The near-death of Tommy Henderson
He wished hard for a found gun. That's all he wanted in the world.
Being a devout Catholic, the young Irish immigrant hadn't owned a firearm in his life, and astutely refused to keep one. But right now, he wanted desperately to cross paths with one just lying there upon the ground. Fresh cast gun metal, fully loaded and ready to be put to good use.
That fallacy had evolved to a reverie that had kept him going mile after mile. And in spite of horrific pain, bleeding him head to toe. But his senses were under vicious attack, and it was taking its toll. The unrelenting fusillade consisted of a vise-like pressure attacking one side of his head, and a minor brain hemorrhage affecting both ears to bleed. There was an intense stabbing in his chest and sandpaper against his lungs. The muscles of his legs were on fire; throbbing; tearing anew with each stride. And his ankles were twisting with uneven ground breathing the footfalls of rampaging steeds, closing on him fast.
When sweat stung the hell out of his eyes, Tommy made a futile attempt at wiping it away before rattling his head like a dog, sending sweat flying in every direction. Adding further discomfort, his clothes weighed him down, now drenched in it. He wanted to shed them. But he dare not attempt it.
No, consumed with rage and terror, Tommy simply ran like hell; praying to Mary, the Mother of "Jaysus," for his salvation.
In vital statistics there isn't much on record about him. Henderson was young--approximately twenty-two years old--with no wife, no children, and no further family to speak of. After emigrating from Ireland to the Southern U. S, he had worked in the railroad industry for some time before arriving in Nacogdoches in the spring of 1897, well prepared to make a new life for himself as a merchant. Yet he very abruptly switched his livelihood to that of farming. The reason for this was not recorded.
In personage, Tommy Henderson was known locally for being hard-headed. He never gave up or quit. Whether bartering or debating politics. And he seldom stopped what he was doing to acknowledge anyone else. Indeed, he was a man of strong personality and character. And it may have served him well that Saturday evening.
A report, discovered mixed in with the Nacogdoches County Sheriff's Fee Book and File Docket, circa 1876-1903, documents that "the young man's tracks stretched across nearly four and a half miles of County 'including much of Austin Ranch'." The same report additionally takes into account various eye-witnesses, and notates in circumspect that Tommy had "probably made all tracks in the rough space of only fourteen minutes."
By now, Tommy had forced himself across miles and miles of back woods of deep East Texas. And though he had managed to narrowly evade his own death by deviating in unexpected patterns, his pursuers weren't as dumb as he had prayed for. Little more than a half-mile back, they had spotted his ploy and called out, "We ain't falling for 'at shit again, boy!"
Breaching the horizon, Tommy let his head roll about on his neck freely, before snapping alert.
Disoriented and in-between breaths, he found himself tripping crooked down a knoll, with late sunlight carving his shadow across an amber ground. And it was sudden when he lost his footing and saw grass plunging toward him. Almost instantly, he landed in a field of overgrown weeds. He yelped, then screamed, with adrenaline and searing pain surging through him. His shoulder had been dislocated. But Tommy Henderson was a stubborn man, and even that wouldn't stop him. Quickly, he leapt to his feet with dirt caked to his face. And filled with nothing less than the courage and determination seen seldom, and only in those grasping for the last fleeting moments of their lives, Tommy sprinted hard for the first thing in his line of sight: a wall of trees.
After only a few steps, though...he stopped cold.
Curiosity had gotten the better of him.
His hearing came and went. And he wasn't sure, but maybe he had lost them. For a suspended moment, Tommy merely stood there; bartering with fate. Then, risking a look over his shoulder into a horizon turning deep red, he was just in time to catch sight of a large, undulating shadow. It was half a dozen men on horseback topping the knoll--some of them mounted upon Tommy Henderson's own horses.
"MY GODDAMNED HORSES...!" he shouted in his thick accent, "Good for nuthin' eijit RUSTLERRRRS!"
Instantly, they turned in his direction; and with many vocalizing a clear intent toward murder.
In the trees, Henderson turned left, then right, again and again, zigzagging all over the damn place. It was painfully disorienting. He staggered, made himself one with a tree, and gasped for air. Daylight evaporated to the west, and the red tint pervading the forest turned blue in a matter of seconds. Instantly, his eyes played tricks on him; his vision washed out from lingering sunspots. Now he couldn't see much at all. Certainly he couldn't see them, he realized with a tinge of excitement. So just perhaps, they couldn't see him either. Maybe the thieves won't find me in the dark, he thought. Maybe they waited too long t'kill me. Or maybe, just maybe, he'd get lucky and they'd loose interest.
