The Colonel and the Horse-Thief by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Those marks on my arm? Oh! I got 'em playin' horse-thief. Yes, playin'. I wasn't a real one, you know--Well, I s'pose it was sort of a queer game. Came near bein' my last too, and if Black Hawk hadn't been the best horse in Texas the old Colonel would've killed me sure. He chased me six miles as it was--me with one arm full of his buckshot and anxious to explain, and him strainin' to get in range again and not wishin' any further particulars.
That was way back in the sixties, when I was as wild a lad as ever straddled a pony.
You see five of us had gone over into the Crow Nation to race horses with the Indians, and it was on the way back that the old man and the bullet holes figger in the story.
At the beginnin' it was Jim Barrett's plan, and it had jest enough risk and devilment in it to suit a harum-scarum young feller like me; so we got five of the boys who had good horses, lumped together all of our money, and rode out to invade the reservation.
You know how an Indian loves to run horses? Well, the Crows had a good deal of money then, and our scheme was to go over there, get up a big race, back our horses with all we had, and take down the wealth.
Takin' chances? Don't you believe it. That's where the beauty of Jim's plan commenced to sort of shine through.
You see, as soon as the money was up and the horses started, every Indian would be watchin' the race and yellin' at the nags, then, in the confusion, our boys was to grab the whole pot, Indian's money and ours too, and we'd make our get away across the river back into Texas.
We figured that we could get a few minutes start of 'em, and, with the horses we had under us, there wasn't much danger of their gettin' in range before we crossed back to where they couldn't follow us.
Well, sir! I never see anything work out like that scheme did. Them Crows was dead anxious to run their ponies and seemed skeered that we wouldn't let 'em get all their money up.
As we was eatin' supper the night before the race, Donnelly says: "Boys, I'm sore that we didn't have more coin. If we'd worked 'em right they'd 'a' give us odds. We could 'a' got five to three anyhow, and maybe more."
"They shore have got a heap of confidence in them skates of their'n," says Kink Martin. "I never see anybody so anxious to play a race in my life. If it wasn't all planned out the way it is, I'd like to stick and see which hoss is the best. I'd back Black Hawk agin any hunk of meat in the Territory, with the Kid here in the saddle."
They'd ribbed it up for me to ride Martin's mare, Black Hawk, while a little feller named Hollis rode his own horse.
Donnelly's part was to stay in the saddle and keep the other horses close to Barrett and Martin. They was to stick next to the money, and one of 'em do the bearin' off of the booty while the other made the protection play.
We hoped in the excitement to get off without harmin' any of Uncle Sam's pets, but all three of the boys had been with the Rangers and I knew if it came to a show down, they wouldn't hesitate to "pot" one or two in gittin' away.
We rode out from camp the next mornin' to where we'd staked out a mile track on the prairie and it seemed as if the whole Crow Nation was there, and nary a white but us five.
They'd entered two pretty good-lookin' horses and had their jockeys stripped down to breech-clouts, while Hollis and me wore our whole outfits on our backs, as we didn't exactly figger on dressin' after the race, leastways, not on that side of the river.
Just before we lined up, Jim says: "Now you ---- all ride like ----, and when you git to the far turn we'll let the guns loose and stampede the crowd. Then jest leave the track and make a break fer the river, everybody fer himself. We'll all meet at them cottonwoods on the other side, so we can stand 'em off if they try to swim across after us."
That would have been a sure enough hot race if we had run it out, for we all four got as pretty a start as I ever see and went down the line all together with a-bangin' of hoofs and Indian yells ringin' in our ears.
I had begun to work Black Hawk out of the bunch to get a clear start across the prairie at the turn, when I heard the guns begin snappin' like pop-corn.
"They've started already," yelled Hollis, and we turned the rearin' horses toward the river, three miles away, leavin' them two savages tearin' down the track like mad.
