I was saddling a guest's horse outside the barn one morning when I saw the Ranger ride into town. My parents ran the only hotel in McAllen, Texas that wasn't attached to a dance hall and I helped with the chores, mostly feeding and caring for the guests horses. I loved horses, though, so it never felt like work, much. This was in 1875 or '76, so I was ten or eleven.
I didn't know the Ranger was a Ranger, though, when I seen him. But he sure did look like a Ranger, a real life Texas Ranger. I watched him ride to the saloon and hitch his horse out front. Big, tall King Ranch horse, named for Richard King, the biggest rancher in our part of the country back then. She was brown all over with a splash of white on her nose and between her eyes. I liked horses, so I noticed stuff like that. But besides the big horse was the big gun the man carried on his hip, the biggest pistol I ever did see, God almighty.
That scared me, that gun. I thought at first he must've been part of Comanche Bill's gang, with a gun like that.
Comanche Bill was a half-breed, I guess, not a full blood Comanche but I think maybe his ma had been a kidnap. Weren't too sure on the details, but I doubt anyone was, really. For all I know he was just a dark skinned white man that wanted to scare people so he told everyone he was part Indian. He ran our town on his own, though, he was mean enough he didn't need a bunch of other outlaws backing him up.
Pa come out a little while later. He usually spent the mornings settling accounts with the guests after they'd had Ma's breakfast. Ma's biscuits were the star of our table, with plenty of homemade butter and blackberry jam to slather over them. Bacon was rare, seeing as how we didn't have land to raise hogs, but we had plenty of chickens to fry up, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sundays we'd have cornbread with the chicken after church.
"Luke, you finish with them horses, go ahead and take a look at the hen house," he said. "Mr. Miller said he'd had some coyotes around and I don't want them running off with our hens." The chickens were our main source of meat, their eggs and themselves. "Now, I'm gonna put up some new shingles on the barn roof, you think you can handle the chicken coop wire?" I nodded. "Good. After that we'll go on and get supplies from Mr. Miller."
Mr. Miller ran the town's general store and was the hot spot for town gossip, all the men gathered there to exchange news quicker than any telegraph from New York or Washington ever could. More useful news, too. Pa was always good about taking me along, Ma didn't like it too much me hearing the men talk, said they didn't talk anything a boy my age should hear but Pa took me along anyway.
The chicken wire was fairly easy work and didn't take me long. I come back to the barn and Pa was getting down from the roof, he was already finished as well.
"Let's go on and clean up and we'll head on in," he said. We went inside, washed our hands and faces, and sat down for a quick lunch of biscuits and fried chicken. Ma was busy all morning with the wash, ours own clothes and the clothes of the boarders that were long term enough to need their clothes cleaned.
After lunch I hitched the wagon to Fred, Pa's red mare. I got to name her, I don't know why I settled on Fred but I did, and Pa thought it was a great joke so it stuck. While I was hitching the wagon Pa was collecting a couple dozen eggs from out back, Mr. Miller bought his eggs from us. Pa let me drive the wagon that day, he did occasionally, figured I had to learn sometime so might as well learn then.
It was a quick trip down to Mr. Miller's, we lived in town and all so it's not like it was a big expedition the way some families that lived out on farms and ranches had when they come into town, usually on Sundays for church. Sitting out in front of the store, on the boardwalk, was Mr. Miller with his clerk's apron on; Mr. Oswald, the town's only practicing attorney, he mostly spent his time drawing up deeds of sale and land transfer for the ranchers; and Mr. Muldoon, the town's barber. Mr. Muldoon was the best source of town gossip and I was glad to see him there. Maybe he would know who the man was that rode into town that morning.
"He's friends with Comanche Bill, is what I heard," said Mr. Oswald.
"Bill ain't got no friends," Mr. Miller said, "he's mean enough on his own, got no use for 'em. Why would he want to share what he's got, anyway?"
"Who's this, now?" We entered the conversation already going, and Pa hadn't seen the stranger that morning.
"We got another gunman in town," Mr. Muldoon said. "Rode in this morning. Big ol' horse with a big ol' gun on his hip."
