Western Wednesdays—THE TRAIL HAND by R. W. Stone

There’s something about first person narratives that makes me feel right in the middle of the action. I discover what’s going to happen next right along with the narrator, and the sense of urgency is all the more heightened for it. R. W. Stone puts us directly behind the hero’s eyes and the view is quite spectacular in Trail Hand. Go on, take a look for yourself…

Allison Carroll
Editorial and Web Coordinator

Chapter One

The boy strained hard against the powerful arms pinning him back. Although strong for his age, the thirteen-year-old was clearly no match for three adults, especially men as ruthless as these.

The youth screamed angrily, violently kicking and thrashing about as he watched the knife being drawn from its sheath. His eyes widened in terror as the cowboy thumbed the edge of his blade. He had to know it was useless to struggle, but this boy was Kiowa and the thought of quitting never occurred to him. It would be better to die fighting—at least then his spirit would live on, forever proud.

I practically rode my Morgan stallion into the ground trying to reach him, but made little if any progress. It seemed as if the very ground itself was fighting against me. Sweat flew from the bay’s neck as the sun’s heat combined with droplets from his nose to produce small clouds of steam.

The stallion snorted as we raced on, tugging furiously at the reins, but, strangely, the more we rode, the longer the distance we had to cover grew. It was as though time itself had stood still.

A hairy arm raised a long razor-sharp dagger, its wicked triangular blade reflecting the sun’s glare. The Indian boy’s chest heaved, but his Kiowa war cry was suddenly cut short as the arm holding the knife plunged downward. The three men all laughed as his limp body fell slowly toward the ground.

My own scream caught in my throat as I bolted upright in bed, sweat dripping down my face. I shook my head clear of the dream, and, as I regained my senses, I immediately regretted having taken that siesta. It was one local custom I never truly learned to appreciate.

I got up, walked over to the dresser at the far end of the room, and poured some water from a large clay pitcher into its matching bowl. After washing up, I took an old rose-patterned towel off the wall hook and dried myself while staring out the window. The second-story room of the boarding house where I currently rented overlooked the town’s main street, but, as usual for this time of day, there was nothing to be seen but the occasional tumbleweed.

It didn’t take me long to decide on two things. One was that I was badly in need of a change of scenery. The second was that at least for now I’d settle for a stiff drink.

It was a lousy way to start the afternoon.

The sign outside read Las Tres Campanas—The Three Bells. There wasn’t a bell anywhere in sight. It was just a typical cantina and like others common to that part of the country, small, brown, hot, and dusty. No piano players or fancy mirrors would ever be found decorating this place, although there were a few ropes and some old wine bottles hung up on the walls.

The town of San Rafael hadn’t grown much in the last couple of years since it wasn’t close enough to the main border crossings to attract the cattle trade. Some Texicans did occasionally drift in, but aside from a few tired and overheated local peasants, the only other regular patron of the cantina was a scrawny cur dog who was currently sitting in the corner chewing contentedly on the remains of a big gray rat. Dogs, I’d noticed, tend to be better ratters than most cats.

The cur had a notched right ear and, ever since a horse had stomped him, was missing half his tail. The dog smelled so badly everyone tried to give him a wide berth, but even though the room was big enough to hold more than a dozen tables, his stench was still annoying, even at the opposite end near the door. Of course that wasn’t enough to stop the locals from drinking there, since the tequila served in Las Tres Campanas was the smoothest in town. The cantina’s owner, Felipe, also cooked the best plate of enchiladas, fríjoles, and Mexican rice anyone ever tasted.

I was leaning on the bar at the far corner, sipping mescal and trying to forget a heat that was already making rippled waves outside. I had learned to favor the drink even though I still couldn’t bring myself intentionally to swallow the ever present worm that most mejicanos swear is the best part.

Admittedly Las Tres Campanas wasn’t much when compared to other saloons I’d been in. Its bar was just a five-foot high wall of adobe with four planks laid down on top, and the wood was so poorly cut there wasn’t a straight or level surface in the whole affair. There were a few lit candle stubs stuck into some old cut-out peach cans running along its length, but most of the light in the cantina came from a couple of hanging oil lamps that offered up more smoke and smell than actual brightness.

Two large round ceiling beams ran down to the bar top. They were meant to support the roof, but most days it seemed they were used more as targets for knife throwing practice. It was a situation that caused considerable displeasure for the bartender, a short burly sort named Ramón, who was constantly forced to duck for his life.

