by David Sebeslav
El Paso, Texas, 1872
The only good thing I can say about Jesse Walker is that he died well. He took the bullet that I fired and sat down hard on the dusty floor of the saloon, dropping his Colt .45 to grab his chest as though he might stop the blood from spilling out. He looked up at me and shook his head as if he couldn't believe he was about to die, which he did a few seconds later. I shook my head too, because a young man had just thrown his life away because he drank too much and could not control his temper. Now I would have to deal with his father, Jared, who was as pig-headed and unpredictable as his son. Not for the first time, I wondered if I should hand in my sheriff's badge and find something else to do.
My name is Declan Pepper and I'm the law here in El Paso, along with my deputy, Katrina Olsen, whom I hired because she is the toughest and the most honest person that I know—next to me that is. I stand about six feet tall and Kat has an inch or so on me. She's a fearsome woman and there's nobody in this town that I'd rather have beside me in a fight if it came to it. Fists or guns, it doesn't matter. She carries a short-barrelled, twelve gauge scattergun that's almost as scary as she is. It's easy to picture her wielding a sword with her Viking ancestors.
She must have heard the shot because she burst through the swinging doors of the saloon, shotgun at the ready, taking in everything at a glance.
"You okay, Pep?" she asked.
I assured that I was fine and nodded at the body on the floor.
"Shit, Declan, his daddy will be on the warpath now. You'd better watch your back or have somebody watch it for you—like me, for instance."
"You bet I will, Kat. Jesse's pals lit out as soon as his body hit the floor. They'll be on their way to the ranch to break the news."
"What happened, anyway?"
"I was doing my rounds when some cowhand found me and said I'd better get over here quick because Jesse was drunk and pickin' a fight again. Looked like there was about to be gunplay, he said. Jesse was about to draw down on a young lad when I walked in and called for him to stop. He turned on me and drew his gun. I had no choice, Kat. It was me or him."
Kat nodded and then reached over and grabbed the shirtfront of one of the gawkers who'd wandered in.
"You get on over to the Doc's place and tell him we need him here to make sure this man is dead before we bury him. And bring the undertaker too. Don't dally!" The cowboy rushed off—nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of Kat Olsen.
"Where are you stayin' tonight, Pep?" she asked me.
She asked me that because I have rooms at Mrs. Chalmers' boarding house, but often slept at the jail on a cot, or stayed with my lady-friend, Julia, who owned and ran the Wagoneer Saloon across the street from this one.
"I'll sleep at the jail," I said. "No telling how early Jared Walker will come storming in."
Walker had a big spread an hour's ride north of town. He was a mean and nasty piece of work who ran his ranch like a mini empire. He was generally disliked and feared by the smaller ranchers. I had been out to his place a few weeks past, to talk to him about Jesse and his troublesome habits of drinking and fighting. I suggested that he stay out of town or at least leave his gun at home if he did come in. His father just laughed it off and said the boy was over twenty years old and just blowing off steam like any youngster. I disagreed and said Jesse was the only "youngster" that I'd had to haul off to spend the night in jail twice in the last few months. He just ignored that and said he was sure I had better things to do than harass his son. I told him that it was Jesse who was doing the harassing, and left.
* * *
After the doctor left and the undertaker had removed the body, Kat and I headed across the street for a drink. Julia was there, looking as pretty as ever in a red velvet dress, her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders.
"Heard you had some trouble earlier." she said, lifting her cheek for kiss.
"Yep," I said after doing her bidding. "I had to put Jesse Walker down, and that's just the beginning, I'd wager."
"Well, somebody was bound to do it. Too bad it had to be you, Declan. I barred him from this place a year ago."
I remembered that and told her so. That was one of the times I arrested him and let him cool off in a cell.
After a couple of whiskies, and because it was almost midnight, I took my leave and headed for my cot at the jail. Kat stayed for another. Her years as a teamster and wagon master had left her with a good appetite for strong drink. I could never keep up with her.
* * *
I was up early and had just finished shaving when Kat came in and flopped down in my chair. She looked fresh as a daisy.
"Don't you ever sleep?" I asked her, towelling off my face.
"Not much. It's more fun bein' awake. I rode out to that ridge north of town where you can see a long ways off and there's three riders comin' in. Probably Walker and a couple of his men. What do you want to do?"
"We'll just wait and see what he has to say. Why don't you make some coffee and relax?" I said.
"I'm already relaxed," she said. "You can make your own damned coffee. I had mine hours ago."
Twenty minutes later we heard horses outside and footsteps on the boardwalk. The door burst open and Jared Walker came in with two other men behind him. One was his foreman Luther Bradnam, a big, easy going fellow. The other one I'd seen around town but didn't know by name.
"Pepper, you bastard!" Walker shouted. "I should drag you outside and shoot you like a dog." I heard Kat cock the hammers on her shotgun. So did Walker.
"Now you calm down, Jared," I said, standing to face him. "I damn well warned you about this kind of thing happening and you wouldn't listen."
"Did you shoot him in the back? Did he have any chance at all?" Walker yelled, his face red with anger.
"He pulled his gun on me, Jared. I did what I had to do and I'm sorry it came down to shooting him. If I'd been closer to him I would've smacked him in the head with the butt of my gun and hauled him off to jail, but—"
"Bullshit! I bet you couldn't wait to put him down for good and get him out of your hair. You two been feudin' for years." Walker said.
"Only because he was breaking the law. It was nothing personal."
"Well, it's bloody well personal now, Pepper. You ain't seen the end of this, and you're gonna pay for what you did. Mark my words, you will pay!"
With that, he stormed out of the office followed by the other men who hadn't said a word. They mounted up and rode off toward the funeral parlour.
Kat let down the hammers on her shotgun and turned to me.
"Well, there you go, Pep. I guess you been warned. That bugger means what he says. I'd be mighty careful if I was you."
"I know it, Kat," I said. "I doubt this'll end well."
As long as I've been sheriff here, I figured it was a good idea to know who was coming into town in case I had to deal with them in one way or another. That was why I always made it a point to be at the train station whenever one was scheduled to arrive. Same went for the stage depot. Kat or I would be at one or the other and take note of anyone suspicious. It was two weeks after Walker threatened me that Kat came into the jail just after the morning train had come and left. She was wearing what looked to be a new pair of dungarees that barely covered her boot-tops. She never wore a dress because she could never find one big enough to fit her—or so she said.
"Stop gawkin' at my pants. These are the longest I could get, dammit"
"Why not tuck 'em in your boots then"? I asked, trying not to smile.
"'Cause I damn well don't wanna tuck 'em in!" she said, getting a little red in the face. "Anyway, there are more important things going on than my pants. Do you want to hear it or not?"
I said yes, I would like to hear whatever she had to say.
"I just come from the train station and Walker was there waitin' with a couple of extra mounts. Two rough looking characters got off the train and went right to him. They rode off towards his place. I think they were hired guns, Declan. Walker's too cowardly to come after you himself so he's hired a couple of killers to it for him. That's what I think"
"I think you're right," I said. "We'll just wait and see what develops."
* * *
Jared Walker poured whiskey into three glasses and gestured to the two men who sat on the other side of his oversize desk.
"Drink up, and let's make a plan to get rid of that bastard sheriff."
The Miller brothers, Matt and Sam, nodded and threw back their drinks. Both had served time in a Kansas prison for robbery and attempted murder. They had left Kansas after Sam had shot and almost killed a man for cheating at cards. The gambler happened to be a federal marshal. Sam, the older of the two, stood up and poured himself another drink. Walker didn't appreciate his ill manners but decided to let it go. Sam seemed almost too relaxed while his brother, rail thin and high-strung, couldn't seem to quit fidgeting.
"Don't worry, Walker, we'll get it done." Sam said. "We're headin' into town tonight to have a look-see."
"Don't look to long—I want to get this done, and soon." Walker said.
Matt ran his fingers through his long, greasy hair and scratched at his whiskers before he spoke.
"Sam says we should find a way to get him out of town so there won't be no witnesses when we kill him. Ain't that right, Sam?"
"That's right. Any ideas, Walker?"
Walker scowled and said, "I got to pay you and come up with a plan too?"
"Five hundred dollars ain't that much, mister. Maybe we need more, come to think of it." Sam said.
"Look here, Miller, I paid your train fares and gave you both horses which you'll need to get away from here after the job is done. Don't push me or you'll be walking back to town with no money at all!" Walker shouted, as he slammed his glass on the desk.
"Okay, okay, calm down, Walker." Sam said. "Can't blame a man for tryin'. Come on, Matt, let's get a look at mister high-and-mighty Declan Pepper."
* * *
I was in the Wagoneer having an after dinner drink with Julia when Kat came in and joined us at the bar.
"Them two that Walker brought in are across the street having a drink," she said.
"Yep, they're sharing a bottle at a table to the right of the doors."
"Ok," I said. "Let's go have a little chat with them." I finished my drink, checked that my pistol was loaded and loose in its holster, and walked out the door with Kat.
"You two be careful now!" Julia called out as we left.
We crossed the street and pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon. The place was half empty at this time of day and, like Kat had said, the two men we were looking for looked up as we entered. A slow smile spread across the older man's face as he rocked back in his chair and spoke.
"Why, howdy, Sheriff. You want to sit down and have a drink?"
"No thanks." I said. "I guess you two are new in town, since I ain't seen you before. You mind me askin' what your business is here?"
"Well now, I don't think we need to tell you anything, Sheriff, since you seem so unfriendly," Sam said, as he let the front legs of his chair back down on the floor.
His brother Matt was grinning stupidly, his fingers drumming on the table.
"We'll see about that," I said. "What's your name?"
"John Smith, Sheriff," Sam said. "And this here's my brother Jim." He glanced up at Kat. "Why don't you introduce your lady-friend, Sheriff? Hi there, honey."
"I ain't nobody's lady-friend, mister, and you call me honey again, they'll be sweeping your teeth off the floor tonight."
John Smith, as he called himself, made a parody of being frightened and grinned at his brother. "Don't be scared, little brother, I'm bettin' her bark is worse than her bite."
"You just might find out first hand," Kat said. "And if your name is John Smith, I'll eat my hat."
I could see that Kat was getting riled up so I figured it was time to go.
"Kat, what do you say we go back to the office? There's a pile of "wanted" posters there that I think we should go through, see if anyone looks familiar."
"Aw shucks, Pep. Just when I was startin' to enjoy myself."
"I know you two are in with Walker," I said to them as we walked out. "You'd best stay out of town if you know what's good for you."
I heard them laughing as the doors swung shut behind us.
Back at the jail, Kat and I spent a good while looking through all the current and older wanted posters. Near the bottom of a pile of Federal posters, one caught my eye.
"Kat, look at this one. Does that not look like the older of those two hooligans?"
