Volume One: Better Off Without Her
Panhandle of Texas
Palo Duro Canyon
He took the fingers out of his pocket and twirled them against his own. Some were lean and tapered others were short and stubby. Problem was…they didn't feel real anymore. They were no longer warm, and agile. He wanted them to feel real, to be warm. They were cold, lifeless, and quickly turning colors. Blood oozed from one, the last victim. He culled the rotten ones from the new, throwing them in the dirt as he rode, leaving an eerie trail of souvenirs. His shoulders hunched as he protected his treasure from prying eyes.
He couldn't identify his own feelings for the children he had protected—perhaps the only good he'd done in the world. The word "proud" came to mind, but he wasn't sure what it meant. Many words eluded him. He'd heard the words spoken by his father and Uncle and wondered at their meaning. His eyes narrowed as he glanced about him, thrusting the good fingers back into his pocket. He patted his pocket and nodded. It was enough.
He rode most of the night, weary and sleepy, but more than that, hungry. He'd known hunger before too. His stomach twisted. He relished familiar feelings–they fed his soul. Pain was normal. As long as there was pain, he knew he was alive, and he knew it as surely as blood drips from a knife.
This cold here wasn't much different from the cold he'd suffered in the Kansas prison, only a month ago. The wind howled the same tune, only it wasn't coming in through a crack in the floor, where someone had tried to escape only a few days earlier. He remembered killing the guard, a non-essential man, and shooting another one in the leg. He'd taken the gun from the first guard as he strangled him against the prison bars. He remembered how the second guard had followed him, relentlessly.
Why would he follow, knowing it meant certain death for him.
None of that mattered now that he was free…
The word froze on his tongue. Free—what did that mean exactly? He wasn't sure. It was times like these, when he tried to think, that he wished sorely he had been able to go to school. It hurt to think, and it never made sense to him.
He knew nothing of the world.
He wished fervently someone could explain all the words to him he'd heard over the years. He heard people talk in towns and understood the meanings very little. It was almost as though he were not of this world. He certainly didn't fit in anywhere he'd been. It seemed important to fit somewhere.
The sound of his horse clopping against the dry floor of the desert made a lonely echo through the desolate canyons as he struggled against the north winds of winter.
How could a place like this be so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter.
Hunger, loneliness, pain, he knew and understood. And another kind of need…revenge. He heard his father and Uncle speak of it many times, asking him if he wanted revenge? Revenge was what he sought, he thought. To kill his Uncle was his only mssion.
The silence broke when a war hoop sounded from the ridge and a scream for help came out of nowhere. He looked around and spotted a boy running as though the devil himself were after him. It only took seconds to realize a lone Comanche chased the kid. He let out his own war whoop and aimed his horse straight at the attacking Indian. His own mortality was unimportant. He must save the child. The one thing Victor was sure of, was that children mattered.
The boy must have seen him as he ran toward him. He drew his knife, put it in his mouth, and then he held his arm out for the kid and as he rode by the boy mounted behind him. Victor yelped like the wild Indian, as soon as the boy let loose of his arm, he threw the knife, hitting the Indian square in the chest. The Indian slumped against his horse and slowly slid to the ground, blood dripping from his wound.
"You got him senor," the boy hollered as he jumped down and ran to the Indian, grabbing the knife and pulling it out, he wiped it on the dead Indian's clothes, and then handed it to Victor with a smile. "Thank you, Señor, you saved my life."
"What you doin' out here, by yourself kid?" Victor asked taking the knife and putting it in his scabbard.
"I live on a ranch not far from here, with my mother and father. I was out looking for my mule— she wandered away. Will you take me to them?" The boy eyed him, his mouth falling open.
"I reckon…What are you starin' at kid?"
"I've never seen anyone like you before."
"Like me? What's so different about me…?"
"It's your face…so scarred. You were beaten?" the boy asked.
Victor merely shrugged.
"And…your voice…it is like a girl, it is so high. Who did this to you?" The boy seemed almost angry, and yet concerned.
