El Paso - Jake RiversbyJakeRivers©
Several authors are coming out with stories based on three songs by Marty Robbins: El Paso, Faleena and El Paso City. The story titles will be: "El Paso - author's name" e.g. "El Paso – Jake Rivers"
This is a follow on to our first "invitational" in the fall of 2006 with entries based on the Statler Brother's song, "This Bed of Rose's." If there is continuing support we might make this a regular semi-annual event.
Regards, Jake Rivers
To make it clear, the present day story of John Sessions is always in the first person with his name on the title. The stories he writes about are always in third person. Thanks to techsan, Lady Cibelle and RoustWriter for their editing assistance (hey … sometimes we need lots of help).
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OUTPOST HARRY - JOHN
Faster than I would have believed possible, my life changed from being a student in the halls of academia in a backward eddy in the flow of the country to nine days of hell in a place incongruously named, "Outpost Harry."
I finished my dissertation on "West Texas Gunfighters: Sheriff and Outlaw" and, after the faculty review, I was granted my Masters' degree from Texas Western College. I took off for a month of relaxation at the La Baca ranch outside of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, with my roommate of five years, Pablo De La Puente.
After a truly great four weeks I returned to my dingy apartment near the university in El Paso that I'd rented after we had to move out of the dorms upon graduation. Amongst the clutter of mail was an official looking letter from the Selective Service that, of course, turned out to be a politely worded letter that changed my life in so many ways.
The letter, from my local Selective Service Board, of course, stated: "You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to …" which kicked off a series of events that led to a rapid maturation and elimination of any remaining boyishness in my body and personality.
It began with five of us being put on a bus to the induction center in Dallas. Once there we were given a battery of mental and physical exams, then sworn in for our appropriate service … mine being the Army. I was given a twenty-dollar bill for the mandatory onsite haircut and for having nametags sewn onto the four sets of fatigues I was given. I quickly understood why the money was called "flying twenties" since there wasn't much left of it when we were finished.
After a few whirlwind months at Fort Bliss learning important things like how to salute, shine boots, make beds and especially how to kill people (it felt like at that time I was trying to kill myself more than anyone else). Because of my degree and some other mysterious selection criteria I was selected for Officer Candidate School. For this, I was sent to Fort Benning to learn how to be what they disingenuously called, "An Officer and a Gentleman."
After getting the gold bars of a second lieutenant – Lt. John Sessions had a nice ring to it - I was put on a train for San Francisco. The staging area was Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg and we had four days before the next troop ship left for Korea. As an officer I was given a pass each night. On the recommendation of a fellow shavetail from my class, I went to the Buena Vista in Fisherman's Wharf. They had what must be the world's best drink – something called Irish Coffee. It was supposed to be as good as they served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. They had started it a few months before in the fall of 1952.
The BV, as my buddy called it, was supposed to be a hangout for TWA stewardesses and, after plying one with Irish Coffee for a couple of hours one night, I was able to get a date with her for all day on Sunday. After a fun day sightseeing in San Francisco, I did spend several hours with her in her apartment on Russian Hill. I still had a smile on my face when we shipped out from Fort Mason on the General W.M. Black two days later.
The first few months in Korea were a blur – in retrospect it seemed like a series of vignettes about learning how to be a soldier and how to lead troops. So in early June I found myself in the position of a First Lieutenant replacing a dead Captain as company commander of King Company trying to hold Outpost Harry.
This was a military hot spot about sixty miles north of Seoul in what was called the Iron Triangle. We were a bit over three hundred yards south of a hill occupied by the Chinese People's Volunteers, called Star Hill. Outpost Harry was also about a quarter mile northeast of the UN position. We were on the mainline of advance by the CPV and they desperately wanted to knock us off the hill we were on.
Our post consisted of a communication trench, which ran from the supply point forward about a quarter mile to the summit of the hill. At that point, the trench line joined another trench that made a complete circle around Outpost Harry. There was an additional projection that ran along the eastern part of the ridge for around a hundred yards.
