Alex Mentrier chuckled as he rode his mare Gertruda south from Fort Concho toward Fort McKavett. Maybe he had overstated it when he told Bob Guthrie – Roberto – that he wanted all the advice he could get.
Bob had filled his head with far more information than he could digest. So did Bob’s companions, M.L. Carter, the crusty cowboy and handgun expert, and Matt Altmann, the brilliant engineer and dam builder. Alex led a pack horse and carefully splashed through a gravely stream. He tugged the heavily laden gelding’s rope to coax him up the steep bank and into a thick grove of live oaks and native elms. Gertruda the dapple mare heaved under his knees after ten hours of travel and only one water stop. The dim autumn sun listed low in the west.
Not a soul had passed him on the road to Fort Mckavett, a far cry from the recent days when soldiers by the hundreds scurried up and down the road, rushing to rendezvous at Concho for Colonel Mackenzie’s great roundup of the Comanche nation. According to Bob this would be the first of only three nights he should spend on the ground. If Alex followed all of Bob’s advice he would hit forts or small towns where he could find lodging for man and horse. “Always look for a boarding house, not a hotel. Save money,” Bob said.
One piece of Bob’s advice Alex decided not to take as he scanned the trees with darkening shadows denying him penetrating vision. “Put that gun out of sight. Wearin’ a gun on your hip will get you shot more often than it’ll protect you. Too many dandies out there that think they ought to take on a young whipper-snapper totin’ a hog leg.” Well, tonight, no dandies were around unless they skulked in those woods. Alex wanted his Smith and Wesson handy in case one or more showed up at his campfire uninvited.
Like the pack horse and packsaddle, and all the food and traveling equipment – gifts from Bob for the journey – the Smith and Wesson .44 self-contained cartridge loading revolver was also Bob’s present. He gave it to Alex when he bought one of the new Colt Model 1873 .45 caliber revolvers after he had seen the one Matt Altmann obtained at Fort Griffin a few months back. Alex pulled the rolled belt, holster and gun from his right hand saddle bag and drew them around his waist.
He moved the horses carefully into the woods, scanning to each side. He wanted a camp spot where he could tether the horses for grazing, which meant outside the heavy copse of trees where grass would prove scarce. Yet, he would prefer bedding down inside the woods for personal cover. He felt a ripple of fear course his torso although he swore to Bob, M.L., and Matt that he was not afraid to travel alone. First night out. I got the jitters. Get over it. He shook the cold feeling and sought the good judgment he had, according to Bob, if you use it.
Maybe there’s an area that offers both, good forage and tree cover. He turned Gertruda around and forced the bay to change directions. Both beasts blew as if to say, what are you doing now? Water! He had just passed it. The horses would need water in addition to grass. He led the horses back to the creek and swung upstream. Just before the rivulet narrowed to the danger of playing out, he found it: open ground with high blue stem grass, half dry, half green, and tree cover fifty feet away.
He laid out the rope tethers that Bob had outfitted to assure that the horses could reach the water, not tangle with each other, and find plenty of graze in a thirty foot circle. Perfect. Alex stopped in mid-thought. Would Bob approve this spot? He breathed out. Yeah, this puts me four hundred yards off of the forts road. Nobody will look over here.
With no way of predicting the near-winter weather, after bacon and biscuits from home, Alex watched his little fire dwindle as he snuggled, fully clothed into his blanket below and a cotton-stuffed quilt above, all covered by a water resistant canvas. He turned to his right side, more than ready for sleep that would take away the worries of his lonely trip.
“Hey, what we got here? You that kid that couldn’t make up his mind? Goin’ one way, then the other?”
Another voice said, “Yeah, that’s him. Two horses.”
Alex’s muscles seized in unexpected tension. His right hand closed on his pistol under the covers. Kid? They must have seen him when he crossed the creek, then turned upstream. He rode like a man and at a distance would appear like a man. His youth would only show from close in.
The dim fire allowed him to see one man approaching from each of his sides. He sprang from the bed and cocked the pistol stepping back in hopes of getting them both in view. It worked partially.
