Red River 1873
“M.L., how did you talk me into riding horseback all the way back to Texas?” Bob Guthrie asked as they dismounted just south of the Red River. About half their return journey from Kansas was done. “We could’ve seen lots of new country takin’ the train to New Orleans, and a coach to San Antonio.”
“Wull, boss, I done told ye,” M.L. Carter said as he lifted his tattered hat and wiped his brow. “I lost all muh money in Dodge City. Besides, I didn’t wanta leave these three horses behind.”
“I would pay for your ticket. You could owe me. You’re always owin’ me anyway.” Bob grinned.
“Wuz ye gonna buy the horses some train tickets too?”
“No, but we didn’t take the train anyway,” Bob said as he dragged the saddle and a sweat soaked blanket from Jubilee, his bay gelding. “Now, since you’re gettin’ a little long in the tooth, I might remind you that I own half interest in these horses. That’s what kept you from gambling them away.”
M.L. drew several two-foot iron stakes from loops on his saddle. “I reckon it is, seein’ as how you wuz standin’ right over my shoulder when I bet my last cartwheel.” He twirled his right hand. “Hot damn, I still think if I coulda placed one more bet, I’da took that pot.”
“Yeah, well I came out ahead and I never placed a bet.” Bob wiped Jubilee’s legs and belly with a burlap bag, grateful that the unpredictable Red was running low. Grateful also that they had made it through Indian Territory with but one chase by the lively inhabitants. “I’ll wipe the horses down while you stake them. This is a good camp spot.”
I was the trail boss, a fourth interest in the herd, Bob thought as M.L. walked off fifty yards. I’d be some kind of a fool if I left Dodge stone broke. The problem with riding back to Texas was the five thousand and fourteen dollars he carried in his saddlebags. He allowed that he’d be safer on a train. Maybe not. At least M.L. had won a few rounds earlier, with Bob’s backing, and acquired three trail worn horses besides his lean mount. The animals could be a great asset if they made it home.
Bob watched M.L. driving stakes, setting them just the right distance apart to keep the horses from tangling. What they’d been through together, well, he could write a book. He missed those days when he acted like M.L., wild nights of music, drink, food and women. He would always love the man, three years his senior, who saved him from sure tragedy as an orphan in Waco. Bob had matured after living with Mitt Stone’s family. He discovered trail driving, and cattlemen like Shanghai Pierce saw potential in him that he hadn’t seen in himself. God, was he grateful. He gazed over the sandy Red River and twirled the cylinder of his Smith and Wesson .44 revolver. That side Indians; this side white men. The danger wasn’t over.
When we get to San Antonio, I’ll have a talk with M.L... No, I’m not goin’ to San Antonio. I’m out where the free grazing land is. I can buy part of it, become a producer of cattle instead of a drover. I hate to part ways with him, but… he’ll never settle down. “I want to get a wife, like Mitt.” He glanced up to make sure M.L. hadn’t heard the involuntary outburst of words.
A gunshot broke the stillness. Two more shots sounded along with a ricochet from steel. Bob dropped to his knees, holding his horse’s reins. M.L. drove a final hammer blow to the fifth iron stake. He crouched and drew his pistol, facing west. Bob hadn’t determined a direction but lunged for the Henry rifle in the saddle scabbard on the ground.
“Git down!” M.L. screamed. “They got a bead on ye.” Bob dropped behind his sprawled saddle. His mind raced to assimilate the shot sounds. One bullet had hit the stake M.L. was driving. Yet he hit the iron a final blow.
M.L.’s revolver sounded. Pow! Pow-whomp!
“God damn you, you’re dead.” A voice, not M.L.’s, said. Two strangely dressed riders charged from the west mesquites, straight for M.L.’s position. M.L. rose to full height, held his black powder pistol at eye level – both hands – and fired. Whack! A rider folded and tumbled. Whack! The second rider flew backwards from the saddle.
M.L. kept his pistol trained westerly. “Now git yer rifle,” he shouted. “I don’ know if it’s over.”
