Read an Excerpt
When Hell Came to Texas
APRIL 23, 1853
Coy Axton owned Twin Hills Ranch, and Darren Walker owned the adjacent ranch, which he called Doubletree. They were good friends who often ran their cattle together, as they were able to tell which cow belonged to which rancher both by mutual trust and by their brands. When a cougar took down a couple of steers, the ranchers sent their two sons, Ded Axton and Nate Walker, out to track down and kill the cat.
Ded and Nate were only fifteen years old, but they were both big for their age, and both had done a man’s work for the last three years. Good friends, they were also competitive, often engaging in shooting contests, riding contests, and foot races. Despite their competitiveness, there had never been a fight between them.
The two boys, carrying food enough for three days, set out in search of the cougar. They lost the trail just before dark on the first night, but picked it up again in the morning. They had been taking turns riding in the lead, and for the moment Nate was in front, following the fresh tracks. Nate held up his hand calling for a stop, then dismounted and examined something on the ground. He looked back with a big smile.
“We’re real close,” he said. “He just took a shit and it’s still soft.”
As Nate was delivering his report, Ded saw the big cat creep out onto a flat rock about ten feet above Nate’s head. The cougar was getting ready to leap.
“Nate, look out!” Ded shouted. He had been holding his rifle across the saddle in front of him; fortunately, the gun was primed and loaded. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired just as the cougar leaped.
“Ahh!” Nate called out as the cat landed on him. “Get him off, get him off!”
Ded dismounted and, pulling his pistol, started toward the struggling Nate. Then, before he reached him, he was surprised to hear Nate laughing.
Nate rolled out from under the cat, then stood up. There wasn’t a scratch on him. The cougar was still on the ground, not moving.
“Are you all right?” Ded asked.
“Yeah,” Nate said. “You hit him plumb center. He’s dead. He was dead when he fell on me.”
“You scared me to death,” Ded said.
“I scared you? What were you scared about? I was the one the cat jumped on.”
Ded chuckled. “He didn’t jump on you. He fell on you.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.” Nate pointed at Ded. “All right, you saved my life, but don’t let it go to your head.”
“Ha! I should have let him take a bite out of your hide before I shot him,” Ded said. “That might make you a bit more beholden to me.”
The two boys skinned the cougar and were on their way back when they saw smoke coming from a small house.
“Isn’t that the Chandler place?” Nate asked.
“Yes, I think it is. Maybe we had better get over there and see if we can help.”
The two started toward the burning house and were close when they heard gunfire.
“Whoa! What’s going on?” Nate asked.
“Comanche!” Ded shouted, pointing.
“Let’s get out of here!”
The two boys turned their horses but saw more Comanche behind them. They heard shooting coming from the barn and, assuming that was where Chandler was holed up, fighting the Indians, rode toward the barn as fast as they could. They were surprised to see the barn door open just as they approached.
“Get in here, fast!” Chandler shouted.
As soon as they rode in through the open door, Chandler closed and barred the door behind them.
“Are we glad to see you!” Chandler said. “Where are the others?”
“What others?” Ded asked. “There are only the two of us.”
Looking around the barn, Ded saw Ben and Mrs. Chandler, Boston Chandler, their six-year-old son, and Dooley Hayes, their hired hand.
“The Injuns come down this morning,” Chandler said. “At first I only seen a couple of ’em tryin’ to steal my horses. I took a shot at ’em and they run off, but they come back a few minutes later with about twenty of ’em. They set the house on fire, but we managed to get here.”
“Boss, there’s about three of ’em tryin’ to sneak up on us,” Hayes said. “I think they’re goin’ to try an’ set fire to the barn.”
“Where are they?”
“They’re over there, squattin’ down behind the waterin’ trough,” Hayes said.
Hayes, Chandler, Ded, and Nate all aimed at the trough.
“Don’t nobody shoot till all three of the heathens show themselves,” Chandler said.
“Maybe we ought to pick out who we’re going to shoot, so that we don’t all shoot the same one.”
“Good idea,” Chandler said. “I’ll take the one on the left.”
“I’ll take the one in the center,” Ded said.
“That leaves me the one on the right.”
“Which one should I shoot?” Hayes asked.
“Pick out one, it won’t make any difference.”
“No, don’t shoot until after we do,” Ded suggested. “That way, if one of us misses, you can take him.”
“Good thinking,” Chandler said.
The defenders in the barn waited for nearly a minute, then the three Indians rose as one and started toward them. The one in the middle—the one who Ded had selected as his target—was carrying a flaming torch, intending to set fire to the barn.
“Now!” Chandler shouted, and all three fired as one. The three Indians went down.
“I tell you the truth, boys, I’m near ’bout out of powder and ball,” Chandler said. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold ’em off.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Ded said. “I’m going to turn my horse loose. He’ll run back to the ranch. If Pa sees him without me, he’ll likely come see what happened.”
“Wait,” Mrs. Chandler said. “I took this from the house before we left.”
She opened a box and took out a piece of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. “If you’re going to send the horse back, let him take a message.”
Ded nodded, then wrote: Pa, trapped by Indians at the Chandler place, running out of powder and ball. Come quick. Ded.
“Where are you going to put it on the saddle to keep it from falling off?” Nate asked.
“I’ve got some glue out here I was using to make saddle repairs,” Chandler said. “We’ll glue the paper to the saddle.”
Slathering the back of the paper with glue, they stuck it on the saddle, then smoothed it down. When they were sure there was sufficient adhesion between the paper and the saddle, Ded led his horse over to the back door and waited while Chandler opened it.
“Go home, boy! Go home!” Ded said, slapping the horse on the rump.
The horse galloped away, and through a window Ded watched until it was out of sight.