She studied the drawing for a minute, then nodded her head.
"It sure as hell does. Samuel Miller—wanted for attempted murder in Kansas. We got 'em now, Pep! Shall we go back and arrest him?"
"Too bad there's nothing on the younger one. Be nice to take them both in." I said. We went back to the saloon, ready for trouble, but the two had already left.
We decided to wait until morning and ride out to the ranch to arrest the one brother, and maybe both if the younger one interfered.
After an early but hearty breakfast at my boarding house, I went outside and found Kat waiting with the horses already saddled.
"'Bout time you showed your face," she said. "I been out here for half an hour."
Patience was not one of her attributes. I thought of reminding her that I was the Sheriff and she was the Deputy, but decided against it. The day was going to be long enough without her mood getting any worse.
An hour later we topped a small rise and looked down on the Walker spread. The ranch-house, long and low, was backed by two bunk-houses, a cookhouse and a couple of privies. The horse corrals and a large barn were a couple of hundred yards to the east.
As we rode up I saw Luther, the foreman, coming out of the cook-house. He stood waiting and waved as we approached.
"Howdy Sheriff, Miss Olsen," he said, tipping his hat. "Sheriff, just so you know, it wasn't my idea to be there when Walker threatened you. He made us come in with him. That kid of his was bound to get himself killed sooner or later."
"I know that, Luther. I'm not holdin' it against you. Where's Walker and them two hombres he brought in?" I asked him.
"I ain't seen the boss yet today. He could be workin' on the payroll since it's the end of the month and he pays us cash money, you see. As far as them other two, they rode out early, headin' south, they were." Luther said.
"I guess we'd better have a talk with your boss, then," I said. "Thanks, Luther."
Kat and I rode over to the main house and tied our horses to the hitching post. When we walked up on the porch I noticed that the door was ajar. I looked at Kat and I could see we were both thinking the same thing. Open doors are not a good sign.
"Hello the house," I yelled, stepping inside. "Sheriff and deputy coming in."
Only silence greeted us. We walked through the kitchen to the large room beyond, which was furnished with heavy leather pieces and cowhide rugs. There was a smaller room off to the left which I knew Walker used as an office. We walked in and stopped dead. Jared Walker wasn't going to be paying anybody. He lay on the floor near the desk, his head a bloody mess. I knew he was dead even before I checked his neck for a pulse. Lying open and empty on the desk was a metal cashbox.
"Well, It's pretty clear what happened, Kat," I said.
"It sure is. Those two figured it was safer to take all Walker's money instead of whatever he was going to pay them for gunning you down."
"Yep, and likely headed for Mexico to lay low for a while," I said.
"We goin' after 'em, Pep?" she asked.
I said we sure were, but first we had to get Luther or one of the hands to ride into town and fetch the undertaker. Kat went out to find Luther while I checked the desk drawers. I knew Walker had a wife who had gone back east a few years before, not taking well to life on an isolated ranch. She would have to be notified of his death. I found a few letters with a return address in New York, and took them with me.
Outside, Luther and a few of the hands were gathered around Kat.
"You want some of us to come with you and the sheriff, Miss Olsen?" Luther was asking as I joined them.
I told him we would probably make better time by ourselves. "They only have an hour's head start," I said. "We should catch up to them before they cross the river."
Luther told us of a short-cut he knew of. "You take that old stage road that was shut down last year because of the rock-slides," he said. "You'll have to dismount and walk the horses through a spot or two, but it'll still cut off about four miles. They won't know about it."
I thanked him and told him to keep the men out of the house. He said he'd already sent a man into town and wished us good luck.
We pushed the horses as hard as we dared and soon found the old stage road. Luther was right—it saved us a few miles and a good amount of time.
As we walked our mounts over the last rockslide, we heard horses approaching on the main road. It was the Miller brothers and they spotted us as we mounted up. They turned off the road and galloped away across the prairie. They fired back at us as they rode away and one shot grazed Kat's left arm, drawing blood.
"Bastards!" Kat yelled as she grabbed her wound. "They're gonna pay for that."
We had cut off their approach to the Rio Grande, and now they had to swing northwest to get away from us. I knew this could be a long chase and our horses were already tired, but so were theirs. It would come down to whose mounts gave out first. After about a half hour we hadn't gained much on them and they fired back at us until their pistols were empty. I knew we were getting close to Indian territory and the Comanche had been raiding lately.
I was about to spur my horse to gain some ground when the Millers rode up a steep little rise and disappeared down the other side. Kat and I were almost at the foot of the ridge when a great commotion broke out on the other side. Voices were raised in alarm and horses were whinnying in fear. I reined in and scrambled up the incline to peek over the top while Kat stayed with the horses.
It was an awful sight that greeted me as I flopped on my belly atop the ridge. It appeared that the two desperados, unable to stop their horses on the steep downhill, had ridden full tilt into a Comanche raiding party watering their horses in a creek at the bottom of the incline. Knives and tomahawks flashed in the sun as the two were pulled from their mounts. Their empty pistols were useless against the dozen or more angry warriors who assumed they were being attacked.
The creek ran red with blood as I backed away and slid down to where Kat waited. Praying that I hadn't been seen, I motioned for Kat mount up as I ran and leaped into the saddle. The noise of the melee at the creek covered the sound of the hoofbeats as we galloped away.
We rode as fast as we could for a couple of miles and then slowed to rest the horses since there was no sign that the warriors had given chase or even seen us. If they had, they could have ridden us down in no time and I doubt we would have survived a battle with them.
* * *
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Walker ranch. Both of us were tired and hungry, saddle sore and covered in trail dust. Luther, the foreman, was waiting as we rode up to the house.
"Howdy, Sheriff and good evenin' to you, Miss Olsen," he said, tipping his Stetson to Kat.
"For Gods sake, Luther," Kat said as she dismounted and smacked at her clothes, raising a cloud of dust. "Just call me Kat, same as everyone else, okay?"
"Well, sure I can do that Miss . . . I mean, Kat." Then, Luther spotted the wound in her arm and ran to get some bandages and a bottle of whisky to wash it with. When he returned, Kat grabbed the bottle and took a couple of slugs before handing it back.
"Don't you be wastin' all that fine whisky on a little scratch like this, Luther," she said. "Declan there has to be as dry as I am."
Kat was right. A couple of swallows perked me right up. Luther and the hands would run the ranch until Walker's wife decided what she would do. If she was smart, she would keep Luther on to run the place. He was a good man and an honest one too. I noticed that he seemed quite taken with my deputy though, even though she was a bit grumpy, as usual.
"Well, Kat," I said as we rode slowly back to El Paso. "I guess justice has been served, although not quite the way I figured."
"You're right, Pep. Them two was bound for a bad end, same as Walker's kid. They got theirs a lot quicker than if we'd brought 'em in for trial, that's for sure."
"I'm pretty sure we'd of had to shoot it out with them. No tellin' who would have lived and who would have died."
* * *
Later on, standing at the bar in the Wagoneer, I winked at Julia and turned to Kat who was savouring her second shot of whisky.
"I have to say, Kat, that big Luther seemed to be paying a lot of attention to you today. He got all flustered every time you batted an eye at him."
Kat set her glass on the bar, put her hands on her hips and fixed me with an icy glare.
"Declan Pepper, just 'cause you're the law hereabouts don't mean a girl has to put up with your smart mouth. Watch it, mister. I still got one good arm y'know."
David Sebeslav is a retired lab tech who loves everything about the old west. He writes short stories as a
hobby as well as painting and song writing. He resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, not far from Niagara falls.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Cody D. Campbell
Clarence's ears hum with the gritty sound of snow crunching under his boots. He likes the way the ice gives way under his weight as he climbs the hill. It makes each of his steps feel powerful, reflecting his sense of purpose. Every breath sends clouds of thick fog billowing into the atmosphere. When he gets to the top, he looks at the rigging. The town did a good job piecing it together. The freshly sawed pine resists the frost, clinging to the warmth of the early morning light. That's good too. Clarence had seen hangings where the trap door stuck and men strangled on the slide. Better for it to be clean.
The rest of the town hadn't woke yet, so he takes a seat on the edge of the platform. The frost breaks at his knees, sending bits of packed snow down his boot. Clarence grimaces from the chill. Weren't nothing worse than wet socks in his opinion. He removes his pack and pulls out a steel canteen wrapped in a moth-eaten orange scarf. He uncorks it, taking a deep breath of the sweet, hot air that comes billowing out, thawing the frost from his moustache. He'd boiled the coffee himself, so it'd probably taste like dirt, but it was hot dirt so that'd be alright.
He doesn't take a drink just yet, instead he numbly fingers the holes in the scarf, the scalding steel making his hands feel electric. He'd bought the yarn from a trade deal down Mexico way. He didn't have much use for wool himself, too itchy, too susceptible to the rain. He preferred the feel of skins, though his wife Sarah didn't care for the smell. She said if she'd wanted to marry a steer, she'd have done it. It was her that knitted the scarf.
Clarence sniffs the sharp air, trying to stifle a tickle. He pinches his nose and takes a hard swallow from the canteen. Once your nose starts going, it's hard to get it to stop. Then the Montana cold freezes the snot and just makes the whole thing worse. He lets it go when he knows it's dry. Down in the town he could see smoke. Others are making their breakfast and preparing for the execution. It won't be long now.
As the warmth returns to his fingers, Clarence can feel the texture of the weave. Where it'd once been rough, it's now smoothed by wear, oil and sweat. He misses the itchiness now, preferred the raw feel that it had when it bore the marks of Sarah's quick fingers, the even texture of her design.
She'd made him wear it when he volunteered to join the riding party that was going after the Dalton gang. The outlaws had passed through town and made a mess of the storehouse where the trade union kept their silver. Shot two men on their way out and took most of Clarence's business with them. Sarah told him it was her favorite scarf and she'd come down to hell to get it back if he didn't return it to her. All the lawmen rode out with him, every decent man who could carry a rifle. Every decent man.
He can see the people now. They're gathering up outside the jail. From here they look like dots in the snow. Like a swarm of fire ants come to eat away the rotting flesh from a wound. Clarence takes another swallow of the coffee. He knows one of those dots is Samuel "The Sawmill" Creedy. An itch grow high on his back where he knows he can't reach it.
No one gave a thought to Samuel when the posse was forming up to hunt after Dalton and his gang. Truth was, no one gave much thought to Samuel at all. He was a little man with more bone than grit. He had a gimp leg from an accident in a lumberyard as a boy. He used to drink till he pissed himself on a stool outside the tannery. Children would throw rocks at him and he'd go limping after them screaming, "sons of whores! Devil spawn! Stay and fight you shits! I'll fuck you like goats!"
