Another story that takes place in the West, during the latter part of the 1800's.
As usual, constructive comments, emails and critiques are welcome and appreciated.
Owensville, Texas was once a booming town; shipping ore from a large mine just outside the town limits. There was a railroad spur to ship the ore, first to El Paso and then on to smelters back east; but when the mine played out so did the prosperous future of Owensville. Twice a year a train would come down the spur to pick up cattle that local ranchers sent to market.
The town proper now consisted of a wide street flanked by weather beaten buildings and stores; many of which were closed and boarded up. The few dozen town people, several outlying homes and a couple of cattle ranches a few miles away depended on the businesses that were still operating. These included a general store that doubled as a post office, a dilapidated hotel, a gunsmith, a café, and a well frequented saloon. There was also a livery stable that was only open on an as needed basis.
Another dying town like dozens I've seen before, Caleb Thompson thought riding down the dusty main street of Owensville. He stopped his horse in front of the shabby looking hotel. This place had seen better days, was his next thought.
An old man came over to Caleb. "Stable your horse for you Mister?" At the look on Caleb's face, the man added, "I'm Joshua Nelson. I run the livery, at least when someone has need of it." He pointed to the barn like structure at the end of the street.
"Don't know if I'll be staying long enough to board my animal," Caleb answered. "Depends if the hotel has any rooms available," he continued with a small smile.
"No need to worry about that. I spect you can pick any room you want." Nelson chuckled. "You're the only customer they've had in a month."
Nodding, Caleb pulled his Winchester .44 "Yellow Boy" rifle from his saddle scabbard and pulled his saddle bags then threw a five dollar gold piece to the old man. "Take good care of Gris; he's brought me a long way. Give him a bath to get the alkaline dust off and feed him a warm oat and corn mash. I'll settle up when I leave town and I'll know if you've treated him proper."
Caleb watched for a moment as his horse was led away, turned and entered the hotel. At one time the "Hanson House" had been a very nice, even luxurious, hotel. Now, like the rest of the town, it had declined into a tired, almost threadbare place. The desk was against a wall made by the stairs leading to the upper floors. To Caleb's right several tables and chairs indicated a dining room. The space doubled as a saloon with a long, wooden bar against the back wall. The big room was empty.
No one was at the desk so he rang the service bell on the counter. Caleb laid his rifle on the desk and waited a few seconds. Then he rang the bell again; harder and longer this time. A bald headed man came through a door in the wall behind the bar looking surprised.
"Howdy. Can I help you Mister?"
"Like to get a room if you've got one available. Don't know how long I'll be staying."
"Sure thing," the man said and walked behind the desk. "Just sign the register please." He watched upside down as Caleb signed his name and then spun the big book around. "Caleb Thompson. Welcome Mr. Thompson." He turned and got a key off a rack behind the desk. "Upstairs, first door on the right. Best room in the house. I'm Moses Hanson; I own the place, so just sing out if you need anything."
"How about some supper in an hour or so?"
"Got some beef stew cooking; should be done by then," Hanson answered. "Fresh baked bread too."
"That will do just fine Mr. Hanson. See you in an hour." Caleb hefted his saddlebags, picked up his rifle and climbed the stairs. Entering the 'best room in the house', he dropped his saddle bags on a chair beside the bed and sat down in another chair. After a minute he stood and propped a chair under the doorknob to make sure the door was secure and he wouldn't be surprised.
Caleb unpacked his bags and hung his two spare shirts in a wardrobe; the dirty clothes he piled on the floor. Have to see if this place has a laundry, he thought. Someone knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" Caleb asked and pulled his Remington .44.
"It's Mary sir. I'm the maid and I have some water and towels for you."
"Just a second." Caleb pulled the chair away and opened the door. A pretty young dark haired woman stood there holding a big pitcher of water and three towels. He motioned for her to come in and watched as Mary set the items down on the dresser.
He saw a young woman about 24 with long dark hair, big brown eyes and a slender but strong looking build. For her part she saw a ruggedly handsome man of 26 or 27. He was tall and slender, but it looked like his slimness was due to lack of eating regularly. Seems like a nice man, Mary thought. If times were different I'd like to get to know him. Those gray eyes and long black hair sure give him a dangerous air.
