Western Short Story
Silence sat around Tom Vespers in the foothills of Arkansas as he descended to a wide stretch of grass along the Texas border. The night sky boasted with its display of stars, the moon kept to its sleep elsewhere, and his own sleep was continuously interrupted by thoughts of home, and maybe never getting there, which made him mount his horse earlier than usual.
The day before had been a revelation of many sorts.
The war was over, the roads cluttered with veterans on the way home, horses were scarce, as was food, and so was liquor and women. None of it seemed to bother Tom Vespers as he came over a long ridge trail in Arkansas, bound for the family spread outside Waco. The war was over for him and all the others on the roads, and he had let some of its emotional weight go its way, into the past. The itch to get home had been in him since the hour of his release and the departure from his cavalry unit and from best friend and comrade, Roscoe Tarnes.
But some memories, he realized, would never go away … death, the sight of death or incurring death might meld with dark and unbidden memories, but camaraderie was put in place to hang forever clearer than all other parts of battle.
The glorious night sky, the imminent dawn flash, the sounds of arousal about in the world made him think of Roscoe Tarnes.
He’d miss Roscoe Tarnes for sure, the one who had led a stolen Union horse into a tight little canyon to help him avoid certain capture by a Bluecoat patrol searching all the evasion spots in the mountain range. And then to treat his wounds.
“Ease off with all the nice words, Tommy,” Tarnes had said. “We got other things on our minds, so don’t make any noise when I attempt to get that awful looking piece of junk out of you. Looks damned horrid to me.”
Tarnes completed the rough, crude procedure and helped Vespers onto the saddle and led him back to a friendly encampment where real medical attention was administered. That route was fraught with close encounters of Bluecoat patrols. Several shots were also fired by Tarnes at enemy soldiers who appeared to be separated from their units and roaming the range.
After one such encounter where the Yankee soldier faked his death and fell down very dramatically, Tarnes had yelled at Waco and said, “Watch out, Tommy. He’s faking.” And fired a second and deadly shot at the enemy soldier subtly taking aim at him with a pistol.
Tarnes explained his awareness by adding, “I swear some of these loose guns are nothing more than bounty hunters, Tommy, sent out by their generals to do the same jobs they had before the war, chase ‘em down and bring ‘em in being on their minds more than a good woman or a good stiff drink when you need it the most, or a damned good game of poker at a full table.”
When he smacked his lips, Vespers was not sure which one his pal relished the most … his appetite was voracious on several points … wine, women and song deep in the count with him.
Weeks later, separated from the army at the cessation of hostilities, and moving southwest from the Arkansas-Texas border, Vespers was clad in second-hand duds he’d obtained from a friendly woman in Arkansas foothills who had lost her husband and only son in the Great War. She was pleased that someone could use their old clothes, and an old gun belt she wanted nothing more to do with, a loaded pistol in the holster. She had treated him to a meal and a bag of travel food and said that she was going to move to her sister’s home in Chicago, “It’s my old homestead,” she’d explained, “and I’m anxious to get there again.” The look in her eyes was both sad and expectant, or at least hopeful, he thought.
As he rode along and getting closer to the Texas border, Vespers thought the woman had understood his wants and needs and offered her feelings on the matter as another kind of gift. In turn, he hoped her life would find some calmness in it, and a decent future, for she was just getting to her forties. As they parted he was sure each of them knew what war had done to the other.
In the pre-dawn glaze of gray light, not too far off the trail, he spotted the glow of a fire lifted into trees hanging overhead. On other days he had become aware of groups of mounted men, many of which wore remnants of Union Blue uniforms, either pants or shirts and sometimes both. In a gang, he realized, there was always a leader who had twisted or could twist the group to his way of thinking, his way of doing things. That included carrying the war with them for personal gain, revenge or plain cruelty to others who had things needed by the gang. He had made up his mind to be careful of encounters with such groups or gangs. There was no telling how they’d greet a former Confederate soldier.
With concern coming on him about who lit the fire and was being warmed by it, he decided to tether his horse in a thick cluster of trees and get near enough on foot to check out the site. He stepped past a clump of rock and suddenly felt the cold touch of a rifle barrel on the nape of his neck.