The women didn't care for him but the men mostly ignored the codger. He'd never hurt nobody before. He found work mixing the tannins for the leather. It was a shit job that only paid a bunk and the odd slab of beef. That wasn't even the worst part. The leather had a smell of rot that soaked into a man, that not even piss or sweat or stale drink could make worse. No one else would do it.
Clarence watches the steady stream of people walking up the hill and his hands start to shake. He can see their faces now. The priest has a dozen or so little cuts on his jowls around odd patches of stubble the razor must've missed. To his left, the town sheriff marches like a soldier. He probably was, though Clarence knew better than to ask. He has more grey in his beard, it seems, than he had yesterday. He looks tired. His hand is clamped to the shoulder of another man, shaking in the dawn. Samuel looks like a skeleton, like death hisself come to die. A stark wind picks up and Clarence shields his nose. The smell of rot still lingers.
He thinks about Sarah, about what she must have felt that night. Could be she was out on the patio, working on a fresh blanket while she waited for him to come home. It were a full moon, Clarence remembers, so she'd not have needed the lantern. He'd scolded her for using good oil when it weren't needed. She liked making blankets for the women in town whenever they had a child. She called it practice for when she'd be making one of her own. He imagines a breeze carrying a chill and a foul smell, her covering her arms and wrinkling her nose. Then he pictures a figure, limping out of the dark, clutching a lever-action Spencer Repeater. No one owned up to where he got the rifle, though it was surely stolen.
Clarence could almost hear Sarah's voice, kindly reminding Samuel of the hour, suggesting that her husband would be home soon. He could see the greedy look, the finger groping at the steel trigger; hear the thoughts, the urges, the screams, the fear.
Samuel was miles away when the riding party came home. They were drunk on victory, dragging their stolen silver to the safe and Dalton's corpse to the town square. It were hours before Clarence went home, and then eight months before he made it here. Samuel was easy to track. No town wanted him, no gang would have him, so he just kept going north. Eventually the nights got too cold for him and he stopped.
Clarence watches them fit the noose around Samuel's neck. The rope doesn't want to give in the cold, but they make sure it's tight. The priest has his say. Clarence thinks about stopping him, throwing his book in the dirt and spitting on The Sawmill's salvation but he drinks his coffee instead. No words are gonna save Samuel now.
The trap door opens. There's a crack. The Sawmill is dead.
One by one, the people of Hamilton, Montana make their way down the hill. The priest lingers for a moment, muttering his comforts to open sky and then he too, follows his neighbors to the warm fires below. Clarence lingers beside the corpse. This was as far as he'd dared to think. Without Samuel, he felt suddenly empty. It was like he'd swallowed a brand and the fire that was keeping him going was quenched, leaving cold iron in his belly.
He looks at the taught rope. The braid is thick and new. There's no sign of fraying or mold that might cause it to snap. It could surely hold a man of his weight. He couldn't pull the lever himself but he could jump. It would be quick and painless, like it was for Samuel. It could work.
The sun peeks over the trees, lighting up the snow like a sea of diamonds. He feels the slow burn settle on his frost bitten skin. Slowly, Clarence unwinds the threadbare scarf from his canteen. The coffee's gone cold anyhow. He ties it in a knot around his neck and the soft wool kisses his throat.
Little town like this, could be they'd be needing an extra pair of hands, an extra gun to keep it safe. He'd like to repay their kindness. He turns toward the town and carefully treads his way down the melting path, one step at a time.
Cody D. Campbell lives in Corvallis, Oregon where he is an English Major with a Writing Minor at Oregon State University,
a server at a local pub, and is in the process of publishing his debut novel. My story "Here and Gone" has been published
at the North Dakota Quarterly, and my story "Little Bugs" is set to be published in the 18th Annual Writer's Digest Short
Story Competition Collection.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Larry Flewin
Colt Enderby let his painted pony make its own along the dry riverbed. Long since emptied of water, it made for a long, winding, trail across this part of the prairie. The bed was wide enough for three riders abreast and deep enough to hide them from view save for a sharp-eyed eagle. Judging by the tracks, Colt could see more four-legged than two-legged travelled along this route.
The warmth of the afternoon sun massaged his aching joints and brought him to a comfortable half doze. He'd been crisscrossing this section of the prairie for some little time, making notes on a map. He was bone weary and saddle sore from so much riding, but his work was almost done. His thoughts drifted to that soft, warm bed waiting for him in Elmira, a small frontier town a few miles to the west.
It wasn't much more than a livery stable and a Pony Express stop, but the Red Dog Saloon had cold beer and hot beef, and lots of it. The second floor boasted four clapboard rooms to rent with the finest straw mattresses west of the Missouri. There was a jug and wash basin, a dresser for what few clothes he carried rolled up behind the saddle, and a peg on the wall to hang his guns. That suited Colt just fine, the fewer prying eyes the better.
The distant sound of pistol shots woke him from his reverie. Even before his eyes fully snapped open, the worn butt of a .44 Colt filled the palm of his right hand. The shooting sounded far off but being down in a riverbed would have that effect.
Satisfied the bullets weren't meant for him, Colt eased over to the side of the bed and rode up a little until he was able to peer over the edge. Three, no four, riders were coming on fast, their hard-charging mounts kicking up small plumes of dry prairie. They looked to pass Colt left to right at a slight angle towards him. The lead rider mounted a big bay, riding as if the devil was after him.
The three riders giving chase were whooping and hollering to beat all. Their horses were sturdy mounts, painted and sorrels, riding at speed but not overly so. Lariats and rifles in scabbards could be seen ready to hand, showing them to be cowpunchers. Every so often one of the riders would fire a shot into the air. It struck Colt this was how punchers drove strays back to the herd so as not to injure valuable stock.
He had done it himself enough times in times past to earn his keep. Cow puncher, trail hand, deputy sheriff, honest hard work that gained him a wealth of experience and an easy confidence. He hadn't killed anyone in that time but he'd burned enough powder to shoot true if he had to.
As the bay moved to cross in front of him, Colt noticed the rider sported a plain white blouse and long dark skirt. He was a she, a tiny little thing laying flat along the length of the much bigger bay. She rode low in the saddle, hands clutched tight to the horse's mane, long black hair streaming behind her like a flag. He stiffened in the saddle, instantly concerned with the doings in front of him.
This didn't sit right with Colt, a lone woman being pursued by three cowpokes intent on who knows what. His mama had raised him to treat women with respect and courtesy, both of which seemed to missing here. There was no way of telling what was going on but it seemed a mite unfair, three against one and a woman to boot!
He slid his Winchester 73 out of its saddle scabbard, chambered a round and waited until the chase came a mite closer. It was his intention to fire a warning shot to let the pursuers know that she wasn't alone anymore. Whatever the dispute, he was certain it could be settled in a more gentlemanly fashion than this stampede.
As luck would have it, the bay swerved sharply right to avoid a gopher and made straight for him. Colt kneed his horse forward several paces before raising his rifle and firing a warning shot high into the bright prairie sky. He instantly chambered a second round, holding the rifle loosely in both hands across his waist, resting it on the saddle horn.
The effect of the shot was to bring the three horsemen to a halt, each looking around wildly to see where the shot had come from. It also had the effect of shying the bay, which reared up on it massive hind legs spilling the woman—and it clearly was a woman—onto the dry prairie dust like a sack of potatoes. The horse skittered away, blowing and stamping, leaving her flat on the ground unmoving.
Quick as lightning, Colt leaped from his saddle and scrambled up the side of the riverbed, rifle in hand. He took up a position at the top edge of the gully where he could easily see all three riders. Too close for rifle work now, he laid it aside within easy reach and drew his .44 Colt.
They saw each other at the same time, the three riders swirling up the dry prairie dust in confusion over the rifle shot. One of them, a short, dark-haired man in a red checked shirt and worn leather chaps saw Colt crouching down at the edge of the gully. He snapped off a shot that went nowhere, joined in by the other two. Bullets flew back and forth to no effect other than to waste lead. Colt was guilty of that himself, not knowing these riders and reluctant to empty a saddle until he had good reason to.
The desperadoes appeared to be of a similar mind, less inclined to aim well, seemingly just firing for effect. Eventually they brought their prancing horses under control, ceased firing at Colt, and holstered their weapons. After a brief palaver amongst themselves they skedaddled, riding hard and fast back they way they had come.
Colt took his time before standing up to take a good look around. Last thing he wanted was some stray shot to come his way and add to the two creases he already had. And wasn't it curious than not a one of them made any attempt to shoot at each other. Just burned a lot of powder, was all.
Satisfied they were gone, Colt holstered his .44, picked up his rifle, and strode quickly over to where the woman lay. Her horse meantime had returned and was gently nuzzling her, as if trying to make amends for his bad behaviour. The woman stirred slightly, swatted away the inquiring muzzle of the horse, and rose up on one elbow. Colt reached her side and knelt down beside her, rifle still held loose in his hands.
She was right nice-looking, a young woman maybe in her twenties, dressed in a plain white blouse and dark skirt. So, what in tarnation was she doing out here all by her lonesome, with no gun and no man? He extended his left hand and pulled her into a sitting position with less energy required than to roll a smoke. First thing, she fingered her long black hair out of her face and beat some of the dirt off her clothing. Just like a woman, he reckoned, hot off a chase by gunmen and she's got to go and get all gussied up first before saying hello. Or thank you.
"You all right, ma'am?" Colt asked gently. "You took quite a spill there."
"Yes, I'm all right," she whispered. "Not the first time I've fallen off Goliath, but certainly the first at full gallop. What made you want to shoot in the first place, I was outrunning them."
"Well ma'am, it didn't seem like it at the time. They was three and you was one and riding to beat hell, so's I figured I oughta help out some. Trim down the odds a little. Didn't figure to spook your horse though, guess he's not used to gunshots."
She made to stand up, resting her right hand on Colt's shoulder to steady herself.
"No, he's more of a city horse. I brought him with me when I came out west a while ago."
A city horse out here? Colt couldn't believe what he was hearing. Surely she could have found something a little more range-ready. Elmira wasn't much, but the livery could fix her up with something more suitable, certainly something smaller and more ladylike. The bay was more of a cavalry mount, big and heavy and used to carrying a lot more than this nothing of a girl.
"What did you say your name was, Mister?" she asked, shading her eyes from the prairie sun with her left hand. "Mine's Cassie, Cassie Winthorp, double R Bar ranch."
"Name's Colt, ma'am. Just passing through is all."
"Well, thank you for doing just that. I suspect I was in more trouble than I was willing to admit. You saved me. Thank you, thank you very much." She leaned up and gently kissed him on the cheek. Colt was so surprised he almost fell over. When was the last time some girl kissed him for anything other than good night!
He recovered his wits quickly. "Mind my askin' what the ruckus was all about, ma'am? What were those three desperadoes wantin' with you?"
