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Authors: R. W. Stone

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BOOK: Trail Hand
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I hadn’t seen the velvet-lined gun box the Colts arrived in since the contest, so under the circumstances I figured Pa had been more practical about things than I would have been if our positions had been reversed. I truly never expected to ever see those pistols again.

About a month later, on my fifteenth birthday, I was flabbergasted when Pa handed me one of those Navy Colts complete with a tooled leather holster obviously made to fit my rather substantial frame.

The present caught me totally off guard.

“I figure you really tied with me in that contest, what with havin’ to use that old hand-me-down rifle of yours,” Pa explained, “so I kep’ the pistol you ought to have won. Swapped the other Colt, plus a good pocket watch and some grain, for the Morgans.”

I knew that watch was a favorite of his, but when I started to protest, he just shook his head.

“It was a fair trade and at the same time it saved me from havin’ to fret over your birthday. Besides, your ma figures, if worse comes to worst and need be, you can always sell it to he’p git yourself out of trouble.” Pa smiled and continued on. “Your Uncle
Zeke is the best leather worker I know, and he made this holster for your birthday, so don’t ever let me catch you spoilin’ it with studs an’ the like. Remember, a fancy-lookin’ rig with a pistol like this can get anyone in trouble.” He stared at me a while as if thinking that meant
especially
someone like me. “A handgun is a serious tool, and a holster is only something for carryin’ and protectin’ it. Neither one is for showin’ off.”

I could tell he was dead serious, but there was also a hint of family pride in his eyes. It was the same pride that showed in my uncle’s work. The leather belt had been carefully etched and sewn with elegant patterns to highlight the open top Slim Jim holster, designed to do justice to the pistol without being obvious.

Pa was wearing a Remington.44 Army in a worn belted holster that day, one I’d never seen before. We were standing opposite a large tree out back, when Pa reached into his pocket and brought out a silver dollar which he subsequently placed on the top of his right hand. He stood there holding his gun hand, palm down, at waist level with the dollar on top. Before I knew what happened, he’d drawn and fired, all before the coin hit the ground! I was left speechless.

“Don’t be fooled by this, Son…a lot of shootists can beat the coin. Some use a poker chip for effect and others can do it timed in less than a second. But I’m not gonna teach you circus tricks. A person has a given right to carry a gun for protection, but when you carry, you hold a grave responsibility, to yourself and others. Remember, speed is only a small part of using a gun and won’t impress those what count. They know it
also takes a level head, accuracy, and no small amount of courage to face someone in a draw.”

For the rest of the afternoon, and for many thereafter, Pa taught me the basics of handgunning. From what I now know about things, what was basic for Pa was downright sophisticated for most folks, and over the years I’d have more than one occasion to be grateful for all his teachings.

That’s why I didn’t overreact to the hard stares the men gave me that day in the
cantina
.

The
vaqueros
looked me over for a while before the taller one finally answered.


Sí, señor
, we speak your language. What can we do for you?”

Don’t know why I was surprised that they spoke English so much better than I did Spanish, but it did make things easier, so I just pulled up a chair and relaxed into conversation as if we already knew each other a good while.

I let on right off that if there was work to be had around cattle or horses, and involved leaving town for distant parts, I was available.

The taller of the two
vaqueros
, Miguel, explained that they both worked for
Don
Enrique Hernandez de Allende, on a
hacienda
some distance to the south. They were planning to drive their horses north and then west to California, where apparently the
don’s
brother-in-law had another ranch. The other fellow, Francisco, told me they’d been sent to town for supplies and that they were preparing to return to the
hacienda
first thing in the morning.

“If you’re interested in work, you will have to convince our
caporal
, the…ah…how you say it…ramrod? But, he realizes it will be a hard
drive and we will have need of a scout who knows the country north of our border,” he added encouragingly.

A few years back, not long after my seventeenth birthday, a flu epidemic took my ma, and shortly thereafter Pa died. There was no keeping me home after that, so I left the ranch to my sister Rebecca and her husband, and headed West on my own. Whatever the reason I gave at the time for leaving, the truth is I was aiming to duplicate what I imagined to be Pa’s mysterious and exciting past. I rode West that spring with his rifle, an old broke-in saddle, and the pick of the Morgans, a large sable bay stallion.

That old saddle never did fit me well and was soon traded for a bigger one. Later that year, I also replaced the old rifle for a newer model Henry repeater at Freund’s gun smithery in Laramie. While there I picked up a spare cylinder for my Navy .36-caliber and had their gunsmiths, two brothers named Pruitt, modify its front. The job they did building up the sight almost tripled the pistol’s distance accuracy, and, by filing its sear and lightening the trigger pull, they made that Colt’s action work smooth as silk.

Since that time I’d traveled a fair share, mined some, ate a lot of cattle dust, and tried to keep the trouble that always seemed to follow me around down to a minimum. I could ride most Western trails with my eyes closed, and many of the areas that I didn’t explore personally had been explained to me by scouts, hunters, and trappers I’d met along the way.

