Story Excerpt

No God West of Hays

by Eric B. Ruark
 

excerpt2_No-God-West-of-Hays_Noah-Bailey
Art by Noah Bailey

“. . . there is no law west of Kansas City
and no God west of Hays . . .”

—Scribner’s Monthly VIII July 1874

August 1871

Eighteen years old and on the run, again. Little Arkansas climbed off his horse. Using his fist, he rounded the crown of his hat and then poured half of his canteen into it. He held the hat under the horse’s muzzle and allowed the animal to drink. After the horse had sucked it dry, Little Arkansas reformed the crown and placed the hat back on his head. Then he checked the horse’s hooves. If Hickok were following him, he could not afford for his horse to go lame.

Little Arkansas had no doubt that Wild Bill was on his trail. Not because he had killed Charles Cougar for snoring, but because he had given Hickok his word to stay out of trouble while in Abilene. Which he did, for the most part. Hell, he had even gone to the circus with Wild Bill to see Miss Agnes Lake perform. Little Arkansas smiled, remembering how taken his mentor seemed to be with the beautiful equestrienne. No, Hickok could forgive him the accidental killing, but he would never forgive him for breaking his word.

Little Arkansas cursed his luck. It was his own damn fault. He should never have gotten into that card game. He should never have gotten that drunk. He should never have shot indiscriminately through the hotel room wall to wake Cougar up. How was he to know that Charlie’s bed was against their shared wall. It’s not like he meant to put a ball through the man’s head. He had nothing against him except for the snoring. But, damn, that man could snore.

The young man remounted and checked the skyline behind him. Hickok was too good a plainsman to get spotted that easily, but there was always the chance that Wild Bill would make a mistake. Granted, a cow jumping over the moon was more likely, but Little Arkansas could always hope. So far, considering the options, he had been more than lucky. He had had to jump out of the hotel window wearing nothing but his union suit. Before defenestrating himself, he had had the presence of mind to grab his vest to which his holsters were attached. And then he had been lucky enough to find an unattended horse and wagon tied up behind the hotel. Borrowing it was his only option for a quick getaway. (Since he had sent it back with Tom Carson and Ben Davis, he didn’t exactly consider it “stealing.”) And so far, his decision to head down the Chisholm Trail had worked out to his advantage. But he knew that he couldn’t count on luck with a man like Hickok on his trail.

He had thought his luck had run out about the same time his horse did, thirty-five miles south of Abilene. He had run the horse to virtual exhaustion, and sitting there, a lone dot in the vastness of the prairie, Little Arkansas could only hope that the horse would revive before any posse could catch up with him. Then he saw those two specks come over the horizon to the south. Little Arkansas quickly checked the loads in his pistols. The young man favored the Colt Army 1861 revolver. He carried two, nestled in holsters sewn into his vest, which allowed him the cross-body cavalry draw, a motion he considered faster than the hip draw. (Hickok had shown him a couple of tricks along those lines, which managed to increase his speed, making him almost as fast as the legendary gunman himself.) Not wanting to shoot himself in the side, he never kept a loaded chamber under the hammer. Then, there was the ball that went through Charlie’s head. Since he hadn’t been able to grab his possibles bag and reload, he was limited to only nine shots. Not many balls to carry him through country frequented by all kinds of outlaws, Kiowa, Comanche, Sioux, and now two strangers slowly approaching him from the south.

But his luck held. It wasn’t long before he recognized two of Hickok’s deputies, Tom Carson and Benjamin Franklin Davis, the former slave owner and former slave who made a formidable pair on the streets of Abilene. Since they were coming up from the south, there was no way they could have heard of his previous night’s troubles. Little Arkansas took the trigger guards off his revolvers and waited for Hickok’s men to approach. He would have to think of an excuse as to why he was in his underwear. Fortunately, Tom Carson thought of it for him.

“Little Arkansas, are you not a sight . . .” Tom said, riding up even with the wagon seat and pulling his horse to a stop. The boy watched as the deputy leaned forward and rested his gun arm on his saddle horn. “. . . sitting there in your nightclothes with a blown horse.” He turned to Ben Davis. “Looks like this young man is running from some angry husband or some farmer what has got him a pretty daughter.” The deputies laughed.

“Well, Tom, my old pappy used to preach, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ He used to say that it could only lead to trouble.”

“Well, it sure looks like you are in a whole lot of trouble,” Ben Davis said.