"It's Cassie and, no, I don't really know. I was just riding along the east fence looking for breaks in the wire when they came out of nowhere. I wasn't sure what to do and then they started shooting, so I made a run for it."
Colt's brow furrowed as he chewed over what she'd said. Wouldn't be the first time a woman running a ranch had been run off by neighbours. Ranching was a hard life and many of the old-timers saw it as a man's business, no place for a woman. If Cassie truly was running a ranch, it could be just that, an angry old-time rancher determined to keep it that way, sending his men out to make the point. Maybe scare her off.
She was standing now, coming up to just past his shoulders and he a good six-footer himself, well muscled from years of hard work and browned by the unforgiving prairie sun. A couple of quick steps and she was standing in Goliaths shadow. Colt cupped his hands and gently lifted her up onto a beautiful hand-tooled ranch saddle. The deep seat, low swells, and high cantle marked it as a man's rig, no side saddle here. She really did mean to run a ranch.
They rode together back towards where she thought the ranch ought to be, chatting amiably in the afternoon sun.
"Mighty fine saddle you got there, ma'am," Colt said, quietly admiring both the saddle and the rider.
"Yes, it belonged to my uncle, Silas Grainger. He passed the double R on to me when he passed. Guess some of the folks around here didn't take to that too well. I'm sure I've turned down a half dozen offers to sell, but I'm quite taken with the ranch and I mean to stay."
The rest of the ride back to the ranch passed in pleasant chatter. Turned out Cassie was from out east, someplace or other in Indiana. Widowed during the war, she'd made a living as a schoolteacher until a lawyer came to visit one day and gave her the news. Her uncle Silas had passed and bequeathed her the double R Bar ranch out west in Kansas.
At first sight, it wasn't much to look at, just a collection of rundown buildings and a barn surrounded by sections of broken and rusted barbed wire fencing. Her first couple of days had been spent cleaning out a lifetime's worth of dust and dirt left by her uncle. It was while she was turning out the drawers of his bureau that she found the map.
It was old, heavily creased from much folding, and appeared to show the extent of the ranch. She wasn't sure how much land was actually involved but, in riding around the property, discovered that much of it was wide open. That offended her sense of propriety and she quickly placed an order for several coils of barbed wire, and a mountain of fence posts.
There were no ranch hands, they had long since left for other parts. There was just Gomez, the old Mexican caretaker who had greeted her that first day when she rode up. He showed her around the crumbling property, introduced his wife Anna, who whipped up a marvelous welcoming feast of tacos, burritos, and tamales. A couple of trail hands drifted in, looking for a little work, but just as quickly disappeared after a few days of fencing.
They reached the spread just as the sun was setting in the west, a red fireball framed with streaks of yellow gold. She marvelled at the beauty—nothing like this back east, she proclaimed.
Once at the door of the ranch house and a very relieved Gomez, Colt made to leave, but Cassie would have none of it.
"You saved my life. The very least I can do is see you fed and offer you a place to stay for the night. The bunkhouse over there might be a bit dusty but I'm sure it would be comfortable."
"Much obliged, ma'am, don't mind if I do. It's been a while since I've had home cooked."
Following the plentiful dinner, Colt and Cassie passed the evening on the front porch engaging in polite conversation. He offered to stay a few days to help her look things over with a practised western eye. And to see that nothing else troubled her, which she gladly accepted. Next morning, Colt was up bright and early, saddling his painted pony in the stall next to Goliath in the barn.
The next few days were a blur of activity as Cassie, Anna, and Gomez continued to set the ranch to rights while Colt busied himself riding the property. It turned out to be several hundred acres of prime ranch land, partially fenced in along the western edge and fed by a bubbling spring of cool clear water, just right for thirsty cattle.
Much to his vexation however, trouble continued to visit the double R. Some of the new fencing was found stripped of wire for a long length. Goliath somehow got free of his stall and had to be tracked down.
The next day Colt came across a slow burning grass fire near the barn. Quick work with an old saddle blanket put an end to it but the intent was clear, an attempt to burn out, or at least smoke out, Cassie.
The third day brought more a more dangerous kind of trouble. On his way back from another ride out beyond the ranch and into the neighbouring ranch land, Colt heard the distinct sound of gunfire. There was shooting going on at the ranch house!
He spurred his horse into a gallop and arrived in time to see two men riding up and down in front of the ranch house, shooting it up with pistols. The windows were shot out and the bench on the front porch was showing holes and splinters. Luckily the front door was closed tight but it too was showing fresh scars.
Once again Colt slid his Winchester from the saddle scabbard and loosed off a couple shots into the air. Taken by surprise, the two gunmen wheeled away from their sport and made to ride off. One slapped leather around the side of the barn and vanished while the other sprawled in the dust when his horse swerved around a gopher hole. Colt sheathed his rifle and rode up to the gunman as he rose to his feet, his hands in the air. He dismounted in a fury and marched straight up to him, palm tight to his gun butt.
"Who in tarnation are you?" Colt asked, eyes ablaze with fury. He looked familiar somehow, like maybe he was one of those hombres shooting at Cassie a couple days past. It was reasonable enough to think that, given all that had been going on lately. Question was, why?
"No one to you stranger, just doing my job is all." He was tall and unshaven, dressed like a cowpuncher in a worn checked shirt and faded jeans. He wore a single pistol, tied low, which Colt yanked from the holster and tossed away.
"And what job might that be, shooting unarmed women, setting fires, and such?"
He made to take a swing at Colt but he blocked the swing and flattened the gunman with a solid right cross. He lay in the dirt, nursing a bruised jaw, eyes glowering.
"Who you working for?" Colt demanded.
"Can't say exactly. Me an' my pard got hired by some ranch hand or other to put a little scare into the lady is all. Not supposed to harm her or anything, just rattle her some, maybe chase her off if she runs. But that's it. Today was the last day for all that ruckus."
"You got that right," growled Colt as he drew his pistol. "Today is gonna be your last day—"
"No, Colt, no!" wailed Cassie. "Don't' shoot him he didn't hurt me you can't murder him! Please, just let him go! I'm alright, I promise." She had rushed to his side from the ranch house the moment Colt had dismounted. She stood there, unsure what to do but unwilling to let one man kill another over her. Even eastern nesters like her knew that wasn't right.
"Oh, I'm gonna let him go alright," said Colt. "I just want his boots is all. If he wants his iron and his horse and his boots back he'll find who hired him and tell him to be here tomorrow morning, first light. We're gonna settle this once and for all."
The gunman made for a sorry sight, limping across the prairie afoot and unarmed.
Early the next morning, a half-dozen riders reined in and tied off their horses at the front gate Colt had rebuilt. Their outfits said ranch hands, lariats hanging from saddles and rifles snug in well worn scabbards. The lead wrangler was older and sported black broadcloth, while the others sported range riding gear and spurs. They walked up to the porch of the ranch house slowly, pistols tied down, but with hands visible at their sides.
Colt stepped out onto the porch cradling the Winchester, his .44 loose in its holster. Cassie stood in the doorway while Colt stepped down to go nose to nose with the grey-haired wrangler in the broadcloth.
"You. I shoulda known," grumbled the wrangler darkly.
"Yeah, like they say, bad pennies turn up sooner or later," said Colt, smiling thinly.
Cassie was puzzled. "Colt, you know this man?"
"Yeah, he's from the next ranch over, bar X. Leastwise, I used to know him, 'til he kicked me out. Ain't that right, old man."
"Nothing more than you deserved," groused the wrangler. "Can't abide backtalk 'specially from family. My ranch, my rules. Guess that wasn't good enough for you."
"Not then, not now. You got no right trying to scare Cassie off her property. She owns it fair and square." Colt continued to stare him square in the eye.
"What's fair about it? I got me a deal with old Silas for water and free run of his property for my cattle, then she comes along and starts throwing up fencing." He glared at Cassie over Colt's broad shoulders. "This here's free range, honey, can't fence it off just 'cause you want to. Deal's a deal, woman. I want my rights and I want you gone!"
"You're think you're a big man, do you, pickin' on women? Well, come on then, pick on me." Colt thrust his face up to his father's, daring him to do more than just scowl.
Cassie ran down the stairs and pushed her way between the two bulls pawing at the ground. "Stop it, stop it I say, before someone gets hurt. I won't have it, not on my land." She took a deep breath. "Look Mister, uh . . . "
"Enderby, name's Enderby."
"Look Mister Enderby, if I've done something wrong, I'm sorry. I didn't know about any deal, I have this map and I thought it prudent to act on it and fence in my land. I didn't think anybody would mind." She was too flustered to cotton on to his name.
"That a fact, you got some kinda map or other showing your property lines? Funny how ol' Silas never mentioned it. Lemme see it."
"Very well," said Cassie relieved that the pawing had stopped. "You both may come inside and I'll show it to you. I've just made some coffee and I got fresh bread on the sideboard. You're welcome to both, but I insist we talk this over. No shooting."
The two men followed her inside, taking care not to get too close. The hands waited outside by the horses.
Colt's father, Clayton, took a good long look at the map before setting it down and finishing his coffee.
"So, you got a map showing your land, doesn't give you the right to fence it off just like nothing. I got me a deal, I need your water and passage across to it. That's what Silas done give me. In return I gave him a couple head each year for food. Now you come along and throw that over." Clayton sounded hurt, like a bear with a thorn in its paw.
"That seems awful cheap for all that water you been drinking," Colt said. "Mighty cheap, might be you owe Cassie a sight more than a couple head."
"That's all he wanted!" spluttered Clayton. "I offered him more but he said just a couple of head and we shook on it and that was that. I'm not fool enough to let that go by."
"I don't understand," asked Cassie. "What water are you talking about? I've got a well out back and a pump in the kitchen. No one ever told me about water anywhere."
"Here" said Colt, pointing to a couple of squiggly lines near the top of the map. "That's where it is, pure spring water just gushing up like nothing, runs along this creek bed and out into the prairie. I think it runs into the river but I didn't look any further."
"Oh my," exclaimed Cassie. "I never knew that. The lawyer I spoke to said I should define my land as soon as get here. He said the State was about to start surveying and I should get my rights established as soon as possible."
"Surveying?" Clayton exploded. "Why, those dad blasted no good slickers are gonna try and rob me, and you, of what's rightfully ours! Shoulda knowed them govmint men were up to something! Been hearing stories 'bout them running all over the State, measuring up things and buying people out. Not this cowboy, nosiree, I worked too hard to get what I got and I aim to keep it! Let 'em come I say, I'll show 'em what's what, see if I don't."
Colt took a deep breath. "It's too late for that, they're already here."
Clayton looked at his son in surprise. "What do you mean it's too late." His eyes narrowed. "What do you know about all this! What've you been up to? Is that why you come crawlin' back, try and rob me of my land?"
