The noon Texas sun sizzled and scorched the land more in August than any other time of the year. The searing heat felt especially oppressive when trudging behind an ornery old mule and a less than razor-sharp plow blade milling through sunbaked Texas soil.
John Henry Case, a stout, sturdy man of forty-seven, snapped the rein and leaned into the plow with every sore muscle in his body. Sensing the effort of the boss, the mule dipped his head and pulled hard, allowing the curved steel blade to send a tubular flow of bottomland dirt over onto itself. After pushing through a row of three hundred feet, John Henry stopped to give his mule a much-deserved rest as he wiped his sweat-soaked brow with a dirtied red bandana. Pausing to look around his five-hundred acres, John Henry noticed three riders slowly make their way down the crest that marked the western edge of his farm. Thankful for a reason to prolong his break, John Henry pulled two bright orange carrots out of his faded blue coveralls and dangled each under his equine companion's nose. After a quick sniff, the mule quickly crunched the bribes into oblivion. As the riders drew closer, John Henry recognized each man and noted both pistol and rifle at each man's side.
It looks like Allen's men are going to make me an offer I can't refuse, John Henry thought.
"Good afternoon fellas," John Henry said, removing his wide-brimmed straw hat.
"Afternoon, Mr. Case," one of the riders answered as all three pulled up on their reins and remained in their saddles.
"What can I do for you fellas on this hot afternoon?" John Henry pleasantly asked.
"Well, Mr. Case, it's not what you can do for us, but what we can do for you," the big man wearing all black with shirt sleeves rolled up as far as they'd go on his muscular arms.
"Oh? Y'all here to help me plow?" John Henry asked with a snicker, knowing full well why the men were there.
The two other riders chuckled, but the big man in black showed no expression.
"Mr. Allen sent us to make you a good deal on your land. He's instructed me to offer you ten dollars an acre. That's a lot of money for open pasture," the man stated flatly.
John Henry's smile curled down into a frown, his face darkened, and his eyes narrowed. He placed his hat back on his head and folded his arms across his chest before leaning back on his boot heels.
"Ten dollars an acre? You must be mistaken. It's 1873, land is going for twice that much and more when it's good bottomland like this. Tell Allen I'm not interested in selling," John Henry barked before turning to get back to his plow.
"Mr. Allen don't care about bottomland. He don't plan on farm'n' it," the man in black called after John Henry.
John Henry stopped and turned back to his unwanted guests, slowly nodding his head. "That's right. Word is the railroad will be passing near here, ain't it?" John Henry asked.
"Don't know nuthin' 'bout that, but I'd take Mr. Allen's offer if I were you," the man in black said, rolling his shoulders back and palming his pistol. The other two men shifted in their saddles but remained silent.
"Don't you threaten me, mister. I know you're Allen's hired guns, and if I see you back on my land, you'll be look-in down the barrel of my scattergun. Now git!" John Henry ordered the riders. A ripple of fear crept down his spine as he spoke.
The three riders spun their horses around and kicked them into a gallop, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. John Henry watched as they clambered up the crest, then disappeared. He let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat that had once again soaked his brow. He'd recently heard a rumor about the railroad stretching from San Antonio south to Laredo, but with the panic over money these days, he'd figured the railroad companies might stop laying track for a bit. He glanced over to the west ridge but saw nothing. He decided he'd get back to his plow and worry about the visit later. He looped the leather harness strap over his broad shoulders and snapped the reins. The mule snorted in protest as the blade sliced into the stubborn ground.
* * *
John David Case, a lean young man of seventeen with short cropped russet hair and brown eyes to match, stepped down from his buckboard and tied his horse to the tattered hitching post strategically anchored on the side of the small front porch of the Cotulla General Store. Located on the north edge of town across the street from the Cotulla Hotel, only a narrow patch of weeds separated the saloon from the store. This meant nearly every drunk inevitably staggered over and passed out on the porch the storekeeper built for his customers. John David stepped past one such drunk already sprawled face down on a bench, snoring like an angry bull, and filling the entrance with the stench of stale whiskey and sweat A bell nailed to the back of the front door announced John David's arrival.
