Well, preacher, if you’ve come to pray over me in my last hours, I’m afraid it’s too late. I’ve seen a few of them last-minute conversions, and I never put much stock in them. I doubt as the Lord does, either. But I’m grateful for your company anyway. Looks like they’re going to hammer on that scaffold out there all night, so I won’t be getting no sleep. Far as I’m concerned they could put it off a day or two and not work so hard.
Don’t be bashful. If you want to hear my story, all you got to do is ask for it. It can’t be used against me now. I’ve seen what they said was my story lots of times, written up in the newspapers and penny-dreadfuls. Lies, most of them. Some reporter listens to a few wild rumors, gets him a pencil, some paper and a jug, and he writes the whole true story of Joe Pepper, big bad gun-fighter of the wild West. Damn liars, most of them newspaper people. Tell one of them the time of day and he’ll set his watch wrong.
I think I know what you’re after…you’d like to have the story straight so you can tell it to your congregation. Maybe it’ll scare some of them twisty boys and turn them aside from the paths of iniquity. It might at that, though I can’t say I’ve wasted much time regretting the things I’ve done. My main regret has been over some men I didn’t shoot when I had the chance.
Don’t expect me to give you the dates, and maybe I’ll disremember a name or two. I figure a man’s head can just hold so much information, and he’d better not fill it up with a lot of unnecessaries.
I’ve always liked to tell people I was born in Texas, but since you’re a preacher I won’t lie to you. I always wished I was born in Texas. The truth is that I was born just across the line in Louisiana. My daddy and mama, they could look across the river and see Texas; they was of that old-time Texian breed, and it was just an ancient of war that I wasn’t born where I was supposed to be. You’ve heard of the great Runaway Scrape? That was after Santa Anna and them Mexicans wiped out the Alamo and massacred all of them soldiers at Goliad. The settlers, they lit out in a wild run for the Sabine River to get across into the United States before Santa Anna could overtake them.
Now, my daddy was in Sam Houston’s army for a while, leaving my mama with some neighbors on the land he had claimed in Austin’s colony. But when the Scrape started, he got to fretting about her, knowing she was nigh to them. Didn’t look then like Sam Houston intended to fight anyway; he just kept backing off, letting Santa Anna come on and on. So my daddy deserted and rushed my mama across into Louisiana where she would be safe. While he was there, Sam Houston and his bunch whipped the britches off of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Daddy missed out on that. He also missed out on the league and labor of land that the Republic of Texas granted to all the San Jacinto soldiers. If he’d of been in on that, we’d o been a lot more prosperous than we ever was.
The rest of his life he always told people he had been a soldier under Sam Houston. He didn’t tell them about the deserting, and the Runaway Scrape.
When the war was over my folks went back to the farm, and of course I was with them by then. You’ll hear people who don’t know no better bragging about what a wonderful grand thing it was, the Republic of Texas. Either they don’t know or they’re so old and senile that they’ve forgot. It was a cruel, hard time. There wasn’t no money to be had, hardly, and most people had to grub deep just to hold body and soul together. Seems to me like the first thing I can remember is following my mama and daddy down the rows of a cottonfield. Time I was old enough to take hold of a hoehandle, they had one ready for me. Only time I ever laid it down in the daylight was to take hold of something heavier. I remember watching my folks grow old before their time, trying their best not to lose that little old place.
I was grown and hiring out for plowman’s wages when the War between the States come on. I was a good marksman like everybody else in that country then; most of the meat we ever had on the table was wild game that I went out and shot. There was people that used to run hogs loose along the rivers and creeks, living off of the acorns and such. Every once in a while I would shoot me one of those and tell the folks it was a wild one. They wouldn’t of eaten it no other way. Religious folks they was; they’d of taken a liking to you, preacher. But I always felt like the Lord helped them that helped theirselves, and I helped myself any time it come handy.
Well, like I say, the war started. Right off, I volunteered. My old daddy, he joined up too. It had always gnawed at him, I reckon, that he wasn’t there when Sam Houston won that other war. He wanted to be in on this one. So he left Mama and the kids to take care of the place, and him and me went off to war. He never did get there, though. We hadn’t been gone from home three weeks till he was taken down with the fever and died without ever seeing a Yankee. We gave him a Christian burial three hundred miles from home. I always wanted to go back someday and put up a stone, but I never could find the place, not within five miles. Probably fenced into somebody’s cow pasture now.
The war wasn’t nothing I like to talk about. My part in it wasn’t much different from most any other soldier’s. I taken three bullet wounds, one time and another. I killed a few men that had never done nothing against me except shoot at me. Maybe that sounds funny to you, but it’s true. There wasn’t nothing personal in it; they was shooting at everybody that wore a uniform the color of mine. They didn’t know me from Robert E. Lee. It was our job to kill more of them than they killed of us.
Everybody seemed to feel like it was all right for me to shoot strangers in the war, but in later years they got awful self-righteous. Some wanted to hang me when I’d shot a man that did have a personal fight with me, men that wanted to kill Joe Pepper, only Joe Pepper beat them to it. Folks would say I’d forgotten the war was over. Well, it never was over for me. Seems like I’ve been in one war or another most of my life. I never could get it straight, them changing the rules on me all the time.
