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Ambush at Waco Bluffs
By: Wayne Brown
The black H2 Hummer sped down the winding two-lane highway southbound. A red canoe was strapped to the roof rack beside a large bundle covered by a tarp. Rick Bolton steered the SUV looking along the road for his turn. He should be very close now. Jim Hanson sat in the passenger seat busying his self checking the camera gear from the bag sitting between his feet in the floorboard area.
“We’re close Jim, there’s the mailbox with the big flower on it” Rick said. “It should be here on the right”. A sign came into view on the right shoulder of the road. The sign read “Brazos River Boat Launch – 1 Mile” with an arrow pointing to the right. “That’s it” Rick said pointing to the sign. He slowed the Hummer and made the turn heading toward the river.
Arriving at the boat launch, Rick saw an old house and a couple of junk cars scattered about. This place really had a professional look, Rick thought as he brought the Hummer to a stop in front of the old house.
Jim looked over at Rick and asked, “You think they got a restaurant here at the launch, Rick?” and laughed out loud as Rick frowned. Both of the men got out of the vehicle as a man in a frayed straw hat came out on to the front porch of the old house.
“Ya’ll the fellers from that Bolton Photographer place?” the man asked as he stood on the porch in a pair of worn overalls with no shirt.
Rick nodded his agreement, “Yes, we are from Bolton Photography. We have a commercial job up the river a ways to shoot a few pictures for our client. We need to launch our canoe and leave our vehicle here until we return in a couple of days.” Rick replied.
“Aw right then, we can fix you up. That’ll be $125 right now in cash please” came the response from the overall man. Rick winched,
“125 dollars, for what?” he shot back.
“That’d be $25 to launch yore’ boat and $100 to watch that fancy vehicle thar’ you’s a drivin’. Ya wouldn’t want nothin’ to happen to that, would ya?" He asked.
Rick said, “Okay, I get it. I’ll give ya the money. But I’m telling you, this vehicle better be just like we left it when I return. Now show me where you want to park it.” Overall man pointed around to the side of the house. Rick pulled his wallet and counted out the money and handed it up to the grinning man who stared down at his wallet.
After unloading the canoe and the gear at the launch, Rick left it with Jim and drove the Hummer up by the house and locked it up. As he arrived back at the launch, Jim had sorted the gear into the canoe and covered it with the tarp.
“Okay, Jim. Hopefully we won’t have to pay too many more fees as we go up the river. If we do, we may need an ATM machine. You know what they say, there’s plenty of banks on the river but no ATM’s” Rick joked. Jim laughed out loud.
“Pretty good, Rick, a pretty good one” Jim said.
“Anytime you’re ready, Jim, I’m game to go” Rick replied with a smile. Jim was a photographer but he also worked on the side as a canoe trainer and river guide. Rick was really glad to have him along on this trip. He could concentrate on the photography instead of worrying about surviving on the river. Two nights in the Texas wilds of the Brazos River was a roughing it for Rick. Rick climbed into the front seat of the canoe as Jim pushed them off the launch and turned the canoe up river.
The old man in the overalls sat at the table counting out the money that he just collected. “That old boy had a good bit more cash in that wallet of his, Junior” he said as he laid the last bill on the table.
Junior grinned. “We gonna git it, Pappy?”
“Ya bet you’re sweet ass we are, boy!” Pappy shouted. “Them bastards is tin-horns from the city. It will be easy pickin’ just like when them investors was up here last year. We gonna make us some money, again boy” Pappy grinned pushing a twenty dollar bill across the table for Junior.
Junior’s eyes lit up and he said, “We shore is Pappy, we shore is!”
Jim and Rick paddled the canoe in rhythm navigating up the river channel. The river was dotted with tree snags that sent the water spinning in swirls in the currents of the channel.
“Jim, we’ll work our way up the river and look for a place to camp near the site for the photo shots. The site that we are working has quite a bit of erosion issues from the currents. The contract I am working is with the State. I have to photo an area up the river a ways called “Waco Bluffs”. The river snakes through some hills in that area and the banks are high. When it rains, the water rises and erodes the soil in the river curves. The Corp of Engineers is planning some type of project that will help to slow that process. They want detailed photos of the area showing the various damages for the environmental work. I would rather shoot it in the morning light tomorrow to reduce the shadows if we can work it out. I have added a second day on the itinerary so we have a second morning if we need it,” Rick explained as they paddled the channel.
