Authors: James J. Griffin
Tags: #coming of age, #series, #texas ranger, #ya fiction, #western adventure, #western action, #western classic, #painted pony books, #lone star ranger
“Looks like they made sure nothing was
left,” Bob said.
“Sure seems that way,” Jeb agreed. His gaze
settled on a plank door set into the ground at an angle. It was
partially covered by a section of the cabin’s back wall which had
fallen on it.
“That looks like a root cellar. Reckon I’ll
check and see if there’s any vegetables in there, or maybe even
some preserves the missus put up. Anything at all would be a nice
change from bacon and beans.”
Jeb walked over to the door, kicked aside
the smoldering section of wall, and lifted the door. When he did, a
young boy charged out of the cellar. He ran straight into Jeb,
burying his head in the Ranger’s stomach, driving the air out of
his lungs and knocking him to the ground. He dove on top of Jeb,
swinging his fists wildly.
“You killed my brother!” he screamed. One of
his punches connected with the side of Jeb’s jaw. Jeb grabbed the
youngster’s wrists. The boy continued to struggle.
“Hold still, kid. Get offa me. None of us
killed your brother. We’re Texas Rangers. Hold still, I said,” Jeb
repeated, when the boy continued to resist. “I don’t want to hurt
you. Just get offa me and we’ll get this all straightened out.”
Bob and Jim hurried over to help their
fellow Ranger. They grabbed Nathaniel’s shoulders and lifted him
gently from atop Jeb.
“Take it easy, son,” Bob said. “Like Jeb
says, we’re not gonna hurt you. We’re not part of the outfit that
killed your folks. We’re Texas Rangers. Been on the trail of those
murderers for quite a spell now. Just wish we could’ve caught up
with ’em sooner, so we might’ve been able to save your kin. We’re
gonna let go of you now. All right?”
Nathaniel nodded his head, sniffling. He was
trying desperately not to cry.
“Let him go, Jim.”
Nathaniel’s arms were released. Jeb came to
his feet and stood rubbing the lump rising on his jaw.
“You pack quite a wallop there, kid,” he
“I’m sorry, mister,” Nathaniel answered.
“It’s just that I thought… I thought…” His voice trailed off.
“We understand, son,” Bob said.
Jim looked at the gash across Nathaniel’s
scalp. The boy’s hair was matted down with sweat and dried
“Bob, this boy’s hurt,” he said. “Appears to
me he’s been shot. Looks like he was mighty lucky and the bullet
just creased him. Reckon I’d better patch him up and make sure,
“All right, Jim,” Bob agreed. “We’ll take
him over to that cottonwood. He needs to get out of the sun before
he gets a bad burn, bein’ shirtless like he is. I know the sun’s
settin’, but it’s still high enough to roast a man’s skin.”
“You go with the lieutenant, son,” Jim said.
“I’ll be right back. I’ll fetch some water for the boy, too.” He
headed for his horse, to retrieve the rudimentary medical kit he
carried in his saddlebags. Bob and Jeb led Nathaniel to the scant
shade of a half-dead cottonwood. The tree had taken root well away
from any good source of water, but had somehow survived for quite a
few years. However, it was now losing its struggle to live.
“Sit down and lean against the tree, son,”
Bob ordered. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Nathaniel. Nathaniel Stewart.”
“That your ma and pa got killed over
“Yeah. Yeah. And Jonathan, my big brother.
Those men killed… killed…”
“You don’t need to say anything more…
Nathaniel. We know what happened.”
“You the one who gut-shot that son of
a—um—sidewinder, Nate?” Jeb asked, careful not to use the term he
really wanted to use to describe the dead outlaw.
“My name’s Nathaniel.”
Jeb shook his head. He smiled, trying to
reassure the boy he was safe, and with friends.
“That’s too much of a mouthful. Long as you
don’t mind, I reckon we’ll call you Nate.”
“I guess it’ll be all right,” Nathaniel
said, with a shrug.
“Fine. Now, did you shoot that
Nathaniel was puzzled.
“Spanish for man,” Bob explained. “You’ll
hear a lot of that mixed in with English here in Texas.”
“Oh. No, no I didn’t shoot him. My brother
did that… just before he got shot himself.”
“But I think I did shoot one,” Nathaniel
said. “I took my brother’s gun from his hand and pulled the
trigger. Saw one of the other men grab his arm and heard him yelp.
Then, I guess I got shot, because I don’t remember anything after
“Nate, this is important,” Jeb said. “Which
“Good. Once we catch up to that bunch it’ll
help identify him.”
