Western Short Story
Willy pulled up a box and took a seat next to one of the two upstairs windows at the Dusty Rose saloon. He set his rifle against the wall and took a sip of his coffee. The rifle was a Springfield Model 1861 that he took with him when the war ended, and he’d just never seen a reason to get a different one. Other than the memories, it was the only thing he had kept from the wars he’d fought in.
There was a cool breeze blowin’ through the open window, and Willy thought how pleasant the weather would be, if not for the circumstances. There was just enough of a bite to the breeze to remind him that summer was ’bout over and fall was just around the corner. It also made the coffee taste better, though Willy thought coffee pretty much always tasted good.
Ansel Portis, who owned the Soft Beds Hotel right across the street, sat in front of the other window. Since they were in the only two-story building in Dry Springs, it gave them a good view of the street, so it was easy to see what was happening below—which, for now, was pretty much nothing. But because Willy was set away from the open window, it wouldn’t give anyone below a good view of him or, more importantly, a clean shot at him. Ansel had never been in a shooting situation before, which probably explained why he was standing directly in front of the window, providing a perfect target for anyone below.
Willy, havin’ fought in two wars, had learned very quickly the value of any type of cover, and he didn’t think Ansel would mind a little advice, so he motioned for him to move to the side of his window so he wouldn’t be exposed either. Ansel quietly mouthed “Thank you” and moved over, with his rifle still pointed and ready to shoot. Willy knew there would be some time before anythin’ happened, but he’d also been through enough first battles with enough men to know you can’t order someone to relax, and if Ansel needed to stand there, tensed and ready, as if somethin’ was gonna happen any second, then that’s what he needed to do.
While some of the other men in town still hoped this would end peacefully, Willy knew it wouldn’t. Men like Kurt and the other outlaws he had with him had been successfully bullyin’ people for too long to walk away from Dry Springs and what had been, at least for a couple of weeks, easy pickin’s. Willy also knew that since Brock Clemons had come to town and had stood up, alone, to the outlaws, the rest of the men had changed a little bit and weren’t such easy picking’s anymore. And since a couple of them had also served in the war, they were better prepared for today’s battle than Kurt thought they would be. They just needed someone to lead them and Brock was that man.
Seemed to Willy that Kurt and his men had to pick between leavin’ and dyin’, and to Willy’s way of thinkin’, it looked like they’d picked dyin’—which was too bad, because it probably meant some of the townspeople were gonna die too. Willy’d already seen too many men die in his lifetime, and he knew what it did to those who survived.
For most men, it was the waiting that was the hardest. Gave men too much time to think about what might happen, and what might happen wasn’t always good. But Willy was only one year short of fifty and had fought in two wars, and now the sitting, and the patience, came easy, or at least easier. But it wasn’t always so.
Willy watched the street below, findin’ it odd that the only things movin’ on a street that was usually busy at this time of day were bits of dust bein’ blown about and an occasional dog. Stayin’ focused, he let his mind drift back to September of 1846, the first time he’d sat and waited for a battle to start, though it was a bit bigger than the one he was lookin’ at today.
Willy was already 27 years old when he joined the United States Army in the war against Mexico. General Zachary Taylor was in command of the more than six thousand men, but Willy took specific pride in servin’ as part of the Texas Division, which was under the command of Texas Governor and Major General James Pinckney Henderson.
Willy didn’t have anything against Mexico, or Mexicans, having lived on the Tex-Mex border for a few years and likin’ most of the Mexicans he knew, even the ones he fought with. But once Mexican General Mariano Arista had attacked Fort Texas, killing two of Willy’s friends in the process, Willy thought it was time to join up. He and his saddle partner, Mark Harris, both rode for the Boxed S ranch, but the boss wasn’t much and the chow wasn’t any better, so leaving wasn’t that hard.