“That should work, Rick. We just need to find a good area along the bank for our camp. We should be able to do that” Jim said as he slipped his paddle in the water to rudder the canoe to the right.
Pappy poured another shot of the Jim Beam whiskey into the stained coffee cup. He eyed the map of the river area while gathering his thoughts for the plan. Junior picked up the bottle of Beam, twisted off the top and drank from the bottle.
“Get your nasty ass mouth off my bottle, Junior” Pappy snapped. “I gave you twenty dollars this morning so you can buy your own damn whiskey. Keep yo’ tongue out mine, ya hear?” He added.
“Yes sir Pappy, I’s just feelin’ a little dry. I’ll pick some up tonight when I go to town” Junior replied. Junior leaned down to look at the map. Pappy was marking some spots up the river in the bluffs.
“They’s headed up river when they left, Junior. I am guessin’ they will be up there around the bluffs in the high banks area. We’re gonna need your cousin, Claude, to help us out for sure.” Pappy stopped and slurped some of the Beam from the cup and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You tell Claude not to use any guns. Bring that crossbow of his. We need to be quiet. We don’t want that sheriff back down here again askin’ questions like the last time.
Junior nodded as he grabbed a glass to pour more whiskey. Pappy watched and grinned. “Damn it, Junior, you better buy me another bottle too when you go down ‘nar tonight. Now lean in here and let me show you how this is gonna work” Pappy ordered.
Rick checked the GPS that he had plugged the coordinates of Waco Bluffs into the previous evening. The small hand-held device did not provide much detail but at least he would know when they were at the correct spot. By the looks of the position now, they had maybe another two miles to go up river before they got into the high banks.
“We could have parked up river and then packed in, Jim, but I didn’t see any way to get down those bluffs and get in the water from up there. Besides that, I didn’t like the idea of packing all this stuff and a canoe through the woods” Rick said.
“I think this is the best way, Rick. We can enjoy some time on the river and get the work done at the same time. Hey, look up over there on the right side, there’s a sand bar and a small inlet out of the current. That looks like a good camp site for us, Rick. What do you think?” Jim said pointing to the spot along the west bank of the river. Rick nodded his head in agreement and the two began paddling in the direction of the sandbar.
Junior opened the front door of the old house and entered with both arms full of bags. Cousin Claude followed holding another bag on his left arm and the crossbow in his right hand. Claude was a short, chubby man sporting a green John Deere cap. He was long overdue for a haircut and his face had not seen a razor in days.
“What ye’ got cookin’, Pappy? We gonna make us some more money?” Claude asked as he set the bag on the table.
Before Pappy could answer Junior chimed in “I got the stuff you wanted, Pappy. I got the chain and cinder blocks from Home Depot and I got you a new bottle of Beam from the liquor store."
Pappy nodded and turned to Claude. “We’s got us a couple of boys headed up river, Claude. I thank they may have a little money on them and some equipment we can probably sell once thangs cool off. I’m gonna need you to take that crossbow of yours and go up along Waco Bluffs and see if you can get a position above them to shoot. If you can take them out with the bow, we don’t risk any gun fire. Once we kill ‘em. Junior and I will wrap some of this here loggin’ chain around them and hook ‘em up to a couple of cinder blocks. We’ll dump ‘em in the deep water right up thar at the bluffs. Them big catfish will strip their bones clean in no time. Junior here will knock a hole in their canoe and take it downstream from the landing here a few miles. That way, when folks start lookin’ for them, we’ll send them down river. Once they find that canoe, they’ll never think to look up at the bluffs too much” Pappy said as he pointed at the map and showed Claude the plan. “Now, we’ll let them settle in tonight and then we’ll try to catch them on the river early tomorrow. By tomorrow night, we ought to be splittin’ the money we can take off of them” Pappy added.
“Sounds like a plan, Pappy. We’ll chain ‘em under just like this last guys, huh?” Claude replied smiling as he stared at his crossbow.
The red canoe lay well out of the water upon the sandbar. Jim and Rick had unloaded the gear, set up a tent, and now had a fire going.