Mary turned and asked, "Do you need anything more sir? Mr. Hanson said I was to help you unpack or turn down your bed or anything else you want, anything." She hung her head as she said the last part.
Caleb's smile slipped off his face. She sure don't look like a whore, he thought. "No Mary, thank you for your courtesy." He handed her a silver dollar and she left the room. Right nice looking young woman.
After washing up and changing his shirt, he took a small metal flask out of his saddle bags. Tilting his head back he took a long drink of the contents. "Nothing like good sour mash whiskey," he said with a smile. "Especially after the last two weeks on the trail."
He stood by the window and stared out at the high plains surrounding Owensville. "I was never so sick of a country in my life. These damn high plains are more desert than plains. Lots of buffalo grass to feed cattle but damn few water holes and some of them bad. Lucky I didn't die coming up from Mexico." He thought of his journey and its reason for a few minutes then shook himself. "Enough now."
He left the room, carefully locking it behind him and walked down to the dining room. Caleb picked a table close to a door that had to lead to the kitchen.
Hanson must have heard him coming down the stairs and very shortly walked over to the table. "Care for a whiskey before supper Mr. Thompson?"
"Not right now, but a cup of coffee would go down good."
The hotel man brought a large coffee pot and a mismatched cup and saucer. He poured the coffee and said, "Mary will bring your supper right out."
Caleb finished the large bowl of beef stew and half a loaf of bread. As Mary brought more coffee, he asked, "Did you make the stew Mary?"
"Yes sir, cooking is one of my chores."
Hanson came back just as Mary finished talking. "She's got other duties too Mr. Thompson. Be a small additional charge for those," he said with an evil smile.
Caleb stared at Hanson with eyes blazing in anger. "Mr. Hanson, you're damn near to getting yourself killed. Get the hell away from me."
"Who's gonna get killed?" A short, pot bellied man with stains on his vest and shirt had come into the hotel. "Mister, I'm Ray Dickens, I'm Sheriff in these parts. Don't hold with no talk about killing in my town."
Caleb slid his chair back from the table to give him room to get to his sidearm if necessary. "You don't abide talk but you let this piece of cow dung whore out a young woman. Reckon you're not much of a lawman, at least to my way of thinkin."
Dickens was surprised at Caleb's reaction and didn't know what to do. He stared at the young man who was obviously ready for trouble. "What's your name and why are you in Owensville?"
Caleb was mostly a law abiding man, but this sad excuse for a lawman didn't impress him. "Name's Thompson and the reason I'm in town is my business and none of yours." His look at the Sheriff was a challenge. "Best stay out of my way while I'm here Sheriff. You don't want none of what I'm dealin."
Dickens stood looking at Caleb and after a few seconds he turned and left the hotel. Caleb moved his chair closer to the table and poured another cup of coffee. Mary came out to clear away the dishes, shyly smiling at him.
"Is there some place I can get a bath Mary?"
"Yes sir. We've got a tub in a back room and I can heat water on the stove for you, if you like."
He handed Mary a five dollar gold piece. "Please heat some water and let me know when it's ready. I'll be in my room." Caleb stood, nodded at the young woman, and climbed the stairs to his room.
Shortly Mary knocked on Caleb's door. "Your bath is ready Mr. Thompson."
He opened the door and had pants, socks, and a shirt in his hands. "Is there a place I can get my laundry done? Washing them in those alkaline water holes don't do much but get rid of the smell."
"I can do them for you Mr. Thompson." As Caleb reached into his pocket for a coin, she added, "No extra charge sir. The five dollars for getting a bath ready is plenty."
Caleb handed her three dollars. "You should get paid." He hesitated and said, "Speakin of gettin paid, why do you let Hanson ... well ... rent you out to people?"
Mary looked around as if she was embarrassed. After a few seconds she said, "My Pa ran off and left me and Ma about ten years ago. We were gettin by but then six months ago Ma got the fever and died. I didn't have the money to bury her and Mr. Hanson paid for the funeral. He said I could live at the hotel and work off my debt. Seems I can never get ahead enough to pay him back."
"With what he charges me for room and board I keep gettin farther behind every day. Last week Mr. Hanson said if I did extra things for his male guests he'd take some off my debt each time."
