It was just getting dark as I rode into the little town of Bloody Gulch, Texas. I was barely in time to make my appointment with my friend and old riding companion, Jake Holbein. Jake had written me a letter to meet him at the Double Eagle saloon at sundown on June 16, 1875. I was between jobs, meaning that I had been out of work for about six months, when I got the letter from Jake. I sent him a telegram saying that I would be there, knowing that Jake would do the right thing by me, so I did not need to ask about the wages and such.
I am a top-notch gun hand, so I expect to be paid no less than $100 per month and found (room and board). I ain't especially particular about who I shoot, as long as it's a man what's carrying a gun. I do draw the line at shooting women and kids, unless they start shooting at me first.
The lights were already lit inside the saloon when I got to the butterfly doors, so I was able to give the place a quick scan before I walked in. Jake wasn't there, yet, but there seemed to be a crowd of what I would call "hard-cases."
Never letting my back get turned to the crowd until I could see all of them in the mirror behind the bar, I walked up and ordered a beer. I asked about some supper, and the bartender said that he had day-old chili that he could warm up, or he could fix me a steak sandwich. I told them I was hungry enough to eat both of them, and he told me to have a seat at a table. He'd have the swamper deliver my supper to me as soon as it was ready. I picked up my beer and found an empty table where my back was to the wall and I could see the whole saloon.
The food was delivered in a reasonable time and I tipped the swamper a nickel for his efforts. He looked surprised and thanked me as he walked away. The food tasted surprisingly good, especially the chili, and I enjoyed it. My timing was perfect on finishing up as Jake walked in just as I took my last bite of the sandwich.
Jake had four men with him, and they looked just like the hard-cases that I saw when I first came into the saloon. I stood up when I saw him, and Jake waved to me as he sent the four men to the bar. We shook hands and spent about half an hour reminiscing about old times. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I asked, "So, Jake, what do you need me for? From the looks of things, all of these hard-cases in this here bar look like they work for you, and I see a dozen of them. I don't see what I could add to the party."
"Well, my friend, I ain't never seen a situation where Jim Walters couldn't add to the mix. Everybody in this part of Texas knows that you have the keenest shooting eye and fastest draw for many miles around. Right now, I have a deal going that is going to make me the biggest cattle Baron in this end of Texas. There is a little range war cooking, and I need you to lead the troops."
"Hell, Jake, I ain't never been involved in a range war before, and I ain't so sure that I like the idea right now. It seems to me that a lot of innocents get killed in a range war, and you know how I feel about that."
"Come on, Jim! I need you, and I'm willing to make you rich if you join me. I know you ain't got no job right now, and I doubt that you have much in the way of prospects. Ain't many people with money to spend, nowadays, but I'm one of the people what has money to spend. You tie up with me, and I can guarantee that you will be rolling in money by this time next year. Come on, what do you say?"
"Dammit, Jake, you know me better than that! You know I do not react well when people put pressure on me. Give me a day to make up my mind, and I'll probably come crawling to you for that job with my tail between my legs. In the meantime, back off a little bit, and let's talk about old times over a beer."
"Look, Jim, I have still got some more business I need to transact tonight, so give me a pass on that beer and come on out to my ranch later tonight. I will put you up for the night, and you can give me your answer sometime tomorrow."
Well, I know when I have been dismissed, so I stood up and walked to the bar for another beer. I had not quite gotten to the bar when a man came in what looked like he was at his wit's end. He kind of staggered over to Jake and said, "Jake Holbein, you are the meanest bastard I ever heard of! I have a wife and daughter that I won't be able to support if you grab my ranch! I have told you before that you cannot have it, so back off before somebody gets killed!"
"See here, Abner Johnson! Be careful what you call me, especially in my town when I am surrounded by my friends. I am going to get your ranch one way or the other. If necessary, it will be over your dead body, and that of your wife and daughter. Now, sell the Circle J to me for my last offer, or I will just take it from you."
Abner Johnson waved his finger at Jake and said, "There ain't no way I am going to sell my ranch to you! I am leaving this here saloon, and I hope I never see you again."
Johnson turned to leave and Jake nodded his head. Four men standing near Jake pulled their guns and emptied them into Abner Johnson's body. The man was chopped to ground beef by so many bullets hitting him at once. He fell on the floor, and Jake said, "Brace, take care of it."