“I hope you like hot Spam sandwiches, Jim” Rick laughed. “I had to pack in all this camera gear for the shoot. I even have a wet suit if I have to get in the water for some shots.” Rick pulled a can of Spam and a loaf of bread from one of the packs and began working on the sandwiches.
Jim says “You really know how to rough it, Rick, is it true that stuff is full of pig lips?” Jim laughed at the thought of surviving on Spam for the next couple of days.
“No sir, it’s made completely from snouts, 100% pure snout” Rick shot back and grinned.
“How much further up the river is it to the bluffs, Rick?” Jim asked as he laid out the sleeping bags in the tent.
“It’s probably a mile or so. They said we’d easily spot the area with the high banks in the curve of the river. I’ve got it in the GPS. We’ll try to get up there just after sunrise tomorrow so we can work the morning light. If that doesn’t work out, then we still have the afternoon and tomorrow morning as a backup” Rick added. “Now come on over here and get a sandwich, Jim!” Rick laughed holding out the two pieces of bread wrapped around the slice of Spam he had heated over the flames.
“It would go down better with a beer” Jim laughed taking the sandwich from Rick.
As Rick roused from sleep in the first light of the new morning, he noticed the dead stillness that wrapped the river and the surrounding area. Even the water appeared to be standing in one place with its early morning glassy surface beginning to reflect the light of the day. Somewhere in the distance a woodpecker hammered his rat-a-tat-tat out on a tree trunk seeming to stop here and there to listen for a reply or catch his breathe. Rick crawled out of the sleeping bag and glanced over in Jim’s direction seeing that he too was beginning to wake. Rick went over to the fire and stirred the coals. He added some leaves and small branches to catch a flame from the embers. He silently wondered if warm Spam would make for a good breakfast.
Pappy watched as Junior backed the boat trailer down the launch. They would be heading up river in a camouflaged 14’ aluminum flat-bottom boat. It was a basic fishing rig with a 25-horsepower Johnson outboard on the back and a battery-operated trolling motor on the front. Pappy used the rig for outings like this but not much for fishing anymore. He grinned as the thought occurred to him that what they were doing might be a form of fishing. It was in his mind anyway.
Junior tripped the winch and let the boat slide into the water holding on to a rope attached to the front. Pappy headed back over to the house to get a few things and another drink of whiskey. He hoped cousin Claude was headed over to the bluffs by now and in position. If it all worked out he and Junior would get up river just in time to dispose of the bodies and then roll up their camp. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel Pappy thought.
“I think we have everything in the canoe now, Rick” Jim said surveying the bundles that he had secured in the middle seat.
Rick emerged from the tent carrying a rolled blanket and wearing his wet suit looking somewhat like a diver without his fins. “Good” Rick says “I’ve got a couple other things here we might need.” He rolled the blanket out on the ground exposing a .38 cal. Pistol, a sawed-off shotgun, a machete, and some binoculars.
Jim looked up at Rick and asked “Are you expecting trouble?”
Rick grinned and replied “No, but there could be some snakes or maybe even gators that might want to tangle with us. I thought it would be good to be ready for them.” Jim laughed and then rolled his eyes.
“Let’s get moving, Jim” Rick said slapping Jim on the shoulder.
Claude hid in the brush that was thick in spots along the upper edge of the bluffs looking down on the river. He knew this spot well. As young boys, he and Junior had come here often to play and sometimes to swim in the river when the water was warm. He always wanted to dive off the bluffs into the river but was afraid that he would hit a tree snag or something else concealed by the murky water. Claude took an arrow from the pouch that he wore around his waist and carefully began to place it into the firing mechanism of the crossbow. The arrows had four-bladed razor-heads on the tips. They would cut through just about anything made of soft tissue. If they found the right spot, they would kill a man faster than he could fall to the ground.
Claude had hunted turkey and wild hogs with the crossbow and considered that he was a pretty fair shot with it. One thing for sure, it made very little noise so the element of surprise should be on his side. He should be able to shoot the first guy and then reload and get the second one as he was still staring in shock at his dead friend. Claude was counting on it playing out that way. Claude had no problems killing folks he didn’t know especially if it put a little jingle in his pockets and he didn’t get caught.
Pappy came walking down from the house to the landing. Junior had already loaded the chain and cinder blocks into the center section of the boat. He sat in the back with the Johnson running waiting for Pappy to climb into the front seat.