The trench was deep enough to walk around the perimeter unseen by the enemy. It was fortified with reinforced bunkers, including space for a command post and for a forward observation position. It had enough space for a reinforced infantry company.
Facing our company was a Chinese Communist Regiment from their 74th Division. Our instructions were to hold at all costs, which turned out to be high. Over the next week plus, we were continually harassed by almost ninety thousand rounds of Chinese artillery. After a very long eight days, often involving hand-to-hand combat with wave after wave of CPV forces we held out. Later they told us there were over thirteen thousand soldiers in the attacking forces.
On the third day I was there, several of the enemy got into our area. One of them was coming at me with his bayonet. My .45 was in my hand but several of my men were behind him and I couldn't take the chance of shooting him then. I was able to sidestep his thrust and push him to the ground. I put a round in the middle of his face as he twisted around, trying to turn his rifle towards me. He was the only enemy I knew that I had specifically killed but it never bothered me in any way. I was doing what I had been trained for … and I did it well enough that I lived.
An interesting footnote to my time at the outpost was that lines of fifty-five gallon barrels containing napalm were situated in front of our last line of defense. We hadn't needed to use them until on June 11, 1953, when we faced the largest wave of attacking Chinese soldiers. They were crawling up the hill like ants. The scene was clear and forever burned in my memory from the constant flares being fired.
When the attackers started crawling up the side of Outpost Harry the barrels were set off flowing down the hill engulfing the Chinese in an inferno of flame. I saw the enemy soldiers burning like paper and the smell of smoke and burning flesh was overpowering. We broke one more human wave of ChiComs and lived to fight another day. I've tried to sort out the images in my mind but it came down to a 4th of July celebration gone crazy.
On a more personal note, a Master Sergeant in our outfit got the Medal and I got a ticket home and back to my research and writing. On the last day I caught some flak that caught the back edge of my left hamstring and took out a chunk of my thigh that remains missing to this day. They fixed it as best they could but I would always walk with a noticeable limp and have a healthy furrow scarring the back of my leg.
On the troop ship coming home, I had a lot of time to think. All I had to do was the twice a day therapy, which left me with a lot of free time. More and more I looked back to the time I spent at my roommate's ranch. The picture of the lovely girl with her arm around me was sometimes the only thing that kept me sane on the hot nights at Outpost Harry when the mortars would pound, hour after hour, with their relentless cacophony of noise that was felt as much as heard.
She was Pablo's little sister with little being the operative word. Her name was María Elena De La Puente, and if ever there was a woman with the face of an angel, it was she. María was short, barely over five feet, with black curly hair that tumbled down over and beyond her shoulders. Her eyes were dark and large and always seemed to reflect her current emotional state. From minute to minute they could show a caring innocent demureness, or all too quickly change to a fiery anger or an icy politeness.
She was an eclectic mix of Madonna and tomboy. She was sweet, shy and decorous to a fault. But put her in Levi's and on her beloved Palomino mare, and she was as good as any cowboy on the ranch. María shy was to fall hopelessly in love. María angry was to look for a hiding place.
She had this … I guess this sense of innocence but at the same time, she would jump right in when it came time for branding and castrating calves. This juxtaposition of shy loveliness and earthy rancher totally enchanted me. I was afraid I was more in love than not … and more afraid of her than not!
Once on a hot July evening we were out on the patio having a somewhat aimless, even lazy, conversation about some of my research projects. We were all tired from a long day riding in the hills behind the ranch headquarters. I'd talked for a bit about one I was particularly passionate about and it seemed to trigger something in María's memory. She looked excited and started talking.
"Oh, Johnnie! You should write about my Aunt Faleena. Well, she is really my great-great-grandmother's older sister. She led an exciting life. I have been doing research and traced her to Santa Fe from where she was born south of Chama, a little north of here in the Tierra Amarilla Valley. She went to Santa Fe when she was seventeen and, as near as I can figure, stayed there about a year.
