Texas Ranger Ira Pearson is sent undercover to Van Bent, a town in far west Texas where rumor has it a range war is brewing. Posing as a doctor–aided by the very training he has tried so hard to distance himself from–Ira is quickly involved in the feud.
As he tries to keep the war from escalating, Ira can’t help but think there is something else going on, that either someone behind the scenes is pulling some strings, or there is just an evil festering beneath the surface of Van Bent.
With a nurse he is training on the job by his side, Ira is tasked with stopping the war and, perhaps more importantly, finally answering the question for himself of whether he was supposed to be a doctor all along.
Undercover work? Ira considered as he gathered his things at the hotel. He hadn’t had to do anything like that since he was with the Houston police force a few years before. Not real undercover work, anyway. Occasionally, as a Ranger, he had ridden into a situation with his badge in his pocket and had not announced his presence or true intent until he had the lay of the land, but not true undercover work.
He wondered, of course, what it might be. A dope smuggling ring? There were rumors of cocaine becoming a problem among the silver miners out west. Slavery? It was outlawed but there were a lot of prostitution rings that—in Ira’s estimation—came awfully close to breaking those laws with their “contracts” for the women. It occurred to Ira that he wouldn’t mind breaking up an operation of either of those evils.
Still, why him? There were other Rangers, he knew, that had more experience with drug smuggling. Ira had helped in an operation on the matter a couple years back, but his area of expertise was more along the lines of cattle rustling or kidnapping. Kidnapping? he wondered. There were always rumors of the Comancheros stealing American children and selling them as slaves in Mexico—or kidnapping Mexican children and bringing them to the States as “servants”. Could it be something like that?
Ira knew there was no way he was going to find out until he got to Kerrville and spoke with Billings, but he couldn’t help but speculate in his mind.
McKay had given him a fairly loose timetable, so Ira eschewed the trains and rode Scout cross-country to Kerrville—posting his letter to Rose in the next town down the line. Ira still wasn’t sure where things stood with Rose. Was she “his gal”? Did he want her to be? Nor did he know if she wanted to be his gal—or anything, for that matter. She was a friend, certainly, and probably one of his best friends. But he could not honestly say whether he wanted her to be anything more and was pretty sure she felt the same way. So why, he asked himself, had he bothered to send the letter? Because he cared enough about her that—if he wound up undercover for a long time and unable to write—she wouldn’t think he had forgotten her.
He didn’t dawdle, but nor did he push his horses for he brought along a pack horse he could switch with. All in all, he made pretty good time.
He also didn’t shave, thinking that if he needed to look different from his normal self, a beard and mustache were an easy disguise—which he could shave off if not needed. He wasn’t one of those men who could seemingly grow a fresh beard overnight, but by the time he arrived in Kerrville six days and a hundred and fifty miles later he had a decent start. If nothing else, it had the advantage of drawing no attention his way as he just looked like another long-riding saddle tramp.
The problem, it occurred to him on the six day ride, was his eyes. Some people (especially women) seemed to like his eyes, some people said they were too strange to be attractive (also women), but everyone who met him agreed that Ira had the greyest eyes they had ever seen. He doubted that his eyes were discussed by bandits on the trail, but they were going to be hard to disguise were he to meet anyone he knew. He thought about getting some spectacles with just plain glass for lenses, hoping that might distract from his eyes. It occurred to him that maybe he could get some spectacles with tinted lenses such as people with sensitive eyes sometimes wore, but thought that might draw more attention rather than less.
Ira checked in at the Kerrville Union Hotel and the man at the desk barely looked at him, let alone made eye contact, certain Ira was just a saddle bum and probably thinking they’d have to give the sheets an extra wash after this Walter Moore left. Ira thanked him, saw that his horses were tended to, then went upstairs. The fifty cent bath felt good but it sure increased his desire for a shave.
