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John Lee Johnson on the TrailJohn Lee Johnson, Back and Bad
By Conn Hamlett
Abbott PressCopyright © 2012 Conn Hamlett
All right reserved.
Chapter One'JOHN LEE JOHNSON ON THE TRAIL
John Lee Johnson pulled up his seventeen-hands high, black horse in front of Big Willard's saloon in Baileysboro, Texas and dismounted. He wheeled the hitch rack with the reins. He tied the packhorse lines over his saddle horn and stepped up on the boardwalk.
He was a singularly impressive looking individual. Johnson stood six feet six inches tall with shoulders a yard wide. His thick neck rippled with sinews and heavy cords of muscle. In the shadow of his black hat brim, his gray eyes scanned the street with animation and thoughtfulness.. His handsome face was covered in three-day whisker stubble. When people saw him they usually took a second look. Around his waist were twin military gun belts. One set carried two ivory handled Navy Colts; two-other guns were wedged in the other set.
Loud rinky-dink music was coming over the batwings. The happy chords seemed to envelop him as he stood and looked over the town. A few months ago, it was overrun by the Purvis brothers and was an imprisoned community, but today it was free. He saw citizens coming and going down the boardwalk and riders riding placidly by.
He took grim satisfaction that he had a hand in the destruction of the nefarious Purvis brothers. That was a positive thing, but there was another favorable thing. He had made a lot of new friends, and one of these was the proprietor of the saloon, a man everyone called "Big Willard."
John sighed as he looked up and down the street and then turned and eased the right swinging door open and entered. Ranch hands and citizens were playing cards, and a thick cloud of cigar smoke wafted in the air.
Big Willard stood at the end of the bar drying whisky glasses and setting them on the polished, wooden bar. He had wide shoulders and a thick chest; muscular forearms extended from the rolled up sleeves of a white shirt. He wore a blue-gray derby hat cocked to one-side. While his face was passive and his eyes were calm, everyone who knew him understood that he was hell with his fists.
Standing less than two-feet away was Big Willard's new bartender and fighter, Monk Danielson, formerly the bodyguard of Bill Purvis. Monk was a massive man with a thick neck and large arms; he had become one of Big Willard's close friends. His simian features had brought about his fearsome nickname, but today he was smiling and laughing and talking animatedly with some of the neighboring ranch hands.
Big Willard was talking to Sheriff Nelson, a whipcord-thin man who had been instrumental in the defeat of the Purvis brothers' tyranny. He had been the county sheriff for over twenty years.
When they saw John enter they stopped their conversation and waved a greeting.
John walked up to the bar and, after catching Monk's eye, was given a full schooner of beer with foam running down the edges. John tossed a dime on the counter, and Monk winked at him, scooped up the dime, and dropped it in the till.
John turned, took a hearty gulp, placed the large mug back on the bar, and sighed. He stretched his large frame straight up, exhaled, and tapped the side of his fist agitatedly on the bar. It was obvious he was nettled about something.
Sheriff Nelson looked over at Big Willard who was watching John with concern. Sheriff Nelson then said, "I heard through the grapevine that you were heading into the Nations."
John shook his head without changing expression and answered, "How do things get around that fast?"
"Makes no difference how fast it gets around; it does."
John nodded and said, "Yeah, guess you're right."
Sheriff Nelson paused and said, "I know those folks in Fort Smith think highly of you, but seems like they would've given you a little time to tend to things."
John shrugged and answered, "I got to go anyway and might as well make the best out of it." He looked down at his beer and added, "If it wasn't for those gents at Fort Smith, I wouldn't have anything."
Big Willard pulled a cigar from his pocket and languidly struck a match, and lit his smoke. He tossed the match in a brass spittoon at the end of the bar. He took a few puffs and asked, "You're going to Quiso, the Indian community, right?"
Sheriff Nelson squinted and said, "For the last few years there has been a badass up near there named 'Ridgeway Large.'"
John looked inquiringly at him and asked, "He's not the one causing problems in Quiso is he?"
Sheriff Nelson shook his head. "Bad Boy Leon is the man you'll be dealing with there." He drummed his fingers on the bar and continued. "Ridgeway Large claims to be a half-breed, but I doubt it. A lot of folks claim to be Indian just to get cheap land or to live there." His eyes were more stern when he added, "Or to escape the law."
"I've never heard of Ridgeway Large," John said.
The sheriff sighed and looked evenly at him. "Well, let me inform you. He's a sorry-ass bastard. He kills people. He butchers people. He's been known to just ride up and shoot folks. He can also skulk too. He's been known to bushwhack. He's a large man, and he is tough to handle. He will kill at the drop of a hat and drop his own hat. You be careful when you make camp."
Big Willard snorted and said, "If I know John the way I think I do, maybe Ridgeway Large ought to be worried."
Sheriff Nelson smiled, "Well, I'd say that John would be a poor choice to rob all right." He held up an index finger to make a point. "But John is a big target, and Ridgeway is no stranger to ambushing someone."