"Well, good afternoon J.D. What can I do for you today?" Theodore Perry asked through a pleasant grin from behind the counter. A thin older man in his fifties with white hair and spectacles, Perry, looked more like a doctor than a store proprietor.
"Hello, Mr. Perry. I've got a list here from Ma," J.D. announced, removing the crumpled paper from his trouser pocket. Because he possessed the same first name as his father, everyone had grown accustomed to calling the eldest son of John Henry Case by his initials.
Perry unfolded the paper and examined the list of supplies Abigale Case had prepared for her son.
"Everything looks fine here, J.D. I believe I have everything in stock. It'll take a few minutes. You have other business in town, or you going to wait?" Perry asked.
"I'll just wait. I'll head over to the stables and see if Pa's new harness is ready after I get the supplies. Do you have any ammunition?" J.D. asked, his face lighting up with excitement.
Perry smiled. "How's that leg-iron I sold you?" He asked.
"Fine. Been shootin' so much I'm out of cartridges, though," J.D. explained.
Perry looked to the ceiling and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. "Let's see; I sold you that Colt this spring. April, I believe," Perry recalled.
"Yes, sir. Been through four boxes of cartridges since," J.D. proudly declared. "Getting rather good with it too. Got me a jackrabbit on the run about a week ago. I brought it to Ma for dinner, but she said there wasn't enough left after I hit it with that forty-four!" J.D. laughed.
Perry laughed, then paused. "I can't sell you ammunition on credit though J.D. I've lost too much money selling bullets on credit."
"No problem. I have money to pay. I'll take two boxes," J.D. said.
"Is your Ma gonna grouse at me for selling you ammunition like she did when I sold you that Colt?" Perry asked with a chuckle.
"Naw, I don't think so. She's got over me having a gun. It took a while, but Pa told her I was a man now and could spend my money as I saw fit," J.D. explained.
Perry pulled two boxes from a top shelf and placed them on the counter. "There you go—two-hundred rounds of forty-four-forty. I'll be right back with the rest of the items on your Ma's list," Perry said before disappearing into the back storeroom. Fifteen minutes later, he returned with two bulging burlap sacks.
J.D. paid for the ammunition, then gathered up the two bulky burlap sacks of supplies and headed out to his buckboard. After a quick check at the livery stable confirmed his father's harness wasn't ready, J.D. guided the buckboard down the two-track road that led to the Case farm. The three o'clock sun leaned toward the west burning his right side. The trip south, with at least two more stops to rest his horse, would take close to two hours in a loaded wagon. With plenty of daylight left, J.D. did not need to rush in this heat. Armed with new ammunition, J.D. had strapped on his gun belt and loaded his Colt Frontier with six rounds. He didn't expect trouble but riding alone with a load of supplies made him a target for any carpetbagger or Indian band along the road.
* * *
John Henry guided the plow blade along the perimeter of what would be the fall crop of corn when he caught a glimpse of J.D. bringing the buckboard around to the front of the house. He'd seen the dust cloud in the distance and hoped it was his son and not another visit from Denton Allen's henchmen. Despite his efforts to the contrary, the threat from Allen's men had banged around in John Henry's head for nearly five hours now, and he grew more anxious with each passing minute. He'd never shared a cross word with Denton Allen, but he'd only seen him a handful of times in Cotulla over the past three months. He knew Allen to be a wealthy man, having made his money in the railroad business, mainly by negotiating land deals for the railroad company up in San Antonio. An educated average size fella with a deep voice that boomed from beneath a drooping mustache, he was always togged up in fine business suits with matching hats.
John Henry didn't know the names of the men that accompanied Allen, but they were his constant companions any time Allen conducted business in or out of town. The recent financial panic caused by the rapid expansion of the railroads and the decline in demand for farm goods back east had stifled the talk of the railroad bringing prosperity to Cotulla and nearby Carrizo Springs.
Despite the early five o'clock hour, John Henry decided that was enough work for the day. He unhitched the mule and swatted the mule's back end, encouraging it to head to the stock pond for a much-needed drink. He then headed for the well near the barn to clean up before trying to enter the house. His wife had told him more than once to clean up before attempting to enter the house. At about the same time, J.D. brought the buckboard to a stop near the front door and jumped down from the bench. His stomping boots sent a cloud of dust up into the slight breeze pushing the grit toward the house where his mother let out a yell of disapproval at the front door.
