Providence is a small town at the edge of the West Texas Badlands. It has a Christian name. But how Christian is it?
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Colonel Ben Wilkerson sat on his horse atop the low hill. To his right was a faded wooden sign reading “PROVIDENCE Pop. 1760 Welcome!” He pulled his fancy gold watch out of his pocket, checked it, and closed it. Next he scanned the town in the distance. The town was next to a lake, with fields to the north. On the west rose the mountains, with the silver mines. To the east and the south were the Texas Badlands, desert, sand, and very little water. The sole road ran roughly east to west. The railroad had not yet arrived.
“Well, Maisy, I heard this is a bad town. And the Hogan Gang came through here.” He patted the side of his horse’s neck. “Let’s ride on in and see what we have.” With that, he poked the horse, and Maisy began to walk down the hill and toward Providence, the pack mule following behind.
About thirty minutes later he entered the town and turned into the first stable he found. A middle-aged blacksmith was working at the forge. A boy, about fifteen or so, was brushing horses. A sign over the entrance read “BLACKSMITH AND BOARDING Geo. Jenkins, Prop.” Ben Wilkerson dismounted and the man approached.
“Howdy, Sir. Welcome to Providence. My name is George Jenkins, an’ that boy is my son, George Jr. Blacksmith, an’ I own an’ run the stable. How can I help you?” the smith asked.
“Ben Wilkerson. I need to board the horse and mule for a night. Get them fed and watered and a good brushing. I want to leave sometime tomorrow morning. That okay?”
“Six bits, mister. We are the best stables in town. Your stock’ll get fine care here. My boy has a way with critters,” George said, extending his right hand to seal the bargain.
“A good price,” Wilkerson answered, and gripped the man’s hand hard. The hand was strong and rough; a workingman’s hand. George gripped Wilkerson’s hand just as hard. This was a real blacksmith. Wilkerson broke the handshake and pulled a silver dollar out of his pocket, handing it to George. “Keep it all,” he said, grinning. “Just take care of my horse and mule. Now, can you tell me a good hotel and bath house in town?”
George Jenkins rubbed his chin for a minute and thought before he spoke. “Three saloons an’ hotels in town, sir. Take care of the miners when they come down from the hills. Best is Doc Winston’s. You’ll get a nice clean, quiet room. An’ he don’t water down his whiskey.” George thought for a minute more, and then he continued. “Doc Winston has honest games, too. No cheats allowed. Just straight-up cards. Ol’ Sam runs the best bathhouse. Keeps the water hot, and puts all sorts of purty smelly stuff in the tub. He’s a barber too, an’ he’ll give you a fine shave an’ haircut. His Injun wife, Pale Star, will wash your clothes while you get cleaned. Sam’s a squaw man. His wife’s Comanche. Don’t hold it ‘gainst him though. He does real good work Yep, I would go to Ol’ Sam.”
“Thanks, friend,” Ben answered. “See you late tomorrow morning for my stock.” Wilkerson turned and walked up the street, heading for Doc Winston’s hotel.
Roughly one hour later, Ben Wilkerson was soaking in perfumed water in Old Sam’s bathhouse. He had a haircut and a shave. Old Sam had completely removed his beard and trimmed his moustache neat. And the shaggy hair was gone. The colonel was starting to feel like a new man. He had a comfortable suit hanging nearby, and his trail clothes were hanging on a line outside, drying. Old Sam’s wife had washed them. He turned his head as Sam entered the room. “Mr. Sam,” Ben said. “Where is the best place to get a good steak or bit of beef?”
“Well, in my ‘pinion,” Sam answered, “stay the hell away from the hotels. The best meals served in Miss Amy’s whorehouse, last house at the edge o’ town. She has a good cook, an’ gives you a fine hunk o’ beef. An’ iffn you want lady companionship, well, Mr. Wilkerson, that is the best place. But I would go there for my dinner. Yes sir, I would.”
“Thanks,” Wilkerson answered. He stood and took the towel Sam offered him, and dried. Then he put on the suit. He looked in the mirror, and liked what he saw.
“Well, god dam now,” Old Sam said, smiling, “you are one handsome fella. Ya know, you look like my commander in the war. I served with the Fifth Texas. Colonel Benjamin Wilkerson was our colonel. Served with him at Gett-is-burg, and Cold Harbor, and Pete-is-burg, just afore the end. Under General Bobby Lee. You wouldn’t be my old colonel, now, would you, sir?”
And Sam grabbed two cigars, handing one to Ben. Wilkerson chuckled as he took the cigar. “Yes, well, I guess I am. One and the same, Sam. We were one hell of a unit. When I got back from the war, I found that my lands had been sold for taxes. Now I am just a bounty hunter. How about you? What happened to you after the war?”