I was way over in Pennsylvania when the war was over and they told us to go home. I had taken a good sorrel horse off of a dead Yankee, but that chicken-brained captain of ours led us into an ambush that a blind mule could’ve seen, and the horse got shot out from under me. The best officers we had got killed off in the first years of the war, seemed like, and mostly what we had left in the last part was the scrubs and the cutbacks. The night after they told us to go home, I slipped along the picket line and taken a good big gray horse of the captain’s. I figured he owed me that for getting my sorrel shot. I knowed he wouldn’t take the same view on it, though, so I was thirty miles toward Texas by daylight.
That horse was the making of my first fortune, in a manner of speaking. Big stout horse he was, about fifteen hands high, Tennessee stock. Once I had schooled him, I could rope a full-grown range bull on him and he’d bust that bull over backwards. But that was later on, of course. That was when I was still known as Joe Peeler. The Joe Pepper name came later.
When I got back to the old homeplace I found out Mama had died, and the kids was taking care of the farm themselves. Couple of the boys was grown and plenty able. They didn’t have no need of me, and one thing they didn’t need was an extra mouth to feed. So I taken off and headed south with an old army friend of mine, Arlee Thompson. He had come from below San Antonio in the Nueces Strip country. That was a rough territory them days, Mexican outlaws coming across the line to see what they could take and run with, American outlaws settling there so if they was pressed they could always run for Mexico. The honest people—what there was of them—had a hard time. Even the honest ones fought amongst theirselves a right smart, Americanos against Mexicans and vice versa. You’d of thought they had trouble enough without that, but they didn’t seem to think so.
The ranches had let a lot of their cattle go unbranded through the war because there just wasn’t enough men to do the job. There was grown cattle there—bulls three and four years old that had never felt knife or iron—cows with their second or third calf at side, their ears and hides as slick as the calves’ were. Cattle wasn’t worth much in them first times after the war, hardly worth anybody fighting over. People fought anyway, of course. Men’ll fight when they can’t even eat. Me and Arlee, we figured there’d be money in cattle again. We set out to claim as many as we could. Mavericking is what we called it them days, after a man named Maverick who said all the branded cattle belonged to the man who registered the brand, and all the unbranded cattle belonged to him.
Now, there was some people who didn’t take kindly to what we done. You ever hear of Jesse Ordway? He was a power in that lower country. He didn’t go to war himself, so he was sitting down there putting things together while most of the men was off fighting Yankees. He gobbled up a lot of that country, taking it away from the Mexicans, buying out war widows for a sack of cornmeal and such like. He didn’t object to people branding mavericks as long as they was working for him and burning his brand on them, but it sure did put the gravel under his skin to see other people doing it. He thought he had him a nice private little hunting preserve. The rest of us was poachers.
But damn good poachers we was. Inside of a year me and Arlee had us a pretty good-sized herd of cattle apiece. We didn’t own an acre of ground, either one of us, but half the people down there didn’t. Jesse Ordway didn’t actually own a fraction of what he claimed. Most of it he just squatted on and used because he was bigger and stronger than anybody else and had the gall to hold it.
I didn’t tell you yet about Arlee’s sister. Millie was her name. Arlee wasn’t much to look at, tall and thin and bent over a little, and had a short scar over one cheek where a Yankee bullet kind of winked at him as it went by. But Millie, she must’ve took after her mother’s side of the family. I’ve got a picture of her here in the back of my watch. See, wasn’t she the prettiest thing ever you laid your eyes on? Picture’s faded a little, but take my word for it. She wasn’t much bigger than a minute, and had light-colored hair that reminded me a little of corn silk. And eyes? The bluest eyes that ever melted a miser’s heart.
She was living with her old daddy on the place he had claimed as his share from the revolution. It was a league and a labor just like they’d of given my daddy if he had stayed with Sam Houston. But the old man Thompson had had his share of hard luck and had lost most of his country one way and another. He was down to just a little hard-scrabble outfit about big enough to chunk rocks at a dog on. Time me and Arlee got there, he was most blind, and it was up to Millie and a Mexican hand named Felipe Rios to take care of the work, Jesse Ordway had branded up a lot of the old man’s calves for himself, and there wasn’t much the old man or that Mexican boy could do about it. The old man prayed a good deal, asking the Lord to forgive Ordway because he knowed not what he done.
You’ll have to pardon me, preacher, but that’s one thing I never could accept about these religious people, always asking forgiveness for their enemies. Ordway knew what he was doing, and he didn’t need forgiveness; what he needed was a damn good killing.
First time I seen Millie I couldn’t believe she was Arlee’s sister. But there was a resemblance; they both had the same big blue innocent eyes. You could’ve told either one of them that the sun would come up out of the west tomorrow and they’d believe you. I told Millie a good many lies at first, till my conscience got to hurting. People will tell you I never had a conscience, but they don’t know me. It always plagued me when I done something I thought was wrong. So most of my life I’ve tried not to go them things. Other people might’ve thought I done wrong, but I don’t have to listen to their conscience, just mine.
The old man died a little while after I got there. I reckon he had been ready to go before but had waited till Arlee was at home to take care of Millie. Old folks are like that sometimes, you know; they just keep the door locked against death till they’re ready to go, then they seem to walk out and meet it of their own free will. I’ve seen some that greeted it like a friend.
