It was around ten of a balmy October morning. Bill and the horses had smelled water, and were leading us to it.
It turned out to be a slow-running creek with trees and green grass alongside, down in a little draw.
We were just coming up on the creek when four riders topped a low rise, came down the near side, and were
splashing through the creek headed straight at us before we knew what was going on. They rode down on us hard,
and we both reached for our rifles, but by then we could see they already had guns in their hands. The one in
front yelled, "Leave them rifles where they are," which we did, and pretty soon they had us in a nice tight circle
with four pistols pointed at us as they shucked our long guns out of the saddle scabbards and took Bobby's revolver.
The man that appeared to be in charge turned to me. He was kind of scruffy looking, which they all were. He was
around my age, early thirties, with a scraggly red beard that had tobacco stains all around his mouth. "You got a pistol?"
"No, I don't," I said. "But listen, boys. I don't know who you think we are, but we ain't them."
"We know who you are." It was one of Red Beard's underlings. "You're a coupla damn no good cow thieves."
"That's not so," Bobby said. Bobby was no more than eighteen at the time, and plenty scared. "We ain't stole no cows,
and we dang sure didn't steal this bull. We're takin' him to Mister Spencer. If we ain't lost, his spread's 'bout a half
a day's ride north of here. Show 'em, Danny."
I reached around toward my saddlebags, which resulted in two or three revolvers being cocked, so I quit the idea. "It's
just a bill of sale," I said.
"Git it," said Red Beard, "and don't try nothin' funny."
After I handed it to him he looked at it for a good minute, which made me wonder if he could read, because there weren't
fifty words in the whole thing. "So you think this proves what?" he finally asked.
At that point I knew he couldn't read, so I did a recital for him. "Well, like it says, Mister Spencer put $100 down on
this bull back in March. He agreed to let Mister Willingham keep him all summer, at which point Mister Willingham would deliver
him to Mister Spencer, and collect the balance due. Mister Willingham owns the Circle W spread down on the south fork of the
Mescalero. Like Bobby said, we're delivering this bull."
Red Beard nodded. "Yeah, the famous Circle W spread. A cap and ball outfit run by a limey that don't know cows from
coyotes. But that don't stop 'em from tryin' to take over the cattle business in Texas, with their highfalutin English cows."
"These is all cartridge guns." It was the underling again. He had our rifles cradled in his arms, and Bobby's revolver
was stuck in his waistband.
"So?" said Red Beard.
"Well, you just said it was a cap and ball outfit, and these here long guns and this pistol is all cartridge guns.
There ain't a cap an' ball in the bunch."
Red Beard took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "It's just a figure of speech, Clarence. It means they're behind
the times. It ain't got nothin' to do with their firearms."
Clarence didn't seem to get it. "Well, these is cartridge guns, though."
"OK, Clarence." Red Beard turned back to me.
"Mister Willingham had a couple of rough years," I said, "but he's learning. He ain't trying to take over anything,
just make a living."
"Well, it's a damn sight easier to make a livin' now than it was when Mister Johnston started up the Rocking T fifteen
years ago, ain't it? We done whipped out the Mexicans, and run off the Comanch, and all your Mister Willingham has to
fight is mosquitos." He glanced with disdain at Bill, which is what we Circle W hands called the bull, though not
in front of Mister Willingham. "This is one of them Herefords, right?"
"Sure is," I said, "and a fine one. That's William the Conqueror."
Red Beard squinted and looked at me funny. "What does he conquer?"
"Well," I replied, "about the only thing I ever saw him conquer is a good lookin' heifer."
Red Beard grinned through brown, nasty teeth. "That's kinda funny, but it don't fix this problem we got. Actually,
there's a couple of 'em." He let down the hammer on his pistol and holstered it, then produced a tin of sulfur
matches from his saddlebag. As he was taking one out, he went on. "Our first problem is that Mister Johnston bought
out Dave Spencer back in July, so you got nobody to deliver this bull to."
