eaten well on antelope and all settled in for the night. The next morning, they set off again with the end of their trek approaching. Bain wasn’t lucky enough to find another antelope or deer, so he had to rely on rabbits and squirrels for the rest of the trip. The next two days passed without incident as the men rode on toward the settlement. The scenery grew familiar; the settlement was close. A few more twists and turns of the Red River and they would be at Washita Bend.
Bain alternated from trailing the group to riding in the lead. He settled into a routine, trusting the men with the promise Weller had made him back in the canyon. Even Skinner had fallen in line, grateful to be alive for the second time at Bain’s hand. The other three were followers. Nothing to fear from a follower.
Atop his horse, hands tied, Clay Weller could almost feel the hangman’s rope tightening around his neck. And he wasn’t going to let that happen. Weller was grateful to Bain for saving them from the Comanche. He had meant it when he told them all not to make trouble. But then again, the closer they got to Washita Bend, the more he knew he didn’t want to hang, and his need for freedom grew. Nothing against Bain, it was just when it comes down to him and someone else, the someone else is the one that dies.
It was time. Reaching down to his boot, Weller pulled the pants leg up and fished out the blade. The butcher knife felt good in his hand, as he cut the leather strap from his wrists. Grasping the blade handle in his right hand, he held it to his side.
“Move out the way, Phil,” he whispered. “You too, Andrew. I kept this when I cleaned that deer the other day. Clear me a path.”
The two riders moved away, clearing the trail between him and Bain. Gritting his teeth, Weller kicked his horse hard. The beast reared up and then came down running. Weller held the knife out to the side, aiming at Bain’s back. He spurred his animal hard, dashing straight for the bounty hunter.
“Look out, Bain!” Skimmer yelled, “Weller’s after you, man!”
Hearing the warning, Bain pulled his revolver, thumbed the hammer, twisted in the saddle and fired. Clay Weller felt the bullet hit his chest. It lifted him up off the saddle, and as his feet came free of the stirrups, the horse ran out from under him. The knife tumbled from his hand spinning down toward the ground. Clay watched as it stabbed into the sandy soil, blade first. Falling to the ground, he landed hard on his back, as the air rushed from his lungs.
His eyes watered at the pain, as warm blood gushed from the gaping wound on his chest. Blinking, he looked up at Bain, silhouetted against the bright sun. Bain dismounted the black horse and stood over Weller, glaring down at him. The gun in his hand still smoked.
“You told me you would be mild as milk-toast!” Bain barked at the man, surprised at how much the betrayal hurt.
“I tried, God knows, I tried,” Weller croaked out through agonized, wheezing breaths. “Meant it… Can’t hang…” To shut out the harsh glare of sunlight, Clay Weller closed his eyes. “I’m sorry. Thank…you…Bain…” he wheezed. He wanted to say more, but was unable. The last words to escape his lips acknowledged the act of the man who’d saved him from the Indians. But he just couldn’t hang. Weller felt his life slip away from him. In his last act, he tried to open his eyes, and failed.
Bain could tell he was dead. Even so, he bent down and checked him. Standing, John Henry looked at the other four. He walked back to them, grabbed the first man’s reins and glared up at him.
“Get down Andrew. You too Phil and Jeff,” Bain said, his voice livid. “Jim, would you please retrieve Weller’s horse?”
“Yes, sir,” Skimmer said. Touching his heels to his mare’s ribs, Skimmer moved through and headed toward the animal.
“Thanks for the warning, Jim,” Bain said.
Stopping his horse, Skimmer turned back to him, a big grin on his face, “Couldn’t help myself. I tried to say nothing, but the words welled up and tumbled out before I could shut my fat mouth.”
“Sure,” Bain said. Turning to the other three men, he shouted at them, “All of you are staying off your critters. You’re walking the rest of the way! Jim will ride in front and I’ll bring up the rear.”
After securing Weller to his saddle, the group moved on toward Washita Bend. Three walking and two riding. It was slower going, but Bain refused to let the men ride to make it easier on them. It added another overnight stop to their trek, but he didn’t care. And with the three men too tired to complain anymore, the small party entered Washita Bend as the sun set on the following day. Bain couldn’t stop thinking about Weller and what the man had done, after being such a model prisoner the entire trek. But he reasoned it was not that Weller had wanted him dead. He had simply been unable to face the noose.
Frontier justice came swiftly, as the circuit judge was in town. At the trial, Bain told the whole sorry account, and then testified about Skimmer saving his life. To Skimmer’s surprise, he was given six months to the other men’s five years. But it wasn’t over for those men. They had additional charges in other communities, and one by one, their death sentences were handed down to the thieves. All the men eventually hung, except for Jim Skimmer.
A week after the trial in Washita Bend, Skimmer was being transported to Dallas to serve out his 6-month sentence, when someone forcibly stopped the prison wagon on the trail. Not a shot was fired, but the well-armed brigand set only one prisoner free—Jim Skimmer. No one knows who broke him out, any more than know where Skimmer went. When the word got back to Washita Bend, the town marshal tried to convince Bain to lead a posse after the escaped man. Bain declined, and after wiring the $2000 bounty to his wife, John Henry Bain went off hunting other men. All the while, pondering what was over the next hill.