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Sonny Wilkes: Bushwhacked!
By: Wayne Brown
Sonny Wilkes bent over his campfire pouring coffee into the tin cup in his hand. Seeing the coffee flow into the cup was his last conscious thought as the rifle butt came crashing down against the back of his skull. The cup of coffee and the coffee pot fell back into the fire as Sonny pitched forward and rolled onto the ground unconscious from the blow.
“Dig through his pockets, Lil Un,” the old man holding the rifle instructed one of two boys standing there with him looking over Sonny’s motionless body. The smaller of the two boys leaped forward and began to carry out the old man’s instruction.
“You get over there and look through them saddle bags, Twig,” the old man said to the other boy pointing the rifle at the saddlebags lying nearby. “Get anything we can use or sell or spend” the old man added. “Twig when you get through with them saddlebags, get a rope on that horse yonder” said the old man pointing to the horse standing in the brush near the camp.
Twig grabbed some jerky out of the saddlebags and a few twenty dollar gold pieces. He looked to see if the old man was watching and quickly slipped three of the gold pieces in his pocket as the old man looked over at Lil’ ‘Un digging in the strangers pockets.
“Here’s two five dollar gold pieces, Pap” Lil’Un’ said looking up with a grin for approval from the old man. Old Pap quickly rushed forwarded and grabbed the coins shoving them into his overalls.
“What you got, Twig?” the old man asked.
“Nothing much here, Pap, just some jerky and a twenty dollar gold piece” replied Twig. Pap rushed over and grabbed the gold piece from Twig’s extended hand.
“All right then, get that damn horse, Twig, and let’s be on our way out of here. It’s ten more miles at least into Hookerville. We’ll sell that horse to the blacksmith, drink us some whiskey, then move on,” said Pap.
Twig moved to get the horse assuming it was hobbled in the brush. Little did he know the horse was not hobbled or tied. As Twig walked forward to grab the horse and halter it, the horse suddenly turned and lashed out with his back legs. The left hoof caught Twig just above the right eye and knocked him to the ground with halter in hand. The horse immediately charged off into the brush. Pap rushed over to where Twig lay on the ground bleeding and dazed.
“I’ll kill that sum-bitch, Pap” Twig screamed pointing in the direction which the horse had run off.
“No hell you won’t, boy. I’m gonna rope that horse and we gonna sell him soon as we get into Hookerville. We need the money. Now get your ass up and go help your brother pick through things, “ Pap said. Pap mounted his own horse and headed off into the brush to catch the runaway horse.
By the time Pap had chased the roan around the brush awhile, he was ready to shoot the horse himself. Finally, he got lucky and was able to get a noose over the horse’s head. He fought a bit but had now settled down and was following Pap back to the camp. When Pap emerged from the brush, the two boys had already mounted up themselves and were ready to ride. Sonny Wilkes still lay motionless on the ground by the campfire.
“You think we kilt him Pap? You hit him awful hard with that rifle butt,” Lil’’Un said.
“Hell nawh…he ain’t dead but it will be a while afore he comes to. Without a horse, it will take him days to make it into Hookerville on foot. By then, we should have our business done and be long gone,” Pap observed. “Now let’s ride” He ordered kicking the sides of his mount.
When Sonny regained consciousness he was laying on his back looking up at the stars. Knowing that he had been drinking his morning coffee when the lights went out, he could only figure that he had been out all day. His head was pounding and he could feel a warm flow of blood down the nape of his neck. He struggled to sit himself up erect and looked about. His vision was a bit fuzzy at first but gradually began to clear as he slowly looked about his camp site. He whistled and called out to his horse, “Tramp! Yo, Tramp”. Tramp was gone.
Whoever hit him over the head must have taken Tramp. Sonny looked about. His saddle and saddlebags lay nearby where he had left them. He slowly moved over to the saddle and reached up under it. His Colt and the holster were still there as well. Sonny slowly rose up, first on a knee, and then finally struggled to his feet. He bent down and picked up his canteen, wet down a bandana from his neck and began to bathe the wound on the back of his head. He needed to get moving and find whoever it was that bushwhacked him. Damn his head hurt. One thing that person could be sure of was that they did not want to be alive when Sonny Wilkes caught up with them. Sonny was a pretty strong gun-hand and he didn’t mind demonstrating it to someone who left him on foot with a pounding headache.