He had supper in the hotel dining room, an inauspicious room off the inauspicious lobby and was served an even more inauspicious supper. What they had advertised in the menu with some fancy French words was just a medium-sized steak and some green beans. Neither was bad, nor were they the kind of meal Ira would be hankering to return for. Still, they beat his trail cooking.
After checking on his horses he walked around town a bit then headed back to the hotel. He stretched out on the bed after taking off his boots—expecting to be disturbed by a tap on the door at any minute—only to find himself waking up to faint morning light. He was rested, but more than a little chagrined at himself for it didn’t pay a Ranger to sleep too well or two hard.
After splashing some water on his face, he went downstairs and took care of business before heading into the hotel dining room. It turned out they weren’t serving breakfast that day, so he made his way to a little café down the street that was clearly open and put off a smell so charming Ira told himself he would be happy just to stand there and inhale. Inside, he got a breakfast almost too large for one man to eat, but Ira did his best and eventually polished his plate.
He was sitting on a bench later that morning in front of the hotel when a man in a plain, store-bought suit and bowler hat sat nearby. The man asked in a casual but clear manner, “Walter Moore?”
“Who’s asking?” Ira replied, giving the man a better look.
The man asked, “Would you like a cigarette paper?”
Ira was puzzled but replied, “I’m more of a cigar man, if anything.”
The stranger let a little smile creep into his eyes, then said, “I’ll roll you one. But don’t smoke it here. The hotel owner’s kind of picky about such things.”
Based on the number of butts on the wooden porch beneath Ira’s feet the Ranger seriously doubted that assertion, but took the offered cigarette with a “Much obliged.” The stranger nodded, then tipped his hat and stood up, walking away without a backward glance.
Ira stood up a few minutes later, the cigarette in his shirt pocket, and made his way to a little courtyard on the side of the hotel. Making as if he were trying to light the cigarette but fumbling with it, he dropped it on the ground. Grumbling, he bent over to pick it up, unrolling it as he did so. He saw that there was writing on it. Putting the paper in his right front pants pocket, he walked around to the back as if going to the privy.
When he was confident no one was watching, he read the note. “Old blue barn on southeast side of town. Dusk.”
Ira tore up the pieces of the note and dropped them into the privy’s hole. He laughed to himself, “If anyone wants to fish them out of there, more power to ‘em.”
He loafed around town that day, trying to be neither suspicious nor too unobtrusive, and eventually made his way to the southeast side of town. Once there, the barn—which he had located earlier in the daysat off by itself making the approach to it visible, meaning no one was going to sneak up on that barn while there was still light.
Ira dismounted Scout then walked up to the barn, putting his hand to his Colt and made sure the thong was off, then eased inside the old structure. Taking a moment to let his eyes adjust as much as they could, he looked around. He stepped to some old stalls and went to stand in one of them, leaning his left side against a post and keeping his right hand close to the revolver.
He hoped he didn’t jump too much when a voice from the next stall whispered, “How’d you know which stall I was in?” Before Ira could answer, the voice—a man’s—said, “Never mind. You go by Walter Moore now?”
“Yes,” Ira replied succinctly. Then, “Mister Billings?”
“Yes. McKay sent you, right?”
Ira nodded, realized the man couldn’t see the gesture, and so answered, “He did. What’s this all about? And are we supposed to pretend we don’t know each other?”
In a gravelly voice, as one who recently got over the croup, Billings told him,“Not here, per se, but thanks to that business in Rook last year, you and I are known associates. I have a job and it occurred to me from the start that you’re the man for it, but it needs to be kept hush-hush until we know for certain there is something there. Do you still have doctor’s equipment?”
“Yes,” Ira replied, trying to keep the grumble out of his voice but probably not keeping the surprise out. “A few things, like what I’ve used when patching someone up in the field.”
“From now until this is over, if you take this assignment, you’re Walter Moore. I know your record, Pearson. You didn’t just kind of read for medicine with some frontier sawbones; you went as close to medical school as Texas had at the time—and finished with high recommendations from the school in Galveston.”