“Oh, now, what do we have here?” a voice said. The rifle was jammed tightly against him. “Wait’ll the boys see what kind of sneak we got here, trying to slip up on us, and us just a bunch of Yankee fighters having a little nap. Where are you going, boy? What have you got in mind, huh?”
The rifle was jammed again. “The Captain’ll be pleased to see a new face. We haven’t had any new faces around for a few days. He’ll like to light up himself if you’re a Reb. Too bad if you are.”
Vespers knew he was in deep trouble if such a meeting took place. He had to disarm the guard if he could.
“I’m only going to the bank at Brooksville with my boss’s monthly deposit for the bank. He’s trying to buy a new place just north of here, and the price is too high right now for him. He’s saving for it on a promise.”
The guard’s interest was fully aroused. “How much you carrying, boy? Where is it?” He looked over his shoulder, back toward the campsite he was guarding.
“Oh, only $200 this time,” Vespers said. “Last time it was $350. He makes me keep it in the saddle bag.” He made off as if he was a simple soul who would do nothing but what he was told. “The boss says you can’t ever tell what’s going on in some people’s minds. I guess you’re the sentinel for the campfire group over there. Us Bluecoats have to hang tight down here in this kind of country. That’s for sure with all the Johnny Rebs walking back home from the war.”
The gun barrel was moved from the back of his neck, and in that split second, the guard obviously thinking about what he could do with $200, how far and how quick he could get away with it if he chose to do so, Vespers swung his fist and knocked him cold. The guard went down in a clump without uttering a single word. Vespers tied his arms behind his back with his own belt, tied his feet with a piece of rope he found on the man’s horse tied off in a clump of trees, and stuffed his mouth with his own bandana. He placed the man’s hat under his head and laid his rifle across his body after he had emptied the rifle and pistol and gun belt of all ammunition and put it in his saddlebag.
With daylight not fully in place, he slipped off to get his horse and rode off slowly and cautiously until he was well out of earshot of the campfire. Once the dawn’s glow showed the way ahead of him, he spurred the horse into a good run. A number of times he went off the regular trail to throw any trackers into a slow chase if the Bluecoat gang did choose to trail him.
He suspected they would. Nobody likes to lose anything, especially their dignity.
As he was approaching Tylertown in Texas, his thirst called him for a drink and he headed for the saloon. Alone at the bar, few customers in the saloon, he enjoyed a beer and was about to order a second one when a group of men entered. At first he could not tell if they were ranch hands or drovers off a drive or one of the post-war groups where men tended to gather in the company of other lonely men without self-purpose. On several of them he noticed Union army issue of holsters and figured them to be Union veterans, at least sympathizers, or, thieves of military property. He was not sure.
One of them swaggered as he walked and he assumed him to be the leader of the pack. He said aloud to a man in the back of the group, “You sure Convey’s taking care of them horses like I said? He ain’t too bright for even little jobs. Proved that a couple of times already, ain’t he?”
“He’ll be okay, Cap,” came the reply. “He went through some hard times on his own.”
“Yep, just like all of us.” He tapped the bar top for service.
Vespers had a funny feeling that raced right through him, and convinced himself that if Convey was the guard he had knocked down and tied up back down the trail, the man had not seen his face long enough to identify him.
But he knew Convey when he entered the saloon, went to the bar but away from the one called Cap. He drank a beer in a hurry as if he’d be ordered to do another simple task. And it was obvious that Convey had not recognized him standing a few feet away at the corner of the bar. He had looked at Vespers, nodded in a friendly manner, and asked for a second beer. He was halfway through the second beer when Cap said, “Convey, you go down to the store and get the order we left there. Bring it to the livery and wait there for us.”
Cap’s voice was hard and mean, and he looked at Convey only when he said, “Might as well take that gent who’s at your elbow there. Maybe he can help you out.” He laughed as he said it.
Convey looked at Vespers, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Sure, why not,” Vespers said lightly, and the pair left as the rest of the group laughed loudly.
Outside, Convey said, “Why’d you come along with me? Cap’s not your boss.”