The day came when we got news that the railroad had built west into Kansas, and people in South Texas began to round up a lot of them cattle and drive them north to turn into Yankee dollars. Me and Arlee had us close to two hundred steers apiece over and above the maverick heifers we had put our brands on. The heifers had to stay—they was seed stock for the future. But them steers was excess, a liquid asset like the bankers always say. During our mavericking time we would split them fifty-fifty. We worked together, me and Arlee. We would put his brand on one and mine on the next. Felipe Rios helped us, but he didn’t get no cattle. He was working for wages, when we had any money to pay him. Anyway, he was a Mexican. They let Mexicans marverick cattle for other people, but they was stealing if they mavericked for theirselves. They would get their necks lengthened. Sounds rough, but that’s the way it was, them days.
Four hundred steers wasn’t enough to make up a good trail herd, so we throwed in with some more smaller operators and put together something like thirteen hundred head of cattle.
Jesse Ordway tried to crowd us. He brought in a couple of Rangers and claimed we had stolen a lot of the cattle—me and Arlee and some of the others. He bluffed and blustered, and I reckon he thought he had them Rangers in his pocket, but he didn’t. They listened to him real polite, then started asking him to show the proof. That was one thing he couldn’t do. The Rangers cussed him out for wasting their time and rode off and left him.
Then he tried to bluff us. He brought a gunfighter he had used to run some of the Mexicans off of their country, a pistolero name of Threadgill. He was before your time; you probably never heard of him. He was just a cheap four-flusher anyway. He got by on bluff, not on guts. The only thing game about him was his smell.
Ordway brought Threadgill and some others up to stop us the morning we throwed out herd onto the trail. Threadgill was the man out front. The way they had it made up, he was supposed to kill one or two of us and the rest would turn tail and run.
I used to carry my pistol stuck into my belt them days. I never did fancy a holster much. I watched Threadgill’s face. Just before he reached for his gun, I could see it coming in his eyes. I didn’t try to draw my gun; that would’ve taken too long. I just left it in the belt and twisted the muzzle up at Threadgill and pulled the trigger. Bullet caught him at about the second button on his shirt. One of them other toughs tried to draw his gun, but a shot come from behind me, and he was already falling before I could get my pistol pointed in his direction.
It was over in about the time it takes a chewing man to spit. There was that big Texas gunfighter Threadgill laying on the ground at Ordway’s feet, dead enough to skin. The other one way laying there coughing, going the same way only taking a little longer. I looked around and seen smoke curling up from Felipe Rio’s pistol. He had one of them old-fashioned cap-and-ball relics that must of weighed forty pounds.
It would’ve shamed that hired tough considerable to have knowed he was killed by a Mexican.
I kept my pistol pointed at Ordway’s left eye, where he couldn’t hardly overlook it. I hoped he would do something foolish, so we could adjourn court right then and there. But he decided not to press the case. He taken the rest of his men and went home, looking like a scalded dog.
The story got noised around, and nobody else in that part of the country gave us any argument. If anything, them old boys came out to help us push our cattle along. A lot of them was glad to see anybody get the best of Jesse Ordway.
I could of shot him right then and there, and later on I wished I had. It would’ve saved me and lots of people a right smart of trouble. If taught me a lesson that I didn’t forget as the years went by: when in doubt, kill the son of a bitch.
We had a pretty easy drive, as cattle drives went; there wasn’t none of them real easy. We caught the Red River in flood and lost one of the cowboys there. The average cowboy couldn’t swim a lick.
We couldn’t easy had some Indian trouble up in the Nations, but as it turned out we didn’t. We run onto a bunch of Indians that thought we ought to give them some of the beeves just for trailing cattle over their land. Arrogant bunch, they was. The only reason they had that land in the first place was that the government gave it to them; they didn’t have any business charging taxpaying citizens for traveling across it. Couple of the boys gave them a steer apiece, but they didn’t get any of mine.
Nearest we ever come to a real fight was amongst ourselves. There was a fat boy with us who owned something like four hundred head—more than any of the rest of us. Name was Lathrop Nettleton, and he figured that as the biggest owner he ought to ramrod the outfit. None of us paid him much mind. We each of us went about and did what we could see needed to be done, and we mostly just ignored him. He got to mouthing at me one time, and I had to knock him down. I invited him to pull his gun if he was a mind to, but he wasn’t. Time we got to Kansas we was all mighty sick of him. I’m proud to say he was just as sick of me.
We pulled into Abilene and got the cattle sold and split up the money according to the cattle count. You ever see one of them trail’s end celebrations, preacher? No? Well, that’s probably a good thing. I’m here to tell you it’s no place for a man of the Gospel. There was other cow outfits in there besides ours, so the whole place was overrun with Texas cowboys trying to wash three months of dust out of their throats with the most damnable whiskey you’ve ever drunk—begging your pardon again, preacher. And then there was the girls over there on the tracks. I didn’t go for none of that, you understand; by that time I had made up my mind I was going to marry Millie Thompson even if I had to carry her off like some Mexican bandit. Her brother Arlee was with me, and I sure didn’t want him telling her no tales out of school. So I stayed with the whiskey and played a little cards.
There was a small saloon over next to the railroad that seemed kind of comfortable. It was run by an old-time Union soldier who had lost an arm in the war. I kind of taken a liking to him; I reckon he was the first damnyankee I had ever seen that was cut up enough to suit me. There was one of them Eastern gamblers, too, the kind that always wore a swallowtail coat and a silk hat. I figured he had to be crooked; I never did trust a man that had slick hands and wore a coat in the summertime.