"Lord, we don't need another gunman in this town," Pa said. I knew he and Ma worried about life in McAllen, about raising me there and all.
"Well, the sheriff certainly ain't gonna do nothin' about it," said Mr. Miller. "He's been cowed enough by Bill, ain't gonna even try to stand up to this new guy."
"Wonder what Bill will think about him, though," said Mr. Oswald. "Here comes Hawkins, maybe he's got something."
Mr. Hawkins walked over from his saloon, he was the owner of Sweet Cakes in the center of town. Mr. Muldoon got the most gossip as the barber, but Mr. Hawkins met the most visitors, people passing through with no need to visit the barber. Mr. Hawkins was a good listener, to the regular customers of Sweet Cakes he was a willing ear that reserved all judgment.
"I suppose there's nothing better to do than sit around a cracker barrel playing dominoes in the middle of the day," he said as he took his spot in the informal meeting.
"Do you prefer checkers?" Mr. Muldoon asked. "I'm sure we can set up a board for you, maybe Lucas here will play you a game or two." It always thrilled me when the older men noticed me. Pa never let me talk when he took me along to see his friends, said no one cared to hear the opinion of a kid anyway, and that I'd learn a lot more by listening than running my jaw.
"Not much else to do in heat like this," Mr. Hawkins said.
"You hear anything about that gunman rode in this morning?" asked Mr. Oswald. "He here to team up with Bill or what?"
"He might be," said Mr. Hawkins. "He sure did ask a lot of questions about him, that's for sure."
"You don't think he's here to run Bill out, do you?" Pa asked. "Lord, Comanche Bill's killed near twenty men already."
"Fastest gun this side of the Brazos," said Mr. Hawkins.
"The law ought to take notice of this," said Mr. Oswald.
"Ain't no law in McAllen gonna do that, and you know it," said Mr. Muldoon. "The sheriff's in Bill's pocket, and he's gonna stay there, unless he wants to find out what Comanche Bill does to those that buck him."
"Ya'll weren't here when Comanche Bill took over," said Mr. Miller. "Rode in one day, hitched his horse at Sweet Cakes, only 'twas called Clancy's back then. Sat down to a game of cards." Mr. Miller was talking to us but his eyes were staring down the street, but not at anything in particular. It was like his body was there but his mind was back then. "Bill was a cheat, still is, likely, but the kind of cheat that don't try to hide it 'cause he knows he'll just plug the dumb fool that'd call him on it.
"So, he cheated, and this young kid called him on it. Kid didn't know better, just some cowboy on his way to the next herd and thought he'd stop for a game of cards. Well, Bill was playing with an Ace up his sleeve and let it slide right on out so's people could see. Might be he wanted someone to call him on it. The kid obliged him, I guess, and called him a cheater. Bill told him to take it back but before the kid could say anything he'd shot him under the table. Had his gun out afore the kid even said anything, is my guess, just waiting and ready for it. Gut shot, too. Bad way to die. Young cowboy lay on the floor and took his time dyin', that's for sure.
"Well, that's all it took for Comanche Bill to get started, get his blood up. He turned and shot the piano player, said he didn't like pianos. He pulled a second gun, so's he could cover himself on the way out, then just started popping shots at whoever he saw outside. Men, women, kids. Didn't matter. Killed a lot of people that day."
"What'd the sheriff do?" I asked. Pa gave me a look but I couldn't help myself. I couldn't believe the sheriff would just let a mad dog like that run around killing.
That broke Mr. Miller's daze, but only for a moment. He looked at me then back off into space. "He come out, called Bill out in the street," he said, shaking his head. "He didn't know no better, I guess, than to call Comanche Bill out. If there's one thing you can't give a man like that is an even chance, a fair fight. Sheriff Collins, back then. Good man.
"Anyway, he comes out into the street and sees Bill blasting away at the people of McAllen. Probably thinks to hisself, 'these are my people, they pay me to protect them.' Something noble like that. So he calls Bill out, call him into the street to face him. 'You and me Bill, you got no call for this, now answer for it,' he yells down the street at him.