Ira hesitated, then replied, “Before the college officially opened up. I studied under a man named Gerald Miktam. He was an obstetrician and taught at the old college before they closed it.”
“I’ve met him. Brilliant man. Then you had an education better than most doctors in the state—barring the most recent graduates, of course.”
“Maybe. What’s this all about, Mister Billings?”
There was a long pause, then Billings replied, “Come over here and let’s have a little light.” Ira followed the man into a darker corner of the barn which had probably been a tack room way back when. Billings lit a lantern, but kept the flame low. Still, it allowed them to see each other as they sat in two rickety old chairs by an even shakier table.
Billings produced a map from a satchel and spread it out on the table. “You know anything about Van Bent?”
“Town, isn’t it? Just this side of El Paso?”
“That’s the one. Wait, you weren’t in on that group of Rangers that stopped the Fitzsimmons-Maher fight in El Paso a couple years ago, were you? That was close to Van Bent and you might have been recognized—”
“No. I was hip deep in bringing down those wire cutters west of Lubbock about then.”
“Oh, right. Good work there. Anyway, about Van Bent. Ranching town, little dry land farming. Railroad goes through there, east to west. Started out as just an end-of-the-tracks town, then just about died when the railroad went on. There was talk for a while, though, that a railroad bridge might be built over the Grande and the town perked up a bit. Kind of reached an equilibrium now, you might say.”
“Something going on there that needs a Ranger?”
“Yes. Well, maybe. But it’s something that I think requires a particular Ranger: you.”
“Me? What do I bring to anything that a dozen other Rangers don’t?” When Billings didn’t answer right away, Ira looked into the man’s eyes and saw something like a friendly smirk in the dim light. “What? Oh wait, no. I don’t know what you’ve heard—“
“I’ve heard about how you patched up a couple of our Rangers after that border fight a couple years ago, and how you performed actual surgery last year in Big Spring.” As Ira made a face like a man about to object, Billings said, “And I happen to know, as stated earlier, that you have better medical training than most actual doctors—“
“I don’t think—“
“The average doctor in Texas has less than one year of medical training, and most of them were just apprenticed under another doctor with the same level of training. You’re one of the few who can actually claim to have been to medical school.”
“I didn’t—“ Ira tried to object.
“Haven’t you heard?” Billings said with what was intended to be a friendly smile but was not seen that way by Ira. “The School of Medicine there in Galveston has recognized Doctor Miktam’s students as having a medical degree on par with those their first year graduates received.”
“No. I hadn’t heard that,” Ira told him, a mixture of chagrin and pride battling for supremacy within. “But what does all that have to do with Van Bent, Texas, and needing a Ranger?”
Billings reached into his satchel and pulled out a wanted poster for a man listed, primarily, as Augustus Zamorra, though there were several aliases listed as well. “What do you know about this man?”
Ira looked over the poster and replied, “Mostly just what it says here: wanted for murder and horse thieving—but all on the Mexico side of the border.”
“Just trail gossip. Seems like most of his crimes have taken place in Mexico, but every now and then he gets the blame or credit for something that happened on this side of the river. Some people say he’s one of the Comancheros, others say they hate him as much as everyone else. One fella I heard once was trying to say the Comancheros were afraid of this … ‘Gus’. That’s what they call him, isn’t it? ‘Gus Zemore’?”
“Yes. That’s one of the many names he is known by.” Billings rearranged the papers so that the map was on top and explained, “We suspect he’s done more on this side of the border than we’ve tried to let on. Didn’t want the public panicked.”
“Those west Texas boys are more likely to take a pot shot at him than panic.”
Billings nodded, but then added, “I dont doubt it. But we want this Zamorra alive.”
“There’s something going on down there. Something that’s got the people of Van Bent and El Paso on edge.”
“And you think if you can catch Zamorra he’ll tell you what it is?”
“Maybe. We’ve caught some small timers, but they’re only from the fringes. They haven’t told us anything—if they know anything.”
