Things were looking bad. The horse-thief gang that T.L. was in, Gates's, had poached on the territory of another gang. Gates's gang of five had corralled their stolen stallions and mares in a small abandoned town they didn't know the name of in southwestern New Mexico, in 1881. Whatever townsfolk had been there fled when Gates's gang came thundering in towing a dozen horses by the reins. And within an hour here came the other gang over the hill, in a rising wind.
There was no negotiation. T.L.'s gang was outnumbered two-to-one in the big showdown gunfight. A lot of running around and shooting. One of theirs fell, but that was the extent of T.L.'s gang's success. T.L.'s leader, Gates, went down first next to a drinking trough. T.L. holed up in the general store, glass shattering left and right, and before he got the door closed the next thing he knew was nothing—black.
When T.L. awoke, bloody, the sun was going down red in gray streaks of clouds. He lay on the floorboards of the general store. As near as he could figure, he had fallen and caught the side of his head on a nail on the wall. That accounted for the blood, on his face and wall and floor. He could find no other wound. Checking himself over, he found that his left boot-heel had a bullet in it. It must have been what knocked him off his feet.
T.L. saw a dozen bullet holes in the wall. The one in his heel may have saved him, taking him down, the blood from the nail convincing the other gang that he was dead.
He crawled slowly out of the general store. His guns and ammunition had been taken. So had his horse and saddlebag with the thieving money. Silence, breeze, tumbleweeds. A man lay dead to his right, one of his friends, Les. T.L. took Les's flat-brimmed black hat. It was a good one. Somehow T.L. had lost his hat in the confusion. All his other friends were dead in the dirt and on the walk, in various poses, some hellish, some sleep-like. The one dead opponent, left behind, was also stripped of guns, bullets and anything else valuable.
T.L. headed into the saloon and found two loaded pistols behind the bar. He hefted them as he drank a shot of whiskey, then another. Tumbleweeds blew past. It had never been much of a town—no church, no theater, no schoolhouse, as far as he could tell from the look of the buildings. As T.L. washed his face in a basin of unclean water he heard hoofbeats.
A rider in a white hat approached on a spotted gray horse, rode up to the saloon, tied his horse to the rail, and entered the saloon, gun drawn. Crouching behind the bar, heart pounding, T.L. aimed at the man's gun hand as he came through the doors. His shot hit him in the gut instead.
Dust blew in from the street onto the man's face. T.L. went to him.
"I was trying to shoot the gun out of your hand," T.L. said. "I didn't mean to get you so bad."
The man breathed shallowly, past answering. T.L. scrambled back behind the bar for a shot of whiskey to give him but by the time he returned the man was dead.
T.L. pulled the saddlebag off the white-hatted stranger's horse and found a few dollars in cash, some bread and sausage, some wrapped cheese, several cheroots, matches, a letter from a sweetheart, postmarked San Francisco, and a paper containing what looked like a safe combination. He found the safe in a back room, tried the numbers, and found $28,000 in cash and several silver bars.
Sitting down next to the safe in a near faint, T.L. listened for what he assumed would be the inevitable arrival of other hostile forces. None came. He felt in desperate need of a cheroot and grabbed one from the stranger's saddlebag.
The smoke from the cheroot drifted slowly down the now windless street. Cheap as the cigar was, it tasted good. T.L. looked back at the saloon. Under the swinging doors he could see the dead man's boots. He let out an involuntary oath, dragged hard on the cheroot until it was down to his fingers. He pitched it into the dust.
His left boot, T.L. noticed with annoyance, didn't walk right with the bullet in it. The heel seemed about to fall off. He tried on the stranger's boots, found they fit all right. T.L. put everything into the stranger's saddlebag and checked the canteen on the horse. It was full of water. As he started to ride away, T.L. pulled up, went back, dismounted, and tied his old boots onto the horse.
Feeling like a god with the cash and silver, T.L. galloped north. He yelled into the arid New Mexico air. He hardly knew what to think, let alone what to do next. At age fifteen he had ridden out from Nebraska, a middle child of eight, having slipped away from a father who rode fences and wasn't around much and a mother overwhelmed with care. He was not much missed, except for the help his father had expected on the range.
Some days later, with the sun long down, it was getting cold; time to make camp. This was rough, wild, stony country, massive tall stones and rough going, not much of what you could call a trail. T.L. was tired. The sagebrush fire took quickly. He added stray twigs and a substantial clump of branches, ate some of the white-hatted stranger's bread and sausage, drank from a whiskey bottle taken from the saloon, then a little water.