"I guess Mister Johnston owns him, then, if he'd care to pay the balance due. If he doesn't want him, we'll just take
him back home with us." That sounded reasonable to me, but I didn't kid myself that Red Beard would see it that way.
"Oh, Mister Johnston owns him, for sure." He struck the match on the edge of the tin and put the flame on a corner of
the bill of sale. Once it was going good he dropped it to the ground and watched it burn up, then looked back at me.
"And our second problem is, here you boys are, out in the middle of nowhere, with a bull you stole. And based on
your confession and final words, you was takin' that bull up to Ft. Worth to try and sell him." He jerked his left
thumb over his shoulder toward a good-sized cottonwood that stood on the bank of the creek, about fifty yards behind
him. "Arthur, Stephen, rig up a couple of ropes." He put the matches away and got out his pistol again.
Bobby's eyes were the size of one of Bill's hooves. "What? Ropes?"
"Well, you see," said Red Beard, "to go along with the dollar a day and found the boys git, and the dollar-and-a-quarter
a day and found that I git, we git a $25 bonus for removin' cattle rustlers from the range."
"Hold on now, boys," I said. Arthur and Stephen had trotted their horses down to the creek, and I watched them throw
ropes over two branches. "I know you wouldn't kill an innocent man for twenty-five bucks."
Clarence thought that was funny. "Don't forgit there's two of ya," he laughed. "That means we git, uh, twice times
twenty-five bucks." He laughed again.
A whole lot of things happened in the next few seconds. So much happened that it will take a little bit to tell about it,
even though I'm going to leave out some details that don't amount to much. Some of it happened to me, some of it I saw
while it was happening, and some I kind of figured out later. At any rate, what transpired is this:
Clarence had no more than got his joke out of his mouth than a volley of arrows came in. Bobby took an arrow in the left
thigh, and one of the men holding the ropes got hit in the throat. The arrow went all the way through, and the arrowhead
was sticking out of the nape of his neck. He grabbed at it as he was falling off his horse, stood up, and stumbled three
or four steps before falling.
Next there was a half-dozen or so gunshots. Bobby's horse reared up, wheeled around, and took off running. The other half
of Arthur and Stephen got shot in the belly. His horse bucked him off, and he got up and came staggering toward me, Red
Beard, and Clarence with both hands clasped on his gut. I felt my horse falling out from under me, and I jumped off and
into Clarence, who was right beside me. This excited both him and his horse. The horse started bucking, and Clarence
dropped our guns. I landed on the ground on my back and my rifle practically fell into my hands. I grabbed it, got on my
feet, and took off running for a little gully maybe twenty feet away. I got there and dove in just about the time the
next volley of arrows came in. The gully was a good three feet deep, and twice as wide, and provided pretty good cover.
When the rifles started up again, I flattened out as best I could, and then got flattened a little more when Red Beard
jumped in on top of me. Clarence scrambled in next, though not on top of me, and the gut-shot hangman made his way to
the gully and fell in, down closer to the creek.
When the shooting tapered off I got out from under Red Beard and peeked over the edge of the ditch. The Comanches were
on top of that little rise, and must have felt like they were out of range, because they were kinda whooping it up and
not making an effort to take cover. They weren't much over two hundred yards away, though. That might have been a little
long for a Model '73, but my rifle was a Model '76, in .45-75. There was already one in the hole, so I stood up the tang
sight, raised it a little, thumbed back the hammer, and took a shot at the one with the biggest buffalo horns. I expect
he was dead before he hit the ground, which prompted the rest to disappear.
Once they were out of sight I looked for Bobby. He was hanging on, and Little Joe was running for all he was worth, and
that little sorrel could run. I don't know if he was just running wild, or if instinct had kicked in, but Little Joe and
Bobby were headed for home. At that point I heard hoof beats behind us and to the left, but there was only one of them,
and he was after Bobby. That Comanche pony could run, too, and was already past where the rear sight was set, but there
was no time to adjust it. I levered in a fresh round and got kind of half-in and half-out of the gully, with both elbows
resting on the ground. I lined up on the Comanche's shoulders, took some blue sky elevation, and touched it off. I heard
the bullet hit something. When the smoke drifted away the Comanche was on the ground, and his pony was circling around to
see what had happened. Probably less than a minute had gone by from the time the first arrows were in the air until I
knocked that Comanche off his pony.