"There are some hints that she took a stage from Santa Fe to El Paso. There is a story, a legend really, that she died in a shootout with some famous marshal. The story was about her love for a wild young cowboy."
I was fascinated by what she said because the time frame tied in with when Dallas Stoudenmire was marshal in El Paso. I'd been researching an incident where four men were killed in a few seconds and planned on writing a story about it. What I wanted to do was write a series of fictionalized accounts of real stories and submit them to magazines and later I wanted to put them in a book.
While I had been in training at the several army posts I'd been stationed at, I had a fairly frequent correspondence with María. Neither of us had used the love word but it was clear we were getting closer as the months passed by. I was able to get a week's delay in route to California and visited my folks for a couple days and then had three wonderful days at the La Baca ranch.
There was a lot of handholding and on a quiet moonlight night our first kiss … one that I would never forget. The next day as I was catching the train to El Paso to continue my journey, she gave me another kiss that promised … something. A hint of love, a promise of passion – maybe a future together.
The letters each way tapered off after I got to Korea but in my mind that closeness kept growing, and now on the troop ship I was thinking love was the right word.
A month before the slaughter at Outpost Harry I'd received María's high school graduation photo. There was a brief note on the back and that was the last letter I received from her. I realized with a start that she had turned eighteen two days earlier while I was on the troop ship.
When I got back to San Francisco I called Pablo. He was working at the ranch full time and had taken over a lot of responsibility from his dad. I asked after María and he answered in a cheery voice.
"She's fine. Mom and dad want her to go to college but she doesn't seem to want to. Hey, there's a big party here the last week of the month. We are having a barbeque; there will be a live band, and we will have tons of people. There is a room over the garage you can stay in. It's kind of bare but does have it's own bathroom. Come out and stay for a couple of weeks and we can do some hunting."
"Sounds good, amigo. I'll call my dad and have him get my truck checked out. See ya, buddy."
I'd found a pearl necklace at a great price in the booming black market in Korea. These were high quality pearls made into a long, looping necklace. The pearls were perfectly matched in size and color and all in all it was a beautiful piece of jewelry. I had it wrapped in a lovely box in San Francisco and planned on giving it to María Elena as soon as I saw her. Damn! I was ready to propose to her and neither of us had said anything about love and we had kissed just the two times.
I was lucky and the Army flew me home. I took a bus to Pecos and spent a week with my family at the ranch outside of town. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed them. My kid sister, Anne, sure looked like a woman now.
Dad had tuned up my truck, a '47 Ford pickup, and put new tires on it. I drove straight from Pecos to Pablo's ranch. I timed it so I got there a day before the party was to start. I wanted to spend some time with María … and Pablo, of course. I stopped overnight in Taos and pulled into the ranch around ten on a hot, sunny Friday morning in mid-September.
I knocked on the door and María unexpectedly opened it. She looked stunned and I just … acted. I threw my arms around her and kissed her with a deep kiss as I pulled her tight. I had been worrying about how to tell her of my love and this just seemed the right way.
At first I think she was too surprised to do anything. She suddenly seemed cognizant of what we were doing and she started pushing at my chest, like she wanted to say something. I realized with a thrill that she wanted to tell me of her love. I kissed her with even more passion and she kept pressing on my chest and tried to turn her head.
Exceeding my wildest hopes and dreams she relaxed, almost went limp and started returning my kiss with the same passion I was feeling.
Of a sudden she jerked back and stared at me, her face a blazing red. "Johnnie, oh, Johnnie! We can't … we just can't do this. It's… oh, it's just all wrong!"
I felt like a fool all at once. I was making mad love to her just inside the front door and anyone could walk in at any minute. I knew how shy she was and she would be mortified from embarrassment.
I laughed, and gave her a big smile, "I'm sorry, María, I just had to show you how much I love you."
