Lightning fractured the western sky just before thunder rolled down Main Street like a herd of wild horses. The tall stranger riding in with the storm did not need an introduction. His square unshaven jaw, broad shoulders and steely glare set atop a ghost white stallion announced the gunslinger was the Texas Ranger the town folk had been waiting for. Men scurried off the street onto boardwalks and the women grasped their children while stopping to stare. The gunslinger kept his stallion at an even pace, its hooves clacking the rock hard ground in a rhythmic beat. He kept his gaze forward, though everyone on the street knew he watched their every move. A flash of lightning caught the gunslinger in its grasp momentarily surrounding him in a mystic glow. The only sound now was the whipping wind and the dancing hooves of the white charger carrying Presidio’s savior.
The town of Presidio had evolved from a timeworn penal colony and army garrison along the Texas side of the Rio Grande River to a populous settlement in 1848. The Comanche’s attempted to run off the Anglo settlers in an unsuccessful raid in 1850, a short time before John Spencer and Ben Leaton established horse ranches nearby. New pioneers followed. In the twenty plus years since, Presidio’s constant efforts toward establishing a thriving community had been historically thwarted by oppressive summer heat and sporadic Indian attacks. Recently, a new enemy had appeared. Persistent bandito raids from the Mexican side of the river had begun to wear down even the most determined folks who had settled at the northern summit of the Chisos mountains.
After the latest bandito raid claimed the life of the town’s marshal, its leaders sent word to the governor’s office requesting assistance. Governor Davis responded with the promise of dispatching Texas Rangers to Presidio in a gesture to assure the residents that his office would “not tolerate foreign aggression from any cluster of ruffians.”
William Blackwell, the man mostly responsible for bringing the Ranger to Presidio stood silently, waiting on the front step of his office, having been informed of the Ranger’s arrival by an exuberant young orphan named Danny who made it his business to hang around the Blackwell General Store in search of an errant candy stick.
Thunder exploded above sending down enough powerful energy to shake windows and rattle building walls. Blackwell said nothing and made no gesture toward the Ranger who seemed to instinctively know who he was there to see. The white stallion pulled up in front of Blackwell and snorted, bobbing its head as if offering a greeting.
“William Blackwell?” The stranger asked.
“Yes sir,” Blackwell responded removing his hands from their pockets and extending the right toward the gunslinger.
The stranger slid smoothly off his saddle and accepted Blackwell’s handshake.
“John Duncan, Texas Ranger,” the young gunslinger confirmed as lightning once again flashed across the dark sky.
“Glad to know you Mr. Duncan. Are you alone?” Blackwell asked.
“Yes sir. We’re spread a little thin these days. I’m all that was available,” Duncan explained.
“We’re pleased that you’re here. If you’ll step inside, I have a washroom and food if you’re hungry?” Blackwell said motioning toward the door of his store with his left hand.
“I’d like to take care of Ringo first. Is that the livery stable down the way?” Duncan asked nodding toward the end of town.
“Yes sir. Rudy is expecting you. Just let him know who you are and your horse will be taken care of at no cost to you sir,” Blackwell announced with pride.
“Thank you. I’ll only be a few minutes,” Duncan stated as he stepped into the stirrup and swung up onto eighteen hands of horse flesh.
Another commanding burst of thunder shattered the silence rocking the lanterns hanging from the Blackwell Mercantile porch timbers. Blackwell nodded and watched the Ranger’s big steed trot to the end of town. He turned toward the crowd that had congregated across the street and waved at them to go back about their business. He then disappeared into the store.
“Margaret! The Ranger’s here! Could you warm the coffee and prepare a plate of food?” Blackwell asked his wife of ten years who appeared from the back room wiping wet hands on a crisp white apron.
Margaret Blackwell was a short, dark-haired women with steel blue eyes and an hour-glass figure. Ten years younger than her husband, she didn’t say much, but was well liked in town. The Blackwells were perceived as the wealthiest and most educated people in Presidio.
After securing Ringo with Rudy Morales at the stable, Duncan returned to the Blackwell store where Margaret met him with hot coffee and a plate of fried chicken.
“Smells mighty good ma’am,” Duncan exclaimed catching a wisp of the brazed bird’s aroma.
Margaret smiled and pointed toward a narrow door at the back of the room.
“The washroom is there if you like,” she announced.