John filed that information away in his mind, as he emptied his schooner and placed it gently down. "I got to get going. I was just dreading the damn trip and wanted to spend some time with you boys."
He stood tall and gave a quick but friendly nod to both men and then turned and walked away.
As he exited the saloon, he pulled the watch from his pocket that he had promised to deliver. He looked at it in the sunlight and thought back to the skirmish near Lexington, Tennessee. He could still see the pain and sadness in the Union captain's dying eyes when he asked John to deliver the watch to his brother Cyrus. He cursed his bad luck for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hated the responsibility that had been thrust on his broad shoulders, but he would not shirk his obligation. He would ride to Ironton, Ohio and see if he could find the captain's brother and be rid of that burden forever. He vowed that he would not make a foolish promise again Although he had not actually said that he would deliver the watch, he knew he was obligated to.
* * *
John rode for five uneventful days. His big stallion trotted steadily and the strong gelding packhorse maintained the grueling pace. John was making forty miles a day, and he figured he was near the Nations or in it.
On the sixth day he came upon a stream at the foot of a hill and saw two hackberry trees that would provide shelter. He placed his tarp over the tree limbs. Next, he rolled some rocks into a circle, broke up some branches, and made a fire.
He set up a metal stand over the flames and started boiling coffee. As he poured some canteen water into an iron skillet to boil some beans, he heard the sound of distant gunfire. At first he heard one gunshot. There was an indefinite pause, and he heard two more shots.
He thumbed up his hat and looked over the horizon. The time between the shots caused him some suspicion. He knew the shots sounded distant, but he was not sure how far. He knew by the time he investigated, it would be dark. He knelt down and drank his coffee but kept turning his head toward the direction where he heard the shots. He reasoned that he would be headed that way tomorrow, so he chose to let the incident go for now. After he ate and cleaned his utensils, he watered, fed, and rubbed down his horses.
He took another guarded look at the landscape. He stood, silhouetted by the orange cast of the dying sun, and peered at the rounded hilltops in the distance. He heard or saw nothing that concerned him now, but still he felt ill at ease.
He threw his saddle against the bole of the larger hackberry tree, made his bed, and tried to sleep. He did not sleep well. He still had the sound of gunfire in his conscious, and it made him edgy.
The next day as the whippoorwills made their morning calls before becoming quiet for the day, John saddled up and began the taxing pace again. His big black horse trotted along, and the packhorse dutifully followed. John's eyes were shadowed beneath the sloping hat brim, but he was actively looking for either a man or a reason for the shooting.
As he topped a sandy hillock and looked down the long, beige road, he saw a distinctive small form in the distance. His eyes narrowed, and he urged his mount faster down the road. As he rode closer, he could see a small girl, probably about four years old, in a sullied tattered, stained dress.
She stopped and stood perfectly still when she saw him approach. She seemed to be both apprehensive and needy. She looked at him, her eyes round with fear. He thought she looked like a lost but beautiful waif who had been abandoned to the world.
John was always bothered when folks who did not need to fear him were afraid. It mattered little to him that evil-ones quaked or were shaken by his size and temper. But the little girl's sad and frightened eyes touched him. Her hair blew across her face as she stood hesitantly, trying to decide what to do
Her eyes followed him as the big man dismounted slowly and pulled his canteen off the saddle and uncorked it. He knelt to make himself look smaller so as to allay her misgivings.
She had honey-colored hair and dark eyes that searched him. Her eyes moved to him and then back behind her. She appeared to be ready to run but was unable to run any further.
He asked her in a gentle voice if she wanted water. She at first said nothing but edged closer. He kept talking to her in a low voice and asked her name.
She turned slowly from facing him and pointed with a pink finger down the trail. She walked closer and repeated the gesture and John looked past her but saw nothing.
She walked slowly to him with her eyes fixed on the canteen. He proffered it to her with extended fingers to be non-threatening.
She walked closer and took the canteen with two-hands and drank from it liberally.
She offered it back with her two-hands and walked closer. She looked into his eyes and he saw two-round innocent eyes filled with pain and disillusion. He asked her for her name and when she did not readily reply he told her his name was 'John.'
Later he though the heard her say that her name was 'Mary Catherine,' but he was not sure. She kept coming tentatively closer and finally she was close enough for him to take a handkerchief from his pocket and douse it with canteen water and touch her face. He gently wiped away the trails of salt from her tears.
He rose slowly from his kneeling position so as not to alarm her and looked down the road. "Where are your mommy and daddy, Mary Catherine?"
She turned and pointed again down the road. He asked her if she would ride with him to find them and she nodded 'yes.' He picked up her small frame and put her in the saddle in front of him, and told her to hang on.
He mounted up and they rode quietly down the road. John's eyes were seeking some sign of her mother and father but saw nothing but where her swishing footprints had been.