After a few hours, Sonny began to feel stable enough to do some walking. He shoved his saddle up into the brush along with other items he had used in his camp. With his Colt strapped on and tied down, he threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and headed off walking in the direction of Hookerville. He had to get his walking done as much as possible before the sun came up and the heat set in for the day.
Sonny Wilkes was a man who presented a handsome sight to most females he encountered. He stood 6’3” tall with a 220 lb. weight. He was lean, healthy and experienced in the ways of killing men. Sonny had served with a division of the Texas Confederacy in the Civil War. He had seen his share of blood shed and survived his share of fights. He was also good with the Colt that he wore mounted cross-hand to his left side. The hammer of the bone-gripped .44 caliber was filed flat and reshaped for fan action. Sonny’s old man had been a sheriff for a number of years around Waco County. He had taught Sonny how to handle a gun and helped him set his up as a fanner. When a man crossed Sonny Wilkes, he damn sure better be a fine gun-hand or else he would be taking up space on boot hill. Sonny didn’t look for fights; didn’t run from them either.
Pap, Twig, and Lil’ ‘Un made a steady pace toward Hookerville with Tramp in tow on a rope halter. Twig and Lil’’Un were Pap’s boys. He had raised ‘em up after their mama died while birthing Lil’’Un. That’s how he had got his name in that he had been born too early and barely survived. His real name was William Thomas Houk Jr., named after his Pap but no one called him that. Lil’’Un was short and squatty and just a bit over weight. Because of his size, he had been picked on most of his life and wore a rather large chip on his shoulder along with a short fuse on his temperament. He had just soon shoot a man in the back as look at him. Lil’ ‘Un fooled a lot of people with his looks as he did not at all look like the cold-blooded little son of a bitch that he could be. Twig was the older brother by five years. He was a little more easy going and not prone to back shooting as he considered himself a fair gun-hand. Pap had to keep an eye on him as he was usually itching for a fight whenever he could spot an opportunity, especially when he got a little rot-gut whiskey in him.
Pap, or William Thomas Houk Sr., was the brains of the outfit. Pap, at one time, had been a half-ass farmer up in Kansas until the wife died. He had stuck it out until the boys were old enough to get around on their own. At that point, the three of them took to the trail and worked their way down to Texas. For a while it was odd jobs in this town or that but that stuff had proved to be too much work that tied a man down too long. Finally, they had taken to bushwhacking for a living. If it worked out as Pap would plan it, they normally didn’t have kill anyone, just knock ‘em in the head and steal their stuff. Then they’d sell it and move on before anyone caught up or figured out that they were selling stolen merchandise. The horse-thievin’ was the most nerve-racking part in that it was an easy way for a man to get hanged if he got caught. Pap tried to avoid that. Pap was also short and squatty; traits he had passed on to the youngest boy. He still wore his farmer’s overalls and kept a sidearm holstered around his thick waist. Pap was not the fastest gun but he would kill a man if he had no other choice.
The sun was just breaking over the mesa off to the east. Sonny trudged slowly along on the old wagon road toward Hookerville. He had tied the wet bandana around his head. The moisture felt good on the goose-egg that had popped up on the back of his head. His hat covered most of the damage. The sound of jingling horse harnesses from behind startled Sonny for a second. He stopped walking, turned and saw a wagon coming up behind him with a man and woman upon the front seat. The wagon pulled up alongside Sonny and the man driving it set the foot brake.
“Say, son, it looks like you could use a ride”, said the man as the young woman with him looked on in silence.
“Yes sir! I sure can use a ride,” Sonny quickly replied.
“What are you doing out here on foot in the hot sun? It’s another five miles or so into Hookerville. You can die in this heat, son”, the man asked.
“I was bushwhacked yesterday morning back a few miles. They knocked me out, took my money and my horse. I have been trying to make it into town on foot as opposed to staying here and letting the buzzards take me, “ Sonny said as he smiled up at the young lady who continued her silence.
“Name’s Haver Thomas”, the man said as he climbed down from the wagon and extended his hand. “This is my daughter, Sarah,” he added.
