Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this story of the Wild West – Texas, to be specific – which captures the essence of life back in the earlier days of America. At 89 years of age, Harry is the Elder Scribbler of Fictional Café. Keep writing, Harry!
Image credit: “Prospecting the Cattle Range,” (1889) an oil painting by Frederic Remington [public domain].
Henry Kinsey smiled inwardly, nothing to do with his fellow stagecoach passengers. They were strangers four hours ago. He was in possession of two secrets: one, today, March 15, 1843, was his twenty-third birthday. The other was Kinsey family lore handed down for four generations. He and his family agreed since the solution to the family conundrum would more likely be found in the Republic of Texas, he should begin his law career there while he searched for answers.
Raised in Madison, Mississippi, Henry was tall with square shoulders and long arms. His hair was a sandy-red, above hazel eyes and a firm chin. Women took a second look. Oh, and one passenger was not a fellow.
Texas was a new nation and a welcoming territory to begin a career. The frosting on the cake was the Texas Republic‘s program of granting land to those planning to settle. He was confident he would succeed on this developing frontier.
While traversing the eastern half of the “Neutral Strip” some called “The Badlands” the evening before, he had not experienced anxiety; but had arrived at the conclusion that the name “Badlands” was a misnomer, leading him to the intriguing question: How could nothing but outlaws cluster on a twenty-mile wide strip of undeveloped land and make a living stealing from each other? No, Texas looked like a winner. It had won its independence from Mexico, formed into a Republic, and petitioned the United States to become the 28th state.
The new Republic of Texas was laboring to find its niche among the nations of the world. Having just crossed the Sabine River at Gaines Ferry, Henry was leaving Louisiana territory and entering Texas when he noticed the marked difference in the topographies. On the Louisiana side the bottomland was low, flat, marshy, and thick with a variety of hardwoods that extended deep into Louisiana. Yet the riverbank on the Texas side immediately rose ten to twenty feet, eliminating low-lying marshy areas inclined to flood.
Traveling a deep-rutted road that had its origin as a buffalo trail centuries earlier, the stagecoach bounced with every ridge and crevice. The surface, oscillating between mud and dust, kept the driver guessing. After three hours, the two spans of mules pulling the Almanzon Huston stagecoach in a trot had just forded Palo Gaucho Creek. The creek’s water source was spring-fed and a watershed. It was a crooked creek that twisted with sharp turns as it followed the slopes of the land. This left the four passengers only eight miles from their destination, San Augustine, one of the two oldest towns in the Texas Republic.
Henry’s attitude spoke volumes. His forte was achieving success, even when at first it appeared impossible. His handshake confirmed his aggressiveness; if he initiated a project, it was all the way. He was journeying to San Augustine to complete his studies, pass the bar examination, and establish a viable law practice. Parallel to that agenda, his goal was to root out answers to the family’s secret.
Looking out the coach window, he realized he was seeing the largest, tallest, straightest long-needle pine forest he had ever seen, and it was continuing mile after mile. The pines had crowded out the hardwood trees except along the branches, creeks and rivers where the soil contained more moisture. Open and breathtakingly manicured, nature had not allowed a single thicket of undergrowth. It drew from his imagination a kingdom, and all of the king’s men assigned the duty of keeping the forest clean. Yet the dark side of his mind told him that at any time men could arrive with their sawmills and turn nature’s showplace into a fortune of money and a sea of stumps. He was sure that day was coming.
Earlier, back in Louisiana as the four passengers were loading, they had introduced themselves. The young lady was James P. Henderson’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Juliet Henderson; the tall blond man, almost as tall as Henry, was Bernard Reilly, a San Augustine merchant, and the last man to board before Henry was Burrell J. Thompson, occupation unknown. The driver was Bones Murphy, with Abe McNeely riding shotgun.