Victor nodded not surprised at the boy's observation, "Ain't no nevermind boy, it was done many years ago. Now, get his horse, and let's go."
"Am I stealing the horse?" the boy asked.
"Nope…just takin' the leavin's of the dead, boy."
The boy frowned but obeyed. He mounted the Indian's pony and hung on as Victor rode in the direction the boy pointed.
As they rode into the ranch yard, a Mexican woman came out and started talking to the boy in Spanish. Then he looked at Victor.
"You are most welcome to stay with us, as you saved me from certain death. My mother insists."
"Thanks, I'd appreciate a meal and some sleep then be on my way."
The boy nodded, "And anything else you wish for is yours, my mother says."
"Your mother is glad you are home?" Victor's raised a brow in confusion.
He glanced at the woman who was rushing around to prepare a meal for them. An unusual woman.
"That's good, yes, that is very good." He almost smiled. "What's your name boy?"
"Antonio Del Lavaga Enriques."
"That's a big name for a little fella."
A new sensation swamped Victor. He didn't know what he felt, but he knew it was some sort reaction to this boy. He watched the boy lead him through the adobe house and into the kitchen where his mother fixed a fine meal. Victor watched the woman saying nothing. He ate in silence and took a long nap afterward. When he woke he said his goodbyes and thank-yous and mounted. He glanced at Antonio for a moment and almost smiled again. Some emotion he couldn't express filled him. However, the pain that a smile would inflict kept it from forming. It was the closest he had come since he was younger than the Antonio. He found it hard to smile and the feeling was strange to him, but his face felt the pain, and his frown eased into place once more. A small shadow of warmth entered his heart as he nodded to the family that was so grateful—no yelling and screaming and manner of meanness here. Victor wished he belonged here, but knew he had no place. Antonio was very lucky, he wished to tell him someday.
He found a moment of peace and as he laid his head down that night, he slept well. It was the last time he would do so.
Victor was twenty-one.
Volume Two: The Ghost of Victor Frank
"Benny, you left a damn dirty spittoon. If you don't clean them every day, they stink. Now, clean it up." Harry the Bartender yelled as he practically through the spittoon at him from the back door of the saloon.
"Okay Harry," Benny grimaced when the contents spilled on his hand. Grinding his teeth until it hurt, Benny shot a scowl toward the doorway where Harry had disappeared. Dirty spittoons, dirty lanterns. That's all he did was clean. What did they think he was, a woman?
The sun beat down on him like an iron skillet, sizzling the earth, only one bird sang his lovely tune, a mocking bird, Benny noticed silently. The streets of Del Rio, Texas were quiet. Unusually so for this time of day.
Benny Gates was unaware of the beautiful day as he sat on the boardwalk right outside the Silver Spur Saloon. He was brooding again, his shoulders slumped making him appear shorter than he really was. With a mop of dirty blonde hair, and clear blue eyes, he might have been handsome if he carried himself better. But he continued to carry the nastiness of the world on his shoulders.
They'd called him a dim-wit this morning, mocking him. Yesterday Johnny Hatfield and Clay Roberts had teased him as he tried to keep the bar and spittoons clean for Harry the bartender. Johnny and Clay were Privates for the army, and they often frequented the bar. And every time they came to town they gave Benny a hard time. For one thing Benny's clothes were all tattered and torn, and his shoes were worn out and flapped when he walked. He couldn't hide the fact, they made such a noise as he walked.
"One of these days though…. I'll make them all sit up and take notice of Benny Gates." Benny mumbled out of the side of his mouth.
Benny went inside. Not that he wanted to, but he had work to do. A half-drunk Indian played a wicked piano filling Benny with disgust, he'd heard every tune. Music didn't interest him, neither did drinking. He'd had a lifetime of both. The saloon had been his home all his life, a disgusting home, Benny determined. He hated it. He hated everything now. He hated Johnny and Clay, he hated the army, but most of all…he hated his mother.