"That was one hell of a shot," said Red Beard. "Both of 'em, actually."
"Hell of a shot, my ass," Clarence said. He pointed at Bobby. "He's gettin' away." Then he pointed at me. "And he's got a gun!"
"You better hope he gets away, because nobody else is gonna get us any help." I had had enough of Clarence. "If you want
this rifle, come and take it."
"We got friends, lots of 'em," Clarence said. "They'll save us."
Red Beard shook his head. "We go out rangerin' for two an' three weeks at a time, Clarence. We been out four days. There
ain't nobody comin' to look for us."
"Rangerin'?" I was watching the rise, but didn't see any movement out of the Comanches. "Is that what you call it?"
"Look, uh, it's Danny, right?" said Red Beard. "My name's Doyle. We wasn't goin' to hurt you boys, just scare ya a little,
teach ya a lesson, so you'd stay off Rocking T range."
I turned around and looked at them. Red Beard was holding his hand out, but he pretty quick realized I wasn't planning to
shake it, so he put it down. "I don't give a damn if you're Judge Roy Bean. This ain't Rocking T range, and Bobby and I
would be kicking on the end of those two ropes right now if those Indians hadn't come along, so spare me the bullshit."
I paused to catch my breath, and neither one of them had anything to say, so I finished it up. "And speaking of bullshit,
it looks like you boys and Mister Johnston missed a few back when you were runnin' the Comanches outa here."
"These are the first I've seen in three or four years," said Red Beard.
To be honest, it had been a while since I'd seen any, too. I wouldn't have headed out cross-country with just Bobby if I
had expected to run into Comanches—or Rocking T "rangers," for that matter. I nodded. "I guess they got bored up at
A loud groan startled all three of us. Arthur or Stephen was starting to hurt. In a little bit he cried out again. When it
was obvious neither Clarence nor Red Beard was going to go to him, I crawled down and took a quick look at his wound. I
patted him on the shoulder. "Are you Arthur or Stephen?" I asked.
"I'm Stephen," he said. "Arthur's dead. He's got a arrow in his neck. I seen it."
"You'll be OK, Stephen. Help's on the way." Of course, none of that was true. The Comanche that got him was well-armed,
with a buffalo gun, or a government trap door. Maybe even a Model '76 Winchester like mine. Stephen had a big hole in
his belly, and I could see his insides between his fingers. I unbuckled his gun belt, pulled it off him as gently as I
could, and took it with me.
I had crawled a few feet when he called out to me. "Mister," he said, "I'm sorry we was gonna hang you. I'm real sorry.
Can you forgive me? Please forgive me, mister."
He was just a kid, not much older than Bobby, and he knew he was dying. "I forgive you, Stephen. Rest now."
We didn't have a single horse that wasn't dead, wounded, or gone. Two, including mine, were down and not moving. One had
an arrow in its neck and was staggering in circles, one had a fetlock that was shot nearly in two, and one had run off.
Bill had an arrow in his left shoulder, and had walked down to the creek for his drink of water.
We didn't have anything to say to one another, so we just watched and waited for what we knew was coming. Meanwhile,
Stephen had started crying, and calling out for his mama, but his torment didn't last long.
In about an hour they came at us from all directions. Comanches like to do that. They come charging in at a full gallop,
feinting and weaving, so you can't draw a bead on them. Then they might break off, and start circling, all the while
shooting arrows as fast as they can get them on the bow, which is pretty fast. Then they might come straight at you
again. I counted eight, and based on what I'd seen earlier, figured that was all of them.