"What have I told you about bringing that wagon too close to the house?" Abigale Case shouted through the screen door.
"Sorry, Ma, but these sacks are loaded up pretty heavy," J.D. attempted to defend his actions. He heard his father laugh behind him. The two men each grabbed a heavy burlap sack of supplies and made their way into the house where the aroma of freshly baked bread emanated from the kitchen. Father and son passed through the heavenly scent into the storage room next to the oven. After storing the supplies, John Henry tapped J.D. on the shoulder and pointed to the front door, indicating he wanted to speak to his son out of his mother's earshot. They remained silent while they guided the horse and buckboard to the barn where John Henry stopped his son. "I see you're wearing your gun. Any trouble on the road?" John Henry asked.
"No, Pa. Just wanted to be ready in case," J.D. explained.
John Henry nodded. "I heard the army went down to Mexico and riled up those raiding Apache. There's something else. I got a visit from Denton Allen's gunmen today. Allen wants to buy the farm for half what it's worth," John Henry reported wiping sweat from his face with his soaked bandana.
"No!" J.D. exclaimed.
John Henry gently squeezed his son's arm. "Don't worry, I told them I wasn't selling and ordered them off the land, but they gave me a warning . . . "
"What warning?" J.D. huffed, palming his Colt Frontier.
"It was nothing really, but I don't want to worry your mother with this."
"Who came here?" J.D. demanded, with a rush of anger rippling through him.
"It was those three gunmen that Allen always has around him when he's in town," John Henry reported.
J.D. nodded, looking past his father into the distance seeing everything and nothing at the same time. "I know who they are," J.D. answered.
"You know them?" John Henry asked with a hint of concern his son may be running with gunmen.
"I know of 'em, Pa. Don't need to know their names," J.D. clarified as he stood up straight and adjusted his gun belt.
"No son, no need for that. I can't worry about the farm and you all at the same time," John Henry pleaded before he began to sway back and forth. His head felt empty, and his vision failed him.
J.D. caught his father before he fell, guiding him to a stack of hay bales. Despite his normally scarlet sun-weathered face, John Henry went pale. He became short of breath. His chest heaved. He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath, clutching J.D.'s arms with quivering hands.
"What is it, Pa? You hurt?" J.D. asked.
John Henry shook his head. He slowly began to breathe normally and opened his eyes, staring into his wide-eyed son's face. John Henry forced a smile and nodded. He didn't want his son to know of the strange feeling he had. It felt like a flock of quail were flying around inside his chest.
"Must've worked too long in the sun today," John Henry speculated. "I'll be alright after I get some supper, let's go," John Henry said.
* * *
The next morning, J.D. woke to the sounds of loud voices coming from the kitchen. His mother was crying.
"J.D.! J.D.! Come quick!" John Henry called to his son, who swung out of bed and rushed into the kitchen where he found his father covered in blood.
"What happened?" J.D. shouted, looking for wounds that would cause his father to bleed so much.
"I'm alright, son! It's the cows! Someone slaughtered all the cows! I found all four of 'em dead behind the barn!" John Henry reported in between gasps for breath.
J.D. rushed out of the house, reminded of his bare feet by the assorted rocks and thorns that punctured his skin. Undeterred, he ran around to the back of the barn and took in the horrific sight. Despite the hazy dawn light, he could see the shadowy carcasses of their four milk cows, which had been cut and sliced more times than J.D. could count. Blood splatter covered the pen's split rails, the back of the barn, and the feed trough. Even the water in the trough had turned crimson red. John Henry joined J.D. at the gruesome sight.
"This was done with a knife, Pa. No coyote or wolf did this," J.D. stated flatly. "Must have been Allen's men," he added.
"I'm afraid you're right. I never thought they'd resort to this, though," John Henry sighed in a weak voice. "I need to get back to the house son, I'm not feeling too good," he added before he turned and started walking back to the house.