“I didn’t like the way he talked to you,” Vespers said. “I met you before but you don’t recognize me.”
“No,” Convey said, “I didn’t assuming there is another pair of pants with the same kind of patch in it that’s in yours.”
“Why didn’t you tell him I was the one who got away from you? And what’s his name?”
“I paid enough for that,” Convey said, “ever since that day. He keeps me at all the stupid stuff and there’s no sense letting him pile it on top of you too. His name is Reginald Corey but nobody ever calls him that. Just Cap. He was a captain in the Pennsylvania Cavalry and he thinks he should have been made a general.”
“Why don’t you get away from him, just ride off someplace?”
“That’s the problem,” Convey said. “Where’s someplace? I don’t know any place where I’d fit in, where they’d take me in. I don’t have anybody in the whole world. Just Norman Convey out and at loose ends in the world.”
“I know one place you’d fit, Norman,” Vespers said. “If you ever get to Waco, try the Triple V spread. That’s where my folks are, the Tom Vespers, waiting on me, waiting for me to get back from the war. I have to walk in on them, surprise them. I’ve been thinking about for two whole years or more. I even told my best pal from my outfit, Roscoe Tarnes, to come done there after the war. I don’t know if he’ll ever get there, but you’re as welcome as he is. You could have given me away back there, in the saloon, but you didn’t. It’s like a widow gave me welcome and gave me these duds I got on and gave me a gun belt and a pistol. I’ve met some nice folks, including you and Roscoe Tarnes, and the widow lady who lost her husband and only son.”
“I’d go now, Tom” Convey offered, “but they’d chase me like we tried to chase you and lost the trail several times and finally gave up when Cap got thirsty. We’ll have to get the supplies and load up the wagon, and then you can light out. They’ll have no reason to trail you now. They don’t know you’re the one we were trying to follow for a couple of days, and Cap kept getting mad as hell every time a track disappeared, then he’d light up when someone found it again. Like he was celebrating.”
“Is he as mean as he sounds?”
“He’s worse than that. I’ve seen him shoot Johnny Rebs just for spitting on his boots. And more than once.”
“Well,” Vespers said as they finished loading the wagon, “I’ll light out now and keep them off you, but don’t forget the Triple V spread near Waco. You’d be welcome.”
Vespers left and headed down trail, out of Tylertown. A few hours later, after an easy ride but with his horse throwing a shoe, he was in the small settlement of Coleman Springs, at the blacksmith/livery to get the shoe replaced. The evening sunset touched him with deep Texas purple in it as he sat outside the shop on a rough bench. Turning at the sound of hoof beats, he saw Cap and his crew pull up in front of the saloon at the other end of town. The horses, as usual were left in the charge of Convey, who led them off to the livery for care and tending while the gang churned over the night with drink.
One or two of them wandered around town and came back into the saloon, and Convey eventually went to the saloon after the horses were set up for the evening.
Only four other men were in the saloon, at a table in one corner, playing poker with small stakes on the table. Each of them looked up when one of the gang came back in and said to Cap Corey, “Guess who I saw out there, Cap. It’s that same fella was at the last place, the one you sent to help Norman boy with the supplies. He didn’t see me, but I saw him. Same gent and I think there’s something fishy goin’ on here. Ask Norman boy about it.”
They all turned to look at Convey standing at the far end of the bar as if he did not belong to the gang.
“Get up here, Convey and tell me who that fella is who may be trailing us and who might have been the gent we were trailing. Did you recognize him as the one who made a fool out of you and left you tied up like a papoose? Left you like the dummy you are? Who is he? What’s his name? Are you sure he’s not the one popped you silly?”
Convey stood in front of Cap Corey, his head hanging down, a slope to his shoulders that could make any man sick at studying him.
“Who is he, Normie boy? What’s his name? Where the hell is he from? And don’t hide behind that dumb look all the time. I’m getting damned sick of it. I don’t even think you were in my war. No sir, not in my war. Just an accident got you there and kept you alive, now tell me all about your friend.” He grabbed Convey by the front of his shirt and pulled him close.
