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Calendar >  Just Passing Through – Thomas Calabrese

Just Passing Through – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  February 27, 2021  /  8 Comments


Two Fast Guns

Thomas Calabrese — Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores was a 133,440 acre Spanish land grant. In 1841, Governor Juan Alvardo granted 89,742 acres to Pio and Andres Pico. In 1863, Juan Forster, an Englishman who was also a Mexican citizen, married Pio Pico’s sister, Ysidora. He paid off Pio’s and Andres’ outstanding debts in return for the deed to the Rancho.

Forster expanded the rancho by purchasing another 100,000 acres to the north and east. He died in 1882 after being thrown from his horse and hitting his head on a rock. His heirs sold the rancho to James Flood, an Irish immigrant who made his fortune by striking gold in the San Gabriel Mountains along the same vein of ore as the famous Monte Cristo mine. When Flood’s daughter, Abigail, was kidnapped by a band of marauding outlaws called the Los Hermanos gang, he contacted retired legendary lawman Luke McMasters.

“She’s all that I have in this world…my wife died two years ago and I lost my two sons to smallpox when they were boys. Bring my daughter back and I’ll give you 50,000 acres of my ranch.”

            “Have you contacted the local sheriff?” Luke asked.

            “I have…the Los Hermanos gang has been hitting ranches around the area and escaping across the border. The sheriff doesn’t have jurisdiction to leave this area. I need somebody who will go wherever the trail leads.”

Luke answered, “Even if I did accept your offer and brought your daughter back, I wouldn’t know nuthin’ about running a spread that big.”

            “You don’t need to, my foreman, Buck O’Neill, has been running my ranch for the last three years. He’ll give you all the help you need.” When Luke McMasters hesitated, James Flood knew he had to sweeten the offer, or at least give the legendary lawman another option. “How ‘bout this…I’ll either give you the land or 25 thousand dollars…your choice. How can you say no to that? I know the chances are slim that you’ll find her, but I have to try. I’ll give you 25 hundred for expenses.”  

After twenty years of chasing outlaws across California, Nevada and Arizona, Luke didn’t have much to show for his hard work except a small adobe house, twenty acres in the San Luis Rey Valley and a dozen bullet holes. James Flood was right about one thing, Luke McMasters couldn’t say no.

His nineteen-year old son, Cord, had followed in his footsteps and was working as a deputy for Sheriff Ben Treacher in Escondido.  His daughter, Emma, was helping him with the farm and working part-time at Boyce Brewster’s General Store. This would be Luke’s chance, maybe his last one to finally do something worthwhile for his children’s future.

When he told his son about Flood’s offer, Cord said, “It’s a mighty fine deal but Los Hermanos are tough hombres. You’re not planning on going after them alone…are you?”

Luke smiled, “I reckon that depends on you.”

            “I guess if I volunteered, you wouldn’t have to ask me to go,” Cord surmised.

            “That’s why I tell everybody that you inherited your mother’s smartness.”

 Three days later, Luke and Cord were at the McMasters’ farm loading up their pack horses. Luke turned to his daughter, “If anything happens and we don’t make it back, sell everything, and give half to Aristeo.  Send a telegram to your Aunt Sarah, then take a train to live with her in Denver.”

Emma shook her head impatiently, “You tell me the same thing every time you go tracking some outlaw!” then glared at her brother, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Cord shrugged, “I’m just going along for the ride.”

            “I’m telling you both plain and clear… shoot fast, shoot straight and you both better damn well come back. Otherwise I’ll get me a job in a saloon or become an outlaw!”

Luke kissed his daughter on the cheek, “Yes ma’am.”

As they prepared to leave, Emma punched her brother on the arm. “What was that for?” Cord asked.

            “A special warning to be careful.”

As father and son mounted up, Luke turned to his ranch hand, Aristeo, “Take care of everything.”

Aristeo smiled, “Like always, senor.”

