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Hell's Half Acre
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Just to set the record straight, no matter what you might have been told in recent years, Jess Casey was not a named draw fighter. Sure, during his cowboying days he'd used a Colt a time or two but only to string wire and hammer tenpenny nails. In other words, he was eminently unqualified to be the sheriff of Fort Worth, the brawling, bawdy and dangerous Gomorrah of Tarrant County, Texas, a city where the West began and a place where many a gallant young buck met his demise by the gun, knife, garrote, sap, billy club, or bad whiskey and badder women.
But let's not tar the entire city with the same brush.
As Jess would soon learn the hard way, the trouble was confined to the Third Ward, an infamous, rambunctious area known as Hell's Half Acre, a suppurating pit of perdition that was the first thing drovers saw as they approached the town from the south on the old Chisholm Trail. One- and two-story saloons, bawdy houses, dance halls, opium dens and a scattering of honest businesses beckoned the traveler, though only those seeking excitement or hunting trouble ever ventured into the Acre. As the importance of Fort Worth as a major crossroads and cow town grew, so did Hell's Half Acre. Originally confined to the bottom end of Rusk Street, it spread like a malignant cancer into the city's main north-south thoroughfares, Main, Rusk, Calhoun and Jones. The Acre's lower boundary ended at the Union Station train depot and the northern edge by a vacant lot. In between, the gunmen, highway robbers, card sharks, whores and con artists prospered mightily.
To sum up, one local newspaper thundered on its front page, "It is a slow night which does not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among the Acre's male denizens or a fatal morphine experiment by one of its frisky females."
Into this inferno of violence and vice would very soon head Jess Casey, two hard decades of cow nursing behind him and as about as stove-up, used up and stiffened up as a puncher could be.
It was Long Tom Muldoon who — after watching Jess take his usual five minutes to struggle out of his bunk — turned him on to the Fort Worth job.
"Jess," he said, "you're too old and too beat-up for cowboying any longer. Leastways, that's how it seems to me."
"Hell, I'm but thirty-four," Jess said. "Went up the trail for the first time when I was just a younker."
"Thirty-four, hell, even twenty-four is old for a puncher," Long Tom said. "You've broke jest about every bone in your body and you get the rheumatisms in winter. I know you have, so don't try to tell me different."
"Maybe that's so, but I reckon I'll stick," Jess said.
"Well, that's a sore disappointment to me since I hear there's a cozy berth going over to Fort Worth way. They're looking for a lawman, a deputy, like."
"I ain't nobody's idea of a deputy," Jess said.
"Hell, folks say Fort Worth is a quiet burg," Long Tom said. "All you'd be expected to do is sit on the hotel porch, drink beer and catch a chicken thief now and then. You think about it, Jess. Staying away from cows, now that's the berries as I see it."
"That could be so, but being a lawman is not for me," Jess said. "You recollect that time in Dodge when Ed Masterson busted me over the head with a pistol barrel for being drunk?"
"And for pissing on the mayor's prize pumpkin patch, taking pots at the moon and then telling Ed you aimed to clean his plow directly," Long Tom said.
"Yeah, well, I was talking through rum punch so he'd no call to buffalo me. It's skewed my thinking about lawmen ever since."
Long Tom said, "Jess, I'd think it over."
"My answer would still be that I'm not interested."
"Don't be too hasty, Jess. Tossing your rope without buildin' a loop don't catch the calf."
"It's time I went to the cookhouse and rustled up a cup of coffee," Jess said.
Long Tom sighed deeply. "Go see the boss first. He sent me to fetch you."
"What does he want?" "I reckon he'll tell you when you get there," Long Tom said.
* * *
"So you see how it is with me, Jess," Nathan Swift said. "The way beef prices are right now, I got to lay off three, four hands."
Jess Casey felt like he'd been punched in the gut.
"But the gather ..."
"I plan to hire a couple of seasonal hands," Swift said. "It won't be much of a roundup, Jess. There's no market for my cattle."
"After six years riding for the brand I'm taking this hard, Mr. Swift," Jess said.
"An' I don't blame you," the rancher said. "You were a good hand, Jess, but all you've done recent is polish the seat of your pants on the saddle leather. A man's got to know when it's time to quit and walk away." Swift, lean as a nail and tough as rawhide, managed a smile under his great sweeping mustache. "I never regretted hiring you, Jess. Believe me on that."
Jess nodded and said, "A pat on the back don't cure saddle galls, Mr. Swift."
But the rancher's talking was done. "Go see Mrs. Swift and draw a month's wages. And good luck to you, Jess."
Swift settled a pair of pince-nez reading glasses on his nose then dropped his head to the ledger on the desk in front of him. Jess's spurs chimed as he walked to the office door and stepped outside.
Long Tom was waiting for him. "Got canned, huh?"
"Yup. Turn down the lamps, the party's over."
"There's still that lawman's job in Fort Worth," Long Tom said. He stood a foot shorter than Jess, hence his nickname. "The sheriff's name is Hank Henley. Tell him Tom Muldoon sent you and he'll see you all right."