I ought to tell you that I wasn’t just the average run-of-the-mill cowboy when it came to cards. In the army I’d spent some time amongst a bunch of Mississippi River boys who could make a deck of cards do just about anything but sing “Dixie.” I had learned a right smart from them, at no small expense to myself. Still, I didn’t think I wanted to try that Eastern gambler on for size. I never could understand them cowboys that knew they was outclassed but still would go up against one of them sharps. Playing for matches on a saddle-blanket is a lot different from playing for blood on one of them slick tables.
Some of the boys from our drive wanted to play him. Normally I’d of tried to talk them out of it, but Lathrop Nettleton was amongst them, and I figured it would do me good to see him nailed to the wall. So I just sat there and watched them play. I knowed sooner or later that gambler was going to suck them boys under and drown them like a coon drowns a hunting dog.
He was smooth about it. He taken his time before he set the hook. He’d win a hand and then let one of the other boys win one. Seemed like for a while he was losing more chips than he was taking in, so pretty soon some extra hands from other outfits sat in on the game. Gradually he got to winning. Along about midnight he was taking all the chips. Some of the boys had sense enough to draw out before they lost it all, but Lathrop Nettleton just hung and rattled to the bitter end. Before that gambler got through with him Nettleton had lost everything those four hundred steers had brought him. He was lucky to have a saddlehorse to ride home on. The gambler gave him back twenty dollars’ worth of chips. “For seed,” he says. “I want to see you back here again next year.”
I might’ve felt sorry for Nettleton then if he hadn’t started to beg. That was one thing I never could stand to see a man do. The one-armed barkeep finally had to put him out of there; told him if he couldn’t afford t lose, he couldn’t afford to play.
I didn’t interfere. I could of told Nettleton if I’d wanted to that I had been watching the gambler palm cards all night.
The boys was pretty well whipped down. The gambler set them all up to a drink at the bar before they went back to their wagons. Nettleton was already gone. I just sat there at the table my myself, glad Arlee hadn’t been in the game. When the boys finished their drink and started for the door they asked me if I was coming with them, I told them no, I wasn’t quite ready for the bedroll yet.
That gambler knowed I had money on me. When there was just him and me and the barkeep left in the place, he says to me. “The night’s still in her youth. Like to play a few hands, just me and you?”
I slipped that pistol out of my belt and pointed it up in the general direction of his Adam’s apple. It got to working up and down. “So that’s it,” he says. “You’re going to rob me.”
I says to him, “No, the robbery has already taken place. If I’d of told them boys they’d of tore you to pieces and fed you to the dogs. I thought the best thing was to stay here till they was gone and give you a chance to square things up without throwing your life into forfeit.”
He blustered and bluffed about not being a cheater, but I had him cold, and he knowed it. He finally caved in. I told him the only fair thing was for him to give back all the money he had won from the boys. I said it might help their feelings if he throwed in a little extra for interest. He turned kind of clabber-colored, but he shoved all the chips across the table. I got the barkeep to cash them.
I told that gambler if I was him I wouldn’t wait around for daylight. “Getting their money back won’t be enough for the boys’ I says. “They’re liable to come hunting for you. Smart thing would be to get you a horse and leave now. You could be a long ways up the track before sunup, and I’d be a few days coming back if I was you.”
That one-armed saloonkeeper seen it pretty much the way I did and seconded all my advice. He said they was good people, them Texas cowboys, when they was on your side. But they was woolly boogers when they was against you. That gambler walked out of there with nothing much besides his silk up his sleeve. I had all his money.
You couldn’t say I lied to him, exactly. I didn’t exactly tell him I was going to give the boys their money back. I just sort of let him believe that was the way it was going to be. But the way I seen it, it wouldn’t be fair to give the money back to the rest of the boys if I didn’t give it to Nettleton too. I didn’t want to be dishonest about the thing, so I just kept all the money for myself.
I never told Arlee Thompson the whole truth. I told him I’d had me a set-to with the gambler after the rest of the boys got through, and that I had better luck than they did. I didn’t let on to Arlee how much money I really had till we got back to South Texas. I had all my share of the cattle money, minus the little bit I had spent on whiskey and new clothes, and I had all the money off of that poker table. It was a pretty good road stake for them days.
I was a little afraid some of the boys would go back over there the next day and find out from that Yankee barkeep what had happened. Things could of got a little unpleasant. But none of them seemed like they wanted to ever see the place again. They didn’t have the money to be going back there anyway, most of them. They’d had their plow cleaned.
We passed Jesse Ordway’s trail herd heading north as we went south, going home. We had got out on the trail a long ways ahead of him and sold our cattle early in the season when the price was at about its peak. First ones there generally lapped the cream, and the late ones taken the skim milk. I know Ordway wasn’t none too pleased to see us. Them days it was custom to invite passing strangers to stop for a meal or two—even the night—at your wagon. But Ordway didn’t give us any invite. I didn’t let it worry me. I was already way ahead of him because some of the mavericks I had branded had been his once upon a time; he was so busy branding other people’s that he hadn’t got around to all of his own. It was the quick that won the marbles them days, and the slow just wasn’t in it at all.
Naturally we got home several weeks ahead of Ordway, and I didn’t let no grass grow under my feet. I had done a lot of thinking about Millie Thompson. I’d lay awake at night and imagine I could hear her talking to me, laughing with me. She had a voice that kind of lifted sometimes and broke and sounded like a hundred little silver bells tinkling. It doesn’t take much of that to set a young man to making all kinds of dreams and plans. I wanted to build her a home and live in it with her for a thousand years.