Convey said, “Honest, Cap’n, all I know is his name is Tom and he’s from some ranch with a V brand and it’s between Waco and someplace else.” He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands out as if in supplication.
But an alert had been sounded and one man came to attention at the table of four men. He remained still, showing no reaction, but alert all the same.
Cap Corey said, “Crutch, you and Stabler go fetch that gent and don’t come back without him.” He slammed the bar and said, “Set them up again, Keep. We got some fun coming our way.” And with another thought apparently taking over his mind, he said to the barkeep, “If you got a sheriff in this town, better get word to him to stay put where he is. We’re just going to have us some serious fun tonight.”
Convey, in a subtle move, tried to edge his way to the door and Corey said, “Holiden, you keep that damned mouse here and don’t let him out of here. Somebody’s got some explaining to do. I ain’t satisfied with all that’s been told to me.”
It was at least half an hour later when the door was pushed open and Tom Vespers was shoved into the saloon by Crutch and Stabler who held their guns on him all the while.
Corey lit up like he was a candle. He slapped down on the bar top and said, “Keep, give them two boys of mine two extra tall, damned good looking drinks. Look what they dragged in for our night’s fun.”
He slammed down on the bar top again. “Takes a good leader to make good men. I got some celebrating to do ‘cause I got me some good men.”
Tom Vespers, stripped of his pistol, appearing helpless in front of the Bluecoat terrors, stood in place. Not a sign crossed his face as he looked around the saloon, his eyes checking each face, his heartbeat in high action, his eyes suddenly filled with expectation.
Corey said, in a demanding voice, the voice of a general, “Are you the fella that knocked Convey silly and laid him down on the ground with his empty rifle on his carcass and you laughing at us all the while we trailed you? You him?’
He moved close to Vespers, drawing his side arm, waving it like he was the hangman at a new job.
“I’m him,” Vespers said, pride and derision in his voice. “I’m the one knocked your man down so he couldn’t see me, couldn’t recognize me. I’m the one who ran you and your cutthroats ragged over these trails the last few days, laughing at you all the while.”
Corey, red-faced, humiliated in front of his own troops, lifted his weapon with a steady hand in the most immediate silence of the saloon, an eerie and suspended silence. He was about to squeeze off a tempering shot in the silence riding in the room like a ghost, when he heard the unmistakable and ominous click of a weapon behind him.
Corey spun about to see the four men at one table standing in place, their weapons drawn and aimed at him and his gang.
One man, third from the left, wearing the remnants of a Confederate uniform, had his weapon aimed directly at Corey’s heart. “You touch that boy, mister, and I’ll see you fed to the peccaries after I blow exactly one half dozen holes in you, all of them in close proximity to your heart or your privates, whichever I choose. That’s my best friend you’re playing games with. Don’t you and the rest of your riffraff have something better to do than antagonize me and my pals?”
Roscoe Tarnes stood stiff as a flag pole at his table, and his table companions also stood at alert, which said they would and could fire any second at Corey and his men.
There was a lay-down of weapons, agreements made, and Roscoe Tarnes, Tom Vespers and Norman Convey slipped out of the saloon with Tarnes’s words hanging on the air. “You so much as breathe near us again, Captain Corey, and my promise will be brought to bear on you, for damned sure. That includes the aforementioned targets of my unerring shots at you know where.”
A few days later, a dozen miles outside Waco, Tom Vespers, Senior and his wife Cora saw three riders top the rise almost a mile away from the Triple V Ranch and they watched them slowly approach the ranch.
“Don’t get too excited, Cora,” her husband said, “but it sure looks like we have some more veterans of the war on the way home. They’re waving saying they’re friendly and not some of those trigger-happy scoundrels we’ve been hearing about. We’ll have to treat them to a decent spread like you did for those other fellows passing through on their way home these last weeks. Maybe they’re heading for Killeen or Houston or all the way down to San Antonio. I can imagine they don’t even want to stay the night, so anxious to get home.”
Before he knew it, his wife was in the kitchen, working on her ways and wiles and womanly secrets, fully aware of the way one rider sat his mount, the dip of one shoulder, and the music in her soul telling her the long wait was over.