He rode for almost fifteen-minutes when he saw a stand of hackberry trees on a ridge and what looked like the skeleton of a wagon. He could feel her body tense in front of him. He stopped his horse and put one foot down softly in the sand and then the other followed.
John lifted her from the saddle and said, "Is that where your mommy and daddy are?"
She placed a finger in her mouth as she grabbed him by the pants leg and held on. He could see her tears anew. He knelt down and looked her in the eyes. "Mary Catherine, I want you to stay here and let me go look."
His gentle voice mollified her and she turned loose of his leg and faced the horse with her back to the hill.
John turned and rose with a bleak feeling as he saw the swarm of green flies. He nodded with a certain realization and went to the packhorse and pulled a small shovel from the canvas bag.
He walked slowly with a dreadful feeling up the sandy incline laced liberally with weeds. As he came over the rounded ledge where the wagon was parked, he could see two-savagely mutilated bodies. One was a man who had been shot and eviscerated. The woman obviously had been beaten and raped.
He removed his bandana and tied it around his nose and mouth. The smell was fetid. He walked closer and looked around to see if there was anything of value but it was obvious that the man or men who did this was thorough in his ransacking. He could see only the footprints of three-people and immediately he remembered the name 'Ridgeway Large.' He had been warned about this man. And now he knew the man was more animal than human.
He dug two-graves and he made two-roughly hewn crosses from the limbs of the hackberry tree. He went down the hill and cut some thongs from his saddlebag and used them to cinch the crosses. He placed them firmly in the ground and removed his hat and bandana. He looked up at the sky and said, "God, have mercy on the little girl." He stood wondering about God's mercy but a chill went down his spine when he realized he might be God's mercy.
John put back his hat and walked down the hill and placed the shovel in the canvas bag. As he turned to go pick her up and place her on his saddle, she stood looking at him with sad eyes. She was only a child but she knew he had taken care of that dreadful scene she did not fully understand. Her eyes held him in grasping gaze, an almost worshipful stare. John knelt and placed his hands on her shoulders. It was a tableau of the strong and the helpless. He felt a lump in his throat. He hugged her and gently patted her small back. He knew she needed it and he needed it also.
After he released her, he stood and took her hand. He thought of the canvas bag that held the block of salt. He removed the canvas bag from his packhorse and took it to his riding horse and placed it behind the cantle of his saddle.
He tenderly placed Mary Catherine in the canvas bag so she could sit on the block of salt. She peered at him with soulful eyes as he touched her face kindly.
As he mounted up, he sighed and looked at the tops of the crosses. He sat for a moment wondering what he was going to do. His eyes moved thoughtfully toward Texas and he remembered that Bonnie Harper, a woman he and Russell had saved from death, now lived in Box City, Texas. He sat mulling over the six-day ride he would have to make. As his eyes moved around and caught the sight of her towhead and her expectant eyes looking at him. He inhaled and compressed his lips and headed toward Box City.
They rode most of the day, but Mary Catherine made it known by her actions that she wanted to hold his fingers while they rode. So the big, six-foot six Texan held his left-hand back for her to grab, and he held the reins in his right-hand.
That night they made camp and as she made her 'call-to-nature,' stops, she watched him through the weeds. He reasoned that it was due to her insecurity. Later he fed her jerky and beans and canteen water. She ate liberally and watched him with soft eyes as he drank coffee. He knew she was especially attached to him because she had no one else. John felt the heavy responsibility on his broad shoulders. He loved the little girl and if he could be her safe harbor till he found her a loving home, then so be it.
The second-night they camped, she began to talk more, and she distinctly told him her name was 'Mary Catherine Morgan.' He made her a small bedroll and she slept beside him. During the night, John pulled a cigar out of his pocket and lit it and looked at her in the moonlight. It touched him to see her innocent face. She seemed like a small angel. He sat with his back to a tree feeling her need and dependence on him. He sighed deeply and got in his bedroll, but sleep did not come readily. He knew if he could not find her a home, he would be responsible for her. He was not sure he was capable or worthy. He just knew he would not abandon her.
The third and fourth days ride was uneventful but she still maintained the right to hold his fingers. So off they rode with his hand extended backwards.
The fifth night after making camp and after eating, he made her a pallet and put his saddlebag down as her pillow. He washed her face and gave her an apple from his supplies. He tucked her in under a blanket. He patted her hand and brushed her hair off her forehead. He gave her a smile and she gave him one back. He left her briefly to make a fire. Exhausted by the day, he went to a cottonwood tree where he plopped down to smoke a cigar. Mary Catherine watched him smoke as she slowly ate on her apple. She pushed aside the cover, laid the apple down, and made her way to him. She laced her arm around his neck and unexpectedly sat in his lap. She snuggled her head against his thick chest.
"Are you going to be my new Pa, John?"
He looked down at her luminous eyes and swallowed. He felt a lump in his throat. "Mary Catherine, I guess you could call me your protector."
Excerpted from John Lee Johnson on the Trail by Conn Hamlett Copyright © 2012 by Conn Hamlett. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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