And so, a couple of months later, Private Willy Thornton and Private Mark Harris, United States Army, Texas Division, found themselves sittin’ under an oak tree in a large field, just outside of the Mexican city of Monterrey. They were tired from the fast-paced, 125-mile march from Camargo, Mexico, a Tex-Mex border town. Willy could sit a horse all day, and even all night if need be, but walkin’ for what seemed like forever brought Willy a whole new kind of tired. He looked across at Mark, sleepin’ soundly, and smiled. It struck Willy as a bit funny that after leavin’ Georgia at 17, he’d lived in Texas for almost ten years and yet this was his first trip across the border. Most of his friends crossed the Rio Grande regularly—even Mark had gone a couple of times—but until now, Willy just never had.
Willy thought about how beautiful this area was and that maybe he should have visited earlier—and under different circumstances. Saddle Mountain, what the Mexes called Cerro de la Silla, sat off to the east, and while the mountains they climbed and canyons they hiked for the past few days had been hard work, they were beautiful and different than what Willy was used to in Texas. It was almost fall, but the summer heat wasn’t gone and it was close to ninety degrees. Not as bad as Texas summer heat, but still uncomfortable in the uniform and with all of their gear on their backs, which reminded Willy again how much he preferred horses and saddlebags to walkin’ and backpacks. At least Willy had been fortunate to have found a large white oak that provided plenty of shade for him, Mark and a couple of others.
Willy didn’t think he’d ever been scared before, so he didn’t know if he was now, but this sittin’ and waitin’ was startin’ to make him nervous, like when a storm was brewin’ on the trail, and he knew when the lightnin’ hit there’d be trouble with the cattle. He didn’t know exactly when, or exactly what the trouble would be, just that there would be some. And now he had that same feelin’. He’d been shot at before, but this was different.
A couple of times, the Boxed S had been hit by some rustling vaqueros who came across the Rio Grande from Mexico and figured it was easier to steal a few cows than to ranch them themselves. Willy had never helped bring ’em over, but he knew some of the Boxed S cattle had spent their earlier years in Mexico, so in a way, it only seemed fair. There’d usually be some shootin’, but it was always over pretty quick and except for one old Mex, who fell off his horse and was trampled to death by the very cattle he was tryin’ to steal, no one had ever been hurt. The thing was, there was never any time to think before it happened. One minute, you’re sleepin' in your bedroll, or ridin’ night herd and singin’ to keep the cattle happy, with everything peaceful and quiet, and the next minute, there’s lots of yellin’, a little shootin', and then it’s over.
Mark was a good friend. They’d ridden together for a couple of years, shared a few fights and long nights, one of them in a jail cell in Laredo, laughed a lot, and enjoyed each other’s company. They’d been through enough together that Willy knew Mark wouldn’t run when things got tough, and he figured Mark knew the same about him. Both enjoyed tellin’ stories and they were each good enough friends to listen, no matter how many times they’d already heard it, laughin’ as much at the storyteller as the story. Willy’s stories tended toward when he was a kid growing up in Georgia, and Mark’s leaned toward women, which Willy sometimes thought might be the only thing Mark ever thought of. But they traveled and worked well together, and though Willy never had a brother, he figured this was what it must be like. And now, they were in Monterrey, Mexico, getting’ ready to attack people he didn’t know for reasons he didn’t fully understand.
Willy and Mark, along with three hundred other men, were under the direct command of Captain Charles F. Smith and, joined by Captain Dixon Miles’s 7th Infantry and Persifor Smith’s 2nd Brigade, were sent that first day, not to the main part of the city, but to take Fort Soldado. The battle happened quickly, with very little loss of life—none among the men Willy knew—and Fort Soldado surrendered to Captain Smith before the end of the first day.
Willy and Mark had done their part, stayed close to each other throughout the day, and as they settled in for the evening, thought maybe this wasn’t gonna to be too bad. The next day, there was no fighting, not just in their small part of the Army, but anywhere in Monterrey. Willy and Mark found a comfortable place to rest and spent the day tellin’ stories, along with the other men, about the fightin’ from the day before. Somebody pulled out a harmonica, and another man had a deck of cards, so the day passed easily.