Henry, making a permanent move, was traveling with a trunk and a valise. The trunk, loaded on top of the stage by Abe, contained Henry’s lawbooks, personal items and portraits of family members. He carried items of more immediate need in the valise such as a toothbrush manufactured in England, extra clothes, and a pepperbox revolver. He kept the valise by his side.
As the coach climbed the hill coming out of the Palo Gaucho creek bottom on the west side, Henry cleared his throat and spoke: “Miss Henderson, what is your father’s profession?” Her wardrobe had already told him her father wasn’t a farmer—well, maybe a plantation owner. He was certainly surprised to see such well-manicured beauty in this frontier country. Her eyes, deep blue with specks of gold, changed intensity with the angle of the sun. Her hair, dark and wavy while scintillating with slashes of auburn and chestnut, was clasped at the nape of her neck and spilled in a disorderly manner over her shoulders. Her skin was without blemish.
Before she could answer McNeely shouted down, “We’re about to reach Smokey Dozer’s property. He’s a feisty old coot that describes himself as ‘believing in the inherent nobility of personal violence,’ whatever the hell that means, to protect his property. He didn’t want this road passing over his land, but they crossed a corner anyway, and sometimes he shoots…”
CRACK! The bullet struck the coach roof, splintering a hole just above the right door.
“That crazy bastard just shot the coach!” McNeely yelled at Bones, grabbing his smooth-bore shotgun. “Anyone hurt down there?” he shouted, leaning over and taking a glance inside. Seeing they were okay he turned to the driver. “Stop Bones, I’ll go find that sonofabitch and fill his backside with a load of puncture-perfect buckshot.”
“I can’t stop, Abe. Almanzon told me not to stop for nothing, not anyone or anything.”
“But that asshole shot at us. Nobody shoots at me that I don’t shoot back.”
“Well, be quick and shoot one through his house. I’ve already put the mules in a faster gait, now that we’ve climbed that sand hill.” McNealy growled. “Besides, look at that cloud yonder we’re headed straight at.”
“Aw, it’s too late anyhow, but I’ll remember I owe him one,” Bones declared, slipping the smooth-bore back in its rack. He leaned down again and called out, “Better hang them rain guards up—they help a little and we’re gonna be in a heavy rain in a minute or two.”
Meanwhile in San Augustine, a gully-washer was turning the town’s main street, Columbia, into an extended strip of mud. Rain spilled from an angry, swollen, black cloud, as if from an overturned ocean, drenching the wooden walkways, banging against the tin roofs, and sliding down the glass windows.
As the coach arrived in San Augustine and Kinsey was unloading, James P. Henderson, there to pick up his daughter, spotted the stranger. Juliet took it upon herself to introduce Kinsey to her father and the two confabulated for a few moments, but they were all getting rained on and parted company with promises to speak again soon. As Kinsey departed, Henderson shouted across the street, “If you need a room for a few days, those two hotels on your side of the street are okay. Berry’s Hotel is a little nicer!”
Henry nodded. Wrapped in his parka, he dashed from awning to awning as he made his way to the next corner and Berry’s Hotel. He liked what he saw, with the kitchen separate just off the side of the lobby. The large room was split down the middle: The north half was lined with tables and chairs for dining, and the south half featured a massive fireplace and overstuffed chairs for drinking, smoking or chewing, with spittoons at strategic locations.
A major point of attraction was a large multi-colored tapestry hanging on the west wall. Its location provided, by design, an enhancement to the dark wallboards where, on a day when it was not raining, the yellow streamers of morning sunrays slanted through the windows. Performing double duty, it also reflected sunlight on late afternoons that provided a magnification of the tapestry’s array of colors.
After he registered, Henry wiped excess water off his suitcase and valise and went upstairs to his room. It was number 24—second floor, room four. He was now a resident of San Augustine, Texas.
Greeting his new home at dawn, he dressed and stepped out on the gallery. He wasn’t surprised to see the town glittering with puddles of water, left that way from last night’s rain and this morning’s sunlight. The air had a fresh, clean smell. He liked that, taking several deep breaths.