It took over six weeks tracking the Los Hermanos gang from San Clemente to the border before Luke and Cord got the lead that they needed from Sheriff Boz Shannon of Lemon Grove, “They’re camped about 10 miles out of town.”

            “Why didn’t you arrest them?” Luke asked.

            “My jurisdiction only extends to the town limits,” Sheriff Shannon said.

            “Did they have any women or girls with them?” Cord asked.

Sheriff Shannon said, “I didn’t see their camp, but my deputy did…Brock…come in here.”

Deputy Brock Hewitt walked in, “You called me?”

 “You saw the Los Hermanos camp. Did you see any women with them?”

“I was on my way to the Weaver farm when I saw them on Rojo Mesa. I rode closer and was stopped by a couple of riders.  They took me to see Jesus Espinosa. He told me to tell the Sheriff that they were just going to be around a few days and weren’t looking for any trouble. If he left them alone, he wouldn’t cause any ruckus, “Deputy Hewitt explained.

Sheriff Hewitt saw the look of disappointment on Luke’s face, “I know what you’re thinking…I should have gone after Espinosa anyway. Well, I would have lost some good men if I did, and to be honest with you, I’m not as good with a gun as I used to be. Hell, I don’t know if I was ever that good. I considered myself lucky that they weren’t looking to rob anything around here.”

Luke responded, “You don’t have to justify your decisions to me. We’re just here to get a girl back to her father. Deputy, can you show us where Los Hermanos is camped.”

            “Reckon so.”

When they got within a mile of the camp, Deputy Hewitt said, “This is where I leave you. They’re straight down this trail. If you don’t find them, they’ll find you,” and he rode off without waiting for a reply.

Cord asked his father, “Now that we found them…you got a plan?”

            “Sometimes simple is the best way,” Luke smiled.

The McMasters rode to an area that overlooked the campsite. Luke told his son, “I’ll ride in and you cover me.”

Cord countered, “Why don’t I ride in and you cover me?”

            “You’re a better a shot with the Sharps than me and besides at my age I’m a lot less eager to get in a gunfight than you.”

Unlike the Winchester rifle, which fired short-range pistol ammunition, the Sharps was a single-shot, full-bore rifle chambering the powerful, 50-70 or 45-70 government ammunition. This made it highly accurate and powerful for hunting large animals and human targets.

Luke casually rode toward the camp as a dozen guns pointed at him. He recognized Abigail Flood from a photo that her father had given him.  A man stopped his horse, “What do you want?”

            “To make a deal,” Luke said.

Jesus Espinosa walked over, “What kind of deal?”

            “I’ll give you 500 hundred dollars for the girl,” Luke pointed to Abigail.

            “Not enough,” Jesus responded.

            “A thousand then.”

Espinosa rubbed his chin, “What is she to you?”

            “I’m a friend of the family,” Luke answered.

From his distance, Cord was growing impatience and curious about what was going on, but held his ground and kept Espinosa in his sights, “C’mon Dad, what the hell are you doing?”

            “I could kill you right here and take the money,” Espinosa’s statement was more of a threat.

Luke said, “If I was stupid enough to come in with it.”

Espinosa looked closer at Luke, “You look familiar…have we meet before?”

            “We don’t travel in the same circles,” Luke abruptly said, “Are we going to make a deal or not?”

Espinosa suddenly realized who the man standing before him was, “You’re a might older…but you’re Sheriff Luke McMasters!”

            “It doesn’t matter who I am.”

Espinosa smiled in anticipation, “It matters to me,” then turned to his gang, “This is the famous pistolero, Luke McMasters. He comes walking into our camp just as sweet as you please.”

Two men pulled Luke off his horse. From his distance, Cord knew that things had gone wrong and shooting from his position might get or two of the gang, but it definitely wouldn’t save his father. He went over to the pack horse and pulled out two Colt .45’s and stuck them in his waistband. This gave him four loaded pistols and 24 rounds. He looped several ammo belts over his shoulder.