I was smart enough to realize that most folks I’d meet would have something or other to offer,
so I always tried to avoid a natural tendency to run on at the mouth. Even as a youngster I’d listened carefully to my elders. Some of the older men I’d met could describe places in ways not found in picture books and for the most part you could follow their words better than lines on a map. I remembered their words well.

So, with my experience, I had no trouble convincing the two
mejicanos
that they wouldn’t find a better scout, and they agreed to introduce me to
Señor
Hernandez. Of course, the extra round of drinks I sprung for helped some, and early the next morning we left town together, heading south. I still rode the Morgan bay. After all we’d been through I wasn’t about to trade him.

During the ride out to the
hacienda
I had a chance to get to know the other two a little better. Miguel and Francisco like most
vaqueros
were of Mexican-Indian extraction. Francisco was from Jalisco, which was somewhere farther west, while Miguel was local. They’d been riding for
Señor
Hernandez for over five years, and seemed to be better off than most cowpokes I’d known.

Although I’d found
vaqueros
to be just as good on horseback as any northern wrangler, their horses always seem smaller, thinner, and more loose-coupled than the Texas cutting horse tends to be. These two
mejicanos
, however, rode a dapple gray with a white star and stripe and a well-muscled strawberry roan that would look good anywhere. We were also leading four strong pack mules that had no problem carrying a rather heavy load of supplies.
Señor
Hernandez apparently took very good care of his men, and obviously appreciated quality livestock.

Once we got out on the trail Miguel’s mood began to change; he wasn’t as talkative as he had been in town for one thing. I knew he was hung over a mite, but it was more than that. He seemed to be sulking about something. For a man just leaving town that usually meant girl
trouble, but Francisco didn’t know who, and I wasn’t about to ask.

We decided to leave Miguel alone until he was in a better mood, and meanwhile Francisco and I began to swap war stories. Francisco had grown up an orphan in a monastery whose monks were grooming him for the religious life, and it was there he learned both English and Latin. In fact, were it not for his having been sent to town on his thirteenth birthday, he’d probably be Father Francisco by now. It seems that he had been helping to load the mission’s wagon out in front of a general store, when a
vaquero
rode up and asked Francisco to tend his horse while he went inside to buy some supplies.

“I always liked animals,” he told me, “but at the mission we had only a few old cows and a burro or two. Then this man come with his own horse that was, I thought, very big and…uh…beautiful. The
vaquero
was
Indio
like me, but, even so, he had this great big saddle and wore brand new clothes. When he came out of the store, he even tossed me some candy, and gave me
cincuenta centavos
for watching his horse. That was more money than I ever had all to myself.” Francisco paused to swat a blood-sucking tick off his horse’s neck before he continued on with his story.

“After that, everything in the Misión de la Virgen was to me very dull, and I soon became…you know,
aburrido
.”

“Bored?” I asked.



, that’s it. Two weeks later I sneaked out with just the clothes on my back, and walked to the
mercado
in the town plaza. I found
Señor
Hernandez there with his men and begged him for
work. He was about to have one of them take me back to the mission, but when that one touched me, I punched him in the stomach.” Francisco laughed. “He was much bigger than I, but it knocked his wind out.”

“And you still got the job?” I asked, stating the obvious.


Señor
Hernandez pretended to be very mad with me at first, but then he started laughing. He said while I would probably make a poor
vaquero
, I would surely be worse as a priest. I have been with him ever since.” Francisco grinned and added. “And after knowing the women, I think he was right.”

I grinned, nodding in agreement as we rode along.

That night we camped near some cottonwoods and settled down to supper and the usual fireside coffee. Miguel seemed to be in a better mood.

“Miguel, you learn your English in a mission, too?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “I learned it in Tejas and Colorado.”

“Really? Worked up there, did you?”



. About four years ago.
Señor
Hernandez often trades with a Meester Boocanon….”

“The same Buchannon who owns the Double Deuce spread?” I interrupted.



, that’s the one. You know him?”

“Only by reputation.”


Bueno
. I was asked by
Don
Enrique to ride with the Double Dooze for six months while they moved stock north. They were short some men, so
Don
Enrique loaned me to them, as a
vaquero
.”

Miguel got up and removed a short sword from
a leather sheath that was tied to the side of his saddle and began to cut some firewood. I’d noticed that nearly all the
vaqueros
carried one.

“Always figured those swords were a bit too cumbersome. Seems to me they’d get in the way,” I said, my curiosity showing again.

Miguel shook his head. “The machete is really very practical. We use it for cutting firewood, and for chopping heavy underbrush. It is also good against snakes…when you do not wish to make noise or cannot shoot and”—he waved the sharp blade under my chin— “it can be a very deadly weapon.”

“I see what you mean,” I said uncomfortably.

Miguel smiled and tossed a pile of wood on the fire while Francisco broke out the coffee and beans.