* * *
Over the next couple of hours, the Indians attacked several more times. But they prefaced each charge with ungodly screeches and yells, and that enabled the defenders to get some rest in between their assaults.
“If we can just hold them off until your pa gets here . . .” Chandler said.
“I know how we can slow ’em down,” Hayes suggested.
“How’s that?” Chandler asked.
Hayes pointed through the window. “That fancy-dressed son of a bitch sitting on that horse seems to be in charge of ’em. I’ve noticed he starts whoopin’ and hollerin’ and pointin’ before they attack. If we could kill him, it would least slow ’em down.”
Chandler looked toward the Indian Hayes had pointed out, then shook his head. “He’s too far away.”
Ded looked as well.
“No he’s not.”
“What do you mean, he’s not?” Chandler asked.
“Take a look, Nate. What do you think? You think you could hit him from here?”
“Maybe,” Nate said. “But he’s so far away, the ball might not penetrate even if it did hit him.”
“What if we put a double load of powder in and both of us shoot at the same time?” Ded suggested. “One of us might hit him.”
“Yeah, if the gun doesn’t blow up on us,” Nate said with a little laugh.
“I’m willing to give it a try if you are,” Ded challenged.
“All right, let’s do it,” Nate said.
For the next several seconds the boys prepared their rifles, pouring in twice as much powder as they normally used. Then they packed down the wads, then the balls.
“There’s no way these barrels aren’t going to split wide open,” Nate said.
“Maybe only one of them will,” Ded suggested.
“Yeah, but which one?”
“I guess we’ll see. Are you ready?”
The two boys picked up their rifles then and rested the barrels on the windowsill. They aimed, then lowered their rifles and adjusted their sights, picked them up, aimed once more, then lowered the rifles for one last adjustment.
“Let’s fire on the count of three,” Ded suggested.
“I’ll count,” Nate said.
Nate counted, and on the count of three both rifles roared and kicked back against their shoulders. A great deal of smoke billowed up in front of them.
“Well, the barrels didn’t burst,” Ded said.
“Damn!” Hayes shouted. “You hit him!”
“I knew I hit him,” Nate said.
“Ha! How do you know I wasn’t the one who hit him?” Ded challenged.
“It doesn’t matter which one of you hit ’im,” Chandler said. “They’re leavin’, and they’re carryin’ his body with ’em.”
“Now we’ll never know if both of us hit him or just one of us,” Nate said.
“Why don’t we just say both of us did?” Ded suggested.
It was another hour before Coy Axton, Darren, and Nate arrived at the Chandler place with two dozen cowboys. They were warmly welcomed, even though by now the Indians had left. They trailed after the retreating Indians, returning when they were sure that they were well gone.
Within two weeks, the neighbors had rebuilt the Chandlers’ house for them, and at the celebration party over the house raising, Ben Chandler stood to thank everyone for coming to help them rebuild.
“But I especially want to thank two boys—no, by their action they proved they aren’t boys, they are young men—I especially want to thank the two young men who came to our rescue. If it hadn’t been for Ded Axton and Nate Walker, there wouldn’t have even been a need for a house raising, because the Indians would have gotten us for sure. Ded, Nate, stand up so we can all get a look at you and give you a round of applause.”
Nate and Ded stood; then, as the others applauded, they shook hands and smiled.
JUNE 5, 1855
Ded and Nate were sitting in the stagecoach depot at Whistler, when a peddler came in.
“Lemonade! Lemonade! Fresh lemonade here!”
“Want a glass of lemonade?” Nate asked.
“I don’t know, I’ve got a long trip in front of me, I probably should watch my money,” Ded answered.
“Ha, I’ll buy it. It’ll be my going-away present to you.”
“All right, my mouth is kind of dry, a glass of lemonade would go well now.”
“I’ll be right back.”
True to his word, Nate returned a minute later carrying two glasses of lemonade. He handed one to Ded.
Ded took a swallow, then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. When he did, he got a drop of lemonade on the trousers of his suit.
“Oh, I hope that doesn’t leave a spot.”
Nate laughed. “What do you care? Soon as you get to West Point, you’ll be getting one of those fancy cadet uniforms.”
“I wish you were coming with me, Nate. It’s not too late. Why, I bet if you had your pa write to Senator Sam Houston, he’d be able to get you right into the same class as me.”
“Being a soldier is your idea, Ded, not mine. I’m going to the University of Mississippi, where I plan to study the fine arts.”
Ded laughed. “What can you do with a degree in fine arts?”
“Why, don’t you know, Ded? I’ll be a gentleman. I’ll be owning Doubletree someday, I already know all I need to know about ranching. I just need to learn to be a gentleman.”
Ded laughed and punched him on the shoulder. “Nate Walker a gentleman? Why, they would have to assign you your very own professor to do that.”
“Coach is a-comin’!” someone shouted, and Ded and the other three passengers stood. Ded reached for his bag but Nate held his hand out and reached for it himself.
“Better let me carry that out for you. From what I’ve heard about West Point, they’ll have you running and such from the moment you get there. You’d best get all the rest you can while you can.”
Ded and Nate followed the others out to the coach, and Nate handed the bag to the driver, who stowed it in the boot.
Nate reached out to take Ded’s hand. “You might write to me now and then,” he said.
“I will,” Ded said.
“All right, folks, climb aboard so we can get under way,” the driver said as he climbed up onto the box.
Ded got a seat next to the right rear window and looked out at Nate, who was still standing there, waiting to watch them leave.
“A gentleman, huh?” Ded called out with a big smile. “Well, I’m going to be an officer and a gentleman.”
“Heyaah!!” the driver called, and he snapped his whip over the head of the team. The coach started forward.
“We’ll see!” Nate called after him. “We’ll see!”