Ira asked, “What makes you think Zamorra knows anything? As I recall, he’s never been accused of being part of a gang. He’d be an outsider to any plan, wouldn’t he?”
“Maybe not. We think the whole loner thing is an act, a put-up. We’ve been watching him for some time and he’s a lot closer to the big scores than we at first thought. Never right there, mind you, but a bank or train robbery, a high-profile kidnapping. Zamorra’s almost always nearby. He’s either in on it—“
“Or he knows who is and is trying to catch some of the leavings.”
“That’s what we think.”
“So again,” Ira reiterated, “Why a Ranger? And, more importantly, why me?”
Billingss waited a long minute, then said, “Trouble’s coming to Van Bent. There are two factions that control that town: the Ansons and the Parkers. It’s been just a little feud between families—wait, I don’t want to downplay it too much. There’s been some fist fights but, well, it’s been kept within the families so far. Rumor is, though, that one of the sides is bringing in some hired guns to wipe out the other side—”
“So why not bring in a whole bunch of Rangers like Major Jones did and wipe them out?”
“Believe me: we’ve discussed that. The problem is that, so far, we don’t have enough to go on. Could be the whole thing is just rumor. Not that two families trying to shoot up the other isn’t worth our time, but we got enough egg on our face pulling in Rangers from everywhere just to stop a prize fight. And this being so close to El Paso, that fight would be on everybody’s mind. We need to get the facts, first.”
“Move a garrison there. Let it be known you’re after wire cutters.”
Billings was a moment before answering, “We need someone on the ground, but someone who doesn’t look like a Ranger. So then it occurred to me one day that Van Bent has everything: a school, a couple churches, even a volunteer fire department. Has a sheriff but I have a suspicion that he’s on the payroll of the criminal element.”
“And this has to do with me … how?”
“What Van Bent doesn’t have, is a doctor.”
“Really? It’s not that small is it?”
“More than a thousand people, maybe two. It had a doctor, eastern fellow from what I hear. Wife and family. My guess is that the little woman didn’t care for far west Texas and he left to keep peace in the home. Can’t blame him, really. Anyway, the town council wrote to the state asking for help in finding them a doctor. I came across the request, happened to remember what you did in Big Spring last year, and thought we might have an answer to solve our problem and the town’s.”
“You just didn’t take into account that I am not a doctor anymore. Never was, really.”
“There’s a Doctor Alexander in Big Spring that says different.”
“You’ve talked to him?” ira asked, surprised.
“By telephone,” Billings replied, the telephone still a new enough invention that even those who had used one many times were still proud of the fact.
“But I had no choice. That man was going to die if I didn’t operate.”
Billings smiled, again trying to be friendly and not realizing that the light from the lamp made him look more ghoulish than inviting, “See, that’s where it’s you. If it had been me, that man would have died. I wouldn’t have had the first idea what to do other than maybe hold a bandage over the wound. You may not think of yourself as a doctor, but you know how to be one.”
“What’s your interest in this? This seems a little out of the bailiwick for a state attorney—”
“Deputy attorney general,” Billings corrected. “But you’re right. I’m interested because, well, I got interested in this because I have a sister who lives in Van Bent. She wrote to me about this feud. I know my sister: she doesn’t scare easy and neither does her husband. If she says something’s coming, I believe her.”
“So how does Gus Zemore fit into all this?”
“Honestly? He may not. But down Mexico way he’s been known to fight for pay. If it’s true that one side is bringing in hired guns, I would look for the other side to try to get Gus.” Billings leaned closer, his elbows on the table, and said, “Gus is past forty. You and I know that’s old for an outlaw unless they either get someone else to do their work for them—”
“Or they’re very good at what they do,” Ira completed.
“Either way, we don’t want him in Texas if we can help it. But also, if we could capture him and turn him over to the Mexican authorities, it might build up a little good will between our countries. We’ve got spies in Mexico, but we don’t have an official presence in Van Bent. I told my sister I’d try to change that and Captain McKay thought of you right off. Said you were wasted just tracking down panhandle rustlers and runaway brides.”