Either way, he was unsure of even a general direction in here. While this region of Texas was universally spotted with the occasional oak, cedar, dogwood, maple, and sycamore tree, it had principally earned the nickname "The Piney Woods" for being filled with so many godforsaken pine trees. Even in broad daylight they all looked alike; making it far too easy for even a local to get lost in here. Add virtual darkness and the situation became absurd. So he marked time the best he could. Low to the East, and through the webbings of treetops, he could see stars, peeking. He estimated the hour at around seven forty-five. That meant he'd been running for around forty minutes.
A ringing in his ears grew louder. He slapped the side of his head, hoping to put a stop to it. But the effect only worsened. And he heard nothing. Now he had no idea how labored and sonorous his own breathing really was. Even when a few rounds went past his head on hot wind, he was totally unaware. It took dirt and pine needles kicking up from the ground at his feet, accompanied by a stream of gunshots emitted as a singular cannon crack, to get his attention.
In no time his thinking organ was shifting forward and backward in his skull, his veins were pumping blood like heavy machinery, and the trees ahead of him formed a tunnel. They were on him fast, weaving their horses through the labyrinth like hounds harassing a fox. He felt a big rock hit him in the lower part of his shoulder. That's what he assumed it was--one of the thieves hurling rocks. Hell, they'd done everything else they could think of to amuse themselves. Then suddenly, and without ever feeling it rising, he coughed vomit into the air right in front of him. And he felt muscles in his shoulder and neck wrench and spasm. At the instant his peripheral vision found a dark stain spreading across his shirt, and he felt a strong, cold chill mixed with warm blood covering his back.
He managed a quick and painful look over each shoulder, and saw the men were stretched out through the trees like a search party--and staring right at him. Facing front, he found the trees passing him grew blurry. So he sent jerking glances to the moving ground to better orient his self. His head came up with improved vision, the dizziness subsided. But soon, a sense of deja vu hit him, dead center, and his eyes began searching, desperate for landmarks.
He never spent much time on other people's property; a man of substance had more manners than that. And he was in no condition to really recognize his surroundings, anyway. But something certainly seemed familiar. When he spotted trees already sheared of their bark by earlier gunfire, and heard that familiar clinking sound from above, he knew.
Tommy threw his head way back, for verification. And there it was. Still there, hanging from wires strung high among the trees. Passing beneath the large pulley, he lost all composure. His eyes shut watertight, and for a moment he seemed lifeless. Then for possibly the first time in his life, Tommy really heard himself scream. This had a truly risible effect on his tormenters. A healthy wave of laughter echoed from behind, followed by a raspy voice, "Think farm-boy just figured out he's going in circles."
He now knew this was likely to end badly.
The men were never really concerned Tommy would evade them. This young farm-boy wasn't going anywhere. And he wouldn't make it much farther, in any case. No, in their collective opinion, farm-boy was a goner. And no one would be there to witness his death.
And, they would have been correct--if not for the sound of Tommy's scream, and the man who heard it.
A scream that carried through eighty yards of trees and brush to a local resident identified in public records as simply "Rancher, Charlie."
Charlie halted a team of two horses pulling a wagon full of lumber and his old rig creaked to a stop. He'd caught the tail end of Tommy's frightening scream, and seconds later was still frozen in a suspended state, merely listening.
"What'n'the Almighty?" the rancher whispered.
In the fading of twilight, his gaze wandered until settling on a path that had been recently cleared through the trees. He brought his rig close to some trampled grass and foliage. Taking measure of it, he noted that sporadic traffic had been using this path for some time, trespassing across his property.
"What in the hell," he grumbled angrily. "Who the hell's been on my land?"
He diverted his rig onto the path for investigation.
Tommy emerged from the trees almost sideways; finishing a jog that returned him to a familiar sight, the field of weeds. The sight of these surroundings illuminated by a beautiful star-filled sky took his spirit and did confusing things with it. He exhaled in a rush, and his body shuddered, trembling terribly, in waves. His heart had sped so fast and so hard, for so long, the muscle had worked itself beyond the point of pure exhaustion, crippling his other organs as well. Now his entire body was in distress, and would soon go into duress from the effects of both heart attack, and stroke, and simultaneously.