Duncan took the hint and hurried to the wash basin where he stripped three days of trail dust from his hands, face and neck before returning to the small table in the corner of the kitchen. Thunder clapped loud and strong outside and the heavy hits of large rain drops peppered the store’s tin roof. Margaret hurried off to tend to something outside in the back while Blackwell was engaged in an untellable conversation with what sounded like several men in the front of the store leaving Duncan to enjoy his first hot meal in three days.
Blackwell finished his business then came back to the kitchen where he pulled up a sturdy wooden ladder-back chair and sat opposite the Ranger.
“Before you get settled into the hotel, I would like to tell you about the purpose of your trip to Presidio,” Blackwell stated.
Duncan leaned back in his chair and pushed his hat back exposing his sharp angular features which included dark eyes bordered by waving lines he’d earned from the sun’s abusive onslaught. He rubbed a calloused hand over wiry whiskers and leaned forward.
“Go ahead,” Duncan said simply.
“This could be a nice part of the country. The winds come down from the western mountains and the river provides adequate water for our needs. The Spencer and Leaton ranches are close by and provide enough beef to support a town twice this size. We’ve had the backing of both Mr. Spencer and Mr. Leaton, each arranging for a good marshal to protect Presidio. The first marshal we had, a fella named Byron Wilson, moved on about six months ago. He’d been here three years or so, when he decided he’d had enough of the bandits and figured he get out of town before he died in it. One of Mr. Spencer’s cowhands took the job a couple of months ago and was killed by Diego’s men three weeks later. Understandably, no one else wanted the job. That brought me to write the Governor and request help from him. We’d hoped for an army post, but we were told Fort Stockton was too close to establish another outpost so Governor Davis promised Texas Rangers. Thus, your arrival. While we’ve had others cause trouble for us, Diego’s men are the worst. He always comes with a dozen or so men. They drink in the saloon, harass the women and at times steal from businesses, including mine. Most of the men in town are afraid to stand up to him and others are Mexicans that have grown accustomed to this behavior,” Blackwell explained.
“The men in this town have to realize they need to stand up to Diego if they want to keep their town,” Duncan stated flatly.
“I agree. They need a leader, but I’m no gunfighter. I was hoping you could be that leader,” Blackwell admitted.
“That’s fine while I’m here, but I won’t be here for long. These people need to fight for their property, or get out like your marshal Wilson. When was the last time Diego was here?” Duncan asked.
“About a month ago. Marshal Taylor, he’s the marshal who was killed, shot three or four of em before he was killed.”
“So, Diego doesn’t know you called for a Ranger?” Duncan asked.
“I’m sure someone in town has already sent word to Diego that you’re here,” Blackwell stated with a frown.
“In less than an hour?”
“Mr. Duncan, not everyone in town is friendly to our cause. I’m certain Diego has men in town to keep an eye on us.”
Duncan nodded and finished the rest of his coffee.
“When does the mail come in?” Duncan asked.
“Usually on Thursday or Friday.”
“Okay, today’s Tuesday. I’ll send a letter to Captain Richardson and request more rangers. Looks like the rain has let up. I’d like to get settled over at the hotel.”
“Of course. Will you need any assistance?” Blackwell asked.
“Nope. I’ll see you a bit later,” Duncan stated picking up his saddlebags and a piece of chicken leaving Blackwell seated at the table.
After he negotiated the labyrinth of barrels, racks and tables, on his way to the front door, Duncan found Margaret already cleaning the rain streaked windows on the front porch. Duncan stepped out onto the wooden planks and closed the door behind him.
“Thank you, kindly Mrs. Blackwell,” Duncan said before he attempted to step down onto the suddenly muddy street.
“Mr. Duncan!” Margaret called.
Duncan stopped in his tracks and looked back at the lovely woman. Her voice was soft with a musical lilt to it.
“Please be careful. There are bad men all around. Not just Juan Carlos Diego,” she whispered.
Duncan looked closely at Margaret, but said nothing. He tipped his hat and proceeded across the street to the Mission Hotel.
Duncan woke to the reverberating sound of a freight wagon rumbling down Main Street. A quiet week had passed since his arrival and the south Texas sun had baked the mud into a hardened mortar. He glanced out the second story window and looked up and down the street. The town was surprisingly busy for this early in the morning. The dawn mist had barely burned off. Duncan could see damp spots still drying on the porches and boardwalks.