“Good to meet ya’. I’m Sonny Wilkes. I am just passing through these parts headin’ down to check out the cattle drives near Austin,” Sonny replied as he smiled up at Sarah. Sarah blushed and shot him a shy grin in return.
“Well get up in the back of the wagon Sonny,” Haver said as he motioned Sonny in, “we’ll stop off at our place for some grub, then get you into town.”
“I am much obliged,” Sonny shot back as he climbed upon the wagon bed.
Pap had the boys drop the horses in the corral at the livery and headed off to the saloon. Pap wanted to get the horse sold quickly so they could get back on the trail before word got out that the horse might be stolen. Pap had asked the livery hand if he knew of anyone looking for a good horse. The hand told him that just that morning a fella had been in there looking for a saddle-horse when his come up lame on the trail but they didn’t have anything in their stock that he liked. Pap figured if he was driftin’ that he would be down at the saloon suckin’ down rot-gut.
The stable hand told Pap that the guy would be easy to spot. He described the man as wearin’ a black leather vest and holstering his gun low and tied down. Pap was pretty sure this fella would be a gunslinger or maybe a bounty hunter. Either one could be trouble but since no one had ever laid eyes on them when they did their stealing, it would be doubtful if anybody would be lookin’for him and the boys. The three headed off to the saloon.
The plinking sound of a piano overdue for tuning greeted Pap and the boys as they pushed their way through the swinging doors and sidled toward the bar railing. All three ordered rot-gut. Pap threw a twenty dollar gold-piece on the counter and told the barkeep to leave the bottle. He and the boys quickly downed their first shot then went for another and then began to take in the room looking for their potential horse-buyer.
Pap slowly scanned the room back and forth finally spotting the poke the stable hand had described sitting at the poker table in the far corner with three other men. His back was to the wall with a clear view of the saloon entrance as Pap had expected it would be. He looked to be a pretty tough hombre from where Pap stood. As the stable hand had said, he wore a black vest. His gun and holster rode low on his right side and was tied down to his leg indicating he had reason to pull it quickly. He wore a thick moustache and sported a black wide-brim Stetson hat. He didn’t appear to be engaging in conversation much as he sat in silence studying his cards.
Pap took his drink and walked over to the card table. “Say, Mister, I hear you're lookin’ for a good horse,” Pap said.
The stranger looked up from his cards, a toothpick was resting easily in the side of his mouth. “Yeah, I’m lookin’ for one” replied the stranger, “You got one for me?” He added looking at Pap.
“I shore ‘nuff do. Got him down at the livery corral right now if you wanna see him,” Pap says.
“Okay, boys, I’m done,” the stranger said tossing his cards on the table and picking up his money. The stranger stood and walked over to Pap. “Show me” he says.
Sonny sat at the table and finished up the last portion of hot biscuit and side-meat that Miss Sarah had cooked up for him. He was really starting to feel a lot better. Haver Thomas sat in a rocker close by slowly drawing on his pipe and eyeing Sonny.
“Son, you wear that gun like you could use it. Are you a gunfighter or a bounty hunter,” asked Haver blowing smoke as he drew the pipe from his mouth.
“No sir, none of that but I can take care of myself when I have too. My pa made sure of that early on when I was a young boy,” Sonny replied.
“Mind if I take a look at that Colt?” Haver Thomas asked pointing at Sonny’s holster. Sonny slipped the loop off the hammer and offered the pistol butt first to Haver.
Thomas took the Colt into his hands and began to work the action, check the play on the cylinder rotation and generally look it over.
“This is some very nice work here flattening out this hammer. You a fanner, are ya, son?” Haver Thomas asked gesturing toward the flatten hammer on the Colt.
“Yes sir,” Sonny replied, “my pa did that work for me and taught me to shoot that way. Between his teaching and my time in the war, I have gotten pretty comfortable with that old Colt. You handle that pistol like you have been around a few guns yourself Mr. Thomas,” Sonny added.
“That’s cause he’s a gunsmith,” chimed in Sara as she picked things up around the table. “Pa’s got a shop in Hookerville that he opens up three or four days a week, “ Sarah added. “We’ll show you around it when we get into town.”