Bob jerked the Henry rifle and levered a round into the barrel. With M.L. watching west, Bob needed to look south and east. He caught movement in the cedars. He scurried to gain protection behind his saddle. The shadow moved again. He fired. Whomp! I hit a horse. Bob’s own horse Jubilee jerked violently – the bullet passing under his neck – but Bob held firmly to the reins.
A half naked figure leaped from his falling horse balancing a rifle at arm’s length. The rifle pulled toward Bob. He could see the rifle, not the man, as he slammed in a second round and fired. The man dropped like a stone.
Bob gathered his feet and crouched beside Jubilee to block the view of eyes from the easterly direction. Eternity passed as he glanced in every direction.
“We got ‘em, buddy.” M.L.’s voice startled Bob momentarily. His partner sauntered up from the north. “Ye done good on that last ‘un.” They walked toward the fallen horse and man where Bob had fired.
“Wished ye hadn’t kilt that horse.” M.L. said, bending and stroking the mane of a gorgeous dapple-rump Appaloosa stallion.
“Horse, hell. I was tryin’ to save my hide, and yours.” Bob lowered the rifle and blew hard. “You sure it’s over? And who are these characters?” He studied the spread eagled figure with a single bullet wound in the middle of his naked chest. “This one here is nearly as white as I am but he’s dressed up like an Indian.”
“Ain’t no Indians. You said before, it’s the whites ye need tuh look out for south of the Red.” M.L. glanced up and gazed westward. “They may have a camp, but these wuz the hit men. We nailed ‘em all. Now le’s go ketch their horses. They’re ours. Guns too, if they’re worth pickin’ up.”
Bob grinned nervously. “Ain’t that kinda like stealin’?”
“Yeah, but it’s legal to steal a horse frum somebody tryin’ to kill ye. Take notice they didn’t hit our horses. That’s whut they wuz after.”
An hour later their camp sat deeper into the live oaks, two miles away from the river and its thin mesquites. With a staked and tied, growing horse herd they sat around a low fire.
M.L. glanced around the woods. “You want me tuh take first watch?”
“Yeah, I guess you better. Whoo! We’re finally in Texas, and our troubles just started.”
Three days later they entered the village of Jacksboro weary from the constant watch, fording streams and dodging brush with six loose-herded horses. Bob quickly spotted a stable and pointed. “We put the animals in there for a day or two and find us a hotel room. I want to buy a few things too.”
“What thangs? I thank we oughta jest git some grub and move on.” M.L.’s large blue eyes scanned the lazy street.
“Pack saddle for all this loose stuff we got tied on, and some halters for these broncs. We been on the trail so long no tellin’ what nice things they got in town now days.” Bob glanced toward M.L. “You wouldn’t mind a taste of whiskey, would you?”
M.L. straightened and grinned. “Guess not.” He pushed the herd toward an open gate beside the livery shed.
Dismounted, Bob turned to the clap board shack as M.L. walked the pens and examined the rail fence.
“Two days,” Bob said to Dillon McGeorge after introductions. Eyeing the tack on the wall he added, “When we get ready to leave, I’ll talk to you about some of that gear.” He was serious but also hoped that the promise of a purchase might assure the safety of his animals during the stay. “Where can a couple of weary cowboys find a room?”
“Only hotel in town, the Richardson. Due south on the left.” The stocky keeper scratched his bald pate. “Say, do you want me to shoe these animals? I can have ‘em all fixed in two days. You ain’t gonna make it to San Antonio like they are.”
“Ahh!” Bob groaned. “Hadn’t thought of that. How much would you charge me?”
“Four cents a nail. That’s trimmin’ their feet and new shoes all around.” He clanked two shiny horseshoes on the counter. “Comes to a little over ten dollars. I’d do it for ten even.” The man had made the calculation in his head.
“I’ll let you do that. You want part of the money now?”
“Naw, I know you and I know you got a good reputation on the trail.” McGeorge squinted. “You did say ‘Bob Guthrie,’ didn’t you?”