He hated saloons too. He hated the people inside them. Saloons were nasty, stinky, and filled with the rotten apples of Del Rio. He wished they were dead. He wished half the town were dead. So many had called him ugly names and poked fun at him for years on end. He'd been known as the bastard child of the town. Every day was the same, it never got better like some told him it would.
He breathed deep and the stench of rot-gut whiskey and long ago chewed tobacco permeated the air.
He put his hand on the bar he'd cleaned only an hour ago and already, slopped whiskey, dirty hands, dust from cowhand's clothes, and spilled tobacco formed a paste on top of it.
Two saloon girls got up and moved around a poker table. Their hands were everywhere, touching, feeling, making themselves known to the men. Benny grimaced. This was his private hell. He was born to it, and it looked as though he'd die here, unless he done something about it.
The mirror that hung behind the bar was smeared with dust and smoke until no one could truly see much out of it.
"I'll show them. I'll fix them good." Benny mumbled.
He sat contemplating how he would even all the scores.
For years, he'd taken ridicule, snide remarks, people laughing at him. And why?
His mother, that was why. His mother had been a saloon girl all her life, and as of late she hobbled about the bar with her thick mask of make-up and drooping white shoulders. The times she'd went up those stairs with ugly, dirty cowboys were too numerous to count. Benny didn't want to think about that. He didn't want to think about her. They made fun of her too. No one knew who Benny's father was, even his mother. Perhaps that was the biggest problem, he was the bastard of some unknown cowboy drifter, and the laughing stock of the town. He couldn't change that here in Del Rio, but someday he was going to leave and never come back. He'd made himself that promise.
With no education, he'd still managed to learn to count with the cards of a gambler. Decent young girls didn't look at him, but they giggled at him behind his back. He didn't understand what was so different about him?
Disgust and anger roiled inside his body, festering like a sore. But this sore never healed. It wouldn't heal until he did something about it, and he had plans to do just that. He'd thought it up some time ago, but soon they would all be sorry how they treated him. Very soon.
Two strangers rode up and hobbled their horses in front of the saloon. Benny stared at them as they came through the swinging doors. They didn't look much different than the cowboys who hung out in the saloon, except they were cleaner, and they were strangers. When Benny was younger, he might have given these two the benefit of the doubt, but not anymore. Anyone who sought out a saloon was the same to Benny.
The one thing Benny did was observe people, filing away the information on each new person he met, to refer to at another time, and maybe another place.
He studied these two. One was a Mexican and the other was white. They both wore guns though and looked as though they knew how to use them. Benny squirmed a little. He had them pegged as gunfighters, just the way they walked and carried themselves told him they could handle their firearms.
He eyed them for a long minute, but they paid little attention to him.
He listened as they were greeted by an old friend, Chocko.
"Antonio, I have not seen you for years. Where have you been, my friend?" Chocko asked his friend. Chocko was a tall Mexican, with a big sombrero and a perfectly manicured mustache. He had slicked back black hair and eyes that could pierce any target. But his smile was genuine and aimed at this Antonio and his companion with interest.
"Lots of places my friend. Let me introduce you to John T. he used to be a Texas Ranger."
"Used to?" Chocko questioned quickly.
"Yeah, he's just a Sheriff now, and I'm worse, I'm his deputy." Antonio smiled.
Chocko snickered. "I didn't know you could quit the Rangers?"
"Sort of retired…" John T. smiled.
"Say, aren't you two the ones that got that crazy fella, Victor Frank?" Chocko asked buying a round of beers for his friends.
Antonio bowed his head, and John T. looked away, "Yeah, we're the ones." Antonio's voice lowered.
It wasn't so much what he said as how he said it that had Chocko speechless for a moment. Benny paid close attention. The tension in the room mounted for a moment. He'd figured them wrong, they were lawmen. He hadn't often made that mistake. But their conversation was one of interest.
"Everybody is talkin' about that. He was one mean hombre. Even the Rangers wouldn’t mess with him, I'm told. Said you got him in an Indian camp and nearly wiped out the whole bunch…"
"Yes, my friend, but we don't talk about it much…" Antonio said lowly. "It is not a good thing to remember."