John Berry joined Kinsey on the gallery. “I’m a morning person,” Berry said, fingering his mustache. “I run out of steam about dark and sometimes before. “
“Both nights and mornings have features to be admired, but I think I get more out of mornings,” Kinsey replied. “By the way Mr. Berry, do you have a map, or know where I can get one of the town or nearby areas?”
“You mean a land map of town lots or who owns what head rights? Berry had an avuncular manner that matched his forty-one years, especially the extra three or four inches to his stomach and the solid evidence of youthful freckles in the past.
“Yes, I think that’s the kind of map I have in mind.”
“I’ve got a hand-drawn map of San Augustine as it was laid out by William McFarland and his son, Thomas, ten years ago. It’s still valid so I can’t let it leave this building, but you are welcome to take it to your room and study it. The town is laid out in forty-eight blocks (320’ by 320’), each block subdivided into eight lots (80’ by 160’) for a total of 384 lots. Separating each block are seven streets running north and south and nine streets running east and west. Performing an absolutely brilliant surveying masterpiece, they laid out thirty larger out-lots of between two and fifteen acres around the fringe of the town.”
“Yes, that sounds exactly like what I want to see.” Kinsey said, looking at the street of mud and then at his Swiss boots, which he had cleaned and shined the night before.
Berry saw him looking at the muddy street and emitted a rueful laugh. “That street bakes as hard as a rock. Then when it rains, horse hooves and buggy wheels cut into it a foot deep, making it a mud-mire.” Nodding toward Henry’s boots the hotel owner added, “Those are fine looking boots, but you better get yourself a pair of brogans or rough cowhide boots to do grunt work. Bernard Reilly and Richard Waterhouse both carry a line of cheap but durable brogans.”
“Thanks, I’ll check with them.”
“I heard tell you are studying law—is that right?” Berry asked.
Henry smiled, amazed at how efficiently town gossip systems worked. He nodded, “Yes, that’s my plan. If I can pass the bar exam.”
“If you’ve got James Henderson as a patron saint, you’ll make it. He’s a rising star. There’s a move growing to get Texas annexed as the twenty-eighth state of the United States.” Kinsey nodded. “I understand plans are being formulated to send James to Washington, DC, to work with the charge’d’affairs to develop the treaty of annexation.”
“Sounds like I’ve had a bit of luck,” Henry said. “He’s agreed to hear my story next week.”
Berry looked at his watch. “Breakfast is being served. I’ll tell DeeAnn your breakfast is on the house today. She’s the redhead—I saw you looking at her yesterday evening as you checked in. Easy on the eyes ain’t she? She runs the hotel for me. I’ll have her leave that map on your dresser when they clean up this morning. I’ll want it back in two or three days because I do a little speculating in town lots. You might want to see some of my property.”
Berry stood—that’s when Henry saw the deep scar on the man’s neck. Berry disappeared inside. Henry didn’t ask Berry about it but learned later Berry had taken a rifle ball during the suppression of the Córdova Rebellion and nearly died.
Kinsey watched a buggy pass, its narrow wheels cutting eight to ten inches down into the street mud, just as Berry had described.
A soft voice slipped through the morning air: “Mr. Kinsey, Mr. Berry asked me to let you have this map for two or three days.”
Henry looked around, his brain already building a picture of her features to match the voice. She had long red hair done in a swirl, tiny cameo earrings, green eyes, high cheekbones, wide mouth. “My name is DeeAnn,” she said and smiled sweetly. She was in her late teens or early twenties. To Henry she looked soft, her face full of invitation like she needed to be hugged.
“Thank you, DeeAnn,” Henry said. “I won’t keep it long.” He took the map, returned her smile, and watched her walk away, her oscillating weight shifting hypnotically.
“Mister. Kinsey…Mister. Kinsey!”