“That I am,” Little Arkansas said. “But not for the reason you think.” Little Arkansas crossed his arms and deliberately drew his pistols and pointed them at the men. “So if you will be so kind as to drop your gun belts to the ground and step off your horses opposite them, you will be doing me a great kindness.”

The two deputies looked at each other. Tom Carson sat up and dropped his gun arm to his side.

“Tom,” Little Arkansas said in his most deliberately calm voice. “I would not be doing that. You have seen me shoot with Marshall Hickok. At this range, you would be dead before your hand touched your pistol.”

Carson slowly reached up and unbuckled his gun belt. “Son, you sure have a strange way of greeting friends.”

“Tom, at this moment, you are not my friend. But that is not to say that I want to hurt you. Just step off your horse and all will be well.” Without taking his eyes off Carson, Little Arkansas turned his head slightly toward Ben Davis, who had not moved since the muzzle of the young man’s .44 had pointed toward him.“Ben, if you would be so kind, please take the piggin’ strings off your saddle and tie Tom, here, to the wagon wheel, and then take off your clothes and boots. It appears you and I seem to be of a size.”

After Ben had tied Tom to the wagon wheel, Little Arkansas tied Ben to the opposite wheel using some old rope that had been in the back of the wagon. He did not do a good job on purpose. He did not want the two men to be incapacitated for too long. It was too dangerous. Red Cloud had three thousand Sioux warriors down in the Territory on a government sanctioned buffalo hunt. And there were other Indians and outlaws to worry about. He had had to kill some Mexican rustlers on the drive to Abilene. He liked Tom and Ben. He figured that Ben could work himself free in an hour or two.

Little Arkansas also took Ben’s horse. Ben was an excellent judge of horse flesh. He left them Tom’s so they could use it to take the wagon back to Abilene. Going through their respective saddlebags, Little Arkansas was relieved to find that the men both favored the Colt .44s. There were over fifty balls and caps and extra powder in addition to some tallow. After transferring everything he wanted over to Ben’s saddlebags, Little Arkansas made what he considered his second real mistake (shooting Charlie being his first). He mounted Ben’s horse, turned to the men, and said, “Give Wild Bill my love.” Even riding away from the two deputies, Little Arkansas realized that if anything would put a burr under Hickok’s saddle, that would do it.

*   *   *

Little Arkansas licked his lips. They were dry, but not as dry as they were going to be. He was well into the Cimarron basin. To the few people who tried to cross it, the basin was more like a desert than a prairie. Sure, there was grass from horizon to horizon, but there was no water . . . unless you knew where to look.

The young man knew that when running from a man like Hickok, if he were going to stand a chance, he was going to have to run smart, not scared. Tom and Ben had been quite talkative while he was divesting them of their personal belongings. So when he learned that they had been sent south to check out a herd coming up the Chisholm, Little Arkansas figured to hide his trail under the hooves of all that beef.

Having been a cowboy himself, when Little Arkansas met the trail boss, he had no trouble talking the talk and dropping several names that the trail boss knew. He introduced himself as Wesley Clemmons, the name he had used in Abilene and on the drive up the Chisholm, and before long, he was sharing a plate of grub and some coffee with the rest of the men. Later, he spent part of the night regaling the men with stories of some of Abilene’s more colorful places of entertainment, and warned them that the town’s marshal, Wild Bill Hickok, was not a man to be trifled with.

One of the cowboys asked if Hickok was as fast as everyone said. Since the cowboy was wearing a six-shooter, Little Arkansas told him to stand up and draw against him. Little Arkansas told the trail boss to say “when,” and when he did, the cowboy had barely moved his hand toward his weapon before he was staring down the barrels of Little Arkansas’s.44s.

“And I am slow compared to him,” Little Arkansas said. Actually he knew that he and Hickok were of a speed that if either had to draw on the other, there would be no advantage. But despite his troubles, he liked Wild Bill, and more than that, he respected him. Hickok was thirty-four years old and had treated him with the kind of respect that Little Arkansas had wished his own father had had.

The next morning, before daylight, Cookie filled Little Arkansas’ saddlebags with bacon, beans, and coffee and wished him well on his return to Texas. The trail boss had even given him an extra canteen and a spare lariat. If anyone recognized Ben’s horse and kit, no one said anything about it. Or if they thought it strange that the young man was riding alone into Comanche territory, they kept it to themselves. After all, a man’s business was a man’s business. It was long after daylight and with the herd well out of sight when Little Arkansas turned west.