J.D. remained, staring at the dead cows. His skin stung. His face and hands burned. Sweat poured out of him from head to toe. He gazed at the edge of the sun that had peeked over the horizon. They won't get away with this. I won't let them get away with this. Thoughts tumbled around in his head, crashing into each other. Pain shot through his temples. His eyes hurt from the pressure building up behind them—
"J.D!" The sound of his father's voice pierced his thoughts. He turned to see his father stumble, then fall to the ground. He raced to his father's side, kneeling before carefully turning him over. J.D. clutched his father's broad shoulders and slightly lifted him.
"I'll get you in the house then go get Doc," J.D. whispered.
"No, son. It's too late for that. This pain in my chest won't wait. Promise me you'll take care of your mother and brother," John Henry squeezed out the words as best he could in-between gasps for breath.
"You'll be alright; I'll fetch Doc and get back here quick!" J.D. blurted.
John Henry grasped J.D.'s arm. "Don't sell out to Allen," John Henry begged.
His father's body fell limp as J.D. helplessly watched his father die in his arms. J.D. closed his eyes, fought back the tears, and hugged his father. The door flung open, crashing against the wall. J.D. looked up and saw his mother and younger brother on the porch. The look of anguish on his mother's face told him she knew.
* * *
A few days later, Reverend Morrison stood at the head of the open grave and spoke words J.D. couldn't, nor wanted, to hear. He barely sensed the low weeping of his mother and young brother, who clutched each other next to the stoic Preacher. His attention fixated on the pine casket his father lay in at the bottom of a dirt hole. Thoughts of sorrow, anger, and revenge battled for victory in his mind. He felt numb, hollow inside. Two days ago, his family all sat at the table, listening to his father pray for rain before supper. Now, he didn't care if it ever rained again. His father had told him not to sell out to Denton Allen. He'd do more than that. He'd get the man and his gunmen who'd threatened his family, slaughtered their cows, and murdered his father. As far as J.D. was concerned, Allen had caused his father's death just as sure as if he'd shot him down. Revenge had won the battle. He had a mission now.
"Put an Amen to it!" J.D. shouted out before turning away from the Reverend and townsfolk, who'd come to show their respect. He didn't want to waste another minute.
"Please don't do this," his mother pleaded after they'd returned to the house. "I don't want to lose you too," she added.
J.D. strapped on his gun belt and kissed his mother on the forehead. He knelt in front of his brother. "You take care of Ma while I'm gone," he instructed his younger sibling who silently nodded.
J.D. stepped out onto the porch, where Reverend Morrison, Theodore Perry, and other friends gathered with pans of food to pay their respects. J.D.'s boyhood friend, Dusty Watson, a fellow lanky seventeen-year-old from a neighboring farm waited near J.D.'s horse.
"I'll go with ya," Dusty offered.
"No need," J.D. flatly responded.
"I heard them three bastards of Allen hightailed it over to Carrizo Springs right after your cows were killed. Ain't no doubt they did it," Watson reported.
"Nope," J.D. solemnly agreed, stepping into his stirrup, and swinging up into the saddle. His face held no expression.
"Marshal Duggan said he didn't have jurisdiction over in Carrizo Springs. Said you'd have to notify the Texas Rangers," Watson added.
"Won't need Rangers," J.D. advised before reining his horse and charging off toward Carrizo Springs.
"That boy's going to get himself killed," Reverend Morrison whispered, watching J.D. gallop down the road.
"Don't be so sure," Perry responded. "J.D.'s learned to handle that Colt damn good, and he's madder than a rabid coyote. I damn sure wouldn't want to go against him," Perry added.
"Sometimes anger clouds a man's mind," Reverend Morrison mused.
"Yes, sir, and sometimes it clears it," Theodore Perry retorted.
J.D. stared down the road, keeping his horse at a quick, steady pace. About halfway to Cotulla, he'd break off west on the two-track trail to Carrizo Springs. J.D. figured he'd need a long day, reaching Carrizo Springs around ten o'clock tonight. With any luck, he'd find Allen's gunmen in the saloon half-drunk with an inflated opinion of their skills.
After reining his horse left onto the Carrizo Springs trail, J.D. stopped at the edge of Salt Creek, where both he and his mount plunged muzzles into the cold water. Fed by abundant springs buried deep beneath the Texas surface, Salt Creek stretched west from Cotulla, well past Carrizo Springs, where it flowed into the Nueces River. J.D. filled his canteen, then chose to walk a bit, which his horse responded to with a long nicker of approval. He loosened the cinch and looped the reins over the horse's neck, knowing he'd not need to chase after his partner.
