Western Short Story
It all started when Gentleman John, a Comanchero of double mix, hot as his Mexican blood, cold as his Comanche stance, advised the mayor of Crow’s Hill that he would attack the town at noon the next day. “I will burn the town to the ground and take all the horses,” was written on a note in a decent and easily-read handwriting.
Texas maps, every one of them I’ve looked at, say Crow’s Hill’s not there anymore. Maybe it was never there, out there in the foothills of West Texas, but my grandfather, gone now close to 70 years, swore he was there the day before the last stage left Crow’s Hill, bound for freedom and safety. The next morning, from a high point on Davis Mountain, he saw the stage just slide over the crowned road out of town when the attack came. Three extra horses traveled behind the stage in a tandem he’d never seen, but Crow’s Hill, he said, went up in smoke that day. Some men had slipped out of town during the night and were never heard from again. Grandfather, a stubborn little Irishman, in broad daylight rode right at what was known as Gentleman John’s stronghold in the hills. “They knew I was not running away from them, so they must have let me pass. I saw not one of them that day, and suppose they were massed elsewhere for the attack, or honored my brazen pride.”
He also remembered some of the arguments about who was eligible for the stage. And it was a nice charity that picked passengers.
Some ladies were picked first, the few of them, along with the lone doctor in town. When he refused to accept the ride, the mayor said, “Doc, there might be nothing left here for you to fix when this thing is over, and two of those ladies are pregnant. Go where you’ll be of some use.”
The sheriff’s widow, him dead less than a week from the Comancheros and her carrying their first child, was the first name to go on the list. She too refused the ride, but the mayor saw that as a little problem a bit of rope would take care, if it really would be necessary. Mrs. Hammond, the banker’s wife, with a letter to be delivered, if ever, to a banker in Missouri with instructions for the dispersing of all Crow’s Hill Bank’s assets, which had been sent on secretly at least a month before … on the same stagecoach. Mrs. Hammond, also carrying a child, and Jim Truex the driver, were the only people who knew about the earlier shipment.
The next on the list was Dawn Tilman, an actress of great talent who had been stranded in town by a crooked manager caught up in a crooked game. Jim Wilzer’s son Joey, only 11 years old, also had a seat. The last guaranteed seat was drawn from a lottery, the profits from which were given to Truex for his pay. It amounted to $122, a princely sum for him if he got to destination. That seat went to Pit Wilfrey of the livery but he gave the seat to a man whose family was coming his way in a month, all the way from St. Louis. Pit, it was said, said he had to stay to make bullets, that he was too old for much of anything else except fighting back at something that bothered the hell out of him.
Gentleman John was doing just that.
Four months later, in Missouri, meeting Truex in a saloon, my grandfather heard about the last night and the eventual ride out of town.
“You saw us go, Johnny?” Truex said. “Where were you?”
“I rode out the day before, Jim, at high noon. I didn’t steal away like some did. I headed out right for Gentleman John’s hangout, out there in the foothills. Not one Comanchero came near me. Not a single one, which was a great surprise, and I saw you and the stagecoach clear the hill, there down beside Davis Mountain, and go out of sight. How was your ride? You have an adventure?”
Truex, Grandfather said, looked no worse than before, a gruff, sour-looking man who was known for his dedication and fierceness in the face of trouble. His hat was the same beaten sombrero, with the same bullet hole in the creased top he had worn the other times Grandfather had seen him. The same gun belt was at his waist this time, with the same pistols, the ones with pearl handles that a dying drummer gave him for his actions in a hold-up, keeping him alive as long as he could, standing over him like he was his guardian angel with six guns. Truex was known for a slow whip at the horses hauling out in front of his stagecoach, but fast with those pearl-handed guns.
“It was a quick and dusty ride for a few days until we met the soldiers coming our way, rushing to Crow’s Hill, having cleared much of the trail behind them, and so for us. And then we relaxed at one waterhole station when Doc Nevers helped Mrs. Hammond deliver her first-born, a boy she immediately named Lester for his father she feared might already be dead back at Crow’s Hill”
“What about the sheriff’s wife? Her time come on the road?”
“She made it all the way to Sandhill and met up with an uncle. I last saw her going off in another wagon. Never saw her again.”
“All the others?”
“The doc went on to St Louis or New Orleans, I’m not sure which. Joey Wilzer, the boy, is with some relatives. The lady actress is with another troupe. My shotgun headed back to Illinois after having his fill this time. And the gent who was looking for his family coming to Crow’s Hill met them on the road like it was a miracle, I swear. What a celebration that was, like a real shivaree happening right on the damned road. Damndest thing I ever saw. It don’t happen that way much. Not likely. He joined them and they turned right around and headed back home. His wife was greatly relieved, I do believe. I can say we all fared better than Crow’s Hill did, everybody on that coach coming out of there that last day.”