“That’s me.” His face flushed. Minor fame as a trail boss brought an uneasy feeling. “You might have heard wrong.” He reached out and took the crusty hand of the farrier. “You’ll look after our long guns and stuff?”
“I’ll take ‘em to my house.” McGeorge hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “It’s right back here.”
M.L. standing at Bob’s side, said, “I want that drink o’ whiskey before we go look for a room. I’m thirsty.”
McGeorge raised a hand. “You ought to get your room first. Today is payday out at Fort Richardson and the soldiers will pour in here in the next two hours. Hotel gits awful busy.”
With saddle bags over their shoulders, the pair paced down the dirt street. Bob’s right wrist hugged the holster at his hip for assurance as he tried not to shift his face, only his gaze. M.L.’s hand rested atop of his Colt Navy Model 1851, .36 caliber, black powder revolver – it had killed men a few days before – as his head jerked left and right watching every boardwalk, every alley.
A few minutes later they dropped their bags in a second floor room of the Richardson Hotel where Bob had insisted on two cots, refusing to sleep in a double bed with M.L. The man turned and tossed all night, snored, and screamed out at times.
“Now, if you still want to, we can go get that drink of whiskey,” Bob said, teasing his partner as he dropped his range hat on a straw mattress cot. “But I’m takin’ my saddle bags with me.”
M.L. jerked the hall door open. “What er ye waitin’ fer? Le’s git outa here.”
The hotel had no bar, but they had passed three saloons on the way in. Now on the way back up the street, Bob said, “Back in New Orleans, and ever place else in the civilized world, they got banks where you put your money. You don’t have to wag it over your shoulder goin’ into a saloon full of outlaws. Maybe I ought to move to New Orleans.”
“Ye got Texas in yer blood,” M.L. said as he forced Bob into a hard left turn directly into the nearest saloon. “If ye don’t have a bank, ye need me with ye, partner.” Dense smoke cut visibility as off-tune fiddle music and shouts assaulted their ears. “There’s the bar. Le’s belly up.”
Bob had started to say just one drink but somehow he knew there would be more. He hoped he could get M.L. out of there before the soldiers showed up with their female consorts. No telling what M.L. would do. But, too late. A dozen uniformed men lined the bar and some at the tables. Most had sad looking women at their sides. The few women who looked fresh and young made Bob wonder what drove them to this life.
A black-eyed bartender motioned for two soldiers to spread apart and allow Bob and M.L. to approach the bar. M.L. rushed forward to gain the right side, next to a woman.
“What’s your pleasure, drovers?” The attendant bellowed and wiped the varnished surface.
“Two shots o’ whiskey.” M.L. said. “Muh partner can tell ye what he wants.” He dodged Bob’s glancing slap to his shoulder.
“One shot. Make it your better stuff.” Bob said. He waited as M.L. engaged the young woman in small talk.
Black Eyes returned. “Two house whiskeys for the cowboy, and one Old Crow for the gentleman.” He pushed the shot glasses forward. Bob dropped a silver dollar on the counter. Two dimes came back.
“Whiskey’s gone up since I drove north in the spring,” Bob said with a grin.
“Wooee, that’s rough,” M.L. said, crunching his face. “Lemme try yours.” He reached.
Bob downed his shot and handed M.L. the empty glass. “Help yourself.” The soldiers laughed. The woman laughed. “Now, let’s go get something to eat.”
M.L. lifted his second glass. “Pick a table. I’m right behind you.”
“I had in mind we’d walk up the street.” M.L. had turned back to the lady, a plain blonde in a silk floral dress. So far her soldier friend, a slender black corporal, had shown no objection to M.L.’s small talk. “Did you hear me?” Bob added, nudging his pal’s arm.
“Aw, hell, my grandpa is gonna make me leave, honey. You busy an hour frum now?” M.L. asked the woman.
She glanced at her escort. “We’ll see.” She smiled weakly. Her eyes showed deep sorrow although attractive at one time.
Bob felt a dozen gazes as he approached the batwing doors. “M.L., you know you can’t horn in on another man. These workin’ girls are nobody’s property, but that young soldier might not see it that way.”