Back at the camp, Espinosa reminded the lawman, “You hung my brother and cousin about eight years ago in San Marcos.”

Luke knew that it wasn’t going to do any good to deny it, “They robbed a bank, shot the clerk in the face and trampled a little boy to death as they rode out of town. What did you expect me to do…throw them a party? I have no regrets and looking back I would have done it all over again. It’s a shame you weren’t with him, I’d have killed you too.”

Espinosa laughed, “You’re a brave man coming here all alone…loco but brave.”

Luke’s hands were tied behind him and a rope was placed over his neck and looped over a tree branch. The rope was pulled taut until Luke’s toes were touching the ground. Espinosa spit out the words, “You’ll slowly hang yourself and we’ll enjoy watching you die, lawman.”

Espinosa and his men sat back against their saddles and bedrolls to watch the slow and painful execution.

Cord took everything off the pack horses, mounted up and moved out. At the campsite, Luke was only a minute away from choking to death.

Espinosa offered, “Beg for mercy and I’ll let you live a few minutes longer.”

Luke remained silent, he wasn’t going to beg for mercy, especially from a varmint like Espinosa. Suddenly two horses raced through the camp and sent three men tumbling head over heels. The third horse was right behind them and Cord was crouched low in the saddle. He had a pistol in his right hand and was firing at the bandits and a razor sharp Bowie Knife was in his left. He did a flying dismount from his horse as he approached his father and cut the rope. Luke fell to the ground as Cord scrambled back to him and cut the ties off his wrists.

Cord shot two men, then handed his father the two pistols in his waistband and snapped at his father, “Next time, let me come in.” While he quickly reloaded his father and shot a man, then turned to his son, “Next time.”

Espinosa fired and the bullet hit Luke in the shoulder. Cord spun around and pumped five bullets into the chest of the outlaw who mumbled with his last few breaths, “At least you won’t get the chance to hang me.”

By the time Luke and Cord finished shooting, the Los Hermanos gang ceased to exist. There were four women being held by the outlaws. After getting the bullet removed from his shoulder by the doctor in Lemon Grove and resting for three days, Luke and Cord decided it was time to return the girls to their families.

Cord asked, “We can send a telegram to your families and put you on a train. Every girl was too traumatized to travel alone so Luke offered, “We can take you home, but its going to take longer by wagon.”

The McMasters bought a wagon for the girls to ride in. One by one, they were returned to their joyful families. Now there was only Abigail left. It was obvious to Luke that something was developing with his son and the female hostage.  The clues were evident, their gazes lingered longer than necessary and their laughter came easy. The bad memory of being abducted was quickly fading from Abigail Flood’s mind.

Luke pretended not to notice and feigned ignorance even after Cord brought the subject up, “I like that girl a lot.”

Luke responded simply, “Really? I couldn’t tell.”

            “Don’t play that card with me, I know you too well. I’ve seen you follow a trail from a broken blade of grass and you expect me to believe that you ain’t noticed what’s going on between us.”

Luke said, “You’re a grown man and your personal life is your own. If you want my advice, ask for it, but you damn sure don’t need my approval.”

            “Maybe Abigail only likes me because we rescued her?”

Luke smiled, “Possibly.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Gratitude may seem like love in the beginning, but as time passes, you’ll be able to tell the difference,” Luke reassured his son, “If Abigail still wants to spend time with you after she gets back to her normal life, that will be a good sign.”

They were only one day from Rancho Santa Margarita when Abigail got sick to her stomach. The trio stopped off at the doctor in Winchester. Doc Adams reassured Luke and Cord, “She’ll be fine…a little touch of food poisoning.”

Luke asked, “How long before she can travel?”

            “Two or three days.”

Luke turned to Cord, “I’ll send a telegram to Flood and tell him we’ll be a few days late.”