"How much do you owe him?"
"A hundred dollars."
"A hundred dollars for a funeral? Seems to be a bit high," Caleb said shaking his head.
"It was fifty dollars for the funeral; the rest is what I've been charged for livin in the hotel."
Caleb's eyes almost threw sparks and his lips were a thin line showing his anger. "Meet me in the dining room after I get my bath please Mary. I want to have a talk with you and Mr. Hanson."
"Yes Mr. Thompson."
"Caleb's good enough Mary. I'll see y'all later." He walked through the door and went to take his bath.
"I'll wash your clothes while you're cleanin up Caleb." Mary watched him walk down the stairs. Suppose he's gonna take Mr. Hanson up on his offer of my services, she thought with sadness. This'll be the first time I've had to do anything special.
While Caleb was bathing, Mary crept into the room to get his dirty clothes. He was standing in the wooden tin lined tub using a scrub brush and a bar of homemade soap to clean himself. Mary's eyes opened wide looking at the nude backside of Caleb. His body showed several scars and an area around his left shoulder that wasn't quite healed yet. She blushed and backed out of the room, but giggled on the way to do his laundry.
Caleb sure has broad shoulders, Mary thought as she washed his clothes. Been through hell though, what with all those scars. Wonder where he got them? Wonder how he got them?"
Sure feels good to be clean again, Caleb thought as he put on clean clothes after his bath. Time to talk to Hanson and get this situation with Mary settled. While buckling on his gun belt he noticed his dirty clothes were missing and smiled. Wonder when she came in and got the stuff?
He saw Mary heading into the kitchen and motioned her to follow him. Stepping into the dining room, he called in a loud voice, "Mr. Hanson, I'd like to speak with you."
Hanson came through the door behind the bar. He saw his one guest leaning against a table with thin angry lips and blazing eyes.
"How much does Mary owe you?"
"Hanson, you're about that far away from being horsewhipped," Caleb said holding his left hands thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart while his right hand hovered above his gun. "Answer the question."
"A hundred and ten dollars," he answered. He's as angry as a hungry bear, Hanson thought. He swallowed hard trying to get the lump out of his throat.
Caleb shook his head in disgust. Reaching into his pocket he counted out five Double Eagle gold coins and a ten dollar gold piece. "Here's your $110. I expect a paper sayin that Mary is free and clear of her debt; I want that paper fore the night is over."
"You buyin her?" Hanson objected. His voice quivered in anger and fear. "I don't think I want..."
"No, I'm setting her free from you," Caleb interrupted. "Don't raise too much hell, I could just kill you."
Hanson's face got white. He quickly pocketed the money and left the room.
"But where will I live?" Mary asked fearfully. "How will I live?"
"Here's a hundred dollars," Caleb said handing her five Double Eagles. "If you like, you've got enough to get to Fort Bliss; it's just northeast of El Paso. See a woman named Wilma Stafford; she's my wife's sister. Wilma runs a boarding house and is always looking for someone to help her. The way you cook you could be a big help to her. Tell her about your life here and that I sent you. She'll see that you have a place to stay and give you work. Work that don't include havin to do special things for men."
"Oh, you're married then? I thought we might leave together." Mary's thoughts of maybe staying with Caleb died.
"Not anymore," Caleb answered. His eyes went dark and sad. Mary thought she saw them water up with tears for a second. "Not anymore." He shook himself and gave Mary a sad smile. "And I'm not fit company for a pretty lady. Best go it on your own."
Timidly and in a small voice Mary asked, "What happened?"
"It's a long sad story and not one I usually take time to tell."
"All we've got is time until the stage gets here tomorrow morning," Mary replied. Her voice was stronger now.
Caleb went behind the bar, got a bottle of whisky and two glasses. He returned to a table in the dining room, offered Mary a chair, sat down next to her and poured two drinks. Caleb quickly drank his and watched as Mary took a small sip of the whiskey.
He stared at the back wall for close to a minute; although he wasn't seeing a bar or the wall. His gaze was farther away than the room. Caleb poured and drank another whiskey. Turning toward Mary he said, "Well ... It were this way."
