It had been a long day and I was worn out to the bone. Images of my bedroll rolled themselves across my mind as I headed back to where I had set up my camp in the prairie grass about a mile away. That morning I had vowed to finally finish erecting a windmill on some land I bought years ago to support my growing cattle herd but never quite got around to it. I‘d purchased the repossessed Aermotor windmill at Duggan’s Mercantile and Cattle Supply in town. It had only been up and spinning less than a year so it was still pretty darn new. It seemed the rancher had bought it on credit then suddenly up and died, so back it went to the mercantile to be resold.
Here in Texas, a bit east of the town of Uvalde, there’s not so many water sources as in the town itself so windmills are pretty common. The land here is mostly flat with some hills to the north so a breeze is fairly constant. Sure, we got nice grass and such but without a constant supply of good water your cattle ain’t gonna live but a week or so at most. So this day I decided to attach the air foil wheel to the windmill’s gear box.
After looking at the original assembly prints I thought it looked fairly easy to put back together so I jumped right in to the task. Ha! You ever try to walk around holding a six foot long sheet of tin the shape of a giant slice of pie and doing it in a ten mile an hour wind? I’d rather try and paint a mural of the last supper on a kite while it’s flying! Maybe I should have had the help with a couple of my hands but this was my pet project, not theirs.
So what I thought might take a couple hours at best turned into an all day and exhausting affair. But, I got her all assembled and she’s now attached to the long rod going to the well pump below. In a day or so my new windmill will end up filling the water tank setting beside her and I can bring up the cattle to the new range.
The sun was setting in the west over Uvalde as I shook out my bedroll of ants and a couple of daddy long legged spiders. Call me spoiled or call me by my given name of Joseph One eye looks crooked Smith but I do like my pillow when I’m sleeping under the stars. My Mama (she was of the Black Foot Tribe up in the Empire of the Alturas [Idaho] made it for me when I was a toddler and every few years I got to stuff some fresh feathers inside it so’s it keeps it shape. I took some ribbing from the hands the first time they saw me with it but as time went by I noticed a few others started rolling up a small pillow along with their bedroll behind the saddle.
I was just too tired to bother with making a real dinner so instead I downed an apple and opened a jar of canned peaches instead. For my dessert I took a big gulp of Uvalde honey, the best honey in the whole word!
After I finished eating and watering my horse ( I call Mo, short for Morgan ‘cause that’s her breed) I gave her a good rubdown using handfuls of grass. She never tires from the attention a good rubdown gives her so I make sure she’s pleased as pie before stopping. I never had to hobble her because she’s prone to separation anxiety and rarely leaves my side during the night. Once in a corral or stabled with other horses she’s just fine.
She’s an ex Northern States Calvary horse that was used in the war.
I believe she got her anxiety problems from her service in the war. She saw lots of action yet made it through like a champ so I had no qualms about buying her when she went up for auction. Like most Morgan breeds, she’s extremely sure footed even on the worst mountain trails. I believe she can see even in the pitch dark of night and can smell trouble long before my dog can. She’s not real tall in stature yet she’s got a fine muscular build and stands about fourteen and a half hands tall. When I first got Mo she was all skin and bones but after a bunch load of TLC she filled out just fine.
She’s one of the most loyal horses I ever owned. I believe if I were to be attacked by a mountain lion, she’d try to fend it off unto her death for me! She’s not gun shy and has learned a few important tricks that I taught her, like stay, lie down, be quiet and don’t bite me no more!
As the light faded into complete darkness I happily crawled into my bedroll for the night… or so I thought.
Now we hadn’t had a real problem of cattle rustling for a number of years now. I believe the act was curtailed due to the hanging of four cattle rustlers a few years back. Three of them were only in their teens with the adult being their father. No mercy was shown to the four as they not only rustled the mans cattle they all had their way with the mans youngest simple minded daughter.
But this night all that was to change.
I awoke around two o’clock to the sound of my herd moving to the north and towards me. Since there was yet no water in this part of my range I couldn’t imagine why they’d decided to move out after bedding down a few miles south of where I lay where water was good and the grass was plentiful.
Cows are a funny creature. They sometimes just up and move for some unknown reason but what made me jump out of my comfortable bedroll was the pace at what they were moving at. Cattle move about at a speed that allows them to graze, unless the are being driven or there’s a predator nearby scoping them out. These weren’t running from a predator or a thunder storm but were still moving too quick to be able to graze .
I belted on my holster after making sure the Colt’s cylinder had five live cartilages in it (it holds six but unless you want to accidentally blow a toe off you don’t fill the chamber under the hammer). I thanked the stars for not bothering with a cook fire that night, I was pretty much invisible under the sliver moon night.