I had kept that money a secret. When we got back to South Texas I went to listening and looking, and pretty soon through Felipe Rios I found out there was three-four Mexican families wanting to sell out. Felipe was telling them they ought to stay and fight, but he was just a bachelor, and they was family men. Jesse Ordway had been pushing on them pretty hard, running off their cattle, burning their hay, scaring their womenfolk. Not himself, understand, but people he hired for that kind of thing. They knew when he got back off of his trail drive that they was fixing to catch hell. They couldn’t look to the law for help. Them lawmen wouldn’t take two steps out of their way to help a Mexican.
Without acting too interested I managed to find out what Ordway had been offering them. When I figured out the places I wanted and could afford, I went and bought them. Them Mexicans thought I was one crazy gringo, but they was tickled to take my money and run. One of them told me Jesse Ordway would be shoveling dirt in my face before the first cold norther of the winter. But I reckon he figured it was better mine than his, because he was sure glad to take what I offered him.
I oughtn’t to’ve been, but I was some surprised to find out that Millie Thompson wanted to marry me as much as I wanted to marry her. I had thought I might have to argue with her. You wouldn’t think so to see me live I am now, an old man, but there was some folks—women anyway—who used to say I was handsome them days. I never was one to argue much with a woman.
We had us a church wedding with all the trimmings. Surprise you, preacher? Bet from all the things you heard about me, you thought I was never in church in my life. But I was, once or twice before that and at least once since that I can remember. There was a time long years ago when I climbed up into a church loft to get away from a bunch of angry old boys that was after me, but there wasn’t no praying done that time, not that I recall.
We took us a short wedding trip to San Antonio…stayed in the best suite of rooms we could get in the Menger Hotel, just down the hall from where Captain Richard King himself was holding forth. The King Ranch King, you know. Looking at him, I even taken a notion that if I worked extra hard and played my cards right, I might get to be as big a man in the cattle business someday as he was.
You a married man? Then I suppose you know how sweet things was for me and Millie for a while. That picture I showed you in the back of my watch…she had that made in San Antonio. You can see the sparkle in her eyes if you look close. Oh, that was a happy time.
I never completely put Jesse Ordway out of my mind, though. I kind of kept track of where I thought he would be, one day to the next. I had us a crew of carpenters camping out and building us a house before Ordway ever got home. Naturally he taken the Lord’s name in vain when he found out what I had done. The places I picked was all on the river. The Mexicans had been doing a little irrigation, and there was a lot more good land that a man could have put into farms if he had the inclination and the strong back to do it. Ordway had figured on taking that land dirt cheap and growing a lot of feed on it so he could run even more cows than he already had. And I had come along and set myself square down in the middle of his road.
Couple days after he got home he came over to the place where I had the carpenters working. It was like he didn’t even see that house, like all he could see was me, and he sure didn’t appreciate the view. He told me I had as much as stolen the land from him, and I told him I had bought it free and clear from the previous rightful owners, and now I had all the papers to show that I was the present rightful owner, and he could go soak his head in a muddy tank.
He says to me, “You know what I mean. You’ll have no luck here. You’d do a lot better to move far away and start over.” He offered to buy the land from me at seventy-five cents on the dollar. The other twenty-five percent I could mark down on the books as a fee for education.
By this time he had hired him another gunhand, a beady-eyed pistolero named Sorrells. You probably never heard of him. He had a right smart of a local reputation, but that was a long time ago. This Sorrells sat on his horse alongside Ordway. Dun horse it was, best I can recollect; I remember thinking to myself that if anybody was to shoot Sorrells—which was more than likely—maybe I could buy that horse off of the sheriff. Sorrells didn’t say nothing, just sat there and tried to look mean. I taken him to be of about the same caliber as Threadgill, the other one Ordway had sicced onto me, and I had salted him away without no sweat on my part.
I told Ordway I’d buy him out at fifty cents on the dollar, which would’ve been a good deal on his part because he didn’t own half of what he claimed. I’d of had to steal the money someplace if he had taken me up, but I was satisfied I could do it. Ordway just stared at me, hard. Sorrells kept looking from me to Ordway and back to me again, waiting for Ordway to tell him to go ahead and kill me. He was awful anxious to earn his wages; I reckon he liked to see that a man got his money’s worth. But Ordway had a pretty good memory, and maybe he thought I’d of shot him as well as Sorrells if he’d of given me the excuse. He was right; I sure as hell would.
Felipe Rios was there too, a few steps off to one side of me.
Ordway caved. He backed his horse up a little and told me I’d better chew on it and be awful careful of my luck. I could tell when they rode away that Sorrells was disappointed. Some people just naturally enjoy their work more than others do.
Me and Millie had been sleeping in one of the old Mexicans houses while we waited for our new one to be finished. Fresh married like we was, it didn’t make a particle of difference where we slept. The days was way too long anyhow, seemed like, and the nights too short.
Well, that night turned out to be long enough. The Mexican house was maybe two hundred yards from where the new one was going up. Sometime about midnight I heard shooting. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my britches. The shooting stopped before I could get my pants and boots on and run outside. I could see the new house was afire. I could see people running around down there, and I could hear horses. I couldn’t shoot because I was apt to his the carpenters or Felipe; he was camped down there with them. I heard the horses loping away in the dark and men hollering in Mexican. But they wasn’t Mexicans, I could tell. A man don’t need much of an ear to tell when it’s some gringo trying to talk Mexican.
