His hand on her hip, his other forearm resting on the seat, he lowered his forehead to his arm. After a long moment, he realized some townspeople were beginning to gather.
“Aw damn, Court,” someone said.
From farther along the boardwalk he heard someone say, “Is she alive?”
Someone else said, “No,” tentatively, as if after shaking his head.
The owner of the store came out and hustled to Court’s side. “Jesus, Court. Jesus. Is there anything we can do?”
Without a word to any of them, he climbed onto the wagon seat and drove out of town.
Back at the house, he snapped off the shaft of the arrow, then carried Mary and his son into the house and lay them on his bed. Carefully, he arranged little Buck on his wife’s chest, her arm still wrapped protectively around him. He bent to kiss them both on the forehead, then covered them with the quilt.
Back outside, he retrieved a shovel from the barn and spent the next few hours working out his grief.
When he’d finished digging the grave, he went into the house for a blanket and his wife’s pillow. He took them outside and arranged them in the grave, then went back in and picked up his wife and son, still wrapped in the quilt.
Outside, he knelt and positioned them alongside the grave, then climbed down into the grave himself. Tugging on the quilt, he carefully eased his wife and son down into his arms for the final time and lay them on the blanket. Finally, he folded the blanket carefully, lovingly over them and climbed out of the grave. He turned and looked at them, at what should have been the future.
Finally his shoulders heaved and he nearly went to his knees with grief. Racked with sobbing, he spent the next hour filling in the grave. When he was finished, he built a cairn, covering the top of the grave with some of the limestone rocks he’d pulled out of the field the first year they’d plowed. Then he fixed a marker that read simply,
Mary & Buck Edwards
Mother & Son
Beneath it he carved the date and year. When he’d set it firmly at the head of the grave, he looked at it for a moment. Quietly he said, “Goodbye, Mary. ‘Bye, little Buck. I’m awful sorry.” Then he turned and went back to the wagon.
Almost two years after he’d returned from the war, Courtney Lee Edwards had buried his wife and infant son.
He released the horses and chickens, then saddled his favorite mount. He packed his saddle bags full of his clothing, ammunition and some food, slipped his Henry .45 caliber carbine into the saddle scabbard and mounted his horse.
The war had taught him to recognize death.
It had also taught him to ride away from it.
Three days later in Amarillo, in the presence of his friend, Ranger James Riley Connolly, the captain had administered his oath as a Texas Ranger.
Corporal Connolly passed the reins to him. “Thanks, Court. I ‘preciate it.” As the Ranger took the reins of the horse and led it away, Corporal Connolly turned back to Mr. Billings.
Mr. Billings shook his head. “I ain’t seen the results of a raid first hand, but I heard the Comanches can get kind’a rough.” A sneer tugged at the corner of his mouth.
The corporal nodded. “Yes sir, you could say that. You have a woman here?”
“Ayuh. Three of ‘em.” He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders again. His chest swelled. “Got a wife an’ two daughters.”
“Uh huh... well, different groups hit in different ways. But this group we’re chasin’, Iron Bear’s bunch, if they hit here several things are gonna happen, and none of ‘em are good. Let me just lay it out for you so you understand what you’re dealin’ with here. Now your women, they’re inside? So they can’t hear this? I mean, when the time comes, it would be better comin’ from you.”
“Okay. First and easiest,” and the corporal gestured broadly all around, “all this’ll be burned to the ground, most likely along with everything else in town. But there’ll be enough of ‘em to pay particular attention to you and yours, especially with you havin’ all these horses.
“Now, you get some grand notion of dying defending your property, I’m just gonna tell you up front, they won’t let that happen. They’ll take you alive even if it costs them a couple of braves. They want to torture you first so your women will hear you beggin’, but they’ll keep you alive so you can watch them torture your women too.