"And mine?" asked Cassie. "You've been acting awful funny the last couple of days, riding off by yourself, coming back late for supper. Who are you, really, what do you want?"
"What I want," sighed Colt. "is for the two of you to figure this out, come to some kinda deal right quick or else it ain't coming."
"What's coming, what are you talking about!" roared Clayton. "I knew you was up to no good! You never was, not after your momma died. Why do you think I kicked you out, all that mopin' and moanin'. She's dead and she ain't comin' back, but you just couldn't get that through your thick skull. I couldn't take it anymore so I kicked you out. Figured maybe you'd learn some sense. Seems like you did, only now it's gonna cost me."
Cassie stared at the two of them in wide-eyed surprise. Father and Son!
"It will cost you if the two of you can't settle this. Yeah, I learned some sense, growed up some punching cattle, did some sheriff work. Now I'm working for the railroad. I'm surveying land for them, looking to see where a line can run. They're wanting to run a line through here and to do it they need your land, Clayton, and your water, Cassie. But if the two of you can't agree to share, they're gonna go elsewhere. They don't want any kind of trouble, legal or otherwise, they just want to lay rail and run trains."
"Tarnation! That means I won't have to run my herd no more, they can just wait right here, all fat and ready for sale." Clayton exclaimed.
"What's my water go to do with anything? It's just a spring that runs somewhere," Cassie asked, puzzled. Out east trains were an everyday thing so why it was such an issue out here she couldn't understand.
"Engines need water and lots of it. Took a look at your spring, Cassie, seems to me it has more than enough to water cattle and railroad engines. Might be they even put a station out here. Be a hell of thing if they did, turn this whole valley upside down."
"It shore would," said Clayton, smiling. "Y'know, I'm thinking we might need some more coffee, Miss Cassie. Seems like we three got us some talking to do. Lemme take another look at that map, son."
Larry Flewin lives and writes in Winnipeg, Canada. His passion for writing covers the gamut from corporate
newsletters and manuals to children's books, e-zine mystery fiction, and western short fiction. He has several
online publishing credits including winning a CBC song writing contest. Larry is passionate about his craft
and is never far from a pen; plots are where you find them. He is active in his community, a volunteer driver
for Winnipeg Harvest food bank, and has just published his first full-length novel on Amazon/KDP, The 26th
Letter. He is currently working on his third novel.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Black Coin, Part 3 of 3
by David Armand
When Thomas Ketchum had all the money he went over to the shadowman and he bent down over him and then he unsnapped the other man's shirt pocket and reached inside of it and pulled out several coins. One of them appeared to be larger than the others and was solid black. Not a coin at all really, but some kind of medallion it looked like from where Billy was sitting. His father held it up before him and Billy could see a ray of light come through what looked to be a nail-hole driven right through the center of the coin.
"Well, I'll be a damned sonofabitch," Ketchum said to no one in particular, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the room entire, for they were his audience now and he was directing himself on a stage that only he could see, it seemed. Ketchum was holding the coin and simultaneously looking down at the prostrate man and yet he kept his gun hand steady on the bartender still and was watching him too, out the corner of his eye. "He's from that damned Hole-in-the-Wall gang. All them sonsabitches carry these with 'em. Figures. Hell."
Billy had read about this gang before, had seen the handbills announcing their crimes—train robberies and stagecoaches mostly, but also some holdups like this one—and the rewards being offered for their capture. The gang stretched up as far as Wyoming and their numbers were legion it seemed. Sometimes the handbills even said that it didn't matter if these criminals were caught dead or alive, just so long as they were caught. That's how bad some of them were. Billy wondered what kind of trouble his father would be in now for hurting one of them. Had Ketchum not robbed the place himself, he probably would have gotten a reward. Been called a hero. Who knows? Now Billy didn't know what would happen. What could be worse, he thought: owing your neck to the gang or to the law?
Nobody said anything as Billy sat there, wondering about these things. He watched his father toss the black coin (or whatever it was) back down, where it spun and then rolled, finally sliding through one of the cracks in the wooden floor and then disappearing into the dark and dusty space beneath the saloon, where it landed in a puddle of wet dirt and among a rill of steadily-dripping water from above. The other coins, which Billy couldn't make out, his father stuffed in his pockets with the rest of the purloined money and then he told Billy to get up and follow him outside, which Billy did. Mutely. His father backing out of the saloon so that his gun was still pointed at the bartender and the old men sitting at the bar and watching him and Billy in the greasy backbar mirror still.
They walked across the sagging porch and down the steps, which curved like so many clotheslines in the breeze, Ketchum carefully backing down the stairs as he watched the swinging doors, and then he went over to his horse and stuffed the money in his saddlebag and unhitched the animal and then threw his leg over the saddle.
"Come on," he said to the boy.
Billy looked around the streets. Nothing stirred. No one in sight. The wooden facades of the buildings seemed to stare back at him, as if they knew some secret about his life now, a secret which he wasn't even aware of himself. Then he looked up at his father who was cantering his horse into the muddy road and staring down at his son. He was holding on simultaneously to the worn round pommel of his saddle and the horse's weathered reins with his left hand. He had his pistol in his right, still pointing it at the door to The Jersey Lilly—in case someone were to come out firing, Billy guessed.
"I done said to come on," Ketchum growled, and so the boy unhitched his horse and pulled it away from the hitching rail and then he put his left boot into the stirrup and threw his right leg across the saddle until he was astride and facing forward. Before the boy had any time to think about going the other way or questioning his father about what had just happened, the barman suddenly burst through the creaking doors holding a Winchester Model 1866 rifle with a sawed-off barrel in front of him. He pointed it at Ketchum.
"Now y'all just hold it right there," said the barman.
Billy's father didn't hesitate. He pointed his Colt at the bartender and shot him—just like that—the man dropping to the porch like a wet sack of horse feed. Then Ketchum smacked his horse in the ribs with his bootheel and yelled for Billy to come on. So the boy kicked his horse too and the father and his only son finally rode out of Langtry, Texas, a few hundred dollars richer than when they had first gotten there, their horses kicking up a cloud of brown dust now, which by the time it settled down on the caliche, they and their horses would already be reduced to just two black specks among the wide open space. A space into which their figures would slowly diminish until they were gone entirely.
* * *
That is what had happened and now, because of it, Billy looked down at his father one last time—perhaps the last time he would ever see him—and he watched for a minute as the old man slept, the firelight clicking across his prostrate frame, that same coyote howling somewhere off in the distance. And then he took the holster from the arched branch of the Joshua tree again and this time buckled it around his own narrow waist. The holster hung low on him, the gun inside almost touching his knee. Then he walked over to his father's horse and removed the saddlebag with the stolen money inside of it and he draped it over his own horse before getting on, the animal's shoulder twitching in anticipation of the boy's weight, and then Billy pulled himself up on the saddle.
He looked out over the prairie and at his father again, gently nudging the horse's ribs with his bootheel until the animal cantered away from the campsite and once he was far enough so that his father couldn't hear, he kicked the horse into motion, a full run over the hardpan now as he left the dying fire and his sleeping father in the distance. Billy knew his old man would eventually wake up, perhaps with the sun, angry, hungover and dry-mouthed from the whiskey, only to find his boy had taken off and left him with no gun and no money. Just his horse and the hat on his head. And there was one other thing that Billy hadn't known about: a black over-sized coin with a nail-hole pierced through its center, which Thomas Ketchum had kept in his shirtpocket for years. Right next to his beating heart.
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He now teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University,
where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. He has published three novels,
a memoir, and collection of poetry. His website is: www.davidarmandauthor.com.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Making of a Man
by Charles McCormick
I've ruined my life, he thought. Oh, what will Momma say? as he kept running. He knew his only chance was to make it to the Deep Fork slew: a place nobody would go on a night like this, or anytime unless you were in a boat, or skiff. He shuddered at the thought. Soon he would be in neck deep water that was full of snakes and snapping turtles, and who knew what else?
* * *
Jaboe, as his family called him, had gone to the Kendrik Store; a little place about 10 miles North of Davenport, another small town in Indian Territory. He had been told to stay away from the store because he might run into the Smiths, a family his family had recently had an altercation with. Jaboe had a sweet tooth and a boring Saturday night in front of him. He thought if he went early he could buy a root beer and a candy bar from his 25 cent earnings from the butcher shop and not run into anybody that would cause him trouble. Boy, was he wrong.
* * *
Everything looked clear at the store until he went in. Standing there was Mrs. Smith with her hands on her hips glaring at him. Jaboe almost lost his lunch when he saw her, knowing she had seen him. He should have turned and left but his pride wouldn't let him. Let the old heifer choke on her tobacco, he thought. I got as much right here as she does. That is, until Hoss came in. He was the oldest of the Smith boys and was fairly easy to get along with, but when he was mad he could tip a wagon. Some said he picked up a horse one time by himself, but Jaboe doubted that. Anyway that was how he got the nickname and no one wanted to mess with him.
Jaboe slid slowly around the aisle so he wouldn't be in Hoss' sight. After talking to his Mom, Hoss turned quickly in Jaboes' direction. Jaboe knew he was in trouble now.
* * *
Less than a week ago the Smiths had almost killed his brother John by hitting him over and over with cue sticks. The fight started over money allegedly won by Jaboes' brother John, the oldest. Jaboe knew he wouldn't cheat anybody and his family knew this too. He figured one of the Smiths lost and wouldn't pay up; so John held his ground until all the brothers jumped on him. When they had enough of him, John was a bloody mess.
A neighbor, who was at the store, loaded him in his wagon and brought John home. The local Doctor said he had never seen such severe wounds and warned them he might not make it. His Momma stayed by his side until he regained consciousness, two days later. He still looked like death warmed over and had to be fed by a spoon. Momma went into town and pressed charges against the Smiths. If convicted Hoss and Joe Smith would go to prison due to many earlier charges. The Smiths sent word by the preacher that if the charges weren't dropped they would finish the job on John. The charges were not dropped, and the Smiths always did what the said, as far as revenge went.
Jaboe considered old man Smith a worthless drunk, who sat by the fireplace and chewed tobacco. He wasn't known to lift a hand to help, or support the family. He just sat there, drank whiskey and spit into the fireplace. Old lady Smith was a hellion. She never forgot a wrong done to her or her boys. You could call her the leader of this clan. She was just plain old and ugly with an uglier disposition.
Jaboe would turn seventeen next week, if he lived that long. Skinny and long legged, he could run like the wind. He won the County mile run just before Christmas and he didn't even try. He was sure trying now. Jaboe looked back at what happened and knew life as he knew it was over. His Momma was a Christian and so was he. He knew how hurt she would be when she learned her youngest son was a killer. Right now, however, he was praying for speed.