There wasn’t nothing we could do to save the house. It was plumb gone. So was one of the carpenters; they had put so much lead in him that it taken two extra pallbearers to carry him. Felipe wanted to chase after them, but Millie was scared for me to leave her alone.
Next day I called out the law. They said it was Mexican bandits. I knowed they knowed better, and I cussed them for a bunch of chicken-livered cowards. But they was local, and they was afraid of Jesse Ordway.
I thought once that I was going to get even. Ordway was married; had him a thin, shivery little woman he had found over in San Antonio teaching in a church school. Reminded me of a scared rabbit locked up in a cage. She was as afraid of Jesse Ordway as she would’ve been of a rattlesnake. They had a boy about seven or eight years old, and it seemed to me like he took after his mama more than his daddy. Didn’t seem like there was any fight in her or in the boy either. His daddy would say something, and that boy would cringe like a pup that’s had the whip put to him.
Anyhow, Ordway was on a kind of house-building spree of his own. His was going to be a lot bigger than mine would’ve been. For a while I had a notion of going over there and burning it down some night, but that wouldn’t of paid me back anything. And after what he had done to me I knowed he would have it guarded like a vault full of gold bars. There was an easier way of getting him.
I found out he was having the lumber hauled down from San Antonio. Me and Felipe went out on the road one day and got the drop on them freighters and persuaded them to haul one whole shipment over to my place. I figured Ordway owed me that, and I also figured if he came to get it back it might give me a good excuse to kill him.
He didn’t even try. He didn’t have to, because that lumber never done me no good. I couldn’t hire a carpenter anywhere in the country to start building that house back. The word had gotten around. I’d of built it myself, but a saw and a hammer just never did fit my hands. Millie had to keep living in that old Mexican house. She never once complained about it. That nice frame house had been my idea in the first place, not hers.
Things was quiet till into the fall of the year. I had about decided Ordway had given up on me till one day he rode up with three or foul hands, and the gunfighter Sorrells at his side. He taken a look at the pile of his lumber laying out there, but he didn’t say anything about it. He taken a lot longer look at the rifle I had in my hands, pointed about six inches below his collar-button. He told me that sure wasn’t any polite way to treat company, and I told him I never treated company that way. He offered to buy me out for the money I had invested in my place. That was a twenty-five percent better offer than his first one, but I told him that wouldn’t allow me any pay for the time and labor I had already put in.
He didn’t seem inclined to raise the ante. He just told me what he had said the last time, that I’d better be careful of my luck.
I knowed he would have a hell of a time burning down the Mexican house because it was of adobe, and the roof had a covering of dried mud on it. He might melt it down, if he could make that much water, but he would never burn it down.
They hit us that same night. I can’t say it was by surprise, because we sort of expected them. The surprise was that there was so many of them. I found out later that he didn’t use his regular hands because he didn’t want any of them talking when it was over. He went down to the border and hired him a bunch of renegades from the other side that he knowed wouldn’t come back and incriminate him. So the ones that hit us that night was him and Sorrells and them renegades.
All I had was myself and Felipe and a couple of hands that I had hired to work cattle, not fight. They didn’t do much fighting; they turned and ran. Felipe got shot in the leg in the first charge; he was sleeping out under an open arbor and couldn’t get to the house in time. They swarmed over him and clubbed him and left him for dead. So then it was just me, with Millie loading my guns.
They tried first to set the place afire, but there wasn’t much that would burn. Every time one of them would come charging up with a torch I would either hit him or come so close that he would drop the thing and run. They gave it up directly and set in to trying to cut the house to pieces. They shot out all the windows in the first few minutes—they was of wood, not glass—but them thick adobe walls stopped most of the bullets. Now and then one would bust through, but most of them either glanced off or stuck in the mud blocks.
There wasn’t but one door to the place, and we had it barred. The only way they could come in was through that door or one of the front windows. They might’ve made it if they had had the nerve to gang up and all rush us at one time. But I reckon they knowed a bunch of the would die in the trying. They sat out there and potshotted at the windows, and I knowed we had them beat.
Then it happened. One of them slugs came right through the wall. The wall was of a double thickness of mud blocks, but I reckon there was a few places where the mud mortar on two blocks was on the same level. It was soft enough that the bullet came through.
Millie screamed. God, preacher, you never heard such a scream in your life. It hit her jut under the heart. I had just time to catch her before she fell. All I could do was lay her out on the dirt floor and straighten her legs. She clutched at my shirt and cried out one more time; it must’ve hurt her something terrible. Then she was gone.
My Millie—my pretty Millie—was dead.
The shooting had stopped. They had all heard the scream. I heard a voice I knowed was Ordway’s, telling them to rush the house. They just stayed put. Way I heard it later, that scream froze their blood, most of them, and the few others didn’t want to try to swarm the house by theirselves. Ordway was out there in the dark, cussing a blue streak at them in Spanish and English both, because some was white and some was Mexican. Finally a couple of them made a run for the door. I dropped one of them six feet from the house; the other turned and ran. It was too dark to be sure, but I thought it was probably Sorrells.