“No need to git panicky, friend. We’re jest lookin’ for a bite to eat and a little information.”
The one on the right held what appeared to be a shotgun. The talker on the left showed no weapon, but a handgun could materialize suddenly.
Alex motioned toward the fire with his left hand. “Build up my fire a little and fix yourselves some bacon and biscuits. I’m eating lean. Don’t have any money.”
The unarmed man on Alex’s left pointed toward the horses. “You got two fine animals, a good saddle and pack rig. Don’t seem too broke to me.”
With dried mouth Alex said, “You’d be surprised what I’d do for money, especially if you don’t give me some names and what you’re doing here.”
“We ain’t gittin’ anywhere with this youngun, Zeb.”
With those words, the left side man lifted his finger as though to tell Zeb to do something. Alex’s gaze wheeled to Zeb. The shotgun rose. Alex’s pistol fired, held firm in both hands, dead aim, by M.L. Carter’s instruction. Zeb’s shotgun blasted into the ground as he sprawled backwards onto the turf.
Alex crouched and turned to the talker. “You got a name?”
When no reply came Alex shouted, “You want to die?”
With arms spread wide the talker stammered, “Naw, naw, I’m not armed. I’m not a dangerous man. I don’t know why Zeb pulled that stunt.”
“I’ll ask you one more time, then I’m gonna kill you. What’s your name?” Alex felt M.L. Carter’s constant talk. He sensed Bob hovering, speaking over his shoulder. You done that purty good, son. Is that what Bob would say? He didn’t have either man to back him now. His nerves had held. They were about to go.
“Name! And don’t lie!” Alex’s gun quivered though he was sure Left Side couldn’t see it.
“Runt. I’m Runt Snyder. Don’t go shootin’ me, boy. I ain’t no part o’ this.”
“Git on your belly, Runt Snyder. You got your brother Zeb Snyder killed.” Alex advanced toward the man who dropped quickly to the ground. “Like hell you’re not part of this. You told him to gun me down.”
“Now, don’t go shootin’ me in the back,” Runt said in rushed breaths. “I done what you said.”
Alex fought every instinct and runaway rage to keep from pulling the trigger and ending this nightmare. He hovered over Runt Snyder. “You’re gonna think long and hard about getting your brother killed while you’re in Huntsville for fifteen years.” Alex didn’t know where his words came from. Somehow the courage of Bob and M.L. had transferred itself to him.
He raised the Smith and Wesson high and crashed it onto the skull of Runt Snyder. He either killed the man or rendered him controllable for a long trip to Fort McKavett. He didn’t much care which.
Searching his mind for what to do next he ran his hands around the limp body of the man he had just slugged. Finding no gun, he raced back to his saddle pack and dragged out some rawhide strings. He bound Runt Snyder’s hands behind his back, still unsure if he had killed the man. Then he trotted, noticing his panting breath, toward the fallen Zeb, feeling an odd guilt that he hoped he had killed this one.
He studied what to do with a dead body and a prisoner. Bob’s words came back. “If you ever have to kill a man, don’t let it make a fool out o’ you. It’s just sump’m that happened. It ain’t who you are.”
Alex said aloud, “What the hell would you do right now, Roberto? Would you pack them up and take off in the middle of the night? Or would you wait until morning? You never told me that one.”
He drug in several breaths of the chill November night, stuck his pistol into his waistband and walked slowly back to his captive. Runt Snyder wiggled on the ground, still face down, seeming unsure why his hands didn’t support him to rise.
“Runt, I got you tied up.” Alex fought to control his voice. He didn’t care if he sounded authoritative. “I’m gonna take you into Fort McKavett and turn you over to the military. Right now, I’m gonna get some sleep. You’ll be fine right there on your face until daylight.”
No sleep came to Alex. He tried to convince himself that he had everything under control. More than anything he worried that he would do it wrong and sooner or later he’d have to tell Bob and the others. He could recite the questions: “Why didn’t you this, and why didn’t you that?”