What I saw as my cattle drew near was a few riders pushing my herd forward by waving their hats. While they themselves attempted to be as quiet as possible no one told the cattle to keep their yaps shut. A few calves in the herd began bawling as their Mama’s began to out pace them.
This herd was the smaller portion of the much bigger herd I kept on my southern range near Batesville. I had moved these two hundred plus head north of the main herd onto fresh graze as this was the herd I would keep near my new windmill.
I could have legally shot the rustlers out of their saddles but being a tender hearted guy I instead placed myself in front of the herd and fired off five quick shots.
The herd’s reaction was predictable.
They immediately turned and began running full steam back to where they had come from. Unfortunately for the rustlers, they had not planned on such an event and were caught unprepared to deal with two hundred plus scared shitless long horned cattle charging straight at them. I saw a couple riders go down when their horses reared up in fright and also heard a horse or two let out screams of pain from being gored.
After the herd had run their course back to the south I was left standing alone holding an empty six shooter in the dim moonlit night. The smell of burnt gun powder faded as the cloud of smoke was carried off in the nights breeze.
I reloaded the empty cylinder and headed off to the dark shapes to the south that made up the injured or dead rustlers.
The first fella was far from alive. I could tell this because his head was not sitting right on his shoulders. He looked about middle age, unkempt and wore canvas sail cloth made pants. He must have been pretty poor when he was alive as most men wore denim now.
I came upon the second man a hundred or so feet away, he too was dead. Him, I felt for a pulse and when I did that I seen the right side of his head had been crushed in. He looked older than the first fella.
I only saw one horse standing upright so I made my way over to where two large shapes lay a few yards from each other. The closest horse was in pain with a ripped open belly. I put that one out of his misery and headed off to the other one. She was lying there blowing heavily and I could see she too had been gored. Even in the dark I could see she hadn’t been cared for very well by her owner. The whites of her eyes were like silver dollars in the moonlight, she was in immense pain so I did her the favor of sending her to whatever heaven horses go to.
I never saw hide or hair of the third fella. He’d lost his horse somehow in the stampede but it’d have to wait till daylight to find him.
I returned to missing man’s horse as she calmly stood there cropping the fresh grass. I quickly checked her over and seeing no visible wounds, led her back to my campsite. When we got there Mo sniffed at her, looked over at me and took a piss. I figured that was a good sign. She seemed content to side up next to Mo so all I did was loosen her cinch, wrap the reigns around the saddle horn and gave her a quick rub her down.
When the Eastern sky began to lighten I made a small cook fire, fried up some bacon to go along with a few biscuits I carried in my saddle bags and ate. After that I went through the first rustler’s saddle bags and found a small bag of ground coffee. I used the cleaned out frying pan to boil my coffee in.
All the time I kept an eye out for that third fella but I still couldn’t see him.
After packing up my gear behind Mo’s saddle, I cinched up both horse’s saddles and trailing the abandoned horse I headed out to where the dead lay.
I went through the deceased pockets and retrieved the other dead horse’s saddle bags. In one bag I found a letter from one of the men’s sister. In it she had begged him to give up his ways and return home to her and his Ma. The problem was, I had no idea which dead man the letter belonged to.
From the three saddle bags I recovered some old clothing, some food items (which I wouldn’t touch) and items for shaving (didn’t look much used) there wasn’t much else. One man had a fifty cent piece in a pocket and nothing else. I assumed these men were down on their luck, unsuccessful owl hoots. How they thought just the three of them would be able to trail a herd even as close as Fort Stockton bewildered me.
Having no shovel, just some wrenches to assemble the windmill with and too few stones around to cover the bodies with, I left them lying in the rising sun.
I headed back south to my ranch house where I’d gather up the two hundred head and bringing them back up to the killing grounds at the windmill. Like good cattle Long horns seem to know their way home with out maps.
By noon my ranch hands had rounded the herd up and drove them once again north. I’d had seen the windmill pumping water into the big round water tank before I left so I wasn’t worried about the cattle not having water.
I was trying to convert the herd from longhorns to the short horned breed. Short horns proved just as hearty as the long horns but provided more meat poundage and were a gentler breed. The biggest reason though was the long horn carried the tick that produced the dreaded tick fever, the short horned didn’t carry them but they could catch the actual fever. After the loss of total herds many Midwest meat processors had begun refusing to touch the longhorn because of that.
In response, many ranches like myself began replacing their longhorn with the short horned breeds but it would still take a few years to complete the transition.