I had been inside the cantina for about an hour, minding my own business, when a conversation between two young vaqueros caught my ear. I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, but what with them sitting at the nearest table I couldn’t help overhearing. When they started talking about a drive west, I perked up.

My pa always said that my curiosity would get me in big trouble someday, and, as always, things would eventually prove him right. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that, but, even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. If one more person in town had commented to me on how the humidity was actually worse than the heat, I would have plugged him on the spot, and in general I’m a peaceful sort. That’s how bad things had gotten.

It was hot, I was bored, and the prospect of leaving this pueblo had finally gotten the better of me. While my luck hadn’t completely run out, there had been better days, so by the time my drink was finished I’d already made up my mind to get out of town and back to work. I wanted to be out on the trail again, and these two vaqueros represented a glimmer of hope in otherwise dull circumstances.

One doesn’t just butt into a conversation with strangers, especially when they’re mejicanos, so I approached them cautiously. Their lingo might previously have presented a problem for me had I not picked up a little Spanish while hanging around the cantina owner’s daughter, Pilar. Unfortunately she was yet another reason I was anxious to head for the far country.

Unbeknownst to her father, “Pili” and I had been seeing each other for some time, although I often suspected I wasn’t the only one so honored. With her waist-length hair, sun-bronzed complexion, and full figure, Pili could attract a lot of attention, especially in a small town like San Rafael. That girl had the singular knack of making a fellow feel like he was the only man she’d ever desired, a feeling she created simply by glancing at him with a smile.

The problem was that her temper was usually as hot as her body. Seems Pili wasn’t content to keep things merely on a friendly basis, and I’d temporarily forgotten what most men supposedly learn at a very early age, namely that being completely truthful is not always the best course to pursue when dealing with an armed and angry girlfriend.

In fact, the last time we saw each other I almost got my head dented by a flying skillet, an assault I was lucky to survive. But all things considered, the Spanish I’d learned from her did come in handy, and I was now fairly sure that, if need be, I could at least make myself understood.

The two vaqueros at the next table were drinking beers laced with liberal amounts of freshly squeezed lemon, something the locals seem to favor doing to the suds served at Las Tres Campanas. Personally I just thought it put the finishing touches on what was already a godawful brew, preferring instead to order drinks from bottles labeled by someone other than Felipe. I had Ramón pour me another mescal before heading over to their table. My glass was still in my right hand, the intent being to appear a little less threatening.

Once, in a Kansas City stockyard, I had tipped the weighing scales at 230 pounds. Consequently, at six foot three, my size sometimes had a rather nervous effect on others in town, regardless of what I did. This time I hoped that wouldn’t be the case since I was searching out work, not trouble. Even so, you never know about strangers, especially in a cantina south of the border. It’s a wise man who never takes anything for granted.

A couple of months earlier, for example, two drunken, out-of-work Texicans decided to take out their hostilities on a black cowboy who went by the name of Sonora Mason. I guess he just happened to be drinking in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Texicans had laid in wait for him, outside, and then jumped him from behind when he rounded the corner. They dragged him into a back alley and beat him so badly he coughed blood for three days.

The locals figured that the two just felt like beating up on someone, and didn’t much like blacks. I happened along shortly afterwards and heard someone moaning in the alley. What I found wasn’t a pretty sight.

With his eyes swollen shut and three busted ribs, Mason wasn’t in any shape to walk, so I carried him over to the doctor’s office. The next day I checked in on him and helped prop him up while the doctor wrapped his chest with some wet rawhide strips that hardened into a corset-like affair. The doctor also had me fill a prescription for a yellow tea called manzanilla with morphia added to it for pain. Surprisingly by the third day, in spite of the doctor’s warning to stay in bed for at least another week, Mason was up and around. The next morning he cut out of town early.

What those two Texicans didn’t know was that Sonora Mason trailed with a band of mejicano outlaws. “Muy malos” as they say. Rumor has it his group eventually caught up with the pair, and it’s been said that, when he got through revenging himself, Mason was satisfied that neither of the two would ever father any more children. Like they say, nobody takes anything for granted in a cantina.

Fortunately for all concerned, the two vaqueros acted friendly enough when I approached their table.

Con permiso, caballeros,” I said in my best, although admittedly not very good, Spanish accent. “¿Alguien habla ingles?

As they turned to face me, their bodies shifted subtly so as to keep their holsters free of the table. These two were obviously careful, and experienced in the ways of things.