“Now what this particular bunch will do specifically, Mr. Billings, first they’ll drag you over there and tie you to that corral yonder.” He pointed. “After they’ve got you trussed up like a hog, they’ll slice off your eyelids so you can’t close your eyes. Then—”
Mr. Billings frowned, but his sneer was gone. “That’s hard to believe, Corporal. How can they do that? What I mean, that’s almost impossible, what with a fella fightin’ an’ movin’ his head an’ so forth.”
“Mr. Billings, can you grab your own eyelid, like if you got somethin’ in behind it?”
“Well yes, but—”
Connolly shook his head. “No buts for the Comanch’. They’ll gouge a thumb in there, stretch your eyelid out and slice it off, quick as that.” He snapped his fingers. “And then they keep comin’. Think of it.
“At that point you’re already dealin’ with more pain than you could ever imagine. You can’t close your eyes even though you’re movin’ the muscles to close ‘em same as you always have. And you’re tryin’ to force yourself to think you’re havin’ a nightmare and you’re trying to wake yourself up all at the same time. Only it ain’t a nightmare. It’s real.”
“Then maybe you’ll remember your wife and your daughters. You don’t hear anything, so you hope they at least escaped. And just as you start to wonder why that big buck Indian in front of you is laughing, another one will come up behind you and slash the tendons behind your ankles.
“Then you’ll slump. You still can’t believe any of it’s happening, especially since there ain’t no reason for it. Then you feel the knife of the one behind you drawing a line across your back just below your shoulders, just below the top rail of the corral. He’ll cut a little slit down on each side, too, and another little one in the middle. He wants to make sure you know what’s about to happen.
“And maybe you do know, but the thing is, it don’t matter. You can’t do anything about it. Just as you start to beg, he’ll grip the skin on one side with both hands and rip it straight down.
“If you weren’t screamin’ before, Mr. Billings, you will be then. And then, while you’re already screamin’, the one who was laughing at you will spit in your face. Then he’ll take your scalp. They see that as the ultimate insult.”
He leaned forward. “Now understand, none of that will kill you. And if you pass out, they’ll throw water on you and slap you around to wake you up. They don’t want you to miss the show. Once they know you’re awake again, they’ll go after your women.
“They’ll prob’ly drag your wife out first. They’ll tie her the same way they tied you, Mr. Billings. They’ll put her where you can see her, but not close enough for you to reach her. After they get her tied up, they’ll scalp her, and then they’ll throw her scalp in the dirt at your feet. And that’s just to get your attention.
“While she’s still screamin’, they’ll rip her dress off, Mr. Billings, or at least the top of it. But not for the reason you’re thinkin’. If they wanted her for sex, they already took her earlier. But they’ll rip off the top of her dress so they can slice her gut open.” He paused. “Then they’ll pull out her entrails so they’re stringin’ down to the dust at her feet. She’ll hang there on that fence, Mr. Billings, and she’ll die slowly.
“All you can do is hope she goes before the coyotes catch the scent. Or that you die so at least you don’t have to watch them song dogs tearin’ at her guts.
�And don’t forget your daughters. They’ll drag your daughters out too, and they’ll take ‘em, over and over and over again, right out there in the yard, with you and your wife, if she’s still alive, forced to watch. Then they’ll kill your little girls in a similar way to how they killed your wife.”
He paused. “Now, Mr. Billings, what I just described ain’t make believe. It’s what we found yesterday on a place about 12 miles west of here, except it was a man and his wife and a boy and a girl. The man and his wife were trussed up like I just described. The boy was killed with a bullet to the head. The girl had fourteen arrows pinning her to the ground. Fourteen arrows, Mr. Billings.
“Those are the men who passed a few miles north of here probably two, three hours ago. Are you startin’ to get the picture?”
Billings had gone stark white, his eyes wide. “I... oh... oh god, I never would have imagined they— But why? Why would they do such a thing?”
“You better hope you never find out. I suggest you keep your pistol loaded. If you see ‘em comin’, pull your gun, tell your wife and daughters you love ‘em, an’ then kill ‘em. But be sure to save a bullet for yourself. Dead’s a whole lot better’n bein’ butchered alive.”