General Lee surrendered in April, '65 and with the Union troops taking control of the major cities in Texas in June, it took Caleb Thompson until July to make his way home. He was on the rise above his ranch house as he thought, glad that damn war is over. It'll be good to get home. Looking around at the rolling hills he couldn't help but think that 'The Hill Country' around San Antonio was God's own back yard.
Caleb had served during War Between the States for almost four years. He wasn't a supporter of slavery; he'd never owned a slave; none of his friends and neighbors held with slavery either. No it wasn't for slavery that he fought with "Walker's Greyhounds" the Texas 33rd Cavalry Regiment led by Col. Santos Benavides. Caleb fought because he didn't believe that a bunch of politicians half way across the country, whose only interest was their own well being, had the right to tell Texas what they could do and how to live their lives. He knew it was political infighting that cause the war, but none the less the Northerners tried to control Texas and the rest of the south. He looked closer at his home and had to smile a little thinking of his wife. She always said I thought pretty well of myself, calling the place a ranch. We don't have many head of cattle and live mostly on farming. It's late April, some of the fields should have been plowed by now, he thought. Caleb didn't see any indication that field work had been done. He also didn't see any animals or stock around the house. Should be smoke coming out of the chimney, too.
As Caleb rode down the hill and got closer, he could see that parts of the house and barn had recently burned. "Ellie," he yelled as he dismounted in front of the ranch house. The front door was sagging wide open and showed signs of having been beaten in. Caleb stepped into the house with his pistol drawn. He walked to the back of the house, where he found why Ellie hadn't answered him.
His wife was laying on the kitchen floor with the walls half burn down; Ellie had been shot at close range. Her clothes were in tatters; it was obvious that she had been abused and beaten before she was shot. Caleb knelt next to her body and cried. After a few minutes, he noticed his dog, Buck, lying close to Ellie. The animal had been shot with what looked like a scatter gun. Died trying to defend Ellie, Caleb thought. He stood, walked to the tool shed, which was undamaged, and grabbed a shovel. He began to dig two graves under the big oak tree behind the house. There was a wooden bench that Caleb had made for Ellie next to the tree. "It was her favorite spot," he said as he dug.
Caleb wrapped Ellie in a quilt that she'd made and laid her in one of the graves; he placed Buck in the other grave. "Maybe you can keep protecting her," he said as he filled in Buck's last resting place. He quickly finished burying Ellie, placed two handmade crosses in the ground, and placed flagstone over both graves.
Then he sat down on the bench under the tree and stared at the two graves. Caleb was still there the next morning when his horse, Santos, walked around the house and whinnied; he wanted food and water. He raised his head, wiping the tears from his face then unsaddled the horse, fed and watered him, and turned him into the corral. Caleb went into the barn and lifted a floorboard in the last stall.
"Missed this didn't you, you bastards," he said as he pulled a metal cash box out of its hiding place. Caleb and Ellie had used this box for their important papers and money since there were no banks closer than a day's ride; not that Caleb trusted banks much anyway.
Inside the box were a few keepsakes; their marriage license, the deed to their ranch, and a picture of Caleb taken in San Antonio just before he rode off to war. Ellie had said that she'd look at it when he came back and she had the real thing to compare it to. Caleb's eyes had tears in them for several seconds. "Never got the chance to compare did you girl," he said in a low voice.
The box also contained all the cash money the young couple had managed to put aside. It came from different sources; Ellie's dowry, Caleb's folks when they passed on, and money earned from the ranch. There was over $1000 in gold and silver coins. Ellie could squeeze a Double Eagle so hard you could hear the bird scream, Caleb thought with a smile. He wrapped the marriage license in a piece of oil cloth and put it in his saddlebags, along with most of the money. Some of the money went into his pocket.
"The money will be my grubstake," he said in a cold voice. "Only I'll be hunting men instead of a claim." Caleb walked back to the graves. "They're gonna pay, Ellie, they're gonna pay."
Caleb examined the ground around the house and barn. He found horse tracks leading up to the front door of the ranch house; the sign showed five horses had come to the ranch. Two of the riders had gone to the rear and dismounted while three men had gotten off their mounts at the front of the house. Those tracks stopped at the front porch.