But eight was more than enough to polish us off unless we fought them smart, and we weren't. Red Beard and Clarence
started shooting as soon as they saw something to shoot at. Red Beard was using a carbine, but Clarence was popping
away with a revolver at moving targets over a hundred yards away. I waited, and when I couldn't wait any longer I
accounted for one Indian and one horse with three shots. The third shot was at the warrior I had unhorsed, but I
missed him and he crawled to safety. Right after that they broke it off.
"Clarence," I said, "Both of Bobby's guns take .44 Winchesters. Maybe if you ran them through the rifle you might
accidentally hit something."
He made a show of tossing away the Colt. "It's empty anyways, and it so happens that my Colt's revolver takes the
same cartridge. Just so you know, I was plannin' to take these cartridges outa my belt and put 'em in his rifle."
"That's a good plan, Clarence," Red Beard said. Then he turned to me. "Speakin' of cartridges, how many you got?"
"Two or three in the rifle," I said, nodding toward my dead horse. "And Susie's laying on about half a box."
"Clarence," said Red Beard, "go get that saddlebag."
"What? Me? No! Why me?"
"Because you're young and spry and because I'm the boss, and I say go."
I knew what Red Beard was up to, which was that he'd rather have Clarence get shot than me, since we still had
Indians to fight, but I wouldn't have trusted Clarence to shovel shit, so I was halfway there before those two
realized I was out of the gully. By the time I got to Susie the Comanches had opened up on me. She provided
good cover from the front, but there was one or two off somewhere in the other direction, and they were coming
real close to hitting me with arrows and bullets both. When the boys in the ditch returned fire, things moderated
a little. I cut the thongs with my pocketknife, put my feet on Susie and pushed while I pulled on the bag, and it
came out from under her. Rather than waste time crawling, I got up and ran back to the gully and jumped in. I
didn't get a scratch, but Susie took two arrows and at least one more bullet, not that she cared.
Once I'd caught my breath I levered a cartridge into the chamber, lowered the hammer, and stuffed the magazine
full of the fat .45-75s. Then I counted what I had left, and said to no one in particular, "It's a little better
than I thought. I have sixteen rounds total." Stephen's revolver was a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Russian model
with ivory stocks. It was a handsome gun, but as I wiped the blood off it with my neckerchief I wasn't thinking
about that. What mattered was that the wheel was full, and there were twelve more in the belt loops.
Clarence and Red Beard had thirty-one .44 Winchesters between them. We weren't fixed too poorly for ammunition.
It would be a question of how many warriors the Comanches were willing to lose in order to kill the rest of us.
They love nothing more than winning a fight, especially if they can get a couple of captives to torture in the
bargain, but they won't fight to the last man to do it. There comes a point where they say "to hell with it" and
reckon they'd rather live to fight another day. I just hoped we could last long enough to get them to that point,
or until some help arrived. They had food, water, and horses, and we had none. So it was pretty much up to them,
at that point.
About two hours before sundown, Red Beard said, "Well, thank God a Comanch won't fight at night."
I laughed a little. "Well, probably not tonight, anyway. Last night was pitch black, and tonight will be the same.
But if it was a Comanche moon, our throats would be slit and our nut sacks would be in our mouths before sunup."
"Jesus," Clarence said. "Our nut sacks in our mouths! Why you wanna talk like that?"
They didn't come at us again, and as it got darker, I began to entertain the hope that maybe they had already
called it off. I put down my rifle and buckled Stephen's gun belt around my hips, said, "I'm thirsty," and began
crawling toward Susie. I retrieved my canteen and got back in the gully. It was about a third full, and I drank it all.
"Well, by God," said Clarence, "in case you was wonderin', I'm thirsty, too!"
"Wasn't wonderin'," I said. I corked the canteen and tossed it to him. "The creek's right down there at the end
of this wash, and there's one dead horse and two dying ones out there that have canteens on their saddle horns."