Chocko's smile disappeared. "Why not. He was one bad hombre, eh? I would think you would brag of such of feat. He was a killer of women, no doubt he deserved to die…"
John T. turned his drink up and swallowed it down, slamming the glass on the bar. Antonio leaned on the bar and looked out the door.
Chocko saw their gazes disappear out the swinging doors.
"I do not understand, he was a bad hombre, wasn't he? Set me straight, please." Chocko twisted his head and stared at the two of them.
John T. nodded, "Yeah, he was."
"Then why so sad…?" Chocko hit Antonio on the back and laughed.
Antonio gripped his beer tightly. "It was like killing a mad dog, Chocko. There is no honor in killing a mad dog, you are simply putting him out of his misery." Antonio explained. "That's what we did, put him out of his misery."
"Si…. I understand that." Chocko nodded to the bartender for a refill. "So, what are you doin' here?" Chocko quickly changed the subject when he saw they were both withdrawn from this conversation.
John T. stood up straight now, "We're here to pick up a prisoner."
"Sorrels?" Chocko cocked his head at him.
"That's the one." Antonio nodded.
"He has a big mouth, and a fast gun, but he is trash." Chocko said with disgust. "He says he accidentally killed the woman who ran out of the bank, while he was robbing it."
"Was it an accident?" Antonio questioned.
"There were no eye witnesses. She was the only one in the bank accept the teller at the time. No one knows, but…he shot her in the back…"
Antonio pushed his hat back from his head. "Didn't the teller see it?"
"Nope, they killed him too."
"Why do we always end up with the no-accounts?" Antonio sighed.
John T. snickered. "Just lucky I guess…"
"Too bad they can't hang him here?" Antonio said.
"And, why can't we?" Chocko laughed.
"He's wanted on a previous charge over in Austin, seems he killed a politician up there during another robbery." John T. informed him.
"So, you are from Austin?"
Antonio shook his head, "No Chocko, but since we are so famous for killing Victor Frank, they sent us to pick up this Sorrels. It seems they consider him a very dangerous hombre."
"See, you are heroes. You will ruin their plans then…" Chocko pointed to a table of men who seemed bent on getting drunk.
"Who are they?" Antonio looked toward the table with interest.
"Friends and family of the lady he killed. They will not be so happy about you are taking him."
John T. and Antonio glanced at each other. "That's too bad." John T. shot the men at the table a quick glance.
Antonio glanced around the bar. "So, what do you do now, Chocko?"
"I work for Don Pedro, on his ranch. I am foreman there."
"Foreman, well, you are moving up in the world."
Chocko smiled a brilliant smile, "Si…"
"What are you doin' in town then?"
"Don Pedro is making arrangements with the buyers, we will soon move the herd north to the railroad." Chocko said.
"I guess he's got a pretty big spread now." Antonio thought about it.
"Si, very big. Thanks to God we do not have to take them to Kansas any longer." Chocko said.
"Yeah, I guess the days of the big cattle drives are over now." John T. added.
"Yeah," Chocko nodded. "You know, I kind of miss it. Sleeping out under the stars, listening to the cattle low at night. It was peaceful."
"Yeah but how about the storms, the rain, the up all night with a stampede? Bet you don't miss that do ya?" John T. smiled.
"No Señor, I do not miss that…" Chocko laughed.
Benny came strolling around them, he shot Chocko a quick glance then went to tie his apron on and sweep the floor. He kept his head down and seemed bent on not looking at anyone.
All the time they talked, he swept, but John T. noticed how Benny kept getting closer and seemed to be listening to every word.
When John T. caught Benny staring, Benny moved away quickly.
"Who's that?" John T. asked.
Chocko shot Benny a quick glance, "Aw…that is Benny, he's a little short on brains, but he's harmless. He keeps this place clean. He's sort of belligerent, as they say."
John T. glanced again at the young man.
"He doesn't look like he likes you Chocko." Antonio observed.