“I’d like that” Sonny said grinning at Sarah and thinking about what a beautiful young lady she was. “We best get movin’” Thomas said handing the Colt back to Sonny. “If you are gonna find your horse, we need to get on into town,” Haver Thomas said motioning everyone toward the door.
“He looks pretty good from here,” said the stranger peering through the board fence of the corral.
“Aw that’s a damn fine horse, I tell Mr., Mr.…well I don’t reckon I caught your name,” said Pap.
“Jake Plow” replied the stranger.
“What brings you out this way, Mr. Plow?”, Pap quickly shot back.
“I’m a bounty hunter, been tracking a fella named McGraw for weeks now. I had just about caught up with him when my horse picked up that stone and went lame. I have to ride hard to find him again,” said Plow. Plow reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a folded wanted poster with the information on McGraw.
“He a pretty tough hombre?”, asked Lil Un’ from up on the fence.
“Yep, he’s a tough one all right but that never stopped me, I’ve seen tougher,” replied Plow, “Now let’s get down to business, how much do you want for the horse?” added Plow.
Haver Thomas drove the horse and wagon with Sarah upon the seat beside him. Sonny rode in the back of the wagon resting himself against the back of the seat. He had to find Tramp or otherwise he would not have a clue as to who bushwhacked him. He knew Tramp had not gone along without a fight, he was too smart for that and too dedicated to Sonny to leave his side voluntarily. Tramp never had to be tied or hobbled when Sonny stepped off his back. That horse was as good a friend as a man could have and Sonny owed it to him to track down the person who took him. Finding Tramp would be his purpose until it was fulfilled.
Haver Thomas stopped the wagon in front of the livery stable in Hookerville. He climbed down and went to find Jack, the stableman. Sonny helped Miss Sarah down off the right side of the wagon. She quickly announced that she was heading over to the General Store and would meet Sonny and her father there a bit later. Sonny tied the horse to the rail and walked inside the barn to find Haver.
“Jack, this here’s Sonny Wilkes,” Haver Thomas said motioning in Sonny’s direction. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let him have use of my “Scrap” that ol’ saddle horse of mine,” Haver added. “Sonny, here, got bushwhacked out on the trail a couple days back. They took his money and his horse. He’s lookin’ for them now.”
Jack eyed Sonny, smiled and nodded and then said, “That’s odd, there was three fellas, an old man and two boys, come in here a couple days back leading a horse with no saddle. It was a nice horse too, roan color with a blaze face and stocking feet. They was a lookin’ for a buyer. I steered them to a fella that had come in the day before with a lame mount. He bought the horse off of them yesterday afternoon.”
“That would be my horse, Tramp,” Sonny said excited that he was on the trail now. “Where would I find this man who bought the horse?” Sonny asked eyeing Jack for an answer.
“They all rode out right after they made the deal,” Jack says. “The old man and the boys left first heading west out of town. About an hour or so later, that other fella saddled the horse and rode out. The horse was giving him a lot of trouble all the time, kicking and biting a bit. That is one head-strong animal. The fella finally got on him but I don’t know how long it will be before that horse throws ‘em,” laughed Jack making a bucking motion with his hand.
“Jack, can you saddle that horse for me, I need to ride?” Sonny said. “Mr. Thomas, I’ll need to pick up a little trail grub and some cartridges for my Colt if you’d be so good as to extend me a little credit,” Sonny added looking at Thomas for approval.
“There ain’t nothin’ I’d like better, son” Haver quickly replied.
The moon was full illuminating the area along the creek bank. Pap and the boys peered through the brush at the lone man sitting by a small fire near the creek.
“That’s probably that ol’ McGraw fella that Plow is a lookin’ fer” Pap whispered to the boys. “This could be a real good deal for us, boys. We’ll bushwhack this fella just as soon as he beds down for the night. Then we’ll clean him out, hog-tie ‘em to his saddle and take him back to Jacksboro for the reward. That’d be $500 in our pocket and it’s good either dead or alive best I remember from that poster,” Pap whispers grinning at the boys.
“This guy might kill us Pap,” Twig cautioned, “And if he don’t that Plow fella sure as hell will. Maybe we just need to move on. Heck, we got that $60 for the horse,” Twig added.