Willy noticed that the stories seemed to grow in the tellin’ and that by the end of the day, it appeared every man there had been a hero. Willy and Mark were no exception to the tendency the men had toward what might be considered, by a more dispassionate observer, factual enhancement. But the stories were all in good fun. The men had survived and been successful, and for this day at least, it was good to be in the United States Army, Texas Division.
On the following morning, the third day, Willy and Mark were assigned to be among those who would make the final assault on the actual city of Monterrey. At the end of the first day, many of those who had attacked the city had been involved in tryin’ to root out the last of General Tomas Requena’s army. Before the sun had set, quite a few men, on both sides, had been killed. The Mexicans were dug in deep and seemed determined to fight for every home, for every building. The United States Army, which proved very effective at the large-scale battle, were not prepared for this, had no organized approach, and paid the price for their ignorance and inexperience.
Much of the previous day had been spent with the Army officers figuring out a more efficient—and safer—method of dislodging Requena’s men. Willy and Mark listened to the stories from some of the men who had been in the city on the first day. It was much different than what Willy and Mark had been through, and both men were privately wishin’ they had been assigned to stay back and guard Fort Soldado, which had initially seemed like a borin’ detail, but now seemed infinitely safer than what they were about to do.
Willy and Mark were part of one of the many six-man assault teams, each assigned to go house to house and root out anyone still defending the city. It was hot, brutal, frightening work. About halfway through the day, it was Willy and Mark’s turn to watch the back. Two other men watched the front, while Charles Basowski and Billy Kohler kicked down the front door to make sure the house was empty. It wasn’t. When the shootin’ started, Willy and Mark raced through the back door and into the house, to find it was already over. There were three dead Mexicans, two in uniform, and as they walked past them into the main room, they saw Charles lying in Billy’s arms, shot twice and clearly takin’ his last breaths. He looked scared, his eyes searching those of each of the five men on his team, all strangers to Charles only hours ago, and now men he was desperately looking to for some good news or, maybe, just for some comfort.
Blood bubbled out of his mouth, along with strange sounds, perhaps a last effort to say something. But Willy never knew what he might have been tryin’ to say. With a final gasp, Charles died. He had traveled by himself, at the age of fourteen, all the way from Poland to New York, worked his way down to Texas, taught himself cowboyin’ and now, at only seventeen years old, was killed in war in Monterrey, Mexico, fighting people he had nothing against. The men looked around, not sure of what to do. None of their training, none of the tactics they’d been taught only that morning, prepared them for the death of a man, who in only a few short hours, had become a friend. Not knowing what else to do, they carried Charles to the front porch, gently laid him out in the shade, said a quick prayer, and with a final glance back, moved on to the next house.
And at that moment, everything changed for Willy. This was no longer about Mexico and the United States, or even the city of Monterrey. It was about them, the five of them, and even more importantly, it was about Willy and Mark. The team attacked each house with more focus, all of them much quicker to shoot than they had been, the instinct for survival havin’ been brought very close to the surface as they had watched Charles die. And at the end of that third day, when the generals had decided the battle was over and had negotiated the terms for the Mexicans’ surrender, and the United States Army had claimed a great victory, all Willy, Mark and the other three men could think about was Charles.
For Willy and Mark, and many others who had been through the same thing that day, the men who had actually fought the battle in the streets and not in the officers’ tents, there were no celebrations, no stories, just a tasteless dinner, a couple of silent cups of coffee and then, having turned into their bedrolls, each man lost in his own thoughts.
After the Battle of Monterrey, Willy and Mark stayed in the Army and kept fighting other battles, and while they watched other friends die, and killed a few Mexicans, they managed to avoid even being wounded. But when the year they signed up for was done, so were they. They took some of their final pay, bought a couple of old horses, rode back to Texas and returned to the life of being cowboys. The war ended a couple of years later, and many of the men they rode with for the next few years had been through the same things Mark and Willy had. Sometimes, usually durin’ a long, freezin’ cold winter night, those who had been in the war would sit around the bunkhouse and talk about what happened, but never with the same bravado and gusto as they had after that first day in Monterrey. They’d seen too much, heard too many men scream, watched too many men die and killed too many themselves to take any joy in tellin’ tales. Those who hadn’t fought couldn’t understand their reluctance to talk more about it, but Willy knew they never would, unless they’d been through it.