"Maybe you don't read the papers, but they gave some of Reno's men big medals for crawling down and dipping some
canteens in the Little Bighorn after the Custer fight. Now, mind you, those were Sioux and Cheyenne. Comanches
are better shots."
Clarence did crawl down to the creek and fill the canteen, but he had no intention of sharing it with Red Beard
until Red Beard threatened to shoot him. Once that excitement had died down, I was disheartened to smell smoke.
The Comanches hadn't gone anywhere; they had built a fire and settled in for the night.
"They'll come for us at sunup," I said, "unless we get them first."
"Yeah," said Red Beard, "I think it's pretty much down to that."
It was still pitch dark when we headed out. I wanted to give us plenty of time to get there before they were up
and about. We left Clarence in the gully to guard the rear. He didn't like the idea, but he liked the idea of
going out in the open even less, so he didn't argue much, except about his share of the cartridges. Red Beard
had only left him ten. "This ain't right. I should git half."
"If this goes right," I said, "you won't have to fire a shot. But, here." I took off Stephen's Smith & Wesson
and handed it to him. "Don't try to run these cartridges through Bobby's rifle. It won't work. They go in this
"Well, I think I know a .44 Russian from a .44 Winchester. I ain't the one that works for a cap an' ball outfit."
Doyle and I stopped at the creek for a drink of water and relieved ourselves as quietly as we could. The rest
of the way was a slight uphill climb. We went ten or fifteen steps, then stopped and looked around, not that we
could see much, then went another ten or fifteen. We didn't hear a sound from the other side of the rise, so I
figured they were either asleep or lying flat and looking down their sights waiting for something to come into view.
We crawled the last fifty yards or so on our bellies. The ground was covered with all manner of stickers and burrs,
but I didn't feel them. I wasn't even worried about crawling on top of a diamondback. I was ready to finish it,
however it came out.
We inched our way to the top of the hill and looked over. The incline was steeper on the back side, and leveled off
in about 50 yards. On that level ground we could make out the glowing embers of a burned-out fire, and several
elongated shapes spread around it. They weren't the least bit scared of us, or worried about what we might do.
Some Texans never fought a Comanche. Maybe these Comanches never fought a Texan.
When it got a little easier to see and the shapes started stirring a little, I motioned to Doyle that I would start
on the left, and he should start on the right, and we would work our way into the middle. Then I held up three fingers,
and we both thumbed back the hammer. I nodded once, twice, and on three we pushed all of our chips into the middle of the table.
I hit the warrior on the far left. As he struggled to gain his feet I shot the next one, then went back and finished
off my end. Doyle was running shells through his carbine as fast as he could work the lever, and I couldn't tell if he
had hit anything, but it didn't matter. If he could keep their heads down, I could kill them. A big Comanch shucked his
blanket and came up on one knee levering his rifle, but I shot him before he could bring it to his shoulder. One was
kind of stumbling around in circles, looking for a weapon. I felt for him, since I don't wake up all that sharp myself,
but I had to kill him anyway. I took a shot at another man as he ran off into the gloom.
It was quiet for a few seconds, then their ponies started raising a ruckus. It was a terrible mix of whinnying, snorting,
and grunting. "What the hell?" said Doyle.
"He's killing their horses."
"So we can't have them."
In a few seconds things quieted down, and the Comanch came out of the emerging dawn and walked straight at us. He was
covered in blood, and held a bloody knife in his right hand. He was probably pushing 50, and his long braids were going
gray. He was dressed half white and half Indian, in a green brocade vest with no shirt underneath. He wore a deerskin
breech clout, and was barefooted. As he passed their fire pit I stood up and yelled, "Enough! Go home!"
He kept walking, and pounded his chest with the butt end of the knife. "No home," he yelled back. "No home, me!"
When he was twenty yards away, I said, "Stop!" He didn't, and at a distance of maybe fifteen feet, I shot him in the chest.
My ears were ringing, from all the shooting, I guess, and I could barely hear Doyle. "By God, Danny," he said. "You got 'em. You got 'em all."