With a short-handled spade he dug an impression a foot deep and rolled Zeb’s body into it. With creek stones as large as he could dislodge from the bank and carry he built the grave up another foot above the grade. Runt never had confirmed that Zeb was his brother. It didn’t matter. Their sleazy clothes and close set eyes were convincing.
Alex must have looked an odd sight as he entered the parade grounds of Fort McKavett. Surly Runt Snyder sat upright on the packsaddle of Alex’s second horse, his hands now tied in front so that he could eat, relieve himself and hold to the saddle to prevent falling headlong and dragging on the tether five feet behind the animal.
Provost Marshal Zack Connery frowned and scratched his black-haired head. The man was around forty with a walrus mustache. “You left a dead body out there? Military regulations don’t allow that.”
Alex ducked his head and raised it. “Like I told you, I’m not military. I’m just here to report the attack on me. I’d appreciate it if you’d take my prisoner into custody. I’ll give a full report.”
“You say he pulled a shotgun on you? Can you prove that? Do you have the shotgun?”
“Yes, sir, I brought it with me. You want it?”
“I want to examine it. I can tell if a shotgun has been recently fired. If it hasn’t, I’ll place you under arrest along with this suspect you brought in. You’ve got a mighty long and shaky story.”
Alex stared directly into the eyes of Marshal Connery. “I have no reason to be here other than to report an attempted murder and do the right thing. I could have rode away. I could have killed them both.”
Connery rubbed his wild mustache. “I’m inclined to believe you because there’s been some waylays on that road.” He looked up. “Let’s go look at that shotgun.”
At the hitch rail, Connery drew air from the old muzzle loading single barrel shotgun. “Yeah, it’s been fired. Could have been anytime. But at least that’s in your favor.” He motioned for two black infantrymen to haul down Runt Snyder and walk him to the guardhouse. “We’ll write up a report. I’m hanging myself out to dry if my commander says I should’ve held you.” He took the old shotgun in the crook of his arm. “Come on. Let’s get that done and get you out of here.”
“Where are you headed?” Connery asked as they stepped inside
Connery rounded the desk and sat. As he wrote the report according to Alex’s dictation, the officer glanced up. “What do you have in Castroville? Those Alsatian folks are German or French. You look Mexican to me.”
Alex felt an angry flare. Slowly he answered. “You know my name, and you know it’s French. I’m going to visit my family.”
Connery’s eyes shifted but he didn’t pursue the conversation. “All right. Sign here. We’ll turn the man over to the civilian authorities in San Antonio. I’m sure they’ll want you as a witness in the trial, if it comes to trial. Where can you be reached?”
“Just General Delivery, Castroville.” He signed the document with his full name: Alexander Mentrier.
Connery offered a firm handshake. Without further words, Alex exited the building and mounted Gertruda. Instinct told him to put some miles between Fort McKavett and himself, but once again the evening sun moved low.
Bob had said most military posts had places a civilian could spend the night, usually without charge. Alex wouldn’t go back and ask the provost marshal. Gertruda moved slowly southward away from the parade ground. Alex glanced each way surveying the civilian dwellings. Most houses were shotgun affairs of no more than two rooms. He selected one that had a livestock pen and barn to the back, perhaps a place he could request quarters. He swung his belt and revolver from his waist, rolled them together and stuffed them into the right saddle bag. The flap didn’t close completely.
When a matronly Mexican woman answered the door and instantly addressed him in Spanish, Alex quickly accepted his Hispanic background. In Spanish he spoke politely and told her he was traveling through. Could he quarter his horses in her pen and perhaps sleep in the barn?
The woman called her teenage son to the door. The boy’s untidy, wavy black locks and curious dark eyes somehow reminded Alex of himself about the time he had met the bandit Railo outside a saloon north of Castroville.
To prove friendly Alex extended his hand. “Alejandro Ment-re-aa. Yo soy de Castroville.”
The boy held eye contact and greeted with a firm handshake. “You are not mejicano?”
“Si, mejicano. My grandfather was French.” Would Alex have to explain his lineage to everyone he met for the rest of his life?