“Uh, yes Ma’am,” Henry answered when he realized Miss Juliet Henderson, yesterday’s stagecoach passenger, was calling to him from a phaeton that had stopped out in the street.
“If I might be so bold to interrupt your thoughts for a second, Mr. Kinsey? Since you are new in our town, I am extending an invitation to the town dance in the Flower Room tonight at 8:00 p.m.” Without awaiting a reply but with a slight hand motion to the tall, slender driver, the carriage moved on.
Henry spent the day walking over his new hometown all the way west to the Ayish Bayou, and east to the crest of the hill overlooking Carrizo Creek. During his exploration he discovered the Flower Room was an annex to his current abode, the Berry Hotel. He was cognizant a dance was a quick way to meet town members, including the possibility of dancing with DeeAnn and Miss Henderson. With these prompts, he was there when the door opened.
Although DeeAnn was a hostess, Henry was able to dance with her twice. She was as soft and winsome as he imagined.
Miss Henderson was there and also in demand, but he managed to dance with her twice as well. Between the two, it was a tie.
In an effort to meet people, learn the town movers, and conserve the remnants of his Mississippi nest egg, Henry rented an upstairs room over Travis G. Broocks’ store located across the street from Berry’s Hotel. He placed a narrow daybed against one wall and left enough space to set up an office when he got his license. But without an introduction by a family member and not known previously by a single San Augustine citizen, it was up to him to break into the town’s society, especially as an attorney. While attending another dance, Miss Henderson happened to bump his left arm.
Smiling through her patented pixie grin, she quipped, “Oh, pardon me, Mister Kinsey, I must have tripped.”
“Oh, Miss Henderson, would you honor me with the next dance?” It was during their second or third that Miss Henderson said, “You have a nice laugh, Mr. Kinsey. It sounds sincere—not manufactured to fit the occasion. ”
“Thank you, Miss Henderson. Might I respond to that compliment with the request you address me as Henry?”
“Yes, if you would please call me Juliet. By the way, you are an excellent dancer, leaving no doubt who’s leading. Do you know the new dance—the waltz?”
“Yes, I do.” Henry admitted, aware those three words were accompanied by a prescient warning.
“Then let me talk to the musicians and if they can play it, will you escort me out on the dance floor for it? Let’s show these nice people how that new forbidden dance is done.”
“Yes, but do you think we should? I have to hold you closer.”
“Have to, Mr. Kinsey?”
“No…yes…I mean the dance requires it,” Henry stuttered.
Accompanied with an elfish smile, she drew out three words, “Yes…I…know….”
Juliet did her magic with the musicians and they slid right into a Viennese waltz. As the two dancers circled the dance floor they could hear “ahs” and “ohs” and “that’s too close.” Henry wondered what Mr. Henderson was thinking, but maybe he wouldn’t want to hear their prattling. Two couples joined them on the dance floor, trying to pick up the fast time.
When the dance was over Juliet, not one to hold back her opinions or much else, shook hands with Henry and said, “Henry, this has been one of the best nights of my life. Thank you.”
To recall an ancient proverb, the cat had taken Henry’s tongue. He croaked, “Me too.” As soon as the two words were released he wanted them back. Tying to correct, he amended, “I mean I enjoyed tonight too. I mean dancing with you.”
Waiting and standing almost within hearing, James Pinckney Henderson had cast a jaundiced eye on the event. He was in agreement: It was too close.
William G. Brownville
One of San Augustine’s established attorneys was William G. Brownville. He had arrived in San Augustine approximately six years before Kinsey. From town gossip Kinsey had learned Brownville had a mercurial nature ranging from ornery to lethal, and one could never predict his reactions. However, for all the appearances Brownville had made before San Augustine Judges, at least half had been as the defendant. Trouble followed him and if it began to lag, he whistled it back. A hulk of a man with a sour disposition, he was a hedgehog-like schemer. Also, Brownville was the cretin Kinsey had seen beating a woman.