"Bill obliged him, though. He didn't take no pot shot or ambush, he come out into the street and faced Sheriff Collins. Fifty paces, just about. I never did see anything like it, afore or since. I came out to watch, a'course. Seemed the thing to do.
"And Sheriff moved first, I swear Comanche Bill let him, Collins drew first. Or tried to. He'd barely flinched, barely twitched his right hand, and Bill had him. Blew a hole clean through the sheriff's forehead. If I had aimed and took my time I couldn't have hit a cleaner shot than Comanche Bill did that day.
"So," Mr. Miller said, "that's when Comanche Bill took over McAllen. Drove out the law that day, all we had was Sheriff Collins, so deputies. Too small for that, I guess. But big enough for Comanche Bill to want to take over. Just took what he wanted from then on."
"I weren't here for that," Mr. Muldoon said. "We got Sheriff Haskins, I guess, every town needs a sheriff, but he ain't no trouble to Bill. 'Specially not since the last time the law tried to help."
"Now, that was a bad day," Mr. Oswald said.
"Three Texas Rangers rode in. Three. Met Comanche Bill in the middle of the street, same as Sheriff Collins did. I swear I don't know why lawmen kept trying to do that. 'Come on with us, Bill,' the one in the middle said. I guess he was the leader. 'We're to take you in, alive or dead. May as well be alive.' Well, Comanche Bill had something to say about that.
"Shot all three Rangers down before any of them cleared leather. Bang, bang, bang, faster than that, and all three dead before they hit the ground."
"I never seen anything like it," said Mr. Muldoon. "Now Comanche Bill has the run of the place. I wouldn't be surprised if the stage coach pulls out and doesn't run here anymore, Bill's had his way with robbing them this whole time."
"Hold on, here he comes now," said Mr. Hawkins. Sure enough, Comanche Bill was riding into town, right down the middle of the street, and passed us by. The bottom half of his face was covered in a dark stubbly beard. My friend Jimmy said he shaved with a Bowie knife, but I never did give that credence until I saw Bill riding by that day. He wore a wide Mexican sombrero, goat hair riding chaps, and jangly silver spurs that shone in the bright Texas afternoon sun.
He didn't even look at us, no need to, is probably what he thought. He had our town locked down, under his thumb, and no one would dare challenge him. He rode to Chester's, the other saloon in town, only Chester's had dance girls that Sweet Cakes wouldn't hire, for some reason. He tied his horse to the hitching rail in front of Chester's and strode on in.
"Well, we best be getting back home," Pa said to me. "Your Ma will be wondering where we got off to." He said goodbye to his friends and we got back into the wagon. Mr. Miller had bought our eggs and it was time to get back for chores. I had an afternoon of watering and feeding the horses, and picking stones out of their shoes that might make them split down the line. I didn't get paid extra for picking stones, it was just something I liked to do for them. I always felt a little sorry for horses. As big and powerful as they were, they couldn't really do much of anything for themselves.
There was a new horse hitched in front of our house when we pulled up. I recognized it right away, but Pa had been inside this morning and hadn't seen the gunman riding in. I just knew he was another killer like Comanche Bill, and him being at our house scared me more than just seeing Bill riding through town.
"We must have a new guest," Pa said as he climbed down from the wagon. "Go along and take his horse to the barn and get him some fresh oats, give him a good brushing, too." He studied the horse. "This is a mighty fine horse, too. Better take extra care of it."
"Pa," I said, "I know who that is, whose horse this is. It's another gunman, Pa, just like Comanche Bill!"
Pa just looked at me funny, like I was speaking in tongues like Reverend Holloway said the Apostles all did at Pentecost.
"What are you talking about, boy?"
"He rode in this morning, I saw him, he had a big gun on his hip that has to be an outlaw gun!"
Pa was never one to get excited. He told me to calm down and that he'd go on inside and make sure everything was alright. In the meantime I was to remember my job and take care of the new guest's horse, and not make trouble by accusing him of being an outlaw just because he carried a big gun.