At that the flush left her face, and she turned white in apparent shock. She turned and ran for the stairs, stopping and turning just as she reached them. Whispering, almost, she pled, "Didn't you know? Didn't Pablo tell you? The party this weekend is for my engagement!"
With that she ran up the stairs, taking my heart with her. I stood there, a feeling of coldness came over me. My heart was thudding and my skin felt clammy. I felt like I was falling and I leaned against the door. I was able to get the door open and I stumbled out to my truck. I sat there for a while, maybe fifteen minutes or so until the shaking stopped.
I found my notebook and wrote a letter for María and folded it neatly and put it inside the jewelry box. I wrote her name on the outside of the box and drove down the road to the highway where their mailbox was. I put the box and my shattered dreams in the mailbox and started to drive off. Pablo was just turning off the highway and coasted to a stop next to me. I stared at him for a bit, shook my head and pointed to the mailbox and drove off to get on with my life. A deep sadness overcame me and was a jarring counterpoint to the intense happiness I'd began the day feeling.
I'm sorry, and I apologize profusely for the obviously unwanted and unwarranted attention I forced on you. You did nothing wrong – the fault is mine for your love I invented, needed even, at the time, while huddled in the foxhole hiding from the bursting rounds of mortars searching for me.
I meant you no disrespect and wish you the best as you start your married life. I have no one else to give the necklace to – I could never give it to someone else. You can't give a dream to just any person … each dream is too personal to …
Please keep it and remember me with kindness.
Vaya con Dios, John
That night, late, in the quiet loneliness of her room, María looked at her distraught image in the mirror, her slender fingers marveling at the perfection of the pearls around her neck. Tears slowly slid down her face as she took the necklace off and carefully replaced it in the box along with Johnnie's letter. She looked at the box for a too long moment, sighed deeply, and put it on the top shelf of her closet, far in the back with the dolls and other remnants of her girlish childhood.
She turned out the light, opened the window and slipped under the soft sheet as the night breeze brought the sounds of the mountains into her room. She sought comfort from the lonely cry of a coyote but she knew this was a burden she could share with no one … for tomorrow Alberto Gutierrez was to formally ask her father for her hand in marriage.
As she drifted off to sleep, she felt a quick warmth wash over her as she remembered the passion she had all too eagerly shared with Johnnie. She cried with silent wonder as she realized too late what love really was. The sad look on Johnnie's face tormented her dreams that night and for many nights to come.
RESEARCH … AND WRITING - JOHN
Back in El Paso I took a part time position teaching writing classes at Texas Western. I had two classes, one at nine and one at eleven - both of them were on Mondays through Thursdays. That would give me enough money, along with my mustering out pay, to move into a larger apartment. I would have plenty of time to work on my research and start writing.
I had a story on Bill Doolin's Wild Bunch, which operated mostly in Oklahoma around 1890, that I had written while in grad school. I polished it a bit and submitted to "Thrilling Western" magazine. This started a fairly steady stream of short to mid-range fictionalized stories of gunfighters and gangs of the West. I went on to submit to many of the magazines popular at the times, such as, "Texas Rangers," "Popular Western," "Giant Western," and "Western Action."
It started a steady stream of income - not large, but satisfying and helpful. But I mostly wanted to see if I could tie my interest in Dallas Stoudenmire in with the work María had done on Faleena. I wrote a note to Pablo, and about a month later got a package from María with a hand-written copy of everything she had been able to find and a short note asking me to let her know if I found out anything new.
My heart was still heavy for what might have been. María signed her name as María Elena De La Puente, so I guess she hadn't gotten married as yet. There was nothing personal in her letter and that somehow hurt me more than I would have expected. I tried not to think about it and focus on my writing and teaching but it wasn't easy.
One part of my story about Dallas Stoudenmire I had ready to go so I sent it to my agent in San Antonio. I had found it easier to work through an agent and let him take his cut rather than try to contact all the magazines myself.