Ira was trying furiously to think of objections, coming up with several, but finally said, “You want me to go into Van Bent and pretend to be the doctor?”
“No, I want you to go into Van Bent and be the doctor. If we sent any other Ranger in there to pretend, they’d be discovered as soon as they did something—anything. I want you to go there and be our eyes and ears.”
“For how long? I was undercover once with the Houston police but that was only for a few days. Just long enough to work the docks.”
“So you’ve been an undercover doc before,” Billings laughed. He laughed alone. Answering the question with a more serious voice, he said, “There’s a possibility this could go on for months. A possibility, mind you. But me, I’ve got it in my mind that this is building to something. Something that will hit before summer is over.”
“But you don’t know that for sure?”
“How could we? Unless we knew some gold shipment were coming through or something. No, this is, admittedly, open-ended. But you know how our hot Texas summers work on folks, especially the bad element.” Billings, a good man at reading body language, asked, “What is it about this job that has you so vexed?”
Ira had a few sarcastic comments jump to mind, but decided to go with honesty, “I don’t want to be a doctor. It’s true that I can be one, but I closed that door a long time ago.”
“Maybe it’s time to reopen it.” Billings again tried that winning smile (that worked so well in sunlight) and offered, “You’re what? Thirty-two, thirty-three? Colonel Jack retired from the Rangers at thirty-four. McNelly died at thirty-three. Most Rangers your age are looking for something else to do: ranching, becoming a town peace officer. You’re one of the few who has something they can turn to right away.”
“I think about being a rancher sometimes,” Ira replied, deflecting. “My father’s a rancher. I could take over his spread, or go start my own somewhere.”
“But you don’t want to be a doctor. Why?”
“I have my reasons,” Ira replied, hoping his tone was as insolent in his voice as it was in his head.
Billings waited a long moment before saying, “I know about your wife. It may be time to put that behind you.”
“I have. And part of putting it behind me is putting being a doctor behind me.”
“Are you refusing this assignment?”
“Can I refuse it?” Ira asked with surprise.
“Of course,” Billings told him. “But I think you’re the best man for it. And you’re the only man who could go in as a doctor.”
“Surely someone else could go in as a banker or a lawyer or something. Bartenders hear a lot of the talk.”
“We know. I know. But every one of them is going to be viewed with suspicion. Everyone knows the Rangers don’t have company doctors. So a doctor moves into town, shows himself to be competent, everyone in town will be satisfied that he’s a real doctor.”
Ira leaned back in the chair, thinking of all the objections he could make. He was also thinking that he had thought just what Billings brought up: he was getting older. It wasn’t quite like the early days when most Rangers were in their twenties, but the few who lasted into their thirties (or, rarely, forties) were becoming Captains and administrators, something Ira had never really aspired to. He liked the part of the job where he was operating alone, riding fence lines, checking brands.
He suddenly told Billings, “If I do this, I can’t just ride into Van Bent on the train later this week and set up shop. Besides equipment, I’d need to go apprentice—for lack of a better word—with an actual doctor, somebody like Alexander.”
Billings smiled widely and said, “I was thinking the same thing. Four weeks be enough time?”
“Give me six.”
“Then you’ll accept the assignment?”
Ira hesitated, then said, “For six months. If I don’t have a clear indication of—of some … wrongdoing, I want the freedom to pull out. I’ll even help the town find a new doctor, but I want to be back out on the trail.”
“Accepted,” said Billings, who extended his hand. Ira hesitated the briefest of moments, but then took it. Ira had spent so many years running from being a doctor that he told himself this was a chance to discover what he really thought about it, more than just the one night in Big Spring had previously provided.
“From this moment forward, you are Walter Moore. Get used to signing that name, saying it, and reacting to it.”
“Where will Ira Pearson be?”
