The sun beat down from the south Texas sky. Neal Cotta couldn’t imagine Hell being any hotter. In Neal’s opinion the mesquite which littered the plain was the devils version of the burning bush.
Neal Cotta was the owner of the Bar-T Ranch. He had trailed cattle to Wichita for more than ten years. His crew was an efficient unit. When it came to trailing cattle there was no better bunch in all of Texas.
Neal was proud of the fact that he had never lost a man while on the trail. Then tragedy struck in the form of a freak storm. Two of his most experienced cowboys were killed. Neal was forced to go to Laredo to hire replacements.
In Laredo Neal found two men. One looked crazier than a horned toad and the other was not yet a man; just a boy of sixteen. The boy seemed like a good kid, but Neal wondered about his toughness. The trail between Laredo and San Antonio was no picnic. They would find out about the kids toughness soon enough. Riding through the mesquite of south Texas was indeed like riding through Hell.
The excitement of the trip still hadn’t worn off for Paul Wagner. Pushing a couple hundred head of cattle through the mesquite was just part of the adventure.
They had been on the trail for a week. Progress was slow. Paul knew that the crew wasn’t more than a hard day’s ride from Laredo. Paul had been to San Antonio and knew the landmarks. Paul’s father owned the general store in Laredo and traveled to San Antonio once a month for supplies. Sometimes Paul was allowed to ride along.
Paul was living his dream, his only dream. To be a cowboy was the most Paul had ever hoped for. Paul’s uncle Richard, who had been killed in the war, had been a cowboy. Uncle Richard was a heroic figure, but even Richard had never trailed a herd to Kansas.
Paul was on the drags. He rode spotted pony named Chester. Paul and Chester were working hard to keep the slower cattle from getting separated from the herd. Johnny Bartle was supposed to be helping on the drags, but Paul hadn’t seen Johnny for the better part of an hour.
Paul held the reins in one hand and a knotted leather strap in the other. Mostly he just waved the strap; an action that was usually sufficient to keep the cattle moving. Occasionally Paul would have to slap an exceptionally lazy cow on the rump. He was just about to deal with one such beast when a shot rang out.
The whole herd seemed to flinch at the sound of the shot. A second shot followed and the herd broke into a dead run. All except the one lazy cow that stood looking at Paul as if to say “What are you going to do now cowboy?”
Paul hesitated only for a moment. His responsibility was clearly to help stop the stampede. He cursed the lazy cow; then raced off to catch up with the running herd.
Just as Chester was getting up to full speed Paul noticed a rider heading south; back toward Laredo. The rider looked like Johnny Bartle but the distance was too great for Paul to be sure.
In the south Texas heat it didn’t take long for the cattle to run themselves out. After a half mile or so the herd began to slow down. It took an hour for the cowboys to get the longhorns back into a tight formation.
Paul started to go back for the lazy cow he had left behind when Mr. Cotta, the range boss rode up on a gray stallion. Mr. Cotta had his hand on his gun. “Where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Cotta asked in a deadly serious tone.
Mr. Cotta’s demeanor was unexpected and somewhat freighting. “I was just going back for a cow that didn’t follow the stampede.” Paul answered, half expecting to be shot off his horse.
“You’re sure you’re not running off to join you’re pal?” Cotta hissed.
Paul was caught off guard he had only been with the crew for a week and although he admired several of the cowboys he had no one he considered his pal. “Mr. Cotta, have I done something wrong?”Paul asked.
The range boss seemed to relax a little and took his hand away from his gun. “Johnny Bartle just killed Willie Hernandez. Do you know anything about it?” The news was a complete shock to Paul who started to stutter before finally spitting out a simple “No.”
Willie Hernandez was a Mexican cowboy from across the border. He and Johnny had argued the night before over cards, but Paul hadn’t thought much of it. Johnny had always been a hothead. “Me and Johnny aren’t pals Mr. Cotta. We both live in Laredo, but Johnny is a few years older than me. He has always been mean. I didn’t think he was a killer though.” Paul said.
“Half the boys saw Bartle kill Willie. I sent Jim Baker and Dan Keller after him. They have orders to hang him.”
Paul didn’t know what to say. He never cared much for Johnny Bartle, but had never wished to see Johnny hanged. Jim Baker was Mr. Cotta’s foreman and Dan Keller was once a lawman.
Mr. Cotta was still looking at Paul hard. “I have a job for you. If you feel you’re up to it?” Still stunned by the news that Johnny Bartle was a killer Paul didn’t respond to Mr. Cotta’s question. “Willie Hernandez rode with me for ten years. He had a wife and 5 children. They would want him to have a proper burial. I need someone to take his body back to Laredo and you’re our least experienced man.”
Paul didn’t remember giving Mr. Cotta an answer. Of course Paul had no choice and found himself leading a pack mule with the body of Willie Hernandez draped over its back. Mr. Cotta wrapped and tied the body in a wagon cover so Paul wouldn’t have to see Willie dead. Paul appreciated that consideration, but the fact that he was leading a dead body back through the mesquite was a fact that Paul couldn’t quite forget. It wasn’t like leading a mule loaded down with supplies from San Antonio. Paul was apprehensive and couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed. It was a spooky feeling and Paul kept Chester moving at a good pace.
Ten miles from Laredo was where Paul found the bodies of Jim Baker and Dan Keller. They had been ambushed as they rode across a gully. The possibility that Johnny Bartle was still never occurred to Paul. He picked up Jim Baker’s rifle which was lying on the ground next to his body simply because it seemed like the right thing to do.
Paul would never remember the details of the first man he killed. He knew Johnny Bartle his entire life. It wasn’t Johnny that Paul forgot, he would never forget Johnny. It was how Johnny died that Paul could never sort out. One minute Johnny was alive and then Johnny was dead and Paul was holding the rifle that killed him.
Paul didn’t remember Johnny pointing the gun, didn’t remember the snap shot that sent Johnny to Hell or the Indian that came along and helped him load all of the bodies on to horses. Paul barely remembered leading the four dead men into Laredo and the crowd that gathered to hear the story.
His explanation to the crowd was a simple one. “Johnny Bartle killed all of these men and then I killed Johnny.”
When Paul woke up in his own bed the next morning he was sure that the whole thing was just a bad dream.
The story raced across Texas like the wind and grew larger every time it was told. Within a week Paul Wagner was known as the “Laredo Kid”, a sixteen year old who had killed four men in a raging gun battle on the plains of south Texas. The story didn’t follow Paul; it beat him to where ever he went.
San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth all had men wanting to make a name for themselves. Paul was forced to either fight or die. Paul’s dream of being a cowboy was over. Like it or not he was a gunfighter.