“Okay, boy, we’ll run the motor until we get a couple miles out and then we’ll go to the trolling motor so we can run quiet as we come into the bends at the bluffs. If yore’ cousin does his part right, we should have two dead fellers there in their boat. We’ll empty their pockets, take the valuables that we can sell and then chain up with the blocks. They’ll be on the bottom of the river and getting’ drug by the currents afore we head back down river. Then we’ll find the place they camped and ransack it. You got to get all that in the canoe and tie it behind our boat. Once we get back down to the landing, you take the canoe down river and knock a hole in it so’s it will sank. Claude’s gonna meet us back at the house tonight for the split."
Junior nodded and steered the Johnson to stay in the middle of the channel.
The red canoe cut through the water with minimal disturbance of the surface as it rounded the first bend and headed into the area of the river called Waco Bluffs. The river banks now towered above the two men in the canoe. The bluffs had a white glow to them probably coming off of the large deposits of limestone in the soils of this area. Rick thought them quite pleasing to the eye in the morning sunlight. He pointed to an area along the bluffs that had some obvious erosion damage that was easily seen even from where they were currently positioned in the river. He consulted his notes and confirmed this was one of the areas that he needed to photograph. Rick motioned to Jim to steer the canoe in the direction of the eroded bluff bases. Jim slide his paddle into the water and ruddered in that direction.
Arriving near the bluffs, Rick reached out and grabbed a wood snag sticking up in the water. The vegetation grew in pockets up the face of the bluffs and was quite large in spots hanging out over the water and forming pockets of shade below. He signaled to Jim to paddle in a little closer and began to dig in the packs for the camera equipment that he would need for the first shoots. Jim slid the canoe to a stop just short of one of the shaded areas created by the overhanging vegetation. Rick perused the eroded surfaces of the bluff at the waterline and began to shoot photos using a 35 mm camera equipped with a telephoto lens. He would be able to zoom in for closer shots without having to ask Jim to move the canoe for him. Jim was using his paddle to steady the canoe against the currents and give Rick a reasonably steady working platform.
Rick turned to his right and zoomed the lens in close for a tight shot of some damage along the waterline. A sizzling-like sound broke the air behind him and Jim let out a scream writhing in pain in the back of the canoe. Rick turned to see Jim holding his upper leg with a razorhead arrow driven completely through the large muscles mass. Jim let out another scream as another arrow broke the surface of the water beside the canoe. Instinctively, Rick dived into the water, submerged, and began to swim to the rear area of the canoe. Once he was there, he surfaced and began kicking as he held to the rear of the canoe and shoved it toward the cover of the overgrowth extending from the bluff. Jim was quiet now. He must have lost consciousness Rick thought to himself as his mind frantically searched the files trying to figure out what was going on. He had to stop and think. His next moves could be critical. They could mean life or death if the shooter was serious about his work. Considering that arrow struck Jim, he could not take a chance on it being an accidental shot.
Working from the concealment of the overhanging growth, Rick worked his way around the edge of the canoe and reached over the edge and felt for the bag containing the guns. The shotgun was loaded with slugs and it would be far more accurate than the pistol he decided. Finally, he felt the shotgun at his fingertips, locked his hand around it and pulled it over the edge. Rick then worked his way to the rear of the canoe and tried to check on Jim’s condition. Jim was still out and Rick could see the blood flowing from around the wound. He could not stay here long otherwise Jim might be a goner. He had to work his way out of this situation. Where was that shooter? He looked at the arrow in Jim’s leg. It was pointing almost straight up. The shooter had to be up on the bluffs. That would be the reason there had been no further shoots. They were concealed the by the vegetation. If he was getting out of here any time soon, he needed to shut down the shooter. Rick laid the shotgun back into the canoe, reached up and grabbed Jim and pulled his shirt over his head and off. He grabbed the shotgun once again. He had a plan. If it worked he would get a chance at the shooter. If it did not, well, he didn’t want to think about that outcome.
Rick left the canoe and slowly worked his way to the edge of the shaded water careful not to expose himself. He took a deep breath and tossed Jim’s shirt out toward an area of the water illuminated by the sun. At the same time he swam further out in the other direction also leaving the shade. As the shirt hit the water, Rick saw the shooter step forward at the edge of the bluff and let an arrow go. Rick raised the shotgun and fired. The shooter froze briefly and then went head over off the bluff falling toward the water with the crossbow in still in hand. Rick breathed a sigh of relief and quickly swam back toward the canoe with the shotgun. He needed to reload that barrel and make sure this guy was down.