Little Arkansas figured that Hickok would expect him to head back to Texas the quickest way possible, straight down the Chisholm. His having met up with the cattle drive would only add to that surmise. No one would expect him to head east into the path of the Sioux hunting buffalo, or cut across the dry country before turning south toward the breaks of the Canadian. But as he walked his horse along an antelope’s trail through the six-inch high grass, a poem that he liked kept coming to mind:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain;

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain,

For promis’d joy!

The poem also brought to mind Little Arkansas’s father, who was a Methodist preacher with an extensive library. The boy remembered being forced to memorize all the “begats” in the Bible, because that was what the son of a Methodist preacher was supposed to do. But when he didn’t have his nose buried in the Bible, he had it buried in the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. He didn’t like the fact that he had to hide his education from those who could only read a can of peaches. But such was the life of a young man on the run.

Little Arkansas took off his hat and kerchief and wiped his brow. Then he stuffed the kerchief into the crown of his hat and placed it back on his head. He checked his canteens. One was empty and the other had but a mouthful of bitter water left in it. He needed to find water, not an easy task in the Cimarron, but, then again, not impossible.

He had been following a game trail. When the antelope trail was crossed by a lone buffalo trail, Little Arkansas checked the sun and followed what was probably an old bull buffalo trail to the southwest. Buffalos needed water and the good Lord had given them the uncanny knack of finding it even in the driest of ranges. It was almost sundown when Little Arkansas topped a low rise and spotted the green tops of some dwarfed cottonwoods nestled in a dry wash. The wash may have been dry, but the green trees told him that the roots reached something wet. That and the one small bison wallowing about fifty yards down the wash gave him a good clue as to where to dig.

The young man walked his horse into the wash and down towards the wallow. He tethered it to the nearest tree and then looked for something to dig with. He found a sturdy stick to loosen the sand and ended up scooping out the loose sand with his hands. About a foot and a half down, the sand began to feel cool and damp. About two feet down, water began seeping through the sand, and at two and a half feet the hole in the ground became a well.

Little Arkansas took off his hat and removed the kerchief. Then, gently slipping his hat into the water so as not to stir up the sand, he let it fill. When it was full, he carried it to his horse and let the animal drink. He repeated that action several times until the animal had had its fill, and then he slaked his own thirst. With that done, he set about making camp. He gathered some deadwood, and using the flint and steel he had taken from Ben, he made a fire and staked out some bacon to cook. He wasn’t worried about the light from the fire inside the wash. Shielded as he was by the low cottonwoods, someone would practically have to ride up on him to see it. With his hunger and thirst taken care of, using his saddle as a pillow, he laid out his bedroll and went to sleep. Sometime during the middle of the night, the horse nickered.

Little Arkansas came awake. His eyes opened and he froze beneath his blanket listening to the sounds of the night. There was no wind. The cottonwoods were not rustling. The fire had been banked. There was no sound coming from it. Even his horse was still. The young man slowly turned his head to look at the animal. The moon had set, and in the dark wash Little Arkansas could barely make out the outline of the animal, but he could tell that it was looking back up the wash. The horse nickered again. Little Arkansas slowly moved his hands toward his pistols.

Horses are herd animals. Little Arkansas knew that his horse was telling another horse that he was there. A coyote would have generated a completely different reaction, and Little Arkansas was too much of a cowboy not to know the difference. But now the question was who was it? Kiowa, Comanche, or Sioux would have kept their animals at a distance and then snuck in to steal his. But a white man . . . that was a different story.

The young man quietly placed his hat head-high on his saddle and then, holding a pistol in each hand, slithered silently, snakelike, out from under his blanket and eased himself into the scrub beneath the cottonwoods. Laying flat behind a screen of low deadwood, he waited.

Dawn seemed a long time coming. Little Arkansas tried to become one with the night, listening for that telltale sound that did not belong. Then, in the gray light just before the dawn, he heard it. But it was coming from the wrong direction. The rider appeared at the bottom of the wash and began walking his horse slowly toward the camp. The man sat his horse well. He had a broad, brown face from days in the sun, thick shoulders, and a wide-brimmed sombrero. He packed his gun on his right hip but held his reins in his right hand. He paused for a moment by the newly dug well. Little Arkansas’s horse turned to look at the newcomer then turned its attention back up the wash.

Two of them, Little Arkansas thought.

“Hello, the camp,” the rider called out.

Little Arkansas did not respond.

“Smelled your bacon,” the rider said. “Mind if I step down?”