I did as I was told, of course, and told myself I'd finish as quick as I could. But that was the best horse I'd ever worked with, and him just being such a fine horse made me forget about his owner. I took my time scrubbing him, feeding him, picking stones out of his shoes. I was almost proud, being able to work so close with such an animal. By the time I had given him his oats and put him in his stall it was almost dinner time.
Dinner meant fried chicken, and I could smell it before I got to the front door. I went inside to wash up and change and saw the gunman sitting in our parlor with Pa and Mr. Danner, the only other guest we had just then. Neither Pa nor Mr. Danworth looked concerned at all, both looked perfectly comfortable, so I figured I must have been wrong about who this stranger was.
"Well, there he is," said Pa when I came in. "Captain Armstrong, this is my son, Luke. Luke, meet Captain Armstrong." The man stood and shook my hand.
"Captain?" I asked.
"Texas Rangers," the big man said. A Texas Ranger, here in our house! I had never met one in real life, but I read all about them in the newspapers and dime novels I borrowed from my best friend Johnny.
The Ranger's voice was soft but hard. He didn't need to yell to be heard. Now that he was this close I got a good look at him. He was tall, with blonde hair that he parted on the right. His face was hard but handsome, only I didn't tell anyone that, and his nose pointed the wrong way and the left side of his jaw jutted out like he was grinding his teeth one day and it got stuck that way.
"Well, it's nice to meet you, Captain Armstrong," I said.
"Go on and clean up for dinner," Pa said. When I came back down Pa and Captain Armstrong were seated at the dinner table along with our other guest, a man named Joseph Donovan. Mr. Donovan was a traveling salesman, McAllen was the last town on his circuit so he was taking it easy for a couple days before heading back to Austin to start all over again.
"Let me help you with that, ma'am," Captain Armstrong said when Ma came through the swinging door that led to the kitchen. She was carrying a platter of fried chicken in one arm and a pitcher of buttermilk in the other.
"Oh, no, I have it, don't worry," she said, but Captain Armstrong wouldn't hear any protest.
"I'm strong enough I don't need to sit and be waited on," he said, "and my own Ma would belt me for letting you slave likes this for us without offering to help, being a guest and all." He took the platter and pitcher from her and sat them on the table. Ma accepted his help with grace and sat down.
After Pa said blessing she served a leg and a breast on a plate and began passing around, serving us all in this fashion. My plate came last, but that was alright. She had set out the bread basket before we came in and I helped myself to two or three rolls of cornbread with lots of butter to wash them down. Some people think cornbread is too dry but Ma's never was.
"What brings you to McAllen, Captain Armstrong?" Ma asked. She had not seen him ride in that morning, and Pa must not have told her what had been discussed at the store that day.
"Business, I guess you could say, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said. "I'm here to arrest a man known as Comanche Bill. Real name's William Jensen, but I take it he don't like to go by that name around here."
Pa looked at me and Ma, then said to Captain Armstrong, "Comanche Bill's a tough man, there, Captain. I don't know that he'll be all that easy to arrest."
"Maybe, maybe not. I've got a way of convincing men like him that it's best just to listen to me, make it easier on everyone involved." The Ranger didn't seem too worried, but I thought he just didn't know who Comanche Bill really was. Still, no matter what I thought, I knew better than to say anything more than Pa had.
After dinner I started clearing the table and Captain Armstrong helped me just like he helped Ma. I liked that even though he was a paying guest he still felt like he had to do his part of the household chores. Once we were done, Ma went up to her and Pa's room and the men went to the parlor to smoke cigars and drink whiskey.
Pa didn't mind having me around when he visited his friends, like that afternoon, but he knew most guests wouldn't be too comfortable with a kid hanging around. Lucky for me my room was right over top of the parlor and I could listen in on what the grown-ups would talk about. Mostly boring, the price of cattle or maybe an election for statehouse or something like that. But I lay down on my floor and put my ear to my listening spot so's I could listen to Pa and Captain Armstrong.
"I appreciate you not talking more than necessary about your business in town, Captain," Pa said to Captain Armstrong once they and Mr. Donovan. Not being from these parts, Mr. Donovan had little to add to the subject, but he enjoyed cigars and whiskey in the evenings.