“We ain’t doin’ that!” Pap snapped, “This is easy pickin’ boy and I aim to take it. Now, let’s get movin’ with our plan.
Jake Plow had stopped for the night and bedded down himself. The trail was getting cold and all those extra hoof prints on top of the ones that he had been following was a pretty good indications that old man and those two fool boys were on the same trail. They were going for his bounty. Plow didn’t care much for men who profited off his hard work. McGraw was his and he aimed to collect the money if he had to kill the three of them to do it. Plow pulled his hat over his eyes and leaned back on his saddle for some sleep. His last thought before falling asleep was how difficult it was going to be to get this saddle back on that wild-ass horse in the morning.
As Jake Plow slept hidden by the rocks and brush, Sonny Wilkes rode through slowly following the same tracks that Plow had seen earlier in the day. The moonlight helped but it really was not as good as it would be tracking during the day. After passing the point at which Plow had left the trail to camp, Sonny began to notice there was one less set of tracks following the wagon path he was on. Somebody had dropped out and it only made sense that it would be the man who had bought Tramp. But where did he go?
Sonny could not pick up a lone trail in the moonlight with the high grass lining the wagon road. For now, he would have to continue following the tracks he had and hope that somehow it would lead him to Tramp. By the position of the moon, Sonny figured it was nearing midnight. If he was going to be fresh for the trail tomorrow, then he needed to get serious about bedding down himself. He spotted an area with rocks on three sides that would offer both security and shelter for the night. He rode off in that direction ready for some sleep.
A light rain fell in the night causing Sonny to move further into the rocks for shelter. This cost him his chance to possibly spot the bounty hunter, Jake Plow, as Plow took to the trail at daybreak. The rain has washed away the hoof prints from yesterday’s trail but Plow was fairly certain the old farmer and his boys were following the wagon road. He would continue on and try to close the distance before these idiots caught up with his bounty. He bumped Tramp with his spurs and it was quickly answered with a light buck. Plow already hated this half-ass wild horse that old man had sold him. If he had not put so much money into him, he had entertained thoughts of shooting him right here on the trail and taking to foot.
Pap and the two boys hid in the brush near the creek out of sight but near McGraw’s campsite. Pap motioned for the boys to begin moving in opposite directions so they could converge on him from three directions. Pap didn’t care if this one saw their faces for they were working a bounty and not a bushwhack. Finally, once everyone was in position, Pap waved his hand and they all advanced forward on the outlaw who was sleeping soundly there unaware that trouble was on its way.
As Pap reached a point a few steps shy of McGraw’s position, the outlaw spun around on the ground with his pistol aimed at Pap’s head. “What are ya doin’ sneakin’ round here like that, old man? McGraw growled as he sat up on one knee still keeping the gun aimed at Pap.
“Sorry stranger,” Pap replied, “I don’t mean ya no harm. My horse went lame a mile or so back and I was just looking for a place to ford the creek.”
As Pap babbled his reply Twig rushed up behind McGraw and slammed him in the head with a rifle butt. As the outlaw fell face-first into the prairie dirt his pistol fired into the ground.
“All right boys that was a close one” said Pap. “Now you boys get some rope and let's hog-tie this varmint so we can get him on a horse and into town to collect that money,” Pap added motioning to boys toward the rope on McGraw’s saddle horn.
Jake Plow reined up as he heard the gun fire in the distance. He must be close he thought and begin to think about how he would deal with McGraw and these other three if they were all together. If there was gun play, someone was bound to get killed. He didn’t know about those three idiots but McGraw was a fair gun-hand. Jake did not plan on being the dead man in the bunch so he figured that he had to catch them by surprise and get the drop on them. Then, he’d tie up the three and take McGraw on to town for the reward money.
Sonny awoke to the sound of the distant gun-shot echoing off the rocks. He quickly pulled things together and mounted his horse and headed back to the trail. As he rode out on the wagon path, he noticed that the rain had washed away the trail but there was a new set of tracks with the leading edge digging heavily into the rain-soaked ground as if the horse was in a fast trot. He dismounted and examined the tracks closely. There, sure enough, on one of the tracks in the left outside edge was an “X” which Sonny had the blacksmith etched deeply into shoe. Whoever had ridden through here this morning was riding Tramp. There was no doubt. Sonny remounted quickly and spurred the horse into a run down the wagon trail.