As he began to doze off, leaning against a high rock face, T.L. sensed the presence of someone. His eyes popped open to find an Indian, approaching on foot, hands raised as T.L. fumbled for a pistol.
The Indian, possibly Navajo, T.L. thought, pointed to the fire, then to his woven bag, then to his sheathed knife. He squatted and offered the knife to T.L., who from some instinct of hospitality or politeness shook his head. The Navajo seemed to be on the run from someone, kept looking around, listening into the dark. He set the knife on the ground just out of easy reach. T.L. watched closely as the Navajo brought out flatbread, tore off a chunk and offered it. The air had become quite cold. The Navajo pointed again to the fire. T.L. threw on more branches, accepted the flatbread, offered in return sausage, cheese and bread from the saddlebag, water from the canteen. The Navajo ate and drank sparingly and wrapped himself in a large, rough blanket that hung from his shoulder. Talk proved useless; they could not understand each other. The Navajo lay down near the fire.
Near dawn T.L. awoke with a start, angry with himself at having nodded off with a potential murderous enemy nearby. The Navajo was gone. In a panic T.L. pawed through the saddlebag but found nothing missing.
Weeks passed. T.L. reached San Francisco, lodged in a hotel room, found a nearby bar, ordered whiskey. After one sip he sat motionless for a half-hour.
"I didn't mean to kill him," he mumbled.
That drew the bartender over.
"Did you want another? You've barely touched that one."
T.L. bolted the whiskey and said "yes." A piano played in the background, a new tune T.L. had never heard.
"I killed a man and didn't mean to," he said, as the bartender handed him his second whiskey and wiped the counter.
"Did you go to the police?"
"The police? This was way down in New Mexico. Way down. Now I have his money, or somebody's money."
T.L. drained the second whiskey. The bartender slid a bottle in front of him.
"Run you a tab?"
"You know," said the bartender, "one time a man came in here, ordered whiskey, drank it slowly, and after an hour signaled me over, beckoned me close, and said, 'I've just been stabbed. I don't know what to do.' I said, 'We can send for a doctor.' 'No,' he said, 'no doctor. Too many questions.' I said, 'Doctors usually don't ask questions.' He said, 'Are there women upstairs?' I sent him to Agnes, who's the kind one. He went up. She cleaned his wound and said he should still see a doctor. The man left and I don't know what happened after that."
"Is Agnes still up there?" T.L. asked.
T.L. went up. Agnes was occupied so he waited. When he got in to see her he told her the whole story.
"You were defending yourself," she said.
"I thought I was. But I had the drop on him. I could have just told him to put down the gun. Instead I shot him."
"You were aiming at his gun."
"That's what I keep telling myself."
Silence followed. T.L. sat in the only chair in the small room, a rickety wooden thing at the foot of the bed. Agnes was pretty, in a haggard sort of way. He had no desire for her.
"Would this make you feel better?" Agnes matter-of-factly opened her blouse, then took it off. Her body was not all that attractive to T.L., but still, it was a young woman's body. His desire stirred a bit.
"No," he said.
"I don't know what to tell you," she said.
"You can't be expected to tell me anything."
"You'll be all right. I still have to charge you. For the time."
He nodded, paid her and left.
T.L. banked the money, invested with great luck, given his lack of experience, became quite wealthy. His wealth gathered him friends. He showed them his boot-heel with the bullet still in it, told his story again and again until he grew sick of it.
When he decided he needed a lawyer to oversee his affairs, T.L. walked into a law office at random, without appointment, demanded the most experienced lawyer in the firm, and was shown in to the office of Cullen Alfred Porter. Porter's gray hair satisfied T.L. on the score of experience. For some minutes T.L. sat staring across the desk. Porter let him sit, in no hurry to rush the business, whatever it was. Porter saw a man thin of face, gray-eyed, with thin brown hair.
"I have some money and silver," T.L. said. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"I'd prefer you didn't. We can go outside and talk, if you'd like."
"No, I want it private, in here. I want to open an account."
"I'm sure that can be arranged. How much money are we talking about?"