I glanced back as I turned, but, instead of seein' the boys in the midst of a decent retreat, the crowd was swarmin' after 'em like a nest of angry hornets, while Donnelly, with his reins between his teeth, was blazin' away at three reds who were right at Barrett's heels as he ran for his horse. Martin was lashin' his jumpin' cayuse away from the mob which sputtered and spit angry shots after him. Bucks were runnin' here and there and hastily mountin' their ponies--while an angry roar came to me, punctuated by the poppin' of the guns.
Hollis and I reached the river and swam it half a mile ahead of the others and their yellin' bunch of trailers, so we were able to protect 'em in their crossin'.
I could see from their actions that Bennett and Martin was both hurt and I judged the deal hadn't panned out exactly accordin' to specifications.
The Crows didn't attempt to cross in the teeth of our fire, however, being satisfied with what they'd done, and the horses safely brought our three comrades drippin' up the bank to where we lay takin' pot-shots at every bunch of feathers that approached the opposite bank.
We got Barrett's arm into a sling, and, as Martin's hurt wasn't serious, we lost no time in gettin' away.
"They simply beat us to it," complained Barrett, as we rode south. "You all had jest started when young Long Hair grabs the sack and ducks through the crowd, and the whole bunch turns loose on us at once. We wasn't expectin' anything so early in the game, and they winged me the first clatter. I thought sure it was oft with me when I got this bullet in the shoulder, but I used the gun in my left hand and broke for the nearest pony."
"They got me, too, before I saw what was up," added Martin; "but I tore out of there like a jack-rabbit. It was all done so cussed quick that the first thing I knew I'd straddled my horse and was makin' tracks. Who'd a thought them durned Indians was dishonest enough fer a trick like that?"
Then Donnelly spoke up and says: "Boys, as fur as the coin goes, we're out an' injured; we jest made a 'Mexican stand-off'--lost our money, but saved our lives--and mighty lucky at that, from appearances. What I want to know now is, how we're all goin' to get home, clean across the State of Texas, without a dollar in the outfit, and no assets but our guns and the nags."
That was a sure tough proposition, and we had left it teetotally out of calculations. We'd bet every bean on that race, not seein' how we could lose. In them days there wasn't a railroad in that section, ranches were scatterin', and people weren't givin' pink teas to every stranger that rode up--especially when they were as hard-lookin' as we were.
"We've got to eat, and so's the horses," says Hollis, "but no rancher is goin' to welcome with open arms as disreputable an outfit as we are. Two men shot up, and the rest of us without beddin', grub, money, or explanations. Them's what we need--explanations. I don't exactly see how we're goin' to explain our fix to the honest hay-diggers, either. Everybody'll think some sheriff is after us, and two to one they'll put some officer on our trail, and we'll have more trouble. I believe I've had all I want for awhile."
"I'll tell you how we'll work it," I says. "One of us'll be the sheriff of Guadalupe County, back home, with three deputies, bringin' back a prisoner that we've chased across the State. We'll ride up to a ranch an' demand lodgin' for ourselves and prisoner in the name of the State of Texas and say that we'll pay with vouchers on the county in the morning."
"No, sir! not fer me," says Martin. "I'm not goin' in fer forgery. It's all right to practice a little mild deception on our red brothers, as we figgered on doing, but I'm not goin' to try to flimflam the State of Texas. Our troubles 'd only be startin' if we began that game."
"Your plan's all right, Kid," says Bennett to me. "You be the terrible desperado that I'm bringin' home after a bloody fight, where you wounded Martin and me, and 'most escaped. You'll have ev'ry rancher's wife givin' you flowers and weepin' over your youth and kissin' you good-bye. In the mornin', when we're ready to go and I'm about to fix up the vouchers for our host, you break away and ride like the devil. We'll all tear off a few shots and foller in a hurry, leavin' the farmer hopin' that the villain is recaptured and the girls tearfully prayin' that the gallunt and misguided youth escapes."
It seemed to be about our only resort, as the country was full of bad men, and we were liable to get turned down cold if we didn't have some story, so we decided to try it on.