* * *
At the store Jaboe backed around a corner and faced Arthur Smith coming out of the bathroom. Arthur smiled when he saw Jaboe, saying, "Well what have we got here? Another stinkin rat of a Pate?"
Jaboe froze on the spot. If Arthur yelled out the others would come runnin and Jaboe would be a dead man. He grabbed for Smith to shut him up. As he did, the youngest Smith pulled his knife and tried to stick in into Jaboe. Jaboe pushed the knife to the side and threw his arm around Arthur's' neck. Jaboe turned him around and took him to the ground as his best friend Jim taught him. The move worked and the two combatants hit the floor. Arthur let out a grunt and went to shaking.
When Jaboe looked, Arthur's knife was sticking out his belly and his eyes were rolled up in his head. Jaboe couldn't believe what he saw and stood up. Just as he did this, Momma Smith rounded the corner. When she saw her son bleeding on the floor, she let out a scream. Jaboe heard the clomp of boots headed his way, and knew who they belonged to. If he stayed they would kill him; make up some story about self defense, or some other nonsense.
Jaboe hit the back door of the store like a man possessed. He was running as hard as he could, but the Smiths had horses. If he didn't make the swamp, they would catch him. Jaboe thought of all kinds of death he could receive from them. All ended up with him sunk in the mud, wrapped in chains, never to be seen again.
He was almost winded when he heard the unmistakable sound of running horses. How had they got on his trail so fast, he wondered? Jaboe knew it would be close; so he veered right, intending to run through a patch of cedar bushes, hoping to gain some time. He thought it worked until right in front of him a tall dark horse reared into the air. On it was Hoss Smith twirling a lasso, intending to rope Jaboe, and probably drag him to death.
As the rope curled through the air, Jaboe dove under a cedar. This caused the rope to miss and a series of cusses from Hoss. Hoss pulled the rope in and turned his horse in the direction Jaboe had gone. He was close now, just a few more feet and Jaboe would be in the slew. His heart was pounding so hard he was sure they could hear it, he prayed for more speed.
Jaboe heard the rope over his head and dove head first into the slew.
Hoss was still cussing, telling him, "You are dead meat Pate, you and your whole family."
Jaboe didn't have time to reply because he was now neck deep in the slew, watching for snakes or anything else. He had passed by close to here a week ago on the Sac and Fox Road. It was early morning and he had been sent by his Pa to buy eggs so his Mom could bake his birthday cake. The road ran by the swamp and Jaboe had to find a limb, to force the snakes off the warm road, so he could pass.
The snakes were there to warm themselves from the cool night. He hated snakes and feared them, but not as much as he feared the Smiths. Jaboe wondered which was better, let the Smiths kill him or let the snakes? Now that he was in the slew which way should he go? If he turned for home, he would be caught and killed. He would also put his family in danger. With John still barely hanging on, his dad and brother Art wouldn't stand a chance against these types. His dad was a God fearing man once his Mom put him to right. He could still cuss and fight, but preferred not to, he told Jaboe one day when they were plowing. Art could hold his own in a fair fight, but Jaboe knew he couldn't take on the Smiths. All the hard work they had done getting their place built would be wasted; Jaboe wasn't going to endanger them anymore than he had already.
The only place he could think of was his friend Jim. He and Jim were the same age and often went hunting together. One day Jim brought a pipe and some tobacco with him as they started hunting. It took them an hour of hard work getting a fire started so they could smoke the pipe. Jim took the first puff and Jaboe watched to see how it was done, after all, Indians smoked peace pipes and Jim was an Indian, full blood Kickapoo. As Jaboe watched Jim started squirming a little. Soon he was almost green, but wouldn't give up the pipe. When he stood up and ran for a bush, Jaboe tried the pipe. Pretty soon they were both arping into the bush, sick as dogs. When they recovered a little, they swore off tobacco, vowing never to try it again.
Jaboe turned West, intending to travel as far as he could from his home. Maybe, he thought, Jim would put him up for the night. It would be a long cold night before Jaboe reached a small town called Sparks. It was a place he could get out of the swamp and make his way to Jim's. Before this, however, he had to know if the Smiths figured out which direction he went. Jaboe's plan was to listen and scout the little town before he made his move. It was known as a liquor stop for the tribes. The government wouldn't let any whiskey on tribal land, so it was full of tiny whiskey stores and they were doing a good business, even late at night.
Not being sure, Jaboe decided to wait for daylight. He spent the time shivering and pulling off leeches from the slew. He knew better than to light a fire for warmth even if his matches were still good, which they weren't. Pulling sod and leaves around him for warmth, he fell asleep, still shivering. The squawk of a Blue Jay woke him up as the eastern sky became slowly brighter. He had never wished more for a warming sun than he did now.
Still wet, cold and tired, Jaboe crawled around the town searching for any sign of the Smiths. When he was satisfied they weren't here, he came out. As he did, he spied a dark horse far down the road. He had to give them credit, they didn't give up easily. He feared their little brother had died causing them to keep going until they caught him. Backing into the trees, Jaboe hid the best he could. He couldn't stand going back into the cold, wet, snake infested slew, so he took his chances that Hoss wouldn't see him where he was.
* * *
Hoss's horse told him all he needed to know. The creature could barely walk, stumbling up the road. There was no telling how many miles he had covered to get here. Even Hoss rode with his head down, either tired or asleep. Jaboe backed a little farther into the trees. His heart was pounding again and he was sure it would be heard. He watched Hoss slide off his horse, not bothering to tie it up: he knew it wasn't going anywhere. When he did he tried to stand tall and looked around. Jaboe thought he saw him for a second, but made no move his way. After stretching, Hoss walked wearily into a whiskey shop.
Jaboe wanted to stand in the sun so bad he almost cried. Hungry, wet and scared, he finally did. He asked God what did he do to deserve this. No longer caring, Jaboe walked out of the trees and headed for Jims' house. If he was to die, let it be now, in the morning with the sun shining on him. Three hours later he stood at the gate of Jim's' house. He could tell they were up and it dawned on him this was Sunday. Jims' family was getting ready for church. Their dog knew him and didn't bark as Jaboe made his way to Jim's window. He knocked softly and Jim peered out.
With eyes as big as saucers, he said, "What in the world are you doing here?"
Even though he knew it was a sin Jaboe asked Jim to pretend sick and he would tell him all about it.
Jim rolled his eyes and said, "Okay, but I might have to go anyway."
Jaboe said, "I need your help real bad, please make it work."
* * *
Jim was able to convince his family he was sick, too sick to go to church at least. As Jim's little brothers hitched the wagon and horses for the trip to church Jaboe crawled into Jim's window. When the family loaded up and left for the hour ride to church, he began his tale.
Jaboe told Jim about the beating his brother John received from the Smith family; and their pressing charges against the Smiths.
Jim listened wide eyed. "You crazy white people will never learn that the law won't help anything," Jim said after listening to the story. "An Indian in this country knows the only way to get back at them would be to ambush the lot and kill them all," Jim stated like he was an expert on Indian justice.
"You're no help," Jaboe complained. "My family is not going to stand against anybody. Their going to let the law handle it, if they don't get killed first."
"That's just it." Jim said. "The Smiths will kill them first and pretend they didn't know anything about it."
"Well what would you do?", Jaboe asked.
"I'd head for Chandler because the County seat is where the US Marshals hang out. They ain't afraid of nothing," Jim spouted.
"US Marshal?" Jaboe asked.
"Yeah, because they got as much authority in Indian Country as any Sheriff, and they ain't afraid to go after anybody. Marshal Heck Tate is the toughest of them all. You remember my Uncle Cole that killed a man in Stroud?" Jim asked.
"Yeah," said Jaboe shaking his head.
"Well he was mean as hell according to my dad; so mean, in fact, the law wouldn't even leave town to arrest him. They told my dad to send him in. My dad laughed in their face and told them he might be his brother, but nobody could talk his brother into a jail cell," Jim proclaimed.
"Since it was an Indian killing a white man, the judge told Marshal Tate to go get him," Jim continued. "When Tate caught up to him my Uncle tried to draw on him. Tate cracked him over the head with his rifle; slung him over a saddle, and made him ride like that all the way to Chandler. Folks said by the time my Uncle made it to Chandler, the ride was so bad my Uncle was crying like a baby," Jim said. "My Dad still laughs about that, saying he got what he deserved. He's doing ten years in a prison in Kansas," Jim finished.
Jaboe said," Heck Tate, I'll remember that when I get to Chandler", and jumped back out of the window. He stopped and asked Jim if he could spare a few biscuits and some milk because he was starving.
Jim laughed and said, "You always look like you're starving," and went to the kitchen. When he came back to the window he handed Jaboe three big old cat head biscuits and a slice of smoked ham saying, "If you want any milk you're gonna have to milk it yourself," and wished him good luck.
* * *
On his way to Chandler, Jaboe got a ride from a peddler heading that way. The peddler kept trying to sell him something, but Jaboe kept telling him he didn't have any money. Just before they reached town the peddler pulled out a deck of cards and showed it to Jaboe. The boys' chin almost hit the seat when he saw what was on the cards.
"These women are in their underwear," Jaboe stammered. "My Mom would kill us both if she saw these."
The peddler just laughed and took the cards back figuring, if nothing else, he had taught the boy something about life.
Jaboe jumped off the wagon when it went by the courthouse, yelling thanks to the peddler. Jaboe went in the front door of the marble courthouse. He had never seen a building this beautiful. He wiped his feet and asked a lady where the Marshal's office was. When he opened their door, two men were sitting on a desk spitting at a spittoon. "I win", one of them said and put a dollar bill in his vest pocket. He looked at Jaboe and asked, "What can we do for you young man?"
Jaboe got embarrassed but asked if Marshal Heck Tate was around.
"You're talkin' to him," he replied.
Jaboe asked if they could go somewhere private.
"Sure," the Marshal said, and led him to an office and offered him a seat. Grown men seldom treated Jaboe like this and he felt proud because of it.
* * *
Little did he know the Smith family was putting his home to the torch after killing his Dad and his wounded brother John. His Mom and brother Art held them off as long as they could, but with nothing more than a shotgun and .50 caliber black powder rifle, it was far from a fair fight. When the smoke from the burning house was thick enough, they made their escape out the back door and ran for the woods. They watched as the house burned to the ground, consuming the bodies of both father and son in the inferno. Thinking they had killed them all, the Smiths rode off feeling revenged for the death of their youngest brother.
Mrs. Pate was in shock with the death of her husband, son and the loss of everything they had come to Indian Territory for. She didn't know where Jaboe was or what had happened that sent him off. She was a lady of faith and that was all she had to lean on. She prayed her youngest son, Jaboe, was safe and that she and her middle son, Art, would remain so. Everything else was in His hands now.