He entered his home and looked around more carefully. The interior of the house had been ransacked; everything of value had been taken or destroyed. Caleb was looking for any sign or clue as to who had killed his wife. He planned on tracking down the men that had done this and bringing them to justice. Not the law or the courts; he would dispense his own justice. Caleb couldn't stay at the ranch after Ellie's death; at least not until her killers had been found and dealt with.
There was too much blood in the kitchen for it all to be his wife's. He found a butcher knife on the floor when Ellie had lain; the blade was covered in blood. Her and Buck, put up a fight Caleb thought. On the counter, next to the water pump, he found bloody bandages.
In the corner, wadded up and bloody, was a Confederate Officer's coat. It showed the insignia for a Captain of the Confederate Cavalry. Inside the coat, stenciled in ink on the collar was the name Fueget, Donald. Captain Donald Fueget, Caleb said to himself. Not a common name; that gives me a point to start looking. The other men can be found later.
After a fitful night's sleep in the barn, or lack of it, Caleb saddled up and rode to the trading post. He didn't want to go into San Antonio with the Union forces beginning to come into the area. Jeff Piccolo was the owner of the post and a friend. He told Caleb that five Confederate Cavalry troopers, who said they had been discharged, had come through two days ago. One of the men was heavily bandaged and didn't look like he would be able to ride far. Jeff said the men told him they were headed for Del Rio Texas and then planned to follow the Rio Grande to Langtry. After that it was northwest to Fort Stockton.
Caleb bought a few supplies for the trail, thanked Jeff, and rode toward Del Rio. Del Rio was about 150 miles west; about a five or six days ride. If I don't catch up to them at Del Rio and the trail leads farther west, I'll have to pick up another mount; or maybe across the border in Ciudad Acuna, he thought. He knew that his horse didn't have the bottom to travel a great distance. The animal was about worn out from duty during the war and the ride back to San Antonio.
Two days into the ride, Caleb saw buzzards wheeling around the in sky just to the north of the trail. He rode in that direction and found a man leaning up against a small rock outcropping; the man was dead. Caleb dismounted and looked at the man closely. Couldn't have been dead long, he thought. Buzzards haven't been at him and even the ants ain't on him yet.
The man wore a Confederate butternut brown shirt that showed where sergeant's stripes had been on the sleeves. He had bandages across his neck and on both arms. Another bandage, around his middle, showed through his open shirt; all of the bandages were bloody. There was a piece of paper with writing on it clenched in his hand. Caleb pried open the dead man's fingers, pulled the paper out and read the message.
"I'm sittin here waiting to die. That woman killed me. Serves me right, we shouldn't a done what we did. Hell, we shouldn't of deserted; the damn war was all but over anyway. None of us had the guts to go against Captain Fueget, so we took turns with her. But she got away and attacked us with that damn big knife. The Captain shot her but not before she got to me then cut him across the face. Fueget laughed and said a Confederate whore didn't deserve no better. I covered her with what was left of her dress before we rode out.
There were five of us. Captain Fueget, Sgt. Riley, Privates Sloan and Gibbons and me. When I had to stop because of the slicin that women did on me, they waited until I laid down and then rode off, takin my horse with them. I know I'm goin to Hell for what I did and hope the rest of those fellers join me. May God have mercy on that woman's soul and on my own.
Sgt. Bill Wilson,
"You're right Wilson, you'll to go to hell," Caleb said aloud. "I wish I could have been the one to send you there. But thanks for the names of the others, you son of a bitch. Think I'll just let the buzzards and varmints have you. You don't deserve a decent burial."
He folded the paper and put it in his saddlebag. Mounting his horse, he took one last look at Wilson and turned back west toward Del Rio. One down, four to go, he thought.
Del Rio is just a sleepy little Mexican village, even if it is on the American side of the Rio Grande, Caleb thought as he rode into the town. Don't reckon those soldiers stayed here for long. It was early morning and he stopped at the only building that showed any activity.
"Buenos Dias, soy Manuel Ortega," the old Mexican man greeted Caleb as he entered the building. "En que puedo ayudarle Senor?"
Caleb nodded and answered, "Buenos Dias. I'm Caleb Thompson. I'm looking to get some trail supplies and maybe a little information."