Little Arkansas remained still. If he had smelled the bacon, they must have been stalking him for close to ten hours. Who were they and how many? For the moment, the young man was pinned behind his low blind. If he sat up, they would see him. If he moved, they would hear him. It would not be wise to give himself away, yet. For a brief moment, Little Arkansas wondered what Hickok would do. He had one sure target in front of him: the man on the horse. He needed to spot where the man or men trying to bushwhack him were. Whoever it was, was going to need a clear shot at the camp. Little Arkansas raised an eye over the top of his blind. His horse was hobbled just north of his position in the wash, effectively cutting off the angle from the left side. That meant that his unseen assailant was somewhere over on the right. Little Arkansas followed the direction of his horse’s ears. What doesn’t belong, he wondered. All the branches of the cottonwoods were reaching up toward the light. All but one. Only it wasn’t a branch. it was the barrel of a Henry rim fire repeating rifle.

Little Arkansas sat up quickly and brought his pistols to bear on where he guessed the head of the man holding the rifle would be. He fired. Then he spun around, cocked his guns, and shot the other man off his horse as he reached for his pistol. The horseman fell off his horse backward, catching his left boot in the stirrup. The horse reared and crow-hopped a couple of steps toward the boy’s hobbled one. Little Arkansas bolted from his blind using the frightened animal as a screen. A quick glance told him that both his balls had found their mark in the dead rider’s head. He sprinted around the animals toward the last position he had seen the rifleman. Little Arkansas found him facedown lying across his weapon, a ball, Adam’s apple high, having passed through his throat had severed his spine. Little Arkansas rolled him over. He was a Mexican-looking character with a greaser-style mustache and a knife scar that ran from beneath his right eye to the corner of his mouth. Little Arkansas took the rifle and went in search of the man’s horse, which he found a dozen yards or so up the wash tied to the stump of a tree. He unhitched the horse and walked it back to his camp.

Little Arkansas hobbled the two new horses next to his, watered them, and then stripped them of all their gear. After taking care of the horses, he disposed of the dead men. From the looks of it, they were hard cases, with worn boots, old shirts, dirty broadcloth pants, and well-worn hats. However, as dirty as they were, their guns were clean. In their saddlebags, he found a couple of twists of tobacco, more powder and lead, and a box of rim fire cartridges for the rifle. But no food. That led him to suspect that they had a camp not all that far away with maybe a couple of pack animals that were about to get very lonely. But then, they, too, could have been on the run. Little Arkansas sloughed it off. He now had three animals, a Henry repeating rifle, two more canteens, and a couple of twists of tobacco. There was no need to encumber himself with anything else.

Little Arkansas stared at the new animals. As glad as he was to have them, they also posed a new problem. The extra horses would need more water. The extra canteens would help with that. But the Cimarron was running dry this time of year, and that meant that he not only had to find water, but he also had to find a spot to cross the dry riverbed where he could also hide his passage from Hickok. Hiding his passage was going to be a whole other problem altogether. Breaking camp, Little Arkansas continued heading west, his three horses leaving a distinctive trail in the grass. Maybe it would confuse Hickok, but then again, the young man wasn’t counting on it. It was late in the afternoon when he saw the smoke.

Little Arkansas shook his head in disbelief. Some idiot of a white man was sending up a come-and-get-me signal that any Indian within a day’s ride could see. The young man found a low rise, and hobbling his horses behind it, he walked to the top, crawling the last few yards to keep his silhouette low against the skyline. He estimated that the smoke was about fourteen miles off. It would be dark if he tried to make it now, and the last thing he wanted to do was ride into a strange camp in the dark. At first he thought about giving whomever was there a wide berth. But someone camping and having something to burn meant that they were probably camping near water with a large stand of cottonwoods to provide the fuel. In this country, water was gold, and Little Arkansas could not afford to pass that up. Crawling back off the rise, the young man made a cold camp. If he were going to approach a stranger or strangers, it would be best to do it after sunrise.

*   *   *

Sunrise came and went. It was almost noon when Little Arkansas found the dry bed of a feeder to the Cimarron and started following it upstream. It led him to a veritable oasis, with a pool of water and a copse of trees nestled deep within the cut and protected by the high walls of the riverbed. It also led him into a camp of hardened men. At first glance, he counted fourteen. Some were living in lean-tos, some in tents. At the head of the cut, by the trees, someone had made a large sod hut. Down opposite the pool of water on the other side of the cut was a corral of sorts holding a lot more than fourteen horses. The men were a dirty, hard-looking lot. Some Mexican. Some Anglos. Only a couple of them were wearing guns.

