It had been a typical Tuesday afternoon in Culverton, three weeks before my fourteenth birthday. The summer had been hot and dry. The wind was blowing a fine dust through the town and everyone and everything felt warm and grimy. The farmers were hoping for rain as they struggled to protect their crops in the fields. The ranchers had already moved their herds to the north where the grasses were still green and the water more plentiful. Nobody expected to see the cattle return before late autumn.
Only a few men remained in the area. The cowboys and the ranch hands had left with the cattle herds and would not be back for a while. The merchants still opened their shops, but business was slow. Except for these businessmen, it seemed as though only women and children populated the town. A few teenage boys such as I were there but we were kept busy helping in the fields or doing various chores around town. It had not been a fun summer.
Late that afternoon, I heard the sound of a lone rider as his horse sauntered into town at a very slow gait. Its hoofs made a distinctive sound as they came in contact with the dry, unpaved street. Being curious, I looked out from inside the general store where I had been sweeping and I saw the rider as he approached. His appearance and his demeanor frightened me.
The rider was wearing dark clothes that were covered with dust. He had obviously been on the trail for many days. There were sweat stains under his arms and around the inner rim of his black hat. A faded, red bandana was tied around his neck. His leather boots were worn and would need replacing soon. A Colt .36 caliber handgun rested in a holster against his hip while a rifle was secured inside a scabbard hanging on his horse directly behind his saddle next to the saddlebags. The rider was smoking a cigarette that he had rolled himself.
As the man arrived at the saloon next door, he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. He glanced at the general store, and he saw me staring out at him. The cold expression never left his face.
"Hey kid, come here," he called to me.
Obediently, I walked outside and stood beside him. I'll never forget how bad he smelled. It was awful.
"Can you take care of my horse?" he asked. "He needs water and oats. He also needs a good wiping down."
"Sure, I can do it," I replied.
The stranger tossed me a five-dollar coin. "Will that cover it?" he asked.
"Yeah, this is plenty," I informed him.
"Good," he said. "Get right on it. I want to leave in thirty minutes."
"Okay," I said. "I'll take care of him. He'll be waiting for you when you're ready to leave."
"See that he is," admonished the rider. "I don't like to be kept waiting."
As I untied the horse and led him to the barn up the street, I saw the man enter the saloon. My instincts told me to service his horse and to have him back in front of the saloon on time. I didn't want to anger this guy. I didn't want any unnecessary problems.
Twenty-five minutes later, the freshly fed and relaxed horse was untied and ready for the rider. I was holding the reins in my hand as I stood outside the saloon's front doors. Suddenly, I heard loud voices and then the sound of gunfire as it erupted inside. Although I quickly counted four shots, my count was interrupted and lost as a stray bullet exited the building through the swinging doors and hit me directly in my right knee. The pain was excruciating. I released the horse's reins and collapsed to the wooden boardwalk. The horse didn't run away. My knee was bleeding badly, and I felt as though I was going to faint.
A woman walking nearby screamed and immediately ran to get the doctor. He arrived at the saloon within a few minutes. He had just begun to examine my wound when the stranger walked through the swinging doors and came outside. He saw me lying on the boardwalk.
"Take care of the kid," he instructed the doctor. "There are two others inside. You can't help them. They're already dead."
The doctor was horrified to hear this. "Somebody get the sheriff!" he shouted to the small crowd that had quickly assembled.
"It's too late," replied the stranger without emotion. "He's lying on the saloon floor."
With that said, the rider mounted his horse. He sneered at the townsfolk and then slowly rode away in the opposite direction from which he had come. With the sheriff dead and few men in town, no attempt was made to form a posse and chase after him. He made a clean escape and was never apprehended. To this day, he remains unidentified and the crime unsolved.
Shortly thereafter, I lost consciousness. When I awoke. I was lying on a cot in the doctor's office with my leg heavily bandaged. My mother was there. She was crying. I knew that my wound had to be serious when she allowed the doctor to give me whiskey in an attempt to dull the terrible pain. The doctor believed that he could save my leg and ultimately, he did. Nevertheless, my knee was badly damaged and much of its natural bendability was lost. This would never be regained. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life. All in all, I consider myself to be very lucky.