I was in a daze, but I slowly collected my thoughts and shook my head. "No, five," I said. "I got five. There's got to be—"
Gunfire erupted behind us. The two Comanches who were planning to hit us from behind at sunup were after Clarence. It was
still hard to see at that distance, but I could hear Clarence burning up ammunition like there was no tomorrow. We took
off running in his direction, and when we got closer I could see the Indians circling Clarence, jumping their ponies over
the gully, and firing arrows under their necks. By the time we were a hundred yards away, they had stopped circling and
moved in for the kill. I stopped and tried to slow my breathing as they calmly fired several arrows into the gully. I
dropped to one knee and knocked one of them off his pony. The other looked around and then galloped away, hunched low
over the neck of his pony. My first shot at him took down the horse, but when I lined up on the stunned warrior, the
hammer fell on an empty chamber. I reloaded one round and finished it.
Clarence had four arrows in him, but he lived for a minute or two. His final word, "asshole," was directed at me. The
lever on Bobby's rifle was stuck half-open, jammed tight. Neither revolver had been fired. Clarence had emptied the
rifle and reloaded it with Russians.
When we heard riders coming, Doyle sat down and cried. "All this for nothin'. There's no end to the red bastards."
I felt the same at first, but soon I saw that each of those dozen riders r was leading two riderless horses. They
had ridden all night to save me, changing horses along the way. Mister Willingham dismounted first, and threw his
arms around me. "Danny, lad, you are a sight for sore eyes."
"So are you, sir," I said. "What about Bobby?"
"Well," he said, "it is touch and go. He may lose his leg." He glanced quickly around. "And the aborigines?"
"That's all of them, I think."
Some of the boys were clapping me on the back and shaking my hand, and the next thing I knew, Mister Willingham had
the muzzle of his Bulldog against Doyle's forehead. "Might this be one of the lynch mob?" He cocked the hammer.
"The big boss man," I replied.
"Well, now, Mister Boss Man. I see the ropes are still there. Take your pick."
"Hold on, now. Like I told Danny, we was just gonna scare 'em a little. Wasn't nobody gettin' hung."
"Well, now," said Mister Willingham, "I believe it would have scared me more than a little, what with the burning
of the bill o' sale, preparing of ropes, and such. It certainly scared Bobby. Did it scare you, Danny?"
"Yes, sir, it did."
"And have you learned your lesson, Danny?"
"Oh, yes, sir, I have."
He lowered the hammer on the Bulldog and removed it from Doyle's forehead. "Well, Mister Boss Man, it appears
your work here is finished." Without taking his eyes off Doyle, he reached behind himself. "Give me one of
those nags." He took a set of reins from one of the boys, then stepped to one side and handed the reins to
Doyle. "If you ever again so much as look crosswise at one of my men, I'll kill you on sight. Now you go
scrounge yourself a saddle and go home. And shoot those injured horses as you go." Doyle did exactly as told,
and soon disappeared over the rise.
We got the arrow out of Bill's shoulder, which was no mean feat. He made it home and went on to populate half
the state of Texas with his progeny. Bobby didn't lose his leg, but it never healed right. He eventually gave
up working cows, and moved to Austin to live with his sister.
Doyle Martin would go on to be included in the Who's Who Book of Texas Indian Fighters, as well he might, seeing
as how he once single-handedly killed ten reservation-jumping Comanches after they massacred three unfortunate
cowhands under his supervision.
As for me, there's not much to tell. I'm sure not many men can say they were saved from a lynching by a Comanche
war party, but I don't bring it up. I kept Stephen's Smith & Wesson, and I take it out and look at it once in a
while. There's still some blood on the ivory stocks.
The Comanche have long since lost everything they ever had. It's what always happens, "the way of the world," as
they say. I surely played my part in their downfall, and would do most of it again. But I regret shooting the Comanche
that was coming at Doyle and me with that bloody knife, though I know it's what he wanted. I'd like for that image to
fade away, but I expect it never will.