Thirty minutes later, J.D. secured his saddle, then poked a dirty boot toe into the stirrup and slid onto the saddle. The oppressive heat had beat down on the leather, making it feel like J.D. was sitting on top of a campfire. He stood in the stirrups for a moment, then settled back against the cantle and pushed onward.
* * *
Thirty miles away, the Carrizo Cantina bustled with activity. Smoke filled the air of the tiny tavern, mingling with the smell of stale beer and cheap whiskey. Two large, round, and worn hickory tables hosted boisterous poker games with five cowboys throwing cattle drive earnings onto the center of the tabletop. The Carrizo Cantina hadn't reached the level of piano entertainment yet, so a local old-timer picked away at an out-of-tune banjo near the front doors. The twangs were more noise than music, but the locals didn't seem to mind the distraction. At one poker table, three strangers wearing pistols and copiousness trail dust split their attention between their cards and the old-timer, mumbling displeasure with the pings of the banjo.
"Can't we play cards in peace around here?" One of the strangers shouted to the bartender, who peered back without a word. "Can't think with all that racket!" The stranger added.
"You don't think anyway!" another of the three strangers shouted to the delighted laughter of the other cowboys at the table.
"Oh, no! Three aces!" the first stranger barked, laying down his cards before swiping the pile of money from the center of the table.
"Shut up and deal! And you buy the next bottle!" another outsider grunted, throwing down his pair of fives.
The bartender, a short, thin fellow with a drooping black mustache too big for his face, snatched a bottle of whiskey, then strolled over to the table and set it down next to the stranger. After taking two bits, the bartender returned to his perch behind the battered bar top.
Daylight turned to darkness, and the three armed strangers remained at their table, exchanging money with two new players—the cantina filled with both locals and others passing through on their way to nowhere. The noise had increased with the level of intoxication, despite the old-timer stowing his monotonous banjo and joining in on draining a beer barrel. The lackluster scene erupted into a ruckus at the strangers' table.
"Hell, you do!" shouted the tall stranger in the tan vest who had grumbled earlier about the banjo. He jumped to his feet and drew his pistol in one motion. One of the new gamblers froze with both hands on the table, his cards lying face up in-between.
"Just how the hell can you have three kings when I have two!" the stranger roared.
The cantina went silent. The faint sounds of men rustling in their chairs drifted through the room.
"Now I ain't cheat'n'. That means you are! Now stand up!" the stranger in the tan vest ordered the stoic gambler across the table.
The cowboy slowly began to stand. Halfway up, he jerked his right hand, sliding a derringer to his palm. Crack! The stranger's hammer dropped on his Colt, sending a slug into the gamblers' chest, knocking him backward over his chair onto the floor. A gray stream of smoke snaked its way up from the stranger's gun barrel to the edge of his hat, where it broke into pieces. The stranger quickly looked around the silent room.
"He went for a gun first," the stranger stated, pointing the barrel of his Colt toward the derringer lying next to the dead gambler.
The cantina doors swung open, and a man with a badge pinned to his shirt stepped in, gun in hand. He noted the gambler and derringer on the floor and the stranger still holding his Colt.
"Holster that leg-iron mister," the Carrizo town Marshal ordered, to which the stranger obliged.
"What happened here?" The Marshal asked the pint-size bartender.
"That dead fella got caught cheating. This stranger here drew on him, but the dead fella had a derringer up his sleeve. Looked like self-defense marshal," the bartender reported. Several of the men in the cantina nodded in agreement with the bartender's report.
"Anybody knows 'em?" the Marshal asked aloud, looking around the smokey saloon.
"Yes, sir. He was with me. We're part of the cattle drive camped outside of town," the other gambler at the strangers' table answered.
"Okay. Both of you follow me over to the office," the Marshal ordered the stranger and the cattle drive gambler before retrieving the derringer. "Get him over to the undertaker," the Marshal instructed the bartender who nodded.