He slipped his fingers into his vest pocket and fished out a slip of paper. He handed it to Mr. Billings. “Here’s your voucher for the horses, sir. Just write a number seven on there when you get a chance. That’s how many we’re borrowin’, an’ that’s how many we expect to bring back. Texas appreciates your help.”
Mr. Billings took the voucher, his hands trembling, his gaze still locked on the corporal’s eyes. He nodded, unable to speak.
The corporal turned away and headed for the corral. By the time he got there, Ranger Edwards had already transferred his saddle and bridle to a fresh mount. The whole transaction had taken less than five minutes.
On fresh horses, Corporal Connolly in the lead, the Rangers rode out of the yard and down the street at a canter. As they passed in front of the general store, the corporal glanced at the boys sitting there and nodded.
Mac’s eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open. He’d witnessed the entire event. Although he hadn’t been able to hear everything that was said, at times the wind shifted just right so he heard some of it. He watched the backs of the receding Rangers for a moment. As they neared the edge of town, they broke into a lope, then increased to a gallop.
Mac turned to his friend. “Wes, did you see that?” Then he looked again in the direction the Rangers had gone.
Still leaning back against the wall in his chair, Wes nodded, although his eyes were closed and his hat was tipped forward, resting on the bridge of his nose. “Yep, heard it too.” He shifted in the chair, but remained under his hat. Then he yawned and stretched, rocking the chair forward. He straightened his hat on his head and said, “Man, them Comanches are just bad, ain’t they?”
Still looking after the Rangers, Mac said, “What?” Then he turned back to Wes. “Well, not all of ‘em are that bad, Wes, what I’ve heard. I mean they’re bad, but not that bad like he was sayin’.
“But I mean the Rangers themselves. Wasn’t that somethin’? That was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, they just rode in and took what they wanted.”
Wes looked at his friend and frowned. “Wait—the Rangers robbed Mr. Billings?”
Mac huffed. “What? No they didn’t rob him. You know that ain’t what I meant. But that one Ranger, the leader, he talked to Mr. Billings for a bit, then handed him a little piece of paper. An’ then just like that they swapped horses seven for seven and rode out again.
“And while you were sleepin’ against the wall, the main Ranger, the one in front, he nodded at us as they went by.”
Mac paused. Again he turned and stared after the Rangers. Quietly, he said, “And what would it be like to have an enemy like that Iron Bear?” He looked at Wes. “Man’s got an enemy like that, he’s got a purpose in life.”
Wes laughed. “Hell I guess. I reckon you got an enemy like Iron Bear your purpose is to keep breathin’ an’ hope to go to bed with clean long johns. Sounds like that ol’ boy’d have me messin’ myself if he just snuck up an’ hollered boo.”
Mac ignored him. He gestured in the direction the Rangers had gone. “Y’know, Wes, I’ll bet that one Ranger, an’ maybe all of ‘em, want that guy more’n they want the sun to come up on Sunday.”
He turned again to look toward the receding Rangers. Only a small cloud of dust indicated where they had disappeared into the grasslands to the northeast.
Mac turned to his friend again. “Wes, I think it’s a sign.”
Wes sighed. “What kind of a sign, Mac?”
Mac looked at him. “You know, a sign. Like maybe that’s what I ought’a do, join up with the Rangers. That’d be a sure path to fame and fortune... adventure.”
Wes laughed and shook his head. “Adventure maybe, but I don’t know about that fame and fortune thing. I’m pretty sure you can’t get rich bein’ a Ranger.”
But Mac was serious. “Well yeah, but money ain’t all it’s about, Wes. Fame and fortune, that’s just what folks say. It’s a sayin’, that’s all. But adventure... a man’s gotta have adventure in his life. Else he ain’t livin’, not really.”
He looked at the boardwalk for a moment, then slapped his palms on his thighs and got up. “Well, that’s it. Wes, I’m joinin’ the Rangers.”
Wes got up too. He stretched again and yawned, then shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “All right. So when we leavin’?”