“Back east, with a delegation from the state government that’ll be working with congress on issues of horse and cattle theft in the west. Write out a letter to your mother now and then and get it to me. I’ll see that it gets posted from Washington.” He quickly added, “Don’t lie. Don’t write, ‘I’m enjoying the magnolia blossoms’. Just a generic, ‘I’m doing fine. Can’t wait to get back to my usual duties.’ Like that.”
“There’s someone else I might have you post a letter to,” Ira mentioned, almost against his own will.
Billings smiled but didn’t say anything. Turning off the lamp, he gathered his things and stood up. Ira could tell what was going on by the sound. Outside, Billings told him, “I used to be a cowboy, you know that? Rode with three trail herds up to Kansas, once to Wyoming. Twice, I rode with men who used to be doctors. Both of them, they had to leave the profession because they were drunks. And old Holliday was a lunger. You don’t drink, do you?”
“Taste now and again, but no, not a drunk. No consumption, tuberculosis or cancer either, so far as I know. Had a hang nail once.” After a few steps, toward their horses, he added, “Oh, and I got shot in the back once.”
“That’s the kind of thing that would make me want to stop being a Ranger,” Billings commented.
“The thought entered my mind,” Ira admitted. “But I had a matter I was determined to see to completion first.”
“I know of what you speak. That’s long since settled. And you’re still a Ranger—and a good one.”
“The people of Rook might disagree,” Ira chuckled.
“Maybe some of them, but not all.” Billings patted Ira on the shoulder like they were old friends and said, “I’m glad you’re aboard with this. It might be a wild goose chase, but I don’t think so. And every town needs a doctor, right?”
“Right,” Ira replied, as one who doesn’t fully agree. As they reached their horses, surprised to learn they were tied near each other in the thick brush south of the barn, Ira asked, “Where do I go from here? Big Spring?”
“No, you’re known there. Let me send some wires, then I’ll get a message to you as soon as I can. Anybody know you in Dallas or Fort Worth?”
“Maybe. No close friends or associates, though. Rarely ever been east of there.”
Billings snapped his fingers, looked around sharply as if he regretted the sound, then said in a low voice, “I know a doctor in Corsicana. I think he’d do the Rangers a favor—and keep quiet about it, too. Name’s Tobias Charberon. I’ll contact him.”
“Charberon.” Ira swung into his saddle and asked, “Same kind of message as today? Cigarette paper and all?”
“Nothing so clandestine, now that we’ve met. The fellow who brought you the message this morning? I’ll have him take his meals in the hotel you’re staying at these next couple days. Act like you don’t know one another. But, if you see him sitting there with his coffee cup upside down—like he doesn’t want any—that means you can head for Corsicana. If Charberon doesn’t agree, then I’ll get in touch with you in some way and we’ll find another doctor for you to study under.”
“You really think someone’s watching you?”
“Not that I know of, but I don’t think we can take that chance. Any rumor you were seen with me before all this started and word will get back to the criminal element.”
“You that well known?” Ira queried.
“In some circles. In the wrong circles.” Billings looked like he was about to get his horse moving when he suddenly asked, “Are you the man who came up with that system of using dynamite to thwart fence-cutters?”
“Different Ranger, though his name is Ira, too.”
“Darn. I would like to shake that man’s hand. That’s the kind of inventive thinking we need.”
“Doctors rarely use dynamite,” Ira told him.
“Well, you know: applying new solutions to old problems. You men do that, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”
“But for the next few months, you will be,” Billings reminded him. He sat with his hands crossed on the pommel, looking in Ira’s direction (maybe, in the dim light it was hard for the Ranger to be sure) and said, “You know, back in the days of Captain Hays, there was more than one man who gave up doctoring to be a Ranger for a while. You’ll just be going the other direction.”
“I reckon,” Ira replied.
They shook hands then rode off in their respective directions, Ira surprised at himself for agreeing to the assignment. He told himself it was because he was a man who took the jobs given, but this was the first job given him that caused so much pause.