The Marshal stepped down from the cantina's porch and walked past a young man who was tethering his horse to the hitching post. Not paying attention to the young man, the Marshal continued across the street to his office. The young man looked up and watched three men push through the swinging doors and step onto the street. The young man stepped back and squared his shoulders to the trio. In the glow of the oil lamps strung across the cantina's façade, he recognized Denton Allen's gunmen.
"You three!" the young man shouted at Allen's men, who stopped in unison and turned toward the would-be gunslinger.
The three gunmen spread out and faced the young gunslinger. "Who the hell are you?" One of the three gunmen asked from the shadows.
"Names J.D. Case. You three delivered a message to my father, John Henry Case, a couple of days ago, then slaughtered our cows. Now he's dead because of you and your boss Denton Allen," J.D. announced.
The three gunmen shifted their weight and quickly looked over at the Marshal who'd stopped halfway across the street.
"That true?" the Marshal asked the three gunmen while walking toward J.D.
"It's true we work for Mr. Allen, but we got nothin' to do with his old man dying," one of the gunmen said.
"You killed him all right, when you butchered our cows," J.D. grunted through nervous gritted teeth.
"Now son, this isn't the way to handle this," the Marshal stated. "Let's—"
Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!
Before the Marshal could finish, the three gunmen drew, one getting off a wild shot. J.D. was too fast, drawing and firing three times, hitting each gunman with the thump of a fatal bullet. Before the Marshal cleared leather, the gunfight was over. The three gunmen lay dead. The Marshal stepped toward J.D., who flipped his Colt around and offered the pistol, stock-first to the Marshal.
"That won't be necessary, son. Go ahead and holster it," the Marshal ordered. "I saw them three draw first," he added.
Men rushed out of the cantina and crowded around the dead men, J.D., and the Marshal. Questions of what happened banged around the crowd like a canyon echo.
"Seems these three were Denton Allen's hired guns. This young fella says there're responsible for the death of his father and stock. I've heard about Allen and his henchmen forcing farmers near Cotulla to sell their land because of the railroad coming," the Marshal explained.
"He take all three himself?" a man asked the Marshal.
"Yep. Before I could draw my gun," the Marshal answered.
Shouts of who is he? rang through the crowd.
"I believe you said the name's J.D. Case?" the Marshal asked.
"Yes, sir," J.D. answered, his voice dithering.
"Well, J.D. Case. You best come with me over to the office so I can get all this down on paper," the Marshal said among queries of "who the hell is J.D. Case?" cascading from the crowd of onlookers.
The Marshal pointed to a rickety ladder back chair opposite his desk and instructed J.D. to sit. The Marshal took a seat behind his desk, then withdrew paper from the middle drawer and pushed it across to J.D.
"Can you write?" the Marshal asked.
"Yes sir," J.D. confirmed, reaching for the paper with trembling hands.
"You alright son?" the Marshal asked the young gunfighter.
"I'll be alright. Just never killed a man before, and now . . . "
"Write down what happened out there and include the business about your father. Take all the time you need. You said those three were responsible for your father's death?" the Marshal asked.
"Yes sir," J.D. answered.
"How'd your father die?" the Marshal asked, rubbing the whiskers on his chin. "One of them said they didn't know anything about your father dying," the Marshal stated.
"Doc said my father's heart failed. He died a day after those three tried to force him to sell our farm. Then after my father refused, he found our cows butchered in their pen the next morning. I reckon the worry was too much for my father," J.D. explained.
"You have any other kin?" the Marshal asked.
"Yes sir. My mother and twelve-year-old brother," J. D. said.
"And just how old are you?" the Marshal asked.
"I'm seventeen," J. D. admitted, then put his head down and began writing, tired of answering questions.
J.D. finished writing and stood to leave. The Marshal looked over the statement and nodded. "You heading back home now son?" the Marshal asked.
"Nope. Not finished yet," J.D. replied.
"Not finished?" the Marshal asked.
"I believe Denton Allen is up in San Antonio. I'll be head'n there," J.D. admitted.
"Now you watch yourself son. You can't just go on some wild vengeance ride you know," the Marshal advised.
"No?" J.D. asked as he walked out of the Marshal's office toward the crowd that had remained milling around in the front of the saloon.
The Marshal watched J. D. slowly walk through the crowd and step up onto his horse, then rein it around and gallop off into the night.
Seventeen, the Marshal thought, shaking his head.