As Jake Plow rode Tramp around the edge of the brush field, he spotted the old man and his boys huddled over something down by the creek. Plow rode toward them with Tramp in a run. Twig saw him first, turned and pulled his old army pistol to fire. Plow fired his pistol first landing his shot into Twig’s right shoulder causing him to drop his pistol and spin to the ground crying in pain.
Pap and Lil’ Un were both going for their guns as Plow closed the distance. “Pull those hog legs, Sod-Buster and you have breathed you last” Plow yelled with his pistol aimed directly at Pap’s head. He slowly rode up near them and saw McGraw hog-tied on the ground.
Plow had to laugh as he said, “McGraw, you are one stupid bastard letting these tinhorns catch ya. Hell, you ought to hang just for being so stupid.” McGraw could only raise a groan as the pain pounded in his head from the collision with the rifle butt.
“Now get him up and put him on one of your saddled horses,” Plow instructed as he motioned with his pistol. Pap and Lil Un began to do as they were told and picked the groaning McGraw up off the ground.
Sonny had heard the second gun shot which sounded much closer now and seemed to be just on the other side of that thicket down a ways. He spurred his horse over to the thicket, dismounted and began to work his way through toward the voices he could now hear. As he neared the clearing on the other side, he spotted a man sitting atop Tramp and holding a gun on two others who were attempting to lift a man with his arms tied up on a horse. Everyone seemed caught up in this process and Sonny felt this was the best opportunity he would have against these odds. He stepped out from the thicket and positioned himself so that he would have a clear shot at everyone.
“Hold up there!” Sonny yelled as he posed his gloved hand within easy cross reach of the Colt.
Jack Plow spun Tramp half around to face Sonny and for a moment they all stared at each other. “Who the hell are you and what business is this of yours? Yelled Plow in Sonny’s direction.
“Name’s Sonny Wilkes and that’d be my horse you’re riding” Sonny replied nodding toward Tramp.
“This ain’t your damn horse boy. I paid good money for him. Now I advise you to move along if you want to keep living. I’m Jake Plow. I’m a bounty hunter and I don’t mind killing folks who get in the way of my business.” Plow yelled holding up his pistol.
“That’s my horse, Mister. Now you can climb down off of him. I’ll take him and go my way. Or, if you insist on doing this the hard way, I’ll shoot you right out of that saddle where you sit. You choose how it’s gonna play out, Plow! Sonny snapped back.
“I got help here boy, you’d be a fool to take us all on, “ Plow warned.
“Then call me a fool while you watch each other die because if it comes down to it Plow, that horse you are sitting on will get all three of ya killed” Sonny said as he held his ground.
Plow glanced toward Pap and the boy, then back in Sonny’s direction. As he raised his pistol, the Colt seemed to leap into Sonny’s hand from its rest in the loop. Sonny’s gloved left hand ripped across the flat hammer sending hot lead straight into Plow’s heart before he could get off the shot. The shot lifted Plow out of the saddle and rolled him off Tramp’s back and on to the ground. Sonny stood still with the Colt pointed in the direction of Pap and Lil’Un ready to fan both of them into their graves at the slightest flinch. Both of them quickly raised their hands high into the air. Sonny whistled and called Tramp’s name and the horse quickly moved to his side.
Haver Thomas was standing in front of the Harkins General Store loading supplies into the wagon when he first saw Sonny riding down the main street with four men tied to their saddles and one tied across the saddle. Sonny rode up by the wagon and stopped smiling at Haver Thomas.
“I got my horse back, Mr. Haver,” Sonny said.
Haver Thomas laughed and said, “By God, you sure as hell did boy, you sure as hell did.” Both of them enjoyed the laugh.
“Mr. Wilkes” said Sarah Haver as she emerged from the store arms full of packages. “Mr. Wilkes, I was just telling my daddy how nice it would be to have you back out to the house for some of my hot biscuits. Do you think you could join us for supper?” Sarah added with a smile.
Sonny tipped his hat in Sarah’s direction and with a smile said, “I’d be a fool to turn down hot biscuits from a pretty young lady like you, maam!” Then Sonny and Haver looked at each other and laughed again.
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