Jess said, "I'll study on it."
"But not too long, Jess," Long Tom said. "Hard times are coming down fast and good situations like that ain't easy to find."CHAPTER 2
Hard times had come down, but Jess Casey wasn't in a woebegone frame of mind. He had a good saddle and a hundred-dollar paint pony under it and he had forty-two dollars and eighteen cents in his pocket. He had a Colt's gun and a Henry rifle, both in .44-40 caliber, two clean shirts, a razor, shaving brush and a prized bar of Pears soap that he'd been assured was the personal favorite of Lillie Langtry.
After all was said and done, Jess considered himself a prosperous, good-looking cowboy. And he'd decided to take the Fort Worth job, if it was offered, so his prospects were bright and could only get brighter.
Above him little white clouds drifted across the blue sky like lilies on a pond and the flats smelled of sage, shy wildflowers and the ever-present musky scent of the nearby piney woods.
So moved was Jess by the wonders of the natural world around him he launched into song, much to the distress of his horse and all the wildlife within earshot.
"I'm going to leave old Texas now, They got no use for the longhorn cow."
Jess saw a rider in the distance emerge from the rippling heat haze and head in his direction. He adjusted the lie of his gun belt, but kept on singing.
"They've plowed and fenced my cattle range, And the people here all seem so strange."
The horseman drew closer and Jess thought it mighty peculiar that he rode bent over in the saddle, like a man with a bellyache.
"I'll take my hoss and I'll take my rope, And hit the trail ... upon ... a ... lope ..."
Jess's song faltered and died as he watched the rider roll slowly off the back of his mount and hit the ground with a thud. Drunk, Jess decided. But his paint tossed his head, whinnied and took a few dancing steps backward. There was something about the fallen rider that troubled him.
One of the first lessons a young puncher learns is: When in doubt, trust your horse.
And Jess Casey now followed that advice. He swung out of the saddle, slid the Henry from the boot and stepped toward the fallen man. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead and its shadow fell sharp on the ground, as though it had been cut from black paper by a razor. Crows quarreled in the nearby pines and Jess thought they might be arguing about the hawk.
When he was close enough to the rider he was about to say, "On your feet, cowboy," but then he saw the blood and what looked like a face, but one battered beyond recognition.
Jess laid aside his rifle and took a knee beside the injured man.
"How are you, old fellow?" he said, aware of what a silly question that was. The man was obviously close to death. His breath rattled in his chest and there was blood in his mouth. But Jess could see no sign of bullet or knife wounds. Whoever he was, the young man had been savagely beaten to within an inch of his life with fists and boots. Judging by his head of thick, chestnut hair Jess pegged him as being in his midtwenties, no older. It was only when he turned the fellow over on his back that he saw the star pinned to his shirt.
It's difficult to have a conversation with a man who's barely conscious and hurting, but Jess gave it a try. "What happened to you?" he said, another of those banal questions with an obvious answer people pose only to the sick and children.
The man's swollen eyes fluttered open into red-rimmed slits. He stared into Jess's face for long moments, as though trying to place him. Then he spoke, each word forced, as though it had gone through a meat grinder before reaching his mouth.
"Stay ... out ... of ..."
Jess stepped into the silence that followed. "Stay out of where?"
"Fort ... Fort ... Worth."
Pink blood and mucus frothed in the man's mouth. Jess had seen the like just one time before, up Amarillo way when a cheating gambler's kicked-in ribs penetrated his lungs. Some angry tin-pan miners had done that, gone in with the boots, and the gambler had died pretty quick thereafter.
Jess was not of a religious frame of mind, but he tried to comfort the dying man. "Best you make your peace with God, mister," he said. "Your time is mighty short."
"My ... name ... is ..."
"I'd say you're Hank Henley," Jess said. "I'm a friend of Long Tom Muldoon."
"He's ... a ... snake," Henley said.
"He told me you had a deputy's job going," Jess said. "I rode here to apply."
"Then you're ... an ... idiot."
The sound of approaching horses made Jess look up. Four riders drew closer, the man in the lead astride a beautiful palomino. He drew rein, stared at Jess and said, "Is it Henley?"
The tone of the man's voice was arrogant and demanding and his hard blue eyes revealed little but contempt, as though he despised the whole human race.
Jess disliked him on sight. "Seems like," he said. "He's in bad shape, like to die."
The man swung out of the saddle and crossed to where Jess still kneeled. He was in early middle age and enormous. About four inches over six feet with a prizefighter's body, he looked like an unstoppable force of nature, as though he could stand on the tracks and stop a deadheading locomotive with his bare hands.
The big man loomed over Jess as he glanced at the wounded man in his arms. "Yeah, it's Henley all right," he said to the others. His grin was cruel. "Looks like he's got himself a nursemaid."
The sound of the man's voice registered with Henley and a look of stark terror froze his battered face into a grotesque mask. He made a sound in his throat that might have been a scream.