Time wasn’t much of a priority to Duncan thus he didn’t own a watch. He guessed it to be about six-thirty when he descended the staircase into the small dining area of the Mission. The scent of fresh coffee and frying bacon permeated the room. As he pushed a chair aside, a Mexican woman hurried over to his table with a cup and tin pot of coffee.
“Gracias senorita,” Duncan stated in his trifling Spanish.
“De nada,” the woman replied with a beaming smile.
“Dos huevos, un pan,” Duncan added holding up two fingers.
“Si senor,” came the joyful reply.
Duncan looked around the dining room recognizing most of the faces he had seen over the past week. He figured he’d receive his response to the letter he sent to Captain Richardson in another three or four days. He wasn’t optimistic. If Richardson had extra men, he’d have sent them with Duncan in the first place. In addition to additional Rangers, Duncan had asked for clarification of the length of stay in Presidio. Richardson had committed a couple of weeks, but Duncan thought additional time might be warranted. Just as Duncan was receiving his two eggs and slices of bread, Margaret Blackwell walked into the room hurrying to the kitchen door where she was met by Mrs. Tennington, the hotel owner’s wife. Duncan watched the women talk, then Mrs. Tennington disappear into the kitchen while Margaret waited nervously tapping her right foot and rubbing the backs of her hands. Margaret’s “bad men” warning from a week ago still banged around in Duncan’s head like loose bullets in a saddle bag. He’d only said hello to her a time or two since. He’d gotten the feeling that Margaret was more of a servant to Blackwell than a wife keeping busy and not saying much. Mrs. Tennington returned and handed a bag of what appeared to be hot biscuits to Margaret who smiled and hurried past Duncan pausing briefly to glance and smile at the big lawman. Duncan finished his breakfast and headed down to the stables to claim Ringo for a morning ride along the river.
“Bueno Dias Mr. Duncan! Ringo is already saddled and ready for you,” Rudy prattled as Duncan strolled up to the yawning barn doors.
Duncan flipped the stable boy a silver half-dollar and continued into the barn where Ringo was occupying a freshly mucked stall. After walking Ringo out, Duncan settled atop the horse that had carried him though the last year of the war and the nine years since its end. Duncan tapped his spurs and headed down to the bank of the Rio Grande searching for any sign of a bandit scouting party. A short ride up river presented the evidence he’d been waiting for. Tracks of two, maybe three horses were visible on the north bank where corraded limestone silt had been marred with jagged hoof prints. The river was narrow here allowing him to examine the south bank as well. Sure enough, the water’s opposite edge was scarred with similar tracks. Duncan determined the tracks were no older than late last night, probably around midnight. He snapped the reins and returned to Presidio heading directly to the small building used by the previous marshals. He’d thought of the various possible actions Diego might employ, but there wasn’t much to consider. Presidio was like most other Texas towns, with rows of buildings, tents and shacks on either side of a straight Main Street. The dirt on the street was hard and fast now, perfect for a gang of charging outlaws shooting at anything that moved. He’d had Blackwell arrange for wagons of various sizes to be strategically placed around town, including a large freight wagon parked just to the side of the Blackwell General Store’s front door. An old small chuck wagon was standing guard near his Ranger headquarters. He’d spoke to a couple of men in town about keeping a rifle handy in the event of a raid, but he hadn’t much confidence in the men joining in the fight. He tethered Ringo to a post behind his temporary quarters not wanting him to catch a stray bullet.
After making several stops around town, Duncan approached Blackwell on the boardwalk in front of his store.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Duncan,” Blackwell offered.
“Make sure this wagon stays here the rest of the day,” Duncan instructed the storekeeper.
“Yes sir. Something wrong?”
“Saw tracks along the river this morning. Both sides. Two, maybe three riders. I reckon whoever left em did it around midnight. Looks like a scout party. Could be bandits taking a look at the town,” Duncan advised.
Blackwell looked toward the river. “I’ll spread the word to lock things down as much as possible,” Blackwell stated.
“I’ve already done that, but it may carry more importance coming from you,” Duncan reasoned.
Blackwell didn’t hesitate for additional direction, quickly walking over to the hotel, then down the street. Duncan returned to his quarters and checked his rifle. Two pistols and a rifle. Not much else he could do.
