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Calendar >  The Vigilant Three – Thomas Calabrese

The Vigilant Three – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  April 5, 2020  /  11 Comments


Gunhands Never Got Tired

Thomas Calabrese –Hearst, Haggin, Tevis & Company started in California in the 1850s and was headed by George Hearst, businessman and miner, San Francisco lawyer James Ben Haggin and banker Lloyd Tevis. It eventually grew to be the largest private firm of mine-owners in the United States. Hearst acquired the reputation of being one of the most expert prospectors and judges of mining property on the Pacific Coast.

In June of 1880, George Hearst hired Dan Garrett, a young mining engineer from Kansas City, Missouri. The Garrett family took the train to Los Angeles and were staying at the Pico House on the Los Angeles Plaza. Dan was awaiting George Hearst’s arrival the following day and told his wife, Phoebe, “I’m going to take a walk and see a little bit of this town.”

            “Don’t be gone long.”

            “I won’t,” Dan promised. “Get some rest, it could get busy once Mr. Hearst arrives.”

About a half mile down the road from the safe and genteel Pico House was the Bella Union saloon. It was frequented by a rowdy crowd and it was a common occurrence that some type of argument would lead to a gun battle leaving one or more men lying dead on the floor. The saloon’s patrons were some of the most cut-throat and ruthless men in California and Deke Thornton was the worst of them all. He didn’t kill for the pleasure of it, he killed because it was in his nature. If Deke wanted something and somebody didn’t want to give it up, he would just shoot him or her and take it. He came to believe that the weak were put on this earth solely for his benefit. He compared himself to a wolf and the rest of the population were sheep. It was just the way it was and he didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. He killed his stepfather with a knife when he was 14 when the man yelled at him for stealing the family savings from a coffee can in the kitchen. Deke left his mother and seven year old sister crying on the floor and never went back. When he stopped in the next town that he came to, he killed a cowboy, stole his horse, pistol and money and continued on his way without a sliver of remorse. He joined up with the Trayman gang in Pomona, California. He had been with the marauding band of killers for two years when he grew tired of taking orders. Deke was only seventeen when he challenged Elijah Trayman for leadership of the gang. Elijah was fast on the draw, but he was no match for the young killer who had already squeezed off a round before he had even cleared leather. The gang leader looked down and saw the red spot on his shirt growing larger, felt the burning sensation in his chest and knew at the moment that he was a dead man.

When Deke took over the gang, there was nothing that was off limits. He even looted churches for their gold artifacts and killed priests and nuns who attempted to stop him. He moved his gang from Pomona to the hills of Vista and was in Los Angeles to scout the area for possible targets of opportunity. Deke was playing poker when he saw Dan Garrett enter through the front door of the Bella Union Saloon and immediately sized him up as a greenhorn tenderfoot and extended an  insincere greeting, “Hey pardner, come join us.”

Deke snarled at the man sitting next to him, “Get up!” When the man hesitated, Thornton  slapped him across the side of his head with his Colt pistol and knocked him out of his chair, “We’ve got a seat right here for you.”

The wise move would have been for Dan to turn around and walk right back out and return to his hotel and his wife. The Kansas City engineer liked to think that he was a very good gambler so he accepted Deke’s invitation. Dan was winning big and Deke was growing angrier and more frustrated with each losing hand that he played. When he realized that he underestimated the dude, Deke resorted to cheating. The outlaw was tough, merciless and as ruthless as they come, but he was also a bad poker player and an even worse cheater. When Dan saw him dealing from the bottom of the deck, he called him out on it, “You’re cheating, mister.”

You could have heard a snake breathing in the Bella Union, it got that quiet that quickly. It was common knowledge around the saloon that if a man was going to call another a cheater he’d better be mighty good with a smoke wagon (pistol) and willing to back up his accusation with hot lead.

            “Those are fighting words,” Deke growled as he pushed his chair back and let his hand drift toward his holstered weapon.

Dan open his suit coat, “I’m unarmed.”

            “It wouldn’t have made any difference,” Deke smiled maliciously, “I’d have killed you anyway,” then pumped three shots into Dan’s chest as nonchalantly as lighting a cigarette. The young mining engineer fell face forward on the table. Another player commented without thinking. “He didn’t have a gun. That’s coldblooded murder!”