"Not much to say, as far as I'm concerned," Captain Armstrong said. "I have a job, and it's fairly straight forward. Inform William Jensen, or Comanche Bill, of his status as an outlaw and my intention to bring him in. Now, whether he comes willingly or not, is up to him."
Something in the Ranger's voice thrilled me. I felt he was saying more than his words could get across. I wondered if Captain Armstrong was the man to finally best Comanche Bill and save our town from the outlaw's grip.
"I reckon he won't come willingly," Pa said. "You ever run across a man like him before, in your line of work?"
"Come across a lot of kinds of men," Captain Armstrong said. "But deep down, men like Comanche Bill, they're all the same. They may run wild for awhile, but the Law always gets them in the end."
"How do you plan on even finding this man, Captain?" Mr. Donovan asked.
"I plan on him coming to find me," Captain Armstrong said. "I been asking around all day, letting people know I was looking for him. I figure word'll get back to him, and he'll come to find me next. And then we'll see how things go, I suppose."
I could tell Pa didn't like the conversation much because he asked Mr. Donovan a question about his job as a salesman. Mr. Donovan could talk all night about the medicines and elixirs he sold. He had some samples still and he offered them to Captain Armstrong, said they would help him sleep that night and get the rest he'd need for tomorrow. Captain Armstrong accepted a sample but I think just to be polite and make Mr. Donovan feel good, I doubt he actually took them before going to bed that night. I could tell any talk of Comanche Bill or the Captain's certain failure the next day was over and went to sleep.
I woke up the next day feeling out of sorts. I had tossed and turned all night, worried for the certain death that day that the young Ranger faced. He seemed a nice enough man, but being nice would not cut it against Comanche Bill. Then I remembered the steel in his voice when he talked of convincing Comanche Bill and felt a little better.
I came downstairs to gather eggs for breakfast before Ma had to tell me, she hated reminding me of my chores. I went out to the chicken coop and passed the barn. Looking inside I saw Captain Armstrong's horse was gone, and the Captain must have left already. I was sad I had missed him, I had wanted to say goodbye and wish him luck. Lord knew he would need it, and if the town of McAllen were ever to see better days it needed some luck, too.
I gathered the eggs and brought them into the kitchen for Ma to fry up. She was already frying the bacon and had the coffee perking along. I said good morning, stifled a yawn, and went out to milk our cow, Winnie. I named her.
By the time I came back in breakfast was on the table. Biscuits, fried eggs, and bacon. I liked to make little sandwiches with the bacon and biscuits and sop up the egg yolk with them. I didn't drink coffee back then but the fresh milk washed it all down just fine.
"I'm headed to Muldoon's today," Pa said, "time for my shave, I reckon. You wanna come along, Luke?" Pa got his neck shaved once a month but kept his whiskers, he said he'd look like an ugly frog if he didn't have his whiskers to cover most of his face. I said I would, and he said we could leave after I finished my morning chores.
I was back in the barn brushing down the horses when Pa came out to fetch me. I put my brush away and went out to the yard where he had the wagon already hitched and ready to go and I climbed on in. Town didn't seem any busier than the day before, but people sure did act differently. Walking along fast like they were in a hurry. Looking all around but never making eye contact with anyone. There was an energy in the air and it didn't feel like a good energy. I saw Captain Armstrong's horse hitched in front of Chester's.
"There's the Captain's horse," I said to Pa, pointing at the big steed.
"Seems early to visit Chester's," Pa said.
"He must be looking for Comanche Bill," I said.
"Maybe," Pa said. He didn't seem like he wanted to talk about Captain Armstrong and Comanche Bill very much. He pulled up in front of the barbershop and tied the horse up to the hitching post. "Here's a quarter, go buy some flour for Ma. If there's leftover you can get some candy, too." Pa always let me get candy with the leftover change. He walked inside to see Mr. Muldoon and I turned to go to Mr. Miller's store.
