Man, was Caleb glad to get back to Texas. The coldest he had ever been in his life was that winter of '64-'65 he had spent in the New England POW camp. He didn't know how those Damyankees could stand it; no wonder they were so fucking mean! His troop of Texas cavalry had been ambushed by a whole company of Union cavalry and it had been a case of surrender or die. Caleb was no fool, so he had surrendered, though sometimes he'd wished he hadn't!
It was mid-fall, now, and Caleb was headed for his ranch near Laredo. He'd had to leave it empty when he joined the Confederate Army in 1862, but he knew that everybody knew that it was his, so he knew his neighbors would make sure nothing bad happened to it while he was gone. He was proud of the Circle J, and he meant to get it back into operation before next spring. For one thing, he would need the money to fix up the house for his new wife. Susan Wright had promised to wait for him, and he was anxious to see her.
He had noted that Texas was in a mess, but, at least, no major battles had been fought in this area, so that destruction had been avoided. However, Carpetbaggers had already started to show up, and that kind of trouble was brewing all over the South. On top of everything else, brigands were everywhere. It was not safe to ride alone anywhere outside of a town. If you weren't carrying some sort of gun, you were a damned fool and just asking to be robbed, or worse. No woman could go anywhere alone, even in town; the world had gone to hell in a handbasket
Caleb was carrying two US Army Remington .44 caliber pistols on his saddle and one at his waist in a cross draw holster. It was unusual for one man to have so many of the highly prized Remingtons, but Caleb was unusually skilled at poker, and a man's pistol was often his wager of last resort. He had lost his LeMat when he was first captured, and he now felt that the Remington was a much better weapon. It would never do for a "quick draw" contest, but for accurate shooting and great stopping power, it was impossible to beat.
Caleb was nearing his ranch when he heard shooting. He sped up his horse to rush to the scene of the shooting and found two men hunkered down in a roadside ditch and under attack by 4 men on horses. Caleb recognized one of the men in the ditch as a neighbor, so he knew immediately which side he was on. The men on horses were gathered on the road near where Caleb was traveling, so they were almost within range as they came into sight.
The men in the ditch were not shooting at the moment, so Caleb was not likely to be shot by his friend if he acted quickly. Caleb drew one of his saddle pistols and inched closer to the men shooting from their horses. He was within comfortable range and the 4 men had not yet noticed him. Caleb took careful aim and shot one of the men between the shoulder blades. He had badly wounded the second man before they realized their assailant was behind them. Apparently not being the fools that Caleb hoped they were, they rode away as fast as their horses could carry them, leaving behind their dead companion lying in the roadway.
Caleb holstered his pistol and shouted to his friend, "JAKE, IT'S ME, CALEB JACKSON! DON'T SHOOT, I'M COMING IN!" The men in the ditch stood up and waved Caleb in.
Caleb stopped long enough to make sure that the man lying on the road really was dead. He rolled the man over onto his back and was startled to see a deputy sheriff's badge pinned to his shirt. "Oh, shit! What's going on? I know that Jake is honest. This must be a mistake!"
He rode up to Jake and they greeted each other as two friends would who hadn't seen each other for years. After a few minutes of back slapping and hand shaking, Jake introduced his friend as Sam Whetstone. Caleb couldn't wait any longer and asked, "What the hell's going on that y'all were in a gun fight with deputy sheriffs?"
"The bastards were trying ta arrest me fer not paying my property taxes."
"What the hell's 'property taxes'?"
"Since the war, some new politicians have taken over and put a whole lot of new taxes in. There's a tax of 10 cents an acre on all the property in the county. They foreclosed on your property last month and sold it at auction. One of the politicians bought it and is living in your house for the last couple of weeks."
"Shit, I'll kill the bastard ifen he don't git out right away. I plan ta marry Susan Wright an' we need the house ta live in."
"Oh, hell, Caleb. I thought ya knew. Susan is already married. She married the politician what bought yer house."
"Now I know I'm gonna kill that bastard."
"Don't do that, Caleb, or ya'll be in the same fix me and Sam are in. We're both wanted fer murder an' there's a price on our heads. Sam wuz my foreman, an' we shot one of the men what came to evict me. I don't know which one of us actually killed him, but both our names are on the warrant."
"I don't give a shit! Ain't nobody gonna treat me like that. First off, though, where's yer hosses. I'll git 'em fer ya."
" We ain't got no hosses no more. Them bastards shot them soon as they seen us."
"Well, y'all take that there hoss the deputy wuz ridin'. He shore as hell don't need it no more. Take his gun an' anythin' else ya want; he won't miss 'em. So long, Jake, Sam. I'm headed fer my ranch."