Thirteen years after the Mexican-American War ended, Willy and Mark were still saddle partners, both takin’ a look at forty years of age, and had ridden for three or four different ranches since the war, always together. The decades-long unresolved issues between the northern half of the United States and their southern brethren finally boiled over, and the southern states were leavin’ the Union to create and join the Confederacy. Texas was no exception, and in February of 1861, it became the seventh state to vote its way out of the United States. A month later, Texas joined the Confederacy, and when Texas Governor Sam Houston refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, not over the issue of slavery, a right he supported, but because he was loyal to the Union, he was forced out of office. A month after that, on April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially started with a shot fired by the Confederates at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
It took a while for the news to reach Willy and Mark. They’d been riding for the Slash Z for a couple of years and were comfortable. The boss was fair—so was the grub—and the work was consistent, but not too hard. They spent a couple of evening’s worth of bunkhouse conversations talking about what was happening, at least as much as they knew, with each man trying to figure out if he should join up, and if so, for which side. A couple of the boys had family up north, and they figured it was best to head home and fight alongside their brothers. A couple of the boys didn’t think the war had anything to do with them. It seemed far away, and they preferred cowboyin’ to getting’ shot at, so they planned to stay right where they were. Willy and Mark knew they’d both be doing the same thing, whichever way they went, and they probably knew all along they’d be signin’ up.
Willy didn’t think one way or another about slavery, never havin’ owned one and only havin’ seen a couple. He also kind of agreed with now former Governor Sam Houston that it was best to keep the Union together no matter where one stood on slavery. But, havin’ grown to think of himself as a Texan, he felt he had to do his part, so one Saturday mornin’ in June, he and Mark picked up their final pay, shook hands with the Slash Z boys and rode away, determined to fight for Texas.
Willy and Mark did what they were told. They started off movin’ cotton over the border to Matamoros, Mexico—directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas—where it worked its way to Europe, bringing back to the Confederacy desperately needed cash. It was one of the only ways the Confederacy could break the Union blockades. It was important work but seemed to Willy and Mark to be more cowboyin’ than fightin’.
After a couple of years, they were transferred, began serving under General John B. Magruder and were part of the January 1, 1863, battle to take control of Galveston back from the Federals. The battle was successful, but Willy was wounded, gunshot in the knee, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He’d been bleeding bad and Mark saved his life, stopping the bleeding, dragging Willy to safety and putting himself in danger while doing so. While Willy believed he would have done the same thing, he never did find out for sure, and he never forgot what Mark had done.
There weren’t many battles in Texas, but Willy and Mark were part of the troops that successfully defended Laredo against the Federals, and did the same at Corpus Christi. On April 9, 1865, almost four years after Willy and Mark signed up to fight, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Old Appomattox Court House in Virginia. It took a while for the news to make it to Willy and Mark, but they were both tired of fightin’ and relieved the war was over.
On May 12, 1865, fully a month after the surrender at Appomattox, Willy, Mark and the rest of the Confederate troops still servin’ under Colonel John Salmon Ford were camped outside of Fort Brown, Texas, when they were attacked by troops commanded by Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett in what was to become known as the Battle of Palmito Ranch, also known as the final official battle of the Civil War. The battle lasted two days, and when it was over, it was considered a Confederate victory.
None of this mattered to Willy, however. On the first mornin’, Mark, Willy and a few other men were workin’ their way through a narrow pass, tryin’ to circle around to the unprotected back of a small group of Union soldiers. The pass was narrow enough that the men had to travel single file. Mark insisted on going first and was shot through the head by a man Willy never saw. He died instantly, and a large piece of Willy died with him. The rest of the men turned back and headed to the Confederate camp, but Willy, not sayin’ a word when they left, stayed behind and buried his friend. He then continued down the path toward the Union side, eventually found and killed a mounted Union soldier, stole the horse, and rode away, leavin’ the war behind.