When we neared the killing grounds I rode on ahead in search of the third rustler. I finally found his body in a shallow swale. There wasn’t much left to bury but I’d brought along a shovel and did what any man would do. I buried him and said words over his grave. He appeared to be younger but honestly it was hard to tell. Unlike the other two who had brown hair this fella was blond.
I then did the same for the other two. In the letter that I had found inside the one saddle bag, the man’s sister had written that “try as we could, without father here the farm has fallen onto rough times and if you do not return to help run it, Mom will have no choice but to sell it.” She added that if that’s how things end up to be the case, she and her mother were going to live with her mothers cousin in San Antonio. She provided the address of the cousin in her letter.
I had already decided to write just to inform the family of her brothers death. I wasn’t going to tell them he was killed while attempting to rustle my herd. Instead I would just tell them he was killed in a stamped while attending the herd. At least that way they might assume he had turned his life around and died an honorable death.
Upon arriving, the cattle immediately headed for the water tank. It was big enough that at least twenty at a time could drink. Without the six foot horns taking up room, the short horned cattle number drinking should be around thirty.
I climbed back up the windmill and gave it a good greasing before I headed back to the ranch with the hands. I noticed that while I was up there a number of small animals and birds were already getting their fill on the carcasses of the dead horses.
Satisfied that whoever got the letter, they would know of the man’s death. I also included two paper twenty dollar bills saying that they were found on his possession. It wasn’t much but it might be enough to get them to the cousins home by stage.
Something in the way the sisters letter was written told me they were good people even if her brother had gone bad. The way I saw it, half my hands at one time or another might have been considered bad when they were younger. Youth seems to push the boundaries of what’s good and what’s bad but age seems to finally settle a person down to the good.
I trusted my foreman to post my letter to the family for me when they left for Uvalde on Friday night to let off steam in one of the local saloons there. Uvalde had no actual post office but the mercantile in agreement with the stage line, was where you went to get or send your mail.
I had no idea who the other two men were so I rode up on Saturday to Uvalde and contacted the county Sheriff. He told me since there was no identification on them and since they were buried already not to worry about it. He said if someone comes looking for a missing person he would get a physical description of the person they were looking for and see if it in any way matches the ones I gave him of the rustlers.
Rising from behind his desk he stuck out his hand for me to shake and told me, “Don’t fret none Mister Smith, there’s lots of unmarked graves across Uvalde County and even more missing persons. Go on back home, I got all the information I need along with your statement of what happened here.”
I shook his hand, thanked him and headed back home with a clear conscience.
A month went by and I hadn’t heard anything back from my letter so I put it out of my mind and got down to doing the business of selling off more of my longhorns. At the same time I brought in one hundred and fifty short horn cows and a couple bulls, one bull for each section of the range. The short horns settled in right away.
By the end of September I’d noted that my bulls had been busy doing what they do best (besides eating and pooping). I knew I’d made a good decision and planned on transitioning the entire herd over to short horns just as soon as I saw how many calves were born. I’d divided the cows up equally at seventy five per range.
I continued to watch the beef market and was excited when the short horns began bringing in way more money per pound than the longhorns. I congratulated myself and the hands by having a big ‘ol Texas style BBQ. The ‘guest of honor’ was a longhorn.
It was mid November when I started wearing my heavy fleece lined deerskin winter coat. It made me look more like the half breed Indian that I was than my heavy flannel one. I also switched back to wearing winter moccasins as they were less slippery on the ice and were also much warmer than my tall heeled boots.
On December first of that year, I was required to pay my County land taxes. I headed out for the Uvalde County tax assessor’s office, now located in the new County building across the street from the Kincaid Hotel off North street.
After paying my tax bill I decided to stop by the Sheriffs office to see if anyone had inquired about any missing persons or in my case, the missing rustlers.
I was asked to wait outside his office as the sheriff was busy at the time so I plunked down on a solidly built oak hard backed chair commonly seen in banks and government offices. The new overly warm building was steam heated and soon I was fighting the idea of taking a good nap.
I was thrust into wakefulness by the Sheriffs booming voice proclaiming, “Well speaking of the devil, here he is!”
I popped open my eyes and saw the Sheriff escorting two women out of his office.
“I just finished telling these folks how to get to your spread!”
I stood up and removed my hat to grace the two women but still unsure as to why they desired to know the where about’s of my ranch.
I stood confused waiting for any further information and when none came forth I exclaimed, “I’m sorry Ma’am’s but I’m at a loss as to who you all are.”
The younger woman stepped forward and offered her hand to me. I wasn’t sure if you shake a woman’s hand or kiss it so I just held onto it. But seeing such a young beautiful woman I would have preferred kissing it.