            “You call it murder, I call it getting in the way of my bullets,” Deke laughed, “Just like you just did.” then shot that man in the forehead. Deke took all the money on the table and as he was leaving, he shot two men in the legs because they didn’t step out of his way fast enough. “Looks like I win again.  Adios and thank you for your hospitality. We need to do this again” Deke went outside, mounted up and rode out of town. The echoes of his laughter filled the street.

When George Hearst arrived in town, he was prepared to put Dan Garrett in charge of the San Gabriel Mountain gold mining operations. The San Gabriel River was one of the most popular gold prospecting sites in California and played an important role in the state’s gold rush.  George was equally heartbroken and outraged when he was informed about the young engineer’s death. He generously gave Phoebe Garrett two years of Dan’s promised salary so she could return to  Kansas City, Missouri, then sent three telegrams that read; Come immediately, Pico House, Los Angeles and put his initials G.H.

One telegram went to Lute Banton in Wichita, Kansas, another to Duke Del Rio in Amarillo, Texas and the last one went to Blue Bismarck in Fargo, North Dakota. Lute was a United States Marshal who had worked with Wyatt Earp, Matt Dillion and Joe LeFlore and built his reputation fighting outlaws in the badlands. Duke was a Texas Ranger and partnered with Cordell Walker and Reese Bennett until they were killed in the line of duty.

He was a seasoned lawman, having fought against Comanches, Apaches and border bandits. Duke was already a legend before his 30th birthday. Blue’s mother was a full-blooded Sioux Indian and his father was a former cavalry officer. He was considered the best tracker in the west, even better than Lord Baltimore, a Cheyenne scout for the army in Oklahoma. All three men were kept on a 1500 dollars a month retainer with the Hearst, Haggin, Tevis &Company and quickly responded once they were notified that their services were required.

It took three days before the trio made it to Los Angeles. George Hearst told them what happened to Dan Garrett then added, “I’d appreciate it if you could bring Thornton back so I can spit in his face before they hang him. If you can’t do that, then bring back the dead body.”

The three men had worked together four times previously and knew what was expected of them. “I’ll send some telegrams to marshals and sheriffs. Maybe they’ve seen or heard about Thornton,” Lute suggested.

            “Blue and I will ask around at the Bella Union,” Duke volunteered.

            “Keep me posted,” George ordered and left.

Duke and Blue entered the Bella Union Saloon and sauntered up to the bar. “Two sarsaparillas,” Blue told the bartender. The bartender hesitated like he didn’t believe it.”

             “You heard him,” Duke reiterated.

The place was crowded and Blue commented, “How do you want to play this?”

            “The hard way” Duke called out, “Deke Thornton is a low down rabid skunk and any friend of his is a bushel full of horse dung. Anybody got a problem with that?”

Two hard looking men stood up and one said, “That’s big talk?”

The bartender interjected, “You better watch out for these hombres, they’re drinking sodie pop.”

Everybody in the saloon laughed and the two men reached for their weapons. Duke and Blue drew theirs first and wounded both men by shooting them in the arms. When the bartender reached for a shotgun behind the bar, Blue grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head against the bar, knocking him unconscious.

When three other men reached for their pistols, Duke shot them and reloaded while Blue kept his gun pointed at the remaining patrons. Lute came walking in to see what his two comrades had done and commented casually, “I found out what we needed. You didn’t waste any time making an impression. You don’t have to do everything the hard way.”

Duke looked at the wounded and dead men, “Let this be a lesson to you. Next time somebody comes in friendly-like, you should be hospitable in return.”

As the three men turned to leave, they saw a man reach for his pistol and in unison they spun around and shot within inches of him, shattering the bottle of whiskey on the table and the shot glasses next to it. The man dropped his gun and raised his hands and pleaded, “Don’t kill me!”

            “You’d have shot us if you had the chance and now you’re asking for mercy.” Lute shot the man through the right earlobe, “Never ask for anything that you’re not willing to keep in return. My dear old pa told me that, rest his drunken soul. ”

As Lute, Duke and Blue started walking down the street, Duke asked, “What did you find out? You couldn’t have gotten answers on the telegrams already.”