Pappy stood up in the front of the boat when he heard the report of the shotgun. The bluffs were just around the next bend. Them boys couldn’t be far away as he had just spotted their camp site as they moved up the river. He signaled to Junior to shut the motor down.
“Damn it, Junior, if that stupid bastard cousin of yours is usin’ a gun again, I will break his damn fool neck." Pappy never gave any thought to his victims having a gun. No one had so far. “Let me get this trolling motor in the water and we will ease up to the bluffs quietly. We need to move our ass. Somebody might have heard that shot and called the sheriff again” Pappy said as he put the trolling motor in motion with the foot control.
Rick pulled the canoe further back into the covering shade of the overhead vegetation. He could see light coming in through a hole in the bushy canopy. That must be where the shooter came through as he fell into the water Rick thought. He pulled the canoe along behind him now as he held on to the front. Nearing the walls of the bluffs, Rick spotted the body floating face down in the water. Blood was already staining the water around it. The cross bow floated by one of the outstretched arms. Rick placed the shotgun back in the canoe, pulled out the machete, and began to swim toward the body. There was a rock outcrop below the water here near the bluffs and Rick could actually stand up in the water.
There was no fight left in this guy, he was dead. Immediately Rick began to wonder if this guy might have help somewhere around. After all, even if he had killed them, there was no way down off that bluff. Rick turned in the water to look backward as he heard Jim let out a moan. Off in the distance he could see two men in a boat coming in their direction. That would be the help, he thought, I better come up with something quick or we’re surely dead.
Pappy spotted the canoe sitting in the shaded water near the bluffs. There was one of the guys slumped over in it. The other one must have gone down in the water after Claude shot him Pappy thought.
“Okay, Junior, get that old shotgun from the floorboard and keep yore eyes peeled. Shoot anything that moves even if it is that shit-head cousin of yours” Pappy ordered.
Junior grabbed the old single-shot shotgun and stood up in the back of the boat and began the scan the area. Pappy advanced the trolling motor slowly toward the canoe. As the boat came alongside the canoe, Pappy reach over and grabbed at Jim’s neck and pulled him toward him.
“This bastard is still alive, Junior. I’ll cut his throat with my pocket knife and finish him off” said Pappy as his left hand searched his overall pockets for the knife. Jim groaned with pain as Pappy pulled his head back.
Rick raised up from behind the floating body with the crossbow at ready. He took aim and fired hitting Pappy squarely in the throat with the razor sharp arrow. Pappy threw up his arms in surprise and grabbed at his bloody, torn throat but could only make a gurgling sound as he keeled over into the river water.
Rick dived under the water for concealment and began to work his way toward the boat. He could see the bottom both vessels as he swam slowly through the murky waters. He had to get to Jim quickly.
Junior was in a panic. Pappy floated bloody in the water. There was another body over near the bluffs floating facedown.
"What the hell," Junior thought, had Claude shot Pappy by mistake? It was his last living thought as Rick rose up from the Johnson outboard behind him and shoved the machete completely through his midsection cutting his heart in half. Junior tumbled into the water landing across the bloody body of Pappy.
Rick stood beside Jim’s bed in the Waco, Texas Memorial Hospital. Jim’s left leg was heavily bandaged and in a sling suspension. Jim was just finishing off a cup of ice cream that had come with his noon meal.
“I guess you’ll be off of that leg a while, huh Jim” Rick said already knowing the answer.
“Yep, I hope you got some good insurance to cover me Rick” Jim laughed licking the plastic ice cream spoon for the last bit of ice cream.
Rick smiled. “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you, Jim” Rick said.
“What’s that?” Jim asked “Gimme the good stuff first will ya please.” He added. “Okay, well the good news is that I want you to be my partner in the business, I am going to make you a deal that you cannot refuse. I owe you that.”
Jim smiled and said “Well, I’ll sure as hell take you up on it but what’s the bad news?”
Rick smiled again and said, “Our first job is shooting Waco Bluffs”. They both laughed out loud and shook hands.