Some man, one of the hard-cases nodded his head and walked over to Johnson's body. He rolled the corpse over, and took out the man's six-shooter. He put the gun in Johnson's hand and walked out of the room. Everybody returned to drinking beer or whatever they had been doing before Johnson came into the saloon. About 15 minutes later, Brace came back with a man what had a marshal's badge pinned to his shirt.
The marshal said, "I see you had a little trouble here, Mr. Holbein. I see from Johnson's gun that it was a case of self-defense. You just pitch the body out into the street and I'll have the undertaker pick it up tomorrow morning."
"Thank you, Marshal. We will do what you say. Here, buy yourself a beer for your trouble." Jake handed the marshal a Double Eagle and acted like he didn't expect to get any change.
Jake took a piece of paper out of a folder he had and wrote something on it. I couldn't see what he wrote, but I would bet almost any amount of money that he had put Abner Johnson's name on a bill of sale. Right then, Jake Holbein made up my mind about what I was going to do, but I didn't say anything to him. I just nursed my beer and made sure to keep an eye on the hard-cases. What I planned to do would have got me shot if they knew what I had in mind.
A few minutes later, Brace had some of his cronies pitch Abner Johnson's body into the street. They left it there and strolled back into the saloon. I gave everybody a little while to settle down before I walked out of the saloon. My horse was tied to the hitching rail in front of the saloon, and there was one other horse tied there—it had a Circle J brand on it, so I figured that it belonged to Abner Johnson.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, I tied Abner's body across his saddle and rode away from the saloon. I got lucky as I rode away from the Double Eagle saloon—I happened to see a man walking down the sidewalk, so I asked for directions to the Circle J ranch. He told me what I needed and I rode away. I don't know if he paid attention to what was tied to the saddle of the horse I was leading, but he didn't comment so I let it drop.
I made it all away out of town without attracting attention, so I figured that I would keep riding what appeared to be a lucky streak. I wasn't sure what I was letting myself in for, but I figured that Jake Holbein was doing something that I just couldn't cotton to. I knew Jake pretty well, so I figured that the murder of Abner Johnson was typical of the way he had been acquiring property. I couldn't abide murder of the sort I had seen tonight, so I figured I'd deliver the body to its home and then get my ass well away from Bloody Gulch.
I rode for nearly 1½ hours to get to the Circle J, so it was pretty damned late at night, after 10:00 PM, by the time I got there. There was a light on in the parlor, so I figured somebody must be staying up waiting for Abner to get home. This was going to be a shock to them, but I couldn't think of anything else to do but to go up to the front door and make my presence known.
I tied the two horses to the hitching rail and went up on the veranda. I was just reaching up to knock on the door when a shotgun went off practically in my face. By some strange stroke of luck, not a pellet hit me, but I dropped to the floor and pulled my Starr DA from its holster. I will admit, from all of the greetings I might have received, that was not one that I was expecting.
In only moments, the door open and an older woman asked, "Mister, are you all right? That shot was an accident. I sure hope you ain't hurt."
Well, that was the first time I was ever shot at by a shotgun and then had the shooter apologize. Being careful, I stayed on the floor when I said, "I am all right. Why did you shoot at me?"
"I am right sorry about that, but I was scared, and my finger twitched on the trigger. I sure am glad that you ain't hurt. What do you want?"
"I will tell you as soon as you put that shotgun down. I don't want you to get excited and shoot me with that other barrel!"
She did is I asked, and I stood up. "Ma'am, I am Jim Walters. Are you Mrs. Johnson?"
Before she could say anything, another younger woman showed up, and she was carrying a Colt Army .44 caliber pistol like she knew what to do with it. The older woman said, "Yes, Mr. Walters, I am Mrs. Johnson, and this here is my daughter Helen. What do you want with us?"
"Mrs. Johnson, I expect you two ladies better sit down, because I have some real bad news."
Both women turned white as sheets when I said that. I was certain that they knew right then what I was about to say, but we went through the motions. We went inside and the women sat down beside each other on the sofa. I remained standing as I relayed my news.
"I was in the Double Eagle Saloon eating supper when I saw four men working for Jake Holbein gun down Mr. Abner Johnson! There was nothing I could do about it, it all happened so quick, but I did bring Mr. Johnson home. His body is tied to his horse just outside your front door. What would you like for me to do to help you?"