After a day of ridin’, he stumbled across a ranch and, without the owner’s permission, traded the branded Union horse for an unbranded horse and stole some ranch clothes, leaving his tattered Confederate uniform behind. The next day, drinking a beer by himself in a small town, trying to figure out what he was gonna to do next, he overheard some Union soldiers talking.
“There really weren’t no reason for Colonel Barrett to order that attack on Fort Brown. Dang war was over. Rebs never saw it comin’.”
“Nope. I heard he just wanted to get in one final battle before the war was over, maybe a chance for a medal or a promotion.”
The four men laughed, and Willy started to pay more attention.
“I guess I know how he felt. I wanted to kill me one last Johnny Reb ’fore this was over. Just ’cause I could.” The comment was followed by more laughter.
“Yep, first mornin’. He never saw it comin’. Reb probably just wanted to get home, couldn’t understand any better than us why we was still fightin’. Now he’s in the dirt, and some little Mrs. Reb will never know what happened.”
The men were still laughing about the thought of the dead Confederate soldier when Willy stood up, drew his Beaumont-Adams from his holster, walked over to the table, and without a word, shot the man in the face. Not waiting to watch him fall, Willy looked at the other three men, silently daring each of them to reach for their guns, though none did. Takin’ one last look around the bar, his gun never leaving the three men, Willy backed out the batwing doors, mounted his stolen horse and rode away, never once looking back.
Willy traveled west, following the Rio Grande until he got to Ciudad Juárez and then turning north. He kept going until his horse gave out, just outside a small town in the Colorado Territory. The town was Dry Springs. Willy figured nobody would come hunting for him there, so he settled in. With the money he and Mark had saved and a small loan from Lanny Thurman, the town banker, he bought a little piece of property, close enough to town for when he needed something and far enough away for him to be left alone, which was what he wanted. He farmed his own vegetables and raised a few cattle, enough to feed himself with a few left over to sell and give him a little pocket money.
For the next three years, he stayed to himself, traveling to town only when he needed supplies. He rarely talked, never laughed and never even let the townspeople know what his last name was, much less who he had been, what he had been through and what he had done. He helped others with labor when they needed it and was never unkind or impolite. But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t forget the sound of the bullet hittin’ Mark nor the thought of how out of all the deaths he had seen over two wars and his entire life, Mark’s was the most unnecessary, made the least sense and hit him the hardest. He knew he wasn’t the same man he had been, but also knew he couldn’t do anything about it.
Before now, Willy hadn’t been to town for almost a month, so he knew nothing about what was happening with Kurt and his men—how they had ridden into town about two weeks ago and taken over, how they took what they wanted, laughing when asked to pay and growing more open and violent as the days passed. Willy didn’t know a stranger, Brock Clemons, had ridden into town, alone, and in one day had brought the town together, willing to fight Kurt and his men.
So, Willy was surprised when Luke rode out from Dry Springs, explained what was happening and asked if he would help. Without a word, he walked into his tiny cabin, strapped on his guns, picked up his rifle, and with that old feelin’ startin’ in the pit of his stomach, followed the men back to town. He listened to the man named Brock outline the plan, and when assigned to the upper floor of the Dusty Rose saloon to be a lookout, he went without objection or concern.
Willy was shaken out of his dreamlike state when he heard a man he assumed was Kurt yell, “Brock is dead!” Willy was ready to shoot and had a clean shot, but was hesitant to be the first to fire, so he waited to see what was gonna to happen.
Next to him, Ansel was thinking it made sense for at least one of Kurt’s men to try and sneak up on the bank, using the alley as cover. Ansel trusted the other men to watch Kurt and the two outlaws with him and focused his attention on the alley. Ansel, like most of the townspeople involved that day, had never been in a gunfight and was surprised to find that while he was scared, he had never felt more alive, more aware, in his entire life. His rifle, held loosely but firmly, was aimed down the alley, and it felt good in his hands as he waited for any of Kurt’s men to appear.