After that I heard them pulling out. Ordway was telling them they wouldn’t be paid a cent if they didn’t go through with their bargain, but they rode off and left him. Directly everything out there got quiet. I sat myself down on the floor and taken Millie’s hand and just held it for the longest time. I’m not ashamed to tell you, preacher, I cried like a baby. And when I was done crying, I sat there and talked to her like if she could of heard me, telling her what all plans I had had, and how much I loved her.
A long time after, I heard a noise and thought maybe they had come back. I got my rifle and eased the door open and waited, hoping they would try another rush so I could see just how many of them I could kill.
It was Felipe Rios crawling along, pulling himself a few inches at a time.
I helped him inside, and he saw Millie, and he crossed himself the way all them Catholics do, and he said something that sounded a little like Spanish but wasn’t. I got him wrapped up the best I could in the dark; it was too risky to light a lamp. Then we waited for morning to come. It was one of the longest nights I ever spent in my life.
The two hands who had run away from us had done one decent thing, at least; they went to town and fetched the law. They didn’t figure to find me alive, or they wouldn’t of ever come back. I cussed them up one side and down the other and told them if I ever seen either one of them again I’d kill him like a dog. At the time, I meant it.
Word got to Arlee Thompson somehow, and he came over in a hard lope. He taken it pretty hard about Millie.
The law was no more help to me that time than they had been before. They declared the whole thing was the work of Mexican bandits who had surely gotten back across the river by now. I told them it was Ordway, that I’d heard his voice, but they told me I was mistaken. The last thing they wanted to do was to tangle up with Jessie Ordway. He could of stolen the county courthouse piece by piece and they’d of fetched him a wagon.
It taken me a while to figure out what to do about Ordway. What I really wanted was to go over there and just short him down. But I would never of been allowed to live that long.
We buried Millie on her old family homeplace. Arlee thought that was kind of strange, but I told him I wouldn’t be keeping my land, and I wanted her to rest in her own ground where maybe there would be kin around through the times to come.
I sent word to Ordway that if he still wanted to buy me out, I’d sell to him on the terms of his last offer. I wanted cold hard cash because I figured on leaving the country. I didn’t want no check, draft, or bank order. He sent me word what day to meet him in town at the bank with the deeds ready to sign over.
Felipe Rios was still weak. He had to have a crutch to walk, and he had to be helped onto a horse. But in the saddle he could handle himself pretty good. After all the help he had been, I hated to just leave him flat. I arranged with Arlee to give him a job. The morning I left for town I told Felipe to go to Arlee’s. He wanted to go to town with me, but I told him he didn’t have no business there, and he’d better do what I said. When I headed down the town road, I looked back once and seen him heading out in the direction of Arlee’s.
I seen half a dozen O Bar horses tied at racks along the street. In front of the bank was a rig with Ordway’s brand painted on it. Ordway’s little boy sat up there all by himself. I figured he had been told to stay out of the bank, and he was way too young to wait in one of the saloons or Mexican cantinas. I rode straight up to the rack nearest to the bank door. I stopped and looked at the boy. He seemed to be a little afraid of me, because he kind of shrunk up on the seat of that rig. I asks him, “You a pretty good cowhand, son?”
He shook his head without saying anything, and I told him it was a thing a man could learn if he had to. I unfastened my saddlebags.
In the bank, Jesse Ordway was waiting for me. He had Sorrells there with him, maybe figuring I might come in shooting. But I didn’t, and I could see in Sorrells’s eyes that he was laughing at me. They had beaten me, and he was enjoying it. Maybe Ordway was enjoying it too, in his way, but he was more interested in business. With him it wasn’t the principle of the thing; it was the money. He didn’t try to shake hands with me; I wouldn’t of done it noway. He says to me, “We have everything ready for you to sign. And I have the money all counted out for you. Sorry about your wife.”
That was the order he ranked everything in. The money first.
I looked around the bank. Over to one side I seen Ordway’s wife sitting near the bank president’s desk. She was the same as every time I had ever seen her, scared. I had wondered a time or two how come she ever married such a man in the first place, because it was plain there wasn’t no love lost for either one of them. I figured maybe she was too scared of him to say no. I wondered what she was in the bank for, and then I remembered that as the wife she was probably expected to sign papers.
Seeing her there kind of brought things back to me in a rush. Ordway’s wife was alive, but mine was dead. And he had been responsible for killing her.
I tipped my hat to Mrs. Ordway and bowed a little, the way we was all taught to do, them days. I says, “Sorry my wife’s not here to visit with you.” I suppose I meant a little malice, because she must of known what her husband had done. She looked down and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
Ordway says, “Something’s got to be done to stop those Mexican bandits.”
I knowed he was a liar, and he knowed I knowed it. I seen a hard smile come across Sorrells’s face.
Ordway says, “Too bad you didn’t sell out earlier. All that misfortune would not have befallen you.”
You know what hate tastes like? It’s got a flavor all its own, not like salt, not like pepper, not like gall. It’s not like anything else I know. I tasted it then like I’ve never tasted it another time in my life.
I laid out what papers I had, and he laid out some legal agreements he had had a lawyer draw up. I never could figure out lawyer talk; I always suspected it was just a code they make up to rob the rest of us with. It didn’t matter; the money stacked on that table did all the talking I needed to finish the deal. Ordway says, “It’s all counted out.”