"Wait a minute an' let us go with ya. Ya're gonna need all the he'p ya kin git pretty damned quck ifen ya go through with what ya say."
"OK, boys, come on; an' I'm much obliged to y'all. I do need all the he'p I kin git."
They rode to the Circle J, up to the front porch. A man was standing at the front door. He looked at the men as they approached him and said, "Who are y'all? What are ya doin' here?"
"I'm Caleb Jackson an' this is my ranch. Who the hell are ya?"
"I'm Jethro Peevy, an' this is my ranch, now!"
"Like hell it is. Git ofen my property, or I'll blow ya ta hell where ya belong!"
Just at that moment, a woman walked onto the porch and said, "Dear, who are ya talkin ta?" She looked Caleb in the face and screamed, "OH MY GOD! NO! IT CAN'T BE! CALEB, THEY TOLD ME YA WUZ DEAD!" She leaned, sobbing, against the door jamb.
Caleb said, "Susan, How could ya do this ta me? Ya were 'sposed ta wait fer me ta git back from the war."
"Oh, Caleb, I thought ya wuz dead. Jethro told me ya wuz. I didn't know. How could I?"
"Jethro, ya're in luck. I ain't gonna shoot ya with Susan standin' there. But I'll be back in three days, an' ifen yer still here, I will shoot ya, even ifen Susan is standin' right beside ya. Now, I'm gonna git one of MY hosses fer my friend to ride. Don't try ta stop me, or I'll shoot ya afore the 3 days are up."
They rode to the corral and Caleb selected a horse with the Circle J brand on it. He told Sam to pick some tack from the barn and they would ride on away from the ranch.
Once they were well away from the ranch house, Caleb led them to an old cabin where they would not likely be disturbed. Caleb waved them into the shack and to a seat. He got the "fixins" from his pack and built a small fire to heat water for coffee. "OK, Jake, while we're waitin' fer the coffee, tell me what's been goin' on 'round here while I wuz gone ta war."
Jake said, "The US Army came around one day and arrested all the local county officials as traitors, from the sheriff to all the county commissioners, an' everybody in between. The captain what was leadin' the troop then installed some civilians from Yankee-land to take their places. They wuzn't here a whole day afore they wuz makin' all kinds of noise 'bout punishing us rebels fer causin' so much trouble.
"One of the things they did was slap a tax on all property. Course, the tax had to be paid in Yankee dollars, an', course, we didn't have none. They wouldn't take our Confederate money, soz there wusn't no way anybody could of paid, even if we wanted to.
"The next thing we know, that two-bit sheriff wuz comin' around with a posse pushing people ofen their land an' takin' it over fer unpaid taxes. When they came to my place, me an' Sam put up a fight, an' one of them deputies got hisself killed.
"They wuz tryin' to arrest me an' Sam today when ya rode up an' saved our bacon. For which, we thank ya, again."
"It wuz my pleasure, Jake. The time I spent in that Yankee prison camp really soured me on policeman, no matter what they're called. Sounds like the coffee is ready; let's have some, then y'all kin tell me what yer plans are, since I don't think it would be safe fer y'all to go back ta the ranch."
"Thanks, Caleb, this is good coffee! All we kin git around here is chicory, an' that ain't near this good. Ya're right 'bout us not goin' back ta the ranch house, but we do need ta git some provisions. Kin we stay in this here shack 'til we know what we're gonna do?"
"Shore, y'all are welcome ta stay here as long as ya like. Fact is, I think I'll stay here, too. Tell ya what, let's all go ta yer ranch house an' pick up what y'all need fer an extended stay. That way, there ain't no pressure on y'all ta move on 'til ya're ready to."
"That's a real good idee, Caleb. We kin leave whenever ya're ready."
The three men ate a light lunch from Caleb's stores and mounted up for the ride to Jake's ranch house. While they were riding, Caleb told them some of the humorous stories of his adventures as a cavalry officer during the war. In turn, the two men related some of the things that had happened while Caleb was away.
It was about an hour's brisk ride to reach Jake's ranch house. They had just made up packs for two pack mules when they spied a dust cloud on the road to Jake's place. Sam said, "We better git a move on. Looks like we're 'bout to have company." They got out just in time to escape an Army detachment on horseback, probably Dragoons, judging from their weapons. Sam remarked, "We won't have any trouble gitin' away. Them idjuts can't track worth shit."
They rode back to the cabin and set up light housekeeping. They made a rope corral and rubbed down the horses and mules. Sam turned out to be a good trail cook, so they had a good supper. The cabin had 4 bunks, so they had plenty of room, though the place did need a good airing out.