Ansel took a look at Willy and saw that he hadn’t moved much, if at all, since they first walked upstairs and looked much calmer than Ansel felt. Ansel looked quickly back out the window, drawn by a movement he caught out of the corner of his eye. He saw a man working his way down the side of the bank toward the front. Willy’s view of the alley was blocked, and Ansel knew he was the only one who could see the man. He straightened up, took aim and fired.
The shot was true, and the outlaw fell immediately, clearly dead. Before everything fully registered with Ansel, Kurt and the two outlaws, drawn by the shot, all pulled their guns and turned toward the window. Knowin’ as soon as he heard the shot what would happen, Willy lept from his protected spot to drive Ansel to the floor and safety. Unfortunately, that exposed Willy and drew the attention of Kurt and his men. The three men fired, virtually simultaneously, toward the window, toward the movement and toward Willy. Willy was struck twice, and Ansel watched, horrified, as Willy slumped to the floor next to him—dead.
Within a half hour it was over, all of the outlaws dead and Willy the only death on the town’s side. Brock Clemons, the man who rallied the town to stand up for itself, was recovering from a wound he received in the final shootout and slept for almost two days. When he woke, he asked about the man who was killed, Willy.
Luke, who had ridden out to Willy’s place and asked him to help said, “He hadn’t lived in Dry Springs long and pretty much kept to himself. His funeral was supposed to be today, but I thought you might want to go, and Doc said you needed another day before he’d let you out of bed, so we pushed it ‘til tomorrow.”
Brock looked at Luke. “I know I’m new in town, but if nobody knows him well and nobody objects, I’d like to say a few words.”
Luke replied, “A couple of us rode out to his place and didn’t learn any more than I just told you, couldn’t even figure out a last name. It’s like he was a ghost or something. I know he fought in the last two wars and had his leg shot up in one of ’em. I guess you know him as well as ’bout any of us, so if you want to say some words, no one’s gonna object.”
The next day, the town—everyone—gathered for Willy’s funeral, the eulogy to be delivered by Brock Clemons, who had only ridden into town for the first time a few days ago, but had changed everything. Brock looked out at the people of Dry Springs and took a moment to gather himself before he began.
“I didn’t get to meet Willy, but I would have liked to. I am sorry to hear that he was killed. He died in a way that I think most men would be proud to die. He was fighting with people he knew, for things he believed in. He was a good man, and he died a hero, fighting evil. Luke told me yesterday that he and a couple of other men had ridden out to Willy’s place to find out what they could about him. In a way, I think they already knew everything they needed to. He had been a good neighbor, quiet, but always ready to help. Luke told me a little while ago how more than once Willy had ridden over to his ranch to help with projects—rounding up the calves for branding, clearing the water holes of debris or making repairs on the barn. He said he never asked Willy to help, but he would just show up.”
He looked over at Luke, who was just looking up at the sky and gently nodding his head.
“But the men didn’t learn anything about Willy that they didn’t already know, not even his last name. They found no letters or notes, no pictures of family or friends. Just a small cabin, a vegetable garden and a few cattle that he ran, mostly for food. I’m told he was friendly, though not outgoing. What we do know for certain is that when he was asked to help defend Dry Springs against Kurt and his men, he quietly grabbed his guns and rode into town. When he saw another man in danger, he acted to save that man. In this case, it cost him his life. But it’s not just Ansel Portis who owes Willy his thanks; we all do.”
Willy didn’t have any money, but he did have his ranch and a few cattle. When that was sold off to one of the other small ranchers from Dry Springs, there was the question of what to do with the money. Willy had no debt to pay off and no family that anyone knew of to send it to. The town leaders decided, in the way you can do in small towns, to take the money and build a school for the children of the slowly growin’ town of Dry Springs. Everyone seemed to agree that this was a good idea.
The school was to be forever known as Willy’s Elementary School, and on the first day of every school year, the first lesson taught would be the story of Willy and how he helped save Dry Springs. And so the man, who spent the last few years of his life trying to live anonymously, would have his story told for years to come.