The one to my right was a head taller than his companion, and sported a small clipped moustache. He had broad shoulders, and a wide gray sombrero that hung back on a rawhide strap. The other vaquero was darker, clean shaven, and slightly thinner. Although neither of them could have yet reached their twentieth birthday, both their faces were heavily weather-beaten.

As I stood waiting for a reply, I noticed their eyes drifting down toward the holster on my hip, and then back up in surprise. By now I was used to this sort of stare from others because hung on my right hip was an ivory-handled Colt Navy .36-caliber, gold-and nickel-plated, and scroll-engraved. It must have presented a strange contrast to the rest of my clothes, which in my current economic state were far from elegant. What a saddle bum like me was doing with such a fine sidearm was a story in itself.

Back home, my father ran a small but efficient ranch. While we never had an abundance of any one thing, Pa always saw to it that our family never went without the necessaries. He worked hard and led a relatively quiet life, but never talked about his life before he married Ma. Even so I always suspected that before he settled down, Pa had ridden the river a time or two. I never knew a better man with rifle or knife, and back home the folks are all good!

Some years ago the county held a fair, complete with a shooting contest that offered a pair of presentation Navy Colts as first prize. This wasn’t any ordinary turkey shoot however, not with a matched brace of Colts as first prize. Actually there were several events that all had to be completed before a winner would be chosen. The bull’s-eye and distance accuracy trials narrowed the field a bit, but what really thinned the ranks were the moving target competitions.

In one event a whiskey jug was hung by a rope from a tree limb and then a large wooden board with a hole cut out in its center was placed in front. The trick was to hit the swinging jug through the hole in the board from 100 yards away. Other competitions entailed shooting objects thrown in the air, targets hidden behind other objects, and shooting increasingly smaller targets.

Pa and I naturally had to try our luck. I didn’t claim to be in his class, but when the finalists narrowed down to just the two of us, I could see a smile grow on his face. My old single-shot wasn’t near as fine as Pa’s repeater, but I had filed and shaped the stock to fit my shoulder better, and loaded my own shot.

The final contest was the hardest. This time the targets weren’t moving; the shooters were. A silver dollar was placed on top of a six foot long post that had a small notch cut into it to hold the coin upright. We were required to shoot at it from twenty-five yards out. It wasn’t a hard distance to make, unless you’re trying the shot while cantering by on horseback.

Of course, Pa won the whole match, but not by much. I was real proud of him, although I do admit to being a touch disappointed in my own performance. As much as I loved my pa, secretly I’d wanted to best him and prove to the family that I’d finally grown up. At the time I merely wanted to earn more respect, but I know now that growing up isn’t the same as being grown up. Respect isn’t won quickly; it has to be earned gradually.

Truth is, although that brace of Colts was a thing of beauty, I had never really had any false hopes about keeping them, even if I had been lucky enough to win. Everyone knows small-time ranchers don’t need fancy engraved shooting pieces, and it stood to reason that Pa would sell the brace for more livestock, regardless of which of us won.

Sure enough, not long after the fair ended, one of our neighbors, Jethro Hamilton, brought over some new Morgan horse crosses for our ranch. Pa had been eyeing them for quite some time, but he never had had the asking price before.

I hadn’t seen the velvet-lined gun box the Colts arrived in since the contest, so under the circumstances I figured Pa had been more practical about things than I would have been if our positions had been reversed. I truly never expected to ever see those pistols again.

About a month later, on my fifteenth birthday, I was flabbergasted when Pa handed me one of those Navy Colts complete with a tooled leather holster obviously made to fit my rather substantial frame.

The present caught me totally off guard.

“I figure you really tied with me in that contest, what with havin’ to use that old hand-me-down rifle of yours,” Pa explained, “so I kep’ the pistol you ought to have won. Swapped the other Colt, plus a good pocket watch and some grain, for the Morgans.”

I knew that watch was a favorite of his, but when I started to protest, he just shook his head.

“It was a fair trade and at the same time it saved me from havin’ to fret over your birthday. Besides, your ma figures, if worse comes to worst and need be, you can always sell it to he’p git yourself out of trouble.” Pa smiled and continued on. “Your Uncle Zeke is the best leather worker I know, and he made this holster for your birthday, so don’t ever let me catch you spoilin’ it with studs an’ the like. Remember, a fancy-lookin’ rig with a pistol like this can get anyone in trouble.” He stared at me a while as if thinking that meant especially someone like me. “A handgun is a serious tool, and a holster is only something for carryin’ and protectin’ it. Neither one is for showin’ off.”