The amount surprised Porter. He was old-fashioned and had qualms about the source of the cash and silver. It was, after all, 1881, and there was a lot of funny business going on out West. T.L.'s clothes were clearly brand-new. Was the money from a bank robbery? Porter's questions were delicate. T.L.'s tale emerged only gradually as he and Porter began to work out his affairs, his facial expressions showing something proud yet lost at the same time. Certain looks, Porter noticed, suggested a strange combination of defiance and shame. T.L. had raised himself up out of horse thievery—or rather he had been raised out of it by chance, Porter saw. Chance and more than a hint of dishonor, making him feel a fraud, but a fraud with means. And he was spooked by the killing.
Cullen Porter came to sympathize with T.L. and urged him to read and gain some education, which he did, largely by reading Washington Irving, mainly Irving's writings on the prairie, and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, especially The Prairie, and the local newspapers. Then T.L. started to drink heavily and went back to that first Frisco saloon he'd visited and tried to woo the prostitute Agnes into marriage. Only with difficulty did Porter steer him away from Agnes, who was far from sure she wanted T.L., toward a reasonably suitable girl of modest means. Her name was Maud. T.L. sobered up to some degree, they married, had four children— who, along with his wife, found T.L. distant and distracted.
"I never knew a thing about him," T.L. would say over and over in Porter's office downtown. "I told him I didn't mean to kill him. I told him. I told him."
At times in the middle of discussing something else, T.L. would gaze out Porter's office window at the broad waters of the bay and say, "I could have told him to drop it. But I didn't. I didn't know what he'd do when surprised. Still, I could have told him to drop it."
"Listen to me," Porter would say. "What's done is done. For all you know, he might have shot you—probably would have. It was apparently his saloon, but we don't know that for sure. Anyway, it's over. This is where you are now. There's nothing you can do about it. You're providing for your family."
Shortly after this T.L. remembered the letter in the white-hatted man's saddlebag. He still had it, unread. It was addressed to a Frank Stilwell at a hotel in Durango, Colorado. It lacked a return address. With trembling fingers T.L. opened it.
Please be careful when you go to Gila Piedras. Have some men with you. I know the money is important but I wish you wouldn't go. I pray for you every day. I love you so much and look forward to our marriage.
Ever yours in love,
The letter still did not prove that the man owned the saloon, Porter pointed out. If it was his saloon, wouldn't he have memorized the combination to the safe? Why commit it to paper? In any case, the letter haunted T.L. He wanted to find this Rachel, but without a last name any such search was bound to be fruitless. Still, T.L. asked Porter to make inquiries, and T.L. himself asked around in the saloons, hoping to locate Rachel and make some sort of amends.
They never found her. T.L. became moodier, at times over-excited, fulminating in Porter's law office.
"That damned Indian could have taken everything, including the horse! Could have killed me or not, but taken everything!"
Porter thought, Some people just don't get over things. That one miserable bullet in his heel was his mark of destiny.
One day in 1886 T.L. was at the opera with his wife. By chance one of his mistresses, unknown to his wife, happened to sit down next to him. As both wife and mistress leaned in simultaneously to speak to T.L., he stood up, said "Excuse me," and left the opera. Neither woman ever saw him again. The next morning T.L. was waiting at Porter's law office when it opened and announced to Porter that he was going on a trip. This was after he had arranged his will.
"Now, what is this trip all about?" Porter asked him.
"Just something I have to do."
He wrote from Gila Piedras some weeks later.
Not much here. General store, saloon, all gone, all different. A few people recall something about a big shootout long since but no details. I'm going to try to find my old homestead in Nebraska now, where I grew up.
He didn't have much success there, either. No cabin stood where his family's had. Nobody remembered his family's name. Seven brothers and sisters in his family and not one traceable. One last letter to Porter didn't say where he planned to go next.
A few months later, Porter received a visit from T.L.'s wife, Maud. She had a letter from the coroner in St. Louis. She seemed more resigned than sorrowful. T.L. had died "in a public establishment," apparently of heart trouble. At least his family was well provided for.
"I don't know what he thought he was doing," Porter told a colleague. "He had a life here in San Francisco. Maybe he was trying to fix in his mind where he'd come from and how he got to where he was, locate some people who could tell him a little more about all of it. I don't know. T.L. was not an intelligent man," Porter said, "but he seemed to be trying to put something together."
On the day that Maud came in to wrap up the will with Cullen Porter, she brought the boot. Porter was taken aback, seeing it, the actual life-saving, fatal artifact of T.L.'s life. He could see the bottom of the bullet almost an inch inside the heel.
"T.L. kept this," Maud said. "I don't want it."