            “I stopped by the Sheriff’s office on the way to see what he knew.  It seemed that Thornton killed a shopkeeper few months back and his trail led south. The posse was ambushed and they lost six men. The Sheriff didn’t even know that Thornton was back in Los Angeles until after he killed Garrett.”

            “Thornton sounds like a curly-wolf. (a real tough dangerous man) He kills the shopkeeper,  ambushes the posse and still has the salt to come back to Los Angeles and kill another man,” Blue commented, “Most gents would be putting miles between them and this place.”

On his way back to Vista, Deke saw two farmers working in their vegetable field near Costa Mesa and rode up, “Howdy sodbusters.”

One of the men wiped the sweat from his brow, “Howdy friend.”

            “I ain’t your friend.”

The two men knew right then that they were in for trouble. They attempted to run and Deke shot them down. If they wasn’t bad enough. He took some rope from their horses and hung them from a nearby tree, “How’s the view from up there, friends.”

Deke rode a couple miles to a small farmhouse and knocked on the door. A young blonde haired woman opened it. “Can I help you?”

            “Was that your menfolk that I passed a couple miles back?”

The woman answered, “That was my husband and his brother.”

            “They won’t be coming back anymore.” Deke pushed the woman inside and closed the door behind him.

Back in Los Angeles, Lute suggested, “I’ll go down to the livery stable and buy us some horses and rigs. Reckon we should leave at first light.”

            “Reckon so,” Duke seconded.

The three men ate steak and eggs at the Pico Hotel that evening then got on the trail as the sun was coming up over the San Gabriel Mountains. They were on their second day on the trail when Blue commented, “This Thornton fella is the easiest varmint I ever tracked. All we’ve got to do is follow the stench of death.”

After leaving the woman battered, beaten and humiliated, Deke smiled, “Thanks ma’am.” and rode off.

Lute, Duke and Blue were riding three abreast down a coastal trail when Blue asked, “What makes a man like Thornton do the things he does?”

            “There’s an emptiness inside his soul and no matter how warm it gets outside, the bitter wind always blows cold right through him.  He tries to take his mind off that big hole by making others feel as poorly as he does,” Lute responded.

            “That’s pretty profound,” Blue responded.

            “I don’t know ‘bout that,” Lute said, “It’s the best explanation that I got.”

They came across the woman and helped her bury her husband and brother before moving on. Duke clenched his teeth, “Every breath that Deke Thornton takes is like a slap in the face to me. Let’s ride!”

Duke, Lute and Blue rode off in a full gallop toward a reckoning. A half day’s ride ahead of his pursuers, Deke stopped at Mission San Juan Capistrano where he was offered food and water. After filling his stomach and quenching his thirst Deke shot the generous priest and looted the church.  He took a horse and bagged the gold artifacts and rode toward his hideout in Vista, California. While on the trail, Deke felt a sense of terror that he had never known before. He dismounted and felt compelled to take a closer look inside the bag at the religious artifacts. At that particular moment, a ray of sunlight hit him directly in the eyes and blinded him for over a minute. When he could see again, Deke raced off and felt a heavy weight on his shoulders that made it hard to breathe.

The three men arrived at the Mission and were led to the gravely wounded priest who described the man who shot him. “Please bring back the church’s belongings. They mean a lot to the people.”

            “We’ll do our best, padre,” Blue vowed.

            “Come closer my sons,” The priest whispered, “O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: preserve those who travel; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

At that particular moment a torrential downpour fell on Deke out of a clear blue sky. It was a hot rain and Thornton grimaced as it burned his skin. When he looked up, he saw a disturbing image above him. Deke blinked his eyes and it was gone. When he reached his hideout, he was nervous and disheveled. Trafton, a member of his gang immediately sensed it “Something wrong, boss?”

            “No, nuthin’.”

            “When we headin’ to Los Angeles?”

            “We ain’t,” Deke snapped, “Things didn’t work out like I planned.

            “We’ve been sitting on our rear ends waiting for you to get back,” Trafton protested, “I bet if I went up there I could find us something to rob.”

Deke pulled out his pistol and put it under Trafton’s chin, “As long I’m running this gang, I’ll tell you what to do, you don’t tell me. If you got a problem with the way I do things then speak up while your head is still on your shoulders”

            “No problems here, boss,” Trafton swallowed hard.