“You lookin’ for the Hogan gang?” Sam asked, raising his eyebrows. “Three rode here yesterday. One had bullet in his hip. Someone said one was killed down in Plano. They beat up a whore at Miss Amy’s afore Doc Winston ran ‘em off. No way to treat a lady, even if she be a whore. No way, whore or no. Nosiree.”
“I put that bullet in his hip,” Wilkerson said. “And I killed the one in Plano. I know they have a head start, but they can’t be moving fast. One gang member is wounded. Their horses are exhausted. And they always did drink way too much. So, Sam, they won’t be moving too fast. I want to rest a bit before I finish the job. Now, tell me about you, Sam.”
“Come back from the war,” Sam said, a dreamy look entering his eyes. “Wife left me, God knows where she went. I started workin’ the small farm I had afore the war. Some cattle, some corn, some cotton. Married an Injun woman. The two of us tried to make it go, but the year of the drought hurt us real bad. Then I done found a spring, with sweet water. Just not a lot. But steady. R. J. Poteet from up in Amarilla give me a real good price on the land, so I sold out an’ bought the bathhouse. The Missus and me own an’ run it now. I ain’t rich, but it’s a good, clean living, colonel. I’m happy.”
“Good for you, Sam. I am glad things worked out for you.” Wilkerson lit his cigar, and then Sam’s. “I am going over to Miss Amy’s for a beef steak. I will pick up my clothes tomorrow before I leave.”
“Why, sure thing, colonel!” Sam answered. “See you in the mornin’.”
Colonel Wilkerson sat on his horse on the west edge of Providence, just a short distance out of the town. He looked back at Providence and smiled. “Hell of a town, Maisy,” he said to his horse. “Three saloons, four whorehouses, two banks, and not much else. And not a church in sight. Those miners must have some appetites when they come down from the mountains. They should have checked with the Lord before they named the place.”
Wilkerson turned his horse and headed in the direction of the mountains, following a well-worn trail. He was wearing the trail clothes that Mrs. Old Sam had washed. The suit was back at the hotel. He took out his fine pocket watch, popped it open, and gazed at it. Then he closed the watch and began the ride into the mountains. The mountains that contained the silver mines. They also contained the Hogans. He wanted to find those last three members of the Hogan gang.
On his second day on the trail Colonel Wilkerson found the Hogans. They were hiding in an old, half-rotted shack backed up against a rock wall. It probably was the start of a mine that had failed. The horses looked worn and tired. They had not been brushed, fed, or watered properly in days. Wilkerson found a small meadow about a mile from the shack. There was grass for his animals and a small stream with water. Wilkerson made his camp, and decided that he would move on the Hogans early the next morning. He could take his time. Infection had probably started on the wounded gang member, and the other two would be busy drinking. Wilkerson prepped his gear for the assault on the shack, and then turned in early. He wanted to be at their shack before the sun rose.
Wilkerson lay on his belly and watched the shack. He could see a glow coming from the door. It was probably a fire or a lantern. He did not see any member of the gang. But one would not be able to move.
As the sun came up, Wilkerson rolled onto his left side. He groaned. His right leg was quite swollen, and was giving him a great deal of pain. The colonel winced. Then he took a whiskey bottle from the bag at his side. The bottle no longer contained whiskey. It contained oil. The colonel popped the cork and inserted a rag. He struck a match and lit the rag. Next he stood and tossed the bottle onto the roof of the shack. The bottle broke and the oil burst into flames. Colonel Wilkerson dropped and lay on his belly, holding his Sharps carbine. He was ready.
The old shack erupted into fire. The two Hogan brothers, supporting the gang member with the wounded hip, burst out of the door and into the clearing. They stopped to catch their breath and look at the burning shack. Wilkerson, using his Sharps carbine, put a bullet into the head of the one on the left. His aim was unfailing with the carbine. The one on the right dropped the wounded man, drew his Colt, and looked around. Ben Wilkerson put a round into the center of the man’s chest. The colonel stood, walked up to the three men, and looked at them. The one with the hole in his forehead was dead. The one shot in the chest was still alive, but in bad shape. And the fellow with the hip wound was all but gone. Wilkerson drew his Colt and put the two wounded men out of their misery. He checked his watch, looking at it for a long time. Then he headed back to his horse, limping. His right leg was really hurting. He mounted Maisy and headed for his camp.