* * *
A little over an hour later and not quite six miles east-northeast of Watson, Corporal Connolly reined-in beneath a stand of ancient cottonwoods gathered around a natural spring. The largest trunk was well over five feet in diameter.
The men dismounted to rest their horses for a few minutes and let them drink.
The corporal, standing beside his horse, opened the left saddle bag and pulled out a well-worn map of the Texas panhandle. He walked toward the wide trunk of a fallen cottonwood. The bark had dropped away on one side of it.
Just as Connolly started to roll out the map against the smooth side of the fallen tree, Courtney Edwards came walking up. With him was Blake Stanton, a sharp new man who’d joined the company only recently.
Blake Stanton had turned 19 years old five weeks earlier. He was just under six feet tall, clean shaven, lean and wiry. His off-white shirt was tucked into his brown pants, and they in turn were tucked into his scuffed brown high-top boots. His gunbelt matched his boots, and the holster held one of the new Colt .45 caliber, 5-shot revolving pistols.
He reined-in at the hitching rail in front of Ranger headquarters in Amarillo and dismounted. He whipped the reins loosely over the rail, then took his Henry repeating carbine from the scabbard alongside his saddle. He crossed the boardwalk with a few steps, worked the latch on the door and pushed it open.
As he crossed the threshold, he released the door latch and quickly reached up to take off his hat. He held it to his chest with his right hand and let his eyes adjust.
There was only one man in the room, an older, tall, stout man sitting at a large desk on the other side of a short partition. He looked up. “May I help you?”
At 63 years old, Captain Odie Ray Flowers, the longtime commander of the company at Amarillo, was all set to retire. He had his eye on a piece of prime property over in New Mexico Territory, a couple hundred miles southwest of Amarillo. The site he had in mind was up on a formation called the Caprock.
Friends who’d moved there previously said the grass there was belly high to a bull most of the year, and when the wind blew just right you could almost hear the yucca bells ringing. Best of all, there was none of the red clay that plagued the area around Amarillo and turned the streets to a sticky red muck when it rained. He was waiting only for word from Austin and a replacement. But for now, it was still his job to do.
Quietly, Stanton said, “Y
es sir. I need to talk with a Texas Ranger, sir. Well, what I mean, I want to sign up.”
Flowers eyed him, then stood and walked stiffly to the gate in the partition. He swung it open and gestured with his hand. “Step into my office here and let’s talk. I’m Captain Flowers. I’m in command of the company here.” He indicated a chair to one side of his desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks.” Stanton sat, then leaned the Henry gently against the corner formed by the captain’s desk and the partition. It was as if he were handling an infant.
Captain Flowers rested one hip on the corner of his desk. “So you say you want to sign up?”
Stanton nodded. “Yes sir.”
The captain waited for a moment, then said, “May I ask why?”
“Oh, sorry... Indians, Captain. Well, Indians and Mexicans I guess. But for me, I’ve known some good Mexicans, so mostly Indians. Somebody’s gotta stop ‘em.”
He paused and rubbed the open palm of his right hand over his forehead, then down over his face. “They hit my folks place. I was out huntin’. Comanches I think, but it could’a been Apaches I guess... maybe even Caddo.” He looked at the floor for a moment. “I-I don’t know a lot about ‘em yet.” He looked up at the captain again. “They killed my folks, my sister... my brother.”
The captain nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that. When did this happen?”
“It’s been close to a month ago now, I guess.”
Flowers watched the young man’s face very carefully when he asked, “About your folks... were they mutilated in any way? Scalped, or otherwise harmed in any way that was more than just killing them?”
A slight frown creased Stanton’s brow. He thought for a moment, then said, “You mean did they torture them?”
“I-I didn’t look ‘em over real thoroughly, but there wasn’t anything like that as far as I could see. My pa had an arrow through his chest and was shot in the head. The others were only shot, once each in the head.”
The captain nodded. “All right. Well, it probably wasn’t Comanches. Be glad for that.”