            “I’ve got some stuff in the bag, melt it down and take it to Silas the gunsmith and don’t let him cheat you. I’m bone tired.” Deke staggered into the wooden shack and when he lied down, horrifying nightmares filled his head. The outlaw leader wanted desperately to sleep, but was too fearful to close his eyes so he just stared at the ceiling and wondered what was happening to him. Outside, Trafton looked inside the bag and reached for the religious artifacts, but they were too hot to touch, so he dropped the bag in the horse trough. When he removed it, he still couldn’t touch them.

Lute, Duke and Blue rode hard and fast and their horses seemed to know exactly where they were going. When they came up the canyon in the Vista hills, they sensed that there were men behind every rock with guns aimed at them.

            “Anybody feel like turning around?” Duke asked.

            “Not me,” Lute shrugged.

            “Me neither,” Blue replied.

            “Then it’s unanimous.” Duke smiled and they rode on.

One of the men in Deke’s gang opened the shack door, “We’ve got three men coming up the road.”

Deke got up, walked outside and motioned to his men to equally disperse to the left and right. When Lute, Duke and Blue got to the top of the hill, they dismounted to face Deke Thornton.

            “You look plum tuckered out. At least you don’t have to worry about riding back,” Deke smiled. “This is as far as you go.”

            “I reckon we got enough left in us to do what needs doing,” Lute said as he slapped the trail dust from his clothes with his hat.

            “Maybe you ain’t looked close enough, but it’s thirteen against three.” Deke reminded his pursuers.

            “We can count, but we’re a whole heap better at subtraction then addition,” Blue drew his pistol at the same time as Lute did. They each shot down six men each, leaving Duke and Thornton to face each other.

             “Odds have a way of changing, now it’s just you and me.” Duke said. “Skin that hogleg, you mangy polecat!”

Thornton reached for his pistol and Duke fired five shots in the blink of an eye. When Deke looked at his shooting hand, his four fingers and thumb were shot off. He attempted to grab his pistol with his left hand and Duke fired his last shot. Thornton’s body caught fire and the intense heat turned the incorrigible outlaw into a pile of smoldering ashes. The three men walked over and Blue commented, “You said Thornton had a cold wind blowing through him. I guess this is one way for him to warm up.”

The three men returned the religious artifacts to the mission and the priest made a miraculous recovery once he saw them. As Lute, Duke and Blue rode back to Los Angeles, Duke asked, “What are we going to tell Mr. Hearst. We were supposed to bring him in dead or alive.”

            “We’ll tell him the truth,” Lute answered.

            “Which is?” Blue questioned.

            “That Thornton finally crossed a line that God couldn’t ignore and the devil had first claim on his body,” Lute said.

There was a powerful tailwind to their backs and their horses’ hoofs barely touched the ground as they disappeared over the horizon. They were The Vigilant Three and their gunhands never got tired.”

The End


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  1. Tony says:

    What an old fashioned shoot them up western that we used to see every Saturday afternoon at our local theaters. Hoop Gibson rides again, oops now everyone will have to Google who is Hoop Gibson. I guess I am telling my age. But, as young children we would go to the local movie house and for 15 or 17 Cents watch a Serial , five cartoons and two pictures, mostly on Saturday afternoon. I guess it was another of babysitting children. This story could have been a on the Silver Screen in its day. Wonderful story and wonder portrayal of heroes of out era.

  2. Cary says:

    I love a good western shoot em stories with real good guys and blackhearted villains.

  3. John michels says:

    That be a mighty fine story Hombre. The devil got his due

  4. Robert says:

    Another good story

  5. Pat Madden says:

    Very good story, Tom. Local geographic tidbits add a lot

  6. Joe says:

    Ole fashion Cowboy shootem up.

  7. Skip says:

    Thanks, Tom. Another great story! Now Deke was a lowdown, mangy polecat for sure.

  8. Clyde says:

    I’ve forgotten that the Old West extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I looked up the Bella Union Saloon and it was a rough place that’s for sure.Thanks for an interesting story.

  9. Guy says:

    fun story to read. Ride em cowboys!

  10. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for another good story.

  11. wolf says:

    I enjoy it. Deke was overdue to leave this earth. Pushed his luck stealing from from the church and killing the friend of a seasoned lawman.

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