            “I’ll go keep Abigail company, she might need something,” Cord offered.

Luke smiled, “You go do that, son.”

Abigail was resting in bed at the Clark Hotel and Cord was sitting next to her bed, “I’m sorry for being so much trouble.”

Cord quickly responded, “You’re no trouble at all…is there anything I can get you?”

            “I don’t want to bother you,” Abigail softly said.

            “Just name it.”

Abigail said, “The doctor said I shouldn’t eat anything solid, but some soup and hot tea might be nice.”

            “I saw a café at the other end of town. If they got it…I’ll get it,” Cord promised.

When walking down the street, Cord noticed a group of cowboys riding in. They tied their horses up in front of the saloon and almost knocked Cord over as they rushed in. One of the cowboys snarled at Cord, “Watch where you’re going?”

Cord was in too good a mood to get into a fight so he let it go, “Sorry about that, cowboy.”

On the way to the café, Cord ran into his father, “How’s Abigail doing?”

Cord answered, “She’s wants some tea and soup. Want to come with me?”

Luke responded, “I’ll meet you at the hotel, I want to check on our horses first.”

While waiting at the café for some chicken soup and tea, the same group of cowboys, only now they were more rambunctious and drunk came barging into the café. They took six tables and the other patrons left to avoid any trouble, but Cord wasn’t about to depart without that soup and tea.

Two of the cowboys came over to his table and one of them said, “You’re sitting at my table.”

Cord had dealt enough with ruffians and bullies to know that trouble had found him, “Find another table, cowboy.”

The cowboy called over to his buddies, “He wants me to find another table.”

The other cowboys laughed and the man ordered, “Get up.”

Curly Brazos, the ramrod of the outfit walked over, “I ain’t seen you in town before.”

            “Just passing through,” Cord said.

            “I reckon it’s time to git back on the trail while you still can,” Curly strongly suggested.

Cord quickly assessed the situation and knew he should leave, but it wasn’t in him to be intimidated, “Like I told you, I’m just passing through and I’ll be gone in a day or so.”

Curly grabbed Cord by the shirt and attempted to pull him to his feet. Cord reacted by punching the man squarely in the face, knocking out his two front teeth and sending him tumbling over a table. Two of the other cowboys started to draw their pistols and Cord shot them dead. Luke showed up just in time to crack another cowboy over the head with the butt of his pistol. The other cowboys lost interest in continuing the fight.

As they mounted up, Curly called to Luke and Cord, “When I tell Zack Trulock that you shot his men, you’re going to bleed.”

Luke watched the cowboys disappear in a cloud of dust, “You reckon we oughta’ leave?”

Cord answered, “Abigail ain’t ready to travel yet, besides they would just track us down on the trail. You can go if you want to, but I’m staying.”

            “I guess we better get ready for another fight,” Luke added, “You can’t blame this one on me.”

            “I guess being a McMasters is enough to put a burr under some people’s saddle,” Cord quipped.

Zachary Trulock was the biggest landowner in the area and his men had a free rein to do as they pleased because he controlled the law and the townspeople were too afraid to stand up to him. Trulock also had his share of gunslingers on his payroll in case things got rough or he needed to convince somebody to see things his way. He was addicted to power and any attempt to diminish it was an unforgivable insult in his mind. When Curly Brazos told him that a stranger had killed two of his men and knocked out his teeth, Trulock was hell bent for revenge.

Ten armed cowboys rode into Winchester just after sunrise and the town-folks hid inside their shops and houses. Luke was a cagey lawman and he knew that good handguns and ammo were expensive so many so called ‘gunfighters’ practiced more on their fast draw than their accuracy.  Two men facing off against each other at 50 feet could still miss each other by a considerable distance.

Luke knew that the odds would sometimes be against him in his profession so he needed to balance the scales. He trained himself to shoot from a distant that most other pistol packers wouldn’t even attempt. If there was a better shot than him, it was Cord. Over his law enforcement career, this skill served him well.