I hadn't gotten very far, though, when I saw Comanche Bill ride down the center of Main Street. He was heading to Chester's after all, and I wondered if he knew Captain Armstrong was there looking for him. He reined in his horse next to Captain Armstrong's and slid out of the saddle. He was smooth, Bill was. He was a compact little man with no wasted movement, no energy wasted. He walked into Sweet Cakes, his spurs jangling with each step.
When Bill disappeared into Chester's, Captain Armstrong strode out of Sweet Cakes and into the street. Out in the open like that, he must have been brave, I thought. He walked towards Sweet Cakes, staying in the middle of the street. I remember wondering what he was thinking, what was going through his head just then. Was he scared? Did he regret even coming to McAllen? Or was his sense of duty so strong that he didn't take his fear into account? Maybe all three, all at once.
"William Mann, this is Captain Armstrong, Texas Rangers," the Captain called out, his voice clear and strong. "I have a warrant for your arrest, and aim to bring you in this very day." I never knew Comanche Bill's Christian name, I don't think many people in town knew his name was William Mann. The whole street stopped, everyone that was walking or working froze at the Captain's announcement. The air had been full of foreboding energy, but now it seemed as if that energy would explode.
I thought for sure Comanche Bill would take a shot at Captain Armstrong from inside Sweet Cakes. I decided Captain Armstrong must have been a bigger fool that I'd imagined, there was no way Comanche Bill was going to turn himself in to the Law.
But Comanche Bill didn't take a shot from the Sweet Cakes windows. Probably didn't think he had to, he'd faced down lawmen in the streets before, and had always come away the winner. He stepped out into the street and faced Captain Armstrong, stopping fifty paces from the Ranger. I was standing on the boardwalk, even with Comanche Bill's position in the street. I had never been so close to the man. Violence and death wafted off of his body. I could barely look at the man.
"I heard someone been askin' about me," Comanche Bill said. "So here I am. You wanna arrest me, Ranger?"
"It's got nothin' to do with what I want," Captain Armstrong said. "It's what's gonna happen. You're coming back to Austin with me, William Mann. How you go is up to you."
Comanche Bill's face cracked in a small smile. "I like you, Ranger. But I ain't goin' to Austin. I like McAllen, it's my home." He squared his feet and bent his knees. His right hand waggled as he flexed the fingers of his gun hand. "I ain't goin' no where, Ranger."
Captain Armstrong didn't need to square himself or set his feet or flex his fingers, because he'd already done all those things before Comanche Bill came out. Captain Armstrong was ready for the violence that was about to happen. He nodded at Comanche Bill, acknowledging his opponent.
I knew what was about to happen and was sad for Captain Armstrong. I looked around and everyone else on the boardwalk with me looked like they felt the same way. I couldn't watch, so I stared down at the ground and focused on Comanche Bill's shadow on the ground behind him. It was a clear outline of the outlaw. If I had known better I would have realized this meant the sun was directly in his face.
A shot rang out. Single, clear, and strong in the silent air. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw a dot of sunlight on Comanche Bill's shadow right in the center of its head. I looked up. Comanche Bill was standing, but his gun had not cleared his holster. Suddenly he pitched backward, like he had been punched in the face. I watched him fall, then saw a trickle of blood begin to stream out of the center of his forehead.
Down the street, Captain Armstrong stood with his pistol in his hand. He twirled it twice then returned it to its holster. The town was still silent, no one could believe what had just happened. Comanche Bill, the source of all our fear and misery, the man who had killed and stolen whenever he wanted, was dead.
Once the shock passed the crowd erupted in cheers. I looked at Captain Armstrong, expecting to see happiness in his victory. Instead he had a sad look on his face, his mouth turned downward and his eyes squinting as if he had performed some distasteful task. The townsfolk surrounded him, clapping him on the shoulders and thanking him for what he'd done, but he didn't even reply. Instead he walked down to Comanche Bill's body, hoisted it onto the dead outlaw's horse, mounted his own, and led William Mann's horse out of town.
I never saw Captain Armstrong again, but I know I'll never forget the Ranger with the big gun that bested Comanche Bill that day.