It was one day after Colonel Ben Wilkerson left Providence and headed into the mountains to pursue the Hogans. Doc Winston and Old Sam sat on their horses facing Sheriff Jimmy Hall and three other men, the posse going to aid Colonel Wilkerson. Doc Winston wore a Colt on his belt and had a Sharps rifle. Sam had a Colt and a double-barreled shotgun. All of the men were grim.
“It’s okay to be scared,” Doc Winston said to the men facing him. “I know that only two of us have ever faced down the wrong end of a gun, myself and Old Sam. But brave men get scared. A brave man faces fear, and conquers it. Now, the Hogan brothers are nasty, but they are cowards. They beat and rape women. Not even a whore deserves that. And I want you to remember something. That whore could have just as easily been your wife or daughter. Keep that in mind when you come face to face with them. Let’ s rid Texas of these bastards once and for all.”
“Plus, we gots an ‘vantage,” Sam added. “One o’ the Hogan’s is badly wounded. Colonel Wilkerson put a bullet in his hip. Won’t be able ta shoot straight. An’ their mounts, is, well, worn out. Course, mebbe the colonel got ‘em fust. Anyhow, they can’t go over the mountains. They in too bad a shape. The badlands on the other side’ll kill ‘em for sure. So, let’s us ride!”
They were about halfway up the mountains, moving slowly following trails they had found. Ol’ Joe had learned some tracking skills from his brother-in-law and had found two sets of tracks. He figured the older was the Hogans, the newer, Colonel Wilkerson. The tracks overlaid. They followed them until the tracks split, one going left and the other right. The posse decided to flip a coin to see which one to follow. They ended up following the left trail. Doc Winston reminded everyone that the Hogans were animals, and one was wounded. He warned them that a wounded animal could be a very dangerous thing.
About an hour later, the posse found the smoldering cabin with the three bodies on the ground.
“Looks like the Colonel found ‘em fust,” Old Joe said.
“Let’s bury them right here,” Doc stated. “Then we can go follow those other tracks. I bet they lead us right to Colonel Wilkerson.”
The posse traveled east, found the other tracks, and followed them directly to the meadow where Wilkerson had made his camp. Maisy and the mule were grazing. The colonel appeared to be sleeping, leaning up against a tree. The fire was cold, and had been cold for a while. The gold watch was open, resting on his chest. The posse dismounted and approached. They looked at the colonel, and it was obvious that he was not asleep. He was dead. His face was blue and a bit puffy. But his expression was one of peace.
“Dayum!” Joe shouted. “Done seen this afore.”
“What is it?” the sheriff asked.
“Rattler,” Joe stated. “The come outa the badlands sometimes, looking fur water. Prolly bit ‘im when he was sleepin’. Prolly a young rattler, not have much poison, but enough to kill. Check his legs.”
“Look at how puffed up his right leg is,” Doc replied. Doc pulled a knife from his belt and cut a long slit in the colonel’s trouser. The leg was black, and ugly. And it was swollen. “Boys, we are going to get the colonel back to Providence today. We will give him a proper burial. We won’t get back until after dark, but that is okay. First, I have to drain this leg. Boys, this is going to stink.”
One of the men picked up the watch and looked at it long and hard. “Doc, this ain’t no watch.”
Everyone looked at the watch. The upper portion contained a portrait of a handsome woman, probably in her late thirties or early forties. The lower part was a portrait of a young, teen girl. There was a family resemblance. The girl could have been the daughter of the older woman.”
“Who ya think it is, Doc?” Sam asked.
“I really don’t know,” Doc Winston answered. “Maybe his wife, or a younger sister. I really don’t know. But I know that his chasing of the Hogans was personal.”
“What makes you say that?” the sheriff asked.
“He told me that his spread was just north of Amarillo,” Doc Winston answered. “At the time the war broke out, the Hogans moved into that area. They rustled cattle and horses, burnt barns, and raped and murdered. My guess is that the Colonel’s place was not sold for taxes. My guess is that it was destroyed by the Hogans. Well, he’s gone now too. At least he got revenge.”
A day later, Colonel Wilkerson’s stock was given to the blacksmith. The colonel was buried in the town cemetery. A lay reader who lived in Providence read the scripture over him. He was buried with his watch.
“Mebbe there is some hope fur this town yet,” Old Sam said to Doc Winston after the funeral.
Doc Winston smiled and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Let’s me, you, my wife and yours, Sam, go to Miss Amy’s for a beefsteak. I’ll buy. I hear you have been telling people she has the best beef around.”
Old Sam looked sheepish, and turned away.
“I’m not offended, Sam,” Doc Winston said, grinning. “I just want to see if it’s true. And, maybe I can talk the fellow into cooking for me.”
The two couples headed out to Miss Amy’s whorehouse for some beefsteak.