As he approached, the men divided themselves up into two groups and funneled him toward the sod hut. Little Arkansas made a mental note of who had guns and where they were. When he got within about ten feet from the soddie, one of the men pulled away from the group on the right and walked up to a blanket covering what Little Arkansas assumed to be the main entrance. The man pulled the blanket aside and said something that the boy could not make out to someone inside. A moment later, a stocky Mexican with long black hair, a thick neck, and a thick black mustache came out. He took a long look at Little Arkansas.

“You want something, boy?” he asked in a thick Mexican accent.

“Trade horses for some water, maybe,” Little Arkansas said.

The man laughed. “Why should I trade for something that I already own?”

Little Arkansas took a slow look to his right and his left to cover the subtle movement of his forearms. It was a trick Hickok had taught him to remove the thongs holding his pistols in place. “I believe that that is open to some negotiation,” Little Arkansas said. He noted that the leader was not wearing a gun.

One of the Mexicans from the left walked toward the leader and said something to him with his back to Little Arkansas. When he finished, he threw a glance at the boy over his shoulder before walking back to his place.

The leader stuck his thumbs into his thick leather belt. “Jesus, there, says you killed three of his compadres when they tried to rustle your herd back in April on the Chisholm.”

Little Arkansas slowly looked over at Jesus, then back to the leader. “So he is the greaser that got away,” Little Arkansas said.

“You know, that kind of attitude will not make you friends here.”

“I did not come to make friends.”

The leader laughed. “Boy, are you that stupid, or do you seriously think you are that good?”

Little Arkansas’s mind raced. Not all the men were armed. The leader wasn’t wearing a gun. He would be the first to fall. With their leader down, the others would not know what to do right away. In their momentary confusion, Little Arkansas planned to take out the armed men on his left. His horses would shield him from the men on the right. If he dropped their leads, they should spook enough to disorient some of the others. His problem, as he saw it, was that he only had ten shots.

The blanket on the soddie moved aside and a small man wearing two guns tied low stepped out. Little Arkansas locked eyes with him. He was a lean man with thin hands and a lean, clean-shaven face. Little Arkansas measured him coldly. He was going to be real trouble.

“He is that good,” the lean man said. “He is wanted down in Bell County, Texas. I saw him take three deputies down there with their own guns.”

“Three?” The leader asked.

“Three.”

“And with their own guns?”

“He was walking in front of them. One of the deputies pushed him. He pretended to stumble, turned around and drew the man’s own gun and shot him. Then, he shot the man on the left and as he fell, he grabbed that man’s gun and shot the man on the right. Then, he took the nearest horse and rode off.”

The leader rubbed his chin. “Maybe I could use a man like you. You got a name?”

“I have several,” Little Arkansas said.

“What name you wanted under?” the leader asked.

“John Wesley Hardin.”

“My name is Juan Bandera,” the leader said.

“I have heard of you,” Little Arkansas said. “I thought you were operating a border legion around Waco?”

“I was.”

“What brings you up here?”

“Get off your horse and I show you.”

John Wesley Hardin climbed off his horse and held the reins toward Jesus. Jesus just stood there.

“Tómalos,” Bandera ordered.

Jesus took the reins. Hardin followed Bandera into the soddie. The man who had recognized him brought up the rear. The sod hut was bigger than it looked from the outside. There was more than one room. The large front room held a table and three chairs. Light was coming in from a lone, uncovered window, filling the room with a perpetual twilight. The front room was divided off from the rest of the soddie by a blanket suspended from a support bean across the ceiling. Bandera walked to the back of the room and swept the curtain aside. Ten or twelve small figures retreated quickly to the back of the second room accompanied by several childlike female screams.

It took Hardin’s eyes a couple of heartbeats to become accustomed to the gloom. When they had acclimated, he saw ten young females ranging in ages from eleven to seventeen huddled as far away from the men as they could get. As he scanned the girls, time stopped. Standing so as to protect the younger ones was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. Even the gloom could not detract from nor hide her beauty. She was a tall girl with fire in her eyes, almost as much fire as the red in her hair.

“What is this?” Hardin asked.

“A gift from Red Cloud,” Bandera said.

“You got them from the Indians?” Hardin asked, incredulous.