Jim returned, carrying his medical kit and a
canteen. The rest of the Rangers were with him.
“Y’all can stop questionin’ this poor boy
until I fix him up,” he said, in a west Texas twang. “You keep
jawin’ at him like that and he’s liable to keel right over on
“All right, Jim,” Bob said. To Nathaniel he
added, “Jim here’s kind of the troop doctor. He had some medical
trainin’ while fightin’ for the Confederacy. He’s as good at fixin’
broken bones, stitchin’ up cuts or knife wounds, and diggin’
bullets out of a man as any doctor I’ve ever met.”
“And I drink a whole sight less than a lot
of those,” Jim added. “Now let me take a look at you, son. What’s
“It’s Nathaniel… Nate.”
“All right, Nate. I’m gonna take a looksee
at this head of yours, then patch you up. You’re gonna be just
fine. Take a drink before I get started.”
He opened his canteen and handed it to
Nathaniel. Nathaniel took it and drank greedily.
“Not too much,” Jim cautioned. “Don’t want
you gettin’ a bellyache from drinkin’ too much. Course, it won’t be
as bad a bellyache as the one your brother gave that hombre lyin’
over there. Lead bellyaches are the worst kind. Reckon your brother
must’ve been a man to ride the river with. I’d wager he’d have made
a fine Ranger.” He grinned. Nathaniel managed a thin smile of his
“There, that’s better,” Jim said. He parted
Nathaniel’s hair to examine the bullet slash across his scalp. He
poured some water from his canteen onto a scrap of cloth and used
that to wash away dirt, dried blood, and bits of flesh.
“I hate to do this to you, Nate, but you’re
gonna need a few stitches to pull your skin back together so it can
heal. You’re a real lucky kid. Fraction of an inch lower and you’d
“That means he must have an even thicker
skull than you, Jim,” Jeb said, chuckling.
“See if I take the bullet out of your hide
next time you catch a slug, Jeb,” Jim retorted. “Nate, this is
gonna hurt somethin’ fierce. You think you’ll be able to handle
Nathaniel swallowed hard. “Do I have a
“I’m afraid not, son.”
“Then I’ll have to.”
“Good. You’re a brave lad. I reckon you’d do
to ride the river with, too.”
Jim took a razor from his bag, along with a
scalpel, thick needle and thread, and a small flask of whiskey.
“This whiskey is strictly for medicinal purposes, Nate. I use it to
clean and sterilize my instruments.” He doused the bullet crease
with some of the whiskey, poured some more over the razor, then
shaved off a strip of Nathaniel’s hair from around the wound.
“You’re gonna scalp me like those wild
Indians I’ve heard about,” he protested.
“No, I’m not, Nate. I promise you that. You
do need to keep still while I’m workin’ on you, though. I know it’s
not easy, but try’n not move as best you can, so I don’t
accidentally take off another chunk of your scalp. All right?”
“All right, sir.”
“Sir? Who’s ‘sir’? My name’s Jim. Don’t you
forget it, you hear?”
“Yessir, sir… I mean, Jim.”
“That’s better. I’ll get through this quick
as I can. Here, take this bandanna. There’s a knot in it. Put it in
your mouth. If the pain gets to be too much, bite down on it, hard
as you can. That’ll help some.”
Nathaniel took the piece of cloth and did as
told. He clamped his teeth down hard. Jim picked up his scalpel,
doused it with whiskey, then the wound again. He used the scalpel
to trim the slash’s ragged edges. Nathaniel bit down so hard on the
cloth he was certain his jaw would bust or his teeth would shatter.
His eyes watered with the pain.
“You’re doin’ just fine, Nate,” Jim assured
him. “That was the worst of it.” He picked up the needle and
thread, soaked them with whiskey, and efficiently sewed up the
wound. Once done, he coated it thickly with salve, placed a clean
strip of cloth over it, and tied another strip of cloth over that
and around Nathaniel’s head to hold it in place.
“I’m all done, Nate,” Jim said. “You can let
go of the bandanna now. That wasn’t all that bad, was it?”
Nathaniel pulled the cloth from his
“No, not too bad,” he half-whispered.
“You don’t need to lie, Nate,” Jeb said. “I
know that hurt like the devil. But you took it like a grown man,
son. You can be proud of yourself.”
“Thanks, sir,” Nathaniel said.
“Whoa. Enough of that ‘sir’ stuff. Like Jim
said, none of us in this outfit are named sir. My name’s Jeb.