The boy nodded. “Grandfather. That is not so bad.” He grinned. The Mexican people held a pride but could only express it among themselves. He added, “Mi llamo Pablo. I show you the pen.”
Pablo’s bare feet padded fearlessly over the angular rocks in the yard. He opened the pen gate and said. “My papa will be home with his mule soon. She no like other animals in her pen. She kick and bite. Maybe we tie her to the rail.”
“Where does your papa work?” Alex asked pondering the inconvenience he was causing as he led his horses inside.
“For the soldiers. He has a job because he has a mule and a little wagon.” Pablo swung open the creaky barn door and stepped inside. “I get your horses some corn.”
Alex entered the dark structure to see if there was space to bed down. There was, barely.
Pablo said, “You have a job in Castroville? A vaquero?”
“Not yet. I hope to get one. If not, I will go back to the Concho.”
“Maybe when you find a job in Castroville, they need two hombres. You can write to me a letter and I will come there. I want a job. Real bad.”
Every young man wants a job, seething to escape the yoke of poverty, perceived or real. It was the reason Alex rode off with Railo’s gang and entered a short-lived life of crime. He grinned. “I’ll make a note and let you know. You seem like a…”
The familiar sound of a wagon approached. Pablo said, “Here’s Papa.” He rushed and lifted the unhinged gate wide for his father’s gray mule and little flatbed wagon. The older man didn’t proceed forward. Even from thirty feet away Alex could see the skepticism on the father’s face.
The two entered into rapid Spanish chatter. Alex caught every word, which ended with Pablo saying, “He understands Spanish. He hear you.”
Pablo’s father eased the gray mule into the enclosure keeping his dark gaze fixed on Alex. The jenny mule let out a bray to wake the dead as she spotted the horses in her pen. The father reacted quickly with a quirt across her rump and a strong rebuke in a language she would understand. She jerked her head and stopped.
Alex stepped slowly to the right side of the wagon ready to receive the skeptical man if he stepped down. He did. “I’m Alex Ment-re-aa. I’m half Mexican,” he offered quickly hoping to defuse some of the doubt he saw.
“Media.” The man nodded and tended to his traces. He took Alex’s hand briefly, never looking up. “You want to stay the night?”
“Si,” Alex replied. “I’ll pay for the corn…” When the indifferent host continued to unharness his mule, Alex added, “I’m on my way to Castroville.”
Pablo’s father led the mule toward the barn. Alex followed growing tired of the man’s sullenness.
The father stopped. “My name is Carlos de Obregon Chavez, Junior. I never knew who my father was,” he said as he tied the head-jerking mule to a rail. He turned abruptly to Alex who stopped just in time. “Do you know your father?”
“No.” Alex breathed deeply wondering where this would go.
Obregon’s gaze bore into Alex. “My father was a rich terranteniente, land owner, far south of here.” He pointed. “When I got there I learned that he was an old man, and he had died. No one believed that I was his son.”
Alex struggled to assimilate what he had heard. “But, at least you tried to find him?”
“Like you.” Obregon’s hateful stare melted. He reached out his hand again. “I wish you luck.”
“Thank you, Señor Obregon. Perhaps my father is not so old. I do not expect riches.” His mind reeled, amazed at the man’s discernment.
Carlos Obregon led the mule a safe distance from Alex’s horses. “I did not want money, but a sore spot remained when I learned that Obregon Senior had no children. He deliberately made me with a young maid in his house because he wanted a son. By the time the son appeared his land had been divided back to the State and to a few caballeros he admired.” Alex didn’t dare interrupt. “Mexicans have no chance. Your name is Mentrier?”
“Yes, according to my mother–.”
“Then there is hope for you.” Obregon patted Alex’s arm. “Come into my house. Mi esposa will feed us all.”
Inside to the light of a hanging lantern Alex ate tender goat meat and potatoes with the family of five. The older daughter Marianna – he guessed at fourteen – cast longing black eyes. She was indeed attractive. Alex’s resolve to capitalize on his French, not his Mexican, took a setback. He sipped water without glancing up. Tomorrow he would be gone.