"I can help you with the supplies Senor. My cantina is also the, how you say, the general store. As to information, Quien Sabe?"
Manuel got the supplies that Caleb needed, putting them on a counter at the back of the store. "Anything else I can help you with?"
"Is there somewhere I can get a horse, mine's about done in?"
The old man smiled. "I also run the livery in Del Rio. Follow me and I will show you what I have."
Caleb and Manuel walked out of the back of the cantina to a barn with an attached corral. "These are the animals I have to sell." Manuel said pointing to six horses in the corral.
Opening the gate, Caleb entered the corral and inspected the animals. His eyes kept coming back to a big gray. The animal was a little skittish and danced away every time Caleb got too close. Grabbing a lariat that was draped over a fence post, Caleb threw a wide loop and roped the horse. He ran the rope around a snubbing post in the center of the corral and pulled the animal closer to him.
Caleb spoke softly to the horse and slowly walked toward him. He held out his hand toward the horse's nose and let the animal smell him. The horse calmed down and Caleb stroked his face and neck as he continued to quiet him. "Big son of a gun aren't you? Bout 17 hands." Caleb said to the gray in a low voice. "Deep chest, long strong legs, and your hindquarters are strong and muscled too. Got a lot of bottom I bet."
Turning toward Manuel he asked, "What's your price on the gray?"
"Oh, I couldn't sell that one. He is like a family pet."
"Not much of a pet, if you can't get close to him without a rope," Caleb answered with a smile. He knew the horse trading had begun.
Manuel smiled back at Caleb and named a price. Caleb shook his head and countered with his own offer. For the next ten minutes the two men bargained back and forth. They came to an agreed price, which included Caleb trading his Confederate issued officer's saddle for a western one.
Caleb started to count out Double Eagles to pay for the supplies and the gray horse. "Now for the information please Senor Ortega."
"What is it you wish to know, Senor Thompson?"
"I'm following four men, maybe wearing remains of Confederate uniforms. Heard they were headed this way. Have you seen them?" Caleb laid a $10 gold piece on the counter in front of Manuel.
"Why do you wish to find these men?"
Caleb looked at Manuel for several seconds and made a decision. He told the old man about coming home from the war and finding his wife. Caleb told him that she had been killed no more than three days before he got home.
"I keep thinking that if I'd a got home a few days sooner, Ellie would still be alive," Caleb admitted. "The four men I'm looking for are the ones that killed her."
"And when you find them, what will you do?"
"I'll bring them to justice. Either mine or God's, but I'll bring them to justice."
Manuel could see the pain and anger in Caleb's eyes. He thought back years ago to his own wife being killed by bandits from across the border. Manuel had searched for the men, much like Caleb, but they had disappeared into the Mexican desert. I can understand his need for vengeance, the old man thought.
"There were four men that passed through Del Rio about five days ago and bought some supplies from me; three wore gray shirts, one had on a gray hat with a yellow headband, and the fourth wore gray pantalones with a yellow stripe on each leg. They wanted to trade horses but I didn't like their looks or their horses so I refused. If my neighbors hadn't been here, I think they would have just taken my horses." Manuel said with a grim smile.
Manuel pushed the gold coin back to Caleb. "I heard the one the others called Capitan say they were concerned with the American Federalizes and they were planning on crossing to Ciudad Acuna; to follow the Rio Grande on the Mexican side up to Langtry. From there he planned to travel northwest to Fort Stockton. I hope you find them Senor." Ortega made the sign of the cross on himself and added, "Vaya con Dios."
Caleb nodded his thanks, saddled his new horse and rode across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuna. There were a lot of trees and brush along both sides of the river. It was much greener than the country Caleb had been traveling through. The big gray horse didn't like not being able to see through the willows, cottonwoods and brush. Caleb carefully guided his mount until they got to the river and a natural crossing.
He rode out on the opposite shore and soon picked up a fresh trail through the underbrush; it didn't look to be more than a few days old. "Take it easy Gris, we'll make it okay," Caleb said to his horse. He'd named the horse Gris, it was Spanish for gray. It was around noon when he came into Acuna and he stopped at a small cantina for something to eat. He also hoped to get more information on the men he was following.