* * *
That morning the postal rider slid in, crying for a Marshal. Jaboe was asleep in one of the cells and woke at the commotion. The rider barreled in the door and said, out of breath to Jaboe, the Smiths had killed a whole family.
Jaboe could hardly ask the question, "Who? "
The family living in the old Colter place," he said.
Jaboe sank to his knees feeling he had killed not only the youngest Smith, but his entire family. "Why, Lord?" he prayed.
Marshall Tate found Jaboe on the cell floor when he came in. The rider was still there so Tate asked what was going on.
"Making the rounds from Shawnee to Meeker this morning and saw smoke on the horizon. I rode over that way and found the Pate place burnt to the ground. Mrs. Pate and one of her boys came out of the barn and told me the Smiths had killed her husband and oldest son before burning the place down."
When Jaboe heard this, he stood up so he could hear the whole story.
"She said it was the Smiths?" the Marshall asked.
"Yep." The rider said. "Seems they was having a feud with them over pressing charges against the boys for nearly killing her oldest son, but now they did kill him, she told me, and her husband too. She said they might have killed her youngest, Jaboe, because he was missing," the rider concluded.
Marshall Tate wrote the information down and had the rider read and sign it. "If this goes to trial you will be called to testify about what you heard and saw," he said.
The rider nodded and left to complete his deliveries.
Tate knew Jaboe had heard all of it and told him to come out of the cell.
Wiping his eyes, Jaboe marched out of the cell.
"None of this was your fault," the Marshall told him. "Sometimes bad people do bad things. That's when I come in. This is about the meanest bunch of scum I've seen in a long time. I promise you I will either bring them in for justice, or send them up for the same. I'll let them choose for themselves, but either way, this is ended."
The Marshall went over to the gun wall and pulled a 45/70 Winchester rifle, a 10 gauge shotgun and several boxes of ammunition. He strapped his colt revolver around his waist with all the bullet loops already filled. He went into another room and returned with a canteen, bedroll and saddlebags. He filled the saddlebag with more supplies and looked at Jaboe.
"You stay here, do not leave. If another Marshal comes in, tell him where I've gone, but YOU STAY HERE," he said.
Jaboe nodded his head and kept his fingers crossed behind his back. There was no way he was going to sit here and let this Marshal get killed for his family, he thought.
As soon as the Marshal left, Jaboe was up to the window watching him ride off. When he was out of sight, Jaboe found paper and pencil to write a note telling anyone who cared what was going on. He went out the back door, jumping on the first horse he found that was saddled. Not only am I a murderer, now I am a horse thief, he thought to himself. The horse he picked was a young stallion, full of vinegar and jumpy. Jaboe called him Spook and took off for Jim's house first.
* * *
He rode the young stallion hard, but he didn't seem to mind; in fact the horse was enjoying the run, Jaboe thought. When he reached Jim's house the family was out in the field. Jaboe yelled and they looked his direction. Waving his hat, Jaboe tried to get them to hurry, but only Jim came running; the others had no idea what was going on.
Jim slid to a stop and asked, "What's going on?"
Jaboe filled him in by the time the others reached them. When his dad arrived, Jim filled him in on what happened. His father looked at Jim and then Jaboe trying to make sure this wasn't one of their jokes. The tears in Jaboe's eyes told him what he wanted to know.
Jim's dad told Jim to run to the agency and alert the Pony Soldiers what had happened and to meet him on the road to Jaboe's house.
Jim said, "The pony soldiers?"
His dad gave him a kick and told him to git.
Jaboe had heard many stories about these Pony Soldiers from Jim. These were the Indian Police and took nothing from anybody. They were all proven warriors and had the scars to show for it. They were responsible for keeping peace between the tribes, and between the tribes and the white men. Jaboe began to feel hope for the first time.
* * *
Marshal Tate slowed as he neared the Smith place. These were the types that would ambush you or shoot you in the back. He had learned a lot about outlaw tricks over the years. He continued riding until he reached the dilapidated house. With his hands freed from the reins, the Marshall let them hang at his side, each one by a weapon if he needed it. Giving a hello to the house, Momma Smith stepped out, wanting to know what he wanted. Then the gunfire started.
* * *
Jim's dad rode in front of the boys, knowing they would follow him no matter what he said. He hid in the woods and as they rode by; he rode out at full gallop, scaring both of them witless. "We'll have a long talk about this later," he said. As they rode on they began hearing gun shots in the distance. Jim's dad turned to Jaboe and asked what gun the Marshall carried.
Jaboe told him a Winchester 1873 in 45/70 and a Colt 45 pistol.
After hearing more shooting, Jim's dad said, "That's him in the Northwest. Sounds like the Smiths are trying to surround him. This time boys, I mean it. You two sit here and wait for the Pony Soldiers." With that he spurred his horse, pulled his rifle from the saddle, and let out a blood curdling war cry.
Jaboe' blood turned to ice. "I didn't know he could do that," Jaboe said.
Jim laughed and told Jaboe his dad was in the war as a scout; then a Pony Soldier himself when he was much younger. It was Jim's Mom that settled him down, he told Jaboe. "That's his way of telling the enemy he's coming and they are going to die," Jim finished.
The boys sat there for what seemed like hours listening to the battle and waiting for the soldiers. When they arrived, they were all in uniform; riding lathered up horses and passed the boys with a wave to follow.
You didn't have to tell them twice. They were on their horses riding for all they were worth, trying to catch the Pony Soldiers. They got outdistanced, but were close enough to hear the Soldiers when they let out their war cry.
Fearing to ride into the middle of a battle: the boys pulled up and walked their horses into the woods, dismounted, and walked toward the Smith place. They took several paces before someone said, "That's far enough." When they looked, it was old man Smith standing behind a tree with his shotgun pointed at the boys.
"What a lucky man I am," he spouted. "Got the runt that killed my boy. Hope you're ready to die," he said as he cocked the old gun.
Another voice said, "Over here, Smith, if you want to die. Leave the boys alone and turn toward me real slow." It was Marshall Tate, bleeding from a hole in his left arm. His right hand hung by his Colt that was still in the holster.
As Smith quickly began his turn, there was one loud gunshot that blew him backward to meet his Maker. The Marshall and Jim's dad stepped out of the trees with both of their guns smoking.
"I'd say it was a draw," Jim's dad said to the Marshall.
"Yeah, too close to call," the Marshall said.
There was some burying done and a month later, a hanging. Jaboe's family sold out and moved to Kansas.
* * *
About ten years later, a stranger saw a tall, thin, Marshall stop along the Sac and Fox road. He was met by the pride of his tribe, a Pony Soldier sitting his horse like he was King Arthur. They clapped shoulders with each other and shook hands. Anybody could see they were friends. After a few minutes they both rode off.
The stranger said, "That's not something you see everyday."
The author, Charles McCormick, served as a State Trooper for several years where this story took place. His escapades in the county were many and he was known by most of the county residents. He later wrote much of the Policy and Procedure Manual and the first State Trooper Field Training Program. After his retirement from the Highway Patrol, he became a city manager and later a newspaper publisher. He and his family still live in Oklahoma and he has written several stories in different genres.
He is a state licensed Carry/Conceal instructor as well as a driving instructor. He served his country in the US Army and is a qualified marksman with the M-16 rifle and M-60 machine gun. His hobbies are fishing and long range rifle shooting.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Career of Kit Kelly, Outlaw
by Steve Myers
When you know the basic facts and his mother's testimony—no matter that she was drunk and saving herself from the murder charge—and, later, the testimony of the woman from Cheyenne, it's easy to imagine what happened in the beginning and then what happened in Caldwell and after.
A cheap two-room shack by the Ohio river.
By the time he was twelve he knew to stay out until dawn or later if her "company" was still there. He learned to keep quiet long before. For years he hid under a blanket in the corner of the back room, knees drawn up and head tucked down on his chest. The time he had the fever his moaning resulted in several hard kicks to his side. The kicks stopped only when his mother begged and offered the man more whiskey.
The gang he ran with at night rolled drunks in the alleys and busted store windows and grabbed whatever was handy. One night, when he was thirteen, he broke into a pawn shop by a back window and came out with a bag full of watches, several rings, and a pistol. He traded the watches for five cartridges.
The next night he stayed home. He sat in a chair pushed back against the wall, a wall with lath showing through the jagged geometry of missing plaster. He waited with the loaded pistol in his right hand, the hand resting on his thigh. He heard the door of the other room open and voices-his mother's, low and raspy from years of whiskey, and a man's sliding slur. The man bumped into something, cursed, and his mother said, "Don't move. I'll light a lamp."
He saw his mother's face in the sudden flare of the match and the shape of a man in hat and coat standing behind her. He heard her lift the lamp chimney, then the room turned soft yellow and the light leached into the back room to show him sitting there.
The man growled, "Who the hell is that?"
His mother appeared in the doorway. "Tommy? Tommy, that you?"
He stood and walked to his mother. He said to the man behind her: "You, you damn drunk, get going. Get out."
The man pushed the mother aside as he yelled, "What? What? You little piece—"
The kid cocked and fired the pistol, paused because the man had stopped, surprised at a sudden pain in his chest, then the kid cocked and shot again and again and again. The man sank to the floor, collapsing as if he were a balloon slowing deflating.
The gun-smoke started his mother coughing. Tears filled her eyes. "Tommy, Tommy," she said.
The kid said, "I done it. Yes, I done it and I'm glad."
The man groaned and rolled over.
The kid put the pistol to the side of the man's head, cocked, and fired.
"Oh, my God," his mother said. "My God, my God." She walked by the table with the lamp and sat on the cot. She began to cry.
Caldwell, Kansas 1876
Going by the name of Tom Kelly but called Kid by the other drovers because he was young and short, he watched a game of poker in a saloon. There were about six or seven trail-dusted drovers who had spent the late afternoon downing rotgut. Everyone was drunk—except the kid, who never drank anything stronger than beer and little of that. As a bottle was handed around, he passed it along without drinking. Someone said, "What's wrong? You got something against whiskey?"
The kid said nothing.
"You won't drink from the same bottle as us?"
The kid shrugged.
"I take it personal you won't have a drink with us."
Someone else said, "Hey, the Kid don't touch hard liquor."
"Well, about time he did. Time to be a man."
The drover rose from the table, staggered as he came at the kid with the bottle, but stopped when he saw the cocked Colt in the kid's hand. "Huh? What the hell you think you're doing?"
The man was so close that the blast burned his shirt.
Somebody said, "Kid, you better light out before the law shows."