We rode up to a ranch 'bout dark, that night, me between the others, with my hands tied behind me, and Jim called the owner out.
"I want a night's lodgin' fer my deputies and our prisoner," he says. "I'm the sheriff of Guadalupe County, and I'll fix up the bill in the mornin'."
"Come in! Come in!" the feller says, callin' a man for the horses. "Glad to accommodate you. Who's your prisoner?"
"That's Texas Charlie that robbed the Bank of Euclid single-handed," answers Jim. "He give us a long run clean across the State, but we got him jest as he was settin' over into the Indian Territory. Fought like a tiger."
It worked fine. The feller, whose name was Morgan, give us a good layout for the night and a bully breakfast next morning.
That desperado game was simply great. The other fellers attended to the horses, and I jest sat around lookin' vicious, and had my grub brought to me, while the women acted sorrowful and fed me pie and watermelon pickles.
When we was ready to leave next morning, Jim says: "Now, Mr. Morgan, I'll fix up them vouchers with you," and givin' me the wink, I let out a yell, and jabbin' the spurs into Black Hawk, we cleared the fence and was off like a puff of dust, with the rest of 'em shootin' and screamin' after me like mad.
Say! It was lovely--and when the boys overtook me, out of sight of the house, Morgan would have been astonished to see the sheriff, his posse, and the terrible desperado doubled up in their saddles laughin' fit to bust.
Well, sir! we never had a hitch in the proceedings for five days, and I was gettin' to feel a sort of pride in my record as a bank-robber, forger, horse-thief, and murderer, accordin' to the way Bennett presented it. He certainly was the boss liar of the range.
He had a story framed up that painted me as the bloodiest young tough the Lone Star had ever produced, and it never failed to get me all the attention there was in the house.
One night we came to the best lookin' place we'd seen, and, in answer to Jim's summons, out walked an old man, followed by two of the prettiest girls I ever saw, who joined their father in invitin' us in.
"Glad to be of assistance to you, Mr. Sheriff," he said. "My name is Purdy, sir! Colonel Purdy, as you may have heard. In the Mexican War, special mention three times for distinguished conduct. These are my daughters, sir! Annabel and Marie." As we went in, he continued: "You say you had a hard time gettin' your prisoner? He looks young for a criminal. What's he wanted for?"
Somehow, when I saw those girls blushin' and bowin' behind their father, I didn't care to have my crimes made out any blacker'n necessary and I tried to give Jim the high-sign to let me off easy--just make it forgery or arson--but he was lookin' at the ladies, and evidently believin' in the strength of a good impression, he said: "Well, yes! He's young but they never was a old man with half his crimes. He's wanted for a good many things in different places, but I went after him for horse-stealin' and murder. Killed a rancher and his little daughter, then set fire to the house and ran off a bunch o' stock."
"Oh! Oh! How dreadful!" shuddered the girls, backin' off with horrified glances at me.
I tried to get near Jim to step on his foot, but the old man was glarin' at me somethin' awful.
"Come to observe him closely, he has a depraved face," says he. "He looks the thorough criminal in every feature, dead to every decent impulse, I s'pose."
I could have showed him a live impulse that would have surprised him about then.
In those days I was considered a pretty handsome feller too, and I knew I had Jim beat before the draw on looks, but he continues makin' matters worse.
"Yes, and he's desperate too. One of the worst I ever see. We had an awful fight with him up here on the line of the Territory. He shot Martin and me before we got him. Ye see, I wanted to take him alive, and so I took chances on gettin' hurt.
"Thank ye, Miss; my arm does ache considerable; of course, if you'd jest as soon dress it--Oh, no! I'm no braver'n anybody else, I guess. Nice of ye to say so, anyhow," and he went grinnin' out into the kitchen with the girls to fix up his arm.