As the day wore on the sun pushed along its path toward its eventual resting place delivering a stream of brilliant yellow rays down Main Street. Duncan looked toward the west end of town thinking if he were running a raid, that’s where he’d attack from. As if he’d thought a self-fulfilling prophecy, a band of riders charged out of the sun’s camouflage. Gunfire erupted in multiple directions. He grabbed his rifle and hurried to a position behind the chuck wagon. He leaned into his rifle and put the lead rider behind his sight. Crack! The first rider tumbled from his mount. The others raced around their fallen comrade and scattered seeking refuge from Duncan’s resistance. Crack! Crack! Two more bandits went crashing onto the boardwalk before they could find sanctuary. Boom! A shotgun blasted out of the Blackwell store front toppling another bandito. Crack! Crack! Crack! Bullets riddled the store front quieting Blackwell’s double barrel. Crack! Duncan fired again missing a target that leapt from his saddle into a trough near the hotel. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Duncan was under siege now. Bullets smashed into the wooden planks of the wagon sending fragments of wreckage all around him. He ducked under the wagon and saw four riders closing in on him. Bullets torn up dirt around him, one creasing his left arm drawing a spot of blood. He pulled a pistol and fired point blank at a bandito who’d slid from his horse to charge on foot. Duncan’s forty-five hit flesh and bone knocking the raider backward where he was trampled by the thundering razor-sharp hooves of another bandito’s horse.
Duncan rolled out from under his coffin on wheels and fired both pistols as fast as he could. He saw another bandito go down just before a sharp pain rushed through his head rendering him unconscious.
Dark shadows floated around in front of Duncan as he woke to Spanish yips and yells. Gunshots intermittently quelled the shouts. His hands burned like fire and he couldn’t move his arms. Crack! Wood splintered next to his head. Crack! Splinters stung his neck like a swarm of hornets. He closed and opened his eyes a couple of times, then squinted as he peered side to side fighting to see. His hands, both numb and burning wouldn’t move. Crack! A bullet sunk into the wood just above his head. His vision cleared enough to see half a dozen banditos standing shoulder to shoulder, guns drawn and firing randomly toward him. Crack! A bullet grazed his leg enough to sting his flesh. He looked to his right, then to his left. He was hanging from the side of a barn. His hands nailed through the palms to the wooden planks. He tasted blood through swollen split lips, numb like they weren’t attached to his face anymore. A short stocky Mexican wearing a wide brim sombrero stepped forward and leaned close to Duncan’s face. The rancid smell of rotted teeth and tequila struck Duncan like punch.
“So, gringo, you come to cause Diego trouble, si?” Juan Carlos Diego asked in a guttural voice.
“No, no trouble,” Duncan forced his words.
“I don’t see it that way senor ranger. You enemigo of Diego and his men. We no want no trouble. We just come, take what we want and go back to Mexico,” Diego said through a crooked grin.
“Just go back to Mexico and never return. Then there’s no trouble,” Duncan responded as defiant as he could muster.
“Ahh, si, that is not possible my ranger amigo. We are poor and need many things. And you come and kill five of my men my ranger amigo. Now, I want everyone in this town to see what happens to enemigo of Diego…”
“Fine. Just kill me an get it over with then,” Duncan said through clenched teeth.
“No, no, no. Diego not kill you. If I kill you, the whole Texas army come looking for me. And I don’t want no trouble. So, you just hang there until these cowards let you down. Then gringo, you go and never come back, si?” Diego ordered.
Duncan knew better than to respond. He closed his eyes and did his best to fight back the pain in his hands. Crack! A bullet punctured the barnwood next to his head. Crack! Another sent shards of wood against his face. At some point he passed out.
Duncan woke to the touch of cool water against his forehead. He opened his eyes to find Margaret Blackwell dabbing his face with a damp cloth. He scanned the room. He was in his hotel room under linens on the bed. His hands were wrapped in large white bandages and his lips had shrunk back to normal. His mouth was dry and stomach empty.
“Hello Mr. Duncan. Feeling better?” Margaret greeted him with a faint smile.
“Could I get some water?” Duncan asked.
Margaret Blackwell leaned over to the pitcher on the bed table and poured water into a clear glass returning it to Duncan’s parched lips. He gulped the water leaving thin streams running down each side of his mouth.
“I’m sorry. How long have I been out?” he asked.
“Two days after that night,” Margaret advised.
“What happened?” he asked.