"Is he dead yet?" one of the riders said.
"Close," the big man said.
"You want I should finish him, boss?" the rider said. He had a broken nose, scars around his eyes and looked like a skull-and-fist scrapper.
The big man laughed, his teeth as white as new ivory. "No need, Clem. I reckon he's about to die of fright," he said.
Jess Casey was a man slow to anger, but the way the man spoke and the arrogant tilt of his handsome blond head irritated him and he was suddenly on the prod. He gently let go of the dying man and rose to his feet.
"Anybody wants to harm this man will have to walk through me," he said. "And I ain't standing here whistling Dixie."
"Salty, ain't you, cowboy?" the big man said. "You a friend of his?"
"Never seen the man before in my life. Just came across him on the trail," Jess said. "Now let's quit jawing and get him to a doctor."
"Too late for that," the big man said. "He's already dead."
Jess looked at the fallen lawman. He was indeed dead, his eyes wide, his broken face still bearing his final expression of horror and fear.
"Best you light out of here, cowboy," the blond man said. "Unless you got money burning a hole in your pocket and you're headed for Fort Worth to see the sights."
"I was," Jess said, "but not now, I reckon. I was planning to apply for a deputy's job, but now the sheriff's dead, I've changed my thinking."
"You done peacekeeping before?" the man said.
Jess shook his head. "Went up the trail for the first time when I was fourteen and I've been a puncher since." He nodded in the direction of the dead man. "Who did that to him?"
"Not us," the big man said. This brought a laugh from the men with him. "Fact is we suspected something like this might happen."
"How come?" Jess said. He looked sharp at the man, unwilling to believe him.
"His name was —"
"I know his name," Jess said.
"He was mixed up with the wholesale opium sellers, took a twenty percent skim off the gross profits. And he ran a protection racket, coming down hard on the local merchants and the saloons and dance hall owners if they didn't ante up. Even the whores paid Henley his twenty percent." The man's ice-blue eyes locked on Jess's brown ones. "Henley walked in the shadows, cowboy, and that's not a good place for a lawman to be."
"He was a damned crook and low-down," a rider said and this drew another laugh.
"Name's Kurt Koenig," the big man said, shoving out his hand. "I have business interests in Fort Worth.
Jess reluctantly shook hands, and Koenig said, "I like the cut of your jib, young man. You ever hear that expression?"
"Can't say as I have," Jess said.
"Well, it's a nautical saying and I learned it in the old days when I sailed on the hell ships out of the Barbary Coast. First mate I was in those days, and I laid out many a lively lad and sent him to Davy Jones's locker when he took a set against getting shanghaied."
Clem, the man with the broken nose, said, "You were a rum one in them days, Kurt. An' no mistake."
"I ran a tight ship," Koenig said. "Even in them wild northern seas where the great toothed whales spouted, I kept an iron discipline." He looked at Jess. "Now you probably wonder why the hell I'm telling you all this, huh?"
Jess had a mental picture of Koenig on a sea-swept quarterdeck, big, brutal, a knotted rope in one hand, a cutlass in the other, a snarl on his face and a dead crewman at his feet.
He blinked and said, "Well, I guess I am."
"Because Fort Worth has to be run like a tight ship, understand?" Koenig said. "What the town needs is a firm hand and strict discipline and I think you are the man to do it. There's no back-up in you, lad, lay to that, and I'm willing to stake you two hundred and fifty dollars a month in salary to prove what I say is true." He turned to his men and spread his hands. "Can I say fairer than that, boys?" Amid grins and sniggers the consensus of the other three riders was that the offer was fair indeed.
But Jess Casey was not so sure.
"That's a handsome stipend," he said. "But I'm not Wild Bill Hickok. I ain't one of them Texas draw fighters that everybody talks about, either."
Koenig's grin stretched. His white teeth looked like a piano keyboard.
"Hell, the whole town will back you if you run into trouble," he said. "In Fort Worth we don't much care for draw fighters and pistoleros, or hard cases of any stamp, do we, boys?" After a chorus of "Sure don't" and "That's fer certain," Koenig said, "And we know what to do with hucksters, three-card monte artists, thieves, thugs, fakirs, bunco steerers and dance hall loungers. Don't we boys?"
Again Koenig got unanimous agreement and some tough talk about tar and feathers, and then he said, "Well, cowboy, is it a go?"
Jess Casey ran it through in his mind.
On the upside, the salary was good and if these four men were representative of the citizens of Fort Worth then they'd support him all the way. And the fact was that he badly needed a job. Right then, Koenig grinning at him all friendly-like, he couldn't see a downside, not in his present situation.
"I'll take the job," he said. "It seems like it will suit me down to the ground."
"Good man," Koenig said. "True-blue." His slap on the back felt like a blow from a sledgehammer. "Mount up and we'll seal our bargain with a drink."
"What about him?" Jess said, pointing to Henley's body.
Excerpted from Hell's Half Acre by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2015 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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