I could tell he was dead serious, but there was also a hint of family pride in his eyes. It was the same pride that showed in my uncle’s work. The leather belt had been carefully etched and sewn with elegant patterns to highlight the open top Slim Jim holster, designed to do justice to the pistol without being obvious.

Pa was wearing a Remington .44 Army in a worn belted holster that day, one I’d never seen before. We were standing opposite a large tree out back, when Pa reached into his pocket and brought out a silver dollar which he subsequently placed on the top of his right hand. He stood there holding his gun hand, palm down, at waist level with the dollar on top. Before I knew what happened, he’d drawn and fired, all before the coin hit the ground! I was left speechless.

“Don’t be fooled by this, Son . . . a lot of shootists can beat the coin. Some use a poker chip for effect and others can do it timed in less than a second. But I’m not gonna teach you circus tricks. A person has a given right to carry a gun for protection, but when you carry, you hold a grave responsibility, to yourself and others. Remember, speed is only a small part of using a gun and won’t impress those what count. They know it also takes a level head, accuracy, and no small amount of courage to face someone in a draw.”

For the rest of the afternoon, and for many thereafter, Pa taught me the basics of handgunning. From what I now know about things, what was basic for Pa was downright sophisticated for most folks, and over the years I’d have more than one occasion to be grateful for all his teachings.

That’s why I didn’t overreact to the hard stares the men gave me that day in the cantina.

The vaqueros looked me over for a while before the taller one finally answered.

Sí, señor, we speak your language. What can we do for you?”

Don’t know why I was surprised that they spoke English so much better than I did Spanish, but it did make things easier, so I just pulled up a chair and relaxed into conversation as if we already knew each other a good while.

I let on right off that if there was work to be had around cattle or horses, and involved leaving town for distant parts, I was available.

The taller of the two vaqueros, Miguel, explained that they both worked for Don Enrique Hernandez de Allende, on a hacienda some distance to the south. They were planning to drive their horses north and then west to California, where apparently the don’s brother-in-law had another ranch. The other fellow, Francisco, told me they’d been sent to town for supplies and that they were preparing to return to the hacienda first thing in the morning.

“If you’re interested in work, you will have to convince our caporal, the . . . ah . . . how you say it . . . ramrod? But, he realizes it will be a hard drive and we will have need of a scout who knows the country north of our border,” he added encouragingly.

A few years back, not long after my seventeenth birthday, a flu epidemic took my ma, and shortly thereafter Pa died. There was no keeping me home after that, so I left the ranch to my sister Rebecca and her husband, and headed West on my own. Whatever the reason I gave at the time for leaving, the truth is I was aiming to duplicate what I imagined to be Pa’s mysterious and exciting past. I rode West that spring with his rifle, an old broke-in saddle, and the pick of the Morgans, a large sable bay stallion.

That old saddle never did fit me well and was soon traded for a bigger one. Later that year, I also replaced the old rifle for a newer model Henry repeater at Freund’s gun smithery inLaramie. While there I picked up a spare cylinder for my Navy .36- caliber and had their gunsmiths, two brothers named Pruitt, modify its front. The job they did building up the sight almost tripled the pistol’s distance accuracy, and, by filing its sear and lightening the trigger pull, they made that Colt’s action work smooth as silk.

Since that time I’d traveled a fair share, mined some, ate a lot of cattle dust, and tried to keep the trouble that always seemed to follow me around down to a minimum. I could ride most Western trails with my eyes closed, and many of the areas that I didn’t explore personally had been explained to me by scouts, hunters, and trappers I’d met along the way.

I was smart enough to realize that most folks I’d meet would have something or other to offer, so I always tried to avoid a natural tendency to run on at the mouth. Even as a youngster I’d listened carefully to my elders. Some of the older men I’d met could describe places in ways not found in picture books and for the most part you could follow their words better than lines on a map. I remembered their words well.

So, with my experience, I had no trouble convincing the two mejicanos that they wouldn’t find a better scout, and they agreed to introduce me to Señor Hernandez. Of course, the extra round of drinks I sprung for helped some, and early the next morning we left town together, heading south. I still rode the Morgan bay. After all we’d been through I wasn’t about to trade him.


One Response to Western Wednesdays—THE TRAIL HAND by R. W. Stone

  1. Craig Clarke says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this new author. I downloaded the sample from Amazon (the same as presented here) onto my Kindle, and I really like the narrative voice. I’m very interested to see what else happens.

    I hope it turns out to be a trail-drive novel, as it seems to be, because that is my favorite Western subgenre.

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