The old man insisted on havin' my feet bound together and me fastened to a chair, and said: "Yes, yes, I know you can watch him, but you're in my house now, and I feel a share of the responsibility upon me. I've had experience with desperate characters and I'm goin' to be sure that this young reprobate don't escape his just punishment. Are you sure you don't need more help gettin' him home? I'll go with you if--"
"Thank ye," interrupted Hollis. "We've chased the scoundrel four hundred miles, and I reckon, now we've got him, we can keep him."
At supper, Jim with his arm in a new sling, sat between the two girls who cooed over him and took turns feedin' him till it made me sick.
The old man had a nigger move my chair up to the foot of the table and bring me a plate of coarse grub after they all finished eatin'.
He had tied my ankles to the lower rung of the chair himself, and when I says to the nigger, "Those cords have plum stopped my circulation, just ease 'em up a little," he went straight up.
"Don't you touch them knots, Sam!" he roared. "I know how to secure a man, and don't you try any of your games in my house, either, you young fiend. I'd never forgive myself if you escaped."
I ate everything I could reach, which wasn't much, and when I asked for the butter he glared at me and said: "Butter's too good for horse-thieves; eat what's before you."
Every time I'd catch the eye of one of the girls and kind of grin and look enticing, she'd shiver and tell Jim that the marks of my depravity stood out on my face like warts on a toad.
Jim and the boys would all grin like idiots and invent a new crime for me. On the square, if I'd worked nights from the age of three I couldn't have done half they blamed me for.
They put it to the old man so strong that when he turned in he chained me to Sam, the cross-eyed nigger that stood behind me at supper, and made us sleep on the floor.
I told Sam that I cut a man's throat once because he snored, and that nigger never closed an eye all night. I was tryin' to get even with somebody.
After breakfast, when it came time to leave, Donnelly untied my feet and led me out into the yard, where the girls were hangin' around the Colonel and Jim, who was preparin' to settle up.
As we rode up the evening before, I had noticed that we turned in from the road through a lane, and that the fence was too high to jump, so, when I threw my leg over Black Hawk, I hit Donnelly a swat in the neck, and, as he did a stage-fall, I swept through the gate and down the lane.
The old man cut the halter off one of his Mexican war-whoops, and broke through the house on the run, appearin' at the front door with his shot-gun just as I checked up to make the turn onto the main road.
As I swung around, doubled over the horse's neck, he let drive with his old blunderbuss, and I caught two buckshot in my right arm where you see them marks.
I had sense enough to hang on and ride for my life, because I knew the old fire-eater would reckon it a pleasure to put an end to such a wretch as me, if he got half a chance.
I heard him howl, "Come on boys! We'll get him yet," and, over my shoulder, I saw him jump one of his loose horses standin' in the yard and come tearin' down the lane, ahead of the befuddled sheriff and posse, his white hair streamin' and the shot-gun wavin' aloft, as though chargin' an army of greasers at the head of his regiment.
From the way he drew away from the boys, I wouldn't have placed any money that he was wrong either.
I've always wondered how the old man ever got through that war with only three recommendations to the government.
He certainly kept good horses too, for in five minutes we'd left the posse behind, and I saw him madly urgin' his horse into range, reloadin' as he came.
As I threw the quirt into the mare with my good arm, I allowed I'd had about all the horse-stealin' I wanted for a while.
The old devil finally saw he was losin' ground in spite of his best efforts, and let me have both barrels. I heard the shot patter on the hard road behind me, and hoped he'd quit and go home, but I'm blamed if he didn't chase me five miles further before turnin' back, in hopes I'd cast a shoe or something would happen to me.
I believe I was on the only horse in Texas that could have outrun the Colonel and his that mornin'.
About noon I stopped at a blacksmith's shop, half dead with pain, and had my arm dressed and a big jolt of whiskey.
As the posse rode up to me, sittin' in the sun by the lathered flanks of my horse and nursin' my arm, Jim yells out: "Here he is! Surround him, boys! You're our prisoner!"
"No! I'm blamed if I am," I says. "You'll have to get another desperado. After this, I'm the sheriff!"