“Even so, I think I’ll just stick with this,” I said, patting my Colt fondly.

It wasn’t long before Francisco asked the inevitable questions about the Navy pistol. After I told him about my pa, he slowly took out his revolver and offered it over. It was a small.38 Smith & Wesson revolver with a spur trigger and bobbed hammer.

The finish was worn and the wood grips slightly cracked, but the barrel rifling was still good. It was clean and well-oiled. Had there been anything other than friendly curiosity about my firearm I would have known it by now, so I didn’t mind letting him examine the Colt.

“If you don’t mind the question…you have had to use this before?” he asked innocently. “I mean in a battle?”

I nodded, but didn’t answer him aloud.

“Miguel is very fast, but I myself have never had to draw on another,” he said, turning the Colt over in his hands.

“Let’s hope it stays that way,
compadre
,’ cause it’s true what they say. No one ever really wins in a gunfight.”

I left it at that as we returned our pistols to their rightful holsters. We sacked out a short time later, after first checking on the horses. Before falling asleep, I pondered Francisco’s last question, remembering the first time I was forced to draw in anger.

Shortly after leaving home I rode through a small town called Bensonville, on the way to Abilene. There was a saloon that caught my eye, called the Rusty Nail. I tethered my horse, went in, and ambled up to the bar peaceably. After all I’d ridden, I was dog tired, and hadn’t figured on drawing any attention, but before I’d even finished my first beer, I was braced by an older cowboy sporting a brown leather vest, stovepipe chaps, and a holster worn low on his hip, Texas style. From his actions it was obvious that he was mean drunk.

“Well, lookee here, boys. Junior got all dressed up to go drinking with the men. Say, how about this?” he added, noticing my gun. “What’s an overgrown kid like you doing with a fancy shootin’ piece like that, anyway?” His breath was as loaded as his gun was.

I turned away, trying to ignore him, but he wasn’t about to let it go. Pulling on my shoulder, he spun me around.

“Don’t turn your back on me when I’m talkin’, you miserable pup.”

Things were souring a little too quickly. I looked around anxiously for some help, but there was no sign of a sheriff, and nobody in the place looked even the least bit concerned. In fact, the rest of the men actually seemed to be enjoying the show.

“Look, mister, I ain’t looking for trouble, so, if it’s all the same with you, I’ll just be leaving.”

When he blocked my way I realized that mine clearly had been the wrong approach. He was playing the bully, and all I’d succeeded in doing was to convince him that he could get away with it. Drunk as that cowpoke was, I wasn’t about to change his mind.

“Afore you leave here, just hand over that hog-leg to someone who can put it to good use,” he said, slamming his beer mug down on the bar top. He wasn’t leaving me an out, but at least I had been careful enough to make sure my back was covered by a corner post.

Although I had no way of knowing if his friends would back him in a shoot-out, it appeared that, for now, he was the only serious threat I’d have to deal with. The rest seemed content just to watch the fun. He wasn’t very bright and I figured his drinking might give me an edge, so I stood my ground, and quietly stared back at him.

“Come on, kid, what’ll it be? Iffen you’re not gonna hand that gun over, you better go for it, ’cause I don’t aim to let you leave here with it. A fancy Colt like that ought to go real nice on my hip.”

I thought he talked too much and was still hoping to get away without having to kill him. Looking
over to the bartender, I nodded back over at the cowboy.

“Barkeep, if I shoot someone so stupid he forgets to remove the holster thong from his pistol hammer before a draw, you reckon it would be held against me?” I could clearly see his pistol actually was untied, but hoped he might not be so sure. I was counting on the effect of all that booze.

Sure enough, the cowboy glanced down to his hip, giving me all the time I needed. When he looked back up, my Navy Colt was leveled at him, its barrel pointing right between his eyes.

“Be thankful you’re still alive mister,” I said angrily. “I’m not looking for any more trouble, so just put your arms up and leave ’em there.” I backed sideways out of the saloon, keeping the rest in sight, and quickly headed to my horse.

I was young and inexperienced, and naïvely thought that had ended things, so I didn’t pay much attention to the taunting laughter that grew from the saloon as I mounted up. My gun was now holstered and I was turning to ride away when a shot rang out from behind, and a bullet grazed my vest. I whirled the bay, drew, and fired. Before I knew what had happened, I’d emptied five rounds into his chest.

It was over in an instant. I had killed a man. He was a drunkard who had shot at me while my back was to him, but I felt bad nevertheless. In the years since that time I’ve often wondered if a smarter man would have handled things differently.

At the time nobody questioned my innocence, but, although I rode out of town without looking
back, I knew that I’d lost something there in the street. What was left of my youth died with that drunken cowpoke.

The fire burned low and an owl hooted nearby, returning me to the present. Francisco and Miguel were already snoring, so I pulled my blanket up over my neck and rolled over. It wasn’t the first time I’d fall asleep reliving that shoot-out, but, as always, I hoped it would be the last.

BOOK: Trail Hand
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