The batwings burst open to the inside. Bob tightened his grasp on the saddlebags and stepped back.
Four men, dark, long-haired and filthy marched forward. Shotguns dangled. Side arms rattled against one another. Bob swept his right hand back to remove M.L. from their path. The bar patrons separated.
Three of the rough-cuts slammed boots onto the bar rail. The fourth turned back toward Bob and M.L. who stood staring. He was taller than his companions and older, perhaps fifty. He wore a straw, elaborately stitched Mexican sombrero with tie strings dangling along the ears. A bandoleer with rifle cartridges crossed his chest. A thin mustache drooped to below his chin.
He backed to the bar, raised his curled left hand. The bartender Black Eyes placed a whiskey glass into it. He sipped. “Ju have keelers een your saloon, patron´!” No soldier or woman remained at the bar. “Why do ju let keelers een your saloon?” His gray eyes didn’t fit his dark complexion as they shifted from Bob to M.L.
Black Eyes cleared his throat. “No, Railo, we got no killers here. Just soldiers and cowboys.” He forced a chuckle. “Our girls are no killers.”
“Ahh, patron´, today ju let keelers in your door.” Railo’s partners had eased a half circle and now faced Bob and M.L. Each whiskey glass was held in the left hand; right hands hovered at their waists.
Bob and M.L. had been in tight places. They knew better than to turn their backs on such threats. Bob said, “We’re not killers. If you keep lookin’ at me you better explain yourself.” Both he and M.L. rested their hands atop their revolvers.
Railo’s whiskey glass thrust forward. “Eet ees a lie to say ju no keel the son of Railo.”
Bob recalled the fight on the Red. “I will kill any man who tries to kill me first.”
Railo frowned and waved the whiskey glass. “But this time, peones, ju keel the son of Railo. That ees not good.”
“All ambushers are the son of some man,” Bob said as evenly has he could.
Railo’s eyebrows knotted. “What ju have een zee saddle bag, peones?”
No man from Texas to Kansas, in all Bob’s trail years, had asked that question. It wasn’t done. Bob took a chance. “Soldiers, help me out here. I’ll take Railo. My pal will take the one on his right. Ya’ll don’t let the other two walk out of here.”
The click of hammers and roll of cylinders encouraged Bob. He pulled his .44 Smith and Wesson and cocked the hammer. His left hand touched M.L. on the sleeve in hope that he wouldn’t shoot yet.
“You sent your son to hell, Railo,” Bob said. “Are you ready to join him?” His Smith and Wesson had a hair trigger.
Railo’s gaze shot hatred. His hand lifted from his waist as he hooked a thumb in the bandoleer across his chest. He glanced left and right. An evil grin formed. “Ah, peones, ju mees understand. Railo come only to introduce ju to Railo.”
Bob studied saying anything. This gang posed a continuing danger if they walked away. Yet Bob and M.L. could hardly gun them down based on words alone. “I have your message. You will leave the saloon now.”
The bartender Black Eyes lifted Railo’s empty glass from his raised left hand and placed a full one there. “Railo will finish his drink, por favor.”
Bob stepped sideways, easing M.L. aside. “You’ll finish your drink on your horse.” The Smith and Wesson raised and leveled on Railo’s eyes. “Soldiers, you four,” Bob pointed to four at a table across from him so that no one would cross his vision, “walk out to the street. See Railo and his men to their horses. I’ll be right behind them.”
Railo stood like a statue. Bob pulled his gun barrel to a direct bead on the glass in Railo’s hand. He squinted his left eye. “No!” Railo jerked the glass down. “Railo go, peones…for now.” He led out and the three followed glancing rage toward Bob and M.L.
When Bob and M.L. exited the saloon, the four horsemen galloped southward down the street. Railo rode a magnificent Appaloosa stallion, a twin to the one Bob had killed on the Red River. “Damn, I should’ve known,” Bob moaned.
“Knowed whut?” M.L. asked.
“Known they’d go south. That’s the direction we got to go in a few days.”