“I’m sorry, my name is Keva Lyndi, this is my mother widow Fayre Lyindi.”
I was paying way too much attention to the girls beautiful green eyes and just kind of stupidly mumbled, “You both have such beautiful names are you from Uvalde?”
The girl chuckled in response. “ No, we were originally from England but have lived here in America for over twenty years but we just arrived by stage an hour ago from San Antonio. We started out last month after selling the farm in Nebraska. To be honest, we nearly gave up and turned around. The west is so much larger than can be imagined and my mother is getting too old for such a rigorous travel.”
Suddenly it all became clear to me. “Oh my gosh!” I nearly shouted, “Then you must be the mother and daughter I wrote to last summer.” And just as suddenly, I realized I’d have to tell this woman and her mother that it was I who was responsible for her brothers death. My throat closed up.
“Yes, we received your letter but were involved in selling our farm and couldn’t leave right off. We wish to see where he’s buried so we can pay our respects”
At this point the Sheriff realized he was a fifth wheel on a four wheeled wagon and begged his forgiveness as he headed back into the safety of his office.
“Have you secured a room at the hotel yet? If not you are more than welcome to stay at the ranch. In fact I insist you do. For your mother’s sake there is no need to make the long arduous trip back and forth. If we leave now we can make it there by dark.”
It was then that the mother spoke up. “That would be fine Mister Smith, but would you truly have the room for two guest? I couldn’t help but notice on our way here that many of the homes are just small clay brick adobe ones. We don’t want to put you out.
“Ma’am, the house is a stick and brick one and has four bedrooms. Two that I never use are very large and have walk in wardrobes. I’m sure you’ll find them more than ample for your needs.”
I rented a Studebaker Brothers buggy from the Uvalda livery along with a horse to pull it with. Keva said she was quite familiar with driving a wagon so I had Mo saddled up by the stable boy and off we went after putting a dollar in the boy’s hand..
We arrived at my ranch just after six in the evening. Charley, my foreman, saw us coming through the ranch gate and ran out to meet us. He recognized me and Mo but not our guest.
I made the necessary introductions and saw the color leave Charley’s face when I told him who they were and why they had arrived.
“Uh…I’ll be taking the horses into the stable for ya’ boss.”
It seemed no one wanted to be around when I told them the truth of the matter.
I took what luggage they had upstairs and with Muriel my cooks help, got the two women settled into their rooms. Dinner that night was duck, mashed potatoes and a big old apple pie for desert!
On the way back from Uvalde we had discussed waiting until after breakfast to show them where I buried the bodies. Keva described her brother and I knew then which body was his, the blond, just like her.
I expected the two women to be in mourning but to my surprise they both seemed to have long before accepted the boys death. I was told he was only nineteen and had left home three years prior. He and his father saw life differently so when the boy started rebelling against his fathers wishes his father increased the demands on the boy.
It came to a head when the two butted heads and it became physical. The boy won, packed what belongings he could and left home.
Shortly after the boy left the father was told he had cancer. Within a year he was bedridden and could barely breath. He passed in his sleep after being bedridden for only a week. The crops had been already harvested so there was breathing time before the two women had to step up and do the tilling planting. Neither had never plowed using the mule. They finally figured out how to set up the mules harness to the plow but had no concept on how to control the mule to plow a straight line. Their furrows looked like a drunken Irishman had done the plowing. It was a sorry sight. It was the last crop they would ever attempt to grow.
They admitted without the boy’s help the farm would fail. If the boy refused to come home then the only recourse they had was to sell the place.
The two women rode in the buggy I had rented to the grave site while I rode on Mo.
Standing there looking over the prairie landscape the mother asked,“So this is where my son Erik lost his life?”
“Yes, the cattle he was driving turned on the three men, they never stood a chance. Your son’s grave is that one over there on the right.”
Keva asked, “Do you know who the other men were? If not, I believe I do.”
“I have no idea who the two others were, they had nothing on them with their names.”
“Well,” she said, “ one was a conniving old man named Bruley. He was the leader of the three. He was just plain bad to the bone. Why Erik ever fell in with him is beyond me. The other one must have been Bruley’s cousin Adolph. Adolph was a follower, couldn’t think on his own.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked her.
“When Erik left we heard he had company with him. Later on we found out Bruley and his cousin Adolph were the company. We knew then that no good would come to Erik hooking up with those two.”
I had hoped seeing the grave would be enough so I turned and began walking off.
Keva yelled after me. Mister Smith? Can you hold up a moment, I need to ask you something.”