Zackary Trulock yelled out, “I’m looking for the two scalawags that shot my men!”

Luke and Cord walked out from behind the Allen’s General Store. Luke called out, “We’re not looking for trouble, just passing through.”

            “The trail ends here for you,” Trulock boasted.

Cord offered a warning of his own, “Ride out while you still can.”

            “This is my town, nobody tells me to ride!”

Luke turned to his son, “Can’t say we didn’t try.”

When they got within 60 feet of Trulock and his men, they pulled their revolvers and started shooting and one by one the cowboys went down as their return fire hit all around the McMasters. Only one bullet grazed Cord’s arm. Trulock was lying in the dirt street with a wound to his abdomen.

Luke looked at the powerful rancher who was moaning in pain, “Stop your whining, you’ll live.  A bellyache will be your reminder to be a might more hospitable to people just passing through.”

Trulock grimaced, “Who the hell are you?”

Luke answered, “Name is McMasters.”

            “Luke and Cord McMasters the lawmen! You could have let me know that before you shot me.”

Cord smiled, “You should have asked.”

 Luke, Cord and Abigail made it back to Rancho Margarita.  James Flood kept his word and gave Luke 50,000 acres for the return of his daughter, but the legendary lawman became bored with the business of big ranching. When his friend Wyatt Earp offered him part ownership in a mining claim in the Yukon, Luke turned over the ranch to Cord and Emma. Cord married Abigail Flood and Emma married Jim O’Neill, the foreman for Jim Flood.  Cord and Abigail had two sons, Delmar and Stuart.

Even though he was almost 40 years old at the time, Cord joined the Marines when World War I broke out and fought in the battle of Belleau Wood, where he won the Navy Cross during three weeks of brutal fighting. He was seriously wounded and medically evacuated back to the United on the last day of the battle which costs the lives of two thousand Marines and wounded 8,000 more.

After returning to California, Cord went back to helping run the ever expanding ranch while his father and Wyatt Earp got into movie consulting in Hollywood. They also became close friends with cowboy stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix and began producing western movies.

The ranch began showing consistent profits by the 1930’s. In the early 1940’s, both the Army and Marine Corps were looking for a large training base. The Army lost interest, but in April 1942, the Marine Corps paid 4,239,062 for the rancho.

Cord was instrumental in the sale, out of loyalty to the Corps. With the profits from the sale, Cord and Abigail bought 5,000 acres north of the rancho in an area that is now called Mission Viejo. They lived there for the remainder of their lives

Camp Pendleton reflects this early history. There is a Camp McMasters, Camp Del Mar, Camp Margarita, Stuart Mesa and O’Neill Housing.

Not bad for a father and son lawman team who were too humble to think of themselves as anything other than two fast guns just passing through.

The End


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  1. Tim says:

    Another good one, Tom

  2. John michels says:

    Nice story Tom enjoyed reading much better than reading the news – propaganda.

  3. Robert says:

    Good story and a little history included

  4. Skip says:

    An easy and fun read until I reached the end. Thank you, again, for the opportunity to read another one of your great stories!

    Semper Fidelis!

  5. Tony says:

    Another great Sunday Story and a Western at that by the great novelist Mr. Thomas Calabrese. What a unique talent for writing interesting stories related to our “Neck of the Woods” This western ticked my funny bone because f the terminology (scalawags) he used that I have not heard since I was a kid sitting in the movie theater on Saturday’s, watching a double featured western films.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this story and who knows those desperado’s may heave been camped out right where my house sits now?
    Thank you for the enjoyment you provide with your Sunday stories in the Vista Press.

  6. Clyde says:

    I’m a big fan of Tom’s westerns. I liked this one a lot

  7. Steve says:

    A good combination of history and fiction.

  8. Mona says:

    I always love a good Western and this one had some great historical information as well!

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