East Las Vegas, New Mexico, late January or early February 1880
What happened in the four years before? No one is certain. Some say he went down to Mexico, took up with a senorita whose father was the head of a gang of rustlers who would cross the border to help themselves to Chisum's and the other cattle barons' cows. Supposedly Estela, the senorita, whose mother was Apache, had a lisp and whenever she said "kiss kiss" to him it became "kith kith" and that became "kit kit," and, finally Tom Kelly went from Kid Kelly to Kit Kelly. But others argue that Kelly changed his name because he didn't want to be confused with Billy the Kid, whom he disliked because Billy once rode for Chisum. They also claim Kelly ran with Rudabaugh and that bunch and robbed a train in Kansas and stagecoaches in the Black Hills. On top of that it was well known that Kelly was part of Wyatt Earp's fake gold brick scheme. Of course, it's possible—even likely—all of that is true.
When he arrived in Las Vegas, the law in town was Justice of the Peace Hoodoo Brown and his Dodge City Gang. Since he knew J. J. Webb, town marshal, and Dave Rudabaugh, both of the Dodge City Gang, he was free to do whatever he wanted.
There he met Harry "Pale-Face" Riley, a tall thin albino gambler and gunfighter suffering from consumption. Riley got into an argument with a man over a saloon girl. When he tried to draw his pistol another man hit him with a bottle. Kelly, leaning against the wall, just watching, drew his Colt and shot both men—one in the head and the other, twice, in the back. The coroner's jury, appointed by Hoodoo Brown, called the shootings justified.
Kelly and Riley decided to partner and form a gang of their own. They were in the Goodlet and Roberts saloon when Webb killed a man and was arrested. Kelly sensed the winds of fortune had changed and it was best to get out of town. Luckily, for him, when he went into his room that night Estela was waiting. Sixty Regulators, working for Chisum and the other cattlemen, had hunted her father into Mexico, had killed many of his band, and now the old man was slowly dying from his wounds in Ascension.
The following morning Kelly and Riley, joined by two Mescalero Apaches who met them out of town (they were Estela's escort), headed south with Estela. By the time they arrived in Ascension, the old man was dead. Estela wanted revenge. "Steal all the cattle, all cows and horses and kill all the Gringos."
"How?" Kelly asked. "Me and Pale-Face?"
He went to the doorway and looked out to see the two Mescaleros sitting cross-legged in the sun and drinking tiswin, home-made brew, from clay cups. He smiled and turned to say: "Who else would like to steal cattle and horses and kill Gringos?"
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas 1880 - 1882
Within three months a band of seventeen renegade Apaches joined Kit Kelly and Pale-Face Riley and three members of Estela's father's gang. Picking up small groups of Apaches here and there who had slipped off the reservation, by the end of the year there were over thirty raiding the territories and Texas. They rustled cattle and horses, burned ranch houses and buildings, derailed trains of the Santa Fe, cleaned out towns of food, supplies, and cash. On a ranch outside of Lordsburg, they slaughtered three steers and had a barbecue feast before lynching the rancher, his two sons, and four hands who couldn't escape in time.
Kelly stopped them from raping and murdering the rancher's wife and daughters. That caused a quarrel, not only with the Apaches but with Pale-Face and Estela too. Pale-Face said he was tired of Apache or Mexican women and Estela wanted to scalp the yellow-hairs. She suspected Kelly preferred the white women to her. He spent a long night sweet-talking her because, to tell the truth, if she went against him he couldn't be sure to control the band.
Then the Apaches became a problem because after several raids they'd leave to see their women and families, either on the Reservation or in a village across the border. So there were times when his gang dwindled to five or six men, and now the U. S. Army was after him. They chased his small bunch south and didn't stop at the Rio Grande. He told Estela their best hope was to hide in the mountains and wait until things cooled down.
She angrily rejected that, saying they had not killed enough, she wanted a river of blood and a land on fire. He said there were hundreds of soldiers after them. She laughed. "Not me. I do not stick out like the swollen thumb. It is you and that one, the walking corpse with white hair."
In the Sierra Madre mountains, Pale-Face Riley's lungs were consumed by tuberculosis. On his last day, wrapped in an Indian blanket, he lay on the ground and looked up at the sky. Either he was unable to speak or didn't want to—why bother? Kit Kelly spent the next several days thinking over his career. He told himself that a man should choose the occupation that he is best suited for. He didn't see himself as a leader of men, nor as a loyal follower. He worked best alone. What were his skills? What was he good at? What came easy? The answer—killing.
For the next years Kelly drifted through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and as far north as Montana. Changing his name to Jones or Smith, he'd work as a deputy for several months or a mine guard and once riding shotgun on a stage until he decided the strong box contained enough cash for an extended vacation. As a deputy his primary duty was busting drunks over the head and dragging them to jail. Sometimes one would pull a pistol, but Kelly was always quicker and deadly accurate. In Montana he was a successful lone regulator hunting and killing cattle and horse rustlers. By then, along with his Colt and Winchester, he carried an 1874 Sharps .50 caliber, accurate out to 800 yards. He killed men who didn't even know he was around. Then, to eliminate the competition for one rancher, he began shooting cattle and horses along with men.
First, at fifty dollars a dead rustler (that is, anyone with a cow or two and who wasn't connected to a big rancher) he did well, but by 1890 the field began to thin out and the federal marshal began to investigate complaints about his methods. He heard the Wyoming Stock Growers Association needed men of his skill and the pay was reasonable, so he headed there.
He passed several burned homesteads, nothing but black charred logs, with stone fireplace and chimney or twisted stove pipe beside an iron potbelly stove; fences torn down and gardens chewed up by hooves; a chair missing part of a leg resting at the edge of a grave marked with a wood cross. In the white grass on the other side of a creek, a large herd of cattle grazed.
When he came through a stand of trees he hit a road with two deep wagon-wheel-worn ruts leading to a slab-board building with several horses hitched to a post and two buckboards, drawn by single horses, to the side. One buckboard was overflowing with household goods—chairs, a table, mattresses, and pots and a large iron kettle and such—while the other one was empty except for an old trunk. As he got closer he was able to read the sign across the front of the building: "Ferguson General Store & Tavern." There were two doors: the one on the left went to the tavern, the one on the right to the store. Kelly, carrying his Winchester, entered through the one on the right.
Inside were a man with a stout woman and two young girls examining shelves of canned goods, and at the counter a woman with a young boy —maybe four or five, holding on to her skirt—talked to a man in white shirt and apron. Kelly stood behind the woman and waited. He noticed a jar of canned pears and took it.
The woman said, "I'm not sure I can do that, Mr. Ferguson. I can cook and clean, but the other . . . ?"
Ferguson nodded at Kelly to let him know he was noticed, then said to the woman: "I got a Chinamen can cook and clean. I need somebody to entertain Carleton's men and anybody stopping by. I'll pay you for that, only that."
"But the boy . . . "
"I'll give him a pallet and he can sleep in the shed when you're using the back room."
"You see, I never did anything like that. I mean, the only man I ever knew was my Vernon."
"Listen, that's what I can offer. Besides one man's the same as another as far as that goes. If it's yes, then move your stuff into the back room—otherwise, goodbye. Well?"
The woman nodded.
"All right. That's showing good sense. Go into the tavern and get acquainted. I'll be in as soon as I take care of these customers. Harry will introduce you."
"But Tommy . . . "
"Oh? Harry'll give him a sarsaparilla."
The woman hesitated.
"Look, in no time, you'll come to find out you'll like it. Hell, what you don't know I'll teach you."
The woman went through a doorway into the tavern with her son holding on to her skirt. Laughter and shouts came from the tavern.
Ferguson smiled at Kelly. "Can't understand women. She's been married and sure knows what's what and she's not bad looking either. Hell, I'm doing her a favor. How else is she going to eat or feed her kid?" He shook his head. "Her husband was pig-headed just like them other squatters. Can't blame Sam Carleton. This is his range and has been for twenty years. See them over there? At least they know enough to git when the gittin's good. Now what can I do for you?"
Kelly showed the Winchester. "Box of shells and this." He set the jar of pears on the counter.
Ferguson bent down and came up with a box of shells and put them on the counter.
There was laughter and then whistles from the tavern.
Ferguson said, "That'll be—"
Kelly raised his hand. "Hold on." He turned and walked into the tavern.
A drunken cowboy had his arm around the woman and was trying to kiss her as she kept turning her face away. The other two cowboys were laughing and whistling and shouting, "Go for it, Pete, go for it." Harry, the bartender filled shot glasses. The boy still clung to his mother's skirt.
Kelly took several steps in and said, "Let her go."
Pete said, "What?"
The other cowboys turned to Kelly. "Who the hell are you?" One asked.
Pete let the woman loose and said, "Yeah, who the hell are you?"
Kelly took two quick steps and brought the Winchester's butt-end hard into Pete's jaw. The cowboy smacked back against the bar. The other two started at Kelly. He levered a round into the Winchester. The cowboys pulled their pistols.
The bartender shouted, "Hey! Let's have none of that."
Kelly said to the woman: "Take the boy out of here. Now!"
The woman grabbed the boy's arm and dragged him through the doorway.
Ferguson pushed her aside as he came in. "Hey, what the hell's going on?"
A cowboy pointed to the man out on the floor. "He col' cocked Pete."
Ferguson said, "Mister, you better get out of here. I mean right now."
A cowboy said, "You won't leave here alive."
Ferguson went back into the store.
Kelly snapped his carbine to his shoulder and fired. The bartender grabbed at the bar as he slid, passing the cut-off shotgun as he went down. As Kelly levered in another round, the cowboys fired. Kelly was hit but he was well-practiced, fast, and he quickly shot and levered in a fresh round to fire again and again until the cowboys were on the floor and dying.
Suddenly Ferguson came in firing a pistol.
Kelly took two more rounds as he fired at Ferguson. Ferguson dropped the pistol and Kelly shot again. Ferguson groaned, went limp, and fell to the floor.
Kelly stepped over Ferguson and went into the store area. The woman was shaking and holding the boy close. Kelly said, "All right. Don't worry about them no more, those others . . . nor that Ferguson. Hell, nobody needs worry about them. So grab what you want here. Take it all. Nobody will complain."
She didn't move.
He was bleeding badly. His shirt was wet with blood. "Now you better get the hell out of here. Somebody come along, they might think you had something to do with it. Understand?"
"But . . . but you killed those men? All of them?"
"Hell, yes, and I'm glad I done it."
On the way out, he left the box of shells but grabbed the jar of canned pears.
He rode back to the stand of trees, through it, and out into the white grass. He fell off his horse there and his body was found a day later. He lay in the grass with the jar of pears by his left hand.
Steve Myers grew up in small coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where his father and great-grandfather were miners. He served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam war. These experiences and others acquainted him intimately with the brutality that all types of people are capable of, as well as the tenderness that surfaces in unexpected places.
After his military service, Steve graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Kent State University. He has worked as an electrician and in data acquisition and analysis, and is retired from Procter & Gamble. Steve has published short fiction, poetry, and novels. Find Steve at www.stevenjmyersstories.com
Back to Top
Back to Home