“Sure, just let me set your Ma in the buggy then I’ll come back to you.”
When I had placed her Mom securely in the buggy seat I walked back to where Keva stood over her brothers grave.
“I want the truth Mister Smith.”
“Please, call me Joe.” I told her, “My Pa was Mister Smith, not me.”
“Now what is it you want to know?”
“When you wrote you said my brother and two other hands were killed during a stampede. Correct?”
“Yes, that’s what I wrote.”
“Was it the truth?”
“Ma’am… Keva I…”
“Don’t answer, I don’t want you to lie to protect my feelings. Let me tell you what I think happened here.”
I took off my hat and held it in both hands in front of me. “You have the floor, go ahead.”
“First off, my brother had no fear of hard work but those other two? They never worked an honest day in their life. Driving cattle as paid hands… really Joe? That would be news to everyone back in Holyoak Nebraska.”
“Second point Joe, since I know I’m right about them not working for you then the only answer is they were rustling your herd and it went bad on them… Am I right?”
“You have a good head Keva. I was just trying to be nice. I didn’t want to see you hurt anymore than you already were.”
Keva gently placed her hand on my chest and stared into my eyes. It was hard looking at her, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen and I think I may have forgotten to breath because my head started getting light.
“Joe, I’ve always been able to see people for who they really are. Do you want to know what I see Joe?”
“I’m not sure. You’d probably be right and that scares me.”
“I know I’m right. I listened real hard when you were talking over dinner last night. And afterward when we all sat on the porch and you told us how you grew up and all. You got hurt bad once Joe, it shows. But, you never let it stop you from doing what needed to be done nor did it steal away the kindness away you have for others. I’m not sure why you’re alone and not married but you’re a prize Joe, any girl would be proud to stand beside you. Why didn’t you ever let one in?”
“I did, once. I loved her so deep I couldn’t imagine what it would be like living without her.”
“So what happened?”
“We were going to get married but her Ma not wanting to see me made a fool of told me the truth about her. It… she was… my best friend Robby… and her… well, she got pregnant from him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You deserved better Joe.”
“All I knew is I lost my future wife and my life long best friend all in one day. Yes, it hurt but rather than turn bitter and fertilize any hate, I vowed to instead help others when I see them hurting. I call it medicine for my soul.”
I unbuttoned my right sleeve and rolled my shirt up my arm a few inches saying, “See this small tattoo of a heart on the underside of my wrist? I had it put there to remind myself to always remember that everyone’s got feelings and if I can, I try and lift ‘em up out of their troubles and not hurt ’em because they’s already been hurt enough.”
“So like the old adage goes, you wear your heart on your sleeve, is that it?”
The memories of my tragic first love came unexpectedly back in a rush, and the only response I could muster up was, “Yes, Ma’am, I do.
At this point I was so ashamed of the tears that had started to form in my eyes that I had to turn away from her lest they began falling. Once again I turned and started walking away from her. I had not cried openly since that day and I knew if I had stayed there staring at her I would again and she’d think I was just a foolish crybaby and despise me.
“Joe, stay here. Don’t walk away from me, please Joe?”
It wasn’t the voice of anger, but rather one that was pleading.
Against all reason I turned back to her and suddenly found her on her tip toes pressing her lips against mine, hard.
I threw all caution to the wind dropped my hat to the ground and wrapped my arms around her and kissed her back… hard. Oh my God, what wonderful feelings rushed from my insides, I felt redeemed!
Well, I could stretch this story out forever but I wont. But I will end it this way.
We decided to marry. Now it wouldn’t be proper for us to be lovers and living under the same roof so I moved in with the hands for the next three months. Sure, they made fun of me saying she threw me out of my own house and what not but really they couldn’t have been happier for me.
When we married, we had one heck of a hoopla party. I was so full of love for this girl I coulda’ burst! I dragged her all over Uvalde showing her off to all my friends and anybody who’d listen. She loved the attention too.
Her Mama stayed in the guest room making it her own from then on, that was fine with me. She was actually quite a pleasant woman to have around and couldn’t wait for the day when she could spoil her grandbaby.
On our first anniversary, Keva and I decided to have a picnic up by the windmill where it all began. It didn’t bother her that her brother lay less than a half mile away under the prairie grass.
Sitting there under the windmill, I looked up at the large spinning galvanized blades and wondered what my life would have been like if I’d never vowed to finish building it that day.
As we ate our picnic lunch to the sound of the light clanging of the well pump, we both realized this whole event could never have been just coincidental but had been guided by the loving hand of God. It truly was, can I have an Amen to that?
JW Edwards / www.campfireshadows.com