She made no attempt to hide the tears pooling in her eyes.
“Diego and his men came. You were hit in the head with a bullet. It hit you right here,” she said gliding a soft finger across the sutures on the right side of his head.
“They beat you and nailed you to the stable. They left you there to send a warning to everyone in town. They all drank in the cantina, then they left. Some of the men in town brought you here where doctor Henderson cleaned your hands and wounds. He told us to let you sleep as long as you could. I have been caring for you since,” she explained.
“Mr. Blackwell didn’t mind?” Duncan asked.
“William was killed by Diego’s men,” she said.
Duncan attempted to sit up, then thought better of it and laid back down.
“I’m sorry,” he offered.
“He wanted to help you so he took his gun and killed one of them, but they shot him,” she added.
Duncan thought back. He remembered a shotgun blast from the store, then a barrage of gunfire.
“I’ll go get doctor Henderson. He said to tell him when you woke,” she said moving to the door.
A short time later, a short man wearing gray trousers, white shirt and red vest entered the room carrying a large black bag.
“Good evening Mr. Duncan, I’m Joshua Henderson,” he announced.
“Hello doc,” Duncan moaned.
“I’m not actually a doctor Mr. Duncan. I was a medic in the war and the closest there is to a doctor around here,” Henderson confessed. “How do you feel?” he added.
“My hands hurt like hell is all.”
“I’m sure. You had spikes driven through each. I don’t think any bones were broken, but the tissue damage is substantial. When you get to a big town where there’s a real doctor, have them examined.”
“Will they heal?” Duncan asked.
“I believe they’ll heal, but with an injury like this, something happens months and years later. I’m not certain what, but it’s like the tissue around the wound keeps growing and gets hard. It can cause significant pain,” Henderson explained.
“For not being a doctor, that’s pretty direct,” Duncan stated.
“I saw some of it during the war. Men would heal, but there was a growth around the wound that sometimes needed to be cut out later.”
“I’ll need to send a letter to my Ranger Company Captain. Can you help me with that?” Duncan asked.
“I’ll be glad to once I change these bandages and if Mrs. Blackwell allows me,” Henderson said with a smile.
“Mrs. Blackwell?” Duncan asked.
“Yes sir. She’s sort of become your personal nurse,” Henderson explained.
“Did you see her husband?” Duncan asked.
Henderson’s smile faded to a frown.
“Yes sir. He was shot twice in the chest. He was killed immediately. We buried him yesterday,” Henderson reported.
“Damn fool. He should have locked himself and his wife inside the store and waited like I told him to,” Duncan said aloud.
Henderson said nothing. Just concentrated on the bandages.
“I would recommend you not ride for at least two weeks. Give these hands some time to heal and prevent infection,” Henderson finally stated after finishing his business.
“Thanks doc,” Duncan said letting his head sink back into the pillow.
It’ll be a long two weeks, he thought.
Duncan set his saddle bags on the hotel porch and looked around. Clouds had rolled over Presidio stunting the sun’s oppressive heat. The wind whisked up a dust devil in the middle of Main. Rudy walked slowly across the street with Ringo in tow.
“Here he is Mr. Duncan,” Rudy announced with sad brown eyes and deep-set frown to match.
Duncan carefully reached into his vest pocket and removed four silver dollars then dropped each one in the boy’s hand.
“Thank you, son. I know Ringo has been in good hands,” Duncan told the young stable aide.
The boy turned and slowly walked back to the stable clutching his coins. Margaret Blackwell stepped out of the hotel and handed Duncan a sack filled with dried meat and biscuits. Duncan hooked the sack onto his saddle horn and looked at the diminutive woman who had taken care of him for the past two weeks.
“Will you be alright?” Duncan asked.
She looked up at the tall ranger without expression and nodded.
“I’ll be fine,” she answered.
Duncan leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, then retrieved his saddlebags and stepped up into the saddle.
“Will you ever come back?” Margaret asked.
Duncan looked toward the river and nodded.
“Oh, I’ll be back this way. Senor Diego hasn’t seen the last of me,” he said before tapping his spurs and heading down the street.
A clap of thunder pounded above rattling windows and doors. A flash of lightning caught the gunslinger in its grasp momentarily surrounding him in a mystic glow. The only sound now was the whipping wind and the dancing hooves of the white charger carrying Presidio’s savior as he rode out of town.