“In a manner of speaking,” Bandera said. “The Indians have been hunting buffalo south of Fort Hays. The army has been keeping a close eye on them. These pilgrims were part of a wagon train that took the old Santa Fe Trail to cross the Cimarron rather than head up to Bent’s Fort. They were hoping to stay out of the Indians’ way and save some time. In the end, they saved nothing, not even their lives.”

“And these?” Hardin asked nodding toward the girls.

“After the next raid, we will take them south and sell them in Mexico. That rubia is going to bring a pretty price.”

“Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: Give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.” The redhead’s voice was low and stung with a woman’s rebuke.

The man who had recognized Hardin from Bell County stepped past them and took two steps toward the girl. He pulled a skinning knife from his boot. “I swear if she utters another word, I will cut her tongue out.”

“And ruin the best piece of merchandise we have so far?” Bandera snapped. “Do not be stupid. Put the knife away.”

“Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: This shall be the portion of their cup,” the young woman said with an air of defiance.

The man with the knife took another step toward her. Bandera blocked him.

“Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” Hardin spoke quietly but with command, so much so that the two other men froze in the middle of their confrontation to look at him.

The redhead had not expected it either. She looked directly at Hardin, who tried not to show the effect she was having on him.

“Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart maybe forgiven thee,” she said.

“Fear not: For am I not in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good,” Hardin responded.

Shaken, the redhead turned away, hugging the other children and being hugged in return.

Hardin turned and looked at the man with the knife. “Put it away,” he said and walked back into the main room. Bandera closed the curtain and followed. The other man returned the knife to his boot.

“You said something about a ‘next’ raid,” Hardin said.

Bandera stepped up to the table and sat down in the nearest chair. Hardin and the other man continued to stand. Bandera nodded toward the girls behind the curtain. “Theirs was the first of two wagon trains taking the Cimarron route. A big church group heading west. Three weeks apart. That way, if anything happened to the first train, the second would be along to rescue them. Then, in Santa Fe, if after three weeks, the second train did not show up, the first would mount a rescue party.”

“And you learned this how?” Hardin asked.

“The deacons on the first train were very talkative after some of the men took their pleasure on some of the women,” Bandera said with a shrug.

“Where are the others?” Hardin asked.

“They were no longer needed,” Bandera said.

“Why waste water in a dry country,” the man with the knife added.

“Hardin, Ben Bradley,” Bandera said casually wagging a finger at the two men.

Hardin and Bradley nodded to each other. Hardin had heard of Bradley. He was a cold-blooded killer with a shoot-first reputation.

The blanket door of the soddie moved aside and Jesus entered. He walked over to Bandera and whispered something in his ear in Spanish. Bandera’s eyes momentarily shot toward Hardin and then he looked back at Jesus and smiled. He turned to Hardin. “Put your horses in with ours and find a place to camp. We will talk more about the second wagon train later.”

“Sure,” Hardin said. He left the room. Outside, there was another man holding his horses. He took the reins and the leads and started walking toward the gang’s corral. As he walked, the men moved out of his way, taking up positions well back on either side of his path. “So that is how it is going to be,” Hardin thought. With his forearms, he checked to feel that his guns were still free in their holsters.

He took his time releasing his three horses into the corral, rubbing them down and checking their hooves. He wanted to give whomever was supposed to brace him plenty of rope. He was in the process of taking the saddle off of Ben’s horse when the animal turned his head. Hardin looked and saw Jesus approaching from the soddie. Bandera was standing in the doorway. Jesus was armed, wearing his gun tied down and low on his right side. Jesus stopped about ten feet in front of Hardin and threw his chin toward the corral.

“Those two horses look like the ones that two of my friends ride,” Jesus said. His English was flavored with a heavy Mexican accent.

“Could be,” Hardin said stepping away from Ben’s horse.

“And that Henry looks exactly like the one carried by my hermano,” Jesus said.

“Is he a short, ugly cuss with a scar right about here?” Hardin reached up with his right hand and touched his cheek just beneath his right eye.

No sooner had Hardin’s forefinger touched his face than Jesus went for his gun. His palm had barely touched the butt of his pistol before a ball from Hardin’s .44 smashed into his forehead. Jesus’s head snapped backward and he fell back on the ground. Ten feet away, John Wesley Hardin scratched his face with his right forefinger while holding a smoking Colt .44 in his left hand.

Nobody moved. Hardin’s gun was still out. Bandera came out of the soddie. He walked slowly down to the dead man. He looked from Jesus to Hardin. Hardin holstered his gun.

“I did not know you were left handed,” Bandera said.

“I am not,” Hardin answered. . . .

 

 

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