Benny edged up to them. "What does belligerent mean?"
Chocko laughed and shook his head. "Never mind Benny."
"No…you called me belligerent…what does that mean?"
"Means you got a bad attitude." Chocko narrowed his focus on the young man. "Now go back to your work, Benny. This doesn't concern you."
"I don't like bein' called names. Every day I take it, from the men from Camp Hudson, and Ft. Clark. Well, I'm tired of taking it. Take it back, Chocko." Benny yelled.
"Settle down pardner, he meant no harm." Antonio got between them.
Benny bristled. "Stay out of this mister…"
"You're taking offense awfully easy kid." John T. studied him carefully.
"I'm gonna get a gun and shoot you Chocko. I'm gonna shoot you dead. You hear me?" Benny hollered and ran out the door.
Chocko turned back to the bar, swallowed another whiskey and eyeballed his friends. "That is one strange kid. He's never happy. Never knows a joke when he hears one. He's gonna get himself killed one of these days. He's got so much hate stored up, Lord help us if it ever comes out."
"Does he always threaten to shoot people?" John T. asked, still watching the swinging door.
"No, but he's all talk." Chocko laughed. "Benny doesn't like anyone."
"I can believe that?" John T. said, his eyes darting around the room. "It's kind of sad from someone so young."
Chocko shrugged seeming uncomfortable talking about the kid. "Perhaps we should talk of him another time…"
John T. nodded, "Well, we've had our drink, we better get on over to the jail. We got a long ride ahead of us."
Antonio paid for the last drink and nodded. "Good seein' you again, Chocko, take care."
"Adios my friends." Chocko tipped his hat to them.
But just as they would have walked outside, Benny came charging in with a six-shooter in his hand and aimed it at Chocko.
John T. reacted as he always did.
"I'm gonna kill you dead, Chocko…" Benny raised his gun.
John T. shot the gun out his hand and walked toward the kid who was stumbling to the floor and blabbering about his bleeding hand.
"You shot me! You shot me!" Benny cried in stunned confusion.
"Better be glad he didn't kill you." Antonio glanced down at the flustered kid.
"He shot my gun hand…." Benny shouted. "Aren't you gonna do something about it?"
"Nope!" Chocko bent over him.
John T. stared down at the kid and shook his head. "I shot your gun hand on purpose kid. It will be awhile before that heals up, and you probably won't be handling a gun with it again. Maybe that will keep you out of trouble. At least I hope it will."
"I'll come after you! I swear it! I'll kill you, mister."
John T. turned to look over his shoulder as he headed out the door. "You can try, kid, but I wouldn't advice it."
Chocko nodded to his friends.
As John T. and Antonio walked out of the saloon, John T. glanced back at Chocko and waved. But John T. got another glance at Benny too and something unnerved him about the kid. Just like it had Chocko.
"Something wrong my friend?" Antonio asked as they strode toward the jail.
"That Benny…does he remind you of anyone?"
Antonio glanced back over his shoulder and saw Benny staring out the swinging doors at them. "He's just a kid."
"A kid with a real chip on his shoulder. You wouldn't think a kid would be like that, would you? I'm thinking that Benny and Victor Frank might have had a few things in common…"
Antonio looked again, but Benny had disappeared.
"He probably went to see a doctor," John T. surmised quickly.
Antonio studied his friend. "There will never be another Victor Frank!"
The way he said that had John T. staring at him.
"Don't be so sure, Antonio. The kid hasn't been physically abused, but he sure is nursing a grudge or two. I wouldn't be surprised to find him on our trail. Like Chocko said, he's a little short of brains."
"With a bad gun hand?" Antonio frowned.
"He's got a different kind of problem Antonio, he's been emotionally battered, just as bad as someone whipping you all the time. After a while it festers like a sore and he's picking at the sore right now. We haven't seen the last of that kid…mark my words."
Antonio made the sign of the cross, "Madre mia, not another…."
John T. shrugged. "I could be wrong, but I got a gut feeling…"