Reckon I’d better introduce you to the rest of the boys. This
here’s Lieutenant Robert Berkeley, although everyone generally
calls him Bob. We’re pretty informal in the Rangers, not like the
Army. Next to him’s Henry Harrison, better known as Hoot. Alongside
him’s Ed Jennings, then we have Dan Morton, and finally those two
ugly look-alike hombres are Tom and Tim Tomlinson. We branded Tim
with that scar on his cheek so we can tell which is which. Boys,
any of you didn’t catch his name this here’s Nathaniel Stewart…
only we’re gonna call him Nate.”
“Don’t listen to one word this ring-tailed
liar says,” Tim said. “Jeb’s always tellin’ whoppers. I got this
scar from a Comanche’s arrow.”
Tim and his brother were identical twins,
with blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Don’t believe my brother, either,” Tom
said. “He gave himself that scar when his razor slipped while he
“Way I heard it, a
Cantina in El Paso give it to you, Tim,” Hoot said, laughing.
“That’s enough out of all of you,” Bob
ordered. “Start settin’ up camp. Nate,” he continued. “Before we
realized there was anyone left alive we decided to spend the night
here, then start after those renegades first thing in the morning.
It’s almost dusk, so it’ll be too late to keep after ’em tonight.
Since we’ve found you still in one piece, I reckon I need to ask
your permission to use your place.”
“Sure,” Nathaniel agreed. “I guess it’ll be
okay, but shouldn’t you ask…” He stopped short, his voice cracking
and his eyes filling with tears.
The lieutenant put a comforting hand on
“It’s all right, Nate. Go ahead and cry if
you need to. Won’t be any of us here think any less of you. We’ve
all lost loved ones or friends. Unless you’d like things done
different, we’d planned on buryin’ your folks at sunup.”
Nathaniel sniffled and ran an arm under his
“No. I think I’m all right,” he said. “And I
know my pa’d sure like to stay right here. I guess my ma and
Jonathan would like that too. We’ll… we’ll bury them here, on the
“Good. Mind if I ask you another
“The reason Jeb opened that root cellar is
to find any food which might be in there that we could use. We’ve
been on the trail for weeks now, and bacon, beans, and biscuits
every day sure gets tiresome. We were hopin’ to find some
vegetables or maybe even some preserves your ma might’ve put up. Is
it all right if we still do that? I’d imagine you’re gettin’ mighty
“Sure, sure, that’d be okay.”
“We’re much obliged. Tim, you and Tom round
up any grub you can find. Tim, you’ll be cook tonight. I reckon
we’d better set up a guard overnight, just in case those renegades
send a couple of men back to see if they missed anything. I’ll set
the watches after supper. Nate, what happened to your shirt? You’re
gonna need it.”
“My brother and I were washin’ up for supper
when those men attacked us. I think it must’ve burned up with the
cabin. Might still be by the wash bench, though.”
“Good. Hoot, you see if you can rustle up
Nate’s shirt. If not, get him your spare. It’ll be a mite too big
for him, but you’re the closest to his size.”
“Right away, Bob.”
“Dan, Ed, take care of the dead. Make sure
you cover ’em good so the scavengers can’t get at ’em.”
“Um, Bob?” Morton said.
“What about the dead outlaw? Doesn’t seem
fittin’ he should be planted here with the folks he helped
“You’re right,” Bob agreed. “Take him off
somewhere and dig a shallow grave for him, or leave him for the
buzzards and coyotes. Far as I’m concerned, that’s all he deserves.
Jim, get the horses settled. Nate, if you feel you’re up to it, I’d
like to ask you a few questions. That’ll help us when we catch up
to the men who did this.”
“I’ll try to answer them, if I can,”
“Good. Jeb, you stay here with me. The rest
of you, get busy.”
While the other Rangers went about setting
up camp for the night, Bob and Jeb questioned Nathaniel about the
attack on the Stewart ranch earlier that day.
“Nate, just tell me as best you can what
exactly happened,” Bob requested.
“Sure,” Nate answered. “Like I said before,
Jonathan and I were just washin’ up for supper. We heard a bunch of
men ridin’ real fast. Jonathan spotted ’em first and pulled out his
gun. My dad must’ve heard ’em too, because he came outside holdin’
his shotgun. They killed him, first thing. Then Jonathan pushed me
behind the trough. He shot one of the outlaws, then he got shot. I
knew he was dead, the way he fell. So I crawled over to him, got
his gun, and managed to get off a shot. Didn’t knock anyone off his
horse like Jonathan did, though. I’m not much good with a gun or
horse. Jonathan certainly was. He loved bein’ a cowboy.”