The women both broke down in sobs, and I couldn't blame them. I just stood there for about 10 minutes while the women cried. Helen was the first one to get hold of herself. She said to me, "Mr. Walters, would you be so kind as to help me to bring Pa's body into the house? All of our ranch hands have been chased off, so there ain't no men around here to do that job."
"Yes, Ma'am, I will be pleased to help you with that task. Show me where to put him when I get back inside, and that will make things a little easier for me." Helen led me to the master bedroom and then went to the front door to hold it open for me as I brought Abner's body into the house.
That job wasn't as easy as it might sound, but I got it done with a minimum of blood spatters on the floor. Once I had the body laid out on the bed, Helen said to me, "You may spend the night in the bunk house if you would like. We don't have many bedrooms in the house so I cannot offer you anything better."
"That will be fine, Miss Helen. Do you need me to help you here, or can your ma and you do a better job with me out of the way?"
"Mr. Walters, now that you have been so kind as to volunteer, we could probably use your help. I will see what Ma has to say. In the meantime, please pull Pa's boots off."
I helped them to get Abner's clothes off, and then I went to put up the horses while they bathed him. I dumped my stuff at a convenient bunk in the bunkhouse and went back to the main house to see whatever additional assistance I might render.
When I got back, Mrs. Johnson asked, "Can we impose on you to dig a grave? The people in Bloody Gulch are too frightened of Jake Holbein to stand still for a regular funeral. The best we can do is bury my husband in our little graveyard on the ranch. If you will do that, I will show you where in the morning."
"Yes, Ma'am, I will do that for you. All you need to do is tell me where I can find a shovel and where to dig. I will do the rest. Is there anything else I can do tonight? If not, I will go to bed."
Helen said, "I will call you for breakfast about daylight tomorrow if that is acceptable."
I nodded my head and went back to the bunkhouse. I was not expecting trouble, but I always plan for it, so I went to sleep with my pistol in my hand. I slept very well, thank you, and I was awake, dressed, and shaved before I was called for breakfast.
I was treated to an excellent breakfast and shown where to dig the grave. Grave digging is not one of my favorite pastimes, but I've had to dig my share of them, so I was able to get the hole dug in a reasonable length of time. I attended a short funeral just after lunch. I spent some time in school so I was able to read a few passages from the Bible to help with the funeral. One reason the funeral was short, I am sure, was because both women kept breaking into tears. They went back into the house while I shoveled dirt back into the hole. I piled a few rocks on the grave to keep the varmints out, but there was no headstone. I do not know what the women had planned for that.
We were sitting in the parlor when Jake Holbein and four of his minions rode up. One of his men came to the door and banged with his fist. I could see through the front window who was calling, so I figured that it was up to me to go to the door instead of one of the women. I got to the door and opened it. The hard-case who had banged on the door stepped back in surprise at seeing me, but Jake looked like he expected me to be there.
"Well, Jim, I see that you could not leave well enough alone. I figured that you would be here when the old man's body disappeared. The best thing that you can do is to step aside and let me show the women the bill of sale that I have for the ranch."
"Jake, you should remember that I was at the saloon last night, so I know how much value there is to that bill of sale. So I suggest that you take your men and get the hell off the Circle J before bullets start flying. I guess that you can figure that I ain't working for you, and you know how I feel about people who shoot at helpless women."
"Okay, Jim. This ain't the time for gun play. We will be leaving now, but you must know that you have not seen the last of us!"
Jake Holbein and his men rode away, but I knew that they would be back pretty damned soon. As soon as they left, the two women rushed to me and Helen said, "Oh, my Lord, Mr. Walters. You are the first man that I ever heard stand up to Jake Holbein. You better ride out as fast as you can; otherwise, you have signed your death warrant!"
"Miss Helen, I have known Jake Holbein for years, and I know what a back-shooting snake-in-the-grass he can be if he ever gets behind you. I also know that he is a gutless wonder when you face him with anything close to even odds."
"In that case, Mr. Walters, would you consider working for us? I don't know what you usually get for wages, but I am pretty sure that we can't match them."
"Do not worry yourself about that right now, Miss Helen. Jake Holbein has got my dander up, and we'll work out wages later on. Right now, let us say that I am working for y'all ladies on speculation!"