The next morning, Sam fixed breakfast. They had eggs, ham, grits, and biscuits, Sam was really proving his value! Jake and Sam planned to wait at the cabin while Caleb went into town to see what he could learn. Caleb rode his same horse into town, since he didn't want to advertise his presence to the Damyankees. He left his two saddle pistols at the cabin, since he didn't want to attract too much attention in town. He felt kind of naked with only one pistol and his Henry rifle that he had also acquired via poker. Well, he thought fewer guns did make him look more peaceable.
Like all the other towns he had visited on his way home, Caleb stopped in at a saloon to pick up any recent gossip. He took a small beer and asked the bartender what was the latest news. The bartender looked him straight in the eye and very ostentatiously winked. "I wouldn't know the man ifen I wuz to see 'im, but I hear that there's a warrant out fer the arrest of Caleb Jackson fer hoss stealing and fer murder of a police officer. Some folks say that Caleb ain't no thief an' murderer, but there is a few others what would like ta collect the $25 reward fer 'im, dead or alive. So, ifen I wuz him, I'd keep my head down as much as I could."
Caleb thanked the bartender for the information and left the saloon when he finished his beer. Caleb went into a general store and bought some necessities, like salt and flour. He also bought some powder, caps, and shot just to make sure he had plenty. He had learned in the Army not to run low on ammunition. It looked like he was going to have to find where the Damyankees played poker so he could replenish his money supply.
He had just loaded his purchases on his saddle when a very disreputable character walked up to him and said "Ain't ya Caleb Jackson?"
"Who wants to know?"
The man reached for his gun, so Caleb kicked him in the balls, mounted up, and quickly rode out of town. He circled around enough to make sure that his trail was lost before heading for the cabin. When he got there, he related his adventure in town and his conversation with the bartender.
Sam remarked that it looked like they were now all in the same boat, and Jake agreed. Caleb wondered how many other people were in tax trouble, and he decided to find out. There were several old family friends he could safely visit and find out how much trouble there was in the county. He left after lunch to visit one such friend.
He rode up to a ranch house and saw a boy about 17 years old working in the nearby pasture. Caleb veered over to the pasture and, sure enough, recognized the boy from before he had left for the war. "Howdy, Jeb. Do ya remember me?"
"Lord sakes, it's Caleb Jackson! I heard ya wuz dead. I shore am glad that ya ain't!"
"Much obliged, Jeb, fer the thought. Are ya folks home?"
Jeb got a real sad look on his face and said, "My folks passed on about 18 months ago. Both of 'em in the same week of the fever. I'm all alone, now. My sister got married ta a guy what moved ta California, an' she went with 'im. How long ya been back?"
"I just got in yesterday, an' I'm already in trouble with the law. I'm wanted fer hoss stealin' an' murder. I hear there's a price on my head, dead or alive."
"No shit? Man, what ya gonna do ta top that?"
"I don't know. I ain't got used ta that part, yet. I'm tryin' ta git a feel fer what's goin' on around here. How're ya doin' with the tax thin'?"
"Shit, I owe $5 in taxes an' there ain't no way I kin come up with that kind of money by next Thursday."
"Jeb, I won some money in a poker game. S'pose I lend ya the $5 'til ya git yer corps in. Ya kin pay me back an extra 10 cents as interest. How does that sound?"
"Hell, Caleb, that would save my farm! Yeah, an' I shore do appreciate it. I can't tell ya how much it means ta me! Ma an' Pa are buried over there under that old pecan tree. I'd shore hate to go off an' leave 'em."
"Here ya are, Jeb. Jus' don't tell anybody where ya got the money. I ain't got enough ta help everybody, much as I'd like ta."
"Any time ya need anythin' from me, Caleb, jus' let me know."
"I shore will, Jeb, an' thanks. Well, I better be leavin'. I want to git by the Sanders place afore it gits dark."
"Don't go there! The Sanders got run off their land two months ago. They're stayin' with the Jacobs' fer now, but I don't know how much longer that will last."
"Shit! I guess I'll drop by the Jacobs place, then. Be seein' ya, Jeb. Take care."
Caleb rode toward the Jacobs ranch with a heavy heart. Jeb was a good boy, and now it sounded like he was a good man. Caleb wanted to help him, but he wasn't sure how he could do any more than he had.
It looked like that Army officer was overstepping his authority, but how could a defeated and occupied country fight back? Caleb didn't want to start a new war, but it looked like he might have to if he was going to help his friends and himself get out from under the thumb of the corrupt invaders.
Caleb realized that the only real reason he had come back was his promise to Susan. And the funny thing was, he didn't care that much about her, any more. Sure, his pride was hurt that she had not waited for him, but that was all. He figured that he could find a wife somewhere else without too much trouble, what with the way so many Southern men had been killed during the war. The other thing stinging his pride was his stolen ranch. Now, that was something he wanted to do something about!