Put simply, Tommy's body was about to shut down, whether he stopped running or not. And falling to his knees, the immigrant was struck by a wrenching pain that had been waiting to happen. He clutched his chest, and concurrently, an unsympathetic force crossed his back hard and heavy enough to knock and impress a full-grown man into the ground.
Tommy would never hear the men voicing disappointment that their fun was over. He was out cold for that. When he came to, the first thing he saw were the hooves of the horse, kicking the dirt. And the first thing he heard was the man seated upon that horse, laughing. Laughing.
Christ, Almighty, Tommy thought. He's laughing at me, he is. What kind of man runs down another with a horse--and laughs? What kind of a worthless bastard of a man?
Some of the men snickered disgusting comments. Others complained it was getting late and their horses were tired. Everyone was ready for a meal.
Shadows of around a dozen blocked the sky above him. One of them raised a hand, and in an instant, the others went deadly quiet. Henderson couldn't imagine what would happen next. Perceiving a man dismounting, he managed to rise slightly on his elbows to get a better look around--and felt the barrel of a gun connect hard with the back of his skull, pushing his face back to the slimy earth.
Again, Tommy fainted, this time with only a sigh.
The dismounted man responded by punching the immigrant's rear with a heavy boot and barking, "Wake up. You ain't dreamin' yet!"
Tommy came to hearing the shrill metallic sound of a blade leaving a sheath. Then, he was out again. His body needed rest.
When he came to again, every moment was fleeting and further details were difficult amid near darkness. But peering up, he noted a strange brand visible at the hindquarters of the nearest horse. And he vaguely made out the general outline and impression of the man standing over him. The man was big at the shoulders, clothed in a long coat and matching hat the color of an overcast day. And he reeked of gentlemen's perfume.
Bringing a razor-sharp machete down, the man let it touch Tommy's neck, drawing a pencil-thin line of blood. With the blade reflecting the beautiful stars in the sky, the man moved in very close to the immigrant's ear. Tommy felt the whiskers of a well-groomed beard tickle his cheek, and a menacing voice state, "If you live long enough--name's Raybourne."
Something rustled. The shadow of every head swiveled with it.
Somewhere in the darkness, a wagon approached. And the abrasive voice of Rancher Charlie distantly shouted, "Who's there? Who's out there on my property? That's my goddamn property line you passed over! Sneaky goddamn trespassin' bastard sons-a-bitches!"
Tommy whimpered from within the grass, "Help me...please help me..."
The man standing over him made a light birdcall, and the others began to vanish back into the trees.
Meanwhile, Charlie continued to steer his creaky rig across the field, scrutinizing dozens of charcoal shapes moving about in distorted patterns. He could see the forms of men--several at first, then fewer, and fewer. By the sounds, he knew they had horses as well.
Drawing closer, he focused on a single figure, mounted and uniformed in long coat and hat. The rancher later remarked that it was strange, what he thought he saw. It had appeared, and even sounded, as though the man atop the horse, leaned, aimed, and hawked a slop of spit into a large dark area of flattened grass. And understandably, it made the rancher even more curious. But by the time Charlie had reached Tommy's resting place, that last man and his horse, had vanished.
Charlie halted his team, and stepped down; carefully approaching the dark area in the grass. Already confused and growing disoriented, the rancher merely stalked around, trying to make out a defined shape. He didn't really know what he was looking at. He strained his eyes, rubbed his neck. Nothing seemed to make sense to him. But then, he smelled it. Henderson had soiled himself, both ways. And that rank, repulsive smell helped Charlie hone in on him.
He mistook the form for a corpse at first, but when his eyes acclimated, they met those of the young farmer reaching out to him from the void; wide, glowing in the dark, and terrified.
Tommy screamed bloody murder: "IT HURRRRTS!"
"God-damn," the rancher cursed with a wavering voice, stumbling backward.
When Tommy's scream had died to a whimper, the rancher approached him a second time, and rather gingerly. He got to his knees, narrowed his vision, and what he saw left him shocked and speechless.
Blood ran through dirt all around. And Henderson's clothes were entirely soaked in it. There was a gunshot wound beneath one shoulder, contusions, a shattered eardrum caked with dried blood, multiple lashes, scrapes, and scratches...and a horse had lost a shoe, which now lay impaled in Tommy's Henderson's lower back.
Charlie groaned, bringing the area of his hand between thumb and forefinger to his mouth. Then he breathed carefully, trying hard not to vomit.