It wasn’t much of a surprise when in June of 1843, Robert C. McDaniel, San Augustine’s coroner, was called to Brownville’s home to investigate the body of Brownville’s house servant, Nancy. A jury of inquest was called, and after reviewing the body, studying the crime scene, and reading sworn statements by five different individuals of vicious beatings they had witnessed administered by Brownville, Sheriff Kimbro was ordered to take Brownville and keep him safely. Kinsey was one of the five to file a sworn statement he had witnessed Brownville beating his house servant. Kinsey’s conscience had concentrated into a pinpoint and was constantly pricking him. The deposition gave him a small measure of relief.
The coroner was assigned the task of doing a postmortem examination. However, he wasn’t a licensed physician so the task was passed on to Doctor John R. Ford. The first thing Dr. Ford did was request someone non-medical but with neat penmanship to help. Since Henry didn’t have any clients but was excellent with script, he volunteered.
Dr. Ford aligned the body like he wanted it and began. He said, “I’m going to talk as I work, some of which I want written word for word by you and the other can drift off with the wind. You see this bloody towel; when it’s hanging on the side of the table, write down what I say—every word as I say it. If the towel isn’t hanging from the table, don’t write a word of what I say. What you write is going to be my official conclusions and I don’t want it cluttered up with curse words and opinions. Now I’m beginning and I don’t want you fainting on me.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Huh,” Ford grunted. “Okay, let’s get started.” He hung the bloody towel on the side of the table. “Starting this exam with crucial head incision. The entire head is bruised and full of blood. Integuments separated from the cranium so much so I dispensed with the use of a scalpel over more than half of the skull’s surface.”
Ford reached down and picked off the bloody towel. “That sonofabitch killed her; I already know that. But my report will wind up in a courtroom where they nit-pick like hell, so I’ve got to piss for both sides. Let’s go on.” He hung out the bloody towel. “The back and shoulders are bruised and lacerated. Suppuration imperfectly established. Integuments separated from shoulder blade severe enough to cause death. Deep bruise on left side of spine.”
He removed the towel. “I’m going to turn her over and work the stomach. Let’s roll her over and off her back…that’s the way.”
He put the towel back. “Abdomen full of yellowish water, probably a dropsically effusion that indicates repeated beatings.”
Ford yanked the towel off the table. “That probably shouldn’t be in there but if this is read in court I want the jury to know this human trash has been playing sick games with this woman for a long time.”
“You mean like he was enjoying…”
“I mean the bastard wasn’t really alive unless he was punching her around. Do you know the word ‘psychosis?’”
“No sir, I don’t believe I do.”
“If we prefix it with metem, we get metempsychosis. Which in this specific case is the transmigration of a vicious beast into a human form. Let’s finish up this job.” He threw the towel on the side of the table. “The chest looks normal, the liver is enlarged but healthy, as is the heart, stomach and spleen. It is my opinion the evident signs of violence was more than enough to cause the death of the most robust person.”
Ford threw the towel on the floor and reached for the papers Kinsey had just written. “I’m going to read this, sign it and have you sign it as a witness. Okay?”
“A jury has got to put that monster away. You agree?”
“Yes I do.” Kinsey said, a little sick in his stomach.
That same afternoon, Brownville posted a $5,000.00 bond. One of Kinsey’s sharpest disappointments in the jurisprudence system was to watch Brownville, through a labyrinth of continuations, block this case from ever coming to trial.
Harry P. Noble, Jr., is a native Texan. Born in Wichita Falls, he moved to East Texas at age five. He spent two years in the military, eighteen months of that time in Korea. His career in mainframe computers included two years at NASA, followed by twenty-eight years at the University of Houston and Lamar University. During that time he earned a Bachelor’s in Mathematics and an MBA in Finance. Retiring in 1989 and returning to San Augustine, he initiated a new career writing weekly articles for the hometown newspaper, the San Augustine Tribune. He has placed several stories and articles, the most recent in the 2nd issue of The Creative Truth.