He paused and added, “Like you, Johnny, heading off to meet Gentleman John like you did.” He stopped talking, took another sip, and continued with his scheme of life. “Never know when a damned decent drink might be your last, so enjoy the taste and the full expectation, like you did, moving right at Gentleman John’s roost.”
“Not exactly with those expectations,” Grandfather said. “I did have some hopes riding with me. What have you heard from Crow’s Hill? I was with a skinner much of this time since we left there. Kept me busy, he did. Fed me. Paid me with due. But we never heard a word because we saw nobody except Indians the whole time. He knew them all, so it was a relaxable time even though the work was dirty. I was plain hungry when I came across him and his fire, like it was heaven’s gate waiting for me. You hear any news from back there?”
“Leveled,” said Truex, “Crow’s Hill gone right to the ground, every building, the jail, the livery, like they was never there. I’ve talked to at least two people that Gentleman John let go, there was a bunch of them, but not a one with a horse or a gun. ‘Walk home,’ he said, pointing east, ‘and leave us alone. This is Comanche country.’ Said he got more than 400 horses in the raid, a couple of hundred rifles and hand guns, and burned down a few ranch houses in the mix. Don’t know how many cows went along for the walk, whole ranches moving. I don’t think the banker even had a good count on what was where.”
He shook his head and added, “Gonna need a lot more troopers out that way ‘fore I make the move. Oh, I’m going back in due time, figuring it’s my calling of sorts, but I won’t rush things until I hear Gentleman John’s caught his due. That dude, though named proper, is owed one way or another by a lot of people, but I don’t want for a minute to get on his bad side, all the getting even he contemplates, even with all the lucky stars he throws around like he was God hisself.”
“No other news from out that way?”
“Just heard that Comanche bigs like Quanah Parker escaped a large search party, him and his pal Kwahada. Them’s the ones wouldn’t sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty back in ‘67. Gentleman John’s in cahoots with those dudes, like a sidekick of sorts. Guns and horses the main barter and whole herds of cows, wiping out ranches like they was Crow’s Hill to boot.”
That’s when grandfather said that Truex changed the trend of the conversation in one breath, and asked, “Have you heard anything about me and my passengers other than what I’ve told you?”
Grandfather said no and Truex said, “I took my money and spent it all, or gave some of it to those moving on with not a cent in their pockets, but I have to tell you I had some extra passengers that was not part of the original deal made in Crow’s Hill. I stopped the other side of the hill where you saw me down along Davis Mountain and hauled six more bodies on board after the others agreed we could dump some of their baggage. In fact, most of it we tossed, along with some sad looks, I’ll tell you, way some ladies can be. I told them they had to dump the sour looks because we had more at stake than styley dresses or boots.”
He took another drink, as if to gather himself in recall, but was still the gruff and loyal driver he had always been. That was his badge, a badge of honor he could wear with pride, as Grandfather believed until his time had passed; that Truex was a perfect example of what honorable gents good cowboys are, those who work hard for their bosses and give their all, even their lives if called on.
Truex added, “Three older boys with rifles we put flat on top and had one in the rear boot. One more lady and a cripple we put in the carriage on the floor. It was hell for a ride, but we all got through, even carrying the newborn who had to be fed along the way, the way you might picture it.”
When Truex was asked by Grandfather if they had to shoot at anybody on the way, he said, “Three hombres in phony serapes, like they was trying to look the part of Comancheros or Mexicans, jumped from behind a tight turn in the trail. They was masked with red bandanas on their faces, but the actress said she recognized one of them as a gent she had talked to after one performance, recognizing the belt buckle he wore. She called him by name and when the three boys on top rose up with their rifles they scattered like they was shot. That’s the only excitement we really had outside a coyotes finishing off a dead horse. Saw no sign of its rider, though the saddle was still on the animal. The banker’s wife led a prayer for that unknown rider, wherever he was. That was special to me. Made me think I was doing good.”
Grandfather asked if there was anything else.
Truex said, as if it sounded like the last thing he ever said to my grandfather, “Nothin’ except my shotgun’s headed back after a week on the road heading home. Said the west was too big and too exciting for him to go back and sit on a porch in Illinois. Sent me a wire and I’ll see him in a day or two.
Grandfather always said the west was opened by special men who knew what they were up to and why. I can still see him listening to the Lone Ranger and Tonto on the radio, the little red dial light like a spark in his room, and him in his rocking chair making hardly a peep at all, listening, having all these memories until his very last day.