I told him I’d count it myself, just to be sure. They had it in big denominations, twenty- and fifty-dollar bills. I doubted that this little cowtown bank had had all those bills on hand; they had probably had to send to San Antonio after them. It came out to about the same amount of money I had had when I first got home from that trail drive to Abilene, plus fifteen dollars a head for about two hundred cows I had mavericked or run a new brand on. There was probably more cattle than that, but the deal didn’t call for a physical count, just range delivery.
I says, “This don’t take into account the improvements.” There hadn’t been many, really. I had just fixed up some old pens and tarp fences that was there to begin with but was run down some.
Ordway didn’t seem too inclined to argue. He says, “All right, I’ll add a thousand dollars.”
It was too easy. I’d always found that when a man just up and gives you something, you’d better watch him because he’s probably figuring to give you something else you didn’t bargain on. I looked into Ordway’s eyes, and I knew. It didn’t matter what he paid me; he didn’t intend to let me get out of this country alive. Once we finished this deal, I was as good as dead, and he would get most of his money back … maybe all of it.
I decided I had just as well take all I could get. I didn’t really have any extra horses, but I didn’t see where a little lie right there could hurt anything. I told him I had twenty head that hadn’t been counted into the deal. He could have then for fifty dollars apiece or I would drive them to San Antonio and sell them. He motioned to the banker, and they counted me out another thousand dollars.
I put all the money into the saddlebags and then buckled the flaps down tight. I seen Ordway looking at them bags the way a hungry cat looks at a bird. I started to take them, and Ordway laid his hands across one of them. “The papers first,” he says. “You got to sign the papers.”
The deeds was all spread out there on the table. I wrote my name everywhere the banker told me, then blew on the ink to make it day.
Ordway taken his hand off of the bag then. He had a look like a cat which had just got the bird in his mouth.
I says, “Jesse Ordway, you’re a greedy man. Just what makes you want all this land so bad?”
He looked at his wife, then looked out the door toward where his son was still sitting in the rig. He says, “I got a family. I’m trying to build something worth-while that I can leave to my son.”
You ever notice that’s what all them old land-hogs used to say? They was never building anything for theirselves, if you heard them tell it. They was always doing it for somebody else. The milk of human kindness was bubbling up and overflowing out of their hearts. Charity to the core. But they’d kill you for that charity if you got in their way.
I pushed my chair back away from the table and stood up. I says, “Ordway, I hope you’re ready.”
“Ready for what?” he asks me.
I says, “Ready to leave it to your son.” I pulled my pistol out of my belt and shoved it up almost against his forehead. You never seen such a surprised look in a man’s face. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes went as big as he eggs. He made a reach for his gun, but he never touched it. I pulled the trigger. He fell back like he had been hit with a sledgehamner.
I had caught them all by surprise, but I could see Sorrells reaching for his gun. I swung around and caught him just as he cleared leather. I watched him fall on his face in the middle of the room.
The whole place was filled with powder smoke; it was hard to see across to the far wall. But nobody else in there was any threat to me. Surely not the banker, because he raised his hands like he thought it was a holdup. Mrs. Ordway had her mouth wide open like she wanted to scream, but nothing would come out.
I says to her, “You don’t have to be scared anymore. You’re shed of him. What’s more, you’re a rich woman.”
I picked up the saddlebags, swung them across my shoulder and walked out the door.
From up the street came four of Jesse Ordway’s hands, walking along like they had been sent for. I was the last person they expected to see come out after the shooting. Later, when I had time to think about it, I figured they was coming down to be Ordway’s “eye-witnesses” after him and Sorrells killed me.
They pulled their guns and spread out. I was about to take a shot at one of them when somebody else done it for me. I seen one of them go down and grab his leg and scream like he had gone into a fire. The others stopped in their tracks, dropped their guns and raised their hands.
There was Felipe Rios across the street, sitting on his horse. His gun was smoking like he had been burning greasewood.
I taken a look at Ordway’s boy, who was trying to hold the team and keep it from running away. I says, “Boy, you better go in yonder. I think your mama needs you.” Then I got on my horse, laid the saddlebags across my lap and rode over to where Felipe was.
I couldn’t decide whether to thank him or raise hell with him. I says, “Thought you was going to Arlee’s”
“Later,” he says. “I thought you might need help.”
“You can’t go to Arlee’s now,” I tell him. “I just killed Jesse Ordway and Sorrells. They’ll figure you was part of it.”
He nodded like it wasn’t no surprise to him. He says, “It was in your face.”
“I got to leave here now,” I tell him. “You feel like you can keep up with me?”
“I don’t see where I have any choice,” he says. “These people will hang me if I stay.”
Them days when a man got in trouble he went south. A day and a half of hard riding would take us to the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river they didn’t care how many gringos you had killed; the more the better. Felipe wasn’t in very good shape of a long ride like that, but I decided he would make it if I had to tie him in the saddle.
Good sense told me we ought to ride out of that town as fast as we could make those horses go. But that was Jesse Ordway’s town, and I didn’t want to run. I wanted us to take our time and let them all have a good long look at our backside. We rode slow and easy down the street, past them O Bar men. One of them was still holding onto his leg and trying to make the blood stop running. I says to him, says I, “You-all are working for a widow-lay now. You better go down to the bank and see what she wants you to do.”
We just walked out horses till we got past the first bend in the road, to where the brush hid us from town. I says then, “Let’s ride, Felipe.”
And he rode.
Copyright © 1975 by Elmer Kelton